Big additions among 10 most disappointing performances in the young season
Yesterday I took a look at 10 teams and players that were greatly exceeding expectations thus far in 2013 season. Today, I’ll examine the 10 teams and players that have been the biggest disappointments thus far.
Toronto Blue Jays’ starting rotation: 5.30 ERA, fourth-worst in the majors
Even skeptics such as myself had a hard time arguing that the Blue Jays didn’t make a massive upgrade to their starting rotation this winter by adding Josh Johnson, Mark Buehrle and defending National League Cy Young award winner R.A. Dickey. With that trio of front-of-the-rotation veterans replacing Henderson Alvarez (9-14, 4.85 ERA in 2012) and partial seasons from the likes of Aaron Laffey, Carlos Villanueva, Drew Hutchison and Kyle Drabek, a quartet that combined to go 18-23 with a 4.65 ERA in 56 starts last year, the Blue Jays were supposed to have one of the best rotations in baseball this season, especially if they got a rebound from former ace Rickey Romero and continued maturation from Brandon Morrow. Instead, they’ve had one of the worst.
The three veteran imports are a combined 3-3 with a 5.62 ERA and 1.58 WHIP. Romero was so bad in spring training that he was farmed out to High-A to have his mechanics rebuilt. Morrow, who saw his strikeout rate drop from 10.2 K/9 to 7.8 K/9 last year, has struck out just 6.4 men per nine innings thus far this season and is 0-2 with a 5.57 ERA. Toronto’s best starter in the early going has been one that wasn’t even supposed to be in the rotation, 30-year-old lefty J.A. Happ, who is 2-1 with a 4.09 ERA.
Is it real? There are plenty of reasons to expect the Jays’ rotation to come around. First of all, Dickey has already begun to do so, posting this combined line in his last two starts, both quality and both wins: 12 1/3 IP, 7 H, 1 R, 0 HR, 3 BB, 11 K. Dickey did leave his last start with pain in his upper back and neck, but he is expected to take the ball on schedule Tuesday night.
Meanwhile, Morrow, Buehrle, and Johnson have all been victims of awful luck on balls in play, with BABIPs of .361, .342 and .391, respectively. Some of that can be blamed on the poor performance of Toronto’s fielders — the team has the fourth-worst park-adjusted defensive efficiency (the rate of turning balls in play into outs) in the AL — those figures will come back toward the league average, which is currently .292.
Not every indicator is positive, however. Morrow’s nosediving strikeout rate is a major concern and Johnson is walking one more batter per nine innings than he did last year. Happ’s .230 BABIP is likely to regress toward league average, and not to Toronto’s benefit. Romero, meanwhile, is such work in progress that he has yet to be declared ready for game action in High-A.
There’s reason for optimism regarding the Jays’ staff, but should be cautious optimism because this won’t be one of the majors’ best rotations after all.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim: 7-11, .389, fourth-worst in AL
Since starting the season 2-8 and falling behind the Astros into last place in the AL West, the Angels have perked up a bit by going 5-3 since, with two of those wins over Houston, to move out of the basement. Still, they’re four games under .500 and already 5 1/2 games out of first place. It’s tempting to point to Jered Weaver’s absence as a reason for their struggles, but Weaver’s velocity was down before his injury and he was getting hit hard in his second start when he fractured his non-pitching elbow, as evidenced by the Mitch Moreland line drive back through the box that caused Weaver to hit the deck and led to the injury.
Just as problematic at this point in the season has been the loss of Erick Aybar, one of the best-fielding shortstops in the game and a solid if unspectacular hitter. Aybar has been replaced by veteran journyman Brendan Harris, who didn’t play in the majors last year because teams finally figured out that his modest power in no way compensated for his brutal play in the field.
Outside of Aybar’s vacated position and Josh Hamilton’s early struggles (see below), however, Los Angeles’ lineup is holding its own, even if it has yet to show the firepower that it’s capable of, as evidenced by the fact that no Angel has more than two home runs on the season. The real problem is the pitching, particularly the starting rotation, where none of the other four members of the Opening Day rotation has a WHIP below 1.50 or a strikeout-to-walk ratio above 1.60.
Is it real? The rotation’s struggles are bad news for the Halos, as that was their main concern coming into the season. C.J. Wilson has the quartet’s lowest ERA at 4.13 but he has walked 5.6 men per nine innings. The other three — Tommy Hanson, Jason Vargas and Joe Blanton — all have strikeout rates lower than Wilson’s walk rate. Vargas has just one more strikeout than walk on the season. Blanton has just two more strikeouts than home runs allowed (he has allowed six home runs in 20 2/3 innings, a 60-homer pace over 200 innings). Hanson’s average fastball has dropped below 90 miles per hour (it was above 93 mph in 2010), and all three have just generally been smacked around by opposing hitters.
There are BABIP concerns here too. Vargas’s opponents are hitting .441 on balls in play and Blanton’s are hitting .381, but both have been so awful that a change of luck may not be enough. Hanson, meanwhile, has a completely ordinary .298 BABIP, so there’s little hope for improvement there.
The Angels as a whole, however, will improve. Their offense will heat up, Weaver and Aybar will return and Blanton and Vargas will either enjoy a positive correction or be replaced. With the A’s off to a hot start once again, though, all of that may not be enough. A lousy April is what kept the Halos out of the postseason last year, and that seems very likely to be the case this year as well given the concerns about the rotation coming into the year and the manner in which those concerns have been magnified in the early going.
Josh Hamilton, RF, Angels: .222/.284/.361
As was made clear above, Hamilton isn’t the only Angel struggling, but in the wake of signing a new $125 million, five-year contract his difficulties are particularly notable, even though a cold stretch is nothing new for him. Which brings me to:
Is it real? It is in the sense that Hamilton does this sort of thing all the time. We’re 18 games into the 2013 season. Thirteen games into his 2010 season, the one that ended with the AL MVP, Hamilton was hitting .205/.340/.364. The next year he hit .221/.265/.429 over 18 games from late May into June after missing a month earlier in the season due to a broken arm. Last year, he hit .177/.253/.354 for the entire month of July. Hamilton is a streaky hitter. He also had stretches during each of those seasons when he was red-hot and teams were afraid to pitch to him, and he’ll have at least one of those this season as well. Both now and then he’ll be hitting like Josh Hamilton. This is the player the Angels signed.
Los Angeles Dodgers offense: 3.0 runs scored per game, second-worst in majors
If someone told you in March that Carl Crawford was going to start on Opening Day and hit .338/.427/.492 over the first three weeks of the season, and that Adrian Gonzalez would look like his old self over the same span with a .385/.455/.554 line, you’d probably picture a Dodgers offense that was clicking. Thus far, however, Crawford, Gonzalez and catcher A.J. Ellis are the only parts of the Dodger attack that are.
Hanley Ramirez has been out with a thumb injury. Luis Cruz is 4-for-46 without an extra-base hit. Justin Sellers has been starting at shortstop and hitting .174/.283/.239. Andre Ethier is slugging .377. Most significantly, Matt Kemp has been awful, hitting just .235/.270/.294 with a 5:1 strikeout-to-walk rate and no home runs.
On top of all of that, the Dodgers aren’t hitting with men in scoring position. With the bases empty, the team is hitting .281/.355/.399. With men in scoring position, however, they’re hitting a mere .185/.305/.232. That’s as a team. That works out to an adjusted OPS just 48 percent of the league average with runners in scoring position. Only the Cubs have been worse thus far this season (though the White Sox have been just as bad).
Is it real? No. Ramirez will return, Kemp will hit and those clutch stats will even out. No team in baseball had an OPS+ with runners in scoring position worse than 84 last year, while the Dodgers were at 94. That doesn’t mean Los Angeles is going to be a powerhouse offense, however. Even with Ramirez back in the fold, the left side of the infield is a concern, Mark Ellis isn’t going to do much more than he already is at second base, A.J. Ellis will probably tail off again later in the season and the youngest man on the bench is 33-year-old Skip Schumaker.
Jason Heyward, RF, Braves: .121/.261/.259
Heyward broke into the league like a man on fire in 2010 and though he was slowed by injuries over the second half of that season and the next, he reminded us just how good he’s likely to be with a strong 2012 season in which he hit 27 home runs, stole 21 bases and won a Gold Glove. Still just 23 years old, Heyward was supposed to build on that performance this season, but he’ll have to dig out of this early hole first.
Is it real? Not at all. His strikeouts are down, his walks are up and he’s hitting more line drives and fewer ground balls. The hits just aren’t dropping. Heyward has hit .114 on balls in play, which almost seems impossible, and that’s going to come around big time. Heyward hit .319 on balls in play last year and .335 in 2010. As long as he doesn’t start pressing and changing his approach, he’s going to be just fine. Just imagine how good the Braves are going to be once Freddie Freeman returns from the disabled list and Heyward and B.J. Upton start hitting.
Allen Craig, 1B, Cardinals: .250/.288/.338, 0 HR
Allen Craig did nothing but hit the last two seasons, posting a .309/.357/.532 line with 33 home runs and 132 RBIs in 733 plate appearances between two partial seasons and adding five postseason home runs to that pile. That’s consistent with his minor league performance: .308/.369/.518 overall, .320/.379/.548 in roughly two seasons worth of Triple-A exposure.
However, Craig will be 29 in July and the Cardinals have a younger first base prospect in 24-year-old Matt Adams who has superior minor league numbers (he hit .329/.362/.624 in Triple-A last year) and has hit in nearly every opportunity this season as a spot-starter and pinch-hitter, going 13-for-24 with three home runs. In order to decide whether or not to stick with the scuffling Craig or swap his role with Adams, they need to know . . .
Is it real? Well, Craig is 5-for-his-last-13, but only one of those hits went for extra bases and he didn’t draw a walk in those three games. In fact, Craig’s walks are down overall this season, as are his line-drives, and his batting average on balls in play is right around league average (though below his career rate of .327), meaning he’s not hitting in bad luck. Craig can hit, that’s not in dispute, so, no, the meager line above isn’t real, but it’s quite possible that he was playing above his head over the last two seasons. Unless Craig can build off that 5-for-13 in the coming week, St. Louis manager Mike Matheny will be tempted to make the switch to Adams.
Victor Martinez, DH, Tigers: .182/.286/.197
From 2004 to 2011, Martinez had an OPS+ between 122 and 131 in all but one, injury-shortened season, but after a year lost to a torn anterior cruciate ligament, he’s having trouble getting off the mat.
Is it real? No. Martinez didn’t forget how to hit after a year on the shelf, and at age 34 he’s not quite ready to fall off the table, particularly given the fact that the Tigers aren’t asking him to catch anymore. It’s not a problem with being a designated hitter, he hit .240/.393/.511 in that role in 2011, far better than his performance in games in which he played the field. Martinez also has a lot of the same positive indicators as Heyward with a very low batting average on balls in play. The hits will drop and V-Mart will be fine. At least a little of these early season struggles can be chalked up to rust, so don’t expect them to last.
Matt Cain, RHP, Giants
Season Stats: 0-2, 7.15 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 7.9 K/9, 4.00 K/BB, 4 GS
Cain has alternated characteristically solid starts with total disasters this season, allowing two runs in 13 innings in the former, and 16 runs in 9 2/3 innings in the latter, including his last start in which he gave up seven runs to the Brewers, six of them scoring on a trio of two-run home runs, one by pitcher Yovani Gallardo.
Is it real? Though Cain’s strikeout and walk rates and his velocity are a dead match for last season, there are some small areas of concern here. The first is that Cain has always been a fly ball pitcher and this year he’s giving up even more fly balls and, as a result more home runs. The other is that he has always been a rare exception to the rule that pitchers’ luck on balls in play regresses to league average, having posted a .263 BABIP over the last four years. This year, however, his BABIP is right around league average, and it’s that combination of hits and homers which is the problem. The good news for Cain is that despite the increase in fly balls, his home runs per fly ball are still unusually high, and that’s another bad-luck indicator that’s likely to correct itself. Still, even though he’s only had two really bad starts, there has to be some concern that this is the year that Cain’s luck finally evens out.
Cole Hamels, LHP, Phillies
Season Stats: 0-2, 6.46 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 7.6 K/9, 2.00 K/BB, 4 GS
Roy Halladay seems to be figuring things out, going 2-0 with three runs allowed in 15 innings over his last two starts, but the Phillies still have to worry about Hamels, their Opening Day starter.
Is it real? Or do they? Hamels has also had quality starts in his last two outings, allowing four runs in 13 innings while striking out 13 and not allowing a home run. The problem is that he received just four total runs of support in those two games, both Philadelphia losses in which Hamels took a no-decision. Hamels was hit hard in his first two starts, giving up three home runs to the Braves on Opening Day and eight runs to the Royals in his next turn, a game in which he walked four and struck out just two. You can’t ignore those games, but Hamels has looked an awful lot like himself in the last two so there may not be much cause for concern here.
David Price, LHP, Rays
Season Stats: 0-1, 6.26 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 8.2 K/9, 3.00 K/BB, 4 GS
The defending American League Cy Young award winner has yet to pitch in a game his team has won this season.
Is it real? Price has taken the Cain route to lousy early numbers by alternating quality and disaster starts. He earned his one loss by getting lit up for eight runs in five innings against the Indians, but he has finished six innings in each of his other three starts and only allowed more than two runs in one of them. He just hasn’t synched up a strong start with sufficient run support thus far. His peripherals are consistent with last season, he’s still getting the extra groundball outs he got last year, and there are some bad luck indicators in his high BABIP and home-run-to-fly-ball rate.
The only real concern here is that he’s not inducing many pop-ups. That could be a fluke or it could be related to the fact that his velocity is down a tick. With his fastball still averaging 95 miles per hour, the velocity isn’t much of a concern, particularly this early in the season, but it’s enough that you can’t shrug off Price’s early stumbles completely.