MLB in May

Just three days of games into June showed us that we are in for another exciting month in MLB.

On Saturday alone, we got to witness a moment that has only happened eight times previously in the history of MLB.

Albert Pujols hit career home run 600, doing so in the grandest style of all with a grand slam. Whilst a no-doubter might have been more fitting for ‘The Machine’, it was all the more exciting due to the couple of seconds of suspense waiting to see if it would stay fair or go foul.

On the same day, the Miami Marlins’ Edinson Volquez pitched the first no-hitter of the 2017 season. It was a magical yet poignant moment when the final out was made, coming on the day that would have been ex-team mate Yordano Ventura’s birthday (Ventura was tragically killed in a car accident over the off-season) and with the memory of the late Jose Fernandez still burning brightly for all in the Marlins family.

However, we shouldn’t let the last couple of days distract us from looking back at all that happened in May. If you’ve not been able to keep up with it all, here are the division-leading teams.

Houston Astros (AL West 40-16)

We have to start with the rocket-propelled Houston Astros.  They have the best record in MLB, lead the AL West by a massive 12.5 games and head into their game against the Texas Rangers on Sunday having won nine games in a row.

The Astros went 22-7 during May. Their impressive batting lineup managed to score 180 runs in the process – Carlos Correa in particular having a great month at the plate – and when you’re averaging six runs per game, that gives your pitching staff plenty of breathing space.

In any case, Houston’s hurlers have been contributing handsomely and their rate of 10.34 strike-outs per nine innings was the best of any team in the Majors. With the AL West looking relatively weak, the Astros are a good bet to keep motoring along and to earn the best regular season record in the league and the home-field play-off advantage that comes with it.

Minnesota Twins (AL Central – 28-24)

Whilst the Astros’ pitching staff has been dominant, the same can’t be said for those toeing the rubber for the Twins. They were actually the second least-valuable contributors across MLB in May among pitching staffs when grading performance based on FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement (only Cincinnati were behind them).

Their 14-12 record in May (following a 12-11 record in April) came despite them allowing more runs (152) than they scored (125). That would suggest the Twins are getting some breaks so far that may go the other way soon enough.

Still, let’s not be too harsh on them. Few would have predicted that they would be leading the division at this point heading into the season so we should enjoy the fact that they are rather than getting too bogged down on their chances of staying there.

New York Yankees (AL East – 32-21)

Even though it was big news when the Yankees traded away Andrew Miller, Aroldis Chapman (since re-signed) and Carlos Beltran last summer, believing that it would start a rebuilding phase in the Bronx was always likely to be just wishful thinking for those who see them as the Evil Empire.

The Yankees aren’t for rebuilding, re-tooling or whatever term you wish to use. Their goal every year is to win and the changing of the guard last year was more about getting better for 2017, rather than 2019-2020, than some realised at the time.

Aaron Judge has been the undoubted star of the show. He leads the Majors with 18 home runs (although his 7 in May was second on the team behind Brett Gardner’s 9) and seems completely comfortable with all the attention he is getting. Fairly or not, it’s a simple fact that Judge doing what he’s doing in a Yankee uniform hits the headlines more than if he was wearing an A’s or Rays uniform.

Every sport needs new stars and what Judge is doing so far is great for the game.

Washington Nationals (NL East 34-20)

It’s no surprise that the first two months of the season have shown that the Nationals are a really strong team.

Their ten-game lead over the New York Mets is partly down to the latter’s issues – those crowing last summer about the Mets now being the star team in New York were perhaps a bit quick with their judgement – but that doesn’t take away from the Nationals’ performance as the team to beat in the Senior Circuit.

The perennial bullpen question in Washington still lurks in the background. So far this season, their relievers have the second-lowest FanGraphs WAR in MLB with only the aforementioned Twins beneath them and even with Koda Glover showing promise as their closer, they will once again be shopping for a reliever or two as we head towards the trade deadline to try to prevent another play-off disappointment.

It would be a major shock if they don’t reach the post-season though. Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer were predictably brilliant in May, Anthony Rendon started to heat-up at the plate, and Bryce Harper continued displaying his prowess with the bat, although not so much when it comes to throwing a batting helmet.

Los Angeles Dodgers (NL West – 35-22)

The Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies held them off for a good while, but the Dodgers have now climbed to the top of the division thanks to a blistering 19-9 May.

Cody Bellinger’s home runs (9 in the month) have stood out and he looks set to be a force in their line-up for years to come. However, don’t overlook the contribution made by the less-heralded Chris Taylor. He was acquired in a low-key trade with the Seattle Mariners last June and, despite hitting the headlines by hitting a grand slam as his first Big League home run against Arizona a month later, Taylor didn’t make the Major League team out of Spring Training.

Injuries have given him an opportunity and so far he has taken it. He led the team with 1.3 fWAR in May whilst showing flexibility in playing different positions in the field (mainly second base and centre field, with a few starts at third base and shortstop). Alex Wood also had a noteworthy May on the mound, putting up a 1.37 ERA in five starts.

Milwaukee Brewers (NL Central 29-27)

The Chicago Cubs are in second place and looking ominous, but for now the Brewers are leading the way and that’s a great story for a team that few people gave much of a chance to heading into the season.

Eric Thames added only three home runs during May to the 11 he swatted in April and you would suspect part of that drop-off to be a reflection of teams studying his approach from the first month – having spent the previous three seasons playing in South Korea – and adjusting how they pitch to him. That’s what makes it so difficult to have continued success in the Big Leagues, but don’t write Thames off as a one-month wonder just yet.

Jimmy Nelson and Chase Anderson have formed a good one-two punch in their rotation, whilst Nerd Power has arrived in Milwaukee with Eric Sogard building on his cult fandom from his time in Oakland with heroics in May. A’s fans like myself will know that Sogard doesn’t offer much with the bat normally, so enjoy this little hot spell while it lasts, but also that he offers decent defense at second base and is an easy player to get behind and want to do well.

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