The three major ways I enjoy baseball are through the partisan experience, the narrative experience and the aesthetic experience. The partisan experience is simplest -- when your team wins, you’re happy. Enjoying the narrative experience is getting lost in the story. It can be something as shallow as laughing at the absurdity of a game that’s gone to extra innings, something as exciting as watching the Red Sox come back from 3-0 down in the 2004 ALCS, or something with actual real-world value, like Josh Hamilton's comeback from addiction and injury to take the game by storm.
The trouble with those two types of fan experiences is that they’re hard to predict. I don’t know how happy the partisan in me will be come September, because I don’t know how many games the Phillies are going to win. Similarly, it’s hard to predict the great narrative moments of 2012, because they often pop up out of nowhere. I had no idea the 19-inning Phillies-Reds game from last May was coming, nor the insane final day of the season. And that’s part of the reason why those narrative moments are so great -- they take you by surprise.
But we can predict the aesthetic experience. The aesthetic experience is appreciating a moment of beauty, or of great skill, that leaves the viewer in a state of shock or euphoria. It’s the collective OH SNAP when an outfielder robs a home run, or the Clayton Kershaw breaking ball that puts the I-just-bit-into-a-lemon expression on your face. Below are 10 amazing or exciting or bizarre individual skills you’ll see that are worth looking forward to. They're on the top of my must-watch list for this season.
1. Cole Hamels’ changeup
Hamels idolized Trevor Hoffman when he was growing up, and it shows. Hamels owned, according to FanGraphs’ linear weight pitch values, by far the most effective changeup in the game in 2011, and at 29.3 runs above average, the second-most effective pitch of any kind after Dan Haren’s cutter. It’s a devastating pitch that not only comes in the low 80s, compared to the low 90s of Hamels’ fastball, but features serious two-plane break. It’s reminiscent not only of Hoffman but of Greg Maddux, and it’s good enough that Hamels was able to pitch effectively through 2008 using only his fastball and change. After a 2009 season in which his ERA jumped by more than a run (although his FIP didn't move in the slightest), Hamels started refining his curveball and added a cutter. Though none of his other pitches are much better than average, having four options to go to has allowed Hamels to use his changeup more judiciously. The result: When he’s ahead in the count, a Hamels changeup is like a thermite bomb. Best not to swing at all and salvage a modicum of dignity.
2. Dexter Fowler’s speed
I’ve long had a theory about Coors Field, which is not at all borne out by the park effects data, but I’ll tell you anyway. The air is thin enough in Denver that a normal-sized ballpark would turn any well-hit fly ball into an upper deck home run, or so the story goes. Therefore, the Rockies built a stadium with a massive outfield in an attempt to keep some of those balls in play. The unintended consequence is that while home runs are reduced, the number of bloop singles, doubles and triples goes up. Like I said, the data don’t back up this theory, but the Rockies have a tradition of employing center fielders who can run, if they can do absolutely nothing else. With the exception of Ellis Burks, a Colorado center fielder is a speed-and-defense first kind of guy. The young Juan Pierre is the best example.
Dexter Fowler is the evolutionary result of Alex Cole, Pierre and Willy Taveras. At 6-foot-4, Fowler is bigger than most slap-and-run speed guys, and he strikes out more than any of his National League contemporaries, with the exception of Drew Stubbs and Michael Bourn. But he can run. With his long legs, he covers ground like Usain Bolt, even if his straight-line speed hasn’t exactly led to exceptional stolen base efficiency or sterling advanced defensive ratings. Fowler, for all of his flaws, hits a lot of triples and attempts a lot of stolen bases -- two of the most exciting plays in baseball, and FanGraphs rates him as one of the best baserunners in the game. Even if he never becomes a star, Fowler’s sheer speed makes him one of the game’s most exciting players.
3. Adrian Beltre’s defense
I always knew Beltre was a great defensive player by reputation, and now that he’s out of Seattle, he’s getting the respect he deserves as a hitter as well. Beltre might never walk, but he hits for quite a bit of power and strikes out relatively rarely for a guy with a career .501 slugging percentage. He’s quietly building a very convincing Hall of Fame case, but because he developed a reputation as a mercenary and spent his prime in a park that killed his offensive numbers, he’ll probably end up on the outside looking in.
I first paid serious attention to Beltre’s defense during last season’s playoffs, and his greatness with the glove is just beautifully understated. He doesn’t make the flashy plays that gave Brooks Robinson or, more recently, Scott Rolen such fame. Rolen at his peak was like a panther at third, leaping and laying out to get to the ball, tracking it down and firing it on a rope to first. I grew up idolizing Rolen for his quickness, sure hands and strong arm. He was absolutely mesmerizing. Beltre, by contrast, just always seems to be there. If the ball is hit sharply down the baseline, he’s there to pick it up and throw the ball to first with a minimum of drama. He’s almost telepathic in his ability to anticipate the play and record the out. You have to make an effort to notice exactly how good Beltre is defensively, but once you do, it’s like the arrow in the FedEx logo. Once you notice it, your view is changed forever.
4. Ian Kinsler’s batting approach
Kinsler is sort of like Chase Utley Southwest -- a second baseman who plays all-out with heart and grit but doesn’t get a ton of press, despite being one of the best all-around players in the game. When hitting is boiled down to its barest essence -- see the ball, wait for a good pitch, and hit it hard -- Kinsler may have no equal in the game. In 2011, only Bobby Abreu swung at a lower percentage of pitches outside the zone than Kinsler. When Kinsler did swing, he had the fifth-best contact rate in the game, and of the four players who finished ahead of him, three (Pierre, Jamey Carroll and Placido Polanco) are slap-hitters. In 2011, among players who walked more than they struck out, only Prince Fielder, Jose Bautista and Miguel Cabrera had a higher isolated power figure than Kinsler. Add in his excellent baserunning and fielding, and Kinsler might do more things well than anyone else in the game. Watch a lot of Rangers games. I guess that’s what I’m saying.
5. Roy Halladay’s kitchen sink pitch selection
Of the Phillies’ top three starting pitchers (and I know I’m being a massive homer here), I probably like watching Hamels because of the elegance of his motion and because, unlike Halladay and Cliff Lee, he gets emotional on the mound from time to time. Which is not to say that Halladay isn’t worth the price of admission. What makes Hamels great is his devastating changeup. Halladay, by contrast, has more weapons than an armored tank division. Again, using FanGraphs’ linear weights pitch data, Halladay has a slightly below-average fastball. But in 2011, he had the second-most valuable cutter, the most valuable curveball, and the most valuable split-fingered fastball. Add in his exceptional command, and you’ve got the best pitcher in the game. Halladay is so consistently excellent, and so unflappably methodical, that there’s almost no drama to his outings. It’s like you go to sleep and wake up two and a half hours later, and he's allowed one earned run through eight innings.
6. Giancarlo Stanton’s raw power
The former Mike Stanton was third in baseball last season in isolated power among players who qualified for the batting title. In only 997 career plate appearances, Stanton has already mashed 56 home runs and 51 doubles. Of course, those numbers are nice, if not mind-blowing, in a vacuum. But in a down period for power hitters, they take on new meaning. And Stanton is only 22, and figures to get better and stronger over the next few years. He’s going to strike out a lot, as power hitters are wont to do, but he’s going to hit enough home runs that he can change his name to Plutonium Wigglesworth for all I care. If I were designing a stadium for Stanton, I’d put in a ridiculous home run machine too.
7. Jaime Garcia’s curveball
If you’re going to make a point to watch a Cardinals pitcher this season, it’s probably going to be former Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter. Or Adam Wainwright. Or superprospect Shelby Miller, when he comes up. And of the much-heralded 2010 National League rookie class, it’s easy to get excited about Jason Heyward and Buster Posey. The point is, no one seems to recognize how good Jaime Garcia is. Garcia mixes up four pitches to get a ton of groundballs, on top of a K/BB ratio that topped 3-to-1 in 2011. I’m a sucker for a pitch with a lot of vertical break, and Garcia’s hard-breaking curveball is a big part of his ability to generate strikeouts and groundballs, the lifeblood of any effective starting pitcher. Coming off a year where a low strand rate and moderate bad luck with batted balls created a superficial drop in effectiveness, Garcia flew under the radar, and on a staff with bigger, more exciting names, he could do the same this season. Do yourself a favor and catch at least one of his starts.
8. Brett Gardner’s defense
Gardner has Fowler’s speed and Beltre’s gift for showing up in the right place at the right time -- center fielder’s skills, essentially -- and puts them to use in left field. The end result is that UZR rates him, over the past two seasons, as worth 50.7 runs above average on defense. At this point, I’m legally obligated to inform you that advanced defensive metrics are imprecise, vary wildly from year to year, and that left field is notorious for being hard to evaluate.
With that said, the only player via UZR who was even half as valuable over that time on defense, at any position, is Polanco. Beltre, brilliant defender that he is, was 23 runs above average, albeit at a much tougher defensive position. Gardner’s glove has been more valuable since 2010 than the aggregate contributions of Derek Jeter, Colby Rasmus and Andre Ethier in that time. More than Ryan Howard and Casey Kotchman put together. Of course, it’s likely that UZR is massively overrating Gardner. But I’ve yet to hear anyone call Gardner anything but an exceptional defensive left fielder.
9. Matt Wieters’ throwing arm
I’ll grant you, Wieters is about the only thing Orioles fans have to get excited about nowadays. He shuts down the running game as well as any catcher in baseball. At 6-foot-5, 230 pounds, Wieters is big for the position, but that hasn’t hampered his ability to field his position as well as anyone in the game. In 2011, he threw out 37 percent of opposing basestealers, tops among full-time American League catchers, and well above the mark needed to turn opponents’ basestealing efforts into a net positive for the Orioles. As his reputation grows, the number of runners attempting to run on him should only decrease. But if you’re in the unfortunate position of having to watch a lot of Orioles baseball in 2012, Wieters’ defense is one reason for optimism.
10. Jordan Walden’s amazing, leaping, not-legal-for-sure pitching motion
Most of the rest of the entries on this list are exciting for being impressive and effective, if not so much for being entertaining or artistic. Walden’s delivery is a little bit of both. The Angels’ closer had an outstanding rookie season in 2011, riding a 99-mph fastball to an All-Star appearance, 32 saves, and 31 shutdowns, a FanGraphs stat that tracks win probability added for relief pitchers. In 2011, Walden had the highest gmLI in the game, meaning that, on aggregate, he entered the game with more on the line than any other pitcher in baseball. That’s exciting enough on its own, I think. But what separates Walden from relief aces is that Walden throws his rocket fastball from midair, several inches in front of the rubber.
SB Nation’s Jeff Sullivan studied Walden’s bizarre delivery last summer in great detail, but the short version is that Walden actually lifts his right foot off the rubber before his left foot hits the ground, and well before he releases the ball. It’s fascinating, and terrifying, and I have no idea if it’s legal. The highlight for me last season was watching the Rays’ seven-run comeback on the last day of the season on my laptop, while flipping back and forth between the Braves’ collapse and the Red Sox collapse on TV. A close second was getting to see in person Walden do ... whatever it is he does.