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The One Stat That Explains Every MLB Team’s April

Data is everywhere, and baseball seasons are not short, but one month can tell us a lot. Here’s the nugget that best illustrates the current state of affairs for each of the 30 clubs — and that best explains their fans’ likely mood.

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Tracking a baseball team by the numbers in 2017 can be exhausting. With advanced statistics entering the mainstream conversation, Statcast data evolving and reaching the public, and traditional statistics remaining viable on broadcasts and in fantasy leagues, the sport has never had to bear the weight of so many numbers. There are so many numbers!

With such an overwhelming amount of information available, it can be simpler to focus on one statistic at a time, particularly if it tells a broader story or represents a team’s entire performance. With April’s schedule completed and the 2017 regular season a sixth of the way through, we can examine MLB’s teams one by one, presented in their current order in the division standings, looking at the most illustrative statistic for each one. Some will animate certain fan bases — hello, Nationals fans, watching your team put up a football score seemingly every night — while others might spark a tear or two — you might not want to scroll all the way down to the bottom, Giants fans. Either way, the stat encapsulates a team’s standing at the end of April, with five more months — and plenty more numbers — still to come this year.

Note: All statistics represent where teams and players ranked at the end of April.

AL East

Baltimore has an 11–2 record in games decided by one or two runs, and a 4–6 record in more lopsided contests.

Once again, the Orioles are overachieving compared to pessimistic preseason projections, and they’re showing shades of the 2012 squad that won 93 games despite outscoring its opponents by only seven runs over the whole season. Thus far in 2017, Baltimore has a plus-1 run differential; for comparison, the Yankees, with whom the Orioles exited April tied atop the AL East, are at plus-43.

The Yankees’ Luis Severino and Michael Pineda rank second and third, respectively, among qualified starters in strikeout-minus-walk percentage.

For comparison, Chris Sale is first and Clayton Kershaw is fourth. Aaron Judge and the Yankees’ high-powered offense have received much of the (deserved) hype for propelling New York’s hot start, but the consistency of two high-variance pitchers has been just as essential. As a whole staff, the Yankees rank among the MLB leaders in ERA, FIP, and strikeout, walk, and home run rates; if Severino and Pineda can maintain anywhere near their current levels of performance, New York will look like a real contender rather than a mere April surprise.

The Red Sox have 15 home runs, or two fewer than the Nationals have since last Wednesday.

The lineup is too deep and talented to maintain such a negative stat, but thus far, Boston can attribute its disappointing 13–11 April record to a disappointingly anemic lineup. Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia are the biggest culprits, with one double apiece comprising their entire store of extra-base hits, but Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. have also struggled to drive the ball. No, the answer isn’t a David Ortiz return — the Sox’s proven bats should be able to live up to their respective track records as the season progresses.

Tampa Bay’s leadoff hitters have a park-adjusted batting line 79 percent better than league average; no other team is above 35 percent.

Tampa Bay is contending not with its pitching, as expected — the Rays have the lowest strikeout rate in the majors — but with its surprisingly potent offense. With a roster-wide swing-for-the-fences approach, Tampa Bay is taking a trade-off of strikeouts for loud contact, and its leadoff platoon of Corey Dickerson (against righties) and Steven Souza Jr. (against lefties) exemplifies this attitude. At least for a month, the Rays outhit Boston by a significant margin.

With wins on April 29 and 30, Toronto became the last team to reach a two-game winning streak this year.

The Blue Jays might have been the team most eager to flip the calendar to May after everything — injuries, slumps, rapid aging — went wrong in April. That it took Toronto — which won four straight in the playoffs last year and posted multiple 11-game win streaks in 2015 — 25 games to even win two straight sums up the month more than any individual stat could.

AL Central

Cleveland pitchers are striking out 10.0 batters per nine innings, the best rate in baseball.

The trio of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Danny Salazar has been as good as advertised at the top of the rotation, and Andrew Miller and Cody Allen have combined to allow one run in 21.2 innings out of the bullpen. In a weak division, that’ll do; by FanGraphs’s playoff odds, Cleveland currently has the best chance of any team to reach the postseason, where it has to hope its rotation stays healthy this time.

The White Sox’s ERA has outpaced its FIP by 1.03 runs, the highest such margin in the majors and nearly twice that of the second-place team.

For an individual example, James Shields has a 1.62 ERA despite allowing three homers and walking 10 in just 16.2 innings. That dissonance between underlying statistics and runs-allowed totals permeates the whole staff; while the White Sox have allowed the fewest runs in the majors, they are only a middling staff by more predictive metrics. Chicago enters May as a surprising second-place team, but as its run-prevention luck evens out, the team should drop in the standings as the rebuild plods along.

Twins outfielder Byron Buxton has whiffed on 49 percent of his swings against breaking and off-speed pitches.

A hot first week notwithstanding, this year is (once again) about future development for Minnesota, which makes the plate appearances of former no. 1 prospect Buxton all the more disheartening. The speedy center fielder is flashing an impressive glove, but he owns the league’s worst slugging percentage and has looked lost against a steady stream of soft stuff.

Detroit (5.19) is the only team in the majors with an ERA above 5.

The offense is imposing, but Detroit can’t compete with Cleveland with such an inferior pitching staff. The starters have been shaky though not disastrous, but the bullpen has been a mess, with lowlights coming from closer Francisco Rodríguez (5.59 ERA) and longman Aníbal Sánchez (9.82). (That bullpen description could be copied from write-ups of any Detroit team from the past decade. Bring back Joel Zumaya!)

The Royals are hitting .210 as a team.

Kansas City ranks last in almost every offensive category — the Royals have scored fewer runs all season than the Nationals have in the past week — but barely edging over the Mendoza line as a team is perhaps the most embarrassing offense. I wrote last month about 2017 being a make-or-break season for the Royals; at this point, they’re positioned for a July fire sale.

AL West

Astros starter Dallas Keuchel holds a 62.8 percent ground ball rate, the third-highest in baseball.

The difference between 2015, when Houston reached the playoffs, and last year, when the Astros didn’t, was Keuchel’s decline from Cy Young winner to 4.55-ERA hurler. Fully healthy again in 2017, the lefty has returned to ace status, generating a stream of grounders and running a 1.21 ERA for the first-place Astros, who already boasted a dynamic lineup and deep bullpen and only needed their starting staff to step up to wrest control of the division.

The Angels’ Mike Trout ranks second in the majors with 2.0 WAR; no other Angel is in the top 75.

Once again, Trout is the best player in the AL, and once again, he doesn’t have much help coming from elsewhere on the Angels’ roster. With presumptive ace Garrett Richards on the 60-day DL with persistent arm problems and no other batter besides Andrelton Simmons doing much at the plate, Trout seems destined to play out another year as an MVP favorite on a noncontender.

Oakland has lost the equivalent of 36 runs due to unfortunate cluster luck; no other team is even at minus-15 runs.

This statistic isn’t predictive, meaning Oakland isn’t likely to maintain such horrendous luck. The Athletics remain a dark-horse contender, especially with Texas and Seattle floundering and with a solid rotation propping up a subpar offense. More Jharel Cotton videos, please!

By win probability added, erstwhile closer Sam Dyson cost the Rangers the equivalent of 2.6 wins in the team’s first 12 games, giving him the worst season-opening stretch for any pitcher on record.

By April 16, Dyson had already blown three saves and allowed three runs in a tie game; the Rangers lost all four of those contests. Last year, Texas set a record with a remarkable — and unsustainable — 36–11 finish in one-run games, but this April that mark was 2–5, which explains in large part why the Rangers own the worst record of any team with a positive run differential.

The Mariners have spent zero days at or above .500.

I predicted that the M’s would reach the playoffs for the first time since 2001 this year; so did two of my colleagues and more than half of both the FanGraphs and ESPN staffs. One underwhelming month, one injury to the team’s surprise best player, and two injuries to top starters later, and Seattle sits in last place. It’s unclear if the Mariners can find new ways to disappoint their fans, but a prospective contender enduring an entire season with a losing record could do the trick.

NL East

MLB’s top three leaders in runs batted in are the Nationals’ 3–4–5 hitters.

There are too many astounding facts about Washington’s offense to list here. The Nationals scored at a historic clip in April — many of them coming from Bryce Harper, the majors’ current WAR leader — and after Adam Eaton went down with a torn ACL, Anthony Rendon stepped up with a 10-RBI game on Sunday. It’s hard to argue that Washington, which has MLB’s top winning percentage and run differential, didn’t exit April as the best team in the sport.

The Phillies have participated in five walk-offs this year (two wins, three losses), the most of any team.

Topping this odd leaderboard speaks in part to Philadelphia’s rickety bullpen but in larger part to the Phillies’ presence as an exciting team this year. César Hernández is raking in the leadoff spot, the rotation is full of young arms, and the team is doing everything from scoring 12 runs in the first inning to allowing back-to-back-to-back home runs to blow a ninth-inning lead.

The Marlins rank 18th in runs allowed per game and are in a tie for 13th in runs scored per game.

The Marlins are a roughly average team, as a roughly average lineup joins with a roughly average staff to render a group featuring Giancarlo Stanton roughly boring. The most rousing news emerging from Miami in April involved the possible removal of owner Jeffrey Loria in favor of JEEB! (trademark, The Ringer’s Katie Baker).

Atlanta shortstop Dansby Swanson’s OPS (.433) is lower than teammate Freddie Freeman’s OBP (.485).

The glass-half-full Braves fan will read this stat as a point of praise for Freeman, who has frightened pitchers by adding power to his already-All-Star-level profile this season. That’s a fair interpretation; Freeman is great! Less great is Swanson, currently suffering through a ghastly slump in his first full season in the bigs, and whose presence as a central figure in Atlanta’s rebuild makes his start about as ominous for the team’s future as the collapsing freeways near its new ballpark.

The Mets have an 8–10 record against Miami, Philadelphia, and Atlanta; against those same teams in 2015 and 2016, they went 69–45.

New York began the season with one of the league’s easiest schedules, facing the runts of the NL East litter a combined 18 times in its first 21 games. That favorable opening draw hasn’t helped: The Mets sit in last place with by far the worst run differential in the division. With Yoenis Céspedes and Noah Syndergaard now hurt, it will be even more difficult for the Mets to climb out of the hole they spent April digging.

NL Central

The Cubs’ rotation has a below-average park-adjusted ERA; last year, it led the league with a mark 29 percent better than league average.

Much like the Red Sox, Chicago ended April with a 13–11 record — the team should be fine going forward but played mediocre ball throughout the month and undershot expectations by a fair amount. If there is a larger concern, it’s this: With reduced velocity across the board, no Cubs starter has an ERA below 3.54 after four bested that mark last year, and their underlying numbers aren’t much better. Sound the alarm if Jake Arrieta and Kyle Hendricks are still scuffling in June.

The Cardinals’ defense ranks last in the majors with a negative-11.7 ultimate zone rating; no other team is even at negative-7.

St. Louis made a vocal effort to improve its defense and overall athleticism this offseason, exchanging Matt Holliday for Dexter Fowler in the outfield and shifting Matt Carpenter to a less demanding position at first base. That strategy has gone for naught as the Cardinals’ fielding continues to struggle even with Matt Adams expelled from the outfield, and St. Louis remains a mediocre outfit with flagrant deficiencies in its roster.

Milwaukee first baseman Eric Thames has been "randomly" drug-tested four times.

The Brewers’ newest slugger is slashing .345/.466/.810 with a league-lead-tying 11 home runs; he’s the most fun story in the sport right now, bar none, even if MLB has seemingly followed the Cubs’ lead in wink-wink-nudge-nudging their concern over the method to his mashing madness. It’s better for the Brewers if the public just focuses on Thames, too, because theirs is a lopsided roster right now, with Thames and Ryan Braun providing all the offense and Chase Anderson serving as the only qualified starter with an ERA below 5.

Cincinnati’s young rotation has thrown the fewest innings of any starting staff.

It’s still in a tie for the third-most runs allowed, though. The Reds, to appropriate an old Fran Fraschilla quote, are two years away from being two years away from contending. At least top prospect Nick Senzel is hitting in high-A.

The Pirates’ Starling Marté has played only 13 games. That number won’t change until July.

Marté led the Pirates in WAR last year, but he’s stuck off the field until after the All-Star break due to an 80-game suspension for a positive PED test. Fellow outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco aren’t hitting well, and losing their best player means the Pirates might be operating outside their margin for error in a tightly bunched NL wild-card race. Their standing after April — 11–13, tied for last in the Central — affirms that fear.

NL West

Rockies closer Greg Holland has more saves (11) than five teams have wins.

Last year’s Colorado bullpen posted a league-worst 5.13 ERA and WPA, with a mishmash of ineffective arms costing the team roughly six wins by the latter metric. This year, new additions Holland and Mike Dunn have teamed with Adam Ottavino to give the Rockies the majors’ best bullpen by WPA, which helps bridge the gap between their negative run differential and NL West–leading 16–10 record.

The Diamondbacks have generated a league-best 7.6 runs above average with their baserunning; only one other team has more than three runs above average.

Games in Arizona consistently excite by combining a high-powered home offense, a hitter-friendly park, and Diamondbacks closer Fernando Rodney, who is still turning ninth innings into elaborate adventures in his 40s. The team’s daring dashes around the diamond represent how A.J. Pollock and Co. have become a late-night delight: The D-backs lead the league in steals and rank near the top in percentage of extra bases taken.

The Dodgers score five runs per game when facing a right-handed starter but only 3.5 per game when facing a lefty.

I wrote about this trend two weeks ago, and it remains an issue. Justin Turner and Corey Seager are on fire in the lineup, as are Clayton Kershaw and Brandon McCarthy in the rotation, but for a team without many flaws, the struggles against left-handed pitching is the one that best explains why the Dodgers are in third place.

By Baseball-Reference’s batting age measurement, the Padres have the youngest group of hitters since the 2013 and 2014 Astros.

Much like those Astros, these Padres are in unabashed tanking mode, and while the likes of Manuel Margot and Hunter Renfroe have struggled early, it’s the right time in San Diego’s cycle for the team to take lumps and work to improve at the MLB level. The Padres would be thrilled if hitters currently in the organization form the core of a future contender, as was the case with Houston.

Among players with at least five plate appearances, Giants pitcher Madison Bumgarner leads the majors in slugging percentage.

Yes, this is somewhat of a joke stat, given that Bumgarner batted only eight times before injuring his shoulder in a dirt bike accident that appears likely to cost him three months. But it shows just how important the Giants’ ace is in every respect to his team — which, sitting in last place behind the Padres, with the worst offense outside Kansas City and black holes throughout the lineup, is in a heap of trouble. The Mets and Blue Jays provide stout competition, but it’s possible that no team had a worse first month than San Francisco.