Most teams have reached or surpassed the midpoint of their season as the calendar flips to July. This will be a busy month for Major League Baseball with the Midsummer Classic to decide home-field advantage in the World Series and the non-waiver trade deadline, which will force teams to decide whether they’re a contender or not.
Everybody says that baseball is a marathon, not a sprint. That was plenty evident over the last week as the Tigers got back on track, the Dodgers moved into first place, the Blue Jays fell back towards the pack, and the Reds and Pirates are both above .500 and are starting to put pressure on the injury-riddled Cardinals and the Brewers.
After a lot of teams were exchanging wins and losses with .500 records over a 10 and 20-game sample, six teams in the NL have won seven or more of their last 10 and five teams have done the same in the American League. Three of the five teams in the American League are from the AL West and three of the six teams in the National League are from the NL Central.
The month of June featured two no-hitters as Clayton Kershaw and Tim Lincecum both made history. The Indians were one-hit by Felix Hernandez and Fernando Rodney on Sunday and then one-hit by Dan Haren, Brian Wilson, and Kenley Jansen on Monday. That came after Josh Tomlin threw a complete game one-hitter against the Seattle Mariners on Saturday. Jake Arrieta took a perfect game into the eighth for the Cubs at Fenway on Monday.
That seemed like the perfect ending to the league’s worst offensive output in the month of June in at least the last five seasons and probably much longer than that. Here’s a look at batting slash lines in June from 2010-14.
2010: .263/.328/.405, .323 wOBA
2011: .253/.317/.391, .311 wOBA
2012: .257/.320/.410, .317 wOBA
2013: .255/.315/.399, .313 wOBA
2014: .251/.312/.386, .309 wOBA
As you can see, June 2014 ranks the worst in the three major batting categories and wOBA over the last five years. Baseball is truly a pitching-dominated sport, as the witch hunt to eradicate steroid use has taken its toll and the specialization of bullpens has had a major impact. It used to be that offense would go up as it warmed up, but hitters posted a .253/.317/.395 slash in May and a .249/.317/.389 slash in April. The game has definitely changed, even with more teams utilizing the platoon advantage concept, which should, in theory, improve offense.
As always, injuries happened over the last week. Potential National League Rookie of the Year candidate Chris Owings is on Arizona’s DL with a sore shoulder, retroactive to June 26. The Braves are without the services of Evan Gattis for the foreseeable future due to a bulging thoracic disc in his back. Not an injury, but MLB upheld Manny Machado’s suspension and he will miss four more games after serving the first game on Monday. The Rockies are without Jhoulys Chacin, who was one of the top pitchers to bet against this season, because of shoulder inflammation. Keep an eye on Dallas Keuchel, the Astros hurler who may be the biggest surprise of the season, as he deals with a wrist injury. The Twins lost shortstop Danny Santana to a knee injury that isn’t expected to be too serious. Mets third baseman David Wright went for a MRI on his sore shoulder. Josh Reddick is back on the DL for the A’s and he might be joined by Yoenis Cespedes, who left Monday’s game against Detroit with a hamstring injury. As if the Phillies weren’t bad enough, Carlos Ruiz is on the 7-day concussion DL. Yunel Escobar has gone on the DL for the Rays, retroactive to June 25. Sadly, this is a light injury update compared to some of the past ones.
The standings are starting to resemble what everyone thought they would in four of the six divisions. It’s a two-horse race in the NL East between Atlanta and Washington as the Marlins have failed to hang around and the Mets and Phillies are well off the pace. The NL West has the Dodgers back atop the pack and the Giants are desperately trying to tread water after a tough stretch. The AL Central is the Tigers, with the Royals on the periphery and the streaky Indians getting close and falling back week after week. The AL West has the league’s best team at the top, as the A’s just keep winning. The Angels and Mariners would be the Wild Card teams if the playoffs began today.
That leaves the AL East and the NL Central as the outliers. With three of the six months gone, it’s a good time to handicap those two races and see if any of the teams are poised to go on a run.
Toronto: Remember the 19-4 run the Blue Jays had from May 12 to June 6? They’re 7-15 since that point and 26-34 outside of that stretch. The Blue Jays lead the league in home runs and are second in wOBA, trailing only the Rockies, who have the league’s best home-field for hitting by a large margin.
However, as shown above, MLB is a pitching-dominated league. The Blue Jays rotation ranks 26th in FIP and the bullpen is also in the bottom 10 in FIP. Their offense has carried the pitching staff so far, but buyer beware.
Baltimore: The Orioles are tied with the Blue Jays in the loss column. The Orioles are up to sixth in wOBA and face the exact same problems that the Blue Jays face. The Orioles rotation is actually worse, ranking 29th in starter FIP and one spot worse than the Blue Jays in bullpen FIP in 25th.
The Orioles have the best record within the division at 22-16 and with 38 division games left, they may be in the best position to take advantage of a very weak division.
New York: The Yankees are firmly in the middle of the pack in wOBA, starter FIP, and bullpen FIP. That type of balance could be enough and CC Sabathia is poised to come back after the All-Star Break. Plus, the Yankees have never hesitated to add salary at the trade deadline. They could be a team to watch in the near future.
Boston: By wOBA, the Red Sox are having their second-worst offensive season in the last 35 years. The Red Sox are three spots behind the Yankees in FIP, though they do have the best bullpen in the division by far. The talent is there on offense to break out, but it just doesn’t seem likely.
Tampa Bay: As awful as the Rays looked most of June, they wrapped up the month 13-16 and only -2 in run differential. They’re in the midst of a 4-1 road trip against division opponents and have the league’s fourth-best rotation by FIP. The bullpen is the fourth-worst and the offense is towards the middle of the pack. The worst-case scenario for the Rays might to be to play well over the next few weeks and face a tough division with whether or not to trade David Price.
Verdict: The Yankees may actually be the team to make a run this month. When Sabathia comes back, depending on how he looks, the Yankees will have three above average starters in Tanaka, Sabathia, and Kuroda and serviceable depth in Whitley and Phelps, with a lot of upgrades on the starting pitcher trade market.
Milwaukee: What sets the Brewers above the rest of the division is that they have averaged 4.6 runs per game, while Pittsburgh is next at 4.1 and the Reds and Cardinals aren’t even managing four runs per game. With a lot of division games left on the schedule, the 6.5-game lead is Milwaukee’s best asset.
St. Louis: The Cardinals would be in better shape if their starting rotation had stayed together, but Wacha and Garcia are big losses, no matter how good Marco Gonzales can be. With Lynn and Wainwright, they’re never out of the race, and the Cardinals have the prospects to be buyers at the trade deadline.
Cincinnati: The hottest team in the league right now has gotten great starting pitching from Cueto, Leake, and Bailey of late. Sabermetricians are waiting for the other shoe to drop with Alfredo Simon, but the Reds offense has come around with Votto back. The Reds may not catch Milwaukee, but they’re a dangerous Wild Card threat.
Pittsburgh: The Pirates would have been the most intriguing team in this division, but the starting rotation has major problems. They have a top-10 offense and a strong bullpen, but the rotation problems are a lot to overlook and the revolutionary defensive shifting that helped them in 2013 isn’t having as much of an impact because of a lower strikeout rate and a lower ground ball rate.
Chicago: The Cubs rotation is about to look significantly different with Jeff Samardzija, Jason Hammel, and Jake Arrieta all drawing a lot of trade attention. Some of their supplementary bats with big platoon splits like Nate Schierholtz could also be on the move. Depending who stays and who goes, the Cubs could be a punching bag for each of the NL Central contenders the rest of the way.
Verdict: The Brewers remain the team to beat and they may not slow down at all. General Manager Doug Melvin made an impact move in 2008 to add CC Sabathia from the Indians for the playoff run and Sabathia was tremendous down the stretch. That’s a sign that he’ll do what it takes and the resurgence of Cincinnati and Pittsburgh adds another hint of pressure.
July is one of the most exciting times of the season because the Hot Stove really heats up and there are plenty of players available that could really help some of the middling teams, including those that have been discussed in these two divisions. Not only do trade acquisitions usually represent an upgrade in personnel, but they represent an upgrade in morale as well and that’s important during the grind of the season.