We’re one month into what has been a fun month of baseball. Setting aside a few unfortunate developments (injury fiascoes in Queens, dirt bike accidents in San Francisco, to name a few), it’s been a delight to once again have the gentle of hum of baseball back in our lives.
With April’s games now history, it’s a good time to start to take stock of what’s happened. Teams that have gotten off to surprise hot starts can claim that they’ve banked enough wins to be considered playoff contenders, and disappointing teams off to cold starts have to start wondering if the holes they are digging themselves will prove to be too deep.
So let’s dig into some power rankings. Power rankings at this point of the season can be tough. Should they be based primarily on what’s happened? Should they mostly reflect preseason expectations? These rankings will try to synthesize the two, giving weight both to how teams have played on the field, while also keeping in mind what we thought of each team’s talent entering the season just a month ago.
Instead of jotting down a note for each team, I will rank all 30 teams while breaking them into tiers, and highlight a few to go deeper on, similar to how Jonah Keri used to rank the teams in The 30 on Grantland (RIP). Without further ado, our May Power Rankings (record and run differential in parentheses):
The Dregs and the Disappointments
30. San Diego Padres (12-17, -35)
29. Kansas City Royals (9-17, -33)
28. San Francisco Giants (11-18, -37)
27. Toronto Blue Jays (9-19, -23)
26. Atlanta Braves (11-15, -14)
25. Miami Marlins (12-14, +1)
24. Cincinnati Reds (13-14, -6)
23. New York Mets (12-15, -14)
So far, we see an unusual number of supposed contenders at the bottom of the league. The Mets, Blue Jays, and Giants all entered 2017 with legitimate playoff hopes, and all have completely staggered out of the gate. The Giants, jockeying with the Padres to stay out of the cellar of the NL West and now without ace Madison Bumgarner for a chunk of the year, may be in the worst shape.
Of those three teams off to nightmare starts, the Giants have the worst projected winning percentage the rest of the way, per FanGraphs, at .514. If they win at that clip, they will finish the season at 79 wins. Plus, the Dodgers are firmly entrenched as division favorites, with FanGraphs estimating Los Angeles’ chances at taking the NL West at 85%.
To make matters worse, the Rockies and Diamondbacks are off to impressive starts, clogging up the middle of the division. Not only will the Giants have to get their act together to contend, they will have to hope other teams fall out. And getting their own act together only got that much more difficult once Bumgarner’s injury dealt their staff a critical blow.
There’s still talent on hand, as Johnny Cueto and Matt Moore headline a still quality rotation, and any team with Buster Posey just feels like it should be in contention. This hole just might be too deep to dig out of. The Giants might be last year’s Astros, a team that performs well from May onward, but was too far behind in April for it to matter. Or, perhaps they won’t pick up the pieces, and we will see a rare sight: a Giants team that gives up in July.
The Mushy Middle
22. Oakland Athletics (11-16, -37)
21. Philadelphia Phillies (12-14, +8)
20. Detroit Tigers (14-13, -7)
19. Milwaukee Brewers (14-14, +8)
18. Pittsburgh Pirates (12-15, -17)
17. Seattle Mariners (12-16, -4)
16. Minnesota Twins (14-11, +15)
15. Los Angeles Angels (15-14, -10)
Perhaps no team typifies the purgatory of the middle class like the Pirates. Hopeful to return to the playoffs after a one-year absence, the Pirates are off to an uneven start, and it’s fairly unclear which direction their season might head. Andrew McCutchen, David Freese, Josh Harrison, and Francisco Cervelli are among the Pirates’ veterans that are win-now pieces. But a month in, the Pirates are fringe-contenders, in need of a hot streak to climb out of the muck.
And with Starling Marte now out due to an inexplicable failed drug test, the odds of that hot streak coming are dwindling. The Pirates may soon be faced with a quandary: face-of-the-franchise McCutchen is aging, and one year from free agency. The chance to win with him is fading, and making a move to contend this year might be foolish given their modest playoff odds.
It might be difficult to do, but with a cache of young talent developing, the Pirates might consider taking a small step backward before all is said and done this year. Talented players like Josh Bell, Tyler Glasnow, and Jameson Taillon are already getting major league reps. Elite outfield prospect Austin Meadows should be ready soon, and the Pirates have plenty of strong prospects in the minors’ lower levels, like Mitch Keller and Will Craig. The Pirates could be in good shape in 2018 and beyond.
It’s just hard to say goodbye at present, whether its to their playoff odds, or their star player. There’s still hope the Pirates can contend during this window with McCutchen. That hope is just flickering at this point.
Surprise Contenders and Slow Starters
14. Chicago White Sox (14-12, +11)
13. Texas Rangers (11-17, -6)
12. Tampa Bay Rays (14-15, +2)
11. St. Louis Cardinals (13-13, -8)
10. Colorado Rockies (17-11, -2)
9. Arizona Diamondbacks (17-12, +31)
8. Baltimore Orioles (16-10, -1)
7. Boston Red Sox (15-12, +2)
Here we find a number of teams playing above expectations, as well as a few age-old contenders who haven’t quite hit their stride. The Diamondbacks certainly fall in the former camp. Arizona pushed all their chips into the middle of the table last season, culminating with the fateful Shelby Miller traded that sent Dansby Swanson to Atlanta. Miller is now out for the year, but Arizona has managed to field a competitive team nonetheless.
Much of that is due to their talented rotation pitching to their potential. There were some early red-flags regarding Zack Greinke’s velocity, but he’s settled in to a 3.19 ERA, to go along with a 9.82 K/9 rate. Robbie Ray has continued to strike out the lot, as he’s struck out over 12 per 9, and his 3.47 ERA is finally matching his peripherals. And Patrick Corbin, years removed from his 2013 breakout season, has posted a 2.29 ERA in six starts.
Their offense has been solid as well, propped up by some familiar faces and some surprise contributors. The most familiar face, obviously, is America’s first baseman Paul Goldschmidt. Goldy is back in silver slugger form, running a .313/.460/.505 slash line to lead the D-Backs. But unsung heroes dot the roster elsewhere. Shortstop Chris Owings is at .313/.358/.525. Yasmany Tomas is running a .275/.323/.549 line. David Peralta has bounced back from an awful 2016 to post a .326/.382/.511 line.
The number of unheralded performers carrying Arizona’s lineup right now makes it seem like their success might be a tad unsustainable. Indeed, FanGraphs’ playoff odds give the Diamondbacks only a 7% chance to win the NL West, despite their current spot at the top of the division. But their overall playoff odds are up over 30% from the beginning of the year, all the way to 40%. It’s early, but the D-Backs already look like they’ll be in it for the long haul. Music to Arizona-fans ears, after a nightmare 2016 that looked to potentially cripple the franchise’s future.
The Early Cream of the Crop
6. Los Angeles Dodgers (15-14, +24)
5. Cleveland Indians (15-12, +8)
4. New York Yankees (17-9, +45)
3. Chicago Cubs (15-12, +16)
2. Houston Astros (19-9, +37)
1. Washington Nationals (18-9, +46)
These six teams, whether by way of excellent early-season play, star-studded rosters, or both, stand ahead of the rest at this point of the year. The Nationals are the one that have best combined a great start with a roster that looks prepared to sustain it, even with the tough loss of Adam Eaton to an ACL injury.
This is thanks in most part to a couple of hitters dueling for early MVP-frontrunner status. One of them is a familiar sight: Bryce Harper. No one knew whether to expect Harper to emulate his 2015-Bondsian form, or his 2016 injury-riddled form. Statistical projections forecast something in the middle. Fortunately for us, Harper looks like his 2015-self again, as he’s sporting an eye-popping .391/.509/.772 slash line.
As Rob Arthur of FiveThirtyEight noted, Harper has started to make quality contact again. Combine that with an increased walk rate and decreased strikeout rate compared to last year, and you’ve got a recipe for the player that leads the league in fWAR at this early juncture.
Yet somehow, another Nationals hitter has thrust his name to the top of the leaderboards: Ryan Zimmerman. Left for dead after a dreadful 2016 in which he posted a 69 OPS+, Zimmerman now leads the majors with a 238 OPS+. Similar to teammate Daniel Murphy’s surge last season, Zimmerman has credited swinging for fly balls and the fences for his success this year.
Employing the two hitters who may have been the two best in baseball so far is a good way to juice an offense, and the Nationals by far the lead the majors in runs scored, with 27 more runs than the next-closest team. It helps to have a stellar supporting cast, with the likes of Trea Turner, free agent signing Matt Wieters, and Murphy all raking as well. The pitching looks great too, as Stephen Strasburg appears strong after returning from an injury-marred 2016, Gio Gonzalez has a 1.64 ERA, and Max Scherzer is Max Scherzer. One month in, and the Nationals have the look of the best team in baseball.