Shadows on a Sunny Day: The inevitability of slumps and how to fix them
“It’s only ‘a hitch’ when you’re in a slump. When you’re hitting the ball it’s called ‘rhythm’.”
Slumps are the most confounding things in sports. How does one, seemingly within the blink of an eye, forget how to do something he’s done historically well? Better than 99.99% of the world’s population?
I read a great column once on slumps by the great Tim Kurkjian, chronicling the struggles of the greatest hitter I’ve ever seen in person: Albert Pujols. Of the article’s many great quotes and anecdotes, my favorite is this from Mark Reynolds (then with Baltimore, presently of Colorado): “My mom was watching a game on TV last year, and said to me the next day, ‘How did you miss that 2-0 slider?”’ Reynolds said. “I said, ‘Mom, it’s not that easy.”’
When the Rangers faced Red Sox knuckleballer Steven Wright the other day, the Rangers broadcast crew gave a fascinating insight into how major leaguers will avoid the threat of slump causing habits (of which trying to hit a knuckleball is one) like the plague. They mentioned how Ian Desmond changed his ENTIRE pregame routine to avoid doing a single thing the way he’d normally do it on the day he faced Wright. If he did poorly, he wanted it to be one-off.
He couldn’t risk the knuckler infecting him. He couldn’t risk it bringing on that rhythm-breaking scourge.
Henry Aaron was an all-time great, and when it came to slumps even he suffered plenty. He subscribed to a simple approach. Aaron said, “My motto was always to keep swinging. Whether I was in a slump or feeling badly or having trouble off the field, the only thing to do was keep swinging.”
That’s great if you’re Hank Aaron, but a dangerous thing for good players or even those touching greatness. First, few have Hank’s eyes. Second, no one has his wrists. Those two things allow you to “keep swinging” without expanding the strike zone beyond YOUR zone.
The most common problem among slumping hitters is expanding the strike zone for the pitcher. Lack of patience will deepen a slump faster than all but the darkest doubts.
I firmly believe slumps die most frequently in the opposite field. When you’re hitting the ball hard the other way, you’re defeating shifts. You’re waiting longer, which means you’re seeing the ball that much longer. Moreover, you’re going to get a few of those “opposite field” hand grenade hits that can turn 0-for-4 into 1-for-3.
Remember, the distance between “disastrous” and “dangerous” is just a handful of letters.
Inches on the page. Milliseconds on the field. One blink not taken.
I don’t want to write an article about slumps. Believe me. I’d rather be writing about the down-home, good ol’ boy first baseman who finally found his swing in 2015, carrying it right over into this season. I’d like to be writing about everyone’s favorite huggy bear of a DH, the AL Comeback Player of the Year in 2015, proving with his 2016 that last year was no fluke.
I’d like to write all that.
But I can’t.
Now, before I get into this, let’s remember something: This team is the winningest Ranger team through this many games in their history. So that’s very good. But let’s not let a lot of good keep us from trying to improve, and if there’s one thing we should all agree on, it’s that the 1B-DH abyss is deep and dark.
Samuel Hale did a good job of profiling Mitch Moreland’s struggles earlier this month. To summarize: The Rangers have a 1B-DH combo with a cumulative slash of .220/.283/.375. By comparison, David Ortiz is over 300 points above that slugging percentage himself. And as resurgent as he is, he’s 40. His production is icing. For the Rangers, Mitch Moreland and especially Prince Fielder have to be the cake.
That -1.6 is the lowest combined 1B-DH WAR among all qualified combos. Even if you eliminate the classically WAR-challenged DH position, nobody is within -1.0 WAR of matching the Rangers’ disastrous duo. Here’s the 1B-DH tandems ranked by Offensive Runs (Off), along with some other key metrics:
Let me point out the most slap-you-in-the-face number here: -24.2. That’s the offensive runs created, combined, for Mitch and Prince. Here’s how you define that if you aren’t super sabermetric savvy (from Fangraphs):
“While statistics like wOBA and wRC+ communicate a player’s batting performance on a per plate appearances basis, when looking for total value you want to scale those to the total number of plate appearances. Additionally, Off (Offensive Runs) also includes base running value to provide you with a complete sense of the player’s offensive game.
“Off” is set with league average equal to zero and about every ten runs above or below average is equivalent to one extra win…If you want to know how much value a player has added on offense, Off is the place to look.”
So by this measure, Moreland and Fielder have cost a team with the league’s best record a little over two wins. That has to give you pause if only to wonder “How good could this team be if those guys were just average?”
Well, that’s actually pretty easy to figure. The average DH/1B this year has an Offensive Runs number of 3.7 or so. Which basically means if Texas only had an average 1B and DH, this team would be somewhere above 52 wins.
Just a reminder: if you included the strike seasons of 1981 and 1994, this team has had four seasons with fewer than 60 wins all year. Three more wins will exceed the 1972 expansion team. Of all the teams in the history of this franchise, how many have entered July with 50 wins?
The 2012 squad won their 50th game on June 30th to go to 50-29. So this is a historically great team with sizable under performance from an offensive cornerstone.
Just how sizable?
For comparison, the only Yankee qualifier among the DH-1B set was Carlos Beltran. Like Ortiz, he’s a warrior playing in his twilight years as a future Hall of Famer. Also like Ortiz, playing like a man 10 years younger than the calendar says.
He’s 35 runs better than the Moreland-Fielder combination.
At age 39.
Thirty five runs.
So what to do about Mitch and Prince? Does either deserve to be platooned? You have my attention. Benched? Still listening, but hold up a tick.
I’ll give you this: by performance alone, Fielder at least deserves a conversation as extreme is, “Is he playing like a major league DH?” That’s why you never go on performance alone. There’s gut, instinct, emotion, psychology, and chemistry. In contrast, Mitch is at least performing at replacement level, which would mean a lot if the Rangers didn’t have a superior, versatile athlete pushing him.
Here’s the problems with outright benching Fielder and Moreland.
First, that doesn’t happen. They aren’t 40. They aren’t rookies. They’re early 30s veterans who have skins on the wall. That carries currency in the room. There used to be a saying at MLB spring training and NFL training camps that every year every veteran felt they had to come win their job. With few exceptions, it doesn’t work that way in baseball any more. Salaries and the most powerful union this side of the UAW put a stop to that. You have to do a good bit over multiple seasons to lose your job as a veteran starter or free agent star on a team. If you bench Fielder or Moreland for any significant stretch, you lose the clubhouse. Even if you’re Jeff Banister.
But you can platoon.
So move them down, give them more days off, have him work like Hell, and spell Prince with Jurickson Profar and Ryan Rua in a rotation. Have Profar play 1B twice a week and DH Moreland those days, just to let him find the groove he sniffs every few weeks. With Profar and Rua’s athleticism, and the days off you naturally need for Nomar Mazara against tough lefties and Shin-Soo Choo to prevent a recurrence of his leg troubles, it’s entirely defensible. You exploit the tremendous versatility of Profar (who struggles against lefties, but uses speed as a natural slump deterrent). You make Rua a more valuable trade piece or increase his value should he hit free agency. It’s a win-win.
You match Prince and Mitch up against guys they balance well against, keep them warm enough to find a groove, and if either does, you slot them right back in every day. Confidence in the player restored, confidence of the clubhouse saved. If you’re lucky, you have four or five guys back to fighting, as major contributors, for two spots. Now you have trade pieces, to stack value on top of value. I won’t get deep into that, but coming into late July, it’s always a plus for a pennant contender looking for artillery heading into an October run.
Now, in case you think I’m biased…well, hell yes. I used an entire column this Spring to basically anoint Jurickson with liquid pine tar and Mississippi mud. That doesn’t mean he’s not really good.
Here’s Profar’s performance so far this season:
So project out this line with Fielder’s plate appearances to date, factoring in that the larger exposure would regress certain metrics. It’s safe to say the outlandish .392 BABIP would take a hit. That said, those numbers look as such:
That’s over a 3-game swing from Fielder (-1.6 WAR) to a slumping Profar (1.6). Now, does he have the same WAR as a 1B or DH versus a higher value defensive position, like SS or 2B? Well of course not, but there’s a good argument that putting his bat in the lineup alone brings considerable value (see his offensive runs created, which doesn’t factor in his plus base running). Moreover at most positions he’s a below-average defender, at least as measured by Defensive Runs. I’m going on athleticism here, and am of the belief that Profar as a once or twice a week first baseman, with the work that goes with that, will be a plus range guy. His arm will be at least above average for the position, even with his shoulder troubles. His limited time at 1B so far is too small to give any reasonable sample (15 innings), but it’s worth noting he’s considerably above the league average in range factor.
Am I in the majority wanting more of Profar at 1B? I doubt it. It can be argued it limits him, but I think that perspective undervalues 1B as a defensive position. The errors (and runs) saved by a flexible, high-range first baseman can be considerable. Ask anyone who played with Keith Hernandez or Mark Grace what throwing to them meant. Is Profar that? No. Will he be? No. But will he bring the athleticism of a middle infielder to a corner position desperately needing a boost? Yes.
The guys in the clubhouse believe in Fielder and Moreland, just like the duo believes in themselves. With time and the right platoons, they can and will find their groove. Good hitters hit. Mitch Moreland is a solid hitter who’s always been streaky. Prince Fielder is a good hitter who’s always been streaky. He’s one of those guys good enough that a streak can last a season.
The problem is, so can a slump.
Don’t quote these guys their homer stats or slugging percentages. That’s not what they’re here for. They’re the table-cleaners, the men who drive in the runs. Each would gladly slug .320 with 10 homers if they drove in 100 runs at the right times. They’re about team. So while professionalism dictates that we have to balance the good of the team and at-bats for up and coming stars, we can’t forget or discard the guys that got us here.
This Rangers team is on an epic road. The Lord only knows where it goes, but we all get lightheaded dreaming in the thin air of possibility. To make the journey meaningful,to make the road something we’re all proud to remember, sometimes we have to carry the guys that have always carried us.
We have to trust that eventually, they’ll find their feet. Good players, even in slumps, almost always do. Until they do, we let the promising new kids take point. They’ll eventually slump, too. We’ll need a lineup to pick them up too. That’s why they have a team.
For Prince and Mitch, they have this one. And that’s a historically good thing.