Keys to Each Slumping MLB Superstar Turning Things Around ASAP

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystMay 3, 2013

Keys to Each Slumping MLB Superstar Turning Things Around ASAP

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    Slumps happen.

    Adam Jones had a stretch of 27 games last season in which he batted .271 with no home runs, one stolen base and 21 strikeouts. However, that was primarily during the month of August and the Orioles won 18 of those 27 games, so most people barely even noticed.

    When it happens in April and the player is struggling for a team that's also under-performing, the red flags and question marks come flying.

    For most of the established veterans there's little cause for concern. Jose Bautista's BABIP is 100 points below his career average. Matt Cain has been unbelievably unlucky with his HR/FB rate. Max Scherzer's ERA is 2.33 higher than his FIP says it should be. To some extent, these things will work themselves out in due time.

    For some superstars, however, there is a noticeable problem needing fixed.

    Let's take a look at five of the big names that are mired in a slump and diagnose what they can do to get out of it.

    *All statistics courtesy of TexasLeaguers, FanGraphs, and FoxSports

Jay Bruce

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    2012 Stats (155 games): .252 AVG, 34 HR, 99 RBI, 9 SB, 27.7 K%

    2013 Stats (29 games): .261 AVG, 1 HR, 11 RBI, 0 SB, 34.5 K%

    If least valuable player awards were handed out for fantasy baseball, Jay Bruce would be at the top of the list for the month of April.

    In his last 13 games, Bruce is 12-for-53 with 22 strikeouts and a grand total of three RBI. Shin-Soo Choo has an on-base percentage (OBP) of .462. Joey Votto's OBP is at .441, and Brandon Phillips is sitting at .336. There's literally no excuse for having zero RBI in 12 of your last 13 games when you're batting fifth for the Cincinnati Reds.

    Well, perhaps there's one excuse, but it's not a very good one—Bruce is looking for fastballs on seemingly every pitch.

    In 2012, Bruce was thrown 1400 fastballs. He swung and missed at 9.4 percent of them and put 18.2 percent of them in play. Against 279 fastballs thus far in 2013, he's had very similar success, whiffing at 10.0 percent while putting 19.0 percent in play.

    Breaking balls, however, are a completely different story.

    Last year, Bruce saw 1006 breaking balls (sliders, curveballs and changeups). He whiffed on 15.1 percent of his swings against them and put 16.0 percent of them in play. Even though those numbers are considerably worse than his numbers against fastballs, the Reds would kill for those numbers compared to what they're getting thus far in 2013.

    Against 175 breaking balls this year, Jay Bruce has swung and missed 24.0 percent of the time while only putting 13.1 percent of those pitches in play.

    Long story short, his strikeout percentage has increased considerably, and his inability to identify a breaking ball out of the pitcher's hand is the primary culprit.

    If I've figured that out, opposing pitchers certainly have as well. If he doesn't fix it soon, we'll continue seeing too many bagels in the RBI category going forward.

    Even worse, his BABIP through one month of the season is 100 points higher than his career average, so he's actually been lucky to be doing as well as he has been. It may get even darker before the dawn.

Brett Lawrie

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    2012 Stats (125 games): .273 AVG, 11 HR, 48 RBI, 13 SB, 17.4 K%

    2013 Stats (15 games): .214 AVG, 2 HR, 6 RBI, 0 SB, 30.4 K%

    There are so many issues going on with Brett Lawrie's approach at the plate that I don't even know where to begin.

    Let's just start with the gaping hole in his strike zone. Lawrie doesn't have a single hit in the bottom third of the strike zone, nor in the inner third. That's 55 percent of the strike zone that pitchers can target right now without worrying about him making them pay for it.

    That doesn't even include the pitches outside of the strike zone, which Lawrie is chasing at an alarming rate. Lawrie is swinging at 34.9 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone, which is up 3.2 percentage points from last year and 8.8 percentage points worse than one of his peers—Evan Longoria. And with a career strikeout rate of 20 percent, Longoria is hardly a measure of excellence in plate discipline.

    More disturbing than that, the percentage of pitches inside the strike zone that he's swinging at has dropped from 66.9 percent to 59.6 percent.

    He's actually swinging at fewer pitches than last year, but his selection of pitches to swing at has gotten much worse. As a result, he's making contact on just 70.9 percent of his swings and is swinging and missing at 12.0 percent of all pitches he faces.

    For what it's worth, Adam Dunn has the eighth-worst strikeout percentage in 2013 and has notoriously struck out in nearly 30 percent of plate appearances over the course of his career. Despite all that, his swinging strike percentage over the last 12 seasons is 11.7 percent.

    As much as it can be fixed, Lawrie just really needs to focus on rediscovering some plate discipline. He wasn't nearly this far below league averages in 2012.

Matt Kemp

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    2012 Stats (106 games): .303 AVG, 23 HR, 69 RBI, 9 SB

    2013 Stats (27 games): .260 AVG, 1 HR, 11 RBI, 4 SB

    Between the number of times I've owned him in fantasy baseball and the soporific effort of Vin Scully's voice after midnight, I've probably watched more Matt Kemp at-bats over the past five years than any other out-of-market player.

    Perhaps it's a result of that offseason shoulder surgery, but his swing just hasn't looked right in 2013.

    One of the keys to Kemp's success over the years has been his willingness and ability to use the entire park. Even as a right-handed hitter, the majority of his home runs in 2012 were to right field. As you can see in this spray chart, he had a considerable amount of success in hitting it towards all three outfielders, and actually went to opposite field more often than not.

    Thus far, he's looked like more of a pull hitter, which is killing his average and power.

    In the 72 percent of at-bats in which he isn't striking out, he's been weakly hitting the ball to the left side of the field.

    The bizarre thing is that he's batting .333 on pitches up and away, even though 17 of his 26 hits have come to the pull side of second base—only one or two of which were hit particularly well.

    What that tells me is he's devolving into a pull hitter, unwilling to take high outside pitches and deposit them into right field where they belong. If he's going to turn things around, that's where it needs to start.

Adam LaRoche

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    2012 Stats (154 games): .271 AVG, 33 HR, 100 RBI, 35 doubles, 24.2 K%

    2013 Stats (25 games): .129 AVG, 3 HR, 8 RBI, 1 double, 35.3 K%

    Quite the opposite of Matt Kemp, Adam LaRoche appears to have abandoned his pulling tendencies.

    I wouldn't quite compare him to Ryan Howard, but if you were to come up with an analogy between hit location in 2012 and population density, LaRoche's hits to right field are to New York City as LaRoche's hits to left field are to Juneau, Alaska.

    Thus far in 2013, though, he's either pulling grounders or flaring flyouts to left field, only really having any success on the pitches down and in that left-handed hitters so frequently thrive on.

    All in all, it's resulted in a BABIP of .154, which is 152 points below his career average.

    If he starts pulling the ball in the air, that BABIP will inevitably improve—but will the batting average? LaRoche has struck out in 32.3 percent of his at-bats through May 1, whiffing at least once in 12 of the last 14 games, including a particularly awful 0-for-4 with four Ks against the Cardinals on April 23.

    His Z-Swing% (percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone) is at a career low of 59.5 percent, as compared to his career average of 67.9 percent. This means he's watching more strikes than at any other point in his career. It's not exactly helping him work the count, though, as he's seeing fewer pitches per plate appearance than in any of the previous four seasons.

    Perhaps he needs to take a page from Ian Desmond's playbook and just go up there hacking at the first pitch. The first-pitch strike percentage against LaRoche is at 64.5 percent, which is at least six percentage points higher than in any of the past five seasons.

    If he wasn't such an asset on defense, the Nationals would really be regretting their decision to keep LaRoche and let Michael Morse's nine early home runs go to Seattle. Obviously they're hoping he'll correct his woes at the plate as soon as possible, reverting to the 30 HR and 100 RBI guy he was in 2012.

David Price

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    2012 Stats (31 games): 2.56 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 8.74 K/9

    2013 Stats (six games): 5.21 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 8.28 K/9

    Just for good measure, let's make sure we also take a look at a struggling pitcher—and not many are struggling more than 2012 AL Cy Young winner David Price.

    Pinpointing the problem for Price is pretty easy. Fixing it? Not so much.

    In his first two seasons in the Majors, Price relied almost exclusively on his four-seam fastball, throwing it 73 percent of the time. However, that number has dwindled in recent years as he grows more comfortable throwing his two-seamer and cutter. Through one month of the 2013 season, he's only thrown the four-seam fastball 14 percent of the time.

    Not only is he using it less, but it's slower and less effective. The average velocity on his four-seamer over the past three years has been just over 95 miles per hour, maxing out at at least 98 MPH in each of those seasons. His average velocity on the pitch is now 93.2 MPH, and the max velocity on it is almost exactly what the average had been from 2010-12.

    Sometimes pitchers lose a bit of velocity as they age, but Price is only 27. He should still be throwing the ball as hard as ever. Thanks to the decrease, opposing hitters are hitting .353 against a pitch that has held opponents to a .223 average in his career.

    Perhaps he's realized that the four-seamer isn't nearly as effective anymore and is throwing it less as a result, planning to sunset the pitch that has given him 46.1 percent of his career strikeouts.

    However, It's not just the four-seamer for which velocity is a concern. Both the two-seamer and the slider have dropped by nearly two MPH since the 2012 season.

    Don't be surprised if you hear the words "dead arm" floating around Price's name in the near future.