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The biggest stories of the 2016 baseball season (if the first half didn’t exist)

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If we had to form our baseball opinions just on what’s happened in the second half of the season, these are what the hot, dumb takes would look like.

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball writers are all frauds, and I’m the worst offender of all. Every year, we’re presented with a month of games and asked to assign meaning to them. The Phillies are surprise contenders. Bryce Harper is going to hit 74 home runs. Mat Latos just might be back. The takes are hot, the takes are dumb, but it’s not like we’re going to go a month without takes. Goodness, no.

Because I despise April/May baseball analysis so much, I’ve come up with an annual tradition to mock it. It’s been just a little over a month since the All-Star break, which means that if the first half didn’t exist, we would be right in the middle of we-have-a-month-of-data baseball takes. We would be constructing our completely disposable narratives because we don’t know any better.

The worst part is that you would read them and come up with we-have-a-month-of-data baseball takes, too. You’re enablers, all of you.

Let’s get to it, then. If the first half didn’t exist, these would be the dominant narratives of the 2016 baseball season right now.

Sample headline if the first half didn’t exist:

Joey Votto is going to hit .400, and there’s nothing we can do about it

Sample take:

Evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould literally wrote the book on why there aren’t any .400 hitters anymore. His argument was that all .400 hitters in history owed their success to two factors:

  1. Baseball players were less talented back then, and the worst pitchers and fielders made it easier for an elite talent to break the .400 barrier.

  2. Knowledge about what works and what doesn’t in baseball has improved, and the improved strategies have made it harder for an outlier like a .400 hitter.

It makes sense! Nearly 30 years after Gould’s essay, we haven’t gotten especially close to a .400 hitter, even with the vast expanses of Coors Field, and even with talents like Ichiro and Tony Gwynn.

However, Joey Votto has a rebuttal to Gould, and it goes something like this:

  1. I am Joey Votto

  2. Tremble before me

  3. For I have figured baseball out

  4. If you would like to know the secrets of baseball, gather around and kneel

  5. lol jk i’m not telling you anything

Votto is hitting .447 over his first 146 plate appearances this season. Let that sink in for a little bit. He’s walked 29 times. He has 51 hits. He has figured baseball out.

The reason why I’m so sure that Votto will at least have a chance to hit .400 is his remarkable patience. He’s not chasing, and he’s willing to spit on the pitches he can’t hit. That maximizes his chances when he does swing, and if he gets 545 at-bats like he did last season, all he needs to do is hit .388 the rest of the way. Again, he’s hitting .447 right now.

Which, okay, fine, it might not be likely, but Votto has a strong, strong chance to be the first hitter since Ted Williams to hit .400. He's reaching a new level, and the view is gorgeous from up here.

* * *

Sample headline if the first half didn’t exist

Apparently the Reds are the surprise contender of 2016

Sample take:

Every year. Every danged year, a team emerges from the swamp of low expectations and stuns the baseball world. The only surprising thing about the surprises is that we continue to be surprised about them.

This year, it’s the Reds who are apparently ahead of schedule. Their 21-13 record is the second-best in baseball, and only the Cubs are keeping them from running away with the NL Central. It’s no secret how they’re doing it, either. If Joey Votto can hit .400, of course he’ll help a team contend. If Dan Straily is a minor control deity now, of course he’ll help a team contend. The same goes for Billy Hamilton (.317 BA, .394 OBP, and 31 freaking stolen bases), who might be an early front-runner for MVP.

Knowing what we know now, of course the Reds are contending. Why didn’t we see this coming earlier? Except for all the available evidence suggesting otherwise, that is.

[writes "ignore evidence next time" on whiteboard above desk]

We thought the Reds had a chance to get the first-overall pick in the 2017 draft. It turns out they might have a shot to win the World Series. Baseball is so drunk, everybody.

* * *

Sample headline if the first half didn’t exist

How many millions has Stephen Strasburg already cost himself?

Sample take:

There was going to be exactly one premium starting pitcher on the free-agent market this offseason. Please note the use of past tense. Because that premium starting pitcher was Stephen Strasburg, and he’s a bit of a mess right now.

It’s possible that the problem is a small sample, considering that Strasburg still has his strikeout stuff (47 strikeouts in 38 innings), and batters are hitting him to the tune of .261/.317/.458, which isn’t exactly a sign of irreversible doom, but you’re not going to get very many $200 million contracts with a 6.28 ERA. He might crack $20 million, but only because that’s how much a make-good one-year deal would cost, I’ll guess.

Strasburg has allowed six or more earned runs in his three of his first seven games. That’s the first time he’s allowed that many earned runs in three games in any full season.

Again, he’s probably fine. We’re still in small-sample season. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t cost himself a cool $50 million already with his wretched pitching.

And now he's hurt:

Life comes at you fast.

It’s too early to give up on Jason Heyward

No, Jason Heyward isn’t going to be this bad all season. Stop it.

It’s like you haven’t been through baseball in April before. Some hitters have miserable first months, only to rebound and have perfectly normal seasons. Some pitchers have great first months, only to slowly fade back into obscurity. And occasionally, a talent like Heyward will get 17 hits in his first 100 at-bats.

He’s probably fine.

For starters, his batting average on balls in play is just .220, which is ludicrously low. His luck will improve, and when the hits start falling in, the power and patience numbers will go up. He’s pressing right now, trying to justify his monster contract, but he’s just not this bad.

He’s probably fine.

He’s certainly not to hit like this for five consecutive months, with a meager .257/.336/.386 line making up his best month of the season. He’s too talented for that.

Small samples.

Uh, BABIP.

Also, don’t forget the small samples.

He’s fine.

This is fine.

* * *

Sample headline if the first half didn’t exist:

Who will the Giants trade when they rebuild at the trading deadline?

Sample take:

The Giants probably aren’t the worst team in baseball. They have the worst record, sure, and it’s hard to get to 11-23 without being bad, but they’re probably not the worst team in baseball.

That doesn’t mean that they haven’t already ruined their season, though. They’re already eight games behind the Rockies, and they would have to play like the best team in baseball for the next 90 games or so just to claw back into the race. What are the odds that a team could be the worst in baseball for a stretch, then transmogrify into one of the best?

Low. Those odds are low.

The Giants are more likely to reload instead of rebuild, but that doesn’t mean they still won’t get rid of some veterans. Angel Pagan and his .318/.388/.477 line will attract more than a few teams, and it’s pretty clear that Denard Span (.326 BA) is healthy again, which means it’s probably a good idea to at least explore some deals if the prospects are right.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that I’m not sure if another team would take Johnny Cueto’s contract for free, much less Jeff Samardzija’s. The team took a risk with their pair of expensive free agents this offseason, and it looks like a dreadful return from here. Cueto’s 4.25 ERA suggests his second half last year was an honest decline, not a fluke, and Samardzija is leading the team in earned runs, which is something the Giants should have expected, considering he led the entire American League in earned runs last year.

Even if the Giants wanted to rebuild, I’m not sure if they could. Not without trading all of their under-30 stars, like Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, and Brandon Crawford, and I don’t see why they would consider that. Still, it’s hard to know just what the Giants are thinking at the moment. They spent $200 million to patch up a contender, and they’re playing like the worst team in baseball instead.

The Giants probably aren’t the worst team in baseball. But they could be. And I don’t think there’s a way to fix that any time soon, even if they decide to trade a pride of veterans at the deadline, which they almost certainly will.

Rest in peace, even-year Giants. It is better to have even-yeared and won than to have never even-yeared at all.