By the Blouin News Sports staff

MLB’s suffocating A.L. East

by in Baseball.

The Yankees and Blue Jays aren't as bad as everyone thinks. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

The Yankees and Blue Jays aren’t as bad as everyone thinks. (Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)

The Toronto Blue Jays are in last place in the American League East division. However, they’re just one game under .500 nearly halfway through the season. For comparison’s sake, no other last place team in baseball is within 10 games of the .500 mark.

No one is surprised at the amount of talented teams in the AL East; it was projected to be baseball’s hardest division this season. But it’s been more difficult than anticipated, which seems to have cast negative assessments on a few of its teams. Notably the New York Yankees and the Toronto Blue Jays.

The New York Yankees entered the season with more money being paid to players on the disabled list than players in the starting lineup. They know they’d get a handful of their players back throughout the season, so their only goal was to float around .500 until they got some of their stars back. They did more than that early in the season as they spent the majority of April and May in first place. And only recently have they fallen to third place as their offense has struggled over the past two weeks and they’ve lost seven of their past nine games. Thanks to their pitching staff, which is top-five in the American League, they’ve managed to stay six games above .500 and only three-and-a-half games behind the first place Boston Red Sox. The Yankees expected winning percentage at this point in the season was .491, but currently they’re winning games at a clip of .510. They’ve played better than expected, yet their attendance is down and all anyone wants to talk about his how badly they’ve played this season. Adding to that is their impressive play within their own division. They have the best winning percentage among AL East teams against all other AL East teams — which suggests that, if healthy, the Yankees are still the best in the division. When Curtis Granderson, their leading home-run hitter from the past two seasons, returns in a few weeks, several other notable Yankees might join him: Derek Jeter, recovering from a broken ankle; Alex Rodriguez, recovering from hip surgery; and Mark Teixeira, who is resting a sore wrist, are all expected to return around mid-July. They will pick up the Yankees offense, even at their diminished stages of their respective careers, and if their pitching continues in its ways, though it could get even better with Michael Pineda possibly joining the rotation, the Yankees could make an easy run at this division.

The Toronto Blue Jays had huge expectations coming into the season. With big offseason acquisitions, they were expected to run away with it. But as we’ve seen with other teams who spend big and fail to meet expectations, the Blue Jays haven’t quite yet hit their stride. However, it’s not too late. Their strength of schedule, which is the combined winning percentage of every opponent they’ve played thus far, is .522. That leads all of baseball; no team has played a more difficult schedule than the Blue Jays. Sure, that has a lot to do with playing in the best division — as all five AL East teams are in the top-six of strength of schedule, with only the San Francisco Giants in fourth place breaking up the trend — but the Blue Jays have shown their ability to beat up on outside teams. They’re nine wins in inter-league play is tied for most in baseball with the Tampa Bay Rays. Their .700 winning percentage against teams from the AL West is also impressive — a division that includes the Oakland Athletics, Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels. And like the Yankees, the Blue Jays have had their share of injuries setting them back. But they’re getting all-star shortstop José Reyes back any day now and he could provide a big spark to their offense.

Currently, all five AL East teams are among the top-10 in Relative Power Index (RPI). RPI can be measured, according to ESPN, by calculating 25% team winning percentage, 50% opponents’ average winning percentage, and 25% opponents’ opponents’ average winning percentage. Unfortunately, it will only be possible for two of these teams to make the playoffs in October (with the new Wild Card seeding, two potential AL East teams outside of the division winner could conceivably face-off in a one-game playoff).

Should Major League Baseball take note of the playoff seeding structure in the National Basketball Association? And how about their 162 game schedule? Should it be reduced or less division-heavy? In its current state, for teams like the five in the AL East who beat up on each other for 18 games apiece each season, it seems you have to win the division to make the playoffs. The Wild Card seeds look likely to be handed to teams in weaker divisions who get to beat up on actual bottom-dwellers all season long.