Welcome to the latest installment of 3 Up, 3 Down, our weekly gauge of who’s streaking and who’s slumping throughout Major League Baseball. Our latest edition includes notes on a new slugger in Atlanta, the dinger parade at Target Field and a power outage in Cleveland.
↑ Another Rising Star in Atlanta ↑
The Braves’ lineup was scary enough for National League pitchers entering 2019 as Ronald Acuña Jr. and Freddie Freeman anchored what was projected to be one of baseball’s best offenses. Atlanta has held firm offensively through its first 54 games—ranking second in the NL in hits and fourth in OPS—and Brian Snitker’s squad is streaking of late thanks to an unexpected rookie performance.
Austin Riley is the latest Brave to burst onto the scene and into Atlanta’s everyday lineup. The 22-year-old third baseman enters Tuesday slashing .333/.373/.688, smacking five home runs with 14 RBIs. He homered in his first career game on May 15, then drove in eight RBIs in a four-game series at San Francisco last week. Riley’s stout frame has drawn comparisons to Troy Glaus, and he’s been reportedly worked with Chipper Jones through his climb to the majors. Riley has a long way to go to mirror Atlanta’s 2018 Hall of Famer, but his first 12 games indicate the Braves have another blue chip bat as they chase their second-straight NL East title.
↑ Twins Teeing Off ↑
If the Braves lineup has been impressive in 2019, Minnesota’s has been downright terrifying. The Twins became the second team in MLB history to bash 100 homers in its first 50 games on Friday—joining Ken Griffey Jr. and the 1999 Mariners—and they advanced 11 games ahead of the Indians for the AL Central lead on Monday. Minnesota is on an 113-win pace, set to shatter the franchise record of 102 set in 1965. Three seasons after losing 103 games, Minnesota could be a power atop the AL Central for a while.
So just exactly how have the Twins sprinted to first place in the AL Central? To put it bluntly, through bashing damn near everything in sight.
Minnesota leads baseball in runs, doubles and homers, with 10 players registering five-plus homers in 2019. The Twins have seven players with an OPS of .850 or better. Only Boston has more than five. Eddie Rosario is an MVP candidate and the Jorge Polanco extension has already paid off. Minnesota’s shortstop is slashing .332/.404/.584 while leading the American League in hits. Paired with a strong start from Max Kepler, and Twins GM Thad Levi could be in line for Executive of the Year honors.
Perhaps Cleveland gets hot and challenges the Twins down the stretch for the AL Central crown. And even if Minnesota wins the division, a difficult bracket awaits. The rotation outside of Jose Berrios is unproven, and Jake Odorizzi and Martin Perez are bound for some regression. But we’ll save the cold analysis for early October. The Twins have been baseball’s best story through May, tearing up the American League with a historic parade of home runs.
↑ Here Come the A’s ↑
As the Astros rule the AL West, the A’s will likely again be relegated to the one-game wild-card if they reach the postseason. But while Oakland lags behind the Astros in the division standings, the gap in the American League hierarchy may not be as wide as originally assumed. Following their 10th straight win Monday, the A’s could very well enter October as a dark horse contender for the American League crown.
Oakland’s bullpen continues to shine behind Blake Treinen, this year led by Yusmeiro Petit, Lou Trivino and Joakim Soria as the pre-closer triumvirate. Frankie Montas has beefed-up a typically light staff, and Mike Fiers miraculously tossed his second-career no-hitter on May 8. But the anchor of the A’s recent success has been its lineup, mining impressive production from unlikely sources. Even with Khris Davis on the IL, Oakland’s lineup continues to pounce.
The long ball has powered Bob Melvin and Co. in their recent hot streak. The A’s totaled 22 homers in nine games from May 16-26, including five in a 17-3 drubbing over the Tigers on May 17. A four-game stretch from May 20-24 saw 22 extra-base hits from the A’s with 10 homers. Mark Canha has three dingers in Davis’s absence and Jurickson Profar seems to have turned his season around. Oakland boasts a deep core of quality bats, capable of carrying the momentum into October for a likely one-game playoff.
↓ Max Scherzer’s Help ↓
Max Scherzer is largely the same ace he’s always been through 12 starts in 2019. He leads baseball in strikeouts while sporting a career-best 2.35 FIP, taking the mound each start as one of the most intimidating aces in baseball. Yet the Nationals are just 2–10 in games Scherzer started following a 3-2 loss to the Marlins on Monday, failing to take advantage of the three-time Cy Young winner. Scherzer can thank his bullpen for the poor record. Washington posts an 11.71 ERA in Scherzer starts in 2019 (h/t Jon Heyman) with blown leads in each of his last two outings. Washington’s bullpen ERA is a ghastly 7.25 through 54 games, over a full earned run worse than the Orioles for the league-worst mark. Scherzer and the Nationals entered 2019 eyeing a World Series berth in the first year without Bryce Harper. They’re instead sinking to the bottom of the NL behind one of the worst bullpens in recent memory.
↓ Cleveland’s Power Outage ↓
While the Twins bruise their way past the rest of the AL Central, the Indians' lineup continued its season-long slump last week. Cleveland scored an MLB-worst 17 runs from May 20-26, losing six of seven games. The Indians hit .193 in that span (also the league’s worst mark) and slugged .332 (third-worst mark). One of baseball’s most potent attacks prior to 2019 has become punchless.
There are plenty of culprits for Cleveland’s poor offensive start. Francisco Lindor is more replacement-level than All-Star and Jose Ramirez is slashing .197/.297/.295. But a share of the blame belongs in the Indians' front office. As Michael Brantley sprints toward a potential MVP campaign in Houston, Cleveland’s outfield has been abysmal. Four Indians outfielders have registered 90-plus plate appearances (Leonys Martin, Jake Bauers, Carlos Gonzalez (now released) and Tyler Naquin) and all have an OPS under .700. Maybe Jordan Luplow can continue to add a semblance of power, though he projects to be more of a bottom-third piece in a quality lineup. Cleveland’s options quickly run thin after Lindor and Ramirez.
Two months is too early to bury Cleveland, especially after three-straight American League Central titles. Terry Francona is the division’s best manager, and Mike Clevinger should return to the rotation soon. Add in Corey Kluber after the All-Star break, and the Indians could be in place to make a run. Yet even with the stable of impressive arms, Cleveland’s executives may need to pull off an impactful midseason trade to overtake Minnesota.
↓ Seattle Fading Fast ↓
The Mariners were a heartwarming story through the first two weeks of 2019 with a 13–2 record through April 11. Seattle swept the A’s in Japan then won three of four against Boston to start the season, closing their hot streak with a four-game sweep in Kansas City from April 7-11. The 15-game sample indicated the best stretch of Mariners baseball in recent memory, providing a stark contrast to the last two weeks in the Pacific Northwest.
Seattle rose to 24–32 with Monday’s win over Texas, though it’s only a small step forward following a dismal stretch. The Mariners lost nine of its last 10 prior to Monday, including six straight losses to Texas and Oakland. Their ERA stands above only the White Sox, Royals and Orioles, while the team's offense has dipped toward the middle of the pack after a torrid start. Seattle’s last playoff series was in 2001. That drought looks poised to continue in 2019.