|High-fives all around for those surprising White Sox. (Getty Images)|
The Tigers were going to run away with the division, right? After all, the team that won the AL Central by 15 games a year ago added Prince Fielder over the winter and had one of the most active deadlines of any contender. The White Sox, meanwhile, finished the 2011 campaign four games below .500 in a distant third. Then they entered 2012 without their longstanding ace and with a manager who'd never skippered at any level.
Yet with roughly three weeks to go in the regular season, Robin Ventura's White Sox lead the Tigers by two games in the Central and, according to CoolStandings.com, have a 72.5% chance of making the playoffs. So without question, the White Sox stand as one of the most pleasantly surprised in all of baseball -- not Oakland/Baltimore levels of surprise but still pretty unexpected.
As such, it's no, well, surprise that the South Siders are enjoying a number of individual performances that none but the most optimistic of partisans saw coming. To wit ...
- From 2008-11, Jake Peavy averaged just more than 123.0 innings per campaign. Coming into 2012, he hadn't logged a 200-inning season since 2007, when he won the NL Cy Young Award. This season, however, the 31-year-old right-hander is on pace to lpitch 221 2/3 innings, and he'll have a shot at a career high. For a player who's made six trips to the DL in his career and lost more than 60 starts to injury, good health was not expected.
- Adam Dunn was done, as countless punned headlines predicted. In 2011, Dunn authored a dismal slash line of .159/.292/.277, which is unacceptable production for a Gold Glove shortstop, let alone a lumbering DH. So Dunn, already not the type who figured to age well, surely had gone over the cliff. Well, in 2012 he's put up an OPS of .825 and made the All-Star team. Soon, he will surpass 40 homers. That's a renaissance.
- Catchers are lucky to be playing regularly at age 35. A.J. Pierzynski, though, is not only playing regularly, but also enjoying a career year at the plate. He's slugging almost 100 points better than his lifetime mark, and he's bested his career high in homers by eight.
- And what of Alex Rios? He absolutely cratered last season, as he flailed his way to an OPS+ of 63. In 2012, however, he boasts a line of .293/.324/.510 with 23 homers, 33 doubles and 20 steals. To the shock of many, Rios is putting up his best numbers since 2007.
- Surely young Chris Sale would struggle in his first season as a starter. Surely the former reliever's high-stress delivery wouldn't permit such an increase in workload. But here he is, in the mix for the AL Cy Young. At present, Sale has logged a qualifying number of innings, and he ranks fourth in the AL in ERA, strikeout rate and WHIP and eighth in AL in whiffs and K/BB ratio.