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First-half surprises, from Judge to Cody to Crew

Wild 2017 season has brought us many things we didn't see coming
July 11, 2017

Raise your hand if you had the Brewers leading the National League Central by 5 1/2 games at this point, or a rookie, Aaron Judge of the Yankees, penciled in as the winner of the American League Most Valuable Player Award.Did you foresee the Astros being historically good, or the

Raise your hand if you had the Brewers leading the National League Central by 5 1/2 games at this point, or a rookie, Aaron Judge of the Yankees, penciled in as the winner of the American League Most Valuable Player Award.
Did you foresee the Astros being historically good, or the Twins, Diamondbacks and Rockies roaring back into contention? How about the Royals and Rays, who are suddenly two of the most interesting teams in the game?
Yes, friends, it has been that kind of half-season, a sport riding a crest of surprising teams and extraordinary individual performances. Let's count down 10 things we didn't see coming:
1. Aaron Judge, AL MVP and AL Rookie of the Year
Imagine the New York Yankees having a larger-than-life player who hits the baseball harder and farther than any other player on the planet. Is this our gift from the baseball gods? Yes, he is. Judge is also the guy who batted .179 last season and struck out 42 times in 84 at-bats. Now he's leading the Majors in home runs (30) and the AL in total bases (208), and he showed the world why he's the next big thing -- both literally and figuratively -- with a dominant win in the 2017 T-Mobile Home Run Derby.

2. The Houston Astros
OK, we knew the Astros had a chance to be good. We just couldn't imagine they'd be this good: 60-29 overall, 31-11 on the road and leading the AL West by 16 1/2 games. They hit home runs. They don't strike out. They're crazy aggressive, taking cues from their three stars -- Jose Altuve, George Springer and Carlos Correa -- and playing the game with a certain joy and swagger that's infectious to teammates and fans alike.

3. Max Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw?
What's a great season without this kind of debate? Sure, there's no real answer. Both of them are historically good. Both of them appear to be headed to the Hall of Fame. They've defined greatness in their generation, but Kershaw has been slightly better, winning three NL Cy Young Awards and four NL ERA titles. This season, Scherzer has a lower ERA and more strikeouts, even though Kershaw has been his usual brilliant self. Word to the wise: Never bet against Kershaw. Since this debate began to take hold, he has made four starts with these results: 29 innings, 15 hits, two earned runs, five walks, 44 strikeouts.
4. Cody Bellinger and the Dodgers' -- and MLB's -- youth movement
The Dodgers had already played 20 games when manager Dave Roberts penciled 21-year-old Bellinger's name onto his lineup card for the first time. Nothing special happened at first. After four starts, Bellinger was batting .231 with no extra-base hits. Then the ball started flying out of the park. Bellinger homered 24 times in his first 55 starts, and the Dodgers got hot. Bellinger ranks second in the NL in homers (24), and the Dodgers are 51-18 since his arrival and top the NL West. Bellinger is symbolic of what's happening in baseball, with waves of kids taking over the sport, from Judge and Correa to Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi of the Red Sox to Corey Seager of the Dodgers to Michael Conforto of the Mets.

5. The Diamondbacks, Twins and Rockies
Colorado and Arizona score runs in bunches. Minnesota plays crazy good defense. All three teams were tested time and again in the first half, and all three of them took punches and countered with a few, too. The thing about teams like this is that they gain confidence day by day. On Opening Day, none of them knew how good they'd be. Now all three recognize they're good enough to compete.
6. Brewers first baseman Eric Thames
Thames is reflective of the incredible job Brewers general manager David Stearns has done in constructing a contender. Thames remade his swing during four seasons in Korea, and Stearns signed him and plugged him into the middle of Milwaukee's lineup. Thames has 23 home runs and a .936 OPS for a team that's leading the NL Central by a surprising margin. In a three-game sweep of the Orioles last week, the Brewers' starting pitchers didn't allow an earned run in 19 1/3 innings, including six by rookie lefty Brent Suter, a 31st-round pick out of Harvard.

7. Welcome back, Royals
When I approached outfielder Alex Gordon this spring and said something about what a great run Kansas City had "had," he interrupted. "We're not done," Gordon said. Indeed, the Royals are not. With Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Lorenzo Cain and others headed for free agency after the season, this might be the last waltz for a group that has been to the World Series twice and reminded us that Kansas City is one of the country's great baseball cities. But it could be a great last dance. The Royals have won 18 of 27 games to close to within 1 1/2 games of the second AL Wild Card, and they did so by using a familiar formula: bullpen, defense, contact hitters.

8. Didn't we tell you Kevin Cash would be a great manager?
After three seasons out of the playoffs and with manager Joe Maddon and general manager Andrew Friedman having departed for the Cubs and Dodgers, respectively, the Rays looked to have run out of magic. But president of baseball operations Matt Silverman has done a nice job constructing the best offense Tampa Bay has ever had and making the hiring of Cash in the wake of Maddon's departure look smart. If the Rays can get what should be a very solid rotation straightened out, postseason baseball could return to Tampa Bay.
9. Angels skipper Mike Scioscia
This season has reminded us that Scioscia is one of the great managers of his generation. Despite losing baseball's best player, Michael Trout, to a thumb injury and getting just one start from his best pitcher, Garrett Richards, Scioscia has patched together a competitive team built around defense and a surprisingly good rotation. With Trout on the verge of returning, the Angels have a chance to do something special.

10. Competitive balance
This is where it all begins. Lots of what baseball has accomplished the past two decades begins here. In the past four seasons, 17 of 30 teams have played at least one postseason series. In the past 10 seasons, 13 teams have been to the World Series at least once. Only the Giants, with three championships, have come close to a dynasty. In the AL, seven franchises have been to the World Series the past 10 seasons. That balance is seen in the current standings this way: 17 of 30 clubs are within 5 1/2 games of a playoff berth, and 12 are within 5 1/2 of first place in their division. In other words, buckle up. These last three months could be chaotic, and that's a really fun thing.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for since 2011. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice