Just as the World Cup ended yesterday, so too did the first half of the Major League Baseball season. As fans and teams settle into the All-Star Break, it is time to reflect on the roughly 3 months of baseball already played. Thankfully, we have plenty of time to do that, as today and Wednesday are the only two days in the year when there is not a game in one of the four major sports (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL).
Looking back, the first half of the season has been a bit of a see-saw for both of my teams. The Phillies started strong, but then entered a month-long slump that saw them fall out of first place. The Red Sox started poorly, only to rebound to within .5 games of first place and then fade before the Break.
Phillies – The Phillies started quickly, compiling an 8-2 record over their first 10 games, and avoided another terrible April by going 13-10 in the first month of the season. On May 11, the Phillies were 20-12 and had a 5.5 game lead on the Atlanta Braves. What a difference a month makes, as one month ago the Phillies had lost that lead and sat 2.5 games behind Atlanta. A swing of 8 games! The dramatic turn of events can be attributed to a month-long slump and far better play by the Braves. The shear totality of the slump was, and still is, most disconcerting. It seemed the entire offense forgot how to swing (with the possible exceptions of Placido Polanco and Ryan Howard). Howard has had a great first half. While he has slightly fewer home runs and RBI than last season, his batting average is 34 points higher. If Howard heats up after the Break, the way he usually does, his numbers this season could be among his best ever. Jayson Werth, who started the season looking like an MVP candidate but cooled off over the course of the team-wide slump. Chase Utley had hit 10 homers by May 20 and has hit 1 since then! The slump seems to have coincided with Jimmy Rollins‘ brief return from injure and his quick return to the DL. Rollins, while not a prototypical lead-off hitter, is the spark plug of the offense, when his speed/power combination was out of the lineup, the Phillies’ offense sputtered. If you compare the offense over the first half with last year, you will find that the Phillies have played 1 more game this season but have scored 50 fewer runs! That is an average of .57 runs per game less than last season. They have hit 31 fewer home runs (122 last year, 91 this year), and are worse in every offensive category except triples (21 this year, 15 last year).
This lack of offense has hurt the Phillies’ pitching, which currently ranks 6th in ERA in the national league. While the pitching staff has an ERA of 3.92, far better than last year when the staff posted an ERA of 4.61 before the Break, the Phillies offense has scored 4.72 runs per game. This lack of run support has been most noticeable when Roy Halladay is on the mound. When Doc pitches the Phillies average 3.8 runs per game, or nearly 1 run fewer than their average. When a pitcher has a 2.19 ERA, there is no way he should have 7 losses before the Break. He probably shouldn’t have 7 losses in a season. I’m not sure what causes the Phillies to forget hot to hit when Doc is on the mound. Are they complacent, thinking he will pitch another perfect game? Have the myriad injuries affected the Phillies approach at the plate? Nobody can know for sure outside of the Phillies’ clubhouse. Cole Hamels has been better this season, posting an ERA over 1 run lower (3.78 this year, 4.87 last year). While he hasn’t quite recaptured the form that made him the World Series MVP in 2008, he has looked much better than the guy who wished the season was over during the World Series last year. The rest of the staff has been shaky at best, with some great performances (see Jamie Myer’s two complete games) and some terrible performances (virtually all of Joe Blanton‘s starts, and about half of Kyle Kendrick‘s). Hopefully, J.A. Happ will return after the Break to bolster the rotation or the Phillies will make a trade or two to reinforce the pitching staff.
Injuries certainly haven’t helped the Phillies with Rollins, Utley, Polanco, and Carlos Ruiz all missing time due to injuries. The bullpen has also been injured, with Brad Lidge, Chad Durbin, and Ryan Madson all missing games. This hasn’t helped, as the bullpen has been a weak spot. Players are being thrust into roles they are unaccustomed to, and haven’t been performing. One of the few standouts has been Jose Contreras, who filled in as closer when both Lidge and Madson were out. He performed admirably and has a 2.79 ERA in the first half. While the subs have played fairly well across the board, clearly the Phillies have missed having their normal line up performing together.
As it stands right now, the Phillies are 4.5 games out of first place in the NL East, and 1.5 behind the Rockies and Dodgers for the Wild Card. As mentioned in previous posts, the Phillies have produced great results after the Break, playing .599 ball over last 5 seasons. The Phillies swept the NL Central leading, Cincinnati Reds just before the Break and have a great chance to continue momentum as they play the Cubs for four games starting Thursday. My bold prediction is that the Phillies will storm back to win the division, as the Braves fade down the stretch and the Mets remember they’re the Mets and choke sometime in September.
Red Sox – I wish that the Phillies could have had the luck in replacing their injuries that the Red Sox have had. At various points this season, it seems that virtually ever major Red Sox player has been injured. Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron, and Jason Varitek have all missed significant amounts of time. J.D. DrewKevin Youkilis, Marco Scutaro and Adrian Beltre (and they have all missed a couple of games). In the rotation, has also missed more than a few games. It seem the only starters (in the field) to avoid missing major amounts of time have been Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Clay Buchholz have all spent time on the DL. Only Jon Lester and John Lackey have avoided the injury bug. What is truly amazing about the Red Sox’s situation is that they are still in contention despite all of the injuries. They have been very lucky to get the kind of production they have received from their prospects and minor league call-ups. Daniel Nava, a 27 year-old rookie outfielder, has done more than just occupy an outfield position. He has hit .300 with 16 RBI in 24 games for the Sox. Bill Hall (on the opening day roster, so not a call-up) has provided some pop and played 6 different positions. Darnell McDonald, who never played more than 47 games in a season, has already played in 68 for the Sox, driving in 24 runs and hitting 6 homers. All of this production is a bonus when a team is trying to fight this many injuries.
At the beginning of the season, the Red Sox stated that their philosophy was to win with pitching and defense. Many people (including me) wondered who was going to drive in the runs. Beltre hasn’t had a really good season since 2004 with the Dodgers. David Ortiz looked a shadow of himself over the last season and a half. Even Pedroia’s production had fallen off from his 2008 MVP season. I thought that Youk would have to shoulder most of the offensive load, and that the Sox would lose a ton of low scoring games. Nobody, except maybe Paul the Octopus, could have predicted the way the Sox were going to win their games in the first half. The Sox have, unexpectedly, used offense not pitching to win their games. Currently, the Sox rank 22nd in the majors in ERA and 11th in fielding percentage; however, they are 1st in runs scored, 3rd in batting average and 2nd in home runs. While Youk does lead the team in most of the offensive categories, Papi has found some of his old swagger, Beltre is having his best season since the aforementioned 2004 campaign, Pedroia’s production has gone up from last season, and Martinez has been solid.
While it may look like the pitching is not living up to the off-season hype, Lester and Buchholz have been phenomenal. Both pitchers have sub-3 ERAs (Lester – 2.78, Buchholz 2.45). Lackey, the Sox’s premier off-season signing, has not lived up to his large contract. I saw this coming, as Lackey had a 4.44 ERA over the previous 3 seasons at Fenway Park. I remember going to game a couple of seasons ago thinking I was going to see a good game. Buchholz was starting for the Sox, Lackey for the Angels. Instead of seeing a great pitching match-up, Lackey was knocked from the game after giving up 7 runs in 4 innings. While Lackey does have a winning record this season, those numbers are a bit deceiving, as the Sox have given him 5.4 runs of support. It’s pretty easy to win when your team is scoring that many runs per game when you pitch. This reminds me a bit of Beckett’s career with the Sox. He has had double-digit win totals every year in Boston, but has not posted an ERA under 3.27. As a matter of fact, he won 16 games his first season in Boston (2006). Maybe Lackey will rebound with a strong 2nd half, but so far he hasn’t been worth the money. Dice-K has been his usual injured, erratic self and has not really helped the Sox much this season. He has had a very up-and-down season. The Sox need him to pitch better in the 2nd half if they hope to make a run to the playoffs.
Heading into the Break, the Sox are 5 games behind the Yankees for the AL East lead and are 3 behind Tampa for the Wild Card. Over the past five seasons, the Red Sox have posted a .551 winning percentage after the Break while posting a .598 winning percentage before the Mid-Summer Classic. Hopefully, the Sox will be able to avoid what has become their patented post-Break swoon, as they would finish with 91 wins if they played .551 ball. On the other hand, if they keep winning at their current pace, the Sox would finish with 94 wins. Those three games could be crucial because unless something changes dramatically, the three teams at the top of the AL East will fight for 2 playoffs spots. One team, likely with a very good record, will be watching at home come October. The Sox face a tough task after the Break, as they play the AL West leading Texas Rangers and newly acquired ace Cliff Lee.