If Memorial Day is the old standard for when fans can begin to take MLB standings seriously, logic holds that we should finally start putting some weight into players’ early-season statistics, too. On the other hand, slow-starting stars still have roughly 100 games to put things back together, and every season features a handful of players who completely turned their seasons around after an ice-cold April and May.
MLB.com’s experts picked out a handful of players who have either suffered from bad luck or are simply too good to stay down for much longer. Here are seven stars we believe can turn things around in a big way in 2021. (All stats referenced were entering Monday’s games).
Pete Alonso, Mets
Key stat: .519 expected slugging
Alonso has seven homers so far for the Mets this season, but is slugging .431 overall, which would be the lowest such rate in his young career. Granted, he’s missed time due to injury, but even still, that’s not exactly the Polar Bear power we’ve become used to. However, there’s plenty of evidence to indicate that there’s plenty more power in Alonso’s bat this year -- and that we’ll be likely to see it on display sometime soon.
He has a .519 xSLG, with the .088 difference between his expected and actual slugging percentages ranking among the 20 largest "unlucky gaps" -- denoting players who’ve hit the ball in a more quality fashion than their slugging percentages indicate (min. 100 batted balls). Across the board, Alonso is simply hitting the ball harder; his 49% hard-hit rate would be the highest of his career. And his sweet-spot rate of 35.1% is nearly as high as in his record-setting rookie season of 2019 (36.7%), and higher than in 2020 when he struggled -- which again points to more optimal contact. Those underlying metrics all describe a player who should be slugging more consistently than Alonso has so far this season, so look out for more extra-base hits from him soon.
-- Sarah Langs
Luis Castillo, Reds
Key stat: Gap of 2.45 between ERA and xERA
This selection was made even before Castillo went out and beat the Cardinals on Friday night, allowing one run on three hits over six innings. The performance was a relief to Castillo and Cincinnati and a sign that indeed, better things are ahead.
The right-hander is 28 years old, apparently healthy and coming off a two-season span during which he was one of the 15 best pitchers in MLB. Baseball can be a strange game -- and a cruel one -- but guys like that don’t just suddenly post the highest ERA in the Majors. And indeed, Statcast metrics show Castillo shouldn’t be doing that, with only Dylan Bundy suffering from as big a gap between his actual (6.63) and expected ERA (4.18), based on quality of contact, strikeouts and walks. There’s clearly a heap of bad fortune there, although the Reds’ defense (last in MLB in Outs Above Average) is creating some of that.
That’s not to absolve Castillo, whose whiff and strikeout rates have plunged. Most puzzling is that his signature changeup seems to have become rather ordinary, a situation FanGraphs’ Justin Choi recently explored in detail. The good news is that none of this seems irreversible, and the pitcher who seemed like a budding Cy Young candidate is still in there, an adjustment away. Perhaps Friday proves to be the turning point.
-- Andrew Simon
Freddie Freeman, Braves
Key stat: .411 expected wOBA
Coming off a National League MVP Award-winning season, Freeman has regressed sharply in 2021, hitting .229 with a 114 OPS+ which would be his lowest figures since his brief debut in ’10. But before you start blaming the pressure of his impending free agency, consider that Freeman’s command of the strike zone and bat-to-ball skills remain strong, and he’s produced a lot of quality contact, as evidenced by his .297 expected batting average, .573 expected slugging and .411 expected wOBA -- all of which rank in the 90th percentile or better among MLB hitters.
Poor luck has played a big part in Freeman’s muted production, as he’s made 18 outs on hard-hit batted balls (95+ mph exit velocity) that were in the launch angle sweet-spot zone of 8-32 degrees, one of the highest totals in the Majors. That should even out by the end of 2021, which will help bridge the 67-point “unlucky gap” between his wOBA and xwOBA.
Will Freeman return to last year’s heights? Probably not. But substantial improvement is likely for the 31-year-old.
-- Thomas Harrigan
Paul Goldschmidt, Cardinals
Key stat: 52.4% hard-hit rate
The quality of contact numbers all signal bounce-back for Goldschmidt, who is hitting .250/.316/.406 so far this season. His 52.4% hard-hit rate is in the 93rd percentile of qualified hitters, and his 92.8 mph average exit velocity is in the 94th percentile. His barrel rate is actually the same as it was in 2020, although his strikeout rate has increased from 18.6% to 23.1% this year (though it’s in line with what it was in 2019, when it was 24.3%).
Goldy’s .498 expected slugging is nearly the same as his .510 xSLG from last season, when he hit .304/.417/.466. His actual batting average so far in 2021 is 16 points below his expected average of .266, and his actual slugging percentage is 92 points lower than his expected slugging. Goldschmidt has seven homers this season, but according to Statcast, his number of expected homers is closer to nine.
So in short, the veteran slugger has had some bad luck, and based on how well he’s hitting the baseball, he should start to see that luck even out. One area he needs to improve in specifically is how much he’s popping the ball up this year. That’s been trending down in recent weeks, signaling he’s getting that average launch angle under control. And with Nolan Arenado now hitting behind him in the St. Louis lineup, Goldschmidt should see some good pitches to hit.
-- Manny Randhawa
DJ LeMahieu, Yankees
Key stat: 85.5% in-zone contact rate
The start to LeMahieu’s season has been a little bewildering. This was one of the few remaining hitters no team bothered shifting against. A true contact hitter in an era without many. And then, come Opening Day, he was missing. A lot. Or, well - a lot for DJ LeMahieu. A .253/.335/.321 slash line might be just fine for any other Gold Glove infielder, but we’re talking about the guy who’s hit .318 as a Yankee. What made him so good at his best was his ability to get the barrel on the ball. This year his contact hasn’t been as quality, and his liners and grounders always seem ticketed to infielders.
For the most part, I think LeMahieu is suffering from his own high standards. His whiff rate has jumped from 11.2% to 19.2%, tied for the sixth-largest increase among qualified hitters. But 19.3% is still in the 85th percentile across baseball. He’s still making plenty of contact. Bad luck has been a factor. His numbers are all worse than their expected counterparts. Plus, the league’s tanked with him -- high-average hitters are bound to get hit hard by the decline in offense this year.
The eye test, unscientific as it may be, could tell you that his at-bats have been better in the last few weeks. His numbers have started to even out. Some are even creeping up, suggesting regression to the mean -- which, when your mean is a .300 career batting average, is pretty good news. LeMahieu's 46.2% hard-hit rate in May was up from 37.5% in April, and so far in June he’s at 55%. In six games this month, he has two barrels; he had one in May. Small sample size, sure -- but not a bad sign.
I’ll admit this one’s based largely on the body of work. LeMahieu is 32 years old, won a batting title last year and nearly won it the year before that. And he’s had years like this before -- his 2021 looks quite a bit like his 2018, in fact. Plenty were willing to write him off then, too. Within a year he was in MVP contention. It’s hard to imagine this is the start of a steep decline and not just a sort-of-lousy first half.
-- Shanthi Sepe-Chepuru
Jesús Luzardo, Athletics
Key stat: 12.5% hard-hit rate per swing allowed (78th percentile)
Maybe Luzardo isn’t the heir to the A’s No. 1 rotation slot that he appeared to be as a hotshot prospect, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still be a huge piece of Oakland’s 2021 pitching puzzle. Luzardo is finally back from a four-week injury list stint caused, unfortunately, by his own error: he broke his pinkie after hitting his hand on a table while playing video games. Now that he’s back, the A’s are trying him out as a bullpen weapon -- and the early returns are somewhat promising: 18 of 24 batters retired, nine strikeouts, six hits and one walk for a 3.00 ERA across six innings.
Luzardo’s IL stint might have given everyone time to reset and recognize that, at least for now, he might be much more suited for empty-the-tank relief outings. He already possessed upper-echelon left-handed velocity as a starter (95.3 mph average); now he’s challenging 99 mph out of the bullpen. Luzardo can now throw the kitchen sink with his impressive arsenal of fastballs, breaking balls and changeups, instead of pacing himself over multiple times through a lineup. And if Luzardo’s not feeling the secondary stuff on a given night, he can rear back with straight heat and probably get away with it for two or three frames.
Statcast’s batted-ball metrics tell us that Luzardo’s pre-IL 5.79 ERA was probably misleading; he’s been above average in virtually every category, including missing bats (72nd percentile whiff rate) and limiting damage (87th percentile hard-hit rate). If Luzardo develops into an electric bullpen fireman, a silly video-game injury could turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
-- Matt Kelly
Manny Machado, Padres
Key stat: 23.3% hard-hit rate per swing
Hopefully Machado's home run against the Mets on Friday is also the start of a power surge. The Padres' star third baseman entered Monday batting .232 and slugging .402, but here's the thing: Machado is hitting the ball too hard, too often, to stay down all season. He's in the 97th percentile of MLB in hard-hit rate (54.2% of his batted balls are 95 mph or harder), and, entering Monday, he was tied for the ninth-most hard-hit balls overall (83).
And here's a number to pay attention to: 23.2% of Machado's swings this season, nearly one in four, have produced a hard-hit ball. Entering Monday, the only healthy regular hitter with a higher hard-hit rate per swing than Machado was Juan Soto. Also near the top of that leaderboard are hitters like Evan Longoria, Ronald Acuña Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. A high hard-hit rate per swing means you're making strong contact and a lot of contact, which is a combination that should make Machado look more like Machado on the stat sheet as the season goes on.
-- David Adler