With the league schedule’s halfway point now in the rear view, the Astros sit atop the AL West with a 53-33 record. It would be fair to state that the club is ahead of schedule, given FanGraphs’ preseason projected win total of 89 games. The rest of the division is in a curious state, as two teams are outperforming expectations, while another has struggled to escape .500 hell.
Run differential: Plus-26
Oakland’s preseason projected record of 84-78 always felt suspect to me. Regardless of the organization’s notoriously cheap ownership, the A’s seem to get the most out of their players. 2021 is no exception.
First baseman Matt Olson is having a career year and it’s no secret why. After punching out more than 30 percent of the time in 2020, the 2021 All-Star has lowered his strikeout rate to 16.3 percent, an improvement that is nothing short of astonishing, especially when considering his career figure of roughly 25 percent.
Mark Canha and Ramón Laureano are quality regulars in the outfield, while the underrated Sean Murphy continues to be capable both at the dish and behind it. Third baseman Matt Chapman, twice a Top-10 finalist in AL MVP voting, looks to have put his early-season struggles behind him following a tremendous June. Despite not yet registering a barrel on the season, old friend Tony Kemp leads the lineup with a .382 OBP.
Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea have been two of the better innings-eaters in baseball this year, while fellow starter Cole Irvin has come out of nowhere to pitch 101 innings of 3.56 ball. No longer a clear strength, the A’s bullpen ranks in the middle of the pack in terms of ERA and FIP.
The A’s did not extend qualifying offers to either shortstop Marcus Semien or closer Liam Hendriks last winter. Semien, who signed a 1-year, $18 million contract with Toronto, has regained his All-Star form in 2021. The A’s could’ve retained their ex-shortstop for roughly the same amount that he signed for had they extended him a QO. Instead, the club opted to trade for Elvis Andrus, who is slashing .234/.277/.311.
Run differential: Minus-53
Yes, I’m also dumbfounded. The fact that Seattle has beaten good teams the past few weeks is all the more perplexing. Following a four-game sweep of the formidable Rays in mid-June, the M’s then took two of three against the AL Central-leading White Sox in Chicago and proceeded to do the same on the road versus the Blue Jays.
The simplest way to sum up the Mariners’ recent success is to wildly gesture at outfielder Jake Fraley’s mystifying .253/.423/.485 slash line in 130 plate appearances, with most of that production occurring in June.
In a nutshell, there don’t appear to be many legitimately good position players, as evidenced by their overall wRC+ of 90. Their best, outfielder Kyle Lewis, who took home AL Rookie of the Year honors last year, underwent knee surgery on June 11 and could miss the remainder of the season.
Outfielder Mitch Haniger was the complete package at the plate a few years ago. His power output remains impressive (18 home runs), but an OBP just north of .300 is rather low. Infielder Ty France is a good all-around hitter and could finish the season as the Mariners’ top bat.
Former top prospect J.P. Crawford once projected to be an All-Star-caliber shortstop, though it seems he could merely be a solid regular instead. Kyle Seager can still pick it at the hot corner at age 33, but a meager .285 OBP dampens his 15 home runs.
There’s not much to be excited about offensively, but the story is different on the mound.
Yusei Kikuchi and his 3.18 ERA could make him one of the trade market’s better starting pitchers. Chris Flexen has returned from South Korea a better pitcher. His stuff rarely misses bats but he’s excelled at limiting free passes and chewing up innings. Top prospect Logan Gilbert has flashed an electric repertoire in his first nine big-league starts.
The Mariners have multiple relievers who have produced eye-popping numbers, chief among them being Kendall Graveman (1.03 ERA), Paul Sewald (1.59 ERA, 43 percent K%) and Drew Steckenrider (2.32 ERA, 2.74 FIP).
I have a hard time envisioning this roster contending for a playoff spot, and it would be unlike Jerry Dipoto to stand pat at the trade deadline, so it’s reasonable to assume that Seattle’s general manager will be selling in a few weeks.
Los Angeles Angels
Run differential: Minus-27
Death, taxes and the Angels playing .500 ball. These are the three certainties in life.
To be fair, staying afloat without Mike Trout for almost two months now is quite an accomplishment for an organization that had trouble winning with him. The superstar outfielder is due back sometime after the All-Star break.
In Trout’s absence, two-way phenom Shohei Ohtani has lit the baseball world on fire. He has unloaded on pitchers at the plate (.276/.362/.692 slash, 100th percentile in xwOBA) and has mowed down hitters on the mound (3.49 ERA, 90th percentile in K%). The game has never seen a more prodigious talent. And even he cannot lift the Angels to a steadily winning record.
First baseman Jared Walsh will be joining Ohtani in Denver for the All-Star festivities. The lefty masher is on pace for a 40-homer season. Third baseman Anthony Rendon is as good as any hitter when healthy, but he’s been unable to consistently stay on the field this year. Just a couple of days ago, he was removed from a game due to a hamstring injury.
Second baseman David Fletcher is in the midst of a 20-game hitting streak. Outfielder Justin Upton is having a nice bounce-back season (.247/.336/.480) and ex-Astros catcher Max Stassi has been terrific (153 wRC+) through his first 123 plate appearances.
The Angels are sixth in runs scored. Trout’s return can only elevate that ranking. But he can’t solve what has been an unsolvable problem for the Angels for years — pitching. Only three teams in baseball have allowed more runs in 2021.
Individually, the Angels have decent talent on their pitching staff. The trouble is that the whole is less than the sum of its parts. Following a tremendous 2020, Dylan Bundy has cratered (6.68 ERA). Southpaw Andrew Heaney has fared quite well in the strikeout and walk departments, but because his batted ball data is in the bottom-20 percent of all pitchers, he can dominate one start and then get dominated the next.
Alex Cobb has flashed signs of finally returning to his old form (2.57 FIP) and upstart lefty Patrick Sandoval has devastating secondary pitches (55 percent whiff rate on his changeup, 47.5 percent on slider), but then there’s also frustratingly inconsistent former first-round pick Griffin Canning, who was just sent down to the minors after his ERA ballooned to 5.60.
In regard to the relief staff, closer Raisel Iglesias has compelling data and could finish the season with an ERA much lower than where it currently stands (3.66). Outside of the Cuban native, however, there’s a lot to be desired.
Barring the offense routinely going ballistic — which is possible once Trout returns — a wildcard berth doesn’t seem to be a terribly realistic notion at this point.
Run differential: Minus-51
The Rangers are a top-heavy team. Their top players are not as accomplished as others, nor are they as many. As a result, wins have come far and few between.
Outfielder Joey Gallo went supernova in June, hitting 10 home runs while posting a superb .434 OBP. The three-true-outcomes beast also rates as one of the top defenders in right field according to Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) and has only one more full season of team control before reaching free agency, which could compel first-year general manager Chris Young to sell high at the trade deadline.
Rangers ownership could also simply pay the two-time All-Star what he’s due, but that’s an uncommon occurrence in this business nowadays. I expect Gallo will be wearing a different uniform come next month.
Outfielder Adolis García was a waiver claim before the season and he’ll now be a participant in the Midsummer Classic along with Gallo. García is an aggressive hitter at the plate who rarely walks and struggles to make contact, but good things happen when his bat connects with the ball, and so far that’s happened often enough. He too rates highly defensively per OAA.
One of Young’s first trades as Rangers GM back in December was for first baseman Nate Lowe, who’s produced an above-average 115 wRC+ in 359 plate appearances this year.
On the other side of the ball, starter Kyle Gibson could be the premier target on the trade market later this month. He has been outstanding, logging 95.2 innings with a sub-2.00 ERA. The veteran righty primarily pitches to contact, and superior command of a six-pitch mix has generated career-best numbers.
Once a top prospect for the Atlanta Braves, Kolby Allard looks to have made real progress in 2021 (3.45 ERA, 3.46 FIP) and is now a fixture in the Rangers’ rotation. While not explosive, his pitch arsenal has proven to be quite effective, particularly a four-seam fastball that hitters have struggled to square up (.370 SLG, .375 xSLG).
Former All-Star Mike Foltynewicz has failed to right the ship in Arlington (5.17 ERA, 5.48 FIP), and relievers such as Ian Kennedy, Josh Sborz and John King could soon be trade bait.
It looks as though the Rangers will not be making noise in the West anytime soon.
A warning to the West. pic.twitter.com/bya01ytKD5— Texas Rangers (@Rangers) June 30, 2020