We are now just past the midpoint of the MLB regular season, with just a month remaining before we get to witness the new and expanded playoff format. This means it is time for teams to start making a final push toward a postseason berth, something the Phillies have already done with a couple trades to bolster their bullpen.
For fantasy baseball however, we are even deeper into crunch time, as there are only two and a half weeks remaining before the playoffs begin. As a result, it is becoming increasingly crucial to only be playing guys who are actively producing for your team, as opposed to sitting around waiting for under-performing players to hopefully turn things around before it’s too late. This brings us to another weekly edition of Patience or Panic, where we take a look at three struggling ball players to try and determine if these slumps are likely to continue or if there are brighter days ahead.
Josh Bell (1B, Pittsburgh Pirates)
.198 AVG, 10 R, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 0 SB
After breaking out for 27 home runs before the all star break a season ago, Josh Bell quieted down across the second half of the season, and things have only gotten worse here in 2020. Like the majority of his Pirates teammates, he has looked awful at the plate, with his 0-for-3 contribution to Lucas Giolito’s no-hitter bringing his batting average below the Mendoza line.
Bell’s plate discipline has been something of a disaster thus far, striking out 30.2% of the time. For comparison, he struck out somewhere between 17.8% and 19.2% of the time in each of the past three seasons. The 28-year-old is chasing pitches more than any other season of his career, with an O-swing rate of 36.6%, a 20% increase from 2019. Bell is also missing balls in the zone, as his 72.9% z-contact rate is well below his norm, with every other season being at least 83.2%.
The bright side here is that Bell is still hitting the ball hard when he does connect, as his 91.5 mph average exit velocity ranks in the 86th percentile. His 44.3% hard-hit rate is also just a tad below his breakout 2019 season, but still much higher than any season prior to that. Unfortunately, this still has only resulted in two long balls to this point in the year because he is hitting the ball straight into the dirt half the time. His 50.8% ground ball rate is considerably higher than a year ago, while his fly ball rate has conversely dropped from 37.3% to an underwhelming 29.5%.
With nearly all of his plate appearances resulting in a strike out or ground out, I have very little confidence that he can turn things around in the next couple weeks. Hitting in the Pirates lineup and struggling as mightily as he is, this is a not a guy I want in my lineup down the stretch.
Jose Altuve (2B, Houston Astros)
.206 AVG, 20 R, 3 HR, 12 RBI, 2 SB
After launching a career-best 31 homers in 2019, Jose Altuve has been a major disappointment this season, to the sheer delight of every baseball fan except those who drafted him in fantasy. The former MVP is striking out 19.1% of the time, not too bad of a number for the average hitter, but a 27% increase from the previous worst of his 10-year career. His swinging strike rate is the highest of his career, while his 67.3% O-contact rate is below 72.5% for the first time. Altuve is also seeing fewer fastballs than in any other season, while pitchers are throwing him more breaking balls than ever before. This has seemingly worked extremely well, as his .147 average against breaking balls this year is more than 75 points worse than any other type of pitch and over 100 points worse than he fared against breaking balls a year ago. It’s almost as if it’s hard to hit the ball when you don’t know what pitch is coming…
All jokes aside, Altuve is spreading the ball to all parts of the field to the same extent he always has, while his ground ball to fly ball ratio is nearly identical to last year. His hard-hit rate is the same as it was last season and his average exit velocity is only down 1 mph. Before his most recent 1-for-13 skid, Altuve looked ready to break out of his slump with four multi-hit games in a row, and I think the real breakout is coming sooner than later. Cheating or not, the ability to hit .298 or better for six straight seasons doesn’t disappear overnight, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if he heats up and gets his average close to .300 again by the end of this shortened season.
Ramon Laureano (OF, Oakland Athletics)
.215 AVG, 14 R, 3 HR, 12 RBI, 1 SB
After putting up 24 homers and 13 steals in just 123 games last season, Ramon Laureano has not yet lived up to his potential in 2020. The 26-year-old hasn’t homered since August 5th, while going 5-for-his-last-41 with a four game suspension in the middle. As with Bell and Altuve, Laureano has been striking out at the highest clip of his career, but he is also drawing more than twice as many walks as he did last season. Encouragingly, his O-swing rate and swinging strike rate are both career lows, while his contact rate has never been higher. The biggest problem appears to be his lack of aggressiveness at the plate, as the bat is only coming off his shoulders on 35.5% of pitches, compared to a 48.6% swing rate a year ago.
Laureano’s 37.9% hard-hit rate is still better than league average despite his struggles, and his 12.1% soft contact rate is lower than either of his first two seasons in the big leagues. Laureano struggled to a .233 average with just three homers through the first month and a half of last year too, before heating up in a big way over the duration of the season. I believe he will turn things around soon, and the production will be plentiful hitting in the middle of the AL-leading Athletics’ lineup.
Graphic by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)