Which 2021 MLB Slow-Starters Deserve the Panic Alarm?April 29, 2021
Which 2021 MLB Slow-Starters Deserve the Panic Alarm?
With the first month of the 2021 Major League Baseball season just about in the books, there are all sorts of good things to say about early standouts like Mike Trout, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Jacob deGrom.
Much more perplexing, however, are guys who were expected to play starring roles but have thus far flopped.
We picked out eight players who fit this particular bill and assessed whether the panic meter should be set at low, medium or high. This involved diving into what, exactly, is ailing them and how soon those problems might or might not be fixed.
Let's start with four hitters and end with four pitchers.
1B Paul Goldschmidt, St. Louis Cardinals
2021 Stats: 23 G, 100 PA, 3 HR, 1 SB, .234 AVG, .280 OBP, .372 SLG, 73 OPS+, -0.3 rWAR
Paul Goldschmidt came into this year as a .293/.392/.522 career hitter, and also off a 2020 season in which he ranked seventh with a .417 on-base percentage.
But so far in his third season with the St. Louis Cardinals, he's notably working on career lows for both walk percentage and isolated power.
Because Goldschmidt is seeing a career-high rate of pitches in the strike zone, the latter might have something to do with the former in the sense that pitchers are more willing to challenge him. Either way, it certainly wouldn't hurt him to turn his power back on.
The good news there is that his exit velocity and hard-hit rate are up from 2020. The obligatory bad news, however, is that he's not launching balls in the sweet spot (i.e., with a launch angle between eight and 32 degrees) and indeed hitting more ground balls.
These are perhaps fixable issues, yet it's not encouraging that Goldschmidt's latest power outage is following a season in which he hit just six home runs. And even if the fixes do come, the 33-year-old will still have the possibly deadened ball and the new humidor at Busch Stadium working against him.
Panic Meter: Medium
SS Francisco Lindor, New York Mets
2021 Stats: 19 G, 83 PA, 1 HR, 0 SB, .203 AVG, .317 OBP, .261 SLG, 71 OPS+, 0.2 rWAR
The New York Mets made two splashes with Francisco Lindor over the winter, first trading for him and then signing him to a $341 million contract.
At least offensively, however, the 27-year-old has hardly resembled the guy who thrice topped 30 home runs in six seasons with Cleveland. Hence why the boo birds are out for him already.
Like Goldschmidt, an increase in ground balls is helping to suppress Lindor's power output. He's likewise having a hard time hitting the ball in the sweet spot, and his lone home run is also his one and only barrel.
But if nothing else, the fact that Lindor has more walks (11) than strikeouts (10) signals that his approach is just dandy. And even if much of it is going to waste, his hard-hit rate is in the 40s for the fourth season in a row.
Thus, there's something to Mets manager Luis Rojas' assertion that Lindor is "just a little off." He indeed usually is off in April, and it's understandable if he's pressing in the wake of his megadeal and in response to the Mets' teamwide slump. It isn't a big leap to think he'll snap out of it.
Panic Meter: Low
LF Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta
2021 Stats: 24 G, 104 PA, 2 HR, 0 SB, .187 AVG, .288 OBP, .264 SLG, 43 OPS+, -0.4 rWAR
Marcell Ozuna was one of baseball's best hitters last season, ultimately finishing with a .338/.431/.636 line and a National League-high 18 home runs. Accordingly, Atlanta re-signed him to a $65 million pact.
When Ozuna has struggled to produce in the past, he's typically had solid batted ball metrics as a silver lining. But with his expected slugging percentage on batted balls at a career-low .373, that isn't the case right now.
More specifically, Ozuna is hitting just .158 with no extra-base hits against fastballs after hitting them at a .400 clip with a .777 slugging percentage in 2020. If that wasn't curious enough, he's also seeing more fastballs than he did last year.
Those heaters have mostly ended up on the outer half of the zone, or on the opposite side where Ozuna did most of his damage against fastballs in 2020. It's as if pitchers have noticed that he's a dead-pull hitter and have adjusted accordingly.
If Ozuna is going to adjust back, it will require unlearning a habit that he's become heavily invested in over the past three years. As such, it might not be an overnight fix.
Panic Meter: Medium
SS Gleyber Torres, New York Yankees
2021 Stats: 23 G, 98 PA, 0 HR, 1 SB, .233 AVG, .327 OBP, .279 SLG, 74 OPS+, 0.4 rWAR
In his first two seasons with the New York Yankees, Gleyber Torres was twice an All-Star and ultimately set a record for middle infielders by blasting 62 home runs.
Well, now he has one of the longest home run droughts of any hitter without a home run in 2021. And this is after he hit only three in 160 trips to the plate in 2020.
The 24-year-old's power outage looks like the real deal from multiple angles. After taking a step back in 2020, his exit velocity is down even further in 2021. His rate of balls in the sweet spot, meanwhile, is on a downward trend that dates back to his rookie year in 2018.
Pitchers have taken notice and are throwing Torres more fastballs in the strike zone. He's been unable to respond, actually swinging and missing at those pitches more often.
One scout told Ken Davidoff of the New York Post that Torres is simply too reliant on the long ball to adjust as needed. This is not even to mention that he's also mired in an ongoing struggle on defense and that his effort level has invited scrutiny. So in short, his rut goes pretty deep.
Panic Meter: High
SP Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds
2021 Stats: 5 G, 5 GS, 24.1 IP, 32 H (5 HR), 19 K, 7 BB, 6.29 ERA, 71 ERA+, -0.4 rWAR
Luis Castillo was an All-Star for the Cincinnati Reds in 2019, and he should have gotten Cy Young Award votes last year after ripping off a 3.12 ERA with 89 strikeouts over 70 innings.
Meanwhile in 2021, much of the ugly numbers up there stem from Castillo's bomb on Opening Day against the Cardinals. He surrendered 10 runs (eight earned) and struck out nobody while averaging "only" 94.8 mph on his fastball amid wintery conditions.
Mercifully, the 28-year-old has recovered since then. His average fastball is back up around 96 mph and he's surrendered nine earned runs over 21 innings for a respectable 3.86 ERA.
Yet he's only struck out 21.1 percent—easily below his rate of 27 percent between 2017 and 2020—of the batters he's faced in this span. Even his improved fastball is markedly slower than the 97.5 mph average heater that he had in 2020, and his trademark changeup is suffering from a career-low whiff rate.
Castillo seems to be healthy and working within his usual mechanics, and it's to his credit that he's experimenting with different things in an effort to recover his usual dominance. But until he has some kind of "Eureka!" moment, he's as hittable now as he's ever been.
Panic Meter: Medium
SP Lucas Giolito, Chicago White Sox
2021 Stats: 5 G, 5 GS, 25.1 IP, 22 H (5 HR), 33 K, 10 BB, 5.68 ERA, 71 ERA+, -0.3 rWAR
After putting up a 6.13 ERA in 2018, Lucas Giolito overhauled his arm action and finished in the top 10 for the American League Cy Young Award voting in both 2019 and 2020.
Now the Chicago White Sox ace is getting hit hard in 2021. He's already given up five home runs after surrendering eight in 2020, and his overall hard-hit rate is worse even than it was in 2018.
Weirdly, however, his 22 hits allowed and 33 strikeouts confirm that he's still hard to hit even if he's serving up more loud contact. Two related stories are that his average fastball is only 0.5 mph slower than in 2020 and that his changeup is still getting whiffs more than 20 percent of the time.
Giolito, 26, also hasn't had bad starts so much as bad innings. The worst was when the Boston Red Sox got to him for six runs in the first inning on April 19. He also coughed up three in the third inning on April 6 and three in the seventh on April 27.
That's 71 percent of the runs he's allowed in just 12 percent of the innings he's pitched, which underscores that his problem right now is more about consistency than ability.
Panic Meter: Low
SP Kenta Maeda, Minnesota Twins
2021 Stats: 5 G, 5 GS, 23.1 IP, 36 H (7 HR), 20 K, 5 BB, 6.56 ERA, 59 ERA+, -0.7 rWAR
Elsewhere in the AL Central, the Minnesota Twins are also seeing Kenta Maeda struggle after he finished second in the AL Cy Young Award voting in 2020.
The 33-year-old leads all pitchers in hits allowed, and the opposition hasn't come by them cheaply. His batted balls are averaging 90.4 mph, or 3.1 mph faster than his previous high in that department from 2018.
Maeda's fastball velocity is fine, but the caveat there is that its current average of 91.1 mph is only "fine" by his standards. Since he can't blow hitters away, he needs to keep them off-balance and get them to swing at his pitches.
To this end, Maeda has a twofold problem: he isn't getting hitters to chase, and they're also attacking him more aggressively when he goes in the heart of the zone. In other words, he's not fooling anyone.
To his credit, Maeda is a crafty enough pitcher to make necessary adjustments. There's nonetheless a long road between where he is now and where he was in 2020. His most likely destination is where he was between 2016 and 2019, when he was a good but not great pitcher.
Panic Meter: High
RHP Devin Williams, Milwaukee Brewers
2021 Stats: 9 G, 8.2 IP, 5 H (3 HR), 13 K, 7 BB, 5.19 ERA, 81 ERA+, -0.2 rWAR
By allowing only one earned run on eight hits and nine walks with 53 strikeouts in 27 innings, Devin Williams had arguably the best "season" ever by a reliever for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2020.
Now the reigning NL Rookie of the Year doesn't look so tough. Notably, he's already served up two more home runs and walked only two fewer batters than he did all of last season.
Further warning signs include an average fastball that's down from 96.5 mph to 95.6 mph, plus a diminished swing-and-miss rate on Williams' changeup. It's gone from drawing whiffs 30.4 percent of the time to just 23.1 percent of the time.
Yet the context here matters. The 26-year-old developed a sore shoulder at the end of 2020, and was brought along slowly in spring training because of it. He ultimately pitched in only four exhibition games, and was still in preparation mode when the season began
He's looked a lot more like himself in his past five outings, allowing only two hits and two walks with eight strikeouts. He particularly has his changeup doing its "Airbender" thing again.
Panic Meter: Low
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.