MLB contenders make their presence known

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With Memorial Day comes the first major point in the season in which we can do some meaningful examinations of the 30 teams in assessing their chances going forward with essentially one-third of the season (54 games) having been played.

Following Monday’s schedule, the Minnesota Twins had the best record in baseball, 36-17, a halfgame better than the Los Angeles Dodgers (36-18). While no one should be surprised that the Dodgers are the best in the National League, few would have projected the Twins to be atop the junior circuit.

Yet the Twins have played consistent baseball since the season started and have built a commanding, though still early, 10-game lead over second place Cleveland in the AL Central.

The Dodgers have the second biggest lead of any Division leader, up by eight games over Arizona in the NL West.

Houston has a 6.5-game lead over Oakland in the AL West and only two other teams – the New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays – are playing better than .600 baseball. The Yanks lead the Rays by two games in the AL East.

Remember that hot start by Seattle? The Mariners opened the season with a pair of wins over Oakland in Japan and returned stateside to win 11 of their next 13 games to stand 13-2 on the morning of April 12. A six-game losing streak against Cleveland and Houston followed and presaged a huge decline that, even following Monday’s win over Texas, had the Mariners in last place in the AL West with a 24-32 record and 12.5 games behind the first-place Astros.

This illustrates the danger of reading too much into a strong early-season start as it relates to how the season may play out. Recall that last season the New York Mets got off to an 11-1 start. They finished the season 77-85.

Yet the Mariners have been extremely profitable in one aspect this season. Of their 56 games played to date, 35 have gone over the total with just 18 staying under and three resulting in pushes. That net differential of plus 17 to the over is tops in all of MLB. Only two other teams show double digits edges with both Cincinnati and Milwaukee plus 10 to the under.

Here are thoughts on three series this weekend.

Phillies at Dodgers: This is the first meeting of the season. Both teams lead their divisions and have the two best records in the National League. 

The Dodgers have scored the second-most runs in MLB, averaging 5.4 runs per game. Only four teams have allowed fewer than their 211 runs (3.9 per game). 

The Phillies are not quite as strong in either area but do have a runs differential of plus 27. 

Philly starter Aaron Nola has struggled for much of the season with 4.52 ERA and 1.54 WHIP and will be a play against if he gets a start in this series. Note that nine of his 11 starts have gone over the total with the other two staying under. 

The two starters that can be backed are Jake Arrieta and Zach Eflin, each of whom can be played if getting +140 or more except against the Dodgers’ H.J. Ryu. The lefty is fashioning a Cy Young award-worthy season thus far with 1.65 ERA, 0.83 WHIP and an astonishing 15.5-1 strikeout to walk ratio.

Ryu can be backed against any Philly starter if priced at -150 or less. If priced higher he may be played laying the run and a half.

After missing the first few weeks of the season, ace Clayton Kershaw is starting to round into shape for the Dodgers. But he still will be highly priced which suggests consideration of a play on the Phillies at +160 or more.

Red Sox at Yankees: This is a four-game series starting Thursday. These teams meet for the second time this season after the Yanks swept a two-game home series in mid-April, both of which stayed under the total. 

The Yankees continue to overcome injury after injury but are finally starting to get healthy. Pitchers James Paxton and CC Sabathia are expected back this week although Paxton may have started on Wednesday against San Diego.

The Red Sox have struggled all season but are starting to creep up the standings. Finally over .500 at 29-25, the BoSox are third in the AL East with a chance this weekend to make up some of the 6.5 games by which they trailed the Yankees following Monday’s action. 

Boston ace Chris Sale has started to regain his prior form, lasting at least six innings in five of his last six starts and striking out at least 10 batters in five of his last seven. He gives Boston its best chance for a win and may be backed at -150 or less against any Yankees starter. If matched up against Masahiro Tanaka, also consider under a total of 8 or higher. 

Tanaka has been New York’s most effective starter. Consider playing over totals of 9 or lower in starts by Boston’s Rick Porcello or Eduardo Rodrigues who are a combined 18-3-1 to the over with each having made 11 starts. 

Note that the Yankees are 8-3 in starts by JA Happ and 8-2 in Domingo German’s starts. German has been more effective than Happ and may be backed at -150 or less against other than Sale while Happ can be backed at -125 or less against other than Sale.

Twins at Rays: Rather than previewing one of the three interleague series this weekend, none of which matches two teams each with winning records, let’s look at a matchup of two of the more surprising teams through the first third of the season. 

The Twins had the best record in baseball through Monday (36-17) and Tampa was a solid 32-19. Minnesota has the most potent offense in baseball in terms of power with 105 home runs through 53 games (an unrealistic pace of, gulp, 321 for a full season). 

But Minnesota’s true strength has been the pitching staff’s improvement under coach Wes Johnson. Starter Jose Berrios was already a star in the making but Jake Odorizzi and Martin Perez are pitching like All Stars. 

Tampa has relied on ‘openers’ for many of its starts with Blake Snell and Charlie Morton their true starting pitchers alone with the currently injured Tyler Glasnow. In matchups of Snell or Morton against Odorizzi, Berrios or Perez consider under totals of 8.5 or higher. 

Totals may be inflated in Tampa because of the power of the Minnesota bats which will add some value to look for lower-than-expected scoring games. Look to back any of these five named in a mathcup of two of them or to back any of the five as a favorite of -125 or lower if facing one of the starters not just named (such as backing the Twins against a Tampa ‘opener.’) 

About the Author

Andy Iskoe

Owner and author of “The Logical Approach,” Andy Iskoe has been a long time GT columnist, contributing weekly in-season columns on baseball, pro basketball and pro football.

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