As we continue our look at baseball through two months of the season, we will identify a few of the most surprising players thus far. Also, since the Stanley Cup finals are upon us, I’ll take a quick look at the matchup and make a prediction (although predictions seem increasingly foolish in today’s NHL). We’ll start with baseball – and keep in mind I’m listing players having UNEXPECTEDLY great years, not good players having great years. I’m not going to look at relievers because the sample size (about 20-25 innings so far) is just too small.
James McDonald, PIT; Lance Lynn, STL; Chris Capuano, LAD: These pitchers all are off to excellent starts. Each has 10 starts, between 63 and 65 innings, and ERAs of 2.20, 2.54, and 2.14 respectively, and each are averaging just under three walks and nine strikeouts per nine innings. Aside from Capuano being a southpaw and much older, these pitchers have almost been identical thus far in 2012. With such excellent ‘peripheral’ stats, especially the strikeouts, these pitchers seem like good bets to sustain their success. Capuano has no history of this kind of success, but he gets the benefit of Dodger Stadium as well. I look for all three to regress slightly, Capuano most of all, but all three are the ‘real deal’ and McDonald in particular is starting to have the makings of a true ace – clearly, trading for him has been GM Neal Huntingdon’s best move to date.
Brandon Beachy, ATL; Wade Miley, AZ; Johnny Cueto, CIN; Kyle Lohse, STL: Now we come the pitchers who I believe won’t keep up their surprising success. Beachy leads all of MLB in ERA, and his peripherals aren’t bad, but they also are not good enough for him to keep his ERA under 2.5, much less the 1.77 he currently sports. Miley and Lohse don’t strike anyone out, and eventually they will give up too many hits to keep their ERAs below 3.5. Cueto is the most interesting story here – his strikeout rate has decreased every season, but so has his ERA (a VERY unusual situation). He’s already allowing more than a hit per inning, though, and unless that changes there’s no way his ERA will stay under 3.00. All of these pitchers will struggle some the rest of the way – most likely to succeed the rest of the way is Cueto, followed by Beachy, Lohse, and Miley.
Paul Konerko, CHW; Melky Cabrera, SF; Carlos Ruiz, PHI; Derek Jeter, NYY: Four hitters in the top-ten for average, all surprises in different ways. Jeter is hitting .335 and that would have been expected – three or four years ago. After two sub-par seasons it’s possible Jeter is in the midst of his last great year, and he can still hit .300 – but I look for his average to decline by the Dog Days of August. Ruiz is a 33-year old catcher with a .272 lifetime average – even though he hit .300 two seasons ago, it’s safe to say his .366 average is a mirage. How bad would Philly be without his hot start, though?? The same holds true for Cabrera’s Giants – Melky is a career .281 hitter who has carried the Giants with his .368 average. Again, look for that to melt away, if he finishes above .305 I’ll be shocked – but he has helped keep the Giants on the fringes of contention. The biggest story, however, is Paul Konerko. 11 homers thus far is par for the course for the powerful Konerko, but a .395 average is simply amazing. Two of his best seasons were in 2010 and 2011, so Konerko is certainly aging gracefully, but look for this average to drop almost 100 points by the end of the year. Even so, Konerko is building a solid hall-of-fame case (he will have 430 homers by the end of the year) and another stellar campaign will only enhance his chances.
Edwin Encarnacion, TOR; Josh Reddick, OAK; Adam Jones, BAL: These are three of the top seven home run hitters as of Tuesday, and none have a history of league-leading power. Encarnacion’s career-best was 26 homers and Jones hit 25 a year ago, while Reddick had ten CAREER homers entering 2012. Jones has the best pedigree – he’s been considered a break-out candidate for years – and while he still doesn’t walk nearly enough, the power could be legitimate; I can see Jones hitting 40 this year. Encarnacion will almost certainly set a new career high, but I’ll be surprised if he ends up with more than 30 home runs. Reddick is a wild-card, because he has almost no track record – he got 240 at-bats for Boston last year and looked decent, but not THIS good. I expect he will end up with around 25 homers.
On to the NHL, where all the top teams are long-gone and we have a #8 seed Kings, a team that almost missed the playoffs and struggled to score all season, vs. the #6 seed Devils, a team with no identity much of the year and led by a 40-year-old goalie. The Kings have gone on an unbelievable tear this playoff season, they are 12-2 and frankly haven’t been tested yet (they’ve led 3-0 in each series thus far). The Kings’ goal scoring issues seem to have disappeared since acquiring Jeff Carter, as they have scored 3+ goals in nine of their 12 playoff games. With their suffocating defense and a tough goalie in Jonathan Quick, the Kings should almost always win when they get three goals.
The Devils have had a tougher route to the Finals – They were down 3-2 to the lowly Panthers before winning the last two games, and they fell behind to both the Flyers and Rangers before coming back to win. The Devils have been shut out three times and held to two goals once – aside from that, they’ve scored 3+ in every other game this postseason and are 12-2 in those games.
You’ll hear lots of announcers talk about ‘unexpected scoring’ in a series like this, and there’s no question that an unheralded player will likely score a few big goals over the next two weeks – but to me, this is when the great players have to make the great plays. Jersey has Parise and Kovalchuk, LA has Kopitar and Dustin Brown – the team whose stars play the best should win.
LA has been dominant at even strength and shorthanded, but they have performed TERRIBLY on the power play – while the Devils have relied on their power play for offense and have struggled shorthanded. It should be a very tight series and the first team to three goals each game will be overwhelming favorites – and with their goalie, their easier road (and hence fresher bodies), I like the KINGS IN FIVE to win the Cup.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.