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
fluke.

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.

And That Happened: Sunday’s Scores and Highlights

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Here are the scores. Here are the highlights:

Dodgers 12, Rockies 6: Cody Bellinger hit two homers and drove in four and now he’s slugging a ridiculous .679. He also made news over the weekend by saying that he did not know who Jerry Seinfeld was. I’ll have some more thoughts on that later this morning. In other news, Colorado blew an early 5-0 lead and a later 6-4 lead and the Dodgers piled it on late with three in the seventh and five in the eighth. Oh, and closer Kenley Jansen doubled, driving in a run. It was only his eighth plate appearance in his career. Of course, dude used to be a catcher, so he knows which end of the bat is which.

Twins 4, Indians 0: Last weekend the Indians swept the Twins in Minnesota and took over first place in the AL Central. This weekend the Twins sweep the Indians in Cleveland and took over first place in the AL Central. Which means that you can probably ignore that stuff I said about last week being a turning point or order being restored or whatever the hell else I said. Probably a good policy regardless. Ervin Santana tossed six shutout innings and Jason Castro drove in three of the four runs. The fourth came via an Eddie Rosario homer.

Rangers 7, Yankees 6: It was Old Timers Day at Yankee Stadium, and Whitey Ford, Ron Guidry and Sparky Lyle were all on hand. Too bad they didn’t stick around because the Yankees might’ve been better off with them on the bump for the game that counted. Texas scored six runs off of Michael Pineda in the first two innings and seven over four, thanks in parts to homers by Adrian Beltre, Shin-Soo Choo and Drew Robinson. The Yankees made it close, adding four in the fifth and two in the seventh, but they’d fall one short. Next time, give it to Whitey.

Blue Jays 8, Royals 2:  Jose Bautista homered and drove in four. Francisco Liriano allowed two runs on six hits while pitching into the seventh to pick up his 100th career victory. In other news, Jays closer Roberto Osuna struck out three in a scoreless ninth inning a day after saying he was dealing with anxiety issues. Everyone is fighting a battle you don’t know anything about. Good to see Osuna having a positive day as he fights his.

Marlins 4, Cubs 2: Addison Russell left with a pain in his shoulder and the Cubs lost a game they probably should’ve won. Three of Miami’s four runs were unearned following a first inning error by Russell and the Cubs managed to turn eight hits and seven walks into only two runs. A Giancarlo Stanton homer in the seventh gave the fish some insurance. Ichiro started in center field, by the way, becoming the oldest man to ever start a game at the 8. He was 43 years, 246 days old yesterday. Rickey Henderson had the previous record for a center field start, doing so on the day he was 43 years and 211 days old back in the 2002 season with the Red Sox.

Orioles 8, Rays 5: It was tied at five heading into the ninth when Caleb Joseph and Seth Smith reached base in front of Joey Rickard‘s tiebreaking double which scored Joseph. Smith came in to score when Jonathan Schoop was hit by a pitch. Then Rickard scored on an Adam Jones sac fly. Joseph, Trey Mancini and Schoop all homered for the Orioles.

Angels 4, Red Sox 2: A week ago Parker Bridwell and Doug Fister were in the same dugout for the Salt Lake City Bees. Yesterday they faced each other following Bridwell’s callup and Fister’s release and signing by the Sox. Bridwell got the better of Fister, allowing two runs while pitching into the seventh. Mitch Moreland and Jackie Bradley Jr. homered for the Sox in a losing cause.

Brewers 7, Braves 0: Zach Davies tossed seven shutout innings, but he didn’t need to be that good given what his teammates did to Julio Teheran. Keon Broxton hit a solo shot and drove in two with a single. Travis Shaw hit a two-run shot to kick off the scoring. The Brewers snap the Braves four-game winning streak and salvage one in the three-game series.

Reds 6, Nationals 2: The Reds got pummeled by the Nats on Saturday night but they came out swinging on Sunday, putting up five runs in the first. Scooter Gennett had an RBI single in the first and hit homered in the second. Scott Feldman allowed two runs over seven innings.

Athletics 5, White Sox 3: There were rumors last week that some contender might trade for Sony Gray and make him a reliever. Seems fine as a starter to me: he pitched four-hit ball over seven innings. Oakland trailed until the eighth but took the lead on Khris Davis and Yonder Alonso RBI singles. They padded the lead in the ninth with homers from Adam Rosales and Matt Joyce.

Mets 8, Giants 2: Rene Rivera hit two homers. Jay Bruce and Curtis Granderson each went deep once. Slackers. Or maybe Bruce was just more efficient because he drove in the same number of runs Rivera did — three — with one fewer dinger. Baseball: it’s full of mysteries. Anyway, the Mets sweep the Giants, who have lost five in a row and 12 of 13.

Astros 8, Mariners 2George Springer, Yuli Gurriel and Evan Gattis all went deep as the Astros finish up a 6-1 road trip. Emergency starter Francis Martes had a rough go of it, but four relievers combined to shut out the Mariners on three hits for seven innings. These guys have the best record in the game and, like, 80% of their rotation is hurt. Pretty scary team.

Diamondbacks 2, Phillies 1Daniel Descalso hit a walkoff single, scoring Paul Goldschmidt in the 11th. Goldschmidt knocked in the snakes’ other run earlier in the game. Arizona has won 11 of 13

Tigers 7, Padres 5Mikie Mahtook drove in three runs via an RBI triple in the fourth and a tiebreaking two-run single in the ninth to help the Tigers end their eight game losing streak. The Padres blew 3-0 and 5-3 leads.

Cardinals 8, Pirates 4: Down 4-2 in the sixth, a Randal Grichuk homer and a Jed Gyorko RBI double tied things up and then a four-run seventh inning put things away. Four Cardinal relievers combining to allow only one hit over three scoreless innings helped put it away too.

Giancarlo Stanton will defend his Home Run Derby title

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The Marlins announced on Sunday that outfielder Giancarlo Stanton will defend his Home Run Derby title when the city of Miami host’s the All-Star Game festivities next month.

Stanton, 27, defeated Todd Frazier in the finals of last year’s Home Run Derby at Petco Park, hitting 20 home runs to Frazier’s 13. Stanton hit a total of 61 home runs in the Derby. This will be the third Home Run Derby in which Stanton has participated.

Stanton also went 1-for-3 with a solo home run to help the Marlins defeat the Cubs 4-2 on Sunday. He’s now batting .274/.357/.551 with 20 home runs and 49 RBI in 311 plate appearances.