The halfway point of the 2019 MLB season has come and gone, and the All-Star break is just around the corner. While NBA free agency talk has dominated the majority of the headlines as of late, baseball teams around the league are going through internal changes as they prepare to enter the dog days of summer.
June was another fascinating month around the league. For the second consecutive month, the MLB set a record for homers with an astonishing 1,142 dingers. This included a game between the Philadelphia Phillies and Arizona Diamondbacks that saw 13 balls leave the yard–the most ever in a single game–as well as the New York Yankees homering in 31 straight games, another record.
The Yankees set the single-season record for home runs in a season with 267 last year, but three teams (the Twins, Brewers and Mariners) are already on pace to eclipse that number. Is the ball juiced? You tell me.
Aside from the homer-happy syndrome that is taking a toll on pitchers around the league, there have been a number of dramatic storylines.
The New York Mets continue to implode under mercurial manager Mickey Callaway, including a fracas between Callaway, pitcher Jason Vargas and Newsday reporter Tim Healey. The Texas Rangers somehow have two of the top pitchers in baseball (determined by fWAR), and San Diego Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. has become must-see TV merely for his baserunning abilities.
The American League is still very top-heavy (aside from the AL West), whereas the National League is more balanced from top to bottom.
With all of this in mind, let’s take a look at the winners and losers in the month of June in Major League Baseball:
The Braves terrorized opponents last month, going 20-8 with a +47 run differential for the month. Reigning NL Manager of the Year Brian Snitker continues to pull all the right strings for his club.
Moving Ozzie Albies down in the order has completely jumpstarted his season, and the arrival of Austin Riley has seemed to have a compounding effect on the likes of Ronald Acuna, Freddie Freeman and Josh Donaldson.
The signing of Dallas Keuchel was also a welcome addition to a rotation that desperately needed some arms. Although Keuchel posted a rather mediocre 4.08 ERA in his first three starts, he has shown some of the qualities that made him so effective as a member of the Houston Astros, inducing double plays in each of the first three innings in a game against the Chicago Cubs.
While rookie Max Fried has continued to slide (although his xFIP is still encouraging), his counterpart–Mike Soroka–has been sensational. Soroka looked good when he made five starts for Atlanta last season, but he is proving why he was one of the top pitching prospects in all of baseball.
Through his first 14 starts, Soroka was 9-1 with a 2.13 ERA and a 214 ERA+. Although he is not (strictly speaking) a power pitcher, he uses each and every part of the zone and already has remarkable command of his breaking pitches, for a young player.
Meanwhile, Sean Newcomb has been galvanized by a move to the bullpen (though he did struggle against the Mets on the final day of June), and Anthony Swarzak had given up just one run since he was acquired by the Braves in mid-May.
Aside from leading the division, the Braves are also winners for the simple fact that the pundits that had criticized the extensions given to Albies and Acuna in the offseason are eating their words. Acuna still has the makings of an MVP candidate, while Albies’ has shortened the gap in his platoon splits.
Make no mistake, the Braves are absolutely a World Series contender.
Remember the narrative that had a sputtering Nationals team firing second-year manager Dave Martinez and possibly selling some of their biggest names at the deadline? Yeah, go ahead and scratch that.
The Nationals have stormed back into the NL playoff picture after going 18-8 with a +43 run differential, and (entering play on July 3) were just one card back of the second NL Wild Card spot.
Washington is finally seeing the upside of a lineup that looked stacked even with the loss of Bryce Harper. Anthony Rendon is proving why he is one of the best infielders in all of baseball, finally earning his first All-Star nod after years of being snubbed. Juan Soto is quietly building on an exceptional rookie season and even has a higher slugging percentage and wOBA than he posted last year.
Victor Robles has hardly been a world-beater, but he has clubbed 12 homers and showed flashes of being a special defensive centerfielder. Trea Turner has not been anything too special either, but he could do worse than an .810 OPS and 17 stolen bases.
But the X-factor has been a healthy Howie Kendrick. After playing in just 40 games last season (which caused the Nats to sign Brian Dozier in the offseason), Kendrick is having the best year of his career. Through July 3, he was slashing .323/.376/.562 with a 138 wRC+ and 12 homers. And although he is not the best defender, his versatility allows the Nats to platoon guys like Dozier and Ryan Zimmerman.
Meanwhile, Washington’s top three starters are still as good as any in baseball. Max Scherzer easily leads all pitchers in terms of fWAR, FIP and xFIP, and he was 6-0 with a 1.00 ERA and 13.6 K/9 in June. Stephen Strasburg has pitched better than his numbers seem to suggest, and Patrick Corbin continues to be effective despite struggling slightly in June. Even Anibal Sanchez is proving to be an undervalued offseason addition
Of course, there are still issues. The bullpen desperately needs another impact arm (or two) to supplement closer Sean Doolittle. And the defense has been atrocious. The Nats rank 27th in baseball in terms of Defensive Runs Saved and 23rd in Ultimate Zone Rating, according to FanGraphs.
However, even if the bullpen and defense improve marginally, the Nationals could be primed to make a postseason run after the All-Star break.
Los Angeles Dodgers
The Dodgers have essentially been winners every month, and they are the best team in baseball this month. But it is the way in which they keep winning that has proven to be so exceptional.
A.J. Pollock was one of the Dodgers’ marquee additions in the offseason. He was just placed on the 60-day IL after undergoing elbow surgery… and it hardly even matters. Rookie Alex Verdugo has been superb, while Joc Pederson is having the best season of his career. Oh, and Cody Bellinger continues to have an MVP season while also leading the majors in Defensive Runs Saved.
The starting rotation is as deep as any in the bigs, with Cy Young contender Hyun-Jin Ryu leading the way and Walker Buehler overcoming a brutal April to become one of the best pitchers in baseball. Buehler was 3-0 with a 2.45 ERA and 11.3 K/9 in five starts last month.
Perhaps the scariest part is that the Dodgers are managing to overpower opponents in spite of a mediocre bullpen (besides Pedro Baez and Kenley Jansen), and they have the kind of trade chips to go after an impact reliever at the deadline. In the end, 2019 is yet another year in which the Dodgers are the odds-on favorite in the National League.
Where would the Brewers be without Yelich? Lorenzo Cain and Jesus Aguilar have been shells of their 2018 selves, the bullpen is not nearly as dominant and the rotation is arguably the weakest in the entire NL Central.
In the middle of it all is Yelich, who has somehow continued the run he made during a superlative second half during the 2018 season.
Entering play on July 3, Yelich had already smoked 31 homers and was slugging an absurd .713. In June, Yelich hit .365 with a 1.149 OPS and eight homers. In case his prolific slugging was not enough of an indicator of how special Yelich is, he had an average exit velocity of 94.9 mph, according to MLB Statcast. And in June, he stole eight bases, bringing his total to 18 for the season.
There is a very real possibility that Yelich could hit 50 homers, swipe 30 bags and finish the year with an OPS over 1.100, which would make him the first player in MLB history to do all three of those things in the same season.
Now, if only Yelich’s teammates could start to pick up some of the slack…
The Mets have been an absolute nightmare this season (more on that later), but one thing that they certainly got right was giving Alonso the reins at first base from day one.
After getting off to a red-hot start in April, Alonso struggled a little bit in May. He still hit 10 homers (the power was always going to be there), but his OBP was below .300 for the month and he struck out in close to 30 percent of his plate appearances.
It would be easy to accept that his May numbers would be more of the norm given his reputation as a slugging rookie, but Alonso has exceeded expectations. In June, Alonso slashed .307/.435/.653 with nine homers. Perhaps more importantly, his strikeout rate plummeted by ten percent compared to May.
Not only does Alonso hit the ball hard, but he has power to all fields and can cover the entire strike zone with his massive frame.
He ranks 10th in the majors in fWAR (first among all first baseman), and ranks fifth in baseball in terms of adjusted OPS+, according to Baseball-Reference.
Simply put, the kid is an absolute masher and a truly special talent. The fact that baseball fans will get to see both he and Yelich in the Home Run Derby is an absolute delight.
Plenty of Yankees fans were likely less than thrilled when New York were outbid for Manny Machado and ended up with LeMahieu as a “consolation prize.” Nearly half a year later, and LeMahieu has established himself as a legitimate contender for the AL MVP award.
Entering play in July 3, LeMahieu led the American League in batting average (.341) and ranked 9th in terms of fWAR. Not to mention, he had already registered five Defensive Runs Saved and a 14.9 UZR/100, according to FanGraphs.
But while LeMahieu had already been one of the crucial ingredients keeping the Yankees on top of the AL East, he took it to another level in June. LeMahieu slashed .395/.434/.658 in June, notching 29 RBIs and 16 extra-base hits.
LeMahieu had hit over .300 in each of the first two months of the season, but his highest number of total bases was 49 in May. In June, that number exploded to 75 total bases.
The Yankees had signed LeMahieu for two years and just $24 million. But with the way he is playing in 2019, he will have practically earned all of that $24 million in a single season.
Machado and Tatis Jr.
Man, is there a single combination of infielders that are as exciting as Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr.? The left side of the Padres’ infield is already producing at an elite level, and they are the two cornerstones of what Padres fans will be a rather short rebuilding process.
Machado sure did not look anything close to a $300 million man in the first month of the season, when he hit just .236 with a .693 OPS and 25 percent strikeout rate. But since then, he has subtly gotten into a groove, culminating in a massive June.
In 25 games, Machado slashed .314/.368/.695 with 11 homers and 29 RBIs. On top of his bat coming alive, Machado has looked more at home playing his original position at third base, where he has registered five Defensive Runs Saved.
As for Tatis Jr., the kid has lived up to the hype since he first appeared on the big league stage. Tatis Jr. was having an excellent start to his rookie campaign, hitting .300 with six homers in April before suffering a hamstring injury that caused him to miss all of May.
But Tatis Jr. has picked up right where he left off. In 21 appearances (19 starts) last month, Tatis Jr. slashed an astounding .383/.457/.691 with five homers and six stolen bases.
Yet for as excellent a hitter as Tatis Jr. is, he is even more fun to watch on the bases. Tatis Jr. has already tagged up from third base and scored on two infield pop flies this season. He legs out routine grounders for base hits. He scores from second base on balls that stay on the infield, and can zoom around the bases on a single. And like Machado, he can flash the leather.
The Padres might not make the playoffs in 2019, but the future looks extremely bright with Machado and Tatis Jr. leading the way.
Special considerations: Xander Bogaerts, Charlie Blackmon, Ketel Marte, and Mike Trout
New York Mets (Mickey Callaway)
Just about nothing went right for the Mets in June. The team slid further out of playoff contention by going 10-18 and blowing save opportunity after save opportunity.
As of July 3, the Mets lead all of baseball with 21 blown saves while ranking dead-last in the majors with a 48.78 save percentage. New York relievers rank 28th in terms of fWAR and bullpen ERA, according to FanGraphs. Heck, at least the Nationals have a reliable closer!
At the center of the problem is manager Mickey Callaway, who has consistently mishandled his pitchers and personnel.
Closer Edwin Diaz had eight saves and a 1.54 ERA in April. But once Callaway decided to use him for multiple-inning saves (something he had previously said that he would not do), Diaz imploded. After a 5.06 ERA in May, Diaz’s monthly ERA ballooned to 8.38 in June.
Callaway has also totally thrown caution to the wind in his usage of guys like Noah Syndergaard, Seth Lugo and Robert Gsellman, each of whom have struggled to handle a heavier workload.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing for Mets fans is that youngsters like Pete Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Michael Conforto and Dominic Smith are all producing while looking like future cornerstone players. In theory, their performances should be more than enough to put the Mets over the top.
But Callaway’s mismanagement of his pitching staff has proved costly, and the utter ineptitude of Robinson Cano has not helped much, either.
Throw all of that in with an embarrassing media confrontation, and the Mets are the biggest losers in June.
June should have been the month that the Cubs really took control of the NL Central. After months of laboring to find a legitimate closer, Chicago signed one of the best in the history of the game in Craig Kimbrel.
And with the Milwaukee Brewers scuffling and the St. Louis Cardinals failing to get major contributions from their big stars, the Cubs were in prime position to take command of the division.
Instead, Chicago finished June with a 14-15 record, their first month below .500 since they went 12-16 in May of 2017. They got off to a 6-3 start, winning a series over Colorado and sweeping the Cardinals. But the wheels quickly fell off.
After establishing himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball in May, Kyle Hendricks would eventually hit the Injured List. Cole Hamels would follow him toward the end of the month. Meanwhile, Jose Quintana and Jon Lester both took a step back, and bullpen arms like Mike Montgomery and Brad Brach took multiple steps back.
Jason Heyward had a torrid month at the dish (.326/.379/.589), and both Kris Bryant and Willson Contreras had solid months. But Anthony Rizzo and Javier Baez struggled to live up to their standards, an the offense was rather “boom-bust” as a result.
The Cubs also simply played some sloppy baseball, making a number of outs on the base paths and costing themselves opportunities.
So even though Milwaukee managed just a 13-13 record in June, the Cubs now find themselves back in second place as of July 3, and looking for answers heading into the All-Star break.
How much worse can it possibly get for Ramirez? It seemed as though he might be on the verge of breaking out when his batting average and on-base percentage climbed in May, but both fell one again in June.
Ramirez slashed .216/.290/.330 for the month, and as of July 3 had just six homers and a .637 OPS after clubbing 39 home runs and posting a .939 OPS last year.
At least he has 18 stolen bases?
Cano actually had a worse month in May and was reprimanded for failing to run out ground balls, but he makes the cut again here after slashing .226/.281/.358 in June.
The Mets figured that they would certainly be willing to take on his massive contract if it meant that they could get one of the better pure hitters of this generation in addition to one of the game’s best young closers in Edwin Diaz.
Needless to say, things have not panned out as general manager Brodie Van Wagenen.
Special considerations: Diaz, Aaron Sanchez