Max Scherzer didn’t have it again on Monday afternoon, giving up three early home runs and then blowing a 5–3 lead against the Mets as the Nationals saw their five-game winning streak come to an end and fell five games behind New York in the National League East. Although Scherzer has been far from the Nationals’ biggest problem in the second half of the season, he has been a source of frustration and disappointment, posting a 5.54 ERA over his last nine starts and failing to turn in consecutive quality starts since doing so on July 30 and Aug. 4.
But beyond a spike in Scherzer's home-run rate (he has allowed 14 in his last nine starts at a rate nearly 2 1/2 times the league average), there’s not a lot of cause for concern. His other peripherals are strong (11.6 strikeout-per-nine ratio, 6.09 strikeout-to-walk rate over the same nine starts), his velocity is actually up relative to earlier in the season, and he’s had some bad luck on balls in play (.362 BABIP). The gap between Scherzer’s first- and second-half ERAs (2.11 and 5.12) isn’t even the largest on his own team. That distinction belongs to displaced closer Drew Storen, who has a 5.23 ERA in the second half after posting a 1.89 mark in the first half. Storen, though, has largely recovered from a particularly rough patch in mid-August during which he allowed ten runs in 3 2/3 innings across four appearances, posting a 2.00 ERA in nine appearances since.
Still, after watching Scherzer go from serious Cy Young contender in the first half to struggling starter, I wondered which other contenders have had to endure similar second-half slumps from key players. Here, then, are the five most dramatic collapses by key players, four of them 2015 All-Stars, on contending or formerly contending teams, presented in alphabetical order.
Alcides Escobar, SS, Royals
Escobar started the All-Star Game this year thanks to a misguidedly enthusiastic fan vote, and many Royals fans genuinely believed that he deserved the honor based largely on the quality of his play in the field. Escobar is indeed an elite defender, but I didn’t think he hit enough in the first half earn the start. In retrospect, his .290/.327/.372 performance in the first half, which was just shy of league average for a shortstop, looks sparkling now compared to the .215/.256/.249 line he has posted since.
Using sOPS+—which compares Escobar’s park-adjusted OPS to the league-average shortstop, with 100 being average and higher being better—Escobar went from a 98 sOPS+ in the first half to a 39 sOPS+ in the second. In other words, his performance at the plate in the second half has been more than 60% worse than the already low standard set by the league’s other shortstops. Escobar has just four extra-base hits in 50 second-half games and, even with his strong play in the field and an uptick in his base stealing, is struggling to stay above replacement level on the year.
Brett Gardner, CF, Yankees
A perennially underrated player, Gardner made his first All-Star team this year as an injury replacement, but his .302/.377/.484 line, combined with his typically strong play in the field and contributions on the bases, deserved a more direct selection. Since appearing in the Midsummer Classic, however, he has hit just .202/.304/.280 and gone just 3-for-5 on stolen base attempts.
Remarkably, despite the Yankees slipping into second place in the AL East behind the Blue Jays, New York has managed to weather Gardner’s second-half collapse, as well as disappointing second halves from Michael Pineda (6.11 ERA plus a disabled list stint) and Alex Rodriguez (.215/.317/.456) to post a better winning percentage after the All-Star break than before. That’s thanks to surges elsewhere, including those of Carlos Beltran (.306/.388/.546 in the second half), Didi Gregorius (.325/.363/.444), Chase Headley (.310/.391/.435) and even Stephen Drew (a respectable .252/.310/.437, up from .182/.257/.372) and the strong debuts of rookies Greg Bird and Luis Severino.
Another first-time All-Star this year on the strength of his .282/.401/.526 first half, Grandal hit 14 home runs prior to his All-Star appearance, but has managed just one more since amid a .194/.294/.243 second-half performance. Unlike the two hitters above, who have had their struggles compounded (or perhaps even triggered) by a dramatic drop in their batting average on balls in play, Grandal has shed just 30 points of BABIP in the second half but 88 points of actual average. He has also seen his strikeout-to-walk ratio more than double, from an outstanding 1.17 in the first half to 2.43 in the second as the result of both a rising strikeout rate and a falling walk rate, and compiled just three extra-base hits in 120 plate appearances.
Grandal’s struggles really began the emergence of pain in his left shoulder in mid-August: Since Aug. 11, he is just 1-for-43, though he is still starting more than half of the Dodgers’ games and sat out consecutive games Sunday and Monday for the first time in 1 1/2 weeks. Through Grandal's injury has rendered him a near zero at the plate, however, like Escobar, he still has significant value in the field.
Grandal also shares a something in common with Gardner: His team has managed to improve in the second half despite his struggles, thanks in part to strong work from Grandal’s backup, A.J. Ellis (.294/.429/.451 in an admittedly tiny second-half sample).
Ubaldo Jimenez, RHP, Orioles
Jimenez’s second-half collapse has been far more dramatic than Scherzer’s, though, like Scherzer, Jimenez’s struggles are far from the only reason for his team’s fall from relevancy. Jimenez hit the All-Star break boasting a 2.81 ERA, having not allowed more than four runs in any of his first 17 starts of the season and just one run in his last three starts (covering 20 innings) combined. He then allowed seven runs in each of his first two starts of the second half and has allowed fewer than four runs in just four of his ten second-half outings, only two of which have been quality, compiling a 6.88 ERA and 1.62 WHIP and walking 4.0 men per nine inning, compared to just 2.9 per nine in the first half.
Still, as bad as Jimenez (and Miguel Gonzalez, currently holding a 6.04 second-half ERA) has been since the break, it wasn’t until the Orioles’ bats went cold in August that the team collapsed. Having gone 3–15 since Aug. 20, the Orioles have fallen 7 1/2 games behind the Rangers for the AL's second wild-card spot and are now tied with the Red Sox for last place in the AL East.
Hector Santiago, LHP, Angels
Jimenez’s collapse may have been predictable because of the inconsistent nature of his career to this point. Santiago’s was predictable because there was little in his performance to explain his 2.33 ERA in the first half beyond his better-than-average .247 BABIP. That sparkling ERA earned Santiago a spot on the All-Star team, and with the Angels slipping past the Astros into first place in the AL West just before the break, everything was aces in Anaheim in mid-July. Santiago has managed just three quality starts in ten turns since the break, however, posting a 5.22 ERA as the Angels have tumbled to third place in their division and fourth place in the wild-card race, 3 1/2 games behind Texas.
Of course, as is always the case, Santiago hasn’t been the sole source of the Angels’ second-half misfortunes. Albert Pujols has hit just .240/.296/.419. Erick Aybar has hit .235/.269/.265, good for a 47 sOPS+. Even Mike Trout has cooled off. The team still has offensive craters at second base, third base, catcher and leftfield; the attempts to upgrade the last of those positions failed miserably, and injuries have only exacerbated the problem. All of that has resulted in a 21–28 second-half record for Los Angeles.