Another two weeks gone in the baseball season. We are just a week away from what many people consider to be the first checkpoint of the season – Memorial Day. In honor of that, and there won’t be another Turning Two article until June 1st, division races will be the prominent topic in this edition.
American League East
By far, the most competitive division in the American League. The Baltimore Orioles, finally playing like the team that everyone expected to see last year, are currently leading the division. A quick glance at team ERA will tell you why – 3.41, the second best in the American League, and 7th best in baseball. That is astounding considering that all four of their division rivals rank in the top ten in baseball for runs scored. If you want to compare their pitching to anyone else in the division, the next closet would be Toronto, 14th place, at 3.54. Wi-Yin Chen and Jason Hammel are a combined 8-1 with an ERA of 2.57, and closer Jim Johnson has not blown a save (14/14) and is pitching to a minuscule 0.48 ERA.
The Rays, who have overcome their inability to score runs that plagued them last year, have been the second best team in the East, despite not having Evan Longoria since late April. Their pitching, while not as good as last year’s, has been sound enough for 15th in the game. Once Longoria comes back healthy, the team should continue to click. Fernando Rodney still has not blown a save.
Toronto is four games behind Baltimore The Blue Jays are just coming off of a tidy two game sweep of the Yankees, who seem content with contending for 5th place in the American League. Pitching has been the Yankees biggest ailment, with Hiroki Kuroda failing to transition from the National League to the American League, and inconsistency from Phil Hughes. Bullpen depth is also a question, with David Robertson being placed on the DL just two weeks after Mariano Rivera was lost for the season. Perhaps most startling for the Yankees is that they are neither first or second in baseball for runs scored. To put it in perspective, the last time the Yankees did not finish in either of those rankings was in 2008 (10th in runs scored), when they last missed the playoffs. The only other times that has happened this millennium was in 2003 (4th), and 2001 (9th), and made it to the World Series both times.
Boston, despite being two games under .500, is only 6.5 games out of first place. The door is still open for them to make a move. Jon Lester and Josh Beckett have had encouraging starts the past week, and they will need more of them if the Red Sox are to contend.
American League Central
The Cleveland Indians are in first place almost by default. At 22-16, they are the only team in the division with a winning record, four games better than the Tigers. Nothing about this division is impressive. The Indians rank 10th in baseball in runs scored, and 21st in team ERA. While Ubaldo Jimemez continues to struggle, Derek Lowe has turned back the clock nearly ten years. The veteran righty is 6-1 with an ERA of 2.05 this year in a follow up to an embarrassing 9-17, 5.05 ERA season in 2011.
For the Tigers, while Justin Verlander and Drew Smyly have shined in the rotation, no one else on the pitching staff has. The pitching staff is in the bottom-third in baseball in nearly every important category, including ERA, hits, and WHIP. The hitting has not been bad, although Miguel Cabrera’s .305 batting average is about 30 points off of his three year average. I suppose Prince Fielder’s 6 home runs have not lived up to his contract’s billing, but what is hurting the Tigers more than offense have been their pitching woes. Doug Fister, who has pitched well since coming off the disabled list, has just given up four earned runs in 22 2/3 innings, and they need him to continue to pitch well. Rick Porcello and Max Scherzer, who helped pitch the Tigers to the ALCS in 2011, have been ineffective, and closer Jose Valverde has an ERA of over 5. Not what you want to see from your pitching staff.
The White Sox are only a 4.5 games out and have been playing well. Perhaps a team to keep an eye on if the Indians start to struggle. Still, I expect the Tigers to find their stride and take the division.
American League West
The Texas Rangers are by far the best team in baseball. So much so, that I won’t even waste my time trying to make an argument for any other team to win this division. Third best ERA in baseball, and the most dangerous offense in baseball. In front of a national audience this past Sunday night, they punished one of the game’s best pitchers, Jered Weaver by scoring eight runs in 3 1/3 innings of work. Unless the Angels have some divine stretch of the season, this division belongs to Texas.
National League East
By far, the most competitive division in baseball. The Phillies are in last place, despite having a winning record. The Washington Nationals dominated the division for the first month, but a bit of a tailspin and a surge by Atlanta puts the Braves on top of the division. Atlanta, who could not score for the life of them in the second half of last season, has scored 207 runs this year, second most in all of baseball. Michael Bourne has torn it up, batting .339 with 11 extra base hits, and Chipper Jones has a solid .306 average while having a .490 slugging percentage. Their pitching has not quite been there, ranking in the bottom third in baseball in ERA.
This is still a very tough division to predict. The Mets, Marlins and Phillies are all within four games of the lead. The Mets have had promising moments, and then some set backs, but find themselves very much alive. Lucas Duda and David Wright have led the team on offense, and the pitching has been modestly decent. I think Miami will fizzle out, even though their rotation has stayed healthy thus far. The Phillies have been average on both sides of the ball, but I think the offense will find its feet before long. In the end, I see it coming down to either the Nationals or the Phillies. If the Phillies can’t produce runs, however, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Mets continue to contend for the crown.
National League Central
Another division that is tightly contested. The Cardinals are leading by 2 1/2 games over the Reds. Rafael Furcal is putting up MVP caliber numbers, batting .367, driving in 17 runs and scoring 28 runs. Carlos Beltran has also resurrected his career with a .293 average, 13 home runs and 32 RBI, with the latter two stats being good for 1st and 2nd in the National League, respectively. Cincinnati has had trouble hitting, but the pitching has been solid with a 3.48 team ERA. In 20 1/3 innings, Aroldis Chapman has yet to give up an earned run, and deserves a promotion into the starting rotation for his efforts. Jonny Cueto has had a phenomenal start (4-1, 1.89 ERA, .129 BAA) and Bronson Arroyo and Mat Latos have been decent enough. Sean Marshall has been questionable closing games, but only one blown save despite an ERA of 3.85.
Also, don’t count out the Pirates. They have the 4th best ERA in baseball, and are just four games behind the Cardinals. Andrew McCutcheon is batting nearly .350 with 13 extra base hits, and if anyone else on the team had a batting average over .300, the team may be in first place. The Pirates rank dead last in baseball for runs scored, which in case Pittsburgh forgot, is what the objective is in baseball. Whenever you have pitching this good, you’re always in contention, and if the hitting does come around, it could be a happy year for Pittsburgh.
National League West
The Dodgers are the second best team in baseball, but they will be without injured Matt Kemp until the end of the month. That being said, they still have one of the most dominant starters in baseball, Clayton Kershaw. He’s only 3-1, but an incredible ERA of 2.22. Even better has been Ted Lilly, who is 5-0 with a 2.11 ERA. When you can score runs and prevent runs as well as the Dodgers can, it is awfully tough to beat them. They hold the largest lead of any division leader – six games ahead of the second place Giants. Dodgers may very well run away with this division.
Division Series Format
Just to touch on the League Division Series format, which was just approved by MLB owners. The LDS format will go to 2-3, with the team with home field advantage hosting games three through five. The format was used by baseball from 1995 through 1997, before adopting the 2-2-1 format in 1998. Much of the outcry that I have seen argues that this takes away home field advantage from the higher-seeded team. I could not disagree any more. The record for teams with home field advantage from ’95-’97 was 7-5. The winning percentage was fifty-eight percent. Since 1998, the team with home field advantage has been 31-25 in division series, which comes out to a winning percentage of fifty-five. In last year’s division series, the teams with home field advantage both won and lost two series. I believe that it is critical for the team with home field advantage to host the swing game. In a five game series, that critical game is Game Three. I fully support this new format.
That will do it for this edition of Turning Two. Check back in on June 1st for the next edition, and follow me on Twitter @JustinCirillo for all my sports related thoughts.