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July 17, 2014

The Lineup Card

Nine Second-Half Improvement Candidates

by Baseball Prospectus


1. Yoenis Cespedes
Maybe it's because I've now seen enough pieces debunking the Home Run Derby curse that I'm starting to think it must actually help, but the back-to-back champ is my pick. It's been a weird third season for Yo, who is hitting a bumpy .246/.299/.442

  • April/May: .245/.301/.500
  • June: .324/.373/.491
  • July: .067/.106/.067

Shake off a 2-for-43 that he's running on right now and that's dropped his OPS close to 70 points, and he's right back at where I'd expect him to be. Somewhere between the rookie breakout and the sophomore slump, the latter being what he's echoing in Year 3. If it comes down to BABIP, which these things often do, he's got a good shot. He came into the year with a career BABIP of a pretty standard .300 and now has a .271 including a .233 at the Coliseum. Things should be looking up. —Zachary Levine

2. Carlos Santana

  • Through May 22: .153/.304/.276
  • Since May 22: .279/.408/.535

Arbitrary endpoint, sure, but May 22 was the last time Santana played third base. He played well that day (hitting a go-ahead double in the 13th inning) so it's not like third base was poison to his batting numbers. But the odd experiment announced during the offseason seemed to end around that time upon the realization that Lonnie Chisenhall could also demolish baseballs.

Maybe it was a standard two-month slump—those still exist. But Santana's numbers are back to his career levels as a primary first baseman, and that makes more sense than the shrug of the shoulders and/or trying to crunch BABIP numbers. —Matt Sussman

3. Chris Davis
Last year, Chris Davis hit his fly balls an average of 309 feet. That's a tremendous average distance, good for eighth in baseball. This year, with his production plummeting to "I've been sucking" levels, he has hit his average fly ball... 306 feet, good for ninth in baseball. That's not the only thing that has been similar; his strikeout rate is up only a smidge and he's hitting about as many balls in the air--though more of them, promisingly, are line drives. But despite hitting the ball hard, on a line, and nearly as frequently as you could hope for from Davis, he has, yes, "been sucking," with BABIPs well below his career average on all batted-ball trajectories. It's too late to be an MVP candidate again, but it's not too late for him to play like one in the second half. —Sam Miller

4. David Ortiz
The Red Sox are having a bad year, and so too is David Ortiz. Unlike his usual PECOTA-defying self, Ortiz is batting a more pedestrian .255/.357/.487. It’s not bad, mind you, just not like his last three years of roughly .400 OBPs and .600 SLGs.

BABIP may be the culprit. BABIP changes aren’t always luck, but there’s nothing in the distribution of Ortiz’s batted balls or plate discipline statistics that suggests any kind of serious issue. Pitchers continue to treat David Ortiz like David Ortiz, tossing his average pitch some 1.13 feet from the center of the zone, basically unchanged from last year’s mark of 1.12 feet. He’s not suddenly lost his swing discipline, and there’s no sign of a nagging injury. The one red flag is a curious dip in the percentage of his pitches that are fastballs—but that indicator runs contrary to the narrative of an aging-related decline (wherein fastball percentage usually rises). In the absence of any obvious signal to the contrary, my guess is that Ortiz’s BABIP recovers, and the rest of his offensive value will go with it. —Robert Arthur

5. Billy Butler
Billy Butler is currently suffering through his worst stretch of play since 2007, when Butler, then just a 22-year-old youngblood, slashed .275/.324/.400 for the entire season. If you feel like those numbers look familiar, it’s because they do: as of the All-Star break, Butler sits at .273/.325/.355. It’s hard to imagine that, with 892 games separating this edition of Butler from his younger self, Butler may have forgotten how to hit. But, like the ball, numbers don’t lie, and Butler seems to have found himself in a funk during what figured to be another season of prime production.

Part of the reason for Butler’s impotence is that he is taking more hacks than ever before, the likely culprit behind his career-high strikeout rate. Upon closer inspection, those numbers are skewed a bit by a truly awful April in which Butler might as well have been swinging a relay baton. He’s been on the uptrend since, cutting back on his diet of strikeouts bit by bit, from 18.3 percent in April to 14.0 percent in June. Butler’s alarming lack of power, too, seems to have turned a corner: He racked up as many extra-base hits in June as he did in the first two months of the season combined.

Butler has scuffled a bit in July so far, but with only 11 games played, it’s tough to tell whether he’s already passed his intra-season peak. If he manages to replicate his June performance—which wasn’t quite up to his career standards—Butler would at least become a viable major-league hitter, on par with the likes of Neil Walker and David Ortiz. Given the way Butler tripped over his own feet out of the gate, the Royals will certainly settle for a solid—if unspectacular—version of their franchise cornerstone. Of course, there’s also then the possibility of a full-scale turnaround, where Butler walks more frequently, trades singles for power, and generally returns to his middle-of-the-order form. If he insists on continuing to hit like a shortstop, let’s hope his impersonation looks more like Tulo than Everth Cabrera. —Nick Bacarella

6. Stephen Strasburg
It might seem odd to write about a pitcher with a 28.5 percent strikeout rate and a 5.0 percent walk rate as a candidate to improve, but the Nationals ace has a 3.46 ERA to show for those numbers, and he appears to deserve much better. As is often the case for pitchers whose peripherals are superior to their basic stats, the primary culprit here is a .347 opponents' BABIP. And Strasburg has reason to expect his defense to be more efficient in the second half.

The right-hander's foes are doing particularly well when they hit ground balls, batting .287 in that department, compared to the league average of .244. Defensively, the Nationals' infielders aren't slacking, with a .246 BABIP allowed on grounders, right around the league mean. It's reasonable to believe that those numbers will converge, unless the Nats have conspired to discriminate against their no. 1 starter.

Strasburg's 7-6 ledger and relatively pedestrian ERA have hindered his Cy Young Award case to date. He's light-years behind Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright. But if his strikeouts and walk clips stay where they are from now through September, he just might sneak into the fray. —Daniel Rathman

7. Buster Posey
While Buster Posey the catcher continues to perform to the lofty standard his past performance has set for himself, Buster Posey the hitter has not performed to those standards in the first half of 2014. He is swinging more at both pitches inside and outside the zone, but this appears to be the result of seeing significantly more first pitch strikes (the swing rates are strikingly similar to those in 2009 and 2010, when he last saw 60-plus percent first pitch strikes). The increase in swing rate has led to more line drives and less of everything else (fly balls, grounders, infield fly balls), while his strikeout rate remains unchanged from 2013. On top of that, Posey has seen an almost identical pitch mix of hard, breaking, and off speed pitches in 2014 as he did in 2012 and 2013. To summarize, Posey has seen the identical pitch mix in 2014 as he did in previous seasons and has been hitting more line drives than at any point in his career, but has seen his production drop. The baseball analysis industry goes to the BABIP well far too often, but I believe we have a true BABIP case here with Posey. After never posting a sub .312 BABIP in any season at the Major League level, he is currently sitting on a first-half BABIP of .282. Could the back problems he was dealing with in late May and early June have something to do with this? Certainly, but I am guessing that variability also has to do a great deal to with this; thus, I think betting on improved production from Posey in the second half is a solid bet. —Jeff Quinton

8. Aaron Hill
Some hitters fall off of a cliff in their early 30s, but it is extremely difficult to believe that Hill has simply forgotten how to hit. His .229 TAv is awful, but Hill has run through hot and cold streaks in the past. He's not going to rip off 20 home runs the rest of the way, but a bounce back getting him close to a 20 home run finish overall wouldn't surprise me. A combination of below average expected results on batted balls in play (based on his line drive/fly ball/ground ball profile) and a lower than usual HR/FB% have combined for some very disappointing results. Hill is nothing close to an elite player, but I anticipate a better second half. —Mike Gianella

9. Zack Wheeler
Wheeler had a rocky first half. He battled inconsistency, struggled with pitch command, and traded disaster outings with clean starts. But the young right-hander is on the upswing, having displayed incremental improvement over the past couple of months, and he could be in store for a big second half that reminds the world why he was such a highly regarded prospect just 12 months ago.

Wheeler has walked more than two batters just twice in past 11 starts (after cracking that threshold five times in his first eight games), and he entered the All-Star break with a string of three consecutive starts in which he pitched six or more innings and surrendered just a single run. He has also honed his stuff since last season, adding 0.5 mph to his fastball (which is now averaging 95.9 mph) and diversifying his pitch mix. He has doubled the frequency of his change-up, and though it is still the weakest offering in a repertoire that features a pair of plus breaking pitches, Wheeler has the potential to be dominant if he can refine el cambio. He has also kept the ball on the ground this season, upping his ground-ball rate by 10 percentage points while surrendering just seven bombs across 108.3 innings (only two homers have come since he turned 24 on May 30th), while his component stats have all trended in positive directions. The Mets are a long shot to make the playoffs, but a second-half breakout by Wheeler could make things interesting in the NL East. —Doug Thorburn

8 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

mockcarr

Does Strasburg really have a good reason to think his infield defense will be more "efficient" with Zimmerman's four hop throws from third?

Jul 17, 2014 05:13 AM
rating: 2
 
NattyFan

Well, Zimmerman claims his recent stint in LF loosened his arm after coming off the DL. Since he started manning the hot corner again (June 30), he's played 153 innings there and fielded 26 chances perfectly, including 16 assists and a DP. Sure, small sample size, but Zimmerman has looked better than he did at any point last year.

Jul 17, 2014 10:03 AM
rating: 1
 
cburnell

Defenses use extreme shifts against Chris Davis and David Ortiz. I don't recall the shift against Davis as being anywhere as pronounced against Davis last year. To what degree do you attribute the shift as contributing to his struggles? Or has it simply affected his confidence? Does he need to adjust? Or continue doing what got him there?

Jul 17, 2014 07:15 AM
rating: 4
 
tommybones

Curious if you think Kendrys Morales is a better candidate than Butler to pick it up in the 2nd half.

Jul 17, 2014 07:48 AM
rating: 0
 
TeamPineTar

Nick B is selling numbers, and all of us buy to some extent or we wouldn't be here. But if you watched the Royals game after game as a local, you would not buy on Billy. I have never seen ANY MLB hitter look more helpless at the plate over this long a stretch. Worse and what's really surprising for a guy who's been a fine OBP hitter for years, Billy also just looks clueless.

That's all anguishing to think or say or write. Country Breakfast committed to our team and city when most were bailing. He and his wife are wonderful, charitable people. Yet the well is dry.

No clue about Kendrys. Only saw a few ABs when we played the Twinkies the first series in July. Could not be more of a reach than Billy.

Jul 17, 2014 08:58 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Nick Bacarella
BP staff

As bad as Butler's first half has been, I don't think it's time to close the book on him just yet. He's had to deal with a change in tactics from opposing pitchers - he's seeing fewer fastballs and more breaking balls than ever before - which might explain why he's swinging at more pitches out of the zone. (Might also explain why he's looked so confused thus far.) It could be that Butler is approaching his at-bats the same as he has in the past, only that approach no longer makes sense given the kind of pitching he's facing.

Point is, Butler has a track record of dependability, he's only 28 years old, and he's not dealing with a performance-hampering injury. Good hitters can see their skills erode over time, but rarely do they forget how to hit in the middle of their primes. Like I said, he probably won't return to 2012 form this season, but I don't think he'll be Triple-A caliber, either.

Jul 17, 2014 11:34 AM
 
Roy in Omaha

Belly Gutler has been and is, quite frankly, eating himself out of the game. In his case, I believe 28 is the new 32 and I completely agree with the other commenter, he looks utterly helpless at home plate. Why? Because he is such a slovenly lard-ass that he can no longer consistently get around on a good fastball. You watch him, and he is consistently late, late, late. I'm far from the only person that thinks this now, too. Take a look at Rany Jazayerli's blog, Rany on the Royals and in his post about the Royals offensive offense tonight, he stopped just short of saying that Billy is through, something I am in total agreement with. Mark my words, he will never have a season again that is as remotely productive as his 2012 season and I have serious doubts that we ever see much more than what we are getting from him right now ever again. At least, not unless he starts taking far better care of himself and gets into good playing shape, something he is not and never has been. I can't wait for the Royals to punt this guy. He's the most one dimensional player in the history of the Royals franchise. Can't field, can't throw, and is a candidate for the slowest player in the game. And, now, he can't even any longer hit. On a pace to utterly smash Cal Ripken's major league career record for GIDP. He will not be missed by any thinking Royals fan, me included, when the Royals rid themselves of him, either before season's end in deal (and they are trying), or, for sure in the off season because of contractual reasons. Either way, Billy Butler, thank God, will not be in a Royals uniform next season.

Jul 21, 2014 00:34 AM
rating: -1
 
sbnirish77

"I have never seen ANY MLB hitter look more helpless at the plate over this long a stretch."

If you've been watching Royals games as you say you have, you must leave the room every time Mike Moustakas comes up to bat.

Jul 18, 2014 16:31 PM
rating: 3
 
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