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  • It's a risk to put too much stock in April performances, but the performance of Mitch Haniger and struggles of Anthony Rizzo are notable nuggets.
By Michael Beller
April 30, 2018

The first week of May has arrived, so let’s have some fun with our first batch of month-long splits of the season. Yes, this is being written with one more day remaining in April, but that’s no reason to spoil our fun. Plus, the season started on March 29, so we do technically have a full month of the season in the books

Your home run leaders after one month of baseball? No one is surprised to see Mike Trout with a share of the lead at 10 homers. Everyone, however, is surprised to see Didi Gregorius and Mitch Haniger alongside him at the top of the leaderboard. The rest of the top five doesn’t get any more predictable, with Manny Machado, Ozzie Albies, Matt Davidson and Charlie Blackmon rounding out the group in a four-way tie with nine bombs. The RBI leaderboard is even more bizarre, with Gregorius leading the way with 30. After him are Jed Lowrie (27), Haniger (27), Javier Baez (26) and Yoenis Cespedes (25).

How about our triple slash leaders? Manny Machado’s .361 batting average is tops in baseball. Right behind him are Jose Altuve and Mookie Betts, a couple of preseason MVP candidates. Things get a bit screwy at No. 4 with Rays outfielder Mallex Smith, and then revert to the expected with Tommy Pham at No. 5. Our OBP leader is Rhys Hoskins at .468, and the top five is filled out by a bunch of high-average hitters with strong plate discipline: Bryce Harper, Joe Mauer, Pham and Aaron Judge. Trout may be tied for the league lead with 10 homers, but he is not among the top five in slugging percentage. Gregorius leads that group at .766, and is followed by Betts, Haniger, Machado and Baez.

With more games will likely come more predictable results on the leaderboards, but sustained breakouts happen every season. The likes of Gregorius and Haniger may eventually give way to the likes of Giancarlo Stanton and Paul Goldschmidt, but, at least for one month, the former are on top of the baseball world.

Hitters to Watch this Week

Mitch Haniger, OF, Mariners

Haniger has been one of the best hitters in all of baseball this season, slashing .309/.384/.701 with a league-leading 10 homers and 27 RBI. He had a six-game hitting streak snapped last week, but went 5-for-12 with a pair of homers in the Mariners final three games in Cleveland over the weekend. Add his hot April to what he did in a little more than 400 plate appearances last year, and Haniger has been one of the brightest breakout stars over the last two seasons.

Yoán Moncada, 2B, White Sox

After a slow start to the season, Moncada has gotten it going over the last two weeks. Dating back to April 17, he’s 18-for-53 with five homers, four doubles, 10 RBI and three steals in his last 13 games. He had a seven-game hitting streak snapped on Saturday, and then returned to get  two more hits on Sunday. For the season, the soon-to-be 23-year-old is hitting .267/.353/.524 with six homers, seven doubles and 13 RBI. He does lead the league with 47 strikeouts, but the White Sox can live with that for now.

Franchy Cordero, OF, Padres

Speaking of living with the strikeouts, that could probably be the title of Cordero’s memoirs. He has 25 strikeouts in 68 plate appearances this year, and 69 in his career 167 trips to the plate. He also does things like this and this. Unexpected things happen every season, but Cordero and Christian Villaneuva becoming a new-age Bash Brothers makes you question everything you thought you knew about the sport.

Joey Votto, 1B, Reds

We’ve been keeping a watchful eye on Votto ever since his slow start became a thing, but he finally pulled himself out of the doldrums last week. Votto hit a homer in four straight games, and went 9-for-26 with nine walks against five strikeouts during the week. His season-long numbers still aren’t quite up to his standards, but he does now sport a .397 OBP. And now our watch, at least over Votto, has ended.

Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs

Our watch remains in the NL Central but moves to the northwest, landing on Rizzo in Chicago. The Cubs first baseman is about to put the finishing touches on one of the worst months of his career, going into Monday’s game against the Rockies with a .157/.272/.200 slash line and just one homer in 81 plate appearances. He did spend 10 days on the DL with a back injury and has hit into some bad luck, evidenced by a .182 BABIP, but it’s still jarring to see so good and consistent a player with stats as ugly as his. He’ll almost certainly get things going sooner rather than later, but that expected hot streak can’t begin a moment too soon, for either the Cubs or his fantasy owners.

Pitchers to Watch this Week

Miles Mikolas, SP, Cardinals

Mikolas has been great in his last three trips to the mound, allowing four earned runs on 15 hits in 21 innings, striking out 17 while walking just two. The first two of those starts came against the Reds, but that shouldn’t put too much of a damper on what he has done. An MLB lineup is an MLB lineup, for better or worse, and no pitcher throws the ball as well as Mikolas has by accident over a 21-inning sample. He’ll make just one start this week, taking on the Cubs on Friday.

Josh Hader, RP, Brewers

There’s certainly an argument that Hader is the best reliever in baseball. He’s a versatile weapon for Craig Counsell, regularly taking on the highest-leverage assignment, no matter if it’s the sixth, seventh or ninth inning. The 24-year-old has been electric in the role, totaling a 1.17 ERA, 0.94 xFIP, 0.52 WHIP and 31 strikeouts against four walks in 15 1/3 innings. It isn’t often we feature a reliever in the Pitchers to Watch section, but Hader definitely warrants the honor. Hader hasn’t pitched since last Wednesday, so we should see plenty of him in the Brewers’ six games against Cincinnati and Pittsburgh this week.

Clayton Kershaw, SP, Dodgers

Kershaw hasn’t quite been himself this year. A 2.84 ERA, 2.87 xFIP and 1.13 WHIP across 38 innings would be great for most pitchers, but those numbers are below his standards. He hasn’t kicked it into that elite, shutdown ace gear that has been his standard operating level for the better part of the last decade. That gear is still within his reach, but it’s an open question whether he can live in it the way he has for most of his career. Kershaw is scheduled for two starts this week, taking on the Diamondbacks on Tuesday and Padres on Sunday.

James Paxton, SP, Mariners

Paxton bounced back in his last trip to the mound, holding the Indians to two runs on five hits while striking out 10 in six innings. He still walked three batters, but it was encouraging to see the strikeout return to his game. Having said that, he got just 10 whiffs in the outing, his second-lowest total of the season. Last week, I looked into the significantly reduced effectiveness of Paxton’s curveball, pointing to that as the likeliest explanation for his struggles this year. Paxton threw 19 curves against the Indians and got just one whiff with the pitch. He was still successful, but he needs the offering to be better to sustain that level of performance. His lone start this week will come against the A’s on Wednesday.

Johnny Cueto, SP, Giants

Despite diminished velocity, Cueto has been one of the most effective pitchers in baseball this year, totaling a 0.84 ERA and 0.69 WHIP across 32 innings. His strikeout upside may be a thing of the past, but he has 26 strikeouts in his 32 frames, and has issued just six walks. It seems unlikely that he keeps up this performance, but you can’t simply explain away what he has done over five starts this season. He has a 2.81 FIP and 3.86 xFIP, so it’s not like it’s simple blind luck. In fact, we should expect a veteran like him to be able to figure out how to succeed when the elite stuff that once carried him is no longer in his arsenal, and that’s exactly what Cueto is doing. He’s slated for one start this week, opposing the Braves on Friday.

Matchups to Watch this Week

Mets SP Noah Syndergaard vs. Braves 1B Freddie Freeman, Tuesday

Braves-Mets should be a fun series to start the week, with both teams jockeying for position atop the NL East. Syndergaard takes the ball for the home team in the series opener, so we should get our first look at Syndergaard-Freeman at about 7:15 pm Eastern time on Tuesday. The two have faced one another 12 times in their respective careers, with the hitter getting the better part of the pitcher. Freeman is 5-for-12 with a homer, double and triple against Syndergaard, resulting in a .417/.417/.917 slash line. Syndergaard, however, owned Freeman when he faced the Braves two weeks ago, retiring him all three times he faced him, including one strikeout.

Cubs SP Yu Darvish vs. Rockies 3B Nolan Arenado, Wednesday

Darvish is coming off his best start with the Cubs, during which he allowed one unearned run on three hits and two walks in six innings against the Brewers, striking out eight batters. He may have had his worst start with the Cubs in his turn before that, allowing five runs on five hits and four walks in a loss to these very Rockies. Arenado went 2-for-3 with a pair of singles and an RBI against Darvish in that game, which gives him the leg up in their very brief history with one another. It’s expected to be warm in Chicago on Wednesday with the wind blowing out at Wrigley Field, which could play to Arenado’s advantage.

Phillies SP Jake Arrieta vs. Nationals SP Max Scherzer, Sunday

There aren’t many eye-popping pitcher matchups this week, and we have to wait all the way until Sunday to get our best showdown of the next seven days. It does feature the two guys responsible for the last three NL Cy Young Awards, though, so it should be worth the wait. Scherzer’s exploits this season are par for the course. He’s the best pitcher in baseball, and this is what he does. Arrieta’s, however, are a bit of a surprise. He has impressed with his new team, going 3-0 with a 1.82 ERA, 0.93 WHIP and 18 strikeouts in his first four starts covering 24 2/3 innings. He may not have the elite stuff he did when he won his NL Cy Young, but he can still miss bats and control contact, as he proved in his first month with the Phillies.

The Astros (vs. Yankees Monday through Thursday, at Diamondbacks Friday through Sunday)

No matter what sort of great matchup you want, you’ll find it in an Astros game this week. They begin the week with a rematch of last year’s ALCS, hosting the Yankees in Houston for four games. Over the weekend, they take a trip to Phoenix, where they’ll meet the first-place Diamondbacks for three.

The Astros send Charlie Morton, Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers to the mound against the Yankees, meaning we’ll get to see all those guys pitch against Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Didi Gregorius, Gary Sanchez, and the rest of one of the best lineups in the league. Morton and Verlander will also face the Diamondbacks, as will Gerrit Cole. In other words, the Astros will send the top three arms from arguably the best rotation in baseball to the mound against a lineup that features Paul Goldschmidt, A.J. Pollock and David Peralta. On the flip side, the Astros mighty lineup will face Luis Severino and Zack Greinke over the next seven days. Every baseball fan might want to be sure to have at least one screen locked on the Astros this week.

GIF of the Week

Odubel Herrera turned in one of the best catches of April last week, robbing a would-be home run off the bat of Freddie Freeman. Bonus points for maintaining the catch through the shrubbery.

Herrera is hardly the Phillies' most consistent player, but his raw talent is undeniable.

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