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July 17, 2014
The Lineup Card
Nine Second-Half Improvement Candidates
1. Yoenis Cespedes
Shake off a 2-for-43 that he's running on right now and that's dropped his OPS close to 70 points, and he's right back at where I'd expect him to be. Somewhere between the rookie breakout and the sophomore slump, the latter being what he's echoing in Year 3. If it comes down to BABIP, which these things often do, he's got a good shot. He came into the year with a career BABIP of a pretty standard .300 and now has a .271 including a .233 at the Coliseum. Things should be looking up. —Zachary Levine
Arbitrary endpoint, sure, but May 22 was the last time Santana played third base. He played well that day (hitting a go-ahead double in the 13th inning) so it's not like third base was poison to his batting numbers. But the odd experiment announced during the offseason seemed to end around that time upon the realization that Lonnie Chisenhall could also demolish baseballs.
Maybe it was a standard two-month slump—those still exist. But Santana's numbers are back to his career levels as a primary first baseman, and that makes more sense than the shrug of the shoulders and/or trying to crunch BABIP numbers. —Matt Sussman
3. Chris Davis
4. David Ortiz
BABIP may be the culprit. BABIP changes aren’t always luck, but there’s nothing in the distribution of Ortiz’s batted balls or plate discipline statistics that suggests any kind of serious issue. Pitchers continue to treat David Ortiz like David Ortiz, tossing his average pitch some 1.13 feet from the center of the zone, basically unchanged from last year’s mark of 1.12 feet. He’s not suddenly lost his swing discipline, and there’s no sign of a nagging injury. The one red flag is a curious dip in the percentage of his pitches that are fastballs—but that indicator runs contrary to the narrative of an aging-related decline (wherein fastball percentage usually rises). In the absence of any obvious signal to the contrary, my guess is that Ortiz’s BABIP recovers, and the rest of his offensive value will go with it. —Robert Arthur
5. Billy Butler
Part of the reason for Butler’s impotence is that he is taking more hacks than ever before, the likely culprit behind his career-high strikeout rate. Upon closer inspection, those numbers are skewed a bit by a truly awful April in which Butler might as well have been swinging a relay baton. He’s been on the uptrend since, cutting back on his diet of strikeouts bit by bit, from 18.3 percent in April to 14.0 percent in June. Butler’s alarming lack of power, too, seems to have turned a corner: He racked up as many extra-base hits in June as he did in the first two months of the season combined.
Butler has scuffled a bit in July so far, but with only 11 games played, it’s tough to tell whether he’s already passed his intra-season peak. If he manages to replicate his June performance—which wasn’t quite up to his career standards—Butler would at least become a viable major-league hitter, on par with the likes of Neil Walker and David Ortiz. Given the way Butler tripped over his own feet out of the gate, the Royals will certainly settle for a solid—if unspectacular—version of their franchise cornerstone. Of course, there’s also then the possibility of a full-scale turnaround, where Butler walks more frequently, trades singles for power, and generally returns to his middle-of-the-order form. If he insists on continuing to hit like a shortstop, let’s hope his impersonation looks more like Tulo than Everth Cabrera. —Nick Bacarella
6. Stephen Strasburg
The right-hander's foes are doing particularly well when they hit ground balls, batting .287 in that department, compared to the league average of .244. Defensively, the Nationals' infielders aren't slacking, with a .246 BABIP allowed on grounders, right around the league mean. It's reasonable to believe that those numbers will converge, unless the Nats have conspired to discriminate against their no. 1 starter.
Strasburg's 7-6 ledger and relatively pedestrian ERA have hindered his Cy Young Award case to date. He's light-years behind Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright. But if his strikeouts and walk clips stay where they are from now through September, he just might sneak into the fray. —Daniel Rathman
7. Buster Posey
8. Aaron Hill
9. Zack Wheeler
Wheeler has walked more than two batters just twice in past 11 starts (after cracking that threshold five times in his first eight games), and he entered the All-Star break with a string of three consecutive starts in which he pitched six or more innings and surrendered just a single run. He has also honed his stuff since last season, adding 0.5 mph to his fastball (which is now averaging 95.9 mph) and diversifying his pitch mix. He has doubled the frequency of his change-up, and though it is still the weakest offering in a repertoire that features a pair of plus breaking pitches, Wheeler has the potential to be dominant if he can refine el cambio. He has also kept the ball on the ground this season, upping his ground-ball rate by 10 percentage points while surrendering just seven bombs across 108.3 innings (only two homers have come since he turned 24 on May 30th), while his component stats have all trended in positive directions. The Mets are a long shot to make the playoffs, but a second-half breakout by Wheeler could make things interesting in the NL East. —Doug Thorburn