It’s hard to remember so far back, but on April 11th the Astros were being blown out of the standings by the Mariners. Back then, the Mariners were 13-2, and the Astros stood 4 games back. The normally sane folks at Fangraphs were even writing articles about how smart the M’s off season was.
As of May 13th, 41 games into the Astros 2019 season, the good guys have a 6.5 game lead, and it seems like the division is fully under control. You’d probably have trouble finding a taker on the wager where someone other than the Astros spends a day in first place in the AL West for the rest of the year.
Unlike the AL East (Rays) and the AL Central (Twins), there’s no surprise team in the West. The Mariners looked like that team for fifteen games before reality kicked in. Now all four would-be contenders stand bunched together, between two and four games under .500. What does the first quarter tell us about them?
Let’s start with Anaheim. The team has a wRC+ of 104 and the offense is led by three players with extreme aversions to the K: Trout (14.1%; way down from usual), Simmons (6.7%), and the surprising Tommy La Stella (6.8%). No team Ks less than the Angels (15.6%), and it’s not even close. These three are the Fangraphs offensive WAR leaders for the Halos. Calhoun has remembered how to hit, and Pujols is hanging on admirably. They just got Ohtani back, and it’s not unreasonable to think they have a top 4 offense in the AL for the rest of the year. Top prospect Jo Adell was injured, and most likely won’t help the Halos.
Unfortunately the Angels have to pitch, and they’re not very good at it. The team ERA is 4.84, and with a 4.86 FIP, it’s not looking encouraging. They’re bottom ten in MLB in preventing walks and inducing Ks.
Mike Trout is on his way to another 10 WAR season, but this is the same Angel team we’ve seen for a long time.
The Rangers were having a good season before they played the role of the Red Keep to the Astros Queen of Dragons. Just four days ago, the Mall Cops had a run differential of +19 and an expected record of 19-15.
The Rangers are a lot like the Angels. They frequently have a strong offense, but haven’t developed any reliable pitching for years. Mike Minor is way outperforming his peripherals, and Lance Lynn is underperforming. Both likely end up as mediocre this season, whereas the Shelby Miller experiment has been an unmitigated disaster: striking out nobody, walking too many guys, and allowing gobs of long balls. Drew Smyly has been almost as bad. This is what happens when you grab old arms off the trash bin.
For old school baseball fans, there’s something vulgar about Joey Gallo. No major league player should swing and miss that much, metrics be damned. But lo and behold, Gallo has turned out really good, despite a 36% K rate. He’s 56% above league average on offense, He and Elvis have produced 1.6 WAR each. Despite a disappointing Mazara season (wRC+ of 81), and a dumpster fire from Odor (OPS under .500), the Rangers are scoring more runs than anyone. Choo and Pence have teamed up with the aforementioned to score the 5th most runs in baseball. Under the hood, they’ve been the best clutch hitting team (wRC+ of 135 w RISP), and that’s not gonna last. Nor is the rejuvinated Pence. It’s hard to see a path for this team to finish with more than 75 wins, especially if Pence and Minor get flipped for prospects in two months.
The usually light-hitting Mariners dealt Robbie Cano and let Nelson Cruz walk, while Kyle Seager hasn’t played yet. Somehow they have the 4th best wRC+ of all 30 teams. The Mariners had an obscene stretch of offense that fueled their hot start. Except for Mallex Smith, who’s been the least valuable player with 100 PAs in MLB (okay, Astro-killer JBJ is worse, but those defensive rankings have to be lying), everyone on the team is above league average on offense. Hanniger, Domingo Santana, and Encarnacion are producing realistic results, while guys like Navarez and Vogelbach are hitting way over expectation. The Mariners are a TTO lineup, ranking top 10 in BB%, K%, ISO, and leading MLB in HRs.
Their pitching staff is close to the Angels in terms of peripherals and league average. Not sure when Justus Sheffield will be ready to help. The bullpen ERA is 5.50. Teams that overperform for an entire season usually do so by having a great back end of the BP. The Mariners had Edwin Diaz last year, but he went to the Mets in the Cano deal. He compiled 3.5 Fangraphs WAR all by himself last year. The current BP has accumulated negative 1.0 WAR. With Diaz and the hot start, one could squint one’s way to 84 wins, maybe. Marco Gonzales and Kikuchi have had nice seasons at the 1⁄4 turn, but Marco’s numbers are inflated, and like the rest of the division, the rotation is rounded out by fringe 5th starter types, with King Felix sadly devolving into that category.
Remember how good this team was from July-September last year? Am I the only one who has always secretly liked this team? Let’s start with the pitching.
Despite the no-hitter, Mike Fiers has a 5.48 ERA. Just think about that. I never knew who Frankie Montas was until I saw him holding steady at 98 against the Astros. He’s clearly their best pitcher, although he’s outdoing his peripherals on the way to a 2.78 ERA through 8 starts. Brett Anderson is hanging in there despite striking out nobody. It helps to give up almost no HRs. Trivino and Treinen are human this year. As a team, they’re 27th in inducing Ks but top 10 in avoiding walks. They’re middle third in ERA and FIP, but low on xFIP. For the non-initiated, that number has a lot to do with HR/FB%, and with their big ballpark, the A’s may generally outperform there.
The A’s offensive profile must make Billy Beane cry. They walk at an average rate, barely strike out at all, and are 22nd in ISO. They’re 6% under league average. Individually, Matt Chapman is still a monster, and is shaping up as a perennial MVP candidate in a Trout-less world. Semien is on his way to a 6 WAR season. Khris Davis isn’t hitting .247, but that’s where his BABIP stands, so he’ll get there if the luck evens out. Matt Olson has only played 8 games, and should help when he rounds into form. The offense is down because Piscotty hasn’t found his magic from last year, Jurickson Profar has been a bust, and Ramon Laureano, one of the five most exciting (non-Astro) players in all of baseball, can’t make contact (29% K rate, higher than K Davis!). When you have below-average power and elite speed, you should at least make contact to take advantage of your legs. The team misses Jed Lowrie, as Profar has been the polar opposite in terms of value (nearly as bad as Mallex Smith!).
The A’s have been crushed with pitching injuries, all to their best arms. Studs Manaea and Cotton, along with top 50 prospects Luzardo and Puk have all had significant injuries, although they’re all on track to return.
If any team in the West is poised to make a WC run, it’s these guys. They’ve gotten nothing from Olsen, Profar, and Piscotty. Laureano (wRC+ 71) and Grossman (wRC+ 80) are at least league average hitters. Davis hasn’t HR’ed in 20 games, and they’re the only team besides the Astros with prospects that are both good and close to helping (Puk, Luzardo, Murphy, Mateo). But a lot of things need to go right. And fast.
After some sweating in the first weeks, and some head-scratching play in early May (Twins series), the Astros look to be going on all cylinders. For the sake of divisional pride, I’d like to see at least two teams above .500 besides the Astros. My crystal ball wins total: Rangers: 68, Mariners: 72, Angels: 81, Athletics: 86 (okay, more like 78).