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Early MLB trends: Follow or fade?

By Matt Neverett  () 

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As we approach the one-month marker in the 2021 Major League Baseball season, more questions have been asked than answered in a schedule many thought would be severely affected by COVID-19 protocols. Will the leaguewide offense ramp up to a more expected level when the weather heats up? Which Cy Young Award candidates will rush to the forefront? When will Yermin Mercedes come down to earth? After 20 to 25 games, it’s a perfect point to take a step back and assess numbers, because while the sample size is small, it is robust enough to make several season-long judgments.

Boston Red Sox 20-1 to win World Series, 10-1 to win AL pennant, + 250 to win AL East (DraftKings)

The Red Sox had as many unanswered questions as any team in the majors heading into 2021, including the bounce-back potential of J.D. Martinez. While the pitching staff has largely overperformed, allowing 99 runs with a + 20 run differential, the offense has been the backbone of the AL East leaders. That includes an MLB-leading 199 runs scored, .279 team batting average, .460 slugging percentage and .798 OPS. While Martinez looks to be back to his near-MVP level, Xander Bogaerts was quietly second in MLB with 30 hits, and Rafael Devers and Alex Verdugo had posted an OPS north of .900, whereas the MLB average was .740 in 2020. While the Red Sox’s starting pitching might be suspect, with no timetable on Chris Sale’s return, the pressure will be on newcomers Nick Pivetta and Garrett Richards to hold down the back end of the rotation until after the All-Star break. The Red Sox will be under pressure, as the Blue Jays should return to nearly full health by the beginning of May and the Yankees will eventually realize you have to rattle off some wins in the regular season to make the playoffs. Keep an eye on Red Sox futures. 

Cincinnati Reds 25-1 to win World Series, 15-1 to win NL pennant, + 325 to win NL Central (DraftKings)

After the most disappointing playoff exit of any team in the madness that was the 2020 season, the Reds opened this year with mixed expectations but some optimism given the uncertain nature of the NL Central. But the Reds had hit at an almost league-best rate, posting the second-best team OPS (.774), second-best runs scored (119) and MLB-leading 33 home runs. The main knock has been the Reds’ performance away from the bandbox that is Great American Ball Park. While the Reds led all clubs in run differential at home at + 29, they ranked among the bottom seven on the road at -18. This could be solved by adding a strong Sonny Gray if he can return to his 2019 All-Star form. If the Reds’ starting pitching and shaky front end of the bullpen can perform at even league-average levels the rest of the way, they should be a playoff team, and I would strongly consider a Reds NL Central futures ticket at the very least. 

Tyler Glasnow + 650 to win AL Cy Young

With the addition of a regularly used third pitch, a slider that has led to an almost 40% total strikeout rate, the Rays’ Glasnow is an intriguing tertiary candidate for AL Cy Young Award. Through five starts, he was fifth in MLB in strikeouts, was fifth in the American League in ERA and had averaged over six innings per start. The last of those numbers stands out the most as it counters the notion of Rays starting pitchers not going deep into outings.

Mike Trout + 225 to win AL MVP

Stop me if you’ve read this before: Trout is the odds-on favorite to take home his fourth Most Valuable Player Award. The Angels superstart led MLB in WAR, on-base percentage and OPS+ , with an astonishing 270 number with the league average 100. For any other player, the small-sample-size argument would trump everything, but this is Trout. That’s why a Trout AL MVP ticket at anything over 2-1 odds still has value. With only teammate Shohei Ohtani within shouting distance for the award, it is Trout or bust. 

Kris Bryant 50-1 to win NL MVP

From nearly a sure thing to a long shot, Bryant is an outlier to keep in the top of your mind as the weather heats up and the ball begins to carry. Depending on how one views the free-agent-year narrative, the perceived extra motivation for Bryant stems from a disappointing 2020 in which he was limited to 34 games. Coming out swinging, literally, in 2021, the Cubs third baseman had registered a first-pitch-swing percentage of 37%, the highest since his 2016 MVP season. Combined with an excellent OPS+  and batting average and a career-low 15.4-degree average launch angle, resulting in more line drives off the bat, these are feasible reasons Bryant’s MVP market might be a little undervalued.

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