Don't be surprised if Nelson Cruz's production declines after hitting a career-high 44 home runs last season
The MLB history books are filled with players that post All-Star statistics for a season or two — perhaps even challenging for an MVP or Cy Young Award — and then fade into mediocrity. Some were overachievers to begin with, while others couldn’t handle the spotlight. There are also plenty of star players that see a significant drop-off in production due to age or injury, who see their power dry up or their velocity drop off.
Simply put, regression is an unfortunate yet completely natural part of the game. With that in mind, we take a close look at five players that could disappoint in 2016, plus some others to keep an eye on.
Jacob deGrom, RHP, New York Mets
2015 Statistics in 30 games: 14-8, 2.54 ERA, 205 K, 38 BB, 191 IP
Simply put, deGrom, 27, has been one of the best pitchers in the National League since making his big league debut in 2014. deGrom, who earned NL Rookie of the Year honors after posting a 9-6 record with a 2.69 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 140 1/3 innings across 22 starts two years ago, was even better last season. In addition to a lower ERA, his walk rate dropped from 7.6 to 5.1 percent and his strikeout rate rose from 25.5 to 27.3 percent.
However, despite the sparkling results in most areas and his role as one of the key cogs in baseball’s best pitching staff, it’s possible that deGrom has been a little too good in his first two big league seasons. Plus, there are a few potential red flags that could be early signs of a downturn in production.
First, deGrom benefitted from a .271 BABIP last season – and while he was certainly more good than lucky, it’s very possible deGrom’s fortunes even out a little this year. Secondly, deGrom allowed a higher home run rate in 2015 (2.1 percent) than he did as a rookie (1.2 percent). He also threw six wild pitches last season compared to just one in 2014 — an admittedly small matter but still worth noting.
Finally, there was concern early this spring that deGrom’s velocity was down significantly from last season. Last year, deGrom averaged a shade less than 96 miles per hour with his fastball (95.81, to be exact, according to data available through brooksbaseball.net). Unofficially, he was sitting in the low 90s earlier in March, which prompted concern among fans and the media – especially for a pitcher that doesn’t have elite secondary pitches. However, data also shows that deGrom is a bit of a slow starter (literally as he posted his lowest velocity in April in each of the last two seasons), and needs time to warm up to his high-end velocity.
Despite the drop in velocity from his peak last season, deGrom has been solid this spring. In four Grapefruit League starts, deGrom has posted a 1.62 ERA with 15 strikeouts and two walks in 16 2/3 innings. He also hit 94 miles per hour multiple times on the stadium radar gun in his most recent start Saturday against the Braves.
Still, if there’s one member of the Mets to be wary of in 2016 (aside from 42-year-old Bartolo Colon, who will likely give way to a hopefully fully healthy Zack Wheeler in July anyway), it’s deGrom.
Dee Gordon, 2B, Miami Marlins
2015 Statistics in 145 games: .333/.359/.418, 24 2B, 8 3B, 4 HR, 46 RBI, 58 SB
Speed never slumps, and naturally, fast players are weapons on the base paths and can also use their speed to beat out infield hits. Dee Gordon, the two-time defending National League stolen base champion, is one of the fastest players in baseball. As he also has a high groundball rate, Gordon’s speed, logically, had an impact on the 27-year-old second baseman winning the batting title with a .333 average, leading all of baseball with 205 hits, and securing his first career Silver Slugger Award last year in his first season with the Marlins. He also earned a Gold Glove for his work in the field, which was an added bonus.
But as it relates to 2016 there is reason to believe that Gordon won’t be able to maintain his high average. First of all, Gordon posted an incredibly high (even for a speedster) .383 BABIP, meaning there was a fair amount of luck involved in his average - especially given the fact that Gordon hit .272/.314/.345 in four seasons with the Dodgers.
Furthermore, if Gordon’s average dips, his on-base percentage will go with it because the left-handed hitter doesn’t walk enough (particularly for a leadoff man). Gordon has 93 career walks in 1,972 career plate appearances for a walk rate of 4.7 percent. He also strikes out too much, having posted a 15.6 career strikeout rate that fell slightly last season (13.9 percent) thanks to putting the ball in play more often.
Sure, Gordon made strides in 2014 when he hit .289/.326/.378, and has certainly benefitted from experience gained by the opportunity to play every day over the last two seasons, but it’s natural to think that Gordon will revert closer to his .293/.328/.369 career slash in 2016 — or worse.
Nelson Cruz, OF/DH, Seattle Mariners
2015 Statistics in 152 games: .302/.369/.566, 22 2B, 1 3B, 44 HR, 93 RBI, 3 SB
In many ways, the slugger Cruz and the speedster Dee Gordon are polar opposites as baseball players. However, they are similar in the fact that both were among the league leaders in BABIP in 2015, and used that good fortune to post career highs in multiple statistical categories. For Cruz, it was hits (178), home runs (44), and runs scored (90) despite the home ballpark switch from hitter haven Camden Yards in Baltimore to pitcher-friendly Safeco Field in Seattle.
Cruz, who will turn 36 in July, has proven himself to be one of the most feared power hitters in the American League. But, it simply isn’t reasonable to expect him to continue the torrid pace he set in his first year with the Mariners — especially since the regression may have already started.
Cruz slowed significantly over the final six weeks of the 2015 season. In 42 games from Aug. 10 to Oct. 3, Cruz hit just .242/.315/.461. He connected for 11 home runs, but also struck out in 33.7 percent of his 184 plate appearances and drew only 16 walks during the same span.
And, while it’s only spring training, 2016 isn’t off to a great start, either. Cruz had a sore left knee at the beginning of camp, which contributed to a 1-for-20 start at the plate. Though he’s warmed up lately, through 13 games the right-handed hitter is batting just .150/.227/.400 with 10 strikeouts in 44 plate appearances (a 22.7 percent strikeout rate). Cruz has launched three home runs, but the thin Arizona air is much more forgiving than Seattle’s.
Jared Weaver, RHP, Los Angeles Angels
2015 Statistics in 26 games: 7-12, 4.64 ERA, 90 K, 33 BB in 159 IP
Jacob deGrom may be in danger of losing a mile an hour or two off his fastball, but at least he’s still expected to reach the mid-90s regularly. Weaver would be lucky to touch the mid-80s.
Last season, Weaver averaged 84.3 miles per hour when throwing a four-seam fastball, which was a drop of three miles per hour from the previous year. Understandably, hitters had great success against Weaver last season, as he posted a 4.64 ERA that was easily a career high, and 13.5 percent strikeout rate that was the lowest of his career.
Given Weaver’s regression in 2015, one could argue that expectations are already low for the former Angels ace heading into the season. However, at a not-yet over-the-hill 33 years old and just three years removed from a three-year stretch from 2010-12 in which he was an All-Star and finished in the top five of the Cy Young voting each year, fanning 22.3 percent of hitters over that span, there’s some hope that last year was an aberration. Weaver also has rediscovered a preferable arm slot and continues to develop an ever-expanding arsenal of secondary pitches to combat his lack of velocity in an attempt to turn things around in 2016.
But, the evidence is difficult to ignore. In three Cactus League starts this spring, Weaver has allowed eight earned runs on 13 hits — including an eye-popping five home runs – with five strikeouts in less than 10 innings. According to reports, his fastball averaged around 80 mph in his most recent spring start and Weaver also has been struggling with a neck issue, which could cause him to spend time on the disabled list early in the season.
Pablo Sandoval, 3B, Boston Red Sox
2015 Statistics in 126 games: .245/.292/.366, 25 2B, 1 3B, 10 HR, 47 RBI
Like Jared Weaver, expectations are modest for Sandoval. A two-time All-Star and 2012 World Series MVP that hit .294/.346/.465 across seven seasons with San Francisco, Sandoval struggled mightily in his first season in Boston after signing a five-year, $95 million to join the Red Sox. Though his on-base and slugging percentages had both been on the decline since 2011, Sandoval posted full-season career lows in every major offensive statistical category in 2015.
Listed at 5-foot-11 and 255 pounds, Sandoval was the focal point of a great deal of chatter when he reported to spring training looking considerably heavier. Though Sandoval has had a decent spring numbers-wise, with a .265/.306/.559 slash in 14 games, which includes two home runs and four doubles, the 29 year old has been dealing with back stiffness after hurting himself diving for a ground ball on March 24 and is now fighting with Travis Shaw just to win the starting third base job in Boston.
As a result, Sandoval has been the topic of trade rumors this spring. A move back to the NL West (the Padres are reportedly scouting him) could be beneficial, and might take some of the pressure off, but either way; a complete bounce-back performance appears to be a long shot at this point.
Others to Watch
Jose Bautista, OF, Toronto Blue Jays
Brad Boxberger, RHP, Tampa Bay Rays
Matt Carpenter, 3B, St. Louis Cardinals
Bartolo Colon, RHP, New York Mets
Brandon Crawford, SS, San Francisco Giants
Khris Davis, OF, Oakland Athletics
R.A. Dickey, RHP, Toronto Blue Jays
Yunel Escobar, 3B/SS, Los Angeles Angels
Adrian Gonzalez, 1B, Los Angeles Dodgers
Curtis Granderson, OF, New York Mets
Scott Kazmir, LHP, Los Angeles Dodgers
Howie Kendrick, 2B, Los Angeles Dodgers
A.J. Pollock, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks
Albert Pujols, 1B/DH, Los Angeles Angels
Alex Rodriguez, DH, New York Yankees
James Shields, RHP, San Diego Padres
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.