Two teams and one trend changed the balance of baseball power in the first half of the 2006 season. Some of the fundamental assumptions of the game changed because the Detroit Tigers and the New York Mets got better -- much, much better.
More of the fundamental assumptions were altered because some American League teams are rich, and not necessarily in the traditional economic sense. Some of the AL teams are rich in a commodity much rarer than cash in the contemporary game -- pitching -- in both quality and quantity.
The success of the Tigers may be more surprising than that of the Mets, but their impact on the existing order of things has been roughly equal. Both teams have turned the usual expectations on their head.
For 14 straight seasons, the Atlanta Braves have been division champions. This was baseball's one sure thing during the last decade of the last century and well into the first decade of this century. The Braves win their division and everybody else falls into place somewhere on a lower rung.
That could happen for a 15th consecutive time, but it has all the current likelihood of a dramatic decrease in gas prices. The demise of the Braves is striking; a team perennially known for its pitching prowess cannot get the outs it needs in the late innings.
But that is only half of the NL East story. The rest of it is the genuine ascendance of the Mets. The Braves' shortcoming would be notable, anyway, but the Mets' performance has made them fatal to Atlanta's postseason chances.
As the first half of the season drew to a close, there were genuine races in five divisions. But in the NL East, there were the Mets and a bunch of teams that needed telescopic sights to find them in the standings. They appeared to be, for long stretches of time, not only the best in the NL East, but the best in the entire National League, period. This was truly different -- not only for the Mets, but for the way we viewed an entire league.
The success of the Tigers sets up the possibility of an equally fundamental change in the AL. Along with the continuing success of the Chicago White Sox, the Tigers set up an unprecedented situation in the American League. Since the advent of the expanded postseason, the AL Central has never won the Wild Card berth. In recent seasons, this has largely been the province of the AL East. The Yankees win the division, the Red Sox finish second, they both go into the playoffs -- cased closed.
This year, unless the wheels fall off completely for the Tigers, that situation could change. Through the first three months of the season, the Tigers and the White Sox, in that order, were the two best teams in baseball by record. The Yankees and the Red Sox -- and let us not forget the improved Toronto Blue Jays -- may find themselves in an all-or-nothing situation in September. For those who still think that the Wild Card dilutes the importance of the regular-season title, welcome to the old days. Either win the whole thing or go home.
But more than anything, the Tigers won more than anybody else because they pitched better than anybody else. This was the key to the balance of power shifting even more noticeably in the direction of the American League. That "Junior Circuit" stuff is gone now, and it would probably require a constitutional amendment to revive it.
Look at some of the Interleague records. Boston (16-2), Minnesota (16-2), Detroit (15-3), the Chicago White Sox (14-4) and, hey, even the unheralded Seattle Mariners (14-4). A lot of people want to explain that by saying that the AL teams have more hitting, or at least more hitters, with the DH.
True, but the fact is that what characterized the Interleague success of four of those AL teams were qualities traditionally thought of as National League in nature.
The Red Sox put up a 12-game winning streak in Interleague play on the way to breaking a Major League record for consecutive errorless games (17). And the fact is that, top to bottom, there is more quality pitching on the staffs of the three AL Central teams in question -- the Tigers, White Sox and Twins -- than any National League team currently possesses.
And let's not argue about the inclusion of the Twins there, not with the two best left-handed starters in the game at this moment both in the employ of that club.
It was primarily pitching -- consistent, high-quality, deep pitching -- that allowed these AL teams to dominate their NL counterparts. This does not fit any of the typical stereotypes regarding the two leagues. But some of that should have gone out the window last October when the White Sox went 11-1 in the postseason by pitching better than anybody else.
A good first half? As far as anybody can tell, it was more like an epic first half. The door was opened for a new order of things in the standings, in the postseason and even between the leagues themselves. And that was just for what is supposed to be the quieter half of the season.
This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.