ROTISSERIE: Slow starters: What to do?

This article appeared in the May 22 issue of Sports Weekly.

Baseball players all go through slumps and streaks; however, when a player begins a season in a prolonged slump, it tends to induce panic among his fantasy owners. While we are cautioned not to put too much faith in small samples, a slow start may indicate that something has changed for the player. So which slow starts should worry us?

Here, we will evaluate some slow starters, position by position. We’ll try to find an explanation behind the slow starts so that we can assess the odds for a rebound. (We’ll skip over players who have spent significant time on the IL.)

Expectations were high for J.T. Realmuto (C, PHI), given his move to a hitters’ park. With only five home runs, though, he’s not even a Top 5 catcher. His power has always been about average, and he’s only a couple of HR off his 2018 pace, and on pace for 90+ RBI and Runs. However, his SB have been declining since 2016, and the Phillies have attempted only 16 swipes all season. His speed game is effectively over.
Verdict: He’s just fine, aside from swipes

First Base
Joey Votto (1B, CIN) is enduring the worst season of his career, with a .208 Avg, 4 HR, and 8 RBI. His problems are a combination of declining plate discipline and reduced power. He’s always been a savvy hitter, so there’s a chance he turns things around. However, at 36, his physical skills may have declined too much to recover fully, and his struggles are consistent with an age-related decline.
Verdict: Perhaps some rebound, but probably not back to his 2018 production level

Jesus Aguilar (1B, MIL) came out of nowhere in 2018 to hit 35 HR. However, he’s currently hitting .202 and on pace for just 11 home runs. We might write him off as a one-year wonder and move on, but he’s started to turn things around. Through April 28, he was sporting a .123/.217/.151 slash line, but he’s at .314/.446/.529 since then, and his hard-hit percentage has jumped to over 40%.
Verdict: Cautiously optimistic that improvement is coming

Second Base
Not everyone was sold on Robinson Cano (2B, NYM) coming all the way back from a PED suspension, but something like his 2017 season (.280-23-97) seemed reasonable. That makes his .257 batting average and three home runs a disappointment. His strikeout rate (20%) has been high all season, but his power was above average prior to being hit on the hand at the end of April. Expect his power to return over time, and the batting average with it. His 2017 pace is still a reasonable expectation.
Verdict: He may struggle for a little bit, but should eventually return to form

It was reasonable to expect that leaving Baltimore would affect Manny Machado (SS, SD), but given his huge 2018, a .262-9-24 start is still disappointing. Although they’re small samples, comparing his April production (.242/.343/.396) to May’s (.303/.365/.591) suggests that it was indeed temporary, and he’s cut his strikeout rate in half since the start of May.
Verdict: He’s just fine

Third Base
Many worried that Jose Ramirez’s (3B, CLE) huge 2018 season was driven in large part by an outsized home run per fly ball percentage (hr/f) in the first half. They were probably right, but his .189-4-14 start still looks pretty fluky. He’s been unlucky so far, with a 6% hr/f and a .209 BABIP. Both of those should turn around, BUT… a return to his 2018 levels is unlikely, other than stolen bases.
Verdict: Speed is fine; power and batting average should rebound, but not all the way to 2018 levels

Bryce Harper (RF, PHI) had an 18 Average Draft Position (ADP), but currently sits outside the Top 150. He continues to pound the ball and is near the top of the league in exit velocity and hard-hit percentage; his main issue is making contact, as his .235 batting average is hurting his value, with a 31% K% (vs. 20% in 2017). In particular, he’s struggling vs. sliders (a mere 45% contact rate) and pitchers are throwing more sliders than ever before. Unless he can adjust, his struggles will continue, and those adjustments could take some time. Plus, forget stolen bases (see Realmuto above).
Verdict: Power is solid; batting average may improve, but improvements may be slow to come.

Nick Castellanos (RF, DET) of the Detroit Tigers has managed only four home runs thus far, but pretty much every secondary skill you look at shows him to be the same guy he was in 2017-2018, aside from a small reduction in contact percentage. His batting average may suffer a little, but he should be expected to rebound.
Verdict: Maybe a small dip in batting average; should be okay otherwise

Starting Pitcher
Chris Sale (LHP, BOS) got off to a rough start, with a 9.00 ERA in his first three starts. Since then, he’s had a 2.91 ERA, supported by a ridiculous 43% K% and 6.3 strikeouts-per-walks ratio (K/BB). The Red Sox went very light with innings for their starters in spring training and this may have led to some early struggles for the entire staff. If he stays healthy, Sale could be the best pitcher in baseball going forward.
Verdict: Get him if you still can

Zack Wheeler (RHP, NYM) surprised in 2018, leading to high expectations coming into this year; his 4.85 ERA and 1.44 WHIP are thus disappointing. However, he’s pitched about as well as last year, with a slight rise in BB% accompanied by an increase in K%. What’s killed him is a .355 batting average on balls in play (league average is .298). He’s right around league average for hard-hit percentage, so he’s not giving up excessively hard contact. Expect him to get back on track.
Verdict: A 3.60-3.70 ERA is a good expectation for him the rest of the way

Relief Pitcher
Andrew Miller (LHP, STL) was once so good that they designed an entire strategy around him. He was not expected to be the closer this year, but in a multi-inning role where he would generate innings, strikeouts, and some saves. Instead, he has a 4.86 ERA and 1.50 WHIP. The main issue is his 12% BB% (as recently as 2017, it was 8.6%). His control has been spotty throughout the years, but never this bad. However, since a two-walk outing on April 24, he’s had a 9:1 K:BB in 7 1/3 innings. It’s a super-small sample, but there’s hope his struggles are behind him.
Verdict: No guarantees, but there are signs of a turnaround

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.