Last time I started this column, the Red Sox had already been written off, and this author dismissed Baltimore’s torrid start as fluky. “Many expected a four-horse race throughout the summer,” I wrote, “with Baltimore expected to slip out of contention in, say, early April. Indeed, it has been a four-horse race in the first weeks.”
I had already, at that point, dismissed that idea that the AL East was up for grabs for all parties involved. Now I look, by my own measure, a little bit foolish. All five teams are above .500. All five teams have between roughly a 1-in-3 and roughly a 1-in-2 chance to make the playoffs. And all five teams have positive or neutral run differentials.
*playoff odds as of 7:35 EST, June 3, courtesy of ESPN
Boston Red Sox (28-26 with 41.9 percent playoff odds)
“I think they understand me a little more, and I understand them a little more.” – manager Bobby Valentine
Though Bobby was referring singularly to his bullpen in the above quote, it’s clear with the recent play of the Sox that it extends in truth to the rest of the roster. Despite some early turmoil in the locker room when newly-christened Valentine questioned hometown favorite Kevin Youkilis’ spirit of the game, the team has rallied together, all despite crippling injuries throughout the first two months.
In spite of injuries that limited Youkilis, Cody Ross, and Jacoby Ellsbury to a combined 72 games, the team offensive output is fourth in the majors in terms of WAR. They’ve been 11 points above league average per wRC+, and their defense has been a positive.
Who have been among the unlikely heroes? Try Daniel Nava, who’s put together a (shocking) .315/.453/.534 with a walk rate (16.8 percent) greater than his strikeout rate. While anyone with eyes can see that he’ll regress to his Quad-A self, he’s certainly done his part with over one win above replacement contributed.
Try also Will Middlebrooks, who was more predictable as a savior considering his prospect pedigree but hasn’t failed to carry his load. He mashed six homers in his first 26 games and managed, through Saturday, a 999 OPS despite only four walks. Most recently, Scott Podsednik has surged with nine hits in his first 23 at-bats, including three extra-base hits and two steals.
Perhaps Podsednik speaks most to who the Red Sox are this year, as a guy who spent more than a year working his way back to the majors: scrappy, thriving against the odds, and surprising as hell.
Unheralded, as usual, is David Ortiz, who has been the Sox’s best player by far. And don’t cut one win-plus players like Dustin Pedroia, Mike Aviles, Ross, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Ryan Sweeney, Jon Lester, and Felix Doubront out of the heralding. It’s just the men who fill in the gaps who have made all the difference, I think.
Surprise performance: Felix Doubront, who is making a (surely empty) case for Rookie of the Year
9.53 strikeouts per nine innings, 3.53 xFIP, +3.3 value on his changeup
Doubront has been merely above average across the board, but that’s enough to make him Boston’s best pitcher thus far. I wouldn’t have pinned it to him when he and Daniel Bard (the walking disaster… get it?) beat out Alfredo Aceves in the three-way battle for Boston’s rotation. After all, he walked eight in 10 innings last year after an unimpressive 4.22 ERA in the Triple-A season. But Doubront’s put up a well-above average K-rate without any glaring red flags that point to regression.
His swinging strike rate of nine percent is sustainable, and he’s mixing two positively valued pitches with a fastball/cutter combination that’s clearly bothering opposing hitters. He’s been particularly tough against lefties, whom he’s held to a 2.94 FIP, and has been better than his ERA (4.33) would suggest at home, where he’s struck out 11 per nine. While he won’t win the Rookie of the Year with Mike Trout being a living, breathing, mashing human being, he’s certainly deserving of consideration. The Red Sox owe him whatever his paycheck bonus would be.
Toronto Blue Jays (28-26 with 36.2 percent playoff odds)
“He’s not the first player to go through this … but sometimes these are the things that are needed.” – GM Alex Anthopoulos speaking of Adam Lind
If I were to describe the 2012 version of the Blue Jays with one word, I’d pick enigmatic. Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista’s combined 30 homers trump the total of the entire San Diego Padres lineup, yet the Blue Jays have a below-average offense. Brandon Morrow is among the top 30 starting pitchers in WAR, yet the Blue Jays, by that metric, have the third-worst pitching staff in baseball.
Even the sure-thing Canadian sensation Brett Lawrie, who’s been one of their four best players, has been enigmatic. Behold: most of his value has come, seemingly, from his excellent manning of third base, where he’s saved 6.6 runs (per UZR). He’s been below average offensively by 11 percent, despite his “hit” tool being lauded as his best feature while he rose through the minors.
Also enigmatic is the Blue Jays’ decision-making, though it is easy for me to criticize in this chair without a lick of internal context. Still, the two top organizational prospects per Baseball America—Travis D’Arnaud and Anthony Gose—sit at Triple-A with scolding batting lines (12 homers and a .408 wOBA from the former; .307/.379/.443 and 24 steals for the latter) yet haven’t gotten the call; this despite J.P. Arencibia‘s and Rajai Davis’ shortcomings (mediocrity and lack of upside for the both of them, to be specific).
Unfortunately, reinforcements on the pitching side of things aren’t so abundant. Perhaps Jerry Gil, a 29-year-old career minor leaguer with an impressive Major League Equivalency (MLE) in the tough Pacific Coast League deserves a shot. His 3.13 ERA and 1.16 WHIP would be welcomed with open arms in a rotation that includes Kyle Drabek, who takes the mound every five days to a predestined suffering and frustration. At least I was wrong about Morrow, who, like Doubront, has been among the top 30 major league starters.
Surprise performance: Henderson Alvarez in that he strikes out 2.63 batters per nine innings
2.63 strikeouts per nine innings, 1.24 strikeout to walk ratio, 4.0 percent swinging strike rate, 21 Ks
Many of the Blue Jays’ surprises were discussed above; Morrow has flashed dominance before, Hutchinson has been respectable as his pedigree suggested he might be, and Romero has regressed heavily as I thought he would. Otherwise, Kelly Johnson is back to being his former self, Encarnacion took a step forward some saw coming, and Bautista’s slow start can be dismissed as just that.
And while many thought Alvarez would struggle with strikeouts, who thought it would be this bad? Among those who have mores strikeouts than Alvarez: Cory Luebke (23) in 31 innings, Anthony Swarzak (24) in 39 innings, David Robertson (24) in 19 innings, and even onetime lefty specialist Boone Logan (29) in 19 innings. Fine, one last one: Barry Zito, before Sunday, even managed 34 punchouts in his 58 innings.
Cliffhanger over: Alvarez has pitched 72 innings. The control specialist has been below the replacement level and simply can’t survive in the majors unless he gets more swings-and-misses.
Luckily, he should. Opposing hitters are swinging at five percent fewer pitches in the zone and are making five percent more contact (on a whopping 95.6 percent of his pitches in the zone) compared to the average hurler. That should go down, naturally, especially considering Avlarez’s plus slider and cutter.
New York Yankees (29-24 with 47.8 percent playoff odds)
“It’s frustrating when you don’t come through.” – Russell Martin
Much has been made about the Yankees’ inability to hit with runners in scoring position, but chalk it down to mostly bad luck. The team has been merely six points below average on offense with RISP, and the Yankees’ generally awesome line-drive percentage suffers only slightly in high-leverage, RBI opportunities.
Otherwise, the offense has carried the Yankees into the heat of the race as summer dawns. Their seventh-ranked hitting (per WAR) has been led, per usual, by Robinson Cano, this despite his anemic .128/.263/.213 line with runners in scoring position. That he’s still managed two wins above replacement is a testament to his superstardom.
Their bullpen, despite suffering a crippling loss when Mariano Rivera was lost to a torn ACL, is among the top five in baseball. Besides Rivera’s usual excellence in his eight-plus innings, the bullpen’s only positive contributions have come from strikeout extraordinaire Boone Logan (13.50 strikeouts per nine), David Robertson (a 2.03 xFIP), Cory Wade (unheard of 9.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio) and Rafael Soriano (2.55 FIP and seven saves in seven tries).
Certainly the Yankees have leaned on their bullpen where their starting pitching has come up uncomfortably short. They rank among the bottom fourth in the league in starting pitching WAR and have an ugly 4.67 FIP as an entity. Freddy Garcia lost his spot, Ivan Nova lost his ability to keep the ball in the park, and Phil Hughes never found his ability to strand runners. And while ace CC Sabathia ’s 10 home runs allowed in 78 innings might spell trouble, rest assured, Yankees homers, that it is merely a fluctuation in his home run-to-fly ball ratio. His batted ball profile, otherwise, is consistent with career norms.
While fans no longer have Michael Pineda’s return or Manny Banuelos’ promotion to look forward to (torn labrum for the former; stunted development and injuries for the latter), the trade market should be an actively played game come August. My dice say that Erik Bedard ends up in a Yankees uniform.
Surprise performance: Andy Pettitte, who still has the stuff two years later
3.16 xFIP, 4.40 strikeout-to-walk ratio, three positive pitch values
The Yankees rotation was supposed to run eight or nine deep, with Pettitte due back in May, Pineda soon thereafter, and two top prospects waiting in the wings. Aforementioned injury and stunted development didn’t help the cause, and the true question became: does this thing even run three deep?
Pettitte wasn’t supposed to be this respectable, but he’s managed to prove his worth among the Yankee greats with an impressive four-start campaign. So-so minor league results led to some skepticism about Pettitte’s potential—“Does he still have it?” and “What does two years off at that age do to you?” were two legitimate and common questions—but he’s silenced the haters and doubters with his best strikeout-to-walk ratio to date and a return to the three-plus pitches guy he’d always been.
Small sample size alerts aside, he’s been a pleasure to watch. And he’ll certainly keep his spot, barring injury, when the next man in pinstripes arrives (circa July).
Baltimore Orioles (30-24 with 33.6 percent playoff odds)
“Mama said knock you out.” – Buck Showalter
I have no idea what got into Showalter when he uttered those words for a MasnSports article last week, just like I have no idea what got into the Orioles this year, the same Orioles who were voted last place in the FanGraphs organizational rankings at the beginning of this year.
Actually, I do have an idea. Adam Jones got into the Orioles this year—all 3.3 wins of him, and all 25 stolen bases-plus-home runs of him. Sure enough, Baltimore coughed up an $85 million dollar extension to him. Next, the team should extend the underrated Jason Hammel, who has been a rock in the starting rotation with a 3.06/3.55/3.34 triple-slash (ERA/FIP/xFIP) and has been vastly underrated throughout his career (he had two 3.9 win seasons, remember? I didn’t think so.)
With four solid starting pitchers (Hammel, Jake Arrieta, Wei-Yin Chen, and even Brian Matusz, who is following up the worst season of anyone’s career with a more respectable 4.41 ERA), a luck-aided, lights-out closer in Jim Johnson, and a young group of offensive talent (Nick Markakis, Nolan Reimold, Jones, Chris Davis, and Matt Weiters; plus, the wrongly underappreciated J.J. Hardy), the Orioles, shockingly, have the makings of a contender in the coming years.
What, don’t believe me? All right, I don’t blame you. But Dylan Bundy is considered one of top—if not the top—prep arms in the minors, and Keith Law, among others, considers Manny Machado a top-five minor league prospect. Two potential superstars are soon (perhaps mid-2013 for both) to join one budding superstar and one future All-Star in Matt Wieters. Sounds like a blueprint for success (though perhaps not this year, with the stacked division, Jones’ slowing of pace, etc.) … weirdly enough.
Surprise performance: Adam Jones, who’s managed a top-three batting line in the majors thus far
.316 batting average with a .323 BABIP, 16 homers, 164 wRC+, 974 OPS
What hasn’t already been said? Here are the things that Jones has improved, and by precisely how much since last year (as of Sunday): his walk rate (by 1.0 percent), strikeout rate (by 1.3 percent), batting average (by 33 points), wRC+ (by 54 points), UZR (by 13.4 runs), wOBA (by 76 points), OPS (by 189 points), home run-to-fly ball ratio (by 9.5 percent), speed rating (by 1.7 points), and his isolated power (by 107 points). Wow. Jones has accomplished all of this, I might add (anti-climatically), despite a BABIP in line with career norms. Meet your Matt Kemp of 2012.
Tampa Bay Rays (31-23 with 55.9 percent playoff odds)
“It’s funny how when the Rays do something, it just seems smarter. Take this for example: Rays catchers (and pitchers) have given up successful stolen bases on 83 percent of the attempts. Eh, they probably did it on purpose.” – Matthew Kory, Baseball Prospectus
In their typically super-understated way, the Rays have among the best winning percentages in baseball. Not all has gone according to plan in Tampa, though. Matt Joyce is their best offensive player thanks to a quantum leap in his ability to hit lefties, Evan Longoria hit the DL again, and Matt Moore reminded us of all that’s wrong with predicting the success of young pitchers.
The Rays haven’t lost a step in their ability to scrap together underrated talent, and the best evidence is found in Fernando Rodney, whose 17 saves are tied for the major league lead and whose 0.8 WAR is fourth in the majors among closers. The Rays seemed to have urged Rodney to throw his two-seamer—which has only ever made up two to 13 percent of his repertoire—30 percent of the time. His improved control appear to stem from his ability to attack the zone more comfortably with two kinds of fastball.
While the Rays don’t excel on offense, where they rank 19th in total WAR, 18th in slugging percentage, and 17th in runs scored, their pitching has been rock solid. Jeremy Hellickson has been fluky as ever but still limits runs and hangs out above the replacement level line, and all five starters have produced positive wins above replacement.
Keep scrappin’, Elliot Johnson, Sean Rodriguez, Luke Scott, and Jeff Keppinger. Your combined 1.1 WAR is the difference between the Rays and the Orioles in the standings. Mamas all around would be proud.
Surprise performance: Matt Joyce, who learned how to hit lefties
.277/.382/.426 triple-slash against southpaws
Not long ago, Joyce’s excellent 2012 breakout was dismissed as a fluke, mostly on the heels of his .657 OPS against lefties. He struck out 30.7 percent of the time against left-handed opposition and, as such, he never would rise to such levels without a whole lot of luck or a platoon.
Joyce has improved his approach against lefties, and despite a 26.8 percent strikeout rate that still remains alarming, he’s been well above average with a 133 wRC+. He’s walking more, hitting plenty more line drives, and has certainly allowed batted ball luck to play its hand.
Longoria’s injury left a big offensive hole, and Joyce has done his fair share to fill it. Credit muc of the Rays’ success to Joyce and his growth against southpaws.