Halfway Home and Competitive Balance is Winning With Pitching
The first half of the 2013 season is in the record books and surprises abound. Chris Davis is quietly on a pace to hit 62 home runs when most were predicting an end to the offensive surge of prior years. The Boston Red Sox team that unraveled under Bobby Valentine has vaulted to the lead in what is currently the best division in baseball. And they are doing it behind the resurgence of John Lackey and Jon Lester, who–without Josh Beckett–have regained the dominance they seemed unconcerned about when he was around.
What is most surprising is how closely bunched every division in both leagues remain. The biggest win so far in the 2013 season is for competitive balance. The Atlanta Braves have a commanding lead in the NL East, but no team is on track to run away with anything. The Pittsburgh Pirates–like the Red Sox–are on a pace to win 100 games and have pushed aside the St. Louis Cardinals in the NL Central. But the Cardinals are a scant two games back. So many tight races; so many teams still in the hunt.
The revamped Cleveland Indians are clinging to a tie with the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central and the Oakland A’s are keeping pace with the Texas Rangers. There are more pretenders to the throne than crowns to fit them. If so many teams remain within hailing distance of the playoffs deep into the summer, fans will be have drama a plenty in August and September.
In 2012 only a half dozen players hit more than 40 or more home runs. This season new sluggers like Davis, Dominic Brown and Pedro Alvarez have emerged to push the numbers higher. Other sluggers s have legitimate chances to join them with slightly better production in the second half. Despite the emergence of new sluggers, the overall trend in hitting is still on the downside.
At the halfway mark the 30 MLB teams are averaging only 4.23 runs per game. The figure continues to slide and is beginning to approach levels not seen since the 1980’s and early 1990’s. The last time the average runs per game was this low was in 1992 when it bottomed out at 4.14 runs per game before beginning a steady rise.
Naturally in an era when pitchers are beginning to dominate, some of the brightest young stars are chunkers. Matt Harvey leads both leagues in ERA with a 2.00 mark. His debut and that of Shelby Miller provide depth to the cadre of dominant pitchers like Stephen Strasburg that have emerged in the past few years. Other young pitchers like Patrick Corbin and Jeff Locke have been impressive as well. The general shift back toward pitching has an abundance of names and faces with box office appeal.
The Pirates have the best pitching in the majors at the halfway point with a team ERA of 3.13. The Braves are close behind at 3.19. Locke is leading Pittsburgh with a 2.06 ERA, but a resurgent Francisco Liriano is just off his pace at 2.23. There are 24 starters in the Major Leagues with sub-3.00 ERAs. Contrast those numbers with 2o07 when only Jake Peavy had an ERA below 3.00 in both leagues. That year only two teams managed a composite ERA below 4.00. This year the average for both leagues is below 4.00 at 3.93.
Competitive balance is riding on the backs–or rather the arms–of good young pitchers. They are sprouting like crab grass and spreading to almost every major league roster.
Two predictions that have been true to form are the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins. Although Bo Porter has Houston playing respectable if losing baseball, the Miami Marlins are scary bad. With Giancarlo Stanton out for several weeks, the Marlins offense has been the worst in the majors. But they do have 20-year old Jose Fernandez whose 2.98 ERA puts him among league leaders. Houston has the worst pitching in the majors and are rumored to be trading their best arm in Bud Norris.
The two worst teams are the flies in the ointment. There are however, only a handful of teams that appear to be out of contention at this point. Among them are the Seattle Mariners who have a legion of young stars waiting in the wings. They are calling them up one by one as the season wears on. For competitive balance to continue its dominance, new teams have to rise quickly to the fore. Yes, the Red Sox and Yankees are still competing for the AL East crown, but Pittsburgh is just the best of the young teams that are on the rise at the halfway point.
There is still plenty of baseball to play. Can competitive balance ride its pitching through the heat of July and August? Only time will tell.