Pre-Spring Divisional Outlook: AL East

Throughout the early stages of the calendar year, I’ve been taking a pre-spring training look at each of the six MLB divisions from a slightly different perspective. Utilizing batted ball data, we’re going back over the 2014 season, attempting to calculate each club’s true talent level. Making adjustments for teams’ offensive and defensive K and BB rates and team defense, each team’s true talent 2014 won-lost record is calculated. Then, we’ll take a look at the current Steamer projections for 2015, evaluate key player comings and goings, and determine whether clubs are constructed to be able to handle the inevitable pitfalls along the way that could render such projections irrelevant. The fourth installment of this series features the AL East.

Last week, we looked at the “boring” NL East, the most predictable, boilerplate division going, both in 2014 and 2015. Today’s going to be a little bit different. We’ve looked at half of the clubs in the game utilizing this method of analysis over the last three weeks, and all of them posted actual records within shouting distance of their calculated true-talent records. Today, we’ll see a club that outperformed its true-talent mark by 10 games, and one that fell short by that same margin. Good times. Oh, and the team with the best true-talent mark finished fourth in a division that was won by 12 games.

First, let’s start it off with a table that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

2014 BIP B OBP BIP B SLG BIP P OBP BIP P SLG BAT K % BAT BB % PIT K % PIT BB % DEF MULT
BAL 0.328 0.532 0.317 0.491 21.0% 6.5% 19.2% 7.7% 97.0
NYY 0.308 0.454 0.322 0.494 18.6% 7.4% 22.4% 6.5% 103.8
TOR 0.315 0.482 0.313 0.486 18.7% 8.1% 19.5% 8.0% 101.7
TB 0.304 0.450 0.306 0.478 18.1% 8.5% 23.4% 7.9% 100.9
BOS 0.316 0.486 0.318 0.491 21.5% 8.6% 19.5% 7.7% 102.5
MLB AVG 0.318 0.489 0.318 0.489 20.4% 7.6% 20.4% 7.6% 100.0

The first four columns indicate the resulting team AVG and SLG on all of each club’s balls in play (BIP) hit and allowed if they were hit in a neutral environment. The major league average AVG and SLG on all BIP in 2014 were .318 and .489, respectively. Clubs performing above that level offensively and yielding production below that level defensively were above average performers. The next four columns list each club’s offensive and defensive K and BB rates. The MLB averages in those categories were 20.4% and 7.6%, respectively, in 2014.

The last column represents each club’s Defensive Multiplier. Again utilizing granular batted ball data, I have established a method to evaluate team defense, from a big-picture macro perspective, rather than the play-by-play micro perspective that methods such as DRS and UZR utilize. Simply compare each team’s offensive and defensive actual and projected AVG and SLG – what each team “should” have hit/allowed based on the speed/exit angle mix of all balls in play (excluding home runs), and convert those actual and projected events to run values. You are basically comparing each team’s defense to that of their opponents over 162 games. If a team’s defense was exactly as good as their opponents’ over 162 games, their team Defensive Multiplier would be 100. Better than average defenses have scores under 100, below average team defenses have scores over 100.

Next, let’s convert all of the data in the first table into run values, and then do same Pythagorean magic, and come up with a series of projected win-loss records. 1) On only each club’s BIP hit/allowed, 2) adjusted for K and BB for/against, and 3) further adjusted for team’s Defensive Multiplier. This third projection represents the club’s true talent W-L record for 2014. For comparative purposes, each club’s 2014 actual and Pythagorean records are listed.

2014 BIP W-L K/BB ADJ DEF ADJ ACT W-L PYTH W-L
BAL 90-72 83-79 86-76 96-66 94-68
NYY 71-91 81-81 78-84 84-78 77-85
TOR 81-81 83-79 82-80 83-79 85-77
TB 76-86 88-74 87-75 77-85 79-83
BOS 80-82 77-85 75-87 71-91 72-90

There is an awful lot going on in those two tables. One thing is for certain; the widely divergent actual 2014 records of these five clubs didn’t accurately measure the relatively small actual difference in talent. Let’s drill down into the individual team numbers and make some broad observations about what made each club tick.

The Orioles’ chief strength was their ability to impact the baseball at the plate. By far, their hitters did more damage on balls in play compared to their divisional brethren, with Nelson Cruz, Steve Pearce and Adam Jones leading the way. The bottom four clubs in the division in pitching staff authority allowed on BIP were tightly bunched behind the Rays, with the O’s ranking 3rd, at just about MLB average. Based on BIP authority only, the O’s were a 90-72 club, easily the best in the division.

Things change quite a bit once K and BB rates are taken into the equation, however. The Orioles were worse than MLB average in all four K and BB rate categories, with their offensive BB rate and their pitching staff K rates the largest issues. Taking the K/BB information into account, the Orioles lose a full seven games off of their projection, down to a pedestrian 83-79. Though the O’s clearly had the best team defense in the East — their defensive multiplier of 97.0, primarily driven by quality work in the infield, was the only above average mark in the division — this only bumps them up to 86-76, 10 games shy of their actual record, and eight games off of their Pythagorean mark.

Joe Girardi sure has been able to make reasonably good lemonade out of the lemons he has been dealt over the past couple of seasons. The Yankees’ offensive BIP authority was among the poorest in baseball last season, ranking 4th among the five AL East clubs. Their pitching staff’s BIP authority allowed was the division’s weakest, though it wasn’t far higher than the MLB average. On BIP authority alone, the Yanks were a 71-91 club last season, easily the worst in the division.

Unlike the Orioles, however, K and BB were the Yankees’ friends. Their offensive K rate was far below the MLB average, and their pitching staff K and BB rates were also far better than league norms. While their low offensive K rate went hand in hand with their poor BIP authority due to the presence of weak contact guys such as Derek Jeter and Ichiro Suzuki, their pitching staff K and BB rates were real, and could be even better this season if Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda can stay healthy. Overall, their K/BB proficiency adds a full 10 games to their 2014 projection, making them an 81-81 club. Their poor team defense, especially in the infield, gives three of those games right back, making them a true-talent 78-84 club, just a game better than their Pythagorean record, but six games below their actual mark.

The 2014 Blue Jays were an interesting bunch. One might think that their offensive BIP authority would be better than third in a weak offensive division, with the presence of mashers Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. The Jays again did give a whole lot of at bats to weak slap hitters, however, dragging the team performance down. Their pitching staff’s BIP authority allowed was second best in the division, but only slightly better than MLB average. On BIP authority alone, the Jays were an 81-81 club.

The effect of K and BB on the Jays’ performance was a clear split decision; they were much better than MLB average on offense, and much worse on the mound. The presence of some of those slap hitters in their lineup helped keep their team K rate much lower than MLB average. It must be noted that Bautista also did his part, continuing to whittle away at his K rate while maintaining big power totals. On balance, the Jays’ K/BB proficiency adds two games to their projection, up to 83-79. The Jays’ overall team defensive multiplier was below average at 101.7, mostly due to poor outfield defense, and docks them a game down to 82-80, one game behind their actual record, and three games behind their Pythagorean mark.

The Rays are the mirror image of the Orioles, as their true talent greatly outstripped their actual 2014 performance. Their offensive BIP authority was easily the weakest in the East, as was their pitching staff’s BIP authority allowed. On BIP authority alone, the Rays were a 76-86 club, 4th in the division, virtually matching their actual standing.

Oh, but those K’s and BB’s. The Rays were above average in all four K and BB rate categories, and were far superior in offensive K and BB rate and pitching staff K rate. This adds an amazing 12 games onto the Rays’ 2014 projection, up to 88-74. Yes, David Price was a big part of this on the pitching side, but the guys left behind, including Price replacement Drew Smyly, were pretty good as well. Their team defensive multiplier was slightly below average at 100.9, with their infield grading out fairly poorly, docking them one game down to 87-75. Yup, based on this method, the Tampa Bay Rays were an 87-75 true-talent club last season, nosing out the O’s by a single game. Of course, this far outdistances their actual (by 10 games) and Pythagorean (by 8 games) records.

Lastly, and leastly, at least in even years, were the Red Sox. Though their offensive BIP authority was below MLB average, it was second best in a relatively weak division. Their pitching staff BIP authority allowed was fractionally worse than MLB average, but ranked fourth in the East. On BIP authority alone, the Sox were an 80-82 club.

The Red Sox were hurt a bit on K’s and BB’s, ranking well below MLB average in offensive and pitching staff K rate. This subtracts three wins from their projection, down to 77-85. Their team defensive multiplier, largely because of below average infield defense, was 102.5, better than only the Yanks in the East. This drops their projection by two more games, down to 75-87, four games above their actual record, and three better than their Pythagorean mark.

Before we move on to 2015, one more thought on the O’s-Rays conundrum. It might be tough to accept at face value that one club that finished 19 games behind another might actually have been a better club than the other. Their Pythagorean marks are still separated by a healthy 15 games. If you look at offensive and defensive OBP/SLG marks rather than runs scored to project their records, however, things change dramatically. The O’s were .311 OBP-.422 SLG on offense, .308 OBP-.382 SLG on defense. That’s an 89-73 club. The Rays were .317 OBP.367 SLG on offense, .300 OBP-.362 SLG on defense. That’s an 87-75 club. These two clubs were actually of very similar quality in 2014, but sequencing, the breaks, and the randomness of this great game of baseball went the Orioles’ way.

Let’s now look forward. Below are the current 2015 Steamer projections, as of Monday afternoon:

STEAMER 15 PROJ
BOS 88-74
TOR 84-78
TB 83-79
NYY 83-79
BAL 79-83

Here we go again, in the crazy AL East. The comfortable 2014 winners, the Orioles, are projected to come in last. The 2014 cellar dwellers, the Red Sox, are projected to win it. The entire division is separated by nine games. Let’s briefly label and discuss each of the combatants below. One note; I haven’t delved into the clubs’ respective bullpens, as year-to-year club performance in that area tends to fluctuate wildly.

1 – BOSTON RED SOX – The “It’s An Odd Year, So…” Club
The Padres have been the clear headline-grabber of the second half of the postseason, but way back in November-December it was the Bosox that made their mark. Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez should greatly fortify their offense, and the addition of Rick Porcello, Justin Masterson and Wade Miley remakes their rotation. Though they thinned the upper level of their farm system a bit in enhancing the big club, there are still solid reinforcements on hand. Their major league position player depth is such that you can argue that no one, not even David Ortiz, is indispensable. Their starting pitcher depth is adequate, but unproven. Brandon Workman and Henry Owens are likely the first two in line should an opening arise. They have the highest floor in the division, and a reasonably high ceiling as well.

2 – TORONTO BLUE JAYS – The “Ride Your Stars” Club
If one were to assemble a divisional All Star team, the Jays would be well represented. Bautista, Encarnacion, Josh Donaldson, Jose Reyes, would lead the way. All four of those, at the very least, would have to be considered irreplaceable, and a loss of any one could cripple the Jays. Second base remains a gaping hole, and Dalton Pompey is talented, but raw in center field. Starting pitching depth is likely the leanest in the division, as Aaron Sanchez may or not be ready to be the #5, and Daniel Norris and Liam Hendricks are at the front of the short line behind them. Compared to the Sox, the Jays’ downside is much lower, but their upside is comparable.

3 – TAMPA BAY RAYS – The “Quietly Great Starting Rotation” Club
One might think that the Rays are in full rebuild mode, with the parting of Ben Zobrist, Wil Myers, Yunel Escobar and Matt Joyce, among others. What the Rays do have, however, is the single greatest strength possessed by any club in the AL East; their starting rotation. Assuming the healthy return of Matt Moore, the group of five that also includes Alex Cobb, Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Drew Smyly is young and immensely talented. They strike out a ton of hitters, taking pressure off of their defense, and don’t walk many. They are asking quite a bit of Asdrubal Cabrera as an everyday shortstop, and of Steven Souza and Kevin Kiermaier on the outfield corners. Evan Longoria might be their only indispensable everyday player, and the rotation depth is ordinary behind the big five. Still, their floor is very high — likely above their actual 2014 mark — though their ceiling is likely only in the low-90’s.

4 – NEW YORK YANKEES – The “Desperately Trying To Turn The Page” Club
Jeter and Ichiro are gone, but the husks of Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira remain. Despite the piles of dead money and disabled list days, Brian Cashman and Joe Girardi have scrambled to actually make this club somewhat relevant over the last two seasons. This team is being rebuilt around pitching; Tanaka, Pineda and Nathan Eovaldi should be a very interesting threesome, especially if CC Sabathia returns and is a reasonable facsimile of his old self. Their most indispensable everyday players are Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Brian McCann, Chase Headley and new shortstop Didi Gregorius. They truly are in the process of moving on from the old guard. Their rotation depth is fair, with Chris Capuano, Bryan Mitchell and Chase Whitley waiting in the wings. This team isn’t ready for prime time, as its ceiling is quite limited. Their solid rotation does give them a fairly high floor.

5 – BALTIMORE ORIOLES – The “Club Without An Offseason”
Now, the O’s might say that the whole Dan Duquette-To-The-Blue Jays thing didn’t negatively impact their offseason, but the facts suggest otherwise. The O’s lost three big pieces, Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Andrew Miller, and added….well, Travis Snider, a couple weeks ago. The O’s have a large number of front-line players whose absence would make a pronounced impact; the loss of Matt Wieters, Chris Davis, J.J. Hardy, Manny Machado, Adam Jones and/or Steve Pearce would really hurt. They lost some of those guys last year and survived, but as we’ve discussed, the 2014 O’s were indeed a charmed club. Their starting rotation depth is fairly solid, as they have six big leaguers for five spots, with Ubaldo Jimenez the odd man out for now, and the very talented Dylan Bundy sitting behind them. Bluntly, this team has no position player depth; their ceiling is fairly high, but below their actual 2014 record, and their floor quite low.





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Jose
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Jose

Can the Yanks really count on anything from Tanaka next season?

ScoKo
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ScoKo

I seem to be the only one who argues that they absolutely expect to get something from him. If his injury was that bad surgery would have been recommended. If Yanks expect him to further aggravate the injury it would be rather cruel, and stupid to throw him out there this year. I am not saying he does not have a greater risk than a pitcher who is not pitching with a partially torn ucl, I just wouldn’t understand him not already going ahead with surgery if further aggravation was inevitable. It may happen, it may not, but I don’t think it is a given.

emdash
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emdash

Players generally don’t like to get surgery unless there’s absolutely no other option, and it may be that Tanaka’s particular UCL injury is holding together well enough that he’s got a chance. But very, very few players with this type of injury don’t end up having Tommy John in fairly short order, so relying on a player in that situation to have any hope of contending is a terrible place to be.

ScoKo
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ScoKo

I can’t believe they dnt get surgery if it’s deemed a vey small chance he won’t wventually need it. All the time surgery is not black or white. If he has a 90% chance of whatever number you want to give of fully tearing his arm than not getting surgery is just dumb.

Would a doctor not recommend surgery if odds of worsening the injury are extremely high?