Unlucky 7: Slow starters poised to bounce back

May 19th, 2018

At this time last year, had a 5.06 ERA and was battling a bum back. But then he went on a four-month onslaught of opposing lineups en route to his second American League Cy Young Award.

At this time last year, was sitting on an uninspiring .541 OPS and hearing the critics opining that he was due for another Triple-A demotion. But he wound up having one of the best second halves in baseball and finishing with some down-ballot MVP support.

At this time last year, had not hit a single one of his eventual team-leading 25 homers for the Cardinals. (Well, OK, at this time last year, DeJong had not even set foot in the Majors yet, but let's not get too tangled up in the details.)

Point is, a lot is going to happen between now and the final out of 2018, and there's danger in assuming that all slow starts are created equal. So here are seven guys -- you could call them an unlucky seven -- for whom a weak first seven weeks might prove to be but a mere blip in the big picture.

(All stats are through Friday's games.)

1. Byron Buxton, Twins

.156/.194/.203 slash through 18 games

Welp, here we are again with Buxton short on luck in the first half. But the sample size of struggles is relatively tiny this time, because migraine issues and then a broken toe on his left foot forced him to miss roughly a month of action.

In what few plate appearances Buxton has been able to log this season, he's been guilty of expanding his strike zone, but his strikeout rate (29.9) isn't far off from what we saw in his sensational second half last season (27.6). What do you want to bet the dude with the fastest average sprint speed (30.7 feet per second), per Statcast™, improves upon his .227 batting average on balls in play (it was .339 last year)? Bottom line: It's way too soon to punt on the notion that the adjustments Buxton made as 2017 evolved don't have staying power.

2. , Cardinals

.240/.277/.323 slash through 40 games

The Cardinals' big-ticket offseason acquisition came with a somewhat helter-skelter track record (his wRC-plus marks, in order, from 2014-17 were 116, 92, 106 and 142), so there was no guaranteeing that he'd repeat last year's 37-homer, 30-double display. But you certainly expected better than what we've seen so far. The advanced stats, though, indicate you should not Marcell low here (see what I did there?).

Statcast™ tells us Ozuna's average exit velocity has jumped from 90.7 in 2017 to 92.9 (ranking 21st among those with at least 50 batted balls). His hard-hit percentage has jumped from 45.2 to 50.8. With normalized batted-ball luck, his .338 slugging percentage would instead be .488 -- still short of '17, but far better. He'll turn it around Ozuna or later (I did it again, sorry).

3. , Rockies

4.85 ERA, 1.31 WHIP through nine starts

A stress fracture in his left foot early in 2017 didn't prevent Gray from taking a major step forward by year's end. From July 25 through the end of the season, he had the NL's second-best ERA (2.64), and he finished the season with an ERA-plus 38 percent better than league average. Here in '18, Gray has seemingly taken a step backward, if you judge him by an ERA-plus that's 5 percent below league average.

But Gray's fielding independent pitching mark (3.12) is actually slightly better than last year (3.18). Gray had a run of three straight fantastic starts (one earned run in 20 innings) before the Brewers tattooed him on Sunday. It's a good bet that Gray's .352 opponents' batting average on balls in play will regress, perhaps as soon as Saturday's start in San Francisco.

4. , D-backs

.203/.326/.354 slash through 44 games

In the past five big league seasons, Goldschmidt has not turned in an OPS less than an .899. That's a pretty high floor, and that's what makes Goldy's less-than-golden early numbers so jarring. Because he knows the media keeps hammering manager Torey Lovullo with questions about him, Goldschmidt instructed his skipper earlier this week to "just tell them that I suck."

Per Statcast™, he's just 1-for-17 (.059) on balls put in play against pitches 95-mph or greater after going 27-for-96 (.281) against such pitches last year. The question you've got to ask yourself is whether Goldschmidt's bat speed has permanently disappeared now that he's officially north of 30 or whether he's simply in an early-season rut. Personally, I'm banking on the latter. I don't think he sucks.

5. , Dodgers

3.57 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, two blown saves through 17 appearances

Beyond a velocity drop that one could fairly easily attribute to fatigue following a deep postseason run, Jansen has also struggled with his command in the early going this season, turning one of the game's elite closers into one of its biggest question marks.

But in the month of May, Jansen has had both improved velocity (from 92.6 mph in April to 93.6) and movement (from 8.5 inches to 9.2, per Brooks Baseball) on his signature cutter. Statcast™ tells us he's allowing one of the lowest rates of hard contact (21.6 percent) of any pitcher in baseball with at least 25 batted balls against him. It might be a long climb back to the Kenley of old (and the Dodgers have an even longer climb back to the winning percentage of old), but it's not as if he's become a gas can overnight.

6. , Indians

.171/.259/.250 slash through 42 games

It's hard to be totally bullish on a Kipnis bounceback because, A. His troubles actually extend back through 2017 (82 wRC-plus), and B. Indians manager Terry Francona, having already dropped Kipnis from the second spot of the lineup to a lower-profile spot, might begin to limit his playing time against lefties.

But if you've got Kipnis in your heart (or on your fantasy team), at least take note that his barrels/batted-ball-event percentage (7.4) is the highest it's been since Statcast™ came along in 2015. And the 94-point difference between Kipnis' expected wOBA (.328) and his actual wOBA (.234) is among the highest in the game. Whereas Kipnis dealt with shoulder and hamstring issues in '17, he's presumed to be healthy now. The aging process for second baseman can happen more rapidly than any of us are comfortable with, but the 31-year-old Kipnis has recovered from terrible starts in the past.

7. , Mariners

4.66 ERA, 1.47 WHIP through nine starts

The M's acquired this former first-round pick from the Cardinals in the second half last season, hoping he was past his shoulder issues and ready to capitalize on his potential. But 83 innings into his Seattle tenure, the left-hander has a 4.99 ERA.

Gonzales' strong outing against the Tigers in his last start (no earned runs in 5 2/3 innings) might be a better indication of what we could see from him this season. His 4.78 strikeout-to-walk ratio is really good, and his 3.40 FIP is well short of his 4.66 ERA. It's not all rosy, because Gonzales still gives up a high rate of hard contact (44.4 percent), but his profile points toward the potential for his first above-average statistical season.