New era of pitching prominence prevails
With one exception, top clubs have one vital thing in common: low ERAs
The first-half precincts have all reported. There were three winners -- pitching, pitching and more pitching.
Baseball is returning to its classic form. The best teams in the game are the ones with the best pitching. The idea of a club simply bashing its way to the top, hey, that is so 1998. While you're trying that, play something by the Spice Girls as your walk-up music.
At the midway point of the season, the best record in the Major Leagues belongs to the Pittsburgh Pirates. It is fashionable to express some surprise about this because the Pirates have not finished on the north side of .500 since 1992.
But where is the surprise when the Pirates lead the Majors in team earned run average at 3.13? The surprise at this point would occur if the Pirates continued this kind of pitching and didn't win.
The second-best record in baseball belongs to another National League Central outfit, the St. Louis Cardinals. The Cardinals have had a series of pitching injuries but thanks to their splendid organizational depth, they still have the third-best team ERA in the big leagues.
The fourth-best team ERA belongs to yet another NL Central entry, the Cincinnati Reds. This gathering of arms could lead to an NL Central neighborhood postseason. If the season ended today -- and it never does when somebody trots out that usage -- the two NL Wild Card teams would be the Cardinals and the Reds. And thus, 60 percent of the initial NL postseason field would be from this one division. With pitching this good on three teams, this is another development that should not be considered a long shot.
But we have skipped the second-best team ERA in the Majors, the 3.19 posted by the Atlanta Braves. The Braves, first in the NL East, have baseball's largest division lead after three months of play, 6 1/2 games over the Washington Nationals.
The Nats were a popular preseason pick to win anything and everything. Their ERA ranks fifth in baseball. As the only team besides Atlanta over .500 in the NL East, the Nationals still get to have aspirations as lofty as they want.
But the Braves are like the poster guys for the dominance of pitching. They are merely 13th in runs scored. They have struck out more times than any team but the Houston Astros. But they have withstood key bullpen losses due to injuries with pitching in both quality and quantity.
Aren't there examples on the other side of this argument? That's the point -- there are no first-half, first-place teams with team ERAs that rank in the lower half.
The Boston Red Sox, the highest-scoring team in the Majors, are 14th in team ERA. But even here, what sets the 2013 Red Sox apart from their 2012 predecessors, what makes this club worst-to-first material, is the dramatic improvement in pitching, from a 4.70 ERA last year to 3.91 this season.
The largest exception to this trend over the season's first half turned out to be the Cleveland Indians. As we speak, the Indians are only percentage points behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central.
The Indians are 27th in team ERA, but are tied -- ironically or conveniently, take your pick -- with the Tigers for fourth in runs scored. The Tigers, ninth in team ERA, are much more like this year's model for winning.
You give the Indians all sorts of credit for finding ways to win. But you also wonder about the Tigers, blessed with a top-shelf rotation and a big-time offense, but not putting distance between themselves and the competition. Their bullpen shortcomings are fixable and there is plenty of time for an upgrade.
We have entered the month of the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, when there will be tons of rumors and some deals. The vast majority of the actual buyers will be seeking pitching help. In the contemporary game, a contending team upgrading its pitching will be seen as logical, or necessary, and in some cases, both.