Surprises aplenty as season hits Labor Day
Labor Day is upon us. And as we scan the baseball landscape, we are reminded once again that this game will catch you off guard. Because as we hit the home stretch of the 2012 season, a look at the stats and the standings reveals no short order of surprises.Raise your hand if, on Opening Day, you thought the following would be true by Labor Day: If the playoffs started today, three of the teams with the top five payrolls on Opening Day would be out. And a fourth -- the Tigers -- would have a play-in game against the White Sox. There's still no telling how this shakes out, of course, but the Yankees ($198 million, according to USA Today) are the only ones from the top five with an outright division lead or Wild Card spot at present. The Phillies ($174.5) and Red Sox ($173.2) are both far out of the playoff picture, while the Angels ($154.5) and Tigers ($132.3) are both still trying to get more bang for their buck. Edwin Encarnacion is one of the top sluggers in the sport. Encarnacion's career slash line before this season was .260/.336/.453 -- solid numbers, ever so slightly above league average. Now? Encarnacion is at .288/.384/.574 for the Blue Jays. He has 37 homers. He's hitting a home run in 6.7 percent of his plate appearances after notching a 3.8 home run percentage in the first seven seasons of his career. The Reds have played their best baseball without Joey Votto. The Reds thought enough of their MVP that they gave him a 10-year, $225 million extension at the beginning of the season. It was an unprecedented commitment for a club in a market the size of Cincinnati. And given the nature of that commitment, one might assume that if Votto missed, say, six or seven weeks in the thick of the season, the Reds would be sunk, right? Instead, they've gone 32-15 since Votto made his first career visit to the DL on July 16 -- the second-best record in baseball in that span. And Votto is expected back in the lineup this week. The A's are in contention. Last winning record? 2006. And so are the Orioles. Last winning record? 1997. And so are the Pirates. Last winning record? 1992. Look, the addition of a second Wild Card was bound to boost the competitive chances of even the annual also-rans. But to see these three clubs -- all of which were in the bottom tier in player payroll on Opening Day -- hanging in there this long is still a shock to the system and, ultimately, good for the game. It bears repeating: The O's are contending in the AL East, the A's are in second place in the West after gutting their pitching staff over the winter, and the Pirates are relevant late for the first time in two decades. Even if you envisioned one of these things taking place, there's no way you saw all three coming. The best closer in baseball is Fernando Rodney. Admittedly, "best" is my own interpretation. But Rodney has converted 40 of 42 save opportunities and has compiled a 0.73 ERA. Rodney has been in the big leagues since 2002 and, prior to this season, had compiled a ballpark-adjusted ERA+ of 101 (or one point ahead of league average). His ERA+ this season is a monstrous 516. Rodney used to strike out 1.69 batters for every walk issued. That ratio is now 5.00. Craziness. Some kid in the Minors has stolen 155 bases. That kid, of course, is Reds prospect Billy Hamilton, and, while there's plenty of Minor League minutiae each year that qualifies as out of the ordinary, Hamilton's record number of swipes merits mentioning here. He shattered Vince Coleman's professional record of 145. Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Jake Peavy are all Comeback Player of the Year candidates. And in a related development, the White Sox are atop the AL Central. Dunn and Rios hit a combined .197 last year, and Peavy posted a 4.92 ERA in 19 outings in the worst season of his career. This year, Peavy's shoulder has held up, Dunn and Rios' output has picked up, and the White Sox, as a result, are a surprising contender. Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Shane Victorino are all Dodgers. We certainly assumed the Guggenheim group, which paid $2 billion for the storied franchise, would spare no expense in player payroll, and so it was fair to expect the Dodgers to be willing to take on added salary at the Trade Deadline. But in a dizzying sequence of swaps both before and after the non-waiver deadline, the Dodgers have assured that their 2013 payroll will be more than double what it was on Opening Day 2012. And given the aggressiveness of those deals, a Dodgers team that finished just a tick above .500 last year is now in "World Series or bust" mode. Derek Jeter could reach 200 hits. The Captain is 38. A decline would seem inevitable and totally understandable. And Jeter's 2010 and '11 seasons would certainly seem to indicate he was headed in that very direction. But here in 2012, Jeter is batting .317 with 14 homers and a league-leading 177 hits. He could become the first shortstop in history to reach 200 hits at 38 or older. Justin Verlander's next-closest competition for the AL strikeouts lead is ... Max Scherzer. This is expected territory for Verlander, the league's strikeout king in three of the last four seasons. But Scherzer? He got into the mix by improving his strikeouts-per-nine-innings mark from his career level of 8.7 to 11.3 this season. The Nationals have the best rotation in baseball. This one doesn't even feel all that surprising anymore, because the Nats have been doing it basically from day one this season. Still, we must take a step back and acknowledge that for the Nats to have assembled the best rotation in their own division is a feat, in and of itself. Davey Johnson said in Spring Training that his top three -- Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez -- were good enough to challenge the Phillies' vaunted top three -- Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels. But this was obviously based more on conjecture than past performance. Johnson has been proven right, and the Nats' rotation runs deep enough that they might still have one of the better starting setups down the stretch, even after Strasburg is shut down. A knuckleballer who pitches for the Mets is tied for the league lead in wins. The one and only R.A. Dickey, ladies and gentlemen. The presumptive AL Rookie of the Year is also the presumptive MVP. Maybe Mike Trout's MVP bid is inextricably tied to the fate of his Angels team, which is desperately trying to claim a Wild Card. But the fact that a 21-year-old is in the MVP conversation is amazing, and you'll find no shortage of statistics indicating that Trout is in the midst of one of the greatest rookie campaigns of all time. He's already the first rookie and the youngest player ever to notch 25 homers and 40 stolen bases in a single season, and he has a chance of becoming just the third player in history (joining Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner) to lead the league in batting average, slugging percentage and steals. I don't know about you, but my hand is not raised.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.