The 1989 Texas Rangers
"The start that fooled me was the 1989 Texas Rangers. After going from one of the worst teams in baseball in 1985 to surprise contenders in 1986 with Tom Grieve as general manager and Bobby Valentine as field manager, the 1987 and 1988 teams disappointed. As a result, Grieve decided to shake up the team. He dealt closer Mitch Williams to the Cubs as part of a multi-player deal to land young outfielder-first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, shipped Oddibe McDowell, Pete O'Brien and Jerry Browne to the Indians for Julio Franco, and signed Nolan Ryan as a free agent. There were expectations that this Rangers team would make some noise, and they roared out of the gate, going 17-5 in the first month of the season and finishing April in first place.
As a lifelong Rangers fan who had only seen the team on the outskirts of playoff races, I was convinced this was the real deal, and that the franchise-long playoff drought would finally be broken. Alas, it was not to be. Texas had a miserable month of May, going 10-17 for the month, and was six games out of first by June 1. The team hung around the fringes of the race until early summer, getting as close as two games back of first on June 28, but the deficit was in double digits by the end of August, and they ended up the season 83-79. I believe that this season was a major contributor to the team's reputation for being able to win early in the year and then wilting in the summer." -- Adam J. Morris, Lone Star Ball
The 2006 Detroit Tigers
"Ask a Tigers fan what surprised them and you'll get a bit of a litmus test. Fans of a certain age might say the 35-5 start in 1984. Younger fans might fall in two camps: Pessimists will talk about the 0-7 start to the 2008 season, a year the Tigers were picked by many to go to the World Series. Happier people might talk about 2006. I'm happier, so I'm going to highlight that crew.
The 2006 Tigers would clearly be better than the prior editions, but few before the season could credibly have told you the team would go on to appear in the Fall Classic. Four consecutive losses early in the season did nothing to bolster claims. But the Tigers busted out to win 15 of 16 games in May, in the process going from 3.5 games out to 3.5 ahead by May 27. Sure, it isn't impressive as what the team did in 1984, but for the younger fan those two months were some of the most unexpected and fun in club history." -- Kurt Mensching, Bless You Boys
The 2008 Arizona Diamondbacks
"The 2008 Diamondbacks came on the heels of the 2007 version, which made the NLCS despite being outscored in the regular season. Optimism was high that they had cracked the code of one-run wins, especially after they started the next campaign by going 19-7, pulling 6.5 games ahead in the West before the end of April.
They were seemingly poised to cruise to another division crown --or not. While the pitching, led by Brandon Webb's 22 wins, was nails, the hitting wasn't -- no one passed 110 OPS+ -- and the one-run mojo evaporated. Still 4.5 games up in late August, a winless road-trip through San Francisco and Los Angeles dumped Arizona out of first for good, and it took a final weekend sweep of the Rockies to finish above .500. The moral is: winning games by one run is not a repeatable skill." -- Jim McLennan, AZ Snake Pit
The 2011 Colorado Rockies
"In light of Colorado's surprising best in baseball 13-5 start to this season, it's germane to look back at the last time this occurred, painful though it might be. In 2011 the Rockies were a chic pick to win the NL West and their play in April certainly backed it up, leading Dave Cameron to write "The NL West Race is Over" after the team started 16-7. Thanks a lot, Dave!
Colorado's season took a turn for the worse and died of dysentery soon thereafter, as the team went 57-82 the rest of the way to finish 73-89. Along the way, Ubaldo Jimenez went from All-Star game starter in 2010 to gone at the 2011 trade deadline, mysteriously falling into a spiral from which he has yet to emerge. So hide your children and hide your wife, Rockies fans. The luck dragon is coming to get you." -- Jeff Aberle, Purple Row
"At 21 years old, Homer Bailey came up to more hype and fanfare than any Reds pitcher since Gary Nolan. As a prospect, he was known for a blazing fastball that he was able to blow by hitters to the tune of over 10 strikeouts per nine innings in the two years before his 2007 call-up. He was promoted midway through that rough season, bringing with him the swagger that got him through the minor leagues so easily. Unfortunately for him (and the Reds), big-league hitters were a little bit better than he expected and were able to keep up with his fastball. He posted an ERA+ of 68 in his first two seasons, almost walking as many hitters as he struck out. To most Reds fans, it looked like he desperately needed a change of scenery.
Beginning in 2009, when he came into camp "in the best shape of his life," he was an average pitcher at best; Reds fans tolerated him as their 4th or 5th starter. Before the 2012 season, something clicked. Bailey put up a 113 ERA+ in 208 innings (eclipsing his previous high of 132 the year before). He was able to improve his career bWAR to 2.8 with his 2.5 season that year (yep, his total bWAR from 2007-2011 was 0.3), and capped off his breakthrough campaign by throwing a no-hitter against Pittsburgh in the last week of the season and improbably making the playoff rotation. He's picked up right where he left off in 2013, with 26 strikeouts and 25 innings so far and quality starts in three of his four outings." -- Brandon Kraeling, Red Reporter
Chris Bando, Steve Nicosia, and Bill Schroeder, 1984 Part-Time Catchers
"I was raised in a household that didn't care much about sports, so when I became interested in baseball I started with almost zero knowledge -- I remember wondering if a pinch-runner stood by the plate in a runner's crouch, ready to take off when the ball was struck. I used to spend a lot of time with a cousin who was very interested in sports, and one way we passed the time was playing Statis-Pro Baseball, a tabletop card game (a bit like Strat-O-Matic, but simpler) with which he was replaying the 1978 season. My cousin was hyper-competitive, so he liked to play games he could win. Since I knew nothing about baseball, I was an easy mark.
When I was 14, I resolved to change this. As a first step, I did two things: I bought the 1985 edition of the Bill James Baseball Abstract, which I read over and over again, and the then-current edition of Statis-Pro, which covered 1984, a fairly nondescript season in which the Tigers dominated, and played several hundred games on my own. Since I was starting from scratch, I knew nothing about small samples or the way part-time catchers will periodically roll up a season that is totally beyond their capabilities. For that reason, my initial impression of the Indians' Chris Bando (.291/.377/.505, 260 plate appearances), the Giants' Steve Nicosia (.303/.336/.462, 144 PAs), and the Brewers' Bill Schroeder (.257/.288/.486, 226 PAs) was that these guys were major talents rather than just reserves having a lucky season.
Schroeder's stats might also suggest that I hadn't yet figured out OBP either -- he walked eight times and struck out 54. That should have been a clue that Schroeder's J.P. Arencibia-style approach wasn't going to lead to a long career. After he hit .226/.275/.389 in 1985-1986 I figured it out, but then he fooled me again, hitting .332/.379/.548 in 1987. The lesson of BABIP, alas, was still a ways off. Here are Bando's and Schroeder's Statis-Pro cards, with a few others thrown in for contrast." -- Steven Goldman, Pinstriped Bible and SBNation.com/MLB managing editor
"In the Game of Prospects, disappointments are common, with many young players failing to live up to their early potential. One particularly egregious recent example is Jeremy Hermida. A first-round pick by the Marlins in 2002, he zipped through the minor leagues, topping off with an excellent season in Double-A in 2005 (.293/.457/.518 with 111 walks, 18 homers, and 23 steals).
The numbers were excellent, the scouting reports were excellent, and he was excellent in his major league debut, hitting .293/.383/.634 in 23 games for the Marlins late in the season. He entered 2006 as one of the very best prospects in baseball, but his rookie campaign was disappointing (.251/.332/.368 in 99 games). He rebounded in 2007 (.296/.369/.501) and it looked like everything was going to be OK, but he slipped again '08 and faded from the scene pretty quickly. He had injuries, but even when he was on the field he just didn't look like the same guy he was back in '05." -- John Sickels, Minor League Ball
"For the Love of the Game"
"You sit down to watch a baseball movie and the first thing you hear is music that sounds vaguely reminiscent of "The Natural" or "Field of Dreams." You see reel-to-reel style home movies of kids playing baseball and newspaper clippings detailing a child prodigy baseball player turned major leaguer. The nostalgia is already thick and wonderful. Kevin Costner's name appears and you think, "Holy sh_t, that's the guy who's been in two of the greatest baseball films of all time."
Then Sam Raimi's name appears and you think, "Well, if this isn't an amazing Kevin Costner-style baseball movie, at least Sam Raimi will have some quirky take on my favorite game." Then you actually watch "For Love of the Game" and it becomes clear that you've been duped into watching the most emo baseball movie in the history of baseball and emo." -- Dex Bustarde, Gas Lamp Ball
"Baseball is a complicated sport, and the mathematical understanding of pitching is still in its infancy. Still, there are a few simple game theory models that apply quite well. One of them is that if you throw a certain pitch often, batters will figure out that it's coming and prepare themselves, and they'll hit it better. A pitch that you rarely throw will come as a surprise, and will often get good results, even if scouts consider it a poor pitch. If you were to throw the good pitch (say a 95 mph fastball) less, and the seldom used bad pitch (say an 88 mph change without good arm action) more, though, your fastball would become more effective and your changeup less. The sweet spot is called the "Nash equilibrium," and it comes at the point where the results of all of your pitches are essentially the same. This model works, and can be applied to every single pitcher, but sometimes a pitcher beats the model.
Phil Hughes was once a top prospect with a highly touted fastball and a curveball that may have been better. Injuries redirected his career into that of an average to slightly below average pitcher. He still relied most heavily on his fastball (58 percent in 2011 according to Brooks Baseball) and his curve (21 percent), but the results weren't there. The fastball graded out as average according to FanGraphs linear weights and the once vaunted curve ball was well below average. He did not throw a slider at all. But this year (beginning with September of last year, really), Hughes reinvented himself.
So far in 2013, he's thrown a slider over 20 percent of the time, largely at the expense of his curve. By linear weights, his slider has been a bit above average, and so has the curve. His fastball's gotten rocked, but that's probably small-sample-size noise and unlikely to continue. He may be right at his Nash equilibrium. He will have a comeback season. Hughes has stepped outside the game theory model and solved his problem by introducing a new pitch (or reintroducing an old one). It's a reminder of why PITCHf/x analysts aren't pitching coaches." -- Ian Malinowski, Drays Bay
Bobby Jenks, 2011-2012
"I thought Bobby Jenks would be the perfect fit for the Red Sox in ‘11 and ‘12. Jenks was an affordable veteran with closer experience, which seemed like the perfect complement to Boston's late-innings duo of Jonathan Papelbon and Daniel Bard (wow, how things change). The assumption was that in 2012, Bard would assume the closer role and that Jenks, who was on a two-year deal, would be the perfect set-up man.
Over the course of his two-year contract, Jenks pitched just 15.2 innings due to an unfortunate combination of injuries and personal struggles. In his first week of camp, Jenks engaged in a heated exchange via the media with former coach Ozzie Guillen. Once the season started, Jenks was dominant in his first few outings, but amassed a 6.32 ERA in 19 appearances before landing on the disabled list with a back injury and upper arm strain before a season ending pulmonary embolism.
The hope was that he would make a full recovery and return for the final year of his contract, but following routine back surgery, Jenks' recovery was complicated by a serious infection. It would have been bad enough if the injuries had ended his career, but during spring training he was arrested for DUI, destruction of personal property, and leaving the scene of an accident. Jenks never pitched again for the Red Sox, and they released him from his contract while he was in the middle of a 45-day stay at a rehab clinic for drug and alcohol addiction." -- Cee Angi, SBNation.com Designated Columnist
"I literally thought Kevin Maas was the second coming of Babe Ruth when he debuted in 1990 and became the quickest player ever to 10 and 15 homers. In my defense, I was 12 years old and thus fairly stupid about such things, and I had just gotten my first Strat-o-Matic set, and his card was awesome. Alas, while Maas had patience and power, he simply never made enough good contact to last, like a left-handed Steve Balboni.
Anyway, Maas flamed out, but I was still hopeful when the Twins signed him after the Strike in 1995. I believed everything they said to pump him up and expected a huge comeback. In a remarkable coincidence, 1995 is also the year that I stopped taking the Twins front office's public statements at face value." -- Michael Bates, SBNation.com Designated Columnist
"Heading into the 2000 season, Miller was the No. 69 prospect in all of baseball and had been on that Top 100 list for the previous two seasons as well. He was primed to become a big part of Houston's rotation in 2001. Miller brought the hope he could pair with fellow phenom Roy Oswalt (who came up in May and started his first game in June) and the two would be the foundation of Houston's rotation moving forward. Miller certainly looked the part in April 2001, throwing 37 innings while striking out 44 and walking just 13. He was just as good in September 2001, but not quite as good in the middle months.
Two years later, he missed Houston's run at the playoffs with an arm injury and became a free agent after 2004. I was convinced that he was the next great Astros star pitcher. That April start only confirmed it and led to more disappointment as his career played out." -- David Coleman, The Crawfish Boxes
"Not only was I a big, big fan of Jack Zduriencik for at least the first two years of his tenure as Mariner GM (admit it, you were too), but I look at the moves he made, and honestly, they still look pretty great to me. Trading J.J. Putz and some other stuff for a whole bunch of stuff that included Franklin Gutierrez was brilliant; Gutierrez immediately became one of the best center fielders in baseball (and then got hurt). It's crazy to say now, but even the signing of Chone Figgins the following off-season looked pretty good at the time given the relatively low salary and his excellent 2009. Z was paying attention to things like defense and... well, mostly defense, but at a time when it seemed like very few other teams were. I was totally behind #6org.
Unfortunately, teams need to score to win, too, but in came Casey Kotchman and Josh Wilson and Brendan Ryan and Miguel Olivo and absolutely no one who could hit, and it became pretty clear that Jack Z was a one-trick pony. Then came the Great Overcorrection of 2013, when Zduriencik brought in natural designated hitters Raul Ibanez, Mike Morse, Kendrys Morales, and Jason Bay to go with the one or two he already had. Z got a little unlucky with Gutierrez's injuries, Figgins' immediate collapse, and the non-development to date of Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero, but it's looking like he's not destined to be the architect of the Mariners' first championship squad.
I believe Jack Z was great at his former job with the Brewers, had a lot of interesting ideas, and made some moves that should've worked a lot better than they did, but I could've sworn in 2009 and 2010 that Jack Zduriencik was the next great GM, and boy, was I fooled." -- Bill Parker, SBNation.com Designated Columnist
The 1977 Cubs
"In 1977, the Chicago Cubs were coming off three straight bad seasons, and had a new general manager (Bob Kennedy) and manager (Herman Franks). They had made some significant offseason moves, acquiring Bill Buckner from the Dodgers and swapping Bill Madlock to the Giants after saying his contract demands were too high, then paying Bobby Murcer, who came over in the deal, more than Madlock had been asking for.
The Cubs got off to a slow start and then come May, started to win. A 21-5 run put them in first place May 28, and another stretch of 17-4 gave them an 8½ game lead. The last game of that sequence was a 4-2, 10-inning June 28 win over the Expos in Montreal. In those days, not every Cubs game was televised; that happened to be one that wasn't, so I listened on the radio. Cubs radio announcer Lou Boudreau, exulting in that win that made the team's record 47-22, 25 games over .500, said on the postgame show, "They can kiss the .500 mark goodbye!"
If you're a Cubs fan, you know what's coming. That team wasn't really that good; they fell out of first place in early August and by September 2 were 10½ games out of the lead, a 19-game swing in a little over two months. Murcer, who through August was hitting .278/.371/.479 with 24 home runs and 83 RBI, seemingly on his way to his first 30/100 season, hit .204/.272/.333 with just three home runs and six (!) RBI in the 27 remaining games. Still, there was Boudreau's statement. The Cubs hadn't had a winning season in five years. They could still have that, right? Wrong. They finished exactly at .500, 81-81 -- and had to lose their last five games to do it. Still, to this day the 40-15 mark the 1977 Cubs put up from May 1 through June 30 is their best 55-game stretch since their last National League pennant season, 1945." -- Al Yellon, Bleed Cubbie Blue
The Human Race
"Sure, humanity started out in Single-A Caveman, scrounging, hunting, gathering. Long-distance running and problem-solving seemed like strengths, but an early penchant toward violence haunts humanity to this day. The quick promotion to Double-A Society was encouraging, with new-found skills in farming and organization that make for a quality specimen capable of the growth we expect at that stage. That said, a habit of exploitation -- both of each other and their environment -- is one humanity is still attempting to break.
Triple-A Civilization came immediately after the short stint in simple society, and humanity really hasn't looked back. We saw significant gains in everything we value: math, science, communication, creativity, compassion, a need to explore. And while some significant self-inflicted wounds still pop up, humanity made incredible gains and even had a cup of coffee in the Major League of Galactic Races with their efforts toward exploration.
Still, those early warning signs of violence and exploitation will probably hold this one back. We're holding out hope that they'll make the team before they destroy themselves. With a nod toward our civilizationmetricians, we know that that hope is unlikely to become a reality. Until those trends reverse themselves, consider us fooled." -- Justin Bopp, SBN MLB League Manager