SAN FRANCISCO -- There is no way to prove it, of course, but I think that San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez is the most underrated player in baseball. He is, in my mind, the only guy in the game that Fire Joe Morgan's Ken Tremendous could have written this about on Deadspin:
"You know who's overlooked? Adrian F----- Gonzalez. Nobody in the world outside of Adrian Gonzalez's immediate family has any idea he even exists, much less that he is one of the very best hitters in the world. A reporter recently asked Yorvit Torrealba to talk about how good Adrian Gonzalez has been for the Pads this year, and Torrealba said, 'There is no one on our team by that name. You are mistaken. Perhaps you mean to ask about David Eckstein?'"
I think Gonzalez has the underrated award all to himself -- has had it for a couple of years. But, you know, you could also make an argument for San Francisco's Aubrey Huff. Have you seen the year this guy's having? He plays three position, appears to be playing them all well, he is slugging .500, he is in the top 10 in the league in walks, he has scored 100 runs. In a season when the Giants seemingly unshakeable Tim Lincecum ran into a late summer rough patch and last year's breakout star Pablo Sandoval has lost his Kung Fu Panda mojo, Huff has been a driving force and as big a reason as any player, I suspect, for the Giants being on the brink of the playoffs.
Now, you may disagree, you may rank other players as more underrated -- it's all a make-believe argument anyway. But I would say there's at least a pretty good shot that the players you might call most underrated will be in the National League West.
There is something dreamlike about the NL West ... and not only because so many of their games are played while two-thirds of America is asleep. No, this is one crazy division. Here's a little fact for you: If the Giants go to the playoffs -- they're one win away -- that will mean that in the last five seasons all five NL West teams have reached the playoffs. All five in five years -- no other division can claim anything even close to this. Here's how many seasons back you have to go to say that every team in a division has made the postseason:
AL East: 18 seasons (Toronto last made it in 1993)
AL Central: 26 seasons (Kansas City last made it in 1985)
AL West: 10 seasons (Seattle last made it in 2001 -- and remember there are only four teams in the AL West)
NL East: Infinity (Washington has never made the postseason; if you want to go back to their days in Montreal you have to go back to 1981).
NL Central: 19 seasons (PIttsburgh last made it in 1992 -- have not had a winning season since).
NL West: 5 seasons (The Padres last made it in 2006)
That's absurd, right? The only team to not actually win the division the last five seasons is the Colorado Rockies (they made it twice as a wildcard), and they are also the only team from the division the last five seasons to go the World Series. This division is just a late-night roulette wheel -- so late that the results don't make it into the morning paper.
Take this year. In our SI "experts" preseason predictions this year -- there were 13 of us -- we picked the West as follows:
Six of us picked the Rockies.
Five of us picked the Dodgers.
One of us picked the Diamondbacks.
One of us picked the Giants.
The point isn't that only one of us (Ted Keith, congrats!) probably got it right by picking the Giants. The point is that we clearly had no idea. We picked four of the five teams, and the one team we DID NOT pick, the San Diego Padres, was leading the division almost the entire season and still has a shot, by sweeping San Francisco, to win the thing. We have no idea how to pick the NL West because there isn't a way to pick the NL West.
Here's what you have in the NL West:
1. You have the most extreme pitchers park in baseball (San Diego.
2. You have the most extreme hitters park in baseball (Colorado).
3. You have the team that, most years, leads the National League in attendance (Los Angeles).
4. You have a team that has struck out more than any in baseball history (the Arizona Diamondbacks).
5. You have three teams that have never won the World Series (Colorado, San Diego and San Francisco -- the Giants did win the World Series in New York).
6. More people pack into NL West Stadiums as a group by far than any other division in baseball.*
*Here's the average attendance in 2010 by division:
1. NL West: 2.68 million
2. NL Central (shocker, eh?): 2.47 million.
3. AL East: 2.37 million
4. NL East: 2.35 million
5. AL West: 2.27 million
6. AL Central (no shocker): 2.12 million.
All this stuff thrown together seems to give the NL West a wild quality. You might get an absurd pitchers game (San Diego this year has been involved in TEN 1-0 games, the most in baseball ... right after them is the Dodgers with 9 and the Giants with 8). You might get an absurd hitters game (The Rockies and Diamondbacks have both played seven games where 15 or more runs were scored -- only the Mets have played in more). You will get a lot of home runs (Arizona, Colorado and San Francisco are third, fourth and sixth in the league in homers) and a lot of Ks (the Giants' and Padres' staffs are first and second in all of baseball in Ks, the Dodgers are fourth -- strikeout pitchers like facing the Diamondbacks). It really is a free for all.
And this year that has led to a typically exciting, excruciating, thrilling and baffling pennant race. For the first five months or so, the Padres rather shockingly stayed on top of the division. Yes, we knew how they were winning -- they pitched great, especially out of the bullpen, and won the majority of their close games -- but we really had no idea HOW they were winning. Other than Kevin Correja -- who has struggled much of the year -- the entire starting rotation was new. The bullpen was pinched together with some a bunch of unfamiliar names who kept getting people out. And the Padres, except for the titanic Adrian Gonzalez, could not really hit. The Padres won 1-0 six times. They were up 6 1/2 games in late August.
Then ... they lost 10 in a row. They are only 12-12 since the losing streak, which puts them one loss away from elimination. This is where people usually write "the Padres had their inevitable collapse," and maybe it was inevitable. The Padres' overpowering quality is that they cannot hit. They are 12th in the league in runs scored and it's hard to win a division when you are 12th in the league in runs scored. But crazy stuff happens in the NL West. In 2008, the Dodgers finished 13th in runs scored and won the division. In 2007, the Rockies won 14 of their last 15 to race into the playoffs and, eventually, the World Series*. In 2001, the Arizona Diamondback essentially rode two dominant pitchers and one bizarre 57-homer season to the championship. The Padres story was no stranger than those.
*You can probably stump your baseball friends with this trivia question: Name the NL West team that has gone the longest period of time since appearing in the World Series. If they know baseball and think about it, they might get it. But if they go off instinct, NOBODY would think it's the Los Angeles Dodgers.
And anyway, the team they are battling -- the Giants -- are hardly a paragon of consistency. They won seven of their first nine to start the season and then played lousy for a while then played great, then played lousy again. Starting May 7 they:
-- Lost four out of five.
-- Won four out of five.
-- Lost five in a row
-- Won five out of six.
And so on. A four-game winning streak. A seven-game losing streak. On Independence Day, the Giants were one game over .500. And then, some things began happening. Buster Posey hit .450 his next 20 games. The aforementioned Huff hit .400. Matt Cain became was his old workhorse self -- the Giants have won 12 of the last 15 times he has pitched. And so on. The Giants immediately won nine out of 10, and seven of the following 10. Yes, they were 6 1/2 games back on August 25, but thanks to the Padres' losing streak and their own good play, they were tied for the division lead 16 days later. They moved into a tie, fittingly, with a 1-0 win over San Diego.
The Rockies made an exciting (if brief) run at the top which promised an exciting finish to the race ... which is why I'm here in San Francisco. But the excitement has drained the last few days. The Rockies collapsed. The Padres have faded. The Giants have pulled three games ahead ... as mentioned it will take a Padres sweep just to force a playoff*. And with the Giants at home that sweep seems unlikely.
*If necessary ... if they both qualified for the playoffs, there would be no playoff. The division title would be decided by a tiebreaker.
Then again, EVERYTHING about the NL West is unlikely. It looks like this time it might finish quietly, but you can never bet on that in this division. Like always, if you want to know, you really will have to stay up late and see what happens.