The best action movies have compelling villains. It's part of the tried-and-true formula that draws us in, touching everything from Die Hard and Lethal Weapon to Star Wars and the Avengers. It is imperative to have a villain that draws us in and ultimately causes us to root even harder for the protagonist.
In sports, it usually isn't much of a chore for any fan base. You have a favorite team and each game the opponent is the villain. Simple enough.
At times, though, the fan bases for the rest of the league rally against a common foe. A lot of the time in baseball, it's the Yankees. The "Evil Empire" thing just fit so perfectly, didn't it? I think the best part about it is how comfortable Yankees fans are in general with this dynamic. As a group, they generally don't want other fan bases to like them. They enjoy the hate.
In recent years, a lot of the collective ire of baseball fandom has turned toward the Houston Astros. I have been urging Astros fans these last few years to embrace the hate and enjoy being the villain. After all, fans don't hate irrelevant teams. The Mariners have the longest playoff drought and do you really think there are legions of baseball fans out there expending a bunch of energy hating them? Yes, I'm aware there was a scandal, but if the Astros were now a terrible team, they wouldn't be showered with even remotely as many boos on the road.
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Of course, the Astros aren't terrible. They are great. Again. They've now won 12 of their last 13 and 17 of 21. Only the Yankees have a better record in all of baseball.
The Astros have been doing it behind some incredible run prevention. They allowed 13 runs on Saturday -- the lone loss in their last 13 games -- but otherwise have only allowed 12 runs total in their last 12 wins. Justin Verlander, at age 39, coming off Tommy John surgery, looks like the best pitcher in baseball. The staff, collectively, looks as good as any in baseball, top to bottom, and that's with Lance McCullers on the shelf.
The offense isn't quite the wrecking crew it has been in years' past, but it's still one of the better groups in the league. Jose Altuve is heating up, Yordan Alvarez is among the best power hitters in baseball and Jeremy Pena would win AL Rookie of the Year right now. The likes of Alex Bregman, Michael Brantley and Kyle Tucker fill out, again, a very deep lineup that can get put up a crooked number without warning.
I'll admit that while I've watched all the hate in the direction of the Astros the past few years, there's always been a part of me that feels a twinge of contentment when they are going well. I don't root for them, but I don't root against them. It's compelling to see a team so reviled by so many people perform as well as the Astros do. There's always been an element of it with the Yankees for me, too, even if the reasons for the opposing-fan hatred are different.
For me, there's just something about a good villain. It's enjoyable to watch it all unfold.
And now take note of the top two spots in this week's power rankings. I'll be hearing "The Imperial March" in my head as we move forward.
Biggest MoversRk Teams Chg Rcrd 1 Yankees 1 25-9
They have now won 20 of their last 24. Those four losses came by one, one, two and three runs, respectively.2 Astros 4 23-12
Perhaps the best part, to continue the "villain" theme, is that these two hate each other. Even better!3 Angels 1 24-13
In addition to everything else that is going right, look at Chase Silseth and Reid Detmers. They are home-growing starting pitching!4 Mets 1 23-13
Welp, it couldn't last forever. The Mets have lost a series. They are now 9-1-1 in series this season. Fret not, it's no emergency. They're fine.5 Dodgers 4 21-12
The two-out rally Sunday rescued them from a four-game sweep at the hands of the Phillies, but they still went 2-5 against the state of Pennsylvania this past week. The Clayton Kershaw injury is worrisome, too.6 Padres 1 22-13
Josh Bell is hitting .336. Yes, I know he plays for the Nationals, but we're about to make a fun point. Bell is third in the NL in hitting behind Manny Machado (.359) and Eric Hosmer (.350). The Padres haven't had a batting title since, you guessed it, Tony Gwynn. Mr. Padre won eight batting titles. The Padres franchise has nine. Can you name the other? I'll give the answer in the number 30 spot.7 Rays 1 21-14
Interesting stretch here on the schedule. The Rays play obviously inferior teams (Tigers, Orioles, Marlins) for eight games before hosting the Yankees in a four-gamer Memorial Day weekend. Is it a realistic goal to close the 4 1/2 game gap by the end of the month?8 Giants 4 20-14
The career year at age 34 was always going to look out of place, but it's that much more jarring as you watch 35-year-old Brandon Crawford hitting .211 with a .333 slugging.9 Brewers 2 22-13
Think the record is too good for this spot in the rankings? The Brewers have played the easiest schedule in all of baseball to this point. They are 4-4 against teams .500 or better. Oh, and they just lost a series to the Reds.10 Twins 1 20-15
Just to piggyback off that Brewers comment, you have to commend the good teams for beating up on bad teams. There's something to be said for taking care of business. I bring this up here because the Twins don't play another team over .500 until June 3. It's the Royals, Tigers and A's for the next 18 games.11 Cardinals -- 19-15
Look, guys, I know there are ebbs and flows to the season and all, but losing a series to the Orioles before winning one over the Giants makes rankings a lot more complicated than they should be. Let's lock it up, here.12 Blue Jays 2 18-17
This is at least mildly concerning. The Jays have lost nine of their last 12 and are 7 1/2 games out in the AL East.13 Phillies 7 17-18
Obviously that was a really rough finish to the week, but the Phillies still went 5-2 on a road trip out west that included four games in Dodger Stadium. That's a wildly successful week.14 Braves 1 16-19
Last week I mentioned that it felt like they were on the verge of a hot streak. I, of course, didn't mean right away. I called the Power Rankings version of a delayed steal. I know everyone believes me, too.15 Guardians 1 16-17
One of the better offensive teams in the league with a suspect pitching staff, just like everyone predicted.16 Diamondbacks 1 18-17
They still have three starting pitchers in the 1s in ERA (Zac Gallen, 1.05; Merrill Kelly, 1.71; Madison Bumgarner, 1.78). No team has pulled that off in a full season since the Dead Ball Era (the last time was the 1919 Cubs with Pete Alexander, Hippo Vaughn and Phil Douglas). No, I don't think the D-Backs are going to pull it off, but it feels like trivia is a sub-theme this week.17 White Sox -- 16-17
Sleeping giant right here. A five-game series against the Royals to start next week is as good a time as any to get really hot.18 Mariners 1 16-19
Much of the attention in the weekend series in Queens will be on the Mets' side and rightfully so, but the Mariners fought hard, showed some swagger (Jesse Winker and Paul Sewald taunting Mets fans?!?!) and there were several good signs.19 Rockies 3 17-17
They've lost six of seven and that includes dropping a home series to the Royals.20 Marlins 2 15-19
Since a seven-game winning streak put the Marlins four games over .500 and, more importantly, into "fun team, possibly-surprise contender" territory, the Marlins have gone 3-11. As such, they are moving down.21 Red Sox 2 13-21
A split in Atlanta followed by taking two of three in Texas is certainly a step in the right direction and a sign of life. They are still, however, eight games under .500. Let's see how they fare against the Astros and Mariners at home this week.22 Rangers 1 14-19
Marcus Semien got off to a slow start last year. It's much slower this time around, but he got hottest right around his 30th game until almost the All-Star break. He's played in 34 in 2022 right now.23 Pirates 2 15-19
I know I'm not alone in waiting for a dreadful streak of losing, but instead they doing things like taking series from the Dodgers. It's been fun thus far.24 Athletics 5 15-22
What's more shocking, that the A's won five games in a week or that they actually played nine times?25 Cubs 3 13-20
Prior to this past week, the Cubs' only series win of the year was the first one. They now have three series wins -- and all three came against teams currently with winning records.26 Tigers -- 12-23
Where's the power? The Tigers only have 16 home runs as a team. At least they have the whole "past" and "future" thing going with Miguel Cabrera and Spencer Torkelson tied for the team lead, but they each have just three.27 Orioles 5 14-21
The Orioles climbed to within four games of .500 twice last week, but then they were swept by the Tigers and now they play their next 10 games against the Yankees and Rays.28 Royals 1 12-20
Great series win in Colorado -- especially the comeback victory in the third game after blowing a six-run lead, but they are still 3-7-1 in series this season.29 Nationals 5 12-24
Stephen Strasburg is up to 27 pitches in simulated games. He might be back next month. That's something good!30 Reds -- 9-26
A 4-3 week doesn't come close to erasing the damage the 3-22 start did. Even if there was hope, losing a game in which the opponent didn't get a single hit is worthy of scorn. ALSO!! The trivia answer from Padres (No. 6) is Gary Sheffield, who hit .330 in 1992.