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5 big-time stars dealing with slow starts

MLB.com @castrovince

CLEVELAND -- So, reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, how does it feel to be one of the most scrutinized, analyzed and criticized players at this early stage of the Major League season?

"I guess that comes with the territory after last year," Kluber said. "But it doesn't make a difference to me if other people are unhappy or disappointed with the way I'm pitching. What matters to me is giving my team a chance to win when I'm out there."

CLEVELAND -- So, reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Corey Kluber, how does it feel to be one of the most scrutinized, analyzed and criticized players at this early stage of the Major League season?

"I guess that comes with the territory after last year," Kluber said. "But it doesn't make a difference to me if other people are unhappy or disappointed with the way I'm pitching. What matters to me is giving my team a chance to win when I'm out there."

The Indians haven't won any of Kluber's seven starts. Even by the standards of a club that's in last place in the AL Central, that's a pretty amazing thing, considering how dominant the man known as "Klubot" was last year.

Kluber, who is to take his next turn Wednesday night against the Cardinals, has given up 28 runs in those seven starts -- or exactly as many as he surrendered in his last 18 starts last season. He is 0-5 with a 5.04 ERA.

Theories abound as to what's going on, from the unlikely (Sports Illustrated cover jinx) to the highly unlikely (Popular Mechanics cover jinx) to the probable (Yan Gomes' absence behind the plate) to the simple (shaky command early in counts).

It has been pointed out here and elsewhere that Kluber has had trouble getting into counts in which he can put away batters with the curveball that was so effective for him last season, and, yes, the transition to replacement batterymate Roberto Perez hasn't been seamless, in terms of the sequencing needs to succeed.

"I think, whether it's adjusting to Roberto or if it's adjusting to Yan when I first got called up, there's always that period where you're trying to get on the same page," Kluber said. "You can discuss it before the game, but when you're in the game, that's when on-the-spot stuff comes up. I think we're getting better prepared for situations so that when they arise, we're able to fix what's going on."

Kluber can take solace in the fact that he's hardly the only big name on the Major League scene who has endured a frustrating first five weeks.

Heck, he's not even the only reigning Cy Young Award winner who's been struggling.

Here's a look at what's troubling a few other slow-starting stars:

Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies
The expectation is that as long as CarGo is healthy, he hits. And many of us entered this season wondering if Gonzalez would stay healthy long enough to be a viable midsummer trade chip for a Rockies team in need of retooling.

Video: COL@SD: LeMahieu plates CarGo to tie game

The good news? CarGo is healthy.

The bad news? His numbers are unrecognizable.

With a .188/.248/.302 slash through Tuesday, the 29-year-old Gonzalez is off to the worst start of his Colorado career. He's actually faring worse at Coors Field (.143/.182/.262) than he is on the road (.222/.295/.333), so you know something's amiss. What we're seeing from CarGo, compared to his last All-Star season in 2013, is a drastic decrease in hard-hit contact (38.8 percent to 27.1 percent) and a nearly 30-foot dip in average batted-ball distance.

Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers
Yes, the Struggling 2014 Cy Young Society has two members.

Video: LAD@COL: Kershaw records his 1,500th career strikeout

Kershaw, of course, doesn't just have National League Cy Young Award status to live up to but also NL MVP Award status as well. So while his 4.26 ERA through seven starts isn't a total eyesore, it is certainly a surprising mark from a guy whose 2014 performance was of the history-making variety.

The big issue here is homers, as 20.8 percent of the fly balls yielded by Kershaw have cleared the wall, a jump from just 6.6 percent last year. That can't possibly continue, can it? Also, 36.4 percent of balls put in play against Kershaw have fallen for hits. That can't possibly continue either, can it?

Doubtful. There is nothing to indicate that Kershaw is hurt, so his issue would appear to be more mental and mechanical than anything else. He's got to develop a better feel for his slider, which hasn't been neutralizing hitters anywhere near as effectively as it did last year. It doesn't appear Kershaw is headed for his fourth NL Cy Young Award in five years, but he's obviously better than he's demonstrated to date.

Victor Martinez, Tigers
Not one rational human being in the known universe would assume the .974 OPS and the 32 homers V-Mart accrued in his age-35 season, when he finished second in the AL MVP Award vote, would be repeatable at 36. Those were career-high numbers that came out of nowhere, and -- news flash -- big league sluggers don't usually get better the deeper they get into their 30s.

Video: KC@DET: V-Mart hits a leadoff double in the 6th

But the regression for Victor has been steeper than expected, with his OPS at .625 and just four extra-base hits to his name.

We don't have to delve too deeply into nerdy numbers to know what's going on here. Shortly after getting his four-year, $68 million reward for 2014, Martinez wrenched his left knee in his winter workouts and needed surgery. As was the case in '13, when he came back from two procedures on the same knee, the switch-hitter has been slow going at the plate, primarily from the left-hand side against right-handed pitching. But just as Martinez recovered with a strong second half in '13, there have been encouraging signs this month that he's gaining comfort in his condition and improving from the left-hand side. So let's not panic just yet.

Chase Utley, Phillies
It's really difficult to put into words just how bad Utley has been at the plate, but suffice to say there are multiple metrics to suggest he's been the worst-performing regular in Major League Baseball. Anybody lugging around a crazy-low .118 batting average on balls in play is due for a lick of luck, but Utley's balls in play haven't gone for hits for a reason. Comparing this year to last year, he's hitting more ground balls and fewer line drives, and his percentage of hard-hit balls has basically been halved.

Video: PIT@PHI: Utley brings Phils within a run on groundout

These are not good things.

Second basemen do not generally age gracefully, but Utley was still a very productive regular in his age-35 season. So it's hard to believe his skills could or would diminish this rapidly, almost overnight. And again, there's no way Utley will finish the season with a .118 BABIP.

Perhaps Sunday's hard-hit double off Bartolo Colon will spark Utley. But it's quite clear we ought not expect him to return to his superstar status of old, and even last year's marks (a .270/.339/.407) are going to be difficult to repeat.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.

 

Carlos Gonzalez, Clayton Kershaw, Corey Kluber, Victor Martinez, Chase Utley