As the majority of MLB teams hit the 20-games-played mark, slow starts from a number of stars have teams around the league concerned.
Small sample size can cause overreactions in April, and it’s a safe bet that a player like Miguel Cabrera will turn it around soon. For other players who are critical to their teams’ success, the slow April is more concerning.
Danny Salazar, Cleveland Indians
Salazar made his much-anticipated debut last season and was quite successful in 10 starts, using his lively fastball to strike out over 11 batters per nine innings. The strikeouts are still there, but Salazar’s walk rate has increased and his home run rate has nearly doubled, as Salazar is off to a 0-3 start with a 7.85 ERA.
A contributing factor could be a noticeable drop in velocity. As David Schoenfield of ESPN’s SweetSpot blog points out, Salazar’s fastball has lost some zip and hasn’t been as effective in 2014.
Sometimes a drop in velocity dosen’t mean anything, but one of nearly three miles per hour from a 23-year-old pitcher is concerning. Whether it is an injury or a mental barrier, the Indians need Salazar to be a No. 2 behind Justin Masterson. Cleveland’s 4.26 team ERA is ranked 24th in the majors, and the Indians could quickly lose ground to the Detroit Tigers should the rotation continue to struggle.
Yasiel Puig, Los Angeles Dodgers
Major league pitchers have figured how to get Puig out for the time being, and his offensive production has suffered early in 2014 because of it. Molly Knight of ESPN The Magazine points out the splits between Puig’s first 60 games and his subsequent 60 games.
Yasiel Puig's first 60 games: .376/.442/.598. Last 60: .237/.324/.431. The scouting reports appear to be, uh, working. #highandtight— Molly Knight (@molly_knight) April 22, 2014
The Los Angeles Times also documented Puig’s struggles with inside fastballs during spring training. Puig is still a special talent, but one of the keys to major league success is being able to react to the way pitchers adjust to you.
Los Angeles is sitting in first place in the NL West, but they are 7-1 against the woeful Arizona Diamondbacks and 5-8 against everyone else. That offensive spark that Puig can provide could be the difference between a good team and a championship-caliber team.
Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays
Encarnacion finally hit his first home run of the season on Monday, but his early lack of power is still troubling. The Blue Jays’ slugger is coming off left wrist surgery, an injury that can last for an extended period of time and sap the power from a hitter.
Perhaps more concerning in the early going is his plate discipline. Encarnacion has had great patience and pitch selection in his career, but so far his strikeouts are way up from 2013 and his walks are down.
|K %||BB %||Swing %||Contact %|
Melky Cabrera and Jose Bautista are hitting well ahead of Encarnacion, so the Blue Jays need him to drive in 100 runs again to play to their full potential.
R.A. Dickey, Toronto Blue Jays
On the pitching side for Toronto, R.A. Dickey is off to another poor start with a 5.90 ERA through five starts. A big key to Dickey’s past success has been his ability to throw his knuckleball hard at 78 miles per hour-plus.
So far, Dickey’s velocity looks better than last season, but not at the level of his 2012 Cy Young campaign. According to the Pitchf/x tracker on Brooksbaseball.net, Dickey's average knuckleball speed in 2014 has been 76.95 miles per hour, down from 78.01 in 2012.
Pitching coach Pete Walker also noted that Dickey has been throwing significantly more pitches per batter in 2014, via Anthony Castrovince of MLB.com:
"Any time you recognize a trend like that, you wonder what the opposition is thinking. Maybe they're taking a more patient approach. To be honest, though, they've laid off some tough pitches in pitchers' counts as well. I think in general there's been a more patient approach against him."
Mark Buehrle is keeping Toronto in it, but he won’t have a 0.64 ERA forever. If Dickey can approach his 2012 form, the Blue Jays will make noise in the AL East.
Billy Butler, Kansas City Royals
Butler showed some signs of decline last year after his All-Star season in 2012, but the wheels have fallen off so far in 2014. Through 19 games, Butler owns an ugly .246 slugging percentage and has collected only two extra-base hits during the young season.
The Royals remain committed to Butler, who told Andy McCullough of the Kansas City Star that he was working on some aspects of his mechanics.
“I have to be able to hit the inside pitch, too," he said. "And whenever I stand too close to the plate, I can’t. It locks me up.”
Kansas City has playoff aspirations in 2014, but needs somebody to start hitting for power. The Royals have seven total home runs, four less than any other team.