Another week into the 2021 season and most of us continue to live in denial regarding the players on our fantasy baseball teams. We think the struggling players on our teams will improve soon, while naively thinking everyone who got off to a ridiculously hot start will keep playing at this level. And in some cases, this may be true.
When it comes to those players who have struggled mightily out of the gates, however, it can be a very frustrating experience trying to wait it out. Being torn between moving on from a player and holding out hope is one of the most difficult decisions you have to make in the game, which is why this article is here to (hopefully) help. Every week we take a look at three underperforming players who are probably driving you crazy if any of them are on your team, and we try to determine if they are going to turn things around in the near future. So let’s dive right in and examine three National League players who have done a whole lot of nothing through these first three and a half weeks of the season.
Tommy Pham (OF, San Diego Padres)
.169 AVG, 4 R, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 2 SB
After a sluggish, injury-riddled 31 games in 2020, Tommy Pham seemed like a prime bounce-back candidate given his track record and a solid postseason. That has been far from the case thus far, however, as Pham has gotten off to an ugly .169 start at the plate with an equally miserable .185 slugging percentage. The veteran has managed just one extra-base hit through 22 games and 65 at-bats. And despite a 47.1% hard-hit rate that is actually a tad higher than his lifetime mark, his 90.8 mph average exit velocity is the second-worst of his career.
Due to his immense struggles at the plate, Pham has been held out of the Padres starting lineup in four of their last 11 games, a trend that could continue if he doesn’t figure things out at the plate sooner than later. Unfortunately, this doesn’t appear overly likely, as he has now struck out 9 times in his last 23 at-bats. For someone with a career 23% strikeout rate and just 6 strikeouts in his first 42 at-bats this season, he is very much trending in the wrong direction.
On top of these problems at the plate, Pham was also lifted from his last game due to left calf tightness. It is not yet known how many games he will miss, if any, or if a trip to the injured list will be necessary, but a leg injury to someone who relies on speed as one of his greatest assets cannot be a good thing. Even if he returns to the lineup today or tomorrow, the 33-year-old would almost certainly not want to risk further injury with any stolen base attempts. Now with seemingly no power, speed, or average, and a trip to the IL still a possibility, it’s time to move on from Tommy Pham.
Luis Castillo (SP, Cincinnati Reds)
1-2, 6.29 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 19 K, 24.1 IP
Coming into the season, Luis Castillo was expected to be a dominant ace at the top of the Cincinnati Reds pitching staff. Instead, most of the Reds starters have pitched surprisingly well, while Castillo has been the worst part of their rotation. Through five starts, Castillo had one dominant shutout performance at home against the Pirates but has otherwise been nothing short of a disaster. The 28-year-old has already allowed 21 runs in 24.1 innings, 17 of which were earned.
After a career-best 30.5% strikeout rate a season ago and an almost equally as strong 28.9% mark the year before that, Castillo has been able to strike out just 17.1% of batters in the early part of 2021. He has generated a 23% whiff rate thus far, a major decline from the past two seasons when batters were whiffing over a third of the time. Batters have also been able to put up an average exit velocity of 90 mph against the righty, the highest mark of his career.
Possibly the biggest reason for all of this is the somewhat significant drop in his velocity thus far. While still in the top 10% of pitchers, Castillo’s fastball velocity is down to 95.7 mph, down 1.7 mph from his terrific 2020 season. In fact, the velocity of both his four-seam and sinker are down nearly 2 mph from last year. This has made him throw his changeup 39.7% of the time, compared to just 23.7% of the time for his four-seam, his second-most used pitch. As a result, even his dominant changeup that has had a 40% whiff rate or better in each of his first four seasons, is down to a 29.4% whiff rate.
That said, the spin rate on his fastball is actually up a bit, and the velocity could trend back up as the weather gets warmer and he tries to find his rhythm on the mound this season. He has a healthy 31.3% chase rate and opponents have a 37.3% hard-hit rate against him, which is nearly identical to that of his 2020 season. Castillo’s first month of the season has been his worst in every year besides 2019, so perhaps he really does just take a while to find his midseason form. If another three weeks go by and he continues to struggle, with his velocity still down, we may need to revisit this discussion. For now though, Castillo is too talented of a pitcher to give up just yet. I believe better days are ahead.
Michael Conforto (OF, New York Mets)
.214 AVG, 3 R, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB
After crushing the ball to the tune of .322/.412/.515 last season, Michael Conforto was entering 2021 with monster expectations. So far, however, he has yet to meet those expectations, with just one home run and a batting average barely above the Mendoza line. Conforto hasn’t been hitting the ball hard, with just a 26.8% hard-contact rate and 87.3 mph exit velocity, both career lows. And after swinging with a career-low 11 degree launch angle a season ago, that trend has continued to an even lower 8.4 degree mark. This has resulted in a 53.7% groundball rate to this point, by far the highest rate of his career.
Things have not been all bad, however, as his 22.7% strikeout rate is actually the best of his career. Conforto is putting the ball in play, and his .367 xwOBA, which is 10 points above his career norm, is a sign that he could be due for some positive regression in the near future. We are already starting to see this, as the slugger has four extra-base hits in his last seven games, after hitting just one through his first nine contests.
Understandably, it appears that Conforto, much like many of his Mets teammates, has gotten off to a slow start due to a number of postponements that led to a wildly inconsistent schedule at the beginning of the year. Now that the team is back to a normal routine, the Mets star outfielder should be able to really find his groove at the plate, and we will all likely have forgotten about this slow start a month from now. Conforto should be just fine.
Featured image by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter and Instagram)