Five Breakthrough First Half Performers

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This Fourth of July weekend I’ll take stock of a few breakout
performers and duds of the first half and possible breakthrough
performers for the second half.

First, five breakthrough stars of the first half:

Edwin Jackson: Doesn’t It feel
like we have been talking about this guy forever? Blessed with a
mid-90s fastball and sweeping slider, it’s remarkable that it took
three organizations for Jackson to finally break through as a top of
the rotation starter. Acquired from the Rays in exchange for Matt Joyce
last December, he entered the season with a 25-30 career record and a
5.09 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in 77 career starts. But so far in 2009, it
looks like the Tigers may have pulled off the best trade of the winter,
as he is currently 6-4 with a 2.49 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over his first 16
starts. Jackson has already pitched seven innings or more while
allowing three runs or less nine times this season. The big difference?
Jackson finally has his control in check, averaging 2.41 BB/9 as
opposed to a 4.11 rate for his career. Jackson, Justin Verlander and
rookie Rick Porcello combined for 14 wins in May. How good is that?
Nationals starters have combined for just 15 wins all season.

Ben Zobrist: Zobrist showed
promise with a .318/.429/.459 line in the minors, but he went deep just
23 times in 1336 at-bats. As a result, he was never viewed as anything
more than a utility player when the Astros dealt him to Rays as part of
the Aubrey Huff trade back in 2006. But finally handed an every day
role this season, the man dubbed “Zorillia” is hitting a surprising
.292/.412/.620 with 16 bombs and 46 RBI. The power looks to be for
real, as the 28-year-old has homered 28 times in his last 407 major
league at-bats dating back to last season. Only Albert Pujols, Joe
Mauer and Prince Fielder have hit at a higher OPS this season. If you
managed to pluck Zobrist off the waiver wire in your fantasy league,
chances are your fellow owners hate you right now.

Andrew Bailey: The 25-year-old
Bailey was an unlikely source for saves as the season began, but
injuries to Joey Devine and Brad Ziegler have opened the door for the
rookie right-hander. While not yet officially named the closer by
manager Bob Geren, the former Wagner Seahawk has run with his
opportunities thus far, compiling a 2.09 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, .173 BAA and
eight saves in 12 chances. Aided by a fastball that touches the
upper-90s, a traditional 12-to-6 curve and a biting slider, Bailey has
an impressive 57/19 K/BB ratio in his first 47 1/3 career innings. And
standing at a sturdy 6-feet-4 and 235 pounds, he has the durability to
handle the job. In fact, 13 of his 36 appearances this season have been
for at least one inning. Bailey fits the profile of a dominant closer.

Pablo Sandoval: Okay,
maybe this one is unfair. After all, Sandoval hit .345 in 145 at-bats
last season. The fact that he has a .329 batting average over the first
74 games of 2009 comes as no huge surprise, but he is notable here
because of his rapid progression in the power department. “Kung-Fu
Panda” has already homered 12 times in 277 at-bats this season after
going deep just three times last season. He lead the majors with an
insane 1.207 OPS in June. Granted, only his teammate Bengie Molina
swings more often than he does (58.1%), but he balances that with a
pretty decent contact rate (81.8%) and low strikeout rate (15.5% as
opposed to a 20% league average). He’ll likely never be known for his
glove and just where he fits in long-term — he was groomed as a
catcher/first baseman in the minors — remains to be seen, but he’s
gone a long way towards proving that his minor league totals were not a

Aaron Hill: The power was never
a question for a Hill — he hit 17 homers in 2007 — but he was a
largely forgotten man after suffering a concussion last May. Naturally,
he entered the season as a huge question mark, but through just 348
at-bats this season, Hill has already established a new career high
with 19 home runs. Among second basemen, Hill leads in hits, homers,
RBI and total bases. He’s currently third in the majors with 32
multi-hit games and trails only Ichiro in hits (104). It’s easy to say
he’s getting lucky with the homers — roughly 16 percent of his
flyballs have left the yard– but he has a .307 BABIP this season,
actually nine points below his career average. Ian Kinsler and Dustin
Pedroia get a lot of the pub, and rightfully so, but Hill has matched
or outproduced them in most categories.

Kudos to Fox for not going crazy with the curses

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I turned on last night’s Fox broadcast fully expecting them to spend too much time on history and curses and billy goats and black cats and Steve Bartman and 1908 and 1948 and all of that jive while spending too little time on the game and the players at hand. I will admit now that I was pleasantly surprised that that was not, in fact, the case.

To be clear, the pregame show was a friggin’ train wreck in this department. There the narrative framing was basically wall-to-wall. In the first segment, Fox studio host Kevin Burkhardt used the phrase “reverse the curse” within his first thirty seconds of speaking. Then, before much if any actual game stuff was referred to, Burkhardt mentioned all of the following things in the space of a, maybe, 45 second span:

When the montage ended, Alex Rodriguez said that “every player wants to break that curse.” Then they threw it to the first commercial at 7:38 or so. In the second segment they ran a prerecorded thing about championship droughts, making liberal mention of 108 years for the Cubs and 68 years for the Indians, but then got down to some actual game breakdown.

In the third segment, Burkhardt threw it to the P.A. announcer at Progressive Field for player introductions, once again mentioning 108/68 years as he did so. After that, they ran a montage, set to Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers’ “The Waiting,” in which centenarians and other older folks talked about how long they’ve been — wait for it — waiting for an Indians or a Cubs championship. Lots of them mentioned billy goats and curses and stuff.

When that was over Fox finally threw it to Joe Buck and John Smoltz up in the booth. Buck added a punctuative “the waiting is the hardest part,” and soon after they ran a Buck-narrated pre-produced montage about what was going on in 1908 and 1948, saying who was president, noting when Model-Ts were invented and all of that, all set to “Time has come today” by the Chambers Brothers. So, yes, that was a lot to take in in the space of a half hour.

But that’s on me, right? Who in the heck needs to watch a pregame show? No one, really. Alex Rodriguez and Pete Rose are proving to be a nice combination for Fox — getting rid of C.J. Nitkowski has cleared the congestion a bit and both A-Rod and Rose are proving to be naturals after a 2015 in which they were somewhat clunky — but a pregame show is pretty superfluous. The actual baseball breakdown those guys provide can be accomplished in less than ten minutes. The rest of it practically begs for those narrative-servicing montages, and frankly, no one needs ’em.

Most notably, though: the curse and weight of history talk basically ended once the game got going. Indeed, Buck and Smoltz were shockingly and refreshingly narrative-free for most if not all of the contest. They talked about Jon Lester and his issues holding runners. Corey Kluber‘s slider. Andrew Miller being Andrew Miller. Kyle Schwarber being there at all. They did a really nice job of handling all of the Xs and Os the way you want your broadcast booth to handle it.

Smoltz in particular was outstanding, showing that Fox’s decision to make him their number one color guy while reassigning Harold Reynolds and Tom Verducci to be a fantastic one. A two-man booth is superior to a three-man booth in almost every instance, but the second man in Fox’s booth now mixes his insight and his regular conversation seamlessly. You never feel like Smoltz is talking down to you or speaking from his obviously superior place of baseball authority. His tone is as if he’s letting you in on stuff he thinks and hopes you’ll really appreciate knowing and he never plays the “I USED TO PLAY BASEBALL” card in the obnoxious ways some ex-player commentators do. And he’s right: we do appreciate what he tells us.

Beating up on Fox’s baseball broadcasts has been its own sport for many of us for several years, but there was nothing to really beat them up about last night. Sure, we could do without in-game interviews, but after the pregame show Fox showed remarkable restraint with respect to pushing history and narrative and curses and all of that baloney that has little if anything to do with the 2016 Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. They kept it focused on the baseball game that was going on before us in ways they haven’t always done in the past. It was refreshing and, dare I say, downright enjoyable.

More of this please.

Republicans accuse Hillary Clinton of being a bandwagon Cubs fan

CHICAGO - APRIL 4:  Hillary Rodham Clinton throws out the first pitch before the Chicago Cubs Opening Day game against the New York Mets at Wrigley Field on April 4, 1994 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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This was inevitable: The Republican National Committee published a ridiculously detailed and self-serious opposition-research report accusing Hillary Clinton of being a “bandwagon” Cubs fan.

If you’re of a certain age you’ll recall that Clinton, who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, spoke about being a Cubs fan as a kid. You’ll also recall that when she was running for her senate seat in New York, she gave shoutouts to a heretofore unheard of Yankees fandom. A lot of people have had fun with this at various times — we’ve mentioned it here on multiple occasions — but I wasn’t aware that anyone considered it an actually substantive political issue as opposed to an amusing “politicians, man” kind of thing.

The Republicans think it’s serious, though. Indeed, there’s more detail to this oppo-hit than there is any of the party’s candidate’s position papers. And while someone could, theoretically, have a lot of fun with this kind of material, the opposition report is not even remotely tongue-in-cheek. It reads like a poisition paper on nuclear proliferation. If the GOP had been this serious about vetting its own candidate, I suspect they wouldn’t be in the position they’re in today.

As for the substance: eh, who cares? Sports is entertainment and cultural glue. As a kid in Chicago, being a Cubs fan is both fun and makes some sense. As a senator from New York in the early 2000s, you’re gonna get to go to some Yankees games and sit in some good seats and that’s fun too. And, of course, politicians are going to say opportunistic things in order to attempt to connect with their constituents. Think of that what you will, but if you think of that as something which reveals something deep and dark within their soul about what kind of person they are, you probably need to step away from the cable news for a while and get some fresh air. Or you probably need to admit that you already believed the worse about her and that this is just an exercise in confirmation bias.

Heck, at this point I almost hope she finds a third or fourth team to root for. Indeed, I hope she makes a comic heel turn, puts on a Chief Wahoo hat for tonight’s game and claims that, deep, deep down, she had always rooted for the Indians. Then even I could get on her case about it. And we could all talk about how, in her own way, Hillary was really bringing the nation together.