With a full month now behind us in this 2021 MLB season, we can finally start to be truly excited about players who got off to hot starts and still haven’t taken their foot off the gas. A strong first week or two can easily be chalked up as a fluke, but a full month of production shows that someone’s strong play thus far might be sustainable for the season.
Unfortunately, the same can be said for players who haven’t gotten off to the greatest of starts. While many struggling players could still very well turn things around in the near future, an entire month of subpar production could be a telling sign for their rest of season outlook. So to determine which of these things will be true for each player, we have another weekly edition of Patience or Panic. So let’s take a look at three underperforming players to determine if better days are on the horizon, or if it might be better to cut your losses and move on.
Charlie Blackmon (OF, Colorado Rockies)
.198 AVG, 8 R, 1 HR, 12 RBI, 0 SB
After getting off to a blistering start in 2020 that saw him go 34 for 68 to begin the year, Charlie Blackmon cooled off considerably the rest of the way, batting just .216 in the final 43 games of the shortened year. Those struggles have bled into 2021, as Blackmon is currently batting below the Mendoza line a full month into the season. Turning 35 in two months, it’s a very fair question to wonder if this significant drop in production is what we can expect from Chuck Nazty in the future. Fortunately, I don’t think that will be the case just yet.
Despite the abysmal stats you see above, Blackmon has actually shown improved plate discipline any way you look at it. The veteran has put up a 12.5% walk rate in the early going, the best mark of his career and the first time it’s ever been above 9%. This is largely due to a career-best 23.9% chase rate to this point. This has also helped limit his strikeouts to just 15.6% of the time, his best rate since the 2014 season.
Perhaps even more impressive than his seemingly improved plate discipline is what he’s doing with the ball when he makes contact. While you would never know it from the results we’ve been seeing through this first month, Blackmon is making hard contact 45.5% of the time, the highest mark of his career. Similarly, his 88.4 mph average exit velocity, while far from incredible, is actually his second-best mark, and only 0.3 mph off his best.
And in case that still isn’t enough to convince you, Blackmon’s expected batting average currently sits at .273, a whopping 75 points higher than his average thus far, and only six points below his career xBA. A lifetime .302 hitter with a career BABIP of .335, his horribly unlucky .231 BABIP should undoubtedly show some serious positive regression in the coming weeks, especially with how surprisingly well he’s been hitting the ball.
Blackmon’s ground ball rate is a bit inflated at 45.5%, versus a norm of 40.1%, and the soon-to-be 35-year-old can no longer be considered much of a threat to steal, but he looks like the same hitter he’s always been otherwise. Coming off three multi-hit performances in his last five starts, it seems as though he might be on the verge of a major hot streak. Chuck Nazty should be just fine.
Kyle Hendricks (SP, Chicago Cubs)
1-3, 7.54 ERA, 1.76 WHIP, 21 K, 22.2 IP
Typically one of the best pitchers in the league in terms of pinpoint command and limiting hard contact, Kyle Hendricks has effectively done none of this through his first five starts of the season. Holding opponents to just a 30.3% hard-hit rate in his career, that number has ballooned to 41.6%, while their 89.7 mph exit velocity against him is more than 3 mph faster than any of his last five years. Opponents are also barreling up the ball a ridiculous 15.6% of the time, leading to an ugly 3.97 HR/9. In fact, the 10 homers he’s allowed thus far are already equal to the amount he gave up in four times as many innings a season ago. And inducing a groundball rate of just 33.8%, when he typically forces grounders nearly 50% of the time, is certainly not helping.
While never known to be anything close to a flamethrower on the mound, Hendricks’ fastball velocity is down to 86.4 mph this season, leaving him almost no room for error with his other pitches. Unfortunately, opponents have an .800 slugging percentage against his changeup, and an even worse 1.000 slugging percentage when facing his curveball. With his sinker being his only remotely effective pitch right now, it is obviously an extreme challenge for him to consistently get outs.
Perhaps the worst part of the 31-year-old’s struggles so far is that he doesn’t seem to yet know the source of his problems. Mechanics, tipping his pitches, and his mental state have all been mentioned as legitimate possibilities for why he’s pitching so poorly. And without a clear and present issue to fix, it could be much longer before Hendricks finally figures out the source of his problems and is able to resolve them. At some point, I do expect the crafty veteran to eventually figure things out, but that time could be days, weeks, or months from now. And having given up nine home runs in his last 13.2 innings, he can potentially do way more harm than good at this point. Until I see at least three strong starts in a row, I cannot trust Kyle Hendricks right now.
Cavan Biggio (2B, 3B, OF, Toronto Blue Jays)
.179 AVG, 9 R, 2 HR, 4 RBI, 0 SB
After a promising 2020 that saw him hit eight homers and swipe six bags with a .375 OBP in 59 games, Cavan Biggio has gotten off to a rough start in 2021. Excluding a pair of three-hit games on April 24 and 27, Biggio has just one other hit since April 14, a third-inning single in last night’s game against the Athletics.
The 26-year-old’s struggles have only gotten worse in recent games, as he has struck out multiple times in seven of his last nine games. This has helped contribute to his hideous 34.1% strikeout rate, by far the worst mark of his young career. Even his still-impressive 13.6% walk rate isn’t up to par with the 16.5% and 15.5% marks he put up in each of his first two years in the league.
When Biggio does manage to get his bat on the ball, he’s not putting anything into it, as seen by his 27.3% hard-hit rate. That, along with his .233 expected slugging percentage (which puts him in the bottom ten players in all of baseball this season), are not the most encouraging signs that he is on the brink of a power surge.
Overall, Biggio has never hit better than .250 in either of his first two partial seasons in the league, and this first month has not led me to believe he will achieve such a feat this season. His 24 homers and 20 steals in 159 career games prior to this season are very encouraging, but his lack of solid contact and an inflated 41.9% ground ball rate do not point toward his power suddenly showing up any time soon. Similarly, despite never being caught stealing in his 20 career ventures, he has maddeningly not tried to take a base this season, even though the Blue Jays as a team rank in the upper half of the league in steal attempts. As a result, his ceiling doesn’t appear to be too high even if he does do a complete 180 at the plate, which I’m not confident he will.
Featured image by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter and Instagram)