8 things no one saw coming this season

August 14th, 2021

Remember: This 2021 season began with a 37-year-old Miguel Cabrera hitting an opposite-field home run in the snow and then confusedly sliding into second base.

It was clear, in that moment, that this year would be like every other in this great game -- utterly unpredictable.

Here are eight things that absolutely none of us (no, not even you, stop pretending) saw coming.

1. The Giants have the best record in baseball
But that’s not all. They also have one of the best records in the entire Wild Card era!

With a .647 winning percentage entering the weekend, the Giants have the 11th-best mark of any team going back to 1995. Take out last year’s 60-game silliness, and it’s the ninth best. The Giants are also on pace for the eighth-best winning percentage in franchise history and their best since the 1958 move to San Francisco.

I mean, no disrespect intended to Gabe Kapler’s crew, but … what?

All signs pointed to a bitter battle between the Dodgers and Padres in the NL West. We wondered if they might both blow past the 100-win mark, given the quality of their rosters and the seeming ease of their schedule within the division. And even if you thought the Giants, who came within a whisker of a postseason appearance in 2020, were good enough to vie for a playoff spot, you would have been very hard-pressed to assume they’d be this good.

So much of their success revolves around the ability of president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and Co. to find undervalued talent along the likes of Mike Yastrzemski, Darin Ruf, Lamonte Wade Jr. and so many others who have made this team so surprisingly deep and so fun. Combine that ability with the Giants’ financial flexibility (I, for one, don’t think Kris Bryant’s stay will be a short one), and there’s a lot of reason to think this team is going to have staying power moving forward.

And as of now, the bitterest battle between the Dodgers and Padres? That would be in the NL Wild Card Game, with the Giants resting comfortably and waiting for the NL Division Series. Amazing.

2. The Major League home run leader… is a pitcher!
That’s still a ridiculous sentence to type. Don’t normalize what is doing, because it isn’t normal.

I don’t care if you love Ohtani, are related to Ohtani or got an Ohtani tattoo inked across your forehead after his stellar Spring Training. There’s just no way you thought he could perform as a two-way player at this high a level. Even league-average output as a hitter and performance as a pitcher for a full season would have been otherworldly, freaky stuff. After all, the mere ability to post up in such a role on an everyday basis is something that hasn’t been done in a major league since the Negro Leagues and in the American League since the Babe was in Boston.

But Ohtani is anything but average. He has a 166 OPS+ (66% better than league average) and a 159 ERA+ (59% better). He did the Home Run Derby one night, and he was the starting pitcher for the AL in the All-Star Game the next (while serving as the AL’s leadoff hitter). Kyle Schwarber said it best at the All-Star Game: “This guy’s crazy.”

The Angels’ intent to unburden Ohtani from any limitations this season was met with some eyerolls in the industry, because it’s a huge health risk. Ohtani had thrown a grand total of 79 1/3 innings over the previous four years (including his last season in Japan). And his 2020 season, spent entirely as a hitter, resulted in a mere .657 OPS. So you are forgiven if you did not predict that he’d be closing in on 40 dingers in mid-August while leading his team in ERA.

3. is a star
Back in Spring Training, the Orioles, unsure of what to do with Mullins, considered platooning him in center field or trading him. Think about that: A team that was basically built to rebuild wasn’t sure he could stick on their Opening Day roster.

So of course Mullins wound up starting in center field for the AL All-Star team.

With a .322/.387/.549 slash, 20 homers, 29 doubles, four triples and 22 stolen bases, Mullins has been a wonder. He dropped switch-hitting, opting instead to bat entirely from the left-hand side, and that -- combined with an improved launch angle -- has made him a completely different offensive player. He has a very real chance of finishing the season atop the Wins Above Replacement leaderboard for position players. As of this writing, Mullins’ 4.8 mark, as calculated by FanGraphs, trails only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (5.1) and Marcus Semien (4.9).

4. and both have a National League MVP case
No, that’s not a sentence from, like, 2015. The 37-year-old Votto (.957 OPS) and the 34-year-old Posey (.988) are here to remind you (and maybe themselves) that they can still perform at a truly elite level.

Posey didn’t play at all last year, having opted out of the shortened season after he and his wife adopted their second set of twins (and if you have two sets of twins, you should get some sort of MVP Award automatically). Votto showed significant regression in the past few years and had a ho-hum .226/.305/.425 slash when he hit the injured list with a broken thumb in early May -- an injury that cost him a month of action.

Because of Votto’s lost time and Posey’s schedule including a healthy dose of rest days to keep him fresh, perhaps neither guy actually wins or is a finalist for MVP when all is said and done. But right now, it’s hard to have the conversation without them. And that’s something that we probably would not have even said at the All-Star break. Injuries to Ronald Acuña Jr., Fernando Tatis Jr. and Jacob deGrom have opened up this race, and these old dudes still have a shot at it if they finish strong.

5. is a stud
Rodón entered this year with 536 2/3 career innings (not exactly a small sample) that added up to an exactly league average ERA+ of 100. Last year, he gave up seven runs in 7 2/3 innings and was non-tendered.

But the Sox (wisely, it turns out) re-signed the pitcher they had made the No. 3 overall pick back in the 2014 MLB Draft in the hope that he could still justify a spot in the back end of their rotation.

Well, forget all that. Rodón isn’t filler. He’s a linchpin in the best rotation in the American League, in part because his fastball velocity has jumped from 92.8 to 95.8 mph. In his career, he has struck out 24.2% of batters faced. This year? It’s 36.2%. He also threw one of this season’s seven no-hitters (and raise your hand if you thought there would be seven no-hitters, plus two seven-inning no-hitters). A current bout with left shoulder fatigue could hurt his cause in the AL Cy Young race (teammate Lance Lynn looks like the favorite), but Rodón has drastically exceeded expectation.

6. is a leader in the NL Cy Young race
Wheeler has been a very good pitcher for the bulk of his career. But even he would admit he’s struggled to put a full, consistent season together, with wide variation between his first and second halves. (He was excellent in 2020, but of course that was only 11 starts.)

Injuries are a big factor in Wheeler’s history, but it’s the injury to deGrom, who had a slam-dunk Cy season going with his 1.08 ERA, that upended the NL Cy Young picture. Were the voting held today, Wheeler, who leads the Majors in innings (156), strikeouts (181), complete games (three) and is tied for the lead in FanGraphs’ pitching WAR (5.6) would have to be considered one of the favorites, if not the outright favorite.

7. The Twins just … aren’t very good
The Yankees, Mets and Braves have made things a heck of a lot harder for themselves than many envisioned, and the Cardinals and Angels are among the disappointments. But no team has underperformed quite like the two-time-defending AL Central champs.

They entered the season pegged by both FanGraphs and PECOTA to win the Central yet again. They entered the weekend 15 games under .500, with a minus-81 run differential.

Things got bad enough for the Twins to trade not only pending free agents like Nelson Cruz, but their more controllable ace, José Berríos (that was among the many Trade Deadline surprises). The Twins were generally expected to be challenged and perhaps surpassed by the White Sox. But not lapped completely. Alas, they were out of it by Memorial Day.

If you had the Rockies potentially finishing with a better record than the Twins, step right up and claim your prize.

8. plays for the Dodgers
With a new Angels front office trying desperately to turn the corner, it was well within the realm of possibility that a post-prime Pujols would get cut at some point. But who would have thought, in such a scenario, that the defending champions would have an actual need for him … or that Pujols would respond positively with a .270 average and a .780 OPS? For that matter, who would have thought Pujols, Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Mookie Betts and maybe even Cole Hamels could all end up on the same roster? What a year.

As tends to be the case in baseball, it has not been the year any of us anticipated.