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…

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Slowey better than Baker? I'm skeptical.
That NL Central dominance is downright wacky. Didn't PECOTA project the Cubs to have the easiest schedule in the majors by virtue of being the best team in the worst division?
The Jays may have played an unbalanced schedule thus far, but 26-14? They're definitely doing something right. Of course, BP will likely be the last to acknowledge this, having excoriated JP and the organization repeatedly over the last several years. Apart from the outstanding offense, the interesting thing is just how deep the Jays' pitching is. Not only do they have a top-three starter in Halladay, but they also have an excellent bullpen and a half-dozen promising young starters (Cecil, Janssen, Romero, Litsch, Ray, Mills), in addition to Richmond and Tallet (who have been subbing in nicely as back-rotation starters), and Marcum and McGowan (both currently injured, although Marcum is making solid progress and could return in late '09).

The other notable thing that you're not likely to read about on BP is how well JP's draft picks (Hill, Lind, Cecil, Romero, Ray) and low-cost/reclamation projects (Scutaro, Carlson, Tallet, Richmond, Frasor, Downs, Rolen, Bautista) have performed this year. The Jays' payroll is $80M, compared to $122M and $201M on the part of the Red Sox and NYY, respectively.

The Jays are still a dark horse in '09--they don't have the positional depth, resources, or experienced starting pitching that the competition boasts. But they're certainly making life interesting in the AL East, and calling into question some of the Jays analysis that has been gospel around here for many years.
Do you prefer an analysis similar to yours, where two months of a season should be factored more into analysis than the "gospel around here for may years"? At this time last year, the Diamondbacks were running away with the NL West. The season is still young and your analysis is still flawed.
You can't reason with a fanboy. They're not rational.
I'm pretty sure I'm the guy who raved about the Jays going into 2008, too, saying that they might be the one of the six best teams in baseball, because of their pitching and defense, and no one would know it because of the competition.

So I'm comfortable with the idea that there's no longstanding bias on my part.
Wait, you think J. P. Riccardi has made good draft picks? Look, for example, at who the organization passed up on during the first round for Romero. Sit down before you click:
Sigh. You can't reason with an anti-fanboys, they're not rational.

In that draft Tulo was the only one that JP was likely to pick (he was avoiding high school players like the plague at the time) and it easy to make an argument that Tulo is a below average offensive play away from Coors.

24 teams passed on Garza in 2005 does that make them "bad drafters"? JP drafted players other than in 2005, you know. Heck, in the 2005 draft he got Robert Ray in the 7th round. What does that mean about how good his drafts have been (hint: nothing). Romero has been good in his major league starts. He's a lefty. It is 2009. Take a chill pill before you point to that draft as an example of JP "poor drafting".

I don't think you can accuse Sheehan of much bias (except when he says take the under on 75 Jays wins in a chat) but BP has under-rated the Blue Jays in its annuals consistently in recent years. I don't think it is out of left-field to say that BP has fallen out of love of the one time sabermetric darling JP.
"24 teams passed on Garza in 2005 does that make them "bad drafters"?"

You miss the point here. If you're going to credit J. P. for drafting well (especially in that particular draft), you absolutely must point out what he missed. If you want to absolve him of responsibility for overruling his scouts and passing up on high school talent, then you can't praise him for backing into other picks. It's also worth noting how absolutely uninspiring Ricky Romero's career has been up until this point. He was this close to officially being a "bust." I'm not entirely sure a couple of ML starts changes that.
how much are the NL Central's #s just the flip-side of existing alongside the NL West?
"Every team but the Rays (6-10) has at least a .500 record in inter-divisional play" ...

But, considering the competition, the Rays have also performed quite well against the Yankees and Red Sox in a bunch of early games so far.

It's very frustrating to be a fan of an AL East team, because every time your team wins, you look up to the newsreels and see that 3 out of 4 of the other teams in the division have won that day, too.
The perceived AL dominance could be a fiction in a different way. Each AL team has a highly paid DH. When they play an NL team in an AL park the NL team uses a scrub as DH, or they move a regular player to DH and use a scrub in the field to replace the regular defensively. Either way, offensively the NL matches a minimum wage guy up against somebody from the AL who is in a really high tax bracket.
They've done studies -- which are included in an article in the "Baseball Between the Numbers" book -- showing that players who have gone back and forth between both leagues actually perform worse in the AL. That goes for both pitchers (which isn't surprising) and hitters. The AL is just a more difficult league to play in, with a bigger stockpile of talent.

Your interleague play theory is mooted when you consider that the AL team also plugs in a virtually guaranteed out by putting the pitcher up there to hit. And the AL still dominates interleague games.

IIRC, one of the most significant hypotheses is that the Yankees' big payroll is acting as a rising tide to lift many of the other teams' boats.