The Standing Room Only First-Half Recap!

The All-Star Game is done and dusted, and so is the first half and change of the 2017 Major League Baseball season. Some teams have established themselves as contenders, while others are opening their doors to sell everything but the kitchen sink. We’ve seen moments of greatness (hello, Scooter Gennett), moments of hilarity (like Miguel Cabrera bonding with a man and his beard), and moments of pure absurdity (I give you: Jon Jay’s “changeup”). As always, baseball has given us a number of plotlines to keep an eye on as we head to the second half of the season. Here are the biggest stories from the first half of 2017.

Honorable Mentions

  • Chris Sale is dominating in Beantown. The new Red Sox acquisition earned the start for the AL All-Stars on Tuesday after compiling an 11-4 record with a 2.75 ERA and a whopping 178 strikeouts before the All-Star Break. He has a strong chance to best Kershaw’s mark of 301 strikeouts from 2015, the highest single-season total by an active player. Now, if only any of the other starters in Boston could pitch…
  • The Tigers’ run comes to a close. Okay, maybe this is just a big storyline to me because I was born and raised in Southeast Michigan, but it’s painfully clear that this current crop of Detroit Tigers cannot win a World Series. General manager Al Avila has stated that the Tigers will listen to offers on almost all of their players, including franchise cornerstones Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander. With so many bloated contracts and a poor farm system, it could be years before Detroit sniffs the postseason again.
  • #BartoloWatch2017 is headed to the Twin Cities. The Biggest Sexy in all of baseball, Bartolo Colon, didn’t last long in his new home in Atlanta. After going 2-8 with an 8.14 ERA, the Braves released the 44-year old veteran. He was subsequently signed by the Minnesota Twins and assigned to the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings. Maybe we’ll see Bartolo back in the bigs in the second half of the season. After all, the only current MLB ballpark he hasn’t played in is Target Field.
  • The Great Ohio Ballpark Tour! Brett and I saw a game in every single professional ballpark in Ohio (except Mahoning Valley, who hadn’t yet started their season). Many dollars were spent (mostly on beer), but the trip was a total success. You can relive our adventures here and here.

5. It won’t be another 108 years…right?

In case you’ve been living under a rock, NEWS FLASH: The Cubs won the World Series last season. Fans cheered. Everyone cried. Wrigleyville was delirious. With a wunderkind manager in Theo Epstein and an All-Star corps of young position players including Anthony Rizzo, Kyle Schwarber, and NL MVP Kris Bryant, the Cubs were set to dominate baseball for years to come.

Whoops.

Just a little over halfway through the season, nothing is going right on the North Side. The Cubs aren’t dominating baseball; they aren’t even leading their division (currently 5.5 games back of the Brewers). They failed to make it to the All-Star Break with a winning record. The question now isn’t whether they’ll repeat; it’s whether they’ll even make the postseason.

What has caused the Cubs’ collapse? Two things stand out: defense and pitching. Last season the Cubs had a 29.4 UZR, good for second in MLB, and also finished third in defensive runs saved with 21. This season, they’ve dropped to 8th in DRS and 14th in UZR. Losing Dexter Fowler and getting a full season of Kyle Schwarber’s poor defense in the outfield has been a big part of it. Schwarber was even sent down to Triple-A for a short stint to figure out both his glove and his bat. Simply put, the Cubs aren’t making the plays on defense they did last season.

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A .178 average from the lead-off spot isn’t going to get the job done for the defending World Series Champs.

The struggling defense has made the rotation look worse. Jon Lester, Jake Arrieta, and John Lackey all have ERAs north of 4, and only Arrieta has a winning record. The starting rotation has put together a 4.77 ERA, good for 17th in all of MLB. The bullpen, once thought to be the weakest part of the Cubs, has been better than the rotation, ranking 4th in bullpen ERA.

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The stat line for Lester’s final start before the All-Star Break? 0.2 innings, 10 runs (4 earned). 

Can the Cubs turn it around? Their team president has faith. “Our biggest fixes are inside the clubhouse,” Epstein declared. He may not be wrong. While Schwarber and the rest of the outfield may not suddenly become defensive aces, the rotation has the stuff to at least improve on a mediocre first half. Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo both started to get hot in June and into July, and with the depth of position players on the Cubs’ roster no one is ruling them out yet. It was always going to be impossible to live up to last season, but Cubs fans certainly had higher hopes than this.

4. Power Surge

3,342. That’s how many home runs have been hit this season; and we’re only at the All-Star Break. Twenty-four players have 20 or more home runs; one has 30. Nearly 150 players have at least 10. More and more hitters are hitting more and more home runs.

The surge began inexplicably after the 2015 All-Star Break, where home run numbers jumped in the second half of the season. Theories on why are a dime a dozen. Some claim hitters have revamped their swings to get more loft. Others blame pitchers trying to throw harder and harder fastballs–the harder they throw, the harder the batters hit it. Some more radical thinkers have even pointed the finger at global warming, claiming that the statistically higher temperatures have caused the home run surge.

It’s likely that a combination of factors has led to the surge, but perhaps the most obvious culprit is the ball itself. Despite Rob Manfred’s repeated claims that the ball has not been tampered with, numerous studies from the Ringer and FiveThirtyEight have suggested that the ball is to blame. The most obvious piece of evidence is fly-ball rates; the number of fly balls has stayed relatively constant, but the number of fly balls clearing the fences has spiked.

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Rob Manfred: “I know with absolute certainty” that the balls are within the legal limits. Admittedly you could drive a Mack truck through those limits, but the balls are legal.

While we may never know the exact cause of the power surge, it’s impact on baseball is still up for debate. Home runs are cool, sure — just look at what Aaron Judge did in the Home Run Derby. But isn’t some of their excitement in their novelty? More importantly, what does the rise in home runs do for the pace of play discussion raging throughout baseball? More balls in play leads to a faster pace, but more and more games are decided through the Three True Outcomes methods: walks, strikeouts, and home runs.

As much as we love home runs, say a prayer for the hit-and-run hitter. They’re becoming increasingly rarer by the day.

3. Astro Fever and Dodger Blue

Two teams have already hit sixty wins on the season: the Los Angeles Dodgers (61-29) and the Houston Astros (60-29). How impressive have they been? The next closest team in the standings is the Arizona Diamondbacks — a full seven games back.

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Crazy hair, don’t care — not when the ‘Stros have the best record in baseball.

The contact-heavy approach has finally paid dividends for the Astros in their potent lineup. They lead the majors in almost every offensive category, including runs, homers, batting average, and OPS. Most importantly, they’ve struck out less than any other MLB team, and more than 250 times fewer than the league leaders. Their lineup has no real holes. George Springer has dominated the lead-off spot. Carlos Correa has proved to be baseball’s best shortstop. The catcher tandem of Brian McCann and Evan Gattis has been effective. Even the unproven corner infielders Alex Bregman (3B) and Yuli Gurriel (1B) have had good starts to the season. With players like Jake Marisnick and Marwin Gonzalez on the bench, they don’t even have to be as worried about injuries as other teams. No pitcher wants to face the Astros right now.

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“See up there, at the top of the standings? That’s us!”

A bit further west in Los Angeles, the Dodgers have ridden a torrid June (21-7) to grab the best record in baseball at the All-Star Break. Where the Astros have done it with offense, the Dodgers have done it with pitching. Their staff leads the majors in ERA by nearly .30. They’ve given up 20 runs fewer than any other club. It’s been a team effort from the starters (3.24 ERA) and the bullpen (2.99 ERA). Clayton Kershaw has been outstanding as advertised (2.18 ERA with 159 strikeouts and only 22 walks), but the real story is the performance of Alex Wood (9-0, 1.79 ERA) and Brandon McCarthy (3.12 ERA in 14 starts). Having closer Kenley Jansen and his 57/2 K/BB rate at the back end isn’t too bad either.

The Dodgers and the Astros owned the first half of the season…so could we see these two teams meet in the World Series? I wouldn’t bet against it. But remember, at this time last season the teams with the best record in their leagues were the Texas Rangers and the San Francisco Giants. Anything can happen in baseball.

2. Big Trouble in the Big Apple

It was supposed to be the “Four Aces.” Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey, Jacob DeGrom, and Steven Matz featured in an MLB promo to start the season. Yes, there were injury concerns, but that’s why the Mets had Zack Wheeler, Robert Gsellman, and Seth Lugo waiting in the wings. Surely seven starting pitchers were enough to overcome any injury concerns and a potentially-mediocre offense, right?

Now, at the All-Star Break, the Mets sit in fourth place in the woeful NL East, and a full twelve games back of the Washington Nationals. Citi Field looks more like Carthage than Rome.

It started with Noah Syndergaard’s partially torn lat muscle, an injury which will keep him out until at least August. The fact that he showed up to camp with a desire to throw even harder–as if routinely hitting triple figures on the radar gun wasn’t enough–was a warning sign. More troubling for Mets management was the fact that Syndergaard at first refused an MRI to check on his arm. He made it through 1 1/3 innings of his next start before tapping out.

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Thor goes down with a torn lat muscle.

Matt Harvey didn’t have an injury, just a jarring lack of brain cells. In a season where he had already been struggling, Harvey decided to spend the night before his May 6 start partying, then played a round of golf the morning of the game. He called in sick complaining about “migraines.” The Mets suspended him for three games. According to various tabloids Harvey has also been dealing with personal jealousies from his breakup with Adrina Lima. Perhaps the sex toy found in the Mets locker room has a part to play in all this as well. Either way, Harvey’s career is quickly looking like the unplanned fourth movie in the Christopher Nolan Batman series: The Dark Knight Falls.

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How the mighty have fallen.

Then there’s Jeurys Familia’s blood clot, Yoenis Cespedes’ right quad, Steven Matz’s flexor strain, Neil Walker’s hamstring, Zack Wheeler’s elbow, Asdrubal Cabrera’s whining, Mr. Met’s middle finger… and I haven’t even gotten to Tim Tebow. Those who enjoy Greek tragedies or Spanish telanovellas might want to tune in to the Mets in the second half of the season; Mets fans, on the other hand, might want to hide in their apartments and pray for better days and healthier elbows.

1. The Year of the Rookie

Back in April, the Rookie of the Year races seemed pretty cut and dry. Dansby Swanson was the heavy favorite in the National League, and Red Sox Killer B Andrew Benitendi was a lock in the American League. There was a bit of hype surrounding a big outfielder for the New York Yankees named Aaron Judge, who had barely beat out Aaron Hicks for the starting spot, and even less hype for a Dodgers outfielder named Cody Bellinger, who would start the season in Triple-A.

Now, Aaron Judge leads the league with 30 home runs, and Cody Bellinger has 25 in 70 games. And baseball will never be the same again.

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Judge has sparked the Yankees to a hot start both at the plate and in the outfield, rating above average defensively. He still strikes out a ton, but his .329 average shows that he isn’t the old-school style of slugger. Judge is something new entirely – a rookie who has a feasible chance to get the Triple Crown, and a very realistic chance to win the MVP and Rookie of the Year in the same season.

Bellinger announced himself to the world by hitting 10 home runs in his first 10 games. No rookie had ever done that, and no player had hit 10 in 10 since Troy Tulowitzki did it in 2010. Bellinger was also the fastest player in MLB history to 21 home runs, and the fastest player to record 6 multi-home run games.

Can Judge and Bellinger keep it up in the second half of the season? If they do, we have a chance of seeing MVP/ROY winners in both leagues. Here’s to more dingers like this in the second half of the season:

For those of you who prefer to look ahead rather than behind, don’t worry; tomorrow Brett will be posting our predictions for the second half of the season.

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