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Dodgers in May: Freddie Freeman, J.D. Martinez carry a struggling pitching staff

MLB: Washington Nationals at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The Dodgers went through a pitching hell during May but were carried by a strong offense that was enough to sweep most of those other problems under the rug to earn the National League’s best record during the month

Dodgers in May

18-10 record
173 runs scored (6.18 per game, 2nd in MLB)
133 runs allowed (4.75 per game, 18th in MLB)
.618 pythagorean win percentage (17-11)

Year to date

34-23 record
319 runs scored (5.60 per game, 3rd in MLB)
262 runs allowed (4.60 per game, 18th in MLB)
.589 pythagorean win percentage (34-23)

The offense was humming in May, with Freddie Freeman putting up one of the best months in franchise history.

Dodgers .400 months in 21st century

Player Month BA/OBP/SLG PA
Player Month BA/OBP/SLG PA
Freddie Freeman May 2023 .400/.462/.722 132
Cody Bellinger Apr 2019 .431/.508/.890 132
Justin Turner Aug 2018 .402/.491/.722 114
Yasiel Puig Jun 2013 .436/.467/.713 107
Manny Ramirez Aug 2008 .415/.508/.736 128
Minimum 100 PA Source: Baseball Reference

The everyday first baseman hit .400/.462/.722 during May, led the majors in batting average, doubles (17), RBI (26), and runs scored (28), led the National League in slugging percentage (.722), OBP (1.184), and wRC+ (212).

The 17 doubles are the most by a Dodger in any month in franchise history, one more than Babe Herman in July 1930. Freeman also homered six times and tripled, his 24 extra-base hits also a Dodgers record, beating Herman and Duke Snider, the latter in June 1954 for Brooklyn.

Freeman during the month had multiple hits in more than half (16) of his games (28). During May he had more games with at least three hits (three) than he did with no hits (two). He has as many games with at least one double (14) than he did without one. Freeman ended the month on a 20-game hitting streak, tied for second-longest of his career.

He’s one of only five Dodgers this century to hit .400 in a month with at least 100 plate appearances, and the last since Cody Bellinger during his MVP season in 2019.

The top of the Dodgers lineup is a nightmare to face, with Mookie Betts (.269/.365/.593, 156 wRC+ in May) batting before Freeman and Will Smith (.318/.434/.529, 165 wRC+) after.

The return of designated hitter J.D. Martinez from lower back tightness completed the set. Martinez hit .311/.338/.703 with eight home runs and a 172 wRC+ during the month. Martinez drove in 24 runs in 18 games since getting activated off the injured list.

A return to full strength among the position players made it easier to absorb a few slumps. The Dodgers’ two best hitters in the season’s first month — Max Muncy and April National League rookie of the month James Outman — each slumped badly during May.

Outman struggled to adjust to the adjustments during his second full month in the majors. Muncy was sick for a good chunk of the month but still played. The home runs were there, but other numbers were not.

James Outman

Mo. BA/OBP/SLG HR wRC+ K rate
Mo. BA/OBP/SLG HR wRC+ K rate
Apr .292/.376/.615 7 166 33.0%
May .165/.261/.291 2 55 37.0%

Max Muncy

Mo. BA/OBP/SLG HR wRC+ K rate
Mo. BA/OBP/SLG HR wRC+ K rate
Apr .238/.408/.663 11 181 27.2%
May .186/.273/.402 6 81 30.0%

Outman getting fewer starts and Betts playing more middle infield led to more of a mix-and-match for outfield playing time.

Six of Chris Taylor’s 15 starts in May came in left field, and he hit .258/.343/.565 with a 141 wRC+, one of five Dodgers with a 140 wRC+ or higher during the month. Taylor also cut his strikeout rate from 41.7 percent in April to 28.6 percent in May. But a more specialized role might have been the key to Taylor’s success.

He hit just .167/.222/.409 in April, when 51 of his 72 plate appearances came against right-handers. In May, Taylor batted 34 times against left-handers, against whom he hit .323/.382/.806, and had 36 plate appearances against righties, hitting .194/.286/.323 off them.

David Peralta is the yin to Taylor’s yang, starting 35 of the Dodgers’ 39 games against right-handed starting pitchers this season. He found his footing in May, starting 17 times in left field and once more at designated hitter, hitting .295/.343/.443 with a 115 wRC+.

Jason Heyward made 13 outfield starts in center and right, plus three more at DH, hitting .216/.344/.471 with a 124 wRC+ in May. Peralta and Heyward batted twice each against southpaws all month. Their roles are pretty clear at this point.

Pitching woes

After winning National League Player of the Month in April, Clayton Kershaw struggled in May, with a 5.55 ERA in five starts, failing to complete five innings in three of them, after pitching at least six innings in all six starts during the season’s first month. May saw Kershaw’s highest ERA in any month with more than one start since a 7.29 ERA in four starts in April 2009.

His strikeout rate was higher in May (30.9 percent) than in April (28.4 percent), but his walk rate nearly tripled, going from 3.5 percent in April to 9.9 percent in May. Opposing batters hit .313/.387/.495 against Kershaw in May, though his batted balls suggested an expected batting average of .244 and expected slugging percentage of .406.

Kershaw wasn’t the only Dodgers starter struggling in May. Six Dodgers pitchers with at least 10 innings during the month had ERAs over 5.00.

The rotation had a 4.60 ERA and averaged 4.82 innings per start during the month after going 5.37 innings per start in April. Starters getting nearly two fewer outs per game, on average, meant a lot of work for relievers. That was exacerbated by injuries to Dustin May and Julio Urías, plus a blister-popping one-inning start by Noah Syndergaard as part of his wholly underwhelming 7.20 ERA during the month. Whether Syndergaard starts again for the Dodgers hasn’t yet been decided.

Despite the scramble mode, Dodgers relievers improved during May as a group. They ranked 10th among MLB bullpens with a 25.3-percent strikeout rate during the month, after just 22.4 percent in April, which ranked 24th.

The end-of-game trio of Evan Phillips, Brusdar Graterol, and Caleb Ferguson — the group that earned all seven Dodgers saves of May — combined for a 1.13 ERA with 37 strikeouts and nine walks in 32 innings.

Overall, pitching is a glaring weakness of the Dodgers. This is a team that led the National League in fewest runs allowed in each of the last six seasons, finishing no worse than second in the majors in any of those years. This year, the Dodgers are 18th in runs allowed on the season, and were 18th in runs allowed during May.

The offense has been good enough to overcome the bad pitching so far, but asking for six runs per game from the lineup is a fruitless endeavor. Unless the Dodgers pitching improves, they aren’t going to accomplish much.