The Toughest Division in Baseball?

So I’m watching the Blue Jays against the Red Sox in Fenway Park on television as I start to write this. Jose Bautista, suddenly and unexpectedly the best player in baseball, is taking funny swings at Tim Wakefield knuckleballs, as the Boston announcers go over the Red Sox injury report.

Bautista reaches out and drops a single into center, scoring Yunel Escobar from third. The Jays take a 1-0 lead in the first inning.

The Blue Jays are 42-45. They have a lot of bad players and decent players having bad seasons. The five hitters in the bottom half of their batting order all have on-base percentages below .300, and four of their five starters have below-average ERAs. But they have the best player in baseball in Bautista, and Ricky Romero is on the mound, a pitcher who has quietly grown into one of the game’s best. They’ve also scored more runs than they’ve allowed this year.

On the other hand, the Red Sox have a half dozen of baseball’s best players, and have scored way more runs than they’ve allowed. Jacoby Ellsbury leads off the bottom of the first with a home run. Kevin Youkilis slams one over the Green Monster to lead off the second. 2-1 Boston. Adrian Gonzalez, probably the AL MVP in the first half, is getting a day of rest. But still, about half of the Red Sox regular lineup would hit third or fourth for the current Mets. If not the best team in baseball because of their pitching – everyone glares at John Lackey — they at least have the best offense.

But they don’t have Joey Bats, who just drove in another run with a sac fly. Red Sox 2, Jose Bautista 2.

Anyway, there are a lot of top baseball players on these two teams.

So here’s what I want to know: Sandy Alderson reportedly said yesterday that the Mets division might be the toughest in baseball. But as I watch the Red Sox play the Blue Jays, I’m not so sure about that. If you took the 2011 Mets and stuck them in the AL East, how would they do? And if you stuck the Blue Jays in the NL East, where would they finish? Is the NL East really the best division in baseball?

I looked into this a bit, and Sandy Alderson might have a case. Here’s one simple way to look at it — the combined record of every division in baseball going into last night:

AL East: 226-199, .532
AL Central: 206-222, .481
AL West: 173-174, .499

NL East: 232-201, .536
NL Central: 244-277, .468
NL West: 213-221, .491

Same list, only in order of each division’s winning percentage:

  1. NL East – .536
  2. AL East – .532
  3. AL West – .499
  4. NL West – .491
  5. AL Central – .481
  6. NL Central – .468

The NL East has the best record among baseball divisions. Four of the five teams in the NL East are over .500. The Marlins, after losing 23 games in June, are 10 games under, but they’re not even that bad. So that right there is an argument that the NL East is the toughest division in baseball.

But this ignores that the AL is still the stronger league. There were 252 inter-league games this season; the American League won 131, and the National League 121. The AL East, though they have a worse record, might still be better simply because the American League is better. If the Oakland A’s are 10-10, and your local little league team is 12-8, it’s still safe to assume the A’s are better because their competition is stronger. I think. I don’t know the strength of your local little league, maybe they’re all ‘roided up and foaming at the mouth. But the same idea applies here. Even though the NL East has outplayed the AL East by record, the AL East might be better because they’re playing better teams.

So let’s try another way: Which division has the most top players? This isn’t a perfect method – if you evaluated bands this way, the Traveling Wilburys would rank as the best band ever. I’m pretty sure that’s not true. But generally the teams with the best players are the best teams, so the divisions with the best players should be the better divisions.

So, quick and dirty method for identifying the best players, let’s use the players on the first page of Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement leaderboards for hitters and pitchers from 2009-2011. That should give an idea of the best players over the past two and a half seasons. It’s 70 players, 35 hitters and 35 pitchers.

If you do this, you get this list of teams with the most top players:

AL East: 18
Yankees: Robinson Cano, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Brett Gardner, CC Sabathia
Red Sox: Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford, Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Josh Beckett
Rays: Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, David Price, James Shields
Blue Jays: Jose Bautista, Ricky Romero
Orioles: None

NL Central: 14
Brewers: Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Zach Grienke, Yovanni Gallardo
Cardinals: Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter
Astros: Michael Bourn, Wandy Rodriguez
Reds: Joey Votto
Pirates: Andrew McCutchen
Cubs: Ryan Dempster

NL East: 13
Phillies: Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt
Marlins: Hanley Ramirez, Josh Johnson, Ricky Nolasco
Braves: Brian McCann, Tommy Hanson
Nationals: Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth
Mets: None

AL Central: 9
White Sox: Gavin Floyd, Edwin Jackson, Mark Buehrle, John Danks
Tigers: Miguel Cabrera, Justin Verlander
Twins: Joe Mauer, Carl Pavano
Indians: Shin-Soo Choo
Royals : None

NL West: 9
Rockies: Troy Tulowitzki, Carlos Gonzalez, Ubaldo Jiminez, Jason Hammel
Giants: Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain
Dodgers: Clayton Kershaw, Chad Billingsley
Diamondbacks: Justin Upton
Padres: None

AL West: 7
Rangers: Adrian Beltre, Ian Kinsler, Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson
Angels: Jered Weaver, Dan Haren
Mariners: Felix Hernandez
A’s: None

That’s 34 top players in the American League and 36 in the National League . . . but there are 14 teams in the AL, so it’s 2.4 top players per team in the AL against 2.25 per team for the NL. That makes sense if the AL is a bit stronger.

The biggest surprise is the NL Central, which has 14 top players despite being the worst division percentage-wise. Explaining this one:

– There are six teams in the division. 14 players to six teams works out to 2.3 players per team. The NL East averages 2.6 per team.

– Adam Wainwright hasn’t thrown a pitch this season, so it’s really 13 top players.

– Besides Wandy Rodriguez and Michael Bourn, the Astros have Hunter Pence and then no one else. Ryan Dempster is the Cubs “top player,” and they don’t have anyone else close. Those two teams are really awful, and drag down the entire division. But I’m not sure any of the good teams are that good anyway.

I think at this point it’s safe to say that the two Eastern divisions are baseball’s best. They have the best records and most top players, so we can forget about everyone else. Three of the four best teams in the American League, the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays, are in the AL East, and the Blue Jays are at least decent. The two best teams in the National League, the Phillies and Braves, are in the NL East, and two other teams, the Mets and Nationals are over .500. But still – who’s better?

Okay, here’s the thing about the NL East this season: There have been an enormous number of players having breakout and bounceback seasons in the East this year. The Mets don’t have any “top players,” because all their good players have been hurt at some point recently, but Jose Reyes is probably NL MVP of the first half and Carlos Beltran might end up NL MVP of the second half. The Braves’ Jair Jurrjens leads the league in ERA, and Jordan Zimmermann is having a breakout season for the Nationals. Since the Mets last saw him, Michael Morse has figured out what breaking balls look like and entered Beast Mode. And most of the top rookies in baseball – Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos of the Nats, Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman, and Brandon Beachey for the Braves, Vance Worley for the Phillies, and the Mets’ Dillon Gee – are in the NL East. I don’t know if the NL East has as much talent as the AL East, but they certainly have as many players performing at their best. It’s turned into a storm of great pitching and decent offenses.

I still haven’t answered the who’s better question.

So here’s one last thing. Baseball-Reference has a simple rating system (SRS) for ranking teams from best to worst. It looks at run differential – the difference between a team’s runs scored and their runs allowed – and the strength of their opponents. You can click here for the full list, but here are the top ten teams:

Rk Tm Lg G W L W-L% R RA Rdiff SOS SRS ▾
1 NYY AL 85 51 34 .600 5.3 3.8 1.4 0.1 1.6
2 BOS AL 86 51 35 .593 5.2 4.2 1.1 0.2 1.2
3 PHI NL 88 55 33 .625 4.2 3.3 0.9 -0.1 0.8
4 ATL NL 88 52 36 .591 4.0 3.3 0.7 -0.1 0.6
5 TEX AL 88 47 41 .534 4.9 4.5 0.5 0.1 0.6
6 TBR AL 87 48 39 .552 4.3 3.9 0.4 -0.1 0.3
7 CLE AL 85 46 39 .541 4.3 4.2 0.2 0.2 0.3
8 LAA AL 88 46 42 .523 3.8 3.6 0.1 0.1 0.3
9 NYM NL 87 45 42 .517 4.5 4.3 0.2 0.1 0.3
10 TOR AL 88 42 46 .477 4.5 4.5 0.0 0.3 0.3
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 7/7/2011.

Seven of the ten best teams are stuck in baseball’s Eastern divisions. Four are in the AL East, three in the NL East – I think, at this point, I feel safe claiming that the AL East is better. The Yankees are better than the Phillies, the Red Sox over the Braves, the Rays over the Mets, Blue Jays over the Nationals. The NL East is a strong division. Just, the AL East is ridiculous. Perhaps more exciting though, this suggests that, because the Mets are three games over in such a tough division, they’ve been the third best team in the National League this season.

Yes, these Mets. They’re really a decent team.

The problem is that the Phillies and Braves are the two best teams in the NL. And to put it bluntly, the Mets aren’t making the playoffs this season unless either the Braves or the Phillies collapse in the second half. Basically, the Mets are good enough to win any division in the National League except the one they’re in.

So the good news is there’s evidence that the Mets are better than everyone seems to think, maybe even better than their actual record. The bad news is that they’re probably not making the postseason in the NL East. And I guess the other good news is that they’re about as good as the Blue Jays, so if you stuck the Mets in the AL East, they’d probably be 4th place getting destroyed by the Red Sox and Yankees every night. It could be worse. Someone always has it worse.

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8 Comments

Filed under Columns, Mets, Words

8 responses to “The Toughest Division in Baseball?

  1. You know what could help a bit? Getting some pitchers back healthy and throwing well. I think the Mets could gain some ground in the second half with Santana coming back up to speed… even if he’s only, say, 65-70% of what he was.

  2. Brett Gardner and Josh Beckett just to name a glaring few.. This is Beckett’s best year by far in THREE years and Brett Gardner.. Brett Gardener.. Why is Adrian Gonzalez included on the AL east when its first year there and Reyes is off even though dare I say he’s better than Brett Gardener this year????

    • Patrick Flood

      It’s not “the best divisions over the past three years.” It’s the best division right now, today, this season. So the divisions with the best players right now will be the best divisions right now. But these are the best players by how they’ve performed over the past three years. So Adrian Gonzalez has been one of the best players in baseball mostly playing for the Padres. But right now, today, this season, he’s on the Red Sox, so he goes in the AL East.

      Brett Gardner is an excellent defender who would lead off for more other teams.

  3. You have got to be kidding me. The AL East is better than the NL East? Seriously? The NLE sports the two best records in all of baseball. Yes, I’m a Braves fan through and through; however, I just watched my team dominate the AL by going 7-2 in interleague play. If I do recall, the Phillies didn’t do too bad themselves during that span… It’s the Marlins, isn’t it? For some reason they’ve forgotten how to win. But I mean, come on; our worst team is a whole lot better than the Orioles. The Marlins are good, they just despertally need that new stadium/city. However, if the Atlanta Braves played in ANY other division in baseball, they would be leading it. Since they play in the NL East, they are stuck 2.5 games behind first. All while sporting the best starting rotation and bullpen in the majors, three ROY candidates, and the best record since June 1st in all of baseball; I rest my case.

  4. Oh, and I’m sorry. I couldn’t help but to notice you called Jose Reyes the first half NL MVP. I think Brian McCann might have something to say about all of that…

    • Patrick Flood

      I agree the Marlins are better than the Orioles. But can you say the same about the Yankees and Phillies? How about the Red Sox and the Braves? The Rays and the Mets? Blue Jays and the Nationals?

      Boston has a better record than the Braves, by the way. It’s a few percentage points, but right now it’s Phillies, Red Sox, Braves, Yankees.

      I have to disagree with you though. The Braves have great pitching, but what about the hitting? Because you can’t just pretend that’s not happening. The Red Sox have scored 102 more runs than the Braves this season; the Yankees have scored 91 more. That gap isn’t made up in the pitching — the Yankees have allowed 36 more runs than the Braves. The Red Sox have allowed 68 more runs. The Phillies and the Braves are the two best pitching teams in baseball, but the difference on defense between those two and the Yankees and Red Sox is much smaller than the difference on offense. And that ignores that the AL is a better league overall.

    • Patrick Flood

      Jose Reyes: .354/.398/.529, 22 doubles, 15 triples, 3 home runs, 185 total bases, 65 runs scored, 32 RBI
      Brian McCann: .314/.386/.516, 15 doubles, 0 triples, 14 home runs, 146 total bases, 34 runs scored, 48 RBI

      McCann’s also 16-76 throwing out basestealers this season (21%, which is below average. I can see an argument for McCann based on him being the best player on a playoff team, if you want to go that route for the MVP. But if you’re not looking at it that way, does McCann’s lead in home runs and RBI make up for Reyes’ lead in everything else? I don’t see that it does.

      • reyes WAR this season: 5.2
        mccanm WAR this season 3.1

        Reyes is having a much better year than McCann and it’s really not even close. There are only two players, statistically, who should be in the discussion for MVP right now with reyes, and they are McCutchen and Kemp.

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