The Trade Deadline is about to dominate headlines as Major League clubs begin the second half, but don’t forget about all the history we just witnessed before the All-Star break — and what it sets up going down the stretch.
From Jacob deGrom to Shohei Ohtani to Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to Fernando Tatis Jr. and many more, MLB’s stars are on pace to do some breathtaking things in 2021. Here are 10 statistical chases — whether it be for some of the biggest records around, or history you had no idea was even at stake — that you should keep an eye on coming down the stretch.
1) deGrom vs. Gibson
The chase: Lowest qualified ERA in Live Ball Era
You’re almost certainly familiar with this setup by now. The one-man wrecking crew that is deGrom begins the second half with a microscopic 1.08 ERA, tucked just behind Bob Gibson (1.06, 1968) for the lowest recorded by any AL or NL pitcher before the All-Star break (min. 80 innings pitched). deGrom is, of course, chasing Gibson’s season-end 1.12 ERA in ‘68 for the lowest qualified mark by any pitcher in the Live Ball Era. Gibson’s 1.12 is one of those mythical numbers in baseball that many thought would never be touched, but, then again, few pitchers in recent memory have been as talented as deGrom.
The pressure and eyeballs surrounding deGrom will only intensify the closer he gets to Gibson, so make sure you bookmark MLB.com’s Sarah Langs’ ERA tracker the rest of the way. Dutch Leonard’s AL/NL Modern Era record 0.96 ERA, set in 1914, is still in play for deGrom as well.
2) Ohtani’s impeccable Ruth impersonation
The chase: 60 home runs
Put aside the insanity of Ohtani ranking among the Majors’ best hitters and pitchers at the same time. Throughout AL/NL history, that puts him in company with Babe Ruth and no one else (Martín Dihigo pulled off similar two-way brilliance in the Negro Leagues) — and the further this season goes, the more Ohtani surpasses even what the Babe did in 1918-19.
Focusing just on Ohtani’s hitting for a moment … have you noticed he’s on pace for a 60-homer season? Ohtani has hit in 94% of the Angels’ games, putting him on pace for a 153-game campaign. He’s already gone deep 33 times, meaning he’s on pace for … 60 home runs.
Ohtani’s chase for feats we haven’t seen since the Steroid Era extends beyond 60 dingers. His 9.1 at-bats per home run average is currently the lowest by any AL/NL batter not named Ruth, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa (throw in Josh Gibson’s 7.8 AB per HR Negro League pace in 1937, and it’s a true slugger’s party). Ohtani is also on pace for 102 extra-base hits, which would make him the first player with a triple-digit XBH total since Bonds, Sosa, Luis Gonzalez and Todd Helton in 2001.
3) Tatis’ power-speed combo
The chase: NL crowns in both homers and steals
Tatis’ 28 homers and 20 steals in the first half put him in the running for a rare 40-40 season, but he’s actually lined up for something even more historic: Tatis is aiming to become the first AL/NL player to lead his league in homers and steals since Hall of Famer Chuck Klein way back in … 1932! Only two other Modern Era players besides Klein — Ty Cobb (1909) and Jimmy Sheckard (1903) — have pulled off that power-speed combo, and they played in an era that looks completely different from today. In fact, Matt Kemp is the only recent player to even come close when he led the NL in homers and tied for second in steals in 2011.
Tatis is still within shouting distance of Ohtani (33 homers) and Whit Merrifield (24 steals), too, so don’t count out the possibility of him joining Cobb as just the second AL/NL player to lead the Majors in both categories.
4) Vlad Jr.’s Triple Crown quest
The chase: First AL Triple Crown since Miguel Cabrera (2012)
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s All-Star MVP performance on Tuesday was par for the course amid his incredible 2021, and he enters the second half leading the Majors in average (.332) and RBIs (73) while tied with Tatis for second in homers (28) behind Ohtani (33). In the AL, Vlad Jr. holds a six-point lead over Houston’s Michael Brantley in average, and he’s up on Boston’s Rafael Devers by just one RBI.
When FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski used his ZiPS projection system to estimate Guerrero’s Triple Crown chances back in June, the batting title seemed like his biggest uphill climb. Then Ohtani started belting homers every other at-bat. Winning this Triple Crown won’t be easy, but then again they’re not supposed to be.
There’s also extra history at stake: The 22-year-old Guerrero could surpass Cobb (1909) as the youngest AL or NL Triple Crown winner.
5) The Craig Kimbrel Renaissance
The chase: Lowest single-season reliever ERA
Remember when Craig Kimbrel sat on the free-agent market for eight months and then struggled to a 6.00 ERA across his first season and a half with the Cubs?
If that’s still your most recent Kimbrel memory, um, well, check out what he’s doing this year. To call Kimbrel resurgent is understating things; he’s got a Major League-best 0.57 ERA, putting him on pace with Zack Britton’s AL/NL Modern Era single-season ERA record (0.54, 2016) for any pitcher with at least 50 innings. Now, the question of who Kimbrel chases down that record with remains to be seen. His contract includes a vesting option for 2022, making him arguably the most valuable trade chip at any position entering the July 30 Deadline.
6) Bo Bichette: Immaculate thief
The chase: 100% success rate on steals
You probably associate Bichette with his bat, but he’s been a factor on the basepaths, too, going a perfect 12-for-12 in stolen-base attempts. Bichette is already the only player remaining this year with a 100% steal success rate (min. 10 attempts), so now it’s time to see if he can join a surprisingly small historical club. Since the start of the Wild Card Era in 1995, only three players have finished with at least 20 steals and a perfect success rate: Alcides Escobar (2013), Quintin Berry (‘12) and Chase Utley (‘09). Dating back to when Jackie Robinson broke MLB’s color barrier in 1947, only two other AL/NL players have gone a perfect 20-for-20 or better: Paul Molitor (1994) and Kevin McReynolds (‘88).
Yet another reason to watch Bichette and the young Blue Jays.
7) Miggy’s march to 500
The chase: 500 career home runs
Miguel Cabrera entered the season needing 13 more dingers to become the 28th member of the 500-homer club, but after he struggled to only seven in the first half (.348 slugging percentage), checking that off in 2021 could come down to the wire.
Cabrera already missed two weeks in April after reaggravating the left biceps muscle that’s forced him to miss time before, and it’s possible that’s still hindering his swing. Still, plenty of upcoming matchups against struggling pitching staffs like the Twins, Orioles, Royals and Rangers could help Miggy get the last six homers he needs to become the first Venezuelan-born player with 500 round-trippers.
8) Zunino, Grandal try to redefine the ‘Mendoza Line’
The chase: 100-or-better OPS+ with sub-.200 BA
Flirting with the Mendoza Line (a .200 batting average) is not where a hitter wants to be, but catchers Mike Zunino and Yasmani Grandal are truly making the most of it. Zunino (fresh off a second-deck homer in the All-Star Game) and Grandal (in contention for an All-Star nod himself, before he tore a tendon in his left knee) have paired those batting averages with so many walks and so much power that, when you compare their overall slash lines against the league average, they’ve actually been above-average hitters.
As the second half begins, Zunino sports a 128 league-adjusted OPS+ (league average = 100), while Grandal (whose current injury timetable has him returning by September) sits at 130. Neither backstop is on pace for enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, but when one looks across the 203 seasons by AL/NL hitters with at least 300 plate appearances and a sub-.200 batting average, only three finished with an above-average OPS+: Angels outfielder Roger Repoz (108, 1971), Mark McGwire (105, 2001) and Carlos Pena (103, 2010).
Zunino and Grandal would prefer more hits if they can get them, but they’re on pace to blow those three out of the water and become the most productive sub-.200 hitters ever. That’s a fun consolation prize.
9) The Giants’ clutch ‘line changes’
The chase: Team pinch-hit HR record
Line changes are a hockey term, but Giants manager Gabe Kapler is implementing the baseball version with success. San Francisco leads the Majors with 184 pinch-hit at-bats, and Kapler has repeatedly pulled two to three pinch-hitters off his bench (a.k.a the “line change”) within the same inning.
With all those changes making opponents scramble to match up, Giants pinch-hitters have already bopped nine home runs. That leads the Majors and puts San Francisco on pace to challenge the single-season team record of 17 pinch-hit dingers set by the 2016 Cardinals. If you’re looking for reasons why the Giants owned baseball’s best first-half record, their depth is a good place to start.
10) Rodolfo Castro is must-see TV
The chase: HRs for first 4 career hits
This one won’t take long, so make sure you’re tuned into Pirates rookie infielder Rodolfo Castro’s at-bats as soon as the Bucs resume. Castro, a 22-year-old prospect ranked outside MLB Pipeline’s Top 30 Pirates rankings, was called up for his second big league stint and clubbed a pinch-hit homer last Friday against the Mets — his first career hit. Castro then got the start on Sunday and homered twice more — his only two hits of the day — making him a perfect 3-for-3 on the homers-to-hits ratio. He became the first Pirate to homer for each of his first three MLB career hits, and the first to do so for any team since the Yankees’ Kyle Higashioka in 2018.
Now, here’s where it gets interesting: per the Elias Sports Bureau, Trevor Story (2016) is the only AL/NL Modern Era player to homer for each of his first four big league hits. That means each of the next few balls Castro puts in play carries significance. If it falls for a single, double or triple, Castro’s streak becomes a footnote. But if it’s a homer — well, Story’s historic party of one suddenly becomes a party of two.