Welcome to July. Baseball is quickly approaching its All-Star break—moving out of the land of small sample sizes and into the realm of trade-deadline chatter and gradually solidifying playoff pictures. So what did we learn in June? Here are a few key takeaways:
The offensive environment has started to look less extreme
April and May were full of conversation about offense—how little of it there was, how infrequently the ball was put in play, whether MLB was really staring down another Year of the Pitcher. But most of those discussions came with an important caveat: Offense is always lower in the spring. The leaguewide hitting statistics tend to get a boost as the weather heats up and players settle in during the summer. This April and May’s numbers were low even when adjusted for seasonality—cold springtime bats had never been quite this cold—but there was a very real question about just how much of a change the summer might bring.
June gave us an answer:
Now, that’s not a dramatically different offensive environment, and big-picture questions remain about what sorts of adjustments might be in store from the league next year as a result. MLB still has its lowest batting average in 50 years. But it no longer has the lowest of all-time—which is an important difference.
The sticky stuff crackdown has real consequences
Would you believe that just a month ago—one month!—there was hardly any mainstream public baseball conversation about sticky stuff? Now, of course, foreign substances feel like the anchor of almost every major discussion of the sport. (If you’re sick of hearing about it … understandable!) But almost all of that has come from action packed into the last month: SI’s lengthy report on the subject dropped June 4, MLB sent a memo about its new planned enforcement strategy June 14 and the league kicked that plan into action June 21.
That means that we have just a small window from which to judge the results of the crackdown so far. But what can we glean from those early returns? Tom Verducci ran the numbers in an edition of The Opener column earlier this week—spin rate has dropped drastically across the league, with several pitchers noticeably struggling to adjust, and the average spin for four-seam fastballs down to its lowest point in almost three years. July should give us a better sense of just what these changes mean and how much offense might be affected. But June gave us the foundation here, and, if you didn’t know what sticky stuff could do before, you sure do now.
This season could have some delightful MVP conversations
June is the month when the baseball season starts to feel solid. This year, that meant an unusually high number of confirmations to the tune of, yes, this mind-blowing performance is for real. June took Jacob deGrom from looking like the best pitcher in baseball to looking like one of the best of all time. June saw Shohei Ohtani lock in his early run of magical play by emerging as the best hitter of the month (251 OPS+!) while, yes, pitching and maintaining a remarkable workload and staying healthy while doing it. June was the best month of a young career for Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and June was another showcase for Fernando Tatis Jr.
All of which creates rich ground for a summer of discussing the race for MVP. Just how good would Guerrero have to be to overcome the advantage that Ohtani has for being Ohtani? Can Tatis’s well-rounded game gain the edge over what might end up being one of the best pitching seasons ever from deGrom? And is it even possible for anyone to catch these four?
The NL Central could be in for an intriguing trade deadline
The NL Central was home to both the biggest team gain and biggest team loss in playoff odds in the month of June. The Brewers saw their chances of a postseason berth skyrocket from just below a coin flip to a secure 87.5%, while the Cardinals plummeted from chances that looked questionable-but-possible (33%) to hardly-a-chance-in-hell (3.8%). (If that last number seems unusually harsh for a St. Louis team that’s just below .500—its run differential, -42, is far worse than its record might suggest.)
Those changes obviously suggest a potential shift in priorities for those two clubs. But the most intriguing questions here belong to the team between them in the standings—the Cubs. After a lackluster winter, they got off to an unexpectedly hot start, only to falter toward the end of June. After their recent skid, they’re now in second place behind Milwaukee, and their last few weeks have put them in a tricky position. This doesn’t appear to be a front office that’s particularly interested in making a serious effort to win right now. (It certainly doesn’t appear to be a front office that’s particularly interested in anything that would involve taking on extra payroll.) But would the Cubs really be ready to trade Kris Bryant or Craig Kimbrel if the team is just a few games out of first place on July 31? Maybe they would! But the situation looks decidedly more complicated than it did earlier this year. The question of whether they’ll buy or sell could remain in play right down to the wire—which could make the deadline more interesting for everyone, not just the NL Central.
The Diamondbacks have been really, really bad
O.K., fine, maybe you had a sense of this one before June. But Arizona’s recent dismal play ranks among the worst baseball months ever. Their 3–24 record speaks for itself—in the last half century, only three other teams have had a month with so few wins. It’s a slide that’s taken them from “bad” to “so dreadful that you might not be able to look away.” At the end of May, there was no reason to think that this club had a chance to finish the season as one of the worst in recent memory. At the end of June? There’s no reason not to.
More MLB Coverage:
• Nolan Arenado Returns to Coors Field Happy to Be Away
• Cubs' Milwaukee Meltdown Should Serve as a Warning
• Sticky Stuff Enforcement Is Already Making Baseball a Better, Fairer Game
• Kyle Schwarber Isn't Paying Attention to the Numbers