So, the season is halfway over…and the Pirates are only 1.5 games out of first?? What kind of bizarre season is this? More to come on the Battlin’ Buccos in the coming weeks, but this week we list the top individual surprises and disappointments of the first half of 2011. We’ll separate into pitchers and hitters. Keep in mind this isn’t a list of the BEST or WORST players, and it’s also not a list of the most-improved players – when a touted prospect finds his groove, we expect that to happen. This is a list of out-of-nowhere successes – and on the flip side, a list of total collapses by established (but not aging) players.
Michael Pineda, Seattle: OK, so he was a prospect coming into the season…still, no one expected him to come in and blow away the AL so quickly. It hasn’t been all that fluky, either – Pineda has 106 K’s and only 36 walks in 108 innings, and his 2.58 ERA is 10th in all of baseball! Given his age and Seattle’s lost season, it’s likely that the Mariners will limit his innings down the stretch – but remember this name, if he avoids the injury bug he’s going to be a star. Interesting trivia note: Thru July 4 the Mariners had three pitchers in the top 25 ERA rankings among all MLB starters – and Felix Hernandez wasn’t one of them. That’s some rotation thus far in Seattle!
Alexi Ogando, Texas: I watch quite a bit of baseball, and I had no CLUE Ogando was even a starter now, much less having an amazing season. 8-3 with a 2.86 ERA is very impressive, especially considering that his home park is offense-friendly. Expect some regression – he’s not THIS good – but his emergence goes a long way toward explaining how Texas has withstood their injury woes.
Kyle Lohse, St. Louis: A year ago Lohse went 4-8 with a 6.55 ERA, after several years of mediocrity – and I thought he was done like dinner. This year he’s gone 8-5 with a 2.97 ERA in 115 innings! Unlike the previous entries, this is probably mostly ‘smoke and mirrors’ – he’s allowing the same number of walks and homers, and striking out about the same number of batters. All that’s changes is hits allowed, and that’s very likely to regress in the second half. Still, with Wainwright out and Carpenter up-and-down, Lohse has saved the Cardinals’ season in many ways, and he deserves kudos for that.
Jair Jurrjens, Atlanta: He’s been around a few years, had a good season in 2009 and mediocre seasons in 2008 and 2010 – sure, we knew he could be decent, but he currently leads all of MLB with a 1.89 ERA and 11 wins! Like Lohse, expect some regression here – he has only 60 K’s and five HRs allowed in 104 innings, and he will allow more hits AND home runs in the second half. Still, it appears he’s definitely established himself as an above-average starter for the Braves.
Jeff Karstens, Pittsburgh: Let’s put this in perspective…the Pirates had the NL’s worst rotation in 2010 BY FAR, and despite that Karstens was unable to crack the top five this spring – much like the past few seasons, he was seen as a 3-5 inning guy who tired too quickly to be a starter, but whose ‘rubber arm’ made him perfect for long relief. However, when opportunity knocked in the form of injury to Ross Ohlendorf, Karstens took full advantage. He has the 11th-best ERA in the game at 2.65, he’s allowed only 18 walks in 91 innings, and he seems to be getting better – he’s only allowed seven earned runs over his last six starts. His bugaboo is the longball – he’s allowed 18 HRs already, and sooner or later those longballs will drive his ERA north of 3.00 – but one has to think that Karstens has earned a spot in Pittsburgh’s rotation for the rest of the year, and clearly he’s one of the key reasons they are three games above .500.
Ubaldo Jimenez, Colorado: After what seemed to be a breakout 2010 campaign, Jimenez has endured a rough ’11: 3-8, 4.35 ERA, 40 walks in 96 innings. He still brings the heat, but his control has been spotty and hitters are squaring him up more than in the past. The 3-8 record is deceptive, he hasn’t been THAT bad, but Colorado’s second-half chances depend largely on Jimenez’ ability to turn this around.
Chad Billingsley, Dodgers: Having a year quite similar to Jimenez – 44 walks in 108 innings, and 110 hits allowed for a 4.15 ERA (and a 1.42 WHIP – both would be career worst figures), some of what is happening here is bad luck, some is poor control, and I have to wonder about an injury as well – when a pitcher as consistent as Billingsley suddenly has a spike in walk rate and a decreased strikeout total, many times there’s a hidden injury involved. In any case, he is but one of many Dodgers suffering through a horrible season, but his fall was the most unexpected.
John Lackey, Boston: what a disaster this signing has been. After a sub-par 2010, he has completely imploded in 2011 – Boeing ERA (7.47), 1.63 WHIP, 91 hits in only 71 innings! Another case where I believe we’ll eventually find out there’s a hidden injury – but if not, he might be done for good.
Zack Grienke and Yovani Gallardo, Milwaukee: Counted on to be the aces of the Milwaukee staff, this duo’s struggles are the only thing keeping Milwaukee from dominating the Central division. Grienke was hurt in spring training and has never settled in, his 7-3 record belies a 5.66 ERA. The good news is he’s struck out 89 in 68 innings, which indicates he’s pitched into some bad luck – but he has to find a groove if the Brew Crew hope to make the playoffs.
Gallardo has been erratic since opening day, and while his ERA is a mediocre 3.92, his 1.40 WHIP suggests he’s fortunate it’s not even worse. Another Brewer pitcher giving up more hits than you’d expect…leads me to wonder if maybe Milwaukee’s defense is a significant liability for the team? In any case, Gallardo must at least find some consistency this season.
Jose Reyes, Mets: I’ve always liked Reyes’ game, but after the past two seasons I was thinking he would never reach his potential. Looks like I was wrong – Reyes has the top average in all of baseball at .354, and he’s on pace for 45 doubles and 30 (!!!) triples. Only 1 player has ever hit 30+ triples, and that was 99 years ago – I expect both his average and triples to fall off some in the second half, but with only three HRs he’s likely to recoup some value with the longball. In short, he’s having a great ‘contract year’ and while I think he’s a bit over his head at .354, he’s quite valuable if he’s hitting .290-.310 with his speed and power. Wouldn’t he look good in black and gold for the last two months of the season? I’m just sayin…..
Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston: Like Reyes, he’s long been viewed as having huge potential, and he’s coming off a lost campaign (2010 was ruined by injury). In 2011 he’s showing his customary speed and defense, but he’s found a power stroke unlike anything he’s shown before – he’s on pace for 45 doubles and 18 HRs. If he can stay close to that pace, he is among the top CFers in the game.
Lance Berkman, St. Louis: Berkman is a near-lock for Comeback Player of the Year if he keeps this up – after a 2010 season that was by far his worst (and WAY out of line with his career), Berkman has rebounded with one of his best seasons – he’s reaching base over 40% of the time and slugging over .600 with 23 HRs. Just as Lohse saved the Cards’ rotation, Berkman has saved the offense while Pujols has been injured/ineffective.
Jose Bautista, Toronto: I know, I know, how can a guy coming off 54 HRs be a surprise? Simply put, EVERYONE I talked to thought he was a 1-year wonder. I participated in an email poll that set the over/under on 2011 HRs for Jose at 35 and 80-90% of those polled took the under. I took the over, but I expected 40-45 max, and a batting average in the .250 range – in other words, he was due to become the right-handed Adam Dunn. Instead, he has become THE most feared hitter in the game – he’s batting .329, his on-base % is a silly .467, and he’s slugging 50 points HIGHER than last year. Teams are giving him the Bonds treatment now – he’s on pace to walk 140 times! If this keeps up – and at this point there’s no reason to think it won’t – the question becomes does he have enough time to build a hall-of-fame case? He’s already 30, so the decline will start within 2 or 3 years. I say no, he got going too late, and that’s a shame – but he’s a great story nonetheless.
Jhonny Peralta, Detroit: Peralta had a good start to his career, but his 2009 and 2010 seasons were terrible, which led to Cleveland giving up on him. Detroit must have seen something in him, and it’s paid off this year – Peralta is batting .314 and is on pace for 30 HRs. Again, given his lengthy track record, he is likely to decline in the second half – even his best years weren’t THAT good – but if he’s back to where he was in 2005-2007, the Tigers will be thrilled.
Adam Dunn, White Sox: I am tempted to make Dunn the entire list here – he’s been that bad, and it came completely out of nowhere. For six seasons Dunn has hit 38-40 HRs, batted between .235 and .265, walked 100 or so tomes, and struck out 170-200 times. He was as regular as clockwork. This season, he’s batting .171, he has only eight HRs, and he’s on pace to walk about 70 times and strike out over 200. He’s not that old – 31, which is a bit past the ‘prime’ but far short of expecting this sort of disaster. I have no clue what’s going on here, or whether he can recapture some of his past slugging prowess. I suspect 2011 is just a lost season, and 2012 will be the season that truly tells the tale for Dunn.
Dan Uggla, Braves: Coming off career-highs in just about every category, the Braves probably were expecting SOME regression – but going from .287 with 33 HRs, 100 runs, 105 RBI to .173 with 36 runs, 27 RBI probably isn’t what they had in mind. With 12 HRs he’s still showing good power for a 2B…but obviously he has to turn the rest of his game around in a big hurry. Yet another player who has collapsed at a relatively young age (31) – it’s really hard to figure out what has happened to him. My guess is he will rebound somewhat and return to near his career averages in 2012, but the player the Braves were expecting to get – 30+ HRs, .275+ average, lots of walks – is probably not ever arriving.
Jayson Werth, Washington: I was in D.C. this past weekend to watch the Bucs-Nats doubleheader, and I’ve rarely felt as bad for a player as I did for Werth. He was booed every time his name was mentioned, he struck out three times in two games, and he dropped a difficult-but-catchable fly ball. Looks like the pressure of his huge contract is getting to him – he’s hitting only .221 with 10 HRS. However, unlike Dunn and Uggla, his underlying walk/strikeout rates are about at his career norms, which says to me that Werth will regain his form soon. Many times players who sign big deals struggle a bit at first, then break out by the second year – Curtis Granderson is a great example of this. I look for Werth to be a lot better by year’s end – he’s still overpaid, but he’s more of an asset than he’s shown so far.
Carl Crawford, Boston: Similar to Werth, the Sox aren’t getting what they thought they paid for – however, unlike Werth, Crawford’s batting average makes up a large % of his value, because he never walks much. Werth can be valuable hitting .250; Crawford needs to hit above .290, so his .243 showing isn’t getting it done. Furthermore, he’s not walking at all – he’s on pace for just 18 walks, which is terrible by any standard. This is probably another case of big-contract pressure, but I’m always more leery of no-walk, high-average hitters because of the year-to-year fluctuation of batting average. Boston is rolling right along without him, but they will want him hitting by the postseason. I was never crazy about this signing, and I fear that this contract will never really pay off for the Sox – but clearly, Crawford is better than this and we should expect some improvement.
Next week, another look at the Battlin’ Bucs, and a review of how the Pens fared in free agency.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.