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MLB surprises, disappointments and more from the month of May

A third of the way through, many divisions remain a muddle

Arizona Diamondbacks v Texas Rangers Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

We did this in April, and now we’re going to do it in May. The Braves had an okay month, and with the Mets sweeping the Phillies, they no longer have the biggest division lead in baseball. Still, it’s 3.5 games, so we shan’t fret too much. Instead, let’s check in on what’s been going on around the league.

Big Moves (Good Version)

If you started well, May is a time to keep it rolling. If you started poorly, it can be a time for refreshment and renewal. If you played poorly in both April and May, well, time isn’t running out yet, but it might be soon. That’s not a huge concern for the two teams in this section, though, who really set themselves up nicely in the season’s second month.

It’s all been coming up Milhouse for the Rangers, who at 35-20 have MLB’s second-best record. After a 17-11 April, the Rangers one-upped themselves with an 18-9 May that has vaulted them into a three-game lead in the AL West. What’s crazy is that despite not looking like the most talented roster or anything all too close on paper, the Rangers are actually underperforming their Pythagorean expectation by four wins, and their BaseRuns by two wins. In other words, they have the league’s best run differential. All of this makes the Rangers a fun team to watch going forward. Are they going to stay an all-around powerhouse, as they have been (second in hitting, second in fielding, fourth in pitching), or are they going to revert to preseason expectations regarding their roster strength? The pitching took a sizable step back in May as it is, but the hitting didn’t, which might’ve been the opposite of what one would expect. The Rangers lost one series all month... to the Braves.

The Rangers spent a lot the past two offseasons, so if you want to see a certain kind of effort rewarded, their smashing start to 2023 is not entirely out of nowhere. On the other hand, the Diamondbacks have taken MLB by storm without really doing anything but treading water. The boys from the desert went 17-10 in May after a 16-13 start to their season, and are now tied with the Braves for MLB’s fifth-best record. Unlike the Rangers, the Diamondbacks have definitely been more lucky than dominant, as they’re +3 on their Pythagorean and BaseRuns record. For the season as a whole, their component pieces look decent but not great; in May, they finished sixth in position player value and fourth in pitching value. Zac Gallen leads all of MLB in fWAR and hasn’t allowed a homer in nearly two months. In a division race where the Padres were supposed to challenge and probably even knock off the Dodgers, it’s instead been the Diamondbacks who are making the NL West a two-team race early on.

Big Moves (Bad Version)

Speaking of the Padres, all I’ve got for you is woof. Along with the Braves, the Friars looked to have one of the best rosters on paper coming into the season, and while the Braves have looked dominant and then placid, the Padres have largely looked like a parking lot after all the taco trucks have driven away. San Diego started the month 15-14 but then went 10-16 in May. The hitting was just a rung above atrocious for the month, which completely squandered the fact that they were second in MLB in pitching fWAR. At one point in May, they won one of ten games, never scoring more than four runs in a game in the process. Due to injuries, guys like Brandon Dixon, Rougned Odor, and now even Gary Sanchez have been turned into regulars or semi-regulars. The Padres should still turn it around and be pretty good, but now they have two teams ahead of them to deal with in the NL West, and at some point they’re going to have to start hitting. They can trust in a sizable wOBA-xwOBA gap, especially in May, that should even out eventually, but they’re also starting Brandon Dixon, so it’s not a great situation.

Another team with a stacked roster that probably isn’t jazzed about its 2023 so far is one that throttled the Braves north of the border — the Blue Jays. At 30-27, the Blue Jays don’t look to have a problem on paper, except that they’re fourth in the division with that record, and barely ahead of the fifth-place, still-over-.500 Red Sox. During May, the Jays swept the Pirates, swept the Braves, and struggled to get any other wins — those sweeps accounted for six of their 11 wins while they lost 17 games. What’s really brutalized them is losing a ton of games in their division. The month started with a four-game sweep at the hands of the Red Sox. They later lost three of four to the Yankees, were swept by the Orioles, and lost three of four to the Rays. They’re now going to have to work extra-hard because those wins directly benefited teams vying for a playoff spot. The Padres aren’t hitting, the Blue Jays aren’t pitching — if you combine them, you’ll probably get a juggernaut, but as it is, these two teams have been disappointments in the early going.

Current Pacesetters

Coming into play on June 1, your May and league leaders in fWAR and related metrics were as follows:

  • Position player fWAR: Freddie Freeman, 2.9 in 262 PAs, thanks to a 170 wRC+ that comes from him underhitting his xwOBA a bit. Freeman accumulated 2.1 of his 2.9 fWAR in May, with a 212 wRC+ for the month.
  • wRC+, minimum 60 PAs, season: Aaron Judge, who hasn’t quite broken the 200 mark but has 190 through 205 PAs. He’s also way underhitting his xwOBA. And he had a 253 wRC+ in May, leading MLB in that regard.
  • Defensive value: Sean Murphy leads baseball here, having leapfrogged a bunch of other catchers. Perhaps more impressive is that Murphy has eaten the DH penalty four times, yet still has the lead. Murphy also leads for the month of May.
  • Non-catcher defensive value: Whoever had Xanger Bogaerts breaking out with a standout defensive season after moving teams and turning 30, come claim your prize, I guess. Also, keep an eye on Maikel Garcia, who led all of MLB in non-catcher defensive value in May after being promoted to the big league Royals earlier in the month. He amassed +5 OAA in just 17 games at the hot corner.
  • Pitching fWAR: Oh, look, it’s Zac Gallen again. The gap between Gallen’s 3.0 fWAR and the next-highest pitcher is the gap between that pitcher and #13. We’ll be talking a lot about Gallen this season, but he’s throwing up absurd numbers in an unfavorable run environment right now.
  • But! A special shoutout to Mitch Keller, who actually outpitched Gallen in May. His first few starts of the year made it look like it was going to be another ho-hum year, but since then, he’s been striking guys out at a Spencer Strider-esque rate.
  • Yennier Cano now leads all relievers in fWAR with 1.5. He hasn’t allowed a homer despite often throwing more than one inning, and has one of the game’s lowest walk rates.

Keep an Eye on...

The Mets played a cupcake of a May, with only the Braves and Rays being stiff competition, yet still went 14-15 in the process. They just swept the Phillies to recoup some of the problems from earlier in the month, but have a real tough stretch from now until about mid-July, including three with the Braves in Atlanta next week. They could turn the division around pretty easily and coast afterwards, so this next six-week stretch could be pivotal for the NL East (or not).

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