From Stopper to Scuffler: Six Pitchers who have fallen from grace

Tim Lincecum. Clay Buchholz. Ricky Nolasco. Ervin Santana. Ubaldo Jimenez. Phil Hughes.

What do all of these pitchers have in common? Are they all-stars? Aces? Opening-day starters?

The correct answer, of course, is: none of the above. In fact, these pitchers are alike in that as of June 22, each has one of the 20 worst ERAs in the bigs among starters with enough innings to qualify in 2012. In fact, only Hughes has an ERA below 5, clocking in at a disappointing 4.94, a full point higher than the league-wide average in 2011.

But these are not your average middle-of-the-road journeymen (insert your favorite high-ERA free agent bust/innings-eater here). Out of the two accolades mentioned earlier (All-Star and Opening Day starter), all six have been at least one of the two, and many were both. Heck, Lincecum won back-to-back Cy Young awards, and he’s literally the worst in the league, to the tune of a 6.19 ERA.

So what’s gone wrong for these half-dozen? Especially in this, the “Year of the Pitcher” mark 3, in which everyone seems to have a hole in his bat and somebody flirts with a no-hitter pretty much every night (see: Dickey, Ronald Allen), it seems downright bizarre that such high-profile starters could be struggling so mightily.

For the most part, clear and direct answers remain elusive. Lincecum believes that his abrupt decline may lie in his offseason routine, which he believes in retrospect focused too much on swimming and not enough on pitching. For Santana, the problem appears to be more mental: he lost his first six starts, partially because he didn’t pitch well, but also because the Angels improbably managed to get shut out five straight times when he started–hardly an encouraging factor for a pitcher struggling to find his lost mojo. For Jimenez, the problem has mainly been mechanical.

As for the other three, their poor campaigns have been at least partially masked thus far by strong (or at least decent) won-loss records. Remarkably, Buchholz has compiled an 8-2 record despite an atrocious 5.53 ERA.

“That’s the way the year’s been going,” said Buchholz, who seems to enjoy his current standing as baseball’s most successful freeloader. “Guys are scoring in the first inning and then keeping it going.”

And really, it’s not all bad. Santana just threw a one-hitter. Jimenez just turned in a quality start, prompting manager Manny Acta to comment that he believed his presumptive ace had worked out his “herky-jerky”-ness. And even Lincecum is striking out more than a batter per inning, causing his defenders to claim that the real Lincecum is on the verge of making a dramatic re-appearance, stage right. That doesn’t stop him from berating himself to the point of self-flagellation, though:

I’ve never gone through anything like this in my life,” said the despondent and diminutive righty. “I’ve set the bar high for myself, and I know I’m not coming through. I’ve been wearing these (expletive) losses hard. Real hard. This game is my passion, and this is killing me. I know I’m going to come out of this eventually. I just wish I knew when.”