When asked, about half of all major league teams will say it's important to get off to a quick start. They, for the most part, are the ones that have gotten off quickly. Ask the rest, and they'll say it's a long season and April is just one of six months in the regular season. So which is it? Is the first month crucial, or just a couple miles in a marathon? It's a little bit of both.
Four of the teams that were either winning or tied for the lead in their respective divisions in April 2006 failed to make the playoffs. But the 2006 World Series clubs, the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals, were hot enough to at least be in wild-card position at the end of April.
What about individually? St. Louis' Albert Pujols and Boston's David Ortiz tore it up in April and remained highly productive all season. But Detroit's Chris Shelton and Tampa Bay's Jonny Gomes were fighting with Ortiz for the home run title last April.
Gomes had 11 homers in 82 April at-bats; Shelton had 10 in 92 at-bats. Gomes hit nine for the rest of the season; Shelton had just six, and none in the majors after the All-Star break. In the end, Ortiz outhomered the duo 54 to 36 in 2006.
So April has its share of contenders and pretenders. Here's a look at some of the best performances this April and whether they'll continue. In honor of Shelton's grossly misshapen 2006, a high Shelton Rating means a team or player will cool down before the weather really heats up.
Key April stats -- 16-9; 30 homers; 3.81 ERA. Comment -- The Brewers were a trendy postseason pick and they've done nothing to discourage that. They have a great mix of veterans and young talent. Plus, the back end of their bullpen is formidable. But the starting rotation still doesn't look like an October force. The Brewers should get there, though, because the NL Central is the worst in baseball. Shelton Rating -- 3.
3B Alex Rodriguez Key April stats -- 14 homers, 34 RBIs, .355 average. Comment -- Yes, this start is a fluke. Because he isn't hitting 100-plus homers this season. Beyond that, it's A-Rod world and we're just collectively paying $25 million annually to be in it. When a guy this talented starts this hot, it's a good bet he'll be in the MVP race all season. Shelton Rating -- 1.
DH-OF Sammy Sosa Key April stats -- .547 slugging percentage, seven homers, 20 RBIs. Comment -- Give Slammin' Sammy credit - he doesn't appear to the Scufflin' Sammy we saw in Baltimore in 2005. Also, give him time. The memories of his flinching at breaking balls and cheating on fastballs are too fresh to jump on board here. He'll get his 600th career homer, but probably not much more. Shelton Rating -- 9.
Starter John Maine Key April stats -- 4-0, 1.35 ERA, 30 strikeouts in 33 1/3 innings. Comment -- This one's painful reading for Orioles fans. Maine was a throw-in in the Jorge Julio-Kris Benson deal in 2006. His mid-80s fastball suggested his ceiling was at fifth starter. Now, he has added a few mph to his fastball and has emerged as the Mets' early ace. He won't remain the NL's ERA leader, but he's pitched at least seven innings in four of his five starts. In comparison, Orioles starters pitched seven or more innings just four times in 26 April tries. Shelton Rating -- 5.
Reliever Al Reyes Key April stats -- 1.50 ERA, 0.58 WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched), nine saves. Comment -- Reyes had six saves in his 11 previous big league seasons. He nearly doubled that total in April, getting nine in nine chances. Maybe most impressive, he allowed just seven runners and struck out 16 batters in 12 innings. Not even the old Mariano Rivera could keep this up, so Reyes certainly won't. Shelton Rating -- 10.
Starter Josh Beckett Key April stats -- 5-0, 2.48 ERA, .218 opponents' batting average. Comment -- This is a tough one. Major leaguers will tell you when this guy is on, he could be baseball's most unhittable pitcher. But he had a 5.01 ERA last year in his first season out of the NL. It's possible he just has had a hot start, but it's more likely that his impressive early command (seven walks this April compared to 13 last April) will lead to a great year. Shelton Rating -- 4.
Starter Jason Marquis Key April stats -- 3-1, 2.35 ERA, 23 hits in 30 2/3 innings pitched. Comment -- Is this the same guy who was 14-16 with a 6.02 ERA for the Cardinals in 2006? Not yet. But he is the classic example of one month not being representative of a season. He has posted an ERA under 3.70 only once in his career (2001 in Atlanta when he was primarily a reliever). He has had a great run, but reality will strike eventually. Shelton Rating -- 8.
2B Ian Kinsler Key April stats -- Nine home runs, 22 RBIs, 1.042 on-base plus slugging percentage. Comment -- Kinsler, 24, battled injuries and still hit 14 homers in 423 at-bats as a rookie in 2006. His career high for homers was 23 at Triple-A in 2005. So as highly touted as he may be, don't expect 50 homers this season. He'll have a good year, but he'll be lucky to finish with 30 home runs. Shelton Rating -- 6.