We're about a month past the All-Star break, at an interesting point when many new trends have appeared and where the sample size is substantial enough to render it relevant. The All-Star break cuts a convenient marker into the season and essentially kicks off the summer of baseball. Players can and do improve midseason, and for the next two weeks we will dissect the All-Star break on an individual level to determine fluke from truth; this week we will focus on players who have improved substantially on their first-half performances, and next week we will discuss the opposite -- players who have underachieved compared to their performance prior to the break.
Pat Burrell, OF, Phillies: There may not be a player in all of baseball with a bigger difference in performance by All-Star splits. Burrell hit .215 with a .786 OPS in the first half, but since the All-Star break he has hit .363 with a 1.103 OPS. How much stock should be put into this hot streak?
Adam: For Real. Burrell has averaged 28 home runs a season since his rookie year, so while it was surprising to see him slug just .408 while hitting 11 home runs, it was even more surprising to see owners everywhere quickly bail on him. Even while he was struggling, Burrell was on pace to set a career high in walks. Often that can be an indication that a hitter just can't do as much with pitches anymore and is taking pitches out of necessity rather than plate discipline, and when pitchers challenge the hitter more, his walk rate and performance finally plummets. Instead, Burrell has saved his job with his outburst and is playing every day and hitting third in one of the league's most potent lineups -- and now his season doesn't look much different from his past two. Burrell can hit 10 home runs by the end of the season, and a guy with that much power should not be available in nearly 47 percent of leagues.
Will: For Real. As Adam points out, Burrell was on pace to set a career mark in walks even while he was struggling. His contact rate was also at an all-time high, and Burrell's early-season batting average was due more to a freakishly low hit rate than any other factor. With the normalization of his hit rate has come the production indicative of Burrell's true skill level. Owners can reasonably expect a slugging percentage close to .500 over his final 100 at-bats, and as Adam rightfully mentions, a guy with 10-homer upside should not be on the waiver wire.
Adam Wainwright, SP, Cardinals: After proving himself as a reliever and a closer last season, Wainwright had high expectations as he moved into the rotation this season. After a 4.66 ERA and 1.53 WHIP in the first half, he has produced like an ace, with a 2.63 ERA and 1.21 WHIP. Is this Wainwright finally tapping into his potential?
Adam: For Real. The difference between Wainwright's ratios and numbers before and after the All-Star break are eye-popping, but his post-break numbers match up perfectly with views on how good his "stuff" is. Wainwright, helped by his power curve, accumulated 72 strikeouts in 75 innings last season as a reliever, and struck out 8.85 batters per nine innings in his minor league career as a starter, so it was worrisome to see him punch out just 59 batters in 102 1/3 innings before the All-Star break. Since then, he has struck out 42 in 45 innings, shaved his walk rate by more than 30 percent and allowed only one home run. The new and improved numbers are much closer to his minor league pedigree, and the success should be sustained.
Will: For Real. Another player whose true skills were concealed by first-half misfortune, Wainwright has suffered all season from a high hit rate and low strand percentage. As those two factors have equalized, Wainwright has been able to perform at a level that, as Adam says above, more accurately reflects the skills he's shown throughout his professional career.
Dustin McGowan, SP, Blue Jays: McGowan looked like a former top prospect whose career would flounder -- his career ERA entering this season was 6.48 -- but McGowan has a 4.14 ERA in 19 starts this season, buoyed by a 3.35 ERA and 1.18 WHIP in seven starts since the break. Legitimate growth from the pitcher or just a small sample size?
Adam: Unreal. Even though McGowan's numbers since the All-Star break far exceed his numbers from before the break (4.65 ERA, 1.33 WHIP), his strikeout rate (7.20 versus 6.57) and home run rate (0.50 versus 1.39) have actually gotten worse. McGowan was rated the Blue Jays' top prospect by Baseball America as recently as 2004, but since then he has had Tommy John surgery, and neither his minor league nor major league statistics are particularly impressive. I tend to err on the side of caution regarding young pitching talent, and McGowan doesn't have much growth left in him anyway, since he is 25. A young, homer-prone starter in a hitters' park -- Rogers Centre is seventh in home run park factor -- seems like a poor combination to me.
Will: For Real. McGowan has had control issues his entire career, and his command is still not quite where it needs to be. He's continuing to show steady improvement, however, and the small decline in strikeout rate Adam references above isn't precipitous enough to worry me yet. His home run rate is 0.95 in his major league career and 0.52 over the course of eight minor league seasons, so I'm not as concerned about that, either. Look for further growth as his command continues to sharpen. I'm optimistic.
Will Harris and Adam Madison are fantasy baseball analysts for TalentedMrRoto.com. Will can be contacted at WillHarris@TalentedMrRoto.com and Adam at Adam@TalentedMrRoto.com.