The Toronto Blue Jays are one of the hottest teams in baseball. Yesterday’s 7-1 thumping of the Mets completed a mini two-game sweep of the New Yorkers by a combined score of 15-1, a small bit of revenge for two straight one-run losses in NY on Monday and Tuesday. The win improved the Jays record to 36-32, and an impressive 13-2 in their past 15.
Normally a prolonged stretch of red hot play like this will push a team up the standings, helping them gain a big chunk of ground. But a funny thing is happening to the Blue Jays. Somehow, after going on a franchise record tear, they are virtually no better off in the standings than they were before:
That’s right: despite going 13-3 in June so far, the Jays have only gained one position in the standings, and shaved a mere 1.5 games off their deficit behind first.
Because the AL East has awoken, that’s why.
It wasn’t long ago that the AL East was often referred to as the AL Beast. The division featured an annual spending spree and arms race between two of the richest clubs in the game, with the Yankees and Red Sox dominating the division and the rest of baseball as a whole. Then in 2008 the Rays became good, and the next thing you knew, the East was the most complete and difficult division in baseball.
But things were supposed to change this year. The Yankees were supposed to be old and fragile. The Rays were decimated by injury and roster turnover. The Orioles lost some big players. The Red Sox had a long way to go after losing over 90 games last year. The Jays had serious question marks all over the roster. As seen by the standings above, the downfall of the AL East was evident. As at May 31, the division was a combined 14 games under .500, and the leaders barely had their heads above water.
There were two schools of thought to what was happening. The first, as described above, was that the teams in the division just weren’t very good. The second, however, was a much different story. The first two months of the season featured a heavy intra-division schedule. Of the 254 games played by AL East teams, 57.5% of them were played against AL East rivals. Essentially, the teams within the division were beating each other up. Unlike a division like the NL Central that featured an amazing team (St. Louis) and an awful team (the Brewers), the AL East is balanced, which meant records around the .500 mark were to be expected.
The best way to tell for sure if the AL East stinks or not is to look at the records of its teams against teams outside of the division. This factors out the “East beats up on itself” dialogue, and should tell us the real story.
Judging by the above table, the critics were right: at the end of May, the AL East sucked. Teams were 14 games under .500 against the AL Central, AL West, and during Interleague play, better than only the NL East, a division weighed down by the lowly Phillies.
But lo and behold, look at that. As soon as the calendar turned to June, the beast has awoken. At 44-20, the AL East is winning almost 70% of its games against the rest of baseball, led by Tampa Bay’s 12-5 record and Toronto’s 10-3 mark. Even the cellar dwelling Red Sox have gone 7-4 in June against non-AL East teams (and a tidy 0-6 against the East itself).
According to the current standings, the AL East is the second best division in baseball, behind the NL Central. Two teams (the Rays and Yankees) currently reside in playoff positions, with Toronto and Baltimore within two games of the second Wild Card spot.
So perhaps those critics writing off the division spoke a little too early. Yes each of the teams still have their flaws, but as we approach the halfway point of the season it appears they have learned to overcome them.
How else could the Jays go 13-2 with erratic pitching and only gain a game-and-a-half?