Normally, when a championship season begins, there already is a pretty clear stratification of teams within a league. In the current 15-team league era, leagues often divide fairly neatly into thirds: five pretty clear contenders, five pretty clear laggards or rebuilders and five “meh” clubs in the middle. As the season begins to unfold, a game of musical chairs begins, with a contender or two often falling short and a club or two from the “meh” and rebuilder categories making a surprise run.
The 2014 American League breaks this mold. almost a full quarter into the season, there are two clear contending clubs — the Detroit Tigers and Oakland A’s — and only the Houston Astros are an obvious laggard. The “meh” pile is 12 deep. Let’s look at this group a little closer for clues as to who might emerge as the other three AL playoff teams.
First, let’s take a look at these 12 teams’ records entering Monday night’s games.
Yes, Virginia, the AL East Champion and two wild cards need to eventually emerge from this motley collection of clubs. Five-and-a-half games separate the top from the bottom. Amazingly, only two games separate the second- and 11th-place clubs. With a significant chunk of the season already in the books, this qualifies as parity at best — and sheer lunacy at worst.
Before I pull out my crystal ball, let’s do a little crowdsourcing and see how some baseball sites’ prognostications for the rest of the season match up:
Above, you see the team strength ratings/playoff odds from Baseball Reference, Coolstandings and FanGraphs, along with current Pythagorean rankings based on actual runs scored and allowed. Based both on this rankings and my own instincts, I feel somewhat confident in deeming one of these 12 clubs as clearly the best and another as clearly the worst of this 12-team group.
The Minnesota Twins rank 11th in the AL in AVG and 14th in SLG. Their team OBP ranks sixth, thanks to their newfound ability to draw walks (second in the American League). They’re close to .500 to date thanks to overperformances from Brian Dozier, Kurt Suzuki and Eduardo Escobar. Shortstop (prior to the insertion of Escobar) and center field have been offensive sinkholes. Their offense, however, has been just wonderful compared to their pitching. They rank 14th in the AL in ERA and dead last in Ks, which places undue pressure on their below-average team defense. This is likely a 70-ish win club, with the first quarter of the season likely to go down as its best.
On the other end we have the Angels. Though they currently stand only two games over .500, they’ve outscored their opponents by 186-154 with very little input from Josh Hamilton or Kole Calhoun, two of their four or five best hitters. They’re ranked first in the AL in SLG, second in HR and fourth in runs despite the presence of offensive sinkholes at third base and designated hitter. Albert Pujols has led the way — and though he should regress —the return of their injured outfielders plus an eventual DH upgrade should keep the offense rolling. They lead the AL in starting pitcher IP per game (6.20), which keeps the pressure off their relatively nondescript bullpen. This is a 90-plus win team, with a puncher’s chance of bringing down the A’s.
Before trying to split hairs and separate the remainder of this 10-team mob scene, let’s take a look at one more table. Listed below is each team’s calculated offensive and defensive ERAs, based on their OBP and SLG for and against, along with their projected Pythagorean winning percentage based on this data. This winning percentage is then applied to each club’s remaining number of games to be played to determine their number of remaining wins, which then is added to their wins to date to arrive at an overall total.
|Calc ERA||Off||Def||Pythag||Rem W||Tot W|
This sums up the overall parity/mediocrity of this group. The table above is sorted by Pythagorean winning percentage based on calculated offensive and defensive ERA. This is an eye-opening column that points out the very real possibility that the second AL wild card team will be a .500 ballclub, give or perhaps even take a game or two. Maybe the most surprising individual piece of data is the Orioles’ poor Pythagorean winning percentage of .422. The O’s have the best current record of this group, but the worst calculated OBP-SLG-ERA Pythag winning percentage. That’s worse than the Twins. My ranking of these clubs will not blindly parrot this table, though. In reverse order, let’s rank the remaining 10 clubs and finish up with our two remaining playoff teams, the AL East champ and the second wild card.
THE TRUE ALSO-RANS:
10. Toronto Blue Jays: At some point, the five-team AL East logjam will begin to break, and an upper and lower division will emerge. The guess here is that the Jays’ utter inability to keep the opposition off of the scoreboard — and their own starting pitcher in the ballgame — will be their undoing. Jays’ starters have averaged only 5.51 IP per start, better than only Tampa Bay among this group, and these guys don’t have Alex Cobb or Jeremy Hellickson coming back. Their greatest strength is obviously their offensive power, ranking first in the AL in home runs and second in SLG. The Adam Lind/Juan Francisco combo has overperformed to date. A continuing MVP-level offensive performance from Jose Bautista is a prerequisite for ongoing contention. Second base is an offensive sinkhole. Their pen has been bad, and heavily leaned upon, and their staff is second in the AL in walks. There are numerous leaks here that should eventually combine to take this team down.
9. Chicago White Sox: Chicago’s first quarter has actually been a pretty good story, one I actually saw coming in my preseason article declaring them the “Most Interesting Rebuilder” in the American League. In any event, the clock should strike midnight for Cinderella at some point this summer, and Chicago’s lack of team run prevention ability will be to blame. The White Sox have scored the most runs in the AL to date — they have played a league-high 39 games — and rank third in the AL in AVG and fourth in SLG. They have done this largely on the back of unsustainably strong performances from Jose Abreu and Alexei Ramirez, with Adam Dunn, Dayan Viciedo and Tyler Flowers also over their skis a bit at this stage of the season. They are getting nothing out of second base, third base or left field. Their pitching staff ranks 13th in ERA and Ks, and has walked the most batters of any AL club. Chris Sale should be back soon, but the problem goes beyond an injury to one pitcher. They already have used nine starters, with only Sale and Jose Quintana materially above replacement level. FanGraphs likes them the least among the above resources, with a projected 3.3% chance of making the playoffs. Their system is onto something there.
8 – Baltimore Orioles – Tough call here, but I see the O’s eventually retreating and joining the Blue Jays in the second division of the AL East. Based on OBP and SLG for and against, the Orioles’ .422 Pythag winning percentage is worse than even the Twins. The glass-half-full type might state they currently have the 3rd best record in the AL with only two HR from Chris Davis and basically nothing from Manny Machado, but the realist sees poor team run prevention skills and an offense that ranks 12th in the AL in OBP and dead last in walks. Five of their regulars have OBPs of .301 or below, Nelson Cruz can’t be expected to carry the offense all season, Matt Wieters is going to be out awhile and their team defense is not very good. This is a sub-.500 team.
7. Texas Rangers: FanGraphs sees them as the final playoff team, an outlier opinion compared to the others that see them at or near the Twins’ level. They’ve been outscored by 159-187 to date, for a .420 Pythag winning percentage based on actual runs scored. Their run prevention has been terrible, with their rotation largely in shambles behind Yu Darvish. Matt Harrison is back and Derek Holland should join him this summer, but even then their pitching will not be a true strength. Offensively, Prince Fielder has been in a slump so long that a revision of his true talent level might soon be in order, and Adrian Beltre is back but still not himself. They have gotten nothing out of catcher or second base, with Geovany Soto and Jurickson Profar still out. Shin-Soo Choo has almost singlehandedly kept the offense afloat. Their bullpen doesn’t strike people out, and it will be taxed more as the Texas summer heats up. There’s still a nice core here, but this likely isn’t the Rangers’ year.
6. Seattle Mariners: The Mariners arguably have the highest ceiling and lowest floor of the 10 core “meh” AL clubs. On one hand, they are over .500 despite getting a combined four starts to date out of Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker and running out an outfield featuring a rotating cast of replacement-level players. They do possess the most young, upwardly mobile core players among any of these clubs, though most of them were rushed to the majors and remain unfinished, showing impatience and pull-happy tendencies. Brad Miller is lost, Mike Zunino has flashed power but has a 33/3 K/BB, and their outfield situation would actually be even worse if their Plan A, which included Logan Morrison and Abraham Almonte, hadn’t been foiled by the former’s injury and the latter’s ineffectiveness. Their best-case scenario is a rosy one that features a healthy Felix Hernandez-Iwakuma-Paxton-Walker-fronted rotation with an offense starring a resurgent Miller and a more powerful Robinson Cano. That team has a legit shot. Just as likely, though, is that by June 15, only two or three of those pitchers are healthy, and some combination of James Jones, Jabari Blash and Endy Chavez are logging significant outfield time en route to a 70 to 75-win season.
CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR:
5. Tampa Bay Rays: Some teams have their best quarter first, and others their worst. The Rays fall into the latter camp, having come into the season with high hopes, only to lose three-fifths of their starting rotation (Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Jeremy Hellickson). Moore won’t be back this year, but the other two should still have an impact. The Rays have gotten only 5.45 IP per start from their rotation, less than even the Jays, but help is on the way. Their pen has been overtaxed to date, struggling as a result. On the positive side, their offense is balanced and OBP-centered — seven regulars have OBP of .339 or better — and no one has over-performed materially to date. Their team defense is solid and is among the best of this group of teams. This club just might be the best of these 10 clubs moving forward, but might not be good enough to make up ground on enough teams to earn a playoff spot in the end.
4. Cleveland Indians: The Indians’ offense has been abysmal to date, ranking 11th in the AL in runs scored. Michael Brantley and Lonnie Chisenhall are the only regulars who are hitting, with Nick Swisher, Jason Kipnis, Carlos Santana and Michael Bourn all performing well below expectations. Their team defense has been subpar, particularly in the infield. This negatively impacts their strong pitching staff, which induces the most grounders in the AL. Their staff leads the AL in Ks, and the rotation has averaged an adequate 5.84 IP per start. Their bullpen has been effective, but its members are used frequently in a constant search for lefty-righty matchups, which could cause some attrition over the long haul. There’s a lot to work with here, but also too many Achilles’ heels for them to pull through.
3. Kansas City Royals: The Royals are a lot like the Mariners, but with much less variability and volatility on both the offensive and defensive sides. Both teams can’t score, due only in part to their spacious, pitcher-friendly homes, and both claim run prevention as their strong suit— with help from their home parks. The Royals are 13th in the AL in OBP and dead last in SLG and have gotten nothing out of third base or designated hitter. No one is performing over his head, and their best hitter, Eric Hosmer, is actually having a solid year (.320-.360-.440) despite hitting only one homer to date. They are getting 6.19 IP per game from their starters, fractionally behind only the Angels among this group, and their pen is well rested and talented. Their team defense is also clearly among the best of this group. At the end of the day, however, the extra games they have to play against the Tigers may be all that separates them and the second place AL East club in pursuit of the second wild card.
2. New York Yankees: There are plenty of reasons to rank this club further — perhaps much further — down this list. Their core position players are quite old, and there isn’t a lot of MLB-ready organizational depth waiting behind them. Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda and now CC Sabathia have all hit the disabled list, and Nova won’t be back this year. Despite all of this, they rank fifth in the American League in offensive SLG, and third in pitching Ks, with the second fewest walks. When you get down to it, according to calculated offensive and defensive ERA, they’re a .500 club. Why pick a .500 club to make the playoffs? Well…. According to the calculated ERA table above, 81 wins gets you into the playoffs in this year’s American League; Joe Girardi got 85 wins out of a demonstrably worse 2013 club that didn’t have Derek Jeter, Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran or — most importantly — Masahiro Tanaka; and New York could win 25 to 28 of Tanaka’s 33 starts (they’re 6-1 so far), and that could barely push them over the top. They’ll win 85 again and outperform their Pythag projection.
1. Boston Red Sox: These guys are just a bit better than the other nine core “meh” teams. Their offense has struggled and ranks 10th in runs, but at their core, the Sox have a solid OBP-based attack, ranking second in the AL at .337. No one is overperforming, and various members of their outfield rotation have underperformed and should fare better as the season unfolds. Xander Bogaerts is a fly-ball hitter who hasn’t yet learned to pull and use the wall — but he will. They get plenty of innings from their starting pitchers (6.05 per game), and Boston’s pen is deep, rested and effective. Perhaps most importantly, they haven’t exhausted all of their resources at this early stage in the season, unlike most of their competitors. They have multiple MLB-ready contributors in their upper minors, either for their use or for trade, plus the financial wherewithal to make a play for an MLB free agent after draft pick compensation is no longer an issue. This team, and organization, has another gear if it needs it.
The upside of all of this parity? Each and every day, there will be a slate full of meaningful games in the American League. In fact, the Rays-Mariners series that begins tonight is actually a big one for the Rays, which stand last among the “meh” clubs to date and find themselves facing Felix and Iwakuma the next two nights. The teams might not be great, but the competition should be. Strap in and enjoy the 10-teams-for-two-spots race that never ends.
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