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April 6, 2011

Divide and Conquer, AL East

Pass the Taters

by Ben Kabak

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Up is down, down is up. After a handful of games, the American League East standings are looking a bit topsy-turvy. The Orioles, undefeated, are in first place, while the winless Red Sox are sharing the cellar with the Rays. The Yanks’ bullpen has been their Achilles’ heel, while the Blue Jays are holding steady on both sides of the ball.

In the early going, balls have been leaving the park at a higher-than-normal clip throughout the game, and the AL East is no exception. Before the runs start to mount up and  one mid-May home run merges with another, let’s look at how they’ve scored thus far.

The 2010 Blue Jays led the world with 257 longballs, but they did so in peculiar fashion. With only a .312 team OBP, Canada’s finest belted 147 solo home runs and were just sixth in runs scored. This year, they have already muscled out eight dingers, and again, all but two were solo shots. Yet, the Blue Jays have plated 29 runs already this year because they’ve upped their team OBP to .397. Patience plus power could make their offense a potent one.

On an individual level, the team’s biggest home run of the season to date had to be Yunel Escobar’s two-run walk-off shot last night. The light-hitting infielder didn’t hit his first home run of 2010 until mid-July. Jose Bautista, picking up where he left off, has two solo shots and a new daughter. J.P. Arencibia has two home runs of his own. Say what you will about the Blue Jays relief corps, but their hitters can hit.

Back in the states, the Bronx Bombers are living up to their name. The Yankees have plated 31 runs this year, and 24 of them have come via the club’s 13 Bronx bombs. The Yanks have a club that can live by the home run thanks to its prodigious on-base skills. Last night against the Twins, they managed just two hits over the final eight frames of their ugly loss, but rare are the nights when the Yankees aren’t clogging up the bases. As the home runs rain down upon the Bronx, the runs will follow.

The early-season star of the club that trails only Texas in runs scored has been Mark Teixeira. A notorious slow starter, the team’s first baseman has peppered the Yankee Stadium stands with four home runs in five games. His fourth home run last year didn’t arrive until May 8, and with an early-season triple slash line of .333/.455/1.000, his usual April struggles have been in remission.

After the Yanks’ and Jays’ offensive juggernauts, the power numbers in the division drop off considerably. The front-running and undefeated Orioles—the AL East’s best team since the arbitrary endpoint of August 1, 2010—have won with pitching. In four games, they’ve allowed just four runs, and the staff’s 1.00 ERA has masked a decidedly average offensive start.

In fact, only Brian Roberts has left the park, and he’s done so twice. He popped a three-run, eighth-inning shot against Jake McGee to break a scoreless tie and then hit another three-run shot against Rick Porcello on Monday to break open a game knotted at one in the fifth. Roberts could very well be a key to the Orioles’ season this year. At 33, he has never quite lived up to the potential of his 2005 campaign, and he appeared in just 59 games last year. Batting in the leadoff spot, he has yet to draw a walk this year, but the power is reminiscent of the 2005 season when Roberts had eight home runs before April was out.

And what of the early-season bottom-feeders? The defending champs and the prohibitive favorites find themselves in the unenviable position of a last-place winless tie. The Rays are the anti-Blue Jays: by plating three last night, they doubled their early-season run total and still find themselves last in the majors in on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Ben Zobrist’s Opening Day 9th-inning blast had been the club’s lone home run before last night, when Sean Rodriguez, subbing for the injured Evan Longoria, added a blast in the third, and B.J. Upton’s two-run shot brought Tampa Bay to within two. It wasn’t enough, though, and the team fell to 0-4.

The Rays present an interesting contrast to the Yankees. The Bombers have relied on home runs for 77 percent of their total runs scored, and the Rays haven’t been far behind, turning to the longball for 66 percent of their runs scored. Of course, Tampa Bay’s .237 OBP has limited the club to just six runs overall. Manny Ramirez and Johnny Damon are a combined 2-for-27 with a walk and eight strikeouts between them., and Evan Longoria will be on the shelf for most of April with a strained oblique, an injury that could cost the team a full win. The Rays will struggle to score until these three hitters get going.

And then there are the Red Sox. With the weight of the world—or at least a host of first-place predictions from the baseball analysis community—on their shoulders, the Sox have started the season 0-4. The Back Bay is aflame with panic. The Red Sox have scored just 12 runs, five of them coming via the longball. David Ortiz, once left for dead by most of baseball, has hit two, including a towering shot off of southpaw Darren Oliver on Opening Day, and Jacoby Ellsbury has the Sox' only other homer.

Some of Boston’s offensive troubles have come as no surprise. Neither Jarrod Saltalamacchia’s 1-for-11 nor his five strikeouts are that surprising, but Carl Crawford’s 2-for-15 effort is hardly representative. During ESPN’s Opening Day broadcast, Bobby Valentine, Orel Hershisher, and Dan Shulman were throwing around the 1000-run mark as a realistic goal for the team. They won’t average three runs per game all season, and while Elias may think the Sox are down and out, they also won’t stay winless forever.

Related Content:  Home Run,  Home Runs

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