Big League Stew goes through the quad and into the gymnasium to look at some of the hottest players in baseball and their chances of keeping it going. Today, we look at some of the best first-half performances and whether or not they'll carry over to the season's stretch run.
The Naked Truth: 9-5 2.01 ERA, .808 WHIP
Having a nice little Saturday: He's a multi-time All-Star, but Dan Haren still might be the biggest surprise in baseball. How well is he pitching? If he were able to keep it up, he'd have the best full-season ERA since Roger Clemens(notes) in 2005 and best WHIP since Pedro Martinez's(notes) miracle year in 2000. Tim Lincecum(notes) is the reigning Cy Young wnner — and the All-Star starter — but Haren's been the best pitcher in the National League.
You're my boy, Blue!: Haren went from a solid starter to one of the best pitchers in baseball in 2007. He remained so in 2008, even after moving from a pitcher's park in Oakland to a hitter's park in Arizona and was somehow able to cut his homers and increasehis strikeouts and K/BB in the process. (This year was his third straight All-Star appearance, by the way.) He has actually improved his strikeout rate every year that he's been in the league, which is remarkable. He may not be THIS good — his Batting Average on Balls in Play is an unsustainable .233 — but his improvement is consistent and legit. He's come into his own and is just hitting his prime.
Think KFC will still be open?: Haren's walks are way down, much further than usual. If his walks and hit rate ascend to normal levels, his ERA will likely creep up too. But it doesn't seem likely to creep too much. He's got the third-best ERA in baseball since 2007, only behind only Johan Santana(notes) and Tim Lincecum (both of whom pitch in pitcher's parks). He knows that his profile is increasing:
"I had been always kind of under the radar," he said before the All-Star Game. "Now that I'm in the limelight so to speak, at least for the next couple of days, I'm just going to try to have as much fun as I can."
Say hello to your Cy Young frontrunner.
Who else was hotter than a summer day during the season's first half?
* * *
The Naked Truth: .332/.456/.723, 32 HR, 87 RBI
Having a nice little Saturday: He's leading the league in, like, almost everything. (Runs, home runs, RBI, walks, OBP, SLG, OPS, Total Bases, intentional walks ... did I forget anything?) He's the sort of mutant who almost seems more likely to get the Triple Crown than to miss it. He's the best hitter in baseball and so far he's having the best season of his career. He just appeared in his seventh straight All-Star Game. What more can you say about the guy?
You're my boy, Blue!: Ready for the frightening part? Okay. He might be getting unlucky. His BABIP is 30 points below his career average, and his line drive percentage is 2 percent below his career average. He's made up for it by hitting home runs at a rate much higher than usual, which is good, because Ryan Ludwick(notes) has fallen back to earth and Rick Ankiel(notes) has fallen off the map. By the numbers, it seems likely that his average may increase while his homers fall off a bit and land in his usual 30-50 range. But Phat Albert doesn't seem to be confined by the normal laws of physics.
Think KFC will still be open?: Albert Pujols is the most important man in St. Louis, so it's only fitting that he caught Barack Obama's first pitch — and was the one man in the country with the credibility to be able to insist that it didn't bounce. Will he return to Earth? Who knows? Either way, it's not like anyone else is going to take his MVP from him.
* * *
The Naked Truth: 10-5, 2.12 ERA, 1.076 WHIP
Having a nice little Saturday: There are few better stories in baseball than that of first-time All-Star Zack Greinke. He's been getting frequent comparisons to Cliff Lee(notes), last year's breakout story, but Zack had a lower low and is working on a higher high than Lee ever did — from out of baseball to flirting with an ERA under two.
You're my boy, Blue!: Last year was Greinke's first full year back in the rotation after his year in the wilderness in 2006, and he performed very well indeed. But this year he's on a whole different level. He's cut his walks by a third (from 2.5 BB/9 to 1.5 BB/9), and his home run rate is nearly nonexistent. His BABIP is actually above his career average, so he's getting unlucky on hits. Right now, his success is predicated on his (probably unsustainably) low homer and walk rates, though he's also getting more swinging strikes. Chances are good that the walks and homers will go back up a bit, but as long as he's striking this many people out, he'll be very effective at keeping runs off the board.
Think KFC will still be open?: Greinke has overcome his social anxiety disorder and he knows that his team did right by him. For now, Kansas City seems like a small-market great match.
"The Royals stuck with me. I'm surprised they did," he told the Associated Press. "I really like it there."
There seems to be every reason he'll continue to thrive. Ladies and gentlemen, the road to the AL Cy Young goes through KC.
* * *
A few more we can't possibly leave out ...
Joe Mauer(notes), Minnesota Twins: He's leading the league in hitting and as Rob Neyer likes to point out, he's already collected the sum total of all AL hitting crowns that any catcher has ever won. He probably deserves to have won an MVP already and this year it'll be hard to keep him from a trophy.
Raul Ibanez(notes), Philadelphia Phillies: Despite the $30 million contract, Ibanez was seen by many as an afterthought in the offseason outfielder market, after guys like Manny, Adam Dunn(notes), Bobby Abreu(notes), and his Philly predecessor Pat Burrell(notes). Yet he outhit them all en route to his first All-Star appearance at the age of 37.
Prince Fielder(notes), Milwaukee Brewers: The winner of the Home Run Derby is already more than 40 percent of the way to his father's home run total, and he's enjoying his best year yet. He's the best-hitting first baseman in baseball, behind only Pujols, and it's not particularly close.