The 30: What’s Up With These Four Faltering Stars?

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The rise of long-struggling teams like the Mets, Cubs, Astros, and Twins and the fall of perennially strong clubs like the Tigers and Nationals reminds us that baseball — even with 162 games to even things out — can still be wildly unpredictable. Drill down to individual players and the sport’s volatility blares that much louder.

We see it every year. Key players suffer unexpected injuries. Consistent performers go through inexplicable, extended slumps. Or a once-impressive statistical profile bottoms out. Whatever the specifics, a few good players always are, quite simply, suddenly bad.

The Padres have three more years left on 2015 disappointment James Shields and his big contract. The Red Sox expected a lot better than what Pablo Sandoval has provided in Season 1 of his five-year megadeal. The Astros need George Springer to get hot if they hope to stop their recent swoon and hang on to a playoff spot. And the Royals have to pray that trade-deadline score Johnny Cueto can shake off his post-deal struggles, or else they risk entering October with a lousy rotation.

These guys need much better luck — time to call in Jobu. It’s Week 24 of The 30.

Best Backbreaking Catch of the Week

It’s been an awful September for the Astros. On Friday, thanks to Sam Fuld, things got even worse.

Up 2-0 in the bottom of the third inning, Houston put its first two runners on base, bringing lethal rookie Carlos Correa to the plate. Here was a chance for the Astros to break the game open. More importantly, this was a chance to regain a bit of their footing in the AL West; a four-game division lead heading into September had turned into a 2.5-game deficit heading into Friday’s matchup with Oakland. On a 1-2 count, Felix Doubront completely missed catcher Carson Blair’s target on the inside corner and threw a flat 89 mph fastball that caught way too much of the plate. Correa hammered the pitch to right-center for what looked like a sure two-run triple.

Long known for making acrobatic catches in the outfield, Fuld sprinted after Correa’s smash, made a headlong dive, and reeled in a spectacular grab.

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Houston managed just one more run all game, and the A’s would come back to win 4-3, handing the Astros their sixth one-run loss of the month, along with a lesson that many teams have learned over the years: Don’t hit the ball anywhere near Sam Fuld.

Shields Down

The Padres’ highest-paid pitcher is on pace for his worst season in nine years.

30. Philadelphia Phillies (56-94 record, minus-204 run differential, no. 29 last week)
29. Atlanta Braves (60-91, minus-197, LW: 30)
28. Milwaukee Brewers (63-87, minus-74, LW: 24)
27. Colorado Rockies (63-87, minus-113, LW: 28)
26. Cincinnati Reds (63-86, minus-60, LW: 27)
25. Miami Marlins (64-86, minus-64, LW: 26)
24. Oakland A’s (64-86, minus-11, LW: 25)
23. San Diego Padres (70-80, minus-67, LW: 22)
22. Detroit Tigers (69-81, minus-112, LW: 23)

Over their just-completed nine-game road trip, the Padres went 3-6. In each of those six losses, they allowed six runs or more, twice yielding 10-spots. Those results, unfortunately, remain consistent with a disappointing season that’s seen Padres starters rank 23rd in park-adjusted ERA.

One possible positive: Their best pitcher on the trip was James Shields. Starting in the brutal pitching environments of Chase Field and Coors Field, Shields tossed 13.2 innings, allowing five runs on six hits, while striking out 14 batters. This was an encouraging sight for the Padres, given what Shields has delivered in the first season of his four-year, $75 million deal: his worst performance since his rookie campaign in 2006.

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Shields’s biggest bugaboo has been his control. Coming into this season, his highest walk rate came in 2013, when he issued free passes 7.2 percent of the time. This season, he’s blown by that mark — as well as his career average of 6 percent — walking 9.3 percent of the batters he’s faced.

Compounding that problem is Shields’s home run rate, which sits at 1.4 per nine innings, the second highest of his career. Even though Petco Park has become a more forgiving environment for offense after the Padres brought the fences in,1 it’s still been disappointing to see Shields give up so many long balls. While the Padres made more headlines for their acquisitions of right-handed power hitters Justin Upton, Matt Kemp, and Derek Norris, GM A.J. Preller quietly built an all-right-handed rotation, too. This figured to induce opponents to fill their lineups with lefties who’d have to challenge the park’s deeper dimensions in right-center. Instead, Shields and Ian Kennedy both rank in baseball’s top five for highest home run–per–fly ball percentage. In Shields’s case, that’s considerably higher than his career HR/FB mark of 11.6 percent, but also the third time in his career that the homer-prone righty has yielded 1.3 homers or more per nine innings.

Beyond those broader numbers, there’s concern about the effectiveness of Shields’s changeup. Opponents are batting just .210 in at-bats ending with that pitch, but they’re also slugging .421 against it, by far the highest mark of Shields’s career. According to PITCHf/x data, during his 2007 breakout season, Shields threw the best changeup of any major league starting pitcher. This year, he ranks in the bottom 10 among ERA title-qualified starters for changeup effectiveness. Add up all of these negative indicators and Shields’s 4.33 FIP stands as his worst since that ’06 rookie campaign.2

If this is the start of a serious decline for their supposed ace, that would be frightening news for the Padres. Shields turns 34 in December. Moreover, his four-year contract is backloaded, so he’s owed $65 million through 2018, including the $2 million final-year buyout that you can already sense San Diego might pay rather than dishing out another $16 million for Shields’s age-37 season. Given those facts and figures, Shields becomes virtually untradable — unless the Friars eat a big chunk of cash and/or settle for C-level talent in return.

Given that expectations soared after Preller’s winter shopping spree, and that the sometimes revenue-challenged Padres owe four players (Shields, Kemp, Melvin Upton Jr., and Craig Kimbrel) a total of $66.5 million,3 a fifth straight losing season will be especially hard to swallow with few avenues to immediate improvement. Even if Shields finishes strong and the reinvigoration carries into 2016, it’s easy to fast-forward a year and picture us talking about how the streak of below-.500 seasons is about to grow to six.

Sad Panda

Can the Red Sox get a mulligan on Pablo Sandoval?

21. Chicago White Sox (72-78, minus-65, LW: 20)
20. Arizona Diamondbacks (72-78, plus-16, LW: 21)
19. Tampa Bay Rays (72-78, minus-15, LW: 18)
18. Seattle Mariners (73-77, minus-63, LW: 19)
17. Baltimore Orioles (73-76, plus-24, LW: 17)
16. Boston Red Sox (72-77, minus-14, LW: 16)

You wouldn’t know it by their overall record, but the Red Sox have played some damn fine baseball lately. They’ve gone 19-11 in their past 30 games, averaging more than five runs per game during that span.

This past Saturday’s showing against the first-place Blue Jays was especially impressive. Down 4-2 entering the ninth inning, and sitting on an 0-65 record when trailing going into the ninth, the Sox rallied for five runs. Surprise 2015 All-Star Brock Holt, 22-year-old budding star Xander Bogaerts, promising Cuban rookie Rusney Castillo, suddenly slugging outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr., and old warhorse David Ortiz, riding yet another huge second-half turnaround, keyed the offensive explosion.

Notably absent from that rally was Pablo Sandoval. Granted, the veteran third baseman sat due to an illness that had him running a fever. But the Red Sox hardly missed him. After all, is it really that bad when the worst starting position player in all of baseball takes a day off?

Let’s begin with Sandoval’s flaccid offense. He’s batting just .245/.292/.366, a line that’s 25 percent worse than league average per park-adjusted metrics. Name just about any notable stat, and Sandoval’s results are down this year. A notorious free swinger from day one, Sandoval is hacking at more than 48 percent of the pitches he’s seen out of the strike zone this year — his highest mark in any full season. His walk rate sits at 5 percent, which would be his worst for any full season. Though his excellent contact skills remain intact, he’s still striking out more often than at any point in his eight-year career. Batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, isolated power? All career lows. Given how much more offense-friendly Fenway Park is than Sandoval’s former home at AT&T Park, those numbers become even more troubling.

Granted, Sandoval, who’s built some of his batting reputation on the strength of a few big games in October, has had some inconsistent offensive results in the past. But even then he could frequently fall back on his defense, which, while also inconsistent, often looked really good. In 2011, Sandoval saved 14 runs more than the average third baseman,4 making him the second-best defender at that position. Last season, he saved four more runs than the average third baseman. This year? He’s at minus-11, ranking him 34th in the majors at the hot corner.

Sandoval is still only 29, so it’s not like he’s at an age where we would normally expect a collapse. But with four years and nearly $75 million left on his contract, the Sox can’t feel great about having Sandoval, or his injury-prone, underachieving, very rich teammate Hanley Ramirez on the books.

The good news is that we’re now seeing a glimpse of the offense-heavy Red Sox team many pundits and projection systems expected at the start of the year. An outfield composed of Castillo, Bradley, and Mookie Betts, complemented by a terrific up-the-middle duo in Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia, looks poised to produce in 2016. If ownership is willing to fund another payroll of $184 million (or more) next year, there’d be enough space to reel in at least one elite starting pitcher — even with Sandoval, Ramirez, and Rick Porcello (who is owed, for some insane reason, $82.5 million from 2016 through 2019) polluting the balance sheet. As a team with one of the best crops of young position-player talent as well as three of the worst contract albatrosses in the game, Boston’s winter will be fascinating to watch.

Springing Back to Life

George Springer’s encouraging weekend offers hope for the teetering Astros.

15. Cleveland Indians (74-74, plus-15, LW: 15)
14. Minnesota Twins (76-73, minus-4, LW: 12)
13. Los Angeles Angels (76-74, minus-22, LW: 13)
12. San Francisco Giants (78-71, plus-77, LW: 11)
11. Washington Nationals (78-71, plus-78, LW: 14)
10. Houston Astros (80-71, plus-95, LW: 8)
9. Texas Rangers (80-69, minus-7, LW: 10)
8. New York Yankees (82-67, plus-88, LW: 9)

After Friday’s Fuld-fueled failure, the Astros have won three in a row, and things are suddenly looking up. Houston owns a firmer hold on the second wild-card spot, and an AL West crown remains in play. Plus, the Astros got another encouraging sign over the past trio of games: George Springer might be rounding back into form.

Heading into this season, big things were expected of Springer, the second-year outfielder brimming with talent. In his rookie season, he smacked 20 homers in just 78 games, showed intriguing speed on the basepaths, and tempered his huge strikeout rate with ample walks. Through his first 75 games this year, Springer looked even better, batting .264/.365/.457, clubbing 13 homers and 14 doubles, drawing 42 walks, and swiping 14 bases in 324 plate appearances — all while playing better-than-average defense in right field.

Then the injury bug struck. Hit on the wrist in the fifth inning of Houston’s July 1 game against the Royals, Springer went on to spend more than two months on the disabled list, marking the second straight season he’d suffered a significant injury.5 Through Friday’s game, Springer had been punchless since his return, batting .231/.310/.288, with just two extra-base hits (no homers) and no steals in 59 plate appearances.

We’ve seen only three games since that low point, but Springer has looked pretty damn healthy in those three games. In Saturday’s 10-6 win over Oakland, he singled, walked, knocked in a run, and stole his first base since his return. In Sunday’s 5-1 victory, Springer finally turned on the power again, smashing a frozen rope of a two-run homer that reached the left-field bleachers in about 0.0001 seconds. And in yesterday’s 6-3 win over the Angels, he went 2-for-4 with a run and an RBI.

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Going beyond Springer, much of Houston’s recent struggles simply come down to bad luck: Despite boasting baseball’s fifth-best offense, Houston has posted a 7-12 record this month. Some of that is certainly due to a team ERA over 5.00 in September. Still, much of it seems to be the result of a good bullpen having a short patch of ugly results, and bad fortune in general fueling those six one-run losses since September 1. A bit of better luck, combined with a bounce-back for one of their best all-around players, would help a lot. This week, which includes two more games against the hovering Angels and a three-game home set against the first-place Rangers, will go a long way toward deciding the AL playoff race.

Plus, Houston would do well to sort things out at home, because the Astros finish the season with a six-game road trip to Seattle and Arizona. Those might seem like a pair of forgiving opponents, but just take a look at the Astros’ record over the past 53 games away from home: They’re 14-39.

Johnny, (Please) Be Good

The Royals own the best record in the AL, but Johnny Cueto’s struggles will be hard to cover up in October.

7. New York Mets (85-65, plus-62, LW: 7)
6. Kansas City Royals (87-62, plus-80, LW: 4)
5. Los Angeles Dodgers (85-64, plus-75, LW: 5)
4. Chicago Cubs (88-62, plus-60, LW: 6)
3. Toronto Blue Jays (86-64, plus-215, LW: 3)
2. Pittsburgh Pirates (90-60, plus-93, LW: 1)
1. St. Louis Cardinals (94-56, plus-114, LW: 2)

When Kansas City snagged Reds ace Johnny Cueto before the trade deadline, Grantland’s resident Royals expert, Rany Jazayerli, praised the move as being exactly the kind of gamble K.C. had never taken in the past. With Cueto and Ben Zobrist added to a team that was outperforming last year’s AL-pennant-winning squad, another deep playoff run seemed all but assured.

The Royals still own the best record in the American League, meaning they’re two weeks away from entering the postseason with home-field advantage all the way through the World Series. But warning signs remain as Kansas City readies for the playoffs — and those signs begin with Cueto.

Things started brilliantly for the All-Star right-hander in K.C. In his first four starts as a Royal, he fired 30 innings, striking out 21 batters, walking just four, ceding just one home run, and posting a 1.80 ERA. Then, the wheels came flying off. Over his next five starts, opponents strafed Cueto for 30 runs and 48 hits in 26.1 innings, batting .390/.411/.675 against him over that span.

The explanation isn’t clear, either. Opponents posted a .417 batting average on balls in play during that five-start stretch, an unsustainably high number that was likely partly due to luck. But it’s not like he was getting blooped to death by cheap hits, as the nine doubles, one triple, and eight homers in those five starts could attest.

Nine days ago, ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote that Royals pitching coach Dave Eiland met with Cueto to watch video and found that his left shoulder was turning too soon as he started his motion toward home plate. According to Eiland, that was resulting in flat pitches, and Cueto’s cutter in particular was getting smoked. The numbers bear that out, too: Opponents batted .417 with a ludicrous .792 slugging average against Cueto’s cutter in those five starts. Even the best pitchers can go through bad stretches from time to time, of course. But in Cueto’s case, you had to wonder if his earlier-in-the-year elbow problems were resurfacing; despite his strong numbers as a Red, his elbow became enough of a red flag that observers wondered if it might severely hamper his trade value.

If this is an injury, no one’s said a peep about it. Moreover, Cueto’s most recent start was a good one. Facing the Tigers on Friday, he tossed seven effective innings, allowing two runs, eight hits, and one walk, while fanning four. The 14 swinging strikes he induced tied for his second-highest total in a Royals uniform. Add that start to his previous nine as a Royal, and you’ve got five outings that qualify as somewhere between good and great, and five that were atrocious.

Last year, the combination of a great defense and a brilliant bullpen might have been enough to protect against Cueto’s erratic performances, but this is a different team than we saw in 2014.

Granted, the defense remains in great shape, ranking first in the American League in Defensive Runs Saved after coming in third last year and first in 2013, per Baseball Info Solutions. The bullpen still has plenty of weapons to fire, too. For the second year in a row, Wade Davis looks like peak Mariano Rivera without the saves. Ryan Madson has quietly been one of the best stories in the game this year, returning from four years of injury-induced time off to post a stellar 2.35 ERA. Meanwhile, Danny Duffy’s first outing after getting demoted to the bullpen last week was a killer: four innings pitched, two hits, no walks, no runs, six strikeouts. Add in the offensive breakouts by Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas, the addition of Zobrist, and a big bounce-back year by Kendrys Morales, and you’ve got a team that might crack 95 wins.

Now, for the elephant in the bullpen: Greg Holland doesn’t look like Greg Holland anymore. The once-dominant closer has struggled since the start of August, posting a 5.54 ERA and allowing a line of .308/.393/.442 in 15 appearances. Even more concerning than those results is Holland’s velocity, which has suddenly nosedived.

Royals manager Ned Yost has adjusted his bullpen usage this year when he’s needed to, most notably by slotting Davis in the closer’s role here and there. But if Holland’s free fall continues, Yost might have to make a more dramatic move, possibly shifting Holland not only out of the closer’s role, but also out of high-leverage situations entirely. Given the security blanket that Kelvin Herrera, Davis, and Holland have offered in the seventh through ninth innings over the past two seasons, Yost still might be reluctant to make a move that drastic, even if Holland continues to falter. And that makes the Royals a much less intimidating proposition come the postseason.

Here’s the case against Kansas City: Cueto is a box of chocolates; the rotation behind him is weak; Holland is throwing meatballs; Alcides Escobar hits like a pitcher; Omar Infante is out for the next couple of weeks (at least) with an oblique injury; and the Royals are an even 30-30 against teams with above-.500 records this year. Even if Kansas City ends up with the best record in the American League two weeks from now, it doesn’t mean the Royals will be the best team.

Yet, as we see year after year, there’s also a chance that none of this will matter come October. Two wild-card teams made the World Series last season, and the best team rarely wins the whole thing. Instead, it’s the teams that happen to get hot at the right time. Of all of this year’s prospective playoff teams, the Royals know that better than anyone.

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, Jonah Keri, MLB Stats, MLB Injuries, Oakland A's, Sam Fuld, San Diego Padres, Houston Astros, Boston Red Sox, Kansas City Royals, James Shields, Pablo Sandoval, George Springer, Johnny Cueto

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri