Throughout the season I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. Yesterday, in The Senior Class: Week 10, I ordered the NL. Today, it’s the turn of the AL. It’s The Designated 15 – Week 10! (All records correct as of Sunday morning).
- Oakland Athletics (5-2 last week, 38-24 overall) → Like their Bay Area mates the Giants, Oakland are lapping the field in terms of run differential (their mark of +118 is more than double the next best team, the Blue Jays). Unlike San Francisco however, the rest of their division is looking pretty frisky too, with only the Astros rocking a losing record amongst the other four AL West teams. They might well be the best team in the AL, but the A’s are going to have to be on their game all year long to stay at the summit of their own division with such stellar competition.
- Toronto Blue Jays (5-1, 38-25) ↑ As a starter, Marcus Stroman has pitched 12 innings of 1.50 ERA ball, walking two while striking out 13. As a reliever, he was rocked for 9 earned runs in just 6.1 innings, and had a 2.21 WHIP. A small sample size admittedly, but lets keep handing Stroman the ball to start games, rather than finish them, eh Mr. Gibbons?
- Detroit Tigers (2-4, 33-25) ↓ Three weeks ago, the Tigers looked like they were pulling away from the rest of the AL Central. Having just swept the Red Sox in a three-game series at Fenway Park, getting some measure of revenge for the 2013 ALCS, they stood seven games clear in the division, at 27-12. Since then however, Detroit has gone 6-13, and seen their division lead cut back down to 4. Surprisingly at the forefront of the Tigers’ struggles is their usually dominant pitching; Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer have both been excellent, and Rick Porcello his steady self, but Drew Smyly has failed to live up to expectations since being promoted to the rotation in place of the departed Doug Fister, and Justin Verlander looks to be a shell of his former self. Remember the panic this time last year when the 2011 AL MVP had a 3.71 ERA after 13 starts? Well this year, he’s gotten off to an even worse start – through 13 starts, he has a 4.19 ERA, a heightened walk rate (3.7 BB/9 compared to a career mark of 2.8, and a 2.0 figure in that career 2011 season), and is displaying a diminished strikeout rate (just 6.4 k/9 after averaging 9.0 over the prior four seasons). In return for collecting $20 million in salary this year, Verlander has been distinctly average, as proven by his 101 ERA+. Of course, Verlander rebounded in the second half last season, and might still be getting back into the swing of things after offseason core surgery, but at 31 years old, and owed $28 million per season for the next five years, I’d say there’s significant cause for concern amongst Tigers fans.
- Los Angeles Angels (3-3, 33-28) →
- Baltimore Orioles (4-2, 31-29) ↑
- Seattle Mariners (4-1, 32-29) ↑
- New York Yankees (2-5, 31-30) ↓ New York’s record in games in which Masahiro Tanaka hasn’t pitched you ask? 21-28. First on the list of pointers for improvement, stop playing Brendan Ryan at first base while riding with Derek Jeter at shortstop! If you couldn’t tell, this drives me insane.
- Chicago White Sox (3-3, 31-32) ↑ Just as I was about ready to gush about how amazing Chris Sale had been of late, Mike Trout happened. Oh well. Prior to the eighth inning last night, Sale had allowed just 5 hits in 31 innings, a mere 7 to the last 107 batters he had faced, and owned a 0.72 ERA over his last four starts. Of course, after 93 pitches and seven scoreless innings last night, aided by an error, he allowed all five Angels he faced in the bottom of the eight to score, as L.A. erased a 5-0 deficit in the blink of an eye. Still, as of right now, I’m of the belief that the man known as ‘The Condor’ is the best pitcher in the AL. Mike Trout is the Most Valuable Horse after all.
- Cleveland Indians (5-1, 31-31) ↑ In his second game back off the 7-day concussion DL, Carlos Santana yesterday went 2-2, with 2 walks, a home run and a single, lifting the Tribe to an 8-3 win over the Rangers. No more games behind the plate for Mr. Santana methinks…
- Boston Red Sox (1-5, 27-34) ↓ They lose 10 in a row. They win 7 in a row. They lose 6 in a row. Why Boston, must you make it so incredibly difficult for me to rank you?!
- Texas Rangers (3-3, 31-31) ↓ Just hours after Kendrys Morales, you know, a designated hitter/first baseman type, signed with the Twins, Mitch Moreland, you know, Texas’ designated hitter/first baseman type, who had replaced Prince Fielder, you know, the Rangers’ presumed first baseman/designate hitter type after he went down with injury, was announced to be in need of reconstructive ankle surgery, and out for the next three months. The Rangers now have made 19 DL moves this season. No other team has made more than 12.
- Kansas City Royals (4-3, 30-32) ↓ Eric Hosmer home run alert! I repeat, Eric Hosmer home run alert!
- Minnesota Twins → (4-3, 29-31) The Twins came out of nowhere yesterday to ink Kendrys Morales to a one-year deal, thought to be “in the ballpark” of the $10 million contract that Stephen Drew signed with the Red Sox in May. After the 30-year-old hit .277 with 23 home runs and 80 RBIs with Seattle last season, he’ll likely slot into the DH spot which has preeminently been manned by Josmil Pinto (19 GP) this year. Jason Kubel was designated for assignment in a corresponding roster move.
- Tampa Bay Rays (1-6, 24-39) → The Rays are holding on to 14th place in these rankings by the skin of their teeth, probably because I still can’t comprehend fully how they are three games back of the Astros. Seriously, I look at the standings and think it’s a mistake. Things have got to a point with the Rays however, where Joe Maddon‘s optimistic tweets, have got about as much baloney to them as the sandwiches he makes in the clubhouse.
- Houston Astros (3-3, 27-36) → Not a bad way to get your first hit Jon Singleton.
He doesn’t have the dazzling repertoire of Yu Darvish, or command the buzz of a hot young pitcher like Jose Fernandez. He wasn’t a can’t-miss no. 1 pick like Stephen Strasburg; in fact, he was passed over by an additional 8 teams after he was supposed to be drafted. He can only dream of Felix Hernandez‘s track record. He doesn’t have the hardware of Justin Verlander, nor anywhere close to belonging in Clayton Kershaw‘s tax bracket. None of that really matters, because even without such typical acknowledgement, Chris Sale belongs in the conversation with those aforementioned peers as one of the very best pitchers in the game.
Since finally being drafted out of Florida Gulf Coast by the Chicago White Sox 13th overall back in 2010 (he had been projected to go no. 4 to the Kansas City Royals after the surefire top three picks of Bryce Harper, Jameson Taillon, and Manny Machado, but they instead took Christian Colon in a perfect illustration of #RoyalsbeingRoyals), Sale has become, as described by Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports, “one of baseball’s unquestioned aces, a high-inning, high-strikeout, high-groundball, low-walk, homer-scarce, left-handed monster.”
Now admittedly, there were legitimate concerns over Sale when he was coming out explaining his fall in the draft; with a painful-looking contortion act also known as his pitching mechanics (see Ben Lindbergh’s excellent 2012 post if you want to be truly grossed out by the lefty’s delivery), and his 6-foot-6, 180-pound, 82-inch wingspan, there were literally no player comps for teams to go off, and significant worry about his ability to stay healthy. As a result, despite his impressive college stats, many teams saw him strictly as a future reliever.
Sale would in fact, debut in such a role for the last two months of 2010 and stick in the pen the next season, before making the transition back to being a starter for the 2012 season. Since then, quite simply he’s been a man on a mission to prove the teams that doubted his ultimate durability that they were very, very wrong in doing so; since becoming a starter (to the start of the 2014 season), “The Condor” has made 59 starts and thrown 406.1 innings, and aside from a brief dead arm scare been the picture of health. More than simply making it out onto the bump every fifth day though, Sale has been dominant too, further rubbing salt into the Barret Loux– (Arizona), Karsten Whitson- (San Diego) and Deck McGuire– (Toronto) shaped wounds of those that passed on him; since moving into a starting role, he has racked up 10.5 WAR, an ERA+ of 140, and posted not just the third-highest K/9 (9.3) of any major league starter, but the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio (4.3) in that time.
He might just be getting better too. Sale is throwing harder than ever, with every one of his pitch types so far in 2014 having picked up velocity after jumping up last year, and maintaining his mid-90s heat deeper into games. Additionally, he’s also throwing smarter; having originally been highly dependent on his fastball/slider combination when he moved into the rotation, Sale has continued on the usage alterations which he made last year, relying on his killer changeup much more this season – a good move considering how over the last two years and change, it rates as the 4th best in the American League by Fangraph’s Pitch Type Linear Weights. It’s probably at this point too I should mention how Sale is signed to an extremely team-favorable five-year, $32.5 million contract that also gives Chicago a 2018 option for $12.5 million and a 2019 option for $13.5 million.
If any Sale skeptics could possibly still remain at this point, all they need to do is go watch his performance against the potent Red Sox offense at Fenway Park last night; going toe-to-toe with Jon Lester, the ace of the Pale Hose took a no-hitter into the sixth before ceding the only hit he would allow – a solo jack by Xander Bogaerts – eventually striking out 10 over seven innings of work**. It marked yet another great start for Sale, who has so far allowed just 16 hits in his four starts (27.1 innings), and currently has a career-low (as a starter anyway) 2.30 ERA. Even more encouragingly for Sox fans, especially considering their anemic offense’s inability to put runs on the board behind their ace, and the team’s dismal record over the past couple of years, their ace has also picked up 3 wins already as the Pale Hose have jumped out to a surprisingly hot start.
Whether Chicago keep it up or not, Sale deserves to finally get his in terms of national recognition. After two full seasons of flying under the radar, quietly putting up effectively the same numbers of his flashier – and better-compensated – peers, “The Condor” should this year finally grab the unbridled attention of more than just worried doctors and opposing hitters.
*I’m sorry, but it’s not a Sale piece without at least one pun. I promise that will be it.
** We can talk more fully about how Robin Ventura left him out there for 127 pitches some other time, but given his ace’s mechanics, how IT’S EARLY APRIL (!), and the recency bias of so many pitchers going down injured, it didn’t seem an especially prudent managerial decision – regardless of the 14-inning game the night before, which taxed the bullpen to the point of utility man Leury Garcia being forced to pitch.