Justin Upton and Ian Kennedy were, without a doubt, the two leaders and the two most important players for the D-backs last season.
Kennedy was the ace that teams almost have to have to win a division. And Upton was the middle-of-the-order bat that was the only big-time presence in a lineup mostly filled with good but not great hitters.
So it’s not a great surprise that while both are struggling this year, so are the Diamondbacks. They have lost five in a row after being two games over .500 for the first time since May 1. And it has come at possibly the worst time as the Dodgers are free falling and the Giants are playing mediocre ball at best.
But it is surprising to see why each player is struggling and the differing reactions to their struggles from the fans.
In Kennedy’s case, he has a 4.26 ERA this season after posting a 2.88 ERA last season. He consistently is getting himself into trouble late in innings and late in games. He struggles to finish hitters off after getting them to two strikes and really struggles with two outs in an inning.
He also really struggles out of the stretch and when he falls behind in the count.
Bernie Pleskoff, a former professional scout for the Astros and Mariners and now a scout/analyst for RotoWire.com, had some interesting insight into Kennedy’s struggles on Twitter (@BerniePleskoff) last night.
“When [Kennedy] falls behind in counts he over throws the fastball and loses command,” he tweeted. “Not as solid out of the stretch. Different pitcher [than last year.]”
As Pleskoff implied, that wasn’t the case with Kennedy last year. So what’s different?
Maybe it is just a matter of not trusting his stuff enough, which is why he tries to throw harder when he falls behind in the count. But he is getting somewhat unlucky this year, as well.
He has a .331 BAbip (Batting Average on balls in play) when his career number is .284. And he actually has a better walks per 9 (1.9) than last year (2.2) and his Ks per nine are almost identical from this year to last (7.9 and 8). So I would bet that his ERA ends up closer to 3.6 than where it is now. But thats still a long way from last year’s 2.88.
But there is hardly anyone that is killing Kennedy the way they are Upton. And I can’t quite understand why.
Maybe because Kennedy wasn’t highly touted like Upton was. Or maybe it’s because he only pitches (and struggles) every five days and Upton is playing (and struggling) every day. And there is no doubt that Upton is struggling.
Upton has a BA/OBP/SLG slash line of .263/.346/.376 this year. Compare that to last year’s .289/.369/.529 and you can see just how far he is off last season’s pace.
It’s painful to watch him flail away at sliders away and then take fastballs right down the middle. But the reaction to Upton’s struggles has turned visceral. Fans are booing him at every chance and they are calling for him to be traded or demoted.
It’s as though last season never happened. Upton had a historic season for a position player in the D-backs franchise. His 5.7 Wins Above Replacement according to Baseball-Reference.com was the third-highest in D-backs’ history; third only to Luis Gonzalez’ 1999 and 2001 campaigns.
Without Upton last season, the D-backs would not have made the playoffs. It is as simple as that. So like Kennedy, something has changed from last year to this year.
Keith Law had some insight on ESPN’s Fantasy Focus Baseball podcast today. He said that Upton has a tendency to “come out of his swing.” I think all D-backs fans have noticed this. But Upton is STILL one of the top 10 players in all of baseball that a team would like to begin a franchise with.
In the same podcast, Law had a difficult time choosing between Mike Trout and Justin Upton for a “franchise player.” He eventually chose Trout because of his ability to play center field and his outstanding speed on the base paths. That’s it.
Upton is still only 24 years old and has already shown he is capable of an elite year (last year). Many players peaks are around 26-27 years old. Upton is still two to three years away from reaching that age. Oh, and he already has been in the league for five years.
His tendency to “come out of his swing,” as Law described it, is disturbing and worrisome. But the amount of venom (pardon the pun) and anger pointed towards Upton is also disturbing. He will be the player he was last year again, and perhaps even better, soon.
And I can’t wait to see it because he is a potential Hall of Fame player and many might miss that because of their frustration with this season.