The 30: The Astros and Red Sox seize control of the American League while Yankees sputter
- No American League team looks as dominant as the Astros, one of baseball's most powerful teams that hardly ever strikes out.
Baseball can be a partisan game. As much as we might appreciate a star player’s greatness from a distance, fans still tend to close ranks around their own favorite teams. It’s rare to find a baseball moment that all fans can appreciate, regardless of geography and allegiances.
All of that changed on Wednesday in Pittsburgh. That day, umpire John Tumpane was walking toward PNC Park when he spotted a woman on the wrong side of the railing on the Roberto Clemente Bridge. Tumpane’s quick thinking, patience and compassion helped prevent the woman from jumping, and gave paramedics time to complete the rescue and ensure a happy ending.
So today, we salute Tumpane, and the people who give of themselves to help others. This AL edition of The 30 is dedicated to those heroes. 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 (27–53 record, minus-91 run differential, last time: 30)
29. San Diego Padres (34–48, minus-120 LT: 28)
28. San Francisco Giants (33–51, minus-86, LT: 29)
27. Oakland A’s (35–47, minus-82, LT: 26)
For a good while, the A’s Twitter account adopted a username of “Vote. Alonso. Now.”, reminding fans to vote for the first baseman who’s been one of the biggest pleasant surprises in the league this year. That All-Star Game message quietly disappeared, a fitting tribute to a player whose numbers have similarly disappeared over the past couple weeks, thus threatening Yonder Alonso’s trade value, right when the A’s would hope it’s peaking.
In his past 12 games, Alonso’s batting just .175, while slugging a punchless .225. He hasn’t had a chance to bounce back from that slump either lately, having made just one plate appearance since Wednesday due a bruised knee. That ugly stretch follows an incredible first 57 games, in which Alonso batted .306/.398/.645, swatting an eye-popping 17 home runs in that time; he’d never before managed even double digits in a season.
If Alonso’s knee heals quickly and he can get back to his mashing ways for earlier this season, he could become fascinating trade bait. Not just a source of empty homer calories, Alonso has retained the excellent batting eye that was his calling card even when he was a rare singles-hitting first baseman. Alonso’s made good on a spring promise to adopt the uppercut approach that’s turned a bunch of pedestrian hitters into big boppers in the new juiced-ball era. That lefty power swing, combined with a complete lack of healthy and productive options at first base in New York, make a trade to the Yankees almost too obvious a fit.
26. Cincinnati Reds (35–46, minus-50, LT: 27)
25. Chicago White Sox (36–45, minus-16, LT: 18)
May 30 was an ugly day for Jose Quintana, and the White Sox. That day, Chicago’s would-be ace coughed up seven runs on 10 hits (including three home runs) in 2 2/3 innings against the Red Sox. That debacle raised his ERA for the season to 5.60, an unsightly and wildly out-of-character mark for a pitcher who until this year ranked as one of the most consistently stingy and durable starters in the league.
As excellent pitching analyst Nick Pollack of PitcherList.com noted, Quintana had lost as much as six inches of vertical drop on his formerly excellent curveball. That setback, combined with an overall lack of command within the strike zone, fueled his sudden and substantial problems.
Everything’s improved substantially since then. In his past six starts, the 28-year-old lefty has fired 34 2/3 innings, striking out 35 batters, walking 14, and allowing just 27 hits and three home runs, good for a 2.33 ERA during that span. That’s even counting Sunday’s shaky outing, in which he lasted just 4 1/3 innings and allowed five runs (three earned), thanks in part to horrific defense behind him.
After hanging around the edges of the AL wild-card race for a while, the White Sox now sit in last place, as many expected. Armed with club options through 2020, striking out a batter an inning, and on pace to potentially log his fifth straight season of 200 or more innings pitched, Quintana could offer the best combination of skill, team control, and availability among all starting pitchers as the trade deadline approaches. The rebound happened just in time.
24. Detroit Tigers (36–45, minus-25, LT: 17)
Rounding out our trifecta of trade deadline candidates is ... Justin Verlander?! You wouldn’t have expected that development following a 2016 season in which Verlander was arguably the best pitcher in the American League, with award voters famously raising the ire of Kate Upton by not picking her fiancé to win the AL Cy Young award.
Verlander has put up some of his worst numbers in years, including his highest ERA since 2008, and highest walk rate of his entire career; the seven-run drubbing he suffered at the hands of the Indians Sunday raised his ERA to a ghastly 4.96. Theories have abounded as to what’s going on in 2017. A lat injury hampered his performance in 2014 and sidelined him for a chunk of 2015, leading some to wonder if health might be an issue again. Or maybe, right after a Cy Young-caliber season, Verlander’s suddenly been chased down at age 34 by Father Time, even if a quick scan of his velocity readings show anything but.
Whatever’s going on, the Tigers have fallen almost entirely out of the playoff hunt. That turn of events, combined with Verlander being owed $28 million a year through 2019 (with a $22 million vesting option in 2020), plus Detroit eyeing a youth movement, shoved the big right-hander onto the trade block. Whether any team will take the plunge on Verlander during a season in which he’s been one of the worst pitchers in the league remains an open question.
23. Miami Marlins (36–44, minus-24, LT: 22)
22. Pittsburgh Pirates (37–45, minus-38, LT: 23)
21. Baltimore Orioles (40–41, minus-68, LT: 20)
So much ink has been spilled already about the worst rotation in the American League, so let’s focus on the positive: Jonathan Schoop has arrived.
Granted, you could argue that Schoop broke out in 2016. In his age-24 season, the up-and-coming second baseman played in all 162 games, smashing 25 homers. Still, that performance felt a bit like empty calories. Schoop’s .298 on-base percentage ranked second-worst among all second basemen who qualified for a batting title. With 137 strikeouts and just 21 walks, Schoop felt like the kind of hitter who could punish a baseball once a week when he guessed right on a pitch, but also look terrible for much of the rest of the time.
Not this year. Schoop’s numbers have surged across the board, to .297/.352/.545, on pace to top 30 homers for the first time. And while his strikeout-to-walk rate of 4-to-1 might not look like much, that’s still a sizable improvement from last year. He’s been especially productive lately too: In his past 34 games, Schoop’s batting a massive .323/.380/.638, with 10 homers and even nine walks. The underlying gauges support that skills growth, with Schoop swinging at fewer pitches out of the zone than ever before, swinging and missing less often ever before, ripping more line drives and pulling the ball more often than ever before.
Even with a slightly more refined batting eye this year, Schoop will likely remain a free swinger when compared to his slugging peers. But on an Orioles team that’ll need to win a bunch of 8–7 games to vie for a playoff berth, another potent source of offense is still most welcome.
20. Atlanta Braves (40–41, minus-36, LT: 25)
19. New York Mets (38–43, minus-33, LT: 24)
18. Toronto Blue Jays (37–44, minus-45, LT: 13)
You wouldn’t normally consider a platoon of Ryan Goins and Darwin Barney as the answer to any roster problem. But that’s where the Jays are, after Devon Travis suffered a knee injury that might knock him out for the rest of the season.
True to his banjo-hitting reputation, Goins is batting a mere .211/.274/.339 this season. What’s worse, he’s a once-stellar defender whose defensive numbers are down across the board this season—albeit less so at the easier position of second base than they have been at short. Likewise, Barney’s not the defensive whiz he once was, and his .233/.273/.301 offensive line is even feebler than Goins’. At age 29 and 31 respectively, what you see is what you get from this duo—they’re 25th-man types forced into far more regular duty out of necessity.
But here’s the thing: Jays fans will probably have to make their peace with that arrangement anyway. After shaking off a 6–17 start to storm back to the cusp of .500, the Jays’ winning ways have sputtered. They own the fourth-worst record in the American League, they’re still struggling through multiple key injuries, and speaking of defense, theirs is awful: Toronto ranks third-worst in the American League in Defensive Runs Saved, and dead last in the AL defensively in both left field and right field. Making a splashy deal to acquire a Travis replacement in exchange for quality prospects, at a time when the team is struggling just to hang anywhere near breakeven, with the oldest group of position players in the majors (and thus a need to preserve young talent for the future), makes no sense.
At this stage of the season, the Jays likely are what they are: a decent team that could make a little run at some point, but one likely destined to miss the postseason for the first time in three years, then face at least a mini-rebuild in the winter.
17. Kansas City Royals (41–40, minus-27, LT: 21)
Please welcome back from the dead, your Kansas City Royals!
KC sat dead-last in the AL Central on May 7, dropping to 10–20 that day. Since then they’ve been one of the hottest teams in baseball, going 30–20, including a scorching 17–9 in June. They also play in a weak division, giving them a competitive edge over, say, AL East rivals thanks to the vagaries of unbalanced schedules. In an AL wild-card race that’s at once wide open, slightly bonkers, and holding the potential to crown an 86-win team, Royals fans can rightly ask, why not us?
All of this means that the trade deadline fire sale that seemed inevitable just a few weeks ago now looks like a long shot. Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Alcides Escobar and Lorenzo Cain are the pillars of the Royals team that had GM Dayton Moore telling people for years to trust the process ... until it finally, actually, improbably worked. Those four pending free agents, along with shocker staff ace Jason Vargas, now look almost certain to stay put.
The zombie Royals don’t look like they’re going away any time soon. If Moore’s process-trusting got him this far, it’s hard to see him changing that process now.
16. Minnesota Twins (41–40, minus-59, LT: 17)
For an upstart Twins team that still holds dreams of postseason glory, the Indians finally starting to play the way everyone expected after last year’s World Series run is only part of the problem. Minnesota ranks dead last in the American League in offense over the past two weeks, a disturbing trend that could quickly erase the team’s surprising first half if it persists.
The biggest concern is that the team’s biggest first-half star starting to regress. When Mike Trout went down with an injury, Miguel Sano looked like the second-best bet in the AL (behind Aaron Judge) to vie for MVP honors this season—that’s how blazing hot his first few weeks were. Trout hit the disabled list on May 29, and Sano wrapped that day’s action hitting a scorching .292/.406/.590. Still, you had to figure that might not be sustainable. During that same span, Sano struck out an outrageous 73 times in 161 at-bats. Sure enough, that regression has now hit: Sano’s hitting just .152 in the past two weeks. Once he stopped hitting one of every three flyballs over the fence, the holes in his swing caught up to him.
Sano wouldn’t need to be a perfect hitter if he had murderers’ row backing him up. He doesn’t. Jorge Polanco’s one of the worst hitters in the league. Jason Castro’s a master pitch framer but also a light hitter. Byron Buxton’s a whiz in the field and a demon in the basepaths, but his bat belongs in the minors. The air came out of Max Kepler’s tires after a torrid start. Joe Mauer still gets on base, but he also has less power than any other first baseman in the league.
Of course, none of this would be this big a deal if the Twins hadn’t gotten off to a hot start, and the rest of the AL Central hadn’t played so poorly. Surprise contention raises expectations, and then magnifies a team’s faults. Sano is still a terrific power hitter, even if he’s also a strikeout machine. Jose Berrios looks like a potential front-line starter. Other young Twins have shown flashes of excellence.
Change the mindset to “legitimate contender in 2018 and beyond,” and the little setbacks don’t look so back—and the future starts to look awfully bright.
15. Seattle Mariners (41–42, plus-0, LT: 14)
If the M’s hope to muscle their way into the AL wild-card conversation, it would help if they knew which version of James Paxton they were getting.
The early-season version of Paxton trailed only Chris Sale for king-of-the-hill status among American League pitchers. In four of his first five starts this year, Paxton allowed zero runs. His line during that stretch? 32 1/3 innings pitched, 39 strikeouts, six walks and 21 hits allowed, an opponents’ line of .179/.218/.231, and a 1.39 ERA.
Then in his next start, something went wrong. Paxton did allow only one earned run over 5 1/3 innings pitched May 2 against the Angels. But he also walked five batters, a lapse in command that looked nothing like his earlier efforts. Turned out he’d suffered a forearm strain in his pitching arm, an injury that would send him to the disabled list for nearly four weeks.
Paxton’s first start back was a gem: 5 ⅓ shutout innings against the Rockies, with six strikeouts, no walks, and just three hits allowed. Then, suddenly, he stopped getting hitters out. In his next four starts (against the Twins, Jays, Rangers, and Tigers), Paxton got hammered for 18 runs and 29 hits (plus 11 walks) in just 18 innings.
So who’s the real deal here? The healthy Paxton who put up goose eggs nearly every time out? The resilient Paxton who returned from the DL and looked like he’d never missed a beat? The arsonist who suffered through a miserable first three weeks of June? The somewhere-in-between Paxton who then hurled seven quality innings on June 27 (albeit against the horrendous Phillies)? Or the maybe-back-to-dominant Paxton who limited the Angels to just a single run on two hits Sunday night, breezing through those 19 outs on an efficient 87 pitches.
When the range in play is either Cy Young contender or batting-practice tosser, there’s a hell of a lot at stake.
14. St. Louis Cardinals (39–41, plus-7, LT: 19)
13. Los Angeles Angels (43–43, minus-8, LT: 15)
Skills development can be tough to predict. When a player excels in one facet of the game—especially one that relies so heavily on athleticism—teams hope and pray that those skills can spill over to other elements of that player’s game, turning him into a multi-tool star. Few players in recent memory have made teams wish harder for that kind of growth than Andrelton Simmons.
In each of his first three full seasons, Simmons was the best and most valuable defensive player in baseball. Per Baseball Info Solutions, he saved an incredible 94 more runs than the average shortstop during that stretch. The quick-twitch reflexes that made him such an incredible fielder, combined with Simmons bopping 17 homers and striking out just 55 times in his first full big league season, fostered a sprinkle of optimism that maybe he could grow into an all-around star—even if his phenomenal glove always outstripped the value of his bat.
Finally, four years later, we might finally be getting there. Simmons is on pace to set career highs in nearly every offensive category. He’s batting .278/.331/.426, a pace that would net career bests in on-base percentage and slugging. He’s on track to hit 18 homers and steal 26 bases, both of which would also be high-water marks for his career. He’s even walking more often than ever before, while keeping his elite contact skills intact.
This is why the Braves gave him that $58 million extension back in 2014. They trusted his defense to remain elite, but also held out at least a little hope that his bat might one day come around. Combine those two facets of Simmons’ game, and he’s on pace to be something close to a five-win player this season. That’s borderline star territory, great news for an Angels club that continues to defy expectations with Mike Trout still missing in action.
12. Chicago Cubs (41–41, plus-14, LT: 12)
11. Texas Rangers (40–42, plus-22, LT: 11)
It’s Robinson Chirinos Facts Day here at The 30!
Fact 1: In his past 479 at-bats, Chirinos has slammed 31 home runs (hat-tip Evan Grant and Jared Sandler for the initial tip-off. Only nine players in all of baseball hit that many (or more) homers at a faster pace last season.
Fact 2: Before Sunday, Chirinos had reached base 301 times without stealing a base, the third-longest such streak among all active major league players.
Fact 2 is mostly just fun trivia. As for Fact 1, the collapse in both Jonathan Lucroy’s offensive numbers, the weird (and sudden) drop in his strike-stealing ability and his pending free agency at season’s end have the Rangers shopping Lucroy aggressively to clear more playing time for Chirinos. It’s tough to argue against it.
10. Tampa Bay Rays (43–41, plus-18, LT: 10)
Here’s another stat you never would have imagined at the start of the season: The Tampa Bay Rays rank second in the majors in home runs.
Part of what makes that fact so weird is just the makeup of the team’s lineup. Other than Evan Longoria, the Rays didn’t have any proven, consistent sluggers on the roster. Unless you counted Corey Dickerson, who hit 24 homers in two of the past three seasons heading into this year, two of which came as a member of the Rockies, then the Rays appeared light on power. Modest power pedigree aside, the Rays’ bopper brigade has exploded this season, with Longoria somehow ranking just fourth on the club in homers. Breakouts by Dickerson and Steven Souza Jr. you could have maybe seen coming, given their age (both 28 years old, around the time many players hit their power prime) and their power profiles.
But it’s Logan Morrison’s out-of-nowhere breakout that’s been the real shocker. Only Aaron Judge has launched more homers this season than Morrison’s 24. This for a player whose previous career high for a full season was 23, way back in 2011. There’s nothing fancy going on here, other than the balls being juiced (no matter what kind of non-denial denials Major League Baseball might circulate to sympathetic reporters), and Morrison tapping into the swing-for-the-fences approach that’s woven its way through the sport. Never a huge flyball hitter, Morrison’s suddenly skying flyballs more than 46% of the time, with more than one-quarter of those flyballs sailing over the fence.
That Morrison and his Rays mates have pulled off this power barrage while playing in a home park that’s one of the least conducive to homers makes the feat all the more remarkable. And if you somehow predicted the daily double of the Rays sitting second in the majors in homers and leading the race for the AL’s second wild-card spot just past the halfway point of the season, I have many follow-up questions to ask, all of them involving the mysterious disappearance of Grays Sports Almanac.
9. Milwaukee Brewers (44–40, plus-16, LT: 9)
8. Colorado Rockies (48–36, plus-31, LT: 4)
7. Washington Nationals (48–34, plus-92, LT: 5)
6. New York Yankees (43–37, plus-104, LT: 6)
Yes, Tyler Clippard deserves lots of blame for the recent rough patch that knocked the Yankees out of first place in the AL East. But the Bombers also face multiple question marks in the infield, all of which won’t be easy to solve.
At third base, Chase Headley went from a red-hot start to becoming one of the most punchless hitters in the league, a condition which, when combined with his advanced age and feeble offensive output, should have the Yanks scrambling to find a replacement. Trouble is, would-be replacement (and top Yankees prospect) Gleyber Torres is out for the season after undergoing Tommy John surgery last month. A similar problem exists at first base, where Chris Carter’s gone from being a three-true-outcomes player to more of a one-true-outcome guy, with that one outcome being strikeouts. He too might’ve been out of a job by now, except that top first-base prospect Greg Bird is also fighting injuries, in Bird’s case an ankle injury that could sideline him until August.
The latest setback has become between those two positions, at second base. Eight seasons into his major league career, and several years after most of the baseball world wrote him off as an early-career performer who wasn’t likely to hit much from now on, Starlin Castro stormed out to a monstrous start in 2017. Then his numbers started drying up, until it was finally revealed that he’d been fighting a wrist injury for six weeks, a condition that finally required a cortisone shot to fix. Then from off the top rope came a hamstring injury that knocked Castro onto the DL, forcing yet another Baby Bomber (22-year-old rookie Tyler Wade) into action.
The hope is that Wade, along with Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and just-landed callup Clint Frazier excel in their new opportunities. Still, the Red Sox are finally playing the brand of baseball that most expected coming into this season. Even if the Yankees’ youngsters keep mashing, carrying black holes at both outfield corners might leave New York looking up at Boston for the rest of the season. You have to imagine a trade (or two) is coming soon.
5. Cleveland Indians (44–37, plus-59, LT: 8)
Breaking News: We’ve found exclusive footage of Corey Kluber’s reaction to his ludicrously great month of June (in which he punched out 64 batters and allowed just 22 and a 1.26 ERA in 43 innings), and to the Indians finally breaking out, starting to reach the vast potential they showed in 2016, and taking over first place in the AL Central.
4. Boston Red Sox (47–35, plus-63, LT: 7)
April stats can be a funny thing: Even when you think you have a bead on a player’s skill set, it’s easy to get nervous at the start of the season, when all you have to go on are a few weeks’ worth of current-season stats, plus the memory of whatever happened before. So when Mookie Betts followed a sensational 2016 campaign in which he finished second in AL MVP voting by hitting just two homers in his first 27 games of the season (with a forgettable batting line of .267/.342/.400), you had to wonder when (and maybe if!) Betts would get back to what we’d seen just a few months earlier.
Wonder no more. On Sunday, Betts was a one-man wrecking crew against the Jays. The 24-year-old, do-it-all right fielder went 4 for 6 for the game, driving in eight (eight!) runs. In doing so, Betts lofted his 14th and 15th homers of the season, giving him 13 in his past 52 games, after that tortoise-like slow start. He’s now hitting an excellent .286/.364/.506 for the season.
And while the Red Sox can claim multiple reasons for going 26–14 in their past 40 games to take over first place in the AL East, Betts reminding all of us that Aprils (and sometimes even Mays) can be terribly misleading ranks right near the top of the list.
3. Arizona Diamondbacks (52–31, plus-110, LT: 3)
2. Houston Astros (56–27, plus-124, LT: 1)
The Wall Street Journal’s excellent baseball columnist Jared Diamond has the scoop on an exceedingly rare feat that’s in play for the 2017 Astros: first in the league in home runs, and last in the league in strikeouts.
The home-run burst you could possibly see coming. Houston added three capable sluggers over the winter, bringing in Josh Reddick, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran in an attempt to bolster an already potent lineup. The rock-bottom strikeout ranking is something else altogether, though. As Diamond wrote, the Astros struck out more than any team in baseball from 2012 through 2016, and it wasn’t even close.
Jose Altuve’s recently found ability to hit a bunch of homers while maintaining the supernatural hand-eye coordination to avoid striking out and making the most of his tiny frame offers a great head start toward first-in-homers, last-in-Ks status. Thing is, Altuve’s not remotely alone. Cuban 33-year-old rookie Yuli Gurriel strikes out even less often than Altuve, and Gurriel’s next homer will raise him to double digits. Meanwhile, Houston already has six hitters with 10 or more home runs, including Jake Marisnick, a part-time player who’s been a beast when he does crack the lineup, and George Springer, the breakout center fielder who’s tied for second in the majors with 24 home runs.
There are worse strategies than building a roster that’s suddenly chock full of players with Joe DiMaggio’s skill set.