Five surprising first-half performers

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I grew up listening to Operation Ivy. No, I’m not going to bore you with
my one-time affinity for late 80’s ska-core, but there’s a line from
“Knowledge” that always rings true in my head, especially as it relates to my
experience as a baseball fan:

“All I know is that I don’t know
nothing.”

I’m a subscriber to sabermetrics and all that jazz, but if
everything turned out like the PECOTA and ZiPS projections told us they
would, well, our great game would be pretty darn boring, now wouldn’t
it? Fortunately, you can always set your watch to the fact that a few
surprise contributors will emerge during the first half of any given
season, some of them even becoming All-Stars. This is mostly intended to
be a fun exercise to keep us occupied with only the Home Run Derby on
the docket for tonight, so don’t take this too seriously. Anyhow, here’s
my list. Please leave us yours.

Brennan Boesch, Tigers: You really have to wonder where the Tigers
would be without him. In a season where Jason Heyward was voted to the
National League All-Star team, this 25-year-old outfielder has been the
best rookie hitter in all of baseball. It’s not even remotely close. In
fact, it’s no stretch to say he’s been one of the best hitters in the
American League, as well. Boesch, who posted a .273/.319/.434 batting
line over parts of five season in the minors, currently ranks fourth in
the AL in batting average (.342), slugging percentage (.593) and OPS
(990) and fifth in on-base percentage (.397). While I worry about where
his ultra-aggressive approach at the plate will take him in the
long-term, it has worked like gangbusters thus far.

Jaime Garcia, Cardinals: When I imagine what Dave Duncan saw in
Garcia during spring training, I think of Charles Montgomery Burns
famously tenting his fingers together while letting out his trademark
“excellent.” Duncan’s latest creation is third in the National League
with a 2.17 ERA through 17 starts. The 24-year-old southpaw has never
had an ERA higher than 2.27 at any point this season. Garcia, who missed
most of last season after Tommy John surgery, has found success in the
major leagues this season thanks to his sinker, inducing groundballs
56.1 percent of the time, nearly matching that of Joel Pineiro (56.3
percent), who ironically left the Cardinals over the winter. You won’t see
Garcia in the All-Star Game, but he has stepped in to be a fine No. 3 to
Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter during the first half.

Jose Bautista, Blue Jays: Perhaps the biggest surprise of them all,
we’ve known Bautista to be a decent little utility player with some pop
and a poor batting average. Or — and let’s be honest now — you didn’t
know him at all. It doesn’t matter how we got there, because we all know
him by now. Not only did the 29-year-old Bautista surpass his previous
career-high of 16 homers by June 4, he incredibly leads the major
leagues with 24 home runs at the All-Star break. Not bad for someone who
was sent down to the minor leagues by the Pirates just two years ago.
Granted, there’s a little luck involved with the homers and he’s still
batting just .237 — right in line with his .238 career batting average
— but he has to be doing something right. Not that I particularly care,
but how he is not in tonight’s Home Run Derby is pretty baffling. It
would have been an appropriate way to affirm his first half.

Andres Torres, Giants: Hyped more for his speed than his ability
with the bat, some might remember Torres as a highly-regarded prospect
with the Tigers’ organization in the early aughts. Now 32 years old, he
has finally found a home in the Bay Area. Torres hinted at a
breakthrough by batting .270/.343/.533 in 152 at-bats in 2009, but it
was natural to be skeptical given that he had no track record of success
in the major leagues. Not only has Torres picked up from where he left
off last season, he has been one of the National League’s most valuable
players during the first half. No kidding. In addition to batting
.281/.378/.483 with seven homers, 29 RBI and 17 stolen bases, he has
also been one of the best defensive outfielders in all of baseball. For
the sabermetric set, only Matt Holliday tops Torres among NL outfielders
in WAR (Wins Above Replacement). Bet you didn’t know that.

Colby Lewis, Rangers: The Rangers were met with some fierce
competition before they signed their former farmhand to a two-year, $5 million contract
in January, but there were still many who doubted whether Lewis could
actually replicate his impressive numbers from Japan. After all, last we
saw him, he posted a 6.45 ERA with the Athletics in 2007. It was one
thing to see it in scouting reports and stat sheets, but the first half
has been enough to tell us that this is a completely different pitcher.
With an increased focus on his electric slider (his best pitch even
before he left for Japan), the now 30-year-old right-hander is 8-5 with a 3.33 ERA and 1.12 WHIP
through 17 starts. He currently ranks ninth in the American League with
105 strikeouts in 110 2/3 innings. He has proved to be one of the
offseason’s best bargains.

Video: Albert Almora, Jr. saved by the ivy

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
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The ALCS had a weird play in Game 4 on Tuesday night, but Game 4 of the NLCS did as well. This one involved Cubs outfielder Albert Almora, Jr. and his attempt to spark a rally in the bottom of the ninth inning against Dodgers reliever Ross Stripling.

After Alex Avila singled, Almora ripped a double to left field, past a diving Enrique Hernandez. The ball rolled to the ivy in front of the wall. Most outfielders there would’ve put their hands up, which would have alerted the umpires to call an immediate ground-rule double. Hernandez didn’t, instead fishing the ball out and firing it back into the infield. Avila had stopped at third base, but Almora kept running. Much to his surprise, he pulled up into third base to see his teammate standing there, resigned to his fate as a dead duck. Third baseman Justin Turner applied the tag on Almora for what he thought was the first out of the inning.

Almora, however, was then sent back to second base after the umpires correctly called a ground-rule double.

Unfortunately for the Cubs, the lucky break didn’t help as closer Kenley Jansen came in and took care of business, retiring all three batters he faced without letting an inherited runner score. The Dodgers won 6-1 and now lead the NLCS three games to none. They’ll try to punch their ticket to the World Series on Wednesday.