The First Half
This baseball season has been far from what everyone predicted, and that’s a very good thing. Here are just a few of the surprises of the first half:
Chris Davis – No not my best friend from high school. No not the senior partner from a Tulsa law firm. No not the computer programmer in Kansas City. No not the cast-off from the Texas Rangers. Wait, yeah, the cast-off from the Texas Rangers! In Texas, (this) Chris Davis never was able to get consistent starting time and his play never really made a demand for it. After an impressive rookie campaign, his power stayed evident, but his average and other measurable all degraded substantially. A change of scenery is what he desperately needed and he responded with his best professional season last year. So if he was better last year, what is the surprise this year? The surprise is that he has more home runs, double, runs batted in, and walks in half a season than he had last year in his best season ever, all while hitting for his highest average. This is the definition of a breakout season.
Carlos Gomez – Prior to this season, possibly the most memorable part of Carlos Gomez’s career was probably his role in games 162 and 163 for the Twins playoff run in 2009. While he has always displayed skills in the outfield and on the basepaths, he has never really hit his stride as a complete player. At least until this season. Gomez is on pace to blow past his career highs in hits, doubles, triples (already there), home runs, runs batted in, and walks all while he is hitting 40 points higher than his career average and while he is leading all of major league baseball in WAR. He is finally beginning to show signs of why multiple teams have coveted his skills through the years.
Miguel Cabrera – This helps reinforce why I didn’t put a huge value on the Triple Crown last season. Cabrera won it last year in impressive fashion, but he has been FAR more impressive this season, and due to the home run prowess of the aforementioned Chris Davis, he very well may not win the Triple Crown this year. Watching him hit is simply a pleasure.
Manny Machado – This kid is a franchise cornerstone type of player. Last season I watched him in person at the Futures Game during the All-Star festivities and came away very impressed. But I didn’t expect THIS type of first season. He’s already probably the best defensive third baseman in the game and he’s really a shortstop. He’s on pace to beat the single season record for doubles. He’s hitting over .300. He has the third highest WAR in all of baseball. And he’s only 21 years old. Baltimore fans just need to grab the popcorn and put up their feet, because they are in for a show for years to come.
The Young Guns – When you look at the Major League leaders in ERA you make a startling discovery. Of the 17 pitchers with an ERA below 3.00, 4 of them are in their first year in the major leagues and 4 more are in their 2nd or 3rd year in the Majors. That is an enormous number of young pitchers pitching at an extremely high level and it bodes well for the coming years. (My speculation that many folks are unfamiliar with these guys is fueled by this hilarious bit that Matt Harvey did with Jimmy Fallon this week)
The Pittsburgh Pirates – After a couple of years of strong starts only to have them fade as the season hit the dog days of summer, this year’s Pirates seem to be built for a full-season run. If they were in any other division in baseball they would be in 1st place. As it is, they have the 2nd best record in all of baseball and are in a strong wild card position. The long and winding roads that Jason Grilli and Francisco Liriano have taken are more than just good for Pittsburgh, they are really inspiring for folks everywhere. This is a team that folks who don’t have a team to root for or whose team is out of it (looking at you Astros & Mariners fans) should really get behind. This is a team Major League Baseball would really be lucky to have in the postseason.
The Boston Red Sox – Last year was an embarrassment and I think most folks thought this year would only be a baby step back toward respectability. Apparently most folks were wrong. I am pretty sure this would be a perfect case study on “chemistry matters in a locker room”. The cancerous locker room under Bobby Valentine has been replaced by a team that simply looks like the Red Sox of prior years. David Ortiz, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey have returned to their forms of yesteryear while the Sox have gotten surprising performances from the likes of Daniel Nava, Jose Iglesias, & Mike Carp to help vault them into 1st place at the break. While the AL East is so good that there are no guarantees about Boston’s postseason chances, the pall that had fallen over Red Sox Nation should definitively be eradicated.
If you haven’t been tuning into this remarkable season, I highly recommend that you start now.
The Midsummer Classic
This All-Star Week has had some fantastic moments worthy of remembrance for years to come. Here are just a few:
Kevin James – Last season in Kansas City one of the surprises of All-Star Week was how much fun it was to go to the Futures game and the Celebrity Softball game. The Softball is even better in person than on TV, especially when there are people who really get the entertainment aspect of the game. And this year, no one did it better than game MVP, and die-hard Mets fan Kevin James. Head first slides, diving catch attempts, and a failure or two made for a seriously good time.
Cespedes v. Harper – First off, I can’t remember a better Home Run Derby from top to bottom than this one. There has never been a year where every contestant hit at least 5 home runs. In fact, other than in 2004 when two players hit 3 home runs in the first round, there has always been at least one person that only hit 0, 1, or 2 home runs. So on that level this was an extremely good show. But everyone who likes these things way too much (like me) will also tell you that a great derby also needs a transcendent performance or two, and this one had that as well. The coming-out party of Cuban-defector Yoenis Cespedes was nothing short of spectacular. In his first round he hit monster home run after monster home run. He didn’t seem to get cheated on anything and sent scores of balls into the 3rd deck of City Field. At the beginning of his at-bat the announcers and the crowd seemed almost indifferent, but it took very little time for everyone to be transfixed on the amazing display being put on. As an aside, this is where the “records” for home run derbies get a little shaky. Cespedes didn’t have to try in the second round at all to advance and he stopped after 5 outs in the finals. I can promise you that I will be hard to convince that Abreu’s record-setting performance was better than this one. Ok, back to the point. The one thing that takes a Derby from really good to great is having two performances that really stand out and thankfully Bryce Harper delivered the 2nd act of this brilliant show. Harper has been known to the nation since he was the 16 year old Sports Illustrated cover feature. He came up last year and lived up to the enormous hype and he continues to produce this year. He was the fans’ choice for person they most wanted to see in the Derby and all he did was put up 8 home runs every round. And in many years (7 since 2001) 8 home runs in the finals would have been enough to take home the trophy, but he instead just provided the mountain for Cespedes to stand atop of when all was said and done. It was an amazing show made even more amazing by the facts that Cespedes was only the 4th non-All-Star to even be invited to compete and the first to win, as well as being less than two and a half years removed from being trapped in a communist nation striving to find a way out. Simply awesome.
Exit Sandman – Last season’s All-Star game marked the final appearance of Chipper Jones at the event and it felt like an era was ending. This season it was Mariano Rivera’s turn and it REALLY feels like that era is ending. Let me start off by reminding everyone that I HATE the Yankees. That being said, I can’t think of a player that I respect more in all of baseball than Mariano Rivera. He’s everything you could ever want from a player on and off the field and he has more grace and class than myriads of others combined. I consider one of the biggest highlights of my fan experiences to be getting to sit in the bleachers in Old Yankee Stadium right behind the bullpens and getting to watch the walk of Mariano Rivera from the bullpen mound, down the steps (as Enter Sandman starts to play), out through the bullpen doors and onto the outfield grass. I still get chills when I think about it. But not like the chills that all of Citi Field got last night. Now, I do believe that Jim Leyland over-thought his decision (since he had plenty of stud closers that should have been able to keep a lead into the 9th), but I at least understand his motivation for putting Rivera in for the 8th inning. There was NO way he wanted to deprive the world of one last All-Star performance by the Legend. And wow… what a tribute. To see all of the All-Stars stay in the dugouts to give Rivera the field to himself to soak up the love and appreciation of fans, players, coaches, and legends was truly awesome. It was as touching a tribute as I think you could give. And I would make a guess that if you ask Royals’ catcher Salvador Perez what the greatest moment of this entire season has been, he will not have to look far to answer that. I can only imagine that catching the final All-Star inning of Mariano Rivera’s career (a 1-2-3 inning no less) stands above them all. We all tip our collective hats to the greatest closer of all time and the most fitting person to be the last to don the number 42 in Major League baseball.
(In case you missed his entrance, it is must-watch television and I’m including it here)