MLB Entertainment Rankings Part III: Appointment Baseball

Baseball’s ten most entertaining teams and the rave reviews that go with them

Part I – The Forgettables and the methodology

Part II – The Renewables

When a television show becomes that thing everybody talks about the next day, it is known as appointment television.

Of course, today that phrase is a bit antiquated.  With DVR and on-demand everything instantly, there’s no need to hurry and see a show you can watch on your own time with a fast forward feature.

Live sports, however, are much the opposite way.  With smartphones it is harder and harder by the year to “record the game” and watch it later without already knowing how it turned out.  There was an episode of Seinfeld about this exact thing, and it feels like something that happened in ancient times.

Our top ten entertaining baseball teams are some of the last bastions of appointment television.  It’s appointment baseball; teams the baseball-lover should set aside a little time to check out.

t-9:  Baltimore Orioles – 80 points
Record:  15 | Attractions:  31 | Narrative(s):  18 | Villainy:  7 | Atmosphere:  4 | Unpredictability:  5

Photo Credit: AP

Camden Yards might have the most interesting crowd to watch in baseball.

When the more popular teams of Major League Baseball, particularly their two well-heeled division rivals come to the Inner Harbor, they bring a lot of fans with them.  People still come after all these years to see Camden Yards, and the neighborhood nearby is a part of Baltimore worth planning a trip around.

With the Orioles still in the thick of things despite a recent nasty losing skid, their fans have been responding with as much noise as they can create.  Only in regional college rivalries will a crowd go back-and-forth like a Camden Yards crowd when a rival is in town.

The Orioles are in their second year of not being expected to contend in the AL East but doing so anyway.  They hit home runs, with Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo swinging for the fences, and they’re an upstart team with not too much budget in a division with three of the richest teams in the game.

They make a good villain, too.  Buck Showalter will not shy away from the microphone if he wants to say something about an opponent who he thinks is doing things improperly.  Manny Machado is one of the game’s most divisive players, an undeniably skilled player who has a tendency to put MLB rules to a true test.  He wears his emotions on his sleeve, and this can get him into trouble with opposing players from time to time.

Machado is also a thrill to watch, regardless of emotion or controversy.  It’s a down year for the third baseman, but he continues to press away, and gets as much power out of it as he can, with 12 homers despite the step back.  Davis can still hit the ball a long way as well, having knocked 14 balls over the fence.  Jonathan Schoop is starting to break out a bit, hitting 11 homers and being among the team leaders in on-base percentage.

Longtime prospect Dylan Bundy has really emerged as a frontline starting pitcher, holding an ERA close to 3.  Wade Miley has quickly gotten through his games, but the rest of the rotation is a bit of an adventure.

Zach Britton is unlikely to return until after the All Star Break or so, and this injury combines with the top-heavy staff and all the homers to create a lot of high-scoring baseball games.  The Orioles tire out the lights on the scoreboard on both sides, and that makes for a crowd-pleasing ballclub for a stadium with a divided crowd.

Why watch:  To see if a team can win the AL East by brute force.

Why not:  Perhaps you enjoy stolen bases and would not like the Orioles and their lead feet.

t-9:  Milwaukee Brewers – 80 points
Record:  18 | Attractions:  31 | Narrative(s):  20 | Villainy:  2 | Atmosphere:  5 | Unpredictability:  4

(AP Photo/Morry Gash)

It almost goes without saying that the Brewers are the most surprising first place team in baseball right now.  The team was expected to be in the midst of a rebuild, with an average age in the 20s and nobody on the team over 34 (relief pitcher Carlos Torres).

The team’s best player so far has been Travis Shaw, who came over during the offseason from Boston for relief pitcher Tyler Thornburg.  The third baseman is just shy of .300 with ten homers.  Eric Thames, fresh from a stint in the KBO, has hit 16 out of the park and has had to deal with veiled accusations from a division rival.

The Brewers are entertaining because they, much like the Rays, represent exactly what you would expect in a smaller-market ballclub.  Their most well-known player, Ryan Braun, has seen better days.  They have an aging starting pitcher that you forgot about years ago in Matt Garza.  They have players who only the hardened baseball nerd is aware of that are making a splash on the big stage, such as closer Corey Knebel, perhaps baseball’s next great closer.

The 1-2 punch of Chase Anderson and Jimmy Nelson is a combination of mid-career pitchers who have turned a corner in 2017.  If they’re due for a comedown this season, advanced stats like FIP don’t suggest it.

There’s also the broadcast booth, where Bob Uecker continues to hold court, not too far off from his Harry Doyle character in Major League.  He has fun and so do his listeners.  To watch the Brewers and hear Uecker, you need to select the WTMJ feed on MLB’s streaming service, but those of us who have it are used to doing exactly this.

The Brewers could fall off the pace in a week and nobody would be particularly surprised, but they just might stick around for longer than that, particularly with a couple of playoff teams in the National League from last year already out of it thanks to Murphy’s Law.

Why watch:  You won’t see a more ideal small-market underdog outside of fiction.

Why not:  If you’re afraid that you already missed the best part.

8:  Boston Red Sox – 81 points
Record:  15 | Attractions:  39 | Narrative(s):  10 | Villainy:  10 | Atmosphere:  4 | Unpredictability:  3

(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

There are always narratives in Boston.  There are narratives on top of narratives when it comes to the Red Sox.  People who do not consider themselves Red Sox fans, however, often have no reason to care about a single one of them.  Splitting the difference, that gives the Red Sox ten points in a twenty point category.

Boston might be baseball’s most notable villain these days.  They’re talented, they have some great young players as well as some high-priced veteran free agents and a couple of stars brought in via trade.  Their fans are everywhere, and whether they live in Quincy or Tampa it makes no difference as to how they support the team.  Every loss is a sign that it’s all turning to sand like everyone knew it would.  Every win is a glimpse of the championship the whole fanbase knows the team should be every night of the full 162.  They can never get enough credit, and outsiders don’t know what it’s really like.  I say this as someone who adores the Hub of the Universe we have up here:  I can fully understand any fan of any other baseball team getting sick and tired of the Boston Red Sox and their fans.  The Cubs built the Baseball Terminator last year, so they’re fun villains, and the Yankees will always be the Yankees, but at this point liking most MLB clubs means disliking the Red Sox.

Of course, for those who don’t dislike the Red Sox, there’s always Chris Sale with that crowd behind him, the closest thing to a rock star pitcher the team has had since the great Pedro Martinez.  Craig Kimbrel has been emphatically unhittable this season, and the only thing that’s causing any concern around him is how often he’s been on the mound.

Boston’s young outfield is something to behold as well.  Jackie Bradley Junior might never be a consistent hitter, but he is good enough with the glove to give even Kiermaier a run for his Gold Glove money.  Mookie Betts can do everything a hitter could be expected to do, he’s an excellent baserunner, and he can throw people out from Fenway’s cavernous right field.  Andrew Benintendi looks about as young as your average batboy and he’s tied for the club lead in homers.

The offense is streaky, and lacks power.  So home runs are a problem, if strikeout pitching is anything but.  Infield defense has been lacking, particularly on the left side, and it has impacted the team in a few ways.  The back end of the rotation is a mess.

David Price provides curiosity and cliffhangers.  Between his fights with the Boston press, and his inconsistent play, every Price start seems huge.

As these rankings have mentioned broadcasters numerous times, I want to take this opportunity to wish Jerry Remy a safe and speedy recovery from his upcoming surgery.  The Red Sox’ atmosphere points aren’t coming entirely from Fenway Park, they have very entertaining broadcasters, none more well-known than Remy and his signature Fall River-style New England Accent.

Why watch:  There’s a fair chance this team was built specifically to be fun to watch.

Why not:  Using an entertainment analogy, some people get tired of blockbuster sequels.

7:  Arizona Diamondbacks – 82 points
Record:  16 | Attractions:  39 | Narrative(s):  17 | Villainy:  2 | Atmosphere:  3 | Unpredictability:  5

The biggest reason the Diamondbacks score so high here is that Paul Goldschmidt is unlike pretty much any other first baseman.  If there is such a thing as a five-tool first baseman, something that seems like it would be impossible, Paul Goldschmidt is that guy.

Goldschmidt currently has an on-base percentage of .444.  He’s hit fourteen home runs.  Yet he doesn’t lead the Diamondbacks in that category.

Jake Lamb is the reason why.  The 26 year-old third baseman has hit 16 home runs and put up an OPS of .932 in the process, establishing himself as a seemingly-out-of-nowhere breakout player in a very crowded division.

Zack Greinke is rounding back to ace form, having struck out 100 batters so far.  Robbie Ray has been a revelation as the second starter, which softens the blow of losing Shelby Miller to Tommy John Surgery during what was looking like a bounce-back season.

What makes Arizona so unpredictable, and what might end up doing them in, is a bullpen that lets nobody rest with a lead.  Manager Torey Lovullo is forced to juggle Fernando Rodney, Jorge De La Rosa, and J.J. Hoover to get important outs, which puts the team at a disadvantage.  From the viewing perspective, however, this is not a bad thing.

Arizona plays in a division with a lot of thin air.  Balls fly well in their home park, as well as Colorado.  The Diamondbacks hit a lot of home runs, and so do their competitors.  Combine this with a lack of a bullpen, and it’s hard to turn off a Diamondbacks game no matter the lead.  Close games will be edge-of-the-seat moments, and every Rodney appearance a three act play all its own.

Why watch:  The NL West is the best division in the National League right now and the Diamondbacks probably have the best player in it.

Why not:  There are some people out there who wished their team had made Torey Lovullo the manager.  Those people probably should not check in on him now.

6:  Minnesota Twins – 83 points
Record:  18 | Attractions:  36 | Narrative(s):  20 | Villainy:  2 | Atmosphere:  3 | Unpredictability:  4

Two years ago, the Twins were a surprise contender that just couldn’t quite hang on until the end.  Last year, they were the worst team in baseball.  It’s hard to gauge how much the Twins have exceeded expectations because it’s difficult to have had any expectations coming into the season.

Ervin Santana has been excellent at the top of the rotation, currently sporting a 2.20 ERA in 90 innings.  He has three complete game shutouts this season and could be the biggest reason the Twins are where they are right now.

Joe Mauer is still productive at age 34, batting .284 with four home runs.  Brian Dozier has ten homers, and young center fielder Byron Buxton has ten stolen bases.  Yet the biggest revelation on the Twins’ roster has been third baseman Miguel Sano, a 24 year-old with a big power swing.

Sano has 15 homers and a pair of triples.  He has also struck out a whopping 86 times, and wild swinging types are always fun to watch.  Sano leads the Twins in homers, runs batted in, runs scored, hits, and batting average.

Closer Brandon Kintzler is the kind of story that tends to pop up on upstart teams like the Twins.  On his way to a journeyman career, Kintzler found himself in the closer role last year in Minnesota and hasn’t let go.  He’s not an overpowering strikeout pitcher kind of guy, he’ll let you get yourself out, but his 17 saves are third in the American League.

Watch for young starter Jose Berrios.  At 23, Berrios is sporting a 2.84 ERA and a respectable FIP that suggests it’s not too lucky.  Should Santana fall back to Earth anytime soon, it’ll be Berrios who needs to pick up the slack.

Why watch:  Because Joe Mauer deserves one more run.

Why not:  First place or not, better days are still to come for the team that just picked first in the draft.

5:  Los Angeles Dodgers – 84 points
Record:  16 | Attractions:  39 | Narrative(s):  15 | Villainy:  9 | Atmosphere:  2 | Unpredictability:  3

With all due respect to Chris Sale and Craig Kimbrel, the most thrilling starter/closer combo in baseball right now plays in Dodger Stadium.  Clayton Kershaw went from being good, to being great, to being a pitcher baseball fans can’t miss.  To put Kershaw’s current level in perspective, consider that serious baseball fans are now having the debate of “Kershaw or Koufax” when it comes to the Dodgers.

Let’s take a second to let that sink in.  Baseball isn’t the NBA.  Making grand historical comparisons simply isn’t a thing baseball people enjoy doing, and we reserve it for people doing historic things.  Kershaw has had a great career already, but the Koufax comparisons started really over the last two years, and mostly over this year.

Of course, the Dodgers aren’t all just pitching.  The lineup features last year’s rookie of the year Corey Seager, and a guy on track to win the award this year in Cody Bellinger.

Yasiel Puig is still there, entertaining for reasons good and bad.  Puig is a baseball adventure, and his supposed controversy is more the Manny Ramirez “are we sure this guy’s all the way on his hinges” kind of craziness than anything akin to cheating or worse.  His ten home runs are second on the team behind Bellinger, and he has regained his everyday player status.

Brandon McCarthy has become an effective second starter, and he continues to bring a loose attitude and his unique brand of clubhouse chemistry to Chavez Ravine.  McCarthy is one of baseball’s funnier quotes from night to night, and really has solidified LA’s rotation.

Alex Wood is the young guy in the pitching rotation, and quietly looks like he belongs in a rotation with Kershaw.  In eleven starts, he has an ERA just north of 2 and a FIP a little below that.  He’s leading the staff in strikeouts per nine.  Then of course, there’s the ongoing strange career resurgence of Rich Hill of the mid-life curveball.

Kenley Jansen has thrown 26.2 innings thus far as of Wednesday morning.  He has struck out 44 batters in that period of time, putting up an ERA of 1.01 and converting all twelve of his save opportunities.

To the casual viewer there is good news and bad news.  The good news is, the Dodgers play in a division that might end up being down to the wire between three teams, all of them fun to watch.  The bad news, however, is that it is impossible to watch a Dodgers home broadcast and not be a bit taken aback by a pair of strange voices that we’re not used to associating the Dodgers with.  It’s not that LA has a bad broadcast team, much the opposite.  The TV crew for the Dodgers is fantastic, and once the initial surprise that Vin Scully really did follow through on that whole retirement thing wears off they’ll be celebrated considerably.  It just takes a game or two.

Why watch:  There are people in Cooperstown who haven’t been part of the comparisons Clayton Kershaw is now a part of.

Why not:  More than either AL East team or any team in baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers currently represent the power of a giant payroll, which doesn’t sit right with everybody.

4:  New York Yankees – 85 points 
Record:  19 | Attractions:  40 | Narrative(s):  16 | Villainy:  6 | Atmosphere:  2 | Unpredictability:  2

Tampa Bay Rays, New York Yankees
AP Photo: Chris O’Meara

Looking at the above scores, you might be wondering how the New York Yankees got just a 6/10 for villainy from a columnist who lives in Boston.

Even up here the headline about Aaron Judge is “how would you even hate this guy?”  That’s the kind of thing it took Derek Jeter something like twelve years to earn out of Boston, Judge is a couple months in and sports radio is waving the white flag already.

Be it through a charm offensive, or maybe they’re just that likable, Judge and Gary Sanchez have been positioned as the next big things in New York, and they’re not being portrayed as the juggernaut with a target on their backs the way that their predecessors in the Bronx have typically been.

The Yankees being back in a year where we expected them to be retooling is undoubtedly a big story, and it’s not just a story.  Who knows if Aaron Judge is really going to be a long term legend, but in the immediate he currently leads the league in both WAR and mass.  Judge is the biggest person, period, to ever have played Major League Baseball.  Let’s check that off as a sign of likely long term success.  Shaq made quite a career of being an enormous basketball player.  Zdeno Chara continues to be a force in the NHL in large part because he’s the largest human being in the league’s history.  Enormity has helped in the NFL for everyone from Warren Sapp and William Perry to Ben Coates and Rob Gronkowski.

On the mound, a lot is made of the rotation’s lack of depth and that will come up during the season, but there is something going on in the Bronx beyond Judge and Sanchez.  Luis Severino at 23 years old leads the starting staff in strikeouts, ERA, FIP, WHIP, hits per nine innings, and strikeouts per nine innings.  Michael Pineda is also striking out more than a batter per inning.

The Yankees’ bullpen depth helps them tremendously, with Aroldis Chapman out for the time being.  None of their bullpen regulars have an ERA above 3, and Dellin Betances has been nothing short of world-class in filling in for Chapman.

Perhaps the Yankees will be baseball’s bad guys again soon, but for now everyone’s just appreciating that the Yankees are back.

Why watch:  Judge is having the best rookie season since Ichiro, and Ichiro was a seasoned ballplayer already when he got to the States.

Why not:  When Masahiro Tanaka is pitching, the Yankees are a lot less fun to watch these days.

3:  Colorado Rockies – 88 points
Record:  20 | Attractions:  37 | Narrative(s):  19 | Villainy:  3 | Atmosphere:  3 | Unpredictability:  5

Charlie Blackmon
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The Colorado Rockies are the pick of a loaded 2017 Underdog Litter.

Nolan Arenado was the best player who showed up to the World Baseball Classic for team USA this year.  (Reminder:  They won.)  He has 14 homers so far.

Charlie Blackmon is this year’s great baseball player with an incredible beard.  Currently hitting .331 with 15 balls having left the park.

Mark Reynolds, journeyman infielder Mark Reynolds, leads both of them, and the rest of the Rockies, in homers with 17.   It’s safe to say nobody saw this team coming, even if only Reynolds’ season is far off from the norm.

The pitching rotation is a who’s who of guys who make fans say who?  27 year old Tyler Chatwood is the oldest starting pitcher the Rockies have.  22 year old Antonio Senzatela might be the best they have.  The Rockies don’t have a lot of high-strikeout starters, though young German Marquez is averaging about a strikeout per inning.  What they lack in swing and miss stuff, however, they make up for in efficiency.  Three Rockies starters are in the top 25 for innings pitched in the National League, and long outings from starting pitchers generally counts as a good sign.

Once the game goes to the bullpen, though, the Rockies get really tough to beat.  Former Ray Jake McGee is holding up his end of the Dickerson trade that is currently fueling the Rays, sporting a 1.40 ERA in 26 appearances.  Adam Ottavino, fresh off Tommy John surgery, has a slider that starts right at a right handed hitter, goes all the way through the strike zone, and exits the other end.  Closer Greg Holland has 23 saves already.

In short, Colorado is a team that hits home runs in a homer friendly ballpark, has a pitching rotation full of upstarts with high potential, and has a bullpen that will steal the show at the end of games.

They get the added benefit of being beyond the belief of most baseball fans and analysts.  It’s hard to find people who believe the Rockies will stick around with their unproven pitching staff (even those great bullpen guys have limited experience) and a home park people refuse to take seriously.

The NL West might be the most fun division in baseball right now.  Colorado is a big reason why.

Why watch:  To see them before the bandwagon pulls up, or crashes.  Whichever you prefer.

Why not:  Maybe you have an aversion to purple.

2:  Washington Nationals – 89 points
Record:  19 | Attractions:  40 | Narrative(s):  13 | Villainy:  9 | Atmosphere:  5 | Unpredictability:  3

Through these rankings, I’ve given a lot of weight to four things:  Strikeout pitching from a top-line starting pitcher, home runs, polarizing baseball personalities, and mediocre bullpens.

It should be no surprise, then, that the most entertaining team in the National League right now is the Washington Nationals, who emphatically check off all four of those categories.

Clayton Kershaw is the best starter in baseball.  Max Scherzer might be the most compelling.  Scherzer threw a 20 strikeout game last year, and is punching out batters at a nearly unbelievable rate.  His 124 strikeouts in 91.2 innings are good for the most in the NL by a considerable margin, and only just behind Chris Sale for the most in all of baseball.

Of course, the headline with the Nationals is based on whatever you think of Bryce Harper.  For various reasons, Harper has become baseball’s most polarizing single player at the moment, including people who have been accused of some very serious wrongdoing.  After a down year in 2016, Harper is back on track this year with a 1.038 OPS to go along with 16 home runs.  He also charged the mound not long ago, and in doing so created another wave of hot takes involving Bryce Harper.

To put in perspective just how many people want to opine on Harper, that cut into the 24-hour coverage of LaVar Ball being a crazy person who may or may not think he’s actually better at basketball than Michael Jordan.  I wasn’t sure any breaking sports news was capable of doing that, but one shot of Harper going at a pitcher was all it took.

Much more quietly, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman has 19 home runs, a higher OPS than Harper, and the Nats lead in runs batted in.

The Nationals would be the least predictable team in baseball in just about any other division, but since they run unopposed in the NL East, Nationals games from here on out might lack drama.

That’s a shame, too, because there is no amount of runs the Nationals could be ahead by that would make me comfortable turning off a Nats game.  Their current bullpen strategy involves throwing pitchers at the wall to see which ones stick.  For a couple years now, the bullpen has been Washington’s sore spot, and it still is now.

That might only last until July, as Washington will be beyond motivated to make a trade that brings them a relief pitcher or two.  Bullpen help might be tricky, but the Nationals have immense resources to go out and get some.

Why watch:  To see what Bryce Harper does next.

Why not:  Maybe you have trouble getting angry about a young five-tool player who wants to make baseball more fun.

1:  Houston Astros – 91 points
Record:  20 | Attractions:  40 | Narrative(s):  18 | Villainy:  8 | Atmosphere:  5 | Unpredictability:  0

Tampa Bay Rays, Houston Astros
AP Photo: Steve Nesius

Houston would not just be the most entertaining team in baseball, but the most enjoyable as well if there weren’t just one problem:  The Houston Astros are the poster team for the process of tanking in sports.

Oh, that’s not the players’ fault and it’s absolutely not the manager’s, so enjoy watching the Astros because they’re a delight.  Dallas Keuchel is back to Cy Young caliber form.  Jose Altuve is one of the most well-rounded ballplayers in the league.  Carlos Correa completes the best middle infield in baseball.  George Springer has found his swing in a big way, hitting monster home runs regularly.  Carlos Beltran isn’t having a stellar season, but he’s providing excellent leadership on a young team.

When Lance McCullers returns, he’ll be doing so in the midst of his breakout year.  The Astros as a pitching staff lead the American League in strikeouts, so watching Houston means watching balls miss bats in a big way.

Like the Nationals, they are short on suspense, as Houston can already more or less expect to be at home for the first game of the ALDS.  Everything has gone right in Houston, and their young players aren’t just great.  Those players are also fun.  Altuve perhaps more than anyone else in the league gives off the sense that he’s having fun playing the game for a living.  Springer produces highlights with the things he does best.  Around them, a home crowd who has been following these players since they were drafted, because they had to.

That brings us back to how the team was built.  The Astros weren’t sinister in their tanking, they let the fans know that they were focused on the future all the while.  It is not a process they invented, nor are they the only team in recent memory to commit to it over the long term.  They’re just the ones for whom the strategy paid the most dividends, as they hit on so many of their high picks and used them to build a juggernaut.

Keep in mind this is a critical part of how the Chicago Cubs became the current Chicago Cubs as well.  Still, as Houston piles on thrilling and photogenic wins, it just underlines to teams in all the major sports that if you’re not loaded with Golden State Warriors level talent, there is no use in winning games until you are.

In the meanwhile, the Astros have assembled the ideal baseball team.  Even if they have little to nothing left to play for before October, the Astros are appointment television at its best.  In a crop of entertaining teams, the Astros are a cut above.

Why watch:  Because complaints aside, building through high draft picks is the lay of the sports land, and the Astros only navigated it.

Why not:  Because you know that the next team to go on a long tanking spree probably won’t end up with another Houston Astros lineup.