The Best Team in the AL

Posted: 06/11/2015 by levcohen in Baseball

I was thinking about what to write today and came up with two pretty solid ideas: why I still think the Warriors will win the series after going down 2-1, and who the best team in the AL is. I think the baseball one is probably the better bet, so I’ll go with that one. But if the Warriors go down 3-1 or 3-2, expect a post titled: “Doubling Down on the Warriors,” because I was inches away from making that the title of this one.

In the National League, the hierarchy is pretty clear. The Dodgers and Cardinals are the class of the league (and baseball), and the Nationals will probably join them sooner rather than later. The rest of the NL is composed of above-average teams (Giants, Pirates, Cubs), a few average ones, and a few horrid ones (cough Phillies cough). It’s not a very interesting league, because it’s early June and we pretty much know what the playoff field is going to look like. The AL is a totally different story. Record-wise, the Royals are the best team in the wide-open league, but they’ve lost nine of their past 15 games and seem to be regressing to more of what we thought they would be. I don’t think they are the best team in the league or will be the best for the remainder of this season. Where does that leave us? Well, preseason favorites like the Indians, Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, and Mariners, the teams touted to make the playoffs before the season, have all struggled; their combined record is 142-156. Meanwhile, upstarts like the Yankees (whose best player may still be A-Rod), the Rays (whose cleanup hitter is David DeJesus), the Twins (whose cleanup hitter is Trevor Plouffe), the Astros (who have won an average of 58 games over the past four years), and the Rangers (who are on paper a worse team than the one that finished last in the AL West last year) are bossing the league, combining with the Royals to post the six best records in the American League. Heck, the team with the worst record in the AL, the Athletics, has a +10 run differential. It’s a crazy league. And guess what? I haven’t even mentioned the best team in the Junior Circuit. That would be the Toronto Blue Jays.

I omitted one rather large fact when explaining why I wanted to write about the AL. That tidbit? The fact that the Blue Jays are currently on an eight game winning streak. The streak has kind of gone under the radar, because the Jays are still just 31-30 and mired in third in the most mediocre division ever, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed by me, perhaps because I have their leadoff, two-hole, three-hole, cleanup, and sixth hitter on my fantasy team.

Luckily for my fantasy team, this team is powered by its offense. In the post-Bonds era, run scoring is at a premium, with few teams cracking 4.5 runs per game. The Blue Jays have averaged 5.32 per tout, smashing the second-place Yankees by two thirds of a run per game. Wow. They are +51.6 in Fangraphs offense, and the difference between Toronto and the second place Dodgers (+15.2) would be the fifth best offense in baseball. They are slashing .266/.333/.445, good for a .778 OPS that would have ranked 12th in 2000 but is first this year. They are fourth in baseball in homers, ninth in steals, and fifth in walk rate. And the scary thing is that their input (the lineup) makes the output (the run scoring) look sustainable. The addition of Josh Donaldson to an already-good offense got nowhere near enough buzz this offseason. Donaldson finished fourth in the MVP voting in 2013 and eighth last season, and he might finish first this year. Hitting second, right behind Jose Reyes and ahead of the rest of the heavy hitters, he leads the league in runs scored with 50 and is second in RBI with 44. He’s slashing .317/.371/.592 with 17 homers and 15 doubles. In a better hitter’s park in Toronto than he played in while a member of the Athletics, he’s hitting .372/.391/.729 at home. His 3.8 WAR ranks second in baseball. But unlike Mike Trout, Josh Donaldon isn’t a one man team, and when he slows down, the runs will probably keep coming. Reyes, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion are always threats to get injured, which worries me, especially since all three have already been banged up this season. But all three are healthy now, and they are all great contributors when healthy. Bautista is putting up classic Joey Bats stats, with 11 homers, an 18% walk rate, and a .909 OPS. Reyes is just heating up, with seven runs, seven RBI, two homers, five steals, a .429 average, and a .500 OBP in the last week. And Encarnacion, perhaps the best hitter of all of them, hasn’t gotten going yet.

But wait, there’s more! Russell Martin, another offseason acquisition, has been a huge boost at catcher, posting a 2.6 WAR, a .362 OBP, and a .859 OPS. And second baseman Devon Travis is the AL ROY frontrunner despite spending the last few weeks (and maybe another week or two) on the DL with shoulder inflammation. Travis is hitting .271/.336/.504 and has added good defense to the equation. Meanwhile, Chris Colabello has exploded as the starting left fielder, piling up 138 plate appearances and hitting .341/.384/.504 with a 151 wRC+, although he’s given a lot of that value back in the field. And Justin Smoak, the former top prospect, has had a career revival, posting a .800 OPS and a 125 wRC+ at first base. The offense is loaded. Why, then, is the record just 31-30?

Well, I think the defense is pretty solid, especially up the middle, and I don’t think that’s the problem. The real issue, of course, is the pitching staff. The Blue Jays have a team FIP of 4.37 that ranks worst in baseball. Given that they are usually thrashing teams or getting thrashed, the bullpen hasn’t really been a factor. They have just six saves and are near the bottom in bullpen innings. The real problem has been the rotation. But while the full season stats for guys like Drew Hutchinson, Mark Buehrle, Marco Estrada, and Aaron Sanchez haven’t been pretty, things are starting to look up for the rotation. Hutchinson, the de facto ace with R.A. Dickey struggling and Marcus Stroman out for the season, has a 2.97 ERA, a .96 WHIP, and a 30:4 K:BB ratio in the last month. Buehrle has returned to take back his Mr. Reliable mantle, with seven consecutive solid starts that have lowered his ERA from 6.75 to 4.25. But the real potential comes in the form of the team’s top two prospects, Sanchez and Daniel Norris, each of whom has great stuff. I think that if Sanchez and/or Norris figure it out this year, which seems pretty likely given that they both are thought to be big league ready. The Blue Jays need them to shoulder the load with Stroman, who was set to have a breakout season, out, and I think they will. I also expect Toronto to be fairly active in the trade market, with guys like top outfield prospect Dalton Pompey or Collabelo available for more solid starters. They have pieces to trade and to plug into the rotation, and I think it will only improve from here.

In a league as convoluted as this year’s AL is, it makes sense to take the team with the most dominant unit. This year, that is undoubtedly Toronto’s offense, which is destroying pitching and still has room to grow. Luckily for the Blue Jays, the pitching has room to improve, too, which is why I expect them to win (maybe run away with?) the AL East.

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