Five MLB Teams That Surprised in the First Half of the 2021 Season

By Nick Sterling in MLB
| July 14, 2021 7:27 am PDT

The first half of the MLB season is in the books. For the most part, the teams that we expected to be good have lived up to their expectations.

However, a few other teams have essentially come out of nowhere to join the playoff contenders. Those teams range from World Series candidates to fringe playoff contenders.

I looked at the standings and identified five teams who have exceeded expectations this season. Here are those five teams.

5. Seattle Mariners

The Seattle Mariners won an MLB record 116 games in 2001. That season ended in disappointment with a loss in the ALCS. Since then, the Mariners have not made the playoffs. They currently hold the longest playoff drought of any team in the Big Four sports.

However, there may finally be some reason for hope in Seattle. They came into this season with the third-best farm system, including a pair of top five prospects.

 Most of the hype in the AL West surrounded the Los Angeles Angels. They came into the season with two of the most intriguing players – Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani. However, the Mariners have been the surprise team in the AL West.

They got off to a 12-7 start, holding an early lead in the AL West, and struggled through the middle portion of the first half. Seattle was 31-35 on June 12 and sat eight games behind the Oakland Athletics.

The Mariners have gone 15-7 since then to post a 46-42 record. They sit just 3.5 games behind Oakland for the second wild-card spot.

According to FanGraphs, Seattle came into the season projected to win just 74 games. Now, that number sits at 85.

While the playoffs may still be out of reach, the Mariners show a lot of promise for the future.

Their offense really struggles to hit for contact, but they are mid-pack in the AL in home runs. Their rotation is pretty so-so as well, but they do have one of the better bullpens.

Seattle’s bullpen has allowed the fewest home runs in the AL. They also have the third-best WHIP in the AL.

Starting pitcher Yusei Kikuchi is the team’s lone All-Star. Kikuchi has a 3.48 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 2.1 WAR.

It looked like Seattle’s playoff drought would continue, but there’s finally hope. They could be the sleeper for 2022.

4. Milwaukee Brewers

The Milwaukee Brewers nearly made the World Series in 2018. They lost 4-3 in the NLCS to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Milwaukee made the playoffs in 2019 and 2020, but they failed to win a game.

Despite their recent postseason struggles, the Brewers entered the season as the favorites to win the NL Central. However, their preseason win total was only 83 games.

They got off to a strong start, going 16-10 in April. Unfortunately, it didn’t last, as they lost the division lead, falling all the way down to 24-25 on May 26. They fought their way back and won 14 of their next 16 games and are now tied for the division lead.

They went on an 11-game win streak at the end of June to open up a seven-game lead in the division. The Brewers battled the Chicago Cubs for the division lead all throughout the first half. However, the Cubs went on an 11-game losing streak, opening the door for the Brewers to take a big lead.

FanGraphs states the Brewers have a 91 percent chance to make the playoffs. That’s pretty good, considering they entered the season with just a 42.2 percent chance.

The Brewers are on pace to win 97 games. That would be the most wins in franchise history.

Their offense isn’t anything special, but they may have the best pitching trio in the majors. Brandon Woodruff, Corbin Burnes, and Freddy Peralta all have an ERA below 2.40, a WHIP below 0.95, a WAR above 2.5, and over 120 strikeouts. Woodruff and Burnes made the All-Star Game, while Peralta’s was one of the biggest snubs.

Closer Josh Hader also made the All-Star Game with a 0.80 ERA, 0.72 WHIP, 2.5 WAR, and 59 strikeouts to 12 walks.

Unless someone can make a run in the NL Central, the Brewers will cruise to another division title. The big question is can they advance past the first round?

3. Houston Astros

The Houston Astros made their fourth consecutive ALCS in 2020. They finished the season under .500 for the first time since 2014, but the expanded playoffs gave them a chance. Houston has put their sign-stealing scandal behind them and looks poised to make another World Series run.

Houston came into the season with a 70.2 percent chance to make the playoffs. That, combined with their 89 projected win total, was second highest in the AL behind the New York Yankees. So far, Houston is on its way to another 100-win season.

It wasn’t the best of starts for Houston. They sat at 17-16 on May 8. Houston trailed the Oakland Athletics in the AL West for much of the season, but they finally took over the division lead on June 20, putting them in the midst of an 11-game win streak.

Another six-game win streak in July put the Astros 4.5 games up on the Athletics in the AL West. They are also tied with the Boston Red Sox for the best record in the AL at 54-34.

The playoff chances for Houston are all the way up to 96.6 percent. That is the best in the AL. They are also on pace to win 99 games.

If Houston can get 100 wins, it’ll be four straight full 162 game seasons with 100 wins or more. It won’t count in the record books because there were only 60 games in 2020, but it’s still an impressive accomplishment.

The Astros’ amazing offense is leading their World Series charge. They rank at the top of the majors in multiple categories. This includes hits, runs, RBIs, total bases, batting average, on-base percentage, and on-base plus slugging percentage.

Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and Michael Brantley made the All-Star Game. Brantley leads the team with a .332 batting average, while Altuve has a team-high 19 home runs. Correa’s 4.0 WAR is the fifth highest in the majors.

Houston’s pitching staff doesn’t get as much attention, but they have the second-lowest ERA and WHIP in the AL. Closer Ryan Pressly is going to the All-Star Game with 16 saves and 47 strikeouts.

It’s scary to see Houston’s offense so good. They should continue their strong play on their way to another ALCS appearance.

2. Boston Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox won four World Series from 2004-2018. They were one of the best franchises of the century, but things fell apart in 2020.

Boston had the fourth-worst record in the league, finishing 24-36. Their .400-win percentage was their worst mark since 1965.

Despite the low mark, Boston entered the 2021 season projected to win 85 games. You would think that’s an obvious opportunity to hit the under, but the Red Sox have gone in the complete other direction.

They came flying out the gate, winning nine in a row following a three-game losing streak and held the division lead all the way until May 25.

It wasn’t like they were struggling, as they had a 29-19 record. However, the Tampa Bay Rays went on a long win streak to take the lead away from Boston in the AL East.

On June 27, Boston finally reclaimed the division lead. They are currently 54-34, tied for the best record in the AL.

On FanGraphs, Boston has an 89.4 percent chance to make the playoffs. That’s up over 50 percent from their preseason projection of 38.9 percent. They are also on pace to win 99 games.

A big reason for their turnaround is their elite offense. Boston ranks top three in the majors in runs, hits, doubles, RBIs, total bases, and batting average.

Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts will start the All-Star Game, while J.D. Martinez comes off the bench. Devers is second in the majors with 71 RBIs, while Bogaerts is fifth in the majors with a .323 batting average.

They have a solid pitching staff and are ranked third in the AL in strikeouts. Starting pitcher Nathan Eovaldi and closer Matt Barnes will pitch in the All-Star Game. Eovaldi’s nine wins are second-most in the AL, and Barnes has 16 saves and a 0.86 WHIP.

The battle between Boston and Houston should be fun to watch in the second half.

1. San Francisco Giants

Coming into the season, all the talk in the NL West was about the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres. Both teams came into the season projected to win over 90 games.

On the other hand, the San Francisco Giants entered the season projected to win just 76 games. They had a 5.7 percent chance to make the playoffs. That means they were projected to finish 11th out of 15 teams in the NL. Those who bet the over are licking their chops right now.

San Francisco’s season got off to a great start. They led the NL West through May 21 with a 28-17 record. The Giants briefly fell to third in the NL West before reclaiming the lead on May 31 at 34-20.

Since then, the Giants are 20-12 for an overall record of 54-32. They have the best record in the majors but only lead the NL West by a game.

San Francisco’s season has been impressive because they haven’t had any long winning streaks, but rather a string of consistent play.

The Giants’ playoff chances are all the way up to 84.8. They are the only team on pace to win over 100 games this season. Despite having the best record in the majors, they only have the 12th best chance to win the World Series.

Their impressive season has been a balanced effort between their offense and pitching. They lead the NL with 127 home runs.

Buster Posey and Brandon Crawford are representing the Giants in the All-Star Game.

Posey has missed nearly 30 games, but he leads the team with a .328 batting average, .547 slugging percentage, and .968 on-base plus slugging percentage. Crawford leads the team with 17 home runs and 55 RBIs. His 3.6 WAR is the third highest in the NL.

The Giants pitching staff has the best WHIP and second-best ERA in the majors. All-Star Kevin Gausman leads the rotation with a 1.74 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 124 strikeouts, and a 4.4 WAR.

It seems like people keep disrespecting San Francisco. Honestly, they could get better in the second half with Posey and a few other guys returning from injury.

We’ll see if that’s enough for them to hold on to the best record in the majors.

Final Thoughts

It’s always exciting to see which MLB teams can exceed expectations. These five teams have done a great job of that.

While the Mariners likely won’t make the playoffs, the other four teams definitely will. They are all within 2.5 games of the best record in the majors.

It’s going to be fun to watch those four teams battle for the top spot in the standings.

I’ll leave with you some recent MLB content you might be interested in.

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