The All-Star break is commonly referred to as halftime of the MLB season. It’s fitting, then, that a sport that eschews a traditional halftime break in favor of a seventh-inning stretch would get splitting something into two even halves all wrong. Though the All-Star Game isn’t for another week, the halfway point of the season has already come and gone (at least for most teams—the Mets still have some catching up to do).
With that in mind, now feels like the proper time to hand out some midterm grades. We’ll be grading on a scale, so to speak, with each mark handed out within the scope of the club’s preseason expectations. We’ve included each team’s rank on Opening Day for reference, but please pay little mind to all the clubs that we missed the mark on completely back in April.
Finally, while midterm grades are important, remember that there’s still time to bump up that grade in the second semester. Teams at the bottom, it’s time to hit the books.
30. Arizona Diamondbacks (Last Week: 30)
Opening Day rank: 25th Grade: F
The Madison Bumgarner no-hitter was the highlight of the first half for a pitching staff whose 5.36 ERA ranks last in the National League by nearly half a run—and that seven-inning triumph didn’t even officially count as a no-no. Arizona is 12–52 since then, a span that’s included a franchise record losing streak and a MLB record road losing streak. Arizona’s two best offensive players, Ketel Marte and Carson Kelly, are both on the injured list for the second time this season, which has hurt an offense that initially played well but has sunk to a bottom-five rank in the NL by runs scored. The sell-off began this week with the trade of Tim Locastro to the Yankees; expect Eduardo Escobar, David Peralta and perhaps others to follow him out of the desert.
29. Pittsburgh Pirates (LW: 28)
Opening Day rank: 30th Grade: C
The Pirates have acquitted themselves fairly well considering Ke’Bryan Hayes has only played in 29 games. The Adam Frazier breakout has given Pittsburgh an unexpected All-Star starter (and potential trade chip) at the keystone, while outfielder Bryan Reynolds has also hit his way to the Midsummer Classic. Despite that, however, Pittsburgh has still produced the lowest-scoring offense in the majors, and the rotation doesn’t include a starter with an ERA below 4.00.
28. Baltimore Orioles (LW: 29)
Opening Day rank: 28th Grade: C
Like most rebuilding teams, success might best be judged by what’s going on in the farm system. The Orioles put up a .328 winning percentage over the past three seasons coming into 2021, and this year looks like much of the same. Positive developments include the breakout season from All-Star Cedric Mullins, an inspiring comeback from Trey Mancini and promising returns from youngsters Auston Hays and Ryan Mountcastle. Beyond John Means, the starting rotation has been abysmal, and Baltimore needs to start developing arms at the upper levels of its minor league system in order to progress into the franchise’s next competitive window.
27. Texas Rangers (LW: 26)
Opening Day rank: 29th Grade: C-
The best development of the Rangers’ season so far is that the team’s most desirable trade assets—All-Stars Joey Gallo and Kyle Gibson—have enjoyed outstanding years and are maximizing their trade value. As for players who are more likely to figure into the long-term vision, Adolis García was essentially given away by the Cardinals, and his breakout has been among the biggest surprises of the year. Former first-round pick Dane Dunning was the key return in the Lance Lynn trade, and he’s shown plenty of promise through the first three months.
26. Colorado Rockies (LW: 27)
Opening Day rank: 27th Grade: D
Jeff Bridich’s April resignation as general manager was both abrupt and overdue. The offense he constructed—with a largely hands-off approach in terms of external acquisitions—ranks as the sport’s worst by wRC+, which takes into account park factors such as Coors Field’s hitter-friendly environment. C.J. Cron and Brendan Rodgers, who’s played in only 36 games, have been the Rockies’ only above-average batters, as Trevor Story’s worst campaign of his career has complicated his trade value ahead of his entry into free agency. The rotation has produced a trio of strong contributors in Austin Gomber, Germán Márquez and Jon Gray, with the former doing his best to justify the return for Nolan Arenado and the latter boosting his price as a potential rental for a contender ahead of the trade deadline.
25. Minnesota Twins (LW: 21)
Opening Day rank: 5th Grade: F
Where to begin with the Twins? Probably with the pitching staff, which ranks last in the AL in pitching fWAR after ranking second in that category a season ago. Kenta Maeda has taken the biggest step back among the starters, but the entire bullpen ranks 24th in win probability added. Luck hasn’t quite been on Minnesota’s side either, as injuries have kept Byron Buxton on the sidelines in what had been shaping up to be a breakout season for the center fielder. Coming into the season, the Twins were among the few teams with legitimate World Series aspirations. Now, they’re likely to be sellers in a few weeks at the July 30 trade deadline.
24. Kansas City Royals (LW: 24)
Opening Day rank: 20th Grade: D+
The Royals had an active offseason, adding veterans in free agency as part of a strategy that seemed to forgo rebuilding for a run at contention. After solid play for two months, Kansas City has veered off course after a brutal June in which the team went 9–21. Run prevention in particular has been a challenge—the Royals rank 27th in team ERA, with most of the damage being done against the starting rotation. Injuries to Andrew Benintendi and Adalberto Mondesi have certainly played a role in the team’s underwhelming first half, as well as poor performances by Jorge Soler and Hunter Dozier. The Royals have a number of effective relief pitchers that could net some helpful returns at the trade deadline.
23. Detroit Tigers (LW: 25)
Opening Day rank: 26th Grade: C+
The Tigers haven’t finished a season above .500 since 2016, and they’re unlikely to in 2021. But the seeds of promise have started to bear fruit, with several young players coming into their own. Detroit ranks fairly comfortably in the middle of the pack in most pitching stats, which represents substantial progress compared to years past. Casey Mize and Tarik Skubal look like they can develop into a stellar one-two punch, while Spencer Turnbull was having his best year before hitting the injured list with a strained right forearm. Continued progress from those three represents the most critical storyline to watch during Detroit’s second half.
22. Miami Marlins (LW: 23)
Opening Day rank: 22nd Grade: C-
Miami wasn’t expected to make it two straight playoff appearances, but they very well could have if not for injuries to starters Elieser Hernandez and Sixto Sánchez, who would’ve given the Marlins one of the strongest and deepest rotations in the game. They’re one of only two teams along with Atlanta who possess a positive run differential and a sub-.500 record, indicating some poor luck even aside from injuries (they in fact boast the NL East’s best run differential despite residing in last place). The real roadblock to contention, though, has been an offense that relies heavily on middling veterans and a lone young stud in Jazz Chisholm Jr., who’s petered off after a gangbusters beginning to his major league career.
SELBE: Fish Are Flailing Now, but Young Horses Offer Brighter Future
21. St. Louis Cardinals (LW: 22)
Opening Day rank: 10th Grade: D
It didn’t seem so dire at the time, but Jack Flaherty’s oblique injury at the dawn of June may have been the death knell for this Cardinals club’s postseason chances. St. Louis, the preseason conventional favorite to win the NL Central, went on to go 10–17 in June while the Brewers separated themselves from the rest of the division. That combined with the three-headed monster in the NL West has left the Cardinals with a 1.8% chance of qualifying for the playoffs, according to Fangraphs. Their pitching staff ranks last in walk rate (11.4%) and third to last in strikeout rate (20.6%), which doesn’t seem like a formula for success to increase those odds.
20. Philadelphia Phillies (LW: 18)
Opening Day rank: 17th Grade: C
The Phillies are only four games back in the shockingly mediocre NL East, but they’re under .500 and the bullpen has once again proven to be a critical weakness (MLB-worst 22 blown saves) despite an offseason overhaul. Zack Wheeler’s maturation into a full-blown workhorse has anchored an otherwise middling rotation in which Aaron Nola’s 4.44 ERA ranks as the fourth-best mark—a disappointing return from the bronze medalist on the 2018 NL Cy Young podium. Alec Bohm is in a heck of a sophomore slump, as the third baseman hasn’t homered since May 6 and has just four extra-base hits in his last 36 games. A rebound from him and Didi Gregorius not missing a beat after returning from the injured list this weekend would go a long way toward aiding what’s been a below-average lineup.
19. Los Angeles Angels (LW: 20)
Opening Day rank: 13th Grade: C-
Some leeway is granted here due to the Angels playing .500 ball while Mike Trout has been on the IL for most of the season. Of course, you’d expect much better than that given the historic tear Shohei Ohtani has been on. The Angels have tried to rebuild on the fly without tearing down for the past six years, and haven’t had a winning record in any of them. Attempts to patch together a passable pitching staff with minimal investment of resources have mostly failed, as the team ranks 26th in starting pitching ERA. If you squint hard enough, you can see how young arms like Patrick Sandoval and José Suarez might one day develop into impact starters for a contending team, but now it feels premature for them to spur a second-half run into the playoff picture. The Angels likely won’t be sellers at the deadline, though impending free agents Andrew Heaney and Alex Cobb would likely fetch useful returns.
18. Seattle Mariners (LW: 19)
Opening Day rank: 23rd Grade: B
Seattle’s rank in this space week in and week out is a reflection of the belief that, sooner or later, the Pythagorean Record gods will strike down upon the Mariners with great vengeance and furious anger, making Seattle’s run differential and record align in ways you might expect. That hasn’t happened yet, with the Mariners ripping off one-run wins at a pace that defies logic. Regardless of how unsustainable we believe this run of success to be, the Mariners deserve credit for outperforming expectations to this degree for this long. J.P. Crawford and Mitch Haniger have put up All-Star worthy first halves, while starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi has enjoyed a breakthrough year after struggling for most of his first two seasons.
17. Atlanta Braves (LW: 17)
Opening Day rank: 3rd Grade: D+
Atlanta’s postseason odds on Fangraphs have shrunk more than any other NL team, plummeting from 63.8% on Opening Day to its current 17.5% mark. A large portion of the blame has to go to the Braves’ bullpen, which has shuffled through 18 different relievers, most of which have been remarkably unclutch. Atlanta’s 5.70 ERA in late and close situations (in the seventh inning or later with a three-run deficit or less) ranks last in the majors. The Braves are far from out of it, but haven’t been able to climb over .500 or string together a winning streak of at least five games despite having somehow squeezed two solid outfielders’ worth of at-bats from thirty-something journeymen Abraham Almonte, Ehire Adrianza and Guillermo Heredia in lieu of Marcell Ozuna’s domestic violence arrest and Cristian Pache’s rough regular season introduction to the bigs.
16. Chicago Cubs (LW: 11)
Opening Day rank: 18th Grade: C
This grade would’ve been a letter higher a week ago, but an eight-game losing skid combined with an 11-game winning streak from Milwaukee has plummeted Chicago (42-42) to 8.5 games back in the NL Central and reignited discussion on the Cubs becoming sellers at the deadline. While the offense has gone cold as of late, the rotation presents the greatest long-term cause for concern. Kyle Hendricks recorded ERAs below 3.00 in both May and June after an ugly April, but his FIP (4.89) is more than a run higher than his ERA (3.83), indicating another slide may be around the corner. He’s still the only Cubs starter you’d trust to start a playoff game, though.
15. New York Yankees (LW: 14)
Opening Day rank: 4th Grade: D
What would you think if you were told on Opening Day that the Yankees—despite a lineup featuring Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres—would rank dead last in the AL in runs scored at the midway point? Only five Yankees have a wRC+ above league average (100): Judge (147), Stanton (135), Gary Sánchez (128), Gio Urshela (108) and LeMahieu (102). New York ranks last in the AL in hitting with runners in scoring position (80 wRC+), which explains a lot of their offensive woes. The starting rotation hasn’t been nearly good enough to overcome the anemic offense, and Aroldis Chapman has a 12.66 ERA in his last 14 games after not allowing an earned run in his first 18. There’s still enough time—and talent—for the Bombers to get back into the hunt. But as Stanton said following last week’s ninth-inning collapse against the Angels, the sense of urgency is at an all-time high for the team to “pick this s— up.”
14. Cleveland (LW: 13)
Opening Day rank: 15th Grade: B-
Cleveland has the second-lowest on-base percentage in the majors this season, with a thin lineup low on impact bats. Its place firmly among wild-card contenders is fairly impressive considering the injuries that have knocked out Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac. Cleveland has feasted on the weak clubs in the AL Central, going a combined 17–11 against the Twins, Royals and Tigers. It will need to fare much better against teams with winning records to remain in the hunt down the stretch.
13. Washington Nationals (LW: 16)
Opening Day rank: 9th Grade: C
Washington’s steady climb back into the thick of the NL East race makes it all but certain that Max Scherzer—who is on pace for his best season ever, by the way—will remain atop the rotation in D.C. through the fall. But his veteran rotation mates Patrick Corbin and Jon Lester, with ERAs above 5.00 and strikeout rates well below league average, need to pitch closer to their career norms if the Nationals are to pull off another second-half surge. And with Kyle Schwarber’s trip to the injured list (hamstring strain) curtailing his Bondsian power binge, Juan Soto will likely need to shoulder some more of the run-producing burden after hitting just nine home runs in his first 71 games.
12. Cincinnati Reds (LW: 15)
Opening Day rank: 19th Grade: C+
In our first power rankings of the season, we said Cincinnati needed to post a top-five offense in the NL to have a shot at winning the NL Central. They’ve actually bettered that target, overcoming an awful offensive showing from the left side of its infield to post the senior circuit’s third highest-scoring offense. Unfortunately, the bullpen has undone a lot of that good work; the Reds rank 29th in the league with a 5.22 ERA. Manager David Bell is still figuring out who he can trust to take care of business in the ninth, as seven different Reds have tallied saves in the revolving door at closer. If Luis Castillo continues his rebound and the back end of the bullpen stabilizes, perhaps with some low-cost trade acquisitions, the Reds could still make a run at their first division crown since 2012.
11. New York Mets (LW: 9)
Opening Day rank: 7th Grade: B-
The Mets have led the NL East since mid-April, so you can’t grade them too harshly. But this still is one of the most disappointing clubs in the league, solely because a team with this many good hitters shouldn’t produce the second-fewest runs per game (3.69) in the majors. Only three of the nine Mets hitters with at least 100 plate appearances—Pete Alonso, Dom Smith and Jonathan Villar—have a wRC+ above 100. For all the flak Francisco Lindor has gotten, he’s accounted for the most fWAR (1.3) of any Mets position player. Perhaps the return of Brandon Nimmo, who went 5-for-14 in this weekend’s series against the Yankees, after a two-month stay on the injured list can spark a change.
10. Toronto Blue Jays (LW: 12)
Opening Day rank: 12th Grade: B
Here’s a good illustration for the opposite pole of the luck spectrum: the Blue Jays have a scoring differential that’s 115 runs better than that of the Mariners, yet they actually trail Seattle by a half game in the wild-card standings. Long term, the results should skew in Toronto’s favor, though improvements in the rotation are a must. Blue Jays starters have been dinged by the long ball, with the third-highest home run rate in the majors. Robbie Ray is the chief culprit there, averaging nearly two per nine innings. That, combined with a left-on-base rate of 75%, means negative regression is likely around the corner. Expect the Blue Jays to look to add at the trade deadline to bolster their chances at getting Vladimir Guerrero Jr. into the postseason.
9. Oakland A’s (LW: 8)
Opening Day rank: 14th Grade: B+
As has become typical for Oakland, the A’s have so far exceeded preseason expectations despite a dismal start to the year. A stout rotation is the key reason why. A’s starters have thrown the most innings of any team in the majors, and there hasn’t been a weak link in the bunch. Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea in particular have stood out as co-aces and look plenty capable of spearheading Oakland back into the postseason for the fourth year in a row.
8. Tampa Bay Rays (LW: 3)
Opening Day rank: 11th Grade: B+
The reigning AL champions let Charlie Morton walk in free agency and traded away Blake Snell, yet still remain among the league’s best. Tampa Bay’s strength is its lack of weaknesses. The Rays rank among the top 10 in both hitting and pitching fWAR, with a lineup featuring seven everyday players that rank above league average in batting. The offense could get even deeper and more dynamic if and when Wander Franco hits his stride. Tyler Glasnow’s continued absence will put further strain on an already taxed bullpen, so perhaps Tampa Bay will look to add depth at the deadline to keep pace with the Red Sox in what should be a thrilling battle for the AL East.
7. Milwaukee Brewers (LW: 10)
Opening Day rank: 16th Grade: B+
The Brewers’ recent 11-game winning streak has certainly brightened their outlook, boosting their playoff odds from 61.4% when the streak started to to 88.8% entering play Monday, per FanGraphs. Those victories have come over the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Pirates and flailing Cubs, so let’s not crown them yet. But it’s hard not to be optimistic about Milwaukee’s chances to maintain control of the NL Central. Since trading for Willy Adames on May 21 just days after welcoming back Christian Yelich from the injured list, the Brewers have scored the most runs (218) in the National League. That improvement combined with a sturdy front end of the rotation, reliable back end of the bullpen and a top-tier defense featuring four former Gold Glove winners makes Milwaukee a rather complete ballclub.
6. San Diego Padres (LW: 5)
Opening Day rank: 2nd Grade: B
If you told Padres fans before the start of the season they’d be in third place come July, they’d probably freak out. In reality, that has to do more with San Francisco’s stunning ascent more than any wrongdoing by the Friars. But the rotation has certainly lost some of its preseason sheen due to the continued fragility of Dinelson Lamet and an unimpressive first half from Blake Snell. San Diego’s offense should have another gear, too, with Eric Hosmer and Wil Myers yet to find their groove. Despite all that, the Padres are in a solid position to at least claim a wild-card berth, and they still could make a run at their first NL West title since 2006.
5. Chicago White Sox (LW: 6)
Opening Day rank: 6th Grade: B+
The White Sox are the class of the AL Central, with a pitching staff that trumps virtually all others in terms of elite arms at the top and quality of depth. Chicago’s run prevention has compensated for a good-but-not-great offense that’s withstood injuries (Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez) and down seasons from key players (reigning AL MVP José Abreu and Adam Eaton). A possible cause for concern is that the White Sox have fattened up on the league’s bottom-feeders: Chicago has the best winning percentage (.740) in the AL against teams with losing records, yet is just 16–24 against teams .500 or better.
4. Boston Red Sox (LW: 7)
Opening Day rank: 24th Grade: A+
Boston’s cellar-dwelling status on Opening Day felt vindicated after a season-opening sweep at the hands of the Orioles. Instead, it was yet another lesson in the importance of not overreacting to the first week of the season. The Red Sox are a complete team, ranking in the top five in hitting and pitching fWAR. Though the rotation has fallen off a bit after a blistering start, it’s been supported by a lights-out bullpen and good fortune on the injury front, as the quintet of Nathan Eovaldi, Nick Pivetta, Martín Pérez, Garrett Richards and Eduardo Rodriguez has started all but two games thus far. Boston is definitely a team poised to add at the trade deadline, particularly at first base: Red Sox first baseman are hitting a mere .210/.261/.392 on the season.
3. San Francisco Giants (LW: 2)
Opening Day rank: 21st Grade: A+
If during the preseason you had San Francisco pegged as the first club to reach 50 wins, hit the most home runs or record the league’s second-best ERA once the calendar turned to July, can you tell us your secrets? After Fangraphs gave the Giants a 5.7% chance to qualify for the playoffs, that number has skyrocketed to 85.4% with San Francisco sitting pretty on top of the NL West. Farhan Zaidi batted 1.000 on his free agency rotation additions (Kevin Gausman, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood, pre-injury Aaron Sanchez) to complement throwback seasons from multi-time World Series winners Buster Posey, Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt. As a result, no team has better outperformed their preseason expectations.
2. Houston Astros (LW: 1)
Opening Day rank: 8th Grade: A
The Astros looked to have one of the best lineups in the league before the season started. That assessment has turned into a substantial understatement halfway through the year. Houston has far outpaced any other offense, with a 122 wRC+, that’s well ahead clear of the next-best team (Toronto, at 111). That type of offensive firepower needs only mediocre pitching to be successful, and the Astros have gotten better than that from a rotation that’s had to endure injuries to some key arms. Luis García has emerged as one of the best young starters in the league, while Zack Greinke and Lance McCullers Jr. have thrived as the seasoned vets of the staff. Houston’s bullpen is short on trustworthy arms beyond the sensational Ryan Pressly, so that will likely be an area addressed before the trade deadline. Still, this is as complete a team as the AL has to offer, making last October’s run to the ALCS seem not like a 2020-engineered fluke, but rather a harbinger for what was to come.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers (LW: 4)
Opening Day rank: 1st Grade: A-
Only a reigning World Series champion with historic preseason expectations could claim the top spot in our rankings midway through the season and not receive an “A” grade. Los Angeles’s nine-game winning streak over the Cubs, Giants and Nationals has reminded us of the team’s frightening ceiling. But this is not a flawless team. The rotation has lost some of its depth with injuries to Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin. Trevor Bauer was placed on administrative leave by MLB on Friday while the league investigates gruesome sexual assault allegations against him. Even if Bauer were cleared to return this season, he and Walker Buehler possess the second and third largest differences among qualified starters between their ERAs and FIPs, hinting at looming regressions. There’s also the added element of Bauer’s pronounced decrease in spin rate following the league’s crackdown on sticky stuff. The good news for Dodgers fans is that L.A. still owns the NL’s best offense by a healthy margin, and the front office operates with a budget most other franchises can only dream of. This current, already impressive iteration of the Dodgers isn’t even their final form.
More MLB Coverage:
• Shohei Ohtani Isn’t Babe Ruth—He’s Better
• The Charmed Season: Revisiting Derek Jeter’s Origin Story
• June Takeaways: What We Learned in Baseball’s Third Month
Travelling in Delphi Greece
Butt Out – Play Better Golf
Music, Arts, Theatre and More in Nairobi