No clear AL East favorite at All-Star break

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Coming into the All-Star break, the American League East is tighter than any other divisional race in baseball, with only six-and-a-half games separating the first- and last-place teams. While the New York Yankees’ current three-and-a-half-game lead over second-place Tampa Bay is the largest lead any East team has had all season, each AL East team has reasons to believe it can win a division title, as well as weaknesses that could prove fatal.

Offensively, the Toronto Blue Jays are the class of the division. Their .331 team on-base percentage and .441 slugging percentage both lead the division by a healthy margin and as a result, they scored 486 first-half runs, 77 more than any other American League team. The Yankees, who scored 409 runs, and Baltimore Orioles, who scored 387, have nearly identical slugging percentages (.425 and .422, respectively) and are above-average offensive teams. The Boston Red Sox scored 376 runs in the first half, far more than Tampa’s 332, but after adjusting for park factors, they both performed slightly below average this spring.

Defensively, the Rays are the one elite team in the division. Fangraphs credits Tampa’s defense with 19.3 Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) in the first half, buoyed by outfielder Kevin Kiermaier’s 15.7. Baltimore is 8.9 runs above average, while the rest of the division has struggled with the leather. In Toronto, Chris Colabello’s –14.6 FRAA cancel Josh Donaldson’s 8 and Kevin Pillar’s 7, leaving the team at –5.7. Boston’s defense totals –13.3, but they would approximate Tampa’s numbers if not for Hanley Ramirez (-18.9) and Pablo Sandoval (-11.9), two of the game’s worst fielders. The Yankees (-22.6) have fielded poorly all over the diamond.

Baserunning doesn’t influence the game quite as strongly as hitting or fielding, but good runners can add a few runs with their legs. The Blue Jays, paced by speedsters Pillar and Jose Reyes, have been the league’s best baserunning team, followed by the Yankees and Red Sox, who both employ a wide range of base stealers and base cloggers. Baltimore, with a division-worst 27 stolen bases, may be the league’s slowest team, but Tampa actually clocks in last with –5.5 Baserunning Runs Above Average.

A ranking of starting rotations in the AL East depends on whether one believes pitchers have any influence as to whether balls in play are turned into outs. From a run-prevention standpoint, the Rays have by far the division’s best rotation, with a 3.33 ERA. Baltimore (4.20) and New York (4.24) are not far below league-average, while Toronto (4.46) and Boston (4.75) have been disasters.

As noted above, though, fielding can have a strong impact on run prevention, and the Rays have the league’s best glovemen. Focusing only on strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed- the outcomes most within a pitcher’s control- the Rays (3.58 Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP) still have the strongest rotation, but the Yankees (3.75) and Red Sox (3.84) are not far behind. Defense, sequencing, and batted-ball luck have cost the Yankees and Red Sox a lot of runs this season, so despite both teams’ defensive shortcomings, we should expect some improvement in both teams’ ERAs this summer and fall. The Orioles (4.37) and Blue Jays (4.42) have the worst starting pitcher FIPs in the American League.

Perhaps the one great strength that has separated the Yankees from the rest of the division thus far has been their lights-out bullpen. The unit’s 3.40 FIP leads the division, bolstered by Andrew Miller (2.29) and the devastating Dellin Betances (1.69). Baltimore has a 3.47 bullpen FIP and two All-Star relievers in Zach Britton (1.85) and Darren O’Day (2.84). Toronto has a strong 3.56 bullpen FIP, but the Rays (4.23) and Red Sox (4.29) have been among the worst at late-inning pitching in 2015.

Looking forward, there is no reason to believe the standings will separate much more than they have. Over the last month of the first half, the Red Sox (15-12) and Orioles (15-13) had the division’s best records, with the Rays (13-16) pulling up the rear. Boston’s offense has found its stride, and the Red Sox should hit even more when Dustin Pedroia returns from the disabled list. Toronto has nine pitchers on the DL and should benefit from Aaron Sanchez’s impending return and the possibility of Marcus Stroman making an appearance later in the year.

Meanwhile, the Yankees’ best hitters have been Alex Rodriguez, Brett Gardner, and Mark Teixera. Each is over 30 and has missed at least 140 games in one of the past three years. Their best pitchers, Michael Pineda and Masahiro Tanaka, have been just as fragile. It seems unlikely that this roster could remain injury-free for another three months.

The Yankees have historically been major players at the trade deadline, and a Johnny Cueto signing might make them big favorites in the division. Their farm system is soft, though, and it’s been a few years since they’ve made a major splash in July. Toronto and Baltimore should be in the market for Cueto and Cole Hamels as well, so the division title may be in the hands of the general managers as much as the players.

Fangraphs projects 87 wins and a division title for the Yankees, with the Blue Jays, Red Sox, and Orioles all tied six games behind, one game ahead of the last-place Rays.

This writer sees the Yankees struggling with injuries down the stretch and ceding the division, likely to the offensively-dominant Blue Jays or the well-rounded Orioles. Boston may very well be the strongest team in the division over the remaining 74 games, but they’re still unlikely to close the gap and play meaningful October baseball. That there’s still reason for some optimism after their first half is a testament to the mediocrity of the AL East.