Memorial Day is considered by many to be the unofficial start of summer. But before the temperatures and the playoff races start to heat up, it's important to reflect on what we've learned during the season's first two months.
It's been another good year for MLB pitching (the hitting rates have progressively declined in the post-steroid era), but in spite of that, we're seeing some record-breaking years at the plate.
On top of those, we also have breakouts, comebacks and stories of redemption.
Here are the MLB's top 15 hitters so far in 2012.
2012 Stats: .342/.401/.553, 8 HR, 25 RBI, 10 SB
A highly touted prospect since the Pirates selected him 11th overall in 2005, McCutchen has been on the verge of superstardom for the past couple of years.
The perpetual mediocrity of the Pirates has made it easy to overlook him, but make no mistake about it: This has been his breakout season.
A five-tool player in every sense of the word, McCutchen has excelled, in large part, because his game has no discernible weaknesses.
He can hit for power. He can hit for average. He can run the bases. There are no holes for opposing pitchers to exploit.
His .342 average this season is good for seventh in the MLB, and it goes with a more-than-respectable eight homers. Only three players with a top-20 batting average can boast a higher home run total (we'll get to them later).
As it stands, the Bucs are only one game south of .500 and are only ceding four games to the NL Central-leading Reds.
With McCutchen leading the way, it wouldn't be insanely far-fetched to see Pittsburgh make a backdoor run at a playoff spot. Weirder things have happened, right?
But then again—these are the Pirates we're talking about.
2012 Stats: .274/.337/.570, 15 HR, 39 RBI
Ah, the Blue Jays.
Baseball season wouldn't be complete without a perfectly average career hitter finding his power stroke in the Rogers Centre.
This year, the fickle Edwin Encarnacion has found a way to put the Blue Jays offense on his back, posting a line that seems derivative of the man whom he follows in the batting order.
And while Jose Bautista has stumbled out of the gate to the tune of a .229 average (in all fairness, he still has 12 home runs), the Blue Jays have managed to stay at .500, thanks in large part to the contributions of their unheralded third baseman.
Edwin, the younger brother of former slugger Juan Encarnacion, is tied with Adam Dunn and Carlos Beltran for the second-most homers in the MLB, with 15. He's also knocked in 39 runs, which is good for third place in the AL.
Pundits have been predicting the younger Encarnacion's breakout for some time now, only to be disappointed by his maddening inconsistency.
Matthew Berry of ESPN.com has referred to him as fantasy Kryptonite: someone he drafts every year, never gets the stats he hoped for but can't stay away from the following season. This year, his fidelity is paying off in a very big way.
If Bautista can turn around his average, the Jays might be able to capitalize on the extra Wild Card spot and sneak into the playoffs for the first time since Joe Carter's World Series walkoff in 1993.
2012 Stats: .345/.387/.583, 5 HR, 30 RBI
Jonathan Lucroy? More like Jonathan Who-Croy!
In spite of his relative anonymity, the Brewers' backstop—a career .262 hitter entering this season—has posted one of the most impressive batting lines in the majors.
His .345 average is good for sixth best in the league, while his .969 OPS is good for ninth.
When Prince Fielder left Milwaukee for the sunny shores and bright lights of Detroit (*sarcasm*), Ryan Braun was supposed to be left hanging with no lineup protection. Not so fast, my friend.
Lucroy's current average is 46 points higher than Fielder's best season as a Brewer (although he's currently batting an impressive .311 for the Tigers), and his .583 slugging percentage would make for the third-best season of Prince's career.
Granted, we still have to see how long Lucroy can sustain his power, but for now, the 25-year-old looks like a promising, middle-of-the-order guy that should be a centerpiece in Milwaukee's future plans.
2012 Stats: .305/.383/.559, 10 HR, 30 RBI
Remember when Big Papi stumbled out of the gate in 2009, prompting a phalanx of indignant Bostonians to unwittingly jump the gun and declare his career over?
This season, Ortiz has held a together a bad Red Sox team—and make no mistake about it, this is a bad Red Sox team—with his consistent power.
Boston has allowed the second-most runs in the American League but is still plus-14 in run differential thanks to their high-powered offensive attack—an attack that is led by the big man in the middle.
Conventional wisdom says that a team with a $173 million payroll won't stay in last place forever. As we move into the dog days of summer, one can only assume that the cream will rise to the top.
If that's the case, the Sox will be relying heavily on Papi to stay healthy and keep up the good work as they make a push for a playoff spot.
2012 Stats: .314/.373/.564, 9 HR, 41 RBI
Oh, you mean the other outfielder on the Dodgers.
Believe it or not, the Los Angeles Dodgers are not a one-trick pony, and while Matt Kemp (more on him later) demands more time in the media, it's his partner in crime, Andre Ethier, who's tied for the NL RBI lead.
In the wake of the very petty—and very public—divorce of the McCourts, it would have been easy for the Dodgers to collapse. They didn't.
And with Matt Kemp going in and out of the lineup this season, they could have collapsed again. But they didn't.
A lot of the credit has to go to Ethier.
The sweet-swinging lefty seemed poised for a great major league career after three straight productive seasons between 2008-2010 (including a monster 2009 campaign in which he hit 31 homers and 106 RBI).
But hard times befell him in 2011, as his slugging dipped to a career-low .421––lower than the likes of Jon Jay and Dexter Fowler. Critics began to question whether or not his future was still bright.
Ethier has been the Dodgers' rock in 2012, posting career-highs all across the board. And even with Matt Kemp having missed 13 games, the Dodgers—left for dead by most coming into the season—have the best record in baseball (by a considerable margin), and have scored 49 more runs than their opponents.
2012 Stats: .369/.412/.556, 4 HR, 25 RBI, 9 SB
Before the season, if you had offered Bruce Bochy the same stats from Melky Cabrera's breakout 2011 campaign, he would have accepted in a heartbeat.
And why wouldn't he? Melky posted career-highs across the board: .305 average, .470 slugging percentage, 18 homers, 87 RBI, 20 steals.
The only worry was that 2011 was a fluke.
Now imagine Bruce Bochy's face if you told him Melky would be annihilating those numbers.
The Giants believed in Melky after last year's breakout, shipping once-promising pitcher Jonathan Sanchez to Kansas City for him this offseason—a move that involved two of the most frequently debated players in the league.
And while Sanchez has sputtered to a 6.75 ERA in six starts for the Royals (most recently this shellacking at the hands of the Red Sox), Melky has been well worth the risk that the Giants took on him.
His .369 batting average is good for third place in the majors, with the aforementioned Andrew McCutchen being the only player in the top-19 of that category who's swiped more than his nine bases.
Along with the return of Buster Posey, Cabrera has helped turn a once-anemic offense into a force to be reckoned with, giving the Bay Area a World Series contender once again.
2012 Stats: .366/.419/.592, 7 HR, 29 RBI
Where the heck did this come from?
Ruiz was always well known for his timely postseason hitting—like the NL version of Joe Crede—but he was never anything more than a serviceable bat during the regular season.
Until now, that is.
It's been a changing-of-the-guard season for the last-place Phillies. Their offense used to rely around a core of five players: Ryan Howard, Chase Utlley, Jimmy Rollins, Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez.
This season, Howard and Utley have yet to see the field, Rollins has continued his rapid descent into hopeless irrelevance and Werth and Ibanez are playing for the Nationals and Yankees, respectively.
This has allowed some recent acquisitions to become top-of-the-order weapons for the Phils. Juan Pierre has enjoyed his return to the NL, hitting .314, and Hunter Pence—acquired at last year's trade deadline—has slugged 11 homers.
But it's Ruiz's ascent from role player to superstar that has kept the Phillies afloat (yes, they're in last place, but they're also a game above .500) while their old guard struggles to get healthy.
He's fifth in the MLB with his .366 batting average and his impressive 1.010 OPS.
Ruiz has started to play every game like it's Game 7 of the World Series—which is important, because for the Phillies this season, every game might as well be.
2012 Stats: .312/.386/.607, 13 HR, 34 RBI, 9 SB
At one point this offseason, it looked as if the Brewers' once-potent offense would be a shell of its former self in 2012.
Prince Fielder bolted for a huge contract, while reigning NL MVP Ryan Braun was staring down the barrel of a 50-game PED suspension.
The latter was particularly troubling, because it meant that the past few seasons in Milwaukee—some of the best this franchise has ever experienced—would be permanently marred by a big, Bonds-sized asterisk. Brewers fans were nonplussed.
But Braun defied the odds and found a way to win his appeal, restoring not only the sanctity of his brilliant career but also giving the Brewers a shot in 2012.
And with the entire nation watching him to see if he could still perform without "elevated testosterone levels," Ryan Braun has had a classic Ryan Braun season. He's slugging at a higher rate than he has since he burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2007, and his OPS (.995) is one point higher than it was in his 2011 MVP campaign.
The Brewers have struggled as a team, but Braun's redemption and the emergence of Jonathan Lucroy make them as entertaining to watch as ever and provides them hope for the future.
2012 Stats: .308/.349/.595, 14 HR, 31 RBI
Like McCutchen (who was discussed earlier in the piece), Adam Jones has been a highly touted prospect his entire career.
And much like McCutchen, Jones has had an impressive MLB career to date, but he hadn't broken through the barrier that separates "good" from "great."
And even more so than with McCutchen, 2012 has seen Adam Jones steamroll through that barrier.
At the tender age of 26, Jones is posting career-highs across the board, all the while establishing himself as one of the best clutch hitters in baseball. His 15 homers have him tied with Curtis Granderson for fifth in the majors, and his 18-game hit streak is the longest active streak in the league.
More than anything, though, Jones has passed the eye-test this year. Something about him just looks bigger, and more fluid than it did in the past. When he walks up to the plate, his body language suggests that he knows he's gonna get a hit.
The Orioles have teased us before with their flash-in-the-pan starts, but their AL East-leading 29-19 record looks less fluky every day.
And now, with a legitimate superstar in the middle of their order, would it really be the weirdest thing in the world to see them make the playoffs?
On second thought, don't answer that.
2012 Stats: .382/.484/.592, 5 HR, 28 RBI
Forget the mascot: David Wright is the real "Mr. Met."
Much like the Orioles in the AL, the Mets have been the feel-good story of the season in the NL––the tragic, hopeless franchise that came into the season with no expectations, and currently finds itself staring down a playoff spot.
With a .382 average, Wright is threatening to blow even his own precocious career-bests out of the water—no small feat, as he batted over .300 five times in a row between 2005-2009.
His league-leading .484 on-base percentage gets more impressive the longer you think about it. He reaches base almost half the times he walks to the plate. Those are Barry Bonds-type numbers.
Time will tell how long the Mets can stay competitive, with the red-hot Marlins and the significantly more talented Braves and Phillies chasing them in the NL East standings. But one thing is for certain: So long as Wright is on the field, they'll stand a chance.
2012 Stats: .290/.388/.605, 15 HR, 41 RBI
What would you do, Mr. Cardinals fan, if I said you'd lose Albert Pujols this offseason, but you needn't worry because Carlos Beltran would step into his spot and out-slug Albert by over .200 points in 2012?
You'd probably give me a black-eye for my obnoxious sarcasm, wouldn't you? Well lo and behold, that's exactly how it's played out.
Beltran was given the unenviable task of filling the Ruthian-sized hole that Pujols' departure left in the middle of the Cardinals' lineup. And so far, it's going better than St. Louis could have ever imagined.
While Pujols has sputtered to the inexplicable worst start of his career (by a long shot), Carlos Beltran has thrived in his return to the great state of Missouri—looking more like the youthful prodigy he was with Kansas City than the geriatric DL-machine he occasionally was in New York.
His 15 homers and 41 RBI are both good for second in the MLB (Pujols ranks 51st and 46th, respectively), and the Cardinals—despite dealing with injury problems all season—have yet to miss a beat in their title defense.
Their plus-63 run-differential is tops in the NL and trails only the Texas Rangers' mammoth plus-97 mark.
With Lance Berkman now out for the season, however, Beltran's role becomes even more important. But given the way he's dealt with replacing Pujols' RBI production, it seems like a role he's capable of performing.
2012 Stats: .325/.466/.606, 8 HR, 29 RBI
Like Theodore Roosevelt, Votto prefers to speak softly and carry a big stick.
His stick just happens to say Louisville Slugger on it.
The league's most anonymous superstar, Votto keeps to himself and stays out of the public's eye as much as possible. But when he puts up eye-popping numbers like these, you can't ignore him forever. Can you?
The scariest part about the stat-line above is that this is just another ho-hum season for the power-hitting lefty from Toronto.
Think about it: How many times have you seen Votto lead off SportsCenter? How many highlight-reel plays have you seen him make? If it weren't for sortable stats or fantasy baseball, would you even know he exists?
The methodical slugger continues to plod along, however, leading his Reds to the top of the NL Central once again. At 1.072, his OPS is the fourth-highest in the league, and 48 points higher than it was in his dominant 2010 season; a season in which he took home the NL MVP Award.
Don't weep for Votto because he doesn't get the mainstream attention of some of the other guys on this list; he likes it that way. Just don't expect his mild-mannered temperament to hold him back from putting on a show once October comes around.
2012 Stats: .359/.446/.726, 12 HR, 28 RBI
It would be easy to penalize Kemp for his nagging injuries.
He's taken somewhere between 30-80 fewer at-bats than the other guys on this list.
But his 117 trips to the plate this season make up a more-than-adequate sample size for me to draw a simple conclusion:
Holy crap this guy is good.
The .726 slugging percentage is good for first in the NL and second in the majors. His 28 RBIs in 117 at-bats is impressive too; he's on pace to have 41 RBI by the time he reaches his 170th at-bat, which would tie him with Beltran and Ethier for second in the majors.
He's only been able to swipe two bases this season, which will prolong his quest to join the elusive 40/40 club for at least another season (he missed it by one homer in 2011), but he's still on pace to put up the best pure-hitting numbers of his career—by a lot.
And if you've been following Kemp's career, you know what an impressive feat that is.
2012 Stats: .399/.476/.681, 11 HR, 33 RBI
It would be one thing if the 36-year-old Paul Konerko defied Father Time by putting up the same reliable numbers year-in and year-out.
What makes Konerko such a refreshing anomaly is that—like a fine wine—his numbers are actually getting better as he gets older.
The White Sox's clean-up-hitting mainstay is having the best season of his understated Hall of Fame career.
Yesterday against Cleveland, he hit a bloop single with Adam Dunn on first base that turned into a fielder's choice when Dunn was thrown out at second from right field. If not for that, he'd be hitting over .400 right now.
Let me say that again: He'd be hitting over .400!
The humble Konerko hasn't bought into the hype of hitting .400, saying that "If Ichiro hasn't done it during his career...I'm saying it will never be done."
True, his average is sure to dip a little bit, but per Scott Merkin of Whitesox.com, Konerko could go hit-less in his next 30 at-bats and still be hitting .337.
He blasted a three-run homer on a two-strike count to break up a tie game against the division-leading Indians yesterday (completing a three-game sweep), and continues to be the second-most unstoppable force in the majors.
It's just a shame he had to pick this season for his career year, because his road to an MVP season is almost definitely blocked by....
2012 Stats: .368/.422/.753, 20 HR, 53 RBI
Josh Hamilton: The Man, The Myth, The Legend.
What power category doesn't this guy lead the league in?
Let me rephrase that: What power category is this guy not annihilating the competition in?
His 20 homers are five more than anybody else in the majors. His 53 RBI are 12 more than anybody else in the majors.
Outside of Kemp and Konerko, nobody in the league comes within 146 points of his .753 slugging percentage (Ryan Braun in fourth with a .604).
Hamilton doesn't hit the ball—he murders it. He's the closest thing reality has ever seen to Roy Hobbs.
His stats are other-worldly, but they don't even do him justice. The real pleasure lies in actually watching this guy play the game. He puts even the biggest baseball philistine on the edge of their seat every time he steps to the plate.
So why waste time crunching his numbers until the season is over so we can put them in their proper historical perspective?
Let's just sit back, relax and enjoy the visceral beauty that is Hamilton's swing.
I'm gonna want to remember exactly what it looks like when I tell my grandkids about it.