Sparky Anderson once said the season begins for real right around June 1st. The logic follows that if you’re right around .500 at the start of June, you’ve got just as good a chance at making a run as anybody in baseball. If you’re below…well, the Trade Deadline should be exciting this year.
Right now, the best stories are of those teams that once were lost but now have found some semblance of identity. And there’s two of them competing in the Central Divisions of both the American and National Leagues.
I’ve been saying for a few weeks that it’s too early to make forecasts, but now that we’re almost a third of the way through the season, some things seem to be carving out positions. From here on out, these are two teams to watch.
A Month for the Ages
Corey Kluber had an 18 K game, and somehow his manager decided to pull him before he could make a run at 20. His K/9 rate of 11.16 (number of strikeouts per 9 innings) is only second best on the staff behind Danny Salazar (11.69). Michael Brantley is starting to heat up, which makes up for Michael Bourn continuing to do his best impression of a cat chasing a laser pointer while at the plate.
And none of it compares to Jason Kipnis.
Consider these numbers:
- .429/.522/.706 slash line for the month of May…
- …making for a Bonds-ian OPS of 1.217
- 51 hits in the month – he’s the first Indian to do that since 1938
- 22 extra base hits; he had 3 in the month of April
- 15 doubles, or 10 fewer than he had all of last year
- 17 RBIs; an overrated stat, it’s still telling that his total 0f 25 is 16 off of his total from 2014
It’s a historic month – few players have ever had that kind of sustained run before, and almost the single-handed reason that the Indians have leapt back into the fringes of contention. At 25-27, they’re only 2.5 games back of a Wild Card slot, coming on strong behind a reeling Detroit Tigers team. It is this columnist’s sneaking suspicion that both Wild Card teams will come from the Central Division this year – the AL East is almost laughably mediocre, and while the Angels and Rangers are in contention, neither has looked anything close to solid.
This leaves a slim opening for the Indians to leap into – provided Kipnis can hit at even 50% of what he did in the month of May…and assuming the rest of the team can get it together. (Although the last time I said that about the Tribe, they exploded for something like 50 gabillion runs. Perhaps this is a good luck charm.) There’s no way that such numbers are sustainable, and some regression is to be expected, but for now, fans can revel in Kipnis’s historic month.
Righting the Jolly Roger
Meanwhile, I’ve sung the praises of the Pittsburgh Pirates repeatedly in here over the past few years. They’re a fun team with a great nucleus, led by one of the brightest young stars in the game in Andrew McCutchen. Which makes their early season swoons both lamentable…and mildly predictable.
As McCutchen limped along to a tepid start by any standards (.194/.302/.333 in April), the team floundered. The low point was on May 18th, when the team sat at 18-22. Since then, they’ve gone 11-2, most recently sweeping the World Series champions in three games. And while a balanced line-up coming into its own has much to do with it, it’s impossible to overlook the return to health of McCutchen.
Over his last 10 games, he’s gone 15-35, raising his batting average by nearly 40 points. His current slash line of .293/.381/.485 is just inches below his career rates. He leads the team in walks and runs scored, and is back to playing outstanding defense in center field, in addition to being worth nearly two Wins Above Replacement already. (And that’s taking into account his absolutely wretched first month of the year)
Reasons for the Bucs ascendency extend beyond the Return of the Cutch. Jung-ho Kang, the hyped Korean import, has stepped into the shortstop role made vacant after the mercy benching of Jordy Mercer. Sterling Marte, while not beating any worlds down with his bat, has helped to carry the offense admirably. Meanwhile, the starting pitching has been as good as predicted. A.J. Burnett (back after a one season sabbatical to the Phillies) is having a top-five of his career year at the ripe old age of 38, with Francisco Liriano performing as admirably as always. And then there’s Gerrit Cole, seizing the role of ace that’s so desperately needed to contend with the Kershaws, Bumgarners, and Cuetos of the world. He leads the team in WAR (2.1), and is on pace to set career highs in nearly every category of note.
Even after all of that, the Pirates still reside 6 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals, who are holding strong in the face of injuries and the aging specter formerly known as Yadier Molina. It’ll be a long tough road for them to overcome their longtime nemeses at the top of the division (they’ve had to claim a Wild card slot the last two years running), but it’s a long season. The Cardinals loss of Adam Wainwright may yet knock the Redbirds down a peg, leaving the Central Division up for grabs…and should they falter, the Bucs are too solid a roster not to seize the opportunity.
But then again, it’s a long season. A lot can change between now and September. Stay tuned.