Slumps don't care about the name on the back of a player's jersey or the statistics on the back of their baseball card. They strike indiscriminately, paying no attention to ethnicity or legacy within the game, striking at random over the course of the MLB season.
Out of nowhere, the act of hitting a baseball, something that has become as routine for these athletes as brushing your teeth, has suddenly become a complete mystery, one that brings with it no leads as to what's behind their on-field version of writer's block—or how to break out of the funk.
"When I was really going bad, even in the prime of my career, if you had told me that I would have a better chance of hitting with my back to the pitcher, I would have tried it," Hall of Fame third baseman Mike Schmidt told ESPN's Tim Kurkjian during spring training in 2012. "You'll do anything to get out of a slump.''
In a sport where failing to record a hit 70 percent of the time is considered to be pretty darn good, finding signs that a player is about to break out of a slump can be a difficult task to undertake.
But they are there, and for a few players who have been stuck in early-season slumps in 2014, there is reason for optimism.
Here's a look at three players who are on the verge of leaving their struggles in the past.
Allen Craig, 1B, St. Louis Cardinals
2014 Stats: .179/.243/.254, 1 HR, 5 RBI
A run-producing machine for St. Louis in 2013, when he collected 97 RBI while leading all of baseball with a .454 batting average with runners in scoring position, things haven't gone according to plan for Allen Craig so far in 2014.
Until recently, his past success was the only reason for optimism, as highlighted in this graphic from Fox Sports:
Allen Craig is usually one of the most reliable hitters for the Cardinals. So far in 2014, he's scuffling a bit: pic.twitter.com/57sOoAkrtB— FOX Sports Live (@FOXSportsLive) April 15, 2014
But over his last six games, Craig has begun to awaken from his early-season slumber.
Since April 15, Craig is hitting .273 (6-for-22) with three extra-base hits (one home run), a .360 on-base percentage, an .860 OPS and a .294 BABIP. Going back a bit further, he's recorded at least one hit in eight of his past nine games, a run that included a seven-game hitting streak.
While he's still hitting the ball on the ground far more often than he should be, his ground-ball percentage is tracking in the right direction, dropping by nearly 20 percent to a still-high-but-more-reasonable 71.4 percent mark.
Mike Moustakas, 3B, Kansas City Royals
2014 Stats: .125/.206/.268, 2 HR, 6 RBI
Perhaps no player in baseball has been more vilified for his early-season struggles than Kansas City's Mike Moustakas, who once again put together a stellar performance in spring training only to fall flat on his face once the regular season began.
Without a hit in his first 18 at-bats of the year and with only four hits over his first 10 games in 2014, the 25-year-old has finally begun to show signs of life at the plate, posting a .709 OPS over his last six games.
It's not a flawed approach at the plate that is keeping his numbers down, either.
He's drawing walks and making solid contact more frequently than he has in years while striking out less than usual, all good signs that his early-season struggles are more a result of bad luck than anything else.
Whose Signs of Life Are Most Encouraging?
A quick look at his minuscule .111 BABIP on the season—more than 150 points below his career mark—lends credence to that train of thought.
“I’m feeling good. I’ve been hitting balls hard. Sometimes they don’t fall. That’s the name of the game. Keep battling through it, keep working and they’ll start falling eventually,” Moustakas told the Kansas City Star's Blair Kerkhoff after hitting his second home run of the season this past Friday against the Minnesota Twins.
With the way that he's swinging the bat, it's only a matter of time before those balls start finding the holes in the defense.
B.J Upton, CF, Atlanta Braves
2014 Stats: .208/.269/.306, 1 HR, 2 RBI
After a disastrous 2013 that saw his batting average reach .200 only once, after the game on Sept. 3, there's no possible way for B.J. Upton to ever live up to even the most modest of expectations that came along with the five-year, $75.25 million deal that he signed with Atlanta before the start of last season.
But that doesn't mean that the 29-year-old is a complete lost cause.
Braves legend and future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones stopped by Turner Field recently and spent some time watching Upton work in the batting cage, offering some advice when his session was over.
The results speak for themselves.
In the 10 games that Upton has played since speaking with Jones, he's hit .256 with three extra-base hits, two RBI and a .742 OPS, striking out nine times but drawing six walks—his first six free passes of the season.
While Upton wasn't ready to give Jones all of the credit for his improved performance at the plate, he didn't completely discount it, either.
“It was just kind of coincidence,” Upton told David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the timing of his improvement. “I knew what I wanted to do, and talking to him, we kind of had the same ideas. It helped me a little bit, helped me get back to some things I used to do in the past.”
In the midst of a five-game hitting streak that has seen him hit .278, Upton is slowly beginning to flash the skills that compelled Atlanta to sign him in the first place.
“He’s been getting on base, stealing bases — he got on base three times (Friday),” manager Fredi Gonzalez told O'Brien. “It’s nice to see. Nice to watch. Makes managing easier in that two-hole.”
With Upton seemingly no longer averse to working counts and drawing walks, the Braves may finally begin to get a return on their investment.
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