Which April slumps should we worry about?

What's wrong with the 'cluchiest hitter in major-league history?'

Scott Rovak/Scott Rovak-USA TODAY Sports

When the Baseball Gods get angry, they can get really angry. Or maybe they’re just getting even.

Over the course of three whole seasons, 2011 through ’13, St. Louis slugger Allen Craig looked like maybe the clutchiest player in major-league history, or at least recent history. But the Baseball Gods won’t long permit such hubris, and so this year they’ve reached down from the heavens and removed not just Craig’s previously otherworldly ability to hit with runners in scoring position, but also his ability to hit at all.

Or so it would seem. From 2011 through ’13, Craig’s overall batting line was .312/.364/.500; this season it’s just .177/.223/.240 in 103 plate appearances. Craig has hit just one home run and driven home only six runs.

Should the Cardinals (and their fans) be worried? Is there something actually wrong with Craig? Or has he just hit some terrible luck (perhaps better described as Ordinary Baseball Weirdness)? Royals designated hitter Billy Butler hasn’t homered yet this season, and he’s batting just .209. Padres second baseman Jedd Gyorko, who played so well as a rookie last season, is batting just .144 with three extra-base hits in 26 games. Cleveland’s Carlos Santana, one of the league’s best-hitting catchers, has become one of the world’s worst-hitting third basemen.

There is, of course, one saving grace for all these strugglers: IT’S STILL APRIL. Which wasn’t enough to save Kolten Wong and Peter Bourjos’s jobs, but it’s enough to give us some pause before panicking.

One of the central manifestations of Ordinary Baseball Weirdness is that anything can happen in just one month; if anything weird happens in April, we notice because it’s the first month of the season. If Gyorko bats .144 in June … well, you’ll notice if you’re obsessed with the Padres — we know you’re out there, Padres obsessives — but the rest of us probably won’t.

Still, April statistics might mean something, right? Which summons to mind an idea for a sabermetric study: Does April predict May performance better than May performance predicts June performance? And so forth?

But this isn’t that article. In this article, I’m going to look at Craig and a few other April strugglers and try to figure out if we should be worried about them.

AROUND THE HORN

Allen Craig? He’s not just hitting a bunch of atom (at ‘em) balls. Rather, his hitting profile has radically changed. Before this season, Craig had been ridiculously consistent, with 44 or 45 percent of batted balls being grounders in each season; this season it’s been 64 percent! And of course his line-drive and fly-ball percentages have dropped, correspondingly. Just looking at the numbers, it seems that his swing is messed up. Then again, his swing might be perfectly fine, and he’s simply swung at a bunch of really great pitches.

Me? I wouldn’t worry about Craig quite yet. I just wouldn’t expect him to win another (unofficial) Clutchiest Clutcher of the Year Award. But I wasn’t expecting that anyway.

What about Butler? He’s the American League Allen Craig, a formerly consistent line-drive hitter who’s just hitting too many ground balls this season. But Butler’s younger than Craig and his line-drive rate hasn’t fallen off as much; if anything, there’s probably less reason to worry about him.

Meanwhile, Gyorko doesn’t have the track record of Craig or Butler, which leaves open the obvious possibility that he overachieved last season as a rookie. In fact, I think he probably did. He also strikes out roughly once per game, which means his batting average will yo-yo like the spring weather in Kansas. But his professional track record suggests his power is real; that last season’s 23 homers, especially impressive considering his home ballpark, were hardly a mirage.

And then there’s Santana, whose life has been complicated by a mid-career shift from catching to third basing. The history of such things isn’t encouraging, but changing positions can hardly account for Santana’s mind-boggling .150 batting average on balls in play. We certainly can’t say with any great confidence that Santana will become the hitter he’s always been; we do know he won’t bat .122 for a whole season, since that is impossible. It’s impossible for Cincinnati shortstop Zack Cozart to keep hitting .148, and for New York Mets center fielder Curtis Granderson to keep hitting .129. Of course, they might hit two-forty-eight or two-twenty-nine. In this era, just about anything seems possible; remember when Chicago White Sox designated hitter Adam Dunn batted .159? Though, you have to strike out a LOT to bat .159, and Gyorko and Granderson don’t figure to whiff quite that often.

Players I am a little worried about?

Atlanta’s B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla were awful last year, and they’ve been just as awful this year. It’s not uncommon for a good team to give significant playing time to one player simply because his contract seems to demand it. It is uncommon for a good team to keep playing two guys like this, and yet that’s exactly what the Braves are doing. Between this pair – they’ll earn $26.5 million this season, by the way – and all the injuries to their pitching staff, it’s a minor Miracle that they’re 17-7.

Meanwhile, the Reds are decidedly not 17-7, and for that you might reasonably assign some of the blame to center fielder Billy Hamilton, who’s been scintillating when he’s been on base … which has been exactly three times.

I kid OBP-challenged speedsters because I love them. But nobody should be particularly surprised by Hamilton’s .253 on-base percentage this season in the majors, since he posted a .308 OBP with Triple-A Louisville last season.

What about San Francisco third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who lost 50 pounds over the winter and has also lost 100 points on his batting average? He’ll be fine. He’s a line-drive hitter, and his line-drive rate’s right in line with his career. Sandoval’s fielding stats do look better, as one might expect. So don’t give up on this whole poster-boy-for-NutriSystem thing quite yet. It’s only April. And so the Panda might yet become the skinny, agile, .300-hitting machine we all expected. Or at least wanted, unless we’re a Dodgers fan.

The Freak, on the other hand? We’ll talk about him and some other pitchers next time.

It’s only April, so Rob Neyer’s Twitter feed is just getting warmed up.