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June Fun Index: Ohtani, Franco, and “some” Pittsburgh Pirates

The Fun Index returns with my favorite things from the month of June in Major League Baseball.

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Back at the end of April, I did a test run of a “fun index” in which I examined five of my favorite things from the opening month of the 2021 Major League Baseball season. I didn’t do it in May. In all honesty, it was not something even remotely on my radar until a friend told me how much he enjoyed the first and had wondered where the follow-up was in the following months. This, unfortunately for me, means that I missed an opportunity to talk about the baserunning exploits of Javier Báez. So, in the interest of not missing opportunities, here I am again to review some of the things that made baseball fun in June.

Because there sure as hell were a lot of things that didn’t. The month opened with Bob Brenly’s comment directed toward Marcus Stroman while the New York Mets were in Arizona. Not the first time for Brenly. Speaking of the Arizona Diamondbacks, they lost 24 straight on the road and could easily end the month with the league’s worst record if it weren’t for the Baltimore Orioles providing competition. We also saw the debacle over the utilization of foreign substances by pitchers kind of come to a head. The Chicago Cubs also unveiled their City Connect jerseys that likely proved to be not only the least consequential part of the negative side but also the weakest of this year’s Nike slate.

But! More importantly, both for the purposes of this here article and the reasons we watch the sport, there were far more things to get excited about than frustrated with. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. continued his reign of dominance. Fernando Tatís Jr. carried the San Diego Padres on his back while they tried to figure it out. Jacob deGrom spent the entire month Jacob deGrom-ing. In the spirit of fun things, here are my five favorite things that transpired over the course of the third month of the MLB season, presented in no particular order.

Shohei Otani

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Tampa Bay Rays Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

Bruh. Aside from handling his foreign substance check with nothing less than great aplomb, Ohtani spent the entire month of June just absolutely decimating the rest of Major League Baseball. This isn’t a surprise, given that the baseball unicorn has spent the entire year pitching to a 2.58 ERA while also posting an absurd .373 ISO. But June was his best month yet.

He hit .288 with a .485 ISO. Four-hundred and eighty-five. His wRC+ was 212. His hard contact rate? Over 57 percent. You just have to laugh because it’s beyond absurd. Oh yeah, he didn’t fare too poorly on the pitching side, either. His walk rate was under two per nine, easily his lowest of the season, which helped his WHIP to a 1.09 that was also a season-best. His ERA sat at 2.35 and his xFIP was at 2.43, both of which represent his best outputs of the season, especially as far as the latter is concerned. There was simply no place where this dude didn’t absolutely dominate his opposition.

The most striking part of it all:

Read those numbers again. 116.1 off the bat and it went over 450 feet. Can anyone honestly say they’ve ever seen a ball hit that catwalk in Tampa Bay? Ohtani’s Baseball Savant page looks like it’s on fire because of all the red with those percentile rankings. That AL home run race with Vlad Jr. is going to be a hell of a thing.

Wander Franco’s Debut

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Tampa Bay Rays Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

On June 22nd, I set an alarm on my phone for 4:05 Arizona time that simply said ‘Wander Franco’ in all caps. The top prospect in the sport was called up to the Tampa Bay Rays and made his debut that Tuesday against the Boston Red Sox. And what a debut it was.

Sure, the Sox would go on to win the game 9-5, but Franco started his career with a walk. He worked an 0-2 count back to full and was able to lay off some very close pitches to do so. His first hit came in the fifth inning of that game, a three-run homer that tied the game at five at that point in the contest, leading his father to go absolutely bonkers. He later added a double that was Tampa’s second-hardest hit ball of the contest (105.3 MPH).

It doesn’t even matter that those have been Franco’s only two hits across 23 plate appearances to date. He’s worked a few walks and has made really nice contact to this point (42.9 Hard%). As long as he’s bringing that approach and that hit tool, the hits will come, and they’ll come regardless of which infield position he ultimately winds up.

Young Pirates

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Pittsburgh Pirates are an unmitigated disaster. As of this writing, they’re at the bottom of the National League Central with a -85 run differential. Which is exactly where they were expected to be anyway, so really who can be disappointed?

On the positive side, the Bucs have at least a couple of their emerging young players showing out in recent weeks. And that starts with Ke’Bryan Hayes. Hayes suffered a wrist injury in the second game of the season and was not able to return until June 3rd. Since that point, Hayes has done nothing but hit. He started with a 10-game hit streak and has recorded hits in 16 of 19 starts for the month, including six multi-hit efforts. For the year, he’s striking out and walking at virtually the same rate (15.4 percent vs. 13.2, respectively) and has a wRC+ of 141. For the way that wrist injuries tend to linger, a team like the Pirates were smart to play it safe with their future franchise cornerstone. He’s been terrific both at the plate and in the field.

In addition to Hayes, the Pirates had a notable pitching prospect take the bump for his first career start on June 27th. Max Kranick, ranked as Pittsburgh’s no. 26 prospect by MLB.com, started against the St. Louis Cardinals and twirled an absolute gem. He threw six perfect innings before a rain delay prematurely ended his start, touching 96 on the fastball that he coupled primarily with a slider. For a team like Pittsburgh, there isn’t a lot to be excited about beyond a light-hitting middle infielder who plays quality defense. Hayes’ return and Kranick’s arrival help to change that.

Francisco Lindor’s Bounce Back

MLB: Colorado Rockies at New York Mets-Game 2 Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Mets have remained in first place in the National League East for most of the year, despite the fact that they have been absolutely ravaged by injury. Francisco Lindor has been one of their only consistently healthy position players. But it didn’t get off to the way that anybody in Flushing envisioned when they not only acquired the perennial All-Star but signed him to a 10-year deal over the course of the winter.

Lindor hit just .189 in April and followed it up with a .204 May. While the occasional power was there, a .054 ISO in the season’s opening month and a wRC+ of 62, followed by outputs of .140 and 84 in May, didn’t do much to quell concerns over what his first season in New York could look like, given the massive change to both location and contract expectations. But the Baseball Gods know that the Fun Index needs Lindor, and the month of June has represented a relative turnaround.

For June, Lindor’s wRC+ has leaped to 122, while his ISO is at .223. While he only hit .245 for the month and reached base at an uncharacteristic .324 clip, he’s avoided hitting the ball on the ground quite as much as he did in the first two months to help his BABIP rise, an important development given his typical contact rates. His OPS also jumped by .200 points. One hopes that this trend continues as the season wears on, and the production continues to rise. Baseball is better when Francisco Lindor is excelling, and he absolutely contributed to the joy of June.

Release The Kraken

MLB: Oakland Athletics at New York Yankees Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a really rough couple of years for Gary Sánchez. He was an above-average hitter by way of wRC+ in 2019 (116), but hit just .232 and struck out over 28 percent of the time. Last year was worse yet, as that wRC+ dropped to 68, he reached base at a clip of only .253, and his K rate ballooned to 36 percent. It makes a quote like this just completely heartbreaking to read:

“It’s great to hear the fans show their support, so it definitely feels really good. I’ve got to say, I wish that sometimes when I’m struggling I hear the same kind of support from them, but they’re New York fans. They’re tough, but much appreciated.”

The good news for Sánchez, at least, is that right now it’s all support being directed in the way of the New York Yankees backstop. Sánchez spent his June among the very best offensive performers in baseball. His wRC+ (186) and ISO (.355) ranked eighth, while his OBP (.402) came in at 25th among 156 qualifying hitters. His signature moment for the month came here:

With the Yankees experiencing something of a rollercoaster of a 2021, the stability that Sánchez has provided has been invaluable. His overall season numbers feature a wRC+ of 128, an ISO of .254, and an OBP of .345. He’s finding the barrel consistently (Barrel% of 13.7 is 87th percentile) and walking enough (12.7 BB% is a career-high and 84th percentile) that when you add it all together, he’s at his best since 2017. Warms the heart, especially when you see a quote like the one above.

Honorable mention to Cedric Mullins—I could only write about one wildly awful team here—and Kyle Schwarber—as someone who still, for some reason, identifies as a Chicago Cubs fan, I have opinions—but these were the top tier moments from June for my eyes. We’ll catch up again at the end of July with what is hopefully a new slate of fun things to evaluate for the month.

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandyHolt42.