Big League Stew - MLB

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.

Hanley Ramirez(notes), Florida Marlins

Data: .191/.290/.277, 1 HR, 11 RBIs, 3 SB, 4 CS, 13/17 BB/K

Malfunction: The first month of the season in Miami has been doubly shocking: First, Hanley Ramirez has been dreadful, and second, it hasn't mattered. Hanley Ramirez might be one of the five most talented players in baseball, but right now he's about the least essential member of the first-place Florida Marlins.

For the first time in his career, Hanley went homerless in April, finally ending his drought with a long ball on May 1. Right now, he's below the Mendoza line, owns the 10th-worst* OPS in the National League, and is leading the league in times caught stealing.

*The ninth-worst OPS is owned by his new teammate, Omar Infante(notes), who has been even worse than Dan Uggla(notes), the man Infante was traded for.

Diagnosis: Hanley has been getting horrendously unlucky on balls in play as his BABIP is .224, 119 points below his career average. He's been getting unlucky on homers with his flyballs only going over the fence about a third as often as they usually do. His strikeouts are right in line with his career average, and his walk rate is actually higher than his career average. The problem is, he's hitting a lot more ground balls and a lot fewer line drives than usual, and he's swinging and missing a lot more than usual, too. The strikeout and walk numbers suggest that his plate discipline hasn't been seriously compromised, but he's clearly not making the kind of contact that he usually makes.

Ramirez will probably come around, but last year was his worst season since his rookie year, and this year he's taken another step in the wrong direction. Last year was also the first season that he missed significant time due to injury, as he missed much of September to elbow injuries. He's been pretty healthy this year, other than a bruised leg from a broken-up double play. It's hard to know whether the elbow is still affecting him, but he hasn't mentioned it. It's frightening to think that the 27-year-old superstar shortstop may already have his best years behind him — the same fear that is plaguing Mets fans about Jose Reyes(notes), who is half a year older than his Dominican countryman Ramirez. But with his skills in power, speed, plate discipline, and contact hitting, Ramirez certainly should have many good years ahead of him.

Still, Ramirez has gotten older. He isn't quite as blazingly fast as he was when he was younger; he probably won't steal 51 bases again, as he did in both 2006 and 2007, and the fact that he's been caught stealing more often than he's successfully stolen indicates that he's still coming to terms with his degraded speed. That foot speed has also helped him hit for a high average, as he has had at least 25 infield hits (and at least a .300 average) in each year of his career, but has just two infield hits thus far in 2011. His foot speed is unrelated to his vanished power, however, and I'm confident that his power drop is more of a fluke, and will return when he starts hitting more fly balls and fewer grounders.

Reboot Directions: Manager Edwin Rodriguez is going to let Hanley play through it, and it's easy to see why -- Rodriguez's predecessor, Fredi Gonzalez, was essentially fired because he chewed Hanley out for dogging it on the field. So Hanley will have every opportunity to hit his way out of the hole. As long as his plate discipline remains as it has, he'll see more hits start falling. But he will need to change his game to accommodate his fading foot speed, stealing fewer bases and hitting more balls in the air. He's still a superstar, but even superstars slump.

Which other players are struggling at the start of the season?

Ryan Dempster(notes), Chicago Cubs 1-3, 9.58 ERA, 31 IP, 6.52 FIP, 1.87 WHIP, 1.81 K/BB
Five starting pitchers on the Cubs have made at least four starts, and each has an ERA over 3.90. Matt Garza(notes) leads the way with a 3.96 ERA, followed by Carlos Zambrano(notes) at 4.91, Casey Coleman(notes) at 7.36, James Russell(notes) at 8.15, and finally Ryan Dempster at 9.58. Dempster has actually pitched better than his ERA would indicate, as you can tell from the FIP, and his strikeout rate of 8.4 K/9 is actually quite good. But his walks are up from 3.6 BB/9 last year to 4.6 BB/9 this year, and he's given up an absurd number of homers, nine in just 31 innings. He's always been homer-prone, having given up at least 20 homers in six of his seven full years as a starter, but this is ridiculous. If he can get out of the first inning Tuesday night against the Dodgers, it'll be an improvement, as the Diamondbacks knocked him out of his last start before he could get the second out. It seems like a simple enough matter — sharpen his control just enough to cut down on his walks and stop grooving so many gopher balls — but it's certainly easier said than done. The strikeout rate indicates that he still has his stuff, but he needs to do a better job of painting the black.

Gordon Beckham(notes), Chicago White Sox .214/.268/.320, 2 HR, 9 RBIs, 5/20 BB/K
Who does Beckham think he is, Benjamin Button? After a terrific rookie year in 2009, in which he displayed above-average plate discipline and power, virtually every facet of his game declined in 2010, and he's been even worse so far in 2011. After he posted a slightly above-average walk rate in 2009, his walk rate was below average in 2010, and this year, it has dropped to 4.4 percent, 13th-worst in the American League. His power production has similarly slipped, as his Isolated Power has dropped from .190 in 2009 to .126 in 2010 to .107 this year. And his hitting coach and manager are both worried about his body language and frustration with himself: "He's not dealing with failure real well," says hitting coach Greg Walker. First and foremost, though, he needs to focus on plate discipline. If he can't recognize strikes from balls, he can't hit in the league. If he can get back to the skills he demonstrated in his rookie year, he can be a fine starting player. But until he trusts himself, he'll continue to slide.

(In fairness to Gordon, and unfortunately for Rays fans, he has been better than his similarly named, fellow 2008 first-round draftee, Tim Beckham(notes) — who has hit .264 in the minors since being chosen first overall in the draft. Gordon Beckham was chosen eighth in the draft and at least he's in the majors.)

Austin Jackson(notes), Detroit Tigers .188/.260/259, 1 HR, 4 RBIs 3 SB, 2 CS, 11/40 BB/K
After Austin Jackson led the American League in strikeouts in his rookie year, Adam Dunn(notes) and Mark Reynolds(notes) came over to the AL in the offseason ... and now Jackson is leading the majors in strikeouts. His walks are up a bit, but his whiffs are up by more, and he just isn't good enough to succeed with that many K's. His fine rookie campaign last year was propped up by an unreasonably high .396 BABIP; this year, his BABIP dropped 114 points to .282, and his batting average has subsequently dropped from .293 in 2010 to .188 in 2011. Until he makes more contact with the ball, he will struggle to hit above .220 in the majors.

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