OK, I'll come right out and get this out of the way: My preseason picks to win the division titles in the American League were the Baltimore Orioles, Cleveland Indians and Seattle Mariners. The consensus best team in the AL according to the stat projections systems was the Boston Red Sox.
We're sitting here on June 10, more than a third of the way through the season, and all four teams are under .500.
Of course, maybe we shouldn't be all that surprised that something like this is happening. Heading into the season, the AL looked like one giant cluster of mediocrity. I viewed the Minnesota Twins as the one team that appeared to have no shot at the playoffs, but here they are with a shot at the playoffs. At one point it appeared the Kansas City Royals could turn into the one dominant team in the league, but even they've gone only 17-16 after a 16-7 start.
As Jeff Sullivan wrote the other day at FanGraphs, "The NL, for the most part, has played out about as expected, to this point. There aren't many tremendous surprises. In the AL, though, things have gone insane, with a strongly inverse relationship between team performance and preseason projected team performance. You could say the AL is somewhat upside-down, given what we thought it would be, and that's fun! That's weird! Who doesn't like weird baseball?"
In that piece, Jeff looked back over the past 10 years at team performance through June 7 and how they did the rest of the season in relationship to their preseason projected performance. His conclusion:
The point being: If you're trying to figure out how a team is going to do over the rest of the year, you're better off looking at the projections than you are looking at win/loss record. You're better off looking at the preseason projections than you are looking at win/loss record, even though those projections are missing sometimes important data.
So just because these four teams look bad now doesn't mean they'll be bad the rest of the season. Let's take stock and see what's gone wrong with these four teams and whether the problems can be fixed.
Seattle Mariners: 26-32, -29 run differential
Offense: 3.43 runs per game (last in AL)
Pitching/defense: 3.93 runs per game (fourth in AL)
FanGraphs playoff odds: 29.2 percent (17.2 percent to win the division)
The most disappointing aspect of Seattle's start is that Nelson Cruz arguably has been the best hitter in the AL and Felix Hernandez is 9-2 -- and they're still six games under .500. When Hernandez doesn't start, the Mariners are a horrific 16-30. Just like every season for the past decade-plus, it's the offense. Seattle is currently on a 13-game stretch of scoring three runs or fewer, the longest streak since the 1981 Braves did it. Robinson Cano doubled twice on Tuesday but had just one extra-base hit over his previous 20 games. Despite his lack of power -- two home runs -- the Mariners are still fourth in home runs. But they're 13th in batting average and 14th in on-base percentage.
The other problem has been the bullpen. While it's 17th in the majors in ERA, the pen's 6-15 and 25th in FanGraphs WAR. In other words, it hasn't been clutch in close games. Carson Smith has picked up the last two saves over the struggling Fernando Rodney, so that might help, although that leaves a gap in the setup role.
Best odds for turning things around: Cano goes on a tear the rest of the season; Taijuan Walker (2-6, 5.80 ERA) settles down like his past two starts, both eight-inning outings; Hisashi Iwakuma comes off the DL and pitches well; Smith locks down the ninth inning; and Mark Trumbo hits a lot of home runs.
Boston Red Sox: 27-32, -44 run differential
Offense: 3.75 runs per game (12th in AL)
Pitching/defense: 4.49 runs per game (14th in AL)
FanGraphs playoff odds: 31.2 percent (13.3 percent to win the division)
While rotation's struggles have received much of the attention, the offense has probably been even more disappointing, given that many expected the Red Sox to have the best offense in the league, as it did in 2013. But David Ortiz is hitting .219 with a .297 OBP; Mookie Betts has a .298 OBP; Pablo Sandoval is hitting .239 with a .303 OBP and has given up batting right-handed; and Blake Swihart, promoted after injuries to both Christian Vazquez and Ryan Hanigan, has been overmatched in the majors with a .537 OPS. Back in spring training, everyone was worried the Red Sox had too many outfielders; instead, they've had to resort to the waiver wire and giving at-bats to Carlos Peguero and Alejandro De Aza.
It hasn't been just less-than-expected performance, however; the Red Sox front office made some misevaluations. Hanley Ramirez has been a disaster defensively in left field, and his Baseball-Reference WAR stands at -0.3. (Sandoval is at -0.4, so $183 million worth of free agents have so far played below replacement level.) Giving Justin Masterson a starting job looked like a bad idea and he was a disaster, and Joe Kelly, despite a great arm, just isn't that good.
Joe Sheehan just wrote a long newsletter on the Red Sox and he suggests trading Jackie Bradley Jr. for a catcher and giving Ramirez a little DH time, at least against left-handers (Ortiz is hitting .114/.111/.157 against lefties). Mostly though, it's just hoping the guys they have play better. Sheehan predicts the Red Sox still will win the East, although FanGraphs has soured on them and gives them just a 13 percent chance of winning the division title.
Best odds for turning things around: Ortiz starts mashing; Eduardo Rodriguez -- terrific in his first three major league starts (one run allowed) -- continues to pitch well; Betts starts getting on base more; Rick Porcello (4-5, 5.01 ERA) pitches better; Rusney Castillo provides some offense from right field; they find some offense at catcher or Swihart fixes that 26/3 strikeout-to-walk ratio; maybe find another starter to replace Kelly, either Brian Johnson or Henry Owens from Triple-A or a trade acquisition; and hit better with runners in scoring position (currently .224).
Baltimore Orioles: 27-30, 0 run differential
Offense: 4.05 runs per game (10th in AL)
Pitching/defense: 4.05 runs per game (seventh in AL)
FanGraphs playoff odds: 13.3 percent (4.2 percent to win the division)
The one thing I miscalculated most with the Orioles was the loss of Cruz and Nick Markakis. Cruz, of course, was great in 2014, and Markakis was at least serviceable. But they also played every day; 159 and 155 games, respectively. Cruz split his time between DH and the outfield last year, but the Orioles' outfield still ranked fourth in the majors in wOBA; this year, it's 23rd. Steve Pearce (.202/.278/.357) hasn't repeated his 2014 magic and Travis Snider has just one home run. The Orioles are fifth in the AL in home runs with 62 in 57 games, but they topped 210 in each of the past three seasons. It's not a high OBP offense, so they simply haven't hit enough home runs.
The rotation has come under attack -- the whole "lack of an ace" thing -- but the Baltimore pitching staff is allowing 0.30 runs per game less than last year, when they won 96 games. They're 26-0 when leading after eight innings and 23-0 when leading after seven, so late-game relief hasn't been an issue.
Best odds for turning things around: Chris Davis has 12 home runs, but needs to do better than a .214/.304/.459 line; give Wei-Yin Chen some run support (he has one win in 11 starts despite a 3.18 ERA); Chris Tillman (3-7, 5.61) needs to find himself like he did around this time last season; Pearce and Snider have to start contributing at the plate; and Matt Wieters, just off the DL, will have to provide some pop as he splits time at catcher and DH.
Cleveland Indians: 27-30, 0 run differential
Offense: 4.28 runs per game (fifth in AL)
Pitching/defense: 4.28 runs per game (11th in AL)
FanGraphs playoff odds: 46.6 percent (27.8 percent to win the division)
As you can see, FanGraphs likes the Indians the best of these four teams. And with good reason: The rotation has the ability to be dominant. The Indians' rotation leads the majors with a mind-boggling 10.01 strikeouts per nine innings. It's 13th in walk rate, right at the MLB average. It's home run rate is actually MLB average. Yet it ranks just 22nd in ERA and 17th in OPS allowed.
The defense hasn't been great at -14 defensive runs saved, but it has been better of late and better than last year. All these numbers add up to a rotation that should improve its run prevention as the season moves forward. The rotation has allowed a .260 average overall, but .284 with runners on base. Maybe that's a real problem. Or it could be just dirty results from a partial season.
Best odds for turning things around: Cy Young winner Corey Kluber is 3-7 with a 3.53, but his peripheral numbers are still excellent (109 K's, 17 BB, 6 HR in 91 2/3 IP) so that ERA will go down and the wins will go up; they have to get something out of shortstop and third base, where Jose Ramirez and Lonnie Chisenhall have both been bad with sub-.250 OBPs and poor defense (Giovanny Urshela probably isn't the answer at third; Francisco Lindor could soon be called up from Triple-A, although he hasn't torn it up there); a big second half from Yan Gomes (just returned from the DL) to help stabilize the catching position; and better hitting with RISP (22nd in the majors in OPS with RISP compared to seventh overall).
Even though the Indians probably have the toughest division foes to overcome, I still like their playoff chances. I think the rotation does start producing better results (and not just strikeouts) and the more timely hitting will come. Don't be surprised if Cleveland rallies to win the Central.