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Collette Calls: April Showers

Jason Collette

Jason has been helping fantasy owners since 1999 at RotoJunkie, Fanball, Baseball Prospectus and now here at RotoWire. He covers the Tampa Bay Rays at theprocessreport.net. You can hear Jason weekly on many of the Sirius/XM Fantasy channel offerings throughout the season as well as on the Towers of Power Baseball Hour Podcast on iTunes. He was selected as the Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year by FSWA in 2013.

Welcome to May, the month that is supposed to bring us flowers and warmer weather. Hopefully, for some fantasy notables, it brings some warmer stats as many players missed the memo stating the season began April 5. Let's put together a lineup of awful Aprils and see what is ailing the players and if they can turn things around.

Catcher

Mike Zunino -
This is a tough position because, surprise, there are a lot of catchers hurt. It is just a tough position because of the injury risk, and we already have guys like Yan Gomes, Jonathan Lucroy and John Jaso on the disabled list. For catcher one, I'll go with everyone's "sleeper" -- Mike Zunino. He is hitting .129/.214/.242 this season with two homers in 70 plate appearances while striking out 39 percent of the time. Entering the season, I was down on him because he had shown no ability to hit anything with a wrinkle in it as he owned a .130/.155/.292 line against breaking balls from 2013 through 2014, showing no ability to lay off them. This season, he is laying off them, and a .167/.250/.389 line should certainly be considered an improvement for him in putting breaking balls into play. In fact, he went from swinging and missing 47 percent of the time against breaking balls to 40 percent. The issue for Zunino has been the fastball.

Heading into 2015, Zunino swung and missed at 34 percent of the fastballs he faced with a swinging strike rate of 18 percent. This season, those numbers are 43 and 22 percent, respectively. In terms of putting fastballs in play, Zunino had a .199/.262/.392 line against those pitches prior to this season and now has a .130/.226/.204 line against fastballs. In short, this has been a disastrous start for Zunino -- one I don't see much of a rebound from. Sure, he can become another Ron Karkovice type as he is a solid defender, but he's heading down the J.P. Arencibia career path at the plate, and that's a hell of a way to go through life, son.

First Base

Chris Carter -
Man, does this one pain me. I've been on this guy since 2012, and the only reason I don't own him in every league is because I'm in a few leagues with Jeff Erickson, who shares my affection for him. If you've owned Carter, you know he is a slow starter. Last season, he batted .153/.270/.329 with a 37-percent strikeout rate in April. This April he batted .160/.267/.253 with a 36-percent strikeout rate. Once Carter put April 2014 behind him, he went on to bat .227/.308/.491 with a 32-percent strikeout rate and hit 37 bombs.

Carter's swing-and-miss rate is up from 37 to 40 percent this season, this despite the fact he is chasing a fewer percentage of pitches out of the zone. In the past, Carter had issues covering the outer third of the plate because he was too far from the plate. He corrected that, but now, he's once again being beaten on stuff low and away as well as stuff up. He's maintained his nitro zone low and in, but as long as pitchers don't make mistakes there, they are getting him out. Carter has always been a streaky player who can heat up as quickly as he cools off. It is rather amazing the Astros are doing so well as a team in the standings with Carter doing next to nothing in the middle of that lineup. You own Carter for the power numbers and nothing else and that power will return. If you didn't want to pay the money for him on draft day, trade for him at a bargain now. Stop reading this piece and go make an offer for him. I will wait ...

Second Base

Chase Utley -
This one is easy. Say what you will about his age and the fact he rarely avoids the DL. The one thing Utley has always been able to do it hit. That is not happening in 2015. Despite his stable plate discipline, Utley has a .122/.200/.243 line 85 plate appearances into the season with a .097 BABIP. There is bad luck, and then there is a sub .100 BABIP. How does that even happen? The biggest problem for him is the lack of line drives as he has a career-low 16-percent line drive rate this season. Line drives fuel batting average; without them, you need a lot of speed to turn groundballs into hits above the league-average rate. Utley lacks the speed, so the career-low groundball rate is a problem, and he is batting a nice .069 on groundballs this season and an ice-cold .107 to anything to his pull side. The line drives that Utley is hitting are mostly going the other way, where historically they've been mostly to his pull side. He had an ankle injury and missed a bit of time in spring training due to it, but this looks a lot like bat speed waning than anything else.

He's always had a balky knee and while Ruin Tomorrow Junior should be applauded for his handling of the Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon situations, he botched this one with Utley. He is paying Utley $15M this season to look like a shell of his former self, and Utley is still on pace to kick in another $15M option for 2016 as he simply needs to reach 500 plate appearances. I'm willing to let someone else take a chance on Utley's odds of rebounding.

Shortstop

Alexei Ramirez -
Ramirez isn't a sexy fantasy player to own. He rarely walks, but he also rarely strikes out. He first came up hitting homers while occasionally stealing bases, and then flipped the script to become a sneaky source of steals. In 2014, he combined both for the first time since 2010 and batted a respectable .273. In 2015, he is doing nothing across the board. He is batting .197 this season, and the counting category contributor has as many home runs and steals as you and I do today.

Looking at his plate discipline, he is not chasing pitches out of the zone, but he is swinging more frequently at pitches in the zone. The issue there is he is coming up empty within the zone (Z-Contact%) at a career-low rate. When we see that kind of thing, we need to look into the pitch types he is seeing. Look at the growth in the percentage of sliders he is facing. Ramirez is swinging for fastballs, but ends up swinging over the top of sliders. The three straight seasons of 20-plus steals at age 30-32 were a surprise for Ramirez, but a lot needs to change for him to get there for a fourth consecutive season because he's far behind the eight-ball at this point. I will take a run at him being a double-double player the rest of the way, but he's not going to reach the 15/20 plateau in 2015.

Third Base

Josh Harrison -
I said Harrison was being overdrafted during the offseason when his ADP was in the top 100. Thus far, Harrison has posted a .202/.239/.345 line with his walk rate and strikeout rate heading in the wrong direction. He is batting 113 points worse than in 2014 as his batting average on balls in play has dropped from .353 to .227. Harrison's discipline at the plate has held up well, but despite the decreased walk rate, he is swinging at fewer pitches both in (Z-Swing%) and out (O-Swing%) of the strike zone. The problem is, he is seeing a higher percentage of pitches in the zone (Zone%) and is falling behind in counts taking a lot of first strikes (F-Strike%).

It is tough to say that Harrison is due for any kind of strong BABIP regression since his rates in 2012 and 2013 are very much in line where he is in 2015. In my humble opinion, he needs time away from the leadoff spot to get back in gear. Despite the low walk rate and high strikeout rate, I would prefer to see him be even more aggressive. In basketball, we encourage shooters to shoot their way out of slumps. In this case, I think Harrison needs to swing his way out of his. I still do not see him coming within 85 percent of what he did last season, but I am kicking the tires on him in my leagues if I do not own him.

Outfield

There are many disappointing starts to point at here, but let's look at three in particular -- Marlon Byrd, Shin-Soo Choo and Adam Eaton.

Marlon Byrd -
Byrd went for $15 in NL Tout Wars coming off back-to-back 20-homer and 80-RBI seasons with a new grip-it-and-rip-it approach. The problem with that kind of approach is that it can quickly fall apart. On April 3, I tweeted a fear I had for Byrd this season:



Thus far, Byrd has done little to dispel that concern. He is batting .163/.190/.263 with an abysmal 2-percent walk rate and a 31-percent strikeout rate. His BABIP has sunk from .325 to .208, and his spray chart shows a concerning lack of pulled baseballs for power. Byrd's swing rate is the same, his contact rate is the same, and even his chase rate is the same. In fact, he's doing nearly everything the same as he did last season in terms of plate discipline. The issue is when he is making contact, the results are not what they have been. Last season, 75 percent of his balls in play went to left or center field. This season, 64 percent of what he is putting in play is to center or right field. He is half way to 38 years old and in the final guaranteed year of his deal given to him by the Phillies. The Reds gave up a future fourth starter in Ben Lively to get this skillset and now, it is working out quite poorly for them. Alfonso Soriano 2015, indeed.

Shin-Soo Choo -
Choo was a $24 player in AL Tout Wars because it is an OBP league, and Choo has always been able to get on base as a career .381 OBP guy. He came into 2015 coming off two surgeries that ended his 2014 season, but Choo's numbers are beyond disappointing. He is batting .107/.254/.196 and while his walk rate is in line with his career rate, his 25-percent strikeout rate is his highest since the 2006 season. There are a few concerning trends with Choo.

Historically, Choo has made contact on 75 percent of his swings. This season, that rate has fallen to just below 69 percent. His swinging strike rate has jumped from a historical 11 percent to a career-low 13 percent as he is making less contact within the strike zone. Pitchers are clearly not afraid to challenge this version of Choo as most of what he is hitting to the outfield is going the other way and most of what he does manage to pull is going into the ground toward the second baseman. Because he is coming off an injury, I'm willing to give him more of a leash to rebound than I am Byrd (who I think is done), but Choo is going to have to start making harder contact to get his .132 BABIP back to where it needs to be.

Adam Eaton -
Eaton was a $19 player in AL Tout Wars because he was going to be the primary table setter in a potent White Sox lineup. Eaton gets on base, hits for average and runs, so this seemed like a slam-dunk purchase. The White Sox thought so and gave him a long-term contract. Oops.

Eaton is batting .192/.241/.256 and in recent days has been benched for J.B. Shuck. A look at his plate discipline shows that Eaton has been chasing pitches out of the zone at a career-worst rate, has been swinging more often than he ever has, and is making contact on pitches out of the zone better than he is inside the strike zone. In short, he is putting pitchers' pitches in play rather than hitters' pitches. Like Harrison, I would give Eaton time at the bottom of the lineup where he feels less pressure to force the action at the top of the lineup and let him get back to what he has demonstrated he can do.

Starting Pitcher

Drew Hutchison, Chris Tillman -
There are so many candidates, but I will focus on two pitchers. If you listen to Paul Sporer and myself on The Sleeper and The Bust podcast, you heard me beat the drum hard for Drew Hutchison this year, and Paul do the same for Chris Tillman. It turns out both flat-out stink so far. Hutchison is giving up too many home runs, and his command issues have led to a two percentage point drop in his strikeout rate. Last season, he was getting batters to chase sliders out of the zone when he got ahead in the count, but now they are not chasing and they're punishing the mistakes he is making within the zone. Tillman has uncharacteristically struggled with his control as he has nearly doubled his walk rate from the last few season, and the gopheritis that plagued him in the past has resurfaced.

In both cases, the skills are still there for these pitchers to show why we pushed for both during the offseason. Of the two, I have more faith in Tillman recovering his value because he can fix the walks, and command of his pitches will help the gopheritis. Hutchison will have trouble recovering his value if he doesn't get batters to chase as they were last season.

Relief Pitcher

Cody Allen -
Yea, Allen is the runaway winner. It has already been a rather frustrating season for closers, but Allen's struggles take the cake. After two awesome seasons in 2013 and 2014, Allen has opened 2015 in a very forgettable way. He is striking out more batters, but his walk rate has more than doubled and a .538 BABIP speaks to a mixture of bad luck and hard hit balls. Batters are not chasing Allen's stuff because he frequently offers hittable pitches. He is filling the zone (Zone%) with hittable pitches (Contact%) and despite a career-high first-strike rate, he is losing too many matchups with batters and not getting the swinging strikes he was last season. The other issue in play is his velocity is down from where it was late in 2014, but in line where it has been early in 2013 and 2014. For that reason, I would be hesitant to cut bait and more willing to acquire him as it is difficult to get the same results with less velocity. As long as he is not hurt, it is a safe bet to look for a rebound here.