Second Base: Lay of the Land at the MLB Halfway Mark

This image is a derivative of Yankees at Orioles 4/7/19 by Keith Allison (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Of the four largest US professional sporting leagues none of the regular seasons come close to Major League Baseball’s 162-game marathon.

The arrival of the midseason All-Star break thus acts as a source of great relief for its players and fans, while analysts also get to take a deep breath to both ponder the first half, and speculate on how the rest of the season may play out.

One reason the 2019 season has been so interesting is that we have five runaway divisions leaders at the halfway mark, while the National League Central Division continues to be a five-team dogfight with just 4.5 games separating all of the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, St Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds.

The hefty division leads built up by the New York Yankees (American League East), Minnesota Twins (AL Central), Houston Astros (AL West), Atlanta Braves (NL East) and the LA Dodgers (NL West) needn’t, however, shut the door on what will be an intriguing Wild Card race across both conferences, with four other post-season spots up for grabs.

The American League Wild Card is shaping as a race of five, with just three games separating all of the Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Indians, Oakland A's and Texas Rangers, as well as the reigning World Series champion Boston Red Sox.

Competition for the National League’s Wild Card spots are even fiercer, with an incredible eight teams currently split by just two and half games.

The intensity of both Wild Card chases - as well as the competition at the very high end of the sport - will ensure that baseball’s July 31 trade deadline will be as action-packed as always with many big-name players being speculated upon as possible movers.  

San Francisco’s ace pitcher, and 3-time World Series champion, Madison Bumgarner, will be the biggest name to watch ahead of the deadline, as too will Toronto’s star starter - and former first-round pick - Marcus Stroman. The former Duke pitcher continues to put up incredible numbers, yet the Blue Jays are still 23 games below .500, seemingly many years away from any kind of meaningful contention.

The Washington Nationals will be another team to keep a close eye on ahead of the trade deadline. Should the Nats fall out of contention over the next couple of weeks, their Mike Rizzo-led front office may indeed test the waters on what sort of bounty perhaps the game’s very best pitcher, Max Scherzer, would fetch. 

While there, Rizzo may even sniff out the market on other deals involving stars such as starter Stephen Strasburg, or third baseman, Anthony Rendon.

And, while the trade deadline will come into even sharper focus as soon as the All-Star festivities die down, we can’t forget the hunt for the most sought after prize in all of baseball, the World Series.

With a couple of months of the MLB regular season still to play out, it’s worth assessing the lay of the land as to who the main contenders are at the halfway mark.

LA DODGERS

The Dodgers have done everything right this decade, short of claiming baseball’s ultimate prize.

They’ve been to no less than four National League Championships over the last six seasons, as well as qualifying for the last two World Series, yet, despite all of its savvy front office moves and the incredible top to bottom roster they have assembled, a World Series crown has eluded Dodgers fans since 1988. 

There is, however, reasons to believe that this Dodgers squad is in the best shape of the Andrew Friedman era.

Through the first half of the season, the Dodgers are the MLB’s only team with 60 wins already notched, while boasting the best collective offensive WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in the entirety of baseball, according to Fan Graphs. The Dodgers 3.37 ERA (Earned Runs Average) is the best pitching mark in the NL too, indicating just how rounded the squad is.

They currently enjoy a whopping 13.5 game division lead in the NL West, while the second half of the season will be about pacing themselves and solidifying home-field advantage throughout the MLB Playoffs. 

As well, of course, as making sure their 23-year old phenom Cody Bellinger puts the final touches on an incredible MVP calibre campaign so far.

HOUSTON ASTROS

World Series champions in 2017, runners up in 2018, the Astros are the LA Dodgers of the American League in terms of front-office acumen, mixed with on-field performance.

The only point of difference, of course, is that Houston has seen their genius translated into a World Series crown, while the Dodgers still desperately hunt for their own.

The 2019 Houston Astros have been a ‘death by a thousand cuts’ type of unit. 

While the rest of the sport has fallen back in love with the deep ball, the Astros are one team who still believes strongly in the power of getting on base, allowing their menacing lineup to systematically move everyone around the diamonds to home base, while churning through tired opposition arms.

Houston’s .344 on-base percentage is second in the American League, with all of Michael Brantley, Josh Reddick, Carlos Correa and George Springer hitting over .290 on the season.

A scary thought for the rest of the league is that 6-time All-Star and 2017 AL MVP, Jose Altuve, has had a relatively pedestrian campaign so far with his .262 batting average a lowly number which is sure to improve in the second half.

The Astros also boast the AL’s second-best pitching ERA at 3.86, while the team’s collective 900 strikeouts is a number bettered only by Boston (914) so far.

NEW YORK YANKEES

The Yankees are back.

While for many, this feels like the natural order of things in the baseball universe, the reality is that the 'Bronx Bombers' have been out of the spotlight for some time, having graduated to the American League Conference Championships just once in the past six seasons, while not contesting a single World Series since 2009.

The Yankees production, however, is finally starting to match up with the investment in their squad, with a payroll that sits second in the majors at $218 million; only arch-rivals Boston spend more on players.

And, it is the Yankees payroll which can’t be ignored in terms of their performance this year, for as good as the Yankees have been, they actually haven’t had access to much of their glittering talent due to injury.

Aaron Judge, Didi Gregorious and Giancarlo Stanton have played in less than half of the Yankees games in 2019, while last year’s rookie sensation, Miguel Andujar, has been limited to just nine matches.

Despite the slew of injuries, the Yankees boast the American League’s best record at 57-31, with their offence producing a league-high 5.72 runs per game, led by their 26-year-old All-Star catcher, Gary Sanchez, who has mashed 24 home runs on the season.

The Yankees super strength actually lies in its vaunted bullpen, with their relief corps responsible for a 4.2 Fangraphs WAR, bettered only by the Oakland A's, and one of three units in the league - along with Boston and Arizona - who are producing more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings.

Questions marks, however, will continue to hover around the Yankees through the Playoffs as this was, of course, a 100-win team last year, that failed to advance to the NLCS and who have nowhere near the playoff pedigree of fellow conference rivals Houston or Boston. 

MINNESOTA

Without a doubt, the Twins have been 2019’s surprise packet.

Coming into the season, Minnesota hadn’t won a single playoff game in 15 years, while this was a franchise who, as recently as the 2016 season, managed to win just 59 games which was very much the worst record in baseball.

That they’ve been able to turn it all around within two and half years is truly astonishing, to the point they now hold a 5.5 game lead in the AL Central, which at one stage in early June was as high as an 11.5 lead.

And how have the Twins been able to turn it all around? 

Well for starters they’ve taken advantage of one of 2019’s weakest divisions in the AL Central, which is presently the only division in baseball home to three teams all under .500.

The Twins have also thrived off the back of a lights-out offence which has produced a competition high 166 home runs so far, while also sporting the league’s best team batting average at .272.

A genuine plus for the Twins is that their high octane offence is very much spread across the board. None of their batters were voted into Tuesday’s All-Star game, despite having ten different players hitting double-figure home runs in the first half of the season.

From a pitching perspective, Minnesota is also getting an even contribution across the board. It seems 25-year-old, Jose Berrios, is finally having the breakout campaign so many were expecting which saw him receive an All-Star call-up. The Twins are also getting excellent production from veteran starters, Michael Pineda and Kyle Gibson.

As mentioned earlier, the Twins have seen their division lead reduced to 5.5 games in recent weeks, so the second half of the season will be all about maintaining their lofty standard and securing a first divisional crown since 2010... all the way keeping a very close eye on everything their rivals - the Cleveland Indians - do.

 ATLANTA BRAVES

The Braves very much see themselves as the little brothers of the Dodgers and the Astros in terms of how much stock they place in analytics and how much they believe in their own vaunted farm system.

Led by GM Alex Anthopoulos, the Braves burst onto the scene in 2018 and last year claimed a most unexpected NL East pennant.

Many expected the Braves to fall back to earth in 2019 due to the sheer quality of the division, which had seen so much star investment by the likes of the New York Mets and, particularly, Philadelphia Phillies, who made one of the biggest splashes in MLB history, by securing former Washington Nationals MVP, Bryce Harper, in free agency for a lazy $330 million over 13 seasons.

Yet - despite how competitive the division is - the Braves continue to prosper, holding a six-game lead, with the bookmakers at least believing they’re the strongest threat to upend the Dodgers NL stranglehold.

Like so many of the best teams presently in the MLB, the offence has been the Braves calling card in 2019, with both first baseman, Freddie Freeman and outfield phenom, Ronald Acuna Jnr, representing the National League in the All-Star game. 

Atlanta does, however, have quite a shaky bullpen, which will be one of their biggest worries heading into the postseason, and an area they will be aiming to fix by the trade deadline. Braves’ relievers are producing a paltry 0.8 WAR, placing them 21st in the entire league, while its also been a bullpen that’s been quite susceptible to the long ball, surrendering 50 home runs already, which places them in the bottom third of the league in that metric.

The MLB’s season length can sometimes feel like a lingering concussion, yet it always seems to fly by in the second half of the season as pennant races heat up, and jockeying for playoff positions takes center stage - not to mention the individual player battles such the MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year races.

Baseball match and World Series projections are live on Stats Insider here.

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James Rosewarne

James is a writer and Managing Editor at Stats Insider. He likes fiction and music. He is a stingray attack survivor. He lives in Wollongong.

Email- james@thehypometer.com for story ideas or opportunities.

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