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In a typical MLB season, we’d have already reached the midpoint and be in the process of looking at what teams need to do to make a second-half surge. However, the lockout pushed opening day back by two weeks and as a result, most major league teams won’t play their 81st game until early next week.
Let’s see if we can pick out a player at each position who may have underperformed so far, but still could be a difference-maker down the stretch.
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Keibert Ruiz, Washington Nationals. A switch-hitter in his first full season, Ruiz makes contact at an excellent 88.7% rate and rarely strikes out. Unfortunately, he hasn’t done a whole lot when he has made contact – entering the week with a .255 average, two home runs and 13 RBI.
However, advanced metrics suggest Ruiz should be much more productive with an expected batting average of .311 and slugging percentage of .462. He even has three stolen bases (only three catchers have more). As Ruiz’s luck starts to even out, look for his stats to take an upturn across the board.
Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants. A fast start this year was derailed first by a positive COVID test, then by a knee injury. The power Belt showed last season – when he slugged a career-high 29 homers in just 97 games – hasn’t returned since his most recent stint on the injured list. However, his excellent batting eye is still alive and well. Despite a .224 batting average, Belt is getting on base at a .351 clip.
As he works his way back to 100%, the Giants are mostly starting Belt against right-handed pitchers, which is a good strategy since he put up an OPS over 1.000 against them each of the past two seasons.
Whit Merrifield, Kansas City Royals. Merrifield, 33, has never hit below .277 in a season as a major leaguer, so his .227 average is a clear anomaly – especially with a .253 average on balls in play that's 70 points below his career norm.
He continues to play everyday and lead off for the Royals, with nine stolen bases in 10 attempts. Even if he is traded, dreams of Merrifield having a big second half stand a good chance of becoming reality.
Javier Baez, Detroit Tigers. When Baez sat out a June 15 game against the White Sox, his batting average had plummeted to a season-worst .188, and his 47 wRC+ rated him the worst offensive player in baseball.
But after meeting that day with his agent and manager A.J. Hinch, Baez promptly went on a nine-game hitting streak that included four homers, seven runs, nine RBI and two stolen bases. Whether it was a change in mindset or an adjustment with his swing, Baez is looking much more like the player who hit .265 with 31 homers and 18 steals a year ago – and was rewarded with a six-year, $140 million contract.
Luis Urias, Milwaukee Brewers. Playing regularly for the first time, Urias had a breakout season in 2021 (23 HR, 77 R, 75 RBI). However, he suffered a quadriceps injury in spring training and missed all of April.
After a solid start in May, Urias has been terrible in June. His slash line at the beginning of the week was a paltry .216/.314/.347. About the only bright spots to date are that his walk rate is still very good and he’s not chasing bad pitches.
Still just 25, Urias has plenty of upside.
Jesse Winker, Seattle Mariners. Winker has also fallen short of his outstanding numbers from a year ago. But his 15.9% walk rate is the third-highest in the majors behind only Max Muncy and Juan Soto.
Looking closer, Winker is starting to heat up with four homers, 12 RBI and a .910 OPS in June. The Mariners aren’t sitting him when there’s a left-hander on the mound the way the Reds did last season – and he’s actually been more effective against southpaws so far. If he starts hitting right-handers the way he has the past two seasons (1.070 and .927 OPS), look out.
Kevin Gausman, Toronto Blue Jays. Before tossing seven shutout innings against the Red Sox on Monday night, Gausman had an unremarkable 5-6 record, 3.19 ERA and 1.28 WHIP. However, the underlying metrics showed he'd been pretty much the same pitcher he was a year ago. Possibly even better.
He'd posted the highest swinging-strike rate of his career (16.6%) while at the same time hardly walking anyone (1.48 BB/9) or giving up home runs (just two in 79 innings). The problem: Opponents were hitting .372 when they put the ball in play – the highest average by far for any qualified starting pitcher. As a result, Gausman had a major-league low 1.74 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). Perhaps the sleeping giant is just starting to awaken.
Kevin Gausman, 95mph Fastball and 84mph Splitter, Overlay pic.twitter.com/6bfS4c5rR4
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) June 28, 2022
Tanner Scott, Miami Marlins. While Tanner Houck in Boston and Tanner Rainey in Washington may be getting more attention, Scott could be the most outs-tan-ding Tanner by the end of the season.
This month, he has three wins and has converted 6-of-7 save chances, without allowing an earned run in 10 of his 11 appearances. In addition, he’s averaging 14.6 strikeouts per nine innings and is tied for fourth among relievers in whiffs. He may have already locked down the closer’s job for the rest of the season.
Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB 2022: Kevin Gausman, Javier Baez among potential 2nd-half bustouts