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July 3, 2013

The Lineup Card

8 Things We Learned in the First Half

by Baseball Prospectus

1. The Kids are All Right
Maybe I’ve got a short memory, but doesn’t it seem like this year’s rookies were taken in a separate draft with a more talented pool than most other years? Yasiel Puig and Jose Iglesias are hitting over .400, Anthony Rendon’s bat has been a huge improvement over Danny Espinosa’s, and Evan Gattis appeared out of nowhere to become the best slugger on a team with two Uptons. Marcell Ozuna has been the first-half MVP of the hapless Marlins, and Jedd Gyorko is worthy of All-Star consideration. Gattis, Puig, Ozuna, Iglesias, Nolan Arenado, Pete Kozma, and Nick Franklin have combined for 11.4 WARP—even though several of them have not played the whole season so far. Combined, they average about 4.6 WARP per 600 plate appearances.

And that’s just the position players.

Shelby Miller would be a bona fide ace for the Cardinals if Adam Wainwright wasn’t doing superhuman things right now. He’s been assisted in the bullpen by hard-throwing Trevor Rosenthal and his 35 percent K rate. Speaking of hard-throwing, Gerrit Cole has hit 102 mph on the gun and his slider has touched 95. (One color commentator, thinking he was viewing a replay of Cole’s fastball given how fast the pitch was, said it had remarkably “slider-like spin.”) Hyun-jin Ryu has proven to be one of the few bright spots on the Dodgers this year, and Julio Teheran could be an essential part of the Braves rotation.

Manny Machado, Jean Segura, and Matt Harvey, although not technically rookies, have played less than a season in the majors and will go to this year’s All-Star game already having achieved the status of elite players. Combined with the young Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, this year’s rookie class makes it hard to recall a time there was so much talent with so little big-league experience. —Dan Rozenson

2. The Pirates Might Not Collapse
The Pirates reached the midpoint of their season with a 51-30 record. I feel like I just wrote that sentence for The Onion rather than Baseball Prospectus. Yes, I used that same line with BP godfather Joe Hamrahi, Mike Ferrin, and Daron Sutton on Sirius/XM on Sunday, but I'm trying to be green by recycling it. Bad humor aside, the same franchise that has had 20 consecutive losing seasons—the longest streak in major North American professional team sports history—moved to 21 games over .500 after beating the Brewers 2-1 in 14 innings on Sunday.

It is easy to dismiss the Pirates' first half as a fluke, especially after they collapsed the last two seasons by going a combined 37-78 after July 31.

However, it seems for real this time. The Pirates entered play Tuesday with the best earned run average in the major leagues. They have done so despite using 11 starting pitchers. Their bullpen, led by closer Jason Grilli and set-up man Mark Melancon, has locked down games all season, causing Brewers left fielder Logan Schafer to describe the relievers like this: "They all throw 110 mph and locate their pitches." The defense has been good as any in the game. The offense has underachieved to this point but has shown signs of breaking out in recent weeks. If the pitching holds up, a winning season seems certain, as the Pirates need to go just 32-49 in the second half to break .500. They need to go just 39-42 to reach 90 wins, which almost certainly would get the Buccos to the playoffs. Heck, going 44-37 would get them to 95 wins. Some things you can't make up. —John Perrotto

3. Red Sox Fans Love John Lackey
Pretty much from the moment he signed, Red Sox fans have hated John Lackey. Actually, back up. When Lackey pitched for the Angels, Red Sox fans hated him, too. So they hated him before he signed with Boston, too. Maybe they stopped hating him between the time he had a press conference to announce his signing with Boston and the time he first pitched in the regular season for the Red Sox, but even so, there was probably still simmering dislike, which morphed back into hatred when they saw him pitch.

I’m being a bit hyperbolic, but not entirely so. Lackey’s performance steadily declined while with the Red Sox, culminating in Tommy John surgery (shocking his performance declined, right?) after the 2011 season. He missed the 2012 season entirel,y but not a day went by that some so-and-so didn’t call a sports talk radio station and complain about Lackey (who was not playing!) as the Bobby Valentine-led 2012 Red Sox imploded in a Fourth-of-July-style spectacular that lasted not a couple hours but a couple months.

Flash forward to this past March, and someone claiming to be John Lackey showed up in Fort Myers. This imposter did admittedly look like John Lackey, though a much skinnier version. More pertinently, he also knew how to pitch like John Lackey. Not the Lackey Red Sox fans knew though, the one Angels fans knew, the one the Red Sox front office thought they’d signed back in December 2009. His fastball broke 90 mph and often approached the mid-90s, his breaking ball had actual movement, and, bonus!, he could command both of them.

Much was expected from Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz this season; however, Lester has been his old, inconsistent, and mediocre self, while Buchholz has been either a Cy Young contender or injured in almost equal measure. Yet the Red Sox are 51-34. How is that possible? John Lackey is a prime reason. Lackey has averaged over six innings per start and has the lowest ERA and highest ERA+ of any Red Sox starting pitcher not named Clay Buchholz. His 4.39 K/BB rate is much higher than anyone on the Sox staff, including Buchholz. He’s been the Red Sox’ second-best starter, and the longer Buchholz remains on the shelf and the more Lackey pitches like he did last night (eight innings, one run, six strikeouts, one walk), the smaller the gap between the two becomes.

More and more, the Red Sox are beginning to depend on a guy many had counted out, and the fans are starting to catch on. If things continue like this, Lackey is a shoo-in for Comeback Player of the Year and the number-two starter on a healthy Red Sox staff that could find itself in the playoffs courtesy of many players, not the least of whom is John Lackey. That should improve his standing in Boston immensely. —Matthew Kory

4. The Yankees’ offense is no longer the Yankees offense
On May 4, I texted a friend and set the over/under on total home runs hit by Lyle Overbay and Vernon Wells at 36 (us being grieving Blue Jays fans). With 11 already in the bank, he took the over. Two months later on this July summer day, their total is 19, and the New York Yankees own a -6 run differential. But thanks to average pitching and the third-best record in one run games (13-8), they’re holding onto a modest .530 winning percentage.

Growing up this decade watching the Yankees, I’ve been conditioned to associate pinstripes with offensive dominance. Their lineups consisted of power hitters from top to bottom, and recently, they’ve had some success turning aging veterans like Eric Chavez and Andruw Jones into useful pieces.

Here’s the Yankees’ league rank in TAv the past ten years: 2, 3, 2, 1, 12, 1, 1, 1, 1, 3, 1. They’re 23rd this year, sitting at a .249 true average. In fact, the difference from last year’s .279 mark would be the largest year to year drop ever in TAv by any team. With the mirages of Wells, Overbay, and Travis Hafner unlikely to reappear, the Yankees are desperately hoping the returns of Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson, and Alex Rodriguez will inject the team with much-needed production. —Andrew Koo

5. Jim Johnson May Be the Streakiest Player in Baseball
When you think of players who are streaky, there are plenty of names that likely jump into your head. Maybe it's Yasiel Puig, if you're into current events. Maybe it's Josh Hamilton. Maybe it's Mark Reynolds. But the streakiest of them all may reside at the back end of the Orioles bullpen, and he's showing why again this year.

Jim Johnson was one of the best closers in baseball for the first six weeks of the 2013 season, racking up 14 saves in 14 opportunities with a 0.95 ERA and 0.89 WHIP. But then things got bad—and when I say bad, I'm not talking about a few hiccups, I'm talking about going full-blown Amanda Bynes. For the two weeks starting on May 14, Johnson was one for five in save opportunities and had a 21.60 ERA, 3.00 WHIP, and a 1.413 OPS allowed. Since then, he's been the JJ we all know and love with a 1.80 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 13 saves in 14 opportunities.

But the craziest thing is that this is nearly exactly what he did last year as well. Take a look at the awful mess sandwiched between two stretches of greatness:

Through July 13, 2012—1.21 ERA, 0.75 WHIP and 27 saves in 28 opportunities
July 14 to July 27, 2012—18.47 ERA, 3.32 WHIP and 1.172 OPS against
July 28, 2012 to EOS—0.33 ERA, 0.84 WHIP and 21 saves in 21 opportunities

That means if you take out these two fortnights that cloud his numbers from the last two seasons, Johnson would have given up 11 earned runs in 96 1/3 innings—for those of you scoring at home, that's a 1.03 ERA with 75 saves in 77 opportunities. —Bret Sayre

6. Young Pitching Defies
Last year, I was in a two-man fantasy league, and I crushed him because I drafted Chris Sale and he drafted Matt Moore. This year, I'm in a two-man fantasy league, and he's crushing me because he drafted Shelby Miller and I drafted Zack Wheeler, though on the other hand, I drafted Jose Fernandez and he drafted Trevor Bauer, but unfortunately, at the end of the day, I drafted Tyler Skaggs and he drafted Patrick Corbin. What I'm saying is, your stupid fantasy team is going to come down to who picked the right young pitcher that's a Cy Young candidate and who picked the wrong young pitcher that is a Tommy John candidate, and what I'm really saying is none of us have any idea. That's the truth, and it's so infuriating and stupid that one of these years I'm just going to quit playing 24 different fantasy leagues. —Sam Miller

7. Don’t Mess with the Orioles
Our pre-season staff predictions were not kind to the Orioles. We picked them to finish dead last in the AL East. They got one first place vote, the same number we gave the Royals. We were right: They’re not in first place. No, they’re in second place, right where they finished last year—when they, you know, made the playoffs, with a winning percentage not much worse than 2012’s (.566 to .574). They’re outperforming their expected win-loss record by three games—not last year’s 11, granted, but it’s starting to seem a little like a skill.

That’s because they’re succeeding again this year by some of the same means as they did last year. Their habit of messing with the 40-man roster more than anyone else was no fluke. This is Dan Duquette’s way. They’ve already selected seven contracts and added them to the active roster, and now they’ve made the season’s first notable trade. No, Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop is no blockbuster, but it’s worth looking at the nature of the parts moved. Last year, Baltimore’s bullpen was largely responsible for the team’s success (that astonishing 29-9 record in one-run games; 16-2 in extra innings). This year, unsentimentally, the Orioles moved the struggling Strop (a Lewis Carroll character name if ever there was one), and that came a few months after Duquette flipped Luis Ayala to Atlanta. Strop and Ayala threw over 140 innings last year and were worth 2.0 WARP. Gone.

Meanwhile, the O’s have waited years for Arrieta to fulfill his promise, and finally decided that he’d never do it, at least not in Baltimore. Feldman may not be the answer, but the trade showed Duquette’s continued aggressive efforts to keep his team in the black by liquidating assets regularly and trying out new stock. Will it work again? All I know is that it will be fun to keep watching him try. And that maybe we shouldn’t have picked them last? —Adam Sobsey

8. Felix Hernandez Needs a Tattoo Consultant
I really don’t think I’ve learned much of any substance this year. Sure I found out back when we did this in May that interleague play felt weirder, but even that’s losing something as it becomes more familiar. I’d like to think I’ve learned to stop making predictions after this year’s seeming disaster of a season projection, but I probably haven’t, and I’ll be right back at it next year.

So maybe all I learned with half the season gone is that Felix Hernandez has a really terrible neck tattoo. It was in the news last December, but I totally missed it. I learned it the first time I tuned in to watch him pitch, and holy lord, that’s a hideous neck tattoo. Not that Carl Crawford, Yadier Molina, or Jon Rauch has a particularly nice neck tattoo. I’ve yet to see one of those and am not holding my breath. That is all I’ve learned in 2013. I still think the Blue Jays are going to win the East. —Zachary Levine

4 comments have been left for this article.

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