The first two months of the 2019 season have concluded, which means the regular season is nearly 40 percent complete (crazy, right?). Whereas April can provide a number of pleasant and unpleasant surprises, May often separates the contenders from the pretenders as teams around the league prepare to dive headlong into the summer months.
From dazzling starting pitchers stringing together excellent starts to multiple sluggers finding their power stroke and everything in between, here are the winners and losers in the month of May:
The Twins steamrolled through the month of May, going 21-8 with an outstanding +86 run differential. Minnesota had already seemed to pose a legitimate threat to the rest of the American League Central through a series of shrewd offseason additions, but now they should be regarded as the most balanced team in the division, and the overwhelming favorite to win their first AL Central crown since 2010.
For starters, Jorge Polanco has proven to be one of the best young shortstops in the game. Polanco missed nearly half of last season after being suspended for PED use, but has quickly put that transgression in the rearview mirror.
Entering play on June 5, Polanco ranked second in the AL with a .336 batting average and a .981 OPS (including a 1.009 OPS in May), leading the league with 129 total bases.
The only player in Minnesota’s starting lineup without an OPS over .800 is Marwin Gonzalez, but he hit .299 with an .814 OPS in May. They have no weaknesses.
Third baseman Jonathan Schoop is likely to be one of the biggest bargains of this offseason, as he has already hit 11 homers while playing a steady defensive second base. C.J. Cron hit .299 with eight homers in May, and both Max Kepler and Byron Buxton are playing at an All-Star level. Not to mention, Eddie Rosario led the AL in both homers and RBIs as of June 5.
Remember when Miguel Sano looked like the most promising talent on this team? Now, the Twins appear to be totally loaded. That includes the starting rotation.
Jake Odorizzi was spectacular in May, going 4-0 with a 0.94 ERA and 9.7 K/9 in five starts (Odorizzi also tossed six scoreless on June 2). Jose Berrios is an elite talent, and both Kyle Gibson and Martin Perez have been extremely dependable options.
Meanwhile, Minnesota’s bullpen ranks ninth in terms of fWAR due to the stellar trio of Ryne Harper, Taylor Rogers and Blake Parker at the back end.
The rest of the American League needs to take notice, because the Twins are for real.
I labeled the Yankees winners in April after they managed to go 16-10 on the month despite an inordinate amount of injuries. And in spite of even more drama in May, New York was even better. The Bronx Bombers went 20-7 last month, continuing to get it done by any means necessary.
Gary Sanchez has returned to his 2017 form, clubbing nine homers and finishing with a .979 OPS for the month. Gleyber Torres continues to dominate the Baltimore Orioles, with Luke Voit pounding baseballs as well.
Second baseman DJ LeMahieu was hardly even a consolation prize for Yankees fans that wanted Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, and yet he has been the best of the three.
LeMahieu dominated in May, hitting .323 with five homers and an .869 OPS while playing typically fantastic defense. Second base was one of the most undervalued position during free agency, and yet Schoop and LeMahieu are proving to be vital cogs on division-leading teams. Funny how that works out.
Clint Frazier has been excellent in his first real stint as an everyday player, and Gio Urshela’s production has dampened the sting in losing Miguel Andujar for the season.
Most importantly for the Yankees, the bullpen has produced. Aroldis Chapman was electric in May going 11-for-11 in save opportunities with a 0.79 ERA and 18 strikeouts against just three walks.
Both Adam Ottavino and Tommy Kahnle have sub-2.00 ERAs and at least an 11.4 K/9 or higher, and left-hander Zach Britton has been equally effective. Not to mention, fellow flamethrower Chad Green has looked pretty good since being recalled from Triple-A.
The Yankees began the month of May in second place, and now as of June 5 hold a 2.5 game lead over the Tampa Bay Rays.
No Judge, Stanton or Severino? No problem for the Yanks, which is bad news for the rest of the AL East.
The Rockies looked to be in serious trouble at the end of April, as they finished the month with a 13-17 record while the Dodgers got off to a flying start to seize control of the National League West. But Colorado rebounded nicely in May, going 16-10 with a +21 run differential, putting up an average of over seven runs per game.
Nolan Arenado was absolutely elite, hitting .425 with nine homers and a 1.262 OPS. Trevor Story stepped up his level of play, hitting .309 with eight homers and a .991 OPS while also stealing four bases. And Charlie Blackmon (who unfortunately just hit the Injured List on June 5) was a different beast, upping his average by 54 points (.333) and slugging a whopping .731 in May.
While German Marquez seems to be the only reliable arm in the rotation–and truly one of the only effective arms on the entire pitching staff–the Rockies have benefitted from the disappointments in the NL East (looking at you, Nationals and Mets) and a horrific May in St. Louis (more on this later).
And with that, they have jumped right back into the NL Wild Card picture, especially because of their explosive offense. Sounds like as much of a win as any other team experienced last month.
The Astros as a team were certainly winners in May, going 20-8 with a +55 run differential. But injuries to George Springer, Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa put a tough capper on an otherwise terrific month.
Someone who has not slowed down? Michael Brantley. The Astros took a gamble on Brantley this past winter despite the former Indians outfielder having played just 244 games in the previous three seasons, and boy has that decision worked out.
After handing Brantley a two-year, $32 deal, the 32-year-old is having one of the best seasons of his career. Brantley got off to a hot start by hitting .331 in April, but has since elevated his play.
Brantley hit .327 with a .960 OPS this month, serving as another major run producer and actually rating as a plus outfielder. According to FanGraphs, Brantley had already registered four Defensive Runs Saved, with a 7.5 UZR/150.
While Marwin Gonzalez was excellent in his utility role in Houston, Brantley has proven to be the far more valuable player.
Sure, Boston’s resurgence has come in part because of their star players stepping up their production, but also because of the tremendous improvements made by the likes of Devers at the plate.
The 22-year-old was named the American League Player of the Month after hitting .351 with eight homers and a 1.021 OPS in 26 games. Devers had not homered in April, but he still hit eight doubles, and it felt as if it were a matter of time before the slugging would come alongside more overall plate coverage.
As of June 5, Devers has cut his strikeout rate by over eight percent, and his line drive rate was up over nine percent from 2018. While his launch angle is down slightly from last season, his average exit velocity is in the top three percent of the league, according to MLB Statcast.
Devers is crushing fastballs this year, hitting .355 with a .545 slugging percentage against heaters. This is a massive upgrade from last season, when he hit over 130 points lower.
Part of this newfound success likely stems from his aggressiveness early in counts. Devers is hitting a whopping .500 on the first pitch, and .394 when he is ahead.
With the rest of Bostons’ superstars rounding into form at the plate, Devers is only likely to see more and more pitches to hit. And considering how he has been eating up fastballs, that is a very good sign for the young third baseman.
How dominant was Ryu in May? Not only did he win National League Pitcher of the Month on the strength of an 0.59 ERA in six starts, but he has also practically cemented his place at the top of the Dodgers rotation. This is a group that still has Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler (who was also excellent in May).
Ryu actually posted a far lower K/9 in May (7.1) than he did in April (10.9), but opponents hit over 70 points worse and posted a paltry .413 OPS. His ability to change speeds and work both sides of the plate has been as good as any pitcher in baseball.
While Ryu ranks third in baseball in terms of pitching fWAR (2.6), he has the lowest ERA and the second-lowest xFIP, making him easily one of the best arms in the game this year.
The Pirates have the worst run differential in the NL Central and the second-worst in the entire National League, yet they have remained competitive thanks mostly to the heroics of Bell, who won NL Player of the Month in May.
The 26-year-old first baseman absolutely destroyed baseballs in May, hitting 12 homers and driving in 31 runs while slashing .390/.442/.797 in 29 games. And as if the massive surge in home runs were not enough, Bell led the MLB in doubles (21) as of June 5.
According to MLB Statcast, Bell’s average exit velocity (94.6) and hard hit percentage (54.7) are both in the top one percent of the league. That about tells you all you need to know.
The Cardinals got off to a 19-10 start in the first month-plus of the year, leading a juggernaut of an NL Central division and seemingly justifying the hype behind this Redbird team.
But they responded by going 9-18 with a -17 run differential in May. Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong and Dexter Fowler all got off to flying starts, but all three have come back down to earth.
After finishing April with a top-three fWAR, DeJong hit .200 with a .693 OPS in May. He drew twice as many walks, but still struck out almost as much as he did in April while also notching just three extra-base hits. Meanwhile, Wong hit a measly .170 with a .510 OPS after providing a glimmer of hope for a productive season in April.
Marcell Ozuna has been productive, and Matt Carpenter made some improvements in May, but the lineup as a whole has failed to generate a lot of scoring opportunities.
This has only been compounded by a shaky pitching staff that demoted Michael Wacha to the bullpen and does not have a single starter with a sub-4.00 FIP. Jack Flaherty has shown he has the kind of stuff to be an ace, and he was much better last month.
But it remains to be seen how much longer Adam Wainwright is a viable option as a starting pitcher in the big leagues, and Dakota Hudson’s peripherals are ugly.
To make matters worse, the bullpen has not been nearly as deep as anticipated (though John Gant and John Brebbia have both been elite) due in part to injuries and ineffectiveness.
Really, the collapse of the Indians was in the cards. Ever since the Dolan family publicly stated that the team would have to be cautious in terms of payroll, it just felt like this team was doomed.
They already had a luck of run-producers in the lineup, but they also did nothing to improve a totally shallow outfield or a bullpen that lost two of their most effective arms in the last four years. As a result, the Indians find themselves in quite the predicament.
The Tribe went 12-17 with a -21 run differential in May, and as of June 5 already find themselves 10.5 games out of first place. Given that the two wild card teams in the American League are both likely to come from the AL East barring some unforeseen circumstance, the Indians probably need to win the Central. But it certainly does not look like they have the capacity for this task.
Franciso Lindor is a franchise player–and if the Indians are serious about payroll restrictions, they at least need to lock him up ASAP–and bringing back Carlos Santana has proven to be a fantastic move. But you cannot win games when both Jake Bauers and Leonys Martin are everyday players.
Cleveland ranks 27th in outfield fWAR, and their outfield unit is also 27th in the majors with a 72 wRC+, just ahead of the Giants and Blue Jays. Yikes.
If the Indians continue to slide further down the AL Central, they will have no choice but to finally become sellers. After all, they do have some team-friendly contracts (ahem…Corey Kluber) that they can offload to acquire assets.
Still, it is unlikely that the front office was expecting to miss out on the playoffs this season.
You had to know this was coming, right? The Nationals continue to disappoint in the NL East after going 12-17 in May, despite making a number of offseason additions that appeared to make the team better, at least on paper.
Washington’s offense has not been as explosive as predicted, of course. The Nats averaged just over 4.3 runs per game in May, although injuries to Trae Turner and Anthony Rendon did not help that cause. Offseason additions like Yan Gomes and Brian Dozier have proven to be whiffs, as well.
But much of the blame lies with the bullpen. Outside of Sean Doolittle, there is hardly a single reliable arm.
Kyle Barraclough was looking like the ideal setup man after he posted a 1.64 ERA in his first 15 appearances. Last month, however, Barraclough exploded. He posted a 9.58 ERA as opponents hit .354 with a 1.064 OPS against him. Fellow newcomer Trevor Rosenthal is still on the Injured List, but he was hardly any better when he was healthy.
As a unit, the bullpen is dead last in the bigs with a 6.66 ERA, nearly a run higher than the Baltimore Orioles. Depth has been a repetitive issue in Washington, but this seems to be a new all-time low. It really is a shame, too, because the talent is there.
The top three in the starting rotation–Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin–have all been excellent. Scherzer even leads the majors in pitching fWAR.
Anthony Rendon is putting up MVP-caliber numbers in a contract year (extend him!), Juan Soto has overcome a slow start and injuries to become an extremely productive hitter, and Howie Kendrick has been as pleasant a surprise as any in the league this season.
Unfortunately for the Nationals, their inability to pitch in the middle innings is a problem that does not appear to be going anywhere, which may even force Washington to become sellers by the trade deadline if they fail to make up ground in the division.
Going to cheat just a little bit here.
McCutchen was having a fantastic season as the Phillies leadoff man, and came off of a fantastic May where he drove in 19 runs and slashed .282/.393/.485. So, that counts as a win right? Well, certainly, except for the fact that ‘Cutch tore his ACL on June 3.
This is a tremendous loss for the Phillies. McCutchen had been putting together one of his finest all-around seasons in years, including establishing himself as a plus defensive outfielder. The former MVP was a table-setter for the rest of Philadelphia’s boppers, a high OBP guy with plenty of pop left.
But baseball can be cruel, and McCutchen tearing his ACL during the course of a rundown feels like an injury that has the potential to turn the tide in the NL East.
It is hard not to feel bad for McCutchen, a former NL MVP and still one of the most likable players and personas in the game today. Here’s to a speedy recovery.
The prototypical “slap hitter”
At the beginning of the season, the game saw one of its legends–Ichiro Suzuki–retire in his home country of Japan. It was a perfect moment that also seems to carry some symbolism.
Ichiro was one of the predominant “slap hitters” in the game. He could go inside-out like Jeter and spray the ball all over the field. He posted a record 10-consecutive 200-hit seasons, and still holds the single-season hit record with 262 base knocks in 2004. Now, that is looking like a record that will almost certainly never be broken.
The game of baseball continues to trend towards slugging. You need look no further than the fact that there were 1,135 home runs hit last month, the most in any calendar month in MLB history. In fact, the current homer pace is over 6,500, which would be more than 400 homers better than the previous single-season record.
And in terms of strikeouts? As of June 5, there have been close to 16,000 through 1,800 total games played. This sets a pace for over 42,000 punch-outs and 1,000 more K’s than the 2018 season, once again setting a new single-season record for the 12th consecutive season.
Thus of course, the premium is no longer on guys that can get on base via an infield hit or a bunt single. Managers would rather pencil in players that can slug and get on base at a high percentage, even if that means more strikeouts and an overall decline in batting average.
In many ways, this is a sad trend. Some of the most revered hitters in the history of the game–like Pete Rose, Rod Carew, Derek Jeter and Ichiro–were “slap hitters” by every measure of the term. But that brand of hitting is being phased out of the league, and this past May was clear-cut evidence of such a trend.