AL East: Five storylines

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If you ask someone what the best division in baseball is, chances are that person will tell you it’s the AL East—it’s a pretty standard answer, no? Since 2008, the Rays, Yankees and Red Sox have been above .500 every year, and the Blue Jays have been above .500 in 2008 and 2010. This year, it’s the tightest division in the league with five teams within 3.5 games in the standings (the AL West has four teams within five games, for the best comparison).

If you’ve been following the East recently, you’ve been witnessing quite a shakeup. The Red Sox seem to have returned from their terrible start—0-6 through six games, 2-10 through 12. They have finally reached the .500 mark after a sweep of the Yankees. The Rays, who were also 0-6, have rebounded even more impressively: They have taken over the Yankees’ division lead and are now charging hard at the Indians and their league-best .649 winning percentage.

As the chart above shows, the Rays have been scorching hot since the second week in April. At the other end of the spectrum, the Yankees have been in a rut, most recently suffering a home series loss at the hands of the Royals and the aforementioned sweep from the Red Sox. All of a sudden, after being in first place for the first five weeks of the season, they have slipped to two behind the Rays and only a game and a half out of the cellar.

Speaking of the cellar, the Orioles have encountered some hard times after winning six of their first seven, but they most recently took two out of three against the Rays to tighten up the division. And the Blue Jays, with the aid of some guy who’s apparently really good at hitting, have just won five straight and have gotten all the way back to the .500 mark.

As with any division, there have been plenty of good stories in the AL East this year. Let’s start with Baltimore.

Orioles: Britton’s surprise contribution

The Orioles’ pitching hasn’t been very impressive so far, but if I had to pick out a bright spot, I would give a mention to rookie Zach Britton. Called up in something of a surprise move during the first week of the season as a replacement for the injured Brian Matusz, the southpaw Britton is coming off of the best start of his career in which he shut out the Mariners over nine innings, walking none and striking out five.

If you look at the team leader boards on Fangraphs, you’ll notice that Britton is out-WARing all his teammates with his 0.8 mark. Britton throws lots of low-90s sinking fastballs and hard mid-80s change-ups, so a huge part of his game is the ground ball— his groundball rate of 54 percent is not elite, but it is well above league average. Britton isn’t striking a lot of hitters out (5 K/9), but his walk rate is solid (2.8 BB/9) and he’ll be fine if he keeps getting those grounders. I would expect his 2.42 ERA to regress to more like 3.80, where his FIP and xFIP reside, but I’m sure the Orioles would be thrilled to get a 3.80 ERA out of the rookie.

Blue Jays: Bautista keeps raking

If I’m talking about the Blue Jays, how can I not talk about Jose Bautista? Joey Bats has exceeded EVERYBODY’S (well, probably everybody’s) expectations: He’s now hitting a Bondsian .368/.520/.868 for the season with 16 home runs. No matter how you look at it, his numbers aren’t fair. He’s leading the league in walks per plate appearance at 23.3 percent (Jack Cust is next with 19.2); he’s blowing everybody away with his .500 isolated power (Curtis Granderson is next at .353); he’s actually NOT first in the majors in batting average: His .368 is second to Matt Holliday’s .379.

Throw in some defensive value and you get 3.9 WAR according to Fangraphs. No one else is over 2.7. Also, that 3.9 fWAR for this year’s 32 games is 2.1 more than his first six major league seasons combined. Yes, he’ll go through a slump at some point, but for now, let’s just enjoy this ridiculous story.

Red Sox: Two new stars in completely different places

A lot was made this offseason about the Red Sox’ additions and how they looked, on paper, to be one of the best teams in the majors. They’ve been coming on strong recently, but they still have a lot of work to do and are only just now getting to the .500 mark.

Their two big offensive acquisitions, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford, have had different stories to tell thus far. Gonzalez has been spectacular, leading the team with a .407 wOBA. He’s been hitting his stride recently, leading the majors with eight homers in May. On the other hand, there’s the struggling Carl Crawford. Crawford’s triple slash for the season is now .208/.242/.286, which contributes to the fifth lowest fWAR (-0.7) in the majors. Given his record with Tampa Bay, I would put a lot of confidence in the assessment that he’ll get a lot better, but for now, it’s very frustrating for Boston fans to see their high-priced acquisition play so poorly.

Yankees: THAT Bartolo Colon?!

After an arm injury to Phil Hughes, there were plenty of questions surrounding the Yankees’ starting rotation behind CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett. Ivan Nova and Freddy Garcia made the rotation out of spring training as the No. 4 and No. 5 guys, but it wouldn’t have been fair to assume too much out of them. Nova is struggling mightily, so we can’t really say that all of the Yankees’ rotation issues have been solved, but things are looking a whole lot better now that Bartolo Colon has come to the rescue.

Yes, the rotund 37-year-old. Colon has been excellent for the Yankees since moving into the rotation after Hughes’ injury in mid-April. If you can believe it, Colon is fourth in the American League in K/BB ratio (behind Dan Haren, David Price and Jered Weaver) at 4.1 and fifth in the league in xFIP (behind Haren, Brett Anderson, Felix Hernandez and Ricky Romero) at 3.08. Those numbers, by the way, include Colon’s three long-relief appearances at the beginning of the year, all of which came during a Hughes start.

There are certainly questions about his weight and durability—he was originally put in the bullpen because of these concerns. But regardless of what happens later in the season, the Yankees must be thrilled with Colon’s surprise contributions so far.

Rays: Farnsworth adjusts

The Tampa Bay Rays, as usual, are pretty interesting. They have battled through an insane amount of losses this offseason, including Crawford (Boston), Carlos Pena (Chicago Cubs), Matt Garza (also Cubs), and their eighth-ninth relief combo of Joaquin Benoit (Detroit) and Rafael Soriano (New York Yankees). Strangely, all of these players have underperformed for their new teams, aside from Garza.

Despite all these losses, the Rays have the third best record in the majors. They have an impressive top of the rotation, as David Price and James Shields have both been pitching like aces this year. They have a powerful offense led by Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist (and now Matt Joyce). However, what lots of people probably did not anticipate is that their new closer, Kyle Farnsworth, has quietly been getting the job done.

I’m not sure how one might quantify this, but I’d say that Farnsworth has one of the worst reputations in the big leagues. He has a history of struggling in big situations, and that doesn’t serve you well if you’re on the Yankees for almost three years. He’s always had good stuff but was extremely prone to fly balls and home runs due to his pretty straight four-seam fastball. However, he’s completely changed his pitching approach and now might even be considered “crafty”—he’s started throwing a lot of two-seam fastballs and he “messed with” a cutter in 2010.

His ground ball rate, which was in the 30-40 percent range for most of his career, has now spiked to 63 percent. Similarly, he has allowed only one walk in 13.1 innings this year, compared to 3.8 per nine innings over his 12-year career. His strikeout rate of below five per nine is a career low, but the improved control and high groundball rate make up for it. Farnsworth certainly is not the league’s best reliever, but he’s good enough to help out the Rays’ new-look bullpen.

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