Hard to believe that the All Star Game is now in the rearview mirror, that every team has played over half their games and that the non-waiver trade deadline is only a couple of weeks away. It seems like only yesterday that every fan could still hope and dream about what the season might hold. No more, though, and now seems like a good time to take a look at some of the bigger (or at least interesting) stories of success in the first half of the season and take some guesses as to what the bigger (or, again, interesting) stories will be going forward.
The Dodgers’ Gamble Worked
Before the season started, we definitely had some questions as to whether or not the Dodgers’ were wise to let Zack Greinke walk and take a “spread the wealth” approach to building a rotation. Well, it appears that the experiment worked out, since Dodgers starters lead MLB in fWAR (11.8), K/9 (9.74), xFIP (3.51) and FIP (3.39). Any staff that starts with Clayton Kershaw is going to have a pretty big head start, but it’s not as if he’s been working alone. Kenta Maeda has availed himself making the transition to MLB pitching and is looking like a great signing. Scott Kazmir may have been hit or miss this season, but we’re finally getting more from Brandon McCarthy than just amazing tweets for the first time since his April 2015 Tommy John Surgery. Hyun-jin Ryu is also back for the first time since fall of 2014.
Since Kershaw went down with an injury in late June, they added even more depth and traded for Bud Norris, which might not have actually been a bad idea since Norris started throwing his cutter more and is having the best season of his career (and that’s including a rough start). Since Kershaw’s last start, the Dodgers have gone 9-4. The Dodgers may be 6.5 games back in the division, but that’s due more to the success of the Giants and the Dodgers’ struggles on offense, as their rotation has been one of the best in baseball.
Clayton Kershaw: We Are Not Worthy
We can’t have the only time that we mention Kershaw in an article about the first half be a reference to how he is injured. Kershaw was already the best pitcher in baseball and he’s having his best season yet. Currently, his 16.11 K/BB would set the single-season record for strikeouts-per-walk. We could run through some other stats, but that would be fairly futile considering how well he’s pitched. We’ll just say that he was on pace for more than 11 fWAR this season when he went down with his injury, which should put things in perspective. Come back soon, Clayton, baseball needs you.
The Giants’ Old-School Approach Worked, Too
After the Royals recent success, the hottest thing in baseball has been building an ultra-weaponized bullpen of flamethrowing horsemen of the apocalypse who will make scoring in innings 7 through 9 all but impossible. It seemed like everyone was getting on board. Not the Giants, though. They just threw big money at Johnny Cueto (having arguably the best season of his career) and Jeff Samardzija (performing adequately and eating innings), injected the bullpen with some young arms from the farm and called it a day. While their bullpen has been less than ideal, the top of the rotation, the defense and offense have been strong enough to put the Giants in the position of owning the best record in baseball, much to the surprise of everyone (myself included) who thought the Cubs were going to win 1,000 games during the regular season, leading everyone else to just forfeit in October. Apparently, we weren’t paying enough attention to the evenness of the year.
The Cubs May Be Mortal (or at Least Half-Mortal?)
While the Cubs “only” have the second best record in baseball and they are still the sabermetric favorites to win the whole damn thing, they actually aren’t a perfect team and did have some issues. That message got lost in the mix when they stormed out of the gates to start the season, going 17-5 in April. Losing 9 out of their last 11 isn’t helping the cause, and the fact that they’ve been allowing on average over 7 runs a game over that time frame doesn’t exactly bode well.
The big cause for concern early on was Jason Heyward’s offensively offensive first half. While his slash line over the first two months was .220/.318/.286, he’s picked things up since July started, hitting .300/.378/.425. If Heyward is returning to his old self, lordy, that lineup. Kris Bryant is picking up where he left off after winning NL Rookie of the Year and putting up MVP numbers this year. We could go on and on, but just look at the wRC+ for Cubs’ hitters. There’s a reason they’re leading MLB in fWAR for position players: Their lineup can and will destroy opposing pitchers and then they’ll help out their pitchers when they’re playing the field.
It’s always good to remember that no matter how good a team looks before the season starts, the baseball gods guarantee that some bad things will still happen to good teams. The Cubs are still sporting the best run differential (+139) in baseball and they’re still the best team in baseball.
The Nationals' Pitchers Look Pretty Good
The Nationals are the team with the number two run differential and, while they may need to make up +34 runs to catch the Cubs, they’re doing just fine in terms of results, as their winning percentages are essentially the same (.602 for the Cubs, .600 for the Nats). The Nationals starters are arguably the best one through five in the NL. While the Dodgers have gotten better results out of the aforementioned hodgepodge of pitchers, the Nationals are right behind them. Washington’s starters have pitched the third most innings in MLB and their starting 5 are responsible for all but 13 of those innings. Bryce Harper hasn’t looked like the unquestionable MVP that he was last year and is “only” one of the top 20 players in MLB, but Daniel Murphy has been so good, he’s basically made up for it.
The Mets Might Be Messed
The Nationals have been able to pull ahead in their division thanks thanks to their strong starting pitching, but it certainly doesn’t hurt that their biggest division rival has been dealing with plenty of problems. Matt Harvey is gone for the season. Noah Syndergaard is dealing with dead arm. Jacob deGrom was having velocity issues earlier in the season. If everyone was healthy at the same time, it would be a pretty safe bet for the best rotation in baseball, but that’s never happened and it’s not clear if it ever will. To date, the Mets starters have been just as valuable as the Nationals, but Syndergaard was responsible for a big chunk of that.
Earlier in the year, it was pretty easy to be high on the Mets, as their offseason moves seemed to have worked out pretty well. The offense started out strong in April, then struggled in May and June. They turned things up a bit as July rolled around, winning 7 out of 8 and scoring an average of 6.4 runs per game to get within 3 games of Washington, but then the offense went cold against those aforementioned Washington pitchers and they lost three straight. With Yoenis Cespedes out dealing with a couple of different injuries and everything that’s going on with the pitchers, it might be time to cross your fingers or do whatever it is you do for the Mets and their pitching staff in particular.
Are the Marlins for Real, Even without Stanton?
Obviously, another beneficiary of any struggling (or at least non-dominating) on the part of the Mets is the Marlins, who are currently tied with the Mets and sitting on the other Wild Card spot. For years, it just seemed like the Marlins would be a perpetually non-contending team with two of the best players in baseball in Jose Fernandez and Giancarlo Stanton as they failed to build around them. That is, unless, they just traded them away in typical Marlins’ fashion. They’ve actually built a nice lineup now, though, with shortstop being the only position where they are below average by OPS+. Christian Yelich has been having a breakout season, as has Marcell Ozuna. Ichiro Suzuki has been an excellent fit who keeps getting hits.
While Marlins’ pitchers have been resoundingly OK, other than Fernandez, of course, who has been absolutely amazing and one of the best pitchers in baseball. Stanton started off the season struggling (by his standards). He has a 1.248 OPS so far in July, though, and if he gets back to his old Stantoning ways, the offense is going to be able to continue to cover up for some lackluster pitching, and that might be enough to get them into the postseason. Keep in mind, the Marlins have only been to the postseason twice and both times they won the World Series. Who is to say that #MarlinsPostseasonMojo isn’t stronger than #EvenYearBullshit? It hasn’t been tested yet, but it might be tested this year.
Did the Pirates Penny Pinch Too Much?
The Pirates’ offense has been just fine. They have a top-ten offense that’s putting up some powerful numbers and has kept them in the running so far. Their pitching, on the other hand, has not. By fWAR, they have been the 2nd worst team in baseball, accumulating only 2.6 fWAR. Only the rebuilding Reds are getting worse production out of their pitchers. The big pitching moves this offseason were trading for Jon Niese (who has been the Pirates worst pitcher and worth -0.4 fWAR) and signing Ryan Vogelsong (who hasn’t pitched since late May after being hit by a pitch and had only pitched 21 innings of 5.02 FIP baseball to that point).
Ray Searage justly gets a lot of credit for what he’s been able to do with seemingly lesser talent, but he may have met his match this year. You could understand that the Bucs wanted to hold out hope for their prospects’ arrival, but now Jameson Taillon is on the DL. Tyler Glasnow is up now, as well, but Gerrit Cole hit the DL in June. The Pirates have been able to make it back to the postseason three years in a row in spite of their payroll problems. If their pitching doesn’t improve in the second half, and it’s not clear that it will, that might end this year.
Has the Cardinals’ Devil Magic Run Out?
The Cardinals sit on the unluckiest record in baseball, by a couple of different formulas. By their Pythagorean expectation, they should have won 7 more games, good for a 53-win record. By BaseRuns, they would have won 9 more and would be a 55-win team. To be fair, they would still be behind the Cubs (who have also been unlucky) if everyone went by their expected records. This is something new though, because, as of late, St. Louis has certainly enjoyed reaping the benefits of being the luckiest team in baseball. Last year, it was their pitchers’ ability to prevent hits with RISP, the year before it was their record in one-run games and the year before it was their hitters’ ability to hit with RISP. Doubt #CardinalsDevilMagic at your own peril, so we’ll have to wait and see whether they continue to be this unlucky for the second half of the season or whether they turn things around. Just remember that, when you make a deal with the devil, eventually the sun’s going to go down and he’s going to come to collect.