Sunday, July 08, 2012

Three Surprises of the First Half

As the Tigers enter the four-day all-star break, I'm going to list the three surprises of the first half:

Austin Jackson

Who guessed that Austin Jackson would go into the all-star break second in the league in batting average (.332) and on-base percentage (.408), eighth in slugging (.545) and fifth in OPS (.953)? I'm betting nobody came close.  Can he keep up the pace?  His batting average will likely go down when his .420 BABIP drops to a more reasonable level, but even if he settles in as a .280 to .290 hitter, he should still have an outstanding season.

While the batting average may drop, much of Jackson's improvement should be sustainable.  His Isolated Power has risen 75% from .125 in 2011 to .218 this year.  Some fans consider the home runs to be the most surprising development of his season, but scouts had previously predicted a power boost for Jackson, so I think this is a real change.

More surprising to me than the increase in power is his improved walk  and strikeout rates.  He has increased his walks by 34% while decreasing his strikeouts by 17%.  That would mean about 20 extra walks and 30 fewer strikeouts over a full season which is a lot.  It does not take a large sample size for these particular rates to stabilize.  Thus, I think he has genuinely reached a new level of plate discipline.

 I'm thinking Ajax might have a final line of something like .285/.370/.470.  Combine that with his base running and his outstanding defensive skills and you've got an all-star caliber center fielder.  If the all-star game is supposed to be based on the first half of the year, then he should be there this year for sure.

Quintin Berry

In a couple of months, Quintin Berry has gone from career minor leaguer and organizational filler to a key cog at the top of the Tigers line-up.  Berry enters the break batting .299 with a stellar .388 OBP and is tied for the league lead with five triples.  His 1.2 Wins Above Replacement is fourth on the team trailing only Jackson, Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.  After 41 games and 164 plate appearances, it's getting harder to pass this off as a lucky hot streak.

It's probably still too early to get overly optimistic about Berry's future.  His .408 BABIP will drop as will his batting average and he has little power.  Despite his speed, he is not a great defender, although certainly far better than the likes of Delmon Young and Brennan Boesch.

Berry has his shortcomings, but the one thing which separates him from the Nook Logans and Josh Andersons is his ability to draw walks.  He has drawn 17 free passes in 164 plate Appearances this year, a rate consistent with his minor league career.  If he can keep that up, he can build a career for himself at the major league level as a platoon player or fourth outfielder or maybe even a starter on some teams.  One of those teams could be next year's Tigers if things break right. 

Brayan Villarreal

Right-handed reliever Brayan Villarreal has always had great stuff, but his performance took a step back in 2011.  He posted a 6.75 ERA and walked 10 batters in just 16 innings in a brief stint with the Tigers.  He didn't do much better with the Toledo MudHens where he  had a 5.05 ERA in 66 innings.

This year, Villarreal has emerged as the new Al Alburquerque of the Tigers bullpen.  He has dominated opposing hitters with 40 strikeouts and a 1.55 ERA in 29 innings pitched.  Manager Jim Leyland has been impressed enough that he now has confidence routinely using Villarreal in high-leverage situations.  The 25-year-old fire baller is showing no signs of letting up and could the team's closer of the future.

Honorable Mentions

Outfielder Andy Dirks got off to a great start batting .328/.379/.515 in 37 games before injuring his achilles.

Southpaw Duane Below has been a strong reliever with a 2.75 ERA and 25/4 K/BB ratio in 36 innings, but has typically been used in low-leverage situations.

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