Game of Groans: Slow Starting Hitters

About two and a half weeks in, we know it’s way too early to panic about slow-starters, yet many of you are itching to click that drop button. While I won’t be advising you to drop any of the players I discuss here, let’s evaluate their skills during their slow starts to see if there’s anything worrying to monitor over the next couple of weeks. I’ll stick with hitters that CBS ranked within its top 100 in the preseason.

Yasiel Puig

Puig knocked his first homer yesterday and amazingly, scored his first run. So he’s now less of a disappointment, but easily still one. Though he has never been a big walker, his walk rate is down, as he has swung at a career high rate of pitches outside the zone. In addition, his SwStk% has spiked to its highest mark since his 2013 debut. The good news is that his BABIP stands at just .200, despite posting a mid-20% line drive rate, which is very hard to do. Given how consistent he’s been with his strikeout rate, I’d focus on monitoring that. A surge in strikeout rate would bring down the rest of his numbers.

Jesus Aguilar

Though Aguilar broke out from a fantasy perspective last year because he played a full season for the first time, he actually performed similarly over half a season the year before. So he was no one year wonder. While it was prudent to figure some regression, there was nothing that screamed fluke. The risk, however, is that Eric Thames is a deserving starter and an extended slump from Aguilar could result in Thames stealing playing time and potentially winning back his job. Well, that slump is happening, as Aguilar sports a pitiful .230 wOBA.

But, his walk and strikeout rates are fabulous, both representing elite levels given the player he is and substantial improvements from last year. He’s also hitting a ton of line drives like Puig, so that sub-.200 BABIP is bound to surge higher soon.

He hasn’t homered yet and there’s some legit reasons why — his Pull% on fly balls has declined, trading them for opposite field shots, while his Hard% on fly balls has plummeted, exchanged for medium hit flies. Obviously, you’re not going to homer hitting medium struck balls the opposite way. Have pitchers figured out how to suppress his power? It’s way too early to tell. I’d buy, but acknowledge the playing time risk if he doesn’t bounce back soon.

Jose Ramirez

Ughhh, I own Ramirez in my local auction league and this has been painful. What makes his slow start more concerning is how this is just a continuation of his second half from 2018. Weirdly, his walk rate is down significantly, both from last year, and his career marks, but his swing rates are in line with history. His Contact% and SwStk% have both slipped though, which typically results in more strikeouts (it has) and more walks (it hasn’t, which is what’s odd). All of his contact decline has come from pitches outside the zone, as his in-zone rate remains strong. Is that a good or bad thing for the future?

He has also continued his sudden fly ball ways from last year which fueled his 39 homers, and his FB% has risen even higher. That’s hurting his BABIP, but obviously he doesn’t deserve a mark this low. He still hasn’t homered yet and a little digging reveals something shocking:

Fly Ball Direction Trend
Season Pull% Cent% Oppo%
2017 32.50% 35.00% 32.50%
2018 35.50% 33.80% 30.70%
2019 0.00% 52.40% 47.60%

He hasn’t pulled a fly ball once this year! Instead, all his flies have either gone toward center or the opposite way. What on Earth could be the explanation here? That’s what you need to monitor as a Ramirez owner.

Travis Shaw

Though Shaw’s SwStk% has increased only marginally, his strikeout rate has skyrocketed, which is strange. This is a good illustration of how small samples could wreak havoc on ratio stats. The high strikeout rate is a major driver of his slow start, but the high walk rate is a good sign. His HR/FB rate has also been cut in half from his last two seasons, but it’s not because he isn’t hitting his flies as hard. Instead, it’s a pull thing again, as just 10% of his flies have been pulled, versus over 30% the last two seasons. When he gets back to pulling his flies, he’ll join the home run leaderboard.

Charlie Blackmon

After enjoying two superlative fantasy seasons in 2016 and 2017, Blackmon was still fantastic last year, but a notch below, causing him to lose a bit of luster during his year’s draft season. So far, he’s done nothing to make us believe he’s beginning his age-related decline. His strikeout rate has inched up, however his SwStk% has jumped into double digits for the first time. He has also pushed his FB% above 40% for the first time, which would be good for his home run power, except that he has yet to take advantage of all those flies by knocking one over the wall.

Having said all that, Blackmon makes for a prime acquisition target. Why? Because the Rockies have only played five games at home, versus 11 on the road. Therefore, every Rockie off to a slow start (and there are a bunch) makes for a great target if his owner doesn’t realize this.

Nolan Arenado

See above. Arenado also homered yesterday, but his wOBA remains below .300. Even though he has recorded far fewer plate appearances at home, he has walked one more time than he has struck out, which is quite the rare feat. He’ll be fine and if anyone is selling him for less than his draft day cost, BUYYYYY!

Robinson Cano

Cano is old and I honestly didn’t understand why he was so coveted during draft season. Though he has decided to join the fly ball revolution, with his FB% jumped more than 10 points higher than his career average, his strikeouts are a major concern. Cano’s current career high strikeout rate sits at just 15.9%, that came with a career worst 8.7% SwStk%. He’s currently sitting at a 22.2% strikeout rate and low double digit SwStk%, significant jumps from his previous worst marks.

Almost all of those contact issues have come against pitches inside the zone. Just once did he post a sub-90% Z-Contact% (and that was barely below at 89.8%), yet that mark now sits at 81.4%. This could be just a small sample size phenomenon or your early alarm bells that this is the beginning of the end. Mets fans certainly wouldn’t argue with the idea that the team routinely brings in players past their primes just to see their careers fall off a cliff after their arrivals!

Joey Votto

Last year, everything was normal for Votto, except his power disappeared. His HR/FB was cut in half to single digits for the first time. Was this the beginning of the end or a bad year he’ll fully rebound off of?

The early returns suggest this could be the beginning of the end as there are several warning signs:

1) The walk machine has posted just a 10.7% walk rate, after sitting between 16% and 21% every season since 2012 (though his swing metrics haven’t changed).
2) His strikeout rate sits above 20% for the first time, while his SwStk% has nearly doubled from the last two seasons. He hasn’t been in the double digits, or above 8.8%, since 2010.
3) Typically a line drive machine, he’s barely hit any (12.1% mark), while he’s suddenly hitting everything in the air (51.5% mark), which is odd for a guy who has always had one of the most pristine batted ball distributions in baseball.
4) While going the opposite way isn’t ideal for hitting homers, he has traded opposite field shots for center shots, which is the largest part of ball parks. In addition, his fly ball Hard%, which has stood above 50% for seven straight seasons, has plummeted to just 35.3%. No wonder his HR/FB rate is just 5.9%.

Given last year’s disappearance of his power and no signs it’s returning, I’m not buying here. All owners could do right now is pray and hope.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Any thoughts on Jake Bauers? Much improved K rate and SwStr% but he’s not hitting the ball with any authority (.301 xWOBACON)