Deadspin predicts: Teams that will improve, or regress, in the second half

Deadspin predicts: Teams that will improve, or regress, in the second half

Here's six sides whose fortunes should change after All-Star break

Hey, Yankees, stop running into outs on the bases.
Hey, Yankees, stop running into outs on the bases.
Image: Getty Images

The All-Star Game has come and gone. The American League continues to wreck the Senior Circuit year-in, year-out, and it’s abundantly clear that Vladdy Jr., Shohei Ohtani, and Liam Hendriks are the coolest dudes in the sport. Now, the attention turns to the second half of the season. Will the teams at the top stay there? Which teams near the bottom of their division have the best shot at making a comeback?

Keep in mind that just because your team had a good first half that blew everyone out of the water — looking at you San Francisco — that doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to make the postseason. On the other end, just because your favorite team had an awful first half and you can’t count how many games out of first place you are with two hands, doesn’t mean your team is out of the race entirely. As long as there’s a will, there’s a way. With that, let’s count down the most likely teams to improve and regress in the second half of the season.

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No. 3 Improver: Miami Marlins

No. 3 Improver: Miami Marlins

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The Miami Marlins currently sit at 39-50 — last place in the National League East. Despite that, the Marlins are just nine games out of first place, the smallest gap between first and fifth in any division across Major League Baseball. The Marlins are also one of just two teams under .500 with a positive run differential. They are also the only team with a losing record to allow fewer than four runs per game.

With that in mind, the second half of the MLB season is usually designed to create divisional battles. Most of the time, a team’s last 10 or so series will consist of mostly divisional matchups. The Marlins are 17-17 against the National League East this season. That’s within half a game or better than every other team in that division. If the Marlins can see some improvement from struggling hitters like Jon Berti (at least until Brian Anderson returns from the IL) and Corey Dickerson, or teach Duvall to take more pitches down the final stretch seeing as how he’s currently swinging at a higher percentage of pitches than any season since his rookie year, boosting opportunity to extend innings and drive in more runs, I see know reason the Marlins can’t compete with teams like the Phillies and Mets.

Will the Marlins win the division? Probably not. Will they be a constant thorn in the side of the Mets, Phillies, Braves, and company as they try to pull away from the pack and secure a playoff spot? Absolutely. Given that the remainder of Miami’s schedule consists of zero games against teams leading their division aside from the Mets and only 19 games against teams over .500 outside their division, the Marlins will have an incredible opportunity to sneak up the standings...as long as their pitching can maintain the success they had in the first half.

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No. 3 Regressor: Seattle Mariners

No. 3 Regressor: Seattle Mariners

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If you’re a Mariners fan, you know how this season plays out. Sitting at third in the division, just 3.5 games back from a wild-card berth, there’s probably a lot of hope rushing through the veins of the Mariners’ faithful. It won’t end well.

Seattle has the worst run differential of any team with a record over .500. The M’s have been so inconsistent with their pitching that they’ve allowed six or more runs in over a third of their games. In fact, there’s only been six series where the Mariners have held their opponents to fewer than six runs every game — and two of those series were just two games.

With how bad Seattle’s staff has been, you’d think the team would struggle in close games. That’s not true. Seattle is actually 19-8 (.704) in one-run games this season — the highest win percentage in one-run games across the league. While that sounds good, it implies that the Mariners have been incredibly lucky given that their bullpen has a very mediocre 4.13 ERA this year (good for 8th in the AL). Throw in the fact that Seattle has 22 games against Oakland and Houston remaining, and it’s not looking too good in the Pacific Northwest.

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No. 2 Improver: New York Yankees

No. 2 Improver: New York Yankees

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Baseball scholars, statisticians, and analytics machines have been baffled at the Yankees’ struggles so far this season. New York is in arguably the toughest division in baseball, and despite all the talent they’ve put in pinstripes, they’ve underperformed on offense — averaging just 4.2 runs per game (19th in MLB). Now, you’d think that a team with struggling bats would have a clear indicator as to why: striking out too often, weak contact, not enough plate discipline, but the Yankees aren’t actually too poor in any of those categories.

Where the Yankees have been atrocious though, is baserunning. The Yankees have been thrown out a staggering 35 times on the basepaths — the second most in Major League Baseball. Now, that probably makes you think, “Oh, so they’re just a really aggressive team on the bases?”, but no, they’re actually the least aggressive team on the basepaths.

The Yankees have taken the extra base (meaning a runner goes from 1st to 3rd on a single, 2nd to home on a single, 1st to home on a double, etc.) just 33 percent of the time — the lowest mark in MLB. Even the Baltimore Orioles, the last-place team in the AL East, take the extra base 38 percent of the time. Come on New York! You guys have one of the fastest baserunners in the game, Tim Locastro! Let him help you out! The guy’s played in just seven games this season. At least throw him in as a pinch-runner.

There’s a lot of reason to believe the Yanks will improve in the second half. Struggling players like Gleyber Torres and DJ Lemahieu have seen huge drop-offs in BABIP while maintaining low weak-hit percentages, indicating horrible luck. Things will turn around.

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No. 2 Regressor: Atlanta Braves

No. 2 Regressor: Atlanta Braves

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When you lose one of the best players in your sport, you tend to fall off a little bit. The Angels didn’t when they lost Mike Trout, but that’s just the Ohtani effect coupled with Jarred Walsh officially taking over for Albert Pujols.

Prior to his injury, Acuña either scored or drove in (Runs + Runs Batted In - Home Runs) 100 of Atlanta’s 416 runs. That’s about 24 percent of the team’s total runs coming off the bat of one man. That should not be the case for a leadoff hitter. Acuña’s absence will also affect the hitters behind him. Without Acuña consistently getting on base at the top of the lineup, opposing pitchers will be far less likely to throw pitches in the zone to the other strong hitters in Atlanta’s lineup. When a runner is on base, pitchers tend to throw more strikes for fear of walking a hitter and putting multiple men on base. When there are no runners on, pitchers will tend to avoid the zone against strong hitters knowing that even if they walk them, it’s still unlikely any tremendous damage will be done.

Not to mention, the Atlanta Braves have played just six games against the National League West this year, and zero against the Padres or Giants (two of the best teams in the National League). In the second half of the season, the Braves have 26 games against the NL West. Sure, eleven of those are against the Diamondbacks and Rockies, but 15 are against the Giants, Dodgers, or Padres. Seeing as how the NL West is shaping up to be one of the most tightly contested divisional races in baseball, it’s unlikely any of those three teams will take any game lightly throughout the remainder of the season. Against teams above .500, the Braves are 18-27 this year. They have a lot of those games coming up. It’s not going to be pretty.

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No. 1 Improver: Minnesota Twins

No. 1 Improver: Minnesota Twins

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The Minnesota Twins are less than a year removed from winning their division and reaching the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons. Now, just because they struggled in the first half of the season, everyone is throwing them out like bad apples? I don’t buy it.

Heading into the All-Star break, Minnesota won four in a row and were absolutely brutal against the poorer teams in the league — going 22-16 against teams under .500 in the first half. They won’t have that luxury in the second half. Minnesota has just 22 such games in the remainder of the season. That won’t matter though. Minnesota started the season in an awful funk that saw them lose every close game. They started the season off 1-5 in one run games. Since then, they’ve clawed their way back to even in that category. While the Twins still have a lot to improve upon such as their struggles against southpaws and the struggles of the pitching staff outside of Jose Berrios, there’s still a lot to look forward to.

While Michael Pineda got off to a hot start, he’s struggled in his last few appearances. The All-Star break could be just the rest Pineda needed after coming off the IL for one appearance and having his worst start of the season. Kenta Maeda has been underwhelming to say the least, but his peripherals seem to indicate that he’s due for a return to form.

While it’s likely that the Twins decide to sell some of their key pieces like Maeda, Cruz, or Berrios prior to the trade deadline, if the Twins keep most of their key pieces intact, the team is more than likely to perform much better than their 39-50 record indicates.

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No. 1 Regressor: Cincinnati Reds

No. 1 Regressor: Cincinnati Reds

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I like Jesse Winker, but is there a single person out there who believes he will continue his dominant 2021 through the second half? I don’t think so. Nicholas Castellanos is a fantastic ball player, but will he continue to hit over 30 points higher than his previous career-best batting average? Will he continue to maintain an OPS over 100 points higher than his previous best? I find that hard to believe.

I understand that it’s likely Eugenio Suarez has a better second half, and the return of Mike Moustakas could help the offense tremendously, but it’s highly unlikely that every player on the Reds currently exceeding expectations (there’s a lot of them) will continue to do so at this rate. Is Cincy’s offense still fantastic? Absolutely, but even a small overall regression at the plate, will drastically affect the team’s record. If the bats cool down, they’ll no longer be able to cover up the team’s poor pitching. As of right now, the Cincinnati Reds allow the second-most runs per game of any team over .500 — only the Halos allow more runs. There’s a reason nobody believes the Angels are going to make a run at the playoffs despite the return of Mike Trout...because they can’t keep runs off the board.

The Reds will likely suffer the same fate. When the division race heats up, the Reds will struggle to put up runs against the other strong teams in that division with arms like Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, Freddy Peralta, Jack Flaherty (who should be returning from the IL mid-August), Kwang Hyun Kim, and John Gant down the stretch. If Cincy’s bats can stay hot, and knock opposing starters out early, the Reds would still have trouble against divisional bullpens as, aside from Cincinnati, every team in the NL Central has a top-10 National League bullpen.

The Reds are currently on pace to win 87 games. They’ll probably finish with anywhere between 80 and 83. If the team buys at the deadline and adds some pieces to their bullpen, maybe they could string together a strong enough second half to compete for the NL Central title, but until they make those moves, the Reds don’t have the depth on defense to compete.

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