Join with us now as we wave adios to April, a month that teaches us many things.
Of course, one of the things it teaches us is that you can't trust a darned thing that goes on in April.
After all, George Sherrill saved five times as many games as J.J. Putz (10-2). Matt Cain made more home run trots than Delmon Young (1-0). And while Fred Lewis was hitting nearly .340, Troy Tulowitzki was hitting barely .140.
The Orioles out-won the Yankees. The Marlins out-won the Braves. And only two teams in the whole sport have out-won the A's.
So feel free to beware of everything and anything. But let's review what the heck just went on here -- and what (if anything) it means:
Team of the month -- the Diamondbacks
How dominating was this team? Sheez, it only led the league in runs, ERA and Baseball Prospectus' defensive-efficiency rating. Is that dominating enough for you?
"They're the best team in the National League," said Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd. "I don't think anybody else is even close."
It's not exactly a major shocker that the league is hitting a piddly .220 against Arizona's pitching staff. We could see that coming. But not even Miss Cleo could have figured on this offense pounding away at a 955-run pace, after scoring 712 last year. Since the 1994-95 work stoppage, only one team has scored that few runs one year and then made that big a leap the next year -- the 1998-99 D-backs (from 665 to 908). So either this can't last, or it's turning into a certifiable franchise tradition.
But one note of caution: "Arizona hasn't played anybody outside its division [between April 3 and 28, anyway], and the rest of that division is scuffling," said one scout. "They haven't played the Phillies, the Mets, the Braves or the Cubs. So you don't really know about that team yet. They're a very solid team. But I don't know if they're a pedestal team."
Most surprising team of the month -- the Orioles
As the Orioles departed spring training, people were using words like "disaster" to describe them. Now, said one AL executive, "I've changed my mind about them. I don't think they're going to be historically bad anymore."
But if you got the impression that means he doesn't think they're going to stay this good, either, you're catching on. When you break down what this team is and what it isn't, "I don't think they have the talent level to sustain a .500 season," said the same executive. And it's tough to disagree.
The Orioles are only 11th in the league in runs scored. They have no players in the top 10 in in homers, RBIs, average, runs scored, slugging or OPS. They rank in the middle of the pack in ERA. And their record is largely a reflection of a 7-2 record in one-run games -- a category that isn't usually a reliable predictor of future success.
"But I'll tell you," said one scout, "there's a little something to that team. I like Dave Trembley. I like the way they're going about their business. They're playing with a little spark I haven't seen."
Team in trouble -- the Rockies
Here's a history lesson the Rockies won't enjoy digesting: Over the last 30 seasons, only one other team coming off a World Series has looked up after April and found itself this many games under .500 (six) and this far out of first place (nine games). And that was the fire-sale-ravaged 1998 Marlins (9-18, nine out).
"I think you can lose pennants in April," said O'Dowd. "I don't think you can win them, but you can definitely lose them. Go back historically and look at teams that got nine games back in April and still [finished first]. You won't find many."
Right he is. Over the last 25 full seasons, just one team stumbled out of April this far out of first place and came back to win its division -- the 1987 Tigers (9½ back). The only good news is, the Rockies were actually farther out in the wild-card race after last April (six games) than they are now (6½).
More April history lessons
• The Blue Jays, Padres and Rockies won't want to hear that only 10 of 152 playoff teams since 1982 finished April more than three games under .500. And just one team since 1935 -- the 1979 Pirates -- was more than three games under after April and won the World Series.
• The Mariners and Dodgers won't want to hear that of the 126 teams that finished in first place over the last 25 full seasons, 99 of them (or 79 percent) were no worse than 2½ games out of first by the end of April.
• And the Indians, Tigers and Braves won't want to hear that in the wild-card era (1995 on), just 20 of 104 playoff teams (19 percent) were under .500 -- yep, even one game under -- at the end of April.
Now that Tom Glavine has made his first visit to the disabled list, he leaves behind only three active pitchers with at least 10 years of big-league service time who have never seen the DL. Can you name that durable duo? (Answer later.)
On the other hand
In more uplifting news for all those teams, we've seen a shift in those trends in recent years. For instance
• Six teams in the last three years made the playoffs even though they headed into May more than three games under .500 -- the 2007 Rockies and Yankees, the 2006 Twins and Padres and the 2005 Yankees and Astros. Only four teams had done that in the previous 22 full seasons combined.
• Over the first six years of the wild-card era, not one team won the wild card when it finished April more than three games out in the wild-card race. But six teams have done that in the last seven years -- including both wild cards last year (Rockies and Yankees).
• For the first time ever, half of last year's postseason field had losing records through April. Before that, only 17 percent of all playoff teams in the wild-card era were under .500 after April (16 of 96).
So there. We sure hope those clubs feel better now.
Most surprising bullpen -- The Rays
We knew the Rays would be better. We suspected their bullpen would be better. But this much better? Their 6.16 bullpen ERA last year was the worst in the last half-century. Their 2.52 bullpen ERA this year is the best in baseball. And suffice it to say you don't see a turnaround like that every year. Or even every century.
We ran this by the research gurus at the Elias Sports Bureau. They reported that the last bullpen to go from worst to first in its league was the 1963-64 Reds' (4.03 to 2.59), the last to go worst to first in the AL was the '57-58 Indians' (4.47 to 3.22) and drum roll please the last to go from worst to first in the big leagues was the 1913-14 Tigers' (4.55 to 2.08). Whoa. Did they even have bullpens in 1913-14?
Player of the month -- Chipper Jones
There are cases to be made for Chase Utley, Albert Pujols, Derrek Lee, Hanley Ramirez and Manny Ramirez (among others). But how can we not award this honor to a guy who hit .410, rolled up an 1.145 OPS, bombed eight homers and essentially won four games for his injury-wracked team single-handedly? The only other players to emerge from last 10 Aprils with an average this high and this many home runs: Barry Bonds in 2004 (.472, 10 HR) and Vladimir Guerrero in 2000 (.410, 8 HR).
Starting pitcher of the month -- Brandon Webb
We owe Cliff Lee (5-0, 0.96) an apology. But Webb (6-0, 1.98) has been better than ever. And that's saying something, considering that this is the third time in his young career he has started out 5-0 or better -- a claim to fame only three other active pitchers (Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson and Tom Glavine) can make. But just two other pitchers in history (Johnson and Dave Stewart) have ever been 6-0 before May. And don't overlook how Webb has done this, or whom he's done it against. He has beaten Jake Peavy, Aaron Harang, Jeff Francis and Greg Maddux. Pretty good group.
Relief pitcher of the month -- Troy Percival
There's quite a collection of relievers with mind-blowing numbers, from Joakim Soria to Billy Wagner to the irrepressible Santiago Casilla. But let's not forget Percival was retired this time last year. Now, a year later, he not only has changed the culture of an entire bullpen, he has given up exactly two hits (and no runs) all year, in nine innings. "He's amazing," said one scout. "I saw him save three games. The first night, he was throwing 92-95 [mph] with a great curveball. The second night, he was throwing 86-89, with a slider and changeup. The third night, he was back to 91-92. He's reinventing himself every night."
Rookie of the month -- Kosuke Fukudome
Evan Longoria is probably the rookie of the half-month. But you can't beat Fukudome's April, even if "rookie" doesn't seem like the right word for him. He has been on base in every game but two. He's batting .327, with a .436 on-base percentage. He's hitting .370, with a .491 on-base percentage, with men on base. He's second in the league in pitches per plate appearance. And he seems genetically incapable of doing anything wrong. "That's a good way to make Cubbie fans like you," laughed Derrek Lee.
Most even deal of the winter -- Josh Hamilton from Cincinnati to Texas for Edinson Volquez. Who got the better of this deal? Maybe nobody. Hamilton leads the major leagues in RBIs (32), and leads the AL in extra-base hits (17). And Volquez leads the NL in ERA (1.23), and trails only John Smoltz and Jonathan Sanchez in strikeout ratio (10. 1 per 9 IP). When was the last time any trade looked this rewarding for both teams?
Best deal of the winter that got ripped at the time -- Ryan Church and Brian Schneider to the Mets for Lastings Milledge. "Hell, Ryan Church is that team's MVP so far," said one scout, "offensively and defensively. And Schneider is in a system now where his talents are accentuated, because there's so much emphasis on game-planning and game-calling. Milledge, for me, is just a marginal player with great skills. We'll see if that changes."
Injury of the month -- Giants reliever Keiichi Yabu was unavailable for a couple of days -- after whacking himself in the eye with his own exercise band.
Payback award -- Finally, here's how you can tell it isn't 2007 anymore: The Rockies swept both the Phillies and Diamondbacks in the postseason -- and, naturally, got swept by both the Phillies and Diamondbacks in April.
Rumbling through the jungle
• Baked Zito -- the appetizer: An official of one pitching-starved team said this week: "I think I could trade for Barry Zito right now. But who the hell would want to?"
So we posed this question: How much money would the Giants have to pay of Zito's remaining $112.5 million or so to get somebody -- anybody -- interested?
"The Giants would have to eat 80 percent -- I'm talking $80-90 million," the official replied. "But they'd never do that. If that's what they'd have to eat, they might as well just let the guy keep being horse[feathers]."
• Baked Zito -- the main course: So can Zito ever get straightened out? We surveyed a half-dozen scouts and executives, and we found only one who thought he could. And that was a scout who said his only hope was to get reunited with Rick Peterson, "the only [pitching coach] Barry Zito ever had success with."
But another scout offered this sobering view: "First off, I wonder if he's tipping pitches. Guys sit there and take such close pitches, you wonder. But here's his big problem. He's got so much movement on his curveball and so much movement on his changeup, it's difficult to get those pitches called for strikes. He needs to get ahead in the count with his fastball to be able to utilize those pitches. But when he tries to throw his fastball, it's too hittable."
• Baked Zito -- the dessert: We also asked high-ranking officials of two clubs what they would do if they had a big-buck disaster like Zito on their team. The first replied: "I'd cry." The second had a more innovative proposal.
"Here's what they should do," he said. "They should go to Zito and say, 'Look, it's clear this is not going to work. Let's put together an NBA-type deferral package. We'll take the whole contract, defer it over 30 years with no interest and then we'll release you, to let you start fresh somewhere else.'
"The club could get significant cost savings that way. You take $112 million over 30 years, that's $3.7 million a year. You're better off paying him $3.7 million a year to not pitch than having him go out and do what he's doing. In the NBA, this happens a lot. The union would never let him do that in our sport. But you know what? From the player's standpoint, he'd be better off."
• The amazing Reyes: Assuming Zito is untradable, the pitcher out there who seems to be eminently available is St. Louis' Anthony Reyes. But clubs that have talked to the Cardinals are grumbling that they want an upper-echelon prospect back, plus "another piece."
"I think the guy is salvageable," said an executive of one interested team. "But that's got to be proven, too. So I think they don't quite understand what they have. We're talking about a guy who is [9-24], with a [5.46] ERA. So the asking price is pretty frigging high."
• Can't catch this Ray: Meanwhile, clubs continue to hover around Tampa Bay in general, and Edwin Jackson in particular, figuring that the Rays will have to move an arm when Scott Kazmir comes back. But an executive of one of those teams laughed when asked if his club had a shot at Jackson.
"I don't see how they could move him," he said. "I don't see why they'd ever put him out there. The stuff is too good. Yeah, he's still inconsistent. But at least he's consistently less inconsistent than he used to be."
• Youth won't be served: Although the citizens of New York might not have noticed, the Yankees aren't the only team that's been trying to survive with two young pitchers in their rotation. In fact, we count nine teams who have had two pitchers, age 24 or younger, make at least four starts apiece this year. Here's how their teams have done in those games:
What's the common thread between the Rockies' duo and the Yankees' twosome? All four of those pitchers came up in mid-season last year and had success, but couldn't repeat it when they made an Opening Day roster.
"It's a lot different experience for a guy to come to the big leagues in the middle of a season," said an executive from neither of those teams. "When they get there in the middle of the year, it's usually after they've gotten on a roll and gotten some confidence -- versus breaking with the major-league team out of spring training. There's a whole different level of expectation. And not everybody is ready to handle it."
• Yankees hype dept.: The buzz around the Yankees is that before Hughes was placed on the disabled list on Wednesday with a strained right oblique muscle, he was likely to wind up in Triple-A Scranton. Kennedy, meanwhile, is also on a short leash. There's also suddenly a school of thought among scouts that the Yankees may have highly overrated both of them -- but especially Kennedy.
"What's the ceiling on those guys?" asked one scout who followed the Yankees recently. "For me, Kennedy, at best, is a fifth starter. Hughes can be a little better than that, but not a [No.] 1 or 2. The thing I wonder about with Kennedy is, he was a very polished college pitcher. How much upside is there?
"He doesn't have dominant stuff. He doesn't really even have a dominant pitch. And they play so many games against their division, Ian Kennedy might have to start five times against the Red Sox. People talk about the second and third time through the lineup. How about the third or fourth time against one team? You've got to have something you can use to get through a lineup like that. And I'm not sure right now if he has it."
• Mandatory Yankees-Red Sox note of the week: There's a subtle Red Sox plot line running through the backstory of Jorge Posada's injury. Posada is 36, and he went down three weeks into the first year of a four-year, $52.4-million contract. OK, now what other AL East team has a 36-year-old catcher who will be looking for a big contract in a few months?
If you answered the Red Sox, with Jason Varitek, you're doing a fine job of playing along at home. And we'd bet the front office is already typing up its list of 50 Reasons We're Not Giving Varitek a Jorge Posada Contract so they can sing that song to Scott Boras all winter.
"The thing about Scott is, he never alters his playbook," said an official of one team. "You know he's going to point to that Posada deal. But the Red Sox are not doing that. At least Posada can play a little first and DH if they decide he can't catch any more. The other guy [Varitek] can't do that. So it ought to be an interesting negotiation."
• The horse pulls up: There may not have been a more devastating injury to any team this April than John Smoltz's injury in Atlanta. It isn't certain yet how long Smoltz will be down, but if he moves to the bullpen when he comes back, he may not start another game all year.
"If he's out a long time, that team's in big trouble," said one scout, "because he's the horse they look to. [Tim] Hudson's good, but he's not the horse."
"John Smoltz is not replaceable," said one NL executive, "in so many ways. He has a unique value to the organization and to the other 24 guys on that club."
• For what it's Werth: Scouts who have followed the Phillies this year weren't shocked that Shane Victorino came off the disabled list this week -- but Charlie Manuel kept running Jayson Werth out to center field.
Werth, who is leading the big leagues in pitches seen per plate appearance for the second straight year, has grown into a more productive offensive player than Victorino. But the surprise is that Werth has actually outplayed Victorino in center field in some respects.
"Victorino was not as good a center fielder as I expected," said one scout. "His throwing wasn't as good or as accurate as it was in right field. He was a lockdown arm in right field last year. He was so good, I even rated him above [Jeff] Francoeur. But not this year."
• Where'd the heat go: Scouts also have a theory on the dipping velocity of another Phillie, Brett Myers, whose fastball barely topped 88 miles per hour last Sunday: He has gotten too cutter-happy.
"He can fall in love with that cutter, and cutters over the long haul take velocity away from you," said one scout. "Historically, that's been true with a lot of guys who throw an excess amount of cutters. Then, when they try to go back to their fastballs, it's not there."
• The next big thing?: It's 10 years ago now since the Yankees handed a $1.52-million signing bonus to a 16-year-old Dominican pitcher by the name of Ricardo Aramboles. It's believed that no Latino pitcher (non-Cuban division) has topped that bonus since. But there's so much buzz about a Dominican right-hander named Michel Inoa, it looks as if Aramboles' record is in serious danger this summer. More than a dozen teams are in on Inoa, who is already hitting 94 on the gun -- at age 16.
• Doing the DL shuffle: Anybody who watched the Brewers try to play last week with 14 pitchers on their roster -- while Ben Sheets was missing a turn -- could see that in an age when teams routinely carry 12 and 13 pitchers, baseball needs to tweak its rules.
Brewers GM Doug Melvin told Rumblings he's a proponent of a 10-day disabled list for situations like this, where a starting pitcher has an injury severe enough to miss a start but not eat up 15 days of DL time. Melvin would limit that 10-day DL to one player at a time.
Great idea, from one of the most innovative GMs in baseball. So obviously, it will never happen.
The Rumblings Scouting Bureau
We're launching a semi-regular Rumblings feature this week -- quick snapshots from some of the most astute scouts in baseball on what they've been watching:
• Evan Longoria -- "In terms of both pure talent and approach to the game, he's changed the personality of that whole club."
• Andruw Jones -- "Scott Boras ought to be arrested -- for stealing. The way Andruw's playing right now, he [should be] a defensive replacement and right-handed bat off the bench.
• Andruw Jones, take two -- "I don't think you could even call him a bat off the bench, because there's no bat there. You think there's one pitcher in his right mind who doesn't want to face that guy right now?"
Livan Hernandez (356 games pitched, 10-plus years service time), Javier Vazquez (328 games pitched, 10 years service time) and Derek Lowe (505 games pitched, 10-plus years service time) are the only two medical miracle men left who have never been DL-bound.
• Andruw Jones, take three -- "He's trying harder on defense than he was in Atlanta because he's trying to do so many things to get those people to cheer him. And they're all coming on defense."
• Those surprising Oakland A's -- "You go around that club, position by position, and there's nobody who dazzles you. Not one guy."
• Ryan Ludwick -- "He's a hot guy right now. But he's just a nice No. 4 outfielder. Try to make him any more than that, and he'll break your heart."
• Brian Wilson -- "I hadn't seen him much before, but he's something special."
Pontification of the week
David Letterman got enough material out of the pope's visit to New York to be excommunicated for eight or nine lifetimes. Our three favorite quips:
Third prize: "Earlier today, the pope visited a Manhattan synagogue, and this was great. He wore a big, tall, pointy yarmulke, and then he buried it at Yankee Stadium."
Second prize: "Since the pope is at Yankee Stadium, he's going to be letting Billy Crystal be a bishop for a day."
First prize: "It was a tremendous mass at Yankee Stadium. As a matter of fact, afterward the Yankees retired Roman numeral XVI."
Taking the Subway
As Subway continues its masterful sponsorship of Rumblings and Grumblings, we continue our grateful, yet thoroughly shameless, tips of the cap to our sponsor -- with our weekly Subway awards:
The On a Roll Award
Curtis Granderson only missed the Tigers' first 21 games of the season. It just felt like 121. As our buddy Danny Knobler, who covers the Tigers for mlive.com, points out, Tigers leadoff men scored exactly three runs in those 21 games. In the seven games since Granderson returned, he has scored 11 runs -- more than any player in the whole sport. But that's not all he's done. He has reached base in 15 of his 30 trips to home plate, thumped three times as many extra-base hits (six) as singles (two), scored a run 73 percent of the times he has gotten on base and done more blogging than certain full-time Rumblings and Grumblings authors. Now that's a roll.
Cold Cuts Award
As Justin Upton and Mark Reynolds were spending the first three weeks of the season doing their Manny and Papi imitations, you had to know that gravity would grab ahold of them sooner or later. The game just isn't that easy. Well, that time has arrived. Over the last week, Upton and Reynolds are a combined 6 for 46 (.130), with 23 strikeouts. It's been a real blow to their team, too. The Diamondbacks only went 5-2 in that stretch, instead of going undefeated. Is this team ridiculous, or what?
Worth the Bread Award
We're not sure where the Houston Astros would be without their $14.5-million man, Lance Berkman. But we do know those of us here at Worldwide Rumblings Headquarters would find the Astros a lot less entertaining if Berkman wasn't around to amuse us. Before we get to the entertainment portion of this episode, however, we should mention this guy is in the top three in the National League in homers, RBIs, runs scored and extra-base hits. He just won the NL Player of the Week award. And he's positioning himself to go down as one of the great switch-hitters of all time. But above all, he's flat-out hilarious. After an April 24 game in Cincinnati in which he'd homered twice, Berkman announced that he'd just suffered a really embarrassing injury. Which was? Oops, he'd rolled his ankle -- while high-fiving his teammates after the game. Asked by mlb.com's intrepid Alyson Footer if this dreaded affliction would cause him to miss any time, Berkman deadpanned: "Are you kidding? I'm a warrior."
Super Sub Award
Only one human could possibly have won this award this week -- the one, the only superhuman force that is Diamondbacks pitcher Micah (The Bambino) Owings. If you haven't seen the game-tying two-run pinch home run Owings whomped Thursday, after the Astros actually changed pitchers when he was announced as the hitter, you need to navigate over to the video portion of this site and catch it. But here's what this homer represented: Owings was the first pitcher to hit a pinch homer since Brooks Kieschnick in 2004. He was the first starting pitcher to hit a pinch homer between starts since Don Robinson in 1990 (and just the second in the last 37 years). And, as ESPN's amazing research department points out, Owings now has a higher career slugging percentage (.671) than Ted Williams (.634), a higher career OPS (1.044) than Albert Pujols (1.042) and roughly the same career on-base percentage (.373) as Hank Aaron (.374). So needless to say, he can come off our bench and hit any time.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.