Testing the Panic Meter on MLB's Most Shocking 2018 Busts

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMay 24, 2018

Testing the Panic Meter on MLB's Most Shocking 2018 Busts

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    The sun is setting on the small sample-size-territory of the 2018 Major League Baseball season. That should worry players who have yet to find a groove at the plate or on the mound.

    The degree of worry, however, varies on a case-by-case basis.

    Our goal is to assess the "Panic Meter" of the 10 most shocking busts (five pitchers and five hitters) of 2018. These are players who came into the year with high expectations based on their track records and/or contracts but have failed to live up to them.

    Have they been unlucky? Are they turning things around? Or are they just plain screwed?

    Let's find out.

    Note: Stats are accurate through play on Tuesday, May 22.

Lance Lynn, Minnesota Twins

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Key Stats: 9 GS, 44.0 IP, 6.34 ERA

    WAR: -0.4

    The Minnesota Twins seemed to have struck a good deal when they picked up Lance Lynn on a one-year, $12 million contract in March. But at this rate, he won't come close to replicating the 3.43 ERA and 186.1 innings that he gave the St. Louis Cardinals in 2017.

    Lynn's struggles stem largely from deteriorated control. It's no accident that he's walking 6.1 batters per nine innings, as his rate of pitches within the strike zone has plummeted from its usual level.

    However, this is quickly turning into water under the bridge. The 31-year-old's Zone% is rising as the season goes along, and it's having an effect on his walk rate. He issued 23 walks in five April starts. He's issued only seven in four May assignments.

    In the meantime, Lynn's stuff is fine. His average fastball velocity has ticked up to 92.6 mph. This is kinda-sorta-very important given that fastballs are basically all he throws, and it's helped boost his strikeout rate to 9.2 per nine innings.

    Nobody's saying Lynn is turning himself into an ace. But if he keeps on his current path, he should be exactly what the Twins signed up for.

    Panic Meter: Low

Alex Cobb, Baltimore Orioles

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Key Stats: 7 GS, 35.2 IP, 6.56 ERA

    WAR: -0.5

    Alex Cobb didn't sign his four-year, $57 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles until March 21, so it's not the biggest surprise that he struggled mightily out of the gate. His first three starts featured 30 hits and 20 runs (17 earned) in only 11.2 innings.

    Even now, Cobb just plain looks like a bad fit for the Orioles.

    His ultralow 4.8 K/9 rate underscores how much he pitches to contact. That would be fine if he had a good defense behind him, but Baltimore's is the least efficient in MLB.

    And yet, he's turning around things anyway with a 3.38 ERA in four May starts.

    Cobb, 30, may be leaving things to chance with his strikeout-light pitching style, but he is doing things to minimize risk. For one, he's walking only 1.8 batters per nine innings. For another, he's carrying on as an above-average ground-ball artist. Certainly, it helps that he's getting his split-change down again.

    Only so much faith can be put into Cobb's well-being while he has such a leaky defense behind him. But, mercifully, the worst should be behind him.

    Panic Meter: Medium

Marcus Stroman, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Key Stats: 7 GS, 37.1 IP, 7.71 ERA

    WAR: -0.7

    Marcus Stroman is on the disabled list with right shoulder fatigue, but he hinted that he needed a break just as much for psychological reasons.

    "Just a collective decision between me and the staff, to take a step back, do what I need to do for my shoulder, get my emotions and everything in sync, to get back to myself," he told reporters earlier this month. "I haven't been myself out there at all."

    No kidding. Stroman emerged as a Cy Young Award contender with a 3.09 ERA over 201 innings in 2017. To go from that to this is quite the step down.

    There are positive signs, however. Stroman's K/9 is up slightly from 2017, and he's once again been specializing in ground balls with a 60.5 GB%. These are solid indicators that the 27-year-old's velocity loss won't necessarily be a death sentence in the long run.

    So beyond a healthy shoulder, it could be that the only thing standing in the way between him and a rebound is the control problem that's sent his BB/9 skyward. And for that, it's a positive sign that there aren't any major red flags with his release points or his Zone%.

    Panic Meter: Low

Danny Duffy, Kansas City Royals

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Key Stats: 10 GS, 51.0 IP, 6.88 ERA

    WAR: -0.7

    The Kansas City Royals are used to Danny Duffy being one of their more reliable pitchers. He put up a 3.47 ERA in 127 appearances (99 of them starts) across 2014 and 2017.

    But so far in 2018, the 29-year-old has been a complete wreck. His K/9 is down only slightly, but both his walk and home run rates are way up.

    A pitcher who spends half his time at Kauffman Stadium shouldn't have to deal with such a bad case of gopheritis, but Duffy's is no accident. Both the average launch angle (17.6 degrees) and average exit velocity (89.7 mph) off him are way up.

    It's not really a stuff problem. Duffy's 92.8 mph average fastball is down from his peak but the exact same as he had in 2017.

    This is much more of a location problem. Duffy isn't hitting the zone as often, yet he's also finding the middle of it too often with his bread-and-butter fastball. The fact that his release point is down could be a related story, and it's hard not to wonder if that issue is more physical than mechanical.

    In so many words: not good.

    Panic Meter: High

Greg Holland, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Key Stats: 17 G, 12.1 IP, 8.76 ERA

    WAR: -0.8

    The Cardinals didn't sign Greg Holland until the regular season was already two days old. So when he flopped by walking four batters and striking none out in his debut April 9, it was permissible to write it off as rust.

    But Holland isn't getting any better. He's allowed multiple runs in each of his last three outings, and overall, he's walked more batters (15) than he's struck out (9).

    At 92.9 mph, his fastball velocity is now well below its 96.1 mph peak. Batters just aren't swinging through it anymore, which puts the burden of keeping the whiffs coming on his slider.

    Alas, it is also failing as a swing-and-miss magnet. Hitters are clearly onto it. Holland rarely throws the pitch in the strike zone, so batters have the right idea by laying off it.

    The larger effect of that is that batters aren't helping out Holland by chasing his pitches outside the zone. And that's a trend that actually took root in the second half of 2017, when Holland crashed and burned as the Colorado Rockies' closer.

    Good thing the Cardinals have Jordan Hicks, because Holland isn't going to be what they envisioned for the late innings.

    Panic Meter: High

Jason Kipnis, Cleveland Indians

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Key Stats: 45 G, 198 PA, .528 OPS, 1 HR

    WAR: -0.8

    Jason Kipnis was as hot as anyone during spring training, tallying six home runs and compiling a 1.193 OPS.

    The Cleveland Indians veteran has not carried over that heat into the regular season. He managed just a .497 OPS in the season's first month, and he's been only marginally better with a .575 OPS in May.

    However, Kipnis hasn't actually been overwhelmed. A steady strikeout rate and an increased walk rate highlight how he's taking good at-bats. He's also hitting the ball better than he did in 2017, as both his launch angle (17.1 degrees) and his exit velocity (86.7 mph) are up.

    The real issue is that Kipnis, 31, hasn't been able to pull the ball to the right side of the field as much as he's used to. That would be fine if he had J.D. Martinez's power, but what power he has is resulting in too many balls dying in center and left field.

    It's possible that this is merely a mechanical issue that Kipnis can fix. But since he isn't making progress in that regard, it's at least as likely that this is a case of age robbing him of his ability to get around on pitches.

    Panic Meter: Medium

Kole Calhoun, Los Angeles Angels

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Key Stats: 41 G, 152 PA, .399 OPS, 1 HR

    WAR: -0.9

    In case anyone's wondering why the Los Angeles Angels are still giving Kole Calhoun regular playing time, well, it's tough to bench a guy when he's one of the best defensive outfielders in MLB. 

    "Kole's never going to let anything get in the way of what he does in right field," manager Mike Scioscia said in April, per Maria Guardado of MLB.com. "He's a Gold Glove right fielder."

    Even still, the scope of Calhoun's slump can't be understated. His .399 OPS adjusts to an OPS+ of 12. A batting title qualifier hasn't had an OPS+ that low since more than a century ago.

    Calhoun's strikeout and walk rates are trending in directions that no hitter wants such rates to trend. He's also struggling to lift the ball, as his launch angle (7.9 degrees) is down, and his ground-ball rate is up.

    Altogether, 65.8 percent (100 of 152) or Calhoun's plate appearances have resulted in either a strikeout or a ground ball. That's the second-highest rate out of the 17 years for which there's been batted-ball data.

    In all, his slump is as bad as it looks.

    Panic Meter: High

Ian Desmond, Colorado Rockies

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    Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Key Stats: 47 G, 180 PA, .611 OPS, 8 HR

    WAR: -1.0

    Ian Desmond also had a rough 2017 season, the first of a five-year, $70 million contract with the Rockies. But he had some pretty good excuses for it, such as injuries and a difficult transition to first base.

    No such excuses exist this year. 

    Remember how the Calhoun slide mentioned that he has the second-highest rate of strikeouts and ground balls ever recorded? Well, the top spot belongs to Desmond. He's compiled 46 strikeouts and 78 ground balls for a K/GB rate of 68.9 percent.

    The strikeouts aren't new. Desmond, 32, doesn't swing and miss as much as he used to, but his strikeout rate has been above the MLB average every year since 2010.

    The ground balls are also nothing new. Desmond got his GB% below-average back in 2013. It's been a steady upward climb ever since then, and he's now at a point where his 63.9 GB% is the highest of any hitter.

    The one and only silver lining is that Desmond's GB% peaked early and has since been lower in May. But that's only lead to a .679 OPS this month, so he's far from out of the woods.

    Panic Meter: High

Dexter Fowler, St. Louis Cardinals

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    Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    Key Stats: 41 G, 175 PA, .558 OPS, 5 HR

    WAR: -1.2

    After getting pretty much what they hoped for out of Dexter Fowler in 2017, the Cardinals have watched his OPS tumble nearly 300 points from .851 to .558.

    The 32-year-old's approach is one thing that's still going strong. He's still taking his walks, and his strikeout rate has ticked further below average.

    In the meantime, Fowler is also still going along with the launch-angle revolution. His has increased his every year, and it's now at a solid 15.7 degrees.

    However, launch angle isn't worth much without exit velocity. To that end, Fowler's average has plummeted from 88.4 mph down to 85.4 mph. And it's only getting lower over time.

    Fowler is at a point where age can't be written off as the underlying cause of this. Yet, there might be some hope for his exit velo if he starts picking his spots better. Although his approach hasn't been wild, his swings haven't been as focused in 2018 as they were in 2017.

    Panic Meter: Medium

Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles

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    Scott Taetsch/Getty Images

    Key Stats: 43 G, 174 PA, .495 OPS, 4 HR

    WAR: -1.3

    This is one bust whose struggles deserved an entire article's worth of analysis.

    But to quickly summarize: Yeah, Chris Davis is in deep trouble.

    The Orioles slugger strikes out a ton, so it's imperative that he takes free passes and hits what he does put in play very, very hard. He hasn't been doing either in 2018, as both his walk and power rates are way down.

    The latter is no fluke. Davis has suffered declines in both his average launch angle and average exit velocity in every season of the Statcast era. The former is now at 12.2 degrees, while the latter is at 87.7 mph. Neither is the mark of the elite power hitter he used to be.

    Another thing worth noting is that the 32-year-old's launch-angle struggles are especially damning. A lower launch angle means more balls on the ground. In his case, that means an increased likelihood of hitting into defensive shifts that were already successful at limiting him.

    In short, this is a slugger who's lost the ability to slug.

    Panic Meter: High

                         

    Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference (including WAR), FanGraphs, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball.