By Dalton Brown
If you’re a baseball fan, then you don’t need me to tell you that 2020 was simply a strange, shortened sprint of a season. Sixty games is hardly a large enough sample to tell much of anything in this sport, a fact the MLB tried to make up for with an extended playoff format that allowed half the league a shot at making a run. Remarkably, the plan worked relatively well from a competitive perspective - the best teams advanced into the later rounds of the playoffs and created tantalizing matchups, and the consensus most talented team won the World Series, as the Dodgers defeated the Rays in a hard-fought six games.
Perhaps part of why this worked was that teams approached the shortened season fundamentally differently - managing personnel in-game and approaching each series with about two and a half as much intensity as normal. Regardless, the normalcy of the results, fan engagement, and a generally entertaining postseason allowed MLB to get away with massive temporary competitive changes to the game itself.
And as we cross the 60-game point on this season's schedule across the league, we’re now only beginning to understand the shape that the eventual pennant race will take on over the coming three and a half months. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres will be looking up at the San Francisco Giants for very much longer. It’s also hard to imagine that the New York Yankees won’t figure it out and win 95+ games again by the time things are all said and done, or that the Houston Astros will continue to trail the Oakland Athletics despite having a larger run differential by more than 60 runs. It’s very likely that the eventual MLB playoff field will be less of a shock to us than it would be if the season ended today, and that’s a very good thing for Major League Baseball in the year 2021.
Yes, baseball’s randomness can indeed create chaos in individual moments and over small samples, and last week’s picks from this column were no exception. Having entered the week winning 5 consecutive bets, the Giants had me feeling pretty good about another 2-0 week as they entered the 9th inning covering the run line and up 4-2 on the Cubs while sending their closer to the mound. What followed were two immediate fielding errors by Mauricio Dubon and Evan Longoria, the second of which led to a Cubs run that made it 4-3 and all but sunk our bet. As a result, we finally cooled off to a 1-1 week of picks last weekend - but if that’s what it’s going to take, I feel damn good about a recovery this week. Let’s dive in.
Last Week: 1-1
Friday, June 11
Seattle Mariners (Justin Dunn) @ Cleveland Indians (Aaron Civale)
Several weeks ago, I wrote ad nauseum about how far the Seattle Mariners' Justin Dunn has come as a pitcher. He’s made changes to his body and his pitch arsenal in 2021 that are undoubtedly related, and it has made him into a very solid starter at the big league level. He came through for us then too, tossing 5.2 solid innings and allowing only one run en route to a 3-2 win. Part of what made Dunn attractive in that spot was his opponent, the Texas Rangers - a team that had struggled with right-handed pitching and hadn’t scored runs consistently all season. On Friday, Dunn takes on another offense in the Cleveland Indians that hasn’t really ever found its stride so far in 2021, and especially against right handed pitchers, against whom they rank 24th in wRC+ and 26th in batting average as a team. The struggles that have befallen the Mariners offense in 2021 are no secret at all - you likely don’t need me to tell you that they’ve been no-hit twice this season and rank near the bottom of virtually every offensive category against both left and right-handed pitching. They’ll take on Aaron Civale on Friday, a model of consistency who has anchored Cleveland’s rotation alongside Zach Plesac and Shane Bieber for several seasons now. While Civale struggled against the Mariners on May 14, I personally struggle to imagine it happening again and believe that the game total is over-inflated in an attempt to correct for it. I’ll take the under as our first bet.
The Pick: Under 9 (Playable to 8.5)
Saturday, June 12
Houston Astros (Luis Garcia) @ Minnesota Twins (Jose Berrios)
The Minnesota Twins' struggles in 2021 have come as a surprise to many, myself included. At 25-37, the Twins trail even the rebuilding Detroit Tigers in the AL Central, and they currently find themselves in unfamiliar territory in the cellar. While I do believe Minnesota’s talent will eventually pull them back up toward respectability, I’m not sold on it happening early enough or correcting aggressively enough to pass the red-hot Chicago White Sox for the division. Much of what goes into handicapping in baseball is evaluating a pitching matchup, and there’s certainly details to evaluate here that support our pick. But in many ways, however this weekend series is also about two teams just heading in different directions.
The Houston Astros enter the weekend having hit their stride, winning 7 of 10 and breathing down the neck of an Oakland team they’re bound to pass in the standings any day now. They’ve averaged a blistering 7.3 runs per game on their road trip, winning their series matchups against both the Toronto Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox as they take aim at Minneapolis next. The Twins, on the other hand, enter the weekend with a battered pitching staff having allowed 7.3 runs/game during this week’s home series with the Yankees, a team that had previously been struggling to score runs consistently as well.
The Astros will send Luis Garcia to the mound on Saturday, and while he's far from a household name, Garcia has quietly blossomed into a consistently solid starting pitcher capable of stymieing even some of baseball’s most powerful offenses. He’s earned wins in 5 consecutive starts, allowing only 1 earned run a piece to the Dodgers, Red Sox, and Blue Jays over his past three while pitching 6 or more innings in each.
Garcia is a relatively proven commodity at this point, and he should allow the Astros’ offense the opportunity to build a lead heading into the later innings of the game. He’ll be opposed by Jose Berrios, a solid pitcher in his own right for Minnesota, and while Berrios is having a decent season, he hasn’t faced a team with a winning record since April (7 starts) and has still managed to allow 3 or more runs in 4 of 7 starts over that span. Saturday will be a different animal altogether, as the Astros’ offense has been an absolute juggernaut against right-handed pitching (1st in MLB in batting average and wRC+) and should push Berrios to his limits in an effort to get into Minnesota’s bullpen early in the game. Should they succeed, they’ll be staring down the barrel at one of the league’s worst relief corps (4.62 ERA, 25th in MLB). I’ll ride the hot hand here and take Houston on the money line if I can get a reasonable number.
The Pick: Astros -130 or better