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May 2, 2012

Prospectus Hit and Run

Worse Than Pujols, AL Edition

by Jay Jaffe

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Albert Pujols you know about. The $240 million man has yet to get untracked for the Angels and ended the month of April hitting a paltry .217/.265/.304 without a homer. He's hardly the only hitter who has begun 2012 in a funk, though. In fact, 41 other hitters came into Tuesday with True Averages lower than or equal to that of Pujols' .225 in at least 65 plate appearances, i.e., enough to qualify for the batting title. Sure, those are small samples sizes, but we're 14 percent of the way through the season, with one page of the calendar wadded up into a ball, so it's not like we can't at least gawk at the outliers. What follows is a look at a half-dozen AL hitters—none of them as good as Pujols to begin with, admittedly—who are struggling to an even greater degree than the Angels slugger, and where they and their teams might go from here.

All statistics are through Monday, and all players are listed in alphabetical order to protect the guiltiest. I'll be back with a companion set for the NL later this week.

Gordon Beckham, White Sox (.153/.231/.203, .148 TAv)
Since hitting .270/.347/.460 as a rookie in 2009, the year after the White Sox chose him with the eighth pick of the amateur draft, Beckham has been moving backward with alarming speed, hitting a cumulative .236/.302/.347. His True Averages have fallen from .279 in 2009 to .253 in 2010, to .242 last year (a performance which earned him a Dishonorable Mention on the Vortices of Suck team), to .148 this year. His batting averages, isolated power, and walk rates have declined annually as well, while his strikeout rate and K/BB ratio have climbed with just as much consistency. Coming into Tuesday, Beckham rated as the worst-hitting regular in all of baseball. Though he's still just 25, he's drawing comments about foot speed and bat speed that aren't what they were in college.

Where Do We Go From Here? Beckham is hardly the only White Sox infielder who is flailing miserably. Alexei Ramirez (.207/.233/.264, for a .188 TAv) and Brent Morel (.178/.221/.205, for a .194 TAv) have been indescribably awful as well, and either could have merited a spot here. Neither of those two is riding quite the same downward trajectory as Beckham, though.

Even while averaging just 3.86 runs per game, the Sox entered Tuesday 11-11, tied with the Tigers for second in the AL Central. Manager Robin Ventura has given 23-year-old rookie Eduardo Escobar four starts at second base thus far, but he's not much of a hitter; last year, he batted .266/.303/.354 at Triple-A Charlotte, and his weighted mean PECOTA (.243/.268/.320) suggests he'd be hard-pressed to match those numbers in the majors. The Sox might want to consider optioning Beckham to Triple-A to stop the bleeding and preserve his service time and Tyler Kuhn a look. The 25-year-old, a 15th-round pick from 2008, has hit just .275/.311/.360 in about two months of Triple-A (197 PA split between 2011 and 2012), but he tore up the Southern League last year (.341/.401/.464 in 470 PA) while playing for Birmingham, and his ability to play second, short, third, and left field could make him a useful offense-oriented utilityman if Beckham is able to turn things around.

Brennan Boesch, Tigers (.231/.255/.352, .202 TAv)
Aside from Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, the Tigers' offense entered Tuesday hitting just .225/.283/.357, and the team had dropped eight out of 10 after opening the season 9-3. Boesch, who has batted second in every game save for one, has failed to set the table adequately for the big boys; he has walked just twice in 94 plate appearances, while striking out 20 times (tied with Austin Jackson for the team lead). After showing an odd reverse platoon split in his first two major-league seasons (.319/.380/.471 in 237 PA against lefties, .254/.315/.425 in 747 PA against righties), Boesch batting just .294/.294/.324 in 34 PA against same-siders with no walks and just one extra-base hit, and a similarly unhelpful .193/.233/.368 in 60 PA against righties.

Where Do We Go From Here? The Tigers aren't getting much from any of their corner outfield types. Delmon Young was hitting just .242/.311/.333 before he was arrested on a hate crime harassment charge and suspended for a week. Ryan Raburn (.148/.220/.185) has been awful whether playing second base or left field; the only reason he's not being written up here is that he's got too few plate appearances to qualify. Andy Dirks has hit .281/.303/.531, albeit in all of 33 PA, this after batting a more representative .251/.296/.406 in 235 PA last year, while Clete Thomas was lost to the Twins on waivers, and Don Kelly (.240/.345/.240) is forever out of his element when he strays into an outfield corner. Far from being a thousand-run juggernaut, the Tigers simply don't have the depth to withstand a key regular underperforming, particularly at a corner position, so you can bet Boesch will get every chance to hit his way out of this.

Eric Hosmer, Royals (.188/.274/.388, .225 TAv)
Hosmer has five homers already, which ties him for 10th in the AL with 10 other players, but his .164 BABIP is the league's second-lowest mark. When he's not going yard, he's not hitting the ball all that hard; to the extent that line-drive rate tells us anything (debatable) his 11.1 LD% is the league's third-lowest mark among qualifiers. Within the extremely small sample size of his 24 plate appearances against southpaws, he's hitting just .143/.250/.190, a step down even from last year's .237/.282/.303 in 163 PA.

Where Do We Go From Here? Hosmer's woes against lefties aside, there isn't much to suggest this is more than bad luck. He managed a .314 BABIP last year as a rookie, and he should be able to approach a similar figure given a large enough sample. He came into Tuesday in an 0-for-15 funk, but prior to that he had actually enjoyed a hot stretch, going 8-for-23 with three homers and four walks in a six-game span. The Royals are off to an abysmal 6-15 start, but the best thing they've got going for them is the core of their lineup—Alex Gordon, Billy Butler, Mike Moustakas, and Hosmer. They've got nothing better to do than wait for him to come around soon enough.

Casey Kotchman, Indians (.149/.240/.254, .177 TAv)
Kotchman enjoyed something of a breakout year for Tampa Bay last year, batting .306/.378/.422 for Tampa Bay with 10 homers in 563 PA. He managed that line thanks to a .335 BABIP, 67 points higher than his previous career mark, and alas, the BABIP gods have come to collect the rent; he's at a league-low .143 and now has the AL's second-worst TAv among regulars. Coming into Tuesday, he was in the throes of a 2-for-32 slump.

Where Do We Go From Here? In signing Kotchman, the Indians supplanted Matt LaPorta, who in three years of big-league action totaling 1,008 PA had hit a meager .238/.304/.397. While Kotchman flails in Cleveland, LaPorta's currently burning Triple-A Columbus and the International League to the ground, hitting .380/.451/.759 with eight homers in 91 PA; then again, he's always hit well for the Clippers, .323/.408/.586 in 574 PA spread out over parts of four seasons. Still, it's tempting to think the 27-year-old former first-round pick could give the Indians' offense a jolt; while the big club ranks sixth in the league in scoring, they're 12th in slugging percentage. LaPorta won't provide the defense that Kotchman—who was signed in part for his glovework to back up a low-strikeout staff—can, but it's not out of the question he can help.

Mark Reynolds, Orioles (.143/.260/.206, .188 TAv)
Reynolds has gained notoriety as an all-or-nothing player, having averaged 35 homers and 208 strikeouts per year from 2008-2011. This year, the emphasis has too often been on the "nothing" part of that equation; through Monday he had yet to homer in 72 plate appearances, while striking out a major-league high 41 percent of the time. While that K rate may lead you to assume that he's hacking away, Reynolds' swing rate of 39.5 percent is a career low, nine percentage points below his career mark, and his first-pitch swing rate of 23 percent is 12 percentage points below his career mark—in other words, he may be too passive, if anything. Coming into Tuesday night's game, he was in a 3-for-31 slump, with 17 strikeouts in 36 plate appearances over that span. Blech.

Where Do We Go From Here? Reynolds is already bouncing around the lineup; he's made 10 starts at third base, eight at designated hitter, and one at first base. Chris Davis is lighting the league ablaze while starting at first (.310/.359/.563), and though the same can't be said for Wilson Betemit, he has at least shown some pop (.241/.268/.481) while starting 11 times at third and another four times elsewhere. Nick Johnson, who's second on the team in starts at DH (six) went into Tuesday 0-for-26—he ran that to 0-for-29 before finally collecting a hit—and he's got even less defensive utility than Reynolds, not to mention a 50 percent likelihood of disemboweling himself on any given grounder.

Reynolds, for whatever his flaws, does have a career .274 True Average in spite of his low batting averages, so he should probably be given the leeway to sort himself out, though given that he's a pending free agent with an $11 million club option, you can bet that the Orioles would just as soon hope that he plays himself into being somebody's deadline acquisition.

Justin Smoak, Mariners (.200/.247/.325, 204 TAv)
Considered one of the game's top 20 prospects as recently as two years ago, Smoak had disappointed mightily at the major-league level, batting .227/.316/.385 in 886 PA with the Rangers and Mariners in 2010-2011. During the spring, the 25-year-old admitted that he got too caught up in hitting home runs after bashing 12 homers in Seattle's first 59 games last year; he managed just three more the rest of the way. Smoak came to camp in the proverbial best shape of his life, determined to focus simply on hitting the ball hard, but it hasn't paid off; while he does have three homers, his .228 batting average on balls in play is the league's ninth-lowest mark, and according to USS Mariner's PITCHf/x-based analysis, he's been simply useless against off-speed pitches.

Where Do We Go From Here? Smoak now has nearly a thousand plate appearances at the big-league level without coming anywhere close to average production for a first baseman. His whiff rates against curves (25 percent), sliders (18.2 percent), and changeups (14 percent) relative to fastballs (3.9 percent, all figures from TexasLeaguers.com) suggest a significant deficit in pitch-recognition skills. At the very least, he's got no business occupying the Mariners' cleanup spot, where he's batted in every game he's played, and at the most, he should probably be in the midst of a Triple-A refresher course while somebody else—perhaps Alex Liddi, who's filled in at times—mans first for awhile.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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