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July 14, 2011
Resetting the Races, American League
This season’s American League playoff picture primarily tells a tale of rich teams getting richer; four of the five clubs with the most improved odds of making the playoffs at midseason entered Opening Day as the favorites in their division. Although no division leader holds a lead greater than one game in the loss column, which would seem to suggest tight races all around, our Playoff Oddsindicate that three clubs have already come close to punching tickets to October, leaving the Central as the league’s most likely locus of a dogfight down the stretch. As has been the case in every season since 2006, two AL playoff berths will almost certainly be reserved for teams from the East, leaving occupants of the league’s less privileged divisions with little choice but to come in first or start their offseasons early. As play resumes for the second half, let’s examine how each team’s stock has risen or fallen relative to the expectations of our pre-season projections.
The “Act” column shows each team’s actual winning percentage to date, while “Exp” denotes each team's expected winning percentage going forward, derived from a blend of PECOTA projections and third-order winning percentage. “Div” and “WC” describe each team’s chances of winning the division and wild card, respectively, while “total” represents the sum of the two—a team’s chances of making the playoffs by any means. “Proj” provides the PECOTA-based pre-season estimate of each team's chances of making the playoffs, and “+/-” represents the amount by which each club’s total odds have changed.
Everyone expected the Bronx Bombers to mount their usual onslaught against major-league pitching, but their own ragtag staff appeared vulnerable to opposing lineups as the team traveled north from spring training. Not only have the bats delivered, but the seemingly over-the-hill arms have become a strength; the Yankees’ 3.8 runs allowed per game places them fourth in the league and first in their division. CC Sabathia, perhaps the lone member of the rotation who came without any serious pre-season concerns, has been as good as advertised, but the shockingly successful foursome of Bartolo Colon, Ivan Nova, A.J. Burnett, and Freddy Garcia have all made positive contributions (with only Phil Hughes disappointing among the team’s presumptive starters), and the emergence of David Robertson has helped offset the losses of Joba Chamberlain and Rafael Soriano in the late innings.
Boston’s 2-10 start prompted many to write the Red Sox off prematurely, but they’ve won at a near-.700 clip since then, even though they’ve yet to see a substantial return from Carl Crawford, one of their two big-ticket off-season acquisitions. Their other costly import, Adrian Gonzalez, has been the league’s best player situated south of Jose Bautista, giving the Sox an unparalleled offensive attack (.293 TAv), as well as baseball’s third-best defense. Strong first-half showings from the East’s two financial titans have all but cemented their pre-season status as the safest bets to earn playoff spots.
Two AL Central teams round out the contingent of teams that have seen their odds rise by double digits since the start of the reason. The Tigers have ridden a lopsided lineup to the AL’s fourth-best offense, but league-average ERAs have been few and far between after Justin Verlander, making Detroit one of the majors’ easiest teams to score on (and a potential destination for pitching at the deadline). The Indians’ scalding April shifted their expected winning percentage only slightly, from a pre-season-forecasted .458 to a .468 figure going forward. That modest pace would leave them well out of the playoff picture, but it would constitute a rebound from the .405 mark they’ve managed since the end of May.
The Twins and White Sox have suffered that the Tigers and Indians might thrive; Minnesota has been wracked with injuries to some of its most important players and has gotten nothing of value from its signature stars, Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau. What’s more, the team’s mediocre defense (ninth in the AL with a .709 defensive efficiency) hasn’t provided adequate support for a shoddy bullpen and the pitching staff with baseball’s lowest strikeout rate. The White Sox, meanwhile, have been hurt by extended slumps from Alex Rios, Adam Dunn, and Brent Morel, who have combined for over 2.5 wins below replacement, as well as Ozzie Guillen’s insistence on playing Juan Pierre (.242 TAv) over superior options like Brent Lillibridge and Triple-A outfielder Dayan Viciedo.
The Rays are at worst the league’s fourth-best team, but being third-best in the East will leave them out in the cold come October nonetheless. Tampa Bay’s mediocre offense ranks fourth in the division by any measure of effectiveness, and the team’s MLB-best defense has polished the ERAs of some pitchers with subpar peripherals (such as Jeremy Hellickson and Adam Russell, who both sport SIERAs near or above 5.00) to deceptive shines.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .