Who Will Come Out Of The AL East?

Among the remarkable story lines of 2012, which already include both a perfect game and a four home run performance, has been the unexpected success of the Baltimore Orioles in what many believe to be baseball’s toughest division.

The Orioles have gotten off to a great start and despite losing their last two games, currently sit atop the American League East with a 29-19 record, tied with the Tampa Bay Rays. While it’s not terribly surprising that Baltimore’s offense would rank as highly as it does with Adam Jones on pace for a 30 plus home runs season and J.J. Hardy playing like J.J. Hardy, the team’s pitching seems to be performing beyond its ability with the staff accomplishing more than all of its division rivals in terms of runs above replacement.

While no one expects the Orioles to play .600 baseball for the entire season, they’re certainly a better team than their preseason ZiPS projection of 67-95 suggested. However, their more recent adjusted projection through ZiPS doesn’t think that much more highly of them, predicting that the team will still finish last in the AL East with a .500 record. In order to do so, the Orioles would have to go 52-62 the rest of the way, or play with a .456 winning percentage.

Under such a scenario, the Toronto Blue Jays would have to go 58-56 in their remaining games to finish ahead of the Orioles. In order to meet their adjusted ZiPS projection of a .525 winning percentage though, the team would have to go 61-53, or play .535 baseball the rest of the way. That’s not a completely unrealistic goal, but it would only be good enough for fourth place according to ZiPS, who projects the Rays to win the division followed by the New York Yankees in second and the Boston Red Sox, despite being the only AL East team to currently have a sub .500 record, to finish in third place.

CoolStandings.com sees things a little bit differently, projecting that the Orioles will finish the season with an 87-75 record, going 58-56 through the remaining schedule. In order to do better than that, the Blue Jays would have to go 64-50 in their next 114 games, which would equal a .561 winning percentage. The website doesn’t imagine Toronto playing any better than it foresees the Orioles, projecting the Blue Jays to finish last, as Tampa Bay wins the division with New York and Boston finishing third and fourth, respectively.

Late last week, I noted that if the Los Angeles Dodgers play .500 baseball the rest of the season, the San Francisco Giants would have to play .565 baseball to get ahead of them in the standings. That seems unlikely because, well, the Giants probably aren’t good enough to do that.

As much as we might dismiss good starts with eye rolls accompanying the explanatory phrase “small sample size,” the truth is that winning more games than you’re expected to doesn’t mean that you’ll lose more games than expected later in the season. It means that when regression occurs, you’re most likely to lose as many games as was originally expected. Good starts shouldn’t be dismissed, especially in generally weaker divisions like the National League West and generally stronger divisions like the American League East.

While the talent level in the AL East is far more impressive than what the NL West offers, AL East teams have a habit of beating themselves up over the 72 games that each team in the division has to play against one another. Typically, and not surprisingly, the teams with the best inter-divisional records are the teams with the best overall records. So far this year, that remains true. However, it’s worth noting that the top two teams in the division are also the teams that have faced the most AL East competition to this point.

In other words, we’re unlikely to see the Blue Jays, Red Sox or Yankees reel off the type of success that Boston put together last year when they went 42-17 between June 3rd and August 9th.

I mentioned the differences between ZiPS and CoolStandings.com’s projections, but both systems agree that it will take 86 wins in the American League to make the play in game between the two Wild Card teams. In order to get to 86 wins on the season, here’s how the teams of the AL East have to play over their remaining games:

  • Tampa Bay Rays: 57-57; .500 WP;
  • Baltimore Orioles: 57-57; .500 WP;
  • New York Yankees: 60-55; .522 WP;
  • Toronto Blue Jays: 62-52; .544 WP;
  • Boston Red Sox: 63-52; .548 WP.