Favorite Things: A National League Midseason Baseball Revue
With the All Star Break in the rearview, it’s time to continue our romp through a few of my favorite things from the first half of the baseball season. We’ve already covered the American League, so now we turn to the Senior Circuit, where the power ranking aspect of our journey is a bit tougher. With every single team but two within 4.5 games of a Wild Card spot, the postseason setup and who will be selling this month is extremely far from certain. The Dodgers are basically the only team with their path to October written and everything else is a hot mess. Hell, we might get even more play-in games than last year. But before we talk about those teams that are still the mix, we need to talk about the other guys.
15. Miami Marlins (34-57)
The Marlins have been, as planned and expected, quite bad on the whole. The offense as a whole has accumulated just 1.6 fWAR (NL worst) and the bullpen has notched -0.5 fWAR (just 0.1 better than the league-worst Mets). On the other hand, the rotation as a whole has been much better than expected, which must quite the silver lining for Fish Fans, if there are any left. The group as a whole comes in tied with the Astros in 6th by ERA (3.93), 12th by FIP (4.31) and 15th by fWAR (6.5). Caleb Smith (3.46 ERA) and Sandy Alcantara (3.94 ERA) have both impressed, with Jordan Tamamoto (1.24 ERA) and his lack of a fastball being the biggest surprise once he was called up a month ago. This isn’t to say that a Marlins game is appointment viewing or anything. If your offense is only going to score 3.56 runs per game, the worst mark in MLB, you’re going to lose a lot more games than you win. But we have to have a favorite Marlins thing, so a surprisingly cromulent rotation it is.
14. San Francisco Giants (43-49)
While the Giants have won eight of their last 10 and are now just 4.5 games back of a Wild Card spot, don’t be fooled. They still have the worst non-Marlins run differential in the league (-63) and there’s almost a whole league in between them and a Wild Card appearance. But if you’re looking for a reason to watch, look no further than Pablo Sandoval. Yup, the former World Series MVP who headed to Boston to become the worst player in baseball in 2015, miss all but three games in 2016 and then be one of the worst players in 2017 before being released and returning to San Francisco. Now, he’s hitting .274/.317/.543 for a 118 wRC+ over 203 PAs and, with all apologies to Alex Dickerson (193 wRC+ over 57 PAs) and Austin Slater (259 wRC+ over 25 PAs), Sandoval has been the Giants’ most consistently valuable hitter all season. While that might say something about the quality of the Giants’ offense as a whole, if you think that a player that homers, steals and pitches a perfect inning in the same game isn’t going to be on this list, you are very wrong.
13. New York Mets (42-51)
Unlike the teams we’ve already discussed, the Mets were actually supposed to be competitive this year, or so they thought. That didn’t happen and they know it. In addition to being bad, they’ve had so, so, so much clubhouse drama. While this is all very on brand for the Mets, at least they’ve got Peter Alonso. He’s notched 30 dingers to date, just one behind the MLB-leading Christian Yelich and tied with mid-season MVP Cody Bellinger. Most of them have been of the no-doubt variety. Go ahead, take a look (and the Statcast data backs it up, too). As it stands right now, he’s looking like a lock for the NL Rookie of the Year trophy, unless he’s cursed because he won the Home Run Derby. For now at least, you’ve still got at least one reason to tune in for a Mets game.
12. Pittsburgh Pirates (44-48)
Like the Mets before them, the Pirates are having yet another oh so on brand season, one where you could see them truly contending had they plopped down anything meaningful in free agency this offseason or maybe just hadn’t traded away Gerrit Cole. While they’re only 3.5 games back from a Wild Card spot at this particular moment, there’re just so many teams ahead of them that it’s hard to imagine it happening.
If I have to pick a player as my favorite thing about the Pirates this season, I would go with rookie Bryan Reynolds, who came over from San Francisco in the Andrew McCutchen trade. He’s hitting .336/.411/.522 for a 147 wRC+, albeit while sporting a .420 BABIP that suggests some regression might come eventually. I guess my real favorite thing about the Pirates this season is just how damn Piratesy it is. And it’s certainly not the Pittsburgh cone.
11. Cincinnati Reds (42-48)
You could argue that the Reds are having the worst go of it in all of baseball. With a +33 run differential, the good old Pythagorean theorem says they should be at 49-41, where they would be in possession of a Wild Card spot and in spitting distance of the division title. Unfortunately for Cincinnati, Mr. Pythagoras doesn’t determine the standings and their lack of luck in terms of timing their runs has landed them in last place. They’re still almost certainly a better team than the Pirates.
While all it would take is one extremely hot or cold week to change things drastically, you can’t just ignore their current position near the bottom of the standings. Another thing you can’t ignore? Pitcher Luis Castillo, who’s shaken off the rust from his sophomore campaign and is sitting on a 2.29 ERA (3rd best in MLB) and 3.9 bWAR (6th best). While the walks are still an issue, his ability to both get strikeouts (10.53 K/9) and keep the ball on the ground (56.3 GB%) makes him especially worthy of your viewing time.
10. Colorado Rockies (46-46)
The first of the three teams in the NL West clumped here in the power rankings, the Rockies might be 1.5 games ahead of the Padres in the standings, but I’ll take the Padres going forward. Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado are both raking, German Marquez and Jon Gray are dealing and Charlie Blackmon is somehow managing to cancel out much of his contributions at the plate (139 wRC+) with some extremely questionable defense (2nd worst in MLB by Fangraphs’ comprehensive defensive statistic).
As I’ll be moving to Denver in a month, I wish I could place the Rockies higher up, but I just can’t. So I’ll admit that my favorite thing about the Rockies’ season is that they’re only 1.5 games out of a Wild Card spot despite the fact that they’ve been running out some of the worst players in either league on a regular basis. If we set the minimum PAs to 80, the Rockies have four of the least valuable players in baseball. Garrett Hampson, Raimel Tapia, Brendan Rodgers and Mark Reynolds have combined for 635 PAs and -3.1 fWAR. I’m actually impressed, although I do sincerely hope that they can sort some of this out before my arrival. Consider this a favorite-things-reverse-jinx, Colorado.
9. San Diego Padres (45-48)
San Diego did the unthinkable when they promoted some major-league-ready young talent to start the season rather than keeping them down to manipulate smartly add another year of service time. Despite their bold decision to call up Chris Paddack (2.84 ERA, 147 ERA+, 2.0 bWAR) and Fernando Tatís, Jr. (.339/.406/.615, 164 wRC+, 3.4 fWAR), things haven’t quite worked out as well as expected at a team level. They’re shy of .500 and have a 42 run differential. And yet, they’re just three games out of a Wild Card spot, thanks in a large part to those aggressive callups. Even if it might not be the “smartest” baseball decision to burn that extra year of control, I really appreciate the good faith in which they acted, not to mention the fact they’ve reaped the benefits, and that’d be my favorite thing about the Padres.
8. Arizona Diamondbacks (47-47)
Part of the reason that Arizona gets the nod over the D-Backs and Pads, besides the fact that they have the best run differential (+50) among all non-division leading NL teams, is that they currently have Zack Greinke. Even if the rumor mill is a grinding regarding a potential trade, he’s still there and he’s dealing. With a 2.95 ERA, 3.19 FIP and 3.2 fWAR, he’s having his best season since 2015, when he fell just short of collecting his second Cy Young Award, despite the fact that he’s lost quite a bit of velocity and his ability to induce Ks. But his ridiculous eephus is a thing of beauty and he’s a #PitcherWhoRakes, with a .250/.283/.545 slashline which is good for a 106 wRC+. So, yes, Greinke is my favorite thing about the Diamondbacks.
7. Philadelphia Phillies (48-45)
Now that we wrapped the Western division logjam up, we can shimmy on eastward, where Phillie fans have been on a wild ride this season. The early season stumbles of the Nationals saw Philadelphia spend the first couple of months in first and made it look like their offseason expenditures paved the way for a triumphant return to the postseason. Then the Braves and Nationals both surged in June and now it’s looking increasingly unlikely that they can even hold on to the Wild Card spot they’re currently in possession (by only a half game), much less win the division, especially since they’re sporting a -2 run differential. They’ve lost 17 of their last 30 games and they had to take 6 of 7 against the dysfunctioning Mets to even get to that point. While there’ve been some solid performances from Phillies position players, the pitching has been rather atrocious and I don’t really feel like picking a player for my favorite thing, so I’m just going to with the lucky bamboo, whose mojo has apparently worn off.
6. St. Louis Cardinals (46-45)
The Cardinals have one of the biggest gaps in terms of my own personal preseason expectations and their actual win-loss record at this point. While they’re just three games back in the division and one game back of the Wild Card and my prediction that they’d win the division is certainly still on the table, I certainly thought they’d be a bit further above .500 at this point. There are many reasons for that expectations-reality differential, but perhaps it’s perfectly demonstrated by Paul Goldschmidt. His 251/.339/.427 slashline for a 103 wRC+ is still above average, but just barely, and it’s the worst Goldy has hit in his nine seasons in MLB.
That’s sort of the story of the Cardinals’ season on the whole: basically everyone is underperforming their relative expectations, with the exception of the other Paul, Mr. DeJong. But rather than award him the Midseason Cardinals Favorite Thing Award™ to DeJong, I’m instead going to go with one of my favorite hits of the year, was this Matt Carpenter bunt against the shift for a stand-up double, a magical baseball thing.
5. Milwaukee Brewers (48-46)
The Brewers spent a big chunk of the season in first place, and were there as recently as approximately a week ago. They’re just a half game out of a Wild Card spot today, but still something just feels off about their position in the standings. It starts with the fact that they have a -24 run differential, but there’s other things of concern as well. The pitching staff as a whole has been worth 8.8 fWAR (14th in MLB), and over half of that has come from two pitchers, Brandon Woodruff (3.1) and Josh Hader (1.5). On the offensive side of the ball, Christian Yelich (.330/.430/.708, 32 HRs, 5.2 fWAR) is having another MVP-level season, even if he wouldn’t win it if the season ended today, thanks to a Dodger we’ll be discussing shortly. He’s certainly my favorite thing about the Brewers, especially since he seems like such a genuinely nice dude. But after him, and offseason steals Yasmani Grandal and Mike Moustakas, production drops off rather abruptly. I sort of get the feeling that they’re an injury away from falling out of contention completely, but if and until that happens, they’ll stay up near the top of the NL.
4. Chicago Cubs (50-43)
Despite all my preseason naysaying that the Cubs were going to disappoint and then the team stumbling out of the gates to start the season, they clawed their way back in. By early May, they took the lead in the division and they’ve just been passing the torch back and forth with the Brewers ever since. Their +67 run differential is a full 91 runs better than the Brew Crew, so they definitely get the nod in the rankings, but it’s hard to get particularly excited about how things have gone on the North Side of Chicago.
Much like the Cardinals, there are disappointments throughout the roster and deeper problems are being reported on, too. That last link is a bit of a depressing read, and won’t be heartening for Cubs fans. I guess my favorite thing about the Cubs is that they actually decided to give Craig Kimbrel a home. While his numbers on the season don’t look pretty right now, adding him was still a smart move, and I fully hope and expect that he’ll round into form as he shakes some of the dust off.
3. Washington Nationals (49-43)
On May 23, the Nationals hit the nadir of their season, dropping to 10 games back in the division. Since then, they’ve been cruising and have only lost 11 out of their last 39 games. Sure, their last four series have involved bottom dwellers in the Royals and Tigers and two against the Marlins, but they’ve done what they needed to do. The remainder of July, on the other hand, includes 10 games against the two teams ahead of them in our rankings, so anything could happen before the trade deadline, from the Nationals usurping the Braves’ spot ahead of them to falling back behind the Phillies again.
It’s worth tuning into a random Nats game, because they have arguably the best rotation in baseball. Max Scherzer is putting up yet another Cy Young level (although he just hit the IL with a back strain) season and Seven Strasburg has been on point as well. While Patrick Corbin hasn’t had the success he did last year, he’s still been solid. If the offense can just get going a bit, as Juan Soto has as of late, we could see the Nationals pass the Braves before too long. Or we could see the Nationals dealing come the deadline. It’s shaping out to be a fascinating year in Washington, especially with so many important players (Scherzer, Strasbourg, Anthony Rendon) potentially hitting free agency in the next couple years.
2. Atlanta Braves (57-37)
While the Nationals were surging, the Braves just refused to go away, losing only 14 games over that same span, but starting off from a much more enviable position. They took over first place on June 12 and haven’t handed it off since. The last time we talked about the Braves, they had one of the better offenses in the National League, but problems on the pitching front. That remains true, but at least Dallas Keuchel has finally arrived in MLB to help and they’ll get Anthony Swarzak back in the bullpen soon (he of the 0.52 ERA since arriving in Atlanta). Had I chosen a favorite thing on the Braves up until pretty recently, it would have been Mike Soroka and his low-velocity, throwback acing it up. But he’s had a couple of rough starts as of late, so I guess I’ll just go with their super fun and interesting offense as a whole and call it a day. While I’m a bit skeptical of their 17-10 record in one-run games and 8-3 record in extra-innings, they’ve still got enough of a lead in the standings to give them the number two spot in the rankings for now.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers (62-33)
The Dodgers not only take the top spot in our power rankings, but if you’re betting on a team to win the World Series, you’d probably be wise to look here, given their best-in-MLB +134 run differential and their depth throughout the team. Only the Astros can compete on that latter point, although the Yankees might challenge them if they ever get fully healthy. With so many contributions up and down the roster, it’s hard to pick out a favorite thing. Cody Bellinger (.335/.432/.689, 183 wRC+, 5.7 wRC+) would be the seemingly obvious choice, given that he’s the NL midseason MVP. But I’ll go with Hyun-Jin Ryu and his 1.78 ERA instead. Now that he seems to finally be healthy, after years of issues, he’s replaced Clayton Kershaw as the dominant lefty in Los Angeles and has just been absolutely embarrassing hitters. It’s a long haul through October baseball and the Dodgers are far from guaranteed their third straight World Series appearance, but they look like as good a bet as any team in baseball to go all the way this year.