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.

Corey Knebel sets modern record for consecutive appearances with a strikeout

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Brewers closer Corey Knebel set a modern major league record for relievers to start a season, as Thursday’s appearance marked his 38th consecutive appearance with a strikeout. He set down the side in order in the ninth inning, striking Josh Bell out to start the frame.

Aroldis Chapman held the record previously, recording a strikeout in his first 37 appearances of the season in 2014 with the Reds.

Knebel, 25, has flown under the radar despite having an incredibly good season. He moved into the closer’s role in mid-May when Neftali Feliz, now a free agent, struggled. After Thursday’s appearance, Knebel is 12-for-15 in save chances with a 0.96 ERA and a 65/17 K/BB ratio in 37 2/3 innings.

Joey Votto thinks he can win the Home Run Derby, but hasn’t been invited yet

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Despite having hit at least 20 home runs in eight of his 11 seasons in the majors, Reds first baseman Joey Votto has never participated in a Home Run Derby. Currently, he’s tied for the National League lead in home runs with 20, and he hasn’t been invited to this year’s festivities at Marlins Park.

In the event he is invited, Votto said he thinks he can win it, C. Trent Rosecrans of the Cincinnati Enquirer reports. Votto likened himself to Ichiro Suzuki, a player known more for his contact abilities and mastery of the strike zone than power. “Just think of me as the Canadian Ichiro — Japan has theirs and Canada has theirs,” Votto said. “I could pull homers into the seats at will.”

Along with the 20 homers, Votto is currently hitting .306/.419/.601 with 53 RBI, and 52 runs scored in 313 plate appearances.

Teammate Scott Schebler also has 20 home runs at the moment and Adam Duvall, who made it to the semifinals of the Derby last year, has 16. Neither of them have been approached about participating in the Derby, either. Per Rosecrans, in the event each was invited, Duvall said he would consider participating if he wasn’t an All-Star and Schebler would participate regardless. Votto said he would only participate if he made the All-Star team.