MLB Predictions: Buying or Selling 10 First-Half Performances
The first half of the 2012 MLB season inevitably features some unsustainable performances of both good and bad varieties. From the perplexedly poor (Tim Lincecum) to the unfathomably rich (Carlos Ruiz), the rigors of the baseball grind are hospitable to prolonged streaks. The trick is to pinpoint exactly when the jig will be up and players and teams will revert to customary performance levels.
There is no shortage of surprising plot lines this year, and certainly more than this list contains. Questions abound over which first half performances are predictive and which are illusory, but, as the second half dawns, who can possibly predict the answers?
Well, with a sizable helping hand from Fangraphs, I will attempt to do just that with a few of what I think are the most compelling second-half storylines.
Let's go under the hood to look back at what transpired in the first half and try to predict what lies ahead for these 10 players and teams.
Michael Young, Texas Rangers DH
Has Father Time finally caught up to Michael Young at age 35?
His statistical profile will lead you to answer that question with a resounding yes. Young, who has missed more than six games only once since becoming a regular 11 years ago, has struggled mightily in the first half despite hitting smack-dab in the middle of a modern Murderer's Row.
Young is posting noticeable career lows in wOBA, OBP and SLG even though his .270 AVG and 35 RBI cover up his shortcomings with the bat.
So what are the chances that Young turns it around in the Texas heat? His .297 BABIP suggests that he's been relatively unlucky on batted balls, which is supported by a line-drive rate in line with career averages and that passable .270 batting average.
With a little better luck and a few prime pitches to hit, Young could sustain a protracted hot streak in the middle of Texas' vaunted lineup.
On the other hand, Young is showing a lack of discipline this year, offering at a career high 34.2 percent of pitches outside the zone and 52.5 percentage of all pitches. Previously, he'd never topped 30.6 or 50.3 percent, respectively, in those categories.
An increase in swings, coupled with the customary decline in bat speed for aging players, seems a logical explanation for an older player who has inexplicably fallen off a cliff in hitting production.
I am buying the sluggish start for Young as a sign of his decline. For so long, the career .302 hitter has defied the aging process and continued mashing, but when a professional hitter like Young starts to get jumpy with his swing, it means something deeper than a slump is present.
Washington Nationals, 49-34, First Place in NL East
For the cause of Washington's unforeseen rise to the top of the National League, look no further than the starting rotation. Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson, Jordan Zimmermann and Co. spun brilliantly this first half, posting MLB's best staff ERA, FIP, and HR/9 rate.
Gonzalez, in particular, has been devastating in his inaugural National League season to the tune of a 12-3 record, 2.92 ERA, 2.52 FIP and 10.45 K/9 innings. His 3.1 Wins Above Replacement ranks him as the sixth-most valuable pitcher in baseball thus far.
The Nationals' brain trust has done a masterful job in the draft after a prolonged stretch as one of baseball's worst teams. Out of the draft came rising stars Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman, Jordan Zimmermann, Drew Storen, Danny Espinosa, Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper in a six-year span; the fruit of an approach predicated on patience and delayed gratification.
These homegrown players are now the core of a young and exciting team that could rule the NL East for years to come.
The over-signing of Jayson Werth before the 2011 season and the indifference to re-signing Adam Dunn were seen as curious moves at the time, but time has vindicated the Washington front office as the team has arrived much earlier than anyone expected it to.
The second half of the season couldn't be brighter for the Nats, with Ryan Zimmerman feeling healthy and Werth due back within a month from a broken wrist suffered early in the season.
The offense, ranked average or below by most measures, could see a noticeable take-off as Bryce Harper collects more at-bats and Werth returns to the heart of the order. These reasons, and the strong plan on the part of Washington management, have me buying the Nationals as surprise NL East Champions come October.
The only potential pitfall is a letdown from the pitching staff, with the projected slowdown of Strasburg's inning pace and Edwin Jackson's recent struggles.
Boston Red Sox, 43-43, Tied for Fourth in AL East
For as bad as they've looked this year, the Boston Red Sox are amazingly 2.5 games out of the second Wild Card as the second half commences.
"Obstacles" would be an apt one-word summary to capture the first half of 2012 in Fenway. Despite a terrible performance by a patchwork starting rotation, the Red Sox have weathered the storm in the arduous AL East. The offense, even without Jacoby Ellsbury, the most valuable position player in 2011, is second in baseball in runs and fourth in slugging.
David Ortiz, Will Middlebrooks and Jarrod Saltalamacchia are the unsung heroes of an order that has hinged on production from platoon players like Daniel Nava and Cody Ross, while Ellsbury has been absent with a shoulder injury.
Ellsbury will be activated for Friday's second half opener in Tampa, which Bobby Valentine hopes will provide the spark to propel his team to the postseason, where teams with exorbitant payrolls expect to land.
More good news waits on the horizon as closer Andrew Bailey, high-priced outfielder Carl Crawford, second baseman Dustin Pedroia and starting pitcher Clay Buchholz are all hopeful to return to the lineup in July. With those additions, the Red Sox will overwhelmingly have the best offense in the AL and will be much improved on the mound as compared to the current stable of arms.
The fact that Boston has stayed in the playoff picture with a roster in tatters has me selling their .500 first half and banking on them overtaking the fading Orioles and Blue Jays for the second Wild Card in the AL.
James Shields, Tampa Bay Rays SP
The 31-year-old James Shields enjoyed a spectacular bounce-back 2011 season that garnered Cy Young attention among towers like Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia, Josh Beckett and Jered Weaver.
Heading into his contract year, Shields was primed to follow up a career season with an encore that matched or exceeded 2011.
Instead, opposing hitters have used him as batting practice in preparation for more effective Rays' starters David Price and Jeremy Hellickson. Shields has been the tragic recipient of the fifth-highest BABIP among qualified starters at .335.
That unsustainable number doesn't mean that Shields has been terribly unlucky, though. His fly ball and home run rates are sky high, with a 14.0 HR/FB rate signifying that better than one of every 10 fly balls allowed by Shields has cleared the fences. Only two qualified starters with as high a ground ball percentage as Shields' 53.8 have a worse HR/FB percentage.
Overall, the profile suggests a pitcher who has simply regressed to career norms around an ERA of 4.00, an HR/9 rate of 1.16 and BABIP of .300. However, I am selling Shields' rotten first half because of a career high K/9 rate, peculiar 53.8 ground ball rate and artificially low strand rate.
None of this is to mention that the Rays, just a half-game behind in the Wild Card race, desperately need their ace to return to his 2011 form if they're going to rise above Boston and Baltimore to make the playoffs.
Detroit Tigers, 44-42, Third Place in AL Central
Talk about underachieving. Jim Leyland's Detroit Tigers have sorely underplayed their projections in the wake of the Prince Fielder signing.
After GM Dave Dombrowski roped Fielder, everyone clambered to anoint Detroit the AL favorite to make the World Series. That wave of momentum happened so fast that the smart people quickly jumped to the other side and sold Detroit shares.
The Tiger offense, with career years in the making from Austin Jackson and Miguel Cabrera, is as dynamic as advertised. They ranked sixth in the majors in team wOBA, fourth in OBP, eighth in strikeout percentage, and third in batting average. Prince Fielder is settling into the quietest .300/30/100 season of his career, while Cabrera is submitting top-10 numbers in most offensive categories.
Jackson has been a revelation this year when healthy. His 4.0 WAR is ninth in all of baseball despite having roughly 60 less at-bats than the rest of the top 10 in that category. He's equally impactful on defense as well with an Ultimate Zone Rating that is also ninth-best in baseball.
This team has me selling the slow start and buying an AL Central crown because of the strong lineup and a rotation that should perform once healthy. The 12.6 WAR for the staff is tied for second-best in MLB, and that's mostly without the contributions of Doug Fister.
The White Sox have played inspired baseball on the shoulders of Chris Sale and Adam Dunn, but I think the cream will rise to the top in the AL Central, as it does most frequently over a long baseball schedule.
R.A. Dickey, New York Mets SP
I have watched the incomparable R.A. Dickey like a hawk this year after signing him up for my fantasy team, and when prompted for a prognosis on his supposedly unsustainable pace, I've come to a simple conclusion: As long as his catchers struggle to locate and catch his knuckleball, the 37-year-old retread will continue to carve up the National League.
Logically, it follows that if the catchers can't spot that thing, hitters can't hit it with any consistency either.
I will know it's time to cut bait with Dickey (12-1, 2.40 ERA, 9.23 K/9 and 3.2 WAR) when his catcher ceases to struggle with the knuckler, which will soon be followed by hitters teeing off.
Still, Dickey is in the top five of all NL pitchers in quality starts since 2011, showing that he hasn't just been a flash in the pan for 2012, but that he has quietly been among the league's most consistently effective starters for almost two years now.
Based on this, and the fact that his high-velocity knuckleball is unique, I am buying Dickey's sensational run and taking confidence in a strong second half as the Mets strive to clinch a playoff berth for the first time in six seasons.
Baltimore Orioles, 45-40, Second Place in AL East
No one expected the Baltimore Orioles to escape the AL East basement, let alone be in playoff position at the All-Star Break.
On the strength of Jason Hammel's 2.6 WAR, good for 13th in baseball, the Orioles jumped out to an April lead in the division while the giants of the division took their time to awaken. The offense started out as hot as resurgent starter Jason Hammel did (8-5, 3.47 ERA, 8.55 K/9), albeit mostly with smoke and mirrors.
Baltimore still clings to the second Wild Card spot in spite of a 16-18 record since the end of May and a team offensive WAR that ranks dead last in baseball.
The pitching, outside of Hammel and closer Jim Johnson, has been an eyesore. Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz and Tommy Hunter were all members of the Opening Day rotation, but have since pitched their way out of it with ERAs of 6.13, 5.42 and 6.11, respectively. Wei-Yin Chen has been the clear No. 2 starter, and it's taken everything he has to keep a sub-4.00 ERA.
With Boston set to get three All-Stars back from the DL within a few weeks, Tampa Bay ready for a playoff push and Detroit a lock to improve, I don't see how the Orioles hold on to a playoff spot with their fortunes on the decline.
I am selling the inspired first half from the Orioles because the bottom will inevitably fall out.
Melky Cabrera, San Francisco Giants LF
Instead, they got a masher who leads the team in batting average, hits, extra-base hits, runs, RBI and more. GM Brian Sabean stole Cabrera in what was initially considered one of the winter's most innocuous moves.
My take on Cabrera's first half and productive All-Star Game is that this is all going to end very soon. His peripheral heights are unsustainable, including a .388 BABIP, which is 80 points above his already-inflated .308 career mark.
Another foreboding sign is Cabrera's walk rate, which is just 6.3 percent. Ever the free-swinger, the Melk-Man's career walk rate is just above seven percent, but he's also never hit above last year's .305 batting average. This signifies to me that the .353 batting average is due for at least a 30-point dip in the second half.
Still, the sensational first half numbers are not completely out of the question for a hitter with such lofty contact rates on pitches both inside and outside the strike zone. The fact that Cabrera swings a lot and doesn't strike out very often means that a lot of his outcomes will be met from balls in play.
It isn't hard to believe that someone who puts the ball in play so much would experience success on a high percentage of those plays like Cabrera has.
I'm selling the scalding start from Cabrera with the caveat that he still finishes well above .300 and knocks in around 90 runs while scoring nearly 100. The combination of high contact rate and considerable luck on batted balls is unsustainable for most players in most seasons.
For a guy who doesn't walk very much, there is a much smaller margin for error.
Pittsburgh Pirates, 48-37, First Place in NL Central
On July 18, 2011, the Pirates were sitting pretty at 50-44. One of baseball's endearing surprises, Pittsburgh took the driver's seat in the NL Central on the strength of a solid pitching staff and the NL's second-best road record.
One week later, the Pirates were still clinging to first place in a three-headed sprint atop the division, but the wheels were about to come exploding off the wagon.
Less than two weeks later, the Pirates had lost 12 of 13 games, including 10 in a row, and sat 10, yes 10, games out of first.
That 2011 iteration of the Pirates simply was not equipped or deep enough to hold off two more experienced teams and win a heated division race. The pitching staff fell apart, the lineup was one of the NL's most anemic, and the stink of 18 consecutive losing seasons combined to wilt the upstart Pirates.
That losing seasons streak is now at 19, and the Pirates are back atop the NL Central as the second half dawns. Still one of the worst offenses in baseball, the team has succeeded because of a fantastic starting rotation and stout bullpen.
The starting rotation, led by sensational performances from James McDonald and A.J. Burnett, ranks 10th in ERA and eighth in HR/FB rate.
The bullpen, which is the ninth-most used in terms of innings pitched, has stranded the highest rate of baserunners in the majors at 81.9 percent. Some might attribute that to good luck, but closer Joel Hanrahan and setup men Jason Grilli and Juan Cruz have shown no underlying indicators of inflated stats to contradict their results.
The bullpen's ability to hold leads is magnified by an offense that just can't score runs, ranking in the bottom third of the league in most offensive categories. Grilli is second in baseball with 21 holds as part of a unit that leads the league with 57 holds as a team, while Hanrahan has been the primary performer in a closer role that has blown only five saves against 29 saves.
So can the Pirates win their first division title in over 20 years behind a stellar bullpen and a potential MVP batsman? Things certainly couldn't have gone any better for them in the first half, right?
In terms of pitching, yes, the results were about as positive as Clint Hurdle could have asked for. Even still, a resurgent Burnett isn't exactly far-fetched, especially in a pitcher-friendly PNC Park and division. Jeff Karstens, who posted a 3.38 ERA in 26 starts in 2011, has only made six starts and has the look of a No. 3 starter for the second half.
In terms of hitting, no, things did not go very well aside from Andrew McCutchen's brilliance. Neil Walker has a 12-game hitting streak and a recent 5 for 5 game to his credit, which has added nearly 30 points to his now .291 average. The Pirates kept churning out wins despite his slow start and the inconsistency of talented prospect Pedro Alvarez.
If just a few Bucs get it going at the plate and McCutchen continues his evisceration tour, I very much see this team sticking in the NL Central race.
I am buying the Pirates as a first place team, even with the dreadful memory of 2011 still fresh in my mind.
Dan Haren, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim SP
Before we learned that three-time All-Star Dan Haren had battled a lower back injury since spring training, I just thought the 31-year-old was washed up. He slogged through 17 first-half starts, accumulating a ghastly 4.86 ERA, 1.39 HR/9 and 2.08 BB/9. As runners got on and he gave up home runs at career-high paces, leading to the worst first half of his terrific career.
Now Haren is on the disabled list for the first time in 10 years as a major leaguer in hopes that some rest will alleviate the problem with his back. Whether his struggles on the hill will be cured by the mending of his back may or may not follow, but there are plenty of reasons to suggest that could be the case.
A perennial ground ball artist, Haren has experienced a troubling spike in fly balls in 2012 with his GB/FB ratio falling below 1.0 for only the second time. He's also sporting a career-worst GB percentage that is nearly four points below his career norm.
His elevated line drive rate of 21.5 indicates that Haren is just getting squared up a little better, but his crazy high 1.39 HR/9 and .329 BABIP suggest that some of those hard-hit balls are just finding grass or seats more often than normal, and at really inopportune times for the pitcher.
Whether that's caused by decreased command or an injury is anybody's guess, but when a healthy Haren returns in a week or two, we'll see quickly whether he was really hampered or is just having a down year.
I am buying that the first half struggles are real, but I think that he will revert to his All-Star form if he can fully recover from his nagging back injury. The steady K/9, BB/9, abnormally bad ground ball and homer rates and elevated first-pitch strike percentage that ranks 15th among starters combine to tell me that the underlying stats are consistent with some of Haren's better years.
If Haren returns without back pain, the Angels are going to be immensely difficult to both score on and hold down, which would coincide with a thrilling second half race in the AL West.