Seven teams went into Saturday playing .350 ball or worse. Understand what that means. A .350 winning percentage equates to 57 wins in a 162-game season — and we are using .350 as the high end.
In the 15 years prior to 2018, there were just six clubs that were at .350 or worse and three of them were the 2011-13 Astros.
It underscores one of the biggest worries about this season — that more teams were trying to emulate the Astros’ path of breaking down in the present to try to create a rosier long term. That would mean fewer teams in the middle and more locked into either awesome or awful. This could change, but one of the ways it could is for the worse with more teams joining the sub-.350 dregs such as the Tigers and Padres.
The impact of these extremes might already be felt in the AL East. The Yankees, for example, have the talent to make up what was a 7 ¹/₂-game gap between them and the Red Sox going into Saturday. But it also is possible that the dynamic that exists in 2018 will make even an early season deficit of some heft harder than normal to erase.
Consider that the Rays and Orioles were 11 and 11 ¹/₂ games out of first before a pitch was thrown Saturday. Those teams knew that winning the division this year would be a long shot, and it is not even that any longer, with the Red Sox becoming the first club in 31 years to win 17 of their first 19 games.
More and more teams of recent vintage have abstained from making significant for-the-moment upgrades to simply chase the one-and-done wild card game. And from where they are sitting today — not just in the standings, but with a realistic look at their rosters — Tampa Bay and Baltimore will have to think about cashing out earlier than normal.
The Rays already would do business if the right deal came along for Wilson Ramos (the Mets?) and probably would not hang up if someone inquired on Chris Archer or Alex Colome, who have both struggled early. The Orioles have generally moved way slower in decision making. But Manny Machado, in particular, plus Brad Brach, Zach Britton (rehabbing from a torn Achilles tendon) and Adam Jones are all in their walk year, and Baltimore could sure use a farm replenishment.
This suggests that the Rays and Orioles — terrible now — may actually strip further and have even poorer rosters in the near future. And that goes for all the have-nots. Why stick around to deal in July if the getting might be good earlier and the likelihood of their seasons are already pretty overt?
This highlights why it is so vital for the haves to beat up on their opposites. The Red Sox were 11-1 against the sub-.350 trio of the Orioles, Rays and Marlins. The Yankees, conversely, were 2-4 against Baltimore and Miami. The Orioles had six wins going into Saturday — three were against the Yankees, two in extra innings. Those games left on the table in April could have a haunting impact all year.
For let’s not forget these substandard squads will be littering schedules throughout the season. The Red Sox have 40 games left against the current .350-or-worse teams, including a 10-game run against the Rays, Royals and Rangers (a combined 19-41 going into Saturday) that opens next Friday — or just as the Yankees begin a 10-game span against the Angels and Astros on the road and Indians at home — a threesome that was 36-22 through Friday.
At the conclusion of that phase, the Yankees host the Red Sox for three games on May 8-10. Is it possible the Red Sox will have built something verging on insurmountable before one-quarter of the season is even complete?
Part of the answer resides with the Red Sox. They are not going to play .900 ball all year. But this early version reflects the top-percentile possibility of this roster. One executive and one scout who have seen the team live this year hit on the same note — that great things are possible if the rotation stays healthy.
The Red Sox began the season with three starters (Eduardo Rodriguez, Drew Pomeranz and Steven Wright) on the disabled list and not much upper-level rotation quality in the minors. Yet all but Wright have returned, with Pomeranz coming off the DL on Friday. And in the first 19 games, no Boston starter had yielded more than four runs and 14 times had permitted two runs or fewer.
There are still red flags with the previously injured, including David Price, but Boston was being conservative with the pitch counts of Chris Sale under new manager Alex Cora in the way they were less so last year with John Farrell in charge.
And their offense has been ferocious — showing similarities to the team Cora was bench coach for last season, the Astros, who led the majors in runs while having the lowest strikeout percentage. Boston began Saturday with nine more runs than any team and an OPS (.858) 70 points better than any other club, yet a 16.3 strikeout percentage, the lowest since the 2014-15 Royals.
The Red Sox have done this while adding homer power missing last year even as they won a second straight AL East. After his own slow start, J.D. Martinez — the Red Sox’s big offseason add — has meaningfully outperformed Giancarlo Stanton.
If the season ended at the three-week mark, Mookie Betts and Rick Porcello arguably would be the AL MVP and Cy Young, respectively.
Of course, the season is not ending after three weeks. There is a lot of schedule left for the Yankees, in particular, to find their apex and make an assault on the top of the AL East. But drill down on the schedules with the way things are in 2018 and you realize that this just could come down to who beats up the patsies best.
So far, the Red Sox are the best bullies in baseball.
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