Jays and Rays: For real?

If you’ve been following along in the standings recently, you might be alarmed to see that the Toronto Blue Jays just keep winning. Not only that, but the Tampa Bay Rays are playing really good baseball after a less-than-stellar beginning to 2009. Heck, even the Yankees are doing well again. Comparatively, it seems like the Red Sox keep scuffling, playing .500 ball in May. If this keeps up, we may be in trouble. Let’s take a look at some of the numbers and see who we should fear and how much.

Let’s look at run differentials, which can help subtract out good and bad luck to some degree. Using Pythagorean records, we find the the Blue Jays would be expected to have a record of 26-15, just one game off of their actual record. So they are not succeeding by winning a bunch of 1-run contests. Based on runs scored, the Rays should actually be in second place with a record of 22-18, and the Sox would be third at 21-17. That means the Rays are actually outplaying their current 20-20 record, and that’s concerning to me. The Yankees project to 18-20 on the year, but I never count those guys completely out until September 30 anyway. So we’ve potentially got four contenders in the AL East, the toughest division in baseball. Let’s look more closely at the numbers and see what we can see.

Toronto Blue Jays (27-14)

After a disappointing 2008, they have been monsters both in scoring runs and preventing runs. As for the offense, they have posted a .289/.357/.462 line and a 114 OPS+ in 2009, led by the breakout seasons of Aaron Hill, Adam Lind and Marco Scutaro. That trio will come down to earth a bit, but as a whole their team production looks like it could be sustainable. Without turning over their roster much, they have gone from one of the worst offenses in 2008 to the best so far in 2009 (5.71 R/G), beating out the Rangers (5.65 R/G) and the Tigers (5.58 R/G). They are 5th in walks, 9th in strikeouts, and basically doing everything right as a team.

The Blue Jays have the 2nd-best team ERA in the AL at 3.85, and not by a small margin. The staff has been a bit gopher-ball prone, but lead the league in strikeouts and have done a good job preventing walks. All this despite relying on several rookies and lesser-known players this year. Roy Halladay has continued to be spectacular, and is one of the best bargains in baseball right now. Ricky Romero looked to be a solid starter before hitting the DL. Despite the implosion of B.J. Ryan, the bullpen has been solid and Scott Downs hasn’t missed a beat. And don’t forget, their team defense is very good (+6.5 team UZR). Still, the team .280 BABIP against is not sustainable, and I expect some correction on that ERA, perhaps .25 to .35 runs. That would put the Blue Jays at about 4.5-4.6 R/G. Assuming the offense keeps it up, that would still put them on track for a winning PCT of .606, or about 98 wins.

Tampa Bay Rays (20-20)

After years of being subpar in scoring runs, the Rays are getting it done this year like never before (5.53 R/G). Young slugger Evan Longoria is emerging as an MVP candidate at .345/.405/.676, and Jason Bartlett has come out of nowhere and is hitting .384/.423/.587. One of those batting lines will not last, and the team BABIP of .327 looks like it will fall a bit. Still, the Rays have some underachievers this year who will likely make up for anything lost, most notably B.J. Upton, Dioner Navarro and  Pat Burrell.

After a fantastic 2008, the Rays pitching has suffered some regression to the mean as well as aging/injury this year. James Shields has been somewhat uneven, and Scott Kazmir continues to be a shell of his former self. The bullpen, too, has struggled to find their stride. On the bright side, Matt Garza is quickly moving towards being Tampa’s #2 starter of the future. The Rays also boast plenty of young pitching depth at the back of their rotation, and have lefty David Price waiting in the wings.

The Tampa defense got some recognition last year, but they’ve made even further strides, if this year’s numbers are to be believed (+16.3 team UZR). Longoria, Gabe Gross and Ben Zobrist really give this team some outstanding glovework. The point is, this team is much better than .500 on paper, and they’ve got a lot of youngsters who could break out at any time. Don’t underestimate them.

Boston Red Sox (22-16)

The Red Sox offense has been decent (5.47 R/G), but the loss of Kevin Youkilis and the disappearance of David Ortiz’s production have left their mark. Jason Bay continues to pace this offense, and only Dustin Pedroia and J.D. Drew have kept it from tanking altogether. The imminent return of Youkilis will make a huge difference offensively, and we do need Big Papi to step it up; but I think this offense will be okay.

As I mentioned earlier, the bullpen has been awesome, while the rotation has been shoddy. The only bright spot in the rotation has been Justin Masterson, though he has been somewhat effectively wild. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and Daisuke Matsuzaka all need to round into form for this team to have a chance at the playoffs. Hideki Okajima has not been as bad as he has looked at times, and the only notably bad performance out of this pen was Javier Lopez (now at AAA). The team is currently ranked 4th in free passes, and the starters really need to cut down the walks. I don’t see Brad Penny lasting too much longer in a Red Sox uniform, not with John Smoltz getting healthy and the way Clay Buchholz and Michael Bowden are looking. And that’s a good thing for us.

The defense really needs to improve (-12.0 team UZR). Jason Bay continues to get poor marks in left (-9.0 UZR) Nick Green has been kind of adequate at short, Mike Lowell has been uncharacteristically shaky at third base, and of course we miss Youkilis at first base.


In short, both the Blue Jays and the Rays are legitimate threats in 2009. We all know how things work, though; a key injury here, a positive drug test there, and this picture can change in a jiffy. The good thing is that the Sox have weathered a lot of injuries early, and are still near the top half of the standings. Whatever the case, this may become one of the most exciting pennant races in recent history. It’s a great time to be a baseball fan.


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