Every week, the Pitcher List team publishes an update to our power rankings, reviewing the biggest risers and fallers of the past seven days. As always, the full rankings can be found at the bottom of this article … but where’s the fun in that?
Not too long ago, we marveled at the WBC and some of its biggest stars. Today, we are already past the halfway mark of the season, getting ready to enjoy the All-Star break and its festivities. If it appears that it all happened in the blink of an eye, maybe it’s because 2023 continues to provide so much fun and intrigue, or maybe it’s just the pitch clock doing its job. In any case, nothing is better to track where we stand than good ol’ power rankings.
The past week proved to be quite consequential for two AL West rivals going in different directions. The defending champs appeared to put it all together and climbed back to the top 5, while the Angels suffered one of the worst stretches any team can navigate in the middle of a playoff chase. As both teams continue to pursue the Rangers, how do they stack up at the All-Star break? We have some thoughts.
Movin’ On Up
Rank change: +4 (8 to 4)
For better or for worse, the last decade of MLB has been marked by the Houston Astros, who have made it a habit to romp through the AL West and make deep playoff runs. In 2023, the formula has not been replicated fully, as Houston has endured several struggles, false starts, injuries, and inconsistency. These issues have led to the Astros oscillating between second and third place in the division, including a month of June in which they had a losing record. And yet, with less than half a season to go, they look to be just as dangerous as ever.
In the past week, Houston stared at a huge 4-game series in Arlington against a Rangers team they have been chasing all year long. A bad result could have meant that Texas would be in cruise control for the division, at least from an emotional standpoint. The passing of the torch was placed on hold emphatically by the Astros, who took three of four. Houston’s playoff mettle was on full display in Monday’s game, in which they blew a 10-2 lead, entered the ninth inning trailing, and won anyway. The 12-11 thriller was surely a gut punch for Texas, but for Houston, it appeared as only another win in their pursuit of greater things.
In going 7-1 over the past week, Houston used a formula that has proven effective many times, which consists in getting production from all parts of the roster and winning games in several styles. Three of the seven wins included double-digit scoring efforts, while four of them saw their pitchers limit the opposition to three runs or fewer. This has to be great news for Astros fans, even as the roster is not yet in full force, with the prolonged absence of Yordan Alvarez and a rotation missing some of its most experienced hurlers.
Houston’s recent turnaround is best exemplified by former MVP Jose Abreu. Over the first two months of the season, Abreu appeared to be completely washed, while the team continued to pencil him in the lineup. It took him until May 28 to hit a home run, and his slugging percentage sat below .260, making Abreu one of the worst batters in MLB. Ever since, he has regained some of his more recognizable offensive talents, hitting for a .292 average and 11 extra-base hits in June, while starting July with a solid .333/.391/.571 slash line. Even with his early struggles, manager Dusty Baker stuck with his veteran, and the results have paid off, as it appears to always be the case with this organization.
The aforementioned Alvarez injury, along with Jose Altuve’s late start to the year help explain some of the most middling offensive stats for the Astros, who are 13th in team OPS and 10th in homers following consecutive seasons in the top 10 for both categories. The offense has been sustained by veterans Kyle Tucker and Alex Bregman, who have combined for 25 home runs, with surprise contributions from rookie catcher Yainer Diaz and utility infielder Mauricio Dubon, who has emerged as a serviceable bat and solid defender at second base. While Michael Brantley may be as good as lost for the full season, the team may have Yordan Alvarez back in late July, which could prove to be more important than any potential trade.
Pitching-wise, the Astros have been much more consistent throughout the season. Even with hiccups like the rollercoaster 12-11 win that saw starter Cristian Javier yield a season-high 8 runs, and a bullpen that does not feature several high-octane arms, the Astros have made run prevention their calling card in 2023, standing as the second-best staff in terms of ERA (3.61) and seventh in K/BB (3.03). With José Urquidy and Luis Garcia out for most of the year, Framber Valdez has emerged as the team’s ace and a dark-horse Cy Young candidate. While his 7-6 record is pedestrian due to a lack of offensive and bullpen support, Valdez now has the lowest ERA in the AL (2.49), supported by a 2.86 FIP that shows just how sustainable it is. The possibility of facing Valdez twice in a short playoff series should be terrifying for potential rivals, though the Astros still have a long way to go in order to secure a spot.
Now only a couple of games behind Texas, Fangraphs gives Houston over 80% odds to make the playoffs one way or another, with the division very much in play. The inexperience of several players in the Rangers’ roster could prove to be a decisive factor as the summer unfurls, in what could become one of the best division races in baseball. The day-to-day battle of two teams from the same state, managed by veteran legends of the game appears to be something written by the baseball gods. Houston’s soft schedule after the break could provide an opportunity to flex their muscles and climb in the standings, though there are still two pivotal series against the Rangers before it’s all said and done. As many of us have learned over the past decade, the Astros are inevitable.
Hittin’ The Skids
Rank change: -6 (10 to 16)
We all tried to believe. This was finally the year when the Angels would put it all together and give Mike Trout and Ohtani an opportunity to play meaningful baseball and make a run for October. It was made all the more urgent considering Ohtani will be a free agent at the end of the season. For most of 2023, it seemed that believing would pay off. The Angels were a steady, yet unspectacular, team that was hanging in the AL West and wild card races, holding off the Astros and having the Rangers within reach. The past week showed us why it is so hard to believe in the Angels, who suddenly lost most of their margin for error and now stand with less than a 10% shot of making the playoffs, according to Fangraphs.
In many ways, the Angels have become the ultimate test of baseball limits. They are equally capable of superhuman feats or baffling losses, as happened when they scored 25 games in a game in Colorado, only to lose the series. The most Angels-y thing may just be what happened to the team in June, as Shohei Ohtani rewrote several record books and penned a few new ones. In 126 trips to the plate, Ohtani the hitter slashed .394/.492/.952, which allowed him to lead the league in homers, OPS, total bases, extra-base hits, and tweets expressing amazement. Ohtani the pitcher had a 3.26 ERA over 30.1 innings, the best starter in the team by far. For all these supernova efforts, the Angels went just 14-13 for the month, with their +20 scoring differential coming mostly from that drubbing of the Rockies.
Having gained almost no ground in the standings, the start of July has been brutal for LA, as they have now lost 7 of their past 8 games, allowing more than 50 combined runs in those losses. The epitome of the Angels experience may just be Tuesday’s game in San Diego, which could become the most brutal loss of recent vintage for the franchise. Before the game, the team confirmed that Mike Trout would be out between 4 to 8 weeks following a fracture to his left hamate bone. In the fourth inning, the oft-injured Anthony Rendon, making over $25 million, hit a ball off himself and had to be removed from the game, probably earning him yet another trip to the IL. In the sixth, Ohtani allowed back-to-back homers for the first time in his career and left the contest with a blister in his middle finger, which has at least taken him away from pitching in the All-Star game. Miraculously, the Angels scored 4 runs in the ninth and had the bases loaded down by 3 against Josh Hader, but a routine Taylor Ward groundout ended the game.
With Trout gone for a long period and Ohtani battling injury and possible regression, it is becoming very hard to find a silver lining for the rest of the Angels’ season. Their most valuable pitcher has been closer Carlos Estevez, while the only non-Ohtani rotation member with a sub-4 ERA in at least 10 starts is Reid Detmers. Patrick Sandoval and Tyler Anderson have been disappointments following strong showings in 2022, as it has become evident that even an aggressive stance at the trade deadline will not be enough to make a difference for the Angels. The team tried to be proactive by acquiring veteran stopgaps like Eduardo Escobar and Mike Moustakas in late June, but a roster of stars and scrubs will not work in this division, even if you have the biggest star on the planet.
As recently as two weeks ago, it would have seemed preposterous for the team to consider trading Shohei – even now, it looks improbable, to say the least. But with Trout’s extended absence and a rest-of-July schedule that includes tough series against the Dodgers, Astros, Yankees, and Blue Jays, there could be a scenario in which LA finds itself out of playoff contention and in need of something creative to salvage the season. The AL wild card race may see the Angels battling teams that are better-prepared health-wise and with superior pitching staffs, with a possibility of Seattle surpassing them in the standings and making Arte Moreno’s tough decision a bit easier. Nobody wants to become “the team that traded Ohtani“, but this is already reaching the stage of being “the team that wasted Ohtani’s MVP seasons“. For those who still want to believe in playoff games of back-to-back Trout and Ohtani plate appearances, there is still a path, but it is becoming more and more unlikely.
Week 14 Power Rankings