July 15, 2003

The First-Half (Part Two: The National 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.

Yesterday, I looked at the American League, and today I look at:

The National League...

EAST                       CENTRAL                    WEST

ATL 61 32 --- HOU 50 44 --- SF 57 37 ---
PHI 52 40 8.5 STL 49 45 1.0 ARI 52 42 5.0
MON 49 45 12.5 CHC 47 47 3.0 LA 49 44 7.5
FLA 49 46 13.0 CIN 43 50 6.5 COL 50 47 8.5
NYM 40 53 21.0 PIT 41 50 7.5 SD 35 61 23.0
MIL 37 56 12.5

Back when I did my pre-season preview, I said the following about the National League East division:

"The Phillies have a much improved offense that looks like one of the best in the NL and a very solid rotation that should be able eat innings and rack up wins courtesy of Thome, Burrell, Abreu and company. The bullpen scares me a little bit, but not enough to make me think they won't win the NL East pretty easily in 2003. Picking against Atlanta hasn't been the smart thing to do since I was 8 years old, but all good things must come to an end at some point, right? Barring a serious injury to one of the big three hitters, the Phils are headed to the playoffs and I don't think it'll be particularly close."

Sometimes you are wrong, and sometimes you are really wrong. It appears as though "picking against Atlanta" will continue to not have been "the smart thing to do" for at least another season. To my "credit," the Phillies are playing about as well as I expected them to play. They are currently 52-40, which puts them on pace to go 92-70. Of course, the Braves are on pace to go 106-56, which wipes away any credit I may have gained, and then some.

Actually, in looking at the things I said about Atlanta before the season, I have been almost exactly 50% correct thus far.

Here's the good 50%:

"The biggest problem I see for the Braves in 2003 is that they allowed only 565 runs last season, which was by far the fewest in the NL. Quite frankly, that aint gonna happen again."

So far, I have been right about the pitching staff declining. After leading the NL in ERA by a wide margin last season, the Braves are currently 8th in the NL in ERA this season, with a team ERA of 4.18 - 33.5% higher than last year's mark.

Then there is this, which would be the bad 50%:

"The Braves pitching staff will be considerably worse in 2003 and, with their offense, that is not something they can afford."

And then there was this too:

"The Atlanta offense will almost certainly be at least slightly better than they were last year, just because Castilla and a couple other guys can't possibly be worse. That said, their pitching is likely to decline quite a bit, which means the offensive shortcomings will become a huge deal pretty quickly."

Again, I was right on the mark with the pitching staff.

On the other hand, their offense has been incredible this year and so far from my prediction of sub par that I should probably have my predicting privileges suspended for at least a few days.

After finishing 10th in the NL in runs scored last season, the Braves are currently 3rd in the NL this season. They have scored 23.7% more runs per game than last season, which is amazing for a team that added Robert Fick as their big off-season acquisition offensively.

How has their offense improved so much that it is able to nearly off-set a pitching staff that is 33% worse than last season? Quite simply, they have made improvements at nearly every single position offensively, with several of the improvements being huge ones.

Here's a look at the combined OPS (on-base % + slugging %) of each position for the Braves offensively, from last season and this season.

          2002     2003      +/-

C .622 .878 + 41%
1B .825 .886 + 7%
2B .643 .838 + 30%
SS .720 .798 + 11%
3B .645 .738 + 14%
LF .932 .838 - 10%
CF .868 .839 - 3%
RF .891 .962 + 8%

Now, OPS is a crude metric and one of the problems with using it is that it weighs on-base percentage and slugging percentage equally (which should not be the case, on-base % is more valuable), but it does a nice enough job for this little "study."

Of Atlanta's 8 offensive positions, the have had improvements from last season at 6 of them. And, of those 6 improvements, 4 are by more than 10% and 2 of them, second base and catcher, are by 30% and 41%. They have had two positions perform worse than last season, left and center field, but by just 10% and 3%.

That is basically a recipe for drastically improving a once mediocre offense.

The two biggest difference makers have been Javy Lopez at catcher and Marcus Giles at second base. I talked about Lopez's amazing season a little while back when I looked at the biggest surprises of the 2003 season. Basically, Lopez was consistently one of the better offensive catchers in baseball throughout much of the 90s, but he had been in a serious decline ever since the 1999 season. Here's a little of what I wrote about him in that entry:

"At this moment, Lopez's OPS figures since 1999 read as follows:

.908 - .821 - .747 - .671 - 1.016

He's a catcher, he's aging, he's past 30, he's declining and then...BOOM - he's got a 1.016 OPS and 19 homers in 49 games."

Since then, Lopez's OPS has dropped from 1.016 to .988, which, quite frankly, is not much of a drop at all, considering he appeared to be on another planet when I wrote that back on June 17th. Because of Lopez's massive improvement from last season to this season, Atlanta catchers as a whole have gone from having the worst OPS in the NL to the best OPS in the NL. That's pretty damn amazing, especially considering the same two catchers that got the bulk of the playing time last year - Lopez and Henry Blanco - are getting the bulk of the playing time this year.

While Atlanta's catching turn-around this season is second-to-none, their offensive improvement at second base is similarly impressive. Atlanta second basemen combined to hit .227/.293/.349 last season and that .643 OPS was the worst at the position in the NL. After years of holding onto him for some unknown reason, the Braves finally let the man primarily responsible for that .643 OPS (and many horrible OPS totals from years past), Keith Lockart, go and replaced him with Giles.

Giles, who hit just .230/.315/.399 last year, got off to a very hot start this year and was named to the all-star team. He cooled down eventually, but is still hitting .291/.367/.466, while playing almost everyday as Atlanta's second baseman. The combination of Giles having a breakout year and Keith Lockart playing for the Padres has resulted in Atlanta's second base OPS going from dead-last in the league last season to 3rd in the league this season. That's not quite as remarkable as their catchers' jump from last to first, but it's pretty close.

Will Atlanta's offense continue to be one of the top 2-3 in the NL in the second-half? I don't see why not. Of their everyday players, the only guy that seems very unlikely to have a second-half as good as his first-half is Lopez and perhaps, to a much lesser extent, Rafael Furcal. Those (potential) dropoffs could be offset by the fact that Chipper Jones is very unlikely to slug below .500 in the second-half like he did in the first. Otherwise, they've got Gary Sheffield, Robert Fick, Vinny Castilla and Andruw Jones - all guys who had first-halves that go right along with past performances. Even Marcus Giles seems like a good bet to repeat his .291/.367/.466 first-half, on the basis of his excellent minor league numbers.

There is no question in my mind that I underestimated the Atlanta offense and, while their pitching staff is about as mediocre as I expected, their offensive improvement should be more than enough to carry them into the post-season once again.

At the same time, I am still definitely on the Philadelphia bandwagon. Their offense has drastically underperformed my expectations and yet they are still on pace to win 90+ games. Their pitching has been better than I thought it would be and I am confident that guys like Bobby Abreu, Pat Burell and even Jim Thome (whose first-half was pretty damn good) will have much improved second-halves. The Phillies may not win the division like I predicted and they certainly are not going to win it by a large margin like I thought they would, but I think they will win the Wild Card and may end up in the divisional race before the season is over.

In the NL Central, the logjam at the top of the division will probably make for a pretty good race down the stretch, but it also means there are several teams - St. Louis and Houston primarily - underperforming their expectations. I liked Houston in the pre-season and I still like them now. They are in first-place, despite having been hit with quite a few injuries (Oswalt, Kent, etc), and St. Louis' offense is incredible, but unless they pick up some pitching for the second-half, they are going to continue to have problems.

The Cubs, Reds and even the Pirates are still definitely in the race, but I expect the Astros and Cardinals to separate themselves from the rest of the division in the next few weeks and battle each other for the division, yet again.

I think it will all come down to the health of Houston's top players versus whether or not St. Louis can find some upper-level pitching to compliment the best offense in the National League. Matt Morris pitching like Matt Morris again at some point would help too.

In the NL West, the hard-charging Diamondbacks (winners of 21 of their last 28) have closed the gap on the Giants to 5 games. Curt Schilling is now back and they appear to be getting close to a return of Randy Johnson as well.

With many of their veteran players out this year, the Diamondbacks turned to their minor league system for replacements and have to be extraordinarily happy with the results. Brandon Webb came up to help fill in for Johnson/Schilling in the rotation and has been one of the best pitchers in all of baseball (7-2, 2.41 ERA). Jose Valverde came up when Matt Mantei went on the DL (big shock, I know) and has 9 saves and a 1.00 ERA in 19 games.

On the offensive side of things, the D-Backs have relied upon relatively unknown players like Alex Cintron, Matt Kata and Robby Hammock, and have gotten excellent production from all of them. Assuming the veterans, most notably Johnson and Schilling, but also Junior Spivey, get healthy in the second-half, the D-Backs are going to have a very deep roster to work with down the stretch.

Will it be enough to beat the Giants, who have been in the driver's seat all season? Well, if Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling pitch like they have during the past few years, anything is possible. But, considering their age and the fact that Johnson's injury is a pretty serious one, doesn't it seem more likely that, even if they pitch well, Randy and Curt will be simply good and not unbelievable like they have been in the past? If that is the case, it is going to be a struggle, because the Giants are simply a very good ballclub.

First of all, they have Barry Bonds, who is on-fire this month (.412/.543/1.176) and - surprise, surprise - has been the best hitter in baseball again this season. Jeff Kent is gone, which left a big hole in the lineup, but his replacement at second base, Ray Durham, has provided a great spark at the top of the lineup and is hitting .300/.386/.440. That's good for a .296 EqA, which is exactly 1 point below Kent's .297 EqA for the Astros this year.

The Giants' other major free agent signing was Edgardo Alfonzo, who has been pretty bad offensively this season. Not completely horrible in a Paul Konerko/Jermaine Dye sort of way, but bad enough that he is costing the team lots of runs. On the other hand, Jose Cruz Jr. and Marquis Grissom, 2 other off-season signings, are doing very well with the Giants. Cruz has a .294 EqA and Grissom, despite just 14 walks in 90 games, is EqA'ing at .286. They are also getting good offense from J.T. Snow, Benito Santiago and Andres Galarraga, which is pretty amazing, to say the least. Heck, Neifi Perez has 208 at bats and hasn't been a complete disaster (.284/.306/.375), which is when you know luck is on your side.

While the San Francisco offense has been very good again this year, beyond all-star starter Jason Schmidt, the starting pitching has not been great. Kirk Rueter struggled and then got injured, Damian Moss has been very bad, and Jesse Foppert disappointed in his first taste of the majors, sparked concerns about his decreased fastball velocity and was recently sent back to Triple-A. On the plus side of things, rookie Jerome Williams has been great and the bullpen, even without Robb Nen, has been pretty good.

This is a very strong Giants team, just like last season, and I expect them to win the NL West division. It'll be interesting to see what moves, if any, they make for the second-half, as they are no doubt feeling the pressure from the Diamondbacks and their new reinforcements.

As for the Dodgers, even with Jeromy Burnitz and Rickey Henderson added to the mix, their offense is still going to be sub par in the second-half, although it won't be nearly as awful as it was in the first. But, with injury concerns regarding Kevin Brown, I think their pitching will drop-off in the second-half and they will gradually slip out of the division race.

If you missed yesterday's first-half review of the American League, you can check it out by clicking here.

And, if my entry today doesn't quench your thirst for baseball writing, I have two new blogs to recommend to you...

The first is "Rich's Weekend Baseball Beat," which was recently started by Rich Lederer, a frequent visitor (and emailer) of Aaron's Baseball Blog. While guys like Yours Truly write blog entries during the week and generally take weekends off, Rich does the opposite on his blog, publishing great, new stuff on weekends. Go check it out, he has a very interesting multi-part series up right now that is definitely worth a read.

The second new blog is "For Rich or Sporer," which is currently featuring a very in-depth and, dare I say, "Gleeman-length" entry about the second-half performances of players in past seasons.

So go welcome Rich's Weekend Baseball Beat and For Rich or Sporer to the baseball blogging world and tell them I told you to stop on by...

Today's picks:

No Games Scheduled

Total to date: + $1,015

W/L record: 170-169

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

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