Circling the bases as baseball nears its midpoint
By Benjamin Hoffman
The All-Star break has typically been used to split up baseball’s first and second halves. While that has always been misleading — teams often play around 90 games in the first half, leaving only 72 for the second half — it is even more extreme this season as the All-Star Game won’t be held until July 19, the latest it has been played in a full season since 1977.
As teams should reach their actual midpoint of 81 games early this week, it is a good time to look around the majors for the most intriguing plotlines to a season that had seemed in jeopardy of not being played as recently as early March.
One of these pitchers is not like the others
A look at this season’s ERA leaders shows a bright future for the game. Tony Gonsolin, 28, a breakout star for the Los Angeles Dodgers in his fourth season, was leading the majors with a 1.54 ERA through Friday. Shane McClanahan, 25, a second-year starter for the Tampa Bay Rays, led the American League at 1.77. Eight of the top 10 were under 30, the youngest of whom, Alek Manoah of the Toronto Blue Jays, is a serious contender for the AL Cy Young Award at 24.
And then there is Justin Verlander. Coming off a two-season stretch in which he pitched a total of six innings because of injuries, Verlander, the 39-year-old ace of the Houston Astros, was fourth in the majors with a 2.03 ERA and was the first pitcher to reach 10 wins. Perhaps most impressively, the second oldest active player in the AL was also second in the league in innings pitched. That would be a surprise for most aging pitchers after a long absence, but somehow makes perfect sense for Verlander, a throwback starter who has topped 200 innings 12 times.
The chase for 62
Aaron Judge just keeps hitting home runs. Judge, the New York Yankees’ supersize slugger, placed an enormous bet on himself this offseason, turning down a $213.5 million contract extension, and has proceeded to have what is looking like a career season. Through Friday he was hitting .286 with 29 home runs and 59 runs batted in while leading his team to the best record in the majors. Barring catastrophe, it looks like Judge’s bet will pay off.
The question is how much better things could get from here. Through Thursday, he had been keeping pace with Babe Ruth’s 1927 season (29 home runs in his first 75 games) and was just off the pace of Roger Maris’ 1961 season (30 in 75). Whether you choose to view Maris as the legitimate single-season record-holder or not — everyone with more than his 61 homers in a season has been connected to performance-enhancing drugs — the fact that Judge has a chance of breaking the Yankees’ franchise mark is reason enough to get excited.
Moving up as he says goodbye
The Albert Pujols Farewell Tour is wreaking havoc on the record books, and inspiring quite a few smiles, even if the aging slugger was only hitting .193 through Friday.
Pujols had chipped in 23 hits, passing Eddie Collins and Paul Molitor to move up to ninth on the career list. He had added 39 total bases, passing Willie Mays for third place. And with 41 games played, he had passed, in succession, Dave Winfield, Barry Bonds, Cal Ripken Jr. and Mays to move into eighth. If he were to add at least 22 more games in the second half of the season, he would leapfrog Stan Musial, Eddie Murray and Ty Cobb as well, finishing fifth on that career list.
Unfortunately, Pujols’ goal of being the fourth player with 700 home runs looks like it will remain out of reach. He is 17 short and doesn’t have the playing time, or the consistency, for that to be realistic.
The rise of Clay Holmes
The most valuable reliever in baseball is not his team’s closer — at least not officially. Through Friday, Clay Holmes, a breakout star for the Yankees, had put together a 0.49 ERA in 36 2/3 innings, with 38 strikeouts, and he led all major league relievers with 2.0 wins above replacement. Despite that, he could soon lose his interim gig finishing games because Aroldis Chapman, a fireballing left-hander whose salary is 16 times higher than Holmes’, was activated from the injured list Friday.
With Chapman, 34, eligible for free agency this offseason, and Holmes, 29, just entering his arbitration years, the Yankees appear to have a succession plan in place — that worked out well when Mariano Rivera arrived in the waning days of John Wetteland. But the next few months could be awkward if Holmes continues to outpitch Chapman, but is doing it during the eighth inning.
Paul Goldschmidt of the St. Louis Cardinals had 4.3 wins above replacement through Friday. Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels each had 4.0, while Manny Machado of the San Diego Padres had 3.9. Those superstars were all looking up at Tommy Edman, a middle infielder for the Cardinals, who was somewhat inexplicably leading all position players with 4.4 WAR, according to Baseball Reference.
Edman’s stat line doesn’t jump out. He was hitting .268 with a .340 on-base percentage and .397 slugging percentage. He was 19 of 22 in stolen base attempts, had hit seven home runs and he was leading his league in only one standard category: runs scored, with 58.
But WAR includes defense, and Edman has been putting on a show, leading the majors with 2.1 defensive WAR thanks to a fairly incredible 11 defensive runs saved in 43 starts at second base and another five in 30 starts at shortstop.
There is no place like home
The Oakland Athletics have been building up and tearing down teams for generations. Going back to 1901, they have won 100 or more games 10 times, capturing nine World Series titles, but they have lost 100 or more games 16 times.
This year’s club appears destined to make it 17 100-loss seasons, and while that’s hardly surprising considering their offseason fire sale, the way they are doing it is notable. Through Friday, they were 8-28 at home, putting them on pace to lose 63 games at Oakland Coliseum, which would shatter the record for home losses of 59, which is shared by the 1939 St. Louis Browns and the 2019 Detroit Tigers. Even the lowly 1962 New York Mets only lost 58 at home.
Subway Series Vol. 2?
The Yankees have been the best team in baseball this season, both in record and run differential, and for much of the year they were joined at the top by the Mets, who had cruised along as the top National League team despite injuries to pitchers Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom.
A recent downturn on offense, however, has the Mets fading. They have already been overtaken by the Los Angeles Dodgers for the best record in the NL, and the Atlanta Braves are trying to sneak up and steal the NL East title once again.
Perhaps the return of Scherzer from his rehab stint with the Binghamton Rumble Ponies can be what gets the Mets back on track.