Wednesday, July 16, 2014
First-half lows: Wood, Baez struggle
By Jesse Rogers
Travis Wood has struggled to regain his All-Star form of a year ago.
Before we spin things forward to the second half of the Chicago Cubs' season, let's examine five players who didn't exactly move their careers in the right direction in the first half. These are players who matter in the Cubs organization (which means Jose Veras is not making the list).
We examined five positives from the first half on Monday. Here are the negatives:
A year ago at this time, Wood was finishing up his first All-Star Game as the Cubs' lone representative, but that's now in the distant past. He has been a shadow of his former self, plagued with command problems, especially with his fastball. He has either left balls over the plate (117 hits in 110 2/3 innings) or missed his spots altogether (48 walks). His 4.96 ERA ranks 90th out of 94 qualified pitchers in Major League Baseball, as does his 1.49 WHIP (hits plus walks to innings pitched). According to ESPN Stats & Information, Wood's line-drive percentage (24.1) is the highest of his career and 14th in the league in the first half.
Edwin Jackson's numbers might be worse, but there was no expectation out of him this season or for the near future. Wood is supposed to be a core guy -- on the path to being a No. 2 or 3 starter -- at least based on his age and last season. He needs to find that command to be thought of in that way again.
His recovery after a slow start has been nice, but it didn't land him in the Triple-A all-star game Wednesday night. If he can't make that squad, how can he be ready for the big leagues?
The Cubs will tolerate some high strikeout totals from their sluggers -- that's baseball these days -- but 110 whiffs to just 28 walks isn't a ratio that will work in the majors. And remember we're just at the All-Star break.
Baez needs to be a more disciplined hitter to get that final promotion. He started to show signs of it in spring training, taking what the pitcher was giving him more often than not, but once Triple-A started he expanded his zone. Nothing about his season screams that he's ready despite some prodigious home runs, including Sunday in the Futures Game when he crushed an outside breaking ball out to right.
For the year he is batting .240 with 14 home runs and 47 RBIs with an on-base percentage of .305. Those are pedestrian numbers for a player of his talent. The good news is he has made only 11 errors after 44 last season. His manager noted Baez never took his offensive woes to the field. If he can pick up where he left off before the break -- he's on a 10-game hitting streak -- he still has a chance at the big leagues sooner rather than later.
The season has only gotten worse for Mike Olt and Junior Lake.
The swings and misses have become so common for these two that it's almost a surprise when they do make contact. Lake was batting .250 on June 1, but he has hit .168 since with 34 strikeouts in his last 101 at-bats and is now batting .218 at the break along with 93 strikeouts. If the Cubs need a roster spot to keep Arismendy Alcantara, they may have just found one. Otherwise they could demote Olt, whose average got as high as .231 one day in April. By the next afternoon it was .207, and it has gone down ever since.
Currently hitting .144, Olt looks more lost than Lake and isn't that far behind in strikeouts (79). According to ESPN Stats & Information, Olt and Lake are No. 1 and No. 2 in MLB in strikeout rate when the count gets to two strikes at 60.8 percent and 59.2 percent, respectively. And Olt's .076 batting average with two strikes (9-for-118) is the lowest in the majors. Despite a few home runs, there is nearly nothing positive to hang on either of their first halves, at least not on offense.
After a surge in the second half last season, there were many whispers about a possible All-Star bid this season for the 27-year-old catcher, but things haven't panned out. A .236 batting average and .292 on-base percentage tell his offensive story, and he hasn't been the stalwart behind the plate that he was on track to become. Castillo has thrown out just 21 percent of base stealers, well below the league average of 27 percent. But that number is misleading as manager Rick Renteria hasn't made it a priority with the Cubs pitching staff, which has been the culprit as much as or more so than the catcher.
Still, according to Fangraphs, Castillo has zero defensive runs saved this season after leading all catchers with 19 last season. And the Cubs don't completely trust him with their young pitching staff just yet. John Baker has done the brunt of the work behind the plate any time a newcomer takes the mound. It's not that Castillo has been awful, but he was trending in a better direction at the end of last season. That progress has seemingly stalled.