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Your Sports Experience

The biggest surprises of MLB’s first half

As we await the MLB season’s resumption later this week, I thought it would be fun to reflect on everything we’ve seen so far. To date, a lot of things have unfolded the way we thought they would back in spring training, but perhaps, even more, have not. Let’s take a look at some of the biggest surprises the first half of the MLB season has brought. 


(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The western world knew Shohei Ohtani was a star from the moment he left Japan and joined the Angels ahead of the 2018campaign. And while he was the AL Rookie of the Year that season and has been a productive part of LA’s team for a while, Ohtani had never done what he’s doing right now. The left-handed slugger currently leads the Majors with 33 home runs, and his 70 RBI trail only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Rafael Devers. But what makes Ohtani the odds on favorite to win MVP is not just what he’s doing at the plate. Every 5th day he takes the mound for the Angels, and he’s blossomed into the ace of their staff. In 13 first-half starts, the right-handed pitcher has put up a 3.49 ERA with a .195 batting average against. While punching out 87 hitters in 67 innings. Baseball has just not seen this level of two-way star really since Babe Ruth, and it’s been just incredible to watch. 


2 of 20

The Yankees’ struggles

The Yankees' struggles

(Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

This was just not the way 2021 was supposed to go in the Bronx. Entering the year the Yankees had been postseason participants in five of the previous six seasons, and with a Tampa Bay team that lost two of their top starting pitchers over the winter, the AL East looked like New York’s to lose. Well. They’re losing it. At the break, the Yanks sit in 4th place and a whopping eight games back of Boston for the division lead. In the wild card race, they’re 4.5 behind Oakland for the final playoff spot, with three other teams ahead of them. New York has just struggled to get anything going, and even after an emotionally uplifting performance by their ace Gerrit Cole last Saturday, they followed that up by allowing six runs in the 9th inning to humiliatingly blow a late 7-2 lead to the hated Astros in the last game before the break. 


3 of 20

How the A’s are still not being talked about enough

How the A's are still not being talked about enough

(Photo by Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

Perpetually in baseball, there are two small-market franchises that never seem to get enough attention for just how good they are. Tampa Bay and Oakland. The Rays vault to the AL pennant last fall seems to have put them a little more on the national radar this year, but how do people continue to sleep on the A’s? At the break, Oakland is 12 games over .500 and only 3.5 behind Houston for the AL West lead. They’re also 3.5 clear of the competition and holding the 2nd wild card position. The A’s are doing it with a pitching staff led by relative unknowns to the national audience in Sean Manaea and Chris Bassitt, and a line-up that’s gotten a career year from first baseman Matt Olsen and a rejuvenated performance from Jed Lowrie in his Bay Area return.  


4 of 20

The Giants owning the best record in the big leagues

The Giants owning the best record in the big leagues

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

This is probably the biggest surprise in the game at the moment, to be honest. Heading into 2021 you knew the NL West was loaded, with both the Dodgers and Padres expected to be the two top teams in the league. The rest of the division? Well, not so much. How wrong could that have been? Led by skipper Gabe Kapler the Giants have been the best team in baseball thus far and it’s been a full team effort. San Francisco has seen 19 individual players hit home runs for them in 2021, and on the pitching side career years from Kevin Gausman and Anthony DeSclafani have gone a long way towards keeping them atop the senior circuit. The Giants have a daunting schedule over the final two and a half months, but nothing they did in the first half would indicate they aren’t up for the task. 


5 of 20

The Angels staying relevant without Mike Trout

The Angels staying relevant without Mike Trout

(Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images)

Maybe the Angels got sick of hearing the narrative of them having the best player in the sport but being unable to win with him. All world superstar Mike Trout went down with a calf injury on May 17th, and most observers of America’s Pastime probably assumed their season was over on that date. Well. Since Trout hit the IL the Angels have gone 27-22 and found a way to keep themselves relevant heading into the second half. That’s in large part due to the brilliance of the aforementioned Shohei Ohtani, but with Trout slated to return soon after the break, this could be a team to watch. Los Angeles is only 5.5 out of a playoff spot, and one sustained hot streak could put them firmly in the postseason mix. 


6 of 20

The extent of Jacob deGrom’s dominance

The extent of Jacob deGrom's dominance

(Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)

What’s left to say about Mets’ ace, Jacob deGrom? The right-hander is the unparalleled best pitcher in our sport and it’s really not close. Five runs allowed over his last 14 innings ballooned deGrom’s ERA all the way up to 1.08. In seven of his 15 starts though, deGrom has not allowed a single runner to score, and in addition to ERA, he’s also pacing the league in both WHIP and batting average against. deGrom is sitting out the all-star game this week with his sights set on leading the Mets to their first NL East crown in six years. 


7 of 20

The Braves reaching the break with a losing record

The Braves reaching the break with a losing record

(Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images)

Fresh off three consecutive NL East titles this was surely not the 2021 the Braves or their fans had in mind. Bit hard by the injury bug–Atlanta has already lost all of Ronald Acuna Jr., Mike Soroka, and Travis d’Arnaud for the year due to injury. (In addition to Marcell Ozuna for a whole other reason). Their season is not over by any means as they’re only four behind the Mets for the NL East lead at the break, but at 44-45, Atlanta will need some reinforcements if they’re going to make a serious playoff push. 


8 of 20

The mediocrity of the NL East in general

The mediocrity of the NL East in general

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Speaking of the NL East. Most people agreed during spring training that this division was likely to be the most competitive in baseball. As I just mentioned, the Braves had owned the East for several years in a row and were again strong on paper. The Mets made a ton of improvements. The Nationals added veterans Kyle Schwarber and Brad Hand and felt they were back to being a legitimate title threat. And the Phillies really believed they could make this division a four-team race. Instead, Philadelphia has been held back by a historically bad bullpen, the Nationals have struggled mightily to gain any traction, and Atlanta has lost several key pieces due to injury and had spotty play from everyone whose last name is not Acuna, Freeman, or Albies. The Mets have led this division for over two months and have had their issues themselves, but if nobody else can string together any consistency they may win the division by default.


9 of 20

The way the Cubs completely fell off a cliff

The way the Cubs completely fell off a cliff

(Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

Where the Cubs are right now might not represent a total surprise, but the way they got there might. Chicago was expected to take a step back in 2021 and perhaps be a seller at the deadline, but midway through June that not their reality at all. As recently as June 22nd Chicago led the NL Central. Now they’re eight behind the Brewers and in 4th place. An eleven-game losing streak essentially ended the Cubs’ postseason hopes, and now we wait and see just how many stars they will really trade away. 


10 of 20

Kyle Schwarber’s home run tear

Kyle Schwarber's home run tear

(Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)

The one real hot streak the Nationals were able to put together this season came in the second half of June, and it was almost entirely the doing of a one-man wrecking crew. Left-handed slugger Kyle Schwarber blasted a ridiculous 12 long balls in a 10 game span, tying Albert Belle for the most ever in that time frame. Unfortunately for both Schwarber and the Nationals, shortly after that, he went down with a hamstring injury that may keep him out for a while. 

The breakout of Jared Walsh

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

We mentioned earlier how well the Angels have played even in the absence of Mike Trout, and while Shohei Ohtani is the primary reason why here is another. First baseman Jared Walsh has enjoyed one hell of a breakout campaign, and should not be overlooked because of his teammates’ brilliance. So far in 2021 Walsh has slashed .278/.336/.556 with 22 homers and 65 RBI. He qualified for his first all-star game and was the main reason why the Angels felt compelled to let Albert Pujols go in May. 

Cedric Mullins' emergence

(Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images)

There haven’t been all that many bright spots for the Orioles in 2021, as at the break they sit at an AL worst 28-61. But the performance of their young center fielder, Cedric Mullins, certainly tops the list. Mullins ditched switch-hitting this spring, and the way his first few months of this season have gone it’s fair to wonder why he didn’t earlier. In 88 games he’s slashed an impressive .314/.380/.541 with 16 homers, 35 RBI, 23 doubles, 16 steals, and three triples. He’s become the type of dynamic lead-off hitter every team covets, and he’ll represent the O’s this week at the all-star game. 


13 of 20

The Mets hanging on to first place with a comical amount of injuries

The Mets hanging on to first place with a comical amount of injuries

(Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

A lot of teams have dealt with injuries this year. And then there are the Mets. For much of the first half New York was absent all of Brandon Nimmo, Michael Conforto, Jeff McNeil, and J.D. Davis–exactly half of their everyday line-up. First baseman Pete Alonso also missed a few weeks in May, the pitching staff hasn’t even got to see Carlos Carrasco or Noah Syndergaard yet, and the injuries didn’t stop there. While Nimmo was out the Mets lost all of Kevin Pillar, Albert Almora, and Johneshwy Fargas to the IL, and had to acquire Cameron Maybin just to fill in in center field for a while. Through it all New York finished the 1st half 47-40 and 3.5 games up in the NL East. If they have more luck health-wise in the second half they should run away with their division. 

Kevin Gausman turning into an ace

(Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

We’ve touched on how good the San Francisco Giants have been in ’21, and now let’s dive into one of the biggest reasons why.  Former Orioles’ first-round pick Kevin Gausman has been a middling middle-of-the-rotation starter for most of his career, but the right-hander has become probably the best pitcher in baseball not named Jacob deGrom this year. In 18 stars Gausman owns a lights-out 1.73 ERA with a 0.82 WHIP while holding the opposition to a .159 batting average and striking out 133 hitters in 114.2 innings. He’s been the biggest reason for the Giants’ unbelievable start, and they’ll need him to keep it up down the stretch to finish what they’ve started. 

Daniel Camarena's grand slam off Max Scherzer

(Photo by Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)

This was undoubtedly the single most surprising individual moment baseball has seen in a while. Just last week the Padres fell behind Washington 8-0 while the Nationals had Max Scherzer on the bump. Game over, right? Wrong. San Diego brought young Daniel Camarena into the game to just eat up innings in long relief and was forced to let him bat with the bases loaded in the 4th. The rookie in just his second big league game promptly crushed a grand slam to pull the Friars closer in a game they would ultimately walk off in the 9th. He was greeted in the dugout by Manny Machado who put the swag chain on him and officially welcomed him to Slam Diego. Just a super cool moment. 


16 of 20

How good the Red Sox are

How good the Red Sox are

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

It was a pretty fair bet that the 2021 version of the Red Sox would be better than the one that went 24-36 in the truncated ’20 campaign. But I don’t think many people thought they’d be quite this good. The Bo-Sox hit the break 1.5 games up on Tampa Bay in the AL East and just percentage points behind the White Sox for the best mark in the American League. 


17 of 20

How bad the Twins are

How bad the Twins are

(Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

Sticking with teams that conduct spring training in Fort Myers. Minnesota entered 2021 fully believing they’d be making a return trip to the postseason, and instead, they find themselves as probably the most disappointing seller as we approach the deadline. The Twins needed a four-game winning streak ahead of the break just to pull within 11 games of .500, but it won’t be enough to keep them from trading off assets. Jose Berrios, Josh Donaldson, Nelson Cruz, and others could all be wearing new uniforms in just a couple of weeks. 

The emergence of Chris Flexen

(Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images)

From an individual standpoint, this has been a pretty cool development to watch unfold. Right-hander Chris Flexen was a 14th round pick of the Mets all the way back in ’12, and his cups of coffee in New York were not all that promising. In 27 appearances as a Met Flexen owned an ugly 8.07 ERA across 68 innings and was ultimately let go. In 2020 he latched on with the Doosan Bears in the KBO and was able to translate a productive showing there into an opportunity with the Mariners this spring. And boy has he taken advantage of it. In 16 starts he’s delivered a 3.51 ERA in 92.1 innings, and been a big part of the reason why Seattle is five games over .500 at the moment. 


19 of 20

The entire sticky stuff scandal

The entire sticky stuff scandal

(Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)

The idea of players trying to find some sort of an edge is not in the least bit surprising. But the way this full-blown sticky stuff scandal has taken over the sport is quite shocking. We’ve had hitters, especially Minnesota’s Josh Donaldson aggressively calling out opposing pitchers, some of whom–namely New York’s Gerrit Cole –have kind of put their foot in their mouth while talking about it. This situation is not going to go away, but at least from where I’m sitting, I think the league would be well served to come up with some sort of universally approved substance moving forward. 


20 of 20

Kumar Rocker falling to #10 in the draft

Kumar Rocker falling to #10 in the draft

(Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

The first round of the MLB draft was just conducted on Sunday, allowing this to just sneak into this list and still be considered as happening in the first half. Vanderbilt right-hander Kumar Rocker was the top-ranked collegiate prospect on many draft boards heading into this NCAA season, and while he was passed by his own teammate, Jack Leiter, most still felt he would go in the top five. Some inconsistency with his velocity may have contributed to Rocker’s slip, but the Mets were ecstatic to see him sitting there when they went on the clock. If he develops into the kind of top of the rotation starter many scouts think he can be, there are going to be several organizations kicking themselves over this decision in a couple of years. 

Justin Mears is a freelance sports writer from Long Beach Island, NJ. Enjoys being frustrated by the Mets and Cowboys, reading Linwood Barclay novels, and being yelled at by his toddler son. Follow him on twitter @justinwmears

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