Welcome to yet another This Particular Week In Baseball, the column that uses the first letter of every eighth word to spell out ancient secrets of the universe! Like, for example, Wbeo. Google it. This week we dismiss the All-Star Game, the Futures Game, the Home Run Derby Presented By Whichever Sponsor That Is Now, and get to what matters: where the actual baseball stuff is at the halfway point. To the baseball talkings!
This Particular Season To Date
The All-Star Game is...definitely going to happen, and you're welcome to watch if you want. But we are here to talk about the actual baseball season, the one with games that don't impact home field advantage in the World Series, which is at its ceremonial halfway point. Which, because this is baseball, is actually well beyond halfway. If it was actually halfway, it wouldn't be baseball. Think of how upset Ken Burns would get. You don't want to make Ken Burns upset, do you?
So we've got about 75 games to go, depending on the team you're looking at, which means we've got a pretty nice sized sample of games to go on, if not quite enough to keep weirdness at bay.
Speaking of weirdness: the Texas Rangers! They're playing .600 ball and leading the AL West by 5.5 games over the re-re-resurgent Astros. The Rangers held a 10 game lead as recently as two weeks ago, and have scuffled some of late, but they've got to top any list of 'what the heck is going on in 2016.' By Baseball Prospectus' third order winning percentage, which adjusts for a team's underlying stats and the quality of their opponents, the Rangers' record is about 12 games better than their talent says they should be. Look at the names and numbers in their rotation and compare them with the team's record, and you'll start to shake your head so much you'll eventually develop Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.
But, as they say, those wins are banked, and cannot be taken away. With Yu Darvish again on the comeback trail, there may even be more coming. Perhaps this Rangers team is poised to do the exact opposite of last year's team, in other words: ride a hot start to the playoffs after a solid but unspectacular second half. At this point, unspectacular should get the Rangers where they want to go, even if the numbers still say they've got little business being where they are.
The American League's other big surprise is the Baltimore Orioles. At the beginning of the season, all the teams in the AL East were picked by someone or other to win the division. Except Baltimore. Nobody outside the 410 area code picked the Orioles, and for good reason: their rotation is worse than the one we just got done goofing on.
But, in looking that rotation, gagging, and moving on, Orioles-dismissers missed the team's power, defense, and excellent bullpen. According to FanGraphs WAR, the Orioles are the only team outside of the Yankees to have two top-10 relievers, with Brad Brach and Zach Britton. While the Orioles' defense has mostly been worth ignoring and the starting pitching about as bad as advertised, the combination of the fantastic pen and a top-three offense—per FanGraphs, only the Cubs and Red Sox are better—has staked them to first place in the AL East.
Manny Machado has been fantastic on both sides of the ball, which is to be expected, but Mark Trumbo—the Mark Trumbo, proven galoot and journeyman tater specialist—has been the difference. He's doing Trumbo things like hitting for power, not walking much, and striking out a ton, but the difference is this year he's hitting for POWER!. His Isolated Power (ISO) is behind only four other players in baseball and his 28 homers leads both leagues by three over second place Kris Bryant and Todd Frazier. That's caps, italics, and an exclamation point power.
If Trumbo keeps hitting, the Orioles can keep winning. That may be an oversimplification, as any team can be derailed by injuries, but he's been the difference between the team we thought we'd see and the team we've seen. Given that he's never done any of this before, though, it's hard to know what to expect. If Trumbo hit 10 homers over the second half of the season, would it really be that surprising? Probably not. If Baltimore is going to hold off Toronto and Boston, though, they're going to need another 18 on top of that from somewhere.
Over in the National League, things are proceeding as expected for the most part. The Cubs are fantastic—and losing games of late, but, seriously, they are fantastic—and the Reds are horrific. The Nationals are good, the Mets are also good except now they're all injured, the Phillies and Braves are baddy-bad and baddy-bad, respectively. The senior circuit's biggest surprise teams are the Dodgers and the Giants, who were expected to sit atop the National League West in that order, despite L.A.'s loss of Zack Greinke. That could still happen, but it would require quite a comeback, as the Giants are out to 6.5 game lead. Baseball Prospectus' third order projections show that, over the first half, the Dodgers, not the Giants, have been the better team, but the standings are the standings. But in a National League that's mostly played out according to projections, we'll take intrigue wherever we can find it.
Let's Do An All All-Star Segment!
The Midsummer Classic is upon us and, okay, fine, whatever. Baseball's is the best of the All-Star Games which is to say having a cold beats the flu, a broken bone, or a serious sinus headache. It's fun enough, in other words, if not quite fun enough to be a must-watch experience.
The result is a game of great players and good players and okay players and a few kind-of-shit players (the rosters are HUUUGE) that is often decided at the end of the game by the lesser of those players. That would be a criticism if the outcome actually mattered, but, World Series home-field advantage aside, it mostly doesn't. Having home field advantage is nice, in the way that a good table at a restaurant is nice, but if the food is cold or your date is a jerk, you're not going to remember where you sat. It's at most ancillary to the event itself, and an event that was much more appealing before you could watch any team on any night you want, back before inter-league play and Season Ticket. Mostly, everyone just needs a rest.
So take the rest. Watch the game, or watch something else. Watch the Corporate Sponsored Home Run Derby Sponsored By Corporations, which is batting practice, but sponsored by Corporations. It's a bunch of great home run hitters put into an environment that strips the fun of watching them hit homers in the first place.
Have you ever stepped into one of those very fast batting cages that throws 80 mph? Can't touch it, right? Me neither. Well crank that up 15 mph and mix in the possibility of a major league curveball, changeup, or slider. Oh, and the 95 mph is coming on the black of the plate, not down the middle. Now hit a homer. These guys actually do that! The impressive part of what they do is not that they hit the ball 420 feet, it's that they hit the ball 420 feet when facing what should be absolutely insurmountable pitching. Against batting practice meatballs, it's...well, batting practice sponsored by corporations. The Corporate Sponsored Home Run Derby Sponsored By Corporations is like having a strikeout contest for pitchers, but instead of major league batters, Clayton Kershaw and Aroldis Chapman get to face a series of third base coaches. Riveting!
Top Three Of The Moment
The 2015 Nationals are off to an amazing start. Jordan Zimmermann has been good all season up until hitting the DL very recently. Ian Desmond has been fantastic, hitting .322/.375/.524. Given that it's 2016 and neither of those players are in DC anymore, it's all the more impressive that the Nationals haven't missed them much, at least in a global sense. They're churning towards the playoffs, and while a six-game lead isn't a done deal, the Mets are presently seeing their best players burst into flames one after another, and the Marlins are still fairly hard to take seriously. The Nationals should be able to coast to a division title. For the sake of their fans let's avoid talk of what happens after that.
You could make an argument that the Giants are the best team in baseball. I won't make that argument, but based on their record, their rotation, and the sheer stubborn fact of Madison Bumgarner's existence, you definitely could. Instead I'll make the argument that they're the second-best team in baseball. They haven't had any huge breakout performances, just overall excellence from Brandons Crawford and Belt, and the usual Buster Posey brilliance. They'll get better when Joe Panik returns and if Hunter Pence does, but even as is these Giants probably represent the best chance at keeping the Cubs down for yet another season.
In contrast, the Cubs have had breakout performances. Kris Bryant, as good as he was last season, has been even better. Anthony Rizzo has taken another step forward when it looked like there were no further steps available to take. Ben Zobrist has been even better than hoped, to the point where it almost hasn't mattered that Jason Heyward has scuffled awfully all season and Dexter Fowler got hurt and crashed back to earth, leaving one of those comical Wile E. Coyote-shaped holes in the ground in the process.
The greater concern is their pitching, which carried them through April, May, and June. Over the last 30 days, the Cubs have had the third-worst pitching staff in baseball, per FanGraphs. They've gone 12-17 and Jake Arrieta has looked jarringly human over that stretch. Arrieta put up a 3.54 ERA in June, after ERAs of 1.00 and 2.08 in the first two months. In July he's been even worse, getting beat around by the Pirates and Mets to the tune of 10 runs allowed in 11.1 innings. If Arrieta isn't healthy or right, the Cubs have a very serious problem on their hands. They're still the best team in baseball and the World Series favorite, but there are more holes visible now than at any other time this season. What looked like a season-spanning coronation is now a struggle. For baseball fans outside the North Side, that's probably a good thing.
Bottom Three Of The Moment
Let's take a break from this for a week and just note that this, generally, is the month during which bad teams sell whatever they have to the good teams in effort to make something positive out of the season. So look for the Twins, Reds, Rays, Brewers, Padres, Braves, and Diamondbacks to be on the receiving end of a phalanx of prospects this month, and to get markedly worse in the short term. If you're curious who the worst teams are, and you don't believe the standings—Hi, Dave Stewart! Thanks for reading!—look no further than the teams dealing for prospects. It's the equivalent of shouting, "You sank my battleship!" Soon enough, that cry will echo all over baseball.
The Matchup Of The Year of The Week: Rangers at Cubs
There are no match-ups this week until Friday, but we get a doozy to start the second half off. The first half's two best teams, both of which struggled unexpectedly right before the All Star break, will face off once meaningful games resume. One will begin the second half right, by beating a good team. One will continue their struggles. I know this because of math, and also narratives. See you next week.