The first/second half baseball split is the most arbitrary split. First of all, "first half" refers to in-game performance from Opening Day until the final game before the All-Star break. That number of games changes year to year. The only thing that remains consistent is that it usually means "more than 81 games."
In other words, it means more than half of a season. Not only that, but the split is just a progression of time. It might as well be the split before and after the time when most players can sleep in their own beds without having had slid around in dirt earlier. Monthly splits suffer from this as well. There is not an 'essence of May', for instance, that disappears on June 1. But at least there’s an acknowledged conceit that we use monthly splits because that’s how we organize time. We use monthly splits because they are easy, but we use first/second half splits because.
None of that means the split can’t be fun to gawk at. The sample is small, so they can produce some pretty outlandish numbers. Observers tend to notice this mostly in April, when the small sample constitutes the whole of the sample. Second half stats deserve the same. The numbers can also be picked apart a little. Sometimes, a really good second half, like a really good first half, makes up what ends up as a pretty normal and projectable season for a player. They reveal why extrapolating even three month samples and making "on pace for" arguments are unconvincing. So let's gawk and pick at the best second half hitters this season.
We'll use wRC+ as a measuring stick. Here are the second half’s ten best hitters through Sunday's games according to wRC+, with a smattering of other stats included:
|2||Edwin Encarnacion||Blue Jays||171||12||12.9%||12.3%||0.366||0.345||0.433||0.711||0.469||205|
|4||David Ortiz||Red Sox||187||16||11.2%||17.1%||0.379||0.335||0.401||0.714||0.453||191|
|5||Josh Donaldson||Blue Jays||206||15||13.1%||18.0%||0.368||0.322||0.405||0.690||0.450||191|
Courtesy of FanGraphs
Joey Votto has been out of his mind in the second half this season. The more than 13 percent difference between his walk and strikeout rate, in favor of the walks, makes Bryce Harper’s two percent difference look quaint. Also, the gap between Votto’s second half leading wRC+ and Edwin Encarnacion’s second place wRC+ is greater than the difference between Encarnacion and tenth place.
Chris Davis and Carlos Gonzalez represent the 20+ home runs in the second half contingent. Unsurprisingly, both batters lead their respective leagues in home runs, though Gonzalez is tied with teammate Nolan Arenado at 36.
The rest of the names aren’t terribly surprising to see. Michael Brantley is worth noting though. After posting a career high, by a lot, 153 wRC+ in 2014, many remained rightly skeptical that he would repeat the performance. A 116 wRC+ first half suggested he wasn’t going to match his 2014; however, Brantley’s 185 second half wRC+ has elevated his season mark to 141. He’s coming close to his performance last season, but he’s doing it in a circuitous manner.
Another thing to note about these players is the teams they play for: only two players are on a sure-fire playoff team in Josh Donaldson and Edwin Encarnacion, and they play on the same team. Bryce Harper and the Nationals are not dead yet, but their prospects are not rosy. According to FanGraphs, the Nationals still have a 25 percent chance to make the playoffs. Besides the Blue Jays and Harper, the other seven teams represented on this list have odds between 0.0 and 4.2 percent (the Rays). Additionally, the Blue Jays and the Nationals are the only teams represented with a winning second-half record.
I think that tells us something simple: individual players, even those playing beyond what should be reasonably expected from a breathing human being (looking at you, Joey), can’t alter the fortune of a baseball team that much. At least seven of the best second half hitters likely play on teams that will miss the postseason. That individual players are not the needle movers we sometimes fancy them to be is not just a simple lesson, but it's also something we already knew. It's still worthwhile to be reminded of that from time to time.