Baseball

Inside The Slumps

While the Cubs have trucked along pretty much in May, some of the things that were going well in April have not gone so well in May. Specifically, there are players who helped carry the offense while Kris Bryant and maybe one or two others were still trying to get the spark plugs to fire that are no definitely making weird noises and spitting up oil and smoke. So let’s go through and see what’s going on with a couple of them.

The first that pops up is Jason Heyward. There can’t be much of a stark contrast between April and May for a player than what Heyward has gone through. Here’s April slash lines: .309/.426/.509, and you can see why everyone was so excited and felt like they’d just come upon an undiscovered warehouse of peanut butter cups. Here’s May: .169/.234/.238. And that is fucking gross. Like, going to pick up your dog’s shit and realizing there’s a hole in the bag and you’re blocks from home gross (and yes, I know those of you with kids have had this feeling every day, but I didn’t make you have kids).

I think it’s important to remember than when you combine the two, currently Heyward has a 100 wRC+, .158 ISO, and a .401 slugging, all marks that are actually the best he’s had here in Chicago (sad, I know). The reason that Heyward has only been worth 0.1 fWAR is that his defense hasn’t been the usual stellar kind, at least metrically, as it usually is. However, an exactly average offensive season and return to his usual defensive prowess for the rest of the season still makes him a valuable player. But let’s get deeper than that because we’ve got nothing else.

For one, luck is playing a huge part. In April, Heyward’s BABIP was .313, which is a touch above average. In May it’s .208, which is beyond the sewers and getting to the Earth’s core. Whatever kind of contact Heyward is making, .208 is ridiculous. That’s not going to continue.

The thing is, the contact between the two months isn’t really all that different. In April, Heyward had 17.4% line-drives, 46.4% grounders, 36.2 fly balls. May it’s been 18.5%/42.6%/38.9%. Almost exactly the same. Considering the lack of line drives and hard contact, maybe Heyward was really lucky to get what he did in April with that mere .313 BABIP.

One big difference is that the hard-contact has dropped off. Heyward had 30.5% hard contact rate in April, which isn’t even that good, but that’s dropped to 25% in May. And if you go by Statcast, Heyward is right where he should be overall. His expected batting average is .252, he’s hitting .243. His expected weighted-on base is .323. His actual is .322. This is probably what he is, and I think it’s probably fine? And if he improves from this May, not even close to what he was in April but then improves, you’ll have a decent season.

Going deeper, in the season’s opening month Heyward was crushing fastballs and curves. He’s still hitting curves well, but he can’t get anything done on fastballs. Has there been a difference where he’s getting them? A touch. Here’s where he was getting fastballs in April and then May:

It’s not a huge difference, but he’s seeing more fastballs up and in than he did, and if you remember him driving outside fastballs to left you can see why that might be a problem. And J-Hey has always had a problem with high and tight fastballs. It’s just something he’s going to have to get to.

Another is Daniel Descalso. Now, counting on Descalso for much was always folly, because it’s just not what he’s been. He has one above-average offensive season to his name, and that was the last one. Now is he .216 bad? No, he isn’t, but outside of Colorado he’s always been around a .240 hitter. What we are missing is the walks. Descalso’s BB% is down 6% from last year, which is part of the problem. And he was walking in April, around 12%. But that’s sunk to 5% in May. And the Ks are up. It ain’t pretty.

The big problem is that in April, Descalso hit a ton of shit hard, to 41.8%. In May it’s 20%, so even if that .171 BABIP feels like it’s the work of a demon, you’re not going very far when only a fifth of your contact is loud.

Descalso’s success in April was basically only what he did on fastballs. He hit .440 on them, slugged .680, and his numbers on sinkers were just about the same. So he’s not seeing them nearly as often this year. He saw 171 fastballs or sinkers in April, and only 57 of them so far in May. People catch on. And he’s getting difference in location too:

What’s weird is that Descalso hasn’t been all that good high in the zone in his career, but they’re certainly more careful about pumping shit right down the middle on him. And Descalso is helpless on anything that breaks. And until that changes, this might be what you get.

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