By Sam Bennett
We’re about a quarter through this year’s MLB season, so let’s take a look back at some of this year’s biggest storylines so far.
Sho-Time in LA
Possibly the most exciting man in LA sports since Kobe and Shaq of the Showtime Lakers, Shohei Ohtani has taken the baseball world by storm in 2021, leading to comparisons to the greatest of all time, George Herman “Babe” Ruth. And to be honest, these comparisons are not unfounded, if to a lesser degree. First, take a look at what Ohtani is doing at the plate. He leads the major leagues in home runs and slugging percentage, with an OPS of .950. In other words, one of the best 10 to 20 offensive players in the game. To go along with his phenomenal hitting however, is his equally dominant pitching. Ohtani boasts an ERA of 2.37 with 13.4 strikeouts per 9 innings, and an ERA+ (used to denote pitching performance adjusted to ballpark, higher is better) of 185. To give context, the league average is 100. His godly performance so far in the year has not gone unnoticed, especially by his fellow players, with those on opposing teams often saying that he is the most gifted player they’ve ever played against. The probable AL MVP (so far, though I’ll cover that race later), if he continues his run, promises to deliver maybe the most impressive baseball season in recent memory.
The weirdest occurrence this season has probably been the amount of no hitters that have taken place throughout the league. Now, 7 no hitters (technically 6) is not unheard of. In fact, it’s happened four times already in the modern MLB. However, what is unheard of is that happening in a quarter of a season. That record of 7 no hitters has only ever occurred after every team has played 162 games. In MLB history since 1901, a no hitter occurs in approximately 0.13% of games. This season, a no hitter has happened 1.1% of the time. That is an insane difference (see bottom for more advanced look at how unlikely that is). There have been various theories about why this has happened, most common being the fact that the MLB deadened the ball this season, making it harder for the ball to travel as far as in previous seasons, which has led to various other offensive declines as well. The seventh no hitter this year, though unofficial, came from Madison Bumgarner of the San Francisco Giants. The reason this is unofficial is because it came in a 7 inning double header game, and is therefore not recognized by the MLB, though it is by almost all fans. As rules continue to change, it will be interesting to see how the MLB decides which statistics and accolades it deems valid, and which it does not.
A storyline that goes somewhat along with the increase in no hitters is the lowest batting averages in the history of baseball, with the league average being a measly .236. In fact, it has become uncommon to see a team without at least one starter below the Mendoza Line (.200). While the average has been decreasing for years as the emphasis has gone towards either striking out or hitting a homerun, this year in particular is significant because it marks the first time that the league average has gone below .240 for a season (at least so far). This decrease in average has come with a lowering of almost every major batting category, including home runs, runs, slugging, percentage, OPS, so on and so forth. It seems unlikely that the MLB will continue with the dead ball without making changes to other aspects of the game in order to make offense more prevalent, and find a way so batters put more balls in play without increasing the home run totals.
The Unlikeliest of Leaders
Prior to the season, nobody had their eye on either the San Francisco Giants or the Boston Red Sox. In fact, they were destined to be two of the worst teams in the league, with below average pitching and hitting and in very difficult divisions. But, up to this point in the season, they are two of the top teams in the league, leading the two best divisions in baseball. The Red Sox have no doubt done it with their ferocious hitting, led by Xander Boegarts and JD Martinez, both former all stars, and the always reliable Rafael Devers. They have also been helped greatly by the continued emergence of Alex Verdugo, who had an excellent campaign in last years’ shortened season, and his success has continued into this season. San Francisco, while having a rather formidable offense, has been largely carried by its phenomenal pitching, with 3 starters below a 2.05 ERA. Holding off the Padres and Dodgers, their staff has led them to the best record in the league. If I said at the beginning of the year that the Red Sox and Giants would be leading divisions that include the Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, Padres, and Dodgers, I would be called crazy. But that just goes to show, anything can happen in baseball. Speaking of the NL West and AL East, these two divisions have taken the baseball world by storm, producing 7 out of the top 11 records in baseball (all the teams that I mentioned previously). All 7 of these teams have a winning percentage of above 55%, and all are at least 5 games over .500.
The AL MVP Race
Thus far into the season, the AL MVP race is still wide open, with the top 5 right now being (according to oddsmakers) Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout, Vladimir Guerrero Jr, Aaron Judge, and JD Martinez, with the favorite right now being Ohtani, who I discussed earlier. But let’s look at what the others have done, as all have had extraordinary seasons so far. Let’s start with Trout, the perennial MVP favorite and already one of the best players in MLB history. His numbers speak for themselves so far. He has a .333 batting average with a league leading .466 OBP and a league leading 1.090 OPS and 200 OPS+ (league average is 100). If it weren’t for his recent injury keeping him out, Trout would easily be the favorite for the award once again. Next is Vladdy Guerrero. The highly touted prospect a couple years ago has certainly lived up to the hype this season, with a .327 average with 11 homers, a .441 OBP and a 1.053 OPS. In most years, Guerrero Jr would be at the head of the pack for the most prestigious award, but his competition has been great this year. Needless to say, he will certainly be in the conversation if he can keep up what he has been doing at the plate. Aaron Judge comes next with his .294/.392/.580 numbers, making an OPS of .972 and 12 home runs. While these may not be the numbers of a Trout or a Guerrero, Judge’s importance to the Yankees as well as his defensive prowess has catapulted him into the top 5 MVP conversation in the American League. Last but not least we have the great J.D. Martinez, batting .329 with an OPS above 1.000 and 11 homers, and leading the Red Sox to the lead in the AL East. The only thing that is likely holding him back as of now is his DH role, as he contributes nothing in the field on most nights, but he is still a very worthy candidate. Over the course of the next few months, any one of these four could take the top spot from Ohtani. No matter what happens, it will be very interesting to watch these great players compete for the ever coveted MVP.