Starting rotation? Power at the plate? Every current MLB playoff contender’s biggest strength

Starting rotation? Power at the plate? Every current MLB playoff contender’s biggest strength post thumbnail image

More than two months into the 2022 MLB season, there are a handful of teams that have clearly set themselves apart from the rest of the league — and some of them have done so by doing one thing really well.

The Yankees — who lead the majors with a 44-16 record, giving them a commanding lead in the best division in baseball — are a prime example.

Take this past weekend: They beat the Cubs in three games by a combined score of 25-8, including an 18-4 rout on Sunday. The previous day, it was an 8-0 win, and perhaps the quintessential example of their blazing start. Aaron Judge hit two home runs, Giancarlo Stanton hit a 119.8 mph laser straight out of a Bond movie for the hardest-hit ball in the majors this season and Gleyber Torres, Jose Trevino and Anthony Rizzo all added to the six-homer barrage.

“I’m a sucker for a good rally — doubles in the gaps, runners in scoring position,” Judge said after the game. “But six solo shots. … That’s pretty nice, too.”

The Yankees have a league-leading 98 home runs, 14 more than the second-place Braves. They’re also tied for the fewest home runs allowed in the majors at 48 with the Braves and Giants. That’s a pretty good formula to success.

New York is rolling as we head toward the start of the summer, but so are a number of other squads. Let’s dig into some numbers to see what each of the contending teams over .500 is doing best right now.

The Yankees have astonishingly doubled the home run output of their opponents, giving them a season pace of plus-130, which would break the single-season home run differential of plus-116 held by the 1927 Yankees (Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Tony Lazzeri ranked 1-2-3 in the American League in home runs that season). The 2019 Twins, who hit a record 307 home runs, are second at plus-109.

With 24 home runs through 60 team games, Judge is on pace for 65 home runs. Cue the “What is the real home run record?” stories and debates if he’s still on this pace coming out of the All-Star break. Rizzo, Stanton and Torres are also in double digits, while the bullpen has been stingy with just 11 home runs allowed in more than 200 innings — the best home run rate of any bullpen in the majors.

The Mets are third in the majors in runs per game at 5.10, just behind the Dodgers (5.15) and Yankees (5.12). But the Mets are doing it in a decidedly un-2022 style of play: They’re getting base hits instead of home runs. The Mets are just 21st in the majors in home run rate, 19th in isolated power and 17th in walk rate.

The Mets, however, lead the majors with a .265 team batting average — well ahead of the Dodgers (.249) and Yankees (.250). They did the same in 2020, when they let .272. Jeff McNeil (.312), Mark Canha (.301) and part-timer Luis Guillorme (.327) lead the way. The Mets also have the league’s highest average on balls in play at .311.

The thing that’s kind of interesting here: I’m not exactly sure how the Mets are doing this. They are not among the leaders in Statcast metrics such as hard-hit rate (22nd in the majors) or barrel rate (21st). Their batting average on line drives is .607, actually below the major league average of .630. Their key seems to be their batting average on grounders at .278 — in which they lead the majors, with the Cardinals second at .259 (the major league average on grounders is just .234).

What the Mets have are hitters — such as McNeil, Guillorme and Brandon Nimmo — who you can’t really shift against. All three are left-handed batters who don’t hit the ball especially hard, but they do spray it around. All three are hitting above .300 on grounders (as is Canha, although he has no history of doing so and hit .199 on grounders in 2021). It’s possible the Mets regress in this area; if so, they’ll need to start hitting more home runs.

A few weeks ago, baseball statistician Bill James did a study on if controlling the strike zone is as important now as it was in Ted Williams’ day. He came up with a simple formula that pretty accurately predicts a team’s winning percentage based only on walks and strikeouts.

In his study, he explained that 90 teams had a strike zone winning percentage of .613 or higher, with an average of .638. Their actual winning percentage was .595. The worst 109 teams had a strike zone winning percentage of .363 and an actual winning percentage of .377.

In other words, knowing nothing about a team other than how well it controls the strike zone is a strong indicator of how good or bad the team is.

Heading into Sunday’s games, the top three teams in strike zone winning percentage:

1. Yankees, .629

2. Dodgers, .627

3. Astros, .573

The Dodgers also led the majors in this category a season ago, although their pitching depth will now be tested with the news that Walker Buehler will be shut down for at least six weeks because of a flexor strain in his right elbow. Of course, the Dodgers excel at getting the most out of their pitchers. For example, Tyler Anderson had a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 2.90 before signing with the Dodgers. Now it’s at 6.11 and he’s gone 7-0 with a 3.07 ERA. Tony Gonsolin is also 7-0, with a 1.58 ERA. So, as expected, the Dodgers’ 1-2 punch is Anderson and Gonsolin rather than Buehler and Julio Urias.

Given that the average start these days is now fewer than six innings, a quality start (at least six innings and three or fewer runs) is arguably more important than ever. It’s especially important for the Padres after what happened in 2021, when their rotation fell apart in the second half and their starters ended up throwing the second-fewest innings in the majors. It’s been a different story in 2022, as Padres starters lead the majors in both innings pitched and quality starts (34, five more than the Astros and a whopping 13 more than the Dodgers).

Leading the way is possible All-Star Game starter Joe Musgrove, who is 7-0 with a 1.50 ERA and has 11 quality starts in 11 starts (the Padres are 10-1 when he pitches). The big improvement for Musgrove in 2022: Batters aren’t teeing up his four-seam fastball. Last year, they hit .319 and slugged .571 against it. This year, it’s .246 and .338 — and he’s actually throwing it slightly more often. So far, it has more movement and more spin than a year ago and it’s turned him into a Cy Young candidate.

The Astros haven’t been the offensive force they’ve been in the recent past, but they have a comfortable lead in the AL West the old-fashioned way: pitching and defense. Look at their rankings in various defensive measures:

  • First in batting average allowed on balls in play.

  • Second in Statcast’s outs above average (behind only the Padres).

  • Third in defensive runs saved, behind the Guardians and Yankees.

Three players stand out: Kyle Tucker, Jeremy Pena and Jose Siri. Indeed, the Siri/Chas McCormick combo in center field ranks first in both OAA and DRS, and Pena has been more than a capable defensive replacement for Carlos Correa at shortstop, displaying both an excellent arm and plus range. He looks like a possible Gold Glove winner as a rookie.

The Blue Jays’ offense underwhelmed the first two months of the season, averaging a disappointing 3.98 runs per game after averaging 5.22 in 2021. They’ve picked it up in June, however, hitting .306/.381/.549 and scoring 6.55 runs per game. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (.389), Santiago Espinal (.378) and Alejandro Kirk (.375) have led the way this month, while Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has gotten the power stroke going with five home runs.

That’s just 11 games, with all coming against the AL Central. But what bodes well for the rest of the season: The Jays are tied with the Yankees with a hard-hit rate of 44.9%. That’s the percentage of balls hit at 95 mph or harder. Hitting the ball hard is a good thing! What should keep this offense scary going forward is that it is also a pretty solid contact team, ranking eighth in the majors in lowest strikeout rate. The Blue Jays are third in OPS in the majors behind the Yankees and Dodgers, but don’t be surprised if they end up first by season’s end.

Tampa Bay Rays: First-pitch strike percentage

How do the Rays do it? It feels like every year they do something different. The offense hasn’t been as efficient as last season, so the Rays have had to rely even more on the pitching — even though they’ve already churned through 28 pitchers and received just three combined innings from Shane Baz and Luis Patino. The pair were supposed to be in the Opening Day rotation, but Baz has just made his first start.

One thing the Rays do, no matter whom they roll out there, is throw first-pitch strikes. Only the Blue Jays have a higher first-pitch strike percentage at 63.5% compared to the Rays’ 63.2%. Now, the range here from top to bottom isn’t huge (63.5 down to the Royals’ 56.9%), but consider what that means over even just a few batters per game. In 2022, batters are hitting .252/.371/.423 after a 1-0 count compared to .212/.257/.330 after 0-1 (and they hit .337/.347/.560 on the first pitch).

This might admittedly be somewhat a reflection of the teams the Twins have played — 27 of their 62 games have come against the Tigers, Royals and A’s — but they have the best OPS in the majors against starting pitchers, hitting .266/.329/.471. Compare them to the Yankees:

Vs. starters:

Twins: .800 OPS, 56 HRs

Yankees: .784 OPS, 62 HRs

Vs. relievers:

Twins: .662 OPS, 17 HRs

Yankees: .751 OPS, 36 HRs

Basically, the Twins hit like the Yankees for the first six innings. If they can figure how out to solve bullpens, they have a chance to pull away even more in the AL Central.

The Cardinals are always contenders, with three straight playoff appearances and their most recent losing season coming way back in 2007. As always, they’re solid across the board, but the main reason they’re scoring 4.72 runs per game this season compared to 4.36 in 2021: Goldschmidt. The first baseman is having a superstar offensive season, hitting .327/.411/.577 and ranking second to Judge in runs created. Look at the Cardinals players (in the majors) who ranked near the top in runs created in recent seasons:

2021: Tyler O’Neill, 36th

2020: Goldschmidt, 25th

2019: Goldschmidt, 48th

2018: Matt Carpenter, 11th

2017: Carpenter, 43rd

2016: Carpenter, 42nd

The Cardinals haven’t rated higher than 10th in the National League in runs scored the past three seasons. They’re fifth in 2022 — thanks to Goldschmidt.

Atlanta Braves: They hit four-seam fastballs

In recent seasons, the big trend is for pitchers to throw four-seam fastballs up in the strike zone and fewer sinkers — especially those pitchers with high-spin fastballs. And while in general pitchers are throwing fewer fastballs and more breaking balls, the fastball remains the pitch that most pitchers need to establish to set up everything else. It’s also the easiest pitch to hit. Consider this: Batters have hit 741 home runs off four-seam fastballs and a combined 720 off sliders, curveballs and changeups.

The Braves are really good at hitting four-seam fastballs, with an .873 OPS that ranks second in the majors behind the Yankees. They’re hitting .261/.347/.526 with 38 home runs against four-seamers. Ozzie Albies in particular is feasting off them, with a .314 average and seven of his eight home runs against four-seamers. William Contreras is 8-for-22 with four home runs, and Matt Olson and Dansby Swanson also have an OPS over 1.000.

San Francisco Giants: Hitting with runners in scoring position

The pitching has gone backward a bit from 2021, but the offense has remained strong — and hitting with runners in scoring position has been a particular strength. The Giants have hit .265/.352/.476 with 26 home runs with RISP, ranking second in the majors in OPS and first in home runs. Leading the way:

With RISP, the Giants cut their strikeout rate from 24.1% to 21.2%, in part because they get a little more aggressive. But even with a slightly different approach, they’ve managed to maintain their power output in those moments.

This is simple: It’s a power-pitching (strikeout) game, and the Brewers lead the majors with 585 strikeouts (9.45 per game). Corbin Burnes leads the way with 92 K’s in 72⅔ innings, and the relief combo of Devin Williams and Josh Hader have combined for 72 strikeouts in 43⅔ innings. This is no surprise, as the Brewers also led the majors in strikeouts in 2021, edging out the Dodgers and White Sox.

The current problem: Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta, part of last year’s dominant trio alongside Burnes, are both on the injured list. And Eric Lauer, who had a 2.16 ERA and 54 K’s in 41⅔ innings through his first seven starts, has a 5.85 ERA and just 13 K’s in 20 innings over his past four outings.

You could make an argument that no team is as good at anything this season as the Guardians are at making contact. They have 374 strikeouts — 65 fewer than the Royals, the No. 2 team, and more than 100 fewer than the major league average of 499 per team. That’s about two fewer strikeouts per game than the typical team. Jose Ramirez and Steven Kwan rank 1-2 in the majors in lowest strikeout rate among qualified regulars, and Myles Straw and Amed Rosario rank in the top 25.

Now, don’t be confused — this still isn’t a great offensive team. The Guardians are just 19th in the majors in OPS and tied for 27th in home runs. Ramirez, Josh Naylor and Andres Gimenez are the only hitters with more than four home runs. On the other hand, they lead the majors in batting average with runners in scoring position (.291) and have a better offensive team than they’ve had the past few seasons:

2022: 101 OPS+

2021: 93 OPS+

2020: 88 OPS+

2019: 95 OPS+

It’s also the youngest lineup in the majors — with the hope that some of these hitters can grow into a little more power and keep them in the AL Central race.

The Red Sox just went 8-2 on a road trip to Oakland, Anaheim and Seattle, winning all three series and throwing four shutouts along the way (including two 1-0 wins over the Angels). Overall, they’ve gone 17-6 against the AL West — and 15-23 against everyone.

That includes a 7-14 mark within their own division, which means more than half of their remaining games (55 of 101) are against division rivals. They actually don’t play another AL East team until June 27, so 55 of their final 89 games will be within the division, including a stretch of 17 in a row against the Rays, Yankees and Blue Jays starting July 4 (they have 15 games left against both the Yankees and Rays). So, yes, they’ve beat up on the AL West, but the schedule will get a lot tougher as the summer heats up.

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