Slumping Studs: Why They Suck, and Who Will and Won’t Turn it Around (Part 1)

 

Just like that awful feeling where you miss the last stair or bite into ice cream that’s so cold it burns your teeth, spending a high draft pick or investing heavily in a player who’s supposed to be a “sure thing” only to seem them suck is one of the more painful parts of fantasy baseball. Harder still is deciding whether or not stars are simply slumping or if there’s a deeper, more insidious cause.

Today I’ll be examining a stable of studs who have been playing like duds, breaking down their struggles, trying to identify the cause, and providing a prognosis on whether or not they will return to form and should be kept (or traded for), or if it’s time to move on from them. This is Part 1 of a (not sure how many) Part Series, so stay tuned for the next article as I break down even more slumping studs. As always, I’ll end with a craft beer review and recommendation. Let’s Barack’n’roll!

machado slump.jpg

Source: Getty Images and sadness

Miggy Miggy Miggy, can’t you see? Sometimes your stats they hypnotize me. (Miguel Cabrera, 1B, DET)

The synopsis: Miguel Cabrera is an [alleged] top fantasy asset, with an average draft position of 12th overall. He’s a guaranteed Hall of Famer and is one of the best hitters to ever play the game, hitting above .300 in all but 2 of his 14 professional seasons (and by the way, the two he didn’t hit .300? Still hit .292 and .294). He’s no spring chicken anymore at age 34, but he’s no done old man either after mashing 38 HR (tied for his second most in a season) while maintaining a .316 BA in 158 games last year in 2016. He hits in the heart of a solid lineup, and never relied on speed to boost his game. He’s posted great peripheral stats this season (more on that in just a moment), but his batting average sits at a career-low .277, his ISO at a career-low .149, and he’s only hit 5 HR for 29 RBI in 51 games this year. Waiver-wire guys like Logan Morrison, Lucas Duda, and Chris Carter have more power numbers over the last month than Miggy does on the season. So what gives?

The diagnosis: By all rights Miguel Cabrera should be having another great year: he’s rocking a career high Hard Hit Percentage (46.5%; career avg. 39.4%) in addition to a career high Line Drive Percentage (32.6%; career avg. 22.4%). Miggy also sports an impressive .338 BABIP, which lines right up with his career average .347 BABIP.

The issue is hiding in plain sight: Miggy is not a Line Drive hitter, he’s a Fly Ball hitter. His power, like virtually all sluggers, comes from his ability to lift balls and send them out of the yard, or at least to the wall for a nice juicy double. He’s currently hitting 32.6% of batted balls for  Line Drives (LD) and just 29.2% for Fly Balls (FB). For comparision, the two current HR leaders, Aaron Judge and Logan Morrison, sport 25.9%LD/36.1%FB (Judge) and 17.2%LD/46.%FB (Morri), respectively. The lesson learned here? If you want power, you’d better be hitting a high FB%.

The career-low 29.2% FB rate is killing Miggy; his worst full season FB rate prior to 2017 was still far above that mark at 32.7% in 2015. And guess what? 2015 was also the year he hit the fewest HR in his career (18), and the only time he failed to hit 25 or more bombs. Of course, in 2015 he also suffered the only real injury of his career; a Grade 3 Left Calf Strain that limited him to 119 games. Even so, he still won the batting title in 2015, hitting to the tune of .338 despite the power drain.

So is it injury that’s hampering Miggy’s stats this year? In April he hit the DL for just the second time in his career with a groin strain (ouch), which he originally suffered back in 2013, though he did not require a DL stint that year and also ended up winning the batting title. It could be affecting him, but he’s given no indication that he’s still hurting, and the slugger has been durable his whole career; playing in 148 or more games every season but the aforementioned 2015.

Is it getting older? He’s 34, that magical age in baseball where a player can be considered “getting up there” but also be “in his prime.” We really don’t know what “old” is anymore, but age could certainly be a part of it. I think that Miggy has slowed down, and I don’t mean his footspeed. Cabrera has made a career as a hitter that pulls the ball. In every single season of his career he has pulled the ball at least 35% of the time (career avg. 39.2% pull rate) and has never recorded a season in which his Opposite Field % or Center Field % was greater than his Pull %. Ever. This season? He’s going Center 36.1% and Opposite at a 31.9% clip, equal to his 31.9% Pull rate. He’s not pulling the ball, which means he’s not getting his bat out in front, often coming in too late and hitting it to the middle of the field.

The Verdict: Hold Miggy, buy him if you can. He should rebound nicely, but don’t expect him to be as valuable as his 12th overall Average Draft Position would indicate. Expect his batting average to rise closer to his career norm (.319) but don’t be surprised if he bats in the lower-end of the .300’s or even high .290’s ROS. His power numbers will also rise but again, not to career norms, just closer to them. He’s lost a “step” so to speak, but he’s still a great hitter.

The Reason: His strong Line Drive Percentage and career-high Hard Hit Percentage paint the picture of a good hitter going through a tough time, but he’s not a Line Drive hitter, and he must start hitting more Fly Balls to get his power numbers back on track. His BABIP (.338) suggests he’s not the recipient of ill-luck, and his career high K% (20.8% this year) combined with his career-worst Pull Percentage suggest that he’s lost some quickness in his bat.

Miggy Papa.jpg

I like it when you call me Mig Papa (had to bring my bad Biggie joke full circle)

Manny being not-so-Manny (Manny Machado, SS/3B, BAL)

The synopsis: Ok, so he’s not THAT Manny (remember when “This is SportsCenter” commercials used to be great?), but he’s the only Manny we have right now, dammit! He’s also playing some piss-poor baseball right now, which is particularly galling considering the high draft price tag that owners undoubtedly paid for him. The Orioles star third baseman has been a fixture in the Baltimore lineup for the past several years, and is one of the game’s brightest young stars at just 24 years old hitting for power, average, and flashing a great glove on the field. Last year he posted career highs in HR (37), Runs scored (105), and RBI (96) while also putting up a career-best slashline of .294/.343/.533. This season he’s slashing just .227/.296/.457 with 13 HR, 29 R, and 32 RBI. He’s a player that has shown he can contribute in all 5 categories, stay healthy, and post elite numbers at the plate.

The diagnosis: While Machado’s struggles at the plate have been much lamented, a closer look at the numbers shows that he’s not doing as poorly as you think. His ISO is sitting at .230; well above his career average of .196, and just a hair under last season’s career-best .239 ISO. He’s also smacked 13 dingers through 63 games, putting him on pace for a 30+ HR season yet again. Machado is also hitting the ball hard, boasting a career-best 41.2% Hard Hit Percentage (career high in 2016 of 35.4%) and a paltry 18.2% Soft Hit Percentage. There’s nothing that stands out about his 43.9% Pull Percentage (career avg. 40.8%), 30.8% Center Hit Percentage (career avg. 34.8%), or 25.3% Opposite Field Hit Percentage (career avg. 24.5%), either.

The most telling discrepancy lies in his BABIP, which currently sits at a horrific .235, well below his career average .303 BABIP. Could it be as simple as that? Machado is hitting the ball harder than ever, he’s not drastically changing where he hits the ball, and while he’s striking out a bit more (21% K rate compared to career 17% K rate) he’s also walking more (8.8% BB rate to career 6.8%), suggesting that he should be raking at or above his career .280 batting average.

His speed is not the culprit either. He’s only 24 and has hardly lost a step, and per FanGraphs, Manny has a speed score of 3.3, which is slightly below his 3.7 career average but a full point above the 2.3 mark he set last year in his finest offensive campaign.

The Verdict: Hold him if you have him, and buy him if you can. Regression is coming, and I mean the good kind of regression. The kind that brings him back to career averages. I fully expect Manny to bounce back and return to All-Star status sooner rather than later.

The Reason: Machado is young, and is used to success at the plate. This is the first major slump of his career, and I think it’s getting to his head. He’s pressing a the plate a bit, as demonstrated by his career-high 21% K-rate. But he’s also crushing the ball when he makes contact, posting surprising good HR/RBI numbers for his abysmal BA, with an underlying .230 ISO and 41.2% Hard Hit Percentage to back it up.

Machado been the recipient of some bad luck, with an awful .235 BABIP that suggests better times are ahead. Believe in Manny. Hold on tight!

Verlander? I barely know her! (Justin Verlander, SP, DET)

verlander

 

The synopsis: Justin Verlander is a rock in the volatile field of Starting Pitchers in fantasy baseball. He’s never failed to eclipse 200 IP over a full season, and boasts a studly career 3.51 ERA, 1.19 WHIP and a 8.5 K/9 rate with 200 or more punchouts in 6 of his last 7 full seasons. He’s not without his struggles, with a middling 2.75 BB/9 rate to go with those other numbers, but Verlander has been a horse in fantasy baseball for years nonetheless. This season, he’s recorded an awful 4.50 ERA to go with a career-worst 1.49 WHIP on the way to a 4-4 W-L record and just 8 QS over 14 starts. Not the worst numbers in the world, but far, far below what you’d expect from someone drafted at an average position of 32nd overall. Verlander has also failed the eye-test this year, giving up at least one run in every game this season (though he has two starts without an ER) and recording double-digit strikeouts only once: in the season opener way back on April 4th.

The diagnosis: It’s always control with pitchers, isn’t it? At 34 years old and with over 2,400 career IP under his belt you might suspect age and velocity are the culprits, but Verlander has been throwing harder than ever, with his average fastball velocity sitting at 95 MPH to match his career highs.

He’s throwing harder than ever, and he’s still striking guys out at 8.23 K/9, right around his career 8.5 K/9 mark, though a noticeable drop from last season’s stellar 10.04 K/9. The number that stands out most to me is this: only once in the past 9 seasons has Verlander walked more than 3 batters per 9 innings, and that was just 3.09 BB/9 back in 2013. This year? He’s walking guys at a career-worst 4.61 BB/9. That’s not just career-worst, that’s career-worst by a long shot. He’s already surrendered 42 walks this year after giving up only 57 all of last season and we’re not even at the All-Star Break yet. Simply put: he’s not locating his pitches. His control is way off.

He’s also throwing his slider and curveball more than any other time in his career while throwing his changeup less than any other season, despite having a great 95 MPH fastball. Here’s a gif comparison of his 2011 Cy Young winning curveball on a strikeout:

giphy5

Curveball thrown for strikeout 2011

 

And here’s his curve thrown for a strikeout on opening day this year, 2017:

giphy6

Curveball thrown for strikeout 2017

The first thing I noticed was that his 2011 curve has much more side-to-side movement to complement the north-south, and his 2017 curve is only moving north-south, with almost no lateral movement at all.

Looking at his mechanics, we notice this:

2011 leg kick

2011 follow-through

 

2017 leg kick

2017 follow-through

Big difference there, and look at his leg kick: 2011 his leg is almost straight, in 2017 it makes a right angle as his knee bends upwards. And you can see by looking at the two gifs that his follow through in 2011 has more momentum, causing him to fall away off the mound towards the first base line. The 2017 follow through is much more compact and “slow,” in that he doesn’t fall off the mound or move his left leg.

Something mechanical appears to be the culprit, and it’s affecting his ability to locate pitches and throw strikes. His increase in velocity has not been able to hide his mechanical issue either.

The Verdict: Sell if you can, don’t look to buy. Verlander isn’t having a Tanaka-level meltdown, but he’s certainly not a high-end fantasy starter, and his peripherals are not encouraging. His career-worst 4.49 FIP and 5.25 xFIP suggest that his paltry stats are not only deserved, but could actually get worse. He’ll still eat innings and strike guys out, but positive regression is not likely to come this year.

The Reason: Again, his ugly 4.50 ERA is supported by an uglier 4.49 FIP and 5.25 xFIP, and his career-worst 4.61 BB/9 supports the 1.49 WHIP. Verlander is simply not able to control his pitches at an elite level anymore, and we could be seeing the beginning of the end for the veteran hurler. His mechanics are different, he’s throwing his changeup at a career-low percentage and throwing more sliders and curves than ever. He’s far from useless thanks to his 8.23 K/9, but he’s also very replaceable.

Insert CarGo pun here (Carlos Gonzalez, OF, COL)

The synopsis: Carlos Gonzalez is an elite power hitter with a career .287 AVG who plays on a great offense in the best hitter’s ballpark in America. He’s hit 65 home runs and collected 197 RBI over the past two seasons. No wonder he was drafted at an average spot of 35th overall. Yet after 66 games, he’s slashing a heartbreakingly bad .224/.304/.350 with just 6 HR, 36 R, and only 20 RBI. Ouch.

The diagnosis: CarGo is having a terrible season, and unfortunately the peripherals support that. His impressive career .224 ISO sits at a pedestrian .127 despite his Coors advantage. He’s actually walking more (10.7%) and striking out less (20%) than his career averages (7.9% BB, 21.9% K), so we know that he’s seeing the ball well and being patient at the plate. We might pin bad luck as the source of his woes when we see his career-worst .226 BABIP (career avg. .332), but there’s reason to believe that’s for real, too: his absolutely abysmal 28.9% Hard Hit Percentage. Except for his rookie year, CarGo has never hit less than 30% of his batted balls for Hard Hits. His career average is 35% Hard Hit. His Ground Ball, Fly Ball, Line Drive rates and Pull, Center, and Opposite Field hitting rates are all within career norms. Simply put: he’s hitting the ball the same way, just not nearly as hard.

That’s discouraging. The Rockies slugger is just 31 years old (32 in October) and should not be experiencing a power drain this early in his career. Yet the numbers say he is. His O-Swing, Z-Swing, Contact Percentages are all within career norms too. As I said before, he’s actually walking more and striking out less. His eye is clearly not the problem.

Could it be injury? CarGo had a nagging left ankle injury last season, he was hit in the hand with a Kershaw fastball on April 19th of this year, and suffered a right calf strain in May. Gonzalez struggled to start the season before being plunked in the hand, and his struggles actually go back to last year. When he first injured his ankle in August of 2016 he had his worst month of the season in terms of average: just .235 BA. He batted .275 in September but only hit one home run over the last month and a half of the season.

Is it possible we may be seeing a hurt CarGo? Gonzalez did not miss much time after spraining his ankle last season, and it’s possible the injury never fully healed, or that he adjusted his approach to protect the ankle. Still, the team and Gonzalez himself have not mentioned any nagging injury, and he appears healthy in games.

The Verdict: Sell, and do not look to buy. CarGo is experiencing an extended, awful power drain, and boy does he rely on power. Gonzalez is simply not hitting the ball hard enough or far enough to collect hits or generate power. Injury could be the culprit, but there’s nothing that directly points to that. Unless new information comes out, you should be looking to sell and get what you can for him, because the peripherals do not suggest improvement is forthcoming.

The Reason: CarGo has a paltry .160 ISO at home in COORS in 2017, compared to a career .273 home ISO. His career-worst Hard Hit Percentage backs this up. Virtually all of his other batted ball stats, from Pull % to Z-Swing to Strikeout Rate, are within or better than his career norms, suggesting that whatever is going on with him is only affecting his power. There’s no reason we can find to attribute this power drain to outside of simple decline. His Average Exit Velocity is sitting at 86.98 MPH, below the MLB Average 87.83 MPH. Something is wrong, and whatever it is, you don’t want him on your team.

The Beer

Today I’ll be reviewing a brew from one of my favorite craft breweries: Stone. Specifically, their Mocha IPA.

Stone Mocha IPA.jpg

I love coffee. I love beer (obviously). I love coffee beers. Stouts and porters have traditionally cornered the coffee-beer marker, but some IPA’s have recently thrown their caps in the ring to try and blend the two beverages. Unfortunately, most of the ones I’ve tried are about as terrible as you’d expect a Coffee IPA to be. Not so with Stone’s Mocha IPA.

The beer pours a dark amber with a nice finger or two of foamy goodness on top, and nice lacing on the glass. The smell is soft, with notes of chocolate/cacao, citrus, and piney resin.

The taste….mmm. I have to say I actually braced my mouth for impact (I’m a bit gunshy after some previous Coffee IPAs) and expected the worst, but wow. Smooth and silky are the first things I notice. It’s not bitter on the tongue, almost like a creamy/smooth coffee beverage, with notes of cacao and chocolate that (somehow) blend wonderfully with the sweet citrus of the grapefruit of the hops. Some of the bitterness comes through from the hops, but it’s blended very nicely into the mild bitterness from the coffee flavors of the beer.

Overall, it’s got the creamy, smooth, and delicious flavors you’d expect from a coffee stout or porter, but with a much lighter, citrusy blend that comes from the IPA. I can’t recommend it highly enough!

Cheers!

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