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The Halves and the Halves Not
2004-09-08 17:44
by Mike Carminati

Why do we get halfway there? Why do we get halfway started? Why when we get halfway there, do I feel it's so half-hearted?

—"Halfway There" from Genesis bassist Mike Rutherford's final solo album (which I own in glorious vinyl).

The surprise is half the battle. Many things are half the battle, losing is half the battle. Let’s think about what’s the whole battle.

—Elliott Ness in the "Untouchables"

A half-smart guy, that’s what I always draw. Never once a man who’s smart all the way around the course. Never once.

—Femme Fatale Agnes in the film "The Maltese Falcon"—she must have been a Phillies fan—penned by a cast of thousands, among them William Faulkner.

One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other.

—Jane Austen, Emma

With individual milestones being set potentially by Barry Bonds (700 home runs, .600 OBP, a googleplex of walks) and Ichiro Suzuki (hits, singles), it's easy to lose sight of how unusual a year 2004 has been, and promises to continue to be in the waning weeks, for team records.

Three of the six division leaders at the All-Star break have already lost their lead and look like longshots at best to regain it. The Yankees have seen a onetime 10-1/2 game lead dwindle to 2-1/2 as the Red Sox pour it on in the second half and Yankee pitchers injure themselves punching walls and allow record-breaking runs allowed (i.e., 22-0). Should the Red Sox pass the Yankees, as their Pythagorean expected winning percentage has augured all year, all three of the AL division leaders at the break, the Yankees, White Sox, and Rangers, will have lost their lead.

The NL has been slightly more consistent with the Cardinals and Dodgers leading their divisions most of the year. However, the East has seen its leader at the break fall below .500 (of course, the Phils) as well as a miraculous turnaround by its current leader (Get it? Miraculous…Braves?). Also, the NL Central, which had five of six teams at or above .500 at the break, has seen two clubs supposedly in the pennant race (the Reds and Brewers) fall completely off the map.

While the Diamondbacks have sold off many of their veteran stars and have been losing at a potentially record-setting pace in the second half, many other teams have surged. One now almost expects this sort of thing from the A's and the Marlins are duplicating or at least approaching last year's turnaround. However, the Red Sox have been second-half slumpers if recent memory and anecdotal history serve.

Here is a breakdown of the league standings by half and overall with the change in the winning percentage between the two halves:

First HalfSecond HalfOverall
Red Sox48387.5583516-.68683542.5.606.128
Devil Rays424513.5.483173216.347597726.434-.136
Blue Jays394917.443183215.5.360578129.413-.083
White Sox4638-.54823308.43469688.5.504-.114

There's not a lot of consistency in there besides the continual putrescence of the Mariners. The biggest turnarounds were by the Braves (.217), Expos (.173, going from doormats to a better than .500 team), the Cardinals (.144, who went from very good to great), Red Sox (.128), and Astros (.120) in that order. Meanwhile, many other teams sloughed through second-half collapses: Brewers (-.229), Reds (-.209), Mets (-.186), D-Rays (-.136), and D-Backs (.124). All of them beat out first-half division leaders Texas, Philly, and Chicago (South Side) for biggest dropoffs.

This all seems quite unusual when one considers the old adage that the leader at the break is almost guaranteed a postseason spot. But is it really that unusual is the adage inaccurate?

Also, many are pointing to second-half surges by the Braves and Red Sox as good omens for the postseason. The Yankees dropoff in the second-half is said to portent a quick exit come October. But is there any reason to expect these things to come true? Does second-half success correlate to postseason success?

Does one's Pythagorean winning percentage predict future success? Do teams with an expected winning percentage that outstrips its actual winning percentage in the first half of a season tend to become world beaters in the second half, like the Red Sox have?

Finally, should rebuilding teams that have improved in the second half, like the Expos, Rockies, O's, and Indians, expect to improve next year? By the same token, should teams like the Reds, Brewers, Mets, Diamondbacks, etc. be more concerned due to their second-half failures? Is there momentum from year to year that can be generated by a good/bad second half? Does the expected winning percentage in the second half affect the momentum more than the actual winning percentage?

Unfortunately, the conventional statistics do not support this type of study. Sure, you can go to and look up the first- and second-half splits for any active player, but just getting the standings at the All-Star break takes some clever calculations. And that's just for this season—forget about the full historical record.

I decided to endeavor to create the yearly first-half and second-half splits from the resources available. Using a table of All-Star game dates, I queried Baseball-Reference's "Standings on Any Date" tool to derive a table of team records by first- and second-half splits. Keep in mind that I used the All-Star Game date to delineate the two halves. When there were two ASG's in the late Fifties/early Sixties, I used the first date. Also, the All-Star Game started in 1933 so the data (for now) consists of only the past 72 seasons.

Halves Studies

First-Half Leader to Sub-.500

With my table in hand, I set out to explore the issues above. First, being a Phils fan, I took a look at first-half leaders who ended up under .500 for the season. The Phils are currently one game under .500, have reportedly already fired their manager, and are embarking a series with the red-hot Braves. The White Sox (one game over .500) could also suffer this fate.

So how many times has it happened in the past? Survey says:

TeamYr1st Half W1st Half L1st Half PCTWLYr PCTPOS
Chicago Cubs19735246.5317784.4785
Chicago White Sox19844440.5247488.4575t
New York Yankees19735744.5648082.4944
Philadelphia Phillies19744946.5168082.4943
Pittsburgh Pirates19974343.5007983.4882
Texas Rangers19834434.5647785.4753
Texas Rangers19944245.4835262.4561

The Rangers ended up in "first" in the strike-shortened 1994 season even though they were under .500. They were under .500 at the All-Star break as well. The Pirates were a .500 team in the first half in 1997.

The last team to go from a division leader above .500 in the first half to a sub-.500 club in the second was twenty years ago, the White Sox in 1984. They and the Phils just might do it again this year.

Entire League in Upheaval

As I mentioned, potentially all three first-half division leaders in the AL will be unseated by the end of the season. Has this ever happened since baseball went to the division format in 1969?

Well, it hasn't been done since 1989 when both AL leaders (the O's and the Angels) faltered in the second half. However, even though that represents a 15-year gap, it had been done fairly regularly in the Seventies. The AL in 1977, 1978, and 1983 and the NL in 1973, 1979, and 1983 saw both their division leaders in the first half fall by the wayside come October. 1983 saw all four division leaders (Montreal, Atlanta, Toronto, and Texas) get supplanted by other teams (Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and the White Sox, respectively). No league has had this occur since the majors went to three-division league though.

All-Star Break Adage Test

Next, let's check if the old adage about leading at the All-Star Break being a good omen for winning one's division. Here's a breakdown by decade of the division leaders at the break (including ties) and whether they won or lost the division:


Well, aside from the Forties and the Nineties, it doesn't look like being the first-half leader carries much weight. In the Forties, however, if you lead your league at the break, then you were almost a lock to go to the World Series. I am not surprised that as more teams are added to the postseason, the percentages were low. I am surprised, though, that they remained about the same in the Sixties and Seventies when the number of playoff teams doubled.

It does appear that as more teams are added, there is a lull before the percentage drops. Look at the dropoff in the 1980s after divisions were added in 1969 or at the lower percentage in the current decade after baseball expanded to three divisions in 1994 and witnessed an increase in the number of teams retaining their first-half lead. It could be that it takes organizations a number of years to a) realize that they too can take advantage of the additional playoff spot(s) and b) develop and/or acquire the requisite talent to do so. Adding the playoff spots at first just spread enabled the elite talent to take advantage of the extra spot. Consider the 1993 Giants and Braves NL West showdown.


To be continued…

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