It is Independence Day in these here United States and that means the 2022 MLB season is approaching it's midpoint. The 30 clubs either have already played their 81st game or will do so in the coming days. The All-Star break is the traditional midpoint of the season, but the 81st game is the actual midpoint, and we're just about there.
Now that we're entering the season's back nine, let's take stock of the baseball landscape.
MLB and the MLBPA agreed to a 12-team postseason format as part of the new collective bargaining agreement this season and the races for the sixth and final spot in each league are close, though only a few teams are in the mix. These aren't big five- or six-team races, at least not right now. Here's what the postseason would look like if the season ended today:
The Guardians are a 1 1/2 games behind the Rays for the third and final wild-card spot, then the White Sox are three games behind the Guardians. Chicago has some work to do to get back in the wild-card race, as do the Mariners and Rangers (each five games back). It would take a pretty major upset for the Astros and Yankees to not secure those two byes. They are well ahead of the pack.
The Giants and Phillies are a few games behind the Cardinals, then the Marlins are a few games behind the Giants and Phillies, then the rest of the league is a few games behind the Marlins. With any luck, the Giants and Phillies will pick up their game the next few months and give us a nice three-team race for that third and final wild-card spot.
MVP: Aaron Judge, Yankees. My hunch is Judge would be voted AL MVP if the season ended today given his 29 home runs (six more than any other player) and the fact he's been the best player on baseball's best team. I don't think this race is anywhere close to over though. José Ramírez and Yordan Alvarez seem to be Judge's primary competition, with Rafael Devers and Mike Trout lingering in the race as well.
Cy Young: Shane McClanahan, Rays. Can't go wrong with the league leader in ERA (1.74), ERA+ (204), WHIP (0.81), strikeouts (133), K/BB ratio (7.82), and WAR (3.2). Justin Verlander and Alek Manoah are probably McClanahan's top competition at this point. Gerrit Cole should never be ruled out of a Cy Young race with half the season still to be played.
Rookie of the Year: Julio Rodríguez, Mariners. Jeremy Peña had a fantastic April, but Rodríguez has been the better player since May, not that Peña has been bad these last two months (he did spend some time on the injured list). Could we be heading for a co-Rookie of the Year situation? The side-by-side comparison:
Twice in history have there been co-Rookies of the Year: Butch Metzger (Padres) and Pat Zachry (Reds) in 1976, and John Castino (Twins) and Alfredo Griffin (Blue Jays) in 1979. I'd say Rodríguez has the edge right now, though Peña is still very much in this race. A pair of Twins -- Joe Ryan and Jhoan Duran -- are the third and fourth wheels. Don't rule out Bobby Witt Jr. or Adley Rutschman playing their way into this conversation before the season lets out.
Best team: Yankees. The Astros humbled them a bit with, but yeah, it's the Yankees. The season is roughly halfway complete and they're on pace for 117 wins, enough that the " " conversation has started. A sampling of their dominance:
- Record: 58-22 (Astros are second at 51-27)
- Run differential: plus-162 (Dodgers are second at plus-138)
- Runs scored per game: 5.04 (tied with Dodgers for most in MLB)
- Runs allowed per game: 3.01 (Dodgers are second at 3.27)
Houston is the clear cut runner-up, then behind them you have a group headed by the Blue Jays and Red Sox. For now, the Yankees have distinguished themselves as the class of the American League, and really the class of baseball.
Biggest surprise: Angels firing Joe Maddon. I don't think there's a surprise team (or even a surprise player) in the American League. Maybe the Twins and Guardians? Are we sure they're actually good and not just AL Central good? The last few years have conditioned me to be skeptical of AL Central teams. Anyway, I'm going with the Angels firing Maddon for my biggest AL surprise. Maddon was owner Arte Moreno's high-profile hire three years ago and I didn't think Moreno would admit a mistake and fire the man he hand-picked to manage the club. Kudos to Moreno for being decisive and not sticking with Maddon just because he was his guy. Alas and alack, the managerial change hasn't helped the Angels. They continue to sink like a stone.
Biggest disappointment: White Sox. We could have gone a couple different ways here. The Angels have spent the better part of a decade wasting Mike Trout's greatness and this might be their greatest disappointment yet (13-31 since their 24-13 start). Rather than make the leap into postseason contention, the Mariners have spent the season chasing .500. For two decades they have been the baseball equivalent of Wily E. Coyote crashing into a tunnel painted on the side of the mountain. The White Sox, meanwhile, have underperformed every which way. The AL Central is not a particularly strong division and yet they're under .500 with a run differential (minus-36) that says they should be worse than they are. Are they out of it? No, but being in third place is absolutely not where the White Sox thought they'd find themselves on the Fourth of July.
Division race to watch in second half: AL Central. By default. The Yankees and Astros have comfortable leads (13 1/2 games each) and should cruise to their respective division titles. The races are not over, but the Yankees and Astros are sitting pretty. First and third place in the AL Central are separated by only 4 1/2 games, so that's the race to watch. The Yankees and Astros have a big enough lead that the AL Central winner will get stuck playing the Wild Card Series anyway, though at least they'll have home field advantage in the best-of-three.
Bold prediction for the second half: Shohei Ohtani wins MVP. Is it bold to predict the reigning MVP will win MVP again? I think so given Ohtani's slower than expected April and the hot starts of other AL MVP candidates. Ohtani has been on the warpath since the calendar flipped to May. Since May 1:
Even with the sluggish April, Ohtani has already climbed into the top seven in WAR. Not even the Angels stink is great enough to steal MVP away from baseball's most transcendent talent. By the end of the year, the MVP trophy will be Ohtani's again. I'm boldly predicting it.
MVP: Paul Goldschmidt, Cardinals. Recent injuries have knocked Manny Machado (ankle) and Mookie Betts (rib) down a peg in the MVP race, though there's still plenty of time to make a run at the award. Goldschmidt is now entering month three of an all-out assault on National League pitching. He's been the league's best hitter, and his strong defensive reputation will help his case (for what it's worth, Goldschmidt's defensive numbers are quite poor this season). The Cardinals winning the division, or at least clinching a postseason spot, would help Goldschmidt come voting time.
Cy Young: Sandy Alcantara, Marlins. Alcantara is baseball's preeminent workhorse -- his 115 1/3 innings are 11 more than any other pitcher -- and he's so much more than an innings-eater. His 1.95 ERA is second lowest in the National League and third lowest in baseball, and he leads all players (pitchers and position players) with 4.3 WAR. Cy Young voters have shown they are willing to overlook significant differences in workload in favor of rate basis excellence (Corbin Burnes over Zack Wheeler in 2021 and Blake Snell over Justin Verlander in 2018), so Tony Gonsolin and his MLB best 1.54 ERA and 273 ERA+ in 81 2/3 innings is very much in this race.
Rookie of the Year: Spencer Strider, Braves. The NL Rookie of the Year race might be the most wide open awards race. The case can be made Strider, MacKenzie Gore, Jack Suwinski, Brendan Donovan, Michael Harris II, and Christopher Morel all deserve first-place votes. And then there's Oneil Cruz, the Pirates' one-man highlight reel. He got a late start to the season because
the Pirates manipulated his service time he needed to work on his defense, but if he keeps mashing rocket dingers, he'll play his way into the Rookie of the Year discussion. Right now, I lean Strider given the 2.87 ERA and 90 strikeouts in 59 2/3 innings.
Best team: Dodgers. The Mets are right behind the Dodgers in the standings, but there's a gap in the underlying numbers. The Dodgers have a significant edge in the core team-wide categories:
|Run differential||Runs scored per game||Runs allowed per game|
The Mets are really good. The Dodgers are better. The Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, and Padres are in the next tier behind the Mets. The fact the Dodgers feel like a bit underwhelming at 49-29 is a testament to their talent and expected excellence.
Biggest surprise: Padres without Tatis. Not just without Tatis, but with a handful of underperforming players as well. San Diego's outfield went into Sunday hitting .223/.306/.351 as a unit and that's with Jurickson Profar having a career year in left field. Their first base and DH positions are hitting .253/.327/.402 combined. Had you told me before the season Tatis would miss the first half and the Padres would get below-average production at first base, DH, and in the outfield, I would have assumed they were in third or fourth place and out of the NL West race. Instead, they have the league's third-best record at 47-34, . I know this past weekend against the Dodgers was a bit of a reality check, but the Padres have done nice working solidifying their spot in the postseason race without their best player.
Biggest disappointment: Giants. I didn't expect them to win 107 games again like last season, but it's the Fourth of July and San Francisco is hovering around .500 and is closer to fifth place than first place. They are 10-16 in one-run games and have been walked off five times, including three times in four-day span last month. The Giants have let a few too many leads slip away and lost too many coin flip games, those close games that could be decided on a bounce or an umpire's call. Those games seemed to go their way all last year, and that is just no longer the case. The Giants are still alive in the postseason race, no doubt about it, but the golden touch that drove their 2021 success is nowhere to be found in 2022.
Division race to watch in second half: NL East. Dodgers vs. Padres is always a blast and NL Central race might prove to be the most competitive when it's all said and done, but I find the NL East race most compelling. The Mets had a tremendous start before slowing down last month while the defending World Series champion Braves have surged up the standings following a slow start. New York took a 10 1/2-game division lead into June and it's been whittled down to 3 1/2 games. As an added bonus, the Mets and Braves still have 15 -- 15! -- head-to-head games remaining. With all due respect to the Brewers and Cardinals (and Dodgers and Padres), this is the division race I'm most looking forward to in the second half, in either league.
Bold prediction for the second half: Pirates finish third in NL Central. Make no mistake, the Pirates are very bad, but unlike the Cubs and Reds (their competition for third place), they are beginning to infuse their roster with high-upside young talent. Oneil Cruz was finally called up last month and Roansy Contreras is now in the rotation. Jack Suwinski is not the same caliber of prospect as Cruz and Contreras, but he currently leads National League rookies with 13 home runs and has raised the team's floor. Also, Chicago is poised to trade several veterans at the deadline, including free agents-to-be Willson Contreras and David Robertson. The Cubs subtracting their best hitter and best reliever will take a bite out of their win total down the stretch. Like I said, the Pirates are bad, but we're slowly beginning to see the makings of the next contending Pirates team (Cruz, Contreras, Ke'Bryan Hayes, etc.)