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June 6, 2013

The Lineup Card

9 Hot/Cold Starts We Don't Think Will Last

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Shin-Soo Choo
OK, look, I don't think he's going to explode at home plate after being hit by one of those pitches (a billion points for that reference). Choo has a track record of being a .370 OBP guy (which is really nice to have!), and the HBPs are pumping up the OBP. That eventually has to come back down to earth). But there's more. He's hitting more than 20 percent of his fly balls over the wall. While HR/FB stabilizes more quickly for batters, it's well above his career norms. Choo might be getting some help from the Great American Small Park, but I don't buy that the underlying talent has changed all that much. Choo is picking a good time to do this. He's a free agent at the end of the year. —Russell A. Carleton

2. Matt Cain
Matt Cain in 2009: 7.6% UIBB rate, 19.3% K rate, 2.89 ERA
Matt Cain in 2013: 7.3% UIBB rate, 22.6% K rate, 5.45 ERA

The difference actually isn't what we could always fear with Cain, as his BABIP has remained at the usual low levels that he's been able to sustain all these years. It's partially in the home-run totals, as he's allowed 13 already in his first 12 starts. But it's also in how he's distributed his success and failure, with opponents hitting .166/.234/.293 off him with the bases empty and .356/.416/.663 with men on base. (Full situational splits here.) The topic of his pitching from the stretch comes up, and a return to anything close to normal from the stretch will mean a much better second half. —Zachary Levine

3. Cole Hamels
It’s a little over two months into the season, and Cole Hamels has the worst ERA of his career. This isn’t entirely a product of bad luck, either. Hamels’ FRA is the worst it has been in his entire career, and his K% matches his career low. But the primary problem with Hamels comes down to his pitch selection and sequencing. His velocity is fine, and the separation in speeds between his fastball and change are about the same as they have ever been. Hamels’ swinging strike zone percentage also remains strong. This isn’t a case of hitters teeing off against a diminished pitcher, but rather a pitcher who needs to make some moderate mechanical adjustments. There’s too much talent here to expect Hamels to put up a 4.86 ERA the rest of the way. Expect a rebound. —Mike Gianella

4. Evan Gattis
Braves catcher/first baseman/left fielder/pinch-hitter/folk hero Evan Gattis has undoubtedly been one of baseball’s top stories this season. He was a little-known minor-leaguer at this time last year, then went crazy in winter ball, carried it over to spring training, and is now is hitting .269/.333/.593 with 12 home runs in 162 plate appearances for the Braves while establishing himself as a strong candidate for National League Rookie of Year. Then there is his back story, which includes giving up baseball in junior college, going on a four-year nomadic journey of self-discovery and battling drug abuse. However, it is easy to wonder how much longer Gattis can keep up his pace. His contact percentage is 73 percent and has been dropping since the beginning of May, and his walk rate is just seven percent. Those numbers make it clear that pitchers are starting to exploit Gattis’ below-average plate discipline, and it’s only going to get uglier unless he adjusts back, which is a tall order for someone who had just 207 plate appearances at the Double-A level and none at Triple-A. —John Perrotto

5. Edwin Jackson
Edwin Jackson signed a four-year, $52 million contract with the Cubs over the winter, and through 11 starts, he has a 1-8 record and a 6.29 ERA. So it’s not surprising that he’s showing up on lists of free-agent disappointments and disasters, or that Chicago columnists are asking how the Cubs can fix him. Patience might be the best approach. The luck indicators have all gone against Jackson: The righty has a .358 BABIP and the major leagues’ lowest strand rate, thanks to a .398 BABIP with runners on that’s produced an opponent’s OPS 111 points higher than he’s allowed with the bases empty. But Jackson has no history of struggling with men on, his strikeout and ground-ball rates would both be career highs, and his FIP is just 3.59, giving him a larger gap between his FIP and his ERA than any other qualified starter’s. His control has been a bit shaky, and his fastball has lost a tick, but there are more reasons for encouragement than concern. Unless they were hoping for a hot start that would make it easier to flip him—Jackson has no no-trade clause, and he’s been swapped six times before—the Cubs can take comfort in the long view. —Ben Lindbergh

6. Jean Segura and Rickie Weeks
If a pre-season prophet had said that one of the Brewer middle infielders would have 22 extra-base hits in early June while the other would be sporting a 610 OPS, the smart money would have been on another career resurgence for Rickie Weeks paired with continued struggles for Jean Segura at the highest level. Instead, the Opening Day starters in Milwaukee's middle infield are like bullet trains running in opposite directions: Segura is lobbying for the starting shortstop gig in this summer's All-Star Game, while Weeks is simply lobbying to keep his job.

The scouting report on Segura is glowing with offensive potential, with excellent bat speed and a knack for spraying line drives to all fields. He has established the baseline skills for a high batting average, with a career .313 mark in the minors, but his current .347 average is the highest that he has achieved at any level with more than 200 plate appearances. His blend of hard contact and great speed provide the foundation for solid power numbers, but his current .202 ISO breaks his minor-league best by more than 50 points even if we waive the 200-PA qualifier. In short, he is destined to fall back to earth, and his sub-five-percent walk rate is a harbinger of doom for pitchers to adjust to his tendencies.

On the flip side of the keystone, Weeks has been benched multiple times in the past week. Even a mini-breakout against the A's on Monday was followed by his riding pine for the first eight innings on Tuesday. Weeks can be a frustrating hitter with his prolonged bouts of ineffectiveness, but he is a notoriously streaky player who can also get hot in a hurry. While recognizing the mythical nature of the hot hand, I was compelled to type “Rickie Weeks” plus “streaky” into Google, resulting in more than 30,000 hits. The fifth item on the list was a 2009 blurb from Paul Liebowitz: “Rickie Weeks is so streaky that he loses his job for weeks at a time and warrants a demotion to the minors, then gets back.” In that sense, we are seeing the same old Weeks, and the 30-year-old has a reputation for rewarding patience and enough mileage left in the tank to inspire optimism. The two players may not meet in the middle, but I expect the final batting lines of Segura and Weeks to drift much closer together with the gravity of regression. —Doug Thorburn

7. Michael Cuddyer
The timing of this entry could not be less opportune: It comes with Cuddyer riding a nine-game hitting streak, and a 13-game surge over which he has gone 20-for-50 (.400) with eight extra-base hits. The Rockies' right fielder has been red hot since his return from the disabled list on May 24, giving the Rockies a fearsome triple threat. Cuddyer has spent the majority of the season in the number-five slot of manager Walt Weiss' batting order, and his torrid bat has prevented opponents from being able to pitch around Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki, the more acclaimed hitters who bat directly in front of him.

But the 34-year-old's surge is unsupported by his peripherals. Cuddyer's .371 BABIP is more than 60 points higher than his career clip of .307, and it is buoyed in large part by a fluky spike in infield hits. He has reached safely on 17.9 percent of his ground balls, a rate that even Ichiro Suzuki could not sustain during his slap-hitting prime. Meanwhile, Cuddyer's 17.5 percent strikeout rate is down 2.3 percentage points from last year, even though his swinging-strike clip has increased by about one percentage point, from 9.8 to 10.7. And although the right-handed-hitting Cuddyer has already authored 17 extra-base hits against like-handed pitchers this year, it's unlikely that he'll be able to maintain a .349/.382/.635 triple-slash line against them while striking out nearly five times (25) for every walk (6) he draws.

Cuddyer should remain a solid player for the rest of the season, whose stats will—like most players'—be helped by his home ballpark, but he is not a star. Fantasy owners blessed with the 10 homers and five steals already on his 2013 ledger should look to sell high. And the Rockies will need Cuddyer's teammates to rise up when he slows down. —Daniel Rathman

8. Matt Moore
Yes, Moore is on the short list of pitchers who have a realistic shot at starting next month's All-Star game, with his league-leading eight wins and his sub-3 ERA. He's also just 18 months removed from elite prospect status (MLB, you'll recall, ranked him above Trout and Harper) and a very encouraging rookie season. But he has also walked nearly five batters per nine innings this season; seen his strikeout rate (8.2 per nine innings) drop almost all the way to league average (7.8 per nine); and, among 69 ERA qualifiers in the American League, he ranks 68th in strike percentage. Consider the names near him in the bottom: Joe Saunders, Lucas Harrell, Luis Mendoza, Brandon Maurer, David Phelps, Mike Pelfrey, Jarrod Parker, Felix Doubront, and Dylan Axelrod round out the bottom 10. None of them is in danger of starting the All-Star game. Now, as noted above, he's got an exceptional arm and could just easily regress in a great way as see his BABIP etc. regress in the predictable way. But there seems to be a predictable growth curve that great pitchers go through: First, they must harness their stuff. Then, as their stuff deserts them with age, they must learn to adjust to a new style. Moore never harnessed his stuff. If the declining velocity persists, he'll be moving forward into the next stage of his career, without ever having mastered the last. —Sam Miller

9. Josh Hamilton
There are lots of reasons to not like Josh Hamilton as a baseball player right now. His strikeout rate is very high, while his walk rate is very low. Heck, his slash line is terrible. His contract is probably not a good one. Probably not. But Josh Hamilton has been one of the worst regular players in baseball over the past two months. Not in terms of dollars per win, or some esoteric stat that ultimately has no bearing as to wins and losses. We’re talking about just playing baseball. I could give you a bunch of heat maps (they’re all blue; there, I’ve given you the heat maps), or give you a bunch of batted-ball data, but the simple fact is that all of it shows Hamilton not playing well, or, more specifically, playing badly.

But I’m not buying it. Well, actually, I’m buying some of it. I’m quite willing to believe Hamilton isn’t an MVP candidate any longer, that those days have passed, and that the Angels are paying for a player who effectively no longer exists. I’m perfectly willing to believe all of that. What I don’t believe is that Hamilton is all of a sudden terrible. Yes, his particular approach (i.e., a complete lack of one), lends itself to falling off the proverbial cliff, but I think the smart and safe bet here is that there is a non-MVP lesser version of Hamilton in there somewhere that will emerge. Why? Josh Hamilton was, until very recently, a very talented baseball player. While some of that talent may be gone, enough to take him out of perpetual MVP discussion, the likelihood is that there is a good amount still hidden in there. I know this isn’t a particularly sophisticated analysis, but I guess I’m saying bet on the talent. Josh Hamilton had as much talent as any player in baseball very recently, and his last two months of poor play shouldn’t be the sole point to judge him on. When assessing Josh Hamilton, we have to weigh his three previous seasons, too. —Matthew Kory

4 comments have been left for this article.

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