Flying out of the gate

The small sample sizes of early season statistics often frustrate those of us who enjoy looking at the numbers. While the gang at “Baseball Tonight” likes to tell us that Albert Pujols is on pace for 185 home runs, it can be kind of difficult to focus on the bigger picture of the whole season. But because they’re all we have, April stats stand out to the point where even the casual fan will note that Rafael Furcal is leading the league with a .407 average. We notice hot (and cold) streaks more in the first month of the season than at any time of the year.

Some hot starts are harbingers of historic seasons. Other times, jumping out of the gate means the fall is much more dramatic—and frustrating.

With small sample sizes in mind, here’s a look at five of the best Aprils in recent history.

Ken Singleton
.472/.517/.981 in April 1981

Coming off a 1980 season in which he hit .304/.397/.485 with 24 home runs and 104 RBI, Singleton was still thought of as a feared slugger. He had finished second in the AL MVP vote as recently as 1979 and was third in the voting in 1977. But he was entering his age 34 season, so Singleton began 1981 as part of Earl Weaver’s corner outfield rotation, sharing time with Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein.

As if with something to prove, Singleton was unstoppable in the beginning of the season, with base hits in 25 of his first 53 at- bats. But his performance couldn’t help the Orioles, who struggled with an 8-7 April record. Not that Singleton’s numbers were empty. The Orioles averaged just 3.9 runs per game for the month, but Singleton played a role in 28 percent of those runs.

He moved between the third and fourth spots in the lineup, so with such a high slugging and on-base percentage, he should have scored more runs and collected more RBI. But the ’81 Orioles as a team struggled to get on base and hit only .243/.309/.354 in the first month of the season. And six of Singleton’s seven April home runs came with the bases empty.

As the calendar turned to May, Singleton cooled. He hit just .176/.326/.176 in his first 10 games in May and began a prolonged slide that continued through the season. Singleton hit only six more home runs the rest of the year, but stayed above .300 until Sept. 17. He then hit just .125 over his last 15 games, finishing 1981 at .278/.380/.435. In the wackiness of the split season caused by the strike, the Orioles finished second in the first half with a 31-23 record and fell to fourth in the second half, despite a 28-23 mark.

George Brett
.460/.528/.921 in April 1983

By the beginning of 1983, Brett had won two batting titles and an MVP award and had cemented his reputation as one of the best hitters in baseball. If there was any flaw in his game, it was that he was known as a slow starter. In fact, it was a tag that would stick with him his entire career. When he retired in 1993, his career line for the month of April was .264/.358/.429 —the only month he hit under .300 and slugged less than .470.

Brett did not start slowly in April of ’83.

He began the season getting a base hit in every game he played in the month, and ultimately hit in 19 consecutive games. Not known for a home run stroke, Brett did knock five out of the park, and his huge slugging percentage was helped by the fact he hit 12 doubles for the month.

For the Royals, who were off to a 10-7 start, Brett was the entire offense. With five home runs, 18 runs scored and 20 RBI, he directly accounted for 40 percent of all Kansas City runs. At the end of the month, the Royals were just a game behind California for first place in the AL West.

Brett and his hot bat kept the Royals in contention throughout the first half of the season. But at the end of July, Brett’s bat cooled and with it, so did the Royals’ postseason hopes. On July 25, the Royals were a game behind the White Sox and their third baseman was hitting .343/.431/.698. But over the next 40 games, Brett hit just .228/.302/.331 with just nine doubles and 18 runs scored. With Brett struggling, the Royals couldn’t keep pace with the White Sox and by the end of August, they were 10.5 games back.

At the end of the season, Brett was at .310/.385/.563 with 38 doubles and 25 home runs while the Royals finished 20 games back in the standings.

Barry Bonds
.431/.553/.889 in April 1993

In December of 1992, Bonds signed a six-year, $43 million deal with the San Francisco Giants. At the time, it was the largest contract given to a player in both total sum and average annual salary ($7,166,667 per year).

Bonds rewarded his new team by getting off to the best start of his career. (As you’ll see in a moment, he would soon eclipse this fine April.) Batting fifth behind Will Clark and Matt Williams, Bonds hit seven home runs and drove in 25 in his first 23 games as a Giant. He also walked 21 times, but only four of those were intentional.

His start helped the Giants to a 15-9 April record on their way to a heartbreaking 103 win season—the Braves won 104 games that summer. Bonds finished the season leading the league in on base percentage (.458), slugging (.677), home runs (46) and RBI (123). He missed out on the Triple Crown by finishing fourth with a .336 batting average. For his efforts, he was named the NL MVP for the third time in his career.

And it turned out his performance could be topped…

Barry Bonds
.472/.696/1.132 in April 2004

Can a hitter come any closer to perfection? Just typing those numbers took my breath away.

Over his first 23 games, Bonds had 25 hits in 53 at bats. Fifteen of his 25 went for extra bases—he hit five doubles and 10 home runs. He walked 39 times in the season’s first month, including 18 intentional passes.

Unfortunately, Bonds couldn’t pitch. While he was powering the Giants to 102 runs scored in the month, Giants pitchers were allowing 140 runs to cross the plate. Thanks to the run difference, San Francisco was able to win only 10 of its first 24 games.

The pitching improved and the Giants won 91 games, yet finished two games back of the Dodgers in the West. Bonds ended up at a spectacular .362/.609/.812 with 45 home runs and 232 walks en route to a record 1.422 OPS. It seems kind of silly to have to add that he won his seventh MVP award.

Larry Walker
.456/.538/.911 in April 1997

After missing almost half of the ’96 season because of injury, Walker returned with a vengeance in April of 1997. He took an 0-4 on Opening Day, but then ran off a stretch of 16 games in which he hit .540/.613/1.095 with nine home runs and 25 runs scored. Included were seven games with three or more hits.

Walker’s hot start helped Colorado to 17 wins in its first 24 games and a share of the lead in the NL West at the end of April. Although the Rockies faded in July and ultimately fell out of the race, Walker continued to hit. He finished the season at .366/.452/.720 with 49 extra base hits and won the NL MVP award. Like Bonds in ’04, Walker just missed out on the Triple Crown by finishing second in the batting race.

Postscript

While these are the best of the best, other starts also are notable. I’m thinking about Chris Sabo and his .391/.487/.719 in jump starting the 1990 Cincinnati Reds and Pujols doing the same for the ’06 Cardinals by hitting .346/.509/.914 with 14 home runs. And there was Rob Deer signaling the year of the home run with his nine dingers and .338/.440/.770 line in April of 1987 or Pete O’Brien playing out of his head in April of ’88 by hitting .437/.512/.690. All are worthy inclusions and all were noticed at the time because they happened in the first month of the season.

References & Resources
This couldn’t have been done without David Pinto’s Day by Day Database. Well, it could have, but then it would have been a pain and I would have relied on Baseball Reference way too much. Is that even possible?

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