When play finished on April 15, a dozen games into the season, Ian Desmond was hitting .109. He didn’t yet have an extra-base hit. He had walked four times and struck out 15 times. The new Texas Rangers left fielder was defining a baseball rite of passage: the slow start.
Desmond, though, got the next day off, and the Rangers’ game the following day was postponed. Since the breather, he has completely turned around his season — hitting .358 with six homers and 26 RBI in his next 34 games. His slow start is a memory. Now, he may have a career year.
But as we approach Memorial Day weekend, slow starts that extended long beyond Desmond’s are very much in danger of becoming lousy years.
With that, a group of stars who are teetering on the brink of having terrible seasons as June approaches.
Prince Fielder, Rangers designated hitter
.193 batting average/.269 on-base percentage/.281 slugging percentage, 2 HR, 24 RBI
A year ago, Fielder bounced back from his first season marred by injury by hitting .305, becoming an all-star for the sixth time, and cracking 23 home runs — a drop in power for someone who once hit 50 bombs in a season, but not a disaster. Now, though, Fielder is not only failing to propel the Texas lineup, he’s stalling it. Three players in all of baseball (shortstops Erick Aybar of the Braves and Jose Iglesias of the Tigers and catcher Derek Norris of the Padres) have lower OPSs than Fielder’s .550. How bad is that? Three times in his career, Fielder has posted slugging percentages that top .550. He’s only 32, and despite his girth he has remained mostly durable during his career, playing at least 157 games nine out of the last 10 years. But he has four years and $96 million remaining on his contract after this season, and this two-month stretch makes you wonder what the Rangers will get for that money.
Sonny Gray, Athletics right-hander
9 starts, 3-5, 6.19 ERA
Gray, 26, is supposed to be Oakland’s foundation, and he represents the future either because he’ll be pitching the A’s into the playoffs or because he’ll be dealt for a package of prospects who will be the new core. In his first 76 major league appearances over three seasons before this one, he had a 2.88 ERA. But by most measures, Gray is one of the worst pitchers in baseball thus far this season. Headed into the weekend, only three starters had worse ERAs. Before this year, he had allowed 1.134 walks and hits per inning pitched. That number this year is up to 1.646, sixth worst in the game. Last week, the A’s put Gray on the disabled list with what they called a strained muscle in his shoulder and neck. What kind of pitcher emerges will go a long way toward determining Oakland’s plans — both in the short- and long-term.
Matt Harvey, Mets right-hander
10 starts, 3-7, 6.08 ERA
The most significant issue for the defending National League champions is the man who pitched into the ninth inning of Game 5 of the World Series last year – and now can’t even reach the seventh. Harvey, who didn’t pitch in 2014 following Tommy John surgery but threw 216 innings last year, appears to tire early; his ERA in innings four through six is 9.89. Consider, too, that an average major league hitter thus far this year carries a .251 average and a .725 OPS. Against Harvey, the league is hitting .330 with a .901 OPS.
Chase Headley and Mark Teixeira, Yankees third baseman and first baseman
Headley: .223/.309/.308, 3 HRs, 11 RBI
Teixeira: .195/.294/.282, 3 HRs, 12 RBI
By now, it seems clear that the outlier in Headley’s career was his 31-homer, 115-RBI season for San Diego in 2012. Yet the Yankees, who traded for Headley midway through 2014, seemed to sign him to a four-year, $52 million contract before last season based on that production — and not on the fact that from 2007 to 2014, he was a .265 hitter with modest power and a .409 slugging percentage (that was certainly suppressed by spacious Petco Park, but still). Now, it’s biting them. Headley’s first extra-base hit this season came May 12, in his 103rd plate appearance. Teixeira, mercifully reaching the end of an eight-year, $180-million deal, is hitting .164 with a .433 OPS in May, worst in baseball. (Number of players who are slugging higher than .433 in May: 96.) These two guys entered the weekend with just 12 extra-base hits between them – six homers and six doubles – in 319 plate appearances, an unforgivable rate for men who play positions from which power is expected.
Jason Heyward, Cubs right fielder
.217/.320/.276, 1 HR, 16 RBI
Chicago’s best-in-baseball start to the season has masked a couple of small issues — and potentially one large one. Heyward, 26, signed an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Cubs in the offseason — and has struggled to start it out. A year after collecting 50 extra-base hits, he has just seven. In 39 games, he has just six multi-hit games. (Nationals second baseman Daniel Murphy has 24.) Though Heyward proponents argue that much of his value comes from his base running and defense — and anyone who watched his crashing-into-the-base-of-the-wall catch Sunday in San Francisco understands how good he is — he has just six stolen bases while being caught twice. According to FanGraphs, five Cubs position players have a higher wins above replacement than Heyward (0.4), who last year ranked sixth in the NL in WAR.
Dallas Keuchel, Astros left-hander
10 starts, 2-6, 5.92 ERA
Keuchel won the American League Cy Young award last year by going 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA and a league-leading 1.017 WHIP in a league-high 232 innings. Keuchel doesn’t overpower hitters: his average two-seam fastball last year registered just 89.5 mph, and he touched 93 mph with it. This year, though, that average is down to 88.2 mph, among the slowest in baseball. Over his last seven starts, in particular, hitters are crushing him, posting a .337 average and slugging .531. Entering the weekend, no AL starter had given up more hits (73) or earned runs (41) than Keuchel over his 62 1/3 innings.
Adam Wainwright, Cardinals right-hander
10 starts, 4-3, 5.77 ERA
From 2007 to 2014, when Wainwright became the ace of the St. Louis staff and also underwent and came back from Tommy John surgery, he was one of the most reliable starters in baseball. Among pitchers with at least 600 innings over that span, his 2.99 ERA was bettered only by Clayton Kershaw and Felix Hernandez. But last year, he blew out his Achilles’ tendon and made just seven appearances, and now he’s hittable – a .313 average against that is third worst in the NL. Wainwright’s strikeouts-per-nine innings have fallen steadily from 8.34 in 2012, his year back from surgery, to 8.16, 7.10, 6.43 and now 5.46 through his first 10 starts this year. Perhaps not coincidentally, his fastball velocity (89.6 mph) is the lowest of his career.