— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Friday, May 23, 2003
Bi-Weekly Review: A.L. East
The A.L. East through May 22nd.
AL East Standings through May 22nd
Halfway to the All-Star break, the AL East continues to provide a study in contrasts, with three good teams and two bottom-dwellers (a contrast which has been hidden somewhat due to massive differences in the difficulty of the early-season schedule).
According to ESPN’s Ratings Percentage Index table, the AL East has the team which has played the toughest schedule in baseball in the early season (the New York Yankees), and also the team which has played by far the easiest schedule in baseball (the Baltimore Orioles). The East’s other sad-sack team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, have had the second-easiest schedule in baseball; the Toronto Blue Jays have played the fourth-toughest. In fact, four AL teams (the Yankees and Blue Jays, as well as Anaheim and Texas) have played by far the toughest schedules in baseball, while five other AL teams (the Orioles and Devil Rays, plus the Royals, White Sox, and Tigers) have had the easiest schedules in MLB.
Despite the tough schedules for the Yankees and Blue Jays, and the Red Sox to a lesser degree, those three teams are 1-2-3 in the majors in runs scored (Blue Jays-Red Sox-Yankees). They are also 11-12-13 in the AL in Defensive Efficiency Rating (same order), which goes to show that to put more hitting in the lineup, you sometimes have to sacrifice a few hits the other way.
Anyway, the bizarre schedule has served to compress the East standings so that the teams seem closer together than they actually are. The Orioles and Jays in particular seem to be much closer than they really are; the top three teams may well all finish the season 20 games ahead of the bottom two, and it could get worse yet.
New York Yankees (4-9 since May 8)
The Yankees, as mentioned above, have played the toughest schedule in all of baseball so far, and despite a very rough two weeks are still a half-game in front of the Boston Red Sox for the AL East lead.
The Yankees lost three series in a row during the past two weeks before beating the Red Sox and dropping the opener to Toronto on the 22nd. The news didn’t get any better on the 22nd when they learned that Bernie Williams will miss 4-6 weeks for knee surgery, which will either push Charles Gipson into the starting centerfield job or move Matsui from left to center. (Thankfully it isn’t 2002, or that might be Gerald Williams and his .042 batting average out there). Nick Johnson had already broken his hand and gone on the DL on May 16th. All of this as the Yankees face a stern challenge from the BoSox for the AL East lead.
The series lost were to Oakland, Anaheim, and Texas, after the Yankees had held their own against the AL West the two weeks prior, and the recovery against Boston preserved the half-game lead. But the upcoming two-week schedule is slightly easier, with the concluding three against Toronto, a big series at home to Boston, three against the woeful Tigers on the road (where the Yankees are a masterful 18-7 this year) and three in Cincinnati.
Alfonso Soriano is all-everything, fourth in the league in home runs, runs scored, and stolen bases, and after slumping briefly (but deeply) at the beginning of May is back to his old self, with a seven-game hitting streak ending in the Toronto game He’s even drawing walks. Jason Giambi and Hideki Matsui continue to struggle, Raul Mondesi continues to impersonate Shawn Green, and generally one wonders if some sort of space-time portal to Bizarro World has opened up in the Stadium’s clubhouse showers. Matsui is hitting literally everything on the ground; he has a groundball/flyball ratio of 2.58:1, which is extreme to the point of being Ichiro-eqsue, and has three doubles and zero home runs in his last 54 at-bats. I think someone (maybe Matsui himself) has fundamentally changed Matsui’s approach, and convinced him that he should try to hit singles instead of hitting for power.
On the mound, the three master craftsmen (Mussina, Clemens, and Wells) are throwing gems although the Rangers managed to get to Clemens on the 16th. Pettitte and Weaver are struggling; Pettitte has lost four in a row although he was let down by the offense and defense in a fine outing on the 17th.
To close, I’ll just say this. Roger Clemens, whether you hate him or feel lukewarm about him, has been for many of us the greatest pitcher we’ve ever seen. Watch when he goes for 300 on Monday (apparently he will; the hand that was hit by a line drive during 299 is just slightly swollen now).
Boston Red Sox (6-6 since May 8)
Can’t you people read Sox Therapy? Anyway, it was an up-and-down two weeks for the Red Sox, as they rode a Yankees stumble to a tie for the division lead on Tuesday the 20th. Other than a sweep of the Rangers in Fenway, the Sox lost their other three series, to Minnesota, Anaheim, and the Yankees; good competition, but competition Boston will have to beat later in the year.
Two issues jump out for Boston. First, is the defensive efficiency rating point alluded to in the introduction. The Red Sox are giving up a lot of hits on balls in play, and it is affecting the pitching staff, which is now 23rd in MLB in ERA (11th in the AL ahead of just Toronto, Tampa, and Texas). Derek Lowe in particular, who depends on his defense to get a lot of his outs for him, is hurt - opponents are hitting .309 against him.
Second, is the performance of the bullpen, which so exercised the baseball world in April. Since then, very little has been heard about the Sox pen but they haven’t gotten better. Boston’s relievers have the second-worst ERA in baseball, only better than the hapless Mets. To put it in perspective, the Red Sox are almost a run-and-three-quarters of ERA worse in the bullpen than their division rivals… the Devil Rays. The starters aren’t much better, but they are respectable. No one pitcher in particular is blameworthy; the pen hasn’t performed well in May aside from Timlin, but no one is stinking so obviously as to be shipped out of town… Embree, Lyon, Shiell, and Mendoza are all chugging along at around replacement level in May and the reliever-of-the-week program (Tolar, Chen, Woodard, Person, Seanez) about the same.
Immediately ahead for Boston is a three-game home series against Cleveland. The Red Sox would love to make hay while the sun shines; the Yankees may be in for a tough tussle at home at the same time versus the surging Blue Jays. After the Indians, the Sox face a twelve-game, two-week road trip in New York, Toronto, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee. Looking further ahead, the Sox are in good shape to make a surge going into the All-Star break; they have a relatively soft schedule including series with Detroit (twice), Milwaukee, and Tampa Bay.
Toronto Blue Jays (8-5 since May 8)
It’s been two good weeks for the Jays. They took two of three in Anaheim, lost a disappointing series to Tampa Bay at the SkyDome, then swept a series from Kansas City as they started a ten-game road trip. They followed up by taking one of three in Chicago before beating the Yankees in the opener of a crucial four-game set in the Bronx. On the way, they scored six and a half runs a game, including 18 in a game against KC and twelve off the White Sox in that seies opener.
I can spit eye-popping Blue Jays numbers at you all day long. The Jays are #1 in the majors in runs scored and runs per game. The Jays are #1 in the majors in OPS. The Jays are tied for #1 in the majors in OBP. The Jays are #1 in the majors in slugging percentage. The Jays are #1 in the majors in batting average. Vernon Wells is on pace for 155 RBI and 121 runs scored. Carlos Delgado leads the AL in OPS and in most runs-above-replacement metrics, and is on pace for 162 RBI himself. Shannon Stewart is on pace to score 117 runs; heck, Josh Phelps is on pace to score 100 runs.
The most eye-popping Jays statistic is that the Jays have zero sacrifice bunts this season. Not one. The Yankees have four; every other team has at least eight. The Royals have sixteen, the Tigers twenty-one, the Dodgers twenty-eight. Equally astonishing is that as far as a group of Jays fans I have polled can recall, they haven’t even attempted a sac bunt all season. As a result, the Jays have spent only 10 outs on one-run strategies (SH + CS) this year, fewest in the majors (the Yankees have spent 11, the A’s 14).
The Jays are 12th in the AL in team ERA, which is why they are 24-24 right now. But that pitching is showing signs of turning around. Roy Halladay is recovering after a brutal opening month where he allowed home run balls at a record pace (after having surrendered just 10 in 239 innings last year). In the last two weeks, he had three starts against the Angels, Royals, and Yankees, with a 2.49 ERA in 21.2 innings, allowing just one home run and flashing a nifty 18-0 K/W ratio. Cory Lidle is winning early in the season for a change (he’s 7-2) and has pitched slightly better than his 4.68 ERA would indicate. To put it simply, the Jays went from last in the majors in ERA in April to 11th so far in May, and that’s much needed progress.
The only disappointment on offense is that Eric Hinske isn’t hitting. He has a very sore wrist, but a new wrist pad may be helping to alleviate the pain. Kelvim Escobar was indeed moved out of the closer role, but in a considerable surprise he was moved into the starting rotation, bumping Tanyon Sturtze back to the pen. Escobar’s had mysterious and inexplicable nerve problems in his hand and arm before when starting; hopefully for the Jays they won’t recur.
The defense has been immeasurably better. The Jays were nailed to the 29th and 30th spots in Defensive Efficiency Record for much of the early season. They have since become much better, and are starting to raise that number, getting close to the 70% number that is the minimum for a respectable defense. They have even managed to pass their competitors, the Red Sox and Yankees.
The coming two weeks are a tester for the Blue Jays. Three more against the Yankees, followed by four at home against the White Sox, three at home with Boston, and a three-game set in St. Louis. Four more wins against the Yankees and Red Sox would keep the team in shouting distance of the AL East leaders.
Baltimore Orioles (5-8 since May 8)
As I mentioned in the introduction, the Orioles have had the good fortune to have played a schedule which is more than three standard deviations easier than the average team’s. The Orioles have played 26 of their 46 games against teams which lost 100 games in 2002, plus six more against the horrible Cleveland Indians.
Terrible schedule or no, the Orioles hadn’t won a series in a month except for one sweep of the Tigers, until the win over the Angels.
The past two weeks have seen a seven-game road trip to Kansas City (split four) and Chicago (swept in three), followed by a home series against the Devil Rays (lost two of three), and the beginning of a west coast road trip in Anaheim (after splitting two games, the Orioles won the series decider 7-4, in a stirring ninth-inning comeback, going from 4-3 down to 7-4 up on a Brian Roberts grand slam).
Looking ahead, the Orioles are beginning the most important part of their schedule. Having blown a perfect opportunity to challenge for the lead (even an average team would be playing .572 baseball against the sad-sack opponents the O’s have seen so far) the Orioles are now staring a very difficult schedule all the way to the all-star break, with every one of their 46 games against measurably better teams, with the exception of three against Milwaukee.
Jay Gibbons and Melvin Mora are continuing to hit for the Orioles, Mora in particular is 323/405/431 for May and 310/420/517 for the season, and is playing creditably all over the field, including at shortstop (he’s also started at second, and at all three outfield positions, mostly left and center). Mora is far-and-away the MVP of the O’s this year.
Deivi Cruz continues to be an embarrassment, as he and “Sarge Jr.” Matthews continue their pitched battle against the Mendoza line. Cruz has been reasonable defensively, but his .216 OBP means he’s competing with Dean Palmer, Brandon Inge, Carl Crawford, Joe Crede, and Matthews for the league’s Least Valuable Player award.
The massive contrast between Mora and Cruz shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Mora’s actually been a better fielder at shortstop than Cruz (he looks tons better out there to boot) for a few years now. Based on how they’ve hit this year, if a team of nine Melvin Moras were to play a team of nine Deivi Cruzes 162 times with equal pitchers, the Melvin Moras would go about 154-8. Of course, Melvin Mora and his wife Gisel are the proud parents of quintuplets, so as Aaron Gleeman points out, he can just about fill up a team of Moras as it is.
The other key cog to Baltimore’s offense, second baseman Jerry Hairston Jr., went on the DL on May 21st with a broken bone in his foot, and will be out 4-8 weeks. Things are about to get very ugly in Baltimore.
Tampa Bay Devil Rays (6-6 since May 8)
The good news for the Devil Rays is that they had, by Rays standards, an excellent two weeks. The bad news is that against teams other than the Orioles and Tigers, they’re 7-20… i.e. they’re the ‘62 Mets.
Still, in winning three series in a row (Detroit, at Toronto, at Baltimore) before being swept in Arlington, the Rays accomplished something they didn’t do all of last year, and it underscores this team’s modest improvement. (The Devil Rays last won three straight series in September and October of 2001, during their mad rush to 62 wins.)
The biggest reason for Tampa’s streak of good performance is Aubrey Huff, who hit .327 with five home runs in 49 at-bats during the two weeks. Huff - who has been playing right field lately - is fourth in the AL in slugging, and is basically carrying the offense by himself, along with newly-recalled Jason Tyner, who is hitting .417 since being called up on May 9th. Huff has become one of the AL’e elite hitters. Rocco Baldelli, for his part, is 5th in the AL in batting average… but he’s hitting 292/316/431 in May. Superstar he’s not. Seth McClung has looked pretty decent, and won two good starts against the Tigers and Orioles before getting lit up by the Rangers at the Ballpark on the 22nd. The other facet of the team that is performing well is the bullpen, who have a collective 3.55 ERA, third in the American League.
That 3.55 ERA is over three runs better than the Devil Rays starters, who are chugging along with a collective 6.64 mark. Ouch.
I mentioned Carl Crawford’s LVP candidacy earlier; he hurt himself by going 2-for-2 with three walks in the leadoff spot against Texas in the series closer. I didn’t mention Damion Easley, but probably should have; Easley is hitting .170/.189/.261 and was apparently about to be released when Ben Grieve came off the DL (he was spared when it was decided that the thoroughly deserving Jim Parque (11.94 ERA) was to go down instead). Easley was 1-for-18 during the two weeks and had an ugly 0-for-10 when he was given a chance to start three games against Detroit.
There’s actually another early LVP candidate in the Devil Rays infield, noted gentleman Julio Lugo. Lugo’s hitting .105 in four starts since joining the club, who bizarrely claimed to have “researched” Lugo’s situation when he was signed (he had been released by the Houston Astros after being charged with punching his wife in the face and slamming her head on a car hood at Minute Maid Park before a game against the Braves.) Their “research” apparently led them to believe that there was no problem, and that they’d be happy to “let the judicial system run its course” according to Chuck LaMar. Why do I get the sense that LaMar’s “research” consisted of asking his golf foursome whether they had a problem with a shortstop who allegedly beats his wife?
Anyway, Lugo’s going to get some time at third base according to Lou Piniella (Rey-Rey’s coming back), so he should get lots of chances to accumulate HACKING MASS points for his owners, and hopefully continue to embarrass himself in the field (according to Zone Rating, Lugo’s one of the worst shortstops in the majors (32nd of 36 with 10 or more starts; the Yankee combo of Derek Jeter and Erick Almonte are 35th and 36th).
What lies ahead for this motley crew? They continue their AL West trip in Anaheim, then receive the Rangers for two and the Angels for four. You can’t help but feel that these nine games will be the Devil Rays’ last hurrah; but if they can hold their own they may be able to stay semi-respectable a while longer; the Rays went 7-11 in interleague play last year, and the first four interleague series follow the second Angels series.