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July 5, 2012

Overthinking It

Second-Half Risers and Fallers

by Ben Lindbergh

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According to most sources, the start of the season’s second half is still more than a week away, but technically, it’s already upon us. All but two teams have played at least half of the games on their schedules. That means that most players have already accrued about half of the counting stats they’ll have at the end of the year, enough to give us some sense of whether their seasons are shaping up to be disappointments or successes.

Of course, some players have already left the bulk of their hitting behind them, while others are about to break out. Last season, Dan Uggla went into the All-Star break batting .185. After action resumed, he upped his average considerably, hitting .296 in the second half. Dexter Fowler played so poorly in the first half of 2011 that he was forced to spend a remedial month at Colorado Springs. After returning in mid-July, he hit .288/.381/.498, swatting all five of his homers and swiping 10 of his 12 stolen bases. On the other end of the spectrum, Jose Bautista hit 31 of his AL-leading 43 home runs before the break, and his teammate Adam Lind completely collapsed after June, following up a .300/.349/.515 first half with a .197/.233/.356 second-half showing.

It’s not always easy to see such second-half swoons and upswings coming, but it is possible to pick out some players who appear poised for regression. The following six players could be on the verge of a comeback or correction in the coming months:

Risers                 

Max Scherzer, RHP, Tigers

This season, no non-Strasburg starter has struck out batters at a higher rate than Scherzer, and no starter has allowed a higher average on balls in play. Both of those rates should regress, but the BABIP likely has further to fall. Some of Scherzer’s struggles can be traced to Detroit’s league-worst defense, but the Tigers’ staff as a whole has a .316 BABIP, a full 50 points below his. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him shave a run off his ERA without any improvement in his peripherals.

Ryan Zimmerman, 3B, Nationals
Before this season, Zimmerman had been a model of consistency, contributing above-average offense in every season since his debut at age 20 in 2005. Now 27, Zimmerman should be providing peak production, but instead he’s had his worst year yet. The right-handed hitter has been hampered all season by a sore shoulder that probably won’t completely recover until he has offseason surgery. However, in 10 games since receiving a cortisone shot on June 24th, Zimmerman has hit .370/.408/.739 with four home runs, more than doubling his dinger total. If he can continue to manage the inflammation in his AC joint, much more offense lies ahead. It might already be too late to buy low.

Brian McCann, C, Braves
Barring an undisclosed injury, McCann is simply too good to be this bad. Catchers tend to get old early, but at 28, McCann still seems too young for a dramatic decline in true talent. Defensive shifts have been blamed for McCann’s precipitous BABIP drop, but his batting average on grounders is down far less than his average on line drives, which is among the lowest in the league. The shift can’t have claimed too many liners, so it’s likely that McCann’s hard-hit balls have happened to be poorly placed so far. The same goes for Eric Hosmer, another early underperformer.

Fallers

Melky Cabrera, OF, Giants

No player has a bigger difference between his season-to-date WARP and his projected rest-of-season WARP than Cabrera. With over 3.5 wins’ worth of 2012 value under his belt, Cabrera has already surpassed his previous season-high by a win and a half, but PECOTA projects him to tack just half a win onto his total before the end of the year. Despite his impressive superficial statistics, Cabrera has made only modest improvements to his underlying game. His success has stemmed almost entirely from his prolific singles-hitting: thanks to a .392 BABIP, Cabrera has singled in a league-leading 23.9 percent of his plate appearances, a higher rate than any player recorded in as many PA last season. That BABIP will likely be a lot lower after the break, and once his singles pace slows down, Cabrera will go back to being pretty good, not great.

Carlos Ruiz, C, Phillies
There are exceptions to almost every rule in baseball, but you won’t lose much money betting the under on a backstop batting .350. Mike Piazza and Joe Mauer are the only catchers who have exceeded that average in the last 75 years. Piazza was 28, and he’d entered the season with a .326 lifetime average; Mauer was 26 and had hit .317 in his career. Ruiz is 33 and started the season with a .265 career mark. He’s adopted a more aggressive approach, seeing fewer pitches, swinging at more of them, and striking out twice as often as he’s walked after four seasons of walking at least as often as he whiffed, but the extra aggressiveness won’t prop up his average all season. Expect his current .357 figure to fall far.

Wade Miley, LHP, Diamondbacks
Miley is the Melky of the mound: no pitcher has a greater projected drop-off between his first- and second-half WARPs than the Arizona left-hander. The southpaw’s minor-league stats don’t indicate that a total collapse is coming, but his modest strikeout rate and .261 BABIP (on a staff that has averaged .307) suggest that his sub-three ERA is about to be a fond memory. Miley allowed as many runs (eight) in his last start as he had in his previous five, so the best of times might already be behind him.

Colin Wyers provided research assistance for this story.                  

 

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Melky Cabrera,  Ryan Zimmerman

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