In the name of Ethelred and all that is unready

Once upon a time there was a king named Ethelred. He ruled Anglo-Saxons in England a few decades before William the Conqueror took over the place. Unlike a heroic nickname such as “the Conqueror” or “the Wise” Ethelred had the misfortune to go down in history as “the Unready.”

With that nickname, his reputation has suffered. It conjures an image of someone who had responsibilities thrust upon him before he was ready, and who began by blundering. Whether or not he deserves that reputation is immaterial, but that’s how people think of him when they hear that name.

Every year, baseball has its Ethelreds, players who begin the year on the wrong foot, misstepping their way through the early part of the season, disappointing fans and teammates alike. The most obvious early season stammerings come from your best players. Like kings, they’re the ones upon whom people depend.

Sometimes the star simply has a bad year. Other times he’s getting old. Other times the batter who was unready all April long explodes to have tremendous seasons the rest of the way. Those are the guys this column will look at. What are the most incredible examples in baseball history of someone following up an unready April with a fantastic next five months?

Plan of action

The goal is simple: find the best seasons with the worst Aprils. To determine that, look at sabermetric’s favorite shorthand stat, OPS. The players with the biggest single-season differences between their April OPS and May 1 onward OPS were the men with the most unready seasons of all.

It’s not possible to know that for all time, because we don’t have April stats for every season. We do have it for Retrosheet seasons, though.

Even then, you can’t go about it for all players, unless you want to spend several decades looking it up. Someone has to be prioritized. In that regard, I’ve looked at everyone from 1956 onward with at least 5,000 plate appearances and an OPS+ of 110. That’s 248 careers featuring 1,950,000 plate appearances.

That’s not everything, but the best players should have the biggest gaps. When they break out of slump, they’ll really do it. Guys with a dozen or so April games weren’t included because that’s too small a sample size. Strike seasons like 1981 and 1994 were tossed out because the post-April months had such an unusually small chunk of games.

MLB’s Ethelred the Unreadies

Having looked it up, here are the top 10 most unready Aprils of them all:

10. TIE: OPS difference of 414: Roger Maris in 1961 (614 April OPS, 1028 OPS after April), and George Brett 1990 (541 April OPS, 955 OPS after April)

Decades ago, Gerald Ford agreed to do a brief bit of humor for Saturday Night Live czar Lorne Michaels. The SNL guru quipped to Ford, “Mr. President, if you do well, who knows where you’ll go from here.” I have a similar feeling looking at Maris’ numbers. Boy, if he hadn’t had such a rotten April, he could’ve really had a nice season for himself and perhaps even set some personal bests.

Of course that’s the year he hit 61 homers. He had a terrible start to the season, though. He hit only one homer in April while hitting a tepid .204. That’s not a historically bad slump, but then again no one else here has an OPS split driven by 60 homers hitting in the next five months.

In his first May game he hit a double (only his third extra-base hit of the year) and took off from there. His slugging percentage was .651 the rest of the way.

Brett’s season was also historic, albeit not nearly as impressive as Maris’ 1961. In 1990, Brett won the batting title, becoming the first man to lead the league in batting average in three different decades.

Normally a slow starter, Brett had an especially rough start that year. He was hitting under .200 as late as April 27. Though a spate of hits against Texas picked it up to .217 at the end of the month (just barely better than Mario Mendoza‘s career average), it was an empty .217. He had only two extra-base hits (both doubles) and some walks for an AVG/OBP/SLG line of .217/.295/.246.

Unlike Maris, he didn’t right himself when May began, either. For the first two weeks of May he continued to struggle to stay over .200. He was 37 years old and coming off a disappointing season. People wondered if he was through.

He proved them wrong. From May 1 onward he hit .345/.401/.955. In the Royals’ last 81 games, he hit a tremendous .388/.433/.673 in what turned out to be his last moment of greatness.

9. OPS difference of 428: Carlton Fisk in 1983 (491 April OPS, 919 OPS after April)

April couldn’t end soon enough for Fisk in 1983. At sunrise on May 1, he was hitting an embarrassingly bad .154/.241/.250 with no home runs whatsoever. Though he’d been good the preceding two seasons with the White Sox, he was only good. At age 35, it looked like the end for this catcher.

Worsening the situation, he continued to fumble his way through May. At the quarter turn he was hitting only .168 with eight extra-base hits. He didn’t leap over .200 for good until mid-June. It became the first time in his career he missed the All-Star Game though healthy all season.

Once he did, though, he was off to the races. From June 17 onward, he hit .330 with a home run every five games. It sparked the Sox who went 71-31 down the stretch after flaying alongside Fisk for the first 10 weeks of the season. The year he wasn’t worthy of an All-Star selection ended with a third-place finish in the MVP voting, his best ever.

8. OPS difference of 434: Dmitri Young in 1999 (486 April OPS, 920 OPS after April)

In April 1999, Young hit .200./.250/.236 for the Reds. That’s about as bad as it gets. The team benched him for a week. Eventually he heat up and hit .318/.370/.550 after being forced to miss some games.

While Young normally started slowly, it stands to reason a 434 OPS split would be the worst of his career, right? Well, one would think . .. .

7. OPS difference of 436: Dmitri Young in 2003 (535 April OPS, 971 OPS after April)

Incredibly, Young provided two of the eight biggest performance differences. With the 119-loss Tigers, he hit the ground thudding four years later, posting a .173/.239/.296 for the month.

The turning point came in an early May series against Baltimore, when he got eight hits, almost 50 percent as many as he had in his first 28 games. He kept rallying, and despite his anemic April, he ended the year with personal bests in hits, home runs, triples, walks, slugging percentage, total bases, OPS, OPS+, HBP, and fittingly enough, intentional walks.

6. OPS difference of 469: Cal Ripken in 1982 (366 April OPS, 835 OPS after April)

Every career has got to start somewhere. A late-season call-up the year before, 1982 was Ripken’s chance to prove he belonged in the bigs. At first, it didn’t look good. Replacing hard-hitting Doug DeCinces at third, in April Ripken hit .123./.138/.228. Baltimore fans could be forgiven for wondering if longtime shortstop Mark Belanger hadn’t been cut in the offseason after all, but reconfigured into a new, younger, even worse hitting infielder.

There was never much danger he would lose his job though. Manager Earl Weaver always made sure he had good defense in his infield, and the kid looked so good out there he (of course) moved him to shortstop. A handful of multi-hit games in early May raised Ripken’s average, and he slowly improved it as the year went on.

However, it’s possible that had he not started so poorly, Weaver wouldn’t have sat him a few times early in the season, and his consecutive game streak would’ve been even longer.

5. OPS difference of 476: Barry Bonds in 1991 (502 April OPS, 978 OPS after April)

He won his first MVP the year before, but he sure didn’t hit like any kind of star early on.

He went nearly two weeks without a hit in mid-April. When he did hit, it wasn’t for much power, as he had only three extra-base hits in April. Even his superior batting eye failed him. He had only one unintentional walk. He entered May hitting .177/.212/.290. Doug Drabek had a better average and OBP. Unable to steal first, the speedy young left fielder had only two stolen bases.

You couldn’t keep Barry Bonds down though. From May 1 on, he hit .308 with 23 homers, 104 walks, and 41 steals in only 137 games. Though he was held off the all-star roster, he ended the year runner-up to Terry Pendleton in the MVP voting.

His April malaise had some historical importance. He won MVPs in 1990, 1992 and 1993. That tied him for the then-record of three career MVPs. Had he won four, this could’ve left an even bigger impression on baseball.

When the 1990s ended, popular opinion deemed Ken Griffey the player of the decade. End-of-the-century polls by institutions like The Sporting News ranked Griffey higher among the game’s immortals. Bonds was recognized as great, but still underrated. If he’d won four MVPs, that would have given him an especially strong hook in the popular consciousness. Nothing gets people’s attention like doing something that’s never been done before.

Had he hit like Barry Bonds that month, it may not have taken the BALCO-era version to make people realize just how great he was.

4. OPS difference of 495: Frank Robinson in 1962 (607 April OPS, 1102 OPS after April)

Like Bonds in 1991, Robinson was the defending MVP when he got off to a sickening start in 1962. Playing in each of Cincinnati’s 19 games in April, he hit .186 with only one home run. The month ended in a fitting 0-for-8 run in both ends of a doubleheader in St. Louis.

He wouldn’t be held hitless in back-to-back games again until mid-July. Continuing to play everyday, he got 195 hits in 143 games, with 45 doubles and 38 homers. He’d been great before this—though only 26 when the year began, he was already tied for 51st on the career homers list—but had never done anything like this.

Even with his weak April, he led the league in OPS (1045) and OPS+ (173). That makes sense, since he also led in both OBP (.421) and SLG (.624). He also led the league in runs (134), doubles (51), extra-base hits (92), times on base (295), runs created (160), offensive win percentage (.808), batting runs (66.1), batting wins (6.4), hit by pitch (11) and—sensibly enough—intentional walks (16). He was also second in batting average (.342) and third in both homers (39) and RBIs (136). He set personal bests in almost all those categories while also having a new career low in strikeouts.

He would’ve led the league in average had it not been for April, and he might have in RBIs as well. Actual leader Tommy Davis had 153, the most by any player from 1950 to 1997. Despite that, Robinson tied Davis from May 1 onward. He wouldn’t have caught Mays in homers (49), but if Robinson’s April had matched the rest of the season it would’ve been a near-miss Triple Crown for the ages.

3. OPS difference of 528: Vada Pinson in 1961 (405 April OPS, 933 OPS after April)

Interestingly, Robinson’s teammate Pinson had an even bigger pre- and post-April disparity the year before. After going 5-for-12 to start the year, Pinson could only muster a double and two pesky singles in his next 44 at-bats.

Then, in his next seven weeks, he hit .397. That was nothing though. In August and September he had an eight-and-a-half-week stretch where he hit .404. He ended the year with a third-place finish in the MVP voting as he’d helped propel the Reds to an unexpected pennant.

2. OPS difference of 534: Norm Cash in 1968 (334 April OPS, 868 OPS after April)

1968 was the year of the pitcher. In April, no one seemed more impotent against the game’s hurlers than Norm Cash. He hit .100 that month. Amazingly, that wasn’t the bad news for him. No, the downside was that his slugging average was .100. He didn’t get a single extra-base hit the entire month.

Things didn’t start going his way when the calendar turned a page. By the second week in May he found himself riding the bench as often as playing. His batting average was only .109 and he still had to connect for his first extra-base hit. In the season’s first fortnight he at least drew some walks to provide value. Those stopped as pitchers refused to pitch around Cash’s limp bat.

Finally, on May 12, he nailed a pitch for two bases. The next day he launched one into the seats. With his groove back, Cash began making up for lost time by punishing pitchers. Even with his start, he ended the year tied for fifth in homers. He had an 875 OPS after that double. Only three men did better in the league that year. While not known for hitting for average, over the last three months he hit .306, better than the league leader.

1. OPS difference of 556: Harold Baines in 1984 (418 April OPS, 974 OPS after April)

The top score in this enterprise is very surprising. If there’s one word I would never associate with Harold Baines, it’s inconsistent. In the 1980s he was the game’s greatest metronome, constantly achieving the sort of production you would expect from him. You knew you were getting 20-some homers, around 100 RBIs, a solid batting average, about 30 doubles and 50 walks. You could set your watch to him

But in 1984, he was anything but consistent. He had a dreadful April, hitting .130/.211/.203 with a single homer. At the end of the month he had the slump from hell, getting one hit (a single) in 31 at-bats.

A base hit in his final April at-bat pulled him out of his funk, and suddenly he was as great as he had been terrible. He had as many hits in the first eight days of May as he had all April. After only one multi-hit game in April, he did it better than every third game the rest of the year.

After May 1, he hit .329/.383/.591 making it possibly the best season of his career. He never bettered that season’s total of homers (29), triples (10), slugging average (.541), OPS (902), total bases (308) and runs created (109). He also set new personal bests in OPS+, hits, walks, batting average and OBP.

He hit .356/.397/.562 in April of 1985, concluding what was easily the best 12-month stretch of his career. Had they come all in one season, he would’ve hit .332 with 32 homers and 100 RBIs. In the 1980s, that could get you serious MVP consideration.

References & Resources
This would have been unimaginable without baseball-reference.com and it’s play index.

First, I used the PI to generate the players worth looking at. Then I went to their career splits, and clicked on the red text for their career April numbers. That caused their stats for every individual season to appear. That made researching this 10 times easier than it otherwise would’ve been. Finally, b-ref also figures seasonal numbers for any two points in a season easily, allowing me to figure out many of the partial season numbers given here.

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