10 things learned in April: Yanks, ChiSox made wise investments
May 1, 2014 at 10:59a ET
The opening month of the season is in the books.
The Milwaukee Brewers already won 20 games.
What else did we learn in April? The Baseball Prospectus crew put together a list:
1. It’s too early to judge
OK, so maybe "nothing" is a little too strong, but remember a few things. Many statistics that are used to judge players have not yet stabilized, so it’s too early to tell if your early season crush on Texas left-hander Martin Perez is just infatuation or if it will stand the test of time. Building a case on stable stats is dangerous as players will make adjustments ... sometimes not intentionally. — Russell A. Carleton
2. The Astros' High-A affiliate is loaded with talent
There's no surprise that the Houston Astros High-A affiliate, the Lancaster JetHawks, is teeming with top talent, including five of its top 10 prospects as ranked by Baseball Prospectus. But having attended several of the team's games this month, declaring the Lancaster roster a top-heavy one is unfair to the rest of the club, which is filled with interesting prospects. Outfielder Teoscar Hernandez is a prospect on the rise. Outfielder Danry Vasquez showcases a smooth, fluid swing from the left side. Tony Kemp is a small second baseman who can hit and run. Josh Hader is a unique southpaw who is making improvements. — Ronit Shah
3. Martin Perez may yet realize his potential
Prospect fatigue be damned, the Texas lefty may reach that No. 2-starter ceiling after all. He's been on fire early on, tossing two complete-game shutouts in April, while compiling a 2.95 ERA and 2.94 FIP. Perez is relying heavily on his sinker, which has quelled hitters to the tune of a .265 batting average and .286 slugging percentage, and his changeup, which has baffled foes to .067 hitting and .100 slugging. Right-handed hitters have a .248/.315/.336 against Perez, in part because of his nasty changeup. Perez will have to induce more swinging strikes in order to sustain these numbers. There is likely a bit of regression coming, but he looks like one of the best southpaws in baseball right now. — Jordon Gorosh
4. The Brewers are good
I expected the Brewers to be good, just not this good. Sure, it’s just a one-month sample — I predicted the Brew Crew would win a wild-card spot. Depth of quality starting pitching was key when picking them for the playoffs, but I didn’t see four of the five starters toting sub-3.00 ERAs on May 1.
I did expect the offense to carry a large part of the load that got them to 20-8 and yet their modest 4.07 runs per game total slots just 19th in the majors. That leads to my biggest takeaway from their fast start: their bullpen is ridiculous. Through Tuesday, they’ve held batters to a stunning .194 average with a 31.1 percent strikeout rate and 6.9 percent walk rate in 78 1/3 innings. Closer Francisco Rodriguez has led the charge, not yielding a single run, while former prospect Tyler Thornburg, trade acquisition Will Smith, and former closer Jim Henderson give the ‘pen depth. Plus, Zach Duke is apparently a sick reliever?
The bullpen won’t keep it up, but that doesn’t mean it’s set to implode, either. The relievers all have strikeout and walk numbers conducive to huge seasons, even as their minuscule BABIPs and non-existent LOB rates regress. Additionally, there is reason to believe that the regression can be tempered by improvement from the offense. Consider that only Carlos Gomez (.921 OPS) and Ryan Braun (.952) are excelling. This team has the makings of emulating what the Pirates did last year except with a far more imposing offense top-to-bottom, which alleviates some of the burden on the bullpen to be near-perfect as Pittsburgh's was a year ago. — Paul Sporer
5. The Diamondbacks are terrible
Their only starter with an ERA below 5.00 is Josh Collmenter, who was forcibly typecast into a long reliever two years ago. Yes, they're missing Patrick Corbin for the year, but that excuse won't fly in The Year of the UCL. Nor does it explain the itinerant command of Trevor Cahill or the elasticity of Brandon McCarthy's and Wade Miley’s pitches off the bat. Even the last-minute splurge of Bronson Arroyo is backfiring. They also aren't holding runners well and the defense behind them isn't doing any favors.
6. The dream of the ‘90s is alive in … Colorado?
Most baseball fans would like to believe that “The Steroid Era” is a thing of the past. For the most part, it is. Runs per game are down by almost a full run from their 2000 peak, and could see their stingiest mark of the new millennium by season’s end. Home runs, the main culprits of the late-‘90s/early-‘00s scoring binges, are way down, too, flirting with lows not seen since 1993. Drug-related suspensions still crop up now and again, but for the most part, the league seems to have sharply curbed steroid use and the steep run totals that went with it.
However, it might be time to check what’s in the water in Colorado, because the Rockies are making offense cool again. The team is demolishing the baseball, slashing .293/.343/.480 with 38 homers. The Rockies’ .824 OPS is .057 ahead of the second-place Angels — no team has ever outpaced the league’s second-most potent offense by that wide a margin. Nolan Arenado is progressing, Justin Morneau is resurrecting his career, Tulo is being Tulo, and Charlie Blackmon (.374/.418/.616) is hitting like he’s Ted Williams. All told, the Rockies are posting a downright gaudy 5.46 runs per game to lead the NL.
But what makes this year’s Rockies a true throwback is that the same fireworks show happens when they take the field. Colorado pitchers have already given up 33 home runs, meaning that between home runs hit and allowed, the Rockies are by far the league’s most homer-happy team.* According to the Casual Fan Index — invented a minute ago and defined as home runs per dollar spent on tickets — the Rockies are the layman’s most entertaining team in the league at a mere $23.65 a pop.
*(Small sample size though it may be, these numbers don’t seem merely attributable to the infamous effects of Coors Field. Despite often posting Fair Run Averages worse than this year’s, the Rockies have finished in the top 10 of home runs allowed only three times in the past decade.They’re offensive output is similarly unassuming: the Rockies are 12th in homers over that same timeframe.) — Nick Bacarella
7. The Cubs are mediocre at being awful
The Astros lost a ton of games and played embarrassing baseball for two years in order to get draft picks and re-start the organization. So now, of course, the Cubs have to do the same thing. Last year the Cubs lost a trillion games (Editor’s Note: 96) and the Astros lost 111.
So will the Cubs try to lose 111 games this season? Guess what? They’re are on pace to lose 110.16.
Despite their best efforts the Cubs aren’t the worst team in baseball. The Diamondbacks are on pace to lose 117 games — the Astros are on pace to lose 108. The Cubs aren’t last in hitting, pitching or defense. But if we’ve learned one thing about the Cubs this April, they’re lousy at being the worst. — Matthew Kory
8. The big-name imports are for real
The White Sox and Yankees took risks this offseason on big contracts for players who never played a single major-league game. Early returns suggest the rewards will match the risk. Chicago first baseman Jose Abreu and New York pitcher Masahiro Tanaka are not only looking like the first- and second-place finishers in the Rookie of the Year voting, they may even contend for the AL MVP award. One is leading the AL in slugging percentage, while the other leads in xFIP.
There will obviously be a period of adjustment as opponents learn more about the MLB rookies. Still, they seem to have an advantage from playing at the highest level in their own countries. What has impressed me the most about Tanaka is his maturity and confidence on the mound. He displays the experience of understanding how to approach batters — and developing a strategy to counter them. Opposing hitters know that once they fall behind in count, they will probably see Tanaka’s dreaded splitter, meaning they might be tempted to jump on an early fastball. Tanaka knows this and has opted to throw a looping curveball (75 mph) on about 17 percent of his first pitches, to throw off batters’ timing and keep them guessing.
Sure, it was risky for the Yankees to give Tanaka $22 million for seven years and for the White Sox to give Abreu $11 million for six. But Tanaka is 25 and Abreu is 27. They are both young and mature —entering their primes and with experience facing quality opponents. — Dan Rozenson
9. Cam Bedrosian can strike everybody out on his way to the majors
As Matt Welch wrote in this year's BP Annual, for the last decade the Angels seemed to defy the business cycle, winning at the big-league level while also consistently carrying one of the best farm systems in the game. While the former came undone sometime around the Scott Kazmir and Vernon Wells trades, the latter hit its snag in 2010, the draft after the Mike Trout — and Garrett Richards/Tyler Skaggs — haul. In 2009, the Angels were loaded with first-rounders — five of them, compensation for losing Vladimire Guerrero, Chone Figgins and John Lackey. But this time they didn’t reel in a Trout. While prospects Kaleb Cowart and Taylor Lindsey might still have futures, neither has developed into a sure thing, while Ryan Bolden and Chevy Clarke are abject failures as top picks.
Then there's Bedrosian. He missed all of what was to be his first full year in the organization after surgery, then was a complete mess in his second, with more walks than strikeouts and an ERA over 6.00. The Angels insisted that, on certain nights, when his secondaries were working, he could look special. After a solid 2013 season and a conversion to relief, something special is finally happening. In 10 2/3 innings this year he has struck out 26 batters — nearly 22 per nine. Exactly two-thirds of the batters he's faced have gone down on strikes, while just three have drawn walks (and four scratched out hits). It's not triple-digit heat, so much as newfound pinpoint command, according to one observer of the system who saw him in Double-A. With the Angels' bullpen again in disarray, Bedrosian could be the first of that first-round class to contribute to the majors, as the Angels try to somehow regain that last-decade dominance. — Sam Miller
10. Batting average is endangered
BP’s all-in-one offensive rate statistic, True Average, is tied to what has historically been the batting average scale, which means that a .260 TAv is league average. These days, though, a .260 league average makes TAv look out of touch with the times. TAv’s scale hasn’t changed, but batting averages have: Major leaguers haven’t hit .260 since 2009, dropping to .253 in 2013 and .248 so far this season.
That average is almost certain to rise as the weather gets warmer. In 2012, for instance, the league hit .249 in April but finished at .255. However, it’s likely that we’re heading for the lowest batting average since the late-1960s/early 1970s. While power isn’t down to quite the same extent, we’re still seeing the lowest league-average Isolated Power (ISO) since the last strike.
No, Bud Selig didn’t raise the mound or do away with the DH while you weren’t looking. But there are two other obvious culprits: The rising strikeout rate, and the increased emphasis on shifting and player-personalized defensive positioning. As a result of the strikeouts, hitters are putting fewer balls in play per plate appearance. As a result of the shift, hitters are finding it harder not just to hit ’em, but to hit ’em where they ain’t. That’s a recipe for a lot of extra outs.
The rise in strikeout rate could be reversed if MLB takes steps to encourage contact, and hitters take steps to discourage shifts. As we’ve seen this April, though, the trend toward fewer hits has some staying power. — Ben Lindbergh