This article is part of our The Wheelhouse series.
I don't hate surprises.
*Check Engine Soon*
No problem, I thought. This car only has 24,000 miles on it, probably just a signal to get the car serviced because it's assumed to be two years old (quick back story: this particular car is a 2004 Hyundai Sonata that my wife and I purchased from her grandparents last summer. It was their Sunday Driving Car, and had all of 2,300 miles on it when we bought it).
As per the usual car maintenance routine, I drop it off at the shop before work, plan on picking it up following an oil change and a diagnostics test that reveal something mundane like a loose gas cap or tiny vapor leak.
"Hi this is (guy who has to give customers crappy news all day) from (place that fixes cars because most people can't), do you have a moment to talk about your car?"
I could feel a very fake smile on my face before a swift punch to the gut.
"The diagnostics test revealed that your O2 sensor is not working and needs to be replaced. Also, the recommended service from you last oil change was a transmission flush. We do have the sensor on hand and can complete the job including a transmission flush and oil change by the end of the day. It's also recommended that we rotate and balance your tires."
Before I can even confirm that an O2 sensor is a standard part on a functioning car, (guy who has to give customers crappy news all day) says that with parts, labor and tax, I'm looking at $750 bill.
In less than 24 hours, I'm going to be taking this car on a five-day road trip from Madison to Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Cleveland.
"OK, well go ahead and take care of it then," with a calm sadness that was probably refreshing for a person whose primary job is to absorb getting yelled at following the delivery of less than ideal news.
My Check Engine light was on for exactly one day before I made the appointment. Even without knowing the ramifications of an O2 sensor not working properly, blindly gambling that whatever caused the light to go on the first place was nothing serious and simply taking the care on the trip without having it checked out had a downside of a major car issue on the road in a completely unfamiliar place.
Sometimes peace of mind costs $750. Sometimes it's more, sometimes it's less.
As for surprises, they certainly go both ways. Take my trip for example. Jonathan Pettibone was originally scheduled to start Thursday when I visit PNC Park. With an adjustment to the Phillies' rotation, it's Cole Hamels taking on Gerrit Cole (for now, barring a surprise to ruin it) in that matchup.
At the halfway point, this season has had plenty of surprises - both good and bad - that merit further thought.
Top 200 Near Misses
Did Nate McLouth find a time machine? He was on the outside looking in when I compiled a new set of Top 200 overall rankings at the end of last week. McLouth and Alejandro De Aza were the subject of questions in the comments section, and I wanted to share my thoughts on both here.
McLouth – Starting with the plate discipline, McLouth has consistently done a good job of drawing walks in his career and his rate this season (10.0%) matches his career mark. His 2008 campaign with Pittsburgh was outstanding, including a .276/.356/.497 line with 26 homers, 94 RBI, 113 runs scored and 23 stolen bases. He also carried the lowest strikeout rate of his career (13.6%) and in his time in the big leagues since has progressed to top out at a 20.5% K% in 2012.
With six homers in 273 at-bats and a .128 ISO this season, the power is far from the elite levels McLouth sustained during his peak with the Pirates. Over the last five years, his batted profile has gradually become much more groundball heavy going from a 0.74 GB/FB ratio five years ago to a 1.37 mark in 2013.
Over 23 games in April, McLouth hit .346/.452/.513 with a 16.0% walk rate and 9.6% strikeout rate. In the 49 games since, he's drawn walks at a 7.4% clip and struck out in 12.6% of his plate appearances. During that span, he's hit .256/.318/.369 with four homers and seven RBI, while crossing the plate 27 times and managing to go 16-for-19 on the basepaths. There is plenty of value in a player in a lineup as potent as Baltimore's, with the steady success as a runner even when the OBP is down. Most of McLouth's value will continue to come from the steals and runs scored, while it's worth pointing out that the past two months have looked very similar to his 2012 line (.241/.314/.380) and are a much more realistic expectation for his second half.
So, about that time machine...
De Aza – Back in April, it appeared as though De Aza was altering his approach and selling out trying to hit home runs. He struck out in 29.8% of his plate appearances while hitting four homers during the first month of the season after carrying an 18.6% strikeout rate last season and piling up just nine long balls in 585 plate appearances in his breakout in 2012. It was a bad trade-off.
In the last two months, De Aza's plate discipline has improved significantly including 7.2/23.4 BB%/K% in May before a 10.6%/19.5% split in June. Even with the White Sox's offense leaving plenty to be desired, De Aza is piling up a decent number of runs scored (46) and is well on his way toward 675-700 plate appearances after making a career-high 585 trips to the plate a year ago.
With plate discipline and an OBP trending back toward his 2012 levels, De Aza should see a few more green lights in the second half and make a run at a 15-homer, 25-steal campaign with a healthy number of runs scored now that summer is fully kicked in around the midwest.
Eric Hosmer has only earned $2 less than Adrian Gonzalez ($16), yet he missed the cut in my aforementioned Top 200 list. Perhaps he belongs there after all. Consider that over the last 30 days, Hosmer is hitting .297/.339/.525 with six homers, 20 RBI, four steals and an 8:14 BB:K over his last 118 at-bats. Extrapolate that over six months, and it's suddenly 36 homers, 120 RBI and 24 steals. The turnaround coincides perfectly with the hiring of George Brett as the team's new hitting coach at the end of May.
Four outfielders have earned more to this point than Nelson Cruz: Carlos Gonzalez, Mike Trout, Adam Jones and Domonic Brown. There were 27 outfielders ahead of Cruz on the NFBC Average Draft Position report and it was a "toss up" for many owners with Shane Victorino and Melky Cabrera checking in slightly ahead of Cruz on that list with very similar ADP marks.
Prince Fielder appears to be heating up after hitting his 14th homer of the season in the Tigers' loss to the Blue Jays on Monday. Interestingly enough, he's tied with Joey Votto (who couldn't hit home runs from late June on last season) in the category for the season. The move from Miller Park to Comerica Park made things much more difficult, but is Fielder truly a low-30s home-run guy at age 29?
Allen Craig has earned $27 the hard way – just nine homers in 78 games and he's never going to steal more than the occasional base (he has one in 2013 – and there's room for a little bit more in the power department as he's shown over the last 30 days with a .330/.362/.523 line and six of his long balls during that span.
What will the fallout be of Matt Harvey's meteoric rise to roto stardom? Yovani Gallardo and Roy Halladay were reliably going a couple of rounds ahead of the Mets' ace March, while the five pitchers just ahead of him on the NFBC ADP report include Brandon Morrow, Jake Peavy, Jon Lester, Ian Kennedy and Josh Johnson. Perhaps a starting pitcher yet to debut in the big leagues will flash the ability to miss bats at an elite clip in August and September and command a much steeper price in 2014 as a result of Harvey's success?
Bartolo Colon has more wins (11) than Stephen Strasburg (4), James Shields (3) and Cole Hamels (2) combined. I've never supported quality starts as an addition to wins for leagues that go 6x6 or 7x7, but I am getting closer to advocating QS as a replacement for wins in 5x5.
Most Valuable Player - an award that considers the value a player has to his particular team, or his overall value in the context of all other players and their respective levels of production in all facets of the game in a given year? I believe the league awards should reward the latter, and team awards could skew more toward the former.
With that in mind, here are my awards to this point.
AL CY: Yu Darvish (Derek Holland is actually a legitimate candidate as well.)
NL CY: Adam Wainwright (Just a nose ahead of Matt Harvey right now, could be a nose and a half by the end of the season if Harvey misses a start or two in September. At times this season, Wainwright has had more wins than walks. As misleading as wins or the lack thereof can be, that is amazing.)
Been Thinking About You
Ever since first hearing of Primanti Bros. nearly a decade ago, it's been on my radar for a road trip stop. Is there anything more American than shoving everything on the menu into a sandwich? It seems like an ideal July 4th lunch selection.
Here's to a safe and Happy Fourth for you and yours.