We have reached the (more than) halfway break of the season, and of course, it’s time for first-half analysis and outlooks toward the second part of the season. In the American League, three superteams reign with winning percentages of over .640. The Red Sox, Yankees, and Astros all have stacked rosters and look to make the AL playoffs very exciting. Meanwhile, upstart teams like the Mariners and Athletics will fight for the final wild card. Here is my analysis of the first half in the MLB’s top-heavy league.
We knew this was going to come down to two teams, and boy has their rivalry been exciting. The Red Sox currently hold a 4.5 game lead over the Yankees on the heels of a 12-1 stretch. This run followed a series loss to their biggest rivals that locked New York and Boston in a tie for the best record in baseball. Boston is the only AL team with two All Star starters, not including Chris Sale, who was announced to be on the hill on Tuesday night. J.D. Martinez and Mookie Betts will join him. Martinez continues to mash, tied for the league lead with 29 home runs, while Mookie Betts is having one of the best leadoff seasons in history. His WAR of 6.3 puts him on pace for 10.4, and, if he passes José Ramirez, would make it the best non-Mike Trout season since 2008. His 13-pitch grand slam in Thursday’s 6-4 win over the Blue Jays exemplifies his value to the team. With a 1.139 OPS, he is on pace for the greatest season in that category since Barry Bonds. But enough about Betts. Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi also are producing, while Sale is again one of the best pitchers in the AL going into the All-Star break. Leading the lead in ERA and strikeouts, the Red Sox hope that Sale can keep that up this year unlike years past. The bullpen is very productive, with Craig Kimbrel once again an All-Star closer. As for their rivals, the Yankees have a powerful lineup, breaking the 1999 Mariners’ record for most home runs before the All-Star break. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton don’t lead the league in bombs, but they have combined for 48, which is good enough for the third duo in the league. Gleyber Torres has overcome injury to validate his status as one of the top prospects in the game. Luis Severino leads the rotation, while the bullpen continues to be one of the best in the league led by Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances. In the rest of the division, the Rays are two games over .500 but 8.5 games back of the wild card. Blake Snell has been a revelation with one of the best ERAs in the AL, but it will be tough for Tampa Bay, with one star position player in Wilson Ramos, to make waves in the AL race. J.A. Happ, with a 4.29 ERA, is the only Blue Jays representative in the All-Star Game for an aging team that doesn’t have a shot in the East. And in last place, the two most interesting things about the Orioles are whether or not they’ll be the worst team in modern MLB history and the fate of Manny Machado. With two wins to finish the first half, Baltimore is on pace for almost 47 wins, four better than the worst 162-game season of all-time, the 2003 Detroit Tigers at 43-119. Meanwhile, Machado has been speculated upon all season, with the Yankees, Brewers, Dodgers, and Phillies the main suitors for him. Will Baltimore improve their pace in the second half or get worse after losing Machado and set the record for futility?
This is the most unexciting division race in baseball. The Indians, currently the league’s worst division leader, have the largest lead in any division at 7.5 games over the Twins. Cleveland struggled starting the season as they did last year, but will they roll off another 20+-game winning streak in August-September as they did last year? Probably not. The Indians have all the stars in the world: Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, and on. But Cleveland still hovers around .500. Why? A friend of mine who watches the Indians a lot says that it’s the lack of a long reliever like a Bryan Shaw, who left for Colorado and is not faring well there. And the bullpen which was so good in the 2016 with Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and Shaw, has struggled the whole year. Miller is on the DL, Allen has an ERA of over four and a half, and Shaw, of course, is on a different team. All this has contributed to the second-worst bullpen in the league according to ERA. At the trade deadline, the Indians hope to acquire a reliever like Zach Britton or Brad Hand while also getting Miller back in the pen. Outside of the bullpen, Ramirez continues to grow into the best switch-hitter in the league, while Michael Brantley and Lindor are All-Stars. Trevor Bauer has struck out 175 batters on the season and Kluber continues to be one of the best pitchers in the game. The rest of the AL Central has been hot garbage, with the Twins regressing from last year’s great turnaround with the struggles and injuries of Byron Buxton and Miguel Sano. Most of the lineup is filled with below-average hitters, and Jose Berrios was the only All-Star for Minnesota. Meanwhile, the Tigers’ stars are aging with Nick Castellanos as the only solid hitter in their lineup and an average pitching staff. At the bottom of the division, the White Sox are developing their top prospects and the Royals are almost as bad as the Orioles with no top 100 prospects. Cleveland should have an easy road into the playoffs, but will the lack of great competition hurt them in October?
Out west, two surprise teams have made this arguably the best division in baseball. The Astros have been one of the best teams in baseball defending their championship, but the Mariners and Athletics have made a splash. With the acquisition of Gerrit Cole, Houston has the best rotation in baseball, and it isn’t particularly close. 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel is close to the worst starter on the team. Justin Verlander is in the race for Cy Young, as are fellow All-Stars Cole and Charlie Morton. The bullpen is also one of the best, with Collin McHugh’s move there panning out well. On the offensive end, Jose Altuve is following up his MVP season with another good one, while Alex Bregman is the best hitter on this team. The bottom of the lineup isn’t the best, but Houston doesn’t have a weakness outside of that and will compete with the big boys in New York and Boston for another AL crown. While the Astros have been blowing teams out, Seattle has been winning games by one run. 26 of them to be exact. One beneficiary of that has been closer Edwin Diaz, who is on pace to challenge the MLB record of 62 saves by Francisco Rodriguez of the Angels in 2008. On offense, Mitch Haniger, in A ball just three years ago, has been Seattle’s best hitter, along with fellow All-Stars Nelson Cruz and Jean Segura. But it will be tough for the Mariners to keep up their streak of winning one run games. And coming on to challenge them are the Oakland Athletics. They are currently just three games back of the second wild card, that being the Mariners, and this young team looks ready to overtake the spot. The A’s have won 21 of their last 27. The whole rotation has struggled due to injury, but boy is their bullpen good. Blake Treinen leads the league in ERA, while unheard-of Lou Trivino is sitting pretty at 1.22. Sean Manaea has been a solid starter, and the offense is getting the job done. Jed Lowrie just made his first All-Star Game and Khris Davis continues to be one of Oakland’s best hitter. Can they keep this up? At one game over .500 and fourth in a top-two division in baseball are the Los Angeles Angels. The Halos came into this season with high hopes after signing Japanese star Shohei Ohtani and starting 13-3. But with Ohtani’s injury and not much help for the best player in the game, the Angles currently need to make up nine games in the wild card. Mike Trout is bolstering his amazing career so far with a 1.060 OPS, but the lineup isn’t performing well with three below-average veteran hitters. Ian Kinsler, Luis Valbuena, and Kole Calhoun all are hitting under .220. In the rotation, Tyler Skaggs is great, but without Ohtani, it isn’t the rotation it could have been. We would all love to see the great Trout in the playoffs, but he needs some support from his teammates to make that happen. At the bottom of the division, the Rangers’ most interesting story is Bartolo Colon, who at 45 has started 17 games this season and is still going strong. The lineup is filled with youth, power, and tons of strikeouts. They hit the ball far, but Texas needs a refined hitting approach and a better rotation to get back to the playoffs in a few years.
AL Wild Card
This is mostly down to the two (or three) teams mentioned in the last section. The Yankees and Red Sox will fight for the AL East crown, with the loser almost certainly getting the Wild Card Game at home. The Mariners currently hold the lead for the second spot, but it’s tough to imagine that continuing. They came into the All-Star break losing four in a row, and their negative run differential is catching up to them. But the A’s don’t look ready either to claim the spot, with their youth and the bullpen likely to regress in the second half. If the Angels get Ohtani back hitting well, though, I could imagine them stealing the spot. Mike Trout has made the playoffs just once, and I can envision him doing even better than he has been to will Los Angeles to the playoffs. In the end, I think the second wild card wins about 86 games, with the tough AL West and close wins catching up to them.
AL MVP: Mookie Betts, Red Sox
I wrote an article on J.D. Martinez and his possible MVP season, but I think it’s really a two-horse race between Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. And although Trout is the best player of our generation, I’m going with Mookie Betts so far. Betts’ slugging is insane at .691, 85 points better than Trout. Sure, Trout walks more, but Betts strikes out far less and gets a hit almost 36% of the time. And finally, Betts’ team is currently 18.5 games better than Trout’s. Baseball is the least individual sport, and it’s tough to fault Trout for that, but Betts is the best player on the best team in baseball. Period.
AL Cy Young: Justin Verlander, Astros
Verlander was a solid pitcher on the Tigers last year, but his move to the Astros has made him a great one. This season, after practically carrying Houston to the World Series in 2017, he has pitched the most innings in the American League while posting a 2.29 ERA. There are five AL pitchers between 2.23 and 2.31, but I think Verlander is the one who keeps it up. Chris Sale is always the midway Cy Young pick, as shown with his starting three All-Star Games in a row, but he has faded down the stretch every season and still not won the best pitcher award. Verlander continues to lead the best rotation in the league, and while it’s close, I think the veteran will separate himself from the pack.
AL Manager of the Year: Scott Servais, Mariners
A big reason behind the turnaround of the Mariners, Servais has been brilliant in his second season. Seattle is 26-12 in one-run games, and players like Mitch Haniger and Jean Segura have had career turnarounds under the leadership of Servais. No one knows if the Mariners can keep this up in the second half, but if they can and break the longest current playoff drought in major American sports, Servais has done a masterful job.
AL Rookie of the Year: Lou Trivino, Athletics
Trivino has had a brilliant season mostly undetected outside of Northern California. The 26-year-old has a 1.22 ERA, third-best in the league for relief pitchers. Coming out of the 11th round, Trivino was not a highly-touted prospect like Gleyber Torres or Shohei Ohtani, but their injuries have opened the door for the first reliever to win the award since Neftali Feliz of the Rangers in 2010.