September 07, 2011
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.
Data: 16-7, 2.49 ERA, 206 1/3 IP, 3.02 FIP, 1.03 WHIP, 3.45 K/BB
Malfunction: Justin Verlander(notes) likely has the Cy Young locked up, but it wasn't that long ago that Weaver looked like he was going to post a strong challenge. On Aug. 5, he pitched nine shutout innings against the Seattle Mariners, giving him a major league-leading 1.78 ERA. But then he got suspended for six games for throwing a pitch over the head of Alex Avila(notes), and he's had a rough time of it ever since coming back: five starts, 29 2/3 innings, seven homers and a 6.67 ERA. Over that span, his ERA jumped three-quarters of a run and slipped all the way to fifth-best in all of baseball. What happened?
Diagnosis: Fangraphs' Jeff Zimmerman notes that Weaver has been extraordinarily lucky. In fact, by his research, possibly the luckiest pitcher in baseball. His Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) and home run per fly-ball rate (HR/FB) are far below league average, and his left-on-base rate (LOB percentage, which measures how many men a pitcher strands) is far higher than league average.
Weaver's current BABIP is just .258, sixth-lowest in the American League (Verlander is second-lowest), and that BABIP is 32 points below his career average. His HR/FB is 5.1 percent, below his 6.7 percent career average and well below the 7.6 percent league average. And his LOB percentage is 80.7 percent, well above his 76.4 percent career average and the 72.4 percent league average this year. So, in other words: He's allowing fewer hits than usual and fewer home runs than usual, and of the baserunners that are getting on, fewer of them are coming around to score.
All of these factors are generally considered to be outside a pitcher's control, and success is therefore due less to the pitcher and more due to circumstance. So Weaver's recent run of bad starts could just be a regression to the mean, as he returns to the pitcher he is underneath: extremely good, but not good enough to maintain a sub-2.00 ERA.
The Angels clearly felt this was a momentary blip, signing him to an $85 million extension on Aug. 22, four days after a good start, but just nine days after he had allowed eight runs in 4 2/3 innings. After signing the extension, he allowed 13 earned runs in the 18 innings of his next three starts.
Reboot Directions: Don't get me wrong: Jered Weaver's really really good. He wasn't as good as his 1.78 ERA looked — but pretty much no one ever is, other than maybe Greg Maddux in 1995 and Pedro Martinez(notes) in 2000. His recent struggles were simply a regression to the mean, so that his results are now much closer to his underlying components. As long as he doesn't keep serving up meatballs, there's nothing to worry about.
Which other players are struggling?
Chase Utley(notes), Philadelphia Phillies .264/.344/.443, 10 HR, 41 RBIs, 13 SB, 0 CS, 32 BB/39 K
First, the good news: In the last five years, Chase Utley is 72 for 77 in stolen-base attempts, and for his career is 109 for 122. His 89.3 percent success rate is 1 percent higher than Carlos Beltran's(notes) 88.3 percent success rate, meaning that among all players with at least 100 steals, Chase Utley is the best base stealer of all time for those we have recorded statistics. (Caught-stealing data is generally not available before 1950.)
Now, the bad news: Utley's games played have declined in each of the past three seasons, and his OPS has declined in each of the past four.
*As of Tuesday's games, Utley has played 87 games and has hit 10 homers with 41 RBIs. Since Utley has played in each of the Phillies' last 30 games, I projected him to play in 23 of the team's last 24 games, to get up to an even 110 games played on the season, and this affected the projection for his homers and RBIs in 2011. Because they are rate stats, not counting stats, BA, OBP, and SLG are unaffected by games played.
At 32 years old, Utley is no longer the player he was in his late 20s, when from 2005 to 2009 he was almost certainly the best second baseman in baseball and arguably the best overall player. This year, his strikeout rate has declined, but so have his walks and home runs. He's making more contact and his overall power has slipped. He's still a terrific player, playing solid defense, taking walks, and providing power from a middle infield position where power is hard to find, but due to injuries and declining skills, he's no longer the transcendent player he was before.
* * *
Brian Matusz(notes), Baltimore Orioles 1-7, 9.84 ERA, 43 IP, 7.35 FIP, 2.02 WHIP, 1.74 K/BB
The Orioles recently moved Matusz from the rotation to the bullpen after one of the more prolonged displays of bad pitching of the decade.
As the Baseball-Reference blog noted after his latest start:
Brian Matusz had allowed at least 6 runs in 5 straight starts, the longest streak of its kind since 2001. So Buck Showalter shortened the leash for today's [Sept. 5] start against the Yankees: Matusz was gone in the 2nd, allowing 5 runs on 5 hits, 2 walks and a HR, inflating his season ERA to 9.84.
This kind of year generally goes down in the annals as a "lost year," as Matusz missed the first two months with a strained chest muscle, pitched ineffectively in June, and then spent the next month and a half in the minors before being called up in mid-August and pitching just as poorly as before.
Most of his problems can be traced to one thing: home runs. His xFIP is just 5.12, which isn't good, but it isn't atrocious, and it's nearly one-half the size of his monstrous ERA. xFIP is a measure that indicates how well a pitcher would have pitched if they had a league-average home run rate. Matusz has given up 15 homers in just 43 innings this year, which translates to an almost impossible to fathom 3.1 home runs per nine innings. (In the history of baseball, only one other pitcher has ever sustained a home run rate that high in a season of at least 40 innings: Lance Cormier(notes) on the 2007 Atlanta Braves.) So it's true that Matusz's strikeouts are slightly down from last year and his walks are slightly up; his BABIP is 59 points above his career average and his HR/FB rate allowed is more than twice his career average and nearly twice the league average. Part of that is undoubtedly bad luck; part of it may be due to an unconscious mechanical change following the injury. But essentially none of that matters next to the prodigious number of homers he's giving up. Whatever the reason, it is imperative that he stop pitching until the Orioles figure out why every ball he throws is a gopherball.
* * *
Martin Prado(notes), Atlanta Braves .262/.309/.389, 11 HR, 51 RBIs, 4 SB, 8 CS, 32 BB/43 K
Martin Prado was an All-Star at second base in 2010, developing into one of the more underrated keystone players in baseball after hitting .309/.358/.461 from 2008 to 2010. But then the Braves acquired Dan Uggla(notes), shifted Prado to left, and things got much worse. That caught-stealing total is as good a place to start as any: Prado was never a high percentage base stealer before, as he was 9 for 16 to start his big league career, but this year he's the worst base stealer in baseball, with the worst stolen base percentage (a staggering 33.3 percent success rate) of any player with at least 10 attempts. He has grounded into 16 double plays, tied for eighth-most in the NL, including three in his last eight games. His OBP has always been heavily batting-average dependent, as he doesn't strike out or walk much, but while he's making more contact this year — both striking out and walking less than usual — his BABIP is 50 points lower than his career average. That suggests that, while he's hurting the team on the bases, a big part of his struggles is due to factors outside his control, which we usually refer to as "bad luck."
Dan Uggla's first-half slump and Jason Heyward's(notes) year-long slump have received all the press in Atlanta, but Martin Prado's bat has been just as bad as Heyward's, and unlike Heyward, Prado hasn't lost his job or been platooned. The Braves may believe that he's bound to snap out of it, if the BABIP increases to career levels as expected. But until he does, they may want at least to remove him from the No. 2 spot in their batting order.