10 things no one saw coming this season

Another season, another year of the baseball gods laughing at us. If we had the power to predict everything that happens in Major League Baseball, we’d pat ourselves on the back … but also be pretty bored in the process. Thankfully, the game always delivers the unexpected.

Here are 10 things that nobody (no, not even you) predicted at the start of 2022. Note that we’re not focused here on one-off games, series, incidents or oddities, but rather season trends.

1) The Orioles have a winning record!

Forget a winning season record. The Orioles hadn’t had a winning month since August 2017. They hadn’t strung together consecutive winning months since April-June 2016. But with a 30-21 record across June and July, the O’s have already wildly exceeded all expectations placed upon them this season

Alas, that didn’t stop the Orioles’ front office from dealing one of their best hitters (Trey Mancini) and their closer (Jorge López) at the Trade Deadline. But the young O’s have thus far shaken off that inter-organizational snub to put themselves on pace for a winning August, too. The closest thing this club has to a star is rookie catcher Adley Rutschman, who has only been in the big leagues since May. But the Orioles pitch well, they run the bases well (taking advantage of the speed of Jorge Mateo and Cedric Mullins) and they catch the ball. That’s a recipe for success. The future looks especially bright for a club with one of the best farm systems in the game. But the present, in which the O’s are legitimately involved in the late-season AL Wild Card chase, has been way more fun than anticipated.

Verlander on Cy Young potential

2) Justin Verlander looks like … Justin Verlander.

According to Jon Roegele’s indispensable Tommy John surgery database, only 11 other pitchers aged 37 (Verlander’s age at the time of his September 2020 surgery) or older had the procedure. Among those 11, the only one to return to a starters’ workload after the fact was Jamie Moyer, who had TJ surgery at age 47 and, two years later, lasted just 53 2/3 innings in the Rockies’ rotation before calling it a career. So the odds were significantly stacked against Verlander, great as he may be, when he went under the knife. He had already authored a Hall-worthy career, but there was genuine curiosity over what he’d have left in the tank after pitching just one inning from 2020-21.

The answer? Plenty. Verlander is not just back on the mound, he’s back in the Cy Young Award conversation with a 15-3 record and 1.73 ERA through 20 starts. His 224 ERA+ is on pace to be — gasp — THE BEST OF HIS CAREER! What’s more, his velocity has crept up in the second half. Per Stats LLC, Verlander was the first pitcher ever to hit the All-Star break with 12 or more wins, an .800-plus winning percentage, an ERA under 2.00, an opponent batting average under .200, a WHIP under 0.90 and a K/BB ratio of 5.00 or better. That’s a pretty successful science experiment.

3) Juan Soto is on the Padres.

We covered the swap surprises in the wake of the Trade Deadline, but one of the biggest Deadline deals in history still merits mention here. Even if you assumed a Nationals team with obvious flaws would fall by the wayside in the first half and become summer sellers, few, if any, of us had a Juan Soto deal on our Bingo card going into the year.

The ongoing sale of the franchise and the state of the farm system led the Nats down the road of trading a 23-year-old superstar coming off his second All-Star selection. We’ll be talking about that one for at least the next few decades.

4) Aaron Judge’s pursuit of the AL home run record.

No matter what you think of the outsized single-season home run totals we saw way back when from Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa and how they got there, 60 is still sacred ground, last reached by Bonds and Sosa in 2001. Even in an era in which the ball had been flying out of parks at record rates, the highest single-season homer total in the last 20 years was that of Judge’s now-teammate Giancarlo Stanton (59) with the Marlins in 2017.

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Judge’s significant injury history limited the likelihood of him doing what he’s done this year, and he’s done it in a season in which the league-wide homer rate is down (more on that in a little bit). So he’s got a legit shot at Roger Maris’ AL record of 61 in ’61 (and, yes, perhaps Babe Ruth’s record of 60 within a 154-game window, if you want to get especially technical). Some people (hand raised) thought Judge was a little bit crazy to turn down a $213.5 million extension offer from the Yanks at age 30, but it sure looks like he knows what he’s doing, doesn’t it?

5) The AL Central race.

It wasn’t just those of us in the peanut gallery labeling the White Sox prohibitive favorites in this division. FanGraphs, for one, had them at a 59.2% chance of claiming a second consecutive division crown. Last year, the Sox endured a spate of injuries early but won the division going away in the second half. This year, they have been unable to repeat that pattern.

Maybe the Twins’ bounce back from some Minnesota misery in 2021 was somewhat predictable after the Carlos Correa signing (Correa, though, hasn’t had all that standout a season), but the Guardians have come out of nowhere with a roster younger than the average Triple-A team to also thrust themselves into the mix. (That the Tigers have never been a factor at all in this race despite some significant winter additions is at least mildly surprising.) This could be a fun one down the stretch.

6) Jacob deGrom missed four months, Max Scherzer missed seven weeks … and it didn’t matter.

When the Mets placed these two potential Hall of Famers in the same rotation, the fear factor was real for the hitters — but also for the Mets, given deGrom’s recent injury troubles and the workload Scherzer has taken on in his career. While good on paper, this Mets team didn’t necessarily look deep enough to handle a lengthy absence from both of their dual aces.

But even though deGrom, betrayed by a stress fracture in his scapula, did not appear in a Major League game until Aug. 2, and Scherzer was laid up with an oblique injury for quite a while, the Mets persevered and have not relinquished first place in the NL East since taking over on April 12.

7) The decline of all Three True Outcomes.

The Three True Outcomes are homers, walks and strikeouts. Entering this week, the rate of home runs per nine had declined from 1.26 in 2021 to 1.09 in 2022. The rate of walks per nine had dropped from 3.34 to 3.13. The rate of strikeouts per nine had fallen from 8.90 to 8.47.

According to the research of the great Jayson Stark of The Athletic, this would be the first time since 2005 and just the second time in the last 30 years that all three of those rates declined in the same season. Just when it appeared homers, walks and strikeouts were on a ceaseless quest to take over the sport, along comes this sudden decline (accompanied by an overall decline in runs per game, from 4.53 to 4.32). We were aware, going into the year, of the humidors put in place at every Major League park and the slight change to the manufacturing process of the baseballs themselves and the accompanying likelihood of a drop in home-run rate. The walk and K rates are not as easily explainable, though a full season of enforcement of the sticky substance rules has undoubtedly played some part.

8) The way the Angels fell apart.

The Angels did make an effort to improve their annual Achilles heel — the pitching staff — over the winter. And early on, it appeared as though it just might work. The Halos were in first place in the AL West as recently as the conclusion of play on May 16.

What has happened since has been downright dizzying. Even though the Angels had a healthy, productive Mike Trout for the better part of the first half, Shohei Ohtani doing Shohei Ohtani things and Taylor Ward turning in a surprisingly strong start, they, uh, didn’t have much else, and the warts took over with time (and cost Joe Maddon his job). The Angels were actually the first team in history to win at least 25 of their first 44 games and lose at least 33 of their next 44, per Retrosheet.

9) Three managers were sacked in the first half.

Believe it or not, we somehow went three full seasons without a manager being dumped before the All-Star break. The last had been Mike Matheny, who was dispatched by the Cardinals just a day before the break in 2018.

Organizations apparently made up for lost time this year. The Phillies got rid of Joe Girardi on June 3, the Angels moved on from Maddon just four days later, and the Blue Jays dismissed Charlie Montoyo on July 13. Only four times this century has an interim skipper steered a team to the playoffs, most recently Jim Tracy (replacing Clint Hurdle) with the Rockies in 2009. The Blue Jays’ John Schneider and the Phillies’ Rob Thomson both have a legit shot this year.

10) The Dodgers’ rotation is fronted by … Tony Gonsolin and Tyler Anderson?

Dave Roberts’ preseason proclamation that the Dodgers would be the 2022 champions attracted a lot of attention, but not everybody paid attention to the important qualifier he added: “if our starting staff stays healthy.”

The starting staff has not stayed healthy. Most notably, Clayton Kershaw is on the injured list for the second time this season, and Walker Buehler hasn’t pitched since June 10. But Gonsolin and Anderson — neither of whom was guaranteed a role in what looked to be a stellar starting staff — have delivered All-Star seasons. Anderson’s career ERA+ in six big league seasons entering this one was exactly league average (100), and yet it’s a stellar 151 this year. Gonsolin had stepped up for the Dodgers in the recent past, but never this much and for this long. His 13 wins are tied with Anderson and Atlanta’s Kyle Wright for the league lead, and his 0.89 WHIP is the best in the NL. And wouldn’t you know it? The Dodgers are good. Again. Well, OK, at least that part is not surprising.