Was 2011 Baseball’s Greatest Season?

(published October 31, 2011)

What makes a satisfying baseball season?

For the pure rooter, it’s success for the home team, whether that comes in the form of a World Series victory, a division title, a surprising year in contention, or maybe just the emergence of some exciting young players.

For the fan of drama, it’s an exciting pennant race, a blend of familiar and unfamiliar names in the playoffs, and a tight postseason filled with heroics.

For the historian, it’s a mix of unforgettable moments, arguable strategies, and signature performances.

By any standard, the 2011 season provided stories galore, many of which may be forgotten in the glare of the scintillating seven-game World Series just concluded.

The Phillies and the Red Sox were expected to run away with their respective pennants, strong teams bolstered by major free-agent acquisitions.

The Phillies broke out fast then turned on the jets, playing .696 ball from June 5 until clinching the pennant.  With twelve games to go, they eased off the accelerator, going 4-8 down the stretch.  Did that contribute to their five-game loss to St. Louis in the first playoff round?  Probably not; rust doesn’t explain Cliff Lee losing a 4-0 lead, or running into the buzzsaw of Chris Carpenter’s game-five effort.   Their season ended with the Cardinals celebrating at Citizens Bank Park while Ryan Howard writhed on the ground with a torn Achilles tendon.

Boston started out 2-10 and finished up 7-20; they went 81-42 in between, but the Red Sox lost a nine-game lead over Tampa Bay in September and missed the playoffs.  It was the greatest last-month choke in history, and wiped out a decade’s worth of good will and confidence.  With general manager Theo Epstein and manager Terry Francona gone, New England faces a new era of uncertainty.

Atlanta – one expert’s pick to beat out the Phillies, among other boneheaded predictions – was cruising along with the wild-card berth in hand, 8.5 games ahead with twenty-two to play.  But with Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrgens lost for the season, and Brandon Beachy hitting the rookie wall, the Braves collapsed, losing their playoff spot on the last day of the season to the streaking Cardinals.

Arizona lost in the opening round of the playoffs, but just getting there was a spectacular showing.  The Snakes finished in last place in 2010; they improved their won-lost record by twenty-nine games, chopping more than a full run per game off their runs allowed total.

Los Angeles provided a soap opera off the field with the McCourt divorce saga, while Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw became full-fledged stars on it.  Kershaw won the pitchers’ Triple Crown (most wins, strikeouts, and lowest ERA), while Kemp flirted with the hitters’ version, leading the league in homers and RBIs and ending up third in batting average.  The last time a team with a Cy Young winner and MVP had a record as poor as the Dodgers’ 82-79 was… never.  There have been 27 such teams – including years when a pitcher won both awards – and every one of them finished its schedule first or tied for first.

The Pirates were in first place on July 19, seven games over .500.  From that point to the end of the season, they allowed the most runs in the league and scored the third-fewest, finishing with 90 losses and the worst record in baseball over that stretch.  Still, their fans were treated to games that felt like they mattered for the first time in a generation.

Tampa Bay showed off the depth of its farm system, working Jeremy Hellickson into the rotation and Desmond Jennings to the lineup, replacing its entire bullpen, and making the playoffs while extending its streak of games started by a pitcher under 30 to an unfathomable 764.  (For starters over 30, the streak is 896; Jae Weong Seo was the starter on May 24, 2007, his 30th birthday.)

Kansas City brought some of its young talent to the bigs, giving Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Danny Duffy a long look.  Washington got a healthy season from Jordan Zimmermann, back from Tommy John surgery, and five September starts from Stephen Strasburg, who struck out 24 and walked two in twenty-four innings.

Justin Verlander and Jose Batista each kindled a debate.  Verlander’s was about whether a pitcher can be the MVP (he won the pitchers’ Triple Crown and carried the Tigers through the first five-sixths of the season).  Bautista’s was about sign-stealing in Toronto, as several teams accused the Blue Jays of signaling pitches from the centerfield stands in an ESPN The Magazine report.  Bautista hit 23 homers on the road and 20 at home; he, like Matt Kemp, was a likely MVP whose team never sniffed the playoffs.

The Yankees had the AL’s best record despite a pitching staff relying on Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon, and A.J. Burnett.  They lost in the first round to Detroit, despite only facing Verlander once due to a rain-interrupted opening game.  Milwaukee brought in Zack Greinke and Shawn Marcum to join Yovani Gallardo in the rotation, but lost in the NLCS, and they will be hurt by the expected defection of Prince Fielder.

And I haven’t even mentioned Derek Jeter’s 3000th hit; Francisco Liriano’s six-walk, two-strikeout no-hitter; Beckett, Lackey, and Lester’s fried chicken and beer; the Scott Cousins-Buster Posey collision in May; Josh Johnson’s April (18 hits allowed in 41 innings, a 0.88 ERA and .130 batting average against); Adam Dunn compiling the worst offensive season in history as a DH; Vin Mazzaro’s 2.1 IP, 14 ER outing;  Cliff Lee’s 16 Ks in seven innings in a loss; Dan Johnson’s pinch home run that tied game 162 for Tampa Bay in the bottom of the ninth, raising his season average to .119.

Or the World Series just concluded, where David Freese and Derek Holland had unforgettable weeks, and Ron Washington had an extremely forgettable one.

A great season.  A great ending.  See you in April.


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