The AL East narrative is something I talk about often in this space, the idea that it's very dangerous to try to make a mixed-league living with pitchers in this division. Four of the five parks in the group are friendly with runs and/or homers, and there are some loaded bats with these teams besides.
But every so often you need to go to the numbers and make sure everything is calibrated properly, verify the compass is set right. That's today's assignment. And as it turns out, the narrative holds; the division is as dangerous as ever. The crooked number is alive and well in the big-boy division.
You won't find the AL East represented at the very top of the runs board (that's where Texas sits), and the Cardinals currently are second in the majors in scoring (it will be interesting if they can stick there as injuries keep hammering them). But once those two clubs are out of the way, the east-coast bias starts kicking in.
Boston is tied for third in the majors, sitting at 200 runs; if the Red Sox sputter out in 2012, it won't be on account of the bats. The Orioles and Yankees (177 runs) are tied for fifth, followed by the Blue Jays (175 runs, eighth) and Rays (171 runs, ninth). There's no easy mark in this group, no day off, no matchup to exploit. All five teams are in the Top 8 in homers as well, with Baltimore (60 home runs) and New York (58 John Sterling monologues) showing the way.
Don't be tripped up by antiquated ways of evaluating offense as you look at team stats. The Jays are 24th in batting average, but so what? The name of the game is crossing home plate. Tampa Bay (16th) and Baltimore (14th) also lag in average, but it doesn't matter.
Speed can also be an overrated commodity, especially in the slow-pitch softball league. The Orioles are the worst stolen-base team in the majors, both in bags swiped (11) and success rate (50 percent). Big deal, they're still putting up crooked numbers. Boston isn't much better, sitting 13-for-23. But the entire division grades out well if you look at on-base percentage, slugging percentage, or (naturally) OPS. Get on base regularly, and knock the ball far when you do make contact — that's what moves the needle.
If you're looking for offenses to pick on, the usual rules of thumb apply. Ten of the 15 teams at the bottom of the runs page are NL clubs. Pitching-friendly parks still do the trick: the Padres are 29th in scoring, the Athletics 27th, the Giants 26th. We talked about the Pirates early in the year as a cushy matchup and that hasn't changed; they're dead last in scoring. Minnesota is another soft spot that's been documented; despite an 11-run explosion in Detroit on Wednesday, the Twins are still the worst-scoring club in the AL. Minnesota welcomed Justin Morneau back to the lineup this week, but it's offset by Ryan Doumit's calf strain (though Doumit might not need a DL stint, as initially feared).
Some star pitchers are going to be able to beat the AL East environment; they're simply too talented. It would be foolish to try to talk fantasy owners out of CC Sabathia, David Price or James Shields. All my Boston pessimism to the side, Jon Lester is a solid fantasy play, even if he might fall short of his national reputation. There will be others who run uphill and still come out ahead.
But can someone like Brandon Morrow handle the rough-and-tumble division? His splits thus far show a clean break: he's 4-0 outside the division and 0-2 inside the pool; he's allowed 16 runs in the AL East (11 earned) as opposed to four runs (two earned) in the easier draws. Morrow's K/BB ratio is 13/8 against the big kids, and 33/8 against everyone else.
Morrow should be fine against the Mets in his next start, but then he draws the Rangers (in Arlington), Orioles and Red Sox. Do you feel confident he can handle that type of schedule? I'd sell high on the pretty numbers while they're still there.
If you want the 180-degree opposite of Morrow, take a look at Tommy Milone in Oakland. While Morrow is a hard-throwing righty who makes scouts drool, Milone is a soft-serving lefty who does surgery in the 80s. Morrow has to dodge a bunch of risky parks, while Milone enjoys the pitcher-friendly environment of Oakland's gigantic stadium (and regular visits to Seattle and Anaheim). Milone's ERA is a sterling 0.39 in his three Oakland turns, but it swells to 7.16 on the road. Trips to Fenway Park (eight runs, seven earned) and Tampa Bay (five runs) did the most damage to Milone's bottom line; there's that east-coast swing again.
Milone probably shouldn't be used in Arlington, either — that's the most dangerous place in the majors right now — though he held up admirably in his Wednesday start there (7 IP, 9 H, 4 R, 1 BB, 4 K). If you can hang in against these ridiculous Rangers, you move up on the trust clipboard. Mayday's next three starts look reasonable enough: at home against the Angels (good), at home against the Yankees (you call it), and on the road at Kansas City (that works).
One reason I'm prepared to slot Milone fairly high with the stream police is his ability to get batters to swing at his pitch. He's currently getting hitters to offer at 34.3 percent of his tosses outside the strike zone; that's third-best in the majors. In a nutshell, that's what knowing how to pitch really means. I'm also in on the NL leaders in this stat, Jeff Samardzija and Ryan Dempster.
While you consider the pros and cons of division and parks, let's take a quick look around some of the other Wednesday-specific happenings around the fantasy world:
• The misses keep coming for Rickie Weeks: he donned a golden sombrero (four punchouts) in Wednesday's loss at Houston, pushing his strikeout rate over 30 percent for the season and pushing his batting average down to .154. All hasn't been lost with Weeks's batting eye this season, mind you — he's walking 14.7 percent of the time, and as Jack Moore notes in this intriguing piece, Weeks laid off some tricky borderline pitches in Wednesday's ballgame. But when you add in the never-ending injury risk of Weeks (he's played one full year in the majors), his career .251 average, and his declining interest in stealing bases, this isn't someone I want to take the chance on. If you have a pro-Weeks stance, you're welcome to offer it up in the comments.
• If the Cardinals can simply stay reasonably healthy, they look like the clear National League favorites to me, a very deep club that can pile on the runs, beat you with sharp pitching, or both. But the medical file is getting complicated with the Redbirds of late; it's time to see what Mike Matheny is made of in the manager's chair.
Jon Jay (shoulder) landed on the DL on Tuesday, a big hit given the team's lack of options in center field. Carlos Beltran's monster start hit a rough patch this week as he deals with a balky knee, and breakout star Allen Craig (hamstring) is day-to-day after pulling up lame in Wednesday's victory at San Francisco. Lance Berkman (calf) is back in the mix after a DL stint, but at age 36, we can't automatically assume he'll be a set-it-and-forget-it player for the rest of 2012.
I was prepared to give Craig a very lofty rank in the next Outfield Shuffle, which comes to you this afternoon. I'm still of the mindset that he'll play 5-7 times a week, no matter what other Cardinals are healthy — his bat is too valuable. And while Craig is never going to be a plus defender, at least he's capable of taking the field at several different spots (left field, right field, first base, third base, maybe even second in a pinch). Matheny is no dummy: he'll find a way to keep Craig's bat in the middle of the order.
• What do we make of Carlos Zambrano's fast start? Big Z is carrying a 1.88 ERA and 1.04 WHIP after seven turns, and it hasn't really been a story driven by Miami's home park: his numbers are much better on the road. He's still more wild than we'd like (17 walks over 48 innings), but at least the strikeout count (39) keeps the K/BB ratio safely over 2/1. I'm a little leery about Zambrano in an AL park this weekend — even if Cleveland doesn't ordinarily move the needle — but after that he gets two home turns, working against Colorado and Washington. I'll sign up for those assignments.
• Frank Francisco hasn't pitched since Monday's rocky save against the Brewers, but sometimes your stock goes up simply by watching other pitchers kick it around. Jon Rauch's neck tattoo didn't scare the Reds on Wednesday (one out, three runs in the eighth inning) and he wound up saddled with the loss. Bobby Parnell has been reliable as New York's other high-leverage reliever (2.12 ERA, nine straight scoreless outings), so we have to keep him in mind as a possible hedge. Parnell has 17 whiffs against three walks for his 17 innings this year.
Parnell was so-so as the late-season closer at the end of 2011, however; he was handed 10 standard save chances over the final five weeks (ninth-inning work) and converted just 6-of-10. It's not enough to eliminate Parnell from closing at some point this year, but it might be enough to keep Parnell locked into the No. 3 role for now.