May 26, 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. This week we focus on some players who still haven't found a cure and have been slumping from the start of the season.
Data: .180/.250/.335, 7 HR, 15 RBIs, 17 BB/40 K
Malfunction: I last wrote about Uggla on April 26, and blithely dismissed his struggles: "He's a fine hitter who has just had a terrible first month of the year. It happens." But now that he has had a terrible first two months of the year, it seems clear that there's more to it than that. Uggla has the ninth-worst OPS in baseball, and though he has appeared in all 51 of the Braves' games, he has only begun 12 games with a batting average above the Mendoza line. He's providing a bit of power — his seven homers are tied for fourth among second basemen — but everything else has gone horrendously wrong.
Diagnosis: It's tempting to point to the games played — Uggla has started 50 of the Braves' 51 games, and appeared as a defensive replacement in the other — and suggest that Uggla is just worn out. But even if health is part of the answer, it isn't the whole thing. His approach at the plate is simply worse this year. Compared to his last three seasons, Uggla is striking out a bit less but also walking a lot less. While he has dropped from striking out in 24 percent of plate appearances to striking out in just 20.3 percent of PA, his walks have dropped from 12.6 percent to 8 percent. Over the last three years, Uggla saw an average of 4.18 pitches per plate appearance, and this year it's 3.76 pitches. He's also hitting a ton more grounders, many of them weak grounders: 38.1 percent of his balls in play have been groundballs over the course of his career, but this year it's 46.4 percent. For a power hitter like Uggla, that isn't something you want to see, and it indicates that something is out of whack, his swing mechanics, his approach, or both.
He has had rotten luck. His Batting Average on Balls in Play is a shockingly low .194, 101 points lower than his career mark. Just 10.4 percent of his fly balls have gone over the fence, compared to a career average of 13 percent. Both of those numbers are both likely to rise toward his career mark. For their part, the Braves have been extremely unlikely to shake things up, batting Uggla cleanup or fifth in 47 of his 50 starts, and they still have yet to give him a full day off. He was their major offseason acquisition, and they clearly want him to hit his way out of his struggles. But they have recently indicated a willingness to try something different. Since last Friday, Uggla has batted second once, fifth once and sixth twice, and he started a game on the bench for the first time all year. It hasn't paid dividends at the plate — he's 1 for 18 in those five games — but it's clearly time to try new things, and a drop in the order and an occasional off day are clearly both warranted by his performance.
Reboot Directions: It's hard to completely rule out health problems, but Uggla's appeared alternately frustrated and lost at the plate, so his problems right now seem more mental than physical. He's a 31-year-old second baseman who was awarded a five-year contract in the offseason, and he's clearly putting himself under tremendous pressure to live up to the $62 million the Braves gave him. And, amid Uggla's struggles, the Braves have one of the more anemic offenses in baseball right now. Over their last 12 games, they're averaging just 2.9 runs a game, and not even the best ERA in the National League can do much with run production that poor. Uggla may yet work through his slump, but he won't do it in the middle of the order. He's clearly pressing, and the Braves need to take the pressure off.
Which other players are struggling?
Adam Dunn(notes), Chicago White Sox .191/.321/.355, 5 HR, 22 RBIs, 28 BB/61 K
I wrote about Dunn on May 10, and I said: "By his components, he's pretty much the same hitter he was last year, just unlucky." Dunn's having a much better year than Uggla, but it might be time to revisit that claim. He's striking out a lot more than usual. He's played in just 44 of the White Sox's 51 games, but he's still leading the majors in whiffs. He's striking out in 33.2 percent of his plate appearances, way more than his (already high) career rate of striking out in 27.1 percent of PA. (That's the second-highest strikeout rate in the majors, a few points lower than Bill Hall(notes) and just 0.1 percent higher than Ryan Raburn(notes).) Other than the strikeouts, the biggest problem is the power outage. While he's slightly above his career line drive rate and well below his career groundball rate, his homer per fly ball rate is half his usual mark, and his homers haven't been traveling nearly as far as usual: per Hit Tracker, he's averaging a true home run distance of just 400 feet this year, compared to 411.6 feet last year. So he's not the same hitter: He's striking out more and not hitting the ball as hard. And then there's the fact that he's 0 for 32 against lefties. Even against righties, he's having a down year, though. It's not clear what's wrong, but the strikeouts are certainly not a good sign.
Hanley Ramirez(notes), Florida Marlins .211/.296/.314, 4 HR, 17 RBIs, 10 SB, 5 CS, 20 BB/33 K
I wrote about Hanley on May 3, and I surmised that falling foot speed was to blame for some of his struggles. His plate discipline is pretty consistent with his big league averages, but his line drive rate is way down, which goes a long way toward explaining why his BABIP is 102 points lower than his career rate. But what explains the slippage in his line drive rate, which is currently at 13 percent, though he has never finished a season with a rate lower than 19 percent? His manager thinks the issue is mostly mental, not physical, and also notes that Hanley is a much bigger, more muscular player than he was when he came up as a rookie, and is still adjusting to his new frame. He's been moved up in the order, from No. 3 to No. 2, but he's batting just .206 in eight games since the move. In time, perhaps being moved up in the order will help Ramirez stop swinging for the fences and start swinging for line drives the way he used to. Otherwise, there's nothing else to counsel but patience.
Carl Crawford(notes), Boston Red Sox .229/.264/.335, 3 HR, 16 RBIs, 7 SB, 3 CS, 7 BB/35 K
I wrote about Crawford all the way back on April 13. Back then, he was hitting just .152 with an OPS of .378, so you'd have to admit that there has been some improvement: Since April 13, he's hitting .254 with a .671 OPS. That's still bad, though, particularly for a $140 million player. Plate discipline has never been his strong suit, and for his career he has 2.68 as many strikeouts as walks, but this year his plate discipline has been awful. He's struck out five times as often as he's walked. In fact, he's only walked in 3.5 percent of his plate appearances, the eighth-worst walk rate in all of baseball. His BABIP is just .267, 62 points below his career average of .329, and his homer per fly ball rate is 0.8 percent below his career average of 5.4 percent. But everything about Crawford seems slightly worse this year. He's only been successful on seven of his 10 stolen base attempts, for a 70 percent success rate that is far below his career mark of 82 percent. Crawford may still be adjusting to his new surroundings, new teammates, and new expectations. It's nice to see that he's clawing his way back from oblivion to mediocrity, but he still has a long way to go. The first thing he needs to do is to address his lack of patience at the plate and on the basepaths — or he'll be in line for a long, unpleasant seven years in the Hub.