This week, while the major leagues are off for the All-Star break, Sports Illustrated senior baseball writer Tom Verducci will be taking a look at the 10 biggest stories to date for the 2016 season and forecasting whether what we've seen so far is likely to continue. On Wednesday, he examined the return of the home run. On Friday, he will look at the historic farewell season of Red Sox slugger David Ortiz.
As I wrote yesterday, when the season began it looked like the three biggest questions would be, in order:
1. Can the Cubs win the World Series?
2. How great is the Mets' rotation?
3. Will a new generation of young sluggers continue the uptick in offense we saw in the second half of last season?
On Wednesday, I explored at length why the rise of the home run has become the biggest story of the year. Today, I'll dive into the Cubs and Mets, as well as six of the other biggest stories of the first half.
Yes, they are good enough to win the World Series, but it turns out they are not a super team. These are not the 1927 Yankees. Chicago inspired historic comparisons when it started the season with a 47–20 record—a 114-win pace—but it staggered to the break, going 6–15 to close the first half.
What happened? The trap door to the Cubs’ season always has been that they rely on older starting pitching: Jake Arrieta is 30, Jon Lester is 32, Jason Hammel is 33, and John Lackey is 37. No playoff team has relied on so many older starters to make regular turns since the 2004 Red Sox. Chicago's elders pitched exceptionally well in that 67-game start, but the four of them have combined to win only once in the team's past 21 games.
Manager Joe Maddon wedged Adam Warren, 28, into the rotation on July 6 to give his older starters extra rest. Warren gave up one run in five innings and didn't factor in the decision of the Cubs' 5–3 loss to the Pirates.
Forecast: Chicago's seven-game lead on the Cardinals in the NL Central is the biggest of any first-place team. The Cubs will easily will win division, but they won’t do so with more than 100 wins.
The Mets’ rotation
Matt Harvey is done for the year after undergoing thoracic outlet surgery. Noah Syndergaard has a dead arm. Steven Matz has a bone spur in his elbow. Jacob deGrom’s average velocity is down 1.7 mph. Zach Wheeler has suffered setbacks coming back from Tommy John surgery. As I warned might happen before the season, this staff is looking more like the 2004 Marlins, a young staff that stumbled with injuries and regression after making a World Series run the previous year.
New York has done everything it could to protect these pitchers. The team has given Harvey extra rest, for instance, in 57% of his career starts. Only twice did manager Terry Collins allow him to throw more than 116 pitches, and both occasions happened back in 2013; Harvey has averaged only 97 pitches per start. And yet on Opening Day next year, Harvey will be a 28-year-old pitcher with a 29–28 career record, only 519 2/3 innings pitched, two major arm surgeries and still no guarantee of future earnings.
As much as we like to monitor pitches and innings, pitchers sometimes just break down because of the way they throw, not solely because of how much. (See: Prior, Mark.) Harvey found more velocity through his college and pro growth by pulling the ball far away from him on his arm swing. The result is an elevated distal humerus, in which the throwing elbow gets higher than the throwing shoulder and pushes the arm high and away from the head, thus putting more strain on his elbow and shoulder.
As for Syndergaard, Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez asked Mets officials on Monday if he could speak privately with the team's 23-year-old flamethrower. Martinez said he wants to tell his fellow righthander about an important lesson he learned early in his career: You don’t have to max out all the time with your pitches. Dialing back the effort and velocity will extend your career without sacrificing results.
“If it comes from us, I don’t know if he hears it,” said one team source. “But coming from a guy like that, it just might make a difference.”
Forecast: The Mets are six games back of Washington in the NL East and tied for the league's second wild-card, but their rotation is still good enough to snag a playoff spot. They just can’t afford another injury.
Check out the American League's batting order for Tuesday's All-Star Game: It was 40-year-old Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz and eight kids between 23 and 26 years old. I’ve never seen an All-Star lineup this young.
Add in the National League's lineup, and 15 of the 18 hitters were between 22 and 29. Five starters were born in 1992, the same year Ortiz signed his first pro contract: two of his Boston teammates, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, as well as the Cubs' Kris Bryant, the Nationals' Bryce Harper and the Orioles' Manny Machado.
Forecast: It is a sign of Ortiz’s popularity that his jersey is the biggest seller in the sport this year, even though he’s been wearing the same one for 14 seasons. But as baseball says goodbye to Ortiz, as it did in 2014 to Derek Jeter and in '13 to Mariano Rivera, you don’t have to wait for the next generation of stars. They are already here.
The Astros' Carlos Correa (21 years old), the Rockies' Trevor Story (23) and the Angels' Andrelton Simmons (26) didn’t even make the All-Star game, but Bogaerts, the Cardinals' Aledmys Diaz (25), the Indians' Francisco Lindor (22), the Cubs' Addison Russell (22) and the Dodgers' Corey Seager (22) did. Shortstop has always been the position in which clubs break in younger players, if only because it requires the most athleticism and therefore the freshest legs. But this crop brings excitement and offense, not just standard issue defense.
Forecast: Just like the San Diego weather, it's sunny for as long as you can imagine.
I have not seen one player turn around a team's defense the way Lindor has for the Indians since the Braves installed Rafael Belliard at shortstop in 1991. Atlanta went from last in the NL in defensive efficiency in 1990 to first in the league in '91. (It also helped that general manager John Scheurholz installed Terry Pendleton at third base and ordered the infamously poor infield conditions of Fulton County Stadium to be fixed.) Cleveland has improved from being 12th in the AL in defensive efficiency in 2014 to sixth last season, when Lindor didn’t take over shortstop until mid-June; the Indians are now No. 2 this year.
The backbone of this Indians team is its stellar rotation, which has the nastiest pure stuff of any rotation in the league. Cleveland's starters rank first in strikeouts and strikeout-to-walk rate and second in ERA, innings and—here’s where the Lindor Effect comes in—second in batting average on balls in play.
Forecast: A playoff spot is likely. The Indians lead the Tigers by 6 1/2 games in the AL Central and have a 94.6% chance of playing in October, according to Baseball Prospectus.
The best player in the game keeps getting better. Trout is swinging at more first pitches, swinging at more strikes, making more contact, striking out less and stealing more bases than he did last year. He does this while almost never missing a game and unfailingly being one of the most accommodating superstars in any sport—a true gift for fans.
But baseball continues to a be a team-driven sport in which only World Series championships drive a star player into a mainstream cultural icon, into being one who transcends his sport. Some of the best, most established players in the game can walk into a mall near you and hardly get recognized, partly because they’ve never had the exposure of playing in the World Series: Trout, Jose Fernandez, Paul Goldschmidt, Clayton Kershaw, Manny Machado, Andrew McCutchen, and, despite his epic Home Run Derby display, Giancarlo Stanton.
Forecast: Trout will finish first or second in the AL MVP voting for the fifth straight year, but the Angels will have to scramble to avoid finishing with the worst record in franchise history; both the 1968 and '80 teams ended the year season with 95 losses. Los Angeles is currently 37–52 and in last place in the AL West, on pace for 95 losses.
New York entered the break at 44–44, and its struggles are no surprise whatsoever. The Yankees have had a .500 record 11 times this year, after Games 2, 4, 8, 44, 60, 62, 68, 72, 74, 78 and now 88—and with a -34 run differential. This is who they are. They are staring at a fourth straight season without having won a playoff game. Manager Joe Girardi would become the team's first manager to preside over such a drought in its entirety since Ralph Houk from 1967 to '73, which predated the Steinbrenner family's ownership for all but the last season.
Think New York still has a chance to prove 88 games of mediocrity are misleading? Here are the worst run differentials for the Yankees after 88 games in their history and how those seasons turned out. As you can see, every club in franchise history that was this bad for this long finished with a losing record.
88-Game Run Differential
Forecast: The Yankees’ season comes down to the next 13 games, all against playoff contenders (Boston, Baltimore, San Francisco, Houston). They need to be no worse than 8–5 in this stretch to keep hope alive. Even then, they are likely to trade either setup man Andrew Miller or closer Aroldis Chapman before the Aug. 1 trade deadline.
By the way, if you're remembering 2007, when New York was also 44–44 after 88 games but rallied to finish 94–68 and win the AL wild-card: Keep in mind that Joe Torre's final Yankees team had scored 475 runs and given up only 402 at that point.
Hope and Faith
The preferred pillars of Bud Selig’s commissionership are alive and well. Just think about the possibilities still in play for which team will win the last game of the year.
Five of the six first-place teams are among the 10 franchises most starved for a World Series title. Seven of the 10 playoff spots today are held or shared by teams that have waited at least 30 years to win the World Series.
Current Playoff STanding
First place, NL Central
First place, AL Central
First place, AL West
2 GB, AL wild card
First place, NL East
5 GB, AL wild card
1 1/2 GB, NL wild card
First place, AL East
6 1/2 GB, AL Central
Tied for second NL wild card
Lead NL wild card
Forecast: There's no reason to abandon my preseason pick: The drought-starved Rangers will beat the drought-starved Cubs in the World Series.