2017 Recap: AL East

This is the second installment in a six-part series in which I will go division by division and recap the biggest storylines of each team’s season. To find the recaps for other divisions, follow the links below.

NL East
NL Central
AL Central
NL West
AL West

All WAR metrics are fWAR unless otherwise stated.

Boston Red Sox (93-69, .574)

I don’t think the Red Sox should have won their division. Third order win percentage, a stat developed by Baseball Prospectus, which combines underlying statistics and opponent winning percentage, agrees with me; according to third order win percentage, the Red Sox should have finished third in the AL East and played the Rays at Tropicana Field for the Wild Card. Obviously it’s only the results on the field that matter; the Red Sox won the division by two games. However, they were not as dominant as the numbers may seem; their winning percentage against teams .500 or better was only .540. They beat up on the teams they should have, but they had losing records against the two teams in the AL East directly behind them.

The season started for the Red Sox before opening day when they traded for Chris Sale, who will likely finish second in Cy Young voting in the American League. They added him to an already solid rotation that consisted of Rick Porcello (who shouldn’t have won the Cy Young last year…), Eduardo Rodriguez, Drew Pomeranz, and David Price (who proceeded to get injured, but that’s besides the point). Basically, the Sox were all-in from day one, and it ended up working; they captured the division with a record two games better than that of the Yankees.

With that being said, their finish in the division does not tell the entire story. Firstly, they never led the division by more than five games, but even beyond that, their individual players did not perform as well as they did last season. It also doesn’t help that they traded away 3B Travis Shaw to the Brewers because the Red Sox had a hole at third virtually all year, and Shaw became one of the premier offensive 3B in the league (he hit 31 HR and triple-slashed .273/.349/.513). Here’s a table of the offensive production and WAR for the Red Sox top-ten hitters in both 2016 and 2017 (I didn’t bother including players who were traded or retired):

Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 12.12.02 PM

That is not pretty. The only player whose WAR increased was LF Andrew Benintendi, and that’s because he only played 34 games in 2016 (WAR is a counting stat, so the more games you play, the more likely you are to have a higher WAR, provided you are playing above replacement level.) It would be wrong of me to neglect the fact that 2B Dustin Pedroia was injured for some of the year, so his WAR in 2017 shouldn’t be as high, but even in the time he was on the field, he wasn’t terribly productive (102 wRC+). Regardless, when you look at the table, you see a lot of negative regression. If I’m a Sox fan, I’m hoping the pitching can carry the squad in the playoffs, and I wouldn’t even be too sure of that, because the story for the 2017 pitching staff was similar to that of the 2017 hitters.

I first want to start by mentioning Chris Sale, who posted a ridiculous 7.7 fWAR this season. He had 308 strikeouts in 214.1 innings. He had a 2.90 ERA and a 0.97 WHIP. He will probably finish second in Cy Young voting to the Indians’ Corey Kluber. He was good. The Red Sox have an ace for the playoffs. Moving on.

Here’s each of the Red Sox main starting pitcher’s stats in 2016 and 2017 (for reference, ERA- compares a pitcher to league average with a baseline of 100, for each point below 100, that pitcher’s performance was 1% better than league average): Screen Shot 2017-10-05 at 12.29.08 PM

Definitely looks better than the hitters, but Price’s contributions in ’17 were minimal (he missed virtually the entire season.) Rodriguez and Pomeranz improved (Pomeranz was actually great).

They ended the season with a tough ALDS loss in four games to the Astros, and that resulted in a firing of their manager of five seasons, John Farrell. Red Sox were good this year, but I’d say they were overrated. With that being said, this is still a really young team with a great core and a lot of guys coming up through the minors within the next few years. Oh, and I completely forgot to mention 3B Rafael Devers, who triple-slashed .284/.338/.482 with 10 HR in 50 games as a rookie. Not too shabby.

American League hitter ranks: 785 Runs scored (6th), 168 HR (last), 106 SB (3rd), .258/.329/.407 triple-slash (9th/5th/14th), 17.7 WAR (7th)
American League pitcher ranks: 3.73 ERA (2nd), 25.4% K% (4th), 1.25 WHIP (3rd), 23.9 WAR (3rd)

New York Yankees (91-71, .562)

I started the Red Sox blurb with third order win percentage, so I’ll give you the Yankees’ third order win percentage as well: .653. That translates to a 106-56 record. The yankees finished with about 15 wins fewer than they should have. That’s nuts. But it’s par for the course for these Yankees, because their season was nuts. It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Yankees. Hal Steinbrenner said: “Yeah, right. The Yankees don’t rebuild, we win.” That’s not an actual quote, but it may as well be. after what happened this year.

There weren’t very many questions about the team’s batting abilities, but whether their pitches could stay healthy and perform. Masahiro Tanaka didn’t have a great year, but everyone else on the Yankees pitching staff did. Luis Severino set career-bests in nearly every pitching category, and finished in third in the regular season in most pitching categories in the AL (behind the aforementioned Sale and Kluber). Severino is the ace the Yankees needed. But it doesn’t stop there.

The Bombers got 155.1 innings out of rookie Jordan Montgomery, and he wasn’t great, but for a 4th or 5th starter, he was adequate or better. Monty posted a 3.88 ERA and an 8.3 K/9. Even C.C. Sabathia joined the pitching party, logging his lowest ERA since 2012. The Yankees also added former Oakland Athletics ace Sonny Gray at the deadline, who provided 65.1 quality innings over the second half of the year. None of this was the story this year. The story was RF Aaron Judge.

I learned two things this year pertaining to Judge:

  1.  Aaron Judge is very good at baseball.
  2. It is foolish to make an MVP selection before the season is over.

Trout was still the most efficient player in baseball this year, but I’d probably give the MVP to Judge now. He hit 13 HRs in September. He finished the season with 52 HR, a rookie record. He’s a shoo-in for AL Rookie of the Year, and if he wins the MVP, he will become only the third player ever (joining Ichiro and Fred Lynn) to win MVP and ROY in the same season. He led the American League in all of the following categories: HR, R, walks and Isolated power (ISO). If he wasn’t first in the others (like RBI, OBP, SLG, OPS, and wRC+) he was second to Mike Trout (except in RBI, Nelson Cruz had the AL lead in that category.

The offensive firepower doesn’t stop there, though. C Gary Sanchez hit 33 HR in 122 games, which gives him 53 HR in 177 career games (Judge has 56 in 182). SS Didi Gregorius hit 25 HR, the highest total ever for a Yankee SS, and he missed the first six weeks of the season. Brett Gardner hit a career-high 21 HR, and Aaron Hicks jacked 15 HR in 88 games (nearly a 30 HR pace). The offense was incredible and the pitching staff was good. How was the bullpen?

Thanks to a midseason trade, elite. This is the scariest bullpen in baseball. They essentially have six closers: Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, David Robertson, Chad Green, Adam Warren, and Tommy Kahnle. If the Yankees have a lead after five innings in the playoffs, the game is basically over. The Yankees dynasty is back, and I wouldn’t pick them to win this year, but I’d be shocked if they weren’t in the postseason every season for the next half decade at the very least.

American League hitter ranks: 858 Runs scored (2nd), 241 HR (1st), 90 SB (7th), .262/.339/.447 triple-slash (3rd/3rd/3rd), 27.9 WAR (2nd)
American League pitcher ranks: 3.75 ERA (3rd), 25.7% K% (3rd), 1.21 WHIP (2nd), 23.9 WAR (3rd)

Tampa Bay Rays (80-82, .494)

Third order winning percentage: .548. That would have put them second in the AL East. That would have gotten them into the playoffs. I don’t think they would have beat the Red Sox in the Wild Card game, assuming we were using third-order winning percentage to determine playoff standings, but at least they would have gotten there. Instead, the Rays had their fourth consecutive losing season.

The season was not without its bright spots though. The year begun with CF Kevin Kiermaier getting inked to a five-year, $56MM contract extension, a deal that will likely pay off for the Rays in spades. Kiermaier posted a solid 3.0 fWAR this season while playing stellar defense in centerfield over only 98 games. He posted career-highs in each leg of his triple slash and in homers. And, not to toot my own horn, but he was one of the guys I shouted out in my preseason predictions article (spoiler alert: there’s a lot of wrong in there).

Kiermaier led the team in fWAR/PA (he actually led the team outright in rWAR), but another young outfielder led their hitters in overall WAR: OF Steven Souza Jr. Souza Jr. hit 30 HR and added 16 SB while triple slashing .239/.351/.459, which isn’t terribly impressive, but is still well above average. 1B/DH Logan Morrison was tied for fifth in the American League in long balls (38), and former Mets 1B Lucas Duda jacked 13 long balls in only 200 PA with the Rays after the trade deadline, which is nearly a 40-homer pace.

On the other side of the ball there was not much to write home about. Incumbent closer Alex Colome led the American league with 47 saves (10 more than his 2016 total of 37) but that’s just about where the positives end. His ERA was nearly a run and a half higher than the year prior, his WHIP and K rate fell, and his walk rate rose. He still had a pretty solid season (1.1 fWAR, .7 rWAR which is not bad at all for a relief pitcher), but it was nothing compared to 2016.

It was a similar story for the Rays starting pitchers; they got better in some areas and worse in some. The ERA of all starting pitchers fell pretty substantially from 2016 to 2017 (4.26 to 4.08), which is especially impressive when you consider that 2017 was a higher scoring run environment than 2016. Individually, SP Chris Archer had a pretty stellar season: 4.6 fWAR, a career-high 4.15 K/BB ratio, career-high 11.15 K/9, and, for the third year in a row, threw over 200 innings. If you cut the threshold down to 190 innings, he’s done that four seasons in a row. Over the last four seasons, Archer is sixth in the bigs in innings pitched, which is a testament to his durability.

The Rays also had the luxury of only starting eight pitchers over the course of the season as opposed to the nine they started in 2016, so their staff was healthier. The starter ERA and ground ball rate improved from 2016, but the starter peripherals (FIP, xFIP), strikeout rate, and walk rate all were trending in the wrong direction. The starting staff produced only about half a win less in 2017 than in 2016, so in many ways, the pitching staff was more or less the same, which is to say there was nothing to write home about.

I think the Rays should have made the playoffs this year, and I don’t necessarily think that they will make it next year, because they tend not to be big factors in free agency due to the team’s frugality, but they should still be at or above .500 in 2018.

American League hitter ranks: 694 Runs scored (14th), 228 HR (6th), 88 SB (t-9th), .245/.317/.422 triple-slash (12th/10th/10th), 21.0 WAR (6th)
American League pitcher ranks: 3.99 ERA (4th), 25.2% K% (5th), 1.26 WHIP (4th), 15.8 WAR (6th)

Toronto Blue Jays (76-86, .469)

Unlike the previous three blurbs, I’m not even going to bother mentioning the Blue Jays’ third order win percentage, because it wouldn’t have made much of a difference. Bottom line is that the Blue Jays and Orioles were not good this season. It’s obviously hard to make a dent in the division when you have to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees, plus the Rays who generally hover around .500, but with the talent that the Blue Jays had this year, I would have expected them to go at least .500. FiveThirtyEight pegged the Jays to go 84-78 and face off against the Mariners in the Wild Card game. We see how that went. Just goes to show you that anything can happen in this beautiful game. Or not-so-beautiful game, if you’re a 2017 Blue Jays fan.

The Jays trotted out an opening day lineup featuring former MVP 3B Josh Donaldson, six-time All-Star RF Jose Bautista, and five-time All-Star SS Troy Tulowitzki. Marco Estrada made the Opening Day start and delivered six innings of two-run ball. The team lost to the Orioles on a walk-off in the eleventh inning. They did not go over .500 for the entire season.

That isn’t to say there weren’t any positives for this team, just that there weren’t many. SP Marcus Stroman delivered the best season of his young career, tossing 201 innings with a 3.09 ERA. 1B/DH Justin Smoak made his first All-Star appearance at age 30, thanks to a .270/.355/.529 triple-slash and 38 long balls (all career-highs). 22-year-old fireballing closer Roberto Osuna posted career-bests in nearly every category save for ERA: 39 saves, 0.859 WHIP, 11.7 K/9, 1.3 BB/9, 1.74 FIP, and only three homers allowed in 64 innings pitched. CF Kevin Pillar put together yet another ridiculous highlight reel of defensive plays this season.

All of that being said, the team still finished ten games under .500. They used 14 different starting pitchers in 162 games; the MLB average was between 10 and 11. The team wasn’t particularly good, but the season was salvaged by the fact that the Jays made a clear effort to restock their farm system, at least somewhat. They dealt Francisco Liriano and Joe Smith at the deadline and received a handful of prospects, albeit not great ones, in return. I usually like to end each blurb for teams that had a bad season by saying something like “thinks are looking up,” but given the state of the Blue Jays farm system, I’m not sure that’s necessarily the case in Toronto. At least they have the albatross contract of Jose Bautista coming off the books.

American League hitter ranks: 693 Runs scored (last), 222 HR (7th), 53 SB (14th), .240/.312/.412 triple-slash (last/t-13th/13th), 9.8 WAR (last)
American League pitcher ranks: 4.42 ERA (7th), 21.7% K% (7th), 1.37 WHIP (t-9th), 16.5 WAR (5th)

Baltimore Orioles (75-87, .463)

The Orioles’ long national nightmare was not over after the Britton debacle of last postseason. Hopefully you’ve forgotten about the atrocities Buck Showalter commited in the AL Wild Card Game in 2016 (which, funnily enough, was the Blue Jays and Orioles matching up against one another. Anything can happen from season to season, ladies and gentlemen.) so I’ll refresh your memory: the Blue Jays won. To add insult to injury, Orioles skipper Buck Showalter was heavily criticized due to the fact that he opted not to use the Orioles’ best relief pitcher, Zach Britton. The Orioles lost in 11 innings, their best pitcher never got into the game, and Showalter never really owned up to the fact that he made a poor managerial decision. And it all went downhill from there.

The Orioles began the season projected by FiveThirtyEight to come in last in the division with a 78-84 record, which isn’t too far off from their actual performance. The team was a HR-hitting, low-speed team last season, and some argued that the team was too reliant on the long ball. It’s a lot easier to shrug off the team’s lack of general production when they’re hitting dingers, but in 2017, despite the league-wide uptick in long balls, the Orioles actually managed to hit 20 fewer than 2016. The team strikeout rate went up and the team walk rate went down. It was not a good year for the Orioles, but there were a few highlights.

SS Tim Beckham, a former first-overall pick by the Rays, was dealt to Baltimore at the trade deadline and showed everyone why he was a #1 overall pick. During his brief time in Baltimore (50 games), he triple-slashed .306/.348/.523 with 10 HR, which is a pace of  around 32 HR.

We also saw SP Kevin Gausman show us why he was a former top pitching prospect with a breakout performance of sorts. His first half performance was rather lackluster but in the second half he broke out: 3.41 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 9.64 K/9, and a 3.43 K:BB. He was 11th in the AL in ERA in the second half (among 32 qualified starters, which is basically the top third), and tied for 17th in fWAR. Not spectacular, but the team seems to have developed a solid pitcher after losing Jake Arrieta (we all know how that worked out) and Zach Davies, who has been a serviceable starter for the Brew Crew. Can’t say that things are looking up for the Orioles, but there seems to at least be a faint beam of light at the end of a very long tunnel for the O’s.

American League hitter ranks: 743 Runs scored (8th), 232 HR (5th), 32 SB (last), .260/.312/.435 triple-slash (t-4th/t-13th/5th), 13.3 WAR (14th)
American League pitcher ranks: 4.97 ERA (14th), 19.6 K% (t-9th), 1.45 WHIP (14th), 7.8 WAR (14th)

Up next: National League Central

(Image taken from Barstool Sports)

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