MLB Bettor’s Notebook: Examining Every American League Team At The Season’s Quarter-Pole Mark
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images. Pictured: Aaron Judge
Each week during the MLB season, the Action Network’s Anthony Dabbundo will compile a weekly notebook of observations, analytical findings and actionable information to help bettors find an edge in betting the daily grind of a 162-game season.
We’ve reached the quarter point in the MLB season, where every team (except the Guardians) has played at least 40 games of its 162-game schedule.
The sample is now more than big enough to draw meaningful conclusions about all 30 baseball teams using their underlying numbers and run differential, and assess where we may have gone wrong or been right in our preseason assessments of them.
Of course, it is only 40 games, and at this point last season the Atlanta Braves were just 19-21 before going on to win the World Series in October.
Here’s observations about all 15 American League teams that should be taken into consideration when betting baseball. Next week’s focus will be on the National League.
New York Yankees: The Yankees have won 70.7% of their games entering Monday, which is equal to a 115-win pace. That record would be one game better than the franchise record set by the 114-win Yankees in 1998.
No preseason projection system had them higher than 97 wins and there’s some cracks showing in the bullpen with Chad Green’s injury and Aroldis Chapman’s drop-off in stuff and overall effectiveness.
As impressive as the depth of the pitching has been, the lineup is first in baseball in the following categories: barrel rate, hard-hit rate, xwOBA and xBA.
They won’t play at a 115-win pace all year, and given the injury histories of the rotation, I’d expect some pitching regression or potential injuries to test the depth of the Yankees staff in the coming weeks.
Baseball is always a game-by-game type of sport when betting, but people are going to lose money trying to bet on the Yankees now if you’re just getting on the bandwagon now. The market has been recently overvaluing them.
Tampa Bay Rays: The Rays are going to be one of the better buy-lows in the entire market this season, and we’re almost at that point. Injuries to Shane Baz and Luis Patiño have tested the depth of the Rays staff, and as usual, the Rays staff has found more excellent arms to fill the void.
Patiño and Baz will be back at some point this summer and Tampa Bay maintains an elite run prevention unit once that is the case. The development of Shane McClanahan as a legitimate ace and Drew Rasmussen as an elite five-and-dive guy raises the potential of Tampa Bay this season.
McClanahan is throwing his slider less and using his changeup and curveball more. His fastball was already elite in both velocity and shape. While he struggled with fastball command early in the season, McClanahan has cut his walk rate and increased his strikeout rate almost 10%. With four legitimately good pitches, McClanahan is now an ace with a 2.44 xERA and a real shot at AL Cy Young.
Rasmussen is limited by workload but he’s throwing a cutter now and it’s helping him get lefties out in a big way. His xERA is also at a career low. Look to buy low on Tampa Bay soon.
Toronto Blue Jays: The offense is chasing way too many pitches outside of the strike zone and until that changes, it’s hard to see this offense turn it around fully. The loss of Marcus Semien and Randal Grichuk were perhaps more than we thought before the season.
The pitching is as good as advertised: Kevin Gausman and Alek Manoah are aces and Yusei Kikuchi’s stuff has improved in the middle of the rotation.
Teoscar Hernandez’s and Bo Bichette’s underlying numbers suggest a good run of hitting is coming for them, but the lineup is lacking depth and Vlad Guerrero Jr. appears to have taken a small enough step back to limit the true explosiveness of the Jays. His barrel rate has dropped from 15.9% last year to 9.2% this year, even if he maintains an elite hard hit rate.
Toronto games are 26-13-2 to the under this season, the third-biggest under team of the 2022 season.
Boston Red Sox: Boston, and mostly Trevor Story, has finally shown some signs of life offensively. The Red Sox swept the Mariners in a four-game series and Story is now an above average hitter with a 112 OPS+.
I wrote a couple weeks ago that the Red Sox offense would not remain in the bottom five in baseball, but that it also had underlying issues that would limit its potential. When you compare xwOBA – wOBA, only six teams have been less fortunate with the quality of their contact than the Red Sox.
Boston has chased less in the last couple weeks — they’re down to fourth in chase rate on pitches outside the zone. But the Red Sox are still around 10th worst in swing rate, chase rate and swinging strike rate in May.
All of that will limit them from being the elite unit they need to be to overcome the lack of pitching depth.
Baltimore Orioles: The left field fence in Baltimore was pushed back this season and it has had a devastating impact on the Orioles’ right-handed bats. Baltimore’s righties have a 90 wRC+ and a .101 ISO this season at home, along with a .240/.313/.341 slash line.
Last season, Baltimore righties had a 98 wRC+ at home and a .181 ISO. The SLG was almost 100 points higher, too. One of my favorite spots to back the Orioles last year was at home against lefties as a big underdog. But while the Orioles project better vs. LHP still, the impact of the different home park has cut down a lot of the power from an already bad lineup.
Minnesota Twins: Minnesota has the second-best xwOBA in the entire sport. The Twins do everything right at the plate. They don’t chase pitches outside of the zone, they’re above average in strikeout rate and fourth best in walk rate.
The pitching is struggling with injury, but Joe Ryan and Bailey Ober are two underrated arms at the top of the rotation and the bullpen is holding up.
Everything about Minnesota’s start at the plate is sustainable and for that reason, I remain a buyer in the Twins chances of winning the AL Central.
Chicago White Sox: I’ll make the argument that Dylan Cease is the best pitcher in baseball right now. Michael Kopech’s increase in fastball velocity on Sunday night in New York is extremely encouraging for his prospects as the White Sox second guy behind Cease.
While injuries have impacted Lucas Giolito and Lance Lynn remains out, Chicago has needed Cease and Kopech and both have been incredibly impressive.
Cease’s 2.23 xERA is second among all qualified starting pitchers behind only Nestor Cortes Jr. of the Yankees. Only four pitchers have a lower xwOBA allowed than Cease and no one is striking out more hitters per 9.
Cease has a 13.81 K/9 rate this season and no other starter in the sport is higher than Shane McClanhan’s 12.63 K/9. He’s been more than a full strikeout per nine better than the league’s second best pitcher.
Cease’s zone-contact percentage allowed — percentage of balls hit on pitches in the zone — is also best in MLB. Give me all of the Cease stock.
Cleveland Guardians: The Shane Bieber underlying numbers remain concerning. He’s continually priced as an ace every five days, when he’s not.
Bieber was good in 2019, elite in 2020, good in 2021 and now is pitching like he did before his breakout in 2018. His xERA sits above 4.00 right now for the second time in his career and first time since 2018.
His strikeout rate peaked at a ridiculous 41% in 2020, but he’s now cratered down to 24% after an elite 33% K rate in 2021. His barrel rate allowed is above 10% and is the highest of his career. Bieber’s curveball spin rate never recovered post sticky stuff crackdown, and his velocity isn’t there. Keep fading Bieber.
Detroit Tigers: Tarik Skubal is on track to win most improved pitcher in 2022. He’s changed his pitch mix, induced a ton of ground balls and kept the ball in the yard. Now, he might be an elite pitcher.
But the Tigers’ offense really is that bad. Bottom 3 in barrel rate, hard-hit rate, xwOBA and bottom five in walk rate. Detroit is always going to struggle with Javy Baez and Miguel Cabrera hitting in the middle of its order and the Tigers are not being selective enough. They are one of the worst five offenses in chase rate.
They actually don’t strike out a ton, but swinging at all of those bad pitches means bad contact, ground balls and ultimately, terrible offense. I don’t see much of that changing going forward without an approach change at the plate, even if the ball may travel a bit more in better weather this summer.
Kansas City Royals: Young pitching was the reason for optimism in Kansas City this season. They had five pitchers 25 or younger on the Opening Day roster. Brady Singer seems to have found something with his new changeup and has tossed 14 scoreless innings. Daniel Lynch has been a league average starter.
But the Royals have Kris Bubic, Carlos Hernandez and Jackson Kowar and none have been any good this year and are now in the minors. Hernandez had a velocity dip and is walking 13.4% of hitters. Bubic walked 16.2% of hitters and had a 9.42 xERA. Kowar barely pitched and has a 50% hard hit rate.
The Royals’ inability to develop their young arms has them languishing at 14-26 and me wondering why I’m not holding an under wins ticket on them.
I’m still pretty skeptical of Singer going forward too, given that his fastball doesn’t grade out particularly well with its movement down. Once hitters adjust to his changeup, they may tee off on him again.
Houston Astros: Detroit is the biggest under team all year, but you’d probably be surprised to learn Houston is second in the league to the under this season.
Houston has a fly ball staff generally and that group has benefited from the dead ball more than most other pitching staffs. Justin Verlander has some regression coming when you look at his underlying numbers, but it’s important to note that Houston is still without Lance McCullers Jr. and is expecting him back in July.
Outside of Framber Valdez, the best ground ball pitcher in the sport, we’ll have to wait and see how the staff performs if offense makes a return in the summer months.
Houston is just 15th in xwOBA allowed, ninth in barrel rate and 13th in hard hit rate allowed. The Astros are eighth in K-BB rate and third in strand rate so I don’t quite expect Houston to remain second in pitching ERA.
Los Angeles Angels: The Angels have gone from 25th in 2021 to second in 2022 in swing rate on pitches out of the zone. Being more patient has helped the offense immensely. Swinging less is generally good because it means you’re hitting only good pitches and thus have the opportunity to slug more.
No offense has more homers than Los Angeles. A healthy Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon have joined a breakout Taylor Ward and the already great Shohei Ohtani to form a respectable bunch of sluggers.
Los Angeles is top 10 in almost every offensive category, and is top 5 in xwOBA and barrels. The pitching is holding up enough to this point to get the Angels into a legitimate playoff conversation.
Texas Rangers: Marcus Semien isn’t hitting at all, but the most interesting development for Texas has been Martin Perez’s pitching this year. He’s been their most valued player by WAR this year.
He’s a pitcher I faded frequently in Boston and despite mediocre strikeout and walk numbers, he’s another pitcher who has benefited from dead balls. His outcomes and hard hit rate is elite. Posting an xERA below 3.00 is really hard to do when you’re striking out less than 20% of hitters, but here is Perez. His barrel rate cut from 9.3 last year to 2.9% this season. His xwOBA allowed and hard hit rate both miles ahead of last year.
Regression is probably coming for Perez at some point, but if he keeps missing bats, there’s no reason he can’t be effective in this hitting environment.
Seattle Mariners: It’s easy to forget that the Mariners were everyone’s favorite sleeper when the season began. I’m not sure what regression is more concerning — Jesse Winker in the middle of the order, or Robbie Ray and Chris Flexen at the top of the pitching rotation.
Ray’s velocity is down, Flexen is getting hit as hard as anyone in baseball and Winker’s barrel rate projects him for just a 15-homer season in the middle of Seattle’s lineup.
Julio Rodriguez is showing all kinds of positive signs for Seattle, but this lineup has injuries and is lacking depth. The young arms aren’t doing enough to save it. Matt Brash is back in the minors, George Kirby is quite underrated in the market right now, and the market has caught up and might even be overvaluing Logan Gilbert at the moment.
Oakland Athletics: This tweet is a week old, but it sums up the A’s season. The lineup is really bad.
The A's have the worst team average (.199), on-base percentage (.268) and slugging percentage (.306) in all of Major League Baseball.
— Steve Berman (@BASportsGuy) May 17, 2022
Oakland won’t have the league’s second-worst BABIP all year long (.259). With that being said, though, Oakland is bottom five offensively in hard hit rate, barrel rate, xwOBA and bottom 10 in strikeout rate.
There’s not a ton of room for optimism there, but their ability to find plus command pitchers with mediocre stuff to be average — see Zach Logue, Daulton Jeffries and Paul Blackburn — deserves some respect.