It's starting to be a little too late in the season to simply say, "it's early!" in response to veterans' struggles. Samples are still small, but with more than 60 games in the books, it's fair to start wondering about just what is wrong with players who haven't put it together yet. Especially when it comes to those we're used to seeing succeed.
Today we'll take a look at five such vets, to see what's the what, and if there's reason to believe things will turn around or not.
Ervin Santana, Los Angeles Angels: The Halos' right-hander has had two Santana-esque starts in 2012, but has been a mess otherwise. It looked as if he were coming around at the end of May, as he had lowered his ERA from 6.16 at the start of the month to 4.45 prior to his last appearance. Santana's next 15 ⅓ innings and three starts brought his ERA back up to 5.74, courtesy of an equal number of walks and strikeouts and another five homers, to give him an AL-worst 18 on the year.
Santana has mixed inexplicably-poor campaigns in with his productive ones for years now, but this is shaping up to the be the worst of them. His K/BB is under two, he's allowing two homers per nine innings, and this would be his worst ERA+ in his eight-year career.
The culprit is an ineffective slider. Santana has long succeeded despite a fastball that didn't bring much to the table in terms of results, and that's because of his wicked slider. According to PITCHf/x pitch values, his slider was worth over 24 runs in 2011, and was, in fact, the only pitch on the positive side of that ledger. He's averaged nearly 17 runs per season on the offering since 2008, but this year, he's yet to notch his first run with it. It's still inducing an above-average rate of swings-and-misses, but it hasn't been as effective when contact is made.
Santana needs to get his slider back as sharp as it's been in the past to succeed, as his repertoire isn't deep enough to sustain the loss of his primary out pitch. We've seen this over the years with Franciso Liriano as well; on a given day, pitchers like this are only as good as their best pitch happens to be.
Rickie Weeks, Milwaukee Brewers: The Brewers miss Prince Fielder's bat, but it's fair to say the loss of Weeks' production has been even more devastating. Unlike Fielder, who is simply gone to the Tigers, Weeks is still showing up to play: when he's hitting .166/.305/.293 on the season, that's the uglier scenario.
The obvious culprit is his batting average on balls in play. Weeks is at just .223, a large part of which might be attributable to luck: on liners, Weeks has .474 BABIP, whereas the league average is .718. The part that isn't luck is Weeks' own doing, as he's struggled when behind in the count this year, hitting just .158/.165/.250, and is even worse -- both relative to league-average and to his own performance -- with two strikes on him.
Weeks generally hits both lefties and righties well, but the right-handed second baseman has been unable to do anything against the latter in 2012. It seems as if his timing is off, whether due to a hitch in his swing or an undisclosed injury is unknown: he hasn't hit fastballs in the way he normally does, is having difficulty protecting the plate, and is whiffing more than he ever has.
Coco Crisp, Oakland Athletics: Crisp isn't an all-world offensive talent, but has managed to combine his plus defense with an average performance at the plate for years now. He's struggled to get it going this year, though, as he's been bothered with inner ear and sinus infections. Things haven't improved since he's returned from a disabled list stint, as he's hit just .136/.186/.242 in those 19 games, and owns a 449 OPS for the year in 146 plate appearance.
Crisp isn't striking out often -- he's whiffing less than his career rate of 13 percent -- but his .181 BABIP is the lowest of any hitter with at least as many plate appearances. While it's okay for Jose Bautista and his 18 homers to sit around BABIP's version of the Mendoza Line, Crisp is roughly 17 homers short of acceptable on the year.
He hasn't been right at the plate, regardless of count, and even if he isn't whiffing often, he's just not setting himself up for quality plate appearances. He's seeing more pitches per plate appearance than he did in 2011, but both figures lag well behind his 2010 rates. If Crisp wants to succeed, he might need to go back to being a bit more patient, and letting pitches he can do something with come to him.
Tim Lincecum, San Francisco Giants: You would think it hard to criticize a pitcher whiffing over a batter per inning, but Lincecum also owns a 6.00 ERA, and a BB/9 of almost five. The lack of control has been his main problem: it's kept him from putting hitters away, extended the length of plate appearances -- Lincecum has averaged under 5-2/3 innings per start this year -- and made things very difficult when the batter is ahead.
His velocity being down is a separate issue, but it's also important. Brooks Baseball clocked Lincecum at over 93 on his four-seamer and nearly 93 on his sinker in 2011, but both of those are under 91 miles per hour this season.
There are concerns the right-hander is injured and needs time on the disabled list to round into form. He's also a completely different pitcher -- and not in a good way -- out of the stretch. That screams there's something mechanical at fault, and that means it's likely fixable. That's no consolation in the present, but it means Lincecum should improve before the year is out.
Gaby Sanchez, Miami Marlins: The Marlins are over .500 and in the midst of a crowded NL East and Wild Card race, but that's all no thanks to their first baseman. From 2008 through 2011, Sanchez was at least solid offensively, hitting .269/.346/.440 for a 111 OPS+, but things have fallen apart. The 28-year-old is at just .195/.239/.293, 60 percent worse than the average hitter, never mind first baseman, and is dragging down the Marlins' offense more than anyone else in the lineup. For a team with the .163/.299/.279 version of John Buck, that's quite the accomplishment. He was so bad that he spent three weeks at Triple-A New Orleans trying to get straightened out; he hit .310/.494/.483 in 79 plate appearances there, so maybe it worked.
While striking out 19 percent of the time isn't normally a terrible thing, Sanchez entered the year whiffing in just 15 percent of his plate appearances. Combine that with a career-worst walk rate, and it's no wonder Sanchez has scuffled. What's especially strange about the drop in walks and increase in strikeouts is that he's seeing roughly the same number of pitches per plate appearance as in the past two seasons.
You won't be surprised to hear this his BABIP is well below expectations at .236, nor, at this stage, will you be shocked to know he's struggling to protect the plate when behind, and failing to swing at good pitches when ahead. Part of his problems are luck -- grounders failing to find holes, fly balls dying in an expansive home outfield -- but most of this is just approach. As with Crisp, Sanchez needs to sit back and start to wait for pitches he can actually do something with, rather than swinging at pitches that are just going to turn into outs should he make contact.