As the calendar flips to a new month, there is much to reflect on about Major League Baseball’s first month.
While everyone was caught up in the whole free agent *alleged* collusion thing in spring training, teams actually got their rosters mostly sorted out and began a season — rather early we might admit on March 29.
Just over 30 days in, there have been as many surprising things happen as, “oh well, ho hum” moments.
The Boston Red Sox, Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros are just about where we expected them to be. That is, in first place in their respective divisions.
Over in the National League, only the Arizona Diamondbacks are really leading the charge from 2017 contenders. Washington, Los Angeles and Colorado have all underwhelmed. That the Mets are in first place and Philadelphia and Atlanta are a game behind is shocking.
There have been many players, too, who have opened our eyes — either through play way above their pay grade or by being awful.
We know championships aren’t won in April, but here are 20 very surprising developments from MLB’s first month of action. We’ve grouped 20 teams and players as alternately “hot” and “not.”
20. Boston Red Sox – Hot
We knew the Bosox were going to be good this season, just not this good. Through games played on April 30, the Red Sox own baseball’s best record at 21-7. After losing their first game of the season on Mar. 29 to Tampa, Boston won 17 of their next 18 to surge into the early lead. How are they keeping up the torrid pace? Mookie Betts is hitting like an MVP candidate, with a .344 average, 19 extra base hits and 18 RBI through his first 24 games. Free agent acquisition J.D. Martinez is also as advertised, leading Boston in RBI with 22 and batting .337 in 26 games. And, they don’t even have Dustin Pedroia in the line-up, as he is targeting May 25 as a return from injury. Pitching-wise, the starting rotation has been spot on. Rick Porcello is pitching like the Cy Young winner he was in 20167, posting a 4-0 record, 2.23 ERA and 38 strikeouts in six starts, five of them quality. Ditto Chris Sale (2-1, 2.31 ERA, 45 K in six starts) and David Price (2-3, 3.78 ERA, 28 K in six starts). All around, a great effort so far.
19. Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers – Not
It’s a good thing former All-Star outfielder Yasiel Puig is going on the disabled list. Not that we advocate anyone getting hurt, but it will allow him to escape the daily press mob asking him just what the heck is going on. Puig had his most complete season in the majors last year, registering personal bests in games played (152), homers (28), RBI (74) and stolen bases (15). It was Puig’s best campaign since his All-Star year in 2014 and he also played a big role in the Dodgers run to the World Series. He hit. 286 in the playoffs, with two doubles, a triple, three home runs and 10 RBI in 15 games. This season, well, let’s just say he has yet to show up. In 24 games, the native of Cienfuegos is batting a paltry .193, with five doubles and seven RBI. He’s had a couple of slow starts in April before, but never this slow.
18. Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs – Hot
Chicago Cubs super utility man Javier Baez has never been an All-Star in four seasons with the Cubs, but he sure is playing like one now — maybe even a MVP. The Puerto Rican born infielder is off to a roaring start at the plate, leading all National Leaguers in RBI with 26 and triples with three. His run production puts him on a pace to drive in 150, however, we think he’ll easily eclipse the career high 75 he established in 2017. For now, Baez is ripping the hide off the ball, with eight doubles and seven homers amounting to a .630 slugging percentage and .963 OPS. Baez is fairly invaluable in Chicago’s infield, too, where he has played each position. He’s made 20 starts at second base, three at shortstop, one at third and an appearance at first. As an example of how ultra-hot he is, in back-to-back games against Pittsburgh in mid-April, Baez went 4-for-8, all hits being homers and drove in six runs.
17. Chris Archer, Tampa Bay Rays – Not
His record might read a respectable 2-1, but the rest of two-time All-Star Chris Archer‘s line so far this season is a mess. We will forgive Oakland’s Kendall Graveman for his lousy start, because he’s never been an All-Star and has less than half as many career starts as Archer. Tampa’s workhorse has been shelled so far, owning the second worst ERA in the American League at 6.61, which is nearly three points higher than his career ERA of 3.73. Archer has given up the most hits at 41 (six of them homers) and his WAR of -0.6 and WHIP at 1.592 are highly uncharacteristic. Of his six starts so far, only one has been quality and he has a winning record mainly because in his two victories he got great run support (a 5-4 victory over the White Sox and a 9-5 triumph over a terrible Baltimore club). He needs to pull up his socks.
16. Patrick Corbin, Arizona Diamondbacks – Hot
It’s been a while since Patrick Corbin was last an All-Star (2013) but there is a time for everything. This early in the major league season, not only is six-year veteran Corbin looking like an All-Star, he is an early favorite for the NL Cy Young. Not only is he 4-0 in six starts (four of them of the quality variety) but he is also top 10 in a few others. Corbin is tops in innings pitched with 40, second in WHIP at 0.750, second in strikeouts with 55, tied for second in WAR at 1.6 and sixth in ERA at 2.25. His signature starts so far this season were against NL West foes Los Angeles and San Francisco. In his second start of the season, he handcuffed the visiting Dodgers on just one hit over 7.1 innings, with a walk and season high 12 strikeouts as Arizona won 3-0. Then, on Apr. 17, he hurled a gem against the Giants, allowing just one hit and striking out eight in a complete game 1-0 shutout — the first of his career.
15. Minnesota Twins – Not
After making it to the Wild Card game last year, the Twins have taken a major step backward in the young 2018 season. It’s a good thing the Cleveland Indians lead the AL Central with a ho-hum 15-12 mark, since Minnesota sits third with a lousy 9-15 record. The Twinkies are only saved from being at the bottom of the Central heap by the equally horrid starts by Chicago (8-18) and Kansas City (7-21) — but we didn’t expect anything from them. The Twins pop gun offence has produced but 98 runs in 24 games (just over four per game), which is in stark contrast to the five runs on average they tallied in 2017. First baseman Logan Morrison, one of their bigger off-season acquisitions, has been a bust so far, hitting .145 with two homers and seven RBI (he had 38 HR and 85 RBI in 2017 with the Rays). Free agent Lance Lynn (more on him later) has also been terrible so far, going 0-3 in five starsts with a gaudy 8.37 ERA. Many more are too blame for the Twins cold start, but too numerous to list here.
14. Ozzie Albies, Atlanta Braves – Hot
Atlanta sophomore second baseman Ozzie Albies has already far surpassed what he did at he plate in 57 games during his rookie season, just 27 games into the 2018 campaign. The Willemsted, Curacao born second sacker is piping hot, leading the National League in runs with 29, hits at 34, doubles at 12 and is co-leader in home runs with nine. In his 57-game debut last year, Albies had nine doubles and six homers. What makes his slugging prowess even more incredible is the fact Albies is just a sprite, coming in at 5’8″ and 165 lbs. When he was first graded by major league scouts on the 20-80 power scale, he was universally given the lowest score at 20. Well, in just 74 total games going into action on May 1, Albies has 42 extra base hits and a slugging percentage of .523. In a 14-10 loss to the Chicago Cubs in mid-April, Albies was one hit short of the cycle (a triple), going 3-for-5 with four RBI. What makes his hot start even more remarkable is the fact he is just one homer shy of Mike Trout’s 10.
13. Edwin Encarnacion, Cleveland Indians – Not
Maybe Father Time is finally catching up with Indians slugger Edwin Encarnacion. By that, he has been a notorious slow starter in April — just not this slow. The big Dominican batted just .160 through the first month (27 games), with a double, six homers and 10 RBI. While he has had one slower start, it was with Cincinnati in 2009, when he hadn’t yet reached his peak and no one really knew who he was yet. His second slowest start in April came last year with Cleveland, when he hit .200 in April but came on the rest of the way enough to hit .258 with 20 doubles, a triple, 38 homers and 107 RBI. His pace now dictates that he could hit as low as about .235, with around 15 doubles, and quite a bit less than 30 homers and 100 RBI. We say this because Cleveland, and by extension Encarnacion, has thus far only faced three teams with records above .500 and of the eight pitching staffs they have encountered, seven of them were in the bottom half in team ERA.
12. Brad Boxberger, Arizona Diamondbacks – Hot
It will take some time to find out how good young flamethrower Chris Taylor might be for the Tampa Bay Rays. In the meantime, the Arizona Diamondbacks won the trade that saw the Rays’ Brad Boxberger go to the desert and Taylor end up with Tampa’s A ball club, Charlotte. After an All-Star campaign that saw him lead the AL in saves with 41 in 2015, Boxberger was beset by injuries in 2016 and 2017, limiting him to just 57 total appearances and 53.2 innings pitched (he had 63 innings of work in 2015 alone). As well, Boxberger lost the closer’s job to Alex Colome, logging zero saves the last two seasons. What a difference health and another season has made, though, for the lanky Californian. He won the D-Backs closer’s job in spring training and hasn’t looked back. He has made 13 appearances and is 9-for-9 in save opportunities, second only to Wade Davis (who has 10 saves in 11 opportunities). Boxberger also has a 2.25 ERA and 15 strikeouts in 12 innings.
11. Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles – Not
There are many culprits with their fingerprints all over Baltimore’s horrid 8-20 start to the season. None more so than high-priced veteran 1B Chris Davis. His stock has plummeted so far since his AL leading 47 homer season in 2015 that he would be optioned to AAA if not for his $17 million salary. For instance, after hitting 47 homers in ’15, he hit 38 in 2016 and just 26 in 2017. His batting average went from .262 in 2015 to .221 in ’16 and .215 in ’17. Conversely, his strikeouts went up from an AL high 208 in 2015 to another league leading 219 in 2016 and then 195 (in just 128 games) in 2017. This year he’s on track to set new lows in every category. Davis is hitting just .167 through 25 games, with two doubles, two homers and six RBI. He struck out 33 times and has a miserable OPS of .513. While he hasn’t been sent to the minors for seasoning, manager Buck Showalter did sit Davis down in the team’s last two games in April.
10. Arizona Diamondbacks – Hot
Only one team, the Boston Red Sox, were hotter through baseball’s first month than the 20-8 Arizona Diamondbacks. The D-Backs have built on their excellent 2017 season that saw them finish second in the NL West and go to the NLDS against the Los Angeles Dodgers. This year, Arizona’s pitching, which was third best overall in ERA in 2017 at 3.66, is clipping along at 2.96, or second overall in the bigs to Houston. We talked about the comeback season that closer Brad Boxberger is having and the starters have been just as effective, including the aforementioned Patrick Corbin. Zack Godley, Zack Greinke and Robbie Ray, who have the staffs “worst” ERA’s (Ray is highest at 4.88), will all lower those as the season goes. Offensively, Arizona is getting production from an array of sources. Centerfielder A.J. Pollock, who mashed three homers in a win over the Dodgers Monday night, has nine total dingers and a team high 24 RBI. Pollock has also slugged eight doubles and two triples in his own hot, hot start.
9. Darren O’Day, Baltimore Orioles – Not
At one time nearly unhittable out of the O’s bullpen, sidewinder Darren O’Day is no longer Mr. Automatic. Since being their premier set-up man, sometime closer in his first four seasons with Baltimore between 2012 and 2015, O’Day’s numbers have declined precipitously in three seasons since. His ERA ballooned to 3.77 in 2016 from a career low 1.52 in 2015, when he was an All-Star for the first time. He did trim his ERA in 2017 to 3.43 in 64 games, but his WHIP was still an unwieldy 1.08 in a lost season for the Orioles. This year he has been shaky, at best, in 11 appearances out of the bullpen for the 8-20 O’s. On the positive side, he does have three holds and two saves, but those bright spots have been counter-balanced by two blown saves, the worst of which came in a 6-5 loss to Detroit, where he surrendered three hits, including a homer, and three earned runs in an inning of work. He was also tagged for a loss (he is 0-1 this season) when Toronto’s Curtis Granderson donged him for homer as the Blue Jays won 2-1 in Baltimore on Apr. 10.
8. Didi Gregorius, New York Yankees And Mitch Haniger, Seattle Mariners – Hot
With two dudes named Judge and Stanton on the roster, who would have thought that Didi Gregorious would be leading the New York Yankees in home runs and RBI? Well, as of May 1, Gregorius 10 homers and 30 RBI were almost more than the combined efforts of Judge and Stanton (12 HR, 33 RBI). The Yankees veteran shortstop is well on his way to smashing the personal best 25 dingers and 87 RBI he had in 2017. While we’re on the subject of surprising sluggers, we have to say that Seattle’s Mitch Haniger, who had all of 130 games of experience coming into this season, has put up shocking numbers. The M’s outfielder has smoked 10 homers of his own, tying him with Gregorius and Mike Trout for the major league lead. He’s also driven in 27 runs, second most behind Gregorius’ 30. On Sunday, Haniger was a double short of the cycle in a 10-4 victory over Cleveland, going 3-for-5 with a single, triple, homer and RBI.
7. Kenley Jansen, Los Angeles Dodgers – Not
What in the name of Mitch Williams has happened to lights out closer Kenley Jansen? For six years between 2012 and 2017, he was the National League’s eminent door closer, logging 221 saves and 604 strikeouts in 396 innings pitched. An All-Star the last two seasons in a row, Jansen led the NL in saves with 41, blowing just one and earning enough votes to finish fifth in Cy Young voting (rarefied air for relievers). This season, he has done the Dodgers, who are limping along at 12-16, no favors. It may have gotten to the point that manager Dave Roberts can’t trust him right now. Jansen started the season on the wrong foot, surrendering a homer to San Francisco’s Joe Panik on Mar. 30, the only run in a 1-0 loss. Two nights later he blew a save against Arizona, walking two and giving up a three-run homer as L.A. lost 8-7 in extras. After registering his first two saves of the season, Jansen doubled his blown save total from 2017 on Apr. 17 in San Diego, giving up two hits (a homer and a double) and two earned runs in what would be a 7-3 Dodgers win. Jansen’s horrifying numbers include a 5.59 ERA, 2.8 HR/9 and 1.552 WHIP.
6. Johnny Cueto, San Francisco Giants – Hot
While NL West foe Kenley Jansen has struggled mightily since the beginning of the season, San Francisco Giants starter Johnny Cueto is enjoying a renaissance of sorts. An All-Star in 2016 after a 18-5 season, Cueto struggled in 2017 with the Giants, going 8-8 with a mediocre 4.52 ERA and 1.446 WHIP. After finishing last in 2017, San Fran has pulled itself off the mat so far, sitting second to Arizona with a 15-14 record. Cueto, to the shock of many, has been crazy good. In five starts, all of them quality, Cueto is 3-0, with a major league leading ERA of 0.84 and a WHIP of 0.688. He is also the major league leader in H/9 with just 16 surrendered in 32 innings. Even though he didn’t come out with a win, Cueto’s best game this season was in an eventual 1-0 loss to Arizona on Apr. 17. He handcuffed a formidable Diamondback’s line-up on just two hits over seven innings, with no walks and a season high 11 strikeouts.
5. Lance Lynn, Minnesota Twins – Not
So far, the Lance Lynn experiment in Minneapolis has been a disaster. Signed to a one-year, $12 million contract in the off-season, it was thought the former All-Star and very consistent hurler for five seasons in St. Louis could solidify the Twins rotation. So much for that. In a particularly galling 7-5 loss to Toronto on Monday night, Lynn gave up six earned runs on seven hits and five walks. Those five free passes upped his total to 23 in five starts, the most walks given up by any pitcher in baseball (actually, he is tied with San Diego’s Bryan Mitchell, who has pitched six more innings than Lynn). That defeat sunk Lynn’s record to 0-3 and plunged his dismal ERA to 8.37 and his WHIP to 2.113. Worse yet for Lynn, he was known as a very hard pitcher to hit off in St. Louis, but opponents are tagging him to the tune of .290 this early in 2018.
4. Edwin Diaz, Seattle Mariners – Hot
We can’t help but think what the Mariners could do if their starting pitching gets going like young reliever Edwin Diaz is right now. The M’s sit second behind AL West leading Houston with a 16-11 record, despite the fact that their team ERA is 4.90, or fifth worst in baseball. And, that number is actually brought down by Diaz’s miniscule ERA of 0.63. As of May 1, Diaz is the leading stopper in baseball, logging 11 saves in 11 opportunities and striking out a ridiculous 27 batters in 14.1 innings. Now he did save 52 games in the last two campaigns, including 34 in 2017. However, he also allowed 10 homers in 66 innings of work last season, while this year he has yet to get donged and has surrendered just two measly hits. In his most recent save against Cleveland on Apr. 26, he used just 19 pitches, walking one and striking out two in a scoreless frame. His most impressive save came versus Houston on Apr. 16, when he threw all of nine pitches, striking out two and walking one batter to mop up.
3. Los Angeles Dodgers – Not
When Clayton Kershaw gives his team four quality starts in six appearances, but sports a 1-4 record anyway, something is amiss in La-La Land. After topping the entire MLB table with a 104-58 record in 2017, and then going to the World Series, the Dodgers are fourth in the NL West after the first month at 12-16 and going nowhere. They have lost six of their last seven, including two of three to a Miami club that would have trouble finishing first in a AAA league. Kershaw, who has been dying for run support (his ERA is a respectable 2.84) actually had a bad outing against the Marlins, allowing five hits, six walks and three earned runs in a 8-6 loss. Otherwise, he got just 12 runs of support in his five previous starts. We put some blame on closer Kenley Jansen, but the Dodgers offence has been spotty at best and with the news that Cory Seager is done for the year, things won’t get better. The Dodgers Rookie of the Year Cody Bellinger is off to a slow start, too, with just three homers and 12 RBI in 28 games.
2. Sean Manaea, Oakland A’s – Hot
There isn’t a hotter pitcher in baseball, as we speak, than Oakland’s third-year man Sean Manaea. The Kansas City Royals, who drafted him in the first round in 2013, probably wish they hadn’t traded him to the Bay Area in 2015. Why? Well, he is 4-2 this season with a miniscule 1.03 ERA (best in the AL) and 0.618 WHIP (also tops). And, in just his 64th big league start on Apr. 21 against the mighty Boston Red Sox, Manaea spun a fantastic no-hitter. The Indiana native allowed just two walks and struck out 10 in his historic no-no, just the seventh in Athletics’ history. It was also the first no-hitter thrown at the Bosox in almost exactly 25 years (the last was fashioned by Seattle’s Chris Bosio on April 22, 1993). That Manaea could make such short work of the vaunted Boston hitters speaks volumes to his prowess. He’s been so good that in his two losses this season, he gave up just three earned runs in 12.2 innings pitched.
1. Giancarlo Stanton, New York Yankees – Not
He’s shown signs of coming out of a month-long slump recently, but there is no denying that in his first month as a Yankee, Giancarlo Stanton has been stone cold. That is, cold enough for the Yankees faithful to lustily boo him on several occasions. The Yankees $25 million man and huge off-season signing is not hitting anywhere near the 2017 MVP Giancarlo Stanton version. In his huge 2017 campaign, Stanton hit .281 for the Marlins, with a MLB leading 59 home runs and 132 RBI. This season, the only thing he is leading his team in is strikeouts, with 43, which is second worst only to the Chicago White Sox Yoan Moncada. In 28 games this year, Stanton is hitting .230, with five doubles, a triple, five homers and 15 RBI. Those numbers put him on pace for maybe 30 homers, 80-90 RBI and well over 200 strikeouts. Twice this year he has struck out five times in a home game, while failing to register a hit. The boo-birds were in full throat when Stanton struck out in each of his five trips to the plate in a win over visiting Tampa on Apr. 3. He turned the trick again against horrid Baltimore on Apr. 8, whiffing five times in seven trips to the dish as the Yanks lost 8-7.