Posted: Thursday July 5, 2012 11:39AM ; Updated: Thursday July 5, 2012 1:19PM
Cliff Corcoran
Cliff Corcoran>INSIDE BASEBALL

Biggest first-half surprises (cont.)

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Austin Jackson
Despite Austin Jackson's breakout year the Tigers are still stuck in third place in the AL Central.
US Presswire

The Orioles are winning thanks largely to smoke, mirrors and luck. By runs scored per game they have the sixth-worst offense in the AL and the fourth-worst pitching staff and have been outscored by 26 runs on the year, yet they are tied with the Central Division-leading White Sox, another surprising team, for the fourth-best record in the league. Strong work from Baltimore's relief corps, which has compiled the best bullpen ERA in the majors, and big seasons from centerfielder Adam Jones and starter Jason Hammel, the latter acquired for long-time rotation stalwart Jeremy Guthrie this past offseason, have helped, but both Pythagorean record and third-order wins agree that the Orioles' record should be inverted and that Baltimore has indeed been the worst team in their division.

The Pirates, meanwhile, have scored fewer than four runs per game despite an MVP-worthy season from centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, but they have still managed a positive run differential thanks to the third-stingiest pitching staff in the NL. That echoes Pittsburgh's mid-season success from a year ago when it snuck into first place after the All-Star break thanks in large part to a pitching staff that held opponents to 3.9 runs per game on the season through the end of July. Last year, things fell apart from there, as the Bucs allowed 5.4 runs per game over the final two months and went 18-38 (.321) over that stretch to sink to fourth place and lose 90 games.

There's no guarantee that won't happen again. Pittsburgh's pitching success has been keyed by a breakout season by 27-year-old James McDonald, solid work from offseason acquisition A.J. Burnett and a bullpen performance to rival the Orioles', none of which are guaranteed or even all that likely to persist. If the Pirates' pitching struggles in the second half, they'll sink once again.

4. Underperforming favorites

It was clear coming into the season that, with Ryan Howard starting the year on the disabled list following Achilles tendon surgery and Chase Utley battling a degenerative cartilage condition in his knees, the Phillies' offense was going to continue its decline. However, coming off a 102-win season in which it won the NL East by 13 games, Philadelphia seemed to have some room to work with. No one could have expected them to spend the first half of the season in last place, where they have been for all but five days since May 5.

Of course, no one expected Roy Halladay to post a 3.98 ERA through the end of May then hit the disabled list for more than a month with a lat strain. No one expected Cliff Lee to post a 4.13 ERA and go winless through his first 13 starts (though that winless streak, finally snapped Wednesday night, was more the fault of the offense as it was Lee's). No one expected 31-year-old Shane Victorino to have his worst season in his walk year. Nor did they expect both Utley (who has been back for six games) and Howard (who just started a minor league rehab assignment) to miss almost the entire first half. They did expect John Mayberry Jr. to help fill in for Howard at the plate, but he hasn't, hitting just .226/.262/.377 and losing the leftfield job to non-roster invitee Juan Pierre. Most of all, no one expected the Phillies pitching staff to be worse than its offense, but is has been, allowing 4.3 runs per game, compared to 3.3 a year ago, thanks to a merely average performance from the embattled rotation and a terrible one from the bullpen.

Speaking of expectations, there was a nearly-unanimous feeling that the Tigers would run away with the American League Central. Entering Thursday, however, the defending division champions are mired in third place, 4 1/2 games behind the White Sox and two games below .500, that despite strong seasons from Justin Verlander, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, and a breakout campaign from 25-year-old third-year centerfielder Austin Jackson.

The problem is that Detroit hasn't received an above-average performance from any of the other four spots in its rotation. The weak spots in the lineup (second base, right field and designated hitter) have been cripplingly awful, combining to hit .219/.269/.323 for an OPS+ below 60 relative to the league's splits at those positions. They also have the worst park-adjusted defensive efficiency (the rate of turning balls in play into outs) in the AL, and the third-worst in baseball, which is only surprising because Miguel Cabrera's play at third base is not a primary offender. The result has been a below-average overall performance in all facets of the game and a stars-and-scrubs composition which has Verlander and company fighting to keep the Tigers above water rather than leading them to another division title.

5. The power of Plouffe

Taken on its face, Trevor Plouffe's place among the home run leaders -- his 19 taters are tied for 10th in the AL and 12th in the majors despite the fact that he didn't hit the second until May 16 -- is more shocking than the unexpected results from the five teams listed above. At least those who paid attention to Plouffe before this year had some warning that such an outburst was possible.

Plouffe was a first-round pick back in 2004, meaning someone saw something in him at one point, and though he seemed like a bust for most of the interim, he did see a small up-tick in his power in 2010 (17 homers between the majors and minors and a respectable .186 isolated power, which is slugging percentage minus batting average). The real warning shot, however, came at Triple-A last year, where Plouffe slugged 15 home runs in 220 plate appearances, good for a .635 slugging percentage and a whopping .322 isolated power. That seemed like a small-sample fluke by a 25-year-old getting a fourth look at Triple-A pitching, but Plouffe has brought that power to the majors this year, posting a .316 isolated power on the season and hitting home runs on what would be a 50-homer pace over a full 162 games. Better yet, 18 of those home runs have come in his last 40 games, a 73-homer pace over 162 games. That's right, over the last 40 games, Trevor Plouffe has been hitting home runs like the 2001 version of Barry Bonds.

Oh, and in case you didn't notice, Plouffe, who has already homered thrice in July, is doing this while playing his home games at Target Field, where he has hit 12 of his 19 round-trippers in 140 plate appearances and slugged .633 (.366 isolated slugging). Justin Morneau and Joe Mauer, meanwhile, have combined for nine home runs in 1,083 career plate appearances as their new home ballpark.

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