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.

Yankees star Judge hits 61st home run, ties Maris’ AL record

aaron judge
Cole Burston/Getty Images
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TORONTO — Aaron Judge tied Roger Maris’ American League record of 61 home runs in a season, hitting a tiebreaking, two-run drive for the New York Yankees in the seventh inning against the Toronto Blue Jays on Wednesday night.

The 30-year-old slugger drove a 94.5 mph belt-high sinker with a full-count from left-hander Tim Mayza over the left-field fence at Rogers Centre. The 117.4 mph drive took just 3.8 seconds to land 394 feet from the plate, and it put the Yankees ahead 5-3.

Judge watched the ball clank off the front of the stands, just below two fans who reached over a railing and tried for a catch. He pumped an arm just before reaching first and exchanged a slap with coach Travis Chapman.

The ball dropped into Toronto’s bullpen and was picked up by Blue Jays bullpen coach Matt Buschmann, who turned it over to the Yankees.

Judge’s mother and Roger Maris Jr. rose and hugged from front-row seats. He appeared to point toward them after rounding second base, then was congratulated by the entire Yankees team, who gave him hugs after he crossed the plate.

Judge moved past the 60 home runs Babe Ruth hit in 1927, which had stood as the major league mark until Maris broke it in 1961. All three stars reached those huge numbers playing for the Yankees.

Barry Bonds holds the big league record of 73 for the San Francisco Giants in 2001.

Judge had gone seven games without a home run – his longest drought this season was nine in mid-August. This was the Yankees’ 155th game of the season, leaving them seven more in the regular season.

The home run came in the fourth plate appearance of the night for Judge, ending a streak of 34 plate appearances without a home run.

Judge is hitting .313 with 130 RBIs, also the top totals in the AL. He has a chance to become the first AL Triple Crown winner since Detroit’s Miguel Cabrera in 2012.

Maris hit No. 61 for the Yankees on Oct. 1, 1961, against Boston Red Sox pitcher Tracy Stallard.

Maris’ mark has been exceeded six times, but all have been tainted by the stench of steroids. Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1998 and 65 the following year, and Bonds topped him. Sammy Sosa had 66, 65 and 63 during a four-season span starting in 1998.

McGwire admitted using banned steroids, while Bonds and Sosa denied knowingly using performing-enhancing drugs. Major League Baseball started testing with penalties for PEDs in 2004, and some fans – perhaps many – until now have considered Maris the holder of the “clean” record.

Among the tallest batters in major league history, the 6-foot-7 Judge burst on the scene on Aug. 13, 2016, homering off the railing above Yankee Stadium’s center-field sports bar and into the netting above Monument Park. He followed Tyler Austin to the plate and they become the first teammates to homer in their first major league at-bats in the same game.

Judge hit 52 homers with 114 RBIs the following year and was a unanimous winner of the AL Rookie of the Year award. Injuries limited him during the following three seasons, and he rebounded to hit 39 homers with 98 RBIs in 2021.

As he approached his last season before free agent eligibility, Judge on opening day turned down the Yankees’ offer of an eight-year contract worth from $230.5 million to $234.5 million. The proposal included an average of $30.5 million annually from 2023-29, with his salary this year to be either the $17 million offered by the team in arbitration or the $21 million requested by the player.

An agreement was reached in June on a $19 million, one-year deal, and Judge heads into this offseason likely to get a contract from the Yankees or another team for $300 million or more, perhaps topping $400 million.

Judge hit six homers in April, 12 in May and 11 in June. He earned his fourth All-Star selection and entered the break with 33 homers. He had 13 homers in July and dropped to nine in August, when injuries left him less protected in the batting order and pitchers walked him 25 times.

He became just the fifth player to hold a share of the AL season record. Nap Lajoie hit 14 in the AL’s first season as a major league in 1901, and Philadelphia Athletics teammate Socks Seabold had 16 the next year, a mark that stood until Babe Ruth hit 29 in 1919. Ruth set the record four times in all, with 54 in 1920, 59 in 1921 and 60 in 1927, a mark that stood until Maris’ 61 in 1961.

Maris was at 35 in July 1961 during the first season each team’s schedule increased from 154 games to 162, and baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled if anyone topped Ruth in more than 154 games “there would have to be some distinctive mark in the record books to show that Babe Ruth’s record was set under a 154-game schedule.”

That “distinctive mark” became known as an “asterisk” and it remained until Sept. 4, 1991, when a committee on statistical accuracy chaired by Commissioner Fay Vincent voted unanimously to recognize Maris as the record holder.