The first “month” of the MLB season is in the books. And unlike your standard best-seller, these books have not been very action-packed.
The league’s overall .231 batting average in April was six points below the worst full season in MLB history (.237 in 1968) and the 4.03 runs per game MLB teams averaged in the opening month was lower than it’s been for any season since 1981.
Changes to the baseball, plus the installation of humidors in all 30 parks may have diminished hitters’ greatest weapon against the pitching wizardry they face on a nightly basis: the home run.
Last April, batters averaged one home run every 28.8 at-bats. This April, it was one every 36.4.
Last April, 13.3% of all fly balls went for home runs. This April, it’s 10.1%.
Hard-hit rates, barrel rates and fly-ball distances are down as well. (And that’s WITH a DH in both leagues.)
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Because of – or in spite of – these early developments, here are some of April’s standout performers, with a look at how likely it is their success might continue.
– Tylor Megill, New York Mets. The starting pitcher in the 2022 season’s first no-hitter (there’s a pretty good chance we’ll see more of them), Megill only made the Mets opening-day rotation due to an injury to ace Jacob deGrom. However, he’s pitched like an ace over his first five starts with a 4-0 record and 1.93 ERA.
The 26-year-old right-hander has averaged 95.7 mph on his fastball this season, up from 94.7 mph last season. It’s helped him increase his swinging strike rate to 13.4% according to FanGraphs — considerably higher than the league average of 11.3%.
Megill doesn’t issue many walks and he’s improved significantly against left-handed batters this season. This looks like a legitimate step forward.
– Kyle Wright, Atlanta Braves. The 2017 first-round pick has pitched to a 1.13 ERA with 34 strikeouts and just six walks in 24 innings. Like Megill, he’s gained additional velocity on his fastball from last season, up 1.8 mph. And it’s translated into a 14.7% swinging strike rate, seventh-best among starters in the early going.
Wright, 26, has never averaged more than 8.5 strikeouts per nine innings as a major leaguer, but he’s at 12.8 K/9 this year. In addition, he has a ground-ball rate over 50% and has yet to allow a home run in any of his four starts.
– Joe Ryan, Minnesota Twins. Ryan is one of those pitchers who always seems to be better than the sum of his parts. He’s not a fireballer by any means, but he relies heavily on his 92 mph fastball, throwing it more than half the time and holding hitters to a .103 average over his four April starts.
His 1.17 ERA for the month is a combination of an unsustainable .163 average on balls in play and some early luck in stranding baserunners. However, Ryan has shown an ability to limit hard contact that should serve him well going forward.
– Logan Gilbert, Seattle Mariners. After posting a 4.68 ERA in 24 starts last year, Gilbert, 24, has looked like a completely different pitcher in 2022. The only two earned runs he’s allowed in 28 innings have come on a pair of solo home runs.
However, opponents are hitting the ball hard against him and his 9.4% swinging strike rate is below average. Despite a dazzling 0.64 ERA, Gilbert’s expected ERA is a more reasonable 3.33. And he’s completed six innings only once in his five starts.
– Madison Bumgarner, Arizona Diamondbacks. Could this be a late-career resurgence for the 2014 World Series MVP? He’s posted a stellar 1.17 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in his first five starts.
However, Bumgarner has been far from dominant with 15 strikeouts and 11 walks in 28 innings – the third-worst ratio among major league starters. The difference between his Fielding Independent Pitching (4.35) and his actual ERA is higher than any other starter’s. A wake-up call is coming soon.
– Anthony Rizzo, New York Yankees. MLB’s home run leader in April, Rizzo has taken full advantage of the short porch in Yankee Stadium with seven of his nine dingers coming at home. In fact, two of the three he hit April 26 vs. the Orioles wouldn’t have cleared the fence in any other ballpark in the majors.
Rizzo finished the month with a 47% hard-hit rate and was among the top 10 hitters in barrels per plate appearance, so it’s not like he’s vastly overachieving. At age 32, it’s shouldn’t be a total surprise that the veteran has been able to adapt his swing to his new environment, pulling the ball more than 60% of the time – by far the highest figure of his career.
– Eric Hosmer, San Diego Padres. Another lefty-swinging first baseman, Hosmer led the majors in April with a .389 batting average. He’s also hitting the ball hard in the early going, but 60% of the time it’s been on the ground.
That’s not a great recipe for power, even though he finished the month with three homers, six doubles and a .597 slugging percentage. Hosmer has done most of his damage so far on breaking pitches, slugging .833 on non-fastballs (third-highest in the majors). Look for pitchers to adjust quickly.
– Taylor Ward, Los Angeles Angels. The 2015 first-rounder has taken over the leadoff spot thanks to a ridiculous .392/.500/.784 slash line in his first 14 games with five home runs, 13 RBI and 14 runs scored. Sometime this week, Ward should have enough plate appearances to qualify for the league leaders, where his 1.284 OPS would surpass teammate Mike Trout at the top of the list.
The key to Ward’s early success, even beyond a .441 average on balls in play, has been his excellent plate discipline. In 62 April plate appearances, he walked 11 times and struck out 12.
– J.P. Crawford, Seattle Mariners. Speaking of plate discipline, Crawford had roughly twice as many strikeouts as walks as a major leaguer entering the season. But he finished April with a .360 average and .449 on-base percentage – due in part to his 10 walks and only nine strikeouts.
Crawford isn’t hitting the ball very hard, but he’s shown some newfound pull power that’s fueled a .573 slugging percentage. If this skill sticks, and his keen eye continues, he could fit the mold of a 27-year-old breakout.
– Jazz Chisholm, Miami Marlins. Chisholm is in many ways Crawford’s opposite – free-swinging, fast running and hard-hitting. Yet they both have enjoyed similar early success.
Chisholm, 24, has been a valuable source of power (four homers) and speed (4-for-5 in stolen base attempts), while hitting around .300. However, he’s never been a patient hitter, as his five walks and 19 strikeouts in April will attest. That will make him susceptible to periodic slumps.
Follow Gardner on Twitter @SteveAGardner