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Big League Stew

Slumpbot .200: Is slump the beginning of the end for Ichiro?

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.

Ichiro Suzuki, Seattle Mariners

Data: .260/.313/.303, 0 HR, 20 RBIs, 14 SB, 4 CS, 20 BB/19 K

Malfunction: It looks like a misprint. Ichiro isn't just batting under .300 in June — something that has only happened in one other season, his difficult 2005 season in which he hit .303 — but he's struggling to hit .250 in June. He isn't just a few hits from the league lead — he has been the major league leader in hits for the past five seasons — he's tied for 28th in the majors. What's more, after spending years as one of the best defensive outfielders in baseball, all the top defensive stats agree that this year he's started to slip badly, and manager Eric Wedge has already given him three starts at DH. (But he hasn't yet given Ichiro a day off.) Is this the beginning of the end for Ichiro? {YSP:MORE}

Diagnosis: Power was never a big part of his game, but that has pretty much vanished with the singles. He's walking more and striking out less, but while he's making more contact than ever — a career-high 92 percent contact rate, tied for third in the majors — his otherworldly ability to deposit the ball exactly where he wants appears to be slipping. His Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is .280, which is just 10 points lower than the major league average, but it's 74 points below his career average of .354, which is tied with Derek Jeter as the fifth-highest career BABIP of all time. (The four players above Ichiro and Derek? Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Rod Carew.) Ichiro is the sort of player who's supposed to age gracefully: Typically, big lumbering slow guys who hit a lot of home runs, draw a lot of walks and strike out a lot (these are collectively known as "old player skills") are the sort of people who age quickly, and fast finesse guys are the guys who manage to hang around for a long time, like Omar Vizquel or Kenny Lofton.

It's hard to tell how much of this decline is permanent and how much is just a fluke, but the first place to start is speed. He's already equaled last year's total of three GIDPs, his defensive stats are worse, and after two straight years with at least 60 infield singles, he's on pace for just 42. On the other hand, he has 14 stolen bases in 18 tries, and his Fangraphs Speed Score this year is 5.7, better than the 5.2 he posted in 2009 or 5.4 he posted in 2010. (Speed Score is a stat that "is an average of Stolen Base Percentage, Frequency of Stolen Base Attempts, Percentage of Triples, and Runs Scored Percentage.")

Still, he's already 37, and he's an old 37. He's been playing major league baseball — first in the Japanese NPB, and then in MLB — since he was 18 years old. In 20 overall seasons, he's played 2,706 games, 1,649 in 11 years in MLB. That's a lot of miles on any set of wheels.

A scout whom Jayson Stark talked to was cautiously optimistic about the rest of Ichiro's season: "He's slowing up. But I don't think he's headed for rock bottom anytime soon."

Some stat analysts are reaching the same conclusion, like Matthew at Lookout Landing:

Ichiro may be finally declining, but it is highly unlikely that the beginning of that decline would see his BABIP drop from .336 (April) to .214 (May). Maybe 10-15 percent of that drop could be legitimately the result of Ichiro aging, or not adjusting to more inside pitches or whatever. However, the vast majority is probably just plain bad luck.

Reboot Directions: Ichiro isn't the player he was 10 years ago: He'll probably never hit .370 again. But while his skills have diminished, particularly in the field, it's very likely that a large share of his struggles this year are related to bad luck rather than the aging process. It is more probable that he is a true talent .300 hitter who's simply getting unlucky, rather than a true talent .260 hitter who is getting precisely what he deserves. Unfortunately, the Mariners have a ton of problems on offense, and the face of their franchise is just one of many.

Which other players are struggling?

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Dustin Pedroia, Boston Red Sox .246/.357/.338, 4 HR, 21 RBIs, 13 SB, 2 CS, 39 BB/39 K
Dustin Pedroia is having an OK season, except by his own standards. His .357 OBP is just fine, but he just isn't driving the ball; his .092 Isolated Power is less than half the .205 mark he posted in 2010, when he tied his career high with a .493 slugging percentage. Particularly in the friendly confines of Fenway, it's hard to understand how he has the second-worst SLG on the team, behind only the 35-year-old J.D. Drew. With improved offense from early season slumpers Carl Crawford and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Pedroia's struggles haven't much hurt the first-place Sox. He's striking out and walking at a higher rate than before in his career, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio is virtually unchanged from last year. He's also hitting fewer line drives and fewer home runs per fly ball.

So it's possible that his swing mechanics are different than usual, and if that's the case, Pedroia may be affected by the aftereffects of his foot surgery last year. As the Boston Globe reports, he had a screw inserted in his foot, and he has experienced pain related to that screw on multiple occasions this season. As long as he's able to play through the pain, Pedroia is still very valuable to the Red Sox for his defense and on-base ability, but this situation will need to be monitored closely.

Alex Rios, Chicago White Sox .199/.253/.301, 4 HR, 14 RBIs, 4 SB, 3 CS, 15 BB/23 K
Right around now, White Sox GM Kenny Williams must be looking at Alex Rios in the field every day and thinking to himself, "So that's why the Blue Jays gave him to us for nothing." Rios was similarly miserable during his first 41 games in Chicago in 2009, when he hit .199/.229/.301, before rebounding to a fine .284/.334/.457 mark last year. Rios makes a lot of contact, but he doesn't walk much, and he only has average power; for his career, he has a 6.5 percent walk rate, 2 percent below the major league average, and his career Isolated Power is just .161, right around the major league average for outfielders, which is .156 this year. In other words, he's certainly been unlucky — his .205 BABIP is 105 points lower than his career average — but even at his best, he's just above-average, and so when he starts going bad there's not a lot to fall back on.

Recently, manager Ozzie Guillen benched him and publicly criticized him for bad body language. Clearly, his manager thinks that Rios' problems are mental, not physical, and that was a frequent criticism that followed Rios in Toronto. The biggest problem with Rios' game is his below-average walk rate, but right now his mechanics are completely out of whack and the body language indicates that his self-confidence is too. It might be best for all involved if the White Sox could find an "injury" and rehabilitate him on the farm.

Luke Hochevar, Kansas City Royals 3-6, 5.25 ERA, 84 IP, 5.02 FIP, 1.30 WHIP, 1.70 K/BB
Even with Eric Hosmer up and raking, and Danny Duffy, Aaron Crow, and Jeremy Jeffress on the pitching staff, the Royals still have more spectacular hitting and pitching prospects than just about anyone. Sadly, Luke Hochevar no longer appears to be part of the team's future, and he's quickly pitching his way out of the team's present. That's a bitter fate for a player who was the Royals' top prospect just a few years ago, selected with the first overall pick of the 2006 draft — ahead of No. 3 Evan Longoria, No. 7 Clayton Kershaw, No. 10 Tim Lincecum and No. 16 Jeremy Jeffress.

Hochevar has made 13 starts so far this year, and he's given up at least six runs in four of them. In his last three starts, he's allowed 18 runs in 18 innings, 17 earned, with six walks and only five strikeouts. His strikeout rate has generally plummeted, from 6.6 K/9 last year to 4.2 K/9 this year, and his swinging strike rate has similarly tanked. In fact, if anything, he's gotten lucky: his BABIP is .263, 40 points lower than his career average. He's already yielded 13 homers and hit five batters, so whether it's a strike or a ball, when he misses his spots, he misses them badly. But no one can survive in the American League for long with a strikeout rate that low. With all the competition awaiting him on the farm, Hochevar is going to need to shape up or ship out, and if he can't strike out more batters, it's going to be the latter.

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