Elevating one's game is one of the toughest things to do in Major League Baseball.
Hitting a slump can really impact a player’s confidence at the plate and on the mound, especially if it’s over an extended period of time. We’re not talking about going 0-for-7 through two games. We’re talking about weeks of striking out and giving up home runs.
Take New York Yankees outfielder Vernon Wells, for example. Through 22 games in June, the veteran has 10 hits in 74 at-bats for a .135 batting average. It’s going to be nearly impossible for the Yankee outfielder to get back on track.
May wasn’t a great month for some of the game’s best, but others have managed to turn things around with a strong June. In other words, they elevated their play. Now, just to be clear, "elevated" means improving, not just staying hot. Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis haven’t elevated their play in June, they’re just two consistent sluggers.
It also wouldn’t be fair to include a player who never played prior to June and just say he elevated his play throughout the month. This means that you won’t find any June call-ups on this list—yes, I’m looking at you Yasiel Puig. If Puig hits .700 with 20 home runs in July, then he’ll be here. Not now, though.
So, which players elevated their play in June? Let’s take a look at five who really stood out amongst the rest of the players in the league.
Ian Desmond, Shortstop, Washington Nationals
Ian Desmond got off to a great start to the season in April, but he hit quite the slump as soon as the calendar turned to May. In 27 games through May, the Nationals shortstop was abysmal at the plate, hitting just .220/.273/.370. Now, Desmond is making a strong case to make the National League All-Star Game roster.
In June, Desmond has played better than any other shortstop in baseball, according to FanGraphs. Whether he is getting better pitches to hit or making the most of at-bats is unclear, but it’s working. He’s driving the ball much further he did than earlier in the year, hitting more home runs in June than in March, April and May combined.
Throughout the month, the shortstop has six multi-hit performances, most notably a four-hit game against the Rockies on June 13. He’s scored at least once in 11 games and drove in at least one run in all but eight games in the sixth month of 2013. If that’s not being productive, then nothing is.
It would’ve been easy for Washington to send Desmond to the minor leagues after how bad he was in May—like what the Nationals did with his middle-infield counterpart, Danny Espinosa—but the team stuck with him. Now, he’s making the Nationals happy they gave him another month to figure things out.
Jhoulys Chacin, Starting Pitcher, Colorado Rockies
Jhoulys Chacin has been highly inconsistent month to month this season. But after a strong June, he’ll hope his performances continue to be noteworthy. In April, the right-hander went 3-1 with a 1.46 ERA in 24.2 innings of work, helping the Rockies to an extremely surprising start.
But in May, everything went downhill. All of a sudden, Chacin couldn’t retire opposing hitters. In five starts, he went 1-4 and allowed 20 earned runs in 30.2 innings for a 5.87 ERA. That, my friends, is what you don’t want to do over the course of a full month.
Chacin didn’t let his horrible May get to him, though. He’s won four games in June and only allowed 14 earned runs in 40 innings of work. That’s much better. Here’s what the starting pitcher told Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post about his recent success:
I’ve just been trying to throw strikes, to be honest. I am attacking the hitters, and if I get a runner on base, don’t worry about it, just get the next batter. Everything has been working out. My fastball has been strong, with good sink.
If Chacin can pitch in the coming months like he did in June, there’s no question that the Rockies could still be in playoff contention. With seven wins entering July, the right-hander is well on his way to surpassing his current career high of 11 victories, not to mention a few other personal bests.
Jason Kipnis, Second Baseman, Cleveland Indians
Quick, who has the highest WAR of any player in the league in the month of June?
Miguel Cabrera? Strike one. Yasiel Puig? Strike two. Chris Davis? Strike three.
It’s Jason Kipnis.
Yes, Kipnis has been the most valuable player in the month of June in terms of WAR, according to FanGraphs. I bet that you never ever would’ve guessed that. I was certainly shocked when I found that out myself. But when looking at his numbers, he’s had a remarkable month.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports certainly knows who the No. 1 guy has been:
Kipnis actually made history in June too. He got the day off on Sunday, meaning he’ll finish the month with a .419 batting average and a 1.216 OPS. He becomes the 15th Indian since 1921 to hit .400 or better with an OPS of at least 1.200 in a single month, according to Paul Hoynes of the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The monster month came as a bit of a surprise for the Cleveland second baseman, as he hadn’t been very good to start 2013. Through 45 games in April and May, he hit .238/.307/.448 with eight home runs and 26 RBI. In June, he nearly hit 200 points higher than the first two months. That’s absolutely insane!
Jeremy Hellickson, Starting Pitcher, Tampa Bay Rays
Jeremy Hellickson had a fantastic rookie season in 2011, taking home AL Rookie of the Year honors. And he wasn’t bad in 2012 either. He wasn't able, however, to start his third big league season on a positive note, pitching very poorly through the first two months of the year.
While Hellickson only lost two total games in April and May, he gave up a ton of runs. Through 69 innings of work, the right-hander gave up 43 earned runs. For those at home trying to do the math in your head, that’s a 5.61 ERA. In May, his 5.11 ERA was the eighth-worst among qualified pitchers in the league.
Since then, though, the right-hander has been solid. He’s 4-1 in June with a 3.94 ERA in 29.2 innings. He has had four very good starts and one hiccup in the middle. Excluding an eight-run outburst at the hands of the Royals, Hellickson has only allowed five earned runs in 24 innings with four walks and 17 strikeouts.
The Rays desperately needed a big month from Hellickson, as the AL East has been as competitive as ever. With David Price out for the entire month, Tampa Bay easily could’ve slumped through June. But the team's top right-hander has kept the Rays in the playoff hunt entering July.
Pedro Alvarez, Third Baseman, Pittsburgh Pirates
Only Chris Davis of the Orioles hit more home runs in the month of June than Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez hit 10 balls out of the park throughout the month, capping one of the best calendar months of his entire career. His 10 homers put him in the record books in Pittsburgh, according to ESPN Stats & Info:
It took Alvarez a little while to finally get going in the big leagues, but there’s no question that the third baseman has arrived. The Pirates are the best team in baseball entering July, and Alvarez’s production in June is a major reason why. Without him, Pittsburgh might not have 50 victories.
Alvarez was not solid through the early months of the season, though, which makes his June that much more impressive. He hit .180/.245/.315 in April and then .225/.273/.521 in May. That’s not going to get the job done whatsoever. But he’s put the pedal to the metal in June, crushing everything.
If Alvarez continues to hit like he has been, Pittsburgh will be a very dangerous team for the rest of the season. Heck, if he keeps smoking the ball, he’s going to find himself in the conversation for NL MVP before you know it.