We’re trained to remember that “water finds its level” over the course of a Major League season. Across 162 games, all the vagaries and oddities will settle down and a player’s statistics will generally be reflective of his talent level.
But in this unique 60-game season we’re about to embark on, that old adage simply isn’t true. Fast starts will be rewarded, and slow starts will stick to you like superglue.
This got me thinking about some players with a history of running hot or cold in the early going. While there is a big, big difference between baseball in late March, which is when the 2020 season was originally scheduled to begin, and baseball in late July, which is when things will be starting up this year, the process of finding your footing varies from player to player.
Some guys are incredibly consistent from week to week, month to month and year to year (this is the Mike Trout category), while others get to their final numbers with no discernible pattern.
Here are five notable names who have shown a tendency to storm out the gates and five more who typically need more time to ease into the flow of the season:
FIVE FAST STARTERS
1) Bryce Harper, Phillies RF
Don’t call it a nice start. Call it a Bryce start.
Among active players with at least 300 career at-bats in March/April, Harper's 1.025 OPS is the best in MLB (that Trout guy is second, at .981) and more than 100 points higher than his next-best month (May, .902). Even last year, with his own spring shortened by his free-agent saga and the pressure to perform for the Philly faithful prevalent, Harper’s March/April output (.388 on-base percentage, .490 slugging percentage) was slightly more pronounced than in the three months that followed (.367 OBP, .460 SLG).
It's worth noting here that Harper’s teammate, Rhys Hoskins, has also demonstrated an affinity for April thus far in his young career (.994 OPS, vs. a .720 mark in May). So, if those two were to have their typical start, the Phillies could assert themselves early in the deep National League East.
2) Charlie Morton, Rays SP
If we focus just on the last two seasons, it is the early season showing that has allowed Morton to place himself in the upper echelon of starting arms. His March/April ERA across 2018-19 was 2.21 -- bettered in that span only by his former Astros teammate Justin Verlander (1.94).
Morton was, of course, quite good the rest of the way, too (3.29 combined ERA from May through the end of the regular season in those two seasons). But the fact that he’s limited opponents to a combined .182 average and .566 OPS in the opening month over 2018-19 is pretty striking. This could be a guy who is ahead of the hitters on a Rays team with a deep enough pitching staff to seriously challenge the Yankees in the American League East in a shortened season.
3) Freddie Freeman, Braves 1B
Freeman is a fantastic player and four-time All-Star. But over the past three seasons, he’s been MVP caliber in the early portion of the schedule. Among those with at least 600 plate appearances in March/April/May, Freeman’s 1.021 OPS and 164 weighted runs created plus in those months in that three-season span is second only to… well, you know who (Trout, 1.116 OPS, 191 wRC+).
For his total career, Freeman has slugged .520 in the first half against .484 in the second half.
4) Carlos Martínez, Cardinals SP/RP
The Cardinals have a lot of pitching depth, and as of now, it’s unclear whether Martinez will go back to the rotation or again pitch in relief after assuming closer duties when he returned from an injury last year.
Whatever the role, there’s reason to believe Martinez can shine early. Over the past five seasons, his 2.39 ERA and .193 opponents’ average in March/April are both the lowest among pitchers with at least 100 innings in those months. His career first-half ERA (3.14) is more than half a point lower than his second-half ERA (3.69).
5) Aaron Judge, Yankees RF
Judge is in the final stages of his recovery from a fractured right rib. So put a big ol’ question mark next to this one.
But Judge started strong in the 2017 (1.161 OPS, 10 homers in March/April), ‘18 (1.037 OPS, seven homers in March/April) and ’19 seasons (.925 OPS, five homers). In the totality of his career, to date, he has a .296/.414/.599 slash line in first halves and a .246/.369/.510 slash in second halves. A shortened season, therefore, would seem to play to his strengths -- again, if he's healthy.
FIVE SLOW STARTERS
1) Alex Bregman, Astros 3B
Bregman’s March/April last year was strong (.271/.410/.479 slash line) but not necessarily indicative of the MVP-caliber year his 2019 would become. Prior to that, Bregman’s '17 and ’18 seasons saw him put up essentially league-average (102 wRC+) production in March/April. Again, not indicative of what was to come (Bregman was a key contributor for the World Series champs in ’17 and finished fifth in the MVP vote in ’18).
Add it all up, and Bregman’s .765 OPS in March/April is 129 points lower than his next-worst month (July, .894). Perhaps last season was an indication of a turning tide. But given the extreme attention that will be paid to this particular team’s early results, this would not be a good year for this Astro (or first baseman Yuli Gurriel, who has also been prone to sluggish starts the last few years) to struggle to achieve lift-off.
2) Corey Kluber, Rangers SP
Kluber won the AL Cy Young Award in 2014 and '17 despite a March/April ERA of 4.14 and 4.19, respectively, in those two seasons. His career March/April ERA (3.91) is 55 points higher than it is in any other month, and his career second-half ERA (2.92) is second only to that of Clayton Kershaw (2.20) among those with at least 500 second-half innings.
So the Klubot typically needs a little in-season calibration before he kicks into gear. Last year, he never got the opportunity, as a comebacker cracked his forearm on May 1 and left him with an unsightly 5.80 ERA in a lost season. Now, he’s on a new team in an unusual season that is, essentially, all first half.
3) Edwin Encarnación, White Sox DH
The White Sox signed Encarnación to give their lineup a lift, and, as we saw in 2019, when a 36-year-old Encarnación had a combined 34 homers and .875 OPS for the Mariners and Yankees, he’s still capable of providing one.
But Encarnación hasn’t been up to his usual standards at the starts of seasons past. In March/April, he has a career .236/.322/.430 slash, a strikeout rate of 20.4% and a rate of one homer every 21.3 at-bats. Compare that with his .268/.359/.513 slash, 16.6% K rate and rate of a homer ever 15.9 at-bats the rest of the way. You can’t blame it all on cold weather, because Encarnación’s best seasons took place inside the Toronto dome.
4) Zack Wheeler, Phillies SP
Philadelphia bet big on Wheeler’s stuff and upside by inking him to a five-year, $118 million contract in December, and if he can extrapolate his second-half track record over full seasons (and, of course, remain healthy), he’ll more than live up to it.
In the past two seasons, Wheeler’s combined 2.26 second-half ERA in 23 starts has been bettered only by his former Mets teammate Jacob deGrom (1.58) and the Cardinals’ Jack Flaherty (2.26). But in 37 first-half starts in that span, Wheeler’s 4.57 ERA is the 16th-highest in MLB.
5) Carlos Santana, Indians 1B
Despite being an above-average offensive contributor in every year of his career, to date, Santana was a first-time All-Star last year, at age 33. That’s because it was the rare season in which his first-half output justified such attention. But, generally speaking, he’s a second-half kind of guy. In his career, Santana has a .241/.364/.434 slash before the break and .262/.371/.469 slash after. This year, Santana won’t have that kind of ramp-up time on a win-now Tribe team.
Speaking of, it’s interesting to note that since Indians manager Terry Francona arrived in 2013, Cleveland has the Majors’ second-best record overall (.564 winning percentage) but ranks 21st in the Majors in March/April (.486). It’s easy, though, to assert or assume that Cleveland’s weather patterns might have a little something to do with that.