Power, Pirates and pitching lead top 10 storylines of second half

Wednesday July 17th, 2013

Chris Davis is chasing what he said he considers to be the single-season home run record: the 61 hit by Roger Maris in 1961.

The All-Star Game is history, perhaps strangely literally so for a game that featured a record number of first-time participants and four players age 21 and younger. The stars of the night were 72-year-old Neil Diamond, 68-year-old Jim Leyland and 43-year-old pitcher Mariano Rivera. For the record, there was no sign at Citi Field of Betty White.

Otherwise, it was just another example of how baseball is played in 2013: 65 batters came to the plate and only one of them knocked in a run with a hit. The best hitters on the planet produced a total of three runs. Pitching rules. Nothing new there, either.

Now it's time to turn our attention to the second half, when awards are won, pennant races are decided, records are chased . . . and bombshell drug suspensions hang in the balance. Here's a look at the top 10 storylines of the second half:

1. Chris Davis chases Roger Maris

With an AL record-tying 37 home runs at the break, the Baltimore slugger could become the first player not connected to performance-enhancing drugs to hit 62 home runs. Does that make him the official record holder? Of course not. The 73 home runs by Barry Bonds will remain in the record book. The record also will remain tainted, not to be taken at full authenticity.

Though this chase won't be anything like the Great Home Run Race of 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were front-page news, it merits a close watch by those who favor a clean game and sportsmanship. How rare would it be? Only eight times in baseball history has anybody hit 60 home runs in a season. It happened six times in just four seasons at the height of the Steroid Era. It happened just twice in the other 137 years of major league baseball.

LEMIRE: Record chases to watch for

This won't be easy for Davis. Remember, the Orioles already have played 96 games at this unofficial "halfway" point. Davis needs to hit 25 home runs in 66 games -- nearly his current rate -- to hit 62, with the last 20 games against East rivals Boston, Tampa Bay, New York and Toronto. That means he can't slow down from this pace. And he might see more lefthanded pitchers, though he already takes 34 percent of his plate appearances against lefties, well above the league average of 20 percent. (He slugs a ridiculous .810 against righthanders and a more fathomable .538 against lefties.)

2. Pittsburgh's first pennant race in a generation

The Pirates haven't played meaningful games down the stretch since 1997 or posted a winning season since 1992. But Pirates fans are worried they have seen this movie before. Over the past two seasons Pittsburgh played .543 baseball in the first half and .376 in the second half. But the pitching has been too good to let this team fold again, particularly Francisco Liriano, one of the best signs of the offseason, and the late-game tandem of All-Stars Mark Melancon and Jason Grilli.

Pirates' Grilli and Giants' Posey on July 22 covers of Sports Illustrated

Now, if you still want to worry, there is this: No team in the NL has used its bullpen more than the Pirates. Nobody knows how pitchers Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke will fare as they go beyond their innings limits and pitch a sixth month for the first time. (See Chris Sale last season.) And the Pirates still could use another bat via a trade to help a mediocre offense.

3. The continuation of The Revenge of The Pitchers

Walks and batting averages keep going down and strikeouts and times of games keep going up. The game is solidly in the hands of pitchers. Baseball has not been this much about the prevention of runs in about a quarter of a century.

Check out these per-team, per-game rates in some offensive categories at the break, and how long it's been since we've seen these kinds of numbers over a full season:

CategoryStatLowest/Highet Since
Runs per game4.23Lowest since 1989
Batting average.254Lowest since 1989
OPS.718Lowest since 1992
Walks2.98Lowest since 1968
Strikeouts7.51Highest ever*
Sacrifice hits0.29Lowest ever
Intentional walks0.21Lowest ever+

* Eighth straight year of increase; + Tracked since 1955

(I threw in those final two categories just for the why of it. It seems counterintuitive to think runs are harder to come by in 24 years and yet the sacrifice bunt never has been more rare.)

If pitching wins even more these days, then some contenders ought to be wondering if they have enough of it to make it to October. Warnings are hereby issued for six contenders who are below league average in ERA: Arizona, San Francisco, Colorado, Toronto, Cleveland and Baltimore.

Fewer runs are not necessarily a bad thing. What this run-depressed environment has created is more close games. And in an age when people "sample" programming on different screens -- rarely sitting down to watch a baseball game uninterrupted for three hours -- nothing is better to make viewers linger on a baseball telecast than when the scorebug in the corner shows a close game.

Here are the most one- and two-run games in a season, with the projected total for this season:

Most 1-Run Games

2011: 752
2010: 732
2005: 719
2013: 714
1978: 704

Most 2-Run Games

2011: 1,192
2013: 1,181
2010: 1,181
2005: 1,163
2012: 1,154

Note that the seasons with the most close games in baseball history have occurred almost exclusively during the testing era. That's a good thing for baseball.

Yes, I know, you're bound to have more close games when you have more games period; the 30-team schedule has been around since 1998. The percentage of two-run games this year (48.6) is below those from 1978 (53.0; what the heck happened that year?), 1969 (52.4) and 1982 (51.1). But you get the point: there are more close games now than before testing began.

4. The Money Pits

Anybody else notice we haven't heard much talk about competitive balance the past few years? The most divisive issue of the 1990s labor wars has retreated to barely a mention.

Among the teams with the nine highest payrolls in baseball, six of them reached the All-Star break without a winning record: the Dodgers (47-47), Phillies (48-48), Giants (43-51), Angels (44-49), White Sox (37-55) and Blue Jays (45-49). And the list of teams getting little bang for big bucks should also include the Yankees (51-44), a fourth-place team.

(At the All-Star break, all six teams in the three biggest markets -- New York, Chicago and Los Angeles -- were out of playoff position.)

Among the six big money teams without a winning record, the Dodgers have the best chance of salvaging a playoff spot. Philadelphia, a .500 team for two years and now beset by injuries, is spinning its wheels. The Giants, Angels and White Sox need to get to .500 before they can even think about October. The White Sox are just plain awful.

And keep this in mind when you think your team has a postseason shot while getting to the All-Star break with a losing record: since 1996, only the 2003 Twins (five games under .500) and the 1997 Astros (two games under .500) reached the postseason after starting the nominal second half with a losing record.

5. The trade market is a bear market

Does anybody think Matt Garza or Justin Morneau will change a pennant race? The big names are not out there. The Phillies have too much invested in next season to move Cliff Lee, and the Marlins, sitting on a stockpile of young talent to make a quick turnaround, have no business even thinking about trading Giancarlo Stanton.

We can hope for a surprise blockbuster, but this month might be much ado about Kendrys Morales, Marlon Byrd, Edinson Volquez, Joe Saunders and the like.

JAFFE: Top trade targets at each position

6. Triple Crown watch (the sequel)

Miguel Cabrera of Detroit is having an even better season this year than he had last, when he became the first Triple Crown winner in 45 years. His batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage are all up from his 2012 thresholds. Cabrera leads the league in batting average and runs batted in, and trails Davis by seven in home runs.

GALLERY: Classic photos of Miguel Cabrera

If he doesn't catch Davis, Cabrera might just have to be content with becoming the first righthanded hitter since Rogers Hornsby to win three straight batting titles, as well as another MVP award. We are watching an all-time great hitter in the absolute prime of his career.

7. The beginning of the Biogenesis endgame

Suspensions are coming, perhaps even by the end of this month. What's left of the checkered reputations of former MVPs Alex Rodriguez and Ryan Braun hang in the balance. Pennant races could be affected if Bartolo Colon of the Athletics, Jhonny Peralta of the Tigers, Nelson Cruz of the Rangers and others who have been connected to the Miami "wellness" clinic must sit out games -- though you are more likely to see appeals launched that keep the players on the field and carry into the offseason.

It will be fascinating to measure the level of fight in each player. Does Rodriguez, for instance, negotiate his own exit to minimize the damage? Do some players get treated more harshly than first-time offenders because of a) multiple non-analytic positives (i.e., paper trails and corroborated testimony), b) lying in previous cases, c) refusing to cooperate with investigators or d) some or all of the above?

LEMIRE: Fallout from Biogenesis may mar second half

For commissioner Bud Selig, who intends to retire from the position when his contract ends after next season, the Biogenesis case could be one of his last major moments to define his legacy.

8. The Yasiel Puig story

He is . . . the most interesting man in the baseball world these days. Puig has helped turn the Dodgers from a massively underachieving team to a legitimate contender. Los Angeles is 23-13 when he starts and 24-34 when he doesn't.

The question for the second half is whether Puig can come close to maintaining his torrid pace. He is an aggressive hitter in this age of passive-aggressive hitting. When he puts the first or second pitch into play, Puig is batting .603 (35-for-58). His closest comp stylistically might be Vladimir Guerrero. He may very well continue raking, even if he falls into a midseason dip the way Bryce Harper did last year.

STRIKE ZONE: Best moments from Puig's amazing first half

For now, Puig remains so fascinating because he swings the bat aggressively and because, without a track record in major league baseball, there is a mystery about whether he can keep this up. Is he more like Joe DiMaggio or more like Jeff Francoeur? Check out the similarities in the 38-game starts to the careers of DiMaggio, Francoeur and Puig:


9. The turnaround teams (guaranteed)

It has happened every year in the Wild Card Era except 2005: at least one team makes the playoffs the season after having a losing record. In fact, 37 teams in the 17 full seasons of the wild card era have done it. The game turns over quicker than ever.

Still in the running for a turnaround title this year are 2012 losing teams Pittsburgh (79-83), Boston (69-93), Cleveland (68-94) and Colorado (64-98). Odds are that two of those teams will reach the postseason.

10. The difference makers

Here are five key players, beset by injuries or underperformance in the first half, who could most swing the outcome of the races:

Matt Cain, Giants: His 5.06 ERA looks ugly and he has been wildly inconsistent, but Cain does have decent enough peripherals to suggest he could have a big second half. One of the biggest surprises of the first half was San Francisco posting the third-worst ERA for starting pitchers in the NL. Only San Diego and Milwaukee were worse.

Clay Buchholz, Red Sox: He was the best pitcher in baseball (9-0, 1.71 ERA) until a neck strain sent him to the disabled list after a start on June 8. He could be back in another week -- he is scheduled to throw a bullpen session Thursday -- but his potential return has been plagued by several fits and starts before. Whether he becomes the equivalent of the best second-half addition or a continued source of frustration might well determine whether Boston grabs a playoff spot.

Derek Jeter, Yankees: He is 39 and coming off a busted ankle that has taken nine months to heal and he came up with a sore leg just three at-bats into his return to the majors. But New York needs Jeter, even if this is not the All-Star caliber Jeter. No team's shortstops have struck out more than the Yankees' and only Seattle's have posted a worse OPS.

JAFFE: Did Yankees rush Jeter back too soon?

Matt Kemp, Dodgers: Four home runs? A .357 slugging percentage? A .180 batting average with runners in scoring position? That sure doesn't look like the guy who was the MVP runnerup two years ago. If the power comes back for Kemp, and Puig and Hanley Ramirez keep hitting, the Dodgers might open up a big lead in the NL West.

Martin Prado, Diamondbacks: A career .295 hitter entering this season, Prado has hit .253 in his first year in Arizona with little power. Actually, you could pick from among Prado, Miguel Montero and Jason Kubel, all of whom are underperforming. It's a mystery how the Diamondbacks are in first place, unless you subscribe to the theory of just plain luck. They are 10-4 in extra innings and 21-12 in one-run games.

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