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Original Issue

Field Leveled

With offense at historically low levels, 20 teams are still in the playoff hunt as the season hits its midpoint

As more revenue is shared among owners and more runs are drained from the game, commissioner Bud Selig moves closer to his "hope and faith" ideal—that fans of every team should begin a season with even the faintest belief that their club can contend for a playoff spot. But this age of democracy in baseball is arriving with a trade-off: the sacrifice of greatness.

As baseball reaches its halfway mark this week, the sport seems to be played with restrictor plates. There are no dominant teams capable of pulling away from the pack, but an abundance of thoroughly decent, if indistinguishable, teams that can hang around the pennant race with the help of the worst run-scoring environment in two decades. For example, four teams that lost 93 or more games last year entered this week with winning records: Pittsburgh, Arizona, Washington and Cleveland.

"It's just one of those years where everyone's got flaws," says Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein. "It's hard to evaluate anything. It's hard to tell who can pitch, and who is just taking advantage of the depressed run environment."

The Red Sox and the Phillies appear to be the best teams in baseball at the halfway mark, but even they have warts. Boston lost four in a row last week to the Padres and the Pirates—teams that combined spend barely more than half what Boston does—while Philadelphia put Roy Oswalt on the disabled list, where he joined fellow pitchers Joe Blanton, Jose Contreras and Brad Lidge. And the Yankees, who have shadowed the Red Sox, have relied on unlikely reinforcements Ivan Nova, Freddy Garcia, Bartolo Colon and Brian Gordon to start nearly half their games.

The 2011 season is defined by a lack of separation—both in the standings and on a game-by-game basis. Entering the week, virtually half of the games were decided by one or two runs (49.6%, the highest such percentage of the wild-card era). Tighter games are the result of less scoring. National League teams are averaging the fewest runs per game (4.09) since 1982. American League teams (4.29) haven't scored at a worse clip since 1973, and the league's batting average (.254) is the worst in the 38-year history of the designated hitter.

This season is not an aberration, but the continuation of a market correction sparked by an emphasis on pitching and defense, PED testing, and the ease and speed in which information (training, scouting, statistical analysis, medical) is available to every club, leaving small-revenue teams on equal footing with the biggest markets when it comes to intellectual currency. Over the past six seasons only three teams have won 100 games—compared to 12 in the previous six seasons. (At week's end only the Phillies were on pace to win 100 games.) The number of 90-win teams has shrunk as well: 41 in the past six years, down from 54 in the previous six.

Boston, after a 2--10 beginning, looked like the closest facsimile to an old-fashioned powerhouse with a 42--18 run in which first baseman Adrian Gonzalez hit like an MVP front-runner. But then came the series losses to San Diego and Pittsburgh. Besides, the Red Sox—who have already used eight starters—ranked ninth in the AL in ERA, hardly dominating. "I do think when we have [Josh] Beckett, [Jon] Lester and [Clay] Buchholz at the top of their game, we're going to be a team with a strong staff," says Epstein. "The staff numbers are skewed a bit by April, when we were giving up double digits left and right. Offensively, in the summer in our ballpark when it starts to get hot, we have a lineup that can be pretty relentless."

Philadelphia has nothing close to Boston's firepower. They, in fact, are scoring at a rate even worse than the 2010 Giants, who turned "torture," their brand of low-scoring baseball with razor-thin margins, into a world title. Like those Giants, the Phillies depend heavily on pitching; they are allowing only 3.25 runs per game, the best rate by a Philadelphia staff since 1917, smack in the middle of the Dead Ball era.

The three healthy members of their Opening Day rotation—Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels—have lived up to the preseason hype. When the Phillies score at least three runs in a Halladay, Lee or Hamels start, they are 30--1.

"Would I like to be scoring more runs? By and large, yes," says Phillies G.M. Ruben Amaro Jr. "But the only concern I would have in the second half is our young relievers. They've done a nice job. The concern I have is how they hold up in August and September.

"Baseball has made a U-turn. We've gone back to pitching and defense and speed. You don't see the power numbers of 15, 20 years ago. There's a change in how games are won."

The distribution of those wins, too, has undergone a change. On Monday morning no first-place team held more than a five-game lead, and 20 of the 30 teams stood within seven games of a playoff spot. The road to democracy in baseball is a crowded one.



CLIFF'S EDGE The Phils are following the '10 Giants' blueprint: lean on the dominance of power arms such as Lee.