With just about two months in the books, most of the best stories of the MLB season are out west. Three teams in the NL West are playing .600 baseball, including the biggest surprises of the season in Colorado and Arizona. The Astros — we’ll call Houston “west” for our purposes — have the best record in baseball at 35-16. The Angels’ Mike Trout, already on a Hall of Fame path, is absolutely trashing the league with a 1200 OPS while leading the AL in homers, runs, batting average, OBP, SLG and every sabermetric stat you can find.
The Rockies have been the best of those three strong NL West squads. Despite playing half their games in the thin air of Denver, the Rockies have allowed the fifth-fewest runs, and fourth-fewest home runs, in the league. Rookies Antonio Senzatela and Kyle Freeland have combined for 20 starts, 120 innings and a 3.31 ERA despite poor strikeout rates. The Rockies’ bullpen has been very strong at the back end, with free agent Greg Holland hanging a 0.96 ERA while being set up by Adam Ottavino (2.79) and Jake McGee (1.89). Strong bullpens were a feature of Bud Black’s Padres teams, and he seems to have assembled another good one in his first year in Denver.
It’s an open question whether the Rockies can continue holding down their opponents while leaning so much on starters who don’t strike batters out in an environment that punishes pitchers for giving up contact. Of MLB’s most surprising teams, the Rockies are the one most likely to slip over the season’s next 50 games.
The Mountain Time Zone’s other team has been a revelation as well. The Diamondbacks are 31-21 thanks to the third-best rotation in the NL. Zack Greinke has bounced back from one of his worst seasons to post a 3.27 ERA in 11 starts. Robbie Ray has built on his promising 2016 to start the year with a 3.45 ERA and 74 strikeouts in ten starts. The Diamondbacks are also second in the NL in runs scored, with Paul Goldschmidt already posting 11 homers and 12 steals, and Jake Lamb crushing 14 bombs. The weak link here is the bullpen, with the terrible Fernando Rodney as the nominal closer and question marks throughout. Diamondbacks’ starters are second in the NL in innings pitched, and will have to keep carrying that kind of load to give the team a chance.
The strong play of the upstarts have allowed the Dodgers to operate in the shadows, even as they’ve won eight of ten to get to .600. The value of player development is on display every night in L.A. The Dodgers’ core of Clayton Kershaw, Corey Seager, Kenley Jansen, and Cody Bellinger is entirely homegrown, and arguably the best in baseball. While in third place at the moment, it’s just a matter of time — maybe just days — before they move into first place for good.
It was three summers ago that Sports Illustrated put the Astros on their cover and declared them the 2017 World Series champions. Well, we’ll see what happens in October, but the larger point — that the team’s rebuilding process would be paying off shortly — has proven true. Blending in the products of an off-season shopping spree (Brian McCann, Josh Reddick, Carlos Beltran) has boosted the offense around the homegrown core of Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and George Springer. Dallas Keuchel has pounded the bottom of the strike zone on his way to a 1.81 ERA. They already have a nine-game lead in the division and, with neither the Rangers nor the Mariners even at .500, seem as if they’ll have a smooth ride to the Division Series.
Checking in the other divisions…
— The Yankees, led by rookie right fielder Aaron Judge, have been the surprising AL East leader for most of the young season. They lead the AL in runs scored thanks to a return to 1990s baseball: homers (70, third in the league) and walks (185, second). The bigger surprise is the rotation, in which even the soft spots have taken a turn every fifth day and provided average work. The Yankees are the only AL team to use just five starting pitchers, and their staff as a whole is second in the AL in walks allowed and homers allowed.
The Red Sox get David Price back this week, after going 27-22 in his absence. We should see them take over the East in June. Watch the Rays, who sit at .500 with a +24 run differential. They could make a big push in the summer.
— The Twins have held a weak AL Central in part by default, with the Indians’ rotation and offense unable to get out of neutral. The infusion of youth, in the form of Jorge Polanco at short, Byron Buxton in center and Max Kepler in right, has produced a dramatic improvement in what had been the league’s worst defense for years. Ervin Santana has been the biggest beneficiary, with a 1.80 ERA despite just a 50/27 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Rookie Jose Berrios has a 1.66 ERA in three starts since being recalled. The Twins may not hold the division, but they’re putting the core of a very strong team in place.
— The NL East may already be over, with the Nationals the only team playing even .430 baseball. Bryce Harper (.337, 15 homers) looks like an MVP again, while Ryan Zimmerman has just about matched him (.365, 13 homers) in a huge comeback season at 32. Even the loss of leadoff man Adam Eaton won’t keep the Nationals from winning the worst division in baseball.
— The Cubs have backed up their World Series title in fits and starts, hanging around .500 most of the season. Both their young hitters and their starting rotation have struggled, with Kyle Schwarber (.178 with a .298 OBP) and Jake Arrieta (4.92 ERA) the biggest disappointments. The defense, one of the best we’ve ever seen a year ago, has slipped, in part due to the need to play Schwarber in left field.
The Brewers have led the NL Central on and off, but the team the Cubs’ struggles open the door for is the Cardinals. The Cards have had the best starting rotation in the NL and only the Dodgers have allowed fewer runs overall. Their offense has failed to click, though, with Dexter Fowler limping along with a .311 OBP and the team as a whole next-to-last in the league with just 45 homers. The most likely scenario is still that the Cubs put this thing away, but if they never get the offense going, the Cardinals are positioned to snap off the budding Cubs dynasty.