It’s Independence Day in America and ballparks all around the lower 48 will mark the occasion with bunting, bands, fireworks and flyovers.
Today also marks the halfway mark of the MLB season, or thereabouts.
All-Star voting is nearly closed and the mid-summer classic goes July 11.
Those in the AL and NL line-ups are a strong bunch who have had a major hand in their team’s fortunes so far in 2017. Some, like Justin Smoak of Toronto, have put up truly shocking numbers.
We have seen plenty of amazing and surprising performances in the first half, including the Houston Astros (spoiler alert) rocket-like trip to the top of the baseball heap.
There have also been great performances from players we’ve come to expect them from, such as Mr. Cy Young himself, Clayton Kershaw and his NL leading 12 wins.
We are going to keep it all positive here and detail 15 very surprising occurrences since the first pitch on April 2.
15. Milwaukee Brewers Top NL Central
There lead is oh so slim at 2.5 games, but the Brewers have left us agog at being on top of the National League Central this far into the campaign. Now it could be due to the underwhelming records of the defending champion Chicago Cubs (41-41), ditto the St. Louis Cardinals (40-42). At 45-40, the Brew Crew are definitely punching above their weight. Most prognosticators had the Brewers finishing dead last this season, one venerable publication even predicting a 62-100 record. At the plate, third year third baseman Travis Shaw has ripped the hide off the ball, clipping along with a .294, average, 20 doubles, 17 homers and 60 RBI. No one pitcher is Cy Young material, however, they have four starters with winning records and closer Corey Knebel has mopped up well, saving 13 of 16 and striking out 68 in just 39.2 innings pitched.
14. Kansas City’s Vargas Leads AL In Wins And ERA
In 2015, Jason Vargas baseball career was deemed all but over. After nine starts with Kansas City, the veteran hurler tore his UCL and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. The 34-year-old missed the remainder of that campaign and most of the 2016 season, getting in three starts late that year. What a bounce-back he has had in 2017. Sixteen starts into this season, Vargas leads the American League in wins with 12 (12-3 record) and ERA at 2.22. That puts him one win ahead of lights out Red Sox starter Chris Sale, with one fewer start, too. He also leads the league in WAR at 4.5 and is tied for sixth in quality starts at 12. He’s not overpowering, having struck out 74 in 101.1 innings but he has limited the oppositions walks to just 24 and homers to eight.
13. Joey Votto And Cody Bellinger Top NL In Home Runs
We had to call this one a draw. That veteran Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds and rookie Cody Bellinger of the Los Angeles Dodgers are the NL’s biggest boppers at the halfway point is shocking in different ways. Votto, who is an excellent contact hitter (lifetime .313 average) with some power, is in line to beat his career mark of 37 big flies by a mile. He hit 29 homers in each of the last two seasons and already has 24 this year. More surprising is that he doesn’t have one multi-homer game, either. Bellinger, on the other hand, didn’t even start the year with the Dodgers, spending 18 games in AAA with Oklahoma City. He has smoked 24 homers in just 64 games since being called up, which is astounding. His power isn’t surprising (92 homers in 445 minor league games), however, he has eaten up big league pitching, which is. He hit 13 in June alone, which tied him for third most home runs in a month by a rookie.
12. Seattle Rookie Ben Gamel Leads AL In Hitting
Yes, Gamel is tied with Yankees’ freshman Aaron Judge for the AL lead in hitting at .330, but we’ve reserved another special place for Judge later in this piece. Like Cody Bellinger in Los Angeles, Mariners’ rookie outfielder Gamel started the year in AAA, playing 18 games with Tacoma of the Pacific Coast League, where he hit .288 (he owns a .288 career minor league average). Since being called up to the Mariners, the former Yankees farmhand has been on a tear. He has 25 multi-hit games, including a 3-for-3 outing against the Angels on May 4 and two four-hit games (4-for-5) against Philadelphia on May 9 and the Angels on June 30. Included in his 77 hits are 15 doubles, two triples and four homers, as well as a 15-game hit streak in June (28-for-63, .444 average).
11. Arizona Diamondbacks Second In NL West
The best many predicted the Diamondbacks to do was finish middle of the pack this season. So far, they have far exceeded any expectations. At 52-31, they are just 2.5 games back of the surging Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West and own the third-best record in all of baseball. Where the D-Backs have separated themselves from the herd is in the pitching department, followed closely by hitting. They are second in the major leagues in team ERA at 3.38, with the Dodgers coming in first at 3.22. Zack Greinke leads Arizona starters with a 10-4 record and 3.05 ERA, trailed slightly by bounce back starter Robbie Ray (8-4, 3.06). Fernando Rodney, a greybeard at 40, has closed out 21 of 25 save opportunities. As far as hitting goes, the hot corner twins, Paul Goldschmidt (1B) and Jake Lamb (3B) have combined to hit 37 homers and drive in 131 runs. More on them, later.
10. Minnesota Closer Brandon Kintzler Second In AL Saves
After going in the 40th round of the 2003 (Yankees) and 2004 (Padres) drafts, Brandon Kintzler spent a lot of time in the minors (parts of eight seasons) and had set-up duties with the Milwaukee Brewers between 2010 and 2015. A fresh start with the Twins in 2016 seemed to be the tonic. In 54 games last year, he posted 17 saves in 20 opportunities and had a 3.15 ERA. This season, the crafty righthander has converted on 21 of 24 save opportunities to sit second in the AL behind Craig Kimbrel, who has 23 saves so far. The Twins have come back to level since leading the AL Central for the better part of the first half, however, Kintzler’s contributions have kept them in the hunt, as they are still only 2.5 games back of front-running Cleveland with a 42-40 record.
9. Colorado’s Nolan Arenado Leads Majors In Extra Base Hits
There is really no surprise that Nolan Arenado has power and is able to blast balls over the wall and into the gaps for doubles and triples. What is surprising, though, is the fact he leads all hitters so far this season in extra base hits with 47. He did lead the major leagues in XBH in 2015 with 89, but that was on the strength of a NL leading 42 dingers. This season, Arenado has been a doubles machine for the surprisingly good Rockies (fourth best record in the NL), stroking a league high 27 two-base hits. He also has five triples (one off his career best six) and 15 home runs to date. He and teammate Charlie Blackmon are one-two in extra base hits, as Blackmon has 45, including a MLB leading 10 triples. These two have been the Rockies’ offensive engine.
8. Angels Cameron Maybin Leads AL In Stolen Bases
The American League, with its DH rule, isn’t a run-friendly loop. Seven times in the last 10 seasons, the NL leader in stolen bases has surpassed the AL thefts champion, usually by a wide margin. Maybin, whose career high is 40 stolen bases — achieved with, no surprise, the Padres in 2011 — is the AL leader with 24 and should easily eclipse that career best mark. What is most surprising his rate, as he has been caught stealing just twice. The MLB leader, Trea Turner, has been thrown out six times in 41 attempts. Maybin’s best game this season was a four stolen base effort in a big win over league leading Houston on June 9. He stole second three times and third once as the Angels beat the Astros 9-4.
7. Rockies’ Greg Holland Leads Majors In Saves
Like former Kansas City Royals teammate Jason Vargas (above), most MLB pundits pegged Greg Holland’s career over when he tore his UCL in late 2015 and had to have Tommy John surgery. And like Vargas, he has resurrected himself after missing the 2016 season and being released by the Royals. That he is leading the NL in saves isn’t shocking, but that he is leading all of baseball in that department is, considering the rust he must have had entering the 2017 campaign with the Rockies. Holland has been as close to lights out as a reliever can get, blowing just one save opportunity in 28 appearances. Along the way, he has compiled a minuscule 1.44 ERA, with 42 strikeouts in 31.1 innings.
6. Chris Sale Leads Majors In Strikeouts
It isn’t all that shocking that Boston ace Sale is leading the major leagues in strikeouts, its how he has achieved it that is truly amazing. Put it this way, in 2015, the only year he topped the AL in K’s, Sale had 274 in 31 starts. He has 166 in just 17 starts this year, putting him on pace to record over 300, and many more if he gets up to 34 starts, which is possible. The most astounding part of his crazy good season was the eight-start run he had to start the season. Sale, who is 11-3 with a 2.61 ERA, had 10 or more strikeouts in eight starts between April 10 and May 19. He went 4-2 during that stretch and only failed to reach seven innings pitched once. In total this season, Sale has 11 games of 10 or more strikeouts, including 11 during seven innings of four-hit shutout ball in a 7-1 win over Toronto on July 1.
5. Trea Turner Leads All Of Baseball In Stolen Bases
In the last 20 seasons, only five players have stolen 70 or more bases in a season, a far cry from the days in 1980s when Vince Coleman and Rickey Henderson each stole over 100 three times. Young Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner won’t likely steal 100, but he is on pace to steal over 70 (however, he is on the DL with a fractured wrist). What makes his base-running feats even more remarkable is the fact that he has played in just 68 of Washington’s 83 games thus far. A stolen base rate of one ever other game (and a bit) is very noteworthy. Before he was hit by a pitch on June 29 and suffered his injury, Turner was on a roll. He had 13 stolen bases in 11 games, including two games where he swiped four.
4. Aaron Judge Leads Major Leagues In Home Runs
Aaron Judge must scare the Dickens out of big league pitchers. At 6’7″ and 282 lbs., he’s a LeBron James-sized menace with a bat in his hands. The first-year Yankees outfielder is absolutely clobbering MLB pitchers to the tune of a league leading 27 home runs and is currently sitting tied for fourth in batting at .330. His 62 RBI in 72 games ties him for fifth and he leads all major leaguers in runs with 72, on-base percentage at .448, WAR at 4.9, OPS at 1.130 and slugging percentage at an eye-opening .682. Those are the kind of stats that shouldn’t only lead to AL Rookie of the Year, but also MVP. That the Yanks are sitting second in the always tough AL East is a testament to his monster contributions.
3. Goldschmidt And Lamb Power Diamondbacks
Little wonder the surprising D-Backs are second in the NL West, nipping at the heels of front-runner Los Angeles. Their MLB third-best record of 52-31 can be attributed to many more things going right, than wrong. One is the fact they are third in runs scored and the other is the prolific production of their corner infielders, 1B Paul Goldschmidt and 3B Jake Lamb. Goldschmidt, who will make his fifth all-star appearance in a row, leads all big leaguers with 66 RBI in 82 games. He is also the leader in runs with 71 and walks with 56. He has 40 extra base hits, too, including 19 doubles and 19 home runs. Across the diamond, first time all-star Lamb sits second among major leaguers with 65 RBI. He has 38 extra base hits, with 17 doubles and 18 homers. Quite a pair.
2. Colorado Rockies Are In A Wild Card Berth
Again, baseball literati did not have forecast the Rockies ascendance to a playoff spot. Many ball scribes picked them to finish third in the NL West, just outside of a wild card berth. As of Tuesday, the Rockies own the second wild card spot with a 49-36 record, 6.5 games ahead of the defending champion Chicago Cubs (41-41). From top to bottom, this Rockies team is playing way above its station. We’ve already told you about NL MVP candidate Nolan Arenado’s superhuman batting feats, followed closely by Charlie Blackmon. As well, we noted Greg Holland’s superb Comeback Player of the Year worth bullpen exploits. Also ripping the cover off the ball are 1B Mark Reynolds (19 HR, 61 RBI) and 2B D.J. LeMahieu (.309 batting average). They also have three starters with winning records, led by rookie Kyle Freeland’s 8-6 mark.
1. Houston Is The Best Team In Baseball
The soothsayers among baseball writers did pick the Houston Astros to take the weak AL West. Only they are running away with it, sitting 15 games ahead of the second place Los Angeles Angels at 56-27. That mark is tops in the major leagues and barring a disastrous swoon over the latter half of the season, the Astros are in the post-season. And they won’t just be happy to be there, either. Pitching wise, they are third in the AL with a collective 3.91 ERA and first in strikeouts with 852. All-Star Dallas Keuchel is 9-0 with a 1.67 ERA in 11 starts, and fellow All-Star Lance McCullers is 7-1 with a 2.69 ERA and a team-leading 103 Ks. Their superb middle infielders, 2B Jose Altuve and SS Carlos Correa are starters for the All-Star contest, too. Altuve is third in batting at .326 and Correa sits sixth at .319. Outfielder George Springer, who is second in the AL with 24 homers, is also an All-Star invitee. The ‘Stros will be a force to be reckoned with.