Ready for Take-off
June 1, 2005

April is a confusing month.  After the rosters are decided out of spring training, most of the promising youngsters are sent back down to the minors because they still have options while scrap heap players like Chris Singleton get one last chance to prove they belong.  Hot spring training streaks spill over into the regular season and cold starts - especially those by pitchers - make one wonder whether last year was a fluke or that this year is the final curtain call of a star's great career. 

But by the time May rolls around, most of the scrubs have shown their true nature and have made way for the stud rookies to begin making their first appearances.  All becomes right in the game and from May Day until October, baseball reveals it's truth.  No longer are the stats polluted with the noise from the Joe Horgans and Enrique Wilsons... er, well, ok, with the exception of Dusty Baker-managed teams, who seem to always have a spot for these guys, most of the hangers-on are gone. 

What I like to do every year around the end of May is check out who is heating up this month and who is cooling down since this is really the first month of the season where the competition is pretty much set personnel-wise.  Managers and GMs see what they have and begin making plans to find what they need in June and July.  So I thought I'd look at a few of the cold starts from April and see which direction they went in May.

Eric Chavez
April OPS: .588; May OPS: .597
Chavez May didn't look very different from his horrid April.  Last year he hit for low average out of the gate, but the difference was that by the time June rolled around he already had 13 homers and drawn nearly 40 walks.  This year, he's got 4 homers and 16 walks going into June.  Maybe he's trying to carry a team that really doesn't have many good hitters, especially in the power department.  Whatever it is, it's bound to change because he is simply too young and too talented for this to continue the entire season.  However, there's no guarantee the turnaround will occur soon.

Vernon Wells
April OPS: .620; May OPS: .838
Wells is a notoriously slow starter plus he went into the season with the added pressure of being the main guy in the Blue Jays offense, a mantle Carlos Delgado wore previously.  It was interesting to watch him early on because there didn't appear to be anything wrong with his swing; he just didn't appear to be seeing the ball very well.  He's been picking up lately and while his goal of 30 steals seems far fetched, he has enough speed to get into the high teens as his batting average rises high enough to get more opportunities. 

Richard Hidalgo
April OPS: .515; May OPS:  1.095
Hidalgo is a classic streaky hitter, who looks helpless one week and unstoppable the next.  We know what kind of season he's capable of and the Ballpark at Arlington is as good a place to hit as any in the AL.  The question is how long will his streaks last, both good and bad.   Right now, he's seeing the ball very well, walking as often as striking out.  With number of opportunities that line-up provides, this hot streak will probably last a while.

Victor Martinez
April OPS: .620; May OPS: .602 (vs. lefties: .863)
After a breakout season last year, Martinez has really struggled.  At least part of it could be that he's overswinging in an attempt to justify the contract he got this spring.  Whatever it is, the news isn't all bad.  Sure, his walk rate has dropped, but so has his strikeout rate and he still seems to be able to hit pretty well against lefties.  He has hit in each of his last four games (6-for-15 with a double and two homers) so it appears as though he's starting to come out of his slump.

Adrian Beltre
April OPS: .645; May OPS: .598
Like Martinez, he may have put exaggerated expectations on himself after signing a lucrative contract this offseason.  And like Martinez, he's been on somewhat of a hitting streak of late, getting a hit in 9 of his last 10 games, even though it's only been one hit per game.  On the plus side three of the ten hits have gone for extra bases.  Beltre has a history of slow starts.  In fact last year was the first season in which he didn't post a pre-All Star Break OPS of under .700.  So these kind of struggles aren't really anything new; they're just different than last year.  Expect a second half rebound, but not like last year.  His walk rate in 2004 was his best since 2000.  This year's rate more resembles what he did from 2001-2003.

Steve Finley
April OPS: .549; May OPS: .875
Finley is beginning to heat up, but that doesn't mean that he's going to stay hot.  Like Hidalgo, he's a very streaky hitter.  In fact, since 2001 he's had seven different months in which he he hit less than .235 (three of them under .200), but also six different months in which he's hit .335 or better.  When all is said and done, his numbers will still be below where he finished last season because a) he's still new to the league, but more importantly b) because Anaheim is a tougher park to hit in than either the BOB or Chavez Ravine. 

Jermaine Dye
April OPS: .517; May OPS: .933
Word must've gotten to Dye that his job security was at risk once Frank Thomas returned to the roster.  He was hitting .175 entering May with only 3 homers, but by May 22nd his average had climbed 56 points and he had added 6 more homers to his tally.  He still doesn't have a firm grasp of the right field job but his chances improved when Carl Everett slumped in the last half of May.  Thomas' iffy status over the next week and a half will afford him additional time to prove that he belongs in the everyday line-up.  Staying healthy and avoiding another second half slump like last year will be his biggest challenges.

Phil Nevin
April OPS: .720; May OPS: .744 (but his average has jumped 70 points.)
With Nevin, the problem seems to fairly easily explained: he just didn't hit for much power in May.  He appears to have been the victim of bad luck in April and the beneficiary of good luck in May when it comes to balls in play.  Neither his strikeout or walk rate changed, so it's probably best to expect a leveling out on the batting average side.  Nevin has a history of better power numbers in the second half so this is probably just a typical year with an atypically unlucky beginning.

Aramis Ramirez
April OPS: .802; May OPS: .870
Ramirez' April and May are somewhat strange in that despite hitting .241 in April and .289 in May, his on base was higher in April.  He drew 13 walks while striking out 13 times during the first month of the season, but followed it up with a more aggressive approach walking only 5 times with 14 Ks in May.  The change paid off as his slugging percentage rose nearly 100 points.  But it will be interesting to see if he can integrate the two approaches as the season wears on in order to become an elite hitter.

Mike Lowell
April OPS: .578; May OPS: .573
With the addition of Carlos Delgado, one would have thought that Lowell would have gotten off to a better start, especially since he a notoriously fast starter.  Since 2002, his pre-Break OPS has been nearly 200 points better than after.  However, he's gotten off to perhaps the worst start of his career and there don't appear to be any explanations.   His walk and  K rates are pretty much in line with his career numbers.  There's really no reason to expect him to hit better other than the fact that he shouldn't be hitting this badly.

Jim Thome
April OPS: .651; May OPS: .766
Back troubles plagued Thome for the first month until they sidelined him for a few weeks.  Since then, he more resembles the real Jim Thome but isn't all the way back.  His walk rate has improved as has his strikeout rate, so it's really a matter of him getting his timing back before the power starts to show up en force.  The caveat here is that back troubles don't often just disappear forever so they may continue to be a concern.  However, with what he is capable of producing -  he's had six 10-homer months in the last three years and three in which he drove in 30 runs - he worth the risk.

Carlos Lee
April OPS: .647; May OPS:  1.004
Lee appears to be making these slow starts a habit.  Last year he hit for decent average but only had 4 homers after the first two months.  In 2003, he hit for decent average and power but really turned it on after the Break.  In 2002 he didn't hit for average or power until the second half.  So it's not a surprise that he got off to a slow April.  What is a surprise is that he's started to crush the ball this early.  In May he hit 9 homers and drove in 30 with a batting average of .304.  Is this a career year for him?  It could be, hitting in that ballpark against the depleted pitching in the Central division. 

Jack Wilson
April OPS: .393; May OPS: .720
Wilson was slow to fully recover from an appendectomy, but appears to be making up ground now.  Obviously, he's not going to fully recapture the magic of last season as that had al the earmarks of a career season.  However, his strikeout/walk rate is much improved so we should still see a pretty solid hitter the rest of the way.