The AL at the half: Who’s up, who’s down

East: Boston competes despite injuries

It’s not new news that the Boston Red Sox have suffered from a seemingly lethal amount of injuries. Jacoby Ellsbury’s continued saga over how, when and where he cracked his ribs gets the most media attention. The remaining list of injured players might squash most other clubs in the competitive AL East. I’ll let Alex Pedicini sum up the injury situation.

The story isn’t that the Red Sox are hurting, it’s that despite the injuries, they find themselves only five games back in the ultra-competitive AL East, with a 51-37 record. I want to take a simplistic look at how they got there.

Boston Red Sox Playoff Odds – 2010
Blue – chance of winning the division
Black – chance of winning the Wild Card
Red – chance of making the playoffs

Their season started indifferently and by May 18 they had limped their way to a 20-20 record. The Sox then swept the Twins in a two-game home stand and went on the road to Philadelphia to kick off the interleague portion of the schedule. From May 21 through June 27, the Red Sox put together a 24-11 record, including a division best 13-5 record against National League opponents. Over the 11 games since June 27, the Red Sox have looked like the early season brand, going a tepid 5-6.

The remainder of the season is likely to be a bumpy ride for Red Sox fans as players return from injury and more of the unforeseen occurs in the form of new injuries and player acquisitions.

The Blue Jays get surprising power output

The Toronto Blue Jays were picked by many observers (including this one) to battle the Orioles for last place in the AL East. That fight never emerged; the Blue Jays’ players have put up some impressive and unexpected performances. To me, the most surprising has been their major league best 136 home runs.

The Jays entered the season with some guys who could put a charge in the ball. Adam Lind broke out in a big way in 2009 with 35 homers and a .257 ISO that appeared mostly sustainable. Only nine of his big flies qualified as “Just Enough” according to Hit Tracker and his peripherals didn’t cry LUCK. Aaron Hill was coming off his own breakout 36-homer campaign, although 12 of those fell under the “Just Enough” label. Travis Snider was considered by many to be a candidate for 20 or more bombs this season despite an early-season swoon last year that required a demotion.

So you would think these powerful Jays attacked the 2010 season with a vengeance, right? Instead, we find the Blue Jays leader board as follows:

Player          Home runs
Jose Bautista          24
Vernon Wells           19
Alex Gonzalez          17
John Buck              13
Adam Lind              12
Aaron Hill             12
Lyle Overbay           10
Edwin Encarnacio       10
Travis Snider           6
Fred Lewis              5

Jose Bautista seemingly came out of nowhere, never before hitting more than 16 in a season. Alex Gonzalez managed 23 in ‘04 and 16 in ‘07, while Vernon Wells last demonstrated the ability to hit more than 20 home runs in 2006.

That top trio has already shown considerable signs of slipping. All-Star Wells got off to a strong start, but as Paul Singman covered over at our Fantasy page, he’s been on a gradual decline since April 30. Ditto the now-departed Gonzalez, who followed a .404 wOBA April with a below average rate since.

Bautista has been a slightly different story in that his hot spells didn’t coincide with the start of the season. He’s suffered some “unluck” with his BABIP (.224), although his batted ball profile (16.4 percent line drives, 29.8 percent grounders, 53.8 percent flies and 17.2 percent infield flies) supports a fairly low BABIP. I’d expect something in the .250s if those rates hold up. On the flip side, his .306 ISO and 18.8 percent HR/FB ratio are way above career rates and are very likely to regress. One third of his home runs have been labeled “Just Enough” by Hit Tracker.

Entering the second half, the Blue Jays are pretty much done, with Cool Standings putting their playoff odds at just .9 percent. What we’re left to watch are the stories, and one of those will be whether the Jays’ big fly tendencies continue.

—Brad Johnson

Central: A three-pack

As baseball emerges from its annual break, it’s time to take a look at a division that seemed all but locked-up a few short weeks ago: the American League Central. Once thought to belong conclusively to the Twins, the division race looks like a three-team contest between those Twins, the unbelievably-hot Chicago White Sox, and the always tough Detroit Tigers. Toward the bottom of the division are teams moving in opposite directions. The Cleveland Indians look to be stuck in the midst of a prolonged downturn, while the downtrodden Kansas City Royals hope to contend as early as next year.

Let’s run through the standings, top to bottom, and focus in on a storyline or two. I’m including the team’s “luck” figure to give you a sense of where these teams are in the standings relative to their expected records.

1. Chicago White Sox

The “R” in WAR
How a person can be a hero by being a zero.

49-38 (+3)

Rob Neyer, as he often does, put it best about the Sox in an chat this week, saying “I’m willing to be convinced that I was wrong about the White Sox, but I still haven’t figured out exactly *how* I was wrong.” A glance at the roster doesn’t exactly inspire division championship thoughts, but who am I to criticize success? Paul Konerko is enjoying a resurgence of sorts (.299/.382/.560), but the Sox wouldn’t be close to the top of the standings without impressive bounce-back seasons from Alex Rios and Carlos Quentin. Those things are hard enough to pull off alone. To synchronize them is downright impressive.

The Sox’ pitching has been a little less inspiring, particularly the starters. None of them are having spectacular seasons, and Mark Buehrle, especially, has been a letdown. But what the Sox lack in the rotation is at least partially balanced by the club’s excellent bullpen. The White Sox feature a pair of outstanding middlemen in J.J. Putz and Matt Thornton, and Bobby Jenks is still doing a reasonable impersonation of his younger self. If the bullpen can hold up—or if the starting pitching plays closer to expectations—there’s little reason to think the White Sox won’t have a meaningful September.

2. Detroit Tigers

48-38 (+3)

The Tigers, as usual, are right in the thick of things. And, as you might expect, the team is keyed on the core of a powerful lineup featuring stalwarts Miguel Cabrera, Magglio Ordonez, Johnny Damon and…Brennan Boesch? Yeah, Brennan Boesch, the 25-year-old who is mashing to the tune of .342/.397/.593 on the middle-aged season. The Tigers certainly hope Boesch’s year won’t suffer some sort of midlife crisis; his line is, after all, fueled by a probably-unsustainable .382 BABIP. But there comes a point in the season where you can speculate as to why things have happened, but can’t deny what has happened. Boesch’s performance, lucky or not, counts.

On the pitching side of things, the Tigers certainly have some room for improvement. Justin Verlander headlines the rotation, of course, and he’s a bit different from last year’s model. This time around, he’s striking out fewer, walking a touch more, and surrendering fewer home runs. He’s still been pretty darn good, but he’s definitely pitching below his peak level. None of the other starters—no, not even Armando Galarraga—have put together a particularly impressive body of work this season. Just like their competitors a half-game better in the standings, though, the bullpen has been very good, though I’d imagine the clock will strike midnight on Jose Valverde at some point.

3. Minnesota Twins

46-42 (-2)

Talk about a change of philosophy. Gone are your older brother’s Twins, built on speed and defense and nebulous concepts of effort, hustle, grit and intensity. In their place is a traveling gang of large men intending to do harm to baseballs around the league. Justin Morneau has cooled of late and still holds a .345/.437/.618 line, very much deserving to be a part of any AL MVP discussion. Pessimists would criticize Joe Mauer‘s substandard campaign thus far, but I’m not a pessimist. I’m a Twins fan. So I look, instead, to made-for-Minnesota Jim Thome‘s excellent season. Even more, I look at Delmon Young and think the Twins might have just won the Young-Garza swap after all.

Speaking of guys playing more to potential, have a look at what Francisco Liriano is doing. Shiny-object types—led, apparently, by Joe Girardi—would scoff at his 6-7 record and 3.86 ERA. They’re missing a fabulous season. Coco is up to his old tricks, striking out nearly four times as many as he walks and allowing very few home runs. The velo’s nearly all the way back, too, as Liriano’s average fastball is about two miles per hour faster than last year’s. Sort of shows the thinness of the line between big league success and failure, doesn’t it? Carl Pavano‘s been, if not a revelation, certainly a pleasant surprise, and the rest of the staff is doing what Twins do: throw strikes at a mind-numbing rate. Joe Nathan is certainly missed, but the Twins still look like a strong contender for the division.

4. Kansas City Royals

39-49 (0)

It’s at this point I’m going to dispense with the hitting/pitching format because, let’s face it, neither of those things really matter for the last two teams in the division (despite what one of their managers thinks). It’s not that Royals fans should stop paying attention. Of course not. But in the Royals’ neighborhood, the goings-on at Kauffman Stadium lose a little sizzle because of what’s happening in Omaha, Northwest Arkansas, and Wilmington. As you have no doubt read, the Royals are, as the youngsters say, really freaking stacked with prospects. As in, we’re just a few months away from possibly-legitimate Rays comps. The names Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer, Wil Myers, Mike Montgomery, Chris Dwyer, Danny Duffy, and several others will become part of the mainstream consciousness before long.

But, and I’m putting my Royals fan hat on here, there’s something bothering me. It’s Alex Gordon. You know his story: He’s basically Evan Longoria except the part where Longoria is, you know, awesome at major league baseball. Gordon’s minor league numbers are plenty impressive: .323/.439/.578 across several levels. Burn those into your skull for a minute before I show you his Triple-A numbers this year…here goes: .322/.446/.579. Gordon is playing in Omaha, and learning a new position, after the Royals gave up on his season (and very possibly his career) because he wasn’t good in 38 plate appearances following a season lost to injury.

And this makes me nervous as hell about the flotilla of young talent soon to hit Kansas City. Will the players get a fair chance to adjust? Or will the organization stick them in development purgatory should they struggle to live up to immediate expectations? Granted, Alex Gordon’s story isn’t that simple. But he was okay as a rookie and sneaky-good in his second season, and the Royals didn’t bother to notice. Here’s hoping they don’t bail on the new kids quite so quickly.

5. Cleveland Indians

34-54 (-2)

If Dayton Moore manages to not screw up the Royals’ coming infusion of talent, the Indians might need to get familiar with this spot in the standings. I’m looking for good things to say, and all I can really settle on is the afterglow of the Casey Blake for Carlos Santana trade. Because, other than that, it’s rough. CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee are gone, and none of the fruits of those trades look like stars. Grady Sizemore is done for the season, and it might not be too early to have concerns about him ever playing at superstar level again. We’re certainly well past that point with Travis Hafner, however.

So what do the Indians really have? Well, Shin-Soo Choo is a damn fine ballplayer, so there’s that. Santana is going to be very much for real, meaning the Indians will realize a better return on Casey Blake than on Sabathia and Lee … perhaps combined. Funny game, ain’t it? The pitching has been a bit better than might have been expected; Fausto Carmona might fetch a nice piece or two, and Mitch Talbot looks like he could be useful for a while. Given everything else going on, this isn’t the greatest time for the Indians to be down, but down they are. The good news is that one perennial loser is now a perennial contender (Tampa Bay), and another is on the way up (Kansas City). It can be done, Indians fans, and I’m not sure I’d want anyone but Manny Acta around.

—Josh Fisher

West: Surprises, bottom to top

There have been many intriguing stories so far in the American League West, but today we’ll focus on the teams currently in last and first place.

Collapse of the Seattle Mariners

Coming off an 85-77 campaign, the Mariners expected to be contenders in 2010. This presumably is why they went out and acquired left-hander Cliff Lee after the 2009 season.

Just past the midpoint of the current campaign, the Mariners find themselves sporting a dismal 35-53 record, 15 games out of first place. This is why they shipped Lee to Texas. Sometimes the need for Plan B arises before anyone expects it.

What went wrong in Seattle? Well, what didn’t? Lee pitched well. So did Felix Hernandez and, oddly enough, Jason Vargas and Doug Fister. The Mariners actually had the best starting pitching in the AL prior to the All-Star break, posting a 3.55 ERA. The fact that this “earned” those starters a 25-32 record should give a clue.

For as good as the rotation was, the bullpen was that bad. As in, worst in the league with a 4.81 ERA. As in, closer David Aardsma is 0-6 with a 5.40 ERA.

That’s assuming the relievers had a lead to work with in the first place. With the AL’s worst offense (79 OPS+, 3.39 R/G), this was far from a given. Ichiro Suzuki hit, because that’s what he does. Franklin Gutierrez held his own, which is fine because he provides significant value on defense. Six years after the Mariners acquired him, Adrian Beltre finally started producing… in Boston.

So there is no real single point of failure here. Beyond the rotation and Ichiro, there is plenty of blame for everyone.

Resurgence of Guerrero and Hamilton in Texas

They say that everything is bigger in Texas. The stories about the Rangers this year certainly are. From the improbable successful conversion of C.J. Wilson from closer to starter, to the even more improbable effectiveness of Colby Lewis after years of stinking and then apparently figuring out how to pitch in Japan, to the acquisition of Lee, it’s been an eventful season so far.

The Rangers are winning with pitching, thanks in large part to Lewis and Wilson, but every pitcher needs run support. Enter Vladimir Guerrero and Josh Hamilton.

Guerrero, who turned 35 before the season, was coming off his worst big-league campaign (.295/.334/.460, 106 OPS+). Conventional wisdom held that he had entered the decline phase of his career. The Rangers, however, took a flier, signing the once-dangerous right-handed hitter to a one-year deal worth $5.5 million (plus a mutual option for 2011 that included a $1 million buyout, making the worst case for Texas $6.5 million).

Guerrero responded by doing what he once did with regularity: hit baseballs with authority. Although he hasn’t returned to MVP levels (and isn’t likely to do so), Guerrero is pretty close to where he was in 2007, which isn’t a bad place to be. He is hitting .319/.364/.554 (140 OPS+) and has surpassed last year’s home run and RBI totals. Perhaps most memorably, Guerrero knocked two late homers in a May 6 contest against the Royals, including a solo blast off Kansas City closer Joakim Soria that turned out to be the game winner.

As for Hamilton, his story is even more remarkable. This is a guy who probably deserves a movie, or at least an amusement park ride, made in his honor. You know the part about how he finally reached the big leagues after significant personal drama and mashed despite having never played above A-ball. You know the part where he was traded to Texas and continued to rake before falling to pieces professionally and personally.

Now Hamilton is back to dominating big-league pitchers. It’s your typical rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches (forgive me if I’ve missed a few iterations) story. The scary thing is that the first half of his 2010 is even better than his best performance to date. The contrast between last year and this is particularly fun because Hamilton has about as many plate appearances now as he did for all of 2009:

Year  PA   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
2009 365 .268 .315 .426  90
2010 368 .346 .390 .625 165

One of Hamilton’s biggest hits was a solo homer off Soria immediately before Guerrero’s in the aforementioned May 5 contest that tied the game. Hamilton also almost single-handedly beat the Houston Astros on June 20. He went 5-for-6, but saved his best for last. With Ian Kinsler on third and one out in the top of the ninth, Hamilton singled off Houston closer Matt Lindstrom to tie the game. The next inning, his two-out single off southpaw Gustavo Chacin plated Julio Borbon, who proved to be the winning run.

—Geoff Young

Friday: The National League

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I’d like to pat myself on the back since I predicted that the White Sox season hinged on Rios and Quentin.  Saying the starting pitching has been subpar is a little like saying that the White Sox are only 11 over break even.  It’s true in the big picture, but it ignores the dichotomy that this season has been.  As pointed out in THT Live earlier this week, 4 of the top 7 Sox in WPA ovr the last 30 games are starters.  Floyd, Peavy, Danks and Buehrle are all in the top 25 in the leage in ERA over… Read more »
I think you were a bit too kind and optimistic about the rest of the Twins starting staff – not named Liriano or Pavano. Kevin Slowey was brutal, again, last night. Nick Blackburn has an ERA over 6.00 and still remains in the rotation. Scott Baker, well, he continues his run of inconsistency that makes Twins fans want to choke a stuffed animal. For a team with nearly $100 million invested in their roster, a new stadium, and hopes of competing for a World Series title, this season could not be going much worse for the Minnesota Twins. Since the… Read more »
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