Congratulations, your team is in first place! What does that mean about 50 games into the season? Let’s check the standings for the past five seasons at a similar point in the schedule and see how many first-place teams ended up winning their divisions:
2016: Four of six (Red Sox, Rangers, Nationals, Cubs) won the division. The Indians were 0.5 games behind the Royals; the Dodgers were 4.5 behind the Giants.
2015: Two of six (Cardinals, Dodgers). The Blue Jays were 3.5 games behind the Yankees and Rays; the Royals were 0.5 games behind the Twins; the Rangers were five games behind the Astros; the Mets were 0.5 behind the Nationals.
2014: One of six (Tigers). The Orioles were 3.5 behind the Blue Jays; the Angels were 1.5 behind the A’s; the Nationals were three behind the Braves; the Cardinals were 1.5 behind the Brewers; the Dodgers were five behind the Giants.
2013: Four of six (Red Sox, Tigers, Braves, Cardinals). The A’s were three games behind the Rangers; the Dodgers were 7.5 behind the Diamondbacks (and in last place).
2012: Two of six (Nationals, Reds). The Yankees were 1.5 behind the Orioles and Rays; the Tigers were 5.5 behind the White Sox; the A’s were nine behind the Rangers; the Giants were 5.5 behind the Dodgers.
Thirteen teams held on to first place. That’s about half of them. That history suggests that three of the current division leaders won’t hold on to their leads. What areas should fans of those teams panic about? Let’s take a look:
The offense has been impressive, leading the American League in runs per game. While Aaron Judge and Aaron Hicks are good bets to slow down, the Yankees are getting those results despite ranking last in the majors in wOBA at first base, not to mention missing Gary Sanchez for a chunk of the season.
We turn to the starting rotation. Michael Pineda and Luis Severino have been solid, helping the Yankees to a 4.09 rotation ERA, ninth in the majors. Tanaka, the supposed ace, has a 5.86 ERA while allowing a .295 average and .546 slugging percentage. The weird thing is that Tanaka has had two brilliant starts, a three-hit shutout of the Red Sox on April 27 and a 13-strikeout game against the A’s on May 26. In between, he gave up 22 runs in 18 innings, including 10 home runs. Much of that damage has come against his fastball, as opponents are slugging .753 against it.
Given that Pineda has his own home run issues (11 in 59 2/3 innings) and a history of inconsistent results, and that Severino has to prove that he can do this for 30 starts, the Yankees need Tanaka to headline the rotation. If he continues to struggle, look for the Yankees to make a hard pitch for Jose Quintana.
Minnesota Twins: Pitching
Did you see Monday’s game? The Twins led 8-2 in the eighth inning after another great start by Ervin Santana, only to see the Astros score 11 runs in the eighth. As good as Santana has been, he isn’t going to keep his ERA at 1.75 all season. Still, it’s the rest of the staff that provides reason to panic — both the rotation and the bullpen.
As a staff, the Twins rank 27th in the majors in strikeout rate and 29th in well-hit average. They don’t strike many batters out, and they give up a lot of hard-hit balls. That puts a lot of pressure on the defense, which has been great. Mediocre pitching and great defense can work, and it could be that the Twins will play 2016 Cubs-level defense all season. Maybe Jose Berrios will step up as a legit No. 2 behind Santana. More likely, the Twins will need to acquire a starter and some bullpen depth.
Cleveland Indians: Rotation
The rotation ranks 25th in the majors in ERA, after ranking seventh in 2016, and there are issues all over the place. Corey Kluber is on the DL with a back issue, and Danny Salazar has been banished to the bullpen even though he’s tied for fourth in the AL in strikeouts. Josh Tomlin has a 39-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio but a 5.79 ERA. And Trevor Bauer had a 6.30 ERA before striking out 14 batters on Tuesday.
Terry Francona did a masterful job of piecing together the rotation last October when Carlos Carrasco and Salazar were injured, but that was mostly Kluber carrying a big workload. He started six of Cleveland’s 15 postseason games, but you can’t do that in the regular season. The Indians have only needed six starters so far, but depth will be an issue if they dig into their seventh, eighth and ninth starters.
Houston Astros: Health
At this point, it would take a monumental collapse and an unlikely surge from another team to stop the Astros. Sure, the back of the rotation might not inspire a lot of confidence, but this is obviously a well-rounded team without any major weakness. I just noticed this as well: The Astros’ lineup has the second-lowest strikeout rate in the majors, after ranking fourth-highest in 2016 and second-highest in 2015. That’s a good sign, not only that the offense will continue to score runs, but also that it might not be as prone to getting exploited in the postseason.
What could keep the Astros from getting there? I’d say the only panic point is the health of the starting rotation. Dallas Keuchel missed a start with a DL stint because of a pinched nerve in his neck, but he returned and pitched well. Still, he had shoulder issues last year. Lance McCullers Jr. has been one of the most exciting pitchers in the game, but he missed much of last season because of a sore elbow. Charlie Morton is currently on the DL with a strained lat, with no timetable for his return. That means the Astros’ top three starters all have recent or current injury issues, and that’s about the only thing that can derail their current ride to 95-plus wins.
Washington Nationals: Bullpen
Well, that or brawls. But we’ll stick with the bullpen, though given the state of the NL East, this ultimately is more of an October issue than one that will prevent the Nats from winning the division. While the pen has been a little better the past couple of weeks, it still ranks 28th in the majors in ERA. On the bright side, since coming off the DL, Koda Glover has had 10 straight scoreless outings and is 5-for-5 in save opportunities. His season numbers are fine: 17 1/3 IP, 12 H, 0 HRs, 2 BB, 16 SO. Other than the fact that he is a rookie, he has the arm and numbers of a solid closer.
Still, he’s a rookie, and the depth behind him remains shaky. Look for the Nats to make a deal for a reliever or two in July.
Milwaukee Brewers: Starting rotation
The Cubs, Cardinals, Pirates and Reds are below .500 … could the Brewers really sneak in and steal a division title? FanGraphs still sees the Cubs as big favorites, with the Brewers given just a 2.2 percent chance of winning the division, but you can’t deny that the Brewers have played better than the Cubs and Cardinals so far. In one more game, they’ve allowed just three more runs than the Cubs and scored 24 more. The Brewers’ next 17 games could tell us a lot about them as they play the Mets, Dodgers, Giants, Diamondbacks and Cardinals.
Anyway, the offense is good, even as Eric Thames falls back to earth and Ryan Braun sits on the DL. Corey Knebel has lockdown potential as the new closer. It’s all about the starting pitching, which has been middle of the pack so far in ERA (18th), strikeout rate (18th), walk rate (10th) and strand rate (15th). The one area that stands out is that the rotation ranks 27th in wOBA allowed. If that continues, the Brewers are going to start giving up more runs. One good sign, however, is the return of Junior Guerra, last year’s surprise as a 31-year-old rookie (2.81 ERA), from the DL. If Zach Davies can bounce back from his bad start, the rotation might be good enough, even though it lacks an ace or Cy Young contender.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Health and Adrian Gonzalez
The Dodgers are on a roll with six wins in a row and the best run differential in the majors at plus-87 runs. They lead the majors with a 3.22 staff ERA and rank fourth with a 3.57 rotation ERA. So why should Dodgers fans panic about the team’s health? Rich Hill has missed time with his blister problems, and Alex Wood is currently on the DL with shoulder inflammation (although he’s expected to miss just one start). Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu aren’t exactly going to be mistaken for Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine when it comes to staying off the DL. Kenta Maeda’s elbow is reportedly held together by glue and duct tape. All that depth is nice — it allows the Dodgers to be conservative with minor injuries like Wood’s — but they had all this depth last year and were scrambling for starters by October. As long as the big guy stays healthy, they should be OK.
So maybe the bigger concern is what to do with Adrian Gonzalez. He’s hitting .261/.315/.351 and manager Dave Roberts has kept him in the cleanup spot even though he has just one home run. He’s obviously a respected veteran with a great career behind him, but he’s not helping the team. Given injuries in the outfield, Cody Bellinger is playing left field at the moment, but once all the outfielders are healthy, will Roberts have the guts to bench Gonzalez for Bellinger if Gonzalez doesn’t find life in his bat?