For the better part of the last two decades the American League East has been dominated by the big fish, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. Recently the Tampa Bay Rays have been able to break into that triumvirate to steal a couple of playoff births and division titles. Last season brought more parity and more disturbance to the big budget empires with the Baltimore Orioles surprise run to 94 wins and a Wild Card spot, leaving only the Toronto Blue Jays out in the cold.
But this offseason, the established order in the AL East may finally be fully overthrown. The Yankees are old, injured, and cutting payroll back to a modest $189 million. The Red Sox are coming off their worst season since 1981 and they aren’t signing any of the big name players either, instead opting for character guys on short-term deals. Toronto (yes, Toronto) is ramping up payroll and making franchise-altering trades to add a staff full of pitchers, one that includes 2012 NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. Tampa Bay is doing their usual thing, trading for young, unproven talent while rebuilding on the cheap. And Baltimore, well, they’ve stood pat thus far.
The sharks are circling. From the looks of it, everybody has a shot in the AL East. No other division in baseball can say that. So why don’t we take an early peak at the division race, position by position, to see where things stand?
The Baltimore Orioles, tied for 1st in the AL East, are in action today and currently involved in yet another extra innings game, this time against the 3rd place Tampa Bay Rays. The Orioles are 80-62 and just 2 wins from their first season over .500 since 1997, but they have the run differential of a 69-73 teams, because they’ve been outscored by 21 runs. It’s a baffling feat, particularly in the AL East, which is routinely baseball’s toughest division, and it’s just a part of what makes this team one of the quirkiest in baseball history. Don’t believe me? Well then, let’s take a look at some of the facts.
One of the toughest things to quantify in all of sports is a catcher’s value on defense. Their are so many responsibilities and subtle nuances that go into being a quality Major League backstop. The best of the best are able to deftly juggle the responsibilities of managing a pitching staff, framing borderline pitches, blocking pitches, holding base runners, throwing said runners out when they attempt to steal, and much, much more. Recently I’ve been doing some research into catching defense and I have been somewhat unsatisfied by both the traditional statistics (caught stealing %, passed balls, and so on) and by the advanced metrics (URZ and defensive runs saved). A few excellent studies in particular have been done to analyze a catcher’s ability to frame pitches, but otherwise most analysis is left to judgment. I’ve been compiling some of my own numbers relating to catchers controlling the base running game in order to gain a better understanding of who the best backstops in baseball really are, and I’d like to share some of my findings today.
The first 2 months of the baseball season has produced quite a few teams rebounding from poor 2011 seasons. Some of these teams, like Miami, went out and spent big to turn things around. Other teams saw internal improvement from 2011, like the improvement of Adam Jones, leading to more runs scored, fewer runs allowed, and more victories. Let’s take a look at the chances for the 3 biggest turnaround teams of 2012, starting with the biggest surprise of all, the Baltimore Orioles.
One of the most exciting plays in all of baseball is a close play at the plate. The strong-armed outfielder trying to throw the swift, speedy base runner, while the poor, poor catcher is stuck standing still, hoping the baseball beats the runner, allowing him crucial seconds before being plowed into by a freight train. Some catchers around the league are particularly adept at blocking the plate, which is a very important defensive skill, one that can take away runs and turnaround ballgames. Matt Wieters is currently the best in the Majors at blocking the plate so let’s take a look at a few of the reasons why.
Wieters discussed the art of blocking the plate on MLB Network during Spring Training. He talked about his mindset, “This is your plate and they’re gonna have to go through you” and how to prevent an injury. “The main thing is to have your knee and your foot pointing down the 3rd base line.” This is also important because it takes away the closest part of the plate to the base runner. He also talks about making sure you let the ball get to you, because reaching out takes more time, and then making sure you have possession of the ball before making the tag. You can tell that this is a very important skill for Wieters and his diligence in blocking the plate is paying off for the Orioles on the scoreboard.
Wieters is also particularly adept to blocking the plate in part because of his large frame. He is officially listed at 6’5″ and 240 pounds. That makes him one of the larger catchers in the league, and a tough player to bowl over for opposing runners. Sean Rodriguez, one of the runners in the highlight, said, after running into Wieters “He’s definitely a lot bigger than me. I was out. His foot was in front of the bag so I got nowhere to slide. I have to get him and see if I could knock it loose. He held on to it. Credit to him.”
Wieters positioning is also superb. He stays exactly where a catcher is supposed to, on the top corner of the plate, which allows him to receive the throw as soon as possible, while taking away the closest part of the plate from the base runner. This positioning also has the double effect of allowing Wieters to quickly move out of the way if the ball isn’t in time, which can be helpful in preventing injuries over the course of a long season. Base runners either have to go around him or through him, neither of which is an exciting proposition.
His block in the 1st video preserved a game the Orioles went on to win, and his block in the 2nd video ended a rally by Tampa Bay, allowing the Orioles to come back and win. These are crucial plays over the course of the season, and they show Matt Wieters toughness and are part of the reason he is a Gold Glove catcher.
Now that April is in the books, and with All-Star voting already underway, it’s a good time to look at the American League’s best, by position, so far.
Catcher- Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles
The toughest position to choose from in either league, because of the excellent quality of play to date from Joe Mauer, who leads AL catchers in batting average and steals, AJ Pierzynski, who is hitting .309 with 4 homers, and Mike Napoli, who has crushed 7 homers already. I decided to go with Wieters, who plays behind the plate every game, unlike Mauer and Napoli, and who excels defensively, unlike Pierzynski. Wieters is hitting .279 with 6 homers and 15 RBI, helping Baltimore get off to a surprising start.
Konerko has been mashing the ball on the South Side, crushing for a .383/.444/.679 slash that puts him in the early MVP discussion. The slugging 1st baseman has also hit 5 homers, which put him over 400 for his career, and has driven in 15. He is the White Sox leader in the clubhouse, and has helped propel the team to a 2nd place start after the 1st month. This is one of the deepest positions in baseball, so we will see how long Paulie can hold on to the top spot.
2nd base- Ian Kinsler, Texas Rangers
Kinsler has been the spark at the top of the Rangers finely tuned machine of an offense, leading baseball in runs scored with 24. He’s also hitting a robust .298 while blasting 5 homers out of the leadoff spot.
Shortstop- Derek Jeter, New York Yankees
This one isn’t even close, as Jeter is the only AL shortstop hitting above .300. He is currently off to one of the best starts to a season in his career, hitting .389 with 4 homers and 13 RBI out of the leadoff spot. He has also scored 16 runs and leads all of baseball in hits. He is also driving the ball to the outfield again, something he struggled with early last season.
3rd Base- Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay Rays
Longoria injured his knee last night, attempting to steal 2nd, which has really put a damper on what was shaping up to be his finest professional season. Longoria has hit .349/.433/.561, spraying the ball to all fields and showing good power, with 4 homers to go with 19 ribbies. Hopefully he won’t have to miss more that a week or two, because he has some competition at 3rd with Miguel Cabrera and Adrian Beltre.
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 and will probably cost the Rays a couple wins.
Outfield- Josh Hamilton, Texas Rangers
Hamilton, along with Matt Kemp, has been playing in his own stratosphere early in 2012. He is hitting .395/.438/.744 and has compiled a major league leading 64 total bases in a scant 22 games. He also leads the American League in homeruns and RBI and may have a legitimate shot at the Triple Crown, if he can stay healthy.
Outfield- Josh Willingham, Minnesota Twins
Josh Willingham has arguably been the most valuable free agent pickup to date. He’s driving the ball to all fields, posting an outstanding .347/.447/.681 with 5 taters. He may not stay in Minnesota for long, because if the Twins don’t get their pitching sorted out, Willingham would bring back a big return from an outfield or slap hitting team around the deadline.
Outfield- Adam Jones, Baltimore Orioles
Adam Jones has been the other driving force behind the Orioles offense so far, hitting .333 and driving in 12. He has shown an All-Star level mix of power and speed, slugging 6 homers and stealing 4 bases, while scoring 18 runs. Other candidates for this last spot include: Yoenis Cespedes, Curtis Granderson, Nolan Reimold, and Nick Swisher, who is having a career-best start to his season.
Designated Hitter- David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox
Ortiz is having quite the season so far in Boston leading baseball in batting average, at .405 and OPS at 1.184. He has buoyed the Red Sox with his steady demeanor and production, leading the team in RBI and homers.
Right-handed pitcher- Jake Peavy, Chicago White Sox
What a comeback so far for Jake Peavy, who is currently 3-1 with a 1.67 ERA for the Sox. He’s already thrown 37 innings and has struck out a robust 33 while only walking 5 so far, for an excellent 6.6 K/BB. His WHIP of .690 leads baseball, as does his ERA+, which accounts for park factors and sits at an absurd 252. He will have some regression to the mean, but this is an excellent start for the righty.
The young 22-year-old was a blip on the radar before the season started, and a month later he leads all qualifying pitchers in ERA, at 1.23. He has only pitched 22 innings so far, but has struck out 22 while only allowing 1.182 base runners to reach per 9. He isn’t afraid to throw any pitch in any count and looks to be the real deal.
Relief pitcher- Jim Johnson, Baltimore Orioles
Johnson probably won’t occupy this spot for long, but right now he has a league leading 7 saves without allowing a run in any of his 8.2 innings pitched. Fernando Rodney has also been excellent, and apart from blowing an Opening Day save, Mariano Rivera has not allowed a run.
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