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Meet the new AL East, same as the old AL East

Slow starts have stabilized and the division is the toughest in baseball again.

Toronto Blue Jays v New York Yankees Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images

The Yankees are the first team to reach 40 wins this year. If they go .500 the rest of the season, they’ll finish with 94 wins, a win or so better than I predicted at the start of 2022. They’re probably not going to go .500 for the rest of the year — if they play .600 ball the rest of the way (a considerable step back from their current pace), they’ll end up with 104 wins. Pretty good stuff.

And for the most part, it’s real. New York has the most wins in MLB, the most Pythag wins, and the most Base Runs wins. Those latter two try to control for bad luck and hot streaks, so ... for the Yankees to lead in all three is a good indicator that they’re not this good by accident. So why aren’t they the World Series favorites?

Note: Statistics are as of the beginning of play on Wednesday, June 8th.

The Yankees sit atop the table by the three metrics we most commonly use to look at a team’s overall performance, but three teams have better odds to actually win the damn thing. Largely, this all comes back to the same problem the Yankees face every year: the AL East is just too good.

The Toronto Blue Jays have picked up after a slow start, and their scalding past few weeks have pushed them up to second in the division and a game ahead of the Rays. The Red Sox, who looked DOA until about Memorial Day, fall between the Padres and Astros in run differential. They should probably be about three wins better than they are, which would put them, essentially, in a three-way dance for second place in the East.

Thirteen teams in baseball are over .500, and four of those teams come from the same division. Under the new playoff rules, each division winner automatically qualifies, and the next three best teams win Wild Card spots. If the season ended today, the Yankees, Twins and Astros would all be division winners, and all three Wild Cards would be the three aforementioned AL East clubs.

This perennial competition is the reason why the Yankees’ World Series odds are relatively low compared to the rest of the MLB leaders. The Astros face no threat to their division, and they’ll be able to beat up on four teams with a combined .435 winning percentage. That fattening up will go a long way toward the Astros likely securing one of the two byes atop the AL table.

The Yankees are likely to get one of those byes too, but comparing the .500 combined winning percentage of the rest of the AL East to that mark by the West introduces the risk that the Yankees could end up a Wild Card team.

This is a problem every year. All teams in baseball have a “What if this is the year XYZ happens?” and then it never really happens. I don’t want to kick a team when they’re down, but the Angels, for example, ask “What if this is the year we get full seasons of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani?” and that just doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

The Yankees surely ask “What if this is the year the AL East isn’t that good?” and they can cruise the way the Astros can. That just doesn’t seem to be in the cards. They have a seven-game lead in the division and they should end up with one of the byes atop the AL standings, but three teams should all be playing better baseball as we head into summer. Although they’ve been sensational so far, they will have to keep up that remarkable pace (or at least one close to it). Like seemingly every year, it won’t be as easy for the Yankees as the rest of MLB’s favorites.