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The AL East is the most competitive division in MLB

The Yankees' division lacks a super-team at the top. However, the division is filled with solid teams, all of which could feasibly lay claim to the AL East title in 2016.

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

In a league that exudes parity, the Yankees play in a division that exemplifies its balance as a whole. From top to bottom, the AL East is littered with teams that have a case for winning the division title in 2016. While every other division in baseball plays host to a team (or teams) that have little hope for a playoff run, the AL East is defined by how small the differences are between each of its competitors.

In 2015, the Blue Jays ended up winning the division handily, by six games over the Yankees. However, based on their overall performances, each team has reason to claim that they enter 2016 in a good position. The Red Sox were the only team to win fewer than 80 games, and all five teams had a Pythagorean record of 81 wins or better. The division's average winning percentage was .517, second in MLB to the vaunted NL Central, and the division's average Pythagorean record of 87-75 was tops in the majors.

Heading into 2016, every team in the AL East can assert that their rosters displayed some sort of promise last year (yes, even the 78-win Red Sox). Looking towards next season, the group again looks similarly solid. By FanGraphs Depth Charts projections, the division is tightly bunched together. The Red Sox, at eighth in baseball, are the only team that ranks in the top ten in projected fWAR, but the rest of the division is packed close behind. The Blue Jays, Yankees, Orioles, and Rays rank 11th, 12th, 13th, and 15th respectively by fWAR. Simply by looking at the FanGraphs projections, all five teams appear close to each other, as above average but not great teams.

PECOTA, the projection system from Baseball Prospectus, tells a similar story. While PECOTA sees the Orioles lagging behind, the other four teams are all projected to finish with between 85 and 91 wins. Those four teams are separated by just 5.7 projected WARP, from the Yankees with 33.3 projected WARP to Toronto at 39.0 projected WARP.

No other division sports this kind of competitive balance. By PECOTA projections, the AL East fourth place team is separated from the first place team by just six games. The average distance between the fourth and first place teams in the other five divisions is 16.8 games. By the FanGraphs projected standings, the last and first place finishers in the AL East are just 9.5 games apart. The average separation between last and first in the rest of MLB is 18.0 games.

Now, let's try to measure competitiveness within each division in a more rigorous fashion. The table below aggregates the average total WAR projections, for both FanGraphs and PECOTA, for the five teams of each division, as well as the standard deviation for each division's projected WAR (in statistics, standard deviation shows a set of data's variation from its mean; in this case, it will display how much variation there is among the WAR projections among each division's set of teams). A lower standard deviation means a smaller difference between the teams within a division.

Division Avg. FG WAR St. Dev. Avg. PECOTA WARP
St. Dev.
AL East 38.98 2.79 34.42 5.8
AL Central 35.74 3.96 27.3 5.83
AL West 35.4 4.41 28.62 4.34
NL East 32.52 12.63 24.42 11.66
NL Central 38.14 10.25 31.5 8.88
NL West 36.34 10.66 29.76 9.22

There are tons of interesting things to dig into here. First, the intuition that the AL East is the most competitive division in MLB seems to hold true. By the FanGraphs depth charts, the standard deviation of the AL East team WAR projections is just 2.79 wins, by far the smallest in the game. By PECOTA, the AL East actually has the second lowest standard deviation, behind the AL West, though the AL West only ranks third lowest by FanGraphs. So there is very little variance among the WAR projections of the AL East teams.

The seemingly massive difference in parity between the American League and the National League is also worth noting. Using the FanGraphs WAR projections, all three of the NL divisions have standard deviations of double digits, whereas the AL West has the American League's highest standard deviation at just 4.41. PECOTA projections paint the same picture, as the NL division with the lowest standard deviation, the NL Central at 8.88, still displays far more variance than the AL Central, the division with greatest variance in the AL.

Perhaps most interesting is how strong the AL East looks by the projections, beyond just competitiveness. Not only are the teams tightly packed together, but the average team in the AL East has higher WAR projections, by FanGraphs and PECOTA, than the average team in every other division. It narrowly edges the NL Central in both, 38.98 to 38.14 by fWAR, and 34.42 to 31.5 by WARP.

Those averages are obviously affected by certain outliers in the NL Central. That division sees its trio of very strong teams (the Cardinals, Pirates, and Cubs) dragged down by two of the worst teams in baseball, the Reds and Brewers. The AL East contains no punching bags, instead sporting a group of five teams that aren't great, but all can hold their own.

Despite what the average projections say, I'd generally lean toward the division that boasts great teams, if tasked with ranking baseball's divisions. However, despite its lack of demonstrative greatness, one thing is clear; the AL East race looks like it should be a tight, highly competitive fight this coming season.