Panic or Don't Panic: Kevin Gausman, Jordan Walker, and more

We're three weeks into the baseball season and people are starting to get an itchy trigger finger. In the Reddit thread for my Sunday Waiver Wire piece, I've been getting a lot of questions about whether it's time to cut bait on guys like Bryce Harper, Cody Bellinger, or Maikel Garcia. Any time you're getting questions like that, you know it's time to talk some people off the proverbial ledge.

That means it's time for the first installment of "Panic or Don't Panic," where we look at some of the higher-profile players who are struggling and decide if it's time for us to truly worry. To do that, we're going to give each player below a rating from a Five Alarm Fire (near disaster) to a One Alarm Fire (little reason to panic). In general, One Alarm Fires are people you should keep in your lineup, Three Alarm Fires are guys you can bench, and Five Alarm Fires are guys you can likely cut.

In general, I will say that I still believe it's too early to panic. I try to make it at least until May before I start to think about moving on from the players I drafted with a certain level of confidence. Yes, the bottom of our rosters are meant for churning, but players you drafted in the first 15 rounds are guys who have exhibited a certain level of security over the years, and I think they deserve our patience unless there is a clear injury or role change.

All stats listed below are as of Wednesday, April 17th.

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Julio Rodríguez - OF, SEA

.206/.260/.221 with no home runs, six runs, five RBI, four steals, a 5.5% walk rate, and 34.2% strikeout rate.

I'm not really going to go into detail here. It's Julio Rodríguez and it's April 17th. You're not cutting him. You shouldn't trade him. He's one of the best players in real and fantasy baseball.


Cody Bellinger - 1B/OF, CHC

.182/.286/.318 with two home runs, five runs, 11 RBI, an 11.7% walk rate, and a 16.9% strikeout rate.

I think part of the reason that people are so ready to panic on Bellinger is that they believe his 2023 season was a bit of a fluke, so they're expecting the other shoe to drop. The truth is likely that 2023 was partially fluky, but the other shoe is not dropping here. Bellinger is sporting a career-high walk rate, he's chasing out of the zone over 10% less than last year, and his strikeout rate remains a solid 16.9%. To me, the stats seem to imply that Bellinger is trying to fight back against the narrative that he doesn't have the same power we once thought he did. His flyball rate is up 12% to a career-high 55.6%. He's pulling the ball more and being more aggressive in the zone but making less contact both in the zone and overall. That has led to a small jump in swinging strike rate (SwStr%) to 13.9%.

Bellinger swing decisions
Bellinger swing decisions

The added swing and miss and huge increase in flyball rate seem to indicate a player who is trying to drive the ball out of the park, which was something Bellinger mostly did early in the count last year. This season, Bellinger is seeing 10% fewer two-strike counts and putting far more balls in play earlier in the count, which has not been successful for him. I have some mild concerns because we've seen his launch angle get out of whack before when he was dealing with his shoulder injury, but this just feels like a player who is deviating from what worked last year to try and silence criticism or earn his contract. With the results not working in his favor, I'd imagine he would go back to what worked last year.


Paul Goldschmidt - 1B, STL

.190/.292/.238 with one home run, six runs scored, seven RBI, a 10.8% walk rate, and a 28.4% strikeout rate.

Coming into this year, I was banging the drum that Goldschmidt was not aging poorly but had been unlucky in 2023. I'm no longer convinced that's the case. The 36-year-old has a career-high strikeout rate and SwStr%. He's chasing more out of the zone and making less contact in the zone. However, it should be noted that most of these changes are only slight. He's not experiencing a massive decline here. However, he's fouling more pitches off and popping the ball up way more than usual with a 14.3% pop-up rate. It's clear that his timing is off.

However, what's interesting to note is that Goldschmidt is seeing FEWER fastballs this year. If this was an aging hitter who was losing the ability to catch up to MLB pitching, we'd be seeing pitchers pound fastballs inside. Instead, Goldschmidt is being fed more sliders and he's being thrown outside more than in years past. This is likely part of the reason his pull rate is up but his barrel rate is down so much; he's out in front of most of these sliders. Even though Goldschmidt wasn't great against sliders last year, I don't believe this is a hitter who simply lost the ability to hit that pitch. I expect him to adapt back to what pitchers are doing, and even if we don't get the 2022 version of Goldschmidt back, I think you'll still get a solid season out of him.


Nick Castellanos - OF, PHI

.169/.239/.169 with no home runs, two runs scored, five RBI, an 8.3% walk rate, and a 23.9% strikeout rate.

Before the season began, I covered Castellanos in my article on poor plate discipline hitters and mentioned that, in 2023, Castellanos posted his highest strikeout rate ever (if you ignore the COVID 2020 season) and posted his second-lowest walk rate ever. He also posted a career-high SwStr% and career lows in both contact rate and zone contact rate. His swing decisions also got significantly worse as the season went on. He slashed 235/.271/.452 in 70 second-half games with 16 home runs and a 29.4% strikeout rate. His xSLG, hard-hit rate, and average launch angle all went up in the second half of the season as he seemed to sell out for more power, but I was concerned by those swing decisions.

So far in 2024, he's posting a career-high walk rate, chasing out of the zone less, and making a bit more contact in the zone but has seen no real improvement in his SwStr%. Part of this could be the way pitchers are pitching him. According to Statcast, last season there were only two pitch types that Castellanos had a positive run value against: Fastballs and sliders. This season, he's seeing fewer of both and has seen a 5.5% increase in curveballs. That makes some sense since he had a 45.8% whiff rate and 28.8% PutAway rate against curves last year. This season, he has yet to get a hit against a curveball and has a 37.5% whiff rate. When he is making contact in general, he's hitting far more flyballs but has way more soft contact and a pretty big decrease in Ideal Contact Rate (ICR).

Casty Rates
Casty Rates

Considering I was not really into Castellanos heading into this season, I'm certainly worried about his early performance. However, he has a long track record of success in terms of power production, he hits in a good park, and is in one of the better lineups in baseball. If you wanted to bench him, I get it, but I wouldn't recommend cutting him.


Spencer Torkelson - 1B, DET

.209/.293/.284 with no home runs, seven runs scored, six RBI, a 9.2% walk rate, and a 21.1% strikeout rate.

Torkelson had many believers heading into this season with some people ranking him ahead of Triston Casas, Christian Walker, and Josh Naylor. While I couldn't get on board with that, I did like Torkelson from a power perspective, so this start is not ideal. On the surface, we see Torkelson pulling the ball and lifting the ball more and we think that's a good thing for his power production. He's also making more contact in the zone and swinging and missing less, so what's going wrong?

Well, Torkelson is hitting almost 20% pop-ups, has 76% poor contact, and just a 2.6% barrel rate. To me, a big part of this is the way he's being pitched. Torkelson has seen a 4% increase in fastballs but, more importantly, a 10% increase in hiLoc%, which is Pitcher List's High Location stat to indicate where a pitcher is delivering pitches in the strike zone. He's also being pitched inside 6.5% more, so Torkelson is seeing more fastballs and seeing more of them up in the zone and more in on his hands. As a result, he's hitting more pop-ups and making much less hard contact against four-seamers.

Torkelson Four-seam
Torkelson Four-seam

If you believe Torkelson doesn't have the bat speed to adjust to this then you should worry. However, I think everything we've seen from him as a hitter suggests that he can make this adjustment.


Jordan Walker - OF, Cardinals

.184/.250/.306 with no home runs, three runs scored, four RBI, an 8.9% walk rate, and a 26.8% strikeout rate.

There’s a weird narrative around Jordan Walker where people on Twitter are telling me he’s never been good. First of all, he’s just 22 years old and was a top-15 prospect in all of baseball coming into last season. Second, he hit .276 with 16 home runs, seven steals, and a 22% strikeout rate in 117 games last year as a 21-year-old in the Major Leagues. That’s good. I know he didn’t live up to the lofty ADP he had in last year’s drafts, but that’s a solid season for a player that young so to say he’s done nothing at the MLB level is just incorrect.

His surface-level stats are not there this season, but I like a few of the things he’s doing process-wise. He’s chasing less outside of the zone and being more aggressive in the zone. He’s also lifting the ball more than he did last season and has a 9% barrel rate so far this year with a much higher average exit velocity than last year.  However, even though he’s hitting the ball harder, he’s also swinging and missing more and pulling the ball on the ground too much. To me, this is a young player who is trying to be aggressive but is perhaps being too aggressive and swinging at pitches that he can’t consistently do damage on. Since he’s still making hard contact and isn’t chasing at pitches outside of the zone, I think this is an easy adjustment where he can dial back the aggression a little bit to hunt pitches he can make meaningful contact on. I understand if you want to bench him for the time being, but I would try not to drop him unless you’re in really shallow leagues.


Kevin Gausman - SP, TOR

8.16 ERA, 1.74 WHIP, 15.9% K-BB%, 15.4% SwStr%, and 31.4% CSW in 14.1 innings and four starts.

Gausman's numbers are worrisome, especially when paired with the fact that Gausman's season got off to a late start due to a shoulder injury. Is he hurt? Is he just ramping up still? After yesterday's start against the Yankees, it makes me feel a little more comfortable in believing that Gausman is still just getting back into a rhythm and building strength after a delayed start. Coming into the Yankee game, his four-seam was averaging 93.4 mph, which is down from 94.7 in 2023; however, he averaged 94.8 mph against the Yankees. That added velocity makes us feel a little better about the overall health of his shoulder.

Gausman v NYY
Gausman v NYY

I do have some concerns about the command, which is also something that can be impacted by injury. Gausman had just a 23% zone rate on his splitter and a 29% zone rate on his slider against the Yankees. That's not uncommon for his splitter, which gets swings and misses but is rarely a called strike; however, I don't love seeing that he's still struggling to command his slider. That means the only pitch he consistently throws in the strike zone is his four-seamer. That was a concern of mine coming into the year and also likely why the pitch is allowing a 55.6% Ideal Contact Rate (ICR) so far this season.

That's kind of always been who Gausman is though. His splitter is elite. His fastball is slightly above average, and he gives up a lot of hard contact. I'm not sure we're fully 100% out of the injury woods here, but we can see the clearing on the other side and we're almost there. Given the state of pitching right now, it's hard to imagine trading Gausman if he's healthy, but I do still think you need to expect an ERA around 3.50 with a slightly higher WHIP than we'd like to see from our ace.


Joe Musgrove - SP, SD

6.29 ERA, 1.77 WHIP, 8.0% K-BB%, 12.2% SwStr%, and 29.2% CSW in 24.1 innings and five starts.

A couple of things are standing out here. Off the bat, I see that Musgrove's fastball velocity is down to 92.2 mph on the season and was at 91.9 mph in his last start. As a result, he's throwing the four-seam under 20% of the time now and relying more on his slider, which is up to almost 24% usage. He's also tweaked the slider to add more horizontal movement, but it's missing fewer bats and grades out worse on Pitcher List's PLV stat. His curveball is also leaking out over the plate more, with a 13% increase in glove-side location. It's getting pummeled with a 57% ICR. When you add to that the lower velocity on the fastball and the fact that he's giving up a 55% ICR on that pitch as well, you can see where the concern comes from.

Overall, there are no glaring red flags. His overall SwStr% isn't down much. He's not allowing more zone contact. He's in the zone as much as he was before. He just doesn't seem crisp, so he's not getting swings and misses out of the zone and he's leaving too many pitches in spots where hitters can tee off. He's also falling behind hitters more than he ever has in his career. We have enough of a track record of Musgrove being a really solid pitcher with plus command that we should expect him to iron out the issues; however, he also battled a shoulder injury last year and we have some velocity concerns this season, so it's possible he's not at 100%.


Tanner Bibee - SP, CLE

4.82 ERA, 1.71 WHIP, 9.3% K-BB%,13% SwStr%, and 29% CSW in 18.2 innings and four starts.

I wasn't super high on Bibee coming into the year, ranking him 36th in my final pre-season starting pitcher rankings but saying, "Tanner Bibee does not have a great fastball, but he has two legitimate secondary pitches. That sounds a lot like a typical pitcher for the Cleveland Guardians, who have always seemed to get a lot out of pitchers with poor fastballs, even if that profile scares me. I have some concerns that he elevates his curve a lot, which, logically to me, is a potential issue because curveballs up in the zone are much easier to hit than curveballs out of the zone below."

Well, in 2024, I have a lot of those same concerns. While he's doing a better job of getting his curveball low and his low location on the slider is better too, he's also throwing his slider belt-high about 26% of the time this year. He is keeping it away from righties, but I don't love a belt-high slider and it's getting hit harder this year with a 39% ICR. He's also throwing his fastball in the middle of the plate more this year with an 8.3% mistake rate. Hitters are crushing his fastball with a 60% ICR and a .441 batting average against. Given that his fastball was never great, he needs to have precise command of it and his other pitches in order to be set up for success. Much like I felt coming into this season, I don't think Bibee is as good as he showed last year, but I also don't think he's as inconsistent as he looked this season. I believe he can iron out the command on his off-speed pitches, but I don't think he has the arsenal to be more than a fantasy SP3-type.


Triston McKenzie - SP, CLE

6.29 ERA, 1.77 WHIP, 8.0% K-BB%, 12.2% SwStr%, and 29.2% CSW in 24.1 innings and five starts.

EDITOR'S NOTE: After submitting this, a story came out revealing that McKenzie is trying to pitch through a torn ligament in his elbow.

I wanted to believe in a bounceback season for McKenzie, but through three starts, I just don’t see any signs of it. His fastball velocity is down under 91 mph. He’s not missing any bats with just a 6% swinging strike rate and a shockingly poor -11 K-BB%. His command seems wonky with just a 56% strike rate and a well below-average quality pitch ranking on Pitcher List. If he does get ahead of a hitter, he’s struggling to put him away. This just doesn’t seem like a fully healthy pitcher, and if you wanted to hold him through his start this week against the A’s that’s fine, but I’d be looking to trade him away if he has even a decent outing in that one.