From 1998 to 2007, the Yankees and Red Sox took the top two spots in the AL East every year but one (the Blue Jays finished a game ahead of the Red Sox for second place in 2006). The two clubs’ extended divisional dominance rendered useless a string of successful seasons in Toronto and provided perhaps the largest factor in MLB’s 2011 decision to add a second wild-card team in each league. While expanding the playoff field, the new system also increased the significance of division championships, ensuring that no second-place team within striking distance of first would coast through September. Though this switch seemed to promise annual Yankee/Red Sox appearances in October, it wound up greasing the skids for Baltimore, Toronto, and Tampa Bay. Last year was the first season since ’09 that both Boston and New York made the playoffs.
It appears, though, to have been the start of something—again in 2018 the Sox and the Yankees, both flush with young position players, have galloped out ahead of the rest of the East. With the Orioles and Jays fading and the Rays running a clever but underpowered experiment, we have good reason to expect more of the same in 2019 and beyond. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves! Before the Red Sox and Yankees meet for three games in the Bronx starting Friday, the midseason report card:
Boston Red Sox (55–27)
Last year’s club was outhomered by every team in the AL. The offense, consequently, finished sixth in the league in scoring, a fine but disappointing total, especially since the two teams that made the ALCS, Houston and New York, finished in the top two in homers and runs scored. This year’s squad, bolstered by J.D. Martinez (25 HR) and an otherworldly breakout from Mookie Betts (20 HR, a .338/.428/.684 line) ranks second in the AL in dingers and first in OPS. Andrew Benintendi (.290/.374/.519) is having the kind of season he was expected to last year. Mitch Moreland, who generally thrives before the break, is having his best first half ever (.291/.359/.549), and Xander Bogaerts has already outdone last year’s home run total in less than one-half as many plate appearances.
Their pitching has also improved. Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel remain their unhittable selves, but David Price is healthy again and Rick Porcello is thriving, since it’s an even year. (When will Porcello acquire the good sense to sit out every other season?) And no bullpen has saved a higher percentage of its chances. Sure, there are some disappointments here: Dustin Pedroia and Drew Pomeranz have missed extended time with injuries, and Christian Vazquez and Jackie Bradley Jr. have regressed offensively. But these are surmountable challenges; all the pieces are there for a run deep into October, if the baseball gods cooperate this time.
New York Yankees (52–26)
Has this Yankee squad been lucky or unlucky? Hard to say. Let’s start with the bad breaks. Giancarlo Stanton’s .847 OPS is 70 points south of his career average as a Marlin, and a full 160 points worse than last year’s MVP season. (Although Stanton’s June was his best month by far.) Yankee first basemen have produced the league’s third-worst OPS, thanks to the struggles of Greg Bird, Tyler Austin, and Neil Walker. Catcher Gary Sanchez had a .291 OBP before a groin strain forced him to the DL. Promising lefty Jordan Montgomery made only six starts before sustaining an elbow injury that required Tommy John surgery. Sonny Gray and Masahiro Tanaka have combined for a 4.76 ERA. Relief ace Tommy Kahnle had to be demoted to the minors.
But they wouldn’t be on pace for 108 wins were luck not on their side. Luis Severino has been among the AL’s two or three most dominant pitchers—he’s holding hitters to a .254 OBP and averaging six-and-two-thirds innings per outing. The Yankees have gone 15–2 in his starts. Rookie infielders Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar have combined for 25 homers, and the streaky Didi Gregorius has chipped in another 15. With 20 homers and a .397 OBP, Aaron Judge has slipped only a little from his mystical rookie year. And the bullpen has held opposing hitters to a .601 OPS, the stingiest figure in the majors. As in Boston, yes, there’s untapped upside here, and there’s a hole or two to fill. (The pundits have the Yankees making a run at Toronto’s J.A. Happ or another starter, but I wonder if a first baseman like Happ’s teammate Justin Smoak might make more sense.) It’s hard, nevertheless, to call their season to date anything other than a triumph.
Tampa Bay Rays (39–41)
When you look at this roster, you see a team many fathoms from contention. You see a tank in progress—hell, they traded their closer and their leftfielder to Seattle more than a month ago. This is a collection of picked-over spare parts, from the discarded C.J. Cron to the injury-prone Matt Duffy to lost-his-prospect-luster infielder Daniel Robertson to an anonymous starting rotation made more anonymous by the fact that the Rays don’t even let their starting pitchers start most games. Outside of Cron, there’s no power hitter on this team, and outside of Blake Snell there’s no pitcher who has accounted for even one win above replacement.
But when you look at their run differential, it’s an even 0. This gang of misfits has become an average ballclub. Some credit should go to the team’s ingenuity: Since deploying the opener for the first time on May 19, the Rays’ staff has been the most productive in baseball. (It’s not clear how much credit this novelty deserves, though, as Tampa Bay’s team ERA since then has been lower in games without an opener than games with one.) But perhaps the opener as a role is less emblematic of the Rays’ valuable craftiness than are the performances of the men who’ve been asked to fill it. The unheralded Ryne Stanek, a 26-year-old righty, has a 1.85 ERA in 24.1 innings of work. Wilmer Font, dumped earlier this year by the Dodgers and by Oakland, has a 1.64 ERA in 22 innings since coming to Tampa. Can the Rays can keep finding pitchers with 20 good innings in ’em? I don’t know. But I do know this: That’s a whole lot easier than finding pitchers with 200 good innings in ’em.
Toronto Blue Jays (37–43)
Entering 2018, off a disappointing 76–86 2017, the Jays faced a tricky choice. In Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette, they had two of the sport’s best prospects, building blocks for possible playoff teams in 2020 and beyond. They could have punted the season, stockpiled some youngsters, saved some money. But they also had Russell Martin, J.A. Happ, Josh Donaldson, and Troy Tulowitzki, veterans in their 30s with possibly enough in their tanks to drag the team to the second wild-card spot. So, in the offseason, the Jays chose not to rebuild, though they opted not to spend in free agency, either.
The result, alas, has been a team that isn’t very good (among AL teams, they rank eighth in runs scored and 11th in runs allowed) and isn’t especially well-positioned for the future. Happ will fetch a fair return on the trade market, but Donaldson, on the disabled list for a month already with a calf injury and no return date set, will likely be impossible to trade. Meanwhile, it’s unclear if Tulowitzki will play at all this season, and Martin’s career appears functionally over. And things have hardly gone better for the youngsters. 25-year-old starter Aaron Sanchez has followed his injury-plagued 2017 with an uneven 2018, and 27-year-old Marcus Stroman has chased his dominant 2017 with a so-so 2018. (He also missed six weeks to injury.) 23-year-old closer Roberto Osuna, on administrative leave since early May, was hit last week with a 75-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy. Early in June, the Jays were considering calling Guerrero up from Double-A, as that at least would have given fans something to cheer for. But then he suffered a knee injury, and even that faint hope disappeared.
Baltimore Orioles (23–57)
Is there anything at all to like here? This team ranks 14th in the AL in scoring runs and 14th in the AL in preventing them; I guess they deserve a little praise for not being the Royals, who bring up the rear in both categories. But this bunch is beyond misbegotten. Chris Davis, hitting .152/.230/.252 with below-average defense at first, has already managed a -2.2 WAR. He’s under contract for four seasons after this one—cowabunga! Jonathan Schoop has cratered (.202/.244/.354) after his 2017 breakout. Adam Jones no longer has the range to play centerfield. OK, Mark Trumbo is having a career on-base year … at .322.
Moving to the pitching: Alex Cobb has a 6.75 ERA, and the O’s are stuck with him through 2021. Andrew Cashner, signed to a two-year deal, has been barely any better (4.70 ERA), and I’m too ashamed to even paste Chris Tillman’s stats here. (In fairness, Dylan Bundy and Kevin Gausman have been OK.) It’s hard to know why management tried to squeeze another contending year out of this core; Baltimore went 33-41 after the break in ’17, and this offseason seemed a fine time to cut bait and move Manny Machado, Zach Britton (though Britton injured himself in late December) and others. Instead the team went all-in on an unloved class of free-agent pitchers, and they’ll be paying the price for a while. Only a great return at the deadline for Machado, having a tip-top walk year, can salvage this mess of a season.