We have arrived at the All Star Break and it's crazy how fast time flew by. It seemed like just a few weeks ago the 2017 MLB season began and all sorts of predictions kicked us off. But now we're at the in-between of the first and second half of the season, presenting us the opportunity to look back at some of the most compelling story lines and jaw-dropping statistics from the first half.
So for the first part of this series, let's take a look at five of the biggest surprises and storylines from the first half of the season. Stay tuned tomorrow for some of the biggest statistics from this season's first half.
Something Special is Brewing in Milwaukee
At the start of the season, Milwaukee looked like a fun team to watch as it began its transition into relevancy once again. Many of the pieces that made Milwaukee so compelling were in Triple-A, like Josh Hader and Lewis Brinson. But the team still offered some compelling players to watch in the rotation, bullpen and starting lineup. But even for those with the brightest of expectations for the Brewers, no one could have seen the team at 50 wins and a five and a half game lead over the second-place Chicago Cubs at the All Star Break.
But that's exactly where the Brewers sit now and a lot of credit, Executive of the Year votes included, should go to Milwaukee's General Manager David Stearns. Since he took over the reins with the Brewers, every trade the 32-year-old executive made seems to have worked perfectly for the team. They traded Jonathan Lucroy at this time last year and given a year later Lucroy's stats rank him as one of the worst at his position, the timing worked out perfectly for Milwaukee.
Additionally, the Brewers traded away their two best bullpen arms in Will Smith and Tyler Thornburg over the last year and both will miss the entire 2017 season due to arm injuries. Meanwhile, the team held on to Corey Knebel, who emerged as the team's closer and posted a. 1.70 ERA, 2.44 FIP and 15.94 K/9 across 42 1/3 innings in the first half. The Thornburg trade especially stands out given it landed them Travis Shaw, whose presence has meant everything to this squad.
The 27-year-old third baseman is second in home runs (19), leads the team in wRC+ (138), wOBA (.390), RBIs (65) and is valued at 2.8 fWAR on the season. Milwaukee's offseason signing of Eric Thames also paid off greatly for the organization. Signed to an affordable, multi-year deal, Milwaukee now has a first baseman with a 137 wRC+, 1.7 fWAR, 23 home runs and an outstanding .926 OPS that is right behind Shaw's .938 mark.
The production at the cornier infield spots has been outstanding for the Brewers and things could get even better for their run production and lineup if Jonathan Villar can turn his season around after he posted a 64 wRC+, .278 wOBA and 30 percent strikeout rate in the first half. Pair that with shortstop Orlando Arcia's defense, which largely makes up his 1.1 fWAR, and you have a balanced, productive infield from a playoff contender.
Milwaukee's rotation also deserves plenty of credit. Jimmy Nelson, who some didn't think would stick in the rotation all year, is emerging as the team's ace. He posted a 3.18 FIP, 9.4 K/9 and a 2.9 fWAR across 18 starts in the first half. More importantly, he helps eat up a lot of innings for the Brewers so their offense can get the early lead and then hand the game to Knebel in the ninth. The only reason Nelson isn't the consensus ace is because of 29-year-old Chase Anderson's numbers this year. With a 2.89 ERA, 8.47 K/9 and 2.3 fWAR, Anderson gives the Brewers two front-line starters that they could feel confident about as part of their postseason rotation.
With rumors that Milwaukee has looked into the costs of a Jose Quintana or Sonny Gray trade, this team could be one starting pitcher away from being a serious playoff force and a major concern for the defending champions.
Concerns for the Cubs
A team that many expected to return to the World Series to defend its crown, few things have gone in favor for the curse breakers this season. While fans would gladly trade the 108-year curse coming to an end for a down season the next year, there is still worry in Chicago. A team that sat at 53-35 last season at this time and just two weeks later acquired Aroldis Chapman, now they sit and wonder what type of moves they must make to remain in the playoff chase.
Chicago's issues are spread around, with no specific player or staff member the main culprit behind the team's struggles. Part of the blame lands on the shoulders of the Cubs rotation, who posted the best ERA in baseball last season (2.98) and suddenly have collapsed in 2017 to the tune of a 4.66 ERA. Kyle Hendricks (2.15) and Jon Lester (2.44), who turned in a sub-2.5 ERA in 2016, have seen their ERAs balloon over four this season. Meanwhile, Jake Arrieta's ERA has risen 1.25 points and John Lackey's ERA is up from 3.35 to 5.20.
But the Cubs lineup shares the blame. A year after Chicago had four members of its lineup with a 120-plus wRC+ (Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist and Dexter Fowler), now it has two.
So Chicago pairs the lineup's greater inconsistency with a poor rotation, now they top it off with a defense that collapsed from a 9.1 UZR/150 in 2016 to 4.2 UZR/100 this season. Every little aspect that could go wrong and fail for the defending champions has done exactly that. Postseason star Kyle Schwarber earned a demotion to Triple-A Iowa after his batting average fell below the mendoza line in June. While he is back with the Cubs and hitting near the top of the order, he has much to prove with a sitting 83 wRC+, .302 wOBA and 28.3 percent strikeout rate.
Of course, there have been added storylines along the way. From an investigation to allegations of domestic abuse by Addison Russell to Miguel Montero ripping apart his pitcher publicly and eventually being designated for assignment.
There is still plenty of talent on this roster, but a move is needed. Chicago's lineup will likely look the same on a weekly basis, but the front office must find a front-line starting pitcher who they can plug into the rotation and bring some needed stability and a punch of life. If they fail and the downward spiral continues, this could be a crushing year for the Cubs.
Most Valuable-Rookie of the Year
In the long history of baseball, only twice has a player won the Rookie of the Year Award and Most Valuable in the same year. Fred Lynn did it with the Boston Red Sox in 1975 and Ichiro Suzuki accomplished the feat in 2001 with the Seattle Mariners. It's an exceptionally rare feat that before this season we may not have thought we would see again, but now months later it appears we could see two players accomplish it in 2017.
Aaron Judge is the heavy favorite to do it. Judge broke the Yankees previous record of home runs by a rookie, 29 in 138 games by Joe DiMaggio, with his 30th home run in his 84th game this season. Now he gets to enjoy himself around other All Stars at the Home Run Derby and All Star Game in Miami, before he sets out in the second half of the season with a great opportunity to surpass Mark McGwire's all-time mark of 49 home runs in a season by a rookie.
But Judge is so much more than the home runs. He leads baseball in OPS (1.139), wRC+ (197) and fWAR (5.5). To put that into perspective the next closest qualified hitters hold a 1.058 OPS, 167 wRC+, 4.4 fWAR, so Judge is obliterating the competition. But regression will certainly come for him. While he crushes baseballs at a velocity and power no one can match, his .426 batting average on balls in play and 41.7 percent home run/fly ball rate can't be sustained. But even with regression and a batting average that could sink below .300, Judge will do some historic things this season and offers the best case for MVP and Rookie of the Year we've had since 2001.
Meanwhile Cody Bellinger could repeat the accomplishment in the National League. While he may not hold the stat lines of Judge, Bellinger's power in a shorter sample might be even more impressive. Hitting in a National League and with half his starts coming at Dodger Stadium, not nearly as hitter-friendly as Yankee Stadium, Bellinger has still hit 25 home runs in 292 plate appearances. While Judge carries a HR/PA rate of 12.2, Bellinger comes in at 11.68, something that really has gone unnoticed with all the attention on Judge.
With the Dodgers in perfect position to walk away with an N.L. West crown, a nine-game lead over the Washington Nationals in the National League and his power numbers, Bellinger carries an outstanding case to be the N.L. MVP and Rookie of the Year if he can keep things up over the remainder of the season.
Astros and Dodgers Dominance
When you are able to accomplish something only five teams have done in baseball's history, it speaks to just how dominant your team has been. Which is exactly the case for the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers who each have 60-plus wins at the All Star Break, becoming the sixth and seventh teams to ever do it. It also marked the first time since 1969 that two teams have done it in the same year. Though it is worth sharing that it doesn't always mean World Series success as the New York Yankees are the only team to do it in the last 40 years that won the World Series.
For the Astros, the team's hot first half can be credited in large part to their lineup. They blow away the field in runs scored (527), wRC+ (128), OPS (.855) and Offensive Runs Above Average (109.3). All four marks completely overwhelm the other top lineups, demonstrated by the fact they've score41 runs more than the second highest-scoring team and are 17 points higher in wRC+ than the second-best team.
Contributions come from across the board in Houston, but the three-headed monster of Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and George Springer reign supreme. The trio of young bats each have a wRC+ over 160, a .400-plus wOBA and .960-plus OPS. They are the definition of the perfect top of the order any team could dream of, putting up levels you'd see from an All Star lineup. It's no wonder all three will be a part of the American League lineup in the All Star Game.
If they can add another front-line starter like Quintana or Gray and get ace Dallas Keuchel back quickly for the second half, they will be all set to run through in the second half and have the pathway set for a trip to the World Series. This is a very special team and any baseball fan with MLB.TV must watch the Astros every opportunity they get, because this group will be together for a long time.
Juiced Baseballs and Blisters?
It's the story that nearly every player is being asked at the All Star Break. Whether you're a hitter competing in the Home Run Derby or some of the game's best pitchers, at some point a reporter will ask if you think baseballs are juiced this season.
There certainly seems to be a change. MLB set the record for most home runs in the month of June and with 3,343 home runs across the league so far this year, there's a great chance we see a unprecedented level of home runs this season. We see it with so many different players having breakout seasons in the power department from Justin Smoak, Yonder Alonso and Logan Morrison already setting career-highs in home runs by the All Star Break.
Over at FiveThirtyEight, Rob Arthur dove deep into research with this year's baseballs and found the baseballs are smarter, but more importantly have flatter seams, which is leading to the baseballs carrying further by baseball's own tracking data. FanGraphs and The RInger have also dove into the juiced baseballs and changes in the seams, all leading to a conclusion that the ball has changed and the balls are flying out at an even higher rate than before.
Certainly part of this also is the change in approach over time with hitters. More and more hitters are becoming closer to three-true-outcome players and have no fear of striking out 30-plus percent of the time if it means they hit 35-plus home runs. So naturally strikeouts and home runs are on the rise, but given the rate we are seeing it's hard for anyone but Rob Manfred to deny that the baseballs are juiced this season.
It certainly gives fans even more of what they love, because everyone loves watching baseballs carry out of the yard. But it could come at a significant cost, with multiple pitchers reporting that they've encountered blisters and issues with their nails that they haven't experienced before in their careers. Rich Hill, Marcus Stroman, Johnny Cueto and Brandon Kintzler are all among players on the record with issues for the first time in their careers.
The powers that be in Major League Baseball may not be responsible for it, though it's certainly helpful to baseball's level of interest when you have more home runs and players like Judge with the chance to hit 60-plus. But given the increased number of injuries, it might be in the game's best interest to more serious look into the productions of all the baseballs and if something can be done to prevent this from happening in the future.