2017’s Offensive April

We are now two days into the month of May, but April was one heck of a fun 30 days. Specifically, there was plenty of great offense to go around the league – unless you are a Mets, Giants, or Royals fan. In looking at the March/April leader-boards, you’ll some familiar names near the top:

  • By wRC+, Bryce Harper is tied with Freddie Freeman in second at 223. Harper had a huge April last season (179 wRC+), only to have a 5-month slump (100 wRC+) to follow. Rumor is he was playing through an injury for much of last season, and this April may be supporting that claim.
  • Freeman is one of the few best hitters in the universe going back to the middle of June, hitting .347/.449/.695 and a 195 wRC+ since then. He’s turned into a legit star.
  • Mike Trout is the best player in baseball, and hit to a 219 wRC+. He won the AL Player of the Month. Boring boring boring! This guy should be marketed EVERYWHERE, and I never see him advertised anywhere outside of some Subway commercials here and there.

We also have some newer names to appear at the top:

  • Aaron Judge mashed the ball to the effect of a 216 wRC+ after a rough cup of coffee last year when he had a WRC+ of only 63. Judge has taken over the mantle for overachieving young Yankees slugger from Gary Sanchez.
  • After a pedestrian 2016 (107 wRC+), Sano has nearly doubled his results to a 208 wRC+ in the month of April. He always had a superstar potential bat. Could this be his breakout?
  • Mitch Haniger spent April trying to prove that he was the best part of the Walker/Segura trade as Seattle’s best hitter with a 198 wRC+.
  • Avisail Garcia did his absolute best to remind people that there are still talented players left on the White Sox roster with a 188 wRC+.
  • Aaron Hicks only got 57 PA in the month of April, but made every one count hitting better than he ever has to a 188 wRC+. Last season, Brian Cashman compared Aaron Hicks to Red Sox outfield Jackie Bradley Jr, and since then has hit .280/.361/.488 in 192 PA. Maybe there was something to the comparison.

Then we have 2 names that haven’t meant much in the MLB in a few years that are making us remember their offensive potential:

  • Ryan Zimmerman led the pack with a monster 243 wRC+ in the month of April, going on to beat out the crowded field for the NL Player of the Month. Zimmerman hasn’t been much of a hitter the last couple of years, but came back in a big way last month.
  • Lastly we have the player who tied Mike Trout with a 219 wRC+. This is a player who hasn’t played in an MLB game since 2012! Eric Thames has been playing the role of Godzilla in Japan the last few years, doing so well he earned himself a three-year, 16 million dollar contract with the Brewers in the offseason. Thames has re-introduced himself to MLB pitching in the best way possible, by crushing every pitch in sight.

Seeing so many great offensive seasons. it got me wondering how this 2017 class stacks up against previous players in previous seasons. What I did next was go to the Fangraphs Splits Leaderboards to see. You can only go back to 2002, which is admittedly a pretty big bummer, but it gives us 16 seasons worth of Aprils to work with:

When sorting by wRC+ from 2002-2017 in the month of April, with at least 50 PA, the players previously mentioned come in as follows:

7. Ryan Zimmerman 243
14. Freddie Freeman 223
15. Bryce Harper 223
22. Eric Thames 219
23. Mike Trout 219
31. Aaron Judge 216
42. Miguel Sano 208
69. Mitch Haniger 198
104. Asivail Garcia 188
106. Aaron Hicks 188

That is 10 players from this season’s April who are in the top 110 offensive seasons since 2002. Not only that, but 5 of them in the top 25. To compare that to previous years in the search, here are how many placed in the top 110:

Year – Players
2002 – 6
2003 – 6
2004 – 7
2005 – 5
2006 – 10
2007 – 6
2008 – 4
2009 – 11
2010 – 11
2011 – 7
2012 – 7
2013 – 6
2014 – 5
2015 – 6
2016 – 3
2017 – 10

As far as number of players in the top 110, 2017’s April wasn’t the most special month. However it has been the most by far in a month going back to 2010. In 2017 there are even more than 2015 and 2016 combined.

Going back to the players, below is a chart showing part of why they may have had such an excellent month with the bat:

Originally I looked into what many baseball fans have been hearing about since the spring: Elevate, elevate, elevate. Players are trying to hit the ball in the air more and keep the ball off the ground. Some of these players are hitting the ball in the air more, but it didn’t look like enough to explain some of these players’ sudden outbursts.
Next I looked into the obvious: plate discipline.

  • Every player on this list outside of Trout have lowered their K% from 2016 to 2017. Every player but Garcia has raised their BB% from 2016 to 2017. For many of these players this is a big step in the right direction.
  • However for some, such as Zimmerman, Harper, and Garcia, their BB/K ratio has remained about the same. For those 3 it is likely more about making contact, and making hard contact than taking walks or striking out less.
  • For players like Sano and Judge, taking more walks will help them pair that skill with their immense power, and they could aim to be an Adam Dunn type of hitter.
    For a player like Hicks, who doesn’t traditionally have a ton of power, upping his walk rate could change him from a below average hitter into an above average one, even if the power returns to normal levels.
  • If Freeman can maintain a mid teens BB% and bring his K% into the same area, he may be able to stay up with the likes of Trout and Harper near the top of the leader boards.
    Then we still have Haniger who only has 218 PA but does not have the prospect reputation that Sano or Judge had.
    Finally we have Thames who has played one month’s worth of MLB games in the last 5 years and we have no real idea if he can hold up these rates at all.

There are still a lot of questions for the non-Trout players here going forward:

  • Is this the real Bryce Harper, or will he falter like he did after April last season?
  • Is Sano taking the step forward to superstardom that we’ve been waiting for?
  • Is Aaron Judge going to put the Yankees on his back and lead them to the playoffs?

Those are just a few questions, but I believe the most interesting questions of all concerns Eric Thames. Has he returned to the MLB as a top hitter who perfected his form in Japan? Or is he the next Chris Shelton, a man who hit 10 HR with a 196 wRC+ in April of 2006, but only hit 8 HR with a 77 wRC+ the last 453 PA of his career.

For Eric Thames and the good of the MLB, let’s hope his legacy is more than just one incredible month.

 

Bobby Down, Baseline Times MLB Contributor