Start of June, AL East : Where my starters at?

The AL East is regarded as a very tough division to play in. In all of Major League Baseball, the two teams with the deepest pockets, the Yankees and Red Sox, inhabit the same division. In the same group of 5 teams, there are also the Tampa Bay Rays, arguably the most efficiently run team out of all 30 in the league. They have made the playoffs multiple times on a limited budget. The fourth team in the group, the Blue Jays, is run by the most aggressive GM in baseball, widely credited with knowing more about every player available than anyone else in his position, willing to angle any deal he can to improve his team. The division’s traditional doormat, the Orioles? Still in first place at the start of June.

With a high stakes game being played in this division every year, it all comes down to the players on the field, and how they stack up against one another. It is a simple fact that 72 of the 162 games each season are played against opponents in one’s own division. I  looked at the offensive production within the AL East in my previous post. Now I’ll take a look at the pitching side of the equation. Who are the dominant starters of the AL East, and which pitchers are taking it on the chin by being in the best division in baseball?

I give you 2 similar charts. The first is all of the AL East pitchers who are currently qualified for the ERA title, ranked by their ERA. Each line is tinted according to the team that the pitcher plays for. Behold:

Two Rays at the top, and the astounding Jason Hammel right behind. There are 115 qualified pitchers across the MLB, the number at the left hand side shows each pitcher’s rank out of that 115. Only 8 of the 22 AL East starters make the top half of the list.

On the bottom end, the struggling Buchholz (who has 2 ‘h’s in a row in their name, seriously) and recently demoted Hunter show up. Also, Ivan “All He Does is Win” Nova is having no fun either. These guys occupy 4 of the worst 10 qualifying slots in all of baseball. If you pitch in the East, there are few kindnesses afforded to you.

Now, ERA tell us what has happened up to this point. It is a real measure of past performance, but a poor predictor of future performance. A much better indicator of future performance is FIP. FIP is a measure of things a pitcher has better control over. Those things are walks, strikeouts, and home runs. Because FIP eliminates the variations in the defense’s ability to handle batted balls, it tells us more about the true talent level of a pitcher.

Chart the second:

So what does this tell us? Price, Hammel, Morrow and Sabathia are more likely to continue to be as good as advertised. Hunter really did deserve his demotion. Buchhola might see one soon, if the Sox can find a replacement. Henderson Alvarez went from 54th to 110th, because he appears to be allergic to striking people out. Kyle Drabek has not been burned by his “walk the planet” strategy as much as may have been expected.

We can also see the Yankees need an effective Andy Pettitte, because 60% of their rotation is ranked in the bottom 15 in all of baseball.The Blue Jays find themselves in similar troubles. The Jays have a unique advantage at the moment. Every starter has a BABIP of below .260. League BABIP is close to .300, and pitchers have very little control over this number. Over a career it tends to settle around .300 for every pitcher. Variations are mostly luck. So, either the entire Jays staff is on a very lucky run, or they have taken advantage of a very gifted defensive strategy. If they regress, we’ll have a pretty good indication that it was a lucky streak for the fielders behind them.

Really, there are only 4 top flight pitchers in the whole division. Price, Hammel, Morrow and Sabathia. There is a serious cost to a pitcher’s numbers and reputation while in the AL East, and those who can maintain a high level of performance in the division should be praised often. The rest of them, well, they’ll just have to thank their lucky stars that they play in a division that is most likely to take them to the playoffs.

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