MLB Teams Who Need More from Their Stars Down the Stretch
While baseball is a team game, every team has a handful of stars that it looks to when times get tough.
It could be in a specific game, when the team desperately needs someone to get on base or come through with a timely hit. Or perhaps a team casts its glance toward its stars to put the team on their backs and end a losing streak.
Whatever the situation, the spotlight shines brightest on a team's biggest stars. With that spotlight comes expectations and pressure.
The eight teams we're about to take a look at need some of their stars—fairly or not—to do more than they already have.
It almost seems unfair to point to only a few members of the Atlanta Braves' starting lineup and say that they need to do more, for it's been a team effort to look as bad as the Braves have recently.
Any team, but especially a contender, can't embark on an eight-game West Coast road trip at the end of July/beginning of August and proceed to lose each and every game. It simply can't happen. But that's exactly the situation that the Braves are in.
The team has been offensively challenged all season long, but aside from Jason Heyward (.396 BA, 1.014 OPS, 188 wRC+) and Justin Upton (.294 BA, .854 OPS, 136 wRC+), none of the regulars has done much of anything since the All-Star break.
|Freddie Freeman||.227||.661||5 (2)||10||88|
|Evan Gattis||.229||.669||4 (1)||4||92|
|Chris Johnson||.271||.720||7 (2)||13||100|
|Tommy LaStella||.268||.680||5 (0)||8||96|
|Andrelton Simmons||.145||.430||3 (0)||6||18|
|B.J. Upton||.194||.552||4 (0)||1||62|
With so many players doing relatively nothing offensively, that eight-game losing streak has seen the Braves fall out of a playoff spot.
Nearly five games behind the Washington Nationals in the National League East and almost four games out of a wild-card berth, the players on that list are going to have to raise the level of their respective games if Atlanta hopes to be playing meaningful baseball in October.
Without Matt Wieters for all but 26 games this season, players like Adam Jones and Nelson Cruz helped to pick up the slack offensively, putting together All-Star and MVP-caliber first halves to the regular season.
Their play was a major reason why Baltimore found itself sitting atop the American League East at the halfway point of the season.
That the Orioles remain there is more a testament to the parity of the division than it is the play of their biggest stars. Cruz, Jones and Chris Davis, who has been a colossal disappointment all season long, have all but disappeared since the Midsummer Classic.
Clearly, the biggest culprit has been Cruz, who led baseball with 29 home runs and 74 RBI at the All-Star break. No player in baseball has posted a lower wRC+ since then as Cruz has.
If the Orioles hope to hold on to the division lead and make a deep playoff run, those three need their bats to wake up, and soon.
With Brandon Phillips (thumb surgery) and Joey Votto (strained quadriceps) both sidelined, the pressure on Jay Bruce, Todd Frazier and Billy Hamilton to pace Cincinnati's offense increased substantially.
The trio has wilted under the weight of that pressure.
Those are some absolutely dreadful numbers, and it explains why the Reds, despite getting terrific pitching—the team's 2.96 second-half ERA is sixth-best in baseball—have been unable to make up substantial ground on the rest of the National League Central.
Without substantial production from that trio, Cincinnati is far more likely to miss the playoffs for the first time since 2011 than it is to make three postseason appearances in a row.
While Michael Brantley continues to put up MVP-caliber numbers and Carlos Santana has emerged from his early season funk, things are not all peaches and cream when it comes to Cleveland's lineup.
A trio of key pieces—Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis and Nick Swisher—have all but disappeared in the season's second half.
To be fair, Kipnis has battled injury throughout the season and has not had the campaign anyone expected, while Swisher has underachieved all year long.
But with the Indians trying to make consecutive postseason appearances for the first time since they made it five in a row from 1995 through 1999, Brantley and Santana can't be expected to do it on their own.
They're going to need help, specifically from those three players, to make it happen.
Los Angeles Angels
Sitting 20 games above .500 and with the second-best record in baseball (67-47), you wouldn't think that the Los Angeles Angels needed much more from their biggest stars.
Maybe it's crazy to ask Los Angeles' two highest-paid players, Albert Pujols ($23 million) and Josh Hamilton ($17.4 million), to live up to their lofty contracts, but with big money comes big expectations.
Neither one has come close to meeting those.
Pujols has managed to stay relatively healthy this season, missing only one game due to injury, while Hamilton missed nearly two months of the season after undergoing thumb surgery in early April.
Their numbers on the season are good, but not great, and neither one has been tearing the cover off the ball since the All-Star Game.
While it would take an epic collapse for the Angels to fall out of the playoff race, as they're firmly entrenched in the American League's first wild-card spot, they are only three games behind Oakland for the division lead.
Avoiding a one-game playoff to get into the meaty part of the postseason schedule would be the ideal scenario for the Halos. But without Hamilton and Pujols producing as they have in the past, that's a dream that will never become reality.
Looking for a scapegoat or two to blame for Milwaukee's inability to put any distance between itself and the rest of the National League Central?
Look no further than the team's dynamic outfield duo of Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez. While both have solid numbers on the season, neither one has much to cheer about when it comes to their second-half performance.
Gomez has seen his OPS drop nearly 200 points, from .880 to .699, and his on-base percentage is down almost 100 points, from .370 to .286. Braun's decline hasn't been quite as precipitous, with his OPS down from .863 to .720 and his on-base percentage down from .348 to .288, but it's perhaps more troubling.
Shortly after the All-Star Game, ESPN's Buster Olney (subscription required) dispatched one of Baseball Tonight's senior researchers, Justin Havens, to look more in depth at Braun's decline (and lack of power). His findings were fascinating, perhaps none more so than this:
Seemingly out of nowhere, Braun has become one of the most aggressive hitters in the game. From 2009 to 2013, Braun swung on 45.9 percent of pitches -- this season, he's swinging at north of 51 percent of the pitches he sees. His chase rate -- percent of pitches out of the strike zone that result in a swing -- has skyrocketed from 31.8 percent from 2009 to 2013 all the way to 39 percent this season, one of the highest marks in baseball.
It gets more extreme when you look at two-strike counts. Braun's approach in two-strike counts has seemingly deteriorated, as he's chasing almost 55 percent of pitches thrown out of the zone -- a huge increase over last season's 41.7 percent -- and he's having less success with two strikes with this approach.
That tendency to chase pitches out of the strike zone was on full display against San Francisco on Aug. 7, when Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tweeted this after Braun faced the Giants' Jake Peavy in the bottom of the third inning:
"That was about as bad an at-bat as you'll see #Brewers Ryan Braun have. Swung at three pitches far out of the strike zone, and I mean far."
The Brewers need Braun and Gomez to get back to their previous ways if the team has any hope of emerging victorious in what has become a heated four-team race for the division crown.
New York Mets
Eight games out of a wild-card berth and nine games back in the National League East, calling the New York Mets a contender at this point in the season is a bit of a stretch. But if the Mets hope to play the role of spoiler, derailing contenders trying to make a late push for a spot in the postseason, they're going to need Captain America, David Wright, to make an appearance.
Wright finds himself in the midst of his worst season in 11 years as the face of the franchise. Owner of a career .301/.382/.506 slash line heading into the season, his current marks—.269/.326/.384—leave much to be desired.
As he recently told John Harper of the New York Daily News, the only person to blame for his lack of production is himself:
I've made some mistakes this year, revamping some things with my swing that I probably shouldn't mess with. Especially after the All-Star break I started trying to change things when I didn't get the results I wanted. Pretty soon you’re trying something new every at-bat and thinking about all the wrong things.
Instead of realizing there are going to be times during the season when you’re going to have a hiccup and you need to ride it out, I was too quick to make adjustments, and you get to the point where you can’t remember what it felt like when you were going good.
Those changes haven't helped, and opposing teams are exploiting the new holes in his swing.
“He’s more vulnerable on pitches away this year,” an NL scout told Harper. “He used to let the ball get deep and drive it to right. This year he’s pulling off fastballs away and he’s chasing sliders off the plate.''
Perhaps there's an underlying injury that has caused Wright to be so uncomfortable and unproductive at the plate. Or perhaps it's just one of those years where nothing is going to go right for Wright. Even the most talented player has a bad season once in a while.
For a team as offensively challenged as the Mets are—their 441 runs scored rank 11th in the National League, 25th in all of baseball—climbing back to .500 is a reasonable goal to set for the rest of the season.
Without a productive Wright in the middle of the lineup, though, it's a goal that the Mets will fall short of.
A quick look at the numbers that the core of Seattle's lineup—Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager—puts up with runners in scoring position would lead you to believe that the Mariners have no issue scoring runs.
While the two have put up fantastic numbers this season, and it's unfair to ask either of them to do more, that's exactly what the Mariners have to do.
Neither the perpetually injured Corey Hart nor Logan Morrison, the team's other two big offseason additions, have done much of anything at the plate.
Kendrys Morales, the team's big midseason acquisition, has been less effective than Justin Smoak—no small feat considering that the since-demoted first baseman was hitting only .209 with a .630 OPS.
That puts all the pressure on Cano and Seager to produce. If Seattle is going to clinch the second wild-card spot in the American League, it needs more from Cano and Seager than it's already gotten.
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