I love the early season home run leaderboards. Are they a tease or a sign of things to come? Take last season, for example. Eric Thames had 11 home runs at the end of April and rookie Aaron Judge had 10. Thames couldn't keep his hot start going. Judge's April proved to be his breakout for a monster season.
That brings us to 2018. Tied for the National League lead with nine home runs is Atlanta Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies, who moved to the leadoff spot Sunday and did this on the first pitch he saw:
Roses are red.— Mariners (@Mariners) April 29, 2018
Violets are blue.
Mitch Haniger. pic.twitter.com/LY3s9nq4tA
Since the title of this column is Real or Not, it seems appropriate to ask: Are these guys going to be in the conversation for great players of 2018 all season?
Albies' power display is probably the most stunning start we've seen in a long time. He's 5-foot-8 and entered the season with only 23 professional home runs. While he has been viewed as a top prospect because of his speed, defense and bat-to-ball skills, nobody expected this kind of transformation, especially at just 21 years old.
Albies went 2-for-5 in the Braves' 10-1 thrashing of the Phillies, adding a double and a walk. He's tied with Yankees rookie Miguel Andujar for the major league lead with 12 doubles. Throw in one triple and he has 22 extra-base hits this month.
Fun stat, courtesy of Douglas Clawson of ESPN Stats & Information: Albies' 22 extra-base hits are tied for second most through April in MLB history. Jermaine Dye had 23 in 2000 (the Braves don't play Monday). Of course, this season started in late March, so if we look at most extra-base hits through 27 team games, Albies is tied for fifth all time.
That's an insane month. He's hitting the ball hard -- a lot. Albies is on pace for 72 doubles, 54 home runs, 120 RBIs and 174 runs. Is he going to score 150-plus runs with 100 extra-base hits? No, but ... wow.
Jose Altuve has shown us that a little guy can hit for power and, like Altuve, Albies has the ability to take a big rip at the ball while keeping his strikeout rate at acceptable levels. He's at 18.9 percent; that's not Altuve level, but it puts him 77th out of 174 qualified hitters. That's also a higher rate than his rookie season last year, a sign he's sacrificing some contact for more power.
It's only one month, but Albies is showing every sign he's going to develop into a big star: He has tools, he's young and he's showing rapid improvement. The one concern is the somewhat low walk rate -- he's 145th in walk rate, so there's a small concern that he could go all Rougned Odor and sell out too much for power. His chase rate -- swinging at pitches out of the strike zone -- is 30 percent, which ranks 128th. (Odor, by comparison, was at 37 percent last season.) Albies also has a lower swing-and-miss rate. I'd certainly bet that Albies will be more Altuve than Odor.
As for the Braves, Brian Snitker's new lineup featured Albies in the leadoff spot, Ronald Acuna batting second and Freddie Freeman third, with Ender Inciarte moving down to ninth (and the pitcher eighth), to give Albies and Acuna more RBI opportunities. Assuming the Braves stick with that lineup, is there a more fun trio at the top of the order?
Haniger, meanwhile, has propelled the Mariners to a 16-11 start, and they took three of four in Cleveland, losing to Corey Kluber while beating up on Mike Clevinger, Carlos Carrasco and Josh Tomlin. Haniger is hitting .309/.384/.701 and is tied for second in the majors with 27 RBIs. Maybe it's time to move him out of the six hole, even if Scott Servais likes the speed of Dee Gordon and Jean Segura at the top of the lineup (at the minimum, maybe switch Haniger's spot with Kyle Seager).
Haniger has done this before. He hit .342/.447/.608 last April but suffered a strained oblique late in the month and was out until June. In late July, Jacob deGrom hit Haniger in the face with a pitch and he missed three more weeks. Between DL stints, he played 96 games and was worth 3.0 WAR.
The issue with Haniger heading into the season was plate discipline. He started off well last season with 23 walks and 44 strikeouts in April and June, but things deteriorated after that, and when he returned after getting hit, he had only five walks and 36 strikeouts. The hope was that was a residual effect of getting beaned by a 95 mph fastball -- certainly understandable. So far the strikeout rate is high with 26, but he has drawn 12 walks. You can live with the strikeouts if the walks and power keep coming.
The Mariners just went 7-3 on a 10-game road trip and return home for six games against the A's and Angels. Can they keep pace with the Astros in a tough AL West? Unlikely, of course: The Astros have a plus-66 run differential while the Mariners are at minus-2. At minimum, they've at least made things interesting.
So, to the original question: Are these elite players? I think so. Haniger showed 5-WAR ability last year in an injury-shortened season. Albies could end up starting the All-Star Game (although Javier Baez also is off to a strong start and has Cubs Nation behind him). Haniger ranks fourth among AL outfielders in WAR -- behind three MVP candidates in Mike Trout, Judge and Mookie Betts. I'll call it now: We'll see both Albies and Haniger in Washington.
King him for a day: Pirates righty Nick Kingham had a major league debut to remember, taking a perfect game into the seventh inning against the Cardinals before Paul DeJong singled with two outs. The 20 straight batters retired in a debut is the most in the expansion era, topping the 16 straight by Wayne Simpson of the Reds in 1970 and Ken Cloude of the Mariners in 1997.
Kingham finished with seven scoreless innings, just the one hit, no walks and nine strikeouts for a game score of 84. That's the best game score in a debut since -- obscure name alert! -- Mark Brownson of the Rockies in 1998, who spun a four-hit shutout, at Coors Field no less and against a powerful Astros team that would win 102 games. Let's hope Kingham's future pans out better than Brownson's, as he would win only one more game in his big league career.
Kingham is 26, but you might remember him from prospect lists of the past, as he made some top-100 lists before the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Along with fellow prospects Tyler Glasnow and Jameson Taillon, plus Gerrit Cole at the major league level, he projected to be part of a strong Pirates rotation that would peak around ... oh, the 2018 season. Kingham had Tommy John surgery in 2015, however, posted a 4.13 ERA in 19 starts at Triple-A last season and then a 1.59 ERA at Indianapolis this season after failing to crack the rotation out of spring training.
He's a fastball/sinker/slider guy, throwing 55 fastballs and 32 sliders against the Cardinals while mixing in seven curveballs and four changeups. He's more of a command guy, averaging 92.9 mph with his fastball while hitting 94, but did generate 16 swing-and-misses, 12 of those coming on sliders.
As always with a pitcher with this kind of repertoire, his ability to get lefties out in the majors will determine if he can remain in the rotation.
For the Pirates, the 5-0 victory completed a three-game sweep at home and kept them a half-game ahead of the Cubs in the crowded NL Central. The Pirates rank third in the NL in runs per game even though Josh Bell has only one home run and Josh Harrison is on the DL. They have the lowest strikeout rate in the league. There are some good things happening the Pirates. As with the Braves and Mariners, a strong April has made them interesting.
Cubs blank Brewers, rinse, repeat: Tyler Chatwood tossed seven scoreless innings in a 2-0 win for the Cubs, and if that sounds familiar, it's because it is. The Brewers, who came to Wrigley riding an eight-game win streak, held the Cubs to nine runs in four games -- and lost all four as the Cubs spun three shutouts. The Brewers had only 14 hits in four games. This has to be one of the most painful series sweeps in a long time.
The Cubs also blanked the Brewers in two earlier games in April, making them the third team to shut out the same team five times in one month. The others: The Washington Senators shut out the Cleveland Naps five times in August 1910 (Walter Johnson had two of those) and the Boston Americans shut out the St. Louis Browns five times in June 1903 (Cy Young probably had one or two of those). None of those team names even exists now and neither do two of the teams.
In other words, it was a long time ago.
Dodgers are a mess: The Giants beat the Dodgers 4-2, dropping L.A. to 12-15 and seven games behind the Diamondbacks -- as they head to Arizona on Monday for a four-game series.
Dave Roberts is clearly growing frustrated with his team's play and benched Cody Bellinger after he doubled on a hit Roberts thought should have been a triple.
Dodgers Fans: My god this team is pathetic and showing no effort. TAKE ACTION!— Chad Moriyama (@ChadMoriyama) April 30, 2018
*Dave Roberts Benches Star For Lack Of Effort*
Dodgers Fans: NOT THAT
You don't want to make too much of a series that begins in April, but with the Dodgers scuffling, this is the perfect time for the Diamondbacks to put even more distance between them and L.A. The Dodgers have bigger problems than Bellinger lollygagging on a double, but Roberts made a statement in pulling one of his best players: It's no longer a bad stretch of baseball but time to be concerned about the results.