By: Brady Kas
Welcome back to part two of my end of the season review for teams battling it out for a spot in the playoffs. In my previous article, I talked about the National League, and in this piece, I’ll focus on the American League. To begin, let me remind everyone of the setup for this article. I’ll break down the teams in each division who have a shot at the playoffs, and list the lead they have in their division, or the number of games back they are of the division and/or Wild Card. Beneath each team, I’ll list either a single player or a group of guys who have made a significant impact on the team this year.
Without any further delay, let’s kick it off with the American League Eastern Division.
*Note that all stats are updated as of 9/10/21.
Tampa Bay Rays (88-52): 9 game lead on division
Key Players: Wander Franco and Andrew Kittredge
No matter the circumstances, it seems like the Rays never lose. This offseason, they continued their cycle of trading away established Major League players who were up for an increase in arbitration, for cheaper prospects and players. When you trade a former Cy Young award-winner and somebody who you trusted to start in Game 6 of the World Series, the fans, and really everyone around the league, expects some sort of a decline. Just look at this graph below of where the Rays (26th) rank in terms of payroll compared to everyone else.
The Rays keep chugging along. Franco, the consensus number one prospect in all of baseball, has been as advertised, if not better, since being called up in June. Franco is in the middle of a stretch right now where he has reached base safely in 38 consecutive games. This is the second longest streak ever by someone under the age 21, and the third longest ever in franchise history. After hearing about him the last couple of years in the minors, and seeing highlights every now and then from him, it’s amazing to actually watch him play every night, and his ability for a 20-year-old is unreal.
To wrap up on the Rays, let’s talk about this bullpen. Tampa has been a dominant force late in games, and they’ve done a great job of shortening the games. They’ve become very efficient in getting five innings out of their starters before handing it off to big guys in the bullpen. Leading the way for this intimidating force is Andrew Kittredge. They might not have the biggest names in the pen, but man do they perform. In 46 appearances this year, Kittredge has pithed a strong 58.2 innings, and leads baseball among qualified pitchers (at least 30 IP in bullpen) with an ERA of 1.07. Overall, Tampa Bay as a team has accumulated the most WAR among relievers with an astonishing value of 7.3. This pen is dirty.
Boston Red Sox (80-62): 9 GB for division, 0.5 game lead for 1st Wild Card Spot
Key Player: Nathan Eovaldi
The Red Sox have a number of high impact bats in their lineup, with Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and J.D. Martinez, and that’s what most people probably think of when they think of Boston. I, however, want to focus on Eovaldi here for one reason: To put it in simple terms, after signing a 4-year $68 million contract for his efforts that helped lead the Red Sox to win the 2018 World Series, he was not very good in 2019. In fact, he was one of the worst pitchers in baseball. In 12 games as a starter that year, he gave up 15 HRs, 37 ERs, and walked 31 batters in 54.1 IP. With no success starting, the Red Sox tried moving him to the bullpen, but Eovaldi struggled just as badly in the pen. But fast forward to today, Eovaldi is back in the starting rotation, and man has he changed. The one big thing I’ve noticed is his pitch selection. Look at this table below.
For some reason, the cutter just wasn’t working for him. Since this change in strategy and selection, Eovaldi earned his first trip to the All-Star Game this past summer and has really been the ace of the staff as Chris Sale has been recovering from Tommy John surgery. That contract of $17 million annually looks a lot more reasonable now after the season he has put together.
New York Yankees (78-62): 10 GB for division, 0.5 game lead for 2nd Wild Card spot
Key Players: Gerrit Cole and Aaron Judge
Remember back when the whole sticky situation was going on and everyone was questioning how Cole would fare without whatever substance he was using? Well, in his first three starts after June 21st, he went 0-3, giving up 11 ERs and five home runs in just 15.1 IP. That’s not good. In his last nine starts, however, Cole has been back to his usual self. Cole’s gone 6-3 while giving up just 15 earned runs in 53.2 IP. During this stretch, Cole has a ridiculous 13.87 K/9 ratio. He’s back.
For the offense, Judge has carried the team for a lot of the season. He’s easily been the most consistent and best hitter on the team. Everybody from D.J. LeMahieu, to Giancarlo Stanton, to Gleyber Torres have struggled at different points this year. Judge has smacked 30 dingers for the Bronx Bombers, but most importantly, he’s stayed pretty healthy this year, playing in 126 games. He’s been steady and reliable, and for a team has struck out the 4th most times in the AL, it’s good to see Judge striking out at the lowest clip of his career.
Toronto Blue Jays (77-62): 10.5 GB of division, 0.5 GB of 2nd Wild Card
Key Players: Robbie Ray and Vladimir Guerro Jr.
The Toronto Blue Jays had probably the two best free-agent singings of the offseason when they signed shortstop Marcus Semien from Oakland, and re-signed Robbie Ray. To show you just how good of signings these were, I created the graph below. The way the graph works is it lists every player from the off-season who signed a contract for a higher annual value than Ray. Ray signed for $8 million, and the list concludes with Trevor Bauer, who signed the biggest contract of the off-season with an annual value of $34 million. The circles that are filled in represent where Semien and Ray are at on the graph. As you can see, Semien has by far had the best season of anyone on this list, and Ray has a top-5 WAR too. That’s really good value for the Jays.
I want to expand on Robbie Ray a little bit more. Let me ask you a question: Which pitcher has the most strikeouts in their first 1,000 innings pitched? Nolan Ryan? Randy Johnson? Maybe even Gerrit Cole? Nope. The answer is Robbie Ray. This season he reached this benchmark of 1,000 IP with 1,244 strikeouts. Think about that for a second. More strikeouts than Roger Clemens, Bob Gibson the greatest pitchers of all time. Overall, Ray has really been a consistent force for the Jays this year but has turned it on here in the second half. He’s gone 4-1 in ten starts, pitching 65 innings, and striking out 82 batters in that span. Opponents are slugging a dismal .284 off of him in the second half. He’s been elite and is making a strong push for AL Cy Young Award.
In most years, Vladimir Guerro Jr. would be the clear front-runner for the AL MVP award. The man has raked with an OPS of over 1.000, and OPS+ of 171, and 42 bombs to go with his 100 RBIs. Unfortunately, there’s a guy named Shohei Ohtani for the Angels, who’s doing that, while also throwing 100 mph on the mound. But this isn’t about him. When you look at his numbers, there are two things that really stick out to me. (1) He’s drawing more walks this year and has been a much more patient hitter at the plate. This has been great to see in his development, as he’s waiting for the pitcher to make a mistake–not the other way around. He’s content with a walk and trusts his teammates behind him. (2) Let’s talk about his Fly Ball%. Junior had struggled to consistently lift the ball in his first two years in the majors with a Fly Ball% of around 30%. As a power hitter, he was hitting the ball on the ground about 52% of the time. That’s not ideal, and you really want those numbers to be flipped. This year, he’s closed the gap a little, with a Fly Ball% of 35.5%, and a Ground Ball% of 46%. This might not seem like a lot, but he’s essentially cut the gap in half, and this has translated to more success for Vladdy.
Chicago White Sox (80-60): 10 game lead on division
Key Players: Carlos Rodon and Lance Lynn
The White Sox this year have taken advantage of playing in the worst division in baseball and lapped everyone else in their division. The South Siders have been cruising now for a while, as no team really posed a threat to them this season. With that being said, let’s not take anything away from them. They earned this top spot in their division. This is a loaded team with their eyes set on one thing, and one thing only: the World Series. To get there, they’ll have to rely on two of their horses at the top of their rotation. Rodon has been a great story this year. He’s someone who had all the promise in the world coming up as a prospect but had never really put it together. Well, this year he has. He got off to a hot start early in the year, throwing his first career no-hitter in only his second start of the season. Overall, he leads the pitching staff with a WAR of 4.3 on the year. He’s been a dominant lefty for them this year, which is something every team needs in October.
The next guy we need to talk about is the big righty, Lance Lynn. Lynn, a Brownsburg native, has been a really good pitcher now for a long time. In fact, he won a World Series with their skipper Tony La Russa when he was with the Cardinals in 2011. Lynn’s dominance the past couple of years has been fascinating to watch. In 2018, he had his worst year, pitching to a 4.77 ERA and going just 10-10. Opponents were just crushing the ball off of him, with a Hard Hit% (which measures balls hit 95+mph off the bat) of 40.5%. One change in approach Lynn has made, is how he is trying to get outs. Take a look at this table below.
|Season||Line Drive %||Ground Ball %||Fly Ball %|
This has been a dramatic change in pitching philosophy for Lynn, but the results have been great. Lynn has become very effective in getting hitters to get themselves into outs. What I mean by this is hitters are trying to lift the ball in today’s game, and Lynn is encouraging that. If he executes his pitches, which he has done since the start of the season, hitters will have weaker contact, and won’t be able to lift the ball out of the park, but rather hit a routine fly ball or a pop-up in the infield. This is how he has evolved as the game has evolved.
Houston Astros (81-58): 5.5 game lead on division
Key Players: Carlos Correa and Yordan Alvarez
Professional hitters. That’s what I think of when I think of the Houston Astros. They know how to work an at-bat, take their walks, and work one good AB after another. They have the lowest K% in baseball at 19.4%, and rank in the top 10 with a 9% walk rate. One guy at the top of this list is Carlos Correa. Sure, you can say anything you want to about the cheating scandal, but Correa has come to play in his contract year. He’s leading the team with a 5.2 WAR, and like many others on the team, has increased his walk rate, while striking out at a lower clip. This all comes while playing great defense for the division leading Astros. Next season could look different without Correa manning their shortstop position.
For Alvarez and the Astros, he is the anomaly in the lineup. Alvarez just hits tanks. He’s got a sweet stroke from the left-side of the plate, and his swing looks effortless. Yes, his walk rate has decreased this year, which is a little discouraging, but the strikeout rate has actually gotten a little better, and he’s already set a career high with 28 home runs. In an age full of one-dimensional players who can only pull a ball 500 feet, it’s nice to see a guy like Alvarez who’s not afraid to use the entire field. He pulls the ball 36.4% of the time, drives it up the middle 37.3% of the time, and goes the other way 26.3% of the time. You can probably shift him a little bit to pull, but you can’t be surprised if he pokes one the other way for a double down the line.
Seattle Mariners (76-64): 5.5 GB of division, 2 GB of 2nd Wild Card
Key Player: Kyle Seager
Talk about a surprising team. The Mariners have found a way to stick around the entire season and are looking to make their first playoff appearance since 2001, the longest active drought by any team that plays in the four major sports (MLB/NBA/NHL/NFL) in America. The reason for their surprising season has to come from the veterans of the team. Sure, they have some young studs who will perform soon, but Kyle Seager isn’t done yet. Seager, the longest tenured Mariner, has been in Seattle since 2011. This year, in terms of pure power numbers, he’s having his best year to date. He has a career high in home runs with 34 and is just six RBIs away from breaking his previous high in that as well. His Slugging % and Hard Hit % are the highest they’ve been in a long time, and his Barrel % is well above his career average. Simply put, Seager is hitting the ball harder now than he has in any season before. The .213 batting average and .290 OBP isn’t ideal, but he has taken his power game to a new level this year.
Oakland A’s (76-64): 5.5 GB of division, 2 GB of 2nd Wild Card
Key Player: Matt Olson
The Oakland A’s are another team like the Rays who will never lead the league in payroll. In fact, they’ll probably be in the bottom half as they are most years, but they always seem to compete. From the beginning of the season until the end of June, Oakland was 48-34 and looked to be in a prime position to make the playoffs for the 4th consecutive year. But since July 1st, they’ve been stuck in neutral, going just 28-30. For them, consistency has been an issue, and they’ve never really had a hot streak in the second half like we’re accustomed to seeing from them. Nevertheless, one bright spot for them this season has been Matt Olson. The man can flat out rake. After striking out a little over 31% of the time last year, he’s cut that in half, striking out at a rate of just 16.4% this year. With this, he’s slashing a career high in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging. Of course, you can’t be a first baseman in baseball without hitting bombs as well. He’s hit 32 on the year and knocked in a career high 91 RBIs. Hopefully the A’s can find a way to pay him, or else, we could see him in a new uniform next year.
This concludes my end of the season review for each team battling for a playoff spot, and the opportunity to play October baseball. Hopefully you enjoyed reading this, as much as I enjoyed writing it, and stay on the look-out for another article from me previewing the playoffs here in a couple a weeks!