Those weird five-game weeks where teams have two scheduled off days are in the rear-view mirror. The weather in the Midwest and Northeast is finally cooperating. It took nearly four full weeks, but the 2018 MLB season finally has some rhythm.
The last full week of April is always an exciting one on the MLB calendar. Baseball is a game that requires a six-month regular season with about 1 1/2 days off per month to be played correctly. It’s a game with oddities that can only be smoothed out across 162 games. Sure, some people might say 150 or 140 games would be enough to sand over those rough edges, but the point is it’s a game that needs to be played a lot to be played properly. That’s why we can be a month into the season and still talk about small sample sizes.
At some point, though, it’s no longer early. Eventually, we can drop all the disclaimers and take everything we’re seeing at face value. That point is right around the corner. Once the last full week of April passes, we typically see fewer and fewer references to how early it is, before they completely fade away some time in the middle of May. Contextually, it isn’t any earlier on April 30 than it is on May 1, but something about that first turn of the calendar (second this year, but you get it) signals a transition in the season, like taking off the jacket that you’ve needed at the ballpark this season and welcoming the spring.
Get those small sample size fixes in while you can. Their relevance, if not their utility, comes to an end this week.
Joey Votto, 1B, Reds
We’re still on an obsessive Votto watch over here. He finally got his first extra-base hit of the season, a double, but is still searching for his first homer. We’ve seen this from Votto before, but his .243/.337/.257 line is starting to get more than a little concerning. The best sign from last week was that he drew seven walks and struck out just three times, bringing his season totals in those two stats even. That’s the Votto we’re used to seeing.
Albert Almora, OF, Cubs
Javy Baez is getting all the attention on the North Side of Chicago, as he should after the couple of weeks he just put together. Almora’s rise to the top of the lineup, however, should not go unnoticed. He’s led off four games in a row, going 8-for-20 with two doubles, a walk and six runs scored. What’s more, the Cubs are 3–1 in those games, with an average of 8.75 runs per game. Chicago has struggled to find a consistent leadoff man since waving goodbye to Dexter Fowler before last season, but Almora is providing hope. The former first-round pick is also an excellent defender in centerfield, as he showed on Sunday. That, too, should help keep him atop the Cubs’ lineup.
Rhys Hoskins, 1B/OF, Phillies
It appears I was wrong to doubt Hoskins. All he’s done to kick off his second season is hit .323/.483/.615 with four homers and 19 RBIs—and three steals, to boot. In short, he has been the Votto that we’ve been looking for all season. There’s not much more to say here. Hoskins and his backers were right, and I was horribly wrong. Now let’s quickly move on to someone I was right about all along.
Ozzie Albies, 2B, Braves
If I told you before the season that Albies would be on pace for about 6.0 WAR, no matter if you prefer the FanGraphs or Baseball-Reference version, you likely wouldn’t have been surprised. If I told you that he did it by becoming a dangerous power hitter, you might have cartoonishly spit out whatever you were drinking. Albies has six homers on the year, already matching the total he put up in 244 plate appearances last year, to go with nine doubles and a triple, resulting in a .640 slugging percentage and .337 isolated slugging. Albies has turned into a star right before our eyes, accelerating the timeline to compete in Atlanta almost single-handedly.
Gleyber Torres, 2B, Yankees
Torres made his MLB debut on Sunday, going 0-for-4 in the Yankees’ 5–1 win over the Blue Jays. The centerpiece of the 2016 trade that sent Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs, Torres entered this season as a consensus top-six prospect, reaching a high of No. 3 in Baseball Prospectus’ rankings. He totaled 152 plate appearances at Triple A over the last two seasons, hitting .323/.401/.477 with three homers and seven doubles. The Yankees may have a deep lineup, but they didn’t promote their best prospect just so he could sit on the bench. He’s going to play mostly every day, and should already be on the short list of AL Rookie of the Year candidates.
Trevor Cahill, A’s
Cahill was excellent in his return to Oakland, tossing seven shutout innings against the White Sox, allowing five hits and striking out eight. Cahill’s midseason turnaround flew under the radar last year, largely because it came as a member of the Padres, but it doesn’t diminish the fact that he pitched to a 3.69 ERA and 1.34 WHIP with 72 strikeouts across 61 innings and 11 starts in San Diego. He’ll make two starts this week, facing the Rangers on Monday and Astros on Sunday.
Hyun-jin Ryu, Dodgers
The Dodgers are off to a concerning start this year, as covered in this week’s Nine Innings. Ryu, however, has more than held up his end of the bargain, with a 1.99 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and 27 strikeouts in 22 2/3 innings. More importantly, he hasn’t shown any signs of injury in four starts. Health has been a problem for Ryu since he made one start in the 2015 and ’16 seasons combined, but he can be the kind of weapon that the Dodgers desperately need if he can make 25-plus starts this season. He’s slated for his fifth start of the season as part of a day-night doubleheader in San Francisco on Saturday.
Jacob deGrom, Mets
Fifty-four batters have come to the plate in deGrom’s last two starts; 22 have headed back to the dugout, bat in hand. The Mets’ righty got off to a slow start in terms of strikeouts, at least by his standards, but he now owns 40 whiffs in 32 innings on the year. Last April, deGrom went on a three-game streak with at least 10 strikeouts. He’ll have a chance to match that when he takes the ball against the Padres on Friday—and for what it’s worth, the Padres have the highest strikeout rate in the majors at 27.4%.
Max Scherzer, Nationals
Scherzer is no stranger to three-game streaks of 10 or more strikeouts: He’s done it four times in his career, with his career high of six set in May and June of last year. Unlike deGrom, however, he isn’t riding such a streak this week. After fanning 10 batters three starts ago and 11 more in his next outing, Scherzer—the bum—whiffed just nine in six innings his last trip to the mound, a 5–2 win over the Dodgers. The best pitcher in baseball makes just one start this week, taking the ball Wednesday against a Giants team that will almost surely be overmatched.
Chris Archer, Rays
Archer has been far too hittable this season, registering a 6.59 ERA and 1.46 WHIP in 27 1/3 innings. He’s allowed five homers and a 38.8% hard-hit rate, 19th-highest in the majors. As filthy as Archer’s stuff can be, we’ve seen this from him all too often over the last three season, preventing him from becoming a true ace. He draws a matchup with the Orioles on Wednesday, his only scheduled start of the week.
The best pitcher vs. pitcher, pitcher vs. hitter, and pitcher vs. offense matchups over the next seven days.
Noah Syndergaard vs. Carlos Martinez, Thursday
These two aces face off in the final game of a three-game series between the Mets and Cardinals this week in St. Louis. Martinez has been excellent this season, allowing one or zero runs and pitching at least six innings in four of his five starts. The one time he came up short was against these very Mets on Opening Day. Syndergaard, meanwhile, has yet to find his rhythm, failing to pitch into the seventh inning in any of his five starts. Still, he has a 3.29 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 39 strikeouts in 27 1/3 innings. With these two taking the mound on a getaway day afternoon game, there isn’t likely to be much offense.
Robbie Ray vs. Jake Arrieta, Tuesday
Despite one being a lefty and the other a righty, Ray and Arrieta are quite similar pitchers. They both lean heavily on their fastball—a four-seamer for Ray, two-seamer for Arrieta—curve and slider, with Arrieta sometimes turning the slider into a cutter. They both can have trouble harnessing their stuff, leading to control issues and too many stressful, high-leverage innings. They both can be dominant when they get ahead and pound the zone with strikes. Arrieta is coming off his best start of the season, a seven-inning, one-hit, 10-strikeout effort against the Pirates. Ray, meanwhile, pitched around three walks and five hits in six innings in his last start, limiting the Giants to two runs.
Sean Manaea vs. Dallas Keuchel, Friday
The last time we saw Manaea, he shut down the hottest offense in baseball, no-hitting the Red Sox and issuing just two walks. His assignment won’t get any easier this week with the A’s paying a visit to Houston. Keuchel, meanwhile, has turned a corner after a tepid start to the season, allowing three runs with 12 strikeouts in 14 innings across his last two starts. Both the A’s and Astros can be tough on lefties, making this one of those matchups that could realistically go in multiple directions. Will Manaea and Keuchel dominate? Will one hold his own while the other struggles? Or will the offenses have their way? All outcomes are in play.
Patrick Corbin vs. Bryce Harper, Saturday
Corbin has absolutely shut down lefties this season, holding them to a .115/.207/.115 slash line. But on Saturday, he’ll face arguably the best lefthanded hitter in baseball, with the Diamondbacks spending the weekend in the nation’s capital. Harper has actually been a bit of a mortal against lefties this year, hitting .200/.417/.440 without the platoon advantage going into play Monday. It’s still hard to read this as anything other than advantage Harper.
Corey Kluber vs. Nelson Cruz, Friday
Kluber and Cruz have never shared a division, but they have shared a league since 2012, and, as such, have seen plenty of one another. Cruz has stepped into the box against Kluber 25 times, getting seven hits, including two homers and three doubles, and striking out five times. We can call that mostly a draw, though there aren’t many hitters who can say they have a .640 slugging percentage in 25 plate appearances against Kluber. The Indians’ ace has been absolutely electric this year, amassing a 1.96 ERA, 0.76 WHIP and 37 strikeouts in 36 2/3 innings. He faced the Mariners on Opening Day, however, and Cruz took him deep in the first inning.
Gerrit Cole, Charlie Morton and Justin Verlander vs. Mike Trout, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday
Want the latest piece of proof that we’re watching a generational talent take the field every day for the Angels? Trout has a 1.088 OPS through 22 games with a league-leading nine homers, and no one is talking about him. We just take that level of elite performance from him for granted. Angels-Astros is the headliner series to open the week, especially since Cole, Morton and Verlander will all take the mound for the defending World Series champs. How they attack Trout, and how that changes as the series progresses, will be a fascinating subplot to the three games.
Shohei Ohtani vs. Astros, Tuesday
This is the series that just keeps on giving. The blister issue that popped up for Ohtani last week has subsided, and he’ll take the ball in the toughest assignment of his young MLB career on Tuesday. How he navigates a lineup that includes George Springer, Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, Alex Bregman, Josh Reddick and Yuli Gurriel, coming off the adversity of last week, will tell us as much about a pitcher as we can learn in one start. This is appointment television.
Jose Berríos vs. Yankees, Tuesday
The last time Berríos faced the Yankees, he got knocked around for three runs on five hits in last year’s AL wild-card game. Berríos already looks like a different pitcher since then, as I detailed in my piece on him last week: He’s been one of the best pitchers in the league this April, notching a 1.63 ERA, 0.58 WHIP and 29 strikeouts against one walk in 27 2/3 innings. The Yankees went into that wild-card game with the decided advantage. That’s no longer the case. Berríos has what it takes to dominate the vaunted Yankees lineup. This is the headliner matchup of the weekend.
Now that teams can call up prospects without losing a year of team control, baseball’s most majors-ready prospect since Kris Bryant (as determined by me) should arrive any day. Let’s see what Ronald Acuña is up to at Triple A Gwinnett.
Acuña has started to heat up since we last checked in on him. He’s riding a five-game hitting streak, during which he has gone 8-for-24 with a homer and two walks. In that time, he has raised his batting average 78 points, OBP 55 points and slugging percentage 116 points. Braves GM Alex Anthopolous continues to say that the team wants to see him get hot before promoting him, and it seems that the great Gwinnett thaw is underway. The bet here remains that Acuña is in a Braves uniform by May 1.
Andrelton Simmons is going to get most of the attention for this double play, which is understandable, but don’t miss the ridiculous turn by Ian Kinsler. An A+ play by both middle infielders for the Angels on this 6-4-3 beauty.