Slow starts and how to feel about them

Today we are going to do a reverse psychiatry session. Instead of me, the presumed mental health expert, asking how you feel, I’m going to give you some players and tell you how you should feel. Good?

Slow starts are nothing to overreact to in the first month, but we are over a third of the way into the season. Stats are stabilizing, and it’s no longer sensible to just blame something on sample size. It’s time to start finding out why certain guys are lagging behind their career numbers or what we were expecting from them.

Los Angeles Angels LogoAlbert Pujols

Ever since leaving St. Louis and its great fans, Pujols has had quite the roller coaster ride down in Anaheim. He started slow in his AL-debut season in 2012, but finished on a tear good enough to launch 30 bombs for a 133 wRC+. Next season saw him struggle to just a 112 wRC+; still a good number, but not the elite number we expect from him (and what ownership expected given his massive contract). He had a rebound in 2014, and last season his power went insane as he smacked 40 bombs, but the quality of his contact wasn’t the same. He hit just .244 despite actually striking out less, growing lots of concerns that he’s not striking the ball nearly as hard or consistently, and he needs to sell out just to hit the homers.

This year those concerns are becoming reality. His strikeout rates are still low, and to make matters worse his ground ball rate has skyrocketed to 48.4%. This combined with a 21% soft contact rate has a lot to do with him hitting just .229. Some homers are still coming, as he’s hit 12 already, but with a career high grounder rate and soft contact rate, it’s very hard to imagine that Pujols has much of a rebound coming.

Pujols is 36 and he’s been one of the most exciting players to ever step on a baseball field. Unfortunately his skills are deteriorating rapidly, and it doesn’t look like he has anything left to return to an elite level again. Sell him for anything you can get.

Texas Rangers LogoPrince Fielder

After coming to Texas in 2014, he battled neck injuries and poor performance, and had plenty wondering if the Rangers had already lost the trade just one year in. But his 2015 saw Fielder as an elite hitter once again, with great contact (.305 average, just 12.7% strikeout rate) as well as strong power (23 homers). Hey, maybe the trade is working out more for Texas now!

Well Fielder is doing everything he can to make sure Detroit looks like bandits in the trade. He’s flirting with the Mendoza line at just .203, and the power might be able to keep a bedroom lit for a few minutes, but nothing more (abysmal .117 isolated slugging). To put this in perspective, teammate Elvis Andrus has a higher ISO than Fielder this season, and his career high for homers in a season is seven. 

Fielder is battling some bad luck with just a .227 BABIP, compared to a career average .302. But the power may not, as he’s been declining in his hard contact percentage for four years now, and this year’s new low is 26.5%. Fielder should still be able to make enough contact to stay, at the very least, waiver wire relevant, but the power has gone away. Don’t hold onto him thinking 30 homer days are still possible for him.



Pittsburgh Pirates LogoFrancisco Liriano

It’s weird to see Liriano have so much trouble this season considering he’s been almost the same pitcher now as he was in the past three seasons where he established himself as a dominant starter. He gets over 50% grounders, throws 50% sinkers and 30% sliders, and his strikeout rates say in the mid 20 percent range. His control has always been a little wacky, and this year it really spiked with a 13.4% walk percentage up from the previous three-year average of 10%, but that’s not quite enough to blame his ERA rising a run and a half, and his FIP rising over two full runs.

Liriano has battled some declining velocity over the past five seasons, and this year his fastball is down to just 91.8 MPH. While he has still had some success with lowered velocity, hitters are starting to really square him up better this year – good enough for a 36.7% hard contact rates, up from his career 26.9%. His pitches are still moving the same laterally and vertically, just slower. Swing rates are also down, from a career 44.2% to just 40.1% now. Hitters are seeing his pitches better as they’re moving slower, allowing for better contact against.

Even though we can put some blame on Liriano for his inflated ERA, he’s still such a similar pitcher to his more dominant self that he’s going to have to rebound back. Control issues and velocity decline are a little unsettling (especially since he’s had Tommy John surgery before), but he’s pitched through these struggles before. He’s an attractive buy low candidate, but please don’t flood my inbox with hate if he doesn’t return to gem status; there’s still risk here.

Tampa Bay Rays LogoChris Archer

Different than the rest of the guys on the list in that Archer isn’t battling any age or previous issues here, but instead he was expected to take a step forward this year into the games elite. After posting a 29.0% strikeout rate in an electrifying 2015 campaign, the wheels have fallen off for Archer who is dealing with a ballooned 4.61 ERA and 4.44 FIP. Both his strikeout rate and walk rate have worsened, but still with a 27.2% strikeout rate and 9.6% walk rate, he should still be performing at a high level.

Looking into this, it seems more like he’s a victim of luck than anything else. His HR/FB ratio is an insane 20.5%. We know that pitchers have almost no control over this, and it will almost always regress to 10% – to be double what we expect is absurd. Similar with his .317 BABIP which took a pretty decent jump from career average of .289.

He’s been really forcing his changeup into his repertoire this season, doubling his former career high and throwing it 13.1% of the time. The problem is that it hasn’t been very good, as it is 2.4 runs below average by weighted values. It also isn’t helping his fastball any, because even though it’s usually more of a neutral pitch by these marks, it’s down to 7.4 runs below average now. He stopped throwing the sinker completely, although he did throw it just 10% of the time last year, but this tends to cause some more fly balls which is another issue he’s having.

What this season looks like is closer to a learning year for Archer instead of the Cy Young caliber season some were expecting. He needs the changeup to become a regular pitch for his long-term success, and once he can do that he should be just as great as we were expecting before the year started. Also remember that a lot of his poor run suppression comes from bad luck with homers and balls finding gaps, which will regress down to the mean. Archer is still a stud so try to pick him up for pennies on the dollar because he will be throwing well down the stretch.

 

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.
James Krueger

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