Midpoint mantra: These Bucs won't stop
The ceremonial midpoint of the baseball season is still another week and a half away, but the actual midpoint arrived this week. Every team in the Majors has played its 81st game. Half of the 2013 season is in the books.
Here's a look at a few things we've learned, or seem to have learned, from half a season of baseball.
The Pirates are legit: Perhaps you think you've seen this movie before, with a heartwarming start giving way to a late-season Pittsburgh fade. This team is different.
The 2013 Pirates have already reached heights that neither of the past two years' Bucs managed, getting 20 games over .500. Their solid run differential indicates that it's not just smoke and mirrors. They've already added one promising young arm in top prospect Gerrit Cole.
Perhaps the Bucs won't make the postseason. That's at least possible. But this is the best Pirates team in a long time, and appears to be at least ticketed for a winning record, if not the franchise's first playoff berth since the Barry Bonds/Bobby Bonilla/Jim Leyland days.
Never write off a team with talent: After a few weeks, a couple of months, the rush was on to shovel dirt on the Dodgers, Blue Jays and Angels. None of those three ships is fully righted yet, but they're all in the vicinity of .500, and all at least on the fringes of contention.
The first part of the lesson here is in the bold type -- teams with talent will probably not struggle forever. The Dodgers and Jays had to get healthy. The Angels had to get right. But there was too much ability for these teams to scuffle all year.
There's a second part to the lesson, though, and it's probably even more important. As a general rule, if the question is, "Is it too early to [blank]?" the answer is probably yes. When the subject is baseball, you always want more information.
Last year's phenoms were not one-year wonders: Whether they were full-year sensations or half-season dazzlers, the 2012 season saw a string of dazzling debuts. Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Yu Darvish and Matt Harvey have all followed up big 2012s with superb 2013s.
In fact, they've all gotten better. In each case, an emerging talent has taken his prodigious skill set and refined it. These young stars (even Darvish is only 26) are turning tools into production, and it's a joy to watch.
The only exceptions are Yoenis Cespedes and Andrelton Simmons, and it's not like they've been bad. They just haven't quite lived up to the standards they set a year ago.
Clayton Kershaw is making history: The expectations for Kershaw were so high for so long that it almost seems that his greatness is taken for granted. He's pitching at a ridiculously high level and has been doing so for a while now.
Kershaw's recent shutout at Coors Field just brought it into sharper focus. There's no better pitcher in either league. He led the National League in innings, shutouts and ERA as of Thursday.
If he holds on, he'd be the first pitcher since Greg Maddux from 1993-95 to lead his league in ERA for three straight seasons. More impressively, he'd be the fifth pitcher in history to accomplish that, joining Maddux, Roger Clemens, Sandy Koufax and Lefty Grove.
Kershaw is still only 25, by the way.
Strikeouts are in: Seven players had already struck out at least 100 times this year as of Thursday. Fifteen had at least 90, and 21 players are at 80 or more. And some of them are among the most productive hitters in the game -- Chris Davis, Carlos Gonzalez, and Nelson Cruz are among the players having excellent years despite high K totals.
Put another way, there have been five 200-strikeout seasons by hitters in the history of the game. It's distinctly possible that we could see five this year.
It's a trend that's been on the rise for a while now. The rate of strikeouts per plate appearance in the Major Leagues rose every year between 2005 and 2012, and as of now it's holding steady from 2012 to 2013. In short, striking out just isn't a problem anymore.
Teams don't mind if their players strike out, as long as they produce otherwise. Pitchers go for the punchout. And reliever usage has become so specialized that many teams can trot out strikeout machines for three or four batters at a time, starting as early as the sixth inning.