Subtraction in the Division: Why is the AL East So Bad?

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It may not take much to put one AL East team over the hump in a weak division, but it’s going to be more than Stephen Drew for the Red Sox. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

In one of the worst seasons that the American League East ever produced as a whole, the Red Sox won the division in 1990 with an 88-74 record, a mark that would have left Boston 15 games behind the Oakland A’s (103-59) if it had played in the AL West.

This year, the Yankees, who leaped into the division lead Wednesday – percentage points ahead of Toronto – are currently on pace for 86 wins.

What the hell happened?

The Red Sox lost their sixth-straight game Wednesday night, 6-4, to the Blue Jays. It is the longest current losing streak in all of baseball, and only a pair of losses away from Boston’s most-extended winning drought since the end of the Bobby Valentine Era.


Yet, they sit only four games out of the division lead, five games under .500. Tampa Bay is nine games under .500. The last-place Rays have a whopping six-game deficit to make up.

This is supposed to be the best division in baseball?

At 30-16, the 2014 incarnation of the AL West-leading A’s are on pace to win around 105-106 games. With their current record, the Sox would be 9 1/2 games out right now in the West. Texas, 22-24 and eight games out in the West, would be a mere 2 1/2 games behind the Yankees and Blue Jays in the East.
For whatever reason, the division that produced a pair of playoff teams, including the World Series champions, only a year ago is a complete mess and up for grabs. The Red Sox are only 9-13 against the East this season, with another shot at Toronto Thursday afternoon in the series finale. They could be fighting for last place when they face the Rays at Tropicana Field this weekend.
Or they could be in first place by Sunday.
Much of the rest of the league does have the East to thank, a little more than a quarter of the way into the season. AL Central-leading Detroit is 8-1 vs. the division (including 3-0 vs. Boston), eight of the Twins’ 23 wins have come at the expense of the East, and even Houston, which has only 17 wins on the season, can attribute nearly a quarter of them (four) to beating teams in the East.
In a division that features the defending champs, the pitching-rich Rays, the improved Orioles and Jays, and the Yankees, maybe you could reason the lackluster records to the clubs trading punches. But that’s only half of the equation. Toronto is the only East team in the top five in runs scored (228) in the AL. Baltimore (184), Boston (183), and Tampa (181) are all among the least-scoring offenses, while the Red Sox’ team ERA of 3.89 is the only one of the bunch better than the league average of 3.99, though Boston’s starting ERA of 4.37 is better than only Texas, Chicago, Cleveland, and Minnesota. Essentially, the Sox’ starting five is too often putting its team in an early hole from which the offense can hardly recover. Jose Bautista and Brett Gardner are the only two players in the top 10 AL players ranked by WAR, a stat in which Xander Bogaerts leads the way for the Red Sox at 1.1, 25th in the AL. Every other AL East team, including the Rays (Ben Zobrist) has at least one player ranked higher.
As a group, the five teams combine for a run differential of minus-44, with the Blue Jays the only team on the positive side of the spectrum (plus-12). The Rays’ minus-26 certainly puts some weight to that stat (Boston is a minus-17, New York minus-11, and Baltimore minus-2), but the AL East is by far the worst division in baseball – AL Central (plus-nine) AL West (plus-60), NL East (minus-3), NL Central (minus-10), NL West (minus-12) – in terms of run differential. By comparison, Tampa is only sixth-worst in the major leagues.
But 86 wins? Is it possible that’s all it might take to win the division this season? The 2000 Yankees only won 87 games and rode that division title all the way to a World Series championship. Fangraphs projects it to be even lower though, with the Blue Jays winning all of 85 games, which would give them the division crown. The Red Sox and Yankees are both slated to finish with 83 wins under that formula.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s Carl Bialik, since the dawn of the wild card, “teams from the division have represented 36 percent of all AL clubs but have won 11 of 19 pennants and eight of 10 World Series titles for AL teams — twice as many as any NL division…The division has also claimed 71 percent of available AL wild-card slots, twice as many as it would be expected to by chance alone.”
“Much of that postseason success was achieved by New York and Boston, and the division has had plenty of underachieving clubs, too,” Bialik writes. “But the AL East’s overall results stand up nicely, too. Its teams won 51 percent of regular-season games between 1995 and 2013. That understates its success because division games each had winners and losers, so they canceled each other out. Against opponents from outside their division, AL East teams won 52 percent of games, including the same proportion against both intraleague rivals and against NL teams.”
In 2014, AL teams have won only 49 percent of all games played. The Yankees and Orioles are the only teams playing above .500 within the division, while the Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Rays are a combined 26-34 against each other, a .433 winning percentage. The Red Sox are the worst of the bunch at .409. In fact, among AL squads, only the Royals (6-15) have a worse record within their division.
The good news in all of this, of course, is that it might take a simple jiggling of the handle to rectify any one team’s ailments, though, no, Stephen Drew probably isn’t that guy for Boston. The flip side, from a Red Sox perspective, of course, is also that it might only take one move prior to the trading deadline for one of the Yankees, Jays, Orioles, or Rays to shift the balance in their favor.
Drew will help add some level of consistency to the batting order, particularly against righthanded pitching, against which the Sox (10-20) have struggled this season. The Felix Doubront car door injury hurts in more ways than one, in that it probably means Brandon Workman will replace him in the rotation, leaving the mental puddle that is Clay Buchholz every fifth day. But the biggest concern has to be the measly .647 OPS that Red Sox outfielders have produced, fourth-worst in all of baseball. In 2013, Boston’s .801 outfield OPS was second-best in the majors.
Does that speak to the team missing Jacoby Ellsbury? Well, not as far as May is concerned. The Yankees outfielder has had a tough time of this month, posting only a .621 OPS, 47th among AL outfielders in May. That’s only two percentage points ahead of Grady Sizemore. Shane Victorino is 44th (.649) this month; Jackie Bradley Jr. 66th (.445). If the Dodgers are indeed serious about trading someone from their crowded outfield, the Red Sox are one of the only teams who financially could take on the likes of Matt Kemp ($129.5 million over six years). That’s a long shot not because of what it would take to get Los Angeles to surrender him, but more likely that Carl Crawford will fix the situation on his own with a visit to the disabled list.
If the Jays finish off the sweep of the Sox Thursday afternoon, it will be the first time since 1994 that a Boston team has lost every game in a homestand lasting six games or longer, and only the second time in team history. Boston’s run differential over the same stretch is minus-15.
Luckily, the rest of the AL East is almost as bad as they have been, but at the rate that Boston is currently floundering, and Toronto showing the potential that it may be coming on strong, a little tweak may soon turn into a project far too extensive for Ben Cherington to fix before it’s too late, even in this stink hole of a division.

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