Is this the worst sophomore slump ever?

After 27 HR rookie year, Palka hitting just .019/.131/.019

September 10th, 2019

Last year, White Sox outfielder/designated hitter Daniel Palka had himself a breakout season, finishing fifth in the AL Rookie of the Year balloting while mashing a team-leading 27 home runs, the third-most by a first-year player in the long history of the White Sox. While his defense left more than a little to be desired, his elite hard-hit ability made him something of a Statcast superstar -- he was one of just six players to hit a ball at least 118 MPH, a list that included names like Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Judge and Mike Trout.

This year, well, the results have been a bit different. Palka is hitting .019/.131/.019. That's one hit, one hit by pitch, and six walks in 61 plate appearances. No one has ever stepped to the plate this many times in a season while collecting just one hit. He has as many hits as White Sox starting pitcher Lucas Giolito, who has all of four plate appearances.

If that all sounds unbelievable, well, it mostly is. That's what all the historical context is for. This just doesn't happen, and if it did, you wouldn't expect it to be from someone who was an above-average hitter as recently as last season. So: How does this even happen?

Palka is, by all accounts, a likable teammate with an excellent sense of humor. (The story of how he and a friend invented the myth of how he "played" in the 2010 McDonald's All-American High School Basketball Game is one well worth watching.) He charmed the baseball world on an MLB Network interview last summer. Just last season, he was doing things like this, regularly:

The point is, we highlight this skid with no sense of malice. It's just that when a run this happens, well, we have to know why. We have to know how close it came to turning the right way.

Plus, it's worth noting that Palka is not alone in South Side sorrow. The 2019 White Sox right fielders have posted the weakest hitting performance from any set of right fielders, well, ever, and Ryan Cordell, Jon Jay, Leury García and Charlie Tilson have all played far more than Palka has. This isn't just on him.

As for Palka's 61 plate appearances, they break down into ...

- 23 strikeouts
- 6 walks
- 1 hit
- 1 hit-by-pitch
- 30 field outs

... and of those 30 field outs, only six were caught by outfielders. Right away, you can see the problem, one of them anyway. Palka's 37.7% strikeout rate is well above the Major League average of 22.2%, and it's one of the dozen highest marks in the bigs, among the 476 players with 60 plate appearances. You can't hit if you don't, well, hit.

The second problem is the infield problem, because if you're hitting it into the ground -- or worse, popping up -- you're probably not going to find a lot of success. To that end, Palka's average batted ball has gone just 107 feet; there have been 522 players with at least 25 batted balls this year, and that's the third-lowest. The two behind him: Pittsburgh shortstop Erik Gonzalez and Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw. There at least 13 pitchers above him.

But we need not belabor the point. The .019 batting average tells the story. The .085 expected batting average suggests that maybe a bloop here or there might have fallen in, but that this isn't really about bad luck. The exit velocity is down from 92.3 MPH to 84.0 MPH; the hard-hit rate is down from 49% to 25.8%. As Palka would likely be the first to admit, just about nothing has gone right.

It could have, though. Let's take a brief trip though the 2019 season, seeing what went wrong that might have been right.

Opening Day: A hopeful start

Palka made the Opening Day roster, and he was in the lineup that day in Kansas City, hitting sixth and playing right field. In the second inning, he walked on four pitches, making him the first baserunner for the White Sox of the season. Palka swung through a fifth-inning fastball for a strikeout, then came up in the seventh and smashed a line drive to right field.

Whit Merrifield was there to make the catch, but in terms of process, this was a good plate appearance. Palka smashed the ball at 110 MPH, which is elite. Only 1.4% of batted balls across the Majors are hit that hard; when they are, batters have enjoyed a .784 average and a 1.881 slugging. It didn't work out that time, but just being able to do it at all generally tells you something about a player's skill.

You'd rather have had a hit, obviously, but you'd probably take an 0-for-2 with a walk and a smashed ball as a decent consolation prize. As it turns out, that ball, that slammed liner to right field, was Palka's highest-value batted ball of the season (based on expected wOBA). It came on Opening Day.

The slide downhill

Over the next two-plus weeks, through April 16, Palka stepped to the plate 35 times. The grand total: 14 strikeouts, five walks, one hit-by-pitch ... and no hits. There were grounders into the shift, popups to the catcher, dropped third strikes and even the odd 3-2-3 double play. His expected average, based on exit velocity and launch angle: .035.

"It's not possible to go 0-for-500," Palka optimistically told on April 7, which is indisputably true no matter which way you take that statement. No one ever has. No one ever will.

The hit, finally

By the time the White Sox kicked off a day game with the Royals on April 17 -- this was "the Tim Anderson game" most memorably -- Palka was up to an 0-for-32 streak. (0-for-34 if you include his final game of 2018, which was tied for the fourth-longest in White Sox history.) He wasn't in the lineup, but he got a chance to pinch-hit in the seventh inning, after Yoán Moncada exited the game early.

Palka stepped up and swung at the first pitch from Ian Kennedy, a 91 MPH cutter. Close your eyes and envision what a Palka hit looks like, won't you? We've seen him hit enormous homers, and we've seen him post massive exit velocity numbers. When he's right, that's what he does. He destroys baseballs, with extreme vengeance.

Surely, that's what his first -- and to date, only -- hit of the season would have been ... right?

Not quite. That ball was hit at just 63 MPH. It landed on the infield dirt. The only reason it wasn't an easy 6-3 out is that the Royals were shifted against him, giving one back after the shift took away a few likely hits earlier in the month. As you can see, he hardly cared. A hit is a hit, especially when you've yet to find one nearly three weeks into the season.

Palka's reward for finally getting on the board? He was optioned to Triple-A immediately after the game.

The first demotion: April 18

Palka, as always, took the news with his trademark good cheer.

"My numbers kind of speak for themselves," he told "So, you know, competitively speaking, I myself would have done it earlier."

Fair enough. Palka went hitless in seven plate appearances in an April 20 doubleheader at Norfolk -- walking three times -- before finally getting a pair of hits on the 21st. He'd remain with Charlotte for the next two months, and he hit well, with 16 homers and a .269/.374/.543 line. He'd soon get another chance... briefly.

Recall: June 28

Chicago designated Yonder Alonso at the end of June, which gave Palka another chance. He lasted just four games, picking up another 10 hitless plate appearances, but they were eventful ones.

His hardest-hit ball of the season came in this stretch, a 115.2 MPH rocket that unfortunately found the glove of Minnesota second baseman Jonathan Schoop. (How rare is 115 MPH? It's been done only 66 times this year, or 0.1% of batted balls. Of those, 52 went for hits, or a .788 average. Exit velocity isn't everything, but it's a lot of it, and it's got to hurt just a bit extra to scald a ball that hard and get nothing for it.)

He also had his longest-hit ball of the season, 333 feet directly to Detroit center fielder Victor Reyes on July 4. It didn't matter. Nothing fell. As the first half drew to a close, it was back to Charlotte. 

In the meantime, Palka jokingly requested that he be referred to as "Julian."

The second demotion: July 8

Palka saw 46 more games in Triple-A, 11 more homers, this time with a .256/.374/.506 line. Combining his two Minor League stints, Palka had 29 games with multiple hits, or more hits than he had in his 20 Major League games combined.

Recall: Sept 3

With the Minor League season over, Palka is again back with the White Sox, starting in Cleveland on Sept. 3 and 4, and pinch-hitting against the Angels on Friday. That's nine plate appearances, five strikeouts, and no hits. Just one ball was hard-hit, and that went for a 3-6-3 double play. He didn't get into games against the Angels on Saturday or Sunday.

The White Sox didn't play on Monday, ahead of a visit from the Royals and a road trip through Seattle and Minnesota. Not that Palka has necessarily earned a spot in the starting lineup, to be sure, but the Sox have started utility infielder Ryan Goins and his .231/.280/.336 career line in right field in two of the last four games. Surely a better use of their time would be to allowing Palka to swing his way out of this one, to try to see if he can reclaim that prodigious power and audition for a spot on the 2020 team?

"I'm mad it's September and there's only one month left in the season," Palka said just over a year ago, near the end of his successful rookie season. "People say to me, 'It's almost the offseason,' like that's a good thing. I'm like, 'Shut up. I don't want to hear it.' The offseason is not as good as being here, playing in the big leagues, playing for the White Sox."

We agree. Put him in, Rich Renteria. Palka deserves it. We all do.