We're just past the halfway mark of the 2021 MLB season and a few days from the All-Star break. Fans are back in ballparks, and the contenders are starting to separate themselves from the pretenders.
This season feels like a victory in and of itself considering the 60-game season in 2021. However, the season has been marred by controversy. Between sticky stuff, a rise in injuries and the deeply rooted cultural issues that have been exposed, it's been hard to feel too great about baseball at times.
Some of the narratives can be put in the past as we head into the second half. Let's take a look at some of the biggest stories of the first half to try to preview the second, as well as some of the biggest questions that must be answered throughout the summer and fall.
Surprising Trends: Sticky Stuff, Injuries, 7 No-Hitters
Maybe there is a correlation between all three of these trends: We know that doctoring baseballs increases the spin rate and makes pitches more difficult to track, so hitters are swinging out of their shoes trying to connect. Now that the league has cracked down on foreign substances, pitchers are trying to grip the ball differently, and some, like Tampa Bay Rays ace Tyler Glasnow, think this is contributing to a rise in injuries, especially soft tissue injuries.
The league was embarrassed when players and managers so brazenly made the pitch-doctoring secret public. St. Louis Cardinals manager Mike Shildt went scorched earth after Giovanny Gallegos was told to remove his hat during a game in May. Players also went to the media to express their displeasure at how widespread the cheating was.
Commissioner Rob Manfred was forced to take action, but he overreacted by banning sunscreen and enforcing the ridiculous umpire checks. The commissioner instituted this policy after two months of data collection, which included balls checked by a third party, but he also did so just as the issue hit a peak.
The 2021 league batting average has hovered around .240 this season. Strikeouts are also up this season, but there has been a nearly year-over-year increase in whiffs for more than a decade as hitters try to exploit things like launch angles to hit home runs. It's a different game right now, and the entertainment value has suffered.
Surprising Teams: Giants, Red Sox, Twins
"Let the old guys play" has become the mantra for the San Francisco Giants, as an over-30 core of Buster Posey, Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford—the only three players left from the World Series dynasty days—as well as Donovan Solano, Mike Yastrzemski and Kevin Gausman have led a resurgence by the Bay. The average age of the Giants this year is 29.7, but that hasn't slowed the team down. The Giants lead the NL West, ahead of the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers, and have been in first place for most of the season.
Team president Farhan Zaidi and general manager Scott Harris have done a remarkable job bolstering the pitching staff and improving the prospect pool after the previous regime was forced to part with a number of prospects with the team in win-now mode from 2010 to 2016. That is why the trade deadline is so intriguing. The Brandons are in the final year of their contracts, but parting with them now would mean the front office doesn't believe this iteration of the Giants can win. The club is ahead of schedule on the rebuild, and bringing in prospects at the deadline instead of major league reinforcements would lead to some distrust from the team.
There were no real expectations for the Red Sox at the start of the season, and maybe that was a good thing. Alex Cora returned, and the team started playing entertaining baseball. The Red Sox have the third-best OPS, and they run the bases well. Their defense might not be the flashiest or the most staunch, but they are proficient enough. Their starting pitching has been streaky, and this could be the area the club looks to shore up at the deadline. They have a great bullpen that prominently features two New York Yankees castoffs in Adam Ottavino and Garrett Whitlock, but an overreliance on the bullpen in the summer could hurt in October.
The Red Sox lead the Rays by 2.5 games, and the Toronto Blue Jays and Yankees are both nine games behind.
Meanwhile, the Minnesota Twins have been surprisingly bad. Byron Buxton is on the injured list for a second time this season, but the offense hasn't been the problem. The starting pitchers aren't going deep into games, and the relievers can't hold runners—the Twins have an 8.81 ERA with runners on base.
They were one of the favorites to come out of the AL Central, but now they may have to trade someone like starting pitcher Jose Berrios to get something out of the season.
Questionable Storylines: Rise in Injuries, Awards Race, Trade Deadline
Some of baseball's biggest stars have suffered soft tissue injuries: Jack Flaherty, Fernando Tatis Jr. and Mike Trout are just a few.
USA Today's Gabe Lacques recently consulted with Conte Sport Performance Therapy to find out just how much of a rise in injuries we are seeing this season. Through May, there was a 160 percent increase in soft tissue injuries from 2019. Teams often use the 10-day injured list as a way to manage the roster. A player who is banged up and needs a few days off might go on the IL so another player can be called up in his place and the team won't have to play shorthanded.
But the type of soft tissue and muscle injuries we're seeing—like oblique strains and UCL tears—have increased.
The short season may have something to do with it, as we knew there would be aftereffects from 2020. Players who were unable to play last season are now trying to make up their at-bats and their innings, but there may be other factors as well since these injuries do tend to be overuse injuries, and throwing and hitting baseballs with such force causes stress on certain joints. Whether it's the ball, the pandemic or just certain ways today's game is played, the injury increase will need to be studied.
The AL MVP race is exceptionally intriguing this year, and Trout's calf strain has opened the door for more of a competition. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., at only 22 years old, has a legitimate chance to win the award, just like his dad did in 2004. He has the highest OPS in baseball (1.110), and he's been among the top offensive performers all season.
But Trout's teammate Shohei Ohtani is doing things we have never seen as a two-way player. He leads the league with 33 home runs and is 4-1 with a 3.49 ERA on the mound. He's been the Halos' best starting pitcher. He can defend when he does play in the outfield, and he's a threat to run on the basepaths. He's the most exciting player in a generation.
In the NL, Jacob deGrom might have a case at MVP and Cy Young. It's hard to argue that anyone means more to his team than deGrom does to the Mets.
There is a precedent set since Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw won both awards in 2014.
Speaking of Kershaw, the Dodgers have a hole in their rotation with him on the IL. The club received good news with a clean MRI on Friday, noting his elbow was just sore and that he could return after the All-Star break, but his absence exposes their lack of depth.
Major League Baseball and the MLBPA agreed to extend Bauer's administrative leave by another seven days, and there may be another extension as MLB and the Pasadena Police Department investigate allegations of sexual assault. Through his agents, Bauer has denied all allegations.
Los Angeles could be in the market for starting pitching at the July 31 trade deadline. Some of the top positional targets include Texas Rangers outfielder Joey Gallo, Colorado Rockies first baseman C.J. Cron and shortstop Trevor Story, and Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant.
A couple of the top pitchers on the market include Rangers right-hander Kyle Gibson and Atlanta Braves left-handed reliever Drew Smyly.
Questionable Teams: Yankees, Braves, Cardinals
The Yankees were World Series favorites behind only the Dodgers, but they've been inconsistent and disappointing. They have a lineup full of heavy hitters, but they're stiff on the bases, aren't great defensively and have little starting pitching depth outside of Gerrit Cole. Their bullpen is good but has been overtaxed at times.
General manager Brian Cashman has been looking for trade partners, but nothing has materialized. The AL East is deep, and the Yankees are in danger of missing the playoffs. Even the Seattle Mariners are ahead of New York in the AL wild-card standings. Something needs to change, and soon.
The Braves have to decide what they want to do, and selling at the deadline would probably be the smartest bet with the team playing uninspired baseball. Atlanta may not need a full rebuild, but a reset of sorts might help the Braves get back to the playoffs as soon as next season.
The Cardinals' pitching depth has taken a hit with Flaherty, Miles Mikolas and Daniel Ponce de Leon injured. St. Louis is nine games behind the San Diego Padres in the NL wild-card race and 9.5 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central.