The American League East was supposed to be a close race. The Blue Jays were favorites, but they weren’t prohibitive favorites. The Red Sox had the big money addition of David Price and the emerging young core. The Rays were supposed to have the rotation to contend, and the Orioles were going to have the lineup. And the Yankees were going to hang around when they had no business doing so because that’s what they do.
And look at that. It’s all mostly true. The exact order might have been up for debate, but the only surprise is just how quickly and how far the Rays have fallen. Everything else makes sense. On the surface.
When you lift up the hood, though, every team is a weird amalgam of magic, mystery, and the unexpected. Every team in baseball has wasn’t-expecting-that players, both good and bad, but the AL East is quite possibly the finest curated collection of wasn’t-expecting-that in baseball.
Which means it’s the perfect division to remind us that preseason predictions are empty calories. But they’re not empty calories like a bag of chips or cookies. They’re edible packing peanuts, and every year we essentially watch video of us eating a 4-pound bag of them in February and wonder what in the heck we were thinking.
Never predict. Let the AL East remind you why.
If you knew before the season that the Orioles ...
... would have exactly two reliable starters, you would have predicted them to lose 90 games. If you knew that not only would they have just two reliable starters, but that everyone else who shuffled through the rotation would be unambiguously awful, you might have predicted 90 losses to be optimistic. And if you knew just how bad Yovani Gallardo and Ubaldo Jimenez were going to be, you might have started researching the 1988 team, just so you were prepared with the necessary factlets and trivia.
Instead, the Orioles are threatening to do something amazing — make the postseason with four objectively bad starting pitchers getting at least 10 starts. They have a great chance for five with Wade Miley doing whatever it is that he’s doing, and Dylan Bundy’s shaky conversion gives them at least a chance for six.
Here are all the teams with at least four starting pitchers with an adjusted ERA of 85 or lower over 10 starts or more:
|2002 Blue Jays||78||84|
Not only were they all shut out of the postseason, but not a single one of the teams finished over .500. Because when a team gets between 40 and 100 starts of lousy starting pitching, they shouldn’t be very good at all.
It makes me think of the Orioles as some key that will unlock the secret to baseball. Dingers and relievers. Invest in them, and worry about frivolous things like starting pitchers later. It’s so obvious in retrospect.
(It’s not very obvious in retrospect. How, Orioles? How is this possible?)
If you knew before the season that the Yankees ...
... were going to get nothing from Chase Headley, Jacoby Ellsbury, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Luis Severino, Nathan Eovaldi, or Michael Pineda, you wouldn’t have given them a chance to stay in the outskirts of the fringes of a postseason race. You would have figured that they would have been sellers at the deadline. Which they were, of course, trading away two of their best relievers and their most productive hitter.
You would have figured that they would have been forced to start a youth movement for the first time in decades. Which they were.
And yet here are the Yankees, above .500 somehow, still with a chance to nab a wild card spot. Not a great chance, mind you. Not with six teams ahead of them for the final two spots. But it’s remarkable that they even have a shot, considering how many of the above players were supposed to be absolutely vital to a winning season. The Yankees’ case for a surprise year went something like if Severino builds on his 2015 season and if one of the veterans like Headley or Teixeira rebounds and if Starlin Castro enjoys a renaissance and if Alex Rodriguez remains ageless ...
Those were all ifs. There wasn’t supposed to be an and/or in the bunch. All of these things had to happen for the Yankees to hit the progressive jackpot. Instead, they’re having their slightly dry cake and eating it too, enjoying the younger players in the majors, getting the prospects from the deadline trades in the system, and making an inexplicable amount of noise at the back of the division.
The Yankees will always be the natural enemies of doomsday predictions in the wild. It’s just about the only predictable thing in baseball, even as they make individual predictions look like acres of fetid landfill.
If you knew before the season that the Red Sox ...
... were going to get brilliant seasons from Steven Wright and Rick Porcello, with an all-time David Ortiz season in the middle of the lineup, you would have figured that they were good for 100 wins, easy. Because they also had David Price, perennial Cy Young contender, and one of the best bullpens in baseball to go along with a dynamic young lineup. Keep the conversation going:
"So do Bradley, Betts, and Bogaerts keep hitting?"
"Okay, that’s at least 85 wins. And Ortiz is a monster?"
"Got it. So 90 wins. Does Pedroia decline at all?"
"He’s as good as ever."
"Wow, at least 95 wins. And you’re saying that Porcello and Steven Wright are both incredible?"
"I’ve never watched a 110-win team before. This is going to be fun."
"Also, Sandy Leon is Wade Boggs now."
[throws smoke bomb]
Instead, Price had a rough start to his Red Sox career. Clay Buchholz lost his spot. The bullpen was far shakier and more fragile than expected after Carson Smith had Tommy John and Koji Uehara started to look his age. And it all adds up to a very good team that can’t quite pull away, even though they have so much going right for them.
It’s hard to have a brighter future than the Red Sox do, at least when it comes to the combination of young players thriving in the majors, organizational prospect depth, and financial resources. But this team is a reminder that even when things go really, really right, there are no guarantees that the other pieces are going to fall in place around them.
If you knew before the season that the Blue Jays ...
... were going to get more out of J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, and Marco Estrada than the Red Sox got out of David Price, you would have picked them to win 100 games, easy. The lineup was going to score 800 to 1,000 runs, without a doubt, which meant three solid-to-great starters behind Marcus Stroman and the steady R.A. Dickey would create an all-time team.
Then reality set in a bit. Jose Bautista’s age tackled him from behind, and the wish that Troy Tulowitzki made as a teenager to be just like Nomar Garciaparra was made on a monkey paw. They would help when they could, but suddenly the lineup of death was merely excellent, especially when Chris Colabello disappeared into the mists from whence he came. It’s not like the Blue Jays are suffering a horrible fate — they’re in first place, after all — but it’s the difference between a 90-win pace and a 100-win pace with the rest of the AL East choking on a mess of feathers.
Really, if we all knew how Happ was going to turn out, and that Sanchez was going to transition so brilliantly, the Blue Jays would have been World Series favorites. They still might be American League favorites, especially if Bautista finds whatever he’s been missing. But like the Red Sox, they were supposed to have head starts in so many other areas, that it would be almost unfair if they miraculously pulled a pair of dynamic starters out of a hat. Instead, those random, unexpected starters are the biggest reason why they’re living up to expectations at all.
Well, that and Josh Donaldson being a transdimensional baseball mutant again. That's helped just a touch.
If you knew before the season that the Rays ...
... were going to threaten the franchise home run record, with all of the starting pitchers maintaining their high-strikeout, low-walk ways, they would have been your pick to win the division. All that was missing was a little offense, and some guaranteed power would have convinced you.
Ah, but there’s a dark corollary to that, which is that the pitchers were also going to get sucked into the homer vortex. The relatively gaudy home run total is impressive without context, but it’s coming in a season where Tropicana Field is playing much smaller for everyone, and the parade of low OBPs in the lineup are crushing whatever good the homers can do.
The Rays’ formula to a contending season? Playing better, mostly. That’s not snark. Their lineup and rotation are either filled with players having good seasons or players who deserve a chance to succeed. Or if you want to use a different verb, players the Rays need to succeed. They’re not going to do much if Steven Souza and Corey Dickerson don’t hit more, considering how much the team invested in their acquisitions, and everyone else will get a chance to be as productive as the Rays were expecting in the first place.
Of course, if you knew that just about everyone in the Rays’ rotation was going to sport an ERA around 4.00 or so, you would have pegged them for last place, which is exactly where they are. So maybe this is the least surprising team in the division, considering that the team’s weakness is in the area that was supposed to be the reason they fancied themselves contenders in the first place.
The Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Orioles are all fighting for first place, with the Yankees being close enough to smell it, and the Rays are bringing up the rear. That wouldn’t have been an unreasonable preseason prediction. There would have been a way to use logic to back it up, and look at that, you would have been completely right.
Except it’s being done in the freakiest, most unexpected way. The AL East is going about how you predicted it. The AL East is proving that your predictions are trash. Both sentences can be true.