First half MLB update, a few surprises

Major League Baseball has officially reached the halfway point through the 2014 season. With 81 games down and 81 to, the yearly grind is about to begin. Now that the All-Star break is looming on the horizon, it’s time to review some of the first-half surprises.

Big Papi Kicks the DirtWhat happened to the Red Sox? The defending World Series champions find themselves holding up the bottom of the American League East at the halfway point for the first time in nearly a decade. Their offense has been anemic, ranking near last in the American League in batting average at .243 and second to last in runs scored per game. After losing veteran Jacoby Ellsbury to free agency in the offseason – to their hated rivals, the Yankees – their younger prospects, like Xander Bogaerts, Daniel Nava and Jackie Bradley Jr., have not played up to expectations. The Red Sox are not yet out of the race, but need to turn things around in the second half to make another playoff run.

The Oakland A’s have the best record in baseball. Leading into the 2014 season, most experts predicted Oakland to be a good ball club, competing for a playoff spot. Nobody thought they’d be this dominant. They lead the AL in team ERA, have scored the most runs in the Majors and feature good team power and speed. Traditionally, the A’s always have solid pitching, but this season the bats are doing a lot of talking too. Sluggers Brandon Moss, Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes are all on pace to eclipse the 100 RBI mark. If their hitting can stay hot and the pitching is consistent, Oakland has a legitimate shot at their first World Series appearance since 1992.

Injured Ranger PitcherStaying in the AL West, the Texas Rangers’ roster looks like a medical clinic chart, with 14 players currently on the disabled list. With just the names on the DL, the Rangers could field a competitive baseball team, if they were all healthy. Texas has lost newly acquired Prince Fielder for the season with a neck injury. Big boppers Mitch Moreland and Kevin Kouzmanoff are both on the shelf and the pitching staff has been decimated by injuries. Derek Holland, Matt Harrison and Martin Perez were all slated to be integral parts of the Rangers’ pitching rotation, but all are out with various injuries. Even emergency Opening Day starting pitcher Tanner Scheppers, who started the first game Opening Day due to injury, is now injured himself.

Did anyone think the Brewers were going to run away with the National League Central? With half the baseball season behind them, they hold the largest division lead over the second place teams, with the Reds and Cardinals both trailing by 6.5 games. At this point, they look like the most balanced team in baseball, ranking near the top of the league in most the major statistical categories for both hitting and pitching. New additions Matt Garza and Kyle Lohse have proven to be excellent pitching assets for their new team, with Khris Davis and Jonathan Lucroy having breakout seasons at the plate. Ryan Braun continues to lead the way for the Milwaukee offense, with a team leading 46 RBIs. Also, Fernando “K-Rod” Rodriguez has resurrected his career as a closer this season. He leads the Majors with 27 saves, slamming the door for more than half the Brewers’ 51 wins so far this year.

Shields Throws a PitchThen there are the Royals. Kansas City hasn’t made the playoffs since they won the 1985 World Series, but is poised for a 2014 postseason run. With a solid pitching staff, anchored by James Shields and Jason Vargas, the Royals have been scoring runs in bunches. Also, their bullpen has been lights out, collectively posting an ERA below 3.00. Although their homerun numbers may be lacking, they’ve been scoring runs using contact and speed. Despite ranking last in the league in homeruns, they rank fourth in both team batting average and stolen bases. Count on them to continue winning down the stretch. If the veteran starting pitching staff can keep handing close games over to the bullpen and the offense continues to manufacture runs, the Royals will be in it for the long haul.

The push for the postseason is on. At the halfway point, the American League division leaders are the A’s, Tigers and Blue Jays. The Angels, Mariners, Orioles and Royals are the frontrunners for the AL Wild Card spots. In the National League things are more jumbled near the top. The Dodgers and Giants are tied for the NL West divisional lead, and the Nationals only trail the Braves by a half game in the East. The Brewers have a tight grasp on the Central, but the Pirates, Reds and Cardinals are all separated by a mere one and a half game margin. This creates the recipe for an exciting Wild Card chase in the National League during these dog days of summer. Here are the playoff contenders, with 81 more games to figure it all out. Let the grind begin!

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Mariners’ offseason splash ripples into regular season

Robinson Cano signs with MarinersThe Seattle Mariners shocked the Major League Baseball world this past offseason by signing New York Yankee All-Star, Robinson Cano, to a 10-year, $240 million deal. The second baseman was the most coveted free agent entering the 2013 MLB offseason, but few experts predicted he would land in Seattle. Even more have questioned both, Cano’s career decision to move to Seattle, and the Mariners’ management for this length of this investment. Why would Cano want to hit at Safeco, a traditionally difficult ballpark for hitters? Why would the Mariners offer one of the biggest contracts in MLB history to a player with more perceivable downside than upside on account of age? After the opening week of baseball, their big move seems to be paying off, big time.

The Mariners sit atop the American League West through the first six games with a 4-2 record. They started the season red hot, sweeping three games from the Angels, in Anaheim, scoring a combined 21 runs. Five Mariners have seven or more hits at this point, with Cano ‘s nine leading the way. Not to mention, he’s reached base on half his plate appearances. Justin Smoak has been providing the pop Seattle has been waiting to see from him. He’s belted two homeruns, two doubles and has driven in eight. Rookies Abraham Almonte and Brad Miller are looking to establish themselves as part of the everyday Mariner lineup, and the hits are coming. Centerfielder Almonte already has five RBIs, from the leadoff spot, including two doubles and a homerun. Miller has gone yard twice. Former first round pick, Dustin Ackley is starting to live up to his potential, as the former Tar Heel hit-machine has been getting on base and leads the team in runs scored.

Felix Hernandez pitchingSeattle’s bats were slightly cooled off in Oakland, where they dropped two of three. Even though their offense was stymied by a solid Oakland pitching staff, the Mariners’ pitching has been consistent throughout week one. Seattle pitchers have only allowed more than three runs once, in a game so far this season. Felix Hernandez has started the season in mid-season form, winning both his starts, with 19 strikeouts. Hard-throwing lefty James Paxton struck out nine during his scoreless seven innings against the Angels to pick up his win. Paxton and his 97-mile per hour fastball will face the Angels again in his next start, which happens to be the Mariners’ Safeco opener.

The Mariners have a young team, with an average age of 27.9 years old. That ranks sixth among current MLB rosters. They had a pool of young talent and high draft picks and needed a leader. So they signed Cano, 31, not only for his superb on-field skills, but also for his leadership abilities and to provide a professional, veteran presence in the locker room. He spent eight years with one of the premier MLB organizations, the New York Yankees – winning the World Series with them in 2009. The Mariners hope Cano can bring a winning attitude and provide the everyday on-field leadership that Felix Hernandez provides every fifth day. They needed an everyday position player to mentor and nurture the younger guys, like Seattle had in Griffey and Ichiro on past playoff teams.

Cano and MillerIt’s only been a week, but the Mariners have the potential for a special season, to win a Triple Crown of sorts. The aforementioned Felix Hernandez has pitched lights through two starts, and has been doing so for the better part of the last decade. It’s not a long shot to predict he may win his second Cy Young Award this season if he’s consistent. Also, Seattle has three rookies – Miller, Almonte and Paxton – who all have the talent to compete for AL Rookie of the Year. And it’s Robinson Cano that completes the trifecta. If he has his typical statistical season, batting .300+, with 30+ homeruns and 100+ RBIs, and the Mariners make the playoffs, Cano should be awarded the AL MVP. No team in MLB history has had players win all three of these prestigious awards, in the same season, but it could happen in Seattle this year. But again, it’s only been a week.

During the preseason, most baseball analysts predicted Seattle would battle the Houston Astros for last place in the AL West, but so far they are being proven wrong. Baseball is so much more than pitching, hitting and stats. As the great Yogi Berra once said, “90 percent of the game is half mental.” When the team adds a guy like Cano to the roster, it makes everyone better. It makes the players believe they have a chance to win. They feel like the management is putting them in the best situation to win. It gives them confidence! In a game where failing on seven of 10 tries is considered successful, confidence is everything to a ball player’s mentality. It’s a long season and a lot can happen, but the Mariners appear to have one of the more competitive lineups they’ve had for a few years. If they end up making the playoffs they’ll shock Major League Baseball again, but this time it’ll be when it counts, during the regular season.

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Would you throw back a homerun?

Brad Miller Hitting“Throw it back! Throw it back! Throw it back!” This chant is often heard around Major League Ballparks after the opposing team hits a homerun. Recently, a friend of mine caught a homerun ball hit by Mariners shortstop Brad Miller at an Angels game, and was faced with this pressure from the fans around him. Instead of throwing it back – as suggested by the other fans in his section – he chose to give the ball to his son who was at the game with him. Apparently this didn’t sit well with other nearby Angel fans and a heated confrontation ensued, which eventually resulted in another fan being removed from the stadium. Personally, I like it when the balls are thrown back, but only when it’s warranted. So when is it appropriate to throw back a homerun ball?

If you’re at a Cubs game, sitting in the outfield stands and you catch a homerun by the opposition, you throw it back. After all, Wrigley Field is where this tradition began. As the story goes, in 1969 Ron Grousl, founder of the renowned “Bleacher Bums” – an endearing term for those sitting in Wrigley’s outfield bleachers – was the first to throw back a homerun. After catching a homerun hit by the baseball legend Hank Aaron, Grousl said, “I don’t want this ball,” and threw it back on the field in the direction of the umpire. He was later quoted saying, “We don’t want any stinking enemy ball out here!”

The Wrigley Throw BackThere are times when ‘throwing it back’ brings an added element to a ball game. You might consider throwing back a homerun when it’s a big hit in a pressure situation. It’s the bottom of the eighth, your team is up by one, and the opposition hits a two-run jack to take the lead. You catch the ball and your show your team loyalty by throwing it back. Sure, it might have been a once in a lifetime chance, but you’re a lifelong fan who wants to show everyone on the field and in the stadium where your allegiances lie. The magnitude of the game also matters. If your team is playing a rival, it’s a home playoff game or the game weighs heavy in the standings, you may consider chucking the away team’s homerun back on the field.

This isn’t the first time this matter has been discussed. One of the most respected names in Major League Baseball addressed this topic a few years ago in an LA Times article. In 2010, while managing the Dodgers, Joe Torre said this about catching a homerun ball, “To me, that’s the greatest souvenir in the world. And you throw it back? Now fans feel like they’re criminals if they don’t throw the ball back.”

Catching a homerunDon’t throw homerun ball back unless you know the team, the players, the game and the situation – not because of peer pressure. You just caught a homerun ball at a Major League Baseball game and you’re elated! Meanwhile hundreds of other people didn’t catch that ball, but were close. It’s easy for them to encourage you to throw it back; they’re not holding it. Furthermore, they’re probably a little jealous, given that everyone that goes to an MLB game would love to catch a ball. It’s a free souvenir and they didn’t get one, so why should you get one? It’s an unfortunate trait in many people.

According to BaseballReference.com, since 1990, there is approximately one homerun hit per game and the average game attendance for all games in 2013 was near 30,000 people. Sure it depends on where you’re sitting, but for easy math, your odds of catching a homerun ball are 1:30,000. You get better odds playing poker in Vegas. The ball my friend caught came in the top of the ninth, during the second game of the season, with the home team already trailing 6-3. Miller’s 2-run bomb made the game 8-3. The game was over before Miller even went yard. There was no reason for Angel fans to chant, “throw it back.” In fact, this makes me question the overall baseball IQ of the average Angel fan. The moral of the story, if you catch a homerun ball, keep it!

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