The Wild, Woolly — and Mediocre — AL, 2015 Edition

In May 2014, I wrote an article within these very pages with basically the same exact title. The calendar has turned to 2015, and the American League is even wilder, woollier, and every bit as mediocre. Recent traditional powers like the the Yankees and Red Sox — and even the Rangers, A’s, and Angels — aren’t what they used to be, and the anticipated next wave, represented by the Mariners and Indians, has been slow to deliver. What we are left with is a morass of clubs, with few clear positive standouts, and few relatively hopeless also-rans. How to make sense of this?

Below is a table listing all 15 AL clubs, with four sets of win-loss records; actual, Pythagorean, component (based on runs values of individual events, closely correlates with Fangraphs’ BaseRuns method), and at right, the average of the three: Let’s break the AL clubs into three distinct groups — the in crowd, the also-rans, and the deep, soft middle — based on both the above table and various other macro-type factors, such as health, resources, starting and relief pitcher depth/churn, lineup holes, defense, etc. At the end, perhaps we’ll have a slightly better feel as to which will emerge as the playoff competitors in the junior circuit.

ACT W ACT L PYTH W PYTH L COMP W COMP L AVG W AVG L AVG PCT
TOR 34 32 40 26 37 29 37 29 0.561
BAL 33 31 36 28 35 29 35 29 0.540
TB 36 30 34 32 34 32 35 31 0.526
NYY 34 30 33 31 33 31 34 30 0.525
BOS 28 38 26 40 31 35 28 38 0.431
KC 36 25 37 24 35 26 36 25 0.592
DET 34 31 33 32 37 28 35 30 0.535
CLE 30 33 31 32 33 30 31 32 0.500
MIN 34 30 32 32 26 38 31 33 0.482
CWS 28 35 23 40 22 41 24 39 0.388
HOU 38 28 37 29 37 29 37 29 0.567
TEX 35 30 34 31 32 33 34 31 0.519
OAK 28 39 36 31 38 29 34 33 0.509
LAA 33 32 32 33 33 32 33 32 0.502
SEA 29 36 27 38 29 36 28 37 0.436

THE IN CROWD

There are two clubs to whom I am ready to declare 2015 playoff combatants:

1 – KANSAS CITY ROYALS – I must admit, I’ve been a little slow to get aboard the Royal train. Based on underlying data, they were about a .500 club in 2014, but their arrow was pointed up at the end of the season. After they took advantage of some good fortune to qualify for the postseason, an exceptional run took them within a game of winning it all. Factors like continuity, health and an abundance of upwardly mobile youth have been instrumental in their ongoing success. That, plus gold-standard-level defense. An Achilles heel? They’re getting only 5.54 innings per game out of their starting pitchers, last in the AL. Their bullpen is strong as usual, but can’t be subjected to that sort of workload over 162 games.

2 – TORONTO BLUE JAYS – In the current depressed run-scoring environment, the Jays’ attack stands out as the game’s best, one that could excel in any era. Amazingly, none of their impact players are hitting over their head right now, though I’d expect some of their complementary players to cool off. Their runs scored total is likely inflated a bit by unsustainably strong performance with RISP, but that’s a minor point. Their vulnerabilities? Like the Royals, they could stand to get more innings from their starters (5.91 average to date), though they are averaging only 2.79 relievers used per game, 12th in the AL. The track records of Mark Buehrle and R.A. Dickey suggest league average-ish performance going forward, and that should be good enough.

ALSO-RANS

I am only ready to count out two clubs from the chase for the three remaining AL postseason berths:

1 – CHICAGO WHITE SOX – I expected a bit more from this group, who in their defense have compiled a borderline respectable record despite playing the second fewest home games among AL clubs. Their 22-41 component record to date is way down there in Phillies/Brewers territory. They have five, count ’em five, gaping holes in their lineup, and the worst team defense in the league. On the positive side, they are getting 6.08 innings per game out of their starting pitchers, third in the AL, and are using the fewest relievers per game of any club. Not enough positives, and given the Twins’ unexpectedly good early-season performance, the Chisox now appear to be odds-on favorites to finish last in the Central.

2 – BOSTON RED SOX – It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the club thought to be at least an AL East co-favorite. Using the component record method, the Sox are a bit better than their actual record, but still the worst in what appears to be the AL’s deepest division. Their older position players are clearly in decline, and their up-and-comers like Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts and Rusney Castillo aren’t quite there yet. Their major free agent acquisitions haven’t worked out, and their revamped rotation, averaging only 5.79 innings per start, lacks an ace. Their upper minor league system and overall resource situation remain strong, but now will much more likely be used to enhance their stature in 2016 and beyond.

Well, we’ve accomplished an awful lot, haven’t we? Still 11 teams to sort through, and the difference between the bulk of them isn’t very large from bottom to top. Let’s consider them in that order.

THE DEEP, SOFT MIDDLE

11 – MINNESOTA TWINS – The only reason they’re not an also-ran is their record to date. The Twins have a 26-38 component record, better than only the White Sox and five full games worse than the Red Sox. Their offensive performance has been puffed up by unsustainably strong performance with RISP, and their pitching staff still strikes out absolutely no one. The Byron Buxton experience could give them a bump, but that’s putting a bit too much responsibility on his shoulders. Don’t be surprised if their bullpen hits the wall at some point; they’re using 3.22 relievers per game, third in the AL, and are churning through lefty/righty matchups, as their relievers are averaging just 0.96 innings per appearance.

10 – SEATTLE MARINERS – Only the lack of a true divisional champ shoo-in in the West keeps the Mariners in the mix for now. Yes, they have a strong star core in Felix Hernandez, Kyle Seager, the hitting part of Nelson Cruz and perhaps Robinson Cano, but their utter lack of depth will likely prove to be their undoing. Mike Zunino’s offense has been abysmal, but if you give him a day off, Jesus Sucre has to play. If an infielder, any infielder, needs a day off, it’s hello, Willie Bloomquist. They have no team speed or late-inning flexibility. Many have bemoaned their lack of clutch hitting; well, they’re basically the same club with RISP (.301 AVG-.356 SLG, through Tuesday) as they are overall. They are who they are, as their actual, Pythagorean and component record sync up almost perfectly.

9 – LOS ANGELES ANGELS – Now the shades of grey become even more difficult to distinguish. You can throw a net over the next five clubs. This is the living embodiment of a .500 club. They’re sporting a two-player offense, basically, and I wouldn’t expect Albert Pujols to continue his torrid pace all season. On the positive side, their starters are averaging 6.13 innings per game, second best in the league, and they possess better rotation insurance than most clubs, in the person of Andrew Heaney, who is performing well in Triple-A.

8 – TAMPA BAY RAYS – This is a tough one. The Rays are sitting in first place in a strong division as we stand, and are a legitimately strong run prevention outfit, featuring the second best defense in the league. Still, there is potential for attrition as the season progresses. Shortstop, catcher and first base, in the absence of James Loney, are offensive holes, and their starting pitchers have averaged only 5.62 innings per start, next to last in the AL. They also use 3.18 relievers per game, third in the league. While they could get a boost from some starting pitchers returning from injury, they lack the resources of their competitors to improve their 2015 club, and are much more focused on the future anyway. Their program is ahead of schedule, but this isn’t their year.

7 – TEXAS RANGERS – A month ago, the Rangers were a clear fit in the also-ran pile. Since then, Prince Fielder has turned back the clock, and Joey Gallo has turned it forward to resuscitate the offense. Another combination of youth and experience, Alex Gonzalez” target=”_blank”>Chi Chi Gonzalez and Wandy Rodriguez, has sparked the rotation. Expect some regression on that end, as the rotation has averaged only 5.76 innings per start, and they have used 3.08 relievers per game, both fifth worst in the league. Like the Angels, this feels like a .500 team, but one with more youth and upside.

6 – CLEVELAND INDIANS – No AL club combines extreme strengths and glaring weaknesses like the Indians. Their offense ranks a disappointing 10th in runs in the AL, though their underperformance with RISP masks a solid team OBP. The arrival of Francisco Lindor could be a major plus, as Jose Ramirez was an automatic out, and the recent return of Yan Gomes should also spark the offense. Their team defense remains abysmal, but isn’t as big an issue as it could be, since the starters rack up so many strikeouts. Bullpen fatigue could kick in at some point, as they roll through more relievers per game (3.25), with the shortest average relief outing (0.94 IP) of any AL club. There is upside here, but this still feels like an 85-win club at best.

5 – OAKLAND A’S – I know, I know, this is probably silly, placing the club with the worst record in the AL this high. Thing is, you can easily make an argument that this is the best club in the only AL division without a clear frontrunner. Their awful record in one-run games to date is already in the books, and likely will come back to haunt them. Their starting pitchers have the best ERA in the league, and have averaged 6.05 innings per start, third most in the league, so their bullpen is relatively rested. Their defense ranks as second worst in the AL, thanks to an early spate of Marcus Semien errors, but has stabilized of late. This club is a 10-game winning streak waiting to happen, but they might just be a four- or five-game losing streak from a fire sale. Ultimately, there are simply too many games to make up on too many teams.

4 – NEW YORK YANKEES – That leaves four primary contenders for three remaining playoff spots, in my eyes. On the positive side, the Yankees have played the fewest home games to date of any AL club, and obviously possess deeper resources than their competition to go out and get whatever they need as the race heats up. On the down side, they are heavily dependent upon fragile front-line players such as Masahiro Tanaka, Michael Pineda and Alex Rodriguez, and they’re a different club when the one-two punch of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller isn’t in place at the end of ballgames, like at present. They’re stressing their pen, getting only 5.72 innings per game out of their starters, and their offensive output has been inflated by unsustainably strong performance with RISP. I see a near-miss on the horizon.

3 – BALTIMORE ORIOLES – Here is Wild Card #2. I’ve been a bit slow to appreciate this club, like the Royals, in recent seasons. Upwardly mobile youth, continuity, and exceptional defense are attributes of both clubs. Like the Mariners, the O’s have a low-OBP offense that focuses on power, but their superior athleticism, depth and flexibility puts them on another level. Their output has been puffed up a bit to date by unsustainably strong production with RISP. Their rotation is pretty average in about every way, averaging only 5.70 innings per start, third fewest in the AL. Buck Showalter trusts his relievers, allowing them to average 1.18 innings per outing, highest in the league. Youth, athleticism, defense, allows them to nudge out the Yanks for second in the East, with 88 wins or so.

2 – DETROIT TIGERS – Wild Card #1. The Tigers have been a team of streaks this season, getting off to a great start before plunging to .500. This streakiness has obscured the club’s most significant transformation, which has occurred on the defensive side. Jose Iglesias and Anthony Gose can both be expected to cool off materially at the plate, but their contributions with the glove are very real. The Tigers’ ace in the hole just might be the star power of returning injured players Justin Verlander and Victor Martinez. Without Verlander, their starters have averaged 6.18 innings per game, most in the AL, which has allowed them to exploit same-handed matchups (just 0.99 IP per relief outing) without overly depleting their pen (only 2.92 relievers per game). Oh, and Miguel Cabrera is still a stud. This isn’t the best Tiger club in recent memory, but it just might have the best balance among all phases of the game. Expect 90 or so wins.

1 – HOUSTON ASTROS – Your AL West champs. I don’t consider the Astros the best of the 11 clubs in the soft middle, but they have the best chance of reaching the postseason due to the lack of standout divisional competition. With their three true-outcome-offense, there will be streaks in both directions, and their lack of experience in the pennant race crucible could be an issue. There are some important factors in their favor, however. First, the first 66 games are in the books, and they’re setting the pace. Second, their farm system is better than any other contender’s: Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers are already contributing, and there are others knocking at the door. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, they have much more financial flexibility than their division mates to make a big move for a starting pitcher, like a Cole Hamels. While the Mariners pushed nearly all of their available chips to the center of the table for Mark Trumbo, who is basically more of what they already had, the Astros have bided their time, for now. Something like 86-87 wins could get it done in the West, and the Astros will get there.

No, this is not the greatest collection of teams to ever battle for postseason berths. There are so many of them, however, and they are so evenly matched, that the season’s second half should be quite a spectacle. There will be very few meaningless games, and every tactical organizational decision could be the one that ultimately makes the difference, for better or worse. Strap in and enjoy the ride.





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Jason
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Jason

With the Rays, the major “issue” you cite is average innings per start. That’s a very misleading stat with the Rays. They are almost exclusively using relievers as their 5th starter due to injuries. Like last night, a 2 hit shutout, their “starter” only went 2 innings. I’d disagree that they are part of the soft middle and would put them in the playoff bound section. Once some of their injured come back, they’ll be in pretty good shape.

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Agree. In Steve Geltz’s 2 starts, he’s combined for 3 IP with a 0 ERA. They do lack the resources to acquire a big deadline deal, but Moore, Odorizzi, Smyly, Jaso, Loney, and Jennings will be a far better “deadline acquisition” than any team could dream of.