MLB scheduling change making it easier for American League East to assert its dominance

The AL East is easily the best division in baseball

Six months or so after the NFC East was the best division in football, the American League East has overtaken MLB. No team is below .500 as of Friday morning/early afternoon, and the fives clubs are a combined 105-56 against opponents outside the division. The Tampa Bay Rays (37-15) and Baltimore Orioles (33-17) lead the way, and the Rays have more Ws outside the AL East (24) than 12 teams have total.

At least sports fans outside of the Northeast corridor could poke holes in the NFC East’s success when Richie from Queens launched into an extremely East Coast-biased rant about Brian Daboll at Buffalo Wild Wings, because there’s no real argument to get him to shut the fuck up about his baseball love interests.

Tampa and Baltimore have run differentials of +114 and +45, respectively. The New York Yankees also have 30 wins, and even though the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays are only a combined three games over .500, their run differential is in the green, and they have the fifth- and 10th-best scoring offenses, respectively, in baseball.

The pitching leaves a little to be desired, and is probably what you should lead with when trying to get Johnny to stop yelling “27 rings!” The Rays and Yankees are Nos. 5-6 in staff ERA, with the Jays and O’s clocking in at Nos. 11-12. (The Sox are 25th, if you were wondering why they’re not better.)

While this is standard operating procedure most of the time for the AL East, it’s especially out of hand in 2023, and the other AL teams looking to get in via the Wild Card will have to keep up with a pretty demanding pace. The hope, if there is any, is for the Yankees, Sox, Rays, O’s, and Jays to all kick the shit out of each other, and keep the three at-large bids within reach.

The AL East is 47-47 vs. each other, but …

Since MLB has altered its scheduling across leagues, clubs now only play 52 games within the division instead of 76. That’s a 15 percent drop, down to 32 percent from about 47 percent. That’s a huge difference, and one that Tampa, Baltimore, Toronto, and New York are using to their advantage. (They’re Nos. 1-4 in the wins outside of the division.)

You’d think a broadening of opponents would theoretically give the teams chasing the Orioles and Yankees more opportunities to make up ground in head-to-head matchups, yet that’s not true because of the increase in interleague play. There are now 46 crossover outings per season, up from 20, so that’s 98 games in total against the division and opposing league. After all the changes to the schedule, the number of times an AL or NL team will play non-divisional league foes has decreased from 66 to 64.

I know I’m throwing a lot of numbers out here, but this is a baseball story, so you should be used to it — or at least prepared for it. Still, let me try to put this in a less confusing way.

For example, the Yankees will play non-AL East members of the American League 64 times instead of 66. That difference is negligible for the idea that fewer division games mean more chances for wild card teams to control their own destiny.

In reality, the AL East is just getting more games against opponents who aren’t in the AL East, which is a net positive gain for them. As a group, they’re 37-23 against the NL, and the Orioles, Yankees, and Jays have barely touched their interleague calendars. (Baltimore has 38 games left against the NL, New York 37, and Toronto 35.)

Good luck to clubs in the AL Wild Card race

This was not the year for Shohei Ohtani to be in a contract season. The Los Angeles Angels are currently sitting a game behind defending champion Houston, and 2.5 ahead of Boston and Seattle. We’ll see how this plays out. It’s Year 1 of this new format, but I think it will be easier for the good teams to rack up wins and extend leads in playoff races.

Fans in the Pacific Northwest should take solace in the fact that the Mariners ended their playoff drought last year because MLB might get even more top-heavy.

It took 700-plus words to arrive at my point, but it’s as simple as exchanging eight to nine series against the Rays, O’s, Yankees, Sox, or Jays for eight to nine series against a league that currently has fewer 30-win teams than the AL East alone. 

How many wins do the Angels need at the deadline to keep Shohei Ohtani?

It’s just sad to see such an exciting player on such a milquetoast team.

If the Los Angeles Angels don’t make the playoffs this season then there’s no question that Shohei Ohtani is gone. Now in his sixth MLB season and heading into free agency, he has yet to reach the postseason and has said that winning is the most important thing to him.

“I really like the team. I love the fans. I love the atmosphere of the team. But, more than that, I want to win. That’s the biggest thing for me. I’ll leave it at that,” Ohtani said during the offseason when asked about his future.

Yikes. This quote was through an interpreter, so maybe we should take it with a grain of salt, but the fact that he had to contrast his love for the Angels with “but I want to win” is pretty damning.

To have any chance of re-signing him, they can’t just be in the hunt. They have to show that they’re going to consistently contend. It’s entirely possible that they sneak into the last wild card spot this season and Ohtani still walks, which in some ways is kind of the worst-case scenario for the organization. It would be an easy decision to make if they lost 12 straight like they did this time last year, or if they were running away with their division.

I concede that if they’re still reasonably in the hunt at the trade deadline, it’s kind of hard to justify becoming sellers and trading away Ohtani. There’s no easy answer. The Angels’ front office is going to be in the unenviable position of walking a tightrope with every July result swaying them one way or the other.

Some say it would be crazy to trade him, but the idea of letting the greatest baseball talent ever walk for nothing makes him impossible not to. They need to be good enough not just to make the playoffs, but good enough to show Ohtani that they can do it year after year. Of course, only Ohtani knows the threshold of how good they’ll have to be for him to re-sign, but let’s try to put together an educated guess.

They’re currently 28-23 through 51 games, one game back of the last wild card spot. On July 31 of last year, the three teams in the AL wild card spots were the three that were there at the end of the season. They had 57, 55, and 54 wins respectively, and they were far from separating themselves from the field.

Angels must be more than just decent

So let’s say the Angels at the bare minimum need to be in a playoff spot to justify keeping Ohtani for the last two months of his contract. But I think it’s also safe to assume they need to go above and beyond that and show they are a playoff lock.

I think roughly 60-47 through July is the threshold to show Ohtani they’re serious contenders. It’s a tall order as they’re trailing the Rangers and Astros in their own division with the defending World Series champions being winners of eight straight. They also have the Mariners, who are looking to make the playoffs for a second straight year, right on their heels. And the team they’re currently chasing for the third wildcard spot is the Yankees who have returned to last year’s form since Aaron Judge came off the IL.

Shohei Ohtani is a unicorn, Chapter 502

Better than the Great Bambino

It’s easy to connect Shohei Ohtani to Babe Ruth, because Ruth is the only figure that we think even compares to Ohtani. Baseball hasn’t had a dominant two-way player since the Great Bambino, so that’s what the numbers have to be compared to. It used to be that Ruth’s pitching exploits were kind of a factoid tacked onto any study of his hitting prowess, in a kind of, “Oh he could also do this OK kind of thing.” So when Ohtani passes Ruth in career strikeouts, as he did last night in the Angels’ 3-1 loss to the Astros, Ruth’s pitching becomes more than just a factoid, simply because we have nothing else to give it context.

But here’s the thing. Ruth was never a two-way player. Not really.

Ruth was only a full-time starter for three seasons in Boston when he first came up. The Sox occasionally used him as a pinch-hitter, but his hitting was restricted to the days he pitched. In 1915-1917, Ruth never had more than 150 plate appearances while starting 32, 44, and 41 games in those seasons. It was only in 1918, something of a poignant year in Red Sox history, that they figured out that he could hit a little bit and started punting him to the outfield on days he didn’t pitch. 1919 was the first season he started more than 100 games in the outfield, and then when he was sold to New York, the Yankees started their 84-year stretch of outsmarting the Sox by ever preventing him from taking the mound again. So Ruth never combined both at the same time.

Sure, Ruth didn’t have a DH spot to land in as Ohtani does, but then Ruth doesn’t face 93 MPH sliders and never tossed them himself as Ohtani does. Ohtani is now on his fourth season of starting full-time and hitting full-time, while also having a couple of seasons of just being a hitter when his elbow turned to putty. So this is unprecedented, and we only connect him to Ruth because it’s the only thing in the zipcode to try and give us any sort of comparison.

But Ohtani isn’t Ruth. He’s more than that. Which is truly the remarkable thing, because to be more than Ruth is to be more than something that’s gone on to be more than a legend. It’s like saying he’s more than Ares or something.

It’s not just Ohtani and Trout

Speaking of Anaheim, who knew anyone in Orange County had a sense of humor?

Boston Celtics lay an egg in Game 5

Have to hand it to the Garden crowd last night, who went from booing the Celtics to trying to stir and then accompanying a brief rally back to booing the Cs in the span of about 10 game minutes last night. It must be hard to have to live up to the standards of being so miserable while also having to do what a crowd usually does and cheer good things. God knows what would happen if Boston fans missed a chance to boo.

The series with the Sixers is obviously far from over, but laying an egg at home in a Game 5 isn’t a very good look. One wonders if the Cs aren’t on the precipice of something bad should they eat it to Philadelphia. The entire Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown journey has been shrouded in the questions of if they can actually play together on a championship team and if they could would they be enough. They were awfully close last spring, and only Steph Curry being something celestial got in their way. But then maybe it takes celestial wing play to rise to the level of a trophy.

A second-round loss after a trip to the Final would make a lot of people in Boston itchy, especially after the Bruins flameout. There’s always been a feeling that the Cs were living with Tatum and Brown because it’s the best they could do, which has never stopped them from dangling at least the latter in trade talks when it came to Kevin Durant at times. At other times that’s felt like fuel for the Cs, to prove that this iteration could and would work.

Still, if Boston doesn’t win both of the remaining games against the Sixers, those questions will come back. It’s been a while now. There’s been an element of making the best of what’s on hand with Boston. They may decide they have to find more than just what’s around.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.