Once again, the American League East is shaping up as one of the strongest divisions in baseball, running four postseason competitors deep as we enter the heart of the schedule.
The Red Sox have exceeded all expectations through the first two-plus months of the season, battling with the Rays atop the division, while the Yankees and Blue Jays sit back closer to .500 but represent clear threats the rest of the way.
By this point in the calendar, early trends start to determine the outcomes of seasons. Here’s a look at which trends have had the biggest impact on clubs in the AL East.
Less self-inflicted damage
The Blue Jays entered the past offseason with two stated goals, to improve their strike-throwing and defense. As the club readied to take the next step from a young, exciting roster to a legitimate contender, it simply needed to play cleaner baseball. The talent was there, but Toronto couldn’t afford to continue writing off fundamental errors as “development.”
It’s not perfect yet, but the Blue Jays have taken noticeable strides in both areas. Entering play on Thursday, Toronto had walked just the 20th-most batters in baseball, a notable improvement from the second-most in 2020. The Blue Jays also rank 20th in the league in errors committed now, compared to 10th in 2020, many of which were on routine plays. Measuring these goals with walks and errors isn’t an exact science by any means, but the eye test backs it up and it captures how Toronto has taken a step in the right direction. This is important because Toronto has one of baseball’s best lineups now, and if it can stay involved in games, it will come back to steal a win far more often than your average team.
-- Keegan Matheson
Minor League records
For the most promising trends in the Orioles' organization, look to the farm. The O’s system has trended upward for several years now, entering this season as baseball’s fifth best per MLB Pipeline. At the current moment, it hosts some of the best teams in Minor League Baseball.
As of Thursday afternoon, the Bowie Baysox owned the best record in Double-A at 22-8. The Aberdeen Ironbirds had the best percentage in High-A at .667 (20-10). And at Low-A, the Delmarva Shorebirds were 21-9 and had the second-best record in High-A, behind only the Tampa Yankees (23-9). The only outlier is the 12-18 Norfolk Tides at Triple-A. But the Tides' roster doesn’t sport the organization's top prospects.
Those are most heavily concentrated at Bowie, where No.1 prospect Adley Rutschman is thriving and the rotation is led by No. 2 Grayson Rodriguez and No. 4 DL Hall. No.10 second baseman Terrin Vavra and No. 15 lefty Kevin Smith are also turning heads with hot starts at Bowie under manager Buck Britton.
-- Joe Trezza
The Rays lead the Majors in strikeouts, but they’ve been one of the most productive lineups in the AL overall this season. How are they doing it? For one, they walk more than any other team in the league. After a rough stretch with runners in scoring position, they’ve found timely hits. And they hit home runs -- more specifically, timely home runs. Tampa Bay entered Thursday with a 35-12 record when hitting a homer this season and 16-3 when hitting multiple homers. As of Thursday afternoon, 41 of the Rays’ 76 homers this season (53.9 percent) had come with at least one runner on base, the highest rate in the Majors ahead of the D-backs and Giants. During their 19-4 stretch from May 14 through Sunday, the Rays scored six runs or more 13 times and put up 66 of their 148 runs (44.6 percent) via home runs: 12 solo shots, 17 two-run blasts, four three-run homers and two grand slams.
“I think the timeliness of things here right now is going in our favor,” manager Kevin Cash said recently. “We talked about it for the first month of the season, where we weren't getting it done with guys in scoring position. Now, we are doing that and then some.”
-- Adam Berry
Surprisingly strong pitching staff
Everyone expected the Red Sox would have a strong offense this season. However, the reason they have been at or near the top of the AL East standings for nearly the entire season is that their pitching is stronger than anyone predicted. That has been truer than ever of late. In their first seven games in June, Boston hurlers had a 2.47 ERA, allowing 17 earned runs in 62 innings. The bullpen was dominant during that stretch, notching a 1.69 ERA (four earned runs in 21 1/3 innings).
When it comes to keeping the ball in the ballpark, the Red Sox's pitching has been elite, allowing one or zero home runs in 42 consecutive games entering Tuesday night. The only starting pitcher with an ERA above 4 is Eduardo Rodriguez, the projected staff ace, who had a surprising slump in May.
-- Ian Browne
Worrying trends stacking up
Dealer’s choice: We’ve got a bevy of not-so-terrific trends to pick from, explaining how the Yankees fell from one game behind the division-leading Rays on May 25 to their current spot in the standings. How about losing 10 of 15 games from that date forward, a span in which they averaged 3.4 runs per game? Or maybe you prefer their Major League-leading double-play number, or their 28 outs on the basepaths -- most in the bigs, and the equivalent of more than one complete game of wasted baserunners. Pitching carried New York through a 17-win May, but it can’t get back in the race unless the offensive stats turn around.
-- Bryan Hoch