With the calendar turning over to May baseball will truly begin to heat up. We’ve had some surprises and some disappointments, and the next month of baseball will do a lot to clear up a rather cloudy picture, particularly in the AL East. Baseball’s best division has lived up to its name once again this season, producing 5 teams playing quality baseball. The AL East already looks like it could produce 3 playoff teams this year, so let’s take a look at which team has the best odds, and which has an inside track to winning the division title.
Currently every team in the AL East is sitting at or above .500, with Tampa Bay holding a slight lead at 15-8. Baltimore has been surprisingly scrappy, dominating the Blue Jays 5-1 but struggling against the Yankees dropping all 4. The Yankees were swept to start the year in Tampa, but pummeled the Red Sox in Fenway. Boston has rebounded after another slow start, going 7-1 in their last 8 games, and Toronto has feasted on a weak schedule of AL Central teams. All of these clubs have struggled with pitching except for Baltimore, which has the 8th best staff in baseball. Everyone outside of Baltimore has been an offensive powerhouse, taking 4 of the top 8 spots in runs scored, with Boston leading the pack.
If Tampa’s offense remains this potent, they immediately become the new favorites in the AL East. The Rays have a legitimately excellent pitching staff and that fact will boar its way out as the season progresses. It’s their offense that was an issue a year ago, and so far that has been the team’s real strength. Evan Longoria hit .329/.433/.561 with 4 homes and 19 RBIs and is potential MVP candidate if Josh Hamilton cools down. Carlos Pena has been one of the best free agent signings in baseball so far hitting for a .900 OPS while playing excellent defense at 1st. Matt Joyce and Luke Scott each have 5 homers, giving the Rays a nice mix of power to go with the speed of Desmond Jennings, who has stolen 6 bases.
The starting pitching is in place for a 95-win campaign if the Rays can sort out the early bullpen issues. New closer Fernando Rodney has been excellent, but the rest of the pen has been leaky. Burke Badenhop and Joel Perralta both have more than 10 appearances and still have ERAs over 7.00. The Rays may need to use former starter Wade Davis in more high leverage situations if the rest of the pen doesn’t improve. Davis has been excellent, posting a sub-2.50 ERA in 11.2 innings so far in his first season in the bullpen. Tampa also just concluded the best series victory of any team this season, defeating the Rangers in 3 games in Arlington, no easy task. The Rays are already out to an early lead, and look to be a strong contender for a playoff spot, so I’d put their odds at:
40% division title/80% playoff spot
UPDATE: Longoria has a partially torn hamstring and will miss anywhere from 4-8 weeks. This is a massive blow to Tampa Bay and will undoubtedly hurt their offense. The Rays have plenty of depth, but losing your best player is tough for any team to overcome.
Baltimore’s pitching staff has been their key to success so far, led by the impressive Jason Hammel. Hammel is 3-1 with a 1.97 ERA in 32 innings, striking out a solid 8.4 per 9. He throws a good fastball, plus slider, and a solid curve, so his success will probably continue to some degree. The other Japanese import, Wei-Yin Chen has also been pitching his socks off, posting a 2.22 ERA in 24 innings. Matt Wieters and Adam Jones have also been important to Baltimore’s success, with each hitting 6 big flies so far.
The bullpen has also done a stand-up job and has been the best in baseball, with a 2.03 ERA. Jim Johnson already has 7 saves while not allowing a run. Luis Ayala also hasn’t given up a single run in the 11 innings he has pitched, and Darren O’Day has only given up 1. However, the Orioles have struggled against the traditional powerhouses and more than likely the favorites will start to pummel Baltimore pitching, pushing the O’s back down to the cellar. Their odds:
0% division title/5% playoff spot
The New York Yankees pitching staff has been absolutely brutal so far, ranking 20th in baseball. The only reason that ranking isn’t any worse is because the Yankees bullpen has been excellent so far, ranking 3rd in baseball in ERA. CC Sabathia and Hiroki Kuroda have both shown signs of improvement after early struggles, so their problems are probably going to be short-lived. Phil Hughes and Freddy Garcia, not so much. Garcia has already been demoted to the bullpen after being shelled for 19 earned runs in 13 innings with an astronomically bad WHIP of 2.195. David Phelps, who has saved the Yankees in long relief, gets a call-up to the rotation, where his lower 90s fastball and ability to command the strike zone should play nicely.
Phil Hughes’ stay in the rotation is also probably near its conclusion, because when you give up 5 homers in 16 innings it makes it tough to win ballgames. 40-year-old Andy Pettitte should be on his way with the next couple of weeks, and if he has anything left in the tank, it will be an improvement.
The offense has gone about business as usual, ranking 3rd in baseball in runs scored, averaging 5.45 a game. The Yankees are 1st in baseball in homers, led by Curtis Granderson’s 8, and currently have 3 hitters with an OPS above .950, led by Derek Jeter’s 1.012. The offense is always present in New York, its just a matter of how much pitching the Yankees have, and this year it should be enough to get to the playoffs. Their odds:
30% division title/75% playoff spot
The Toronto Blue Jays have been an interesting team this year. They are batting .239 as a team, yet the Jays rank 8th in baseball in runs scored. They don’t walk an outstanding number of times, nor do they steal a ton of bases, ranking near the middle of the league in both categories. They have also done all of this while Jose Bautista is slumping, hitting an abysmal .181/.320/.313, with only 3 homers. Edwin Encarnacion has been the team’s best hitter mashing for a 1.054 OPS with 8 home runs and 21 RBI, both top 3 in the American League.
The starting pitching has also been improved; with 4 starters currently ranking as better than league average, led by Kyle Drabek. Drabek has struck out 26 batters in 30 innings, an excellent rate for a starter, while posting a 2.44 ERA. He has some command issues, which could get him in trouble against the patient lineups throughout the division, so it will be interesting to see if he can keep his runs allowed down going forward. Toronto has a weak bullpen that is already dealing with injury problems, so the margin of error here is thin, but if Bautista starts producing, Toronto’s pitching won’t have to be so precise. Their odds:
15% division title/35% playoff spot
After all the early fires and panicking in Boston, the Red Sox are quietly on a nice 7-1 run. The offense has been mashing, and already leads baseball in runs scored. David Ortiz is hitting a bananas .405/.457/.726, turning the clock back to 2005. Cody Ross has stepped up big time with injuries to Carl Crawford and Jacoby Ellsberry, hitting a solid .257 with good power, slugging 5 early homers. If Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Gonzalez get going, the Red Sox lineup will turn into a pitcher’s worst nightmare. The only problem is that the pitching staff gives nearly all of Boston’s runs back.
So far the Red Sox have had the worst staff in baseball. The bullpen has been the main problem, also ranking last in baseball in ERA. Not that the starters have been any better, as only Daniel Bard ranks much above league average. Beckett and Lester have been positively mediocre, posting mid-4.00 ERAs, and Clay Buchholz has been an unmitigated disaster, posing a WHIP near 2.00 and an ERA above 8.00 in 29 innings. This kind of performance doomed the Red Sox a year ago, and it threatens to do so again. The current odds:
15% division title/30% playoff spot
Yesterday was one of those days in baseball that just makes you wonder how a game that’s over 150 years old can continue to surprise? I mean just about everything has happened in baseball, but yesterday contained not only the 21st perfect game in baseball history, but also a 9 run comeback after the 5th inning. April 21, 2012 was a day that truly showcased everything that is great about baseball.
Phillip Humber began his game yesterday as a successful reclamation project and solid middle of the rotation starter for the Chicago White Sox. After being drafted by the Mets 4th overall in 2004 and made his major league debut in 2006 but struggled to find success, bouncing around to Minnesota and Kansas City before being claimed by the White Sox off of waivers in 2011. Chicago’s pitching coach Don Cooper worked on adding a slider to his repertoire and they changed his mechanics slightly, improving Humber’s balance on his follow through. Humber posted a 112 ERA+ last year and was reliable for 163 total innings, his first sustained success in the majors.
Humber was facing a team he figured to have some success against. The Mariners entered yesterday as the 2nd worst team in batting average and the 3rd worst in team OPS (an atrocious .285!!!). He got the first 3 hitters out and really found his groove in the 2nd inning, striking out the side. By the 3rd inning the White Sox offense had spotted him 3 runs, one run courtesy of a Paul Konerko home run, and he was officially rolling.
Meanwhile baseball had begun in Boston, where the New York Yankees were visiting for Fenway Park’s 100th. Freddy Garcia was on the mound for the Yankees and continued his early season swoon, getting bombed for 5 runs on 7 hits in 1.2 innings of work. The Red Sox hit double after double off Garcia, playing a game of wall ball off of the Green Monster. After 3 innings the Yankees found themselves in a 7-0 hole. Felix Doubrant was on the mound for the Red Sox and he was baffling the Yankee hitters with an array of fastballs, sliders, and curves. By the 5th inning the Red Sox had gotten 2 more runs and the game was getting out of hand at 9-0. Doubrant finally gave up a run on a Mark Teixiera homer in the 6th and he was pulled after the inning, finishing with 4 hits allowed and 7 strikeouts.
Back over in Seattle, Humber continued to dominate and was now entering the later innings of the game. By the 7th inning no Mariner had even threatened a base hit off of him. Humber primarily stuck to his fastball and curveball, mixing in the occasional 2-seamer or changeup or slider. He was locating his pitches all over the zone, keeping the Mariners putrid offense off-balance. In the 8th inning Brett Lillbridge came in to play left field, and only received one ball hit his direction. Humber’s 8th inning was another quick 11-pitch affair and he was off to the 9th, perfect game intact.
Back in Boston, by the 7th inning the Yankees had finally gotten into the Red Sox bullpen, the worst in all of baseball. Vincente Padilla was the 1st up from the bullpen and was immediately carpet-bombed by New York’s offense. After striking out Andruw Jones, Padilla gave up 2 straight singles, walked Derek Jeter, and gave up a 1st pitch grand slam deep over the Monster to Nick Swisher. Bobby Valentine decided that 4 runs wasn’t enough out of Padilla, so he left him in to face Robinson Cano, who played wall ball in left field, rapping out a double. Matt Albers was the next to face the firing squad, and after Alex Rodriguez reached on an error by shortstop Mike Aviles, Mark Teixiera bombed his 2nd home run, a 3-run job. Franklin Morales would be the next to come in the game, and was able to end the inning. The comeback was officially on, the score now 9-8 in favor of the Red Sox.
Phil Humber was entering the 9th inning in what was now the most important game in his life. All that stood between Humber and baseball immortality was 3 more outs. Michael Saunders was first up to the plate, and he was nearly walked before being struck out. Humber was nearing the 90-pitch mark and didn’t appear to be throwing as free and easy as he did in the early innings. The Mariners sent a pinch-“hitter” up to the plate in John Jaso, who lazily flied out to right field after falling behind 0-2. Humber was now 1 out away, and the Mariners, desperate not to have a perfect game thrown against them decided to counter with defensive specialist Brendan Ryan. Ryan has hit .248 and .223 during the past 2 seasons and is no ones definition of a good bat off the bench, but he does know how to work the count. He battled Humber for 6 pitches, working the count full. Humber decided to risk his entire game on a low and away slider, which generated just enough of a check swing to get the 3rd strike. The perfect game was his!!! Humber became the 21st member of the perfect game club, becoming the 4th pitcher in the last 3 seasons to throw one. (And for anyone who wants to argue that Ryan checked his swing, who cares? It’s Brendan Ryan!!! He’s not exactly the authority on hitting, and he went around enough for the pitch to be called a strike.)
Back over to Boston, the comeback was about to be on again. Boston’s Franklin Morales was left in to begin the 8th, and he immediately gave up a leadoff single to the pesky Eduardo Nunez. Valentine decided to make an immediate change, and brought in his de facto closer Alfredo Aceves. Aceves pitched for the Yankees from 2008 to 2010, and was excellent in relief last year for Boston, holding the pitching staff together down the stretch, throwing 114 total innings. But his early returns this season have been rather ugly, and yesterday was no exception. Aceves immediately walked Jeter, which brought up Nick Swisher. Swisher, already with a grand slam to his name, hit an 84-mph change-up that caught too much off the plate to deep right field for a double, plating 2 runs and giving the Yankees the lead.
Next, Valentine decided not to face the dangerous Robby Cano and put him on intentionally, bringing up Alex Rodriguez, who also worked a walk. The bases were now loaded for Mark Teixiera, who pummeled a ground-rule double to left, scoring 2 and giving the 1st baseman 6 RBI on the game. The Yankees now had the lead 12-9 all the way back from 9-0!!! The inning would continue to get uglier and uglier for Boston. Russell Martin doubled home 2 more runs and Jeter would single home another, bringing the score after 8 innings to 15-9, in the Yankees’ favor. Valentine was booed lustily every time he came out to discuss tactics or remove a pitcher.
The Yankees would close out the 9th inning to take the 15-9 victory, dropping the Red Sox to a measily 4-10, last in the AL East. The 9-run comeback by the Yankees tied the largest in franchise history, and was the 3rd time that New York has pulled the trick on Boston. Coupled with Phil Humber’s perfect game, April 21st was baseball’s finest day so far in 2012, and one that won’t soon be forgotten.
For more on Humber’s perfect game, check out these links from SI.com. Verducci’s take is especially interesting, as he looks at the game as a microcosm for the decline of offense around baseball.