Following the Major League All-Star game last Tuesday at Chase Field in Phoenix, home of the National League's Arizona Diamondbacks, the second half of MLB's 2011 season got under way. With two and a half months and just under 70 games remaining to be played, the races in both leagues are setting up as two or three-team fights in practically every division.
Eleven teams are within six games or less of the six division leaders, which further translates to 17 of the 30 major-league teams are still very much in the pennant chase heading into MLB's second, and most important, half of the season.
Among the surprises at this stage of the season are the Cleveland Indians, percentage points ahead of the second-place Detroit Tigers in the Al Central Division. The resurgent Indians haven't won more than 69 games in either of the past two seasons, but with 49 wins in the books already this season, the Tribe appears to be well on its way to bettering that mark this year.
And look at the Pittsburgh Pirates. With a 49-44 record, the Pirates are only a half-game back of the Milwaukee Brewers in the always competitive NL Central, ahead of both St. Louis and defending division champion Cincinnati. The Pirates have not had a winning season in 18 years, the longest such streak endured by any professional sports franchise. Pittsburgh won only 57 games all of last year on the way to an MLB-worst 57-105 season record.
The Arizona Diamondbacks finished last in the NL West a year ago, losing 97 of their 162 games, two worse than our own Kansas City Royals. This season, however, the Snakes, as some teams like to refer to the D-backs are 51-47 at this juncture and only
3 ½ games back of the World Series Champion San Francisco Giants. The Washington Nationals, who haven't had a winning season in their six year's in the nation's capital (although they were right at .500 in their first season in 2005), are hovering around the .500 mark at midseason with a record as of Sunday of 47-48 and battling the New York Mets for third place in the NL East.
The rest of the cast of characters insofar as team performance appears relatively the same entering the second half of the season as it seemingly does every year. Boston and New York are fighting it out for the lead in the AL East, Texas has command at the moment in the Al West and Philadelphia and Atlanta are the two best in the NL East.
Even though the division races have already pretty much sorted out the contenders from the pretenders at this stage of the season, there is still plenty of baseball still to be played before anyone can claim a division crown or league pennant. To help sort things out for you, here are ten things to watch for over the second half of the 2011 major-league season:
- With 38 victories through 95 games, the Kansas City Royals have the second worst record in Major League Baseball this season and are on pace to finish with a 2011 record of 65-97, two games worse than in 2010.
- At the midseason break, the Cincinnati Reds were outscoring their opponents with a run differential of +29, but they had only a 45-47 record to show for it. On the flip side, the World Champion San Francisco Giants had only a ten-run differential over their opponents going into the MLB All-Star game, but were 12 games over .500 in the standings (52-40).
- Contrary to popular myth, the Royals don't have the worst pitching staff in all of baseball. That dubious distinction belongs to the Baltimore Orioles, whose staff ERA through games of Sunday was 4.80. The Royals' staff ERA is 4.55, and most of that belongs to the starting rotation. For the record, Kansas City has the fourth worst ERA in baseball, behind Baltimore, the Chicago Cubs (.471) and the Houston Astros (.465).
- If American League teams are going to beat the Tampa Bay Rays, their chances are better of beating the Rays in St. Petersburg, where they were 21-21 through games of July 10, than when Tampa Bay is on the road. The Rays' record in road games was 28-20 through July 10.
- Speaking of home dominance, the Milwaukee Brewers had the best home record in baseball at the All-Star break. The Brewers had won 33 of the 47 games played at Miller Park this season.
- From a statistical perspective, it is easy to see why the Royals' record is what it is this year. While Kansas City's offense owns the third best batting average in the American League is sixth out of the 14 AL teams in runs scored, Royals' pitchers have given up almost 50 more runs to KC's opponents this year than the Royals have scored.
- The New York Yankees were an incredible 26-5 in day games at the midseason mark. The Yankees' chief challenger, the Boston Red Sox, was only a shade worse under the sun at 21-8. The Philadelphia Phillies hold the best record in the National League in day games, 21-9.
- The Boston Red Sox can claim the best player acquisition of the offseason, signing free-agent first-baseman Adrian Gonzalez, formerly of the San Diego Padres. All Gonzalez has done so far this year in the Red Sox lineup is lead the American League in batting average (.342), hits (129), total bases (215), doubles (29) and runs batted in (77).
- The best bets among starting pitchers at this stage of the season to win 20 games are American Leaguers CC Sabathia of the Yankees, with 14 wins, Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers, who has 12 wins, and Jared Weaver of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, also with a dozen wins. In the National League, prospective 20-game winners this season are right-hander Jair Jurrjens of the Atlanta Braves (12 wins) and Roy Halladay or Cole Hamels of Philadelphia, both with 11 wins.
- The Royals don't have a winning record in hardly any standard statistical categories this season, but one area in which they have done well is in extra inning games. Kansas City is 7-6 so far this season in games that go extra frames.