Patience or Panic on All 30 MLB Teams' Worst Early 2019 Slumps
As more time passes in the opening month of the 2019 Major League Baseball season, the harder it becomes to simply ignore players who have yet to get going.
So, we've indulged ourselves with a game of "Patience or Panic?"
We dove into each team's most alarming early-season slump and determined whether something is wrong or if it's much ado about nothing. This involved looking underneath surface-level statistics at metrics that provide a clearer picture of how players are performing.
We'll go in alphabetical order by city.
Note: Some advanced metrics are current through Monday, April 15.
Arizona Diamondbacks: Zack Godley
The Arizona Diamondbacks offense has been operating just fine, but it won't mean anything in the long run if their pitching staff doesn't improve.
It sure would help if Zack Godley turned back the clock to 2017.
The 28-year-old right-hander enjoyed an under-the-radar breakout that year by way of a 3.37 ERA over 155 innings. But then came a 4.74 ERA in 2018, and he's up to a 7.41 ERA through his first 17 innings of 2019.
Godley's velocity readings are down almost across the board, and his strikeout, walk and ground-ball rates are all headed in the wrong direction as well. To boot, the degree to which he's avoiding the strike zone raises a question of how much confidence he even has in himself.
Add all that up, and there's no way to sugarcoat how Godley is pitching.
Atlanta Braves: Ender Inciarte
The Atlanta Braves have a pitching staff full of moving parts and a lineup full of effective hitters, so it's debatable as to which of their early slumps is worth focusing on.
Still, Ender Inciarte sticks out. Nobody will ever mistake him for an elite hitter, but his .173 batting average and .547 OPS are nothing like the .289 and .727 marks he had to his name coming into 2019.
What also sticks out is how many of the 28-year-old's plate appearances are being wasted on strikeouts and ground balls. Evidently, he's struggling to adjust to a heavier diet of offspeed and breaking stuff.
However, there is the reality that the Braves only need Inciarte to play a good center field. There's also the reality that he has a tendency to start slow in April and May. He should be fine.
Baltimore Orioles: Dylan Bundy
Chris Davis has endured a historically slow start, but that's neither here nor there for the Baltimore Orioles.
This is a rebuilding year in which their primary concerns are developing talent and cashing in veterans with trade value. Davis was never going to be a part of the latter effort. Dylan Bundy, however, still could be.
But only if he rights his ship. After struggling with a 5.45 ERA and MLB-high 41 home runs in 2018, the 26-year-old righty has already served up seven homers and posted a 7.79 ERA through his first four starts of 2019.
Bundy's average fastball has declined yet again to 90.8 mph, and his early strikeout gains are being undercut by walk and home run increases. He's still having trouble keeping the ball on the ground, and his exit velocity on fly balls and line drives is up to 94.1 mph.
In short: It's not pretty.
Boston Red Sox: Chris Sale
There's plenty of blame to go around for the Boston Red Sox's starting rotation's poor performance, but nobody's slow start to 2019 is as jarring as Chris Sale's.
The 30-year-old left-hander is an annual Cy Young Award contender who's coming off a 2.11 ERA and 237 strikeouts in 158 innings in 2018. Yet through his first four outings of 2019, he's rocking an 8.50 ERA with 14 strikeouts in 18 innings.
It's an open secret that Sale's fastball has been down from the 94.7 mph he averaged in 2018, but he found something Tuesday against the New York Yankees. He sat at 95.5 mph with his four-seamer, according to Statcast, and he had a few 97s and 98s to boot. His other pitches also looked sharper.
Of course, Sale struggled with his command and got knocked around anyway. But if he can maintain the stuff he showed the Yankees, there's a glimmer of hope that he can be an ace again.
Chicago Cubs: Kris Bryant
The Chicago Cubs offense is looking better after falling apart in the second half of 2018, but it's still waiting on Kris Bryant to snap out of his personal funk.
The 27-year-old is sitting on a .679 OPS through 15 games. That's down from his .834 mark from 2018, and way down from the .943 OPS he authored across 2016 and 2017.
If anything, it's getting worse. Bryant's ground-ball and hard-hit rates are on the wrong side of the MLB average, and he's struggled to take the easy route to power by hitting the ball in the air to his pull side.
Clearly, something is not right with the 2016 National League MVP.
Chicago White Sox: Reynaldo Lopez
The Chicago White Sox are getting encouraging returns from their young hitters, particularly where Tim Anderson and Yoan Moncada are concerned.
Their young pitchers, however, could be doing better. That goes double for Reynaldo Lopez. After posting a 3.91 ERA in 2018, he's allowed seven homers, 14 walks and 19 runs through his first 19.1 innings of 2019.
Or at least, it had been down. Per Statcast, Lopez dialed his fastball up to an average of 94.9 mph and a max of 96.8 mph on Tuesday against the Kansas City Royals, who he limited to one run over six innings. Perhaps not so coincidentally, it wasn't as frigid as it was in each of his first three starts.
There's a limb here that's worth going out on.
Cincinnati Reds: Joey Votto
Pretty much the entire Cincinnati Reds offense needs to do better, starting with Joey Votto.
The 35-year-old is the owner of a .426 career on-base percentage, so it's jarring to see him with just a .328 OBP halfway through April. His strike-zone awareness is about as good as it's ever been, yet his strikeouts are way up and his walks are way down.
That reeks of a fluke, but there's no ignoring that pitchers have been attacking Votto more aggressively within the strike zone. That may continue until he rediscovers a power stroke that's gone missing.
Warmer weather and Great American Ball Park will help, but only so much if Votto doesn't start hitting the ball with more authority. His exit velocity on fly balls and line drives has followed a downward trend to 91.3 mph.
By all accounts, Votto's twilight years have arrived.
Cleveland Indians: Jose Ramirez
The Cleveland Indians can't like what they're seeing from staff aces Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco, who've combined on an 8.38 ERA over seven starts.
Jose Ramirez, however, hasn't been helping matters on the other side of the ball with a .457 OPS and one homer. He looks nothing like the hitter who put up a .948 OPS and 172 extra-base hits over 2017 and 2018.
The way in which Ramirez's strikeout and walk rates are out of whack would suggest that he's gotten out of his approach. In actuality, it could be worse. He is swinging more but while maintaining a excellent awareness of the strike zone.
He's a little off, but not broken.
Colorado Rockies: Charlie Blackmon
Nolan Arenado got off to a distressingly slow start, but he's recently been reclaiming his status as the Colorado Rockies' resident superstar hitter.
They're still waiting on Charlie Blackmon to follow suit. The 32-year-old posted a .932 OPS and hit 95 homers between 2016 and 2018. In 2019, he's working on a .567 OPS with zero homers.
Something would indeed appear to be up with Blackmon's power. He's hitting ground balls at his normal rate, yet what he's putting in the air is averaging only 88.7 mph. He's also hitting fly balls and line drives to his pull side at his lowest rate in the last five years.
Blackmon isn't traditionally a slow starter, and he and the Rockies haven't been tested by cold weather as much as other teams. So, there's a possibility that his power problem is old age beginning to set in.
Detroit Tigers: Nicholas Castellanos
The Detroit Tigers have benefited from surprisingly dominant pitching, but it's been undermined by an offense that can buy neither hits nor runs.
Amid it all, Nicholas Castellanos has been one of Detroit's better hitters. But if he wants to give the Tigers good trade value to cash in this summer, he must do better than a .693 OPS and zero homers.
It's generally a good sign that Castellanos, 27, has toned down his swings and taken more walks. As for his batted balls, the results are more "mixed" than "bad." His ground-ball rate and fly ball/line drive exit velocity readings aren't great, yet plenty of his contact is still making the grade as hard-hit.
Of course, all this is from before Castellanos was sidelined by a sprained toe. With time and good health, his offense should return to its normal levels.
Houston Astros: Josh James
The Houston Astros have won 10 in a row over the Oakland Athletics, New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners. Not coincidentally, their roster is clicking pretty much from top to bottom.
Only Josh James has been left out of the fun. The 26-year-old righty is saddled with a 6.30 ERA over seven appearances.
James' fastball, however, remains a high-octane affair. He's averaging 96.7 mph on it, and he's climbed as high as 99.0 mph. This has certainly been helpful in striking out 14 of the 43 batters he's faced.
Altogether, even this struggling Astro looks pretty good.
Kansas City Royals: Jakob Junis
You can take your pick with slumping members of the Kansas City Royals, but Jakob Junis is one guy they were certainly hoping to see more from in 2019.
Though he only put up a 4.35 ERA on the whole, the 26-year-old righty had his moments in 2017 and 2018. But in 2019, he's regressed to a 6.14 ERA and 28 hits allowed over 22 innings.
There's nothing alarming with Junis' pitches, as his fastball and slider are operating at roughly the same velocities as they were in 2018. Likewise, his overall contact and hard-contact rates are both down.
The issue here is Junis' batting average on balls in play, which has skyrocketed from .298 to .385. That's partially the fault of Kansas City's inefficient defense, but some degree of correction is in order.
Los Angeles Angels: Zack Cozart
The Los Angeles Angels have gotten some good pitching, but they haven't been able to generate enough offense around Mike Trout to make the most of it.
Nobody needs to get going more than Zack Cozart. The Angels signed the 33-year-old for $38 million when he was fresh off a .933 OPS in 2017. He slumped to a .658 OPS in a 2018 season that was shortened by left shoulder surgery. He now has a .263 OPS this year.
Power is always a concern whenever a hitter is coming off shoulder surgery, so it doesn't bode well that Cozart has only one extra-base hit. Further, neither his hard-hit rate nor his 88.8 mph exit velocity on fly balls and line drives portend more power to come.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Walker Buehler
The Los Angeles Dodgers don't have any problems on offense, but it'll only matter for so much until their pitching gets its act squared away.
Starting with Walker Buehler. He was emerging as a superstar ace late 2018, yet he's started 2019 off with an 8.25 ERA and only nine strikeouts through 12 innings.
Hitters may simply have a better idea how to handle Buehler. At least until he starts featuring his curveball more often, he doesn't have anything to change speeds with. He's also going to throw strikes, so hitters have the right idea in letting it fly against anything in the zone.
Buehler will have to adjust, but the Dodgers can rest easy that he's at least healthy and throwing well.
Miami Marlins: Lewis Brinson
The Miami Marlins sorely need to develop young stars that they can build a future around. To this end, nobody has more potential than toolsy center fielder Lewis Brinson.
Alas, the 24-year-old's pattern of disappointment is ongoing. Brinson could muster only a .577 OPS in 109 games last year, and he's flopped with a .508 OPS out of the gate in 2019.
Brinson is still striking out in over 30 percent of his plate appearances, largely because he hasn't been able to adjust to major league breaking balls. Only three players are seeing breaking pitches at a higher rate than Brinson. His swing-and-miss rate against them is static, and he has just one hit off a breaking pitch.
As evidenced by his huge hard-hit rate, the sky is the limit if Brinson can ever resolve this problem. But for now, said problem certainly persists.
Milwaukee Brewers: Jesus Aguilar
The Milwaukee Brewers offense needs more from pretty much everyone not named Christian Yelich or Yasmani Grandal, yet there's an especially large onus on Jesus Aguilar.
The 28-year-old mashed with a .995 OPS and 24 homers in the first half of 2018. But then came a .760 OPS and 11 homers in the second, and he's still struggling with a .471 OPS in 2019.
Meanwhile, he's still keeping the majority of his batted balls off the ground, and his 93.9 mph exit velocity on fly balls and line drives puts him right where he was in 2018. His hard-hit rate is down, but not drastically so.
Maybe Aguilar won't recapture his form from the first half of 2018, but he's better than this.
Minnesota Twins: Marwin Gonzalez
The Minnesota Twins made plenty of good moves over the offseason, but they arguably saved their best for last when they signed Marwin Gonzalez for just $21 million in late February.
Maybe not so much. The 30-year-old utility man had already declined from a .907 OPS in 2017 to a .733 OPS in 2018, and he's mustered only a .533 OPS and two extra-base hits in 2019.
Not so coincidentally, Gonzalez is seeing a lower percentage of fastballs than every qualified hitter. It's a wonder pitchers didn't try this sooner, given that Gonzalez has slugged .502 against heat and .285 against everything else.
It should only be a matter of time before Gonzalez adjusts. But knowing that he wasn't particularly good when he was getting stuff to his liking in 2018, expectations for his rebound should be tempered.
New York Mets: Robinson Cano
The 36-year-old has hit only one more home run since then, and his OPS is languishing at .596.
Some may wring their hands at the proximity of this slump and Cano's 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in 2018. He nonetheless hit .303 with an .845 OPS in the 80 games he played last season. Some of that hitting acumen surely still lives in him.
His power, on the other hand, is a legitimate concern. Apart from 2016, Cano's power output has been at or below the MLB average annually since 2014. And in 2019, the lefty swinger is mixing a 91.9 mph exit velocity on fly balls and line drives (his lowest in the last five years) with a shortage of such balls to his pull side.
New York Yankees: J.A. Happ
At least until Luis Severino returns from shoulder and lat injuries, it'll take a village to carry the New York Yankees rotation.
Nobody needs to pick up slack more than J.A. Happ. The Yankees re-signed the veteran southpaw to a two-year, $34 million pact after he had racked up a 2.69 ERA for them down the stretch of 2018. He has an 8.76 ERA through his first three outings of 2019.
Perhaps it should be alarming that Happ's average fastball is down from 92.0 to 91.1 mph. But while that does indeed equate to a smaller margin for error, there are red flags neither in his overall contact nor hard contact rates.
Oakland Athletics: Mike Fiers
The Oakland Athletics proved in 2018 that they don't need their starting rotation to carry them. They merely need it to be good enough alongside their excellent lineup and bullpen.
This directive has produced mixed results in 2019, including downright bad ones from alleged ace Mike Fiers. The 33-year-old righty has served up a 7.06 ERA through five starts.
Though his stuff hasn't gotten any more electric, Fiers is at least throwing as hard as he usually does. And despite what his 10 walks in 21.2 innings might say, he's also been pounding the strike zone.
Granted, a good chunk of the contact made off Fiers has been and always will be of the hard variety. But he's teasing a couple of mitigating factors, including a higher ground-ball percentage and surprisingly low 86.6 mph exit velocity.
He won't be great, but he should be OK.
Philadelphia Phillies: Aaron Nola
According to Baseball Reference wins above replacement, Aaron Nola was the best pitcher in baseball last season.
The 25-year-old's effort to repeat last year's success isn't going so well. He has a 7.45 ERA and a 1.7 strikeout-to-walk ratio through four starts, both of which are a far cry from last year's 2.37 and 3.9 marks.
Nola's fastball velocity is down, but only from 92.4 mph to 92.0 mph. There are also still traces of his talent for contact management, as his hard-hit and soft-hit rates are still easily better than the MLB average.
Nola hasn't been sharp with his command, however, which is costing him walks and making it harder for him to set hitters up to chase his pitches. But since his arm slot is about where it should be, his major malfunction is likely less physical and more mechanical.
In other words, he can be fixed.
Pittsburgh Pirates: Jung Ho Kang
The Pittsburgh Pirates offense never looked especially dangerous coming into 2019, but that had the potential to change if Jung Ho Kang turned back the clock.
It's not happening. Across 2015 and 2016, the 32-year-old was good for an .838 OPS and 36 home runs. In 2019, he's managed only a .551 OPS and two homers through 14 games.
For the most part, Kang's performance has been that ugly. His strikeout rate has ascended all the way to 39 percent, and his hard-hit rate has gone in the extreme opposite direction. His overall 89.0 mph exit velocity is also down from his 2015-2016 norm.
Kang basically sat out all of 2017 and 2018 because of legal troubles, so perhaps he merely needs time to get situated. The Pirates can only give him such a long leash, however, and there's always the possibility that his age is catching up with him.
San Diego Padres: Eric Hosmer
The San Diego Padres' strong start will have lasting power if their loaded offense ever finds its rhythm.
It would be ideal if Eric Hosmer led the way. The first year of his $144 million contract yielded a pedestrian .720 OPS and 18 homers. The second is yielding only a .562 OPS and one home run.
This is Eric Hosmer we're talking about, so you might be expecting a rant about how he's hitting too many ground balls. In actuality, his ground-ball rate is down from 60 percent to 50 percent. That's still high, but a 10 percent drop isn't nothing.
Likewise, the 93.4 mph exit velocity that Hosmer is getting on his fly balls and line drives is simultaneously his worst in five seasons, yet still pretty good. To boot, his hard contact rate has ticked up.
In time, these changes should lead to better results.
San Francisco Giants: Evan Longoria
The San Francisco Giants offense has been about as bad as anyone could have expected. They have many veteran hitters who simply need to do better, starting with Evan Longoria.
The 33-year-old hit 36 homers as recently as 2016, yet his OPS has declined from .840 that year all the way to .578 at the outset of 2019.
Longoria has been driving the ball fairly well, as his hard-hit rate and exit velocity on fly balls and line drives are both up significantly from last year. The catch is that much of what the righty swinger is getting in the air is being wasted to the opposite field. That's not his game, and it's an outright death sentence at Oracle Park.
Taken by itself, this wouldn't look too bad. But next to everything else that has befallen Longoria since 2016, it sure looks like yet another sign of decline.
Seattle Mariners: Mallex Smith
Up until recently, the Seattle Mariners haven't done much slumping in 2019. Such is life when you have an offense that can and will hit everything to the moon.
However, the Mariners are still waiting on Mallex Smith to be the best table-setter he can be. After breaking out with a .296 average and .773 OPS in 2018, he's hitting just .222 with a .639 OPS this season.
Smith, 25, isn't finding a comfort zone as Seattle's primary leadoff man. His early efforts to work counts and get on base reek of passivity more than patience, as the aggression that fueled his 2018 breakout is gone.
Otherwise, Smith is sticking with a classic speedster style of hitting the ball on the ground in all directions. His batting average on balls in play should recover, and there will indeed be more balls in play if he recalibrates his approach.
St. Louis Cardinals: Miles Mikolas
The St. Louis Cardinals have come into 2019 with a starting rotation that's thin on depth and durability. It's only going to hold water if Miles Mikolas pitches like an ace.
He did in 2018 to the tune of a 2.83 ERA over 200.2 innings, but he's stuck with a 6.00 ERA after four starts in 2019. Notably, he's struck out only 11 and allowed five homers in 21 innings.
The 30-year-old's average fastball is down from 93.9 mph to 93.2 mph. There may also be a better scouting report on him, as hitters aren't obliging him with frequent swings outside the zone like they did in 2018.
There's some similarity here to what Aaron Nola is going through, except Mikolas' batted ball readings—e.g., ground-ball, hard-hit and soft-hit—are less encouraging. He also wasn't much of a bat-misser in the first place, and his contact rate is now up even further.
Tampa Bay Rays: Mike Zunino
There's not much that isn't clicking for the Tampa Bay Rays, but they could use more from Mike Zunino.
The 28-year-old catcher has never been the most consistent hitter, but he was good for 45 homers in 2017 and 2018. He has none in 2019, and his OPS is an ugly .410.
The extent to which Zunino has cut down on his strikeouts, however, is a fair trade-off. He's also still keeping most of his batted balls off the ground, and his fly balls and line drives have averaged a solid 95.4 mph in exit velocity.
It's therefore not his swing that's the problem. Just his approach. He can fix it.
Texas Rangers: Jose Leclerc
Not much went right for the Texas Rangers in 2018, but they had arguably the best relief pitcher in MLB.
That was Jose Leclerc, who broke out with a 1.56 ERA and 85 strikeouts in 57.2 innings. But in 2019, the 25-year-old has a 5.68 ERA and only six strikeouts in 6.1 innings.
The Rangers can rest easy knowing that Leclerc's average fastball has gone up from 95.3 mph to 95.9 mph. Meanwhile, his "slambio"—it's either a changeup or a splitter, but it tends to move like a slider—still looks the part of an unhittable pitch.
The only apparent difference is that Leclerc has been up with his fastball and slambio more than he was in 2018. If that's intentional, he should probably stop. If it's mechanical, at least it's a clear sign that something needs fixing.
Toronto Blue Jays: Danny Jansen
At least until Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette arrive, Danny Jansen is the top up-and-comer in the Toronto Blue Jays lineup.
The 24-year-old catcher isn't building on what he promised in 2018, however. He put up a .779 OPS in 31 games last year. In 2019, he has a .409 OPS and one extra-base hit.
Too many of Jansen's plate appearances are being wasted on strikeouts and ground balls, yet it's not necessarily because he's taking bad swings. He's showing strong strike-zone awareness, and both his hard contact rate and overall exit velocity (89.4 mph) are in solid shape.
Washington Nationals: Brian Dozier
The Washington Nationals haven't been getting enough offense, and the blame for that rests with a handful of veterans.
None more so than Brian Dozier. The Nationals added the 31-year-old on an upside-play contract worth $9 million, yet he's shown nothing but downside in racking up a .437 OPS and one homer.
This is coming on the heels of a 2018 season in which Dozier slumped to a .696 OPS and 21 homers, ostensibly because he was playing through a knee injury. Yet his power decline began before 2018, and it's no accident that it's still declining in 2019.
Dozier is hitting many more ground balls, and the talent for pulled fly balls and line drives that once powered his home run binges is all but dead now. Judging from the huge increase in his rate of in-zone pitches, pitchers have noticed and don't fear him anymore.