The Truth Behind MLB's 10 Biggest Surprises of 2014's 1st Half
The first half of the 2014 MLB season is in the books, and as with any season, there has been no shortage of surprises on both an individual and team level around the league.
From the impressive debut performances of Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Abreu as they made their way to a new league, to the Oakland Athletics' dominance from a run-differential standpoint, to the contention of teams such as the Seattle Mariners and Milwaukee Brewers, surprises abound.
So here is a look at the 10 biggest surprises of the 2014 first half and whether they will continue for the remainder of the season and beyond.
The Beginning of the End for Justin Verlander
For a four-year stretch from 2009 to 2012, a strong case could be made for Justin Verlander being the best pitcher in all of baseball.
Over that span, he was a combined 78-31 with a 2.95 ERA and 1.08 WHIP while averaging 238 innings of work per year. Entering his age-30 season last year, Verlander looked poised for another dominant year, but instead, he showed major signs of decline.
His numbers dropped across the board, and his average fastball velocity dropped from 94.3 miles per hour to 93.3 miles per hour (via FanGraphs). When all was said and done, he was still 13-12 with a 3.46 ERA, though, and a strong postseason had him looking like his old self.
An impressive 20 scoreless innings during spring training looked like a precursor to a bounce-back year, but instead, his fastball velocity has continued to dip to 92.6 miles per hour. The result is a 6-7 record and 4.80 ERA through his first 17 starts.
The transition from power pitcher to more savvy thrower has been a process for Verlander to this point, but he has been too good for too long to think this is the beginning of the end. Back-to-back quality starts may be a good indication that he has taken some steps forward, and a significantly better second half could be in his future.
Will Verlander's struggles continue?
A Power Outage from Robinson Cano
When the Seattle Mariners handed Robinson Cano a 10-year, $240 million deal this past offseason, it was for a player they viewed as one of the best hitters in all of baseball and one who had been a perennial MVP candidate during his time with the New York Yankees.
From 2009 to 2013, he put up a .314/.369/.530 line and averaged 28 home runs and 103 RBI, as his left-handed power stroke was a perfect fit for Yankee Stadium.
While his .316/.376/.421 line again makes him a dynamic offensive second baseman, and his presence in the Mariners lineup has certainly made a difference, he's managed just four home runs in 297 at-bats.
Safeco Field has certainly played a role in his power outage, and his home run-to-fly ball ratio indicates he's also had some bad luck with it dropping from 17.3 percent to 6.6 percent (via FanGraphs).
However, he's also hitting the ball on the ground a lot more, and his ground ball-to-fly ball ratio has made a huge jump from 1.49 to 2.30.
That's a lot of numbers to digest, but the overall point here is that there is more to his home run drop-off than just bad luck. Given his current peripherals, it looks unlikely Cano will wind up topping the 20-homer mark this year.
Will Cano's power outage continue?
A Career Year from Mark Buehrle
The definition of a workhorse throughout his career, Mark Buehrle has won double-digit games and pitched at least 200 innings in each of the past 13 seasons.
The 35-year-old was 12-10 with a 4.15 ERA in his first season with Toronto last year, but he has been the clear ace of the Blue Jays staff in 2014.
Over his first 16 starts, he's gone 10-4 with a 2.52 ERA, helping the team to first place in the AL East at the midway point of the season. With an average fastball velocity of 83.3 miles per hour, he's getting by on his veteran savvy at this point.
He's never won 20 games in a season, and he's only had an ERA under 3.50 twice during his career, and the question now is if can keep it up.
With a 3.64 FIP and losses in his last three decisions, it's hard to envision Buehrle keeping his ERA where it is right now. Can he win 15-plus games with a sub-3.50 ERA? Sure. But don't expect him to be a serious AL Cy Young contender.
Will Buehrle continue to pitch like an AL Cy Young contender?
The Resurgence of Michael Morse
The San Francisco Giants took a chance on Michael Morse this offseason, signing the slugger to a one-year, $6 million deal in hopes that he would return to form and provide some much-needed pop.
After hitting .296/.345/.516 and averaging 21 home runs and 398 at-bats from 2010 to 2012, Morse was traded to the Seattle Mariners last offseason.
Instead of providing an offensive spark, he finished the year hitting .215/.270/.381 with 13 home runs and 27 RBI, and he wrapped up the season with a minus-1.6 WAR.
He has already put up better stats this year through a half-season, batting .278/.331/.504 with 19 doubles, 13 home runs and 44 RBI while splitting time between left field and first base.
There is no reason to think he can't keep it up, as a .328 BABIP and 19.7 HR/FB ratio are certainly sustainable for the rest of the year. He could wind up being the steal of the offseason, and he's likely set himself up for a sizable raise this coming winter.
Will Morse's slugging continue?
The Atlanta Braves' Starting Pitching
With Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen lost for the year and Mike Minor joining them on the disabled list to start the season, things looked grim for the Atlanta Braves.
However, a surprise contribution from Aaron Harang, the late-spring signing of Ervin Santana and a strong return from Tommy John surgery by Gavin Floyd not only kept the team afloat, but also left it with one of the best rotations in baseball.
The Braves are third in MLB in starter's ERA with a 3.26 mark, and that has helped them to a tie atop the NL East standings here at the midway point.
That being said, both Aaron Harang (4.85 ERA) and Mike Minor (5.90 ERA) have struggled in June, and Gavin Floyd was lost to a fractured elbow.
Moving Alex Wood back to the rotation could help solidify things, and Julio Teheran has emerged as a bona fide ace. However, it's hard to picture the Braves staff remaining among the league's best the rest of the way, and Atlanta may need to pick up another arm at the deadline to legitimately contend for a title.
Will Atlanta's starters' ERA continue to be among the league's best?
The San Diego Padres' Offensive Ineptitude
After a better-than-expected 76-86 finish to the 2013 season, the San Diego Padres were viewed by some as a potential dark horse to contend for a playoff spot heading into this season.
With a good core of young talent, an improved starting rotation and one of the better bullpens in baseball, the pieces were there for them to at the very least build off last season and take another step forward in the rebuilding process.
Instead, they find themselves in last place in the NL West at 34-47, and the worst offense in baseball is largely to blame.
They currently rank dead last in all of baseball in batting average (.213), on-base percentage (.272), slugging (.334) and runs scored (240). That has undermined a pitching staff that ranks seventh in the MLB with a 3.36 ERA.
Starters Jedd Gyorko, Carlos Quentin and Will Venable all have batting averages under .200, and the only player on the team putting up even respectable numbers is Seth Smith (.280 BA, .883 OPS), who entered the year as a part-time player.
There is still potential on this team and some promising young pieces, but it doesn't look like the Padres are going to right the ship here in 2014.
Will San Diego's offense stay in its abyss?
The Oakland Athletics' Ridiculous Lead in Run Differential
The Oakland Athletics currently lead all of baseball with a phenomenal plus-135 run differential, and they have the best record in baseball as a result.
Generally speaking, a plus-200 differential over an entire season is usually good enough to lead the league, so the A's are on pace to rank among the most dominant teams in recent memory if they can double their current total over the second half of the season.
With a well-balanced offense led by the trio of Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes and Brandon Moss and a pitching staff that has been better than anyone expected thanks to Jesse Chavez and Scott Kazmir stepping up their games, the A's are the favorites in the AL West.
That being said, as teams establish themselves as clear buyers and sellers and rosters are upgraded, it stands to reason that the gap between the A's and the rest of the league in this category will be closed somewhat in the months to come.
Will Oakland finish the season way ahead of every other team in run differential?
The Seamless Transitions of Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Abreu
There was no ignoring the numbers Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Abreu put up during their final seasons in Japan and Cuba, respectively. However, there were questions as to how well their games would translate to MLB.
In his final season pitching for the Rakuten Golden Eagles, Tanaka went 24-0 with a 1.27 ERA, and that earned him a seven-year, $155 million deal from the New York Yankees.
The early returns have been better than anyone could have hoped for, as he's not only emerged as the ace of the Yankees staff, but also developed into one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. In 16 starts, he's gone 11-3 with a 2.10 ERA, 0.95 WHIP and 127 strikeouts in 115.2 innings.
Meanwhile, Abreu hit .382/.535/.735 with 13 home runs and 36 RBI in 47 games during the 2012-13 Cuban League season. That netted him a six-year, $68 million contract from the Chicago White Sox, who added him as a replacement for Paul Konerko.
Despite a significant bump in the caliber of pitching he's facing, Abreu has not missed a beat at the plate, winning AL Player of the Month in April. He missed some time with a foot injury but currently leads the AL with 25 home runs and a .631 slugging percentage.
There is no reason to think these two supremely talented players won't keep it going, as their hot starts are just the beginning of what should be two terrific careers.
Will Tanaka and Abreu continue to dominate?
The Seattle Mariners as Contenders
The Seattle Mariners were as busy as anyone this offseason, adding Robinson Cano, Corey Hart, Logan Morrison, Fernando Rodney and a handful of others to the mix in an effort to return to the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
Pitching has been the team's biggest strength so far this year, even with James Paxton and Taijuan Walker missing time, as the Mariners rank second in the AL with a 3.28 ERA. That group could get even better once those two promising young arms return.
The offense has been another story, though, as even with the addition of Cano, the Mariners again rank among the worst offensive teams in the AL. They are currently 11th in the league in runs scored and 13th in team batting average.
They have clearly taken a step forward this year and have a real chance at their first winning season since 2009. However, they are still the third-best team in their own division right now and look to be on the outside looking in for a playoff spot.
Will the Mariners make the playoffs?
The Milwaukee Brewers as Contenders
The highest-scoring team in the National League in 2012, the Milwaukee Brewers took a big step backward last year when they fell to 74-88 overall and finished fourth in the NL Central.
With Ryan Braun serving a performance-enhancing-drug suspension and Aramis Ramirez missing a significant amount of time, the offense fell to eighth in the NL last year, but the Brewers are back on track here in 2014 with a full arsenal of weapons once again at their disposal.
The real difference, however, has been a vastly improved pitching staff. Matt Garza was signed in the offseason to shore up a rotation that has improved its ERA from 4.20 to 3.67, while the bullpen has been strong once again.
The NL Central was the deepest division in baseball last year, when three different clubs made the playoffs. It is looking strong once again, with four teams over .500. The Brewers maintain a 6.5-game lead at this point, though, and have been the class of the division all year.
With no clear-cut hole on the roster, this team looks to have what it takes to continue playing at a high level and reach the playoffs. There is no question the Brewers are contenders at this point, and they have proven their hot start is no fluke.
Are the Brewers contenders?