Off and Running
The majors are teeming with fast starters, but what do amazing Aprils mean in the long haul?
In the words of Shakespeare, April "hath put a spirit of youth in everything." In the words of Ricky Gutierrez, April "doesn't mean much of anything." Whom to believe, the Bard or the ballplayer? In this instance Gutierrez, the Cubs' good-field, no-hit shortstop, certainly has the stats on his side.
Gutierrez, a warm-weather-loving native of Miami, has a history of getting red hot during base-ball's coolest, if not crudest, month. Over the past five seasons Gutierrez, 30, has the fourth best cumulative April batting average (.351) among active players. Of the top 10 April hitters during that span, none on a list headed by Tony Gwynn (.363), Larry Walker (.359) and David Segui (.352) have a career batting average below Segui's .292—save Gutierrez, who's a .263 batter.
"I know, I know, it makes little sense," says Gutierrez, who was hitting .283 through Sunday. "I don't especially like cold weather, but I've never been afraid to play in it. That's the only explanation I can think of. That, and I try to come to spring training in pretty good shape."
Early-season baseball stats are notoriously poor indicators of things to come. True, no team that has lost more than three straight games to open a season has won a World Series. On the other hand, the 1987 Brewers, whose 18-2 start was tied for the best in baseball history, finished third in the American League East. In 2000, Royals rightfielder Jermaine Dye hit 11 April home runs. He finished with 33. In 1961 Roger Maris had one April home run. He finished with 61.
We don't know much. We do know this:
?If it seems too good to be true, it probably is: Alex Rodriguez hitting 50 home runs is conceivable. Luis Gonzalez hitting 70-plus isn't. However, Gonzalez, the Diamondbacks leftfielder, opened on a tear, homering 11 times in 17 games. "I'm not kidding myself," says Gonzalez, who hit a career-high 31 homers last year. "I'm no McGwire. I'm a doubles hitter on a good power run. It can't last forever."
Neither will the outlandish figures of such pedestrian players as Giants shortstop Rich Aurilia (.361 through Sunday), Royals leftfielder Mark Quinn (.351 and eight homers), Astros third baseman Chris Truby (six homers in his first 11 games) and White Sox infielder-centerfielder Jose Valentin (.333)-"I don't get too worked up over April," says Dodgers first baseman Eric Karros. "When they show your numbers on the scoreboard and you're hitting .600, it looks real nice, but it can't last."
The perfect example among overachieving teams were those 1987 Brewers, a young, modestly talented group that, recalls Rob Deer, an outfielder with Milwaukee that year, "began thinking we were unbeatable." They weren't, especially after a 12-game May losing streak dropped the Brewers to third. "It's easy to get caught up in yourselves," says Deer. "We were playing great baseball, and we thought we could be destined for the World Series. Then it fell apart, and we weren't prepared."
?Youth won't necessarily be served: Since 1975, 23 rookies have hit five or more home runs by the end of April. Only four finished with more than 30. More common is the plight of Greg Pirkl. In 1994, Pirkl, a 24-year-old rookie first baseman for the Mariners, had five homers in his 34 April at bats. Three years later he was gone from the majors, with eight career dingers. "You have to be a little skeptical of young players with incredible numbers," says Gonzalez. "Pitchers at this level are very smart. They learn how to handle you."