Bill Baer

New York Mets Neil Walker hits a first-inning RBI single in a baseball game against the Cincinnati Reds, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
AP Photo/Kathy Willens

April’s most surprising break-outs


Today will be the last day in April I’ll have a chance to talk to you guys, so I wanted to go over the most surprising break-outs in the first month of the 2016 season. A lot of the usual suspects are at the top of the leaderboards, like Bryce Harper and Jake Arrieta. But did you know that…?

Neil Walker has nine home runs

Walker is tied with Harper, Trevor Story, and Nolan Arenado for the major league lead. His nine April homers tied a Mets club record also held by Dave Kingman, Carlos Delgado, and John Buck. Walker has crossed the 20-homer threshold in a season just once, with 23 in 2014. He would need to average only three home runs in each of the remaining five months in order to surpass that career high.

Mat Latos has a 0.74 ERA

Latos has always been regarded as a solid starter, but injuries limited hampered both his 2014-15 seasons, causing him to drop off most fans’ radars. Last year, between the Marlins, Dodgers, and Angels, he finished with a 4.95 ERA in 21 starts and three relief appearances. So far this year? He’s won all four of his starts, yielding only two runs on 13 hits and seven walks with 13 strikeouts in 24 1/3 innings. Of all the pitchers with microscopic ERA’s to start the season, however, Latos’ appears to be the least sustainable as pitchers that average under five strikeouts per nine innings and nearly three walks per nine don’t end up in the Cy Young Award conversation.

Jeanmar Gomez has six saves

The Phillies’ closer situation was a big mess to begin the season. Having traded Ken Giles to the Astros in the offseason, David Hernandez got the first try as the club’s new closer, but hocked up three runs without retiring a batter against the Reds on Opening Day. Dalier Hinojosa got a shot, but he served up two runs and retired only one of the five batters he faced in the second game of the season. Eventually the Phillies settled on Gomez, who has made 11 appearances with a 2.08 ERA and an 11/3 K/BB ratio in 13 innings, notching the save in all six appearances. The success is not surprising as the once-failed starter became a solid reliever after joining the Pirates for the 2013 season. Since the start of the ’13 season, Gomez has an aggregate 3.13 ERA over 230 1/3 innings.

Aledmys Diaz is batting .462

The Cardinals’ shortstop situation appeared to be getting worse and worse. They lost Jhonny Peralta for 10-12 weeks due to a torn thumb ligament, so Ruben Tejada joined the squad, but he succumbed to a strained quad. That opened the door for Diaz, who has done nothing but hit since the regular season began. He’s currently on a seven-game hitting streak and has registered multiple hits in eight of 19 games so far. Of his 29 total hits, eight have been doubles, one a triple, and four home runs. Diaz’s 1.323 OPS is even better than Harper’s.

Dexter Fowler is slugging .662

Fowler, a veteran of nine seasons, has never been an All-Star. Despite playing the first six seasons of his career in Coors Field, he was never one to hit many homers. Instead, he racked up copious amounts of doubles and triples. And aside from hitting .300 in 2012, he didn’t hit for much of an average, either. Now in his second season with the Cubs after a contract snafu with the Orioles, Fowler has gotten off to a scorching hot start, batting .368/.488/.662 with 13 extra-base hits in 86 plate appearances.

Rich Hill has a 2.42 ERA with 37 strikeouts

Hill put himself back on the map late last season with four outstanding starts for the Red Sox, resulting in a 1.55 ERA and a 36/5 K/BB ratio in 29 innings. He parlayed that into a one-year, $6 million deal with the Athletics, who bet on the 36-year-old replicating that success. Hill has, notching two double-digit strikeout games already while striking out over one-third of the batters he’s faced. Among qualified starters, only Noah Syndergaard, David Price, and Jose Fernandez have fanned batters at a higher clip.

The White Sox are 16-6

In terms of winning percentage, only the cross-town rival Cubs (15-5) have been better. The White Sox had an uninspiring offseason, as the only impact name they brought in was Todd Frazier in a trade with the Reds. It’s been the less-heralded newcomers who have made the difference, like the aforementioned Latos, Brett Lawrie, and Jimmy Rollins. It also hasn’t hurt that Chris Sale has a 1.66 ERA and Jose Quintana 1.47. This writer isn’t so confident they’ll be able to maintain this level of success going forward, but then again, we didn’t even think they were capable of putting together this kind of opening month.

What’s on Tap: Previewing Thursday’s games

Los Angeles Dodgers starting pitcher Kenta Maeda delivers Colorado Rockies' Ben Paulsen in the fifth inning of a baseball game Saturday, April 23, 2016, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski
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Athletics/Tigers and Brewers/Cubs are already in progress in what is a light day of baseball. Pirates/Rockies has been postponed. There are only five other games on the docket.

The one game that really stands out is tonight’s Marlins/Dodgers match-up, as it features two of the game’s best pitchers. Kenta Maeda has allowed only one run in his first four starts since coming over from Japan. In 25 1/3 innings, he’s struck out 23 and walked five. The lone run came via a Joe Panik home run in the third inning of his third start.

Jose Fernandez hasn’t gotten off to a great start, as he has a 4.37 ERA over his first four starts, but he’s one of the game’s most electrifying hurlers. We expect him to start dominating soon, but he’ll have to improve his control. The right-hander has walked 11 batters in 22 2/3 innings. On a rate basis, the 11.7 percent flip this season is more than double his walk rate of 5.3 percent last year.

The Marlins and Dodgers will complete their four-game series beginning at 10:10 PM EST tonight.

The rest of Thursday’s action…

Pittsburgh Pirates @ Colorado Rockies, POSTPONED

Philadelphia Phillies (Aaron Nola) @ Washington Nationals (Tanner Roark), 4:05 PM EST

Chicago White Sox (John Danks) @ Baltimore Orioles (Tyler Wilson), 7:05 PM EST

Atlanta Braves (Jhoulys Chacin) @ Boston Red Sox (Clay Buchholz), 7:10 PM EST

St. Louis Cardinals (Michael Wacha) @ Arizona Diamondbacks (Rubby De La Rosa), 9:40 PM EST

Play of the Day: Steven Souza leaves his feet to rob Chris Davis of extra bases

Tampa Bay Rays' Steven Souza Jr. signals safe after scoring on an RBI double by Curt Casali off Baltimore Orioles starting pitcher Kevin Gausman during the fifth inning of a baseball game Monday, April 25, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Fla.  (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)
AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

Not content with celebrating his 27th birthday in style on Sunday by homering twice at Yankee Stadium, Rays outfielder Steven Souza, Jr. decided to make one of the best catches you’ll see this year.

In the top of the fourth, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis launched a Matt Moore fastball into the gap in right-center field at Tropicana Field. Souza gave chase and, just in front of the warning track, left his feet to snag the ball in front of the 370-foot marker on the fence.

You can see center fielder Kevin Kiermaier‘s reaction in the video. He seems amazed that Souza got to the ball. When you shock Kiermaier, who was arguably baseball’s best defender at any position last year, you know you’ve made an outstanding play.

Protective netting at Nationals Park played the hero once again

Kansas City Royals starting pitcher Edinson Volquez delivers to a New York Mets batter during a baseball game at Kauffman Stadium in Kansas City, Mo., Sunday, April 3, 2016. New netting has been extended to the outfield end of both dugouts. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)
AP Photo/Colin E. Braley

Two weeks ago, the protective netting at Nationals Park made a difference when part of Kelly Johnson‘s broken bat rocketed towards the crowd. The netting, though, got in the way and protected fans from potential harm.

The netting at Nationals Park played the hero once again on Wednesday night. Cesar Hernandez broke his bat swinging at a Gio Gonzalez fastball. A majority of the bat went flying towards the fans on the third base side, but it got stuck in the netting. One can clearly see just how dangerous it could have been, as one end appeared rather sharp.

Here’s the link to the video on Some fans, including Stephen King, have been outspoken opponents of the enhanced safety, but it’s made a difference thus far and the players seem to like it.

Major League Baseball issued netting recommendations to all 30 teams during the offseason.

Video: A.J. Pierzynski joins the 2,000 hit club

Atlanta Braves' A.J. Pierzynski follows the flight of his RBI-single against Colorado Rockies starting pitcher Chad Bettis in the sixth inning of a baseball game Sunday, July 12, 2015, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Braves catcher A.J. Pierzynski joined the 2,000 hit club on Wednesday night, driving an opposite-field single off of Red Sox starter Steven Wright in the top of the seventh inning. Pierzynski is the 280th player in baseball history to join the 2,000 hit club and the ninth catcher to do so, according to Baseball Reference.

Unlike last year, Pierzynski has been slow to start the 2016 season. The 39-year-old entered play Wednesday hitting .213/.275/.234 with only one extra-base hit and four RBI in 51 plate appearances.