Most teams have played, or are currently playing, their 80th game of the season, which means 2012 is almost half in the books, baseballwise. The All-Star rosters are set. Most of the teams we expected to contend for division titles are atop, or working their way up, the standings. I tend to ramble a lot in this space, so I thought I’d take this opportunity to make some quick observations about the way the season has played out.
1. All-Star arguments are getting dull. Last year, I would have found room for a piece about Zack Greinke, the best pitcher in the National League, not making the All-Star team. This year, I don’t find the general public’s delay in understanding fielding-independent pitching all that interesting. Sure, there’s the Tony LaRussa being a jerk angle, which is interesting if you still care about Tony LaRussa. There’s the Rangers and Giants fans stuffing the ballot boxes angle, but it’s always somebody- I remember years when fans of the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Mariners, and even Reds elected a bunch of their own less-than-worthy players. Look away, people. Nothing to see here.
2. The Dodgers were not for real. I remember reading a few pieces by writers I respect very much announcing that the Dodgers had become favorites to win the NL West. I don’t blame them, as no team in the division is guaranteed to run off a long winning streak, and the Trolley Dodgers led by six or seven games for most of May and into June. Realistically, though, the Dodgers are Clayton Kershaw, Matt Kemp, and pray for the fans’ safety. When your team’s early season hot streak is fueled by Chris Capuano and AJ Ellis, there might be a slide coming. And with the Giants finding some offense to go with Cain and Bumgarner, they’re looking formidable, as are the Diamondbacks, who still haven’t seen anything from Justin Upton or Daniel Hudson.
3. The Rangers are for real. This Texas team is a juggernaut. If Napoli, Kinsler, Andrus, Beltre, and Hamilton were all starting the All-Star Game, could you complain about any of them? Throw in the sometimes-superhuman Nelson Cruz and a pitching staff that might see even greater things from Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Roy Oswalt, and a healthy Derek Holland in the second half, and this is clearly the best team in baseball. It seems their biggest problem is finding room for Jurickson Profar, one of the game’s best prospects, if he’s ready this fall.
4. The Mets are still above .500?. The Mets came into the season with no apparent offense behind David Wright (and some of us thought he was well into his decline phase) and no pitching to speak of. Wright’s been absurdly good, but no other position player has been worth as much as 1.5 fWAR. The story here is the pitching, with RA Dickey among the game’s best pitchers (and stories), Johan Santana finding a bit of his old magic, and Dillon Gee emerging. The bullpen is bad though, and the lineup is full of holes. If there’s a reason to think the Mets can continue to contend, it’s that the Marlins are bad and the Phillies can’t catch a break. Still, if the line is set at 81 wins for the Mets, I’m taking the under.
5. The Pirates are even better. If the season ended today, the Pirates, who have scored fewer runs than all but two teams in baseball, would play one game against the fading Dodgers for a crack at the Nationals in the NLDS. The Pirates are batting .238/.294/.387. That’s not their pitchers or their shortstops or their bench- it’s their entire team. Fortunately for them, James McDonald has been a revelation and veterans AJ Burnett and Erik Bedard have added stability to the rotation, and Brad Lincoln, Jason Grilli, and Joel Hanrahan are striking out everybody in the late innings. Unfortunately for them, none of those units (lineup, rotation, or bullpen) ranks among the top half of the league in group WAR, which suggests that this may be another 2011, when the Pirates use a soft schedule and an Andrew McCutchen to stay in contention into midsummer, then fade to the back of the pack in the dog days.
6. The real surprise team has been the Orioles. Say what you will about the Mets’ and Pirates’ success. Neither is nearly as unexpected as the Orioles’ 42-36 record to this point. If the season ended today, fans longing for a repeat of the 1970 and 1979 World Series would hold onto some hope, as the O’s would be right there with the Pirates. The Orioles, with Adam Jones and Matt Wieters budding as superstars, Jason Hammel holding his own in the AL, and a lights-out bullpen, may be the best of these three surprise teams, but they’re also the one most likely ticketed for the basement by season’s end. Baltimore has been outscored by 26 runs, fifth worst in the AL. Despite five players with double-digit home runs, their position players combine for just 6.5 fWAR, worst in baseball. The rotation has been solid, but Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta have home run problems and Wei-Yin Chen doesn’t strike out enough batters to maintain his 3.73 ERA. Even if the bullpen is for real, this is not likely a .500 team.
7. The AL might just play out as we expected. When the Tigers, Red Sox, and Angels all slumped out of the gate while the Orioles, Indians, and White Sox surged, it looked like we were seeing a sea change in the American League. Six weeks later, we’re beginning to see signs of status quo throughout the junior circuit. The Yankees are pulling away in the AL East, while the Red Sox are a half game out of a playoff spot and boast the third-best run differential in all of baseball. The Angels are on a tear, and are a completely different team with Mike Trout and a locked-in Albert Pujols supporting their dominant pitching. The Tigers are coming around as well, now within three games of the Central division lead and with Scherzer, Porcello, and Smyly all pitching well behind Verlander. It may come down once again to the Red Sox and Rays battling for the last playoff spot while the usual suspects coast into October.
8. The AL East has been wrecked with injuries. The Red Sox are in year three of their clubhouse doubling as an infirmary, with Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford having played a total of seven games. They once had seven outfielders on the DL at once, and their rotation has gone long stretches without Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz, not to mention closer Andrew Bailey not having thrown a pitch in a Sox uniform. Even the Sox, though, aren’t jealous of the Rays, who have been without their best player, Evan Longoria, almost as long as the Sox have missed Ellsbury. Jeff Niemann and Jeremy Hellickson have missed time in the rotation as well, and they haven’t seen their closer, Kyle Farnsworth, yet either. The Yankees have been without Brett Gardner for weeks now, and just put CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte on the DL as well, joining new acquisition Michael Pineda and Mariano Rivera. The Blue Jays are also missing three starters and their closer, leaving only Baltimore with their opening-day closer and anything resembling their starting rotation intact. While the O’s have lost Nick Markakis and Nolan Reimold to injury as well, health is a major reason they’ve been able to contend while the rest of the division has thrown their AAA squads into the fire long before callup season.
9. Mike Trout may be the best player in the American League right now. Despite not being called up until April 28th (is there a more poorly-run team in baseball that routinely wins games?), Trout leads the AL with 4.3 fWAR. He’s doing it with a little bit of everything. He’s hitting .339/.395/.542. He’s stolen 22 bases in 25 tries. And he’s already one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball, accumulating 8.4 fielding runs above average and finally assuming his rightful place in center field. Considering he was born the month Pearl Jam released “Ten”, he might stick around for a while.
10. But Joey Votto is still the game’s best hitter (and player?). Since 2010, Votto has hit .322/.430/.576. Only Miguel Cabrera and Josh Hamilton have a higher batting average. Only those two and Jose Bautista have a higher slugging percentage. No one has a higher on-base percentage. Only Bautista has walked more, and only Austin Jackson has a higher BABiP. For good measure, Votto leads MLB in wOBA (.429), wRC+ (169) and fWAR (18.9). If you’re looking for the game’s best player, it’s tempting to pick someone who plays a more demanding position. Tulowitzki. Longoria. Pedroia. Kemp. Every one of those guys gets a nice position adjustment, yet none has more WAR in the last three years, largely because every one of them has battled injuries. Cabrera. Cano. Braun. Hamilton. All are great, but none is quite as dependably great as Joey Votto.