After winning the National League MVP a year ago and dealing with the PED appeal firestorm over the winter, Braun simply continued to post elite numbers in almost every category imaginable. His .417 wOBA ranks fifth-best in the National League, and he has four more home runs than any other player in the senior circuit.
The most impressive aspect of Braun’s season, however, has been the steady improvement of his defense in left field. He occasionally struggles getting quality jumps off the bat, but he goes back on the baseball very well and his routes have significantly improved. Though few scouts would attempt to argue that he’s a plus-defender in left field, Braun has certainly upgraded his value in the field to solid-average.
It’s incredible to think that just five months ago, the Brewers were unsure as to whether Ryan Braun would even be eligible to play for the first fifty games. Now, we’re discussing a potential run at a second-consecutive MVP award.
Least Valuable Player of the First Half: 2B Rickie Weeks
This distinction could have easily been given to Nyjer Morgan or Cesar Izturis, but Weeks’ higher number of plate appearances and less-valuable defense pushed him over the top.
His struggles have been well-chronicled this season. At this point in the season, he is below the Mendoza line, hitting .199/.314/.343 with well below-average defense at second base. FanGraphs calculated his WAR as exactly replacement-level in the first half.
The good news is that Weeks has begun to turn it around. He’s hitting .284/.352/.463 over his last 25 games and has been taking the baseball to the opposite field with power once again — especially in the Houston series last weekend.
Despite those improvements as of late, however, his overall impact on the Brewers this year has been underwhelming and disappointing. Again, other players have perhaps played worse at times, but Rickie Weeks has put up replacement-level numbers in 81 games. It just hasn’t cut it thus far this year.
Rookie of the First Half: OF Norichika Aoki
No one really knew what to expect from Aoki this season. He had been compared to Ichiro Suzuki in previous seasons and was a former batting champion in the NPB, but recent Japanese imports have not fared well at the major league level.
Aoki has been brilliant all year, though. He is currently boasting a .301/.369/.450 slash line through 261 plate appearances and has been relatively average defensively in center and right fields. His ability to control the strike zone and adroitly handle left-handed pitching has helped Ron Roenicke feel comfortable moving Corey Hart to first base — which has been a very solid move for the team — without surrendering offense in the process.
It will be interesting to see how the league adjusts to Aoki. He has shown an ability to take the baseball to the opposite field — and often appears that he prefers to do that — but has also shown that he can turn on velocity and rope balls down the right-field line. Perhaps opposing pitchers will attempt to work him down-and-in a little more often, as he does not often swing at pitches in that location.
Surprise of the First Half: RHP Michael Fiers
The Brewers’ Minor-League Pitcher of the Year in 2011 made quite an impression on the organization last season, but struggled this spring and in the first couple months of the Triple-A season. Injuries then forced Fiers into the starting rotation, and the right-hander has never looked back, impressing fans and people within the industry.
Although he has only made seven starts, he already has compiled a +1.7 WAR in 46.2 innings. His 2.31 ERA and 2.06 FIP accurately reflect the level of his pitching thus far. Much of his success has stemmed from his ability to control the strike zone and throw multiple pitches for strikes. He has phenomenal peripheral numbers — though we can probably expect his home run rate to increase in the second half of the season.
Fiers has been a revelation this year and answers at least one question for next season’s starting rotation.
It has been quite the transformation for Morris this season at the plate. He has always possessed extreme raw power from the left side of the plate. It began to show in game situations last year, but his plate discipline really suffered.
This year, however, Morris seems to have put it all together. He has made some changes to both his swing and his overall approach at the plate — with stellar results. The 23-year-old is currently hitting .309/.362/.525 with 27 doubles, three triples, and 12 home runs. More importantly, his walk rate is back up to 6.3% from the disappointing 3.4% walk rate from last season.
One half-season is not going to suddenly cause anyone to claim that Hunter Morris is the first baseman of the future for the Milwaukee Brewers. It should, however, cause us to pay more attention to Morris as a prospect. Is this impressive half-season simply a blip on the radar and he will ultimately regress back to 2011 levels, or is this impressive half-season a new and improved Hunter Morris?
Minor-League Pitcher of the First Half: RHP Hiram Burgos
In a season that has seen the spotlight be shone on Tyler Thornburg and Jimmy Nelson, the most dominating pitcher in the Brewers’ minor league system has been right-hander Hiram Burgos. He handcuffed the Florida State League with a 0.87 ERA in 41.1 innings before earning a promotion to Double-A, where he remained effective with a 2.05 ERA and 2.96 FIP.
His strikeouts have returned after a two-year hiatus — thanks to an improved slider, according to reports — and he has always shown an ability to pound the strike zone with consistency. Scouts do not believe he will be anything more than a swingman or back-end starter at the major league level, but right now, the 24-year-old is lighting up the minor leagues.
He could even see Triple-A by the end of the season, if his performance continues and the organization feels he has a chance to help the big league squad in 2013.