As we approach the All-Star break — which is well past the halfway point of the 2018 season — we find that half of baseball is playing to form, and the other half is a fun mess.
In the AL, the Red Sox, Astros, and Yankees are on pace for more than 100 wins, a level that has never been reached by three teams in one circuit. The three have all but locked up playoff berths, with the remaining tension being which of the first two will fall into the wild card and be a -200 favorite to advance playing at home with its ace on the mound. (The Astros have just a three-game lead in the West, but Fangraphs gives them a 97% chance of winning it.) The Indians, torn asunder by a bullpen that has gone from best in the game to worst, nevertheless are cruising to an AL Central crown because their division is the worst in baseball history, playing at a .349 clip against teams outside the division. That’s an entire division playing like a 105-loss team over a season.
The one AL playoff spot somewhat up for grabs is the second wild card. The Mariners are a shocking 57-35 thanks to a 26-11 record in one-run games and a 38-13 mark in games decided by one or two runs. That’s probably not sustainable in the second half, but the AL lacks challengers. The Angels, despite Mike Trout having perhaps the best overall season since peak Babe Ruth, has been once again let down by the health and effectiveness of his teammates. Only the A’s are within six games of the Mariners heading into the break. Maybe Moneyball — the A’s have the lowest payroll in baseball — isn’t dead yet. The A’s have surprisingly put the best defense in the AL on the field, despite bringing back most of the personnel from last year’s middling defense.
The NL has been a lot more strange. Ten of the league’s 15 teams are at or above .500 heading into the break. None of the preseason favorites, the Nationals, Cubs, and Dodgers, are leading their divisions, though all are contending. Young teams like the Braves and Phillies have arrived a year early, bolstered by pitching breakouts like Mike Foltynewicz and Aaron Nola, respectively. Teams that declined to tan…er, “rebuild,” like the Brewers and Giants, are seeing their offseason commitments pay off in the standings.
With these ten teams separated by just 8 1/2 games, though, every single postseason berth is up for grabs, a stark contrast to the College Football Playoff — yawn, who is Bama playing? — atmosphere in the AL. Four AL teams have at least a 99% chance to make the playoffs. No NL team is above 94% (Cubs) and nine have at least a 17% chance, one in six, to crash the dance.
In the end, sure, we can expect the Cubs and Dodgers to take over atop their divisions, and even the Nationals — plagued by injuries to Stephen Strasburg, Daniel Murphy, Sean Doolittle, Adam Eaton and more — are still a good bet to push aside the upstarts. There will be more agita, and a lot of trades, but come October, the game’s powers will once again assert themselves in the NL just as they have in the AL.
Some numbers to take with you into the break:
— The Yankees are on pace to shatter the all-time single-season home-run record, headed for 275. The current record is 264, by the 1997 Seattle Mariners.
— Through July 10, there had been more strikeouts (23,365) than hits (23,068), something that has never happened in baseball history over a full season. Rumors that MLB will create a rule to curtail extreme defensive shifts show only that MLB remains world-class at not seeing what’s in front of it: It’s the strikeouts, stupid.
— The Royals (26-66) and Orioles (26-67) are both winning fewer than 30% of their games, and could get worse at the trade deadline. The most losses ever in a modern season is 120, by the 1962 Mets.
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