Panic Meter on MLB's Big-Name Stars Off to Slow Starts in 2022

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMay 28, 2022

Panic Meter on MLB's Big-Name Stars Off to Slow Starts in 2022

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    As the month of May winds to a close, we're no longer in "small sample size" territory when it comes to assessing a player's individual performance over the first two months of the season.

    What could be written off as a slump or a rough patch in mid-April now becomes a much greater concern as the calendar flips to June and the weather starts to heat up.

    That said, it's not time to panic about every player who is off to a slow start this year, as underlying metrics can often be a good indicator of positive regression to come based on some early bad luck.

    Ahead we've taken a closer look at 10 big-name players who have struggled in the early going and placed a 1-5 panic-meter rating on all of them based on how concerning their slow starts are.

    A "1" means that with some patience things should turn around. A "3" means the early trends are troubling, but there's still reason to believe the player can turn things around. A "5" means sound the alarm; it's time to start considering other options.

    Let's get to it!

Other Struggling Stars

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    Justin Turner
    Justin TurnerTim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

    Charlie Blackmon, Colorado Rockies

    After posting a career-low 96 OPS+ last season, Blackmon has been even worse this year with a .221/.288/.403 line and 86 OPS+ in 167 plate appearances. The 35-year-old has an $18.3 million player option next year, but given his age and the direction his production has been trending over the past few years, a bounce-back seems unlikely.

            

    Yasmani Grandal, Chicago White Sox

    In years past, Grandal has made up for his low batting average with elite on-base skills and plus power at the catcher position, but things have reached a tipping point this year. The 33-year-old is hitting .170/.276/.230 with only two home runs, and his 12.8 percent walk rate is below his 14.8 percent career mark. His batted-ball metrics are decent. But even his defensive play has declined this year, and he has a long way to go to return to his 2021 form.

             

    Justin Turner, Los Angeles Dodgers

    There's a reason Turner wasn't able to secure the four-year deal he was seeking in free agency, and it's the regression risk that comes with a player his age. The 37-year-old is hitting .208/.265/.364 for a 75 OPS+ on the year, but he's showing some signs of life with a .271/.328/.559 showing over his last 15 games. His production is clearly trending down, but he may still have one more solid season in the tank.

                    

    Jesse Winker, Seattle Mariners

    For all that was made of the Cincinnati Reds' decision to trade a controllable All-Star in Winker, he is hitting just .216/.314/.296 with two home runs in 188 plate appearances. His hard-hit rate has plummeted from 47.1 to 31.2 percent, and his metrics are down across the board, making it difficult to envision a dramatic reversal of fortune anytime soon.

Javier Baez, Detroit Tigers

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    The Detroit Tigers looked poised to make a move up the AL Central standings this season with a wealth of young talent and a pair of flashy free-agent signings in Javier Baez (six years, $140 million) and Eduardo Rodriguez (five years, $77 million).

    Instead, they are jockeying for position with the Kansas City Royals in the division cellar, and Baez deserves as much blame as anyone on the roster.

    The 29-year-old is hitting .204/.248/.321 with three home runs, and in an interesting turn, he's striking out far less (33.6 to 26.2 percent) than in 2021 but failing to make as much hard contact, with his hard-hit rate (45.2 to 34.3) and average exit velocity (90.1 to 88.7 percent) both dropping significantly.

    At least he is still playing his usual solid defense up the middle. But the Tigers signed him to be a run producer in the middle of the lineup, and that player has been nowhere to be found, with some troubling underlying metrics to boot.

    Panic Meter: 3/5

Jose Berrios, Toronto Blue Jays

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    Joe Puetz/Getty Images

    The Toronto Blue Jays parted with highly regarded prospects Austin Martin and Simeon Woods Richardson at the trade deadline last year to acquire Jose Berrios. Then they signed him to a seven-year, $131 million extension in November ahead of his final year of arbitration.

    The 28-year-old went 12-9 with a 3.52 ERA, 1.06 WHIP and 204 strikeouts in 192 innings last season to finish ninth in AL Cy Young voting, and he was expected to front the Toronto rotation this year alongside free-agent signing Kevin Gausman and rising star Alek Manoah.

    Instead, he has a 4.75 ERA and 1.44 WHIP through 47.1 innings, with an AL-high 55 hits allowed and a .285 opponents' batting average that's up from a .223 mark a year ago.

    Luckily, there is reason for optimism stemming from strong outings against the Mariners (7.0 IP, 6 H, 0 ER) and Cardinals (6.1 IP, 7 H, 3 ER) in his last two starts, and his numbers are largely skewed by a pair of rough starts.

    Panic Meter: 1/5

Kris Bryant, Colorado Rockies

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    Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

    The Colorado Rockies' decision to sign Kris Bryant to a seven-year, $182 million deal was a head-scratcher given their ongoing need for pitching, the fact that they had just traded Nolan Arenado for pennies on the dollar after signing him to a massive extension, and Bryant's history of nagging injuries during his time with the Chicago Cubs.

    Fast forward a few months, and he's played in just 17 of the team's 44 games. After recently completing a rehab assignment and rejoining the team, he quickly returned to the injured list and is expected to miss multiple weeks.

    "I don't know if I want to say it's a flare-up," Bryant told reporters. "Sometimes it's hard to replicate a big league game, as much as you want to. When you're rehabbing and you go down there, it's more like you go through the motions, touch and feel. We weren't where we wanted to be yet. And that's OK. Sometimes it happens. It's frustrating, but better to speak up and say something."

    It's fair to question what sort of shape the 30-year-old Bryant is going to be in when he's 36 in the final season of his contract, and a signing that looked like a mistake from the start has not gotten off the ground in year one.

    Panic Meter: 5/5

Kyle Hendricks, Chicago Cubs

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    Dylan Buell/Getty Images

    Kyle Hendricks allowed 15 home runs in 190 innings during the 2016 season, when he finished third in NL Cy Young voting and helped lead the Chicago Cubs to a World Series title.

    He's already surrendered 11 long balls in 53.2 frames this year en route to a 5.20 ERA.

    The 32-year-old has looked great at times this season, including with 5.1 innings of five-hit, one-run ball on Opening Day against the Milwaukee Brewers, seven shutout innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates on April 23 and 8.2 scoreless innings against the San Diego Padres on May 9.

    However, he has completed six innings just twice in 10 starts, which is something he did 21 times in 32 starts a year ago.

    Pinpoint command and soft contact have always been the keys to his success, so a sharp uptick in hard-hit rate allowed (33.0 to 39.5 percent) and walk rate (5.6 to 7.8 percent) are more alarming than any surface-level numbers. However, if anyone can make the necessary adjustments, it's The Professor.

    Panic Meter: 3/5

Dallas Keuchel, Chicago White Sox

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    Sarah Stier/Getty Images

    After allowing seven hits, two walks and six earned runs in two innings against the Boston Red Sox on Thursday, Dallas Keuchel's ERA ballooned to an unsightly 7.88 through his first eight starts.

    Two months into the season, it might be time for the Chicago White Sox to consider other options.

    "If people want to write me off, that's OK," Keuchel told reporters. "I've been written off before, and I'm a competitor, and I'm an athlete and we'll turn the tide. It's not the first time this has happened. It can turn right back into our favor."

    A 6.20 FIP doesn't provide much hope for any luck-based positive regression, and with opposing hitters batting .343/.421/.525 against him, he has essentially been pitching batting practice through his first 32 innings of work.

    The 2015 AL Cy Young winner is in the final season of a three-year, $55.5 million deal, with a $20 million club option for 2023 that comes with a $1.5 million buyout. That should make it easier for the South Siders to cut their losses if things don't turn around soon.

    Panic Meter: 5/5

Max Muncy, Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Max Muncy has been a model of consistency in his three full seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, posting an OPS+ north of 130 with at least 30 home runs and 4.0 WAR during the 2018, 2019 and 2021 seasons and finishing in the top 15 in NL MVP voting in each of those years.

    So what's going on this season?

    The 31-year-old is hitting .150/.327/.263 with just eight extra-base hits in 168 plate appearances, and his 69 OPS+ ranks 156th out of 170 hitters who have tallied enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title.

    A peek under the hood shows a steep downturn in hard-hit rate (46.6 to 36.5 percent, 32nd percentile) and average exit velocity (91.2 to 87.3, 21st percentile), despite still posting a strong barrel rate that ranks in the 74th percentile on the year.

    In other words, he is still squaring up pitches; he's just not hitting the ball nearly as hard as he has in years past. With Freddie Freeman supplanting him at first base, he's splitting his time between second base and third base, and it's fair to wonder if the more demanding defensive role has impacted his offensive game.

    Panic Meter: 4/5

Marcell Ozuna, Atlanta Braves

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    Icon Sportswire/Getty Images

    Are we witnessing the new normal for Marcell Ozuna?

    The 31-year-old hit .338/.431/.636 with an NL-leading 18 home runs and 56 RBI during the shortened 2020 season to finish sixth in NL MVP voting, and he parlayed that performance into a new four-year, $65 million deal with the Atlanta Braves.

    However, he spent a large portion of last season on administrative leave in the wake of a domestic violence arrest that included a charge of felony aggravated assault by strangulation, which was dropped in July. He was also charged with misdemeanor family violence battery and simple assault, and he agreed to enter a pretrial domestic violence intervention program

    The league handed down a 20-game unpaid suspension, with the suspension served retroactively when he was on leave. 

    Ozuna was batting just .213/.288/.356 through 208 plate appearances last year when he was placed on the restricted list, and he has posted a similar .231/.270/.399 line with an 82 OPS+ in the early going this year.

    That said, his batted-ball metrics are promising, including strong rankings in hard-hit rate (81st percentile) and barrel rate (86th percentile). With two years and $36 million left on his contract after this season, with a club option for 2025, the Braves have no choice but to be patient.   

    Panic Meter: 2/5

Robbie Ray, Seattle Mariners

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    Steph Chambers/Getty Images

    Baseball Prospectus published an article by Michael Ajeto titled "Robbie Ray is Re-Adjusting to Life Without Velocity" earlier this week, and that sums up the root of the reigning AL Cy Young winner's struggles so far this year.

    The 30-year-old was essentially a two-pitch pitcher last season, working off a four-seam fastball that averaged 94.8 mph and a hard slider that clocked in at 88.6 mph. Despite almost identical spin-rate numbers this year, his fastball velocity is down to 93.1 mph, and his slider has dipped to 86.6 mph.

    He is still holding opposing hitters to a .229 average, but his hits allowed (7.0 to 7.7 H/9), walks (2.4 to 3.1 BB/9) and strikeouts (11.5 to 10.1 K/9) have all moved in the wrong direction, and the result is a 4.75 ERA through his first 10 starts.

    The good news is that he's worked at least six innings in eight of his 10 starts, and his numbers are inflated a bit by two starts in which he allowed 15 hits and 11 earned runs in 12.1 combined innings.

    Has he lived up to his five-year, $115 million deal so far? No. Is it time to panic just yet? Not at all, even if his stuff has ticked down a bit.

    Panic Meter: 2/5

Marcus Semien, Texas Rangers

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    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Remember that list of 170 qualified hitters we referenced earlier in which Max Muncy checked in at 156th in OPS+?

    Marcus Semien is 169th on that list with an unsightly 41 OPS+, ahead of only Oakland Athletics rookie center fielder Cristian Pache (32 OPS+), who is in the everyday lineup for his glove.

    A year after posting a 131 OPS+ and 7.3 WAR for Toronto while setting the single-season record for second basemen with 45 home runs, Semien has unquestionably been one of the worst offensive players in baseball, and his 0.0 WAR is thanks only to his solid glove work (3 DRS, 4.5 UZR/150) at second base.

    The 31-year-old is hitting .181/.236/.241 in 182 plate appearances and is still searching for his first home run in a Texas Rangers uniform after signing a seven-year, $175 million deal during the offseason.

    His Baseball Savant page is littered with blue (that's bad), as he ranks near the bottom of the league in hard-hit rate (10th percentile), average exit velocity (9th percentile) and barrel rate (11th percentile), and his .194 expected batting average is among the worst in baseball.

    The next six years and $150 million are going to be rough.

    Panic Meter: 5/5

Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds

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    Cole Burston/Getty Images

    After scuffling to a .252 average and 98 OPS+ in 2019 and 2020 combined, Joey Votto bounced back with a 136 OPS+ and 36 home runs last season to receive some down-ballot NL MVP votes.

    Unfortunately, it's back to struggling this year for the longtime Cincinnati Reds star.

    The 38-year-old is hitting .156/.314/.271 with two home runs and nine RBI in 118 plate appearances, and he missed some time on the COVID-19 injury list earlier this month.

    Votto got off to a sluggish start last year before exploding for a 1.174 OPS with 11 home runs in July, and for a brief stretch, he was the hottest hitter on the planet. So it's not out of the question to think he could once again heat up as the season progresses.

    Big picture, the Reds are not in a position to contend, and he's a franchise icon closing in on retirement. He will earn $25 million next season, and he has a $20 million club option with a $7 million buyout for 2024. Just sit back and enjoy the homestretch of one of the best careers in franchise history.

    Panic Meter: 1/5

                

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant and accurate through Thursday's games.

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