Now Is The Time To Evaluate The MLB

Baseball is a complete crapshoot.  Look at the past four or five World Series winners…  How many of those teams were really the best in the league that year?  Maybe Chicago last season??

In 2015, the freaking Mets and Royals played in the World Series.  At this time that season, St. Louis was far and away the best team in baseball.  The Mets weren’t even leading their division.

In 2014, Kansas City wasn’t leading their division, nor was San Francisco.  The A’s were tearing the league up, and look at how their season ended.

Baseball’s about underdogs.  It’s about stupid stuff happening and luck going your way.  That’s why, even at the halfway point, we can’t take anyone seriously.

The 2017 season has been a little wonky so far.  Milwaukee is leading the NL Central.  The Cubs suck.  Arizona, the Dodgers, and Colorado are fighting for ground out West.  Nobody looks ultra-impressive in the AL Central as Cleveland is still awaking from their World Series coma.  Dudes like Luke Morrison, Eric Thames, Justin Smoak and Scott Schelber (You just thought to yourself “Who?, Who?, and who?) are in the top ten in home runs hit.  The Nationals haven’t been obliterated by injuries yet.  The Phillies suck (Oh wait, that was supposed to happen).  Yeah, it’s been a little weird!  Lets sort it out with some guiding questions…

How do we make sense of the AL Central?

As I said above, Cleveland just had to wake up.  Since June hit the Indians have turned it around.  The team’s batting average rocketed up 39 points since June began, going from .241 to .280 overall.  They got on base more, and put the ball in play 25% more of the time.

The pitching was there for the most part.  Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco have been great like they’re supposed to.  This isn’t last year’s pitching staff though.  Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin have struggled immensely, and Danny Salazar is hurt again.  Mike Clevinger has stepped in though, pitching well in 11 starts (3.00 ERA!) and striking out a ton of dudes.

Though Cleveland is on top here, a dangerous spot in a flukey sport, I’d want to be in their position.  They haven’t reached their peak yet.  June was their wake-up call, and the performance has continued into July.  Even with the Twins lurking, I’d still be content with Cleveland.

Minnesota is interesting though.  I’ve doubted them forever, waiting for all the young guys to have their breakout year, and for them to win at least 85 games and make the playoffs.

We’re there.

The AL is terrible, and the Twins, though at an average 45-43 record, can make this the year.  Joe Mauer is hitting, which should be a good omen no matter how good or bad the Twins are.  Brian Dozier’s had a regression year, which was expected, but is still contributing with a .750 OPS.  Miguel Sano, Eddie Rosario, Max Kepler and Robbie Grossman are all hitting well.  Byron Buxton can’t hit still, but is leading the league in defensive WAR, and is a massive part of the Twins’ top ten defense.

Pitching is still holding back the Twins however.  It’s gotten better though.  I mean, Ervin Santana is an ace all the sudden, and an AL Cy Young candidate.  Kyle Gibson, Hector Santiago, Phil Hughes and Adalberto Mejia have been expectedly terrible in the rotation.  I shouldn’t include Mejia; he’s young and will get better.  But this group of pitchers wasn’t expected to do much and they haven’t, keeping the Twins average.

The Twins need a run, because Cleveland’s ready to pull away.  The Royals are lingering, but I don’t see that team getting much better.

What’s wrong with the Cubbies?

After watching Cleveland turn it around, I’m confident the Cubs can do the same.  It’s not like their numbers are bad.  Sure, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber have struggled.  But Schwarber was hurt last year; it’s not like the Cubs miss his bat.  Russell’s only batting 10 points worse than he did last year so far, so that can’t be the main reason for the rough start.

The pitching has regressed.  No one has an ERA below 3.75; Jon Lester is close, and might have been within a couple points had he not allowed (but not earned) 10 runs in the first inning on Sunday against Pittsburgh.  The Cubs have been so desperate for consistent pitching that Mike Montgomery has started six games lately, giving up 0,2,3,3,4 and 7 runs in those respective games.  The Cubs have only capitalized once on his good outings, a win against San Diego on June 21st.  Still, Montgomery isn’t the missing piece.

This team is too good to have below-average pitching bring them down.  It’s not a terrible rotation, but it’s also not great.  Maybe Jose Quintana can help them out?? (More on that later)

I hate not having an answer, but the Cubs are a tough case.  It’s worth mentioning that Chicago ranks 25th in Cluster Luck, a stat I’ve used since I launched the site.  Essentially, Chicago isn’t getting any lucky breaks…  no big innings and a large lack of hits being clustered.

That is… pretty much whats wrong with the Cubs, and it’s actually an encouraging sign for the 2nd half of the season.  They should get luckier, and if the pitching improves, that could be a good formula.  But can they catch up in the division?

With Milwaukee in first place, wait, WHAT?

The Brewers are in first place???

Milwaukee has been quite ignored so far this season, and with good reason.  This is a really weird team, held together by 3-4 solid players, a sketchy rotation, an average defense and an average bullpen.

It helps that their division is terrible; the Brewers are currently the only team above .500 in the NL Central.  As I said above, Chicago just needs to wake up.  It’s not like Milwaukee is super talented.  Guys like Manny Pina and Hernan Perez are having good years with large sample sizes.

However, like Minnesota, Milwaukee could be onto something here.  Domingo Santana is batting .291/.384/.500 with a 2.1 WAR, easily the best season of his young career.  Orlando Arcia is living up to the hype after a tough rookie year; he’s only 22.

Milwaukee is also getting good veteran contributions.  Eric Thames is having one of the most unprecedented seasons ever, having hit 23 home runs after spending time in Korea.  Travis Shaw has a 3.0 WAR with 61 RBIs.  Ryan Braun at 33 years old has a OPS+ of 126.

This is concerning for the future though.  The Brewers can’t rely on Braun for the next few years.  Shaw is reaching 30 and has probably peaked.  There’s no way Thames can top this.

This year feels very flukey.  The Brewers are 3rd in cluster luck, and with the Cubs waiting, Milwaukee’s under-appreciated season will probably remain ghostly.

That being said, Milwaukee can stay afloat.  It’s not a team I would trust in the playoffs; Zach Davies, their ace, has a ERA of 4.90, and would you really trust guys like Chase Anderson or Jimmy Nelson on the mound in an elimination game in October?  But, the Brewers are really fun, and it’s good for a youngish team like this to experience a surprise season.

Is St. Louis’ and San Francisco’s control of the decade over?

PECOTA came in at 76 wins for the Cardinals at the beginning of the season.  I gawked at it.  It was way too low.

At the halfway point, the Cardinals are projected for a tally just above that at 79, which is not a great spot to be at.

Winning 10 of the last 15 helped.  In the past month their numbers as a team have ticked up.

The Cardinals fit the NL Central perfectly: A team waiting for a spark or a team that’s in a surprising position.

That’s why I wouldn’t give up on them.  Milwaukee is a false alarm, and while the Cardinals probably aren’t gonna surpass the Cubs (That is, if it turns around in Chi-town), it’s still a good team.  St. Louis’ problems aren’t major.  The pitching staff is still good (minus Adam Wainwright, who’s age and injuries might be catching up to him).  Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn and Mike Leake all have respectable ERAs.  The bullpen is average and ranks considerably behind Milwaukee and Chicago, but that’s fixable with one trade.

St. Louis’ issues aren’t super noticeable.  They’re bad at the little things.  They’re 23rd in baserunning runs (via Baseball Prospectus) and have little defensive presence behind Yadier Molina and their pitchers (pointed out by Jerry Crasnick of ESPN here).  They also struggle late in games: The team has a .202 batting average in those situations, and have played 56 such games (An amazingly high number).  St. Louis grounds into the 9th most double plays in the MLB too.

Offensively there’s holes…  Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty have not performed as expected.  Aledmys Diaz has been in and out of the minors.  Matt Carpenter might be over the hill at age 31.

There’s been a lack of consistency with the Cardinals, but that can be attributed to some bad luck.  Looking over the numbers, very few real blemishes stand out.  Grichuk’s slash line, Diaz’s slugging.  However, if you pay attention to the OPS+ of the Cardinals, there are outliers.  Molina, Diaz, and Piscotty OPS+ all fall below 100, which is league average.  The rest of the team’s is well above.  OPS+ accounts for the ballpark, meaning that stats can be inflated or deflated based on how small or big a park is.  For Molina, Diaz and Piscotty, who are all around or better than league average for batting average, it means that their hits would be going farther at all other parks.  The fact that the Cardinals play at Busch Stadium coupled with Molina, Diaz and Piscotty’s inability to get extra base hits is what’s bringing the Cardinals down.

It’s starting to turn around, and these problems are extremely small and fixable.  I wouldn’t give up on the Cardinals yet, but if games are consistently lost between the All-Star Break and July 31st, then the run of the 2010s for St. Louis could be over.

The Giants, meanwhile, are a different story.  Brandon Crawford has been putrid.  They never figured out that 3rd outfield spot (There’s been dudes I’ve never heard of out there, and they aren’t producing).  The pitching in general has been a mess; the lowest ERA in the current rotation is a 4.51 by Johnny Cueto.  No one is above league average in ERA+.  Madison Bumgarner’s presence is sorely missed, but even him pitching 15+ times wouldn’t make this team substantially better.

After a spending spree in the offseason, the bullpen has also failed to improve.  Mark Melancon, their $60 million man, got hurt… he wasn’t all that great even prior to the injury (96 ERA+).  Overall it’s average, but the Giants need all the contribution they can get.

This season wasn’t totally unexpected though.  This rotation was volatile; there’s a lot of meltdown-prone guys in there.  Batters are also getting up there in age: Belt, Crawford, Span and Pence are all 30 or older.  The Giants aren’t hitting the ball hard either.  They rank dead last in hard hit percentage, and thats evident by their lackluster OPS pluses: 68 for Crawford and 76 for Pence.

This team won three World Series in five years.  It was quite a run.  But this latest reload hasn’t worked, and will push the Giants to sell later in the month.

On the Jose Quintana trade…

I mentioned the Cubs were desperate up top, but I never thought it’d come to this.

Quintana’s great despite the down year.  He’s been on the market for awhile as the White Sox continue to rebuild, which should have lowered his value.  The White Sox don’t need anymore top prospects (If I’m a Cubs fan, I am pissed) after the Chris Sale and Adam Eaton trades in the offseason.  Yet, here they cashed in again.

This trade feels like it took place two weeks too early.  As I said above, the NL Central’s crappiness makes it an extremely versatile place.  The Brewers could fall apart at any time.  St. Louis is just getting by.  If you’re the Cubs, why not wait to see what happens?  Why not wait for yourselves to turn around?

Two weeks isn’t a ton of time, but this is baseball, and slumps and streaks happen.  What if we got to July 31st and the Cubs are soaring into first without Quintana?

The counter is that, as the deadline gets closer, Quintana’s value shoots up due to the more starts he pitches and the increased interest from around the league.  But still, do the Cubs really not believe in themselves or Milwaukee?

Quintana brings some stability to their rotation, and gives them another guy they can trust on the mound in the playoffs.  But giving up two top prospects (Especially to an already-loaded team when you’ve dealt almost all of your best kids in the past, but hey, thats what it takes to win a ring!) for someone they may not need seemed a little unnecessary at the moment.