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May 5, 2009

Prospectus Today

April Fools

by Joe Sheehan

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I've been told that my never-ending pleas for fans, media, and decision makers to take the results of a month of baseball with a grain of salt gets tiring, and commenters on our site have noted that with some frustration as well. It's a fair point, but I'm certain that following this general rule makes more sense than knee-jerk overreactions to four starts or 50 at-bats this early in the season.

I mean, if you put too much weight on one month of baseball, you say things like this:

"The [Diamondbacks] will be among the best in the league for years to come."

At this point in the 2008 season, the Diamondbacks were 19-7 and seemed ready to run away with the NL West. Their young core was raking, with Conor Jackson at .345/.434/.583 and showing the power we'd been waiting for from him. Justin Upton was hitting .323/.371/.559. The long-awaited ascension of a young team seemed to be upon us. And I bought it, in part because it fit my preconceived notions, and in part because I simply forgot that players can do just about anything in one month. Players such as Casey Kotchman:

"Look for [Casey] Kotchman to hit .320/.410/.500 this year and continue being the Angels' best player."

Yeah. Kotchman, a longtime favorite of mine whose progress had been stymied by injuries, got off to a .326/.392/.565 start. I went on ESPNews and sung his praises more than once. Kotchman even went out in the first game after I wrote that and picked up three hits, including two doubles. As you already know, it didn't last. From the time the article dropped through July 28, Kotchman batted .274/.304/.409, drawing eight unintentional walks in nearly 300 plate appearances. He was so bad that the Angels went out and acquired two months of Mark Teixeira's services to replace him, sending Kotchman to Atlanta. He was worse with the Braves.

So, I got fooled. Later in May, I wrote Jim Edmonds' career eulogy. He then caught on with the Cubs and played very well for them, batting .256/.369/.568, and helping them reach the postseason.

Twenty-nine days into last season, the Orioles were 15-11. The A's were 17-10. The Marlins were 15-10. Kosuke Fukudome was at .326/.444/.483. Brian Bannister had a 2.48 ERA, three wins, and an 18/6 K/BB. On the other hand, CC Sabathia had a 7.88 ERA. Gil Meche? 7.22. Roy Oswalt had allowed seven homers and 24 runs in 36 innings. Carlos Delgado had a 645 OPS. These are the things we were talking about, and any commentary other than "it won't last" would have been wrong.

Now, some April stories end up being quite real. Cliff Lee did; he began the season as the best pitcher in the AL and he ended up winning the AL Cy Young Award. Carlos Quentin was an MVP candidate for most of the year after his .316/.455/.620 start. Andruw Jones and his terrible start set the tone for a lost season. Ryan Dempster really did turn a corner. The thing is, while we can use hindsight to know that Lee and Quentin and Jones were real, and that Bannister and Fukudome and Kotchman weren't, the available evidence at the time would not likely have caused you to nail those answers. I mean, do you remember the Brian Bannister hype? Or for that matter, the Fukudome hype? Maybe not, because the performance of those two players went south and took the hype with it, and we forgot.

We shouldn't forget, because the key point is illustrated by those players. April is fickle. April sometimes lies, and sometimes tells the truth, and discerning between when she's doing each is hard work, sometimes even impossible work. Heck, consider the current belle of the ball, Zack Greinke. Last year at this point, the righty was 3-0, 1.25, and second in the AL in ERA to Lee. He had a good year, certainly, but he didn't rewrite any record books, and in fact, he didn't get a single vote in the Cy balloting. Or, if you prefer, consider J.J. Hardy, off to a brutal .167/.234/.286 start this year. He opened 2008 hitting .218/.281/.287 before pulling it together and finishing at .283/.343/.478. There's nothing to say he won't do it again.

It is possible to learn things in April. It's just as possible to be misled, and a look back at the big stories through about 25 games a year ago shows just how much of what we think we know, we don't.

By the way, I wasn't a complete moron last year. There was this nugget in May about a team I'm known to hate.

"The buy-in for winning the AL Central eight weeks ago was 93 wins. It's lower than that now, and if the Sox weren't likely to reach that first number, it's much more likely that they can get to 88 or 89, and that may be all they need."

Thanks to Marc Normandin for his research assistance with this piece.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

16 comments have been left for this article.

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