Don’t look now, but the 2017 MLB season is almost half over. Some of the things we’ve seen have been far from surprising. Others have come out of nowhere.
What have those things been?
Which MLB playoff teams have been disappointing? It would actually take less time to go over the ones who haven’t been. What rookies are taking the league by storm? Which washed up veteran is turning back the clock?
Plenty of MLB teams have experienced recent futility. How many of those teams are thriving while 2016’s playoff teams struggle? And just how good have the Houston Astros been?
What are the 10 most shocking developments that we’ve seen thus far in the 2017 MLB season?
1. Poor play of 2016’s playoff teams
It would be easy to focus on 2016’s World Series combatants — the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. It’s certainly true that both teams have under performed, hovering around the .500 mark for most of the season. But in truth, it’s really been a league-wide issue.
In the American League, the Boston Red Sox are the only playoff team from 2016 currently in postseason position. The Indians, Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles and Texas Rangers have all struggled and all sit around the .500 mark.
In the National League, the picture is similar. Like the Red Sox, the Washington Nationals and Los Angeles Dodgers are both having good seasons. But while the New York Mets are showing signs of life, they still have a long way to go before we can call them playoff contenders. The San Francisco Giants have been awful. As we’ve already detailed, the Cubs are in contention but would be in a lot of trouble if they played in either of the NL’s other divisions.
That’s 70 percent of 2016’s playoff teams playing well below expectations. A few are already essentially out of contention.
We weren’t expecting a 10-for-10 repeat of 2016’s playoffs. But the number of teams falling well short of expectations is certainly worthy of our attention.
2. The Bryce Harper/Hunter Strickland brawl
Late in a Memorial Day game between the Nationals and Giants, we saw a pretty solid fight between Washington outfielder Bryce Harper and Giants pitcher Hunter Strickland.
Bryce Harper vs Hunter Strickland Brawl in slow-mo. Both got in a good punch. Harper suspended 4 games, Strickland 6 pic.twitter.com/h7JRzeYaRY
— Ron Futrell (@RonFutrell) May 31, 2017
In and of itself, a brawl is nothing surprising. This one saw a little more action than most but even still, each man landed only one punch. Strickland landed a direct quick jab, while Harper landed a bigger, but more glancing shot on Strickland.
The more shocking developments were what set the fight up, as well as the fallout from it.
Strickland claimed that he was trying to throw Harper inside and a pitch got away from him. If you believe that, we salute your faith in humanity but not your grasp on reality. It was fairly obvious that Strickland was throwing at Harper because prior to that plate appearance, the two had only faced off twice with both at-bats resulting in towering Harper home runs. During at least one of those, Strickland didn’t care for Harper’s actions rounding the bases.
The catch is that both home runs occurred during the 2014 NLDS. Not only did the Giants go on to win that series (as well as the World Series), but they won both games in which Harper homered off of Strickland. This wasn’t an issue between San Francisco and Harper. If it was, someone on the Giants would have thrown at him in 2015 or 2016. It never happened. This was Strickland’s issue. A grudge he carried for the better part of three years.
What’s even more shocking is how people have reacted. Plenty of people have been critical of Harper. But we’ve heard essentially nobody defend Strickland. Baseball’s Unwritten Rule Book is a weird thing. It’s very nature is painfully easy to criticize. But to some people, it’s gospel.
Harper’s earned plenty of scorn (and frankly, mostly undeserved scorn) over the years for his home run celebrations. But nobody was defending Strickland throwing at him so long after the fact.
It may be a sign that even to the “insiders,” Baseball’s Rule Book is becoming outdated. Let’s hope so because the sooner this happens, the better off we’ll all be.
3. Performance of Aaron Judge
Of course, not all surprises are bad. Case in point, we have Judge.
Judge is a big, strong, dude. From that end, the tremendous power that the New York Yankees rookie has shown in 2017 shouldn’t be surprising.
— New York Yankees (@Yankees) June 13, 2017
But by the numbers, it is.
Judge appeared briefly for the Yankees in 2016. While he showed some power (four home runs in 27 games), the overall performance (.179/.263/.345) was pretty darn mediocre. But the surprise doesn’t really come from that. No, the surprise comes from what Judge did throughout his Minor League career.
In 2016, Judge hit 19 home runs in the minors. If we add that to the four he hit with the Yankees, we get 23, which is (for now) a career high. We haven’t even hit July yet, and he already has 22. As his .338/.443/.703 slash line shows shows, Judge isn’t exactly an all-or-nothing masher, either.
Based on what we saw in the majors in 2016 and the minors from 2014-2016, none of this was exactly predictable.
4. Cody Bellinger’s insane power
Of course, Judge isn’t the only rookie who’s excelling. The Dodgers have Bellinger, a rookie who’s unleashing some pretty sick power of his own.
Strength vs. strength.
— MLB (@MLB) June 14, 2017
Now, Bellinger entered the season as one of baseball’s best prospects. With that, we’re not at all stunned that he’s a Rookie of the Year candidate. The overwhelming nature of his power, however, is surprising.
Bellinger is on pace to hit more than 40 home runs. In most cases, it’s still a little too early to take paces too seriously. But in Bellinger’s case, it’s worth noting that that pace comes despite him not even debuting until April 25, nearly a month into the season. Imagine what kind of pace he’d be on if he’d been with Los Angeles all year. Fortunately, We can do some of that math.
In his first 47 games with the team, Bellinger has hit 18 home runs, or one for (roughly) every 2.61 games. Over 162 games, that translates to 62 home runs.
Again, we knew that Bellinger was a good prospect. But he has absolutely taken the world by storm with his power since getting called up. We weren’t exactly expecting this much this soon.
5. Yankees well ahead of schedule
The performance of Judge hasn’t been the only surprise coming from The Bronx in 2017. The Yankees in general are at least a year ahead of schedule.
In 2016, New York finally realized that much of its long time nucleus was washed up and couldn’t help the team contend anymore. So, the Yankees finally cut ties with guys like Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. Bullpen stalwarts Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman were traded in an effort to rebuild the farm system. A long-term rebuilding project was underway. Those trades netted the Yankees highly touted prospects Clint Frazier and Gleyber Torres, but they weren’t expected to help the Major League team out much in 2017.
As it turns out, neither man has. Frazier and Torres remain in the minors. Greg Bird, who was returning from injury after missing all of 2016, was supposed to take over from Teixeira. But he’s been injured for a good portion of the year and was completely ineffective (.100/.250/.200) when in the lineup. Masahiro Tanaka has had his moments but has been ineffective overall, posting a 6.07 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in his first 13 starts. He was supposed to lead a starting rotation that, quite frankly, looked pretty suspect entering the season.
So, besides Judge, what’s gone right?
Luis Severino hasn’t only been good but has been a borderline Cy Young contender. In 12 starts, he’s posted a 2.75 ERA, 1.02 WHIP and has more than 10 strikeouts per nine innings. C.C. Sabathia Jordan Montgomery and Michael Pineda all have ERA’s well below 4.00. So, they’ve done a lot to negate the struggles of Tanaka.
Chapman has missed a good portion of the year with an injury. But in his stead, Dellin Betances has more than held his own as the regular closer, posting a 0.45 ERA. Adam Warren, Jonathan Holder and Tyler Clippard have all added to the depth of the New York bullpen.
That’s all led to a 38-25 record and first place in the highly competitive American League East. Imagine how good the Yankees will be when Frazier and Torres get to the show.
6. Twins contending after dismal season
A lot can change over the course of a year in baseball. But after the Twins went 59-103 in 2016, we weren’t expecting much in 2017. But through its first 63 games, Minnesota sits at 34-29. That’s not just an improvement over a dismal 2016. No, that’s a darn good record. The American League Central hasn’t been anything to write home about, but the fact that the Twins are leading this division so deep into the season is quite notable.
The offense has a few solid performers. None have been better than Miguel Sano, who has 16 home runs and is slashing at .297/.397/.590.
Minnesota’s pitching was dismal a season ago. Yet, 63 games into the season, two starters (Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios) have ERA’s well under 3.00.
Now, we do have to attribute some of this to luck. Minnesota’s run differential of -24 is one of the worst totals in all of baseball. At times, tun differential can be a misleading stat. After all, teams with good bullpens are designed to win close games, which don’t do much to help run differential. Unfortunately, that notion is shot down by the fact that the Twins have the worst bullpen ERA in all of baseball by a fairly comfortable margin.
Looking forward, that certainly has to change if this hot start is going to be maintained. But it all adds to how truly surprising Minnesota’s start has been. The Twins are in first place despite some issues that should have realistically buried this team.
7. Brewers competing in the NL Central
Entering the year, the Cubs were expected to dominate the National League Central. Chicago has baseball’s most talented roster, and aside from the Houston Astros, nobody else is that close.
Of course, the Cubs have underachieved. But entering the year, the Brewers were far from No. 2 in the division.
Milwaukee’s most notable player is, of course. Ryan Braun. He’s played reasonably well but has limited to only 30 games. Additionally, Jonathan Villar has followed up a career year in 2016 with a dismal 2017. Fortunately for the Brewers, plenty of teammates have picked up the slack for Braun and Villar.
Eric Thames has fallen off of his early season pace. But with 17 home runs and a .256/.396/.576, he’s still been one of baseball’s best first-half stories. Milwaukee’s offense has also been aided by strong starts from Domingo Santana, Travis Shaw and Hernan Perez.
Chase Anderson, meanwhile, has been a surprise of the starting rotation. He’s posted a 2.83 ERA and 1.19 WHIP with 71 strikeouts in 76.1 innings. Entering the year, he’d never had an ERA under 4.00. So, his performance has been unexpected.
Milwaukee is much like Minnesota. Given their flaws, it will be challenging for both teams to maintain the good play into the second half the season. But because of that, both are two of the biggest surprises that we’ve seen thus far.
8. NL West revival
In 2011, the Arizona Diamondbacks claimed the NL West. Since, then, the division has been owned by the Dodgers and Giants. From 2012-2016, Los Angeles and San Francisco made the playoffs a combined seven times and had the senior circuit’s third and fifth-best records over that stretch. The two teams were generally good but were also aided by dismal play from their division mates.
The Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres failed to post even one winning season in that five-year stretch. They were the National League’s worst (Rockies), fourth worst (Padres), and fifth worst (Diamondbacks) teams. That’s changed. The Padres are struggling through another season, but the Diamondbacks and Rockies are thriving.
So, what’s making them go?
Arizona has been partially aided by the return of A.J. Pollock. He’s been effective when on the field but has spent a good portion of the season on the DL. Zack Greinke’s bounce-back season could have been expected. But the rotation has been bolstered by guys like Robbie Ray, Zack Godley, and when he’s been healthy, Taijuan Walker. The offense has been led by the continued brilliance of Paul Goldschmidt, as well as guys Jake Lamb, Brandon Drury and David Peralta.
As always, the offense has been a boost for Colorado. Nolan Arenado has been steady as usual. Mark Reynolds has moved from a longball or bust kind of player to a well-rounded hitter (.300/.382/.561). Charlie Blackmon has been an MVP candidate (.325/.373/.603, 15 home runs).
What’s unexpected has been the Rockies’ pitching. Colorado’s hurlers have hung around the top 10 in staff ERA all year. For a team that plays half of its games at Coors Field, that’s essentially unheard of.
But guys like Antonio Senzatela, Kyle Freeland, Tyler Chatwood and Jeff Hoffman have been good.
— Colorado Rockies (@Rockies) June 11, 2017
They’re not going to remind anyone of the 1990’s Atlanta Braves, but they don’t have to. The Colorado offense is more than good enough to win games for this team, as long as the pitching staff is decent. So far, it has been.
When unexpected teams start winning, you look for regression. But the Diamondbacks and Rockies are loaded with contributors. That’s going to make any regression a lot harder to come by.
9. Ryan Zimmerman turning back the clock
Zimmerman was the face of the Nationals franchise before Bryce Harper. He was the team’s star, marquee player in its early years in Washington. But Zimmerman’s last several seasons had been slowed by injuries, ineffective play, or both. At 32, it appeared as though Zimmerman’s days an All-Star were a thing of the past.
Appearances can be deceiving.
— All-Star Game (@AllStarGame) June 14, 2017
In addition to his 19 home runs, Zimmerman has slashed at .367/.409/.716. That .367 average is nearly 20 points better than baseball’s second-leading hitter, Buster Posey (.348).
Even on an absolutely loaded team, Zimmerman has been one of Washington’s best players. In fact, Zimmerman has been one of the National League’s leading MVP candidates since the first day of the season.
That’s certainly shocking production from a player who entered 2017 with a fork nearly in his back.
10. Absolute dominance of the Astros
In 2016, Houston overcame a poor start to finish with a solid 84-78 mark. It wasn’t enough to make the playoffs, but it was enough to show that the Astros had a truly talented roster entering 2016.
So, the fact that Houston is in first place is not surprising. Truthfully, the Astros having baseball’s best record isn’t surprising.
But being on pace to win 109 games? We didn’t exactly see that coming.
What’s really surprising is that Houston has essentially no flaws. Its starting rotation is easily one of the best five in the game. Offensively, the Astros are second in home runs and first in batting average. They can score runs in many different ways. The bullpen can use some work, but it’s far from a liability. Additionally, relief help tends to be the most available asset on the trade market.
Again, we knew that Houston was good. We just didn’t know that the Astros would be absolutely dominating the league this far into the year.
For fans of baseball, this will be a fun team to watch through the summer and into the fall.