Every Thursday, Jordan Shusterman takes a look at one thing from each MLB division that we’ve learned from the past week of action.
AL East: Aaron Judge is back hitting homers and that’s what matters
Now that we’ve made it through days of goofy discourse surrounding Judge’s amusing side-eye before hitting a home run and where base coaches are supposed to stand, I’d like to remind people the most important part of this entire situation: Aaron Judge is back. And he’s hitting home runs. And not just when he might be getting some help from his first base coach picking signs (which is totally legal!), but also the next night when the Yankees needed another big swing against the rival Blue Jays.
Judge’s recent return from the IL has undeniably sparked this Yankees lineup once again, just as he did all of last season. He’s homered five times in his past five games, and has suddenly re-entered a home run race that is shaping up to be far more entertaining than the one Judge ran away with in 2022. At this time a year ago, Judge’s 17 homers were already five clear of Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, C.J. Cron and Yordan Álvarez, and the gap only widened as the season went on.
Through seven weeks of 2023, it’s Pete Alonso (15) atop the dinger leaderboard, followed by Max Muncy (14), Adolis García (13) and Luis Robert Jr. and Patrick Wisdom (12). Judge is on their tails with 11 (and tied with six others). Perhaps Judge stays scorching hot and eventually pulls away from the pack again, but I’m optimistic this will be a close competition to watch all summer long.
The Royals aren’t very good. There was a hot second a few weeks ago when they lost a series at home to the lowly A’s that I thought they might be the worst team in the league. At this point, I still think they are better than A’s — but I also think they might only be better than the A’s. It’s going to be a long season.
Yet one of the beautiful things about this sport is that even the worst teams in the league always give fans a handful of individuals to cheer about all year long, no matter the record. (Even in Oakland! See former Royal Brent Rooker!) This year, two dudes in particular are doing the heavy lifting when it comes to providing the K.C. faithful a reason to tune into their rebuilding Royals: Pérez and Pasquantino.
Pérez has had an iconic career in Kansas City, spanning from the top of the baseball world in 2015 as World Series champion to the languid lows of the rebuild currently in progress. Through the highs and lows, Pérez’s infectious smile and titanic homers have cemented him as a certified franchise legend; his relationship with the fans is unlike many across the sport. After swatting a catcher-record 49 dingers in 2021, Pérez regressed to a respectable but unspectacular 23 in 2022. Two years ago felt like the epic peak for the powerful backstop, and it seemed reasonable to expect a slow decline on offense as he entered his mid-30s. Instead, Pérez is back to slugging with the best of ‘em in 2023, launching nine homers thus far despite continuing to swing at absolutely everything. He’s a joy to watch, and it’s great to see him raking to this extent once again.
If Pérez is the past and present of this era of Royals baseball, Pasquantino is looking like the present and the future. The 25-year-old first baseman stood out last year for his elite plate discipline, walking more than he struck out as a rookie. That skill has carried over into his sophomore season — Pasquantino’s 193 plate appearances are currently the most in baseball among players with more walks than strikeouts (of which there are only nine with more than 100 plate appearances). He’s also not just up there to walk, of course — Pasquantino can do damage, too.
(As for Bobby Witt Jr.? *long sigh* I have no idea. We’ll talk about him another week.)
AL West: Rangers the new favorite? If not now, when?
Even with all the offseason activity of the Mariners, Angels and Rangers, it still seemed like a safe bet that the Astros would be the team to beat in the AL West. FanGraphs gave Houston a 53.4% chance on Opening Day to take the division crown for the sixth time in seven years, and I honestly thought that number was even a bit low.
The José Altuve injury in the World Baseball Classic — as well as the rash of pitching injuries in the early going for Houston — certainly lessened the intimidation factor of the defending champions, but there was still so much to like about the roster.
As June approaches, though, it might be time to start asking: What would we realistically need to see from the first-place Rangers to consider them the favorites in the division? Part of me feels like the answer to that question is: when the Rangers are popping champagne after clinching the division and not a second sooner. But despite just a two-game lead that Houston has plenty of time to overcome, FanGraphs has raised Texas’ odds to win the division from 12.7% on Opening Day to 33.5% through May 17. (It was at 40.0%, and just 1.1% behind Houston, as recently as three days ago). This feels notable.