Well, that certainly flew by.
If you can’t be bothered to look up from your rack of ribs or plant-based red hot, just a gentle reminder that Major League Baseball’s season has, for all practical purposes, touched the halfway point. As the country marks its independence, 13 teams have played at least 80 games, some as many as 82. Has your team fulfilled its lockout-mandated five-game intra-division series yet? If so, congratulations. If not, well, the summer may drag just a bit more.
Anyhow, it’s more than mathematically feasible to project halfway numbers over a full season, far past the folly of early-May “on pace for” concepts and worth pondering just what remarkable or ignominious feats – individual or team – are within reach.
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Much of the heavy lifting is done. With that in mind, USA TODAY Sports examines the eight projected numbers to watch over the second half:
118: Yankees victories
Silly, you say? Not so silly if you say it.
We’re past the point of wondering how “real” this Yankee team is, and far closer to AL East coronation and raising comparisons, without regret, to the sacrosanct but also whatever ’98 Yankees. These Yankees are 58-22, just two games back of the ’98 squad’s pace, and ahead of the 116-game, record-setting canter of the 2001 Mariners.
It is not so much the overall record but the numbing consistency that gets us: Winning 21 of 26 series, splitting three more (and losing a one-game one-off at Houston). Going 15-6 in April, 19-9 in May, 22-6 in June. Getting virtually the same ERA (3.19, 3.32, 3.35) from mid-rotation starters Jordan Montgomery, Jameson Taillon and Luis Severino. Leading the AL in both home runs and slugging, but also WHIP and pitchers’ strikeouts.
Know that they might sag, but give them their roses. They may just be getting started…
59: Aaron Judge home runs
And that would put him shoulder to shoulder with his middle-of-the-lineup pal, Giancarlo Stanton, as the only men to hit that many homers since 2001 when, um, Sammy Sosa hit 64 and Barry Bonds a record 73.
We all know how that went down, but Judge hitting so many homers would take on even more significance than matching Stanton as ostensible Clean Kings of the post-drug testing era. Consider the offensive environment in which Judge has performed:
Leaguewide slugging and OPS are .396 and .707, the lowest level since 2014. You’d have to go back to 1992 to find the next season producing such a feeble collective OPS.
The baseball and its (lack of) flight has been a constant source of concern, less so since the weather warmed up. Still, Judge smacked nine homers in the season’s first 30 days, a period we’ll now mark as a modern, perhaps temporary Dead Ball Era.
And yes, the home run rate is down to 1.08 per team game, lowest since 2015 and a 14% drop since 2017, when Stanton slugged his 59 homers for the Miami Marlins, earning a trade to the Yankees months later.
Naturally, the second half of this feat may prove much more difficult, though the weather will only get warmer and the support in the Yankee lineup (Anthony Rizzo: 44-homer pace) should stay strong. If so, we may not see Judge in the Bonds convo, but a run at Babe Ruth (60) and Roger Maris (61) as Yankee single-season homer champ is certainly within reach.
4: AL East teams in the playoffs
There’s a lot we may come to loathe or love about MLB’s expanded playoffs, though the tincture of time may merely regulate us to odd outcomes and the occasional mediocre team elbowing its way in. And this inaugural season of the 12-team format provides a doozy: Three wild-card teams all hailing from one division.
Call them coastal elites if you must, but there’s no East Coast bias involved in the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Rays positioning themselves to join the Yankees in the postseason. Heck, this outcome would’ve played out last year, too, had a third wild card been available to accommodate the 91-win Blue Jays.
And in 2022, there’s nothing resembling a 90-win Seattle team to threaten the AL East quartet. Sure, the Twins/Guardians runner-up might be a threat, but both teams seem perfectly flawed enough to create a battle royale for an 87-win division crown, not threaten any of the others for a wild-card slot. And should the almost-.500 White Sox turn it around, they’ll have a lot of say in this derby, with 14 (Guardians) and 16 (Twins) games left against the cream of the Central, sufficient time to drag the other two back to earth.
5: Consecutive* Astros AL West titles
* – full-season edition.
Given that the 29-31 Astros made it to Game 7 of the 2020 ALCS, there’s little to dissuade us from declaring Houston the unchallenged ruler of the AL West since 2017. And this season is shaping up particularly ugly.
So much for earnest challenges from Seattle and Anaheim. The Mariners, despite the makings of a solid rotation and a budding superstar in Julio Rodriguez, are 13 ½ games out of first and hopefully wondering if Years 5-6 of the Jerry Dipoto-Scott Servais regime are worth this kind of stability. The Angels are 37-44, have lost 15 of 25 since firing Joe Maddon and are closer to Shohei Ohtani’s free agency than they are concocting a viable farm system.
And more than $500 million in offseason spending still can’t elevate the Rangers – already 13 ½ games out – to .500. They’ve also lost eight of 11 to the Astros, so forget about the “Silver Boot” as a consolation prize.
The emergence of sluggers Yordan Alvarez and Kyle Tucker as All-Star caliber performers and Jeremy Peña as a competent replacement for Carlos Correa keep the Astros a lap ahead of their divisional field. Justin Verlander’s return as an ace – taking significant pressure off Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy – makes them a strong bet to reach their sixth consecutive ALCS.
106: Reds losses
Welcome to Cincy’s first 100-loss season since 1982 – or, when club president Phil Castellini was 12 years old.
Now, he’s the club’s chief operating officer and until further notice will be best known as Bob’s Son and also the guy who dared fans to ask, “Where are you gonna go?” after strip-mining the roster in the offseason.
Oh, it seems like a generation ago, but the 2021 Reds finished 83-79, a nearly identical pace to their 31-29, pandemic-playoffs performance in 2020. Yet this winter, they let Nick Castellanos walk, traded Sonny Gray, traded Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez, gifted Wade Miley to the division rival Cubs and cried poverty, or something, in the meantime.
Unsurprisingly, the club started 3-22 and while they won’t be that ghastly, they’re now a season-high 24 games below .500. Not in the darkest days of Bryan Price, or Jerry Narron, or Dave Miley or Russ Nixon has the club been this bad. At least we know how top club officials will feel once a trade-deadline purge that will likely include pitchers Luis Castillo and Tyler Mahle is complete.
5: 200-inning pitchers
It’s just where we are in the development and usage of pitchers, mixed with the effects of three pandemic-afflicted seasons and a 99-day lockout. Yet it’s jarring, nonetheless: Only Sandy Alcantara, Aaron Nola, Miles Mikolas, Max Fried and Martin Perez are on pace to pass baseball’s most nominal metric for pitching endurance.
Starting pitcher length has been in freefall for decades, but it’s particularly wild to consider that in 2019, the last unaffected season but also one undeniably laced with a juiced baseball, 15 players topped 200 innings. Naturally, baseball is cyclical, and perhaps teams will rethink the wisdom of how they develop pitchers, how many they allow to face opposing batters three times and also the wisdom of utilizing “openers” at the expense of managing a 13-pitcher staff the rest of the week.
For now, however, cherish the horses we have left – all five of them.
4: Pitchers who average 100 mph
And that would equal last year’s high in the seven-year history of Statcast data.
As the outer limits of velocity continue to be reached, congrats to Minnesota’s Jhoan Duran, San Francisco’s Camilo Doval, Cleveland’s Emmanuel Clase and the Yankees’ Aroldis Chapman, who all average more than 100 mph on their top pitch (in Chapman’s case, it’s classified as a sinker and not a four-seam fastball). Does velocity correlate with success? Given that Duran (46 strikeouts in 35 innings) and Clase (0.82 WHIP, 19 saves in 21 chances) have had All-Star caliber campaigns, absolutely.
Chapman, a seven-time All-Star who has been ineffective this season, was nearly alone on this leaderboard in 2017, joined only by Trevor Rosenthal’s 100.5 mph sinker. In 2021, Clase, Chapman, Jordan Hicks and Brusdar Graterol all topped 100 with one (or, in Clase’s case, more than one) offering.
It remains an exclusive club, but the baseline only figures to keep going up.
2: First-time MVPs
Mostly, this entry is to illustrate that Judge, Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado have zero MVPs among them. That should change this year.
Judge merely has to stay upright and swat the occasional ball out of the yard to put his first trophy on the shelf, an honor many Yankee fans will feel is overdue after he was edged out for the 2017 AL MVP by Jose Altuve, who played on a team riddled with a cheating problem.
It’s more startling that neither Machado nor Arenado have claimed MVPs – and right now they seem primed to finish 1-2 in the NL race.
Machado trails a trio of Cardinals in NL WAR, but his 4.0 mark, his .324 batting average and .935 OPS – second only to St. Louis’ Paul Goldschmidt – all come with the added narrative that ostensible franchise shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. will sit out until August after breaking his wrist. While Machado is a five-time All-Star, finished third in MVP voting in 2020 and sports a $300 million contract, he remains strangely underrated. Maybe that will end.
As for Arenado? He has the NL MVP ballot covered, finishing third, fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth at various points between 2015 and 2019 in Colorado. He was an All-Star and Gold Glover in his first year as a Cardinal, but looks back to his dominant self this year, hitting for the cycle and then homering twice in recent back-to-back games. Right now, the NL bWAR leaderboard goes Goldschmidt and Cardinals teammate Tommy Edman (4.3), Arenado (4.1) and Machado (4.0).
Who do you like to finish atop that heap come October? We’ll take the third basemen as a paired entry.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB on July 4: Second-half numbers to watch at baseball’s midway point