Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mr. May

On this, the penultimate day of May, with the likes of Bryce Harper, Jason Kipnis, and Josh Donaldson putting the finishing touches on individually outstanding months, I started looking at great Mays of the past (and no, not Willie Mays).

George Steinbrenner once famously called Dave Winfield Mr. May, but was Winfield really Mr. May? He did have more runs, doubles, homers, RBI, steals, and total bases in May than in any other month, but his .822 OPS for the month is well below his marks in April (.866). June (.858) and July (.852). Furthermore, Winfield won three Player of the Month awards during his 22 year career, none of which came in May.

That got me thinking about the best hitting performances for the month of May in baseball history. Thanks to B-R and some nice work/digging by one of my favorites, David Schoenfield over at ESPN, here's my list (in chronological order) of the best May performances all-time.

Ruth was great all the time, but had some truly towering May performances (NY Post)
Babe Ruth 1920
Ruth's Yankee debut got off to an inauspicious start, as he went homerless in his first nine games with the club and batted only .226. That all changed when the calendar flipped to May, for Ruth mashed home runs in the first two games of the month with Boston in town and never looked back. He was on base in all but two of the 23 games he played that month, compiling a .463 OBP and scoring 25 runs. More notably, he belted 12 home runs in just 76 official at-bats, ten of which were hit in a 14-game stretch that closed out the month when he knocked in 20 of his 26 runs. Nine of his dozen came at the Polo Grounds, while the other three were hit at his old stomping grounds at Fenway Park. He slugged an impressive .921 and drove in 26 runs, but most impressively he accomplished all this despite missing a week in the middle of the month.

Bing Miller 1922
Most baseball fans, myself included, don't know Miller, a fine outfielder who batted .311 over his 16 seasons, the best of which was unequivocally 1922 (his age 27 and sophomore season). Miller mashed a dozen home runs in the two dozen games he played that month and reached base in all but two (interestingly, he never hit more than 12 home runs in any other season). He also scored 24 runs, drove home 27 and totaled 41 hits, 32 of which came during his 15-game hitting streak from May 5th through the 23rd, which included 11 of his 15 mult-hit efforts that month. Miller batted an astounding .432/.476/.895 that May, played 14 more years and never had another month like it.

Cy Williams 1923
Here's something I bet most people don't know. Cy williams led his league in home runs four times, which is a lot (including three times in his 30s). Hank Aaron played 23 years, hit 755 home runs, and led his league in home runs four times. So did Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mark McGwire. Point is, you have to be pretty good to lead the league in home runs on four different occasions.

Anyways, 1923 was when Williams peaked as a slugger. He smashed 41 home runs--most in baseball--and set personal bests with 114 RBI, 308 total bases, a .576 slugging percentage, and a .283 ISo. The bulk of that power production came in May, when he went deep 15 times, stroked eight doubles, and knocked in 44 runs, still the record for a player in May. He also scored 29 runs and batted .355/.437/.782 in 30 games that month. Unfortunately for him, his Phillies were so terrible that they still went 7-23 in the month anyways, on their way to losing 104 games and a last place finish.

Ty Cobb 1925
The Georgia Peach was still ripe at age 38 in 1925, batting .378/.468/.598 to lead the league in OPS and OPS+ for the final time. He also tied his career high in homers with 12 and recorded his seventh and final 100 RBI season with 102, 43 (an AL record) of which came in May. Cobb also compiled 49 hits--21 of which went for extra bases (including eight triples!), 33 runs, and 17 walks in 30 games, hitting safely in 25 of them with 15 mult-hit games. On May 5th in St.Louis Cobb had the best game of his career, going 6-for-6 with three home runs and a double to pace Detroit's 14-8 victory over the Browns. For an encore he slugged two more home runs the following day, driving in six as the Tigers routed St. Louis 11-4. Overall Cobb batted .383/.459/.688 for the month. I have to imagine few players have ever started a month better than Cobb began that May, going 18-for-29 with three doubles, five home runs and 17 RBI in the month's first six games, packing an entire month's worth of production into one week.

Tris Speaker 1925
Babe Ruth 1926
1926 marked Ruth's return to dominance following a down season in 1925, when "the bellyache heard 'round the world" limited him to just 98 games and 25 home runs. After getting back in shape during the winter of 1925-'26, Ruth returned to form. In fact, his 1926 campaign was a near-perfect match for his 1924 campaign:

1924 153 G 143 R 46 HR 142 BB 81 K .378/.513/.739 9 SB 11.7 bWAR
1926 152 G 139 R 47 HR 144 BB 76 K .372/.516/.737 11 SB 11.5 bWAR

Ruth got off to a rip-roaring start, and his big month of May (12 homers, 30 RBI, 1.312 OPS) ignited New York, who'd finished second-to-last and 16 games below .500 in 1925, to a 16-game winning streak from May 10th through the 26th. In addition to his legendary power, Ruth batted a robust .360 and reached base at a .525 clip thanks to 31 walks, which in turn helped him score 31 runs. He was on base in all but two of the Yankees' 28 games that month. The bulk of Babe's production came during the first three weeks of May, when Ruth clobbered 11 of his 12 home runs, knocked in 27 and batted better than .400.

Lou Gehrig 1927
Gehrig had been a good player in 1925 and a great one in 1926, but 1927 was the year he became a superstar. Larrupin' Lou teamed with Babe Ruth to form the best 1-2 punch any lineup has ever had, the heart of Murderer's Row. Just 23 when the season began, Gehrig seriously challenged Ruth's single season home run record for most of the summer and was named league MVP when the season ended. The Iron Horse got off to a sensational start in '27, and his May was merely a continuation of that. He totaled 47 hits on the month, recording at least one in 26 of the Bombers' 28 games including 15 multi-hit game performances. Of those 47 hits (which helped Gehrig to a .420 average, by the way), an astounding 24 went for extra bases; 12 doubles, four triples, and eight big flies, which explains his .813 slugging percentage. It also explains how he was able to knock in runs in 20 games that month and 33 in all. Consistent through and through, Gehrig reached base every game and posted an impressive .492 OBP for the month, reaching base in nearly half of his 132 plate appearances.

Gehrig (L) and Ruth were quite the duo (Babe Ruth Central)
Babe Ruth 1928
People forget that after setting the single-season home run mark of 60 in 1927, Ruth gave himself a run for his money the following year, eclipsing 50 for the fourth time and finishing with 54. 15 of those came in May, when the Babe batted .414/.547/1.000 with 37 RBI, despite playing four doubleheaders in a nine-day span (it truly was a different time). 11 of his home runs came at the House that Ruth Built, but to be fair New York only played eight of its 29 games that month away from home. With 41 hits, 28 walks, and one hit-by-pitch, the Bambino reached base 70 times in May--a truly astonishing number--and scored 32 runs. His heavy hitting was a big reason why the defending World Series champs went 24-5 that month, on their way to a 101-win season and a second straight title.

Babe Ruth 1930
Offense peaked in 1930, which for Ruth was just business as usual. He smashed a league--high 49 home runs, narrowly missing his fifth season with at least 50, and pacing the majors in walks, OBP, SLG, OPS, and OPS+, good for his eighth season with at least ten wins above replacement. Though the Babe did not win the batting title that year, he still batted a very good .359, including .383 in May. Ruth reached base in 26 of 28 games that month, walking 32 times to go along with his 36 hits that fueled his .540 OBP for the month and helped him score 35 runs. He also clubbed 13 home runs, nine of which came in an eight-game span from May 18th through the 24th, when he plated 19 of his 33 RBI that month. The barrel-chested Ruth slugged .872 that month, but his most impressive accomplishment that month may very well be that the 35 year-old was successful in six of his eight stolen base attempts. Included one of his two career three-homer games (not including postseason)

Jimmie Foxx 1932
"Beast" lived up to his nickname in 1932, when he led the major leagues in home runs, RBI, times on base, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, total bases, and bWAR to win his first of three MVP awards. He was especially beastly in May, hammering 13 home runs, knocking in 37 and triple-slashing .429/.517/.888 for the month. With 42 hits and 18 walks he reached base safely in all 27 games that month and scored 32 times. An RBI machine batting fifth in the A's lineup behind future Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane and Al Simmons, Foxx had 11 multi-RBI games during the month.

Mickey Mantle 1956
The Mick was already on fire when he rolled into May, batting .415/.500/.805, you'd think those numbers would have to come down, right? but was even better in May, hitting .414.,507/.879. May was the month that got people talking about him challenging. He homered in each of May's first three games to start the month with a bang and cracked 16--still the American League record--to finish the month with 20 and put him on track for Babe Ruth's single season home run record. He also collected 48 hits, scored and drove in 35 runs apiece, drew 23 walks, and was successful in all four of his stolen base attempts. It was a good month for Mantle, probably the best he's ever had. 13 mult-hit games, including two of his best performances of the season: a 4-for-4 effort with two home runs, a doubles, and a walk on May 18th to help New York top Chicago in extra innings, and his only five-hit game of the season, a 5-for-5 performance with a home run and a walk a week later in Detroit. or if he could hit .400. Eventually cooled off after that, but still won the Triple Crown. Finished the month at .414/.505/.860, well on his way to his first of three MVP awards and the signature season of his Hall of Fame career.

Willie Mays 1958
The first Player of the Month award was handed out for May, 1958, and fittingly enough it was shared by Mays and Stan Musial, two of the ten greatest ballplayers ever. Truth be told, Mays deserved it outright, for Musial managed just four home runs and didn't come close to equaling Mays in any batting category except on-base percentage. The Say Hey Kid was a force to be reckoned with, despite playing the last 20 of the month's 30 games on the road (talk about a trip). He hit safely in 26 of those games, piling up 49 hits with 15 multi-hit performances and batting .405 for the month. He flashed plenty of power, too, slugging .843 and creaming 24 extra base hits--seven doubles, five triples, and 12 long balls--including ten taters in an eight-game stretch from May 9th through the 17th, when he knocked in 20 of his 29 runs and authored three multi-homer performances in a four-day span. True to form, Mays also showed off his dynamic speed by stealing six bases. The 27 year-old center fielder seemed like a sure bet to run away with his second MVP award in five years, but his power tailed off dramatically over the course of the season (he finished with a mildly disappointing 29 home runs) and settled for silver in the MVP race behind Ernie Banks.

Harmon Killebrew 1959
Killer was only 22 years old in the spring of 1959, his first full season even though he'd debuted five years earlier, at the age of 17. May, 1959 was the first indication he gave of the Hall of Fame slugger he'd become, an all-time great who'd go on to slug 573 home runs and finish his career fifth on the all-time home run list behind Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Frank Robinson. Killebrew had only 14 home runs to his name at the start of May, then proceeded to crush 15 home runs in 30 games that month. He had five two-homer games, including back-to-back multi-homer games in Detroit to lead off the month, and slugged .718. Killebrew scored and drove in 28 runs and also drew 17 walks, showing an incredible level of patience for a youngster, one he would maintain throughout the course of his career.

Frank Howard 1968
1968 will forever be remembered as the Year of the Pitcher, but it wasn't for Frank Howard, who led the majors with 44 home runs, 330 total bases and a .552 slugging percentage. 15 of those homers and 87 of those total bases came in May, which saw him bat .346/.393/.837 with 27 RBI. His hot month was defined by one great week, one of the best weeks any player has ever had. Hondo homered in six consecutive games (all multiple RBI efforts) from May 12th through the 18th, and four of those games were multi-home run performances. The slugging Senator also added a double and two singles for good measure, giving him 10 bombs and 17 ribbies in a six-game span. He only hit two long balls and had six RBI the rest of the month and didn't even have Player of the Month honors to show for it (Don Drysdale, who spun five consecutive shutouts and had  0.53 ERA that month, won).

Darrell Evans 1983
You'd think a player with 414 pre-Steroid Era homers would get more respect, but it was Evans' destiny (Dwight Evans' as well) to be tragically underrated. Though he turned 36 in May, 1983 and was in his final year with the Giants, he proved he was still at the top of his game by batting .423/.513/.814 with nine home runs and doubles, 23 RBI and runs, and 17 walks compared to just 13 strikeouts. Of the 25 games he played that month, he had at least two hits in 15 (60 percent) of them. It was enough to win his first and only Player of the Month award.

McGwire was a beast in many Mays (NY Times)
Mark McGwire 1987
The mighty McGwire was a 23 year-old rookie in 1987, on his way to hitting more home runs than any rook before or since. 15 of his major league leading 49 came in May, when he slugged .813 and plated two dozen runs in 25 games. Bizarrely enough, Big Mac did not swat any doubles but did manage to leg out a pair of triples. Now, McGwire was not a doubles guy, with just 252 in his career and never more than 28 in any season, but seeing him hit a triple was about as rare as seeing Haley's Comet. He had only six of them and went 11 years between his fifth and sixth career three-bagger. So for him to get two, or one-third of his career total, in the span of three weeks in 1987 was quite a feat. Not more so than the 15 home runs, but quite a feet indeed. Incredibly, he did not win Player of the Month (Larry Parrish did).

Frank Thomas 1994
The Big Hurt was inducted into the Hall of Fame last summer because of the hot streaks like the he had in May, 1994, when he put a serious hurting on American League pitchers in the midst of his second MVP season. Not only did the reigning league MVP hit safely in 23 of the month's 25 games, but he also smacked 12 home runs, drew 31 walks and batted an absolutely ridiculous .452/.593/.988, giving him the tenth-best monthly OPS of all time. That lethal combination of power and on-base ability (he reached safely every game) helped him score 39 runs and earn his fourth Player of the Month award. Third best May OPS

Ken Griffey 1994
Fresh off his first 40-homer season, Griffey came roaring out of the gates in 1994 with a 1.039 OPS in April. The red-hot Junior kept swinging a hot bat into May, belting four home runs in the month's first five games. He would go yard 15 times that month, posting an .818 slugging percentage in addition to his 25 RBI. Seattle scuffled, going 11-16, but that was hardly Griffey's fault, for he reached base in all but two games that month, supplementing his power with 16 walks and getting on base at a .426 clip. No wonder he scored 28 times.

Mark McGwire 1998
McGwire's record-breaking campaign began with a bang; he already had 11 home runs, 36 RBI and a 1.243 OPS at the end of April, for which he received NL Player of the Month honors. He topped himself and won again in May. socking 16 homers, driving in 32 runs and posting an astonishing 1.420 OPS (.326/.513/.907) to win his third straight monthly award (he also won in September, 1997). Pitchers were careful with McGwire, who reached base in every game and walked him 33 times, but that didn't stop him from crushing 15 bombs in a three-week span from May 8th through the 30th. His home run barrage was immediately overshadowed by Sammy Sosa, who vaulted himself into the home run race by setting an MLB-record with 20 home runs in June. McGwire went on to famously smash Roger Maris's single season record of 61, finishing with 70, but Sosa (66) took home the MVP hardware.

Todd Helton 2000
The Toddfather's 2000 is one of the best seasons any hitter has ever had--few flirt with .400 for most of the year and post huge power numbers--and his monster May was a big reason why. Helton had four four-hit games that month, including a three-homer game on the first day of May and a 5-for-5 performance two days later. He finished the month with 42 hits in just 82 official at-bats, giving him a .512 batting average for the month--the highest for any month since 1969 and probably since Cobb batted .528 in July, 1912. Helton did more than just hit for average, though; thanks to four multi-homer games he went yard 11 times, finishing May with 26 RBI and a perfect 1.000 slugging percentage. He also walked 18 times, giving him a .588 OBP for the month and helping him scored 32 runs in 23 games. Helton, who finished the month hitting .421/.512/.825, was a no-brainer for his first of four NL Player of the Months awards (he won again that August). His 1.588 OPS for the month is the sixth-highest for any month ever and best by any player not named Bonds or, get ready, Bob Bailey. Highest OPS in May

Edgar Martinez 2000
April had been a disappointing month by Martinez's standards, yielding a .270 batting average and .338 OBP for E-Mart, who came into the season with career marks of .320 and .426, respectively. He quickly turned his season in May though, hitting safely in 24 of the month's first 25 games and collecting 45 hits in all, including 10 home runs. All those hits (he had 15 multi-hit games) helped the Mariners DH plate 32 runs, in addition to fueling his .441/.508/.814 line for the month. He also reached base every game but one, and in typical Martinez fashion fanned only 10 times. His big month with the bat netted him his fourth AL Player of the Month award but first since June, 1995. The then-37-year-old would finish the season with 37 home runs, a league-leading 145 RBI (both career highs) and a 1.002 OPS, good for sixth place in the AL MVP voting.

Mark McGwire 2000
People forget that after crushing 135 home runs in 1998 and 1999 combined, McGwire was on pace for his third straight 60 homer season in 2000 with 30 bombs before the Fourth of July. Unfortunately, patellar tendinitis in his right knee forced him to the shelf in early July and essentially ended his career at 36, limiting him to just 19 more games that year (exclusively as a pinch-hitter) and 97 in 2001, his final season. Were it not for the chronic knee injuries that ruined his career, McGwire would have zoomed past 600 home runs and may have even reached 700. Alas, we will never know.

But in May, 2000, Big Mac was still at his best. His titanic power produced 13 home runs in only 79 official at-bats, including three against the Phillies on May 18th, and produced an .848 slugging percentage. He walked a ton, drawing 32 free passes (six intentional) and getting on base at a .514 clip. He produced a lot of runs, scoring 25 and driving in 28. He struck out a fair amount, too (22 times), but still managed to bat .316 for the month, a rare feat for the career .263 hitter.

In 2001, Bonds had the best May anyone has ever had (NY Times)
Barry Bonds 2001
Bonds had a weird month of April, crushing 11 home runs bat batting just .240 because only seven of his hits that month did not leave the ballpark, and so his April BABiP was a horrendous .140. The hits started falling in in May--his BABiP for the month was .326, and by the end of the month his average was up over .300 (to .308). But Bonds made headline for all the hits that weren't just falling in, but flying out of the yard. Bonds bashed 17 home runs in May, a major-league record for the month and a total that has been surpassed only twice, by Rudy York's 18 in August, 1937 and Sammy Sosa's 20 in June, 1998. 13 of Bonds' bombs came in the month's final two weeks (including nine in a six game span from May 17th through May 22nd). On May 19th he enjoyed his first three-homer game of the season (he had another on September 9th), smashing three home runs and a double in his only four-hit game of the season, leading San Francisco to a 6-3 win over the Braves. He smacked two more the next day.  More impressively, he did so in just 84 official at-bats, meaning his AB/HR ratio for the month was below five (4.94, to be exact).  Batted an absurd .369/.547/1.036 (seventh highest monthly OPS ever) for the month to win his eighth NL Player of the Month award, but first for the month of May and first time since July, 1997. He also knocked in 30 runs, worked 31 walks and scored 28 times. With 28 bombs at the end of May, he had the fast start he needed to ultimately smash Mark McGwire's single season record and win up with 73 big flies. Bonds registered the second best May OPS of all-time.

Ryan Klesko 2001
Klesko was a great hitter, better than most people realize, but I can't imagine he was ever better than he was in May, 2001. Nobody was paying attention because of the show put on by Bonds, but Klesko clobbered 11 home runs of his own, batted .354/.464/.788, and knocked in 40 runs. Not surprisingly, 2001 was the only year of Klesko's 16 season career in which he exceeded 100 RBI. But Klesko did everything, and I mean everything, that month. He clubbed eight doubles, drew 23 walks, was on base in 25 of his 27 games, and was a perfect 10-for-10 in stolen base attempts. It was a truly remarkable all-around performance, and had it happened in any other year would have received the recognition it deserved.

Lance Berkman 2008
The recently retired Berkman was a monster in May 2008. Coming off the heels of a strong April in which he whacked eight home runs with 25 RBI and a 1.030 OPS. Berkman found another gear in May. He opened the month on a tear, building up a 17-game hitting streak and ripping 15 extra base hits in the month's first 15 games to push his seasonal average to .399. Though he cooled considerably in the month's second half, he still finished May with 49 hits (21 of the extra base variety), 31 runs and a .471/.553/.856 slash line, making him an easy choice for NL Player of the Month (his second and final). Big Puma even showed an uncharacteristic display of baserunning savvy, stealing six bags in seven attempts.

Edwin Encarnacion 2014
Encarnacion's off to a slow-ish start this year, but this time last year he was going bananas. He was pretty quiet in the first two weeks of May, only to catch fire and pound a dozen home runs over the month's second half. Encarnacion finished the month with 16 homers and 33 RBI, slugging a robust .763 on the month and driving in at least one run in 17 separate games. He also scored 26 runs and clubbed 22 of his 32 hits for extra bases. His 16 bombs tied Mantle for the American League record as he became just the third player with five multi-homer games in a month, joining Harmon Killebrew and Albert Belle. One of the weirder stats about Encarnacion's monster month is that his BABiP was only .195

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