Seven questions April has us pondering

Spring: When a young fan's fancy turns to baseball

May 1st, 2021

April makes people do some strange things. Just look at everyone who threw shorts on at the very first mention of spring or Yankees fans freaking out over a slow start that still has them one hot week away from first place in the AL East.

But still, April baseball is a special kind of magic. The dreams of a World Series, of a magical season, of enduring records being broken are all still alive. And though a blistering hot month might get lost in July or August, when it happens at the start of the season, it really lets our brains run wild.

So, what will and won't come true? Let's gaze into our crystal ball and see if these seven questions we're pondering might keep blooming all year long.

All stats entering Friday's action.

1. Could Jacob deGrom have the best season for a pitcher ever?

The numbers: 2-2, 0.51 ERA, 59 K, 35 IP

deGrom's most recent start was absolutely pathetic: 6 IP, 3 H, 1 BB, 9 K. OK, sorry, I should clarify, that's pathetic by his standards. It ended his streak of three straight starts with 14-plus strikeouts and raised his ERA to a bloated 0.51. To put that in perspective, when Bob Gibson set the single-season ERA mark at 1.12 in 1968, he had a 1.43 ERA through his first five starts. I mean, the numbers don't lie.

deGrom has also tied Nolan Ryan with the most strikeouts through his first five starts at 59. Assuming that deGrom makes the standard 32 starts in a season, he's on pace to strike out 378 batters -- within spitting distance of Ryan's 1973 record for most strikeouts in the Modern Era with 383. Yeah, he's been pretty special.

The verdict: deGrom isn't going to break the ERA record. Sorry, but the ability for players to watch videos and make instant adjustments in the dugout -- along with the spike in home runs in the modern game -- means that just can't happen. But the strikeout record? There's nothing deGrom can't do ... except get the Mets to score runs for him.

Even if he doesn't pull it off, we'll be talking about deGrom's 2020 the way we do Pedro's run of dominance in the late '90s.

2. Can Shohei Ohtani lead the Majors in home runs?

The numbers: .284/.323/.636, 7 HR, 18 RBI, 3 SB as a hitter, 1-0, 3.29 ERA, 23 K, 13 2/3 IP as a pitcher

When Ohtani took the mound on Monday, he pulled off something no one has done for 100 years. No, he didn't rouge his knees -- an actual beauty trick people used back then (it's in a song from "Chicago!"). Instead, he became the first starting pitcher since some guy named Babe Ruth to enter as the starting pitcher while simultaneously leading the league in home runs.

Ohtani is currently tied for the AL lead with seven dingers -- and they're no flukes, either. Ohtani is leading the Majors in barrels per plate appearance and even hit his longest MLB home run, a 451-foot screamer.

The verdict: We should all know better than to say Ohtani can't do something. After all, he's got the most unhittable pitch in the sport, can top 100 with his fastball and still dominate at the dish. But sadly, I can't imagine he's able to pull it off. Ohtani is going to miss out on too many at-bats to stay fresh on the mound all year and, oh yeah, there's this next guy ...

3. Will Vlad Guerrero Jr. hit 50 home runs?

The numbers: .346/.474/.667, 7 HR, 19 RBI, 1 SB

When Guerrero was called up in 2019, it was almost like the coronation of a king. He had already decimated Minor League pitching, leaving a bunch of terrified pitchers in his wake. Plus, he was the son of Vlad Guerrero, himself a Hall of Fame slugger. How long would it take for him to become a superstar? One month? One week? One game?

Well, baseball's a funny thing. Guerrero was solid his rookie year, hitting 15 home runs and posting a slightly-above-league-average .772 OPS. He raised it 19 points in last year's shortened season. Hundreds of ballplayers would kill for that kind of performance -- but it wasn't the performance of a star.

That's changed this year. Slimmed down by 40 pounds in the offseason, Guerrero is crushing the ball, and is on pace for 49 dingers. He's going to all fields, too. Here's a spray chart of all his hits:

But charts aren't sexy. You know what's sexy? This:

The verdict: Yeah, the Vlad revolution is here. With home runs traditionally picking up in the summer months, I'm going to say it: Guerrero will be the first hitter with 50-plus home runs since Pete Alonso in 2019 and the first Jays hitter since José Bautista in 2010 to pull it off.

4. Can the Royals win the AL Central?

The numbers: 15-8, 1 1/2 games ahead of the White Sox in the AL Central

Before the season, the AL Central race looked like it would go down between the powerful Twins and the youthful and exciting White Sox. Some even thought that Cleveland and its perpetual pitching machine could make things interesting. But the Royals? PECOTA projected them to finish with 71 wins -- just four games ahead of the Tigers and with a lowly 1 percent chance of going to the postseason.

Instead, the Royals enter May atop the AL Central. How are they doing it? Well, like the classic Royals of the mid-2010s, nothing they do really leaps out. Their offense ranks 14th in wRC+ and their pitching staff is, yup, also ranked 14th in ERA -- and that's with starter Danny Duffy and closer Josh Staumont combining to give up two runs in 36 1/3 innings.

But no, what the Royals are doing is being perfectly Royals. They beat the White Sox in extra innings with bunts -- two, to be exact.

Ten days later, they came back to beat the Rays, 9-8, with some clutch hits during a four-run seventh inning and then, you guessed it, more bunts in the bottom of the ninth before Salvador Perez laced a walk-off single.

The verdict: The Twins aren't going to win only a third of their games all season, and the Royals are probably not going to win two-thirds of theirs. Kansas City likely won't be atop the AL Central at the end of the year, but it can do an excellent job playing spoiler and keeping someone else from getting the crown. The club's weekend series against the Twins could be a start.

5. Can anyone stop Yermín Mercedes?

The numbers: .423/.464/.679, 5 HR, 16 RBI, 1.1 fWAR

What has Mercedes done in his first season in the big leagues after 11 years in the Minors -- minus one at-bat he got with the White Sox last season?

• Picked up hits in his first eight at-bats

• Made his debut in the field ... as a pitcher

Simply put, there's no stopping him. He doesn't strike out much, K-ing at nearly half the league rate. He's been held hitless in only three games this year -- and for one of those he was a pinch-hitter.

We should just prepare to see more of this for the next six months:

The verdict: The question could be, "Can Mercedes win the AL Rookie of the Year Award?" but honestly, I'm prepared to give him the trophy right now. And while Mercedes won't hit .400 this year, he seems to be a complete enough hitter that it will take some time for pitchers to find and exploit his weaknesses.

Mercedes is hitting over .300 against every pitch type except curveballs -- and he's ended only 10 plate appearances on them. So, yeah, Mercedes will probably keep hitting. The only other question is why did we have to wait so long?

6. Could the Giants steal the NL West?

The numbers: 16-9, half-game ahead of the Dodgers for first place in the NL West

Everyone knew the NL West was the division to watch. The Dodgers were the reigning champions and only looked more dangerous. Their rivals to the south added Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove to the rotation and had Fernando Tatis Jr. leading a lineup that's as fearsome and fun as any in the game. The teams have already played two series that were about as tense as a postseason Game 7, rewarding us for paying so much attention.

But while all our eyes were on that matchup, the Giants have snuck in to take the top spot. Buster Posey and Evan Longoria are hitting like it's 2012 all over again, and the starting pitching is performing like a collective Cy Young unit. The Giants starters have a 2.20 ERA. That's lower than most actual Cy Young Award winners!

The verdict: These rejuvenated Giants are better than most gave them credit for -- they were projected to win 75 games at the start of the year by PECOTA -- and if they were in another division you could see them pulling it off. But even if San Francisco managed to pass the Padres, the Dodgers are simply a juggernaut that likely can't be topped.

7. Will anyone steal 60 bases?

The numbers: Whit Merrifield and Ramón Laureano are tied for the Major League lead with eight, and Jazz Chisholm is third with seven.

Unless Rickey Henderson returns, no one is stealing 100 bags anymore. (And I do mean if he returns. If Henderson came back tomorrow, he'd find a way to swipe 100 if he really wanted.) Even 70 is almost untouchable, with Jacoby Ellsbury being the last to pull it off in 2009. It's been four years since Dee Strange-Gordon even topped 60!

So, can we get there this season? The leaders are putting themselves on pace to come ever so tantalizingly close, but not top it. Merrifield is on pace for 56, Laureano is on pace for 50 and Chisholm is down at 47.

Can they pick it up ever so slightly? And can this question, which is really more of a begging request, inspire them to do it?

The verdict: Sadly, probably not. Players tend to slow down during the season as nagging injuries that don't keep them out of the lineup but do keep them from running wild on the bases start popping up. But we can all dream.