- David Schoenfield, SweetSpot blogger
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The New York Yankees are the cockroaches of the American League, refusing to die. Even the past two years, with rosters that at times resembled more what you'd expect to see in Scranton/Wilkes Barre than the Bronx, they still finished over .500. A losing season is something that hasn't happened since 1992.
I thought this could be the season. An aging lineup of over-30-somethings. A rotation depending on Masahiro Tanaka's elbow ligaments holding together and CC Sabathia discovering past glory. No Derek Jeter pumping leadership from the top step of the dugout.
Yet here they are, 13-9 at the end of April with an impressive plus-25 run differential, holding a one-game lead in the AL East heading into this weekend's series against the Boston Red Sox, and leading the way are two former stars who haven't contributed much in recent seasons. Alex Rodriguez is hitting .232, but with a .369 OBP and .507 slugging percentage; he's played in 20 of the Yankees' 22 games and is on a 37-homer, 96-RBI pace. Mark Teixeira, a notorious slow starter, is hitting just .216 but has eight home runs and 18 RBIs, a 59-homer pace.
April paces are silly, of course, but the production they've received from the 39-year-old Rodriguez -- coming off hip surgery as well as last year's suspension -- and the 35-year-old Teixeira certainly ranks as one of April's biggest surprises. Of course, the pair isn't going to combine 96 home runs by season's end, so the Yankees will have to count on other players to pick it up. Tanaka has already landed on the DL for the next month with a wrist issue. Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury have both been getting on base at .400 clip, which has been vital for the overall offensive improvement. The biggest strength, however, has been the 1-2 bullpen punch of Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, who have allowed just one unearned run in 23⅔ innings.
I still have doubts about the Yankees' ability to stay in this thing in the long haul, but it's also clear there's no super team in the AL East. The cockroach might live another year.
Here are nine more early surprises -- some good, some not so good.
2. Joc Pederson, Los Angeles Dodgers. The rookie center fielder has been not just one of baseball's top rookies, but one of its best all-around players. Most impressive: His eye at the plate. Pederson currently leads the majors with a 22.1 percent walk rate (just ahead of Bryce Harper's 22.0 percent). Pederson is 23, Harper 22. Since 1950, the highest walk rate from a player 23 or younger is Frank Thomas' 19.7 percent in 1991. Pederson's walk rate has helped him build a .461 OBP, third-best in the majors. Yes, that patience also comes with a lot of strikeouts (he ranks 19th in strikeout rate), evoking comparisons to Adam Dunn and Jim Thome, but that didn't bother Don Mattingly enough to keep him from moving Pederson into the leadoff spot on Wednesday for the slumping Jimmy Rollins. He's not going to .298/.461/.596 all season, but he's going to get on base and score a lot of runs in that lineup.
3. Mike Moustakas and that Kansas City Royals offense. Last year the Royals averaged 4.02 runs per game, ranking ninth in the AL. This year, it looks they've cloned a bunch of George Bretts. After pounding the Tigers 8-1 on Thursday with 14 more hits, the Royals are hitting .306 and averaging 5.41 runs per game, second in the league. While there's some obvious regression in store -- no team has hit .300 since the 1950 Red Sox and the 2007 Yankees are the only non-Rockies team to hit .290 in the past 15 years -- Moustakas' improvement is the most intriguing. A dead pull hitter throughout his career, he has 15 opposite-field hits already after having 18 in all of 2014. He's hitting .356/.420/.522 and looks great in the No. 2 spot in the order.
4. Devon Travis, Toronto Blue Jays. I wrote a little thing on Travis the other day. The rookie second baseman is hitting .325/.393/.625 with six home runs, giving the Jays offense at a position where they've haven't had any for years.
5. New York Mets. Thursday's loss to the Washington Nationals dropped them to 15-8, but still an outstanding month for a team that lost Zack Wheeler before the season, has had David Wright play just eight games, had its projected closer suspended for PEDs and then lost starting catcher Travis d'Arnaud. The thing is, when you go through the numbers, it's not anything screams "fluke." The 3.33 team ERA is sixth in the majors but nobody is over his head; the offense is OK but far from spectacular and has had some timely hitting. Getting Wright back -- assuming he produces -- will help. But it seems, especially in a weak division, the Mets will be in this thing all season.
6. San Diego Padres scoring runs, but under .500. This has to be driving general manager A.J. Preller crazy. He remade last year's MLB-worst offense and it's been even better than expected, tied for second in runs per game in the NL. Yet the Padres are under .500 as their pitching/defense has allowed 4.70 runs per game, way up from last year's 3.56. And that's with free agent James Shields off to a 2.90 ERA through five starts. But Tyson Ross has had control issues with 18 walks in 27⅔ innings, Ian Kennedy had a couple bad outings before going on the DL and the bullpen has been shaky -- even Craig Kimbrel has allowed five runs in 8⅔ innings. Oh, yeah, that defense everyone wondered about: The Padres are credited with minus-15 Defensive Runs Saved so far, 28th in the majors.
7. Corey Kluber winless in five starts. Has the Sports Illustrated cover jinx struck the Indians the way it did back in 1987? They're 7-14 after Thursday's loss to Toronto and it's been a three-way effort: Pitching, hitting, defense. Don't be fooled by Kluber's 0-3, 4.24 start, however: He's the same pitcher as last season. Strikeout rate is nearly as good, walk rate is the same, home run is the same. The difference? A .318 BABIP is .370 this year, and a .357 average allowed with runners in scoring position compared to .207 last year.
8. Dee Gordon, Miami Marlins, and DJ LeMahieu, Colorado Rockies. They're hitting .409 and .406, joining Baltimore's Adam Jones as .400 hitters for the month. Gordon is interesting, coming off a strange 2014. He got off to a hot start in April, hitting .344, and drew 24 walks through June, so factoring in his speed, he was a decently effective leadoff hitter. But in the last two months, he drew just two walks and struck out 36 times, leading the Dodgers to sour on him and deal him to the Marlins. He's not walking (three so far) and he's yet to miss a game, so we'll see if he holds up better than last year.
9. Washington Nationals rotation. Not clicking yet. It will get better.
Ten early surprises in the baseball season -- some good, some not so good.