Baseball BeatJuly 06, 2009
The Mid-Season Report
By Rich Lederer

With all but eight teams having played 81 games thus far, it's fair to say that the 2009 Major League Baseball season is at the halfway point. While the All-Star Game typically marks the end of the first half and the beginning of the second in the eyes of most fans as well as season splits, the truth of the matter is that we've already reached that juncture.

Ten of the 30 teams have played exactly 81 games, the mode, if you'd like to harken back to your statistics courses in high school or college. Twelve have completed more than 81 and eight have played fewer than 81. St. Louis leads the majors with 84, while the Chicago Cubs are tied with Philadelphia and Washington for the fewest with 79. As a result, the Cardinals have five more off days than one of their division rivals the rest of the way. STL has an extra day off at the All-Star break, which I believe to be advantageous plus three more during the "dog days" of August and a couple more during the middle of September.

The Los Angeles Dodgers sport the best record in baseball and, along with the Boston Red Sox, are one of only two teams with W-L percentages of .600 or better. If the Dodgers and Red Sox meet in the World Series, it would be the first time since 1916 when Boston beat the Brooklyn Robins in five games.

On the other end of the spectrum, the Nationals have the worst record and, along with the Cleveland Indians, are one of just two teams with W-L % below .400. The Nats, in fact, are making a run at the .300 mark, ensuring the No. 1 draft pick for the second year in a row. Signing Stephen Strasburg and next year's top draftee (most likely Bryce Harper) is going to cost the franchise a ton of money and make Scott Boras and his clients happy and wealthy (or, in the case of the super agent, happier and wealthier).

If the season ended now, the division champions in the American League would be Boston in the East and Detroit in the Central, with Texas and the Los Angeles Angels battling for the title in a one-game playoff. You could even think of that game as the one that is being played tonight in Anaheim, pitting the Rangers' ace Kevin Millwood against the hometown team's No. 1 this season, Jered Weaver. The New York Yankees would be the Wild Card representative from the AL.

Over in the National League, the division champs would be Philadelphia in the East, St. Louis in the Central, and the Dodgers in the West. The San Francisco Giants would be the Wild Card entrant.

However, with EIGHTEEN teams within four games of the division lead and at least two more in the thick of the Wild Card race, fully two-thirds of the clubs are thinking in terms of October as the season heads into the second half of its schedule.

Let's take a closer look division-by-division:

TEAM         W    L   PCT  GB
Red Sox      49   32  .605  -
Yankees      48   33  .593   1
Rays         44   39  .530   6
Blue Jays    42   41  .506   8
Orioles      36   46  .439  13.5

The AL East is the toughest division in baseball, bar none. There's rarely any debate about this matter most years and there is NO rational argument that can be made against this statement this season. Three of the top four teams and four of the top six in run differential reside in this division. That is an incredible accomplishment considering that these five clubs have played against one another more than a third of the time. By definition, the team that finishes in third place will be eliminated from the postseason even though it just may be the fourth-best club in all of baseball. That means either the Red Sox, Yankees, or Rays will be on the outside looking in this October. (I didn't include the Blue Jays in this mix because Toronto has played the fewest games against its East opponents and, at 7-14, has fared worse than the others in intra-division play.)

TEAM         W    L   PCT  GB
Tigers       44   37  .543  -
Twins        43   40  .518   2
White Sox    42   40  .512   2.5
Royals       35   46  .432   9
Indians      33   50  .398  12

Plain and simple, the AL Central is a three-team race. It's hard to separate this trio. The Tigers have won the most games, the Twins have the best Pythagorean record (45-38), and the White Sox have lost the most one-run games. In the meantime, the Kansas City Royals are about where most expected and the Indians have fallen short of even their biggest detractors this season.

As a side note, Joe Mauer (.389/.465/.648) is leading the league in AVG/OBP/SLG and has been the AL MVP, no questions asked. The 26-year-old catcher has slugged more home runs (14) in 256 plate appearances this campaign than he has in any single season in his six-year career. He is playing Gold Glove defense once again and has walked more than he has struck out for the fourth consecutive year. Given Mauer's age and position, it could be argued that he is the most valuable player in the game although I wouldn't argue vehemently against those supporting Albert Pujols and perhaps even Hanley Ramirez. I know Minnesota fans don't want to read this, but it'll be interesting to see if Mauer becomes Jorge Posada's or Jason Varitek's replacement in 2011 upon free agency. The timing couldn't be better for Mauer, the Yankees, or the Red Sox.

TEAM         W    L   PCT  GB
Rangers      45   35  .563  -
Angels       45   35  .563  -
Mariners     42   39  .519   3.5
A's          34   46  .425  11

The AL West is up for grabs this year with only the Oakland A's not having a realistic shot at the division title. While the Rangers have hung in there longer and tougher than most prognosticators predicted, the Angels deserve a lot of credit for overcoming the early-season injuries to John Lackey and Ervin Santana (not to mention Kelvim Escobar's virtual yearlong stint on the DL) as well as the tragic death of Nick Adenhart, the club's No. 1 prospect, after pitching six scoreless innings in his first and only start of 2009. TEX and LAA have similar positive run differentials while SEA has won four more games than its Pythagorean record would suggest, the most in the AL.

With respect to Oakland, it will be interesting to see which team free agent-to-be Matt Holliday winds up on later this month. He could be a difference maker down the stretch for the right team. GM Billy Beane would like to get the equivalent of two No. 1s, which is what the A's will receive if they lose Holliday to free agency at the end of the year.

* * *
TEAM         W    L   PCT  GB
Phillies     42   37  .532  -
Marlins      43   40  .518   1
Mets         39   42  .481   4
Braves       39   42  .481   4
Nationals    24   55  .304  18

The defending World Series champs sit atop the NL East while the surprising Florida Marlins are making (another) run at a world championship. In the meantime, the New York Mets, winners of just two of their last ten, and the Atlanta Braves are floundering at three games below .500. At 26-15, the Phillies have the best road record in the majors and are the only team in the division with a positive run differential.

With Ricky Nolasco once again pitching like he did last season, the young Marlins could pose a legitimate threat to Philadelphia's hopes of winning back-to-back titles. Nolasco and Josh Johnson (7-1 with a 2.76 ERA this season and 14-2 since returning from Tommy John surgery one year ago) could be as tough of a 1-2 punch as there is in the division and any team with HanRam (.346/.409/.574) at shortstop must be taken seriously. Ramirez is leading the league in AVG and 2B (26) and playing at an acceptable level in the field. In the non-Albert Pujols division of the MVP award, only Chase Utley can give his division rival a run for his money.

TEAM         W    L   PCT  GB
Cardinals    45   39  .536  -
Brewers      43   39  .524   1
Cubs         40   39  .506   2.5
Reds         40   40  .500   3
Astros       39   41  .488   4
Pirates      37   45  .451   7

The top two teams in the NL Central are facing off in a three-game set beginning tomorrow night in Milwaukee. Ryan Braun (.326/.409/.557), the NL's No. 1 vote getter among outfielders for the second year in a row, would like management to add an arm or two to the club's pitching staff before it's too late. Meanwhile, the Cubs, Reds, and Astros, and perhaps even the Pirates, are still hoping to make noise in the second half.

But let's take a second to review Pujols' numbers. As my good friend Brian Gunn (the former proprietor of the now defunct Redbird Nation, one of the best team blogs during its reign) told me when we were discussing Prince Albert's Baseball-Reference page, "I frequently get lost there. It's like the Sistine Chapel of B-R pages — not a flaw on it." So true. I mean, he is hitting .336/.460/.739 while leading the NL in games, runs, home runs, RBI, walks, IBB, times on base, OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, total bases, runs created, and, most importantly, all the stats that measure wins, such as Wins Above Replacement. He's the MVP of the season and is now looking like the MVP of the decade.

TEAM         W    L   PCT  GB
Dodgers      52   30  .634  -
Giants       44   37  .543   7.5
Rockies      42   39  .519   9.5
Padres       35   46  .432  16.5
Diamondbacks 33   49  .402  19

While the NL West is all about the Dodgers, the Giants and Rockies are Nos. 1 and 3 in the Wild Card race. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Colorado are 1-2-3 in run differential in the league. At 30-12, the Dodgers are making mince meat of its division foes, yet the five teams are playing a combined .500 in interleague play.

What makes the Dodgers record all the more remarkable is the fact that the team was without its best player, Manny Ramirez, for 50 games (or more than 60 percent of the season to date). LA is winning at home, on the road, during the day, at night, one-run games, extra-inning games, you name it. This is a legitimately excellent team and one that should be favored to represent the NL in the Fall Classic this October, provided that manager Joe Torre doesn't wear out his bullpen (headed by Jonathan Broxton), as he is wont to do, down the stretch.