With the first month of the 2016 MLB season at a close, Jay Jaffe picks his top performers for April at each position, led by reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper.
April is a month for small sample sizes, for hot and cold streaks that if timed differently during the six-month season wouldn't garner much more than a shrug. Those .450s and .150s and 1.40s and 7.25s jump off the stat pages, begging for (mis)interpretation before the performances of the players attached to them level off into more familiar territory. As the first month of the season approaches its close, let's go around the diamond to pay tribute to the best of those early-season performances at each position before they fade into the woodwork, with some thoughts as to how sustainable they may be (hint: probably not very).
Note: All statistics are through April 28. League leaders are listed in bold; major league leaders are in bold and italics.
C: Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Tigers
.231/.322/.673, 6 HR, 15 RBIs, 174 OPS+
Released by the Marlins last May (just over one-third of the way through a three-year, $21 million deal), Salty is playing for his third team in less than a year and the sixth of his 10-year career. His batting average is nothing special, but 10 of his 12 hits have gone for extra bases, and he's two-thirds of the way to last year's home run total. The owner of a career 96 OPS+ should enjoy this run while it lasts; his 39% strikeout rate suggests regression is just around the corner.
1B: Joe Mauer, Twins
.316/.459/.447, 1 HR, 7 RBIs, 157 OPS+
Not much has gone right for the Twins thus far, as their 0–9 start doused hopes that they could build on last year's 83 wins to challenge for a postseason spot. One positive development, however, has been the hitting of the 33-year-old Mauer. In his first two full seasons since moving out from behind the plate due to ongoing post-concussion woes, the three-time batting champion was a shadow of his former self, batting a thin .270/.348/.376—a useful performance from an everyday catcher, but an inadequate one from a first baseman, let alone one making $23 million a year through 2018.
Happily, Mauer may have turned a corner. After conceding that he had been struggling to track the ball since returning from his 2013 concussion, he began using special goggles fitted with a strobe light during tee and soft-toss drills. The goggles are supposed to train a player to keep his head still while maintaining better focus on the ball. The early evidence—and Mauer’s comments—suggests they’re helping, and what's more, the shape of the performance isn't radically beyond what he’s has done in the past, at least beyond the 20.4% walk rate. It's impossible not to root for the sustainability of this one.
2B: Neil Walker, Mets
.300/.325/.638, 9 HR, 16 RBIs, 153 OPS+
Acquired from the Pirates in a December swap for Jon Niese, Walker was expected to approximate the offense of departed free agent Daniel Murphy (off to a strong start himself in Washington at .370/.439/.603 with a 169 OPS+), albeit with better defense. The jury is still out on the glove work, but lately, Walker has been hitting like the 2015 postseason version of Murphy. Though he reached double digits in homers in each of the past six seasons, only once has he hit more than 20, but with eight homers in his past 12 games and nine overall, he's more than halfway to last season's total of 16. What's more, the switch-hitting 30-year old has bopped three of this homers in a total of 14 plate appearances against lefties, as many as he had hit over the previous five seasons and 638 PA.
Walker won't be able to keep that pace up, of course, but if he's shored up an approach against southpaws that has produced just a .675 career OPS (compared to .801 against righties), he's headed for a big year.
SS: Aledmys Diaz, Cardinals
.446/.478/.785, 4 HR, 13 RBIs, 227 OPS+
Signed to a four-year, $8 million deal in March 2014, Diaz struggled after coming stateside to the point that he was outrighted off St. Louis' 40-man roster last July. But after climbing back into the team's good graces with a strong late-season showing, the 25-year-old Cuban defector seized the shortstop job in late March after Jhonny Peralta suffered a torn ligament in his left thumb, beating out Jedd Gyorko and Greg Garcia to fill the spot until Peralta makes a midseason return.
Nobody expected Diaz to light the league ablaze, but he’s doing just that; on Wednesday, he reached the plate appearances threshold to take over the league leads in batting average, on-base percentage and OPS+ while also leading in WAR (1.7) and ranking second in slugging percentage. It's too good to last, but Diaz has played his way into the Cardinals’ future and could provide manager Mike Matheny with some lineup flexibility once Peralta returns.
3B: Manny Machado, Orioles
.333/.389/.678, 7 HR, 16 RBIs, 192 OPS+
The 23-year-old Machado often gets swept to the side when discussing the game's top young talents, with the debate centering around Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. This season, he's building on last year's 35-homer breakout, tied for second in homers (with four other players, including honorable hot-corner mentions Josh Donaldson and Mike Moustakas) and leading the AL in slugging percentage while helping the Orioles to the Junior Circuit's second-best record (13–8, .619). Including his season-ending flurry of dingers, he now has 12 in his last 26 games and 16 in his last 52—a 50-homer pace. We probably haven't seen the best of him yet.
LF: Colby Rasmus, Astros
.275/.414/.623, 7 HR, 19 RBIs, 190 OPS+
Things haven't gone well for the Astros (7–15 thus far), but Rasmus appears to have found his comfort zone in Houston. After bashing a career-high 25 homers last year and then adding four more in the postseason, he became the first free agent ever to accept a qualifying offer, and he's currently putting himself in line for a bigger payday. Beyond the homers, he has shown considerably more discipline at the plate than before, swinging at just 23.9% of pitches outside the zone compared to a career mark of 30.8%. His 19.5% walk rate is more than double his career mark, and his strikeout rate, which has hovered around 31% over the last three seasons, is at 23%. The sizzling rate stats won't hold up, but if the 29-year-old former first-round pick can maintain some semblance of this new-found selectivity, he'll put up big numbers.
CF: Dexter Fowler, Cubs
.356/.473/.630, 3 HR, 15 RBIs, 191 OPS+
One of the last qualifying offer free agents to find a home this winter, Fowler left the Orioles—who had reportedly offered a three-year, $33 million deal—at the altar in favor of a return to the Cubs via a one-year, $13 million deal that includes a mutual option for 2017. Thus far, he's been the top hitter on the team with the majors' best record (16–5, .762) via rate stats that rank among the NL's top 10 and also boasts the league's second-highest WAR (1.3). He won't sustain all of that, but Fowler's big April has helped cover for Jason Heyward's slow start and the loss of Kyle Schwarber. Like Rasmus, he could be on track for a lucrative multi-year deal this winter.
RF: Bryce Harper, Nationals
.314/.425/.786, 9 HR, 24 RBIs, 207 OPS+
Thanks in part to a cushy early schedule—the Nationals have played just one team that was over .500 last year and one that's above the mark this year—the reigning NL MVP is off to an even better start in 2016 than in '15. While he won't continue to slug .786, repeating as the league leader in that category and in homers is hardly out of the question, because it should be no surprise that a generational talent coming off a historical age-22 season could be improving, just as 23-year-old players are expected to do. Look out!
DH: Byung-ho Park, Twins
.241/.308/.569, 5 HR, 7 RBIs, 139 OPS+
With apologies to 40-year-old David Ortiz (.296/.398/.577, 166 OPS+), who has kicked off his farewell tour in fine fashion, the 29-year-old South Korean newcomer gets the nod despite his lopsided slash line. Though he hit 105 homers over the past two seasons in KBO, the question was whether Park's power would translate stateside, and so far the answer is a resounding yes, as three of his five homers have been estimated by StatCast to have traveled at least 430 feet; only boring old Mike Trout has more such long blasts so far. That Park is swinging at 33% of pitches out of the strike zone suggests pitchers will continue to exploit the holes in his swing, but when he runs into one, you could do worse than watch it travel.
RHP: Noah Syndergaard, Mets
2–0, 1.69 ERA, 0.975 WHIP, 0.82 FIP, 12.8 K/9, 1.4 BB/9, 239 ERA+
Thor helped the Mets to a pennant in his outstanding rookie season, and so far, he's brought the hammer down upon opponents to an even greater extent thanks to the rapid improvement of his 92 mph slider, which didn't emerge as a weapon until last September but so far accounts for 23.5% of his arsenal, up from 3.2% in 2015. According to Brooks Baseball, the 54 batters who have put it into play have hit .111 against the pitch since he introduced it, and the next one who collects an extra-base hit off his slider will be the first. Pair that with a fastball that's averaging 98.7 mph, and you have the owner of the NL's best strikeout rate and MLB's top FIP, not to mention a 38/4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Given the quality of his stuff and the terror he quite rightly induces in hitters, Syndergaard may well wind up as part of the NL Cy Young race alongside Jake Arrieta and Clayton Kershaw, both of whom are off to strong starts as well.
LHP: Jose Quintana, White Sox
3–1, 1.47 ERA, 1.109 WHIP, 1.80 FIP, 9.4 K/9, 2.3 BB/9, 253 ERA+
Chris Sale isn't the only outstanding southpaw to credit for the White Sox's 16–7 start. The 27-year-old Quintana—who has largely flown under the radar in delivering three strong 200-inning seasons in a row—has yet to allow a homer and is striking out hitters at a career-best clip, producing the league's top FIP and its fifth-best ERA. If you didn't already know that this guy's a stud in the making, you do now.
CL: Andrew Miller, Yankees
5 SV, 0.00 ERA, 0.333 WHIP, 15.0 K/9, 0.0 BB/9
The Yankees (8–12) have disappointed so far, but don't blame Miller, who shook off not only an expected demotion to a setup role due to the winter acquisition of Aroldis Chapman but also a chip fracture in his right wrist via a comebacker toward the end of spring training. Thus far, Miller has faced 29 hitters and retired 26 of them, with 15 strikeouts, zero walks and zero extra-base hits allowed. Needless to say, he has yet to blow a save opportunity. Meanwhile, fellow Yankees setup man Dellin Betances has whiffed 23 of 38 batters faced, allowing just one run in 10 innings via a stray solo homer.
The pending return of Chapman from his domestic violence suspension may not change the Yankees' fate; that's up to their moribund offense. Still, that three-headed hydra of him, Miller and Betances at the end of games will be a sight to behold.