Tank Talks Sox: Two of Boston's divisional foes are way better than expected

Sox floor hasn't lowered much, but rivals' ceiling has risen

David Tanklefsky
May 12, 2017 - 3:38 pm

One-fifth of the way through the 2017 baseball season, it's been an inauspicious start for the Boston Red Sox. 

Though the club hasn't been below .500 all year, they've been stuck in first gear, just a few games above it. David Price still hasn't thrown a pitch. Steven Wright is done for the year. Coming off his Cy Young season, Rick Porcello has gone back to looking like Rick Porcello. In April, Boston opened the post-Big Papi era by hitting the fewest home runs in a month in nearly 20 years. Newly-minted ace Chris Sale (1.19 April ERA) finished the month with as many wins as Wright (8.25). The third base position has still been an offensive black hole.

Yet Boston hasn't been nearly as bad as some talk radio dodos would like you to believe. The power numbers are improving. Ten games into May they've already matched their home run total from April and they're slugging more than 120 points higher. The bullpen has posted the fourth best ERA and wOBA (weighted on base percentage) in the game. As a pitching staff, despite the injuries and back-of-the-rotation struggles, they're fifth in strikeout percentage and sixth in ERA even with a pretty high .299 batting average on balls in play by opposing hitters.

Boston is currently on pace to win about 86 games, four less than expected based on preseason projections. Not awesome, but hardly a swan dive. Here's the catch: the Red Sox floor isn't lowering dramatically, but the ceiling for their divisional rivals is rising astronomically.

According to Fangraphs postseason projections, there are currently four teams whose odds of making the playoffs have improved by at least 25% since the beginning of the year. Two of those four teams play in the A.L. East. 

While many of the Red Sox regulars (Hanley Ramirez, Jackie Bradley Jr., Dustin Pedroia, Sandy Leon) have slightly underperformed compared to last year, almost all of the Yankees youngsters have significantly overperformed. New York has the best run differential in baseball at a whopping +55, and that's with last year's rookie of the year runner-up Gary Sanchez missing two-thirds of their games due to injury. Six-seven, 280 pound slugger Aaron Judge is a minotaur. Outfielder Aaron Hicks is having a breakout year and Jacoby Ellsbury is having a bounceback one.

The Yankees pitching staff is third in the league in ERA and second in FIP (fielding independent pitching). The back of the bullpen is one of the strongest in baseball. This is a team thats young players are jelling earlier than expected and at a time when its veterans are having a resurgence. Sox fans don't want to hear this but the Bronx Bombers's bright future is arriving ahead of schedule.

Then there's the feisty Orioles. Baltimore may not be quite as good as their 22-11 record looks, but they're a lot better than many thought they'd be. Young outfielder Trey Mancini has provided lots of pop, replacing some of the power that Mark Trumbo seems to have lost from last year and Jonathan Schoop is the top slugging second baseman in the league.

Of the two divisional rivals, Baltimore seems less likely to keep up the pace. After finishing last year first in baseball in home runs and third in slugging percentage, Baltimore has moved back to the middle of the pack in both categories. They have the eighth highest strikeout rate and the fifth lowest walk rate in baseball. In an era where home runs are becoming more and more responsible for team's run production, a high K-rate plus a low walk and home run rate isn't a great mix. They've been the third luckiest team in baseball when it comes to cluster luck (a formula that tracks how often a team gets hits in clusters). They're also going to be without Zach Britton, the best closer in the game last year, for at least a few months.

At the start of the year, the Yankees were given just a 14% chance to make the playoffs. That number has now jumped all the way up to 61%, the largest increase of any team in baseball. The Orioles started at 17.6% and are now at 44.4%. 

Fangraphs projection still gives Boston the best chance of winning the division, but the Sox's competition for that crown has certainly stiffened up. In the preseason, Fangraphs predicted the five A.L. East teams would combine for 416 wins. They've now added 15 wins to that projection.

What Boston thought was going to be needed for a division title might not end up being close to good enough.

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