With the All-Star break underway, it’s time to take a look at the state of the league now that the first half of the MLB season is in the books. A quick glance at the standings reveals that the first 80-plus games of the season provided a great challenge for most of the division leaders, as at the break, an astounding five of six divisions are separated by less than three games, up from just two at the same point in the season last year.
As temperatures around the nation continue to heat up, so do many of the playoff battles, with teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, Cleveland Indians, and Los Angeles Dodgers racing back to close the gaps in their respective divisions.
Here are some of the key team storylines from the season’s first half:
Less is More
In an interesting twist, some of the lowest-budgeted teams in the MLB are outperforming many of the biggest spenders by a fairly significant margin. The AL Wild Card-leading Rays, for example, entered the break 3.5 games ahead of the New York Yankees, whose opening-day payroll was more than $170 million higher.
Similarly, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane—whose “moneyball” approach inspired the wildly popular book and movie of the same name—has managed to put a first-place team on the field despite having the league’s fourth-lowest payroll. The Los Angeles Angels, on the other hand, find themselves 11 games behind Oakland in the AL West, even after splurging for big-name free agents like Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton in the past two offseasons.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, another team that has succeeded despite its salary cap limitations, have been one of the most intriguing stories of the first half of the 2013 season, even owning the league’s best record just days before the All-Star break. The Pirates enter the break tied for the third-best record in baseball, and are just one game behind the division-leading St. Louis Cardinals. Although the Pirates have a comfortable lead atop the NL Wild Card, they likely won’t rest on their successes just yet—last year the team finished 18 games back in the NL Central despite holding a one-game lead by the time the Midsummer Classic came around. With the Pirates looking to finally break a 20-year playoff drought, there will be immense pressure on Andrew McCutchen and Co. in the second half of the season.
AL Producing Power at the Plate
Although National League rookies Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Shelby Miller of the St. Louis Cardinals have been impressive thus far, it’s two veteran American League sluggers who have made the biggest impact in the MLB’s first half.
After becoming the first player in 45 years to win baseball’s Triple Crown last year, Miguel Cabrera has continued to fire on all cylinders in 2013, proving that his historic 2012 campaign was far from a fluke. The Detroit Tigers slugger has already posted some eye-popping numbers including a .365 batting average, 95 RBI, 30 home runs, and a .458 on-base percentage. He holds a narrow lead in the RBI category, while enjoying a whopping 43-point advantage in batting average, and his 30 home runs are currently second in the AL. With a monster finish to the season, Cabrera has a legitimate shot to become the first player in MLB history to win back-to-back Triple Crowns.
The man who currently holds the title of AL home run leader is the Baltimore Orioles’ Chris Davis, whose 37 home runs lead the MLB. The 27-year-old Davis, who hit a career-best 33 home runs last season, is currently on pace to hit 62 long balls in 2013. The power-hitting veteran has led his Orioles to a 53-43 record by doing much more than hitting balls out of the park—his .315 batting average, 93 RBI, 70 runs, and impressive defense at first base have been invaluable to the O’s. If Baltimore is to stage a comeback in the stacked American League, the biggest surprise story in the season’s first half will need to pull off a repeat performance down the stretch.
With so many intriguing storylines in play, you won’t want to miss your chance to see the action at a ballpark near you. MLB tickets are on sale now through the remainder of the season and into the postseason.