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Stock Falling: Four Players I’m Lower On After a Month of Play

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Reggie Hildred-USA TODAY Sports

Roughly a month’s worth of the 2024 season is now in the books. The American League East looks great. The Brewers and Guardians are standing up for the Central divisions. The White Sox can only beat the Rays, and the Astros somehow can’t beat anyone. Enough time has passed that I feel confident saying all of those things. On the other hand, it still feels too early to be certain about which players are over- or under-performing. But that doesn’t mean our opinions can’t change a bit. There’s enough data to make some educated guesses, so let’s put on our speculation caps. Yesterday, I looked at four players — two hitters and two pitchers — who have gone up in my estimation. Today, I’m examining the other side of the ledger.

Spencer Torkelson, 1B, Detroit Tigers
Torkelson is going to end up giving FanGraphs analysts whiplash. We loved him as a prospect, then he started slow and we adjusted our expectations down. Then he got hot at the tail end of last year and made a raftload of loud contact; both Dan Szymborski and I were high on him again coming into 2024. Now he’s off to one of the worst starts in baseball, and I’m back out.

Two things have changed my view. First, Torkelson’s approach at the plate has regressed. I’ve generally liked his swing decisions; he looks for something to drive and doesn’t chase breaking balls. But his swing rate in the heart of the strike zone is down meaningfully this year, and he’s not drawing walks at a rate that makes that sacrifice work out for him. If you’re going to be passive over the heart of the plate, you better absolutely crush the ball when you do swing, or at least possess a Soto-level batting eye so that pitchers are either tempting fate or walking you. Right now, Torkelson isn’t doing either of those things.

When it comes to the quality of his contact, the easiest way for me to get my point across is with Baseball Savant’s percentile tool, because it paints a broad picture in this case. Here’s what that looked like for him in 2023:

Lots of red on important things like barrel rate, hard-hit rate, xSLG, and so on. Average exit velocity isn’t a great statistic, but that’s what we have on here. As an additional point of comparison, the average exit velocity of his top 50% of batted balls was 102.7 mph. Now, here’s 2024:

That top 50% EV is down below 100 mph this year. The thump just isn’t there. Now, I don’t think that all of this decline is real. Torkelson isn’t going to run a 10% line drive rate all year. His barrel rate will almost certainly increase; his big issue right now seems to be that he’s getting under the ball too frequently, and those kinds of timing problems ebb and flow throughout the season.

But Torkelson isn’t a great player if he ends up back where he was last year. He put up a 107 wRC+, with underlying batted ball data that suggested he might be in the 115-125 region with better in-play luck. That kind of batting line at first base is basically an average player. That’s not what the Tigers are hoping for, and it’s a big change from the potential All-Star bat he looked like as a prospect.

The only real way around it would be for Torkelson to go full Carlos Santana and start walking his way to value. But while he has a good batting eye, he doesn’t have that kind of eye. The path forward relies on power, and my expectations for that power have declined significantly this season.

J.T. Realmuto, C, Philadelphia Phillies
I’m not happy to be writing this blurb. I find Realmuto’s game delightful. The steals! The defense! Somehow being a good hitter despite all that. He’s been underrated for years, the best catcher in the game since his full-time debut in 2015, and I don’t think he’s regarded that way. But sadly, it’s starting to look like those days are gone.

Last season was Realmuto’s worst since his 2015 rookie campaign. “Variance,” I told myself. “Could happen to anyone.” He struck out more, walked less, and got up to a league average batting line only because he still hits for good power. His defensive and baserunning value each declined sharply. He graded out as one of the worst receivers in baseball last year, and while that’s a noisy statistic, it constituted a big drop from when he was one of the best in the game in the preceding half decade. He went from being perhaps the best catcher at limiting opposing baserunners to merely average.

A month into this season, none of these indicators have bounced back. Offensively, he’s been exactly average, and it looks like he’s settling into a power-over-OBP groove where he accepts more strikeouts and fewer walks to do damage when he connects. He’s been a bad baserunner; he’s stolen only one base and been caught twice. His defensive numbers are still in the tank; he’s been average at throwing and below average at framing, all while being one of the worst blockers in the game, with 11 passed balls and wild pitches already. Statcast has him four blocks below average on “easy” blocks; he’s exactly average on medium and tough ones. In other words, routine balls are just squirting past him more frequently. It’s been a precipitous decline, too; from 2019 through 2023, he’d been the very best in baseball at blocking.

To be clear, I’m not saying Realmuto is washed up or anything. But time comes for every baseball player, and catchers sooner than most. Coming into this season, I held out hope that 2023 was a false signal, a downward blip that would be followed by another two or three years of underrated excellence. That now looks incorrect; Realmuto’s defensive brilliance might be gone for good.

Michael King, SP, San Diego Padres
Before the year, we projected King as one of the best starters on the Padres, neck and neck with Dylan Cease and Joe Musgrove (also awful so far!) on a per-inning basis. It’s not hard to see what went wrong with King: all of his pitches look worse, and his command isn’t as good either. He averaged 95.1 mph on his fastball when he started for the Yankees last year, but that’s down to 93.1 so far as a Padre. He’s getting less movement on it despite a slower speed; you’d expect more. His sweeper lost two inches of run. He’s added a hard slider, but it hasn’t done much good. And his command is meaningfully less sharp. He’s in the zone more often, but mostly because he’s falling behind in counts frequently and attacking the zone to get back into the at-bat. He also hasn’t put hitters away often enough, which means high walk rates from extended duels.

Chalk this one up to the dangers of forecasting. King was a great reliever for the Yankees, and he also made a few starts here and there. Then, towards the end of 2023, he made eight consecutive starts and looked absolutely tremendous – 1.88 ERA, 2.47 FIP, 31.3% strikeout rate. Those are incredible numbers, obviously. But he doesn’t look like the same pitcher that he was in those eight starts, and it’s certainly possible that as a full-time starter, he’s just not that guy.

I don’t think King is as bad as his surface stats have been, but those surface stats have been disastrous. He’s walking 13% of opposing batters and striking out 24.7%. That kind of gap won’t cut it, particularly not when you’re giving up two and a half bombs per nine innings. His home run luck has surely been poor so far, but plenty of these homers are about more than luck. Seven of the 10 home runs he’s surrendered have been on pitches right down the heart of the plate (six fastballs and a hanging slider). That’s tied for the most down-the-middle homers in baseball with the equally snake-bit Musgrove. King’s walk rate is such that he’s just bombarding the zone to get ahead in counts, but he doesn’t have the kind of fastball that lets him do that.

There’s still hope that King can turn things around. He’s dialed up a 10-strikeout masterpiece against the Brewers already — it’s not like he’s just getting shelled every time out. But he followed that with six walks and four homers in his next two starts. He’s just not sharp enough at the moment. He also might not throw hard enough.

This Carlos Marcano article from 2021 suggests that there’s a velocity breakpoint around 94 mph, where fastballs above that number are better than fastballs below it in a non-linear fashion. I found a similar result when looking at Musgrove in 2020. King’s four-seamer and sinker have both gotten tattooed this year — fewer swinging strikes, fewer chases, more loud contact. He can still fix it, but before the season, I expected him to fix it, and now it feels very much speculative.

Kyle Gibson, SP, St. Louis Cardinals
We couldn’t only have hyped players in this article series, now, could we?
Obviously, I felt a little better about including Gibson before he went out and dominated the Tigers for seven innings yesterday, to the tune of nine strikeouts and one earned run. I’m still pessimistic about his trajectory, but his regular season statistics look a lot better than they did when I initially put pen to digital paper, a hazard of trying to slice and dice a month’s worth of data.

Gibson came into the year projected as a back-of-rotation bulk arm. We had him down for a 4.45 ERA, and he’s produced a 4.35 mark so far (which dropped to 3.79 after Tuesday’s outing). But under the hood, things have been a lot worse than that, and I think that the end of the line might be getting near.

Gibson has always been a strange pitcher. A career 18.6% strikeout rate and 8.1% walk rate don’t sound like a recipe for success. Gibson has survived by throwing a boatload of sinkers and letting his defense do the work behind him. That sounds like a good plan in theory, particularly with Nolan Arenado gobbling up grounders out there. But living on the margins is hard; that’s why they call them the margins! Gibson’s game always felt quite close to not being good enough, and I think that the switch might have flipped this year.

Think he wasn’t missing enough bats before? Well, now he’s really not missing enough bats; his 8.9% swinging strike rate is his lowest since 2014, in a very different era of baseball. Opposing batters are chasing less than they ever have against him, and making contact at their highest clip since 2016. They’re essentially daring him to throw an in-zone fastball, and then they don’t miss when he gives in. I still think he has good command, but he’s walking nearly 10% of opposing batters anyway because they’re just waiting him out. His strikeout rate is down to 16%, a symptom of the same thing.

Gibson isn’t going to run a .230 BABIP all season, and if balls in play start finding holes, things could get messy in a hurry. He’s giving up the loudest contact of his career so far, as well as the most barrels, the highest expected batting average, the highest expected wOBA on contact — pretty much any way you slice it, opponents are hitting the ball on the nose. My guess is that more of those balls will start to drop in for hits even as he doesn’t allow opponents to hit it quite so hard.

As we saw yesterday, he’s still capable of good starts, and he’s definitely capable of length – he’s gone at least six innings in all of his starts this year. But I’m starting to think that the quality won’t be there with the quantity. Sonny Gray has been excellent for St. Louis this year. Lance Lynn has been up and down, but looks like a valuable contributor at the very least. This feels like a two-out-of-three-ain’t-bad situation – the Cardinals probably did well to get an ace and a mid-rotation starter out of their three free agent signings, but assuming he pitches more like he did in his first five starts than he did in his gem yesterday, Gibson looks like the odd one out in this bunch.

All statistics in this article are current through games on Sunday, April 28.

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