Guessing the Fate of April’s Underachieving Hitters

For the first month of every baseball season, I’m a bit notorious for simply answering “April” as the convenient, one-stop-shop for questions relating to why someone’s favorite player is hitting .150. Once we start heading into May, telling people to be patient when 1/6th of the season is already over becomes an increasingly unujustifiable task. While rebuilding teams are in a place at which they can be patient, avoiding judgment is tricky for contenders, especially when every division leader is in first place by fewer than three games.

So let’s get out the guillotine and guess who can be saved and who is a lost cause.

Ryan Braun, Milwaukee Brewers

I remain quite torn about the state of doneness of the Hebrew Hammer. On one hand, he can still hit the ball with authority as seen by the fact that his average exit velocity, dipping under 90 mph, isn’t all that different from the numbers in 2016 and 2017, years in which Braun was still a contributor offensively. If you dig deeper into his pitch-by-pitch stats, Braun appears to be going dead-red for fastballs, and despite a career-low contact rate, he is actually making contact with fastballs at better-than-career-average rates (14.6% whiff/swing rate in 2019 vs. 19.8% career). But other than fastballs, he’s making much worse contact, missing almost half the changeups and sliders he’s offered at (career rate under 30%).

It makes me wonder about Braun’s bat speed. To my naked eye, it looks like he’s trying to compensate for decreased bat speed by making contact with his bread-and-butter pitch (Braun was one of the best fastball hitters in baseball in his prime). He also suggested he was changing his swing in order to hit more home runs. It’s unfortunate that swing speed isn’t one of the things you can get easily, but Alex Chamberlain identified stats that correlate with swing speed when reverse-engineering the scanty data available a few years ago. Isolated power, xwOBA, and contact rate all have a relationship, and in each of the three, Braun is at his career’s nadir.

I think there’s still hope for Braun, but if his bat is slowing down, I wonder if he’s taking the wrong approach in trying to hit for more power. A player with slower bat speed but who is also pulling the ball more (57% compared to 38% career) seems like one trying to cheat on the fastballs. I don’t think Braun’s as doomed as some on this list, but I think that he’d be better off not trying to capture his early-career power because it’s making him a one-dimensional hitter.

Matt Kemp, Cincinnati Reds

Kemp had a brief Renaissance in 2018 with an OPS over .900 through the end of May, supplying surprising offense to the Dodgers at a time during which practically nobody else on the team was hitting. Since then, he’s hit .249/.302/.412 and currently stands as the fifth-worst position player in WAR. Largely a trap for the Reds, the poison pill of this offseason’s Yasiel Puig trade, one of the team’s challenges was to avoid giving Kemp more playing time than his actual abilities deserved. The team has largely failed this challenge, starting Kemp in 15 of the team’s 21 games, the final game being the one in which he collided with the outfield wall, resulting in a chest contusion.

Given that the Reds appeared serially unable to use Kemp in the only role in which he make sense in while playing in a DH-free league, the last bat on the bench who comes in to pinch-hit against a lefty reliever, the Reds ought to outright release him, given the lack of positional flexibility and unlikely chance of making a trade of significance.

Jesus Aguilar, Milwaukee Brewers

It would be unfair to call Aguilar a one-hit wonder, given that his half-season in 2017 (.265/.331/.505) was quite decent in its own right, though not at 2018’s 134 wRC+ level. 2019 has been an unmitigated disaster for Aguilar, ranking as Mr. Irrelevant in the WAR standings as of Monday morning. There’s likely an element of luck involved, with an xwOBA nearly 100 points better than his actual wOBA (.276 vs. .179). The larger problem, of course, is that .276 isn’t actually good even if it’s more in the line of a normal bad start than an abysmal one. Aguilar’s largely been shifted to a pure platoon role with Eric Thames but Aguilar’s struggles are getting to the point at which the Brewers may not be able to afford even using him in a timeshare. I think at this point, there’s a decent chance Aguilar finishes the season in a different uniform.

Jackie Bradley Jr., Boston Red Sox

At .150/.233/.188, Bradley’s underperformed even by 2019 Red Sox baseball player standards. The bad news first: Bradley’s largely earned his poor start on merit, with Statcast’s algorithms thinking he “should” be hitting .193 and slugging .285. This largely appears driven by his struggles against the shift, with Bradley having a career .300 BA hitting into the shift for his career. This year it’s at .190, and that .186 BABIP, which isn’t sustainable, has a lot to do with it. I’m inclined to be patient with Bradley for the time being and realistically, the Red Sox don’t have many better options rather than sitting around and waiting. The team hasn’t been very willing to use Steve Pearce in the outfield, only giving him a single start there since picking him up from the Blue Jays, and he has had his own struggles offensively. Giving J.D. Martinez additional time on defense with Betts in center doesn’t strike me as having all that much upside. And it’s not as if the team should be calling up Rusney Castillo or Gorkys Hernandez (and they won’t). Patient is probably all the Red Sox can be.

Ian Kinsler, San Diego Padres

I was admittedly optimistic about Kinsler entering the season, thinking he had just enough left with the bat to serve as a stopgap for Fernando Tatis Jr. thanks to a glove that was still among the best in the league at second base. So far, I’ve been 100% wrong, with Kinsler being a disaster offensively (.139/.218/.253, -0.8 WAR) while the player he was the stopgap for was also not right. I’m still a believer in Kinsler, and a .145 BABIP is unsustainably low, but it’s getting very hard to justify starting him at this point. Luis Urias has a .978 slugging percentage (not OPS) for El Paso with seven home runs in 10 games after hitting eight for the entire 2018 season. With the wins actually mattering this year, I don’t think the team can afford to wait any longer.

Ian Desmond, Colorado Rockies

I know that Desmond has a reputation for being a good guy, but his struggles, which ought to have been readily apparent in 2017 and 2018 to any group of people paid to run a baseball team for a living, have tended to gone unnoticed. The team is sitting him more often these days, with a .198/.239/.349 line being too weak for even Bud Black to Little League Dad his way through, but the break ought to be permanent. Raimel Tapia‘s up and hitting with power and David Dahl’s healthy. It’s time for the team to recognize reality; there’s nothing that Desmond does that Noel Cuevas (when healthy) or Yonathan Daza can’t. Some combination of Blackmon-Tapia-Dahl is the team’s best outfield right now, and the team should commit to that trio.

Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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Mike NMN
Mike NMN

Question for Dan. You recommend releasing Kemp and waiting out Bradley. How about the some of the others? Would you release Desmond or could be be otherwise useful in a lesser role? Kinsler is cheap–cut him or keep him?