April All-Stars: Thames, Sale lead best players from the season's first month

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Friday April 28th, 2017

The season's first month is drawing to a close, and both the team standings and the individual leaderboards are full of surprises. The Rockies atop the NL West? Eric Thames on a record-setting home run pace? Hey, it's early, but it's also a whole lot of fun after staring out the window and waiting for spring—at least unless you're a Blue Jays fan. 

With that in mind, we hereby present what has become an annual tradition at SI.com: the April All-Stars. Given the small sample sizes involved—fewer than 100 plate appearances or 40 innings pitched—selection to this team is more a snapshot of who has played the best so far, rather than a guarantee that those players will sustain their performances.  While in some cases, there were as many as half a dozen players who could have been chosen, in the first month of 2017, these are the players who have stood out the most:

VERDUCCI: 'Adapt or die': Eric Thames offers his keys to success

C: Jett Bandy/Manny Pina

If this were a real All-Star team, my editor would lock me in a broom closet until I tearfully chose one of the two batting title-qualified catchers carrying an OPS above .750 (flip a coin for the Marlins' J.P. Realmuto or the Astros' Brian McCann). But it’s April and so I'm going with the two-headed beast that’s emerged in Milwaukee in the wake of the trades that sent Jonathan Lucroy to Texas last August and Martin Maldonado to the Angels in December. The latter deal brought back the 27-year-old Bandy, whose name wouldn’t be out of place in a Star Wars movie. Bandy’s been paired with Pina, a 30-year-old rookie who passed through four organizations while amassing a total of 98 big league plate appearances from 2004 to '16; in roughly equal playing time, the duo has combined to hit a sizzling .369/.411/.655 with five homers, four of them by Bandy. Pina thrown out five of 13 would-be base thieves and climbed into the top 10 among Baseball Prospectus' best pitch framers. ​

1B: Eric Thames

.370/.489/.904, 263 OPS+, 11 HR, 19 RBI, 1.7 WAR

No player in baseball is off to a hotter start than Thames, who is back in the majors after an incredible three-year stint in the Korean Baseball Organization, where he wore a metallic gold elbow guard, won MVP honors with a 47-homer, 40-steal season in 2015 and earned the nickname "God." Thames launched 11 homers in the Brewers' first 20 games, matching Justin Upton (2013) for the fastest player to 11 homers since '07. Members of the Cubs weren’t shy about voicing unfounded suspicions about Thames using PEDs during this binge, but Thames took it in stride. After being tested for the third time this season in the wake of his 11th homer, he said, "If people keep thinking I'm on stuff, I'll be here every day. I have a lot of blood and urine." The secret to Thames' success has more to do with his uncanny, Barry Bonds-like plate discipline; he's swung at just 19.6% of pitches he’s seen outside the strike zone and has pummeled the ones in his wheelhouse.

2B: Starlin Castro

.346/.386/.538, 157 OPS+, 4 HR, 14 RBI, 0.6 WAR

Though he hit a career-high 21 homers last year, Castro's first season after being traded from the Cubs to the Yankees was otherwise unremarkable. He batted .270/.300/.433 for a 93 OPS+, an improvement over 2015 (84 OPS+) but not nearly up to his potential. This year, the 27-year-old second baseman collected three hits on Opening Day, and he now has a team-high nine multi-hit games while helping to cover for the lineup absences of catcher Gary Sanchez and shortstop Didi Gregorius. Castro is hitting fewer grounders and more fly balls than ever, and while he's still swinging at plenty of pitches outside the zone, he's become a peskier hitter; both his current 6.3% walk rate and 3.91 pitches per plate appearance represent career highs. 

SS: Zack Cozart

.393/.493/.689, 213 OPS+, 1 HR, 9 RBI, 1.3 WAR

An excellent defender whose power typically represents the extent of his offensive contributions, Cozart has been a hitting machine thus far. Vying to become the first shortstop in 121 years to hit .400—and no, I’m not expecting him to actually do so—he is second in the league in batting average and ranks third in OBP and fifth in SLG while leading in triples (four). Meanwhile, his walk rate (17.3%) is more than double that of last year. It won't last, but we should savor the 31-year-old's stellar performance as long as it does. ​

 

3B: Nolan Arenado

.321/.378/.654, 153 OPS+, 6 HR, 15 RBI, 1.3 WAR

Few players in the game are as entertaining on both sides of the ball as Arenado. He has led the NL in homers and RBIs in each of the past two seasons thanks in part to playing home games at Coors Field, while defensively he remains one of the game's best thanks to his quick reflexes, instincts and arm strength. He's a big reason why the upstart Rockies have gone 14–9 to start the season and trail the Arizona Diamondbacks by just a half-game in the NL West.

LF: Khris Davis

.264/.368/.583, 7 HR, 12 RBI, 0.8 WAR

Despite moving from the homer-happy Miller Park to the power-stifling Oakland Coliseum when he was traded from the Brewers to the A's in February 2016, Davis nonetheless hit a career-high 42 dingers last year, good for third in the AL. He's back at it this year, homering twice against the Angels on Opening Day and adding five more since, helping him to a share of the league lead. What's more, he's boosted his plate discipline, cutting his rate of swinging at pitches outside the strike zone from 31.3% last year to 22.7% this year. As a result his walk rate has more than doubled, from 6.9% to 14.9%. ​

 

CF: Mike Trout

.337/.408/.674, 206 OPS+, 6 HR, 15 RBI, 1.9 WAR

Just because Trout is the game's best player doesn't mean he can be expected to dominate every single month, but the two-time MVP is currently amid the best season-opening stretch of his young career. Trout currently leads the AL in slugging percentage, total bases (60) and OPS+, and he's tied for th lead in WAR (1.9) with Reds third baseman Eugenio Suarez.

 

RF: Bryce Harper

.418/.535/.823, 257 OPS+, 8 HR, 25 RBI, 1.9 WAR

If Harper was more banged up than he let on last year, then he's currently healthy as a horse, if a horse could be this locked in at the plate. The 24-year-old is swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone than ever (24.4%), and he leads the NL in walks (20, including four of those time-saving intentional ones). He also leads in batting average, on-base percentage, RBIs, WAR and is second in slugging percentage and OPS+. He's still got more than five months to go, but if you were wondering if he'd ever recapture his 2015 NL MVP form, the answer appears to be an emphatic yes. 

DH: Corey Dickerson

.325/.366/.623, 181 OPS+, 5 HR, 9 RBI, 1.2 WAR

Traded from the Rockies to the Rays in January 2016, Dickerson’s performance tumbled back to sea level; he hit just .245/.293/.469. This year, however, Dickerson’s five homers lead Tampa Bay and four have come against division rivals. Alas, nobody’s been on base for any of them, but somehow the Rays are sixth in the league in scoring at 4.43 runs per game.  

LHP: Chris Sale

1–2, 1.19 ERA, 1.11 FIP, 12.4 K/9, 2.0 WAR

Staffmates Rick Porcello and David Price can testify to the way that many a talented hurler's first season in Boston can fall short of expectations, but thus far Sale has been everything the Red Sox could have hoped for, particularly with Price ailing. Look past the won-loss record—a product of the team scoring just 10 runs in his five starts—and note that Sale has almost twice as many strikeouts (52) as baserunners allowed (29, via 15 hits and six walks) in 29 2/3 innings. He has yet to make a start of less than seven innings, and in his last four turns he has tallied 10, 12, 13 and 10 strikeouts, respectively. ​

RHP: Dylan Bundy

3–1, 1.65 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 6.3 K/9, 1.9 WAR

Bundy was one of last season's feel-good stories, as he returned to the major league mound for the first time since late 2012, having endured Tommy John surgery and shoulder woes in between. His 4.02 ERA in 109 2/3 innings split between the bullpen and the rotation was a solid performance, but thus far this year, he's come closer to showing why the Orioles made him the fourth overall pick of the 2011 draft and brought him to the majors before his 20th birthday. In a rotation where Kevin Gausman and Ubaldo Jiménez have been lit up like Christmas trees, Bundy has allowed one run or fewer in three of his five starts, all of which have been against division rivals. His strong start has helped the perpetually underestimated Orioles to the top of the AL East. 

Closer: Kenley Jansen

1-0, 2.16 ERA, 5 saves, 0.960 WHIP, 0.2 WAR

After signing a five-year, $80 million deal during the off-season to remain with the Dodgers, Jansen has picked up where he left off last fall, working overtime if that’s what manager Dave Roberts asks. He’s 5-for-5 in save opportunities, with three of those saves requiring at least four outs. He has 13 strikeouts in 8 1/3 innings, he’s only allowed a run in one of his eight outings—yielding a pair on April 7 at Denver's Coors Field, in a non-save situation—and he has yet to walk a batter. Combine that with his huge strikeout rate (14.0 per nine) and the fact that he has yet to allow a home run and he has essentially broken the Fielding Independent Pitching formula with a -0.15 mark.

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