First-Half Review (National League)

WEST            W    L     GB     CENTRAL         W    L     GB     EAST            W    L     GB
Los Angeles    48   38    ---     St. Louis      54   33    ---     Philadelphia   46   41    ---
San Francisco  49   40    0.5     Chicago        47   40    7.0     Atlanta        45   42    1.0
San Diego      47   41    2.0     Cincinnati     47   41    7.5     Florida        45   43    1.5
Colorado       36   51   12.5     Milwaukee      45   41    8.5     New York       44   43    2.0
Arizona        31   58   18.5     Houston        44   44   10.5     Montreal       31   56   15.0
                                  Pittsburgh     39   47   14.5

It almost happened. We were so close to the annual predictions of doom for the Atlanta Braves actually coming true. Seventy games into the season, the Braves were 32-38 and 6.5 games behind the Marlins in the NL East. They also had the Phillies sitting 5.5 games in front of them, and it was looking like the Braves were going to miss their first postseason since 1990. Finally.

But the Braves just won’t go quietly. They finished the first-half by winning 13 of 17, and they are now in second-place, just one game behind the Phillies in what has turned out to be a very weak division.

During their run of a dozen straight postseason appearances, the Braves have rarely been far from first-place at the All-Star break …

YEAR     PLACE       GB
1991     Third      9.5
1992     Second     2.0
1993     Second     9.0
1994     Second     1.0
1995     First      ---
1996     First      ---
1997     First      ---
1998     First      ---
1999     First      ---
2000     First      ---
2001     Second     1.0
2002     First      ---
2003     First      ---

Typically, by this point in the season, the Braves have had a sizable lead in the division and have been able to, for the most part, sort of coast into the postseason. Since the strike in 1994, when there wasn’t a postseason, the Braves have been out of first-place at the All-Star break just one time, 2001, and they trailed the Phillies by just one game that year.

Early in their playoff run (before the Wild Card and re-alignment), the Braves were out of first-place quite a bit at the break. In the first season of the streak, 1991, the Braves were in third-place and 9.5 games behind the Dodgers in the old NL West. They then went 55-28 during the second-half for the best record in all of baseball, and beat the Dodgers for the division title by one game.

The only other year they’ve been more than two games out of first-place at the All-Star break during this stretch is 1993, when they trailed the Giants by nine games in the NL West. The story of that second-half is well known, as the pennant race was one of the most memorable of all-time and, sadly, just a fading memory thanks to the Wild Card. The Braves played extraordinary baseball after the All-Star break that year, winning 74% of their games on the way to a one-game win over San Francisco (who missed out on the playoffs despite winning 103 games, including a .603 second-half winning percentage).

All of which is a very long way of saying that this year’s Braves team, despite not playing particularly well and despite being far more flawed than past versions, is in a familiar position, just a game out of first-place in mid-July. The interesting thing is that, while the Braves are close to their usual spot, their team is completely different. Not only have they lost tons of key players over the last few years, the overall makeup of the team has changed a lot too.

For years, the Braves ranked at or near the top of the National League in runs allowed and had mediocre (or worse) offenses. For instance, they led the NL in ERA in both 2001 and 2002, but ranked just 13th and 10th in the league in runs scored. Then last year, they dropped all the way down to 9th in the league in ERA, but were still able to win 101 games thanks to an offense that led the league in runs scored. Now this year they’ve sort of split the difference, ranking 7th in the league in ERA and 5th in runs scored.

Despite that solid #5 ranking in scoring, the Braves’ offense is actually down a full 15% from last season …

                     RUNS SCORED PER GAME
                    2003     2004      +/-
Los Angeles         3.54     4.44     + 25%
New York            3.99     4.45     + 12%
Cincinnati          4.28     4.67     +  9%
San Francisco       4.69     5.10     +  9%
Philadelphia        4.88     5.20     +  7%
Chicago             4.47     4.60     +  3%
San Diego           4.19     4.28     +  2%
Colorado            5.27     5.34     +  1%
Milwaukee           4.41     4.36     -  1%
Pittsburgh          4.65     4.52     -  3%
St. Louis           5.41     5.23     -  3%
Arizona             4.43     4.26     -  4%
Florida             4.64     4.26     -  8%
Houston             4.97     4.50     -  9%
Atlanta             5.60     4.77     - 15%
Montreal            4.39     3.33     - 24%

If not for the Expos, who looked like they might make a run at some all-time records for offensive futility early in the season, the Braves would have the biggest hitting dropoff in the entire league. Normally that would be a disaster, but the Braves were so good offensively last year that they could shave 15% off and still score plenty of runs.

On the flip side, the Los Angeles Dodgers have improved their offense more than any team in the league, scoring 25% more runs per game in the first-half than they did last season (when they were last in the majors with just 3.54 runs per game). Los Angeles’ gains offensively aren’t nearly as dramatic as those made by the Tigers (which I discussed earlier this week), but there are a couple spots that you can trace the team-wide improvements to.

                     GROSS PRODUCTION AVG
                    2003     2004       +/-
Catcher             .251     .257     +  2%
First Base          .238     .252     +  6%
Second Base         .241     .294     + 22%
Shortstop           .201     .239     + 19%
Third Base          .233     .295     + 27%
Left Field          .219     .275     + 26%
Center Field        .234     .268     + 15%
Right Field         .273     .235     - 14%
-------------------------------------------
TOTAL               .228     .254     + 11%

Whereas almost all of Detroit’s huge offensive gains have come from players they brought in through trades or free agency, the Dodgers have improved with the same core group of hitters, for the most part. In particular, the non-first base portion of the infield has been significantly better than they were last season, and all three of the regulars are the same guys who played there last season.

Third baseman Adrian Beltre, who hit .240/.290/.424 last year, is hitting .315/.355/.580 this season. Second baseman Alex Cora, who hit .249/.287/.338 last year, is hitting .295/.388/.429 this season. Shortstop Cesar Izturis, who hit .251/.282/.315 last year, is hitting .292/.337/.362 this season.

Then you add in the fact that a few of the guys they did acquire — Milton Bradley, Jose Hernandez, Jayson Werth — are giving the Dodgers significantly better offense than they got last year, and it’s easy to see how they beefed up their scoring by 25%. Even Dave Roberts, who slid over to left field after Bradley joined the team, has been better offensively this year.

Of course, the reason the Dodgers, who won 52.5% of their games last season, have “only” won 55.8% of their games this year, despite the big offensive improvements, is that the pitching staff is significantly worse. The Dodgers led all of baseball in pitching by a huge margin last year, allowing just 3.43 runs per game. This year, they’ve allowed 4.09 runs per game in the first-half, an increase of 19% from last season.

So, the Dodgers’ offense is up 25% and their defense is down 19%, all of which adds up to a slight improvement like the one they’ve had thus far (.525 winning percentage vs. .558 winning percentage).

LA’s competition for the division title are the Giants, who got off to a terrible start but have played very well ever since, and the Padres, whom I’m proud to say I predicted would win the division before the season started. As long as Barry Bonds is playing like he has over the past few years, the Giants will always be serious contenders. As they’ve shown this year, you don’t even have to surround him with much talent in order to be a good team.

They’ve got a pitching staff that ranks 11th in the NL in ERA and a lineup that often features Neifi Perez (.279 OBP), Pedro Feliz (.286 OBP), a first baseman who is slugging .400 (J.T. Snow) and a cleanup hitter who is slugging .390 (Edgardo Alfonzo). And yet, because Bonds is so incredible and worth so many runs to an offense, they can still field a playoff-caliber team. Of course, the shame of it all is that it would be pretty easy to field a decent team around Bonds and thus turn the Giants into a great team, which would run away with the division this season.

Over in San Diego, the Padres have improved more than any team in the NL compared to the first-half of last season …

                       WINNING PERCENTAGE
                    2003     2004      +/-
San Diego           .365     .534     +.169
Milwaukee           .398     .523     +.125
St. Louis           .521     .621     +.100
New York            .430     .506     +.076
Cincinnati          .462     .534     +.072
Chicago             .500     .540     +.040
Los Angeles         .527     .558     +.031
Pittsburgh          .451     .453     +.002
Florida             .516     .511     -.005
Houston             .532     .500     -.032
Philadelphia        .565     .529     -.036
San Francisco       .606     .551     -.055
Colorado            .515     .414     -.101
Atlanta             .656     .517     -.139
Montreal            .521     .356     -.165
Arizona             .553     .348     -.205

San Diego’s improved winning percentage is second in baseball to the Tigers, who jumped up 211 points. What the Padres have done — going from having the #1 pick in June to being contenders in July — is pretty amazing, and somewhat similar to what the Minnesota Twins did in 2001.

After finishing 69-93 in 2000, the Twins took Joe Mauer with the #1 pick in the 2001 draft. By the All-Star break of that year, the Twins were in first-place with a 55-32 record, leading the Indians by five games. In fact, if not for the fact that the 2001 Mariners ended up with the best record in baseball history, the Twins would have had the top winning percentage in all of baseball through the break that year. Sadly (for me at least), they completely folded in the second-half, going 30-45 and losing the division by six games.

This Padres team has a whole lot more veterans than the Twins had in 2001 and their being in the hunt in mid-July isn’t nearly as surprising (I challenge you to find anyone who predicted the Twins would win the division in 2001). Still, I think the Padres are going to have to play even better in the second-half to come away with the division, which is a tough feat for a team that is winning about 50% more often than they did in the first-half last year.

Last but not least, let’s talk about the NL Central, the most surprising division in baseball. Not only are the Cardinals, who few people picked to win it, leading the division, they are leading by seven games and they have the best record in the National League. As you can see above, the Cardinals have improved upon their 2003 first-half winning percentage by 100 points, third-best in the league.

The NL Central is interesting because, like the Cardinals, the Brewers, Reds and Cubs have also significantly improved their record compared to this time last year. In fact, the only team in the division that hasn’t improved, even slightly, is the Houston Astros, who have been one of the most disappointing teams in baseball thus far and just fired their manager.

The Cardinals are currently leading all non-Colorado National League teams in scoring at 5.23 runs per game, but that’s not the source of their improvement. No, St. Louis has had a great offense for years, dating back to the Mark McGwire days. Last year, they were also second in the league in runs scored, with 5.41 runs per game, and they finished second in scoring in 2002 too.

The Cardinals are in first-place, with the best record in baseball, because their pitching staff is significantly improved from last season. St. Louis ranked 11th in the NL in runs allowed last year, giving up 4.91 per game. This year, they’ve cut that number by 17% and they are third in the league in runs allowed.

It’s a pretty simple formula, really. If you’ve got a great offense and you maintain it, and you have bad pitching and you improve it by 17%, you’re going to see a lot more wins start piling up. And, sure enough, the Cardinals are winning 18% more often than they did in 2003. As for how they’re doing it, I have no idea. They are getting mediocre work from their rotation, including Matt Morris, who has suddenly turned into Bert Blyleven with 24 homers allowed. As a group, St. Louis’ starters have a 4.05 ERA, which is not great, but still a 10% improvement from 2003.

Where the real gains have been made is in the bullpen, where the relievers have gone a combined 13-7 with a 3.23 ERA in 226 innings. In particular, the late-game combo of Ray King (1.41 ERA) and Steve Kline (1.97) from the left side and Julian Tavarez (3.28) and Jason Isringhausen (2.83) from the right side has been incredible. Last year, the St. Louis pen combined for a 4.74 ERA.

And finally, no discussion of the NL Central would be complete without a little love for the Milwaukee Brewers, who are, to me, the most surprising team of the first-half. I gave the Brewers no shot at being competitive this season. They were one of those teams who Vegas gives like 100-to-1 odds on to make the playoffs and then you laugh at your buddy when he puts $10 on them.

Well, much to the delight of my two favorite Brewers fans, Al Bethke of Al’s Baseball Ramblings and Taylor of Stripper By Night, the Brew Crew has surprised everyone this year. They are on pace to win 85 games, after going 68-94 last season, and they’ve done so without any big free agent signings or superstar trade acquisitions. In fact, they sent their biggest star, Richie Sexson, to the Diamondbacks during the offseason.

At the time of that trade, I wondered why in the world the Diamondbacks would be interested in Craig Counsell, Junior Spivey and Chad Moeller, three veterans they received as part of the package from Arizona. After all, my thinking went, the Brewers aren’t even close to contending, so why would they want two 29-year-olds and a 33-year-old as part of the haul for one of their lone marketable commodities? I called it a classic “quantity vs. quality” situation.

Now, in my defense, I was a big Lyle Overbay fan even when a lot of people gave up on him after last season, although I didn’t even fully understand what Milwaukee wanted with him, since by the time they were ready to compete, they’d have Prince Fielder at first base anyway.

What I failed to see was that Overbay would step in and hit .344/.407/.555. Or that Spivey and Counsell would give them solid OBPs (.359 and .357) as a double-play combo. Or that Danny Kolb would save 26 games with a 1.62 ERA and Doug Davis would be one of the best starting pitchers in the league. And, perhaps most of all, I didn’t foresee Ben Sheets turning into one of the best pitchers in baseball, with a 2.26 ERA and a ridiculous 133-to-19 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

I still don’t think this Brewers team will be above .500 when the dust settles, but perhaps I’m letting my preseason opinion of them weight too heavily on my mind. They’ve impressed me every time I’ve seen them, including the two series they took from the Twins. They also haven’t faded yet, going 12-11 in April, 13-13 in May and 15-10 in June. They got swept by the Pirates in Pittsburgh early this month, but then recovered to finish the first-half by going 4-3.

I know I talked about the 2001 Twins being sort of similar to the Padres already, but I really think the Brewers are in the exact same situation as that Twins team. Like Minnesota in 2001, the Brewers’ good play this season has sort of snuck up on them while they were waiting for the future. And as Minnesota has found out in the years since, the key for the Brewers is going to be finding a way to gradually work in all of their good, young prospects while maintaining this new level of competitiveness.

In other words, when Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, Brad Nelson, Corey Hart and Dave Kryznel start showing up, will Milwaukee make room for them in the lineup? And can they keep being competitive while constantly reshaping the roster with younger players? The answer to that question for the Twins has been “sort of,” and it’ll be interesting to see how the Brewers handle it.

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