MLB has a unique playoff format. The three division winners from the American League (AL) and National League each make the playoffs, along with the three next best teams — known as wildcard teams. For example, in 2022, the New York Yankees won the AL East division. Yet, despite being in the same division, the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays qualified for the playoffs as wildcard teams. As a result, in 2022, half of the six playoff spots in the AL went to three out of the five teams in the AL East.
The AL East has almost always been the most competitive division in baseball, but why is this one division above the rest — not just by inches but by miles?
Let’s start with the obvious. The AL East has two of the most popular sports franchises — the Yankees and the Red Sox. Forbes ranks the Yankees as the highest-valued team in the MLB, and the Red Sox are ranked third on that list. These teams play for huge markets, are extremely popular, and generate an extraordinary amount of money that gets funnelled right back into the team’s success. The Red Sox won the World Series in 2018, though they have only made the playoffs once since then, and the Yankees haven’t missed the postseason since 2017, albeit without winning any success in it. Nevertheless, the Red Sox and Yankees are only two out of the five teams in the AL East.
The Rays are quite the opposite of the rich and famous Yankees and Red Sox – they are notoriously cheap and have infamously horrible attendance figures year after year. But, somehow, Tampa manages to develop any pitcher or hitter into a star.
I don’t get surprised anymore when their rookies throw 100 miles per hour with a sub-2 earned-run average (ERA) — a statistic used to measure how many runs a pitcher allows on average — or when the “bad” hitters they pick up at the deadline go on to carry them into the postseason. For example, relievers Robert Stephenson and Jake Diekman had a lowly 4+ ERA before joining the Rays, and now they are flourishing with 3 ERAs. Elsewhere, in 198 plate appearances during the 2022 season, Rays outfielder Josh Lowe had a .221 batting average and hit two home runs. In the off-season, the Rays hitting coaches transformed his swing, and now Lowe has a .279 batting average and 16 home runs in his 351 plate appearances so far this season. Overall, the Rays have been a serious contender for five straight years while having one of the lowest payrolls in the MLB.
Our very own Toronto Blue Jays took a break from contending for a couple of years after their powerhouse 2015 and 2016 teams. After top prospects Bo Bichette, Cavan Biggio, and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. were called up from the minor leagues in 2019, the franchise made huge signings in the following years. Since then, the Jays have signed three of the biggest contracts in franchise history, including George Springer who signed a massive six-year $150 million deal in 2021. Now, they consistently boast one of the best offences in the league with a phenomenal starting rotation to match. In the past two years, they have had among the best preseason World Series odds, and this year they hope to finally make the dream of a World Series a reality for suffering Toronto sports fans.
Finally, other than a short stretch of regular season success from 2012–2016, the Baltimore Orioles have been the only outlier franchise in the AL East. In 2018, they finished with the sixth most losses in a single season in MLB history. But this season — in a time where the Yankees are still good, the Rays find ways to succeed, and the Jays are contending every year — the Orioles are finally on the rise, making the division the toughest it’s ever been. With former number-one prospect Adley Rutschman leading the way and ten top 100 prospects coming through the pipeline, the Orioles aren’t the little brother of the division anymore.
Fans of teams in the AL East have been begging for a division realignment for years. It can be infuriating for fans to watch as the winner of the AL Central division — a division that doesn’t have a single team above any AL East team in the AL standings — automatically earn a playoff spot over their team. As of August 22, every team in the AL East is in the top 20 in the MLB standings, and their average combined record would be the sixth-best in the entire league. In 2023, baseball fans are seeing what may be the peak performance of this division. Fans can only sit back and watch the gauntlet that is the AL East, whether they enjoy competitive baseball or loathe the other divisions.