AL East Shenanigans: Just How Close is the Race?

By the time September rolls around, there is generally a couple of teams who have secured playoff spots and can look to rest key players sporadically during the remainder of the season. As of September 9th, Texas had a nine game lead over the 2nd place team in the AL West, the Houston Astros. Cleveland has been cruising lately, going 8-2 in their last 10 games to secure a six game lead in the AL Central. The AL East, on the otherhand, is where it get reals interesting.

What sets the AL East apart from the rest of the American League is that the division has four teams that are within four games of each other. Not only does the division hold a playoff spot for the division leader, but also has both of the wild card spots in the AL, and a fourth team just two games back for a wild card spot. The beauty of September baseball, as well, is that the majority of games that will be played by the teams will be against their division opponents. So not only is it a tight race for the division lead, but the race is nowhere near the finish line as the standings will be in constant flux.

The Boston Red Sox are the current division leaders in the AL East with a one game lead over the Toronto Blue Jays. Buoyed by the fanfare of David “Big Papi” Ortiz’s retirement tour and an MVP-worthy season from youngster Mookie Betts, the Red Sox are looking every bit like a playoff team. The pitching has come around since the beginning of the season, with David Price, Rick Porcello and deadline acquisition Drew Pomeranz (The Killer P’s?) resembling a strong rotation come playoff time.

Rick Porcello has impressed this season, throwing himself into the Cy Young conversation. Photo courtesy of Dan Hamilton of the USA Today

Rick Porcello has impressed this season, throwing himself into the Cy Young conversation. Can he keep up his dominance down the stretch and propel the Sox into the playoffs? Photo courtesy of Dan Hamilton of the USA Today

Porcello especially has impressed, reducing his BB/9 to a career low 1.35 while maintaining a K/9 near 7.5. Porcello’s off-speed pitches have come around this season, which has led to hitters not receiving as many easy pitches to hit and thus leading to more outs generated for Porcello and the Sox. Fangraphs says this season, opponents are only hitting .171 against his change and .212 against his slider, compared to .292 and .342 respectively last season. The weakness of the Red Sox is the bullpen, especially bridging the gap from starter to Kimbrel in the 9th. The Red Sox addressed the issue at the deadline, adding Ziegler from Arizona, but Ziegler has produced mixed results since the move. Look for the bullpen being the reason why the Red Sox will either keep producing efficiently, or start to move down the standings as the month rolls by.

The Toronto Blue Jays currently sit in second by a game and lead the wild card race. I profiled the team briefly in my article on the AL Division Race a week ago, so I will just give a quick rundown. Basically, Toronto has the best offense on paper, headlined by potential AL MVP Josh Donaldson and bat flipping champion Jose Bautista. A supporting cast of hitters including Russell Martin, Troy Tulowitzki, and Edwin Encarnacion rounds out the most potent lineup in the American League, if not all of baseball (I’d argue the lineup is more potent than the Cubs).

Jose Bautista has powered the Jays to the playoffs before...can he do it again? Photo courtesy of Getty Sports

Jose Bautista has powered the Jays to the playoffs before…can he do it again? Photo courtesy of Getty Sports

 

What could be the Blue Jays downfall, and my reason of hesitancy, is that pitching matters, and the Blue Jays do not have the stud pitching seen in other potential playoff team’s rotations. Just this past weekend, the Jays’ starters gave up a combined 11 earned runs in 13.2 innings (in 3 games) against the Tampa Bay Rays, a team that is twenty-one games below .500. That is not pitching a fan wants to see leading into the playoffs.

The Baltimore Orioles are the often forgotten studs in the AL East. The Orioles currently reside only two games back in the AL East standings and are perched in the second wild card spot with a one game lead over the Detroit Tigers. The Orioles also feature a potent lineup starring Manny Machado, Chris “Crush” Davis, and Adam Jones. Yet, those are not the only ones doing the heavy lifting, as the rest of the lineup has been hitting dingers all season as well. Mark Trumbo, most notably, has been a key fixture in the middle of the Orioles lineup, despite being traded for in the offseason for a backup catcher.

Mark Trumbo has been very productive for the Orioles, especially since he was traded a backup catcher. Photo courtesy of Butch Dill of the USA Today

Mark Trumbo has been very productive for the Orioles, especially since he was traded a backup catcher. Will his power be enough to get the Orioles playoff-bound? Photo courtesy of Butch Dill of the USA Today

This season, Trumbo has put up 41 homeruns while maintaining an adequate .255 batting average for the season. Another notable hitter is the underrated second basemen Jonathan Schoop, who despite only having 18 walks this year, has put up a .282 batting average and 21 homeruns for the club.

Despite all the power in the Orioles lineup, the problem comes down to the rotation once again, as the Orioles rotation is filled with veteran journeymen and super young pitchers. Keep an eye on Kevin Gausman though, who despite his record, has pitched well lately, not giving up a run in his last three starts. The rotation will be the question mark for the Orioles as the postseason looms ever closer.

The final team still battling for the AL East is the New York Yankees. The Yankees are interesting because the Yankees were sellers at the MLB Trade Deadline, moving Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman, and Carlos Beltran for a plethora of high upside prospects. Yet, a month after the deadline, the Yankees are only sitting four games back in the division and two back from the Orioles for the final wild card spot. The Yankees have been by their promoted youngsters, especially the polarizing Gary Sanchez.

Gary Sanchez has been raking for the Yankees. Can he keep up the hot hitting down the stretch? Photo courtesy of Brad Penner of the USA Today

Gary Sanchez has been raking for the Yankees. Can he keep up the hot hitting down the stretch? Photo courtesy of Brad Penner of the USA Today

Sanchez was promoted right after the deadline and has played in thirty-one games since, sporting a .336 batting average and knocking out 11 homers. Tanaka has been pitching like the ace that was expected out of his contract and the team has also received decent pitching from Michael Pineda and C.C. Sabathia over the course of the season.

The thing to watch with the Yankees will be whether the hot hitting will continue. The team is currently riding a five game winning streak (as of 9/9), but if the team strings together a couple of losses, it will be interesting to see if the veterans will be able to steer the rookies back on track or the team will fade off.

The battle has been raging all season long for the division, and yet, despite five months of baseball, there is no clear indication who will lead the division at the end of the season. Question marks surround each team as the margins are constantly fluctuating throughout the month. The Red Sox appear to be the most complete team on paper, but a shaky bullpen can turn a few wins into losses and hurt a team’s place in the standings. The Jays and Orioles face question marks surrounding their rotations, despite the electric lineups each team fields. The Yankees have been buoyed by their youngster hitters, but it will be interesting to see what happens when the team starts stringing together a couple of losses back to back instead of riding the hot streak forever. The 2016 AL East is the reason why baseball is exciting in September and will be a fun story to follow for the rest of the month.

 

Stats courtesy of fangraphs and standings according to MLB.com

Shoutout to u/twistedlogicx for pointing this out on r/baseball

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