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MLB season hits halfway mark: What we learned in first three months, plus three things to watch in second half

With all due respect to the All-Star break, which traditionally separates the first and second halves of the MLB season, Friday is the official halfway point of the 2021 regular season. It is the 93rd day in the 186-day schedule, and to date 1,197 of 2,430 games have been played, or 49.3 percent. 18 of the 30 teams are in the 80-82 games played range. 

If you could transport a baseball fan from, say, September 2019 to July 2021, they wouldn’t notice too much of a difference in the game. We still have a few wonky rules (seven-inning doubleheader games, extra innings runners, foreign-substance checks, etc.) and some folks are still required to wear masks in the dugout, but by and large baseball is back to normal. The stands are packed and talent is shining.

Now that we’re at the halfway point of the season, let’s take a moment to recap what we’ve seen to date, and break down what we have to look forward to these next few months. Come with me, won’t you?

If the season ended today …

During the 60-game season a year ago MLB and the MLBPA agreed to a 16-team postseason field that let more than half the league into October. The two sides were unable to agree to an expanded postseason format for this season, so we’re back to the usual 10-team format that has been in place since 2012. Here’s the current postseason bracket:

AMERICAN LEAGUE
Wild Card Game: Rays at Athletics
ALDS1: Wild Card Game winner at Red Sox
ALDS2: Astros at White Sox

NATIONAL LEAGUE
Wild Card Game: Dodgers at Padres 😍
NLDS1: Wild Card Game winner at Giants
NLDS2: Mets at Brewers

There’s a chance, maybe even a very good one, the postseason will be expanded permanently with the new collective bargaining agreement next year. This may be the Wild Card Game’s swan song. I’ll miss it. I wouldn’t say it’s fair to thrust a team right into a winner-take-all situation after a 162-game regular season, but the Wild Card Game is tremendous baseball theatre.

Biggest surprise: San Francisco Giants

I don’t think this category is even up for debate. None of us here picked the Giants to finish higher than third in the NL West, and the projection systems at FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus both pegged San Francisco to win 75 or so games. Yet here they are, with baseball’s best record (50-29) and third best run differential (plus-97) on July 1. They have a 1 1/2-game lead in the NL West.

Check out their postseason odds:

SportsLine

8.7%

97.4%

+88.7%

FanGraphs

5.7%

79.7%

+74.0%

Baseball Prospectus

3.3%

64.2%

+60.9%

The Giants are surprising on both sides of the ball. They’ve become a haven for veteran pitchers looking to resurrect their careers, with Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood (and briefly Aaron Sanchez) becoming rock solid starters. Kevin Gausman has been an ace since joining the club last year, and while the bullpen can be leaky at times, it’s been good enough so far.

San Francisco is also one of the highest scoring teams in baseball and, weirdly, they lean on the home run. Even during their mini-dynasty in the early 2010s, they ranked near the bottom of the league in homers. This year they’re second in the league in dingers and getting resurgent seasons from Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford (and Brandon Belt and Evan Longoria before their injuries).

The Giants have one of the oldest rosters in baseball (they have the oldest group of position players) and it’s fair to wonder whether they can keep this up all year, or whether fatigue and wear and tear will become an issue later in the season. For now, the Giants have banked a ton of wins in the first half, and they’re the third team crashing what was expected to be a two-team NL West.

Coming into the season, the Yankees were on the short list of possible World Series contenders. At the halfway mark, they’re only two games over .500 with a commensurate run differential (minus-3), and if the postseason started today, they’d be watching from home. Dating back to Opening Day 2020, the Yankees have played at an 86-win pace.

The pitching has been surprisingly solid. There were concerns behind ace Gerrit Cole and understandably so, but the Yankees are near the top of the league in runs allowed per game. The pitching generally keeps them in games. The offense though? Woof. The Yankees are one of the lowest scoring teams in baseball. The bottom of the AL runs per game leaderboard:

  1. Tigers: 4.00
  2. Rangers: 4.06
  3. Orioles: 4.11
  4. Mariners: 4.11
  5. Yankees: 4.11

New York’s lineup is largely the same as last season, which is part of the problem. Everyone is year older and they remain overly right-handed. They’re susceptible to hard-throwing righties and prone to hitting into double plays, and they’re not hitting enough home runs to compensate. The Yankees are designed to do one thing and they’re not doing that one thing.

Based on current records, it’s going to take 95 wins to reach the postseason in the American League. The Yankees need to go 54-28 the rest of the way to get to 95 wins, or a 107-win pace across a 162-game season. Can this team do that? Sure, it wouldn’t be the most surprising thing in the world to see them go on a three-month tear, but it would need to happen quick.

Honorable mention goes to the Braves and especially the Cardinals. At one point St. Louis was 25-18 with a 3 1/2-game lead in the NL Central. Since then, they’ve lost 23 times in 38 games, and fallen to eight games back in the division. Yikes.

At 41-37, the Blue Jays are 7 1/2 games back in the AL East and 4 1/2 games back of the second wild card spot. The bullpen has given manager Charlie Montoyo plenty of headaches, especially lately, and the back of the rotation could be better as well. There are cracks in the dam, no doubt about it.

That said, Toronto has a fierce offense and one of the highest scoring lineups in baseball. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is having a monster MVP-caliber season, and his supporting cast (Bo Bichette, Teoscar Hernandez, Marcus Semien, and the newly healthy George Springer) is excellent as well. This offense will ruin a pitcher’s day real quick.

A weak bullpen and an unfortunate 6-10 record in one-run games has held back a team with a dynamite offense, a bona fide ace (Hyun-Jin Ryu), solid enough No. 2 and 3 starters (Robbie Ray and Alek Manoah), and the seventh-best run differential in baseball (a nice plus-69). They’re also sneaky good defensively, particularly on the infield. Toronto does a lot of things well.

It might be too late to get back into the AL East race, but the Blue Jays are going to be handful down the stretch. Both down the stretch this year and in future years. The young position player core is excellent and improving, and they have the resources to improve their pitching. This is not a team is ignore despite their current spot in the standings. 

The honorable mention here is, of course, the Dodgers. The defending World Series have kinda sorta stumbled through the first half, but they’re as deep and as talented as any team in the sport. The fact Los Angeles is only 1 1/2 games back while giving off this underwhelming vibe and the Giants being so great has to leave San Francisco feeling uneasy.

Most likely to fade: Cleveland

It is sort of amazing Cleveland is seven games over .500 and only four games back in the AL Central. The lineup other than José Ramírez and Franmil Reyes offers opposing pitchers a lot of soft landing spots, and the pitching has been merely good rather than typically great. Cleveland is averaging 4.45 runs allowed per game this year, almost exactly the MLB average (4.44).

The pitching is the reason I expect Cleveland to fade. Shane Bieber is hurt, Aaron Civale is hurt, and Zach Plesac is hurt. All of their horses are hurt (Bieber and Civale are still a ways away too) and they’ve had to dip very deep into their pitching reserves. I’m not sure the offense and the bullpen can prop the makeshift rotation up long enough to keep Cleveland in the postseason race.

A week ago at this time I was planning to list the Brewers as an honorable mention here, but they’re on some kind of heater right now, and have opened a six-game lead in the NL Central. I’m not betting against them now, so instead I’ll go with the Mariners. They’re only five games back of a wild card spot, but are 42-39 with a minus-47 run differential. The latter better reflects their talent.

Three key storylines for the second half

1. DeGrom’s pursuit of history. At this point, Mets ace Jacob deGrom is the best pitcher we’ve seen since peak Pedro Martinez. I say that with all due respect to Hall of Famers Roy Halladay and Randy Johnson, and all the others who’ve dominated over the last two decades. DeGrom is just on another level right now. A level not seen since peak Pedro.

At the halfway point of the season, deGrom owns a …

  • … 0.69 ERA (Kevin Gausman is second at 1.68).
  • … 0.53 WHIP (Brandon Woodruff is second at 0.78).
  • … 44.5 percent strikeout rate (Freddy Peralta and Tyler Glasnow are second at 36.2 percent).
  • … 40.5 percent strikeout minus walk rate (Max Scherzer is second at 29.5 percent).

Opponents are hitting .115/.153/.204 against deGrom this season. Major league pitchers are hitting .110/.153/.141. Also, deGrom is 12 for 29 (.414) at the plate this year. He has driven in six runs as a hitter and allowed six earned runs as a pitcher. He’s dominating on both sides of the ball.

Minor injuries have thrown a wrench into deGrom’s season and are the reason he’s only on pace for 166 1/3 innings, well below the typical ace’s workload. So, while he is making a run at Bob Gibson’s ERA record (1.12 in 1968) and Pedro’s WHIP record (0.74 in 2000), the workload means we’re headed for discourse about how deGrom stacks up against those two all-time great seasons.

That’s silly, of course. We can acknowledge and appreciate historic greatness while understanding there are differences in eras. Sometimes very big differences. The gap between deGrom and the second best pitcher in baseball is significant right now. Every bit as significant as it was for Pedro from 1999-2000, and Gibson before the mound was lowered.

2. Ohtani’s two-way excellence. For all the attention he receives (all of which is 100 percent deserved), I feel we collectively still aren’t talking about Shohei Ohtani enough. We are out of superlatives to describe this guy. This is unreal (this includes Wednesday’s disaster start):

Ohtani the hitter

303

.277/.360/.685

174

28

3.2

Ohtani the pitcher

60

3.60

128

32.3%

1.6

Not a day seems to pass without a current MLB star or former great calling Ohtani the most talented player they’ve ever seen. A player hitting or pitching at a high level is difficult enough. Doing both at a high level? At the same time? It is historic, truly. Ohtani is already the only player in history 20 homers as a hitter and 60 strikeouts as a pitcher in the same season, and it’s only July 1.

Ohtani is doing once-in-a-lifetime stuff right now. We may never see a season like this again, and that includes from Ohtani himself. He may never again be this dominant on both sides of the ball. I hope he is, this is a blast, but the workload is demanding and so much has to go right to be this good as both a hitter and a pitcher at the same time.

The Angels are again postseason long shots, though no matter what happens from here on out, they promise to be in the news because Ohtani is making history. Enjoy and appreciate this season. We may never get to see a player be this electric on both sides of the ball at the same time ever again.

3. Labor talks. The current collective bargaining agreement expires Dec. 1, and MLB and the MLBPA are closer to a work stoppage right now than they have been at any point since the 1994-95 strike. Neither side trusts the other, with both parties taking a hardline stance on economic issues. Last year’s return-to-play negotiations were a preview of the ugliness to come.

To make matters worse, public faith in the product is as low as it’s been in years. There’s a new cheating scandal every season (this year it’s foreign substances, last year it was electronic sign-stealing), the baseball itself changes every year, and MLB dived headfirst into legalized gambling. 

The last thing the sport needs is a work stoppage and, in a weird way, the pandemic may prevent one. Everyone lost money made less money than expected last year, and I don’t think MLB and the MLBPA are eager to take another financial haircut. Shutting down for the second time in three years would be devastating for a sport desperately trying to make inroads with younger fans.

MLB and the MLBPA opened collective bargaining talks in April, which is a little later than usual, though that’s because they had to work through pandemic-related issues over the winter and couldn’t focus on labor matters. Rob Manfred said he is “optimistic” the league can avoid a work stoppage, but what’s the commissioner supposed to say?

The MLBPA filed a $500 million grievance against MLB a few weeks ago, claiming Manfred & Co. did not act in good faith to play as many games as possible last year. That’s where labor relations sit at the moment. One side is accusing the other of not wanting to play baseball. MLB and the MLBPA have five months to iron out their differences to avoid a work stoppage.




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