The MLB’s Most Interesting Storylines At The Halfway Point


Since we’re at the halfway point, and this is my first MLB column of the season, I thought it’d be fun to pick out my favorite storylines from what has been a rather uneventful season.  Baseball doesn’t change as fast as other sports, and has the longest season out of the other sports.  That must be why the playoffs are so amazing.  Anyways, here’s five of the most interesting storylines as we approach the All-Star break.

The NL Central’s Surprising Mediocrity

Yes, the Cubs started out as the best team in baseball for most of the season, and have an insane run differential, which is in a race for the best of all-time.  Yes, the Cardinals are very talented and keep getting awesome production out of rarely know guys.  And yes, the Pirates have one of the best young cores in baseball.  But all three of these teams have issues, and its holding them back.

Chicago is near the top in every stat, except when you take a deep dive on their bullpen.  The Cubs are either near the bottom or close to average in every stat when it comes to their bullpen.

Looking at ERAs of their relievers, you wouldn’t see too much of an issue.  But the issue lives in FIP, where the majority of Cubs relievers have a line above 4.00.  Thats not great!

Chicago is basically giving up too many home runs, or issuing too many walks late in games.  The fact that practically no one in the bullpen can quit doing this is problematic, and it means that the Cubs have a trade to make.  They need at least one shutdown guy, and a couple other experiment-type players to make this group better.

The Cardinals are mostly in a bind because of the Cubs hot start.  Even with Chicago’s issues, they’re still doing just fine.  They’re up eight games on St. Louis.  The Cardinals haven’t been able to catch up.  Its simple as that.

Matt Carpenter hitting the DL won’t help.  He’s been their most productive player this season, posting a 3.5 WAR.

St. Louis has been okay defensively, but its hard to say that will help them catch the Cubs.  The Cubs were hard to catch out of the gate, and still will be.  The Cardinals just need to keep doing their thing and not collapse, like the 3rd team we’ll address in this section.

The Pirates 8-18 stretch dropped them back not too much in the standings, but far back when it came to confidence.  The Pirates have rebounded since, winning six in a row.  But this is a team with suddenly a lot of rumors around them.  And its going to be something of high interest at the All-Star break.

First, the issue:  Pittsburgh can hit the ball well.  They’re a top ten offense, even with guys like Andrew McCutchen not totally being themselves.  Pitching is where they have struggled, especially with walks.  Francisco Liriano has the 18th highest walk percentage in all of baseball, which is 18th out of 243 players.  Yikes!

Once these walks are issued for Pittsburgh, it seems like they can’t recover.  And then it takes over the entire team, bringing down everyone’s performances.  Thats why the horrible 26 game stretch occurred.

Pittsburgh has questions to answer about themselves.  Andrew McCutchen is one of them.

I think Pittsburgh needs to wait.  Its not like everyone is playing poorly this season.  The offense is fine.  If Pittsburgh wants to gain back lost ground, and make the playoffs, they need to address their rotation first.  Plus, this is a down year for McCutchen.  Trade him at peak value when you suck, whenever that might be.  But not now.  They’re too close still.

The Baltimore Orioles Leading The AL East

Baltimore has been just as lucky as they have been good.  The Orioles have one of the best offenses in baseball, which goes lengths in a season where scoring and pitcher breakdowns have been common.

The reason I doubted this team before the season was their offense, because it was built around power hitters.  But this has been a funky (and boring) year, where pitching has not been dominant, and scoring has.  Thats why Orioles’ hitters have flourished.

The trends of this season have also hurt the Orioles, as they posses one of the worst rotations in baseball.  Chris Tillman has been the only reliable starter, but even he is giving up almost eight hits per nine innings.

However, the Orioles’ bullpen has been able to get the rotation out of disastrous starts.  Baltimore is getting great contributions out of all their relievers.  In fact, three of their top twelve producers via WAR are relievers.  This has saved the Orioles from relying too much on their offense.

Baltimore has been very lucky though, since no one else has been as competitive as them.  They lead Toronto by only two games, but teams like Boston and Tampa Bay should have been much better.  Then again, this is the AL East. Mediocrity reigns, and nothing should ever be surprising.

As long as the season’s trends stay the same, and the AL East remains it’s good old self, Baltimore should be fine.

Jose Ramirez’s Rejuvenation

The Indians have been one of baseball’s biggest surprises, depending on who you talk to.  I had a good feeling about this Indians team at the beginning of the season, though was worried about their outfield and defense.

Defense was their biggest issue last year and coming into the season, and Jose Ramirez was a big reason why.  Playing mostly at shortstop last year, Ramirez posted a DRS of -2.  With Francisco Lindor’s callup, Ramirez has been forced to be moved around the field this season.  Turns out, its the best thing thats happened to him.

Despite being a below average defender in the outfield, Ramirez’s defense has improved in the infield.  Also, he’s hitting!  After hitting .219/.291/.340 last season, Ramirez’s OBP is up to .355 this season.

The reason for Ramirez improving at the plate?  He’s figured out how to hit  sinkers and cutters.  Pitch f/x shows major improvement in Ramirez’s ability to hit those pitches.  All of this has came together for Ramirez, and he’s been an important part of an Indians team thats been through a lot.

Robinson Cano

This was tweeted three days into the season.

Robinson Cano is currently 7th in WAR, based on Baseball Reference’s version of the stat.  In the whole league.

It would take even more improvement from Cano and his team to enter the MVP race.  Part of the reason he’s behind in the race is because of his team.  Seattle started out the season as a good story, and a very fun team to watch, but have slowly fallen back as Houston has lifted off (More on that later.) and as Texas has torn through everyone else.

Cano is batting .311/.367/.550 with 56 RBIs at the halfway mark.  He’s almost hit more home runs this year than he did all of last year.  Cano’s biggest improvement has been in slugging and OPS, where both marks have been raised at least a 100 points.  He’s hitting the ball harder, which is a great sign as he ages.

However, strikeouts are still a major issue for Cano, as he’s already at 56 on the year.  But if I’m the Mariners, I think I’d rather have his vision decline rather than strength as he ages.

The Astros’ Saving Their Season

Houston’s season was off to a really rough start, with the Rangers coming out of the gate hot, and Seattle being a great story.  It really seemed like they were just scared of spotlight not totally being on them.  They’re a young team, so its understandable.

But a 10-1 stretch as the Mariners started to decline turned Houston’s season around, and now they’re 6.5 games back on Texas in the AL West.

Its baseball.  Stuff happens.  But what has led to this Astros’ season overall?

First, Jose Altuve is batting .346 right now, which is pretty good.  Carlos Correa is awesome.  The Astros also smack the ball.  They have six guys on the roster who have hit more than 10 home runs this season.  As we talked about with the Orioles, that goes lengths this season.

Houston is actually very similar to Baltimore, in the sense that they can’t pitch.  The difference is that a bad division has bailed the Orioles out.

Dallas Keuchel has a 5.02 ERA this season after winning the AL Cy Young last season.  First, Keuchel’s velocity on most of his pitches this season has dipped, which is concerning for a guy who’s 28.

Keuchel’s main struggle?  He’s lost his sinker.

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 2.59.04 PM
Stats/photo from Brooks Baseball’s Pitch f/x tool

The top numbers are batting averages (per month of the season) against Keuchel’s sinker in 2015.  The bottom is 2016 (per month of the season).  Guys are hitting his sinker this year, and weren’t last year.  The other problem?  Keuchel’s sinker is his most relied on pitch.  Thats whats led to his high ERA, and super high WHIP.

Even with their ace’s struggles, the Astros have turned their season around because of offense, which has been aplenty in this so-far boring MLB season.