Ten Questions from 2010

he 2010 baseball season, like most baseball seasons, was full of surprises, disappointments and great moments. Although the playoffs have not yet begun, it is still a good time to reflect back on the season which is just ending. Looking at the great moments, surprising seasons, great plays and the like are all good ways to do this. However, 2010 like almost all seasons raise intriguing questions across a range of baseball related topics. Some of these questions will be answered in the next weeks, others next year, and still others in the next decade or so.

What was wrong with Tim Lincecum?
 For much of July, and particularly August, Giants fans were panicked as their ace pitcher seemed to have mysteriously lost his stuff. Lincecum had a first half that was not up to his standards largely due to a terrible May where he had a 4.95 ERA, striking out 40 and walking 23 in 36.1 innings. However, his May is easily forgotten because his August was so much worse. During that month he posted a 7.82 ERA while striking out 27 and walking 13 in 15.1 innings. Then, the old Lincecum was back with an extraordinary 52 strikeouts and 8 walks with a 1.94 ERA in 41.2 September innings when the Giants were in a tough pennant race. Lincecum appears to have reclaimed his position as an elite NL pitcher. We may never know what happened in May and August, but Giant fans are just glad it is over.

Is Derek Jeter done? Jeter’s batting average, on base percentage and slugging percentage in 2010 have been .047, .047 and .085 below his career average. At age 36 he has had the worst year of his career. This decline is particularly notable because 2009 had been a renaissance year for the great Yankee shortstop. A good post-season can deflect some of this concern, but if that does not happen, the perception that he is rapidly nearing the end will only grow stronger.

Why weren’t the Red Sox sellers in July? The Red Sox had a very unlucky season losing many of their best players including Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Mark Cameron, Jacoby Ellsbury and Josh Beckett lost much of the season to injury. Given all this, the Red Sox played well, but were out of contention for good by the All Star break. Had they tried to move veterans like J.D. Drew, David Ortiz or Jonathan Papelbon, the team would have been able to acquire some good young players to help make the transition to 2011 and 2012 smoother.

How does a team that spends as much money as the Yankees end up with such a shallow bench? The Yankees have already given more than 450 at bats to Ramiro Pena and Francisco Cervelli, two players who posted OPS+ of 79 and 38 respectively. Cervelli and Pena played so much filling in for frequently injured veterans Jorge Posada, Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter. Everybody in the Yankee organization knew these players were old and unlikely to be able to play every day, but the Yankees made little effort to improve on their weak depth at these positions before or during the season.

Did Joe Torre stick around too long? After taking over the Dodgers in 2008 and extending his streak of being knocked out in the postseason to nine years, Torre steered an underachieving Dodger team to a fourth place finish in a division many expected them to win. Torre is not returning to the Dodgers after this season and will probably be wise enough to retire from managing. The stars lined up perfectly for Torre for a five year stretch in the Bronx, but it is very unlikely that will happen again.

Is the steroid period really winding down? While rumors of steroid use are always around and the issue will dog Hall of Fame voters for many years, steroids seem to have played a considerably more minor role in 2010 than they have in most previous seasons. It is not yet clear whether this is because baseball has genuinely turned a corner or not.

Will any of the rookies of 2010 go to Cooperstown? Stephen Strasburg, the most heralded rookie in years, was a phenom for his first 12 games, averaging more than 12 strikeouts per nine innings with more than five strikeouts per walk. However, his season, and perhaps career, were sidelined by an injury which will require surgery and a long rehab. There were several other rookies who were very impressive in 2010 20 year old Jason Heyward, 279/.394/.459 and 23 year old Buster Posey .305/355/.491 primarily as a catcher, played big roles on contending teams. Other very young rookies enjoying standout seasons were 20 year olds Mike Stanton and Madison Bumgarner, 23 year olds Ike Davis, Daniel Hudson and Jaime Garcia. In about 20-25 years, it is possible that at least one of these players will be elected to the Hall of Fame. Some will have solid careers, others will give way to injury or prove unable to stick in the major leagues.

Is Jose Bautista for real? Jose Bautista has 52 home runs now, the most in all of baseball. This is more than three times more than he has hit in any other season and 14 more than anybody else in the AL. It is not clear from where Bautista’s power has come this year. He may be having a career year; it may be a fluke; or something else could be the cause of this.

How much have baseball writers and casual fans really incorporated new metrics into their understanding of the game? Last year Zack Greinke and Tim Lincecum won Cy Young awards despite winning only 16 and 15 games respectively. This year, Felix Hernandez, whose win loss record is a somewhat pedestrian 13-12, but who has a 2.27 ERA with 232 strikeouts and only 70 walks may win the AL Cy Young. Other indicators such as OPS have become more or less accepted by most journalists. Many television broadcasts now include on base percentage as well as batting average, home runs and RBIs. It is not impossible that by the end of the decade, RBIs and wins will be broadly considered of tertiary import when evaluating players.

Will baseball do anything to address the question of permanent losers? While many bigger market franchises seem to prefer complaining about the Yankees profligate spending to trying to find ways to be more competitive and build their own brand, the problem of teams that simply cannot spend enough money to compete is real. The problem is not so acute among teams like the Twins, Indians, Rockies or Cardinals who play in medium sized markets and can move in and out of contention over the years. However, there are some teams that have been too weak and unable to compete financially for too long. The Brewers, for example, have only appeared in one post-season series since 1982. The Royals, Pirates and Nationals/Expos have not made the post-season since 1985, 1992 and 1981 respectively. It is not at all clear what baseball can or will do about this, but having permanent losers is not good for the game. In a structure where more than 25% of the teams make the playoffs every year, all teams should be able to contend at least every few years.