Now that the MLB All-Star Game is over — with hometown favorite Shane Bieber winning MVP (despite not even being the most valuable pitcher on his own team) — the baseball world can finally turn its attention toward the stretch run of the season, in games that actually count. 2019 has given us some interesting twists already: For all the division races that have gone mostly according to expectations, there are several others that definitely haven’t, and the same goes for unexpected breakout players cropping up among the old standbys. So with a little help from our MLB Elo ratings and probabilities, let’s take a look at the important questions that will be answered in the second half:
Can Cody Bellinger hold off Mike Trout?
A healthy Mike Trout is usually a strong pick to lead the majors in WAR. From the Los Angeles Angels outfielder’s first full MLB season in 2012 through 2018, Trout finished first among hitters in WAR four times in seven chances. The only exceptions were 2015 (when Bryce Harper rattled off what looks like one of the all-time fluke seasons), 2017 (when Trout was injured for a big part of the season) and 2018 (when both happened — Trout was hurt and Mookie Betts also had an all-time great campaign). The 27-year-old Trout has already passed numerous Hall of Famers in career WAR, so it makes sense that it would take either an injury or a historic rival season to dethrone him from his customary spot atop the league leaderboard.
This year, Trout is healthy, which is a big part of the equation. He’s also having one of his best-ever seasons at the plate. But this time, the rival performance is an all-time great one being served up by Dodgers right fielder Cody Bellinger, who is on pace for 10.8 WAR by season’s end (which would rank among the top 30 or so seasons by a batter in MLB history). Bellinger streaked ahead of Trout relatively early in the season and hasn’t looked back — though maybe he should start checking the rearview mirror. With a .476 weighted on-base average to Bellinger’s .303 over the past 14 days, Trout has now pulled within 0.07 WAR of his Dodger counterpart on the season. And on top of his stellar numbers, Trout is also one of the most consistent players in baseball history, so he’s likely to get to his usual (astronomical) WAR level by the end of the year. The real question is whether Bellinger can continue to keep pace with this crazy career year of his own.
Can the Twins hang on to the AL Central?
The Minnesota Twins have easily been the most surprising team of the season thus far, staking themselves to the majors’ third-best record (56-33) and a 5½-game lead over the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central. Before the season, our model thought Cleveland had the edge in talent over Minnesota, even if the Tribe had allowed their gap over the rest of the division to narrow since 2018. But that gap ended up being much smaller than anyone imagined — perhaps even nonexistent! In addition to its superior record, Minnesota has vastly outperformed Cleveland in terms of run differential (+116 to +27) and total wins above replacement1 (31.3 to 19.6).
Even so, our Elo ratings think the Indians are gaining on the Twins recently, especially after Cleveland trimmed Minnesota’s division lead from 11 games on June 15 to half that in a little over three weeks. Our model still gives Minnesota a 78 percent chance of resisting a Cleveland surge, and some of the Tribe’s problems aren’t going away soon. Injured ace Corey Kluber hasn’t pitched in months, and fellow starter Carlos Carrasco recently announced that he had been diagnosed with leukemia. But it’s also fair to wonder whether third baseman Jose Ramirez — an MVP candidate in 2018 — will continue to be one of baseball’s most disappointing players in the second half, as well as if some of the most unexpectedly good Twins (Jorge Polanco, Mitch Garver, Jake Odorizzi, etc.) will stay as hot going forward. If the teams play more to the form our model had originally predicted, this could be a very intriguing battle.
Who will win the National League Central?
At the All-Star break, the NL Central is baseball’s only division with a leader up by five games or fewer. (It’s only the second case since the six-division era started in 1994 where just one division was within five games at the break .) The FiveThirtyEight predictions make it even clearer how tight this division is: the Chicago Cubs lead with just a 42 percent probability of winning the Central — making them the only current division favorite with less than a 70 percent chance to win — and four teams have a double-digit probability, including Chicago, the Milwaukee Brewers (26 percent), St. Louis Cardinals (14 percent) and Pittsburgh Pirates (11 percent). (Even the cellar-dwelling Cincinnati Reds still have a 7 percent shot at the division title.)
The Cubs would seem to have the edge in the second half, however. They have a +55 run differential, while two of their four division rivals have actually been outscored this season. (The Brewers have a -17 scoring margin, and the Pirates have one of -36; the closest competitor to Chicago is actually Cincinnati at +27, even though the Reds have the worst record of all four Cub rivals.) The Brewers have the best individual player of the division in right fielder Christian Yelich (on pace for 8.8 WAR), and they sent five players to the All-Star Game, tied for the second-most of any MLB team. But they’ve also seen their share of letdowns, headlined by Lorenzo Cain and Travis Shaw. Whichever NL Central teams lose out on the playoffs, one thing’s for sure: they will be disappointed, given how close they were with two and a half months left in the regular season.
How wrong was I about Washington?
About a month ago, I wrote that the NL East race — which once looked like a four-team battle between the Washington Nationals, New York Mets, Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies — had been winnowed down to just the Braves and Phillies. Well, one of those teams has kept winning: Atlanta is 11-6 since June 18. But Philadelphia promptly went 8-11 over that same span, while Washington has gone 14-4 and increased its Elo rating by 8.4 points, sixth-most in baseball behind the Pirates, Giants, Athletics, Yankees and Orioles.
As a result, the NL East race has shifted — if slightly.
It still looks like a two-team race, and the Braves are still at the top. In fact, Atlanta’s odds of winning the division have only gotten even better over the past month, rising from 59 percent to 72 percent. But the Nationals now have the second-best chance of winning the East, at 19 percent, with the Phillies dropping down to 9 percent. Washington is also now likely to make the playoffs (58 percent), while Philly has just a 38 percent chance of getting into the postseason. The teams are separated by just a half-game in the standings, but there’s no question Bryce Harper’s old team has played better than his new one in the first half of 2019.2 The degree to which Washington can threaten the Braves depends on how much they keep proving me wrong.
How top-heavy can baseball get?
Our model currently predicts that four teams — the Yankees, Dodgers, Astros and Twins — will finish with at least 98 wins (with three of those cracking triple-digits). If that happens, it would be the most 98-win teams in a single season since 2002, when five teams broke that barrier. At the same time, five teams are projected for 98 or more losses (including four tracking for triple-digit defeats). If that holds up, it would tie last season for the most such teams since 1977.
This kind of thing is nothing new in the modern world of MLB, where the tanking trend has led to a bunch of bottom-feeders waving the white flag while a bunch of powerhouses destroy them. But even by those recent standards, the 2019 season could break new ground in top-heaviness. It might make for some less-than-compelling regular season contests down the stretch, particularly once rosters expand in September — but it could also lead to multiple titanic postseason matchups between teams with gaudy records, particularly in the AL.
Will the home runs ever let up?
If the 2019 season is remembered for anything, it seems likely that it will go down as the Year of the Home Run. (Until the next Year of the Home Run, that is.) So far this season, 1.37 balls have left the yard on average every game, which would shatter the all-time record (set in 2017) by nearly 9 percent if it holds up in the second half. 25 of 30 teams have hit at least 100 homers before the All-Star break, while 35 different players hit at least 20 bombs, and nine have hit at least 25. Overall, the 3,691 home runs smashed so far are, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, the most in a first half in baseball history. (The previous record was 3,343 in 2017.)
With August, traditionally one of the most homer-heavy months, still remaining to be played, it seems likely that the all-time record for most dingers in a single MLB season will be obliterated. Love or hate the homer-centric style of baseball being played in today’s game — let’s ask Justin Verlander what he thinks — the long ball is more fundamental to the fabric of the sport than it’s ever been, and it shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Will the champs even make the playoffs?
The Boston Red Sox have turned things around some since their abysmal start to the season, winning 18 of their past 30 games (a 97-win pace per 162 games). Although staff ace Chris Sale continues to struggle (5.96 ERA in the last month), the 2019 Sox have at least mostly begun to resemble the fearsome team that dominated MLB essentially from wire to wire a season ago. But is it too little, too late?
According to the FiveThirtyEight model, Boston has less than a coin flip’s chance (47 percent) to make the playoffs heading into the season’s home stretch. That number includes almost no chance of winning the AL East (6 percent), both because the rival New York Yankees have played so well and because the Tampa Bay Rays have exceeded expectations (again) and are on pace to win 92 games according to our model. That leaves the Red Sox in a numbers game for the AL’s other Wild Card slot, which is looking like it will go to the Indians — who themselves have been squeezed by the upstart Twins. In other words, some quality AL team will be left out of the postseason, and right now that team is looking like the defending champs, thanks to their early season World Series hangover.
Check out our latest MLB predictions.