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MLB surprises, disappointments and more from the month of April

The Braves are rolling, but what about the rest of the league?

Houston Astros v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

When I was in high school, my best baseball bud was Conor. In addition to being the most-skilled player I had ever shared a field with, he luxuriated in baseball lore and fandom in a way that I, who had only actually learned about baseball a few years prior, found it hard to catch up with. There could have been a problem, though: I had already pledged my allegiance to the Braves at that point, and Conor, well, Conor was a Mets fan. Still, there was always one thing he used to say, that still sticks with me: “I’m not just a Mets fan, I’m a baseball fan.”

And so, while we are not Mets fans, perhaps we should take that to heart, and be baseball fans as well as Braves fans. To that end, the below is a quick review of some stuff you may have missed, or might find interesting, from the first 30ish games of the season.

Big Moves (Good Version)

You can’t win a division in April, but you can bank enough wins that winning a division gets much easier, regardless of your roster quality. While a good start doesn’t suddenly transform a club into a good team, it can help make the difference between a playoff spot chase and ennui five months down the line. (That said, with the expanded playoffs, the chases are also full of ennui, but what can you do?) Here are some teams that have made big moves in this regard so far.

Everything here starts with the Rays, who have started 2023 with a mind-boggling 23-6 record. They have 61 homers while the next most dinger-producing team is only at 47. They have nearly double the position player fWAR of the second-place team (10.9 to 5.6), and still have a top-10 pitching staff. They already have a 3.5-game lead in a division where all five teams are currently above .500, and can rack up a 90-win season by playing just one game above .500 for the rest of the year.

At 17-12, the Twins haven’t been as great as the Rays, but they’ve put a strong foot forward in a division that’s been pathetically weak once again. With a 3.5-game lead over the sub-.500 Guardians, the Twins have largely set themselves up to cruise to their first division title since the shortened 2020 season. Sonny Gray, Pablo Lopez, and Joe Ryan have done the bulk of the work in yoinking the Twins up to second in MLB in pitching fWAR so far.

Probably the craziest thing we’ve seen so far in baseball has been whatever’s going on in Pittsburgh, as the Pirates are 20-9, which means they have the best non-Rays record in MLB. Yes, the Pirates. This isn’t some improbable stroke of luck while playing poorly, either: the Pirates are third in position player fWAR and sixth in pitching fWAR. The pitching has been more-than-solid almost top to bottom, while a combination of bats (Jack Suwinski, Bryan Reynolds, Connor Joe, and others) have been tattooing the ball. It still sort of feels like the bottom is going to drop out of their fairy tale carriage at any point, but it hasn’t yet. Another month like this and they’ll probably end up making the playoffs.

Less surprising than the Pirates, but still pretty surprising, are the Orioles, who are right behind Pittsburgh with MLB’s third-best record at 19-9. Unlike the other teams here, the Orioles haven’t played great, as they’re outproducing both their Pythagorean expectation and BaseRuns record by three wins, but they’ve done everything they’ve needed to in a mess of a division to outdo last year’s 83-win finish. Jorge Mateo, who came into this season with a career 80 wRC+, somehow has a 189 wRC+ so far and has amassed six homers in April after just 17 in his prior three years of play.

Big Moves (Bad Version)

It’s been a nightmarish start for the usually-steady Cardinals. For a franchise that hasn’t finished below .500 since 2007 nor missed the playoffs since 2018, and a team that was not supposed to have a tough battle for the NL Central, starting 10-19 has been the rudest awakening. They’re 2.5 games behind the Reds of all teams. The good news is that they’re been incredibly unlucky so far relative to their performance; the bad news is that that performance has been pretty average across the board, and they’ll need to play even better going forward just to compensate for all those banked losses.

There’s less such hope for the White Sox, who weren’t supposed to be good in 2023, but were in the right, weak division for their brand of treading water. But, they completely imploded in April, going 8-21, one of just four teams not to grab double-digit wins so far. The batting and fielding have both been bad, and the pitching’s been horrendous. Sure, some of this is because they had to play seven games against the Rays, but they were 7-15 in their other games, so... it’s not looking great on the South Side, again.

A real bummer of an April has been felt in the Pacific Northwest, where the Mariners took the excitement of their first playoff appearance since 2001 and went full-on faceplant thus far. At 12-16, the challenge for the Ms going forward is that they’re fourth in the division at this point. What’s kind of weird about this particular early struggle is that the Mariners have had the best pitching staff in MLB at this point, but they’ve hit and sequenced their few runs so poorly that despite essentially best-in-class run prevention in terms of both pitching and fielding, they’re way below .500.

Current Pacesetters

Coming into play on May 1, your league leaders in fWAR and related metrics were as follows:

  • fWAR: Matt Chapman, 2.0 in 114 PAs, thanks to a hilarious 199 wRC+ and .499 xwOBA that he’s actually underhitting by a bit.
  • wRC+, minimum 30 PAs: Former Brave Adam Duvall technically has the nod here with an absurd 312 mark and .527 xwOBA, but it was over just 37 PAs. Meanwhile, the main thing to watch in Oakland right now is how badly their pitching staff seems primed to shatter the worst-ever records, but Brent Rooker is a nice sideshow with his 237 wRC+ (and a lower xwOBA than Chapman) in 86 PAs.
  • Defensive value: Hey, another old friend, William Contreras, paces the league here. Somehow, the Brewers have also taught him how to catch, which is a nice skill for their organization to have.
  • Non-catcher defensive value: The Brewers are dominating here. Rookie Joey Weimer hasn’t hit much, but he’s very fast and already has 3 OAA while playing a bit of all three outfield positions.
  • Pitching fWAR: Zac Gallen has been awesome: a 1.84 FIP, a 2.25 xFIP, and an ERA (and xERA) in that same ballpark. In his last four starts, he has a 41/1 K/BB ratio, which is not a typo, and hasn’t allowed any runs, either. The Diamondbacks haven’t lost one of his starts since Opening Day.
  • Just for fun: Phillies reliever Jose Alvarado has pitched 12 13 innings so far, and has a -1 xFIP-. His non-scaled xFIP is 0.01.
  • Yet, David Bednar leads all relievers with 0.9 fWAR (Alvarado has 0.7) — 13 innings with an FIP of 1.00.

Small Samples are Wacky, aka, “Huh, I didn’t expect this!”

The Mets were projected to have one of baseball’s best rotations, with Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander doing the heavy lifting, Kodai Senga primed to a better-than-average starter, and a bevy of fine backend arms. Instead, Verlander has been MIA, Scherzer has been blah, Senga has been blah, and their best arm has somehow been Joey Lucchesi. The only team with a worse rotation performance so far? The Athletics, who again, seem like they’re going to set records for pitching misery.

For the Angels, the lack of any real care or attention paid to their relief corps seemed poised to be a paw’s thorn — yet somehow, their bullpen did really well in April! Their top six relievers by fWAR are all seriously outpitching their xFIP because literally none of them have given up any homers. Unfortunately, the Angels are still kind of treading water at 15-14... just for other reasons than bullpen meltdown after bullpen meltdown.

Keep an Eye on...

One interesting thing about the Orioles and Pirates so far is that they’ve had some pretty easy schedules. Among other teams, the Orioles have to play the Braves, Rays, Blue Jays, and Yankees in May, while the Pirates kick off May playing the Rays and Blue Jays. We’re rooting for ‘em to do well, and we’ll know soon enough if they’re just going to completely hold when the schedule gets rougher.

On the flip side, the poor Royals had a miserable April schedule-wise as well as results-wise, but they’ll get more cracks at teams like the Athletics, Tigers, White Sox, and Nationals early on. The White Sox themselves can also try to salvage their season against teams like the Reds, Royals, and Tigers. If the White Sox are still dead in the water after May, well... I actually don’t know if there are many signs for improvement on the horizon, so hopefully for their sake they just have a great May.

Anyway, this is just what stood out to me. What have you been thrilled by in the greater baseball world? What are you excited to watch in May, beyond the Braves? What do you think people have been missing?

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