With the close of play on Sunday, nearly every team has reached the 81-game mark, the mathematical midpoint of the 2014 season. Given that, it’s worth a look back to identify the biggest surprises, disappointments, improvements and falloffs, both among players and teams.
Biggest surprise, player: Josh Beckett
Once an ace and twice a world champion, Beckett managed just a 4.76 ERA from 2012-13. He also made only 36 starts in those two seasons due to injuries, and underwent career-threatening surgery last July to alleviate Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. The Dodgers could hardly count on him to be a valuable rotation piece, but thanks to some astute input from catcher A.J. Ellis, the 34-year-old righty has rediscovered his curveball as a weapon. Though 15 starts — including the season's first no-hitter on May 25 — Beckett has struck out 8.5 per nine, his highest rate since 2008, and turned in a 2.11 ERA (third in the league) and 2.8 Wins Above Replacement (sixth).
Biggest surprise, team: Milwaukee Brewers
Winners of just 74 games last year amid a division that produced three playoff teams and the National League champions, the Brewers have climbed not only to the top of the NL Central but also to the league’s best record (51-33) and second-best run differential (+40). Even with Jean Segura unable to replicate last year's All-Star form, catcher Jonathan Lucroy, second baseman Scooter Gennett and centerfielder Carlos Gomez have given the Brew Crew a strong up-the-middle core, with Lucroy and Gomez both cracking the league's top 10 in WAR (4.3 for the former, 3.1 for the latter). Ryan Braun is a far cry from his pre-2013 form, but the offense is getting above-average production at every position except shortstop and first base and ranks second in the league in scoring at 4.56 runs per game. The rotation has shaved half a run off last year's ERA, with the underrated Kyle Lohse putting together his fourth straight strong season and fellow starters Yovani Gallardo and Wily Peralta rebounding from subpar 2013 showings. Meanwhile, closer Francisco Rodriguez has shown vintage form, helping Milwaukee go 42-1 when leading after eight innings.
Biggest disappointment, player: Wil Myers
The focal point of a blockbuster trade in December 2012 that brought him to Tampa Bay from Kansas City, Myers hit .293/.354/.478 with 13 home runs in 88 games en route to American League Rookie of the Year honors in 2013, and he appeared poised to build on those numbers over the course of a full season. Instead, he's become a symbol of the Rays' sudden collapse. He hit just .227/.313/.354 with five homers before going on the disabled list in late May due to a fractured right wrist that will likely keep him sidelined through July. Myers is still just 23 years old, but for a team that banks on getting the most out of its players while they're still affordable and under club control, his write-off season carries a special sting.
Biggest disappointment, team: Boston Red Sox
The defending world champions appeared poised for another strong year, with full seasons from talented youngsters Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. expected to offset the departures of Stephen Drew and Jacoby Ellsbury. While the two rookies have underperformed — the latter drastically — and Drew is back, the larger issue is an offense that has up and died, scraping together a bare 3.79 runs per game, virtually tied for the league's second-lowest rate. David Ortiz and Mike Napoli have remained productive and Brock Holt has been a pleasant surprise, but A.J. Pierzynski has been a poor replacement for Jarrod Saltalamacchia; meanwhile, the once-deep outfield has been a shadow of its 2013 form, with Shane Victorino limited to 99 plate appearances due to injuries, Daniel Nava earning a stint in the minors and Jonny Gomes in a season-long slump. The team has been better on the run-prevention side (4.20 per game, sixth in the league), but Clay Buchholz has once again found that sour spot between ineffective and unavailable, and Jake Peavy is a shadow of his former self. Thanks to the gap between John Farrell and Bobby Valentine, his predecessor as Boston's manager, this isn't the trainwreck of 2012, but the Sox are 38-44 and have yet to post a winning month.
Most improved player: Dallas Keuchel
A seventh-round 2009 pick out of the University of Arkansas, Keuchel never cracked the upper reaches of a top prospect list. He topped out at No. 21 among the Astros' top 30 according to Baseball America in 2012, when the rebuilding club's minor league system had only just turned the corner. He was no more heralded after being knocked around for a 5.20 ERA in 239 innings for Houston in 2012 and '13, but thanks to an improved sinker and better command, he's emerged as the rebuilding Astros' best starter and a piece for the future. Keuchel's 2.78 ERA, 0.4 homers per nine and 73 percent quality start rate all rank among the league's top 10, as does his 3.5 WAR.
Biggest decline: Jedd Gyorko
On the heels of a productive rookie season (.249/.301/.444 with 23 homers for a 113 OPS+), Gyorko has come to symbolize the fallen Josh Byrnes regime in San Diego. His six-year, $35 million extension would rank as small potatoes for most other teams, but it ranks as the largest and longest-term investment in any Padre on the roster, and thus far nothing has gone right. Gyorko hit just .162/.213/.270 through 221 PA for a 39 OPS+ before going on the disabled list in early June due to plantar fasciitis; thanks to subpar defense, his WAR is currently 3.6 wins lower than in 2013 (from 2.2 to −1.4). While he may still have a bright future ahead of him, the present is bleak.