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Checking in with the AL West: Angels soar, Astros round into form, Texas and Oakland exist

Keeping you apprised of what’s been happening around the division

Tampa Bay Rays v Los Angeles Angels
remember this guy? he still exists, and now he has a hat
Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The last time the Mariners saw an AL West opponent was a week ago, when they were being summarily swept out of Houston; they won’t see another one until almost two weeks from now, when they return from their long east coast road trip to immediately face off at home against the A’s for the first time in 2022 before seeing the Astros...again, for already the third time this season. Gross. While the Mariners have tumbled down in the AL West standings since those heady April days when they were atop the pack, we feel it’s worthwhile to do a weekly check-in on where the rest of the AL West stands, especially during these times when we get to cheerfully erase the existence of Justin Verlander from our minds, Eternal Sunshine-style. Remember you can always get the most up-to-date AL West standings from the series preview, but here’s a more in-depth look at how the division rivals are faring, and what the Mariners most have to fear as they fight and claw for one of those precious, although more ample this year, Wild Card spots.

Top of the heap pile of trash from Splash Mountain: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, California, Disneyland, USA, 21-11

Did I invent this series just so I could crow about being one of the few staff members to pin the Angels as the AL West leaders? No, even I don’t love being right that much, but there is a grim satisfaction in seeing one’s Cassandra-like vision come to pass. (See, the rule is, you think about what will make Mariners fans the most miserable, and you pick that outcome.) So while I recognize that basically every important member of the Angels has a foot’s worth of health-related terms and conditions in teeny-weeny print, right now, everything is coming up Angels.

The big ones you know about, probably, if you follow any kind of national baseball media:

  • Mike Trout, now healthy, is fully back to being Mike Trout; he has the highest .SLG in baseball and it’s not particularly close, with his .659 among qualified hitters well outpacing runner up (and John Trupin choice for AL MVP) Manny Machado’s .628. And if that’s not enough, he’s also come back to his home in center field with a vengeance after bouncing Brandon Marsh back to a corner and Jo Adell all the way back to Triple-A: he’s in the 84th percentile for OAA and the 97th percentile for sprint speed, proving the wheels on the Troutbus still go round and round.
  • If anything, Trout’s dominance has been under-remarked upon nationally because his teammate Shohei Ohtani continues gobbling up headlines; he hit his first grand slam the other day and has been absolutely scorching the ball, ranking in the 100th percentile for exit velocity. As a pitcher, he ranks in the top 4% of the league for K-rate, striking out a downright alarming 38% of batters faced.
  • If you’re wondering about the third dragon-head of the Angels’ stars-and-scrubs approach, Anthony Rendon has been off to a slow start this season, hitting barely above the Mendoza Line with just three homers, one of which came off Brett Maverick Phillips and was hit from the left-hand side, which baseball twitter seemed to think was really cool but I found incredibly cringe, like your grandpa getting on a skateboard with a carton of cranberry juice and saying “film me for the TikToks!”

But actually, there are two batters who rank between Ohtani and Trout for fWAR on the young season; they are lesser-known names, in Taylor Ward and Brandon Marsh, but names you should know anyway. Are these two outfielders going to continue to outhit Ohtani? Probably not; Ward’s currently sporting a .440 BABIP, a .675 SLG, and a 244 wRC+ and while he’s a solid player, the 28-year-old veteran minor-leaguer is not prime Barry Bonds. Pop-up prospect-turned-AL West-headache Brandon Marsh has been a thorn for a while now, but his strikeout rate of 34% is currently an improvement on last year’s 35%.

The thing that’s been keeping the Angels at the top of the AL West at a current staggering 10 games over .500, though, is an unlikelier culprit: their pitching. Far from the tire fire it’s been in past years, this year the Angels pitching has been perfectly cromulent; they rank right in the middle of the pack in both the AL and MLB for pitching, with the trio of Ohtani-Patrick Sandoval-Noah Syndergaard holding things down for the rest of the rotation, and 22-year-old Reid Detmers casually popping in to no-hit the Tampa Bay Rays on occasion. So far, that’s looking like a pretty solid 1-4, with Raisel Iglesias, Jimmy Herget, and Aaron Loup forming a strong trio out of the bullpen. Again, no one here has to be excellent; all they have to be is able to stay one piano lesson ahead of the opposing offense, while letting their own powerful offense carry them to victory. So far, it’s all working.

Almost at the top of the heap and likely furious they aren’t there: the Houston Astros, 19-11

I am torn between bemoaning the Astros rounding back into form and finding it funny to think about Alex Bregman lying in bed at night stuffing a pillow over his face and screaming silently when he thinks about the Angels being ahead of the Astros in the standings. The Astros have, distressingly, probably not played their best ball yet on the season. Yordan Álvarez is hitting the dead right out of the ball, with a 9th-best-in-baseball .573 slugging, but Taylor Ward stole all his BABIP luck so it’s ball over the fence or nothin’ for Yordan. For Kyle Tucker, on the other hand, it’s been nothin’ or also nothin’, as he’s been maybe the only player more cursed than Jesse Winker where xSLG is concerned. Expect his luck to turn around, probably with more dramatic results than for Winker. Rookie Jeremy Peña has picked up right where Carlos Correa left town, but has seen an exceedingly high percentage of fastballs (30%), so check back later to see what happens when pitchers start mixing pitches on him more heavily.

The pitching remains very good, as we’ve seen, although more than ever, it feels like Justin Verlander and the JV Singers rather than the richness of a world-beating Houston pitching staff; this is one of the first times in recent memory they’ve ranked outside of the top 10 as a staff by fWAR. Check back next week, though.

Cellar door: Texas Rangers (12-16)

A sad fact about this recent swoon is the Mariners are closer to the Rangers now by record than they are to the Astros/Angels. Unsurprisingly, the Rangers’ whole “build the whole team out of half a billion dollars worth of hitters, ignore pitching, profit” hasn’t paid the kind of dividends they’ve hoped for; only the hapless Reds are worse as a pitching staff than the Rangers. It’s just never a good sign when the second-best pitcher on your team a month-plus into the season is a reliever, and Brock Burke is a far cry from 2018 Edwin Díaz.

But unfortunately (for the Rangers, not for us), the much-ballyhooed Rangers offense isn’t doing a lot yet. Of Texas’s eight hitters with positive fWAR, five of them have fewer than 100 plate appearances, and their leading hitter is catcher Jonah Heim, theoretically in a position timeshare with offseason acquisition Mitch Garver, who’s currently on the IL. Corey Seager has adjusted well to his new life in the desert, because a Seager boy can survive under any conditions, and Adolis García continues doing Adolis things, tying Seager for most number of HRs on the team (4) while striking out at a merry 30% clip. Marcus Semien has really struggled to get it going, hitting just .178 with no home runs despite some fine K-BB numbers; he’ll get it turned around eventually, but has been subject to much scrutiny, which is maybe affecting his defense, which appears to have fallen in, as Archie Bunker might say, the terlet.

Actually residing in the cellar: Oakland, 12-19

Since the Mariners haven’t actually faced the A’s yet this is supposed to be the longest section of this article, other than the Angels section, but man, writing about this team feels like punching down even when you’re just giving the facts. I’m opposed to attendance-shaming the A’s; fans have every right not to show up, and they shouldn’t, not while their team is being held hostage by a chinless Stanford bro who’s doing the real world equivalent of tweeting through it. But the on-field product has been grim, as well. 12-19 doesn’t look all that different from 12-16, but it’s fourth-worst in the AL, with only the truly rudderless Red Sox and two disappointing AL Central teams, Kansas City and Detroit, beneath them. They lead all of baseball in striking out, at 26.7%, and have the third-lowest slugging percentage in the majors, eking past the Royals by .001 percentage point. I could tell you the names of their hitters but they would flow out of your mind again like water. Sheldon Neuse, once considered Quad-A fodder, is making the most of his opportunity to shine, and good for him, honestly.

The pitching is marginally better than the offense, and in fact grades out better by fWAR than Seattle early in the season, which more shows how ridiculous those early numbers are than anything. Paul Blackburn—remember him?—has been the A’s best pitcher, racking up one entire fWAR thanks to a preternaturally low, and frankly unsustainable, walk rate. Frankie Montas has also been solid, although bitten a little by some early home runs, and will be the A’s best pitcher until he gets traded. After that, you’re into RelieverLand, or maybe call it FailedStarterLand, with your A.J. Puks and your Daulton Jefferies and the like, which will sting Oakland hard when the 13-pitcher limit gets enforced later this month.