April is the cruelest month… for jumping to conclusions
April stats are certainly fun to gawk at, but a 162- game season features its share of streaks and slumps for every player, and it’s well worth remembering the extent to which those small sample-based performances can mislead us, particularly at the extremes. While there are numerous ways to illustrate this, one that might be particularly instructive is to look back at last April’s numbers for a reminder that there’s generally a whole lot less to the hot and slow starts we’re seeing than you might believe. A rough first month doesn’t indicate a player is washed up, nor does an all-world one indicate that he’s taking his game to a higher level.
The players are listed alphabetically, with cutoffs of 60 plate appearances or 20 innings through the end of April 2012.
Robinson Cano, Yankees
April 2012: .267/.323/.389 in 99 PA
Rest of way: .320/.388/.577 in 598 PA
Cano’s nickname may as well be “The Microwave,” because he gets hot in a hurry. He was anything but at the start of last year, managing just one homer in the first month as well as a .280 BABIP, 41 points below his previous career mark; curiously, he also struck out just 8.1 percent of the time, down from his previous 11.5 percent. His K rate doubled over the next two months, but the power was ON, as he bashed 18 homers and sluged .665 in that span. By the end of the year, his overall BABIP (.326) and strikeout rate (13.8 percent) weren’t far off his career norms, and he was merely the league’s second most valuable player according to Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement (8.5).
R.A. Dickey, Mets
April 2012: 4.45 ERA in 30 1/3 IP
Rest of way: 2.48 ERA in 203 1/3 IP
It’s easy to forget that Dickey’s storybook season began rather inauspiciously; while he delivered four quality starts out of five in April — with an eight-run drilling by the Braves offsetting much of his good work — gopher balls (2.1 per nine) were a problem. But after allowing at least one homer in each of his April starts, he yielded just two over his next 14 turns, a span that included back-to-back one-hit shutouts, five games with double-digit strikeout totals and a trip to the All-Star Game. He wound up winning 20 games and leading the league in strikeouts (230) en route to becoming the first full-time knuckleballer to win a Cy Young. Traded to the Blue Jays in a December blockbuster, he has struggled to control his signature pitch thus far (4.3 walks per nine) en route to a 4.66 ERA, though he’s been serviceable in all but one start.
Roy Halladay, Phillies
April 2012: 1.95 ERA in 37 IP
Rest of way: 5.28 ERA in 119 1/3 IP
Oh, doctor. Coming off an NL Cy Young in 2010 and runner-up status in 2011, Halladay still appeared to be in the prime of his career as last season got underway, but he was knocked around in May (6.11 ERA) before going on the DL with a lat strain that cost him seven weeks. He was mediocre in his return (4.93 ERA) due to a preponderance of home runs (1.3), then struggled mightily this spring and in his first two regular season starts amid reduced velocity before clamping down to yield just four runs in 21 innings over his last three turns. Given that two of those three teams, the Pirates and Marlins, are scoring well under four runs a game, it’s a bit early to think he’s out of the woods yet.
Josh Hamilton, Rangers
April 2012: .395/.438/.744 in 96 PA
Rest of Way: .265/.339/.546 in 540 PA
At either extreme, few players seem to be as streaky as Hamilton, who extended last April’s blistering performance into May (.344/.405/ .781); he hit nine homers in the first month and then 12 in the second, including a four-homer game in Baltimore on May 8. He lost track of the strike zone and put up some mediocre-to-awful months the rest of the way, including a .177/.253/.354 line in July, yet still finished the year with 43 homers. All of which is worth bearing in mind given his slow start in Anaheim thus far (.225/.281/.350 with two homers).
Matt Kemp, Dodgers
April 2012: .417/.490/.893 in 98 PA
Rest of way: .273/.333/.445 in 351 PA
After just missing a 40-homer/40-steal season and NL MVP honors in 2011, Kemp looked as if he were en route to the hardware last April, when he bashed 12 homers in his first 23 games. Alas, a recurring hamstring injury first suffered on May 13 limited him to two games in a two-month span, and he injured his left shoulder in late August to the point that he required offseason labrum surgery. He hit just 11 homers from May through the remainder of the season, and in the wake of surgery, is off to a troublingly slow start (.250/.289/.355) this year, though he knocked his first homer on Wednesday night.
Bryan LaHair, Cubs
April 2012: .390/.471/.780 in 70 PA
Rest of way: .231/.303/.381 in 310 PA
A Quad-A type who had just 219 major league plate appearances under his belt through age 28, LaHair was held up as an exemplar of new Cub president Theo Epstein’s resourcefulness when he was anointed the rebuilding team’s regular first baseman. So torrid was his start that he kept his OPS over 950 until mid-June, and earned NL All-Star honors in July. In actuality, pitchers quickly figured out the book on him, and of the remaining five months of the season, only in May did he maintain an OPS above 714. After the season, he signed with Japan’s Softbank Hawks.
Derek Lowe, Indians
April 2012: 2.27 ERA in 31 2/3 IP
Rest of way: 5.92 ERA in 111 IP
After a rough ending to his 2011 season in Atlanta, the 39-year-old Lowe appeared to have rejuvenated his career last spring with the Indians; through May 20, he delivered a 2.15 ERA and eight quality starts out of nine, including a May 15 shutout of the Twins. But even at that late date, there were telltale signs of trouble; he’d struck out just 15 in 58 2/3 innings — a piddling 2.3 per nine — while walking 18, and survived thanks to a .299 BABIP and good luck in the home run department (just two allowed in that span). When the hits began falling and the fly balls leaving the yard, he was torched for an 8.80 ERA over his next 12 turns, drawing his release and winding up in mop-and-bucket duty with the Yankees.
Mike Moustakas, Royals
April 2012: .315/.375/.534 in 80 PA
Rest of way: .231/.285/.394 in 534 PA
The overall number two pick of the 2007 draft, Moustakas had struggled as a mid-season callup in 2011 (.263/.309/.367), but appeared to have turned the corner in April, thanks largely to a .364 batting average on balls in play. When the hits stopped falling in, his overly aggressive approach was exposed; he managed just a .260 BABIP the rest of the way, producing a similarly meager OPS to his rookie campaign. He’s even more lost right now (.148/.212/.180), for whatever that’s worth.
Albert Pujols, Angels
April 2012: .217/.265/.304 in 98 PA
Rest of way: .297/.357/.553 in 572 PA
After signing a monster 10-year contract, Pujols got off to a rocky start in his new Anaheim surroundings; the three-time NL MVP and nine-time All-Star didn’t even hit his first home run until May 6. Despite those woes, his numbers from May 1 onward were a virtual carbon copy of his overall 2011 line (.299/.366/.541), and he still reached the 30-homer plateau for the 12th straight season. On the other hand, the 8-15 start of which he was a major part left the Angels on the outside looking in come October.
CC Sabathia, Yankees
April 2012: 4.58 ERA in 35 1/3 innings
Rest of way: 3.12 ERA in 164 2/3 innings
Amid concerns about reduced velocity, Sabathia got off to a slow start last year, though his 38/9 K/BB ratio suggested there wasn’t all that much to worry about. While he soon hit his stride by delivering eight quality starts out of 10 from April 29 through June 18, he battled injuries the rest of the way, losing five weeks to a groin injury and elbow inflammation — the latter marking his first trip to the DL for an arm injury in his major league career — then undergoing surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow in October.
Amid new concerns about reduced fastball velocity (90 mph average, down from 92.4 last year and 93.9 in 2011), he’s had some rough patches thus far, including a four-run first inning against the Rays on Monday, but his ERA and FIP (3.34 and 3.63, respectively) suggest it’s a bit early to fret.
Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
April 2012: .247/.286/.342 in 77 PA
Rest of way: .298/.375/.660 in 424 PA
Stanton wasn’t alone in getting off to a slow start for the new-look Miami Marlins; Hanley Ramirez (.207/.316/.390), Jose Reyes (.220/.293/.341), Gaby Sanchez (.205/.234/.342) and Emilio Bonifacio (.244/.330/.244) stank up the tank as well. Even so, the fact that he had just one homer through the first month, that coming on April 29, was troubling, though at least it could be partly attributed to left knee problems that limited him in spring training. Those fears were assuaged when he mashed 12 homers and slugged .769 in May, and wound up leading the league in slugging percentage (.608) while ranking second in homers (.37), though he did miss a month due to an in-season cleanup of his right knee.
He’s starting slowly again (.200/.333/.255 and has yet to homer, with a left shoulder injury sidelining him for a week, and one wonders about the 23-year-old slugger’s frame of mind given his surrounding cast following the team’s abrupt teardown.
Barry Zito, Giants
April 2012: 1.67 ERA in 27 IP
Rest of way: 4.58 ERA in 157 1/3 IP
The $126 million pitcher appeared to be shaking out of his five-season funk last April, throwing a four-hit shutout at Coors Field in his first turn and delivering three quality starts out of four in the first month. But at least according to ERA and peripherals, his performance the rest of the way looked a whole lot like those first five seasons (4.55 ERA), not to mention his April FIP (4.27) and while he finished with his highest win total (15) as a Giant, his ERA+ of 85 was the league’s third-worst among qualified starters. To be fair, he did close the season in strong fashion as well, with a 2.35 ERA over his final five September starts and then a series-turning Game 5 combined shutout of the Cardinals in the NLCS.
As to whether there’s been any carryover, he’s off to an uneven start thus far this year, with three seven-inning, zero-run starts scattered around a 2 2/3-inning, 9-run pounding by the Brewers.