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The AL East hasn’t been MLB’s best division for once, but it hasn’t helped the Yankees

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For the first time in years, the AL East won’t be baseball’s toughest division. Because of the Red Sox, the Yankees haven’t been able to take advantage.

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The AL East is perennially the best division in MLB. For years, this was because two behemoths, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, both played in the division. Over the past decade, the competition grew more diverse. The Rays were among baseball’s top teams from 2008 to 2013, the Blue Jays made the ALCS in consecutive years in 2015 and 2016, and the Orioles won the most games in the AL from 2012 to 2016.

At times, the gap between the AL East and the rest of the league has been staggering. To best capture the true quality of a division, I used Baseball Reference’s Simple Rating System, or SRS. SRS simply takes each team’s run differential and adjusts it for strength of schedule. This helps strip out some noise, giving team’s credit for outscoring their opponents, and not penalizing teams that played in particularly difficult divisions.

Last year, for example, the AL East in total had an SRS of 1.6, so the average team in the division had about a 0.3 SRS. That means that after accounting for run differential and schedule, the average team in the division was 0.3 runs per game better than a league average team. That SRS led all six divisions in baseball.

In 2016, SRS estimated that every team in the AL East was at least average or better. The division had a total SRS of 2.6, meaning that the average division team was about half a run better per game than the average team in the league. No other division’s total SRS was greater than 0.5.

The gulf between the AL East and the rest of baseball may have never been larger than in 2015. That year, the five teams totaled for an SRS of 3.6, meaning the average AL East team was nearly three quarters of a run per game better than an average team. The division as a whole put up an average Pythagorean record of 87-75. The Red Sox finished in last place but still won 78 games and nearly outscored their opponents.

I had to go back to 2014 to find a division that outpaced the AL East in terms of SRS, when the AL West took the lead behind strong seasons from the Angels, Athletics, and Mariners. This year, the AL East finally looks to have been overtaken again. Mostly thanks in part to some woeful play at the bottom of the division, the AL East is on pace to not be the best division in baseball for the first time years. The division’s SRS is just about even in 2018, and lags behind the AL West and NL Central.

This may be surprising given the quality of both the Yankees and Red Sox this year, but the Orioles and Blue Jays drag the division down. SRS estimates that the Orioles are a run and a half worse per game than the average team, while the Blue Jays are about three quarters of a run worse. Not surprisingly, the Yankees have gone 22-10 against those two teams this year.

It’s a bit of a cruel irony, then, that the weakest AL East in years also features one of the most winningest teams in years. The Red Sox, of course, are on pace to 111 games. While the Yankees have posted a solid 34-26 record in intra-division games, the Red Sox have dominated to the tune of a 45-19 record. Any benefit the Yankees could have derived by playing in a slightly worse version of baseball’s toughest division has been sapped by the fact that a historic team has taken the reins in the AL East.

Obviously, no one should shed a tear for the Yankees’ plight. Dozens of teams would kill to be in the position New York is in, both for this year and the future. Some poor fortune in the form of Boston’s hellishly good season doesn’t change that. It’s just a frustrating tidbit in a season that’s had plenty of nagging frustrations for the Yankees. A down year in the AL East should have meant a wide open opportunity in New York, but for now, it’s been the Red Sox that have seized the moment.