Biggest Disappointments of the 1st Quarter of the 2016 MLB Season

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistMay 18, 2016

Biggest Disappointments of the 1st Quarter of the 2016 MLB Season

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    Dallas Keuchel, last year's American League Cy Young Award winner, has a 5.43 ERA this season.
    Dallas Keuchel, last year's American League Cy Young Award winner, has a 5.43 ERA this season.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    High expectations lead to grand disappointments. For an alarmingly high number of MLB stars slumping in 2016, small sample sizes also don't help.

    Any baseball player who sticks around long enough will endure a rough patch during his career. Most of these guys, however, are paid exorbitant salaries to avoid those ebbs and flows. It's one thing when the No. 7 hitter or back-end starter labors, but the award-winning star and nine-figure investment are supposed to rise above human fallibility.

    Even studs can conceal a tumultuous July, but a poor start sticks out like an original summer blockbuster not about superheroes. Look back to this list in October, and it shouldn't be all gloom for these slumping stars.

    Yet the disappointing players highlighted carry legitimate flaws that can't be discredited as flukes. David Price could have frequented the list, as he opened his megadeal with the Boston Red Sox by posting a 6.00 ERA. He has struck out 65 batters over 48 innings while sporting a 2.55 fielding independent pitching (FIP), though, so he gets a pass since his struggles look reversible. 

    Unfortunately for the following players, advanced stats can't cover their blemishes. Approaching the one-quarter mark of 2016, they have yet to turn the corner on discouraging starts.

Jason Heyward, OF, Chicago Cubs

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    In his first season with the Chicago Cubs, Jason Heyward has hit one home run.
    In his first season with the Chicago Cubs, Jason Heyward has hit one home run.Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 153 PA, .237/.342/.298, 1 HR, 14 RBI, 20 R, 5 SB

    The beauty of a well-rounded player like Jason Heyward: Even during a terrible power outage, he has salvaged some value for his new employer. While the outfielder didn't hit his first home run with the Chicago Cubs until Tuesday, he has played strong defense and maintained a steady on-base percentage due to a 13.1 walk rate.

    Those skills led him to garner an eight-year, $184 million contract last offseason despite going deep a combined 38 times over the previous three seasons. The Cubs didn't pay him out of hope of the 26-year-old maturing into a .300, 30-homer slugger. They bought a Gold Glove outfielder with a keen batting eye.

    All that said, $23 million is a whole lot for someone with a lower slugging percentage than Nori Aoki. Although Heyward produced a middling 13 round-trippers last year, he also compiled 33 doubles and four triples. Six weeks into 2016, he has five doubles over 34 games.

    In addition to dealing with the burden of signing a massive deal, he is an All-Star formerly touted as a future MVP upon his arrival. Rather than appreciating the player he is, some onlookers are still holding out hope for more.

    They'll get more than he has given the Cubs so far. Considering he has the same amount of homers as Bartolo Colon, that's not saying too much.

Sonny Gray, SP, Oakland Athletics

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    Dating back to last year, Sonny Gray has allowed 53 runs in his last 13 starts.
    Dating back to last year, Sonny Gray has allowed 53 runs in his last 13 starts.Mike Carlson/Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 44.2 IP, 3-4, 5.84 ERA, 1.54 WHIP, 38 K, 20 BB

    Sonny Gray entered the season sporting a 2.88 career ERA—the 10th-best clip among qualified starters from 2013 to 2015. By far the biggest financial bargain listed, the 26-year-old will embark on arbitration for the first time this offseason.

    Seemingly destined to price himself out of a long-term relationship with the Oakland Athletics, the young righty has instead suddenly unraveled. Gray has surrendered 25 hits and 20 runs (17 earned) in three May starts, coughing up five home runs in the process.

    There's no steep velocity decline that accompanies many struggling aces, but opponents are nonetheless shelling him. Righties have notched a 1.027 OPS off the 26-year-old, who has relinquished a career-high 82.0 contact percentage. If that's not bad enough, his 4.03 walks per nine innings (BB/9) skyrocket over his career 2.93 BB/9.

    Despite allowing another six runs in his last start, Gray exited the start encouraged about tweaking his mechanics late into the innings. Per MLB.com's Jane Lee, he believes he turned a corner during the latter innings of Sunday's 7-6 victory.

    "I can walk away from here with my head held high and really walk away confident and ready to go," Gray said. "I've constantly been leaving the ball up, and you can tell. It was literally just a visual thing to get the ball back down, and you could tell there, when it's back down, it's got great life on it, and you start to see the swing and misses."

    Oakland can at least take some solace in his struggles amounting to mechanical blips rather than an injury. Then again, these woes stretch back to last season, when he yielded 20 runs over his final five September starts. Even if nobody has pressed the panic button yet, it's certainly in arm's reach.

Justin Upton, OF, Detroit Tigers

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    Justin Upton has struck out 62 times in his first 39 games with the Detroit Tigers.
    Justin Upton has struck out 62 times in his first 39 games with the Detroit Tigers.Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 165 PA, .218/.255/.321, 2 HR, 9 RBI, 17 R, 1 SB

    The Detroit Tigers are probably wishing they kept the receipt for Justin Upton. (Or played in a sport where contracts aren't guaranteed.)

    Last winter, the notoriously aggressive Tigers signed the outfielder to a six-year, $132.75 million deal. At the time, it actually seemed like a reasonable rate for a steady 28-year-old who averaged 152 games played and 26 homers over the last five seasons.

    On a year-by-year basis, Upton is one of the volatile game's most consistent contributors. On a micro level, he's maddeningly erratic. Last season, he exited May hitting .307 with 12 homers before batting .182 with six long balls over June and July.

    So far, the Tigers have only witnessed the bad Upton, who has a minus-0.4 WAR and 53 weighted runs created plus (wRC+), a metric that grades an average hitter at 100. His plate discipline has eroded—he's drawn eight walks in 39 games. Most concerning of all, he is plagued with an MLB-worst 37.6 strikeout percentage.

    When a slugger goes cold, he (or more likely, outside analysts) can blame poor fortune on batted balls. That's not the case for Upton, who can't even put the ball in play. When he has, he has actually benefited from a .344 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), which is above career norms. It has taken a tad bit of good bounces to keep him over a .200 batting average.

    Upton has bounced into and out of seismic slumps before, so he'll eventually collect his bearings and catch fire. He's on the books for five years and four months, so patience is Detroit's only option.

Carlos Gomez, OF, Houston Astros

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    Carlos Gomez was hitting 5-for-41 with 22 strikeouts in May before landing on the disabled list.
    Carlos Gomez was hitting 5-for-41 with 22 strikeouts in May before landing on the disabled list.Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 132 PA, .182/.238/.248, 0 HR, 5 RBI, 6 R, 5 SB

    Carlos Gomez wasn't spectacular last year, batting .255/.314/.409 with a 96 wRC+ and 2.6 WAR. Considering the MVP-caliber production he delivered during 2013 and 2014, those solid numbers represented a steep decline.

    This season, the outfielder has continued his regression from star to solid player to albatross. Of all qualified batters, only Erick Aybar has posted a lower wRC+ than Gomez's 29. His 34.8 strikeout percentage also nears the bottom of the barrel.

    The Houston Astros acquired the center fielder last summer knowing they'd get an extra year from him after 2015's playoff push. They didn't realize he would become a liability instead of a welcome addition.

    He's playing so poorly that general manager Jeff Luhnow told MLB.com's Brian McTaggart that his starting spot is in jeopardy. The next day, manager A.J. Hinch was spared from an uncomfortable decision when the Astros placed Gomez on the disabled list with a bruised rib cage, per the team's Twitter page.

    Gomez had two hits and 18 strikeouts over his last 10 games before landing on the DL, so he'll need to work his way back into good graces when he returns.

Adam Wainwright, SP, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Adam Wainwright has surrendered a 6.80 ERA in eight starts this season.
    Adam Wainwright has surrendered a 6.80 ERA in eight starts this season.Lenny Ignelzi/Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 45 IP, 3-3, 6.80 ERA, 1.60 WHIP, 26 K, 13 BB

    When Adam Wainwright returned from missing nearly all of 2015 with a torn Achilles tendon, the St. Louis Cardinals shouldn't have realistically expected the Cy Young Award contender who registered a 2.38 ERA in 2014. But hey, a 3.38 ERA from a veteran workhorse would offer a considerable upgrade to any rotation.

    Turns out that was also asking too much. The 34-year-old righty has stumbled back on the mound, allowing three or more runs in every start while never lasting more than 6.1 innings. Opponents of the quality start will have a field day with Wainwright, who has accrued four of them, meeting the lenient minimum requirements.

    Once a formidable ace, Wainwright is now on the hook for a .314/.369/.514 opposing slash line. He has helped the Cardinals less on the mound than in the batter's box, where he's 4-for-13 with two doubles, a triple and a home run.

    A 4.33 FIP suggests he shouldn't be this bad, but that's of little consolation for someone who needs to slash his ERA in half to come close to his usual performance. The exodus of strikeouts backed by one of baseball's lowest swinging-strike percentages (7.3) doesn't offer much reinsurance, either. 

    There's at least hope of him kicking the rust and reverting to a solid starter. After issuing eight walks over his first two outings, he has since walked five in six starts. According to Brooks Baseball, his velocity also bounced back from those early showings. 

    The Cardinals don't need Wainwright to be a front-line ace. They simply must hope the closing chapters of his storied career resemble John Lackey more than Jered Weaver.

Dallas Keuchel, SP, Houston Astros

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    Dallas Keuchel has offered a poor encore to his Cy Young Award-winning season.
    Dallas Keuchel has offered a poor encore to his Cy Young Award-winning season.Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 56.1 IP, 2-5, 5.43 ERA, 1.58 WHIP, 47 K, 25 BB

    Nine starts into 2016, Dallas Keuchel has already allowed half as many runs (34) as he capitulated throughout last year's American League Cy Young Award campaign.

    The Houston Astros ace continues to generate ground balls at a spectacular rate (55.5 percent), but nothing else looks the same. His velocity is down, and his hard-hit percentage has subsequently ballooned. A year removed from issuing a 1.98 BB/9 ratio, he has now coughed up a career-worst 3.99.

    This isn't just a one-hit wonder losing his short-lived magic. Keuchel certainly took a giant step forward in 2015, but his breakout didn't come out of the blue. The lefty posted a 2.93 ERA the previous year, but it went less noticed since he only tallied 12 victories and 146 strikeouts.

    A .339 BABIP—particularly high given his heavy ground-ball tendencies—isn't helping his case, but improvement to his 4.16 FIP would still signify significant regression from last year's 2.48 ERA and 2.91 FIP.

    His drastic home/road splits have also become a sore subject. In six starts away from Minute Maid Park, Keuchel has surrendered a 6.69 ERA. This isn't an entirely new problem, as he holds a career 4.64 ERA on the road.

    He has mixed sharp outings with deep valleys, twice yielding double-digit hits in a single start. The 28-year-old will probably never pitch better than he did last season, but he has a long road ahead to finding a happy compromise.

Prince Fielder, DH, Texas Rangers

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    After hitting .305 last year, Prince Fielder holds a .283 slugging percentage in 2016.
    After hitting .305 last year, Prince Fielder holds a .283 slugging percentage in 2016.Associated Press

    2016 Stats: 162 PA, .193/.259/.283, 2 HR, 20 RBI, 9 R

    Aside from 2014, which ended prematurely due to a neck injury, Prince Fielder hits. It's inevitable.

    That's what makes his abysmal start to 2016 so confounding. His 39 wRC+ is the third-lowest mark among all qualified hitters, and only Erick Aybar has a lower WAR than the Texas Rangers slugger's minus-1.2. 

    This tumble would make more sense fresh off neck surgery last season, but he didn't miss a beat in 2015, batting .305/.378/.463 in 158 games. He did, however, develop one bad habit that has been exacerbated this season.

    Perhaps eager to get back on the map, Fielder swung at more pitches outside of the strike zone (33.8) since his 2005 rookie audition. The issue is even worse this year; he's chasing 37.9 percent of offerings off the plate. As a result, his swinging-strike percentage has soared to 12.5. 

    A .222 BABIP also helps confirm the obvious: He's not a .193 hitter. That doesn't explain his two home runs, which put the 32-year-old designated hitter in grave danger of falling shy of 20 homers. Aside from a 39-game rookie season and 42-game 2014, he has tallied at least 23 deep flies every year.

    His patience and power are both declining, and the Rangers have to pay him $24 million per season through 2020, according to Cot's Baseball Contracts. Even if he rebounds at a reasonable rate, it would take an elite designated hitter to justify such a lofty expense.

    Note: All advanced statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise noted and current through May 17 games.

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