Friday, May 21, 2010

The AL East Meat Grinder

Year in and year out the AL East gets a lot of publicity about being the toughest division in baseball. This year has been no surprise, but I thought I'd take a closer look at just how good the AL East has been this year. Even including the woeful Orioles (7-14 outside the AL East), the AL East is 9 games above .500 against the AL Central (32-23) and 12 games above .500 against the AL West (36-24). Unsurprisingly, this dominance is reflected in run totals. The AL East has the top FOUR scoring offenses in the AL, and the first, fourth, and seventh best pitching staffs (Rays, Yankees, and Blue Jay, respectively).

In a rather depressing note, the Red Sox have actually allowed more runs than any other team in the league. The park certainly has something to do with it, but this is hardly a team built on pitching and defense right now. Another contributing factor may be that the Red Sox have faced off against division rivals 24 times so far, and AL East teams average 225 runs scored, versus 175 for the AL Central and 172 for the AL West. If one were rather cynical, you could argue that's because those teams get to face the Red Sox and the Orioles' pitching staffs.

Looking at the Pythagorean won - loss records, using Bill James' quick and dirty formula - none of the teams really jump out as over or under performing. However, I'm not sold on the Blue Jays as a real contender - they've only played 12 games against the AL East, while the other 4 teams have played at least 18 games against divisional opponents. Also, their team OBP is a meager .310; while their power laden lineup offsets that, I don't think the starts by either Vernon Wells (11 HR) or Jose Bautista (12 HR) are sustainable.

Finally, in case there was any doubt in your mind, the Rays are for real. In fact, they're the best team in baseball, and it isn't even close. The Rays are second in the AL in runs scored and first in runs allowed. But that doesn't really show just how strong their pitching has been. Despite all those numbers above about how great the AL East is offensively, the Rays have allowed 128 runs this season, which is 36 runs better than the second place Mariners, who have the luxury of a huge stadium and a weaker division. If there is one weakness with the Rays, it might be their relief pitchers, especially with JP Howell missing the remainder of the season after reinjuring his shoulder. As the season goes on, we may see some of their top tier minor league pitchers filling a relief role, much like David Price did during their 2008 World Series run.


  1. I think I've pointed this out before, but neither the Ray's offense nor pitching is quite as good as it seems. Their offense is propped up by a collective team line of .297/.375/.470 with runners in scoring position and a .258/.344/.411 line overall. That just isn't sustainable. The pitching is more complicated, and harder to predict regression, but all of the advanced pitching metrics (FIP, xFIP, BP's new SIERA) have the Rays' expected RA a good bit higher than their actual RA. (2.81 ERA, 3.74 FIP, xFIP of 4.06). If you look at the underlying pitching and hitting numbers, the Rays are only a couple of games better than the Sox (Using third order wins from BP).

    That said, the games they have already played definitely count. They are an astounding 18 games over .500, and with 120 games left in the season, they only need to play out the rest of the season as a .583 team to finish at 100 wins, which would certainly win them the division. Based on their W3, the Rays are a .614 team, so it is not out of the question for them to win 100 games.

  2. That is a good point - the Rays are hitting preposterously well with runners in scoring position. If you do want to look at the the third order winning percentage on Baseball Prospectus, which is based on the expected runs scored and runs allowed, adjusting for park and team quality effects, things still don't look great for the Red Sox. Third order winning percentage likes the Yankees as the best team in the AL East, putting them as playing like a 105 win team. The Rays aren't much farther behind, at 101, with the Red Sox well behind at 93.5. Of course, that doesn't take into account current records. If we prorate the number of wins over the games remaining, we end up with the Rays on top with 105 wins, the Yankees at 103, and the Sox at 91. Of course, this is all with the Red Sox pitching staff performing awfully poorly. Whether you're an optimist or a pessimist, I think we all can agree that any hope the Red Sox have of making the playoffs relies on a strong performance by the starting pitching.