April is both the best and worst month of the Major League Baseball season.
On the one hand, baseball is in full swing and we finally have enough games to adequately judge teams and players. For all the previews and predictions we have during the winter and spring training, no one knows exactly how things will pan out until a decent sample size of games are played.
On the other hand, the panic starts to set in if a team has gotten off to a bad start or a star player has gotten hurt and will have to miss a substantial amount of time.
To the fans ready to throw in the towel—just be patient. Unless you follow a select few teams (the Miami Marlins, Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs come to mind), there is still a chance that your favorite squad can make a run over the final five months.
For now, we're going to reflect on the biggest winners and losers from the first month of the 2013 MLB season.
Note: All stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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There is a short list of 20-year-old position players in the last 70 years who have played at least one full season in the big leagues, posted at least an on-base percentage of .350 or better and slugged over .500 with more than 30 home runs and a WAR of 6.0.
They include Alex Rodriguez (Seattle Mariners, 1996), Mike Trout (Los Angeles Angels, 2012) and Bryce Harper (Washington Nationals, 2012-13).
While that encompasses the first full season of Harper's career, we can also focus on what the 20-year-old did in the month of April. He came out of the gate on fire, blasting two home runs off Miami's Ricky Nolasco in his first two at-bats this season.
Since then, Harper has kept rolling. The young slugger is hitting .356/.437/.744 with nine home runs, 18 RBI, 18 runs and a 15-to-13 strikeout-to-walk ratio. What makes his stat line even more impressive is both the fear that Harper instills in the pitchers he faces and how advanced his approach at the plate has become.
Opposing pitchers have thrown Harper the fifth-fewest percentage of fastballs in his at-bats (via Fangraphs). But where the players ahead of him (Wilin Rosario, Josh Hamilton, Hunter Pence and Pedro Alvarez) are easily beaten by softer stuff that breaks, Harper is adjusting to it and driving everything he can get hold of.
Before the season, there was a large contingent of experts predicting Harper to win the NL MVP award. While there is certainly a long way to go this year, he has done nothing to make us think that won't happen.
As good as Bryce Harper was in April, Josh Hamilton might have been worse over the season's first month.
Everything bad that Hamilton was doing at the end of last year in Texas has carried over to the Los Angeles Angels this season, and he isn't making any adjustments. His approach at the plate has been horrendous, leading to swings and misses at off-speed pitches in the dirt.
Hamilton is striking out in over 30 percent of his plate appearances and walking less than five percent of the time. He has never been the most patient hitter, but he used to make so much hard contact that he could hit for average and power.
Now, Hamilton is swinging at everything but is hitting very little. His WAR for the month is minus-0.5, putting him in 181st place out of 191 qualified players (via Fangraphs).
While this trend should end—at least to some degree—you have to wonder if Hamilton is so lost right now that the elite slugger we saw for most of his tenure in Texas, including the first three-and-a-half months of 2012, is gone forever.
Considering the Angels just invested $125 million in Hamilton, they better figure something out soon.
A lot of fans and analysts want to credit the decline of offense in baseball to the game's elimination of performance-enhancing drugs. While that logic is not very sound in and of itself, why not credit the abundance of incredible young pitching that has taken over the game in the last five years?
Looking specifically at the start of 2013, pitchers like New York's Matt Harvey, Miami's Jose Fernandez, St. Louis' Shelby Miller and Tampa Bay's Matt Moore all have two seasons or less of experience and are coming into their own.
Fernandez, whose promotion to the big leagues out of spring training was a huge surprise, could turn out to be—at just 20 years old—the best of the bunch considering how good his stuff already looks and how much room he still has to grow.
When you combine those names with the battle-tested studs like Justin Verlander, Stephen Strasburg, Felix Hernandez and CC Sabathia and some early bounce-back candidates like Adam Wainwright, Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, it's safe to say that pitching will be the story of baseball all summer—again.
Jackie Bradley Jr. spring slash line: .419/.507/.613
Aaron Hicks spring slash line: .370/.407/.644
Julio Teheran spring stats: 26 IP, 1.04 ERA, 0.62 WHIP, 35 K
If there was ever a case to be made against treating spring training stats with any importance—other than common sense, of course—look no further than what Jackie Bradley Jr. of the Boston Red Sox, Aaron Hicks of the Minnesota Twins and Julio Teheran of the Atlanta Braves did in March compared to where they are now.
Bradley, a promising young outfielder for the Boston Red Sox, was sent down to Triple-A when David Ortiz was able to come off the disabled list, as he was hitting just .097/.263/.129 in 12 games. His disciplined approach at the plate served him well, but he struggled to make contact with major-league pitching.
Hicks has slowly started to turn things around with at least one hit in six out of his last eight games. This came after he went hitless in 11 of his first 13 contests. Notorious for being a slow starter in the minors, it makes sense that it's taking time for Hicks to adjust. It remains to be seen if he can get his average up enough for the Twins to justify keeping him in the big leagues.
Teheran seemed like he was poised for a breakout season. His numbers in spring training were great and, more importantly, his stuff and poise on the mound looked much better compared to his big-league cameos in 2011 and 2012. But here we are, a month into the season, and the right-hander has allowed 39 hits and five home runs in 28.1 innings.
These are all young players with bright futures ahead of them, so not all hope is lost. But it is a lesson to avoid reading into what happens during spring training.
The Arizona Diamondbacks wanted to change the way their lineup produces runs, so trading the powerful, albeit inconsistent and strikeout-prone Justin Upton was one of the big moves the team made in the offseason.
Atlanta had exactly the kind of player D-Backs general manager Kevin Towers wanted in Martin Prado, who is an all-around contributor with a contact-oriented approach to hitting.
But when you trade a 25-year-old—which isn't even the "prime" of a typical hitter's career—with superstar upside and three years left on a team-friendly contract, it has the potential to look bad very quickly.
Prado has started slow in his new home, hitting .216/.267/.351 in 25 games. His numbers will go up as the season moves along, however, because his .211 BABIP is over 100 points lower than his career average.
In comparison, Upton has been on another planet through the first month of the season. He has hit 12 home runs, just two shy of tying the major league record held by Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols. He also leads the league in slugging percentage and total bases.
The consensus when Arizona made the trade with Atlanta was that the Braves would get the better deal long-term, even if the two players had a similar value in 2013. Instead, this could turn out to be one of the best deals Braves general manager Frank Wren has ever pulled off.
Whether it is fair or not, when a team spends an egregious amount of money to upgrade its squad, there is an expectation to perform better than a .500 team right out of the gate.
For the Los Angeles Dodgers, who have been spending money like it is going out of style, April was a particularly cruel month.
Under the new ownership regime that took over in 2012, the Dodgers have seen their payroll go from $105 million at the start of the last year to $216 million this season (via CotsBaseballContracts.com).
For all its financial troubles, L.A. has seen Hanley Ramirez spend virtually all of April on the disabled list due to a thumb injury suffered in the World Baseball Classic. In addition, Chad Billingsley's elbow finally gave out and needed Tommy John surgery, and Chris Capuano has dealt with a calf strain that limited him to pitching in just three games.
The cherry on top came on April 12 against San Diego. Zack Greinke, the team's prized free-agent acquisition this offseason, was bull-rushed by Carlos Quentin after hitting the Padres slugger with a pitch, resulting in a broken collarbone for the former Cy Young winner.
The injury is expected to keep Greinke out until June. Suddenly, all that pitching depth everyone talked about for the Dodgers before the season appears to be gone.
At the end of spring training, when it was announced Derek Jeter would start the year on the disabled list—joining Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Curtis Granderson—the Yankees lineup was expected to completely fall apart.
I mean, we're talking about a group that has featured Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, Francisco Cervelli, Lyle Overbay, Kevin Youkilis and Eduardo Nunez.
There's no way this lineup was going to score enough runs to support an aging pitching staff including 32-year-old CC Sabathia, 38-year-old Hiroki Kuroda and 41-year-old Andy Pettitte. Not to mention the fact that Mariano Rivera, 43, was coming off a torn ACL suffered last May.
Well, here we are one month into the season, and the Yankees are 15-10 and in second place in the American League East. Wells and Hafner must think it is 2003, because they have combined for 12 home runs, 27 RBI and 21 walks in 150 at-bats.
Rivera hasn't missed a beat, saving nine games and striking out 10 against just one walk in 10 innings of work. Sabathia, Kuroda and Pettitte have all pitched well too.
But the star of the show, unsurprisingly, has been Robinson Cano. The All-Star second baseman is making himself a lot of money heading into free agency with his performance thus far, hitting .324/.378/.608 with seven home runs and 17 RBI.
Perhaps age and injuries will catch up to them, but not a lot of people expected an April as successful as the one the Pinstripes just put together.
The two biggest spenders in the offseason were the Dodgers, who we already talked about, and the Toronto Blue Jays. But where L.A. has managed to stay afloat in the face of adversity, Toronto is on life support.
Josh Johnson and Mark Buehrle, the two starters who came over with Reyes in the trade with Miami and were supposed to stabilize a rotation that collapsed last year, have combined to allow 35 earned runs in 48 innings pitched.The rest of the staff hasn't fared much better, as R.A. Dickey and Brandon Morrow boast ERAs of 4.50 and 5.27, respectively.
The team's powerful offensive attack has also been stymied. Shortstop Jose Reyes suffered one of the ugliest ankle sprains you will ever see trying to slide into second base in a game against Kansas City on April 12. He will be out until the All-Star break.
Jose Bautista is hitting for power, but not much else, as he is hitting just .192 through 19 games. J.P. Arencibia has a .258 on-base percentage. Melky Cabrera's bat has been non-existent, with no homers and a .250/.301/.298 line.
The Blue Jays are not in an impossible hole to dig out of, but they have put themselves squarely behind the eight ball to start 2013.
It could be that history will look back at the 2012 Boston Red Sox as an anomaly, because what we have seen so far this year is providing a lot of optimism amongst the Fenway faithful.
The biggest question mark the Red Sox faced coming into the year was their starting pitching. Specifically, all eyes were going to be locked on Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. They both had ERAs over 4.50 last season and combined to give up 403 hits and 50 home runs in 394.2 innings.
So far this season, Buchholz and Lester look like completely different pitchers. Both are showing much better command of their stuff, with Buccholz allowing just 25 hits with 39 strikeouts in 37.2 innings giving up only 25 hits with 28 strikeouts against 10 walks in 31.2 innings.
As good as those two have been for Boston, they aren't the only ones succeeding. Ryan Dempster, who really struggled in the American League last July after being traded to Texas, is striking out 12.9 per nine innings with an ERA of 3.30. Felix Doubront has been serviceable at the back of the rotation as well, averaging more than one strikeout per inning pitched and a respectable 4.24 ERA.
As long as the Red Sox are able to depend on Lester and Buchholz, get roughly a league-average performance from Ryan Dempster and have Doubront and John Lackey establish themselves solid innings eaters, they could maintain their perch atop the American League East all season.
While arguing with umpires has become commonplace in Major League Baseball, there are certain things that happen on the field that make you stop in your tracks and wonder what the heck the umpire was thinking.
Never was that more apparent than in the ninth inning of a game between Tampa Bay and Texas on April 8. With Joe Nathan on the mound and Ben Zobrist at the plate, Nathan threw a 3-2 changeup that started out off the plate and faded into the right-handed batter's box.
Zobrist should have taken a walk, which would have brought Evan Longoria to the plate with a chance to tie the game or give the Rays a lead with a home run.
Instead, umpire Marty Foster called the third strike and end the game. In case you missed it, here is the video (via MLB.com).
That wasn't the only incident involving umpires this month. In fact, the Rays were involved in another, more recent battle with a home plate umpire.
On April 28 against Chicago, David Price felt he made a pitch that should have been a called third strike against DeWayne Wise. It was called a ball instead, and Price voiced his displeasure with himself before heading into the dugout.
Umpire Tom Hallion apparently started jawing back at Price, though the 2012 AL Cy Young winner insisted that he wasn't saying anything to Hallion that would warrant a response (via the Tampa Bay Times).
Even if Hallion is telling the truth—we have no reason to think that Price is lying—it has gotten to the point where it is hard to show any faith in what a lot of these umpires do and say because of their inability to separate themselves from the game.
Instead of just calling the game fairly and getting out of the way, a select few tend to make themselves a part of the spectacle. It isn't right, nor is it what fans and players want to see.
Baseball is just a game, except for the times when it isn't.
On April 20, the Boston Red Sox returned to Fenway Park for the first time since the bombings at the Boston Marathon just five days earlier. The city was in a state of fear, sadness and panic because of what happened the previous day, when everyone was on lockdown as law enforcement officials tracked down the second suspect in the incident.
The Red Sox pulled out all the stops to ensure the people of Boston would be able to celebrate the heroism showed by so many people throughout the week. The team gave the city of Boston a much-needed escape.
Of course, the celebration wouldn't be complete without a victory by the beloved Red Sox. Trailing 2-1 in the bottom of the eighth inning, Daniel Nava stepped up to the plate with two men on and two outs.
Kansas City pitcher Kelvin Herrera delivered a pitch that Nava smashed deep into the right-field bullpen. Don Orsillo, who was calling the game for NESN, best summed up the moment: "Boston, this is for you."
It was an incredible scene from a surreal day at Fenway Park. At a time when Boston was celebrating the real heroes, Nava provided a moment that no one in the park or watching on television will ever forget.
Carlos Quentin's charge of the mound was a low point this April.
It was baffling to see the way Carlos Quentin reacted to getting hit by a pitch from Zack Greinke.
It wasn't the first time these two have crossed paths, as Greinke has hit Quentin twice with a pitch from their days together in the American League Central. But Quentin, one of the most prolific hit-by-pitch artists in baseball, has never charged the mound before. He had been hit by the ball 115 times prior to this particular incident, but No. 116 was the straw that broke the camel's back.
After the game was over, Quentin said it was Greinke who instigated the dispute because of his "body language" and whatever he was saying on the mound.
Regardless of what your ego says, just take your base and move on. Even if we were talking about the 12th pitcher out of the bullpen, this was a situation that never should have happened. Quentin should have parked his macho-guy facade and just gone down to first.