Every year in baseball, there is a division that turns things on its head for a while; this season, the entire American League is break dancing.
The National League is progressing according to expectations. All four of last year’s playoff teams—the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Milwaukee Brewers, the Philadelphia Phillies and the Chicago Cubs—are in contention to return to post-season play. The only notable thing is that that the Dodgers seem to be weathering just fine the absence of Manny Ramirez, who is suspended till July for use of a banned substance. At this point, all those people who thought that Dodger manager Joe Torre won so often during his long tenure in New York solely because of the Yankees’ talent base should be practicing their 180-degree turns.
In the American League, we should be asking what alternative universe we have entered. As the holiday weekend approaches, the Toronto Blue Jays are on top of the A.L. East, the Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals are battling for the top spot in the Central Division and the Texas Rangers are in control of the West. Meanwhile, only one of last year’s four playoff teams, the Boston Red Sox, is solidly above .500. Is the success of the Rangers, Blue Jays, Royals and Tigers sustainable? Put more simply, are they for real?
The Texas Rangers stand the best chance of being this year’s new entrant into the baseball elite. Last year, the Rangers went 79-83, not a record that boosted sales of their apparel or anything, but a respectable one all the same. In addition, it wasn’t hard to see how they could improve. The ’08 edition of the Rangers gave up 967 runs, or about six per game. That isn’t unusual for the Rangers; they routinely give up the most runs in the American League because they play in a small park and the ball carries in the dry Texas air. Yet, that also meant that they didn’t have to have great pitching to win; they just needed their pitchers to be somewhere close to the league average. This season, they are scoring at roughly the same pace but are giving up one less run per game on average. That may not seem like a big deal, but it puts them on pace for an enviable 90-72 season.
There could be storm clouds ahead—most notably, the Rangers’ schedule so far has been relatively easy—but most of the improvement looks real. The Rangers revamped the pitching philosophy of the minor league system, and they are committed to defense. For years, the Rangers haven’t much cared about fielding as long as the guys in their lineup could mash (hit). There’s a baseball statistic called Defensive Efficiency, which measures what percentage of batted balls in play results in outs. Last year’s Rangers ranked last in the Major Leagues at 67 percent. This year, they’re sixth at 71.1 percent.
The biggest asset for the Rangers is that they are a young team and their principal rival, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (does anyone other than folks bound by journalistic style rules call them that?), has an aging nucleus of everyday players. The Oakland A’s and Seattle Mariners, meanwhile, seem years away from contention. Even if the Angels overtake them this year, get used to the Rangers: They may be in the limelight for a while.
A compelling case can also be made for the Blue Jays. In 2008, they ran by far the best under-the-radar campaign of the season. They won 86 games despite playing in a division that included three of the five best teams in baseball, and, remarkably, they allowed only 610 runs, a number straight out a time when Richard J. Daley was still mayor of Chicago and a lot of people referred to Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay and a new Marvin Gaye record was a guaranteed hit.
This year’s Blue Jays have a more balanced attack. Their pitching is still upper echelon, but they’ve broken out the bats, too. Second baseman Aaron Hill is channeling the great Joe Morgan with his bat, and outfielder Adam Lind is hitting like a young Don Baylor. Toronto hasn’t reached the post-season since 1993 when they won their second consecutive title under manager Cito Gaston. Gaston returned to manage the club last spring. Since his taking back the Blue Jays helm, they are 78-52. He turned 65 in March, but the club might never let him retire.
The lone case against the Blue Jays is the level of competition. Games against the Red Sox, the Tampa Bay Rays and the New York Yankees comprise 41% percent of their remaining schedule. The Blue Jays are for real, but so is the competition.
I’m less sanguine about the Royals and Tigers. Oh sure, one of them is likely to win the division, but the AL Central is probably the weakest division in baseball. Neither team would be in the race to win any of the other five divisions. However, the good news is that Kansas City is moving swiftly in the right direction after many years of near-complete futility. They’ve had one winning season in the last 14 years. This year’s team is chock-full of young players whose careers are still on the upswing; it should be the start of something big in western Missouri. The Tigers have an excellent young core of players but will need to build more around them before they can be seen as an elite team. They are in the slow transition from being the 2006 American League champion to once again being a contender, but they are winning while changing, and that is an admirable feat.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.