April non-stars: Choo, Utley among those hoping for brighter days
Yesterday I assembled an All-Star team of April’s most productive players. That made me curious about the identities of the least productive regulars at each position in the season’s first month. You can find them below, along with some thoughts about which players might be in danger of losing their jobs due to poor performance.
Note: All statistics are through April 30.
Morrison went 4-for-5 on Wednesday, his only multi-hit game of the season to this point. Entering that game, he was hitting .149/.197/.194. The Mariners are obviously hoping that four-hit game will prove to be the slump breaker for Morrison, who picked up another hit on Thursday. However, if he continues to scuffle, Seattle should give serious thought to calling up the rededicated Jesus Montero, who is hitting .325/.349/.500 as Triple A Tacoma’s first baseman, giving him a .293/.350/.491 line at that level since the start of 2014 with 19 home runs in 492 plate appearances.
Utley went 3-for-3 with two home runs, a walk and a stolen base against the Mets on April 14. The Phillies still managed to lose that game, and, since then, Utley has gone just 3-for-45 without an extra-base hit. In fact, in his other 20 games on the season as a whole, he has managed just five hits, all singles. All of the hitters on this list have had bad luck, but none has been as unlucky as Utley, who his hitting his usual share of line drives but has a batting average on balls in play of just .102, the lowest figure by a qualified batter to this point in the season. Even at 36, Utley’s too good a hitter for this to last much longer, and with nothing to lose, the Phillies have no good reason to take him out of the lineup.
Arizona’s rookie shortstop came into this season with a glove-first reputation, but this is a bit much. Unfortunately for the Diamondbacks, their once over-crowded middle infield lacks obvious fixes. Chris Owings and Aaron Hill are both off to rough starts of their own at the plate, with OPS+ figures of 55 and 24, respectively. Even the shortstop they traded this winter, Didi Gregorius, is off to a brutal start, hitting .206/.261/.238 (42 OPS+) for the Yankees. So Ahmed’s glove continues to earn him starts while the D-Backs wait for his bat to show signs of life. However, the spike in his strikeout rate in the early going (29.7%) suggests it could be a long wait.
McGehee isn’t this bad, but he’s not much better. He has now hit .246/.309/.350 in his last four major league seasons combined. His .221/.282/.351 line in 2011 and '12 resulted in his having to catch on with Japanese team for '13. He had a big season overseas for the Golden Eagles and got off to a strong start with the Marlins last year, but starting in June his monthly OPS marks looked like this:
After last year’s All-Star break, he hit .243/.310/.310. There’s correction coming here, but not enough to make the 32-year-old McGehee a viable everyday third baseman for the defending world champions. Of all of the hitters on this list off to awful starts, McGehee is the most likely to be looking for work before the end of the season. If and when that occurs, the Giants seem likely to give rookie Matt Duffy, who drew five starts when McGehee hurt his knee two weeks ago, the first chance to claim the third base job
Baseball Prospectus’s advanced catching metrics rate Iannetta as one of the best pitch framers of the young season, which is important because he hasn’t done anything else very well thus far. Among hitters with 50 or more plate appearances this season, Iannetta is dead last in batting average, slugging percentage and OPS+; in fact his -6 mark in the latter category is the only negative figure among that group of hitters. He has also thrown out just two of 16 attempting basestealers, tying him for third in most stolen bases allowed and giving him the lowest caught-stealing percentage of any catcher with 10 or more attempts made against him.
Things have gotten so bad that Iannetta, who has been a two-win player over the last four seasons, has been losing playing time to veteran backup Drew Butera, a career .184/.239/.267 hitter. Despite his strong arm, Butera is not a viable replacement, but Carlos Perez, acquired this winter in the deal that sent Hank Conger to the Astros and off to a blazing start with Triple A Salt Lake City, could be.
RF: Shin-Soo Choo, Rangers
Season Stats: .096/.254/.173, 1 HR, 5 RBI
Choo picked up a hit in two of his first three games of the season—with two of his three knocks going for extra bases—but he left his fourth in the third inning due to back spasms and has gone 2-for-39 since, both singles. Speaking to The Dallas Morning News’ Evan Grant earlier this week, Choo did not blame his back for his poor showing, which has left him with the third-worst single-month batting average in Rangers history (minimum 50 at-bats), but one has to wonder if he’s still hurting. Last year, the first in his seven-year, $130 million contract with Texas, Choo was limited by a bone spur in his elbow that he eventually had removed in August, ending his season early. He also has a fairly extensive injury history, including Tommy John surgery and back spasms during spring training in 2013. With Choo’s salary due to jump from this year’s $14 million to $20 million next year and injuries already having undermined their '15 season, the Rangers should be more concerned with Choo’s health than his production.
Platoons are supposed to maximize the production of the players involved by putting them in positions to succeed, typically against opposite-handed pitching. Schafer, the lefthanded side of the Twins’ centerfield platoon, is not cooperating with the plan, hitting just .128/.150/.154 against righthanded pitching this season. Unlike most of the other hitters on this list, Schafer hasn’t had particularly poor luck. He’s just been a particularly poor hitter, striking out in nearly a third of his plate appearances while drawing just one walk, posting a weak 15% line-drive percentage (compared to a league average of around 20%) and having only two of his nine hits go for extra bases. For good measure, he has been thrown out in his in only two stolen base attempts. Given that Schafer is a career .227/.307/.307 hitter, it might be time for the Twins to find out if Shane Robinson can hit righties while they wait to decide if Aaron Hicks’ hot start for Triple A Rochester has earned him another major league opportunity.
LF: Matt Joyce, Angels
Season Stats: .134/.181/.179, 0 HR, 5 RBI
Here’s another platoon lefty struggling against righthanded pitching this season. Joyce hit .127/.176/.159 against righties in April and that lousy start has come complete with career-worsts in strikeout and walk rate and the continued erosion of his power. Joyce’s isolated power (slugging minus batting average) has declined every year since 2009, dropping more than 100 points from 2010 (.236) to '14 (.129). Platoon partner Collin Cowgil is off to a lousy start of his own, but does have a career .275/.332/.414 line against lefthanded pitching. Ironically, that line is an almost exact match for what Los Angeles' recently traded leftfielder, Josh Hamilton, hit against all pitchers last season.
DH: Kennys Vargas, Twins
Season Stats: .172/.232/.234, 1 HR, 4 RBI
Does a designated hitter who doesn’t hit still exist? Vargas, a sophomore switch-hitter, has gone just 4-for-36 (.111) without an extra base hit since hitting his lone home run this season on April 16. He's also struck out in 36% of his plate appearances over that span. Much more of that and the Twins should seriously consider sending him back to Triple A in exchange for Josmil Pinto.
SP: David Buchanan, Phillies
Season Stats: 0-5, 8.75 ERA, 1.91 WHIP, 4.4 K/9, 0.80 K/BB, 44 ERA+
Buchanan was lit up by the Red Sox in his first start this season, giving up six runs in just three innings on April 9. He then showed gradual improvement in his next three starts, climaxing in a quality start against the Braves two turns ago (6 2/3 IP, 3 R). His last start, Thursday in St. Louis, looked more like his first, however, as he gave up seven runs in 4 1/3 innings. Among pitchers with 20 or more innings pitched this season, Buchanan is dead last in ERA and WHIP and is one of just three who have walked more men then they have struck out (the Twins' Kyle Gibson and the Rockies' Jordan Lyles being the others), walking 15 (one intentional) against 12 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings. Despite all of that, he has the third-best Fielding Independent Pitching mark among the seven men who have started a game for the Phillies this year. That FIP: 5.34.
RP: Burke Badenhop
Season Stats: 0-1, 15.43 ERA, 2.71 WHIP, 5.1 K/9, 1.33 K/BB, 26 ERA+
Badenhop has made nine appearances for the Reds this season and has allowed a run in seven of them. In addition to the 12 runs he has been charged with in seven innings of work, five of the seven runners he has inherited have also scored. In his last four appearances, he has allowed 10 runs in a mere three innings of work, plus all three of his inherited runners to score. If you combine the runs Badenhop has been charged with and the inherited runners he's allowed to score, it works out to four runs allowed in each of his last three outings. Opposing hitters are batting .457/.500/.657 against him. That has all happened in very tiny number of innings, but it’s worth noting that, after six years of steady set-up work and a career high 70 appearances for Boston last year, he has experienced a drop of 2 mph in the velocity of his sinker, which isn’t producing his usual excess of ground balls.