Slumping Studs: Why They Suck, and Who Will and Won’t Turn it Around (Part 2)

Happy Monday everyone, and welcome to Part 2 of Baseball and Brews Slumping Studs Series. Today I’ll be diving into another set of four players who were expected to have great seasons but are having anything but. Part 2 will be examining the stats of Gregory Polanco, Hanley Ramirez, Wil Myers, and Johnny Cueto to find out what the hell is wrong with them and to figure out if we can expect them to return to form or continue circling the drain. As always, I’ll end with a craft beer review and recommendation.

 

Gregory Polanco, OF (PIT)

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The synopsis: Polanco was drafted at an average position of 56th overall in 2017 fantasy drafts after emerging as a legitimate 20 HR 20 SB threat last season with the Pirates. Polanco is just 25 years old and entering his 3rd full year as an MLB starter after receiving the callup from AAA midway through the 2014 season. The slugger turned some heads with his size/speed combo, standing at 6’5″ and weighing in at over 230lbs, he swiped a career-high 40 bases playing single A ball in 2012. Despite never hitting more than 16 HR in a season, the Pirates scouts promised the power would eventually come for the big-bodied OF, and last year it did as he smacked 22 bombs while stealing 17 bases. Last year he also slashed a respectable .258/.323/.463, all of which were professional career highs.

This season has been a different story, however. Through 59 games, Polanco has slashed .241/.305/.366 with 5 HR, 18 RBI, 24 R, and 7 SB in 8 tries. He has only 17 XBH, with no triples. Where has the power gone? What happened to the speed? Right now, Polanco is just a waiver wire option that blends in with a sea of other faces in the OF.

The diagnosis: To start with the obvious, Polanco is doing a shitty job of hitting for power. I mentioned above that he has just 17 XBH through 59 games: that means he’s reaching 2nd in just 28% of contests. By comparison, his 60 XBH last year (34 2B, 4 3B, 22 HR) over 144 starts meant he was hitting for power in 42% of games, meaning he hit a double, triple, or home run in just about every other start. His ISO is down to .125 from last year’s sterling .205, a drop of 80 points. His BABIP has dipped noticeably from 2016’s mark of .291 to .267 this year.

The BABIP suggests that bad luck may be part of it, but looking at Polanco’s batted ball statistics shows us that his middling BABIP is well-deserved. First, his Hart Hit Percentage has absolutely tanked. Polanco posted 30.3/17.5% Hard Hit/Soft Hit Percentage in 2015, 35.7/18.3% in 2016, and 22.7/.24.9% this year. That’s a pitiful 22.7 Hard Hit Percentage, down over 13% from last year. Per MLB’s StatCast department, Polanco has an average exit velocity of just 86.29 MPH, a full mile-and-a-half-per-hour less than the MLB average of 87.81 MPH. Basically, Polanco isn’t even hitting the ball as hard as the league average. That’s a terrible sign for any hitter, especially one that’s supposed to provide pop and power in your lineup.

While his average (.241) and OBP (.305) are not great, they’re also not vastly different than his 2016 numbers (.258 AVG / .323 OBP). He’s still making contact and getting on base at roughly the same rate, and his strikeouts are actually down at a career low (14.8% K-rate in 2017, 20.3% last year) and his walks are roughly the same (8% this year, 9% last year). He’s also hitting the ball in the exact same places as last year. As in, it’s actually creepy how identical his Pull Percentage (48.6% in 2017, 49.2% in 2016), his Center Field Percentage  (28.7% in 2017, 28.2% in 2016), and Opposite Field Percentage (22.7% in both 2016 and 2017) are to each other. His Fly Ball and Line Drive Percentages are both down from his career norms, and his Ground Ball Percentage is up, but none deviate so much from his average that it raises eyebrows.

What does raise some brows, however, is his paltry 7.9% HR/FB ratio, down from a more impressive 14.4% last year. Basically, when he does hit the ball in the air, it’s not going far, and certainly isn’t going out of the park. That lines up with his abysmal, career-low 22.7 Hard Hit Percentage.

Is he hurt? Polanco hit the DL with an ankle injury earlier this year, but his woes at the plate precede that injury, and all indications from Polanco and the team are that he is playing healthy right now.

Did the 25-year-old, 6’5″ slugger suddenly lose all his power? Let’s take a look at his swing. The first GIF is a home run from his 2016 campaign. The second two are home runs by Polanco from this season. Be sure to pay close attention to his feet:

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Polanco’s HR swing in 2016

Notice how his feet twist in the box as he swings, but also stay planted where they are. The front foot turns on the heel, and the back foot turns on the toe, but they stay in place. Now compare that to the two HR swings below, from 2017:

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2017 HR swing #1

See his back foot? How he pulls it up and moves it as he turns to generate his power? And again below:

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2017 HR swing #2

In all three GIFs, his front foot stays planted: he turns on his front heel on the follow-through as he crushes it to the right field fence. But in the second two GIFs, he picks up his back foot on the swing and follow-through, planting it almost on the plate, outside of the batter’s box.

Now, he still hit home runs in all three GIFs. But is there something he’s changed about his swing this year that’s robbed him of some of his power? I’m not sure, but it’s clear that his follow-through and footwork is somewhat altered in 2017.

The Verdict: Sell or drop, do not look to buy. Polanco didn’t just suddenly lose all his power, but clearly something is amiss, and there are no encouraging peripherals to suggest that he’ll get his groove back any time soon. He’s not stealing enough or hitting for a good enough average to justify holding him while he (maybe) rights the ship. Polanco has never been a high AVG or OBP guy, even at his best, and his value lies in his ability to steal bases and rack up power numbers. You can try to package him in a deal and hope that his name recognition helps you out, but dropping him is definitely acceptable at this point. Is Marte still sitting on the wire in your league? Grab him ASAP.

The Reason: I know that I said he’s only 25 and that power doesn’t disappear overnight, but there has been no hope provided to Polanco owners in his peripherals. May was his best month for ISO at .224, but his Hard Hit Percentage in that month was still a paltry 24.0%, and he’s actually lost points in Hard Hit Percent each month since the season started (25% in April, 24% in May, 19.4% in June), meaning he’s getting worse. His BABIP is a bit lower than usual, but no lower than you’d expect with his awful Hard Hit Percentage. He hasn’t stolen a base since May 29th, which was also his last steal attempt. He’s never hit for average. He’s never been a high OBP guy. It’s time to bail.

Hanley Ramirez, 1B/DH (BOS)

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HanRam pictured with the thing he’s not hitting. Photo by AP

The synopsis: A small, bitter part of my soul is always happy to see Red Sox players fail. And don’t give me that Evil Empire crap because Boston actually has a larger payroll than the Yankees right now, albeit just barely. But my personal bias aside, HanRam is a power-hitting fantasy asset, drafted at an average position of 79th overall following his outstanding 2016 campaign which saw him post 30 HR, 81 R, and 111 RBI while slashing a studly .286/.361/.505 with a .219 ISO. He hits cleanup in the heart of a (supposedly) potent Red Sox lineup.

This year? Ramirez is slashing .241/.341/.406 with 10 HR, 29 R, and 29 RBI through 63 games. Hardly terrible, but far below expectations for Boston’s 33-year-old righty first baseman. Primarily, we’re seeing a dip in average (about 50 points below his career batting average) and slugging (about 90 points below career slugging), with a relatively normal OBP (about 24 points below career average OBP). He’s actually walking more than he ever has, posting an impressive 11.2% BB rate against a 19.0% K rate, which, while higher than his career norm of 16.9%, is still a hair below the 19.4% K rate he posted last season, which was perhaps his finest offensively.

The diagnosis: HanRam is an all-around great hitter and offensive weapon: he hits for power, for average, and gets on base. His speed is anything but elite these days, but that’s never been a big part of his game. There’s a lot of good new for Ramirez owners, as this appears to be a case of bad luck and a slow start. First and foremost, Hanley is hitting the ball hard. He’s got an average exit velocity of 89.11 MPH, above the league average as well as guys like Nolan Arenado, and he’s making contact with a Hard Hit Percentage of 37.1%, well above his career average of 33.6% and exactly in line with his 2016 37.2% mark of Hard Hit balls, a campaign that saw him slug 30 homers. He’s also posting his lowest Soft Contact Percentage in years at a meager 16.6%. The power is there (in his swing, if not his counting stats), so why isn’t it showing up at the plate? His ISO for 2017 sits well below his career .199 mark at just .165, so what gives?

Well, something I noticed poring through his stats is the correlation between Hanley Pulling the ball and his power numbers/ISO. Hanley’s best offensive seasons in terms of power numbers were 2007 (29 HR/125 R/.230 ISO), 2008 (33 HR/125 R/.239 ISO), an injury-shortened 2013 (20 HR/62 R/.293 ISO in just 86 games) and last year, 2016 (30 HR/ 111 RBI/.219 ISO). Those were his best years of production. In those seasons, he posted Pull Percentages right at or below his career average of 39.9% Pull Percentage. This year? He’s got a career high 44.6% Pull Percentage. The only two seasons in which he was close to that were in 2012 (43.8% Pulled) and 2014 (43.2% Pulled). In those two seasons he posted ISO’s of .180 and .165 with 24 and 13 total HR, respectively.

Clearly, we can see that when HanRam’s Pull Percentage is high, he posts lower ISO and fewer HR. This is certainly correctable, and it’s also a good sign, as Pulling the ball more means the batter is getting their bat out in front of the ball (a “quick bat”), which is preferable to a “slow bat” or not being able to catch up to pitches.

The Verdict: Hold him if you have him, explore buying him if you need power help, but don’t overpay. The stats show that Hanley Ramirez has not lost a step; he has an outstanding Hard Hit Percentage that’s exactly in line with his 2016 stats, and as of now he is projected to hit 25 HR over a full 162 game campaign with his 10 HR in 63 starts. This should improve, and I believe we can expect to see him finish the year with 30 HR and 85+ RBI and Runs.

The Reason: Partially bad luck, partially an adjustment he needs to make at the plate. His BABIP is sitting at .267, well below his career mark of .324, and below the .315 BABIP he posted last season despite nearly identical Hard Hit Percentages (37.1% this year, 37.2% last year). Expect that BABIP, and thus his AVG and OBP, to rise and stabilize around career norms with him hitting the ball so hard. While I’d caution you against paying too much for him as he has demonstrated that he can have seasons similar to this one (again, see 2012 and 2014) due to Pulling the ball too much, his peripherals paint the picture of someone who’s improving and bound to continue improving, and we should see the ISO rise with the average and OBP as the season progresses.

Wil Myers, 1B (SD)

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Doesn’t he just look like the kind of guy who spells “Will” with one l? Photo Credit: USA TODAY sports

The synopsis: Wil Myers was born to parents who apparently didn’t want anyone to spell their child’s name correctly, but that didn’t stop him from breaking into the MLB in 2013 with the Tampa Bay Rays. The 26-year-old slugger has posted impressive power numbers since his callup, and was considered a fantasy-elite player after his first full season of MLB action last year, a season in which he posted an impressive slashline of .259/.336/.461 on the way to 28 HR, 99 R, and 94 RBI with 28 SB to boot. No wonder he was drafted at an average of 58th overall.

In 2017, however, the results have been different….or have they? Through 74 games, Myers is slashing .259/.331/.479, which is nearly identical to last season, and actually better in his slugging percentage. He’s hit 15 HR, 39 R, 39 RBI, and stolen 9 bases in 13 tries. So that puts him on track for 30+ HR and about 85 R and RBI and 19 SB through a full season. Basically the same as last year in HR, but fewer R, RBI, and SB.

The diagnosis: All signs point to a regression battle being waged between Myers and the pitchers studying his game tapes. Myers actually had a similar issue almost exactly three years ago with the Rays, as he struggled to start the season due to being exploited low and away in the zone, where he struggled to make contact. This year, when you look at where he’s being pitched (first graph on the left under “Charts”), we can see pitchers are again exploiting his weakness and feeding him a heavy diet of balls low and away.

Despite his nearly identical 2016 and 2017 slashlines, the underlying numbers show that Myers is flailing at the plate. Last year, Myers posted a career-low 8.0% Swinging Strike Percentage, which measures the swings-and-misses where he fails to make contact. This year, he’s posting a career-high 12.3% Swinging Strike Percentage. Furthermore, he’s swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone: an appalling 30.5% O-Swing rate, up from last year’s career-low 24.9%. He’s also posting a career-worst Z-Contact Percentage, which measures the amount of contact he makes on pitches he swings at inside the strike zone, just 79% this year, below his career mark of 84.9% and his high of 86.1% posted last year. The bottom line? Wil Myers is swinging at more pitches outside of the zone, and making contact less when he swings at good pitches in the zone.

Pitchers are adjusting more to Myers, and causing him to swing and miss by exploiting a hole in his swing low-and-away. When he does make contact, he’s doing just fine. Myers is posting an almost identical slashline to last season, with an improved SLG% and a career best .220 ISO, up 18 points from last season. The one blemish is his dramatically worse 29% K rate, up from 23.7% last year.

The Verdict: Buy him, or keep him if you got him. Myers isn’t just poised for a repeat year: he’s already having one. He’s failing the eye-test right now because of his free-swinging ways. Myers is striking out more, swinging at more pitches outside the zone, and making less contact on pitches inside the zone. While those numbers are a bit worrying, his eye-popping ISO, his solid counting stats, and his great slashline show us that once he makes the adjustment back and figures out how to lay off the low-and-outside balls, he’s going to be a monster.

The Reason: Again, his counting stats are actually as good or better than a year ago. His ISO and Hard Hit Percentage are all at career highs, meaning he’s crushing the ball. He’s still young, and this is only his second full big league season. His AVG Exit Velocity is above league average, his Hard Hit Percentage is an absurd 43.5% (career avg 35.8%). He’s posting numbers as good as last season’s while struggling more at the plate, so expect a big second-half breakout from Myers.

Johnny Cueto, SP (SF)

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Yeah, we’re surprised by your season too. Photo Credit: USATSI

The synopsis: Johnny Cueto is a 31-year-old right hander who’s in the middle of his 10th MLB campaign. He boasts an outstanding 3.28 career ERA to go with a 1.18 WHIP while K-ing roughly 8 batters per 9 IP. Over the past three seasons, he’s pitched 675 innings, struck out 616 batters, and averaged a 2.80 ERA. That’s elite, yo. That’s also why he was drafted at an average of 41st overall. For the past three years he’s been consistently outstanding, with an ability to strike out batters, go deep into games, and post low ERA and WHIP to go along with all the other good stuff.

In 2017, Cueto has been painfully mediocre: posting a 4.20 ERA, 1.29 WHIP on his way to a 5-7 W-L record and 10 QS over 16 games started. That’s not bad at all, but not 42nd overall-worthy. His 8.31 K/9IP is his highest since 2014, but so is his awful 2.5 BB/9IP, which despite being his exact career average is far below the pitcher who improved by walking 2.4/9 in 2014, 1.95/9 in 2015, and 1.84/9 in 2016. His control is not as good as it has been, and he’s paying for it in his ERA and WHIP.

The diagnosis: We really have to dig into the numbers here, because they look a lot like his career norms. Except for the aforementioned 2.5 BB/9IP rate (which, despite being higher than the past three years, is still his exact career rate of 2.5 BB/9), his K-BB rate, K%, and BB%, BABIP, and LOB% are all in line with or better than career averages and recent averages over his past three dominant seasons. Simply put? He’s striking out guys and walking them at basically the same rates, opposing batters are getting the same BABIP from him (so luck can’t be a factor), and his LOB% is actually better than usual, so that’s out the window, too.

So what does stick out as abnormal in his stats? For starters, he’s giving up the longball far more than he should be: his 17.8% HR/FB ratio represents a career-worst (career avg is 10.3% HR/FB) in that category. The past three seasons he’s posted 10.3%, 9.5%, and 8.4% respective HR/FB ratios. This dramatic jump is not entirely unprecedented, as he did give up 17.1% HR/FB back in 2013, but that was over just 11 games, and he still managed to keep his ERA to an impressive 2.82 during that year thanks largely to a career-high 50.9% Ground Ball rate.

This year? Cueto can’t get anyone to ground out, posting a career-worst 40% GB rate and a career-high 25.5% Line Drive Percent. His 33.9% Fly Ball rate, while higher than last year, is right in line with his career average of 34.3%. This shows us that Cueto is allowing far more Line Drives and far fewer Ground Balls, while giving up the same amount of Fly Balls BUT allowing more of his Fly Balls to turn into Home Runs.

Ok, so it must be his velocity, right? Calling him an “aging pitcher” might be a stretch at 31, but his fastball velocity is slightly down at 91.4 MPH from his career average 92.6 MPH fastball, but last season it averaged 92.0 MPH, as it’s decreased in velocity every year since 2014. This could be part of the problem, sure, but it’s not such an eye-popping difference that it explains his dreadful ERA and WHIP, and atrocious HR/FB rate.

Something that does help explain his decline is the way hitters have been teeing off on Cueto: he’s allowed Hard Contact more than any other time in his career (35.9% in 2017, career average 27.5%), and hitters are Pulling the ball at the highest rate against Cueto since 2013 (currently 43.8% Pull Rate, career avg 39.8% Pull Rate). It looks as if players are seeing the ball better, hitting it harder, and getting out in front of it to Pull the ball and record more Line Drives and fewer Ground Balls, all while dramatically increasing the rate at which their Fly Balls become Home Runs. No wonder his ERA is painfully mediocre.

The Verdict: Buy him low, but don’t overpay OR keep him if you’ve got him in QS leagues, but if you are in a Wins league beware. Cueto’s peripherals point to positive regression towards career averages, but it’s also very possible he ends up somewhere between where he is now and where he should be (read: he’ll definitely get better just perhaps not all-the-way-better). He may not return to his dominant form that made him worthy of a 4th round draft pick, but I would expect him to finish the season with a sub-4 ERA and continue to provide 8+ K/9IP upside. The home runs are concerning but should come down, even if they don’t fall all the way down to career norms. He will easily be a rosterable, back-end-of-your-rotation kind of guy, and should return to 2nd or 3rd SP form, with a decent possibility of Ace upside.

The Reason: Cueto may have lost a hair of velocity, but not much, and he’s been dealing with fractional velocity loss for the past three years anyway. He’s throwing the same combination of pitches, more or less, and hasn’t changed his mechanics or approach in any way that I can see. Basically, he’s just getting hit hard (career high Hard Hit Percentage) and paying for it (career high HR/FB Percentage), while getting waaaay fewer ground ball outs than he should be (career low). He should turn things around, or at the very least begin some positive regression. His BABIP and LOB%, as well as xFIP, show that he’s not the recipient of bad luck or poor defense, so this is all on Johnny to fix.

The Beer

Today I’m reviewing a beer from one of my favorite breweries: Troegs (Hershey, PA). Their limited annual release of Nimble Giant a delicious Double IPA.

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This nifty DIPA clocks in at 9.0% ABV, but betrays no booziness in smell or taste. It pours a nice dark, hazy-orange color with a medium-sized head of foam that dissipates quickly and leaves nice lacing on the glass.

On the nose I get a bit of citrus: grapefruit, orange peel, and pineapple, with a nice mixture of hoppy goodness on the end. The taste follows the smell. I get a wonderful blend of citrusy grapefruit, orange peel, and earthy hops that blend together smoothly with a nice, clean honeysuckle note throughout. It’s resiny without being sickly sweet or syrupy, and does an outstanding job of blending the sweet fruit flavors with the grassy, earthy flavors of the hops.

Another fantastic beer from Troegs that made me glad I got four of them!

Cheers!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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