The first half of the MLB season is finally over. As we head into the All-Star break, here are five of the biggest first half storylines:
Let’s get this one out of the way. I know Andrew Benintendi is having a solid rookie campaign, but the hulking Judge already has the Rookie of the Year Award locked up. The only question that remains is whether he will do enough in the second half to hold off Mike Trout for this year’s AL MVP.
People have probably heard it a million times from broadcasters, pundits, and fans, alike, but this was a player who was almost written off due to his September struggles in 2016. After seeing their first sample of Judge in the latter stages of the season, many experts thought that he had a major hole in his swing and that he would not become a productive MLB player. Most prospect rankings even put outfield-prospect Clint Frazier ahead of Judge within the Yankees’ system, going as far as to predict that Judge would spend more time in the minors this year than he would in the majors. So far, he has proven everyone (myself included) wrong.
The Struggling Chicago Cubs
After finally ending their historic championship drought, the Cubs have had a surprising turn back to mediocrity in 2017. After losing only Dexter Fowler, albeit a solid leadoff bat, many of those who enjoyed prolific 2016 campaigns have underwhelmed through July. The starting rotation, specifically Jake Arrieta and John Lackey, have had nowhere near the same success they did last season. Kyle Schwarber struggled so much that he was recently demoted to AAA for a brief stint. Kris Bryant, last year’s NL MVP, did not even do enough to make the NL All-Star team.
Fortunately for the former “lovable losers,” they play in the most mediocre division in baseball and thus, they are still well within striking distance of the playoffs. They are not, however, the powerhouse in the National League that they were last year, having been clearly surpassed by the Dodgers, the Nationals, the Diamondbacks, and arguably the Rockies and the Brewers. Unless they really pick it up in the second half, expect them to make quick exit from the postseason or even miss it entirely
Despite his team’s struggles over the past two seasons, the Pittsburgh star is finally back to his old self. After a very underwhelming 2016 and a horrendous start in 2017, McCutchen has been the most prolific hitter in baseball over the past two months. He has rocketed up the hitting rankings, bringing his average from a paltry .200 all the way back to its current .295.
While this performance jump has certainly helped to keep his team somewhat afloat going into the All-Star break, it has also significantly boosted his trade stock. The Pirates, who are likely to be sellers at the deadline, may benefit from such a sudden rise back to form for the longtime Pittsburgh center fielder.
The NL West
Despite the horrendous season surrounding the San Francisco Giants (a perennial playoff contender), the NL West has quickly become baseball’s best division. With the Dodgers dominating baseball and camping atop most MLB power rankings, newcomers like the Rockies and the Diamondbacks are making a splash, as well.
In addition to the most successful teams, the division plays host to some of baseball’s most exciting stars. While household names like Cory Seager, Clayton Kershaw, Paul Goldschmidt, and Nolan Arenado continue to produce, lesser known players have also broken out. Charlie Blackmon (OF, Rockies) has become arguably the best center fielder in baseball other than Mike Trout. Jake Lamb (3B, Diamondbacks) has been a major run producer in the middle of the Arizona lineup and Cody Bellinger (OF, Dodgers) cannot stop hitting home runs. Not only has the NL East quickly become the best division in baseball, but also it has become the most intriguing.
The Three True Outcomes
The first half of this season has undoubtedly been one to remember. New stars have been on the rise (Judge, Bellinger), established stars have continued to produce (Harper, Trout, Stanton, McCutchen), and home runs have been hit at a record pace. If there can be one major criticism, however, it is the fact that hitters are also striking out and walking more than ever. Nearly a third of the time during the 2017 season, an at bat ends in either a walk, a strikeout, or a home run, leaving baseball largely devoid of high-pressure moments with runners on base.
I will be the first to admit that home runs are great, but the game is most exciting when pitchers have to work with runners on and attempt to wiggle out of potential trouble. With all the hype surrounding launch angles and hitting the ball in the air, teams score a large portion of their runs by virtue of the long ball. And at this point, it seems as though getting runners on and driving them in with base hits and gap-shots has become a lost art.