There haven’t been too many bright spots in Chicago Cubs baseball over the past few seasons. Apart from Darwin Barney’s spectacular defense at 2nd, the release of Carlos Marmol and some savvy trades that ultimately led to 1st baseman Anthony Rizzo, the bleacher bums haven’t had too much to cheer about since 2008. Starlin Castro was one of those bright spots.
Over the past 3 seasons the Cubs’ shortstop has managed to hit .298/.336/.425 with averages of 9 homers, 9 triples, and 32 doubles per year. That’s excellent production at the plate out of the shortstop position and all those hits netted Castro a pair of All-Star appearances. Castro’s defense at the position has never been up to snuff, but he made positive strides with both his glove and his arm a year ago, and at 23 the hope was that he still had room to improve.
That hasn’t exactly been the case though. Through the first half of the 2013 season Starlin Castro has seen a noticeable drop-off in every possible offensive and defensive category. He’s hitting more that 50 points below his career average, while simultaneously walking less and striking out more than ever before. His speed, which had been good enough to net 25 steals a year ago, has declined too and his defense is so bad it’s almost sad watching him stumble through routine grounders before failing to make the play. It was just two years ago that a then 21-year-old Castro led the National League in hits while posting a very solid 3.2 wins above replacement. Now he’s competing for the title of “Worst Player in Baseball” along with the likes of Ike Davis, Jeff Francouer, and Jeff Keppinger, so what gives?
Originally published on Highheatstats.com
When the Yankees drafted Phil Hughes with the 24th overall pick back in 2004, the hope was that the young right-hander from California could become a dominant front line pitcher. Hughes did nothing but encourage those pie in the sky thoughts during his first 3 years in the minor leagues and by the start of the 2007 season he was considered to be one of the elite prospects in all of baseball by the likes of Keith Law, Baseball America, and others. His fastball was considered to be the best in the minor leagues, his curve rated as a plus secondary offering and his control was 2nd to none.
By the middle of the 2010 season those scouting reports were looking rather spot on. Hughes had blossomed into an 18 game winner with a solidly above average strikeout/walk ratio and a new pitch, a cutter, to boot. But there were also some rather ominous warning signs laced into that 18-win campaign. Hughes posted a 4.90 ERA over the 2nd half of the season, had a gaudy home run rate and a chunk of that sparkly 18-8 record was owed to the fact that the Yankees’ offense put up 6.75 runs per game during his starts. But even with those minor nitpicks, that front line starter talent was starting to show through. Hughes just hadn’t put the entire package together quite yet.
Every single Major League team now has 30 games under their belts, which gives us enough data to start surveying the MLB landscape looking for surprises and disappointments. Fans in Boston, Kansas City, and Denver have to be thrilled with their respective teams hot starts.
However, for fans in other cities things haven’t been as bright. The Toronto Blue Jays were handed the AL East by most pundits before the season even began and they’ve fallen flat on their face out of the gate, carrying a 10-21 record that only the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins are envious of. Things are also starting to get dicey in Anaheim, where the Angels have once again stumbled in the early weeks of the season. Their supposedly vaunted offense has yet to earn its pay, thanks to its middle of the pack ranking in the AL in runs scored, and L.A.’s pitching staff minus Jered Weaver has been a disaster.
They’re not the only cities that are getting anxious about their ball club’s slow start either. Fans in Philadelphia were hoping that a once-great pitching staff led by Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee could rebound to carry the Phillies to the playoffs, but that hasn’t materialized thus far. The Dodgers were imagining themselves as the west coast Yankees with a budget to match. So far all that lavish spending has gotten them is 4th place and a struggling Matt Kemp.Even the handful of fans that attend Rays games have to feel a little nervous in the AL East watching their starting nine drop to 1-6 in games started by Cy Young winner David Price.
Just one April ago Philip Humber threw the game of his life against the Seattle Mariners, requiring just 96 poised pitches to complete a perfect game, the 19th in baseball history. Humber, then a member of the Chicago White Sox, was brilliant that day. His 2-seam fastball was darting all over the zone, dancing away from Mariners’ hitters as Humber racked up 9 total strikeouts.
Oh, what a difference a year can make. After taking the loss against the Yankees on Tuesday night, Humber became just the 2nd pitcher since 1900 to lose 6 games in the month of April and his ERA on the season now stands at an unsightly 7.58 on the season.
Ever since that perfect game Philip Humber has been unable to get even the easiest of hitters out. His ERA since that fateful April 21st game has been an almost unbelievable 7.52 in 131.2 innings, which far and away stands as the worst in the Major Leagues. Opposing batters have hit a ridiculous .309 off of Humber since last April 21st and those aren’t just cheap hits either. The right-hander has also given up 26 homers and 26 doubles, which basically factors out to one extra base hit every time a lineup turns over.
Back in 2010 a pair of big, young, intimidating, and most of all hard-throwing aces were given the honor of starting the All-Star game thanks in part to their superb pitching. On the American League side of things they elected to start David Price, who was an impressive 12-4 with a 2.42 ERA at the time. The National League opted to go with Ubaldo Jimenez, a towering right-hander who had been the talk of baseball during the first half because of his gaudy 15-1 record and 2.20 ERA. Both pitchers would make the most of their chance to start the All-Star game, throwing a pair of shutout innings apiece. Both of these aces also experienced another first at the end of the year, landing in the top 3 of the AL and NL Cy Young vote respectively.
With a quarter of the 2012 season in the books, many teams around the league are having an issue with the play of their 1st basemen. Over the past decade 1st base has been the strongest position in the Majors, boasting MVP candidates annually in both leagues. But this season many of these players have been black holes in their respective lineups, sucking up and wasting at-bats, contributing to losses. Lets take a look at some of the biggest culprits of bad play so far.
Hosmer has been terrible at the plate this season, ranking as the worst everyday 1st baseman in the American League thus far. He is still hitting under the Mendoza line, and none of his triple slash stats (.191/.260/.333) are even league average. A big part of Hosmer’s problem has been a drop in his line drive rate from 17% way down to 11%. Line drives drop for base hits more frequently than any other kind of hit, and having a rate 7% below league average makes keeping a decent batting average tough.
There is some good news for Hosmer however. His walk rate, which was elite for a rookie, has jumped again, to 8.5% of total at-bats, which is above the league average, and is a very difficult skill for a hitter to master. His BABIP is .191, which is almost criminally unfair and should come up with normal regression. Hosmer has been making solid contact but hitting the ball straight at fielders. Once some of these hard hit balls start dropping for hits, his average will come up. Hosmer is excellent at pitch recognition and has a good knowledge of the strike zone. His play will eventually improve and the Royals are wise to let him work out his issues.
According to the statistic Wins Above Replacement, Ike Davis has been the worst player in baseball this season, worth -1.2 wins. His problems are abundant so far this season, but his biggest issue is his 44-10 strikeout to walk rate. This issue has led to a triple slash of .164/.218/.295,, all of which are absurdly low for a 1st baseman. In addition to being abysmal with the bat, Davis has made 4 errors, which is 2nd most out of NL 1st baseman, and has otherwise looked mediocre with the leather as well.
Until Davis stops striking out in 28.2% of his at-bats and begins to draw more walks he will not improve much at the plate. Like Hosmer he has also been hurt by a BABIP under .200, but when you’re giving away more than a quarter of your at-bats, it’s tough to hit for average or power. So much has gone right for the Mets this season, leading to a 24-21 record in a tough division, but Davis has been a disappointment. The Mets considered demoting Davis a couple days ago, but have decided against the proposition, and will continue to give him chances at the plate.
For the most part the Toronto Blue Jays have enjoyed a successful start to the 2012 season, with the noted exception of Adam Lind. Lind was off to a putrid start, hitting .186/.273/.314, accumulating only 37 bases in 118 at-bats. Lind has never been the same player who won a Silver Slugger award at age 25, and he has declined each season since. Lind was demoted nearly 2 weeks ago, down to the Triple-A Las Vegas 51’s, and got off to a nice start, hitting .500 in his first 3 games.
Lind’s biggest issue has been his complete inability to hit left-handers. At the time of his demotion he was only hitting .129 in over 30 plate appearances with just 1 extra-base hit. The Toronto 1st baseman has never exhibited more than the normal, league-average platoon split, but this year it’s been severely noticeable. Hopefully he can get his issues corrected in Las Vegas and become a contributing member of the Blue Jays, rather than a black hole in the lineup.
The $180 million dollar man has only been worth his defense so far this season in New York. Teixeira is a notorious slow starter; with a career batting average 42 points lower than his norm in April. Unfortunately for the Yankees, those struggles have continued into May this season. Tex is hitting an anemic .226/.291/.381 with an OPS+ nearly 20 points under the league average. Part of this issue may be due to a bronchial infection, but it’s more than likely that some of Teixeira’s problems have to due with a drop in bat speed as well as walks.
The Yankees 1st baseman is picking up fewer free passes than at any point in his career, walking only 8.1% of the time, the 1st time he’s been under 10% since 2005. His line drive rate has also been steadily dropping since 2010, and now it’s at a career low 14% this season. While Teixeira is still playing his trademark Gold Glove defense, the reason he is so highly compensated is that he is expected to drive in runs and slug the ball. If he can get his bat going again, the Yankees could evolve into a legitimate threat to the Texas Rangers for AL supremacy, if not, they may struggle to get to the playoffs in a deep AL East.
Justin Smoak has now accumulated over 1000 career major league plate appearances and is a .224/.306/.373 hitter, good for an 89 OPS+. His best batting average in any of his major league seasons has been an anemic .239. He has only hit above the league average in OPS+ once in his career and is having his worst season in 2012 by far, hitting only .209/.251/.316 with 5 homers and 15 RBI. Smoak doesn’t draw walks, receiving only 9 this year in 167 plate appearances, and whiffs a ton, going down swinging in 24% of his at-bats.
Its worth asking if the Mariners should move past Smoak and begin looking for another 1st baseman, because he doesn’t look like he will ever develop into a league average player. The Mariners don’t have many options in at the big league level or in the minors. Dennis Raben has hit well in the low minors, but its tough to project a hitter that hasn’t been above high-A ball yet, and is so far away from the Major Leagues. Smoak will probably be given many more at-bats, because he is only 25, but he needs to start producing soon, especially if the Mariners want to turn around their losing ways.
The New York Yankees, losers of 6 of their last 7 games, currently have some major issues right now. The team has fallen in to a last place tie with the Boston Red Sox at 21-21, 5.5 games behind the Baltimore Orioles. The Yankees have had a rough season on the injury front as well, losing many expected key contributors for the remainder of the season. During their recent losing streak the Yankees have been outscored 34-15 and have been unwatchable when hitting with runners in scoring position, batting 6-73, for a .083 batting average. At some point the law of averages says New York will have to start hitting with runners on so what are the team’s real issues? And is any of this fixable for a ballclub that many, myself included, thought would be a World Series contender at best and a playoff team at worst? Let’s break down some of the issues in the Bronx:
The most impactful injury to date for the Yankees hasn’t been the loss of Mariano Rivera, it’s been the loss of Brett Gardner for the past month. Gardner hasn’t played since April 17th and was off to a fantastic start. He was hitting .321/.424/.393 with 2 steals while playing his trademark excellent defense. Gardner’s defense rated by most defensive metrics to be the best in baseball during the 2011 season, and without the speedster, the Yankees have been forced to choose between Raul Ibanez terrible glove and Dewayne Wise’s all-around useless game. The sooner Gardner gets back in the lineup and starts stealing bases and taking away hits the better for New York.
The Yankees are one of the many teams that have been cruelly bitten by the injury bug. The pitching staff has seen more quality arms go on the disabled list than any other franchise in the league. Michael Pineda and Joba Chamberlain, who the Yankees were counting on to throw around 240-260 combined innings in 2012, probably won’t throw a pitch this season. The greatest closer of all time, Mariano Rivera, was horrifyingly lost for the year after slipping on the warning track in Kansas City. Rivera had thrown at least 60 innings for 9 consecutive seasons, a streak that will come to an end this year. David Robertson will be out for at least another week after straining his oblique against the Mariners on May 11th. All of those injuries will cost the Yankees 300+ combined innings, which is tough for any team, even the wealthiest, to overcome.
The good news is that the Yankees bullpen has still been strong despite missing 3 of its 4 best arms. David Phelps has thrown 29.1 innings of quality baseball, allowing only 9 earned runs. Cory Wade has given the Yankees 20 quality innings as well, and has a 190 ERA+ with a WHIP below 1. The highly paid Rafael Soriano has been worth some of his contract this season, throwing for a 172 ERA+ in 14.1 innings and earning 2 saves.
The Yankees probably won’t have the top rated bullpen in baseball like they did in 2011, but the team still has plenty of talented fireman, and will probably rank as one of the best in the American League again. The bigger problem will be overcoming the loss of Michael Pineda, which will thrust Andy Pettitte into a larger role, and forces Phil Hughes to step up.
The Yankees pitching has been downright abysmal this season, after ranking 10th in baseball in 2011. The Yankees currently rank 23rd in baseball in run prevention, and have given up the 2nd most long balls. The entire rotation of CC Sabathia, Hiroki Kuroda, Ivan Nova, and Phil Hughes has been homer-happy, allowing 38 of the 54 total. The Yankees tiny ballpark has something to do with those homeruns, but as Hiroki Kuroda said a few days ago “The homeruns I’ve been giving up are homeruns everywhere.” That, more than anything else, has been the Yankees biggest problem this season. Ivan Nova, Phil Hughes, and Hiroki Kuroda all have allowed more than 10 hits per 9 innings, which means their all being hit like piñatas at a birthday party. Each pitcher has had issues locating the ball over the plate up in the zone, which are correctable going forward and could lead to some big improvement.
In better news, the Yankees rank 3rd in baseball in strikeouts, behind only the hard-throwing pitching staffs of the Nationals and Tigers. New York also has the 5th best strikeout-to-walk rate in the Majors, tied with the Cincinnati Reds. If Yankees pitchers can cut down on the homeruns allowed, their ability to strike hitters out should begin to result in quality starts, which lead to victories.
Currently every major team defensive metric available rates the Yankees defense as terrible. The outfield has been absolutely porous when Raul Ibanez plays. This issue will be alleviated by the return of Brett Gardner, the best defensive player in baseball, but only he can do so much for the team as a whole.
Derek Jeter’s bat may be looking spry, but his range in the field is certainly showing signs of age. Jeter has never been very good going to field balls hit up the middle, but this season he is reaching fewer of those than ever. Alex Rodriguez rates among the worst 3rd basemen in the American League on defense, leading to a very leaky left side of the infield, and a lot of seeing-eye singles. Eric Chavez has been valuable off the bench, but is injury-prone and should only be counted on in a limited role. Eduardo Nunez, another alternative on the left side of the infield, is even worse defensively, requiring a demotion to work on his defense. This is the risk you take when your long-term left side of the infield is over 35 years old, and there is no real solution this season.
The Yankees have tried to remedy some of the problem by playing the 5th most shifts in baseball. The Yankees have historically only shifted on big left-handed sluggers like David Ortiz, but Joe Girardi is showing some fortitude and shifting more frequently. As of May 11 the Yankees had shifted 55 times, just 15 short of last season’s total. Its difficult to say whether this is working, because the Yankees rank 26th in baseball in defensive efficiency (which measures the percentage of balls put into play that are turned into outs), tied with the Detroit Tigers, who play two poor-fielding 1st basemen in their infield.
Before the season I thought the Yankees had one of the deepest roster’s in baseball, which would serve them well over the long, arduous season. The Yankees’ depth has been severely tested this season, and outside of Raul Ibanez’s hitting and the bullpen, they have come up short. The offense has been elite so far and ranks 3rd in the majors in all 3 triple slash categories. Once they start hitting with runners on base, the runs will start flowing again. The Yankees have one of the elite offenses in baseball, which will keep them around .500, the bigger, more pressing issue is if the pitching that New York currently has is good enough to capture a playoff spot in the ferocious AL East. I’m not quite sure the Yankees have the caliber of pitching to make the postseason, and I fully expect Brian Cashman, annually one of the most active GMs in baseball, to make some sort of play to add a few wins to the overall total.