We're headed into Memorial Day weekend, and this holiday is often cited as the point in the Major League schedule where teams start to have a good assessment of what they have and what they lack.
We'll have plenty of time to focus on deficiencies as we near the non-waiver Trade Deadline, but for now let's focus on the positive end of the spectrum. Here are 10 team strengths that have stood out thus far in 2017. This is not a full accounting of "good" teams, because there's nothing wrong with being above-average-but-not-elite in every area rather than jumping off the page in a single spot. But as you'll see, a team's striking success in one realm of the game can help us understand some surprise elements of the standings.
The Rockies' pitching in big spots
Mentioned this within this week's Rotation, but it bears repeating as the Rockies have continued to put themselves not just in the top position in the National League West but in contention for what would be the greatest regular-season record in franchise history. In what Baseball Reference defines as high-leverage spots, the Rockies' pitching staff has churned out a 1.97 ERA -- by far the best in baseball. Where did the Rox rank in this category last year? Dead last (5.24)! For further context, consider that the best ERA in high-leverage that BR has on record was the 2.28 mark achieved by the 1965 Dodgers and 2015 Cardinals.
Colorado has done it with the youngest starting staff in the game (with the depth tested by the absences of Jon Gray and Chad Bettis) and with a rebuilt bullpen in which Greg Holland has been a revelation in the ninth.
Overall, this "clutch pitching" has helped the Rockies go 9-1 in one-run games.
The D-backs' baserunning
Pardon the pun, but Arizona -- the NL West's other surprise squad -- is running away with the lead in FanGraphs' BsR stat. It combines stolen bases, caught stealings and other running plays such as taking the extra bag or being thrown out on the bases into a single above-average or below-average metric. This has been a separator for one of baseball's surprise squads. The D-backs are 17.1 runs above average in BsR. The Rays (11.0) are the only other club in double-digits. It doesn't hurt that the D-backs' best hitter, Paul Goldschmidt, is also an elite baserunner (so far, he has as many steals, 11, as the Tigers), despite his size.
Oh, and this is obviously not the D-backs' only strength. While the Rox have had an elite pitching staff in high-leverage spots, Arizona batters' .882 OPS in those moments is the best in baseball.
The Twins' defense
Will regression catch up to the surprisingly-first-place Twins? I don't know, but I do know the surprisingly-first-place Twins are catching everything. This is one of those rare kumbaya moments where the old and new ways of evaluating defense all seem to be in agreement. Not only have the Twins tied for the fewest errors (15) in baseball, but they rank first in defensive efficiency (.729) and they are far and away above everybody else in defensive runs saved (32). As expected, a full season of the incredible Byron Buxton has reinvented the reputation of the outfield group, which has gone from third-worst on the DRS scale in 2016 (minus-30) to second-best (plus-16) this year. Miguel Sano has also been surprisingly solid in his return to the hot corner, and Jason Castro has been a defensive upgrade behind the plate.
The collective improvement has allowed the Twins to maximize the potential of what rated as an uncertain pitching staff going into the season and has made this club far friskier than anybody anticipated.
The Nationals' offense
They've got what amounts to the Major League team Triple Crown, leading in batting average (.277), homers (70) and RBIs (252), while also leading in more nuanced metrics like on-base percentage (.348), slugging percentage (.477), weighted on-base average (.350), isolated power (.201), weighted runs created (258), and, well, you get the idea. These guys are good. As of Thursday, Bryce Harper (1.132) and Ryan Zimmerman (1.127) trailed only Michael Conforto and the now-injured Freddie Freeman on the NL OPS board, and Daniel Murphy (.947), Anthony Rendon (.875) and Jayson Werth (.847) were in the top 35. So far, the loss of pesky leadoff man Adam Eaton to an ACL injury has not really affected this club.
If the Nats somehow keep this pace up, they'll score 943 runs, which would not only blow away the franchise record (763 last year), but would be the most by any Major League club since the 2007 Yankees (968).
The Indians' bullpen
Awkward timing here, perhaps, because the 'pen has suffered its first two blown saves of the season this week. But the 2.19 ERA is still best in MLB, and it has helped the Indians offset some of the iffy nature of a rotation that has fallen short of expectation.
You know (or should know) about Andrew Miller and Cody Allen, but this is probably the deepest relief corps in the game right now. The signing of Boone Logan brought the Tribe a more traditional lefty setup situation to go with Miller's anywhere/anytime excellence, Nick Goody (no runs allowed in 16 2/3 innings) has been an underrated pickup in a low-profile trade with the Yankees, Zach McAllister has limited right-handers to a .336 OPS, and, though it's easy to fall in love with Miller's slider, some opponents think Bryan Shaw's cutter is the most deadly pitch on the staff (the two pitches have basically identical weighted values this year, according to FanGraphs' data). Wednesday's loss to the Reds was the first time all year that the Indians lost a game they had led after six innings.
The Tribe could just as easily be listed here for their collective caught stealing percentage (53.6) from catchers Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez, which is by far the best in the game.
The Cardinals' starting pitching
It's scary to think where the Cardinals, who again this year have had some defensive and baserunning issues and who aren't getting anywhere near the power and run production they did a year ago, would be without their stellar starting pitching, which had the best staff ERA (3.00) and second-best Fielding Independent Pitching mark (3.68) in the Majors at the midweek mark.
All the peripherals that pointed to Mike Leake having a tough-luck first year as a Card have proven true in his terrific start to the season (he boasts a league-leading 1.91 ERA and 221 ERA+), and the return of Lance Lynn (2.53, 165), the improved physical state of Michael Wacha (2.74, 152) and the continued development of Carlos Martinez (3.28, 127) have all brought this group closer to the level it reached in the aforementioned 100-win season of '15. It also doesn't hurt that the most accomplished member of the staff, Adam Wainwright, seems to have righted himself after a brutal April.
The Brewers' first-inning fortitude
More than most elements of this list, this one might be especially susceptible to correction over the course of the campaign. But a little window into why the Brewers have leaped into contention in the NL Central ahead of schedule is the way they've jumped on teams early. Entering Wednesday, their first-inning run differential of plus-30 was over double that of the next-closest club, the Rays. This, despite regular leadoff man Jonathan Villar's big step back offensively so far this season (though Eric Sogard has taken some leadoff turns lately and swung a hot bat).
The Astros' zone contact
There are a lot of ways to explain the Astros' surge up the standings this season, but here's one that probably deserves a little more attention than it gets. The Astros have really remade their offensive profile this year. From 2013-16, their rate of one strikeout every 4.18 plate appearances was the worst in baseball, and this was attributable to a Major League-worst zone contact percentage (according to FanGraphs) of 83.1.
But this year, the additions of Josh Reddick, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran and a full season of Yuli Gurriel have totally changed that tone. The Astros are now second in strikeout rate (only the Red Sox have been tougher to K) because they make contact on 88.6 percent of pitches in the zone -- the highest percentage in the Majors right now by 0.7.
Interestingly, the Astros have also been the best club in baseball at generating traffic with no outs, with a .374 OBP when leading off innings.
The Tigers' barrels
The Tigers might be flirting with time as they try to ride the third-oldest position player group to October, but the results indicate that a lineup still centered around Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez (and buoyed by the recent return of J.D. Martinez and the return to prominence of Justin Upton) can still roll out the barrels. What is a barrel? For those unfamiliar, that's Statcast™'s definition of a well-struck ball -- an exit velocity and launch angle combination that generally leads to a minimum .500 batting average and 1.500 slugging percentage.
As of this writing, the Tigers have the highest percentage of barreled balls in play (9.87) in the game, by a full percentage point over the A's (8.89) and at least 2 percentage points over everybody else.
The Angels' center fielder
His name's Mike Trout. Ever heard of him? Obviously the goal of this piece is not to harp on specific individuals, but Trout presents a downright comical statistical advantage here. He has already been worth 3.4 Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball Reference. For the sake of perspective, Yoenis Cespedes was worth less than that (2.9) over the entirety of 2016.
Because of Trout, Angels center fielders (Cameron Maybin has logged 36 plate appearances there) have been worth 2.4 WAR. The next-closest club is the Blue Jays, at 1.2. So the Halos have at least doubled everybody else at this particular position, giving them by far the biggest single positional advantage in the sport.
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Anthony Castrovince is a Sports on Earth contributor, MLB.com columnist and MLB Network contributor. Follow him on Twitter @Castrovince.