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The Beasts and Leasts: The AL East at 20 games

Looking back on the first 20 games in the AL East, what trends have emerged?

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Patrick McDermott-USA TODAY Sports

Disclaimer: Not all teams have played 20 games in the division but it’s close enough that I think it works.

Baseball is a game of sample sizes. It’s often said that you can’t truly evaluate the talent of a young player until they’ve accrued 1500 MLB at-bats, or roughly three years’ worth of games. Up until that threshold, the sample is just too small to be unaffected by temporary swings in performance.

Happily, while sample size is a major issue for individual players, you can begin to make inferences about teams as a whole much earlier. I find a lot of value in analyzing teams in chunks of 20 games. A 20-game span includes four full turns through the team’s rotation and generally includes at least 50 innings pitched for the bullpen. It can also include a player’s stint on the disabled list, allowing a peek into a team’s performance with and without the injured player.

As such, I’ve prepared an analysis of the AL East as teams approach the 20-game mark, and will break down trends, concerns, and surprises for all five teams.

Per ESPN

Baltimore Orioles (12-5 actual record, 9-8 expected record, 1st in the AL East)

I’m not sure if there’s much value in analyzing the Baltimore Orioles, seeing as they constantly over-perform their projections. They’ve done so by an average of 13.2 (!!) wins against the PECOTA projected win total in the last five years. The key to this has been the strength of the team’s bullpen, consistently one of the best in baseball.

A strong bullpen, anchored by sinker-god-and-loudmouth Zach Britton, has given the O’s a better record in one-run games than any other team in baseball over the last several seasons. That said, one of the reasons to again doubt the Orioles is the pedestrian performance of that storied relief pitching so far. Baltimore’s bullpen is 22nd in baseball in K%. It also boasts the 8th highest BB%, and overall sit 24th in ERA-.

Britton has struggled, by his standards, so far this season. While sample size is ridiculously small, one of the things to keep an eye on going forward would be his BB/9, which is the highest it’s been since converting to a reliever. If injury problems are causing his lack of control, that’s one thing. If we’re about to see serious regression to the mean, however, Baltimore’s back end could fall apart quickly.

Although the overall offensive production from the Orioles appears to be roughly the same as last season - 101 wRC+ in 2016 versus a 98 in 2017 - the key metric to watch is Isolated Power (ISO). It’s currently a full 23 points lower than the O’s number in 2016. Baltimore has made their playoff runs over the last few seasons on the strength of home runs, 1.56/game in 2016. If they’re unable to sustain that, it would be hard to imagine them continuing to outperform their Pythagorean record.

New York Yankees (11-7 actual record, 12-6 expected record, 2nd in AL East)

There is a legitimate argument to make that the New York Yankees are, right now, the best team in baseball. Pacing MLB with the league’s best offense has helped the team produce the best run differential in baseball, at +30. Most people figured that the Yankees’ offense would be better than what it was in 2016, although I’m not sure anyone would have bet THIS much better.

During April 2016’s slow start, the Yankees hit at an 80 wRC+ clip. Their April 2017 mark of 123 is the best one-year turnaround in baseball. The Red Sox led baseball in 2016 with a 113 wRC+, and the Blue Jays led in 2015 with a 117 wRC+. It’s probably not realistic to expect the Yankees to continue with this level of offense.

Having said that, one of the biggest surprises of the season has been the contributions of Austin Romine and Ronald Torreyes while they cover for the injured Gary Sanchez and Didi Gregorius, respectively. Both Sanchez and Gregorius are better hitters than their replacements. When they return to the lineup, you could see a similar level of offensive production.

The Yankees’ pitching has been even more surprising than their offense. The bullpen has been outstanding as expected, with the best ERA- in baseball (36), fourth best K% (29.8%) and seventh best BB% (8.3%). Ho hum, we all knew the bullpen was probably the biggest strength of the team. What’s far more surprising, and welcome, is the progress the starting pitching has made.

The starting rotation has been decidedly average in 2017, with middle-of-the-pack rankings in ERA-, batting average against, and ERA. That may not sound like progress, but considering the Yankees were a bottom-five starting rotation in April 2016, I am nothing but ecstatic about their mediocrity. Even better, there’s ample evidence the pitching could get better.

I’ve already written about the sustainability of CC Sabathia’s success, and I don’t think it’s unrealistic for Masahiro Tanaka to pitch better than he’s currently doing. The Yankees’ starters are a top five rotation in baseball when it comes to both striking out opposing batters and preventing walks. While their home run rate is a little high for my taste, solo home runs tend not to hurt teams as much as many people think. The fact that the Yankees are under-performing their Pythagorean record and their pitching peripherals are huge reasons for optimism going forward.

Boston Red Sox (11-8 actual record, 10-9 expected record, 3rd in AL East)

The preseason favorite for many, the Red Sox have been less-than-excellent to start 2017. The Red Sox haven’t been terrible, they’ve just been more or less average, with a 104 wRC+ and 108 ERA-.

There was reason, in my opinion, to doubt their offense, with Dustin Pedroia and Sandy Leon both due for regression after 2016. So far, Pedroia sports a 67 wRC+ while Leon has managed a 42 wRC+, effectively becoming two black holes in the lineup. Add that to replacing David Ortiz with Mitch Moreland, whose hot start is so beyond his career norm that it can’t be sustainable, and I don’t think we should be surprised by an average lineup.

The Red Sox made the biggest splash of the offseason, acquiring Very Good Pitcher Chris Sale for a king’s ransom from the Chicago White Sox. Sale has been great, and I am not looking forward to watching him pitch against the Yankees. The rest of the Red Sox rotation, however, has been laughably bad. Of the six men who have made up the rotation in 2017, only Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez (who is struggling himself, walking almost seven batters per nine innings) have an ERA below 3.50.

I know that small sample size caveats apply, but this is too much fun not to share.Rick Porcello, who won the Cy Young award last season: 15.6% HR/FB. This is probably not sustainable over a full season, although Drew Pomeranz’s is even worse. Porcello has had home run problems in his career, so while the HR/FB number should even out somewhat, it wouldn’t be surprising to see it stay noticeably higher than league average.

Add to all this the fact that nobody seems to know how hurt David Price is, and the Red Sox could be in trouble going forward.

Tampa Bay Rays (10-10 actual record, 11-9 expected record, 4th in AL East)

Before joining the staff, I said the Rays wouldn’t be the same team they were in 2016, because their pitching would be better and their lineup would be worse. Suffice it to say, I know nothing about baseball.

Tampa Bay brings the third best offense in baseball along with a bottom-half pitching staff. Chris Archer (so far) seems to have overcome his down 2016, but other than him, nothing really jumps out about Tampa’s pitching staff. Alex Cobb has struggled in his return from injury, but the staff from top to bottom is pretty average, reflecting their 101 ERA-.

The Rays’ lineup, however, is a different story. The team seems to have fully shed their identity as a contact-based, speedy offense in favor of the almighty home run. The Rays are currently third in the American League in home runs. They also lead the junior circuit in runs produced by home runs.

Some of this offense isn’t sustainable, like the fact the Rays are just above league average in walk rate. Combine that with a BABIP 40 points higher than last season, and it’s not hard to imagine the Rays struggling to get on base and doing as much damage with their home runs going forward. Expect the Rays to stay right around .500 all year.

Toronto Blue Jays (5-13 actual record, 7-11 expected record, 5th in AL East)

It gives me no shortage of pleasure to write the Jays’ actual record in their first 18 games.

Although a poor season from Toronto was not necessarily unforeseen, I don’t think many people would have figured they would be this bad. To add to the surprise, the pitching staff has actually been somewhat better than Tampa’s, with an identical ERA-, more strikeouts and fewer walks than the Rays. Marcus Stroman has been annoyingly outstanding, Marco Estrada quite good, and JA Happ and Aaron Sanchez quite serviceable. The problem is their abysmal start at the plate.

Coming off two high-scoring wins in three games against the Los Angeles Angels and their very bad pitching staff, the Jays still rank fourth worst in baseball by wRC+. They’re fifth worst by K%, fifth worst by ISO, and post an above average GB%. All these peripherals mean the lack of offense is no fluke, and any time your best hitter is Justin Smoak, you have cause for concern.

Whether or not Toronto will stay this bad is, for me, a contentious matter. Jose Bautista looks slow. His swing, which is completely dependent on him starting early and pulling fly balls, seems to be late on most pitches. This results in soft fly balls to right field.

Russell Martin appears to have fallen off a cliff, a dangerous thought when a well-paid catcher is under contract for two more seasons. Josh Donaldson has been removed from two games so far this season with calf problems, after missing chunks of spring training and parts of 2016 with an injury to the same calf. Troy Tulowitzki finds himself back on the DL with a groin problem. Time will tell for the Jays what their offense will become, but for now, it doesn’t look good.

The AL East is the only division with four teams boasting a .500 or better record. All four of those team also sport a Pythagorean record better than their actual. Right now, at least, it seems the division is still a dogfight. Although, I think there’s evidence to suggest the Yankees will keep up their great play, Baltimore will falter, and who knows what the Red Sox and Jays will become.

Data courtesy of FanGraphs and ESPN.