We’re still over a month away from this summer’s All-Star Game at Target Field in Minneapolis. As the current fan balloting leaders trickle out each week, we’re typically seeing the players you’d expect at the top of the charts – you know, guys like Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano, and Yadier Molina. We’re also seeing some perennial All-Starts who have played well in the season’s first two months get recognized with high placement on fan ballots, like Troy Tulowitzki, Chase Utley, and Mike Trout.
Most of those players aren’t really surprises. If you told me any of those guys would be an All-Star, I wouldn’t even blink. But there are some players putting together All-Star quality seasons that shock me. If you told me in Spring Training that any of these ten players would be putting themselves in position to play in the midsummer classic, I would have been incredibly surprised.
Charlie Blackmon. Colorado’s jack of all trades outfielder calmed down a bit in May after a scorching April, but he has still put together a season that could propel him to Minnesota in July. For the year, Blackmon has hit ten homers and stolen ten bases (one of just three players in baseball to reach double digits in both marks) and is hitting .306/.345/.505while also playing great outfield defense for the Rockies. As of the latest All-Star balloting results, he’s second among NL outfielders in votes, behind only Yasiel Puig. I don’t know if Blackmon will be an All-Star, or even if he’ll be an above average hitter when the year is done, but right now, he’s been one of the best stories in the National League.
Brian Dozier. You know Dozier is going to be an All-Star, if only because the game is being held in his home park. Dozier deserves the honor regardless of where the game is being played, however. He’s one of those three players I mentioned (along with Blackmon) with ten or more homers and stolen bases (the third is Carlos Gomez), and plays at a position, second base, where offense is at a premium. Dozier’s year has been more stunning than you may realize, because he’s just one of two second baseman in baseball with at least ten homers (along with Neil Walker of the Pirates). That’s right – he’s out-homering Cano, Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, Chase Utley, and all the rest of them. All this from a guy who totaled 24 homers and 23 stolen bases in 963 plate appearances coming into 2014…
Seth Smith. Smith was the victim of a numbers crunch in Colorado after the 2011 season, and they traded him to the Athletics. He was also a victim of the same numbers crunch in Oakland after the 2013 season, and they traded him to the Padres. Each time, the return was minimal – just a reliever or two going the other way. At age 31, in a park worse for hitters than the O.co Coliseum, Smith has earned the most playing time of any Padres outfielder (thanks in large part to injuries to Carlos Quentin and Cameron Maybin) and been the team’s best hitter. This season, Smith is hitting a career-best .308/.416/.531 while the Padres use him almost exclusively against right-handed pitching. And while he’s still technically a part-time player, not even ranking in the top 50 among MLB outfielders in plate appearances, he’s been one of the best hitters among all outfielders in the league, playing time be damned.
Corey Kluber. Even if you liked Kluber coming into 2014, I don’t think anyone would have imagined that he’d surpass his 2013 fWAR in just 67 fewer innings and that he’d lead baseball in strikeouts after his first 12 starts of the year. Kluber has been far and away the best starting pitcher on an Indians team that has seen Justin Masterson struggle (prior to dominating the Red Sox on Monday), Zach McAllister hit the DL with a back injury, Danny Salazar get demoted to the minors, and Carlos Carrasco be shuffled off to the bullpen. The Tribe won five of Kluber’s six starts in May (with the one loss coming in a game where Kluber struck out 13 and allowed one run over eight innings), and it would be amazing to think where they’d be without him. Of course, team success doesn’t make a player an All-Star, but the failures of his rotation mates illustrate how Kluber was expected to just bet a part of the puzzle rather than the entire picture.
Michael Brantley. Let’s stick around in Cleveland to shower Michael Brantley with praise. He signed a long-term extension with the Indians in February, and has repaid their faith in him by putting together the best season of his career. The 27-year old has stolen eight bases and homered nine times in 56 games while walking nearly as much as he’s struck out while hitting .301/.366/.493. For a guy who always showed flashes of brilliance without ever managing to put together a complete season, this year is the culmination of his trials and tribulations in the outfield at Progressive Field. His year has been a welcome surprise for the Indians, especially considering the disastrous seasons at the plate and in the field that we’ve seen from Carlos Santana, Nick Swisher, and Ryan Raburn.
Aaron Harang. Harang was a guy who spent time with no fewer than five teams over the last calendar year coming into Opening Day 2014 with the Braves. He was the definition of “veteran presence”, and the Braves were merely hoping for a couple of solid starts before Gavin Floyd and Mike Minor were ready to go. Of course, Harang has blown all expectations away, pitching to a 3.24 ERA in 12 starts and striking out 73 batters in 72 1/3 innings. The 1.9 fWAR posted by Harang this season is his highest in a season since 2009, and he hasn’t even cracked the 100 inning mark yet. The bubble looked like it would burst after an atrocious start at the end of April in Miami, but Harang responded with consistency, allowing no fewer than two and no more than four runs in each of his next six starts. Maybe his rebirth will continue to be a thing in 2014 for the Braves, and they can get even more of a return on their initial investment than they ever expected.
Dallas Keuchel. Coming into 2014, Keuchel had a career ERA over 5.00 in 239 career innings in the majors. Of course this season, his ERA has dropped all the way down to 2.70 thanks to a major spike in ground ball rate and decreases in both his walk and home run rates. Keuchel has gone from a guy who looked like he could be nontendered to one of Houston’s most valuable players so far in 2014. The transformation has been stunning, resulting in nine of 11 quality starts on the year. I don’t even know what else I can say – Keuchel’s resurgence is the most incredible thing I’ve seen in 2014.
Tim Hudson. Hudson has been a great pitcher in the past. But he’s 38-years old, and will turn 39 the day before the All-Star Game this year. He’s also coming off of a gruesome injury at Citi Field where his ankle snapped like a twig, which would be a rough injury for any pitcher to rebound from, let alone one his age. All Hudson has done with the Giants this year is post a 1.75 ERA through 11 starts, striking out 50 and walking just eight. In his 11 starts, he’s thrown at least seven innings in all but two of them – and one of those was suspended by a rain delay. If Hudson stays healthy and keeps performing well, 2014 could end up being his best season since he before he blew his elbow out in 2008.
Melky Cabrera. It’s not shocking that Cabrera could be in the All-Star Game. After all, he was a starter for the National League in 2012, and won the MVP award. But a PED suspension derailed that 2012 season, and a back tumor turned his 2013 to a puddle of goo. There were serious questions if Cabrera would be able to perform at a high level anymore, due to the PED guillotine hanging over his head and the uncertainty about his health. In the final season of a two-year contract he signed with Toronto prior to the 2013 season, Cabrera is delivering, hitting .303/.346/.471, looking like every bit the player he was with the Royals in 2011 and with the Giants in 2012. Fans have noticed – Cabrera is third in the AL All-Star voting for outfielders behind Mike Trout and teammate Jose Bautista.
Dellin Betances. I’m not one of those guys who advocates loading the All-Star Game rosters with relievers. Betances is the only reliever you’re going to see on this list, and for good reason – he’s been the best reliever in baseball this season, and had just 7 2/3 innings of major league experience under his belt coming into 2014. He used to be a stud Yankees starting pitching prospect, but they moved him to the bullpen in 2013, and Betances flourished. I really don’t think anyone expected *this* though. In 34 innings, Betances has struck out 58 and walked just ten. He’s getting ground balls at over a 53% clip. David Robertson got most of the hype in the wake of Mariano Rivera’s retirement, but Betances has had a much better year overall, even without the huge saves total.