Stumbling out of the gate: Players off to worst starts for new teams
We’re now two weeks into the 2016 season, and every team has played between ten and 14 games and gone through their rotations between two and three times. With that in mind—and with a cautionary note regarding the degree to which we should base conclusions on such small sample sizes pointing in either direction—Cliff Corcoran and I thought we’d take a quick look to see which players who changed teams this off-season are off to the best and worst starts this season and what that might mean for their new teams. Below, you'll find the five players (or pairs, in a couple of cases) who have struggled noticeably with their new clubs; Cliff Corcoran has the five who are off to their best starts here.
Players are presented alphabetically. All stats are through Monday, April 18.
Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro, C, White Sox
As Cliff noted a month ago, the White Sox jettisoning of last year's catching tandem of Tyler Flowers and Geovany Soto represented roughly a three-win swing in terms of pitch framing relative to their incoming combo of free agents; Avila and Navarro were a combined 12.1 runs below average via Baseball Prospectus' pitch-framing numbers, while Flowers led the AL at 16.7. The move looked like a lateral one as far as offense was concerned, at least given last year's numbers, but so far, it has been anything but, as both Avila (3 for 22 with three walks) and Navarro (1 for 22 without a walk) have stunk on ice. Their combined .221 OPS is the lowest for any team at any position. In fact, it's lower than the .373 OPS put up by all pitchers around the majors. Ouch.
To be fair, the Chicago pitching staff's 2.84 ERA is tops in the league, and their 3.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio is third, so at least the tandem has had a hand in helping to prevent runs. Avila and Navarro both have work to do to show that last year's offensive woes aren't part of larger trends, but so long as the Sox (at 8–5) can keep their heads above water, both players are likely to get time to work things out.
Rajai Davis, OF, Indians
With their preferred starting outfield sidelined to start the season—leftfielder Michael Brantley and rightfielder Lonnie Chisenhall are on the disabled list, and centerfielder Abraham Almonte is serving a PED suspension—the Indians have had to cobble together a makeshift unit, and things could be going better. The five players Cleveland has tried in the outfield have combined to hit just .255/.303/.364, and Davis has seen more time than any of the rest, starting nine of the team's 10 games, with at least one turn in each position. He's hitting just .225/.279/.375 with 15 strikeouts through 43 plate appearances, which is bad enough, and while his play in centerfield has generally been fine in the past, he had a brutal day on Sunday. Playing behind Corey Kluber, who had already staked the Mets to a 3–0 lead, Davis lost two fly balls in the sun during the second inning, leading to another three runs in a 6–0 loss. He was even wearing sunglasses, albeit to no avail:
Brantley and Chisenhall are both out on rehab assignments; the latter is due back on Wednesday, but the former, who's recovering from surgery to repair his torn right labrum, has yet to play back-to-back games in his recovery, so he could need another several days. Once both are back, Davis should receive less exposure, though he'll still be in the mix for more playing time than is ideal for a career .269/.315/.387 hitter.
Ian Desmond, LF, Rangers
Desmond is on some kind of losing streak. He turned down a $107 million extension from the Nationals in the winter of 2013–14 in favor of a two-year, $17.5 million deal, then suffered a case of walk-year jitters in his final season in Washington, batting .233/.290/.384 for an 80 OPS+—down from a 114 OPS+ from '12 to '14—while his team imploded. The Nationals stuck him with a qualifying offer, which was like handing an anvil to a struggling swimmer, and the upshot was that Desmond not only didn't sign a contract until late February—a one-year, $8 million deal, at that—but that he also had to agree to learn leftfield, a position he had never played professionally.
While there haven't been any major complaints about Desmond's defensive work thus far—he's even started twice in centerfield—he is just 5 for 46 without an extra-base hit, batting .109/.180/.109. His lone RBI came on an infield single, which hints at problems with his quality of contact, and indeed, his 84.4 mph average exit velocity on balls in play is 201st out of 216 players who have put at least 20 balls into play. We're still in small-sample territory here, but exit velocity stabilizes somewhere in the 40–50 balls-in-play mark, so it won't be long before we get a better read on just how deep a hole Desmond is in.
With Shin-soo Choo on the disabled list for another three-to-five weeks due to a left calf strain, hot prospect Nomar Mazara has gotten a look in the outfield and is off to a 12 for 27 start. He won't maintain that torrid pace, but at this rate, he may well push Choo back to leftfield (his primary position with the Rangers in 2014) and Desmond to the bench if all three remain healthy. What's more, between Ryan Rua, Justin Ruggiano and Joey Gallo (whose future at third base, at least in Texas, has been stalled by the Adrian Beltre extension), the team has other alternatives even without waiting for Choo or Josh Hamilton to come off the DL.
Scott Kazmir, Dodgers
Coming off a 3.10 ERA and 3.98 FIP in a season split between the Athletics and Astros, Kazmir signed a three-year, $48 million deal with the Dodgers, featuring an opt-out after 2016. He was brilliant in his first start, on April 5, allowing just one hit in six shutout innings and striking out five, but that may have had more to do with his opponent—the Padres' meager offense, which didn't score at all in their season-opening series—than with Kazmir. In two starts since then, both against the Giants, he's failed to record an out in the fifth inning and yielded 14 hits and 10 runs, all earned. In his April 10 start, he served up three homers, and in his April 16 turn, he walked four and got just 11 swinging strikes out of 93 pitches.
Kazmir, of course, has had numerous ups and downs over the course of his career; even last year's jump from a 2.38 ERA with the A's to a 4.17 mark with the Astros hardly seemed out of character. His struggles in his last two starts may just be a matter of one team scouting him very well, though he'd pitched much better against the Giants in 2014–15. Perhaps of more concern is that his four-seam fastball velocity, which averaged 93.0 mph last year and 93.2 mph last April, has been just 91.8 mph this month, according to Brooks Baseball. What's more, his overall swinging strike rate of 7.6% is well below both last year (10.3%) and his career mark (10.5%), and likewise for the rate of batters swinging at his pitches outside the zone (20.2%, down from 31.7 last year and 26.9 overall).
Maybe it's a matter of getting comfortable with new receivers. So far, regular catcher Yasmani Grandal has caught just four of his innings due to injury, with Austin Barnes catching the other 10, and veteran backstop A.J. Ellis has yet to work with him. With so many injuries in the rotation, it's not as though the Dodgers are going to pull Kazmir anytime soon, but they should see what they can do to ensure he’s comfortable in his new surroundings.
Logan Morrison and Stephen Pearce, 1B, Rays
The Rays' ill-fated three-year deal with James Loney finally came home to roost. After receiving league-worst production at first base last year (.239/.297/.332 combined, with Loney accounting for 58% of the plate appearances), the team cut the veteran, who was still owed $8 million, at the end of spring training. Thus far, they've gotten even less from this platoon of replacements, who were signed to one-year–free-agent deals totaling just under $9 million. The lefty-swinging Morrison and the righty Pearce are hitting a combined .136/.174/.159 in 46 PA at first base, going 7 for 44 with one double (by Pearce) and two walks (by Morrison) overall for a team that's scoring just 2.83 runs per game.
Both players are coming off subpar seasons: Pearce, who broke out for 21 homers and a 157 OPS+ in 2014, hit .218/.289/.422 with 15 homers and a 91 OPS+ for Baltimore last year, and Morrison hit just .225/.302/.383 with 17 homers and a 93 OPS+ for Seattle. Pearce owns a .261/.340/.476 career line against lefties, but he's at .198/.261/.349 in 138 PA against them this year, so it's fair to wonder if southpaws have spotted a weakness that he needs to shore up. Morrison hit .241/.323/.444 in 356 PA against righties last year but is off to a 1-for-27 start against them so far, which might be read as bad luck if it weren't accompanied by 14 strikeouts. What's more, his overall 84.4 mph average exit velocity shows that he's not hitting the ball hard with consistency.
If small sample sizes shouldn’t be overreacted to, those from platoons deserve even more caution. But a franchise that over the past four seasons has just one 2.0 WAR-or-better showing from its first basemen (Loney in 2013, which led to his inadvisable three-year, $21 million deal) can't afford complacency when its entire offense is struggling.