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May 17, 2009

Prospectus Today

The Balance of Power

by Joe Sheehan

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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

Dodgers fans, this is why you don't have to sweat the loss of Manny Ramirez too much. The four teams chasing you have gone 24-35 outside of the division, and remember, no one's played an AL team yet.

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.

  • I like the matchup today, with Kevin Slowey pitted against A.J. Burnett. Slowey is probably the best of this crop of Twins' command/fly-ball pitchers, with a 27/4 K/BB so far this season. After opening the year with shaky outings against the Mariners and Blue Jays, Slowey has a 20/3 K/BB and just three homers allowed in his last five starts. Look for a year full of stories about his chance to finish the season with more wins than walks, especially given the extra starts he'll get against a division that doesn't draw a ton of walks.

  • Burnett is something of the anti-Slowey, with 19 walks allowed in 45 1/3 innings, part of a Yankee rotation that has struggled with the free pass early this season. Joba Chamberlain is tied for sixth in the AL in walks with 21, CC Sabathia is right behind tied for 12th at 20, and Burnett is all alone in 16th; Andy Pettitte isn't far behind with 15. It all adds up to a league-leading total of 151 walks allowed, perhaps the biggest reason the team has allowed the third-most runs in the league.

  • Since I'm here and since I just noticed it, four of the bottom five teams in the AL in walks drawn are the AL West's quartet. Four of the top five are AL East teams. I don't know if this means anything, and I imagine the opposing pitching staffs in an unbalanced schedule are affecting the numbers, but I thought it was interesting.

  • I'm late enough leaving for the park that the lineups are up already: looks like Joe Mauer is playing and catching, the second time I'll see him in 10 days. I also get to watch Carlos Gomez play center field, which is a treat. Robinson Cano will get the day off for the Yankees, with Ramiro Pena and Kevin Cash in the eighth and ninth slots for a team with the highest payroll in the game.

Gotta go…

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

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