Is Early Parity a Sign the American League Is Weaker Than Usual in 2014?

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Is Early Parity a Sign the American League Is Weaker Than Usual in 2014?
Jim Rogash/Getty Images
The struggles of the defending champion Red Sox are just part of the American League's early mediocrity.

We're used to the American League being pretty good, as the AL has owned interleague play every year since 2004 and has produced more 90-win teams than the National League three years in a row.

So far in 2014, however, the American League has looked pretty ordinary. "Meh," even.

And upon closer inspection, it doesn't look like an accident. Early though it may be, the mediocrity of the American League looks as real as the various flaws within.

But first things first. Let's get a good look at said mediocrity by taking a look at how things stand through play on Sunday, April 20 (via ESPN.com):

American League Standings Through April 20
AL EAST W L W-L% GB Run Diff
Yankees 11 8 .579 - -9
Blue Jays 10 9 .526 1 +4
Rays 9 10 .474 2 +1
Red Sox 9 10 .474 2 -5
Orioles 8 9 .471 2 0
AL CENTRAL W L W-L% GB Run Diff
Tigers 9 6 .600 - +1
Royals 9 8 .529 1 -5
Twins 9 9 .500 1.5 +7
White Sox 9 10 .474 2 0
Indians 8 10 .444 2.5 -7
AL WEST W L W-L% GB Run Diff
Athletics 13 5 .722 - +32
Rangers 11 8 .579 2.5 -6
Angels 8 10 .444 5 +13
Mariners 7 11 .389 6 -1
Astros 5 14 .263 8.5 -41

ESPN.com

Now, that the day began with nine teams within 2.5 games of first means that there's some solid parity in the AL. But if the question is whether that parity exists because of overall strength or overall weakness, recent history pushes the needle more toward the latter.

The Oakland A's are the only team with a winning percentage above (not at) the .600 mark. The last time there was only one AL team with a winning percentage over .600 through April 20 was in 2005 with the Chicago White Sox.

Likewise, 2005 was also the last time the combined run differential of the three first-place teams was below plus-25. There are also only two teams with positive run differentials in the double digits so far. There were at least three such teams through April 20 every year between 2004 and 2013.

Point being: What we're seeing in the American League so far doesn't feel normal because it's not normal.

And if we take a moment to do some quick and dirty assessments/diagnostics of all American League clubs, it's hard not to notice the individual cracks that have already formed, but also those that are due to form soon enough.

 

In the AL East

Orlin Wagner
Tampa Bay's starting rotation has seen better days.

New York Yankees (11-8)

There's plenty to like about the Yankees, especially the production they've gotten out of new arrivals Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and Masahiro Tanaka, as well as the reborn Michael Pineda.

But potentially losing Ivan Nova for the season with a torn ulnar collateral ligament hurts. It's also still easy to worry about an infield that's largely old and rickety. And though CC Sabathia hasn't been as bad as his 5.19 ERA, it's clear that his bad moments are going to loom larger than his good moments.

Also: It doesn't bode well that the Yankees have the oldest position players in MLB by a wide margin.

 

Toronto Blue Jays (10-9)

Toronto's offense will be better once Edwin Encarnacion and Colby Rasmus come around, but it's hard to believe Toronto's starting pitching is as good as its 3.82 ERA (via FanGraphs).

That's a figure anchored by Mark Buehrle's 0.64 ERA. It's nice and all, but he doesn't have the stuff to maintain a .253 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) or a Home Run to Fly Ball rate (HR/FB) of 0.0.

 

Tampa Bay Rays (9-10)

The Rays offense will get a boost once Wil Myers remembers how talented he is, but their starting rotation has seen better days. Matt Moore has been lost for the season with Tommy John surgery, and they're going to have to rough it without Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson for the next couple weeks.

"It's just been kind of unfortunate," said David Price, via USA Today. "We just have to step up."

Price went on to follow this sentiment up by allowing six runs in five innings against the Yankees.

 

Baltimore Orioles (8-9)

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB's official YouTube account.

The Orioles are missing Manny Machado's defense at the hot corner, and he'll also give their lineup a boost when he returns from knee surgery. And no, it's not worth worrying about Chris Davis' missing power.

But Baltimore's starting pitching is a different story. The 4.53 ERA of the O's rotation is very close to the 4.57 ERA it had last year. And with a 6.75 ERA and 5.5 BB/9, Ubaldo Jimenez looks a lot more like himself than the guy who showed up in the second half of 2013.

 

Boston Red Sox (9-10)

Boston's offense and defense will get a boost once Will Middlebrooks and Shane Victorino get healthy, but it's already apparent how much it misses Jacoby Ellsbury in the leadoff spot. Sox leadoff hitters have just a .275 OBP so far.

Elsewhere, Clay Buchholz is not the guy he was early in 2013, and both Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz have been easier outs than usual. With a .479 OPS, Daniel Nava may not be long for the majors.

The Red Sox still have plenty of talent on paper, but it's easy to remember right now that they would hardly be the first team to fall flat after winning the World Series.

 

In the AL Central

Carlos Osorio
Miguel Cabrera hasn't looked much like Miguel Cabrera so far.

Detroit Tigers (9-6)

Despite Anibal Sanchez's control issues, Detroit's starting pitching has been as advertised. In the bullpen, Joe Nathan looks like he's coming around after his "dead arm" period.

But the Tigers offense has been a disappointment, and you can trace that mainly to how disappointing two-time defending AL MVP Miguel Cabrera has been. Panicking isn't advised, but it's hard to ignore how he still looks a lot like the guy who was an injured wreck at the end of 2013. 

 

Kansas City Royals (9-8)

USA TODAY Sports
Billy Butler's drop in power is coinciding with an increasing ground-ball habit.

The lack of power in Kansas City's lineup is a question mark without any clear solutions, especially if Billy Butler and Mike Moustakas continue to struggle with issues that have roots deeper than just 2014.

Meanwhile on the mound, Jeremy Guthrie and Bruce Chen are who they are, and Jason Vargas will be in for a world of hurt once his .214 BABIP regresses. When that happens, Kansas City's rotation won't have much stability outside of James Shields.

 

Minnesota Twins (9-9)

Even if Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes shrug off slow starts, it's only going to be successful in repairing what's currently an AL-worst 5.31 ERA for Twins starters.

Minnesota's offense has been a lot better, as the Twins are second in the AL in runs and fifth in OPS. But since it's guys like Josmil Pinto, Chris Colabello and Trevor Plouffe doing the bulk of the damage, all you can say is, "Yeah, right."

 

Chicago White Sox (9-10)

The White Sox have a 5.18 ERA that's reflective both of the lack of stability behind Chris Sale and Jose Quintana in their rotation and how bad of a dumpster fire their bullpen is (5.72 ERA and more walks than strikeouts).

Like Minnesota, Chicago's offense has been a pleasant surprise with the most runs and highest OPS in the American League. But keeping that up will require Alexei Ramirez, Dayan Viciedo, Tyler Flowers and Adam Dunn to keep playing way over their heads. Once again, "Yeah, right."

 

Cleveland Indians (8-10)

The Cleveland offense is going to be in for a long season if Nick Swisher and Carlos Santana don't get their acts together, but the bigger concern is the team's starting pitching. 

Cleveland's rotation has just a 5.11 ERA thus far. As much as you want to believe that's coming down, you can't help but be concerned with how, as FanGraphs' Mike Podhorzer pointed out, Justin Masterson, Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco are struggling with their velocity.

 

In the AL West

Mathew Sumner
At least the American League has the A's.

Oakland A's (13-5)

The A's are about as hard to criticize as their record says they should be. They're a good team, in large part because they have depth and a manager in Bob Melvin who knows how to use it.

What you wonder, though, is how much longer Oakland's starting rotation can keep leading the league in ERA. A.J. Griffin will be back soon, but the A's surely can't keep making the loss of Jarrod Parker for the season out to be no big deal forever.

At the least, they'd probably take him over the homer-prone Dan Straily right about now.

 

Texas Rangers (11-8)

Adrian Beltre, Jurickson Profar, Geovany Soto, Tanner Scheppers, Matt Harrison and Derek Holland are all on the disabled list. It's going to be a while before Profar, Soto and Holland are back, and the bar shouldn't be set too high for Harrison's return after all he went through in 2013.

Elsewhere, Prince Fielder's steady decline is steady no more. He's hitting just .188 with a .659 OPS, in part because of ongoing struggles against hard pitches. Per Brooks Baseball, Fielder is only hitting .200 against hard stuff.

 

Los Angeles Angels (8-10)

USA TODAY Sports
Nothing bad to say here. Pujols has looked terrific.

Mike Trout and Albert Pujols are leading an offense that ranks third in the AL in runs scored and OPS, but the lineup around them will be a bit thin for the next few weeks without Kole Calhoun and Josh Hamilton.

The Angels' pitching can help by picking up some slack, but good luck with that. Jered Weaver is still battling declining stuff, Hector Santiago and Garrett Richards both have control issues, and the bullpen is still a notable weak point with a collective 4.92 ERA.

 

Seattle Mariners (7-11)

After an encouraging start, the offense has gone back to its old tricks. It ranks 12th in the AL in runs and 14th in OPS. It's easy to have faith in Robinson Cano, but he's the only Seattle hitter who has a dependable track record.

And while the Mariners stand to get a boost from Hisashi Iwakuma's return, their rotation isn't going to be as dangerous as it could have been this year if Taijuan Walker's shoulder keeps him sidelined.

 

Houston Astros (5-13)

Let's make this short and to the point: No.

 

Of the AL's 15 clubs, the only one that's had a legitimately impressive start to the 2014 season is Oakland, which has the run differential to match its record and plenty of talent to thank for that. The AL West is theirs now, and it won't be a surprise if it's theirs for the rest of the season based on how iffy things are around them in the division.

As for the rest of the American League, well, it's kind of a mess at the moment.

Nobody looks prepared to establish dominance in the AL East. While many of us figured that would be the case before the start of the season, we figured it had more to do with how evenly matched the teams in the division were. Instead, it has more to do with how evenly flawed the teams are.

The AL Central has been Detroit's division for several years now. It still is at the moment, but the Tigers had better hope that Cabrera either gets himself squared away or the various flaws within the division continue to linger or get worse. Otherwise, the division could get interesting.

Because it is still so early, there's still plenty of time for things to change. Maybe every last problem in the AL will get a solution, in which case we'll be able to look back on this and laugh.

But the way things look now, the year might end with us telling the AL the same thing we're telling it now:

It's looked better.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked, and a hat-tip is owed to MLB.com for injury information.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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