Big League Stew - MLB

Using the best technology available today, Slumpbot .200 identifies a few players who are currently having trouble and then offers solutions for recovery.

Cliff Lee(notes), Texas Rangers

Data: 10-8, 3.37 ERA, 1.025 WHIP, 0.6 BB/9, 13.42 K/BB (2-5, 4.69 ERA with Texas)

Data: Cliff Lee was rightly seen as the prize of the trade deadline, but things haven't gone quite as planned for either the Rangers or Mariners. Prized prospect Justin Smoak(notes) has hit so poorly that he's now back in Seattle's minors, and Lee gave up more earned runs in his first game with the Rangers than he'd given up in his previous two weeks as a Mariner. During his latest debacle on Tuesday night, Lee gave up seven runs and got knocked out in the fifth inning by ... drumroll, please ...  the Kansas City Royals.

During his abbreviated stay in Seattle, Lee only had two starts in which he gave up four earned runs or more. In his even shorter time as a Ranger, he's had seven such starts, including a current streak of five. As a Mariner, Lee never failed to pitch into the seventh or later, but in his last three starts in Texas, he hasn't made it out of the sixth. Lee still has terrific control, and his lack of walks is helping him challenge the all-time record for strikeout-to-walk ratio, but he's still giving up a ton of hits and homers, and he hasn't thrown a complete game in a month. Something clearly ain't right.

Malfunction: As you might expect, our old friend BABIP can help explain at least part of the problem. Lee's BABIP as a Ranger is .314, well above his .283 BABIP as a Mariner and his career .299 mark. He still isn't walking anybody, so the only baserunners he faces are guys who put a bat on the ball, which magnifies the effect of the hit rate. Similarly worrisome are the home runs: he gave up five homers in 13 starts in Seattle, and he's given up six in his last three. His command is still among the best in baseball, but hits are bunching against him badly.

What's his real problem? Those Rangers road unis. Other than the homers, it's hard to blame his lack of success on his new home stadium, the bandbox-like Rangers Ballpark. Since coming to the Rangers, his home ERA is 4.06, but his road ERA is even higher at 5.23. He's giving up 10.7 hits per nine innings on the road versus 8.1 hits per nine at home in Arlington. And those hits are going slightly further. He's given up 10 homers as a Ranger versus just five as a Mariner — but he also gave up 23 doubles in Seattle, and he's given up just 16 as a Ranger. He's the same guy, he's just giving up more hits, and more of those hits have been loud.

Reboot directions: Until his Texas hiccup, Cliff Lee was about the surest meal ticket in baseball the last three years. Because his command and K/BB ratio are so sparkling, it's easy to predict that nothing has changed under the hood and he'll soon return to his old dominant self. The Rangers have the biggest divisional lead in baseball and are virtually assured of a playoff spot (despite having just traded for Jeff Francoeur(notes)), so Lee will have the luxury of getting used to his new ballpark and figuring out how to keep the ball safely inside it. For now, the prognosis is frustratingly vague: it's just a phase that he'll work his way out of. Hopefully soon.

What other players are currently slumping?

Barry Zito(notes), San Francisco Giants 8-10, 4.07 ERA, 1.339 WHIP, 1.85 K/BB
Until a few weeks ago, this was Zicasso's comeback year. As the Giants' fourth starter behind Tim Lincecum(notes), Matt Cain(notes), and Jonathan Sanchez(notes), he had 17 Quality Starts through his first 23 starts, with an 8-6 record, a 3.35 ERA, and — for the first time since 2004 — a K/BB over 2.0. But since then he's turned into the same old $126 million meltdown artist that all Giants fans know and hate. He has a 9.61 ERA in his last five appearances, including an inning of relief (allowing three hits and a run) in a 12-inning game against the Reds. He's gotten knocked out in the fourth inning in each of his last two starts. In his last five games, he has more walks than strikeouts. For Barry, it's really quite simple: if he can strike out more than twice as many as he walks, like he did in Oakland and earlier this year, he can be successful. If not, he'll get nuked.

Miguel Olivo(notes), Colorado Rockies .277/.326/.462, 13 HR, 50 RBI
For quite a while, Olivo was the hottest catcher in the National League, and he was hitting .300 as recently as Aug. 3. But that was pretty heady stuff for a guy with a .247 career average, and a miserable August has seen him go 8-for-57 with 19 strikeouts agaist just one walk. His OPS has dropped 86 points and backup Chris Iannetta(notes) has gotten increased playing time. There's no mystery here: Olivo was playing way above his head, and even now that he's crashed to earth, he's still enjoying the second-best season of his career after hitting 23 homers last year in Kansas City. Still, what goes up must come down.

Ben Zobrist(notes), Tampa Bay Rays .251/.357/.352, 7 HR, 58 RBI, 23 SB, 3 CS
Zobrist was widely acclaimed as the most versatile player in the American league last year, after slamming 27 homers while logging time at every position but catcher and pitcher. By the end of the year, he'd settled in as the everyday second baseman, but the Rays in their wisdom moved him again at the beginning of 2010, and he's spent most of his time this year as the right fielder. That may have been one move too many, as he's dropped 239 points of OPS since last year and lost most of his power. (When a supersub has a breakout year, teams should really just keep them in their position. The biggest mistake the Seattle Mariners made with Chone Figgins(notes) was to move him off his best position.)

From 2008-2009, Zobrist demonstrated that he has real power, and it will return eventually, though 2009 may prove to be his career year. But his batting average may not come back. He'll still have value through his plate discipline, superior basestealing ability, and defensive versatility, but he won't be as good as he was last year. Is that the Rays' fault? Maybe not. But they may wish they hadn't messed with a good thing.

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