Commentary

What's wrong with …?

Scouts try to pinpoint reasons for struggles of Danks, Jimenez, Uggla, Soria, others

Updated: June 7, 2011, 2:19 PM ET
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

With every day that goes by in this crazy season, we can't help but ask: Is there a more confusing sport than baseball?

Curling, maybe? Or possibly the ever-cryptic Nordic Combined?

Well, even if you're Nordic, we bet you didn't think, back on fantasy draft day, that Wilson Valdez would have as many wins right now as John Danks, or that Corey Patterson would have as many homers as Adam Dunn. And if you did, we sure hope you plunked a thousand bucks on both of those wagers on your last trip to Vegas.

So what's up with that? Well, that's what Rumblings and Grumblings is here for. So join us now for this very special edition of "What's Wrong With …"

John Danks

There are 92 pitchers in the big leagues who have made at least a dozen starts. And 91 of them won a game before Danks, who didn't surgically remove that donut from his wins column until Monday night. If you just looked at his record or his ERA, you'd never know this fellow still might have the best stuff in the entire White Sox rotation. But, his messy WHIP notwithstanding, that 1-8 record hasn't been all his fault.

His bullpen blew two wins for him in his first three starts. His offense has handed him five Criminally Unsupported Starts (second-most in the league, one behind Dan Haren). And Danks is one of only four AL pitchers (along with Justin Verlander, Haren and Jeff Francis) who have made at least six quality starts that haven't resulted in a win. On the other hand, he also gave up nine runs to the Blue Jays two starts ago, so he can't totally skate here, either.

"I think he's run into some bad luck," said one scout. "When I saw him, I thought everything seemed pretty much the same as when I've seen him before. Location has always been an issue for him. But I don't see anything wrong with his stuff."

Ubaldo Jimenez

A year ago this time, the Great Ubaldo was a Bob Gibson-esque 11-1, with a 0.93 ERA. Since then, he's come parachuting back to our planet, going a Rodrigo Lopez-esque 9-12, 4.41. And he'd gone 11 straight starts without a win since last September until he shut out the Dodgers last week.

Jimenez still has great stuff. But his average fastball velocity is down from 96 mph to 94. His walk rate is way up. And he's only made it past the sixth inning three times all season (compared with 19 times last year). So despite nonstop denials from the Rockies, no wonder scouts have speculated all year he might be hurt.

"He finally threw more strikes," said one scout who saw his last start. "And he used his fastball more. The one thing I'd seen earlier was, he'd really gone away from his fastball, maybe because he knew he didn't have a good one. But he's still got to throw it. If you can locate at 93 or 94 down in the zone with late life, that works. You don't have to throw 100. Looks like somebody finally got that point across to him."

Joakim Soria

Soria just lost his closer's gig in Kansas City after blowing as many saves in a week (three) as he'd blown in any of his three full seasons as a closer. But even though he's been better since that demotion (four hitless innings), his 2011 troubles have always extended beyond the old blown-save column. The numbers say he's throwing fewer strikes, getting fewer swings and misses, and inducing almost nobody to chase pitches out of the strike zone. But the most alarming trend is his increasing addiction to his cutter, a pitch he's throwing more than at any point in his career.

"That's a pitch that's hurting a lot of pitchers, I think," said one scout. "This is a guy who never had a cutter like [Mariano] Rivera's in the first place. He had a great four-seamer [fastball] and two-seamer, and he mixed them with a real good curve and changeup. But I think the cutter has affected those two off-speed pitches, because he's really not using them the way he did in the past."

Adam Dunn

The White Sox love their home run trots. So in a world of disappearing power, Dunn sure seemed like a sensible investment last winter, at four years for $56 million. He didn't just come into the season as the only player in baseball working on a streak of seven straight seasons with at least 38 home runs. He was the only player with a streak of more than two of those seasons.

So while you could have figured he'd have some adjusting to do after 10 years in the National League, nobody saw him going 0-for-2 months against left-handed pitching, or running up a gruesome .309 slugging percentage, even with a fun-filled appendectomy thrown in there for amusement purposes only. Granted, Dunn's dependable track record was compiled with his appendix intact. But everybody we surveyed still predicts those long balls ought to be flying again any minute now.

"He's really feeling his way around a new league," said one scout. "He just can't get comfortable with all these new pitchers he's seeing. But there's nothing wrong with him. He's got the same presence. His mechanics at the plate look fine. I'd bet on him having a big second half, actually."

Dan Uggla

You can't blame the Braves for thinking they were trading for (and signing) a lineup-changing 30-homer machine. What they've gotten instead, mysteriously, is a guy who ranks dead last in the National League (among players with at least 180 plate appearances) in batting average, on-base percentage and Runs Created Above Average. That doesn't figure to continue, either. But what's scary is that Uggla is getting worse, not better. Over the past three weeks, he's a messy 5-for-his last 60, with one extra-base hit.

"His biggest problem," said one scout, "is he's not getting his front foot down, so he's got a timing issue. And now he's pressing."

"He looks awful," said another scout. "Every ball down in the zone is a 6-3 or a 4-3. And it's becoming psychological."

Alex Rios

As the Blue Jays' dump-his-contract-on-the-waiver-wire ploy proved a couple of years ago, Rios at his worst can be an exasperating fellow to have around. And Rios at his worst is pretty much what the White Sox have gotten this year. In fact, he's been the least productive middle-of-the-order hitter in the entire American League so far, if you measure production via Lee Sinins' Runs Created Above Average rankings.

The funny thing is, Rios is making more contact than in any season of his career -- but his average on balls in play (.205) is down 101 points from last year. Which tells you he's likely to come out of this one of these months, once he stops blaming the local Gatorade coolers.

"A lot of this is mechanical," said one scout. "He starts his hands real low, and he never gets in position to hit. By the time he does, the ball gets too deep on him and he can't do anything with it. But it's tough to watch. His body language is terrible. I hate watching him. He's a kid with so much ability, but he doesn't get the most out of it."

Dustin Pedroia

It's been a strange year for the Red Sox' human dust storm. He's still walking, getting on base (.355 OBP) and hitting left-handers (.355/.487/.516). But he's also whiffed as many times already (38) as he did all last season. He went 17 straight games without an RBI at one point. And he's only hitting .202 against right-handers -- down 107 points from his career average heading into this season.

"His bottom is flying out on pitches on the outer half, and he's not turning on the ball in on him, either," said one scout. "So to be honest, I don't think he's healthy. His whole game looks out of sync, I think, because of that foot injury. But if I were them, I'd leave him alone and let him fight his way through it, because that's what he'll do."

Ichiro Suzuki

We always thought if there was one thing you could count on this world, it was Ichiro hitting his standard .320 (or .350), with 200 hits (or 250) a year. But not anymore. All of a sudden, he's spiraling through the worst funk of his career -- 8-for-his last 55 (.145), 13-for-his last 75 (.173), 27-for-131 (.206) since the end of April. He's still making plenty of contact. But here's a sign that that contact has been funkier than ever: Even though his walks are up and his strikeouts are down, his batting average on balls in play is (.284), an eyeball-popping 70 points lower than his career average.

"I've never seen the guy in a slump," quipped one scout. "So it's hard for me to comprehend this."

Other scouts see him chasing pitches at an unprecedented rate in his quest for 3,000-Hit Club glory. (He's currently 690 away, so don't call StubHub yet.) But the big number here is 37 -- an age that may be taking its toll on one of the great hitting kings of our time.

"I don't think this is the end," said one scout. "But my perception is, this is a guy who's starting to go backwards. It's just a natural progression of time. He's slowing up. But I don't think he's headed for rock bottom any time soon."

Ready to Rumble

On the labor front, it looks as if both the players and owners now favor launching the postseason with a one-game win-or-go-home survivor game between the wild-card teams if baseball adds a wild card in each league next year. And as we've said many times, that's the only way to go, for three reasons:

A. It increases the incentive to finish first.
B. It keeps the first-place teams from sitting around for five days.
C. It kicks off the postseason with two games packed with incredible drama.

So is it "fair" to have a whole baseball season come down to one game? Not if you ask the question that way. But remember, you have six months to avoid that fate -- by finishing first.

• Another idea that appears to be very much in play at the bargaining table is trading draft picks, as soon as next year. Think about the possibilities. The Rays had 10 picks Monday. The Red Sox had three of the first 36 picks. Arizona, a game out of first place in the NL West, had two of the first seven.

Say the draft was moved back to the All-Star break, which is also a possibility, and those teams could have swapped some picks for a front-line big league starter or a middle-of-the-order masher who could help them right now. It would elevate the draft buzz to a whole new level, especially among the masses. The concern has always been that trading picks would cause agents to manipulate the draft. But what the heck. They don't manipulate it now?

• After our column last week on shortening the season to 154 games, we got bombarded by tweets and e-mails from fans who love that idea. But when we asked one source with ties to the labor scene what the odds were of that happening, his pithy response was: "I don't see any chance. None."

• It took about 30 seconds, after the Royals made Soria their ex-closer, for baseball people to resume second-guessing K.C.'s disinterest in even listening to offers to trade him last year. But here's the deal on one Soria myth that's out there: The Yankees never "offered" Jesus Montero for Soria at any point. But they were clearly among the teams that dialed Dayton Moore's number to ask about Soria, both at the 2010 trading deadline and last winter. And would they have been willing to discuss a Montero-for-Soria trade on both occasions? Executives all over the game are convinced they would.

• As the A's losing streak hits seven, it's safe to say that Bob Geren has zoomed to the top of the "First Manager to Get Fired" charts.

Josh Willingham
Willingham

• And as the A's keep losing, scouts have begun bearing down on them as potential sellers in July. One scout who covered them recently says Josh Willingham is the one Oakland player he'd recommend to his club. So what about Brian Fuentes? "Tough guy to trust." David DeJesus? "Not catching up with good fastballs at all." Hideki Matsui? "Looks done."

• Two Phillies questions we've gotten a lot from chatters and tweeters: (1) would the Phillies consider trading Roy Oswalt in July for a big bat? And (2) does the recent move, from left field back to first base, of their best hitting prospect, Jonathan Singleton, mean they're now open to trading him for a bopper? The answer to both questions: very, very, verrrrry unlikely.

Oswalt still has a no-trade clause that he's unlikely to waive. And as one NL executive put it, trading him "doesn't make sense. If that team is going to win, it's going to win with its pitching staff. Why would it trade away a pivotal part of that staff?" Meanwhile, Singleton, 19, has a .378 on-base percentage as the youngest player in the Florida State League and was recently described by one scout who saw him as "a young Bobby Abreu, with more power." Plus, the Phillies' money issues make it likely they'll only be shopping for low-budget bats in July, anyway.

Charlie Morton
Morton

• We asked one longtime scout this week if he could ever remember any pitcher copying another pitcher's delivery as meticulously as Charlie Morton has adapted Roy Halladay's motion. His reply: "I've never, ever seen a position player or pitcher clone himself in the middle of career like this. It's not like Charlie Morton did this out of high school. He did this in the big leagues. And for him to do it and have this success, you wonder how many other guys could try this."

• The biggest reverberation from the Daisuke Matsuzaka saga might not have a whole lot to do with the future of Dice-K himself. It's the sobering effect of Daisuke's experience in the good old U.S. of A. on future mega-ballyhooed Japanese stars -- like Yu Darvish, for instance.

"I think this will have a huge impact on Yu Darvish," said an official of one team that's plowed a few bucks into the Japanese market. "I think people will be very skittish now about paying those big posting fees in the future. If Darvish wants to come over here, and I'm still not sure he does, he'll get a nice contract. But no way the team [in Japan] gets that kind of posting fee. The bottom line is that, except for Ichiro and [Hideo] Nomo and Matsui, these big free agents from Japan haven't really panned out."

• Loyal reader Daniel Palmeri pointed out a weird schedule glitch we'd missed: The Cardinals were through with all their West Coast trips by Memorial Day. But the Reds still have to visit Los Angeles and San Francisco. The Brewers have to go to Colorado, Arizona and San Francisco. And the Astros hadn't played any games west of Houston until this month. Makes no sense whatsoever.

Diamondbacks

• Thanks to all the loyal readers and tweeters who responded to last week's reader challenge -- to find another coaching staff with more top-two MVP finishers than the Diamondbacks (who currently have four). Nobody ever did run across a staff with more. But loyal reader James Styles was first to check in with the closest call, the 2006-07 Yankees. They employed two MVPs (Joe Torre and Don Mattingly), one runner-up (Ron Guidry, who also won a Cy Young) and one third-place finisher (Larry Bowa).

And loyal reader Sean Brown was first to nominate the other star-studded group -- Torre's 1995 Cardinals. They included an MVP (Torre), a Cy Young (Bob Gibson), a rookie of the year (Chris Chambliss) and a top-three rookie of the year finisher (Red Schoendienst). Good work. And thanks for playing!

Five astounding facts (Tuesday edition)

1. How great is this? Tom "Flash" Gordon pitched in the big leagues for 21 seasons and never scored one run. His son, Dee Gordon, got called up by the Dodgers on Monday, pinch-ran and scored a run before he'd even carried a bat to home plate in the big leagues. Hard to do!

2. One more on Dee Gordon, from ESPN Stats & Info kernel collector Doug Kern: He was the first player to pinch-run in his major league debut and score his team's only run of the game since Sept. 12, 1959 -- when Bullet Bob Saverine did it for the Orioles.

3. The Padres got shut out 10 times just in their first 60 games. The Yankees haven't been shut out 10 times in any season since 1991.

4. David Price, a former first overall pick in the draft, beat the Angels on Monday, on the same night the Pirates made Gerrit Cole the first pick of the 2011 draft. Believe it or not, it was the first time in 15 years that any former first overall pick won a game on Day One of the draft -- since the Mets' Paul Wilson outdueled Jason Schmidt in Atlanta on June 4, 1996. That was also a day the Pirates held that No. 1 pick -- and took Kris Benson.

5. And when Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez homered in the same game Sunday, it might not have made Red Sox history, but it definitely made economic history. It was the first time ever that two players on $140 million (or larger) contracts hit home runs in the same game for any team other than (guess who?) the Yankees. The only other times that had happened, according to the Sultan of Swat Stats, SABR home run historian David Vincent: Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter did it 27 times. A-Rod and Mark Teixeira did it 10 times. And Teixeira and Jeter did it six times.

Tweets of the week

Nyjer Morgan
Morgan

When Nyjer Morgan 's fictitious alter ego, @Tony_Plush, visited South Florida over the weekend, how could he help wondering how Key West fan Ernest Hemingway would have worked him into one of his inimitable literary classics? OK, don't answer that. But the Plushter envisioned it going kinda like this:

• If Papa had seen Plush play, would he have been immortalized in "The Old Man and the Sea" instead of Joe DiMaggio and Dick Sisler? Perhaps.

• Yes, Plush can see it now. The dispatch would have been called "Plushdamentals in the Afternoon."

• And how might the Plush portion of that narrative have begun? Possibly with this passage: "I got up late and went to a stadium whose name I did not remember. It changes often. I asked a tall man what a Land Shark is."

Headliner of the week

Finally, this bulletin just in from those parody kings at The Onion:

NHL FINES OZZIE GUILLEN
JUST TO SEE IF HE'LL PAY

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.

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Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com