May 17, 2009
The Balance of Power
I'm about an hour shy of heading out to Yankee Stadium today for the Twins/Yankees' matinee. The Yankees have won both of the first two games of the series in dramatic fashion, walking off Friday on a Melky Cabrera single and yesterday on a two-run homer by Alex Rodriguez, just his fourth hit since his return from hip surgery eight days ago.
The wins continue an ugly pattern in the season's early going, in which the AL Central is getting hammered by the rest of the league. Wins by the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Orioles yesterday dropped the AL Central's record against the East to 22-37. A 10-5 mark against the Mariners has enabled the division to stay above .500 against the West at 23-20, but overall, it's been the worst division in the league so far, as measured by record in interdivisional play:
NL Central 50-34 .595 AL East 57-44 .564 AL West 42-43 .494 NL East 35-40 .467 AL Central 45-57 .441 NL West 29-40 .420
The prominence of the AL East is no surprise, and it invites the question of whether what we perceive as the AL's superiority is really just a divisional edge held by the East as opposed to a league-wide trend. Interleague play will provide additional data, but it certainly seems that the AL East is, as expected, much superior to the competition. Every team but the Rays (6-10) has at least a .500 record in inter-divisional play, and as I've mentioned a number of times, the Jays' unbalanced schedule is a factor in their success. They've played six intradivisional games; every other MLB team has played at least 11, and all but two have played at least 14.
It's entirely possible that the AL East has some wildly disproportionate number of the best teams in baseball, maybe four of the top seven, even five of the top 15, depending on how crazy you want to get about the Orioles. There's not much MLB can do about this, but it is worth thinking about as you watch the excitement over, say, the Rangers build. The teams in the AL East simply face a different set of challenges. The unbalanced schedule is having an increasing effect on the perceptions of teams around the league.
What the NL Central is doing is just amazing. Every team but the Reds has a winning record outside the division, and at that, the Padres had to go 16 innings last night to make that a true statement. It's a balanced achievement: 26-19 against the East, 24-15 against the West. It may be too early to consider the NL Central a midwestern take on the AL East, but their relative superiority to their peers so far is unarguable. Each is getting there a different way-some by run prevention, some by scoring, some with young players, some with veterans-but all, even the lowly Pirates (8-6) and Astros (9-4) have had success outside the group.
These numbers fall into the category of "fun to track, meaning to be determined later," something to argue about at a ballpark between innings, during a pitching change or-as he looks warily out his window-a rain delay.