Key Weaknesses for Contenders

It’s the first week of May, and so that means it’s still early in the season, but maybe not quite as early as you think. No, none of the various starting pitchers with ERA marks south of 2.00 are going to keep that up all year long — well, maybe Jose Fernandez — but most teams have played about 18 percent of their schedules at this point.

It’s enough that it can’t be totally discarded, and where we can at least take an early look at contenders, identify some potential trouble spots and see if there’s anything they can — or should — do about fixing their early-season ailments.

Here’s a look at key weaknesses that have emerged for three contenders.

The Cardinals can’t hit lefty pitching

St. Louis is struggling badly against lefty pitching, trailing all of baseball in wOBA:

That’s the result of a .200/.279/.298 line against lefties, continuing a three-year slide. (And even that modest line comes with the benefit of collecting six hits Thursday off Milwaukee’s Wei-Chung Wang, a 22-year-old Rule 5 pick who was in the Gulf Coast League last season.) In 2012, the Cardinals were the second-best team in baseball against southpaws, then 21st last year and last so far in 2014. Obviously, that didn’t prevent them from making it to the World Series in 2013, but in a league where Cliff Lee, Clayton Kershaw and Francisco Liriano reside, it’s the biggest hole on an otherwise excellent St. Louis team.

So what changed? While Yadier Molina has consistently been very good against lefties, Matt Holliday has declined from “outstanding” to merely “acceptable,” former lefty-masher David Freese was traded and Matt Carpenter is off to a slow start against all pitchers. The departure of Carlos Beltran also means that more plate appearances have gone to Matt Adams, now the regular first baseman, and he’s shown an enormous platoon split over his short career, posting a 143 wRC+ against righties but only a 48 against lefties.

In addition, Allen Craig, previously a reliable source of production against lefties, has struggled terribly against everyone this year, to the point that he’s been one of the worst players in the game thus far. Absent an undisclosed injury, that seems unlikely to continue all year, but one possible solution would be to move Craig back to first base against lefties, where he thrived last year, while simultaneously keeping Adams away from them.

The Dodgers can’t make contact

Strikeouts across MLB are on the rise, and that’s not exactly a secret. In 2005, hitters struck out 16.4 percent of the time, and that’s edged up consistently every year since, to today’s record-setting 20.8 percent. No team is taking that increase to an extreme as much as the Dodgers. They aren’t striking out the most in the game, but they are showing the biggest increase over 2013, whiffing 3.5 percent more often than they did last season.
It’s a teamwide affliction: Among those with regular playing time, only Dee Gordon and Yasiel Puig are striking out less than they did last year. The two biggest offenders have been Andre Ethier and Adrian Gonzalez, though for very different reasons. In Ethier’s case, it’s just all bad news. He’s always been, at the least, a league-average hitter, and usually 10 percent to 20 percent above that. Entering Thursday’s doubleheader, he’s hitting a mere .227/.298/.320 (.281 wOBA), as his power has continued to decline from his 2009 peak. That’s partially because he’s hitting more grounders (53.5 percent) than ever but also because he’s striking out nearly a full quarter of the time, as compared to a career rate of just 17.2 percent.

It’s different for Gonzalez, who is actually off to the best start of his career. Pitchers have been challenging him this year more than usual — 48.6 percent in the zone, higher than any year since 2006 — and he’s responded by swinging more than he has in his entire career. Since he’s making contact just below his usual rate, the higher amount of swings means more strikeouts.

Strikeouts aren’t always a bad thing, but only to a certain point — Matt Kemp is up to 28.1 percent — and only when they come with more production, as is the case with Gonzalez. It’s still early, but research suggests that strikeout rate can stabilize after as little as 60 plate appearances. Ethier, even playing part time, is up to 84. Dodgers fans may need to get used to seeing a team that strikes out more than they’ve ever seen.

The Tigers are struggling (even more) on defense

Much was made of the Tigers’ defensive struggles in 2013, particularly with Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder at the infield corners. With Fielder, Jhonny Peralta and Omar Infante all gone, Cabrera moving over to first and Jose Iglesias set to star all season at shortstop, the 2014 Tigers had a different starter at every infield position and a brighter defensive outlook.

And yet, so far they’ve somehow been worse, despite the fact that Cabrera has been viewed as a positive at first base. By most metrics, the Tigers are either the worst- or second-worst defensive team in baseball. The loss of Iglesias to a shin injury and the league-worst performance by Alex Gonzalez as his replacement certainly hurt, but the big problem has been in the outfield, where Austin Jackson and (especially) Torii Hunter have looked awful. For Jackson, it’s the continuation of a downward slide on defense since an outstanding 2011 — that he was named Detroit’s defensive player of the year last year was more about the rest of the Tigers and the fact that Iglesias was ineligible than it was about him — but the early play of Hunter has been most surprising of all.

Hunter turns 39 in July, so any expectation that he might be the same player he was when he was among baseball’s best center fielders (when he was in Minnesota and Anaheim) is unrealistic. (He’s still producing at the plate — .300/.325/.500 through Thursday.) But he’s also squarely in the argument for the worst defensive player in baseball (among those getting regular playing time), having cost the Tigers nine Defensive Runs Saved. (By comparison, Jason Heyward has earned the Braves 13 runs saved.)

The Tigers allow the seventh-most fly balls in baseball, so having poor defense in the outfield hurts all the more. Unfortunately, with designated hitter squarely in the hands of Victor Martinez, they may not have a choice but to keep running Hunter out there. In the last 70 years, only nine regular right fielders have even qualified for the batting title at age 39 or up, and the best among them was Ichiro Suzuki‘s 1.8 WAR in 2012. Right now, Hunter’s defense is essentially canceling out his offense.

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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or
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Nats can’t stay healthy.