While the first third of the 2021 season has featured plenty of excitement, pleasant surprises and no-hitters, it has also brought disappointment. Teams we thought were great have fallen flat, and star players have struggled.
Sports Illustrated's baseball writers discussed baseball's biggest bummers so far this season.
It has to be the Twins, right? We all thought they'd be battling the White Sox for first in the AL Central, and instead they have the second-worst record in the American League, and FanGraphs gives them just a 4.5% chance to make the playoffs. The position players have been O.K., but the pitching has been almost unspeakably bad. We've still got a ways to go this season, but it's hard to see how Minnesota recovers from its dreadful start.
The Twins. While it's true that they've been subject to some bad fortune—it's not normal to have an extra-innings record of 2–8!—there's more here than just tough luck, and with an offense this good, it's a huge disappointment that a team could end up being this bad. Their pitching staff has gone from among the strongest in baseball (a 120 ERA+ in 2020) to the weakest (84 in 2021). Their offseason choices in this department have turned out terribly: J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker have both been disasters so far, and while it originally may not have seemed like such a big deal to let Rich Hill walk before his age-41 season, he'd be greatly appreciated right now in Minnesota. And the Twins still have one of the best offenses in MLB! (Their 111 OPS+ is third in the league.) They just don't have anything else—which has landed them in the cellar and, yes, qualified them as a huge disappointment.
From a team standpoint, the Twins and Angels both make compelling cases. But I'll zoom in on a club most expected more from after being within one game of the World Series three separate times last year. The Braves' pitching staff has allowed 4.98 runs per game, the third-worst mark in the National League, behind Arizona and Cincinnati. The bets the front office made during the offseason haven't really paid off. Drew Smyly has been getting hit hard. Atlanta thought it was getting the 2020 version of Smyly with spiked strikeout rates; instead, he resembles the mediocre version of himself that failed to impress in Texas and Philadelphia in 2019. Charlie Morton looks more like the guy who struggled during the regular season last year than the one who turned it on for the playoffs. Rare bright spot Huascar Ynoa broke his hand after punching a dugout bench. The bullpen has absorbed 14 losses, tied for the most in the majors, and a 4.82 ERA that's third-worst in the NL. Meanwhile, 2020 closer Mark Melancon has been the best closer in the National League after the Braves seemingly wouldn't match San Diego's $3 million offer during the offseason. Alex Anthopoulos then re-signed Shane Greene out of desperation a few weeks ago after letting him walk over the winter, but it's probably too little, too late. The Braves are outgunned from an arms standpoint by the Mets, and it sure looks like it'll end their consecutive streak of division titles at three.
The Twins entered the year with 61% odds to win the division, according to the Baseball Prospectus PECOTA projections, but now have the second worst record in the American League. The Yankees (31–29) are 6.5 games out in the AL East and surprisingly have one of the worst offenses in the game.
Still, the biggest bummer for me has been Mike Trout's injury. Trout was having his best season yet, hitting .333 with eight homers and 2.1 WAR in 36 games before straining his calf on May 17. By the time he returns from the calf strain he will have missed at least two months of the season. That's two more months that Trout will miss in his prime after the pandemic delayed the first four months of last year. Altogether, that's a full season's worth of games Trout (and us baseball fans) won't get back. We've grown accustomed to not watching the best player in baseball in the playoffs, but we could always count on the regular season.
It's been pretty astounding to watch how quickly things have unraveled for the Twins. This is a team that went 137–85 from 2019–20 and made the playoffs three of the last four seasons following a years-long rebuild. The Twins have been among the worst pitching teams in the league, with the bullpen in particular sticking out as an eyesore. Byron Buxton was finally having a true breakout season, but he's missed the last month with a hamstring injury. There's still time for the Twins to turn things around, but the White Sox appear to have a firm grip on the division, leaving a crowded field to beat out for a wild-card spot. Barring a miraculous turnaround, Twins fans will at least be spared from watching their team extend their postseason losing streak beyond 18 consecutive games and 10 straight playoff series.
Not even the amazing Shohei Ohtani can save the woebegone Angels, but it's not as though Joe Maddon's team was any sort of title contender entering 2021.
Instead, let's turn to the American League East, where the Yankees continue to limp through the opening portion of the season. And I'm not so sure New York's struggles thus far will be looked back upon as some kind of isolated slump. This is a lineup that ranks No. 25 in the majors in slugging (.371) and 27th runs per game (3.72). DJ LeMahieu and Gleyber Torres have combined for five homers. Giancarlo Stanton continues to battle the injury bug. Aaron Hicks will miss the rest of the season after having wrist surgery. Luke Voit, who led the league in home runs last year, has played in just 12 games this season because of two separate injuries. The rotation outside of Gerritt Cole is unproven and uneven, and even Cole has struggled of late. Getting to Aroldis Chapman in the ninth has been a challenge. There's still plenty of time for Brian Cashman to plug the holes on this roster. Perhaps Ketel Marte or David Peralta of the Diamondbacks could fill a hole in the outfield. A Trevor Story trade is unlikely, though not impossible. New York can't afford to tread lightly in the fourth year of the Aaron Boone era, where two of Boston, Tampa Bay, Oakland, Houston and Cleveland could beat out the Yankees for the final playoff berths. Such a result could lead to some serious changes in the Bronx ahead of 2022.
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