April 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.
Data: .217/.272/.289, 1 HR, 14 RBIs, 3 SB, 7 BB/21 K
Malfunction: Carlos Gonzalez has been having a rough first month. He came out of the gate strong, going 3 for 6 on opening day, but since then he's batting .195 with 10 hitless games in 19 starts, including his last six games. Gonzalez is currently in the middle of an 0-for-21 stretch, and claims that he's been fighting the flu for the past three weeks, since picking it up on April 7 in Pittsburgh. After busting out for 34 homers and 77 extra-base hits last year, he has just four extra-base hits in the month of April, good for a horrendous .289 slugging percentage. Stat experts often talk about how bad a sub-.300 OBP is, but in many ways, a sub-.300 slugging is just as bad. It indicates that Gonzalez simply is hitting for no authority at the plate, and just isn't comfortable up there. He's not in Tuesday night's lineup at Wrigley Field as manager Jim Tracy wants to give him a full day to work on his swing.
Diagnosis: A month ago, I wrote, "This year will see a step back for Gonzalez, but not necessarily a drastic one, particularly if he can increase his walks to help compensate for his batting average, which is almost certain to fall." As a matter of fact, he is walking at a marginally higher rate, but it's still below league average, and he's still striking out three times as often as he walks, two of the most worrisome trends from last year that convinced me that he wouldn't hit as well this year. Still, I never expected he'd hit this poorly, and I'm confident that his results will pick up. His Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is just .270, a full 114 points lower than last year — and while he won't hit for a .336 batting average or reproduce the .384 BABIP that led to it, it's reasonable to expect that both his BA and his BABIP will rise by at least a good 40 to 50 points.
On the other hand, his swing isn't producing the same results, either. He's hitting line drives at a rate more or less consistent with last year and with his career norms, but he's hitting a ton more ground balls and fewer fly balls than usual, and the fly balls that he's hit haven't gone as far. He probably got a bit homer-lucky last year — few players are capable of hitting more than 20 percent of their fly balls over the wall, as he did last year, and he was due to see that number regress. But right now he's getting unlucky, with just 6.3 percent of his fly balls going for home runs. However, while he isn't hitting the ball with the same authority when he connects, he also isn't making contact as frequently. He's swinging and missing much more this year. CarGo's swinging strike rate has skyrocketed from a higher-than-average 19 percent to an awful 25 percent. It's as though his bat has grown holes.
Teammate Troy Tulowitzki(notes) says Gonzalez is just pressing, which is obvious, and it's an understatement. The Denver Post also notes that he didn't play winter ball because of wrist tendinitis, and that he started the season heavier than usual in order to keep his playing weight during the summer months — but he's lost 12 pounds since catching the flu.
Reboot Directions: In the long run, Gonzalez will be fine, but he needs to figure out whether his struggles are simply related to illness or whether there's something mechanical. He still has the power and speed he flashed last year, though he may never quite repeat last year's success. He also clearly still has all the weaknesses that I feared would hamper his progress this year — poor plate discipline, too many strikeouts and not nearly enough walks. Right now, he needs to work with hitting coach Carney Lansford to make sure that his swing mechanics stay consistent -- the increased ground balls and swinging strikes lead me to worry that he's actually doing something different at the plate. And he needs to work at extending his at-bats. If he can improve to even a league-average walk rate, he'll be a much more valuable player.
Which other players are struggling at the start of the season?
Joe Nathan has already lost the closer's job to Matt Capps(notes), the man the team acquired last year to keep the seat warm during Nathan's recovery. The 2010 Twins were an astonishing success story, winning the division despite losing Nathan in the preseason and Justin Morneau(notes) at midseason. But Nathan's return, a year after Tommy John surgery, has been the opposite of triumphant. His velocity is way down, and naturally so are his strikeouts. Unfortunately, his control seems to have abandoned him as well, as he's walked more men than he's struck out. He started the year nicely enough, with three saves and just one earned run in his first three opportunities, but since then, he's pitched in five games, blown his only two save opportunities, and allowed seven earned runs in 4 1/3 innings. Many pitchers who return from Tommy John find that their velocity returns gradually, so it could be that Nathan will regain his feel later this summer. But if he can't find his fastball and can't find the plate, there's precious little reason for him to be in the majors. He'd be far better served regaining his command at extended spring training on the farm, than pitching in games that matter.
Bedard hasn't been the lone black spot in Seattle; Chone Figgins(notes) has arguably been just as bad for the Mariners, for whom the shock of 2010 has given way to familiar disappointment. But Bedard's story is far more pathetic. After Bill Bavasi gave up the crown jewels of the farm system to acquire him, Bedard pitched a total of 164 innings in 2008 and 2009, spent all of 2010 on the DL, and has returned in 2011, after undergoing three shoulder surgeries. While he was effective when healthy in '08 and '09, this year he has just been bad. The main problem has been homers — he's served up seven in just 18 2/3 innings — but his walk rate has zoomed up too, to 5.3 walks per nine innings from a career rate of 3.6. Indeed, Keith Myers of SodoMojo opines that location is really the only thing wrong with Bedard; he concludes, "There's reason to optimistic that there will still be improvement." As with Nathan, Bedard's major problem is that he needs to regain his feel for the strike zone. Unlike with Nathan, the Mariners aren't contenders, and so Bedard's losses can be treated as learning experiences. As long as he isn't in pain, there's no harm in letting him try to work his way back to effectiveness. Bedard himself says it best:
"I don't know if it will ever be like it used to be, after three surgeries. You just work hard and do the best you can. Hopefully, good things happen."
Dan Uggla always starts slow. Over his career, in March and April, he has hit .237/.310/.443, compared to .266/.353/.494 in all other months. But he generally doesn't start this slow. His power numbers are pretty much where they should be, as his isolated power (slugging minus batting average) is .204 this year, just slightly lower than his excellent career mark of .224. He has two real problems, one of which is not his fault and one of which is. First, he's getting freakishly unlucky on hits, as his BABIP is an absurd .174, 109 points below his career rate. Basically, he's just hitting the ball right at people, and sooner or later his luck will change, the singles will start falling again, and his average will rise somewhere between 80 and 100 points. Second, though, his 6.1 percent walk rate is almost half his 11.6 percent walk rate last year. (He also isn't striking out as much as he did last year, but not by enough to make up the difference.) He needs to start taking walks at his usual rate again. The rest will take care of itself. He's a fine hitter who has just had a terrible first month of the year. It happens.