No shortage of surprises thus far in 2011

Gonzalez: No shortage of surprises in 2011

At what point can one begin to dismiss fluke and embrace reality? That's a line that is never clearly drawn in baseball.

Ask a manager how many at-bats is a fair amount to evaluate a hitter, and you'll hardly ever get a straight answer, because there really is no telling. All you can do is play it out and foresee the best way possible -- the eyes are usually the best indicator.

One-fourth of the season is a pretty fair sample size, though.

We're essentially at that point now. And during that time, we've seen divisions get turned upside down, some stars struggle and others come out of nowhere to shine.

How much of that was fluke and how much of that was reality? Hard to tell.

But here's what has been most surprising.

5. The mystifying struggles of Crawford

We salivated over what the dynamic Carl Crawford could do in Fenway Park and at the top of that fearsome Red Sox lineup.

Now, we only scratch our heads.

How many of you saw Crawford -- signed to a seven-year, $142 million contract this past offseason -- batting eighth through the first 42 games of this season?

Anyone? Anyone?

Over the previous seven years -- minus an injury-limited 2008 -- Crawford had batted no lower than .296 while topping a .330 on-base percentage each season. But now, even after a recent 11-game hitting streak, he's hitting only .205 with a .243 on-base percentage.

Some of Crawford's early struggles were blamed on when he started his swing. But it'd be fair to at least consider the pressures of a bigger contract and a bigger market playing a factor.

Regardless, there should be very little doubt that -- eventually -- Crawford will hit his stride. His makeup is too good, his work ethic is too diligent and his talent is too obvious.

But that's also why his current state is so perplexing.

4. Pitchers still dominating

Major League Baseball RUNS PER GAME (through Tuesday)
Year R/G
2000 10.28
2001 9.55
2002 9.24
2003 9.46
2004 9.63
2005 9.18
2006 9.72
2007 9.59
2008 9.30
2009 9.23
2010 8.77
2011 8.43
Source: Elias Sports Bureau
Time to lower the mound again? OK, maybe not. Besides, with all the damage hitters did over the past decade or so, it's only right that the pitchers are thriving now.

And are they ever.

We had two no-hitters within four days this year -- Francisco Liriano on May 3, Justin Verlander on May 7 -- and have had eight of them since the start of the 2010 season.

We have had a team go hitless through at least the first six innings 14 times since Spring Training camps broke. A little perspective: Through May 17 from 2003-06, a team was held hitless through six innings a combined 13 times.

How about run production? Through Tuesday, Major League Baseball's cumulative runs per game was 8.43, which would represent the lowest of the new millennium -- one that began with 10.28 runs per game in 2000.

OK, maybe since many of us deemed 2010 "The Year of the Pitcher," it isn't so shocking that this mound dominance would carry over. But here's a look at some of the starters who have held a team hitless through at least six this year:

• Josh Johnson and Anibal Sanchez each did it twice for the Marlins.

• Phil Humber -- a 28-year-old with all of two Major League starts heading into the season -- did it vs. the mighty Yankees on April 25.

• Nine of them did it on the road.

Oh, and let's not forget the surprising starts from the likes of Josh Beckett (1.75 ERA), Alexi Ogando (2.13), Kyle Lohse (2.17), James Shields (2.26), Justin Masterson (2.52), Josh Tomlin (2.56), Charlie Morton (2.62) and, for crying out loud, Bartolo Colon (3.16).

3. The division that never disappoints

Where do we begin in the American League East? With Boston's dismal start? The back end of a Yankees rotation that has exceeded expectations?

It isn't even close -- the Tampa Bay Rays are once again in first place, people.

Somebody explain how this happens, after a 1-8 start, after unloading all those high-priced players and after a disabled-list stint by their best player -- Evan Longoria. The Rays are 25-12 since Manny Ramirez's abrupt retirement on April 8, winning with a patchwork bullpen, an offense getting surprising contributions from the likes of Matt Joyce and Casey Kotchman, and a dazzling rotation.

I don't know how long they can keep this up, but the fact they're winning with that payroll, in a rebuilding year, and with a record amount of picks in the early part of this year's First-Year Player Draft is more shocking than anything in that division.

More so than the 22-20 record the Red Sox currently have after a nerve-wracking 2-10 start, and more so than the unlikely contributions from A.J. Burnett, Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia and Colon in the Yankees' rotation.

But those aren't bad, either.

League ranks for Jose Bautista and Lance Berkman
Player Ave OPS HR RBI
Bautista 1st (.372) 1st (1.365) 1st (16) T-8th (27)
Berkman 2nd (.349) 1st (1.138) T-2nd (11) T-1st (35)
2. First-quarter MVPs

That would be a pretty easy choice right now: the Cardinals' Lance Berkman in the National League and the Blue Jays' Jose Bautista in the American League.

For different reasons, few saw this coming.

If you saw the way Berkman lumbered through the 2010 season, you know what I'm talking about.

After that, Berkman signed a one-year, $8 million contract that took his battered legs to St. Louis -- to play the outfield, no less. Now, Berkman leads the NL in OPS, is tied for first in RBIs, ranks second in batting average and is tied for second in homers -- all for a Cardinals team that is somehow a half-game out of first place in the NL Central without Adam Wainwright and with an unspectacular Albert Pujols.

Bautista? He sure doesn't look the part of a one-hit wonder. In fact, he has been arguably baseball's best player for quite some time.

Since the start of the 2010 season, Bautista leads baseball in OPS and -- easily -- in home runs. This year, he has gone deep 16 times and leads the Majors in batting average -- perhaps his only drawback in an otherwise spectacular '10 campaign -- for a Blue Jays team that remains in the running in a tough AL East.

1. Rod Serling presents: "The AL Central"

Maybe I should wear a suit, slick my hair and play eerie music while sifting through what is far-and-away the biggest surprise of this season's first quarter: the AL Central.

Sometimes we can brush off the quirky things that play out through the early part of this baseball marathon, but it gets to a point when things just start becoming very real. The fact of the matter is the playoff-perennial Twins are 12 1/2 games back of first place, and the previously hapless Indians sport baseball's best record and most comfortable division lead.

The Twins recently dropped nine in a row to give them their longest losing streak in 13 years. The last time they were in fifth place in their division this late in a season was in 2000.

The Indians recently won 14 straight at Progressive Field, equaling the third-longest home winning streak in their history. The last time they were in first place in their division this late in a season was in 2007.

Last year, the Twins were the first team in baseball to clinch despite being without the services of closer Joe Nathan and main run producer Justin Morneau. This year, they sport baseball's worst record with both of them back (and franchise face Joe Mauer, among others, sidelined).

Last year, the Indians were no better than fourth at any point after May 17. This year, they've held at least a share of the lead since April 7 despite slumps from Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana, and with Grady Sizemore in and out of the lineup.

As for the White Sox? They pronounced themselves all-in when they maxed out their payroll by bringing almost everyone back and signing Adam Dunn. So far, that expensive offense ranks 20th in the Majors in runs scored and 22nd in OPS.

I'm done trying to make sense of it all.

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.