As we approach the All-Star Game, players and teams are making strong pushes. Let’s take a look at 10 MLB storylines that will shape how the last two-plus months play out.
2023 MLB Storylines
MLB Storylines: Ohtani, Olson Chase 50 Home Runs
Through July 5, Shohei Ohtani and Matt Olson have opened up a decent lead in their respective home run races. Ohtani has swatted 31 home runs including a ludicrous 15 in June. Olson has hit at least eight home runs each month, whacking 11 of them in June.
As of writing, Ohtani is on pace for 56 home runs while Olson is on pace for 55 (given the number of games each is on pace to play). They likely won’t contend for Aaron Judge’s 62 home runs from last year or even Giancarlo Stanton’s 59 blasts from 2017, but both players are reasonable choices to be the next members of the 50-homer club. Ohtani’s previous career high is 46, set in 2021 when he won AL MVP. Olson made it to 39 home runs in 2021.
However, Ohtani’s quest for 50 home runs might not be the most interesting storyline surrounding the two-way superstar.
MLB Storylines: Where Will Ohtani Play Next Year?
As of the morning of July 6, the Los Angeles Angels have an 8.6% chance to make the playoffs. Their odds have dropped 16.3 percentage points in the last week, a number that does not account for the slew of injuries the team is facing. Brandon Drury, Zach Neto, and most importantly, Mike Trout are shelved on the IL right now. Healthy players including Anthony Rendon and Taylor Ward are having disappointing seasons.
The Angels still have a reasonable path to the playoffs as they reside just four games back of the last Wild Card spot, but their level of contention is one of the biggest factors in whether Ohtani leaves in the offseason or if he stays. Realistically, a playoff appearance puts the Angels as the most likely destination for Ohtani, but the lack of a playoff appearance would send the team tumbling to the fringe of the sweepstakes.
MLB Storylines: Ruiz Races for 80 Steals
Staying in the AL West, Esteury Ruiz has 43 steals in 85 games (Oakland has played 88 games). If Ruiz keeps up his pace of steals and games played, he would land at 79 swipes. It would be the most steals in a season since 1988 (Rickey Henderson stole 93 bases; Vince Coleman stole 81).
Ruiz has the elite speed (98th percentile) and aggressiveness (leads MLB in caught stealing) to post a gaudy steal total, but he has been spotty at getting on base. In June, he had just a .263 on-base percentage. He still stole 13 bases in 24 games, but he failed to match his May rate. Ruiz was moved to the 9-hole in Oakland’s lineup for a few games in late June and early July, further decreasing his opportunities.
Ruiz will need to hit a little bit more to stay in the lead-off spot in Oakland’s lineup. He has swiped 38 bags in 67 games as a lead-off hitter while slumping to just four steals in 16 games out of the 9-hole.
MLB Storylines: Acuña’s 40-40 Quest
Ruiz’s NL counterpart brings a more well-rounded skillset to the table. Ronald Acuña Jr. is on pace for a ludicrous 40-77 season. Through 86 games, he has 21 home runs and an NL-leading 41 steals. Despite playing in fewer games in June than in May or April, Acuña smacked a season-best nine home runs and swiped 14 bases. He will likely decrease his thievery at some point as the playoffs near, but the increase in power is encouraging.
Acuña is having a historic season, but his batted-ball data indicates he could be having a better one. His second half could be even better if he sees slightly more success at home (eight home runs in 45 games). He consistently hits the ball as hard as any player in baseball and could turn a few grounders or liners into moonshot home runs with a slightly higher launch angle.
MLB Storylines: Braves Eye Home Run Record
Back in 2019, the Minnesota Twins set the MLB record with 307 longballs, edging out the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers who also topped any other season in MLB history. Through 86 games, the Atlanta Braves have hit 166 home runs – on pace for 313.
The Braves have blended the league-leading output from Olson (29) and great depth through the lineup. Eight of nine positions have contributed at least 12 home runs, and four of them have contributed 21 or more.
In the second half, the Braves will need more production from Austin Riley. He is on pace for 30 home runs, but he hit 33 in 2021 and 38 in 2022. Riley has shown signs of a breakout, slashing .315/.373/.593 in the last two weeks, but he could be the make-or-break piece.
MLB Storylines: Cleveland, Houston, L.A. Lurk
The Guardians and Astros are 2.0 games back in the AL Central and AL West respectively. The Dodgers are 1.5 back in the NL West. All three teams were heavy favorites in their respective divisions entering the year, but the season has not gone to plan.
The Astros and Dodgers have been heating up in recent weeks, and they both are safely in Wild Card slots. The Guardians are currently below .500, but that could flip if they take care of business with the Royals coming to town. Using Baseball-Reference’s playoff odds, the Dodgers are expected to win the division still while the Astros fall short. They are less supportive of Cleveland who they have finishing six games behind Minnesota and below .500.
MLB Storylines: Time to Destruct in St. Louis?
The Cardinals entered the season with serious expectations, but they are 35-51 through 86 games and glued to the bottom of the NL Central. They are 12.5 games back of the division-leading Reds and 5.0 games back of the fourth-place Pirates. The Cardinals are rapidly approaching the point of no return as they would have to play the last 78 games at a 98-win pace just to get to .500.
The Cardinals are unlikely to move their stars, but Jordan Montgomery could find a new home, and one of their young position players could be swapped for a future pitching. However, the last time the Cardinals tried this maneuver, they gave up Lane Thomas, a borderline All-Star this year, for two months of Jon Lester.
MLB Storylines: One Last Hurrah for Kershaw?
Clayton Kershaw is on the IL right now, but the All-Star Break will keep him from missing too many starts. In Kershaw’s first 16 starts, he has been the same Kershaw who will be enshrined in Cooperstown on the first ballot. He has pitched to a 2.55 ERA while leading the NL in WHIP for the first time since 2014. Injury notwithstanding, he is among the front-runners for NL Cy Young.
With no runaway candidate in the NL, Kershaw’s time on the injured list likely will not matter much. If he pitches similarly in the second half, he will contend for his fourth Cy Young. He also will likely get his 3,000th strikeout at some point in late September.
MLB Storylines: Tatis Versus the World
On a per-game basis, Fernando Tatis Jr. might be the most impactful player in the National League. He has posted 3.8 WAR in 67 games, pacing for a crazy 9.2 mark over 162 games. He has been the best defensive right fielder in baseball, and he could have a 30-30 season despite missing 20 games.
However, Tatis was not selected for the 2023 All-Star Game. While the players and managers do not vote on NL MVP, one could imagine the voters holding Tatis’ off-field issues against him. The only card Tatis has control over is his on-field production, and his production has been among the elite this season. Will the voters acknowledge it?
MLB Storylines: Will the Reds Hold?
In about six weeks, the Cincinnati Reds went from eight games below .500 to nine games above .500. They won 12 games in a row in Mid-June and have won seven of eight. When the team woke up on June 5th, they were six back of Milwaukee. When they went to bed on July 6th, they were two up.
The Reds have been on a historic power-speed tear. In June, they hit 42 home runs, tied for the third-most in baseball, and swiped 50 bases. Since the 1994 Strike, only the 2009 Rays and 2023 Rays stole 50 bases in a month. The Reds have received production from everywhere, but the team’s lightning rod is rookie Elly De La Cruz.
De La Cruz has four home runs and 11 steals in 26 games. The Reds are 20-6 when he plays. He is leading a crop of exciting rookies including Matt McLain and Andrew Abbott that could propel the Reds to a second-half surge, running away with the NL Central.
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