Top 10 Player Surprises of the First Half
Every year in baseball provides something different. The elder players are finding their way out, the younger players are finding their stride, and as always, a fresh crop of rookies comes through. With each rookie comes a surprise, something new. However, surprises can come in many forms in baseball, from the baby-faced rookie all the way to the seasoned veteran. In 2013, we’ve had just that. In no particular order, here is a list of 10 players who put up a surprising first half of their 2013 campaign. (Players with an asterisk* next to their name were selected for the all-star team this year, two** if they started)
Josh Donaldson – Age 27 – Third Baseman – Oakland Athletics
As a first round pick in 2007 by the Chicago Cubs as a catcher, Donaldson spent just a year in the Cubs minor league system before being moved in a 2008 trade with Oakland that sent Donaldson, Sean Gallagher, Matt Murton, and Eric Patterson to the West Coast in exchange for pitchers Rich Harden and Chad Gaudin. Donaldson made a few appearances in the big leagues in 2010, and used the following two seasons to refine his craft, making the move to third base full time in 2012 and playing in 75 games at the big league level, posting a slash line of .241/.289/.398/.687. In that time, he hit 9 home runs, drove in 33, and drew just 14 walks. This season, however, Donaldson has burst into the spotlight for the Athletics, having a slash line of .306/.373/.513/.886 with 16 homers, 61 runs batted in, and 40 walks drawn. He’s proved that he’s adjusted comfortably at third base, playing solid defense at the position. Currently a 4.3 WAR player on the year, Donaldson has hit .364 with runners in scoring position with an OPS of .985. He leads the team in RBI with those 61, ahead of Brandon Moss (44) and Yoenis Cespedes (43), and is tied with Moss in the home run department with the 16. With the first half he put up, Donaldson has to be on the top of the list for All-Star snubs this season. (Side note – it does not affect his stats, but a specific A’s fan that I’m close to has suggested that Donaldson “do something about his haircut.”)
Jose Fernandez – Age 20 – Starting Pitcher – Miami Marlins*
Firstly, let me say it was a surprise in itself that this 20 year old made the team out of Spring Training, albeit due to some sudden injuries to Nathan Eovaldi and Henderson Alvarez, combined with the demotion of Jacob Turner. Most expected Fernandez to go a couple months in AA and be called up in June at the earliest. However, he took the ball every fifth day, and pitched himself into the All-Star game. Fernandez went from a rookie who was considered to be rushed to the big leagues to the team’s ace, posting up an ERA of 2.75, a WHIP of 1.080, and 103 strikeouts over 104.2 innings pitched (18 starts), with a record of 5-5. Fernandez, like Donaldson, was a first round pick in his respective draft (2011), and has given the Marlins some hope going forward for the front end of their rotation, as well as giving himself a respectable shot at the National League Rookie of the Year award.
Chris Davis – Age 27 – First Baseman – Baltimore Orioles**
What can be said about the first half numbers Chris Davis put up? A slash line of .315/.392/.717/1.109 with 37 home runs and 93 driven in. While the power is not a surprise, the fact that he tied the AL record for most home runs before the all-star break (already setting a new career high in the process) was a bit of a shock. There’s a good chance that the Orioles aren’t where they are in the standings today without the production of Davis. Along with those numbers, Davis has hit .385 with runners in scoring position with a ridiculous 1.306 OPS in those situations. Throughout the season, Davis has been able to drive the ball all over the field, with 16 hits going the other way and six of those going over the fence. Most of his home runs have been to left center, center, or right center, with 22 of his blasts going in those directions. If Davis can put up a strong second half, he could potentially reach 60 home runs, and maybe an AL MVP award is in his future.
Jean Segura – Age 23 – Shortstop – Milwaukee Brewers*
Last season, Segura came to Milwaukee in a trade with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim that sent Zack Greinke to the Halos. In the Minors, Segura put up good numbers in his slash lines (career .313/.367/.439/.807), and stole 139 bases to 38 times caught in 399 games. The power wasn’t much there, and in his time up in the Bigs in 2012, he had the usual struggles of a rookie. He hit .258 and had an OPS of .640, driving in 14 runs with only seven extra base hits (no homers), with just a handful of steals. This season, however, Segura has broken out in a big way and given some excitement to a struggling Brewer team. With a slash line of .326/.363/.484/.847 and the first 11 home runs of his career, Segura found himself a spot on the All-Star team this year, and along with that has led the league in hits. Segura has also been a stolen base threat, swiping 30 bags while only being caught five times. Unfortunately for Segura, his time up in the Majors last season has taken him out of the running for Rookie of the Year considerations.
Domonic Brown – Age 25 – Outfielder – Philadelphia Phillies*
For many Phillies fans, this season for Domonic Brown has been more of a “finally” than a “surprise.” After a couple of lackluster seasons (one that included an injury) where Brown hit for neither average or power, it seems Brown has finally adjusted to big league pitching to the tune of a respectable slash line of .274/.319/.537/.856, with 24 home runs and 69 home runs – both of those numbers lead the Phillies this season. Brown, however, started this season off with a bit of the same, hitting just .233 in April with three homers and 11 RBI before really turning it on in May. His month of May turned historic, as he blasted 12 home runs (driving in 25) without drawing a single walk, becoming the first ever player to hit 10 or more home runs in a month without receiving a single free pass. His May slash line shows as .303/.303/.688/.991, and with that month, Brown became the player the Philly Phaithful had hoped he would be. Brown will be a key player for the Phillies in the second half if they make a push to catch the Atlanta Braves.
Brett Cecil – Age 27 – Relief Pitcher – Toronto Blue Jays*
After spending a few seasons in the big leagues as a starting pitcher who couldn’t quite get things figured out, Cecil has become an example of the case of “struggling starter turned solid reliever.” As a starter, his ERA from 2009-2012 stood at 4.77 with an ugly 1.411 WHIP. After putting up an ERA of 5.72 in nine starts last season, the Blue Jays decided to try Cecil in the bullpen once September rolled around. While he wasn’t quite effective during his adjustments to the bullpen role in 2012, Cecil came back in 2013 ready to roll, and he’s done just that. With 42 appearances this year, Cecil has put up an ERA of 2.12 with a respectable 1.007 WHIP, a K/9 of 10.6 (55/46.2), and a K/BB rate of 3.06. He’s allowed hitters to hit just .177 against him this year, with right-handers hitting .213 and lefties just .146. Cecil has become a valuable asset out of the Toronto bullpen and may be a key piece going forward. (It may be worth noting that, out of Cecil’s 18 walks, 15 have come against the right handed batters.)
Bartolo Colon – Age 40 – Starting Pitcher – Oakland Athletics*
The first person on this list to have a teammate, as fellow Athletic Josh Donaldson was mentioned earlier. At age 40, Bartolo Colon is putting up the best season of his career, which is saying something considering he won a Cy Young award in 2005 as a member of the Angels. In that season, Colon went 21-8 with a 3.48 ERA and 1.159 WHIP. This year, he’s sitting at 13-3, with a 2.52 ERA, a WHIP of 1.076, and a league-leading BB/9 of 1.1. It is worth noting that Colon was suspended in 2012 for PED use, as well as being listed on the Biogenesis list, but the fact that he’s putting up better numbers at age 40 than in any season (with the exception of strikeouts) is definitely worthy of being named onto the 2013 first-half surprise list.
Jeff Locke – Age 25 – Starting Pitcher – Pittsburgh Pirates*
If this were a top 10 team surprises of the first half, the Pirates would be on here. As it is, this is for individual players, and perhaps the biggest surprise from that team has been Jeff Locke, although he does have to compete with his closer. This young lefty has come seemingly from nowhere to become the best pitcher in the Pirates rotation this year, putting up a strong W-L record of 9-2 and an ERA of 2.11 (second only to Clayton Kershaw [2.01]). His WHIP is respectable, sitting at 1.113, and he’s put up a strong H/9 of 6.0 over 115 innings. Locke may not be up in the running for a Cy Young award due to pitchers like Adam Wainwright, Kershaw, and Matt Harvey, but it’s possible the Pirates aren’t up in second place, just two games behind the St. Louis Cardinals and leading the NL Wild Card without the strong efforts of Jeff Locke.
Max Scherzer – Age 28 – Starting Pitcher – Detroit Tigers**
When one thinks up the Tigers’ rotation, the first person they think of is Justin Verlander. It’s not an unexpected choice as the first thought, as Verlander has been the ace of the Tigers for the last few seasons. In 2013, however, this has not been the case. Max Scherzer has put himself up as the ace of the staff, with a 13-1 record, an ERA of 3.19, a WHIP of 0.979, and a K/9 of 10.6 (152/129.2). The winning part of Scherzer’s game is nothing new, as he’s gone 43-27 over the three previous seasons including 16-7 last year, but this year he’s taken it to a new level. He’s walked batters at a much lower rate (career 2.9, 2.2 in 2013), which has given him a career high in K/BB rate at this moment with a 4.90. In Scherzer’s first 17 games, he went 13-0, a streak that ended in his final start of the first half against the Texas Rangers. Scherzer’s strong first half gained him the honor of starting the All-Star game for the American League.
Jason Grilli – Age 36 – Closer – Pittsburgh Pirates*
Isn’t it fitting that this list ends with a Closer? Perhaps the biggest surprise on the Pirates along with Jeff Locke, Jason Grilli took over the role of Closer for Pittsburgh beginning this year and he’s ran with it. While he has slowed down a tad with the saves since the calender flipped over to June (just 8 saves after racking up 22 between April and May), he’s impressed everyone in his first season as a full time closer, enough to make his first career All-Star team at the age of 36. He was one of five Pirates named to the All-Star roster (Locke, Grilli, Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Mark Melancon), and one could argue that he was the most deserving of the group. With his ERA sitting at 1.94, his WHIP at 0.864, a K/9 rate of 13.8 (64/41.2) and a K/BB ratio of 7.11 (64/9), Grilli has been the lock-down closer that Pittsburgh needed after they traded Joel Hanrahan in the offseason. Currently, Grilli leads the National League in Saves with 30, and has only blown one save, which came against the Cincinnati Reds on June 19th. Earlier on in the year, Grilli was on pace to break Francisco Rodriguez‘ single-season save record (62 in 2008). While he’s slowed down since May ended, Grilli still has a realistic shot at 50 saves, which would set the team record currently held by Mike Williams (46 in 2002).
Hisashi Iwakuma – Age 32 – Starting Pitcher – Seattle Mariners* – an international signing, he started off in the bullpen last year for Seattle before moving him into the rotation in July, where he shined in the second half. Many were curious to see if he could back up those numbers, and he has, giving the Mariners a viable option behind Felix Hernandez in their rotation.
Paul Goldschmidt – Age 25 – First Baseman – Arizona Diamondbacks* – not too big of a surprise, but a surprise nonetheless, as the Diamondbacks came into this season hoping for someone to step up after their trading of Justin Upton during the offseason. Goldschmidt has stepped up and been THE man for Arizona, posting a slash line of .309/.392/.550/.942 with 21 home runs (a career high) and 78 RBI, the latter number leading the National League. All numbers posted here lead the Diamondbacks.
Carlos Gomez – Age 27 – Outfielder – Milwaukee Brewers* – Gomez is one of those guys that had a lot of tools, but hadn’t been able to put them together, until this season. With his season going strong and projecting to set career highs across the board, Gomez has a slash line of .292/.335/.534/.869 with 15 homers, 46 driven in, and 21 steals (only caught three times). His career highs in all numbers listed before this season are .260/.305/.463/.768, 19 homers, 51 RBI, and 37 steals – all numbers set last season. His career high in hits came in 2008 (149), and he currently sits at 100.