The AL East has a case as the most talented division in baseball, with four of its five teams above .500. You’d think that would also lend itself to making the division ultra-competitive. Instead, the Yankees have been the best team in baseball by a wide margin and have left the Red Sox, Blue Jays, and Rays to battle it out for second place.
As has already been alluded to, the Yankees are a wagon. It already looks like it’s their division to lose and the calendar only just flipped over to July. But with a 13-game lead over the second-place Red Sox, that’s the case.
New York appears to be a team without a weakness. They’ve scored the most runs in the league and boast the lowest team ERA as well. Maybe the only hole in their entire lineup has been Joey Gallo, who’s yet to gain traction after a slow start and owns a 70 OPS+ and just nine home runs. Despite that, the Yankees have three batters with an OPS+ over 140 (Aaron Judge, Anthony Rizzo, and Giancarlo Stanton), two more with an OPS+ over 120 (Gleyber Torres and DJ LeMahieu), and three more with an OPS+ over 100 (Jose Trevino, Josh Donaldson, and Marwin Gonzalez). That’s not even mentioning Matt Carpenter who has been a revelation since New York added him, slugging eight home runs in just 52 plate appearances.
The Yankees pitching staff has been similarly stellar. All five members of the starting rotation own ERAs below 3.36 while Clay Holmes has surrendered just two earned runs this year to lead an equally strong bullpen. One of the more impressive traits New York’s pitching staff possesses is its starters’ ability to pitch deep into games. Yankees starters are averaging over 5.2 IP per start. Nestor Cortes has slowed on the blistering pace he set early in the year but still has a 2.44 ERA to go with a sub-1.00 WHIP.
Boston has managed to engineer a turnaround to its season and put itself right back in the conversation as a contender after a slow start.
Coming into this year, it looked like the Red Sox would be carried by its offense. To this point, however, it’s been the pitching that has made Boston one of the teams to beat in the American League. The Red Sox are tied for fifth-best ERA in MLB while their offense has lagged behind, sitting ninth in runs scored.
Perhaps more surprising than those numbers is where Boston has been getting its contributions from. Rich Hill, Nathan Eovaldi, and Garrett Whitlock are all on the IL. Chris Sale is still on the mend from Tommy John surgery. Instead, the likes of Nick Pivetta and Michael Wacha have steered the way for the Red Sox pitching staff. Pivetta sports a 3.23 ERA in 94.2 IP while Wacha owns an equally impressive 2.69 ERA across 70.1 IP. The bullpen, which was a cause for concern early in the year converting save situations at a less-than-.500 clip at one point, has seemed to find a recipe for success. Tanner Houck has taken over the closing duties, shutting the door on six wins. John Schreiber has been maybe the Red Sox best bullpen arm, with a 0.66 ERA in 28 appearances. Those two, coupled with solid years from the likes of Jake Diekman, Austin Davis and Hirokazu Sawamura, have meant Boston’s bullpen is no longer as big a concern.
The Red Sox offense has been solid, but its been a product of a top-heavy lineup. Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, and J.D. Martinez have carried the load, for the most part, all putting up monster years. Trevor Story has rebounded nicely after a rocky start to his Red Sox career but still has an OPS+ under 100 (98).
The Blue Jays are in the midst of a four-game skid. But don’t let that fool you, this ballclub might be one of the best teams to find itself 14.5 games out of a division race in early July. Toronto’s lineup of young sluggers has been as good as advertised with the second-best OPS in baseball.
Alejandro Kirk has been one of the best hitting catchers in the league to this point, slashing .315/.405/.505 to lead the rest of the Jays’ better-known stars. George Springer has bounced back from an injury-riddled 2021 campaign to post a 130 OPS+ to this point. Eight of the nine players in the team’s starting lineup has been better than average according to OPS+. The starting rotation, which Toronto invested heavily in in the past couple of offseasons, has been sub-par apart from Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman. José Berríos hasn’t been able to find his form and his ERA still sits comfortably north of 5.00. The team owns a 4.10 team ERA, the 22nd ranked in MLB.
Somehow, the third-place Jays own the American League’s fifth-best record. They remain in a great position to secure a playoff spot—their odds sit at 76.8 percent according to Baseball Reference—but they’ll likely need the pitching staff to find its footing to make a deep postseason run.
Just as Toronto was one of the best teams to find itself 14.5 games back, Tampa Bay is probably the unquestioned best fourth-place team in MLB this year. Comfortably above .500, the Rays somehow find themselves 15 games back of first place in the division.
As in most years, the Rays pitching staff is its strength. Their 3.31 ERA is the fourth-best in baseball. Shane McClanahan has led the unit as one of the best pitchers in baseball. The young lefty sports a 1.74 ERA and 133 strikeouts in 98.1 innings.
The Rays’ downfall, however, has been their bats. They’ve scored the fifth-fewest runs in all of MLB and the fourth-lowest OPS. That offensive output leaves them in the range of teams like the Nationals and Royals—two franchises that lack the playoff aspirations of Tampa Bay. The good news for the Rays is despite their poor offensive showing, there is reason for optimism. Wander Franco, Brandon Lowe and Mike Zunino have struggled to stay on the field, and when healthy, could give a legitimate boost to the fledgling unit. Ji-Man Choi has helped buoy the offense in their absence, accruing a 152 OPS+.
The story of the Orioles this year is somehow next year. Yes, Baltimore has been surprisingly competitive, only 6.5 games back of the perennially playoff contending Rays, but the Orioles are no real threat for making a playoff push. They have however shown flashes of what the league could expect coming down the pipeline.
Adley Rutschman made his debut this year, but he’s been far from the most intriguing young piece on this Orioles roster. His 91 OPS+ pales in comparison to the likes of Austin Hayes and Ryan Mountcastle who own 123 and 129 OPS+ respectively. Cedric Mullins hasn’t been as dangerous as he was in his breakout 2021 season, but has recovered from a slow start to bring his slash line up to .260/.317/.397. Anthony Santander even looks like his monster 2020 season might not have been a fluke 114 OPS+ of his own in 2022.
Maybe the biggest surprise of all on Baltimore’s roster has been the performance of Jorge López. The starter-turned-reliever has been one of the best closers in baseball and should garner some interest from contenders as the trade deadline approaches. Lopez has a 1.88 ERA and 13 saves so far in 2022. John Means‘ injury means (no pun intended) that the Orioles rotation lacks name recognition. However, Baltimore has some notable performers there as well. Tyler Wells has put together a solid campaign that features a 3.09 ERA across 75.2 innings. The underlying stats don’t expect that success to continue at quite the same rate but the 27-year-old has at the least earned himself a spot in the Orioles rotation plans going forward.
Artwork by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter)