The All-Star Break is a fun part of the baseball season, but the festivities cannot completely make up for the odd feeling when you look at the schedule on MLB.com and see the usual daily dose of games has been brought to a halt.
There are no games on Monday, just the All-Star Game on Tuesday and then none on either Wednesday or Thursday. Roll on Friday!
The break does at least give us all a chance to take stock of what has happened so far and that’s particularly welcome in 2012. We’ll start with the American League today and then move onto the National League later in the week.
On the face of it, things are going according to plan. The New York Yankees (52-33) have the best record in baseball and the Texas Rangers (52-34) are only a small step behind them. However, the first half of the season has been nowhere near as straight forward as that might suggest.
Take the Yankees themselves as an example. They have achieved their record despite suffering the hammer blow of losing Mariano Rivera to season-ending surgery on his right knee, watching off-season trade prize Michael Pineda suffer a shoulder injury in Spring Training that will rule him out of action for the entire 2012 season and maybe beyond, not to mention having Joba Chamberlain’s return from Tommy John surgery delayed by a freak accident on a trampoline that left him with an open dislocation of his right ankle. It’s a testament to the Yankees’ resilience, and frankly a bit disheartening to the rest of us, that they have coped so well.
Their bitter rivals from Boston have not been so fortunate. The Red Sox have been plagued by injuries and some would have you believe that the team is a disaster area, but fans in the Bronx would be wise not to put the boot into Boston too quickly. They sit on an even 43-43 record at the All-Star Break and while that’s only the starting point towards respectability, it’s a quick and simple reminder that their mediocre first half has hardly left them in the gutter.
The Red Sox are 9.5 games behind the Yankees in the AL East with the best part of three months of baseball still to be played. That’s plenty of time to make up a lot of ground and, having given up a 9 game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays in September last year, Boston will know that better than any team.
Bobby Valentine’s men weren’t the only much-fancied team to stutter out of the gate. The Los Angeles Angels went 8-15 in April and new recruit Albert Pujols had seemingly left his bat in St. Louis. Oh how the people laughed as the $240m man took until 6 May to hit his first round-tripper. Those people did not include pitchers who knew all too well what sort of backlash might be coming their way. The Angels have stormed back to a 48-38 record and although Pujols is heating up (having a 977 OPS in June), it’s been a 20 year old rookie that has really set the American League alight.
Mike Trout is proving to be as scarily spectacular as this A’s fan feared he might be. On any given day he can beat you with his bat, his legs or with his glove, all with a smile on his face that gives the impression he’s just having fun playing the game he loves. It’s still probably just about fair to write that he’s going to be a superstar – we shouldn’t be surprised if he comes back down to earth a bit in the second half, which would still see him put together a hugely impressive first full season – but as each week passes it seems more sensible just to anoint him right now.
If Mike Trout has been the player of the AL in the first half, the Baltimore Orioles deserve to take the crown as the best team story. Since their 14-9 record in April, most onlookers have been waiting for the Orioles to hit the skids once again. While their winning percentage is on a downward trend (.609 in April, .536 in May, .500 in June), they are doing their best to keep the story going for as long as possible and few would begrudge Orioles fans from enjoying themselves for however long it lasts.
The Chicago White Sox narrowly miss out to the Orioles in the ‘surprise team’ stakes only because they had a better chance to contend this year due to the lesser competition in the AL Central compared to the AL East. The White Sox won’t mind losing out on that award because that’s exactly why their good start to the season could turn into something much more meaningful and their recent signing of Kevin Youkilis could be one of the best bits of business done all season. Young pitcher Chris Sale has been in scintillating form with only reigning Cy Young and MVP Justin Verlander arguably ahead of him. That may be a sign of things to come as the smart money would be on Verlander’s Tigers to outlast the White Sox in the AL Central.
Then again, no one would have put money on Phil Humber to pitch a perfect game. Or for six Seattle Mariners to combine for a no-no. Perhaps not even for Jered Weaver to add a no-hitter to his achievements. It’s dangerous to class anything as impossible in this game.
It may not quite be impossible, but we can quite safely rule the Twins, Mariners and Royals out of the postseason race without causing offence to their followers and I suspect the A’s current .500 record will be the most us in the Green and Gold can hope for to call success this season.
That leaves ten teams with a shot at filling one of the five play-off places, with varying degrees of likelihood. And it might be even more unpredictable in the National League.