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Dickey, Lincecum and the biggest surprises from the first half

On Tuesday I took at look back at five of the biggest stories from the first half of the 2012 baseball season. However, that only told half of the story of the season's first three months. To complete the tale, here are the five biggest surprises of the first-half:

Dickey's story is already evolving into a legend. A college star at the University of Tennessee, Robert Allen Dickey was drafted 18th overall by the Rangers in 1996, but in his initial physical, the team's doctors discovered that Dickey's pitching elbow lacked an ulnar collateral ligament, the one replaced in Tommy John surgery, prompting Texas to slash his signing bonus by more than 90 percent. After four years in the minors, Dickey pitched poorly across parts of three seasons for the Rangers before turning 30, at which point the Rangers, specifically manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Orel Hershiser, advised him that his last chance to stick with the organization was to give up being a conventional pitcher and commit to his knuckleball.

Dickey did, but the next two seasons were no better, and his Rangers career came to end with his first start of 2006, when he gave up six home runs in 3 1/3 innings. After a full year in the minors in the Brewers' organization, he reemerged in the majors as a knuckleballing swing man with the Mariners in 2008 and the Twins in 2009, but his results were not markedly better than they had been in his 20s. A non-roster invitee, Dickey was the first man cut in Mets camp in 2010, and when he was called up as an emergency starter by in mid-May of that year, he arrived as a 35-year-old with a 5.43 career ERA.

Then something amazing happened. Dickey proved to be the Mets' second-best starter over the remainder of the season, posting a 2.84 ERA over 174 1/3 innings, good for a 138 ERA+, the first above-average mark of his career. It was a great story, so much so that the eloquent and introspective former literature major landed a book deal. That book, the excellent, soul-baring Wherever I Wind Up, came out this March and it was supposed to contain Dickey's entire story, culminating in his emergence as a solid mid-rotation starter for the Mets in 2010 and 2011. However, starting in late-May, just after the two-year anniversary of his initial call-up to the Mets, Dickey went from being a solid major league starter, an accomplishment that had seemed near impossible just two years earlier, to being the best pitcher in baseball.

From May 22 to the present, a span of eight starts, Dickey has gone 7-0 with a 0.86 ERA, 0.61 WHIP, 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings and 12.7 strikeouts per walk while averaging 7.8 innings per start. Over those eight starts he has held his opponents scoreless five times, allowed only one unearned run on a sixth occasion, pitched three complete games, two of them shutouts, struck out 10 or more men five times (and eight or more seven times) and twirled consecutive one-hitters, the first time any pitcher had pulled that last trick since 1988. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he is the first pitcher in major league history to strike out eight or more men in each of five straight starts without allowing an earned run.

Dickey enters his start against the Phillies on Thursday night with the major league lead in wins (12 against just one loss), WHIP (0.89) and quality starts (14, tied with four others, in 16 turns). He is second in the ERA behind only Jered Weaver (who has posted a 2.13 mark in 24 1/3 fewer innings), fourth in K/BB ratio (4.64) and seventh in K/9 (9.2). He needs six strikeouts to tie the major league lead (he has 116), and four innings to move into second place in the majors (he has 113, second among starters with less than 17 starts to Matt Cain's 113 2/3; Cain is also pitching on Thursday). That is an outstanding season for any pitcher, never mind that one who is a 37-year-old knuckleballer who didn't succeed in the majors until he was 35. If you thought Dickey's book was good (and it is), just wait for the paperback.

Another college pitcher drafted in the first round, Lincecum was one of the best pitchers in baseball from 2008, his first full season, to 2011. An All-Star all four of those years, Lincecum won consecutive Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009, finished 10th in the voting in 2010 (while also going 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA to help deliver the Giants' first world championship since moving to San Francisco), and sixth last year. Over those four seasons, he posted a 2.81 ERA (143 ERA+), while averaging an even 10 strikeouts per nine innings (244 per season), three times leading the league in both total strikeouts and K/9. Lincecum wasn't just one of baseball's best pitchers, he was one of the faces of the sport, a short, scrawny, long-haired iconoclast with a fun-to-imitate delivery and geek appeal.

This year, though, Lincecum has the worst adjusted ERA+ of the 105 pitchers who have thrown enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. He gave up 16 runs in 13 2/3 innings over his first three starts and allowed four or more runs in 10 of his first 14 starts, just one of which was quality. After his 13th start I wrote on our Hit and Run blog that Lincecum, who has struggled with both his velocity and his control this season, needed to be rested and tested for a possible injury, but the Giants just keep running him out there.

In his next start after that post, Lincecum gave up five runs in five innings to the punchless Mariners. He then rallied for just his second and third quality start of the season, but in his most recent outing, in Washington on Tuesday, he took his worst beating of the year, giving up eight runs (seven earned) in 3 1/3 innings against the Nationals. He is now 3-9 with a 6.08 ERA on the season and that MLB-worst 59 ERA+, (meaning he has been 41 percent worse than the average pitcher). Lincecum has always had his doubters because of his size and his unorthodox delivery, but anyone who says they saw this coming is lying.

If playoffs were to start today, the Mets would fall just a half-game short of the second National League Wild Card spot, the Orioles would claim the second Wild Card in the American League and the Pirates, who moved into first place Wednesday night, would win the NL Central. Coming into the season, the Mets and Orioles were near-unanimous picks to finish last in the NL and AL East, respectively, while the Pirates were similarly favored to have their 20th straight losing season.

The Mets are winning thanks largely to their starting rotation, which has added a strong comeback from Johan Santana and solid work from fellow lefty Jonathon Niese to Dickey's monster season to help produce the third-best rotation ERA in baseball. They've also gotten an MVP-quality performance from David Wright (.350/.441/.559) and solid clutch hitting: .281/.356/.434 as a team with runners on base, good for a 790 OPS, better than the overall OPS of every team in the majors except the Texas Rangers. That last has helped them score more runs per game than all but two teams in the National League, one of them being the ballpark-assisted Rockies, though much like Dickey and Wright's eye-popping numbers, it doesn't seem sustainable.

The Orioles are winning thanks largely to smoke, mirrors and luck. By runs scored per game they have the sixth-worst offense in the AL and the fourth-worst pitching staff and have been outscored by 26 runs on the year, yet they are tied with the Central Division-leading White Sox, another surprising team, for the fourth-best record in the league. Strong work from Baltimore's relief corps, which has compiled the best bullpen ERA in the majors, and big seasons from centerfielder Adam Jones and starter Jason Hammel, the latter acquired for long-time rotation stalwart Jeremy Guthrie this past offseason, have helped, but both Pythagorean record and third-order wins agree that the Orioles' record should be inverted and that Baltimore has indeed been the worst team in their division.

The Pirates, meanwhile, have scored fewer than four runs per game despite an MVP-worthy season from centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, but they have still managed a positive run differential thanks to the third-stingiest pitching staff in the NL. That echoes Pittsburgh's mid-season success from a year ago when it snuck into first place after the All-Star break thanks in large part to a pitching staff that held opponents to 3.9 runs per game on the season through the end of July. Last year, things fell apart from there, as the Bucs allowed 5.4 runs per game over the final two months and went 18-38 (.321) over that stretch to sink to fourth place and lose 90 games.

There's no guarantee that won't happen again. Pittsburgh's pitching success has been keyed by a breakout season by 27-year-old James McDonald, solid work from offseason acquisition A.J. Burnett and a bullpen performance to rival the Orioles', none of which are guaranteed or even all that likely to persist. If the Pirates' pitching struggles in the second half, they'll sink once again.

It was clear coming into the season that, with Ryan Howard starting the year on the disabled list following Achilles tendon surgery and Chase Utley battling a degenerative cartilage condition in his knees, the Phillies' offense was going to continue its decline. However, coming off a 102-win season in which it won the NL East by 13 games, Philadelphia seemed to have some room to work with. No one could have expected them to spend the first half of the season in last place, where they have been for all but five days since May 5.

Of course, no one expected Roy Halladay to post a 3.98 ERA through the end of May then hit the disabled list for more than a month with a lat strain. No one expected Cliff Lee to post a 4.13 ERA and go winless through his first 13 starts (though that winless streak, finally snapped Wednesday night, was more the fault of the offense as it was Lee's). No one expected 31-year-old Shane Victorino to have his worst season in his walk year. Nor did they expect both Utley (who has been back for six games) and Howard (who just started a minor league rehab assignment) to miss almost the entire first half. They did expect John Mayberry Jr. to help fill in for Howard at the plate, but he hasn't, hitting just .226/.262/.377 and losing the leftfield job to non-roster invitee Juan Pierre. Most of all, no one expected the Phillies pitching staff to be worse than its offense, but is has been, allowing 4.3 runs per game, compared to 3.3 a year ago, thanks to a merely average performance from the embattled rotation and a terrible one from the bullpen.

Speaking of expectations, there was a nearly-unanimous feeling that the Tigers would run away with the American League Central. Entering Thursday, however, the defending division champions are mired in third place, 4 1/2 games behind the White Sox and two games below .500, that despite strong seasons from Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, and a breakout campaign from 25-year-old third-year centerfielder Austin Jackson.

The problem is that Detroit hasn't received an above-average performance from any of the other four spots in its rotation. The weak spots in the lineup (second base, right field and designated hitter) have been cripplingly awful, combining to hit .219/.269/.323 for an OPS+ below 60 relative to the league's splits at those positions. They also have the worst park-adjusted defensive efficiency (the rate of turning balls in play into outs) in the AL, and the third-worst in baseball, which is only surprising because Miguel Cabrera's play at third base is not a primary offender. The result has been a below-average overall performance in all facets of the game and a stars-and-scrubs composition which has Verlander and company fighting to keep the Tigers above water rather than leading them to another division title.

Taken on its face, Trevor Plouffe's place among the home run leaders -- his 19 taters are tied for 10th in the AL and 12th in the majors despite the fact that he didn't hit the second until May 16 -- is more shocking than the unexpected results from the five teams listed above. At least those who paid attention to Plouffe before this year had some warning that such an outburst was possible.

Plouffe was a first-round pick back in 2004, meaning someone saw something in him at one point, and though he seemed like a bust for most of the interim, he did see a small up-tick in his power in 2010 (17 homers between the majors and minors and a respectable .186 isolated power, which is slugging percentage minus batting average). The real warning shot, however, came at Triple-A last year, where Plouffe slugged 15 home runs in 220 plate appearances, good for a .635 slugging percentage and a whopping .322 isolated power. That seemed like a small-sample fluke by a 25-year-old getting a fourth look at Triple-A pitching, but Plouffe has brought that power to the majors this year, posting a .316 isolated power on the season and hitting home runs on what would be a 50-homer pace over a full 162 games. Better yet, 18 of those home runs have come in his last 40 games, a 73-homer pace over 162 games. That's right, over the last 40 games, Trevor Plouffe has been hitting home runs like the 2001 version of Barry Bonds.

Oh, and in case you didn't notice, Plouffe, who has already homered thrice in July, is doing this while playing his home games at Target Field, where he has hit 12 of his 19 round-trippers in 140 plate appearances and slugged .633 (.366 isolated slugging). Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, meanwhile, have combined for nine home runs in 1,083 career plate appearances as their new home ballpark.

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