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MLB's Second Half
by Larry Ness - 07/14/2010
The NL ended a 13-year drought with a 3-1 win in Tuesday's 2010 All Star game. The senior circuit had lost 12 consecutive games to the AL since its last win (in 1996) plus there was that infamous 7-7 tie game in 2002. Atlanta's Brian McCann hit a three-run double in the top of the seventh inning (incredibly, the first bases-clearing double in All-Star Game history) while nine NL pitchers held the AL to seven hits and just one unearned run. McCann was named the game's MVP (first Brave since 1994) and Washington reliever Matt Capps got the win (first pitcher from a team based in Washington to get the All-Star win since Dutch Leonard of 1943 Senators). Phil Hughes took the loss for the AL, becoming the first Yankee pitcher to lose an All-Star game since Tommy John in 1980.
The second half of MLB's 2010 season resumes on Thursday with a modest seven-game schedule. The Yankees (with MLB's best record of 56-32) are the only 2009 division winner to be leading their division at the moment. The White Sox (49-38) lead the Tigers by a half-game in the Al Central (Twins are 3 1/2 back) and the Rangers (50-38) lead the Angels by 4 1/2 games in the West. The 54-34 Rays, currently hold down the wild card spot. If the NL season were 'called' as of now, the senior circuit would feature three different division winners from 2009. The Braves (52-36) own a four-game lead in the East over the Mets (Phils are 4 1/2 games back), the Reds (49-41) lead the Cards in the Central by one game plus the Padres (51-37) own a two game lead over the Dodgers and Rockies in the West (Giants trail by four). The Dodgers and Rockies (both 49-39) would need a playoff to decide the wild card spot.
In this scenario, just two of last year's eight postseason teams would be back for the 2010 postseason, the Yankees as winners of the AL East and either the Dodgers (2009 NL West winner) or the Rockies (2009 wild card team from the NL) as the NL's 2010 wild card team. Over the previous seven seasons (beginning in 2003 when the All Star game began determining home-field advantage in the World Series), 22 of MLB's 30 teams have made postseason appearances. The eight teams which have not participated in the postseason are the Blue Jays, Mariners, Orioles, Rangers and Royals from the AL, as well as the Nats/Expos, Pirates and Reds from the NL. Note that the Nats/Expos join the Mariners and Rangers as the only MLB franchises to have never have played in a World Series.
While eight teams have not made a single postseason appearances these last seven seasons, another eight have made just one appearance. That list includes the Brewers (2008), D'backs (2007), Giants (2003), Indians (2007), Marlins (2003), Mets (2006), Rays (2008) and Tigers (2006). Let's note that three of the preceding "one-timers" have made the most that appearance. The 2003 Marlins, the 2008 Rays and the 2006 Tigers all reached the World Series in their lone postseason appearance, with the Marlins "winning it all" in 2003 over the Yankees.
Eight teams make the playoffs each season, so that means 56 spots the past seven years. The Yankees and Red Sox lead with six appearances apiece, the Angels are next with five while the Cards, Dodgers and Twins have each made four postseason trips since 2003. The Braves, Cubs and Phillies have reached the postseason three times while the A's, Astros, Padres, Rockies and White Sox have made two appearances. The Red Sox are the only team to have won multiple World Series titles since 2003 (2004 and 2007) , joined by one-time winners the Marlins (2003), the White Sox (2005), the cardinals (2006), the Phillies (2008) and the Yankees (2009).
Here's some second-half predictions, beginning with the National League, which will have home-field advantage in the World Series for the first time since 2001 (D'backs beat the the Yankees 4-3 that year).
NL East: The Braves won an unprecedented 14 consecutive division titles from 1991 through 2005, excluding the strike-shortened 1994 season which was canceled in August of that year. Atlanta has posted seasons of 79-83 (2006), 84-78 (2007), 72-90 (2008) and 86-76 (2009), since. However, they will open the second half of the 2010 season with a four-game lead over the Mets and a 4 1/2 game lead over the Phillies. The Mets famously collapsed in the final week of two straight seasons (2007 and 2008) with the Phillies overtaking them both times but then fell to 70-92 in 2009 (23 games back). Both teams have an ace (Hudson for Atlanta and Santana for New York) but the remainder of their rotations hold question marks. In particular, does anyone really believe New York pitchers Pelfrey (10-4, 3.58), Takahashi (7-3, 4.14), Dickey (6-2, 2.77) or Niese (6-3, 3.61) will repeat their first-half efforts? Both the Braves and the Mets have won big at home while posting 22-26 and 18-24 road records, respectively. The Phillies have won the last three NL East titles and while they are just 22-23 on the road so far this year, they were a NL-best 44-37 on the road in 2008 and again toped the NL in road wins last year (48-37). I expect this veteran team to run down both the Mets and Braves come October.
NL Central: The Reds finished 13 games back in the Central Division in 2007, 23 1/2 games out in 2008 and then 13 back again last year. However, they entered the 2010 All Star break with a one-game lead over the Cardinals in this year's NL Central race, the first time the Reds have led at the break since 1995. That 1995 season was also the last time the Reds made the postseason and the only time they've won the Central Division title. Is that a good sign? Maybe so but while the Reds can hit (.272 team BA / 4.86 RPG), one wonders if third-year pitcher Johnny Cueto (8-2, 3.42) and rookie Mike Leake (6-1, 3.53) can "keep it up." After all, Cueto entered this season with a 20-25 (4.61) record in his first two seasons and Leake has 10 no-decisions among his 17 starts. The Cards still have Pujols and Holliday but after Wainwright (2.11 ERA is second in the NL), Garcia (2.17 ERA ranks 3rd in the NL) and Carpenter (3.29 ERA ranks 14th in the NL), the starting rotation is a mess. Those three can carry the Cards if they make the postseason (see the Yankees last year) but getting that far will be no "walk in the park." However, I don't trust the Reds and will pick the Cards to make it two straight Central titles.
NL West: The Padres finished 20 games out of first place in 2009 and 21 games back in 2008 but own a two-game lead over the Dodgers and Rockies (are four games up on the Giants) in the NL West as the 2010 season's second-half opens. San Diego owns MLB's best ERA (3.25) but can a rotation of Mat Latos (10-4, 2.45), Wade LeBlanc (4-7, 3.30), Clayton Richard (6-4, 3.33), Jon Garland (8-6, 3.56) and Kevin Correia (5-6, 5.26) carry a team which ranks 25th overall in batting (.250) and 22nd in runs scored (4.27 RPG)? The Rockies (.269 / 4.89 RPG) and Dodgers (.269 / 4.81 RPG) are averaging just over a half-run per game more than the Padres while the Giants' starting rotation of Lincecum (3.16 ERA), Cain (3.34 ERA), Sanchez (3.47 ERA), Zito (3.76) and now rookie Bumgarner (2.57 ERA in four starts), seems better suited for a stretch run. Sorry Padre fans, I'm predicting a San Diego collapse (4th-place finish) with the Dodgers and Rockies fighting it out for the West title (loser gets the wild card).
AL East: Run-differential in MLB, like point-differential in the NBA, is an outstanding indicator of the true strength or weakness of a team. Don't buy into the saying which goes, "the good teams win the close games." In fact, outstanding teams win games by big margins. The Yanks own MLB's best record (56-32) and also have outscored opponents by 117 runs while the Rays own MLB's second-best record (54-34) while outscoring opponents by 105 runs (third-best differential is held by the Rangers at plus-74). It's hard to argue against both of these teams making the postseason. The Yanks have Sabathia (12-3), Pettitte (11-2) and Hughes (11-2) plus Burnett and Vazquez in the starting rotation with Mariano closing (1.05 ERA / has converted 20 of 22 saves). The Yanks are hitting .271 as a team and only the Red Sox have scored more runs (5.33 RPG). The Rays own MLB's best road record (28-14) and figure to play much better at home in the second-half (just 26-20 so far), as they were 109-53 in Tropicana Field the last two seasons. The Rays are batting just .256 but rank fourth in runs scored (5.05 per game). Then there is the team's starting staff. Tampa Bay is the only team in all of MLB to use just five starters this first half of the season. The names are; Price (12-4, 2.42), Niemann (7-2, 2.77), Garza (10-5, 4.05), Davis (6-9, 4.69) and Shields (7-9, 4.87). You know it's a good season when the team's expected ace at the start of the year (Shields) is now the team's "fifth starter!" As for the Red Sox, 11 players on the DL at the All Star break says it all.
AL Central: The White Sox were 24-33 on June 8 and trailed the Twins by 9½ games. They then won 15 of 16 from June 9-26, including 11 straight from 6/15-26. They entered the break on an eight-game winnings streak, having won 25 of 30 to take a half-game lead over the Tigers and a 3 1/2 lead over the Twins. The Tigers last won a division title in 1987 but did make the World Series in 2006 as a wild card entry. The Tigers entered September 2009 with a seven-game lead in the Central but became the first team in MLB history to lose a three game lead with four games left to play when the Twins beat them 6-5 (12 innings) in a one-game playoff (Twins have won five Central titles since 2002). I just mentioned that the Rays are the only team to use just five starters in the season's first half but let me note that the White Sox had done the same thing until Jake Peavy was lost for the year on July 6 (Daniel Hudson replaced him on July 11) and as for the Twins, only Jeff Manship's May 1 start came from outside the team's starting-five rotation of Baker, Blackburn, Liriano, Pavano and Slowey. As for the Tigers, after Verlander (11-5, 3.82), the team's starting staff has a ton of question marks. I believe it comes down to the Twins or White Sox. My gut says Minnesota, which has taken Chicago's "best shot " (25 wins in 30 games) but still trails by only 3 1/2 games.
AL West: The Angels have won the last three AL West titles and five of the last six. In comparison, the Rangers haven't won a division title since winning three AL West titles in four years from 1996-1999. The Rangers' 4 1/2 game lead over the Angels at the break is the largest division lead in MLB (Braves lead the Mets by four games). More importantly, the Rangers have outscored their opponents by 74 runs while the Angels have been outscored by their opponents (minus-24 runs). That makes the Angels the only team with a winning record at the break (17 in all) which owns a negative run-differential. The difference between the two teams is 98 runs! The second-largest run-differential between a first and second-place team is 27 runs (San Diego over Colorado in the NL West). The Rangers own MLB's best team BA (.278) and have scored the third-most runs (5.15 per game). The Angels are hitting 25-points less (.253) and score a half-run less per game (4.53). As for the pitching staff, the Rangers finished the first half with a 3.97 ERA (and now have Lee through October), while the Angels' team ERA is 4.50. The Rangers opened their 4 1/2 game lead prior to acquiring Cliff Lee and despite his less-than-impressive Texas debut last Saturday, I believe the Rangers will win that first division title since 1999 this season.