Right up front, allow me to say that I’m sorry. I’m well aware that the AL East doesn’t need any extra attention. If I had my druthers, this story would be about a division that hasn’t already enjoyed a great recent race between more than two teams. The NL West hasn’t had a down-to-the-wire, three-way thriller since the Rockies and Padres challenged the Giants in 2010; the NL East hasn’t had a truly suspenseful mid-September free-for-all in the six-division era. One of those divisions deserves its day in the late-season sun.
However, we don’t get to decide which division has the season’s signature race, and baseball doesn’t dole out tension in equal portions. And with 11.5 percent of the regular season remaining, the AL East is the epicenter of the standings, and the would-be home to three of the AL’s five playoff teams if — say it with me — the season ended today. On Sunday morning, the East had four teams within three games of first place; on Monday, its four top teams were within four games of first place. A Red Sox win and a Yankees loss Monday night widened the gap between first and fourth to five games, but by 2016 standards, that’s still extremely tight. This is one of those years when the playoff picture would be almost set without the wild cards injecting some suspense: Of the other divisions, only the NL West has even one second-place team within five games of first. If we compare the combined deficits, division-title odds, and games to elimination of each division’s four trailing teams, we find that the AL East is home to most of the season’s remaining first-place uncertainty.
A tangle of at least four teams this late in the season is historically significant, even though it’s not nearly unprecedented. Data provided by Dan Hirsch, creator of historical stats and analysis site The Baseball Gauge, shows that similar snarls have persisted even closer to the finish lines of previous seasons.
Something stands out about all of those pre-2016 seasons, though: They were a while ago. Such a long while ago, in fact, that today’s divisional format — which dates back to 1994 — didn’t exist. And that’s the key: It was easier for four teams to be bunched toward the front of a race when divisions went seven, eight, or 10 teams deep than it has been during an era defined by six divisions of four to six teams (five, since 2013). In that sense, this year’s AL East race really is unprecedented.
So how did we arrive at this impasse? Even before players reported to spring training, it was clear that the American League would be much more balanced than the NL, which abounded with rebuilding and tanking teams. FanGraphs’ preseason-projected winning percentages for AL teams were almost three times more tightly clustered around the average record than their NL counterparts, and the projected gap between the best and worst teams was almost three times greater in the NL than in the AL. The AL West was the only division whose projected records were more compressed than the AL East’s.
Not every division has proceeded as the projections foresaw. All in all, though, we’ve witnessed a pretty predictable season, particularly compared to topsy-turvy 2015. Last year’s preseason projections missed by an abnormal amount: FanGraphs’ projected standings (which weren’t alone in being off base) called only two division titles correctly and missed 17 teams by more than 50 points of winning percentage. This year’s projections are on track to call four division winners, with only seven misses of more than 50 points. By root-mean-square error (RMSE), a common method of assessing projections’ performance, this year’s projections have been about 16 percent more accurate than last year’s. The AL is what we thought it was.
Of course, no method would have forecasted the AL East to be quite this close. It took a string of surprises for each team to wind up where it is. All four of the East’s contenders have surpassed their projected winning percentages thus far, with the projected-for-fifth-place Orioles’ 67-point overperformance the second biggest in baseball behind the Rangers and their crazy one-run record. The all-or-nothing O’s have homered and Brittoned their way to contention despite a rotation so shaky that they intentionally traded for Wade Miley, who has allowed 34 runs in 35 1/3 innings over eight starts for the Orioles and, even more amazingly, remains in the rotation.
The Yankees, whose 24–9 record in one-run games is second only to Texas’s 32–10, are nine games above .500 despite having been outscored by 13 runs. After essentially conceding the season in late July, when they traded Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Beltrán for prospects, their record has improved, and they lead the league in FanGraphs pitching WAR despite a staff that has prominently featured unknowns such as Luis Cessa, Kirby Yates, and Nick Goody.
The Jays, who were expected to slug their way past their pitching problems after pummeling the league last year, have instead fielded a middling offense and assembled the league’s most valuable starting rotation. And while the Sox have beaten their projections, their 81–62 record vastly underrates how well they’ve played. Boston’s BaseRuns record, an estimated mark derived from underlying performance, is 91–52, 10 games better than its real one. Only the Rays and Twins have underperformed their BaseRuns records by as big a margin.
With so few games remaining, strength of schedule isn’t likely to be a deciding factor, especially because the Sox, Jays, Orioles, and Yankees will end their seasons by beating up on each other. Of the combined 76 games still on their schedules, 64 will come against other AL East teams, and 52 will be between two of the four AL East teams in contention. If Boston or Toronto finishes strong in head-to-head action, the standings might look less compressed when the entire race has been run. The two leading teams, who just faced off for three games in Toronto (Boston took two) will finish the year with a potentially decisive, must-see series at Fenway.
For all the excitement and continual jockeying for first place, the race’s outcome could be anticlimactic. The Red Sox were projected to be the division’s best team coming into the season, and they’ve been the best team to date, with a two-game lead over second-place Toronto that should probably be bigger. But just because Boston is, by all appearances, the division’s best team definitely doesn’t mean that the Sox are anything close to a lock for first place; the playoff odds, which account for the variance that dwarfs our predictive powers in small samples, give them only a 70 percent chance. To win the World Series, a non-wild-card playoff team has to be the best (or the luckiest) over a span of at most 19 games. The four teams still standing in the AL East have the same number of games to determine what the postseason matchups will look like. We call October a crapshoot; sometimes, late September is, too.