Plenty of strange occurrences were bound to take place during this anything-but-ordinary 60-game regional schedule with new rules and no fans.
It was certainly conceivable that clubs like the Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Seattle Mariners, Miami Marlins and San Diego Padres could rise up during a short sprint and compete for one of the 16 playoff spots.
We figured someone might make an unexpected run at a batting title: Jeimer Candelario, Pedro Severino and Isiah Kiner-Falefa are in the top six in the American League, and Michael Conforto, Donovan Solano and Dominic Smith are among the top five in the NL.
It was likely than an unlikely hurler would put together a nice run: Dylan Bundy is third in the AL with a 2.48 ERA after going a combined 15-30 with a 5.13 mark between 2018-19, and rookie Randy Dobnak is just one win shy of AL-leader Shane Bieber (7-0).
Of course, it wouldn’t have been a huge surprise to see a star or two struggle to get going during this unique campaign. But there was no way to foresee this number of former MVPs and All-Star-caliber players still scuffling 40-some games in.
Three-time All-Star J.D. Martinez is batting .211 with just four homers. Jose Altuve, the 2017 AL MVP and last year’s ALCS MVP, is hitting .224 with three home runs, and reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger is batting .211. Christian Yelich, the 2018 NL MVP and 2019 runner-up, is hitting .213 and Javy Baez, who finished second in the NL MVP voting two years ago, is below the Mendoza Line.
Even three-time MVP Mike Trout was hitting .255 while performing well under many of his career averages before finding a way to wake from his slumber. He’s since batting .405 with six homers, four doubles and 14 RBIs over his last 12 games.
Could any of the aforementioned stars follow suit and move closer to the numbers on the back of their baseball cards with a late hot streak? We’ll analyze what the data says about each players’ situation:
JAVIER BAEZ, CHICAGO CUBS
Ian Happ’s emergence as a short-season star has helped the Cubs rise atop the NL Central despite the struggles of Baez, Kris Bryant (.206) and Anthony Rizzo (.213), who easily could have been included on this list.
Baez, a two-time All-Star shortstop, is batting .196 with six home runs while his strikeout rate is his worst since 2014. Hitting coach types say that Baez has been late on the fastball and pulling off the offspeed pitches on the outside of the plate. When he’s going well, he’s driving that pitch into the right-center field gap.
We’re not finding that pitchers are working Baez any differently this season, but what data does reveal is that Baez’s Contact+ is demonstratively worse than last year and he’s just not hitting the ball as hard as he normally does – as is evident by his low BIP+.
CHRISTIAN YELICH, MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Perhaps the most surprising name on this list, Yelich’s poor season has brought into question whether he fully recovered from a knee injury that caused him to miss the end of last season.
It didn’t mean much that Yelich struggled in spring training, but now the two-time All-Star is batting a career-low .213 with a career-worst strikeout rate after finishing fifth in the majors in Raw Value+ (167) last season. Similar to Baez, the data doesn’t show that Yelich is being pitched to much differently.
His Discipline+ is actually up, meaning he’s being more patient and walking even more than in previous years, but he’s also making less contact which is leading to the alarming number of strikeouts.
CODY BELLINGER, LOS ANGELES DODGERS
Coming off a magical 2019 breakout season in which he hit .305 with 47 home runs and 115 RBIs and was fourth in the majors in RV+ (167), Bellinger hasn’t come close to replicating that success in 2020. He doesn’t seem to be trending in the right direction either, batting .174 with just three extra-base hits in his last 12 games.
The two-time All-Star’s Discipline+ has fallen way off last year’s number, meaning that he’s chasing more pitches outside of the zone. At the same time, his Contact+ is surprisingly higher than last year and above average.
Because he’s swinging at pitches that are difficult to hit and actually making contact, he’s not hitting the ball as hard as he was last year as reflected in his poor BIP+.
JOSE ALTUVE, HOUSTON ASTROS
All remarks about trash-can banging aside, Altuve isn’t anywhere close to the .327 batting average he compiled from 2014-19. It’s easily the best mark in the majors over that stretch, with Michael Brantley’s .311 average a distance second.
In his case, the data points to a pretty straightforward reason for Altuve’s scuffles. The six-time All-Star second baseman has experienced a remarkable drop in Discipline+, ranking 152nd of 162 batters with at least 130 plate appearances. His Contact+ is up from 2019, but the lack of discipline is leading to weak contact and low BIP+ and Raw Value+ results.
J.D. MARTINEZ, BOSTON RED SOX
Martinez just seems like one of those hitters who can roll out of bed and go 2 for 4 with a home run. After all, he’s finished with a batting average above .300 in each of the past six seasons.
The three-time All-Star was seventh in MLB with a 158 RV+ in 2019, but he has a career-low .211 average and a surprisingly poor .672 OPS this season. One of the game’s top sluggers in recent years, Martinez also has just four home runs after totaling 124 from 2017-19.
The biggest problem? Martinez’s Discipline+ is down, but more importantly, his BIP+ has dropped substantially. He’s making poor contact, leading to a terrible fall in RV+.
MARCUS SEMIEN, OAKLAND A’S
Semien’s collapse following a breakthrough 2019 season has been disappointing, and comparing his metrics between the two years is equally troubling.
He finished with career highs in just about every major category while emerging as an MVP candidate in 2019. Now he’s at career lows with a .213 batting average, .634 OPS and a strikeout rate that’s way up from the previous two years.
This season, Semien is having difficulty in every part of the at-bat, swinging at more pitches out of the strike zone, hitting the ball less frequently and not hitting the ball hard at all. He’s 161 out of 162 qualified batters with a 50 RV+ and dead last with a 26 BIP+.
Data modeling and analysis provided by Lucas Haupt.
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