X-factors and records to watch for when second-half begins
As baseball breaks for an especially late All-Star Game -- every team has played at least 91 games, 10 more than the true midpoint -- here are some x-factors that could impact the second "half."
1. Biogenesis scandal
The latest report from ESPN's Outside the Lines indicates that suspension announcements are expected after the All-Star break, and the specter of the scandal may well dominate headlines in the second half.
The concrete impact of the Biogenesis fallout, however, could range anywhere from minimal to extraordinary given how long the appeals process will take for the reported 20 players who have been implicated; those allegedly involved include, among others, the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez and the Brewers' Ryan Braun, both of whom have denied wrongdoing.
It's possible the players won't be suspended at all, or perhaps a ban won't be enacted until the offseason (thus affecting the 2014 season rather than 2013). With a little more efficiency in the appeals process, it's also possible a team could lose a key player near the end of this year when it's much too late to make a reactionary, gap-filling trade. (Another scenario, as the New York Daily News reported, is that the league could offer compromise deals to reduce the lengthy of especially long possible suspensions; presumably such bans would be enacted immediately.)
Otherwise, the impact may be felt more as a distraction rather than because of a suspension. Unlike most suspensions for performance-enhancing drugs that are not announced until after an appeal is denied, the league is able to announce any Biogenesis-related bans because the information has already been made public, according to FoxSports.com. Thus, the status of these possible suspensions may be monitored in the public realm, subjecting implicated players to media questions, fan reaction and simple uncertainty over their season.
2. Long-term rehab returns
The disabled list is populated with scores of players who were being counted on to contribute this season before suffering injuries, but what could really shake up the second half are those players returning from long-term rehabs. In these cases, the club may not even really know what to expect, but teams like Texas have a lot riding on them. (The example of Angels reliever Ryan Madson, who has not pitched in a big league game since having Tommy John surgery in the spring of 2012, reminds us that there are no guarantees when rehabbing from a major operation, even an increasingly common surgery like Tommy John.)
Those players who have been on the mend all year include not just the aforementioned A-Rod, who is still recovering from a hip injury, but also Braves starter Brandon Beachy, Cardinals righthanded pitcher Chris Carpenter, Rangers righthanders Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz.
Others, like Reds leftfielder Ryan Ludwick, Rangers starter Matt Harrison, Yankees leftfielder Curtis Granderson and Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, nearly fall into that category: Ludwick played only one game before having shoulder surgery; Jeter left his season debut early with a quad strain; Harrison made two starts before having back problems that led to two surgeries to repair a herniated disk; and Granderson logged eight games after returning from one broken bone before suffering another fracture.
When these players return and what they can be expected to contribute may be question marks, but what's certain is that each of these players is talented enough to make a major impact.
3. Fatiguing starters
Will the Verducci Effect rear its ugly head? Young starters whose workload is increased by more than an incremental amount the previous season are often worse for the wear, which could negatively affect the second halves of pitchers for contenders such as Oakland's Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily, Washington's Stephen Strasburg and Boston's Felix Doubront. Additionally, keep your eye on some other young pitchers who have logged a lot of innings, such as St. Louis' Shelby Miller and Atlanta's Julio Teheran, who are already within 32 innings of last year's total work and thus will blow past those numbers by mid-August.
4. The Phillies' fortunes
There are several teams who will have to make a hard buy-sell-or-stay decision in the next two and a half weeks, but no club can influence the playoff races quite like Philadelphia. The Phillies enter the All-Star break with a .500 record that puts them 6 1/2 games out in the NL East and 5 1/2 games back in the wild card. Surely GM Ruben Amaro Jr. won't trade pieces from his veteran-laden club with that deficit, but if they slip a few games further back, Amaro could dangle closer Jonathan Papelbon, third baseman Michael Young or, most importantly, starter Cliff Lee for prospects. No single player would shape the season's final two months more than Lee, who's already a veteran of such trades, having helped the 2009 Phillies and the '10 Rangers to World Series appearances after being dealt at midseason.
5. Remember the rain
The very wet first half of the season continues to be felt. All those postponements from April and May need to be made up, so many clubs will either play doubleheaders or lose off-days in the second half. The NL Central, for instance, will be see its top two teams play five games in four days, as a rain-induced doubleheader intensifies St. Louis' visit to Pittsburgh in late July.
6. Late-season interleague play
All clubs are increasing the total number of interleague games from what used to be 15-to-18 annually to 20 this season. Those playing road interleague games in September will have to play by the other league's rules at a pressure-packed time, though the expanded rosters should help mitigate the impact.
• The AL East and NL West have nearly identical relative standings. In both divisions the leader is 2 ½ games ahead of the second place team, 4 ½ games ahead of third place and either 6 or 6 ½ games ahead of fourth place. The difference is in the starting point. The NL West-leading Diamondbacks are only 50-45, which would rank fifth in the AL East.
• Unexpectedly, the ban on the fake-to-third, throw-to-first pickoff move seems to have had a real impact. According to a Baseball-Reference.com study, the number of stolen-base attempts on first-and-third situations and their success rate have increased this year.
• Bill James concocted a formula to evaluate how hot teams are, with 72 degrees as the baseline (for room temperature). According to that metric, the hottest teams in baseball entering the All-Star break are the Rays (114 degrees), Indians (95), Dodgers (94), Athletics (93) and Phillies (91); the coldest teams are the Padres (37), Astros (39), Twins (48), White Sox (49) and Royals (50).
• Even after the Citi Field fences were pulled in before last year, the Mets' home still has a reputation of playing as a pitcher's park. So far this year, however, there have been 1.89 home runs per game at the site of this week's All-Star festivities, according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, which is slightly above the NL average of 1.82 -- that bodes well for tonight's Home Run Derby.
Three Up, Three Down
With the All-Star break upon us, it's a good time to assess which players and teams have a chance to keep up their record pace.
1. Tigers pitchers, strikeout rate
The 2012 Brewers set the modern record for K/9 at 8.680 to edge out the 2003 Cubs' 8.677; the 2013 Tigers are likely to annihilate that mark, given their current 9.109 K/9.
2. Astros hitters, strikeouts
No team has struck out more than the 2010 Diamondbacks, whose 1,529 strikeouts are 130 more than any other club. This year's Astros, however, have already struck out 871 times and are on pace for 1,501 -- but that's before September skews the rate northward (see trend to track below).
3. Manny Machado, doubles
Earl Webb's record of 67 doubles has lasted since 1931 (in a 154-game season, no less), but Machado has a shot at it with 39 doubles in 96 games for a pace of 66.
1. Chris Davis, home runs
The Orioles' slugger has hit 37 home runs and is on pace for 62. He recently told an ESPN radio show that he believes Roger Maris is the true home run king with his 61 blasts in 1961 because "he was the last guy to do it clean." The lack of protection for Davis, who usually hits fifth in Baltimore's lineup, is cause for concern with Matt Wieters, the regular No. 6 hitter, having a down season.
2. Miguel Cabrera, RBIs
The reigning Triple Crown winner has no chance of matching Hack Wilson's 191 RBI season of 1930. It's worth noting that the top 12 single-season RBI totals all occurred before 1940, so the post-WWII high is Manny Ramirez's 165 in 1999. With 95 RBIs already, Cabrera is on pace for 164 but may see fewer pitches to hit with men on base as the playoff races heat up.
3. Mark Melancon, holds
Holds don't have the statistical cachet as the other numbers on this list, but they are a helpful guide for evaluating the performance of set-up men. The little known alltime record is Luke Gregreson's 40 from his 2010 season with the Padres. The Pirates' Melancon has 25 so far -- a pace for 44 -- but the odds are against him given that he doesn't have full control over his performance (Pittsburgh needs to have enough late-and-close leads), and his extremely low 0.81 ERA suggests a chance of second-half regression.
Trend to track: Monthly strikeout rates
The 2013 season may not break the all-time strikeout record after all. Strikeout rates have declined each month since April, and the cumulative total -- as measured by strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) -- is now in a near dead-heat with 2012, with this year registering at 7.53 after last year's 7.50.
A study of all-time monthly K/9 rates indicate that the two highest rates are in the season's first and last months. One of those months is September, presumably because of the accumulation of hitters' fatigue and minor league call-ups that month. (On the latter point, inexperienced hitters are typically at more of a disadvantage than inexperienced pitchers). April is another logical month for high strikeouts, given the old adage that pitchers are ahead of the hitters after spring training.
What stands out the most is how aberrational the 2012 season was for strikeouts with league-wide K/9 rates increasing steadily each month (except for one deviant month in August).
The following chart details the monthly rates of the past two seasons, as well as the combined rate for 2010-2013 (the recent pitcher-dominated era) and the all-time rate (actually 1916-2013, which was the data at Baseball-Reference.com).
|Monthly Strikeout Rates (K/9)|
Another side of . . . Johnny Giavotella, Royals 2B
Giavotella grew up in the restaurant business. His grandfather started an Italian restaurant, named Gio's Pizza, in the New Orleans suburb of Metarie. His aunt took over when his grandfather died.
"She makes everything from scratch," Giavotella, the Royals' second-round pick in 2008, said. "It's a little hole-in-the-wall joint, and it's unbelievable -- great food."
Don't just take Giavotella's word for it -- the UrbanSpoon reviews are outstanding. Giavotella particularly raved about his aunt's "red gravy" which, he explains, is what red sauce is called in the South.
His large extended family will often have their Thanksgiving celebration at the restaurant, and for a while he had the opportunity to eat there often while in Triple A, as the Omaha Storm Chasers regularly played the New Orleans Zephyrs. Giavotella had a stellar .320/.391/.464 batting line in 276 career Triple A games, though his slash line in the majors is only .239/.273/.333 through 109 career games.
Don't expect Giavotella to follow his family into the restaurant business whenever his baseball playing days are over -- "It's not easy," he quickly noted -- and this is how he described his first stint working at Gio's: "In high school I used to work there during Christmas break," he said. "I used to wait tables and steal some of the pepperonis inside."
The final out
For this week's issue of Sports Illustrated, I projected the full end-of-season standings. One spoiler: look for the Nationals to make a late surge. Not only have they underperformed their talent level, but they also have a favorable second-half schedule: from Aug. 19 through Sept. 22, they play only three of 33 games against clubs with winning records.