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May 4, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

Worse Than Pujols, NL Edition

by Jay Jaffe

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On Wednesday, I examined a half-dozen American League hitters who are off to chillier starts than even Albert Pujols in an attempt to shine a light on a handful of developing stories centered around underperforming players. Of course, none of those hitters has the track record or the job security of the Angels' newest marquee attraction; neither do seven billion other people on Earth. In other words, they're a wee bit more likely to find themselves riding the pine or worse if they continue to flounder, and at the very least, their small-sample struggles—and for this the threshold is 70 plate appearances, not long enough for any key hitter statistic to stabilize—are worth your attention.

All statistics are through Wednesday, and all players are listed in alphabetical order to protect the guiltiest.

Ike Davis, Mets (.180/.232/.292, .177 TAv)
The 25-year-old Davis is quickly becoming one of the game's hard-luck players. After a strong rookie season in 2010, he was limited to 36 games last year due to a severe ankle sprain with a bone bruise, an injury that seemed to flare up just when he'd get close to returning. While the ankle finally healed over the winter, in typical Mets-like fashion, Davis fell victim to a new calamity in early March, when he was diagnosed with a mild form of Valley Fever, a lung infection caused by soil-borne fungus.

He survived spring training intact but began the year by going 0-for-18, falling one at-bat shy of the franchise's all-time mark for season-opening futility before collecting a single off Stephen Strasburg. Since then, he's shown intermittent signs of life, homering three times in a four-day span from April 15-18, and going 8-for-20 over a five-game stretch from April 26-May 1, with a three-hit game on April 29. Even so, he came into Thursday ranked as the league's second-worst hitter according to True Average, and the majors' worst according to VORP (-9.3). Meanwhile, the Mets' offense is sputtering along at 3.80 runs per game, 10th in the league, and 0.26 below average.

Where Do We Go From Here? Poring over Davis' splits, the alarming thing that jumps out is that he's just 3-for-43 at home, all singles, with 18 strikeouts in 46 plate appearances. By contrast, he's hitting .283/.327/.500 with eight strikeouts in 49 PA on the road, numbers that, with an extra walk or two, would make for a perfectly acceptable line. It's tempting to wonder whether Davis has changed his stroke to account for Citi Field's friendlier dimensions for hitters, but a look at his 2012 splits shows that the lefty's distribution of batted balls are being pulled and going opposite field with almost the exact frequency as in 2010.

Another possibility is that he's putting extra pressure on himself in front of the hometown fans as a way to compensate for the team's depleted lineup; after all, the last time he was in the Mets' lineup, they still had Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes, and currently, both Jason Bay and Andres Torres are on the disabled list. The good news for Davis is that at 13-12, the Mets are off to a better start than expected, and while manager Terry Collins has moved him out of the cleanup spot for the moment, he's highly unlikely to mothball a hitter who forecasts to be the team's most productive this side of David Wright, with a weighted mean True Average of .288.

Danny Espinosa, Nationals (.188/.286/.247, .207 TAv)
At 15-9, the Nationals are off to a fantastic start, coming into Thursday with the league's third-best record and a half-game lead atop the NL East standings. At an NL-low 2.83 runs per game allowed, their pitching has been dominant, but their offense has been puttering along at 3.33 runs per game (13th in the league) on .228/.303/.331 hitting. Espinosa hasn't been the offense's single weakest link—that "honor" belongs to the Undead Xavier Nady (.123/.153/.193 in 59 PA), who is being—no joke—outhit by Stephen Strasburg (.200/.200/.300 in 10 PA)—but as the number-two hitter in the lineup until a week ago, he's got much to do with its underperformance.

The 25-year-old second-sacker is a player who doesn't hit for a high average, but Espinosa's got some pop, some speed, and the ability to take a walk; last year, he hit .236/.323 .414 with 21 homers for a .261 TAv. Contact is an issue; he struck out 166 times last year (third in the NL), and in doing so 30 times this year (second), his rate has climbed from 25.2 percent to 30.3. He's been particularly bedeviled by changeups, and pitchers appear to be noticing; last year, he saw them 14.5 percent of the time and whiffed at 13.2 percent of those, while this year, he's seen them 19.3 percent of the time and whiffed at 22.1 percent (all data from TexasLeaguers.com).

Where Do We Go From Here? As of last Friday, Nats manager Davey Johnson bumped Espinosa from second in the batting order to sixth (with one game hitting third), moving Steve Lombardozzi into his former slot. A switch-hitting 23-year-old who batted .309/.360/.430 in 616 PA split between Double-A and Triple-A last year, Lombardozzi is a natural second baseman who is getting an extended look at third base with Ryan Zimmerman on the DL due to a shoulder injury. Given that he's added a bit of spark (.293/.383/.341 in 49 PA) to a lineup that can use all the help it can get, it stands to reason that Lombardozzi could cut into Espinosa's playing time once Zimmerman returns, which could be by early next week. Even so, Espinosa's ability on both sides of the ball and broad array of secondary skills should keep him in the mix.

Freddy Galvis, Phillies (.192/.222/.295, .173 TAv)
This one is unfair, as unlike the other 11 players in this series, Galvis had never played in the majors prior to this season. His presence here does underscore a point: the Phillies saddled the 22-year-old with an impossible task, namely to cover for Chase Utley while the five-time All-Star works his way back from patellar chondromalacia. Galvis, who batted .278/.324/.392 in 590 PA split between Double-A and Triple-A last year, had little hope of offensive adequacy in that role; his PECOTA weighted mean forecast is for a .204 TAv, and he has underachieved that with the worst offensive performance of any batting title qualifier thus far. Already without Ryan Howard as well, the Phillies are managing just 3.72 runs per game (11th in the league) on .256/.301/.357 hitting.

Where Do We Go From Here? Utley could head out on a rehab assignment soon, but there's no timetable for him to rejoin the Phillies; he's several weeks away, at the very least. Utilityman Pete Orr has outhit Galvis in all of 25 PA (.292/.320/.458), but the 32-year-old's lifetime .255/.287/.327 line doesn't offer hope he can maintain that. A better alternative would be 31-year-old lefty Mike Fontenot, a career .263/.332/.406 hitter whom the Philles have stashed at Triple-A after he was released by the Giants at the end of March; he's 11-for-30 with five doubles at Lehigh Valley. He could stop the bleeding until Utley returns.

Ryan Roberts, Diamondbacks (.159/.241/.246, .187 TAv)
After providing 453 PA worth of replacement-level work from 2006-2010—literally 0.0 WARP—Roberts enjoyed an impressive breakout last year, hitting .249/.341/.427 with 17 homers and 3.1 WARP for the NL West-winning Diamondbacks. The 31-year-old appears to have turned back into a pumpkin—if a pumpkin can be covered with neck tattoos—hitting just one homer in 79 PA, but his real problem is a .182 BABIP, the league's second-lowest mark. His distribution of batted balls hasn't changed appreciably—his percentage of balls in play that are pulled has risen from 28 percent to 30—but the hits just haven't fallen in.

Where Do We Go From Here? With Stephen Drew starting the year on the disabled list, the Diamondbacks' infield is already a man down, but even with only one Willie Bloomquist to plug that hole inadequately, that hasn't stopped Kirk Gibson from turning to his bench for more help. Thirty-six-year-old Cody Ransom started seven games at third across a 10-game stretch, and he's been swinging a hot bat (.308/.400/.654 in 30 PA). A career .226/.311/.402 hitter, he's more likely to return to that level than to sustain that sizzling streak, but it's worth remembering that if a futilityman such as Roberts can come out of nowhere to claim a job, so can one such as Ransom.

Scott Rolen, Reds (.178/.241/.315, .198 TAv)
Rolen hit .242/.279/.397 in 65 games last year before undergoing season-ending surgery on his left shoulder on August 3 to remove a bone spur; it was his third surgery on the joint in a six-year span, and his fourth overall. The 37-year-old began the year in a 3-for-27 slump, and if he's heated up since then, he still hasn't achieved room temperature. While he's shown a reasonable amount of power, with six of his 13 hits going for extra bases, his .200 BABIP is the league's fourth-lowest mark. 

Where Do We Go From Here? It's fair to wonder whether Rolen is still recovering from surgery, but he swung the bat just fine during spring training (.356/.442/.578 in 52 PA), and has said his shoulder feels good. Still, he's averaged just 111 games over the last five seasons, and the Reds do have an understudy on hand in the form of 26-year-old Todd Frazier, who split time at the hot corner with Juan Francisco (since traded to Atlanta) after Rolen went down last year. Frazier hit a lopsided .232/.289/.438 with six homers in 121 PA for the Reds, enough power to lift his TAv to .270; his weighted mean PECOTA forecast of .258/.317/.443 would be slightly more productive, though he's still got a ways to go to match Rolen's outstanding defense.

Alfonso Soriano, Cubs (.250/.262/.275, .187 TAv)
Theo Epstein may have taken the reins in Boston, but there's no bigger obstacle to his rebuilding effort than Soriano. The 36-year-old left fielder came into the year still owed $54 million on his deal through 2014, but he’s essentially valueless coming off a dismal .244/.289/.469 showing and 0.3 WARP; even Vernon Wells was worth more (1.1 WARP) thanks to defense. Soriano made an adjustment to his leg kick during spring training that appeared to help his timing; he homered three times in his first four Cactus League games, and six times overall. Proving that spring stats aren't even worth the toilet paper they're printed on, His Soriness has yet to go yard in 84 regular-season PA, and in fact has just two extra-base hits, both doubles. Which at least matches his total of walks.

Where Do We Go From Here? Sooner or later, the Cubs will admit that Soriano is a sunk cost and either eat most of his salary by trading him, or nearly all of it by releasing him. Until they have a worthwhile replacement in mind, there's little point in doing that, but that day would appear to be approaching. First baseman Bryan LaHair is raking at a .381/.459/.794 clip so far, and with fellow first baseman Anthony Rizzo hitting a sizzling .372/.422/.638 at Triple-A Iowa, the fact that LaHair has experience at both outfield corners (five games in left and nine in right in the majors, 135 and 23, respectively, in the minors) is something that could come in handy for the Cubs someday soon. "I wouldn't even look at it as a position change for me," said LaHair recently. "I've been playing the outfield my whole life. I'm very comfortable in the outfield."

That said, such a move isn't imminent, as Kevin Goldstein pointed out. Rizzo got into some bad habits with his swing last year and was a total bust in the majors with the Padres (.141/.281/.242 in 153 PA). The Cubs are in no hurry to promote him until they're sure he's ready, and without any likelihood of competing for a playoff spot, there's absolutely no rush. It’s a good bet they'll keep Rizzo down until later this summer to avoid him threatening Super Two status after the 2014 season. He has 68 days of service time under his belt and would be on track for post-2014 arbitration eligibility by gaining another 66 days this year plus full seasons in 2013 and 2014. So don't expect Soriano to be kicked to the curb just yet. 

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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