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Slumpbot .200: Johnny Damon struggles to prove everyday worth

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.

Johnny Damon, Tampa Bay Rays

Data: .262/.315/.396, 10 HR, 51 RBIs, 11 SB, 4 CS, 33 BB/70 K

Malfunction: Johnny Damon is starting to be targeted by those "is he a Hall of Famer?" articles and that's due to two assumptions: The first is if he gets 3,000 hits, it will be impossible not to induct him. The second is that he's virtually guaranteed to get there, considering he's just 312 hits shy of that magical mark.

But with Damon's performance this year, the second assumption has become less of a certainty. Right now he's a DH who has hit .238/.306/.343 since July 1 and those are the kind of numbers that cause an everyday hitter to become a part-time player. It might be a slump, but if this is the beginning of the end, then Damon might indeed fall short of 3,000.

Diagnosis: The first thing that stands out from the numbers is that Damon isn't getting particularly unlucky. His Batting Average on Balls in Play is .290 this year, just 17 points lower than his career average and just four points lower than the major league average this year. Nor is he getting unlucky on homers; his 5.9 percent homer per flyball rate is almost identical to his 6.1 percent career rate. {YSP:MORE}

The second thing that stands out is that Damon, who has maintained a walk rate above league average over the course of his career, is posting his worst walk rate (6.8 percent) and worst OBP (.315) since 1996, when he was 22. He's also posting the worst strikeout to walk ratio of his career, the highest swinging strike rate, and the lowest contact rate of his career.

Put it together — he isn't getting unlucky, and he is getting worse at making contact with the ball and controlling the strike zone — and it looks less like a slump and more like age has begun to degrade his abilities. Damon is on a one-year deal with the Rays, so he's playing for a contract right now, and he needs to convince a team that he's worth paying starting player money. But first he needs to convince the Rays that he deserves to remain in their lineup.

Reboot Directions: Damon's greatest attribute throughout his career has been his durability. He has played at least 141 games in every season of his career since the Royals made him a full-time player in 1996. In his career he has averaged 3.93 at-bats a game, and his career average is .286, so if he could just keep up his career averages he would get his 3,000th hit in around 277 games, or around two full seasons of everyday baseball. But the slippage in his plate discipline makes it hard to believe that he'll be given 140 starts a year for two more seasons. If he can start getting on base again, it would go a long way towards proving he's still got something left in the tank.

Which other players are struggling?

Danny Espinosa, Washington Nationals .223/.309/.408, 17 HR, 55 RBIs, 12 SB, 4 CS, 40 BB/119 K
Back in April, prospect analyst John Sickels wrote that Danny Espinosa had "a chance to develop into a Dan Uggla-type hitter." Unfortunately, Espinosa appears to have accelerated that career path an awful lot: His first three months weeks of the season were like Uggla's career up to 2011, and then his year started to look like Uggla's awful first half of  this year: Decent power, but he has struggled to keep his batting average above .220. Espinosa likely won't be a high-average hitter — his career minor league average is .270 — but this is terrible. His bad batting average is driven both by a high strikeout rate (his swinging strike rate is tied for 10th-worst in the league) and by a low .264 BABIP, far lower than his .323 BABIP in the minors. So while he's leading all NL rookies in home runs and is walking at a league-average rate, his overall batting productivity is dragged down by a severe lack of singles. He isn't hitting many line drives, so that may be a mechanical issue with his swing for the Nationals coaching staff to work on with him. In the meantime, they may want to work on getting him to choke up with two strikes.

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Mike Moustakas, Kansas City Royals .182/.237/.227, 1 HR, 11 RBIs, 0 SB, 0 CS, 14 BB/34 K
Give the Royals credit for standing by their man, but two months into his rookie campaign — which I predicted would result in a Rookie of the Year Trophy, so, um, oops — Moustakas has been possibly the worst hitter in the American League. He actually hasn't been striking out overmuch, but he's got a below-average walk rate and, strangely for a man who hit 36 homers in the minors last year, he's had virtually no pop, with a nearly microscopic .045 Isolated Power. A two-month slump is enough to get into any hitter's head, and since results like this are often both mental and physical, the team tried to adjust his swing two weeks ago. Obviously, there has been no noticeable improvement. Manager Ned Yost has apparently made it clear that Moustakas absolutely positively will not get sent back down to the farm, as Royals beat writer Bob Dutton writes: "It doesn't matter how much Moustakas struggles. Period."

Moustakas's strikeout rate is right around his minor league average, as is his walk rate, and his .212 BABIP could perhaps be chalked up to miserably bad luck. But the power outage is more serious, and that is undoubtedly what the Royals are trying to address. Moustakas was recently demoted to eighth in the batting order, which may help take the pressure off; he batted fifth as recently as Aug. 8. It would be best if he could regain his confidence and rediscover his power stroke in Triple-A Omaha. As Rany Jazayerli notes, he is one of just three players since World War II to debut this poorly. He's just too overmatched right now to make the necessary adjustments at the major league level.

Gio Gonzalez, Oakland Athletics 9-11, 3.36 ERA, 147 1/3 IP, 3.61 FIP, 1.37 WHIP, 2.03 K/BB
The ERA looks nice, but it's misleading. After a spectacular first half, with a 2.33 ERA through July 17, Gonzalez has given up at least four earned runs in each of his last five starts, yielding 24 earned runs on 18 walks and 34 hits in just 27 1/3 innings, good for a 7.90 ERA. As hittable as he's been, it's the command that's the real problem. Last year was Gonzalez's breakout, and he achieved it by cutting his walk rate from 5.5 walks per nine innings, in his awful 2008 and 2009 seasons, to 4.1 — that's still subpar, but it was good enough for his dominant stuff to take over. He had the same walk rate over his spectacular first 19 starts this year. But over the last five starts, the walks have shot way up. Gonzalez has always had marginal control at best, so it really gives him no room for error. If he can't regain his command, he's going to keep getting bombed.

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