One stat that will make — or break — 2023 for all 15 American League teams

Sports

As the calendar turns to 2023, it’s time to start thinking ahead to the upcoming baseball season. We started by presenting one key number that will define 2023 for each of the National League teams, so now, let’s turn our attention to the Junior Circuit.

Does anyone still refer to the American League with that moniker? Maybe it’s gone the way of the complete game, the sacrifice bunt and the two-inning save. Anyway, let’s take a look at one key number for each AL squad from the 2022 season and look forward to what it means for next season — from the defending World Series champions to Aaron Judge‘s Yankees.

Jump to a division: AL East | AL Central | AL West

AL East

The number: 129 defensive runs saved

The Yankees not only led the majors in this statistic, according to Sports Info Solutions — but it was the highest team total since SIS began tracking the stat in 2003.

Whoa. Were the Yankees really the best defensive team of the past 20 years? That’s a debate for another day, but they did rank above average at every position except center field — with their pitchers (plus-21 DRS) and catchers (plus-24) ranking as the best in the majors. Jose Trevino rated as the best pitch framer in the majors and the Yankees tied with the Cardinals for fewest stolen bases allowed, so some of the strong D came in the more nuanced, less visible aspects of the game.

I looked at the other top 10 teams in DRS since 2003 to see how much they regressed the following season (not including a couple of teams from 2019). Not surprisingly, all declined the following season, by an average of 54 runs — or about five to six wins. In actual wins, the teams declined an average of three wins the following season. One of those teams on the list was the 2021 Rangers. They went from plus-86 DRS (despite losing 102 games) to plus-5. Their catcher in 2021? Trevino. Anyway, the Yankees allowed a .269 BABIP in 2022 (only the Los Angeles Dodgers were lower), down from .284 in 2021 and .280 in 2020. Even if it wasn’t the best defense in 20 years, it was good. Let’s see how it fares this season.


The number: 3.15 WPA

The Toronto bullpen was 10th in the majors in win probability added. That means the Blue Jays’ bullpen was OK, right? It wasn’t up there with Cleveland’s or Houston’s, but good enough to make the playoffs. Except … well, except Jordan Romano had a WPA of 3.39 all by himself, which ranked seventh among all relievers. He had a strong season as the closer. The rest of the pen? Not so reliable. Sure enough, it coughed up an 8-2 lead in the second wild-card game against Seattle (and Romano allowed the winning run in the ninth).

What has been an unpredictable bullpen is going to have to be more consistent for the Jays to overtake the Yankees in the AL East. The top setup guys are probably Anthony Bass and Yimi Garcia, two veterans who have been all over the place in their careers, plus trade acquisition Erik Swanson. Bass had a 1.54 ERA last year with the Miami Marlins and Jays (3.00 FIP). In 2021, he had 3.82 ERA and 4.93 FIP. Maybe he figured something out. Garcia was solid in 2022, with a 3.10 ERA. The year before, he had a 4.21 ERA. His career home run rate is high for a reliever. Swanson had a terrific 2022 with the Mariners (1.68 ERA, 70 K’s in 53⅔ innings, .202 average allowed). We’ll see if he’s for real. Adam Cimber has a rubber arm. Sixty-eight games in 2019, 72 in 2021, a league-leading 77 last season. He gets grounders and has had two good seasons in a row, but he doesn’t rack up strikeouts, and managers don’t always trust those guys. Julian Merryweather is still around. Remember when he began the 2021 as the closer and then got injured? Tim Mayza is tough on lefties.

This could be one of the best pens in the league. Or one that is not quite good enough.


The number: 63.9%

The Rays had the second highest first-pitch strike percentage in the majors, behind only the Dodgers. This is only one of many positive pitching numbers for the Rays. They had the highest chase rate in the majors at 32.3%. They were tied for fourth in swinging strike rate. Because of that first-pitch strike percentage, they were in a pitcher’s count 39.8% of the time, best in the majors. For the second season in a row, they issued the fewest walks in the American League.

Having control-oriented Corey Kluber in the rotation helped, but the Rays have slowly improved in that area overall, going from eighth in walks issued in 2018 to fourth to third and then to first. And it works, as the Rays have finished in the top three in fewest runs allowed in the AL each of the past five seasons.

The amazing thing is they do it with different pitchers. They’ve had 17 different pitchers throw at least 50 innings the past two seasons — but only Shane McClanahan, Drew Rasmussen and Ryan Yarbrough did it both seasons. Yarbrough and Kluber are gone, but McClanahan and Rasmussen return, as will Tyler Glasnow after missing most of the 2022 season to rehab from Tommy John surgery.

Those three pitchers demonstrate just how well the Rays get their pitchers to throw strikes. McClanahan averaged 5.7 walks per nine at South Florida when the Rays drafted him and 3.4 his first year in the minors. He was at 2.1 in 2022. Rasmussen walked 21 in 32⅓ innings as a reliever with the Milwaukee Brewers, transitioned into a starter after joining the Rays and walked just 1.9 batters per nine innings. Glasnow averaged 5.8 walks per nine with the Pirates before improving to 2.8 allowed with the Rays. Jeffrey Springs averaged 4.7 walks per nine as a reliever with the Rangers and Red Sox from 2018 to 2020, then the Rays turned him into a starter in 2022 and he walked 2.1 per nine (and posted a 2.46 ERA). I don’t know how they do it, but they do it. New free agent addition Zach Eflin already has excellent control, but you might want to grab him for your fantasy team.


The number: 60-47

That is the team’s record when Adley Rutschman started, and it translates to a 91-win pace over 162 games — not that Rutschman is going to start 162 games in 2023. Rutschman’s ascension to the majors on May 21 wasn’t the only reason the Orioles suddenly went from laughing stock over the past several seasons to surprise playoff contenders, but it was certainly a key factor as he hit .254/.362/.445 and played excellent defense. Baseball-Reference credited him with 5.2 WAR, second among catchers behind only J.T. Realmuto. That season by the No. 1 overall pick in 2019 ranked as the fourth-best rookie season by a catcher in the divisional era (since 1969):

Carlton Fisk, 1972: 7.3

Mike Piazza, 1993: 7.0

Thurman Munson, 1970: 5.5

The next two on the list after Rutschman are Jim Sundberg (4.0) and Buster Posey (3.9). This is good company. Two Hall of Famers in Fisk and Piazza, one who might get there in Posey and one who won an MVP Award in Munson and might be a Hall of Famer if his career hadn’t been cut short when he died in a plane crash. Sundberg was a six-time Gold Glove winner who finished with 40 career WAR.

One reason to like Rutschman’s MVP chances moving forward: He improved his OPS in the second half from .722 to .861. If he hits .275/.399/.462 over a full season, those are huge numbers for a catcher — and there might be more power to come alongside his excellent plate discipline. One area of improvement would be his production from the right side of the plate, as he hit just .174/.287/.265 against left-handers (and was also much stronger from the left side in the minors in 2021). If he can improve against southpaws, watch out.


The number: One

Nick Pivetta was the only Red Sox starter to qualify for the ERA title (one inning pitched per team game), throwing 179⅔ innings. OK, OK … yes, let’s first admit that 162 innings is becoming a relatively high standard these days. Only 45 pitchers reached that benchmark in 2022, an average of 1.5 per team. But this has become an alarming trend for the Red Sox: Only Nathan Eovaldi qualified in 2021 and only Martin Perez qualified in 2020. Check out the total innings from the team’s top four workhorses since 2016 (excluding 2020): 749, 728.2, 655, 632.1, 540.2.

You can see what happened in 2022. Even by modern standards, that’s a low total. Consider that a major league team needs about 1,430 innings to get through a season. Given 13 “spots” on a roster, that’s an average of 110 per slot. If your top four give you more innings, that’s fewer innings required from the other slots. When your top four provide just 540 innings, you need to find almost 100 innings from each of the other nine slots. And because relievers top out at about 70 innings (John Schreiber led the Red Sox with 65), well, you can see where we’re going with this. You need to find more starters and more relievers. The Red Sox failed to do that in 2022. For 2023, outside of Pivetta, the Red Sox will have the same issues: How many innings will the likes of Chris Sale, Garrett Whitlock, Kluber and James Paxton provide?

AL Central

The number: 251

That was Steven Kwan‘s ranking in hard-hit rate among 252 batters listed on Statcast’s leaderboard for 2022.

A hard-hit ball is classified as a batted ball with an exit velocity of 95 mph or higher, and only Tony Kemp had a lower rate than Kwan’s 20.8%. Nonetheless, Kwan had an exceptional rookie season, hitting .298/.373/.400 with 89 runs scored and more walks than strikeouts. His 124 wRC+ ranked 45th in the majors, squeezed between Randy Arozarena and Hunter Renfroe. The Guardians will happily take a repeat of that season.

It’s difficult for a Kwan-type hitter to exist in today’s game. Look at teammate Myles Straw, who actually had a higher hard-hit rate than Kwan but hit just .221/.291/.273. Kwan reminds me a little of Adam Frazier who hit .305 in 2021 and then just .238 in 2022, when his BABIP fell from .339 to .268. Is Kwan at the mercy of the BABIP gods or is he a true artist with the bat, with excellent contact skills and the ability to place the ball where the fielders aren’t? For a team without much power, Kwan’s results and ability to get on base will be a big key to Cleveland’s chances of repeating in the AL Central.


The number: 149 home runs.

The White Sox ranked 10th in the AL in home runs with the fewest they have hit in a full season since 2015. Their ballpark, Guaranteed Rate Park, is a great home run stadium. According to the “Bill James Handbook,” it has the highest home run factor in the AL from 2020 to ’22, trailing only Cincinnati’s Great American Ball Park among all stadiums. And yet, the only time the White Sox have finished higher than 10th in the AL in home runs since 2014 was in 2020 — when they ranked first. The White Sox need to harken back to the 2000 to 2006 era, which featured the 2005 World Series winners. Despite then-manager Ozzie Guillen’s attempts at “Ozzie Ball” at various times, those teams had success because they hit the long ball, belting at least 200 home runs each season.

For 2023, the White Sox have lost Jose Abreu and will slide Andrew Vaughn to first base, but they’ve yet to replace Abreu’s bat in the lineup — although Abreu hit only 15 home runs in 2022. Here’s where we point out that in 2020, Luis Robert played in 56 of 60 games, and Eloy Jimenez played in 55 of 60. Over the past two seasons, however, Robert has missed 158 games and Jimenez 185. Those are potential 30-homer bats if healthy, and Vaughn is still just 25 and hits the ball hard — 90th percentile in hard-hit rate. If he can learn to loft the ball a little more, he could easily hit 25 or more. The White Sox need those three to stay on the field and power up.


The number: 35 quality starts

Only the Washington Nationals had fewer quality starts than the Twins in 2022. There are two ways to look at this. Manager Rocco Baldelli milked the most out of a thin rotation. Despite so few quality starts, the Twins finished 20th in the majors with a 4.11 rotation ERA — not much worse than the major league average of 4.05. The other way is: This is no way to run a rotation, even in 2022. The fewest quality starts among playoff teams was the St. Louis Cardinals’ 62. In 2021, when everyone had quicker hooks in general, the Rays did make it with just 33 quality starts, but the Rays are an outlier in many things. The second fewest in 2021 among playoff teams was the Yankees with 51. The Twins were once again near the bottom with just 32 that year.

It might be easy to say this is simply how the Twins choose to operate, but when they won 101 games in 2019 (and when runs were much more plentiful across the league), they did have 67 quality starts. So this appears to be more of a personnel issue. Sonny Gray went more than five innings just nine times out of 24 starts and reached 90 pitches just five times (and never 100). Joe Ryan was at least allowed to reach 100 pitches seven times but averaged just 5.4 innings per start. And those two were the workhorses. Chris Archer made 24 starts and averaged barely four innings per start.

In 2023, the Twins will get Kenta Maeda back from Tommy John surgery and hopefully a full season from Tyler Mahle, acquired at the 2022 deadline. Throw in Bailey Ober and prospects Louie Varland and Simeon Woods Richardson and the Twins do have some intriguing depth — and maybe a few more quality starts.


The number: 77 OPS+

Spencer Torkelson‘s adjusted OPS as a rookie at age 22.

For the player regarded as the top hitting prospect in the minors entering the season, it was an uninspiring debut, especially given the success of other rookies like Julio Rodriguez, Rutschman and Michael Harris II. Is there any hope here that Torkelson still develops into a star? Using the Play Index at Baseball-Reference.com, I found all 22-year-old rookies since 1969 who batted at least 300 times. Torkelson’s 77 OPS+ ranked 122nd out of 153 eligible players.

Most of those below him and just above him were middle infielders without much power. A few success stories: Carlos Gonzalez (71 OPS+), Toby Harrah (74), Nolan Arenado (81) and Robin Ventura (83). If it does happen for Torkelson, it will probably happen in 2023. Arenado, for example, went to a 115 OPS+ as a sophomore and Ventura jumped to a 126 OPS+. Indeed, there were some positives in Torkelson’s underlying metrics: 63rd percentile walk rate, 75th percentile chase rate and a below-average — but not horrendous — swing-and-miss rate (43rd percentile). I don’t know if there is still star potential, but I think he can develop into an above-average regular. That might be viewed as a disappointment for the former No. 1 overall pick, but if he can hold down a middle-of-the-order spot, that’s a huge plus for Detroit’s future.


The number: 810 runs allowed

Most in the AL. The Royals are now entering the sixth season of a rebuild that began in 2018. The lack of progress finally cost longtime executive Dayton Moore his job — with J.J. Picollo, his longtime No. 2, taking over. While the offense wasn’t much better than the pitching and defense — 12th in the AL in runs — you can at least envision a young core with Bobby Witt Jr., Vinnie Pasquantino and MJ Melendez, and perhaps other rookies like Nick Pratto and Kyle Isbel will take off in 2023.

With the exception of Brady Singer, however, the young starters haven’t clicked. Royals starters were 28th in the majors in strikeout rate, 24th in walk rate and 29th in batting average allowed on balls in play. Not really any positives to draw from. It’s hard to allow the most runs in the league while playing half your games in Kauffman Stadium, but the Royals did that for the first time since 2010. Their top two pitching prospects are still teenagers in High-A, so there doesn’t appear to be any immediate help. They signed Jordan Lyles and Yarbrough to help soak up some innings, but those two combined for a 4.45 ERA last season. Picollo has indicated the Royals are still exploring rotation options, but for now guys like Daniel Lynch, Kris Bubic and Carlos Hernandez will get another chance.

AL West

The number: 1.75 ERA

Justin Verlander‘s ERA in his Cy Young-winning season.

Verlander is now a member of the New York Mets and replacing his starts — let alone his production — will be a key factor in the Astros winning 106 games again and repeating as World Series champions. It helps that the Astros already had the deepest rotation in the majors with Framber Valdez, Cristian Javier, Luis Garcia and Jose Urquidy. They’ll also have Lance McCullers Jr. back for a full season after he made just eight starts in 2022, plus rookie Hunter Brown, who displayed his big-time stuff out of the bullpen in the postseason after posting a 2.55 ERA as a starter in Triple-A. So that’s six pretty good options.

It does thin out after that, but how often have the Astros needed their seventh or eighth starters? Here’s how many starts they’ve had from their top six guys since 2017:

2017: 134

2018: 157

2019: 133

2021: 150

2022: 152

It’s worth noting that in 2017 and 2019, the two “down years” for the rotation, the Astros made trades to acquire Verlander and Zack Greinke. Outside of Brown, the farm system isn’t regarded highly, but I suspect if the Astros need a starter for some reason come July, they’ll figure out a trade. And they’ve overcome the loss of Verlander before, reaching the World Series in 2021 without him.


The number: Zero

From what I can tell, Mariners starters didn’t miss a single start. Let’s see. Robbie Ray, Logan Gilbert and Marco Gonzales each made 32 starts, which is pretty much the max you see these days. Chris Flexen made 22 starts and was moved to the bullpen when the team acquired Luis Castillo, who made 11 starts. Matt Brash made five starts at the start of the season, wasn’t good and the team called up George Kirby, who made 25 starts. They had three spot starts from Penn Murfee, Erik Swanson and Justus Sheffield — two of those in doubleheaders and Sheffield in the final series of the season after the playoffs had been clinched.

The team’s position players were also healthy, with only Mitch Haniger missing significant time. The Mariners had six players play at least 132 games — one of just six teams to do so (all except the Orioles made the playoffs). The Mariners’ offseason additions have been Teoscar Hernandez, who replaces Jesse Winker, and Kolten Wong, who replaces Adam Frazier. On paper, those are upgrades. They lost Haniger, but he played only 57 games — plus they have Jarred Kelenic, who will get one more chance. They’ll benefit from a full season of Castillo in the rotation, and they’ve kept Flexen around for rotation depth. But the biggest key for the 2023 Mariners might simply be staying as healthy as they were in 2022.


The number: 3.67 ERA

The Angels — believe it or not — had the sixth-best rotation ERA in the majors. Yep. Better than the Atlanta Braves (3.72) or the Guardians (3.73) or the Mariners (3.75) or the San Diego Padres, Philadelphia Phillies, Cardinals and Blue Jays. All those teams made the playoffs. The Angels finished 73-89.

It helps that Shohei Ohtani had a monster season with a 2.33 ERA, but Patrick Sandoval had a sub-3.00 ERA and Reid Detmers and Jose Suarez were solid with ERAs under 4.00. The Angels also ranked sixth in FanGraphs WAR among starting rotations. They even added Tyler Anderson — coming off a big season with the Dodgers — in free agency, giving them four lefties in the rotation. Yet the consensus seems to still be, “Is the rotation good enough?”

The question probably should be: Are the position players good enough? Even with big years from Ohtani and Mike Trout, the Angels ranked 22nd in FanGraphs WAR among position players. They’ve made moves to improve: adding Hunter Renfroe for the outfield, acquiring Gio Urshela for infield depth and signing Brandon Drury to fill in where needed. Prospect Logan O’Hoppe, acquired last summer for Brandon Marsh, should be ready to share time at catcher with Max Stassi. That improved depth should help … a lot. The Angels used 34 position players in 2022. Eighteen of them hit .200 or under over a combined 1,580 plate appearances. Call it addition by addition and subtraction. If the rotation performs as well, the improved lineup — especially if Anthony Rendon is healthy and Jared Walsh bounces back — could push the Angels into their first postseason since 2014.


The number: 15-35

There are several ways to look at that record, the worst in the majors in one-run games. Bad luck. Poor bullpen. Doing all the little things wrong. All these things were certainly contributors. At one point, the Rangers were 5-23 in one-run games, so they closed strong at 10-12! Still, it’s mostly just random. Although not always. The 2021 Arizona Diamondbacks went 10-31 in one-run games and were still bad in 2022, going 17-29. The 2018 Cincinnati Reds went 10-29 in one-run games. They were better in 2019 at 24-33 but still well below .500. A more optimistic scenario: The 2008 Braves were 11-30 in one-run games and improved to 27-25 in 2009.

The Rangers have improved their rotation, adding Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi, Andrew Heaney and Jake Odorizzi. That will help. What they haven’t done is add to the bullpen, although there are still some relievers out there in free agency (including Matt Moore, who had a 1.95 ERA for the Rangers this past season). The Rangers do have some intriguing reliever arms, though. Brock Burke had a terrific rookie season with a 1.97 ERA while leading all relievers with 82⅓ innings. Jonathan Hernandez will be in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery. Jose Leclerc and Joe Barlow have had their moments. If Dane Dunning is squeezed out of the rotation, he could make a nice multi-inning reliever. The Rangers were 68-94 in 2022, but with the revamped rotation and better bullpen results, the playoffs are in sight.


The number: .281 on-base percentage

Not only did the A’s have the lowest OBP in the majors in 2022 — they had the lowest since the 1968 Mets also posted a .281 OBP. The good news: The Mets won the World Series the next season! OK, that’s probably not going to be the story for the 2023 A’s, especially factoring in they traded their best position player in catcher Sean Murphy, who led the team with a .332 OBP.

Is there any hope for 2023? The top hitting prospects in the organization are first baseman/catcher Tyler Soderstrom and third baseman Zack Gelof, but they’re more likely in the 2024 plans. The A’s acquired outfielder Esteury Ruiz from the Brewers in the Murphy trade, and he’ll certainly get a chance to play every day after hitting .332/.447/.526 in the minors with 85 stolen bases. Shortstop Nick Allen and center fielder Cristian Pache are defensive standouts and will probably get more opportunities, but their bats remain gigantic question marks. The A’s might not lose 100 games again, but they still need to see some offensive improvement.

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