Power numbers down significantly for several players
Originally Published: June 11, 2008By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com
When you're talking about something as revered and tradition-bound as the home run and a drop in power production, each new development requires a corresponding pharmacological explanation.I gained a telling insight into the phenomenon two weeks ago in a story about Bret Boone's giving up his comeback bid and deciding to retire. A few ESPN.com readers praised Boone as a "gamer" who provided some wonderful memories in Seattle. But the overwhelming majority questioned the legitimacy of his numbers based on the assumption that he used performance-enhancing drugs even though he never failed a drug test. With Major League Baseball hitters averaging a homer every 34.77 at-bats (compared with one every 33.08 last season), this is the recurrent theme: Fans and assorted media members are conditioned to think each new fluctuation in offensive numbers is a product of hitters being off the juice. Never mind that we're now in the fifth year of MLB's drug policy. Or that pitchers have used steroids, too. Or that there's no reliable test for HGH, so some players might be still be using their favorite PED. There's a school of thought that the Mitchell report fallout and the sudden realization that you can get pinched without a positive test might have scared a lot of players straight this winter. Although baseball's amphetamine ban is also fodder for conversation, one AL assistant general manager asks, "Wouldn't that be more important in August, when guys really drag and their bodies start to wear down from the long grind of the season?" As we debate the impact of weather, the state of baseballs and the quality (or lack thereof) of bats, some players are bucking the trend. Ryan Ludwick, Carlos Quentin, Joe Crede and Nate McLouth are among the players who hit homers in bunches in April and May. The 2008 season hasn't been as kind to several other prominent names. In this week's installment of "Starting 9," we look at players whose power numbers have declined appreciably in the first 2½ months. Eight of the nine are under age 30, and none has been the subject of steroid whispers. The only trait they share these days, it seems, is warning track power.
Prince Fielder (50 homers in 2007, 10 in 229 at-bats this year)Pick a theory, and chances are someone has floated it to explain Fielder's early lack of thump. Among the most prominent: (1) Prince is hitting fewer homers because of his new vegetarian diet; (2) he was miffed in spring training when the Brewers automatically renewed his contract, and he's been out of sync ever since; (3) opponents are pitching him more carefully after his 50-homer season, and he has grown frustrated by all those breaking pitches and fastballs out of the zone; (4) he's pressing to prove that he deserves a $10 million, Ryan Howard-caliber deal in salary arbitration next season. The Brewers offered Fielder and teammate Ryan Braun multiyear contracts in the spring. Braun signed for eight years and $45 million, but Fielder, a Scott Boras client, turned down a long-term offer. This is how life works with Boras: Young players go year to year, and they reap the desired windfall if they continue to produce. If not, they run the risk of being unhappy campers. For whatever reason, Fielder has been more withdrawn and less media-friendly this season. When he hit four homers in five games during Milwaukee's more recent homestand, some observers joked that he had either stumbled upon some miracle tofu or slipped in a few late-night runs to Jack in the Box. In light of Prince's mind-set these days, we suspect he wouldn't find much humor in that.
Victor Martinez (25 homers last year, no homers in 197 at-bats this season)You know catchers are having a tough time finding their power strokes when Atlanta's Brian McCann (12 home runs) has one fewer homer than A.J. Pierzynski, Ramon Hernandez, Joe Mauer, Kenji Johjima, Pudge Rodriguez and Martinez combined.
Alex Rios (24 homers in 643 at-bats last year, three in 265 at-bats this season)After hitting 17 homers in the first half last year and losing to Vladimir Guerrero in the final round of the Home Run Derby, Rios went deep only seven times after the All-Star break. He wouldn't be the only player to fall victim to the post-Derby malady known as "Bobby Abreu syndrome."
Delmon Young (13 homers last season, one in his first 240 at-bats this year)The Twins knew they were getting more of a gap-to-gap hitter than a slugger when they acquired Young from Tampa Bay. But they weren't expecting Melky Cabrera Lite.
Khalil Greene (five homers in 241 at-bats, .311 slugging percentage)Greene hit 27 homers and knocked in 97 runs last year, but he finished with a woeful .291 on base percentage. In the name of self-improvement, he tinkered with a new batting stance in spring training.
B.J. Upton (24 home runs in 2007, five in 227 at-bats this year)Upton homered once every 19.8 at bats last year; this year, he's going deep once every 44.8 at-bats. But when the Rays say they're not concerned or alarmed, it's with good reason. Upton ranks second in the American League in walks behind Oakland's Jack Cust, and he's third in on-base percentage. His doubles, runs scored and stolen bases also are up appreciably from last season. "It's just that he has been pitched hard," Rays manager Joe Maddon said in an e-mail. "I don't know if he is seeing the same mistakes he saw last year. We like the idea that he's not expanding his zone, and believe the homers will show up as we get someone hot behind him." With the exception of a two-game, five-strikeout binge against Boston earlier this month, Upton has done a good job staying within himself and not swinging for the fences. That will continue to be a challenge as he fills in at cleanup for Carlos Pena, who is on the disabled list with a finger injury.
Miguel Cabrera (34 homers last year, eight this season)You could blame Cabrera's disappointing power on the adjustment from the National League to the American League, but the transition sure hasn't put a crimp in Josh Hamilton's production. And you could chalk it up to playing half his games at pitcher-friendly Comerica Park -- except that Dolphins Stadium, his old park, was even less conducive to home runs from 2005 through 2007. So here's what we know: Cabrera is an extremely gifted young hitter who generated early comparisons to Albert Pujols and has numbers that match up with Hank Aaron's at a similar stage of their careers. After coming over from Florida with Dontrelle Willis in an eight-player blockbuster deal in December, Cabrera signed an eight-year, $152.3 million extension in March. Maybe Tigers manager Jim Leyland is right and Cabrera was simply trying too hard out of the gate. But the continued focus on his conditioning raises questions about his maturity and commitment. Rather than rise above Detroit's sad start, he has let it drag him toward mediocrity -- at least in April and May. "The guy has a special bat, but he's just so big and slow," one AL scout said. "Maybe it's not fair, but the first thing that enters your mind when you see a body like that is 'undisciplined.' It boils down to makeup. You never know what's going to happen when you get somebody from another organization and pay him big money like that." Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon isn't concerned in the least. He expects Cabrera's numbers to improve as he continues to get more comfortable with his new surroundings. "He's just showing that he's human,'' McClendon said. "He's in a new league, and every night he has to learn new pitchers. And like most young kids, he's trying to live up to the hype. In the end, he's going to be fine. When all is said and done, I think he'll be right there at .300 with 30-32 homers and 120 RBIs.''
Carlos Beltran (averaging one home run every 39.2 at-bats after hitting a homer every 16.8 at-bats in 2007)Beltran's placid exterior has created the impression that he's more comfortable being a complementary player than the classic leader type. But it's unfair to refer to him as "soft." Beltran has appeared in all 63 Mets games this season despite having undergone surgery on both knees in the offseason. That's a natural power sapper.
Robinson Cano (four home runs, or one per every 60 at-bats)When Cano was hitting .151 in late April, Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long and scouts who followed the club insisted that he was a "rhythm and timing" hitter who would find his groove eventually. Now that he has raised his average to a more palatable .227, that appears to be the case. So when will the power come? Judging from Cano's career portfolio, he should start depositing more balls into the seats in about a month or so. In his first three big league seasons, Cano hit 13 homers in 751 at-bats in April, May and June. In July, August and September, he hit 35 long balls in 859 at-bats. It might be a stereotype that Latin players pick it up when the temperatures rise, but Cano, a native of the Dominican Republic, sure seems to embody it. Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
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