The Early Season Narratives We Hope Reverse Themselves
Last week, we went over a number of early-season story-lines that we hope persist throughout the season. The season is young, so these narratives certainly may not last, but there are plenty of reasons to hope April narratives like Yasiel Puig’s return to prominence or Dylan Bundy’s ascendance to Orioles ace are more fact than fiction.
Let’s turn our attention now to narratives that we hope reverse themselves. Again, it is still very early, so by no means are we taking these story-lines as gospel. In fact, the game might be better off if these narratives sputter out by the end of April:
Byron Buxton again looks lost
Byron Buxton has gone through various cycles of hype. There’s the hype that comes with having been the #2 pick in the draft, as Buxton was in 2012. There was the hype that came when Buxton was a consensus top prospect in all of baseball, with some executives (somewhat unfairly) tossing out comparisons to Mike Trout. Then came the post-hype sleeper buzz that surrounded Buxton after his first go-round in the bigs at age-21 ended with a .576 OPS, and then the breakout-hype heading into this season that was generated after Buxton finished 2016 on fire, leading the league in WAR in September.
There really was reason to be excited about Buxton’s prospects entering 2017: as a rangy, speedy center fielder with excellent defensive and base-running skills, his floor seemed high, and if he could tap into his offensive potential the way he did down the stretch in 2016, the sky would seem to be the limit.
Flash forward to just a couple weeks into the season, though, and the results have been harrowing. Buxton’s .100/.143/.150 slash line might make him the worst regular in the league thus far. He has just four hits, one stolen base, and one walk, compared to a garish 21 strikeouts. He has, to put it mildly, looked unprepared to be a first-division starter in the majors.
Buxton has struck out in 50% of his plate appearances in 2017. His contact rate, a paltry 58.8%, is the worst in baseball among qualified hitters. He’s also been aggressive at the plate, swinging at 53.3% of pitches. A free-swinging approached combined with an inability to make any contact, while facing pitchers that increasingly are throwing harder and harder, is a recipe for disaster for any player, let alone a young one with all kinds of expectations heaped upon him.
The bright spots have been few and far between. His decent hard contact rate of 30% is nullified by his sky-high soft contact rate of 35% (and by the fact that he hardly makes contact). He has hit the ball to his pull-side 70% of the time, indicating he may be selling out to yank the ball in a desperate attempt to make solid contact. All these numbers come with very small sample size caveats, but they are so jarring to make one forget the small samples they come in.
Look at Buxton and you still see why he is was prospect to dream on: 6′ 2″, fast, power to grow into, still only 23. But if the season’s beginning has been any indication, Buxton isn’t ready to take the next step. He might not be ready to take any steps at all right now. The tools are still there, and at his best, Buxton is one of the game’s more exciting players. There’s plenty of time for him to fulfill his potential, and I certainly hope he does. It just doesn’t seem likely he will do so this year.
Greinke and Kluber: Former aces appear diminished
You see the headlines every April: prominent pitcher X has lost velocity. Pitch speed readings are among the more useful reliable data points in the early-going. A large sample of pitches isn’t required to note if a pitcher’s velocity is significantly up or down, so it’s natural to make velocity a focus in April.
When a drop in velocity is accompanied by some other worrisome signs early in the season, however, it is enough to cause a bit of concern. This season, among the biggest names to struggle on the mound to start the season are Zack Greinke and Corey Kluber. Despite being perennial contenders for the Cy Young award, the two have both come out of the gates looking like their best days are behind them.
Let’s start with Kluber. The average velocity on his two-seam fastball has been 92.5 mph this year, below his career average of 93.7 mph. Still, given that velocities generally rise as the season progresses, it’s hard to get too worked up by a drop like the one Kluber has experienced.
Couple his velocity loss with a lessened ability to miss bats, though, and things get a little more troubling. In three starts, Kluber’s contact rate has increased from 73.9% last year to 77.9% this year, and his swinging strike rate has fallen from 12.6% to 10.1%, one of the largest drops in the big leagues. Plus, his ground ball rate stands at a tiny 30.4% thus far, and half of his batted balls have been struck hard (batted ball data courtesy of FanGraphs).
Unsurprisingly, Kluber’s results have been ugly, as he’s yielded 14 runs in 18.1 innings, including five homers. It has been a very small sample, but it’s possible that his lower velocity and lessened ability to make hitters swing and miss portend the beginning of the 31-year-old Kluber’s decline phase.
Greinke’s results haven’t been as bad. He’s managed to limit the damage caused by a .346 BABIP, maintaining a 4.32 ERA in three starts. But Greinke’s drop in pitch speed is a genuine cause for concern.
After sitting at around 92 or 93 mph last season, Greinke came to spring training averaging about 90 mph on his four-seamer. In his most recent start against the Dodgers, Greinke averaged 91.0 mph on his fastball. At 33 years of age, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Greinke regress physically, and seeing him throwing 90 or 91 mph would seem to indicate that Greinke is feeling the affects of age.
A loss in velocity doesn’t have to be a death-knell for Greinke, who has generally thrived on strong command. His swinging strike rate hasn’t wavered in the early-going even as his fastball has lost zip, as he’s missed bats at a similar rate this year (10.8%) to last year (10.4%). However, he has thrown pitches in the zone at a career-low rate of 38.4%, perhaps illustrating that with diminished stuff, Greinke will have to live outside of the zone more often to generate whiffs. Indeed, in this very small sample, Greinke’s walk rate of 2.7 per 9 would rank as the highest of his career.’
Greinke has long been a great pitcher, and Kluber has been too for years now. Each surely expects to shrug off these slow starts. Given how fun each can be to watch at their best, perhaps that is something we should root for. Premature early-season narratives are just that, premature, but they are useful insofar as they give us something to keep an eye on going forward. Hopefully, as we move forward, guys like Buxton, Kluber, and Greinke can straighten things out.