The 30: Astros stay on top while an unlikely slugger is powering the Yankees
- Brett Gardner is doing his best Aaron Judge impression and helping New York to first place in the AL East and No. 2 in SI's baseball power rankings.
The Astros are the hottest team in baseball, the Baby Bombers are getting help from an unlikely source, and the American League Central looks like a battle of attrition.
It’s the AL edition of The 30. Enjoy.
Note: Rankings are 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.
30. Philadelphia Phillies (19–35 record, minus-64 run differential, last time: 28)
29. San Francisco Giants (23–35, minus-64, LT: 26)
28. San Diego Padres (23–35, minus-94, LT: 30)
27. Oakland A’s (24–32, minus-62, LT: 22)
Playing in what was the worst park in the American League last year for home runs, and with a lineup full of journeymen and second-tier cheapie pickups, the A’s have done something remarkable: become one of the best power-hitting teams in baseball. First baseman Yonder Alonso (16) and leftfielder Khris Davis (17) have led the homer barrage, with Alonso crafting a gigantic breakout and Davis continuing his all-or-nothing approach to hitting, fueling Oakland’s march to fifth in the majors in long balls from 21st last season. Now we can add another surprising Oakland power source to that crew: Chad Pinder.
Oakland’s second-round pick in the 2013 draft, Pinder showed moderate power at Class A Stockton and Double A Midland, then batted a seemingly modest .258./310/.425 last year at Triple A Nashville. The Sounds’ home park plays much differently than the rest of the Pacific Coast League, though, severely suppressing offense. Thus Pinder’s 14 homers in 107 games last year offered a hint of his power potential.
In his first clear shot at regular playing time in the majors, that power has blossomed. The rookie second baseman launched two over the wall last Wednesday in a 3-1 win over the Indians. All told, he’s cranked seven home runs in 30 games, compiling a lofty .603 slugging percentage.
So if you’re feeling restless in the Bay Area and you’re looking for a powerful evening, swipe right on Pinder.
26. Atlanta Braves (24–30, minus-37, LT: 24)
25. Kansas City Royals (24–31, minus-50, LT: 27)
When Danny Duffy went down with an oblique injury at the end of May that could knock him out for two months, an already miserable Royals season lost one of its few remaining pieces of optimism. Without their young lefty ace, it became hard to conjure enthusiasm for a team that looks like it’s at the end of an incredible run that included two straight AL pennants in 2014 and '15, plus a World Series victory.
Maybe Eric Skoglund can offer a silver lining. A third-round pick by the Royals in 2014, Skoglund was named Kansas City’s fourth-best prospect before the season by Baseball America, which tabbed him as a back-of-the-rotation starter because he has solid control but lacks an elite out pitch. The 24-year-old lefty’s belied that scouting report in his major league debut on May 30 when he tossed 6 ⅓ shutout innings against the Tigers, with just two hits and one walk allowed, plus five strikeouts. His second start? Not so great: he lasted just two innings against the Indians on Sunday, giving up four runs on four hits with two walks.
A DL trip by Nate Karns (nerve irritation) cleared a spot for Skoglund to make it to the majors, and Duffy’s injury could give the rookie a chance to stick for good. Even if he merely delivers back-of-the-rotation results, the last-place Royals will take any little glimmer of hope they can find right now.
24. New York Mets (24–31, minus-29, LT: 25)
23. Miami Marlins (24–31, minus-17, LT: 29)
22. Pittsburgh Pirates (26–31, minus-25, LT: 23)
21. Cincinnati Reds (25–30, minus-16, LT: 19)
20. Los Angeles Angels (29–31, minus-16, LT: 18)
Credit Albert Pujols for impeccable timing. On May 29, the Angels and the rest of the baseball world learned that Mike Trout would miss six to eight weeks with a thumb injury, derailing a season in which he was on pace for the best numbers of his astoundingly dominant career. Five days later, Pujols delivered a reason to celebrate again, launching a moonscraper of a home run against Minnesota in Anaheim that landed just inside the leftfield foul pole. It was the 600th homer of Pujols’s career, making him just the ninth player ever to reach that milestone—and the first to get there via grand slam.
Any player to join such an exclusive club earns a hearty tip of the cap. But Pujols was no blue-chipper when he started his professional baseball career—401 players heard their names called during the 1999 draft before Pujols heard his. The story of every team passing on him multiple times, and the one scout who believed in the man who would become The Machine, offers a valuable lesson in the power of expectations.
19. Chicago White Sox (24–31, minus-3, LT: 16)
For years, baseball’s cognoscenti have recognized the accomplishments of Chicago's secret weapon, pitching coach Don Cooper. From mentoring turnarounds to a remarkable track record of keeping his charges healthy, Cooper (with an assist from White Sox head trainer Herm Schneider) has turned lemons into lemonade again and again.
It’s happening once more this season on the South Side, in the form of two reborn relievers. Righthander Anthony Swarzak meandered through three different organizations with little success, at first struggling as a low-strikeout option with the Twins, then getting crushed by a blizzard of home runs last season with the Yankees. He’s turned into a bullpen demon this year, striking out a career-best 28.1% of the batters he’s faced, while allowing just 17 hits and one homer in 25 ⅔ innings pitched.
Fellow righty Tommy Kahnle’s been even better, morphing into one of the most devastating bullpen arms in the game. Kahnle’s 1 ⅔ scoreless innings Sunday lowered his ERA to a sparkling 1.19. He’s whiffed an obscene 48.8% of the batters he’s faced this year, trailing only Boston's Craig Kimbrel among all MLB pitchers with anywhere near as many innings pitched. Opponents are hitting .156 against Kahnle's fastball, and .085(!) against his changeup.
The struggles of putative ace Jose Quintana have (at least temporarily) dampened the potential return for Chicago’s most obvious trade asset. But if the Sox load up on deadline deals as expected, they’ll have an army of reliever-hungry teams lining up at their door, thanks to the continually stellar work of Cooper and his merry men.
18. Texas Rangers (26–31, minus-2, LT: 12)
The Rangers have lost four in a row and 10 of their past 12, going from a solid hold on second place in the AL West to just a game and a half out of the basement. Over the weekend they were annihilated by their in-state rivals from Houston, getting swept in a three-game series and being outscored 20-8.
Here’s the bigger problem: The schedule won’t be doing Texas any favors in the near future. A two-game series against the heavily wounded Mets starts Tuesday, but New York will be starting its two best healthy pitchers, Jacob deGrom and Zack Wheeler. That brief set is followed by the what may be the toughest six-game stretch that any team is likely to face all season: back-to-back three-game road series against the best teams in the National and American leagues, the Nationals and the Astros.
If the Rangers continue to struggle during that eight-game swing, it could significantly affect how the team handles the trade deadline. Another pile of losses and the two-time defending AL West champs might soon have to at least consider some significant veteran-for-youth deals, with free-agent-to-be starter Yu Darvish the biggest Ranger dilemma, by far.
17. Tampa Bay Rays (29–30, plus-5, LT: 13)
Two and a half years after what looked like a disastrous three-way trade for the Rays, the deal is finally starting to pay dividends. Yes, Wil Myers, who went from Tampa Bay to San Diego, has become an All-Star for the Padres. And yes, Trea Turner, who went from San Diego's system to Washington's, could ignite the Nationals lineup for years to come. But Steven Souza Jr., who came over from the Nats, has started producing the way the Rays have long hoped. The 28-year-old rightfielder is hitting a robust .266/.374/.484; adjust for Tropicana Field’s offense-crunching ways, and that’s a top-15 line for an AL hitter.
Souza’s been an asset on defense too, saving four more runs than the average MLB rightfielder (per Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved), making him the seventh-best gloveman in the majors at his position. When it comes to diving catches, though . . . well, let’s just say he might’ve peaked in 2014.
16. Seattle Mariners (28–30, minus-5, LT: 21)
Despite winning seven of eight, last week brought some bad news to the Mariners, who lost All-Star shortstop Jean Segura to the disabled list with an ankle injury. Segura was hitting a robust .341/,392/.462, and though he said he expects to return to the lineup before the end of June, Seattle can ill afford to lose a player of his caliber for an extended period of time, nor to have him at less than 100% when he does get back on the field.
Segura’s injury underscores what an injury nightmare the 2017 season has been for the Mariners. In addition to Segura, second baseman Robinson Cano, ace Felix Hernandez, breakout lefty James Paxton and outfielder Mitch Haniger have all spent time on the DL this year. The excellent RosterResource.com rates the M’s as the AL team hardest hit by injuries, given both the team’s number of DL trips and the list of front-line players who’ve been knocked out.
The good news? Other than the Astros and the Yankees, the American League has been a sea of mediocrity this year. If Seattle can ever get and stay healthy, a wild-card run could be possible for this talented team.
15. St. Louis Cardinals (26-24; minus-4; LT: 11)
14. Toronto Blue Jays (28–29, minus-6, LT: 20)
It’s been a topsy-turvy season for the Blue Jays, to say the least. Injuries have hammered both the rotation and the left side of the infield. Toronto got off to a 6-17 start and looked cooked before April was even over. Since then, the Blue Jays have been one of the hottest teams in baseball, going 22-12 and starting to fulfill some of the promise that you might expect from a team coming off two straight ALCS appearances.
A surprising source of consistent excellence throughout all that turmoil, though, has been the work of two previously lightly-regarded relievers.
Toronto got veteran righthander Joe Smith on a dirt-cheap deal—one-year, $3 million—over the winter for good reason: He wasn’t particularly good last season, regressing in the strikeout, walk and home-run departments and posting fielding-independent numbers equivalent to a 4.99 ERA. This year, he’s given the Jays' bullpen a huge lift, filling the void created by Jason Grilli’s season-long meltdown to chalk up 42 strikeouts (with just two homers allowed) in 27 ⅔ innings. His slider has been especially devastating, with opponents slugging below .200 against it.
Another righty, Ryan Tepera (pictured above), has also been quietly effective. Joe Biagini sliding into the rotation created a need for more high-leverage relief work, and Tepera has jumped into that role. He's punched out a career-high 26.4% of the batters he’s faced, and although he’s stumbled a bit lately by allowing runs in two of his past three outings, his previous 13 appearances were incredible: 19 innings, 22 strikeouts, six hits, five walks and nary a single run. The secret to Tepera’s success has been simple. Last year he threw a first-pitch strike just 44.7% of the time; this year, he’s up to 58.4%. That’s made Tepera more unpredictable later in the count: He’s generated a string 19.7% whiff rate with his cutter and 15.4% with his slider.
If the Blue Jays can get Aaron Sanchez back and healthy soon, they could move Biagini back to the 'pen, creating a trio of dependable righthanders to set up Roberto Osuna—even if Grilli never gets his cheese back. That development could be a subtle source of strength for Toronto, as it tries to claw its way back into the AL East race.
13. Detroit Tigers (28–28, plus-1, LT: 17)
When an onslaught of killer pitching prospects rolled through the Mets farm system, Michael Fulmer looked like the least of the bunch. A capable righthander who never missed that many bats, Fulmer figured to lag behind Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom, Steven Matz and other, flashier young arms.
In less than two years, much has changed. Acquired by the Tigers at the 2015 trade deadline in the deal that sent Yoenis Cespedes to New York, Fulmer has grown into one of the best young pitchers in the American League. In fact, he's doing more to help his team right now than any of those Mets horses except deGrom, thanks to a rash of injuries in Queens and Fulmer’s own stingy pitching.
The 2016 AL Rookie of the Year might look like he’s putting up identical results in 2017, with his ERA virtually unchanged this year (3.06 last year vs. 3.00 this year). In reality, Fulmer’s getting better. He’s getting ahead to start at-bats more often, he’s allowing less hard contact and he’s chopped his home-run rate nearly in half, now sporting the lowest such mark of any AL starting pitcher. By Fielding Independent Pitching, only Boston's Chris Sale and Tampa Bay's Chris Archer have fared better among AL starters.
At a time when teammate Justin Verlander looks like he has no idea where any of his pitches are going (a groin injury suffered Sunday might make matters worse), Detroit has to be thrilled that it landed The Met Who Got Away.
12. Baltimore Orioles (29–26, minus-9, LT: 9)
The most perplexing player in baseball this year? I nominate Manny Machado.
Baltimore's All-Star third baseman still ranks among the league leaders with 12 home runs, on pace to approach the 35 and 37 that he hit in 2015 and '16, respectively. But his overall offensive production has nosedived: He’s hitting a mere .212/.296/.442, a line that puts him in the same company this season with forgettables like Arizona's Yasmany Tomas and Houston's Yuli Gurriel. Much of the problem can be traced to one simple category: line-drive rate. After producing a healthy 20% mark last season, Machado has plummeted to the lowest line-drive rate in all of baseball this year.
Given that Machado has actually made more hard contact in 2017 than he did in '16, that line-drive letdown looks like a screaming fluke. Yes, he’s also swinging and missing (and striking out) more often than ever before. But even if that whiffier trend holds, he’s not going to loiter around the Mendoza Line much longer. If you’re an Orioles fan, don’t fret: Sunnier skies are on the way.
11. Minnesota Twins (29–24, minus-19, LT: 14)
Ervin Santana, first 11 starts of 2017:
Opponents’ batting line .140 average / .230 on-base percentage / .253 slugging percentage
Batting average on balls in play allowed: .145 (the lowest in MLB history for any starting pitcher)
Ervin Santana, June 3 vs. (Mike Trout-less) Angels:
4 IP, 7 ER, 7 H, 3 BB, 3 HR
Regression is cruel and merciless, and it spares no one.
10. Chicago Cubs (28-27, plus-4, LT: 10)
9. Milwaukee Brewers (30-27, plus-29, LT: 8)
8. Cleveland Indians (29–26, plus-26, LT: 7)
The award for MLB’s biggest disconnect between nasty stuff and awful numbers goes to Trevor Bauer. Glance at his 5.83 ERA (seventh-worst among AL starters) and you flash back to the injured and ineffective pitcher who got chased in the first inning during Game 3 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays and then didn’t make it out of the fourth inning in Game 2 of the World Series against the Cubs. Watch Bauer snap off one nightmare-inducing curveball after another in his May 30 start against Oakland, though, and it seems impossible to imagine him struggling:
The good news for Cleveland is that Bauer's results are starting to match up with his stuff. That start against the A’s ended with Bauer going seven strong innings and striking out a career-high 14 batters. That made it four straight starts in which he had allowed three runs or fewer, with a combined strikeout-to-walk rate of 36-to-4. He worked around two hits and a walk in 1 ⅔ scoreless innings Sunday before exiting early due to a two-hour rain delay. That 5.83 ERA? It’s still a massive improvement over the 7.67 mark he carried as recently a month ago, and it also obscures the talent of the pitcher who’s generated the third-highest strikeout rate among AL starters this year.
Look for his luck to continue to improve: Only three other AL starters have seen more of the runners they’ve put on base come around to score (typically more the result of bad luck than bad pitching) and only four other starters have seen a higher percentage of balls in play allowed fall in for hits (a product of luck with some skill mixed in, but Bauer’s BABIP allowed also sits 52 points above his career mark, suggesting he’s mostly getting some bad breaks). With staff ace Corey Kluber just back from injury and electric-armed righty Danny Salazar pitching so poorly that he was exiled to the bullpen at the end of May, getting the best version of Bauer would be a welcome happening for the talented but inconsistent Indians.
7. Boston Red Sox (31–25 plus-38, LT: 15)
2016 Red Sox home runs: 208, AL rank: 7th
2017 Red Sox home runs: 53 (full-season pace: 153), AL Rank: 15th
Even after accounting for the retirement of David Ortiz, that’s a jarring dropoff. Still, small signs of hope are starting to creep up. Rookie phenom Andrew Benintendi launched two homers Sunday against the Orioles, halting a steep slump and showing off some of the all-world potential that Boston's brass believes will turn into results soon. Jackie Bradley Jr. has finally snapped out of his own season-long funk, posting an OPS near 1.000 over his past 22 games, with six long balls in that span. Meanwhile, the team’s back hole at third base almost certainly won’t last much longer; the Red Sox figure to trade for a veteran with pop like the White Sox' Todd Frazier or the Royals' Mike Moustakas, or call up 20-year-old masher Rafael Devers from Triple A.
In the meantime, Boston might have to rely on its pitching and defense to hang close in the AL East race. The team's defense ranks fifth in the AL according to Baseball Info Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved, which bodes well for the team’s run prevention hopes, as does David Price tossing seven lights-out innings Saturday in his second start back from an elbow injury.
6. Arizona Diamondbacks (34-25, plus-49, LT: 5)
5. Colorado Rockies (36-23, plus-44, LT: 6)
4. Los Angeles Dodgers (35-23, plus-84, LT: 4)
3. Washington Nationals (35-20, plus-70, LT: 3)
2. New York Yankees (32–22, plus-70, LT: 2)
Yes, Aaron Judge leads the majors in homers and has become such a sensation in the Bronx that the Yankees have taken the very un-Yankee-like step of creating a dedicated, 18-seat section of the ballpark dubbed the Judge's Chambers to handle the #AllRise phenomenon. But Judge is roughly the size of 76 Jose Altuves, and came advertised as a big-time slugger. The real shocker in the Yankees lineup is the 5'11" waterbug who at age 33, in his 10th big league season, suddenly turned Ruthian. What the hell is going on with Brett Gardner?!
Dig these stats:
• In his first nine major league seasons, Gardner had two multi-homer games. He has three this year.
• In his past 32 games, Gardner has walloped 12 home runs. His previous 203 games? Just 11.
So what gives? The biggest change has been a jump in Gardner’s flyball rate. The veteran outfielder has hiked that number to 38% this year, a career high and a big spike from last season’s 27%. His 37.4% hard-hit rate is also a career high. Still, Gardner’s homer binge won’t keep going at this rate: 22.2% of the flyballs he’s hit this year have flown over the fence, an unsustainable pace that’s nearly triple his career rate, even after accounting for Yankee Stadium’s short rightfield porch.
A late-career breakout could still be in play given all that hard contact, and Gardner could score something like 110 runs hitting atop this loaded lineup. But Barry Bonds’ record is probably safe for another year.
1. Houston Astros (41–16, plus-102, LT: 1)
We knew Houston's lineup would be deadly, with veterans Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, Nori Aoki and Josh Reddick getting added over the winter to a young and talented core that includes Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and George Springer. The bullpen figured to be excellent as well, following a season in which Astros relievers led the majors in strikeout rate and Wins Above Replacement. The concern was over the rotation—could it be competent enough to pair with Houston’s other strengths and fuel the team’s first division title in 16 years?
The answer thus far has been an emphatic yes. The Astros’ starters haven’t merely performed competently. They’ve been awesome, leading the AL in ERA and ranking second in strikeout rate and helping the club to the best record in baseball.
For ace Dallas Keuchel, a shoulder injury sapped his ability to pitch last year, but a return to health has fueled a league-best 1.67 ERA this year for the 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner.
The bigger story has been 23-year-old firebreather Lance McCullers Jr. His unreal stuff was evident from the start, with McCullers lighting up the league as a rookie in 2015 thanks to an array of tantalizing pitches, including a 94-mph baffler that could technically be called a changeup, assuming you’re into hitters being haunted by a non-stop horror movie. Still, injuries and shaky command held McCullers back, as he walked an astronomical five batters per nine innings last year while making only 14 starts in the majors.
This season he’s put it all together. Only one pitcher in baseball ranks in his league’s top five in both strikeout rate and groundball rate and that’s McCullers, at 28.4% (fifth) and 61.7% (second; Keuchel leads with a jaw-dropping 67.4% groundball rate). McCullers has cut way back on his four-seam fastball usage and gone to a funky three-pitch repertoire, with his curve as his most frequent offering. SI’s Tom Verducci’s chronicled how incredibly great McCullers’ Uncle Charlie has been this year; when you throw a bender nearly half the time and hold opponents to a .222 batting average and .315 slugging percentage with it, you’re doing something truly special . . . including setting records.
Led by McCullers and Keuchel, as well as that explosive offense and stingy bullpen, the Astros have won 10 games in a row. Only eight other teams in the past half-century have started a season as hot as this Houston team, and all but the 2001 Mariners went on to reach the World Series. It’s almost as if somebody predicted this would happen.