Mike Trout, Justin Upton, Johnny Cueto lead April's group of All-Stars
As Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson once said, "It doesn't matter where you are when the leaves are on the trees, it matters where you are when the leaves are on the ground." Never mind that cool early-season temperatures have limited the amount of visible greenery, with the first full month of the season almost in the books, we've gone around the diamond to highlight the best and worst performances of the young 2014 season at every position. Cliff Corcoran gave his list of the worst performers of the month, so here's a look at April's best and brightest.
Take all of these stats with a grain of salt or five, as every small-sample caveat applies. That goes double when it comes to any passing mention of 2014 Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version, in this case),; even a full season's worth of defense is a less-than-reliable sample, to say nothing of one month.
.350/.377/.540, 156 OPS+, 4 HR
After back-to-back finishes among the top four in NL MVP voting, not to mention the highest WAR among catchers over the past one, two, three or four years combined — however you want to slice and dice it — it's not exactly shocking that Molina is at the top of his game again. What is shocking is his .378 batting average on balls in play, 81 points above his career norm; the highest for a batting title-qualified catcher in the post-1992 expansion era is Jorge Posada's .386 in 2007. Small-sample honorable mention to the Reds' Devin Mesoraco, who through 53 plate appearances is hitting an insane .468/.509/.787, with hits in 12 of his 13 games.
.313/.376/.646, 186 OPS+, 8 HR
Gonzalez's power has been in decline since his October 2010 right shoulder surgery; after averaging 32 homers and a .226 isolated power during his five years with the Padres — in Petco Park, no less — he sank to an average of 22 homers and a .180 isolated power with the Red Sox and Dodgers in 2011-13. He appears to have his mojo back, as he's tied for the NL in homers; his 16-game hitting streak included an eight-game streak with at least one extra-base hit, tops in the majors this year. The difference in ballparks and a 30-point edge in OPS+ is why he gets the nod here over Cuban sensation Jose Abreu, whose 10 homers, 32 RBI and .622 slugging percentage lead the AL, with the first two being rookie records for April.
.355/.408/.570, 172 OPS+, 3 HR
Speaking of players all the way back from injury, the 35-year-old Utley is certainly playing like the guy who averaged 151 games and 7.9 WAR per year from 2005-09 before the injury bug started chewing him up; he's averaged just 108 games and a still-respectable 4.0 WAR since. His 11 doubles is tied for the MLB lead; if he keeps swinging the bat so well, some of those might turn into homers under warmer conditions. Nods to the Rays' Ben Zobrist (.302/.390/.434, 1.6 WAR to Utley's 1.5) and the Dodgers' Dee Gordon (.353/.385/.482 with an MLB-high 13 steals).
3B: Josh Donaldson, A's
.274/.336/.538, 146 OPS+, 7 HR
On the heels of last year's breakout campaign (.301/.384/.499 and 8.0 WAR, second in the AL), Donaldson is at it again; his 17 extra-base hits are tied for second in the majors with Tulowitzki, one behind Abreu, and he's doing it without the benefit of a hitter-friendly environment. More importantly, he's helped the A's to the AL's best record (17-10) and the majors' best run differential (+48). Among NL players, the hot cornerman who stands out is the Rockies' Nolan Arenado, who made his major league debut one year ago Monday. He's riding a 19-game hitting streak, batting .313/.325/.482 and putting together one hell of a highlight reel on defense.
SS: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies
.376/.486/.753, 223 OPS+, 7 HR
Yes, the rate stats are inflated by Coors Field, where he's hitting — wait for it — .563/.643/1.094, the kind of numbers you'd expect a three-time All-Star to put up if he was the ringer on your company softball team. Even weighted down by a comparatively pedestrian .264/.385/.547 on the road, Tulo leads the NL in on-base and slugging percentages, OPS+ and WAR (3.0). Can he make it to 150 games for the first time since 2009? Keep your fingers crossed.
LF: Justin Upton, Braves
.330/.406/.625, 181 OPS+, 7 HR
Maybe he's Mr. March/April to Reggie's Mr. October; he won't reach last year's 12 homers and 1.136 OPS, but his career OPS for the month (and change) is still 50 points higher than in any other. Or maybe at 26 years old, he's heading toward the heights that so many expected of 2005's No. 1 pick. Either way, in an offense that's averaging just 3.56 runs per game, with only four players with an OPS+ of 100 or better, he's done the most to help the Braves to a 17-8 start. AL standout: The resurgent Melky Cabrera (.347/.369/.576), who's swinging the bat like he did before his 2012 PED suspension.
.321/.400/.594, 180 OPS+, 6 HR
That record-setting, six-year, $144.5 million extension doesn't appear to have changed the 22-year-old superstar one bit. He's still doing Mike Trout things on a daily basis, leading the AL in WAR (2.3 so far) as he's done in each of the previous two seasons, this time with no Miguel Cabrera to cloud the MVP discussion. Five of his six home runs this year — and now 22 of his career 68 dingers — have come in his first plate appearance in a game; pitchers may want to rethink those game plans. On the NL side, we'll put in a good word for the Rockies' Charlie Blackmon (.379/.425/.621, 174 OPS+, 2.0 WAR), who leads the Senior Circuit batting race and has struck out just seven times in 107 PA.
.295/.470/.614, 196 OPS+, 8 HR
After playing in just 210 games and hitting .251/.358/.510 over the past two years, Bautista appears to be back in his 2010-11 form, when he clouted 97 homers (leading the AL both years) and hit .280/.412/.613. Thanks to an MLB-high 29 walks — just one intentional but a whole lot "intentional" — he has the circuit's top OBP, OPS and OPS+. Speaking of power hitters limited by injury over the past two years, Giancarlo Stanton is tied for the NL's homer lead with eight, including five that have set off the Marlins Park sculpture, none more impressive than this 484-footer, the longest in the majors this year and the longest in the ballpark's short history.
.280/.409/.533, 155 OPS+, 5 HR
After hitting a combined .197/.317/.405 in the first three years of his four-year, $56 million deal with the White Sox, Dunn is more or less approximating the numbers he put up in 10 years in the NL (.250/.381/.521). He can thank the presences of Abreu and Paul Konerko, as they've protected him from taking the field (where he's 20 Defensive Runs Saved in the red with the Pale Hose) or from being too exposed against lefties, against whom he hit .163/.284/.348 over the last three years but faced just 20 times thus far. His 0.7 WAR would be the second-best of his South Side tenure, while his 155 OPS+ is 30 points higher than the next qualified DH, the Mariners' Corey Hart.
SP: Johnny Cueto, Reds
47 IP, 1.15 ERA, 312 ERA+, 9.6 K/9
You know it's early when 11 qualified pitchers have ERAs below 2.00, 10 have an ERA+ above 200 and a whopping 32 have struck out at least a batter per inning. Somebody's feelings are going to get hurt by this choice, but the nod goes to Cueto on the basis of sheer consistency. In each of his six starts, he's thrown at least seven innings while allowing no more than five hits or two runs; Adam Wainwright has five such starts, Julio Teheran four, so they're in the picture too. Furthermore, Cueto has allowed just one run and nine hits in 26 innings over his last three starts, a stretch that included 21 straight scoreless frames, two complete games and two double-digit strikeout performances.
Additional mentions go out to Jose Fernandez (MLB-best 36.2 percent K-rate and 1.61 FIP), Aaron Harang (0.85 ERA, 27.3 percent K-rate, two no-hit bids of at least six innings — all from a late-March free agent pickup) and the Oakland trio of Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir and Jesse Chavez, who have combined for a 2.03 ERA and 15 quality starts out of 17 for a staff that's lost two of its intended starting five — Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin — to Tommy John surgery.
16 IP, 0.0 ERA, 12.9 K/9, 13 saves Somebody has to represent the team with the best record in baseball (20-7), and it may as well be one of the black-hat players whom opposing fans love to hate (Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez being others). K-Rod has flat-out dominated opposing hitters like it's 2008, holding them to a .132/.207/.132 showing while allowing just 11 baserunners and going a perfect 13-for-13 in save opportunities. Injury-curtailed AL nod: Koji Uehara, with a 17/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 9 2/3 innings. The walk he allowed was his first since last August 3, a span of 30 regular season innings, while the lone homer he allowed was his first since last June 30, a span of 40 2/3 innings.