The state of the AL Eastby Nick Fleder
April 23, 2012
The 2011 version of the American League East featured three of the five best teams in the league, a crazy finish to the Wild Card crown, and only one team under .500, a feat no other division could claim. The last bit holds true at this writing—the only team with more losses than wins at this juncture is the lowly, tumbling Red Sox, who have exceeded all expectations of suck to go 4-10 in this early going, thanks, in part, to a bullpen in shambles, injuries to Jacoby Ellsbury and Andrew Bailey, and a starting rotation mired by bad control and worse results.
Many expected a four-horse race throughout the summer, with Baltimore expected to slip out of contention in, say, early April. Indeed, it has been a four-horse race in the first weeks, but Boston’s demise and Baltimore’s rise (however much of a mirage it is) are eye-catchers. Every team has its issues, enigmas, and interests thus far, though. How about we start with those BoSox?
*Playoff odds and record as of April 22, 2012
Boston Red Sox (4-10 with 21 percent playoff odds)
Bobby Valentine: “If this isn’t the bottom, then we’ll find some new ends to Earth, I guess.”
Who gets the blame for the Sox’ early-season tumble is only partly relevant. The fact that there is blame to be dished is the storyline. It’s been ugly all around Beantown.
The post-Bailey injury closer-by-committee of Alfredo Aceves and Mark Melancon (prized offseason acquisition from the Houston Astros and a friendly reminder that you probably shouldn’t pay much of anything for saves) has combined for a startling -0.8 WAR in this short time, and six homers in five innings pitched between them. They have a replacement-level starting rotation, third worst in baseball, so far.
They are hovering around league average in terms of offensive output. They are falling like toy soldiers, with Bailey absent for months, the brittle Ellsbury out for “six to eight weeks” (yeah, right), and a highly offended Kevin Youkilis playing with no heart, apparently (or is that not an injury?).
It still is early, and three offseason additions have been playing extremely well, to provide a silver lining; Ryan Sweeney, Cody Ross, and Mike Aviles have combined to hit .312 with five homers. Will Marlon Byrd, newest addition to the club, find the same success in a change of scenery?
Surprise performance: Kevin Youkilis, suddenly inept at the plate
.190/.271/.310 triple-slash; 29 percent strikeout rate; six percent walk rate in 48 plate appearances
Youkilis wasn’t exactly himself last year; he was a little unlucky at the dish, enough to leave his batting average in the .260 range, and saw his strikeout rate climb from the previous year.
The trend has continued, as that rate is more than 10 percent higher than his career mark, and his walk rate has been halved. He was, of course, subject of a press call-out by his manager, who accused him of not being “as physically or emotionally into the game as he’s been in the past for some reason.” It sure looks that way.
Tampa Bay Rays (8-7 with 48 percent playoff odds)
Matt Moore: “Command, especially of my fastball, wasn't quite where it needed to be, but it will be there soon enough."
Where’s the shoo-in for AL Rookie of the Year, the guy who dominated the minors, majors, and postseason at various times last year? Moore isn’t striking out anyone, is giving up homers, and has put together a weak 0.92 strikeout-to-walk ratio. His fastball velocity is down, his curveball velocity is down, his sinker velocity is down, and bad luck is not the culprit. Yet despite going 0-3 in Moore’s three starts, the Rays sit comfortably in the thick of things in the division.
Their offense is rated as sixth-best in baseball, even with poor early-season readings of their fielding, usually a specialty. Offseason acquisition Carlos Pena picked up where he left off in 2010, bombing three early-season blasts without egregious strikeout rates. B.J. Upton has played in only two games, and the middle infield situation is ugly with Sean Rodriguez, Reid Brignac, Jeff Keppinger, and Elliot Johnson, but the concerns in Tampa are focused on the pitching side of things.
Speaking of which, Jeremy Hellickson’s control has taken yet another step back, and David Price has seen similar problems. All three youngster starting pitchers are out of line with career and projected trends, so positive regression is likely in order. And when it comes, the Rays will be feelin’ good.
Surprise performance: Matt Moore, suddenly devoid of control and stunted in velocity
94.2 mph fastball; 93.7 mph sinker; 7.5 percent whiff rate on the fastball
The four-seamer has dropped about two whole miles per hour this season for Moore, and the sinker has seen an even greater drop. He’s generating whiffs on five percent fewer fastballs, and though the sample sizes we’re dealing with are small and the season has only just begun, the concerns are legitimate.
At this point, he can’t blame his 5.12 ERA on a high batting average on balls in play or a low strand rate, or even an inflated home run rate—his FIP and xFIP are 5.69 and 5.65. He needs to find that extra oomph on his two major pitches this year or ditch his sinker altogether for the stronger four-seamer.
Baltimore Orioles (8-7 with 15 percent playoff odds)
Buck Showalter on Jake Arrieta: “He’s not a young pitcher anymore, all right? It’s time to win those type of games…and he will."
Through 15 games last season, the Orioles were 6-9 and three-and-a-half games out behind the Yankees, foreshadowing what was to come for the rest of the season only in part, as they ended up 28 out and had a .426 winning percentage. This year, the Orioles have better playoff odds than eight teams, including the big spender-Marlins, who currently occupy the cellar of the NL East. Not bad for a team that recently clocked in at the bottom of the FanGraphs organizational rankings.
What’s sparked the Orioles' furious (remember the context, folks) start? Matt Wieters has made good on the predictions of a sure-fire breakout, Nolan Reimold has torn the cover off the ball, and Adam Jones is mashing. Three Baltimore starters look like legimiate major leaguers, a far cry from last year’s abominable starting rotation. There is reason to hope—or at least, to watch—in Baltimore for the first time in forever.
Surprise performance: Wei-Yin Chen, whose velocity isn’t back but whose results exist nonetheless
89.8 mph fastball; 3.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio; 8.18 strikeouts per nine; -1.7-slider pitcher value
In his top-50 free agents this offseason, Keith Law wrote about Chen previously “sitting low 90s and touching 95 in past years.” His concern was that Chen was “more 88-92 early in 2011, and his slider didn’t have his usual bite.”
Chen progressed in his Japanese baseball career from a power strikeout guy to a control-finesse figure and has adopted that style in the U.S. His control is very good in early showings—see his 3.33 K:BB ratio—and all this despite a previously seen velocity dip and biteless slider. The trends from last year sticking around may cause concern, but the early showings—which fit a sustainable luck profile—have Chen at a 3.27 ERA and a 3.40 FIP. Not bad.
Toronto Blue Jays (8-6 with 30 percent playoff odds)
Joe Maddon on Brandon Morrow: “He wasn’t on top of his game like he can be, there’s no question. We’ve seen him at his best and, of course, that wasn’t his best tonight.”
The Blue Jays are overflowing with talent up and down their roster, from young stud Brett Lawrie to MVP candidate and home run champion Jose Bautista and everywhere in between. Offense was expected to carry Toronto and it has thus far: it rates as the eighth-best in baseball while the pitching staff is the worst.
Pitching will be the concern for the remainder of the season, with the offensive firepower only bringing them part of the way toward a playoff berth. Despite extremely friendly balls-in-play luck for the threesome of Ricky Romero, Kyle Drabek and Henderson Alvarez (.235, .239, and .197 BABIPs, respectively), they’ve mustered only 0.3 wins above replacement.
Morrow hasn’t been himself: He’s striking out no one and letting plenty of balls out of the park, and also hasn’t suffered from bad luck. On the contrary, his BABIP is .158. There are some major concerns in Toronto’s pitching staff, as no one has an FIP under 4.34, no one has an xFIP under 3.92, and the fifth starter spot has been split by Drew Hutchison (8.57 FIP) and Joel Carreno (8.28 FIP) thus far. A top-two finish in the East will likely be impossible without a huge step forward for the Jays' hurlers.
Surprise performance: Morrow, who isn’t striking out anyone and is giving up homers to everyone
4.05 strikeouts per nine, .158 BABIP, 7.00 FIP, 20.7 HR/FB ratio, -0.3 WAR
Uh...what’s happened here? Morrow’s previous strikeouts-per-nine have been 10.95 and 10.19 in 2010 and 2011, respectively. This year, his 4.05 mark doesn’t even best his career walk rate of 4.47 per nine innings. Morrow’s velocity is down across the board, yet surprisingly, he’s giving up fewer line drives by a huge percentage (16 percent fewer liners than last year) and far more ground balls.
People simply aren’t swinging outside the zone in 2012 (10 percent lower O-Swing rate) and when they do, they’re making about 10 percent more contact. Morrow’s always been enigmatic, but this is another level. I’m not buying at this point, as he could well be injured.
New York Yankees (9-6 with 73 percent playoff odds)
Joe Girardi: “I’m just listening to the air conditioner. I find it very peaceful.”
Despite starting-rotation woes, the Yankees are sitting peacefully atop the AL East standings, where they can reasonably expect to stay this year with their juggernaut offense and excellent bullpen. Despite slow starts from Phil Hughes, Hiroki Kuroda and CC Sabathia, there is little panic in Yankeeville, where the league’s best bullpen has led them to a one-game lead in the division.
A top-three offense hasn’t hurt; Robinson Cano, Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira and more have set stunning paces thus far, and even Eduardo Nunez and Raul Ibanez have found their niches as part-time contributors (with the key word being contributors).
About that staff, though: Like the Jays, the Yankees have reason to panic with their current one through five starters. Unlike the Jays, the Yankees have depth at Triple-A with Manny Banuelos and Delin Betances, and Andy Pettitte is waiting in the wings. If a healthy (a big if) Pineda can take over for a struggling Hughes (5.95 FIP and 4.71 xFIP at the replacement level), and Pettitte can replace Freddy Garcia (4.78 FIP and 4.13 xFIP at 0.1 WAR), the Yankees can run away with the division.
Surprise performance: Eduardo Nunez, who is actually above the replacement level
Positive 1 UZR, .455 batting average, 7.7 percent walk rate, 3.8 percent strikeout rate
Early in the season, I was upset when Brett Gardner was riding the pine in favor of Nunez, who had managed to be nearly a win below replacement in just 142 games previous to this year. Much of it had to do with complete ineptitude on defense, which was a far cry from Gardner’s excellence. Why would Gardner—who is as speedy and nearly as offensively adept as Nunez against lefties—yield any playing time?
Nunez has stepped us his game, though, and I’ll give credit where it’s due. His fielding metrics spell good things, and his plate discipline has helped the Yankees out immensely in his 26 plate appearances. He’s gotten on base 12 times and has stolen three bases, and though luck is the biggest friend in Nunez’s improvements, he’s made a legitimate case for some playing time with legitimate major league defense. Kudos.
Nick can be reached for questions, comments, or concerns via email: nick.fleder AT gmail DOT com.