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AL East Division Preview: How Can The Red Sox Remain On Top Of The Yankees?

Tony Gutierrez - Associated Press

The Yankees’ acquisition of Giancarlo Stanton tightens the AL East Division. Meanwhile, the Red Sox look to repeat as division champions.

The American League East is set to be one of the more competitive divisions in baseball. After being one win away from the World Series last year, the Yankees entered the 2017-2018 offseason with needs at both second and third base and in the starting rotation. With two trades and a couple low-cost, high-reward free agent signings, the Yankees have checked all the boxes. 

Besides swinging trades for slugger Giancarlo Stanton and infielder Brandon Drury, the Yankees also brought back CC Sabathia and signed Neil Walker to take Starlin Castro’s vacated spot at second base. They are the early favorites to win the AL East and are bonafide World Series contenders.

While the Yankees have put everyone on notice, the Boston Red Sox, who have won the AL East Division title the past two years, do not seem to garner the same expectations as their rivals. The argument can be made that the Red Sox have just been as successful, if not more, than the Yankees over the past 15 years.

Ever since their 2013 World Series run, the Red Sox have failed to win a postseason series. This is a team that is in a win-now scenario. They traded away the majority of their farm system over the past several years, leaving their minor league affiliates ranked in the bottom third of the league in terms of talent. However, the prospects they traded away netted them ace pitcher Chris Sale and other contributors with the expectation that these players will make them World Series contenders on a yearly basis.

With a payroll over $232 million, the Red Sox are hoping that their expensive players will finally guide them to a World Series berth.

Meanwhile, the Blue Jays, Rays, and Orioles hope to do more with less. The Blue Jays opted to improve their outfield defense and offense by bringing aboard two low-cost outfielders in Randal Grichuk and Curtis Granderson. Their infield, meanwhile, already has to deal with an injury to an aging Troy Tulowitzki, which should open up playing time for Aledmys Diaz, acquired from the Cardinals. 

The Rays, like their Florida counterparts in Miami, also decided to slash payroll, leading to the departures of Evan Longoria, Steven Souza Jr., and Corey Dickerson. They are counting on their lower-cost replacements (Matt Duffy, Carlos Gomez, and Denard Span) to provide similar production. 

On the Orioles front, they enter 2018 with the expectation that Manny Machado will be gone at season’s end. With a depleted farm system and an aging core, several of whom enter free agency like Machado after the season (Adam Jones, Chris Tillman), a slow start to the season could trigger a rebuild.

Here is how the AL East is shaping out to be before Opening Day:

First Place Finish: New York Yankees

Lineup: Power is the word here. The Yankees are fielding a team that returns many key contributors who helped make them the second-ranked offense in runs scored in 2017. Along with the AL ROY Aaron Judge, the Yankees have also brought in the 2017 NL MVP Giancarlo Stanton and above-average infield pieces in Neil Walker and Brandon Drury.

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Key Question: Who should see more time in the outfield: Aaron Judge or Giancarlo Stanton?

With Stanton now in the fold, the Yankees have two right fielders on the roster. Manager Aaron Boone is going to have to determine who should get the starts at right field. Rational thinking suggests that Stanton and Judge should receive equal time in the field since it will allow them equal time to rest their legs. However, is that the best idea for the Yankees?

Judge, despite his size, has above-average speed and range. In terms of outs above average, in 2017 Judge has a +6 compared to Stanton’s -1. The chart below shows catches made with a catch probability of 75% or less. This determines what outfielder is capable of making more “difficult” catches.

The diagram below shows Judge’s range in blue and Stanton’s in green:

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The Yankees have said it is unlikely that either Judge or Stanton will play in left field. This is the right decision for a couple reasons. Yankee Stadium has a more spacious left-center field than center-right field. The fence in right-center is 385 feet from home plate, while the fence in left-center is 399 feet away from home plate. This is why Brett Gardner, who has always been a plus defender in center and ranks as a better defender than Judge and Stanton, should man the more spacious left field.

Judge’s greater range is not due to foot speed. According to Statcast, both Judge (27.7 ft/sec) and Stanton (27.5 ft/sec) grade out as above-average baserunners (average is 27 ft/sec). However, the increased range of Judge suggests that he gets quicker jumps on balls than Stanton.


However, Stanton makes the debate more interesting considering his better arm strength. Statcast has measured Stanton’s velocity on his throws at 93.6 mph.

Judge, however, can reach up to 97 mph. Although his average velocity is lower than Stanton’s, he can deliver powerful throws.

The debate will continue throughout the season. From the start of the season, it can be expected that Judge and Stanton will get numerous opportunities to play the field.

Prediction: The New York Yankees look to be one of several championship contenders this year. Not only that they can claim the AL East division championship, but they can also potentially get to 100 wins. The Yankees’ offense will surely be one of the best in the league, but the Yankees will only go as far as their pitching allows them. The Yankees’ 2018 rotation consists of ace Luis Severino, Masahiro Tanaka, Sonny Gray, CC Sabathia, and Jordan Montgomery, same as in 2017.

The rotation took major strides last year, ranking fifth in the big leagues with a 3.98 ERA and allowed one run or fewer in 53 starts. Severino was an All-Star and had the highest fastball velocity in the American League. Tanaka, meanwhile, had flashes of brilliance, while Gray ranked 10th in the American League with a 3.55 ERA.

Can Gray remain consistent, though? The Yankees did get mixed results from Gray when they traded for him last season. In his last six starts with the Athletics, Gray was 4-2 with a 1.37 ERA but was 4-7 with a 3.73 ERA in his 12 regular season starts with the Yankees. Part of what drove the Yankees’ success in the rotation last year was their starters’ consistency. It will be important for Gray to maintain the high-level of pitching brilliance that he showed flashes of with the A’s over the course of a full season.

If the Yankees’ pitching once again remains consistently good like the previous year, this is a team that should be considered the favorites in the American League to win the AL Pennant.

Second Place Finish: Boston Red Sox

Lineup: Manager Alex Cora is following what the Houston Astros did in 2017 and deploying his best two all-around hitters at the top of the lineup. Mookie Betts is not only a speedy player on the basepaths (28.1 ft/sec), but he also has power, as he showed last year with 24 homeruns. Andrew Benintendi had a great overall rookie season, but he also showed tendencies to go on extended slumps. The addition of J.D. Martinez provides the Red Sox with a player who can consistently be counted on to deliver power. With the Red Sox offense ranked 27th in total homeruns last year, Martinez, who hit 45 last year, should improve the team’s power numbers.

Therefore, Martinez’s addition should help make the Red Sox at least an average team in terms of power-hitting. With Martinez in the lineup, the Red Sox have a more potent lineup.

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Key Question: Can the Red Sox baserunning propel them over the Yankees?

If the Red Sox did one thing extremely well last year, it was their ability to steal bases. Baseball analysts have noted how the stolen base is declining in MLB, but the Red Sox managed to use it to their advantage in 2017.

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As the table shows, the Red Sox ranked sixth in stolen bases last year with 106. Their SB% was fifth in the league at 77.37%, behind the Yankees (80.36%, Indians (79.28%), Nationals (78.26%), and Diamondbacks (77.44%).

The Red Sox starting lineup currently has six starters who are above-average in terms of footspeed on the basepaths:

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As the statistics show, the majority of the Red Sox top baserunners in 2017 were able to steal at an above-average rate compared to the team’s SB%. Bogaerts and Betts, in particular, have showed an ability to turn routine plays into extra bases.

A key to the Red Sox success in 2018 will be to maintain the high stolen base percentage they posted in 2017. Manager Alex Cora seems to recognize this, as he has given his young players instructions, particularly Jackie Bradley Jr., to steal more in 2018. Considering their high success rate in 2017, the ability to create more runs on the basepaths could potentially lead to a few more victories over the course of the season.

Prediction: The Boston Red Sox desperately acquired the slugger they needed, but even with him, their offense still trails the Yankees’. The Red Sox’s success this year will hinge on how far their starting rotation takes them, especially their second and third pitchers, David Price and Rick Porcello. Price only made 11 starts last year due to injury. Porcello fell off a cliff from his 2016 Cy Young season. After finishing with a 11-17 with a 4.65 ERA and a 1.40 WHIP in 2017, Porcello needs to have a better season. Right now, the Red Sox look to be at least a Wild Card team in a crowded American League. This is a team that can make a run to the World Series or lose once again in the AL Wild Card game.

Third Place Finish: Toronto Blue Jays

Lineup: The key for the Blue Jays this year will be the health of Josh Donaldson. With him missing part of the season last year with Devon Travis and Troy Tulowitzki, the Blue Jays had the worst-scoring offense in the American League. Even with Donaldson fully healthy, this is a team that is missing an impact bat. Kendrys Morales can no longer be counted on to provide that other big bat that the Blue Jays need. After having a .753 OPS, 94 OPS+, and career low in WAR (-0.2), Morales is not the powerful hitter he was with the Angels, Mariners, and Royals.

What the Blue Jays did do this offseason is acquire more depth for the infield and outfield. Granderson, Grichuk, Solarte, and Diaz will not, of course, dramatically improve the offense, but they do provide manager John Gibbons will nice platoon options depending on who the opposing pitcher is. At the very least, they prepare for the scenario of one of their injury-plagued starters getting injured.

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Key Question: Can Josh Donaldson stay on the field?

The key to the Blue Jays season relies on Josh Donaldson staying healthy for at least 150 games. Last year, Donaldson not only had an injury-plagued season but also one that saw him post his worst offensive numbers since his rookie year.

A look at his 2017 heatmap shows one particular area that he struggled last year: the high part of the strike zone.

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In 2017, Donaldson saw 10.14% of his pitches as fastballs in the upper part of the strike zone. This is significantly higher than the 2017 MLB average of 8.99%. As the heatmap shows, Donaldson’s contact rate was lower than his 2014-2016 numbers, which are shown below:

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In 2014-2016, Donaldson’s contact rate of high fastballs hovered in the 70% range. However, in 2017, Donaldson’s contact rate was in the 40% and 50% range. Can his decreasing contact rate be explained away by his numerous maladies in 2017? Donaldson is healthy at the start of 2018, and he will have to show that 2017 was an aberration and that a decreased contact rate is not a sign of a soon decline.

Prediction: The Blue Jays veteran core is one year older, and several of their players (Troy Tulowitzki and Russell Martin) are showing signs of decline. The Blue Jays’ once potent offense is no longer there; instead, it is their starting pitching rotation of Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada, J.A. Happ, Jaime Garcia, and Aaron Sanchez that should be the club’s strength. After collectively contributing to a 4.42 ERA, good for 14th in the league, the club is hoping full seasons from Happ and Sanchez (both missed significant time in 2017) to help make a pitching staff go from league average to potentially elite.

The Blue Jays should be good enough to remain in contention for a wild card berth. However, as of now, their offense, unless it gets a boost during the season, does not appear to be good enough to reach postseason play. It is hard to see the Blue Jays beating out the likes of the Angels, Mariners, and Twins for the potential second wild card spot, but it remains a possibility as long as their pitching excels in 2018.

Fourth Place Finish: Tampa Bay Rays

Lineup: The Rays used to have a team that consistently won games. Between 2008 and 2013, the Rays won more games than every other team besides the Yankees. However, over the past four seasons, the team has not been quite as successful.

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The Rays are tied for 20th place. This year, they are hoping that their retooling effort will maximize the amount of wins the club can have while trimming payroll. What they did is subtract those players who were especially bad at hitting fastballs.

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Although it may be seen that losing Corey Dickerson, Steven Souza Jr., and Logan Morrison will negatively impact the Rays (they were worth 9.9 WAR and 93 homeruns in 2017), pitchers are more frequently throwing more fastballs. The Rays’ replacements for these players, C.J. Cron and Carlos Gomez, are better fastball hitters than their departed counterparts. Cron hit .297 last year with fastballs, while Gomez has went from .247 to .257 last year against fastballs.

Therefore, with the new additions, the Rays’ lineup looks like this:

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Key Question: How is their four-man rotation going to hold up?

In 2018, the Rays are going to try something different with their starting rotation:

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Manager Kevin Cash’s four-man rotation right now consists of ace Chris Archer, Blake Snell, Jake Faria, and Nathan Eovaldi. A look at the Rays’ schedule shows that the Rays will be able to get Archer 36 starts, assuming he stays healthy the whole year. The Rays’ proposal will result in 27 bullpen games, which means that one-sixth of the season will be a start filled in by someone in the bullpen.

With this unusual arrangement, numerous questions are raised. Can the Rays’ pitchers stay healthy to make this rotation scheme last? How will Cash adjust when (and if) one of his starters goes on the disabled list? Will Matt Andriese, the Rays’ leading candidate to be the next man in the rotation, take the injured pitcher’s spot? These questions will likely be answered as the season goes along, and how long this rotation lasts will be something to keep an eye on.

Prediction: Although many feel that the Rays are too concentrated on slashing payroll, this is a team that will not be as bad as people think. The Rays’ four-man rotation should be good enough to keep them in close games. The key for the Rays is whether their offense will be good enough to put runs on the board. Despite the roster turnover, the Rays look like a team stuck in mediocrity. The Rays were 80-82 last year, and it would not be surprising to see them finish 2018 with a record close to that.

Last Place Finish: Baltimore Orioles

Lineup: Besides the addition of Colby Rasmus, the Orioles return much of the same team from last year. The only significant change is that Manny Machado, who has played the past few seasons as a third baseman, will be moving back to his preferred position of shortstop. Tim Beckham, meanwhile, will go back to third base.

The Orioles’ lineup for 2018 will rely on numerous veterans (Adam Jones and Chris Davis) to have bounceback years. Meanwhile, Machado, who also had a poor 2017 offensively, is in a contract year and may receive a lesser contract if he ends up hitting .259 with an extremely poor .310 OBP again in 2018. For his own sake and to maximize his earnings, Machado needs to return to his All-Star batting level to match his Gold Glove defensive talent.

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Key Question: Can Alex Cobb rediscover his best pitch?

The good news for Orioles fans is that while their starting rotation was a complete dumpster fire in 2017, the rotation should be slightly better this year. The additions of Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner will not move the needle that much (both of them were worth WAR), but Cobb can become a more effective pitcher if he rediscovers his form on his split-finger changeup.

Over the course of his MLB career, Cobb’s split-finger changeup had a positive linear-weight mark every year, peaking in 2014. In 2014, Cobb’s pitch was worth a 21.2 run value, and batters had a measly .257 slugging percentage against the pitch.

2017 was unfortunately a different story. Hitters slashed .310 and had a collective slugging percentage of .504 against Cobb’s split change-up. Eventually, as the chart shows below, Cobb lost trust in the pitch, and in turn its usage dramatically decreased.

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So what is the key to Cobb making the pitch more effective? FanGraphs notes that Cobb’s release point could be a factor. While his curveball and two-seamer was released from approximately the same spot in his delivery, Cobb was somehow releasing his split-change noticeably higher. His split-change was released on average 2.52 inches above his fastball in 2017 compared to 1.32 inches in 2014. 

FanGraphs shows through two GIFs how Cobb’s release point affects the pitch. In 2014, the lower release point allowed for the ball to break at the plate better, which caused hitters to chase it out of the strike zone. In 2017, Cobb’s split-change remained flat, leaving him susceptible to giving up big hits.

The Orioles’ pitching staff needed significant upgrades. Even with a poor split-change, Cobb represents an upgrade for the team. However, if he can rediscover his split-change, he becomes a top-of-the-ace pitcher for $15 million a season.

Prediction: The Orioles look like a team that is destined to start rebuilding. This team has a well-balanced, power-hitting offense, but once again their rotation leaves a lot to be desired. If the Orioles’ rotation stays healthy and performs better than last year, they could sneak toward wild card contention. If they cannot, then the Orioles may be faced with the prospect of trading away Manny Machado and Adam Jones at the deadline. The latter seems more likely currently.

(All stats and information came from ESPN.com, FanGraphs.com, and Baseball-Reference.com, unless otherwise noted.)

Edited by Jazmyn Brown.

SQuiz
When was the last time the Boston Red Sox won the World Series?
Created 3/23/18
  1. 2011
  2. 2013
  3. 2007
  4. 2003

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