Tuesday May 17th, 2016

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Baseball has no shortage of ways to measure performance, both good and bad. You might prefer wOBA to WAR, or vice versa. You might appreciate looking at a player’s strikeout and walk rates to help cover everything they do at the plate. You might prefer measuring power using isolated slugging percentage. No one stat is definitively better than the other, but when they all tell the same story, in their own way, we can be pretty sure it’s the truth.

Those numbers are weaving an ugly tale for plenty of hitters this year, one of whom stands out, not only for his ignominious collection of unsightly statistics, but also because he was expected to be so much better this year. There’s just one player in the majors who’s in the bottom five in fWAR and wOBA, and the top five in strikeout rate, and that is Houston’s Carlos Gomez. 

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Gomez, the once-failed prospect who experienced two different teams giving up on him, found himself in a three-year span with the Brewers. From 2012 through 2014, few hitters filled up the box score like Gomez. He hit .277/.336/.483 in those three seasons, averaging 22 homers, 27 doubles and 37 steals per year. Gomez really came into his own in the latter two years of that window, going to the All-Star Game both seasons, but his career turnaround began in 2012 when he embraced a power-hitting identity. Gomez struck out a lot in those years, posting a 22.8% strikeout rate, but it was worth it given what he could do when he made contact. 

In 2015, Gomez suffered through his worst season since 2011, hitting just .255/.314/.409 in a campaign split between Milwaukee and Houston. He missed 47 games due to injury, and he mostly earned a pass from the fantasy community because of that fact. A hip injury robbed Gomez of much of the power-speed combo that made him such a dynamic player the previous three seasons. The thinking went that, entering 2016 healthy, he’d once again be a force, this time in the middle of a potent Houston lineup.

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Instead of that about-face, Gomez is on track to have the worst year of his career, and remember that we’re talking about a player who failed to reach a .700 OPS for four straight seasons. Gomez is slashing .182/.238/.248 in 132 plate appearances. His .217 wOBA is the second-worst mark in the majors, better than only Erick Aybar’s .191. He has -0.6 fWAR, which is tied for fourth-worst with Kendrys Morales. Only Aybar (-1.3), Prince Fielder (-1.2) and Adonis Garcia (-0.7) rank lower. Gomez has fanned an unthinkable 34.8% of the time this season, which is a higher rate than every hitter in the majors other than Justin Upton (38.2%), Mike Napoli (36.3%) and Steven Souza (36.2%). 

Any time a player falls off as sharply as Gomez has, the possibility that he’s dealing with an injury should enter your mind. Gomez missed a few games this year because of a mild oblique strain and was placed on the 15-day DL Tuesday with a bruised rib cage, but he hasn’t suffered any serious injury and, to our knowledge, is not dealing with the hip ailment that cost him so much time a season ago. If we can rule out serious injury, which, if we take the Astros at their word, we can, then mechanics come into the equation.

Watch Gomez hit in 2016 and you’ll see pretty much the same guy that you did in 2013 and ’14, at least up until the point that you take results into account. Let’s rewind a couple of seasons and take a look at an absolute bomb off Gomez’s bat, making Ryan Vogelsong pay for coming inside.

And now here’s Gomez from last Sunday against the Red Sox. He went 0 for 3 with a hit by pitch in this game.

 

My job would be a whole lot easier if there were something obviously different in Gomez’s setup or swing between the two seasons, but there isn’t. His stance was slightly open in ’14, and it remains so this season. He uses the same leg kick he did a couple seasons ago, bringing his front foot down while simultaneously closing off his body. His hands are a bit lower this season than they were when he was putting up All-Star numbers, but not to a meaningful degree. Gomez hasn’t changed a thing about what he does at the plate, but he isn’t getting the results he once did.

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We’ve eliminated both injury and a substantive mechanical change as the potential root of Gomez’s problems. Is it possible we’re simply witnessing a skills decline for a guy in his age-30 season who has a damaging hip injury in his rear-view mirror? It seems plausible.

Gomez always struck out his fair share, but never to the ridiculous degree he is this season. Whenever a hitter’s strikeout rate spikes, it’s intuitive to expect his o-swing rate, the frequency with which he has swung at pitches out of the strike zone, to rise, too. That’s not the case here. Gomez’s o-swing rate this season is 32.1%, which would be the second-lowest of his career, and is four percentage points better than his career average. No, Gomez’s problem is much worse than shoddy plate discipline. He’s getting beat all too regularly in the strike zone.

The following charts, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, show Gomez’s whiff rate by zone. The first is for his entire career, not including this season. The second is just for 2016.

Woof. Gomez’s in-zone whiff rate is 23.7%, a number that seems impossibly high, even though we’ve all watched the 30-year-old struggle mightily this year. Pitchers simply aren’t afraid to challenge Gomez, and he isn’t doing anything to change that reality. His zone percentage, which measures the rate of pitches a hitter sees in the zone is 49.4%. That would be the highest rate of strikes he has thrown to Gomez since 2009, when he was still trying to figure things out with the Twins. 

If Gomez’s bat speed has indeed abandoned him, this could be the start of an irreversible trend. Given all the evidence at our disposal, that seems the most likely explanation. A bad season may only be getting worse for a guy who’s among the most entertaining players to watch when he’s going right.

Hitters to watch this week

David Ortiz, DH, Red Sox

Anyone who expected Ortiz to fall off this year just because he turned 40 hasn’t been paying close attention the last three seasons. From his age-37 through age-39 seasons, Ortiz hit .281/.370/.545 with an overage of 34 homers and 105 RBI per season. Clearly, he was going to be just fine this year. Still, it’s remarkable to see him not only succeeding, but performing like one of the best hitters in the league. Ortiz leads the majors with a .695 slugging percentage, 1.101 OPS, .375 ISO and .453 wOBA. We could be watching the greatest age-40 season in MLB history, which would put the cherry on top of an excellent career.

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Carlos Correa, SS, Astros

Since we broke down Correa’s early-season power outage two weeks ago, identifying a possible problem in where he was lining up in the box, he has four homers and has improved his slash line to .273/.381/.469 from .258/.378/.419. We’re not claiming responsibility, but it’s worth noting that no one is out there saying we aren’t responsible, either. All kidding aside, even when Correa was struggling in April, he was still getting on base at an impressive rate, especially considering that he wasn’t finding any holes. This hot two weeks is simply the vagaries of baseball smoothing out. 

Addison Russell, SS, Cubs

Russell carried a .214/.341/.343 slash line into May, and while he was doing all the right things at the plate—his strikeouts were down while his walks and line drives were up—you couldn’t blame him for being more than a little frustrated. Over the last two weeks, Russell has gone 16 for 47 with two homers, four doubles, one triple, eight walks and 14 RBI. He’s now hitting .265/.374/.444 with four homers and 27 RBI on the season. This is the part where we remind you that he’s all of 22 years old and still has fewer than 700 career plate appearances under his belt.

Corey Seager, SS, Dodgers

Correa and Russell aren’t the only young shortstops finding a lot of success at the plate recently. Russell isn’t even the only shortstop who we might be watching ascending a level in real time. In the Dodgers last 10 games, Seager has gone 17 for 40 with four homers, three doubles and seven RBI. He's slashing .293/.348/.497 with six bombs and 20 RBI this season, his first full campaign in the majors. The shortstop position is in good hands for the foreseeable future. Seager joins Correa and Russell—as well as Xander Bogaerts, Francisco Lindor, Trevor Story and, apparently, Manny Machado—as more proof that the position hasn’t been so deep with both talent and youth in a long time. 

Marcell Ozuna, OF, Marlins

Ozuna’s struggles last year never made sense, which was why the fantasy community at large was generally willing to give him another shot this season. Anyone who did so, and then stuck with him through a tough April, is getting their rewards. Ozuna is on a 16-game-hitting streak, during which he has gone 27 for 65 (.415) with five homers and 11 RBI. The 25-year-old is hitting .308/.353/.524 with seven roundtrippers and 20 RBI on the season, getting back on the trajectory he set for himself when he left the yard 23 times in 2014. 

Prospect watch

Dan Vogelbach, 1B, Cubs

It was about this time last year that the clamoring for a mashing Cubs prospect without an obvious defensive position started to grow louder. One month later, the Cubs called up Kyle Schwarber, and he hit .246/.355/.487 with 16 homers in his first major league season. The team could go through a similar experience with Vogelbach this year. Vogelbach wasn’t a top-five pick like Schwarber, but the team did select him out of high school early in the second round of the 2011 amateur draft. He has slowly but surely climbed the ranks in the minors, reaching Triple A Iowa this year for the first time in his career. By the looks of it, Vogelbach may not spend too much time in Des Moines. The 23-year-old is hitting .330/.430/.548 with six homers, seven doubles and 29 RBI, and could prove he’s ready for the show with another strong month to six weeks.

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Now, there is the question of his position. The Cubs already have someone pretty good at first by the name of Anthony Rizzo. Vogelbach would be even more out of position in the outfield than Schwarber was, which removes the possibility of hiding him in a corner outfield spot to get his bat in the lineup. It’s unlikely the Cubs would call him up just to sit him on the bench, so it’s possible the only way he gets to the majors with enough time to make a meaningful fantasy impact is via a trade. The Cubs will almost certainly be players at the trade deadline, at it stands to reason that any team looking to rebuild would ask about Vogelbach. If and when he gets to the majors, be it with the Cubs or another team, he’ll be of immediate fantasy relevance.

GIF of the Week

Jose Altuve leads the league in fWAR, largely because of what he has done at the plate. He’s not so bad in the field, either, as he reminded Michael Brantley and the Indians.

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