Big League Stew - MLB

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

Chad Billingsley(notes), Los Angeles Dodgers

Data: 10-5, 3.72 ERA, 1.286 WHIP

Malfunction: Nothing wrong with those numbers at first blush, but his ERA is a run higher than it was six weeks ago. Dodgers fans are convinced he's tired. He pitched in his first All-Star Game four days after a start in which he gave up five runs in five innings, and three days before he gave up six runs in 1.2 innings.

Since June 9, he's 3-2 with a 5.43 ERA in nine starts and he's averaging fewer than six innings a game. This comes after he started the year 7-3 with a 2.59 ERA and 6.2 innings a game. He hasn't been awful, but he's been awfully mediocre. Luckily, the Dodgers are the only team in baseball with a lead big enough to be able to shrug that off from their ace, but they'll want him to rebound come playoff time.

Diagnosis: Before the season, Beyond the Box Score identified Chad Billingsley as a possible risk for injury (per the "Verducci Effect") because he was a young pitcher whose innings had markedly increased over the past two years. He started the year like gangbusters, but he's pitched a lot worse of late. His fastball has maintained velocity and stayed in the low 90s, but as electric as his stuff is, he walks a few too many people for comfort, which means that his margin for error isn't always high.

While his strikeouts are a tick down from last year (from 9 K/9 to 8.5) his walks are a tick up (from 3.6 BB/9 to 3.8). He's throwing slightly fewer strikes and slightly more pitches per at bat this year, o it's not too surprising that his ERA is higher than last year, from 3.14 to 3.72. The fatigue thesis is supported by the fact that seven of his 10 homers this year have come in his last six starts — slipping mechanics lead to more balls up in the zone. Cutting down on the gopherballs will go a long way towards solving his problems.

Reboot Directions: His stuff is ridiculously good, so if he can improve his control and throw more strikes he'll be awfully hard to beat. His last start was a solid six innings and the two runs he gave up were the fewest since June 14. He's not as good as he can be, but he's plenty good already and he has a good attitude,  as the Press-Enterprise reports:

"I'll come back in five days," Billingsley said. "There's always tomorrow in baseball."

Of course, tomorrow's always better if you can throw more strikes.

Who else is currently running through some bad breaks? 

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Victor Martinez(notes), Cleveland Indians

Data: .291/.371/.475, 14 HR, 61 RBI

Malfunction: Victor is having a great year by any measure. Last year's disastrous, injury-shortened campaign led to serious questions about how much of his old power he still had left, but this year he's certainly shown he can still poke it over the fence. However, while his numbers are plenty good, he's actually been in a pretty serious slump for a long time, which illustrates just how hot he was to start the year. Since sitting at .400 on May 21, he's hitting .193 in his past 52 games.

Diagnosis: With the Indians out of the race, Martinez has been on the trading block, which is never easy to play through. With ace catching prospect Carlos Santana making his way through the minors, the Indians are looking to trade present strength for future value, and in the meantime are hoping that Victor doesn't sink his value too quickly. Mostly, he's been getting unlucky. He's still hitting homers at a good clip, so he's not just getting the ball anywhere between the foul lines. While he's still walking and striking out at normal career rates, his Batting Average on Balls in Play has been an awful .191. Of course, this is just karmic payback for the incredible tear he was on to start the season. In the end, it really does completely even out.

Reboot Directions: His strikeouts, line drive, and home run numbers are right where they were during his glory years from 2004-2007. As I wrote back in April, "he probably won't keep flirting with .400 ... but he could hit 20 homers with an OPS of .850-.900, as he routinely did at his peak." That still looks perfectly plausible. He'll snap out of the slump eventually because he's still controlling the strike zone and hitting line drives. No worries.

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Hunter Pence(notes), Houston Astros

Data: .294/.358/.467, 12 HR, 41 RBI

Malfunction: Pence is having a nice season, one that's a great deal better than last year. He was an All-Star reserve, which was only unfortunate because Matt Kemp(notes) had to stay home, but it was a nice honor for a fine player. However, he's been scuffling over the past month, and getting into bad habits. He walked a ton over the first two and a half months of the season — 33 times in 63 games, which was almost as much as the 40 he mustered in 157 games last year — but he's returning to his old hack-happy ways with with only three walks against 22 strikeouts in the past 30 games. Not suprisingly, he's hitting just .229 over that span.

Diagnosis: Hunter has good power and at the beginning of the year was beginning to make great strides in plate discipline. But free swinging is one of his vices and he can't just rely on his bat to break him out of a slump if he isn't controlling the strike zone. His BABIP is still .324 for the year, which means that his average still might have some falling to do.

Reboot Directions: Hunter is young and young players tend to be streaky. "Pence is definitely not seeing the ball well (he looks like he did in the first 2 months of 08)," wrote Lisa Gray of The Astros Dugout earlier this month. Not seeing the ball well covers a variety of sins, but overall he's making progress. Still, he needs to see more pitches and swing at fewer. For his career as well as this season, he swings and misses at 19 percent of pitches, compared to an MLB average of 15 percent, so his contact rate just isn't good enough for him to be as much of a hacker as he'd like to be. The more he walks, the better he'll hit.

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A few more players in need of SlumpBot's evaluation ....

John Smoltz(notes), Boston Red Sox: Maybe it's unfair to pick on a 42-year old coming off shoulder surgery. But for all the attention given to him in the offseason, he's been a bit rusty  giving up three dingers in his last start and at least five runs in three of his six starts. He's still striking plenty of people out and hardly walking anybody. He still has most of his "stuff", but right now the scoreboard says he's over the hill.

Jered Weaver(notes), Los Angeles Angels: Just a few weeks ago, he was looking like a Cy Young candidate and an All-Star snub, but like Billingsley his ERA has climbed a run and a half in a month and a half. In seven starts since June 20, he's rocking a 6.91 ERA and has given up eight homers in 40.1 innings.

Kevin Millwood(notes), Texas Rangers: He's having a good year, putting up mostly sterling numbers for a surprising Rangers team that isn't used to having multiple starters with sub-4.00 ERAs as Millwood and teammate Scott Feldman(notes) have managed. However, Millwood's ERA looked a lot prettier before he gave up nine runs on July 6. The whole month has been pretty horrendous: 19 earned runs in 23.1 innings, with just 12 Ks against nine walks.

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