The Brewers just reeled off nine straight wins. The Reds more than doubled up their opponents in runs, 49 to 23, while winning eight of 10. The Pirates have won 11 of 15, including three of four from the No. 1-ranked Braves. The Cardinals just swept the Nationals, most pundits’ preseason favorites.
Each of those clubs ranks among the game’s hottest teams and they all share the baseball zip code of the NL Central, the only division where four of the five teams — sorry, Cubs fans — have a winning record.
Those recent exploits have catapulted those four NL Central clubs into the Nos. 5 through 8 slots of this week’s Power Rankings, with three of them having made jumps of at least seven spots to get there.
This year’s Power Rankings, as a reminder, are now ordered based on a quantitative formula that considers season record, last-10 record (with a small strength of schedule component) and season run differential.
NOTE: All stats are updated through Wednesday, April 24.
1. Atlanta Braves
Last week: 1
Justin Upton, who only hit 17 homers in 150 games last season, has already slugged 11, which leads the majors. He is only three away from the big league record for homers in the month of April, jointly held by Albert Pujols (2006) and Alex Rodriguez (2007). So prodigious and regular is his power that it has inspired novel tracking methods.
2. Colorado Rockies
Last week: 4
Normally placing 20th in the pack of 30 teams is nondescript, except when that’s the ranking of the Rockies’ rotation in both innings pitched (114 1/3) and ERA (4.33). In its experimental 2012, Colorado ranked last in both. Of particular note this year through four rotation turns are Jhoulys Chacin (1.46 ERA in 24 2/3 innings) and Jorge de la Rosa (2.82 ERA in 22 1/3 innings).
3. Boston Red Sox
Last week: 3
First baseman Mike Napoli leads the majors in doubles (10) and RBIs (26), adding to each last week with three doubles and nine RBIs. The average hitter with 91 plate appearances, as Napoli has, bats with just 53 runners on base, but he’s had 83 teammates on. Still, he’s made the most of those chance, batting .379 with runners in scoring position (as opposed to .182 with no one on base) for a pace of one RBI every 3.23 at bats, which would be fourth in AL history behind Babe Ruth in 1921, Manny Ramirez in 1999 and Jimmie Foxx in 1938.
4. Texas Rangers
Last week: 8
Not only do the Rangers rank first in the AL in fewest runs allowed (3.0 per game), but they also are pitching better at home (2.33 ERA) than they are on the road (3.25, still the fifth-best road ERA in majors) despite the Ballpark in Arlington being a notorious haven for hitters. For perspective, in the three straight years they reached the playoffs from 2010 through ’12, they’ve had a 4.06 ERA at home and a 3.74 ERA on the road.
5. Cincinnati Reds
Last week: 13
Reds manager Dusty Baker said recently, “On-base percentage is good, but RBIs are better.” The two, of course, actually go hand in hand, with Cincinnati’s Shin-Soo Choo and Joey Votto ranking 1-2 in the majors in OBP at .534 and .477, respectively, which is directly correlated with Brandon Phillips ranking second in the NL in RBIs with 21, given that he has had more plate appearances with men on base (56) than anyone else in the league and has capitalized, with a .370 average in those situations.
6. St. Louis Cardinals
Last week: 7
There’s more than one way to succeed on the mound: consider Cardinals starters Adam Wainwright, who is 4-1 in five starts with a 1.93 ERA and 37 strikeouts to one walk, and Jake Westbrook, who is 1-1 in three starts with a 1.25 ERA but an 8-to-14 K/BB ratio.
7. Milwaukee Brewers
Last week: 21
Car acceleration is measured from 0 to 60 mph, and the Brewers have pulled the baseball equivalent in record time, going from a 32-inning scoreless streak to a nine-game winning streak that ended late Wednesday night. The bullpen was especially impressive in the streak, averaging more than three innings per game while maintaining an ERA of 1.21.
8. Pittsburgh Pirates
Last week: 15
Nobody protects leads like the Pirates. Pittsburgh has not lost a game when gaining a lead after the third inning. Helping preserve that streak is closer Jason Grilli, who has saved the greatest percentage of his team’s wins (9-of-12, 75 percent) of any closer in baseball and who has a 0.00 ERA with 16 strikeouts in 10 innings.
9. Arizona Diamondbacks
Last week: 11
Shortstop Didi Gregorius has a hit in each of his six games this season, including three doubles and two homers. In all, he’s 10-for-25 (.400) and, though the standard small-sample proviso needs to be included, the early returns suggest he should be an offensive upgrade over Cliff Pennington (13-for-67, .194) as well as the expected defensive upgrade.
10. Kansas City Royals
Last week: 9
Scary thought for the AL Central: Imagine how good the Royals — excuse me, the first-place Royals — would be if their corner-infield cornerstones were actually hitting like they were supposed to. First baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas have, combined for four extra-base hits (zero homers) and a .204 average in 108 at bats.
11. Baltimore Orioles
Last week: 16
The Orioles have already played five series against AL East foes and won four of them for a 9-6 record after taking two of three from Toronto (and two of three from the NL West’s Dodgers). But it wasn’t all good news for Baltimore last week: Their extra-inning winning streak snapped at 17 games, and top pitching prospect Dylan Bundy is scheduled to see Dr. James Andrews because of elbow discomfort.
12. New York Yankees
Last week: 6
The Yankees have four position players on the 40-man roster who are 36 are older. Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez haven’t played this year and aren’t due back until at least the season’s second half; Lyle Overbay is hitting .234 with a .644 OPS and Ichiro Suzuki is batting just .222 with a .566 OPS. At least Travis Hafner, who turns 36 in June, is crushing the ball with a .300 average, 1.077 OPS and five homers.
13. Oakland Athletics
Last week: 2
Sophomore slump or Verducci Effect? Jarrod Parker has gone from rookie sensation in 2012 — when he was 13-8 with a 3.49 ERA in 29 starts — to one of the game’s worst starters in the first month of ’13. He’s started 0-3 with a 7.50 ERA in four turns through the rotation, though his most recent outing was his first quality start and the first in which he got an appreciable numbers of swings and misses (with five strikeouts after a previous high of two).
14. San Francisco Giants
Last week: 10
Tim Lincecum has the hardware (two NL CY Youngs), Matt Cain and Barry Zito have the contracts (more than $125 million each) and Ryan Vogelsong has the recognition (an All-Star appearance), but it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Madison Bumgarner is the best pitcher in the Giants’ rotation. He has a 1.87 ERA, .190 average against and a 34-to-8 K/BB ratio in five starts.
15. New York Mets
Last week: 14
The best offense in the majors belongs to the . . . Mets. Yes, the team whose two highest-paid outfielders this season were either released (Jason Bay, about a $21 million buyout) or long-since retired (Bobby Bonilla, $1.2 million in deferred money) are scoring more runs per game — 5.68 — than anyone else in the league, thanks in large part to timely hitting, with a majors-best .893 OPS with runners in scoring position.
16. Tampa Bay Rays
Last week: 26
The math is pretty simple: If the Rays allow four or more runs, they’ll probably lose (1-9); if they allow three or fewer they’ll probably win (9-2). That was the case in their five wins last week when they held the A’s and Yankees to an average of just one run per game in those wins.
17. Detroit Tigers
Last week: 5
Instead of saying “glass half-full,” optimistic people in Detroit should be called “goatee half-blonde” in honor of restored closer Jose Valverde, who returned to a big league mound with half his facial hair bleached to nail down a save. It will take severe optimism to think Valverde, whose K/9 plummeted more than two last year and who allowed nine earned runs in 2 2/3 postseason innings, will hold the job the rest of the year.
18. Minnesota Twins
Last week: 18
The Twins have played on just three of the last seven days, though one was a doubleheader, because of the weather system that wreaked havoc on the north. Such a sporadic schedule allowed closer Glen Perkins to save four straight games for a total of six this year. Perkins hasn’t allowed a baserunner in five of those six chances.
19. Los Angeles Angels
Last week: 28
At least Los Angeles’ problems are confined to its poor pitching — a 4.88 staff ERA, second-to-last in the majors — because it has a really well-balanced offense. The Angels have 10 players with at least 30 plate appearances and above-average production (i.e. an OPS+ of 100 or better), which is the most in baseball; no other team has more than seven such players.
20. Cleveland Indians
Last week: 24
The Indians have made their hits count. They are tied for fourth in the majors with 68 extra-base hits but rank last with just 92 singles. Carlos Santana (11 XBH, 8 1Bs) and Mark Reynolds (12 XBH, 6 1Bs) are the most extreme cases.
21. Washington Nationals
Last week: 12
Not only are the Nationals below .500 at 10-11, but they are also 0-4 in Stephen Strasburg’s last four starts. It’s hardly his fault, as he has turned in three quality starts during that stretch. The offense has scored just seven runs in those four losses.
22. Chicago White Sox
Last week: 17
For his career, Adam Dunn has walked in 16.1 percent of all plate appearances, yet this year in addition to not hitting — he has a .100 average and only three homers — he’s also not walking, with six free passes in 77 PAs, a 7.8 percent rate. Still, that’s not as bad as teammate Jeff Keppinger who hasn’t walked at all in 82 PAs, and has a higher average (.188) than OBP (.183) thanks to a couple of sacrifice flies.
23. Los Angeles Dodgers
Last week: 19
The Dodgers, who entered the season with seven healthy starting pitchers and one already on the DL (Ted Lilly), have seen three starters (Zack Greinke, Chris Capuano and Chad Billingsley) all succumb to injuries, though Lilly was activated and made his season debut on Wednesday. Consistent, healthy rotations are a hallmark of winners, yet L.A. leads the majors with eight pitchers having started games and is just 9-11.
24. Toronto Blue Jays
Last week: 20
There’s at least one early bright spot: Toronto’s bullpen has been asked to carry a undue load — it ranks second, behind only the Astros, in innings pitched with 79 — yet it has held up so far. Its 3.08 ERA ranks 12th, and didn’t blow its first save opportunity until Wednesday.
25. Philadelphia Phillies
Last week: 22
The Phillies are the oldest team in the NL — an average age of 30.6 for pitchers (oldest) and 30.8 for hitters (second-oldest) — but got a nice debut from 22-year-old starter Jonathan Pettibone on Monday. Pettibone allowed two runs in 5 1/3 innings, while striking out six and walking none as Philadelphia beat Pittsburgh. He was the youngest Phillie to start a game since 2007.
26. Seattle Mariners
Last week: 25
Felix Hernandez’s velocity may be on the decline — down for the third straight year from 94.1 in 2010 to 90.5 so far in ’13 — but by some measures, he’s actually getting better. Opponents have whiffed on 26.2 percent of all swings and are striking out at a rate of 9.6 every nine innings, both of which are career bests for Hernandez.
27. Houston Astros
Last week: 29
One shame about the Astros’ distractingly bad play — in terms of strikeouts in the lineup and poor starts from the rotation — is that Jose Altuve’s great start has gone unnoticed. He’s got a .353/.415/.459 batting line and already looks to be a cinch as Houston’s lone All-Star representative in July.
28. San Diego Padres
Last week: 23
The Padres are 4-2 against the Dodgers and 2-13 against the rest of baseball. Their four wins against L.A. were the only four games San Diego scored at least six runs, meaning it is 2-17 when scoring five or fewer.
29. Chicago Cubs
Last week: 27
Two of the free-agent additions to the rotation, Scott Feldman and Edwin Jackson, are a combined 0-6 with 31 runs allowed (19 earned) in 36 1/3 innings and four fielding errors. At least the third, Carlos Villanueva, has had success: a 1.53 ERA in 29 1/3 innings, with 21 strikeouts and a 0.75 WHIP.
30. Miami Marlins
Last week: 30
Giancarlo Stanton went longer without a home run to start last season — 19 games and 65 at bats — but this year’s 15-game, 55-at bat drought feels worse because he was supposed to be the last remaining productive hitter in Miami’s lineup and the last reason to go see the Marlins play this year (until rookie pitcher Jose Fernandez made the team, that is).