Every April, baseball is full of surprises.
This April has been no different. In fact, it has been one of the more unpredictable April’s in recent years. This is a good thing, of course, because if all of the predictions regarding this season turned out to be accurate, how boring that would be?
Luckily, teams like the San Diego Padres (14-8), the Washington Nationals (12-10), and yes, even the New York Mets (13-9) exist to make a mockery of our pre-season predictions. In a more negative fashion, so too do the Atlanta Braves and the L.A. Dodgers, both 8-14.
Among the players, April has had its share of heroes and goats as well. Some come as a surprise (one way or the other), while others do not.
One of last season’s break-out players, second baseman Aaron Hill of the Toronto Blue Jays, for example, has been a huge bust to this point, batting just .162 with just six hits in 37 at bats, including one home run. Some regression to the mean was expected from this 28-year old, but no one expected Hill to suddenly morph into the second coming of Alfredo Griffin.
Meanwhile, Kelly Johnson, second baseman for the Arizona Diamondbacks, has been a revelation playing in the desert south-west. Last season, while with Atlanta, Johnson lost his job to Martin Prado (himself off to an outstanding start this year.) This year, Johnson has already belted nine home runs and driven in 18, along with 17 runs scored.
But the real question isn’t, “Who has been hot and who hasn’t?”
It is, “Which trends are real, and which are just April illusions?”
Let’s begin with a team from which no one expected anything other than a last-place finish in the annual dog-fight that is the N.L. West. I am referring to the first place Padres, of course. At 14-8, with a .636 win-lost percentage, they are on pace to win 103 games. Is this a trend that is likely to continue?
Of course not. But, in the mediocre National League, do they have a shot at making the play-offs, perhaps as the Wild-Card team? Well, to answer that question, we have to take a closer look regarding how it is they came to be 14-8 in the first place.
Going into last night’s games, they had scored 103 runs in April, good for an 8th place tie in the N.L., although all but one teams in their own division actually out-scored them. Their pitching and defense surrendered 77 runs, good for 4th best in their league. Their differential then (runs scored minus runs surrendered) is a positive 26, again, 4th in the N.L.
Importantly, though, both Colorado and San Francisco – teams in their own division – are two of the three teams that have better run differentials.
Taking a look at specific Padres players, Adrian Gonzalez, no surprise here, is having a fantastic start to the season, having already slugged six homers with 16 R.B.I and 45 total bases. His OPS is an outstanding .999. He is easily one of the top five first basemen playing today.
Gonzalez’s teammates, third baseman Chase Headley and outfielder Will Venable have also been quietly productive. Headley has hit an unsustainable .333 with 29 hits and 38 total bases. Venable has a .239 batting average, but has slugged .507, primarily due to his four home runs.
The Padres as a team have hit just .249 which suggests that they have enjoyed good luck maximizing their relatively few run scoring opportunities. In short, there is no way this offense will remain in the middle of the pack in the N.L. in scoring runs.
Taking a quick look at their pitching, the story is similar, if somewhat brighter. Kevin Correia has taken to his new role as de facto ace by sporting a 4-1 record over his first five starts with 26 strikeouts and 10 walks in 28 innings. His stuff is good, and he pitches in a pitchers paradise, so there is reason to believe that he should remain at least somewhat productive throughout the season.
But Correia also has an ERA of 3.86, which translates into over 4.00 in most N.L. parks, and he will only win as many games as the Padres are able to score runs for him. In other words, he is not a break-out gem; he is a decent pitcher who has enjoyed some good fortune.
Meanwhile, his teammates Wade Leblanc, Jon Garland, and closer Heath Bell have also enjoyed some early season success.
Bell is a legit top-notch closer. LeBlanc, however, is a decent young left-handed starter who rarely touches 90 with his fastball. He is a classic case of, the more the league sees this kid, the less successful he will be. Garland has been a league-average starting pitcher for a few years now.
Mostly a ground-ball pitcher, Garland has fanned 20 in 28 innings, but he has also walked 15. His ERA stands at 2.58, but whenever he leaves the friendly confines of PetCo Park, the worse he will look.
If, at this point, if you are scratching your head wondering how in the hell the Padres are 14-8, you are not alone. Although they may be a bit better than most of us thought before the season started, in reality this team will gradually slip back down to .500, and probably a bit below that, by season’s end.
Yet another N.L. team that has enjoyed its share of luck this season is the Pittsburgh Pirates (10-12). Why do I describe a team with a record of 10-12 lucky? Because, with their major league worst run differential of -75, (nearly twice as bad as the 4-18 Orioles), the Pirates are a truly awful team. They have scored just 80 runs, second worst in their league, and they have surrendered 155, the most in either league.
The Pirates have virtually no legitimate major league-caliber starting pitchers, and perhaps one or two good hitters (outfielder Andrew McCutchen, hitting .305 with 14 runs scored and ten stolen bases, is an excellent young player.)
The Pirates, going into last night’s game against the scuffling Dodgers, shouldn’t have a record anywhere near .500, and, by the end of this season, they certainly won’t.
On a positive note, don’t look now, but your where’s-the-starting-pitching New York Mets, having just defeated the Phillies as I type this, are now a stunning 14-9 on the season. The Mets have now won eight games in a row. If nothing else, this puts off the inevitable firing of manager Jerry Manuel for at least another month.
Everyone knew that the Mets certainly had a few high quality players, but the dizzying array of questions that surrounded this team just a month ago seem to have been rendered irrelevant by this scorching start.
So, then, why and how have the Mets managed to perplex the pundits up to this point?
It seems that a few key players have made all the difference. The biggest surprise by far has been 26-year old starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey. Pelfrey had been maddeningly short on showing any actual progress as a major league-caliber pitcher up until, uhm, about three weeks ago.
Then suddenly, Pelfrey became the second-coming of Kevin Brown or Mike Scott (in their Glory Days.) Apparently, Pelfrey discovered a split-fingered fastball that has been the true out-pitch he had been lacking. And he has been using it to devastating effect throughout the league. Pelfrey’s record now stands at 4-0 with a miniscule 0.69 ERA.
Over the past sixteen games, the Mets team ERA has been 1.55.
Their offense, on the other hand, is in the middle of the pack with 105 runs scored. So, as David Wright said recently, “We will go as far as our pitching will take us.” He is right about that. But no team can sustain an ERA at this level indefinitely. Pelfrey’s ERA figures to go up a couple of runs, perhaps more, new pitch or not. His 19-13 strike-out to walk ratio suggests a little less dominance than meets the eye.
Overall, I am sticking with my pre-season prediction that the Mets won’t win more than 84 games, and will miss making the playoffs by about five wins.
Among players that have busted out thus far, look no further than outfielder Colby Rasmus of the St. Louis Cardinals.
Rasmus is an excellent combination of speed and power. He is what Grady Sizemore was supposed to have been, and more. Rasmus is hitting .333 with six home runs, 12 RBI’s and he has already scored 19 runs. He has also drawn 17 walks and has three stolen bases. His on-base percentage is nearly .500, and he is slugging over .700.
Rasmus’ only downside to this point is that he hasn’t had much success against lefties. He is just 2 for 13 so far this year, with ten strikeouts.
But Rasmus is just 23-years old, and figures to gradually improve his success-rate vs. lefties over time. Rasmus is one of the reasons why the Cardinals are off to an N.L. best 15-7 start.
Another break-out player is 24-year old David Price of the Tampa Bay Rays (17-6, the best record in baseball, if you haven’t noticed.) Price was a highly touted rookie last season, but disappointed many unrealistic fans with a mediocre overall performance.
That appears to have changed this season. After just four starts, Price is 3-1 with a 2.20 ERA. The A.L. is hitting just .202 against Price, and he has 26 K’s and just nine walks in 28 innings, suggesting that his overall numbers aren’t a fluke. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Price could end up winning somewhere between 16-18 games this season, with many more to come in the future.
Best Players in the National League: 1) Albert Pujols 2) Chase Utley 3) Ryan Braun 4) Hanley Ramirez 5) Matt Kemp. Honorable mention: Adrian Gonzalez.
What are we to make of the defending N.L. Champion Phillies? At 12-10, they are actually in third place in their division. Why isn’t their record more like the 15-7 Cardinals?
Well, don’t blame Roy Halladay. He has done everything expected of him up to this point. He is 4-1 with a 1.80 ERA and an 0.975 WHIP. Moreover, he has a ridiculous strikeout-to-walk ratio of 33 to 3!
Meanwhile, Halladay has again exhibited supreme durability by averaging eight innings pitched per start.
Ryan Howard, who the Phillies just signed to a huge mega-contract that almost certainly won’t turn out well for them, has been a bit of a disappointment so far. Although he has four homers and 17 RBI, his OPS is just under .800, not a strong showing from your cleanup hitter.
But the Phils run differential of +16, coupled with their 9-6 road record, suggests that they will be fine, and, despite tonight’s 9-1 drubbing at the hands of the Mets, they are still likely to overtake the Mets at some point this season.
Finally, if you haven’t done so already, take a look at the standings in the A.L. West, where all four teams are separated by just one game, and try to predict a winner.
Surprising Oakland has the best run differential of the bunch (+7), but I’m sticking with my pre-season pick, Seattle, to win this division. Cliff Lee is due back soon, and he could be the piece that puts the Mariners over the top.
Have a bone to pick with me? Are there players or teams that you think I should have mentioned? Let me know, and I’ll consider them in my next blog-post on this topic.
Meanwhile, if you are in a Fantasy League and he’s still available, make sure you go pick up Colby Rasmus.
And, as always, thanks for reading.