Sunday, July 3, 2022

MLB Memorial Day check-in: Playoff picture, MVP races, biggest surprises, more as summer unofficially begins

It’s Memorial Day and means you, the baseball enthusiast, are now free to check the standings per longstanding tradition. The 2022 season is nearly two months (we got a late start because of the owners’ lockout, remember) and the contenders are starting to separate themselves from the contenders, and those hot and cold starts are sorting themselves out.

Now that summer has unofficially begun, let’s take stock of the baseball landscape. Come with me, won’t you?

Postseason Bracket

MLB has a new 12-team postseason format and there is some separation between the six postseason teams and the rest of the league in each league. These would be the postseason brackets if the season ended today (based on winning percentage):

AMERICAN LEAGUE

BYE: Yankees (.688) and Astros (.625)

WC1: Angels (.551) at Twins (.604)

WC2: Blue Jays (.574) at Rays (.596)

NATIONAL LEAGUE

BYE: Dodgers (.702) and Mets (.653)

WC1: Giants (.543) at Brewers (.625)

WC2: Cardinals (.553) at Padres (.638)

The White Sox (.500) are the first team outside the AL postseason field and they’re 2 1/2 games behind the Angels. The Braves (.479) are the top team on the outside looking in on the NL side, and they’re three games behind the Giants. There’s still plenty of time to close those gaps, though I’m surprised there’s that much distance between the postseason teams and everyone else.

American League

Best team: Yankees. Though the injuries are mounting and the Astros aren’t too far behind. New York’s pitching has been great all year (3.10 runs allowed per game, second fewest in baseball) while the offense has been more boom or bust. Gleyber Torres has nine home runs in 164 plate appearances this season after hitting nine homers in 516 plate appearances last year. The 25-year-old rediscovering his power stroke has been a welcome sight for the Bronx Bombers.

Biggest surprise: Twins. They lost 89 games a year ago but weren’t truly that bad. That said, the rotation didn’t look impressive on paper coming into the season, yet Minnesota is top five in baseball in run prevention (3.65 runs allowed per game). Also, 10 of the 11 players on the roster with at least 85 plate appearances have no worse than a 103 OPS+. The offense is deep and diverse.

Biggest disappointment: White Sox. Shoutout to the Mariners here, though the White Sox are the defending AL Central champs, yet here they are at 23-23 while being outscored by 49 — 49! — runs. They also just lost Tim Anderson, their best player, to a groin injury. Kudos to the ChiSox for cutting Dallas Keuchel when it was clear he’s no longer a viable starter for a contender instead of keeping him around just because he’s well-paid. Clearly though, this team is falling short of expectations.

MVP: Mike Trout. My hunch is Aaron Judge would win MVP if the vote was held today. He’s the best player on the league’s best team and he’s hit four more home runs that any other player in baseball. And he’s done that while playing for a contract. That said, Trout has been the sport’s best player yet again, and the Angels are a postseason team right now, so the “he doesn’t play for a contender” crowd doesn’t have a leg to stand on.

Cy Young: Justin Verlander. It’s been impossible to tell Verlander missed most of the last two seasons with Tommy John surgery. The 39-year-old owns a 2.03 ERA and 0.83 WHIP with 55 strikeouts in 57 2/3 innings. Part of me wonders whether Yankees lefty Nestor Cortes, who has 1.70 ERA and has Verlander beat in WAR (2.2 to 1.9), could win the Cy Young in a “the unconventional R.A. Dickey beats out Clayton Kershaw” kind of way. Cortes will have to keep this up another few months, of course.

Rookie of the Year: Jeremy Peña. Easy call here. Maybe Julio Rodríguez or Bobby Witt Jr. (or Adley Rutschman) makes this a race before the end of the season, but right now, Peña has been the league’s best rookie and it’s not close. Carlos Correa’s replacement has been so good he could get MVP votes, not just Rookie of the Year votes.

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National League

Best team: Dodgers. The Dodgers are so good it’s obnoxious. They lead baseball in runs scored per game (5.57) and in fewest runs allowed per game (3.04), and their plus-119 run differential is more than double the next best in the NL (Mets at plus-54). The best team in the league and the best team in baseball. I’m not sure there’s an argument to be made otherwise.

Biggest surprise: Padres. By default, I guess. There’s not really a standout surprise team in the NL. San Diego had such an awful finish last year (12-34 in their final 46 games!) and then Fernando Tatis Jr. suffered a wrist injury during the lockout, continuing the bad vibes. Rather than start slow, the pitching has been excellent and the offense has done just enough without Tatis. There were reasons to believe this team would stumble out of the gate. It hasn’t happened.

Biggest disappointment: Giants. I’m willing to give the Braves and their 23-25 record a pass seeing how they’re the defending World Series champs. The Giants are only four games over .500 though, and while some regression was expected seeing how so much went right last season, the regression has been more harsh than expected. Still a very good team, though not quite the powerhouse they were a year ago. 

MVP: Manny Machado. Mookie Betts has had a monster May to make this a close race, though Machado has been excellent since Opening Day and hasn’t slowed down at all. He leads the league in WAR by a decent amount and has been the best player on the league’s third best team. That and the consistent start to finish excellence will earn him plenty of MVP love, as well as my Memorial Day MVP vote.

Cy Young: Sandy Alcantara. It’s an extremely close race with Pablo López and Corbin Burnes. I’m comfortable going with Alcantara, who had a 14-strikeout masterpiece over the weekend and leads baseball in innings (67 2/3) and batters faced (262). I’m still a sucker for guys who chew up innings at an elite rate (I would’ve given my Cy Young vote to Zack Wheeler over Burnes last season) and Alcantara does it better than anyone in the game right now.

Rookie of the Year: MacKenzie Gore. After a few years that saw his prospect stock drop considerably, Gore owns a 1.71 ERA with 47 strikeouts in 42 innings this year, and looks every bit like the player who ranked as the game’s top pitching prospect not too long ago. Good reminder that development is not linear. There are often bumps in the road, and the best persevere.

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