Pitching alone can't carry teams to October
No rotation is good enough to carry offense-starved club to postseason
Baseball's run-scoring drought continues, with no end in sight. No matter what level of the sport you watch, the story is the same -- hitting is down, pitching is up.
Reflexively, we spotlight the best arms available in the days leading to the non-waiver Trade Deadline, but that thinking is becoming outdated. It is the hitters who should be in demand, that should be viewed as difference-makers.
No newcomer helped his team more last season than Yasiel Puig. Jose Abreu and Billy Hamilton are giving the White Sox and Reds, respectively, quite a lift -- and for the first time, the Angels are getting the collective bang for their buck for adding Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton to the cast built around Mike Trout.
When you look at how teams are set up for the rest of the season, the ones that look the most upwardly mobile are the ones that are scoring runs. The ones that will have a tough time maintaining their position are the ones that have played well despite minimal run production.
In 2004-08, there were seven playoff teams that ranked 10th or lower in their leagues in scoring. There haven't been any such teams the last five years, suggesting that it is tougher than ever to simply pitch your way into the playoffs with teams averaging three-quarters of a run less than they were in 2006 (4.14, down from 4.86).
The way teams set themselves apart these days is by scoring runs. That offers this road map for the second half:
• Three teams that open play on Friday positioned for Wild Card berths (the Braves, Mariners and Giants) are going to get passed if they don't start to hit.
Atlanta, which started 17-7 and has gone 35-36 since then, is in a battle with the Nationals for first place in the National League East heading into the second half. But it ranks 13th in the NL in runs scored, on pace for 1,376 strikeouts and only 617 runs.
"Look, this is a lineup that is going to have strikeouts," manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "We know that. But we have to do more when we do hit the ball. We have to get big hits, timely hits. We have to run the bases. We have to put pressure on pitchers."
The Braves led the NL with 181 home runs last year, but they have fallen into a tie for seventh, on pace for only 138. That power shortage could easily prove fatal to their playoff hopes if it continues.
Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager are giving the Mariners some balance that they didn't have in the years they wasted Felix Hernandez's dominance. But Seattle ranks 11th in the American League in scoring, with Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Brad Miller failing to carry their weight.
General manager Jack Zduriencik is looking for upgrades and you can't blame him. He loves how his pitching staff has allowed the M's to recover from a 7-13 start, and he has young pitching to trade.
As recently as June 8, the Giants were 42-21 and 9 1/2 games ahead of the Dodgers in the NL West. But they went 10-22 from there and find themselves in the NL Wild Card jumble. They're currently 10th in the NL in scoring, and that is not going to be good enough. Brandon Belt's return should be a step in the right direction, if not the kind of boost they got when they added Hunter Pence at the Deadline two years ago.
• The Cardinals are baseball's one true sleeping giant. They finished the first half only one game behind Milwaukee in the NL Central and one-half behind the Giants and Braves in the NL Wild Card race despite ranking 14th in the NL with an average of 3.75 runs per game, down from an NL-best 4.8 last season.
They've missed Carlos Beltran more than most residents of Cardinals Nation felt they would, and playing the next two months without Yadier Molina will be challenging. But Matt Holliday didn't forget how to hit, and you can only keep a hitter like Allen Craig down so long. The recent power surge led by Matt Adams and Kolten Wong was a good sign, and sooner or later, Oscar Taveras is going to start living up to his billing.
• While the Royals are second to the Tigers in the AL Central, they aren't going to go anywhere if they don't improve a lineup that ranks 10th in the league in scoring. Eric Hosmer's improvement in July is a terrific sign, but don't expect the recent signing of Raul Ibanez to be the last move by Dayton Moore as he tries to get Kansas City into the playoffs for the first time since 1985. A lot of people are hoping he can pull it off, as it would be a great story.
• Despite the strength of the Kansas City storyline, the Blue Jays, Indians and White Sox have enough hitting that they must be taken seriously.
Toronto, ranked fourth in the AL in scoring, seems especially dangerous, but it opens the second half without Edwin Encarnacion, who was in the AL MVP Award picture before he went on the disabled list with a strained quad. Abreu has turned around the White Sox the way that Terry Francona's arrival did the Indians last season. Jason Kipnis could be an impact guy for Cleveland the next couple of months. The question in Chicago is whether the Sox can upgrade a pitching staff that gets thin fast behind Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and John Danks. Both the White Sox and Indians could be sellers at the Trade Deadline if they don't come out swinging after the All-Star break.
Lots of questions, and only one thing we know for sure.
With scoring at a modern low, you can't get to October if your team is punchless. No pitching staff is good enough to carry that much dead weight.
Phil Rogers is a columnist to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.