Big League Stew - MLB

It's back! 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.

Vernon Wells(notes), Los Angeles Angels

Data: .091/.149/.114, 0 HR, 2 RBI

Malfunction: Two weeks into his Angels career, Vernon Wells is looking utterly lost. He's 4-for-44 with just one extra-base hit, a double. His manager benched him on Tuesday for Reggie Willits(notes) and Angels fans already started booing him over the weekend. Is his slow start a sign of diminished skills, or is he just pressing?

Diagnosis: Scout John Klima offered a detailed look at Wells's struggles. Klima writes that his foot speed is "a small notch below average for a right-handed hitter," and that "he still has an average major league throwing arm." But it's his approach at the plate that was most worrisome.

In Wells' second at-bat, [Brett] Cecil — a nibbler who by then had thrown 47 pitches and whose 86 mph to 90 mph fastball cuts and sinks but is hardly imposing -- threw an 87 mph fastball that Wells fouled straight back.

Near-misses of such pitches are signs of one of two things: bad timing or diminished bat speed. Sometimes both. An honest scout must conclude that Wells presently lacks the loose explosiveness that characterizes the swing of a top hitter…

He isn't trusting his hands, isn't letting pitches get to him -- or perhaps isn't sure why his hands aren't letting him do what they used to.

Based on Klima's report, Wells's struggles clearly go beyond a normal April cold spell. Yet injury is always a possible culprit. If it's more a matter of timing than physical capacity, his struggles may have been exacerbated by a hamstring strain that Wells suffered in late March, which kept him out of several spring training games.

On the other hand, Vernon has alternated a great season with a mediocre one for the last five years, hitting well in 2006, 2008, and 2010 and poorly in 2007 and 2009. So it was inevitable that he would decline this year. But right now he doesn't look like a man in decline. He looks like a minor leaguer.

Reboot Directions: Unfortunately, Wells's struggles remind me of nothing so much as Andruw Jones(notes) in 2008. Wells is just 32, but he's an old 32, having played a lot of games in center field, one of the most physically punishing positions on the diamond. Andruw Jones was 31 in 2008, a centerfielder old before his time, who likewise came to a new team on a big contract and simply forgot how to hit for an entire season. Off days are a good place to start for Wells, for every reason: he needs to figure out his timing and his mental preparation, he may need to rest his hamstring, and if his skills are this far in decline, he may no longer be an everyday player. For right now, he should just be batting down in the order and given a day off at least every week or two to rest his legs.

A lot of people panned the Angels for trading for a declining player with $86 million left on his contract. But now they have him. If they can find an excuse to put him on the DL -- that hamstring might be as plausible as anything -- they could send him down for a minor league rehab assignment, where he could determine whether his problem is bad timing or declining bat speed. Right now, television may not be the best place for him.

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

Carl Crawford(notes), Boston Red Sox .152/.204/.174, 0 HR, 2 SB, 1 CS
There are a lot of directions to point the finger of blame for the Red Sox's 2-9 start, but the $142 million man is a good place to start. He has the worst batting average and OBP on the team and is a good reason the team has only averaged 3.6 runs a game. (They've also allowed 6.5 runs a game, so John Lackey(notes) and Daisuke Matsuzaka(notes) are probably good people to blame for that.)

Crawford isn't the first player to switch teams and struggle to live up to a big contract, and given his age and track record it's likely that he and all of his teammates are just massively pressing. But expectations have to be quickly tempered in Boston. They're just lucky the Rays are scuffling even worse. In the AL East, it only takes a few weeks for a team to be pushed out of playoff contention for good.

Cliff Lee(notes), Philadelphia Phillies 1-1, 7.84 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 14.0 K/BB
The least valuable pitcher of the Phillies staff has been Joe Blanton(notes) and his 10.45 ERA,  but Lee has actually been rather pedestrian over his last 17 regular-season starts since being traded out of Seattle: 5-7 with a 4.31 ERA. His underlying components have been extraordinary as usual — 8.32 strikeouts per nine innings and an absurd 8.46 strikeout-to-walk ratio. But he's been giving up a fair number of runs — and he had a terrible World Series, giving up nine earned runs in 11 2/3 innings. He'll be fine as that K/BB basically precludes extended failure. But he's still human.

Mike Pelfrey(notes), New York Mets 0-1, 10.80 ERA, 2.31 WHIP, 0.67 K/BB
Pelfrey repeated the results of his 2008 breakout year in 2010 and was one of the few bright spots on a Mets team whose on-field struggles were largely overshadowed by questions regarding the team owners' investments with Bernie Madoff. It's hard to say that Pelfrey's performance has been as bad as a multi-billion dollar scandal, but it's in the running. He currently has the highest ERA in the majors and more walks than strikeouts. His biggest problem throughout his career has always been his control— he doesn't strike many guys out, and he doesn't generally limit his walks enough to make up for it. This year is just the apotheosis of his problems. His performance will stabilize somewhat once he can cut his walks, but it's looking more and more like the real Mike Pelfrey isn't the man who had a 3.66 ERA in 2010, but the man who has a career 4.42 ERA — not a moderately above-average pitcher, but a slightly below-average pitcher who had a couple charmed seasons. If he can't cut the walks, he's not long for the league.

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