Evaluating the American League playoff race

AL_EAST_LOGO_2Where did the baseball season go? Here we are, firmly entrenched in the sticky dog days of August, with only about one quarter of the schedule left to play and opening day still seems like yesterday. I find myself saying that every season at this juncture, yet my perception of the passage of time gets no better.

The playoff push is now upon us with about 40-45 games remaining on most team’s schedules. Unlike the National League, which is largely devoid of interesting playoff races, the American League is fairly open in terms of Wild Card placement and divisional winners. Below is a breakdown of how I see each division shaking out as well as the wild card positions.

AL East – New York Yankees

I make this prediction with some caution, as the Yankees and their 62-55 record are currently 4.5 games behind the Boston Red Sox. While 4.5 games doesn’t seem like a lot, it is in the context of a mere 45 games left. But the Yankees are due for some good fortune in the near future, as their AL East-worst 13-21 record in one-run games is likely to revert closer to .500 as the season winds down. As a result of their poor performance in one-run games, New York’s run differential to date of +112 doesn’t square with their 62-55 record, and actually suggests a true talent record closer to 70-47.  So, without consideration for improvements to the team roster, we might expect more wins in the Yankees’ future purely on the basis of improved luck.

However, the Yankees also added some big reinforcements at the trade deadline, acquiring Sonny Gray to headline their rotation and Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson to reinforce their bullpen. Health will also be key to a late season resurgence by New York. Outfielder Aaron Hicks, who was having a career year prior to suffering an oblique injury in late-June, has looked great since returning a week ago. First baseman Greg Bird and second baseman Starlin Castro are also set to start minor league rehab assignments this week and should be back with the team prior to the end of the month.

4.5 games is a tall task in 45 games, however a re-loaded Yankees roster and some good fortune should erase that deficit.

AL Central – Cleveland Indians

Almost all of Cleveland’s current roster was on the squad for last season’s World Series run, so if playoff experience and hunger to win count for anything then Cleveland has it in spades. Beyond that, the Indians are one of the most well-rounded teams in baseball, and their current 64-52 record compared to a 70-46 BaseRuns record suggests they’ve even been unlucky to date.

Want starting pitching? Cleveland has the second best pitcher in the AL in Corey Kluber and some outstanding rotation depth by way of Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar. Want a bullpen? Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Nick Goody headline a relief staff that has an MLB-low 2.97 ERA. Hitting? The Indians’ have a deep and balanced lineup that boasts the fifth-best wRC+ in baseball. Outside of catcher Yan Gomes and a likely still injured Jason Kipnis, every regular hitter in their lineup is a consistently tough out. They’re a team that definitely gets by on offensive depth more so than top-heavy punch, with the likes of Carlos Santana, Francisco Lindor, Michael Brantley, Jay Bruce and Bradley Zimmer falling into the “good but not great” category.

The Indians have a five game divisional lead over both Minnesota and Kansas City, but it probably should be much more. For some perspective, Cleveland’s run differential is 158 runs better than the Twins and 124 better than Royals. Expect the Indians to secure the AL Central title fairly easily.

AL West – Houston Astros

While the Astros were the darling pick of many preseason pundits, few saw this kind of offensive explosion coming. Houston’s wRC+ of 126 is the best of all-time, supported by nine offensive regulars with figures above 112. Superstar performances from the likes of Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer strike fear into opposing pitchers at the top of the batting order while career years from utility players like Marwin Gonzalez and Jake Marisnick have provided abundant depth. With the recently called up Derek Fisher taking the place of Nori Aoki, and Alex Bregman improving after a slow first half, there isn’t a single weak link in Houston’s lineup.

Pitching has been a bit more touch and go. The rotation’s 4.23 ERA is 10th in the majors and is led by Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers, both of whom who have had great years while simultaneously struggling with injuries. Charlie Morton has served as a solid third starter, while reliever turned starter Brad Peacock looks like he’s cemented his spot in the rotation. Colin McHugh, who missed more than half the season with arm fatigue, is now back and looks solid. All in all it comes down to Keuchel and McCullers though. If they are healthy, then the rotation will look good in October. If they suffer from lingering injury issues then it will struggle.

Houston’s 72-46 record and +152 run differential both pace the American League by a wide margin. They should secure home field in the ALDS, if they make it, the ALCS, with relative ease. The offense is the best in the majors by a country mile and their pitching, if healthy, is well above average. It will be a major disappoint for the Houston faithful if they don’t make it to the World Series.

Wild Card 1 – Boston Red Sox

Boston was a team that looked dead in the water two weeks ago. They ceded control of the AL East to the Yankees while reports of clubhouse issues swirled in response to yet another Dave Price blowup. And speaking of Price, he went back on the DL with left elbow issues.

But the arrival of super-prospect Rafael Devers from AAA and utility infielder Eduardo Nunez from San Francisco ignited a squad that is 9-2 in the month of August and 67-51 on the season. Devers has a 1.074 OPS since being called up on July 25th, while Nunez is boasting a .382 / .417 / .647 triple slash since being dealt to Boston. The combined offensive outburst from Devers and Nunez also woke the bats of Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts, who have looked more like their 2016-selves in recent weeks.

Despite their newfound offensive prowess, Boston’s lineup is singles driven and lacks the power needed to compete with the Astros and Yankees of the world, and Devers and particularly Nunez are due to come back down to earth at some point. But where the Red Sox really have a competitive advantage is in their starting pitching. Chris Sale has been the best pitcher in baseball this season and is the shoe-in AL Cy Young winner at this point. Drew Pomeranz has shown that 2016 wasn’t a fluke, pitching to a 3.39 ERA this season and refining his control, while Eduardo Rodriguez has taken a big step forward this season. Porcello is obviously having a down season after his 2016 Cy Young campaign, but is still a serviceable #3 / 4 starter.

Boston’s BaseRuns record of 65-53 is six games worse than the Yankees’ 71-46 BaseRuns record. The Red Sox are surely a playoff team, but they’re fairly fortunate to be in front of the Yankees as it is.

Wild Card 2 – Texas Rangers

Very few people are talking about the Texas Rangers right now. And for potentially good reasons. They’re a lowly fourth in the AL West and three games out of a wild card birth with the Angels, Twins, Royals, Orioles, Mariners and Rays all ahead in the pecking order. They traded Yu Darvish to the Dodgers at the deadline.

But did you know that Texas is the only team outside of a wild card berth in the American League to have a positive run differential? 2016 and 2017 couldn’t be more diametrically opposed from Texas’ point of view. In 2016 Texas finished at 96-57 and won the AL West on the back of an absolutely absurd 36-11 record in one run games. Meanwhile, in 2017 their record in one run games is a lowly 10-19, and a primary reason why their +14 run differential hasn’t translated into a better record, which stands at 57-60.

Texas has a very well-rounded offense, with Adrian Beltre, Joey Gallo, Elvis Andrus, Carlos Gomez, Robinson Chirinos and Shin-Soo Choo all swinging the bat in an above average to very good manner. The issue with Texas is pitching. With Darvish gone, the rotation is anchored by Andrew Cashner and Cole Hamels, both of whom have K/9 rates below 6.00. The rest of the staff features Martin Perez, Nick Martinez and AJ Griffin, all of whom have ERAs north of 5.00. On the bright side, the Rangers have a strong bullpen, with Alex Claudio, Keone Kela and Matt Bush all posting sub-3.00 ERAs.

If Cashner and Hamels can continue pulling a Houdini act by pitching to 3.30 ERAs with horrible peripherals, Texas has a shot at leapfrogging some teams. The key will be some fortuitous sequencing luck from the baseball gods and continued poor play from the teams surrounding them in the standings. If that happens, Texas might just stumble their way into the playoffs.


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