The 2012 baseball season came to a conclusion a little more than a week ago when Sergio Romo struck out Miguel Cabrera to earn the San Francisco Giants their second World Series title in three years. There were, generally speaking, three reactions to this finale: 1) From Giants fans: “Woohoo!”; 2) From Detroit Tigers fans: “Noooo!”; 3) From all other baseball fans: “Meh” (or else, “Of all the seasons I’ve ever followed, this was certainly one of them.”).

Due to its structure, which includes scheduled competitions almost every day for seven months, Major League Baseball tends to be followed by fans in a different manner than the avid followers of other sports. We typically cheer for our favorite teams, but don’t necessarily care all that much about what other clubs are doing so long as it doesn’t affect the one that we support. This is a by-product of there being such an ample supply of baseball to be followed. We have to pick and choose, or else we’d be reduced to living our lives without much in the way of variety.

This is likely best seen by comparing nationally televised games of baseball to nationally televised games of football. While baseball plays out a 162 game schedule, the National Football League’s regular season schedule consists of a mere 16 games for each team. Nationally broadcast games of football absolutely slaughter nationally broadcast games of baseball in terms of television ratings partly because there’s a more limited supply of content for fans to consume and more meaning behind each game. This caters to the neutral observer in a way that 162 game schedules simply can’t.

Despite the differences in the way that baseball is played compared to other sports, stories still emerge throughout each season that transcend the boundaries that normally govern our favorite team-based interests. Here, in my opinion, are the top ten stories to do this from the 2012 Major League Baseball season.

The New Collective Bargaining Agreement

When Major League Baseball’s owners and players association agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement ahead of the 2012 season, baseball pundits scrambled to discern what effects the contract would have on how franchises do business. While the expanded playoff format was the most obvious example of change, we also saw teams attempt to game the draft spending cap by selecting players willing to take the minimum amount early the draft. While there was also the rush for teams to sign international free agents ahead of a cap being placed on expenditures and perhaps a few more minor trades at the deadline, the biggest impact that the new CBA seemed to have was found in the eagerness with which organizations locked up the talent that they had to long-term contracts.

We witnessed big money deals to prospective free agents like Matt Cain and Cole Hamels; extensions offered to players who were a couple years away from entering free agency after previously signing extensions like Joey Votto and Ian Kinsler; and young players selling off their arbitration years and then some like Starlin Castro and Madison Bumgarner.

While we’re still figuring out the exact impact that the CBA will have on all aspects, the early returns suggest that it’s going to get progressively harder to attain talent through free agency as franchises seem more inclined to take risks on extending the devils they know rather than the unfamiliar ones that other teams have already passed on or deemed too expensive for their tastes.

A Nationals Success Story

At the beginning of the year, Jayson Werth was quoted as saying that 2011 would be nothing but a fart in the wind. While the Nationals outfielder was most likely referring to his own production after a miserable first year that followed his signing a seven year, $126 million contract to play in Washington, his humorous metaphor was fitting for his entire team.

With a 98-64 record in 2012, the club won more games than any other team in baseball. It was the first winning season for the franchise since 2003 when they still played in Montreal, and it was the first time a Washington team entered baseball’s postseason since the 1933 Washington Senators.

Of course, the successful season wasn’t without controversy. Throughout the year, the team’s ongoing success was overshadowed by the organization’s stated plan to shut down ace Stephen Strasburg prior to the playoffs. They went through with their commitment to the pitcher and his future after missing most of the previous season while recovering from Tommy John surgery. His last start of the season came on September 7th and his innings total wouldn’t reach 160.

The team ended up losing a deciding Game Five in the NLCS without Strasburg in the most heartbreaking fashion possible. However, the organization isn’t mistaken in believing that their success is sustainable, and risking the health of their best player to increase their chances for a single year would be misguided. A quick look at the team’s payroll commitments and the relative youth of the organization reveals a franchise that should have multiple opportunities to take a run at the World Series in the near future.

Now if only the beat writers who cover the team could be a little less insufferable.

From #OriLOLes to #YOLOrioles

While both teams had surprisingly successful seasons, I’m not sure that the Baltimore Orioles will be able to make the same claims as their neighbors in Washington. While the Nationals merely harnessed their success a little bit ahead of the schedule that many predicted, the Orioles seemingly benefited from an unknown form of witchcraft, going 29-9 in one run games and 16-2 in extra inning games to make the postseason and take the New York Yankees to five games before being eliminated.

Certainly, the team’s bullpen is due a lot of credit for such success, but it’s incredibly difficult for a rational person to wrap their head around Baltimore’s win-loss record after learning that a dozen different pitchers started games for the Orioles in 2012, and their names were: Jason Hammel, Wei-Yin Chen, Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Joe Saunders, Zach Britton, Steve Johnson, Brian Matusz, Randy Wolf, Dana Eveland and Tommy Hunter.

While morons trumpeted the San Francisco Giants winning the World Series as the death of Moneyball, Dana Eveland actually started a game for a team that reached the postseason.

There was another successful surprise this season in the form of the Oakland Athletics, who ended up winning the American League West with an incredible victory over the Texas Rangers on the last day of the season. While it might be argued that this is more of a shock considering that the Athletics traded away two of their best starting pitchers ahead of the season, it’s not as difficult imagining a team run by Billy Beane finding an untraveled road to success.

That’s not to take away from what Oakland accomplished this season, it’s just to say that the Orioles season was the more surprising of the two. By comparison, Baltimore couldn’t even find candidates who wanted to interview for a general manager position a year prior to their unlikely postseason appearance.

Josh Hamilton Is A Flawed Man/Hitter

On May 8th, Josh Hamilton hit four home runs in a single game. There have been 23 perfect games thrown in Major League history. Prior to that game between the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles, a single player had hit four home runs in a game only 15 times.

Here’s how he hit his four home runs:

Home Run #1

Swinging at the first pitch he saw in the top of the first inning, Hamilton hit a blast off of right handed starter Jake Arrieta that just cleared the fence in center field.

Home Run #2

In the third inning, up 2-0 in the count, Hamilton hit deep fly to left field off Arrieta once again.

Home Run #3

Facing left-handed reliever Zach Phillips in the seventh inning, Hamilton smacked a tater to center field on the second pitch of his at bat.

Home Run #4

Right-handed submarine reliever Darren O’Day got ahead in the count 0-2 before Hamilton hit a ball to the deepest part of the ballpark, and over the fence.

What Hamilton accomplished may be the most remarkable thing a position player can do in a single game. However, through the first two months of the season amazing performances were common for the slugger. Over that span, baseball fans were treated to something reminiscent of the majesty of Barry Bonds, and then …

… Hamilton, whose addictive personality is well-documented, decided that it was time to give up smokeless tobacco. What he didn’t bank on was that this decision would also mean giving up his ability to make good contact on pitches. The Rangers outfielder went from imitating Barry Bonds to looking like a left-handed Delmon Young at the plate.

Here’s his whiff rate in the month of June:

And July:

Hamilton was able to turn it around to a degree and finish the season on a high note, even if his team failed to make it out of the Wild Card play-in game. However, his performance was nothing like it was over those first two months of the season, when he set himself on pace to hit 73 home runs, while batting .368 with a .420 on base percentage and a .764 slugging percentage.

And now, Hamilton is continuing his story by reportedly seeking a seven-year deal worth $175 million on the free agent market, which is um, ambitious.

Bobby Valentine

When the Boston Red Sox announced that Bobby Valentine was going to be the team’s next manager, it seemed like an ideal situation for the inventor of the sandwich wrap, sports bars and public safety. If the Red Sox failed, Valentine could blame the pre-existing clubhouse atmosphere in Boston for the lack of success. Afer all, he is only one man and he could only do so much in a single year. If the team succeeded, then Valentine could, as is his wont, point to his genius in overcoming great obstacles to find fortune.

It didn’t quite go that way. Instead, baseball fans were treated to the following disasterpiece of a timeline:

  • December 1, 2011: Bobby Valentine is officially introduced as the manager of the Boston Red Sox.
  • February 26, 2012: Valentine refers to relief pitcher Matt Albers as Matt Alberts. He continues to do so until the pitcher is moved at the trade deadline.
  • April 15, 2012: Valentine makes the following comments about Kevin Youkilis on WHDH-TV: “I don’t think he’s as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past for some reason. But [on Saturday] it seemed, you know, he’s seeing the ball well, got those two walks, got his on-base percentage up higher than his batting average, which is always a good thing, and he’ll move on from there.”
  • April 16, 2012: Amid the media storm that his comments created, Valentine leaves Daniel Bard, a supposed note of contention between the manager and General Manager Ben Cherington, in a game after walking six batters. With the bases loaded and two outs in the seventh inning, Bard walks his seventh batter of the game to force in the only run in a 1-0 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays.
  • April 21, 2012: The New York Daily News reports of a conflict during Spring Training in which Valentine verbally attacked Mike Aviles during infield drills. Several Red Sox players confronted the manager with outrage after the incident, forcing Valentine to apologize to middle infielder.
  • April 25, 2012: Valentine mistakes Liam Hendricks for a left-handed pitcher.
  • June 17, 2012: ESPN’s Buster Olney refers to the Red Sox clubhouse as having a toxic atmosphere.
  • June 22, 2012: Valentine, when asked about the playing time that Wil Middlebrooks is receiving over Youkilis, claimed to have had a conversation about the matter with the veteran third baseman. When asked about this, Youkilis suggested that no such conversation was had.
  • July 6, 2012: A picture begins circulating of Dustin Pedroia sticking out his tongue with his two thumbs up in front of a sleeping Valentine in the clubhouse.
  • July 22, 2012: Jon Lester is left in a game to give up eleven runs.
  • July 26, 2012: Red Sox ownership meets with players to hear grievances about the manager.
  • July 28, 2012: Valentine admits he went against what trainers said by playing Carl Crawford in more than four straight games.
  • August 1, 2012: Valentine refers to pitching coach Bob McClure taking a two-week vacation when he had taken a leave of absence in order to attend to a medical condition of one of his newborn twins.
  • August 19, 2012: The New York Daily News reports that Kelly Shoppach used Adrian Gonzalez’s phone to request the July meeting between players and ownership about Valentine.
  • August 31, 2012: Valentine arrives less at the ballpark less than three hours before a game starts in Oakland after picking up his son at the airport.
  • September 1, 2012: Valentine bats Scott Podsednik third in the lineup, and uses Alfredo Aceves for the fourth time in five days, around which he threw 143 pitches.
  • September 5, 2012: Valentine laughingly threatens to punch a Boston radio host in the face.
  • September 14, 2012: Valentine refers to his team as having the weakest roster in the history of baseball.
  • October 2, 2012: Valentine gets into a bicycle accident after receiving a text from Pedroia.
  • October 3, 2012: Valentine claims that his coaching staff hasn’t been loyal to him throughout the season.
  • October 5, 2012: The Red Sox fire Valentine.

Since being fired, Calamity Valentine pointed blame at David Ortiz for giving up on the team.

The entirety of the awful episode was reminiscent of a snowball that culminates into an enormous avalanche. It went from funny at first, to tiring, to funny again, to relief caused by it all being over.

The Rookies

A lot of attention was given to Mike Trout this season, and it was certainly all deserved as the rookie center fielder for the Los Angeles Angels put up the highest wins above replacement total since Barry Bonds in 2004. That’s remarkable in its own right, but Trout wasn’t the only rookie this season to become a big story for his team.

It’s easy to forget with all the hype that Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals had a five win season as a nineteen-year-old in his rookie year. Meanwhile, Yoenis Cespedes was among the best 25 batters in all of baseball last season as a rookie for the Oakland Athletics. Perhaps more impressively, the A’s were 82-47 with Cespedes in the lineup, and 12-21 without him.

It wasn’t just rookie position players putting in dominating performances in 2012. When the rest of their starting rotation fell apart, the Texas Rangers depended on the consistency of Yu Darvish to get them through the dog days of summer. The right-hander with a repertoire more diverse than Daniel Day Lewis may have had some rocky outings at the beginning of his Major League career, but on the whole, his five win season ranks among the best rookie pitching performances of the modern era.

While all these players came with some element of hype attached to their name, the lone representative of the Arizona Diamondbacks at the MLB All-Star Game had the quietest and least expected of the amazing rookie campaigns. Twenty-five year-old southpaw Wade Miley’s numbers aren’t all that different from supposed Cy Young Award contender Johnny Cueto. Outside of Darvish, Miley’s rookie season was the best from a starting pitcher since Dwight Gooden’s in 1984, and the best left-hander since Fernando Valenzuela’s in 1981.

The Umpires

I’m not certain that umpires are any worse than they were ten, twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years ago. They may even be better. It’s not the point. What I am certain of is that today’s technology allows us to accurately question the calls that officials make. And we, as baseball fans, questioned a lot of calls over the course of the 2012 season.

Major League Baseball has already made accuracy a priority when it comes to boundary calls judging home runs and fan interference. The collective bargaining agreement signed this past off season also called for expanded replay on fair-or-foul calls as well as trapped balls in the future, but why stop there? Why doesn’t Major League Baseball ensure that safe/out calls are as accurate as possible?

I just don’t understand. There’s an argument that introducing video replay will somehow embarrass umpires, but there’s no connection between how an overturned call might reflect negatively on the umpire whose original judgement is revised.

As we’ve seen in the NFL, fans are typically relieved enough by the correct call being enforced that the official who made the original error is seldom even remembered. If anything, video replay shows how quickly events transpire in real time, and forgiveness, not shame is the end result. In fact, I’d suggest that opinion of umpires would improve, not be denigrated, by the enhancement of replay.

The argument also assumes that umpires get the majority of close calls wrong, which simply isn’t true. More often than not, video replay will serve to confirm that the umpire has made the correct call.

For the record, there is a difference between umpires making bad calls, which have become more obvious due to the quality of television broadcasts, and umpires attempting to become the center of attention with their actions, in what’s come to be called The Ump Show.

I believe it was Alexander Pope who said, “To err is human, but to make a spectacle of yourself is a really jack-ass thing to do, especially when there are people who paid money to see people other than you perform.”

The Triple Crown

The 2012 Major League Baseball Season will always be considered a special one. In addition to being the first played under a new and exciting playoff format, there were records broken, pitching perfection was accomplished, and the Oakland A’s staged one of the most dramatic turn arounds in baseball history to win its division on the last day of the regular season. Perhaps the most impressive achievement to come out of this season though, was an individual accomplishment of three different metrics, a Triple Crown, if you will.

Of course, I’m writing about Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels winning the Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement title, the Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement title and the Baseball Prospectus Wins Above Replacement Player title, and doing so, in all three cases, quite handily over the next closest player.

I joke. Well, I sort of joke. Major League Baseball’s official Triple Crown includes two antiquated measurements of talent that depend on several factors outside of the control of the player whose talents are supposedly being measured. Nonetheless, it’s incredibly impressive that Miguel Cabrera managed to lead the league in home runs, batting average and runs batted in. It just doesn’t impress me as much as what Trout accomplished this season.

However, what impresses me doesn’t really compare to what impresses the majority of people, and in this case, Cabrera’s accomplishments likely impressed enough for him to win the American League MVP award and the recognition of millions of baseball fans.

Drugs Drugs Drugs

Melky Cabrera had the worst best season of his career. As a member of the San Francisco Giants in 2012, he put up 4.6 wins above replacement, despite playing in only 113 games. Unfortunately, 45 of those 49 missed games were due to a suspension that the left fielder received after testing positive for a banned substance. The announcement of his suspension came only a month after Cabrera won home field advantage in the World Series for the National League by leading his team to victory at the MLB All-Star Game and winning MVP honors.

Before testing positive for elevated levels of testosterone, Cabrera had become a fan favorite in San Francisco, and it seemed as though the club would do all it could to sign him to a multi-year contract extension.

However, a suspension for using a banned substance is one thing. The way that Cabrera handled himself after getting caught was quite another. Before admitting to his wrong doing, Cabrera lied to Giants beat reporter Andrew Baggarly about a potential investigation and attempted to challenge his suspension by purchasing a website and changing its contents to suggest that the outfielder had been misled by supplements that he purchased online.

After being exposed, Cabrera left the team without saying a word to any of his teammates. He tried to make up for his poor behavior by requesting that he be ruled ineligible to win the 2012 batting title, but the sentiment was somewhat lost on a spurned fan base who quite cynically imagined it to be a way for the player to quietly slip back into the team’s postseason roster once his suspension was over. However, despite being eligible to play in the NLCS and the World Series, the Giants kept Cabrera on the Restricted List until after the World Series when he became a free agent.

It’s expected that the former member of the Yankees, Braves, Royals and now Giants, will have to sign a one-year contract to reestablish his worth. It was likely baseball’s most topsy-turvy story of 2012, and we’ll continue to see just how turvy it ends up during the off season.

The World Series

After winning three straight games to come from behind and win the National League Division Series against the Cincinnati Reds, then doing the same in the National League Championship Series against the St. Louis Cardinals, the San Francisco Giants ran roughshod over the Detroit Tigers winning four straight games.

If we were to boil the story of the 2012 San Francisco Giants down to one player, there would be several members of the roster that would represent the team well – NL MVP incumbent Buster Posey, the redeemed Tim Lincecum, World Series MVP Pablo Sandoval (or Pandoval depending on whether or not you possess a sense of humor) – it’s one of the newer players in San Francisco that sticks out in my mind: Marco Scutaro.

As the wonderful Grant Brisbee of McCovey Chronicles noted:

He didn’t make the majors until he was 26, didn’t win a starting job until he was 28, and until July, he was playing for the Rockies.

Then, he came to the Giants and picked up the team when it needed it most. After the loss of Melky Cabrera to suspension, Scutaro put up almost two wins above replacement for San Francisco. He almost single-handedly won the NLCS for his still-new team, and then collected four hits in the World Series sweep, knocking in three and scoring three runs as well.

He was the personification of this play:

Which is the playification of the Giants season as a whole., and the 2012 season as a whole. Something difficult is almost achieved before it appears to result in failure, only for the completely unexpected to rescue it so that success is found at the very last moment. Also, it remains pretty enjoyable to watch the San Francisco Giants do just about anything.