Breaking down MLB’s divisional contenders’ strengths

June 29, 2022

With July almost here, this year’s MLB playoff picture is beginning to shift into focus, and in turn it’s becoming more and more clear which teams will be in contention for a division title come September. But as you start looking at the playoff picture, it’s important to remember that no two contenders are alike. Some teams are built around strong pitching and defense, some are built to outscore their opponents and others win by keeping the line moving.

With that in mind, here’s a look at one stat that encapsulates the biggest strength of each team that is either leading its division or is within three games of first place.

Note: All statistics are through Monday’s (June 27th, 2022) games.

AL East
Yankees: Home runs
54-20, 12-game lead over Red Sox

There’s a reason they’re called the Bronx Bombers. Through 74 games, the Yankees slugged 123 home runs, for an average of 1.7 home runs per game. With a number like that, it’s no surprise the Yankees have a legitimate shot at breaking the 2001 Seattle Mariners’ all-time wins record of 116.

It’s easy to look at the Yankees’ power and assume it’s because of the team’s stars. And that assumption wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Aaron Judge leads baseball in home runs (28), Anthony Rizzo is feasting on Yankee Stadium’s short porch (20 HR) and Giancarlo Stanton (18 HR) continues to hit the ball hard.

But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Along with getting production from their boppers, the Yankees have also gotten power from some of the lesser-known players on their roster. Gleyber Torres (13 HRs) appears to have found his 2019 self while DJ LeMahieu (7 HR) and Jose Trevino (6 HR) are both showing more pop than they have in years prior. Heck, even new addition Matt Carpenter has swatted six home runs in 45 plate appearances for a Yankees lineup that might be the most complete group in baseball.

AL Central
Twins: OPS+
42-33, 3-game lead over Guardians

Even with long-term injuries to Miguel Sanó and top prospect Royce Lewis, the Twins still have the third highest OPS+ in baseball (113) — all while not having a player with more than 35 RBIs. OPS+ takes a player’s on-base plus slugging percentage and normalizes the number across the entire league while accounting for external factors like ballparks. It then adjusts so a score of 100 is league average, meaning the Twins’ OPS+ is 13 points above average.

Of course, it helps that the Twins have Luis Arraez — who leads baseball with a .347 batting average while playing first base for the first time in his big league career — but it’s also worth noting they’ve gotten plus production from new acquisition Carlos Correa (.300, 8 HR, 26 RBIs) along with Byron Buxton, who is one of three qualified players this season in the 90th percentile or higher in both barrel rate and sprint speed. That knack for hitting the ball hard is present in the rest of the Twins’ lineup: Minnesota hitters are averaging a barrel every 6.8 plate appearances, which is the third best mark in baseball.

The Minnesota Twins may not leave the yard a lot (86 home runs), but they’re adept at keeping the line moving and making opponents pay for mistakes.

AL Central
Guardians: K%
36-33, 3 games back of Twins

Despite having the youngest roster in baseball, the Cleveland Guardians have been able to stay in contention for the American League Central crown on the back of solid, fundamental baseball. Even with their recent swoon, the “Guardiac Kids” still have the lowest strikeout rate in baseball (18.4%), something that’s been crucial to their success.

That plate discipline has been led by stalwart José Ramírez who, along with being tied for the Major League lead with a 7.5 percent strikeout rate, is batting .300 and is third in baseball in RBIs (63) and offensive WAR (3.9). Rookie Steven Kwan (who started the year on a historic swing-and-miss streak) is mere percentage points behind Ramírez with a strikeout rate of 7.6 percent.

While no other Guardian has a strikeout rate under 10 percent, they boast five batters with a strikeout rate under 20 percent — a group that includes lineup regulars Amed Rosario, Josh Naylor and Myles Straw.

AL West
Astros: ERA
45-27, 10-game lead over Rangers

Houston’s pitching dominance was on full display on Saturday against the Yankees when Cristian Javier, Hector Neris and Ryan Pressly spun a combined no-hitter against the best lineup in baseball.

That impressive showing was the latest by an Astros pitching staff that ended the weekend with a 3.05 ERA, the third-best total in baseball. That dominance has started at the top. Javier (5-3, 2.73 ERA) is one of three Astros starters with an ERA under three, along with Justin Verlander (9-3, 2.22 ERA) and Framber Valdez (7-3, 2.90 ERA).

While Javier and Verlander have gotten it done with gas (they’re both above the 85th percentile in fastball spin rate), Valdez has done his damage with a mystifying curveball that ranks in the 94th percentile in spin rate. Combine that with a bullpen that has a seemingly endless supply of plus arms, and it’s no surprise that Houston has pitched its way to the top of the American League West.

NL East
Mets: On-base Percentage
47-27, 5-game lead over Braves

The Mets’ offense is almost unfair. In Sunday’s game against the Marlins, New York trotted out a lineup that had seven (!) batters with an on-base percentage above the league average of .312. So it comes as no surprise that their .329 on-base percentage is tied with the Dodgers for the top mark in baseball.

When talking about the Mets lineup, the conversation begins with Pete Alonso, who has continued to hit for power (22 HR, MLB-high 69 RBIs) while getting on base at a career-high clip (.281 average, .360 OBP).

But that doesn’t tell the whole story.

Not only have the Mets gotten production from big names like Francisco Lindor (12 HR, 56 RBIs), Starling Marte (.326 OBP, 36 RBIs) and Mark Canha (.364 OBP), but they’re also getting career years from Jeff McNeil (.386 OBP, 15th best mark in baseball) and Luis Guillorme (.381 OBP), both of whom have helped set the table for New York’s sluggers.

NL Central
Brewers: Saves
42-33, 1/2-game lead over Cardinals

One of the commonly used phrases you’ll hear from baseball managers is how they want their bullpen to “shorten the game.” Craig Counsell is able to do that. With a back-end duo of Devin Williams and Josh Hader, all Counsell’s squad needs to do is grab the lead in the first seven innings. From there, Williams and Hader take care of the rest.

Since allowing three runs in two-thirds of an inning against the Reds on May 10, Williams has thrown 17 1/3 scoreless innings, which has led to his Baseball Savant page having more red on it than a Georgia O’Keeffe painting.

And then there’s Hader. While he’s allowed three runs in the month of June, his 97 mph sinker is one of the best pitches in baseball and serves as a perfect complement to Williams’ “airbender” changeup. In total, Hader and Williams have converted 27 of the Brewers’ 29 saves and have formed an almost unhittable duo at the back of the bullpen.

NL Central
Cardinals: Rookie Production
42-34, 1/2 game back of Brewers

When the Cardinals signed 42-year-old Albert Pujols to a one-year deal in March, it looked as if St. Louis was building a team based around experience. They’ve ended up being built around the exact opposite.

Not only has no team with a winning record dedicated more at-bats to rookies (588), but Cardinals’ rookies are batting .265, which is tops among teams that have gotten more than 150 at-bats from first-year players.

In a bit of a surprise, unheralded prospect Brendan Donovan has been the best hitting “Baby Bird,” posting 1.8 WAR and a .308 batting average while playing every defensive position except center field and catcher. Like Donovan, fellow rookie Juan Yepez (who has been nicknamed “Little Albert”) has succeeded while showcasing versatility, batting .282 with nine home runs while playing at first base and in the outfield. And although top prospect Nolan Gorman (six home runs, 17 RBIs) hasn’t gotten out to as hot of a start as his two rookie counterparts, it’s only a matter of time before his bat catches up to Major League pitching.

NL West
Dodgers: Starting Pitching ERA
45-26, 1 1/2-game lead over Padres

On paper, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Dodgers’ starting rotation leads baseball with a 2.67 ERA. But yet it does. Even with aces Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler missing time this year due to injury, the Dodgers have still managed to snuff out lineups on a nightly basis with a rotation led by Tony Gonsolin, Tyler Anderson and Julio Urías.

After looking like a good-but-not-great starter in his first three years with the Dodgers, Gonsolin has taken a huge leap this year, boasting a 9-0 record with a league-leading 1.58 ERA, thanks in large part to him limiting hard contact and striking out batters at a career-high rate. Anderson, who had a 4.53 ERA last year between Seattle and Pittsburgh, has a 3.23 ERA and leads the Dodgers with 78 innings pitched while Urías has a career-best 2.48 ERA through 14 starts.

While Kershaw returned from the injured list on June 11, Buehler looks to be on the shelf until September with a right forearm strain. Luckily for manager Dave Roberts, his remaining starters look ready to pick up the slack.

NL West
Padres: Outs Above Average
45-30, 1 1/2 games behind Dodgers

When you’re playing in a stacked division like the National League West, you need to play close-to-perfect baseball every night. Thus far, the Padres have been able to do that, leading baseball with 27 Outs Above Average, a range-based metric of skill that shows how many outs a player has saved.

Last year, the Padres only tallied 15 OAA due in large part to Jurickson Profar and Tommy Pham both rating among the worst defenders at their positions. Not only has Profar rebounded and produced one out above average this year, but Manny Machado (8 OAA), Ha-Seong Kim (6), José Azocar (4), Jake Cronenworth (3) and Trent Grisham (3) have all produced positive numbers in the field.

Machado’s eight OAA is tied with Nolan Arenado for the fifth-best total in baseball and first among third basemen. As a team, the Padres are tied for last in baseball with 27 errors, and Eric Hosmer, Luke Voit and C.J. Abrams are San Diego’s only everyday players with negative dWAR.


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