Patience or Panic on All 30 MLB Teams' Worst Early 2021 Slump

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistApril 16, 2021

Patience or Panic on All 30 MLB Teams' Worst Early 2021 Slump

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Beware the trappings of a small sample size.

    Everything is magnified when an MLB player struggles for the first few weeks of a new season. It's hard to look up at the scoreboard and see a sub-.200 batting average or an ERA that looks more like a phone number, but those early trends can shift dramatically.

    If a player slips into a 1-for-20 slump in August, it's not national news, but if a high-profile player does it to start the season with an .050 batting average, it tends to snag headlines.

    With all of that in mind, what follows is a dive into each MLB team's worst early slump and a ruling on whether it is a reason to panic or simply requires some patience. Advanced metrics, past track record and roster construction all played a role in deciding which category to lump players into.

AL East

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    Corey Kluber
    Corey KluberMike Carlson/Associated Press

    Baltimore Orioles: SS Freddy Galvis

    Stats: 42 PA, 25 OPS+, .162/.244/.189, 1 XBH, 14 K

    After trading Jose Iglesias, the Orioles gave Galvis a one-year, $1.5 million contract to plug a glaring hole at shortstop. The 31-year-old has never been a star offensively, showing some playable power but posting a sub-.300 on-base percentage for his career. His numbers so far have been brutal, and the underlying metrics are equally troubling. With no viable in-house replacement, the shortstop position could be a revolving door in 2021.

    Verdict: Panic


    Boston Red Sox: 1B Bobby Dalbec

    Stats: 34 PA, 55 OPS+, .194/.265/.290, 3 XBH, 12 K

    Strikeouts are always going to be a big piece of the puzzle with Dalbec. He whiffed 39 times in 92 plate appearances in his debut last year, and he had 21 strikeouts in 53 trips to the plate this spring. The key is producing enough over-the-fence power to balance the scales. He hasn't done that so far, but an excellent barrel rate (95th percentile) provides reason for optimism. If he continues to struggle, the Red Sox could give Michael Chavis a longer look after he turned in an equally impressive spring.

    Verdict: Patience


    New York Yankees: SP Corey Kluber

    Stats: 3 GS, 0-1, 6.10 ERA, 2.23 WHIP, 7 BB, 12 K

    "I'm as frustrated as everybody with the results on the scoreboard, so to speak, but I can tell things are going in the right direction," Kluber told reporters after his most recent start Wednesday.

    The two-time Cy Young winner has yet to pitch beyond the fourth inning in three starts, tallying a combined 10.1 innings on the year. With 16 hits allowed, he has surrendered a .372 opponents' batting average, and it's hard to spin that in a positive light. He'll get a few more starts before the Yankees consider pulling the plug, but he has simply been far too hittable in the early going to think he'll quickly right the ship.

    Verdict: Panic


    Tampa Bay Rays: SP Ryan Yarbrough

    Stats: 3 GS, 0-2, 6.48 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 2 BB, 11 K

    With Blake Snell and Charlie Morton both departing during the offseason, the Rays were counting on Yarbrough to be the No. 2 guy behind ace Tyler Glasnow. The left-hander threw 5.2 scoreless innings in his season debut, but he's been knocked around in his last two starts. He allowed four straight hits during a four-run fourth inning Tuesday against a middling Rangers lineup. His strong debut and the fact that the bulk of the damage against him has come in two messy innings is a glass-half-full way to look at things.

    Verdict: Patience


    Toronto Blue Jays: LF Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

    Stats: 38 PA, 9 OPS+, .167/.211/.167, 0 XBH, 10 K

    The Blue Jays appeared to have a budding star on their hands when Gurriel followed up a strong 2019 season by hitting .308/.348/.534 with 11 home runs and a 139 OPS+ last season. The sample size is small, but his hard-hit rate has plummeted by 7.1 percent from the 91st to the 53rd percentile, and the rest of his advanced metrics have taken a similar swan dive. With Randal Grichuk hitting well, the Blue Jays might have to consider benching Gurriel once George Springer returns from the injured list.

    Verdict: Panic

AL Central

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    Yoan Moncada
    Yoan MoncadaAshley Landis/Associated Press

    Chicago White Sox: 3B Yoan Moncada

    Stats: 50 PA, 66 OPS+, .186/.300/.279, 2 XBH, 16 K

    After he was slowed by the lingering effects of COVID-19 last year, many expected Moncada to return to his stellar 2019 form with a clean bill of health. The trouble is, his 2019 stats were propped up by a .406 BABIP that led all qualified hitters, and he is no longer finding that same good luck. The 25-year-old is better than we've seen the last two seasons, but it's becoming clear he played over his head in 2019. Brutal exit velocity (15th percentile) and hard-hit rate (17th percentile) metrics this year don't paint an optimistic picture.

    Verdict: Panic


    Cleveland: SS Andres Gimenez

    Stats: 25 PA, 52 OPS+, .174/.208/.348, 2 XBH, 6 K

    Gimenez is never going to be Francisco Lindor. The sooner Cleveland fans accept that, the better. Contact ability, speed and defense are his most valuable tools, and if everything breaks right, he could resemble something similar to Jose Iglesias for the next 10 years. The 22-year-old has already tallied four defensive runs saved at shortstop in eight games, and if he hits around .250 with 20 steals, he'll be a valuable player.

    Verdict: Patience


    Detroit Tigers: SS Willi Castro

    Stats: 48 PA, 33 OPS+, .196/.229/.239, 1 XBH, 12 K

    Castro made his MLB debut on Aug. 24 last year and hit .349/.381/.550 with 12 extra-base hits in 140 plate appearances to finish fourth in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Those strong surface-level numbers overshadowed an unsustainable .448 BABIP and below-average defense (-8 DRS, -7.1 UZR/150) at shortstop. The 23-year-old has actually raised his average exit velocity and hard-hit rate from a year ago. The trouble is, he still ranks in the bottom half of the league in both categories.

    Verdict: Panic


    Kansas City Royals: 3B Hunter Dozier

    Stats: 22 PA, -18 OPS+, .100/.182/.100, 0 XBH, 7 K

    After signing a shiny new four-year, $25 million extension during the offseason, Dozier has stumbled out of the gate to a 2-for-20 start. The 29-year-old has been dealing with a thumb contusion, and his playing time has been sporadic as a result. It might be in his best interest to shut things down until he's fully healthy. Otherwise, it could become a nagging issue. But big picture, his slump does not provide any long-term reasons for panic.

    Verdict: Patience


    Minnesota Twins: 1B Miguel Sano

    Stats: 48 PA, 28 OPS+, .079/.271/.158, 1 XBH, 18 K

    "The kinds of at-bats that he's having don't look any different to me than the at-bats that he normally gets," Twins manager Rocco Baldelli told reporters. "But when he gets a pitch to hit, he's obviously got to hit those pitches."

    With a 3-for-38 start at the plate, Sano is not hitting much in the early going. That said, his 10 walks give him a walk rate north of 20 percent, and that at least speaks to a hitter with a plan at the plate. The 27-year-old is going to get a long leash thanks to his light-tower power, and it might just take one game for everything to click.

    Verdict: Patience

AL West

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    Marco Gonzales
    Marco GonzalesBruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Houston Astros: CF Myles Straw

    Stats: 46 PA, 51 OPS+, .220/.304/.220, 0 XBH, 5 K

    No one expects Straw to be George Springer. Still, he'll need to produce at least at a league-average rate offensively to hold on to the starting center field job. The 26-year-old probably fits best on a contender's roster as a utility bench piece thanks to his speed and defensive versatility. His defense and on-base ability should be enough for him to tread water until Pedro Leon is ready, especially with the rest of the lineup producing.

    Verdict: Patience


    Los Angeles Angels: SP Jose Quintana

    Stats: 2 GS, 0-1, 16.20 ERA, 3.40 WHIP, 7 BB, 9 K

    After a lost 2020 season in which he pitched just 10 innings, Quintana settled for a one-year, $8 million deal with the Angels in free agency. The hope was that he could provide a middle-of-the-rotation option on the cheap, but instead he has been crushed in his two starts. He endured similar woes down the stretch in 2019 when he posted an 11.09 ERA in five September starts. Is this just a continuation of those struggles?

    Verdict: Panic


    Oakland Athletics: SS Elvis Andrus

    Stats: 45 PA, -5 OPS+, .119/.156/.167, 2 XBH, 7 K

    After he hit .194 with a 56 OPS+ last season, it's fair to wonder if Andrus has anything left in his age-32 season. That doesn't sound that old, until you realize he debuted at the age of 20 and has 13 MLB seasons under his belt. The A's are on the hook for $15 million of his $28.5 million salary through the end of 2022, and with no clear in-house replacement until Nick Allen is ready, they are stuck with Andrus at shortstop for better or worse.

    Verdict: Panic


    Seattle Mariners: SP Marco Gonzales

    Stats: 2 GS, 0-1, 10.45 ERA, 2.13 WHIP, 5 BB, 8 K

    "Everybody calls him a command artist and he hasn't been commanding the ball as well as he has in the past," Mariners pitching coach Pete Woodworth told Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle of Gonzales' early struggles, not sounding too worried. "Everybody goes through that."

    The 29-year-old has surrendered five home runs in 10.1 innings, and he has already issued five walks after issuing just seven free passes in 69.2 innings a year ago. It's early and Gonzales has three really good seasons under his belt heading into 2021. His start is concerning, but it's not time to panic just yet.

    Verdict: Patience


    Texas Rangers: CF Leody Taveras

    Stats: 34 PA, -30 OPS+, .094/.147/.094, 0 XBH, 15 K

    Taveras is not ready for the majors, plain and simple. The 22-year-old made the leap to the big leagues last season and was thoroughly overmatched at the plate with a .227/.308/.395 line and 32.1 percent strikeout rate in 33 games. His strong center field defense (6 DRS) was enough to keep him in the lineup, but allowing him to flounder against MLB pitching is hurting his development at this point.

    Verdict: Panic

NL East

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    Michael Conforto
    Michael ConfortoJohn Minchillo/Associated Press

    Atlanta Braves: SP Max Fried

    Stats: 3 GS, 0-1, 11.45 ERA, 2.55 WHIP, 5 BB, 14 K

    Opponents are hitting .426 with 23 hits in 11 innings against Fried through three starts this year. That's...not good. His stuff has not taken a downturn in terms of velocity and spin rate, but he's getting hit hard. He'll have some time to clear his head after a tweaked hamstring he suffered running the bases landed him on the injured list. Mark Bowman of pointed out that the break could give him a chance to smooth out his mechanics, which have "seemed to be rushed, causing him to frequently fly open" in the early going.

    Verdict: Patience


    Miami Marlins: RP Anthony Bass

    Stats: 5 G, 0/2 SV, 13.50 ERA, 2.50 WHIP, 2 BB, 3 K

    The Marlins punted the closer's role a year ago and ended up getting an excellent season from veteran Brandon Kintzler. Will that work again? Even if Yimi Garcia is going to be the guy going forward, they are still relying on Bass to be a key late-inning arm after signing him to a two-year $5 million deal during the offseason. The 33-year-old is heavily reliant on a mid-90s sinker that has been getting absolutely crushed so far this year. He was already walking a fine line without swing-and-miss stuff, so it's fair to be worried.

    Verdict: Panic


    New York Mets: RF Michael Conforto

    Stats: 32 PA, 39 OPS+, .120/.313/.160, 1 XBH, 8 K

    After a 33-homer season in 2019 and a career-high 153 OPS+ in 2020, Conforto felt like a player on the cusp of true stardom entering the season. Instead, he is off to a 3-for-25 start and still searching for his first home run of the year. A .176 BABIP is a good indication of some rough early luck, and that should even out in time. With a big potential payday awaiting next offseason in free agency, he remains poised for a big season in the middle of the Mets lineup.

    Verdict: Patience


    Philadelphia Phillies: Center Fielders

    Stats: 45 PA, .122/.200/.146, 1 XBH, 14 K

    Roman Quinn (55.1 innings) and Adam Haseley (46.0 innings) have split playing time in center field for the Phillies to start the season, and that has been a black hole for offensive production. Quinn is 1-for-20 with 10 strikeouts, and Haseley is 4-for-21 with one extra-base hit and zero walks. How long before we see Odubel Herrera or Mickey Moniak on the MLB roster?

    Verdict: Panic


    Washington Nationals: RP Tanner Rainey

    Stats: 4 G, 1 HLD, 10.80 ERA, 2.40 WHIP, 2 BB, 2 K

    One of the breakout relievers of the 2020 season, Rainey posted a 2.66 ERA and 0.74 WHIP while racking up 14.2 strikeouts per nine innings and tallying nine holds in 20 appearances. His fastball velocity (96.6 to 94.8 mph) and spin rate (2,457 to 2,387 rpm) are both down from where they were a year ago, and that's not a good thing for a pitcher who throws his fastball more than 60 percent of the time. Counted on to be the eighth-inning guy ahead of Brad Hand, his diminished stuff is a legitimate reason for concern.

    Verdict: Panic

NL Central

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    Amir Garrett
    Amir GarrettAaron Doster/Associated Press

    Chicago Cubs: LF Joc Pederson

    Stats: 43 PA, 14 OPS+, .108/.209/.189, 1 XBH, 15 K

    In Pederson's defense, no one in the Cubs lineup is hitting right now. Still, a 14 OPS+ from a player the team was hoping could effectively replace Kyle Schwarber's power output in the middle of the lineup is a less-than-stellar start to his time on the North Side. With an average exit velocity (9th percentile) and hard-hit rate (11th percentile) that rank among the worst in baseball, optimism is fleeting.

    Verdict: Panic


    Cincinnati Reds: RP Amir Garrett

    Stats: 3 G, 2/2 SV, 15.00 ERA, 3.00 WHIP, 4 BB, 3 K

    The Reds traded Raisel Iglesias and non-tendered Archie Bradley with the belief that Garrett was ready to step into the closer's role. The big left-hander has continued to befuddle hitters with his electric slider, but his fastball has been absolutely clobbered. He's thrown the pitch 16 times and allowed four hits, including a double and two home runs. As long as his slider is biting, his long-term outlook remains promising.

    Verdict: Patience


    Milwaukee Brewers: 1B Keston Hiura

    Stats: 40 PA, 26 OPS+, .114/.225/.229, 2 XBH, 15 K

    After an impressive debut in 2019 that saw him post a 138 OPS+ with 23 doubles and 19 home runs in 84 games, Hiura took multiple steps backward last year. He scuffled to a .212 average and led the NL with 85 strikeouts, and the whiffs have been piling up once again to start the 2021 season. His underlying metrics are actually much better than his surface-level numbers might indicate, and his terrific hit tool was lauded through his time in the minors. Don't forget he's still just 24 years old.

    Verdict: Patience


    Pittsburgh Pirates: SP Chad Kuhl

    Stats: 3 GS, 0-1, 6.75 ERA, 2.06 WHIP, 15 BB, 8 K

    Kuhl has been quietly effective for the Pirates over the years, entering the 2021 season with a 4.36 ERA and 96 ERA+ in 359.1 career innings. Those are not great numbers, but they're perfectly fine as a middle-of-the-rotation arm on a rebuilding team. Unfortunately, he has completely lost the strike zone this year, racking up an MLB-leading 15 walks in 10.2 innings. That's never a good sign.

    Verdict: Panic


    St. Louis Cardinals: SS Paul DeJong

    Stats: 47 PA, 60 OPS+, .128/.277/.282, 2 XBH, 16 K

    With question marks at both corner outfield spots, the Cardinals are counting on DeJong to be a secondary run producer alongside the one-two punch of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado. A 5-for-39 start with 16 strikeouts is troubling, as is an average exit velocity that sits in the 10th percentile. The 27-year-old has proved to be a streaky hitter in the past, and with a long-term deal through the 2023 season, the Cardinals have no choice but patience.

    Verdict: Patience

NL West

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    Tommy Pham
    Tommy PhamDerrick Tuskan/Associated Press

    Arizona Diamondbacks: SP Madison Bumgarner

    Stats: 3 GS, 0-2, 11.20 ERA, 2.20 WHIP, 8 BB, 15 K

    "I don't know, a little bit of everything here and there, it just depends on which game you point at," Bumgarner told reporters when asked to identify the root of his struggles. "Nothing has been consistent for me. I haven't been able to get ahead of guys, put guys away. [I've been] throwing a lot of pitches, getting behind too much."

    That doesn't sound like someone brimming with confidence, and with a 7.64 ERA in 12 starts in a D-backs uniform, that five-year, $85 million contract he signed prior to last season is looking worse and worse.

    Verdict: Panic


    Colorado Rockies: RF Charlie Blackmon

    Stats: 44 PA, 46 OPS+, .154/.250/.308, 4 XBH, 5 K

    With contact metrics that are actually improved from a year ago and a long track record of being one of the most productive hitters in the game, it's going to take a lot more than 44 plate appearances to panic about Blackmon's offense. The 34-year-old is a .314/.374/.549 hitter over the past five seasons, and he was the hottest hitter on the planet for a stretch last August.

    Verdict: Patience


    Los Angeles Dodgers: LF AJ Pollock

    Stats: 38 PA, 63 OPS+, .229/.289/.286, 2 XBH, 10 K

    The Dodgers have zero reason to panic over a slow start from Pollock, as everyone else in the lineup is producing and the team is off to an excellent start. However, Pollock may have some reason to panic if he doesn't pick up the pace once Cody Bellinger returns from the injured list. Rookie Zach McKinstry is 11-for-33 with four doubles and three home runs, and he could siphon some playing time from Pollock once the lineup is back to full strength.

    Verdict: Panic (for Pollock)


    San Diego Padres: LF Tommy Pham

    Stats: 53 PA, 34 OPS+, .143/.302/.143, 0 XBH, 6 K

    The Padres got more out of throw-in Jake Cronenworth than they did Pham last season in the trade that sent Hunter Renfroe and Xavier Edwards the other way to Tampa Bay. The 33-year-old played in just 31 games and posted a 76 OPS+ with five extra-base hits. He ranks near the middle of the pack in most advanced contact metrics, and he averaged 22 home runs and 22 steals with a 130 OPS+ during the three-year span from 2017 through 2019, so patience is the right move is the easy answer.

    Verdict: Patience


    San Francisco Giants: CF Mauricio Dubon

    Stats: 23 PA, 6 OPS+, .143/.217/.143, 0 XBH, 5 K

    It looked like a major coup when the Giants pried Dubon away from the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for two months of Drew Pomeranz, but two years later, he is still trying to establish himself as an MLB regular. Once viewed as the potential shortstop of the future, he has since moved to center field, and his lack of offensive impact could soon land him in a utility role. Already 26 years old, it's make-or-break time for him to prove he's an everyday player, and Heliot Ramos could be pushing for his job by midseason.

    Verdict: Panic


    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs and current through Wednesday, April 14.