We're more than halfway through the second month of the baseball season, but that hasn't stopped some pitchers from still owning ERAs that look like they belong in the year's first week. Minimum 30 innings pitched, there are still four starting pitchers allowing over seven runs per nine innings, and 13 of them giving up at least six per nine. There's always bad pitching, and it takes time to weed it out, but for the most part, all of these struggling arms are ones you would normally think of as talented.
Mike Minor, Atlanta Braves
Heading into the 2011 season, Minor was a five-star prospect according to Kevin Goldstein, and Baseball America's #37 prospect overall. He split the season between the major-league club and Triple-A as needed, starting 15 contests in the bigs with mixed, but promising, results. While a bit below-average through the lens of ERA, he struck out 2.6 times more batters than he walked, and mostly kept the ball in the park.
He's been a mess in his eight starts and 47 innings this year, though, despite an improved K/BB. He's given up an NL-leading eight homers, doubling his HR/9 from last year, and thanks to that, is also leading the league in earned runs allowed. Because his peripherals (excepting the long ball) are in order, Minor has one of the largest disconnects between his ERA and Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP). While part of the problem with his hit rate and batting average on balls in play might lie with Minor and his tendency to stay in the strike zone, the Braves defense, converting just 69 percent of balls in play into outs (#24 in the majors), is also at fault.
Minor has struggled to put hitters away, even with over eight strikeouts per nine. In two-strike counts, opponents are performing 36 percent better than average. In general, when he's been ahead, he's struggled -- given his stuff and track record, this seems like a temporary issue that can be solved with more time in the majors.
Clay Buchholz, Boston Red Sox
Buchholz missed most of 2011, and has pitched horribly to begin 2012, making his productive seem far, far away. But those days still count, as this is the same hurler who posted a 142 ERA+ over 348 innings from 2009 through 2011. The Red Sox signed him to an extension at the start of 2011, with the assumption being that he would be an important piece for them going forward. At best, though, he's shown merely flashes of being that kind of pitcher to start this season.
Unlike Minor, Buchholz's peripherals have been a mess. His 7.77 ERA is second-worst in the AL, he's already given up as many homers as he did in all of 2011 (and one more than in 2010), and his FIP is 6.56 thanks to a K/BB ratio just a hair over 1/1.
His change-up, easily his most-effective pitch in the past, has been a non-factor for him in 2012. He had trouble locating it in the season's earliest starts, and rather than continue to work on it, he essentially dropped it from his repertoire, using it just a few times per outing. His fastballs, known for their late movement that has induced both grounders and weak contact over the years, haven't been located as well either, forcing Buchholz to rely on the curveball that he had essentially shelved since becoming a full-time pitcher in the majors.
His last two starts have been promising, though, as Buchholz induced more ground balls against the Indians, and then he found his change-up against the Rays. He'll need more consistent velocity and the continued use of his best pitch in order to succeed, but he's a lot closer to the Buchholz of old today than he was 10 days ago.
John Danks, Chicago White Sox
When the 2011-2012 off-season started, he White Sox looked like they might be rebuilding. After a few moves that said as much, and rumors that John Danks was on his way out thanks to his trade value, general manager Kenny Williams put a stop to the process and inked Danks to a five-year, $65 million deal with a full no-trade clause for the 2012 season. The way things have gone to begin the year, there are surely some White Sox fans who wish he had been sent packing in return for prospects, too.
The 27-year-old lefty owns a 2.3 K/BB ratio for his career, and has never had fewer than twice as many punch outs as free passes in a full season in the majors. He's at just 1.2 now, though, and not due to poor control, but thanks to just 4.9 strikeouts per nine. That's okay when you're Clayton Richard, sheltered by both Petco Park and the NL West, but when you have to face AL lineups and pitch in a stadium known for its homers, problems arise. (And then land in the bleachers.)
You can't blame the defense for his 10.3 hits per nine, as he's given up just a .299 BABIP on the season. The problem is that too many balls are being put into play since he isn't striking out enough hitters. There's no one pitch that is failing him, but all of his offerings seem to have taken a small step back in their ability to induce swings-and-misses, as well as grounders.
The most significant issue seems to be velocity, with drops of 1-2 miles per hour nearly across the board. Whether this is a blip or the start of a real problem remains to be seen; after all, it's still just May.
Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers
Poor Max Scherzer, Poor, poor Max Scherzer. Would you believe the man leading the American League in strikeouts per nine (10.4 per) with a 2.7 K/BB would also feature an ERA north of six? That's his reality at the moment, and while some of it is on him and his 1.3 homers per nine, he's easily seen the most abuse from the Tigers defense behind him.
Scherzer's BABIP is .410, and, like with Minor and the Braves, a significant chunk of that rests on a bottom-third defense. It's not all on them, though, as Scherzer has had a difficult time with his control, giving the opposition too much of the plate to work with far too often.
Opponents have hit .438 with an .813 slugging percentage on the first pitch, making Scherzer 86 percent worse than average. He's had difficult following up both 1-0 and 0-1 pitches, to an even worse degree than his first pitch. With the batter ahead, Scherzer has been smashed to the tune of .449/.603/.694 (170 split-adjusted OPS+). You can blame the defense behind Scherzer only so much for poor location and execution.
Scherzer is at this point famous for bouts of ineffectiveness punctuated by his brilliance. Chances are good that, for the third time in three years, he'll pitch better after mangling his season line in the early going. One of these days, he'll have a start-to-finish strong campaign.