- The Nationals lead the NL edition of this week's power rankings, but some surprise interlopers—the Brewers and Diamondbacks among them—enter the top 10.
In two of the National League’s three divisions, everything looks upside down. Considered a contender at the start of the season, the Giants have been wallowing near the bottom of the league. Viewed as a strong threat to repeat as World Series champs, the Cubs are fighting to keep their heads above .500. Meanwhile, the Brewers and Rockies lead their divisions, and the Diamondbacks have been one of the best teams in baseball.
What gives? We’ll sort it all out in this NL edition of The 30. Enjoy.
Note: Rankings based on a combination of records, run differential, strength of schedule, recent performance, team health, and overall talent. “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.
The Padres rank last in the National League in batting average, on-base percentage, and Defensive Runs Saved, and second to last in both park-adjusted offense and park-adjusted ERA. And that’s ... absolutely fine.
A rebuilding process that began a few months after a wild winter of 2014–15 is now in full swing. Like the Cubs and Astros before them, the Padres must see what they have to know where they can go. That means giving regular playing time to rookies like Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot, even though Renfroe’s been a sub-replacement level player and Margot needs to walk more to be an effective leadoff man. It means sticking with a pup like Austin Hedges, even though he strikes out a ton. It means fielding the youngest group of position players in the majors. It means they might end up carrying three Rule 5 players on the roster all year long; per Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Shaikin, the Padres would become the first team to do that since the 2003 Detroit Tigers, a club that lost 119 games. The Friars are in throwing-spaghetti-against-the-wall mode, and it takes time to figure out what’s going to stick.
In the meantime, you look for signs of hope. Like Margot making contact on pitches in the strike zone about as often as stars like Corey Seager and Buster Posey. Like Renfroe slugging .714 in his past eight games. Like Hedges starting to spray a few more line drives to go with his all-or-nothing, swing-for-the-fences approach. If you’re a Padres fan, you celebrate every baby step forward, and know that with a farm system slowly being bolstered by high draft picks, international signings, and opportune trades, it’s only going to get better from here.
The death of Jose Fernandez and a lack of organizational depth made it a near certainty that the rotation would struggle; Miami starting pitchers unsurprisingly rank a woeful 13th in the National League in both park-adjusted ERA and park-adjusted fielding-independent pitching.
The much bigger puzzler, though, has been Christian Yelich’s disappearing bat. The lefty-swinging outfielder enjoyed a breakout season in 2016, smashing 21 homers—the first time he’d ever even cracked double digits. Now in his age-25 season, a time when Yelich should be peaking, he’s having the worst season of his five-year major league career.
More than one-quarter of the way through the year, Yelich is on pace for career lows in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging. One of the biggest knocks against his approach (even when he’s hit) has been his huge groundball tendencies. At a time when a swing-for-the-fences mindset has made sudden hitting stars out of players like J.D. Martinez, Logan Morrison, and even Yonder Alonso, Yelich has pounded more than 60% of his career balls in play into the ground, the second-highest groundball rate of any hitter since the start of 2013. The difference this year is that Yelich suddenly isn’t hitting line drives: He smacked them 22.5% of the time from 2013-2016, but just over 14% of the time this year, placing him in the bottom 10 among all NL hitters.
While many stats can take half a season or stabilize, line-drive rate tends to crystallize earlier in the season. A four-year career stuffed with line drives still leads us to believe these 42 games are likely a fluke, and that he’ll improve soon. But with Yelich’s power upside already restricted by his worm-burning ways, an accompanying lack of liners would make him one of the league’s biggest disappointments in 2017.
The coldest team in baseball has dropped 17 of their past 21 games, falling back to where you’d expect a rebuilding team that’s finished either last or second-to-last in its division four years in a row to end up in year five.
But hey, at least Aaron Nola’s back. The third-year right-hander returned from the disabled list on Sunday after being sidelined for a month by a back injury. Acknowledging that his first start back against a Pirates team that hit worse than any other club over the past sparkled. In seven innings, the 23-year-old right-hander and foundational piece of the Phillies rotation allowed just one run on four hits, striking out five and walking two. His weapon of choice? A nasty curveball. In the first two seasons of Nola’s career, opponents batted just .194 and .167 against Nola’s Uncle Charlie. On Sunday, he fired 32 curves, had only eight of them hit into play, with just one of those eight falling for a hit.
Before you scroll down and watch a GIF of Nola’s majestic yakker, be warned: It’s extremely not safe for work.
27. Kansas City Royals (18–25, minus-45, LT: 29)
They own the fourth-worst record in the National League, not what anyone expected coming into this season. Still, the Giants have won seven of their past nine games to crawl back toward semi-respectability.
If you had to pick one player who typifies the team’s bizarre season, it would have to be Jeff Samardzija. Among NL pitchers, only Bartolo Colon owns a bigger gap between his ERA and his fielding-independent results. That gap was especially acute in April. In five starts during the first month of the season, Samardzija fanned 35 hitters and walked 10 in 31 ⅓ innings, firing strikes a healthy 63% of the time. Problem was, he was a little too good at pounding the strike zone: Opponents slugged .487 against him with six home runs, while also bunching hits together enough to sentence Samardzija to a brutal 6.32 ERA. The most Samardzija-esque start of his season came on May 9. Facing the battered Mets, the big right-hander punched out nine batters and walked none over seven innings. But yet again, one big inning did him in, with the Mets striking for four in the first, ultimately saddling him with six runs, 10 hits, and a loss.
We’ve discussed the concept of Cluster Luck numerous times in this space, though mostly from a team point of view. Over the long haul, neither hitters nor pitchers typically show any particular ability (or lack thereof) to bunch hits together (or scatter them)...so if you see that happening a lot in a small sample of games, expect some regression toward the mean. For Samardzija, that positive reversal of fortune is starting to happen. In his three May starts that weren’t that Mets debacle, he’s allowed a total of just three earned runs. Even better, he’s pounding the zone even more frequently, but with better command of his pitches. Opponents are slugging just .369 against him in May, with just one homer allowed in 29 ⅔ innings. He’s throwing strikes an eye-popping 70% of the time. Meanwhile, his strikeout-to-walk is almost unfathomable during that four-start stretch: 36 Ks, and zero bases on balls.
Already sporting a four-pitch repertoire that includes a mid-90s fastball, he’s resurrected his curveball after keeping it in on ice for three seasons, and also started throwing more splitters. The splitter has induced swinging strikes against one-fifth of the batters he’s faced this season. Add a rubber arm that’s enabled Samardzija to face a league-leading 249 batters, and you have a rare source of optimism for an underachieving team (not to mention a prime buy-low candidate if his owner in your fantasy league is fed up with the 1-5 record and still-high 4.57 ERA).
Syndergaard, Cespedes, Matz, Lugo, Familia, Wright, Cabrera, d’Arnaud. Name any team in baseball, not one could absorb significant injuries to its best pitcher, best hitter, and that much of its supporting cast without taking a serious hit in the standings.
The question now is where the Mets go from here. With the oldest group of position players in the NL, they likely won’t find much upside sticking with the status quo—not this year, and especially not in the future.
That’s why the kids might start arriving soon. Twenty-one-year-old shortstop Amed Rosario’s hitting a cool .359/.386/.529 in Triple-A. Those are the kinds of numbers that earn a prospect a promotion. The Mets have resisted calling Rosario up thus far, even when starting shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera hit the DL. Likewise, 21-year-old top first-base prospect Dominic Smith would seem a logical callup candidate, as he sits on a .324/.384/.480 line at Triple-A.
Expect a little longer wait. For one thing, we’ve seen countless players rake in Las Vegas, so the Mets will likely look at more granular factors such as swing efficiency and plate discipline rather than just raw numbers as they assess their two high-level hitting prospects. They’ll also need to contemplate the future of some key veterans, including Cabrera and Lucas Duda, the two players blocking Rosario and Smith. Finally, they’ll consider Super 2 eligibility: Keep two of their top prospects in the minors for just a few more weeks, and they’ll likely save millions of dollars down the road, due to the way MLB’s arcane arbitration and free agency rules work.
So for now, the key word is patience. It’s the last thing frustrated Mets fans will want to hear in this ugly season. But it’s also the most logical course of action in what will likely be a reloading year.
Finally ... FINALLY! ... Dansby Swanson has come back...to raking.
The number-one overall pick in the 2015 draft broke into the big leagues with a bang last year, hitting .302/.361/.442 in his 145-plate appearance debut. Still rookie-eligible this season, Swanson was the odds-on favorite to win Rookie of the Year. Then, April happened. The 23-year-old shortstop hit a measly .156/.200/.233 in April, raising doubts about his major league readiness.
The beauty of being a rebuilding team, though, is being able to stick with the kids. In 17 May games, Swanson’s turned the tide, batting .291/.414/.455. He’s roped line drives at a better-than-30% rate in May, second among all MLB shortstops, and is making hard contact far more frequently this month.
There’s always a risk in overemphasizing stats in small sample sizes, of course. Then again, this is the Swanson we all expected coming into this season. If Freddie Freeman is Atlanta’s franchise player, Swanson could soon become a worthy running mate.
For the coldest offensive team in baseball over the past two weeks and the third-lowest-scoring team in the NL overall, the news isn’t all bad. On the pitching side at least, good news might come in threes.
First, Gerrit Cole is back to being Gerrit Cole. The team’s most talented pitcher from the moment he made the Show in 2013, Cole took a step back last season, slowed by a combination of injuries, bad luck, and a lessened ability to miss bats that hiked his way all the way up to 4. This year, he’s up to his old tricks, reinvigorating his K rate (22.2%, compared to 19.4% in 2016) while also hiking his groundball rate to a career-high level (50.3%). Never a big changeup user in the majors, Cole’s throwing that pitch two-and-a-half-times more often this year than he did last year, and he’s snuffing out opponents with it, holding them to a .133 batting average.
Second, Felipe Rivero has quietly become one of the best relievers in the league. The fruit of last season’s Mark Melancon deadline deal, Rivero is that rarest of breeds, a left-hander who can touch triple digits with his fastball. Combine that pitch with a devastating changeup (opponents are batting .150 against it this season) and an unhittable slider (.000!), and the Pirates have a clear heir apparent to free-agent-to-be Tony Watson. Armed with a 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate and a huge 61.4% groundball rate, Rivero is one role change away from becoming a star.
The third source of optimism is more of a wish right now. Jameson Taillon didn’t throw a single pitch in a game in 2014 or 2015, stacking Tommy John and hernia surgeries. He finally stuck with the big club last year, pitched well, then looked ready to build on his gains in 2017 ... until he learned earlier this month that he had testicular cancer. Now, less than three weeks after his most recent start, Taillon’s back on the field, playing catch and doing light cardio drills. There’s no firm timetable for his return. But if the Canadian right-hander can make it back to PNC Park this summer, that would be one of the better stories we’ll have heard all year. If he finds a way to quickly regain his impressive pitching form, that would be some spectacularly delicious icing on the cake.
22. Oakland A’s (20–24, minus-43, LT: 25)
21. Seattle Mariners (20–25, minus-20, LT: 18)
20. Toronto Blue Jays (19–26, minus-16, LT: 26)
On one hand, you’ve got a shortstop who had an awful .243/.281/.365 in the first four seasons of his career, clustering him among no-hit wonders like Ramon Santiago and Clint Barmes. He fared better the next two seasons, though injuries limited him to just 53 games in 2015, and his .252 batting average .308 OBP muted much of the impact of his career-high 16 homers in 2016.
Now, all of a sudden, Zack Cozart looks like a superstar. Through 36 games this season, Cozart’s batting an incredible .351/.432/.595. The NL’s Wins Above Replacement looks mighty weird right now: Bryce Harper, Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, Justin Turner ... and Zack Freaking Cozart (number six: fellow Red Eugenio Freaking Suarez!). You can wave away some of this as a mirage, starting with an off-the-charts .400 batting average on balls in play that’s 106 points above league average and 115 points above his previous career high for a full season, and that’s a monstrous fluke. Still, you can’t ignore all of it: a 13.5% walk rate that’s more than double his career mark, across-the-board improvement in plate discipline measures, a .244 Isolated Power mark that ranks him with the likes of elite hitters like Daniel Murphy.
With a very raw and still underdeveloped cadre of pitching prospects, the Reds figure to be at least two years away from contention—maybe more. That means they’ll want to build with youth, and Cozart doesn’t fit that description with his 32nd birthday coming in August. With free agency coming a couple months after that, the simplest move would be to trade him at the deadline, or wish him good luck with another team and collect the high draft pick in return. On the other hand, Cozart won’t go for anywhere near the big bucks that other players with big numbers will fetch in the open market, nor we will fetch elite prospects in a trade, due to his lackluster track record, age, and contract status. And while giving multi-year deals to 32-year-olds can be a kiss of death for a rebuilding ballclub, shortstops who can hit don’t grow on trees, and Cozart’s discounted price could make him worth a re-up, especially if a hometown discount further drives the price down.
Suarez won’t even become arbitration-eligible until the end of this season, so the Reds have the luxury of seeing how that might play out without being forced to make any decisions. But what the hell should they do with Zack Cozart?! There are no easy answers here. Then again, this is a pleasant problem to have, and one that Reds brass never could have anticipated.
18. Los Angeles Angels (23–23, minus-7, LT: 24)
17. Detroit Tigers (21–21, minus-9, LT: 14)
16. Chicago White Sox (20–22, plus-22, LT: 16)
15. Boston Red Sox (22–21, plus-8, LT: 7)
14. Minnesota Twins (22–18, minus-6, LT: 15)
13. Tampa Bay Rays (23–23, plus-21, LT: 17)
12. Texas Rangers (24–21, plus-25, LT: 23)
ERA title-qualified starting pitchers with strikeout rates of 25% or higher and groundball rates of 50% or higher:
Two takeaways here:
1) The five-year, $51 million extension the cards gave Martinez over the winter is going to be a colossal bargain.
2) Pineda could be damn good if he can ever learn to deceive batters (and/or catch a little luck) while he fills up the strike zone.
On Friday, I wrote about the impact that slugging rookie Ian Happ could have on the Cubs offense. He’s already shown off his impressive bat and there’s an increasing likelihood that the Cubs will keep him around rather than send him back to the minors. After doing more damage against the Brewers over the weekend, Happ’s now up to .346/.452/.731. He’s played every game since being called up May 13, and looks more and more likely to stick.
Happ’s presence might do more than merely add one potent bat to the lineup, though. The Cubs offense has been scuffling this season, with four players (Ben Zobrist, Addison Russell, Kyle Schwarber, and Willson Contreras) performing far below career norms, 2017 expectations, or both. Manager Joe Maddon loves to use players at multiple positions, with Zobrist being the prototype. Likewise, Happ has shown he can play multiple positions: He’s already manned all three outfield spots in his first seven big league games, he played second base extensively in the minors, and he’s worked out at the corner infield spots too, suggesting that those could also be in play.
If Happ continues to hit, and gets shuffled all over the field, Maddon will have free rein to coax the best possible results out of everyone else. That could mean giving Russell a day off against a particularly tough right-handed pitcher or the nearly-36-year-old Zobrist more days off to stay fresh. It would also allow Schwarber to face the kinds of pitchers he’s best equipped to face as he works to dig himself out of a season-long slump. Happ’s presence could also enabled dinged-up players to rest, and give slumpers some needed time off. It could fortify the bench, with capable players like Albert Almora and Jon Jay more likely to contribute as key part-timers. Further, The Athletic’s Sahadev Sharma notes that Happ playing regularly could also lead to tinkering with lineup order, further allowing Maddon to get the matchups he wants in the order he wants them.
If all that sounds like a lot to ask of a 22-year-old rookie, remember that five of the 10 most often used Cubs position players last season were 24 and younger. Last season, it turns out, went pretty well.
9. Baltimore Orioles (25–17, plus-12, LT: 6)
Last season, the Brewers seemed to have an enviable problem. Starting shortstop Jonathan Villar was in the midst of a gigantic breakout season, smashing a career-high 19 homers and while stealing a career-best (and league-leading) 62 bases. But the Brewers also needed to find room for top shortstop prospect Orlando Arcia, who didn’t possess that kind of offensive upside, but still offered a superior glove. Injuries and attrition at third base pushed Villar to that spot, allowing both players to co-exist in the infield. But the offseason acquisition of Travis Shaw from the Red Sox combined with the continued presence of superutility man Hernan Perez meant that Arcia and Villar would have to form the team’s new double-play combination, with Villar taking over as the team’s full-time second baseman.
With Memorial Day fast approaching, the Brewers are the most unlikely division leader in baseball, sparked by an offense that’s received massive production from Eric Thames at first base, and better-than-average numbers from every other starter ... except Arcia and Villar. Arcia, you can forgive. In his first major league season as an everyday player from day one, the 22-year-old shortstop is batting a weak .230/.277/.360, making him one of the least productive hitters in the league. But he’s also shored up the infield defense, ranking seventh in MLB defensively according to Baseball Info Solutions Defensive Runs Saved with a +3 mark.
The problem in an otherwise surprisingly impressive lineup has been Villar. At .220/.286/.347, he’s been just as bad offensively as his keystone partner, plummeting from his .285/.369/.457 mark of a year ago. He’s also driven Craig Counsell nuts with mental lapses. On Sunday, Villar shuffled slowly after a Kyle Schwarber one-hopper to short right against the shift, then lobbed a throw to first that was both offline, and delivered with no urgency, facilitating an “infield” hit and Jon Jay’s scamper home all the way from second after reliever Rob Scahill neglected to watch what was happening behind him. The Brewers manager benched Villar on May 10 following a rare big offensive day, thanks to two baserunning gaffes that sent him back to the bench after two of the three times he reached base.
Ultimately, starting pitching will likely decide whether or not the Crew can continue to lead the NL Central, or even hang in the race. But Villar has looked out of sorts ever since he returned from the World Baseball Classic having ridden the bench for most of that tournament. Whether it’s rediscovering his 2016 batting eye and healthy line-drive rate, or simply avoiding frequent mental errors, Villar could play a big role in keeping the Brewers’ Cinderella season going, if he can get going himself.
7. Cleveland Indians (23–19, plus-16, LT: 5)
The continued excellence of Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon, plus Mark Reynolds turning into an MVP candidate out of nowhere, has played a big role in Colorado’s climb to first place in the NL West. But for a team that’s long struggled to overcome the slog of pitching in Coors Field, the simplest explanation is the correct one:
Rockies pitchers groundball rates
Jon Gray 63.9%
Kyle Freeland 63.1%
Scott Oberg 61.5%
Jordan Lyles 59.1%
Tyler Chatwood 56.0%
Chris Rusin 55.7%
Greg Holland 52.8%
Chad Qualls 51.7%
Rockies Team GB%: 50.4% (tied-2nd in MLB)
In the ballpark that most severely punishes pitchers for giving up batted balls in the air, the Rockies are winning by kicking up more dirt than all but one other team. Baseball can be a pretty uncomplicated game sometimes.
Once in a while, a manager will face an extraordinarily tough decision when it comes to a player’s platoon splits. Diamondbacks skipper Torey Lovullo faces that dilemma with Jake Lamb.
One of the rising stars in baseball, Lamb’s overall numbers have vaulted him into the ranks of the game’s elite this year. At .288/.385/.558, Arizona’s 26-year-old third baseman ranks 19th among all NL hitters in park-adjusted offense (Chase Field trails only Coors Field among NL parks for pumping up offensive numbers); if you prefer more traditional stats, Lamb ranks in the top 10 for both home runs and runs batted in too. But few everyday players in recent memory have carried a platoon split as enormous as Lamb’s:
Jake Lamb vs. RHP, 2017: .342/.435/.676
Jake Lamb vs. LHP, 2017: .156/.255/.267
Those numbers are merely a more extreme version of last year’s splits, when Lamb batted .271/.346/.552 against righties, but just .164/.279/.345 against southpaws.
Scanning those numbers, the logical course of action would seem to be force-feeding him as many at-bats as possible against right-handers, then benching him against lefties; Lamb ranking 29th among MLB third baseman in Defensive Runs Saved (minus-4) only reinforces that idea. On the other hand, the Diamondbacks are trying to build a long-term winner in the desert, even as they run out to this surprising, rollicking start in 2017. Lamb’s impressive power in just his third season as a big league regular could portend perennial All-Star status, if he keeps this uptrend going. Plenty of other young stars with major platoon splits have eventually learned to hit same-handed pitching respectably enough over time, and it’s hard to learn unless you’re given reps.
So for now, Lovullo will continue to play Lamb everyday. If the young slugger can cobble together even league-average performance against lefties over time, opposing pitchers will become even more sheepish when they have to face him.
Who’s the best pitcher in baseball that not enough people are discussing? I nominate Alex Wood:
Alex Wood MLB ranks (minimum 40 IP):
ERA: 1.88 (2nd)
FIP: 1.90 (2nd)
Park-Adjusted ERA (2nd)
Park-Adjusted FIP (2nd)
K%: 29.9% (5th)
HR/9 IP: 0.21 (2nd)
At first you could wave away Wood’s dominance as a product of lucky scheduling, with standout performances against bottom-of-the-league offenses like the Giants and Pirates. Then Wood sauntered into Coors Field and shoved six shutout innings at the Rockies, allowing just five hits and one walk while striking out 10—the second of three straight no-run performances that he’s put up. Two more challenging tests lie ahead against the Cubs and Cardinals in his next two starts. If Wood can keep flashing goose eggs against those two tougher clubs, we might have a definitive answer for who’s the number-two starter on a team that boasts the best pitcher in the world, and six guys who are never quite sure when their next start might occur.
Dusty Baker had witnessed this scene before. On Sunday, his starter (in this case Stephen Strasburg) pitched well but ran out of gas, firing 118 pitches in 7 2/3 innings. Now, Baker needed to find a reliever who could protect a one-run lead, with a runner in scoring position and the opponent’s number-three hitter (in this case veteran pesky bat Nick Markakis) striding to the plate. The Nats bullpen had already let Baker down numerous times before: With both wannabe closers and setup men melting down, Washington’s bullpen had already blown eight saves this year, more than all but six other teams.
The Nationals manager spun his bullpen wheel ... and landed on Koda Glover. The 24-year-old right-hander was seeing high-leverage work in the majors for the first time this year, after a rough 2016 debut in which he posted a 5.03 ERA. He’d already saved two games while acting as co-closer with Shawn Kelley, the veteran righty who’d lost Baker’s trust by allowing six homers this year, not to mention being a health risk with two Tommy John surgeries in his rearview mirror. Managers can talk all they want about reliever versatility, about mixing and matching bullpen roles. But few things make a manager look smarter than a lights-out firebreather who can jog in for the ninth inning and shut the game down.
After a brief DL stint caused by a hip injury, followed by four days of inactivity since his last outing, here was Glover’s chance to shine on day five. Markakis battled Glover for five pitches, staying alive on a 1–2 count. Then on pitch number six, Glover reared back and fired straight gas—97 mph, up in the zone. Swing and a miss, strike three. Glover caught a break in the ninth, when a sharp line drive by Matt Adams landed right in Ryan Zimmerman’s glove, triggering an easy double play that erased a leadoff single by Matt Kemp. One Kurt Suzuki popout later, Glover had done it—four batters up, four batters down, and a spectacularly welcome save for a team that had dropped four straight games to the Braves and Pirates.
The Nats might still shop for a more established shutdown closer to address the team’s lack of bullpen depth, arguably the only weakness on what might otherwise be the best team in the National League. But Washington already has a young right-hander with high-90s heat and a sharp slider who might ably fill the closer role if given a clean shot at it. If Glover goes on to save 30 more games this year, Sunday afternoon will be the moment he started to earn real trust, amid a bullpen that had done a great job of breaking that trust for the first quarter of the season.