What's up with the AL East?
We really shouldn’t ever be that surprised when we look at Major League Baseball standings. Baseball is like any other sport in that it is profoundly random and inherently unpredictable. If we had a better idea of who would do what, it wouldn’t be any fun to follow. The Twitter account @cantpredictball is entirely devoted to the wonderful, inexplicable happenings around MLB.
All that said, no one expected to see the Baltimore Orioles at the top of the American League East Division in early September. Not even the most blissfully ignorant Baltimorean could have reasonably hoped for this. A weekend series - in September - against the Yankees - with serious playoff implications. The perennial doormats of the division barely even knew how to deal with their position in the standings.
How did we get here? Which stars fell out of alignment and created this chaos that we have on our hands? As is nearly always the case, a whole host of reasons explain this phenomenon. In many ways, it starts in Boston.
Dissension in Beantown came early and often. In mid-April, the Red Sox’ newly-hired manager Bobby Valentine criticized third baseman (and fan favorite) Kevin Youkilis, saying he is not “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past.” Sox stars Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez rushed to Youkilis’s defense, setting off a roller coaster of in-house griping that would create a season-long media firestorm.
Ineffectiveness on the part of ace starter Jon Lester and Gonzalez accompanied injuries to outfielders Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford only furthering the Boston media frenzy that continued to unearth absurd off-the-field issues one after the other. It all culminated in the biggest post-waiver deadline deal in MLB history, in which Gonzalez, Crawford and much-maligned starter Josh Beckett were traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers for uninspiring prospects and cap relief. The Sox floundered just below .500 until August, at which point their performance worsened further.
Meanwhile in New York, the Yankees emerged as a team deserving of a place in the conversation for best team in baseball. The Yankees’ stars continued to perform at expected levels, led by infielder Robinson Cano’s near-MVP caliber season. The Bronx Bombers spent the vast majority of the season in first place in the East, peaking in late July with a double-digit lead over the second-place Orioles.
Up until that point, the Orioles were an enjoyable team that everyone knew would crash down to earth before long. A patchwork rotation, unimpressive bottom half of the lineup and miserable team defense added up to certain non-contender status. The Birds stuck around, though, despite an abysmal scoring differential that would generally indicate an under .500 team. They were winning with a combination of remarkable luck in close games and excellent bullpen performance, in addition to a semi-breakout season from centerfielder Adam Jones. After a mid-July swoon, the O’s came racing back, continuing to outperform their run differential (although it did improve significantly.)
The Tampa Bay Rays, a new-age pitching and defense powerhouse, quietly hummed along under the radar. An August upturn from the Rays, powered by an exceptional performance by their starting rotation, found them in the thick of things come early September.
That brings us to the weekend series between Baltimore and New York. The two split the series, leaving the Yankees a game ahead in the division. Tampa lies a game behind Baltimore, easily within pouncing distance.
A pathetic showing from the Red Sox opened the door for an exciting season from the upstart Orioles and continued excellence in New York and Tampa Bay. Combined with a brand new second wild-card birth, the race to the finish will be lively in the AL East. The Orioles are the worst team on paper, and their late-inning, close game magic doesn’t figure to hold up too much longer. Expect the Rays’ dominant pitching and the Yankees excellent hitting to push them to the playoffs.