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The Strike Zone

Top five stories from the 2013 season so far

Chris Davis, OriolesChris Davis has 31 home runs this year, just two fewer than his previous career high, and is on pace for 60. (Mark Goldman/Icon SMI)

The last teams to reach the half-way point in their seasons, the Mets, Twins, White Sox and Royals, all play their 81st game Wednesday nigh. That makes this the perfect time to look back at the five biggest stories from the first half of the 2013 baseball season, which has been highlighted by the rise of an unlikely challenger to a Ruthian threshold, a new prince of Gotham and a star in Hollywood.

1. The surprise MVP candidate: Chris Davis

Davis, the Orioles' first baseman, went 1-for-4 with a three-run home run on Opening Day, then proceeded to homer in each of the next three games, as well and drive in 13 more runs. His four home runs and 16 RBIs not only set a record for the first four games of a season, it made him the biggest story of the year, something he has maintained to this point even if he eventually cooled off -- a little.

Davis enters Wednesday’s action having hit .329/.405/.721 with 31 home runs and 80 RBIs in 83 games. He leads the majors in both homers and total bases (217). Prior to Tuesday night's 0-for-3, he was also leading qualified hitters in slugging percentage, OPS (1.135), OPS+ (201), and Baseball Prospectus’s True Average (.380). By way of comparison, he hit 33 home runs, drove in 85 runs and compiled 258 total bases in 139 games last year, all of those figures career highs that are about to be broken.  Not bad for a 27-year-old free-swinger whom the Rangers gave up on three years ago, flipping him to the Orioles with Tommy Hunter for Koji Uehara at the 2011 trading deadline.

JAFFE: Davis joins select company at 30-home run mark

Davis is currently on pace for 60 home runs and 154 RBIs. No one has reached the latter number since 2007 (by AL MVP Alex Rodriguez) and no one has gotten to the former since 2001 (by NL MVP and single-season record-setter Barry Bonds). Davis is no lock to join A-Rod and Bonds as MVP winners, as he sits neck-and-neck with Miguel Cabrera in the race for the AL honor. Cabrera is batting .368/.458/.678 with 26 HR and 85 RBIs and leading the majors every one of those categories that Davis is not as well as hits (119) and runs (65) but for him, being the majors’ best hitter is the status quo. When Chris Davis does it, it’s a story.

2. The new ace: Matt Harvey

Matt Harvey didn’t exactly sneak up on anyone. He was the seventh-overall draft pick in 2010 and, along with fellow righty Zack Wheeler, the Mets’ top prospect prior to the 2012 season. He then posted a 2.73 ERA and struck out 10.6 men per nine innings in his first 10 major league starts last season. Still, no one expected him to challenge Clayton Kershaw’s place as the game’s top pitcher this season, yet that is exactly what he’s doing. Kershaw took the National League ERA lead back from Harvey on Tuesday night with a four-hit shutout of the Rockies, but Harvey still leads league in strikeouts (132) and strikeout rate (10.2 K/9) and the majors in WHIP (0.86) while posting a 2.00 ERA that is third-best in baseball. Harvey has also walked fewer than two men per nine innings for a 5.50 K/BB that is fourth-best in the majors, and though his win total has been suppressed by the Mets’ poor run support, his record is still a sparkling 7-1 (he has allowed two or fewer runs in seven or more innings yet received a no-decision five times and allowed just one run in seven innings in his lone loss).

STRIKE ZONE: Tales of Matt Harvey's amazing year

Harvey was a bit hit-lucky early in the season, but over his last dozen starts, dating back to April 29, his opponents’ batting average on balls in play has been .291, compared to the league average of .294, and he has posted a 2.20 ERA and 0.93 WHIP over that span. That stretch also includes his unofficial one-hitter in which he struck out 12, walked none and allowed only an infield hit in nine scoreless innings only to have the Mets fail to score until the 10th inning. Harvey is for real, and he has arrived, as further evidenced by his Sports Illustrated cover and swimsuit model girlfriend. Yes, Harvey has been heavily hyped this season but he has generated all of that hype on the mound and continues to live up to it with each successive start, the next of which will come at home against the Diamondbacks on Wednesday night.

3. The rookie sensation: Yasiel Puig

Speaking of hype, you might have read something about this Puig kid recently. All the 22-year-old Cuban defector has done since being called up on June 3 is hit .443/.473/.745 (237 OPS+) with eight home runs and 17 RBIs in 27 games while making throws like this from rightfield and prompting speculation that the Dodgers will try to trade incumbent rightfielder Andre Ethier, whom they signed to a five-year extension less than a year ago, in order to keep Puig in the lineup.

Since making his debut, Puig has led the majors in hits (47), batting average and slugging percentage (minimum 75 plate appearances) while leading the NL in on-base percentage. Puig’s 44 hits in June ranked second all-time for a player’s first calendar month in the majors to Joe DiMaggio’s 48 in May 1936. According to Baseball-Reference.com’s wins above replacement, a cumulative statistic, he been more valuable in his one month in the majors than any other Dodgers hitter has been all season, compiling 2.1 bWAR, which is equivalent to the value of a full season from a league-average player. I guarantee that he will be among my top five NL Rookie of the Year candidates when Awards Watch looks at that award next week, and there’s growing support for his inclusion on the NL All-Star team.

STRIKE ZONE: The sensational feats of Yasiel Puig

Puig’s batting average will eventually come back to earth (his BABIP is an insane .513), but he is a legitimate five-tool player who raked in the low minors last year (.354/.442/.634), and in spring training (.517/.500/.828) and Double-A this year (.313/.383/.599), which accounts for all of his Stateside exposure prior to his major league debut. There’s no record of Puig doing anything but hitting at a very high level, and while there are some concerns about his low walk rate, his pitch recognition and plate coverage refute any attempt to write him off as a lucky hacker.

“He’s creating an expectation that he can’t live up to, that nobody could live up to,” said Los Angeles manager Don Mattingly . . . in March. Puig has since lived up to those expectations over a full month of regular season major league exposure. He will level off eventually, but until he does, his every at-bat is essential viewing.

4. The best team in baseball: the Pittsburgh Pirates

This is the third season in a row that the Pittsburgh Pirates, a team that hasn’t had a winning season since 1992, have stood alone in first place in the National League Central in July. In neither of the two previous years, however, did they ever boast a record as impressive as their current major league leading 51-31 (.622). Prior to their loss on Tuesday night, the Pirates were 21 games over .500. In 2011, they peaked at seven games over. In 2012, at 16 games over. In 2011, they went 18-41 (.305) after July 28 to finish 18 games below .500, 24 games out and in fourth place. In 2012, they went 16-36 (.308) after Aug. 8 to finish four games below .500, 18 games out and in fourth place.

This year feels different. Maybe it’s because of the youth and depth in their rotation, with 25-year-old lefty Jeff Locke (7-1, 2.06 ERA), a former second-round pick of the Braves’ acquired in the 2009 Nate McLouth trade, ranking among the NL’s best pitchers, 2011 top pick Gerrit Cole, 22, kicking off his major league career with a win in each of his first four starts, groundballer Charlie Morton having returning from Tommy John surgery in fine form, and lefty Francisco Liriano rediscovering his former dominance after some mechanical tweaks by pitching coach Ray Searage. Maybe it’s because they have scaled these heights despite losing three-fifths of their Opening Day rotation to injury, putting at least A.J. Burnett (calf tear) in position to serve as a reinforcement as soon as next week.

VERDUCCI: Why this year's Pirates aren't going to fade away

Maybe it’s because they have one of the best bullpens in baseball, with the Shark Tank ranking third among major league 'pens in both ERA (2.84) and save percentage (80 percent) and first in WHIP (1.12). Maybe it’s because they are by far the best fielding team in baseball thanks in large part to getting a full season from Starling Marte in left and the addition of Russell Martin, who is also one of the game’s best pitch-framers, behind the plate. Maybe it’s because they’re doing it without an out-sized performance from one of their hitters, like McCutchen’s last year, so there’s less chance of regression there and more chance of someone getting hot. Of course, the opposite could be said of the rotation and bullpen.

Maybe it’s just that, having done this three times now, it is clearly not a fluke. This is a good team that has now had a winning record in six of the last eight full months of regular season baseball and one that could win 90 games and likely make the playoffs just by playing .500 ball the rest of the way.

5. The black cloud: Biogenesis

Baseball’s latest doping scandal broke in the pages of the alternative weekly Miami New Times on Jan. 31, a month after the Coral Gables, Fla., anti-aging clinic, which allegedly supplied illegal performance-enhancing drugs to numerous major leaguers, closed its doors. Alex Rodriguez, who admitted to doping during his days as a Texas Ranger, is the biggest name on the ever-expanding list of implicated major leaguers along with three players who tested positive under Major League Baseball’s drug program last year (Melky Cabrera, Bartolo Colon and Yasmani Grandal) and 2011 NL MVP Ryan Braun, who had his positive test that winter overturned on appeal.

Things only got uglier from there. Baseball bullied implicated minor leaguer Cesar Carrillo to try to get him to rat out other players, then suspended him for 100 days when he wouldn’t. Faced with a lack of cooperation from the New Times or the clinic's former owner, Anthony Bosch, MLB threatened to sue Bosch and others associated with the clinic, ostensibly for damages caused to the league, but many suspected it was simply for the power of subpoena that would give MLB access to the documents it had been denied. Ultimately, Baseball simply paid former Biogenesis employees for documents amid rumors that Rodriguez had also purchased documents in order to destroy them. All the while, Baseball's intended goal was reportedly to gather enough evidence on Rodriguez and Braun, especially, to be able to suspend them for what Baseball's drug policy terms a "non-analytic positive."

Baseball reportedly secured Bosch's direct cooperation in early June, leading to increased suspicion that Baseball would indeed succeed in suspending the named players. Though there have been no reported developments since then, the season continues to be played under the black cloud of the scandal with the sword of Damocles hanging above the heads of the named players. Suspensions of some of those players -- including the Tigers' Jhonny Peralta, the Rangers' Nelson Cruz and the A's Colon, could have a direct and sizable effect on the pennant races.
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