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American League Surprise Teams

Adam Shay

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Looking at the standings so far in the MLB, it’s kind of weird. There are plenty of playoff caliber teams having early lack-luster success, whereas there are teams doing much better than expected. Granted, there have only been a handful of games and there are 155+ plus to go, but still, there are first and last place teams that seem irreconcilable. Going off baseballreference.com, here are some teams in the American League:

  • American League East: Tampa Bay Rays (4-1), Boston Red Sox (1-4)
  • American League West: Seattle Mariners (6-1), Houston Astros (2-3)

Last year, the Rays were a surprise team in the AL East, finishing 90-72 and led by Cy Young winner Blake Snell (21-5, 1.89 ERA, 221 strikeouts in 180.2 innings pitched). So far in 2019, their bullpen pitching is off to an incredible start as their bullpen has yet to allow a run. With only their starter Yonny Chirinos making a seven inning start compared to every other pitcher going six or less, including Snell getting rocked for five runs in his debut, their bullpen has been dominant. Snell will come around, so nothing for Rays’ fans to worry about there. One thing to note: their pitching rotation has a combined 26.9 age, meaning this team is full of pitchers in their prime, or ready to enter their peaks. 

Offensively, the Rays have scored 18 runs ranking them sixth in the AL. However, timely hitting has proven their worth since the team ranks 13th in strikeouts at 55. Out of their starting nine positions, catcher Mike Zunino and left fielder Tommy Pham are the only two players who have had a season over 20 home runs. In a home run dominant league, despite their early pitching success, it will be hard to maintain their success playing the New York Yankees and Red Sox in multiple series. Again though, with only one starting player in their lineup over 30, players could begin to have breakout seasons. 

Now for the Red Sox, their pitching is a complete dumpster fire. No other way to put it. The team has allowed an AL worst 41 runs so far, and ranked last in runs scored, earned runs scored, and home runs allowed. Every starting pitcher has allowed over four earned runs in their first start, including their worst start coming from seven time All-Star Chris Sale (3.0 innings, seven earned runs, and three homers allowed). Ideally, those first five games were a fluke for their starters and they will return to ace form, but still; what is going on?

There is nothing for the Red Sox to worry about offensively. In the major offensive categories; batting average, home runs, hits, and runs, the team ranks in the top five in every category. All-Star J.D. Martinez is doing J.D. Martinez things with a .381 average, and even though reigning AL MVP Mookie Betts is off to a slow start hitting .217, is anyone really concerned? Xander Bogaerts, the 2016 All-Star shortstop, just signed a six-year, $120 million contract extension and has a whole season to prove his money’s worth. Even with a 1-4 start, the Red Sox will return to World Series form by the end of April and end this bewilderment. 

So the Mariners lost All-Stars Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Rivera Rolaids Relief Winner Edwin Diaz, their ace starting pitcher James Paxton, and are 6-1. Granted, the Mariners and Oakland Athletics started the season prior to March 28, but their offensive production has been top tier. Averaging 7.7 runs per game, their starting nine is clobbering the ball having hit 16 home runs (tied for first in MLB), and a team .274 batting average. Shortstop Tim Beckham and left fielder Domingo Santana have been their standout players, even above the team’s four former and last year All-Stars. Oh, and their consistent third baseman slugger Kyle Seager is out for 10-12 weeks. The Mariners could sustain their offensive production for months to come.

The Mariners starting pitching has been okay so far. Obviously they’re going to rank higher than most teams because of two more games played, but their statistics are where they need to be with a team 3.68 ERA. Their biggest concern: who is their number one starter? Former Cy Young pitcher Felix Hernandez has taken a turn for the worst the last three years, going 25-27 with a 4.62 ERA. But, King Felix had a solid debut going 5.1 innings allowing one earned run. Yusei Kikuchi could emerge as a number one candidate, starting two games and allowing three earned runs in 10.2 innings.

As for the bullpen, it’s going to be difficult to replace Diaz who led the MLB with 57 saves last year. So far, relief pitcher Brandon Brennan has been unstoppable, throwing six innings and allowing four hits, no runs. The same goes for Matt Festa, the second year pitcher who hasn’t allowed a run in 4.1 innings. Hey, maybe the Mariners can sustain this pitching and knock the two-time reigning AL West champs Astros. 

Speaking of the Astros, has anyone seen their offense?  After five games, the loaded lineup has 11 runs, ranking 13th in the AL. Their team average of .218 is eighth in the AL, meaning the team struggles to produce with runners on. All-Star right fielder George Springer is in the leadoff spot and with two home runs, has only be able to drive in two RBI’s. Their two best hitters last year, All-Star third baseman Alex Bregman and former MVP second basemen Jose Altuve, are hitting sub .170. Not ideal at all. Again, incredibly early in the season and these two players can catch fire at any moment, but starting this slow to a season is detrimental, especially in a loaded AL. Until they start returning to Astros form, they will rely on their pitching. 

As expected, the Astros starting rotation and bullpen is perfectly fine. The Astros team ERA is 1.93 and have a combined 53 strikeouts, both ranking third in the AL. More impressively, in the team’s 42 innings pitched (ranks sixth), Astros’ pitchers have allowed AL leading three walks. From the bullpen, only one of the six relief pitchers used this year has allowed an earned run. Signing All-Star closer Roberto Osuna to a one-year $6,500,000 deal was a great addition, not to mention, Osuna is 24 and entering the prime of his career. Astros fans, there is nothing to worry about pitching wise. The rotation is filled with veteran pitchers, along with pitchers entering or in their prime.   

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Adam Shay is a graduate from Eastern Illinois University with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, During his four years at EIU, he wrote for the Daily Eastern News for two and a half years, covering multiple sports, news events, and writing feature stories. He was also on the rugby club team for two years, a member of the Society of Collegiate Journalists, and finished third in applying for his commencement speech. Currently, he runs a public relations system for a bar in Palatine, Illinois, and in his free time, he is always learning about music, sports history, and American history.

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