MLB Power Rankings: The NL West battle up top continues and the Motivation Index makes its debut

The Athletic

It’s the home stretch of the MLB season. These are the games that thousands of people throughout the industry have been working toward for months. All they wanted was to be in a position where these games still matter.

That means it’s the perfect time of year to ask: Should teams even bother going for it? Is the rest of the season more worthwhile than taking a nice nap?

It’s a team-by-team consideration. Maybe your team has talked itself into World Series contention, or at least the possibility of making noise deep into the postseason. And maybe your team has been beset by injuries and is twisting through various suboptimal options just to get through games that have little playoff potential, and a siesta sounds like a superior alternative.

 

Luckily, we have developed a highly statistical Motivation Index for every team on a scale of 1-to-100, to weigh which club should be pushing all their resources toward the greatest finish possible, and which team is closer to being the first to ever not play out their full schedule because, eh, why bother?

1. Los Angeles Dodgers

Record as of Monday: 86-51
Last Power Ranking: 2
Motivation Index: 100

There’s a subtle flex coming from the top step of the Dodgers’ dugout, where Dave Roberts last week watched his team sweep a for-real Braves team, then enter the arena at San Francisco. He plans out a bullpen game every other day, it seems, and still, the Dodgers are 23-8 over the past five weeks. They pitched Justin Turner in a game recently and somehow it wasn’t desperate. This is the confidence that comes from penciling in a lineup that is eight deep with plus-.800 OPS hitters.

They’re still tinkering: trying to get Cody Bellinger right in place of injured AJ Pollock; squeezing more juice from a lineup that, amazingly, has actually underperformed; calculating the optimal bullpen balance for late innings and high-leverage situations. These things are pending. It’s a minor concern, in the grand scheme, if the Dodgers don’t win the division. Yet, their Reasons to Go On are maxed out.

“What it boils down to,” Walker Buehler said, “is playing a better month of baseball than they do.”

“They” are the Giants. And they are the team the Dodgers will see taped to the mirror until October.

2. San Francisco Giants

Record as of Monday: 87-50
Last Power Ranking: 1
Motivation Index: 101

Their 6-4 victory Sunday (after the Power Rankings voting closed) not only put the Giants back atop the West, it also finally decided the season series. In 19 games against the Dodgers, the Giants went 10-9. And the Dodgers outscored them by two total runs – a two-run difference after 158 total runs scored. This rivalry is on.

The Giants get an extra credit point on their Reasons to Go On index because players on other teams are quietly rooting for them to break the Dodgers’ streak of division titles. Many of them, like the Giants and their fans, are tired of having to hear about that streak. In some ways, it’s “Dodgers versus The World” and the Giants are playing as proxies.

It is amazingly rare that two teams in the same division are on pace for more than 100 wins apiece. Losing a bullpen game Saturday and winning with a solid start Sunday are both understandable outcomes.

That Giants’ victory Friday, though, is the kind of win that propels a team. It demonstrated that when the time comes — and the time will come — and these teams are limping along on fumes, dragging each other around the park like Foreman vs. Lyle in ’76, the Giants have what it takes to overcome.

“I can imagine,” Brandon Belt said, “that would be the most intense postseason series I could ever be a part of.”

3. Tampa Bay Rays

Record as of Monday: 86-51
Last Power Ranking: 3
Motivation Index: ∞

Contend? Rebuild? Concede? Push all-in?

The Rays are exploring all of these options at all moments. They are both chasing the best record in all of baseball, eyeing a return to the World Series, and have also already experienced it, processed it and made a series of forward-thinking trades that fortified their bullpen, added an interesting arm to their farm system and traded away their saves leader. This deal will happen in the future, but also multiple times in the past. It’s a great move. At a later date, we will learn who is involved. We’re making too much of it as it is, as it affects their overall organizational depth just as much as losing one of the top starters in baseball to Tommy John surgery did; which is not very much.

Whether or not the Rays have purpose in going on is the wrong question. They are eternal, and free will was never in the equation.

Also, they defend very well.

4. Milwaukee Brewers

Record as of Monday: 84-54
Last Power Ranking: 5
Motivation Index: 21

A bulk of the Brewers’ work has been done for them. The Reds got sidetracked the past two weeks. The Cardinals can’t figure out who they are or what they want. And any competition in the Central faded away weeks ago. Milwaukee owns the division. And honestly, the effort needed this month to gain the best record in the National League is kinda not worth it for Milwaukee. “Seeding” is for lawns and March Madness. This is baseball. Anybody can win in October.

So feel free to shift into cruise control, Crew. And don’t worry too much about the next three weeks. That walk-off win Sunday over the Cardinals was a blast. Craig Counsell is, low-key, the best manager in baseball right now. He probably won’t win manager of the year, but he should. This team is in some kind of ideal mind palace where nothing really fazes them too much. Stay sharp and take it day by day, blah blah blah. But start getting ready for the playoffs in Milwaukee.

5. Houston Astros

Record as of Monday: 79-57
Last Power Ranking: 4
Motivation Index: 93

Oh sure, they are finally getting healthy, rounding out their rotation, giving cherished opportunities to young and toolsy prospects, and Luis García might put the finishing touches on a Rookie of the Year campaign. All these factors and cruising to an AL West title are plainly legitimate reasons to keep playing.

But those reasons pale in comparison to feeding on opposing fans’ hatred, contempt and audible vitriol after the 2017 cheating scandal. Maybe feeding on it isn’t the right descriptor for how the Astros live and operate. Maybe dining on it lavishly is more accurate. And the only proper venue for the Astros to enjoy their meal is in October, when they can end the seasons — and championship aspirations — of less sin-stained teams.

6. Chicago White Sox

Record as of Monday: 79-58
Last Power Ranking: 6
Motivation Index: 87

The White Sox simply must soldier through to the bitter end because, due to the largely mediocre-to-bad AL Central competition, no one will really have any idea how good they are until they are warring against other playoff teams. The Crosstown Classic trophy is almost endearingly odd-looking but nothing was learned in the process of them winning it.

To a much lesser degree, with all the injuries to their more effective pitchers, September will offer clarity to whether Dallas Keuchel can do anything to reverse what looks like the worst season of his career.

To a much higher and infinitely urgent degree, maybe the close of the regular season will bring an end to that Lucas Giolito Guaranteed Rate commercial’s national run, a blight on society that has few equals. The message is nice, though.

7. New York Yankees

Record as of Monday: 78-58
Last Power Ranking: 7
Motivation Index: 87.63

Haha, go on? Go on? You think — no, you thought — that there was any choice in the matter? This is the New York Yankees. Explaining needs to be done about why the AL East crown has not already been clinched. Why are the broke boy Rays running away with the division? Why did Gerrit Cole only strike out 15 batters in his last outing when that Red Sox jerk Roger Clemens struck out 20 in a game and he pulled it off decades ago!?!

It’s a friggin’ travesty out here, and the city will not sleep until these things are addressed and what is wrong is set right. The Klubot has been reassembled for this express purpose of fending off the existential threat that is the Seattle Mariners’ recent hot streak.

It’s the Bronx and you know the vibes: they’re bad and you just gotta deal with and beat the Red Sox anyway.

8. Boston Red Sox

Record as of Monday: 79-60
Last Power Ranking: 8
Motivation Index: 53

For a team that would literally make the playoffs if the season ended today and has the offensive firepower to make some noise if they are still there come October, this is a low rating. The Red Sox took a hit when a seemingly never-ending wave of COVID-19 cases pile up across the roster.

That wave has included core players going down while the games have continued to be played, and the infeasibility of playing professional sports with an insufficiently vaccinated roster, smacks everyone in the face in the form of roster moves every day.

You can’t predict baseball, and there are a lot more inputs into the final score — much of it completely random nonsense — than simply which team is being more thoroughly ravaged by a virulent virus on a daily basis. But on balance, the Red Sox COVID-19 outbreak seems to have dealt a serious blow to their chances of finishing ahead of the Yankees. How much reason is there to go on if you can’t beat the Yankees?

T-9. Atlanta Braves

Record as of Monday: 72-64
Last Power Ranking: 9
Motivation Index: 99

If you’re just now catching up on the Braves, they lost their best player about two months ago and then got better. On the surface, it doesn’t make sense. But there are good reasons for it, as Atlanta GM Alex Anthopoulos laid out here with Jayson Stark and Doug Glanville. And they did the work to stay tough.

Beyond that, the Braves have a sneaky active lineup that — while a tad streaky — is a tough out top to bottom, with punch and power. And they have a sneaky competent pitching staff that — while a tad streaky — is well above league average front and back.

And Austin Riley, after a first half that was, at times …  a tad streaky, has been the second- or third-best player in the National League over the second half. He’s on fire. He trucked a hearty homer Sunday at Coors Field that has him on pace for more than 30 homers and 100 RBIs this season.

T-9. Oakland Athletics

Record as of Monday: 74-63
Last Power Ranking: 10
Motivation Index: 89.78

When the near future provides little clarity about what city or building you will be playing in, or how you will afford the arbitration raises of all the players that make up your team, the only choice is to live for today with an off-puttingly chill NorCal vibe that seems borderline denying of your situation. Everything is on fire, including the bullpen. Does this seem like a time to ride the wave?

The A’s just got swept by the very team they are fighting for a wild-card spot, face an uphill battle to emerge from a crowded field and still lack their best starting pitcher for the foreseeable future.

But manager Bob Melvin insists that things are going to be all right, which is good to hear since he’s the one who is going to have to steer them out of this mess.

 

#baseball, #professional

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