It’s already mid-June, meaning we’re already halfway through the third month of the 2021 MLB season. As standings begin to take shape, a handful of teams stand out as major surprises. Some of these clubs overperformed after receiving low expectations; others have flopped after initially garnering high hopes.
Here’s a look at the five biggest surprises so far.
The Twins won the NL Central in 2020, and although they suffered yet another early exit from the postseason, everyone expected them to rebound and play baseball into October once again this year. Instead, they’ve fallen to the basement of the AL Central with a 26-39 (.400) record.
Poor pitching is a major factor in Minnesota’s woes. They have the fourth-worst ERA in baseball (4.99), third-fewest strikeouts (525), fourth-worst OBA (.261), most home runs allowed (98), and ninth-worst WHIP (1.36). Their supposed ace, Kenta Maeda, has a 5.27 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, and .299 OBA through nine starts. He’s missed the last three weeks with an injury.
The hitting has been subpar, too, ranking just mediocre in categories like batting average, on-base percentage, and stolen bases. On a positive note, the Twins have recorded the second-most homers in all of baseball (95), but it clearly hasn’t translated into wins. Further, star outfielder Byron Buxton, who was putting together an MVP-caliber campaign in April, has missed over a month with a right hip strain.
The Red Sox have been hot-and-cold as of late, but they’ve ultimately exceeded expectations to this point in the season. Originally viewed as a team that may finish below .500, Boston opened the year 0-3 and then went on a miraculous run full of dominant hitting and pitching. Now, they sit at 39-27, putting them just three games back of the AL-best Tampa Bay Rays.
As good as Boston has been, its pitching has been merely mediocre, ranking around the middle ground in most major statistics. One area where they have been successful is limiting home runs; their 64 allowed rank fourth-fewest in all of baseball. With that said, they’ve hit a rough patch as of late as the Red Sox pitching staff surrendered a whopping 13 home runs over the past two games against the Blue Jays.
Offense is Boston’s strong suit. They rank fourth in batting average (.255), third in slugging percentage (.433), fifth in RBI (304), fifth in total runs (327), third in hits (566), and first in doubles (143). Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and J.D. Martinez have come together to lead the offense, and all three are in consideration for an All-Star selection. Alex Verdugo, who was acquired in the Mookie Betts trade, has also swung a hot bat while offseason pick-ups Christian Arroyo and Hunter Renfroe have been clutch at the plate.
The Braves have fallen below .500, placing them third in the NL Central. They currently sit behind the New York Mets and Philadelphia Phillies and might even be in a position where they unload veteran rentals at the trade deadline instead of approaching the summer as buyers. At this point, it’ll take a major turn of events to launch the Braves into contender status.
Pitching has been a noticeable issue for the Atlanta club so far. The unit hasn’t been horrible, but it still ranks in the bottom half of the league in most major categories. The middle of the rotation hasn’t been particularly dominant, either. Charlie Morton, the No. 2 starter in Atlanta, has a 4.50 ERA so far. Max Fried’s is 4.62 while Drew Smyly checks in at 5.63.
Surprisingly, the Braves’ offense has been their biggest weak spot. Despite rostering players like reigning MVP Freddie Freeman and future MVP Ronald Acuña Jr., the Atlanta bats have produced a .236 batting average and just 488 hits (eighth-worst in MLB). They’ve also logged 524 strikeouts (12th-most). The lineup has also taken a hit behind the dish with Travis d’Arnaud on the 60-day injured list and Alex Jackson battling a strained hamstring. Further, talented outfielder Marcell Ozuna dislocated his fingers in the middle of May and then proceeded to commit an alleged domestic violence incident. As such, the rest of his MLB career is in jeopardy.
Don’t look now, but the Giants are the best team in the National League. They’ve surged ahead of the dominant Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres all while maintaining an electric core. This is a team that has always teetered on the line between buying and selling, so the idea of being clear-cut buyers must bring relief to the front office.
The Giants continue to sport one of the best pitching staffs in all of MLB. They rank fourth in ERA (3.19), first in shutouts (nine), first in saves (24), second in WHIP (1.11), and fifth in OBA (.219). Their 556 walks allowed are the second-fewest in baseball while their 66 home runs are the fifth-fewest. Their 204 earned runs so far rank fourth-best in the entire league. No matter which category you look at, the Giants are among the best of the best. While Kevin Gausman and Johnny Cueto have complemented each other as the best pitchers in the rotation, middle-of-the-pack pitchers Alex Wood and Anthony DeSclafani have been equally valuable.
At the plate, the entire club ranks fourth in homers (91), fifth in walks (250), and 11th in OPS (.724). The biggest adjustment for San Francisco going forward will be limiting strikeouts; they’ve gone down on three strikes 623 times this year, which ranks as the sixth-most in all of baseball. Still, while this team has been carried by its pitching, the Giants’ immense surge in success this season could not have been possible without the daily contributions from its lineup.
The Yankees sit right above .500 yet still rank fourth in the AL East. They’re 8.5 games back of the Rays in the division and have had their fair of struggles this year. New York has also lost seven of its last nine games and is riding a three-game losing streak, so dropping below .500 isn’t out of the question.
The Yankees’ pitching staff has been impressive this year, though it’s still not the best in New York. The unit has a 3.58 ERA, which ranks ninth in baseball, and recorded an AL-best eight shutouts to this point. Their 176 walks allowed are the third-fewest in baseball and fewest in the American League while their 617 strikeouts rank eighth in MLB. They are also responsible for the fifth-best WHIP (1.13) and ninth-best OBA (.224). Four of the five pitchers in the New York rotation have an ERA below 4.00, with Jameson Taillon (5.74) representing the outlier. Gerrit Cole has led the way, as always, with a 7-3 record and 2.31 ERA through 13 outings. Meanwhile, the bullpen, headlined by Aroldis Chapman, continues to be very strong.
Of course, the offensive production (or lack thereof) has been the biggest concern when it comes to the Yankees. New York has the fourth-fewest RBI (231), fifth-fewest runs (252), third-fewest doubles (78), and second-fewest triples (four). They’ve posted 2,142 at-bats, which ranks in the bottom half of the league. This means that the Yankees have been unable to create opportunities at the plate and, as a result, have struggled to construct sustainable outbursts of run production. One glaring concern is the lack of success from New York’s two biggest sluggers. Giancarlo Stanton is slashing .263/.330/.515 with 12 homers, 32 RBI, and 55 strikeouts; not bad by any means, but not enough to lead an offense that was supposed to be elite. Aaron Judge has been slightly better, posting a .289/.388/.532 line with 15 homers, 35 RBI, and 63 strikeouts. The two are both producing runs, but the amount of strikeouts they have combined for is truly lethal and drastically impedes on a team’s potential success.