Longing for more long balls
Joe Mauer, Pablo Sandoval among players who've had power shortages in 2010
During my most recent chat on ESPN.com, a reader named Jason from New Jersey pointed out that Oakland and Seattle are legitimate threats to finish the season with fewer than 100 home runs, and Kansas City might fail to reach that threshold as well. "Has an AL team ever done that?" he asked.
The answer: It's happened lots of times, but not since 1992, when Milwaukee, Boston, Kansas City and California all fell short of 100 homers. Mike Macfarlane led the Royals with 17 long balls that year, Tom Brunansky topped the Red Sox with 15, and Jim Leyland and the Pittsburgh Pirates won 96 games and fell to Atlanta on a Francisco Cabrera single in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. It's been a while.
As readers are no doubt aware, 2010 has been proclaimed "The Year of the Pitcher," which means no-hitters in abundance and a decline in power across the board. With six weeks left in the regular season, big league teams are averaging 0.95 homers a game -- the lowest ratio in 17 years.
A year or two ago, cynics would have smirked and immediately attributed the decline to a crackdown on steroids, greenies and other pharmaceutical aids. But it's becoming progressively harder to fall back on that catch-all explanation. This year a lot of players in their career primes -- players who have never aroused the slightest suspicion of doing anything untoward -- are putting up some meager home run totals.
In this week's installment of the Starting 9, we check in on nine big league hitters who have been surprisingly long ball deprived in 2010.
Joe Mauer, Twins
Mauer ranks among the American League leaders in batting average (.329), doubles (38) and on-base percentage (.402). He also has 51 walks and only 41 strikeouts, so if he's having an off year, it's only by Joe Mauer standards.
The Twins' new home, Target Field, has been an obvious factor in Mauer's decline from 28 home runs last year to seven this season. The Twins have hit only 34 of their 111 homers in Minnesota, and Mauer isn't the only player in manager Ron Gardenhire's lineup with drastic power splits. Delmon Young and Justin Morneau have hit 24 of their 33 homers in away games, and Michael Cuddyer's power has also taken a dip.
The Metrodome outlived its usefulness a while ago, but it gave Minnesota hitters a stable, predictable environment every time out. The temperature, hitting background and other conditions were precisely the same each game. All of a sudden, the Twins were playing in a venue where it was cold one day and hot the next, the winds swirled in every direction, and opposite-field fly balls that once reached the seats were now dying at the warning track.
When hitting coach Joe Vavra saw Twins players muscling up for a little extra distance -- and slowing down their swings in the process -- he decided to have a talk with the boys.
"We told guys, 'You're changing your mechanics, which you don't want to do, to beat the ballpark,'" Vavra said. "These players are good baseball people and they understand that. They were like, 'All right. Why beat yourself up? We have to go win ballgames. That's first and foremost. We have to make adjustments.' And they did it."
Mauer's other issues have been well-documented: He has reportedly been bothered by nagging injuries to his shoulder, heel, back and hip. It's also human nature for the local hero to feel a burden to live up to his new eight-year, $184 million contract. Mauer has looked more relaxed recently, and he's hitting .426 since the All-Star break.
"As cool, calm, collected and gathered as Joe is, he's no different than anybody else when it comes to expectations," Vavra said. "There was some disappointment in seeing ball after ball get crushed and not leaving the ballpark, and that was weighing pretty heavy [on him]. Now he's back to being Joe Mauer, driving the ball and using the gaps."
Pablo Sandoval, Giants
There have been lots of reasons advanced for Sandoval's offensive drop off this season. He has reportedly been dealing with the mental and emotional strain of a divorce. Scouts also grouse about his weight issues, although Sandoval's hefty physique is more a long-term concern than a short-term drag on his performance.
In his second full major league season, Sandoval is also coming to grips with the sophomore slump. After he tore up National League pitching in 2009, opposing staffs adjusted to him, and now he has to find a way to counterattack. His challenge is finding a balance between the free-swinging, aggressive "Kung Fu Panda" and the undiscerning hitter who does pitchers favors by swinging at balls that almost nobody can drive.
"The guy didn't just fall off a cliff," said an NL personnel man. "He hasn't forgotten how to hit. But word gets around the league, and he has to find a way to adjust.
"Would you like him to tone it down some so he goes deeper in the count and gets better pitches to hit? Sure. But he likes to swing the bat, and you don't want to push him to be too nonaggressive because that's going to take away from his game -- attacking fastballs early in the count."
Sandoval, a switch-hitter, has hit all eight of his home runs from the left side, and his home-road splits are mystifying. He's slugging .517 at AT&T Park, one of baseball's more challenging offensive venues, and has a feeble .289 slugging percentage on the road.
Jason Bay, Mets
It's not easy coming to New York and embracing the expectations of a big contract. Just ask Carlos Beltran, who hit .266 with 16 homers and 78 RBIs in 2005 after signing a seven-year, $119 million contract with the Mets as a free agent. Beltran missed time with a quadriceps strain, suffered a concussion in a frightening collision with Mike Cameron, and was widely perceived as a bust.
The perception was markedly different in 2006, when Beltran hit 41 homers, won Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards and finished fourth in National League MVP balloting.
The Mets are hoping for a similar storyline from Bay, who's been a huge disappointment in the first year of a four-year, $66 million deal. Bay hasn't played since suffering a concussion in late July, and now the Mets have to hope he can return in time to salvage something from this season
According to Katie Sharp of ESPN Stats & Information, Bay was more effective pulling the ball last year, when 30 of his 36 home runs were hit to left field. He's had to deal with the transition to Citi Field, the fourth-worst home run park in the majors. And the more his problems have mounted, the less selective he's become. A FanGraphs breakdown shows that Bay is swinging at 27 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, compared to 20.1 percent in 2009. He's been particularly vulnerable against two-strike breaking balls off the outside corner.
"They've counted on him to be more of 'the guy' in New York than he was in Boston. He just kind of fit in there," said a National League executive. "And in New York it's a constant every day: 'Why aren't you hitting with more power?' It's got to play on his brain."
Ben Zobrist, Rays
Zobrist emerged as a stat-geek cult hero last year when he ranked second to Albert Pujols among major league players with 8.3 wins above replacement. Joe Mauer was third at 8.0.
Those "Zorilla" references aren't being thrown around as liberally now that Zobrist is slugging .363, in the same neighborhood as Clint Barmes and Erick Aybar. Zobrist never hit for much power in the minors, and that 27-homer onslaught from a year ago is starting to look like the statistical outlier.
"I think [his 2009 total] was more of the aberration," said an NL scout. "If he gives you 15 or 20 in a year, that's truly who he is. Guys with the big home run totals get great leverage and lift the ball quickly. He has more of a balanced swing and a line-drive stroke. There's not that natural leverage created on contact."
In the absence of home run trots, Zobrist has found other ways to help manager Joe Maddon win games. He has 22 stolen bases in 25 attempts, has played first base, second base and all three outfield positions, and made the big defensive play with a running catch in Matt Garza's no-hitter. He also leads the team with 68 walks.
"Even if he goes 0-for-4 and doesn't have a ball hit to him, he can still have a positive impact, because he allows Joe to give other guys days off and keep everybody fresh," said an American League manager. "He helps make that whole team better."
Brandon Inge, Tigers
Inge hit 27 homers last year on knees so damaged he could barely walk. It's hard to understand how his home run production could fall this drastically now that his knees have been surgically repaired and he has a firmer base than a year ago.
The numbers reflect a commitment that Inge made in spring training to become a more complete hitter and less of an all-or-nothing type. He shortened his swing with the help of hitting coach Lloyd McClendon, became less pull-conscious and has made a greater effort to hit the ball where it's pitched.
As a result, Inge's walks and on-base percentage are up, his strikeouts are down and he has a chance to surpass his single-season high of 31 doubles. The Tigers would rather see Inge hit .270 with 18-20 homers and 80 RBIs than launch a few more balls into the seats and hit .230 with 170 strikeouts.
"Eventually he'll become a much more dangerous hitter," McClendon said. "Our goal is to make him a more consistent hitter and well-rounded run producer as opposed to a one-dimensional guy."
Inge recently returned from a broken bone in his hand, and is now being mentioned in trade speculation. With Detroit's postseason hopes all but done, he might be a fit for St. Louis, Atlanta or another contender in search of a right-handed bat.
Nick Markakis, Orioles
Markakis generated a lot of Paul O'Neill and Shawn Green comparisons as a rising prospect in the Orioles system. Five years later, he's an established presence in the Baltimore lineup, and Ellis Valentine is his closest statistical comparison on Baseball-reference.com.
Markakis' home run total fell from 23 to 20 to 18 over the past three seasons, and this year he has eight long balls in 460 at-bats. Markakis has a whopping 39 doubles and a .371 on-base percentage, but it's hard to fathom why he isn't yanking a few more balls into the right-field seats at Camden Yards. His haul this year includes an estimated 441-foot shot against Dan Haren, a 416-footer off Cliff Lee and a 402-foot blast off CC Sabathia, so he's eminently capable of driving the ball.
"A bunch of people feast on fourth and fifth starters and middle-inning relievers, but Nick can get a hit off a good pitcher late in the game, and there aren't many of those guys around," said Buck Showalter, Baltimore's new manager.
Markakis hasn't had the luxury of a big, veteran bat to provide a threat in the middle of the order, so opposing teams are going to work him carefully. And he's the type of hitter who would rather lay off a pitch two inches inside rather than expand his zone.
"The home run column doesn't concern me," Showalter said. "Would it surprise me to see Nick hit 30 next year? No. Would it surprise me to see him hit 10 this year? No. If he hits 30 home runs next year and hits .260 and doesn't have as many doubles and strikes out a lot more, I'm not going to like that a whole lot."
Brad Hawpe, Rockies
Hawpe averaged 25 homers and 93 RBIs over a four-year span and made the All-Star team in 2009, but he's swinging a tired bat this season. His power brownout is puzzling to the Rockies, who had no reason to expect this steep a decline from a player who just turned 31 in June.
"I honestly wish I knew," said Rockies general manager Dan O'Dowd. "He worked extremely hard in the winter, came to camp in great shape and has struggled to find his rhythm all year. We keep hoping he will find it. We could really use it right now."
Colorado's first-base contingent of Todd Helton, Jason Giambi, Melvin Mora, Hawpe and Brad Eldred ranks 26th in the majors in slugging percentage at the position. Factor in injury problems, a lack of production from second base, continued growth pains for Dexter Fowler and Chris Iannetta and a team-wide failure to hit on the road, and it helps explain why the Rockies need a huge late-season push to get back in the playoff picture.
Hawpe has about $2 million left on his contract this season, and a $10 million club option for 2011. He is reportedly going through waivers, and if another club claims him, the Rockies will almost certainly let him go. Troy Renck of the Denver Post reported Tuesday night that Hawpe's roster spot is "in jeopardy," and that if he clears waivers, the Rockies could trade, release or designate him for assignment to make room to add a relief pitcher.
Cody Ross, Marlins
After undistinguished stints in Detroit, Los Angeles and Cincinnati, Ross established himself as more than a fourth outfielder with back-to-back impressive seasons in Florida. He averaged 23 homers and 81 RBIs in 2008 and 2009.
This year Ross has taken a step back, with only 10 homers in 433 at-bats. Ross is a career .321 on-base guy, so if he's not hitting the ball over the fence, he only has so many ways to contribute.
A lot of Ross' problems stem from spring training, when he was bothered by a calf injury and logged a total of 22 Grapefruit League at-bats. He was in the Florida lineup on Opening Day, but homered once in his first 125 at-bats and has never really gotten on a roll. "It's like he's been swimming against the current all year," said an NL scout.
Ross is making $4.45 million and will be more expensive next year in salary arbitration, and his name has been bandied around as a potential non-tender candidate in December. But one person familiar with the Florida front office's thinking said that's "not happening."
Ross is a decent outfielder and a popular presence in the clubhouse, and the baseball-wide shortage of right-handed power should make it relatively easy for the Marlins to trade him if they determine he's too costly to keep. That's what happened last winter when the Marlins dealt outfielder Jeremy Hermida to Boston.
Jose Lopez, Mariners
"He's kind of an enigma," an NL scout said of Lopez. That's a diplomatic way of saying that Lopez doesn't exactly bowl people over with his work ethic or passion for the game. It was telling when he hit 25 homers for a power-deprived Seattle team last year, and rumors persisted that the Mariners were shopping him around all winter.
Lopez has made a smooth defensive transition from second base to third, but he's been one of several nonproductive bats in a Seattle lineup that ranks last in the league in runs scored. His .606 OPS is second-worst in the game among 161 qualifying hitters listed on the ESPN.com stats page (only Baltimore shortstop Cesar Izturis is worse). That's even more frightening when you consider that he's logged 307 at-bats at cleanup for the Mariners.
Safeco Field is a graveyard for right-handed power hitters, but it would help if Lopez showed a more discerning eye at the plate. According to FanGraphs, he's seeing about 11 percent fewer fastballs than he did two years ago, and a lot more breaking balls and changeups. Delmon Young and Vladimir Guerrero have done OK this year while swinging at everything. That approach isn't doing much for Lopez's career path.
Other players whose homer totals are down: Jayson Werth and Raul Ibanez, Phillies; Ian Kinsler and Bengie Molina, Rangers; Curtis Granderson, Yankees; Ryan Braun, Brewers; Evan Longoria, Rays; Derrek Lee, Cubs; Manny Ramirez, Dodgers; Clint Barmes and Todd Helton, Rockies; Pedro Feliz, Astros; Jay Bruce, Reds; Nate McLouth, Braves.