April baseball is a heckuva thing. We spent so long mired in the offseason doldrums, speculating about what 2017 would be like, until all of a sudden it was here. Every spring, we’re reminded to exercise restraint, and not overreact to a few games worth of statistics. But that’s easier said than done.
I think it’s easier to reject the unreliable, small-sample stuff that feels so good even though we all know it’s bad (the baseball equivalent of junk food) if there’s some substantial early season stuff to take its place (the baseball equivalent of something filling and nutritious, like a banana, or a hearty stew). So, with that in mind, what are some substantial early trends and facts we can mull over, keeping us sated and away from the junk?
Yoenis Cespedes hasn’t slowed down. This is kind of cheating, since his insane start to 2017 — six home runs in 49 PAs, another 3 doubles, and 7 walks to his 11 strikeouts — doesn’t really convey much new information. We already knew he had the kind of raw power and hitting ability needed to go on incredible tears; his 10-game rolling wRC+ currently sits at 222 (lol), but it’s reached peaks at least that high on seven occasions since 2015.
But it’s still worth including, because, come on. He hit three home runs in a game on Tuesday, and then hit another two home runs in a game on Thursday. There’s nothing wrong with luxuriating in the light and heat that Cespedes is giving off, even if it’s April.
Aaron Judge is the real friggin’ deal. After missing all of last season, there was a bit of a question of what Judge would be this year. He has prodigious physical tools (if “tools” is the right word for being 6’7” and 275lbs), and thus far, he’s been able to leverage those exceptionally well. His results are good — a 139 wRC+, product of a 10.8% walk rate, a .324 OBP, and a .545 SLG — but it’s the underlying Statcast tracking that’s particularly exciting. So far, Judge has recorded the second-, third-, sixth-, eleventh-, and thirteenth-highest exit velocities, indicating that these results aren’t all illusory.
But to take a step in the other direction, three of those five hits were ground balls that turned into outs, and the other two weren’t elevated enough to turn into dingers (though a single and a double are obviously good). Also interesting is that he’s nowhere on the highest average EV leaderboard, suggesting that he still makes non-authoritative contact a decent amount of the time. But he clearly has the ability to do so; look at where this pitch was thrown, and look where it ended up.
What Judge will be is in question; that he’s going to be productive is less so.
Pitchers are terrified of Joey Gallo. Well, terrified, and also trying to take advantage of his huge swing-and-miss tendencies. But probably a bit of both, honestly, since how do you end up with a 15.8 percent walk rate, a 34.2 percent strikeout rate, and a .219/.342/.500 triple slash if not by swinging a lot, missing a lot, and crushing the ball when you do hit it? Gallo’s zone rate is the lowest in baseball thus far, at 32.9%, but he’s not chasing all of those junk pitches and is racking up a ton of walks as a result. Thus, while his strikeout rate is sky-high (9th-highest among the 199 qualified batters), his K:BB ratio is totally normal (95th-highest). His final profile is almost certainly not going to look like it does now, but the basic contours — high rates of walks, strikeouts, and home runs, thanks to pitchers doing their best to stay away from him and occasionally failing — are probably going to stay steady. They’re also the contours of a successful and exciting player, which is nice.
Byron Buxton is in trouble. Because they can’t all be nice things, we have to talk about this one. As Devan Fink pointed out a couple days ago, Buxton has struck out in an ungodly 52.6 percent of his plate appearances in the young season, and with only three hits (two singles and a double), he’s doing nothing to make up for his swing-and-miss tendencies. Of course, he’s still just 23, and as Paul Swydan pointed out at FanGraphs, he’s never accumulated a lengthy string of plate appearances at the major-league level, so there’s every reason for the Twins to let him keep plugging away. The raw skills that caught the eyes of evaluators when Buxton was just a prospect are still there, and time might bring them out. But each additional poor PA is a bad sign.
The Orioles and Yankees are in a good position. Much has been said about the bad start of the Blue Jays, and the damage that it’s done to their playoff hopes, and that could have easily held a spot on this list, too. It doesn’t take many losses to move the needle when you’re projected to be right on the edge of the playoffs, so even through 10 games in April, a losing streak like Toronto’s is meaningful. But the converse is also true, and that’s why the Orioles (7–2 through Friday’s games) and the Yankees (6–4) have seen their playoff odds rise considerably, from 18.4 percent and 15.9 percent to 30.6 percent and 32.6 percent, respectively. As teams on the very edge of contention, they’re more susceptible than most to fluctuations in their odds, and while we’re only 6 percent through the season, it’s been a good 6 percent for New York and Baltimore. Starting the season well, and having one of their main competitors for the Wild Card start so poorly, has done really good things for them both.
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Hopefully that’s enough to keep you sated for now. Just remember: stick to the healthy stats, and don’t consume anything you’ll regret later, when Yunel Escobar is no longer running a .424 BABIP.