PITTSBURGH -- It's far too late to say it's still early, but it's never too late to turn the season around. Every year, slow-starting clubs put it together and take flight during the summer. And every season, players break out of extended slumps, find their levesl and post full-season stats
PITTSBURGH -- It's far too late to say it's still early, but it's never too late to turn the season around. Every year, slow-starting clubs put it together and take flight during the summer. And every season, players break out of extended slumps, find their levesl and post full-season stats that make us forget they ever struggled in the first place.
It will likely be no different this season in the National League Central, where every club has at least one player performing below expectations. Consider one former NL Central star: Andrew McCutchen. As of May 24 last season, he was hitting .203 with a .634 OPS. He then hit a much more in-character .312/.400/.540 the rest of the way.
Some players heat up with the weather. Others simply need time to find their way. Here is a look at one player per team in the NL Central possessing a track record that suggests he'll snap out of it and contribute to his team's success.
Brewers: Domingo Santana
Santana hit 30 homers, drove in 85 runs and led Brewers regulars with a 125 OPS+ last season. It was enough to make him a popular trade candidate when Milwaukee acquired Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich last offseason, but it hasn't quite carried over into this year.
The outfielder is hitting just .249/.314/.351 with only three homers and 17 RBIs in his first 207 plate appearances. He's making more hard contact than ever, but he's also putting more balls on the ground. With Yelich, Ryan Braun and Eric Thames all healthy after trips to the disabled list, Santana could stand to lose playing time soon if he doesn't get back on track.
"Domingo hasn't quite had his hot streak yet," manager Craig Counsell said. "He's been kind of in battle mode most of the year. He's hit the ball hard, just hard on the ground. Obviously, the home run is a big part of his game, and power has always been something he's provided as an offensive player. But there's still hard contact in there, and I think that difference is very small. He's obviously a player capable of a lot offensively, and you don't think he's that far away. So he's going to keep getting chances."
Cardinals: OF Marcell Ozuna
One of several reasons the Cardinals sit in third place is the underwhelming performance of their veteran hitters. That group includes Matt Carpenter (who bounced back last month), William Fowler and Ozuna, their prized trade acquisition over the winter. The left fielder hit .312/.376/.548 with 37 homers and 124 RBIs for the Marlins last season, but he's hit just .283/.332/.405 -- good for a 102 OPS+ that ranks just above league average -- in his first 61 games for St. Louis.
Ozuna's average and on-base percentage are in line with his career norms, but he's hitting for less power. He's hitting more popups and grounders, and his home run/fly ball ratio has dropped from 23.4 percent last season to 11.1 percent this year. He'll get every chance to boost those numbers, as the Cardinals aren't going to take his bat out of their lineup.
Cubs: 1B Anthony Rizzo
Manager Joe Maddon is never one to overreact to a slow start, but he made a clear effort to jump-start his slumping first baseman on May 1 by batting Rizzo leadoff against the Rockies. Maddon often does that with struggling hitters, bumping them up the lineup instead of down the order. Naturally, Rizzo homered on the first pitch he saw.
Rizzo seems to be trending in the right direction, too. He hit just .149 with a .448 OPS in March/April, then broke out to hit .303/.408/.576 with seven homers and 28 RBIs in May. Through 11 games in June, he was hitting .270 with an .886 OPS and three homers.
Nobody's really worried about Rizzo, least of all the manager who often reminds doubters to look at the back of a player's baseball card. The 28-year-old Rizzo averaged 32 homers and 99 RBIs over the past four seasons, and it's a good bet that he'll get back to that level by the time the season's over.
Pirates: 1B Josh Bell
For all the Pirates' concerns amid a rough stretch -- and there are plenty -- they were motivated enough by Bell's early struggles to bump him down the lineup. The move worked for McCutchen last season, and it appears to be paying off for the Bucs and Bell.
After slapping an opposite-field RBI double in the second inning on Wednesday, Bell had reached safely in 11 of 14 plate appearances. He worked three walks on Sunday and three more on Monday before breaking out for three hits on Tuesday -- his first three-hit game since April 15.
"He's working really hard. He wants to re-establish himself in the box," manager Clint Hurdle said. "I think he's taken the measures he needs to do that."
Bell clubbed 26 home runs as a rookie last season but had only four in his first 67 games this year. He might not match his 2017 power production, but if Bell continues to display the patient approach he's adopted over the past week, odds are his overall offensive numbers will continue to tick up this summer.
Reds: OF Adam Duvall
Duvall was a 30-homer hitter each of the past two seasons, even if his overall offensive production was closer to league average. Duvall, 29, hit a combined .245/.299/.489 while delivering 64 homers and driving in 202 runs in 2016-17. This year, his current numbers are .188/.272/.396 with 11 homers and 38 RBIs in 67 games.
One curious part of Duvall's early-season slump is that he's been a much better first-half hitter in each of the past two seasons. Last year, he posted an .878 OPS in the first half and a .662 mark after the All-Star break.
Duvall is walking at a career-high rate -- a good sign. He might just be a victim of bad luck considering his .212 batting average on balls in play -- well below his '16 (.275) and '17 (.290) marks. According to Statcast™, his expected batting average (.241), expected slugging percentage (.502) and expected weighted on-base average (.351) are all well above his actual numbers.
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.