Change-UpApril 22, 2009
A Look at the Front-Runners - AL Edition
By Patrick Sullivan

It's early, but it seems that fans and media alike of many teams are making post-season plans or pressing the panic button far too early. Baseball being a game that needs to play out over the long haul, it's best to peel back the onion just a little bit to identify why a team is winning or losing. Are the good teams lucky on balls in play? Getting ridiculous performances from players ready to plummet back to earth? Are the bad teams failing because they are stranding too many runners or just plain slumping? Maybe they're showing their true colors?

Last week I broke down the last place teams to try and identify who might be ready to turn things around.

These games count, so I do not want to downplay the impact of a tough start. Without a doubt, each of these teams has dug themselves a hole. But looking at the numbers alone, I think Boston and Cleveland fans should hold off on panicking just yet. Meanwhile, the Rangers have to be happy with the way they have hit the ball so far and it appears that given their strand rate, the run prevention figures to improve.

In the National League, all three last place teams will see their pitching improve, while Houston is going to get a big jump offensively when they start hitting in the clutch and Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee come around.

Combined, Boston, Cleveland, Texas and Houston are 17-7 since I posted that piece. This week I will take a little different format but look at the first place teams to identify whose play is sustainable and whose is not. Dayn Perry has done a similar piece looking at teams and individuals alike over at Fox Sports.

AL East

The Toronto Blue Jays are off to a 10-4 start thanks to a well-rounded club whose OPS+ and ERA+ of 118 and 124 respectively are both 3rd in the American League. They are also sporting the league's most impressive Defensive Efficiency Rating.

Five players with an OPS north of .900 are pacing Toronto's offensive attack. While it would be easy to say that they will all fall back to earth, I am not so sure. I am not going to contend that Lyle Overbay finishes the year hitting .330 or that Aaron Hill slugs better than .600. And Marco Scutaro is hitting .281/.417/.561. Will he finish the year there? I wouldn't bet on it.

But there are some mitigating factors that should give Jays fans hope. For instance, is it so inconceivable that Overbay would have a big bounce-back year? He's getting up there but still just 32, and he did hit .312/.372/.508 in his first season with Toronto in 2006. He was injured in 2007 and struggled to regain his form last season. Maybe he's all the way back in 2009. Speaking of injuries, Hill is just 27 years old and missed much of last season. He could simply be building off of his strong 2007. Scutaro has never been much of a hitter but look at that disparity between his batting average and on-base. That suggests to me that he is up at the plate with a better approach and may be in for a career year.

The other two members of the Blue Jays tearing it up early are Travis Snider and Adam Lind. 21 and 25 respectively and both loaded with talent, I am not ready to dismiss either of their early performances. This group will fall back some - maybe a lot - but I still believe it constitutes a solid offensive core. Moreover, Scott Rolen appears resurgent while Alex Rios and Vernon Wells have not hit yet.

On the pitching side, Roy Halladay is not slowing down. David Purcey and Jesse Litsch have gotten off to slow starts but Ricky Romero looks terrific. Where their run prevention will settle in I am not sure but there seems to be enough guys under-performing not to write this unit off.

Toronto is in the best division in baseball - indeed one of the very best in recent memory. There is no telling at this point where they will finish up. What appears evident at this point, however, was that I was just terribly wrong in my AL East preview. I thought they would be awful and many Jays fans called me out - in comments and over email. It looks like they're right.

AL Central

It seems a little silly to dig in too much on the AL Central, with three teams atop the division at 7-6, Minnesota at 7-7 (without Joe Mauer) and Cleveland, the consensus favorite at 5-9 but 4-2 in their last six. This is truly anybody's division. Let's look at the three teams tied atop the division.

For Kansas City, Zack Greinke is off to an unbelievable start while Gil Meche and Kyle Davies have been excellent as well. They will have to figure out the back end of the rotation to stay in it for the long haul but they are definitely solid at the front end. In the bullpen, the sooner Trey Hillman abandons Kyle Farnsworth in high-leverage situations, the better for the Royals. Offensively, they're performing slightly below average, just as you might have expected them to.

The White Sox are riding three guys offensively. Carlos Quentin is following up a breakout 2008 with another stellar year thus far. Mainstays Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye are both off to excellent starts. Whatever fallback you might expect from these players should be softened by increased production from Alexei Ramirez (.159/.213/.182) and Jim Thome (.304 on-base). On the pitching side, I am not sure I buy Bartolo Colon's start (3.86 ERA) but John Danks once again looks terrific. Jose Contreras looks done to me.

Detroit's offense looks to me like it is performing just a smidge below expectations. Yes, Miguel Cabrera is off to a ridiculous start and there is absolutely no way Brandon Inge does not come back to earth. But look at all of the other good players falling short of expectations in that lineup. That outfield will start to hit before long. It's Detroit's pitching that is all of a sudden awfully intriguing. With three youngsters simultaneously stepping in and stepping up, when they get Jeremy Bonderman back, this could be one of the best starting fives in the American League. Armando Galarraga and Edwin Jackson have been terrific, and boy does Rick Porcello have some talent. Justin Verlander is just fine and Bonderman is rumored to be coming along.

AL West

The Seattle Mariners are currently 9-5 with a +12 run differential; this despite a .296 wOBA and a 76 ERA+. They haven't hit at all, and I am not sure they ever will this year. But one thing we know, and we knew all along, is that they would be able to catch the ball. What I wasn't sure we knew was just how much of a measurable impact defense would have. This is what I wrote in our AL West preview:

The Mariners will be a real case study in how much we know about defense metrics. Consensus seems to be that Jarrod Washburn and Carlos Silva in particular stand to improve. Let's see how it plays out.

A resurgent Washburn, a healthy Erik Bedard and a lights-out defense that sports the best UZR in the game right now all signify to me that these M's might have some staying power. Their 2.94 team ERA may be unsustainable, but their offense will tick up. Besides, that's a division for the taking they're competing in.


I will be back this weekend with a look at the National League division leaders.

Thanks to Fangraphs for many of the more in-depth statistics.


"What appears evident at this point, however, was that I was just terribly wrong in my AL East preview. I thought they would be awful and many Jays fans called me out - in comments and over email. It looks like they're right."

Love to say I told ya so! Overbay's numbers will be very good this year if he remains protected from lefties (for the most part). Despite Cito Gaston's very unorthodox style of managing and lineups (refusing to pinch hit, batting Snider behind Barajas at #9), the "Cito Effect" is currently in full swing.

Also, Rolen's hands are lightning quick through the strike zone this year --- shades of the Scott Rolen of past. When the infield production inevitably cools down, it will likely coincide with the resurgence of Rios and Wells.

The pitching is intriguing, and not as worrysome as it was coming into the season, especially considering the state of the staffs on rival ballclubs. Just pray that Brian Tallet can hold the fort until Litsch returns from a (gulp) elbow injury.

i just have one point to make about brandon inge. you mention marco scutaro's possible revamped approach at the plate, but don't do the same for inge.

he made adjustments to shorten his swing and if you look at his walk rate so far, it's significantly up (9 BB/8 K in 14 games vs. a career 47 BB/132 K per 162 games). from a detroit free press article on the subject (link below), "But just two weeks into the season he feels as though his world has opened up at the plate. He sees the ball better. He has more reaction time." the combination of a shortened swing leading to better contact and better pitch recognition could lead to a respectable batting average.

another factor: his full time move to 3b. i'm pulling these stats from his yahoo player page:

as c: .199/.260/.330

as 3b: .258/.329/.430

he's said for the past couple years that he hits better when he's not behind the plate, and the numbers bear that out. that being said, i'm not arguing he'll continue hitting .320, but even if he regresses to that career 3b split .258 from here on out, that's not too bad. but it's at least worth noting that he said he was changing his approach at the plate and the early-season numbers seem to indicate that the change is working.

What happened to the NL?!!! I was excited!!