AL East Turned Upside Down: Why the Current Standings Don't Mean Anything
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Although the Red Sox have won 10 of their past 13 games, they still sit in last place in the AL East with a 22-22 record. By a different metric, however, Boston is the third best team in the American League.
Boston’s run differential—the difference between the teams’ runs scored (RS) and runs allowed (RA)—is plus-17. In the AL, they are only behind the Texas Rangers, who are a whopping 79 runs better than their opposition and Toronto, who’s plus-35. Both the first place Baltimore Orioles and the Tampa Bay Rays are plus-14, with the Yankees plus-7.
So why should this matter as much, if not more, than a team's actual win-loss results?
The pioneer of sabermetrics, Bill James, became well known for his Pythagorean Expectation. The stat that was featured prominently in Moneyball, the movie, uses the formula runs RS^2/(RS^2 + RA^2) to produce a team’s expected winning percentage.
The statistic estimates a team’s true capability of winning, and the idea translates to other sports as well. In the 2011 Football Outsiders Almanac, it states that from 1988 through 2004, seven of the 16 Super Bowl champions led the league in victories. In contrast, 11 of those 16 winners led the league in football’s version of the Pythagorean Expectation.
It’s also been estimated that in baseball, each 10 runs of run differential are good for one win above .500. The Red Sox are at 22-22, but with their plus-17 differential amounting to roughly two wins, their true record should be 24-20. First place Baltimore should be 24-21, not the 28-17 they currently are.
So while the Sox are 5.5 games behind the O’s in the AL East, Boston fans shouldn’t be worried. There are also plenty of other reasons the Orioles will not finish the year in the top half of the division.
Baltimore is getting quality production from Jason Hammel, who sports a 5-1 record and a 3.12 ERA. But this is the same pitcher who went 7-13 last year with the Rockies and has a career ERA of 4.87. He’s already shown signs of fading from his fast start, allowing four earned runs in each of his past two outings.
Additionally, while Adam Jones is having a superb year so far—he's hitting .311 with 14 home runs—his current start is unsustainable. Jones has never hit more than 25 home runs in a season, yet, he’s currently on pace for 50.
A big reason why has to do with his 25.6 percent home run rate on fly balls this year. With a career average of only 13.9 percent, and a league average of 10 percent, the number of home runs he hits is sure to come down.
In addition to the inevitable regression from Baltimore, the rest of the AL East teams have weak spots.
Although Alex Rodriguez hit two homers last night, his slugging percentage is only at .444, which if kept up through the year would be the lowest of his career in a full season.
A-Rod’s OPS has been steadily dropping since his monstrous 2007 season, where he hit 54 home runs and had a 1.067 OPS. Years of .965, .934, .847, .823 and now .817 OPS have followed. Plus, he hasn’t played 140 games in any of those seasons due to various injuries.
A declining A-Rod combined with an also downward spiraling Mark Teixeira—since joining the Yankees his OPS has also dropped each year—leave a mediocre offense to lead the thin Yankee starting rotation and bullpen.
New York counting so heavily on soon to be 40-year-old Andy Pettite is concerning, as are the injuries to both Mariano Rivera and David Robertson. This Yankee team could be only the second in 18 years to miss the playoffs.
Who will win the AL East?
The true competitors for the top stop in the division for the Red Sox are the Blue Jays and Rays. Tampa always seems to have a formidable pitching staff, but the struggles of rookie Matt Moore and the losses of Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings for extended amounts of time will really hurt them.
And while the Blue Jays are presently the best team in the division by run differential, their pitching rotation has wildly outperformed their expected results.
Ricky Romero, the ace of the staff coming into the year, has a 3.86 ERA, but his FIP (fielding independent pitching, a stat that measures a pitchers success by only what he can control: home runs, walks and strikeouts) stands at 4.44.
FIP is calibrated to be on the same scale as ERA, and a look at the Blue Jays starters sees all of their ERAs lower than their FIP. Kyle Drabek sports a 3.27 ERA but 5.14 FIP, largely due to an 84.6 percent LOB percent—the percentage of runners a pitcher strands on base.
The league average is 71.6 percent, and for Drabek’s career, he’s at 73.8 percent. A serious decline in performance for each pitcher could happen at anytime.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox continue to pile up wins, even though they are ravaged by injuries in the outfield. Their starting pitching is finally getting back on track; Beckett and Lester are demonstrating why they’ve each won a clinching World Series game, and Bard and Doubront continue to show promise each start.
The only question mark in the rotation at this point is Buchholz, but as a fifth-best starter, I think most teams would continue to roll the dice with him.
The Red Sox are not the worst team in the AL East by any means. Baltimore stands no chance at continuing to stay in first place, while the Yankees will never get there. This will be a race between the Rays, Jays and Sox.
Though Boston came out slow on the onset of the season, I believe they are the favorites to win the division.
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