However this MLB season winds up, one thing is for certain: the television executives at ESPN, FOX, TBS, and the MLB Network are surely hoping that good pennant races maintain until the end of the year – and one race in particular. The execs must be thrilled that the Yankees and Red Sox rivalry, by far the greatest in baseball or any sport for that matter, has returned with a vengeance this year. It’s been back and forth between them for control of the AL East ever since the first couple weeks of the season. The Red Sox began the year at a torrid pace, winning 17 of their first 20 before coming back to the pack a bit just as the Yanks were heating up. As of this writing, the Sox are a couple games up going into next week’s All-Star Game – the traditional mid-point of the season even though in reality it’s a bit past the middle of the season.
The Yanks and Red Sox bring eyes to the television screens in the post-season, and this has a residual positive effect across all of the viewing numbers. But they are certainly not the only story in the American League. The defending champion Houston Astros and the surprising Seattle Mariners are engaged in a great battle in the AL West. Currently, the Astros have taken a somewhat commanding four-game lead over Seattle. But this is only because they are playing an incredibly strong .660 winning percentage level of baseball. Seattle is currently at .620 and 18 games above .500. To put this in perspective, Seattle would be in first place in any other division in the Major Leagues except the AL East where the Red Sox and Yanks battle it out. In fact, at one point all four of the teams were flirting with .650 winning percentage which has only happened once before in the same league in MLB history.
This is a tremendous display of quality baseball, and if all four of these teams maintain the clip they’re playing at now, two will face off in a one-game wildcard playoff game. At this point, it would be the Yankees and Mariners if all things remained as they are today. There’s a debate whether the one-game format is fair (after all, there is no such thing as a one-game match-up throughout the entire season – teams always play each other in a series format) but there’s no denying that the two wild-card teams add an extra layer of excitement and keep many more teams in the hunt until the very end of the season in most cases. The other division leader in the American League right now is the Cleveland Indians. And although they started out very slowly and play in the weakest division in the AL, you can’t sleep on this team. They are rounding into form and definitely have the ability to win it all. They went on a blistering winning streak last season and most of the parts are still there for a deep run in the post-season this year.
Also to the delight of the TV execs and MLB powers-that-be have to be the National League races. The Dodgers have righted the ship after a shaky start and now are one of the hottest teams in baseball, nipping at the heels of division-leading Arizona. The Chicago Cubs are only a couple games behind the Milwaukee Brewers who have had a fantastic first half. The other big surprise race thus far is in the NL East between the Atlanta Braves – finally returning to playoff contention after an extended drought – and the resurgent Phillies. So, from a strictly market-sized perspective, the top five most populous cities in America are represented by a team strongly in contention for a playoff spot: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, and Philadelphia. (Houston is the city that people often don’t realize is in the top 5.) This bodes well for TV-ratings in the post-season. But although TV viewership may do well, MLB has a troubling drop in live attendance of games. It’s dipped almost seven percent from last year and is at its lowest average stadium turnout in 15 years. It may be the first time in those 15 years that average attendance sinks below 30,000 per game (and a lot of teams are weighing that average down!)
So we shall see if the stars of the game who will be assembled in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday for the 2018 All-Star game can turn this trend the second half of the season. The starting line-up for the American League features Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, and Mookie Betts in the outfield (wow!); three ‘Joes’ and a Manny in the infield — Jose Abreu, Jose Altuve, Jose Ramirez, and Manny Machado; with Wilson Ramos catching and J.D. Martinez at DH. The starting pitcher hasn’t been named yet but it seems like Chris Sale of the Red Sox or the Yankees’ Luis Severino will get the nod. The Senior Circuit counters with Nick Markakis, Matt Kemp, and Bryce Harper patrolling the outfield; Freddie Freeman, Javy Baez, Brandon Crawford, and Nolan Arenado around the horn; with Willson Contreras catching and the DH to be named by manager Dave Roberts of the Dodgers. Max Scherzer of the Nationals will be the starting pitcher.
That’s a lot of star-power wattage, and these young players are accessible, responsive to fans, and by and large a group of great character people and unquestionable talent. So, in one sense MLB seems in good shape for the future. The downward-trending attendance is troubling for the future of the game, however, and the predictions that the game is going to fade in popularity as the older generation who played a lot of baseball gives way to another that hasn’t may be starting to be proven true. Either way, this year’s season promises thrills and, if it is half as entertaining as the 2017 post-season, we’re all in for a treat!
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