Sunday, May 31, 2015

Remembering the 1946 Brooklyn Dodgers

Brooklyn's last non-integrated team went 96-60 (Baseball Fever)
In honor of June--the unofficial start of summer--and this being the 60th anniversary of when the Bums finally won it all, I'm going to recall and ultimately rank the fabled "Boys of Summer" teams that captivated the borough of Brooklyn in the dozen seasons immediately following World War II, before the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles after the 1957 season.

'Dem Bums emerged as a powerhouse immediately before the war, eclipsing 100 wins in the 1941 and 1942 seasons before star players departed to join the war effort. Brooklyn remained competitive during the war years, albeit not nearly as dominant as they'd been beforehand. The Dodgers fielded winning records in 1943 and 1945, finishing 20 games over .500 in '45.

The 1946 edition, Brooklyn's last all-white team, was unlike the hitting-heavy clubs that proceeded it in that it was buoyed by outstanding pitching. The Bums compiled a 3.05 ERA, which was good for second best in the majors, while pacing the National League in strikeouts, saves, and fewest hits allowed. The rotation was led by the trio of rookie Joe Hatten, All-Star Kirby Higbe, and sophomore Vic Lombardi, all of whom were versatile enough to make at least 25 starts and 10 relief appearances each. In all, six of the seven hurlers who started 10 games or more posted an above average adjusted ERA, with starters combining for a 3.04 ERA. The bullpen, led by reliable fireman Hugh Casey, was nearly as effective, leading the league in saves and compiling a 3.07 ERA.

Brooklyn's lineup was less impressive, with 35 year-old All-Star Dixie Walker being the only regular to bat over .285, knock in more than 75 runs, and top an .800 OPS. Only two players reached double digit homers, with Pete Reiser's 11 leading the team, and nobody registered 30 doubles. Even with their astounding lack of power, the Dodgers still finished second in the NL in runs scored and OPS, largely because they led the loop in OBP, walks, steals, and triples. Brooklyn's punchless lineup expertly manufactured runs like a finely tuned machine, much like last year's Royals.

After falling 5-3 to the Braves, then of Boston, on Opening Day, Leo Durocher's Dodgers ripped off eight straight wins to vault into first place. They remained there for much of the summer, spending just one day out of first between May 22nd and August 25th. Brooklyn fell behind the hard-charging St. Louis Cardinals at the end of August and played catch-up for most of September despite going 21-8 that month. The Dodgers finally tied the Cardinals for first on September 28th--the regular season's penultimate day--but incredibly both teams lost home games the next day against clearly inferior teams to finish the season at 96-58, forcing the first-ever pennant tiebreaker.

Brooklyn won the coin-toss to determine home field advantage for the best-of-three series and opted to play the first game in St. Louis, which meant games two and three would be played at Ebbets Field. The Dodgers clearly did not think this through, as that entailed traveling from New York to St. Louis by train, then immediately turning around and heading back to New York. The Cardinals, who were already in St, Louis, did not need to go anywhere for the first game and were thus well-rested when the weary Dodgers arrived.

Not surprisingly, the Cardinals took game one 4-2 behind a complete game from Howie Pollet. Meanwhile, visiting starter Ralph Branca--a name that would become infamous five years later--failed to make it out of the third inning. The Dodgers doubled their scoring output in the second game, but so did the Cardinals and that was that. St. Louis headed back to the World Series, their fourth in five seasons, where they would upset the Boston Red Sox in seven games. The Dodgers went home empty-handed, left to wonder how they would have fared against Ted Williams and co. Who knows how the series would have played out had it begun in Brooklyn, forcing St. Louis to make the nearly 1,000 mile journey before Game 1.

One also has to wonder how Brooklyn would have fared with Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, and Roy Campanella--all cutting their teeth in its farm system that year--on the major league roster. Newcombe, who turned 20 that summer and didn't debut until 1949, probably wouldn't have made the team, but Campanella (24) and Robinson (27) likely would have been starters, especially since the Dodgers relied on a rookie catcher, 22 year-old Bruce Edwards, and 21 year-old first baseman Ed Stevens, neither of whom could hold a candle to the Hall of Fame talents of their eventual successors. Given their more advanced age and how well they played upon arriving in the big leagues, it seems safe to say that Campy and Jackie would have helped Brooklyn win at least one more regular season game and thus avoid the playoff series altogether.

It's just a shame they didn't get the chance.

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Belated MLB Postseason Predictions

AL East--Red Sox
Boston's going to take a weak AL East behind the best offense in baseball (once they start hitting with runners in scoring position, that is).

AL Central--Tigers
The Tigers are still top dogs until someone (likely the Indians) unseats them.

AL West--Mariners
Seattle added some bats this winter, Nelson Cruz chief among them, to complement what projects to be an outstanding rotation.

AL WC1--Indians
With so much in their prime talent, something has to go terribly wrong for Cleveland to miss out on the postseason.

AL WC2--Blue Jays
This is finally the year Toronto snaps its playoff drought, which stretches back to 1993.

WC: Indians win Wild Card Game when Corey Kluber shuts down the Blue Jays 3-0
ALDS: Tigers over Indians in 5
ALDS: Red Sox over Mariners in 5
ALCS: Red Sox over Tigers in 6

NL East--Nationals
Washington's going to trample the NL East as they gun for 100 wins.

NL Central--Cardinals
The most balanced team in baseball.

NL West--Dodgers
Like the Yankees of last decade, they have too much money and star power to not win their division.

NL WC1--Cubs
The addition of veteran talent (Jon Lester, Miguel Montero, Dexter Fowler) to an up-and-coming team will get them back to the playoffs.

NL WC2--Padres
The offseason additions of Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, James Shields, and Derek Norris are going to take them from sub-.500 to October.

WC: Cubs over Padres 7-3
NLDS: Nationals over Cubs in 4
NLDS: Dodgers over Cardinals in 5
NLCS: Nationals over Dodgers in 7

WS: Nationals over Red Sox in 5

Belated 2015 MLB Award Predictions

I meant to post this before the season but never got around to it. Better late than never!

AL MVP--Mike Trout
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the best all-around player in baseball and reigning (unanimous) AL MVP.

AL Cy Young--Chris Sale
Sale was the American League's best pitcher on a per-inning basis last year, leading the loop in strikeout rate (10.8 K/9) and ERA+ (174) while just missing out on the ERA title. If he stays health enough to pitch 200 innings he has as good a chance as any. He's also in the heart of his prime at 26.

AL Rookie of the Year--Blake Swihart
Boston's catcher situation is pitiful, which means Swihart should have every opportunity to establish himself behind the plate this year.

AL Comeback Player of the Year--Alex Rodriguez
The year off is going to help his aging body and he's shown no signs of slowing down. Also wouldn't it be just like A-Rod to come back and shove it in everybody's faces?

AL Manager of the Year--Terry Francona
The Indians have the talent to overtake the Tigers in the AL Central. If they do, you can bet Francona's going to be recognized for it.

NL MVP--Giancarlo Stanton
Probably would have won last year's had he not been beaned in the face with three weeks to go in the season. The 25 year-old seems to have put it all together and is going to lead a surprisingly strong Marlins club back to contention.

NL Cy Young--Max Scherzer
By essentially replicating his 2013 Cy season last year, Scherzer proved that his award-winning campaign was no fluke. I love him in the NL East, on what is likely going to be the best team in baseball, pitching tons of games against the Phillies, Braves, and Mets. Plus at 31 he's still very close to his prime.

NL Rookie of the Year--Kris Bryant
Has met expectations thus far with an unreal spring training and hot start to his pro career.

NL Comeback Player of the Year--Joey Votto
Votto missed 100 games last year and clearly wasn't himself when he did play, posting an OPS below .800 for the first time in his career and batting nearly 60 points below his career average coming into the season. Look for the 31 year-old former MVP to put up big numbers and stay fully healthy.

NL Manager of the Year--Joe Maddon
He'll take the Cubs back to the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and might just make good on that silly Back to the Future prediction.

Mr. May

On this, the penultimate day of May, with the likes of Bryce Harper, Jason Kipnis, and Josh Donaldson putting the finishing touches on individually outstanding months, I started looking at great Mays of the past (and no, not Willie Mays).

George Steinbrenner once famously called Dave Winfield Mr. May, but was Winfield really Mr. May? He did have more runs, doubles, homers, RBI, steals, and total bases in May than in any other month, but his .822 OPS for the month is well below his marks in April (.866). June (.858) and July (.852). Furthermore, Winfield won three Player of the Month awards during his 22 year career, none of which came in May.

That got me thinking about the best hitting performances for the month of May in baseball history. Thanks to B-R and some nice work/digging by one of my favorites, David Schoenfield over at ESPN, here's my list (in chronological order) of the best May performances all-time.

Ruth was great all the time, but had some truly towering May performances (NY Post)
Babe Ruth 1920
Ruth's Yankee debut got off to an inauspicious start, as he went homerless in his first nine games with the club and batted only .226. That all changed when the calendar flipped to May, for Ruth mashed home runs in the first two games of the month with Boston in town and never looked back. He was on base in all but two of the 23 games he played that month, compiling a .463 OBP and scoring 25 runs. More notably, he belted 12 home runs in just 76 official at-bats, ten of which were hit in a 14-game stretch that closed out the month when he knocked in 20 of his 26 runs. Nine of his dozen came at the Polo Grounds, while the other three were hit at his old stomping grounds at Fenway Park. He slugged an impressive .921 and drove in 26 runs, but most impressively he accomplished all this despite missing a week in the middle of the month.

Bing Miller 1922
Most baseball fans, myself included, don't know Miller, a fine outfielder who batted .311 over his 16 seasons, the best of which was unequivocally 1922 (his age 27 and sophomore season). Miller mashed a dozen home runs in the two dozen games he played that month and reached base in all but two (interestingly, he never hit more than 12 home runs in any other season). He also scored 24 runs, drove home 27 and totaled 41 hits, 32 of which came during his 15-game hitting streak from May 5th through the 23rd, which included 11 of his 15 mult-hit efforts that month. Miller batted an astounding .432/.476/.895 that May, played 14 more years and never had another month like it.

Cy Williams 1923
Here's something I bet most people don't know. Cy williams led his league in home runs four times, which is a lot (including three times in his 30s). Hank Aaron played 23 years, hit 755 home runs, and led his league in home runs four times. So did Ted Williams, Hank Greenberg, Ken Griffey Jr., and Mark McGwire. Point is, you have to be pretty good to lead the league in home runs on four different occasions.

Anyways, 1923 was when Williams peaked as a slugger. He smashed 41 home runs--most in baseball--and set personal bests with 114 RBI, 308 total bases, a .576 slugging percentage, and a .283 ISo. The bulk of that power production came in May, when he went deep 15 times, stroked eight doubles, and knocked in 44 runs, still the record for a player in May. He also scored 29 runs and batted .355/.437/.782 in 30 games that month. Unfortunately for him, his Phillies were so terrible that they still went 7-23 in the month anyways, on their way to losing 104 games and a last place finish.

Ty Cobb 1925
The Georgia Peach was still ripe at age 38 in 1925, batting .378/.468/.598 to lead the league in OPS and OPS+ for the final time. He also tied his career high in homers with 12 and recorded his seventh and final 100 RBI season with 102, 43 (an AL record) of which came in May. Cobb also compiled 49 hits--21 of which went for extra bases (including eight triples!), 33 runs, and 17 walks in 30 games, hitting safely in 25 of them with 15 mult-hit games. On May 5th in St.Louis Cobb had the best game of his career, going 6-for-6 with three home runs and a double to pace Detroit's 14-8 victory over the Browns. For an encore he slugged two more home runs the following day, driving in six as the Tigers routed St. Louis 11-4. Overall Cobb batted .383/.459/.688 for the month. I have to imagine few players have ever started a month better than Cobb began that May, going 18-for-29 with three doubles, five home runs and 17 RBI in the month's first six games, packing an entire month's worth of production into one week.

Tris Speaker 1925
Babe Ruth 1926
1926 marked Ruth's return to dominance following a down season in 1925, when "the bellyache heard 'round the world" limited him to just 98 games and 25 home runs. After getting back in shape during the winter of 1925-'26, Ruth returned to form. In fact, his 1926 campaign was a near-perfect match for his 1924 campaign:

1924 153 G 143 R 46 HR 142 BB 81 K .378/.513/.739 9 SB 11.7 bWAR
1926 152 G 139 R 47 HR 144 BB 76 K .372/.516/.737 11 SB 11.5 bWAR

Ruth got off to a rip-roaring start, and his big month of May (12 homers, 30 RBI, 1.312 OPS) ignited New York, who'd finished second-to-last and 16 games below .500 in 1925, to a 16-game winning streak from May 10th through the 26th. In addition to his legendary power, Ruth batted a robust .360 and reached base at a .525 clip thanks to 31 walks, which in turn helped him score 31 runs. He was on base in all but two of the Yankees' 28 games that month. The bulk of Babe's production came during the first three weeks of May, when Ruth clobbered 11 of his 12 home runs, knocked in 27 and batted better than .400.

Lou Gehrig 1927
Gehrig had been a good player in 1925 and a great one in 1926, but 1927 was the year he became a superstar. Larrupin' Lou teamed with Babe Ruth to form the best 1-2 punch any lineup has ever had, the heart of Murderer's Row. Just 23 when the season began, Gehrig seriously challenged Ruth's single season home run record for most of the summer and was named league MVP when the season ended. The Iron Horse got off to a sensational start in '27, and his May was merely a continuation of that. He totaled 47 hits on the month, recording at least one in 26 of the Bombers' 28 games including 15 multi-hit game performances. Of those 47 hits (which helped Gehrig to a .420 average, by the way), an astounding 24 went for extra bases; 12 doubles, four triples, and eight big flies, which explains his .813 slugging percentage. It also explains how he was able to knock in runs in 20 games that month and 33 in all. Consistent through and through, Gehrig reached base every game and posted an impressive .492 OBP for the month, reaching base in nearly half of his 132 plate appearances.

Gehrig (L) and Ruth were quite the duo (Babe Ruth Central)
Babe Ruth 1928
People forget that after setting the single-season home run mark of 60 in 1927, Ruth gave himself a run for his money the following year, eclipsing 50 for the fourth time and finishing with 54. 15 of those came in May, when the Babe batted .414/.547/1.000 with 37 RBI, despite playing four doubleheaders in a nine-day span (it truly was a different time). 11 of his home runs came at the House that Ruth Built, but to be fair New York only played eight of its 29 games that month away from home. With 41 hits, 28 walks, and one hit-by-pitch, the Bambino reached base 70 times in May--a truly astonishing number--and scored 32 runs. His heavy hitting was a big reason why the defending World Series champs went 24-5 that month, on their way to a 101-win season and a second straight title.

Babe Ruth 1930
Offense peaked in 1930, which for Ruth was just business as usual. He smashed a league--high 49 home runs, narrowly missing his fifth season with at least 50, and pacing the majors in walks, OBP, SLG, OPS, and OPS+, good for his eighth season with at least ten wins above replacement. Though the Babe did not win the batting title that year, he still batted a very good .359, including .383 in May. Ruth reached base in 26 of 28 games that month, walking 32 times to go along with his 36 hits that fueled his .540 OBP for the month and helped him score 35 runs. He also clubbed 13 home runs, nine of which came in an eight-game span from May 18th through the 24th, when he plated 19 of his 33 RBI that month. The barrel-chested Ruth slugged .872 that month, but his most impressive accomplishment that month may very well be that the 35 year-old was successful in six of his eight stolen base attempts. Included one of his two career three-homer games (not including postseason)

Jimmie Foxx 1932
"Beast" lived up to his nickname in 1932, when he led the major leagues in home runs, RBI, times on base, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, total bases, and bWAR to win his first of three MVP awards. He was especially beastly in May, hammering 13 home runs, knocking in 37 and triple-slashing .429/.517/.888 for the month. With 42 hits and 18 walks he reached base safely in all 27 games that month and scored 32 times. An RBI machine batting fifth in the A's lineup behind future Hall of Famers Mickey Cochrane and Al Simmons, Foxx had 11 multi-RBI games during the month.

Mickey Mantle 1956
The Mick was already on fire when he rolled into May, batting .415/.500/.805, you'd think those numbers would have to come down, right? but was even better in May, hitting .414.,507/.879. May was the month that got people talking about him challenging. He homered in each of May's first three games to start the month with a bang and cracked 16--still the American League record--to finish the month with 20 and put him on track for Babe Ruth's single season home run record. He also collected 48 hits, scored and drove in 35 runs apiece, drew 23 walks, and was successful in all four of his stolen base attempts. It was a good month for Mantle, probably the best he's ever had. 13 mult-hit games, including two of his best performances of the season: a 4-for-4 effort with two home runs, a doubles, and a walk on May 18th to help New York top Chicago in extra innings, and his only five-hit game of the season, a 5-for-5 performance with a home run and a walk a week later in Detroit. or if he could hit .400. Eventually cooled off after that, but still won the Triple Crown. Finished the month at .414/.505/.860, well on his way to his first of three MVP awards and the signature season of his Hall of Fame career.

Willie Mays 1958
The first Player of the Month award was handed out for May, 1958, and fittingly enough it was shared by Mays and Stan Musial, two of the ten greatest ballplayers ever. Truth be told, Mays deserved it outright, for Musial managed just four home runs and didn't come close to equaling Mays in any batting category except on-base percentage. The Say Hey Kid was a force to be reckoned with, despite playing the last 20 of the month's 30 games on the road (talk about a trip). He hit safely in 26 of those games, piling up 49 hits with 15 multi-hit performances and batting .405 for the month. He flashed plenty of power, too, slugging .843 and creaming 24 extra base hits--seven doubles, five triples, and 12 long balls--including ten taters in an eight-game stretch from May 9th through the 17th, when he knocked in 20 of his 29 runs and authored three multi-homer performances in a four-day span. True to form, Mays also showed off his dynamic speed by stealing six bases. The 27 year-old center fielder seemed like a sure bet to run away with his second MVP award in five years, but his power tailed off dramatically over the course of the season (he finished with a mildly disappointing 29 home runs) and settled for silver in the MVP race behind Ernie Banks.

Harmon Killebrew 1959
Killer was only 22 years old in the spring of 1959, his first full season even though he'd debuted five years earlier, at the age of 17. May, 1959 was the first indication he gave of the Hall of Fame slugger he'd become, an all-time great who'd go on to slug 573 home runs and finish his career fifth on the all-time home run list behind Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Frank Robinson. Killebrew had only 14 home runs to his name at the start of May, then proceeded to crush 15 home runs in 30 games that month. He had five two-homer games, including back-to-back multi-homer games in Detroit to lead off the month, and slugged .718. Killebrew scored and drove in 28 runs and also drew 17 walks, showing an incredible level of patience for a youngster, one he would maintain throughout the course of his career.

Frank Howard 1968
1968 will forever be remembered as the Year of the Pitcher, but it wasn't for Frank Howard, who led the majors with 44 home runs, 330 total bases and a .552 slugging percentage. 15 of those homers and 87 of those total bases came in May, which saw him bat .346/.393/.837 with 27 RBI. His hot month was defined by one great week, one of the best weeks any player has ever had. Hondo homered in six consecutive games (all multiple RBI efforts) from May 12th through the 18th, and four of those games were multi-home run performances. The slugging Senator also added a double and two singles for good measure, giving him 10 bombs and 17 ribbies in a six-game span. He only hit two long balls and had six RBI the rest of the month and didn't even have Player of the Month honors to show for it (Don Drysdale, who spun five consecutive shutouts and had  0.53 ERA that month, won).

Darrell Evans 1983
You'd think a player with 414 pre-Steroid Era homers would get more respect, but it was Evans' destiny (Dwight Evans' as well) to be tragically underrated. Though he turned 36 in May, 1983 and was in his final year with the Giants, he proved he was still at the top of his game by batting .423/.513/.814 with nine home runs and doubles, 23 RBI and runs, and 17 walks compared to just 13 strikeouts. Of the 25 games he played that month, he had at least two hits in 15 (60 percent) of them. It was enough to win his first and only Player of the Month award.

McGwire was a beast in many Mays (NY Times)
Mark McGwire 1987
The mighty McGwire was a 23 year-old rookie in 1987, on his way to hitting more home runs than any rook before or since. 15 of his major league leading 49 came in May, when he slugged .813 and plated two dozen runs in 25 games. Bizarrely enough, Big Mac did not swat any doubles but did manage to leg out a pair of triples. Now, McGwire was not a doubles guy, with just 252 in his career and never more than 28 in any season, but seeing him hit a triple was about as rare as seeing Haley's Comet. He had only six of them and went 11 years between his fifth and sixth career three-bagger. So for him to get two, or one-third of his career total, in the span of three weeks in 1987 was quite a feat. Not more so than the 15 home runs, but quite a feet indeed. Incredibly, he did not win Player of the Month (Larry Parrish did).

Frank Thomas 1994
The Big Hurt was inducted into the Hall of Fame last summer because of the hot streaks like the he had in May, 1994, when he put a serious hurting on American League pitchers in the midst of his second MVP season. Not only did the reigning league MVP hit safely in 23 of the month's 25 games, but he also smacked 12 home runs, drew 31 walks and batted an absolutely ridiculous .452/.593/.988, giving him the tenth-best monthly OPS of all time. That lethal combination of power and on-base ability (he reached safely every game) helped him score 39 runs and earn his fourth Player of the Month award. Third best May OPS

Ken Griffey 1994
Fresh off his first 40-homer season, Griffey came roaring out of the gates in 1994 with a 1.039 OPS in April. The red-hot Junior kept swinging a hot bat into May, belting four home runs in the month's first five games. He would go yard 15 times that month, posting an .818 slugging percentage in addition to his 25 RBI. Seattle scuffled, going 11-16, but that was hardly Griffey's fault, for he reached base in all but two games that month, supplementing his power with 16 walks and getting on base at a .426 clip. No wonder he scored 28 times.

Mark McGwire 1998
McGwire's record-breaking campaign began with a bang; he already had 11 home runs, 36 RBI and a 1.243 OPS at the end of April, for which he received NL Player of the Month honors. He topped himself and won again in May. socking 16 homers, driving in 32 runs and posting an astonishing 1.420 OPS (.326/.513/.907) to win his third straight monthly award (he also won in September, 1997). Pitchers were careful with McGwire, who reached base in every game and walked him 33 times, but that didn't stop him from crushing 15 bombs in a three-week span from May 8th through the 30th. His home run barrage was immediately overshadowed by Sammy Sosa, who vaulted himself into the home run race by setting an MLB-record with 20 home runs in June. McGwire went on to famously smash Roger Maris's single season record of 61, finishing with 70, but Sosa (66) took home the MVP hardware.

Todd Helton 2000
The Toddfather's 2000 is one of the best seasons any hitter has ever had--few flirt with .400 for most of the year and post huge power numbers--and his monster May was a big reason why. Helton had four four-hit games that month, including a three-homer game on the first day of May and a 5-for-5 performance two days later. He finished the month with 42 hits in just 82 official at-bats, giving him a .512 batting average for the month--the highest for any month since 1969 and probably since Cobb batted .528 in July, 1912. Helton did more than just hit for average, though; thanks to four multi-homer games he went yard 11 times, finishing May with 26 RBI and a perfect 1.000 slugging percentage. He also walked 18 times, giving him a .588 OBP for the month and helping him scored 32 runs in 23 games. Helton, who finished the month hitting .421/.512/.825, was a no-brainer for his first of four NL Player of the Months awards (he won again that August). His 1.588 OPS for the month is the sixth-highest for any month ever and best by any player not named Bonds or, get ready, Bob Bailey. Highest OPS in May

Edgar Martinez 2000
April had been a disappointing month by Martinez's standards, yielding a .270 batting average and .338 OBP for E-Mart, who came into the season with career marks of .320 and .426, respectively. He quickly turned his season in May though, hitting safely in 24 of the month's first 25 games and collecting 45 hits in all, including 10 home runs. All those hits (he had 15 multi-hit games) helped the Mariners DH plate 32 runs, in addition to fueling his .441/.508/.814 line for the month. He also reached base every game but one, and in typical Martinez fashion fanned only 10 times. His big month with the bat netted him his fourth AL Player of the Month award but first since June, 1995. The then-37-year-old would finish the season with 37 home runs, a league-leading 145 RBI (both career highs) and a 1.002 OPS, good for sixth place in the AL MVP voting.

Mark McGwire 2000
People forget that after crushing 135 home runs in 1998 and 1999 combined, McGwire was on pace for his third straight 60 homer season in 2000 with 30 bombs before the Fourth of July. Unfortunately, patellar tendinitis in his right knee forced him to the shelf in early July and essentially ended his career at 36, limiting him to just 19 more games that year (exclusively as a pinch-hitter) and 97 in 2001, his final season. Were it not for the chronic knee injuries that ruined his career, McGwire would have zoomed past 600 home runs and may have even reached 700. Alas, we will never know.

But in May, 2000, Big Mac was still at his best. His titanic power produced 13 home runs in only 79 official at-bats, including three against the Phillies on May 18th, and produced an .848 slugging percentage. He walked a ton, drawing 32 free passes (six intentional) and getting on base at a .514 clip. He produced a lot of runs, scoring 25 and driving in 28. He struck out a fair amount, too (22 times), but still managed to bat .316 for the month, a rare feat for the career .263 hitter.

In 2001, Bonds had the best May anyone has ever had (NY Times)
Barry Bonds 2001
Bonds had a weird month of April, crushing 11 home runs bat batting just .240 because only seven of his hits that month did not leave the ballpark, and so his April BABiP was a horrendous .140. The hits started falling in in May--his BABiP for the month was .326, and by the end of the month his average was up over .300 (to .308). But Bonds made headline for all the hits that weren't just falling in, but flying out of the yard. Bonds bashed 17 home runs in May, a major-league record for the month and a total that has been surpassed only twice, by Rudy York's 18 in August, 1937 and Sammy Sosa's 20 in June, 1998. 13 of Bonds' bombs came in the month's final two weeks (including nine in a six game span from May 17th through May 22nd). On May 19th he enjoyed his first three-homer game of the season (he had another on September 9th), smashing three home runs and a double in his only four-hit game of the season, leading San Francisco to a 6-3 win over the Braves. He smacked two more the next day.  More impressively, he did so in just 84 official at-bats, meaning his AB/HR ratio for the month was below five (4.94, to be exact).  Batted an absurd .369/.547/1.036 (seventh highest monthly OPS ever) for the month to win his eighth NL Player of the Month award, but first for the month of May and first time since July, 1997. He also knocked in 30 runs, worked 31 walks and scored 28 times. With 28 bombs at the end of May, he had the fast start he needed to ultimately smash Mark McGwire's single season record and win up with 73 big flies. Bonds registered the second best May OPS of all-time.

Ryan Klesko 2001
Klesko was a great hitter, better than most people realize, but I can't imagine he was ever better than he was in May, 2001. Nobody was paying attention because of the show put on by Bonds, but Klesko clobbered 11 home runs of his own, batted .354/.464/.788, and knocked in 40 runs. Not surprisingly, 2001 was the only year of Klesko's 16 season career in which he exceeded 100 RBI. But Klesko did everything, and I mean everything, that month. He clubbed eight doubles, drew 23 walks, was on base in 25 of his 27 games, and was a perfect 10-for-10 in stolen base attempts. It was a truly remarkable all-around performance, and had it happened in any other year would have received the recognition it deserved.

Lance Berkman 2008
The recently retired Berkman was a monster in May 2008. Coming off the heels of a strong April in which he whacked eight home runs with 25 RBI and a 1.030 OPS. Berkman found another gear in May. He opened the month on a tear, building up a 17-game hitting streak and ripping 15 extra base hits in the month's first 15 games to push his seasonal average to .399. Though he cooled considerably in the month's second half, he still finished May with 49 hits (21 of the extra base variety), 31 runs and a .471/.553/.856 slash line, making him an easy choice for NL Player of the Month (his second and final). Big Puma even showed an uncharacteristic display of baserunning savvy, stealing six bags in seven attempts.

Edwin Encarnacion 2014
Encarnacion's off to a slow-ish start this year, but this time last year he was going bananas. He was pretty quiet in the first two weeks of May, only to catch fire and pound a dozen home runs over the month's second half. Encarnacion finished the month with 16 homers and 33 RBI, slugging a robust .763 on the month and driving in at least one run in 17 separate games. He also scored 26 runs and clubbed 22 of his 32 hits for extra bases. His 16 bombs tied Mantle for the American League record as he became just the third player with five multi-homer games in a month, joining Harmon Killebrew and Albert Belle. One of the weirder stats about Encarnacion's monster month is that his BABiP was only .195

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Donaldson Dialed In

Donaldson has as many big flies as Giancarlo Stanton (Fox Sports)
Much of the early season baseball coverage, including my own, has paid notice to streaking sluggers Bryce Harper and Nelson Cruz, allowing an equally torrid hitter to fly under the radar north of the border.

When Josh Donaldson stepped up to bat in the bottom of the ninth of yesterday afternoon's White Sox-Blue Jays game, Toronto's chances of winning stood at a mere 11 percent. The Bluebirds were down 3-2 with one out and nobody on against David Robertson, who held a sub-one ERA just a couple days ago and has been one of the best relievers of the decade.

For the third time this year, however, Robertson blew a save opportunity. After falling behind in the count, he left his 2-0 offering up and out over the plate. Donaldson didn't miss it, crushing the mistake into the second deck of the left field bleachers to tie the game. The White Sox would rally to win the game in 10 innings and salvage the series finale, largely because Donaldson did not receive another at-bat.

If he had, he might have well gone deep again. The long ball was Donaldson's 13th of the season, eighth of the month, and fourth in the past three days. Saying he's on fire right now might be the world's greatest understatement, as he's batting a blistering .309/.378/.629 in May and .314/.374/.590 on the year while coming up with these kinds of heroics on a regular basis. It's scary to think where Toronto--currently five games under .500 in a mediocre AL East--would be without him.

When Donaldson was traded from the Oakland Athletics to the Toronto Blue Jays last November, it was understood that his numbers would likely receive a boost from leaving behind a pitcher's paradise in Oakland and moving to a more hitting-friendly venue. I don't think anyone could have guessed just how much he'd enjoy hitting in the Rogers Centre, which plays well for sluggers like him and is much kinder to batters than the cavernous Coliseum.

Sure enough, Donaldson has flourished in his new digs. In 26 games at home, Donaldson has 10 doubles, 10 home runs, and a 1.156 OPS. In 23 games everywhere else, he has just three doubles, three home runs, and a .731 OPS. That's about as extreme as home/road splits can  be, with the vastly dissimilar results reflecting Donaldson's differing approaches. He has been much more aggressive at home, posting a meager 3.6 percent walk rate there compared to a 13.9 percent walk rate on the road. Normally a patient hitter, Donaldson is walking less this year while putting up career-best numbers across the board.

It will be interesting to see if Donaldson maintains his more aggressive approach throughout the season. His swing rate is up and his contact rate is down, which should be yielding worse results. Perhaps those figures will normalize over the course of the year, which we're still not even a third of the way through yet. I also find it interesting that decreased patience has aided Donaldson given that Bryce Harper, one of the few hitters more productive than him, has enjoyed much better results by greatly improving his selectivity. That's probably a function of their different positions on the aging curve, as young hitters like Harper benefit from increased patience whereas older hitters like Donaldson ward off age by hacking more to counteract declining bat speed.

As hot as Donaldson is right now, don't expect much fireworks from him over the next week: Toronto's traveling to Minnesota today.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Wright Following in Rolen's Footsteps

Wright has missed significant time in 5 of the past 6 seasons (CBS New York)
With David Wright sidelined by yet another injury, this time out indefinitely with spinal stenosis, I couldn't help but think of another talented two-way third baseman who became a walking medical bill in his 30s.

For almost a decade before Wright burst on the scene with the Mets, Scott Rolen was the National League's best at the hot corner. In fact, from 1997-2004, Rolen ranked third among MLB position players in fWAR behind only Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. I was surprised to see that during this time, Rolen was a more valuable player than Chipper Jones, who many feel is Hall of Fame-bound.

Rolen appeared headed for Cooperstown as well following his monster 2004 campaign, in which he was worth 9.1 bWAR and posted a 1.007 OPS. Like Nomar Garciaparra and countless others throughout baseball history, however, he was unable to sustain his early success as injuries sapped his performance during his 30s. Multiple shoulder surgeries wrecked his career, preventing him from completing what was shaping up to be a Hall of Fame resume.

Wright, who also had a Cooperstown-caliber start to his career, has closely mirrored Rolen's trajectory. Both debuted at 21, secured everyday roles at 22, and immediately emerged as elite players. After remaining mostly healthy and productive throughout their 20s, they began experiencing injury problems and deteriorating performance in their early 30s.

Through age 32 (Wright's current age) their numbers are remarkably similar:

Rolen 1,505 G 954 R 380 2B 261 HR 1,012 RBI 104 SB .283/.372/.507 (126 OPS+) 55 bWAR
Wright 1,516 G 910 R 375 2B 231 HR 943 RBI 193 SB .298/.377/.494 (134 OPS+) 49.9 bWAR

Wright's future is unknown in the wake of his latest malady, but appears gloomy based on how the second half of Rolen's career played out. Constantly beset by injuries, Rolen averaged just 11 home runs and 57 RBI per season during his 30s. The Mets can only hope that Wright, who is owed $87 million over the next five seasons, avoids a similar decline.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Beltre vs. Cabrera

Beltre belts the 400th long ball of his career (Fox Sports)
Adrian Beltre launched the 400th home run of his career last Friday night, slamming a 3-0 pitch his first time up against Bruce Chen into Globe Life's grassy knoll. With the solo shot, Beltre became just the fifth third baseman to surpass 400 career homers, joining Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Eddie Mathews, future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, and Hall of Very Good member Darrell Evans.

The Rangers third baseman is off to a slow start this year, batting just .259/.296/.416 with five home runs and 15 RBI. It's too soon to tell whether this is merely an early season slump or the beginnings of decline for the 36 year-old, who is owed $16 million this year and $18 million next year. It's hard to believe he simply lost it overnight after averaging an .899 OPS (139 OPS+) with 29 home runs and 96 RBI over the past five years, but he is at an age where that happens to hitters. Bad luck seems to have played a part (his BABiP is .260), but his hard-hit percentage and HR/FB rate are down for the third straight year, which suggests his bat speed is in decline.

If this is indeed the beginning of the end for Beltre, he's had one helluva run. The 400 homers barely scratch the the surface for the 2004 NL MVP runner-up, who's amassed over 2,600 hits, 500 doubles, and 100 stolen bases. His next RBI will be the 1,400th of his career. The four-time Gold Glove winner has also been one of the best defensive third basemen in recent memory, which combined with his excellent production at the plate has helped him accumulate nearly 80 career bWAR. If he retired today he'd be a deserving Hall of Famer.

The same could be said for Miguel Cabrera, who also joined the 400 home run club last week. Cabrera became the 53rd player in baseball history with at least 400 career big flies the day after Beltre became the 52nd. Like Beltre's, Cabrera's was a first-inning solo shot to dead center that made landfall in a grassy batter's eye (at Comerica Park). Interestingly, neither has homered since.

Unlike Beltre, however, Cabrera has shown no signs of slowing down. Miggy's off to a rip-roaring start with 10 home runs, 31 RBI and a scorching .336/.440/.592 line thus far. To be fair, he is a full four years younger than Cabrera, which can be the difference between a player's prime and twilight when he's on the wrong side of 30. Cabrera has also benefited from spending the bulk of his career at first base, a much less demanding position than third, although he did man the hot corner for awhile in his younger days and again when he and Prince Fielder were briefly teammates.
Cabrera rounds the bases after his rain-soaked milestone blast (SB Nation)
Though their 400th home runs took nearly identical trajectories, the career paths of Beltre and Cabrera could not be more different. Both debuted at young ages (Beltre was 19, Cabrera 20) and put up similar numbers in their age-20 seasons, but after that their careers diverged. Cabrera immediately developed into a star, stringing together 11 straight seasons of 25 or more home runs and at least 100 RBI--numbers which he's on pace to surpass for the 12th consecutive season in 2015. He peaked as a hitter in his late 20s, as most ballplayers do, when he became the first man in 45 years to win the Triple Crown and copped back-to-back MVP awards.

It took Beltre much longer to reach that elite level. His progress stalled in his early 20s, throughout which he was an average hitter outside his fluky monster 2004, when he belted an ML-leading 48 home runs and put up a 1.017 OPS. His numbers were stifled by brutal home parks (Dodger Stadium and Safeco), and through age 30 his career line stood at .270/.325/.453--hardly Cooperstown worthy. In light of his monster contract, most viewed him as a disappointment.

Over the past six years, however, he's benefited from two of the best hitter's parks in baseball (Fenway and Arlington), which have helped him enjoy the sustained stretch of dominance most Hall of Fame voters look for in a career. At ages when most players slip offensively, Beltre became one of the best hitters in the game. We've seen this happen with "late bloomers" like Jose Bautista and Raul Ibanez as well, but the difference is that Beltre accomplished enough during his 20s to compile Cooperstown-caliber statistics.

Although their overall numbers are similar, their playing styles are as different as night and day. Cabrera is the prototypical plodding slugger, a slow first base/DH type with impressive power totals and a patient plate approach. At 6'4 and 240 pounds, he looks the part and has a smooth swing to boot. Cabrera also plays the game with a smile and boyish enthusiasm reminiscent of Ernie Banks.

Beltre, on the other hand, plays the game with a Ty Cobb level of ferocity unrivaled in today's game. He scowls far more often than he smiles, and his swing could best be described as vicious. The slick-fielding third baseman is also much more athletic than Cabrera, probably a byproduct of his compact but powerful 5'11, 220 pound frame.

It's funny, then, that both played third base. Beltre was one of the best to ever play the position, while Cabrera was one of the worst. Cabrera was a much better hitter than Beltre, however, and so they'll likely wind up even in terms of career value. In both cases, though, they will have more than enough to make the Hall of Fame.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Analyzing Harper's Hot Start

Harper's having a tremendous start to the season (Zimbio)
Bryce Harper was at it again yesterday, going 3-for-4 with a triple and home run in Washington's 10-5 rout of the San Diego Padres.  The blast, Harper's NL-leading 14th of the year, was also his ninth in the past dozen days. And while he fell a double short of the cycle, the big day raised his batting line to a Ruthian .338/.476/.729 (221 OPS+).

Granted, we're not even a quarter of the way through the season yet, but it's impossible not to marvel at what Harper's done thus far. He's put the Nationals' slumping lineup on his back, accounting for one-third of the team's home runs and driving in a major-league leading 37 runs. Opponents have pitched around him, intentionally walking him five times already and 36 overall (both lead the majors), but that hasn't stopped him from inflicting major damage on the few strikes he does see.

Harper went yard on Opening Day and hasn't stopped hitting since. Following a strong April in which he posted a .985 OPS, he's been even better thus far in May with nine home runs, 22 RBI, and 14 walks with two weeks to go before the calendar flips to June. His OPS for the month currently stands at an astronomical 1.511.

Harper's been the best hitter in baseball over the first six weeks, and thus appears to have become the superstar he was always destined to be. After three years of coming up short in comparisons to Mike Trout, baseball's other wunderkind, Harper has finally ascended to Trout's level. Right now it's Harper, not Trout, who currently leads all of baseball in refWAR.

There's a lot of interesting trends going on with Harper's hellacious start. The first is his walk rate, which has ballooned to over 21 percent--more than double his career 10.4 percent mark coming into the year. A lot of that has to do with how poorly the Nationals not named Harper and Denard Span have hit, but at the same time Harper's also exhibited improved patience and strike zone knowledge in his fourth big league campaign. His overall swing rate is the lowest of his career, as he's been much more selective on pitches both in and out of the zone.

His batted ball data also reveals major shifts from his first three seasons, starting with his spray charts. Harper's pulled over half the balls he's put in play this year, after never having done so on even 40 percent of his batted balls in any prior season. He's using center field about the same, meaning he's going the other way a lot less often. This shift helps explains Harper's massive power surge, as players rarely hit to the opposite field with power and tend to pull the majority of their home runs.

Harper has also become a different hitter in terms of how he elevates the ball. He's become much more of a fly ball hitter, hitting more fly balls than grounders for the first time in his career. That would also explain why his power numbers are through the roof, and should help them stay up even as his 34.1 percent HR/FB inevitably falls back to earth. Impressively, he's managed to loft the ball much more frequently without increasing his pop-out rate, which is just a tick below his career rate.

Harper's also hitting more line drives than ever before, which helps explain how he's been able to bat .383 on balls in play despite lifting almost half those balls into the air. With FanGraphs classifying nearly one-quarter of his batted balls as line drives, it's no wonder that he's flashing the highest hard-hit percentage of his career, either, with two-fifths of his batted balls qualifying as such.

So what does all of this mean? Harper, the age of a typical college graduate, is still improving. He's walking more (a lot more), striking out less, and hitting the ball with authority. Luck has absolutely played a part in his hot start--that home run rate and BABiP are bound to fall--but Harper has proven himself to be a demonstrably better hitter. His increased patience is indicative of a maturing player, while his superior results on swings suggest he's honing in on pitches he can crush. It's plain for all to see that Harper is locked in, which is always a sight to behold when a player with his unlimited ability develops the right approach to complement it.

The last few years there was no doubt about who the best player in baseball was. Now it's very much up for debate.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Brady Busted

Brady, who has not missed a game since 2008, will sit out the first four of 2015 (EW)
In America you are innocent until proven guilty, but not in the NFL.

The New England Patriots were severely punished for their role in Deflategate, which was finally put to rest with today's punitive actions. Tom Brady, who according to the Wells reports (I'm paraphrasing here) "probably knew something about the balls being deflated," was suspended four games and will spend September watching his equally handsome backup, Jimmy Garoppolo, cut his teeth under center. As if that weren't bad enough, his team was fined $1 million and must also forfeit next year's first round draft pick as well as a fourth-round pick (so random) in 2017.

This is an obvious show of force by Roger Goodell, who handled all of last year's scandals with about as much care as a toddler would with a full carton of eggs. After drawing heavy fire from fans and media for being too lenient in punishing Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, he overcompensated by drawing a line with the Patriots (reminiscent of how Bud Selig went after Alex Rodriguez). Goodell sees being tough on the Pats as a quick fix for his shattered reputation, and an easy one at that given how universally reviled they are outside New England for their previous infractions.

The Patriots effectively got screwed for the next three years, and that hardly seems fair given how speculative the Wells report actually was. Most of the evidence against Brady and co. was circumstantial at best, pure conjecture at worst. The report lacked the concrete evidence one would want for a conviction, especially since scientists quickly debunked Deflategate. Like Oliver Stone's JFK, the paper made some damning claims without backing them up with, you know, facts.

Lack of sound basis aside, this is obviously a huge blow to the Patriots, who will have to face Pittsburgh, Buffalo on the road, Jacksonville, and Dallas on the road without their franchise signal-caller. It's a very real possibility that New England is 1-3 when Brady returns, which would put them in an even bigger hole than their terrible start last year. The defending Super Bowl champs are still the best team in their division and should have no problem making the playoffs (unless Brady balloons during his layoff the way Pablo Sandoval did last winter), but reclaiming the AFC's top seed now appears out of the question.

Given that Brady's going to be 38 next year, it's probably a good thing that he'll get an extra month of rest at the beginning of the season, especially after seeing what happened in the second half last year to Peyton Manning at the same age. Brady needs all the recovery time he can get at this stage in his career, and I'm more than okay with him sitting out September if it keeps him fresh in January.

Still, the harshness of these penalties leave me with more questions than answers. I wonder if Brady's suspension would have been less harsh had just come clean during that awkward press conference. I also wonder how the punishment would have differed had New England lost the Super Bowl. Malcolm Butler may have saved the day, but at the same time might have inadvertantly hurt his team down the road. The league loves making an example out of the Pats whenever they got caught for doing the same things everyone else admits to doing, and what better way to send a message than by dinging the top team in the league.

And is it really just a coincidence that Brady's first game back will be against, who else, the Indianapolis Colts? Let the conspiracy theories begin.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

In Defense of Juan Nieves

Nieves was the first casualty of Boston's miserable start (Boston Herald)
It's not even Mother's Day, and heads are already starting to roll in Boston.

The Red Sox reacted to their slow start Thursday by firing pitching coach Juan Nieves, who had filled the role for the past two-plus seasons. Boston actually pitched pretty well under his watch until Ben Cherington tore up its rotation last summer.

This was the kind of knee-jerk reaction you see all the time from slumping ballclubs. It's a lot easier, after all, to remake a coaching staff than it is a roster. That Nieves was canned so early in the season hardly seems fair, especially since he was only given a month of games to break in four new starting pitchers.

Everyone can see that rotation is the problem, not Nieves. The Red Sox aren't struggling because Nieves wasn't doing his job: they're struggling because their rotation is just as bad as many feared it would be.

That much was evident last night and today, as the Blue Jays pounded the Sox for seven runs in each game. Granted, Toronto has a terrific lineup even without Jose Reyes at the top of it, but conventional wisdom holds that good pitching can take care of good hitting. Boston does not have a single good pitcher right now.

And who's fault is that? Certainly not Juan Nieves. No, the person really to blame here is Ben Cherington, who blew up what was actually a pretty good rotation last year (Boston's lineup was the problem) and assembled in its place the franchise's first ace-less rotation since 1997, the year after Roger Clemens and before Pedro Martinez. Since then the Sox have always had clear number ones; Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, and Jon Lester--none of whom are walking through that clubhouse door.

Lester could and should still be here, had Cherington not failed to re-sign him, traded him, then failed to re-sign him again. It doesn't matter that Lester hasn't pitched well this year; he's still better than anyone currently in the Red Sox rotation. So are James Shields, Cole Hamels, and Max Scherzer, all of whom were readily available but none of whom Boston acquired.

So for the first time in almost 20 years Boston began the season without a clear-cut ace, and so far the results have been utterly disastrous. The Red Sox currently sport the worst rotation ERA in baseball, which if sustained would be their worst in franchise history as well. Sox starters are putting the team in early holes and failing to pitch deep into games, putting extra pressure on a scuffling offense and taxing the bullpen. What appeared to be a most-pedestrian staff on paper has been getting shellacked on a nightly basis, sinking the Sox to last-place in the AL East.

Contrary to what Cherington has said but hopefully doesn't actually believe, an aceless rotation comprised of back-end starters was never going to cut it in the AL East, especially not at Fenway. Boston's purported ace and Opening Day starter, Clay Buchholz, has been manhandled to the tune of a 6.03 ERA and 1.60 WHIP. Wade Miley's been even worse, seeing his ERA rise to 6.91 after getting lit up by Toronto last night. Justin Masterson has not bounced back as hoped. Today's victim, Joe Kelly, has made it abundantly clear that he's a relief pitcher forced into a starting role. Rick Porcello, recent recipient of a  (undeserved) four-year, $82.5 million extension, has been the best of the bunch with a 4.38 ERA. When your best pitcher has an ERA well over four, you're in big trouble.

Boston's woes are hardly surprising given each pitcher's suspect track record. Buchholz was terrible last year and has been erratic in the past. Masterson was also a mess last year. Miley's been getting steadily worse since he became a full-time starter, a trend that seems unlikely to reverse itself now that he's in the American League. Joe Kelly's never made 20 starts or pitched 125 innings in a major league season, and of Porcello's six full seasons as a starter, only one produced an ERA below 3.95. The best pitching coach in the world wouldn't be able to do much with that, and I wouldn't expect Nieves's replacement, Carl Willis, to do any better.

I guess this is a longwinded way of saying that Juan Nieves shouldn't be out of a job. If anyone, it should be the guy who put together that POS rotation.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

NL April All-Stars

Gonzalez leads a crowded field at first base (Huffington Post)
All stats through May 1 unless otherwise noted. Scroll down to see my AL team.

C Derek Norris
Gave a lot of thought to A.J. Pierzynski, who's currently hitting above .400, but went with Norris because he's played almost twice as many games and has still been really good. With just two walks to his named this year, Norris hasn't shown any of the patience that helped him to a .361 OBP last season, but he's made up for that by cracking 10 doubles and batting .329.

1B Adrian Gonzalez
As great as Paul Goldschmidt's been, Gonzalez has been a little better. His eight homers and 65 total bases lead the National League, while his .765 slugging, 1.189 OPS, and 228 OPS+ are tops in the majors. Simply put, those are videogame numbers. Sincere apologies to Joey Votto and Anthony Rizzo as well.

2B Dee Gordon
The Marlins' new second baseman and leadoff man is playing out of his mind right now, with a major league-leading 41 hits and .423 batting average. Incredible, none of those hits have cleared the fences and only six have gone for extra bases, so Gordon's currently pulling the rare trick of batting above .400 but slugging below .500. He does have nine steals, but those have been counterbalanced by his six caught-stealing attempts.

3B Matt Carpenter
Carpenter continues to excel in his role as the catalyst of the Cardinals offense, batting an obscene .378/.446/.656 with 21 runs scored and an ML-leading 14 doubles. His sizzling start his him on track for a similar season to the MVP-caliber one he enjoyed two years ago.

SS Troy Tulowitzki
Hasn't been able to replicate his ferocious start from a year ago but still had a great April, hitting .308/.321/.526 with 11 doubles. Tulo has only two home runs so far, but the power will come so long as he's healthy.

OF Giancarlo Stanton
Stanton's picked up right where he left off last year, slashing .282/.378/.588 with six bombs and a league-leading 22 RBI.

OF Bryce Harper
Harper's light-tower power has already produced five home runs, but it's his new and improved batting eye that's drawn attention. His .433 OBP has been fueled by 23 walks--most in the bigs. He's also stayed healthy, appearing in all two dozen of Washington's games. If he can stay off the disabled list, this could be the year he finally breaks out and becomes the superstar he was pre-ordained to be.

OF Matt Kemp
Petco hasn't put a dent in Kemp's numbers, as the 30 year-old is batting a healthy .330/.359/.474 with 10 extra base hits, 14 RBI, and four steals in four attempts. Only one home run so far, but I wouldn't worry given that he's topped 20 in five of the past six seasons.
Harvey has regained his form since returning from TJ surgery (CBS New York)
SP Matt Harvey
Harvey has returned from Tommy John surgery just as dominant as he was before the procedure, going 5-0 with a 2.41 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. His 8.5 K/BB ratio is unreal.

SP Johnny Cueto
Last year's NL Cy Young runner-up and free agent-to-be is setting himself up for a giant payday. The Reds ace is leading the majors in innings and WHIP with more than a strikeout per inning, not to mention a 1.95 ERA.

SP Gerrit Cole
Cole appears to have taken the leap to acehood based on his 1.76 ERA and 10.3 K/9 mark through his first five starts.

SP Zack Greinke
Greinke's become something of an afterthought while sharing the same rotation with Clayton Kershaw, but he's having a fabulous season in his own right with a 1.93 ERA and 0.92 WHIP.

SP Max Scherzer
1-3 record aside, my preseason NL Cy Young pick is making me look good with his league-leading 1.26 ERA and 1.93 FIP.

RP Tony Watson
In line to become the Pirates closer if and when Mark Melancon stumbles, Watson's been lights-out with a 2.51 ERA and 0.77 WHIP out of Pittsburgh's 'pen.

CL Aroldis Chapman
Cincinnati's flamethrowing closer has yet to allow an earned run in 11 appearances and currently sports a 16 K/9 rate. Need I say more?