Thursday June 23rd, 2011

It was a tough week for National League contenders. St. Louis, of course, was dealt the worst blow in losing Albert Pujols to a wrist fracture and has now lost 9 of 11. But most of the top NL teams took some interleague lumps.

The Phillies lost two of three to the Mariners; the Brewers lost consecutive series to the Red Sox and Rays; the Giants have lost four of five to the As and Twins; the Reds lost two straight series to the Blue Jays and Yankees; the Diamondbacks lost a series to the White Sox before taking one from the Royals; the Braves split series, losing to Texas and beating Toronto. Only the Rockies won consecutive series, defeating the Tigers and Indians, though that only returned Colorado's overall record to .500 for the season.

Though the first interleague weekend in May was played to a 21-21 stalemate, the American League has rallied in the second session with a 45-35 advantage. The AL is again asserting itself over the NL in the standings and now in the MLB Power Rankings, as six of the top nine teams hail from the Junior Circuit.

NOTE: All stats are updated through Wednesday, June 22.

MLB Power Rankings
1Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 1
Shane Victorino had an 11-game hitting streak snapped on Sunday, ending a period in which the Phillies went 9-2 and their centerfielder went 20-for-45 (.444) with a .500 OBP and eight extra-base hits: four doubles, two triples and two home runs. Victorino has been more than just Philadelphia's best position player over the past fortnight; according to FanGraphs, Victorino has a better Wins Above Replacement (WAR) since 2006 than his more celebrated teammate, Ryan Howard, by a 21.5 to 19.9 margin, largely due to Victorino's baserunning and defense.
2Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 2
A 3-3 tie on Monday night against the Red Sox quickly grew out of hand: Boston batted 14 hitters and plated 10 runs in the bottom half of the seventh inning. That only further widened Boston's bizarrely lopsided scoring margin in that frame, as they jump on tiring starters and/or middle relievers. Sox pitchers and fielders have allowed only 28 runs in the seventh inning, but their offense has scored 64 runs thanks to a .304/.381/.495 batting line, creating a +36 runs margin. (Next best is the third inning at +29 and then the second at +11.)
3New York Yankees
Last Week: 5
By the time Derek Jeter returns to the lineup, Yankees leftfielder Brett Gardner will have put together quite the leadoff-hitter audition tape. Gardner has been leading off against righty pitchers in Jeter's absence and has had three hits in two of three games. Overall since June 4 Gardner has gone 23-for-57 -- his .404 average in that time period ranks fourth in the majors -- with seven walks, eight extra-base hits, a .469 OBP and .596 slugging. Most impressive is that he leads all major league fielders in Ultimate Zone Rating for the second straight year; last year he led at 25.7 and this year he leads with a 14.1 UZR.
4Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 7
As recently as 2008, the entire Braves outfield hit only 27 home runs all season. So far in 2011, even with an extended DL stint from rightfielder Jason Heyward, Atlanta has already received 25 home runs from its outfield, led by eight from leftfielder Martin Prado and seven from Heyward. When you include the home run production of catcher Brian McCann (13), second baseman Dan Uggla (10) and the rest of the club, the Braves have scored 122 runs on 80 home runs. Homers account for 41.4 percent of their total run production, the highest rate in the NL and about a percentage point higher than the Nationals and Brewers.
5Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 13
Starting pitcher Jeff Niemann returned from the DL on Monday night and pitched six shutout innings to beat the Brewers. Of the 18 outs he recorded, five came via strikeout, five via groundball and eight via flyball, a not uncommon outcome for a man whose career GB/FB ratio is 0.72. But it further illustrates the trend of the Rays' pitching staff, whose collective GB/FB ratio is 1.00. No pitching staff has had a ratio of 1.00 or lower since the 2007 Nationals, and of the 11 clubs that with a sub-1.00 GB/FB ratio, only the 2001 Mariners had a staff ERA (3.54) of less than 4.00. This year's Rays would be the second -- their ERA is currently 3.61.
6Arizona Diamondbacks
Last Week: 9
About the only thing Justin Upton hasn't done in June is hit home runs. The still-only-23-year-old has left the yard only once this month, but he's hit nine doubles (giving him the NL lead with 21) and has 11 multi-hit games in 20 total June games, including a recent stretch when he multiple hits in seven of eight outings. Upton now has a .910 OPS, which ranks sixth among NL outfielders. That -- and especially his vote total, which ranks 11th -- means he's on the outside looking in of an All-Star Game start in his home park next month, but he'll assuredly be on the roster and serve as the unofficial ambassador for festivities in Phoenix.
7Texas Rangers
Last Week: 11
On Tuesday the Rangers entered the Guinness Book of World Records for most people wearing sunglasses at night -- among the participants wereteam owner Nolan Ryan and former President George W. Bush -- but the real bright spot came in the 11th inning when first baseman Mitch Moreland whacked a walkoff home run, his second straight game with a homer. His OPS against righthanded pitchers (.952) ranks sixth in the AL.
8Detroit Tigers
Last Week: 6
The season is not yet at its halfway mark, but Tigers rookie reliever Al Albuquerque is on pace for some notoriety beyond (nearly) sharing a name with a prominent city in New Mexico (which, much to my father's frequent confusion, is not the state capital). As noted on its blog, Albuquerque has a chance to set the single-season record for lowest batting average against for pitchers who have thrown 50 innings; he has currently allowed a .112 average in 26 1/3 innings. Only six pitchers have had an opponents' average of .140 or lower since 1919, and Albuquerque and Philadelphia's Antonio Bastardo (.120 BAA in 28 innings) have a chance to join them this season.
9Cleveland Indians
Last Week: 10
This weekend the Indians replaced hitting coach Jon Nunnally, joining the Rangers as the second first-place team to make such a switch just this month. Minor league hitting instructor Bruce Fields took over after Cleveland recently had an 18-game stretch in which it was shutout six times and scored just one or two runs another six times. Rightfielder Shin-Soo Choo voiced his displeasure over the move, telling reporters, "I don't know what's going on around here. We're still in first place. Why is he fired? I am very disappointed because he helped me a lot. Not just me, everybody on the team." Of course one has to wonder if Choo's season-long slump played a role in Nunnally's dismissal.
10Milwaukee Brewers
Last Week: 4
Brewers closer John Axford blew a save on Opening Day and another a few weeks later, and in between he looked shaky enough that there was some concern whether he was the right man for the job. He has more than put those worries to rest. Since his eighth appearance on April 23, Axford is 16-for-16 in save chances, with a 1.33 ERA and 38 strikeouts in 27 innings. When opponents do put the ball in play, it hasn't been dangerous: Only two of the 21 hits allowed have gone for extra bases with none of them leaving the ballpark, and he's getting a ratio of 1.5 groundballs to flyballs.
11San Francisco Giants
Last Week: 3
The Giants are within a half-game of the NL West lead with a 40-34 record despite a minus-9 run differential this season, harkening memories of the 2007 Diamondbacks, who won the division with a 90-72 record despite a minus-20 differential. San Francisco had an exactly even run total when it was 39-29 last week but then lost four games by a total of six runs (and a fifth by seven runs). Run differential can be a helpful predictor of club success but is not ultimately meaningful on its own and serves primarily as a reminder of the Giants' slim margin for error, given their just-enough offense.
12Washington Nationals
Last Week: 19
The Nationals just don't have the right kind of luck. As noted above, the Giants have a winning record and division lead despite a negative run differential; the Nationals, meanwhile, have a .500 record (37-37) and third-place standing despite a positive run differential (+9). Even if the wins haven't come yet, it's progress. The franchise has never had a positive scoring differential since moving to Washington in 2005, but maybe their fortune is changing: the Nats trailed on Tuesday by four runs with two outs in the ninth before scoring five runs and beating the Mariners 6-5.
13Seattle Mariners
Last Week: 12
Only 13 major league players have reached base on an error six times or more this season, and three of them are Mariners: Ichiro Suzuki and Chone Figgins have done so seven times apiece, while Jack Wilson has done so six times. As a team, the Mariners have reached 35 times on an E, fifth most in the majors. Speed (with a small dose of luck) is the most likely contributing factor, supported by the fact that the four batting order positions across baseball that have benefited the most from fielders' errors are the more traditional speed-laden spots: first, eighth, ninth and second.
14Minnesota Twins
Last Week: 20
From June 2 through June 20 the Twins went 14-2 and allowed just 38 runs in 16 games, a rate of 2.4 per game. That's less than half their previous rate of allowing runs, as they yielded 5.2 per game in their first 54 games this season in which they went 17-37. A key reason for the decline? Minnesota pitchers had a corresponding decrease in walks allowed, halving their rate of 3.48 per game to 1.75 per game over the recent winning period.
15Chicago White Sox
Last Week: 16
There's a lot of resiliency on Chicago's South Side these days. Not only has the team rallied from an 11-22 record and 11-game deficit in the AL Central to a 37-39 record and 4 1/2-game deficit, but also several employees and family members have shown similar toughness. A line drive hit pitcher John Danks in the head on Saturday, but he remained in the game and got the win; the brother and father of Paul Konerko (who recently homered in five straight games) were hit by a foul ball off the bat of teammate Brent Lillibridge in that same game but emerged unscathed; and manager Ozzie Guillen was hospitalized with a kidney stone on Sunday morning and managed that day's game anyway.
16St. Louis Cardinals
Last Week: 8
The Cardinals were already reeling -- a recent seven-game losing streak -- even before losing superstar Albert Pujols to a fracture in his wrist. St. Louis will have a tough time coping but not an impossible time, if Lance Berkman capably mans first and Jon Jay moves to rightfield. But, if you believe in omens, the first post-Pujols game was a bad one: The Redbirds blew a 2-1 lead in the eighth. . . by allowing nine runs in one inning to the Phillies.
17Colorado Rockies
Last Week: 21
Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki is hot with the bat again in June --.333 average and .372 OBP, both his best of the season's first three months and a stark improvement over May's .209 and .269 figures -- but his glove has been torrid all year. His 7.2 Ultimate Zone Rating, which is the number of runs he has saved above average, leads all NL infielders. (By the other prominent advanced defensive metric, Plus/Minus, Tulowitzki has saved 11 runs, second-most among NL infielders.)
18Pittsburgh Pirates
Last Week: 14
The Pirates have been playing yo-yo in the month of June, oscillating up and down but always within two games of .500, neatly timing a four-game winning streak when they were two games below even and following it with a four-game losing streak to drop back where they started. Now, with two straight wins over Baltimore, the Pirates are 37-37, the magical .500 mark they've had designs on since their last winning season in 1992. Pittsburgh's next 10 games are out of the division, but they then play 15 straight with NL Central opponents, against whom they are already 16-10 this year.
19Cincinnati Reds
Last Week: 15
The Reds have allowed 330 runs, third-most in the NL, and a lot of the onus is on the pitching staff. Cincinnati ranks No. 2 in the league in defensive efficiency (a measure of balls put in play being turned into outs) and has allowed only 19 unearned runs, tied for fourth fewest. As a staff, the Reds have a 4.06 ERA but a 4.23 FIP, which stands for Fielding-Independent Pitching, a statistic that attempts to remove the effect of fielding on ERA. The difference between the two is the league's third-worst.
20Los Angeles Angels
Last Week: 23
Only two AL teams ? the Angels and Rays -- have a better record on the road than at home, so perhaps the Halos are excited to be playing their next three games in Los Angeles proper (at Dodger Stadium) rather than in Anaheim. On their four-city road trip, they have already won road series against the Mariners, Mets and Marlins. The Angels are only 15-20 at home but 22-19 as the visitors, which they won't be again until after the All-Star break.
21Oakland Athletics
Last Week: 27
Divisions across baseball are tightly packed -- on Thursday morning, the Phillies' 4 1/2-game lead in the NL East was the only divisional advantage greater than two games -- but nowhere is it as pronounced as in the four-team AL West. Yes, it's baseball smallest division, but Oakland, in last but only 5 1/2 games back of first after a recent six-game winning streak, is also the only club with a winning record within the division at 12-10. Texas and Seattle are 9-9, and Los Angeles is 9-11, close quarters that suggest they could remain bunched well into September, which is always heavy on division play.
22New York Mets
Last Week: 17
In early May R.A. Dickey adopted the "Imperial March" -- Darth Vader's music in Star Wars -- as his introductory tune and while his first two starts with the ominous soundtrack were a bit rocky, the Force has returned to him. In his last seven starts he has a 2.23 ERA and in three of his last four starts, including Wednesday against the A's, he has gone eight innings and allowed just one run. Dickey first rose to popularity with his breakout 2010 season, which ended, oddly enough, with him receiving a write-in vote for New York governor in November.
23Los Angeles Dodgers
Last Week: 24
Clayton Kershaw was roughed up in each of first two starts this month -- allowing six runs in each start, over 6 2/3 and 6 innings, respectively -- but has been brilliant in his next two outings, hurling seven innings of one-run ball against the Reds on June 14 and a two-hit, 11-strikeout complete-game shutout of the Tigers on Monday. Against Detroit he induced 20 swings-and-misses, including 10 on the 17 sliders he threw. The 23-year-old, who leads the majors in strikeouts (117) and all starters in K/9 (9.8), previously relied on a curve as his breaking ball of choice but has switched to a slider in the past two seasons.
24Toronto Blue Jays
Last Week: 18
Blue Jays shortstop Yunel Escobar agreed to a two-year, $10 million contract extension (with two club options) over the weekend. The timing seemed innocuous enough except Toronto was about to visit his former employer in Atlanta. Before his first game back at Turner Field, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Braves beat writer David O'Brien wrote a blog post reminding readers just how unpopular Escobar was. While the timing of the contract announcement probably wasn't deliberately timed with his return to Atlanta, it did serve as a reminder to the Braves just how talented Escobar is on the field: the 28-year-old has a .279/.353/.424 batting line with eight home runs.
25Baltimore Orioles
Last Week: 22
For the fourth straight season about half of Mark Reynolds' hits have gone for extra bases -- so far in 2011 he has 15 doubles and 13 home runs among 54 hits -- but he's slowly making progress on his exorbitant strikeout rate, meaning he's making more contact without sacrificing power. He's the single-season strikeout record holder and three-time major-league leader and still ranks eighth in the majors with 75 this year, but his percentage of plate appearances that end in a whiff is only 26.6 this year, compared to 34.1 percent over the past three years. In his last 13 games he has batted .415/.528/.780 with four home runs and 14 strikeouts.
26San Diego Padres
Last Week: 26
The Padres traveled to Boston for an early-week interleague series and came across more than a dozen familiar old faces, from first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to several key figures in management (part owner Tom Werner, CEO Larry Lucchino and GM Theo Epstein, most notably) who were all previously employed by the Padres. But despite a sizeable gap in payroll, the fact that they began interleague play 0-7 and that they began the series 14 games behind the Red Sox, San Diego swiped two out of three games to end a six-game losing streak.
27Kansas City Royals
Last Week: 25
Manager Ned Yost said Wednesday afternoon that his new-look lineup, which he debuted that evening, was intended to take pressure off "the two young guys," meaning rookies Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, who were shifted to second and sixth in the order. Good idea: The pair of blue-chip hitters were a combined 5-for-37 with no extra-base hits over the previous week in which K.C. went 1-5. The Royals lost again in their first game with the new lineup, but the rookies went 3-for-9 with a triple and brighter days are assuredly still ahead.
28Chicago Cubs
Last Week: 28
Entering play on Tuesday, the Yankees had walked the most times as a team (286) and the Phillies had allowed the fewest walks (189). At the opposite end of both spectrums, with nearly identical numbers, were the Cubs, who ranked last in the majors in both walks drawn by their hitters (179) and walks allowed by their pitchers (286). It's as if the Cubs are facing the majors' stingiest pitchers and their most patient hitters every single game. It's a differential of -107, which through 72 games is already larger than the worst split last year when the Angels had a -99 discrepancy.
29Houston Astros
Last Week: 29
Speedy centerfielder Michael Bourn, who has two Gold Gloves and one All-Star appearance on his résumé, is once again a terror on the bases. He led the NL in steals the last two years with 61 and 52, respectively, and he leads the majors so far this year with 32. He's only been caught three times, and that success rate (91.4) ranks 10th among all players with at least 10 steals. Bourn is particularly adept at swiping third: he's 10-for-10, which is twice as many successes as any other NL player. He is also tied for the major league lead with 19 infield hits.
30Florida Marlins
Last Week: 30
This is not Jack McKeon's first stint as Marlins manager -- he, of course, took over during the 2003 season and led them to a World Series title -- but there are all sorts of firsts happening under his watch. Take Tuesday's game against the Angels, for instance: the Marlins won for the first time in nearly a fortnight; he batted Hanley Ramirez fourth for the first time in the shortstop's career (Ramirez went 2-for-4 with two runs and a stolen base); and righthander starter Javier Vazquez became the first pitcher since 2007 to allow 10 or more hits in six or fewer innings while not allowing a run.

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