Ranking the 10 Biggest Disappointments in MLB Thus Far
Nearly one quarter of the 2021 MLB season is done, and there has been plenty of good and bad. Some of the bad has been quite glaring.
Let's take a look at the 10 biggest disappointments in baseball this year. The list will include everything from players to teams and trends throughout the league. Player and team selections weighed things like expectations or contracts, among other factors.
- National League East
- Los Angeles Angels
- Service-time Manipulation
- Miguel Sano, Minnesota Twins
- Eugenio Suarez, Cincinnati Reds
- Dominic Smith and James McCann, New York Mets
- Elvis Andrus, Oakland Athletics
- Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs
10. Los Angeles Dodgers
The Los Angeles Dodgers entered the 2021 campaign with enormous expectations.
PECOTA projected they would win 103 games. FanGraphs' Average Total Costs (ATC) Projections system had L.A. at 99 victories. Needless to say, various analytical formulas favored the defending champions.
Early on, it appeared those formulas were right on the money. The Dodgers raced out to a 13-2 start. Los Angeles consistently pounded out runs, and the rotation dominated from the first pitch of the season.
But the Dodgers have shockingly gone 6-15 in their last 21 games. Injuries have played a role, with the lineup losing Cody Bellinger early to a hairline fracture in his fibula and Zach McKinstry going down with an oblique strain. Dustin May's UCL injury was a tough piece of news. However, some of the stars—notably Corey Seager and Mookie Betts—also went through slumps.
Now, there is no reason for Dodgers fans to be concerned. Los Angeles has the second-best OPS and highest-scoring offense in the National League. The pitching staff is tremendous, though the injuries are challenging the team's depth. Still, it's hard to ignore just how much of a grind it's been. Trevor Bauer sounded off on the team's struggles Sunday.
This might be concerning, though: The Dodgers are just 4-10 in one-run games. That is quite uncharacteristic for one of the best teams in baseball.
9. Strange Suspension Criteria
Has anyone else felt slightly perturbed by MLB's erratic criteria for handing out suspensions? I'm willing to bet Cincinnati Reds fans have been puzzled on a couple of occasions.
The league office suspended Reds outfielder Nick Castellanos for his role in a benches-clearing scuffle between Cincinnati and the St. Louis Cardinals, even though Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina tried to grab Castellanos from behind.
Another strange suspension came after the Reds and Chicago Cubs got into it when Cubs shortstop Javier Baez took exception to Amir Garrett's reaction following a strikeout of Anthony Rizzo.
Garrett sort of was the aggressor, but it was Baez who jumped the dugout steps and seemed to challenge Garrett. Plus, seven games? Even though it was reduced to five, it seems odd, especially considering Philadelphia Phillies reliever Jose Alvarado was suspended just three games (later reduced to two) after a similar dust-up with New York Mets outfielder Dominic Smith. For his part, Baez received a fine but no suspension.
On the one hand, it's understandable MLB would want to limit confrontation, especially given the circumstances surrounding COVID-19. But the punishments haven't been consistent.
Cubs reliever Ryan Tepera was suspended three games (reduced to two) for throwing a fastball behind Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Brandon Woodruff's calf. Sure, Tepera admitted intent in sticking up for catcher Willson Contreras. But a fastball behind the calf merits that kind of suspension and Garrett's boast merits a longer one?
It doesn't feel like there's been a whole lot of rhyme, reason or transparency to the criteria.
8. Large Swath of Struggling Young Players
The list of young players who haven't gotten it going is long.
Presumed American League Rookie of the Year candidates Ryan Mountcastle (.618 OPS) and Bobby Dalbec (.558 OPS) are off to slow starts. Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Alec Bohm was terrific in 2020 (.881 OPS), but he has a .578 OPS and has already grounded into an NL-high six double plays.
Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was considered a member of the team's talented young core coming into the season. But he has a .523 OPS and 47 OPS+. The Dodgers have called upon Gavin Lux quite a bit, but he has a mere .515 OPS.
The New York Yankees offense has gradually come alive in the last week-plus. However, the Bronx Bombers will likely demand more production from Clint Frazier (.566 OPS) after he had a .905 OPS in 2020.
Cristian Pache is a tremendous asset in center field for the Atlanta Braves, but he's been anemic at the dish, with a .349 OPS and a strikeout rate close to 68 percent.
It's fairly normal for young players to go through growing pains. We should also state other youngsters—like, ahem, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.—are off to excellent starts.
Still, it's tough to see a large crop of the next wave struggle so badly.
7. Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta Braves
Marcell Ozuna was one of the best hitters in baseball in 2020. His production in the middle of the Atlanta Braves lineup resulted in a four-year, $65 million contract with the team this past offseason.
Unfortunately for Braves fans, Ozuna's early-season woes have been another source of frustration.
The 30-year-old is slashing .201/.277/.313 with a 57 OPS+. His walk rate is down well over 5 percentage points, though the strikeout rate is nearly identical. To make matters worse, the batted-ball numbers are well below his career averages.
Ozuna's average exit velocity (89 mph) and hard-hit rate (38.6) are both the lowest of his career. His barrel rate is down well over 8 percentage points from last season and is his lowest mark since 2015.
It would seem one of the issues for Ozuna has been the lack of traffic in front of him. He is hitting .273 with an .836 OPS with runners in scoring position and has a .790 OPS with men on but is hitting just .167 with a .444 OPS with the bases empty.
Perhaps things will change for Ozuna, especially if Freddie Freeman gets hot and starts getting on base more in front of him. He homered Tuesday, but also had three strikeouts.
In short, Ozuna hasn’t resembled anything close to the guy who led the NL in homers, RBI and total bases in 2020.
6. Minnesota Twins
The Chicago White Sox generated a ton of buzz during preseason, but the Minnesota Twins still seemed as tough as any team in the American League.
Minnesota was coming off consecutive AL Central titles. The Twins re-signed Nelson Cruz in the offseason, brought in J.A. Happ and Matt Shoemaker for starting depth and signed Alex Colome and Hansel Robles to bolster the bullpen. That's a decent recipe for success, right? Well, not exactly.
The Twins rank fourth in the AL in OPS thanks to a herculean effort from Byron Buxton—who's on the injured list with a hip strain—and good starts from veteran sluggers Cruz (.900 OPS) and Josh Donaldson (.882 OPS). But much of the rest of the lineup has struggled.
Additionally, some of the offseason pitching additions have not panned out. Colome was booted from the closer role after blowing three of his five save opportunities. Shoemaker has a 6.43 ERA in six starts.
Some guys have just been downright disappointing. Kenta Maeda, last year's runner-up for the AL Cy Young Award, had a 5.02 ERA before giving up three runs in five innings Tuesday against the Chicago White Sox. Miguel Sano has a .525 OPS and 56 OPS+. Randy Dobnak was optioned to the minors after posting an 8.16 ERA in his first 14.1 innings.
An interesting nugget: They are 0-7 in extra-inning games. That does not shine the brightest light on the bullpen's ability to get outs in high leverage, not to mention the lineup's capacity to bring runners home in big spots.
5. Luis Castillo, Cincinnati Reds
Cincinnati Reds right-hander Luis Castillo has been the most disappointing starting pitcher in baseball.
The 28-year-old appeared to be well on his way to becoming one of the top aces in the game after posting a 3.21 ERA with a career-best 2.65 fielding independent pitching mark (FIP) in 2020.
Castillo posted a career-high 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings and slashed both his walk and homer rates. He ranked in the 87th percentile in average exit velocity while also ranking in the 83rd percentile in whiff rate, getting softer contact and using his fastball-changeup combination maximize his swing-and-miss potential.
However, Castillo is not getting the whiffs this year. He ranks in just the 15th percentile in that category, with opponents really having success against his hard stuff. The result is a 6.42 ERA in seven starts.
Might a drop in velocity be partly to blame? Each of Castillo's four pitches has lost some oomph. That can't be the only reason, though. Mark Sheldon of MLB.com noted just three of Castillo's 84 pitches yielded a swing and miss in his May 8 start against Cleveland. That would suggest a lack of execution, as much as anything else.
Castillo's stuff is too electric for him to be struggling this badly. He told reporters after the Cleveland start that he's leaving too many pitches in the zone and will try to start commanding the bottom third. That could be the key to getting more hitters to chase and make weak contact.
4. Poor Umpiring
It's hard to ignore just how poor a lot of the umpiring has been this year.
Let's start with the notorious Ron Kulpa. The veteran umpire admitted he should have called New York Mets outfielder Michael Conforto out after the latter stuck his elbow into the zone, seemingly in an effort to get hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in a 2-2 game.
Kulpa is hardly the lone culprit. Take a gander at this egregious interference call by Marty Foster. He then inexplicably defended his call, much to the surprise of Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell.
We can't forget about Angel Hernandez, who has drawn just about everyone's ire this season. He ejected three Kansas City Royals during a game against Cleveland last week after several contested plays, including a balk call.
Hernandez also admitted he "basically guessed" (h/t Cody Tapp of 610 Sports Kansas City) after wrongly thinking Harold Ramirez caught a ball in the outfield, which cost the Royals a run. Then there was this hideous third strike on Chicago White Sox shortstop Tim Anderson.
Even replay review has been faulty. The crew in New York somehow upheld a bizarre play at the plate during a game between the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies on April 11.
Robot umps, anyone?
3. Francisco Lindor, New York Mets
Let's preface this with some good news: Francisco Lindor looks like he's starting to break out.
The magnetic shortstop had hit safely in four straight games entering Tuesday, including a pair of multi-hit games. He has also been an enormous defensive upgrade for a New York Mets team that has desperately needed it, ranking in the 97th percentile in outs above average (OAA). Still, that doesn't exactly negate what's otherwise been a nightmarish start.
Lindor is hitting just .194 with a .272 slugging percentage. He is drawing walks but hasn't gotten the ball airborne with consistency. His average exit velocity and hard-hit rate are in line with last year's numbers, but the ground-ball rate is close to 50 percent, and the weak contact rate is up over 5 percentage points from 2020.
There is plenty of time for Lindor to make this a season to remember for Mets fans. But he has yet to live up to the 10-year, $341 million extension he signed just before Opening Day.
Fortunately, Lindor never seems to get disillusioned. He even managed to make light of the weird incident with Jeff McNeil by humorously interrupting McNeil's postgame interview last week.
2. Overwhelming Amount of Injuries
Injuries are a part of sports. Still, tons of star talent has been frustratingly hampered by physical setbacks in 2021.
The Chicago White Sox lost Eloy Jimenez to a torn pectoral at the end of spring training and are without Luis Robert (torn hip flexor) likely until August or September.
Dustin May's injury is cause for lament, especially considering Tommy John surgery is likely to force him to miss a chunk of the 2022 season. Shoulder issues have hampered other young pitchers, like Sixto Sanchez and Mike Soroka.
Arizona Diamondbacks star Ketel Marte got off to a tremendous start before he hit the shelf with a hamstring injury. He has not played in over a month. Pittsburgh Pirates rookie sensation Ke'Bryan Hayes injured his wrist in the second game of the year and has not played since.
Then there's Christian Yelich. The 2018 NL MVP has dealt with a bad back all season, prompting multiple trips to the IL. Milwaukee still does not seem to have a remedy for the issue.
Again, injuries are bound to happen during a professional sports season. That said, it feels like there has been an abundance of physical setbacks this year, including to stars like Byron Buxton (hip) and Jacob deGrom (side), who recently went on the IL.
1. Lack of Contact
The all-or-nothing approach has essentially consumed hitters this season.
Strikeouts per game are at an all-time high. Each of the last 14 highest strikeouts-per-nine-innings averages has come since 2008. That's pretty indicative of how offensive priorities have changed.
But the difference this season is the lack of results. Consider, for example, the 2019 campaign. Teams had an average OPS of .758 that year, the 13th-highest mark in MLB history.
Alternatively, teams have an average OPS of just .703 so far, and the .234 leaguewide batting average is the lowest mark in MLB history.
The home run is just as prominent as it has been in recent seasons. Teams are averaging 1.15 homers per game, the sixth-highest mark in MLB history. Yet, the low average and high strikeout rate suggest it has been too encompassing when it comes to the modern hitting philosophy.
Bleacher Report's Zachary D. Rymer did a recent column on the offensive challenges facing MLB clubs, noting the deadened ball and nastiness of today's pitchers are making things harder than ever. Indeed, pitchers routinely snap off 3-1 breaking balls and rarely give in to opposing hitters.
Still, those factors would seem to incentivize offenses to reconsider philosophies and adjust accordingly. Yet it's unclear if that will happen.
Regardless, offensive futility and a shortage of balls in play is becoming a legitimate problem.