First-Half Review (American League)

WEST            W    L     GB     CENTRAL         W    L     GB     EAST            W    L     GB
Texas          49   37    ---     Chicago        46   38    ---     New York       55   31    ---
Oakland        47   39    2.0     Minnesota      47   40    0.5     Boston         48   38    7.0
Anaheim        47   40    2.5     Cleveland      42   45    5.5     Tampa Bay      42   45   13.5
Seattle        32   54   17.0     Detroit        42   45    5.5     Toronto        39   49   17.0
                                  Kansas City    31   54   15.5     Baltimore      37   48   17.5

There aren’t a whole lot of surprises in the American League so far, but the big one is that the Texas Rangers, who finished 71-91 and 25 games out of first-place last season, enter the All-Star break with a two-game lead in the AL West and the second-best record in the league.

Of course, being the surprise team of the first-half wasn’t such a good thing to be last season. The Kansas City Royals were 51-41 heading into the break last year, with a seven-game lead in the AL Central. They then went 32-38 in the second-half, gave up the division lead by the end of August, and ended up finishing in third-place, seven games behind Minnesota.

Are the Rangers going to fall off a cliff like the Royals did? I have mixed feelings on this. On one hand, I never got the feeling that the Royals were “for real” last year, no matter how many games they were leading the division by. Throughout it all, I felt the White Sox and Twins were the ones really battling for the division title.

While I definitely think the Rangers have a stronger team than the Royals did last season, they do seem similar in that sense. Much like with Chicago and Minnesota last year, I spent the first-half tracking how far apart the A’s and Angels were from each other, without considering how far behind Texas they’ve been.

Plus, the Rangers, despite a 49-37 record, are leading the AL West by just two games. Whereas the Royals had a lot of ground to lose before they fell out of first-place, the Rangers could actually lose the division while still playing some pretty good baseball. In other words, I think most Rangers fans would have been happy with a .500 record this season, but if the Rangers play .500 baseball during the second-half, I don’t think they’ll be playing in October.

Despite finishing the first-half by losing five out of six, Oakland is just two games behind Texas. If past seasons are any indication, the A’s have the Rangers right where they want them.

Here’s how Oakland’s first-half and second-half records compare over the past five seasons …

                FIRST-HALF                SECOND-HALF
YEAR         W      L     WIN%         W      L     WIN%
1999        43     44     .494        44     31     .587
2000        48     38     .558        43     32     .573
2001        44     43     .506        58     17     .773
2002        50     38     .568        53     21     .716
2003        54     39     .581        42     27     .609
--------------------------------------------------------
TOTAL      239    202     .542       240    128     .652

As you can see, the A’s have had a better second-half record in each of the past five seasons. Interestingly enough, their combined first-half winning percentage from 1999-2003 was .542, which is almost identical to Oakland’s 2004 first-half winning percentage of .547. If Oakland wins at the same clip as they did in the second-half from 1999-2003, they’ll end this season with 97 wins.

I said it before the season started, I said it when Oakland was down early, I said it when Anaheim looked like world-beaters, I said it when Arthur Rhodes was blowing games for them, I said it when Octavio Dotel was blowing games for them, and I’ll say it now: The Oakland A’s will make the playoffs for the fifth straight season. I also think the Angels will be a bigger threat than the Rangers in the second-half and I’d be surprised if Texas can stay out of third-place.

The other team in the AL West, the Seattle Mariners, are one of the most disappointing teams in baseball. I don’t think many people thought they’d be great this year, but I think most thought they’d at least be competitive. This time last season, Seattle was 58-35, owners of the best record in the league and a four-game lead over Oakland in the AL West. They proceed to go just 35-34 in the second-half, good for the seventh-best record in the AL. The A’s, as I just showed, played .609 baseball and overtook them for the division title.

Compared to their record from the first-half of 2003, the Mariners have fallen the farthest …

                       WINNING PERCENTAGE
                    2003     2004      +/-
Detroit             .272     .483     +.211
Texas               .409     .570     +.161
Tampa Bay           .348     .483     +.135
Chicago             .479     .548     +.069
Minnesota           .473     .540     +.067
Cleveland           .436     .483     +.047
New York            .613     .640     +.027
Anaheim             .533     .540     +.007
Baltimore           .451     .435     -.016
Oakland             .581     .547     -.034
Boston              .591     .558     -.033
Toronto             .516     .443     -.073
Kansas City         .554     .365     -.189
Seattle             .624     .372     -.252

Seattle’s decline from last year’s first-half is actually bigger than the improvements Detroit has made, which is pretty remarkable considering the Tigers went 25-67 before the break last year.

The Tigers won 43 games all of last season and have already won 42 times this year. How have they made such a remarkable turnaround? Well, their pitching and defense deserve some credit, as their runs allowed per game is down 9% from last year, but the bulk of the better play stems from the offense.

Take a look at the production the Tigers have gotten by position in 2003, compared to the first-half this year (using Gross Production Average) …

                     GROSS PRODUCTION AVG
                    2003     2004       +/-
Catcher             .186     .312     + 68%
First Base          .250     .262     +  5%
Second Base         .226     .265     + 17%
Shortstop           .198     .314     + 59%
Third Base          .224     .266     + 19%
Left Field          .252     .276     + 10%
Center Field        .214     .254     + 19%
Right Field         .236     .242     +  3%
Designated Hitter   .263     .264     +  0%
-------------------------------------------
TOTAL               .229     .269     + 17%

That’s pretty unbelievable. The Tigers got horrible production from every spot in the lineup except designated hitter last year, where Dmitri Young actually had a very nice season (.297/.372/.537 in 155 games). Their DH production is nearly identical this year, and they’ve gotten better hitting from every other spot in the lineup.

Two of the spots — catcher and shortstop — have been massive sources of improvement. Ivan Rodriguez and Carlos Guillen, the two most productive players in the league at their respective positions in the first-half, took over for the Brandon Inge/Matt Walbeck/A.J. Hinch and Ramon Santiago/Omar Infante/Shane Halter platoons from last year that defined replacement-level. Detroit’s GPAs from their catchers and shortstops are up 68% and 59% from last year, which, short of adding Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth to a Little League team, is about as big as improvements get.

I find it sort of fascinating to look at how perhaps the worst team in baseball history turned themselves into a competitive team in one offseason. Of course, I might find it a whole lot less fascinating if, say, the Tigers had 4-5 more wins and they were putting a little more pressure on my beloved Twins. For instance, I found nothing about the Tigers fascinating as they took three out of four from the Twins to finish the first-half.

As amazing as Detroit’s turnaround has been, I don’t think they’ll be making a serious run at the playoffs this year. However, they will still play a big role in which team does get there out of the AL Central. The White Sox, for some strange reason, have yet to play the Tigers at all this season, meaning they play them an astounding 19 times in the second-half.

Chicago has also played sparingly against both Cleveland and Kansas City, and they combine to play those two teams a total of 24 times in the second-half. Add that all up, and the White Sox play the three sub-.500 AL Central teams a total of 43 times in the second-half, which makes up 55% of their entire remaining schedule. Meanwhile, the Twins play those three teams a total of just 26 times (35% of their schedule), including only seven games against the lowly Royals.

If you ignore identical games that the two teams have scheduled (they both play Seattle three times, for instance), here are the differences in their second-half schedules …

CHICAGO                      MINNESOTA
 
TEAM                #        TEAM                #
Detroit            13        Baltimore           9
Kansas City         7        New York            6
Boston              3        Cleveland           3
Oakland             3        Anaheim             3
Philadelphia        1        Tampa Bay           2
                             Texas               1

Overall, Minnesota’s remaining schedule has a .501 winning percentage, while Chicago’s remaining opponents have a .485 winning percentage. That may not seem like much, and it probably isn’t (that’s a difference of only three games over the course of an entire season), but even a one-game swing can make a huge difference in a tight division race.

If you look at only their non-identical games (as shown above), Chicago’s advantage grows. The Twins’ unique opponents have a .515 winning percentage, while Chicago’s unique opponents have a .469 winning percentage. More than likely, the division will be decided in the nine games the Twins and White Sox play against each other in the second-half, but if the two teams come out fairly even after those battles, the White Sox hold an advantage coming down the stretch.

Taking it even further, if the Twins and White Sox are within a game or two heading into the final two weeks of the season, expect Chicago to walk away with the division championship. After the White Sox and Twins play a three-game series in Chicago from September 20-22, the Twins finish up with seven games against Cleveland and three games against the Yankees, in New York. Meanwhile, the White Sox finish up with seven games against Kansas City and three games against Detroit.

I can’t imagine why the schedule-makers would have the Twins playing the Yankees in the final week of the season, but as a Twins fan, I find it hard to complain too much. You see, last year the Twins finished up their title run with seven games against Detroit (one of the worst teams in baseball history) and two games against Cleveland (who went 68-94). The White Sox finished up with seven games against Kansas City (83-79) and three games against those same Yankees (best record in the league).

I know my fellow Twins fans don’t want to hear it, because they heard it in 2002 and 2003 and it didn’t come true, but I really do think the Twins are in trouble this year. They might need a couple Shannon Stewarts (or at least one guy as valuable as Jayson Stark thought Stewart was last year) in the second-half this time around.

Hmm, I feel like I’m forgetting something. Oh yeah, the AL East! The East seems to get the majority of the attention every year (THT is guilty of this too, I’m just saying), so I figured I’d save them for last.

For the first time in a long time, the AL East’s final standings might look a little different. The Devil Rays started playing in 1998 and the order of finish in the AL East has been identical every season since: New York, Boston, Toronto, Baltimore, Tampa Bay. The same, for six years running.

This year though, Tampa Bay is flirting with .500 and they find themselves in third-place at the break. Of course, the Devil Rays are only 3.5 games up on Toronto and four games ahead of the Orioles, so a little losing streak could put them right back in the cellar and put the division right back into the same alignment.

At the top of the division standings, everything looks the same as it always does. New York is in first, Boston is in second. They have not only finished in that same order for six years in a row, they were in that order at the All-Star break in each of those six years. From 1999-2003, the Yankees held leads of 11.0, 4.0, 2.5, 1.5, 2.0 and 2.0 games over the Red Sox at the All-Star break. This year, they’re up seven games.

The Red Sox are a better team than their record suggests, but the bad news for them is that the Yankees are probably nearly as good as their record suggests, and they’ve already got a seven-game headstart. One way to look at how good a team is, beyond their actual record, is their runs scored and runs allowed totals.

                RS      RA     DIF     ExpWL
Boston         482     402     +80     51-35
New York       483     421     +62     49-37

If you look at things that way, the Yankees and Red Sox have been equally impressive scoring runs, both checking in at 5.6 per game, but the Red Sox have a slight edge in run prevention. They’ve allowed about 5% fewer runs than the Yankees this year, or about one fewer run every four games.

Now, I’m not a big believer in RS/RA totals and the “expected record” that comes from them being the be-all and end-all of things (I’m a Twins fan, after all), but I do think it tells you that the two teams are closer than the standings currently tell you they are. Still, nothing counts more than what has actually happened, and I don’t expect Boston to make up seven games in the standings with just 76 left to play.

Boston fans may desperately want to win the division for the first time since 1995, but in the end it really doesn’t matter much as long as you’re playing in October. And, as Boston fans will surely admit, the road to the World Series goes through New York until proven otherwise, division championship or not.

Before the season got started, I predicted that New York would win the East, Minnesota would win the Central, Oakland would win the West and Boston would get the Wild Card. Since none of those look too crazy, I’ll stick with them, with the caveats that the White Sox make me really nervous as a Twins fan and the Angels, if they can ever get and stay healthy, are going to be plenty dangerous down the stretch.

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