The motif heading into the 60-game Major League Baseball season was straight out of a 1950s horror movie or a bad slogan for a 1980s Mariners team: Anything can happen. As we come upon the halfway point of the season, however, as much as we hoped for a crazy, unpredictable two months, the top of the standings look … pretty much like we would have expected.
In the American League, we have a top-heavy picture, with the top six teams in FanGraphs’ preseason playoffs odds all ranking in the top seven teams in the league (the White Sox, eighth in the preseason odds, are tied for the fifth-best record entering Tuesday). Those seven teams are currently given playoff odds of 95% or higher. The AL playoff race is essentially down to the fight for the eighth spot and seeding.
In the National League, the Dodgers are running away from the rest of the league as expected in the preseason odds, when they were the only team with odds above 80% to make the postseason tournament. The Padres are in the midst of a seven-game winning streak, the Cubs are 18-10 despite a mediocre plus-10 run differential, and the Braves are 16-12 even though Max Fried is their only starting pitcher to win a game. But it’s still the Dodgers and everyone else. Their run differential of plus-79 is better than that of the other five NL teams with positive run differentials combined.
The NL playoff race is such a mess that only six teams are above .500, with the Marlins among them at 12-11. The Giants (14-16) and Rockies (13-15) would be playoff teams despite sub-.500 records. That probably qualifies the Giants as the “surprise” team so far. Their preseason playoffs odds were just 12%, higher than only that of the Orioles, Marlins and Mariners. Normally, a lot can happen in a half-season, but time is already running out. If you’re the Angels or Phillies or Brewers, it’s time for a hot streak.
How did we get to this point? Let’s look at some of the stories and factors that have driven the narrative of the 2020 season so far.
The Dodgers are really, really good
The Dodgers are 22-8, which is a 119-win pace over 162 games. Their plus-79 run differential prorates to an incredible plus-427 over 162 games. By comparison, the 2001 Mariners, who won 116 games, were plus-300; the 1998 Yankees, who won 114, were plus-309. This is one of the unfortunate aspects of this season: We’ll never know if the Dodgers could have been one of the greatest teams of all time and challenged the Mariners’ record win total.
The Dodgers are leading the NL in both runs scored per game (5.70) and fewest runs allowed (3.07). Since 1901, 42 teams have led their league in both categories, but the Dodgers have a chance to make history. They also led the NL in both categories in 2018 and 2019, so they can become the first NL team to do so three years in a row and the first team to do so since the Yankees did it four years in a row before integration, from 1936 to 1939.
Fernando Tatis Jr.: The next level
Entering Monday, Tatis leads the majors in home runs (12), RBIs (29), runs (29) and total bases (80). He’s hitting .314/.396/.678. He’s 6-for-6 in stealing bases. He’s hitting .474 with runners in scoring position. He has made several acrobatic plays at shortstop and has yet to make an error. According to Statcast metrics, his hard-hit rate is in the 100th percentile, and his top sprint speed is in the 97th percentile. He has cut his chase rate from 29.8% as a rookie to 21.2%. He definitely isn’t afraid to swing when the count is 3-0. The day after swinging 3-0 with a seven-run lead and hitting a grand slam, he stole third base with a six-run lead.
“Keep bringing energy you have to the game,” Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson tweeted after the controversial grand slam, “we need players like you.”
As with Reggie in the ’70s, Rickey in the ’80s, Griffey in ’90s, Pujols in the ’00s and Trout in the ’10s, Tatis’ game goes beyond the numbers. He is electrifying, which is immediately clear when you see him go first-to-home on a double that doesn’t reach the outfield wall. But it’s more than that. It seems like the game revolves around him. He is the straw that stirs the drink.
Tatis is dominating the headlines, but here are a few other players who have kept me intrigued about 2020:
• Fellow 21-year-old phenom Juan Soto had four hits Monday to raise his line to .400/.487/.815. Hmm, maybe somebody can hit .400. Soto, after all, is often compared to Ted Williams for his precocious hitting ability and plate discipline.
• Cleveland starter Shane Bieber is 5-0 with a 1.11 ERA and 65 strikeouts through six starts. Bieber is racking up strikeouts like Nolan Ryan or Pedro Martinez in their primes, even though his fastball velocity is just average for an MLB pitcher. He has above-average spin rate, which helps, but what he mostly does is vary his speed and hit his spots. He’ll throw a 94 mph fastball, an 89 mph cutter, an 84 mph slider and an 83 mph curveball and mix in a few 88 mph changeups. He has walked just six batters. His current pace of 14.4 K’s per nine would break Gerrit Cole’s single-season record set last season. (As with all 2020 stats, the short season suggests that all these rate statistics come with an asterisk of sorts.)
• Mookie Betts is adjusting to L.A. just fine, thank you very much. He is hitting .300/.369/.664 with 11 home runs in 28 games, showing that he doesn’t need Fenway Park to prop up his power numbers. His defense in right field is so good that I received a text from a die-hard Dodgers fan raving about how Betts is so much better than he realized — and it didn’t mention his hitting. Tatis might be the halfway NL MVP, but Betts is right there.
• Mike Yastrzemski actually leads both of them in FanGraphs WAR — a main reason the Giants are hanging around .500. The grandson of Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski is a late bloomer — he turned 30 on Sunday — who was a pleasant surprise as a rookie in 2019 after the Giants acquired him from the Orioles. He has raised his game to another level, thanks to a more patient approach at the plate, hitting .309/.429/.645 with an NL-leading 20 extra-base hits and 23 walks.
• Nelson Cruz is 40 years old and hitting .340 with 11 home runs, which suggests he might last until he’s 50.
• Finally, a fun Rookie of the Year race in the American League between two center fielders, Chicago’s Luis Robert and Seattle’s Kyle Lewis:
Lewis: .368/.456/.585, 7 HRs, 19 RBIs, 24 runs, 28/18 SO/BB
Robert: .265/.321/.541, 7 HRs, 17 RBIs, 15 runs, 39/8 SO/BB
Robert has some swing-and-miss issues, and Lewis is riding a ridiculous BABIP. I’ll take Robert over the long haul — he’s younger, hits the ball harder and is a gifted defender with plus-plus speed — but Lewis is a bright spot for the otherwise overmatched Mariners.
Speaking of fun … the White Sox and Padres are super fun
Both teams received a lot of attention as potential contenders heading into the season, but here’s a reminder that the White Sox haven’t finished over .500 since 2012 and the Padres since 2010, so no matter the expectations, that’s a lot of losing to overcome. But it’s happening, and it’s happening in a glorious burst of home runs.
The White Sox have won seven of eight, hitting 28 home runs in that span, including two six-homer games and a five-homer game. The Padres are riding a seven-game winning in which they mashed five grand slams in a week, and suddenly “Slam Diego” shirts are flying off the racks. The White Sox rank second and the Padres fourth in home run rate.
Both lineups are a nice mixture of exciting young players such as Tatis and Robert and veterans such as Jose Abreu, who just tied a record with six home runs in a three-game series, and Manny Machado, who is hitting much better than in his first season in San Diego. Tune in if you can. As a bonus, when you watch the Padres, you get to see their wonderful, new uniforms.
The mass outbreak of positive COVID-19 tests on the Marlins and then the Cardinals not only forced those teams to miss at least a week of games but also messed up the schedules for many other teams. That has led to a big disparity in the number of games played among teams so far. The Cardinals have played just 18 games — 12 fewer than some others. The Marlins have played 23 and the Phillies 24.
What does it mean? A lot of doubleheaders, which means a lot of seven-inning games. The Cardinals have 42 games left with 34 days on the regular-season calendar. The Marlins will have 37 games in 34 days. And so on. That’s assuming no further issues. As the Mets-Yankees series that was postponed this past weekend showed us, we don’t need a major outbreak for games to be called off. Keep in mind that we’re also running out of time to make up games for future postponements — and imagine the chaos when a doubleheader gets rained out in mid-September.
The bottom line is that not all teams are going to get 60 games. Be prepared for the controversy when a team with 55 games makes the playoffs with a 27-28 record over a team that goes 29-31 in 60 games.
The injury fallout
Perhaps as a result of all the doubleheaders or the rush to get back into action after summer training camp, pitcher injuries are way up. From ESPN Stats & Info, here is the number of pitchers placed on the injured list through the first 31 days of the season:
2020: 98 (not including 20 for coronavirus)
Among those pitchers injured since the return to action and now out or likely out for the season: Stephen Strasburg, Mike Soroka, Shohei Ohtani, Corey Kluber, Yonny Chirinos, Brendan McKay, Roberto Osuna, Tommy Kahnle, Colin Poche, Kirby Yates.
Among those currently on the IL: Justin Verlander, Charlie Morton, Merrill Kelly, Madison Bumgarner, Cole Hamels, Aaron Bummer, Rich Hill, Homer Bailey, James Paxton, Michael Wacha, A.J. Puk, Joe Musgrove, Jeff Samardzija, Nick Anderson, Nate Pearson, Ken Giles … and on and on.
This doesn’t include top starters such as Noah Syndergaard, Luis Severino and Chris Sale, who went down in spring training. It’s a long list.
Strasburg’s issue with his hand — he will undergo surgery Wednesday to alleviate carpal tunnel neuritis in his right hand — is obviously a huge blow to the defending champions. Strasburg made it through just six innings in two starts. With the Nationals off to a slow start at 11-15 and minus Strasburg, their odds of making the playoffs are just 31% via FanGraphs.
The A’s and Rays are for real
This isn’t a surprise, but it is perhaps a surprise how they got here: leading their division races over the Astros and Yankees. The A’s were going to rely on their big three position players — Matt Chapman, Marcus Semien and Matt Olson — and a young rotation. The rotation is 19th in the majors in ERA, and Chris Bassitt has been their best starter, not Frankie Montas, Jesus Luzardo or Sean Manaea. Meanwhile, Semien is hitting .219 with a .275 OBP. Olson is hitting .164 with a .298 OBP, though with nine home runs. Chapman also has nine home runs, but he owns a sub-.300 OBP. The key for the A’s? A 1.99 bullpen ERA … and an easy schedule. The AL West is so bad that they’ve played only three games against one team with a winning record, going 3-0 against the Astros.
The Rays, meanwhile, have nine pitchers currently on the IL and, amazingly, have just one quality start. Morton, Tyler Glasnow and Blake Snell were supposed to be a dominant trio, but Morton has a 5.40 ERA, Glasnow has a 6.00 ERA, and Snell has been brought along slowly, averaging just 3.8 innings per start. On top of that, eight relievers have recorded a save. Kevin Cash must have an offseason gig doing magic shows in Las Vegas.
The Tampa Bay offense, however, has been pretty good, ranking sixth in the majors in runs per game. Even then, you wonder how they’re doing it, as Brandon Lowe (.304, nine home runs, 25 RBIs) has been the only standout. No other regular is slugging .500. The Rays just find ways to win, including a 6-1 record against the Yankees.
The Astros are … maybe mediocre?
Is the Evil Empire crumbling? Verlander has made just one start, Jose Altuve is struggling, Yordan Alvarez is out for the season because of a knee injury, the rookie-filled bullpen has struggled in close games and Bregman is on the IL because of a hamstring issue. The Astros had a couple of early flareups, first with the Dodgers’ Joe Kelly after he threw near Bregman’s head and mocked Carlos Correa and then when A’s center fielder Ramon Laureano had words with Astros coach Alex Cintron, sparking a bench-clearing incident. Kelly became a folk hero, and Cintron was suspended 20 games, and everybody continues to root against Houston.
It has been pretty quiet since the past few weeks, though — probably what the Astros need. They’re 16-13, and they’re going to make the playoffs because the bottom three teams in the AL West are terrible. They hope to get Verlander back in September. Zack Greinke has been excellent (2.29 ERA, zero home runs allowed in 35 ⅓ innings). Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier have provided rotation depth, and Jose Urquidy should return at some point. The lineup is still fourth in the majors in runs per game. Mediocre? Maybe. But would you want to play them in October with a healthy Verlander?
Sorry, nobody is going to hit .400
In recent years, we’ve seen Jose Altuve, Joey Votto and Andrew McCutchen hit .400 over a 60-game span, so though somebody hitting .400 this season was a long shot, it wasn’t an impossible ask. Charlie Blackmon hit .500 over the Rockies’ first 17 games, giving him a little room to play with, but he has hit .256 over his past 11 games and enters the week at .405. DJ LeMahieu leads the majors with a .411 average, though he’s currently on the injured list and about to fall off the list of qualified leaders. To show how hard hitting .400 is, say he goes 5-for-20 when he returns. His average falls to .376, and then he has to hit well above .400 the rest of the way. Maybe it is impossible.
Although I’m not giving up on Juan Soto.