MLB: Second Half Outlook

I know the players probably love the 4-day All-Star Break, but I hate it.  Of course, I hated the 3-day All-Star Break.   I could go for no All-Star Break at all, actually – while understanding that the Player’s Union would never accept that.

I loved the Home Run Derby this year.   It was fun to see some of the young stars shine a bit, and have fun with the competition.   Aaron Judge winning was hardly a surprise, as he didn’t even seem to break much of a sweat as he was launching balls all over the field.     The All-Star Game itself?  I have always been a “take-it-or-leave it” type when it comes to the game.   It is mostly background noise for me than it is actually tantalizing entertainment.

As the Second Half is upon us, it is time to make some predictions for what I think will happen, based on questions that I think would be on everyone’s mind:

1.  Will Aaron Judge hit 50 home runs?  More?

You may think this is a silly question, but it really isn’t.   In 1969, Reggie Jackson hit 37 home runs leading into the All-Star Break.  He ended the season with 47.   Chris Davis hit 37 home runs before the 2013 All-Star Break, but was able to get to the 50 mark (53).    Judge, of course, “only” has 30, and the midway point in the season isn’t really that – the Yankees have played more than 81 games.  Is there 20+ home runs left in Judge’s bat?   My prediction is that he will end up with 52.   That is actually an aggressive prediction, because Judge will enter the dog days of the season, where many big home run totals go to fall.  However,  I think even a slowed down Aaron Judge can pop some balls over the fence rather easily.   Back in the 1980s and 1990s, one of my favorite things about the baseball season was the inevitable player who would take aim at the Roger Maris 61.   It is unfortunate that the chase for that mark is long gone and tainted.

2.   Will the Cubs bounce out of it?

The Cubs, of course, made a big deal for Jose Quintana today, giving up their best prospect (and more!) to land the coveted lefty.  Quintana has been off his game this year (which means he will fit right in with the Cubs’ rotation), but when you acquire a player, you do it for what you believe is their future production, not what they did yesterday.   Quintana is also not a pure rental, so even if the Cubs do flounder the rest of the way, Quintana is there to help for the next several years.

As for this year, the Milwaukee Brewers are a sloppy first-place team.  They are fun to watch, with their ultra-aggressive style, but they are a terrible fielding squad that has to continuously bail themselves out of their own mistakes.     The best thing going for the Cubs is that nobody else in the division is doing well:  The Cardinals, Pirates, and Reds likely do not pose a major threat, even if the Cards are currently tied with the Cubs in the standings.  Can they make up 5.5 games?   If it was the Houston Astros ahead of them, I would say no.   The Brewers?   It is impossible to completely trust them.

3.  Will there be any miracles?

The days of the baseball miracle are not gone, but the wild-card has made it less prominent.    A miracle would be a team that chews up a big deficit in a short period of time.   Take a look at the American League standings:  The worst team in the league is 7.5 games back of the second Wild-Card.  Of course, if the White Sox were to get into contention, I think many of us would see that as a miracle.  I don’t see that happening.

The National League is where you are better off looking for a true miracle, since the playoffs are so easily defined at the moment.  The Rockies have a 7.5 game lead in the “race” for the second wild-card spot.  They have the fourth best record in the league, with two of the three teams ahead of them within the same division.   I love the Rockies, and even had them as a preseason surprise, but they started to slow down towards the end of the first half, while the Atlanta Braves showed that their timeline may be coming up faster than we thought, as they are now “only” two games below .500.   If you want a miracle, there you have it:  Pick the Braves to make a Wild-Card run.   But don’t even risk a penny on it, because it is rather unlikely.

4.   Are the awards basically set in stone?

Nope.  While it will be hard for anyone to beat Judge in the AL Rookie of the Year race, and Cody Bellinger looks solid on the National League side, every other award is hardly a shoo-in.  Can Judge also win the MVP?  If he plays the rest of the year like he has thus far, it wouldn’t be close.   But watch out for Carlos Correa and Jose Altuve.    Bryce Harper is looking good in the National League, but Paul Goldschmidt is having a big year for a surprise team, which is usually a good MVP formula.

Chris Sale might strike out 300, but surprise candidate Jason Vargas has a lot going for him as well.  Marcus Stroman of Toronto lingers as a potential threat.  In the National League, Max Scherzer has put together a first half that will be tough to beat, but would you completely rule out Clayton Kershaw?

5.   Are the Twins for real?

The 45-43 Twins have an expected record of 38-50.   They are playing seven games better than the numbers indicate they should be playing.  Of course, that only tells us how good or bad a team has been so far – it doesn’t necessarily mean that the team will continue to play that way going forward.

The Twins can’t play at home (20-28), but are somehow 25-15 on the road.    They are 14th in the American League in ERA and slugging percentage, and only 9th in runs scored.   Everything about them tells you they should be fighting it out with the Phillies, not the Indians.  One-run games have been good to them (10-5), because that is how bad teams typically play better than they should.  They are a terrible 12-20 in blowouts.

Can they hang tough?  Of course they can.  While a team like this will be bad in the long run, flukes can happen over the course of one season.  And, again – it is always possible some of their players play better in the second half.   Essentially, they have been given a gift:  A team playing poorly has a chance to get to the playoffs if they start playing better.

6.  What team has surprised you the most this year?

It isn’t the Twins, since they are not playing as well as their record.  I could say the Royals, but this is a team that won a World Series only two years ago.  The Braves would make a very solid choice, but I said in the preseason that they may take a bit of a leap this year (In the effort of fairness, I said the same about the Phillies – oops!)     The Rockies have surprised everyone, but I had them as my surprise team in April.

This leaves me with three possibilities:  The Brewers, Diamondbacks, and Rays.    If you held a gun to my head, I would pick the Brewers by a smudge as there was seemingly no hope at all for them when the season began.  Some pundits were high on the Diamondbacks, and the Rays haven’t played well over their heads.  The Brewers?  It just doesn’t make sense.

7.   Are we destined for Astros – Dodgers?

No.   Last year, we got a World Series that truly did feature two of the best teams in baseball:  The Cubs destroyed the National League, while the Indians’ 94 wins were only one behind the Texas Rangers (and one ahead of the Red Sox!)     This is what makes baseball so interesting:  The last few seasons have featured teams that were arguably the best in their leagues going at it.  But as recently as 2014, the World Series featured two teams that didn’t even break 90 wins (Wild-Card Giants vs. Wild-Card Royals)

While the Astros and Dodgers are certainly the favorites, I will change it up a tad:  I have to stick with the Astros since they were my preseason team.  In the National League, I will go with the Nationals to finally break through and make their way to the Series.    Exciting prediction, this isn’t.  If I didn’t pick the Astros in the preseason, maybe I switch it up.   But why go against the 60-win team that I actually picked?

8.  The Bottom Line?

The first half of the season has been great.  The home run spike doesn’t really bother me, because statistical blips are not uncommon.    That is part of what makes baseball fun – you don’t know exactly what type of year you are going to get (offense or pitching) before teams break camp.   So far, it has been about the offense.  That doesn’t mean it will be in the second half.

 

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