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The First Half of the 1999 Season
By Tom Tippett
July 19, 1999
I almost decided not to write this. Seems like most everything I've read lately has fallen into two categories -- picking the top 100 players of the century or taking a look at the first half of the season. I'm a contrarian by nature, so doing the same thing that everyone else is doing doesn't appeal to me. One thing's for sure: we don't need any more top-100 lists, so you don't have to worry about that. But there are a few things that struck me about the first half that I haven't seen in print elsewhere, so I figured I'd ramble on about those for a while.
Strength of Schedule
Not so long ago, the schedule was divided pretty neatly in half. You could count on the fact that most teams would have played everyone about the same number of times in the first half and would run through it all again after the break. Not any more. With the advent of the three-division format and inter-league play, the schedule is anything but balanced and predictable.
A few times a year, I like to go through the expanded standings and team versus team tables in Baseball Weekly and see if there might be any factors that might explain why some teams are doing better or worse than I'd expected. It's a little more work than it used to be. The Baseball Weekly tables only show the matchups within the same league, so I had to go through the game logs on ESPN.com to compile the data for the inter-league games. My main goal was to find out how each team has done against teams that are above .500, and to identify teams that have had more or less than their fair share of games against these stronger opponents.
A couple of words of caution before I dump the data on you. First, teams that are over .500 always have fewer games against other winning teams for the simple reason that these teams don't play against themselves. So if you see a division leader with a relatively low number of games against winning teams, it doesn't necessarily mean they've had a softer schedule. Second, it's rare for teams to have a better-than-.500 record against the stronger clubs, since by definition the rest of the league is sub-.500 against the teams that are over .500. Finally, it's not easy for teams in some divisions to pile up a lot of games against winning teams. This year, for example, the NL Central has only two teams over .500 and plays its inter-league games against a division, the AL Central, with only one.
With these potential distortions in mind, we can take a look at the results through the all-star break and see if we can find some clues about how the next couple of months might play out:
Overall >.500 Other New York 52-34 20-13 32-21 Boston 49-39 22-13 27-26 Toronto 47-43 5-20 42-23 Tampa Bay 39-49 17-22 22-27 Baltimore 36-51 14-30 22-21 Cleveland 56-31 10-12 46-19 Chicago 42-43 11-18 31-25 Detroit 36-52 13-20 23-32 Kansas City 35-52 8-25 27-27 Minnesota 34-52 12-26 22-26 Texas 48-39 10-15 38-24 Oakland 43-44 16-19 27-25 Seattle 42-25 11-17 31-28 Anaheim 41-45 13-22 28-23 Atlanta 55-34 23-11 32-23 New York 50-39 23-22 27-17 Philadelphia 46-40 11-17 35-23 Montreal 33-51 23-31 10-20 Florida 32-56 9-33 23-23 Cincinnati 49-36 25-19 24-17 Houston 50-37 15-19 35-18 Pittsburgh 43-44 13-15 30-29 Milwaukee 42-44 16-19 26-25 St. Louis 43-45 17-22 26-23 Chicago 41-44 15-21 26-23 San Francisco 50-38 13-15 37-23 Arizona 48-41 20-20 28-21 San Diego 43-43 12-24 31-19 Colorado 40-46 17-24 23-22 Los Angeles 39-47 18-16 21-31
The Yankees and Red Sox are the only two AL teams with a winning record against the winning teams. Given this track record, Boston fans have to like their chances in the playoffs, but the Sox will have to start playing better against the second-division teams if they're going to make it to the post-season in the first place.
Toronto fans ought to be a little nervous -- their record against the winning teams is the worst in all of baseball, and they've played the fewest games against the best clubs of any team in the division.
Meanwhile, Baltimore fans can take heart in the fact that the Orioles have already played 44 games against the top teams. They haven't played well against them, but at least the worst of their schedule is behind them. And it's worth noting that they've been outscored by only 8 runs so far this year, so they haven't been outclassed. Their 7-18 record in one-run games has been the biggest problem, and if they can start winning their share of the close ones, they ought to be able to battle back to respectability by season's end.
Cleveland will win their division without breaking a sweat. But it's reasonable to expect their winning percentage to dip as the season goes along. They've only played 22 games against winning teams so far, and their record in these games isn't impressive.
Kansas City's story is similar to that of the Orioles. Opponents have outscored the Royals by only 6 runs. So they should be around .500, except that their record in one-run games is only 8-17. If this young team can learn how to win the tight games, or at least pick up a little more luck along the way, they could move up a little in the second half.
None of the teams in the AL West have played well against good competition, and all have taken care of business against the teams they should beat. Looks like this race could stay close right down to the wire.
Montreal has played a whopping 54 games against the top teams. Nobody else is within 10 games of that total. So wins might be more plentiful as they move into the softer part of their schedule. Then again, maybe not. The Expos have the worst record in baseball against the losing teams.
You've got to like what Cincinnati has done so far. They've played more games against winning teams than anyone but Montreal, and they've compiled an impressive record in those games. They've also held their own against the bottom half of the league. Their chief rivals, the Astros, have played ten fewer games against the best clubs, with a losing record in those contests.
The Dodgers are one of only five teams in all of baseball to post a losing record against the losing teams. Not a good sign. Oddly enough, they're also one of only seven teams to be .500 or better against the winning teams. So maybe there's reason for hope after all.
Surprised, Not Surprised
I'm surprised that offense is up so much in the National League this year. Our pre-season forecast assumed a small increase in scoring over last year, but NL teams are 581 runs (8.3%) above our expectations. The AL is scoring only 2.6% more runs that we figured they would.
Last week, it was reported that Jim Leyland had concluded that the Rockies needed to be gutted and rebuilt if they were ever going to win. I don't know if he really said that or whether someone read too much into something he said. But I'm not surprised to see this team struggle, and I'm not surprised to see that Leyland hasn't been able to turn them around to this point. Last year, we projected the Rockies for 77 wins. They won 77 games. And they fired a manager, Don Baylor, who had previously enjoyed a reputation as one of the game's best. I thought Baylor got a bum rap, and I figured Leyland might be in for a tougher time than he imagined. We projected the Rockies for 79 wins and fourth place this year, based solely on their talent (our computer simulations don't take managerial reputations into account), and they're currently running a couple of games behind that pace.
I'm not surprised to see Pedro Martinez emerge as the best pitcher in the American League. But I'm very surprised, stunned actually, to see him with 18 decisions in his first 18 starts. Yes, his ERA and win total are very impressive, but in this age of 12-man pitching staffs and league ERAs in the upper 4s, it's downright astonishing to see a pitcher emerge from 100% of his starts with the win or loss. (Late note: the string was broken yesterday when Pedro gave up nine runs to the Marlins but was taken off the hook by a late Red Sox rally.)
I'm very surprised by the success of the Chicago White Sox. After losing Albert Belle and Robin Ventura, it was hard to imagine them scoring a lot of runs. Their young pitching staff seemed destined for another year at the bottom of the league in staff ERA. And their defense entered the season as the leading candidate to lead the league in errors (most errors, that is). Through the break, their offense has been in line with our expectations and they have indeed made more errors than anyone, but only four AL teams have allowed fewer runs. The result is a record that is seven wins ahead of our projection.
I'm not surprised to see the Orioles fall short of their pre-season expectations and those of many pundits. Back in the spring, I wrote that their off-season moves had not strengthened the team and may have weakened it -- mainly because Delino DeShields and Will Clark are not as good as Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro, they'd miss the big numbers that Eric Davis had put the year before, Albert Belle wouldn't threaten the homerun record just because he'd be playing in Camden Yard, and the loss of Armando Benitez would really hurt their bullpen. I am surprised to see them in last place, however, and I expect them to rebound by the end of the year.
I'm very surprised by the Pirates success. I ripped them in the off-season for signing guys like Ed Sprague and Mike Benjamin (who I love as a bench player, but not as a starter) and Pat Meares and handing them starting jobs ahead of some of their prospects. But Sprague has been terrific, Benjamin has been moved into the utility role where he belongs, and getting Tony Womack's anemic on-base-percentage out of the leadoff spot jump-started the offense. Their record is no fluke, either, as they've outscored their opponents by 21 runs and played near-.500 ball against teams with winning records. It's a shame they'll be without Jason Kendall the rest of the way, as it's hard to see them making a serious run at the wild card spot without him.
Milwaukee has been a pleasant surprise. Going into the season, I had trouble finding reasons to be all that interested in this club. Apart from Ron Belliard, there wasn't much in the way of young talent. The pitching staff consisted of a bunch of so-so veterans coming off injuries, and their offense featured Jeromy Burnitz and several good but not outstanding players like Fernando Vina and Jeff Cirillo. It didn't seem like they had much of a chance. But now they're fourth in the league in scoring and have a record right around .500 despite going 9-17 in one-run games. I'm happy for them. Phil Garner's job was in jeopardy because the team failed to meet some very unrealistic expectations last year, and I'm glad they kept him on.
I'm not surprised that Arizona has been pitching well and putting up a good fight in the West, but I never imagined that they'd be leading the league in scoring for most of the first half. Thanks to big years from Luis Gonzalez, Jay Bell, and Steve Finley, plus a nice comeback by Matt Williams, their offense has been outstanding. As a result, the big story of their first half was the inability to close games, and the first big trade of the season was their acquisition of closer Matt Mantei from the Marlins. I want to go on record, however, with the view that finding a closer isn't what should be worrying Arizona fans right now. Yes, a good closer is nice to have, and a serious problem in this role can undermine the confidence of a team, but I'd be a lot more worried about their ability to score runs. If their lineup reverts to their normal levels of performance, they're going to struggle offensively. An offensive slowdown has already started (as Randy Johnson knows all too well), and if it continues, it's going to be difficult for them to make a serious run at the division title.
I suppose I can't justify finishing this off without mentioning the Dodgers. We projected them to win 92 games and outscore their opponents by 103 runs thanks to the second-best pitching in the league. Instead, they entered the break 8 games under .500, 38 runs in the hole, and seventh in pitching. And, their pre-break sweep of the Mariners notwithstanding, showing few signs of an impending rebound. I still think they're too good to continue to stumble like this, but it could well be too late for them to make it all the way back.
Finally, the biggest surprise of all is one that someone at STATS, Inc. pointed out a couple of weeks ago. I still find it hard to believe. Through the all-star break, Ivan Rodgriguez has thrown out 24 of 38 runners who dared to steal on him. That's an incredible 63% in an era where 32% is normal. But it's not the best part. He has also stolen 17 bases of his own. When was the last time a catcher stole more bases himself than all enemy runners combined? I don't know, and I won't be surprised if it turns out that it's never happened before.
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