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Swiping right and left on the 2023 season so far

With the first half of the 2023 MLB season nearly complete, in the latest episode of “The Bandwagon,” Hannah Keyser and Zach Crizer took a look back at the most noteworthy things the baseball universe has delivered so far this year, broken down into categories of their own creation.

Let’s get to it.

Swipe-right team (team you fell in love with)

Crizer: My team is the Cincinnati Reds because I didn’t really think the Reds would be relevant this year. I thought Elly De La Cruz would come up and be relevant, but I did not see Matt McLain coming up and being this good. I certainly did not see Andrew Abbott doing this this fast. And the Reds are kind of just a good hang. Because they have Joey Votto. They have Elly De La Cruz doing fun things. They have just, like, a lot of young, fun players.

And honestly, their fatal flaw kind of makes them fun, which is they can’t pitch. They give up a lot of runs. And then they score a lot of runs to go with it. So watching their games is, you know, it’s like the best kind of football game, where it’s like 47-45 and everyone’s freaking out at all times. That’s pretty much the Reds.

They played a series against the Braves recently — who, actually, the Reds and the Braves have, like, the best records in baseball since Memorial Day. So two good teams, absolute track meet. No one stopped scoring at any point. And so I like the Reds, I think, in that division. I don’t think they’re the best team this year. But I think they could still win it just out of sheer mediocrity from everyone else, and their players are probably going to keep getting better.

keyer: I went with the Rays. I emotionally invested quite hard in their winning streak to start the season. And then I emotionally invested quite hard in the fact that the Rays were winning in a way that is slightly different than how they always win, which is to say that they had lots of offense from lots of notable contributors. Lots of All-Stars, or at least, a larger contingent of All-Stars than they have had in the past.

When the 2020 World Series ended, I wrote about the fact that thinking of the Rays as anti-labor is, like, a disservice to the labor, the players themselves, who are trying to succeed in an environment that is conducive to their success and benefiting from that, regardless of whether or not they get extended by the Rays or make a lot of money with the Rays.

The point is that I think that we are unwilling to credit the Rays with being fun, player-driven and dynamic in deference to our crediting the front office and the innovations and the analytics and all of that. And so I’m having a lot of fun watching this Rays team. And I think one of the only baseball games that I have gone to as a fan and enjoyed as a fan was Rays vs. Yankees, which is just a genuinely fun rivalry at this point. And there’s not a lot of great, like actual bitter rivals right now in baseball who are both incredibly good. So I really, genuinely hope that we get a Rays-Yankees postseason series somehow. That’d be really fun.

Swipe-left team (team you soured on)

Crizer: I went with the Astros. It’s not that I think the Astros are bad. In fact, I think the Astros are kind of frustrating and that they’ll probably still be great and make the playoffs and do something, you know. They’re just seasoned, but they’re not as fun as they have been. It’s not this, like, road grader machine just steamrolling over people. They look fallible. They look kind of diminished from the ways that they used to be, whether that’s Jose Altuve has been out with some injuries. Alex Bregman still hasn’t quite gotten back to the form when he was the best. Jeremy Peña has not turned into the world-beater that he looked like in the postseason, and there’s just something dull about the lineup.

But, you know, Framber Valdez is unbelievable. The pitching staff still has some tremendous, tremendous gifts, but I just don’t find the Astros as enticing to watch anymore, and Yordan Alvarez is kind of a one-man show worthy of the price of admission, but it used to be one through nine the Astros were terrifying, and that doesn’t feel true anymore. They have a lot of role players who haven’t fully caught up to speed with how the Astros used to be, so I found myself just paying a little less attention to the Astros and being a little less afraid of the Astros.

keyer: I went with the Twins, which is more of like a stern “Get it together — I’m disappointed in you.” I’m not mad. I’m just disappointed. Because their rotation is great this year. They are first in team ERA, first in WHIP, second in walks per 9, third in strikeouts. The rotation is great, and last year, they had no rotation.

Byron Buxton is not playing the field because they’re trying to keep him healthy, and he’s got a 110 WRC+. It’s his worst year since 2018. It’s like, well, then just let him play the field. They’ve taken one of the most fun, dynamic, if made of porcelain, players and limited what they’re allowing him to do to achieve mediocre results. And it’s a real bummer. And Carlos Correa is not injured but not well. He’s got a 96 WRC+, which is his worst by a long shot. It’s just, like, a massive bummer. The thing I’ve always said that I liked about the Twins the last couple years is that … they’ve been unwilling to give up. They’re kind of like, “You know what? We think we can tinker with what happened last year, address the flaws, get back to the postseason.” And that was why they went after Correa last year. And that was why they went after him again this year.

But it’s also why they added a lot of pitching this year. They were like, “Hey, we didn’t have enough pitching depth last year. And we could’ve done it.” And now they did that, and the pitching is great. And Joe Ryan is a lot of fun. And Pablo Lopez, I love the Pablo Lopez-Luis Arráez trade working out for everyone involved. That’s very cool. And then they just, I mean … They’re in first, and they are the only AL Central team currently over 500. They’re just like, bad vibes. And if only because the AL Central looks so winnable, I want them to be something other than an example of how bad the AL Central is.

Missed connection (team you want to watch more in the second half)

Crizer: I don’t understand the Toronto Blue Jays in that every year they look great, and then something goes just completely haywire that shouldn’t. This year, they fixed José Berríos, who has been broken since the moment they got him, and then Alek Manoah went completely off the deep end. I just don’t get it. It’s like there is a jar that is full, and every time they put a new thing in, something else falls out, and they can’t get it together. I think the Blue Jays should be really good. And so I’m gonna watch and see what happens.

I mean, Bo Bichette would be a much bigger story if Luis Arráez didn’t exist. He’s hitting like crazy. Vlad Guerrero Jr. kind of had a power outage and is coming back around. Matt Chapman’s one of the better pending free agents. Kevin Kiermaier has been great for them… so I just want to watch the Blue Jays more, and I feel like the second half might be better than the first half.

keyer: I intend to watch some Marlins games. I have not watched a single Eury Pérez start, and I should have. I hope I haven’t missed that, and I don’t think I totally have because they have 73.4% postseason odds, which is sixth in Major League Baseball. So even if Luis Arráez does not hit .400, I should still watch them so I know who’s on the team when they are in the postseason.

I know that their pitching is very good, but also that Sandy Alcantara has not quite returned to form. And I would like to reconcile those two facts in my head. Also, everybody cites their negative run differential as an example of why the Marlins are going to fall apart and why they’re not real. However, that is almost entirely because the Braves are quite good. The Marlins have a negative-54 run differential versus the Braves and a positive-46 run differential versus the rest of the majors. So to that I say, do I think they’re gonna win the division? No, but they’re not all smoke and mirrors, so I will watch some Marlins games in the second half.

Worst flop team

Crizer: It’s the Cardinals. I understand that the Mets and Padres have higher payrolls, but the Mets and Padres sort of have more explainable reasons, and they haven’t been as bad. The Mets and Padres are not dead yet. I think one of them will make the playoffs.

keyer: It’s the Cardinals. The Padres are five games under .500. The Mets are six games under .500. The Cardinals are 16 games under .500. We should be talking less about the Mets and Padres — if only because there’s nothing new to say until they change direction — and a lot more about what the hell is going on in St. Louis.

Crizer: The Cardinals reached rock-bottom in April, then got out a drill and have kept going to the Earth’s core.

keyer: I am genuinely intrigued to see whether or not the Cardinals can stomach a sell off. Because they never had to. And I don’t know that they know how to do it. We will find out.

Most visited Baseball-Reference page

Crizer: I think this player is my answer both in terms of the one I was most interested in and the one I visited the most: Ronald Acuña Jr. on the Braves … Shohei Ohtani is Ohtani, and he’s incredible and ridiculous, but in terms of, like, conventional baseball players, Acuña is having one of the most interesting seasons of the past decade. Maybe longer. Jayson Stark wrote about how he might have found the 40/75 club for 40 homers and 75 steals, which is just not a thing. No one’s ever done that before. Acuña has 40 steals already. And he’s probably hitting for less power than we maybe thought, but he’s clearly the National League MVP right now.

I think last year he still had some lingering effects from the knee injury he suffered in 2021. He wasn’t full speed. He’s full speed this year. He is stealing at any moment he can. He has done this thing three or four times now where there’s, like, a slight defensive positioning shift that takes the third baseman away from third base, and so he just walks to third base while the pitcher’s standing on the mound. Like, it’s barely a steal, but it counts as a steal. He just takes it. He is unbelievably entertaining to watch right now. And assuming he stays healthy, he’s going to win MVP. I mean, this is his coronation season, which has seemingly been coming for a while.

keyer: I look at Max Scherzer’s page all the time. I make appearances on SNY, the Mets’ TV network, and I have to talk about the Mets a lot, and so frequently, I’m being asked things like, “Max Scherzer — is he back?” But also I just think, I look at his page a lot because his career is very long. And so I have been looking at a lot of things like, Is he worse the third time through the order this year than ever? Is he worse later in games? And where is the success and failure coming from this year in relation to what we already know is a Hall of Fame career?

Signature stat of the first half

keyer: Ronald Acuña Jr.’s 41 stolen bases, which are already a career high. Also Tom Verducci wrote that Acuña currently leads the league in stolen bases and in slugging, and only five players have done that — none in the past 66 years. Ty Cobbs, Honus Wagner, Chuck Klein, someone named Snuffy Stirnweiss and Willie Mays.

Crizer: The Tampa Bay Rays have eight qualified hitters who have better than average batting lines by OPS+ who have not been All-Stars before. Some of them are All-Stars as of next week, but they have not been All-Stars yet. The only qualified batter in their lineup who has been an All-Star is Brandon Lowe, who frankly hasn’t been that good. They have Yandy Diaz, Randy Arozarena (I don’t really understand how Arozarena hasn’t been an All-Star yet), Luke Raley, Josh Lowe, Jose Siri… and this is how you have the best record in baseball. You take a whole bunch of guys who aren’t that famous, aren’t that expensive, and suddenly you have nine guys in a row who can be better than your average baseball player, and that’s pretty good.