Pack-a-year habit

Last year I did a column wherein I purchased a pack of baseball cards and flipped through to see what interesting facts one could draw out of them. I have to admit I rather liked that gimmick—I’m fond of any gimmick which saves me actually having to come up with the column topic on my own—so we’re going back to it this week. This week we’ll look at not only the players on the cards, but also some observations on the card themselves. Let’s begin:

Grady Sizemore: When a player starts to get injured as frequently as Grady Sizemore has been the last few years—he’s played in just 210 of a possible 486 games since 2009, and barely more than 100 combined the past two—he begins to fade from your consciousness. So it was not until I was looking over Sizemore’s card that I remembered just how good he was.

From 2006 through 2008, Sizemore put up a .879 OPS (130 OPS+) while averaging more than 30 steals per season at a better than 80 percent success rate, and playing excellent defense in center field besides. For that three-year period, he was arguably one of the five best players in the major leagues. Since then, injuries have relegated him to status as a forgotten man.

Mr. Utley: For now, King of the Chases (Icon/SMI)

On another note, it was Sizemore’s card that made realize all the offensive player cards in this pack have a pretty embarrassingly typo: to wit, the column for doubles—which should be labeled 2B—is instead labeled 3B, putting two of those in a row. I noticed this because at casual review, it appears that Sizemore led the league in 2006 with 53 triples. That’s obviously insane, which is how I realized it. I have no idea how Topps managed to release a set of cards with a typo that glaringly obvious but there you are.

Chase D’Arnaud: one of the marvelous things about baseball cards is that they are loath to say anything bad about a player, no matter how wretched his performance. Such is the case of d’Arnaud, who might yet develop into a decent player—though he’s rapidly approaching the “all aboard that’s coming aboard” age for competency—but who was fairly miserable in his almost 50 games for the Pirates in 2011. Nonetheless, Topps, ever the optimists, write that d’Arnaud “showed plenty afield and on the bases as a rookie.” Keen observers will note this is a little like being set-up on a date with someone on the promise of their “great personality.”

On an unrelated note, d’Arnaud made me realize that “Chase” has suddenly become en vogue as a first name. In addition to d’Arnaud, there’s Chase Utley, Chase Headley, Giants linebacker Chase Blackburn and of course, the Arizona Diamondbacks’ Chase Field. Having looked into this, “Chase” as a first name is a relatively recent concept—there have been four so-named players in MLB history, all debuting since 2003—and according to the ever-reliable Wikipedia the first “Chase” with a first-name worthy of a Wikipedia article was born in 1963.

Brad Peacock: A couple of years ago I wrote an “all-bird” team, featuring players like Rich Gossage and Ron Cey. Brad Peacock would probably not be good enough to displace Lon Warneke—the Arkansas Hummingbird—from his place as starting pitcher, but might yet. Entering age his age 24 season, Peacock was a combined 15-3, 2.39 across Double and Triple-A last season. In his September call-up, the young righty was even better, going 2-0 with a 0.75 ERA for the Nats.

Peacock’s card also shows the risks of publishing a set of baseball cards that can be purchased in early February. Peacock was part of the deal which sent Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals and also netted Oakland three other Nationals prospects. The card, not surprisingly, makes no reference to this but does include a sweet, if slightly strange, story about Peacock’s pre-start rituals.

National League ERA Leaders: Two thoughts on this card which lists, as the name suggests, the National League’s ERA leaders in 2011: first off, although it is not exactly a surprise to hear that Philadelphia and San Francisco had some pretty good starters, I had no idea they so thoroughly dominate the NL leaderboard: seven of the Top 10 pitchers either pitched for Philly—Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels or San Francisco–Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong, Matt Cain, and Madison Bumgarner. When you consider that the Dodgers had two players on the list and the Diamondbacks one, just four of the National League’s 16 franchises were represented in the Top 10 in ERA.

The Giants’ offense missed this man in 2011 (Icon/SMI)

Meanwhile, in the American League, the 10 pitchers who make up the ERA leaderboard represent nine of the league’s 14 franchises. Only Baltimore, Chicago, Minnesota, Kansas City and Cleveland failed to put a pitcher in the top 10. (On a very short note, yikes, the AL Central was apparently not one for pitching.) I know this is just a disparity—in 2010 the NL had pitchers representing eight franchises among the top 10 in ERA—but it is still an astonishing fact.

On the subject of astonishing facts, you will note the Giants had four starters in the top 10 in ERA. By my calculations, they received nearly 80 percent of their starts in 2011 from a pitcher in the Top 10 in ERA. That’s pretty damn impressive. If you want to know how the team managed to miss the playoffs—not even come close, really—despite that, you will have to look to the Giants’ offense. In their World Series winning year of 2010, the Giants were no offensive machine, but did score nearly 700 runs. In 2011, they scored just 570 runs, which comes out to barely more than three and a half per game. Since 2000, only two teams—the offensively abject Seattle Mariners of 2010 and 2011—have scored fewer runs in a season than the Giants did last year.

Looking over the Giants’ lineup, it is not difficult to see why they failed to score any runs. After Buster Posey was hurt, the Giants primary catcher became Eli Whiteside. As it turned out, he couldn’t hit the Whiteside of a barn, batting just .197 in 82 games. Perhaps hoping to recapture the magic of Edgar Renteria, the Giants signed Miguel Tejada, who split his time between shortstop and third base. He didn’t hit either place, and was released shortly after Labor Day. Unfortunately for the team, Tejada’s replacement at short Brandon Crawford batted just .204. The team’s best hitter all season was Pablo Sandoval but Kung Fu Panda missed nearly 50 games. Carlos Beltran put up a .920 OPS after his arrival in the City by the Bay, but he too faced injuries and played in just 44 games.

It takes some real doing to actually be outscored when your pitching staff has a collective 3.20 ERA, but thanks to some bad luck with injuries—and some terrible choices on the free agent market—the Giants managed it.

Those are not all the cards in the pack, and I managed to not even end up writing about the best player in the set, Chicago’s Starlin Castro. Nonetheless, I hope this column shouldn’t be interpreted as criticism of baseball cards as a concept. In fact, I recommend picking up a pick the next time you see them at a store. The fun inherent in opening a pack—and the discoveries contained within—might surprise you.

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