Don’t look now, but the MLB season is just about half over. There is still a lot of baseball left to play in 2016, but we’re now at a point where what has happened can’t be dismissed as a small sample size.
While they are far extremes, nobody can really be surprised by the seasons that the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves are having. Other aspects of the season are more surprising.
Here’s a look at the 10 biggest surprises and disappointments from the first half of the MLB season.
Surprise: Baltimore Orioles
The Orioles traded for Mark Trumbo in December. It was arguably the biggest move that Baltimore made in the offseason, and at the time, seemed rather uninspiring.
The team didn’t do a lot else to improve a roster that posted a .500 record and finished well out of playoff contention last season. Maybe 2016 would bring some fringe Wild Card competition for the Orioles but nothing more, right?
Not quite. Baltimore has been one of the American League’s best teams all season. It currently sits atop the American League East, nursing a solid 5.5-game lead over the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays.
Chris Davis and Adam Jones both have decent first half numbers now, but have been plagued at times by uneven play. Manny Machado has been the Orioles’ catalyst, putting up an MVP-caliber first half.
Trumbo has backed up Machado nicely. He’s helped the cause of his team, pounding out a MLB high 23 home runs with a .562 slugging percentage.
Unlike past years, he hasn’t been a pure masher either. Trumbo has backed up his power numbers with a .282 batting average and .332 OBP.
Not bad for an uninspiring acquisition.
Disappointment: Division Races
Baltimore is not the only team with a comfortable division lead.
The Cleveland Indians are six games up on the Kansas City Royals in the American League Central. The Texas Rangers are nine clear of the Houston Astros in the American League West.
The National League isn’t much better. The Washington Nationals are 5.5 games ahead of the Miami Marlins in the East. The Cubs are 11 up on the St. Louis Cardinals in the Central while the San Francisco Giants hold a six-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the West.
There is obviously a lot of baseball left to be played. But right now, it looks like the exciting playoff races will come exclusively from the Wild Card chases in each league.
Surprise: Cleveland Indians
Riding a 12-game winning streak, the Indians are the hottest team in baseball. As such, it’s easy to get sucked into a recency bias. But the Tribe’s starting pitchers (Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar and Josh Tomlin) make Cleveland a team to be taken seriously.
Where is the weak spot in the Indians rotation? pic.twitter.com/LMZJypbCtO— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) June 30, 2016
If we’re being picky, Tomlin’s strikeouts could be a bit higher and Salazar’s walks could be much lower. But really, that is just being picky. This is an exceptional top-to-bottom starting rotation.
A team that can send a good starting pitcher out every day is not prone to long losing streaks. With those starters, the Indians have a chance to win every game.
With that, it’s hard to see Cleveland blowing a rather significant division lead. If it does get to the playoffs, that pitching makes the Indians a serious threat for a deep run.
Disappointment: Arizona Diamondbacks
For the second straight year, a team in the National League West made a big splash in the offseason, seemingly in an attempt to break the monopoly that the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants have atop the division.
For the second straight year, it’s been a failure. Much like the San Diego Padres in 2015, the Diamondbacks have not gotten on track in 2016.
The injury to A.J. Pollock hurt, but it hasn’t been the only problem. Arizona has just underwhelmed in 2016. Paul Goldschmidt has good numbers now, but struggled early. The same can be said for Zack Greinke, who’s now dealing with a potential back injury.
If Greinke’s injury turns out to be remotely significant, Arizona’s pitching is in a lot of trouble. Thanks to the poor performances of Shelby Miller and Patrick Corbin, the D-Backs pitching rotation already has virtually no depth. If Greinke is out of the mix, good luck.
On top of that, while Arizona sports a more than respectable 23-17 road record, it is 13-28 at home. The only team worse than that are the Braves. Not exactly good company to keep in 2016.
Meanwhile, the Giants lead the NL West, the Dodgers are in a Wild Card spot, and the Diamondbacks are well out the outside looking in. One day, one or both of those two teams will be unseated by another NL West rival. But if the Padres and Diamondbacks have shown us anything these two years, it won’t come via a quick fix.
Surprise: Steven Wright
Some facts about our 2016 American League ERA leader, Steven Wright.
He entered the 2016 season with a 3.95 career ERA. Not terrible, but certainly not great. He accrued that 3.95 ERA in only 107 innings in the Majors. That’s roughly half a season for a full-time starting pitcher.
Wright isn’t exactly a young phenom who’s finally putting it all together. No, he’s a 31-year-old who’s spent the better part of a decade bouncing around the Indians and Red Sox Minor League systems. This year, he’s been anything but a Minor League journeyman.
Wright is ahead in the American League’s ERA race and may even be starting the All-Star Game in his native Southern California.
Not many people would have predicted that at the beginning of the season.
Disappointment: Minnesota Twins
In 2015, the Twins were one of the sport’s biggest surprises with an 83-79 mark. With a young nucleus, the future seemed bright in Minnesota. Things have changed a lot in the season’s first three months.
The Twins have baseball’s worst record. Even below the Los Angeles Angels, who have also had a bitterly disappointing season. Even worse than the Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres, all of whom entered the 2016 season in clear rebuilding modes.
Minnesota has had some decent offensive contributions, but the pitching has been abysmal. Twins’ starters have the worst ERA in baseball, while the relievers are only marginally better at 27th overall.
This may still be a team to pay attention to in the coming years. There is a lot of young talent in Minnesota. Unfortunately, most of that is on offense. If the Twins don’t spend time trying to significantly improve the pitching, 2017 may not be a heck of a lot better.
Surprise: Return of the long ball
The home run has been on decline for the better part of the last decade.
Average home runs by MLB teams over the last 10 years pic.twitter.com/Se9MVs6q5d— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) June 29, 2016
This season, the average Major League team has played in 77 games and hit 88 home runs. Extrapolated out to a full season, that would be an average of 185 home runs per team. Mind you, we’re just getting into the summer, which tends to be more home run friendly than the season’s opening months.
It also goes slightly beyond just 2006.This MLB season is actually producing long ball numbers on par with that we saw in the heart of the Steroid Era.
“Back in 2001, Barry Bonds blasted a record 73 home runs. Sammy Sosa hit 64. Luis Gonzalez hit 57, Alex Rodriguez hit 52, and three others hit 49,” per David Schoenfield, ESPN. “All told, 41 players hit 30-plus home runs, and 13 regulars posted an OPS above 1.000. That’s a lot of offense. Now, get this: We’re on pace to see more home runs in 2016 than 2001.”
What’s happening? That’s anyone’s guess, though the pitching numbers certainly aren’t down.
It could be the use of substances — banned or otherwise. This season has already had a handful of players suspended for positive drug tests. Maybe some are gaming the system.
Sabermetrics also might have a part in this. Newer stats tend to favor guys who hit for big power, even if it means striking out a lot.
Whatever it is, the balls are flying out of the parks, and if history is any indicator, it’s not going to slow down in the second half.
Disappointment: Chicago White Sox
The South Siders were pretty busy this offseason, landing Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie to improve the infield. In this, Chicago’s 39-39 record is certainly disappointing.
The way it’s happened is more noteworthy. The White Sox were 23-10 at one point this season. Granted, hot starts don’t always mean playoff spots. But a team that started 23-10 shouldn’t be struggling to maintain a .500 record at the season’s halfway point.
That can’t happen. Jose Abreu can’t have only 11 home runs this deep into the season. Even with 22 home runs, Todd Frazier shouldn’t be struggling to maintain a .200 batting average or .300 OBP.
If Chicago is going to compete for a playoff spot, the bats will need to get a lot better. Right now, it looks like another lost season for the White Sox. Given the start that this team enjoyed, it’s incredible to be making that declaration before July 1.
Surprise: Houston Astros
On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, we have the Astros. Houston started the season in horrific fashion.
On May 2, the Astros lost, falling to 8-18. Houston won the next two games for its first winning streak of the season. On May 26, Houston finished a three-game winning streak, the first of the year.
A little more than month later, the Astros completed a sweep against the Angels to move to a solid 42-37.
At one point, the Astros looked as good as done. Now, Houston is only one-half game out of a Wild Card spot.
The Astros have one of the American League’s most-talented rosters. If the team qualifies for the postseason, Houston will be a tough draw for any potential playoff opponent.
Disappointment: Los Angeles Angels
One of Houston’s division rivals, on the other hand, has been consistently terrible. This is a particularly vexing issue as the Angels have baseball’s best player in Mike Trout. So far, the Halos haven’t exactly taken advantage of his immense talents.
Are the Angels wasting the prime years of Mike Trout? pic.twitter.com/W4G87iXJnu— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) June 30, 2016
Admittedly, there are a few decent records in there. But when you have Mike Trout, you need to do better than one playoff sweep in five years.
We’ll be nice and say that the pitching in Anaheim is below average. The Angels’ lineup is razor thin. Outside of Trout, Kole Calhoun and Albert Pujols, Yunel Escobar is the biggest threat by a comfortable margin.
What’s worse is that this is not a team built for the future. With players like Albert Pujols and Jered Weaver on the roster, we are in the midst of Los Angeles’ competitive window.
Good luck using “competitive window” and “32-47” in the same sentence while keeping a straight face. Unfortunately, it’s true. With one of baseball’s worst farm systems, the future doesn’t look a heck of a lot better.