As is the case with every season in the history of baseball, there have been plenty of huge surprises as we near the halfway point in the 2012 season. Each season we have to ask ourselves which early performances are harbingers of things to come and which are comprised mostly of smoke and mirrors. Several players and teams came immediately to mind when contemplating this topic, so it seems fair for me to judge them all at once. After all, surely I’ll be right about everything once the dust settles. Maybe. Probably not.
Second Half Buys
Trout’s fast start is the sort of thing worth admiring obsessively. The 20-year-old star Angels outfielder has amassed 3.5 WAR already, and he’s done so by being good at literally everything. Trout has blinding speed (19 SB), plenty of power (.528 SLG), a great approach at the plate (.397 OBP), and knows how to patrol center field. A skill set like Trout’s means that he’s here to stay; don’t expect any prolonged slumps. He’ll continue to be one of the very most valuable players in the sport even as he faces opposing pitchers multiple times.
I’ll pick Belt as a player to expect positive things from with one obvious caveat: Bruce Bochy has to let him play if he struggles for two seconds. Belt’s season line sits at .262/.375/.421 in just 176 PA, but he’s really started to catch fire of late. While 55 PA is a tiny sample size, it can only be considered a good thing that Belt has hit .333/.436/.600 since the start of June. The patience and burgeoning power Belt offers are something the Giants desperately need if they are to flag down the Dodgers and hold off the Diamondbacks, so it’s paramount that his name gets penciled in the lineup every day. Another reason to expect big things from Belt? Baseball Reference tells me he is nicknamed “Baby Giraffe.”
Okay, so it’s not like Johnson has been bad so far, but I’m sure there are plenty of fans out there very nonplussed with his performance in 2012. Johnson has a very unsightly 4.18 ERA and a lower strikeout rate than normal, but he’s only going to improve as he distances himself from his injury troubles. The peripheral and predictive numbers still look favorably upon the Miami ace. Johnson is the owner of a 3.01 FIP and 3.59 FIP, his walk rate is 2.89/9, and he’s been worth 2.1 WAR. Expect bigger things from the very big (he’s 6’7″) hurler going forward.
The Nationals are doing it with pitching, and that’s not going to stop. Gio Gonzalez has discovered just enough additional control to be dominant, there’s no way Stephen Strasburg only pitches 160 innings for a team clinging to first place, and Jordan Zimmermann is exceedingly solid. Aside from the monster staff, Michael Morse is back to infuse a little power, Bryce Harper is only going to improve as he learns, and Ryan Zimmerman should get back to normal before long. The Nationals are in no way going to dissipate as the season continues.
St. Louis Cardinals
They’ve played poorly of late, but injuries and bad luck have certainly had their part in the fall. The Cardinals still have one of the best run differentials in baseball (and the best in the NL), and even after a prolonged stretch of bad, they sit just four games back of the Reds. This is a team whose bullpen contains too many power arms to fail this spectacularly, and the starting rotation could receive an upgrade before the trade deadline. Oh, and they score. They score a lot. This is still one of the best teams in the National League, and the end of season results will bear that out.
Second Half Sells
From the beginning of 2011 on, Melky Cabrera has hit .323/.357/.488. In many cases, this would be a large enough sample size to go ahead and assume his career path had changed and there was an actual increase in ability. Cabrera, however, is doing all of this while sustaining a super-cool .404 BABIP, a figure that stands quite far apart from his career (and much more logical) .308 mark. Once the numbers normalize, Melky Cabrera becomes a player much more similar to what we saw in 2009.
Beltran is a very good hitter, and he’s stayed mostly healthy to make good on the first year of his brief pact with St. Louis. While his .311/.396/.591 line more than makes up for any other shortcomings in the veteran’s game, it’s hard to envision a future where the talented outfielder keeps raking at such a frantic pace. Beltran is sure to slide as the season wears on, as his legs just aren’t likely to hold up. I’m not saying Beltran tanks or anything, I’m saying it would be a mistake to expect the 35-year-old to have a second half reminiscent of his first half.
Dickey is a very good rotation member to have, but he’s not one of the 10 or so best starting pitchers in baseball. His unique makeup enables him to do some great things, but chinks in the armor have always shown up before and they will again. Throwing a knuckleball can be a volatile experience, and Dickey seems ready for a little bit of regression in the second half. Keep in mind that Dickey was still a quality pitcher before his recent star turn; I’m not predicting his demise, just his grounding.
The White Sox and Tigers, both of whom have superior rosters, are right on their heels. The Indians are four games over .500, but it’s only fair to expect that the Tigers, the preseason favorites in the AL Central, will pick things up. Detroit has won seven of their last 10 and should charge right by the Indians as the season progresses. It’s hard for me to project a team as mediocre as Cleveland finishing above .500 by season’s end.
New York Mets
I couldn’t even bring myself to bother listing the Orioles, so I’ll go with the Mets instead. The Mets have a slightly positive run differential and have been getting way more out of their pitching staff than anyone could have reasonably expected. Outside of David Wright (and even he is probably overachieving), New York has very little in the way of offense. And how safe is it to assume that star-level efforts from R.A. Dickey’s unpredictable knuckleball and Phase Two Johan Santana can continue for the duration? Plus, John Kruk called them the most exciting team in baseball. I would just love to see the technical criteria used to make such a decision.