Reality often ruins best predictions

ON FANTASY SPORTS

June 15, 2008|By CHILDS WALKER

It doesn't take the deepest insight to say that baseball is a surprising, even confounding game.

But it's healthy for us as fantasy players to step back every so often and recognize how much the game flips our expectations on their heads.

Smart preparation helps in broad strokes, but by June, I inevitably feel that the season has scattered my rational expectations all about.

I consider myself a not-stupid observer of the sport. But Milton Bradley, Ryan Ludwick, Nate McLouth and J.D. Drew ranking among the best hitters in baseball? How could I or anyone else have predicted that?

I mean seriously folks, that quartet has far outperformed Vladimir Guerrero, Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Mark Teixeira (Mount St. Joseph).

Show me the preseason guide that predicted any of this. No, really, if somebody knew, I want to become a follower.

Lance Berkman is not only on pace for career-best hitting numbers, he's already set a career high in steals. At a slightly doughy 220 pounds, he had more steals than Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran going into this weekend.

I couldn't make this stuff up.

Injuries have struck some of our most reliable talents, from David Ortiz to Alex Rodriguez.

At the same time, the Texas Rangers' Bradley, a player who could never stay healthy, is contending for a batting title and on pace to hit 37 homers, almost double his career high.

In New York, the Yankees' Jason Giambi has pulled his career from near extinction ... again.

The craziness has hit close to home, as it usually does.

I was angry that in one league, my fellow owners bid me to $16 on Carlos Quentin. I worried that the Chicago White Sox wouldn't let him play. Now that he's on pace for 40 homers and 140 RBIs, he looks like a keeper.

Conversely, I thought his teammate Paul Konerko would be a reliable anchor. He's been more like a lead weight, dragging my teams to the bottom of the standings.

And if you haven't noticed, every guy I've mentioned so far is a hitter - supposedly the more reliable class of ballplayer.

On the pitching side, the best in the game has been a rookie, one developed by the Rangers no less. I keep expecting Edinson Volquez's ERA to blast above 2.00. And he keeps shutting down hitters in mighty defiance.

Cliff Lee found Greg Maddux's control in the offseason, and Ervin Santana has outpitched Johan Santana.

Former Oriole Mike Mussina is on pace to win 20 games for the first time at age 39.

Chic Cy Young pick Justin Verlander's ERA sits at well over 4.00 and would-be teammate Dontrelle Willis sits at Single-A.

Kerry Wood and the Orioles' George Sherrill look like dominant closers while Jason Isringhausen and J.J. Putz look like they've lost it.

Some of the stuff I've talked about, while surprising, is not wildly out of line with logical possibility.

We knew that Bradley and Drew were talented guys, capable of great stretches when healthy. We knew that no matter how great Verlander looked last year, young pitchers are unreliable. We knew that Guerrero's body was starting to break down.

There is inherent risk in drafting or bidding on most players, and in some cases, that risk will manifest in remarkable ways, both positive and negative.

But what amazes me is how consistently surprising baseball can be. If you can count on anything, it's that nothing can be counted on.

I tend to forget that when I'm feeling oh so confident in preseason projections.

Which brings me to my favorite baseball story of this season.

We have a recovering drug addict who was out of the game for almost four years hitting extremely well and leading the world in RBIs.

Can you imagine how hard it is for a guy who barely played above Single-A to disappear from his sport for the length of a college career and then reemerge as a star-level player in the big leagues?

The Roy Hobbs metaphor is way overused in baseball, but Josh Hamilton has to be the closest thing we'll ever see in real life. Right?

When the Rangers come to town later this summer, I'll have to see this guy in person. He might be one of the most talented players ever born. He'll probably never make it to the Hall of Fame, but he's a lot more compelling than many who will - kind of like Bo Jackson or Earl "The Goat" Manigault.

Guys such as Hamilton speak to the wonderful mysteries of humanity - our mix of talent, self-destructiveness and endurance.

I like that I can't see them coming. As much as fantasy baseball is about critical thinking, I'm glad that baseball can produce realities more wild than our most outlandish fantasies.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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