Time for a 40-game review
MLB 2011 in mid-May


As I have consistently said here at the Backpack… to me the first marker for judging a baseball season arrives around the point when teams have played 40-games.

Not after a week.

Not twice through the rotation.

Not until the first injury to a starter… someone gets dropped in the batting order… the end of the first home stand…

I like 40-games because it feels like a fair enough stretch of time. Not too soon… not too late… and it tends to take away the impact of some hot streaks that may be involved. For instance…

Baltimore began the year 5-1… Tampa 0-6… check the standings after 40-games and you tell me if that first week provided valid evidence for comparing these two teams.

On top of that… while predicting doom and gloom in Boston, you probably would have said that 0-6 start from the Red Sox and that 5-1 start from the Orioles seemed amazing, because the Red Sox should be better than the Orioles. And now… even while the Red Sox still struggle on occasion… they did pass the Orioles.

There still is alot of time left in the season. But we’re now reaching a point where concerns are justified and you can’t say it’s still early. What I believe works as a concept is very straightforward… hit the 40-game mark with an even record or suffer the consequences, because below that you’re likely done. And yes, it can be that simple as having a 20-20 record.

Do you know what 90 wins is? 90-wins is borderline playoffs. It’s like 10-wins in the NFL… it doesn’t always equate to a spot in the postseason, but if you can reach it then you are in the discussion as the final two or three weeks are being played. Here’s my classic example (with math involved)…

For a good team, it isn’t impossible to have 4 different 5-game winning streaks during the year. We can agree on that, right? Well… there you go… 90-plus wins. 4 winning streaks like that is a 20-0 addition to your record. Split the rest of the games. Win one, lose one. Nothing fancy. You go 71-71 in those. The result… 4 winning streaks… even record the rest of the time… 91-71.

That’s all it takes. 4 winning streaks. Make it 5 streaks and you win a division title and threaten for home field during the playoffs. None of that looks pretty. None of that looks exciting. But it’s true. It’s so basic that many teams have gone on to have decent records at the end of the year and yet their fans were screaming during most of it.

And the math doesn’t have to be done that way. Good teams will rattle off stretches of 7-3 or 8-2 baseball… and after winning a weekend series here and three out of four there… you find yourself hitting September with a record of 76-57 and dead aim on postseason play.

Absolutely… it is much better to have 25 wins at this point… much better to be leading the division… much better to have players looking good and consistent (and healthy)… we agree on that. But if you can at least get out of the first stretch of the 162-game marathon without having destroyed your hopes, there’s still plenty of time to get right back into the playoff hunt. I think that’s fair to say.

Unless you’re a fan of Boston.

If that’s the case… things are looking much, much better, but they aren’t what you expected.

American League East

Team Currently On pace for I predicted
Tampa Bay 29-11 117-45 85-77
New York 25-15 101-61 96-66
Toronto 25-17 96-66 64-98
Boston 21-20 83-79 93-69
Baltimore 13-28 51-111 70-92

Ok… I’m lying. That’s last year’s chart. But check that out… Tampa with 29 wins. Four teams over .500. Toronto… a team that would finish with a winning record… was in third place with 25 wins. And Boston… today they are exactly where they were one year ago.


And does it matter? (Yes.) Is it still early? (No, and this shows it’s not…)

The final AL East standings in 2010… compared to the 40-game standings last year… involved Toronto and Boston flipping spots. That’s it.

Last year San Diego was 24-16. They cooled off, but still managed to enter the final weekend of 2010 pushing for a playoff spot. (And that was pushing for both a division title and the wild card). So when we look at Cleveland and even Kansas City in a second, keep in mind that they might just be for real. And also keep in mind that we are getting to a point where you should be paying attention and not shrugging things off.

Ok… here are the current, honest, 2011 AL East standings right now…

Team Currently On pace for I predicted
Tampa Bay 24-17 95-67 85-77
New York 20-19 83-79 92-70
Toronto 21-20 83-79 79-83
Boston 21-20 83-79 97-65
Baltimore 19-21 77-85 75-87

At some point you have to shift gears from saying the Boston is a better team than they’ve played and begin to get realistic about what is happening to their playoff chances. Just last year they hit this point of the season in pretty much the same spot they occupy this season… fourth place in the division… and had exactly same record. And last year they only managed to pass Toronto.

The way Tampa is playing right now is very bad news for Boston and New York. They weathered an injury to Evan Longoria and have already taken care of the ground they lost during a slow start. The postseason changes being kicked around that add a team haven’t begun… likely for next year… and so we still have a situation where at most only two teams in a division can make the playoffs. The Rays are impressing me enough to hold on to the belief that they are legitimately one of the best teams in the American League.

Better than New York and Boston? Well… hold on to that particular Tampa question and I’ll give you an answer at the 100-game mark.

For now… the beauty of following Boston is reaching .500, sweeping the Yankees to get to that even record, and having a good chunk of players producing. In other words… you weren’t expecting 21-20, but all things considered right now, you’ll take it.

I don’t think Toronto or Baltimore can keep pace all season… for two reasons. First, they simply aren’t as good as Tampa, Boston or New York. And second, they really aren’t in a position to trade anything that will make them as good as those clubs.

Ahh… but they might be able to both win 75 or more. And that could cause all sorts of headaches for the other three if a September scramble for the division and wild card is at stake.

Current prediction: Boston to take division, Tampa to be consistent and win wild card.

American League Central

Team Currently On pace for I predicted
Cleveland 25-13 107-55 72-90
Detroit 22-19 87-75 88-74
Kansas City 20-20 81-81 68-94
Chicago 17-25 67-95 88-74
Minnesota 12-27 50-112 88-74

If you had asked me if Minnesota could struggle, I would have said yes.

If you had asked me if Chicago could struggle, I would have said yes.

If you had asked me if Cleveland could play well, I would have said yes.

I would not have said yes to Minnesota looking absolutely lost and Chicago looking absolutely lost and Cleveland having the best record in the American League. All three of those things? Not happening.

Well… guess again.

What I can tell you is that… according to history… the Twins and White Sox are done. And for me, that means this is a race to be won or lost by the Tigers.

As I pointed out in the AL East… I think the recovery for Tampa signals troubles for Boston or New York. I still believe the wild card comes from one of those three clubs. And that means here in the Central… can the Indians hold on for the full year? …can the Royals play well for the full season? I say no. I think the Tigers catch both of them and take the division. (Heck… since the time I started this and the time I finished it, the Tigers already had caught the Royals.)

But it may not be that easy for Detroit. Here’s a funny one…

Grady Anderson is a trade chip. Right? Well… so was Adrian Gonzalez last year for the Padres. San Diego was in the hunt though… beginning to end. The longer Cleveland stays in the game, it is distinctly possible some trade possibilities shut down. (I know… I know… forget the injuries and disabled list and look more for the theory here.)

Over the past ten games, the Twins have gone 1-9. Think about that. They were a really bad 11-18. And then they went 1-9. It’s the worst record in baseball. Bad at home… bad on the road… Houston and Minnesota are the only two clubs to have given up more than 200 runs (and as I type this, they have given up 216 and 214 respectively, with only Kansas City close… the Royals have given up 193… (let that sink in)).

Why do I expect the Indians to fade? Well… do you really expect them to continue to lead the American League in runs scored? (Neither do I.)

Current prediction: Detroit to win division. Cleveland could be a good story… but I still believe they fade and become sellers in July. That said… pace to win 100-plus… can’t sneeze at that. Remember this concept: the longer you keep an underdog in the game, the less of an underdog they actually are.

American League West

Team Currently On pace for I predicted
Texas 22-19 87-75 88-74
California 22-20 85-77 84-78
Oakland 21-20 83-79 80-82
Seattle 17-23 69-93 64-98

Now this division is more like it. All four teams not only where I expected them to be, but their paces are pretty darn close to what I expected them to be. And here’s the biggee…

Texas is putting up solid offensive numbers, while winning big at home.

California is offering a balanced attack, with two starters that could easily get hot… stay hot… and cause lots of problems for opponents.

Not many surprises here.

Current prediction: Texas wins the division.

National League East

Team Currently On pace for I predicted
Philadelphia 25-15 101-61 94-68
Florida 24-16 97-65 84-78
Atlanta 24-19 90-72 89-73
Washington 20-21 79-83 76-86
New York 19-22 75-87 71-91

Three teams look white hot here… and I think both Philly and Florida will cool a bit. (Atlanta is right there with them… but on a pace for 90-wins. And that seems far more likely to me than Philadelphia cracking 100.)

The big trick is that the pace being set in the NL East is bad news for the rest of the National League. While St. Louis and Cincy are in the neighborhood, the reality is that we are seeing a race for two postseason positions being played out in this division. (Much like I feel about the AL East.) Still alot of settling to be done throughout baseball, but…

What’s not to like about Philly right now? They aren’t giving up many runs, and they still possess a dangerous roster that could be getting healthier as the season goes on.

What’s not to like about Atlanta right now? Cincinnati and St. Louis are both scoring a ton of runs so far, but they are giving them up in bunches as well. Good pitching likely can shut them both down. The Braves are looking nicely balanced.

I don’t get what Florida is doing. They always seem young and talented, and stick around late enough in the year to be interesting. But I haven’t seen enough to get a feeling for how they’re winning. For instance… they’ve scored more than the Phillies, and have given up fewer than both the Phillies and Braves. That’s good. They’ve also held their own in games against both of those clubs so far. That’s good too. But would you believe they have been consistently winning so far? True. Out of 13 series to date, they’ve won 8, lost 3, and split 2. And that’s included playing not just Houston and Pittsburgh and New York… but also Philadelphia and Cincinnati and St. Louis and Atlanta. They’re 10-4 in 1-run games. In short, I can’t view any of it as streaky. It sure seems legit. Add all of this up, and they are definitely a team to be reckoned with.

Current prediction: I’m sticking with Philadelphia to win the division and Atlanta the wild card. However, I am absolutely more impressed with the Marlins than I am by any other National League team right now. I just don’t see how they keep winning series after series, or 70% of 1-run games… and yet, in most measurable ways, they seem to be consistent, absolutely in line with doing what they do best, and… well… geez, don’t they always seem to be involved in discussions for some surprise trade or two that no one ever gave them a shot at being involved with?

National League Central

Team Currently On pace for I predicted
Cincinnati 24-17 95-77 82-80
St. Louis 23-19 89-73 88-74
Milwaukee 20-21 79-83 86-76
Pittsburgh 18-23 71-91 63-99
Chicago 17-22 71-91 78-84
Houston 15-26 59-103 69-93

Ok… the rule for me is .500 or you could be done. By that mark, Milwaukee is in trouble. But… they just got Zach Grienke back. And… unlike say Baltimore (who were 19-20 and close to .500 before the late inning loss in Boston drove them to 19-21 at the 40-game mark)… I would argue that both Cincinnati and St. Louis are way, way, way overextended offensively. (Ok… wait… second time I’ve pointed to the Reds and Cardinals as way too high offensively. I should clarify.)

Quite often when I write some of these columns, I give things the sniff test. In short… I look things over, gather really basic data, and decide for myself if things are what I would expect or not. Some pass the test… essentially meaning there is nothing strange, amazing, unusual or crazy that I can see. Nothing to do there. Some fail… and often failure is a result of questions that come up. Examples? Sure…

In March I absolutely expected Houston to be one of the worst teams in the National League. That they are, right now, one of the worst in the National League makes sense. Why waste time looking too deeply into it… unless you really are interested in the pain and suffering that is the Houston Astros. On the surface alone, the naïve view works, and the results pass the sniff test. Done.

If you did look deeper, you see the Astros have allowed more runs than anyone in baseball. They are scoring middle-of-the-pack, but allow almost one run per game more than any other team in the league. Again… basic stats… but a bit more in depth than simple wins and losses. Was it worth the time? (Well… it wasn’t much time to invest. But really, unless you were interested… and if you are, you’ll move even further, and…)

Where to go with the Astros… bad at home, worse on the road… they’ve lost the significant majority of the series they’ve played, and they’ve had some strings of consecutive losses… and… see? The deeper you go, it still gives you the sniff test results. The sniff test provided you with essentially confirmation of what you expected. All research did was show you why it happened. (And sure… in many situations… what you expected to see happen does in fact happen… it just doesn’t play out the way you predicted.)

In the case of Florida… the success was ok, but the casual observation didn’t pass the sniff test. Good in close games… no strings of losses or incredible, broadcast leading strings of consecutive victories. The more you investigated though, the more you learn about how they were winning two-out-of-every-three more often than not, and the more solid they look.

I expect the Marlins to keep winning for now. I expect the Astros to keep losing. Look outside the NL and check out Cleveland… and I do not expect them to end September outscoring league rivals like Boston, New York, Texas, Detroit, and so on.

Sniff tests… naïve approaches.

Back to Cincy and St. Louis.

No one in the National League… other than these two clubs… has cleared 180 runs as I type this. 180 runs… 40 games played… blah-blah-blah no one else at 4.5 runs a game. Everyone is below that. And yet, somehow, Cincy has scored 218 runs. St. Louis 220. They are both at about 5.5 runs per game and way, way, way beyond everyone else. Heck, they’re lapping American League clubs.

Talk about failing a sniff test. The runs scored raises all sorts of flags. And the research does not… for me… indicate that they can sustain this sort of productivity compared to everyone else. The Reds and the Cardinals may have dangerous hitters and decent lineups… they are not the two best offense in baseball. And if being the best created the separation…

Yeah… I think the Brewers may still be in this thing. After all… if healthy, I like their pitching as much as anyone else in the division. And their batting order has some power as well.

St. Louis would be the team that concerns me. Why St. Louis and not Cincinnati? Well… if you check out their schedule over the first 40-games, neither club has played a ton of high-quality opponents. (Check out Florida… they have played and won during a schedule that doesn’t seem to ease off.) But… the Reds have a solid home record (winning about 60% at home) and a winning road record. The Cardinals are 2-wins above even at home and on the road. The Reds have struggled outside the division, where the Cardinals have their extra wins. In division games though, the Reds are 19-10… the Cardinals 9-9.

Over the past couple of seasons, clubs like Minnesota have made a postseason living out of dominating in their division. That’s what I’m seeing from Cincinnati right now.

Current prediction: I think Cincinnati looks very good to win it. St. Louis still has time and talent, and Milwaukee isn’t done.

National League West

Team Currently On pace for I predicted
San Francisco 22-18 89-73 90-72
Colorado 21-18 87-75 87-75
Los Angeles 19-23 73-89 78-84
San Diego 18-23 71-91 72-90
Arizona 17-23 69-93 75-87

Hmm… how about that? Out West again and things are roughly in place for me.

What to like about the Giants? Very good at home… very good in the division.

What to like about the Rockies? Get this… 11-8 on the road.

The reality is… either of the two top clubs could win this division. But… right now… if you have to, place your money on the Rockies. Because San Francisco simply cannot score. Remember my little observation about sniff tests and Cincinnati and St. Louis… they were averaging 5.5 runs a game while the closest National league competitor was at 4.5? Yeah… well… the Giants went through a phase where they told everyone they sucked. And then by the time you heard it enough and looked at the standings, there they were in first place. Sucked? Had anyone in San Francisco talked to people in Boston or Tampa Bay? Deeper look when the naïve doesn’t work… and wow… yeah, they do suck. The Giants are at around 3.5 runs per game, scoring less than everyone except Minnesota (and less by alot).

The interesting thing is that I do believe San Fran has some room for improvement. They could go big… say a trade with New York for Jose Reyes. Or, they could go average… perhaps offering to take Marco Scutaro off of Boston’s bench. And they have some options in the outfield for bringing in some help with the offense. The trouble is that neither of those moves gets made with the intent to keep either of those players long term. And… (hold on, new paragraph…)

One thing I’ve neglected mentioning here in this article that will matter as the season moves along is what trades might be options. You might recall that in the season previews I kept mentioning that names weren’t out there. Gonzalez was gone from San Diego… and is now safely settled in Boston. Grienke was gone from Kansas City… and Milwaukee is likely to keep him for the year. And of all the free agent possibilities, there just wasn’t much that would get moved unless chaos took over. (Honestly… give the Yankees trading Sabathia the sniff test… watch it fail… and then tell me what would have to happen for that move to take place.)

The Giants have their pitching in order. They don’t need to make any huge acquisitions in that regard. What they need is a bat or two. And the Mets might listen to an offer that involves Beltran and Reyes. It would have a cost involved, but not an insane cost… since you won’t pay too ridiculously for rentals. (You’ll pay… just not as much.) I’m not saying they need to make that type of trade either. The Red Sox might be willing to send off Drew and Scutaro. The Diamondbacks might listen on a name from their roster… same for the White Sox… and where I’m heading is suddenly very simple… all you need is one or two pieces, and the Giants have some holes where those pieces would easily fit.

I don’t think Colorado needs to make many moves. And… I’m not sure where they have room to make moves. They’re middle-of-the-road scoring and preventing runs… and so far, so good on the road.

Current prediction: I’ll take Colorado to win the division right now. But when we get to our 100-game review, if some combination of Jose Reyes – J.D. Drew – Carlos Beltran – Grady Sizemore – Stephen Drew – Carlos Beltran… or whatever, considering the hole at shortstop as just one example… have managed to be healthy (big if on that for some of these guys) and are wearing San Francisco uniforms, I could easily change my mind. Two small improvements could decide this division.

If you have any comments or questions, please e-mail me at Bob@inmybackpack.com