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July 14, 2011

Overthinking It

Resetting the Races, American League

by Ben Lindbergh

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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.

Team

Act

Exp

Div%

WC%

Total%

Proj %

+/- %

Rangers

.554

.528

80.5

0.4

80.9

48.9

32.0

Yankees

.602

.563

30.7

62.8

93.4

70.6

22.8

Tigers

.533

.520

60.6

0.2

60.8

41.3

19.5

Red Sox

.611

.571

68.7

29.6

98.3

84.4

13.9

Indians

.528

.468

15.6

0.2

15.8

3.8

12.0

Angels

.543

.462

17.9

0.5

18.4

13.2

5.2

Royals

.407

.397

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.4

-0.4

Mariners

.473

.465

0.4

0.0

0.4

1.0

-0.6

Blue Jays

.489

.452

0.0

0.0

0.0

0.9

-0.9

Orioles

.409

.495

0.0

0.0

0.0

7.9

-7.9

Rays

.544

.510

0.6

6.1

6.7

19.2

-12.5

White Sox

.478

.499

16.5

0.3

16.8

35.6

-18.8

Twins

.461

.507

7.3

0.1

7.4

30.1

-22.7

Athletics

.424

.508

1.1

0.0

1.1

42.8

-41.7

 

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.

Biggest Gainers
The Rangers began the season with close to a 50-50 shot at returning to the postseason in search of a second consecutive pennant, but their fortunes have improved more than any other team’s since then, thanks both to their own unanticipated success and Oakland’s disappointing performance. The Rangers’ offense has been the best outside of Boston and New York, featuring only one regular with a bat below league average (David Murphy) at a non-premium defensive (that is, run-producing) position. That offensive firepower has allowed them to carve out a slim lead over the Angels despite allowing 4.4 runs per game, the highest total in the AL West. The Rangers have also been the AL’s best team on the bases, adding a full win—the margin currently separating them from the Angels—through extra advances and high-percentage (79.3 percent success rate) stealing.

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.

Holding Steady
The Angels have exhibited the largest gap between actual and expected winning percentage, but that’s nothing new for Mike Scioscia’s crew, who have made a habit out of surpassing their expected records throughout the skipper’s tenure. Better-than-expected starts by the Mariners and Royals have yielded negligible or nonexistent mid-season playoff odds, as our system expects their future play to be more reflective of their recent swoons. The Blue Jays would be a mere four games off the pace if they could have arranged to relocate to the Central (if not less, given the weaker competition they would have faced away from the East), but instead they find themselves on track for a fourth straight fourth-place finish. Dreams of .500 have ended in further frustration for the Orioles, whose young pitchers haven’t sustained their second-half turnaround from last season. Their offense, too, has disappointed, as they’ve received a combined 1.2 wins below replacement from veteran imports Derrek Lee and Vladimir Guerrero.

Biggest Losers
Near-even odds for the A’s almost entirely evaporated in the first half. Oakland’s offense would be among the league’s worst even in a more forgiving park: free-agent arrivals Hideki Matsui and Andy LaRoche have fizzled and David DeJesus’ first full season in green and gold is shaping up to be a career-worst, while the team’s most productive hitter in 2010, Daric Barton, played his way back to Triple-A. Despite a number of injuries, the pitching staff has kept the A’s in games, but the team has been victimized by poor timing, playing to a 12-20 record in one-run contests that has left them seven wins below their Pythagenpat record (based on runs scored and allowed).

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 Insider.

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

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