The April MLB awards: Evaluating the stars and surprises of the first month

Zach Crizer
·9-min read

As April winds to a close, it’s time to check in on the first month of MLB’s season, which is back to 162 games and messing with our heads after a 60-game sprint in 2020.

Here’s where things would stand if the season ended now, and a look at how the the best bets for the longer run have changed since opening day.

April MVP winners

AL: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels, +200 at BetMGM

When Mike Trout is having the best month of a career that already features three MVP plaques … you get the idea.

Future outlook: Trout’s stiffest competition comes from Twins outfielder Byron Buxton (+1600) and Blue Jays slugger Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (+1400). That would sound perfectly logical to someone transported to the present day from 2016 or 2019 and a bit pie in the sky to someone from a month ago.

The Buxton stats are preposterous right now — he leads all MLB players in WAR, even in limited playing time — but that .438/.471/.938 slash line involves both an unsustainable BABIP (.476 where his career average is .319) and whatever shadow forces have allowed him to keep this up while walking only twice all season. The gifted center fielder may be taking a huge step forward this year, but it’s premature to say we can really see that taking shape.

Guerrero has a more interesting case. Having just turned 22 in March, he’s performing essentially like we thought he would when he arrived in the majors and the results pretty much match the underlying metrics. He walks more than he strikes out, and he’s only slightly topping the (stratospheric) batting average and slugging marks you’d expect based on his contact, according to Statcast. Still, despite an impressive physical transformation, Guerrero is playing first base and would likely have to significantly outpace Trout with the bat to overtake him. It’s possible, but is more likely a year or two down the line.

ATLANTA, GA  APRIL 28:  Atlanta right fielder Ronald Acuna Jr. (13) reacts after scoring a run during the MLB game between the Chicago Cubs and the Atlanta Braves on April 28th, 2021 at Truist Park in Atlanta, GA. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Ronald Acuña Jr. is shining brighter than ever for the Atlanta Braves. (Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

NL: Ronald Acuña Jr., Atlanta Braves, +300 at BetMGM

So, it’s been a banner month for former uber-prospects delivering on the potential foretold by the prospect writing braintrust. Acuña, of course, has been a superstar already, but is leveling up. He’s whacked his strikeout rate almost in half from last season, and while it probably won’t stay this low, quick-to-stabilize plate discipline stats show real improvement. He’s swinging less than ever at pitches outside the zone and more than ever at strikes he can drive. That is a recipe for MVP-level success.

Future outlook: Well, Mets ace Jacob deGrom (now down to +900 for MVP) just had one of the best months in baseball history, so you have to consider him a contender to pull off the Cy Young/MVP double. On the position player side, keep an eye on Bryce Harper. The Phillies superstar (who thankfully avoided serious injury from a pitch to the face) is off to a raucous start and currently sits atop the Statcast leaderboard for xwOBA — which is a fancy way of saying that if he continues seeing and hitting the ball as he has, expect a huge season.

April Cy Young winners

AL: Gerrit Cole, New York Yankees, +275 at BetMGM

Seemingly the only Yankees star not caught up in their early season malaise, Cole would be the talk of baseball in pretty much any year except this one. He has tallied 50 strikeouts and three walks. Crucially, he’s only allowed one home run, which is usually the challenge in Yankee Stadium and the other AL East bandboxes.

Future outlook: Most likely, this will shape up as a two-horse race with Cole and Cleveland’s Shane Bieber (+350), but if another contender stays in the ring all summer, it might be Tampa Bay’s Tyler Glasnow (+600). After breaking out in 2019 really only using his fastball and curveball, the Rays ace has added a slider that may keep hitters more off balance. So far, it’s working to the tune of a 1.67 ERA. 

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 28: Jacob deGrom #48 of the New York Mets walks back t the dugout after the third out of the top of the sixth inning against the Boston Red Sox at Citi Field on April 28, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Off to a historically great start, Jacob deGrom just needs some run support. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

NL: Jacob deGrom, New York Mets, +125 at BetMGM

There’s not much more to say. He’s ascended to another plane of excellence with a fastball routinely reaching 100 mph and a fearlessness that keeps lowering his walk rate. The only thing he needs is run support from the Mets — but he’ll probably win the award with or without it.

Future outlook: Brewers starter Corbin Burnes (+400) has, somehow, still not walked anyone this year in 29 1/3 innings, but he did give up four earned runs to the Marlins last time out before hitting the IL for unspecified reasons. Trevor Bauer (+1000) has run into a couple extra homers (aka Fernando Tatis Jr.), but is otherwise putting together a carbon copy of the season that won him the award last year, just on a Dodgers team likely to secure him more wins. Burnes’s Brewers rotation-mate Brandon Woodruff (+1800), meanwhile, is holding hitters to a lower OPS than any of them, and could make for an intriguing dark horse. 

April pennant winners

AL: Kansas City Royals, +3000 to win the pennant

So, this is the potential benefit of trying even a little bit. The best record in the AL so far belongs to the 15-8 Royals, who are extracting strong production from eyebrow-raising veteran offseason additions Carlos Santana and Michael A. Taylor, and especially from resurgent lefty starter Danny Duffy (who most teams would have jettisoned in a rebuilding effort).

But it's also why we don't decide seasons based on April. Kansas City's run differential only lines up to a 12-11 record, and the schedule has served up the lowly Rangers and Tigers, as well as an injury-depleted Blue Jays team. Still, the banked wins count — their playoff odds have more than doubled since the season started, and could soon eclipse those of the once-favored Twins, who are off to an equally dramatic slow start.

Future outlook: Sorry to Kansas City, but the biggest takeaway from April in the American League might be that the division rival Chicago White Sox (+500 to win the pennant) are improving their shot at October glory. Running up the league’s best run differential, the South Siders have boosted both their playoff and World Series odds more than any other team since the start of the season, per FanGraphs’ estimation. And while new (and old) manager Tony La Russa is making some puzzling choices, the big question around this team — pitching staff depth — has been answered forcefully by the no-hitter-twirling Carlos Rodon and the impressive return of Michael Kopech.

Should you change your mind on the Yankees? Frankly, no. Teams have slumps, and the ragtag Red Sox pitching staff, though clearly improved from 2020, will certainly experience one. The Yankees are still clear favorites to win the AL East and FanGraphs still gives them the best World Series odds of any AL team by far.

Is there a dark horse? The Astros (+800 to win the pennant). The AL West standings make zero sense — Houston is 13-12 and in fourth place, yet has outscored its opponents by 24 runs, the second-best mark in the league. Expect the Astros to rise to the top of that division and have a real chance in October.

San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey (28) celebrates with shortstop Brandon Crawford, center right, and teammates after they defeated the Colorado Rockies in a baseball game in San Francisco, Saturday, April 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
With Buster Posey back in the fold and a revamped starting rotation, the Giants are off to a hot start. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

NL: San Francisco Giants, +5000 to win the pennant

No, it's not 2014 again, but you could be forgiven for the mistake.

The surprise interlopers atop the powerhouse NL West (and all of the NL) are very unlikely to stay there, but they may have put together a stellar pitching staff for 2021. So far, their rotation has the best ERA in baseball — buoyed by veteran additions Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood who were shrewdly acquired and placed in one of the best parks for their talents. The lineup is … not as good, and the division that was supposed to be dominated by the Dodgers and Padres probably still will be. But as the Giants’ playoff odds rise (they’ve overtaken the Phillies, Nationals, Reds and Cubs since opening day) there are still only 3 teams with longer NL championship odds at BetMGM. It feels safe to say San Francisco is better positioned than that would lead you to believe.

Future outlook: The Dodgers, who are a whopping half game behind the Giants entering Friday night’s action, have the best run differential in baseball and are rightfully the heavy favorites to win the NL (+155) and the World Series (+325). 

OK but who’s the next best? Well, the BetMGM odds currently have the Mets at +450 and the Padres at +500. Both are treading water around .500, but San Diego has been far more impressive. Their overall pitching staff has the best ERA in baseball despite a slew of injuries, and they have played a crushing schedule. All but three of their games have been against teams over .500.

Is there a dark horse? It might be the entire NL Central. BetMGM gives the division +400 odds to take the league’s World Series berth, almost as high as the enigmatic Mets (+450). None of the NL Central teams are particularly good, but the Brewers do have a potentially dominant starting rotation, and the Reds have stretches of competence when the bullpen is not self-destructing. More importantly: When a league’s best teams are clustered as they are in the NL, you know two of the best ones are going to have to play in a one-off wild card game while whoever wins the NL Central will cruise into the division series by default AND automatically avoid the Dodg — er, the best team. Stranger things have happened.

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