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Big League Stew

Slumpbot .200: Pedroia’s power season petering out as end nears

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.

Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox

Data: .296/.381/.454, 18 HR, 77 RBIs, 25 SB, 7 CS, 81 BB/75 K

Malfunction: No matter what's been happening recently, Pedey has already posted a great year. He has set career highs in homers and stolen bases, he's walked more than he's struck out, and he's played in all but three of his team's games.

But because the name of this column is Slumpbot, we have to note that he's been wearing down along with his team lately. Pedroia is just 10-for-55 in his last 13 games, and the Sox are 3-10 over that span. If they can't get him going again, they may have some serious trouble fending off the Tampa Bay Rays for the Wild Card.

What's been wrong with Pedroia the past few weeks?{YSP:MORE}

Diagnosis: Since Aug. 30, the Laser Show is batting just .182/.196/.273, with a 1/11 walk to strikeout ratio and just three extra base hits (a 5.4 percent XBH rate) in 13 games. Over the previous 130 games, he had a 80/64 BB/K ratio and 49 extra base hits (an 8.1 percent XBH rate). So his power and patience have both slipped precipitously at the exact same time.

Much of this is reflected in his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP). His BABIP in those first 130 games was .322, 11 points higher than his career average, while it's just .209 during the 13-game slump. A drop that precipitous may reflect a serious run of bad luck compounded by normal pressing, as with Dan Uggla earlier this year. But it may also indicate that something more serious is going on with his swing, which is preventing him from making the kind of hard contact to which he's accustomed. The fact that his plate discipline has fallen tremendously is a strong hint that his slump is related to more than just luck.

With Pedroia, you always have to wonder if his feet are fully healthy. He missed the last month and a half of the 2010 season with a broken foot, and a screw was inserted into his foot during offseason surgery. He missed a game in May with an injury to that foot, and another game in June with a knee injury — but because the foot bone's connected to the leg bone, and the leg bone's connected to the knee bone, it's hard not to wonder if the injuries are related, and whether they may be connected to his current bad stretch. If he's having trouble generating power from his legs, he may need to cheat with his hands and start his swing earlier than usual, which could account for the poor plate discipline. It's just a guess, but the Sox will want to be better safe than sorry with their sparkplug.

Reboot Directions: Pedroia had a May slump before the foot injury, which he worked through, and he wasn't much affected by his June injury. But if there's one thing that will ease strain on a knee and foot, it's resting. The Muddy Chicken doesn't like to come out of the game, and the Sox only have a three-game lead over the Rays in the AL wild card race, but the Sox may need to give him some regular rest if they want his numbers to come back to normal levels.

Which other players are struggling?

Brian McCann, Atlanta Braves .276/.354/.480, 23 HR, 66 RBIs, 3 SB, 1 CS, 51 BB/81 K
The Braves' offense has gone into a tailspin, and it appears to have coincided with the DL return of their best player, Brian McCann. McCann has played 24 games since coming back from an oblique injury on Aug. 14, and he's batting a horrific .159/.275/.352. Something tells me his leg isn't quite right. He's hit for decent power, maintaining a .193 isolated power (ISO) over that period, but his BABIP has been an insanely bad .153. Some of that may just be bad luck, but it may also be due to degraded mechanics, exacerbated by the pain of injury and the wear and tear of a long season. Unlike Pedroia, his power and plate discipline have not fallen nearly as far as his batting average, but he's still been a hole in the middle of the lineup.

It's too bad for Brian, because he was on his way to one of his best seasons ever before the injury, batting .306/.375/.514 on July 26. It's even worse for the Braves, who have only been averaging 3.5 runs a game as they have gone 14-14 over the past month; they're just 4-9 in September, as their lead in the NL wild card race has dwindled from 8.5 games to 4.5 games. McCann is their biggest bat, having spent all but one of his games batting either third or cleanup. But on Monday, the Braves dropped him all the way to fifth, and he still left eight men on base while going 1-for-6. The Braves offense has absorbed major slumps by Martin Prado, Jason Heyward, Alex Gonzalez (a mediocre hitter having a terrible season), and Dan Uggla's first half; the team can ill afford a major slump from McCann, too. As long as they still have a lead in the wild card race, they need to give McCann all the rest he needs, because once October rolls around, like all teams, their fortunes will rise and fall with those of their best player.

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Mark Buehrle, Chicago White Sox 11-8, 3.58 ERA, 1.86 IP, 3.90 FIP, 1.27 WHIP, 2.44 K/BB
Mark Buehrle is an amazingly consistent pitcher from year to year. But that doesn't mean he's consistent from start to start. This month, he has given up seven earned runs in consecutive starts and watched his ERA rise by more than half a run. (Nine other pitchers have given up at least seven earned in consecutive starts this year. The all-time record is four straight starts, but that hasn't happened since 1936. Brian Moehler did it over three consecutive starts at the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010.)

But the end result is, as Fangraphs' Eric Seidman points out, that Buehrle's components this year are nearly identical to his career averages:

Buehrle 2011: 4.8 K/9, 1.9 BB/9, 45% GBs, .291 BABIP, 72% LOB, 3.58 ERA, 4.14 xFIP
Buehrle Career: 5.0 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 46% GBs, .291 BABIP, 72% LOB, 3.83 ERA, 4.22 xFIP

With a strikeout rate that low, Buehrle's a classic "pitch to contact" pitcher, and as such, is more subject to random chance: when you strike a man out, there's a 100 percent chance that he's out, but if he hits the ball fair, the likelihood of an out drops to somewhere between a 60 and 70 percent. As it happens, during those two most recent nightmare starts, hitters had a massive .457 BABIP against him; he had allowed a .284 BABIP up to that point in the season, and his career BABIP is .294. Buehrle is one of the biggest names about to hit the free agent market this year, and he would love to turn it around and go out on a good note. As it is, he just hit a very costly run of bad luck at a very unfortunate time.

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Brandon Morrow, Toronto Blue Jays 9-10, 5.12 ERA, 153 IP, 3.58 FIP, 1.32 WHIP, 3.05 K/BB
Brandon Morrow is a good pitcher having a bad season. His average fastball is 93.8 miles per hour, seventh-fastest in baseball. His 3.05 K/BB is actually 15th in the league, so even though Morrow is the Blue Jays' No. 2 starter behind Ricky Romero, there are four teams in the league who don't have a single starter who can match Morrow's strikeout to walk ratio. So why is he breaking the hearts of so many fans and fantasy owners?

The gopher balls are as good a place to start as any. On July 20, he had an ERA of 4.34, not great but not terrible, and he had allowed five homers through 101 2/3 innings in 17 starts. Since then, he has pitched 51 1/3 innings in nine starts, and has allowed 13 homers. (He hit five batters as well, suggesting that gopherballs weren't the only symptom of his spotty control.) His xFIP bears out this analysis as well: while his ERA is an unsightly 5.12, his xFIP (which analyzes his components while neutralizing the effect of home runs) is a very good 3.49 — that's the 12th-best mark in the AL. People often deride statheads for saying there's nothing wrong with a guy except his performance, and it would be unfair to say that of Morrow, who illustrates the difference between control and command. Morrow has been able to pound the strike zone, leading the league in strikeouts per nine innings and posting the lowest walk rate of his career. But he hasn't always been able to command the ball in the zone, which is why he has given up so many home runs and also hit batsmen. If Morrow can get a better handle on his stuff — or at least remember that if he's going to miss, he ought to miss down in the zone — he'll be one of the best pitchers in the league, as his xFIP indicates he already has the raw ability to do exactly that. If he can't, he'll continue to be heartbreakingly inconsistent.

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