Everything you need to know halfway through the MLB season

Some of the numbers are ridiculous in this season of the home run. Consider these statistics heading into Monday’s action:

• Christian Yelich is on pace for 60 home runs, but that actually undersells his remarkable performance. Because he missed a few games, he is on pace for just 147 games played. If he homers at the same rate for the rest of the season and plays every game, he will become just the sixth player to hit 60 home runs — and the first since Roger Maris in 1961 not named Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa. Not possible? Well, consider that over his past 160 games, Yelich has hit .344/.429/.707 with 56 home runs. He has been slugging at this level for a calendar year now.

• The Minnesota Twins have belted 147 home runs, a season-long pace of 309 home runs. That would destroy the single-season mark of 267, set last season by the New York Yankees.

• Entering Monday, 22 players had at least 19 home runs, a 40-homer pace. If 22 players do get to 40, that would break the single-season record of 17 players from 1996. Only three players hit 40 last season. The home run leaderboard is full of surprising names such as Hunter Renfroe (23), Jorge Soler (21), Ketel Marte (20), Josh Bell (20), Max Kepler (19), Derek Dietrich (18) and Daniel Vogelbach (18).

• Rookie Pete Alonso is second to Yelich with his 27 home runs, so he has a chance to challenge Aaron Judge’s rookie record of 52 and seems like a lock to break Cody Bellinger’s National League record of 39.

Of course, this means somebody is serving up all those home runs. Consider the horror side of the story:

• The Baltimore Orioles are on pace to give up 324 home runs. That’s an average of 36 home runs for each of the nine spots in the lineup. Nolan Arenado led the NL last year with 38 home runs.

• Drew Smyly of the Texas Rangers, trying to come back from Tommy John surgery, picked the wrong year for a comeback. He served up 19 home runs in 51⅓ innings before his release last week. Jerad Eickhoff of the Philadelphia Phillies isn’t far behind, serving up 18 home runs in 58⅓ innings, before landing on the injured list with biceps homeritis.

• Smyly’s rate of 3.33 home runs per nine innings is the worst ever for a minimum of 50 innings. Eickhoff is seventh worst. David Hess is ninth worst. But consider some of the pitchers with fewer innings: Alex Cobb has allowed nine home runs in 12⅓ innings; Edwin Jackson, 12 in 25⅓; and Dan Straily, 22 in 47⅔. Drew Steckenrider allowed nine hits in 14⅓ innings — six of them home runs. Eleven pitchers with at least 10 innings have a higher home run rate than Smyly.

So, home runs — a record-setting amount of them, on pace for 1,000 more home runs than last season and 500 more than previous record set in 2017 — have been the big story of the first half. Because this is baseball, critics have met this onslaught of power with a considerable degree of “get off my lawn” commentary. Back in 2014, everyone was complaining that nobody could hit anymore. Now everyone is complaining that there are too many home runs.

Compare that criticism to what has happened in the NBA, where the number of 3-point shot attempts have increased by more than 50% in just six seasons, from 20 per game in 2013 to 32 per game this past season. It seems the fans and those who cover the league have mostly embraced this trend — in part, because teams that made more 3-pointers went 51-27 in this year’s playoffs. Teams that make more 3-pointers usually win. Teams that hit more home runs usually win. This is the game as played in 2019.

Keep in mind that the overall runs scored per game remain within historical norms at 4.78 per game (the highest since 4.80 in 2007). Yes, all the home runs are mixed in with more strikeouts, fewer singles and fewer stolen bases, and this decline of non-home run action in the game is a reasonable issue to debate. At the same time, whenever I go to a game and the home team hits a home run, the fans all rise and cheer. Home runs aren’t all evil (unless you’re an Orioles fan).

Here are nine other big themes as we hit the halfway mark (all stats through Sunday):

Bullpen blues

As Nationals fans will attest, bullpens are historically bad. The Nationals have a 6.29 bullpen ERA, and the woeful Orioles are at 6.34. No modern bullpen has finished with an ERA above 6.00, and now we might see two teams do it in the same season. But it’s not just bullpens in the mid-Atlantic region that are struggling. Relievers have a 4.50 ERA, while starters have a 4.44 ERA — which would be the first season since 1969 that relievers have a worse ERA than starters.

One theory is that as managers demand more from relievers and less from starters, bullpens are getting stretched too thin. For most of the 2000s, the spread between starters’ ERA and relievers’ ERA hovered between 0.25 runs all the way up to 0.52 in 2012. That season, starters had 4.19 ERA, while relievers were at 3.67.

That also was when we started seeing a high uptick in relievers with high-octane velocity. I think part of this year’s bullpen equation is that batters have become better at hitting high-velocity fastballs — and that’s going to affect relievers more than starters, since most relievers don’t have the deep repertoire of pitches that starters have. This year, in fact, batters are hitting better against pitches of 95-plus mph than they are overall. Back in 2012, their weighted on-base average (wOBA) was 19 points worse against 95-plus:

2019: .248/.333/.409, .321 wOBA (.319 overall)
2018: .241/.324/.377, .309 wOBA (.315 overall)
2017: .245/.329/.394, .315 wOBA (.321 overall)
2016: .247/.322/.381, .309 wOBA (.318 overall)
2015: .242/.315/.370, .303 wOBA (.313 overall)
2014: .235/.307/.336, .291 wOBA (.310 overall)
2013: .240/.310/.354, .297 wOBA (.314 overall)
2012: .233/.311/.352, .296 wOBA (.315 overall)

The Dodgers

The Los Angeles Dodgers begin the week with a 54-25 record, a 110-win pace (or 111, if you prefer to round up). That’s not quite a record-breaking pace like they were on a couple of years ago, until they lost 16 of 17 late in the season; but this year’s team might be even more impressive, given the overall depth of the National League.

Consider that in 2017, six NL teams lost 90-plus games, including the Giants (98) and Padres (91) in the NL West. This year, only the Marlins and Giants are on a 90-loss pace. Putting together this kind of record against a balanced league is a testament to the dominance of the 2019 Dodgers.

Here are the best records after 79 games over the past 10 seasons:

2018: Yankees, 53-26 (finished 100-62, lost in American League Division Series)
2017: Astros, 53-26 (finished 101-61, won World Series)
2016: Cubs/Rangers, 51-28 (Cubs finished 103-58 and won World Series; Rangers finished 95-67 and lost in ALDS)
2015: Cardinals, 51-28 (finished 100-62, lost in NL Division Series)
2014: Athletics, 49-30 (finished 88-74, lost wild-card game)
2013: Pirates, 49-30 (finished 94-68, lost in NLDS)
2012: Rangers, 50-29 (finished 93-69, lost wild-card game)
2011: Phillies, 49-30 (finished 102-60, lost in NLDS)
2010: Yankees, 48-31 (finished 95-67, lost in AL Championship Series)
2009: Dodgers, 50-29 (finished 95-67, lost in NL Championship Series)

So, 10 of the 11 teams played worse after their hot first half, although all 11 reached the playoffs. Barring a surreal turn of events, the Dodgers are going to win their seventh consecutive division title. And I predict they will break the L.A. franchise mark of 104 wins by the 2017 team — and maybe even get to 110 wins. This team is that good — even with a mediocre bullpen that ranks 11th in the majors in ERA and 24th in win probability added. With a better pen, we’d be looking at one of the best teams of all time.

Hyun-Jin Ryu’s amazing start

The Dodgers are so dominant in large part because of their new ace. Hyun-Jin Ryu’s stat line in this year of the long ball is like that pack of baseball cards in a Christmas stocking otherwise filled with coal: 9-1, 1.27 ERA, only six walks and seven home runs in 99 innings.

He has given up just one home run over his past 10 starts, a span of 71⅔ innings. He has allowed more than two runs just once all season and that came in his last start, and two of those were unearned. Since the mound was lowered in 1969, only 10 pitchers have finished with a first-half ERA below 1.50 with a minimum of 75 innings (and three of those guys were relievers). Not that anyone should expect him to maintain a 1.27 ERA, but Ryu’s adjusted ERA+ (for park and league environment) of 335 would shatter the single-season record and top Pedro Martinez’s modern mark of 291 in 2000 (when he had a 1.74 ERA versus a league ERA of 4.91). It has been a half-season for the ages.

The American League is awful

The NL leads interleague play 76-57 (again, through Sunday), which is one way to explain how bad the AL has been. But what we really mean is the Blue Jays, Orioles, Tigers, Royals and Mariners. I thought it would be hard to top 2018, when three AL teams lost 100 games, but look at the projected win-loss record of those five teams based on their current win percentage:

Orioles: 45-117 (two games worse than last season)
Royals: 57-105
Tigers: 57-105
Blue Jays: 60-102
Mariners: 69-93

The Mariners aren’t on pace to lose 100, but they’re trending in that direction, going 23-45 after that 13-2 start. Maybe they don’t all get to 100 losses. FanGraphs projects only the Orioles losing 100 games. But the bottom line? A third of the AL is playing unwatchable baseball right now.

Yankees survive slew of injuries

The Yankees have benefited from the awful AL, surging past Tampa Bay into the AL East lead, even though they seemed to be playing their B team for much of the first half. Through their first 77 games, consider the games missed from this Yankees group: Giancarlo Stanton 70, Miguel Andujar 65, Didi Gregorius 64, Aaron Judge 54, Aaron Hicks 47. That is 300 missed games, or about two full seasons’ worth of games from five players who combined for 146 home runs a year ago.

Others stepped up, however, most notably Luke Voit, Gio Urshela and Cameron Maybin. While the Yankees have cleaned up against the Orioles (10-2), they also played well against the Rays (7-2) and Red Sox (4-1). The schedule gets a little tougher over the next several weeks, however, including 10 games against the Red Sox through Aug. 4 and eight against the Rays.

Defense matters

OK, it’s also mattered, but this is a reminder that even though the average strikeouts per game are up to 8.71, that still means a team has to get about 18 to 19 outs per game with its defense. The top five teams in defensive runs saved:

Dodgers: +97
Astros: +59
Diamondbacks: +51
Twins: +50
Rays: +47

Four of those teams would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, and the Diamondbacks have remained competitive despite losing three of their best players from 2018. On the other end of the list are the Mariners (minus-72), Orioles (minus-56), Mets (minus-55), Nationals (minus-30) and Tigers (minus-29). The Mariners, Orioles and Tigers weren’t going to be good even with decent defense, but the Mets and Nationals certainly have been hurt at times by their defense.

Free-agent blues

All offseason, everyone whined about the lack of action on the free-agent market. Some went further than complaining. Well, here are how the top-10 free agents in total dollars have fared:

• Bryce Harper ($330 million): 35th among NL position players in FanGraphs WAR
• Manny Machado ($300 million): Trending up, but still just 21st among NL positon players
• Patrick Corbin ($140 million): Hot start, but has struggled of late and is 6-5, 3.90 ERA
• Nathan Eovaldi ($67.5 million): Injured, made just four starts
• A.J. Pollock ($60 million): Injured, hit .223 in 28 games
• Andrew McCutchen ($50 million): Out for season with torn ACL
• Yusei Kikuchi ($43 million): 4-5, 5.11 ERA, including 9.00 ERA past six starts
• Zack Britton ($39 million): 2-1, 2.51, 25 SO, 18 BB, 22 H in 32⅓ IP
• J.A. Happ ($34 million): 7-4, 5.23 ERA, 19 HR in 84.1 IP
• Michael Brantley ($32 million): .322/.382/.512, 11 HR, 43 RBI

So far, the only clear “win” for the teams has been Brantley. McCutchen was playing well before his unfortunate injury, and Britton has been reliable despite the high walk rate. Still, as a group, these 10 have been much worse than those from last season’s group. And we wonder why front offices are so reluctant to pay out big money now in free agency?

The National League rookie crop shines again

Last year, the NL gave us Ronald Acuna Jr., Juan Soto, Walker Buehler and Jack Flaherty, among others. Somehow, the NL has come up with another impressive group of rookies: Pete Alonso and Fernando Tatis Jr. lead the way, but we also have starting pitchers Mike Soroka and Chris Paddack, plus Austin Riley, Alex Verdugo, Nick Senzel, Bryan Reynolds, Victor Robles and Keston Hiura (call him back up, Milwaukee!). It’s hard to match the Acuna-Soto-Buehler trio, but this year’s group might have even more depth. The game is trending younger with good reason: The kids can play.

Mike Trout is still superman

Trending upward since 2012. How many ways can we still say he’s the best player in the game? As great as Yelich has been, as great as Bellinger has been, there’s Trout, tied with Bellinger for the MLB lead in FanGraphs WAR and second in Baseball-Reference WAR. He is hitting .307/.466/.642, leading the AL in OBP, SLG, OPS, runs, walks and total bases. He is on pace to established career bests in home runs and RBIs. He could be headed for the fourth 10-WAR season of his career, via Baseball-Reference. That is rarefied territory: Only Babe Ruth (9), Willie Mays (6) and Rogers Hornsby (6) have more than three.

Here’s my advice for those complaining about too many home runs: Tune in to an Angels game every now and then and watch this man play baseball. That will make you forget about yelling at the kids to get off your lawn.

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