You never know what to expect in this game. One second a player is a can’t-miss prospect with MVP written all over him, the next he’s Delmon Young.
That’s why it’s never surprising to witness a player you’ve never heard of suddenly become the backbone of a franchise, while a team’s highest earner rides the pine. Even talent slumps – unless your name is Mike Trout.
With baseball taking a breather until Friday, let’s look at some of the most surprising and disappointing individual efforts of the National League’s first half of 2018.
Biggest surprise: Patrick Corbin. When the D-Backs handed the Opening Day gig to Corbin with teammate Zack Greinke injured, it seemed like an odd choice considering Robbie Ray was on the staff and coming off a career year. Arizona knew what they were doing. Corbin has arguably been the Snakes’ best pitcher this season, posting a career-low ERA (3.24) and WHIP (1.05). He’s also tied for second in the NL in strikeouts behind Max Scherzer.
Biggest disappointment: Alex Avila. The D-Backs received plenty of offense from the catcher’s spot last season thanks to Chris Iannetta, so when the backstop bolted for Colorado, they needed a replacement. Enter Avila on a two-year, $8.25-million deal and coming off a fine 2017 campaign (.834 OPS). They thought they had their answer. They were wrong. Avila has turned in the worst offensive season of his career (.549 OPS), and John Ryan Murphy is now getting most of the work behind the plate.
Biggest surprise: Ozzie Albies. The budding Braves are ahead of schedule in turning around an organization that hasn’t finished atop the NL East standings in five years. While much of that has to do with MVP candidate Freddie Freeman and a career year from Nick Markakis, Albies has been one of baseball’s best surprises. The 21-year-old’s 29 doubles are tied for the NL lead and his 20 homers and 74 runs scored are tops among NL second basemen.
Biggest disappointment: Ender Inciarte. One player not living up to expectations for Atlanta is Inciarte, who’s still a plus defender in center field but has struggled to a .649 OPS (79 OPS+). Despite slugging a career-low .337 and getting on base at just a .312 clip, Inciarte’s speed still provides value. His 23 steals are already a career high, but he’s also been caught eight times.
Biggest surprise: Albert Almora Jr. Almora may not generate a lot of power at the dish (four HRs), but it doesn’t matter when you’re getting on base at a .357 clip out of the Cubs’ leadoff spot. The 24-year-old is just one hit away from matching his career high in 46 fewer games, and he’s also playing the best defense of his career, according to defensive runs saved (plus-7).
Biggest disappointment: Yu Darvish. The Cubs handed Darvish $126 million in hopes the 31-year-old would anchor their staff like he once did with the Rangers. Instead, Darvish has battled the injury bug and at times looked like the same pitcher who melted down for the Dodgers in last season’s World Series. His 4.95 ERA is a career high and he’s only managed to throw 40 innings thus far. Not a good start by any measure.
Biggest surprise: Eugenio Suarez. There wasn’t any doubt Suarez was a good player after solid back-to-back campaigns with the Reds, but he’s been unreal this season. Suarez is second to Javier Baez in NL RBIs despite missing time on the DL, and he’ll appear in his first All-Star Game thanks to a .399 OBP and .973 OPS (160 OPS+).
Biggest disappointment: Luis Castillo. Entering the season with a lot of hype after a solid debut campaign, the 2017 NL Rookie of the Year candidate hasn’t looked good during his sophomore stint in the bigs. Castillo sits at the top of the league in earned runs allowed, with his ERA+ nearly cut in half. He’s allowed eight more homers than last season in just 14 more innings, and that’s not just a product of his hitter-friendly home park, either. Castillo’s allowed more long balls (11) and has a higher ERA (6.44) on the road.
Biggest surprise: Kyle Freeland. On a team with so much offensive firepower, it’s Freeland whose stood out as the biggest surprise for the Rockies. During his sophomore campaign, the 25-year-old southpaw has been Colorado’s best starter, posting a 3.11 ERA with a surprisingly solid 2.76 ERA at home. In fact, Freeland’s been more effective at home than on the road in a number of categories, including win percentage (.714), WHIP (1.18), and strikeouts per nine (7.5).
Biggest disappointment: Bryan Shaw. The Bryan Shaw who’s pitching for Colorado isn’t the same guy who was an integral part of the Indians’ bullpen for the past five seasons. Sure, he’s still making a lot of appearances (43 so far), but his 7.23 ERA and 1.96 WHIP are dreadful, especially for a guy who inked a three-year deal with an annual average value of around $9 million. Pitching at Coors Field hasn’t helped, either. Shaw’s allowed 18 earned runs and walked nine in 16 2/3 innings at home.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Biggest surprise: Max Muncy. The former A’s castoff has become one of the Dodgers’ most productive run producers and might have saved their season in L.A. When the Dodgers needed a guiding light during a rough stretch to begin the season, on came Muncy in mid-April to torch opposing pitching to the tune of a 1.013 OPS, 22 home runs, and a .604 slugging percentage. He’s basically this year’s version of Chris Taylor for the club.
Biggest disappointment: Logan Forsythe. The 31-year-old Forsythe was slowed by a bothersome right shoulder to begin the year, and things have yet to turn around for the veteran. He’s posted a measly .570 OPS (56 OPS+) in 62 games for the Dodgers, and although he was a touch better at the plate to end the first half, he still only managed a .650 OPS in July. Forsythe hasn’t played well in L.A. since coming over in a 2017 trade, as demonstrated by his .219/.326/.318 slash line in Dodgers blue.
Biggest surprise: Brian Anderson. Maybe the rebuild in Miami won’t be as god-awful as everyone predicted. Much of the Marlins’ success in a not-so-terrible campaign has come courtesy of a few key elements – one of which is Anderson, who’s making a case for NL Rookie of the Year. The 25-year-old leads the Marlins with 49 RBIs and 23 doubles. His 109 hits also lead MLB rookies and are 20 ahead of the Yankees’ Miguel Andujar.
Biggest disappointment: Junichi Tazawa
Prior to the 2017 campaign, the Marlins spent large sums of money on relief pitching to take some of the strain off of a mediocre starting staff. The idea was fine in principle, but the free agents they signed didn’t work out as expected. One of the “key” acquisitions was Tazawa, who was a complete bust. The 32-year-old recorded a 6.57 ERA and 1.57 WHIP in 77 appearances for the Fish over a season-and-a-half and was released on May 23.
Biggest surprise: Jesus Aguilar. General manager David Stearns might have made the best move of his career in picking up Aguilar off waivers from the Indians in February of 2017. Since joining Milwaukee, Aguilar has 40 home runs and 122 RBIs in 220 games. He also finished the first half of this season leading the NL in home runs, slugging percentage, and OPS for the contending Brewers, beating out MVP candidates like Freddie Freeman and Nolan Arenado.
Biggest disappointment: Orlando Arcia. The slick-fielding Arcia appeared to find himself at the plate last season, completing his campaign with a .277 average, 15 homers, and 53 RBIs. But this year hasn’t worked out quite the same for the 23-year-old. Arcia struggled mightily at the dish and was optioned to the minors at the beginning of July, posting a .197/.231/.251 slash line.
New York Mets
Biggest surprise: Brandon Nimmo. At the beginning of the season, the Mets didn’t appear to have room for Nimmo, optioning him to the minors just 11 games into the season. Since he came back to the bigs, however, the 25-year-old has been the team’s best hitter and an on-base machine (.373 OBP). Nimmo and Michael Conforto are expected to be the building blocks of the Mets’ outfield, which is good news for fans of the NL East’s worst team.
Biggest disappointment: Jose Reyes. Why the Mets are still employing Reyes is puzzling. The veteran is hitting just .181/.257/.246 in a limited role off the team’s bench and has been one of baseball’s least productive players (-1.0 fWAR). There were rumors that Reyes was discussing retirement with the Mets, which is why they were hanging onto him. But that hasn’t happened, and his spot on the crumbling club could certainly be used more wisely on an up-and-coming infielder like Peter Alonso.
Biggest surprise: Seranthony Dominguez. One of the best names in baseball was handed the closing reins by Phillies manager Gabe Kapler a couple of months into the season, and boy, can this rookie fire a baseball. Dominguez averages 98 mph on both his fastball and sinker and throws a change-up harder than most pitchers throw their four-seamer. He’s used his heat to rack up 11.5 strikeouts per nine and boasts a 1.60 ERA in 33 2/3 innings.
Biggest disappointment: Hector Neris. Dominguez might want to thank Neris for falling off the rails and losing his closing job before his eventual demotion to the minor leagues at the end of June. Neris entered the year with the ninth-inning job in hand after three straight solid campaigns in the Phillies’ bullpen, which included 26 saves last year. Even though he still showed a knack for striking out hitters (12.3 K/9), the 29-year-old just couldn’t keep runs from crossing the plate, posting a 6.90 ERA and 6.38 FIP this season.
Biggest surprise: Francisco Cervelli. While Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte continue to show they’re two of the league’s best outfielders, it’s been Cervelli who has been a stabilizing force behind the dish and at the plate for the up-and-down Pirates. Despite battling concussion issues, the 32-year-old’s .839 OPS (129 OPS+) leads the Pirates, mostly due to his .379 OBP. His .460 slugging percentage is also the highest mark of his 11-year career.
Biggest disappointment: Josh Harrison. Coming into this season, it appeared Harrison could be the Pirates’ best player after a career year in which he hit 16 homers and posted the second-highest OPS of his tenure with the team. He hasn’t played like he did in 2017, however, and has been pretty abysmal at the dish. In 241 at-bats, Harrison has just 13 extra-base hits and is only getting on base at a .291 clip – not the kind of season the 31-year-old needs in his potential walk year.
San Diego Padres
Biggest surprise: Kirby Yates. Maybe it’s pitching in the friendly confines of Petco Park, or maybe he’s finally put it all together, but the 31-year-old reliever Yates has had a tremendous season as part of a spectacular bullpen in San Diego. Across 39 appearances, Yates owns a 1.43 ERA and has struck out 48 hitters in 37 2/3 innings. His ERA+ is a whopping 280 and he rarely allows home runs, giving up just one to Derek Dietrich of the Marlins on May 31.
Biggest disappointment: Eric Hosmer. The Padres uncharacteristically broke the bank this offseason to acquire Hosmer, a World Series champion with the Royals who brought four Gold Gloves and veteran leadership. While he’s helped shape the clubhouse of a young Padres club, Hosmer is putting up average numbers at the plate (.249/.317/.397) and in the field (-4.5 UZR). San Diego probably expected more for their $144 million – the most cash handed out to a player in franchise history.
San Francisco Giants
Biggest surprise: Alen Hanson. The Giants may never be an offensive juggernaut like they were in the days of Barry Bonds and Jeff Kent, but they’ve produced better at the plate this year than last. Hanson, who appeared in a career-high 106 games last season with mixed results, has been a big part of that. The 25-year-old is slugging .503, and 21 of his 45 hits in 54 games have been of the extra-base variety.
Biggest disappointment: Hunter Pence. Remember the days when Pence was delivering pregame playoff speeches to inspire and ignite the Giants, and then backing up what he said on the field? After a down year last season, things have only gotten worse for the three-time All-Star, who has zero home runs, 11 RBIs, and a ghastly .523 OPS (44 OPS+) in 48 games. If this is the end of Pence’s productive days, at least the Giants will have him off the books at season’s end.
St. Louis Cardinals
Biggest surprise: Miles Mikolas. The Cardinals’ front office certainly rolled the dice on Mikolas, who spent three seasons in the big leagues from 2012-14 before remaking himself in Japan with the Yomiuri Giants. The risk paid off. In his first season back in the majors, Mikolas’ stellar first half (10-3, 2.79 ERA) earned him an All-Star nod. He’s been the best in what has been a solid starting rotation for the Cardinals this season.
Biggest disappointment: Greg Holland. Rolling the dice doesn’t always pay off, however, as demonstrated by the Cardinals’ signing of Holland. The 32-year-old has been brutal for St. Louis, fashioning a 7.99 ERA across 30 appearances. He’s had a hard time locating the strike zone – walking 19 in 23 2/3 – and missing bats (12.5 hits per nine). The $14 million the Cardinals invested in Holland hasn’t even returned one save, after the club signed him with the expectation he’d be its closer.
Biggest surprise: Juan Soto. Aside from flashes of playing like their previous selves, the Nationals haven’t looked like the perennial leaders of the NL East. One bright spot has been Juan Soto. MLB’s youngest player (he’s just 19) has been incredible, slashing .301/.411/.517 with nine home runs, 11 doubles, and 28 RBIs in 51 games. He’s certainly helped provide Washington with the production it’s been missing from Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy.
Biggest disappointment: Bryce Harper. This was supposed to be the year when Harper, with free agency and the largest payday in baseball history in his sights, put together a season for the ages. Now, Home Run Derby aside, he has left fans wondering if he’s really worth the most lucrative contract ever, thanks to a .214 batting average and 102 strikeouts in 414 plate appearances. The 25-year-old is still too dangerous of a hitter for teams to mess with (23 HRs, 54 RBIs, 78 walks), but unless he turns things around in the second half, this might be a season fans choose to forget instead of celebrate.
(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)