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First-half leaders: Visions or mirages?

First-half leaders: Visions or mirages?

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Is the first half of the 2009 season a road map to the future -- or a blueprint fit for the shredder?

As we emerge from the All-Star break, the traditional (if not mathematical) midpoint of the season, are the major individual and division races done deals? Or just preludes to the real deals?

Put it this way:

Albert Pujols might be leading in homers and RBIs now, but as Satchel Paige advised a half-century ago, he had better not look back, or he might see someone gaining on him.

2009 Midterm Report
On the other hand, Pujols' team, the Cardinals, may as well start printing playoff tickets.

And we haven't got a clue who will be the National League Wild Card entry, but those teams tend to jump out of the weeds, so check the .500 mark for your prime candidates.

When it comes to judging the first half of the season, recent history suggests we only know half of what we think we know.

Since the start of this decade, about half of the division leaders, appropriately enough, were still on top at the end of the season. And, remarkably, the same goes for individual pacesetters in key categories both on offense and in pitching.

In the nine seasons since 2000, 30 of 54 midpoint division leaders closed their deals; the ratio was comparable across all six divisions.

Of the 72 leaders in both leagues' Triple Crown departments -- batting average, home runs, RBIs -- plus stolen bases, 29 brought it home.

In pitching's Triple Crown -- wins, strikeouts, ERA -- plus saves, 34 of 72 first-half leaders kept their edges to the wire.

History thus implies half of the pennants and laurels are up in the air.

And that makes what will ensue the better half.

The surest thing entering the second half is the Cards holding their lead, currently 2 1/2 games over the Brewers. Since 2000, St. Louis has led the NL Central at the break five times -- and captured the flag each time.

On the other hand, Detroit is the midway leader of the game's most volatile division. Only four of the nine AL Central leaders in our time frame ran up the flag. Furthermore, this is the third time in four years that the Tigers have led at the break, and they've yet to claim a title (although they qualified as the AL Wild Card in 2006).

Most intriguingly, only once did all three division leaders in a league hold on for titles -- in the 2006 NL, when the Mets, Cards and Padres all came through.

And then there's the Wild Card wildness: While four AL midpoint leaders who faded at least survived for the postseason as the fourth team (2005, '08 Red Sox, '06 Tigers, '00 Mariners), each of the nine NL Wild Cards stormed out of nowhere.

Of them, making the biggest charges were the 2004 Astros, who stood 44-44 and in ninth place in the Wild Card standings at the break, and the '03 Marlins (49-46, seventh place). Three other teams rallied into the playoff field after having played .500 ball through the first half: the '07 Rockies, '05 Astros and '01 Cardinals.

The perception that the sport teems with first- and second-half players is confirmed by the fates of many first-half leaders.

Another confirmed adage: Speed never slumps.

Of the midpoint steal leaders, eight of the nine National Leaguers (and six in the AL) ran away with the title.

Least secure pole position: taking the NL's lowest ERA into the All-Star pit-stop. None of the nine leaders kept that rung (and only two in the AL).

So having good reason to rest uneasy with their leads are Arizona's Dan Haren, with his 2.01 ERA, and the Royals' Zack Greinke (2.12).

Also ripe for picking are the trio (Heath Bell, Francisco Rodriguez, Brian Wilson) who top the NL with 23 saves; the only midpoint NL saves leader to survive was Chad Cordero in 2005.

Nor should Pujols, who arguably carried the highest profile through this half-season, get too comfortable. He previously entered All-Star breaks leading once each in homers and RBIs -- and fell short of keeping either edge.

In 2006, Pujols led the NL with 29 homers, but St. Louis' adopted son lost the crown to St. Louis' native son Ryan Howard, who trailed by one at the break and finished with 58 to Pujols' 49.

And after pacing the league with 86 RBIs at the midpoint in 2003, Pujols wound up in a tie for fourth, 17 behind leader Preston Wilson. (For that matter, only one NL halfway RBI leader -- Lance Berkman in '02 -- has been the all-the-way leader).

Prince Albert has been most celebrated for his consistency, a trait that should serve him well as he tries to protect sizable leads in both homers (32-24 over Adrian Gonzalez) and RBIs (87-78 over the other Prince, Fielder).

And a Triple Crown, which would be the NL's first since they were doing the Charleston (1937, Joe Medwick), is a genuine threat, considering Pujols' track record is to hit 17 points higher (.344) in the second half than in the first. He currently is fourth in the league, ahem, 17 points behind Hanley Ramirez.

Pitching leaders at the break and end of the season, 2000-08
 
WINS
STRIKEOUTS
ERA
SAVES
Yr.
Lg.
Break
Final
Break
Final
Break
Final
Break
Final
'08ALLee, Saunders, 12Lee, 22Burnett, 126Burnett, 231Duch'erer, 1.82Lee, 2.54K-Rod, 38K-Rod, 62
NLWebb, 13Webb, 22Lincecum, 135Lincecum, 265Volquez, 2.29Santana, 2.54Wilson, 25Valverde, 44
'07ALBeckett, Sabathia 12Beckett 20Bedard 149Kazmir 239Haren 2.30Lackey 3.02K-Rod 24Borowski 45
NL5 players, 10Peavy, 19Peavy, 125Peavy, 240C. Young, 2.00Peavy, 2.54Cordero, 27Valverde, 47
'06ALHalladay, 12Santana, Wang, 19Santana, 138Santana, 245Liriano, 1.83Santana 2.77Jenks, Papelbon 26K-Rod 47
NLGlavine, Marquis 116 players, 16Zambrano, 124Harang, 216JJohnson, 2.21Oswalt, 2.98Is'hausen, 26Hoffman, 46
'05ALGarland, 13Colon, 21Santana, 143Santana, 238Halladay, 2.41Millwood, 2.86Nathan, 25K-Rod, Wickman 45
NLWillis, Carpenter, 13Willis, 22Martinez, 138Peavy, 216Oswalt, 2.39Clemens, 1.87Cordero, 31Cordero, 47
'04ALRogers, Mulder, 12Schilling, 21Santana, 136Santana, 265Hudson, 2.98Santana, 2.60Rivera, 32Rivera, 53
NLSchmidt, Milton 11Oswalt, 20RJohnson, 145RJohnson290Sheets, 2.26Peavy, 2.27Graves, 33Is'hausen, Benitez, 47
'03ALHalladay, 13Halladay, 22Mussina, 121Loaiza, 247Martinez, 2.36Martinez, 2.22Foulke, Macdougal, 24Foulke, 43
NLOrtiz, 12Ortiz, 21Wood, 156Wood, 266Willis, 2.08Schmidt, 2.34Smoltz, 34Gagne, 55
'02ALMussina, Lowe, Buehrle 12Zito, 23Martinez, 141Martinez, 239Lowe, 2.36Martinez, 2.26Guardado, 26Guardado, 45
NLSchilling, 14R. Johnson, 24Schilling, 186RJohnson, 334Glavine, 2.27RJohnson, 2.32Gagne, 32Smoltz, 55
'01ALGarcia, 10Mulder, 21Martinez, 150Nomo, 220Martinez, 2.26Garcia, 3.05Rivera, 29Rivera, 50
NLSchilling, 12Morris, Schilling, 22RJohnson, 202Rjohnson, 372Maddux, 2.41Rjohnson, 2.41Wagner, 19Nen, 45
'00ALHudson, 10Hudson, Wells 20Martinez, 140Martinez, 284Martinez, 1.44Martinez, 1.74T. Jones, 24Lowe, T. Jones 42
NLRJohnson, 14Glavine, 21RJohnson, 198RJohnson, 347RJohnson, 1.80Brown, 2.58Hoffman, 22Alfonseca, 45

Hitting leaders at the break and end of the season, 2000-08
 
AVERAGE
HOMERS
RBIs
STOLEN BASES
Yr.
Lg.
Break
Final
Break
Final
Break
Final
Break
Final
'08ALKinsler, .337Mauer, .328Sizemore, 23Cabrera, 37Hamilton, 95 Hamilton, 130Ellsbury, 35Ellsbury, 50
NLC. Jones, .376C. Jones, .364Howard, 28Howard, 48Howard, 84Howard, 146Taveras, 39Taveras, 68
'07ALOrdonez, .367Ordonez, .363A-Rod, 30A-Rod, 54A-Rod, 86A-Rod, 156Roberts, 27Roberts, 50
NLPence, .342Holliday, .340Fielder, 29Fielder, 50C. Lee, 73Holliday, 137Reyes, 46Reyes, 78
'06ALMauer, .378Mauer, .347Ortiz, 31Ortiz, 54Ortiz, 87Ortiz, 137Figgins, 33Crawford, 58
NLG'Parra, .358Sanchez, .344Pujols, 29Howard, 58Berkman, 79Howard, 149Reyes, 39Reyes, 64
'05ALC. Guillen, .353Young, .331Teixeira, 25A-Rod, 48Ramirez, 80Ortiz, 148Podsednik, 44Figgins, 62
NLD. Lee, .378D. Lee, .335A. Jones, D. Lee 27A. Jones, 51C. Lee, 76A. Jones, 128Furcal, 29Reyes, 60
'04ALPudge, .369Ichiro, .372Ramirez, 26Ramirez, 43Ortiz, 78Tejada, 150Crawford, 38Crawford, 59
NLCasey, .352Bonds, .362Thome, 28Beltre, 48Rolen, 80Castilla, 131Podsednik, 34Podsednik, 70
'03ALIchiro, .352Mueller, .326Delgado, 28A-Rod, 47Delgado, 97Delgado, 145Beltran, Ichiro, 25Crawford, 55
NLPujols, .368Pujols, .359Edmonds, Lowell, 28Thome, 47Pujols, 86Wilson, 141Pierre, 44Pierre, 65
'02ALSweeney, .361Ramirez, .349A-Rod, 27A-Rod, 57A-Rod, 73A-Rod, 142Soriano, 23Soriano, 41
NLHelton, .346Bonds, .370Berkman, 29Sosa, 49Berkman, 81Berkman, 128Castillo, 29Castillo, 48
'01ALIchiro, .345Ichiro, .350Thome, Martinez, 26A-Rod, 52Ramirez, 84B. Boone, 141Ichiro, 28Ichiro, 56
NLBerkman, .365Walker, .350Gonzalez, 35Bonds, 73Gonzalez, 86Sosa, 160Rollins, 28Pierre, Rollins, 46
'00ALG'Parra, .389G'Parra, .372Delgado, 28Glaus, 47Pudge, 80E.Martinez, 145Damon, 23Damon, 46
NLHelton, .383Helton, .372Griffey, 28Guerrero, 44Kent, 85Helton, 147Castillo, 36Castillo, 62

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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