The MLB season is full of arbitrary time markers. The halfway point is generally considered to be whenever the All-Star Break is, even though it doesn’t usually take place at the actual halfway point of the season. And there’s the quarter pole, which we’ll consider to be the point when every team has played at least 40 games in a 162-game season. That’s about where we are now: Every club hit the 40-game mark by the end of the third week in May. So how are things looking?
We’re now far enough into the 2021 MLB season to have some sense of the storylines that will define this year in the history books. Here are four big ones.
The Year of the No-Hitter
In the first seven weeks of the season, pitchers threw six no-hitters. Starting with the San Diego Padres’ Joe Musgrove on April 9, pitchers have been throwing no-nos at a torrid pace. The league is off to its fastest no-hitter start ever, and this year could have a chance of matching, or even breaking, the all-time record of eight in a season, which was set in 1884. (The modern record is seven league-wide no-hitters in a season, a record shared by several seasons.)
Why’s it happening? Some of it might just be luck, but the MLB is moving in a direction that would seem to encourage more frequent no-hitters. Every year since 2008, major league pitchers have set a new record for the league-wide strikeout rate. At the start of that period, batters were striking out in 17.5 percent of their plate appearances. The figure is now hovering above 24 percent, and fewer balls coming off the bat means fewer opportunities for hits.
MLB teams have also become better at playing defense—mainly by learning how to shift their position players to where the ball is most likely to be hit. As a result, the league-wide batting average on balls in play (excluding strikeouts and home runs) has steadily fallen.
The NL West’s Hot New Rivalry
The Los Angeles Dodgers have won the National League West every year since 2013 and finally got over the hump to win a World Series in 2020. With the largest payroll and arguably the most talent in the game, they have a great chance to win it again. But this year, they finally have some real competition in their division.
Meet the San Diego Padres, currently leading the NL West by a hair. The Padres used to have a serious rivalry with the Dodgers, but it cooled considerably as the Dodgers ran away with the division for years and the Padres failed to even sniff contention most of the time. Now the Padres are making headlines thanks to their lineup of young talent, including a bona-fide superstar in shortstop Fernando Tatís Jr., who has built up some bad blood with the Dodgers and pitcher Trevor Bauer. The Padres have emerged as a genuine threat to the Dodgers in the division, and they’re likely to at least make the playoffs as a wild card team.
The Los Angeles Angels’ Two Generational Stars
You’re already used to Mike Trout being the best baseball player alive; he’s filled that role for almost a full decade now. In a cruel twist of fate, Trout got injured in mid-May and is slated to miss around two months. When he returns, he’ll resume a season that has somehow been even better than his elite standards.
But a new star is rising: Trout’s teammate Shohei Ohtani is making his own kind of history this year. Ohtani generated a lot of hype when the Angels landed him in 2017, after he’d become a star in Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball league. Ohtani is the first true two-way player the majors have had in years. He’s capable of throwing a 100-mile-per-hour fastball as a pitcher and hitting home runs at one of the highest rates in the MLB.
Baseball hasn’t had a player quite like him before, and the fact that people routinely compare Ohtani to Babe Ruth should tell you something about his skill set. Ohtani has hit 15 home runs as a batter and put up a 2.37 ERA as a pitcher. Hopefully he remains healthy, because he’s a joy to watch at the plate and on the mound.
New York, New York
The Yankees haven’t been as dominant as some might’ve expected—they’re in the middle of a mass of teams at the top of the American League East. Still, they’re well above .500 and are highly likely to make the playoffs. That’s not a bad place to be given that star pitcher Luis Severino hasn’t pitched all season (he’s expected back sometime this summer after undergoing Tommy John surgery) and the team has weathered a few other injuries as well. Ultimately, a heavy-hitting lineup and a deep starting rotation should make the Yankees the October contender they were always supposed to be.
Over in Queens, the Mets have managed to give the city two good ballclubs for the first time in a while. They lost the World Series to the Royals in 2015, lost a one-game wild card playoff in 2016, and have missed the playoffs the last four years. But they’re in first place in the National League East and seem poised to win that division: The other four teams in it (the Braves, Phillies, Nationals, and Marlins) have been mediocre so far. The Mets have yet to get much out of prized shortstop acquisition Francisco Lindor, but he should take them to another level whenever he starts hitting.
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