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June 1 And The Races Are On!

June first is considered by many to be “the start” of the pennant races. By June first it’s often clear not only which teams have prospered during the first 50 or so games (about one-third of the season), but which players are on track to have good (or bad) seasons. Starting pitchers with 7 or 8 wins might have a legitimate shot at 18-20 or more victories (20 wins being an increasingly rare accomplishment); hitters with 15 or more home runs could be at 40 or more by game 162, and so on.
There is nothing hard and fast about these indicators, injuries and slumps often curtail acceleration of statistical achievement. There are many cases of pitchers with a lot of wins early who lose their effectiveness later in the season (see Ubaldo Jiminez of the Colorado Rockies in 2010), and lots of hitters who are monsters early on and who develop holes in their swings as the summer wears on. What is evident, however, is that a bad start, a really bad start, can permanently stunt a given player’s stats for that particular season. For example, we talked a while back about the alarmingly poor start experienced by Albert Pujols, the biggest fish in the free agent pond of the past off-season. Albert had a similarly slow start in 2011 (not the extent of 2012), and fell short of several habitual milestones as a result. This season, even while The Phat One has picked it up in the last two weeks, it is almost a certainty that a typical Pujols season of a few years ago, by which I mean a batting average north of .330, 45 or more home runs, and 130 or more RBI is simply out of reach for 2012. Two poor starts consecutively will no doubt fuel speculation about King Albert’s decline, but let me remind you that older players such as David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox and Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees have reversed what seemed to be downward spirals with sudden rejuvenations. Today we have video and analytical tools that indicate that a swing is more level; a front foot is “getting down” earlier; hands are getting to the hitting zone sooner, etc. as explanations for the revived production.
Similarly, while it happens that some teams “run away and hide” by getting off to a hot start and putting distance between themselves and their divisional mates, it is also quite common for teams to be beset by the “June Swoon” when a good start evaporates in the growing summer heat and those that soared early on come to earth. When I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area for years the Giants were typically noted as practitioners, unhappily, of the “June Swoon”.
And let’s take note of the third no-hitter of 2012 and perhaps the most historically consequential one, Johan Santana pitching the first in the New York Mets’ fifty-one years of existence. That Santana should be the one to do it, based on his two Cy Young Awards, is not a surprise; to do it after coming back from shoulder surgery, however, is. Congratulations, No-han!

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