By Joe Lemire
May 16, 2012

Five Cuts on daily and season trends as the major league season approaches the quarter-point:

1. The AL East is, again, proving to be baseball's deepest division

All five teams in the AL East have a positive run differential -- each with double digits, no less, as the Orioles are +15, the Rays +16, the Yankees +17, the Blue Jays +15 and the Red Sox +12 -- while no other division has more than three teams in the black. The AL West and NL West each have just one such team (the Rangers and Dodgers, respectively); the AL Central, meanwhile, does not have a single team that has scored more runs than it has allowed.

The AL East's success outside its division is exemplary. They are an aggregate 33-19 against the AL Central with a +64 run differential and 29-22 against the AL West with a +11.

Of course it's worth noting that the five AL East teams combine for a run differential of +75 -- which is exactly the same as the Rangers have by themselves.

2. Rally Tuesday

After Boston's Josh Beckett heard boos from the home crowd in his previous start at Fenway Park, the Red Sox righthander rebounded with his best outing of the season on his 32nd birthday Tuesday afternoon, shutting out the Mariners for seven innings while striking out nine and allowing only four hits and two walks. Fenway fans had let him hear it last week, after he was hit for seven runs in 2 1/3 innings soon after it had been reported that Beckett played a round of golf shortly after missing a turn in the rotation with a sore back.

His season ERA dipped below 5.00 for the first time this season, falling to 4.97, but a study of his game log indicates that he's made five quality starts, though his numbers have been wildly distorted by two terrible ones. Certainly a club expects more consistency from its co-ace or No. 2 pitcher (with or behind Jon Lester), but Beckett hasn't been as bad as the public perception suggests.

Another small comeback of sorts happened in New York, where Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks homered in his first start since getting hit on the hand last Friday. Not only was he returning from a minor injury, but he also has struggled all season. Even with the home run, his fourth, he's still batting only .159 this season with a .303 on-base percentage, though this homer could help keep him from a demotion down the batting order.

And, of course, there will always be close interest in the daily travails of the Angels' Albert Pujols. The first baseman went 3-for-4 with two RBIs; it was his second three-hit game of the season and only his second multi-hit game of May, raising his average to .212, its highest this month. His performance preceded a change in the Angels' coaching staff, as hitting coach Mickey Hatcher was replaced after the game by the club's Triple A hitting coach, Jim Eppard.

3. Multi-homer games are on the decline

Though Josh Hamilton's epic four-homer game last week and Carlos Beltran's three multi-homer games this month are fresh in our minds -- not to mention, most recently, the Phillies' Hunter Pence and the Brewers' Travis Ishikawa each hitting two on Tuesday -- the numbers indicate that there have been fewer games this season in which one player has hit at least two home runs than there has been in several seasons.

In the first 545 games of this season, there have been 48 multi-homer games, or about one every 11.4 games; that's the lowest rate since 1992, when it was 19.2. There was a multi-homer game once every 10.5 games in 2011, the first time it was a double-digit number since 1993. This season's rate may increase as the season goes on but through nearly a quarter of the season, multi-homer games have been as infrequent as they've been in two decades.

4. Starters are reclaiming the sixth inning

Indians starter Derek Lowe blanked the Twins for nine innings Tuesday afternoon, the first shutout the 38-year-old sinkerballer has thrown since he hurled two back in 2005. It was only his eighth start of the year, but he's now averaging nearly 6 2/3 innings per outing. In his three previous seasons, 2009-11, he had averaged roughly 5 2/3 innings per start.

Some of that additional length is attributable to his move back to the AL where there's no danger of a pinch-hitter removing him from the game before he's fatigued or ineffective. But it also happens to be true that, across baseball the last three years, there has been an ever-so-slight uptick in average duration per start. From 2006 through 2009 the average major league start held steady at 5.8 innings per outing; but 2012 is the third straight year that average has been 6.0.

It's admittedly a small margin -- an average 0.2 increase in a start is less than one out per game and accounts for about 10 2/3 additional innings from a team's starters over 162 games -- but worth keeping an eye on to see if it persists during the summer months when injuries continue to mount and minor league reserves are increasingly tapped.

5. The answer is Tim Stauffer

The expected trivia question 20 years from now is, "Who allowed Bryce Harper's first major league home run?" Harper, the Nationals' 19-year-old power prodigy, belted his first career homer on Monday night against the Padres' Stauffer, crushing a ball to straightaway centerfield and then racing around the bases in a paltry 17.07 seconds, the second-fastest trot of the season, according to Baseball Prospectus (and not including inside-the-park homers). After the game, Harper told reporters in Washington, "I've got no words for it. Hopefully it's one of many."

It took Harper until his 62nd plate appearance to hit his first home run and just four more to hit his second, when he homered Tuesday afternoon off San Diego's Anthony Bass. Harper is the first teenager to homer on consecutive days since Ken Griffey Jr. did so on May 20 and 21 in 1989.

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