Houston Astros

MLB on Sling: Ranking the Pretenders and Contenders Atop the Divisions

Looking at the standings with just a third of the season behind us, one notes that the Washington Nationals again sit atop the National League East, and over in the AL West, the Houston Astros have things well in hand. But the rest of the division leaders come as a bit of a shock: The New York Yankees look down upon the once mighty Red Sox; the Milwaukee Brewers have a leg up on the defending champion Cubs; the Colorado Rockies, a dark horse favorite among many this preseason, are actually winning the NL West; and for the love of the Apocalypse the Minnesota Twins are leading the AL Central. So which division leaders are the real deal, and which ones are doom to fall? Let’s rank them in reverse order of safety.

Milwaukee Brewers 27-23, 1.5 game lead over St. Louis & Chicago

Last season: 73-89, 30.5 games back

One of the biggest stories of the month of April was the WTF return of Eric Thames, who after four seasons playing overseas, took the game by storm, hitting 11 home runs in his first 20 games, with a 1.411 OPS, and drawing thinly veiled accusations of cheating from the games less gracious corners. But he’s cooled off considerably, with just 2 dingers and a .652 OPS in 24 games since then. Ironically, it wasn’t until Thames started to cool that the Brewers started to heat up, winning 10 of 12 in early May to move into first place, then came a 5-game losing streak, but with a 9-5 win Sunday over Arizona, they nudged their lead back up to 1.5 games over the Cardinals and Cubs. But to believe in the Brewers is to believe that Thames is for real, that Travis Shaw has become an All-Star at 3B, that Matt Garza will stay healthy, and that Chase Anderson will continue to keep his home run rate 30% below its career norm. But, most unlikely, to believe in the Brewers is to believe that neither the Cubs or Cardinals will get it together. Chances of winning the division: 4%

Minnesota Twins 26-20, 2 game lead over Cleveland

Last season: 59-103, 35.5 games back

Through the first 46 games of 2016, the Twinkies managed to win 12 games,  and they didn’t notch their 26th win of 2016 until July 2, so, yeah, their record comes as a shock. They’ve had a fair amount of talent kicking around, with established vets like 2B Brian Dozier and Joe Mauer (who on Sunday reached base 7 times in a single 15-inning game), to promising youngsters like Byron Buxton, Max Kepler and Miguel Sano, but no one saw this coming. Sano’s been enjoying a breakout season, and a few other guys are having nice, if not spectacular season. The big surprise on this team has been the starting pitching, specifically, the performances of Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios. Santana is second among AL pitchers in WAR with 2.6, and leads the league in ERA (1.80), ERA+ 228, complete games (2), shutouts (2), and hits per 9 innings at just 4.0, which he’s achieved with a comically low BABIP of .138, versus a career norm of .288. To really put that number into context, the all-time single season low for a starting pitcher is .203 by Dave McNally of the 1968 Orioles, who pitched in front of a historically great offense. Even if the Twins continue to lead the league in Defensive Efficiency, the law of averages say it’ll be impossible for Santana to keep his BABIP down. Berrios has started just three games, but won them all, and has allowed even fewer hits per 9, 3.3, than Santana, with a BABIP of just .106 — this, too, shall pass. And the Indians will eventually get healthy, their bats will come alive, their starting pitching will return to at least 70% of its former glory, and Cleveland will ascend to its rightful place atop the standings. Chances of winning the division: 7%

Colorado Rockies 33-19, 1.5 game lead over Los Angeles

Last season: 75-87, 16 games back

The Rockies’ lead over the Dodgers can be explained away pretty easily: the Rockies have outperformed their run differential by 2 games, while the Dodgers have underperformed theirs by 3 games — adjust those disparities, and the Dodgers are up 3.5 games. The other thing is that the Rockies are 9-1 in 1-run games this season, while the Dodgers are just 4-7. Their success in close games has been thanks in part to closer Greg Holland, who’s returned from Tommy John surgery to record 19 saves in 20 appearances by allowing just 2 runs in 18 ⅔ innings. This, too, is unsustainable. Perhaps the biggest threat to the Rockies’ long-term hopes is their lineup, which has an OPS+ of just 89. Second place is very much in their reach, as is a Wild Card spot, but the division? Not this year. Chances of winning the division: 12%

New York Yankees 29-18, 3-game lead

Last season: 84-78, 9 games back

We had the Yankees as a dark horse to grab a Wild Card berth, but no one saw this coming, certainly not with Gary Sanchez missing half their games while posting just a 108 OPS+, or with Greg Bird missing even more games and hitting a miserable 6-for-60. But Aaron Judge has been a beast with a Major League-leading 16 home runs, while playing shockingly good D for a man his size (6’7”). The Bombers have also gotten big contributions from Starlin Castro, Brett Gardner, Matt Holliday, and Aaron Hicks. The bullpen has been predictably great, despite Aroldis Chapman pitching just 12 ⅔ innings, and starters Luis Severino and Michael Pineda have been fantastic. What makes the Yankees’ success seem legit is that while there are a couple guys playing above their heads, there are also some key pieces who are not yet up to speed. The Red Sox have been showing signs of life lately, and starter David Price finally makes his 2017 debut Monday, but Yankees just may have enough in the tank to keep them at bay. Chances of winning the division: 40%

Houston Astros 35-16, 10-game lead

Last season: 84-78, 11 games back

The AL West was theirs for the taking, but few expected the Astros to have the best record in all of baseball. These guys have been clicking on all cylinders, as their best-in-baseball DP combination of Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa each have a 143 OPS+, and 2015 Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel has regained his form, going 8-0 with a 1.81 ERA. Only Marwin Gonzalez is playing way above his head, they have a team OPS+ of 120, and a team ERA+ of 112, and that despite a ho-hum bullpen. With a shutdown closer, these guys could be scary, and they play in one of baseball’s weaker divisions. This race may be over by August. Chances of winning the division: 93%

Washington Nationals 30-19, 8.5-game lead

Last Season: 95-67, 8-game lead

Bryce Harper has regained his MVP form, leading the NL in runs (44), home runs (15), and intentional walks (9), and Ryan Zimmerman is having the best season of his career after struggling at the plate and in the trainer’s room for three years. Starters Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez are all in the top seven in ERA, and things are going so well for the Nats that even Matt Albers got a save — two, in fact. And they’ve done it despite losing Adam Eaton, probably the best active player not to make an All Star team, to a blown ACL a month into the season. Given that the Mets have suffered a brutal string of injuries and turmoil, and that the Braves are without Freddie Freeman for two more months, the Nats have a firm grasp on the NL East. It would take an act of God to up-end their chances of winning this thing. Chances of winning the division: 97%

On this date in 2016, the Red Sox, Indians, Nationals, and Cubs had already taken control of the divisions they would go on to win, while the Rangers were just a half-game back of the Mariners before overtaking them, and the Dodgers trailed the Giants, whose epic collapse doomed them to second place. This season promises more change atop the divisions.

Monday on ESPN

New York Yankees (Montgomery 2-3, 4.30) vs Baltimore Orioles (Bundy 5-3, 2.92) @ 1pm ET

Washington Nationals (Roark 4-2, 4.32) vs San Francisco Giants (Moore 2-5, 5.28) @ 4pm ET

Detroit Tigers (Norris 2-3, 4.38) vs Kansas City Royals (Hammel 1-6, 5.98) @ 7pm ET

Tuesday on ESPN

Los Angeles Dodgers (Maeda 4-2, 5.08) vs St. Louis Cardinals (Wacha 2-2, 3.66) @ 7pm ET

Washington Nationals (Gonzalez 3-1, 2.90) vs San Francisco Giants (Samardzija 1-6, 4.50) @ 10pm ET

Wednesday on ESPN

Los Angeles Dodgers (Wood 5-0, 1.88) vs St. Louis Cardinals (Martinez 3-3, 3.28) @ 8:15pm ET

Saturday on FS1

Atlanta Braves (Dickey 3-3, 4.17) vs Cincinnati Reds (Feldman 3-4, 3.99) @ 4:10pm ET

Saturday on FOX (regional action)

Houston Astros (McCullers 5-1, 2.43) vs Texas Rangers (Cashner 1-4, 3.18) or

Pittsburgh Pirates (Glasnow 2-3, 6.69) vs New York Mets (Gsellman 2-3, 6.45) or

Boston Red Sox (Price NA) vs Baltimore Orioles (Bundy 5-3, 2.92) @ 7:15pm ET

Sunday on ESPN

St Louis Cardinals (Wacha 2-2, 3.66) vs Chicago Cubs (Hendricks 4-2, 3.25) @ 7:30pm

Watch Major League Baseball on FS1 and FOX by subscribing to Sling Blue, and on ESPN by subscribing to Sling Orange

All stats courtesy ESPN and Baseball Reference

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