The Phillies are the best team in baseball right now, just ahead of the Red Sox and Cardinals. Last time I wrote a fanpost, Boston were not a factor. Now, they are ahead of the Yankees, who were the offensive juggernaut in the AL East. While the Yankees are still .6 wins ahead in WAR as an offensive team, the Red Sox have raised their wOBA to .346, just a tic behind the Yankees' .347. The Yankees, however, have a lower team BABIP so perhaps the Red Sox have just been lucky of late. I don't really think they are the team to beat in the East, despite their first place record.
The two teams really are quite evenly matched on offense it seems. Both have an equal number of RBIs... but the main difference is power and plate discipline. The Yanks have shown more power in home runs and ISO, but the Red Sox get on base more... due to their .306 BABIP. NY has been a little unlucky though, explaining why Boston has quite a bit higher team batting average. This is kind of an illusion with the on base percentage; the Yankees actually have a higher walk rate too. They have more power and a better eye.
What's even crazier is that the two team's pitching staffs are nearly identical. Both have a .285 BABIP against, and nearly the same WAR total and FIP rate. Also, the two teams BB/9, HR/9, and K/9 are nearly the same. Both ballclubs have a slightly above mediocre starting pitching corps, and great bullpens. What's more, the 2 AL East leaders have very equal fielding ratings. This could be a classic NYC vs Boston division race. Then again, it's not even halfway through the season, so maybe the Rays' superior fielding can vault them into first or a wild card. They will just have to drastically improve their hitting and pitching.
One of the main storylines of the 2011 season has been the Cleveland Indians. Things are starting to look a little worrisome for the Tribe however, with the Tigers breathing down their necks. The Tigers and Indians are very similar in wOBA and wRC+. The two team's BABIP, power, and discipline are also nearly the same. They both round out the top ten in MLB in hitting. Where the Indians are clearly better though is in pitching. Having similar BABIP against, the main area is in rate stats... the Indians are just better in that dept. One difference is that the Tigers have been more of a strikeout team so far, and Cleveland more of a groundball staff.
However, the Tigers' starters have shown more endurance, and this could prove to be key. If this pattern continues, the Indians' bullpen could become taxed. That being said, Cleveland just flat out has a better bullpen, so if the Tigers need to go to their's more often in the future, that could ruin their chances. Detroit's bullpen has an ERA above four and a half, and FIP & xFIP over 4. The Indians are sporting a top ten bullpen led by such household names as Vinnie Pestano (2.64 xFIP, 1.29 ERA), Rafael Perez (2.90 FIP, 1.48 ERA), and Joe Smith (1.42 ERA). Ex-Cardinal Chris Perez has been getting a little lucky with a 2.70 ERA, 3.37 FIP, and 4.94 xFIP in 23.1 IP. One thing of concern is that the Indians bullpen could explode with such miniscule ERAs and guys like Chad Durbin, Tony Sipp, Justin Germano, and Frank Herrmann rounding out the relievers.
Surprisingly, the Tigers have a much better fielding team by UZR. The White Sox have struggled their way to 4.5 games back, but I still consider them a contender. They have better pitching and have been cursed by the GOB on offense. Adam Dunn can only get better from here on out.
Right now, the division race looks to be between the Rangers and Mariners. Although, I must say, if the Rangers of Arlington don't win this 4 team race, I will be surprised. Texas has the second best offense (by WAR) only to St. Louis (actually tied in wOBA).... while the Mariners have the worst offense in MLB. This is a story of opposites though, as the Rangers have terrible overall pitching and the Mariners have one of the best pitching staffs in the majors. Mariners starters are at 3.34 FIP, while Rangers are at 4.08 FIP. In relief, the Mariners have one of the better bullpens at 3.77 xFIP... but the Rangers have the worst bullpen (negative 1 WAR). Fielding-wise, Texas is doing much better than Seattle though, at least by UZR.
Phillies are a couple games ahead of the Braves. Philadelphia Phillies are no longer the offensive juggernaut they once were: they are rating at .309 wOBA. This is a pretty light hitting divsion though, since they are leading the Braves by a little (two teams have same BABIP). The Phillies appear to have more speed while the Braves a little more power. In most divisions, the Braves would have the best pitching, but they have to contend with the Phillies' starters which include one of the most devastating rotations known to man. Philadelphia starters are averaging a ridiculous 2.73 FIP; Atlanta being at 3.34. In relief, the Braves have an elite bullpen... the Phillies just mediocre. Neither team fields all that well.
The central looks to be a 3 team race between the Cardinals, Brewers and Reds. Presently, looking more like a 2 team race, but the Reds continue to win. They have one of the top fielding teams, while batting at .328 wOBA, good for 6th in MLB. The Cardinals have the 3rd highest team wOBA and are tied with the Red Sox behind only the Yankees in wRC+. The Cardinals have shown extraordinary plate discipline and a knack for putting the ball in play, leading the majors in both BB/9 and batting average. The Brewers are nearly equal to the Reds, just a hair off the Reds pace in offense categories (main difference being Milwaukee showing more power and Cincinnati better plate discipline).
In pitching, the Brewers have shown that they are in the elite category. Their pitchers 3.48 FIP is best in the NL Central and 6th in MLB. The only pitching rate category the Cards lead in is tERA. The two teams both have a .291 BABIP against. Here is where it looks like it could just be a 2 team race: the Reds have the 4th worst pitching staff by FIP. I repeat, 4TH WORST (in all of baseball!). Their team FIP is 4.32; this is in large part due to their starters, who have posted a 4.73 ERA with a .294 BABIP against. Brewers starters, meanwhile, are top ten in tERA, and even better in every other pitching rate stat. Cardinals starters are 6th in tERA and nearly equal in FIP to the brew crew, 5th and 6th best starting corps.
Relief-wise, Milwaukee has the edge with an elite bullpen, best in NL Central and 6th in MLB. The St. Louis bullpen has been mediocre at best with terrible performances by Ryan Franklin and Brian Tallet and the just waiting to implode BABIP of Miguel Batista's; his weird line of .280 batting average on balls in play, 2.28 ERA, 4.79 FIP, 5.30 xFIP, and 5.41 tERA is an anomaly. Another thing that has not helped is sending down Mitchell Boggs, one of the better relievers. Two bright spots have been Fernando Salas' 1.68 and Jason Motte's 1.84 tERA... and third best reliever Eduardo Sanchez's 1.95 ERA. Lastly, Cardinals starter Kyle McClellan is a little worrisome; a 4.65 FIP and 4.74 tERA just don't match up that well with his ERA and low BABIP.
Since the two teams are about the same in fielding, the divisional race could be determined by just how much better the Cardinals are at scoring runs, or just how much better the Brewers are at pitching. The Cards can ill afford to give away wins by not fielding their best middle infield, or by continuing to allow both Batista and Franklin to be taking up playing time in relief. By addressing these issues, the Cardinals should be able to win the division, especially once Matt Holliday returns to the lineup.
- Fielding edge: Diamondbacks 19.9 UZR is 4th in majors; Rockies 7.4; Giants -4.1
- Pitching edge: Giants 2nd in majors; Rockies 14th; Diamondbacks 22nd
- Hitting edge: Diamondbacks .325 wOBA; Rockies .317 wOBA; Giants .297 wOBA
Rockies seem to be the most well-rounded team in this division. They also have been a little unlucky at pitching. However, the Diamondbacks clearly have an edge in fielding and hitting. I will be surprised if the Giants can win this division on pitching alone, but last year was a surprise. This appears to be a rather weak division, but should be interesting to watch D-Backs and Rox go at it down the stretch.
In conclusion, the teams that have the most potential are NY, BoSox, Phillies, and Cardinals (yes, those are some conservative picks I guess). I think that the Cardinals have shown great depth, and once they don't have lots of injuries they are just better than the Brewers. If they can drastically limit the playing time of the middle infield of Skip Theriot, and DFA at least one of Batista or Franklin, this would help their cause. The Red Sox may just be on a streak right now, but they are playing well both at home and on the road. The Yanks are just a tough team to beat, as annoying as the AL East is I have to admit that. And the Phillies boast a historically elite starting pitching staff... the Braves may be a wild card team, but I'm just not sure they can keep up with Halladay and company.