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15 MLB stars desperate to pick things up in second half

MLB, Aug 1, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Washington Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper (left) and pitcher Stephen Strasburg against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Chase Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

As far as the 2018 MLB season goes, we’re well past the point where we can dismiss an unexpected event by saying, “it’s early.” It’s true that there’s a lot of baseball to be played. But the season is nearly half over.

Struggling stars continue to get our attention, especially on contending teams. While guys like Mike Trout and Max Scherzer have certainly met expectations, some of the game’s other best-known players haven’t.

While the New York Yankees have baseball’s best record, their potent lineup actually includes two such players. The Houston Astros pitching staff has been fantastic. Even still, a former Cy Young Award winner is pitching well below his standards. The same can be said for three of the season’s biggest free agent signees.

Every one of these players are on a team that could still make the playoffs. But these MLB stars are all desperate to pick things up in the second half.

Note: Stats and records updated through play on Tuesday, June 19.

Giancarlo Stanton, left fielder, New York Yankees

Stanton has brought good power to the Bronx with 17 home runs. Unfortunately, he’s hitting only .252/.325/.493. By comparison, Stanton was a .268/.360/.554 hitter entering the year and hit .281/.376/.631 in 2017 en route to the NL MVP. Granted, we’re confident that New York will be a playoff team regardless. But Stanton turning it around will be important if the Yankees are going to hold off the Boston Red Sox for the AL East crown. Unless starting the playoffs in a single-elimination game against someone like Justin Verlander or James Paxton is appealing, that’s important.

Dallas Keuchel, starting pitcher, Houston Astros

With a 4.15 ERA, 1.31 WHIP, and a K/9 rate of 7.0, Keuchel has been shaky in 2018. Turning it around is important from two perspectives. From a team point of view, a sharp Keuchel would make the Astros nearly impossible to beat in a playoff series. He’d also help offset any regression that might come from someone like Gerrit Cole or Charlie Morton. Individually it’s important, as Keuchel is a free agent at season’s end. The market won’t be too friendly to a 31-year-old pitcher coming off of a mediocre season.

Ryan Braun, left fielder, Milwaukee Brewers

The Milwaukee offense is good. But there’s another level that the Brewers can reach. Braun turning things around would be a big catalyst to that. He has a respectable eight homers in only 190 at-bats. But overall, Braun has struggled, hitting .236/.290/.429. We aren’t expecting Braun to relive his prime years, but this is a guy who hit .290/.353/.516 over the 2016 and 2017 seasons. There’s certainly room to grow. Braun’s improvement will be vital for Milwaukee as it looks to hold off the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central.

Wade Davis, closer, Colorado Rockies

Colorado has the worst bullpen ERA in all of baseball. That can’t all be laid at the feet of Davis. But with a 4.71 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and a K/9 rate significantly down from last year, he certainly deserves blame. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers are beginning to create separation in the National League West, but the division is still fairly open. The Rockies will need to stabilize their bullpen to remain in the race. Getting Davis on track will be a big part of that.

Jason Kipnis, second baseman, Cleveland Indians

We thought that Kipnis had a down year in 2017 when he hit .232/.291/.414. But in 2018, he’s been even worse. Kipnis is hitting .208/.284/.319 with only five home runs. Even with 2017’s down year, this was a .268/.340/.422 hitter entering 2018. Despite all of their division rivals being below .500, the Indians are only three games up in the American League Central. Kipnis turning his season around will be a big step towards Cleveland getting that separation.

Felix Hernandez, starting pitcher, Seattle Mariners

Much like Braun, we have to put things into perspective with King Felix. Expecting him to be the perennial All-Star and Cy Young contender that he was from 2009-2015 isn’t realistic. But there’s a lot of room between that guy and the man with a 5.44 ERA and 1.38 WHIP that we’ve seen in 2018. There’s a lot of baseball to play. That said, Seattle looks pretty good for at least a spot in the American League Wild Card Game. Still, the AL West is within range. But for Seattle to top Houston, Hernandez needs to pitch much better.

Cody Bellinger, first baseman, Los Angeles Dodgers

The good thing about Bellinger’s rookie year is that, while it was historic, there was room to grow. We loved the 39 home runs, but the .267 average and .352 OBP left room for improvement in Year 2. But Bellinger’s gone the other way. His 12 home runs are decent, but well off of 2017’s pace. Worse is that he’s hitting only .232 with a .325 OBP. This guy is capable of so much more. Certainly, both Bellinger and the Dodgers will hope for him to elevate his game in the second half.

Yu Darvish, starting pitcher, Chicago Cubs

The first thing Darvish needs to do is get healthy. Once that happens, he’ll need to pitch a lot better than what we’ve seen thus far in 2018. In eight starts, Darvish has accrued a 4.95 ERA and 1.43 WHIP. Mind you, this is on the heels of an abysmal World Series. The Cubs are locked in a tight race with the Brewers for the NL Central. One of Chicago’s strengths over Milwaukee is its starting pitching depth, but that loses a lot if Darvish continues to struggle.

Jake Lamb, third baseman, Arizona Diamondbacks

Paul Goldschmidt has turned his season around for Arizona, but the offense still needs to find another gear. Lamb can make that happen. Over the 2016 and 2017 seasons, Lamb hit .248/.345/.498, adding 59 homers over the two years. In 2018, he’s struggling, hitting .214/.318/.384 with only five home runs. The Diamondbacks’ offense still ranks in the bottom-half of the leagues in most major categories. That will need to change for Arizona to hold off Los Angeles. Lamb’s performance will have a lot to do with whether that happens.

Jake Arrieta, starting pitcher, Philadelphia Phillies

Jake Arrieta

Admittedly, Arrieta’s numbers (3.33 ERA, 1.25 WHIP) don’t look bad. The problem comes when we break them down. Through his first seven starts, Arrieta was at a 2.59 ERA with a 1.06 WHIP. Over his last six outings, Arrieta has posted a 4.31 ERA with a 1.50 WHIP. The Phillies to be in a tight race for both the NL East crown and an NL wild card spot. Arrieta rediscovering the form that he had over his first seven starts will be vital in Philadelphia’s quest to earn a playoff spot.

Jackie Bradley Jr., center fielder, Boston Red Sox

Bradley needs to turn it around for two reasons. One, as we previously mentioned, winning the AL East will keep the Red Sox the always intense single-elimination scenario. But regardless of how that plays out, Bradley needs to prove he can hit in the majors. Since making the All-Star team in 2016, Bradley has slumped to a .226/.310/.370 slash line, hitting .182/.279/.297 in 2018. If he doesn’t turn his offense around quickly, expect Boston to look elsewhere to upgrade the offense.

Jordan Zimmermann, starting pitcher, Detroit Tigers 

Zimmermann’s tenure in Detroit has gone less than swimmingly. The right-hander has a 5.55 ERA and 1.45 WHIP with the Tigers. That includes a 5.20 ERA and 1.24 WHIP in 2018. That’s the bad news. The good news is that thanks to Cleveland’s inconsistency, the AL Central remains in Detroit’s reach. Though, if Zimmermann doesn’t turn it around and become more of an anchor in the rotation, it’s hard to imagine that being the case for much longer. Now that he’s healthy, he needs to become a top-tier starter again.

Gary Sanchez, catcher, New York Yankees

Our second Yankee, Sanchez is much like his teammate. We’re not concerned with the home runs (he has 13). What we’re concerned with is .191/.290/.432 line, which is well below what he’s capable of. Worse, while Sanchez’s defensive shortcomings can be overblown, he’s not out there for what he does behind the plate. We could live with the offensive numbers, even if they were far below expectations, from a Gold Glove level backstop. Sanchez is far from that. He needs to up his offensive game.

Madison Bumgarner, starting pitcher, San Francisco Giants

Madison Bumgarner is one of the best bang-for-your-buck MLB players in the game today

With a 4.67 ERA and a 1.39 WHIP, Bumgarner certainly hasn’t pitched to his capabilities. The caveat, of course, is that he missed most of the season to this point with an injury and his season is only three starts old. Bumgarner is essentially where other starters were in mid-April, and we wouldn’t think much of an ace having numbers like that then. The problem is that the season is almost half done. Giants are still contending in what’s been a mediocre NL West, but it’s a tight spot. To remain in contention, San Francisco will need Bumgarner to carry the rotation.

Bryce Harper, right fielder, Washington Nationals

Harper has been MLB’s “true result” poster boy in 2018. He has 19 home runs, 53 walks, and 72 strikeouts. In total, Harper is hitting .213/.352/.470. The OBP and slugging don’t look bad, but even those are well below where Harper should be. Coming into the year, he was a .285/.386/.515 hitter. Washington hasn’t been anywhere near as dominant as expected in the NL East. The Phillies and Atlanta Braves don’t look to be going away. It’s hard to see the Nats topping that three-team race if Harper doesn’t begin to hit with much more consistency.