May is winding down, and it’s the time of year when hot streaks need to start being taken seriously and you can no longer ignore that Ervin Santana is the best pitcher in the AL or the fact that Aaron Judge appears to be the reincarnation of Frank Thomas. Here are five of the most notable stories from the first two months of the 2017 MLB season.
Aaron Judge Electrifies the Bronx
The Yankees rookie phenom has a been a shot in the arm for a previously moribund (by Yankees standards) franchise. Judge’s dynamic personality and the thrill of his tape measure home runs has not only make the Yankees fun again, but has planted him as a front runner for AL Rookie of the Year and squarely in the thick of the MVP race. In limited action last year, Judge was plagued by the typical flaws of big, tall hitters. A large strike zone and poor plate discipline made him susceptible to a high strike out rate and a batting average that even Mario Mendoza would have turned up his nose at.
This season, with improved plate discipline and a more patient approach, Judge has terrorized pitchers across the American League and made the Yankees into the most exciting team in baseball, spurring the Bronx Bombers to first place in the AL East. Time will tell if the pitching will hold up for an October run, but the villains of baseball are officially back, and much earlier than expected to boot. The heaps of young talent in both the Yankees and the Red Sox organizations indicate a bright future for one of the most storied and bitter rivalries in all of sports.
Houston Reaps the Fruits of their Labor
To be completely honest, I’m not sure exactly why Houston owns the best record in the American League. Jose Altuve is playing fantastic, to be sure, and the defense certainly runs a tight ship, but there are a concerning number of red flags for a team that has the best record in baseball.
Carlos Correa, rookie phenom of 2015, looked poised to take the league by storm and lead the next generation of great shortstops. Correa certainly hasn’t been bad by any stretch of the imagination-we’re not looking at Bobby Crosby here-but his performance and potential has been relegated from transcendent to slightly above average.
I would be remiss not to mention the terrific season that Marwin Gonzalez is enjoying. Josh Reddick, too, is playing great. But Cuban import Yulieski Gurriel has been average, Alex Bregman has yet to live up the the hype, and Carlos Beltran is showing his age.
Dallas Keuchel won the Cy Young Award in 2015, then pitched like your average fifth starter in 2016. He’s back to the Cy Young level this year, and thank goodness for it, because their rotation is thinner than a papercut behind him and Lance McCullers. The best thing you can say about Charlie Morton is “he’s not the worst”, and he can thank the Joe Musgrove and Mike Fiers for that, both of whom have been dreadful.
The key to their success has been their lockdown bullpen, which has been performing at a historic rate. Houston has suffered for many years following the era of the Killer B’s-they are finally getting the chance to cash in on all those high draft picks.
Mike Trout Toils in Obscurity
The best baseball player in the world plays in the second biggest market in the United States. He has been compared to Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, two of the greatest baseball players who have ever graced this earth.
And nobody ever talks about him.
Oh sure, ESPN throws him a bone every once in a while and he wins the MVP award once every couple seasons. Most of Mike Trout news consists of “Yep, he’s still really good. Probably still better than Bryce Harper, too.” Yet for all of his immeasurable talent-the power and grace that makes a very hard game seems very easy-Mike Trout has little to no impact on the general state of baseball or the outcome of each MLB season.
It’s a constant battle in the sports world to stay relevant-the NFL, the top dog for a long time, must fight off the increasing pressure mounting as a result of the danger of concussions. Warriors-Cavs III in a rubber match makes for the most compelling NBA rivalry since Bird-Magic. Baseball has been seeking to make itself more entertaining and fast paced, with the implementation of pitch clocks. The MLB’s biggest ace in the hole right now is Trout, who should be front and center of all things baseball. Trout is the the absolute prime of his career and his exploits should be regaled with the same level of attention that Brady or LeBron receive. Perhaps more, because, have we mentioned he’s only 25?
But Trout is stuck on a team playing second fiddle in the LA market, the Angels being just bad enough to be totally irrelevant for the foreseeable future and recent memory, and not bad enough to land another star player in the draft to help Trout. In baseball, it’s much tougher for one player to mask a team’s flaws, not to mention that the rebuilding process takes longer because draft picks take longer to develop. The man hits with zero protection in the lineup and still mashes. The best player in the world has absolutely no impact on the results of every MLB season.
I hope he likes pinstripes.
The Brewers and Twins are Good Now, Everybody
Hooray for the upper Midwest!
Safe to say no one saw this coming. The Eric Thames experiment in Milwaukee has been an unequivocal success, and Ervin Santana is pitching as well as he ever has in Minnesota, and I was surprised to find out he’s been quietly excellent ever since his last awful season in the City of Angels. Former Number 1 prospect Byron Buxton is playing like Aaron Hicks, and by that I mean “couldn’t hit water if he fell off a boat but will catch anything in the ballpark and probably hose them at third too” Twins version of Aaron Hicks and not “suspiciously really good really fast” Yankees version of Aaron Hicks. He’s already valuable due to his defense, and if his bat ever catches up like many have long predicted it will, he’ll be an All Star. Miguel Sano has been straight up abusing baseballs this year in the box and just about adequate at third, which any baseball team will take ten times out of ten.
Travis Shaw is good now for the Brewers, and catchers Manny Pina and Jeff Bandy have combined to hit .292 with seven homers, excellent production from behind the dish. The pitching is uh, suspect, for the Brewers, especially because apparently Matt Garza is not bad now/the best pitcher they’ve got, recent history suggest that’s an untenable position. He was a good-to-very-good pitcher before the past two seasons, so it’s possible he has rediscovered his mojo, but his age makes that a risky assumption, especially with his recent injury concerns.
Both teams have been feel-good stories for 2017, but the Indians and Cardinals, two teams with established track records and pennant race experience, are hot on their respective tails. Even if the fast starts fizzle, the rapid rise of both these franchises has reignited baseball fever up North.
The Blue Jays are Not Good, and Probably Won’t be For a While
Speaking of up north, the Blue Jays went to the ALCS in back to back years on the power of Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion each of the previous two years, and are now mired in the depths of mediocrity.
Similarily, the Giants were one bullpen collapse away from pushing the Cubs to Game 7 (and about 30 bullpen collapses-I wish I was joking-from being among the best teams of the past five years) and are now attempting to claw their way back into contention after a Murphy’s Law start to the season.
The Blue Jays cashed out in 2015-adding Josh Donaldson, David Price, and Troy Tulowitzki, at no small cost. Now, with Encarnacion and Price gone, Bautista in decline, and Tulowitzki injured (what else is new), the Jays are staring at a rebuilding era a little quicker than they’d hoped, and with a dearth of prospects to do it with.
The Giants outlook was equally as bleak before a recent hot stretch, having emptied their cupboards for Matt Moore, Will Smith, and Mike Leake in recent seasons and failing to refurbish them in quite some time. Christian Arroyo, the system’s top prospect, has been called up and has shown a knack for timely hitting, though he’s struggling overall, his batting average narrowly eclipsing .200.
Two of the best teams in recent memory are suddenly afterthoughts, an important reminder to the rest of the league to savor success while it lasts.