One of the crosses Yankees fans must bear is the difficulty of the division our team plays in. Unlike Cleveland fans or National fans of the last half-decade or so, our team actually has to work hard to win the division and make the playoffs. Last year, despite having the best Yankee team since 2012, New York still fought tooth and nail with their division rivals and ended up with a Wild Card berth. However, if they had the luxury some other division winners had, they very well could have won without looking back.
The AL East is almost always great, and the unbalanced schedule means the Yankees have to follow their rivals’ performance more than most teams. So, after a month of baseball, how are those rivals performing?
For the most part, well. After Sunday’s afternoon games, four teams in the East are separated by just five games. The Yankees and Rays are riding hot streaks while the Blue Jays and Red Sox have come back to Earth after their stunning starts. The Orioles, meanwhile, are also a baseball team.
Tampa Bay seems to be the only team playing well over their heads so far. After rattling off eight straight wins and winning two of three against the Red Sox in Fenway, they climbed close to .500 on the season (12-14), but that’s probably a little misleading. Despite the impressive winning streak, they boast a -4 run differential on the season, which is a really good indicator that they’re not as good as their recent hot streak shows. Offensively, the 112 wRC+ jumps off the page, but is fuelled by the league’s highest BABIP.
There’s evidence the Rays are getting a little lucky offensively, and the fact that they’re barely average at walking — 16th in baseball at 8.8% — and well below average by isolated power — 19th in MLB at just .152 — means that, once that luck dries up, the runs probably will too. The pitching has been poor, and with mediocre strikeout and walk rates, isn’t likely to improve in the meanwhile. The fact that this surge for the Rays probably isn’t for real is born out in the fact their playoff odds really haven’t changed much at all.
Speaking of playing over their heads, we all knew the Red Sox weren’t actually going to win 140 games, and most of us knew that the division title wasn’t locked up after the first 11 games. What we don’t know is if the Red Sox are doomed to fall a little farther, or is this a true talent, .650 clip baseball team?
As usual, it’s probably a bit of both. Offensively, the Sox are actually quite similar to the Rays — 111 wRC+ — although they tend to get on base a little less often and hit for a little more power than Tampa does. Boston’s hitting more balls out of the park than last year, when they finished last in the American League in home runs. Currently sitting third in the AL in that total, they’re on pace to hit about a dozen more than last season. Like the Yankees, you could predict a little more power for the Red Sox going forward as the weather warms up, but if the 180 HR pace holds, you have to wonder if the team’s going to manage enough runs to keep up in the AL East.
The pitching, meanwhile, is going to be what keeps the Red Sox in a playoff position if they’re the real deal. Chris Sale has done Chris Sale things, David Price has been fine-if-not-spectacular, but most surprising of all has to be the performance of Rick Porcello. After being an undeserved Cy Young winner two years ago, Porcello has legitimately been the best pitcher in the AL in April, with a sterling 1.93 ERA/1.77 FIP.
Like the Red Sox as a whole, Porcello isn’t going to keep this up all year. He has yet to surrender a home run in 2018, and that will certainly change. His walk rates and HR rates fluctuate pretty violently from year to year for his career, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll walk only a batter per inning for the rest of the season. The key for Porcello, and perhaps the team itself, is how much regression there will be in his performance. If he slips to 2017 level, the Sox rotation could be in a lot of trouble. If he reverts to merely league-average, it’s possible the team has banked enough to survive as is.
Working well for the Red Sox is how few innings their relievers have thrown, as the team sits 10th in the AL through play Sunday. Boston’s bullpen is deep and matches up well against the other stud ‘pens in the league. With almost 140 games left to go in 2018, the innings the Sox have managed to save for their relievers could be a difference maker.
All of this is based on about 25 games, of course. The weather will change, players will be injured or regress, and there’s also just the sheer number of games left for all teams in the AL East. Lots of things are still in flux, but through the first month, a couple teams are due for a change in performance going forward, and that should have some positive ramifications for the Yankees.