MLB Playoff Picture: AL East Race

The AL East race is still running close to a dead heat, with the New York Yankees holding a half-game lead on the Baltimore Orioles entering Wednesday night’s games. As part of a look at the landscape in this division race, we’re also going to include the Los Angeles Angels. Because it looks like the Angels’ place in the MLB playoff picture is trying to chase down the AL East runner-up for the second wild-card.

It looks like both Texas & Oakland are in out of the AL West. It looks like Detroit and Chicago will be winner-take-all in the AL Central, with the loser out of the wild-card race. Tampa Bay is slumping and looks finish. With the regular season set to conclude two weeks from tonight, there’s time for hot streaks or slumps to alter the dynamics of the race, but barring something major, the AL East has been paired to New York and Baltimore and LAA is the only team with a real shot at catching the runner-up.

NY Yanks: There’s hope in the Bronx that New York has finally started to stabilize, having won consecutive series over Boston and Tampa Bay and seen Andy Pettite pitch well this afternoon in his first start back from an ankle injury. The Yanks desperately need Pettite to be his old self, because C.C. Sabathia is struggling—a 5.40 ERA in three September starts, including poor outings in games against the Orioles and Rays were the team needed its stopper. Hiroki Kuroda also has a 5+ERA down the stretch.

The offense has been struggling with Mark Teixeira out (and not doing anything spectacular when he was in), and Curtis Granderson and Nick Swisher really struggling in the season’s final month. The talk of this team’s fabled bench looks like New York media hype—Eric Chavez’s .484 slugging percentage is an asset, but everywhere else looks no better than any other team.

What New York does have going for them is a bullpen that leads the league in closing its save chances and is 6-for-6 in that department in September. Rafael Soriano ably stepped in for Mariano Rivera and has posted a 41-save/2.02 ERA season, with David Robertson sitting on a 2.98 ERA. There are some depth issues and a Robertson meltdown in a big game at Baltimore reminded everyone how this team would really miss Mariano in big situations. But the overall performance of the pen in the absence of the game’s greatest closer is a vindication to sabermetricians who felt the position was overrated. And when it comes to getting the bullpen lead, Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano are the two position players acting like they know they’re in a fight for their lives, and while Joe Girardi has squeezed some decent starts out of Phil Hughes and David Phelps.

On balance though, this is a team that’s crawling to the finish line and beating Boston—which everyone is doing—and Tampa Bay—which over the last two nights has proven to be the only team that can’t beat Boston—doesn’t prove anything.

Baltimore: The Orioles have done almost a complete reversal in the way the win since the All-Star break. The overall season numbers tell you they are overly reliant on the home run ball—J.J. Hardy, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Chris Davis and Mark Reynolds have all hit 20-plus homers, but all needed improvement in the on-base percentage area. In the month of September, they all seemed to learn how to draw walks. Reynolds, Davis, Wieters, along with second baseman Robert Andino and new acquisition Nate McClouth all have OBPs that range from .365 to .441, more than enough to keep the runs churning. And a closer look at the stats tell you it’s not just a hitting streak—each player really is more patient at the plate and taking their walks. And this doesn’t even factor in how much Nick Markakis contributed, with an OBP over. 400 since the break before breaking his wrist a week and a half ago.

Buck Showalter continues to squeeze what he can out of the starting rotation, as Wei Yin-Chen appears to be wearing down. The Japanese import has turned in a good year, winning 16 games with a 3.98 ERA against a diet of AL East lineups, but that ERA is at 5.25 in September. The staff has been saved by the addition of veteran Joe Saunders—a 2.55 ERA in his last three starts and Chris Tillman. And the staff as a whole has been saved all year by a bullpen that’s somehow gotten even deeper in recent weeks. Showalter put struggling young starters Brian Matusz, Tommy Hunter and Jake Arrieta in the pen and all three suddenly became unhittable. They are added to a relief corps that was already anchored by stellar work from Darren O’Day, Pedro Strop and Jim Johnson.

I’m half-expecting Showalter to just junk the traditional notion of the starter and have a few pitchers work a couple innings at a time. While that might be an exaggeration, the manager certainly has the depth to put his starters on a short, playoff-type leash the next two weeks.

LA Angels: The road won’t be easy, as the Angels are three games back of Baltimore, and the power has gone out in September, as Albert Pujols, Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo all have seen their slugging percentages drop sharply. Trout is still getting on base consistently, but Trumbo has been in a prolonged slump in all facets of his offense since the All-Star break. Pujols is hitting .226 with one home run in September. Mike Scoscia has gotten help from an unlikely source in shortstop Erick Aybar, who is slugging over. 500 in the season’s second half and Kendry Morales is also swinging the bat well.

LAA’s offensive problems put the pressure on a pitching staff that’s up and down and the starters have come through. Zack Greinke, after struggling right after his acquisition from Milwaukee, has really gotten locked in and the rest of the staff—Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, Dan Haren and Ervin Santana—have all dominated in September. This was the pitching rotation the baseball world feared and why as long as the Angels are breathing, their World Series chances will be taken seriously.

But when you’re trying to come from behind in a playoff race, you can’t cough up games and the Angels’ bullpen is the worst in the American League at closing out their save chances, and they’ve been consistently bad—whether we measure the entire season, the second half or just September. It’s a franchise that essentially is asking to have its heart ripped out.

THE REST OF THE WAY: Not only do the Angels have to play from behind, but they have the toughest schedule. The last two games of a home series with Texas are ahead, as is a visit to Dallas to play the Rangers. LAA will also host Chicago. New York’s only games against a contender are this weekend’s three-game home set with Oakland. Otherwise it’s Toronto, Minnesota and Boston on tap. The Orioles get six games against the dysfunctional Red Sox, four more against Toronto, although a closing series in Tampa could be a little hairy if the race is still close.

It’s going to take everything Mike Scoscia has to steal a playoff berth from either AL East foe. And as far as the AL East race itself goes, a lot hinges on the continued health of Pettite and the possible late September return of Baltimore ace Jason Hammel.