Over at ESPN yesterday, Jayson Stark posed the question of whether Matt Kemp‘s amazing April performance is the best April in the history of the game. Stark decided to tackle the question by looking only at the players that had matched or beaten him in a group of categories that contained BA, OBP, and SLG, but also HR, XBH, R, and RBI. I have a great deal of respect for Stark and enjoy his work, but at the end of the column, I couldn’t help but wonder what happened if we got rid of the useless numbers and looked at ones that put things in a little more context.
So, using our custom leaderboard function and the monthly split feature, I went year-by-year from 1974 (the first year we have monthly split data) to 2012 and looked for players who had matched Kemp’s 20 batting runs in the season’s first month. Batting Runs is the offensive component of WAR, and it offers a few advantages – it’s park and league adjusted so that different slash lines from different eras can be put on an even playing field, and since it is a counting stat, it evens out months where there are differences in playing time. After all, if a player hit nearly as well as Kemp but did it in 20 more plate appearances, that’s a comparable performance, even if it falls just shy by looking at rate metrics.
Over the last 39 years, eight players have created 20 or more batting runs above average in the first month of the season.
1. Barry Bonds, 2004: 92 PA, .472/.696/1.132, 326 wRC+, 27.3 batting runs
Not surprisingly, Bonds comes out on top. His run at the beginning of the century challenges Babe Ruth‘s prime for the greatest offensive performance in the history of the sport. How feared was Bonds? He was intentionally walked 18 times in April of 2004. Chase Headley is the only player to draw 18 unintentional walks in April of 2012. Obviously, people are going to have differing opinions on the validity of the numbers posted by Bonds during his late career surge, but unless we’re going to qualify the question as “non-Bonds division”, he’s the clear winner of best April since 1974.
2. Albert Pujols, 2006: 110 PA, .346/.509/.914, 243 wRC+, +21.2 batting runs
Pujols has had a bunch of monster months, but his start in 2006 was among the best ever. The 243 wRC+ isn’t as high as some others have posted, but because the season started earlier in 2006, he got 110 PA, and he sustained his greatness over a longer period of time. I would imagine the Angels would like to see this version of Pujols show up sometime soon.
3. Larry Walker, 1997: 106 PA, .456/.538/.911, 255 wRC+, +21.2 batting runs
And this is why you use a park/league adjusted metric. Walker’s line is crazy, but it came during the peak of the game’s offensive boom, and he got to take his hacks in the preeminent hitter’s ballpark of his generation. Even taking some of the air out of the numbers, it’s still an amazing performance, but perhaps a little less amazing than the slash line would suggest.
4. Barry Bonds, 1993: 94 PA, .431/.553/.889, 274 wRC+, 20.7 batting runs
For all the talk about how Bonds’ numbers are tainted, his age 28 season shows up here too. This was his first season in San Francisco, and he ended up posting the second +10 WAR season of his career. Regardless of how tainted you may or may not think his end-of-career numbers are, don’t forget that he played like one of the game’s all-time greats from the moment he got to the big leagues.
5. Jose Bautista, 2011: 111 PA, .366/.532/.780, 255 wRC+, 20.5 batting runs
It’s funny how we tend to have short memories, and we’re now asking whether Kemp’s April was the best ever when Bautista put up very comparable numbers just 12 months ago. He did it with more walks and a lower average, so it wasn’t quite as impressive from the standpoint of traditional metrics, but Bautista was a beast last year.
6. Barry Bonds, 2002: 100 PA, .375/.600/.828, 256 wRC+, 20.0 batting runs
Not much else left to say here. He was pretty good.
7. Ron Cey, 1977: 94 PA, .425/.543/.890, 270 wRC+, 20.0 batting runs
Stark noted this one in his column, and in terms of rate performance, it’s better than any of the above seasons besides Bonds’ best two Aprils. Dodgers fans have seen some pretty great opening months to the season. Which brings us to…
8. Matt Kemp, 2012: 98 PA, .417/.490/.893, 275 wRC+, 19.9 batting runs
Technically, he didn’t get to 20.0, but there’s no practical difference between decimal points here, so we’ll just round the next whole number and say that Kemp’s April is the offensive equal of the two just above him. By wRC+, only Bonds in 2004 was better, but it did come in fewer plate appearances than several of the other amazing Aprils over the last 39 years. Still, after the ’04 Bonds season, you could essentially toss the rest of these into a big pile and call them all essentially the same, as it takes some serious hair splitting to differentiate between #2 to #8 on this list.
So, is Matt Kemp’s April the greatest of all-time? Not unless we scrub Barry Bonds from the record books. But if you decide you want to just put his performance aside, it’s fair to say that Kemp’s April batting line is as good as anything we’ve seen in the last 39 years.