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Nine things we learned in the first half

@RichardJustice
July 10, 2019

Now that was a first half. Couldn’t ask for much more, could we? Standings scrambled. Homers flying. Another wave of young talent. Things move fast, too. One day, you’re sprucing up the ballpark for Opening Day, and it seems like 20 minutes later, the stretch run is almost here. So

Now that was a first half. Couldn’t ask for much more, could we? Standings scrambled. Homers flying. Another wave of young talent. Things move fast, too.

One day, you’re sprucing up the ballpark for Opening Day, and it seems like 20 minutes later, the stretch run is almost here. So this is a good time to take stock at an All-Star break at which 11 of 15 National League teams are within 2 1/2 games of a playoff berth and eight AL teams are within three games.

Here are nine things we’ve learned so far.

1. The Dodgers are the best team

They’re playing at a 106-win clip and have a 13 1/2-game division lead, thanks to a roster that’s ridiculously deep and a pitching staff that has been excellent. There’s also a sprinkling of magic with five walk-off wins in the three weeks leading up to the All-Star break. Once they acquire a reliever or two at the Trade Deadline, they’ll be nicely positioned for a seventh straight division title and a run at winning the World Series for the first time since 1988. (Note of caution: As we often see, the best team doesn’t always win the World Series.)

2. You want parity, you’ve got parity

The NL has 15 teams. Eleven of them -- that’s 11 of 15 -- are within 2 1/2 games of a postseason berth. Yes, this is an era of unprecedented parity, with 17 teams playing at least one postseason series the last three seasons. In the last decade, 14 franchises have been to the World Series at least once. But this season has taken the wide openness of the races to another level. Throw in eight AL teams within three games of a berth, and that’s 19 of 30 very much in the mix. This means that executives face tremendous pressure in how they handle the Trade Deadline, whether they add or subtract, go for it in 2019 or begin planning for 2020. Or in the case of a team like the Indians, they could attempt to do both, say, trade Trevor Bauer and still figure out a way to win the AL Central.

3. Home runs are a thing. What’s the problem?

Yes, home runs are again being hit at a record clip. Christian Yelich, Pete Alonso and Cody Bellinger are already in the 30-homer club this season, and another 31 players have hit at least 20. In all, we’ve had 3,691 of 'em and may break the all-time record of 6,105, set in 2017. Yes, launch angle is emphasized and exit velocity studied. Yes, the baseball appears to have some extra oomph to it. To fret about baseball in 2019 is to ignore that baseball has always evolved through the years and will so again, as the same smart front offices that got us here figure out where we go next. Bottom line? Is the game entertaining in 2019? Absolutely. Is it exciting? You bet. This is not a bad thing.

4. Mike Trout is as good as ever

Bellinger has had the kind of first half that could begin to define him as a generational player. Yelich is even better this season than he was last season, when he was the NL MVP. Youngsters like Ronald Acuña Jr., Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Josh Bell are reminders that there may never have been a better time to be a baseball fan. But we are blessed to be the generation of fans that can say they saw one of the five or six best players of all-time perform, and that’s Mike Trout. He already has 28 homers, a 1.098 OPS, and per the Steamer projection system, he’s projected to finish the season with 10.4 WAR, which would represent a career best.

5. Do not take your eyes off the Nationals and Indians

Remember what we thought about them on Opening Day? Lots of us figured they’d win their divisions and maybe make some noise in October. Then both got off to lousy starts, and the narrative around both clubs became about dismissing managers, trading stars and rebuilding. And then both started to play well. Actually, really well.

The Indians are 21-8 since June 4 and have cut their deficit in the AL Central from 11 games to 5 1/2 since June 15. If the season ended today, they would play in St. Petersburg in the Wild Card Game. The Nationals are 28-11 since May 24 and would host the Phillies in the Wild Card Game as the standings are now. Both teams have some work to do at the Trade Deadline, but they have made an already interesting season even more interesting.

6. The NL Central race could be nuts

Parity is one thing. Chaos is another. We love chaos. So here we have five teams separated by 4 1/2 games. The Cubs are atop the division at 47-43. The Reds are last at 41-46. But here’s what makes Cincinnati dangerous: pitching. Its 3.77 ERA is the NL’s second-lowest. In the last month, the Reds have swept the Astros and won series against the Brewers and Cubs, the two teams that were expected to slug it out for first place. Suddenly, the division may be decided by how five teams are able to strengthen their roster by the Trade Deadline.

7. The Rangers could have a transformative few weeks

They’re in a great spot in a season that they thought might be one of rebuilding and experiment. But their record is a surprising 48-42, and they’re just three games out in the race for the second AL Wild Card berth. Suddenly, general manager Jon Daniels has a tough call: Buy or sell? If he continues to take a long view, he’ll listen to offers for Mike Minor and perhaps Lance Lynn, if the market for starting pitching is as competitive as many believe. Or does he see a small window opening and add to his team in hopes of returning to the playoffs?

8. The starting pitching market is thin.

This will be a nervous few days as contenders -- and the Blue Jays -- await medical reports on right-hander Marcus Stroman, who has been sidelined since June 29 with a pectoral strain. If he’s healthy, he becomes possibly the most sought-after starter on the market, given that he’s under team control through next season. The other notable names who are likely to be moved are Giants lefty Madison Bumgarner and Mets right-hander Zack Wheeler, but both of them are free agents this winter. With pitching so scarce, the three of them could bring an impressive haul of prospects for a team -- and there are lots of 'em -- that sees itself one arm from winning a World Series.

9. There have been some real breakout players

Virtually every player spends months and months before Opening Day focused on tweaking his game -- changing his swing or his pitching mechanics, altering his mental approach. Every single player believes he can get better. That’s true of the great ones -- Trout, Max Scherzer, etc. That’s especially true of the youngsters. So let’s hear it for Bellinger, Ketel Marte, Lucas Giolito, Marcus Semien, Walker Buehler, Shane Bieber, DJ LeMahieu and others who have found a new level this year.

Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.