Proven players with proven problems
There's a tendency in fantasy baseball to give veterans the benefit of the doubt. Especially when a player has an extensive track record of success -- like Albert Pujols and his hitting .329 for the past decade, for example -- we're more likely to dismiss a .267 batting average to start the season and expect that, eventually, he'll turn it around.
However, even the greatest players can have a bad year, either as an isolated season of inferior production that they rebound from in the following campaign (such as Mike Schmidt's 1978) or as the first sign that age has finally caught up with them (see: Willie Mays in 1967).
Here are several cases where I think the slow starts to the 2011 season shouldn't necessarily be laughed off as "bad luck" or "just a cold streak." Sometimes, even the best in the business can't figure out how to get their previously stellar records back on track after they go off the rails for a bit.
Joakim Soria, P, Kansas City Royals: He has allowed runners to reach base in 13 of his first 19 appearances this season. His WHIP (1.39) and ERA (3.86) are both well above his career averages, and opponents are hitting .242 against him -- 45 points higher than his pre-2011 .197 mark.
What's the difference? For one, Soria isn't fooling anyone with his pitches. Opposing batters are swinging at only 17.6 percent of pitches outside the strike zone (as compared with higher than 30 percent the past two seasons) and are making more contact with what they are swinging at (up to 85.6 percent).
Soria has fallen in love with the cutter, and, as a result, he not only has lost a little velocity on his regular fastball but also has altered his delivery on his other pitches, possibly enough to tip off hitters as to what pitch is headed homeward.
The Kansas City Star reported earlier this month that pitching coach Bob McClure had said he had discovered a flaw in Soria's delivery and had outlined a plan to fix the issue once and for all. On the one hand, that seems to indicate that Soria's woes are not the result of anything physically wrong with the closer, but on the other hand, a mental block of sorts might take much longer to fall back into place.
After all, if it were such an easy and obvious problem to correct, shouldn't it have been taken care of long before it became necessary to make the problem a matter of public record?
Hanley Ramirez, SS, Florida Marlins: Where's the pop? Ramirez's slugging percentage is at a career-low .325 so far this season, a good 150 points below his lifetime mark. The culprit is clearly the fact that Han-Ram has remained grounded in 2011 -- as in a 56.9 percent ground ball rate, far and away the highest of his career.
Opposing pitchers are not throwing Ramirez fastballs with as much frequency as they have in previous years (55.2 percent this year, down from 59.6 lifetime, according to FanGraphs) and have loaded up on the breaking balls (particularly sliders, 20.1 percent compared with 17.6 per FanGraphs). As a result, the shortstop's timing has never gotten on track and his batting average on fastballs has fallen from .327 in 2010 to a sad .218 in 2011.
Ramirez needs to get a steady diet of heaters to return to his All-Star form, which is probably a huge reason manager Edwin Rodriguez recently moved him to the No. 2 spot in the lineup. With Chris Coghlan on base ahead of him and Logan Morrison back from the DL to provide protection behind, opposing pitchers could be more inclined to confront Ramirez head on.
It's a small sample size with Han-Ram in the 2-hole behind Coghlan, but so far Ramirez is just 2-for-15 in games in which Coghlan fails to get a hit. For the season, Ramirez is batting .170 with nobody on base and .280 with men on. So, it seems as though, at least until Hanley gets his groove back, he's going to need a lot of help from his friends to get him out of this .219 hole.
Adam Dunn, 1B, Chicago White Sox: From 2004 through 2010, Dunn averaged more than 40 home runs per season. At his 2011 pace, getting even 15 looks as if it might be a reach, even with Dunn playing at U.S. Cellular Field, which so far this season has been the fourth-easiest park in which to hit one over the wall.
Opposing pitchers should be afraid of Dunn, yet they are not. According to FanGraphs, more than two out of every three pitches he sees is a fastball, far and away the highest percentage of these pitches he has seen at any stage of his career. Because he's putting only 32 percent of these pitches into play (according to Inside Edge) -- 12 percent below the league average -- the steady diet of speed is unlikely to change.
Some have suggested that the power outage is temporary, and they point to Dunn's 50 percent fly ball rate and the time he missed early in the season as a result of the emergency appendectomy as reasons for optimism. That might explain a slow April, but since May 7, Dunn has only one home run and has at least one strikeout in all 15 games, 25 whiffs in all.
Part of the problem is that Dunn has lacked patience at the plate and seemingly is trying to hit every pitch over the wall to break out of his funk. Until he gets a little bit more selective in the pitches he tries to crush, his fantasy owners will continue to have their hopes crushed instead. Only then can we start to address the other glaring holes in his game, such as a .128 batting average against off-speed pitches (per Inside Edge) and an 0-for-2011 against left-handed pitching (30 at-bats).
Carl Crawford, OF, Boston Red Sox: What's wrong with Carl? Where's the .300 hitter we all expected to arrive at Fenway Park? How can this guy be batting only .209 for the season? In Crawford's case, it's not a function of adjustments that pitchers have made. This mess is one of his own making.
Most of the splits so far in 2011 look exactly the same as they did last season: 60 percent fastballs faced, 13 percent sliders faced, swinging at 36 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, an 83 percent contact rate and so on. Crawford's problem is not about the pitches he is seeing or swinging at but rather what he is trying to do with them.
In the past, Crawford has always been a pull hitter. For his career, according to FanGraphs, he's batting .329 on balls hit to right field. This season, his average has plummeted to .133, while at the same time he has hit just as many balls the opposite way, with a .293 average.
The reason may well be that darned Green Monster. In the past two seasons, Crawford hit .333 in 18 games at Fenway Park. Although a player can try to alter his swing to take advantage of the quirks of a particular ballpark for a day or so without any long-term impact, the way Crawford is flailing away at outside pitches that he used to avoid seems to indicate that his whole approach at the plate has changed for 2011 -- and clearly for the worse.
If Crawford doesn't start pulling the ball to right field -- and quickly -- it might be time to pull him from your lineup.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.
Follow AJ Mass on Twitter: @AJMass
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