April really does matter

We know, just from perusing the nearest stat sheet, that April is baseball's goofiest month.

We know that when we check those stat sheets again on Labor Day, Ronnie Belliard won't be hitting .400. And Henry Blanco won't outhomer Vernon Wells. And Juan Rincon won't win more games than the entire Seattle rotation.

But as goofy as some of these developments might be, we also know this:

April matters.

In places like Kansas City and Toronto and San Francisco, they are telling themselves how early it is. But we have bad news: It isn't as early as they think.

Why? Because April matters. It always matters.

We've been tracking just how much it matters for years now. It never ceases to amaze us. We've looked at every full season since 1982. The facts bowl us over:

  • Of the 120 playoff teams since 1982, only four (or 3.3 percent) finished April more than three games under .500 -- the '87 Tigers (8-12), '89 Blue Jays (9-16), '95 Reds (0-5) and 2001 A's (8-17).

  • Only three of those 120 playoff teams (or 2.5 percent) finished April more than 4½ games out of a playoff spot -- the '87 Tigers (9½ back), 2001 A's (8 out) and 2002 Angels (5 behind).

  • Of the 102 first-place teams since 1982, 58 (or 56.9 percent) were in first place at the end of April. That figure jumps to 86 of 102 (or 84.3 percent) if you include clubs that were either in first place or within 2½ games of first.

    These are not the kinds of facts that teams like the Phillies (5 games out of first) want to hear. Or the Royals (6½ out of first, 5½ back in the wild-card race). Or the Blue Jays (8½ out of first, 6½ out of a wild card). Good chance they won't be flashing those numbers on their scoreboards any time soon.

    But when we ran our research by the GMs of those three teams, all of whom were expected to win or contend, all three were doing their best to croon every slow starter's favorite tune: "There's a Lot of Baseball Still to be Played."

    Phillies GM Ed Wade described April as a "sorting-out" month. Royals GM Allard Baird said he'd have been a lot more worried if this had happened to his team last year. And Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi said, "I think May is more revealing than April, because you've been playing for two months, not one."

    Of course, if you were occupying their places in the standings, you'd think that way, too. But you don't have to look too far back in the rear-view mirror of any of those teams to understand why they might sincerely believe all that.

    The 2001 Phillies started out 14-6, were three games up on Atlanta after April and still missed the playoffs. Last year's Blue Jays survived a 10-18 April to win 86 games. And last year's Royals started 17-6, were six games ahead of Minnesota after April and still finished third.

    But last year, coming off eight straight losing seasons, it was downright "mandatory," Baird said, for his team to jump out to a good start -- because if the Royals had gotten off to a lousy start, "we'd have been in rebuilding mode." Instead, they contended all year, held on to the Carlos Beltrans and Mike Sweeneys, and used last season to build for another run this year.

    This year, Baird brought in a bunch of veterans to make that run. Fortunately, one of them was Matt Stairs, who lived through a couple of brutal starts in Oakland and learned it was still possible to come back and make the playoffs. So the more stories Stairs wants to tell his current teammates about those spectacular Oakland comebacks, the more Baird will enjoy them.

    "You've got to have guys who have been through it," Baird said, "so they can look at their teammates and say, 'This is what happened.' "

    We know they would rather listen to Matt Stairs' stories than listen to us saying, "Yeah, but this is what happened to everybody else." But we've documented what happened to everybody else. And unfortunately, teams like the 2001 A's are more than just exceptions.

    They're aberrations.

    They're proof it's a bad, bad idea to do it the hard way -- because the hard way usually leads you to the golf course in October, not the playoffs.

    "To be honest," Ricciardi admitted, "I'm not a big fan of digging holes for ourselves. I've always been a subscriber to getting off to good starts, even back to the time when I was a high school basketball coach. I always wanted to win the tip, score the first points, win the first quarter -- just because it's a lot harder to do it the other way."

    And it is. Granted, you can make a case that it's easier now than it used to be, thanks to the wild card. And there are no better sources of inspiration than the last two World Series champs -- because the 2002 Angels and 2003 Marlins both got way behind early and used the wild card to rescue themselves.

    But we regret to report, to anyone dreaming that dream, that if it's easier under this system, it isn't much easier. If you go back only to 1995 and the dawn of the wild-card era, the cold truth still looks like this:

  • Of the 18 wild-card teams since 1995, just three (16.7 percent) finished April more than three games out in the wild-card race -- the 2001 A's (8 out), 2002 Angels (5 out) and '03 Marlins (4 out).

  • And of the 72 teams that made the playoffs since the new format arrived in 1995, only 12 (16.7 percent) had losing Aprils -- even if they were just one game under .500.

    The last two champs were exceptions to both trends. But remember, for every team like the Marlins and Angels, there are five that prove our point -- that April matters. It always matters.

    So the list of teams on the wrong end of those trends, heading into their final game in April, included the Royals, Blue Jays, Mariners, Diamondbacks, Giants, Phillies and A's.

    A month ago, every one of those teams looked better on paper than the Tigers did. But it isn't March anymore. And right now, you'd rather be the Tigers -- because of the 65 teams that came out of the last five Aprils with a winning record, 49 (or 75.4 percent) had winning seasons.

    "I'm not saying you can't come back, because you can," Ricciardi said. "We proved that last year. But it's harder. Just take Kansas City last year. They had that great start. Then they basically just played .500 for the rest of the year, and they were in the race. There's a lot to be said for that. So I don't think April is the be-all, end-all, but it sets the tone. Either you hit the ground running, or you've got to dig yourself out."

    Well, all of us in life have had times where we've coasted and times we've been on the wrong end of a shovel. If you think back on which of those times you liked best, you'll have no trouble grasping the moral of our story, because it's really that simple:

    April matters. It always matters.

    Miscellaneous Rumblings

  • Carlos Tosca may not have vaulted to the top of the managerial hot-seat rankings. But it was clear, from his general manager's second-guess on a radio show this week, that Tosca is now on the endangered-managerial-species list.

    "He's not in trouble," Ricciardi told Rumblings. "He's going to finish the year. Then we'll see where we are at that point, as an organization. But he's not in trouble right now."

  • Get ready for another Rickey Henderson sighting in the Atlantic League. As usual, Henderson has managed to dodge his league's spring training. But even though he has gotten offers from everybody but the Guangdong Leopards, indications are that Henderson will be heading back to those Newark Bears, from whence he came last year.

  • Also reported to be headed for the Atlantic League's career-reincarnation center: Pete Harnisch.

  • This may be Year 3 of the Expos' We're-Definitely-Leaving watch. But our gut feeling, after speaking with Bud Selig, is that baseball is determined to find this team a home this year. Finally.

    "We've got to get rid of that problem," the commish told Rumblings. "There's no upside to it. And this summer, we're going to do that."

    It appears baseball is essentially down to three options: 1) Washington, if it can get Peter Angelos to take some kind of damages payment in exchange for allowing a team to move into the beltway; 2) Las Vegas, if there is any sense that 9,500-seat Cashman Field can be temporarily expanded, and 3) Monterrey, Mexico, if the skeptical players union can be convinced to sign off on it.

  • There aren't many teams ready to consider themselves out of contention yet. But some clubs are already beginning to size up the standings and target players they think might be available come July. Among names we've heard: Jose Vidro, Orlando Cabrera, Rocky Biddle in Montreal, Kris Benson and Kip Wells in Pittsburgh, Eddie Guardado in Seattle, Matt Mantei in Arizona.

  • Before the Expos start shopping Vidro or Cabrera, they're seeing what it might take to get them signed. But the offers are all similar to the three-year package Livan Hernandez recently signed. He took a pay cut from $6 million this year to $4 million, but will get $8 million, $8 million and $7 million over the next three years.

    "(Omar Minaya's) thinking," said an official of one club that had spoken with the Expos, "is to backload the money for these guys, to try to free money this year to survive. One thing you have to say about this guy: He thinks outside the box, and he's not afraid to make a move. But there's only so much he can do."

  • One scout's description of the Expos' play so far is "sad." But they do expect to get Carl Everett and Tony Armas Jr. back at some point in May. And they're still hopeful Nick Johnson can be back reasonably soon. In the meantime, they've been hearing assistant GM Tony Siegle spin the amazing tale of the first team he worked for, the 1969 Astros.

    That team started out 4-20, got no-hit by Jim Maloney for the 20th loss and then turned it around so dramatically, it went 19-4 in its next 23 games and was actually 10 games over .500 at one point in September. And what are the odds of this team re-enacting that story? Uh, see that "April matters" portion of this column.

  • The most bogus rumor of April had to be reports of Randy Johnson going to the Yankees. For one thing, Johnson is a 10-and-five guy, giving him veto rights over any deal. And an official of one club that checked out his situation came away concluding, "He doesn't want to leave that area."

    Then there's the second problem: "I don't know what the Yankees have to trade for somebody like him," said one club executive. "I know they're the Yankees, and they're always able to pull off something or other. But there just isn't a whole lot there in that system."

  • One scout's theory on why Bernie Williams has looked so shaky defensively: The Yankees are having him play too shallow.

    "Bernie never did go back that well," the scout said. "But then, when you get to his age, you get hesitant. You don't want to get hurt. Bernie can still go laterally. But he just can't play that shallow anymore."

    Before you suggest the Yankees reinstall Kenny Lofton in center, consider another scout's review of Lofton's routes: "He plays center field like bees are chasing him."

  • It's hard to believe that Roger Clemens went to the mound Friday night with a chance for the first five-win April of his career. But scouts who have seen him say they've noticed no dropoff at all in his post-"retirement" stuff.

    "He's still strong," said one scout. "He still pitches inside. His fastball is still active. He's not afraid of anybody or anything. He's still in attack mode. He can still climb the ladder with his fastball. And he can back off on his velocity at times when he wants to. But he can get up to 94 (mph) and he can work at 92-93."

    The way Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Andy Pettitte have pitched, the same scout says he would take Houston's rotation over the Cubs -- "especially with (Mark) Prior not healthy and (Greg) Maddux shaky."

  • One scout's nomination for most improved player in the National League this year: Astros shortstop Adam Everett, who has appeared to make a significant offensive leap and also leads the non-pitcher portion of the league in sacrifices, with five already. "He's got a chance to be the Jay Bell of the 2000s," the same scout laughed.

  • Already, we're starting to hear rumblings that Yankees players don't want to play in the World Cup, and that owner George Steinbrenner doesn't want them to. But one baseball official says the Yankees can expect some massive lobbying on just how important it is to baseball that this event be a success and that as many high-profile players as possible play in it.

    "This event won't work if we don't have everyone buying into it," the official said. "If we have even one or two clubs that aren't letting their players go, then why wouldn't another club do the same thing, and another?"

    Well, MLB can try singing that song to the Yankees. But one baseball man who once worked with Team USA wishes everybody lots of luck.

    "Someone can try to make George realize the magnitude of it," he said. "But I'd be surprised if they succeed. He's been so bull-headed about this, I wouldn't count on them."

    Asked how much cooperation his committee got from the Yankees in trying to recruit minor leaguers for the Olympic team, he replied: "Not any. Let me repeat: Not any."

  • And oh by the way, guess which former manager of a World Series champion will be managing the Netherlands Olympic team this summer (and, theoretically, their World Cup team)? None other than Davey Johnson. Hey, you were expecting maybe Robert Eenhoorn?

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.