Spring-Training Divisional Outlook: AL East

The spring-training games have begun in earnest, all of the top-50 free agents have been signed, and a new page has flipped over on the calendar. This seems to be a good time to simultaneously look backward and forward to get a feel as to what might transpire during the regular season.

This is the first of a six-part, division-by-division series in which we will use 2016 batted-ball data to get a feel for the true offensive, pitching and defensive talent of all 30 clubs, while reviewing key player movement and under-the-radar strengths and weaknesses that could make the difference in their respective 2017 campaigns First up, the AL East.

We’ll start it off with a table that will serve as the backbone of our analysis:

AL East – Key Team BIP Metrics
BOS 0.331 0.539 0.330 0.548 18.4% 8.8% 22.4% 8.1% 91.5
BAL 0.343 0.603 0.321 0.518 21.7% 7.7% 20.4% 8.9% 108.7
TOR 0.334 0.574 0.333 0.544 21.9% 10.1% 21.5% 7.5% 96.4
NYY 0.315 0.498 0.327 0.541 19.6% 7.8% 23.1% 7.4% 101.1
TB 0.326 0.566 0.328 0.551 24.5% 7.4% 22.3% 8.1% 96.2
AL AVG 0.330 0.546 0.330 0.544 20.7% 8.0% 20.9% 7.9% 100.3

The first four columns indicate how each team “should have” performed at the plate and on the mound if each batted ball generated league-average results for its exit-speed and launch-angle “bucket.” The next four columns list each club’s offensive and defensive K and BB rates.

The last column represents each club’s Defensive Multiplier. This measures each club’s defensive performance compared to its opposition over 162 games. Using granular BIP data, each team’s actual AVG and SLG (excluding home runs) was compared to the projected levels (as described in the previous paragraph) for such BIP, both on offense and defense. This essentially isolates the contributions of pitching from those of team defense. If a club out-defended its opponents, its Defensive Multiplier is below 100. If a club was out-defended, its multiplier is above 100.

Color-coding is used above to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

Next, let’s convert the above data into run values, perform some Pythagorean magic, and come up with a series of projected win-loss records: (a) on only each club’s BIP hit/allowed, (b) further adjusted for K and BB for/against, and (c) further adjusted for team’s Defensive Multiplier. This third projection represents the club’s true-talent W-L record for 2016. For comparative purposes, each club’s 2016 actual and Pythagorean records are listed:

AL East – 2016 Actual/Projected Records
BOS 80-82 89-73 96-66 93-69 98-64
BAL 98-64 92-70 85-77 89-73 84-78
TOR 85-77 88-74 91-71 89-73 91-71
NYY 71-91 80-82 80-82 84-78 79-83
TB 83-79 77-85 80-82 68-94 77-85

Let’s make some broad observations about each club’s 2016 performance utilizing the data in the two tables above.

Most years, the Red Sox appear to be an above-average offensive club, due at least in part to the offense-inflating nature of Fenway Park. Routine fly balls are often intercepted by the Green Monster, puffing up doubles totals of the Sox and their opponents. It’s interesting to note that Sox hitters performed in the average range on BIP alone, despite the final season tour-de-force from David Ortiz. Similarly, the Boston pitching staff were average contact managers on balance. In fact, their only starter who stood out positively in that regard was Steven Wright. When you look solely at BIP authority, the Sox were an 80-82 club, with Ortiz in the fold. That’s a sobering thought.

Adding K and BB into the mix vaults the Red Sox forward. Their offensive K rate was over a full STD lower than league average, and their offensive BB and defensive K rates were both a half STD better. The offensive strength in these categories transcended Ortiz, and David Price and Rick Porcello drove the team numbers on the pitching side. Their K/BB excellence added nine wins to their projected 2016 record, which is now 89-73.

Then there’s their defense. This macro type of defensive measurement captures the effects of team speed, shifting and fit to one’s park, in addition to the player’s individual fielding abilities. Fit to Fenway is a big factor here. Red Sox hitters took advantage of what the Green Monster offers much more so than their opponents last season. The Sox out-defended their opponents on all BIP types, with especially superior multipliers on fly balls (82.4) and grounders (85.7). This AL-best seven-game defensive contribution bumped the Sox 2016 projection to 96-66, three wins better than their actual mark.

If there were no such thing as walks or whiffs, and games were decided by balls-in-play exclusively, the 2016 Orioles would have been one whale of a team. They hit the ball much harder than any other AL East club, and their staff allowed the least authoritative contact in the division. The offensive BIP authority was obvious, but the staff stealthily limited authority, thanks to significant contribution from the bullpen and the breakthrough of Dylan Bundy. On BIP alone, the O’s were a 98-64 team.

Adding K and BB into the mix doesn’t help the O’s. Their offensive team K rate was over a half STD above league average, and their pitching staff’s BB rate was over two full STD higher. This lops six games off of the O’s projection, dropping them to 92-70.

Team defense was also a drain on the 2016 Orioles. They were dramatically out-defended by their opponents on fly balls, to the tune of a 145.5 multiplier. Overall, their 108.7 Defensive Multiplier was the worst in the AL. This is the price of trotting Mark Trumbo out to right field quite often, a practice they seem intent on repeating (at least to some extent) in 2017. This lops another seven wins off of their projected total, down to 85-77, four games shy of their actual record.

Like the O’s, the Blue Jays hit the ball quite hard in 2016, generating projected offensive AVG and SLG figures of over a half STD higher than the AL average. Despite the fact that the Jays induced a ton of grounders, their projected production allowed was a tad higher than league average, as Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez yielded fairly hard grounder authority. On BIP alone, the Jays were an 85-77 club.

Overall, the introduction of K and BB into the mix helps the Jays, as their offensive BB rate was over two full STD higher than the AL average. Jose Bautista and the departed Edwin Encarnacion drove this number, which will be one to watch in 2017. On the mound, the Jays did a nice job of limiting walks, a strength that could intensify as Stroman and Sanchez mature and learn to hit their spots even better. The K/BB data adds three wins to the Jays’ projection, up to 88-74.

Team defense was a strength for the Jays, thanks to a 91.1 multiplier on fly balls, keyed by center-fielder extraordinaire Kevin Pillar. Overall, their 96.4 team Defensive Multiplier added three more wins, increasing their projection to 91-71, two games above their actual 2016 record.

The 2016 Yankees were far from Bronx Bombers. They impacted the baseball less than any other AL club, even the White Sox, despite Gary Sanchez‘ loud arrival. Their pitching staff’s authority allowed was barely on the positive side, as the contact-management excellence of CC Sabathia slightly outweighed the struggles of Michael Pineda in that department. On batted balls alone, this was a pretty bad, 71-91 baseball club.

Adding K and BB into the mix helps the Yanks a great deal. Their offensive K rate was over a half STD below AL average, and their pitching staff K and BB rates were both over a full STD better. Oh, if Pineda could only be an average contact-manager; this is where his (and Masahiro Tanaka’s) contributions are reflected. Nine wins are added to the Yanks’ projection here, making them an 80-82 club.

The Yankee defense was as average as you can get utilizing this method, with a 101.1 team multiplier, with almost identical performances across each BIP type. Their projected record is unchanged, remaining at 80-82, four games shy of their actual record.

Then there’s the Rays, whose actual versus projected performance was way out of whack compared to their divisional brethren. The contact generated by the Rays and their opponents was quite similar, featuring a dearth of liners and quite a bit of loud fly-ball contact. In the net, both their offensive and defensive authority was a touch better than league average, resulting in a projected record of 83-79 on batted balls alone.

K and BB were not the 2016 Rays’ friends. Only their pitching staff’s K rate was better than league average, and their offensive K rate was a real problem, over a full STD higher than league average. Steven Souza was basically their offensive poster child: loud contact, but at the cost of way too many Ks. This shaved six wins off of their projected total, down to 77-85.

The Rays’ team defense was better than league average, thanks largely to one man, Kevin Kiermaier. The club’s fly-ball multiplier of 69.7 was by far the best in the majors, and it outweighed the negative contributions of the infielders on grounders to give the club an overall 96.2 multiplier. This nudged their overall projection up three games to 80-82, a whopping 12 games above their actual record. The Rays were much, much better than their 2016 record.

Now, let’s look forward. Below are the current Fangraphs projections, as of Wednesday afternoon:

2017 Projected Records
BOS 93-69
TOR 86-76
TB 82-80
BAL 81-81
NYY 81-81

First, as Jeff Sullivan discussed in his recent piece, the AL East very well might be the best division in either league. A case can be made for any one of these five clubs to reach postseason play.

Let’s briefly discuss some key issues — and some of the important changes from 2016 — for each club below.

Boston Red Sox
On the down side, Ortiz is gone, Sandy Leon is a solid bet for regression at catcher, the bullpen has been thinned out by free-agent departures, and who knows what to expect from Pablo Sandoval at third base.

On the positive side, this might be the best starting rotation in baseball, with Chris Sale, David Price* and Rick Porcello forming a deadly playoff front three. The back end of the rotation has three strong candidates in Drew Pomeranz, Steven Wright and Eduardo Rodriguez. Any of those guys has the ability to be top-three-caliber as well. A full season of Andrew Benintendi should make the loss of Big Papi a little easier to swallow. Plus, key position players like Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley and Xander Bogaerts are all on their upward trajectory, and should be expected to improve as a group. The 93 wins might be a tad optimistic, but I do see them as the class of the East. (NOTE: This was written prior to the David Price injury. If he is lost for the season, it just might be enough to drop the Sox behind the Jays into second place.)

*Or maybe not.

Toronto Blue Jays
I thought the Jays did well early to let Edwin Encarnacion walk and to sign Kendrys Morales, an even better ball-striker, for about 40% of Encarnacion’s cost. Then Chris Carter signed for pennies, making Morales look expensive. In any event, they re-signed Jose Bautista with the resulting cost savings, leaving their offense in a good place. First base (Justin Smoak) and left field (Melvin Upton) look like potential holes, but jack-of-all-trades Steve Pearce could wind up filling one or both of them.

On the mound, the development of Stroman and Sanchez is the key. The latter was quite lucky last season; Aaron Sanchez, no matter how he continues to evolve, will not be winning the ERA title in 2017. J.A. Happ was also quite fortunate last season, and while I am a huge fan of Marco Estrada, his one-pitch (changeup) arsenal just has to have an expiration date. I think they’ll score more runs than the Red Sox, but give up quite a few more. They’re the only other East club with a quantifiable chance to win the division, and should be considered a favorite for a Wild Card berth.

Tampa Bay Rays
The FanGraphs projections obviously believe the Rays were quite unlucky in 2016 as well. The big issue here are injury questions all over the field: Kevin Kiermaier, Matt Duffy, Colby Rasmus, Logan Morrison and, especially, Wilson Ramos, are all question marks entering the season. Some will be just fine, but the law of averages suggests that some won’t.

The Rays, especially with the Yanks’ emerging youth movement, would seem to have the least productive offensive in the division. That said, their starting rotation, even with the departure of Drew Smyly, might be the one most well equipped to do battle with the Sox in the East. If Chris Archer learns to manage contact and Blake Snell and Jose De Leon accelerate their respective learning curves, watch out. While their ceiling is moderately high, I do believe the Rays have the lowest floor in the division. I’m picking them last, though I do see them as a .500-ish club.

Baltimore Orioles
The strengths and weaknesses of the 2016 O’s were pretty clear. They thumped on offense, but were a subpar defensive club that lacked strength in their starting rotation. Moving forward, the maturation of Kevin Gausman and Dylan Bundy into leadership roles should address the latter issue.

The status quo endures on the position-player side, for better and worse. Seth Smith should provide to be a bit more vanilla, but still an upgrade when compared to Pedro Alvarez, and Hyun Soo Kim should get to play more. Still, Mark Trumbo still projects to log outfield time, which is simply unacceptable.

J.J. Hardy’s health must be watched closely. He’s no great shakes at this stage, but losing him for an extended period would be a real problem, either at short or third, if Manny Machado slides over. The club just seems a legit outfielder light; the O’s needed Smith’s lefty bat, but could have really used someone who could actually play right field. The O’s offense will rival the Jays for best in the East, while the rotation should be improved at the top, though light in the back. I underestimate these guys every year, and am going to hedge my bets this time. I see them as better than the FanGraphs projection, as an 85-ish win team in the thick of the race for the second wild card.

New York Yankees
It’s been a long time since you could say the Yanks were a fun, up-and-coming ball club. But wait… their older guys are interesting, too. CC Sabathia was the best contact-manager among ERA qualifiers in the AL last season, and I love the signings of Matt Holliday and Chris Carter. Their holdover vets are boring, but aren’t holes, either. The Yanks floor is high compared to the Rays and O’s.

That said, there simply must be growing pains in store for Greg Bird, Aaron Judge and even Gary Sanchez. There isn’t much on which to hang your hat beyond the top three in the starting rotation. The system is deep, the future is exciting, but this may be a consolidation year in New York. Ultimately, I think the offense creeps close to average, while the pitching is a little better than that, though not quite up to the standards of this division. I’d peg the Yanks for a tad over .500, and fourth place in the East.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

Seth Smith is more versatile, to be sure, but otherwise in what way is he an upgrade over Pedro Alvarez?

5 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

He’s an equivalent hitter with a proj. wRC+ of 107 (Zips), and 113 (Steamer) vs. 108/114 for Alvarez who is adequate defensively in the OF corners and 1B. Alvarez is a defensive disaster everywhere.

The O’s already have a 1B (Davis) and a DH (Trumbo), so Smith is a huge improvement over Alvarez in their roster situation, which requires him to play RF.

5 years ago
Reply to  snapper

We’re talking about last year’s roster vs this year’s, not which player they should acquire.