Can Anyone Catch the Surging Blue Jays in the AL East?

Even the Orioles' Cruz control pace can't keep up with Encarnacion and the red-hot Blue Jays

After playing 30 games in 31 days and posting a 21-9 record with four series sweeps in the month of May, the Toronto Blue Jays are separating themselves from the rest of the pack in the AL East. Over the 31-day span, they made an absolute mockery out of their opposing pitchers, scoring 165 runs, 23 more than the second-highest total in MLB. And they outscored their opponents by a whopping 41 runs. After a 4-0 win on June 1st, they're rolling into summer as one of the hottest teams in baseball.

After last year's last-place finish featured a minus-44 run differential, Toronto has flipped the script and taken the AL East by surprise this year. Let's dissect the division race and see what we can take away from the first two months of the season.

AL East StandingsWLPCTGB
Toronto Blue Jays3424.586-
New York Yankees2926.5273.5
Baltimore Orioles2827.5094.5
Boston Red Sox2729.4826
Tampa Bay Rays2334.40410.5

In the driver's seat of the division, the Blue Jays managed to increase their division lead to three-and-a-half games after their first outing in June. Unfortunately for the Orioles, they can't seem to find any consistency, battling the injury bug early and often this season. Nelson Cruz is the latest victim, who was diagnosed with a left hand contusion after getting hit by a pitch in Sundays contest. He's considered day-to-day and not expected to miss more than a game or two.

The Rays have dropped six in a row after getting swept by the Red Sox this weekend. If the slide continues, the Rays might want to consider booking tee times for October. The Red Sox are now winners of seven straight and are inching back into contention, while the Yankees have quietly been taking care of business in the Bronx and are sitting nicely in the Blue Jays' rear view mirror, just ahead of the O's. Remember bluebirds, "objects in the mirror are closer then they appear."

Now that it's officially June, every team has 50-plus games in the book and the numbers are beginning to become more meaningful. One-third of the way through the season, we can finally start putting things into perspective for the remaining four months.

In an attempt to determine who's been good, bad or a little lucky thus far, let's take a look at the AL East run differential, Pythagorean Expectation and numberFire's signature nERD score in the table below, all of which offer a more telling story than a team's actual record. Pythagorean Expectation is an advanced metric that projects the number of wins a team should have based off of runs scored and runs allowed. It's used to determine how lucky or unlucky a team has been, with the lucky teams having more actual wins than expected wins. nERD (numberFire Efficiency Rating Derivative) is our own calculation of how good a team actually is, based on the number of runs a team is expected to win by against a league average opponent.

Runs ScoredRuns Allowed Run DifferentialWinsPE Wins+/- WinsnERD
Toronto Blue Jays29125239343130.67
New York Yankees230245-1529263-0.03
Baltimore Orioles234240-628271-0.40
Boston Red Sox231237-627270-0.54
Tampa Bay Rays217255-382326-3-0.35

So what does run differential, Pythagorean Expectation and nERD tell us about how the AL East is shaking up?

Well, the Blue Jays are legitimate contenders to win the division and make a run at the pennant. Their offense is currently putting up numbers at an untouchable pace. No other team in the division has a positive run differential, and the Blue Jays have separated themselves by a fairly large margin. Run differential isn’t the end-all to an argument, but the top two teams in last season's run differential would argue otherwise. The Boston Red Sox (plus-197) and St. Louis Cardinals (plus-187) led Major League Baseball, and ironically enough, played in the World Series.

While it's apparent the Blue Jays have gotten a little lucky with three more wins than expected so far, the two teams right on their tail, the Yankees and the Orioles, are outperforming their expected records as well. In correspondence with the run differential totals, besides the Blue Jays, no other team in the division produces a positive nERD score. The Orioles, Red Sox and Rays nERD all fall in the bottom one-third in baseball. The Yankees nERD sits just above league average, while the Blue Jays nERD stacks them up with some of the best in the league.

For a more detailed look inside each club, check out numberFire's up-to-date MLB power rankings to see where each team sits amongst the league's best, and what their chances are of making the playoffs and winning the World Series.

April Showers Brought May Power

Edwin Encarnacion and Nelson Cruz are undoubtedly two of the hottest hitters in all of baseball right now. Over the past two weeks, they sit first and second in the league lead in OPS, nearly 200 points higher than anyone else (Cruz is at 1.708 while Encarnacion is at 1.477).

The table below compares their absurd offensive production for the month of May and the 2014 season.

Nelson Cruz  Edwin Encarnacion 
 May (MLB Rank)2014 (MLB Rank) May (MLB Rank)2014 (MLB Rank)
PA129 (14)232 (48) 130 (12)251 (13)
HR13 (2)20 (1) 16 (1)19 (2)
RBI27 (3)52 (1) 33 (2)50 (3)
SLG.748 (2).672 (1) .763 (1).615 (4)
OPS1.135 (4)1.055 (2) 1.132 (5).974 (7)
ISO.409 (2).358 (1) .482 (1).344 (2)
wRC30 (3)49 (4) 31 (2)45 (6)
wRAA15.9 (4)23.5 (4) 16.4 (2)20.4 (6)
wOBA.473 (5).444 (3) .476 (4).418 (6)
HR/FB31.0% (2)28.6% (2) 28.6% (3)20.7% (9)
WAR1.5 (10)2.3 (12) 1.9 (3)2.4 (10)
nERDn/a4.54 (4) n/a4.45 (5)

Encarnacion had 16 home runs and 22 extra-base hits in May alone. The 16 bombs tied him with Mickey Mantle for the most homers ever hit by an AL player in May. To put the 16 home run total into better perspective, the Cardinals (11) and the Royals (13) each had fewer bombs than Encarnacion had for the month. And it wasn't even that close.

In his first game in June, Encarnacion picked up right where he left off by going yard, and now only trails Cruz by one home run for the league lead. Check out John Stolnis' piece on how the pull-happy hitter has launched so many deep balls over the past few weeks.

In similar fashion, Encarnacion's extra-base hit total for the month is the most ever by a Blue Jay's hitter in May. The offensive juggernaut had five multi-homer games, matching the Major League mark for most multi-homer contests in a calendar month. The Blue Jays are 11-3 this year when Encarnacion goes deep, too - if that isn't a recipe for success, I don't know what is. He went through a stretch in late May where he had 12 home runs in 14 games, leading the Jays to a 12-2 record over that span.

He's been absolutely tattooing the ball since May 1, and a June encore may be on deck.

Within the division, Cruz is proving to be the key power source in the middle of the Orioles lineup. Before yesterday's departure, he was boasting a 12-game hitting streak that included eight home runs, 15 RBI and 50 total bases.

Cruz's 20 total home runs lead the majors and are the most to this point in any of his previous seasons. The Royals only have four more team home runs than Cruz has himself through the first two months of the season. Cruz's 52 RBI are tops in the bigs too, and are the most in team history at the end of May. In addition to his home run and RBI totals, he's currently slashing a ridiculous .314/.384/.672 line.

Almost all of his advanced offensive statistics are well above what he has done during the past three seasons in Texas. This year, he's belted 28.6% of his fly balls into the bleachers. In other words, he is sending a souvenir to the seats at least once every three games. His .358 isolated power and .672 slugging percentage both rank first in baseball. Aside from his sustained power, Cruz's walk rate is up to 9.9%, much higher than it's been in recent history (7.7% in 2013; 7.5% in 2012; 6.4% in 2011).

The power surge of Encarnacion and Cruz has been unreal thus far. It appears that some regression is most definitely looming for both sluggers, but I would be hesitant to sell high on either guy. Encarnacion is already a top 10 talent so unless you are upgrading to the likes of Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera, it's six of one, half a dozen of the other. In Cruz's case, if you can sell high and land a top 15-20 caliber player, it might be worth pulling the trigger given his day-to-day status and his prior injury history. For the time being though, fantasy owners and baseball fans alike should just sit back and enjoy the fireworks.

If the yard work continues, a race for the AL home run crown could be in the making for these division foes.

Who knows? Maybe a series-long home run derby will decide who is crowned the home run champion when the Orioles visit the Blue Jays at the end of September.

Can the Jays Finish What They've Started?

It's quite obvious who boasts the most prolific offense in the AL East. The Blue Jays have 82 home runs this season, 26 more than the next AL East team, the Orioles. In the month of May, the Jays led baseball in team OPS at .831, 59 points higher than the next ball club. The power punch of Jose Bautista (14 HR, 40 RBI, 1.000 OPS) and Edwin Encarnacion (19 HR, 50 RBI, .974 OPS) is as lethal as any duo in the bigs right now.

Combine that with the speed of Jose Reyes and the consistency of Melky Cabrera, then throw one of the most dangerous cleanup hitters in the game behind them, and it's no wonder they are putting up runs by the bushels.

They can hit, but what about their pitching?

Last year's Blue Jays' rotation posted the second-worst ERA in all of baseball at 4.88. This year has been a different story though, as their starters have a combined 3.77 ERA, a full run better than last season.

Mark Buehrle has been pitching out of his mind through the first two months. In all fairness to Buehrle, he has always been an effective pitcher, but never to this level. He's the first starter in the Majors to reach 10 wins this year, leading the league with a 10-1 record which is only two wins shy of his win total last year. He holds a stellar 2.10 ERA despite his higher 3.06 FIP (Field Independent Pitching), which measures what a pitcher's ERA should look like, assuming that balls in play were league average.

So why has he been so reliable this year?

For starters, he doesn’t give out free passes. His 6.1% walk rate squeezes him just inside the top 15 in the AL. Secondly, he pitches to contact, making hitters put the ball in play and allowing his fielders to take care of the rest. Different from previous years, he has kept his offense within striking distance at all times through the first two months. When you can do these things night in and night out, everything else seems to fall into place.

Surprisingly, Blue Jays' starters have the second-highest xFIP (Expected Fielding Independent Pitching) in the league at 4.26, and the third-highest SIERA (Skill-Interactive ERA) at 4.26. xFIP measures what a pitcher's ERA should look like and has one of the highest correlations with future ERA. SIERA is an ERA estimator that accounts for some of the complexity of pitching, as it examines the skill level of a pitcher and whether or not their ERA should be higher or lower than it actually is.

Without the presence of a true dominating ace (sorry Mark Buehrle), however, I expect the starting rotation numbers to normalize in the coming weeks.

Swirling rumors report that the Orioles and Blue Jays are emerging as two teams drawing interest in Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija. Both clubs have a handful of top 100 pitching prospects that could be headed to the Windy City if a deal gets done before the July deadline.

I wouldn't count the Yankees and Red Sox out of the running either. Other than Masahiro Tanaka (who is proving to be the real deal - 11 for 11 in quality starts), both staffs have been mediocre at best this year and have several starters currently on the disabled list.

Prior to yesterday, Samardzija was first in the bigs in ERA at 1.68. After being shellacked by the Brewers, his ERA jumped to 2.54. We won't put too much emphasis on one outing but it will be interesting to see if he bounces back in his next start against the Marlins and what effects the poor performance may have on his price tag.

Samardzija would appear to be the anchor of a pitching staff both teams so desperately need. His Chicago departure seems inevitable at this point and all signs are pointing to him landing in the AL East.

If the Blue Jays bring in the Cubs' right-hander, I'd expect them to run away with the division and keep pace with the A's and Tigers at the top of the AL. If they don't add any depth to their pitching staff, it will be fascinating to see if their offensive has enough oomph to carry the club to the postseason.