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Five Breakthrough First Half Performers

Jackson has it figured out

This Fourth of July weekend I'll take stock of a few breakout performers and duds of the first half and possible breakthrough performers for the second half.

First, five breakthrough stars of the first half:

Edwin Jackson: Doesn't It feel like we have been talking about this guy forever? Blessed with a mid-90s fastball and sweeping slider, it's remarkable that it took three organizations for Jackson to finally break through as a top of the rotation starter. Acquired from the Rays in exchange for Matt Joyce last December, he entered the season with a 25-30 career record and a 5.09 ERA and 1.61 WHIP in 77 career starts. But so far in 2009, it looks like the Tigers may have pulled off the best trade of the winter, as he is currently 6-4 with a 2.49 ERA and 1.04 WHIP over his first 16 starts. Jackson has already pitched seven innings or more while allowing three runs or less nine times this season. The big difference? Jackson finally has his control in check, averaging 2.41 BB/9 as opposed to a 4.11 rate for his career. Jackson, Justin Verlander and rookie Rick Porcello combined for 14 wins in May. How good is that? Nationals starters have combined for just 15 wins all season.

Ben Zobrist: Zobrist showed promise with a .318/.429/.459 line in the minors, but he went deep just 23 times in 1336 at-bats. As a result, he was never viewed as anything more than a utility player when the Astros dealt him to Rays as part of the Aubrey Huff trade back in 2006. But finally handed an every day role this season, the man dubbed "Zorillia" is hitting a surprising .292/.412/.620 with 16 bombs and 46 RBI. The power looks to be for real, as the 28-year-old has homered 28 times in his last 407 major league at-bats dating back to last season. Only Albert Pujols, Joe Mauer and Prince Fielder have hit at a higher OPS this season. If you managed to pluck Zobrist off the waiver wire in your fantasy league, chances are your fellow owners hate you right now.

Andrew Bailey: The 25-year-old Bailey was an unlikely source for saves as the season began, but injuries to Joey Devine and Brad Ziegler have opened the door for the rookie right-hander. While not yet officially named the closer by manager Bob Geren, the former Wagner Seahawk has run with his opportunities thus far, compiling a 2.09 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, .173 BAA and eight saves in 12 chances. Aided by a fastball that touches the upper-90s, a traditional 12-to-6 curve and a biting slider, Bailey has an impressive 57/19 K/BB ratio in his first 47 1/3 career innings. And standing at a sturdy 6-feet-4 and 235 pounds, he has the durability to handle the job. In fact, 13 of his 36 appearances this season have been for at least one inning. Bailey fits the profile of a dominant closer.

Pablo Sandoval: Okay, maybe this one is unfair. After all, Sandoval hit .345 in 145 at-bats last season. The fact that he has a .329 batting average over the first 74 games of 2009 comes as no huge surprise, but he is notable here because of his rapid progression in the power department. "Kung-Fu Panda" has already homered 12 times in 277 at-bats this season after going deep just three times last season. He lead the majors with an insane 1.207 OPS in June. Granted, only his teammate Bengie Molina swings more often than he does (58.1%), but he balances that with a pretty decent contact rate (81.8%) and low strikeout rate (15.5% as opposed to a 20% league average). He'll likely never be known for his glove and just where he fits in long-term -- he was groomed as a catcher/first baseman in the minors -- remains to be seen, but he's gone a long way towards proving that his minor league totals were not a fluke.

Aaron Hill: The power was never a question for a Hill -- he hit 17 homers in 2007 -- but he was a largely forgotten man after suffering a concussion last May. Naturally, he entered the season as a huge question mark, but through just 348 at-bats this season, Hill has already established a new career high with 19 home runs. Among second basemen, Hill leads in hits, homers, RBI and total bases. He's currently third in the majors with 32 multi-hit games and trails only Ichiro in hits (104). It's easy to say he's getting lucky with the homers -- roughly 16 percent of his flyballs have left the yard-- but he has a .307 BABIP this season, actually nine points below his career average. Ian Kinsler and Dustin Pedroia get a lot of the pub, and rightfully so, but Hill has matched or outproduced them in most categories.