Second half of the season sure to be surprise-filled
Having a strong first-half record helps, but it's no guarantee of a playoff berth
The All-Star break stands as the mythical -- though not mathematical -- halfway point of the baseball season, and if there's one thing we know at the annual midseason lull, it's that we really don't know the half of what's going to happen by the end.
Sure, there are good signs for teams hoping to gain entry into the October tournament. Yes, there are individual performances that are setting up eye-popping season totals.
But halfway there, we have a lot to learn and a lot to see -- and a lot we can't even imagine yet.
Will the Pirates break their 20-year playoff drought? Can the defending World Series champion Giants come off the mat in historic fashion to return to the playoffs? Do hot starts by the Cardinals, Braves, A's and Red Sox translate into hot finishes?
Since 2003, eight teams that were at or under .500 at the All-Star break have made the playoffs.
Record at break
Individually, will Miguel Cabrera be able to duplicate his Triple Crown feat of a year ago? Will Chris Davis continue to crush homers at a pace not seen in years? Will Max Scherzer or Patrick Corbin maintain their historic winning percentages?
Clearly, there's a lot left to answer.
While individual performances are fodder for our attention down the stretch, the really big and most important question remains: Who will be there in October when the postseason spotlight shines?
It sounds simple but it's true: When it comes to where teams stand at the All-Star break, the better off they are, the more likely they are to make the playoffs -- with notable exceptions on both sides.
For instance, who knew at the break a year ago that two teams sitting at or just a couple of games above .500 and out of the playoff picture would reach the postseason? But there went the A's (43-43) and the Tigers (44-42) into October, and Detroit went all the way to the World Series.
Both the Tigers and A's head into the second half of 2013 with a much more solid first half behind them, but they know that doesn't change what they have to do.
"It's 'grind it out until the end and see who's standing,'" Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. "That's kind of what we did last year, and that's what you do in this business."
Of course, grinding it out from a lofty position in the standings is preferred.
In the past 10 years, including last year's debut of the 10-team postseason, only eight teams of the 82 that made the playoffs did so after being at or under .500 at the break, and only two have been below the waterline -- the 2008 Dodgers (46-49) and the '03 Twins (44-49). The '12 A's, '07 Rockies (World Series), '07 Phillies, '07 Yankees, '04 Astros and '03 Cubs were all at .500 at the break and still reached the postseason.
While many others were hovering near the break-even point, any team currently more than five games under will be doing something not done in a decade if they reach the playoffs. Still, they can take heart in the 1973 Mets, who were nine games under .500 at the break and surged to a World Series appearance.
On the flip side, things can go the other direction after the All-Star break, too. To know how that goes, you need look no further than Pittsburgh, where the Pirates are in the thick of the NL Central race for the third straight season at the break.
Let's just say they intend to do much better this time, and there's little reason to doubt that they will once their five All-Stars return to action with a nine-game cushion in the Wild Card race.
"We're pleased, but there is nobody in that clubhouse who is satisfied," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "We're in a good spot. We played hard to the finish of the first half. We'll reboot on Thursday."
Rebooting didn't go well for the Pirates the last couple of years, thanks to second-half slides. They played 15 games under .500 last year -- the steepest slide from first place since the '05 Nationals went 16-under to drop out of the playoff hunt. Before that, the '77 Cubs played 19 games under .500 in the second half to lose the National League East lead.
Certainly, the Pirates aren't the only ones to slip, and the A's and Tigers aren't the only ones to surge in the second half. Playoff positions have changed hands at least once in each league each of the past 10 years with two exceptions -- the 2008 American League and '06 NL races.
Last year, it was four teams who lost their leads after the All-Star break, and a total of 15 positions in the past five years and 32 in the past decade have changed hands between the break and the end.
For those teams hoping for a surge, the 2012 A's set a high bar by going 26 games over .500 to pass two teams and win the AL West. But even that couldn't compare to a '01 run during which the A's went an amazing 41 games (58-17) over .500 to reach the playoffs after being 44-43 and out of the mix at the break.
The Giants had a plus-20 second half to gain entry toward their 2012 title, bringing to 11 the number of teams in the past 10 years that have gone 20 games over .500 or better in the second half to jump into a postseason position.
On the other hand, you have the two teams that reached the 2006 World Series. The Cardinals went 35-39 after the All-Star break and still won the World Series. Their foe, the Tigers, went 36-38, and so it was that a pair of clubs that struggled down the stretch emerged as the last two teams standing.
So who knows exactly what's in store at the All-Star break? It's up the air, a half-written script with no ending and no telling what will happen to the characters.
Really, halfway there is just that, so the best part about the All-Star break is that it means the best part of the season is still to come.