Thursday September 8th, 2011

At the conclusion of play on Wednesday, Aug. 10, the Tigers held a scant two-game lead in their division and seemed light years behind the American League's elite. Detroit was nine games behind New York, eight behind Boston and four behind Texas. At the time it seemed that, if the Tigers made the playoffs, they'd quickly be dismissed as an also-ran, unless Justin Verlander figured out a way to pitch every game.

Fast forward to Sept. 8: The Tigers have baseball's best record over the past four weeks, going 20-7 thanks to consecutive sweeps of onetime AL Central challengers Chicago and Cleveland this week. What's more, the Tigers still trail the Yankees by seven games but are 4 1/2 games behind the Red Sox and now a half-game ahead of the Rangers in the standings, though that change is not yet reflected in the Power Rankings given the quality of the competition.

It's important to note that the four-week hot stretch has included only one opponent among the AL's elite (the Rays, No. 8 in this week's Rankings) though Detroit did win three of four games on the road in that series. But even though the wins were accumulated against weaker teams -- and the Tigers are a whopping 40-21 (.656) against the rest of the AL Central this season -- they stand to benefit just the same with homefield advantage in October.

While playing either Boston or New York in the ALDS is a foregone conclusion, having a better record than the Rangers means Detroit would have an extra home game in the first round of the playoffs. The Tigers have played .592 ball at Comerica Park and .542 everywhere else.

NOTE: All stats are updated through Wednesday, Sept. 7.

MLB Power Rankings
1Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 1
Pinch-hitting is a difficult trade to learn, but that has been Ross Gload's almost exclusive lot in life for the past three years and on Wednesday night he delivered a walk-off winner -- his major-league-leading 17th pinch-hit of the season -- to give the Phillies a three-game series sweep of the Braves. With the win, Philadelphia is 43 games above .500 for the first time in franchise history. One troubling footnote to the win: second baseman Chase Utley, who has hit in the helmet with a pitch, later left the game with what GM Ruben Amaro described as a "pretty mild" concussion.
 
2New York Yankees
Last Week: 3
September rookie call-up Jesus Montero, Baseball America's preseason No. 3 prospect, hit his first two career home runs on Monday and, though Yankees radio play-by-play man John Sterling (known for his grand home-run calls) may have disappointed with "Jesus is loose," Montero has done anything but in his first week in the majors. A catcher by trade, he has started as New York's DH in five of his first seven games on the active big league roster and has gone 6-for-17 (.353). His two-homer game was the first by a 21-year-old in the first five games of his career since Manny Ramirez in 1993.
 
3Milwaukee Brewers
Last Week: 4
Wednesday's tirade by Nyjer Morgan comes at an awkward time for the Brewers, who are about to start selling new gold t-shirts printed with Morgan's recurring interview signoff, "Ahhhh.....Gotta Go!" That is part of a promotion for Saturday's game against the Phillies, part of a four-game series in what could be a playoff preview. Morgan (.314 average, .356 OBP) has been an important lineup sparkplug, especially when compared to centerfield predecessor Carlos Gomez (.211, .261), but needs to keep himself on the field. Meanwhile, Milwaukee is 2-1 so far against Philadelphia but finished the year with losing records against the other likely NL postseason participants: 3-4 vs. Arizona and 3-5 vs. Atlanta.
 
4Texas Rangers
Last Week: 7
The average major league hitter bats .330 and slugs .520 when he puts the first pitch of an at bat in play. The Rangers' Josh Hamilton bats .446 and slugs .838 when hitting the first pitch, which could explain why he is the game's most aggressive hitter in such situations, swinging 44.0 percent of the time. Hamilton has never been one to take a ton of pitches -- he has averaged 3.67 pitches per plate appearance in his career -- but this year he is even outpacing notorious freeswingers B.J. Upton, Vladimir Guerrero and Pablo Sandoval. Hamilton has been hot of late, going 14-for-41 (.341) with two homers in his last 10 games, all against some of the league's best teams: the Angels, Rays and Red Sox.
 
5Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 2
Carl Crawford is the player the Red Sox hoped he'd be -- in day games. Before the sun goes down, Crawford is 42-for-133 with 17 extra-base hits (three triples, five homers) which computes to a .316/.350/.541 batting line. The average ranks 16th in the AL and the slugging ranks ninth. In night games, however, Crawford has a .221/.258/.339 batting line. Among league qualifiers, the average ranks 62nd out of 68 qualifiers and the OBP is 65th. He never previously had such a strong split, leaving one to speculate whether his vision has changed or whether leaving the home sightlines of a dome have played a role.
 
6Arizona Diamondbacks
Last Week: 6
Winners of 13 of their last 15, the Diamondbacks became the fourth NL team to eclipse the 80-win threshold, have built a commanding seven-game lead in the NL West and have a chance to do even better. They climbed within 2 1/2 games of the Brewers for the league's second-best record; passing Milwaukee would mean Arizona could have homefield advantage in the NLDS (against likely wild-card entry Atlanta) and skip a first-round date with Philadelphia. Of Arizona's 19 remaining games, only six are on the road and only three are against a team with a winning record (the Giants).
 
7Detroit Tigers
Last Week: 8
Sunday night's 18-2 demolition of the White Sox not only put an exclamation point on the Tigers' pursuit of the AL Central, but also served as an apt reminder that the team consists of more than Cy Young and MVP candidate Justin Verlander. In that game nine players had multiple hits, including Miguel Cabrera, who slugged his 26th home run and drove in four runs to reach 92 for the season. Cabrera ranks in the top-six in the AL in average (.332), OBP (.434), slugging (.562), OPS (.996), runs (96), doubles (39), homers (26) and RBIs (95). He has also missed only one game and played 142. Perhaps he, too, should receive MVP votes.
 
8Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 9
As the Mariners' Michael Pineda has his workload diminished over the final month of the season, Rays rookie starter Jeremy Hellickson seems to be getting stronger, culminating in Sunday's one-run complete-game victory over the Orioles. Hellickson has allowed more than two runs only once in his last seven outings, and over that time has six quality starts with a 2.03 ERA in 48 2/3 innings. He is the only rookie with two complete games or a shutout, and his 2.90 season ERA is tops among AL rookies with at least 65 innings.
 
9Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 5
Though Brandon Beachy got a no decision on Wednesday night in a game the Braves ultimately lost he did set the franchise rookie strikeout record with 142 in just 126 innings; his 10.1 K/9 ratio ranks third among pitchers with 120+ innings. That outing began a stretch in which rookies will start four consecutive games for Atlanta, as he'll be followed by Mike Minor, Julio Teheran and Randall Delgado. Given the injuries in the rotation to Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, it's likely that two of the four, Beachy and Minor, would make postseason starts.
 
10Los Angeles Angels
Last Week: 10
The Angels are 19-4 in the first 23 starts of rookie outfielder Mike Trout's career. Beyond his obvious defensive contributions and those with his bat (.295 average, .380 OBP with four homers since his Aug. 19 recall), his play may have made a secondary impact by lighting a fire under previously slumping Vernon Wells, whose playing time could have been in jeopardy. Since Trout rejoined the team, Wells has gone 19-for-57 (.333) with four doubles and three homer and has raised his season average from .200 to .218.
 
11St. Louis Cardinals
Last Week: 11
Manager Tony La Russa has declined to officially name a closer for his team, but Jason Motte has become the de facto man in the last few days. Fernando Salas had held the position since Ryan Franklin blew one too many early-season chances, and Salas had done well, converting 22 of his first 25 opportunities with a 2.20 ERA until blowing consecutive saves earlier this month. Motte, meanwhile, had strung together 33 consecutive scoreless appearances and has now converted three saves in the last 11 days (though he yielded his first run since June 23 in the process).
 
12San Francisco Giants
Last Week: 12
A .333 average and 10 extra-base hits in 96 plate appearances? Sounds like exactly what the Giants sought when they traded for Carlos Beltran. Unfortunately, much of this production is backloaded to his return from the DL on Aug. 23, at which point the rest of the Giants' lineup started fading and Beltran alone couldn't prop up the offense. One other heartwarming offensive note: Rookie Brett Pill homered in his first major-league at bat, the first Giant to do so since Will Clark. As noted by the San Francisco Chronicle's John Shea, Pill was coincidentally assigned the same AT&T Park locker Clark uses when he's in town for instruction.
 
13Toronto Blue Jays
Last Week: 15
It's hard to take attention away from Jose Bautista -- the major league home run leader and Most Interesting Man in Baseball -- but Brett Lawrie is rapidly snaring a share of the spotlight. Lawrie, a 21-year-old third baseman, has a .324/.400/.676 batting line with eight home runs in his first 32 games, including an extra-inning walk-off home run to beat the Red Sox on Monday. A British Columbia native, he is just the latest Canadian slugger to hit the majors, following the likes of Larry Walker, Matt Stairs, Justin Morneau, Jason Bay and Joey Votto.
 
14Chicago White Sox
Last Week: 14
The two players most thankful for the presence of Adam Dunn and Alex Rios might be Gordon Beckham and Brent Morel. The young infielders Beckham and Morel are also having poor seasons at the plate, but this fact has been obscured by the even worse seasons being had by their more handsomely-compensated veteran teammates. All four have more than 350 plate appearances and an OPS+ of less than 70 -- i.e. their OPS, adjusted for league average and ballpark so that a score of 70 is 30 percent worse than average -- which ties the 2011 White Sox with three other teams for the second-most such players in history, trailing only the 1923 Red Sox.
 
15Cleveland Indians
Last Week: 13
Fausto Carmona continues to have one of baseball's most wildly unpredictable careers. He went 1-10 with a 5.42 ERA mostly as a reliever in his 2006 rookie season, memorably blowing his first three save opportunities, only to rebound with a 19-8, 3.06 ERA season as a starter in '07, finishing fourth in the Cy Young voting. The yo-yo has continued since with poor 2008 and 2009 seasons, an All-Star appearance in 2010 and now a 6-14 record and 5.18 ERA in 2011. On Tuesday, he gave up six or more runs in a start for the eighth time and has now allowed at least six runs 22 times since 2008, tied for fourth-most in the majors.
 
16Los Angeles Dodgers
Last Week: 17
A compelling Cy Young argument can be made for Clayton Kershaw and for three different Phillies (Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels), which, barring a unified campaign to persuade the voters to only vote for one member of their rotation, could well open up the door for the 23-year-old lefthander in Los Angeles. Kershaw does, after all, lead the NL in innings (205 2/3) and strikeouts (222) and ranks second in wins (17), ERA (2.45) and WHIP (1.02). The margins in all of those categories, except strikeouts, are razor-thin.
 
17New York Mets
Last Week: 19
The Mets, not known for their offense, are a surprise entrant on the team on-base percentage leaderboard, ranking second in the National League (and sixth overall) with a .335 mark. That hasn't translated into similar run production runs -- the Mets are seventh in the NL and 13th overall in scoring -- because of a lack of power: the Mets are the only team with an OBP greater than .325 that has a slugging percentage under .400. It's hard to ignore that in their current 10-3 hot streak, New York clubbed nine homers in seven road games and zero home runs in their six-game homestand (though the team has slugged a few percentage points higher at home, .399, than on the road, .393, this year).
 
18Cincinnati Reds
Last Week: 16
Cincinnati is already looking toward next year -- legally. Cincinnati City Councilman Wendell Young is reportedly preparing to introduce a resolution that would make the Reds' home opener an official holiday (though it wouldn't provide for a day off or pay OT to workers). So while the Reds have disappointed and aren't far from being mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, the start of 2012 may be worth watching, in more ways than one.
 
19Washington Nationals
Last Week: 20
As you may have heard, Stephen Strasburg is really good at baseball. The phenom returned to major league action on Tuesday after an absence of just more than a year thanks to Tommy John surgery, and he was outstanding again, allowing only two hits, no walks and no runs while striking out four Dodgers in five innings. It was just one start, but his ruthless attack of the strike zone -- 40 strikes and only 16 balls -- suggested he still going to be really interesting to watch, especially next year.
 
20Pittsburgh Pirates
Last Week: 21
It's not always the most highly touted prospects who stick. While third baseman Pedro Alvarez (rated Baseball America's No. 8 overall prospect before the 2010 season) remains at Triple-A, outfielder Alex Presley -- who didn't even make the BA's list of the top 10 Pirates prospects -- continues to rake at the major league level. He's only played 34 games with 152 plate appearances, but Presley has put together a .314/.371/.474 batting line with six doubles, five triples, two homers and seven steals. And, judging by his Twitter handle (@AlexNotElvis, he's even got a sense of humor about his last name.
 
21Colorado Rockies
Last Week: 18
Dexter Fowler began the year as the Rockies' starting centerfielder and leadoff hitter. He had a good April but a poor May. By June he was starting a couple games as the No. 8 hitter, before an abdominal injury sidelined him, which was then followed by a minor league demotion. But he's been rejuvenated since his return -- thanks, in part, to a new leg kick at the start of his swing -- and has batted .305/.395/.547 since returning on July 15, during which time he has hit 10 triples to give him a franchise record 15 this season; his 39 over the last three seasons lead the majors.
 
22Chicago Cubs
Last Week: 22
Disaster has been averted: On Wednesday the Cubs reached an extension with Pabst to ensure that Old Style beer would continue to be sold at Wrigley Field for another two seasons. Making trips to the concession stand hasn't been a problem for Cubs fans, given the frequency with which the team is forced to making pitching changes given that the staff has walked the most batters in the majors (509 in 143 games) and has the No. 26-ranked team ERA (4.41).
 
23Florida Marlins
Last Week: 23
This season hasn't gone quite the way a certain pair of former Chatsworth (Calif.) High teammates and first-round picks in 2007 likely envisioned it. Mike Moustakas of the Royals, the No. 2 pick, is batting .225 with just one homer after his June call-up. The Marlins' Dominguez, the No. 12 selection, only made his big-league debut in extra innings Tuesday night, getting hit by a pitch in his first plate appearance, which he followed with his first hit, a single, on Wednesday. Dominguez failed to make the Marlins out of spring training, and his elbow was fractured after being hit by a pitch. He batted .258 with 12 homers in 87 games at Triple-A.
 
24Oakland Athletics
Last Week: 25
Only time will tell how many of these prospects pan out, but the A's could pack quite the powerful lineup in a few years. Brandon Allen and Chris Carter have had 30-homer seasons at Double-A or higher, while Michael Taylor has a 20-homer season split between Double and Triple-A and Michael Choice has 30 homers in his first full pro season at High Class A ball. The early major league returns for Allen and Carter haven't been overwhelming, but they are very early in their careers. Taylor joined them in the majors this week, and Choice could follow suit next year or 2013.
 
25Kansas City Royals
Last Week: 27
Greg Holland is a fairly anonymous relief pitcher, meaning he must compete for hits on Google with other men with the same name, including a meteorologist, a country singer, a plastic surgeon and a Rangers fan trying to ban the Wave from ballgames. But Holland the 25-year-old righty reliever is quite likely having the best 2011 of all of them. Following a May call-up, he has been K.C.'s best arm out of the 'pen. He's one of only seven major league relievers this year to have thrown at least 50 innings while maintaining an ERA under 2.00 and a WHIP under 1.00.
 
26Seattle Mariners
Last Week: 24
If there were two league rookie of the year awards -- one given to a hitter and one to a pitcher -- the Mariners might sweep. As noted in the Rays skinny, starter Jeremy Hellickson is neck-and-neck with Seattle's Michael Pineda for the AL's best first-year pitcher, but second baseman Dustin Ackley has pretty clearly been the best AL rookie hitter (except for Toronto's Brett Lawrie, who has only played 32 games). Yes, the Angels' Mark Trumbo has a lot more home runs, but Ackley has a higher bating average (.300) than Trumbo does on-base percentage (.295). Ackley completes his batting line with a .374 OBP and .471 slugging percentage while primarily batting third and playing home games in a pitchers' park.
 
27Baltimore Orioles
Last Week: 26
This hasn't been a great year for any Orioles starting pitcher save, maybe, Zach Britton, who has taken his lumps but is 9-9 with a 4.22 ERA as a rookie pitching in the AL East. Otherwise, every pitcher has a bloated ERA, and Jeremy Guthrie is in danger of joining recent 20-game losers Brian Kingman and Mike Maroth. But the worst -- and most unexpected -- is that of Brian Matusz, who is 1-7 with a 9.84 ERA and 15 home runs allowed in only 43 innings, leading to a demotion from the rotation. Manager Buck Showalter told reporters, "I don't like to see anybody get beat up on. I don't think that Brian is at a point right now where he can defend himself properly."
 
28Minnesota Twins
Last Week: 29
Australian-born pitcher Liam Hendriks made his major-league debut for the Twins against the White Sox on Tuesday to great fanfare Down Under. Watch parties took place in Sydney and in Perth, and the viewers were likely thrilled that the Hendriks became the 31st native of their country to reach the majors and threw a quality start, allowing three runs over seven innings. Fellow Aussie Luke Hughes played second for the Twins, but White Sox pitcher Shane Lindsay did not appear in the game, narrowly missing have three Australians play in the same game.
 
29Houston Astros
Last Week: 28
Brett Myers went from one of baseball's most underrated pitchers in 2010 -- he made 32 straight starts of at least six innings while going 14-8 with a 3.14 ERA -- to one of its worst in 2011. He's 4-13 with a 4.66 ERA, and the decline isn't just circumstance: his Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP, which is ERA neutralized for fielding) has risen a run too. Myers has allowed the most earned runs (98) in the NL and the second-most home runs (31).
 
30San Diego Padres
Last Week: 30
The Padres have speed and they have power. This much is obvious by looking at where they rank in the league in stolen bases and triples (both first) and in home runs and slugging percentage (both last). That they play in spacious Petco Park exacerbates this, as a disproportionate number of their extra-base hits go for triples. San Diego has hit 39 triples but only 217 doubles and 81 homers, putting them on pace to become the first team since 1991 to have more than 40 triples while having fewer than 250 doubles and 100 home runs.

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