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Aaron Judge, the Cubs, and Our Second-Half MLB Predictions

With half the summer down, we look forward to see where this baseball season is headed

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

With half the MLB season in the books, the playoffs are in sight. And half of MLB teams still have a 20 percent or greater chance of making the postseason, per FanGraphs. Which teams will make it? Which players will catch fire down the stretch? Our staff has the answers. Here are our best predictions for MLB’s second half:

Mike Trout Will Beat Aaron Judge in MVP Voting

Michael Baumann: The longer Judge bends the laws of physics, the less time I spend waiting for the other shoe to drop on his .426 BABIP, which would be the highest full-season mark since 1911 if he keeps it up. But Trout comes back from his thumb injury this week, and as much as Judge has dominated the headlines, Trout’s rate stats are better than Judge’s so far this season. Sure, the Millville Meteor has missed six weeks, but his numbers so far are good enough that he could still put up his normal nine-win season.

Now imagine this — as Judge becomes old news and the Yankees (7–17 since June 13) head in the wrong direction in the standings, Trout returns to an Angels team that, even without him, is only three games back of the wild card. The league starts to figure out Judge, even a little, and Trout’s 1.203 OPS allows the Angels to close the gap and catch the Yankees for a playoff spot at the finish line. That’d be an irresistible narrative, and Trout would have another eight- or nine-win season to back it up. Voters would start to see the Rookie of the Year as Judge’s consolation prize — much as they did with Trout in 2012 when he lost out to Miguel Cabrera. It’s an ironic twist that’s way more plausible than you’d think.

Carlos Correa Will Be Baseball’s Second-Best Position Player

Ben Lindbergh: At the end of April, Carlos Correa’s slash line stood at .233/.309/.349. The slash line lied: Of the 55 hitters who saw at least 400 pitches that month, Correa had the second-biggest gap between his actual stats and the stats that Statcast said he deserved. Correa was swinging well, but he wasn’t being rewarded.

At-’em balls and bad bounces couldn’t keep Correa down for more than a month. Since the start of May, only the majors’ most implausible player, Aaron Judge, has outhit Correa, who’s posted a .359/.436/.662 slash line over that span of more than a third of a season.

One of these players is not like the others. Based on Correa’s age and position, he doesn’t belong on this list. The rest of the top five features corner defenders who are 25 or older. Correa, you’ll recall, is a 22-year-old shortstop. But it’s not surprising to see him here, since anyone who was watching has long foreseen superstardom for the former first-overall pick, top prospect, and Rookie of the Year. It may have been a bigger surprise that he settled for a 4.9-win sophomore season in 2016.

If Correa can be one of the best hitters in baseball while playing a premium position — not as brilliantly as a young Alex Rodriguez, his most common comp, but at an average level, at least — he’ll be almost impossible to surpass in any value ranking. Thou shalt have no other baseball gods before Mike Trout, who’ll return on Friday from the six-plus-week absence imposed by his first-ever torn or broken body part. But even in the midst of Judge’s through-the-looking-glass season, Correa is making a convincing case as the greatest threat to Trout’s supremacy.

The Cubs Will Win the World Series

Ryan O’Hanlon: A friend and colleague of mine once said, “Predictions are no fun if you’re trying to be right.” Last season, I ignored his advice — and still ended up being wrong. At this point in 2016, the Cubs were the best team in baseball, but the underlying numbers and randomness of the postseason gave them a sub-20 percent chance of winning it all. I picked the field, then it started raining, Jason Heyward yelled at his teammates while standing near a squat rack, and the dark magic of the goat was forever vanquished.

Being joyless and incorrect, however, is no way to live.

Despite a roster, results, and an approach that seemed to foretell a decade-long dynasty, the Cubs now sit two games below .500, their run differential is as good as mine, Kyle Schwarber lost all of his power to Aaron Judge, Jake Arrieta forgot that he isn’t on the Orioles anymore, and Kyle Hendricks remembered that he’s not Greg Maddux. But even so, FanGraphs has Chicago with a more than 60 percent chance of making the postseason and the sixth-best chances of winning the World Series. And that’s based on the talent of the current roster, without baking in the inevitable reinforcements that’ll arrive by the trade deadline. Now, even with the addition of someone like Oakland’s Sonny Gray or Detroit’s Michael Fulmer, the championship odds won’t inch that much higher than where they are now, but let’s not get too caught up in the percentages. Where’s the fun in that?

Alex Wood Will Finish 20–0

Ben Glicksman: Over the past few decades, assessing a pitcher’s value by win-loss record has gone from being commonplace to widely questioned to seen as objectively stupid. It’s become clear that wins are far more reflective of team success (and luck) than a given pitcher’s ability, a notion this year’s Cardinals demonstrate nicely: Carlos Martínez is 6–8 with a 3.40 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, and 2.3 WAR, while Adam Wainwright sits at 10–5 with a 5.20 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, and 0.3 WAR. From a purely analytical perspective, fixating on pitching win totals is about as instructive as obsessing over crowd size.

That said, Dodgers starter Alex Wood is going to finish this regular season 20–0. And it is going to be absolutely goddamn incredible.

Thirty-five pitchers had opened an MLB campaign 10–0 prior to Wood reaching that mark shortly before the All-Star break, a list that includes names such as Walter Johnson, Don Newcombe, Juan Marichal, Roger Clemens, and Aaron Small. Here’s how many have made it to 20–0: none. That’s right, nobody in baseball history. And while Wood has been excellent this season by plenty of other measures — the lefty boasts a 1.67 ERA and a 23.9 K-BB%, as well as a knuckle-curve that can do this to opposing batters — none matter as much as his quest to not lose a single game.

We live in an age when we’re smarter about stats than ever before, but also when chasing meaningless numbers is the coolest thing about sports. Alex Wood is my Russell Westbrook. May his record stay forever unblemished.

The Brewers Hold Off the Cubs and Win the NL Central

Jack McCluskey: The advanced numbers are very much against this, I know. FanGraphs gives the 50–41 Brewers a 20.6 percent chance at winning the division, a 9.7 percent shot at the wild card, and just 30.3 percent playoff odds overall.

This is rudeness, visualized:

The numbers say (and logic confirms) that the Cubs’ massive talent advantage makes them huge favorites to win the Central and defend their World Series title in the playoffs, but this isn’t about those numbers. It’s about these numbers: six Milwaukee regulars with a wRC+ of 124 or higher, an NL-leading 138 long balls, an NL-best-tying 75 stolen bases.

Who doesn’t love a team-comes-outta-nowhere-to-contend story? And who (aside from North Siders) isn’t at least a little tired of the Cubs?

Eric Thames’s reaction to all the random (wink) drug-testing was pitch-perfect. Travis Shaw is thriving, Corey Knebel looks filthy in relief, and the team is officially ahead of schedule. That’s fun, and baseball needs all the fun it can get. That’s why I’m predicting it will continue (it helps that the schedule is at least semi-favorable, though the Brew could benefit from acquiring some pitching at the deadline).

The AL Wild-Card Race Will Require Several Tiebreaker and Play-in Games to Resolve

Zach Kram: Entering the season, the AL’s middle class appeared muddled: After the division-favorite trio of Boston, Cleveland, and Houston, any of the dozen remaining teams could contend for a playoff spot. Three months and 80-some games later, the AL map hasn’t resolved with any manner of additional clarity. At the All-Star break, nine teams are within five games of a wild-card spot, and FanGraphs projects eight of them (sorry, Baltimore) to finish the season within three games of .500. That pervasive mediocrity means it’s hard for any team to fall out of the race completely; just look at the Royals, who were left for dead after a 10–20 start, but after one hot month are now above .500 and tied with Tampa Bay and Minnesota in the loss column.

Pervasive mediocrity could also breed late-season chaos. Only once in the five years of the two-wild-card setup has a tiebreaker been necessary, but there have been numerous close calls; the AL finished one game shy of a play-in game in both 2014 and 2015, and the NL narrowly averted tiebreaker mania last year as the Cardinals ended a game back of both the Mets and Giants. It’s too early to predict ties with any certainty, but it certainly seems as if a tight race will unfold this September — and what fun that would bring.

No bit of sabermetric wizardry requires as much math as figuring out which teams play where, and when, and whom, in a three-team tiebreaker scenario. Matters complicate further if certain divisional permutations get in the way, and they vary even more depending on if one team is assured of a wild-card berth and the ties all happen for the second spot or they’re all tied in one big wild-card lump. I stand with Jay Jaffe on Team Entropy. Give me mania. Give me a five-way, two-wild-card tie. Give me Game 163 — and then Games 164, 165, and 166 as all the ties resolve in a weeklong do-or-die sprint.

The Twins Won’t Finish in First Place in Their Division, and That’s OK

Megan Schuster: As of Thursday, July 13, the Minnesota Twins are not in first place in the AL Central. The team will not finish the 2017 season in first place in its division. It — likely — will not be in the playoffs at all this year. And you know what? That’s OK! This is a team that, aside from the front office, remains largely unchanged from the 2016 squad that finished dead last in the league. They are 14 victories away from matching last year’s win total, and the second half of the season hasn’t started. They have three All-Stars (Miguel Sanó, Ervin Santana, and Brandon Kintzler) for the first time since 2009, when Joe Nathan, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau played in the game. And as of last month, the Twins had spent 50 days in first place so far this season — 16 more days than they’d spent in first from 2011–2016. Sure, compared to last year’s effort, even a Little League team would probably look pretty good right now. But when the Twins inevitably regress a bit toward the end of the season, and Minnesota records its seventh straight season without a playoff appearance, it will be OK. Because it wasn’t a repeat of last year.

The Nationals Will Have the Deepest Playoff Run of Any D.C. Team in Nearly Two Decades

Danny Heifetz: D.C. teams have gone 68 straight baseball, hockey, basketball, and football seasons without appearing in a conference finals. The Nationals, who have a 9.5-game lead on the rest of the NL East, look poised to bring that streak to an end.

Unless the Nats can catch the Dodgers, it’s likely that they’ll play the winner of the NL Central. This allows them to avoid an NLDS grudge match against the Dodgers, who ate the Nats’ hearts before their eyes in last year’s playoffs, or a potentially nightmarish series against the Arizona trio of Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, and Zack Godley.

The NL Central, on the other hand, is much more appetizing. The Nats’ run differential (plus-90) is exactly twice that of the Brewers (plus-45), and over 16 katrillion times the run differential of the Cubs, because the Cubs’ run differential is zero. Losing Trea Turner hurts, but Max Scherzer is one of the best pitchers of his generation and Bryce Harper just played in his fifth All-Star Game despite being 24 years old. Barring a second-half collapse, the Nats’ season will end in one of two ways. They will either join the long line of Washington teams with dominant regular seasons that vanish come playoff time, or they will vanquish a Midwestern foe and become the first D.C. team of the century to compete for a championship spot. Bank on the latter.