There’s much about this baseball season that comes as no surprise. For one thing, it’s still too slow. After rules changes sped up the pace of play a year ago, the average time of game is up again this year.
Home runs and strikeouts are up again, the latter for the 11th consecutive season. The Cubs, to the surprise of few, have baseball’s best record and are raising hopes of the franchise’s first World Series title since 1908.
The Giants are playing well and looking dangerous in an even-numbered year. The Red Sox and Rockies are scoring a lot of runs and struggling to prevent them. The Phillies and Reds are tanking. The Mets can’t hit. The Yankees are average. Alex Rodriguez looks old.
There are surprises, though. Who thought the Orioles would be leading the AL East in late June? The Rangers were a playoff team last year, but I didn’t expect them to be on a 103-win pace at this point. Who knew the Pirates would fall apart, or that the Cards’ pitching would be average, or that the Rays would lose 11 in a row?
Lots of players are having unexpectedly good years. Since we’re approaching July and All-Star time (not to mention my annual trivia quiz), I figured it would be fun to put together an MLB first half all-Surprise team.
Stats are through Saturday’s games:
Catcher: Wilson Ramos, Nationals. Last year, the 28-year-old Venezuelan hit .229. Ramos had Lasik surgery in the spring and is evidently seeing the ball well. He leads all catchers in homers (12), RBIs (41), batting average (.342) and slugging (.563.). Who knew he’d be outslugging reigning MVP Bryce Harper and outhitting his teammate by 90 points?
First base: Mark Reynolds, Rockies. Playing for his sixth team in five years, he seems to have found a home in Colorado. Reynolds, best known as the only man in history to strike out 200 times three years in a row, has become a more patient hitter and is batting .291. This from a career .233 hitter who batted .196 two years ago. Enjoy it while it lasts.
Second base: Daniel Murphy, Nationals. We knew he could hit after his Reggie Jackson impersonation for the Mets last October. But who expected Murphy to be MLB’s top hitter at .354? He has 12 homers and 48 RBIs, on pace for career highs in both. He’s faded in June after hovering near .400 a month ago. He has been sort of adequate in the field, too.
Third base: Jake Lamb, Diamondbacks. The 25-year-old Seattle native won the job from Yasmany Tomas last season and is coming into his own. Lamb has 15 homers and 51 RBIs, more than teammate Paul Goldschmidt in both. He’s slugging .580, second among third basemen to Nolan Arenado. Has good range at third, but struggling with his throws.
Shortstop: Aledmys Diaz, Cardinals. The Cuban defector was so unimpressive in his first two years in the minors, he went unclaimed on waivers last summer. Lucky thing for St. Louis. Diaz filled in for injured Jhonny Peralta in April and became the first player ever to hit .500 through his first 50 career at-bats. He’s cooled down, but still hitting .306 with 16 doubles and 10 home runs.
Outfield: Michael Saunders, Blue Jays. Would you have guessed he was leading Toronto in slugging? The British Columbia native has become this year’s Chris Colabello, a veteran making the most of his chance. Saunders, 29, is on a career pace in doubles (20), homers (15) and slugging (.581). Early this year, he hit three homers against the O’s, becoming the first Canadian to go yard three times in one game for a Canadian team.
Outfield: Adam Duvall, Reds. As of Sunday, he was tied for the MLB lead in homers at 21 with Todd Frazier, Nolan Arenado and Mark Trumbo (who would be my fourth outfielder on this team). During one torrid stretch of late May to early June, Duvall hit 10 homers in 15 games. His walk-to-strikeout rate is brutal, but it’s his first full season and right-handed power is hard to come by nowadays.
Outfield: Ian Desmond, Rangers. Miserable with the Nats last season, batting career-low .233 with 187 Ks and NL-leading 27 errors at shortstop. Eager for a change of venue and position, he turned down a $15.8 million qualifying offer from Washington and signed with Texas for one year and $8 million. He’s playing a capable center field and hitting .322 with 53 runs, 13 homers, 49 RBIs and 13 steals. A massive payday awaits.
Designated hitter: David Ortiz. It didn’t seem possible for Big Papi to shock us after all these years, but who would have expected him to have an MVP-type year at 40 in his farewell season? Ortiz leads all of baseball in slugging (.681) and OPS (1.109) by a wide margin and hitting .335, which would all be career highs. He leads MLB in doubles with 30, which is one off the pace of Earl Webb’s all-time record of 67.
Righty starter: Steven Wright, Red Sox. The 31-year-old knuckleballer entered the season with seven career wins. Now he’s 8-5 with an AL-leading ERA of 2.18. Boston’s Mr. Wright has allowed two or fewer runs in 11 of his 15 starts. Opposing batters are hitting .203 against him, third-lowest in the league. He’s been the reliable No. 3 starter the Sox desperately needed to bolster their shaky starting rotation.
Lefty starter: C.C. Sabathia, Yankees. Kicking the bottle seemed to do wonders. Sabathia, a glorified batting practice pitcher from 2013-15, is having a comeback year at 35. He’s 5-4 with a 2.71 ERA, which would be his best since coming to the Bronx in 2009. No longer has the good fastball, but knows how to pitch. He gave up only four earned runs in 44 innings going into last week’s start.
Relievers: Joe Blanton, Dodgers. The former starter announced his retirement in early 2014 after two Triple-A starts. But he changed his mind, lost weight and reinvented himself as a reliever. He’s been one of the game’s best setup men this season. Lefties are batting .140 against him, righties .148. Still volatile, Blanton assaulted a Gatorade jug after giving up a home run against the Pirates on Saturday.