Welcome to another edition of the AL West Division Roundup! A lot has happened since our last dispatch on May 18, yet the standings remain unchanged.
The biggest news out of the AL West is the Angels’ 13-game losing streak that cost manager Joe Maddon his job. The team made the announcement yesterday that third-base coach Phil Nevin will be taking over in an interim role. The bad news was compounded by an extra-innings loss to Boston in the evening that Mike Trout departed due to groin tightness.
The Astros now have a stranglehold on the top spot thanks to the aforementioned self-destruction by the Angels, yet Los Angeles had enough of a buffer that even a 13-game freefall and change of leadership wasn’t enough to knock them out of second. The Mariners and Rangers continue to make small strides forward, while the A’s are plugging along valiantly in the caboose.
For this Roundup, I’ll provide a brief recap of the highlights (or lowlights) from the past three weeks, but the focus will be on individual players who hold particular significance for each team.
The Houston Astros
Three-week recap: Houston is 12-8 over their last 20 games, and hasn’t dropped more than two in a row while putting together a five-game win streak in that stretch. Their pitchers returned to their mortal forms and became hittable, but they continue to rake. This is unquestionably the team to beat in the division, and arguably the team to beat in the entire American League.
Player to watch: Justin Verlander
What to watch for: Can he cut down on home runs and stay healthy?
At a glance, Houston’s longtime ace seems just fine. Two something ERA, WHIP under one? Nothing to see here aside from excellence. But there’s turbulence under the surface.
Verlander yielded a total of four home runs across his first eight starts, then gave up five in his next two against Oakland and Seattle — not teams that are known for their power stroke. The long balls didn’t end up hurting him against the A’s as he went seven innings in a 5-4 victory, but they cost him against the M’s.
Other red flags are that his strikeout rate, CSW%, and SwStr% are all significantly down from seasons past and he holds a 3.06 xERA. None of that points to an imminent decline, but we’re talking about a 39-year-old man who hadn’t pitched in nearly two years. The Astros will need him come playoff time, and you have to wonder how well that arm will hold up down the stretch.
The rest of the Astros’ pitching staff, while extremely potent, has its vulnerabilities. Verlander has looked like his Hall-of-Fame self through the first third of the season, but it’s worth keeping an eye on his fastball velocity and use of his secondaries down the stretch. Any sign of fatigue would be a major blow to the Astros.
All that being said, this 39-year-old man we’re talking about has also taken no-hitters deep into games twice this season and cruised through seven innings of yesterday’s game without giving up a home run. So he’s worth watching because he’s really good at baseball, too.
The Los Angeles Angels
Three-week recap: The Angels watched the epic nosedive the Mariners executed from the top of the table earlier in the season, said “Hold my beer” to the Astros, and did their best imitation. There’s no single culprit we can point to that explains the sudden decline. The entire team just started pitching and hitting poorly at the same time, lost a lot of games, and Joe Maddon got the ax as a result.
Player to watch: Taylor Ward
What to watch for: Will his batted balls start finding grass?
While it’s tempting to put Mike Trout in this slot, the long and short on him is that if he’s healthy, he’ll get back on track. Ward, on the other hand, does not have the same track record. He’s a lifetime .252 hitter who started the year with one of the hottest bats in baseball. He’s hitting .194 with three extra-base hits over the past ten games.
Ward’s strikeout rate is up and his walk rate has declined. That could be a result of him trying to do too much at the plate, or potentially other teams have figured him out. In addition to the unfavorable changes in walk and strikeout rate, Ward’s BABIP was a whopping .197 points higher before May 18 (.435 before as opposed to .238 after). That’s the stat to keep an eye on for Ward.
He’s been pulling the ball a lot more since May 18 (59.1 pull percentage as opposed to 43.6% previously) and hitting it on the ground more (0.80 GB/FB rate from 0.97). All that together may be nothing more than bad luck, but it may also show that teams have figured out how to pitch to him and are positioning themselves accordingly.
Ward is just one of many Angels who are struggling offensively, but his particular case exemplifies their season to date. If he can make adjustments to get back on track, perhaps the rest of the team will, too.
The Texas Rangers
Three-week recap: While the Rangers played better in the last three weeks than they had at the beginning of the season, they’re still not turning heads. Their bats are showing signs of life, but they continue to be inconsistent and their pitching staff isn’t outdueling many teams. Youngsters like Steele Walker (whose first big-league hit was a home run on Tuesday night), Jonah Heim, Sam Huff, and Ezequiel Duran are getting long looks. The Rangers of the future will be fearsome, but this year’s version remains very mediocre.
Player to watch: Martín Pérez
What to watch for: Will he remain elite long enough to be a chip at the trade deadline?
Pérez has only completed one season with an ERA under 3.70 and holds a career ERA of 4.52. He finished last season with an uninspiring 4.74 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, and 92.7 MPH fastball. Yet a third of the way through the 2022 season, he holds the second-best ERA in baseball (behind Nestor Cortes, another surprise) and stands out as the Rangers’ only elite ace.
He accomplished this feat by increasing the use of his sinker, throwing curveballs for strikes, and moving his cutter all over the zone. He never blows hitters away, but he induces a ton of ground balls that allow him to work efficiently and go deep in games. He’s completed at least six innings in nine of the ten games he’s made this year and already has a complete game under his belt.
Pérez isn’t likely to factor into the Rangers’ long-term plans, but to the extent they challenge for a playoff spot this season, he will be a key reason why. If he maintains this form, a more likely scenario is that he gets shipped off at the trade deadline and makes an impact with another team in the hunt.
The Seattle Mariners
Three-week recap: Seattle’s fortunes over the past three weeks oscillated wildly with the performances of their starting rotation. Up through May 18, every starter not named Logan Gilbert was getting knocked around a few times before turning in a decent game. Over the past ten games, they’ve found enough consistency to win several series. Ty France, Julio Rodríguez, and Eugenio Suárez are all powering up and generating runs. They have a long way to climb, but the talent is there.
Player to watch: Julio Rodríguez
What to watch for: Will his power streak continue?
Before May 18, Rodriguez knocked eight extra-base hits in the first 148 plate appearances of his career, with only one home run. He added nine more in the subsequent 18 games, including five home runs. His ISO made a corresponding jump from .096 to .257 between those two periods.
Rodríguez is unquestionably the Mariners’ star of the future, but he has a chance to impact their fortunes in the next few months as well. With Mitch Haniger‘s continued absence, the M’s need another consistent bat in their offense beyond Ty France‘s.
J.P. Crawford provided it in the early going but cooled off during the Mariners’ slide from the top of the Division in April. Kyle Lewis showed promise in his return from the IL but is being eased back into a full workload. Eugenio Suárez is hitting well but is weighed down by a strikeout rate north of 30%.
If Rodríguez continues to maintain his average and presents a serious power threat in the middle of the lineup, he may lift some of his teammates out of their offensive doldrums and provide the Mariners with enough offense to weather the starting rotation’s rough outings.
The Oakland Athletics
Three-week recap: The Angels’ losing streak is getting all the attention, but the A’s are working on an impressive run of their own. After a one-run loss to Atlanta last night, Oakland’s losing streak stands at seven games. In total, they’ve lost 10 of their last 11 games. They competed admirably in most of their matchups, but lack of offense and ill-timed implosions by the pitching staff conspired to keep them at the bottom of the league.
Player to watch: Frankie Montas
What to watch for: When will he be traded?
Montas is quietly having a stellar year for Oakland. He struggled through several rough outings in May but rebounded effectively. Through his last five starts, he holds a 1.95 ERA and 0.98 WHIP with 37 strikeouts over 27.2 innings pitched.
Given that Oakland had already punted on the season before it began, it was surprising to see Frankie in an A’s uniform on Opening Day. He’s pitched well enough to raise his stock, and will almost certainly be snapped up by a team in playoff contention as Oakland refills its farm system.
Several teams with the need for a reliable arm in the rotation fit the criteria. Minnesota stands out as one that may be willing to make a splash if they maintain pole position in the AL Central down the stretch. Boston is another that could potentially invest if they find themselves in the right position come September. St. Louis is another that may spring for Montas if they remain in contention for the NL Central.
Regardless, Montas is a legitimate ace who deserves a chance to compete in meaningful games. A trade is the best thing for him and the A’s at this point.
Feature image artwork by Michael Packard (@CollectingPack on Twitter)
Verlander gave up 36 HR when he won the Cy young in 2019, which was tied for 3rd most.