5 MLB Players Who Need a Bounce-Back Season in 2015
Sometimes in life, you need a mulligan.
There's no harm in it. No one's perfect. When you shank a tee shot into the woods, there's nothing wrong with teeing it up again and trying to knock one into the fairway. I mean, unless you're playing a competitive round, get back in there and take another crack at it.
We all make mistakes. None of us performs to the best of our ability all the time.
In baseball, it happens a lot. It is a game of failure, one in which you screw up 70% of the time and folks like me say you're doing a good job. For some players, that mulligan can last for an entire season, and once you're in the death spiral of one of those seasons from hell, it's sometimes very difficult to get out of it until that season is done.
But five players, especially, played poorly in 2014, at least by the standards they had set previously. These five players, and the teams that employ them, are hoping 2015 brings them more success than they had last year.
Who are they? And how can they get back on track?
For Nick Swisher, Father Time may have suddenly decided to knock on his door. Now 34, Swisher had a horrible season for the Cleveland Indians in the second year of a four-year, $56 million contract with the team, one which saw him undergo double knee surgery.
Back in August, Swisher had the medial meniscus arthroscopically repaired on both knees but is expected to be ready for spring training. He'll try to bounce back from a wretched 2014 in which he hit .208/.278/.331 with 8 home runs in 401 plate appearance (97 games), striking out in 27.7% of his plate appearances, far above his career average of 21.8%. His walk rate of 9.0% was also much worse than his career average of 12.9%. And last year was the first time he hadn't hit at least 21 homers in a season since his rookie year of 2004, when he played in only 20 games.
Among players with at least 400 plate appearances, only three players in baseball had a worse Fangraphs wins above replacement (fWAR) than Swisher's -1.6 (Kendrys Morales, Domonic Brown, and Matt Dominguez were all at -1.7), and Swisher's nERD of -0.94 was 357th-best in the Majors last year, meaning a lineup full of Swishers would have cost his team 0.94 runs a game more than a lineup full of league average players.
Until last year, Swisher had been one of the most consistent players in baseball. From 2009-2013, he had an fWAR of 2.9, 4.2, 3.5, 3.8, and 2.3 and hit 29, 29, 23, 24, and 22 homers.
So, is he done? Or can his knees recover? The Indians sure hope comes back swinging, seeing as how he's owed $15 million each of the next two seasons.
Jay Bruce seems like he's been around forever, but the two-time All-Star will be just 28 years old this year and should just now be entering the prime of his career. Bruce was hampered by a knee injury that forced him to spend time on the disabled list last year, limiting him to 137 games and 545 plate appearances. He hit just .217/.281/.373 with 18 homers, an OPS of .654, and a nERD of -0.76 (346th in MLB). Those are far worse than his career numbers of .251/.323/.467, with an OPS of .790.
Until last year, Bruce had never hit fewer than 21 home runs in a season, and the 18 he hit last year broke a three-year streak in which he hit 32, 34, and 30. The two-time All-Star's fWAR of -1.1 was among the worst in baseball, and far worse than the 4.9, 3.0, 2.1, and 4.0 he had put up the previous four seasons.
Bruce has the benefit of the Great American Ballpark, which is a hitter's paradise. He should also benefit from a returning and hopefully healthy Joey Votto in the lineup as well. He's never hit for a very high average, and he's also been a high strikeout guy throughout his career, so that isn't likely to change. Hopefully, a healthy knee will help his ground ball rate, which was a career-high 45.2% last year (his career mark is 38.7%), go down and his fly ball rate of 34.0% (career 41.7%) go up.
That would mean more homers for the Cincinnati slugger.
Injuries had a negative effect on Pedro Alvarez's season in 2014. Are you sensing a pattern here?
The Pirates' first baseman is reportedly doing well after missing the last part of the season with a broken bone in his foot and is expected to be fully healed for spring training. He'll be looking to forget a season in which he played in just 122 games (445 plate appearances) and hit .231/.312/.405 with 18 homers and 56 RBIs. He obtained a nERD of 0.07, which was 181st in baseball.
Alvarez has never hit for average, and his on-base percentage last year of .312 was actually much better than in 2013, when it was .296. However, he hit 30 home runs for the Pirates in 2012 and 36 in '13 and was worth -0.2 fWAR last season for Pittsburgh, after seasons with a 2.3 and 3.1 fWAR.
He is not a perfect player. He has struck out more than 30% of the time throughout his brief career, except for last season when he cut it down to 25.4%. He also increased his walk rate to a career high of 10.1%, which indicates he was at least having better at bats in 2014.
Nonetheless, the Pirates need for him to be a masher in the middle of the lineup and are hoping a healthy foot and slightly improved plate discipline will help him do that once again.
Injuries. More injuries.
The 31-year-old Shin-Soo Choo suffered from an elbow injury that cost him the first part of his 2014 season and then underwent ankle surgery about a month after coming back from his elbow procedure. Needless to say, Choo was never able to get on track last year, hitting .242/.340/.374, with just 19 doubles and 3 stolen bases in 529 plate appearances. The year before, Choo scored a monstrous seven-year, $130 million contract based on his .285/.423/.462 slash line, 34 doubles, 21 homers, and 20 steals.
His fWAR of 0.2 last season was 5 full wins lower than the 5.2 he put up with the Reds the year before. His strikeout rate jumped to 24.8% last year, following an 18.7% strikeout rate the year before, and his nERD of 0.26 was 146th in all of baseball.
There's no way Choo is ever going to justify a contract that pays him $21 million in his age-37 season. But it is encouraging that he still managed a .340 on-base percentage that was 26th-best in the American League (among qualified batters) and far above the league average of .316, even with his elbow and ankle injuries.
All he needs to do is stay out of the operating room and he should bounce back nicely in 2015.
All five players on this list missed a significant chunk of time in 2014. Baltimore's Chris Davis is the only one to miss time for something other than an injury.
A dismal season got even worse in September when Davis was suspended 25 games for illegal use of Adderall, a banned amphetamine in baseball without a doctor's prescription. It put an ugly punctuation mark at the end of a season in which he hit .196/.300/.404 with just 26 homers and a shockingly low 16 doubles. That was following a season in which he led the American League with 53 homers, 138 RBIs, and 370 total bases while hitting .286/.370/.634.
His slugging percentage fell .230 points. His isolated power (ISO) dropped from .343 to .209, his nERD of -0.26 means he actually cost his team runs by being in the lineup over a league average player, with his fWAR falling from 6.8 in 2013 to 0.5 last season.
Part of the problem was his batting average on balls in play (BAbip) dropped from .335 and .336 in 2012-13 to .242 in '14 as more teams employed a shift against him. One would expect his BAbip to improve somewhat next season -- but probably not by leaps and bounds.
The drop in doubles is the most concerning. His home run per fly ball rate of 22.6% last year was down from 29.6% but was right at his career average. And his fly ball rate in general was down (40.9%) compared to last year (45.7%) but not by a shockingly high amount.
After two stellar seasons with Baltimore, including a third-place finish in the AL MVP voting two years ago, Davis crashed and burned in '14. But the 29-year-old still has power to burn, and finding some more gaps and perhaps some luck on batted balls can help him return to All-Star status once again for the Orioles.