Top Five Biggest Surprises of the 2018 MLB Season

With the mid-season classic behind us, we’ve kicked the tires on the second half of the season.  I’ve always felt like the All Star Game was the crest of the hill.  It may not necessarily be exactly at the center of the season, but once it’s in the rear view mirror, downward momentum towards the postseason creeps into our discussions.  As we approach the trade deadline, and Manny Machado has made the move to Los Angeles, expect the hot stove to give off a little more heat as teams try to keep up with rivals.

So far, the season has been quite unpredictable.  Bryce Harper is batting only .214.  The National League batting race is led by Scooter Gennett, Albert Almora, and Nick Markakis.  The Dodgers started out flat, but have since regained their swagger and appear poised to make another run at the title.

But what are some of the major surprises? Let’s count down the five biggest ones at the halfway point of this season.

5. The Tampa Bay Rays

The Rays really don’t have a chance of making the playoffs.  They have a terrible stadium situation and have trouble drawing fans.  In the offseason, they offloaded the greatest player in their history in Evan Longoria, while also trading Jake Odorizzi and designating Corey Dickerson for assignment not even a full year after making the All-Star team.

SB Nation wrote this article ripping the Rays and saying their lack of interest in winning is a disgrace beyond what their cross-state “rivals” the Marlins do.

So why are they a surprise?

Well, here we are at the All-Star break and the Rays are over .500 at 49-46.  They are, of course, 17 games back of Boston in the AL East, but 8.5 back of a Wild Card spot.   I find this extremely surprising, as they are led offensively by Matt Duffy, Wilson Ramos, C.J. Cron, and Mallex Smith.  And while their hitting has been impactful, it’s their pitching that’s really impressive.  The Rays have the third best batting average against in all of baseball (.227).  Their ERA is eighth best in the Majors at 3.71.

They also have made waves by trying some revolutionary tactics.  Kevin Cash has called on closer Sergio Romo to start games, an effort that’s being referred to as an “opener.”

The Rays highlight of the season was sweeping the Yankees June 22-24.

4.  The Oakland Athletics

Since splitting a four game set with the White Sox in late June, Oaktown has rattled off six straight series wins.  This includes taking two out of three twice from the Cleveland Indians and three out of four from the World Champion Houston Astros.  So what is fueling this upstart club from the Bay?

It’s not their starting pitching, as Oakland is 19th in the MLB with a 4.36 ERA.  Their bullpen, however, tells some of the story. With Blake Treinen (0.94 ERA, 24 saves in 27 opportunities) shutting the door almost every time out, and the unheralded Lou Trivino (1.22 ERA and 50 K’s in 44.1 innings) tossing zero after zero on the scoreboard, the A’s are very dangerous if they have a lead.

And, apparently they’ve been getting leads, because they are 55-42, including 17-10 in June.

Leading the offensive attack is the underrated Jed Lowrie (.282 BA, 16 HR, 62 RBI) and Stephen Piscotty (.782 OPS, 12 HR, 46 RBI) who’s found a new lease on baseball life since coming over from St. Louis.  Oakland isn’t exactly a team of hitting machines, batting .245 on the season, 15th overall in MLB.  But, they are making their hits count, driving balls out the ballpark 127 times, good for a 7th place tie with the Rockies. If they want to make a run at the playoffs though, they’ll have to pick up the pace getting on base.  Their .315 on-base percentage is 20th in the league.

One piece of the recipe for Oakland has been their ability to win games on the road.  To date, the A’s are 31-21 away from the Coliseum.  Only Boston and Houston have more road victories than the Oakland Athletics.

3. The Seattle Mariners

On May 15, Robinson Cano was suspended for using a substance banned by MLB because it is used to mask the existence of PED’s.  While the M’s were off to a decent start at 24-17, everyone expected that they would fall off and watch the Astros run away.  Well all they’ve done since then is go 34-21 and find themselves just 5 games back of Houston.  This may seem like a lot, but Houston is currently the third best team in baseball based on winning percentage.  Seattle finds themselves as one of only four teams with a .600+ winning percentage.

Their bullpen has been solid, boasting three relievers with more that 30 innings pitched and an ERA at 2.72 or better.  These are Chasen Bradford (36.1 innings, 2.72 ERA), James Pazos (32.0 innings, 2.53 ERA), and the electric Edwin Diaz (48.0 innings, 2.25 ERA, 36 saves).

On the offensive side of the ball, Jean Segura finds himself among the lead leaders in average and hits. He’s added 14 steals and 25 doubles.  Nelson Cruz is providing the power as usual, swatting 22 home runs in just 288 at bats.  Overall, the M’s are third in the American League with a .258 batting average.

2. The Rising Stars

Ozzie Albies was shot out of a cannon in April, homering on opening day.  He added seven more in the month of April and finished the month with a 1.053 OPS. Overall, he’s batting .282 with 18 homers and 50 RBI.  He’s tied for second in runs scored with 69.  He’s also ripped off 29 doubles already, also good for second most in the Majors.  Jesus Aguilar has a ridiculous .639 slugging percentage so far to go along with a .305 average and 23 homers.  He is 4th in the Majors with 64 RBI.  At 23 years old, playing on exciting Milwaukee team, be ready to hear Aguilar’s name a lot in the coming months.  The Yankees youth movement added more pieces earlier this year with the duo of Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres.  Andujar had a cup of coffee last season, but has taken his game to fantastic levels in 2018.  He’s batting .289 with an .835 OPS, bolstered by 12 homers and 38 RBI. He also has 24 doubles.  Torres is experiencing his first taste of MLB action, and is raking to the tune of .294/.350/.555.  He has 15 homers and 42 RBI.  Let’s not also forget 2-way player Shohei Ohtani.  Ohtani has been a treat for baseball fans this season, batting .285/.368/.526 with seven homers in just 137 at bats.  Oh, by the way, he also sports a 3.10 ERA and 61 strikeouts in just 49.1 innings.  While injuries have put a damper on his first season, we should see some fine numbers from Shohei as his career progresses.  And don’t forget the power bat of Juan Soto, who has torched Major League pitching since making his debut with the Nationals on May 20.  He’s already got 10 homers in 179 at bats while batting .302 and posting an OPS+ of 148.

1.  The Upside Down

I am of course talking about the National League East.

The Atlanta Braves are a year or two ahead of schedule.  Led by the bats of Ozzie Albies (.281/.318/.516, 20 HR, 55 RBI) and veterans Freddie Freeman (.315/.405/.533, 16 HR, 61 RBI) and resurgent Nick Markakis (.323/.389/.488, 10 HR, 61 RBI), the Braves find themselves half a game back of first at the All-Star break.  Markakis leads the league in hits (120) and doubles (29).  As a team, Atlanta is fifth in baseball in average and eighth in runs scored.  Their pitching is equally impressive, fifth in MLB in ERA at 3.85. At the top is Mike Foltynewicz (7-5, 2.66 ERA, 120 k’s in 101.2 innings) and a sturdy bullpen anchored by A.J. Minter and Dan Winkler.

Ahead of the Braves, with a record of 53-42, is the… wait I’m sorry, I think I read that wrong.  Does that say the Phila… The Philadelphia Phillies?

What happened the Nationals?  Well, they’re hanging around, plenty of time left to make up the 5.5 games back they are.  Or the Mets? Weren’t they like a million and one to start the year? Yeah… not the Mets. Not a good story.

The Philadelphia Phillies.

Riding the curtails of their NFL brethren, the Phillies are trying to keep up the winning ways in the city of brotherly love.

Led by young manager Gabe Kapler, the Phillies are a team that so far seems greater than the sum of the parts. Offensively, Cesar Hernandez has taken a step forward, batting .270 while getting on base at a .378 clip.  He’s stolen 14 bases and scored 63 runs.  Fellow youngsters Odubel Herrera (.275 BA, .327 OBP, 16 homers, 52 RBI) and Rhys Hoskins (14 HR and 56 RBI) keep driving in runs and getting on base.

On the pitching side, Jake Arrieta has certainly added his veteran leadership and some fine numbers (3.23 ERA), but it’s Aaron Nola (2.30 ERA, 131 strikeouts in 129.0 innings) really leading the way.   Overall, their ERA is 11th in baseball, though their starting rotation is much better than their bullpen, sitting at 6th.  Watch for the Phillies to make some moves here soon to bolster it, or possibly add a Mike Moustakas type bat at third base.

The second half has begun, and many of these good stories could fade into mediocre seasons.  But that’s the beauty of it, isn’t it? Will Juan Soto continue his power surge? Will the forgotten Oakland A’s knock on the door of the wild card? And will the Nationals claim the division from two foes who no one gave a shot to make a run this year?

We’ll see.

I can’t wait.

Play Ball!

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