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Checking in on the Yankees’ divisional rivals

The AL East is shaping up to be one of the most competitive divisions.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

It feels like Opening Day was just yesterday, but we’re already a quarter of the way through the baseball season. With four teams within two games of first place, the American League East is shaping up to be one of the most competitive divisions in baseball, if not the most competitive. Let’s take a quick run through the Yankees’ divisional rivals, most of which you’ve probably been very familiar with, and one big one that we’ve yet to see.

Baltimore Orioles

Let’s get one thing out of the way: the 2021 season was never about 2021 for the Baltimore Orioles, who are early favorites to finish last in the AL East for the fourth time in five years. And that’s a good thing, because at 17-23, they have the fourth worst record in the American League, their 3.85 runs/game is better than only the Detroit Tigers among AL teams, and they have the sixth-worst ERA in the AL despite having AL ERA leader John Means anchoring their rotation.

It hasn’t been all bad in Baltimore, though. John Means has quickly become one of the better pitchers in baseball, Cedric Mullins is having a breakout campaign in his age-26 season, and Trey Mancini, who missed last season after undergoing chemotherapy for stage 3 colon cancer, has been productive at the plate, with a .257/.321/.454 slash that’s good for a 117 OPS+.

Barring a miracle, the Baltimore Orioles won’t be a contender this season, but there are reasons to be looking up for Baltimore fans.

Tampa Bay Rays

At 23-19 entering action last night, the Rays started Monday in a virtual tie with the Yankees, with one more win and one more loss. Judging from how the two teams are when they face each other, that might seem surprising: including the recent series where the Yankees won two out of three at Tropicana Field, the Rays are 6-3 against the Bronx Bombers this season. To some extent, that is a product of the fact that they faced the Yankees six times during their 5-10 start, and in fact it is the conclusion of the Rays’ three-game sweep at Yankee Stadium that looks like the turning point for the Yankees’ season so far.

So why are the Rays 17-16 against teams not named the Yankees? For starters, before scoring 32 runs during a four-game winning streak (which included sweeping the New York Mets), they were averaging only 4.02 runs per game, third worst in the AL. Furthermore, they had a number of key contributors on the injured list, including first baseman Ji-Man Choi, catcher Francisco Mejía, and pitchers Collin McHugh and Pete Fairbanks.

Lastly, and most importantly, the pitching staff started off slow (their 5.74 ERA through the first ten days of the season was third-worst in baseball) but has returned to its anticipated dominance (3.55 ERA, 3.58 FIP, both top-four rankings in the AL). Tyler Glasnow remains one of the league’s premier starting pitchers, veteran Rich Hill has a 17.2-inning scoreless streak, and rookies Josh Fleming, Shane McClanahan and Luis Patiño have been solid contributors in the rotation. Because of these pitchers, don’t expect the Rays to go anywhere in the divisional race.

Toronto Blue Jays

So far this season, nothing has seemed to go right for the Blue Jays. Their biggest-ticket free agent, outfielder George Springer, has suited up for only four games due to injuries (all as the DH) and does not expect to be back for at least another week or two. One of their other big signings, Kirby Yates, saw his season end before it even began. Nate Pearson, one of the game’s top pitching prospects, has hardly pitched due to injuries of his own. They are all joined by former Yankee David Phelps and a small army of relievers. Furthermore, Cavan Biggio, Rowdy Tellez, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. have drastically under-performed. Despite all this, the Blue Jays are 22-17 and just 1.5 games out of first place.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is a big reason for this, as he has finally put it all together at the plate with a .319/.440/.609 slash that is good for a 193 OPS+. Marcus Semien (128 OPS+), Bo Bichette (125), Randal Grichuk (114), and Teoscar Hernández (130) give Toronto one of the deepest lineups in the game, even if it has been missing one of its biggest stars and has yet to fire on all cylinders. They are still, after all, averaging 4.92 runs/game, fourth most in the AL, despite only a 104 OPS+ as a team, largely due to their league-leading 56 home runs. Although their starting rotation has primarily been Hyun Jin Ryu, an over-performing Robbie Ray, and three prayer-filled days, the pitching staff as a whole has been good enough to win ball games.

Boston Red Sox

What to make of the Boston Red Sox? After opening the season being swept by the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway, the Red Sox went on a nine-game winning streak, powered by their prolific offense and a surprisingly-good pitching staff. Since then, they’ve gone a much more pedestrian 16-14. Who are the real Red Sox? That could probably be a whole article in itself, but I will try to briefly summarize.

Coming into the season, everybody knew Boston could hit, and they have not disappointed: their 5.17 runs/game and 113 OPS+ are second in the AL behind only the Houston Astros, their 376 hits lead the AL, and their 53 home runs are tied for third with the Oakland Athletics. The vast majority of that firepower, however, has come from three sources, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, and Rafael Devers, who have combined for 144 hits, 20 home runs, and 93 runs batted in. Besides these three, only the slumping Alex Verdugo has an OPS+ above 99 among the starters,

The pitching staff, meanwhile, has played well above expectations, with the sixth-best ERA in the AL (3.81) and the league’s best FIP (3.37), the latter of which is primarily the result of a league-best 0.7 HR/9. Nick Pivetta (3.16 ERA, 3.69 FIP), who entered the season with a career 5.40 ERA, and Martín Pérez (3.40 ERA, 3.51 FIP), who had a career 4.71 ERA, have broken out so far in their age-28 and age-30 seasons, respectively. Matt Barnes and Garrett Whitlock, meanwhile, would be receiving a lot more attention for the seasons they are having if the Yankees bullpen hadn’t been so dominant in the early going.

How sustainable is this success? Most analysts are not convinced it will last, and Baseball Reference gives Boston just a 26.2% chance of making the playoffs. At the end of the day, however, we’re just going to have to wait and see.