Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Will the A.L. East Have Five Winning Teams in 2013?

Dan Szymborski has posted his ZiPS projections for the American League on ESPN Insider. As expected, he has the East as a very competitive division, with all five teams winning more than they lose.

If the Orioles live up Dan's projection and win 82 games while still finishing at the bottom of the division, they would be the first last-place team to post a winning record. The 2005 Nationals and 1991 Angels are the best cellar-dwellers, going 81-81. Below are the post-1993 last-place teams that lost fewer than 90 games

Year Division Team Wins Losses
2012 AL West SEA 75 87
2009 AL West OAK 75 87
2008 AL Cent DET 74 88
2007 AL West TEX 75 87
2006 AL West SEA 78 84
2001 AL West TEX 73 89
1998 AL West OAK 74 88
1997 AL East TOR 76 86
1996 AL Cent KC 75 86
1995* AL West OAK 67 (75) 77 (87)
1994* AL East DET 53 (75) 62 (87)
1994* AL Cent MIL 53 (75) 62 (87)
2006 NL West SF 76 85
2006 NL West ARZ 76 86
2006 NL West COL 76 86
2005 NL East WAS 81 81
2002 NL East NYM 75 86
2001 NL West COL 73 89
2000 NL West SD 76 86
1997 NL West SD 76 86
1996 NL Cent PIT 73 89
1995* NL West SF 67 (75) 77 (87)
1995* NL East MON 66 (74) 78 (88)

* I've included three teams from 1995 and two from 1994 that were on pace to make this list in a strike-shortened season.

The first season of the reincarnated Washington club was a pretty successful one despite the last-place finish. Under skipper Frank Robinson, the Nats had a standout bullpen. Lights-out closer Chad Cordero (225 ERA+, 0.97 WHIP, league-leading 47 saves) teamed up with Hector Carrasco and Luis Ayala, who had a combined 2.32 ERA.

The rotation featured good seasons from their top three starters. Livan Hernandez (in a league-high 246.1 IP) and Esteban Loaiza both had sub-4.00 ERA's. John Patterson finished in the top ten in bWAR (4.6), ERA (3.13) and strikeouts (185). There wasn't much behind them however, as Tony Armas Jr. and Ryan Drese both put up an 82 ERA+ in 161 total innings.

The high points for the offense were a 24-homer season from Jose Guillen and a rare healthy season from Nick Johnson. Johnson hit .289/.408/.479 over 547 plate appearances in one of only three seasons in which he batted more than 450 times. The offense was hampered by RFK Stadium, a pitcher's park that the old Senators called home while the new ballpark was constructed. Cristian Guzman came up ten PA's short of qualifying, or else his .219/.260/.314 line would have placed him last in the NL by at least 17 points in all three categories.

Still, an 81-81 season was a pretty solid debut for D.C. They finished eighth out of 16 NL clubs, but fifth in the East. There was parity throughout the Senior Circuit, with only the 100-win Cardinals, 90-win Braves and 89-win Astros doing better than 83-79. The Nationals were last in the division but only three wins from being in third by themselves and nine wins behind front-running Atlanta. Robinson received two first-place votes and came in fourth in the NL Manager of the Year vote.
Here's the list covering divisional play from 1969-1993:

Year Division Team Wins Losses
1992 AL East BOS 73 89
1991 AL West CAL 81 81
1990 AL West MIN 74 88
1987 AL West CAL 75 87
1987 AL West TEX 75 87
1986 AL East BAL 73 89
1982 AL East CLE 78 84
1982 AL East TOR 78 84
1975 AL West CAL 72 89
1987 NL East CHN 76 85
1986 NL West ATL 72 89
1984 NL East PIT 75 87
1983 NL West CIN 74 88
1980 NL West SD 73 89
1975 NL East CHN 75 87
1975 NL East MON 75 87
1970 NL East MON 73 89

The Angels had an even more impressive last-place finish in 1991, since the AL West had seven teams. The 95-win worst-to-first Twins won by eight games, but the six clubs behind them were only separated by six games.

Tied for first place on the Fourth of July, the Halos faded into a 17-30 stretch before manager Doug Rader was fired on August 25 for Buck Rodgers. The former Angels catcher guided the team to a 20-18 finish to land at 81-81.

The best part of the team was the pitching staff, led by Jim Abbott. The lefty was in the top five in most categories and finished third in the Cy Young voting. His 7.4 bWAR trailed only Cy winner Roger Clemens. Mark Langston (7.0) finished third in bWAR behind Clemens and Abbott, won 19 games and took home a Gold Glove.

In the pen, closer Bryan Harvey and the historically-underrated Mark Eichorn pitched to a 1.80 combined ERA.

The bats are what doomed them. While the staff was the second-best in the league behind Toronto's, the offense was the second worst, only ahead of a miserable Cleveland team.

Dave Winfield led with 28 homers, Wally Joyner had a strong season (.301/.360/.488, 21 HR) and Luis Polonia hit .296 with 48 steals. The rest of the O struggled with poor seasons from Gary Gaetti, Lance Parrish (.285 OBP), Luis Sojo (73 OPS+), Dick Schofield (61 OPS+) and Dave Parker (76 OPS+ in his final season).

The best pre-expansion last-place team is the 1915 Giants team that went 69-83. That projects out to an 88-loss team over a 162-game schedule. The best AL bottom-feeder from its eight-team days is the 1924 White Sox, who went 66-87 (92 losses in 162 games).

Can the five American League East teams all finish .500 or better? It's a tall task but the conditions are right for this season. There doesn't seem to be one great team in the bunch, which suggests a tightly-packed group from one to five. The other divisions will have some pretty bad teams like the Astros and Twins, which could boost the win totals a bit.

This will be a very fun division to follow in 2013 and I can honestly say I could see any team finishing anywhere between first and last. We'll see if history is made and all five can win 82 games.

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