Earlier this week we considered who disappointed us most this season. You have spoken, and Joe Nathan wins the prize. On a more positive note let's determine who pleasantly surprised us.
J. D. Martinez had below-replacement-level performance the past two seasons. He was released by the Astros in spring training, and started the season with the Toledo Mud Hens. After ten home runs in Triple-A, he was promoted. In Detroit he provided a .315 / .358 / .553 slash line, an equivalent production rate to Miguel Cabrera. He hit 23 homeruns, and eight were in the ninth inning. Everybody except Dan Farnsworth was surprised. Case closed.
Prior to the season, we previewed every player on the 40 man roster. Of course J. D. Martinez did not make the cut. There was no expectation at all for Martinez, so you could say he was not a surprise. If I am hoping to receive a watch as a birthday present and instead am given a new car, I am surprised. If I watch a movie that I have heard is decent but find it fascinating, I am surprised. When someone knocks on my door and informs me that I have won a million dollars, and it is true, I am more than surprised. Astonished, amazed, astounded, shocked, incredulous, or stupefied perhaps. But not surprised.
So among the players for whom we had expectations, who was the biggest surprise?
Ian Kinsler came into the season as a three-time All Star but in decline. In 2014 he had his best season since 2011, leading the Tigers' position players with a 5.5 fWAR. He led the league in plate appearances. His .307 on-base percentage was disappointing, but 17 home runs from a second baseman compensated. Most remarkably, at 32 years old he had his best defensive season by some measures.
Victor Martinez can swing a bat. He can hit from the left side and the right side. He can hit at home and on the road. He hit well in the first half of the season, and in the second half. He hit well in previous seasons as a catcher, and hits now whether slotted at first base or as the designated hitter. So can we really be surprised that he had the highest on-base percentage (.409) of his career, or highest slugging percentage (.974) by far? At age 35, and in his twelfth season, it was at least unexpected.
Rajai Davis was signed to platoon in left field and steal bases. He finished the year with 134 games, an on-base percentage (.320) higher than Kinsler, and a slugging percentage (.401) higher than Nick Castellanos. He ended the year starting in center field.
Eugenio Suarez was previewed in February but not expected to see much time in Detroit. After the Alex Gonzalez debacle, and Andrew Romine's failure to secure the position, Suarez solved the shortstop position for a few months. He provided a .345 on-base percentage and .429 slugging percentage in 32 games in the first half, before cooling off. Still, he played in over half the Tigers' games.
Andrew Romine could be considered, as it is surprising that someone who batted .227 with two home runs could play in 94 games for a team that made the playoffs. But that is not the kind of surprise we are searching for.
Max Scherzer followed up his Cy Young Award season with more innings pitched, a lower home run rate, and a career high in strikeouts. If you thought 2013 was a fluke, you were surprised.
Rick Porcello was the second-most valuable pitcher, with 4.0 bWAR. He set career highs with 15 wins and over 200 innings pitched, and career lows of a 3.43 ERA and 1.23 WHIP. He also led the team with three shutouts, when he had never thrown one in 152 starts prior to 2014.
Blaine Hardy started the year in Toledo, but became the most dependable bullpen option appearing in 38 games with a 2.54 ERA. His 12% walk rate contributed to a 1.39 WHIP, suggesting he was a bit lucky. To say that Hardy was the surprise of the season is to say that bullpen's collective putrescence allowed Hardy to shine. He was not on the 40 man roster at the start of the season, but was in the system last year, so he stays in the discussion.
Kyle Lobstein pitched in Toledo for most of the year. In his second tour of Triple-A he had a mediocre 4.07 ERA with a 1.48 WHIP. When a spot starter was needed, three others were called up before him. He made six starts in the final month, and in four starts he allowed two runs or less. Perhaps Lobstein was not so surprising if you recall that he was once a second round pick of the Rays.
Buck Farmer had pitched no higher than Low-A West Michigan through July. He had pitched in just 30 games since being drafted in the fifth round in 2013. Yet he started for the Tigers on August 13. This may be the definition of surprise, but Farmer was not on the 40 man roster at the start of the season. There was no expectation of his performance with the Tigers this year, so in recognition of the J. D. Martinez rule we will rule him ineligible.