The first month of the regular season is in the books, so I wanted to take some time to look back and digest all of the amazing performances and stories we’ve been witnesses to this young season. I give you my April 2014 superlatives – the awards for the bests and worsts in baseball over these first 30 days.
There was no real scientific criteria by which I chose winners; mainly my whimsical thoughts and opinions mixed in with a little bit of my inherent biases. And frankly, I sort of rigged the list to make sure that no same team or player was the outright winner of multiple awards, so don’t wring your hands too hard at teams or players you think I’ve snubbed.
On to the awards!
BEST TEAM – OAKLAND ATHLETICS
Oakland boasts the best record in the American League (18-10), and are 12-4 on the road this season. They polished off the month with a series sweep of divisional foe Texas, taking and demolishing the best arms the Rangers had to offer. The A’s beat Yu Darvish 4-0 on Monday, beat the red-hot Martin Perez 9-3 on Tuesday and pummeled Robbie Ross to the tune of a 12-1 month-ending victory. They may not have the best record in baseball, but they’re the most complete – and best – team. At least through April. They can hit. Their +59 run differential is the best in the game, and their lineup is deep and versatile. They pitch. Sonny Gray (4-1, 1.76 ERA in six starts) has developed into a staff ace and Jesse Chavez (2-0, 1.89 ERA in six starts) has been shoulder-to-shoulder with him. And Manager Bob Melvin has proven to be one of the best in the business. Every year we sleep on the Oakland Athletics when making preseason predictions, and every year they seem to make us pay for it.
Honorable Mention – Milwaukee Brewers
I know, I know . . . the Brewers have the best record in baseball (18-7) and are an amazing story. That’s why they receive an honorable mention here. But have they played the best baseball? Have they demonstrated they are the best team to this point? In a seven-game series, who are you taking: Oakland or Milwaukee? I rest my case.
Biggest Surprise – Milwaukee Brewers
Who saw this start coming? Not even the most loyal of cheese heads thought their team would hold such a commanding lead on the Central Division by the time the calendar flipped to May. At 74-88, last year they were after thoughts; also-rans. So far this year they’re the cream of the National League crop. So how have they gone about making fools of all of us? Well, they’re 11-2 on the road, and before losing yesterday to St. Louis (they won the series two games to one), they hadn’t lost a road game since April 17. Their MVP candidate, Ryan Braun, has returned from serving his PED suspension a season ago and is hitting .318 with six home runs and 18 RBIs. Table setters like Carlos Gomez and Jean Segura continue to shape their games into do-everything, All Star form. But most surprising of all has been the success of Milwaukee’s pitching staff. All five of their starters have a sub-.300 ERA, and their bullpen has a collective 2.47 ERA – fourth best in baseball. Closer Francisco Rodriguez has seemingly found the fountain of youth. Sure, most of these performances – along with the team’s .714 winning percentage – won’t be sustainable. But their playoff hopes might be.
Honorable Mention – Colorado Rockies
The Rockies were also 74-88 in 2013, but unlike the Brewers they were cellar dwellers in their division. But as we kick off the month of May, Colorado (16-13) sits three games above .500, and have gotten there on the backs of one of baseball’s most explosive offenses. Three Rockies rank in the top six in batting average: (1) Charlie Blackmon .374; (2) Troy Tulowitzki .364; (6) Justin Morneau .343. Nolan Aernado has the league’s longest hitting streak (20 games). As a team, they’ve scored more runs (157), collected more its (297) and have a higher batting average (.293) than any other team in baseball. And you can put those “yeah but they play in Coors Field” dismissals to bed, because the Rox are mashing the ball on the road as well, even at the most pitcher friendly parks and against the game’s best arms. If you’ve got a fantasy pitcher matched up against the Rockies, I’d recommend you give him the day off.
Best HITTER – TROY TULOWITZKI
Finally healthy, Tulowitzki is back to his old MVP-like self. He’s batting .364 (second in baseball), he’s getting on base at a rate of .477 (best in baseball), and his slugging percentage is .727 (best in baseball). Tulo has hit seven home runs – second in the National League – and already has 22 RBIs. His biggest competition might be teammate Charlie Blackmon who is batting .374, but Tulowitzki’s power numbers and run production make him the best all-around hitter in baseball, at least this past month.
Honorable Mention – Jose Bautista
Toronto’s slugger has a robust slash line of .293/.467/.598, has bopped eight home runs and drawn 30 walks – that’s more than a walk per game played! And for all you Angels fans, Mike Trout is undoubtedly an all-around better player than Bautista, and with Miguel Cabrera’s early season struggles this could finally be the year Trout eclipses him for the MVP award. But in the meantime, sit back and enjoy the patient power display Bautista is putting on this season.
Best Pitcher – Jose Fernandez
There will be no sophomore slump on display in Miami. Fernandez is the most electrifying pitcher going today. He leads all pitchers in strikeouts (55) and has only walked eight batters over six starts. He ranks in the top five in ERA (1.59), WHIP (0.83), batting average against (.174). But for the most part, he’s been even better than his stat lines would lead you to believe. Six of the seven earned runs he’s given up, and four the eight total walks, came in one start against the Phillies. In his other five outings, Fernandez has allowed just one earned run over 35.2 innings in his other five outings, which equates to a 0.25 ERA. Yeesh.
Honorable Mention – Johnny Cueto
In all six of his starts, Cueto has allowed two runs or fewer and worked at least seven innings, and he ranks fourth in baseball with 50 strikeouts over 47 innings. Plus I’m a Reds fan. I had to show my team or one of my guys some love in at least one of these categories. Cueto missed substantial time last year and in the 2012 postseason with an array of muscle strains, and I had feared we would begin to see a decline in his usual performance this season. Instead, he’s pitching as well as he ever has in his career. His 1.15 ERA and .136 batting average against are the tops in baseball, and he’s logged more innings than any other pitcher to date.
Biggest Controversy – Pine Tar Pineda
Stupid is as stupid does. And it doesn’t get much dumber than Michael Pineda’s attempt to conceal pine tar on his neck. Pineda had already come under the gun when camera’s caught him 10 days earlier with a glistening, brown substance on the palm of his hand. When asked after the game about it, he contended it was dirt. Fool me once, shame on you. Try to fool me twice, and Red Sox manager John Farrell is going to call you out on it. Pineda took the hill against the Red Sox with a glistening, brown substance for the second time – this instance it was on his neck – and was promptly ejected for violating baseball’s rule against use of a foreign substance. The incident unleashed yet another round of debate as to whether pine tar should be illegal and whether Pineda’s real crime was using the stuff, or failing to use it discreetly enough.
Honorable Mention – The Transfer Rule
Major League Baseball revised this rule prior to the start of the season, and no one really took notice until we saw the rule’s application in live action. Under the rule, a player was not awarded a catch if he did not cleanly transfer the ball from his glove to his throwing hand. It was pure insanity. Clear catches – clear instances where the fielder had complete control of the baseball in his glove – were not called out because players were not successful at reaching into the leather webbing of the glove and pulling the baseball out. Things got so bad that baseball decided to go ahead and amend the rule again just under a week ago. Now, if a player who catches a bobbles it drops it while transferring it from his glove to his throwing hand, an out may still be called out.
Biggest Storyline – Instant Replay
It’s new. It’s flawed. But in terms of creating buzz and conversation, it’s been fantastic. Baseball crept a little bit further into the modern age by introducing a new system of replay review this season. While it was implemented with good intentions to ensure calls were made correctly, there are serious kinks that still need to be worked out. Replay has dominated the headlines this first month of the regular season, and will continue to remain at the forefront of baseball minds as we move forward in this it’s pilot season.
Honorable Mention – The Milwaukee Brewers
A whole lot of success mixed with a whole lot of surprise equals one heck of a baseball story. I can’t get enough of the Brewers. They have been as impressive as they have been inexplicable, which makes for endless fodder for water cooler discussion.
BEST COMEBACK – Albert Pujols
And just like that, Albert Pujols is one of the most awesome hitters in the game again. He held that title as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals up until his departure in 2011. His first two seasons with the Angels were a struggle, both at the plate and with his health. By the time the dust had settled on the 2013 campaign, Pujols had played in just 99 games and tallied a meager (by his standards) .258 batting average. He wasn’t performing like the 10-year, $100+ million man his contract said he was. Now, feeling healthy again Pujols is starting to put the fear back in the pitching world. He’s blasted nine home runs and driven in 23 already. Oh, and that batting average is back up around .280 and could climb even further. As much as it pains me to say, baseball is much better when Pujols is raking. It just is.
Honorable Mention – Francisco Rodriguez
K-Rod was supposed to serve as a setup man for the Brewers this season. It is the same role the former dominant closer had been serving for various teams in the recent seasons past, after it seemed like he had lost his bullpen magic. But then, without warning, manager Ron Roenicke gave Rodriguez the ball to close out Milwaukee’s Opening Day win against the Atlanta Braves. Roenicke has stuck with Rodriguez since. K-Rod has converted all 13 of his save opportunities this year, and that 13 number tied the MLB record for most saves before May 1. Rodriguez has yet to allow a run in 16 innings of relief work, and has a ridiculous 23:4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Best Rookie – Jose Abreu
Abreu has been in the league for a month, and is already etching his name all over the record books. Through April, he blasted 10 home runs (a record for a rookie in April) and drove in 32 runs (again, a record for a rookie in April). Those marks also just so happen to be the best in baseball thus far. With an early .270 batting average, Abreu has a real shot at leading his club in all three of the Triple Crown categories.
Honorable Mention – Masahiro Tanaka
He came to New York surrounded by a boatload of hype, and he’s lived up to it for the most part. Tanaka has lasted at least seven innings in four of his five starts (the Yankees won all four), and has yet to allow more than three runs. He’s given up just six walks in 35.2 innings and has struck out 46 hitters and yielded just a 2.27 ERA. Despite his inexperience at the big league level, he’s been the only consistent component of the Yankees’ rotation, and is a big reason New York sits in first place in the NL East.
Most Resilient – Atlanta Braves
Atlanta has had to overcome not one, not two, but three arms lost for the season to Tommy John surgery. Two of those pitchers (Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy) were slated to occupy premiere slots in the club’s rotation. The losses left a lot of us wondering just how the Braves would fill the void left by those injuries and the departure of Tim Hudson, who signed with San Francisco in the offseason. Inexplicable performances by aging journeyman Aaron Harang and unknown commodity David Hale, along with the late signing of Ervin Santana have buoyed the Braves (17-9) atop the NL East yet again.
Honorable Mention – Oakland Athletics
The A’s (18-10) are another club that has had to overcome serious pitching losses thanks to elbow surgery (Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin), yet have persevered and sit atop their division. Unlike the Braves, the A’s have relied solely on youth and their own farm system to get the job done. These two clubs may have taken different paths to get to where they are at the start of May, but neither made the road any easier to travel.
Biggest Villain – Tommy John
Not the ex-ballplayer, but the elbow surgery that is named after him that has claimed so many big-time arms already this season. So far, 16 major league pitchers have undergone the procedure in 2014 alone. It feels like we are in the midst of an epidemic that is robbing of us the game’s best hurlers. Here’s a list of the guys who have gone under the knife for the procedure so far:
- Jarrod Parker – A’s (second time)
- Luke Hochevar – Royals
- Bobby Parnell – Mets
- Kris Medlen – Braves (second time)
- Cory Luebke – Padres (second time)
- Brandon Beachy – Braves
- Cory Gearrin – Braves
- Matt Moore – Rays
- David Hernandez – Diamondbacks
- Patrick Corbin – Diamondbacks
- Brian Moran – Angels
- Bruce Rondon – Tigers
- Jameson Taillon – Pirates
- Josh Johnson – Padres (second time)
- Ivan Nova – Yankees
- A.J. Griffin – A’s
Honorable Mention – Michael Pineda
For Pine Tar Gate, what else? Cheaters never win, not even in a contest for biggest villain. But cheaters can earn honorable mention.
Biggest Disappointment – Arizona Diamondbacks
The disappointment began when Arizona flew 15,000 miles to Sydney, Australia just to lose two games against the Dodgers. Then, on Opening Day the team bus blew a tire on the way to the ballpark and the players, managers and staff had to walk to the ballpark. Looking back, I guess that was an omen. The Diamondbacks are just 9-22 after April, good for the worst record in baseball and the second-worst record after 30 games in the history of the franchise. This team has revealed itself as terrible, but it was supposed to contend. That’s why the ownership is shelling out an organizational-record $110 million in payroll. Even after the loss of starting pitcher Patrick Corbin (Tommy John surgery), many expected the Diamondbacks to at least push the Dodgers in the West this season. Instead, the club has a collective 6.34 ERA, the bullpen has blown five saves and the offense ranks in the bottom one-third in runs per game. Manager Kirk Gibson and some of his players believe that the Diamondbacks have underachieved, and are capable of playing much better. While that is likely true to some extent, the hole their underachieving has dug is just as likely too deep to recover from, even after just a month of play.
Honorable Mention – Pittsburgh Pirates
The darlings of the league a season ago are not off to the encore start they or their fans had envisioned here in 2014. The Pirates lost eight of their last 10 games to close out the month and find themselves a full 9.0 games behind the first-place Brewers in the National League Central at 10-16 on the young year. If you carry that math through to 162, the Bucs are on pace to lose between 99 and 100 games just a year removed from a 2013 playoff appearance. Their struggles are especially disappointing considering the makeup of this team is not that much different than last year’s.