Streaking Pirates swipe top spot from Cardinals

Thursday June 27th, 2013

Jeff Locke has been a pleasant surprise for a Pittsburgh rotation that ranks second in the NL in ERA.

We never should have fallen for the 2011 Pirates, whose late-July ascent to first place with a patchwork lineup and barely positive run differential should have rung as shallow.

How the 2012 Pirates managed to go from 16 games over .500 on July 28 to a 79-83 finish, however, remains a mystery given the improved balance of the roster.

Despite those two late-season slides, the 2013 Pirates are unmistakably baseball's best at this moment in time, as they have pulled into a tie with the Cardinals for the top record in baseball with six straight wins. Pittsburgh has allowed the fewest runs in baseball, and the lineup -- once Andrew McCutchen or bust -- now has few holes.

That's not to say that Pittsburgh will finish the year with the best record in baseball, but it really seems hard to fathom how the Bucs won't easily end their 20-season streak of losing records and either reach or contend strongly for the playoffs.

A Power Rankings clarification: several readers either emailed or commented seeking more information about this year's PR formula. The premise is to objectively identify who are currently the best teams in baseball -- meaning, the team you'd least like to face right now.

A team with a great season record, such as the Reds or Braves, may be slumping at the moment; a team on a hot streak, such as the Dodgers or Marlins, may not have the track record to back it up. That's why this year's Power Rankings employs a quantitative formula: 50 percent for season record, 25 percent for last-10-games record (with a small strength of schedule component) and 25 percent for season run differential.

NOTE: All stats are updated through Wednesday, June 26.

MLB Power Rankings
1Pittsburgh Pirates
Last Week: 8
Pedro Alvarez homered in four straight games, but the more impactful streak belongs to Jeff Locke. The young lefthander has made three consecutive starts of at least seven innings; in two of them he didn't allow a run, and he now has four zero-run outings of that length this season.
2St. Louis Cardinals
Last Week: 1
The Cardinals have been so consistently good this season that when they were swept by Texas last weekend, it was the first time all year that had happened and just the second time they'd lost three straight games.
3Boston Red Sox
Last Week: 3
John Lackey -- who didn't pitch in 2012 and who led the AL for most earned runs allowed in '11 -- is now one of Boston's best starters and, increasingly, one of the best in the league. His 2.99 ERA would rank 11th in the league if only he had thrown an extra 1 2/3 innings to qualify for the leaderboard.
4Texas Rangers
Last Week: 14
The Rangers, whose home ballpark is the most hitter-friendly in the AL West, have allowed the fewest runs of any team in their division. The last time Texas finished a season that way was 1996, when Ken Hill, Bobby Witt, Roger Pavlik, Kevin Gross and a 25-year-old Darren Oliver (yes, that Darren Oliver) were in the rotation.
5Detroit Tigers
Last Week: 5
The Tigers lead the AL with 10 wins by four runs, which is one way to avoid using a shaky closer. For the season, Detroit has claimed 25 of its 42 victories by four or more runs.
6Oakland Athletics
Last Week: 6
The A's have won more than two-thirds of their games in the past six weeks (26-12) thanks to a starting staff that has pitched effectively (3.04 ERA) and gone deep into games (6.5 innings per outing). The defense has been supportive, too, contributing to just one unearned run at the starters' detriment.
7Cleveland Indians
Last Week: 10
Cleveland's Jason Kipnis, who has 11 homers and an .882 OPS, leads all AL second baseman with a 147 adjusted OPS+. That's better than Howie Kendrick (134), Robinson Cano (130), Dustin Pedroia (122) and Ben Zobrist (111). It's too bad for Kipnis that All-Star ballots aren't printed with an array of sabermetric stats.
8Cincinnati Reds
Last Week: 2
The Reds have now played 14 straight games -- seven at home and seven on the road -- without scoring more than five runs. They are 18-2 when scoring more than five runs but haven't plated that many since June 11.
9Toronto Blue Jays
Last Week: 9
With Jose Reyes' return to the lineup, fan and teammate favorite Munenori Kawasaki was demoted to the minors but said (through an interpreter), ""It's not as if I've died. I'm still a baseball player. It's just that tomorrow the field will be different." Toronto, meanwhile, has been playing on a different level to slice 5 1/2 games off their divisional deficit in two weeks.
10Atlanta Braves
Last Week: 7
The assemblage of Justin Upton, B.J. Upton and Jason Heyward was hailed in many places, including here, as the best active outfield trio, but that has hardly been the case. Justin Upton has had a streaky but still good season, (.804 OPS) but his brother, B.J. (.578), and Heyward (.674) have disappointed thus far.
11Tampa Bay Rays
Last Week: 19
The Rays ended Toronto's 11-game winning streak and beat them two out of three this week, but even though they're three games over .500 and have the division's second-best run differential (+18) they're still only in fourth place.
12Baltimore Orioles
Last Week: 4
The sixth inning is a notoriously tricky one for pitching staffs to wade through, and that has especially been the case for the Orioles, who have allowed a major league high 18 homers and an AL-leading 56 runs that inning; their starters have had trouble working deep into games, averaging 5 2/3 innings per outing.
13New York Yankees
Last Week: 17
The average righthanded major league hitter has a .710 OPS this season, but the Yankees collectively have a .602 OPS from their righthanded batters and switch hitters batting righty. Not only does that rank dead last in the majors, but the club has only two players with an above-average score: Mark Teixeira, who has a .935 OPS in 23 PAs from the right side but is likely out for the season with a wrist injury, and Francisco Cervelli, who has an .877 mark in his 61 PAs but hasn't played since late April.
14Arizona Diamondbacks
Last Week: 15
The Diamondbacks are the only team in baseball that has not been the victim of a shutout this season, which is especially impressive in this era's depressed run environment. The 2000 Reds are the only team to have ever played a 162-game schedule without being shutout.
15Colorado Rockies
Last Week: 16
Nolan Arenado's bat woke up this weekend with a pair of home runs in Washington, but his glove has been outstanding all year. He leads all rookies with 14 defensive runs saved, according to the Fielding Bible; that's the second-most among all third basemen regardless of age, even though Arenado only debuted on April 28.
16Kansas City Royals
Last Week: 11
The Royals have scored the smallest percentage of their runs via the homer, just 22.2 percent, according to Baseball Prospectus. That number may change, however, if Eric Hosmer can sustain his newfound power stroke -- he has homered three times in 11 games after starting with just one in his first 61.
17Los Angeles Angels
Last Week: 21
Angels catcher Chris Iannetta has baseball's best walk rate -- by a wide margin, too. He is drawing one walk every 5.26 plate appearances, which is the best in the majors among players with at least 200 PAs. The Reds' Joey Votto is in a distant second place with one free pass every 6.16 PAs.
18Washington Nationals
Last Week: 20
Washington's record has been within two games of .500 every day in the month of June, but its season run differential (-27) suggests it's fortunate to be that close. Its expected record is 35-42, owing to having scored just 273 runs, second-worst in the NL.
19Los Angeles Dodgers
Last Week: 26
It seems safe to fault the pitching staff for the Dodgers' poor road record (13-22). The offensive production is nearly identical, albeit subpar, both at home (.701 OPS) and on the road (.698), but the pitching staff's ERA away from L.A. is much worse (4.13 ERA) than it is at Dodger Stadium (3.39 ERA).
20San Diego Padres
Last Week: 12
Catcher Yasmani Grandal, who missed 50 games with a PED suspension, hasn't hit nearly as well this year (.692 OPS) as he did in 2012 rookie season (.863), but he has one thing going for him -- he's the only Padre who has walked more times (14) than he has struck out (13). Last year he was close, with 31 walks and 39 strikeouts.
21Minnesota Twins
Last Week: 18
Despite filling the bullpen with largely unheralded relievers (and closer Glen Perkins), the Twins have the AL's best relief ERA at 2.88, but the number is a bit misleading, as the club has the league's worst rate of allowing inherited runners to score (36.6 percent).
22San Francisco Giants
Last Week: 13
This is not unexpected, but the Giants lack pop. They recently went eight straight games without a home run, which included back-to-back games without an extra-base hit. In fact, San Francisco has had 11 games this year with no XBHs, which is tied with the Marlins for most such games in the NL.
23New York Mets
Last Week: 28
Eric Young Jr. may have been squeezed off the roster in Colorado, but he has immediately become a Mets mainstay. Through seven games, he has a .414/.469/.552 batting line; his .334 career OBP makes him a major upgrade on a club whose team OBP this season is .295.
24Philadelphia Phillies
Last Week: 24
Ryan Howard is light years ahead of where he was last year. In 71 games of 2012, he had a .219/.295/.423 batting line with 25 extra-base hits (14 homers), whereas he produced a .282/.335/.494 line with 32 extra-base hits (10 homers) in his first 71 games of 2013; that's a 111-point OPS improvement.
25Chicago Cubs
Last Week: 22
Only two NL players with at least 200 PAs this year have had half their hits go for extra bases: Carlos Gonzalez, whom we know is a star, and, surprisingly, Nate Schierholtz. The Cubs outfielder has 19 doubles, two triples and 11 homers amidst his 61 hits, good for a .563 slugging percentage.
26Milwaukee Brewers
Last Week: 23
Only 12 teams in the last five seasons have had two or more players hit eight triples, but the Brewers already have that in Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura before even reaching the season's midpoint. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy has four, which puts him on a pace for eight -- the 2009 Royals were the last club with three such players, and the only catcher in the past 40 years to hit eight triples was K.C.'s Darrell Porter in 1979.
27Chicago White Sox
Last Week: 27
One can make the case that Jesse Crain -- if he keeps up his current pace -- will have as dominant a season as any reliever in history. He currently has a 0.52 ERA (through 34 2/3 innings) with 11.9 K/9; no pitcher in history has ever finished a year with an ERA below 1.00 and a K/9 above 11 (min. 30 IP). Mike Adams, with the Padres in 2009, came the closest, with a 0.73 ERA and a 10.95 K/9 in 37 innings.
28Miami Marlins
Last Week: 30
Ricky Nolasco appears to be trade bait, and it might be wise for an NL West team to acquire him. In three starts against that division this season, he has a 2.18 ERA in 20 2/3 innings, whereas he's had less success against the NL East (4.00 ERA in 36 innings) and the NL Central (5.18 ERA in 24 1/3 innings).
29Seattle Mariners
Last Week: 25
From 2002 through 2011, Raul Ibañez hit 30 or more doubles in 10 straight years, but now's become a homer-or-single hitter, with 18 of the former and 27 of the latter with just six doubles. Ibañez and the White Sox' Adam Dunn are the only two big leaguers with more than 200 PAs in which home runs account for more than 70 percent of their extra-base hits.
30Houston Astros
Last Week: 29
Since the middle of May, the Astros have featured two of the AL's top-10 starting pitchers. Jordan Lyles has a 2.40 ERA and a .183 average-against in his last eight starts, while Bud Norris has a 2.80 ERA and a .263 average-against over his last seven outings; those ERAs ranks second and ninth in the league, respectively, since May 15.

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