April Heroes?

Every year, I curse myself for not taking more (any?) $1 shares of Kevin Pillar. I know what you’re thinking – “Brad, Pillar is always terrible.” In a very real sense, that’s true – at least in fantasy leagues where his defense is irrelevant. He’s posted a career 87 wRC+ with four very consistent full seasons of mediocrity. He’s also one of the most successful players in April, non-elite division. Behold:

Kevin Pillar April
Year AVG OBP SLG HR SB
2015 .283 .297 .403 1 3
2016 .272 .301 .380 1 2
2017 .301 .339 .505 4 2
2018 .305 .351 .552 4 4

Could we be looking at absolutely nothing? Yes, definitely. Especially since 2015 and 2016 weren’t any great shakes. We’re really just seeing a two-year trend of April excellence with a couple non-terrible performances tacked on the front end.

However, it does seem like some players should have a talent for being in midseason form faster than their competitors. Perhaps that’s what we’ve seen in recent years with Pillar? We’ll never have enough data to know for sure, but we can try to identify a few players who like the opening month of the season.

To do this, I took a gander at performances over the last four seasons sorted by wRC+. I’m unconcerned that Manny Machado and Mike Trout crush April. Similarly, I’m throwing out Didi Gregorius’s absurd 2018 (besides, he won’t be available this year). Guys like Mitch Haniger don’t have enough experience to judge. Speaking of Judge…

In addition to Pillar, I found two more longstanding veteran hitters who seem to do their best work in April. The pitching side of the ledger was challenging. I actually expected to find a bunch of command and control types, but it wasn’t meant to be. It’s probably a simple truth that you’re either an ace or will simply be too inconsistent month-to-month to produce a noticeable quick-start trend. I did find one hurler who maybe steps it up in April.

Tightening His Belt

Over the last three seasons, Brandon Belt has swatted 13 of his 49 home runs in April to go with a wRC+ ranging from 125 to 166. That’s over 25 percent of his home run output in just 16 percent of those seasons. The wRC+s were also better than his seasonal returns. This trend was evident in 2014 when, in the first month, he hit seven of his 12 home runs. Conversely, he hit no home runs in an injury shortened 2015 April.

Belt has a variety of maladies on his rap sheet including concussions and knee issues. He’s a classic $1 flier in most formats. When he’s on the field, he’s usually a “good enough” asset for the utility slot. Try to bank a hot April then move on to shinier fish.

Baking Markakis

For the last four seasons, Nick Markakis has really outdone himself in April. This was especially noticeable last year when he carried his hot first month into May before cooling off. Markakis has posted April wRC+ in the 114 to 137 range over these four years while turning in seasonal rates of 106, 98, 93, and 114.

Notably, he has a 110 wRC+ in April across 13 seasons. Over his entire 8,711 plate appearance career, he has a 109 wRC+. So, we’re probably looking at four consecutive fluky seasons. If you want to build a narrative of Markakis as a hot starter, you could perhaps argue that he’s actually improved over the years but his old man body breaks down after a month or three.

Nat Gio

If you’ve been playing fantasy baseball long enough, you know that Gio Gonzalez is all over the place. The only thing consistent about his career is a penchant for upending our expectations. Any time he looks like a scrub, he breaks out a dominant season. When we finally reach for him early, he implodes. In that sense, this is a perfect year to grab your $1 to $3 shares of Gonzalez. He’d be even cheaper (i.e. a post-draft claim) if he hadn’t posted a .182 BABIP as a Brewer.

In six of the nine seasons Gonzalez pitched April innings, he outperformed his seasonal numbers. The exceptions are 2010 (similar in April and overall) and two disasters in 2013 and 2015. He later rebounded from those. Even though he’s obviously declined in recent years, he’s pitched to a 1.42, 1.62, and 2.67 ERA over the last three Aprils.

Now What?

I honestly don’t know. Every year, I look through Spring Training data to try to identify some breakouts. We all know spring stats are fraught with noise. I’ll identify a few players every year and gamble on them, but I don’t really expect anything to change.

I think that’s how we can approach these veteran Aprilists. They’re all reasonable late-round picks in a 12-team format. If you think your roster could use a little immediate jolt rather than waiting until August or September for Fernando Tatis Jr. and Bo Bichette, then these four players are worth a try. If it doesn’t work out, you can move on without regret.





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LightenUpFG
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With these three names, “moving on to shinier fish” likely means “find a sucker” because the likes of Belt, Markakis and Gonzalez aren’t going to net any new shiny fish unfortunately, even with hot Aprils. I suppose one could hope to scoop up a slow starter for these hot starters, but I doubt a slow starter of high pedigree (like last year’s Goldschmidt) could be acquired.

Regardless, I’m still rooting for Belt to finally put something together for a whole year. He’s had some rough seasons.