The AL East ain’t what it used to be

The New York Yankees are making a push for the postseason. They’ve won 12 of their last 16 games, and their captain, Derek Jeter, returned (again) Monday night. With three teams in their way to a playoff berth, the odds are against them, but there’s still a chance for the Highlanders to sneak into the playoffs.

How odd would it have been to read that paragraph a decade ago? The Yanks on the outside of October baseball looking in with just over a month to play? Back in the early years of this millenium, such an scenario would have been implausible if not impossible.

The George Steinbrenner-owned Yankees of the early 2000s spent freely and bought talent in a highly successful fashion. As a reminder of what things used to be like, here’s a recap of the American League East standings since the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays joined Major League Baseball 15 years ago. (2013 standings through Sunday, Aug. 25.)

1998	1999	2000	2001	2002	2003	2004	2005
NYY	NYY	NYY	NYY	NYY	NYY	NYY	NYY
BOS	BOS	BOS	BOS	BOS	BOS	BOS	BOS
TOR	TOR	TOR	TOR	TOR	TOR	BAL	TOR
BAL	BAL	BAL	BAL	BAL	BAL	TB	BAL
TB	TB	TB	TB	TB	TB	TOR	TB

2006	2007	2008	2009	2010	2011	2012	2013
NYY	BOS	TB	NYY	TB	NYY	NYY	BOS
TOR	NYY	BOS	BOS	NYY	TB	BAL     TB
BOS	TOR	NYY	TB	BOS	BOS	TB      BAL
BAL	BAL	TOR	TOR	TOR	TOR	TOR     NYY
TB	TB	BAL	BAL	BAL	BAL	BOS     TOR

It truly is astounding to recall how monotonous this division was back in the day. That 1998-to-2003 run in which the standings were identical for six straight seasons is unmatched in major league history. And if Toronto hadn’t screwed things up by tanking in 2004 and surging in ’06, it would have been nine consecutive years with copycat conclusions.

Not surprisingly, the team to knock New York from its perch was another big-money franchise, Boston, the division champs in 2007. What may be surprising is that, despite two World Series championships and several playoff appearances, that title is Boston’s only division crown since the most recent expansion.

And now we come to the big shocker, the rise to power of long-time cellar dweller Tampa Bay. Sure, expansion teams are supposed to be awful early on, but the Arizona Diamondbacks, who debuted the same season as the Rays, won 100 games and a division crown in just their second year of existence. They changed the rules for what an expansion team is supposed to accomplish.

Tampa stuck to the typical script, though, finishing dead last in its first six seasons and nine of the first ten. However, a turnaround coincided with the purchase of the team by Stuart Sternberg. No, it wasn’t instantaneous, but it didn’t take long for the new management team to have an impact.

In 2008, the Rays zoomed from 66 wins to 97 and leapt from worst to first in the division. For the next few seasons, it was a three-team battle for supremacy between the financial juggernauts in New York and Boston and the little engine that could in Tampa Bay.

Falling down to take the Rays’ former familiar place in the cellar? The Baltimore Orioles, of course, the team that has been kept out of last by Tampa Bay’s former ineptitude. Without that net, it was a free-fall to bottom for the O’s.

Then another strange thing happened—the Orioles got good again for the first time since winning the division in 1997, which also was the last time Baltimore had a winning record. Many people (including yours truly) looked at the Orioles’ weak run differential (+7) and incredible records in one-run games (29-9) and extra-inning affairs (16-2) last year and assumed major regression was in the forecast.

Sure enough, a marked correction was in store, and the O’s currently are 14-23 in one-run contests and 6-5 in games that feature free baseball. In spite of these changes, Baltimore stands at 70-59, 5.5 games out of first but only two behind Oakland for the second Wild Card. The Orioles are doing it differently than last season, but they’re getting the job done again.

Toronto had hoped to get in on the fun, taking on the contracts of nearly every expensive Miami Marlins player over the winter in the hopes of getting a significant boost in the standings. Alas, essentially all the Blue Jays have acquired has been a bigger payroll, and Toronto is mired firmly in last place.

On the flip side, last year’s bottom-feeders from Boston find themselves running neck and neck with Tampa Bay atop the division. While last year’s tanking was a stunner, the Red Sox’s return to prominence shouldn’t have been. They’ve been a strong team for a long time, and last year was simply a major hiccup.

So what does all this mean going forward?

Despite coming off back-to-back division titles in 2011-12, New York is seeing its spending cut by Steinbrenners’ sons. The efficacy of previous spending greatly diminished as injuries have devastated their former superstars—Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson—and CC Sabathia is having quite the down year.

Of course, most teams—not just their division opponents—have made strides to catch up, in terms of both finances and smart investing.

As mentioned, Boston is back at the top of its game and has the front-office chops to throw its money around wisely. Tampa Bay lacks the cash, but the Rays’ pitching-focused parsimony continues to produce. Batimore GM Dan Duquette has proven quite adept at piecing together a competitive team. Toronto … well, there’s always hope that the big-ticket acquisitions will rebound in 2014.

It’s an intriguing time to follow this division. For now and seemingly well into the future, the AL East is going to be a hyper-competitive beast.

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Comments

  1. Tom B said...

    “How odd would it have been to read that paragraph a decade ago?”

    How about a year ago?  It took 7 of 9 “opening day starters” to be on the DL and their Ace to turn in his worst season ever to put them… 7GB and 4 in the WC?

    And they can still somehow make the playoffs?

    This is not a real problem :p

  2. dennis Bedard said...

    Even weighing for talent, the odds against six straight seasons of the same outcome are very very high.  It is almost the equivalent of two evenly matched teams playing a 7 games series 6 times and the outcome is the same every time, i.e., 4-0 or 4-3.  On the other hand, there were not that many close finishes.  Most years, each of the teams were pretty much spread apart from one another.  But still, a real statistical oddity.  I wonder if any of the mathematically inclined amongst us could weigh in on the odds of this ever happening again.

  3. hittfamily said...

    The free spending Yankee years are not over.  They are still free spending, doing virtually the same thing they did under George.  There are 2 huge differences though: they don’t develop talent anymore, and their competetion has gotten a lot, lot better. 

    If you want to win the World Series, the first place to start is making the playoffs.  If you want to make the playoffs, make sure you play in the weakest division, playing the weakest teams the maximum number of times.  The Rays, Jays, and O’s were 3 of the worst teams in baseball from 1998 to 2007, coinciding with the Yankees run of dominance.  It’s not that difficult to build a dynasty when you are a D1 team playing intramural squads.

    They were able to successfully add expensive pieces to a very good homegrown core.  The core was young, talented, and healthy.  Pettitte, Jeter, Soriano, Posada, Rivera, and Bernie are a great place to start if you want to field a successful team.  A few good free agent signings like Tino, Mussina, Cone, O’neil, and Knoblauch, coupled with successfully trading young players for established superstars like Clemens, and you have the makings of a world class roster.

    The contracts of Arod, Texeira, Giambi, Burnett, and Jeter isn’t what dragged the Yankees down.  It is that they no longer get to play a lopsided schedule by playing 57 games a year against division rivals with a .350 winning percentage.  It is because they no longer have All-Stars that haven’t reached arbitration yet.  The Rays, O’s, and Sox now have their own version of cheap, healthy, late 90’s versions of Jeter, and Bernie, Pettitte, and Posada, and the Yankees don’t.

    The Yankees got lucky that their competetion was s much worse than everyone else’s that they were all but guaranteed a spot in the playoffs.  They no longer have that luck.  They got lucky that every young player they traded away turned out to be terrible, and every young player they kept went on to be possible future HOF’ers.  Until they are able to produce cheap talent, those huge contracts will look all the worse while they perennially miss the playoffs. 

    The Rangers are the ‘10’s version of the 90’s Yankees.  Crappy opponents, good young talent, and strong free agent signings (Beltre, Nathan,  puts you in the playoffs every year.  They missed opportunities to win a series, but they are using the Yankees formula to get there.

  4. dennis Bedard said...

    The last comment is statistically verifiable.  Here are the numbers for the Yankees vs TB/Tor/Bal for 98-04 and their WP as a whole for the season.
    TB/Tor/Bal               Whole Season
    1998 26-7   .787         .704
    1999 27-10 .729         .605
    2000 18-18 .500       .540
    2001 37-19 .660       .594            
    2002 36-20 .642       .640
    2003 37-19 .660       .623
    2004 41-16 .719       .623
    The argument that their dominance was due to them feasting on weak teams in their own division is not as overwhelming as indicated.  I guess the most accurate way to weigh this would be to back out the record against these three teams from their whole season performance and them make the comparison.

  5. Tom B said...

    Wouldn’t those numbers have to be higher than their actual winning percentage in those years to be “helping”?

  6. Greg Simons said...

    hittfamily – I’m not saying the Yankees won’t spend lots of money, just that they’re likely to get below the luxury tax, which will put them more in line with the other big spenders vs. having a huge financial advantage.

    dennis – Thanks for compiling the numbers.  It seems beating up on those three teams helped in every year but 2000 and 2002.  Of course, you can argue that they beat them up because they were so good.

    Several things broke the Yankees’ way back then.  Having a huge payroll helped extend their advantage.

  7. hittfamily said...

    9 of the worst 21 teams you mentioned were in the AL east.  I’m not certain what you are trying to show.   

    The Yankees won 87 games in 2000.  Do they even make the playoffs if they don’t get to face the 69 win Rays and 74 win O’s more than anyone else?

    I think the Yankees demise is more attributable to the rise of competition, than it is bad business decisions.  When the 3rd place team in your division usually wins about 80 games, your business mistakes don’t show as much.

    Kenny Rogers: 4 years 20 million
    Kevin Brown: Traded for with 3 years left on 7/100 million deal
    El Duque : 4 years 32 million
    Steve Karsay: 4 years 22 million
    Kei Igawa: 5 years 22 million
    Karl Pavano: 4 years 40 million
    Randy Johnson: 2 years 32 million
    Jaret Wright: 3 years 23 million
    Kyle Farnsworth: 3 years 17 million
    Sterling Hitchcock: 2 years 12 million

    None of these contracts kept the Yankees out of the post season.  They have been making bad business decisions for 20 years.  In the past though, they had cheap youngsters playing at all-star levels, and their competition was absolutely dreadful.  If the Rays, Jays, and O’s were 2000 bad, instead of 2013 good, people would be talking about how good the Yankees are.

  8. Marc Schneider said...

    I’m not sure what the point is.  Every team plays better against bad teams than against good teams. I’m a Braves fan and I don’t have the figures but I would bet you could show similar numbers for many of the Braves’ NL East titles in the 90s and early 2000s.  The proliferation of divisions that placed the better teams in different divisions in many cases and the unbalanced schedule meant that the teams with larger payrolls/better talent could dominate. Obviously, if you somehow created a superdivision with only the best teams, the same team wouldn’t win every year.  But the fact is, during the period discussed, the Red Sox were a very good team in most years-and, obviously, played the same bad teams and had almost as large a payroll as the Yankees-yet the Yankees beat them almost every year. 

    Having said that, there’s a reason that “7 of 9 opening day starters are on the DL.”  They are old, they don’t have adequate replacements in the farm system, and the free agent market isn’t as easy to exploit as more teams are able to keep their young talent.  The corollary of this latter factor is that the other teams in the division have gotten much better.

  9. Tom B said...

    The point here originally was that they are playing quite well despite all of those injuries.

    The only time they have missed the playoffs was 2008… the other season where they had massive DL problems (4/5 SP’s went down, Matsui, Posada).

    They way you guys are writing about it though, you’d think they were the Blue Jays.

  10. Dave Cornutt said...

    I don’t think you can build a successful team solely through free agency.  The Yankess of the late ‘90s and 2000’s were successful in part because they did have a good homegrown core.  The Yankees of the ‘80s had a bad farm system and they saw little success depsite spending lots of money.  I don’t know what’s happened to the Yankess’ farm system over the last six years or so—it may just be the effects of being in the bottom of the draft order for so many years—but they’re going to have to turn that around.

  11. hittfamily said...

    It’s just my take on why the Yankees are no longer a premiere team.  I think they are more likely to finish last than first next year, and was just sharing my feelings as to why.  My thinking is that, with a few exceptions, they never had an amazing team worthy of being considered a dynasty.  They just played awful, awful, awful teams for a decade that propped up their W/L record.  Now that those teams aren’t awful, the Yankees are going to have a hard time staying out of the AL Beast’s basement, while still doing the same things that brought them so much success in prior years.  It doesn’t matter how much they are willing to spend, because they do not have a young core to build around, and their competition is much better.

  12. Michael Strawn said...

    @hittfamily

    In 2012 the AL West had a .558 winning percentage against the AL East / Central….while the ALE had a .521 winning percentage against the other divisions and the ALC had a .423 winning percentage.  The ALW’s .542 overall winning percentage was the best in baseball. 

    Keep that in mind before you go around attributing a team’s success to “crappy” opponents.

  13. Devon is Kolton (White is Wong) said...

    I don’t get why the “young core” is so important.  The Yankees built a dynasty because they were better than everyone else.  Young, old, homegrown or bought, everything worked.  It no longer does.

    The Rays had Longo, Crawford, Zobrist, Price, Shields, and Upton. I’d argue that that is a better base to build a winner than Jeter, Bernie, Petitte, Mo, and Posada.  The Rays went to 1 series.  The Stankees won 3 in a row, and went to 5 in 6 years.  This is where money puts the Yankees over the top. 

    When the Rays needed a DH and had a little money to spend, they got Pat Burrell for 24 million over 2 years.  That didn’t work.  Since signing Burrell, the Rays have yet to sign a free agent to anything other than 1 year deals, with team options.  Pat Burrell’s 24 million dollar contract altered Friedman’s way of thinking.  Steinbrenner’s coffin cost more than that.  The Yankees have the ability to sign as many guys as it takes til they find a winner.  Igawa sucks?  Just stick him in AAA for his entire career, and sign someone else. 

    However, if they are going to stay under the luxury tax threshold, they are going to have to be a little wiser, especially starting with 70 million already added by Tex, Arod, and CC.

  14. Philip said...

    hittfamily said:
    ‘‘If you want to win the World Series, the first place to start is making the playoffs……’‘

    dennis Bedard said…
    ‘‘The last comment is statistically verifiable.’‘

    Something would be amiss if a division leaders didn’t regularly have a better winning percentage against lower division clubs than they did as a whole.

    For most of those years hittfamily mentioned, one of those three teams finished above .500, another just below that mark and the third (mostly TB after they came into the league) was pretty bad.

    Of course, being in the same division with the Red Sox and Yankees is going to hurt your winning percentage, too.

    Without doing all the number-crunching my guess is that with a balanced scheduled vs only AL clubs, the AL East as a whole would see their winning percentage, 1998-2007, actually improve vs the AL Central and West division.

    Sure, the Yankees might have went 11-1 vs expansion TB in 1998, but they also went 10-0 vs KC and 8-3 against each of the following: Detroit, Oakland, Seattle and Texas.

    The 1998 Yankees, in setting a new American League record for single-season wins, were 114-48 (.704). Against solely A.L. clubs their record was 101-45 (.692).

    If you balance their schedule against A.L. clubs that year, they would have had a winning percentage of .694, ever so slightly ***better*** than what they actually accomplished. In other words, being in a division with Boston, Baltimore, Tampa Bay and Toronto had a negative impact on their record. And this in the Devil Rays’ expansion year!

    Another way to look at 1998-2007 is that the O’s, Jays and Rays lost a lot more games all those years by being in a division with the Red Sox and Yankees than had they been in the A.L. Central or West.

    Tom B said:
    ‘‘Every division fattens up on the weakest prey, which then further pushes them down the standings.  This is one of the reasons why people hate the unbalanced schedule.’‘

    Exactly.

    hittfamily said:
    ‘‘The Yankees won 87 games in 2000.  Do they even make the playoffs if they don’t get to face the 69 win Rays and 74 win O’s more than anyone else?’‘

    Fair enough question. The answer is they probably don’t, but it would have been closer than you probably suspect. But, you are correct for 2000. But I suspect that’s more an exception to your hypothesis than the rule.

    New York and Boston each went 76-68 vs their AL rivals, Cleveland going 77-67.

    When you balance out the schedule, the balanced winning percentage would have been as follows:

    Cle .546
    NYY .531
    Bos .530

    A balanced schedule against only AL rivals should have given NYY & Boston 76 wins apiece and gave Cleveland 79.

    Over a 162-game schedule, that’s 89, 86 and 86 wins, respectively. (Hardly a comfortable margin for Cleveland given that one head-to-head switch against both NYY and Boston would have resulted in a three-way tie had there been a 7-team AL East Division.)

    Or, if you like, you can take the 144 balanced-schedule record and add in the actual results from inter-league play, resulting in:

    Cle 92-70 (13-5 vs NL)
    NYY 87-74 (11-6 vs NL)
    Bos 85-77 (9-9 vs NL)

    In the inter-league play scenario, Cleveland wins the old AL East.

    Here’s the actual totals (vs AL only):

    CWS 84-61
    Oak 80-63
    Sea 80-64
    Cle 77-67
    Bos 76-68
    NYY 76-68

    With a balanced AL-only 144-game schedule, here are the top clubs in 2000:

    CWS 83-61
    Oak 80-64
    Sea 79-65
    Cle 79-65
    Bos 76-68
    NYY 76-68

    Now, for those that like inter-league play, we can throw that in:

    CWS 95-67
    Cle 92-70
    Oak 91-71
    Sea 90-72
    NYY 87-74
    Bos 85-77

    But I think the actual result has more to do with the division set-up and the wild card playoff spot than the Yankees somehow being in ‘weak’ division that year. The won – 76 – games vs AL rivals, exactly as what should have been expected had there been a balanced AL schedule.

    That Cleveland was now in a division with a club (the White Sox) that otherwise would have won the old AL West has nothing to do with the AL East.

    The Yankees made the playoffs as a division winner. Had they done so as a wild card instead of the Indians, then your argument would be more valid.

    Since 1969-1993 we can find a number cases in which a second place team in one division was stronger than the winner of the other division. Does that mean such a second place team was more deserving of making the playoffs than the other division winner? No. Because going into the season that’s how teams prepared and built their rosters, to try to win the division and thus make the playoffs.

    Do I, as I recall it was even Sparky Lyle who said, that the Red Sox were the 2nd best team in baseball in 1978? Absolutely. But 99 wins wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs because they couldn’t get past the Yankees. They might have been the 2nd best team in baseball, but no – they didn’t deserve to make the playoffs more than the AL-West winning Kansas City Royals.

  15. hittfamily said...

    It’s the Wilin Rosario argument. He has a 122 wRC+ on the road this year and only and an 85 wRC+ at home. Does this prove Coors field hinders his performance?  Nope.  It helps him.  His numbers would be worse during those games, but he plays at Coors.

    The Yankees numbers would be worse against teams other than those 3 in those games.  They were definitely not hindered by playing weaker competition than their opponents.  Days off, rotation alaignment, I don’t know why they only played a little better baseball against them. Maybe just chance. But just like Rosario being bad at home this year, I know those numbers would not be as good against the 2012 Rays, O’s, and Jays.

    With the exception of 2000, that looks like dominance to me against the East’s weakest. They had to beat 1 other team for a shot at the playoffs, whereas everyone else had to beat 4 teams (excluding Red Sox, who also had to only be better than 1 team).

  16. Tom B said...

    Let’s not pretend they were the worst teams in the league every year just because they stayed in the basement of the AL East.

    Worst AL teams by record
    2000 – Twins, Rays, Rangers, O’s
    2001 – Rays, O’s Royals, Tigers
    2002 – Rays/Tigers, Royals, O’s
    2003 – Tigers – Huge Gap, O’s, Indians, O’s/Rangers
    2004 – Royals, Mariners, Rays, Tigers

    Every division fattens up on the weakest prey, which then further pushes them down the standings.  This is one of the reasons why people hate the unbalanced schedule.

  17. Robby Bonfire said...

    The “championship structure” is terrible, but, typically, MLB doesn’t acknowledge nor address inequities which favor large-market teams.

    Baseball, with 30 teams, could have three divisions of 10 teams, and put the top two teams from each division into a round-robin, 12 games for each team, world series. This certainly would restore some competitive tension to the regular season malaise we are now stuck with, as about six teams, virtually guaranteed a post-season slot, are just jogging out the season, focusing upon staying healthy as much as trying to win.

    It’s a joke on us, friends, TV money rules the world now, and Bud and Co. are a bunch of prostitutes who have sold out the championship integrity of the game to the sleaziest, most manipulative bidders on the planet.

  18. Greg Simons said...

    Robby – If there were three divisions of 10 teams, several teams would be out of the playoff hunt by Independence Day, which would drive down attendance.

    And while I’m not sure I understand your 12-game round robin format, it may be too drawn out to capture the casual fan’s attention.

    Yes, money drives the current setup to a non-trivial degree.  No, the “best” team doesn’t always with the World Series.  But the best teams don’t always win any championship – Super Bowl, March Madness, etc. – and it would boring if they did.  Part of the enjoyment of sports is upsets by underdogs.

  19. Philip said...

    Greg Simons wrote:
    ‘‘Robby – If there were three divisions of 10 teams, several teams would be out of the playoff hunt by Independence Day, which would drive down attendance.’‘

    Completely agree. That even happened in 8-team leagues. In the American League, 1946-1960, the franchises which finished 6th,7th or 8th most often were: St. Louis Browns/Baltimore 13, Washington 11, and Philadelphia 4/Kansas City 6. All of those franchises would relocate prior to 1961, with the Athletics moving again in the 60s.

    The National League cut four clubs for 1900 for the same reason. You simply can’t sell 9th, 10th, 11 and 12th place clubs to the public, especially if they are cellar dwellings year after year after year.

    That was also the #1 reason why we got the division split in 1969 with expansion.

    Personally, I’d prefer a smaller playoff structure and two divisions per league, NL 8/8, AL 7/7.

    But even 8 is stretching it.

    Robby Bonfire said:
    ‘‘TV money rules the world now…’‘

    I do agree with that to the point it sets and dictates (a) the playoff schedule and so many night games.

    The 3 division set-up (and therefore the wild card entries), though, I think is more a result of expansion than TV.

    Granted, that means the big market clubs are more likely to be in that playoff picture and help with ratings. But the big market clubs (for what should be rather obvious reasons) have always had an advantage, long before the advent of TV.

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