August 23, 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: 9-10, 4.96 ERA, 156 IP, 4.71 FIP, 1.42 WHIP, 1.89 K/BB
Malfunction: Normally I wouldn't write up a player like Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) or A.J. Burnett. At this point their established level of play is so mediocre that a few months of sustained relatively subpar play hardly deserves to be called a "slump." But A.J. Burnett has really made me sit up and notice. In his last nine starts, Allan James Burnett has allowed 38 earned runs in 49 1/3 innings, which equates to a 6.93 ERA over an average of 5.5 innings a start. Meanwhile, opposing hitters have a .916 OPS against him. If the Yankees didn't have a papier-mache pitching rotation already, Burnett and his $82.5 million contract would be in the process of pitching their way out of the Yankee rotation — and manager Joe Girardi indicated on Monday that "there are no locks" in his rotation. (Hint hint.) His ERA last year was 5.26; this year, it's 4.96 and rapidly rising. Are there any bright spots ahead for the 34-year-old, or will his performance be exactly as bad as it has looked?
Diagnosis: I'm going to take a look at Burnett's performance, but if you have a weak stomach, you may want to turn away now. To quote the band Devotchka, "You already know how this will end." Burnett was famously inconsistent and injury-prone throughout his 20s, but three major things happened to Burnett's results once he put on a Yankee uniform in 2009. At the age of 32, his strikeouts went down, and his walks and homers went up. Since those are the three things over which a pitcher has the greatest control, they are often considered the "Defense-Independent Pitching" stats, or DIPS. They are often considered the best measures of a pitcher's individual performance, because they are completely isolated from his defense.
Though he had a decent enough season in 2009, his components were already starting to erode, and Burnett basically went from pretty good to pretty bad as soon as he became a Yankee. His diminishing control and increasing vulnerability to gopherballs is the most important reason why. Why have his strikeouts declined? One reason, as the Yankee Analysts blog points out, is that his fastball has lost velocity and effectiveness. His average fastball used to be in the mid-90s, averaging over 95 as recently as 2007, but this year it's down to 92.7. That diminishing velocity, in turn, has reduced the effectiveness of his changeup, which isn't much slower, at an average velocity of just 88.2. That means that A.J. is a lot less able to disrupt the timing of hitters, who are then much more able to correctly time and square up his pitches.
A.J. has never been the greatest strike-thrower in the world — his strike percentage this year is the same as his career rate, 61 percent, one point below the major league average. But in past years he was able to fall back on killer stuff even when his control eluded him. Now that his velocity is declining, his iffy control is hurting him more and more.
Reboot Directions: A.J. will probably be able to rebound from his recent run of horrific starts, unless his ability to pitch has deserted him completely or he is hiding an injury. But the Yankees may not wish to wait, and unless he pitches a gem pretty soon they may "discover" an injury for him, just to have an excuse to get him out of there. His 4.71 FIP indicates that he's probably just a mediocre fourth starter having a bad run — but mediocre fourth starters aren't hard to find when money is no obligation. Now that Yankees fans like Mike Silva are calling for him to be traded to Chicago for Carlos Zambrano(notes) should tell you about how highly they regard him, and about how much trade value Burnett currently has. He's become the new Barry Zito(notes).
Which other players are struggling?
Eric Hosmer(notes), Kansas City Royals .268/.320/.416, 10 HR, 53 RBIs, 6 SB, 4 CS, 29 BB/62 K
The Kansas City youth movement is in full bloom. However, several of their heralded young players have had a bit of difficulty adjusting to the big leagues, most notably 3B Mike Moustakas(notes) (.523 OPS) and SP Danny Duffy(notes) (5.48 ERA). Until recently Eric Hosmer had been the Royals' most successful rookie in 2011. But he's been having a rough month. Since Aug. 1, Hosmer is hitting .211/.273/.282 in 19 games, with no homers and six walks against 10 strikeouts, showing very little power and not enough walks. In his minor league career, Hosmer had terrific strike zone control, with a very good 1.30 strikeout to walk ratio; in the majors this year, it's 2.14. Hosmer has held his own in the majors at the tender age of 21, and that's to be celebrated, but his secondary skills — the ability to get on base, hit for power, and take bases by personal footspeed — are relatively underdeveloped at present. Nothing he's done this year would suggest he'll be unable to hack it in the majors in the long run; not many players are already brilliant at the age of 21. (Jason Heyward(notes) sadly nods his head.) But he's not a good player yet, and he's capable of disappearing for weeks at a time. Until he improves his plate discipline and brings his strikeout to walk ratio back under two, that will continue to happen.
Andre Ethier(notes), .290/.364/.420, 10 HR, 51 RBIs, 0 SB, 1 CS, 51 BB/96 K
Not that it's the worst thing happening in Dodgers country at the moment or anything, but as Through the Fence Baseball put it a few days ago:
Question: What do Amelia Earhart, D.B. Cooper, Jimmy Hoffa and Andre Ethier all have in common?
Answer: Each of them is missing.
Andre Ethier is having a pretty terrible couple of months, batting .237 with a .668 OPS since the beginning of July, with just two homers and twice as many strikeouts as walks. (For his career, his K/BB ratio is a much healthier 1.70.) He's probably been getting unlucky overall this year on home runs; his home run per flyball rate is just 5.6 percent, well under his career rate of 8.3 percent. But he's getting overly lucky on batting average, as his .348 Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is 26 points higher than his career norm. At least some of Ethier's power will probably return, but it will likely happen at the expense of his batting average, either as a quid pro quo — if he starts to press and decides to sell out for power — or as a matter of course, as his numbers revert to career norms. Either way, more pain could be on the way for the Dodger rightfielder.
St. Louis Cardinals Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim 5-6, 5.37 ERA, 117 1/3 IP, 4.58 FIP, 1.57 WHIP, 1.55 K/BB
Joel Piniero is a maddening guy to root for. From 2000-2003, until he was 24, the Mariners thought he could be a potential ace: he had a 37-20 record with a 3.38 ERA (2.15 K/BB) at the height of the steroid era. From 2004-2008, he was barely employable, putting together a 5.34 ERA and 35-47 record (1.99 K/BB) as he bounced from the Mariners to the Red Sox to the Cardinals. Dave Duncan appeared to have fixed him starting in 2009, as he went 25-19 with a 3.64 ERA (3.23 K/BB) in '09-'10. But now he's bad again. And, as with Burnett, his command and control is as good a place as any to start. His 2009-10 renaissance mainly coincided with him discovering the best command of his life, leading the majors in fewest walks per nine innings in 2009 with 1.1; this year, that number has more than doubled to 2.4, while his strikeouts have declined to by far the lowest total of his career, just 3.7 strikeouts per nine innings. Unsurprisingly, his fastball has also diminished to the lowest average velocity of his career, just 87.6 miles per hour, down from his peak of 91.2 in 2003. The strikeout rate he's currently basically guarantees failure in the major leagues, and if he can't start striking more people out he won't be able to hold a roster spot. Piniero has had a famously inconsistent career, but he's teetering on the verge of outright disaster.