July 14, 2003

The First-Half (Part One: The American League)

Well, that was fun, wasn't it? Just like that, exactly 1,400 Major League Baseball games are in the books and the first-half of the 2003 season is finished.

With 57.6% of the season completed, I thought it might be fun to take a look at what happened in the first-half, with an eye towards what might happen in the second.

The American League...

EAST                       CENTRAL                    WEST

W L GB W L GB W L GB
NYY 57 36 --- KC 51 41 --- SEA 58 35 ---
BOS 55 38 2.0 CHW 45 49 7.0 OAK 54 39 4.0
TOR 49 46 9.0 MIN 44 49 7.5 ANA 49 43 8.5
BAL 41 50 15.0 CLE 41 53 11.0 TEX 38 55 20.0
TB 32 60 24.5 DET 25 67 26.0

Well whaddya know, after all those games we've got the Yankees and Red Sox in the East, the Mariners and A's in the West and...the Royals in Central?!

Yes, that's right, the Kansas City Royals are 10 games above .500 and leading the American League Central division by 7 games. I would ask if you expected this to happen, but if you said yes, I'd just call you a liar anyway.

The Royals lost 100 games last season and 97 games in 2001 and, heading into this season, there weren't many people (or any people) who thought they had a chance of finishing higher than third in the division. Yours truly predicted they would finish fourth.

So how the heck did this happen? Well, first and foremost, they got off to a blazing start. The Royals won their first 9 games of the season and 16 of their first 19. On April 24th, less than a month into the season, they sat at 16-3, 5.5 games ahead of the White Sox and 8 games ahead of the Twins.

Like most people, I expected them to falter after their hot start and go back to playing the way they played in 2001 and 2002. While they have certainly cooled down since starting 16-3, they are continuing to play better than they have in past years. Since the hot start, they are 35-38, which doesn't look all that great, but is actually a slightly higher winning percentage (.479) than Chicago (.478) and Minnesota (.473) have over the course of the entire season.

At this point, it is silly to think of anyone but Kansas City as the favorites in the division. A 7 game lead is significant and the Royals could go 30-40 in the second-half and still finish at .500, which, with the rest of this division, looks like a decent bet to get a team the championship.

That said, I still think the White Sox and the Twins will be the ones fighting for the division come September. Maybe it's just me being stubborn and remembering last year's Royals team, but the Twins and the White Sox, to me, have better baseball teams and I still think that, over the course of the entire season, that will propel them ahead of the Royals. Of course, Chicago has lost 7 of their last 10 and the Twins have dropped 22 of their last 28, so both teams are going to have to turn it around in a hurry if they want to even think about the division title.

At last year's all-star break, the Twins were 50-39 and leading the White Sox by 7.5 games. They had an even better second-half, going 44-28, while Chicago went 39-35. The Royals were 33-52 before the break and 29-48 after.

And, as long as I am giving the Twins and White Sox a good chance of winning the division, the Cleveland Indians deserve a mention too. They are 41-53, which is the 11th-best record in the 14-team American League, but they are also just 4 games behind Chicago and 4.5 behind the Twins. Plus, unlike Chicago and Minnesota, the Indians are playing well going into the break, having won 11 of their last 18 games. I wouldn't be surprised at all if Cleveland had a better second-half record than Kansas City.

Over in the East, the New York Yankees, despite numerous injury problems and a couple of rough patches, find themselves in a familiar position - first-place. Already this season, the Yankees have lost Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams and Nick Johnson for significant stretches of time and, at one point, from the beginning of May until the middle of June, they lost 22 of 35 games. Yet, despite all of that, they are 57-36, 21 games above .500, and 2 games ahead of the Red Sox in the AL East.

The fact that the Yankees have been able to win even with the injuries and even with a sub par bullpen is a credit to their top-line offensive players. After a very slow start that saw him hitting just .227/.356/.438 at the end of May, Jason Giambi caught fire in June, hitting .373/.554/.819 with 11 homers, 27 runs and 29 RBIs - in 27 games. His season totals (.267/.419/.547) are still low for his standards, but they make him one of the top 10 hitters in the league.

Of course, Giambi hasn't been alone. Alfonso Soriano is hitting .292/.345/.511 and is on pace for 38 homers and 44 stolen bases. Jorge Posada is hitting .255/.405/.489 and is 10th in the AL in on-base percentage and 2nd in walks. Hideki Matsui got off to a slow start, but hit .394/.484/.673 in June and has his season-totals up to a very solid .299/.356/.449, while filling in for Williams in centerfield for several weeks. Raul Mondesi carried the team throughout much of the first month when Jeter was out and Giambi was struggling, hitting .354/.420/.697 in April. Mondesi has, of course, cooled considerably and is back to his "normal" level of hitting - .258/.314/.468.

Before he went down with the injury, Nick Johnson was having a huge year. Johnson was hitting .308/.455/.517 and was beginning to be the offensive-machine he was throughout much of his minor league career. After coming back from the shoulder injury, Jeter had a nice May (.307/.342/.493) and then struggled in June (.254/.333/.364). He is red-hot this month though and is hitting .529/.600/.618, with 18 hits in 34 at bats.

All of it adds up to the 3rd most productive offense in the American League with 505 runs in 93 games, putting them on an 880-run pace, which is right around last year's total of 897 - which was the most runs in all of baseball.

Of course, the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays laugh at the notion of 897 runs leading the AL East division this year, let alone all of baseball. While the Yankees rank third in the AL in runs scored, the top 2 teams also play in the East. The Red Sox have scored an MLB-leading 573 runs (6.16/game), while the Blue Jays rank second in baseball with 556 runs (5.85/game).

So why aren't Boston and Toronto leading the Yankees? Quite simply: Pitching. The Red Sox are 8th in the AL in ERA, while the Blue Jays rank 12th, ahead of only the Devil Rays and Rangers. Even with all of their bullpen struggles, the Yankees rank 4th in the AL in ERA.

Toronto's pitching has been particularly bad recently, posting a 5.10 team-ERA in June and a 5.33 ERA so far in July. While the offense bashed the hell out of the opposition to the tune of 6+ runs per game in June and carried the sagging pitching-staff, the bats have gone silent in July and, along with the horrible pitching, has caused the Jays to go 3-9 and drop 9 games behind the division-leading Yankees.

No one really expected Toronto to seriously challenge for the division title this season, but their offense was so incredible in May and June that they forced themselves into the picture. In the end though, I think the pitching will prove to be too weak for the team to continue fighting Boston and New York and the Blue Jays will have to settle for 85-90 wins and the knowledge that they probably could have won the AL Central division by about a dozen games this year.

What the Red Sox offense is doing is really quite amazing. They are currently on pace to score 998 runs this season, which would get them pretty close to becoming just the third team since 1950 to score 1,000 runs in a season. Strangely enough, I actually discussed the possibility of an AL East team scoring 1,000 runs this season when I did my season preview back in March. Of course, I thought the Yankees would be the team to do it, not the Red Sox.

Interestingly enough, at this time last year, the Yankees were in first-place and led the Red Sox by...2 games. The Red Sox went 41-36 in the second-half and New York won the division easily. I don't think anything will be easy this time around and I will stick to my pre-season prediction that the Red Sox will win the division and the Yankees will get the Wild Card. It should be a fun "race" to watch, although it would be a whole lot more fun if they were actually fighting over just one playoff spot (thanks Bud!).

Over in the West, the Angels took 3 straight from the Twins last weekend and got themselves back into the division race. The defending champs are now just 8.5 games behind the Mariners and 4.5 behind the A's.

One interesting thing about the AL West is that the best three pitching staffs in the AL reside there. The Mariners are 1st in the AL in ERA, the A's are 2nd and the Angels are 3rd. And then you have the Rangers and their 5.94 in dead-last (both in the division standings and the AL ERA rankings).

Last year at the break, Seattle was in first and led the Angels by 3 games and the A's by 5. The A's went 53-21 in the second-half, the best record in all of baseball. And I assume we are all familiar with what the Angels did in the post-season, which means the Mariners didn't make the playoffs, despite their lead at the break. That's because they went just 38-36 in the second-half, good for the 8th-best record in the AL.

The A's amazing second-half last year wasn't even as good as their second-half in 2001, when they went 58-17. For those of you without a calculator handy, that means they won 77.3% of their second-half games in 2001, which is just ridiculous, especially considering they were 44-43 at the break that year. Will the A's be able to mount yet another amazing second-half run this year?

It is certainly possible. They still have those 3 great starting pitchers, which always gives them the ability to snap off amazing stretches at any time. If they work the days off to their advantage, it's probably possible to get Zito, Mulder and Hudson (a combined 26-10 this year and 187-83 in their careers) about 65-70% of the second-half starts and the rumors out of Oakland are that they will be calling up their top prospect, right-handed starter Rich Harden from Triple-A for the second-half.

I ranked Harden as my #13 prospect in baseball prior to this season and what he's done so far this year (11-4 with a 2.74 ERA between AA and AAA) has boosted his stock even more. He is arguably the top pitching prospect in the minor leagues right now and could provide a massive boost to Oakland in the second-half, similar to what Zito and Hudson did in 1999 and 2000. Hudson came up from the minors and made 21 starts for the A's in 1999, going 11-2 with a 3.23 ERA. The next year, Zito was called up and made 14 starts for the A's, going 7-4 with a 2.72 ERA. Is Harden going to go 10-2 down the stretch for Oakland? Probably not, but it is certainly possible and, if he simply pitches like many people think he is capable of, that gives them 4 unbelievable starters, which equals a whole lot of extended winning streaks.

Of course, Oakland's main concern in the second-half has nothing to do with their pitching. Their offense is currently 10th in the AL in runs scored, averaging just 4.6 runs per game. Aside from Eric Byrnes and Ramon Hernandez, I don't think there is a single Oakland hitter who is performing as well or better than could reasonably have been expected of them coming into this season.

Miguel "I'm not the real MVP, but I play one on TV" Tejada is at .245/.298/.427 after a .161/.230/.286 April. Eric Chavez, who slugged .540 in 2001 and .513 last year, is slugging .474 and is .174/.226/.357 against lefties. Their first baseman, Scott Hatteberg, who was such a nice low-cost pickup last year, is hitting like a low-cost pickup this year (.259/.341/.380). Their big off-season acquisition, Erubiel Durazo, is doing a great job getting on base (.400 OBP), but isn't hitting for nearly as much power (.447 SLG) as most people expected. Then there is the corner outfield duo of Jermaine Dye, who was perhaps the worst offensive player in baseball during the first-half and is now on the DL, and Terrence Long, who simply stinks.

Does the fact that the majority of their offensive players had sub par first halves mean they are likely to perform better as a team in the second-half or does it just mean they are all having bad seasons and the A's offense will continue to struggle? I'm inclined to believe a little of both, but I would expect at least a few of the A's hitters, most notably Chavez and Durazo, to play better in the second-half. And, if the offense continues to struggle (and even if it doesn't), I wouldn't be surprised if Oakland GM Billy Beane had something big up his sleeve. Maybe something like Brian Giles, perhaps? Whatever it is, Beane and the A's are always fun to keep track of in the second-half - both on and off the field - and this season won't be any different.

Every division in the AL is up for grabs right now. The East features the two biggest rivals in baseball within a couple games of one another. The Central features a team that came out of nowhere to lead the division by 7 games. And the West features the Mariners on top, the A's and their amazing second-half record over the past couple years in 2nd, and the World Series champs lurking in third.

It should be a pretty interesting second-half in the American League, don't you think? Make sure to check back tomorrow for a first-half review of the National League.

Finally...

Late last night, I got word that Rickey Henderson had finally found a home in the major leagues for the 2003 season. The Los Angeles Dodgers, desperate for offense, signed Rickey just hours after they traded for Jeromy Burnitz from the Mets.

Henderson, 44, had been playing for the Newark Bears of the independent Atlantic League. He hit .339/.493/.591 in 56 games and was named the MVP of the recently completed league all-star game. The man is one of the greatest handful of players in the history of the sport and it is quite obvious, both from his major league numbers over the past few years and his performance for Newark this season, that he can still be a valuable member of a major league baseball team. It is also obvious that he still has a passion for baseball and still loves to play the game. I am glad he is finally getting a chance to do what he loves again, because he has definitely earned it.

For more on Rickey, check out two entries I devoted to him way back in February, entitled, interestingly enough...

Rickey (February 12, 2003)

and

More on Rickey (February 18, 2003)

"Why you talk about when a player wanna quit? What is that player's ability? How much does he enjoy the game? Can he still compete? My grandmother didn't stop working when she was 40, and my mom sure didn't, either. There is nothing in life that says you have to quit at a certain age."


--- Rickey Henderson

Today's picks:

No Games Scheduled

Total to date: + $1,015

W/L record: 170-169

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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