April All-Stars: Stanton, Cruz, Archer lead way as month's top players
Major League Baseball opened up the voting for the All-Star Game on Wednesday, which seems rather absurd. Put simply, the captain has not turned off the “small sample” sign yet. But as the season's opening month comes to a close, we have all the information we need to pick the April All-Stars. Below is a look at the best player at each position (including both righthanded and lefthanded starting pitchers and a closer) entering action on the final day of April, as well as some thoughts as to how sustainable their hot starts might be.
Note: All statistics are through April 29.
1B: Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers
Season Stats: .383/.432/.790, 8 HR, 19 RBIs
Gonzalez opened the year on an unprecedented tear, going 10-for-13 and becoming the first player ever to homer five times in the first three games of a season. He has hit just three more home runs since then, but he has hardly slumped, with a .309/.373/.544 line. He didn't even take his first 0-fer until the 12th game of the season.
Gonzalez hasn’t had a full-season performance that rivals that line since 2011, so even without that absurd start, he’s been more productive than could have been expected in his age-33 season. He edges out the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera, the Diamondbacks' Paul Goldschmidt and the Reds' Joey Votto.
2B: Devon Travis, Blue Jays
Season Stats: .342/.405/.658, 6 HR, 19 RBIs
The small sample involved in assembling this team will always yield a few surprises, and this year, the 24-year-old Travis is by far the biggest unknown. As recently as early November, Travis was a Double A infielder with the Tigers who had played just 100 games at that level. Traded to the Blue Jays for outfielder Anthony Gose on Nov. 13, Travis was thought to be a year away from the majors until the end of spring training, when veteran Maicer Izturis went down with a groin injury, leaving a hole at second base.
One of several rookies aggressively promoted to prominent roles on Toronto's roster, Travis became the first player to hit a home run in his major league debut on Opening Day since Jason Heyward in 2010 and has been the Jays' best hitter since, ranking fifth in the majors in slugging and OPS (1.063) to this point in the season.
What’s fascinating about Travis is that because his minor league track record is so short, there’s reason to believe he may be emerging as a true star. Travis, who wasn’t drafted until the 13th round in 2012, hit .351/.418/.518 in his full-season debut in '13 across two levels of Class A. Last year, a core muscle injury in April cost him six weeks, but from May 27 through the end of the year, a span of 88 games, he hit .321/.385/.506.
Travis isn’t going to slug .650 in the major leagues, but he maintained a 20-homer pace when healthy over his last two seasons and is playing his home games in a homer-friendly ballpark with frequent stops in other hitters' havens like Boston, Baltimore and the Bronx when the Blue Jays hit the road. Meanwhile, the rest of his performance this April isn’t that far removed from his level of production over his last two minor league seasons.
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SS: Jose Iglesias, Tigers
Season Stats: .379/.431/.515, 5 SB
This was the most difficult pick. Jed Lowrie was off to blazing start for the Astros before tearing a thumb ligament on Monday, but he also lost this spot due to his poor play in the field. Slick-fielding Adeiny Hechavarria has been red hot for the Marlins, leading all shortstops in both runs and RBIs (16 each). My choice, however, is Iglesias, another slick fielder, who, despite having scored just six runs and driven in just three, bests Hechavarria in all three slash stats and has an on-base percentage just one point behind Lowrie’s. Iglesias also leads all shortstops with five stolen bases (in six attempts); those extra bases put him very close to Lowrie in terms of total bases acquired (slugging plus steals).
Iglesias has earned this spot on the merit of his performance, but it’s worth noting that he’s doing it despite missing the 2014 season due to stress fractures in both shins. As was the case in '13, when he was the runner-up for the AL Rookie of the Year award, Iglesias is succeeding due to a preponderance of luck on balls in play (.414 BABIP) and is sure to regress (as are most players on this list).
3B: Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
Season Stats: .361/.418/.639, 3 HR, 13 RBIs
In his first season as a regular in 2013, Carpenter led the majors in runs, hits and doubles and batted .318/.392/.481, but he had a disappointing follow-up campaign last year, with his slash line dropping to .272/.375/.375. Therefore, it’s interesting to see how his hot start this year compares to his overall performance the last two seasons. Digging into the numbers, it appears that Carpenter, who led the National League in walks in '14, adopted an overly passive approach last season.
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Note that in addition to his increased walk rate in '14, Carpenter also had an increase in strikeouts. Given his overall drop in performance last season, one could argue that Carpenter was taking too many hittable pitches, resulting in a drop in his overall production. This year, he has returned to his 2013 level of aggressiveness and has seen his production return. He’ll cool off a bit from these early season numbers—he won’t hit the 97 doubles for which he’s currently on pace—but there’s good reason to expect him to finish the season with numbers that look much more like his MVP-quality '13 than last year’s underwhelming encore.
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Season Stats: .348/.421/.606, 4 HR, 15 RBIs
The 30-year-old Vogt made an Opening Day roster for the first time in his career this spring and entered the season with a career line of .254/.298/.396 in 149 major league games. He has already started more than twice as many games behind the plate for the A’s this year than he did last year. Everything about his hot start screams fluke—except for Oakland's long track record of making something out of nothing. Have the A's struck gold again?
It’s worth noting that the lefty-swinging Vogt is actually being platooned with righty Josh Phegley and is a career .276/.324/.433 hitter against righthanded pitching. There’s no real expectation that Vogt is going to emerge as an everyday star, but this April, there was no catcher in baseball close to his level of production: He's led qualified catchers in all three slash stats, as well as home runs and RBIs.
RF: Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins
Season Stats: .284/.376/.593, 6 HR, 21 RBIs
Stanton is one player on this list who isn’t due for regression. That line above is well within the range of his established level of performance, which is impressive given that he started the season 3-for-23 and didn’t hit his first home run until the Marlins’ 10th game. Since April 14, he has hit .345/.406/.759 with six homers in 15 games, erasing any concerns about his slow start.
CF: Adam Jones, Orioles
Season Stats: .400/.440/.707, 5 HR, 19 RBIs
Jones is one of just three qualified hitters still batting .400 or better heading into the final day of April, joining the Marlins' Dee Gordon (.409) and DJ LeMahieu of the Rockies (.406). As one might expect, Jones is also among the major league leaders in batting average on balls in play, though he hasn’t been nearly lucky as Gordon and LeMahieu, posting a .403 BABIP to their .463 and .450 marks, respectively.
There’s more going on here than luck. Jones has experienced a sharp drop in strikeout rate and walked nearly twice as often as last year. He’s also hitting far more line drives and fly balls than ever before. All of that would seem to indicate a hitter who is simply locked in right now, though it could also be an indication that Jones, a four-time All-Star, is beginning what could be a career year at the age of 29.
LF: Hanley Ramirez, Red Sox
Season Stats: .293/.341/.659, 10 HR, 22 RBIs
The idea behind signing Ramirez and moving him to leftfield was that, if he could stay healthy and make hitting his primary focus, his value as an elite hitter over 140-plus games would equal or surpass his value as an extremely productive but fragile and defensively subpar shortstop. So far, so good. The only game Ramirez hasn’t started this year came the day after he played all 19 innings of the Red Sox' 6–5 win over the Yankees on April 10, and he is currently tied with the next player on this list for the major league leads in home runs and RBIs. Ramirez’s pace in those two categories will slow, but don't expect much regression elsewhere. If he can stay healthy, Boston's gamble will pay off.
DH: Nelson Cruz, Mariners
Season Stats: .337/.389/.759, 10 HR, 22 RBI
Cruz has actually started twice as many games in rightfield as at designated hitter this year, but he’s a DH on the official All-Star ballot, and there’s no question where he belongs on this team. There’s also no question that he belongs on this team. Cruz is not only tied with Ramirez for the major league lead in home runs and RBIs, but he also leads the American League in slugging, OPS (1.148), OPS+ (221) and total bases (63). In the season’s second week, he hit six home runs in five games with at least one round-tripper in each, and he has hit .367/.404/.714 in a dozen games since.
It is interesting to note, however, that Cruz is indeed doing most of his hitting on the road, with seven of his 10 home runs coming outside of Safeco Park. His road OPS is more than twice his home figure. The Mariners would probably be satisfied with the .271/.300/.500 line he has put up in Seattle thus far—it is not a far cry from his career line coming into the year—but if he can do that and rake on the road, he’ll remain one of the game’s most productive hitters.
RHP: Chris Archer, Rays
Season Stats: 3–2, 0.84 ERA, 0.74 WHIP, 10.3 K/9, 6.17 K/BB, 474 ERA+
Since a middling Opening Day start, Archer has allowed just one unearned run in his last four turns, three times throwing seven scoreless innings. His 37 strikeouts lead the AL, he’s second in the league in WHIP and strikeout-to-walk ratio and third in both raw ERA and ERA+. Coming off his first full major league season, all of the elements are in place for a breakout year for the 26-year-old Archer. His strikeouts are up and his walks are down, he’s getting more ground balls and allowing fewer line drives, and his velocity is up, topping 96 mph on his average four-seam fastball.
LHP: Dallas Keuchel, Astros
Season Stats: 3–0, 0.73 ERA, 0.73 WHIP, 5.4 K/9, 2.00 K/BB, 563 ERA+
The worst of Keuchel’s five starts thus far saw him allow two runs in seven innings. He has only allowed one other run this season, that coming in an eight-inning outing against the Padres on Wednesday night, and he’d have a shutout on his ledger if the Astros had bothered to score during his nine scoreless innings in his previous turn. As it is, he is tied with the Reds' Johnny Cueto for the major league leads in innings pitched (37) and WHIP, stands alone with the fewest hits allowed per nine innings (3.9) and ranks second in the majors in ERA and ERA+.
There is absolutely a lot of luck on balls in play in Keuchel's performance, but his Fielding Independent Pitching figure, which corrects for that good fortune, is in line with his ERA from a year ago, both roughly 2.90. That confirms my belief that the 27-year-old groundballer should be able to repeat his breakout success from a year ago.
RP: Andrew Miller, Yankees
Season Stats: 8 SV, 0.00 ERA, 0.62 WHIP, 15.9 K/9, 5.00 K/BB
Miller has made 10 appearances for the Yankees this year, all of them scoreless and all of them including at least one strikeout. He is a perfect 8-for-8 in converting save opportunities, has allowed just three hits and has struck out 20 men in 11 1/3 innings. Perhaps best of all, he hasn’t been simply a ninth-inning guy. Twice he has entered game in the eighth inning and remained to nail down the save, and on Wednesday, in a game the Yankees ultimately lost to the Rays in 13 innings, he worked two perfect frames, striking out three of the six men he faced. It’s that willingness and ability to work multiple innings, which was so valuable for the Orioles last October, that earns him this spot over the Reds' Aroldis Chapman, who has yet to throw a pitch in an inning other than the ninth this season.