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Baseball MId-Season Report
by Larry Ness - 07/15/2015
2015 MLB Mid-Season Update:
2002's infamous 7-7 tie in MLB's All Star game led to the decision of giving home field advantage to the winning league. The AL won SEVEN straight years from 2003 through 2009, although went on to take the World Series in a modest FOUR of those seven years. The NL followed with THREE straight All Star game wins from 2010 through 2012, while following with THREE World Series wins, as well. The AL's 6-3 win Tuesday night makes in THREE wins in a row for the AL, as Mike Trout became the first player to win back-to-back All-Star Game MVP honors. Trout is the FIFTH player to win multiple All-Star MVPs, joining Willie Mays, Steve Garvey, Gary Carter and Cal Ripken Jr.
Play resumes on Friday and not much has changed in the NL from last year, as if the regular season were over as of the All Star break, FIVE of the six teams which made the 2014 postseason would be participating in playoff baseball again in 2015. However, the lone exception would be a notable one, as it's the SF Giants. Of course, the Giants are not only the defending champs but a team which has won THREE World Series titles since 2010.
All three NL division leaders from 2014 (the Nationals in the East, the Cards in the Central and the Dodgers in the West), come out of the All Star break on Friday atop their respective divisions here in 2015. The Pirates, the No. 1 wild card team from 2014, again holds that distinction in 2015, with the lone change being the Cubs owning the No. 2 NL wild card spot, not the Giants. However, the Giants are just two games back of the Cubs for that final playoff berth, with the Mets a game in front of the Giants and one game back of the Cubs.
In contrast, the current AL playoff 'picture' looks quite different from last year. The Angels won the AL West last season with a MLB-best 98 wins but only a late surge before the break , coupled with an Astros fade, allowed LA to enter the break with a half-game lead over Houston in the West (Angels are on pace to win a more modest 88 games in 2015). The Orioles won the AL East last year but it's the surprising Yankees, who are currently atop that division at this juncture. The Tigers have won the AL Central each of the last FIVE years but at the 2015 All Star break, it's the KC Royals (a Game 7 loser to the Giants in the 2014 World Series), who sit atop the Central with an AL-best record of 52-34, while the Tigers find themselves at 44-44, NINE games back of the Royals.
Kansas City and Oakland were last year's AL wild card teams (Mariners missed out by just ONE game) but this year's wild card leaders are the Minnesota Twins and the Houston Astros. BOTH of these teams finished 70-92 in 2014, so it's safe to say that with the Twins on pace to win 89 games and the Astros on pace to win 87, they qualify as 2015's biggest "surprise teams." Then again, let's not leave out the ever-lovable Chicago Cubs, currently on pace to win 87 games (as well as earn a wild card berth) after going 73-89 in 2014. The Cubs are a year ahead of schedule in their plan to contend. With a shot to make the playoffs, don't be surprised if they look to add a pitcher (Can you say Cole Hamels or Johnny Cueto?). The Astros are a year, maybe two years, ahead of schedule to contend. They do have a shot to win the AL West, but were fading fast when the first half ended with SIX losses in a row and a total of only SEVEN runs scored during that stretch.
Coming out of the break, the NL seems fairly predictable. The Nats have been ravaged by injuries to position players but a strong starting staff and a weak NL East still make them prohibitive favorites in that division. The Cards (a MLB-best 56-33) will likely battle the Pirates (53-35 and just 2 1/2 games back) for the Central title until October 4 (final day of the regular season), with the "loser" capturing the No. 1 wild card spot. The Dodgers held off the Giants in the West last year (won the division by six games) and should do so again in 2015 (currently lead by 4 1/2 games) but I surely would not count the defending champs out just yet. It is an odd-numbered year (Giants have won in 2010, 2012 and 2104) but if Cain and maybe even Peavy can contribute in the second half, the Cubs will be very fortunate to earn that No. 2 wild card spot.
It would be hard to argue too strongly against the Royals NOT be being the AL's best team (KC can hit and pitch!) and now that the Angels have caught the Astros in the West, I expect the team which owned MLB's best overall record in 2104 to find itself atop the division by year's end for a second straight season. I have no idea what to make of the AL East other than to say it is no longer MLB's toughest (best) division. I wouldn't be shocked to see the Yanks hold on but I'll take the Orioles to win it in the end or maybe even MLB's highest scoring team, the Blue Jays (Toronto's scored 486 runs, 77 more than any other team). The Blue Jays (who last made the postseason in 1993!) are on pace to score 865 runs, almost 100 more than 2014's highest scoring team, the LA Angels (773). However, the Jays almost HAVE to add a quality starting pitcher!
The Twins and Astros each lost 92 games in 2014, so it's fair to question whether the two teams can "keep up their current pace," in the second half. Unlike in the NL, it seems as if each one of the AL's 15 teams (three current division leaders and the remaining 12), are all still 'alive' for a postseason berth. The Oakland A's own the AL's worst record (41-50) but are "only" EIGHT games out of the final wild card spot and when one looks at the team's plus-44 run differential (it ranks behind only the Blue Jays, Royals and Astros in the AL), one has to say "just maybe?" The Orioles and Jays are alive in both the AL East and the wild card race (can qualify for the postseason either way) plus can we really count out the Tigers just yet? After all, the team has won FIVE straight division crowns and while catching the Royals seems far-fetched, Detroit comes out of the break just THREE games out of a wild card spot.
Pitching has dominated the first half (8.2 RPG are at the lowest point since 1981) and just may do so again in the second half. Note that of the five current "playoff qualifiers" in the NL, all rank in the top-nine of all MLB clubs in team ERA, led by the Cards' remarkable 2.71 mark. Also note that along with Oakland's impressive plus-44 run differential mark, the A's (again, the owners of the AL's worst record), also own the lowest team ERA mark among AL teams at 3.42 (6th-best in all of MLB). Something tells me, the A's are going to make a run at a wild card spot.