The first half of the 2018 MLB season has provided plenty of surprises. After a tumultuous offseason that was filled with skepticism over the lack of free agent signings that seemed to forecast a potential lockout down the line, many analysts and pundits suspected that there would be a lack of parity in a league in which there only appeared to be around eight teams of a truly “elite” caliber. Despite this, however, we have seen one of the more exciting first few months of baseball in recent memory.
The Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have become the cream of the crop in the American League, but teams such as the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics have surpassed expectations across the board. In the National League, the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies appear to have arrived as playoff contenders ahead of schedule, while the Milwaukee Brewers have stood toe-to-toe with the Chicago Cubs in the NL Central after a series of shrewd offseason acquisitions.
Not to mention, there have been brilliant individual performances. From the outstanding debuts from the likes of Ozzie Albies and Gleyber Torres to the breakout performances of Max Muncy, Mitch Haniger and Trevor Bauer, players around the league have stepped up their production to give their clubs hope for the postseason. And yet, the more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.
While it is still anyone’s guess as to the teams that may emerge in a very crowded American League, the National League may produce an eerily similar result to prior seasons come October. Despite the strong play of the Brewers, Braves and Phillies as well as the continued persistence of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the two best teams in the NL still appear to be the Cubs and the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In recent years, two of the stronger predictors for postseason success have been run differential and bullpen ERA. In 2017, the Dodgers had the best run differential in the NL while also ranking first in the league in bullpen ERA during the regular season. In the postseason, the Dodgers bullpen posted a scorching 0.83 ERA over 28.1 innings as they steamrolled to the World Series. The Cubs, their NLCS opponent, led the majors in run differential in the second half of the season, and posted the third-best bullpen ERA in the league behind the Dodgers and Diamondbacks (LA defeated the DBacks in the NLDS). The trends are similar in the two clubs’ first matchup in 2016, when the Cubs led the league in run differential and the Dodgers had the best bullpen ERA in all of baseball.
This isn’t uniform, of course. The Indians had the best run differential and bullpen ERA in 2017, but spoiled a 2-0 ALDS lead to the New York Yankees, who would then fall to a Houston Astros team that was third in AL run differential but just 17th in bullpen ERA, instead riding a rotation led by Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel to the Fall Classic. But the trends in the National League point to more continuity.
The Dodgers were 9-11 to start the 2017 season before calling up Cody Bellinger from Triple-A and ending the first half on a 52-18 tear. In 2018, they have overcome a multitude of injuries–from the setbacks of Justin Turner to the season-ending injury handed to Corey Seager–to once again become the team to beat in the NL West. The Dodgers stumbled out of the blocks to a 16-24 record, their worst 40-game start since 1958. Yet despite lackluster performances from Bellinger and Chris Taylor and the loss of Seager, they enter play on Saturday with a 52-42 record. How? As has been so often the case, they have gotten tremendous performances out of their utility players. Muncy has been terrific, while Matt Kemp‘s resurgence has shocked the entire baseball world. Similarly, Ross Stripling has become the 2018 version of Alex Wood, capitalizing on an injury to star ace Clayton Kershaw and posting a 2.08 ERA in 95.1 innings. The bullpen ranks just 14th in ERA thus far, but Los Angeles has regained their swagger.
As for the Cubs, the North Siders lead the NL in run differential (+106) while possessing the fourth-best bullpen ERA in baseball. Mediocre first half numbers from Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo as well as persistent questions in the rotation (when will Yu Darvish come back, and how much longer will Joe Maddon stick with Tyler Chatwood) would seem to have hampered the Cubs, but they will come into play on Saturday tied for the best winning percentage in the National League. In fact, Chicago is just off pace from their 2016 record at the All-Star break, where they stood at 53-35 after losing 15 of 21 games. Given all the questions surrounding Chicago this year, it is impressive that they are still on pace to win over 100 games. The Cubs rank second in the NL in runs scored thanks to the All-Star season from Javier Baez and a revitalized Jason Heyward, while also ranking second in ERA (behind the Dodgers) behind Jon Lester and a stout bullpen that appears even stronger in 2018 due to the additions of Steve Cishek and Brandon Morrow as well as consistent improvement from Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. In other words, consistency has been key.
Of course, there is still another half of baseball to be played, and anything can happen. Maybe Manny Machado is dealt to an NL contender and puts them over the top, or perhaps the Washington Nationals will rampage through the second half to reassert themselves as contenders. Similarly, it is entirely possible that the Cubs and Dodgers may have to square off in the NLDS based on regular season records. Ultimately, however, it seems likely that these two clubs will finish the season as the best in the National League, on a fast-track for what could be an incredible NLCS trilogy.
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