Hard to believe the All Star Game is now in the rearview mirror, every team has played over half their games and the non-waiver trade deadline is less than a couple of weeks away. It seems like only yesterday 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.
We already covered the National League, and now it’s time to move on to the Junior Circuit. The AL raises a few more question marks as far as what constitutes a “contender” at this point in the season. With a few more teams being little more than a sweep of a fellow Wild Card wannabe away from a playoff spot, there’s more intrigue in the standings in the AL (eight teams fighting for two spots!!!), even if it means less excitement in the form of bodies on the block before the trade deadline.
What, Me Worry? The Astros Were Just Fine
The Astros had a pretty rough start to the season. They closed out April ten games under .500 at 7-17 and spent most of May struggling to make up any ground. Since June 14, though, Houston has gone 20-8 and crawled out of an 11-games-back hole to sit 4.5 games back in the division and 1.5 games out of a Wild Card spot. There was a lot of concern, especially about the Astros’ pitching, but it turned out to be unwarranted. It turns out that Ken Giles is just fine and looks like the player the Astros traded for in the first place. The bullpen as a whole is the best in MLB by FIP, BB/9 and fWAR and is top-five by most stats. Houston’s starters looked like a tire fire after the first month of the season, but there were sky-high BABIPs, ERA vs. FIP differentials and early season walk-rate spikes and velocity issues that hinted that things could certainly improve. They did, and every starter has put up better numbers since that point.
José Altuve hasn’t stopped hitting like an MVP and George Springer and Carlos Correa are continuing to rake, with Colby Rasmus and Luis Valbuena pitching in as well. There are certainly some holes in the lineup, but Houston just signed Yulieski Gurriel, the best hitter in Cuba who should be ready to contribute immediately, and they have prospects waiting in the wings to contribute. Houston is still extremely “unclutch,” but most of that damage came during their unbelievably unlucky April run. They’ve still got ground to make up, but Houston is looking better, just like we reasonably expected they would, and the rough start turned out to mostly be the small sample size gremlins sneaking around in the kitchen, eating your cookies and breaking your dishes.
But Maybe We Should Worry about the Rangers
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and, if Houston is looking better, then there may be cause for concern about the Rangers’ status as the forerunner in the West. By fWAR, the Rangers are, like the Astros, squarely in the middle of the pack in terms of hitting. They apparently have a somewhat surprising superstar in Ian Desmond, then there’s Adrian Beltre who is (as always) having a great year and then a bunch of contributors, ranging from pretty darn good, if flawed, to OK, throughout their lineup. No one is terribly problematic and there aren’t as many positional voids as the Astros have, but the biggest difference is that, where the Astros have had issues finding those clutch hits, the Rangers are the clutchest team in MLB. In terms of pitching, Texas is 27th in MLB in terms of fWAR. Rangers’ relievers have the 2nd worst FIP in MLB and their starters aren’t far from falling in the bottom third.
They are 19-7 in one-run games. They only have a +7 run differential, which tells you just about everything you need to know, and isn’t a good sign for the team going forward. They are outperforming their Pythagorean expectation more than any other team in baseball at +7 wins and, by BaseRuns, they are also the luckiest team in baseball, with a total of +10 wins in the bank. Now, those wins aren’t going anywhere and it’s still quite a bit more likely than not that they’ll make the playoffs, but their 4-9 record in July gives a taste of what could come if the baseball gods decide they are tired of helping Texas out.
OK, but Where Does That Leave the Mariners?
¯\_(ツ)_/¯ But I suppose I’m supposed to write something more insightful than that. The Mariners are only 4.5 games out of a Wild Card spot, which is totally doable. The problem (a recurring one, as you will see) is that there are also 5 teams ahead of them for that Wild Card spot. In early May, the Mariners were leading the division, despite having some unfortunate luck, and a first playoff berth in 14 years looked like a strong possibility. Well, the luck issue at the beginning of the year did correct itself and Mariners’ hitters’ BABIP returned to normal (it’s now at .297). There are some other luck-related issues, though, since Seattle’s Pythagorean expectation pegs them as less four wins than they should be. They have a +42 run differential but are only one game over .500.
The Mariners are tied for the 3rd best offense in MLB by wRC+, but their number 26 defense has cancelled some of that out. They’ve managed to stay in the middle of the pack in terms of starting pitching despite dealing with injuries all year. It obviously wouldn’t take a miracle for the Mariners to break the 14 year playoff drought, but they’re going to need some health in their rotation, especially King Felix, and some better luck for it to happen.
Could Cleveland Collect a Couple?
Speaking of droughts, you might have heard how LeBron and the Cavs finally lifted the Cleveland curse. Since we now know Cleveland can have nice things, why stop there? There’s a reason that they currently own the best record in the AL and that Fangraphs gives the Indians the best odds (24.2%) of any team to win the ALCS: They do almost everything really, really well. Top 10 team by wRC+? Check. Top ten rotation? Check. 2nd best fielding team in baseball? Check. Best baserunning team in MLB? Check.
It’s not as if the Indians are perfect. Catcher Yan Gomes was cancelling out his plus defensive value with abysmal offensive numbers. That he was just injured last night and now out for a month or two will likely result in Roberto Pérez getting more at bats, which should be an improvement in and of itself, whether or not they attempt to upgrade before the trade deadline.The bullpen has been their biggest problem, but the front office knows it and is searching high and low for a solution.
There’s good news on the way, too. Michael Brantley is rehabbing. If he comes back looking like his 2014 (153 wRC+) or 2015 (135 wRC+) self, that’s a pretty big pickup by the trade deadline without sending any prospects packing. Cleveland waited a long time to experience the ultimate joy in sports, but it wouldn’t be particularly surprising if the Tribe gift their city another sportsgasm in the same year.
Which Pitching Problem Will the Tigers Try to Patch Up?
If the Indians do get better at catcher and in the outfield, that doesn’t bode well for the other teams in the AL Central, starting with the Tigers, who have some problems. While their bullpen has been getting ground balls 50% of the time to make up for being 27th in K/9, they have one of the worst bullpens among contending teams in terms of situational pitching and are 22nd in RE24 and 23rd in +WPA. And it’s not like the rotation is perfect, either. Anibal Sanchez looks like a shell of his former self, even worse than he did last year. He has the 2nd highest ERA, 4th highest FIP and 5th highest BB/9 among starters who have pitched as many innings. Jordan Zimmerman and Daniel Norris are injured.
At the end of the day, the Tigers have given up exactly the same number of runs that they have scored, so they’re probably going to need to improve their pitching somehow if they want to stay in the thick of things. Owner Mike Ilitch is almost certainly whispering in GM Al Avila’s ear as I type this, “Upgrade somewhere,” but the question is whether they can or they will.
Do the Royals Have Any Magic Left in the Tank?
We already knew that the Esky Magic well had gone and dried up. But that’s not the only magic we’re talking about. The Royals had far surpassed expectations in their back-to-back trips to the Fall Classic, which led many writers, including myself, to just wave their hands in the air and assume that KC had something figured out that we didn’t. While the Royals are still relevant (for now), they’ve got a serious problem at this point in the season.
While WAR is far from a great stat for evaluating relievers, it’s pretty concerning when your relievers have racked up more of it (3.2 fWAR) than your starters (2.7 fWAR). That 2.7 fWAR is good for 27th in MLB and, when you look at the group of pitchers they have in the rotation, it isn’t particularly surprising. When you swap out Johnny Cueto for Ian Kennedy, what could go wrong, right? I jest, because Kennedy has actually been just fine, by ERA at least. But his 3.86 ERA pairs with a 5.06 FIP for the 4th largest gap in MLB. So, there’s still some magic left, but will it be enough?
Ummm…. What about the White Sox?
Through the end of April, the White Sox had the best record in the AL. We talked then about how there were causes for hope and for concern. It’s the latter of those that have borne the most fruit. The top of the rotation has been just fine, as expected, but Mat Latos and John Danks didn’t work out (surprise!!!) and the Sox traded for James Shields as if that was going to solve their problems. The biggest problem, though has been in the lineup.
With the exception of Adam Eaton, who has continued his breakout season, pretty much everyone has returned to earth (or never left in the first place). Jose Abreu has taken a huge step back. Catching has been a problem, on both sides of the ball, and they could certainly use an upgrade there, even if it’s not clear their prospect tank is full enough to go after, say, Jonathan Lucroy. We could go through pretty much every position not played by Eaton and the story would be similar. While the White Sox are only 6 games out for a Wild Card spot, it certainly feels a lot further than that right about now.
Will (Dingers+Bullpen)=Wins Keep Working for Baltimore?
I wrote this article before the All Star break, and it remains relevant.
Will Pomeranz Be Enough of a Boost for Boston’s Rotation?
The Red Sox have the best offense in baseball, even if they aren’t the most dingerlicious. They are number one in wRC+, wOBA and OPS. Do you prefer old fashioned stats? They are number one in runs scored, hits and AVG. The bullpen has been solid, as well. The problem for Boston has been two-fifths of its rotation.
David Price has been better after an awful start to the season and his peripherals suggest that he’ll be OK moving forward. Steven Wright has continued to fascinate (me, at least) and dominate. Rick Porcello is continuing a career best year. After those three, though, things have been brutal. The Red Sox decided that they didn’t want their offense to have to score at least 8 runs every 4th and 5th day and finally made a move to shore up their pitching situation by trading for Drew Pomeranz.
We’re not going to discuss whether the top prospect they gave up in the deal, since we’re not here to grade it. The real question here is whether Pomeranz will stay healthy and effective. This is the first season he has cracked 100 innings, and Boston is counting on him to do so if they’re going to catch the dinger maestros ahead of them in the standings.
The Blue Jays Batters Are All Better
Among the biggest surprises early in the season was the fact that Toronto’s pitchers were succeeding where the offense wasn’t. While J.A. Happ was outstanding last year in Pittsburgh, his signing didn’t exactly secure confidence that the Blue Jays would have a top ten rotation, but they do, at least by fWAR. Rather, the expectation going into the season seemed to be that, as in 2015, the Jays’ position players would hit well enough to carry a middle-of-the-pack rotation. That is not what happened to start the year.
In April, Toronto batters had a wRC+ of 90 and, in May, they were at 96. Those are not exactly what you would expect from the feared hitters in the Jays’ lineup. In June, though, they finally turned it around and put up a 134 wRC+ and they have a 121 wRC+ in July. There have been improvements up and down the Jays’ lineup and if they can keep this up and pair it with continued success in the rotation, then they will only have a lousy to mediocre bullpen that they don’t use very much to worry about.
Who Gets Traded: Andrew Miller or Aroldis Chapman?
The Yankees are the one fringe contender in the AL who have been featured heavily in trade rumors. They are currently 7.5 games back in the division and 5 games back for a Wild Card spot. They aren’t as far back as the White Sox, but the top three in their division will make it harder for the Yanks to make up ground. To add insult to injury, according to Buster Olney, they went into the All Star break with the toughest second half among contending teams, as they were scheduled to play 58 of their remaining 74 games against teams sitting over .500. Since the break, they’ve won two and lost two. With eight teams fighting over just two Wild Card spots, those trade rumors aren’t going anywhere soon (for good reason). Such is the life of the fringe contender in 4th place in the AL East this season.