State of the MLB: All-Star Break 2018

Red Sox, Yankees, Astros dominate, NL stays competitive at season’s halfway point

The doldrums of summer are upon us once again; that period of the sporting calendar where the days are long, the temperature is high and baseball reigns supreme. The Stanley Cup and the Larry O’Brien trophy have both found their homes for the offseason. Football players across the country are still gearing up for Fall. Wimbledon is over. No more World Cup (but I guess the MLS is still going?). Whatever your fancy, this is the part of the year that every sports fan either loves or despises.

Now that the MLB has de facto taken center stage of the sports landscape, your Aggie sports desk has been hard at work to give you all you need to know about the first half of what has been a rather intriguing regular season in the MLB. While the league’s best are busy battling it out at the all-star game in the nation’s capital, let’s break it down division-by-division to get you caught up on the story so far.

American League East

This division has been dominated by the big markets of Boston and New York. The Red Sox and the Yankees lead the east by double digit games and feature two of the most explosive offenses in baseball. At the break, Boston leads the majors in hits, runs scored, and team batting average. It’s also worth mentioning that the club is second in home run hitting, too. The only team that has hit more? The Yankees, with 160. This ability to hit homers probably explains why New York is third in runs scored, despite ranking thirteenth in total hits.

The long ball has kept the Yankees firing on offense. Coming off a sensational rookie campaign, right fielder Aaron Judge has hit 25 home runs through the 93 games he’s played this season, which is tied for third most in the majors. Close behind Judge is teammate and fellow outfielder Giancarlo Stanton, who, after struggling mightily early in the year, has gone yard 23 times.

For the Red Sox, outfielders J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts pull most of the weight at the plate. Martinez has terrorized opposing pitchers this year. Usually batting in as a designated hitter, the veteran has collected a major league best 80 RBIs, is tied for first in home runs with 29 and has the third-highest batting average in the MLB. Not to be outdone, Betts leads the majors with an astounding .359 batting average and has hit 23 bombs of his own.

Both teams have been solid on the defensive side as well. The Yankees and the Red Sox each sport a team ERA that ranks among the top ten in the majors. Likewise, each team features a genuine ace in its starting rotation. Through 20 starts, New York’s Luis Severino has dazzled in his fourth season, picking up 14 wins alongside a 2.31 ERA. In Boston, lefty Chris Sale has been the pitcher to watch. Sale ranks third among qualified pitchers with a 2.23 ERA and has racked up a major league-leading 188 strikeouts.

The Yankees are currently 4.5 games behind their rivals from Boston, but have won five of the nine meetings between the teams this season. With the two set to play each other 10 more times over the final two months of the season, these late matchups will likely have an enormous impact on the AL playoff picture.

Outside of the two juggernauts, the east has been rather unimpressive. Tampa Bay has had a decent campaign so far and will possibly be fighting for wild card spot as the season rolls on. Catcher Wilson Ramos and starting pitcher Blake Snell have each put together all-star worthy first halfs to help lead the Rays to a 49-47 record –– still a whole 18 games out of first place.

A lackluster Blue Jays squad has the team nine games under .500, while the Orioles appear broken beyond repair. Camden Yards has been looking like a ghost town and it will likely look even emptier once the Orioles ship all-star Manny Machado out of town before the trade deadline. Even moving the gold glover to shortstop can’t cover up the fact that the Orioles have been flat-out awful.

American League Central

The AL Central is likely the weakest division in baseball right now. At nine over, the Indians have managed to build a comfortable lead without playing consistently good ball. Even with pitching standouts Trevor Bauer and Corey Kluber in the rotation, Cleveland’s defensive numbers are rather pedestrian. For example: Bauer has the league’s fourth best ERA, yet has an 8-6 record through 20 starts. The Cleveland bullpen and late game pitching have been shaky, causing the Indians to struggle in close ball games.

Offensively, the Indians have been above-average –– thanks to all-star infielders Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor. Ramirez is having a huge year: he’s tied with Boston’s Martinez with 29 home runs, while maintaining an above .300 batting average. Lindor can also rake, as he’s tied for third in the majors with 25 homers this year. Not a surprise, then, that Cleveland is third in home runs and fourth in runs scored. The Tribe will need this success at the plate to continue if it wants to lock in its spot at the top of the division come fall.

Each of the remaining four teams in the central are well below .500. At 41-57, Detroit has sputtered without superstar hitter Miguel Cabrera, who has recently been transferred to the 60-day disabled list. As for the White Sox and the Royals, this season has been tough from the start. Both teams have been a nightmare defensively, so it’s no wonder that Chicago and Kansas City have the MLB’s two worst team ERAs. Couple that with an inability to score runs –– the White Sox rank 25th and the Royals rank dead last  –– and you’re in for a nightmare season. 

Winning nine of its last 11 games before the break, however, Minnesota could prove to be an intriguing team to watch in the second half. It will be extremely difficult for the Twins to grab a wild card spot in the AL, but if they can take care of business in a lousy division, it might prove enough to get them into the postseason.

American League West

The AL West is surprisingly one of the strongest divisions in baseball. At 64-35, the defending world champion Houston Astros are unsurprisingly leading the division behind a daunting pitching staff. With a MLB-leading 2.94 team ERA and over 1,000 strikeouts through 99 games, the Astros have shut down virtually every opponent so far. Three of the team’s five starters possess a sub-.300 ERA, with veteran right-hander Justin Verlander leading the pack. Even when fellow Cy Young winner and teammate Dallas Kuechel has struggled, other starters like Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton have picked up the slack.

Of course, Houston’s pitching has benefitted from more than enough run support as well. The Astros have scored the second-most runs and have the third-highest batting average in the majors –– and it is no secret that this offense runs through its diminutive second baseman, José Altuve. While his home run and RBI numbers are down, the reigning AL MVP leads the majors in hits and is second in batting average, meaning that Altuve gets on base often and is the spark-plug for Houston’s already impressive lineup.

The Seattle Mariners sit just five games behind Houston, and have continued to impress despite a lineup that has faced its share of injuries and suspensions. All-stars Edwin Diaz and Jean Segura have had an unexpectedly solid first half, while pitcher James Paxton has anchored Seattle’s rotation as former Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez’s numbers have declined. But the team has lost eight of its last 11 games entering the break and has allowed teams the close the gap in the wild card race.

The team trailing just three games behind Seattle is the Oakland Athletics. At 13 over .500, the A’s success this season has been unanticipated my most analysts. On June 15th of this year, Oakland was 34-36. Since then, the A’s have gone 21-6. A team that finished with just 75 wins last year is now suddenly one of the hottest teams in baseball.

The A’s are doing all this with a starting rotation that has changed more than that of any other team, and a lineup that features no hitters batting over .300. What the A’s do well? Hit a ton of timely home runs and score in late innings. All-star second baseman Jed Lowrie leads the A’s offense, while all-star closer Blake Treinen holds down the late-game defense with a 0.94 ERA and 24 saves. But while the A’s are playing quality baseball right now, it will be interesting to see if the young team can keep up in the second half, especially in such a strong division –– where Oakland is just 15-26 against AL west opponents.

A final AL West team worth mentioning is Los Angeles Angels, who at the break are just one over .500. The Angels, despite featuring a lineup with superstar hitters Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, have not impressed offensively. But a lot of these struggles can be credited to the fact that Los Angeles currently has one of the longest disabled lists in baseball. Perhaps if a healthy Angels squad can return in the second half, this team could make a significant run.

National League East

The NL East is very much a division turned on its head, as the Atlanta Braves and the Philadelphia Phillies are virtually tied for first place. Both teams finished last season well under .500, but have been catapulted to the top of the East via some outstanding first half performances.

Fourth year pitcher Aaron Nola has been the ace that Philadelphia has been searching for. Nola’s 2.30 ERA and 0.98 WHIP are both sixth best in the majors. And if we want to get really into the weeds: Nola’s 5.9 wins above replacement rating is the second highest among all active pitchers, meaning that the value he brings to his ballclub is incredibly high. The breakout star at the plate for Philadelphia has been 25-year old, Sacramento native Rhys Hoskins, who leads the Phillies in RBI’s and OPS through the first half.

For Atlanta, success has been powered by the bats of all-stars Freddie Freeman and Nick Markakis –– who have each collected 61 RBIs thus far. And with a pitching staff led by fifth-year righty Mike Foltynewicz, the Braves have found a nice balance in their game –– a balance that gives Atlanta a genuine shot at a playoff berth.

Lurking in third is the Nationals, who have stumbled their way to a .500 record at the break after going 11-22 since June 9. Former NL MVP Bryce Harper leads his team in home runs and RBIs, but is hitting a disappointing .214 at the plate. But while Harper and the offense have been in somewhat of a slump, reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer has delivered at his starting pitcher role. In 20 starts, Scherzer has collected 12 wins, struck out 182 batters and posted a 2.41 ERA. The talent is definitely there for the Nationals, but it will take a much improved second half performance to sniff the postseason.

The two teams at the bottom of the division –– the Marlins and the Mets –– have been playing awful baseball, but remain interesting as the July 31 trade deadline looms. A prime example of a player many teams could be interested in acquiring: New York’s Jacob DeGrom. Through 19 starts, the dominant right-hander has posted a major league best 1.68 ERA. If the Mets fail to lock him up with a long-term deal, he may be on the market by the end of the month.

National League Central

On paper it would seem as if the Cubs should be in control of this division, as they clearly have the most talented roster. For starters, southpaw pitcher Jon Lester has lived up to expectations on the mound, collecting 12 wins in 19 starts while sporting a 2.58 ERA. All-star second baseman Javier Baez has had a nice season at the plate, too. His 72 RBIs are the second most in the majors.

But as it stands, Chicago is just 2.5 games up on the second place Brewers. The club has the potential to play much better in the second half, but so far injuries and inconsistent play have plagued the Cubs this season. For example, star third baseman Kris Bryant and pitching ace Yu Darvish have both had a case of the injury bug, possibly explaining why the Cubs have not prevailed in more games.

Unless the Cubs get hot after the break, expect this division to be extremely competitive. Milwaukee has played some quality baseball this season, but has entered the all-star break on a six-game losing streak. Brewers first baseman Jesus Aguilar has been a revelation so far, as he leads his team in batting average, home runs and RBIs. But the question remains whether or not the inexperienced Brewers will be able to sustain their winning ways as the season wears on.

With 48 wins apiece, Saint Louis and Pittsburgh remain close behind. The Cardinals have an experienced roster –– with the likes of catcher Yadier Molina and third baseman Matt Carpenter to lead the way –– but will be challenged in the second half after long-time manager Mike Matheny was fired just before the break. As for the Pirates, the team certainly has had some bad stretches. But Pittsburgh enters the break riding a six-game win streak that it hopes to continue as the season picks up again. This division will be one to keep an eye on.

National League West

As of now, this is the most competitive division in baseball. Each of the division’s top four teams are within four games of each other, with the Los Angeles Dodgers leading by a half game over the second place Diamondbacks.

The defending National League champs have done just enough to overcome several injuries everywhere on its roster. Despite a plethora of pitching adjustments, the Dodgers have the best team ERA in the NL. And with young star Corey Seager out with a long term injury, Los Angeles has also enjoyed some surprise performances on offense. Veteran outfielder Matt Kemp leads the team in RBIs and first baseman Max Muncy has hit a team-leading 22 home runs. But if the Dodgers really want to repeat last season’s success, they will need to rely on the continued brilliance of closer Kenley Jansen and ace Clayton Kershaw.

For Arizona, quality pitching has allowed this team to hover around first place all season. Starters Zack Greinke and Patrick Corbin have impressed, while closer Brad Boxberger has held it down in late innings with his 24 saves. Outside of all-star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, the D-Back offense has been relatively quiet. Arizona will need to produce more consistently if it wants to close in on a second consecutive postseason berth.

Winning eight of its last ten games before the break, Colorado has been slowly improving throughout the season and now threatens to upstage the Dodgers and the D-Backs hopes of winning the division. All-star third baseman Nolan Arenado has provided the fireworks offensively for this ballclub, batting .312 with 23 homers and 68 RBIs.

The top three are finally flanked by San Francisco, a team that is by no means an offensive juggernaut (the Giants are 23rd in runs scored), but has stayed afloat thanks to a solid defense headlined by pitcher Madison Bumgarner and all-star shortstop Brandon Crawford. The Giants have done well to get to their 50-48 record, but this club could be in a much better position. San Francisco’s 19 blown saves are tied with Minnesota for most in the majors. If the Giants can figure out how to finish games, they could make a real push to playoff contention.

 

Written by: Dominic Faria — sports@theaggie.org