A first month to remember
Can Rockies, Indians keep winning? Another MVP for Joey Votto? Twins in trouble?
So here we are, getting ready to wave au revoir to another fascinating baseball April. And just as we all expected a month ago
The Royals were the last team in the whole sport to lose a series.
And the No. 1 cult hero in baseball was -- who else? -- Sam Fuld.
Feel free to believe that these are all trends destined to last until the leaves turn red. Or feel free to believe that this is all just proof that the only thing more misleading than April is the BCS standings. But either way, it's time to look back at a fascinating first month:
Team of the month: Colorado Rockies
This wasn't an easy call. But think about this. The Rockies have the best record in baseball (16-7), even though their best pitcher, Ubaldo Jimenez, hasn't won a game and Carlos Gonzalez is hitting .214/.269/.286 (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). So this isn't quite how they drew up the blueprints. But in case you hadn't caught on, these are not Dante Bichette's Rockies anymore.
They're 10-3 away from Coors Field. They're tied for the league lead in defensive runs saved, according to Bill James Online. And with Troy Tulowitzki pouring fuel into this tank daily, they play with tremendous energy every inning of every game. But we do have one reservation: Other than one series against the Giants, their 20 other games have been against teams that finished a combined 100 games under .500 last year. So "until they start playing some good teams," one scout said, "I'm reserving judgment."
Surprising team of the month: Cleveland Indians
It's an amazing sport, all right. The Indians lost 93 games last year. They brought back pretty much the same cast of characters. And now, naturally, they have the best record in the American League (16-8). And Carlos Santana (.192, with a .645 OPS) and Shin-Soo Choo (.250/.311/.413) haven't even gotten cooking yet. So if you saw that coming, you'd better have the Bodog receipt to prove it.
If those back-to-back bombs Santana and Choo launched Thursday mean they're finally heating up, and the rejuvenated Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner stay out of the trainer's room, you can see this offense continuing to rake. But when we asked an exec of one team whether he was buying the turnaround in this pitching staff -- especially a rotation that has a 2.86 ERA since Fausto Carmona coughed up 10 runs Opening Day -- his diplomatic response went like this: "You know what I think? I think it's April." Well, it won't be for much longer. But wherever this leads, the Indians were still the best April story in the big leagues.
Team in trouble: Minnesota Twins
We'll get into the dangers of falling seven games out of first place in April in a moment. But that isn't the only reason the Twins are in trouble. This team is last in the league in OPS, and it's barely outhomering Ryan Braun (10 to 9). The Twins have scored the fewest runs in the league, they've allowed the most and they own the worst run differential in baseball (minus-47). Justin Morneau is still homerless and hitting .232/.293/.319. Delmon Young and Tsuyoshi Nishioka are on the disabled list. And we haven't mentioned that Joe Mauer has fewer extra-base hits than Chris Capuano, and no one is sure when the slugger is coming back.
It's always hard to bet against the Twins, no matter what catastrophes seem to be erupting all around them. But how much confidence can we have in them in their current state? "It all depends," one AL exec said, "on Morneau and Mauer."
April history lessons
• The Twins and White Sox won't like hearing that only 12 of 176 playoff teams since 1982 have finished April more than three games under .500.
• The Red Sox and Giants will not be overjoyed to learn that of the 144 teams that finished in first place in the past 28 full seasons, 106 of them (or 74 percent) were no worse than 2½ games out of first by the end of April.
• We're guessing the A's and Tigers don't want to know that in the 16-season wild-card era, just 24 of 128 playoff teams (19 percent) had a losing record when they flipped their calendars to May. And yes, that even includes teams that were one game under .500.
• And all parade-deprived Cubs fans definitely will want to ignore this little nugget: Only one team since 1935 has been more than three games under .500 after April and gone on to win the World Series.
Player of the month: Joey Votto
Boy, did we agonize over this one. You don't need to hire Frank McCourt's legal team to make a case for Ryan Braun, Tulowitzki, Alex Rodriguez or Jose "The Bambino" Bautista. But here's what nudged us into Votto's corner: You think it's every April the defending MVP roars out of the gates and hits .374, with a .509 on-base percentage, a .655 slugging percentage, 23 runs scored, five homers and 16 RBIs? Nooooo, sir. The last time any MVP matched or beat that pre-May stat line was 1993, when the pre-BALCO Barry Bonds did it (.431/.553/.859/23 R/ 7 HR/25 RBI).
"He brings more fear to the plate than anybody in the National League every day -- even more than [Albert] Pujols right now," one scout said of Votto. "He's a don't-pitch-to-him guy. He's like Bonds was once upon a time."
Starter of the month: Josh Johnson
This was pretty much a dead heat between Johnson (3-0, 1.06 ERA) and the en fuego Jered Weaver (6-0, 0.99 ERA). But here in this enlightened age we live in, we're supposed to look past the old wins column, right? Well, if we do, we find some scary, scary stuff on Johnson's stat sheet.
His own teammate, Anibal Sanchez, gave up as many hits in 4 2/3 innings a couple of weeks ago (13) as Johnson has given up all season -- in five starts. This guy allowed exactly one hit in one start, two hits in another, three hits twice and four hits in the fifth start. And only one other pitcher since 1919 -- a fellow named Nolan Ryan -- ever started a season by allowing four hits or fewer in five consecutive starts of six innings or more, according to baseball-reference.com.
Meanwhile, Johnson has become the first pitcher in the past 60 years to get five starts into a season without giving up a hit before the fourth inning in any of them. Opposing 3-hole and 4-hole hitters are a combined 2-for-17 against him with no homers and one double. And right-handed hitters are 3-for-43 (.070) with one walk and 15 strikeouts. So with all due respect to Weaver, says an exec of one team who has seen Johnson firsthand, "this is an open-and-shut conversation."
Reliever of the month: Craig Kimbrel
Maybe a month ago, there were still questions about the back end of the Braves' bullpen. But you can rest that case -- because it's now clear that manager Fredi Gonzalez gets to wave for the most unhittable closer in baseball. So how unhittable is Kimbrel? He has faced 35 hitters this year -- and exactly four have gotten a hit, 10 fewer than he's struck out.
But that's nothing new. This guy has piled up more than four times as many punchouts in his brief career (54) as he's allowed hits (13). And the only other closer in history who has even had a two-whiffs-per-hit career ratio is Carlos Marmol (515 K's, 242 H's). So this is ridiculous. "He's the closest thing to a right-handed Billy Wagner that we'll ever see," one scout said.
Rookie of the month: Michael Pineda
After all that gushing we just did about Kimbrel, you know Michael Pineda must be a special dude to wrest our prestigious rookie-of-the-month award away from Kimbrel, Orioles phenom Zach Britton and the Nationals' eye-popping catcher, Wilson Ramos, among others. But as hard as it may be for just about any Mariner to turn himself into an official trending topic, Pineda has pulled it off.
According to FanGraphs, his fastball averages 95.9 miles per hour -- the highest of any starter in the big leagues this year. His first-pitch strike percentage (70.6 percent) ranks No. 1 among all AL starters. And his nine-strikeout, four-hit shutdown of the Tigers on Thursday made him just the second rookie starter in the live-ball era (joining Jered Weaver in 2006) to give up five hits or fewer while working six innings or more, in the first five starts of his career. "I'm a fan of power," one scout said. "And this guy is pure power."
Offense: Five great under-the-radar Aprils
Pitching: Five great under-the-radar Aprils
Five free agents who need a mulligan
Box-score lines of the month
• First prize: Fausto Carmona, Opening Day vs. White Sox: 3 IP, 11 H, 10 R, 10 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 2 HR, 88 pitches to get nine outs.
What's up with that: So how many other starting pitchers in history have given up 10 earned runs on Opening Day without getting at least 10 outs? That would be none, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
• Second prize: Nelson Figueroa, April 6 vs. Reds: 5 1/3 IP, 11 H, 10 R, 6 ER, 1 BB, 2 K and one of his team's five errors.
What's up with that: After 17 professional seasons and stops with seven different big league teams, Figueroa finally made one of those teams' Opening Day roster for the first time -- and promptly gave up 10 runs in his first start of the year.
• Third prize: Matt Garza, April 3 vs. Pirates: 7 IP, 12 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 12 K.
What's up with that: Stare at that line long and hard. Might be a while before you lay eyes on another one of those 12-whiff 12-hitters. It was the first by a Cub, according to Elias, since Ferguson Jenkins on Aug. 13, 1968. And it was only the third box-score line in the entire live-ball era to include at least 12 hits, at least 12 strikeouts and no walks, according to baseball-reference.com.
Phew. We don't know about you. But if this amazing sport crammed all of that into April, we can't wait to see what the next five months have in store.
Ready to Rumble
• There is still no indication that the Mariners have any interest in dangling Felix Hernandez this summer. But an executive of one NL club thinks they're so far from winning, they'd be crazy not to -- especially now that they can see that Michael Pineda is a legit front-of-the-rotation stud.
"King Felix is young, and he's great and all that, but they're not ready to win with that outfit," the exec said. "They need to go get some impact [players]. So here's what I'd do if I were them. I'd let teams know, 'OK, he's out there. But it's going to cost you this, this and that. So if you want him, great. That's what it'll cost. And if not, don't call back, because that's the only way we're trading him.'"
And he'd make it known, he said, that that price wouldn't change -- not in July, not in the winter, not next July -- because Hernandez is a player this team should trade only if it gets back at least three or four young can't-miss, centerpiece players to rebuild around.
Jose Bautista thumped 90 extra-base hits last year, and he's close to the same pace (84) this year. Only two active hitters have ever had back-to-back seasons with 90-plus extra-base hits at any point in their careers. Can you name them? (Answer later.)
• An official of one AL club thinks the team most likely to deal for a big, late-inning bullpen arm this summer is the Rangers.
"That's a team to watch," he said. "Darren O'Day was such a weapon for them last year, and now he's out for a while. [Alexi] Ogando was another weapon out there last year, and now he's in the rotation. Arthur Rhodes doesn't look anything like he did last year in Cincinnati. For the first time, he looks really old to me. And if [Neftali] Feliz is not the 2010 vintage Feliz when he comes back, that's a big difference between last year and this year."
• But if the Rangers, or anyone else, are ready to start shopping already, clubs we've surveyed say there's just about nothing out there. "The only guys available right now are guys with awful contracts," said an exec of one of those clubs. Two who would fit that profile: Francisco Rodriguez ($11.5 million this year, plus that pesky $17.5 million vesting option or a $3.5 million buyout) and LaTroy Hawkins (due $4 million for this year).
• Rumors were flying this week about the Marlins eyeing a potential deal with the Giants for Mark DeRosa. But (A) sources who have spoken to both teams report they've had "no serious discussions" about that swap, (B) the Marlins -- whose third basemen are hitting .304 with an .812 OPS so far -- appear to be in no rush to address that position, and (C) DeRosa is back on the disabled list with lingering wrist issues, so it's all a moot point anyway. For now.
New York Yankees
• We didn't get into all the surprise players of April earlier in this column. But is there any doubt that Russell Martin tops that list? He's leading all regular catchers in the big leagues in home runs (six), slugging (.594) and OPS (.958). "This guy had a cracked hip orbital bone and a labrum tear in his hip last year, and he couldn't get in a crouch," one assistant GM said. "And now he's doing this? With Joe Mauer out, he's the best catcher in the American League right now. And you can't tell me anyone saw that coming."
• There's still no target date for Chase Utley's return in Philadelphia. But he took his biggest step forward yet in the past week -- running on back-to-back days for the first time and working out in spikes for the first time. So it now appears more likely than ever that Utley could be back sometime in May.But people familiar with Utley's condition say the big worry, once he starts playing again, is that this condition has the potential to be aggravated rapidly if he doesn't take a day off every two or three days for the foreseeable future. But that doesn't just run against Utley's grain. It runs against the grain of his manager, Charlie Manuel, too. So even if Utley does make it back in the next few weeks, it might be as important to watch when he doesn't play as when he does.
• So how much have the Phillies missed Utley and Jayson Werth in the middle of a once-murderous order? Until Ben Francisco and Jimmy Rollins homered on Tuesday and Wednesday in Arizona, the Phillies were the only team in baseball with no home runs from the No. 3 and No. 5 spots. And in one stretch, before that Francisco homer, their 3-4-5 hitters (mostly Rollins, Ryan Howard and Francisco) made 173 consecutive trips to home plate without any of them hitting a homer.
The Phillies clearly are eyeballing the potential bat market. But clubs that have spoken with them have come away with the feeling they'd have a tough time persuading ownership to take on any hitter making significant money.
Boston Red Sox
• More and more, we get the impression it's premature for people to assume that Jonathan Papelbon's exit from the Red Sox is a foregone conclusion after this winter. Is Papelbon determined to test the market? No doubt. But other than Mariano Rivera, who re-upped for $15 million a year, the free-agent closer market has settled enough since the K-Rod deal (three years, $37 million) that it's possible Papelbon won't rocket beyond the range of years and dollars the Red Sox would be philosophically comfortable with allocating to a closer.
• Finally, people all around baseball have sat back and listened to the Frank McCourt Bud's Out to Get Me Show this week and shaken their heads in sheer disbelief. "I've never seen a fan-base reaction to an owner like this," said a high-ranking official of one team. "Never. Have you seen one person in that town come out and support him? Not one. Not a politician. Not a columnist. No one. It's been unbelievable."
Five Astounding Facts of the Week
1. If you've been scratching your head trying to remember the last time any starting pitcher tag team had an April as Jered Weaver (6-0, 0.96 ERA) and Dan Haren (4-0, 1.23) had for the Angels, you can stop scratching. The Elias Sports Bureau reports that the only other time two starters on the same team arrived at May with four wins (or more) apiece and a pair of ERAs under 1.25 was 42 years ago, when Phil Niekro (4-1, 1.23) and George Stone (4-0, 0.66) did it for the 1969 Braves.
Toronto Blue Jays
2. Jose Bautista is now up to 58 home runs in the past calendar year. If he can hit two more between now and Monday, he'll become the seventh player in history to hit 60-plus in a calendar year without hitting 60 in any full season. The others, according to the Sultan of Swat Stats, SABR home run historian David Vincent: Hank Greenberg twice (60 in 1937-38 and 1938-39), Ken Griffey Jr. twice (62 in 1993-94 and 66 in 1997-98), Albert Belle (67 in 1995-96), A-Rod (63 in 2001-02), Ryan Howard (63 in 2005-06) and David Ortiz (62 in 2005-06).
3. Our first cool note on Ben Zobrist's place in history, from ESPN Stats & Info wiz Doug Kern: On Thursday, Zobrist became the 15th player to drive in eight runs or more in the first game of a doubleheader -- but just the second to drive in any runs in Game 2. The other: Earl Averill, on Sept. 17, 1930.
4. Cool Ben Zobrist note No. 2: Until Thursday, Norm Zauchin was the only "Z" in history to knock in eight runs (or more) in a game. But now that Zobrist has joined that esteemed group, there are only four letters left with one member of the 8-RBI Club: "E" (Mike Epstein), "P" (Dave Parker), "V" (Robin Ventura) and "Y" (Rudy York). Attention, Raul Ibanez, Carlos Quentin and Chase Utley: There are no "I"s, "Q"s or "U" in this club -- and no "X's" obviously, since no "X" has ever played in the big leagues.
5. A week ago, we asked whether any bullpen before the A's had ever had five left-handed relievers at the same time. Kudos to loyal reader Mike Sandritter, who reports that the 2007 Reds had Mike Stanton, Bill Bray, Eddie Guardado, Mike Gosling and Jon Coutlangus leaning to the left side of the same bullpen in the last week of August.
Tweets of the Week
• With his alter ego, Nyjer Morgan, bound for Nashville on a rehab option, our man @Tony_Plush reports:
"Save for what he has read in the early novels of Cormac McCarthy, Plush knows little of Tennessee. He is not worried, though."
• And it's great to see that our favorite 19th-century iron man, @OldHossRadbourn, has finally found a modern player he could relate to (sort of) -- in Phil Hughes:
"Like this P. Hughes, I once had a "dead arm." A strumpet shanked me with a stiletto and my arm became necrotic. Only tossed 49 CG that year."
Finally, this just in from our favorite goofballs at sportspickle.com:
BUD SELIG NAMES HIMSELF DODGERS CLEANUP HITTER
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst
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