Now that we’re approaching the end of April, I think we can officially say that this season has been a weird one. If you look at the American League, the Mariners are leading the AL West over the Astros, the Twins are leading the AL Central over the Indians, and the Rays are leading the AL East over the Red Sox and Yankees. In fact, minus the Orioles, Royals, and Marlins, every team in baseball is currently ahead of the Red Sox. Nobody could have predicted this.
The same goes for players. More than usual, there are a ton of traditionally good (or even great) players who have had more than their fair share of struggles to start the year. If I were to go through all of them in this one article, it might be long enough to pass for a thesis. For now, we’ll stick with three struggling players like we have the past couple weeks, discussing whether or not we should be concerned that their poor performance might actually be more than just a slump.
Mookie Betts (OF, Boston Red Sox) — .239 AVG, 16 R, 4 HR, 10 RBI, 1 SB
Speaking of Boston’s early-season struggles, Mookie Betts has been a big reason for their surprising lack of success thus far. After winning the AL MVP award last season, the consensus top-three draft pick has yet to produce numbers anywhere close to what he did a year ago. Part of this is likely a result of him striking out a career high 16.7% of the time, compared to his career average of 12.6%. Betts also isn’t hitting for nearly as much power as he was during his MVP season, with just a .195 ISO compared to his impressive .294 ISO from a season ago. This decline in power could likely be associated to his hard-hit rate dropping from an absurd 50.2% to a more pedestrian 38.8%, which is actually much closer to his career average of 40.7%. Another big difference with Betts this year is that his luck has seemingly changed for worse. Last year, Mookie was third in baseball with a .368 BABIP, but this year that number has dropped all the way down to a lowly .254. While it is unlikely he gets back to a BABIP as high as it was a season ago, Betts is sure to see some positive regression as more balls start to fall for hits. Hitting aside, the one thing that I do find a bit concerning is his lack of steals through the first month of the season. After swiping 30 bags last year and stealing over 25 in each of the past three seasons, Betts has inexplicably attempted to steal just one base this year. With so much of his value being tied to his extraordinary ability to produce numbers across the board, it is both a mystery and a disappointment as to why he has fewer stolen bases than Yasmani Grandal after a full month of baseball. Overall however, Betts is sure to pick things up sooner than later, as he is simply way too talented not to do so. Maybe he won’t put up his MVP numbers from a season ago, and it would obviously be a big hit to his value if he really has essentially stopped stealing bases, but Betts, along with the Red Sox, are sure to turn things around in the near future.
Aaron Nola (SP, Philadelphia Phillies) — 2-0, 6.84 ERA, 1.68 WHIP, 28 K, 25 IP
After a stellar 2018 season that saw him nearly win the NL Cy Young award, the 25-year-old has struggled mightily through his first five starts. Last year, Nola allowed four earned runs just four times and did not allow more than four earned runs in any of his 33 starts. This year, he has already allowed four or more earned runs in three of his five starts. A huge reason for his slow start is his surprising lack of control in the early going. Nola has produced a BB/9 of 4.32, well above his career average of 2.53. In addition to the walks raising his WHIP and leading to more potential for runs to score against him, his inability to consistently throw strikes has led to high pitch counts early, as he has yet to complete seven innings in any of his five starts. Nola has also had major problems with the long ball this year, already giving up seven homers compared to just 17 all of last season. If he is unable to keep the ball in the park, it could be a very long season for Nola and his fantasy owners.
However, there are a few things that point to Nola being able to get back to his dominant nature in the near future. His velocity remains consistent with where it was last season, and while his curveball hasn’t been quite as sharp as we’re used to seeing, it should only be a matter of time until he finds his good breaking ball again. Furthermore, Nola is still inducing ground balls around 50% of the time, and he is still getting soft-contact at the same 22% as he did last year. With a BABIP of .348 compared to .251 last year, he is due for some positive regression in that area. Overall, I feel confident in saying that we have seen the worst of Aaron Nola this season, and it will only be uphill from here on out. It should only be a matter of time before Nola is back to baffling opposing lineups on a regular basis.
Jose Leclerc (RP, Texas Rangers) — 1-1, 7.88 ERA, 1.88 WHIP, 5 SV, 9 K, 8 IP
Jose Leclerc took the baseball world by storm last year, essentially coming out of nowhere to become one of the most dominant closers in the league down the stretch. So far this year, he has been nothing but a train-wreck. Leclerc’s control has been truly abysmal, as he has seemingly forgotten how to throw strikes. His BB/9 stands at 7.88, twice as high as his already shaky 3.90 BB/9 from a year ago. When the ball does somehow manage to find the strike zone, he is not missing as many bats as he was last year, with a K/9 of 10.13 compared to last season’s sparkling 13.27. In fact, not only is Leclerc not missing bats as often, but batters are crushing the ball with a hard-contact rate of 40.9%, a steep decline from the 26.4% hard-contact rate he managed last year. After giving up just one home run through 57.2 innings pitched last season, the 25-year-old has already doubled that total through eight innings thus far. While his velocity has actually increased this year, it does Leclerc no good if he has no control over the pitch. Bottom line, it’s extremely difficult to be an effective pitcher when you have no idea where the ball is going to end up, so unless he fixes his control issues overnight, he might not be the Rangers’ closer for too much longer.
(Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire)