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The 30: East of Eden

What’s going on in the seemingly inverted AL East? And will it last?

These are not the American League standings most of us expected to see.

When the season began, the defending champion Red Sox appeared to be loaded with young talent and poised to make another title run despite losing their starting center fielder and shortstop1 from 2013. The Rays looked like the Sox’s chief challengers, returning their wild card–winning core and prepping to field their biggest payroll and most talented roster in franchise history. The Rangers seemed determined to remain a threat, having opened the vault to land two of the game’s best left-handed hitters and fortify an offense that would need to compensate for an injury-depleted rotation. If you bet on one of those three teams making the playoffs, you had plenty of company.

You also had it dead wrong, it seems. The Red Sox, Rays, and Rangers own three of the AL’s four worst records as we hit the All-Star break, while some fresh upstarts have emerged in their place, including the AL East–leading Orioles. I wrote about the Rays last week; this week, I’ll look at the resurgent O’s and three of their struggling division-mates.

To gear up, I recommend you harness your passion, sidestep those who would try to thwart you …

And never, ever turn down …

It’s Week 15 of The 30.

Bat Flip of the Week

Aside from our main man Hyun-jin Ryu, few pitchers dabble in the dark art of bat flipping. This week, however, a new hurler entered the fray: Twins All-Star closer Glen Perkins.

Granted, it was a bit contrived: In an ad designed to go viral, and with the help of camera trickery and humor, Perkins auditioned for the Home Run Derby by launching a monster shot in batting practice. Well, no matter: I’ll happily look past the fakery and the unmistakable buzz marketing tyranny to enjoy Perkins selling his tape-measure “homer” with a bat flip for the ages:

Not Safe for Work

Warning: These teams may inflict graphic violence on fans’ eyeballs.

30. Texas Rangers (38-57, -108 run differential, no. 27 last week)
29. Arizona Diamondbacks (40-56, -71, LW: 30)
28. Houston Astros (40-56, -88, LW: 29)
27. Colorado Rockies (40-55, -51, LW: 28)
26. San Diego Padres (41-54, -50, LW: 25)
25. Chicago Cubs (40-54, -30, LW: 24)
24. Philadelphia Phillies (42-53, -47, LW: 26)
23. Boston Red Sox (43-52, -38, LW: 21)
22. Minnesota Twins (44-50, -16, LW: 22)
21. New York Mets (45-50, +19, LW: 23)

The Red Sox have hit .246/.323/.371 this season, giving them a 91 wRC+ that’s 9 percent worse than league average. By that park- and league-adjusted metric, the Sox are tied for 20th in the majors in team offense. If that sounds atypical for a franchise that’s become synonymous with grinding opposing pitchers to a nub, that’s because it is: The last time the Sox ranked 20th or worse in wRC+ over a full season was in 1994, when they fielded the no. 22 offense in the majors.

This season’s offensive futility has made the Sox easy pickings for opposing pitchers:

While that figure has since increased to 3.59, it’s still lower than the ERAs currently owned by James Shields and other pitching luminaries, and it’s still a pretty lousy sign for the defending champs. Unsurprisingly, that ineptitude has led to plenty of losses:

After seeing nuggets like that, it’s tough to imagine Boston climbing back into the AL East race even amid relatively weak competition, as the Sox sit nine games under .500 with 67 games remaining. If this does wind up being a losing season, though, Boston will enter 2015 as one of the biggest bounce-back threats. Youngsters Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, Rubby De La Rosa, and BROCK HOLT! have earned significant playing time and should continue getting better with experience. Throw in Boston’s recent worst-to-first2 campaign and the impending arrival of mega-prospects like the giant-handed3 Henry Owens …

henry-owens-hand

… and it’s easy to imagine the Sox getting really good again, really fast.

In the meantime, the biggest question is what the Sox will do about Jon Lester. John Lackey told the Boston Herald that the team messed up by failing to lock down Lester in spring training, and while hearing comments like that is probably frustrating for Sox fans, they should keep a couple of things in mind: First, Lackey and Lester are rotation mates who are more likely than not to look out for each other; second, teams like the Giants and Tigers gave big contracts to pitchers like Matt Cain and Justin Verlander earlier than they needed to, and now they’re stuck lamenting the results. Lester is an excellent pitcher, but the Red Sox weren’t necessarily wrong to wait.

I spoke with two people who have covered the Red Sox for years and who have a good feel for the front office’s tendencies, and here’s what they said about l’affaire Lester:

Source no. 1: “They’ve got enough money coming off the books for next season and so few long-term commitments that they should be able to afford whatever he wants. I don’t think they’ve got a great backup plan for him (unless they’re really certain this is an outlier of a season from Justin Masterson). And they should have learned enough from this season about breaking in too many young guys at the same time.”

Source no. 2: “I don’t think they know if they can re-sign him midyear, but they’ll at least try. And they’re mindful that typically guys don’t like to be traded, and that it would likely be harder to negotiate after the year if they did.”

Those insights coupled with reports that Lester isn’t too keen to negotiate right now seem to indicate the Sox will let the season play out with Lester in the fold, hope for a miraculous second half, and then try to bring their ace back at season’s end. If fans can’t track a playoff push, at least they can track this.

Still in the Mix

There’s still hope for these would-be contenders, but it’s a long shot.

20. Tampa Bay Rays (44-53, -26, LW: 20)
19. Chicago White Sox (45-51, -23, LW: 19)
18. Miami Marlins (44-50, -19, LW: 18)
17. Cleveland Indians (47-47, -8, LW: 17)
16. New York Yankees (47-47, -37, LW: 16)

Chase Whitley’s Sunday-night start against the Orioles was the 45th by a Yankees rookie this season, the most in franchise history before the All-Star break, according to Elias Sports Bureau. Given that astounding total, it’s actually hard to believe the Yankees are a .500 team right now.

Consider all the bad breaks they’ve suffered: Ivan Nova made four terrible starts before requiring Tommy John surgery. Michael Pineda made three really good starts before Pine-Tar Gate and a back injury derailed his season, and a mid-August return looks like his best-case scenario now. And CC Sabathia, one of the best starters in the game in his prime and the biggest workhorse in the majors from 2007 through 2013, suffered a knee injury so severe it could jeopardize his career.

But the biggest blow came last week, when Masahiro Tanaka injured his elbow. The 25-year-old Japanese right-hander’s first 16 MLB starts rank among the best half-season debuts for any pitcher in decades. During that 115.2-inning span, Tanaka struck out 127 batters and walked just 18, allowed a .217/.252/.358 opposing slash line, posted a 2.10 ERA, and surrendered more than three earned runs exactly zero times — and he did so while pitching his home games in front of the scariest right-field short porch in the league. His next two starts were uncharacteristically lousy, as he allowed 19 hits and nine runs in 13.2 total innings, leading some to wonder if something might be wrong. While “pitch well or have people think you’re hurt” is a ludicrously high standard for a rookie, it turns out those concerns were well founded: Tanaka was diagnosed with a partially torn UCL, and while he’ll try to rehab his arm over the next six weeks, Tommy John surgery is almost always the end result for this kind of injury. Plus, even if Tanaka’s rehab proves successful, the decimated Yankees will be without their young ace until late August.

If the starting rotation were the full extent of the Yankees’ problems, they might be able to cross their fingers and hope that Joe Girardi, or luck, or Earth’s gravitational pull could somehow keep them in contention throughout the season, much like when they won 85 games last year despite allowing 21 more runs than they scored. It isn’t the only problem, however. Brian McCann has lived up to his excellent defensive reputation, but his flaccid bat is making him look like an $85 million bust. Carlos Beltran appears to be a $45 million disaster. Alfonso Soriano followed last year’s huge second half by hitting so poorly that the Yankees designated him for assignment. And the infield has validated all spring training concerns, proving to be a major weakness. Though Mark Teixeira has rebounded impressively from injuries, Brian Roberts and Kelly Johnson have combined to hit .230 with a .303 on-base percentage, Yangervis Solarte fell apart after a magical first few weeks of the season, and Derek Jeter has played like someone who couldn’t possibly hold down an everyday shortstop job unless he played for a bad team and/or was named Derek Jeter.

Despite all of that, the Yankees sit just five games out of first in this year’s largely lousy AL East. Moreover, the Bombers aren’t in the business of being sellers — not over the winter, not at the deadline, and really not ever. So while some might argue that the Yankees should, say, trade David Robertson two months before his free agency, get some young talent, and give lights-out righty Dellin Betances the closer’s job, there’s little chance that will happen. The Yankees have already made a deal for Brandon McCarthy, and as long as mediocrity largely reigns in what’s traditionally been baseball’s strongest division, more moves could follow: for pitching help (John Danks? Cliff Lee?), for infield help (Martin Prado?), and maybe even for another bat (Josh Willingham?). This is a team with infinite resources, a mandate to win every year, and many struggling division-mates … so why the hell not?

The Walking Wounded

Could injuries keep some of these talented clubs from the postseason?

15. Toronto Blue Jays (49-47, +19, LW: 12)
14. Kansas City Royals (48-46, +4, LW: 15)
13. Pittsburgh Pirates (49-46, -2, LW: 13)
12. Cincinnati Reds (51-44, +28, LW: 14)
11. St. Louis Cardinals (52-44, +14, LW: 11)
10. Seattle Mariners (51-44, +57, LW: 9)

It’s tough to right a sinking ship when the damn thing keeps hitting icebergs, as the Blue Jays are discovering.

Consider the rotation: For the first couple of months of the season, Mark Buehrle looked like the best pitcher on Earth, but the back of the rotation was a mess. Brandon Morrow pitched poorly, then got hurt. Dustin McGowan held his own early, a remarkable achievement for someone making his first big league starts in three years, then stumbled and got sent to the bullpen. Marcus Stroman finally gave Toronto hope for its no. 5 spot with a string of sterling starts after joining the rotation in late May, but his emergence roughly coincided with J.A. Happ going from functional rotation member to batting practice pitcher and Buehrle reverting back to the merely decent version of his late-career self.

Now, consider the offense, which was beastly for a while. In May, the Jays batted .276/.343/.486 as a team, by far the best performance in baseball. Edwin Encarnacion hit .281/.369/.763 that month while launching 16 homers, nearly causing his poor parrot friend’s head to snap right off from overuse:4

Then the Jays stopped hitting. Colby Rasmus returned from the disabled list on June 18, leading many to hope he could boost the offense by replacing the light-hitting Anthony Gose; that hasn’t happened, however, as Rasmus has seen his batting average drop from .223 to .212 since. What’s more: Juan Francisco’s deal with the devil expired; Brett Lawrie got hurt; Encarnacion got hurt; Adam Lind got hurt; and Nolan Reimold, the man expected to pick up the slack for Encarnacion and Lind, returned from the DL to make his season debut on July 7 … and got hurt after just four games.

Given everything that’s happened to the Jays this season, it’s possible to interpret their current position a couple of different ways.

The charitable view is to concede that not much was expected of Toronto after a last-place finish in 2013, and to acknowledge that spending 51 days in first place was a tremendous coup for a team that hadn’t made the playoffs in 21 years. There’s not much a team can do amid this many injuries, but even now, the Blue Jays could overcome their four-game AL East deficit with some better luck in the second half.

The less charitable view is to note that the Jays had a shot at glory, but pissed it away. They’ve gone 11-23 in their past 34 games. They’ve failed to address their holes in the rotation and at second or third base (depending on where Lawrie is playing). And most damningly, they’ve continued to sit on their hands, first by failing to make any meaningful moves this offseason despite finishing in last place last year, then by failing to add reinforcements after getting off to such a surprisingly excellent start this year. It’s easy to point to the injuries, but we can’t even let the Jays off the hook for all of those, because Lawrie, Rasmus, and Morrow (to name just three) have all missed big swaths of time before. The Jays should have been prepared for setbacks like these.

In truth, the answer lies somewhere in between. Any team that suffers this many injuries, especially to a duo as formidable as Encarnacion and Lind, would struggle. Plus, a four-game deficit is by no means insurmountable, and GM Alex Anthopoulos could certainly pull the trigger on one or more deals before the July 31 non-waiver deadline, or find a way to make something work in August. At some point, however, we have to acknowledge that the team built largely on huge, go-for-it-now-and-don’t-sweat-the-future moves isn’t as good as those in charge might’ve hoped. And time is running out to fix it.

Birds of a Feather

The Orioles enter the break 10 games above .500 … and in our top tier.

9. Baltimore Orioles (52-42, +26, LW: 10)
8. San Francisco Giants (52-43, +23, LW: 8)
7. Milwaukee Brewers (53-43, +17, LW: 3)
6. Atlanta Braves (52-43, +12, LW: 7)
5. Washington Nationals (51-42, +61, LW: 6)
4. Los Angeles Dodgers (54-43, +50, LW: 4)
3. Detroit Tigers (53-38, +50, LW: 5)
2. Los Angeles Angels (57-37, +89, LW: 2)
1. Oakland A’s (59-36, +145, LW: 1)

The O’s have won 25 of their last 40 games, lapping the rest of the weak AL East in the process. To help us understand that surge, ESPN Stats & Info broke down three of Baltimore’s most important players: Kevin Gausman, Nelson Cruz, and Manny Machado.

Let’s start with Gausman, who fired five strong, pre–rain delay innings to lead the Orioles to a series-clinching win over the Yankees on Sunday night. The young righty has been a different pitcher this season, as his six most recent starts look nothing like the first six of his major league career:

Stat First Six Starts Last Six Starts
W-L 0-4 4-1
ERA 8.16 2.36
Opponents’ BA .336 .234
HR Allowed 7 2

Per ESPN’s TruMedia system, Gausman used his splitter twice as often in his last six starts as he had before then, and also threw pitches on the inside part of the plate nearly twice as often to right-handed hitters. The 23-year-old flamethrower looks like a big upgrade over Ubaldo Jimenez, who’s rewarded the Orioles for their four-year, $50 million investment by leading the AL in walks and posting a 4.52 ERA and 4.70 FIP. In an amazing coincidence, Jimenez suffered a no-doubt devastating ankle injury late last week, landing him on the DL and clearing the way for the O’s to recall Gausman from the minors, where he never should have been in the first place, but where he found himself because of unfortunate economic realities and still having minor league options.

Gausman and his fellow pitchers have gotten plenty of support from Baltimore’s offense. Though Chris Davis’s numbers have plummeted compared with his monstrous 2013 marks, Cruz has picked up the slack, ranking second in the AL in homers and RBIs and delivering a first half on par with the best in team history.

Here’s where Cruz’s 28 pre–All-Star Game homers rank in franchise history:

Year Player Homers
2013 Chris Davis 37
1996 Brady Anderson 30
2014 Nelson Cruz 28
1998 Rafael Palmeiro 26

And here’s where they rank among right-handed batters in the last 10 seasons:

Year Player Homers
2011 Jose Bautista 31
2013 Miguel Cabrera 30
2007 Alex Rodriguez 30
2014 Jose Abreu 29
2014 Nelson Cruz 28

Cruz needs just five more homers to tie his season high, and it’s mid-July. Interestingly, he’s been especially productive on the road this season:

Stat Road Total Road Rank
BA .346 2nd
OPS 1.108 1st
HR 18 T-1st
RBI 51 1st

One of the keys to Cruz’s incredible season has been his improved performance against pitches in the lower half of the zone. Here’s a look at how he’s handled those pitches over the last two seasons:

Stat 2013 2014*
BA .223 .294
HR (HR Rate) 11 (4.0%) 16 (6.8%)
Slugging % .380 .538
Swing Rate 44.8% 51.8%

*Not including Sunday night’s game.

Meanwhile, after a slow start that included a longer-than-expected injury rehab and a suspension, Machado has flourished. His July numbers heading into Sunday night’s game were off the charts:

Machado has belted five home runs since June 27, and four of those have come against pitches on the inner half of the plate; seven of his nine homers this season have been on inside pitches.

manny-machado-hr-chart

Entering Sunday’s game, he’d done plenty of other impressive things since June 27, including:

  • Getting 13 of his 18 hits off pitches on the inner half
  • Hitting .294 in two-strike counts after hitting .196 in those situations earlier this year
  • Recording three homers against off-speed pitches, after hitting zero previously

Of course, the thing about Machado is that he’d still have value even if he couldn’t hit a lick, thanks to his incredible defense. By Defensive Runs Saved, Machado ranks as one of the most valuable defensive players in baseball since the start of last season:

Player Position DRS
Andrelton Simmons, ATL Shortstop +50
Manny Machado, BAL Third Base +42
Carlos Gomez, MIL Outfield +42
Jason Heyward, ATL Outfield +42
Juan Lagares, NYM Outfield +41
Nolan Arenado, COL Third Base +41

Machado’s DRS is plus-7 this season, but don’t expect Orioles GM Dan Duquette to nod in approval and stop there. Duquette is a legendary tinkerer, previously hitting the discount bin hard to find largely unwanted players capable of improving the roster. If Peter Angelos will sign off on a real spending bump, Duquette could get even more aggressive, upgrading a rotation that’s produced as much value as its relatively limited talent could possibly allow thanks to clever roster manipulation, but one that still ranks near the bottom of the league in most advanced-stat categories.

The O’s might not face much competition as they chase their first division title in 17 years, but if they want to improve their chances of hanging with the likes of Detroit and Oakland in October, they could, and should, try to build on what Gausman, Cruz, Machado, and others have delivered.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, AL East, Baseball, MLB Stats, Boston Red Sox, Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees, Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles, injuries, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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