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The Record Chasers of MLB’s Second Half

Chris Sale is on the verge of a historic season, Adrián Beltré is just a few hits away from an exclusive club, and yes, Aaron Judge is better than everyone else

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

While it’s based around a celebration of past accomplishments, baseball’s midsummer break is a natural time for speculation about the rest of the season. The trade deadline approaches, awards talk swirls, and we’re close enough to September for playoff positioning to start to matter. In advance of the season’s second half, here are a half-dozen players with notable statistical milestones in sight. Fair warning: The phrase “on pace for” is more meaningful now than it was in April, but for outlier performers like the ones listed here, it more often than not leads to numerical heartbreak. That said, when talking about Chris Sale, Clayton Kershaw, and Aaron Judge, we can dare to dream big; leaderboards are more fun that way.

George Springer: 40 Home Runs As a Leadoff Hitter

We start, naturally, with a leadoff hitter. No player exemplifies the majors’ newest lineup trend better than George Springer, who had never hit leadoff in his baseball career before last season. Now he’s bashing 27 first-half homers from the no. 1 spot in the batting order. A friendly home ballpark helps some, but so does the All-Star outfielder’s hitting philosophy, which he explained to me in the offseason: “Just because I’m hitting first doesn’t mean I have to take a pitch or be your stereotypical leadoff hitter. I have that 3-hitter mentality but I’m just hitting first.” That 3-hitter mentality has translated up the lineup card; no player in baseball has as many homers from the 3-hole as Springer does from the leadoff spot.

A pair of all-time records are in Springer’s orbit. Alfonso Soriano has the most leadoff home runs in a season, hitting 13 for the 2003 Yankees. At the break, Springer has nine. Soriano also holds the record for most single-season home runs from the no. 1 spot in the order, with 39 for the 2006 Nationals. Springer has 27. And at his recent pace — 14 homers and an OPS north of 1.200 since the start of June — it might not take Springer long to blast past Soriano’s records.

Chris Sale: 10 WAR and 300 Strikeouts

After relocating to Boston in an offseason trade that included top prospect Yoan Moncada, Sale was viewed by the baseball world as a clear favorite for the 2017 Cy Young Award because he was moving from a rebuilding roster to a pennant contender. But nobody foresaw him ascending to this level so quickly or so substantively. He’s been the best pitcher in the majors in 2017 — by WAR, as valuable as Chris Archer and Carlos Martínez combined, or Zack Greinke plus Yu Darvish.

At the All-Star break, Sale leads all qualified starters with a 36 percent strikeout rate and ranks fifth in both walk rate (4 percent) and home run rate (0.78 per nine innings). Add in the circumstantial factors that he plays in a hitter-friendly home ballpark and the best division in baseball, and his FanGraphs WAR is an eye-popping 5.3 through 18 starts. The Red Sox have 73 games left, meaning Sale should start 15 times, over which he’d add 4.4 wins at his current pace. That extrapolated sum would push him to 9.7 total WAR, a mark only nine pitchers have exceeded since the start of the 20th century. In other words, Sale is more than halfway to one of the 10 best pitching seasons of all time, at least by this one advanced measure.

He’s also well on his way to breaking the 300-strikeout barrier, which only Clayton Kershaw has achieved since 2002. Reaching 300 strikeouts requires both an outlier strikeout rate and a hefty innings burden — Stephen Strasburg has the highest career K% of all-time (min. 1,000 innings), but he’s reached 200 strikeouts just once. This season, Sale has mastered both of those prerequisites, as he ranks third in the majors in innings pitched; second is Max Scherzer, who also is on his way to 300 K’s. Sale (on pace for 326) and Scherzer (on pace for 317) could both surpass that mark with a start or two to spare. As Michael Baumann wrote near the end of the 2015 season when Kershaw amassed 301 strikeouts, “The 300-strikeout club is like any uncharted or forgotten territory: It takes someone of special quality to get there, but showing that it can be done is often all it takes to inspire others to do it, too.”

Adrián Beltré: 3,000 Career Hits

One of the best players of his generation has finally started receiving that acknowledgment from the masses. For 12 years — through his age-30 season — Beltré never made an All-Star team and received MVP votes just once; in the seven years since, he has been named to four All-Star teams and received MVP votes every season. Within the next month, he’ll reach the kind of career-affirming milestone that turns a possible Hall of Fame passion project into a first-ballot lock.

The Rangers third baseman is 22 hits away from 3,000 — a total he already would have reached had he not missed the first two months of the season with a calf injury. Even within the illustrious, soon-to-be-31-member 3,000-hit club, Beltré’s career stands out. George Brett and Wade Boggs are the only members who played a majority of their careers at third base, and few were as well-rounded in their baseball skills. According to Baseball-Reference’s calculations, only Cal Ripken Jr. accumulated more defensive value among players in the 3,000-hit club, and the gap between Beltré and third place on the list (Willie Mays, that laggard) isn’t close.

So, an early hats off to Beltré. Let’s just refrain from reaching for his unprotected dome in the meantime.

Clayton Kershaw: 25 Wins

The win has long since been killed, eulogized, and buried, but there’s a reptilian sliver inside my analytical brain that still pulsates for lofty pitcher win totals and arbitrary round numbers. Barring a holistic change to either the structure of baseball pitching staffs or the definition of a win, Denny McLain’s 1968 campaign will remain the majors’ last 30-win season. The league-wide adoption of five-man rotations and expanded bullpen workload has rendered 25-game winners just as rare: The last pitcher to reach even that total was Bob Welch in 1990, when Kershaw was 2 years old.

With wins in his last seven starts of the first half, Kershaw became just the 10th pitcher since 1990 to record 14 wins before the break. The precedents here aren’t promising: The other nine averaged just about six wins in the second half, and the two most recent members of the group (2010 Ubaldo Jiménez and 2016 Chris Sale) both failed to reach even 20 total wins.

But Kershaw has a few factors in his favor. He pitches for the best team in baseball, meaning he doesn’t have to throw a gem every outing to add to his tally. He has proved himself capable of making quick, responsive adjustments by rediscovering his wipeout slider and fixing his homer problem, allowing just one long ball in four starts since I wrote this post. And he also should receive 15 more starts this season, providing him a realistic path to conquer the 25-win threshold.

(FanGraphs)
(FanGraphs)

Kershaw has made 282 starts in his career, giving him 268 stretches of 15 starts. He’s won at least 11 games in 31 of those chunks, offering a historical 12 percent success rate for this particular target; since he started winning Cy Youngs in 2011, he has a 17 percent success rate for 11 wins in 15 starts. By his own precedent, Kershaw has about a one-in-six chance of winning 25 games this year. I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s Kershaw, so I wouldn’t bet against him either.

Mike Moustakas: 37 Home Runs

The Royals’ single-season home run leader is Steve Balboni, who hit 36 for the 1985 World Series winners. Kansas City is the only franchise without a 40-homer hitter, and after apparently missing out on the Steroid Era, nobody has come particularly close in recent years, either: No Royal has exceeded even 30 home runs in a season since Jermaine Dye (33) in 2000.

In the year of the long ball, though, Home Run Derby contestant Mike Moustakas appears poised to bring the Royals into the modern age. At the All-Star break, he’s already set a personal best with 25 homers, thanks to a career-high hard-hit rate in a qualified season and his lowest ground-ball rate in five years. Even if his pace slows in the second half, he’s covered enough ground that averaging just one homer per week the rest of the way will net him the franchise record.

Aaron Judge: Pick a Stat, Any Stat

Whatever you want to call him — the next face of baseball, the king of dingers, “a contact hitter trapped in an ogre’s body,” to use Charlie Blackmon’s simile — Judge has been the dominant story line of the 2017 season, and after his Home Run Derby showing Monday, it looks like we’ll be saying the same thing come Game 162. Let’s run through a half-dozen more second-half stats to watch, all Judge-themed.

  1. Judge has been worth 5.5 fWAR thus far, putting him on pace for 10.4 over the full season. The MLB rookie record is Mike Trout’s 10.3, with Shoeless Joe Jackson’s 9.3 in second place. Again, “on pace for” is a prelude to heartbreak, but that Judge is even within range of Trout’s seemingly untouchable mark is noteworthy by itself.
  2. Judge has hit 30 home runs, putting him on pace for a full-year total in the mid-50s. The rookie record is Mark McGwire’s 49.
  3. Judge also leads the majors in home runs. McGwire tied for the MLB lead in his rookie season, but the last rookie to win the homer title without a tie was Buck Freeman in 1899, before the modern American League and Yankees franchise even existed.
  4. Judge is four RBIs and 18 points of batting average away from the AL lead in all three Triple Crown categories. This stat was admittedly more fun a week ago, before José Altuve widened his BA lead.
  5. The only rookies to win the MVP are Fred Lynn (1975) and Ichiro Suzuki (2001). Unless Trout does something spectacular as he returns from injury, Judge appears an overwhelming favorite for the 2017 AL award.
  6. The homers are Judge’s most prodigious highlights, but Judge isn’t just a power bat. He leads all qualified hitters in on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, wRC+, wOBA, offensive runs above average, ISO, and runs created. If you can put three random letters together, chances are Judge leads the majors in an equivalent acronym stat. He has half a season left to keep his place atop all those rankings.