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Slumpbot .200: Ogando, Vlad decline in dog days of August

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.

Alexi Ogando, Texas Rangers

Data: 12-6, 3.57 ERA, 151 1/3 IP, 3.76 FIP, 1.14 WHIP, 2.95 K/BB

Malfunction: Alexi Ogando is a remarkable story. He is a converted position player who was denied a visa to the States for five years after the Rangers took him in the Rule 5 Draft because he participated in a scam by which Dominican baseball players were paid to marry women whom they'd bring to the States and thereby expedite their citizenship process. He finally arrived in the majors a year ago July, and he immediately turned into perhaps the best reliever on the AL champion Texas Rangers. This year, the Rangers decided to convert him yet again, this time into a starting pitcher, and once again he thrived, making the All-Star team and fire-balling his way to a terrific 11-5 record with a 2.88 ERA on August 4. But he has stumbled in recent weeks, giving up 18 earned runs (including five homers) in 20 innings over his past four starts. So what's up? {YSP:MORE}

Diagnosis: The first hypothesis that comes to mind is simple: he's a former reliever in his first full season in the majors, and he's just running out of gas. He pitched a 3 1/2 month season in the majors last year, and so he's quite literally not used to pitching from April 'til October. Impressively, he's maintained a decent strikeout-to-walk ratio despite yielding a lot more runs, striking out 12 against just six walks in those past four starts.

Then again, there's another possible explanation, too. On Aug. 6, Ogando went on the new paternity leave list to fly back to the Dominican to attend the birth of his child. I have not seen any news accounts regarding how the birth went, but he returned three days later and had the second-worst start of his major league career, getting knocked out of the game in the middle of the third after giving up six runs, eight hits and two walks. Perhaps his mind was elsewhere.

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Whatever it is, you can't say his arm is dead. This year, he has had the second-fastest average fastball among all baseball starting pitchers; his average velocity of 94.9 miles per hour is virtually indistinguishable from Justin Verlander's 95.0, and in Ogando's last start on August 25, Ogando actually averaged 95.7 and touched 98 on the gun. But the Rangers aren't taking any chances; they have announced that they plan to give Ogando time off at some point next month, because he's in such uncharted territory in terms of innings pitched.

Reboot Directions: Even during his slump, he has maintained both his velocity and his strikeout-to-walk ratio, which is a very good sign for the future. But the Rangers understandably want to take no risks. Ogando's slump may not necessarily imply that his arm is about to fall off, but it's a warning sign that they ought to be careful. They are wise do to so.

Which other players are struggling?

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Vladimir Guerrero, Baltimore Orioles .274/.305/.387, 10 HR, 45 RBIs, 1 SB, 1 CS, 13 BB/48 K
He's had a Hall of Fame career, but the old man might be nearing the finish line. He shows far less power than ever, with an Isolated Power number of .112 — way below his career mark of .236. Moreover, as Fangraphs's Mike Podhorzer points out, he's leading the league in swings at pitches out of the strike zone, also known as O-Swing percentage:

He is still making contact at typical levels, but obviously it is harder to hit the ball over the fence when it is off the plate.

Signed in the offseason to a one-year deal to provide a veteran presence, along with fellow disappointment Derrek Lee (now a Pirate), Guerrero has lost the prodigious power that was once his trademark, and the remarkable plate discipline that made him perhaps the best bad-ball hitter in baseball history. His career walk rate is 8.2 percent; this year it's 2.8 percent, nearly three times lower. Now he's just up there swinging, and he can't hit the ball with nearly as much authority when he does connect. Now that he's 36 years old, it's hard to predict that he'll rediscover some of the power that he's lost, or the plate discipline that he has clearly sacrificed as his other skills are slipping. He isn't done as a baseball player. But he probably won't get a starting job next year. He probably shouldn't, either.

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Yunel Escobar, Toronto Blue Jays .284/.361/.407, 11 HR, 45 RBIs, 3 SB, 2 CS, 55 BB/66 K
Yunel Escobar is a polarizing player, to say the least. Throughout his career, his attitude (and penchant for on-field gaffes) has rubbed fans, teammates and coaches the wrong way. But he's a Cuban refugee whose tremendous talent has shone through a traumatic past and dangerous defection. With everything he's been through, it's hard not to want to cut him some slack. But when he has a month like this August, it's not hard to see how he's exasperated many of his strongest supporters. In August, he's hitting .194/.262/.276, with 18 strikeouts and just six walks. Though he has average foot speed, base stealing has always been a weak point — for his career, he's 21 for 37 — and his skill at turning double plays is matched by his tendency for grounding into them, as his 75 GIDPs since 2008 are tied for 10th-most in baseball. An extended 2010 slump led to his trade from the Braves to the Jays around 13 months ago, when his averages were .238/.334/.284. His walk and strikeout rates have stayed remarkably consistent throughout his career, but a high-contact player like Yunel is bound to be prone to the occasional extended slump. The Braves simply felt they couldn't take it anymore. The Jays gave him a contract extension through 2013 with extraordinarily inexpensive club options through 2015, so they'll just have to bide their time. He'll break out of it, but in the meantime he'll also frustrate fans, like always.

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Jaime Garcia, St. Louis Cardinals 10-7, 3.73 ERA, 164 IP, 3.29 FIP, 1.36 WHIP, 2.87 K/BB

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It's sort of sacrilege to say so, but the time it took for Jaime Garcia to come out of nowhere and become regarded as one of the best left-handers in the league was not all that much longer than the time it took Albert Pujols to establish himself into the best right-handed hitter in the world. But Garcia has hit a recent rough patch: In his last six starts he's pitched 32 1/3 innings and allowed 29 runs (only 24 of them earned), on a staggering 48 hits (including five homers) and 13 walks, against just 21 strikeouts. The Cardinals just announced that they were skipping his first post-hurricane start. Rob Neyer notes that Garcia may have stamina issues:

[Forty-five] percent of García's starts in these last two seasons — good seasons — haven't exceeded five innings. I will note that in many of his five- (and six-)inning starts, García was pitching effectively, but apparently ran up against pitch-count issues. He's never thrown more than 111 pitches in a game, and has thrown 100 or more pitches in only 14 of those 55 starts. For whatever reason, the Cardinals have simply not allowed García to become a workhorse.

Neyer concludes that there's probably nothing wrong with Garcia, and the Cardinals have not let on anything about his health. But he's an inefficient pitcher, and though his career strikeout-to-walk ratio is a generally solid 2.31, he allows more than 1.3 baserunners per inning, which means that he spends a lot of the time in the stretch, and that means that he can't afford any more homer binges like the one he's on right now. If he can get the homers back in check, he should be just fine. But despite the laudable success he's achieved through age 25 — career record of 24-16, 3.33 career ERA — he isn't quite a finished product yet.

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