The weakest division of the American League so far this season is the one that has been the most dominant in recent years: the AL East — featuring the Yankees and Red Sox, the two winningest AL teams since the league expanded to three divisions in 1995.
Baltimore is leading the division with a puny 16-14 record, the worst for any division leader in baseball. Four of the AL East’s five teams are being outscored. And it could get even bleaker: All five teams have put up these poor results while facing schedules that are significantly weaker than average.
There’s plenty of time for things to turn around; four-fifths of the season remain. Even if just one or two AL East teams get better, that could be enough for the division to win another pennant and even the major-league title.
Winning pennants and titles has been the forte of the AL East since the majors reorganized after the 1994-95 players’ strike. Teams from the division have represented 36 percent of all AL clubs but have won 11 of 19 pennants and eight of 10 World Series titles for AL teams — twice as many as any NL division. (NL East teams have won four.) The division has also claimed 71 percent of available AL wild-card slots, twice as many as it would be expected to by chance alone.
Much of that postseason success was achieved by New York and Boston, and the division has had plenty of underachieving clubs, too. But the AL East’s overall results stand up nicely, too. Its teams won 51 percent of regular-season games between 1995 and 2013. That understates its success because division games each had winners and losers, so they canceled each other out. Against opponents from outside their division, AL East teams won 52 percent of games, including the same proportion against both intraleague rivals and against NL teams.
Surprising early-season results often stem from bad luck: Opposing batters’ grounders find gaps in the infield, and their fly balls sail for home runs, at unsustainable rates. One way to measure this luck is to compare teams’ skill-interactive ERA to their ERA. SIERA tries to control for factors beyond pitchers’ control — so it’s roughly what a pitching staff’s ERA would be if it had the same luck, and fielding ability, of the average team. And all five AL East teams have a SIERA below their ERA. The Yankees’ gap is nearly a run per nine innings.
Then again, last year, all five AL East teams also had ERAs worse than their SIERAs. And while that doesn’t appear to have been due to bad fielding, this year most of the AL East clubs have below-average fielding.
There’s one more sign that its slow start could mean real trouble for the AL’s worst division. A few days ago, Dave Cameron at FanGraphs calculated teams’ expected scoring margins — based on how well they’ve hit the ball, run the bases, fielded and pitched — relative to their actual scoring margins. If the AL East really has been the victim of hard luck, we’d expect its teams to have better scoring margins than they do. Yet overall, they’ve done about as poorly as expected. Because they’ve won even more than we’d expect by scoring margin, if they keep playing as poorly as they have, their luck — and tougher opponents — could make it even harder for AL East teams to maintain the mediocre level they’ve established so far this season.