Odds of MLB's Biggest 2014 Surprise Stars Continuing in the 2nd Half

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2014

Odds of MLB's Biggest 2014 Surprise Stars Continuing in the 2nd Half

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    No sport cherishes its history quite like baseball does, and if history has taught us anything, it's that we shouldn't be surprised by surprises.

    They pop up on a yearly basis, both for the good and the bad, and they come in all shapes and sizes, some bigger than others.

    Take a pair of American League rookies—Chicago's Jose Abreu and New York's Masahiro Tanaka, for example. We knew they were going to be good, but nobody expected them to be quite as good as they were over the season's first half.

    Impressive performances, to be sure, but not huge surprises by any stretch. Thus, you won't find either one on this list.

    A wise man, Garth Algar, once spoke for the masses when he said, "We fear change." Yet it's change—whether it be in a player's approach or his role on his respective team—that has led to the five players on this list becoming some of the biggest first-half surprises in the game.

    What are the odds that they'll be able to carry that early success throughout the rest of the season?

    To figure that out, we'll take a deeper look at what they've done, what they're projected to do and, in some cases, how a team's schedule can be a help—or hindrance—to finding second-half success.

Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B/DH, Cleveland Indians

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    David Maxwell/Getty Images

    First-Half Stats: .328 BA, .908 OPS, 9 HR, 41 RBI, 39 R, 2-of-2 SB

    Second-Half ZiPS Projections: .282 BA, .790 OPS, 6 HR, 26 RBI, 25 R, 1 SB

    It's taken far longer than anyone would have liked, but Lonnie Chisenhall finally looks like the player who was named the club's top prospect—and 25th-best prospect in baseball—after the 2010 season by Baseball America.

    It's true that his defense at third base remains a work in progress—he ranks last in UZR/150 (minus-31.3) and is tied for 25th out of the 28 third basemen to log at least 450 innings at the hot corner in DRS (minus-nine)—but he's finally figured out his swing, as Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo explained to MLB.com's Jordan Bastian:

    He's really gotten to where he understands his swing. He knows how to shorten it up when it feels a little long. That allows him more time to where he is more selective and getting his pitch more. This year, his swing has been mechanically solid all year. And when it's not, he's quick to make the adjustment.

    While he's walking more and striking out less, the 25-year-old finished the first half on a downswing. After hitting .345 with a .954 OPS over the first three months of the season, he hit only .238 with a .670 OPS over a dozen July games before the All-Star break arrived.

    That said, Chisenhall is just entering the prime years of his career, and the Indians have one of the easiest second-half schedules in the game, with roughly half of their remaining games coming against teams with a losing record.

    He might not hit .330 with a .900 OPS, but Chisenhall should still be able to put up some decent numbers down the stretch.

    Odds of Chisenhall Staying Hot: 15-1

Dee Gordon, 2B, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    First-Half Stats: .292 BA, .742 OPS, 2 HR, 25 RBI, 52 R, 43-of-52 SB

    Second-Half ZiPS Projections: .264 BA, .661 OPS, 1 HR, 16 RBI, 31 R, 22 SB

    It's taken two years, a handful of trips between Los Angeles and Albuquerque, New Mexico—home of the team's Triple-A affiliate—a visit to the Dominican Republic to play winter ball and a position change, but Dee Gordon finally looks like the player whom I pegged as the Dodgers' biggest breakout candidate heading into 2012.

    Better late than never, right?

    Dodgers third-base coach Lorenzo Bundy believes that Gordon's defensive switch from shortstop, where he struggled to make throws to first base, to second base has paid huge dividends, both in the field and at the plate. He explained to Samantha Zuba of the Los Angeles Times: "After we made the change [to second base], I think it's relaxed him so much defensively that it's allowed his offensive game to return also."

    He's still allergic to drawing walks—though the 27 free passes that he picked up over the season's first half are a new career high for the 26-year-old—but that hasn't stopped Gordon from getting on base frequently enough to swipe an MLB-best 43 bases.

    Back in 2012, Gordon told MLB.com's Ken Gurnick, "I'm fine with walking, but it's called hitting, not walking."

    That led to the following response from manager Don Mattingly: "Maybe it's just that he didn't chase a bad pitch, so his at-bat lasted long enough for him to hit a better pitch. He might not have walked, but he had a better at-bat. I'm not worried about Dee. It'll come with experience."

    Better at-bats are what Gordon is all about these days.

    He's making contact 88.8 percent of the time, a career high (and the fourth-highest rate in the National League), and he isn't chasing pitches outside of the strike zone nearly as often as he used to. He's moved closer to the dish, allowing him to feast on pitches that sit on the outside corner of the plate (19-for-56, .339 BA), according to Brooks Baseball.

    "I don't miss that," Gordon told Jorge Arangure Jr. of Sports on Earth. "That's my pitch."

    But the biggest change for Gordon is that he's keeping the ball on the ground, something that wasn't lost on a scout from a rival team who spoke with Arangure Jr. earlier this year:

    For me the biggest thing with Dee's offense has been getting the ball out of the air. When I saw him in the Dominican Winter League last year you could tell he was really focused on getting on top of the ball and keeping it on the ground. He's always had the type of speed that if he hits it on the ground anywhere, he's got a chance for a hit and anything that falls in the outfield always has the potential for extra bases. One of his bigger issues in the past was he was hitting too many fly-balls, which given his lack of power, were usually easy outs.

    Some may look at his .344 BABIP and say that it's not sustainable, but speedy players such as Gordon tend to have higher BABIPs than their slower counterparts—and it's only 23 points higher than his career .321 mark.

    Gordon's confidence—something that surely was only bolstered by his first All-Star Game appearance—along with his new approach at the plate, has set him up for success not only through the rest of the 2014 season, but also for years to come.

    Dee Gordon has finally arrived.

    Odds of Gordon Staying Hot: 5-1

Casey McGehee, 3B, Miami Marlins

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    First-Half Stats: .319 BA, .776 OPS, 1 HR, 53 RBI, 37 R, 1-of-1 SB

    Second-Half ZiPS Projections: .274 BA, .746 OPS, 5 HR, 30 RBI, 26 R, 0 SB

    When we think of players taking their talents to the Far East—Japan, primarily—the general assumption is that we'll never see them back in the major leagues, that their skills have deteriorated to the point of no return.

    We certainly don't expect to see them come back and sit tied with the reigning National League MVP for the most hits on the Senior Circuit at the All-Star break.

    Yet that's exactly what Miami's Casey McGehee has done, swinging at pitches outside of the strike zone only 23.1 percent of the time—the third-lowest mark in the NL—while making contact a career-best 86 percent of the time, good enough to crack the NL's top 20.

    He's also drawing walks more frequently (10.3 percent of the time) than he ever has before, and while he swears to the Sun Sentinel's Juan C. Rodriguez that he's not purposely trying to work the count, he's not complaining about the free passes, either:

    By no means do you go up there and try to walk, but sometimes the situation dictates you be a little selective. I have faith in...whoever is behind me that they'll pick them up. There's no pressure for me to feel like I have to go out of the zone to try to drive in a run.

    [The walks] are big as far as sticking with your approach and not coming out of it.

    Yet for all of his success, there's reason for concern heading into the second half of the season.

    McGehee has grounded into an MLB-high 16 double plays and posted a .369 BABIP, more than 70 points higher than his career .298 mark. That's simply not sustainable, especially for a player who has had a rough time equaling his first-half success over the course of his career.

    Odds of McGehee Staying Hot: 50-1

Garrett Richards, RHP, Los Angeles Angels

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    Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

    First-Half Stats: 19 GS, 11-2, 2.55 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 123.1 IP, 88 H, 9.3 K/9

    Second-Half ZiPS Projections: 5 W, 3.97 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 79.1 IP, 7.5 K/9

    Forget Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, for it's Garrett Richards, owner of baseball's hardest fastball among starters, who has taken over as the ace of the pitching staff in Los Angeles.

    The 26-year-old has held opponents to a .196 batting average—tops in the AL, second in MLB—and a .534 OPS—second in the AL and third overall. Nearly all of his other statistics, including his ERA (fourth) and WHIP (sixth), place him among the league leaders.

    But there's reason to be leery of his numbers, as a rival scout recently told Sports Illustrated's Ben Reiter.

    "You see so many of these guys with these big arms that just never learn to throw strikes," the scout said. "He's toeing the line right now, and I'm going to enjoy the ride, but I'm not going to bet my house that he's figured it out."

    Richards has struggled with his command, throwing an MLB-high 17 wild pitches, and he's walked at least four batters in three of his starts, most recently against Minnesota on June 25 when he issued five free passes. His 3.14 walk rate is the 26th-highest mark in baseball and 13th on the Junior Circuit.

    It's that wild streak that makes it impossible to believe that Richards is going to be quite as effective down the stretch as he's been up to this point.

    Odds of Richards Staying Hot: 40-1

Alfredo Simon, RHP, Cincinnati Reds

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    First-Half Stats: 18 GS, 12-3, 2.70 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, 116.2 IP, 94 H, 5.8 K/9

    Second-Half ZiPS Projections: 5 W, 3.87 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 79 IP, 6.5 K/9

    There's no question that first-year manager Bryan Price made the right decision to slide career reliever Alfredo Simon into the team's starting rotation when Mat Latos went down with an injury during spring training.

    The veteran attributes his success to his ability to change speeds dramatically during an at-bat, as he told C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer:

    "I throw hard ones and they look like my fastball, when I throw my soft one, they can't get it in time. If they're looking fastball, they're going to be ahead of it and if they hit it, it's going to be a fly ball."

    Devin Mesoraco, Cincinnati's young upstart catcher (and a bit of a surprise star in his own right), told Rosecrans that he's having a blast behind the plate every time Simon steps on the mound:

    There's a wide range of what he can do. It puts something in your head, he's a tough guy to go up there and sit on a pitch because you never know what you're going to get. He has a heck of a mix, he drops down, invents some stuff out there. He's fun to catch.

    Simon, 33, is coming off the first All-Star Game appearance of his career, leading the National League in wins and sitting among the league leaders in ERA (fifth) and WHIP (sixth) at the break. But advanced metrics—FIP (4.34) and xFIP (3.95)—tell us that Simon may not be quite as good as those numbers would lead us to believe.

    The opposition has been hitting the ball right at Cincinnati defenders this season, with Simon posting a .232 BABIP, second in the National League to only his teammate, Johnny Cueto. There's a little bit of luck that comes into play there, and with Brandon Phillips out of action for the foreseeable future, the defense behind him isn't going to be nearly as good as it was.

    Simon has also thrown more innings over the season's first half than he has in any of his previous six major league campaigns, so there's reason to wonder whether his arm will be able to hold up down the stretch.

    None of this takes away from Simon's remarkable start to the season, but those expecting him to carry that success through the end of the year are setting themselves up for disappointment.

    Odds of Simon Staying Hot: 50-1

    *Unless otherwise noted, all first-half statistics courtesy of FanGraphs; all second-half projections courtesy of ESPN.