Over six weeks into the season, and the Blue Jays are still spinning their wheels as they try to recapture the American League East title that they won in such spectacular fashion down the stretch last year. But what of the clubs they’re competing with? To find out, we’re thrilled to have Greg Brady on board to take us on a spin through the rest of the division (with a little help from some classic logos)…
1st place: Baltimore Orioles (24-15, .615, T-1st, Home: 17-8, Road: 7-7, Run Diff: +25)
Record vs: AL East 9-5, AL Central 11-5, AL West 4-5, Interleague 0-0
The Week That Was: 2-2 in 4 game series in Detroit, 1-2 in 3 game series vs. Seattle
Next 3 Series: 3 games at LA Angels, 3 games at Houston, 3 games at Cleveland
Team Batting Stats in AL: OPS – 2nd (.780), BA – 2nd (.264), OBP – 2nd (.328), SLG – 2nd (.455)
Team Pitching Stats in AL: ERA – 5th (3.75), BA vs. – 8th (.250), WHIP – 7th (1.31), SP ERA: 7th (4.43)
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW:
1. Manny Machado continues to have the kind of year that can put an American League 3B in the early conversation for league MVP. Machado’s tearing it up with a slash of .319/.377/.625 and has only the remarkable David Ortiz, Houston’s Jose Altuve, and some joker named Trout, ahead of him in American League OPS rankings. Simply put, Machado at only 23 (he’s 11 months younger than Mike Trout, and 3 months older than Bryce Harper) is starting to shove his way into the conversation as to who the game’s brightest young position player is.
2. Mark Trumbo is slugging like he truly never has before. The 30-year old Trumbo clobbered two more home runs in the four-game series against the Tigers, one in a mid-week win against Seattle, and now has 12 and is more than halfway to his total of 22 last season, split between the Diamondbacks and Mariners. It’s asking a lot to keep this pace up, and of course he won’t, but how close will he come? Trumbo had three fantastic, power-filled seasons in his mid-20s playing in Anaheim, hitting 29 (2nd in ROY voting to Jeremy Hellickson in 2011), 32, and 34 home runs before the bizarre three-way trade involving the White Sox that sent him to Arizona. If he’s truly rediscovered his power stick, the Orioles could contend to hit the most homers in the American League — maybe not in the neighbourhood of last year’s Blue Jays with 232, but matching last year’s Orioles total of 217 is quite possible, especially with the breakout power 2B Jonathan Schoop is displaying (7 HR in 133 AB so far). But again, it may not last. Trumbo’s career average of HR/100 AB is 5.26, this year he’s clobbering them at a 7.5 rate. A 30 HR season is well within his reach, but 40 may be asking a lot.
3. Ubaldo Jimenez finally had that trademark follow-up to a bad outing….with an even-worse outing. Though Brian Matusz was terrible also in taking over for him, making an ugly score look even uglier, Jimenez walked four, and gave up five hits and was lifted after just 4 1/3 IP in Tuesday’s loss to Seattle. Jimenez being reasonably consistent prior to the last two outings, and having thrown a couple gems in home wins already (albeit against Minnesota and Oakland), was a big reason this very unheralded rotation was starting to get whispers it might be decent enough for Baltimore and their powerful offence to continue their winning pace. And though Chris Tillman looks like the legit AL ace he was in 2013 and their division-winning 2014 season, there isn’t much to count on with this group. Down in Atlanta, former O’s starter Bud Norris has taken a turn for the worse, but I’m not sure Orioles fans have any greater faith in this year’s rotation (Tillman excepted) than they did in 2014 with Norris and Wei-Yin Chen. Jimenez will be worth watching in his next start, likely Sunday in Anaheim, to see if he can put a better outing together.
4. Two notable injuries aren’t good news for the Orioles before heading on a 10-game road trip. Baltimore placed SS JJ Hardy on the 15-day DL with a hairline fracture in his left foot after an injury suffered back on May 1st. At age 33, Hardy is signed for two more seasons (at $14 million per). Baltimore has become a decent spender again in MLB terms (11th in 2016 payroll, at just over $147 million) but they can’t afford for Hardy not to be part the regular mix, and he’s certainly getting to be one of the older regular shortstops in all of baseball, and hasn’t shown the power the last couple seasons to merit a move to DH or 1B. And with the Chris Davis signing, at least one of those positions will always be spoken for. The other DL addition is SP Yovani Gallardo, whose Orioles career (he signed a 3-year deal over the winter) is starting suspiciously like that of Jiminez in 2014. Gallardo made four April starts, and had to come out early because of shoulder pain against the Royals on April 22nd — he hasn’t pitched since. Though it seemed rest and rehab had him on the road to recovery, the team bit the bullet earlier in the week and placed him on the 15-day DL. The good news (if you’re Baltimore) is that Tyler Wilson has been quite consistent stepping into the rotation for Gallardo, and next to Tillman, has probably been Buck Showalter’s most reliable arm over the last couple weeks.
5. Even if you’re a massive Blue Jays fan and live to doubt the Orioles, it’s difficult to deny what they’ve done so far is rather remarkable. They’re not going to be uncatchable (for the Jays) at any point in the near future, but a lot of Jays fans probably missed that there was a point two seasons ago, in 2014, when they might have been. Though it wasn’t exactly Toronto’s 41-14 run after the Trade Deadline last season, Baltimore’s 36-17 run in July/August 2014, with a Run Differential of +68 was worth shouting about. That season, Baltimore caught Toronto and tied them for first in the AL East on July 3rd, and by the time September 1st came along, they were 8 1/2 up on the Yankees, and 10 games on the swooning Jays. You can’t count on those runs (Toronto’s last year, Baltimore’s the year before) but they do occur. This next stretch will tell some things about Baltimore — their 7-0 start to this season provided a a cushion, but they have looked more like a .500 team since then. Now they have to make up a ton of road games, after playing 23 of their first 37 at home. Let’s see how they handle it. Getting outscored 19-7 by a good Seattle team in a three-game series wasn’t a good way to start the homestand.
2nd place: Boston Red Sox (25-16, .610, T-1st, Home: 14-8, Road: 10-7, Run Diff: +55)
Record vs: AL East 10-9, AL Central 8-3, AL West 2-2, Interleague 1-1
The Week That Was: 3-1 in 4 game series vs. Houston, 1-2 in 3 game series at Kansas City
Next 3 Series: 3 games vs. Cleveland, 3 games vs. Colorado, 3 games at Toronto
Team Batting Stats in AL: OPS – 1st (.841), BA – 1st (.296), OBP – (.357), SLG – (.484)
Team Pitching Stats in AL: ERA – 9th (4.22), BA vs. – 5th (.243), WHIP – 8th (1.32), SP ERA: 9th (4.74)
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW:
1. Rick Porcello was finally “gotten to”. Every single starter has a “worst start of the year”, and so far, Tuesday’s 8-4 loss, in which he gave up 4 earned runs in 5 innings in Kansas City, is his. Dating back to last season, Porcello had gone 15 straight outings pitching at least 6 innings, and this was the first time since his first start of the season (the 8-4 loss April 9th at Rogers Centre) in which he’d given up more than three earned runs. The positive for Porcello is his control didn’t abandon him — definitely a strength he’s always had. Despite the lousy outing, Porcello still has a 1.99 BB/9, and has increased his K/9 to 8.59. If he can hold it, that will easily be a career high. Given the unexpected struggles of David Price so far, and the somewhat-expected struggles of Clay Buchholz in his contract year, Porcello and Steven Wright are the least of the Red Sox’ concerns in the rotation a quarter of the way through the season.
2. The Red Sox seem to have found something in Travis Shaw. In a team that has some very good players under age 25 hitting their stride, many at the exact same time (Bogaerts and Betts especially), the fun story of the spring has been Shaw. Somewhat of a late-bloomer, Shaw clobbered a 3-run homer off Kansas City’s Yordano Ventura Tuesday night to bring the BoSox back to within a run after 6 innings. Boston’s bullpen ultimately faltered — including Koji Uehera uncharacteristically melting down badly in the 8th — but Shaw finished the night 3-for-4 with the three RBI and two runs scored. In a spring which saw the Pablo Sandoval health/weight stories rage out of control, leading to his eventual season shutdown, Shaw has given the Red Sox and manager John Farrell more than they could have hoped for when he stepped into the third-base role — he’s been consistent at the plate, shown definitive flashes of power, and of course, his range and arm far eclipse that of Sandoval’s. Three seasons ago at age 23, Shaw was really struggling to hit AA pitching, and now it all seems figured out — he’s been a strong fit to the middle of the Red Sox batting order.
3. The “No, really, how long is this going to last?” debate about David Ortiz still has few definitive answers. He had a day off last Sunday in Boston’s 10-9 win over Houston, but it was a day game after a fantastic offensive performance in a night game and a 6-5 11-inning win. After more early-inning shakiness from Clay Buchholz had put five runs on the board for the Astros, Ortiz smacked a solo shot in the 3rd to bring the score to 5-3. He also had a 2-out triple in the 9th, scoring Xander Bogaerts, tying the game at 5, and won it in the 11th with another big 2-out hit with Bogaerts on base — a double to deep centre. It’s raised a lot of blog/sports radio debates as to whether Ortiz, who has announced that this will be his final season, should keep playing into the spring of 2017. But it’s not as if the Red Sox are forcing Big Papi’s hand to be played here — if Ortiz does a 180 and wants to keep playing, it’s hard to see the Red Sox saying no. The numbers aren’t trailing off (and his .324/.404/.676 would be career highs) — unlike the Yankees’ scenario with Derek Jeter, where he was providing little offensive reason to persuade him to play longer, and was certainly a notable liability in the field at shortstop — and at DH, Ortiz is hardly taking the spot of a younger player. He’s, right now, anyway, an unmissable at-bat when the Red Sox are on the road and he’ll likely draw the lion’s share of attention at this summer’s All-Star game in San Diego, and likely the Home Run Derby the night before. I’m not thinking all of this will continue (as in battling for the AL Home Run or OPS crowns), but there’s great reason to believe he’ll be consistent and, yeah, kinda “clutch” in the eyes of Red Sox Nation.
4. Does David Price have a third straight excellent start ready to go next Tuesday against the Rockies? Look, you can root for him or against him — it has little impact — but Price is an elite starter and a few lousy outings in April in the first year of his mega-million-dollar Red Sox deal wasn’t going to change that. This week he faced 28 batters and registered 22 outs in the nightcap of a doubleheader against the World Champion Royals. Price has had his usual impeccable control in his last few starts, but his 5-1 K/BB ratio is too good to hold up, right? I’m actually not sure. In fact, if anything, Price’s incredible run-support has made him more 2015 Drew Hutchison than any prior incarnation of David Price. The BoSox have scored at a 6.88/runs per game pace in Price’s nine starts — and won of six of them, with Price getting the decision in each. Blue Jays fans will likely get to finally have their say on how they feel about him next Sunday at Rogers Centre.
5. The Red Sox have virtually no bench right now, but, yeah, do they need one? Outside of Christian Vasquez and the much-older Ryan Hanigan splitting games behind the plate, the Red Sox basically send the same lineup out, game after game after game. There are hardly ever lineup surprises, and no regulars (if we’re not counting Sandoval) have hit the disabled list and required fill-ins. Former Yankee/Diamondback Chris Young has been able to squeak into the lineup playing left field a couple times a week, but Farrell, regardless of pitching matchup, seems to prefer Holt/Bradley/Betts — and why wouldn’t he? Lots of speed defensively, and they’ve all been decent at the dish (with Bradley having been spectacular so far). At some point, you’d figure injuries hit the Red Sox lineup a little harder. Even if it isn’t DL stints, days off for the regulars will become more of a “thing”, but there hasn’t been a need for it yet, and having won 13 of their last 19, why worry yet?
3rd place: Tampa Bay Rays (19-19, .500, 4.5 GB) Home: 10-11, Road: 9-8, Run Diff: +17)
Record vs: AL East 11-10, AL Central 3-3, AL West 4-5, Interleague 1-1
The Week That Was: (1-2 in 4 game series vs. Oakland, 3-0 in 3 game series at Toronto)
Next 3 Series: 3 games at Detroit, 2 games at Miami, 2 games vs. Miami
Team Batting Stats in AL: OPS – 5th (.736), BA – 12th (.235), OBP – (.305), SLG – (.431)
Team Pitching Stats in AL: ERA – 3rd (3.62), BA vs. – 1st (.228), WHIP – 1st (1.16), SP ERA: 5th (3.74)
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW:
1. So, the Rays can score in bunches, right, Blue Jays fans? Although it is baseball, and things happen twice or three times that you didn’t necessarily even think you’d see once, it would feel like a safe wager suggesting the Rays won’t score 25 runs in any two game stretch again this season. But, before this week, wagering that they wouldn’t even do it once, and on the road, and against a team (yes, the Blue Jays) that had very consistent starting pitching through the first six weeks of the season, would have been very reasonable also. The Rays do have a thing this season for J.A. Happ — the Blue Jays have won every single Happ start this season, except for the two he’s made against Tampa. Some of this, no doubt, is a slight regression to the mean, as Happ and Stroman had been mostly spectacular this season, prior to that ugly 27-hour span Monday and Tuesday (15 earned runs combined over 7 1/3 IP). But give the bats of Tampa credit. No one loves their lineup, and no one should, but get past the fact you may find the Rays “boring” and realize there’s some power on the squad that few of us anticipated.
2. After finishing the past four seasons 8th/9th/13th/8th in home runs in the American League, the Rays have 58 and lead the American League. How? Why? Look, eventually players do go from having a “good start” to a “good season” and we can debate forever when that point is, but the Rays are clobbering the ball all over the yard, as noted, more than expected. Last season, only Evan Longoria (21) hit more than 20 HRs, and this season, it seems Longoria, as well as Steven Souza and Corey Dickerson (24 HRs with the Rockies in 2014) will do so. The Rays may even get 15+ HR seasons from Logan Forsythe (on the shelf for a couple more weeks, but he has hit homers in bunches in prior seasons) and Steve Pearce (6 HR in 83 ABs so far after he hit 15 in 294 AB in 2015 for Baltimore).
3. Their ace is their ace. After being lousy his first four starts of the season (19 2/3 IP, 16 ER, 4 HR – all team losses), Rays ace Chris Archer looks himself again, and that should be worrisome for everybody having to face him. He’s getting much-needed offensive support as well, with the Rays scoring 26 for him (yes, the 12 against the Jays skews the number high) in his past four starts, after scoring only 7 as a team in his first four starts. He wasn’t great in Seattle last week, but good enough (as he was, to be honest, in his season debut against the Jays/Marcus Stroman) to get a victory with a bit more offensive help. His fastball is averaging 93.9 MPH for strikes, and the unusually-high .344 BABIP opposing hitters have posted against him will certainly settle back down closer to his .296 mark over the last three seasons. Many teams are worried about their best arms actually being their best arms 40 games into the season, but there’s little need for Tampa to be one of these clubs. Archer is legit.
4. Drew Smyly has quietly had one of the best seasons so far for any AL starter. Yes, Chris Sale’s season is currently in a class by itself, but we’re months away from gifting him the AL Cy Young Award (and prior to it, killing sports radio time debating whether he should be “considered to be considered” for AL MVP as we did with Justin Verlander in 2011). But Smyly is off so many folks’ radar given he pitches half his games at Tropicana Field and Archer is the ace (and face) of the starting staff, yet he has put a nightmarish 2015 full-season debut with the Rays — health-wise, at least, as he only made 12 starts, but posted a 3.11 ERA/1.07 WHIP — behind him and has been borderline brilliant this season. Control eluded him a touch Monday against the Jays, given he walked four batters, went deep into the count on several others, and was lifted after five innings, but outside of his poor season debut against Toronto, he’s been great. He’s 7th in the AL in strikeouts with 58 in 8 starts (and most ahead of him have made their 9th – he makes his 9th against his former team, Detroit, at Comerica Park on Saturday), 2nd in the AL in WHIP at 0.99, and hitters are hitting .207 against him. He’s pitching like an All-Star.
5. It’s been quite a rough Rays’ start for Logan Morrison. It’d might be easy to suggest injuries have been a factor in a bad start for a player who looks nothing like the reasonably patient and consistent hitter he had been in two Mariners’ seasons, and prior to that with the Marlins, but everything’s been a struggle so far for LoMo. Given that everything went well in Toronto for the Rays this week, it was only proper that Morrison would get his first multi-hit game of the season, going 2-for-5 in Wednesday’s victory, but he’s still scuffling along at .170/.257/.223. He’s never dazzled with the batting average but has a career OPS of .731 — for now, the Rays are being patient. That may not last.
5th place: New York Yankees (18-22, .450, 6.5 GB, Home: 12-10, Road: 6-12, Run Diff: -29)
Record vs: AL East 6-9, AL Central 6-8, AL West 4-3, Interleague 2-2
The Week That Was: 2-1 in 3 game series vs. White Sox, 0-2 in 2 game series in Arizona, 1-0 at Oakland
Next 3 Series: 3 games at Oakland, 3 games vs. Toronto, 3 games at Tampa Bay
Team Batting Stats in AL: OPS – 15th (.672), BA – 11th (.237), OBP – 11th (.306), SLG – 14th (.378)
Team Pitching Stats in AL: ERA – 11th (4.43), BA vs. – 9th (.258), WHIP – 6th (1.28), SP ERA: 12th (4.91)
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW:
1. The good moments never last too long for the 2016 New York Yankees. After taking 2 of 3 from the quite-excellent Chicago White Sox (yes, they lost to Chris Sale in Friday’s opener but everyone does!), it was major steps backward for the Yankees against the Diamondbacks. They’ve had undeniable issues putting any type of run together — and without one there’s little hope of even being a factor in July or August in this division, let alone being the team to beat as they inexplicably were (but, y’know, they were!) before Toronto did the things they did in August and September of last year. This year’s Yankees have had six two-game winning spells (two wins should be a “spell,” not a streak, right?) and in each of those six attempts to win a third straight, they’ve lost. Usually horribly so, being outscored 43-9 (!!!) in those six games. That’s the kind of thing that demoralizes a clubhouse. Self-belief and motivation can be so ridiculously over-emphasized in sports, and especially this sport, but don’t underestimate what not being able to get over the hump and win a few ballgames in a row does to a team.
2. Say, what about that bullpen, friend? The Yankees big bullpen debuted in full on Saturday evening and was, of course, insanely dominant. Ivan Nova actually gave the Bombers a good 5 2/3 IP, and then Betances/Miller/Chapman did what all other American League GMs and managers fear they’ll do quite consistently all season long — slam doors and slam them hard. Betances/Miller/Chapman got a combined ten outs, with eight strikeouts, the only misstep being a one-out single in the eighth off of Miller — after which Miller needed just eight more pitches to two batters to get out of the inning. The Yankees did the same thing last night, winning their series opener 4-1 in Oakland. This time it was six good innings from Nova, then three 1-hit shutout innings for the relief crew. It looks awesome on paper, and just as awesome on television Saturday, but the obvious question remains: how many times will this impotent (so far) Yankees attack have the lead going into the seventh inning?
3. Old is as old does sometimes. My thoughts on last year’s Yankees were that I thought they could contend with deeper, younger lineups in the AL East because many of their position players in 2015 couldn’t be as bad as they were offensively in 2014. Plus, I may have been one of the few that thought there’d be reasonably positive offensive contributions from Alex Rodriguez if he could stay healthy. In essence, all those things came to fruition. Brian McCann had a much more productive season. Mark Teixeira was fantastic until injured (yes, this sentence has gotten a lot of repeat customers the last four years). Carlos Beltran came back from the dead to provide some glorious offensive games, and obviously A-Rod was very productive. It should also be noted Brett Gardner was his usual, consistent self and Didi Gregorius had a much better 2nd half than his first half was — and given that it was his first full year as a regular, there should be no shame nor surprise in that. But this year? Few things are going well, and when one Yank starts to pull out of a terrible swoon, a couple more seem to dive right in. Mark Teixeira is off to one of the weakest starts of his stellar career, and Chase Headley couldn’t have hit worse in April. He is starting to bounce back, but there’s one minor issue – he’s still Chase Headley.
4. Though the Chicago Cubs, off to the second-best start of the past 32 years, don’t miss him, 2B Starlin Castro has been a welcome addition to the Yankees. He’s carrying an .856 OPS in home games — one of the reasons he’s become a quick crowd favourite — and if healthy, looks certain to set a new career high in home runs (the previous mark being 14 — he already has five). Castro’s slugging percentage is already 80 points higher (.375 to .455) than last year’s lost season with the Cubs, when he started losing playing time to Addison Russell. If their players 8-10 years older than Castro can start to match his productivity, the Yankees may be able to get into a race of some sorts. Don’t hold your breath, though. I’m as down on this 2016 Yankees team, as I was up on the 2015 group.
5. Carlos Beltran is picking up his pace — three home runs in his past eight starts, hits in four of his last five games. Beltran had a terrible April, as he did last season, and a bit better May, but summer will tell the true tale of where his productivity goes. Last year the Yankees saw the Blue Jays wrestle them down from behind and salt away the American League East, but it was Beltran who basically kept the club in a playoff spot with his 11 HR over August/September. His 1.067 OPS in August was one of the very best in baseball. These 2016 Yankees need a lot — they really do — but Beltran having a good summer is a big start. Very little has been won or lost yet in this division and all five teams certainly know that.
OH, TWO MORE THINGS….
1. Every single time, a pitcher starts a season, as Chris Sale has, we start talking about pitcher wins. I can admit to being converted at least 7-8 years ago on the ludicrous notion of the win as a tangible measuring stick for a pitcher. I mean, David Price has more wins than Danny Salazar at this point of the season and his ERA is more than four runs higher. So, stop that. But, I will tell you I know pitchers care about wins — there’s a history to the game, and a legacy that goes along with it, not to mention it strangely still can help come free-agency time. So pitchers care about getting 20 wins, and if anyone were to ever flirt with 30 wins again, yes, it’s a massive story.
Bob Welch, in 1990, won 27 games for the powerhouse Oakland A’s, getting decisions in 33 of his 35 starts. Compared to Sale, Welch started much slower, not getting his 8th win until June 5th of that year. He started August with a 16-4 W-L record, and went 11-2 in August/September for the Athletics. Fascinating, maybe only to me, Welch never won more than 17 games in a season before or after that. Naturally (you know, because baseball writers…), Welch whipped Roger Clemens in the Cy Young voting that year, despite Clemens winning 21 games himself and outdistancing Welch in ERA (1.93 to 2.95), strikeouts (209 to 127!), WHIP (1.08 to 1.22), and complete games (7 to 2). It makes me shudder in anger just thinking about it.
Justin Verlander is the only pitcher since 2003 to win more than 22 games, winning 24 in his 2011 MVP season, but there was no hype about him getting close to 30 given he only had 11 wins in his 18 starts at that season’s All-Star break. He won 12 straight between July 21 and September 18, and had a no-decision trying to get 25 in his final regular season start against Baltimore.
But though we have properly devalued wins as pitching statistic, the game’s historical context makes Sale’s 9-0 start absolutely remarkable, and none have been cheap wins — only once in the nine did Sale fail to throw at least 7 innings.
So let’s just say this: the White Sox will have played 81 games after the Astros game on Saturday, July 2nd. Sale should be making nine starts in between now and then. If somehow — and it’s a big somehow — Sale matches a 30-win pace by winning seven of those nine starts, and especially if he snags one more in his final start before the All-Star break (which would put him at 16), we have a huge, mega story. Again, not a good stat, not at all to judge competence of starting pitchers, but it’s a milestone, and he’d want it real, real bad if he can smell it.
2. On May 20th last season, the Houston Astros were 27-14 and leading the AL West by 5 1/2 games over the Angels. They now sit 17-25, 14th of 15 AL teams.
On the same May 20th, the Minnesota Twins sat in 3rd place at 23-17 holding the 2nd Wild-Card spot and three games back of Kansas City in the AL Central. They now own baseball’s worst record after last night’s 11-inning loss to the Blue Jays, they’re 10-30. Jaw-dropping.
Of course, the Astros barely held things together through the last 75 percent of the season, going 59-62, watching Texas zoom past them to win the West, while Minnesota’s collapse felt worse than it really was, statistically, as they were 60-62 to finish an 83-win season.
We had our eyes on other things — the Royals proving they were no 2014 fluke, the Blue Jays incredible August/September — but maybe we should have been more cognizant that the Astros hadn’t truly “arrived” as a winner yet, or that the Twins’ fast start in 2015 was the very definition of a small sample size, based on winning a lot of close ballgames early on, and doing so with very few young stars ready to become household names. Not that there’s no future in Minnesota, or certainly for an Astros team where Altuve and Correa could be All-Stars for year after year, but that evolutionary step from promising winner to consistent contender isn’t the easiest to make.