We get it: Offense is down around the Majors while pitchers establish their early dominance this season. Around the American League Central, that means a lot of normally solid hitters have started off colder than the Midwestern weather. It’s tough to be a hitter in this division these days.
Fear not. Much like spring flowers waiting for warmer weather to bloom, hitters are eventually going to break out. Here are five from the Central we think have better times ahead with just a little change:
Indians: 2B Cesar Hernandez
Hernandez was the second-most consistent bat in the Indians' lineup last season. Behind José Ramírez, Hernandez was one of the main reasons that Cleveland was able to clinch a postseason berth, despite the struggling offense. He led the American League with 20 doubles and brought home a Gold Glove Award that made the Indians want to re-sign him for the 2021 season. But through the club's first 16 games, he hasn't offered quite the same production as he did last year. Hernandez has logged a .167 average with a .536 OPS. Over the last eight seasons, he's floated around a .275 average and 100 OPS+ consistently. From what his past shows, along with the boost he gave Cleveland's offense last year, there's every reason to believe that Hernandez's bat will eventually heat up.
Royals: DH Jorge Soler
Soler has struggled to start the season, hitting just .156 (7-for-45) with one home run and five RBIs through the first 15 games. In that span, he struck out 22 times, including a stretch last week where he struck out seven times in a row. But if history tells us anything, it’s that Soler can produce when he’s healthy. When Soler led the American League in home runs (48) in 2019, he played all 162 games for his first season of 100 games or more since 2015 with the Cubs. And he’s played all but one of the Royals’ 17 games this season, indicating manager Mike Matheny’s belief that the most powerful hitter on the team will turn it around. There have been good signs from Soler lately: On Tuesday against the Rays, Soler launched two hard-hit balls that ended up being deep flyouts. One was 107.3 mph off the bat and Rays center fielder Kevin Kiermaier caught it at Kauffman Stadium’s warning track -- 393 feet from home plate. If Soler can bring down his whiff percentage (38.6 percent, the highest of his career so far), stay healthy and continue to barrel balls, he’ll be the force in the Royals’ lineup that they will need him to be.
Tigers: IF Willi Castro
Castro was bound to suffer some regression after batting .448 on balls in play last season. However, this dropoff is extreme. Despite his homerless start, Castro’s average exit velocity is actually up about two miles per hour from 2020. He’s hitting the ball on the sweet spot at a higher percentage, and his hard-hit rate is nearly identical to last year. His barrel rate, however, is less than half of last year’s pace. Two factors hurting him are an uptick in fly balls and a drastic drop in his pull percentage. Thus, while he’s making more contact than ever with a similar line-drive rate to last season, he’s suffering from flyouts and infield popups. Meanwhile, his swing-and-miss rates are same or lower than last year on all types of pitches, while he’s seeing more fastballs than last year. Expect his production to rebound once he does more damage off velocity; his weighted on-base average (wOBA) against fastballs is about 90 points lower than expected, and his slugging percentage is nearly 200 points under expectations. He might not replicate last year’s production over a full season, but he’ll be better than he’s shown so far.
Twins: Miguel Sanó
The slugging first baseman has always been known for his propensity for both hot and cold streaks, and the start of his 2021 season has definitely been the latter, as he entered Wednesday hitting .111 (5-for-45) with a .555 OPS. Why can the Twins expect this to turn around? His on-base percentage is still at .310 due to a career-high 23.2% walk rate, and his plate discipline numbers suggest that's no fluke. He's seeing fewer pitches in the strike zone than ever, and he's only swinging on 20.1% of pitches outside the zone, the lowest mark of his career. When he is swinging out of the zone, he's making contact more than ever before. The problem is that he isn't crushing the pitches in the zone that he should be doing damage with -- but the Twins hope that with additional work on the velocity machine, that, too, will arrive to complement his disciplined approach.
White Sox: 1B José Abreu
White Sox manager Tony La Russa moved Abreu from first base to designated hitter for one game Tuesday night in Cleveland, a DH spot Abreu does not particularly love, but Abreu responded with three RBIs and three hits, including two solo home runs. Abreu was hitting .188 with 25 strikeouts prior to that outburst, which represented the lowest monthly mark of his career (previously hitting .212 in June 2018) with 10 days to go in April. But Abreu has been a notoriously slow starter, with his career .257/.328/.469 April slash line standing as his lowest career monthly average and slugging percentage. The proven track record is there and then some for Abreu, who won the 2020 American League Most Valuable Player award and has topped the AL in RBIs in each of the last two seasons. He also has been one of the most consistent middle-of-the-order presences in baseball during his seven previous seasons with the White Sox. In ’20, Abreu was slashing .250/.296/.435 through Aug. 17 before finishing at .358/.415/.730 with 15 homers and 47 RBIs over his final 37 games in leading the White Sox to their first playoff berth since ’08.