5 things April taught us in baseball: Yankees, Mets have eyes on the prize

Baseball’s first month was even shorter than usual thanks to a lockout that pushed opening day back to April 7, but the calendar has flipped over just the same.

With May underway and rosters cut down from 28 to the usual 26 — another product of the lockout and a shortened spring training — it’s time to check in on the major takeaways from the MLB season so far.

New York, New York: Top of the heap … for now

The two best records in baseball entering Wednesday’s action belonged to the New York Yankees and New York Mets. That wouldn’t be a shocking development to anyone perusing the rosters, but somehow feels like a revelation to the fan bases.

The Yankees exited the offseason seemingly on their back foot, with the Toronto Blue Jays making splashy moves in the division and the big free agent shortstops landing elsewhere. So far, the holdovers have been just fine, thank you. Aaron Judge and Anthony Rizzo — who re-signed in the Bronx this offseason — are top two in the majors in home runs. That might be in part because Yankee Stadium, where they are 10-3 so far this season, is one of the few parks where homers are still proliferating.

Meanwhile, across town, a good roster has rarely meant surefire success for the Mets. After Max Scherzer and a remade outfield headlined a busy, expensive winter under owner Steve Cohen, an injury to Jacob deGrom before opening day portended another Mets-ish season. But … they have just been winning. New manager Buck Showalter quickly rallied support with his hyper-focused attention to detail and scowling responses to the many Mets who have been hit by pitches.

Of course, neither has conquered their foes yet. This week saw them begin yearlong battles with their biggest division challengers, as the Yankees went to Toronto and the Mets welcomeed the Atlanta Braves.

Shohei Ohtani and the Angels are leading the AL West after April. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The Angels might finally be ready for primetime

The surest sign that almost a month of baseball is in the books? Mike Trout has asserted himself as the game’s best hitter. He leads the majors in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, as well as in wRC+, the park-adjusted metric of overall offensive performance.

What’s new is that he’s not doing it alone. The Angels as a team sported baseball’s best offense in April, per wRC+. Reinforcements beyond the superstar trio of Trout, Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon have arrived in the form of Taylor Ward and Brandon Marsh. Ward, a 28-year-old outfielder who was once a first-round pick as a catcher, is doing a pretty good Trout impression with his plate discipline, carrying a 17.3% walk rate and .480 OBP into Wednesday.

The long-deficient pitching hasn’t been quite as sparkling, but it’s fair to be cautiously optimistic about offseason additions Noah Syndergaard (2.63 ERA) and Michael Lorenzen (3.04 ERA).

Most encouraging? Even if they don’t take the AL West crown, the Angels are making real inroads toward getting Trout and Ohtani on the big stage of October. Few teams have improved their playoff odds more since opening day.

Scoring is going to be difficult

MLB is down to 4.04 runs per game this season — which would be the lowest since 1981. And let me tell you, that is not a coincidence.

A brief timeline of MLB’s saga with the actual, physical baseball goes like this: Scoring was very low in 2014 and early 2015. A livelier baseball led to an explosion of home runs beginning after the All-Star break in 2015, peaking in 2017 and again in 2019. After long denying that the ball was different at all, the league began to take measures to rein in variance a few years ago. In 2021, it reportedly mixed in a “deader” ball.

This season, it appears the baseballs being used are significantly less conducive to home runs than those used in recent seasons.

So far, that’s creating alarmingly bad offensive performances. Hitters who have been geared toward all-out swings and fly balls to take advantage of the home run surge are now just hitting a lot of long outs. The league batting average entering Wednesday was .232, which would be an all-time low, five points shy of 1968’s Year of the Pitcher. Entire teams are batting below the Mendoza Line.

Warmer weather and tightened rosters are likely to help even things out a bit, but the dearth of runs could be a storyline all summer,.

Twins, White Sox have flipped places

The most seismic change of fortunes so far has been in the AL Central. Injuries have kneecapped the preseason favorite Chicago White Sox while surprise pitching success has lifted the Minnesota Twins.

FanGraphs pegs the Twins as solid favorites to win the AL Central now, with 48.8% division odds and the White Sox with 39% division odds. It’s a total turnabout since opening day, entirely attributable to polar opposite starts. Down several star players, the White Sox started 8-13 while the Twins raced out to a 13-9 record.

Minnesota followed a dismal 2021 by maneuvering to lure Carlos Correa, but it’s been surprisingly stellar pitching at the heart of its success. Rookie Joe Ryan, acquired for Nelson Cruz last summer, is rolling with a 1.63 ERA through five starts.

Breaking into the majors is hard

Other rookies have not had it as easy as Ryan thus far. Top prospects and Rookie of the Year favorites Bobby Witt Jr., Julio Rodriguez and Spencer Torkelson have struggled to kick their games into gear.

Don’t worry just yet, though. It’s a hard adjustment, and Rodriguez sent a message Sunday that things might be turning around, driving a monstrous homer out to the gap against the Marlins.