3-0 Grand Slams, 7 Inning Doubleheaders, and Breakout Stars: A Midseason Review of the MLB
Baseball returned just a little over a month ago, and our expectations were all over the place for a sport that has had it's fair share of ups and downs over the course of over 100 years. However, this season has shattered expectations and blown us away with a new electricity that the sport has not seen in a long time.
The new rules caused by the COVID-19 pandemic are a possible cause of this new spark. One rule that revolutionized the game this year is the 7 inning doubleheader, which was implemented to keep pitchers from taxing their arms in the two game affairs. Another rule that has been implemented this season is that if a game goes to extra innings, the batting team will start with a runner on second base. This is also meant to shorten games and limit the amount of innings that pitchers have to throw. These rules have also allowed for more high pressure situations to develop in games, which can bring out the best in baseball's stars.
MLB commissioner Rob Manfred announces that baseball will move into a bubble once the playoff rounds begin. The locations for these bubbles are LA & San Diego for the NL, and Houston & Arlington for the AL.
Ironically, as one set of rules is put in place, another is broken. These, however, are the unwritten rules of baseball, which have been a controversial part of the sport's history. While some claim that the unwritten rules are followed as a sign of respect to baseball's history, others believe that the rules are holding players back and a main reason why the league has seen a popularity drop in younger generations. Although the tension over the debate has cooled over the past few years, it is now more prevalent and palpable than ever. On August 18th, 2020, San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatís Jr. hit a grand slam off of Texas Rangers pitcher Ian Gibaut on a 3-0 count in a blowout win for the Padres. Under the unwritten rules, Tatís should have respected the fact that her had a large lead, and just taken the pitch on the 3-0 count. This led to Gibaut and Rangers manager Chris Woodward to get angry and intentionally hit Tatís' teammate, Manny Machado, and get ejected from the game. This incident is now a crucial part of a movement started by younger athletes to do away with the unwritten rules of sports and let the players play freely. As a young baseball player, I perceive the unwritten rules of baseball to be detrimental to the game's reputation and future, as it holds back the next generation of athletes from having interest in the sport and unleashing their full potential.
Another element of the game that has been changed due to the pandemic are injuries. The strain of playing every day for months has taken its toll, and many teams are finding their IL (injured list) more full than ever. No team has had it worse than the New York Yankees, who have seen 10+ players go to the IL this season. Additionally, eight of these players have been out for two weeks or longer, the most in the MLB. Not only does the amount of injuries have an effect, but the length does too. Normally, in a 162 game season, a 10 day stint on the IL has only a small effect on the team, as they will normally only play 4-5 games in that time period. However, in the shortened 60 game season, the same stint can allow a player to miss 9 or 10 games, which is around 15% of the season. Unfortunately, this can cause teams to have to rely on their farm system for new players, which doesn't have the MLB ready talent that the teams need to have success.
However, there are plenty of positive events that have occurred this season, one of which being the incredible multitude of breakout stars. Six of the top ten players in home runs, batting average, and on base percentage were not All-Stars last year, and it seems that there is a new wave of players set to take over baseball. Besides the superstars like Juan Soto, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Fernando Tatís Jr., other young players such as Brandon Lowe, Eloy Jimenez, Mike Yastrzemski, and Kyle Lewis have taken the steps to stardom and climbed the leaderboards. These young stars are a joy to watch because they bring a new level of energy to the game. Home run dances, bat flips, diving catches, and of course the new drip, are just the start of a long list of things that the youngsters are popularizing throughout the game.
Although the league is ripe with young talent, these three have broke out the most this year and are even sitting on some people's MVP ballots. Brandon Lowe (left), is posting a .378 OBP and a 1.010 OPS along with 10 home runs, and is the New York Post's Joel Sherman's pick to win the AL MVP.
These antics are not so popular with the older generation of baseball fans, but they have given a new hope that the sport may become popular amongst kids and teenagers, who love the flashy play style and energy that these men play with. It seems that baseball is going to have to adapt its culture in order to keep up with the demands of popular culture. No more do fans want to see pitcher's duels, double plays and team baseball. This is the era of diving plays, stolen bases, and home runs galore.
Another surprise of the season can be found in the standings. Halfway through the season, the defending World Series Champion Washington Nationals find themselves last in the NL East, while the Marlins are making a run for the division title. Adding Anthony Rendon still has done nothing to boost the Angels anywhere past last place in their division, while adding Yasmani Grandal has helped the White Sox tie for first place in their division. It seems like having superstars isn't as crucial as it was in years past, as Christian Yelich, Jacob DeGrom, Juan Soto, Mike Trout, Anthony Rendon, and more, are all on teams with losing records. 2020 has flipped baseball on its head and only the strongest all around teams have stayed great through it all. One of those mighty teams being the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have continued their dominance of the NL West in 2020. The team currently sits at 27-10 (as of September 2nd), which can be credited to their consistent pitching and stellar offense. The Dodgers have also won eight of their last ten matches, and are showing no signs of slowing down. This had made LA the favorites to win the NL, and the World Series, in 2020.
When the Dodgers traded for Mookie Betts last year, they expected big things from the 27 year old outfielder. So far, Betts has delivered, posting a .296 batting average and .381 OBP to add top his 11 home runs and 26 RBI.
In the AL, there is no clear cut favorite, however many standout teams come to mind. The Yankees are always one to come to mind when thinking about the World Series. However, they don't even hold the lead in their division at the moment. That would belong to the Tampa Bay Rays, who are an interesting team to say the least. They possess no real superstar hitters, and rely on a lineup of oft-in consistent mediocre players with a lot of potential. Although players like Brandon Lowe, Ji-Man Choi, Hunter Renfroe, and Willy Adames are having good years in 2020, it is hard to say that it will transfer into the playoffs. Similar things can be said about the Athletics, who hold the lead in the AL West. They have made the playoffs each of the past two years, but have failed to do anything much once they've got there. They have more talent than Tampa Bay, largely thanks to former All Stars like Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Liam Hendriks, and Marcus Semien. But, like I said, none of that has ever transferred well into the postseason. I would predict that the AL champion comes from the AL Central, who has three teams that are all looking likely to make the playoffs. The Indians and White Sox are tied at the top of the division, with the Twins just 1.5 games behind. The Indians are the only team here with a lot of playoff experience, and they have the star power to back it up. They made the World Series just four years ago, and still have a good amount of that roster. Not to mention the new additions they've gained over the years of numerous other playoff appearances. However, don't count out the other two teams. The Twins made the playoffs last year and had over 100 wins. They still look hot this year and have a solid lineup with a championship level rotation. The White Sox are hit or miss, as they are probably the youngest team out of the three. But, if the Sox are hot, they could bring the South Side its first title since 2005.
Predictions for the Rest of the Season:
World Series: Dodgers over Indians* in 5 Games--- This is the year. I have never been one to hop on the Dodgers bandwagon, but this year is the year. It would not be 2020 without an anticlimactic World Series winner to disappoint us all. Truthfully, there are a number of teams that could make the World Series from the AL. Rays, Yankees, Athletics, Twins, White Sox- the list goes on. However, I think that no team is better equipped for a playoff run right now than Cleveland. However, note the asterisk over the Indians name. No, they didn't cheat like the Astros. What it means is that I have them in the World Series on one condition: The Yankees fail to recover most of their lineup. If the Bronx Bombers can make a full recovery before the playoffs, then I will change my pick to Dodgers over Yankees in 6 games.
MVP: AL- Brandon Lowe (TB), NL- Fernando Tatís Jr. (SD)--- The AL's MVP race is quite complicated. Mike Trout is still the best player in the AL, but he isn't super valuable to his team, seeing how the Angels aren't a playoff team. His teammate Anthony Rendon is under the same circumstances. This leaves three candidates who are having breakout seasons. 40 year old Nelson Cruz has felt a resurgence in his career, hitting .326 while leading the league in home runs and OPS. Then there's José Abreu, who is reaching his full potential while hitting .313 and leading the league in hits and total bases. However, I think Tampa Bay Rays second baseman Brandon Lowe will win the award. Although he is not a league leader in any category, he is playing the best all around game of any player in the AL right now. In the NL, there are quite a few names I could give it to. For some reason, the usual suspects like Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich aren't in the race this year. However, Bellinger's teammate Mookie Betts is looking like a real candidate to win it, as he is hitting .302 with 12 home runs and 27 RBI. Another stud player looking likely to win the award is Juan Soto, who returned from injury with a passion that hasn't been seen before. Soto is now leading the league in slugging and OPS, and would likely be on top of the home run numbers if it weren't for his early season injury. There are some surprises in this race, such as Giants outfielder Mike Yastrzemski and Rockies shortstop Trevor Story, who has appeared to reach the bar that was set for him when he entered the league. In all, this race kid jam packed. But, nobody screams MVP more than Fernando Tatís Jr. this year. Tatís has ascended the ranks of the MLB quickly, and looks probable to snag his first MVP at the age of 21. He leads the league in home runs and RBI, and has been absolutely electric in every game he plays. Destroying the unwritten rules of the game, Tatís has proved to all that 2020 is his year.
Cy Young: AL- Shane Bieber (CLE), NL- Trevor Bauer (CIN)--- In the AL Cy Young race, it's really just Shane Bieber. No discredit to others, but Bieber has been on an absolute tear in 2020, and has been insane recently. Shoutout to Lucas Giolito however, who threw the only no hitter so far this season about a week ago. The NL race is more complicated, with three names really competing for it. Max Freid is the dark horse candidate of the race, posting a 1.60 ERA and 1.0 WHIP through 8 starts in which he is 6-0. However, the race is really down to Trevor Bauer vs You Darvish. It seems that Darvish has revitalized his career, and is in the lead for ERA this year while also being 6-1. Although his record isn't pretty, Trevor Bauer probably puts the best case up for the award. He is leading the league in complete games, WHIP, and hits per 9 innings; And as seen in years past, record doesn't matter, otherwise Jacob DeGrom wouldn't have won last year.
Trevor Bauer is almost anybody's favorite baseball player. From his dominance on the mound to his hilarious shirts mocking other players, Bauer loves the spotlight. He deserves it too, as he's having one of his best seasons in 2020 after being traded from his longtime home in Cleveland last year.
Rookie of the Year: AL- Luis Robert (CHW), NL- Jake Cronenworth (SD)--- The rookie class of 2020 hasn't been as dynamic as those of years past, which could be because of the circumstances. Either way, it leads to someone like Jake Cronenworth, who probably would've finished 6th or 7th last year in ROTY voting, to win the award. This could also be partially due to the fact that top prospect Gavin Lux wasn't given his fear share of playing time, or that Carter Kieboom has been disappointing so far. Anyways, in the AL, there are two rookies that have had seasons worth the award, Luis Robert and Kyle Lewis. Leis started off the season hot, however it appears that he is slightly fading as we move into September. However, Robert is still hot as ever, hitting .279 with ten home runs and 24 RBIs. I predict that he will continue his great batting performances and win the award.
Manager of the Year: AL- Kevin Cash (TB), NL- David Ross (CHC)--- It's always hard to tell who the Manager of the Year will be, as it doesn't always go to the manager of the best team. Interestingly enough, both of these men were catchers in the MLB during their playing career. Anyways, Cash has been close to winning each of the past two years, and I think this is the year he takes it home, assuming he can lead the Rays to a division title. For Ross, it is his first year managing the team he played for just four years prior when they won the World Series. Ross will certainly have a hard time making a case against Padres manager Jayce Tingler. However, if Tingler's Padres fail to win the division, I think Ross holds the advantage over him.
Well, there you have it. That's where the MLB stands a little over halfway through the season. As always, hit me up in the comments if you have any opinions or questions, or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.I hope you all enjoyed this article, and stay tuned for more from Let's Talk Sports!
Stats courtesy of ESPN as of September 2nd, 2020. Other sources include the New York Post, Baseball Reference, and CBS Sports.