AL West Roundup: A Two-Team Race

The Angels and Astros already distanced themselves from the pack.

Since the last AL Roundup on April 27, the Mariners took a nosedive from the top of the division and the Astros rattled off eleven wins in a row to climb in the opposite direction. The Angels continue to be electric, and the Rangers and A’s continue to struggle.

For this edition of the Roundup, we’ll take a closer look at each team’s position in the standings, investigate how they got there, and take a guess at how long they’ll stay there.

AL West Standings on 5/18/2022

 

The Astros

 

Why they’re in first: If you look at the Astros’ 2022 team stats in aggregate, they’re in the middle of the pack for every category. At a glance, you wouldn’t assume this is the team that should be at the top of the division. Then you focus on their recently snapped 11-game win streak and it all makes sense.

In the games played during their streak from May 2 to May 13, Astros pitching led the league in ERA (0.91), FIP (2.31), and runs allowed (12 in eleven games). They also held opposing hitters to a stingy .187/.239/.233 in this stretch and shut out their opponents in half the games they played.

The highlight of their win streak was Justin Verlander no-hitting the Twins through 7.1 innings on May 10, but the entire rotation turned in one gem after another. Even Jake Odorizzi, who had a rough time of it in April, shut out the Mariners and Tigers across 11.2 innings in his two starts during the win streak. Unfortunately, his resurgence was undercut by an injury suffered in Monday’s loss to Boston.

Offensively, Houston’s big stars are coming out of their early-season slumps. They scored 55 runs during the win streak — good for fifth most in the league in that stretch.

Kyle Tucker rocketed back from a slow start by hitting well enough to register 180 wRC+ so far in May. Jose Altuve returned as a new man from a brief stint on the IL, going from a .167/.268/.250 line in April to .327/.411/.714 with six home runs in May. Jeremy Peña continues to be the best rookie in baseball, and Yordan Alvarez went from really good to impossibly good.

Will they stay where they are? Yes. They’re on an unsustainably hot streak now, but this is the team we expected to see at the beginning of the season. It’s up to the rest of the division to step up if they want a chance at the title.

 

The Angels

 

Why they’re in second: The short answer to this prompt is the Angels are in second in the AL West because the Astros won an unreasonable 11 games in a row. The Halos are third in the AL standings behind only the Astros and the Yankees. There are two key contributing factors to how they got to this point.

The first is that hitters we had no expectations for back in February are suddenly some of the most dangerous in the league. As MLB’s David Adler recently observed, utilityman Taylor Ward is outperforming Mike Trout after posting a solid but unremarkable 111 wRC+ in 2021. That’s saying something because Trout’s performance to date has him front and center in the MVP conversation.

Outfielder Brandon Marsh has cooled off slightly after a hot start, but he’s still managing a 127 wRC+ after finishing 2021 with a mark of 86 wRC+ in 260 plate appearances. Those two breakouts combined with Shohei Ohtani, Trout, and Jared Walsh have uncorked the Angels’ offensive potential — they lead the league in runs scored. If Anthony Rendon rounds back into his 2019 form, they will truly be a force to be reckoned with.

The second and arguably more impactful change that has the Angels contending is the improved performance of their pitchers. By the end of May last season, the Angels pitching staff sported a league-worst 5.06 ERA. As of May 15 this season, they’re posting a 4th-best 3.23 ERA (trailing only Houston and the Yankees in the AL and the Dodgers in the NL).

Ohtani continues to shine on the mound, despite a few rough outings early. Patrick Sandoval is building on his breakout 2021 campaign with a 1.91 ERA over six starts. Noah Syndergaard seems to have made a full recovery from Tommy John surgery and held an ERA+ of 154 through five starts before turning in a one-inning clunker on Monday. Michael Lorenzen has been reliably solid with an ERA of  3.57 and 1.10 WHIP, and rookie Reid Detmers already claimed the first solo no-hitter of 2022.

Will they stay where they are? Assuming there are no critical injuries, this team is good enough to stay even with or surpass the Astros in the coming weeks. It will be a true battle between these two teams for the division crown.

 

The Rangers

 

Why they’re in third: The Rangers were expected to be potent with their bats in 2022, but struggle on the mound. So far, they’ve been mediocre on the mound and abysmal with their bats. The team-wide slump had them trudging along in fourth before leapfrogging Seattle with a win yesterday.

There is no single red flag that sticks out to explain why Texas has struggled at the plate to the extent they have — they have talented hitters, but they entered the season in a collective malaise and haven’t broken out of it.

The only everyday player with an OPS above .700 is newly acquired shortstop Corey Seager, and he hasn’t surpassed that mark by much. The hottest bat they have is that of catcher Jonah Heim, who holds a 167 wRC+ with four home runs and has played a central role in their current three-game win streak.

Marcus Semien, who had 13 home runs by the end of May last season, is still looking for his first in a Texas uniform. Adolis García has contributed six home runs, but his offensive potential continues to be limited by a 30% strikeout rate. Nathaniel Lowe started off hot in April but is slashing .091/.130/.091 so far in May.

As for the Rangers’ pitching staff, a dive into their metrics reveals some interesting findings. As a unit, they allow one of the lowest fly ball rates in the league but hold the highest home run to fly ball percentage. They also have one of the biggest gaps of any team between their FIP and xFIP stats.

Taken all together, that information means they’re either getting unlucky with how their fly balls are being hit or they’re really getting punished when they make mistakes. That’s not to say they have one of the top pitching units in the league, but they may be better than their top-line numbers indicate.

One unexpected bright spot for the Rangers is Martín Pérez. The fifth-year journeyman holds a 2.01 ERA and 1.02 WHIP through seven starts this season. The rest of the starting rotation has fluctuated between disastrous and good-enough outings in their starts. However, as observed above, some of the disasters might be partly attributable to bad luck.

Will they stay where they are? If the offense shows up the Rangers can maintain the middle spot in the division, but they’re not going to catch the Angels or Astros. The Mariners feel like a more complete team at this point despite the current standings, and there’s a good chance Texas drops a spot in the coming weeks.

 

The Mariners

 

Why they’re in fourth: After a brief stint in first place in April, the Mariners went on to lose five series in a row to the Rays (twice), Marlins, Astros, and Phillies. They finally ended their skid on May 15 by taking two of three from the Mets, but they went 4-12 and were outscored by 27 runs during the slide. They’ve had a rough time of it on both sides of the ball.

After a promising start to the season, rookie Matt Brash struggled with control and was ultimately optioned down to AAA Tacoma. Chris Flexen has failed to improve from last season when he assumed a starting role for the first time. Marco Gonzales is walking hitters at the highest rate in his career, and 2021 AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray holds an ERA+ of 78 after finishing last season at 157.

Things haven’t looked much better offensively. In the stretch of games between April 26 and May 11, the M’s scored the fifth-fewest runs in the league and held the sixth-lowest batting average. Mitch Haniger is still missing due to injury, and the team optioned Jarred Kelenic to Tacoma when he failed to make progress from his rookie season in 2021.

However, there are some signs of life among Seattle’s bats. Jesse Winker hit his first two home runs in a Mariners uniform in May and is slashing .293/.328/.483 for the month. Rookie Julio Rodríguez also hit his first home run and is improving at the plate. Ty France and J.P. Crawford continue to get hits, and Eugenio Suárez is producing home runs.

The pitching staff leaves room for hope as well. Despite a middling 3.83 ERA, the Mariners relievers rank with the best in the league in K/9 (10.1), BB/9 (2.9), and xFIP (3.43), which suggests some of their poor results stem from bad breaks.

George Kirby, a rookie who replaced Brash in the lineup, struck out seven to hold the Rays scoreless over six innings in his MLB debut and then held the Mets to one run on three hits over four innings in his second outing. Logan Gilbert has taken a big step forward from 2021 and held one of the best ERAs in the MLB before a tough outing against the Phillies on May 11.

Will they stay where they are? The 2022 Mariners are a hard team to make predictions for. It seems like all the pieces they need are there, but they haven’t put them together yet. With the way their season has played out so far, it’s hard to see them winning out over the Astros or Angels. But they can rise above the Rangers and the A’s and may even sneak into Wild Card contention if they get in gear.

 

The Athletics

 

Why they’re in last: At the time of our last roundup in April, the A’s were holding their own at 9-9. They promptly embarked on a nine-game losing streak before righting the ship somewhat by taking four of five games during a road trip to the languishing Tigers. That brief spark was quickly extinguished when they lost three of four to the Angels in their next homestand.

The unfortunate reality is first-year manager Mark Kotsay is doing his best to patch together both a starting lineup and starting rotation with journeymen and developing prospects. It’s going to be a long season for the A’s, but they’re finding bright spots.

Paul Blackburn continues to impress with a 1.67 ERA and 2.33 FIP through seven starts. He doesn’t rack up strikeouts, but he finds ways to miss bats with a solid sinker and plus curveball. Frankie Montas continues to pair a 95.8 MPH four-seamer with a devastating splitter to turn in one solid outing after another.

As for the youngsters on the rotation, rookie Zach Logue holds a respectable 2.04 ERA and 1.19 WHIP through 17.2 innings pitched, including three starts. Daulton Jefferies began pitching from the stretch to recover from a string of bad outings and held the Angels to two runs on five hits over six innings on May 13 — perhaps a sign of better things to come.

Offensively, you have to squint a lot harder to find anything to be optimistic about in Oakland. They currently rank dead last in batting average, OBP, and slugging. If there’s a silver lining to that, it’s that the A’s steal a lot of bases and manufacture runs the old-fashioned way, which is refreshing to watch in the three true outcomes age. They’ve also had their share of heroics this season, including Luis Barrera walking off the Angels with his first-ever MLB home run.

Will they stay where they are? Oakland will most likely be wearing the cellar dweller label the rest of the way.

 

Feature artwork by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter)

Colin Fong

Colin lived near Cooperstown and collected signatures from Hall of Famers for his Dad's collection every summer as a kid. He thought it was super boring at the time, but thinks it's incredibly cool now. He's an A's fan and loves writing about the beautiful, absurd, infuriating, and inspiring world of baseball.

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