The 30: The Astros and Yankees look like the class of the American League

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Yankees, Cubs set MLB record with 48 combined strikeouts
Monday May 8th, 2017

In less than three years, the Astros have gone from 0.0 local TV ratings to potentially running away with the AL West. In less than two years, the Royals have gone from World Series winners to the worst team in the American League. In less than one year, the Blue Jays have gone from a couple wins away from a pennant to possibly being out of the race by the end of May.

It’s the AL edition of The 30. Enjoy.

Note: “Last Time” reflects the rankings from the most recent edition of The 30, two weeks ago. We’ll be running The 30 every two weeks all season long, alternating between profiles of all American League teams, and all National League teams.​

30. San Diego Padres (12–20 record, minus-50 run differential, last time: 29)

29. Kansas City Royals (10–20, minus-30, LT: 23)

Let’s start here: The Royals rank dead last in the majors in hits, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging average (deep breath) ... and runs scored. In games when they’ve allowed more than one run this season, they’re 2–17. Two, and seventeen.

You can find culprits all over the diamond. Second base has been a black hole. DH Brandon Moss is hitting so badly, the Royals might think about just letting pitchers bat. And Alcides Escobar should send thank-you notes to Devon Travis everyday, because Travis is the only guy standing between Escobar and the exalted status of worst hitter in the American League.

If you had to pick the Royals’ biggest disappointment, though, you’d start with Alex Gordon. When the Royals won it all in 2015, Gordon became their biggest dilemma. With their homegrown star hitting free agency that winner, should they sign him to a long-term extension, or let him walk? Flush with added confidence and revenue after their Cinderella run, the Royals chose the former, giving Gordon a four-year, $72 million deal. Few deals for positions have backfired as quickly or as dramatically as that one has. Since suffering a groin injury that knocked him out for two months in the summer of 2015, Gordon’s hit like a utility infielder; this year, he’s at a miserable .175/.267/.223. Even worse, that big contract runs through 2019, when Gordon will be past his 35th birthday.

The Gordon debacle will resonate in GM Dayton Moore’s mind as he figures out how to handle four other core members of that two-time pennant-winning lineup: Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Alcides Escobar. Hosmer’s reputation far exceeds his production, as he’s been one of the worst-hitting first basemen in baseball over the past calendar year. Moustakas shows pop when healthy, but he still struggles to control the strike zone. Escobar can’t hit at all. Cain’s arguably the best player in the bunch, but he’ll turn 32 just after Opening Day 2018, making him a big risk to fade with age.

Between the lessons learned from the Gordon deal, the lukewarm credentials of the big four free agents, and the Royals being one of the lowest-grossing teams in MLB, we might be only a couple months away from a deadline purge, one that scatters one of the greatest teams in franchise history to the winds.

28. San Francisco Giants (11–21, minus-63, LT: 25)

27. Atlanta Braves (11–18, minus-28, LT: 30)

26. Toronto Blue Jays (11–20, minus-23, LT: 28)

After five weeks of nearly non-stop misery, the Blue Jays look like they’re about to finally catch a break.

That’s because Josh Donaldson could return very soon. The team’s best player has been sidelined with a calf injury since April 14. In that span Toronto’s gone 10–12, digging an even deeper hole for a team that’s cratered out of the gate. The 2015 AL MVP isn’t the only player on the verge of leaving what might be MLB’s most depressing team disabled list. All-Star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, out since April 22 with a hamstring injury, could also make it back to the lineup some time during the nine-game homestand that starts Monday. Staff ace Aaron Sanchez, who’s thrown just one inning since April 14 due to a finger injury, is eyeing a return this weekend.

The old “it’s still early” adage often doesn’t apply in baseball. With an 11–20 start, the Jays would need to go 78–53 the rest of the way just to match the 89-win season that allowed them to squeak into last year’s playoffs as a wild card. That 78–53 mark would net a .595 winning percentage, and no team other than the historically dominant Cubs played that well over a full season last year. So it might already be too late to dream of another postseason run.

But with three of their best players set to return, the Jays should at least become a competitive team again. That would be a huge upgrade over the daily slog they’ve endured in 2017.

25. Oakland A’s (14–17, minus-36, LT: 15)

The most terrifying hitter on the A’s right now is Yonder Alonso. And now I need a year of shock therapy to get over writing that sentence.

Alonso never lacked pedigree. Nine years ago, the Reds made him the No. 7 overall pick in the draft, envisioning a live-drive machine who would contend for multiple batting titles, albeit with merely so-so power for a first baseman. Didn’t happen. Alonso topped .300 just once in his major league career, that in a 47-game cameo back in 2011. And rather than so-so power, he offered about as much pop as a backup catcher, his nine homers in 155 games in 2012 standing as his high-water mark.

This year, everything changed. Hoping to turn around a lackluster career as he entered his age-30 season, Alonso started working on the kind of swing-for-the-fences approach that made slugging kings out of players like Josh Donaldson and Mark Trumbo, and triggered a late-career renaissance for Ryan Zimmerman. He’s authored a huge jump in his flyball rate, a huge drop in his groundball rate, and he’s making hard contact a lot more frequently—all great ways to improve hitting performance, especially hitting for power.

Saturday night against the Tigers, Alonso launched not one but two home runs. Then on Sunday, he smashed another. That raised his season total to nine, tying that career high. He’s batting .311/.386/.667, ranking 12th in the AL in on-base percentage, third in slugging, and fourth in homers. And while his close-your-eyes-and-bash approach has predictably led to a spike in strikeouts (he’s whiffing at a career-high 21.8%), he still ranks ninth in the AL in batting average too.

Who knows, maybe Alonso finally will win that long-promised batting title. And hit 35 bombs in the process.

24. Los Angeles Angels (16–17, minus-20, LT: 27)

J.C. Ramirez has had quite the baseball journey. Since signing with the Mariners as an international free agent at age 16, the Nicaraguan right-hander now find himself with his sixth different organization. His affiliation with the Mariners alone is fascinating. Four years after signing with the M’s, he was part of the Cliff Lee blockbuster with the Phillies. Six years after that, Seattle snagged him back (from the Diamondbacks), on a waiver claim. Three months after that, the Mariners let him go again.

So how did a pitcher with such a circuitous path end up starting games for the first time in the big leagues the same year he turns 29? And how he become one of the most pleasant surprises for the Angels, or any other AL team?

Nick Pollack, pitching analyst for ThePitcherList.com, offers some insight. Definitely read the whole article, but here’s the abridged version: Ramirez throws one of the most devastating sliders in all of baseball. He’s throwing that pitch a career-high 43% of the time this season (Ramirez also pitched in the majors in 2013, 2015, and 2016, with all of that time coming as a reliever) and opponents have done very little with it, batting .226 and slugging just .302. Problem is, no pitcher can get by with a breaking pitch and nothing else. Ramirez’s second-most frequent offering is a sinking fastball, and opponents are clobbering it, batting .326 and slugging .544. Here’s an even more abridged version: Ramirez commands his slider brilliantly but commands his fastball terribly, and it leads to uneven results.

Even with some of that inconsistently, the slider’s so good, it’s enabled some impressive overall numbers. In eight appearances this season (five of them starts), Ramirez has punched out 33 batters in 33 ⅔ innings. He’s firing first-pitch strikes a solid 61.3% of the time, and netting swings and misses a career-best 10.3% of the time. Add it all up and you have the 16th-best starting pitcher in the American League, by park-adjusted, fielding-independent pitching.

For a starting rotation decimated by injuries, a journeyman suddenly pitching like a borderline ace is a welcome ray of sunshine.

23. Texas Rangers (13–19, minus-5, LT: 11)

Given everything that’s happened this season in Arlington, it’s easy to see why the Rangers are dead last in the AL West.

The Rangers have dealt with injuries, Adrian Beltre has missed every game to date this season, but atrocious performances by several players have made matters worse. Jonathan Lucroy, Mike Napoli, and Rougned Odor all rank among the worst performers in the league at their respective position; Jurickson Profar made left field a black hole until they finally sent him back to the minors; and the Sam Dyson-led bullpen caused more late-inning implosions in April than you could possibly count without getting nightmares.

Many of those negative circumstances won’t last. Even if Napoli’s nearing the end of the road at age 35, Lucroy and Odor should rally soon, given their track records; Delino DeShields Jr. is a massive upgrade in left; and the bullpen’s performed a lot better lately, dropping Dyson to low-leverage work and getting strong results from Matt Bush, Jose Leclerc, and others. When Beltre does return, Texas will have a terrific problem on its hands, figuring out where to slot the beastly Joey Gallo when he has to move off third base.

Still, three major problems remain. First, math works against the Rangers, with this slow start requiring them to play elite baseball for the next four-and-a-half months straight if they hope to make the playoffs again. Second, losing Cole Hamels for eight weeks with an oblique injury will test a thin rotation. Also, they’ve done all this losing despite playing the easiest schedule in baseball. If you like to wager gummi bears on sporting outcomes, a deadline trade of free-agent-to-be Yu Darvish looks like a better bet than a third straight division title.

22. Miami Marlins (13–17, minus-5, LT: 13)

21. New York Mets (14–16, minus-12, LT: 17)

20. Philadelphia Phillies (13–17, plus-2, LT: 21)

19. Pittsburgh Pirates (14–17, minus-18, LT: 24)

18. Seattle Mariners (15–17, plus-9, LT: 20)

Hey look, it’s another AL West team that’s been whacked by injuries. In the Mariners’ case, the setbacks have been especially cruel.

Drew Smyly arrives via trade with the Rays ... and he hasn’t thrown a pitch all season. Mitch Haniger comes over in the off-season blockbuster deal with Arizona, emerges as an instant star ... then lands on the DL with an oblique injury that might keep him out a month or more. Felix Hernandez tries to arrest the sharp decline that started to hit him in 2015 ... and a shoulder injury knocks him out for two weeks and counting. James Paxton finally harnesses his vast potential to become one of the most dominant pitchers in the league...and he hits the shelf with a forearm strain. When the M’s lost two relievers in one inning Friday night, there wasn’t much left to do but laugh.

Thank Flying Spaghetti Monster they have Taylor Motter and Ben Gamel. Another player acquired from Tampa Bay in one of the roughly 72,000 trades between the two teams over the past few years, Motter seemed like an inconsequential throw-in, coming off a rookie campaign in which he played six positions, but also hit a measly .188/.290/.300 in 34 games. This season, Motter has supplemented that versatility with both pop, and flow. Playing first, second, short, third, and left, Motter’s clubbed 14 extra-base hits, batting .231/.302/.538. He’s overcome a shaky batting eye by making tons of hard contact, fueled by the highest pull rate for any hitter in all of baseball

Gamel was a 10th-round pick by the Yankees in 2010 who came to Seattle via trade last August. More of an on-base hound than a power guy, Gamel's translated those skills to the majors in this, his rookie season, batting a strong .310/.408/.476. Those numbers will come down as his sky-high batting average on balls in play regulates. But his batting eye looks legit, with Gamel able to work counts in his favor, use the whole field when he gets a pitch to drive, and also walk 14% of the time.

 

Most importantly, no matter where their numbers go from here, the M’s can take comfort in knowing they have two future Hair Hall of Famers putting on the uniform every day.

17. Tampa Bay Rays (16–17, plus-6, LT: 14)

General managers are always optimistic in spring training. But when I asked Rays co-GM Chaim Bloom in March for specifics, he didn’t hesitate. Of all the players on the roster, Bloom said, look for big things from Corey Dickerson, and Steven Souza Jr.

Dickerson struggled to adjust to Tropicana Field and the American League, his post-Coors Field hangover ending with a .245/.293/.469 batting line. He’s bounced back in a big way this year, hitting .304/.350/.539. There’s some reason for skepticism, with most of his gains coming from a flukishly high .354 batting average balls in play—a nice 69-point jump from last year. Still, Dickerson is hitting more line drives and fewer popups this year. Meanwhile, Bloom’s first prediction looks pretty good.

His second one might be even better. Souza came over to the Rays after the 2014 season, in a deal that sent Wil Myers to San Diego (he blossomed into an All-Star) and Trea Turner to the Nats (he’s already one of the best all-around players in baseball at age 23). Souza’s first season in Tampa Bay was bad: He hit just .225/.318/.399, struck out in more than one-third of his plate appearances, played poor defense, got hurt, and played in just 110 games. His second season as a Ray was also bad: He hit just .247/.303/.409, struck out in more than one-third of his plate appearances, played poor defense, got hurt, and played in just 120 games.

He’s improved dramatically this season. Souza’s batting .284/.385/.457. He’s upped his walk rate to a career-high 13.2%, and sliced his strikeout rate to a more manageable 27.9%. Finally healthy, he’s played in all but two of Tampa Bay’s games. And while we should always be wary of small sample size analysis (especially with defense), Souza’s made bigger contributions so far this season with his glove than he ever has before.

With Myers and Turner thriving elsewhere, it’s still doubtful that three-way trade will ever fully pan out for Tampa Bay. But if Souza can keep up his current pace, that would still count as a giant leap for the Rays.

16. Chicago White Sox (15–15, plus-9, LT: 26)

There are all kinds of reasons to love the surprise White Sox right now. Avisail Garcia is absolutely raking, and seeing him playing in an all-Garcia outfield is pretty damn cool. Last season’s often shaky bullpen has been electric this year, ranking second in the majors in ERA and also near the top of the league in strikeout rate.

It would be great if Derek Holland could elicit similar optimism; he’s certainly a feel-good story. Back in 2013, Holland blossomed into one of the best left-handers in the game, firing 213 quality innings for the Rangers. He managed just 203 innings pitched in the next three seasons combined, his performance and his ability to stay on the mound both racked by injured. That makes his microscopic 2.03 ERA (sixth-best in the American League) all the more incredible this season.

Sadly, it’s not going to last. Name a pitching stat that largely depends on luck and other factors largely beyond a pitcher’s control, and Holland’s benefited from that good fortune. His .220 batting average on balls in play allowed sits seventh among AL starters, 73 points below league average. For his career, Holland has allowed home runs on 11.4% of the flyballs hit against him; that number’s at a career-low 6.4% this year, 12th-lowest in the league. Holland’s allowing hard contact more often than ever before in his career, yet opponents are batting just .191 against him overall, seventh-lowest in the AL.

If Holland can simply make it through the season healthy and keep the Sox in games, he’ll have proven to be a bargain pickup, and one of the more enjoyable stories of the season. Just don’t expect the Sandy Koufax impression to last much longer.

15. Minnesota Twins (15–14, minus-8, LT: 19)

If Holland’s benefited from some good fortune this season, Twins ace Ervin Santana’s been a damn leprechaun. Just 14.1% of the balls in play hit off Santana this season have fallen in for hits, which would be the lowest mark in baseball history, by a wide margin. A staggering 99.2% of the batters that Santana has put on base this year have failed to score, which would be the highest mark in baseball history, by a wide margin.

A strong reminder to be really, really, really skeptical of early-season numbers ... especially when they’re unprecedented in the history of the game.

14. Detroit Tigers (15–15, minus-5, LT: 12)

Baseball’s age curve keeps skewing younger. At the height of the PED era, elite players routinely kept dominating well into their 30s and even occasionally their 40s, while peak age was late-20s. Today, those impressive aged performances are less common, and players are more likely to peak in the 22–26 range.

That can put today’s older teams at risk of delivering major disappointment. Sure enough, the four teams in baseball with the oldest position players this year—the Jays, A’s, Mets, and Braves—all range from bad to horrible. The fifth-oldest collection of position players? Your Detroit Tigers.

The Motor City Kitties have made strides over the past few years to supplement their veteran core with younger players. Still, the Tigers have leaned heavily on the trio of Miguel Cabrera, Ian Kinsler, and Victor Martinez during that time. All three have so far come up well short of typical performance levels. After a big 2016 campaign, the 38-year-old Martinez has dropped to .264/.325/.327 this year, with just one homer in 29 games. The 34-year-old Kinsler has followed a stellar season in which he bashed 28 homers and scored 113 times by hitting just .206/.330/.351. And while 34-year-old Miguel Cabrera’s numbers would make most players happy, his .273/.356/.468 effort would be his worst since all the way back in 2003, when Miggy was a 20-year-old rookie for the Marlins.

Again, it’s early. But if the Tigers fade toward the bottom of the AL Central this season, don’t be surprised if age is one of the biggest culprits.

13. Milwaukee Brewers (16-16, plus-8, LT: 22)

12. Cincinnati Reds (17-14, plus-22, LT: 18)

11. St. Louis Cardinals (16-14, plus-5, LT: 16)

10. Arizona Diamondbacks (18-15, plus-21, LT: 7)

9. Colorado Rockies (20–12, plus-7, LT: 8)

8. Chicago Cubs (16–15, plus-10, LT: 2)

7. Boston Red Sox (17–14, plus-17, LT: 5)

Through the first 29 games of the season, the Red Sox fielded arguably the most disappointing offense in the league, averaging just 3.8 runs per game. Then they laid 11 and 17 on the Twins. Problem hopefully, mostly solved.

That still leaves the matter of third base, however. Pablo Sandoval’s in the midst of a $95 million contract, but he’s also terrible; Panda being on the DL since April 24 at least saves the Sox from having to put one of the worst everyday players in the league on the field. Brock Holt, who’s actually a decent player when healthy, has played in just six games due to an assortment of ailments, the latest a bout with vertigo. That’s made veteran utilityman Josh Rutledge as the de facto third baseman for now. And while his 6-for-19 start is welcome, it’s tough for a team with championship aspirations to hand an everyday job to a player with 162 plate appearances in the past two-plus seasons. Travis Shaw has been knocking the stuffing out of the ball; problem is, he’s doing so in Milwaukee, after the Sox traded him away over the winter.

All of which raises the Rafael Devers question. Devers came into this season as the top-ranked prospect in the Red Sox system. He’s raking to the tune of .325/.364/.602, hitting for power and ripping line drives all over the Eastern League. But here’s the rub: Devers is just 20 years old, with just 22 games played above the Single-A level. Teams go out of their way to avoid rushing top prospects, for reasons ranging from not wanting to start their service time clocks too early to fear of exposing them too soon to big league competition, thus stunting their growth as players.

This likely leaves Boston with two choices: Make a deadline deal for a quality major league third baseman, or call up Devers, hopefully around that time, when he’s gained a little more experience. As the Sox offense rounds into form and pitching reinforcements like David Price arrive, this could become a true World Series contender. The status quo at third base just doesn’t fit that championship description.

6. Baltimore Orioles (20–10, plus-11, LT: 6)

The Orioles could play 1000 more games and probably not have a week more tumultuous than the one they just went through.

On Monday, Adam Jones had peanuts, as well as racial slurs, hurled at him by Fenway faithful. On Tuesday, the Red Sox continued their retaliation over an aggressive Manny Machado April slide by having Chris Sale throw behind the Orioles star in the first inning, leading to more posturing and errant pitches. On Wednesday, Sam Holbrook took umpire incompetence to new heights, ejecting Kevin Gausman for throwing a looping curveball that hit Xander Bogaerts, as if any pitcher would try to injure or frighten another team with a lollipop pitch.

The capper came on Friday, when starter Wade Miley got knocked out in the first inning after being bonked by two line drives, and the O’s announced after the game that All-Star closer Zach Britton had suffered a setback in his recovery from a forearm injury.

Through all that, the Orioles went 5–2, and own the third-best record in the majors. Even without Britton, the bullpen continues to lock down opponents late in games, with replacement closer Brad Brach anchoring a crew that’s got Baltimore up to its old tricks in close games (7–1 in one-run games, 4–1 in extra innings). Seth Smith and Jonathan Schoop have provided surprisingly potent hitting. Meanwhile, Miley and Dylan Bundy have been godsends for a rotation hamstrung by Chris Tillman’s season-long shoulder injury, and Gausman has turned into a pumpkin for no obvious reason.

You could argue that Baltimore’s outgunned on a straight talent level by one or more AL East rivals yet again this year, with the Yankees and Red Sox delivering flashier higher-upside players and individual numbers. Then again, this is a team that’s made a habit of smashing projections to smithereens. So far this season, it’s happening again.

5. Cleveland Indians (17–13, plus-9, LT: 4)

The Indians’ run to the World Series last year wasn’t just remarkable because of how rare such success is for a historically star-crossed franchise. It was also extraordinary because Cleveland pulled it off despite several key players missing much of the regular and postseason. Starting pitchers Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco, starting catcher Yan Gomes, and All-Star left fielder Michael Brantley were all either limited or mission in action as the Tribe nearly won their first Fall Classic in 68 years.

That’s what made Brantley’s return this year all the more satisfying. In 26 games, Dr. Smooth has hit .282/.343/.475, conjuring up a performance not far removed from his 2014–2015 peak, and erasing the memory of a 2016 campaign in which a shoulder injury knocked him out for all but 11 games.

Now, the bad news: Brantley left Sunday’s game against the Royals early with a sprained right ankle. There’s no word yet on the severity of the injury, and the fact that a shoulder injury that some feared could have lingering negative effects hasn’t been a problem. Still, a DL trip just as Brantley was finally mashing again would be a lousy pill to swallow. Throw in staff ace Corey Kluber’s recent trip to the DL and a return timetable that’s a little more vague than you’d like, and not everything’s rosy for an otherwise very good Indians club.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers (17–14, plus-38, LT: 6)

3. Houston Astros (21–11, plus-33, LT: 2)

Want to build the third-best record in the AL, and the polar opposite of the terrible start that prevented a very good Astros team from making the playoffs last year? Bludgeon opponents into submission late in games, and ride a killer bullpen to ensure opponents can’t do the same.

So go the Astros, who lead the majors in hitting in close and late situations, while also shutting down opposing bats in the same spots. That’s how Houston’s racked up a league-leading 14 come-from-behind wins. And that’s how a team with a loaded lineup and a Cy Young candidate can outperform its already impressive collection of talent.

2. New York Yankees (20–9, plus-52, LT: 9)

Aaron Judge is snaring all the headlines, which is what happens when an 8-foot-tall, 800-pound Colossus hits a home run every other at-bat. But there’s no way the Yankees would be where they right now—atop the AL East, best record in baseball, having just beaten up on the defending champs in their home park—if not for Luis Severino.

The 23-year-old righty looked like a phenom from day one, flashing a 2.89 ERA in his 11-start debut in 2015. Beyond that impressive number, Severino struggled at times with inconsistency, and those erratic ways caught up with him in 2016; despite posting basically identical strikeout, walk, and home-run numbers last season, his ERA spiked by nearly three runs.

This season, he’s started to put it all together. Severino’s put up the fifth-highest K rate in the AL, he’s done so as basically a two-pitch pitcher, with his 97-mph fastball and 87-mph slider making up more than 90% of his repertoire. The slider has gone from very good to unhittable this year, with opponents batting just .133 against it. If Severino can keep pounding the strike zone with that electric heater, the damage he could do with his slider could result in the Baby Bombers having a baby ace on their hands to boot.

1. Washington Nationals (21–10, plus-33, LT: 1)

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