These 5 NL Central players should rebound
There was a heightened sense of urgency over every pitch and plate appearance during last summer's abbreviated season. The return to a full marathon slate has forced players to mentally adjust to having a longer runway.
"There was so much emphasis on, 'You've got to do good now, because it's only 60 games,'" Cubs outfielder Joc Pederson said earlier this week. "And you kind of have that same feeling, where it's like, 'No, the season's three times as long as that.'"
Pederson is one among plenty of players in the National League Central who have been off to slow starts. With 162 games to work with this year, however, there is ample time for adjustments and for players to get to their expected levels.
Here are five more players in the division (one for each team) who should have every reason to believe they will turn things around over the next several weeks and months.
Brewers: Keston Hiura
Hiura was unproductive in 2020 and he's been unproductive to begin 2021 -- but the man can hit. The Brewers drafted him on the strength of his advanced offensive pedigree in 2017 and he shot through Milwaukee's Minor League system in less than two years with a .928 OPS. Then he hit 19 home runs in an 84-game Major League debut in 2019. Since then, however, Hiura has struggled. He had the NL's highest strikeout rate (34.6 percent) in 2020, while posting a wRC+ of 87.
So far in '21, Hiura is hitting .118 with a wRC+ of 41. The Brewers moved him to first base over the winter when they signed second baseman Kolten Wong, and president of baseball operations David Stearns said Wednesday that they plan to continue giving Hiura at-bats in an effort to get the bat going. When he’s right, Hiura tends to drive the ball to the opposite field, so the Brewers are looking for signs of that approach before they consider whether he needs a stint at the alternate training site or in the Minor Leagues to get straightened out. -- Adam McCalvy
Cardinals: Matt Carpenter
There are certainly concerns about Carpenter being able to turn around his anemic start to the season, given his strikeout rate is well north of both his career average and the MLB average. But when he makes contact, he's hitting the ball like few others.
Through Wednesday, Carpenter's average exit velocity (95.3 mph) was in the top four percent of the league, while his hard-hit percentage (64 percent) and his barrel percentage were both in the top two percent. Carpenter’s slugging percentage entering play on Thursday was .162. His expected slugging percentage (xSLG)? .578. That gap in raw vs. expected statistics was the highest in the Major Leagues -- by far. Bad luck abounds, but contact is important, too, and Carpenter’s season is rather indicative of the Cardinals’ as a whole. -- Zachary Silver
Cubs: Kyle Hendricks
The surface statistics show Hendricks -- the Cubs' Opening Day starter two years running -- with an 0-2 record and a 6.92 ERA through three outings. The circumstances surrounding his two rough outings are not in the box score. It was near freezing in his three-inning start in the season opener. Then, following a bout with illness and a 10-day layoff, Hendricks was off in his start against the Braves on Sunday. He allowed four homers in the first inning -- after not having allowed four homers in a start in his career.
This is a case where track record is expected to win out in the end. Hendricks has an ERA title under his belt (2016) and has a 3.00 ERA over the past five years combined. He is currently walking batters at a clip of 4.8 per nine innings, compared to 0.9 in '20 and 2.0 for his career. In his one "normal" start on April 7, the righty spun six shutout innings against the rival Brewers. This is one veteran Chicago should not be overly concerned with at the moment. -- Jordan Bastian
Pirates: Chad Kuhl
Kuhl was the Opening Day starter for the Pirates for a reason. Though he doesn’t have the lights-out, high-strikeout stuff of baseball’s best aces, Kuhl is a reliable starter when healthy. But through four starts this season, he has a 6.32 ERA despite averaging three hits allowed per game. The big problem has been walks. The right-hander issued 15 over his first three outings, but gave up only one free pass in his most recent performance.
The other factor in Kuhl’s likely rebound? He was still being built up to begin the season. His last start was five innings -- more typical of the length he can be expected to provide for the Pirates in his first 162-game season since Tommy John surgery. Once he returns from the injured list after a bout with right shoulder discomfort, Kuhl should hopefully begin to whittle away at his ERA. -- Jake Crouse
Reds: Eugenio Suárez
Suárez is off to a dismal start with a nearly 40 percent strikeout rate so far this season. It's not unlike how his season started in 2020, however. The shortstop batted .118 with two homers over his first 20 games, striking out 25 times in 82 plate appearances, before he started clicking in the final month.
"We've seen him go through spells like this, and get himself out of it," Reds manager David Bell said. "There's nothing but confidence there that that's going to happen. It's not fun going through it. I know he wants to produce and contribute and all that. It's hard, and sometimes, when you don't feel locked in, it can look a little further off than it really is." -- Mark Sheldon