7 Biggest Takeaways from the First Half of 2013 MLB Action

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystJune 28, 2013

7 Biggest Takeaways from the First Half of 2013 MLB Action

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    By the end of this weekend, most MLB teams will have officially hit the midpoint of their 2013 season, including Andrew McCutchen and the surprisingly first-place Pittsburgh Pirates.

    With that in mind, let's take a look at some of the biggest takeaways from the first half of the season

    For those of you who have been paying attention, this should be a fun recap of an incredible three months of baseball.

    For those of you who are NBA and NHL fans and are only using the next two months of the MLB season to give you something to do until the NFL season begins, welcome to the party. This will, hopefully, give you enough information to be conversationally competent at your local sports bar.

    *All statistics are courtesy of ESPN.com and FanGraphs.com and are accurate through the start of play on Thursday, June 27

The Long Ball Is Back

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    Thanks in large part to Chris Davis, home runs are back in abundance in 2013, as the top sluggers are hitting home runs more frequently than they did in 2012.

    There were 26 players in 2012 who hit at least 30 home runs, averaging a round-tripper once in every 18.7 plate appearances. This season, there are 23 sluggers on pace for 30 home runs who are averaging circling the bases once every 17.3 plate appearances.

    A difference of 1.4 plate appearances may not seem like much, but over the course of 675 plate appearances in a season, it's the difference between 36 home runs and 39 home runs.

    The rate of home runs being hit by the top sluggers is thus far actually closer to that of 2001 than it is to last year's rate.

    In the 2001 MLB season, Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs and we finally opened our eyes to the rampant steroid problem in baseball, as the top 31 sluggers averaged a home run in every 16.0 trips to the plate.

    And if we're being perfectly honest here, we're a bit disappointed by the home run totals of some of the players currently on pace for 30 home runs. Many fans expect them to do even better in the second half of the season. 

    Certainly Davis and Domonic Brown have been pleasant surprises, but Jose Bautista "only" has 16 home runs when we all know he has the ability to hit at least 50 in a season. Justin Upton was on pace for 84 home runs near the end of April, but he's hit a grand total of three since April 27.

    For the first time in his entire career Albert Pujols isn't even on pace for 30 home runs, but you never know when he or Josh Hamilton will go on a tear and rejoin the list of elite power hitters.

    As frequently as home runs have been hit over the first three months of the season, the next three months could very well produce even better numbers.

All Other Batting Stats Remain on the Decline

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    In exchange for that increase in home runs, just about every other batting statistic is being sacrificed around the majors.

    The league-wide batting average is down for a seventh consecutive season. In 2006, teams finished with an aggregate batting average of .269, but entering play on Thursday, MLB's collective batting average is .253. Evidence from Jonah Keri of Grantland.com seems to indicate that number is likely to decrease even further over the course of the season as second-half fatigue sets in.

    Even if teams' batting averages stay exactly where they are, there will be more than 2,700 fewer hits this season than there were in 2006 (if the total at-bats in each season are the same).

    That's a little more than one fewer hit per game and more hits total than Ichiro Suzuki has had in his 13-year MLB career.

    It certainly doesn't help matters that strikeouts are also on the rise for an eighth straight year. We went from one strikeout for every six plate appearances to one strikeout for every five plate appearances during that span of time.

    There were 30,644 strikeouts in 2005, but that's child's play compared to the 36,963 that we're on pace to see this season—an increase of nearly 21 percent. Whether it's due to less-disciplined batters or more-impressive pitchers is up for debate, but it's getting out of hand.

    As I mentioned a month ago, triples are at an all-time low as well. We were treated to 927 three-baggers last season, but we're only on pace to see 765 of them in 2013.

    Speaking of decreased speed, stolen bases have also been somewhat non-existent. After seven straight seasons of at least 2,760 stolen bases and an impressive 3,229 swiped bags in 2012, we're only on pace for 2,639 of them this year.

    For better or worse, baseball is gravitating toward the likes of Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds and away from Jose Reyes and Michael Bourn.

Mike Trout and Bryce Harper Have Company

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    Remember when Ken Griffey Jr. burst onto the scene in 1989 and immediately became every kid's favorite ballplayer for the next decade?

    Though I was already into my mid-20s when it happened, I felt like my childhood officially ended when Griffey retired in 2010—and I know I'm not alone in that feeling.

    It looked like we were headed in that same direction last season with the major league arrivals of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Called up to the big leagues on the same day in April 2012, we seemed destined to field a generation of fans who either loved Harper or Trout, depending upon which side of the Mississippi River they grew up.

    But as quickly as we fell in love with them, they've become old news.

    Neither Harper nor Trout is even the most talked-about name within a 50-mile radius right now. Manny Machado and Yasiel Puig have become the obsessions on the East Coast and West Coast, respectively.

    Harper has to even compete for attention on his own team with Anthony Rendon, who's batting .367 for the month of June.

    After having finally been called up to the majors after several months of everyone impatiently waiting his arrival, the question is whether Wil Myers has also become an overnight infatuation. From the sounds of things, Oscar Taveras and Xander Bogaerts should also be instant sensations when they finally get the call from the minors.

    There are at least a dozen other players under the age of 24—most notably Giancarlo Stanton, Freddie Freeman, Jason Heyward, Starlin Castro, Nick Franklin and Jurickson Profar—who are already profiling like All-Stars in the big leagues.

    Harper and Trout are still leading the pack, but the state of the youth in baseball is strong.

Young Guns Pitching Like 10-Year Vets

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    Three of the six best pitching performances of the season occurred within the span of one week in early May.

    On May 7, Matt Harvey struck out 12 White Sox batters while holding Chicago to just one infield single over nine shutout innings. 

    Three days later, Shelby Miller gave up a leadoff single then proceeded to retire 27 consecutive Rockies—including 13 by strikeout—in his shutout.

    Just 48 hours after that, Chris Sale tossed a gem against the Angels. Considering the opponent, that one-hit shutout is arguably the second-best start any pitcher has had all season, aside from Miller's dominating performance against Colorado.

    While each had an incredible outing in early May, something else those three pitchers have in common is that they're all under the age of 25.

    If 1968 and 2010 were both "The Year of the Pitcher," then 2013 has been "The Year of the Young Pitcher." The baseball world has been taken by storm by names that the common fan had never even heard of as recently as one year ago.

    Harvey and Patrick Corbin are among the leading candidates for the NL Cy Young Award. Miller, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Jose Fernandez and Julio Teheran are all in a tight race for the NL Rookie of the Year and making a case to become the aces of their respective staffs next season.

    Midseason call-ups like Zack Wheeler, Jose Alvarez, Gerrit Cole, Alex Colome, Michael Wacha and Tony Cingrani made their share of noise already this season. 

    And let's not forget the guys like Sale, Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner, Jarrod Parker and Matt Moore, who have already established themselves as staples in starting rotations while still under the age of 25.

Preseason Predictions Are Poppycock

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    It's been one of those "forget everything you heard in March" kind of years.

    The expert predictions over at CBSSports.com are a pretty good microcosm of how everyone felt heading into this season and a great indication of the fact that we were all just wildly guessing in accordance with what everyone else was saying.

    All six of the website's experts had the Nationals representing the National League in the World Series. Also unanimous assumptions among the sextet were that both the Dodgers and the Blue Jays would make the playoffs while the Pirates would finish no better than third in the NL Central.

    Five of the six experts had the Angels in the playoffs and three of the six had the Cardinals missing the postseason.

    There's still (false) hope for both teams in Los Angeles and Toronto because they've been on a tear over the past two weeks, but to this point in the season, those predictions look pretty awful.

    Grantland.com's Jonah Keri had what appeared to be the best preseason predictions out there, but even he asserted, "If the Nats have any weaknesses, they're...well hidden."

    In a trade deadline preview earlier this week, Keri rightfully updated his opinion, saying, "The offense is riddled with question marks right now, and it's tough to know how much things will improve with the bats they have."

    It's crazy how much things have changed in the past 12 weeks, and individual expectations have been even less fulfilling.

    Of the top 10 players taken in fantasy drafts this spring, only Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera are currently ranked in the top 25 on ESPN.com's player rater. Kudos to you if you've managed to climb to first place in your league without owning Trout or Cabrera.

Not a Fun Summer to Live in Chicago

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    It'll be an interesting social experiment in Chicago to see how long a city is able to maintain its collective elation from winning a major championship.

    After all, the memory of the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup title is the only positive sports-related thing for the Windy City to talk about for the next few months.

    Barring some miraculous turn of events, both the Cubs and the White Sox will finish the 2013 season with a sub-.500 record for just the second time this century. At least the White Sox flirted with .500 in the other losing season in Chicago (2011) before ultimately closing the books on a 79-83 record.

    The only thing either team appears to be flirting with this season is actually being worse than the Houston Astros and/or Miami Marlins. Should their current winning percentages hold to form, both Chicago teams would lose at least 90 games.

    The White Sox are on pace for a 70-92 record, which would be their worst season since finishing 1989 with a 69-92 record. Should one additional game work against them, 69-93 would be their lowest winning percentage since a brutal 64-97 mark in 1976.

    Given the fact that this happened on Tuesday night, I see no reason to assume they won't let a few "bonus" games slip away.

    Meanwhile, the Cubs are on pace for their worst season since...well, since last season. As bad as they've been, they're at least on pace to win six more games than they did in last year's 61-101 disaster.

    But if the Cubs sell off as many pieces of this year's team as they should, who knows how anemic their product will be over the final two months of the season?

    But hey, how about those Blackhawks, right?

    Right?

    Bueller?

Good Help Is Hard to Find

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    It only seems right to close out this article with a reminder of how inconsistent closers have been.

    No doubt a product of the aforementioned decreases in batting statistics, the collective ERA of relief pitchers has decreased for an eighth consecutive season. However, we're on pace for more blown saves (602 of them, to be exact) than we've seen since 2008.

    Of course, a large number of those blown saves can be attributed to middle relievers, so we'll need to shift our focus to include only those who have been given ample opportunity at the ninth-inning gig.

    Of the 37 relievers with at least four saves this season, only five have avoided blowing a save—and they certainly aren't the names you would have guessed in the preseason.

    Edward Mujica is 21-for-21, but he only got the job after Mitchell Boggs failed so miserably at it. Grant Balfour is 18-for-18, but 2012 seemed to indicate that Ryan Cook would be the better man for the job. Kevin Gregg is 12-for-12, but it took a predictable Carlos Marmol meltdown and a couple of Kyuji Fujikawa injuries for him to even appear in the ninth inning.

    Joaquin Benoit has converted all four of his save chances, but the Tigers had so little faith in him that they went out and re-signed Jose Valverde in April only to cut him in June. Last but certainly most surprising, Francisco Rodriguez is 6-for-6 with a 0.59 ERA. This coming on the heels of the worst season of his career.

    At the other end of the spectrum, Jim Johnson, Fernando Rodney and Tom Wilhelmsen were pretty masterful in 2012, combining to blow just 10 of their 138 save opportunities.

    That success certainly hasn't carried over to 2013. They've each blown five saves already this season. Wilhelmsen has already been removed from the closer role (though, the Mariners haven't exactly been flush with save opportunities) and Rodney is forever teetering on the precipice of losing the job in Tampa Bay as well.

    As has been the case for the past 17 years, Mariano Rivera is the only name you can actually count on to be a reliable closer from one season to the next.