Back in the day, before the nerds came along and introduced FIP, barrel rate and BABIP, every slow start might have been enough to induce some level of panic. To be clear, that hasn’t gone away totally. Failure is never fun. But with better tools comes better understanding, and while some early-season slumps might indeed be a signal of larger issues ahead, others are more likely the product of crummy luck. The numbers back it up. So thanks for that, nerds.

The Athletic’s baseball staff has designated one resident underperformer for every team. Some of these players have been cursed by the BABIP goblins. Others have been sidetracked by injuries. Offense is down across the board and that reality is represented on this list. As is another reality, that relievers can be “fungible,” as the nerds like to say.

Others have struggled under the weight of expectations. Of the players on our early all-underachiever team, three of them emerged from the offseason with nine-figure megadeals.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Carson Kelly

While Merrill Kelly has taken his performance to another level this year, the other Kelly came out of the gate ice cold — see his .105 average and negative-19 OPS+ — and now he’s on the injured list for the next several weeks. The Diamondbacks have thought about him as a potential frontline catcher, but with Daulton Varsho playing well behind the plate and Arizona’s young outfielders patrolling Varsho’s old outfield stomping grounds, it’s getting harder to see how Kelly fits into this puzzle. 


Atlanta Braves: Adam Duvall

He’s hitting .202 with two home runs, 15 RBIs, nine walks, 42 strikeouts and a .568 OPS in 132 plate appearances, after hitting a career-high 38 homers and leading the NL with 113 RBIs in 2021 when he posted a .772 OPS, including .800 after being traded back to the Braves at the deadline. He was handed the everyday center-field job to begin the season and continues to get the chance to play every day and work through his struggles.


Baltimore Orioles: John Means

This isn’t his fault, of course. And it has nothing to do with his performance; Means had a 3.38 ERA in eight innings this year. But he left his second start of the year on April 13 with an elbow injury that later was determined to be a nearly fully torn UCL. He had to have Tommy John surgery and is out for at least a year. A tough blow for Means and for the Orioles to lose their unquestioned ace this early in the season. 


Boston Red Sox: Trevor Story

The Red Sox biggest problem is their lack of offense, and no one captures that offensive letdown quite like their big offseason addition. Put simply: Story hasn’t hit. Too many strikeouts, only one home run, and a batting average struggling to reach .200. Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez have done their part, but the team’s newest superstar hasn’t kept pace. He signed last, missed most of spring training and had an early season stomach illness, but the time for excuses long ago expired. 

Story only had five spring training games after signing with the team, missed time for the birth of his first child and then dealt with food poisoning, so it’s hard to read too much into his first season with a new team. Nevertheless, he’s left a lot to be desired. 


Chicago Cubs: Nick Madrigal

The Cubs have several candidates in this category. You could pick a pitcher from one of the worst starting rotations in the game or an unproven hitter who didn’t take this major-league opportunity and run with it. Madrigal, however, is supposed to be more than a lottery ticket or a reclamation project, given that the White Sox selected him with the No. 4 pick in the 2018 draft. Maybe Madrigal, 25, will be a player the Cubs can someday build around, but his contact skills haven’t translated into production yet (.203 batting average), and so far those swing adjustments haven’t generated more power (.491 OPS). He recently went on the injured list with a low back strain. To be fair, some of these struggles could be attributed to a young hitter learning at the major-league level and getting his timing back after season-ending hamstring surgery limited him to only 54 games with the White Sox last year.


Chicago White Sox: Yasmani Grandal

With the White Sox offense scuffling as much as it has, singling out any struggling member of a group that was vaunted and respected coming into the season feels unfair. But since it seemed like Grandal figured out last season how to remain productive offensively even during stretches of not hitting anything, it’s been surprising to see such a battle to push his on-base and slugging percentages north of .300. His approach is built around crushing mistakes or not swinging at all, so to see one of his lowest strikeout rates and just three extra-base hits has been bizarre both because he’s always been a good hitter but also because this doesn’t resemble what you’d expect his decline phase to look like.


Cincinnati Reds: Tyler Mahle

There are plenty to pick from, but Mahle’s perhaps been the biggest disappointment. The 27-year-old right-hander was supposed to help pick up the slack from the departed Sonny Gray and Wade Miley, not to mention the injured Luis Castillo and Mike Minor, but instead he’s crumpled under the weight of expectations. Mahle was a popular trade target, but unless he turns it around, he’s not even productive trade bait.