Looking Inside the Numbers of MLB's First Half of 2014

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterJune 25, 2014

Looking Inside the Numbers of MLB's First Half of 2014

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    Spoiler: Masahiro Tanaka will be talked about.
    Spoiler: Masahiro Tanaka will be talked about.Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    So, maybe not everybody has realized this yet, but the 2014 Major League Baseball season is already pretty much at the halfway point.

    Yup. We've come that far. But rather than lament how we only have so much baseball left before a long, dark, cold winter, let's be more productive by taking stock of what's happened so far in 2014.

    This being baseball, the best lessons and coolest tidbits are found in numbers. So that's where our focus is going to be, specifically on a dozen storylines involving super-interesting league and player trends.

    Ready your calculators, spreadsheets and thinking caps, and follow me this way...

    Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked and are current through play on Monday, June 23.

No, Hitting Isn't Getting Any Easier

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    It's a good thing the .186-hitting Chris Carter has power to offer.
    It's a good thing the .186-hitting Chris Carter has power to offer.USA TODAY Sports

    Since baseball already has a "Dead Ball Era," maybe we can call what the league has been going through recently the "Dead Bat Era."

    Hitting, as I'm sure you've noticed, has become rather difficult in recent years. It's especially difficult this year, though, as the league as a whole is batting just .251 with a .316 on-base percentage

    This is a step down from the .253 average and .318 OBP the league posted in 2013. And like last year's numbers, you have to go back to 1972 (.244 average, .311 OBP) to find the last time hitters were so inept at getting hits and getting on base.

    The league isn't without good hitters, but it's hard not to notice the bad hitters. There are currently 17 qualified hitters who are batting .220 or worse. If that holds, it will be the largest collection of sub-.220 hitters since 1915. According to math, that was nearly 100 years ago.

    Oh, and to make matters worse...

Yes, Hitters Are Still Striking Out a Ton

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    Perennial high-strikeout guy Ryan Howard is currently leading the way.
    Perennial high-strikeout guy Ryan Howard is currently leading the way.Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    A big reason hitting has been suffering so much is because strikeouts have gone way up. In fact, baseball has been setting new strikeout records every year since 2008.

    And that's not going to change in 2014. Hitters are striking out in 20.3 percent of their plate appearances, a rate 0.4 points higher than last year's record high of 19.9 percent.

    There are 21 players who have already struck out as many as 75 times, and 13 who have already struck out at least 80 times. There's a decent chance 2014 will be able to top last year's total of 12 guys who had at least 100 strikeouts by the All-Star break.

    For perspective, there were no more than four such players at the break between 2010 and 2012. And up until 1963, baseball had never had more than a dozen players strike out 100 times in a season.

    But while hitters are facing greater peril than ever before, at least the bright side is that...

Starting Pitching Is Still Getting Better

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    What starting pitchers are doing this year is more or less the exact opposite of what hitters are doing.

    The league's starters are currently rocking a 3.89 ERA, marking the first time since 1992 that starters have had a collective ERA under 3.90. There are also 27 qualified pitchers with ERAs under 3.00, meaning baseball could have at least 25 sub-3.00 ERA pitchers for the first time since 1981.

    Not surprisingly, there are also a lot of strikeout-dealing starters in 2014. A total of 16 qualified starters are striking out at least a batter an inning. If that holds, it'll be an all-time record.

    And that's without counting Clayton Kershaw.

    The Los Angeles Dodgers' ace lefty doesn't have enough innings to be "qualified," but he has a 2.52 ERA and a 12.0 K/9 and, of course, authored an absolutely dominant no-hitter last week. Even before that, FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan had it right when he noted the following on Fox Sports in early June:

    His strikeouts are up, his grounders are up, his swings at pitches out of the zone are up, and his walks are down. His ERA might be up, but that might be the least meaningful number of all. Somehow, Clayton Kershaw might've found a way to improve.

    For all the bad hitting and dominant pitching, however, there are some cool offensive storylines to be found. Such as...

Victor Martinez's Roughly Equal Piles of Homers and Strikeouts

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    V-Mart is doing something that has no place in today's game, and it's great.
    V-Mart is doing something that has no place in today's game, and it's great.USA TODAY Sports

    Victor Martinez is having a season out of time, folks.

    Through 72 games, the veteran Detroit Tigers DH has hit 19 home runs. That not only puts him on a pace to destroy his career high of 25 but is also almost equivalent to how many strikeouts he has: 22.

    Nobody else in MLB is even close to that kind of balance. Of the 16 players who have hit at least 15 homers, the only other player with fewer than 40 strikeouts is Albert Pujols, and he still has more than twice as many punchouts (36) than he does homers (16).

    By the end of the year, ESPN.com projects that Martinez will hit 42 home runs and strike out just 49 times. That will be a very tough feat to pull off, but Martinez will be in select company if he does. A season with more than 40 homers and fewer than 50 strikeouts has only happened 18 times.

    And no, it doesn't make any sense whatsoever that Martinez has a shot at doing it in the strikeout-iest environment in MLB history.

    Aside from Martinez, another offensive player doing wonders is none other than...

Mike Trout Status: Still Mike Trout

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    The Trout-iest Trout who ever Trouted.
    The Trout-iest Trout who ever Trouted.Associated Press/Associated Press

    Mike Trout is still Mike Trout. You know, still doing Mike Trout things.

    Through 70 games, Trout is batting .306 with a .988 OPS. And by FanGraphs' measure, he's once again leading the American League in WAR at 4.7. He's on pace to finish with a third straight 10-WAR season.

    Getting a third 10-WAR season would put the Los Angeles Angels superstar in some pretty special company. Throughout MLB history, only Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Mickey Mantle, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, Ty Cobb and Willie Mays have ever compiled as many as three 10-WAR seasons.

    And no, none of them pulled it off before turning 23.

    If WAR's not your thing, know that ESPN.com has Trout on pace for over 40 doubles, 10 triples, 35 homers and 20 stolen bases. The only players ever to do that are Nomar Garciaparra in 1997 and Chuck Klein in 1932, both of whom had the luxury of playing in extremely hitter-friendly environments.

    There's not a player in MLB who can match Trout's talent. Two guys who could beat him in a footrace, however, are...

Dee Gordon, Billy Hamilton and Stolen Base Seasons for the Ages

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    The two fastest men in baseball are Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton, and they're both doing cool things with their speed.

    Gordon, the speedy second baseman of the Los Angeles Dodgers, has stolen 39 bases in 72 games. ESPN.com says that puts him on a pace to steal 81 bases. Here's to hoping he gets there, because we haven't seen an 80-steal season since Vince Coleman and Rickey Henderson both topped 80 steals in 1988.

    What Hamilton is up to, meanwhile, is a bit weirder.

    Through 71 games, the Cincinnati Reds center fielder has stolen 31 bases. He's on pace to steal 66 bases. Not quite Gordon's pace, but here's the cool part: Hamilton only has a .311 OBP to Gordon's .333 OBP.

    It's not often that a player steals over 65 bases while also posting an OBP under .315. In fact, it's only happened eight times. If Hamilton also adds the 10 homers he has a realistic shot at, he'll have posted a season that's only been recorded twice before.

    Speed is fun, but power is at least equally fun. On that note, we must talk about...

Jose Abreu's Remarkable Power Pace

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    Chicago White Sox rookie slugger Jose Abreu has hit 22 home runs in 2014. That's good for third in baseball behind Edwin Encarnacion and Nelson Cruz.

    And that's despite the fact Abreu missed a couple weeks with an ankle injury. He's played in fewer games and logged significantly fewer at-bats than Encarnacion and Cruz, yet he's right there with them.

    This, naturally, puts Abreu on an interesting pace. ESPN.com has him projected to hit 46 home runs in just 515 at-bats, which is the kind of thing that doesn't happen often. A season of over 45 homers in 515 or fewer at-bats has only happened 18 times.

    And nope, none of those players did so in their rookie seasons. And even if you don't regard Abreu as a rookie, it's still impressive to think that only one player in MLB history has ever hit 45 homers in 515 or fewer at-bats within his first six seasons. 

    He's something else, this Jose Abreu. But if we're going to talk dingers, we also have to talk about...

The Curious Case of Marco Estrada's Gopheritis

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    Pictured here is what the kids are calling "Estrada-ing."
    Pictured here is what the kids are calling "Estrada-ing."USA TODAY Sports

    Jose Abreu may be good at hitting home runs, but Marco Estrada is even better at giving 'em up.

    Through 15 starts, the Milwaukee Brewers right-hander has allowed 24 homers. That's the most in the majors by seven. And at 2.41 dingers per nine innings, Estrada is giving up homers at a higher rate than any other qualified starter in history.

    And, oh, the places Estrada could go from here. ESPN.com has him on a pace to allow 50 home runs in 185.2 innings. The only other pitcher to allow 50 homers in a season is Bert Blyleven in 1987, and he did it in...drumroll...271.2 freakin' innings.

    Of course, Estrada may not last long enough in Milwaukee's rotation to get there. However, he's only 16 homers away from joining the 40 Homers In Less Than 200 Innings Club. Presently, it's a club with only four members.

    If we were to swing this thing back around to dominant pitchers, however, we'll find...

The K/BB Mastery of Sean Doolittle and (to a Lesser Extent) David Price

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    Or "Brian" Doolittle, as he's known in some circles.
    Or "Brian" Doolittle, as he's known in some circles.Associated Press

    Strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) is a good stat. All pitchers should strive to have a good one.

    But then there's what Tampa Bay Rays lefty ace David Price and Oakland A's lefty reliever Sean Doolittle are doing, which is something else entirely.

    In his first 16 starts, Price has struck out 133 and walked 13. That comes out to a 10.23 K/BB ratio, which not only leads all starting pitchers but gives him a legit shot at finishing with the highest non-strike-year K/BB ever. Only Cliff Lee's 10.28 mark from 2010 is standing in his way.

    As for Doolittle, all he's done in 34 appearances is strike out 50 batters while walking only one. That's a K/BB of 50.00, a mark heretofore thought to exist only in legend.

    Even for relievers, the record K/BB for a season (minimum 50 appearances) is only 18.33. Doolittle could shave his K/BB rate in half by walking a guy and still be in line to shatter that mark.

    Elsewhere in the K/BB conversation is a guy who's in many more conversations than just that one...

Masahiro Tanaka's Even-Better-Than-Advertisedness

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    The New York Yankees paid $175 million to get Masahiro Tanaka. Clearly, it wasn't enough.

    It's hard to overstate how good the Japanese right-hander has been. He owns a 2.11 ERA and a 7.00 K/BB in 15 starts, and he already has five 10-strikeout games. Appropriately, the only player to ever have more 10-K games within his first 15 starts was fellow countryman Hideo Nomo in 1995.

    As for Tanaka's pace, ESPN.com has him on track for 261 strikeouts. That would place second among all-time rookie seasons behind only Dwight Gooden's 276 strikeouts in 1984. Tanaka's 7.00 K/BB, meanwhile, is on track to be a new rookie record by a landslide.

    Alright, maybe you don't think Tanaka is a rookie. But in that case, he's still having an age-25 season for the books, ranking seventh in K/9, eighth in BB/9, second in K/BB, and sixth in something called ERA+, which allows for ERAs from different eras to be put on a level playing field.

    Oh, and another thing Tanaka has over a lot of pitchers is that he's not broken. Because sadly...

There Have Been About a Million Tommy John Surgeries

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    WARNING: Looking at this picture will give you the sads.
    WARNING: Looking at this picture will give you the sads.USA TODAY Sports

    OK, fine: The actual number of Tommy John surgeries performed on pitchers this year is 47.

    That's according to the Tommy John surgery database at BaseballHeatMaps.com, anyway. That's not quite a record for a full year, but we very well could be dealing with a new record before long. 

    After all, while the record for Tommy John surgeries on pitchers in a year stands at 69 in 2012, the average number of surgeries performed on pitchers from 2000 to 2013 is only around 40. This year has already topped that, and we're only halfway through it.

    That the surgeries in 2014 have happened mainly to young pitchers is no fluke. That's reflective of how many elbows are compromised well before reaching the majors.

    "I don't think there's any question it starts in youth baseball," Kevin Rand, head athletic trainer for the Detroit Tigers, told Danny Knobler for a special B/R report. He added: "They're throwing too hard, too fast, too much, too soon."

    The surge of Tommy John operations might be the big story of 2014. Next to it, meanwhile, is how...

Only the Oakland A's Are Good at Baseball This Year

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    This is a fact. Sort of. But no, really. Totally.
    This is a fact. Sort of. But no, really. Totally.Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

    The Oakland A's are a stupendous team. Their 47-29 record is the best in baseball, and their plus-135 run differential rules a kingdom in which no other run differential is over plus-50.

    As for everyone else...eh, I'll just say, "Meh."

    I kid, I kid. Sort of. The Milwaukee Brewers and San Francisco Giants are pretty good, but this season is on track to be a banner year for mediocrity.

    The A's, Brewers and Giants are among only five teams on track to win 90 or more games. You have to go all the way back to 1991 to find a non-strike-shortened year in which there were so few 90-win teams. 

    Moreover, there are 20 teams on track to win between 70 and 89 games. That's only happened twice (in 2006 and 2007) since MLB expanded to 30 teams in 1998.

    In all, the 2014 season is shaping up to be a weird one. But that's OK, because weird is just another way to say "unexpected." And things being unexpected is a big part of what's great about baseball.