No one expected the Milwaukee Brewers to be sitting in first place by the All-Star break, but here they are, dominating the NL Central. The Brewers (50-41) own a 5.5-game lead over the rest of the division, and kick off the second half with 10 straight contests against teams under .500.
Before baseball resumes, let's pause and take a look at some of the keys to the season so far.
Player of the Year
While Travis Shaw, Chase Anderson, and Jimmy Nelson have done their fair share for Milwaukee this year, closer Corey Knebel's historic pace has set him apart in 2017. Not only was he the team's lone All-Star this season, he did so while cementing his name in the MLB record books. Knebel already has the MLB record for most consecutive games with at least one strikeout to start a season; he is just six games short of tying Aroldis Chapman's total record of 49 games, which was done over two separate years.
Overall, Knebel owns a 15.94 K/9 rate, which is over two strikeouts higher per nine innings than the next-best arm this season.
Knebel's dominance could not come at a better time; in the past year, general manager David Stearns has traded the teams top three relievers, Jeremy Jeffress, Tyler Thornburg, and Will Smith. Milwaukee would not be sitting atop the division with such a cushion without Knebel propping up an otherwise mediocre bullpen.
Honorable Mention: Shaw
Move of the Year
The Red Sox-Brewers swap of Shaw for Thornburg went under the radar during the offseason, but it has completely flipped the fortunes for both teams. Boston is currently on their sixth third baseman of the season, and the organization is desperately searching for a slugging third baseman as the missing piece for its contending team. Meanwhile, Shaw is blossoming with the Brewers; he is posting a .299/.367/.560 line with 19 home runs for the streaking Crew.
Making matters worse, Thornburg will not throw a pitch for the Red Sox this season after suffering an elbow injury before the year. Milwaukee also acquired three additional minor leaguers in the trade, including infielder Mauricio Dubon, who is the Brewers' ninth-rated prospect, according to MLB.com. Dubon was recently promoted to Triple-A.
Honorable Mention: Eric Thames
Youngster of the Year
After a disappointing 2016 season and a slow start to 2017, shortstop Orlando Arcia has finally developed into the type of player that experts projected when he shot up several prospect lists.
The 22-year-old was sitting on just a .208 batting average in mid-May, but over his past 48 contests, Arcia is hitting .337/.368/.465. Unsurprisingly, Milwaukee is 27-21 in those games.
While Arcia has made great strides at the dish, his otherworldly glove has remained just as special. Check out this play to lock up a crucial win earlier in the year:
Would you rather end a game with a walk-off homer or this bit of magic? pic.twitter.com/4w0vTuD9m9
— MLB (@MLB) June 22, 2017
If Arcia can pair this energized bat with his elite glove, then the Brewers will be able to lock down their shortstop position for the next decade.
Honorable Mention: Domingo Santana
Surprise of the Year
Thames as the Surprise of the Year pick should come as no shock to anyone at this point. After disappearing to Korea following the 2013 season, the Brewers quietly grabbed him on a three-year deal in the offseason. Thames blew up early in the year, blasting seven homers in eight games in April. He has cooled off since that torrid start, but he has still smacked 23 long balls and ranks 13th in the National League in OPS (.936).
Honorable Mention: Chase Anderson
Moment of the Year
The top moment of the first half came on Mother's Day against the New York Mets, when the Brewers rallied from a 7-1 deficit late in the game.
The highlight came in the eighth inning with the Brewers down one run, when catcher Manny Pina walloped a two-out, three-run homer to left field, igniting a roar from the crowd, a fist pump from Pina, and a Gatorade bath from his teammates. The win pushed Milwaukee to four games over .500 and propelled the team's first-place momentum.
Honorable Mention: Brewers get rainout revenge on Cubs with 11-2 win
It's been a charmed season at Miller Park thus far in 2017. If the Brewers' group of underdogs can continue at this pace, it won't matter what the Chicago Cubs do the rest of the way - Milwaukee will be back in the postseason for the first time since 2011.