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.

Vin Scully to miss postseason after undergoing medical procedure

Los Angeles Dodgers Hall of Fame broadcaster Vin Scully announces he will return to broadcast his 67th, and last baseball season in 2016, during a news conference in Los Angeles, Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
AP Photo/Alex Gallardo
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The Dodgers announced this afternoon that legendary broadcaster Vin Scully underwent a “recommended medical procedure” this morning and will miss the the postseason. The good news is that he’s said to be “resting comfortably.”

Scully, who turns 88 next month, was expected to do radio broadcasts for the Dodgers the postseason. While he’ll skip the playoffs at the advice of his doctors, the Dodgers said that he’s looking forward to returning for his 67th season in the booth in 2016. Scully said in August that it will be his last.

On behalf of all baseball fans, get well soon, Mr. Scully.

Josh Donaldson leaves Game 1 of ALDS with head injury

Josh Donaldson
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Both starting third basemen have left Game 1 of the Rangers-Blue Jays series with injuries.

Adrian Beltre exited with a back injury in the second inning and now Josh Donaldson has left the game an inning after taking a knee to the head while trying to break up a double play.

It’s natural to wonder if Donaldson suffered a concussion on the play, particularly since Justin Morneau, then of the Twins, had his career derailed by a knee to the head on a nearly identical takeout slide in Toronto back in 2010. For now the Blue Jays are saying Donaldson left as a “precaution,” but as a Twins fan that play immediately flashed into my mind.

Donaldson will either win or finish runner-up for AL MVP after hitting .297 with 41 homers and a .939 OPS in 158 games during his first season in Toronto.

ALDS, Game 1: Astros vs. Royals

Texas Rangers v Kansas City Royals
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Here are the Astros and Royals lineups for Game 1 of the ALDS in Kansas City:

2B Jose Altuve
RF George Springer
SS Carlos Correa
LF Colby Rasmus
DH Evan Gattis
3B Luis Valbuena
1B Chris Carter
C Jason Castro
CF Jake Marisnick

SP Collin McHugh

Carlos Gomez started in center field and homered in the Wild Card game, but he’s on the bench tonight due to a lingering intercostal injury. According to manager A.J. Hinch he’s available to pinch-hit and is expected to start Game 2, but clearly Gomez’s health will be something to watch all series long.

SS Alcides Escobar
2B Ben Zobrist
CF Lorenzo Cain
1B Eric Hosmer
DH Kendrys Morales
3B Mike Moustakas
C Salvador Perez
LF Alex Gordon
RF Alex Rios

SP Yordano Ventura

Alcides Escobar has a .298 career on-base percentage, including a .293 OBP with 26 walks in 148 games this season, but because the Royals have a very good win-loss record in games when he’s hit leadoff manager Ned Yost has him atop the lineup tonight. Alex Gordon, who led the Royals in OBP at .377, is batting eighth.