2012 All-Star Break Surprises

Every baseball season is full of surprises.  Some players come out of the gate hot and stun America with 19 home runs in the first half.  Some teams come out of nowhere to lead their division and fans of opposing teams scratching their heads.  And sadly, other players look completely lost when they toe the rubber; shadows of the statues of greatness that they once were.

Regardless of what team you cheer for or where you live, there are always going to be storylines that surprise you in the first half of the season.  You may wonder if your new outfielder from out of nowhere can keep hitting like a man possessed, and that’s a very valid question.  But regardless of whether or not that surprise player can hit 40 home runs and shock the world at the end of the season, he’s been a lot of fun to watch through the first 82 games.

So sit back and enjoy the ride (or weep in your beer), because there’s always something interesting in the first half of season.  These are the stories that captivated me.

1. RA Dickey is arguably the best pitcher in baseball.

RA Dickey is not only one of the best pitchers in baseball this season, but he has a life story that is nothing short of inspirational as well.  Those guys are always much easier to cheer for, even if they play in New York.

From a baseball point of view, what he is doing right now is unprecedented.  He has an average knuckleball velocity of 77.1 MPH this season and it has topped out at 83 MPH.  I can’t find anyone in the industry that is willing to predict how long he can maintain this level of success because no one in the history of baseball has thrown an 80-something knuckleball.   (For the sake of comparison, Tim Wakefields knuckleball was an average speed of 65.1 MPH.)

Whether or not Dickey can continue this level of dominance, if you’ve watched him throw an 80 MPH knuckleball that paints the outside corner, you’ve seen something special.

2. The Pirates and Nationals lead their respective divisions.

2012 MLB Standings All-Star Break

Ah, it brings a tear to my eye.

While a plus-32 run differential isn’t fantastic, after seeing a -102 in that column for the Pirates last season, anything in the positive is quite a shock.  And while run differential can be thrown off by early season blow outs (in both directions), it does tend to tell a tale of a team’s success by the end of the season.

In about 2 – 3 years, the Washington Nationals were going to have a team built around Ryan Zimmerman, Stephen Strasburg, and some kid named Bryce Harper that was ready to contend.  Well, at 19, Harper has shown he’s ready to play a man’s game.  Coupled with a savvy trade for Gio Gonzalez (yes, they gave quite the haul in prospects, but Gonzalez is a legitimate ace) and a Philadelphia collapse, Washington is showing they belong right now.

3. Tim Lincecum is in the midst of a career collapse.

His HR/FB rate is at a career high 7.5%, his walk rate is at a career high 11.3%, his groundball rate has dipped to a career low 43.5%, and his K-rate is at a career low 23.5%.  Granted there is less predictive value in HR/FB rate than other sabermetric stats.  However, when an increased homer rate is predicated with a dip in fastball velocity (which sits at a career low 90.4 MPH), and a changeup velocity that has maintained even with his career average (83.3 MPH), there may be a reason all those balls are leaving the park.

A .333 BABIP and 3.84 xFIP suggest that Lincecum should have numbers that are a little better than where they sit, but with the decreased fastball velocity, there’s no one who can suggest that he’s definitely going to turn it around to even moderately respectable numbers in the second half.

What do the Giants do with Lincecum?  They can extrapolate value from Timmy the same way that they did with Barry Zito when he came to the Bay Area and was awful.  While it might not be the favorite choice of fans and [probably] the player, there’s nothing wrong with changing things that aren’t working to try and find a way to improve them.

4. Billy Hamilton has 104 stolen bases in 82 games.

I’m not sure the last time a player was on pace for over 200 stolen bases, but it’s been a while.  Maybe since this Billy Hamilton was playing baseball.

It’s very rare that a player can impact the game by his feet alone.  Imagine being an opposing manager and staring across the diamond in the 7th or 8th inning of a one run game.  And there, gazing back at you, is the nuclear weapon that is Billy Hamilton.  Once he reaches the Majors, he’ll be one of the most exciting players to watch.

5. In only 64 games, Mike Trout is the third most valuable player in baseball. (According to WAR via baseballreference.com)

He could end up putting up Hall of Fame worthy stats in half a career if he plays like this.  There are 24 other teams that didn’t draft him that are probably pissed at their scouting departments after the first half of the year.

He made a mediocre splash at 19 during the 2011 season, but since his call-up in ’12, he has been an unstoppable force of nature.  

6. Pedro Alvarez is the third best defensive third baseman. (According to dWAR via baseballreference.com)

This one is more of a surprise to me as a Pirates fan.

Pedro Alvarez had a downright awful approach at the plate at the beginning of the season.  Actually, for the last three years he’s had a pretty awful approach at the plate.   He’s refined his approach for sporadic stretches, like during a six game streak from April 29 – May 4, where he just scorched the ball.

The biggest surprise with Alvarez during the 2012 campaign, however, has been his improved defense.  His defensive runs saved above average sits at 7 right now (after posting -10 and -11 in the past two seasons) and his dWAR is only behind super-human Brett Lawrie and Mike Moustakas at the hot corner.  Even if he never learns to walk or cut down on his strikeouts like he should, an improved level of play at third can still have value.

7. The Arizona Diamondbacks have entertained the idea of trading Justin Upton.

As noted at MLB Trade rumors, the D-Backs have fielded calls about moving their MVP-caliber outfielder.  A cost controlled talent like Upton is a definite commodity (signed through the 2015 season at a max of $14.5 million in his final season).  This trade talk came seemingly out of nowhere, but could result in a bargain for a team that’s willing to shell out the prospects.

There have been grumblings that Upton’s attitude is the reason that Arizona is looking to ship him out of town.  There was once a tale my grandfather used to tell about a player with all the talent in the world who was unhappy with his current situation and left for the other coast and became the greatest home run hitter of all time.

Upton - Bonds comparrison

Someone is going to get a bargain if Arizona decides to sell.

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