If a casual fan were to peek at the AL East standings today, he or she would hardly bat an eye: the powerhouses of the past decade sit pretty atop the pack, a couple of dark horses remain firmly in the hunt, and the bottom feeder is beginning to slip away from contention already.
The order is not what hardcore fans of any flock were predicting, though. You’ll remember quickly that the Toronto Blue Jays added over $35.5 million this offseason and were heavily favored in the division. You’ll remember that the Boston Red Sox could not muster 70 wins last year, and that some were convinced their 2013 also was doomed. And you’ll surely remember that the New York Yankees were left for dead by a number of pundits. The order today may surprise, but all along—and no one seemed to disagree with this characterization—the division has been wide open.
What is eating the Toronto Blue Jays?
A team with raw talent is not necessarily a team with winning chemistry, as evidenced by this particular collection of superstars. The Blue Jays were supposed to beat any opponent with their multi-angular attack: two doses of speed (Jose Reyes and Rajai Davis) and at least two doses of power (Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Bautista, and Brett Lawrie)—if their pitching ever failed. And in-between the offensive fireworks, the high-value arms were supposed to sprinkle in a few gems here and there.
No such luck. R.A. Dickey, the NL Cy Young winner last year who was booed off the field on Saturday, called the team “dysfunctional…kind of searching for a way.” But is such a diagnosis, a team lacking chemistry, too easy, too simple?
Injuries are partly to blame. Lawrie, Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Bautista each have missed time. And luck hasn’t been kind to a number of Blue Jay bats.
Adjust the performance, though, for luck; for strength of schedule; for predicted runs scored versus reality; for just about everything, and you’re left with a team that’s won as many games—11, as of this writing—as they should have. Talent has diverged from success, and what better immeasurable factor to blame it on than team chemistry?
Where is the swagger of the Tampa Bay Rays?
There was some level of fear that when the Rays let B.J. Upton walk, their offense would suffer. Fast-forward a few months, and there was some level of feeling that they overcompensated; that when the Rays swapped James Shields for minor-league masher Wil Myers, their pitching would suffer at the hand of offensive reinforcements. The balance seemed delicate any way you sliced it.
The concerns of dismal offensive production surely seem overblown at this juncture: the offense rocks the sixth-highest WAR (per FanGraphs), despite a .279 team BABIP. The pitching has been another story altogether.
While Shields tosses fire in Royal blue (he has a 3.00 ERA supported by a 2.78 FIP and 3.22 xFIP), the Rays starters—at the hand of many too many home runs—have combined for a 4.21 staff ERA. Alex Cobb has experienced a breakout that seems legitimate and withholds tests of luck (he’s riding on superior control) and stay (his hot streak is a continuation of last September’s 2.73 ERA).
Luck will help David Price escape the doldrums, but the recipe for the Rays might be a fifth-starter replacement for Roberto Hernandez. And James Loney’s run of greatness (his 171 wRC+ means he’s 71 percent better than league average in total offensive production) surely will come to an end. So the two ends of the spectrum converge … a delicate balance, indeed.
Do the Baltimore Orioles have staying power?
The Orioles of last year were a special kind of lucky. Or so we thought. Their 29-9 record in one-run games (a .763 win percentage) was the third-best in baseball history and the best since the 1890 Brooklyn Bridegrooms. Naturally, the line told a story of luck over skill, a story of fate over one of deft field management.
Whether or not luck was to thank for a highly successful 2012, this year, the Orioles are prevailing on talent. Their top three offensive players—Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and Adam Jones, all among the top 50 in WAR, per FanGraphs—have been forces. Despite some luck, the trio should remain forceful all year. Machado has All-Star potential, and the latter two are the magic age of 27.
The intangibles have to be considered: Buck Showalter has a young squad (oldest active player is 32), with home run power (their 39 home runs are among the top five in baseball) and a groundball-heavy bullpen (relievers on the team have a combined 46.7 groundball percentage). Perhaps they aren’t built to last, but right under our noses, the Orioles have built themselves into a division force.
Are the New York Yankees championship contenders?
The conventional wisdom on the Yankees looked something like this in March: if the brittle staff can keep the bed clean, the woefully average offense might be able to muster up enough spark to win a few games. With the overachieving Ivan Nova, the enigmatic Phil Hughes, and the final professional days of Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda, though, the equation looked a bit optimistic.
Perhaps 2013 was to go down in Yankee history as the sacrificed year, where the lifting of the luxury cap burden was the only goal; a painful footnote in an otherwise dominant few decades. It didn’t help matters that Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez were missing in action. April was the month where the house of cards seemed destined fall.
But the Yankees—on the surprising backs of Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay, and Francisco Cervelli, all supported by generally excellent starting pitching— have hovered around the top of the standings for nearly the whole month. And reinforcements are on the way.
The success begs the question: was the panic overstated? The offense was to be anchored all along by a perennial MVP candidate in Robinson Cano. The staff was to be anchored all along by a perennial Cy Young candidate in CC Sabathia. Brett Gardner averaged nearly 5.5 wins in 2010 and 2011, and he was fully healthy going into the season; Kuroda hadn’t a bad season to his name in his major league career.
Whether they’re overperforming or not, reinforcements are on the way. Perhaps the Yankees can sneak into the playoffs, and a team built around the home run and the pitching staff surely can make a run.
How poisonous was Bobby Valentine’s presence?
Clock in with a top-five offense and a top-five pitching staff, and you’ll surely find yourself atop your division, no matter what demons follow you from the previous season. The Sox have piggybacked on the performances of Clay Buchholz (Cy Young candidate, or spit baller, or both?) and Jacoby Ellsbury.
A couple of things about this accomplishment are noteworthy. Firstly, besides a four-game set at the end of the month against the Astros, the Red Sox haven’t played a bad team all year. (This requires us to give Toronto the benefit of the doubt, but we’ve established that they are, though flawed, extremely talented.)
Secondly, the highest xFIP on the starting staff belongs to Jon Lester, who is generating ground balls at nearly a 50-percent rate. Besides a slightly prolonged Alfredo Aceves hiccup for a handful of starts, the Red Sox arms—and this shockingly includes John Lackey—have been superb.
If you haven’t already, it’s time to admit you were wrong about the Red Sox. Even I didn’t have them pinned down right. This year, discipline and camaraderie are staples. The boys are playing with confidence, and love—even with the Valentine departed—is in the dugout.