The first weekend in July represents the halfway point of the Major League Baseball schedule. Midseason reviews typically are saved for the All-Star break, as we’ve got to do something during a four-day hiatus built around a contest that doesn’t count in the standings. But teams already are a full week into the second half at the All-Star break, and projections get fuzzy for those of us whose math skills pretty much begin — and end — with times-two multiplications.
Saturday marked Game No. 81 of 162 for nine clubs — including the Mariners, on pace for their second winning season since 2014. I point this out because I’m tired of hearing about the team’s 14-year playoff drought, which is baseball’s longest, and how they are the oldest-sitting franchise yet to appear in a World Series.
Here’s some more fun with numbers: Seattle’s heart-of-the-order hitters — Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager — each project to finish with more than 30 home runs and 100 RBIs, a feat the Mariners have accomplished only once. Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner and Alex Rodriguez did it in 1996, but the mash unit’s work was mitigated by a starting rotation missing a healthy Randy Johnson.
The problem with taking middle-of-the-season stats and multiplying them by two is that second halves rarely mirror the first, especially when it comes to pitchers. For instance, White Sox lefty Chris Sale, whose 14 victories are the most in baseball, is on pace to finish 28-4. Sale is a terrific talent, but he’s not going to finish 28-4. It’s a better bet that Donald Trump will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in a unanimous vote than Chris Sale finishing 28-4.
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Nine pitchers are projecting as 20-game winners, including the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, a recent addition to the disabled list with a bad back — the source of Johnson’s troubles in 1996. Back ailments are a bit like dips in the stock market: Nobody is entirely sure of the precise cause of the problem, or the most efficient method of recovering from the problem, other than a blind trust that everything will work out.
There won’t be nine 20-game winners.
You might be surprised to learn the Blue Jays’ J.A. Happ, a fifth-spot-in-the-rotation Mariners starter last season before a July 31 trade sent him to the Pirates in exchange for pitcher Adrian Sampson, is among those on pace for 20 victories. Happ is Example A of why the metrics community regards wins as a flawed statistic. He’s won 10 games thanks to the run support he’s gotten from an explosive offense led by Edwin Encarnacion, a 2016 MVP candidate, and Josh Donaldson, the league’s 2015 MVP.
Speaking of awards, an intriguing race is looming for American League Rookie of the Year. A month ago, Rangers outfielder Nomar Mazara appeared destined to win the vote in a landslide, and he’s still the odds-on favorite.
But the Mariners’ Dae-Ho Lee is making a fast charge from the outside. Well, OK, a charge. “Big Boy” doesn’t do anything fast except swing a bat and melt hearts.
Still, his Rookie of the Year candidacy is viable, and figures to gain momentum now that manager Scott Servais has discovered Lee might be more than a right-handed hitting first baseman relegated to a platoon role against lefties.
Mazaro finished the first half with a solid .285/.336/.438 slash line, hitting 11 homers and driving in 35. Lee’s slash line of .295/.337/.526 is better, and though he had 141 fewer plate appearances than Mazaro, the power production was virtually equal: 11 homers and 34 RBIs.
If Lee is able to sustain his first-half surge against pitchers who’ve acquired information on his tendencies, a debate will ensue — trust me — on whether a veteran of 13 seasons spent at the highest level of pro ball in South Korea and Japan qualifies as a “rookie.”
I say it doesn’t, and there’s precedent supporting that. Closer Kazuhiro Sasaki brought more than a decade of high-level pro experience to the majors before winning the 2000 trophy with the Mariners, as did right fielder Ichiro Suzuki the following year.
Lee speaks Korean in a clubhouse where nobody else in a uniform speaks Korean. Spring training was a dive off the high board. He had to learn how to tone a swing with an exaggerated left foot kick, all while taking time off to be with his wife for the birth of their second child in Seattle.
He’s a rookie, and if he’s named Rookie of the Year at age 34, he’ll replace the Boston Braves’ Sam “The Jet” Jethroe as the oldest player to win the award.
Some other observations from the first half:
▪ Chicago’s North Siders aren’t the juggernaut they appeared to be through May, when breaking the single-season record of 116 victories — set by the 1906 Cubs and duplicated by the 2001 Mariners — seemed possible. Only a catastrophic collapse will prevent the Cubs from winning the National League Central, but if any franchise is familiar with that drill, it’s the Cubs.
▪ When retired commissioner Bud Selig pushed for a wild-card playoff round, the 2016 standings are what he had in mind. The weekend began with no second-place team within five games of first place.
▪ The Yankees (27-time winners of the World Series) and Cardinals (11-time winners) were a collective three games over .500 on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Braves (17 pennants) and the Reds (nine pennants) were a collective 49 games under .500.
A short, connect-the-dots synopsis of the first half? It’s been a difficult season for the proudest of the old-school franchises, and a fun run for the historically snakebitten Cubs, Indians and Nationals, born in Montreal as a 1969 expansion club.
I doubt J.A. Happ will win 20 games for the Blue Jays, but I’m convinced Dae-Ho Lee will hit 20 homers for the Mariners.
Three months to go. Fasten your seat belt.