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Big League Stew

Slumpbot .200: Don’t worry about Kevin Youkilis’ slumpy start

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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Using the best technology available to us today, SlumpBot .200 identifies a few players who are currently having a bit of trouble and then offers solutions for performance recovery.

Kevin Youkilis, Boston Red Sox

Data: .218/.403/.473, 3 HR, 8 RBI, 15 BB/17 K

Malfunction: Boston has scored the sixth-fewest runs in the AL, and has allowed the third-most runs in the AL. The key culprit on offense has been their opening day No. 3 hitter, Carl Crawford, whom I wrote about last week. But Crawford is far from the only scuffling Red Sox starter. Marco Scutaro, Jacoby Ellsbury, the Jason Varitek/Jarrod Saltalamacchia catching platoon, and opening day cleanup hitter Kevin Youkilis are all hitting under .225. Youk is actually hitting for power and walking — his .876 OPS is second on the team behind Dustin Pedroia — but it's still hard to live up to the preseason expectation of a dynamic offense when your cleanup hitter is hitting below .220. {YSP:MORE}

Diagnosis: Youkilis's stats are mainly just dragged down by his bad first 11 games, when he was drawing walks but couldn't really hit the ball out of the infield — he had 13 walks but just six hits, three singles and three doubles, for a strange .182/.426/.273 batting line. Since then, he's hitting .273/.360/.773, much more in line with what you'd expect. So it's easy to declare the problem solved and move on.

Still, the first two weeks of the season shouldn't just be written off. This offseason, following Adrian Beltre's departure, the Red Sox announced that Youkilis would move across the diamond and become their full-time third baseman.  And though he came up at that position and has logged time at third in every season since his 2004 callup, he has really only been a full-time third baseman for a total of about three months since coming up from the minors: May through June of 2004, when Bill Mueller was injured, and July of 2009, when Mike Lowell was injured. So it wouldn't be surprising to see him enter periodic slumps as he reacquaints himself with a much more strenuous defensive position.

Reboot Directions: The one thing I'd counsel Youkilis to practice is the one thing he already practices as well as anyone in baseball: Patience. He's already hitting the ball better, and while he won't slug .773 the rest of the year, he won't hit .218 the rest of the year either. His hitting stats may dip overall as he adjusts to the new defensive position, but he'll remain a force in the lineup. I would likewise counsel patience to Crawford and Ellsbury, who both have a track record of success. The same cannot be said for Varitek or Saltalamacchia, backstops who are hitting like a pitcher with a hangover. Youk will be fine, and so will the Red Sox offense — especially if they can pick up an actual catcher somewhere along the way.

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Which other players are struggling at the start of the season?

Francisco Liriano, Minnesota Twins 1-3, 20 2/3 IP, 7.40 ERA, 6.41 FIP, 1.69 WHIP, 1.00 K/BB

A year after being one of the best pitchers in baseball — his 2.66 FIP in 2010 was third in the major leagues behind Josh Johnson and Cliff Lee —Francisco Liriano looks lost on the mound. A big piece of his success in 2010 came through a renewed giddyup on his fastball, which had declined following surgery and had not fully rebounded in 2008 and 2009. But this year his average fastball is much closer to the 2009 speed than the 2010 speed. So far this year, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. Liriano has walked 14 men in 20 2/3 innings, way too many — and struck out 14 men in the same period, which is very low for him, a pitcher who has averaged more than a strikeout per inning over the course of his career. He's given up four homers so far this year after having only given up nine in all of last season. The only good sign is that he's still getting a swinging strike rate well above league average. Pitching coach Rick Anderson has told him to change his footing on the pitching rubber, and there haven't been any reports that he's feeling arm pain, but right now he needs to work on commanding his pitches -- there isn't a pitcher in the major leagues who can survive without striking out more men than he walks.

Jayson Werth, Washington Nationals .206/.296/.365, 2 HR, 4 RBI, 2 SB, 0 SB, 8 BB/15 K
This was never supposed to be the Nats' year. They brought Werth in so that he could be a booming bat in their lineup in time for the 2013 youth movement, when Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Derek Norris, Jordan Zimmermann, and Ryan Zimmerman could all be in the same clubhouse at the same time. Werth was supposed to be the lineup mainstay who helped the team remain credible until they were ready to contend. They certainly didn't expect him to struggle to stay over the Mendoza line.

But right now it's looking like a run of bad luck for Werth because his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is an extraordinarily low .239 and he's walking and striking out at normal rates. He's hit a lot more pop-ups and ground balls than usual, and fewer line drives and fly balls, so it will be worth monitoring his approach to see whether his approach has changed or it's just a fluke of the early going. Right now, his steady plate discipline indicates that there's nothing to worry about just yet.

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Derek Jeter, New York Yankees .219/.282/.234, 0 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB, 1 CS 6 BB/5 K
To paraphrase the movie Groundhog Day: sometimes, people just get old. In 66 plate appearances, Jeter has 14 hits, 13 of which are singles. He's already abandoned the new batting stance that coach Kevin Long worked on with him. Two other things have happened: his power has disappeared, and so have many of his strikeouts. For a high-average, medium-power hitter, Jeter strikes out a lot more than you'd think: he has struck out at least 99 times in 12 of his 15 full seasons. This year, though, his strikeout rate has dropped by more than half, from a career rate of striking out in 14.9 percent of all plate appearances to just seven percent. The combination of decreasing power and strikeouts could suggest that he's losing bat speed: perhaps he's not swinging as hard as he used to, and is choking up or otherwise selling out for contact. Even for a guy who hits a lot of ground balls, he's also hitting a ton more popups and grounders than usual — nearly three-quarters of the balls he has put in play have been on the ground. That's a good recipe for a lot of groundouts, and that's exactly what he's produced. Or perhaps it's just a timing issue, as the New York Times's Ben Shpigel suggests, as Jeter has struggled to find his proper swing timing between his old stance and his new stance. If it's the latter, then the only cure is more playing time. But if it's the former, then there isn't much to be done. Jeter's drop in strikeouts suggests he may already be focusing on maximizing contact from the swing he has, which is the right approach. But it could be that the Yankee captain is experiencing what happened to the Red Sox captain, Jason Varitek. Sooner or later, Father Time takes your swing away.

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