Before lighting up the grill, reaching for a cold beverage or looking up for fireworks on the Fourth of July, there's one tradition that should sit atop every baseball fan's holiday to-do list: checking the MLB standings. And our experts are no different. We asked Bradford Doolittle, Sarah Langs and David Schoenfield to weigh in on what stands out most to them.
What's the first thing that jumps out when you look at the standings right now?
Sarah Langs: The discrepancy between the American League and National League. It seems pretty likely that we already know our five playoff teams in the American League -- just not necessarily the order (hello, wild-card race vs. AL East). Barring some collapses -- always possible, of course -- it looks like we're in for the Yankees, Red Sox, Indians, Astros and Mariners in some order. But in the National League, it's a completely different story. There are about nine teams you could make an argument for making the playoffs, at least in a wild-card spot. That's three in each division! And perhaps the best part is that none of the division leaders are the ones that were widely predicted to start the season.
David Schoenfield: The Astros have outscored their opponents by 170 runs. The Mariners have outscored their opponents by 22 runs. And yet, there's Seattle, only a half-game behind the Astros and on track for 100 wins. As Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs just pointed out, using the site's team "clutch" statistic, the Mariners are on pace to be the most "clutch" team since 1974 (as far back as the data goes).
Bradford Doolittle: The American League playoff slots look like they're all claimed, which means, of course, some team will collapse and another team will pass it like Secretariat. The most logical candidate for that is clearly Seattle, with its so-so run differential and incredible record in not just close games, but clutch situations in general -- both hitting and pitching.
Which team is headed for a big rise or drop in the standings?
Doolittle: The team I've been watching creep up on everyone in the AL for a while is the A's, so look out for them.
Langs: I tend to look at run differential as a pretty good predictor. The Giants have gotten back into the race lately but have a minus-22 run differential; whereas the Dodgers, who are just a game ahead of San Francisco, have outscored their opponents by 72 runs. I'd expect that gap between those two in the standings to widen. The Nationals are another one -- and a bit of a puzzling case. They've outscored opponents by 24 runs, significantly more than the Phillies (plus-7), but are 3 ½ games behind Philly. The Nationals haven't been great -- and had a very poor June -- but it still seems like they could generate more momentum here moving forward.
Schoenfield: The Nationals have dug themselves a big hole, but there's too much talent for them not to make a run at the NL East title. One note, however: They're 13-16 within the division, after going 47-29 in 2017 and 51-25 in 2016. On the bright side, they have 29 games remaining against the Mets and Marlins.
Of the American League teams currently holding playoff spots, how many will make the postseason?
Langs: I really think all five will. The Mariners' success (luck? Good teams make their own luck) in one-run games likely can't persist throughout the entire season, but there just doesn't seem to be another team that could overtake them. With all of their success lately, the A's are still eight games back for that second wild card. Huge year for you, Dave!
Schoenfield: While it's hard to believe the Mariners can continue their one-run magic -- 26-11 in one-run games -- they've built a nice cushion over the A's. I'll say they end the longest playoff drought in the majors (since 2001), so that means all five AL teams are already set.
Of the National League teams currently holding playoff spots, how many will make the postseason?
Langs: The Diamondbacks, Braves, Brewers and Cubs will make it, but the Phillies will not. That bullpen is too suspect to be relied on in September. The Dodgers will make it instead.
Doolittle: Three. Cubs will win the Central, but the Brewers will get the top wild card. The Braves will hold on in the East, but the Nationals will sneak in and grab the second wild card. And the Dodgers will win the West, while the Diamondbacks will finish just behind the Nats -- and just ahead of the Cardinals, Giants and Phillies -- in the race for the second wild card.
Schoenfield: I'll say three of the five.
Which team is the biggest disappointment of the first half (and will it turn things around)?
Langs: The Mets started 11-1 and are now solidly below .500. Only one team to start 11-1 or better through 12 games has finished with a sub-.500 record: the 2002 Indians, who finished with a .457 winning percentage. With a minus-60 run differential, third worst in the National League, it's pretty safe to say the Mets will not be turning it around.
Doolittle: The Nationals would probably win that designation from me at the moment, even though injuries have been a big part of their story. In terms of just sheer underachievement, you can make a strong argument for the Cardinals. I suspect both will play better from here on out, but the Nationals have the higher upside.
Schoenfield: Has to be the Nationals. I don't know if they'll catch the Braves, but I think they at least squeeze out a wild card.
Which team is the biggest surprise of the first half (and can they keep it up)?
Schoenfield: The Mariners. They'll fall off that 100-win pace but still win 90-something and make the playoffs.
Langs: The Braves were expected to be good, but I don't think anyone thought they'd be this good this soon. If anyone had any hopes for them entering the year, they were likely of the wild-card variety, and instead this team is leading the division. Young teams can get tired and fade, but they seem poised to power through -- with a strong starting rotation and the power of the Baby Braves. For what it's worth, too, they're just about right on the number of their Pythagorean win-loss record, so there's some evidence they haven't just gotten lucky or outperformed what their numbers should be.
Doolittle: The Braves are on pace to outstrip my preseason forecast for them by 14 wins. No one else is close. And, yes, I think they'll keep it up. This is simply an organization with a ton of talent for which it has all come together ahead of schedule.
Which division race will be the most interesting the rest of the way?
Langs: Depends how much competition you want. If you want three teams dueling it out, the National League East could be fascinating. Two young teams here about a year earlier than expected, and another team with a big-name player in a contract year, along with arguably the best pitcher in baseball. Will the youth and experience matter? Will Bryce Harper finally start playing like he's in a contract year? But if you want high stakes, let me direct you to the AL East, where two teams on pace for 100 wins will battle it out all summer to avoid the distinction of having the most regular-season wins of any team to play in the wild-card game (currently belongs to the 98-win Pirates from 2015).
Schoenfield: We should have several good races after only really having one OK race last year. We could have a three-team race in the NL West, which would be fun, but that AL East has the makings of a titanic clash between two teams that could win 105 games and will be desperate to avoid a one-game playoff in which you might have to face a tough opponent in James Paxton (and maybe burn your own ace -- Chris Sale or Luis Severino -- in the process).
Doolittle: The Red Sox and Yankees by far because it will remind us of how great a true pennant race can be. Alas, the loser gets the coin-flip game as a consolation prize, but that's a poor outcome for a probable 100-win juggernaut. The battle to avoid that game will be fierce.
Which contender most needs to do something big before the trade deadline?
Doolittle: There are upgrades to be made on every contending roster, but in terms of remaining in contention at all, I think St. Louis needs to do something aggressive. There are too many good players on that team for it to be floundering like it is, and it seems to be getting worse, not better. Getting Paul DeJong and some of the team's injured pitchers back will help, but I'd like to see the Redbirds land a big bat to bring it all into focus, whether it's Manny Machado, Josh Donaldson or somebody else.
Langs: For all of their success this season, the Yankees could really use another starting pitcher. All Yankees starters not named Luis Severino have combined for an ERA more than two runs higher than his. The Yankees are still winning a lot of those games, but they'd likely want at least one more starter they can rely on beyond Severino and CC Sabathia for the playoffs. We've seen teams that were already strong make moves in recent years when it was clearly about improving for the postseason, not just to succeed in the regular season -- look for the Yankees to attempt to do that. Two other teams that could really use some pitching help? The Cubs and Brewers.
Schoenfield: I'd love to see the Brewers make a big move in a year that doesn't feature a dominant NL team, but they also could win the division with the current roster (and maybe making a little upgrade at second base). I think the Diamondbacks have to make a major deal to hold off the Dodgers and that could be Manny Machado.