The AL East is a division constantly on the move. Over the past four seasons, there have been four different division champs, and if the Rays can miraculously win the pennant this season it would be the first time in history that all five teams in a division won in five consecutive years.
One theory behind this fierce parity is that the AL East is full of moneybag teams. (Save the Rays, who coincidentally are the only team not to win the division in the past five seasons, but who are supposed to be smart enough to overcome their lesser means.) The Yankees are obviously loaded, but so is everybody else: New York, Boston, Baltimore, and Toronto are all in the top half of the payroll distribution, and the AL East has the highest average team payroll.
This means that every offseason the division gets shaken up by trades and free agent splashes. Two years ago it was the Jays with their blockbuster trade with Miami. Last year it was Boston with their acquisitions of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval (and also the Jays, I guess, with their fleecing of Oakland.) This year, it was Boston and New York going out and plundering the market for relievers by trading for Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith (BOS) and Aroldis Chapman (NYY). Those three alone brought in 3.8 WAR worth of pure RP juice to the division, and helped make the AL East a different kind of juggernaut that it’s used to being: A bullpen beast. (David Price to Boston happened too, but I would rather forget that as a Jays fan.)
I won’t tire you out with a history of the rise of the überbullpen full of specialized relievers and flamethrowers. Basic story is Tony LaRussa invented it and the Royals popularized it with their “three-headed monster” of Greg Holland/Wade Davis/Kelvin Herrera. When you have money and/or prospects and want to win, you go out and copy the strategy that you most recently saw lead to success. That doesn’t necessarily mean splurging on free agency, which is why we’re seeing teams like the Dodgers prioritize depth and player development, and it’s why Boston and New York got themselves the two best relievers in baseball despite already having strong and deep bullpens.
As you can see, it’s pretty much the Yankees all alone in the first tier. Then the Dodgers, Red Sox, White Sox, Astros and Orioles in the second tier. Then a bunch of OK to mediocre bullpens. Then the Phillies, who come in at a grand total of 0.9 projected bullpen WAR. Of all the lower-end bullpens, only the Angels, Tigers and Diamondbacks stand out as teams that would label themselves contenders. The Tigers in particular are going to need to score a lot of runs early if they want to do better than their last-place finish last season.
It’ll be interesting to see the offensively loaded teams of the AL East clash with equally high-powered bullpens. Toronto will try to blow out teams early in order to avoid high-leverage situations, and we’ll likely be treated to a lot of early run scoring in intra-division games. I would also bet that the starting rotations in New York, Boston and Baltimore average significantly fewer innings this season as Joe Girardi, John Farrell, and Buck Showalter try to maximize the value of their relief corps.
I would love to go into more predictions/analysis but baseball is too unpredictable for an Excel noob like me to try to predict, so let’s instead take a deeper look at these bullpens using Fangraphs’ projected bullpen depth charts.
Just as a quick reminder, even star relief pitchers almost never accumulate anywhere close to the WAR that star position players or starting pitchers do just by the nature of their innings pitched. It’s why, other than Eric Gagne in 2003, no reliever has ever won a Cy Young. (Side note, Gagne posted 4.7 WAR in his Cy Young season and racked up a ridiculous 11.7 WAR over 246.3 IP from 2002-2004. If he compiled those stats as a starter in one season, it would be the highest single-season WAR ever posted by a pitcher, topping Pedro Martinez’s 11.6 WAR 1999 season!)
Holy hell. That Aroldis Chapman and his projected 14.3 K/9 sits third on this depth chart tells you all you need to know. This is a bullpen that will feast on strikeout prone lineups, and probably will feast on high-contact lineups as well. These guys will eat regardless of the hitters they face. The second whiffiest bullpen is the Dodgers, who are projected to average over a full strikeout per nine below the Yankees at 9.3!
With Chapman suspended for 30 days and Miller suffering a fracture to his non-throwing wrist the other day, it’ll be a rocky start for the Yank’s ‘pen, but luckily, they have this dude Dellin Betances. He’s more than qualified to hold down the fort for as long as New York needs, and here are the glamour stats (from Fangraphs)
[Betances] also had the second lowest ERA and fourth lowest WHIP among qualified relievers over the last two years. Most impressive of all, he did so while throwing nearly 20 more relief innings than any other pitcher.
Further down the list, Chasen Shreve is an intriguing lefty with strikeout stuff who posted a 3.08 ERA last season over 58.1 IP, but the projections are bearish on him due to a worrisome 4.92 FIP in 2015.
For all the fanfare over this bullpen, it’s only projected to be better than last year’s by 0.6 WAR. I’d bet that this squad beats the 5.9 WAR projection, but it goes to demonstrate that there is such a thing as diminishing returns, especially when dealing with the small scale of reliever innings.
The Craig Kimbrel trade was, behind the Shelby Miller trade, the most widely panned deal of the offseason. Statheads will pretty much always condemn deals that involve trading away cost-controlled assets for a reliever who will throw at most 80 innings, but this one was in particular horrendous.
Despite that fact, the Red Sox are projected to be the most improved bullpen in baseball by a long shot after finishing dead last in reliever WAR last season. And “by a long shot” in this case means an astounding +5.6 WAR jump.
Everything that could go wrong—injuries, blown saves, fluke hits—did for the Boston ‘pen last year, so just having a healthy bunch of arms will improve the situation. Of course, asking the soon-to-be 41-year-old Koji Uehara to stay off the DL is unrealistic, but the additions of Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith should help to offset the health concerns.
Boston traded for Smith after he grabbed the closer’s gig in Seattle and impressed with an 11.83 K/9. He’ll start the season on the DL with a strained forearm, but he has the potential to grow into a dominant set-up man for the Red Sox.
Despite a generally shitty 2015, the Orioles bullpen quietly posted a combined 6.4 WAR—good for the best mark in the Majors by a full win. The duo of Zach Britton and Darren O’Day were lights out, and the O’s received positive WAR contributions from nine different relievers.
Unlike the prototypical swing-and-miss closer of this era, Zach Britton thrives on groundballs. His 96 MPH fastball has an 82% groundball rate, and is the number one reason why the Baltimore infield worms are on the endangered species list. He couples it with a slider that gets a 29% SwStr rate and the occasional changeup.
Darren O’Day has the filthiest sidearm action in the league, Brad Brach, Brian Matuz and Mychal Givens are all above average arms, and Dylan Bundy is the post-post-post-hype prospect sleeper who could emerge as an asset at the back end of this bullpen. Finally, please read this legendary NotGraphs (RIP) post about the mercurial Odrisamer Despaigne.
Fun poll to end the post as always: Which AL East reliever will finish the season as the most valuable fantasy baseball reliever?