Good hitters who are off to bad starts

ByJerry Crasnick ESPN logo
Saturday, June 6, 2015

Bad offense (or great pitching, if you prefer) has been a recurrent theme in the first two months of the 2015 MLB season. The Los Angeles Dodgers tied a franchise record with a 35-inning scoreless streak, and the San Francisco Giants threw an amazing eight shutouts at AT&T Park in May. Not quite a third of the way into the season, the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs have already passed the 500-strikeout mark and have a chance to break Houston's single-season mark of 1,535 whiffs, set in 2013.

The Seattle Mariners, 29th in the majors in runs scored, have already swung a trade for Mark Trumbo to bolster a lineup with far too many holes. Which brings us to the Philadelphia Phillies, who are always a threat to make history of the wrong kind. During Philadelphia's current homestand, Colorado's Chad Bettis and Cincinnati's Mike Leake both carried no-hit bids into the late innings.

Viewed against that backdrop, even hitters with mega-contracts and Hall of Fame aspirations aren't going to be immune. Here are five big-name, big-ticket players with unsightly numbers and some work to do if they want to turn things around.

Robinson Cano, Seattle Mariners

The numbers: Two home runs in 218 at-bats; .326 slugging percentage

The Mariners did Cano a favor in December, when they signed slugger Nelson Cruz to be his wing man. Here we are in early June, and Cruz is playing like an MVP while Cano is muddling along with the worst numbers of his career.

Naturally, when the Yankees visited Seattle this week, the New York writers asked Cano if he regretted leaving the Bronx for the Pacific Northwest through free agency in 2013. Cano insisted he is happy in Seattle, but a lot of baseball people wonder if that's true. Cano's $240 million contract runs through 2023, so the Mariners better hope this is just a brief, forgettable blip in an otherwise distinguished career.

One MLB analyst still has faith Cano can get on a roll and hit .300 with lots of doubles, but he wonders if Cano's power outage isn't a sign of things to come. "He looks like he might be turning into Jose Vidro,'' the analyst said.

Inside the numbers: As's David Schoenfield recently noted, Cano's struggles stem in part from a lack of success against breaking balls. He's hitting .200 with a .556 OPS against curveballs and sliders this season -- well below his career norms.

Cano's strikeout rate is up, and his walks are down, but that doesn't necessarily reflect a lack of discipline. He's swinging at 34 percent of pitches outside the zone, which is pretty much in line with his career average. Of more concern: Cano is swinging and missing at an 8.7 percent rate, compared with 6.7 percent for his career overall.

Said an NL scout: "Cano's skills have not diminished that much. It's all mental with him. Cano has always had a problem with intensity and concentration. When he was surrounded by good players who put the pressure on him, he performed better. In Seattle, there are no players to put any pressure on him at all.

"When Bobby Bonilla was in Pittsburgh and Barry Bonds was there, Bonilla was a good player. Then he went to the Mets, and he stunk because he had to be 'the man,' and he didn't want to be the man. I don't think Cano wants to be the man, either. You can't rely on him to carry a team. He's not that kind of player.''

Matt Kemp, San Diego Padres

The numbers: One homer in 219 at-bats; .324 slugging percentage

When Kemp left the Dodgers for the Padres in December, a lot of people thought a fresh start would be the best thing for his career. He could finally escape the incessant drama in L.A. for a more relaxed environment and put his stamp on a new franchise as the designated team leader.

Kemp has appeared in all 56 games, which speaks well of his commitment, but he has had little success driving the ball with authority. Even if you buy into the premise that he is trying too hard to make an impression with his new club, 13 extra-base hits in 56 games simply won't cut it.

Inside the numbers: Kemp has an .089 batting average on fly balls this season -- which ranks 154th among 166 qualifying hitters. The list of players behind him includes such slap hitters as Billy Hamilton, Ben Revere, Eric Sogard and Didi Gregorius. Even when Kemp gets the ball airborne, it's not going anywhere.

For comparison, when Kemp hit 39 homers and finished second to Ryan Braun in the NL MVP race in 2011, he led the majors with a .351 batting average on fly balls and was second overall, with a 1.446 OPS.

Said an American League scout: "I question [Kemp's] health. I don't know if it's the hip or the lower body, but there's just not the same explosion that he's had in the past. Even when you watch him in batting practice, it's not the same.

"You saw it with Miguel Cabrera when he had that core injury. Hitters get their drive and strength from their cores, and when you don't have that, you're just out there feeling for the ball, and you can't explode to it. I don't know if that's the case with Kemp. But I'm guessing there's something going on there.''

David Ortiz, Boston Red Sox

The numbers: .220 BA; .376 slugging percentage

April and May are the worst statistical months of Ortiz's career, OPS-wise, so he deserves the benefit of some time to straighten things out. But when a guy is 39 years old, it's natural to wonder if a slow start is a sign he is entering his dreaded "twilight'' phase.

Inside the numbers: The older a player gets, the more his bat speed diminishes. The more his bat speed diminishes, the earlier he needs to start his swing to catch up with the prime heat. The earlier he starts his swing, the more he leaves himself vulnerable to off-speed pitches because he has already begun to commit with his hands.

Almost a third of the way into the season, Ortiz is batting .205 against curves and sliders. That's 120th among 166 qualifying MLB hitters. Here's the scary part: His .196 average against fastballs is 163rd best among the 166. Only the Cubs' Chris Coghlan, Cleveland's Lonnie Chisenhall and Houston's Chris Carter are worse.

Said an NL scout: "I saw Ortiz at the end of April, and I thought he was starting to come out of it then. He's always a slow starter, and as the weather starts to turn in the Northeast, he starts to heat up.

"He's chased out of the zone a little more than I've seen him do in the past. There hasn't been the same discipline -- at least in the games I saw. That said, he still has incredible vision. When the ball is out of the zone, he's already stepping out of the box before the pitch is in the catcher's mitt. I think the key components for him are still the same as they've been the last three or four years. I wouldn't stick a fork in David Ortiz just yet.''

Carlos Gonzalez, Colorado Rockies

The numbers:.233/.310/.341 in 176 at-bats

Gonzalez penciled a lot of surgical appointments into his daily planner in 2014. He had his appendix removed in January and a tumor removed from his left index finger in June, before surgery in August to repair a torn patella tendon and remove a bursa sac from his left knee.

Gonzalez was right on schedule during his offseason rehab, but he still looks like a guy trying to play catchup at the plate. As so many hitters have learned through the years, all that time spent recovering from an injury can put a crimp in baseball activities over the winter.

"I don't like to make excuses,'' Gonzalez said this week. "If I'm playing terrible, I'm playing terrible. It's as simple as that. But it was a different offseason than I had in the past. I didn't start hitting until January, and I lost weight so I could put less stress on my knee.

"I've never been a guy who goes to the plate and says, 'I'm going to hit a home run.' I've always tried to get on base and create opportunities, and the home runs just happen. Right now, it's not happening. There haven't been a lot of extra-base hits so far. But hopefully I can continue to stay healthy, and I'll have 450 more at-bats. I'll have more opportunities, and things are going to get better.''

Inside the numbers: Gonzalez has a .272 batting average on balls in play (126th among big-league hitters), so he might be due for a few more balls to find some holes. His 23 percent line-drive rate is the second highest of his career, so he has hit some balls with authority. He is batting a mere .220 with a .597 OPS in 24 games at Coors Field, which is almost mind-bogglingly bad. Provided his knee or some other appendage doesn't give out on him, he's likely to go on a roll just like the one his pal Troy Tulowitzki went on this week.

Said Rockies general manager Jeff Bridich: "His at-bats have gotten better over the last couple of weeks. He's seeing the ball better and taking more walks. I don't think his mind is racing or he's pressing as much as he was.''

Chase Utley, Philadelphia Phillies

The numbers: ..202 BA; .601 OPS

The Phillies had reason to be concerned when Utley, who turned 36 in September and struggled badly for the final four months of the 2014 season, was hitting .099 as of mid-May. "Teams were trying to pitch around him, but they wouldn't let him,'' said an NL scout, who theorized Utley was trying to do too much to carry the Phillies' young, untested lineup.

Three weeks ago, FiveThirtyEight Sports took note of Utley's respectable batted ball velocity and horrific numbers and pronounced him "The Unluckiest Man in Baseball.''

Utley has shown enough improvement of late to cross the Mendoza line. In a 5-4 victory over the Reds on Tuesday, he bunted for a hit against the shift, grounded a single through the hole against the shift, then pulled a 393-foot home run off Johnny Cueto.

Utley played in 155 games in 2014, which is far too many at this stage of his career. Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg has already sat him five times this season, and maybe the extra rest will help keep Utley fresher down the stretch. Utley remains a terrific influence on the young Philadelphia players, with his professional approach to the game, though that might not warrant the $15 million annual outlay the Phillies could spend on his vesting options from 2016-2018.

Inside the numbers: As Utley has aged, he has become much less effective against left-handed pitching and needs to be protected more against the top-flight lefties. During his peak from 2006 through 2010, Utley hit .295 (285-for-966) with 44 homers and 156 RBIs versus lefties. Since 2011, he has batted .219 (133-for-607) with only 16 homers and 69 RBIs against left-handers.

"It became a little frustrating at times," Utley said of his early struggles. "You're putting some decent at-bats together. Maybe not perfect, but good enough that you think you might deserve a hit here and there. For whatever reason, they weren't falling. You try not to change too much, but mentally, it can be tough.

"It's all about recognizing pitches. The earlier you can recognize a pitch, the better. You're going to hit balls right at guys or hit some bleeders that fall in. That's the nature of the game during the course of a season. They say they all even out. We'll see if that happens.''

Other stragglers of note

Melky Cabrera, who signed a three-year, $42 million contract with the Chicago White Sox in December, has a .530 OPS and five extra-base hits in 217 at-bats.

Detroit's Ian Kinsler, a two-time 30-homer man, has one homer in his first 215 at-bats.

St. Louis' Yadier Molina is batting .283, but he has yet to homer in his first 183 at-bats.