Everybody likes to hand out awards at the end of the year and BaseballGB is no different. In the first of two articles, we look back at the 2008 season and pick out the individuals and the moments that caught our attention.
Biggest surprise – Cliff Lee.
The Rays were a strong candidate for this award, but you could see prior to the season opener that they had collected some exciting young players and had reason to hope for a bright future.
There wasn’t quite the same hope for the future of Cliff Lee’s career. 2007 had been such a complete disaster that the Indians were left with no choice but to demote him to the Minor Leagues part way through. That’s never a positive thing for any player’s career, let alone a twenty-eight year old pitcher. To Lee’s great credit, he treated it as a wake-up call and went into Spring Training intent on regaining his spot in the Cleveland rotation.
The start Lee had to his season was completely unforeseen, even in the pitcher’s own wildest dreams. He won his first six starts, giving up just five runs in the process, and rebounded from his first loss of the year (on 18 May against the Reds) by reeling off another four straight wins. While everybody else was waiting for the great run of form to come to an end, Lee just kept on pitching and his final 22-3 record (for a disappointing Indians team overall) resulted in a deserved Cy Young award. It was quite a turnaround for the left-hander.
Biggest disappointment – The Detroit Tigers.
They had us all fooled. After completing the big off-season trade that saw Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis swapping Miami for the Motor City, the Tigers were the vogue pick to win the AL Central and, for some, even to win the whole competition. With a strong rotation and a batting lineup that had many predicting it could break an offensive record or two, Detroit appeared to have everything in place to mount a serious challenge for the World Series.
Doubts about whether such intense optimism might have been a tad misplaced crept in immediately. Losing the first seven games of the season will tend to do that to a team. They recovered a bit by going 19 and 8 in June, yet it proved to be a false dawn and the Tigers failed to roar any more, slumping down the stretch and winning just ten of their final thirty-three games. From pre-season World Series contenders to finishing dead last in the AL Central, it must have been a humbling experience. It was also a lesson to us all that winning the off-season doesn’t always count for much once the games begin: something that opponents of the Yankees can cling to heading into the new year.
Home run of the year – Ken Griffey Jr versus the Marlins
Every fan will have their favourite home run of the year. Baseball fans in Washington will remember Ryan Zimmerman’s opening night, game-winning walk-off shot against the Braves which launched the Nationals’ new stadium. A’s fans will fondly recall Mark Ellis’s walk-off grand slam against the Angels. Round-trippers by pitchers always stick in the memory and Joe Blanton’s unlikely World Series blast topped the lot in 2008.
In terms of a collection of homers (a ‘body of work’, if you like) then Josh Hamilton’s awe-inspiring display in the Home Run derby at Yankee Stadium is right up there alongside Reggie Jackson’s infamous Tiger Stadium light blast of 1971 on the All-Star list.
But if I had to pick out one homer of the year, it would be Ken Griffey Jr’s shot down the right-field line at Dolphin Stadium on 9 June. On its own, it wasn’t particularly noteworthy: it wasn’t the longest homer Griffey’s hit and it came in a fairly average game in front of a small crowd. However, it was the 600th of his career. As one of the defining players of his generation, Griffey didn’t need to reach the mark to book his place in baseball history, but it was great to see him achieve it anyway.
‘Ugg’liest performance of the year – Dan Uggla at the All-Star Game
Smuggled away from the Arizona Diamondbacks via the Rule 5 Draft at the end of 2005, Dan Uggla has proved to be an inspired piece of looting by the Marlins. In his three Major League seasons with the Fish, Uggla has averaged thirty homers and ninety RBIs each year: very handy from your second baseman. His impressive batting stats meant that, despite playing for a team that rarely impedes on the average baseball fan’s consciousness, Uggla made the NL’s All-Star roster for the second time.
What his batting stats didn’t show was that he’s not the most graceful of second baseman. Unfortunately for him, Uggla made sure everybody watching the marquee event found this out when he set an All-Star Game record by committing three fielding errors, two coming on consecutive plays. To compound his evening, Uggla also struck out three times.
‘Blast from the Past’ Award – shared by the Marlins and the Rockies
Remember the good old days when people felt short-changed if a game at Coors Field didn’t produce at least twenty runs? Bloated scorelines are not so common in these ‘humidor’ times in Colorado, but the Rockies and the Marlins decided to give the fans a holiday treat on the fourth of July this year. An 18-17 final over nine innings, in which the two teams combined for eight home runs (six by the home team), ensured that the Independence Day fireworks were relegated to sideshow status. Naturally, it was a bad day to be a pitcher, although Brad Hawpe may have felt a bit embarrassed to go 0 for 5 when everyone else was padding their batting stats.
Florida can have the imaginary trophy as they were the ones who scored seventeen runs and lost.
(Note: to truly appreciate the game without watching the carnage, take a look at the ‘Win Probability’ graph at FanGraphs.com).
Part two of the ‘BaseballGB 2008 Awards’ will be published on Saturday.