Super feats and super rookies highlight biggest first-half stories
The 2012 Major League Baseball season has reached the half-way point. A full third of the teams in the majors will play their 81st game Tuesday night, and four others will play their 82nd, putting them into the second half of the 162 game season. Here, in reverse order, is a look back at the top five stories of the first half. (And if something seems to be missing, check back later this week for my list of the top surprises of the first-half before firing off that angry email.)
Though they are limping into the break, having lost 12 of their last 14 and fallen behind the rival Giants in the National League West, the Dodgers were one of the most compelling teams of the first half of the 2012 season. It all started on a high note at the end of spring training when disgraced owner Frank McCourt reached an agreement to sell the team to an ownership group that included legendary Los Angeles Laker Magic Johnson, as drastic an improvement in the public face of the team's ownership as could be imagined. The $2 billion sale price was a record for the sport and the transaction became official on May 1, one day after Matt Kemp finished
Kemp, last year's NL MVP runner-up and owner of a new eight-year, $160 million contract, hit .417/.490/.893 with 12 homers and 25 RBIs in April to solidify his place among the game's elite. Shortly thereafter, though, he made his first of two trips to the disabled list with a balky hamstring, though for a time the Dodgers just kept winning, thanks in part to a pair of thirty-something-year-old journeymen who were great stories in their own right.
During the offseason, the Dodgers' failure to acquire a starting catcher was the subject of much criticism, but handing the job to last year's third-stringer, 31-year-old minor league veteran A.J. Ellis, has thus far proven to be a master stroke. In the process of more than doubling his career total of major league plate appearances, Ellis, always an on-base machine, has hit .282/.406/.417, thrown out 35 percent of opposing basestealers and ranks third among all major league catchers in Baseball-Reference's Wins Above Replacement (bWAR).
Then there's 33-year-old lefty Chris Capuano, whose career was derailed after the 2007 season by a labrum tear and his second Tommy John surgery. Capuano missed all of the 2008 and 2009 seasons and didn't become a full-time starter again until last year, when he posted an ERA+ 20 percent below league average for the Mets. The Dodgers signed him to a two-year, $10 million contract this offseason and thus far Capuano has nearly matched the performance of his rotation mate, fellow lefty and 2011 Cy Young award winner Clayton Kershaw, going 9-3 with a 2.69 ERA and strong peripherals.
Thanks in large part to Ellis and Capuano, as well as Kershaw and rightfielder Andre Ethier, whom the new ownership group gave a five-year, $85 million extension in mid-June, the Dodgers remained in first place through their 75th game despite having Kemp appear in just 36 of those contests, just two of which came after game 34. The Dodgers have now gone 84-61 (.579) since July 20 of last year.
Kemp is far from the only big name to miss serious time this year due to injury. Consider:
• The Rays' Evan Longoria tore his left hamstring on April 30 and hasn't played since, 57 games and counting.
• Yankees closer Mariano Rivera tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee while shagging flies on May 4 and is expected to miss the rest of the season.
• The Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki has been out since May 30 due to a groin strain that required surgery in late June. He has thus far missed 30 games and isn't expected back until August.
• Last year's American League MVP runner-up, Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury, suffered a partially separated right shoulder in a collision at second base on April 14 and has missed the last 73 games. Fellow outfielder Carl Crawford has been out all year with wrist and elbow injuries.
• Phillies ace Roy Halladay left his May 27 start after two innings due to shoulder soreness and hasn't pitched since due to a strained latissimus dorsi muscle. Teammate Chase Utley just returned last week after missing the first 76 games due to a degenerative cartilage issue in his knees but first baseman Ryan Howard is still trying to rehab his way back from an Achilles injury that has cost him his entire season to this point.
• Chris Carpenter, the ace of the defending champion Cardinals and the man who retired Howard in the season-ending at-bat during which he got hurt in last year's NLDS, also has yet to appear this season and was recently diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome in his pitching shoulder.
Then there are the 22 pitchers who have had Tommy John surgery, among them the Braves' Brandon Beachy, who was leading the majors in ERA when his elbow gave out in mid-June, the Diamondbacks' Daniel Hudson, a 16-game winner in 2011, and top closers Brian Wilson, Joakim Soria and Ryan Madson. Those last three will have combined for two innings pitched and one save this season, all Wilson's. The Red Sox's John Lackey and the Indians' Carlos Carrasco, who had the surgery during the offseason, won't throw single major league pitch in 2012, nor will sophomore righty Michael Pineda, whose first pitch as a Yankee will have to wait until 2013 following labrum surgery.
The list just keeps going. Ryan Dempster has pitched like a Cy Young candidate when healthy and should be a top trade target, but he's currently on the 15-day disabled list for the second time with a muscle strain. Jonathan Lucroy was off to a great start when his wife dropped a suitcase on his right hand in late May, breaking his fifth metacarpal, exacerbating the Brewers injury woes, which also include a season-ending rotator-cuff tear suffered by fifth starter Chris Narveson and a season-ending ACL injury for Mat Gamel, one of several players felled by that malady.
Angels catcher Chris Iannetta and Indians third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall suffered broken bones after being hit by pitches (pisiform and ulna, respectively). Un-retired Yankee southpaw Andy Pettitte had his left fibula broken at the ankle by a comebacker. Nationals rightfielder Jayson Werth broke his wrist making a diving catch back on May 6. The Orioles' Nick Markakis and the Giants' Pablo Sandoval both missed time to have broken hamate bones removed from their hands.
Then there's Lance Berkman, Jaime Garcia, Jered Weaver, CC Sabathia, Brandon Morrow, Sergio Santos, Drew Storen, Andrew Bailey, Neftali Feliz, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, Colby Lewis, John Danks, Brett Gardner, Brandon McCarthy, Salvador Perez and a host of other key players who have or are missing time due to injuries, some of it measured in months rather than days or weeks. Whatever the outcome of the 2012 season, it seems clear that injuries will have played a major role.
Clearly, the Red Sox are among the teams most affected by injuries this year. Given their disappointing performances last year, one could spin the absences of Crawford and Lackey as positives, but the fact remains that Boston's outfield has been decimated by injuries, with not only Crawford and Ellsbury, but the intended rightfield platoon of Ryan Sweeney (concussion, broken toe) and Cody Ross (broken foot), and backups Darnell McDonald (oblique strain) and Scott Podsednik (groin strain) hitting the disabled list at one point or another.
The Sox also lost Kevin Youkilis for 22 games due to a back injury before trading him to the White Sox, have yet to see the debut of offseason closer acquisition Bailey following a late-March thumb injury, were without Daisuke Matsuzaka until late May due to his rehabilitation from June 2011 Tommy John surgery (though one could also spin that positively), have seen Dustin Pedroia struggle following a late-May thumb strain (.216/.283/.314 since returning to action on June 5), and just lost Clay Buchholz to esophagitis.
Mix in a lousy first-half from Adrian Gonzalez (.272/.322/.405), disappointing showings from Jon Lester (5-5, 4.53 ERA) and Josh Beckett (4-7, 4.06 ERA) and the failure of Daniel Bard's conversion to the rotation (he went 5-6 with a 5.24 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, and more walks than strikeouts before being sent down to the minors), and it's no surprise that Boston had a losing record as late as June 15, when it was 31-33 and in last place in the AL East, 7 1/2 games out of first place. Since then, however, the Red Sox have gone 11-5 and are just one-half game out of the second Wild Card spot in the AL.
It remains to be seen if Boston can stay in the race, but there have been bright spots. Chief among them are a big season from David Ortiz (.301/.388/.602, 21 HR, 54 RBIs), strong work from 29-year-old sophomore leftfielder Daniel Nava (.293/.408/.463) -- an on-base machine in the leadoff spot -- power from catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia (second to Ortiz on the team in home runs with 15), the fine play of third baseman Will Middlebrooks and the return of the uncharacteristically productive Ross to help stabilize the lineup.
A far more convincing turnaround has been that of the Angels, who due largely to the struggles of their offense, "led" by Albert Pujols' uncharacteristic early-season slump, were just 18-25 on May 21 and eight games behind the first-place Rangers in the AL West. Pujols was hitting just .212/.256/.318 at that point in the season, but has gone .348/.424/.630 since with nine home runs and 30 RBIs in 36 games. Meanwhile, the release of Bobby Abreu (who went to the Dodgers) and a thumb injury suffered Vernon Wells cleared room in the outfield for rookie sensation Mike Trout and sophomore Mark Trumbo, the latter of whom was pushed off first base by Pujols' arrival and lacked a clear role on the team for most of April. Both have played at an MVP level since early May. The Angels scored 3.6 runs per game through May 21. They have scored 5.3 runs per game since.
On the mound, the Halos are getting Cy Young-quality seasons from Weaver, now back from a brief back injury, and C.J. Wilson, and have established a dominant end-game due in set-up man Scott Downs and closer Ernesto Frieri, who hasn't allowed a run to score on his watch in 24 1/3 innings since being acquired from the Padres in early May. The Angels are 27-10 (.730) since May 21 and are comfortably in the lead for the first Wild Card spot, right where many expected them to be.
Impressive as the Angels' turnaround has been, the vast majority of the attention in Anaheim has been focused on the 20-year-old Trout, who, along with the Nationals' 19-year-old rookie phenom Bryce Harper, may actually be the biggest story of the first half. Both centerfielders were called up on April 28 and are having once-in-a-generation seasons for players their age. Trout is a legitimate MVP candidate at the age of 20, hitting .339/.395/.542 with nine home runs, 51 runs scored (in barely more than two months!), and leading the league in batting and stolen bases (22 at an 88 percent success rate) while playing
For his part, Harper, who enters Tuesday's action hitting .274/.348/.471 with eight homers, 22 RBIs and eight stolen bases, is having the best season by a teenage hitter since Tony Conigliaro in 1964 and could well finish the year as the best 19-year-old hitter in major league history.
Trout and Harper have been so good that they are overshadowing the thrilling seasons their teams are having (the Nationals, oh by the way, have the best record in the National League, thanks largely to the major leagues' stingiest pitching staff). They're also overshadowing the (admittedly less thrilling) rookie seasons of arguably the best Japanese pitcher and Cuban hitter ever to jump to the major leagues, the Rangers' Yu Darvish and the A's Yoenis Cespedes, respectively. They've been so good that they're drawing comparisons to Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, a pair of legendary centerfielders who debuted in the same season in opposite leagues at the ages of 19 and 20, respectively, 61 years ago. That comparison may be unfair, as such comparisons always are, but it's hard to argue that it's not apt.
There have been five no-hitters in the first half of the 2012 season, two of which were perfect games. The last of the five, Matt Cain's perfect game, came on June 13. Only once in major league history were five no-hitters thrown by an earlier date, that being way back in 1917, when the fifth no-hitter of that season was thrown on May 6 (there were six total that season, the last coming on June 23). Since then, the closest such season was 1990, when there were three no hitters through June 11 and two more thrown on June 29. There were seven total no-hitters that season, the modern record, tied the following year. The all-time record for most no-hitters in a season is eight, set in 1884.
None of the seasons mentioned above included a perfect game. This is just the third season in major league history in which there have been two perfect games, joining 1880 and 2010. In 2010, there were four no-hitters, including both perfect games, by June 25 and six total no-hit games on the season, but the fifth didn't come until July 26. There have never been three perfect games in a single season.
Frequency isn't the only thing that makes this year's no-hitters special however. Included in those five no-hit games were
Then, in June, Aaron Hill did something more rare than any of the above: He hit for his second cycle of the season, becoming just the fourth player ever to do so, the first since Babe Herman in 1931, and just the second since 1887. He was also just the second man ever to cycle twice in a single calendar month, doing it for the second time 11 days after the first. That, alas, was not a record. Back in 1883, Cincinnati first baseman John Reilly cycled twice in eight days.