With Major League Baseball teams reaching the 50-game mark last week in their 162-game schedule, we now have enough of a sample size to start separating the true players from the pretenders. Along with expected contenders like the Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals and Washington Nationals thriving, the Houston Astros, Minnesota Twins and New York Mets have all been surprise winners.
Houston is a key team to watch. With a large lead in the American League West, they seem primed to make a post-season run. But if they do, it’ll happen with a model that appears antithetical to top-shelf performance. Offensively, the team has been above league average in run scoring despite posting one of the AL’s worst on base percentages. (Thank a circuit-leading number of homers for filling the gap.) As for their pitching, beyond their ace Dallas Keuchel, the starting pitching has been erratic, but with one of baseball’s best bullpens, the Astros have kept runs down. If that combination – particularly the heavy reliance on homers – continues to put up wins, it may blow the minds of stat anoraks everywhere. We’ll just have to wait and see, but until then here’s a look at week 9:
Go with a rookie phenom. The New York Mets’ Noah Syndergaard was the team’s top pitching prospect coming into this season. While he didn’t start the year in the Major Leagues, his promotion on May 12 was closely watched. He has not disappointed. After a so-so debut, he’s rattled off three straight quality starts (six innings or more pitched; three runs or fewer allowed). During that stretch, he’s shown tremendously impressive command of his pitches. In fact, he’s walked only one batter, while striking out 16 in that period. As a result, look for him to lead his team to victory on Tuesday when the Mets face the Padres in San Diego. Beyond Syndergaard, a key element that cuts in Mets favor for this contest is the Padres’ starting pitcher, Ian Kennedy. Something hasn’t been right with the veteran right-hander this year as evidenced by his 7.15 ERA. (He has dealt with injury, which might be a cause.) Still, what’s particularly troubling is how he’s thrown at the usually friendly Petco Park. In his last two home starts, Kennedy has given up 13 runs in just 8 2/3 innings of work.
Runs, runs, runs. The Toronto Blue Jays have two characteristics that make them very likely to be involved in a high-scoring game. The first is their lineup leads the AL in run scoring; the second is the club’s pitching has been woeful. On Friday, they should engage in a run-producing fiesta at home against the Astros. As discussed above, the Astros are making things happen with home runs. And, in this game, they’ll face Toronto pitcher Drew Hutchinson, who is certainly susceptible to giving up the long ball. Last year, he yielded 23 homers. Overall, Hutchinson has had his struggles this year (5.12 ERA). As for the Astros’ starter, it’ll likely be a fill-in with Scott Feldman hitting the disabled list. Considering how potent the Blue Jays’ hitters are whoever gets the assignment for the Astros may have trouble.
Ride the hot hand. Seattle Mariners’ starter Felix Hernandez was the runner-up in the Cy Young Award voting last year. Clearly, he doesn’t want to finish second again. The superstar has pitched brilliantly so far in 2015, posting an 8-1 record and a 1.91 ERA. He’s also gone deep into games (he’s averaged more than seven innings a start), which means he typically doesn’t have to rely too much on the bullpen for success. That combination – along with the fact that he’s been particularly amazing over his past two starts (0.56 ERA) – and you should pick the Mariners to win at home over the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday. Oh, and if you need any more proof that Hernandez will dominate, consider the fact that Rays hitters own a meagre .222 batting average and .289 slugging percentage in 150 career plate appearances against “King Felix”. A final point: Rays’ starter Alex Colome has posted a shaky 4.55 ERA in 29 2/3 innings.