A Look Back at the First Half
In a follow-up to last year's First Half Observations, we're going to take a look at the races in each of the six divisions.
With a combined record of 149-102, the American League has beaten up the National League in interleague play once again. Not surprisingly, the AL sports the top five teams in ESPN's MLB Relative Power Index. The basic formula of the index is 25% team winning percentage, 50% opponents' average winning percentage, and 25% opponents' opponents' average winning percentage.
AL East: Are the Rays for Real?
A year ago, Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles were leading their divisions while Cleveland had the best record among the rest. The Red Sox and the Angels went on to win division titles, the Indians blew past the Tigers in the second half to capture the Central, and New York went to the whip and earned the wild card spot.
Boston had the best record in baseball at the All-Star break and won the 2007 World Series by beating the Angels, Indians, and the Colorado Rockies in the postseason. Tampa Bay owns the best win-loss mark this season. Can the Rays pull a repeat of what the Red Sox accomplished in 2007? By winning seven in a row and 11 of 12, the upstart Rays have now opened up a five-game lead in the East and are now the hottest – if not the best – team in baseball. A 200:1 shot to win it all before the season began, Tampa Bay's odds have dropped to about 11:1, behind only the Red Sox, Cubs, and Angels.
In just one year, the Rays have gone from worst to first in the AL. Get this, Tampa Bay's run differential has improved by almost 200 runs or nearly 2.5 per game. It's taken time – a long time – to build this franchise, but the average age of the major league team, the strength of the minor league system, and lots of flexibility in payroll suggest the turnaround is for real.
AL Central: Surprise, Surprise
The two Chicago teams are leading their leagues in run differentials. A Windy City World Series may not be what 28 other cities would like to see but would be pretty good for baseball (or so says this lifelong Californian). I'm not as surprised by the Cubs as I am by the White Sox. I figured them for third in the AL Central. But what do I know? I didn't see the Pale Hose winning its division in 2005 either, much less the ALDS, ALCS, and the World Series.
Minnesota caught me off guard as well. I picked them for fourth. With a five-game winning streak and an overall record of 50-38, the Twins are only one back of the White Sox. In what appeared to be a rebuilding year, Minnesota finds itself in the thick of things after the July 4th weekend. To think that the Twins would be contending without Johan Santana and Francisco Liriano means the pitching staff is performing at or better than most expectations.
Cleveland has lost eight games in a row and management appears to have called it a season with the reported trade of C.C. Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers for 2007 first rounder Matt LaPorta, a former college home run champ at Florida, and two other minor league prospects. The Tribe's run differential is only minus six but when you are behind the Kansas City Royals in the standings and 14 games back of the division leader, it's time to reassess your club's chances. It's hard to fault Cleveland for trading Sabathia, who turned down a four-year, $72 million contract during the spring. Good luck to Milwaukee and/or the team that gives C.C. a five-year, $100 million deal.
AL West: Same Old
Six games in front of Oakland, the Angels have the biggest lead of any division leader and probably the clearest path to the postseason. However, the Halos may not be as good as their record indicates. The team has won six more games than what would be expected based on their runs scored and allowed. The pitching has been superb, while the hitting has been mediocre at best.
The A's have allowed the fewest runs (324) and the Texas Rangers have scored the most runs (511) in baseball. Each club benefits from favorable park environments but their success goes beyond that. Both teams are playing .500 on the road. Only the Angels and Yankees sport better than .500 records away from home.
Take heart if you're a fan of any team other than the division and wild card leaders. None of the four teams that were in this position a year ago made it to the postseason. That's right, New York, Milwaukee, San Diego, and Los Angeles were sitting pretty at the All-Star break, yet Philadelphia, Chicago, Arizona, and Colorado passed them in the second half and represented the National League in the playoffs. Although the Rockies went on to the World Series, the club was only playing .500 and in fourth place at this time last year.
NL East: Philly's Stake Looks Promising
Playing in a hitter's ballpark and Brett Myers having pitched his way to the minor leagues, who would have thought the Phillies would be third in the NL in runs allowed? And Cole Hamels didn't make the All-Star team? Philadelphia is one of two teams (the other being STL) in the league with a winning record on the road.
Florida has been an even bigger surprise than Tampa Bay, at least to me. The Marlins have been hanging tough all year and are in second place and only 2.5 games back of the Phillies. In a year in which Chipper Jones, Lance Berkman, and Chase Utley have gotten most of the press, Hanley Ramirez is doing his best to win his first Most Valuable Player award. If nothing else, he is the MVP, as in most valuable property.
NL Central: Three Team Race
Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Louis own the three best records in the NL. That said, only two of these teams, at most, will reach the postseason. All three clubs have positive run differentials with the Cubs ranking first in the league in runs scored and fourth in runs allowed. As such, Chicago is actually two games below their Pythagorean record while the Brewers and Cardinals are four and three games over.
Cincinnati has won four in a row and would like nothing better than to work its way into this race. Whether the Reds are buyers or sellers at the trade deadline will most likely determine their fate.
NL West: Wide Open
Just as it looked as if this division was looking like a powerhouse, all five teams out west have records under .500 and rank among the bottom ten in the majors in the Power Index.
Arizona and Los Angeles, the first and second place teams, both have scored more runs than allowed. The Dodgers, in fact, have given up fewer runs than any defense in the NL. The problem is that LA ranks third-to-last in runs scored. Injuries have been a factor for sure but Rafael Furcal may not be back this season and Andruw Jones does not look like the $18 million man. Heck, based on his production, the latter would be doing well if he were making a tenth of that amount.
The Diamondbacks, all the rage in April, are 24-37 since the first month of the season. The good news for Arizona fans is that the D-Backs still sit atop the NL West. The bad news is that the club ranks 23rd in the Power Index. Nonetheless, one of these teams in the West will find itself playing in October and, remember, the Rockies were in fourth and clinging to a .500 record a year ago – so there is hope.