The Cubs in 2011
Sometimes it just all goes wrong. You could say that was the story of the 2010 Red Sox. They suffered injuries all over the roster. Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Cameron, Josh Beckett, you name the Red Sox player and it's likely they missed a chunk of time. John Lackey also fell short of expectations, Jonathan Papelbon imploded down the stretch, and the end result was a 3rd place finish.
But then again, what about the MVP season Adrian Beltre put up? And didn't Clay Buchholz somehow post a 2.33 ERA? Jon Lester had another Cy Young caliber season. Jed Lowrie posted a better OPS+ than Troy Tulowitzki in limited time. You get the point. There were bright spots for the Red Sox, and it's how they managed to win 89 games.
For the Cubs, things went south quickly. They started terribly out of the gate, and a short-tempered Lou Piniella, on his last managerial legs, reacted poorly. He mishandled Carlos Zambrano, whose awful April and delicate temperament seemed to overwhelm Piniella. Inexplicably, Piniella actually played Koyie Hill regularly while one of the game's best hitting catchers sat on the bench. In an unceremonious end to his career, Pinella quit over the summer when the Cubs were 51-74.
It wasn't just Piniella's fault, of course. From 2004 to 2009, Aramis Ramirez hit .303/.368/.551 in over 3,300 plate appearances. In 2010, he hit .241/.294/.452 on the heels of his worst BABIP, .245, since his 21-year old season for the Pirates. Derrek Lee hit .304/.384/.515 from 2007 to 2009 and then fell to .251 /.335/.416 last season for the Cubs. Sure it's probably just one of those things and not attributable to much at all, but the fact that Lee went and hit .287/.384/.465 for the Braves over the last 39 games does little to discredit the notion that there was a corrosiveness surrounding the Cubs in 2010.
There were also the 412 plate appearances of .647 OPS output that Ryan Theriot contributed. Indeed, the most productive Cubs infielder in 2010 was Starlin Castro, an exciting development that bodes well for the North Siders' future. But let's be honest. If a 20-year old shortstop is your best hitting infielder, chances are you're doing it very, very wrong.
On the pitching side, Zambrano notwithstanding, things started out pretty good for the Cubs. The problems arose over the summer. In June and July, they yielded 323 runs over a 55-game stretch. That amounts to 5.87 runs per game, or 951 allowed extrapolated over a full season. No National League team in the last 10 seasons has managed 951 runs. It was a disaster. On the bright side, the Cubs did finish 24-13 under new Manager, Mike Quade, who returns this season.
So what about 2011? Lee is gone and Carlos Pena is in. While it may be a lot to ask of an antsy fan base to grin and bear such a low batting average and a ton of strikeouts, Pena looks poised for a big bounce-back. Dan Szymborski's ZIPS has Lee at .239/.363/.508 with 31 home runs. On the other corner, Ramirez is another great candidate to return to form. At second, Theriot's out of the picture and while Blake DeWitt and Jeff Baker might not amount to much, Theriot gone, and playing for the rival Cards no less, may well amount to addition by subtraction. Baker has hit .308/.363/.545 in his career against lefties, so Quade may have a tactical lever to pull in order to squeeze a bit more production out of second. At short, Castro's another year older and projects as a star one day. He might not get there this year but you never know when a player of his talent might make that leap. They're not the Phillies, the Red Sox or the Yankees but it should be a productive infield, which is a lot more than the Cubbies could say in 2010.
Behind the plate, Quade's mandate is simple. Play Geovany Soto. Play him as much as possible without risking injury. DH him in the AL parks. It was only nine games but I found this to be one of the very saddest things about the 2010 Cubs. Their pitchers hit .132/.170/.159 last season. In their nine interleague games in AL ballparks, Cubs DH's hit .154/.175/.179. They might as well have stuck with their pitcher. Sorry to get off topic but the point here is straightforward. Play Soto a lot. Play Hill as little as possible.
The outfield of (left to right) Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd and Kosuke Fukudome returns in place and while it's old and not the most prolific bunch, it's also steady. None of them figures to turn in a stinker of a season provided they can stay healthy. I'm not a big Tyler Colvin fan but he's versatile and fine enough as a fourth option.
On the pitching side, Ryan Dempster returns and Quade has already named him the Opening Day starter. It's a small thing but I like the early announcement for a few reasons. First, it shows that Quade appreciates what Dempster has managed to accomplish over the last few seasons. Since 2008, he ranks 14th in Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement among all Major League pitchers. Rewarding Dempster for that sort of output reflects well on Quade. Second, it takes a hint pressure off of Zambrano and newcomer Matt Garza. Zambrano hasn't always reacted well to the expectations that come with a big paycheck in a media market like Chicago. And, like Zambrano, Garza is a fiery competitor who can feed off of, or be done in by, his emotions. Again, it's not a big deal but it reflects a level of thoughtfulness that was lacking during the Piniella days. The Cubs had a 103 team ERA+ last season, they return four of five starters, swap Garza in for Tom Gorzelanny and have added Kerry Wood to a bullpen that returns key pieces Carlos Marmol and Sean Marshall.
If the Cubs fail to make a playoff push this season, it will likely be due to a lack of depth. That's a shame for a club with Chicago's payroll but it's the reality. A Soriano injury means everyday Tyler Colvin. If Pena or Ramirez miss time, does Baker move to a corner infield position? There's not much rotation depth at all, and outside of the top three or four or five options depending on how you feel about live arms Andrew Cashner and Thomas Diamond, the bullpen gets thin quickly.
Nonetheless there's a path to success for the Cubs this season. It's tenuous because of how thin they are, but it's there. With health, more of the same from the pitching staff, above average corner infield production, continued excellence and more playing time for Soto and a leap forward from Castro, the Cubs have the look of a contender. They look even more like one with yesterday's Adam Wainwright news, and if you compare the Cubs' reaction to the news to Cincinnati's, who knows? Karma monitors these things, and maybe the Cubs will find it on their side this year?
It's Kila Time in KC
It's February, when Hot Stove season slows, teams’ depth charts look more or less set, prospect rankings have come and gone, and pitchers and catchers are just beginning to trickle into their respective Spring Training homes. It feels early to start previewing teams in earnest. While we wait for the games to start, even the Spring games, time just seems to drag.
In baseball no-man’s land, projection season tides me over. “No way is A-Rod going to be better than Kevin Youkilis!” Really, I somehow become invested in this stuff. Baseball Prospectus released a revamped PECOTA this year, and I suggest subscribers have a look for themselves. Search by any which way you’d like.
One filter that I ran produced a surprising result. BP has Kila Ka’aihue as the 14th best hitter by True Average in MLB, 8th in the American League. I mentioned that prospect rankings have come and gone but for this post's purposes, it's worth mentioning that the one constant, even one truth it seems, is that the Kansas City Royals boast baseball’s best farm system. Ka’aihue factors into that in one sense, but he’s on the old side for a prospect. It’s hard to say whether or not he will be a part of the next contending Royals club.
While the future is bright, the 2011 Royals are a nightmare. Their starting pitching, with Zack Greinke now a Milwaukee Brewer, may well be the worst rotation we have seen in a long time. But their system is so stacked that enthusiasm is returning bit by bit, at least on the Kansas City Royals blogs. I suspect the more casual fans might take some more time.
The Royals will need to wage a PR battle to bridge their current product to the much better one coming down the pike. And they know this, as evidenced by the exhibition they plan to hold between their AAA and AA affiliates at Kauffman Stadium after their 12:10 game against the Los Angeles Angels on April 2nd. It’s a brilliant move. The fans know the good players are coming, so why not let them have a peek?
One other source for enthusiasm this season should be Ka’aihue. About to play in his 27-year old season, he’s a career .266/.391/.460 Minor League hitter in 4,148 plate appearances. For perspective, that’s more PA’s than Scott Podsednik has notched in his entire Major League career, and more than Nomar Garciaparra had from 2000 through the end of his career. Kila’s been around a while.
In AAA alone over the last three seasons, he’s hit .285/.424/.521 in 1,110 PA’s. In 2010 he broke out, hitting .319/.463/.598 for Omaha before getting the call up to Kansas City. There, he struggled. In 206 PA’s he hit just .217/.307/.394. Nonetheless his body of work over the course of his professional career should excite Royals fans.
PECOTA has had its share of famous misses with young players. Remember when Matt Wieters was going to win the MVP his rookie season? But it’s also been as good a barometer as any in many regards, and the fact that Kila ranks as highly as he does isn’t a sign that he should be penciled into the All Star Game now (although since there’s one player from every team, and this is the Royals…). Instead, it’s just something to look forward to, something in Kansas City to rally around. He’s paid more than his share of dues and finally, he’s set to begin a Big League season with a starting job. While Royals fans wait for talent to fill in around Kila and Billy Butler, they can take a rooting interest in the big Hawaiian as the losses mount.
Is the Phillies Starting Rotation a Luxury or a Necessity?
Throughout the leadup to Cliff Lee's signing with the Philadelphia Phillies, most fans and media members believed it was only the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees vying for Lee's services. Many, including his prominent sportswriting peers, mocked Sports Illustrated's Jon Heyman for inserting a "mystery team" into the mix in the days leading up to the signing. Heyman was vindicated when Lee shocked the baseball world by signing with the Phillies, the team he helped reach the 2009 World Series.
Understandably, Phillies fans rejoiced. The rest of us pondered what a Roy Halladay, Lee, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels starting rotation might accomplish. They're four of the best - what - 30 pichers in baseball? Lee and Halladay are probably two of the five best. Heck, maybe the two best.
It's a stacked rotation, and one that promises to keep Philadelphia contending. But what about the rest of the team? It's worth examining how the offense and defense look so that we can determine whether this rotation puts an already excellent Phillies team over the top, or if they actually need those four starters.
We'll start with the offense. The Phillies last season managed a 99 wRC+, which means on a park and league adjusted basis, their offense was below average. Now, there are a few reasons why that's less concerning than it may appear. For one, the Phillies had a lot of injuries. You try running Juan Castro and his 29 OPS+ out there for 146 plate appearances and see what it does to your lineup! Next, the year the Phillies won the World Series, 2008, their team wRC+ was that same exact figure of 99. If your run prevention is good enough, an averagish offense is just fine. Finally, the figure is a bit misleading in that most of baseball's best offenses reside in the American League, even adjusted for league and park. 99 may be below average MLB-wide, but it was good enough for fourth best in the NL in both 2008 and 2010.
On the other hand, let's take a look at how Philadelphia managed that 99 wRC+ in 2010. There's Jayson Werth, far and away the best hitter on the 2010 team. He's now in Washington. Dom Brown and Ben Francisco are fine players, but they're not Werth. Carlos Ruiz hit every bit as well as Ryan Howard in 2010. Whether that speaks to Ruiz's career year or Howard's reputation and paycheck exceeding his real value, I'll let you decide. For his part, Howard's walk percentage dropped for the fourth consecutive season. I don't know that it's appropriate to expect significant bounce-back from the big first baseman. Raul Ibanez, now playing his 39-year old season, took a major step back in 2010 and is penciled in at left field.
Philadelphia hopes to get full seasons from their middle infield, which could mitigate the productivity losses they may take on elsewhere. Chase Utley played in only 115 games in 2010, Jimmy Rollins 88. What kind of player is Rollins at this point, though? UZR still likes him as a defender but between 2009 and 2010 he was a .248/.304/.406 hitter, "good" for a .316 wOBA. How much better of an offensive player is Rollins than, say, Alexei Ramirez? Below is a table comparing 2010 wOBA figures to how CAIRO (unfortunate timing on the acronym, I realize) sees them performing in 2011, courtesy of the Replacement Level Yankee Weblog.
That looks about right to me, maybe slightly optimistic for someone like Ibanez. Modest upticks up and down the lineup, with a precipitous decline at catcher and in right field. The hope for the Phillies is that they can make up for what they figure to lose in output at catcher and right field with good health. If Utley and Rollins can play full seasons, Philadelphia stands a chance at putting together a similar offense to the one they had in 2010. Short of that, it's an attack in decline despite the name recognition up and down the lineup.
Of course there's that other part of baseball, too. When the Phillies won the World Series in 2008, their defense was the best in the National League according to UZR. In 2009, they dropped to fourth best. In 2010, with an aging roster another year older, they were eighth. Is there any reason to think that number will improve in 2011, when only one position player, Francisco or Brown, will be in his twenties?
The Phillies lost their biggest bat this offseason, and addressed the issue by signing Lee. With a full season of Oswalt and improved health throughout the roster, it may just work. But before we crown the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies, it's worth remembering that they can't really hit or field all that well. They'll need every last bit of that fantastic rotation they've assembled.
There's not a heck of a lot going on in baseball these days outside of a Wandy Rodriguez extension here or a manufactured Yankees controversy there. So today I will share some links.
On some of the perceived tension between Yankee ownership and Brian Cashman, Ben Kabak offers a sober take over at River Ave Blues. Yanks ownership controls the purse strings, and with money to burn they overpaid for Rafael Soriano. Cashman hasn't exactly tried to hide the fact that he disagreed with the move, either. The intuitive reaction is to assume that dissension between general management and ownership can only mean bad things, but Cashman and Kabak do a nice job explaining why that doesn't necessarily have to be.
Cashman's word is critical when he negotiates with agents and other players. It sounds like he may have told other relievers early on in the offseason that the Yanks had a compensation threshold for setup guys that they would not exceed. Except that, as the Hot Stove season wound down and the Yanks still had money and Soriano was still out there, ownership decided they would do whatever they had to in order to secure his services. That's ok, I suppose. It's ownership's call. But you can empathize with Cashman as he sets out to distance himself from the decision.
Sticking in the AL East, Justin Bopp of Beyond the Box Score designed an awfully cool-looking infographic highlighting attendance trends over the last decade. There's a teaser in his title, which in part reads "Apparently Baseball is Popular."
The baseball blogosphere's favorite Badger prodigy, Jack Moore, has a thorough take on the Wandy extension. "Meh," is how Larry David might react. It's hard to argue that it's an overpay since Wandy is in fact a very good pitcher. It's just that with Houston's farm system looking pretty bare and considering what pitchers like Matt Garza and Zack Greinke have been able to fetch, and further considering that Houston isn't good, it seems that Ed Wade could have gotten more value for Wandy on the trade market than in a 'Stros uniform. I think it's especially true when you think about the teams that could be in the mix for a starter (ahem, Yankees and Red Sox, ahem) over the next six months or so.
Finally, for Baseball Prospectus subscribers, there's this provocative take by Tommy Bennett on how much relievers are really worth. Some notable teams may have paid some notable names a little too much money, it looks like.
Wait, What? A Look Back at the Cardinals' Offseason
Aside from a role player here or a bullpen part there, the St. Louis Cardinals' roster is set for 2011. They bring back a big part of the nucleus of a team that won 86 games and finished five games short of qualifying for postseason play in 2010. St. Louis has not won a playoff game since they clinched a title in Game 5 of the 2006 World Series, and they have averaged just shy of 85 wins over the last five seasons. No shame there, but with Albert Pujols in the middle of the lineup and a rich tradition of success, it's not a stretch to say that it's been a frustrating run since October of 2006. GM John Mozeliak and Manager Tony La Russa have to be feeling hungry to get back to the early-to-mid aughts glory days of 100-win seasons and perennial contention.
That desire for a return to greatness in St. Louis makes this past offseason puzzling, to say the least. Before delving into the individual moves, it's important to acknowledge the constraints St. Louis faces. They're paying Matt Holliday and Chris Carpenter top dollar, Kyle Lohse is making an eight-figure salary as well. They'll pay Pujols $16 million this year, and the team payroll right now is coming in at just north of $100 million, an honest commitment to winning from a club situated in a modest Midwestern city. Throwing the biggest wrench in their plans, however, is the looming Pujols extension (or departure). Without knowing what it will take to sign one of the true all-time greats, it's difficult for Mozeliak to bring on other parts.
That's fine. I understand. But this is a roster that's a lot of the way there, building off of an 86-win season with cause for year-over-year improvement scattered throughout. Even though he was excellent, 2010 was one of Pujols's worst seasons of his career. Colby Rasmus, who has all the makings of a future star, clashed with La Russa in 2010. With that situation seemingly smoothed over, he figures to see another 100 plate appearances or so in 2011. Jake Westbrook is in the fold for the whole season, taking innings from Jeff Suppan and others who aren't as good as him. Brendan Ryan, for all of his defensive wizardry, managed just a 57 OPS+ in 2010. He's now playing for the Mariners (more on that move in a moment).
This is a club screaming for a couple of savvy tweaks on the margins to thrust them right back into contention with the upstart Cincinnati Reds. Instead, they made a big splash when they decided to add Lance Berkman to the fold. Berkman may well be a future Hall of Famer, but he has had knee troubles and is coming off his worst year. It's likely that he can still swing the bat, but he's a first baseman or designated hitter at this point in his career, and look at what the Twins just paid Jim Thome coming off a .283/.412/.627 campaign. The Cardinals saw fit to hand Berkman $8 million with no DH rule that I am aware of in the NL and maybe the best first baseman ever on their roster. He hasn't played the outfield since Curt Schilling, Mike Lowell and Manny Ramirez were leading the Red Sox to another title, and over the past six seasons has played just 124 games at a position other than first or DH. With two right-handed bats in Pujols and Holliday in the middle of the lineup you can understand prioritizing a lefty, but not to this extent. An option like Magglio Ordonez or Matt Diaz or heck, waiting around for Johnny Damon, would seem to have made more sense.
The other big move was for the Cardinals to throw in the towel on Ryan, their shortstop in 2009 and 2010, in favor of Ryan Theriot. There's no excusing how Ryan hit last season, but consider that he was still a 1.0 fWAR player as a 28-year old. That's how good his glove was. What's more, it was clearly an outlier season for Ryan at the plate. He's a better hitter than he showed in 2010. When you watch this video of Mozeliak addressing the Berkman signing, there are any number of alarms that should sound for Cards fans, but the biggest red flag for me is how he says he wants to address the offense, and that the middle infield seemed like a good place to do it. My guess is that thinking led to Ryan's departure and Theriot's arrival.
Theriot has been a full-time player for four seasons now and has hit at an 87 wRC+ clip over that time. Ryan has played two full seasons in the Bigs and posted an 81 wRC+. If Theriot is a better hitter, he's only marginally so. Ryan did hit .292/.340/.400 in 2009. Since 2007, Theriot ranks 6th in plate appearances among all shortstops and 5th in games played. He's 19th in fWAR over that time. Ryan, in half the plate appearances, has posted a fWAR of 5.0 to Theriot's 6.8. Theriot will make $3.3 million in 2011, Ryan $1 million. Did I mention Ryan's two years younger? I should note, too, that I spared Cards fans the B-Ref WAR comparison. It's even kinder to Ryan. It's great that Mozeliak thought he'd try and upgrade his offense at shortstop, but even if you grant that he did so with the addition of Theriot, what good does it do when you give those runs right back in the field?
To their credit, the Cards also re-upped Westbrook at a reasonable cost, but that's really it for this offseason. For a team on the cusp, they went out and acquired what might turn out to be a big bat to play a position he can no longer play at best, and one that might force him to the DL at worst. They also swapped out a better shortstop for an older one. The Pujols situation looming might account for budget constraints - nobody is blaming them for failing to land Carl Crawford. It doesn't account for the mismanagement, though.
Bobby Jenks & Kyle Farnsworth
Well, this is post number two this week provoked by Dave Cameron's writing. The funny thing is that I really liked both pieces. I touched on a subtle point about tone with regard to defense and Wins Above Replacement on Wednesday. This morning, I want to address Dave's latest. As I mentioned, it's a good piece. Dave compares Kyle Farnsworth and Bobby Jenks, their respective last two campaigns, the contracts they signed, and the general reaction to both. I am Exhibit A for Dave. I loved the Jenks deal, I panned Tampa Bay's Farnsworth signing. I should also mention I am a Red Sox fan.
News Item #1 – AL East team with strong sabermetric leanings signs free-agent reliever. His peripherals are better than his ERA, and he’s considered to have some personality baggage. Reliever gets $12 million over two years – reaction is mostly positive.
Go read the rest of it. He touches on changes in Farnsworth's delivery, and it's a nicely written and evidenced post about how there may not be much difference at all between Jenks and Farnsworth. Here is how he concludes it, however.
Once you factor in the size and length of their respective contracts, it seems pretty clear to me that the Rays got a better deal with Farnsworth than the Red Sox did with Jenks.
I find this conclusion problematic for a few different reasons. The first has to do with the innings Jenks and Farnsworth have been pitching. Let's first look at Leverage numbers, a metric tracked at Baseball Prospectus. 1.00 is the Leverage situation at the start of the game when the first pitch is thrown, and then from there it's driven by Win Expectancy. We will limit our look to Dave's comparison of 2009 and 2010 for obvious reasons. Going back further overwhelmingly favors Jenks, and it does seem that Farnsworth may have turned a corner with regard to mechanics. So 2009 and 2010 only it is.
As you can see, Jenks has been pitching very important innings over the last few years. Farnsworth, not so much outside of a handful of key appearances for the Royals in 2010. It's important to remember, too, that Jenks has been closing games for a perennial contender while Farnsworth has pitched for the Royals. His ~20 innings with Atlanta in a pennant race were often low to medium leverage situations. If there were a playoff expectancy or championship expectancy figure, the gulf would be even wider.
Farnsworth's high leverage innings have come amid a push for 70 wins, while Jenks's have come in a pennant race. But let's set that aside for the moment and just look at how they have performed in their respective high leverage situations. Here it is, presented as OPS against.
Let's remember that Dave's conclusion on its face makes the narrow point that $3.5 million guaranteed for one season to Farnsworth is better than $12 million guaranteed to Jenks over two seasons. It's not terribly provocative in the context of how he presents it. They have similar peripherals, and there's reason to believe Farnsworth's improvement in 2009 and 2010 is real. Over and above the leverage point I have made above - both the innings pitched in those situations and how they have performed once there - there are additional considerations.
A $3.5 million investment for the Rays accounts for a greater percentage of their payroll than a $6 million annual investment does for the Red Sox. It's great that Tampa Bay has carved out a niche developing talent and finding undervalued assets but, just like the Boston Red Sox, the Rays are in the winning business. I understand they do not have the luxury of ponying up $12 million for someone like Jenks. In that context, given their similar output in 2009 and 2010, Farnsworth makes for a nice proxy. But let's not jump to the conclusion that the market is out of whack, or that Boston missed on Farnsworth by paying up for Jenks. Jenks comes at a premium for a number of reasons, and it's not just because professional evaluators only remember Farnsworth's failures as a Yankee.
Jenks is 30, Farnsworth 35. Jenks has five career postseason Saves, including two in the 2005 World Series as a rookie. Jenks has a quality track record extending back to 2005, while Farnsworth optimism hinges on 102 largely meaningless innings in 2009 and 2010. I don't like to overemphasize "clutch" statistics but when it comes to evaluating relief pitching I think all the information we can get is relevant. It's particularly so in the ultra-competitive American League East. In this light, when you consider age, leverage and career quality, even if the Rays have unearthed another gem in Farnsworth, the respective contracts look about right to me.
Why Assume WAR Overemphasizes Defense?
Recently Dave Cameron took to ESPN Insider to pen a column about Andruw Jones, how he stacks up against Derek Jeter, and what his Hall of Fame prospects might look like. Dave's a great writer, as you know, and he's at his best when handling provocative topics. It's a compelling read since, according to WAR, Jones stacks up nicely next to the Yankee legend.
I really only have one issue with it. At the end, he starts to back off. I can respect that on the one hand, because there is so much we don't know about defense and how it might impact Wins Above Replacement totals. On the other, he leaves no room for the possibility that Jones's defense could make him even better than WAR shows him to be.
While no one can deny the number of base hits that Jeter has accumulated, the idea of Andruw Jones being in the defensive company of Hall of Famers Brooks Robinson and Ozzie Smith could certainly be a contentious claim. Data should be used to inform our discussions, but we should not be slaves to the numbers, and there is a reasonable discussion that can be had about the scale of credit that should be given to players for their defensive abilities.
I like that we're all going to stop short of assigning too much value to WAR. One number should not tell us everything. But with regard to defense, I don't like that our default assumption is that WAR overrates players who derive relatively more value from their defense. If we're throwing our hands up and saying "I don't know" then let's not then turn around and say "but I know if anything his defense is overvalued." Maybe when it's all said and done, when we really have a great sense for how to evaluate and then contextualize defense, players like Jones and Mike Cameron and Smith will have been sold short by WAR.
Rich Lederer, Bert Blyleven, and Purity of Spirit
Before I jump into this thing I would like for readers to understand that, while this is Rich Lederer’s joint, he allows his fellow writers full editorial latitude. He’s never asked to see anything I’ve written before it went up on Baseball Analysts, for better or worse. Rich is on the west coast, I am on the east coast, and that means that this thing will appear atop the site before Rich rises Thursday morning. If he’s uncomfortable when he wakes up and sees it, oh well. He deserves his day in the sun and damned if I’m not going to do my part to make sure he gets it here.
There have been really nice tributes written around the web already. Criag Calcaterra said he probably wouldn’t have his gig at NBC’s Hardball Talk if not for Lederer. Alex Belth wrote a really nice blog post at Bronx Banter about how Rich was one of the original baseball bloggers, “a hobbyist”, and it’s a distinction I want to touch on further. More on that in a bit. Matt Welch of the Libertarian publication, Reason, chimed in too. And, of course, there was Jon Paul Morosi taking to his big media sports page to make sure the masses understood how Bert Blyleven went from 26.3% of the Hall of Fame vote the year before Rich wrote his first Blyleven article, to the cusp of immortality.
Rich asked if I would join him at Baseball Analysts late in the year back in 2005. We had forged an internet friendship through blogging over the previous couple of years and he said he liked my writing. I was floored, and it just so happened that my professional life was ramping in a way where I would have to scale back daily writing. Baseball Analysts allowed me a chance to write less frequently for a much, much larger audience.
Our connection runs deeper, though. My wife is a Long Beach native, where her parents still reside. As regular readers may know from the Jered Weaver posts or Area Code Games updates, Rich also lives in Long Beach. We took in this Angels-Red Sox game together in Anaheim and Rich stopped by our engagement party four months later in December of 2005. We’ve played golf with my father in law at Recreation Park Municipal Course, Rich’s Country Club and Trump National LA. We’ve taken in a Rays-Sox game at Fenway Park and dined together in Boston’s North End with Rich’s son Joe and my wife Johanna. We’ve had countless spirited baseball and political debates over too many Happy Hours on Second Street in Long Beach. Rich and his wife Barb were there at my wedding in Palos Verdes.
Rich, 25 years my senior and 3,000 miles away, is now one of my dearest friends, and it’s all because of the internet. That’s a timely idea today, too, because Bert Blyleven is a Hall of Famer because of the internet. It took a long time and assists go out to guys like Calcaterra and Joe Posnanski and others, but when Rich published Only the Lonely the day after Christmas in 2003, it was pretty much checkmate.
Every pitcher with 3,000 or more strikeouts who is eligible is in the Hall of Fame except for one pitcher. His name? Well, for those of you who may be color blind, the lone exception is none other than Rik Aalbert Blyleven. As shown, the Holland-born righthander ranks fifth all time in strikeouts. Other than Mr. Blyleven, there are only two pitchers--Roger Clemens and Randy Johnson--on the above list who are not in the Hall, and both will surely be inducted on the first ballot. Bert Blyleven, Only The Lonely.
Go back and have a look at the post yourself. It’s masterful in how plainly Rich is able to make the case. Blyleven was being held to an unfair standard.
Along the same lines of the flattening effect of the internet, I want to get back to that point Alex Belth made about Rich being "a hobbyist." It’s what I am too (it’s late here in NYC, I'm exhausted, and I have two more days at this conference), and I think that "hobbyist" status should equate to, if anything, more credibility and not less. Rich has no commercial aspirations at all, no agenda, no ax to grind. It’s not why he writes. And yet, as Hall voter after Hall voter started to admit that Rich’s persuasiveness was selling them on voting for Blyleven, others cringed.
Jon Heyman was the most famous of these writers, recently labeling Lederer an “internet zealot” while he spent 2,000 words writing an internet article on a player for whom he WAS NOT going to vote. Rich has had a series of mocking back-and-forths with Heyman over the years, although Jon was never man enough to identify Rich by name publicly. I love a good FJM’ing of mainstream nonsense, don’t get me wrong. But I always thought those Heyman episodes were a little unfortunate since, in (appropriately) taking the fight right back to Heyman, a professional with a much broader platform, Rich came off at times in a way that sells short just how sweet of a man he is.
Rich is sweet, you bet he is, but he also will never back down from his principles. He knew he was right. The mainstream quote that has stuck with me all year long was this one from the blogger Murray Chass.
Am I right? Yes. Why? Because my opinion counts and his doesn’t. My ballot was one of the 539 counted in the election. He did not have a vote. Therefore, his opinion is worthless as far as the election is concerned.
There it is, as plain as day. A non-voter’s HOF opinion is "worthless as far as the election is concerned." Boy oh boy, would that be news to Bert Blyleven. There’s just no way at all he would have been elected to the Hall if not for Rich Lederer, a non-voter of course.
It's too great of a day, however, to focus on the Blyleven holdouts. To bring it back, what Blyleven finally getting into Cooperstown means to me is a triumph of purity. Purity of truth in that Rich, time and again, employed logic and rational argument to make his point. Purity of spirit in that Rich’s motives have never been commercial. He thought Bert Blyleven deserved to be in Cooperstown, so he sat down to make his case. And finally, purity of unadulterated love of baseball. It’s the foundation of my friendship with Rich, it’s the foundation of why he started this site, it forms the foundation of many of his very warmest memories of his late father, George Lederer.
And I guess that’s why I find myself becoming a bit emotional as I write this. It's strange but somehow this whole thing has a lot of meaning, even over and above the road map to Cooperstown it offers Tim Raines and Jeff Bagwell. It’s perhaps the greatest and most tangible triumph of Sabermetric writing outside of actual front office influence, and if George Lederer were alive to see it all, holy hell would he be proud. His son, already having built a successful investment management career that has afforded his family opportunity and comfort, decided he’d write about baseball because, well, he wanted to. Rich Lederer, “the hobbyist” as Alex Belth calls him, toppled entrenched flat-eartherism to ensure that a man’s life’s work would be recognized appropriately. And now, Bert Blyleven, an all-timer in every regard as meaningful pitching metrics go, will get his due.
Jim Rice, Chet Lemon, and How I Think About Wins Above Replacement
Inspired by Mike Axisa's new Twitter feed, @WARGraphs, I have been playing around with a new tool, or at least one that's new to me. As you may know, WAR Graphs is a Fangraphs feature where you can compare up to four players by Wins Above Replacement. Once one enters their desired search, three graphs appear. One shows how the players compare in their nth best seasons. The second shows how they compare year-by-year over the course of their careers. The final one shows how they stack up by age.
It's a neat tool, and a handy one when like-minded folks are looking to settle a quick dispute. For instance, as a Red Sox fan, a pet issue of mine has been the travesty that is Jim Rice's Hall of Fame enshrinement while Dwight Evans never amassed more than eight percent of the vote. Anyway, here are two of the three WAR Graphs for a Rice and Evans comparison.
Because the topic is something of an obsession for me, I tweeted my findings from this WAR Graphs search last night.
Jim Rice & Dewey were similar, if you ignore Dewey's 35-40 seasons when he hit .283/.387/.470 (133 OPS+) http://is.gd/jFVpA
When he saw this, Dave Cameron responded with the following:
@PatrickSull My favorite - run Jim Rice against Chet Lemon; pick up jaw.
And sure enough, here is the WAR Graphs comparison of Rice and Chet Lemon.
Chet Lemon and Jim Rice are more or less indistinguishable. Chet. Lemon.
All of this was a long and graphical way of setting up the point of this post, which is to articulate a coherent way to think about WAR in the context of Hall of Fame voting. Jonah Keri has done a really nice job advocating for Tim Raines in a more visceral way than Rich Lederer has for Bert Blyleven. Rich has gradually won over voters by reminding them time and again of Blyleven's statistical dominance. Keri, on the other hand, will make his case with stats, but also with well-supported assertions along the lines of had Rickey Henderson never come along, Raines may well be regarded as the finest lead-off man ever. That resonates more than a WAR Graph with many.
To take it a step further, not only is something like WAR altogether unpersuasive to some, but when many see the WAR Graph above of Jim Rice and Chet Lemon, their gut may be to write off the statistic itself altogether. In other words, it's not that the graph shows that Rice and Lemon were comparable. No, the graph shows that WAR as a statistic is moronic.
But here's the thing about WAR. It lines up with so much of what we understand to be true, even before we start in on any sort of advanced statistical analysis. Here's a list of the top-10 position players by B-Ref WAR:
1. Babe Ruth
The next five on the list are Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Honus Wagner, Rickey Henderson and Mel Ott. We are talking baseball royalty. It's not as though Nomar Garciaparra or someone crept into the top of the list because of some quirk in the statistic. It actually aligns beautifully with a list your grandfather might furnish you of the very best baseball players of all time.
Here are the top pitchers:
1. Roger Clemens
The next five? BERT BLYLEVEN, Christy Mathewson, Bob Gibson, Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton. Nobody is saying that this is the definitive list of the best pitchers of all time, ranked perfectly in order. Peak matters, for instance, and I don't want to speak for anybody else but I don't think you'll find too many stat heads saying that Niekro, Perry or Blyleven were better than Pedro Martinez or Sandy Koufax. But the point remains the same: that's a pretty darn good list in terms of how it compares to common baseball wisdom of the very best pitchers ever.
There are single-season examples, too, of the visceral or instinctive aligning with analytical conclusions. Growing up, I heard non-stop stories from my father and grandfather of how great Carl Yastrzemski was for the 1967 Impossible Dream Boston Red Sox. We would listen regularly to the WHDH-produced soundtrack to that season, including the ragtime adaptation a song whose chorus went "Caaaahhhhrrrll Yastrzemski" over and over again. Later in life, my father in law, a Long Beach, California native who studied law in Boston during the 1967 season, would tell me one story after another about how incredible Yaz was. This is a man who is no Red Sox supporter, and as prone to hyperbole as anyone you could meet. Given everything I had heard throughout my life about Yaz in 1967, you'd have thought he had one of the very best seasons ever. Having bought in more and more to advanced statistical analysis, I just assumed all of this was overblown.
Well you know what? Yaz did have one of the very best seasons ever. Go on and check it out. Aside from three insane Barry Bonds seasons, Yaz's 1967 stands as the finest year by a position player since 1958. All of that wonderful stuff I had heard about Yaz, all of what seemed like folklore, it ALL lined up perfectly with what WAR would tell you about Yaz's heroics in 1967. It was one of the truly great single seasons in baseball history.
When I see a graph like the one above of Lemon and Rice, I don't immediately assume Lemon was better than Rice or even that Lemon was the same caliber of player Rice was. I'm more skeptical of defensive data than offensive, and I have a ton of respect for what Rice did at his peak. But that's not how WAR is supposed to work, or at least it's not how I think it should work. Instead, I believe it should be your first pass.
Oh, I see here that Blyleven ranks 11th all time and Morris 119th. I probably would be wrong to vote in Morris then, and not Blyleven.
Huh, look at this: Tim Raines ranks 55th all time and Lou Brock 121st. Maybe I need to think a little differently about Raines's candidacy?
In the Rice and Lemon case, it just shows that maybe we've thought a bit disproportionately about both players. Rice is in the Hall of Fame while Lemon, well I hadn't even thought about Chet Lemon in over a decade. That doesn't seem right to me anymore now that I have taken Dave Cameron's suggestion to run the comparison.
WAR is not perfect but it cannot be ignored, either. My hope is that more Hall of Fame voters will look to the stat to help frame their decisions. If a certain player amassed many of his Wins Above Replacement in exceedingly favorable conditions, no problem. Dock him. If WAR sells short a player like Morris or Rice for whatever reason, you can make that case too. All I ask is that voters recognize how well the statistic holds up to everything we understand to be true about baseball. More often than not for the attentive baseball fan or writer, a quick pass at WAR will serve more as affirmation than an eyebrow-raising contradiction. That being the case, when it does not quite align with pre-conceived beliefs, it merits further investigation and not immediate write-off.
Japanese Pitchers & the Hot Stove
I had been planning a write-up of the Japanese pitchers currently in Major League Baseball who could change uniforms this off-season but one of those players won’t be changing teams. Hiroki Kuroda will return to the Los Angeles Dodgers thanks to a 1-year, $12 million deal that was announced last night.
Kuroda’s numbers might not leap off the page but he pounds the strike zone and, when healthy, is a legitimate number 2 or 3 in a championship caliber rotation. There are 87 starting pitchers who have tossed 400 innings since 2008. Among them, Kuroda ranks 20th with a 3.18 K/BB ratio and also sports the 11th lowest BB/9.
That still leaves a number of Japanese pitchers who could impact the 2011 Hot Stove in a significant way. There’s Kenshin Kawakami, whose $6.67 million price tag is one the Braves are reportedly looking to shed. They may have a taker back in Japan, but Kawakami may be worth a look for teams here in the States. His ground ball rates are well below average, so the best fit would be on a team with superb outfield defense and deep pockets. Maybe the Yanks think about it and save themselves a Dustin Moseley start or five. Kawakami’s no superstar but he could make for nice rotation depth, particularly if the Braves would be willing to pick up a little of his salary.
With Kuroda now locked up, that leaves two compelling free agent options, Koji Uehara and Hisanori Takahashi. Here are their respective MLB numbers to date, Uehara with the Baltimore Orioles and Takahashi with the New York Mets:
Takahashi had an excellent first season, and is now looking for a 3-year deal. He won’t come cheaply to whichever team inks him. Uehara, on the other hand, is the better pitcher and likely to cost a lot less. The risk lies in Uehara’s health but if a team can get comfortable with his medicals, he could offer big-time returns.
Finally, there are two Red Sox I would not be surprised to see suiting up elsewhere in 2011. Daisuke Matsuzaka can be frustrating, but he’s a perfectly fine turn-taker for any rotation. Matsuzaka has a career 5.52 ERA against the Yankees and a 5.09 figure against the Rays. For his career in Inter-League action, his ERA is 3.97. It makes sense beyond the simple quality-of-opposition adjustment, too. Matsuzaka walks too many batters and often cannot last long into games. The National League mitigates this weakness for a couple of reasons. First, facing a pitcher means less nibbling, which means fewer pitches, fewer walks, and the potential to last longer. Second, the strategic imperative in the Senior Circuit, regardless of how the pitcher is performing, is sometimes to pull the pitcher for a pinch hitter in a middle-innings high leverage run scoring opportunity. I really think Matsuzaka could thrive in the NL.
There’s also Hideki Okajima. Like Dice-K, he’s played an integral role in Boston’s run of success over the last four seasons. But despite a second half rebound last season, the long-term trend on Okajima is ugly. He’s been regressing pretty steadily. I imagine scouts could offer more insight as to why that might be the case, but it’s my belief that hitters have simply caught on. He has a unique delivery that was deceptive for a few seasons, but now hitters have a beat on him. He’s arbitration-eligible and will likely be due somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million for the 2011 campaign. Boston has not yet decided if they would like to tender Okajima or not.
There’s no shortage of compelling story-lines this Hot Stove season. Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford will be huge-impact players, and the Cliff Lee sweepstakes are already underway in earnest. But it looks like Japanese pitchers in new roles on new teams could also influence the 2011 season, something to look out for in the coming weeks and months.
The 2011 San Francisco Giants Lineup
The San Francisco Giants just won the World Series. They wear gorgeous uniforms, and they play in a world-class city performing in front of a rabid fanbase who jam one of the best ballparks in the world to watch their team. Whatever the lackluster television ratings might say, I think it was a great post-season for Major League Baseball. The Giants won and and the Dallas baseball market had a chance to experience World Series baseball as well. That's two big markets that the game can count on for years to come.
I offer that preface because I don't want to come off as though I am not allowing the Giants their moment. Really, I couldn't be happier for them. I've been digging into their roster over at B-Ref and Fangraphs and I think it's a fascinating mix of players. But what I am also finding is that there's a lot of work to do in order to put together anything resembling a championship-caliber lineup together for 2011, even when you factor their remarkable pitching. Jeff Fletcher addressed the topic at Fanhouse yesterday, and ends his column this way:
So you can expect next year's Giants to look a lot like this year's, with good young pitching and a patchwork lineup.
Let's start with this year's lineup. Four - FOUR - players had a wOBA of over .330 who had 100 or more plate appearances.
Player PA wOBA A. Huff 668 .388 P. Burrell 341 .371 B. Posey 443 .368 A. Torres 570 .363
Cody Ross came over from the Marlins and posted a .352 wOBA in 82 plate appearances, too. But that's it. For frame of reference, the lowly Houston Astros had five guys better the .330 mark. The Cincinnati Reds had ten. You get the picture.
For much of the season, the Giants were hanging on by a thread. On August 30th, they trailed the San Diego Padres by 5 games and were on the outside looking in for the Wild Card race, too. They finished the year on a tear, going 18-8 over the last month and clinching a post-season berth on the season's final day. Here is where the offense came from over that stretch:
Player PA OPS C. Ross 65 .886 P. Burrell 94 .870 F. Sanchez 98 .840 A. Huff 121 .834 B. Posey 115 .818 J. Uribe 100 .800
"Smoke and mirrors" does a disservice to a team whose pitching dominates the way San Francisco's can and whose General Manager papered over his own roster blunders with mid-season fixes. Ross and Burrell paced the Giants playoff push, and then Ross was terrific into the post-season, too. It's important to ask what's sustainable and what's not. So, what about next year?
Huff is a free agent, but Fletcher seems to think he'll be back.
Look for them to re-sign Huff to at least a two-year deal, worth around $8 to $10 million a year.
That's fine, but it's not hard to see how such a move could go wrong. He's one season removed from .241/.310/.384 and turns 34 in December. I'd liken re-upping Huff now to the Red Sox re-signing Mike Lowell after his standout 2007, which Lowell capped by winning the World Series MVP. Great clubhouse guy, veteran, winning reputation, aging, solid performance track record. Plenty of people might feel good about a Huff extension because of all the goodwill generated in 2010, but that doesn't mean it will work out.
As for Burrell, he's gone. Uribe is unrestricted, too, and if I were Brian Sabean, he'd be getting a much longer look than Huff. Uribe's fielding versatility and sneaky pop make make him the type of player good teams should always try and carry, even if there won't be 650 plate appearances for him. Like Huff, Uribe will have his suitors but if you're going to overpay, do so for the younger middle infielder. The market is awful for middle infield types, anyway, and the Giants will have a gaping hole at shortstop since they're unlikely to pick up World Series MVP Edgar Renteria's option.
So let's say Uribe is back. Here is what we have:
C - Posey
That's still a lineup screaming for an impact bat. After all, even with Huff's career year, the Giants still were a below average offense. Posey could improve, I would expect some bounce-back from Sandoval and a full season of Ross's bat should help, but other than that, it's hard to see where the Giants might get increased production over and above 2010 without Huff's monster year mixed in.
There are a few necessary moves here. First, that's not a viable outfield at all. Thankfully, Ruben Amaro is reported rumored to be feeling sentimental for Rowand so the Giants could move him. It won't solve any money issues since the Giants would have to pick up a lot of his tab, but it frees up roster space and an outfield slot. I think the Giants would be nuts not to hop in the mix for one of Carl Crawford or Jayson Werth. Sure you'd have to pay up, but if you're not going to invest now, then when? The rotation is cost-controlled and as deep as can be. Both players field excellently, an added bonus in spacious AT&T Park. Finally, the team should be flush coming off the World Series win. A payroll bump has to be in the cards. It seems like too good a fit not to consider. Werth or Crawford paired with Posey could form an excellent offensive core for years to come, supporting a truly outstanding group of pitchers.
At first base, another position they'll need to address if Huff walks, I might opt for another buy-low guy like the Giants netted with Huff in 2010. Carlos Pena looks as good as any other there, but Derrek Lee could be an attractive short-term option, too.
I don't think that Brian Sabean should feel satisfied with his "patchwork" offense. It worked but he got lucky, like all World Series winning teams do, and should recognize as much by taking a big swing for 2011. He oversees one of the great franchises in the game, one that should be a choice destination for stars like Werth and Crawford given the atmosphere we've all just witnessed.
Strike while the iron's hot, Sabes.
The Jays Gamble on a Neophyte
John Farrell was named Manager of the Toronto Blue Jays yesterday, a great choice for a team with a young and promising pitching staff looking to compete in the brutal American League East. Sports Illustrated’s Jon Heyman felt differently, however, and took to his Twitter feed with the following:
new #bluejays manager farrell well-regarded but theyre gambling on neophyte in division with francona, girardi, showalter, maddon
We have been tough on Heyman here at times, I admit it. We think he’s been pretty obtuse in his belief that Bert Blyleven doesn’t belong in Cooperstown, and Rich wrote the definitive Heyman takedown over his Scott Boras servitude. With this in mind, I want to try and be cordial towards Heyman despite my frustration with his reaction to Farrell's hiring.
First, there was Heyman's use of the term “neophyte.” A “neophyte” is a novice. One example someone used when I asked whether others on Twitter considered the term derogatory was that Meg Whitman is a political “neophyte”. That sounds right to me. It’s not necessarily derogatory in that light. It’s just a fact. But when applied to someone like Farrell, who has spent his life in baseball, I think it’s misapplied.
In the narrowest sense, yes, Farrell is a “neophyte” as it relates to Major League Baseball Managing. But he appeared in eight separate Major League seasons as a pitcher, so he’s capable of relating to the day-to-day life of a Big Leaguer. Players value that. He also spent six years heading up the Cleveland Indians’ Player Development organization from 2001 to 2006, a time during which they turned out some awfully good players. He’s an excellent evaluator, and has a track record of getting the most out of talent. Finally, in his latest gig, he’s been pitching coach for a team that has won 375 games in four seasons. Player, front office guy, coach. I’m not sure you could come up with a more seasoned professional to take the reins. As far as his overall baseball experience is concerned, he’s anything but a "neophyte".
My wife thought I was nitpicking by isolating that word, however. “A neophyte is someone who is new to something, and Farrell is new to Managing,” she reminded me. Fine, that’s true. We’ll set that aside. She then said, “it’s the world ‘gambling’ that would offend me if I were Farrell.”
As I think more about it, it’s a fantastic point. Who are the better, more experienced Managerial options for Toronto? Would Art Howe or Don Baylor or Jimy Williams or Mike Hargrove be better? And if so, why? Joe Girardi had all of 162 games of Manager experience before the Yankees hired him, and he ended up leading New York to a World Series title last year. That seemed to work out ok. So where exactly is the “gamble”? Who's to say Bobby Valentine wouldn't be a "gamble"?
I think Farrell's the perfect choice for the Jays, a team whose future hinges on its young pitching staff's continued improvement. Shaun Marcum, Ricky Romero, Brett Cecil, Brandon Morrow and Marc Rzepczynski will average 26 years old for the 2011 season. Kyle Drabek, Zach Stewart and Brad Mills aren't far behind. Farrell will be able to lean on all of his professional skills - his MLB player experience, player development expertise and pitching coach track record - to help strengthen Toronto's biggest asset, its young pitching.
There may be others like Farrell around the league, but I can’t imagine a better extended apprenticeship than the one Farrell has served leading up to this moment in his career. I don’t mean to pick on Heyman, but I found his remarks to be unfair. Farrell has too much experience in baseball to be considered a “neophyte” (except in the narrowest sense), and his hiring is both sound and the byproduct of a long and drawn-out process by the Jays. They’ve done their diligence. If only Heyman would do the same prior to taking to his keyboard.
Best Position Player Postseason Performances Since 2000, WPA Edition
At Red Sox Beacon last weekend, I decided to see where J.D. Drew's performance in Game 5 of the 2008 ALCS stood on the all-time great Red Sox postseason performances. The metric I chose was Win Probability Added, and thanks to Baseball Reference's Play Index tool, I was able to sort through the best (and worst) games this way.
I thought I would do it here, but limit our search to the five best hitting performances by WPA since 2000. There are no World Series games on here, which sort of screams for a follow-up post as the Fall Classic is set to start. I will also take a look at pitcher performances. There are some forgotten names listed (Erubiel Durazo!), and some no-doubter Hall-of-Famers as well, a dynamic that makes the playoffs so much fun. Sure, Josh Hamilton was great last night. But Bengie Molina!
The Minnesota Twins had taken the first game of the series, but Anaheim ripped off three straight wins in Games Two through Four. Game Five was big because the series was set to head back to the Metrodome, a difficult place to win. This was the first playoff series for the Twins since the 1991 World Series, when the Atlanta Braves took a 3-2 lead back to the Homerdome. The same had happened in the 1987 World Series, too. St. Louis showed up in Minneapolis for Game 6 with a 3-2 lead. We know how those ended.
So, even though momentum was Anaheim's, they wanted to wrap things up in California. In the top of the 7th, the Twins took a 5-3 lead over the Halos, and according to B-Ref, had an 80% win expectancy at this point. In the bottom of the 7th, things would change. Adam Kennedy, having already homered twice, would hit his third of the game off of youngster Johan Santana, a three-run shot that would give the Angels the lead for good. They would tack on, oh, another seven runs that inning, and win the game 13-5.
Again with the Twins! A-Rod gets a lot of heat for laying an egg in Games 4-7 of the 2004 ALCS, but the Yanks never would have had a chance to participate if not for his performance in the ALDS that season. He hit .421/.476/.737 in the 2004 Division Series, and came up huge in Game 2 after the Yanks had dropped the first game of the series. Incidentally, Rodriguez lays claim to games 4, 6 and 11 on the list of best (most clutch) postseason performances since 2000.
Game 2 was a back-and-forth affair, and things looked bleak for the Yanks after the Twins took a 6-5 lead in the top of the 12th. Mariano Rivera had already pitched. In the bottom of the 12th, Ron Gardenhire pushed things a bit by bringing Joe Nathan back for a 3rd inning of work. Nathan got John Olerud swinging to lead off the 12th but then issued walks to Miguel Cairo and Derek Jeter on 9 pitches. Gardenhire stuck with Nathan though, now 46 pitches into his outing, and A-Rod made him pay with a double that plated Cairo and sent Jeter to third. After an intentional pass to Gary Sheffield, J.C. Romero relieved Nathan but Hideki Matsui hit a sac fly on the very first pitch from the southpaw.
Rodriguez finished the game 4-6 with a home run, the key double, three RBI and two runs.
3) Erubiel Durazo, 10-1-03, ALDS Game 1, .701 WPA
I remember this one well. Durazo was a beast, going 2-4 with 3 RBI, 2 walks and a run scored. His double in the 3rd came off of Pedro Martinez, and plated two runs to give the A's a 2-1 lead. In the 9th inning, Grady Little panicked. Byung-Hyun Kim started the inning with a 4-3 lead and induced a fly ball out. He then walked Billy McMillon and hit Eric Byrnes with a pitch.
Well this was when Kim still had the 2001 Yankee Stadium meltdown choker stigma, and the Boston fans were tough on him when he blew a few games down the stretch. Still, he had been an excellent pitcher and was a perfectly viable option for the Red Sox in this spot. He demonstrated as much on the next batter, getting Mark Ellis to strike out. Two outs.
Now the panic. Little decided with two outs to go and get Kim and bring in lefty Alan Embree. Problem was, Kim was no worse than Embree against lefties and even worse, Durazo had a reverse split! He hit lefties better! Embree entered nonetheless, Durazo singled and the game was tied. In the 12th, Durazo worked a lead-off walk and the A's went on to win 5-4.
This one's not too hard to figure out. The Marlins won the game 4-3 and Pudge had all four RBI. The first two came on a home run in the opening frame off of Kirk Rueter. The last two, the game-winners, came with the Giants ahead by a run with two outs and the bases loaded. Pudge singled off of Tim Worrell to give the Fish a 2-1 Series lead.
One moment can change everything in the playoffs. To get a sense for the drama in the bottom of the 9th in Game Four of last year's NLCS, scroll to the 13:45 mark or so of this video. When Rollins came to bat, his team had an 83% chance of losing, and that's before you factor how good Jonathan Broxton had been for the Dodgers in 2009.
But Rollins squared up a fastball, ripped it into the right-center field gap, two runs scored and the Phillies would go on to qualify for the World Series for the second time in as many seasons. In the first inning, Rollins had singled and scored on a Ryan Howard home run.
Comparing the Rangers & Yankees
Cliff Lee and the Texas Rangers dropped the Tampa Bay Rays in Game 5 of the American League Division Series last night, setting up an enticing matchup with the defending World Series champions.
Offensively, it’s an entirely different story. They’re both very good with the bats – the Yanks led the AL in runs and the Rangers were fourth – but they go about their work at the plate in different styles. Lineup anchors for Texas like Mike Young, Josh Hamilton and Kinsler all see fewer pitchers per plate appearance than the league average. And of course, one of the great all-time free swingers in baseball history is Vladimir Guerrero. He’s in the mix too, although he has struggled over the second half of the season. Only the Baltimore Orioles saw fewer pitchers per plate appearance than the AL West champions.
On the other hand, New York saw the most pitchers per plate appearances in the American League other than Boston or Tampa Bay. It’s really only Robinson Cano that will hack away for the Bombers, and it’s not like his approach needs tweaking. He makes it work to the tune of MVP candidacy. Even more troubling for Rangers pitching, not only can the Yanks get ahead in the count, but they hit better than any other team in baseball once there.
As you might imagine, Wilson struggled in three starts against New York this season, pitching just 14.1 innings and walking 5.65 guys per 9 innings. But Wilson’s smart (follow @str8edgeracer on twitter), and he doubtless knows his weakness and his opponent’s strength. In Tampa Bay for Game 2 of the ALDS, he limited his walk total to just two while facing a team even more patient than the Yankees. He’s a good pitcher with great make-up. I’m not counting him out by a long shot.
While Wilson could be a problem for Texas, Lee is the prototype to combat a patient offense. He walks nobody, and pounds the zone with pitches that move every which way. He goes in Game 3 for the Rangers at Yankee Stadium.
For the Yankees, their pitchers will have some latitude to expand the zone thanks to the Rangers’ approach. This is a risky game, however, because the Rangers righty-stacked lineup will crush mistakes from lefties. Vlad, Nelson Cruz, Kinsler and Young all murder southpaws, and if C.C. Sabathia or Andy Pettitte decide they want to get Texas to chase and they don’t bite, the Rangers’ righties should see some nice pitches to hit.
The pitcher-batter match-ups in this series should be terrific, a study in Game Theory from start to finish. I give the edge to the Yankees because of their superior approach at the plate. But it’s close, and if Sabathia and Pettitte are off even the slightest bit, it’s not hard to envision a scenario in which the Yankees head home to face Cliff Lee down 2-0. Watch individual pitches, match-ups, strategies and yes, umpiring within each plate appearance. It promises to be fascinating, and it's where this series will be won.
Joe Mauer & Barry Bonds
It's hard to remember sometimes but Barry Bonds had just an awful reputation for failing to come through in the postseason by the time his stint with the Pittsburgh Pirates ended. This excerpt from a 2001 article for Slate that Ben McGrath wrote captures the sentiment well, though it incorporates some of his playoff failures as a Giant, too.
In five playoff series for the Pirates and Giants—all losing efforts—Bonds has batted .196 with just one home run and six RBIs over a span of nearly 100 at-bats. In 1997, the San Francisco Examiner declared, "Barry Bonds continues to struggle in clutch situations, to the point where failures now are almost expected." Last month, the New York Times' Murray Chass quipped, "If Bonds had played for the Yankees, George Steinbrenner would have called him Mr. O, not for October but for zero."
At the end of the 1992 season - Bonds's seventh in Major League Baseball, Bonds had won two MVP awards and was in line for an enormously lucrative free agent contract. Still, in 83 postseason plate appearances he had hit just .191/.349/.265. His Pirates had lost three consecutive National League Championship Series and time and again, when a key Bonds hit might have made all the difference, he came up short.
At the end of the 2010 season - Joe Mauer's seventh in Major League Baseball, Mauer has won an MVP award and should have a second. He's arguably off to the best start of any catcher in Major League Baseball history. His power stroke comes and goes, but that part of his game is just icing. He's phenomenal with or without hefty slugging totals. The Minnesota Twins rewarded Mauer with a $184 million extension this season.
Like Bonds, Mauer has been awful in the postseason. He's never won a game in the playoffs and is a career .286/.359/.314 hitter in 35 plate appearances. This past American League Division Series, Mauer hit .250/.308/.250. He came up short again.
It's interesting to contrast the way fans and media treated Bonds to the way they treat Mauer. Both were/are superstars en route to Hall of Fame careers who failed miserably under the brightest spotlight. Aside from a corner here or there of the internet, there doesn't seem to be much anger or ridicule towards Mauer. The same could hardly be said of Bonds. His detractors reveled in his high-profile failures.
That may be for any number of reasons. I'd like to think it's because we know postseason performance deviating from career norms to the upside or down is most likely due to the sample size than some innate character trait in the player in question. A more informed fanbase and media set are much more likely to cut the guy who falls short some slack. It happens, or so we've learned as the SABR movement has made its way mainstream.
One could also attribute this phenomenon to their respective dispositions. Bonds, by many accounts, was a jerk. Mauer, on the other hand, has a great reputation as an individual.
There's another potential explanation, of course. And while I don't want to use this space for social or political commentary, I'd urge you to consider alternative reasons why Mauer seems to escape media criticism while so many took such great joy in Bonds's struggles.
There is no shortage of great sites where you can catch LDS previews. Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs are both running in-depth previews of each series. Team-oriented sites like The Process Report, River Avenue Blues, Pinstriped Bible, Aaron Gleeman, Lonestar Ball, Crashburn Alley, Red Leg Nation, Red Reporter, McCovey Chronicles and Capitol Avenue Club also have you covered.
I thought we could take a different approach here and just pull out a handful of thematic storylines running through the 2011 post-season and have a look. For starters, let's look at two of the better rookies in recent memory set to square off out in San Francisco for the National League Division Series.
Jason Heyward wasted no time making a name for himself in 2010, homering in his first career plate appearance off of Chicago's Carlos Zambrano. If you don't think he's captivated the Atlanta faithful, I urge you to check this out:
It's with good reason, too. Heyward is the most promising player his age to come along in decades. Below is a look at the five best 20-year old seasons in terms of OPS+ since 1946 (65 years). Minimum 300 plate appearances:
On its own, that's compelling but with names like Pinson and Horner on there, are there any guarantees that Heyward will become a superstar? Well there are no guarantees, but this next table tells you why Heyward stands out from the bunch at this stage. It's all about his approach.
Heyward's walk rate stands way above the others on that list, which bodes extrardinarily well for his future.
In the NLDS Heyward and the Braves face the San Francisco Giants and their standout rookie, Buster Posey. Here are the best OPS+ seasons by a catcher 23 and under with 300 plate appearances since 1961 (50 years):
Posey and Heyward play critical roles on their respective teams, too. Heyward trails only McCann among Braves position players in Fangraphs WAR. Posey trails only Andres Torres and Aubrey Huff on the Giants.
From the entirely non-predictive department, the last two teams to qualify for the playoffs in their first season in a new ballpark won the World Series. Both the 2009 New York Yankees and 2006 St. Louis Cardinals won the Fall Classic their first year in new Yankee and Busch Stadiums, respectively.
This year, the Twins will give it a go. It's been an incredible debut year for Minnesota at Target Field, as they have posted a home record of 53-28. The Twins will be without the services of Justin Morneau, one of the very best players in baseball, but they're used to it at this point. Since Morneau played his last game on July 7th, the Twins actually improved their record, going 49-29 to close the season. Over that same span, the Yankees were 41-36.
2002 K-Rod Candidates
Jeff Fletcher has a good piece on Aroldis Chapman today, and how his presence to the Reds could be what Francisco Rodriguez was to the 2002 Angels. I agree with Fletcher, but there are others who fit that category too.
For one, there's AL Rookie of the Year candidate Neftali Feliz. The Rangers could expand their Closer's role to include additional high-leverage work. Remember, Feliz came up through the Minors as a starter. He could handle additional innings here and there.
There's also Craig Kimbrel of the Atlanta Braves, who has 40 strikeouts in just 20.2 innings of Big League work. He'll have to improve his control if he is going to dominate the way Atlanta might like him to. Kimbrel has 16 walks to go along with those 40 punch-outs. At the same time, the Braves won't need to lean too heavily on him given their relief depth, should Kimbrel struggle.
Lefties Reign in the AL
Top-5 American League playoff starters by Fangraphs WAR:
Notice any commonality there?
The top righty was Carl Pavano of the Twins.
Things You Should Read
This Dave Cameron piece on how Dusty Baker should deploy his pitching staff in Game One. Sure, the schedule allows Philly the chance to deploy its big-3, but it also allows the Reds to keep their outstanding bullpen fresh.
This guest post by Mike Fast on David Price on The Process Report was outstanding. Jeremy will really appreciate it, I think.
So you want to dabble in the free agent pitching market, huh? Sure you might net yourself a gem like C.C. Sabathia. But how about Barry Zito, Javier Vazquez and Burnett? Where would the Red Sox be had John Lackey and Josh Beckett pitched the way Boston had hoped? In Zito, Vazquez, Burnett, Lackey and Beckett, that's $76.5 million doled out to starters who will not be taking a playoff rotation turn.
The Streaking O's
Last year, I wrote about how the Baltimore Orioles could be on the cusp of something special. Then, this year, I wrote about how I was so wrong about the Baltimore Orioles and how it was really the Toronto Blue Jays that were the team flying under the radar. I even mocked myself for being so wrong on Baltimore.
I wish I had hung in there with the Orioles but who could have blamed me? The Orioles were awful, almost historically so. When play ended on Sunday, August 1st, Baltimore was sporting a record of 32-73 and were 34.5 games back of first place. That’s a 49-win pace and, playing games in baseball’s most competitive division, there seemed little hope that they could turn things around.
The dismal first 105 games was a top-to-bottom group effort. Let’s start with the job Andy MacPhail did last off-season. His three most high-profile moves were to bring in free agents Garrett Atkins and Mike Gonzalez, and to trade for veteran right-hander Kevin Millwood. Atkins hit .214/.276/.286 and was released on July 6th. Gonzalez has earned nearly $275,000 for each inning pitched, which might be OK if he were Mariano Rivera. But he’s Mike Gonzalez, and through August 1st he had a 5.40 ERA in just nine appearances. He stunk, and couldn’t stay healthy. As for Millwood, he’s pitched ok at times but that 3-16 record while blocking other potential Big League- ready arms has hardly served the team’s interests. Finally, presumably because he looked down at his roster before Opening Day and noticed Cesar Izturis (65 career OPS+) was his shortstop, MacPhail added Julio Lugo for depth. In 253 plate appearances, Lugo has 6 extra-base hits and 14 walks.
A group of youngsters expected to develop into legitimate Big League contributors share culpability as well. Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Brad Bergesen all struggled through August 1st. One time uber-prospect Chris Tillman has yet to show that he can be effective in the Majors, and Koji Uehara missed much of the year with injury troubles. Offensively, Nolan Reimold backed up his breakout 2009 with a .210/.289/.350 start and a season-ending achilles injury. Matt Wieters continued to disappoint. Josh Bell, the player so many praised MacPhail for prying away from Ned Colletti in exchange for George Sherrill, has floundered in 151 plate appearances. It looks like even if the veterans had performed for the Orioles, those of us who were bullish on them last season were a year or two early on the youngsters.
But the veterans own the mess that is (was) 2010, too. Ty Wigginton has managed just a .318 on-base. Brian Roberts, through August 1st (last day of the Juan Samuel era), was at .250/.313/.318. Miguel Tejada never even looked interested, hitting .269/.308/.362 before being shipped off to San Diego. Adam Jones had a .306 on-base on August 1st. Nick Markakis hit .303/.384/.488 in his 23 and 24-year old seasons. He’s hit .292/.356/.438 in his 25 and 26 seasons. Through August 1st, his first 132 innings, staff “ace” Jeremy Guthrie was 4-11 with a 4.23 ERA.
It’s well outside of my expertise to understand the impact a Manager has on a ball club, but here are the facts as they relate to Baltimore in 2010. Dave Trembley started the year 15-39. Juan Samuel, with the interim reins, went 17-34. Buck Showalter, since taking over on August 3rd, is 28-19. That 49-win pace now looks more like 65-67 wins. 49 wins is no-man’s land but heck, the 2007 Rays won 66 before reaching the World Series in 2008. Last year's San Diego Padres went 23-13 over their last 36 games, and their success has carried over into 2010. Everything has changed in Baltimore. Just look at some of the performances below:
And for the pitchers, the two numbers presented below are K/BB and then ERA.
There have been other exciting developments, too. Uehara has emerged as a potential shut-down reliever with just five walks in 39 innings pitched and Luke Scott has OPS'd over .900, for instance.
The Orioles have been the AL East's best team for 45 games or so, and with a young pitching nucleus returning and Andy MacPhail's stated commitment to beefing up the offense this off-season, the O's may yet be interesting in 2011. I am reluctant to say more than that given the competitiveness of the division and my own checkered history forecasting Orioles success. But Showalter's aboard, the youngsters are coming along and the veterans are performing the way they're supposed to. From there, you'll have to draw your own conclusions.
Checking In On the NL West
At the conclusion of play on August 25th, the San Diego Padres had amassed a 76-49 record, and were 6.5 and 10.5 games clear of the San Francisco Giants and Colorado Rockies, respectively. With a little more than a month to play, a club supposed to be in rebuilding mode was running away with the National League West title.
They had done it by averaging a respectable 4.5 runs per game when you consider their home ballpark, and their pitching and defense had been in top form all season long. From the beginning of the season through August 25th, the Padres were only yielding 3.4 runs per game. A closer look at the personnel might have given some pause about this team, but 125 games into this season they looked every bit the part of a legitimate contender.
Over their next 17 games, 14 of them at home, the Padres would go 4-13. Prior to the start of Monday’s series in Denver against the Rockies, from August 26th through September 12th, San Diego averaged just 2.2 runs per game while yielding 4.2. They were awful, and the division seemed to be slipping away. Their playoff odds, a lock just weeks ago, had dwindled down to the 50% mark.
The collapse was a total team effort, saving maybe superstar Adrian Gonzalez. His production remained steady. But other key contributors for the Padres were cratering. David Eckstein had held his own for much of the year but is at just .197/.242/.213 since August 25th. Yorvit Torrealba had been a nice surprise but he’s hit .219/.306/.333 from August 1st through today. Newcomers Ryan Ludwick and Miguel Tejada faltered badly, too, as the former has slugged just .323 since the losing began while the latter has managed just a .253 on-base.
Meanwhile, the Rockies got hot. Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki went nuts, and their pitching has improved as well. While San Diego went 4-13, the Rox ripped off a 14-4 stretch. San Francisco was playing better baseball, too. They went 10-6 over that same stretch. The NL West was shaping up to be one heck of a race.
Over the last two nights, however, things have taken yet another turn. The Padres won consecutive games on the road in Colorado thanks to a couple of huge home runs, one from Matt Stairs last night and another from Miguel Tejada on Monday. Also of note, Jon Garland bounced back and pitched well last night after a dreadful month for him. The Padres playoff odds are back up around 70%, thanks not only to their two-night resurgence, but also to Clayton Kershaw’s complete game shutout in San Francisco last night.
San Diego now has two games in the loss column on the Giants and four on the Rockies. The Padres have eight games remaining on this road trip, including another in Denver, four in St. Louis against the flailing Cardinals and three at Dodger Stadium. Then it’s the Reds and Cubs at home before what could be one of the most exciting season-ending series in a long time: three in San Francisco against the Giants.
Everything is more or less settled in the American League, faux AL East drama and all. The Phillies have scooted ahead of the Braves, but the Braves seem poised to take the NL Wild Card (although the two teams do have six games remaining against one another). That leaves the NL West, where you’ll want to remain focused if pennant race drama is your thing this time of year.
These are exciting times for the family of our fearless leader here at Baseball Analysts. Rich's father George, profiled here and here in the past on this site, will be inducted into the Long Beach Baseball & Softball Hall of Fame a week from Saturday night. I mention this today in this space because the publicity surrounding George’s induction tells you a lot about Rich Lederer, his priorities and his character.
This Long Beach Press-Telegram article offers a glimpse into Rich’s upbringing and how his values came to be. He spent his childhood hanging around Major League ballparks, and most of that time was in the company of his father and brothers. To this day, Rich’s love of family and baseball shine through for anyone lucky enough to call him a friend.
Rich will have a recap of the ceremony itself one week from Monday.
Ben Kabak has a great write-up on Brett Gardner at River Avenue Blues.
On the season, Garnder is now at .284/.390/.384 through 504 plate appearances. He’s seventh in the AL in on-base percentage, ninth in walks with 70 and fourth in steals with 40. As a defender, too, his numbers are steller. His left field UZR is 16.9, and his arm is 5.3 runs above average. His eight outfield assists are second in the American League, and opposing teams have stopped running on his arm. Have I mentioned he’s making just $452,000 this year?
That Gardner has played as much as he has for the Yanks is Exhibit A that these aren't the mid-aughts Yanks, throwing money at anything and everything when they have a hole to fill. Gardner has subtle skills, and could easily be passed over by a dumber team with championship hopes. But the Yankees aren't dumb, and their ability to pay a very good player the minimum allows them the financial freedom to flex their financial muscles elsewhere.
This is the most incredible thing I've read all year. Joey Votto does not have one single infield pop-up this season. I just don't even know what to say about that. Here's 'Duk from Big League Stew:
It's difficult to get your head around, but the above headline is true: Joey Votto has not hit an infield popup all season.
Enjoy the start of the NFL season this weekend, and tomorrow has an excellent slate of college football. Even though the AL playoff slots are more or less wrapped up, the NL picture remains wide open. The two series to keep your eye on are the Cards in Atlanta and the Padres hosting the Giants.
San Francisco is just a game back of San Diego, and if the Cards have a miracle comeback in them, they'll have to make a dent this weekend.
The Meaning of Marlon Byrd
When Marlon Byrd signed his 3-year, $15 million contract with the Cubs this past off-season, it was seen as yet another indicator that Jim Hendry was out of touch. Why add a 32-year old center fielder with a flimsy track record of success to a team with a $144 million payroll and legitimate championship aspirations?
Here is Christina Kahrl of Baseball Prospectus reacting to the acquisition:
My initial response on Twitter (@ChristinaKahrl) was that Byrd won't slug .420 away from Texas, and while that was a flip comment*, the more I think about it, the more I'm comfortable with the idea. It might cost less than half as much as signing Gary Matthews Jr. did, but that doesn't make the signing less than half as dumb. That's the basis of comparison I'm operating from, because we've heard this story before: toolsy 31-year-old ex-fourth outfielder has big year in a superheated bandbox, gets big money, and becomes a permanent punchline on his general manager's highlight reel. No doubt Jim Hendry's moved beyond the laughter, since he's on the downslope of the Milton Bradley experience.
Kahrl thought the one silver lining of the move would be that Sam Fuld, a 28-year old who hasn’t managed a .400 SLG in the PCL in 2010, might be able to get some playing time more quickly given Byrd’s ability to shift to the corner outfield positions. Christina was not alone. There was a guy named Sullivan right here at Baseball Analysts who wrote the following:
It's hard not to think back to the Milton Bradley episode and how much it distracted Chicago when looking at their moves this off-season. Losing Bradley and picking up Carlos Silva and Marlon Byrd, wherever you come down on the argument that they just had to part ways with Bradley, amounts to wheel-spinning. Byrd is no better than Bradley, Silva is just awful.
So how has Byrd performed? He’s hitting .302/.358/.446, good for a .356 wOBA and a 119 wRC+. Byrd ranks 3rd among National League center fielders in Runs Above Replacement. When you factor defense, his season looks even more impressive. He sits 12th in Fangraphs WAR among all National League position players. By any measure whatsoever, the Byrd signing has been a masterstroke for the Cubs, albeit a bittersweet masterstroke for Cubs fans as they ponder what might have been if their team’s other pieces were up to par.
A lot of Byrd’s success offensively has been tied to a high in-play average of .338, but then again his career figure is .325. He’s murdered lefties to the tune of a .953 OPS, and in case you think his output is tied to Wrigley, he’s been much better on the road than he has at home. Defensively, as you can deduce from his WAR number, he appears to have been terrific this season. Just five months into a 3-year deal, the complete story of the Byrd acquisition is as yet unwritten. He is hitting just .245/.268/.340 over the last 28 days. Nonetheless he's been good enough to date that it warranted attention.
I wanted to post this for a couple of reasons. The first was simply to point out a ray of light in an otherwise miserable Cubs season. Byrd seems to have exceptional make-up and character – check out his blog here – and has quickly become a fan favorite. When I attended Wrigley in late June to watch the Cubs take on Pittsburgh, I noticed how much the fans seated in the bleachers adored Byrd, cheering wildly as he took the field in the first inning. And Byrd impressed me by how much he seemed to be relishing the opportunity to patrol the Wrigley outfield in front of such appreciative fans. Byrd would be one of the great stories of 2010 if Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez had come to play this year.
Another reason I wanted to post this was to consider what it means when the saberists get it so wrong. A 32-year old whose offensive value had been tied to hitting in Texas, who had not even experienced real Big League success until age 29...well that’s not a guy worth inking to a guaranteed 3-year deal, right? That’s how my thinking went anyway. But there are considerations that teams take into account, granted inaccurately at times, that performance analysts do not.
I don’t know if what follows is true, but I bet a lot of it is, and I also bet this represents much of the case for Byrd that refutes the reasons not to sign him that Christina and I exclusively considered. Here goes:
Byrd is a guy with outstanding character who works hard and has never been in better shape. He will be a remarkable influence on his teammates, and the opportunity to play for a team with a rich tradition like the Cubs will not be lost on him. Whatever drop-off a move away from Arlington entails, consider all of these factors enough to counteract it. He’s a mature player, a true professional who got a late start but is now ready to take his game to a new level into his mid-30’s.
I bet there’s a scout out there, probably working for the Cubs, who had written something precisely to that effect on Byrd. That scout was dead right, and I know as a result of the Byrd case I will be looking into factors I previously had not considered when analyzing player movement.
Everybody Try & Relax
This article is cross-posted at Red Sox Beacon, a site I started with Baseball Prospectus writer Marc Normandin. We're not sure where it will go but for now it's just a repository for a handful of us to jot down our thoughts on the Boston Red Sox. I will still be contributing here at least every Wednesday, and occasionally on weekends as well.
Fresh off a series loss in St. Pete and with their playoff chances inching from slim towards none, there is a new narrative taking hold here in Boston . It's difficult to follow but the best I can boil it down to is "The Red Sox knew this was a ‘bridge year’ all along and are not going for it.” Those who hold this belief - ostensibly at least - point to the lack of deal-making at the deadline and to Theo Epstein's terribly misunderstood "bridge year" remark before the beginning of the year. That the team continues to rely on the likes of Daniel Nava and Darnell McDonald to claw back into the most competitive division in baseball means the front office is content to let the season slip away, or so it goes. Some examples:
At any point, to blame it all on the injuries is rather elementary and downright blind.
Fenway Park has gone from among the most fashionable places to be seen to just another ballpark, and the timing could not be worse for a Red Sox administration that might have been planning for another lean year.
Hawpe is just an example. The main point is that the #redsox lack of movement toward any players = not going for it
Last night's defeat at Tropicana Field and the series weren't just lost over the weekend. They were lost in the last month, when fatal flaws went unfixed by the front office. While teams like the San Diego Padres (Ryan Ludwick and Miguel Tejada) and Minnesota Twins (Matt Capps and Brian Fuentes) have addressed needs, the Sox have preferred to stand pat and apply internal patches. The Padres and Twins look playoff-bound, the Sox do not.
Actions speak louder than words. Francona's actions tell the tale of a team that waited for reinforcements from its front office that never came.
It’s not like they didn’t warn us. Remember Theo’s comments in December about the “bridge period’’? He said that’s not what he really meant, but it was a moment of truth. The reality is the Sox figured they were in for a soft season.
A number of reactions come to mind as I read mainstream writing along these lines, but the first is to spell out exactly what the Red Sox have been through this year. Let's start with the obvious. Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, conservatively, are two of the 20 best position players in baseball. They’re probably two of the 15 best and possibly both top-10. Combined, they’ve missed 85 games in 2010. Imagine if the Brewers were without Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, the Rays without Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria, or the Yankees without Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira. You could stop right there and forgive the Red Sox for merely being a .565 team playing in baseball’s (sports’?) toughest division.
On the performance side, key Sox players have struggled. Josh Beckett has been terrible in his limited action this year. John Lackey has not pitched nearly as well as he is capable. J.D. Drew has managed a couple of hot streaks but he has not been able to piece together a typical Drew offensive season despite remaining healthy as his teammates fall all around him.
The Red Sox have endured as much adversity as any team in baseball. Just a few of the items mentioned above breaking their way and Boston’s in the thick of this race. This was a bridge year in the sense that Boston needed to ink some veterans to short contracts in order to remain a top-flight team while they waited for their youngsters to develop. Marco Scutaro, Cameron and Beltre all fall into this camp, but how do any of those signings indicate that Boston's front office thought they would have a soft year? They would probably be baseball’s best team with any luck at all in 2010. I look at the 2003, 2004 and 2007 clubs and I don't know - I think this may have been the very best Red Sox roster of the Theo Epstein era. This team was designed to compete and all year long, it has.
But that first point – that the Red Sox intended to try to win the World Series all along - is only partially responsive to the complaints circling the Boston airwaves and filling the broadsheets. The notion that they’re not “going for it” by failing to make trades is preposterous on its face. Whom would you like to have seen the Red Sox acquire?
If only the Red Sox had managed to get Brad Hawpe, then at least they’d be making a go of it. Had the Red Sox traded for bats like Ludwick or Tejada, then at least we’d know they were serious. Their bullpen has been so bad. How could they NOT add Matt Capps or Brian Fuentes. And for goodness sake, things have become so dour down in the baseball ops offices, the marketing folks are now calling the shots. How else to explain the attempt to acquire Johnny Damon?
It’s hard for me to unravel the logic of these complaints but for our purposes, let’s consider the Los Angeles Dodgers. On July 31st, they sat 5.5 games out of a playoff spot, just like the Red Sox. Ned Colletti was aggressive, acquiring Ted Lilly, Ryan Theriot and Octavio Dotel at the deadline for a number of promising pieces in the Dodgers farm system and a couple of established Big Leaguers. For the short-term, the moves have worked out really nicely. Theriot has managed a 109 OPS+ as a Dodger, and Lilly is 5-1 since arriving on the west coast. Dotel has been spotty at times, but he’s only tossed 11 innings.
So the Dodgers made moves and were rewarded with very good productivity from their new acquisitions. Meanwhile, the Red Sox did virtually nothing at the deadline. After looking at potential moves – say Scott Downs for Casey Kelly as an example – the Red Sox decided that the market just wasn’t shaping up the way it would need to in order to compel them to deal. A month later, LA’s playoff odds have dwindled to 4% while the Red Sox chances are also slim, but still two times that of the Dodgers. Making trades for the short-term guarantees nothing.
But even when the Red Sox gave it an honest shot with the Johnny Damon waiver claim, they were not insulated from this line of attack. Damon chose not to join the club, but you can’t say the Red Sox have not been active. But folks like Mazz claim that the Damon attempt was driven by the business side of things, since, you know, the Red Sox aren't really going for it. I’m still waiting for any actual reporting on the subject. It’s speculation, and flies in the face of how the Red Sox have operated under John Henry's ownership group. Baseball Ops has total autonomy once made aware of their budget.
Boston is on pace to win 92 games in 2010. This despite as bad a non-New York Mets injury season as I can recall. Oh, those poor 2009 New York Mets. After winning 89 games in 2008, they had high hopes last year. Like the Red Sox, they got crushed by the injury bug, losing Jose Reyes, Carlos Beltran and Johan Santana among others. Unlike the Red Sox, they won 70 games.
I understand that you have to fill space in newspapers but the simple explanation for the 2010 Boston Red Sox is “shit happens.” It’s unsatisfying, but it’s the truth. They had a plan, assembled a great roster and on any number of fronts they’ve run into just awful luck. 92 wins might cut it in any other division in baseball, but in the AL East it means you might not qualify for the playoffs. And as a result, while Kevin Youkilis looks on in a splint and Dustin Pedroia gets set for surgery, an entitled, spoiled, silly media gets to spend the final month of the season grasping at straws assigning ex post facto blame as to why the Red Sox didn’t win a handful more games.
Aging Players - Bargains for 2011?
Back in January, before the start of the season but after much of the hot stove dust had settled, Dave Cameron wrote about how aging players represented a new inefficiency in the market. Consider the deals players like Ricky Romero, Brian McCann, Ervin Santana, Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia have signed, and it’s evident that many teams are looking to sign their key players pre-arbitration. Standout players like C.C. Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and Johan Santana entering their free agent years for the first time are paid lucratively too, of course. But Cameron notes that older players who may have already played out one big contract are too easily overlooked.
Teams have become cautious with the contracts they give to aging players, not wanting to get burned paying too much to a guy who may end up not having anything left in the tank, but I feel like we’re passing the point of caution and shifting towards a market failure. If a guy is a good player at 35, you should not expect him to be useless at 36. Yes, you regress his projection for aging, but players who go from good-to-terrible in a single season are the exception, not the rule.
Aubrey Huff, a 33-year old with “old guy” skills, hit .241/.310/.384 last season. This season, he’s been one of the best players in baseball, hitting .301/.394/.534 in one of the worst hitting environments in baseball. Huff had earned the entire $3 million the Giants paid him for the 2010 year with April and May’s output alone. The Twins continue to enjoy a monster season from Jim Thome, who’s earning just $1.5 million for the 2010 campaign.
Incidentally, both players will once again be free agents for the 2011 season, and so too will a number of other aging players who still likely have productivity left in them. Some will flop badly of course, but isn’t that the nature of the free agent market more generally? There may be more risk associated with older players, but it seems exceedingly “priced in” as compared to younger guys on the market.
We’ll leave the pitchers aside for the moment, and just take a look at some of the position players that will be hitting the market. We’re not talking Jayson Werth and Carl Crawford here, the guys that are likely to break the bank and project as shoo-in productive Big Leaguers for years to come. No, we’re talking guys like Thome and Huff, players who may or may not be worth a flier. And we’ll also include the likes of Adrian Beltre and Derek Jeter. They may not come cheaply, but the risk/reward still may skew in the team’s favor nonetheless. I will list their 3-year (2008-2010) B-Ref WAR totals, along with their age.
Some of these players will make for excellent values, some will be overpaid, but it’s likely that a number of these guys will make a huge difference for their teams in the coming years. The challenge for GM’s is to figure out how to allocate resources to aging players. Do the Yankees have to go all in for Jeter? What’s Scott Boras going to get for Beltre? Can Thome do it again next year? What does Berkman have left? Manny would make for a productive DH, no?
Says here that teams brave enough to play in this market, on average, will see more ROI than elsewhere.
Designating a DH in 2011
Identifying who the best baseball position players are is delicate business for executives trying to field the best team possible. You have to figure out what kind of offensive performer the guy is, and then what sort of glove he has, and then what it all means. You would never want David Ortiz playing outfield for your club, and you would never want Mark Kotsay to be your Designated Hitter. They’re equally preposterous.
The problem is that Kotsay actually does start at Designated Hitter for the Chicago White Sox. Year after year teams squander the opportunity that the DH presents – the chance to increase your odds of getting real productivity by removing defense from the evaluation picture. Whether it’s Jose Vidro, Rondell White, Scott Hatteberg, Carl Everett or even someone like Marlon Anderson in Game 2 of the 2004 World Series, every year there are wholly unqualified players filling the DH slot for teams. I still remember watching incredulously when I saw that Anderson would start at DH for St. Louis in that game.
Fortunately for teams lacking punch at the DH spot, there is an intriguing crop of aging 1B/DH types set to hit the free agent market after the 2010 season. And since only four American League teams have managed a team OPS north of .800 at the position, you’d better believe their services will be in demand. Seattle DH’s have “hit” .182/.260/.303 in 2010.
Joe Pawlikowski took a look back at the 2010 Free Agent DH class last week at Fangraphs, and now I’d like to look forward at the guys who will come available for the 2011 season.
There are other sticks out there too like Hideki Matsui and Lyle Overbay but the list above represents all the viable DH options for teams looking to fill the slot in 2011. Short of these guys, teams would be best served putting their best AAA hitter in there and seeing how he performs. Whatever you do, just say no to the Mark Kotsays of the world at DH.
The Surprising Toronto Blue Jays
Last year about this time, on July 29th to be exact, I wrote a piece here at Baseball Analysts wondering how close the Baltimore Orioles were to competing in the AL East. They were 13 games under .500 at the time with a solid young core and a fast-rising crop of top prospects. Since then, the O’s are 54-114. Well it’s that time of year again and as a loyal Red Sox fan it’s my obligation to give another AL East team, the Toronto Blue Jays, that same treatment.
No, but seriously, the Blue Jays are good. They won their 8th game in 11 tries last night, including two straight in the Bronx against the New York Yankees. Against baseball’s best lineup, Blue Jays starters Brandon Morrow and Ricky Romero struck out a combined 13 Yanks in 14.1 innings, walking just 3 along the way. Romero tossed a complete game 2-hitter last night. For more on Morrow, check out Rich Lederer’s piece from Monday. The Blue Jays trail the Yankees by 9 games in the loss column for the Wild Card, and the Red Sox, who are in contention according to many, sit just 3 games ahead of the Jays in the loss column.
Coming into this season, without the services of Roy Halladay, things were supposed to be bleak north of the border. There seemed to be a consensus that the Jays would be the new Orioles, AL East doormats, while the Orioles would turn into the team the Jays have been for so long: the club that needed to just get the hell out of the AL East. Instead, both teams have held steady in their “rightful” 4th and 5th place in baseball’s toughest division. Looking around the Jays organization, there’s plenty to be excited about. The offense is pounding the ball, the pitching is young and promising, there’s lots of money coming off the books this year, prospects are on the way and the early returns on General Manager Alex Anthopoulos are terrific.
Let’s start with the offense. The Jays rank 26th in Major League Baseball in batting average, but rank 9th in the Majors in runs scored. Their free-swinging ways can cost them at times but on the whole, they’ve made it work thanks to a couple of big bats. Incredibly, Jose Bautista leads Major League Baseball with 33 home runs, 6 bombs clear of Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds. Vernon Wells, who hit .265/.317/.426 in 1,792 plate appearances from 2007 to 2009, has bounced back in a big way, slugging .534 this season with 22 round-trippers. He may not quite be earning that hefty contract, but this level of production for a couple of more seasons from Wells will ease the pain of one of the worst contracts in recent memory. Other highlights include the catching combo of John Buck and Jose Molina, one of the most effective backstop duos of 2010.
What’s most incredible about the Jays offense is its productivity despite lackluster seasons from Aaron Hill and Adam Lind. In 2009, his 27-year old season, Hill hit .286/.330/.499 and was one of the most productive second basemen in the game. Lind, just 25 last year, hit .305/.370/.562. This year Hill is “hitting” .213/.289/.395 while Lind has “contributed” a .219/.278/.379 line. Both are in their prime, both were productive last year, and both have been awful. As I think about what Hill and Lind’s catastrophic under-performance means for the longer-term hopes of the organization, I don’t worry too much. They both have track records and are young enough to straighten things out.
The overall run prevention has been just middle of the pack, but that’s due in large part to a mediocre defensive unit. The team’s FIP and xFIP ranks third and fourth respectively in the American League. Morrow’s peripheral statistics have been superb, while Romero has shown flashes of brilliance in just his second Major League season. Two more cost-controlled starters, Brett Cecil and Shaun Marcum, have turned in solid campaigns as well. This is a good young rotation, and one that figures to remain together for a few years:
Age AL xFIP Ranking Romero 25 7 Marcum 28 10 Cecil 25 31 Morrow 23 12
The future is bright for Toronto’s starting pitching staff. For depth, they have arms like Kyle Drabek, Zach Stewart and Brad Mills on the way, and they could always dip into the free agent market for a 5th starter while they wait for their prospects to develop.
Speaking of the future, General Manager Alex Anthopoulos seems to be tending to it nicely. His swap of Alex Gonzalez and prospects for 26-year old Yunel Escobar was nothing short of a masterstroke. Sure Escobar had some problems in Atlanta, but he’s productive both offensively and defensively and cost-controlled. Anthopoulos parlayed a stopgap option like Gonzalez into his shortstop through 2013. The Jays GM will have some money to work with this off-season, too, as the team’s 2nd, 3rd and 4th highest paid players will all come off the books (assuming he does not offer arbitration to the inconsistent Edwin Encarnacion).
As it stands, the Jays will need to add depth at the corner infield positions and also determine if J.P. Arencibia is close enough to assume catching duties, as Buck will be a free agent after this season. Toronto does have a $1 million club option should they wish to retain Jose Molina.
But the core is in place. With continued development from the starting pitching, bounce back from Lind and Hill and a few more shrewd moves from Anthopoulos, the Jays could sneak into the AL East mix sooner than many think.
The Fascinating Case of Rickie Weeks
Say you’re a Major League Baseball General Manager and your long-term planning shows an opening at second base in 2012. The farm system looks bare at the position and nobody currently on the big club looks like a candidate for the job that season. The plan would be to make some calls to feel out the trade market and parallel track an approach focused on the free agent market.
A look at the 2012 free agent class shows that Rickie Weeks would have to be high on your list of acquisition targets, but now comes the hard part. How do you budget for Weeks? What will the market bear for a player of Weeks’s skill and performance history?
Rickie Weeks, to date, has underachieved. Coming into the 2010 campaign, the second overall pick in the 2003 Amateur Draft had hit .247/.351/.415 for his career. He’s struggled with the glove, his bat has been inconsistent and he can’t seem to stay on the field. Weeks has never played more than 130 games in a season.
Still, he has shown flashes. He hit .251/.422/.481 in the second half of 2007, his 24-year old season. The enormous difference between his on-base percentage and his batting average suggested Weeks might be a special player, a middle infielder with superb pitch recognition skills and excellent power. From August 1st through the end of the 2007 season, Weeks hit .273/.442/.553.
Now a darling breakout candidate, a kid on the cusp of superstardom, the incredible finish to the 2007 campaign would not carry over. 41 games into the 2008 season Weeks was hitting .184/.317/.329. With a low batting average that was unlikely to remain suppressed for a full season, Weeks once again finished strong, hitting .261/.373/.448 over final two months of the 2008 season.
So now Weeks was entering his 26-year old campaign. He had amassed a good amount of Major League service time and even if he was inconsistent, he had played at a high enough level for extended stretches that there was still plenty of hope that Weeks could fulfill his promise. Perhaps his biggest drawback early in his career, his erratic fielding had even begun to stabilize in 2008. 2009 would be his year.
Unfortunately, 2009 would be anything but Weeks’s year. He would tear the tendon sheath in his left wrist on May 18th in the midst of his best season to date. For the first time in his career he was off to a good start, hitting .272/.340/.517. Now a wrist injury would call into question how he might ever bounce back.
A player has a few opportunities to make a lot of money in Major League Baseball. A draft pick as high as Weeks receives a hefty signing bonus. A player can start off his career with enough promise to compel their employer to buy out arbitration years and maybe a free agent season or two. Sticking at second base, think Robinson Cano or Dustin Pedroia for these sorts of contracts. Players can also make a lot of money on a year-to-year basis in arbitration. And finally, guys can hit it big on the unrestricted free agent market. For Weeks, the wrist injury that took out his 2009 season also eliminated any hopes he may have had for a big contract or multiple lucrative arb years before he became a free agent. His window was closing.
Understandably given the nature of his injury, Weeks started slowly this season. On May 23rd, he was hitting .246/.338/.374. Since then, he’s been one of the very best players in baseball. Weeks is hitting .307/.407/.589 over his last 58 games while playing a decent enough second base. He homered for the third consecutive game last night. Already he has been worth 4 Wins Above Replacement (according to Fangraphs), a higher total than any other full season of his career and remember, he has been strong finisher his whole career. At 27, Weeks seems to be putting it all together.
This brings me back to the beginning of the piece. What do you make of Rickie Weeks if you need to look to the free agent market for a second baseman in 2012? He might be a top-10 player in all of baseball, he might tank, his fielding may regress to the point where he must be moved off of second as he ages, the wrist injury could pop back up in some form or another. You get the picture. Right now, he is probably the most difficult player in baseball to project.
For his part, Weeks has eight months of baseball that will in all likelihood set up the rest of his life. If he performs, he will earn tens of millions of dollars well into his 30’s. If he doesn’t, he will likely play out lesser contracts for (relatively) short money.
From a baseball analyst’s perspective, when you take into account the factors that go into projecting future performance, there is no greater enigma right now than Weeks. And from a human perspective, for anyone trying to earn as much as possible in their respective fields, how can you not relate to a guy who has faced this much adversity and is now pushing for his chance to fulfill all that promise and strike it rich? Weeks has a small window to show what he can do. Meanwhile, teams around the league have to decide what sort of commitment they’re willing to make to a player who would come with no shortage or risk or reward.
Fun with Wins Above Replacement - National League Edition
Yesterday I wrote about some of the surprises that a B-Ref Play Index search for individual teams’ all-time single season WAR leaders turns up, and limited it to the American League. Today, let’s look at the National League. Because I referenced some bad MVP decisions in yesterday’s piece, I want to make clear that I am not advocating that the MVP simply be handed to the player with the highest WAR (though you could come up with a worse system). It’s simply a solid representation of a player’s contribution and when you dig in, it can turn up some unexpected items.
As you might imagine, Hank Aaron is all over the top of the Braves list but the third best season in Braves history belongs to Darrell Evans. He hit .281/.403/.556 in 1973, good for a 9.0 WAR year, easily the very best year of his long career. The best position-player season of the last 20 years for the Braves was Marcus Giles’s 2003. I would have thought Chipper Jones.
Ron Santo Hall-of-Fame supporters looking to rile themselves up should check out the Cubs list. Santo is mixed right in there with Ernie Banks and a few others and in fact, from 1964 to 1969, no National Leaguer amassed a greater WAR total. Right behind Santo on THAT list are Willie Mays, Aaron and Roberto Clemente.
The first, second, third, fourth and fifth best seasons in Cincinnati Reds history belong to Joe Morgan. Do you get the sense that people don't quite appreciate what a great player he was? I know I expected him to be up there, but the five best seasons in the history of a franchise with no shortage of history and success like the Reds? It's incredible. Morgan bears some responsibility for a legacy that could be so much more due to his broadcasting style and occasional unfortunate commentary, but he really does seem unfairly underrated nonetheless. He's on the short short list of the very best players of all time.
He's long been a favorite of this site, but Jimmy Wynn claims 3 of the top 20 seasons in Astros history. It would be hard to identify a player whose reputation as a player is more hampered by context. He played home games in the Astrodome during a brutal pitcher's era and was a high-OBP/low-AVG type. He finished his career with just a .250 batting average but a 128 OPS+.
Adrian Beltre's 2004 is the second best season in Dodgers history. The rest of the list includes names you'd expect except for number seven. There's that guy again! It's Wynn, who hit .271/.387/.497 for the 1974 Dodgers.
Four of the ten best Mets seasons took place between 1996 and 1998, and the names blew my mind. I guess John Olerud's doesn't - he was an excellent player and his 1998 is tied for the best Mets season. Who's he tied with? Yup, Bernard Gilkey, who hit .317/.393/.562 for the 1996 Mets. Edgardo Alfonso's 1997 and Lance Johnson's 1996 rank 7th and 9th respectively. Alfonso's 2000 ranks 10th.
So Chase Utley's been pretty good, right? He's one of the best players of the last bunch of years, the very best player in fact during one of the most successful stretches in Philadelphia Phillies history. Well Mike Schmidt had NINE seasons better than Utley's second best. Ryan Howard's best season ranks 52nd in Phils history ($125 million LOL).
I have never heard of Sixto Lezcano, but apparently he had the 4th best season in Padres history. For any reader who feels inclined, I would love to learn more about Sixto if you could share memories in the comments section.
Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Albert Pujols, Hornsby, Musial Pujols...check out the St. Louis Cardinals list and you get a real appreciation for the standing that Pujols already has in the game's history.
Fun with Wins Above Replacement - American League Edition
I can’t imagine many readers of this site don’t know about Baseball-Reference’s Play Index, but in case not, know that it represents one of the great joys of being a baseball fan for those interested in mining baseball's past and present. The recent addition of Sean Smith’s historical WAR data has only made the Play Index that much more enjoyable. In a recent guest post I wrote at Wezen-Ball on Red Sox Hall of Famer Fred Lynn, I searched for the greatest individual seasons by Red Sox and sorted by WAR. The results were surprising, and so I decided to play with it some more. What follows are some of the more surprising items that caught my eye. I will follow up with a National League piece tomorrow.
Let’s stick with the Red Sox for starters. In 1995, they won the American League East and first baseman Mo Vaughn won the American League Most Valuable Player award. While it may not rival 1987’s George Bell over Alan Trammell sham, it was an awful choice. Albert Belle was much better than Vaughn and among stat-friendly types the 1995 vote goes down as one of the worst in recent memory. It’s hard to see how anyone could have believed Vaughn was better than Belle, Edgar Martinez or even Tim Salmon that season.
But that’s old news. What caught my eye as I sorted through the greatest individual Red Sox seasons of all time (as determined by WAR), was that another Red Sox, one of Vaughn’s teammates, appeared to have had a much stronger MVP case than Vaughn, too. John Valentin’s 8.5 WAR season, the strike-shortened season of 1995 no less, stands today as one of the finest years a Red Sox player has ever posted and wouldn’t you know it, the highest total in the AL for that year.
Valentin hit .298/.399/.533 while playing a very good shortstop for Boston that season. I want to be careful not to ascribe too much value to WAR since Valentin derived so much of his value that season from his fielding, an area of the game more easily quantified today than ever before but still inexact nonetheless. Still, you could imagine my surprise when Valentin’s name appeared so high on the list of all-time great Red Sox seasons, and atop the American League for 1995.
Perhaps the most surprising team list of all is the Angels. Here are the top individual seasons in Angels history:
Season WAR Jim Fregosi 1964 8.1 Darin Erstad 2000 7.7 Jim Fregosi 1970 7.7 Troy Glaus 2000 7.6 V. Guerrero 2004 7.4
Nothing against Fregosi or Erstad but for a proud franchise like the Angels with a particularly strong recent history of success, one would just think that names with more zing than Fregosi or Erstad might sit atop their best ever list.
The Yankees’ list is just absurd. When purists or others criticize a stat like WAR, I like to urge them to check out some of the results and see if it aligns with their impressions of who the best players are. I realize this post is about surprises, but the Yankees’ list is surprising in its ridiculous predictability. The top 25 seasons ever recorded by Yankees is an exclusive list of just six players: Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Rickey Henderson, Alex Rodriguez and Joe DiMaggio. It’s almost as if WAR might be a reasonably accurate measure of a player’s value!
Speaking of Henderson, did you know that Jason Giambi has the 4th best season in A’s history, trailing only Eddie Collins and Jimmie Foxx, and better than any season Rickey notched in an Athletics uniform? Or that Reggie Jackson’s 9.7 WAR season in 1969 was the 3rd best A’s season in the last 50 years (trailing only Giambi and Rickey) and also the very best of his career? I hadn’t realized Reggie’s best year came so early on in his career. Go check the A’s list out for yourself! There’s a lot there.
To give you a sense for just how futile Seattle Mariners baseball was before the arrival of Edgar Martinez and Ken Griffey Jr., only one of their top-42 seasons by WAR pre-dates the duo’s arrival. Alvin Davis’s 5.6 WAR season in 1984 ranks as the 23rd best season by a position player in Mariners history, and is the only season to appear in the top-42 before 1990.
Ben Zobrist holds the Rays all-time single season WAR record, with his 7.1 figure in 2009. Amusingly for this Red Sox fan, Julio Lugo appears on the Rays top-10 list. Chalk it up to their short history, sure, but there were also some mighty lean years down in St. Pete.
Finally, to tie it all together, we get to the Blue Jays. There are many players and seasons on their list before you get to 1987 MVP winner Bell. Among others, some of the least distinguished you’ll find include Lloyd Moseby, Devon White, Marco Scutaro and Aaron Hill. They may not be baseball royalty, but they all had better seasons than the 1987 American League MVP winner!
I urge everyone to check out the Play Index, and specifically to play around with the WAR lists. It’s simultaneously fun, shocking and enlightening, and will only enhance your enjoyment and appreciation of baseball’s best and most memorable players and seasons.
Daisuke Matsuzaka & Relative Value on the Free Agent Market
Let’s get a few things out of the way. Daisuke Matsuzaka’s value as a starting pitcher for the Boston Red Sox has not been commensurate with the $103 million they doled out to acquire the player. Also, just like many other Red Sox fans who feel frustrated watching Daisuke perform, his pitching can drive me nuts at times, too. He works slowly and walks way too many batters. In his final four seasons for the Seibu Lions, Matsuzaka averaged 2.3 walks issued per nine innings. For the Red Sox, his 162-game average BB/9 has jumped to 4.3. Combine the walks, his inefficiency and his unreliability from a health standpoint and it’s all just very maddening.
With all that said, I was taken aback yesterday morning when I read this Nick Cafardo headline from The Boston Globe. In a piece about Matsuzaka and another frustrating outing in St. Petersburg Monday night, the following headline appeared:
You wonder when it’ll start to pay off
This headline very much reflects conventional wisdom here in Boston. At my doctor's office yesterday, the nurse asked me "what are we gonna do about Daisuke?" I think we've reached a point where public perception on Daisuke is now far too negative. For perspective, I would like to look at his acquisition from a different angle.
The aim of this entry is not to defend the Matsuzaka signing like I did with J.D. Drew during the off-season. J.D. Drew is a terrific baseball player, one any team would be lucky to have. He is not overpaid at all, not by one cent. In fact, his signing has been one of the better free agent deals over the last five seasons or so. The aim of this entry is to showcase the sort of value teams are likely to receive when they turn to the free agent market. From this lens, compared to other free agent starting pitchers, Matsuzaka may not be the best signing of Theo Epstein’s time as Red Sox General Manager, but it’s important to keep in mind that the Japanese right-hander has also been a key contributor to some excellent Red Sox teams.
Since the 2006-2007 off-season, when Matsuzaka signed with the Red Sox, there have been 33 contracts handed out to starting pitchers whose total value met or exceeded $10 million. Of those 33, 9 have contributed no value at all, or even negative value. Jason Schmidt, Adam Eaton, Kei Igawa, Mark Mulder, Woody Williams, Oliver Perez, Aroldis Chapman, Randy Wolf and Jason Marquis (in his deal signed prior to this season) all have either added nothing to the Big League club or in some cases, actually altogether detracted from their teams’ winning efforts irrespective of money. That’s $254 million total doled out to pitchers who have just killed their teams or in Chapman’s case, not yet had a chance to contribute.
That leaves another 24 contracts for pitchers who have contributed to their teams’ winning efforts. Presented below are those 24, sorted by Millions of dollars spent per Win Above Replacement (thanks Fangraphs).
As you can see, Matsuzaka is far from a bargain. But at the same time, he's in the same neighborhood as players like John Lackey and A.J. Burnett, and that's WITH his lost season of 2009. Of those 33 contracts I alluded to earlier, Matsuzaka ranks 18th in terms of dollars spent per Win Above Replacement. That's not great value, but it is just about the median.
This brings me back to the Cafardo headline. "You wonder when it will start to pay off." I look at that and think to myself that IT IS paying off. Maybe it has not been an optimal allocation of resources, maybe Matsuzaka has not lived up to expectations, but he has had two very good seasons, one lost to injury and is on pace to have another decent year. That's not a terrible return.
The purpose of the free agent market is for teams to round out personnel where their farm systems could not supply the talent needed. By its nature, the free agent market offers less value than players in their cost-controlled years. The beauty of this is that so long as the Red Sox draft well and get ridiculous value from the likes of Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis, they can afford to overspend on Matsuzaka. And this principle doesn't just apply to big market teams. Derek Lowe hasn't exactly supplied great value for Atlanta, but they sit in first place. Other expensive "under-performers" like Aaron Harang, Carlos Guillen and Rich Harden suit up for teams atop their respective divisions. Free agent "misses" come with the territory.
Two of the more maligned players in my time following the Boston Red Sox closely, J.D. Drew and Daisuke Matsuzaka, both joined the team prior to the 2007 season. They will cost the Red Sox a combined $173 million when it is all said and done. Since their arrival, thanks in part to their considerable contributions, Boston is 99 games over .500, has won a World Series, lost in Game 7 of the 2008 ALCS and has qualified for the post-season in three consecutive years. Matsuzaka will probably never be the pitcher Boston fans hoped he would be, but Matsuzaka has also contributed greatly to some of the most successful Red Sox teams in franchise history. In this light, since all we root for is the Red Sox to win, maybe the nibbling, the DL stints, the posting fee and the big contract have been worth it after all?
Miguel Cabrera & Historical Perspective
R.J. Anderson, in a piece at Fangraphs, sets the stage nicely:
The 2009 season ended poorly for Miguel Cabrera. An arrest and the Tigers’ collapse coincided with the worst month of his season which wasn’t all that poor by anyone else’s standards. The dialect associated with the 27 year old was unkind and the offseason carried with it rumors of a potential trade for budgetary concerns. Those passed and as such Cabrera has spent the 2010 season changing the language like Babylon.
Cabrera is back and producing like he never has before. His .337/.412/.628 line would easily be a career best, which is saying something given the career we're talking about. Since 1960, only 12 players amassed more plate appearances through their age-26 season than Cabrera. Of those with at least 4,000 PA's through their age 27 season, here is how Cabrera ranks in OPS+.
Cabrera is off to as good a start as all but a handful of the very best hitters over the last 50 years. And now, at 27-years old, it appears he could be coming into his own as a truly elite power hitter. Not once has Cabrera finished in the top-5 in his league in slugging percentage. In 2010, despite playing home games at spacious Comerica Park, Cabrera leads the American League with a .630 figure.
Working in Cabrera's favor is the historical trend that hitters tend to tack on power around the age of 27. Below I present the average of the ten best slugging seasons by 24, 27, 30 and 33-year olds from 1990 through 2009:
Age SLG 24 .588 27 .628 30 .634 33 .618
Some might say that the era in question, 1990 through 2009, could be skewed by the influence steroids played. Have players always been able to tack on power into their 30's? Well here is the same table, this time for 1970 through 1989.
Age SLG 24 .550 27 .591 30 .582 33 .549
In both eras, elite sluggers were able to establish and maintain peak power levels at the age of 27. From 1990 through 2009, hitters were able to extend the period out another three years to their 33-year old season, while in the earlier timeframe power leveled back off to the levels seen prior to the 27 season. Depending on how you choose to interpret the data above, it would appear Cabrera has anywhere from three to six top-notch power hitting seasons ahead of him. More succinctly, the power spike could well be here to stay.
There are no guarantees, of course. Albert Pujols had his best two slugging seasons in his age 26 and 23 seasons respectively. Alex Rodriguez notched his best number at the age of 31. But something seems to be happening with Cabrera, and if history is any guide, it's quite possible that one of the more impressive young sluggers of all time is about to get even better. Even though Miggy's problems were mostly off-the-field at the end of 2009, the power spike is a welcome development for Tigers fans, who only months ago seemed to be questioning whether Cabrera was the sort of cornerstone player they wanted for their team. He's answering those questions emphatically in 2010.
The Rest of the Way
For the first time in a while I feel like a fan of any other team in baseball. As a Red Sox fan, things have been great over the last 8 years or so. And they still are - don't get me wrong. But just like so many other teams face uncertainty, so too do the Red Sox now. In years past, you could pencil in a certain amount of production from the Red Sox players and chances were, in the aggregate, you'd end up pretty close to where you thought they'd be. This year though, who the hell knows?
From the start it's been a season of surprises. The team's core stunk for the first 15 games of the season or so, and the Rays and Yanks seemed to be running away. Then, thanks to outstanding work from some of the veterans in the lineup and surprising performances from journeymen cast into leading roles, the Red Sox have clawed their way back into the playoff race. Most satisfying of all, a team "experts" said wouldn't hit became baseball's best offense despite missing two starters for much of the season. Go and search "run prevention" and check out all the snark from the likes of Dan Shaughnessy, Nick Cafardo, Mike Silverman and others.
Questions still abound. Josh Beckett will not be back for a long time, which might even be a good thing if his pitching looks anything like it did before he went on the Disabled List. If you find someone who can shed light on Jacoby Ellsbury's health, let me know. The bullpen gets worse every game. John Lackey had something of an encouraging start in Denver the other night but his peripheral numbers still look awful. Relying on a AAAA guy like Darnell McDonald is beginning to take its toll. And now comes what is potentially the most devastating blow of all. Dustin Pedroia's health is in question after pounding a foul ball off the instep of his left foot last night in San Francisco. X-Rays were reported to be negative, but he's on crutches.
Back to being a Red Sox fan this season. Watching a team battle through imperfections and shortcomings when they had been all but written off has been an entirely new experience. It's been a blast. Watching a juggernaut fulfill its destiny is great, too. Don't get me wrong. But for one season, I am enjoying this. Nobody has any idea what to expect from the Red Sox the rest of the way because the answers lie in dynamics whose uncertainties extend well beyond even the difficult task of projecting forth human performance. We don't even know which humans to project! As a fan, the experience is heightened because it feels like this team needs us pulling for them more than ever. And that's what I find myself doing every night!
I am not confident that Josh Beckett will make a healthy and/or effective return. Same goes for Jacoby Ellsbury. It's hard to see signs of Mike Cameron turning a corner. He may surprise me, but I just want Lackey to eat innings at this point. Pedroia may be out for a while. And yet, thanks to guys like Jon Lester and Daniel Nava and Adrian Beltre and Daniel Bard and Kevin Youkilis, I can't help but love this team. I feel confident in the Red Sox as a whole even though when I think of the parts, I shudder.
This is the least analytical piece you may ever read on this site, so I apologize for betraying the spirit of the site's name. My brain's just been scattered as I think about this Red Sox team and I felt compelled to put some thoughts down. What I've come up with is this: uncertainty breeds a whole hell of a lot of excitement.
Have a great weekend, everyone.
Are Things Looking Up for the Red Sox?
The Boston Red Sox weathered the slow start, guys we knew could play better started to do just that, the balls started to bounce their way, they now hit well with runners on base...so it's smooth sailing now, right? They've ironed out their problems and Boston just needs to keep after it and chip away at the 4-game deficit New York and Tampa Bay currently enjoy over them. Perhaps the hole they dug themselves may prove to be too big, but they're out of their rut.
But are they? I'm not so sure, and here's a handful of reasons why.
1) John Lackey continues to look awful.
Yes, he's 3-1 in his last 4 starts. Yes, the ERA is coming down. But it's June 16th and Lackey currently has a 4.87 K/9. Of the 61 starters in the American League who have tossed at least 60 innings, only 9 have posted a lower K/9. Only 2 pitchers have a less impressive K/BB.
But he's pitching better of late, no? It's hard for me to see that he is. Amazingly, that 4.87 K/9 is actually DOWN to 3.42 over this 4-start "good" stretch for Lackey. His ERA sits at 4.54 while his xFIP is 5.21. He's been bailed out by a superb Red Sox defense and some good balls-in-play fortune.
John Lackey's far from out of the woods, and it's hard to see how the Red Sox fulfill their goals for this season without an effective Lackey.
The Daniel Nava story has been a blast. Darnell McDonald has filled in admirably. Bill Hall has really come around of late and his ability to play more or less every position, albeit badly, has been invaluable. Felix Doubront has been great in the Minors this year and it will be fun to watch him take the hill Friday night. Tim Wakefield's ability to fill in and make a start whenever needed is huge.
But let's be honest with ourselves. Scott Atchison started a game last Saturday. Nava led off while Hall played shortstop last night. The depth, the scrambling, the fill-ins, it's all great fun but it will also catch up in due time. The Red Sox need strong aggregate contributions from the likes of Josh Beckett, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Jacoby Ellsbury and Mike Cameron if they are going to be the team they can be in 2010.
3) Adrian Beltre will not keep this up.
I love the guy. He's been the best 3rd baseman not named Evan Longoria in the American League. He's raking, and like he always does, he's playing defense. The Red Sox and Scott Boras could not have scripted this any better. It's June and Boston has already got its money's worth out of Beltre while Boras licks his chops as Beltre once again will hit the free agent market after the 2010 season.
It's not going to last, though. Beltre is hitting .333 on the strength of a .367 BABIP, a figure he almost definitely will not be able to maintain. Beltre's ZIPS projection on his Fangraphs page for the rest of 2010 has him at .293/.337/.473 while he currently sits at .333/.366/.524. The drop-off might not feel precipitous, but the Red Sox will begin to get less and less out of Beltre.
4) Clay Buchholz is having a 2008 Daisuke type season.
In 2008, Dice-K was 18-3 with a 2.90 ERA. As Larry David might say, prett-AY prett-AY good. But beneath his win-loss record and earned run average, Matsuzaka had a pedestrian K/BB ratio and a downright awful 5 walks per 9 innings. Somehow he maintained a .260 BABIP-against for a full season and a ridiculous strand rate.
Fast forward to 2010 and Clay Buccholz is 9-4 with a 2.67 ERA. Ostensibly, Buchholz looks like a Cy Young candidate. But like Matsuzaka in 2008, his peripherals don't seem to line up with those of a great pitcher. He's posted just a 1.71 K/BB, and his good fortune shows itself in his .281 BABIP-against and his incredible, unsustainable 3.9 HR/FB%. Some of those fly balls Clay is giving up will begin to land on the other side of the fence, and some of those grounders will find more holes.
5) The Bullpen
In February, while many touted the Boston bullpen as a real strength, I expressed concerns. Hideki Okajima, Ramon Ramirez and Jonathan Papelbon all slipped in the 2nd half of 2009. Manny Delcarmen was more or less awful all season long. Daniel Bard seemed to be the only real sure bet in the pen.
Sure enough, it's more or less how 2010 has played out. Bard's been excellent, Papelbon somehow ekes by with seemingly weaker stuff, and the other three have been awful. Nobody has more appearances in the American League than Bard, so Boston will need others to step up before long, or else they will need to acquire another arm. It's likely that they will need both to happen, but it's hard to see a quick fix on the horizon.
The storyline for the Red Sox this season has been that they have been able to battle through a slow start, some crippling under-performance and terrible injury luck to crawl back into playoff contention. All of these things are true. What I wanted to highlight in this post was that there are two sides to that coin. The Red Sox have also been the beneficiaries of unlikely performances, while there may not be a quick fix to some of the problems that continue to plague the team.
All in all, I would say the problems above are easily offset by the potential a healthy quartet of Beckett, Matsuzaka, Ellsbury and Cameron offer. But if those four cannot provide a boost down the stretch, look for items discussed herein to sink Boston's hopes.
A little over a month ago in a piece about Geovany Soto's hot start, I noted the following about the Cubs offense:
When your biggest problems are Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, there's hope.
Now, on June 2nd, the question has become "when your two biggest problems are Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez for the first third of the season, and you're 6.5 games out of a playoff spot as a result, is there still hope?". Lee is hitting a career-worst .232/.339/.366, while Ramirez, at .162/.227/.269, might be the very worst regular in baseball so far in 2010. Lee is not living up to his potential, Ramirez isn't living up to MY potential. Since I wrote the sentence above on April 29th, Lee has hit .252/.341/.365, Ramirez .169/.239/.241.
So, is there hope? For Chicago, given the strong play from those around Ramirez and Lee, the prospect of the two performing at anywhere near their career norms is tantalizing. Here is how Cubs regulars have performed thus far in 2010:
AVG OBP SLG wOBA Soto .260 .409 .415 .376 Fontenot .324 .373 .481 .372 Castro .310 .355 .414 .334 Soriano .301 .368 .589 .414 Byrd .299 .340 .490 .366 Fukudome .294 .392 .490 .382
Lee is a career .283/.368/.500 hitter, while Ramirez put up a .292/.369/.539 line from 2006 to 2009. Add those two hitting the way they can and suddenly the Cubs have one of the best lineups in the National League. Will Ramirez and Lee turn it around? Let's take a look at some numbers that might offer a glimpse (the line drive numbers are from 2002 on).
BABIP LD% K% BB% Lee '10 .275 23.0 23.8 13.7 Lee Career .322 21.3 23.1 11.3 Ramirez '10 .187 15.0 25.7 8.1 Ramirez Career .288 19.8 15.5 7.3
In Lee's case, I think we can safely expect significant improvement. He's hitting the ball hard, and his strikeouts and walks are in line with his career totals. If anything, Lee's peripherals presented above look better than his career numbers.
As for Ramirez, everything looks pretty ominous. He is striking out way more than he ever did, while only walking slightly more often, and not hitting the ball as hard as he has in the past. His .187 BABIP is ridiculously low so he's likely to improve - really, he cannot get any worse - but there's a chance Ramirez may not return to form in 2010. Given what we've seen from the third baseman thus far, I don't think it's premature for the Cubs to contingency-plan for 3rd base while looking out for signs of improvement from Ramirez over the next 30-50 games or so. Maybe the best available way to glean how Lee and Ramirez figure to play the rest of the year is by looking at their Rest of Season Zips projections on Fangraphs.
AVG OBP SLG wOBA Lee .277 .363 .466 .366 Ramirez .265 .337 .460 .349
That Ramirez projection looks optimistic to me, but one can hope.
Even if Lee and Ramirez return to form, the rest of the lineup that has performed so ably to date for the Cubs might regress. There are no guarantees. The lesson of this Cubs season so far is that teams need their stars to perform in order to fulfill expectations. The Cubs remain within striking distance, but a 2-4 stretch with just 11 total runs scored over their last 6 games has made it painfully obvious that this Cubs offense needs a productive Lee and Ramirez to mount a playoff charge.
Kevin Youkilis: Better Than You Think
When the 2007 season wrapped, the Boston Red Sox were World Series Champions and their starting first baseman two seasons running was Kevin Youkilis. He was a championsip caliber player, which is to say that he was good enough to play everyday for a team that could win a championship. To heap more praise than the "championship caliber" label implies would have been to overstate his contributions.
To get an understanding of how Youkilis stacked up heading into 2008, you can check out our AL East preview from March of that year. Youkilis is referred to as "average at best" with the bat and is more or less an afterthought as we discuss the Red Sox. There was little in Youkilis's performance record that would have suggested he was poised to become one of the very best players in all of baseball. In 2006 and 2007, he hit .284/.385/.440, productive but not elite as first basemen go. Since the beginning of 2008, Youkilis has hit .311/.409/.567. He's a superstar.
I decided I wanted to write on this topic, on how good a player Youkilis had become, a few months back and was hoping Youkilis would get off to a good start so that I could. This past off-season, many in the Boston media criticized Theo Epstein's approach to assembling the 2010 team, doing so on the basis that without Jason Bay the Red Sox would lack an "impact" bat. The prevailing wisdom of December 2009 is summed up nicely in this Dan Shaughnessy quote:
The Sox still need a couple of bats. They still need one or two guys like Jason Bay, Matt Holliday, Adrian Gonzalez, or Miguel Cabrera.
Well let's have a look at some of the guys Dan mentions and see how they stack up against Youkilis since the start of the 2008 campaign:
AVG OBP SLG OPS+ J. Bay .281 .381 .522 133 M. Holliday .314 .396 .518 136 A. Gonzalez .279 .386 .526 152 M. Cabrera .311 .378 .549 139 K. Youkilis .311 .409 .567 149
The only player of the bunch even comparable to Youkilis as an offensive player is Gonzalez. The Red Sox had their superstar slugger all along.
Somehow, Baseball Reference got better recently. Using Sean Smith's Wins Above Replacement data, they have compiled WAR totals for all players and are even keeping running tallies in season. In their Play Index feature, you can now sort players by WAR. This represents a major enhancement because now Play Index data (1) incorporates fielding and (2) has a better offensive measure than, say, OPS+ thanks to proper weighting of things like on-base percentage and base running.
Ok, back to Youkilis now. If you asked smart baseball minds who the best four players in baseball have been over the last 2+ seasons, the responses would be more or less unanimous. Nobody questions the great Joe Mauer's place in the game, and the same goes for Albert Pujols. Two middle infielders whose numbers are just shockingly awesome, Chase Utley and Hanley Ramirez, round out the list. From there, however, if you ask folks who the 5th best position player in baseball is, or has been over the last 2+ seasons, that's when the answers start to range.
Certainly Adrian Gonzalez is in the mix, and so too is Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira. It's hard to ignore Evan Longoria, Justin Morneau has really emerged, Ichiro Suzuki plays such a great right field and is a consistent offensive performer. Has David Wright fallen off too much? What about Youkilis's teammate, Dustin Pedroia? These would all be viable guesses, but I wonder how many would say Youkilis?
Well here it is, the top-10 players by WAR since 2008.
I don't have much more to add, other than to point out what's now obvious: that Kevin Youkilis is a true superstar. Given that he is having his best season at the age of 31, in just his 5th year of full-time duty, it's hard not to wonder what might have been had he been given a Big League job earlier in his career. Nonetheless we should all appreciate what Youkilis has become, one of the best players in all of baseball and the caliber of player any championship-aspirant club would do well to build around.
Jamie Moyer & The Hall of Fame
On his Twitter feed last night, Tyler Kepner mentioned that Dallas Braden considered Jamie Moyer to be one of his heroes. Said Braden, "I don't know how old he is. He played catch with Jesus." I won't necessarily deify Moyer in this piece, but I do want to address the notion that Moyer gaining baseball's version of immortality - Hall of Fame enshrinement - is somehow preposterous.
I turned my attention to Moyer's Hall candidacy after I noticed a tweet in Peter Abraham's feed, expressing incredulity at the mere mention of Moyer for the Hall. And I agree with Abraham on one level. Moyer WON'T get any real consideration for the Hall of Fame, so Pete's right in that sense. But it's more interesting to talk about whether or not he deserves the honor, and that conversation means we need to compare him to some other Hall-eligibles.
Joe Posnanski, and you'll be shocked to hear this, wrote a phenomenal blog entry a number of weeks back. It compared Rick Reuschel to Jack Morris and the case Joe made was well-researched, meticulous, and entirely responsive to the core points upon which the pro-Morris crowd tends to base its case. In it, Poz was also careful to note that he didn't want to pick on Morris and that he thought Jack was a very good pitcher.
To even be considered seriously for the Hall of Fame is a great honor, and you have to be a tremendous player to reach such great heights. Jack Morris won 254 games in his career, and he had memorable postseason performances, including one of the greatest ever in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series. He threw 240-plus innings 10 times — only 14 pitchers in baseball history did it more. Whenever I write one of these Morris pieces, it feels like I’m bashing his career, when that is not what I mean to do. He was a terrific pitcher.
I want to offer the very same caveat myself. This is not meant to pick on Morris, but rather it's meant to bring to light the body of work that Jamie Moyer has managed to craft over the course of his Major League Baseball career. Comparing Moyer to Morris, a fringe candidate with some ardent and influential supporters, just seems to make sense. So we'll start high-level, and kick the analysis off with a look at their career numbers.
W L IP BB/9 K/9 K/BB ERA+ Moyer 262 197 3,948 2.6 5.4 2.11 105 Morris 254 186 3,824 3.3 5.8 1.78 105
Without knowing anything else about the two players, right off the bat, you can see that a comparison of the two is very much in play. They look identical, and again, without knowing more, you would give Moyer the edge. But we do know more.
For instance, we know that Morris made five All-Star Games and Moyer made just one. We know that Moyer managed a 4th, 5th and 6th place finish in Cy Young voting but never managed another showing in the top-10. Meanwhile, we know that Morris placed in the top-10 seven times, and even appeared on the MVP ballot five times. So maybe Moyer has just racked up a bunch of innings and some solid numbers, but Morris was a star. Right? Let's look at their respective peaks by comparing each of their five best seasons according to Sean Smith's Wins Above Replacement calculation.
Moyer Yr IP K/BB ERA+ WAR '99 228 2.85 130 5.7 '02 231 2.94 128 5.3 '01 234 3.76 131 5.2 '03 215 1.95 132 3.9 '97 189 2.63 116 3.7 Morris Yr IP K/BB ERA+ WAR '79 198 1.92 133 5.1 '87 266 2.24 126 4.9 '85 257 1.74 122 4.8 '86 267 2.72 127 4.7 '91 247 1.77 125 4.1
Well now, that's interesting. If you tally their respective five best seasons, Moyer totals out at 23.8 and Morris at 23.6, It's easy to forget, or at least it is for me, that Moyer was a total mainstay, a rock, for some of the better baseball teams in recent memory: the turn of the century Seattle Mariners. And I urge you to dig a little deeper, to have a look for yourself. They both have eight 3+ WAR seasons, both have ten 2+ WAR seasons. It's remarkable, but their careers look very similar. Moyer nets out with a more productive overall career thanks to a handful of seasons where he was worth a win or so throughout his 24 seasons.
But still, we know Morris was better, right? Because we know how excellent he was in the 1984 World Series for the Detroit Tigers, when he notched two complete game victories. And we DEFINITELY know about one of the finest baseball games ever pitched, Morris's complete game 10-inning masterpiece to lead the Minnesota Twins over the Atlanta Braves in the 1991 World Series. We tend to block out things like how Morris almost lost the 1992 World Series all by himself for the Toronto Blue Jays. That tends not to factor into his reputation as a clutch post-season pitcher. Instead, as far as 1992 is concerned, Morris was a 21-Game Winner For a World Series Winning Club. All the same, it's fair to say that thanks to his extraordinarily memorable performances in '84 and '91, his reputation is well-earned.
The point is to say that a number of voters look beyond Morris's numbers, they look beyond some of those shoddy post-season outings, and deem him Hall worthy thanks to three games he pitched: two in the '84 Series, one in '91. Rightly or wrongly, he gets extra credit for doing extraordinary things that stick in voters' memories. And that's fair enough. But is there anything in Jamie Moyer's career that might merit him the same sort of consideration over and above his performance record? Well, how about this?
HE'S TAKING A ROTATION TURN FOR THE TEAM THAT'S BEEN BEST IN THE NATIONAL LEAGUE THREE YEARS RUNNING AT THE AGE OF 47!
Moyer has posted a 32-19 record as a slightly above average pitcher since 2008, when he was 45 years-old. And with the way these Phillies pound the ball, above average, dependably taking the ball every fifth day, puts Moyer's team in a great position to win when he starts. He has been a critical contributor during the best Philadelphia Phillies stretch of baseball in history, all while pushing 50-years old. For heaven's sake, the man pitched a complete game shutout last week! If we're doling out extra credit for memorable performances, quirks, things that make a player stand alone, then what Jamie Moyer is doing these days qualifies as far as I'm concerned. To put it in perspective, here's your list of players who have pitched at least 200 innings in their 45-year old season and beyond:
Look at that list! Moyer is handing Nolan Ryan his 45-and-older lunch!
Finally, it's worth noting that Moyer has a good post-season record of his own. Save a disastrous outing against the Milwaukee Brewers in the 2008 ALDS, he's been excellent. In 2001 Moyer went 3-0, including a most impressive outing at Yankee Stadium in Game 3 of the ALCS.
I don't think Jamie Moyer is a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher. I think he's exactly the kind of player who will be, and should be, remembered fondly by baseball fans who had the chance to enjoy watching him pitch. Maybe I will one day tell my grandchildren how Moyer had a devastating change up, pinpoint control, and was an effective pitcher for one of baseball's very best teams well into his late-40's. We might never see another pitcher like Moyer. That's awesome, but he's just not a Hall of Famer.
To me, that's Jack Morris too. He threw a million innings per season during a time when the trend to protect pitchers more and more was beginning to take hold. Wherever he went, his teams won. And my goodness, the 1984 and 1991 World Series! What a career he had.
Sometimes, it's ok just to leave it at that.
Update: I see that Howard Megdal & Jon Daly have tackled the very same topic at The Perpetual Post this morning.
A Passage to Remember
In today's Boston Sunday Globe, Dan Shaughnessy wrote a paragraph that reveals just about all you need to know about his character, his intellect and his baseball acumen. Concerning that last point, his baseball acumen, you'll recall he believes Jack Morris to have been a better pitcher than Curt Schilling.
I don't have any further comment.
It looks like those sun-deprived stat geeks eating pudding in their basement (the same nitwits who insist that homers and RBIs are overrated) outsmarted themselves in assessing this unit. Marco Scutaro is not better than Alex Gonzalez (not to rub it in, but Gonzo has 10 homers already for the Blue Jays). The Cameron-Ellsbury combo hasn’t gotten out of the trainer’s room, and Beltre is emerging as an Edgar Renteria or Rasheed Wallace, take your pick.
Another Red Sox Update
A couple of weeks ago, I tried to detail what was wrong with the Boston Red Sox as best I could. It was pretty straightforward. The Red Sox could not pitch, they could not field, they could not hit. Since April 21st, the Red Sox are 10-6 but with the Yankees and Rays still playing terrific baseball, Boston does not have much to show for their improved play.
The fact remains, however, that the Red Sox have been settling in. Another Yankees blowout last night when the Red Sox seemingly had the starting pitching advantage hurts. So did last weekend's sweep at the hands of the Baltimore Orioles, who had just four wins coming into the set. With their stiff competition and regular lackluster efforts, this 10-6 stretch hasn't felt quite as good as it otherwise might. The doubters sure haven't seemed to quiet down at all.
Coming into the season, those who questioned Boston's chances did so on the grounds that letting Jason Bay walk without replacing his formidable bat with a comparable hitter amounted to an exceedingly large step backwards for the offense. It would be too much to fill with pitching and defense, no matter how highly one might think of Mike Cameron, Adrian Beltre and John Lackey. But let's just take a quick look at how that rationale plays out.
Last year, according to Fangraphs' WAR, Mike Lowell, Bay and David Ortiz contributed a combined 7.0 Wins Above Replacement. Lowell, slowed by mounting injuries, could no longer field his position at 3rd and David Ortiz hit like Neifi Perez for half the year. This season, they would need to replace Bay, find a legitimate everyday 3rd Baseman and, one way or another, get more from the DH position. The rest of the lineup would remain stable, with the one exception that Victor Martinez would be the everyday catcher for a full season.
If you average their 2008 and 2009 seasons, Beltre and Cameron combined for 7.5 wins per year between them. The plan to replace Bay and Lowell with Beltre and Cameron, while giving Ortiz, Lowell, and maybe Jeremy Hermida a chance to offer more production from the Designated Hitter position, was to amount to a better collection of position players.
And guess what? It has! Boston's 114 OPS+ is 2nd in Major League Baseball and 9 points better than the 105 figure they posted in 2009 when Bay was in the mix. Their .355 wOBA would be their best total as a team since the 2004 team managed a .358 total. Just like 2009, they're 3rd in the American League in runs scored. By any measure, this offense has been phenomenal.
Defensively, they've just been middle of the road but that's attributable more to injuries than anything. As any Red Sox fan can attest, whether he is at left field, center field or heavens, shortstop, Bill Hall does not belong on a Major League Baseball field. The 168 combined innings Hall, Jonathan Van Every and Darnell McDonald "contributed" in center field to date have been a complete joke. With either Jacoby Ellsbury or Cameron playing everyday, those 168 innings would never have come to pass. I still believe this is a top-notch defensive team.
That brings me to the starting pitching. You want to have a look at the difference between this year's team and last year's? See below:
K/9 BB/9 K/BB ERA xFIP 2009 7.43 3.00 2.48 4.63 4.17 2010 6.95 3.65 1.90 5.10 4.39
Those numbers are just for Boston's starters, but keep in mind what we are really looking at there. This season, Daisuke Matsuzaka's delayed return notwithstanding, Boston's ducks were in a row. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, Lackey, and Clay Buchholz were healthy and ready to go, and Tim Wakefield would tend to Dice-K's spot until he returned. Last year, that top line that looks so much better than the 2010 numbers, well that's filled with Brad Penny and John Smoltz and Junichi Tazawa and Michael Bowden and Paul Byrd. The 2009 unit that so badly outperformed Boston's starting pitching to date in 2010 was not exactly the 1995 Atlanta Braves (well, except for Smoltz).
The consistent excellence of Lester and Beckett anchored the Red Sox rotation in 2009. Respectively, they ranked 5th and 7th in the AL in WAR among starters. This season, Boston's top two starters have been Lester and Buchholz, who rank 18th and 20th in the AL thus far. Beckett has been one of the very worst pitchers in baseball to date, sporting a 59 ERA+.
Beckett's awful start has been mystifying. Digging into his Pitch Type data on Fangraphs, he is throwing fewer fastballs and curve balls than ever, and replacing them with more cutters and change ups. The result has been a big drop in strikeouts, a big hike in walks and much harder contact according to his Line Drive percentage allowed.
There is some hope. Beckett's 56.9% LOB rate is absurdly low. That will improve. Likewise, his .365 BABIP allowed is bound to normalize as well. Better luck will make Beckett a decent option for the Red Sox, but they obviously are counting on him for much, much more. John Farrell is a highly regarded pitching coach in Major League circles, and what he can do to get Beckett right will go a long way in determining whether or not the Red Sox can climb back into this race.
On May 8th, the Red Sox sit in fourth place, at .500, and six games out of a playoff spot. I hope that I have managed to demonstrate that their poor play to date has been attributable to terrible starting pitching and little more. So, if you're a pundit who thought the Red Sox might struggle because their rotation would not cut it, take a bow. You've nailed it thus far. Otherwise, Red Sox doubters, quiet down please.
Geovany Soto's Ridiculous Start to 2010
It's April 29, the Cubs are 10-12, and they sit 2.5 games back of the Philadelphia Phillies and San Francisco Giants for the National League Wild Card. They're 4.5 games back of the hot-starting St. Louis Cardinals in their own division. It's been a mixed bag thus far for the Cubs, with slow starts by key players and bullpen woes mitigated in part by surprisingly strong performances from players they did not expect as much from. On the whole, despite coming off of a home series loss to the Washington Nationals, I think the Cubs should feel encouraged by how the season has played out to date. When your biggest problems are Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez, there's hope.
No player has contributed more to the Cubs winning efforts thus far in 2010 than Geovany Soto, as heartening a sign as any for Cubs fans. After a banner 2008, he fell off badly last season. Since he only had two years of full-time service to his name, it was hard to tell which Soto to expect. Well the 27-year old catcher has started the year at a .362/.516/.511 clip and while I don't think a .516 on-base represents the player Soto really is, his torrid start would seem to suggest that he is very much capable of another 2008.
How Soto has managed this start has been a case study in the virtuous cycle that is a solid approach at the plate. Let's dig into Fangraphs' plate discipline stats for Soto. We'll look at his 2010 numbers versus an averaged figure for 2008 and 2009.
Here's a quick rundown of the definitions of each of the stats listed:
* O-Swing%: The percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone.
O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% Zone% SwStr% '08-'09: 18.6 64.7 41.9 50.2 9.7 2010: 12.1 52.9 28.9 41.1 5.8
Here's what we learn from this: Soto is swinging at way fewer pitches outside of the strike zone, swinging at fewer pitches inside the strike zone, swinging less overall, seeing far fewer pitches inside the strike zone and incurring far fewer swinging strikes. What's more interesting is the inter-related nature of these numbers.
If you swing at fewer pitches outside of the strike zone (balls), you can be more selective within the strike zone while up in the count. If you aren't swinging at balls or difficult-to-hit strikes, you will walk more frequently and make better contact when you do swing. In Soto's case, this is revealed in his ridiculous 36.8 line drive percentage and unsustainable .417 batting average on balls in play (BABIP).
Basically, he's been perfect at home plate this season. In full counts, Soto has hit .333/.684/.333, compared to the 2009 NL average of .235/.475/.380. Unbelievably, he's posted a .500 on-base percentage in 18 plate appearances after the count ran to 1-2. Again, the 2009 NL average on-base percentage after the count was 1-2 in was .234. Basically, while most hitters more or less freak out and ditch selectivity altogether while down in the count, Soto has been unfazed.
This is all very unlikely to keep up, of course, but it's hard to imagine some of Soto's new approach won't stick. He seems to be coming to the plate with a real plan this year, and that's to swing less. The result is that he's hitting more, better than any other catcher in baseball this April.
What's Wrong With the Red Sox?
Baseball's simplicity can be frustrating sometimes. Teams score runs by avoiding outs and efficiently advancing runners by mixing in power. Preventing runs means amassing outs without allowing too many base-runners or extra base hits. If you consistently score runs better than you prevent them, you win. AND THAT'S IT. As a Manager or General Manager, your job is to assemble personnel positioned to consistently score more runs than they allow. At the beginning of the season, it appeared that the Red Sox had such a team. 13 games into the 2010 season, it still appears the Red Sox have such a team.
So what about baseball's simplicity? Why is it frustrating? The 2010 Boston Red Sox serve as a great example in that as much as we want to stretch for an explanation for why they are off to such an awful start, the answer is much simpler than we'd like to think. It's because a bunch of really good baseball players are playing really poorly. That doesn't make for very good copy or talk radio, though.
All one has to do is look at the team that demolished the Sox this Patriots Day weekend, the Rays, who went 11-16 to start last season and never recovered. In the AL East, you just can’t be 4-9 after 13 games, 6 games behind the Rays and 5 1/2 in back of the Yankees, and think it’s going to be easy to come back.
Everything is going wrong right now.
Here you have two attempts to diagnose structural problems with the way the Red Sox approached this past off-season. And what is the evidence that Boston faltered in putting together this roster? Why it's their first 13 games of course. If only the Red Sox had retained Jason Bay instead of Mike Cameron, then everything would be better (don't tell Cafardo and Silverman that Bay is off to a .245/.351/.327 start with the Mets).
Boston won 95 games last year, lost Bay, added a top-20 pitcher in John Lackey, an upgraded shortstop in Marco Scutaro and two veteran top-notch defenders in Mike Cameron and Adrian Beltre. You could argue whether or not those moves amounted to an improved team or not, but even if you come down on the side that they did not improve, nobody thought they would play .300 baseball and hit, pitch and field like some of the very worst teams in baseball. The team's composition is not the issue. They're just playing terribly. Just consider the following:
At the outset of the season, if you knew that even two or three of those 12 bullets would unfold, you would have known the Red Sox would struggle to start the year. It's the combination, THAT EVERYTHING IS GOING WRONG, that has made it so disastrous. I listed those bullets out to evidence that the Red Sox are simply playing really badly, and that their first 13 games are not an indictment on how this roster was constructed.
None of this to say that their start might not portend some problems. Martinez has looked disastrous behind home plate, his ineptitude tossing runners out turning Red Sox games into veritable track meets for opposing teams. Age could be a factor too, as Cameron (37) is already out for an extended period of time while players like Ortiz (34), Drew (34), Scutaro (34) and Beltre (31) all struggle. Finally, injuries of any sort can threaten a team's hopes. Ellsbury missed his 8th straight game last night and who knows how Daisuke Matsuzaka will hold up? All of these are legitimate concerns, albeit ones that applied to last year's roster too. They couldn't throw out anyone on the base paths in 2009 either, still had an oldish team and battled injuries all season long. Again, back to my point. It's hard to fault structural problems with the way this roster was assembled for Boston's slow start.
In the midst of a 4-10 stretch in 2004, Globe scribe Tony Massarotti, then at the Herald, thought he knew what was wrong with the Red Sox. He titled his article "Moneyball is going bankrupt" and wrote at length about how the Red Sox had a philosophical problem. They didn't understand what it took to play winning baseball consistently. Just like Michael Silverman thinks that "run prevention" is a bad thing as it relates to the 2010 Red Sox, Mazz disliked how Boston eschewed small ball, a style of play he favored.
In the meantime, while the Red Sox just stand around and wait, the Yankees try to create. New York stole three more bases last night, bringing its series total to seven, and had attempted nine steals in the series; the Red Sox have attempted none. New York has a sacrifice bunt; the Red Sox have none. The Yankees have struck out six times; the Red Sox have struck out 19.
These are the sorts of things that sportswriters come up with, accountability free, when things are going badly. Boston was playing its worst baseball of the year when Mazz wrote that piece. As far as Mazz was concerned, it was not because they were simply playing like crap, but because they were not bunting enough. At best, it's terrible analysis. At its worst it's rabble-rousing. Whatever the case, things would "line up perfectly" enough for the Red Sox to win 98 games and their first World Series since 1918 in 2004.
In 2008, the Yankees won 87 games and finished in 3rd place in the AL East. Robinson Cano and Derek Jeter struggled, Hideki Matsui was not himself and Melky Cabrera was a disaster. Andy Pettitte did not perform like he typically would. It was no indictment necessarily of the roster but rather a team that exemplified the greatest truth when it comes to sports front office management: that projecting human performance, inherently, is subject to all sorts of pitfalls.
Maybe the Red Sox will bounce back, maybe they won't. As I see it, the most likely scenario is that they start to play like they can but this hole proves too much to overcome. I would say the next likeliest outcome is that the Red Sox are firing on all cylinders at some point when the Rays or Yanks falter over a two-week stretch, allowing Boston to climb back into the race. Finally, and this really is entirely possible, maybe this year too many guys have off years. If that's the case, the Red Sox might not win 80 games. And you know why that will be? Simple, of course: because a bunch of good players will have failed to play well.
Stakeholders - Philadelphia Phillies
Since late February, a collection of bloggers, analysts, mainstream writers and senior front office personnel have joined us to discuss a specific team's hopes for 2010. Some have been in-depth, some light, some analytical, some less so but the series has been well received and we were thrilled about the lineup of guests we were able to attract. While it was intended as a preview series, time got away from us and so we are just going to keep at it until we have finished all 30 teams. We may even keep at it throughout the season. Today it's Tommy Bennett on the Philadelphia Phillies.
Patrick Sullivan: So the Phillies have Roy Halladay. That's a very good thing as far as the 2010 club is concerned. But they also lost Cliff Lee, and there are some that viewed the move as just kind of wheel-spinning and unnecessary when you look at all the pieces exchanged. What were your thoughts?
Tommy Bennertt: The answer to this question depends entirely on how you frame the tradeoff. Compare the deal the Phillies now have Halladay signed to ($60M for 2011-2013) is almost certainly better than the deal that the Phillies could have reached with Cliff Lee, and I think it's pretty clear that Halladay is the superior pitcher. However, when you disaggregate the deal that brought Halladay to town from the one that sent Lee to Seattle, it looks a little bit more questionable.
Ultimately, I view the two trades together as a shifting forward of wins from four (or so) years in the future to the immediate present and next two years. Those two years are critical for the Phillies, because that's when you'll have Howard, Rollins, Werth, and the rest of the core together on the same team. As much as possible, you want to stack your wins in the same seasons, and I think this helps them do that. That being said, I think the prospects the Phillies gave up--especially Kyle Drabek and Michael Taylor--are going to be good players.
TB: I thought Polly was a fine pickup. From the looking that I've done, the best bargains are usually found later in the winter, but it comes at the considerable cost of certainty. What Amaro did was trade value for certainty, and with a team that is this ready to compete, I think that is a completely justifiable tradeoff. The transition from second to third won't be as hard on Polanco as it would be on some other players (because of his defensive skill set, most notably his arm). Also, he's going to have a natural comfort level in Philadelphia from playing there in the past that frankly a lot of other guys would not. You can deny the measurability of intangibles all you want, but until you've survived the boos raining down from the upper decks, you can't really say you'll hack it in Philly.
PS: Ok, I'll stop with the negativity. Let's now discuss how the Phillies sure seem to have an awesome baseball team. Talk about Cole Hamels. I am already hearing some in the mainstream talking about how Hamels looks as sharp as ever and how he is poised for a big "bounce-back" year. We know the truth though, right? He will probably be really good again because, well, he is really good.
TB: Things that were very close to the same or better from '08 to '09 about Cole Hamels: K/9, BB/9, HR/9, GB%, FIP, SIERA.
Things that were worse from '08 to '09 about Cole Hamels: Strand rate, ERA, BABIP, IP.
Hamels is one of those cases that will really test your faith in DIPS theory. If you would rather rely on strand rate, ERA and BABIP, then you can say he's worse now than he was last offseason. Otherwise, just relax. It's fine. He's a great pitcher.
One impulse might be to say that Hamels was regressing to the mean after a stellar '08, but even that isn't really true when you look at his peripherals. He basically repeated every skill-based achievement last year except innings pitched that he had in '08. Like I said, though, Philly fans are fickle and there are some things you just can't get away with.
PS: Can we get Chase Utley an MVP award? Want to talk about him? How good is he and how good has he been? Want to put some historical context around it? He's terrific, of course, but I would guess there are still some who think that he's been the 3rd best position player throughout this great Phillies run.
TB: I have this theory that historically great second basemen are always underrated. The best second basemen ever (Joe Morgan, Rogers Hornsby, Nap Lajoie, Eddie Collins) are almost criminally underrated as ballplayers. Even Jackie Robinson, one of the most celebrated players in baseball history, isn't given the respect he deserves for his actual play on the field. So I think Utley has a bit of an uphill climb.
On the other hand, he's basically doing all the things you need to do to become a top-20, and perhaps top-10 or higher, second baseman all time. Basically, he's got a good shot at passing Sandberg and Alomar (and I think you can make a reasonable case that he'll do both), and once he's there he's basically in the top 10 all-time. I have a hard time conceiving of a Hall of Fame that doesn't include the ten best players at each position. In other words, barring injury, I think he's got a legitimate shot at the Hall, and a fortiori, a shot at a minimum of one MVP award.
Let me put it another way for perspective: Chase Utley is the best player on the Phillies and he's the best player in baseball that doesn't have a Cy Young, a Rookie of the Year, or an MVP award. Then again, he's got the most glorious television expletive in Philadelphia history.
PS: Ok, 2010. What do you expect of the Phillies? Will they get a serious challenge in the NL East? Do they have another title run in them?
TB:I'm legitimately worried about the Braves. Their weakest positions on offense are probably second base (Martin Prado) and right field (Jason Heyward). Those are still two pretty darn good players, and their pitching staff will do enough so that they'll win around 87-88 games. If Tommy Hanson doesn't hit a stumbling block, I think they can survive that thumping sound you hear (Jair Jurrjens falling back to earth).
If the Phils can hold off the Braves (or at least secure the Wild Card), I'm not sure there's a team they are likely to face before the World Series that would be able to go 1-2 like Halladay-Hamels in a short series. The bullpen could always, however, make things interesting. Call it Halladay, Hamels, rain, and pray for a complete game.
Stakeholders and Beyond
When we decided back in February to forego our traditional roundtable format for this season's previews, there were a number of drivers. First, there are lots of previews everywhere around the web and we didn't want to go with something undifferentiated. Second, we thought the interview format with various baseball constituents would make for good reading. Third, candidly, we were all a bit short on time. Between travel, work, work travel, and school, we all had schedules not exactly conducive to preview season.
So Stakeholders seemed like it would be a good way to go. And it was. Some smart baseball folks have given it high praise and if you've missed it, here is the list of teams we have featured thus far (we will have the Philadelphia Phillies up a bit later today, too):
New York Yankees - Cliff Corcoran
We have fallen woefully short of our goal of having all 30 teams done in time for the season and for that, I take personal responsibility. I spearheaded the initiative and for a whole bunch of reasons, did not finish it in time for the beginning of baseball season. BUT, as I said, we have been thrilled with the output. So we are going to keep after it, finish up all 30 teams, and then I plan to continue the series from time to time throughout the season.
Our readers are best served when we're engaging other baseball websites, writers and front office personnel. There's no reason that it has to be just a preview series. Stakeholders, though incomplete, was a success. Because we think it was a success, you can expect more quick interviews like the ones you have seen over the last 5 weeks in the coming weeks and months.
Speaking of engaging other writers, kudos to Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe. Abraham highlighted in today's edition the Tufts University course, Sabermetrics: The Objective Analysis of Baseball. In the piece, Abraham mentions our very own Jeremy Greenhouse of Tufts, who, as you all know, has been doing groundbreaking work right here since his very first post. Abraham gets extra credit for running the piece on the same day that his colleague Dan Shaughnessy wrote his laziest mail-in of anti-stat drivel to date, which is saying something when you consider all the drivel that has come to define Shaughnessy's body of work.
Finally, still along the lines of baseball writers enaging one another, the guys from the hilarious and insightful Yankees blog Fack Youk asked me to preview the Boston Red Sox in a Stakeholders-style preview of their own. Go on and check it out if you'd like.
Happy Baseball, everyone. It's here.
Stakeholders - Milwaukee Brewers
From now through the beginning of the regular season, we will not be posting in-depth round-tables previewing each division like we have in years past. Instead we will feature brief back-and-forths with "stakeholders" from all 30 teams. A collection of bloggers, analysts, mainstream writers and senior front office personnel will join us to discuss a specific team's hopes for 2010. Some will be in-depth, some light, some analytical, some less so but they should all be fun to read and we are thrilled about the lineup of guests we have teed up. Today it's Larry Granillo on the Milwaukee Brewers.
Patrick Sullivan: Well let me just ask you right off the bat, Larry, what do you make of the 2010 Brewers in comparison to the 2009 club? Last year was fairly tumultuous from a personnel standpoint, most notably evidenced by J.J. Hardy's tenure as a Brewer coming to an end unceremoniously. How's this year's club looking?
Larry Granillo: I don't know exactly what happened with JJ Hardy last year, but it reeks of mismanagement. And, frankly, coming from the Doug Melvin regime, that's incredibly disappointing. Sure, JJ was hitting poorly, but his defense more than made up for it. To top it off, the demotion to Nashville, and the ensuing (blatant) service-time manipulation, wasn't even all that fruitful, as Melvin was only able to turn JJ into Carlos Gomez. I've heard that JJ isn't all that pleased with the Brewers organization these days, and I can't blame him one bit.
As for the rest of the 2010 Brewers, it's hard to say. The offense, despite the loss of Mike Cameron, should be pretty healthy still. When you have Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder hitting back to back for 150+ games a year, that's how things tend to be. But even a high-powered offense is helpless when you have the worst pitching staff in baseball, and the 80-win 2009 Brewers are pretty good proof of that. The 2010 staff isn't all that different - or, at least, isn't all that better talent-wise.
The biggest hope I have for the 2010 Brewers - and I think this is true for a lot of fans - is that the 2009 staff was *so* bad that it's not likely to happen again. So many pitchers had career-worst years - Parra, Bush, Looper, Suppan - that even a little regression to the mean will make the team better. If that does happen, and Braun and Fielder keep hitting the hide off the ball, then an 85-87 win season doesn't seem all that crazy. And, in this division, that might be all that they need.
PS: How good is Yovani Gallardo? How good do the Brewers need him to be in order to contend for post-season play?
LG: The one bright spot in the 2009 Brewers' rotation was the young ace, Yovani Gallardo. He pitched brilliantly in the first half, including being a major part of one of the best games I've ever seen live, but faded in the second-half. He tends to overthrow the ball at times, as young power pitchers are wont to do, and that takes its toll in the form of increased walks and high pitch counts. He'll have to learn to control that as he matures if he wants to be the superstar that we all know is in him. Luckily for us, he is only 24 years old.
How good is Yovani Gallardo? Let's just say that the Brewers aren't too far away from having two homegrown, legitimate MVP contenders and one homegrown, legitimate Cy Young contender playing together every year. I can't wait.
PS: What do you think Milwaukee's best shot at the playoffs is? Will it be easier to snag the Wild Card or to somehow catch St. Louis in a light-looking NL Central?
LG: Neither is much of a given, or even all that likely, but I'd have to say that catching the Cardinals is the Crew's best shot at the 2010 playoffs. The Cards took the division last year with 91 victories, and that was with Cy Young-caliber seasons from their top two pitchers and some memorable years by a few role players/rookies. And though I consider them (easily) the best team in the Central, I don't see them matching that total this year. It's entirely possible that an 86- or 88-win team could win this division. The Wild Card is bound to be more competitive than that.
PS: Try and put into perspective for Milwaukee fans and fans of other clubs just how good of a hitting pair Ryan Braun and Prince Fieder make. I mean, it's bordering on historic, wouldn't you say?
LG: I try to steer clear of words like "historic" just because I don't trust my own biases, but Prince and Braun are something, aren't they? The best thing about watching these two play everyday is just how consistent they are. You might see them pressing a bit in the occasional at-bat (those Miller Park fences look awfully close at times), but, for the most part, they keep true to the same approach day-in and day-out. There's no doubt in my mind that it helps the club win more games. I wouldn't say the Prince/Braun combo is on par with the likes of Griffey/A-Rod or Aaron/Matthews yet, but a duo like this comes along very rarely and we Brewers fans are lucky to see it. (Maybe they're a power-hitting version of the 1970s Yount/Molitor pair?)
PS: What are your expectations for Rickie Weeks?
LG: Sadly, this could be the 3rd year in a row you've asked that question, and I wouldn't realize it. There's a lot to like about Rickie Weeks, and his recent track-record seems to show an improving ballplayer. The optimism and loyalty the Brewers have shown him is definitely grounded in something.
He's also coming off his second wrist injury in the last three years (one on each wrist), and we all know how dangerous those can be. When it comes to Rickie Weeks, you have to remember this: an injury-plagued, 40-game season seems to be about as likely as an All-Star caliber campaign. Of course, with this being his age-27 season, the Brewers' loyalty to Rickie could be running out here in 2010. Maybe he can use that as a motivator.
PS: Talk a little more about some of the new regulars for the Brew Crew. I have four players in mind. How do you feel about Alcides Escobar, Carlos Gomez, Randy Wolf and Doug Davis? Comment on the Brewers' catching, too, if you would. Can't get worse than Jason Kendall, right?
LG: I'm pretty stoked about the Escobar era. The kid can flash some leather (though it should be noted that JJ wasn't exactly Adam Dunn out there). I'm not convinced that his bat will translate to the major league level all that well, but there is some potential there. The defense is the key, though. When you're pitching stinks, it's always nice to have someone who knows how to field the ball playing behind you.
Same goes for Gomez. His defense is great and will make the pitching staff better, but his bat has a long way to go. I will say this: I was disappointed when the Brewers traded JJ Hardy straight-up to the Twins for Gomez. I was disappointed when the club made it clear that they would not re-sign Mike Cameron. But I was never disappointed that Carlos Gomez is on the team. Now we just have to hope that he can improve that hitting a bit.
The biggest positive that the JJ-for-Gomez trade gave the Brewers was the $10 million the club saved by making Gomez the starting CF. Of course, they then went out and spent that money on the 33-yr old Randy Wolf who was coming off a career-year in Dodger Stadium. It's probably not the best signing, but, given the club's position and the lack of quality pitchers on the market, it was probably the best move they could make. He should help give the team some stability in the middle of the rotation.
As will Doug Davis. Davis is no one's idea of top-of-the-rotation pitcher, but he's a middle-of-the-pack innings eater. That'll make a difference with this staff. The biggest positive about the Wolf and Davis signings, though, is that they each mean fewer starts by the likes of Braden Looper (cut) and Jeff Suppan (on the "disabled" list and in danger of being cut). As I said before, that just may be enough for the 2010 Brewers.
PS: Thanks a lot, Larry!
Stakeholders - Tampa Bay Rays
From now through the beginning of the regular season, we will not be posting in-depth round-tables previewing each division like we have in years past. Instead we will feature brief back-and-forths with "stakeholders" from all 30 teams. A collection of bloggers, analysts, mainstream writers and senior front office personnel will join us to discuss a specific team's hopes for 2010. Some will be in-depth, some light, some analytical, some less so but they should all be fun to read and we are thrilled about the lineup of guests we have teed up. Today it's R.J. Anderson on the Tampa Bay Rays.
Patrick Sullivan: I know it's a bit trite at this point but since we touched on it in the Yanks and Sox previews, I figure we might as well get it out of the way. Talk about the AL East and what it takes for a team like the Rays to compete.
R.J. Anderson: Luck is the most important factor besides talent. Look at the 2008 Rays and compare them to some of those teams the Blue Jays featured; that Rays team was better, but those Jays teams were nothing to sneeze at, and yet they only finished above third once in their entire run. Even the Yankees need some good luck in the sense that they need to avoid bad luck. Variability comes into play and -- if I may borrow a tired cliché – that’s why we play the games.
The most given answer is money. Not necessarily payroll, after all, the Rays are sporting a franchise high amount of it right now, but revenue. The truth is the Rays will never compete with the revenue streams that Boston and New York has. And part of that is natural. They don’t need a top five revenue stream to compete most years; they just need their market to come through for them. That leads to another often asked question: If the Tampa Bay area won’t back one of the best-ran organizations in all of sports producing a winning product in the toughest division in baseball, then what will they support?
PS: The Rays look excellent again in 2010, but to me that's because I think there are some real improvement candidates and some younger players who figure to be bigger impact guys. They also will probably play closer in line with their pythag. But with all that said, what did you think of their off-season? Did they leave an opportunity or two to make bigger improvements on the table? Or, Rafael Soriano aside, was more or less sitting tight a wise move given all the talent in the organization?
RA: It seems most previews dismiss the Rays’ off-season as a bunch of nothing. Their main non-Rafael Soriano addition was Kelly Shoppach. Not a sexy name, but he’s a league average hitter at catcher and turns into Albert Pujols against lefties. They also re-signed the ever useful Gabe Kapler, and added Hank Blalock and Joaquin Benoit on minor league deals.
There were talks with just about every left-handed designated hitter type on the market. From Johnny Damon to Russell Branyan to Jim Thome; Blalock won out, probably because he came on a minor league deal, but obviously they held interest in adding someone just in case Pat Burrell continued his exodus to the island of replacement level players.
Clearly the front office felt comfortable rolling with what they have. Why not? The 2009 team was better than their record suggests. There’ s also the depth that you reference. How many teams would be able to trade Scott Kazmir, Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel, and Mitch Talbot within a calendar year and still have a well above average rotation?
PS: B.J. Upton and Pat Burrell. What do you expect of them in 2010?
RA: Boy, that’s a tough one.
Upton has looked fantastic in spring training, not statistically, but taking the ball the opposite way and avoiding pitchforks and hatchets from the locals. Really, people are concerned about whether he’s going to spend this season pouting about losing in arbitration and it’s ridiculous. After his outstanding 2007 season, the Rays actually lowered his salary and how did he respond? By posting his best career WAR, and doing it with a torn labrum. He’s become Tampa Bay’s version of J.D. Drew, only with “thug” undertones. Totally looking forward to when Upton signs a huge free agent deal and then gets slammed by the locals for being greedy and money hungry.
As for Burrell, you’d have to think he’s going to regress against lefties if not overall. He was also dealing with a neck injury for most of the season and boy, let’s hope that neck injury really took its toll. I guess the good news, is that even if he doesn’t, the Rays do have some alternative options. Blalock will pound righties, although he’s nothing special. There’s always the option of having someone like Matt Joyce DH while Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez (or Kapler) play the field.
Plus they have players like Ryan Shealy and Dan Johnson sitting around in Durham. Make no mistake, these aren’t options of Frank Thomas or Edgar Martinez stature, but there’s enough of them laying around that someone might play the role of 2008’s Eric Hinske or, select your deity willing, 2007’s Carlos Pena. They might be run by Wall Street alumni, but they don’t follow the Black-Scholes model on risk assessment.
As for expectations, I think Upton returns to his four win self and gets chastised for not smiling enough. Conservatively, I’m just hoping Burrell turns into league average hitter.
PS: Understanding you can't know what will happen on the injury front, what will the starting rotation be on September 1st?
RA: Presumably the same as it will be on April 5th. Jeremy Hellickson will warrant a spot eventually, but who do you bump for him? Between Jeff Niemann injury history and unlikelihood to replicate 2009 he seems like the ugly duckling of the bunch. James Shields is going nowhere, maybe Matt Garza if he gets too expensive, but that seems a little ways out. Wade Davis and David Price seem unlikely to be dealt too. Plus Niemann makes Steve Trachsel look decisive and quick-paced on the mound. There’s a reason he’s called the Big Nyquil.
PS: Finally, talk about the near and long-term picture for the Rays. How much will their financial situation hurt them? Is there enough talent stockpiled so that it doesn't matter? Do you think a World Series window closes this year, or can they compete at a 95-win level - seemingly what it takes in the AL East, for years to come?
RA: The ludicrous thing about the Rays is that they’ll probably lose Rafael Soriano, Carlos Pena, and Carl Crawford this off-season. And when they do and replace them with Alex Torres, Matthew Sweeney (or whomever), and Desmond Jennings, they will project to be an above .500 team. Lots of things can change in a matter of 12 weeks, so trying to project what happens in 12 months is futile.
Even so, I think I can go on record and suggest that 95 wins is more likely to occur in 2010 than 2011, but I don’t know. They have $40 million coming off the books, and yeah, payroll will drop, but of course it will. They can take half of that freed cash and sign a first baseman who gets frozen out of the market and you might be looking at a 83-85 win team that still has upside and has enough cash to make a splash when they feel the time is right.
Even when this team is down, it won’t be in the cellar. The player development and scouting departments are simply too good to produce teams of that quality anytime soon.
PS: Thanks a lot, R.J.
Stakeholders - Boston Red Sox
From now through the beginning of the regular season, we will not be posting in-depth round-tables previewing each division like we have in years past. Instead we will feature brief back-and-forths with "stakeholders" from all 30 teams. A collection of bloggers, analysts, mainstream writers and senior front office personnel will join us to discuss a specific team's hopes for 2010. Some will be in-depth, some light, some analytical, some less so but they should all be fun to read and we are thrilled about the lineup of guests we have teed up. Today it's Boston Red Sox Assistant Director of Baseball Operations, Zack Scott.
Patrick Sullivan: How many running jokes do you guys have going in the office about the meme that you have somehow chosen defense over offense? If you were to read some of the Boston press, you would think that you guys were going to struggle to score 600 runs this year.
Zack Scott: It’s all about expectations. Our 2003-05 clubs set the bar high by leading the league in scoring each year, averaging 940 runs per season. Although we haven’t maintained that level of production, we had top 3 offenses in each of the last three seasons and I don’t see why we can’t have similar results in 2010. Jason Bay was one of our best hitters and replacing his offense will be a challenge, but Mike Cameron and Jeremy Hermida will give us back some of that production and we hope that the upgrade to Marco Scutaro at short and a full season of Victor Martinez make up for any remaining difference. I’m guessing that I just set myself up for some “Jose Offerman will replace Mo Vaughn’s OBP” jokes in the comments section.
It is funny to me that some members of the media forget or just ignore the fact that we won a championship in ’07 with a team that finished 3rd in runs scored and 1st in runs allowed. That club pretty much went wire to wire because we were a balanced team and we’re striving for that again in 2010.
PS: The 2007 comp is one I have tried to make a few times. Sure there was a totally unconscious David Ortiz pacing that lineup, but the 2009 versions of Kevin Youkilis, Victor Martinez and J.D. Drew would have been the 2nd, 3rd and 4th best hitters in that World Series winning lineup.
Speaking of 2007, one of the keys to that team's formula was a total shut-down bullpen. Understanding that these things can be difficult to project, what do you think of the 2010 relief corps? If I can be candid, for the first time in recent memory I think there are some legitimate questions out there. There seem to be enough solid arms in the organization for it to work itself out as the season progresses but in the interim, the onus is on Tito to figure out his bullpen personnel by trial. What are your impressions of the relief corps? Do the steps back that guys like Jonathan Papelbon, Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen and Ramon Ramirez took in 2009 concern you?
ZS: It’s ironic that you praised our ’07 pen while expressing concern about this year’s group. Heading into the ’07 season we felt good about our lineup and starting rotation but didn’t quite know what to expect from guys like Okajima and Delcarmen.
Regarding our 2010 bullpen, I expect it to be a strength and think there are only a few teams that can match it. I realize that there were some performance blips but we have a good mix of power and experience. It will be especially interesting to watch the ongoing development of Daniel Bard. I also think that we improved our depth from a year ago by bringing in guys like Boof Bonser, Scott Atchison, and some solid minor league free agents.
PS: When you say you expect the bullpen to be a "strength", do you think that relative to your MLB competition? Or do you mean relative to other components of the club like your starting pitching, hitting or defense?
ZS: As I said before, I think that we are well-rounded team that’s strong in all areas, but our pen is especially strong relative to our competition. If you look at the top 4 or 5 relievers on each club, it’s hard to find a group that’s clearly better. I’m not saying that we’re a slam dunk to lead the league in all relevant categories or that we don’t have questions, but I have confidence in our core group of guys at this point.
PS: Got it. Right now, things look pretty set for your roster and how playing time figures to break down. I understand that any number of things can happen over the course of a season that impact playing time, but is there something that might not be on Red Sox' fans radars that might be a pleasant surprise? Maybe Bonser proves he's healthy and contributes in a 2008 Justin Masterson sort of role? Maybe Jed Lowrie regains his form when given the opportunity? Anything along those lines come to mind?
ZS: It’s difficult to anticipate surprises (oxymoron?), but I’m curious to see how Boof responds to our training staff’s shoulder strengthening program and working with John Farrell. He has always showed good stuff but is working to improve his consistency. Boof was drafted out of high school and was quickly regarded as a top prospect with the Giants, so it feels like he has been around for a long time. It’s hard to remember that he’s still only 28.
I’m also interested to see how Bill Hall adjusts to his role with us. His athleticism and versatility allow him to protect us in the infield and outfield. He has obviously struggled at the plate in recent seasons, but Tito will be able to put Bill in a better position to succeed and perhaps his new role relieves some pressure to perform.
PS: Want to discuss life in the AL East in 2010? Seems pretty hard out there....
ZS: The Yankees and Rays are two of the best teams in the game so we definitely have a tough road ahead, but this is nothing new since ’08. Assuming good health I expect all three of us to compete for a spot in the post-season which means it will be a long winter for one of us. The Orioles are on the right track and although the Jays may take a step back this year, they made some solid moves this winter that will help them in the future. I expect this division to be one of the toughest for many years.
PS: What about two players whose performance analysis can be challenging, Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz. In Ellsbury's case, I had become resigned to lesser expectations after 2008. He would be a good player, a starter on a championship level club but not much better. But then he stole 70 bases last year without being caught very often and now he moves to left field where he figures to offer more defensive value. Can he continue to swipe bases like he did last year? Can he tack on more power? What about his defense?
In Buchholz's case, to put it simply, his Major League numbers just haven't translated from his dominant Minor League career. I understand that he's young and should get better with experience, but how do you regard Clay Buchholz? How good is he and how good can he be?
ZS: We obviously hope that both players continue to develop and improve with more experience. Jacoby is already an elite base stealer so I don’t see why he can’t continue to perform at that level as long as he’s healthy. At the plate he had success immediately and then struggled when opposing pitchers got a better feel for his strengths and weaknesses. Like most young players, it was then up to Jacoby to make the appropriate adjustments and he did just that. He’ll need to continue doing that in order to take another step forward. If you’ve ever seen Jacoby take bp, he puts on a pretty good show and definitely has above average raw power. He has it in him to hit more home runs but I think we’ll be happy if he improves his ability to get on base and continues to impact the game with his speed on the bases and in the field. Much was made about his move to LF with some members of the media implying that we don’t think he’s a good CF. That is far from the truth. He’s an above average outfielder who will continue to improve. Playing Mike Cameron is center is more about how we feel about Mike’s ability and experience and what outfield configuration makes sense collectively for our guys. I’m sure Jacoby will get some time in center this year and we don’t think playing LF will have a negative impact on his long-term development in center.
Clay’s path has been similar to Jacoby’s – he was dominant in the minors and had early big league success but struggled the following season. Clay didn’t turn things around as quickly as Jacoby, but he took a significant step forward in ’09. After experiencing failure for the first time in his career in ‘08, he improved his fastball command and slider and gained confidence in all of his pitches. Regarding his future potential, Clay certainly has an impressive repertoire of pitches and he’s still learning how to attack Major League hitters. It’s great that we have guys like Beckett, Lackey, and Lester to take some of the pressure off pitchers with less experience but also to create a competitive and educational environment. These guys are great resources for young pitchers and Clay knows that he has a unique opportunity to benefit from their presence. I expect Clay to continue to mature as a pitcher and take another step forward in 2010.
PS: Ok, I will end with a question about your top prospect. When I was in Fort Myers a week and a half ago, your colleagues I asked about Casey Kelly strained to speak in measured terms about their excitement over him. I had a chance to watch him work in a B-Game and he looked phenomenal. Want to take your own shot at saying all the right things and not pumping up your team's prospect?
ZS: When you watch Casey pitch, it’s hard to remember that he’s only 20 years old and has less than 100 professional innings under his belt. He has a very simple and repeatable delivery that leads to impressive control and fastball command, especially for such an inexperienced pitcher. He also shows the ability to have three above average pitches (fastball, curve, change) in the future, so it’s easy to get excited about his potential. But it’s important to temper that excitement because he still has plenty of work ahead. Now that he’s fully committed to pitching, Casey will experience his first full workload on the mound and that may present new challenges. And like Buchholz and Ellsbury early in their pro careers, Casey has yet to fail and will likely need to experience some adversity before he can reach his potential.
PS: Thanks a lot, Zack, and good luck to you and the Boston Red Sox in 2010.
Stakeholders - New York Yankees
From now through the beginning of the regular season, we will not be posting in-depth round-tables previewing each division like we have in years past. Instead we will feature brief back-and-forths with "stakeholders" from all 30 teams. A collection of bloggers, analysts, mainstream writers and senior front office personnel will join us to discuss a specific team's hopes for 2010. Some will be in-depth, some light, some analytical, some less so but they should all be fun to read and we are thrilled about the lineup of guests we have teed up. Today it's Cliff Corcoran on the New York Yankees.
Patrick Sullivan: The Yankees just won the World Series and had a terrific off-season. I know championships are the goal but in some ways, it seems like we are in the midst of the true Golden Age of New York Yankees management. They seem to draft well, make good trades, understand defense and on-base and they selectively leverage their financial heft. Candidly, as a Red Sox fan it sucks. Can we kick things off with a brief State of the Franchise on the Yankees?
Cliff Corcoran: Coming off a world championship, the Yankees have brought in Javier Vazquez, who finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting last year, to replace the 6.92 ERA they got out of the fifth spot in the rotation last year. They have also replaced the 36-year-old Johnny Damon, who had become a butcher in the field, with the 29-year-old Curtis Granderson, who is no worse than average in the outfield. They traded a handful of prospects to get those two players, but still have the best pure hitting prospect in the game, Jesus Montero, ready to start the year at Triple-A, a few solid catching prospects on the way up should the defensively-challenged Montero not stick behind the plate, and a still-solid supply of pitching talent throughout the system topped by blue-chippers Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes who will battle this spring for the final major league rotation spot. The Yankees lack organizational depth behind their starting lineup, but with Granderson, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, Nick Swisher, and Brett Gardner, the majority of their every-day starters will be in their 20s on Opening Day (though Teixeira turns 30 in mid-April), and with CC Sabathia, Chamberlain, Hughes, David Robertson, Alfredo Aceves, and their organizational depth, they have their share of young pitching as well. Most importantly, as you say, the organization, led by Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner, is finally putting smarts behind its spending, exploiting not just their financial wherewithal on the free agent and trade markets, but the draft and amateur international markets, waiver wire, independent and international leagues, and doing so with a heady mixture of scouting and performance analysis. The Yankees as an organization still have their flaws, and Cashman has made his share of mistakes, but they are getting fewer and farther between as the impulsive, reckless, and fractured operating methods of the George Steinbrenner era fade into the past. The only things standing between the current Yankees and another dynasty are the similarly well-run Red Sox and Rays.
PS: Let's discuss Vazquez. His peripherals are almost always excellent. His stuff is awesome. He is coming off just a ridiculous 2009. And yet between his first stint with the Yanks and some comments his onetime manager Ozzie Guillen made about him, there seems to be some basis to question how well he will perform under pressure, and in particular in the AL East for the Yanks this year. I tend to put less stock in such things than most but in Vazquez's case, there seems to be a little something to it. What do you think?
CC: I don't put much stock in that sort of thing either. It's important to remember that Vazquez's only All-Star appearance came as a Yankee in 2004 after he went 10-5 with a 3.56 ERA in the first half of the 2004 season. He had shoulder problems in the latter half of that season, but didn't tell anyone until years later. Perhaps his decision to hide his injury was a response to the pressure he felt having just signed a four-year, $45 million extension that positioned him as the future Yankee ace, but that's conjecture. Returning to the Yankees this year, he's the fourth starter in Joe Girardi's rotation and is playing out the final year of a deal he signed with the White Sox two years ago for a team that just won the World Series without him. There's was probably more pressure on him in Atlanta last year, where he was a central part of the Braves' misguided attempt to contend ahead of schedule.
I'm less concerned about Vazquez's response to pressure than I am about the disconnect between his stuff/peripherals and his results. In his 2010 Gold Mine, Bill James posits that Vazquez's inconsistency is due to his heavy reliance on his changeup, a pitch which can result in a lot of missed bats but gets hit hard when the hitter knows its coming (Yankee fans, think Edwar Ramirez). It's an interesting theory, and might be cause for some concern given the fact that the Yankee staff seems to have changeup fever with A.J. Burnett and Phil Hughes trying to develop the pitch this spring, but James' pitch frequency statistics are suspect. James' numbers disagree with Fangraphs', which isn't necessarily damning in and of itself, but another item in James' Yankee chapter says that Hughes didn't throw a single cutter in 2008, when I know for a fact he featured the pitch in his last start of that season. Vazquez does seem to be something less than the sum of his parts in a typical season, and I certainly don't expect him to repeat the career year he had in the weaker league last year, but as a mid-rotation starter, he's a major asset, and, as I said before, replacing what he's replacing, he's a huge upgrade.
As for Ozzie Guillen, he didn't like Nick Swisher either . . .
PS: One of the fascinating stories about the World Champion 2009 New York Yankees was the bounce-back production they got from older players. It would have been hard to predict the seasons that Hideki Matsui, Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada and Johnny Damon managed. Damon and Matsui move on, Granderson and Johnson enter the fold, but is there any concern about drop-off this year? Even a guy like Nick Swisher had a career year. Are the additions of Granderson and Johnson (and Vazquez and Winn, for that matter) enough to compensate for the guys who figure to fall back? Or is this wishful thinking from a Red Sox fan, and Jeter, Posada, Swisher and others will pick up right where they left off in 2009? I guess this is all a very long-winded way of asking if the 2010 Yanks are better or worse than the 2009 edition.
CC: There will be some regression, no doubt, but I think it will be minimal. I expect the outfield to break even. Swisher hit .226 with a .394 slugging percentage in the new Yankee Stadium last year. That should correct itself and thus balance any regression in his .585 road slugging percentage. Brett Gardner and/or Randy Winn should be able to do what Gardner and Melky Cabrera did last year, if not more. Curtis Granderson, because of the big upgrade he represents on defense, should break even with Damon even before you factor in a potential rebound from his weak 2009 production, which is a distinct possibility given his his move to a ballpark that's not only friendlier to hitters overall, but much friendlier to left-handed power hitters. Mark Teixeira's 2009 was typical for him, and Robinson Cano just now rounding into the player he should be for the next five years or so.
The real concerns are Jeter, who will be 36 in June and is coming of one of his best seasons, Posada, who at 38 is coming off one of the best seasons ever by a catcher 37 or older, and DH, where the Yankees replaced a solid season from Hideki Matsui with the fragile Nick Johnson, whose power or lack thereof is also something of a concern. However, they should have an extra month of Alex Rodriguez to compensate for that, the bullpen should be at least as good, and if everyone stays healthy in the rotation (a big if with A.J. Burnett in there), they could make up for the rest of that regression if not more than that with the addition of Vazquez.
There's no doubt that the 2009 Yankees won it all because a lot of their coins came up heads, but I think they have far fewer question marks going into this season and thus stand a good chance to be almost as good if not even slightly better than they were in their championship year.
PS: Good or bad, is there anything about the 2010 edition of the Yanks that will surprise? Think Brett Gardner will start to be more appreciated? Things seem pretty set in terms of the makeup of that roster but since you follow the team more closely, I wanted to ask you if there is anything the rest of us should be on the lookout for.
CC: Well, there's a distinct possibility that Curtis Granderson could become a platoon left fielder who hits in the bottom half of the order, which might surprise a lot of people who generally regard him as an All-Star centerfielder and leadoff man. I'm pretty sure he'll hit in the fifth, sixth, or seventh spot for most of the season, or at least until Johnson goes down with an injury, and I think there's a very good chance he'll be shifted to left in deference to Gardner's superior defense. The platoon thing is less likely, but definitely possible if he continues to struggle against lefties in the early going, especially if he's in left field and Marcus Thames makes the team (which I think he will). As a full-time center fielder, Gardner could steal 50 to 60 bases and win a Gold Glove, though the latter is much less likely with Franklin Gutierrez in the league. Beyond that, I think David Robertson and Mark Melancon will emerge as a formidable, homegrown short relief duo by the end of the year, which might surprise those who don't pay much attention to non-closer relief prospects. Beyond that, I don't think there's much potential for surprise. The team's assets and liabilities are pretty well known outside of New York.
PS: Well this has been great, Cliff. Want to wrap with an AL East prediction?
CC: I think the Red Sox are baseball's most improved team heading into the 2010 season. Not only did they add the ace of the other team to reach last year's ALCS to an already strong rotation, but they've improved six positions with the additions of third baseman Adrian Beltre, center fielder Mike Cameron, and shortstop Marco Scutaro, a full-season of Victor Martinez behind the plate, the defensive upgrade of Jacoby Ellsbury in left field, and the ability to platoon Mike Lowell with David Ortiz at designated hitter. Add in a full season of Clay Buchholz, a possible rebound by Daisuke Matsuzaka, and a full season of Daniel Bard in the bullpen, and the Red Sox have the potential for a staggering amount of improvement over a team that won 93 games a year ago. Given the Yankees' potential for regression and injury, particularly with Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Nick Johnson, I think all of that improvement will allow the Red Sox to edge the Yankees in the division (followed by the Rays, Orioles, and Blue Jays in that order), but the race should be close enough that a bit of fortune, good or bad for either team, could tip the balance.
That's, generally speaking, the same prediction I made last year: Sox win division, meet Yanks in ALCS, so take that for what you will.
PS: Thanks, Cliff.
Stakeholders - Oakland Athletics
From now through the beginning of the regular season, we will not be posting in-depth round-tables previewing each division like we have in years past. Instead we will feature brief back-and-forths with "stakeholders" from all 30 teams. A collection of bloggers, analysts, mainstream writers and senior front office personnel will join us to discuss a specific team's hopes for 2010. Some will be in-depth, some light, some analytical, some less so but they should all be fun to read and we are thrilled about the lineup of guests we have teed up. Today it's Oakland Athletics Assistant General Manager, David Forst.
Patrick Sullivan: Well David, the bad news for 2009 was that you were a last place club. But a 17-10 record in September, just a -2 run differential for the year and a lot of young talent say to me that there's reason for optimism in Oakland . Are you guys comfortable with how you're currently positioned?
David Forst: Well, I think the nature of this job is such that you’re never comfortable where you’re at and that you’re always looking for a way to improve. Having said that, I think we were all happy with the way the team performed over the last two months of the 2009 season and particularly how some of our individual young players progressed at the Major League level. That’s not to say that we don’t still have a lot of work to do as an organization - we play in a division that has the potential to be the most evenly-matched from top to bottom in the game. And, despite having added some important veteran pieces (Ben Sheets, Coco Crisp, Kevin Kouzmanoff, et al) this winter, we are still a young team. But, it’s a young team that we’re excited about seeing on the field in 2010 and certainly beyond that.
PS: The AL West is getting ridiculous. Texas comes off 87 wins, adds Vladimir Guerrero and Rich Harden, and develops/graduates yet more top homegrown talent. Everyone knows about what Seattle has done this off-season, and I am convinced that the Angels one way or another will never again win less than 85 games. I can't imagine it changes your approach, you always want to be as good as you can be, but can you speak to the competitive dynamics taking shape in your division?
DF: You’re right – it doesn’t change our approach. We just don’t have the resources to react to every move our competition makes the way some of the teams in the AL East do. But, it’s also not like we got caught by surprise by the fact that there are other teams in our division who have money to spend and have smart people making the decisions on how to spend it. And that’s why we had to be somewhat pro-active this offseason in identifying pieces that fit what we’re trying to do and then be aggressive in pursuing them. Some of them worked out; Jake Fox, Coco Crisp, and Adam Rosales were all players we had discussed even before 2009 ended as guys we wanted to find a way to acquire. Some of them didn’t happen; it’s no secret we pursued players like Marco Scutaro, Adrian Beltre, and Aroldis Chapman, only to lose out after making what we thought were very competitive offers. But, the other piece of that puzzle was being in a position to pursue a guy like Ben Sheets. We’ve spent a few years now developing young, major league-ready players to fill our roster so that, when the time came to outbid everyone on a top of the rotation guy like Ben, we’d have the financial flexibility to do it. So, to answer your original question – we definitely know what a competitive and evenly matched division the AL West is going to be, not just in 2010, but in the years beyond, and we’re constantly doing what we can to be competitive for the long term.
PS: Without venturing into the proprietary or confidential, can you talk about Ben's medicals? What ultimately gave you guys the comfort to pull the trigger there?
DF: First of all, any time you’re talking about pitchers, there’s no such thing as a guarantee when it comes to medicals. Plenty of pitchers who have been healthy for years are just one throw away from something that’s going to force them to miss time. So, it’s all degrees of confidence and certainty when you’re talking about investing significant dollars in a pitcher. In Ben’s case, we were obviously comfortable enough with what we read and what we saw to make the financial offer that we did. Without getting too much into details, we sent two people (Billy Owens, our Director of Player Personnel, and Gil Patterson , our Minor League Pitching Coordinator) to see Ben throw only after our trainers and doctors had read his medical file and signed off on it to that point (almost 11 months post-op). What we were hoping to see was a workout that matched what we were reading on paper, and that was part of why we sent Gil. He has as much experience with rehab, both as a pitcher himself coming up in the Yankees system and as a coach who has helped numerous pitchers come back from surgery over the past 25 years, as anyone in the game. What we saw on video and got back in the form of a report was that, what Ben was able to do off the mound that day in Monroe was just as good an indicator of how healthy is he as the written medical files were. Add to that a positive exam and MRI with our orthopedist in Oakland , and we were as comfortable as we could possibly be with Ben. Like I said earlier, all you can do with pitchers is just be as certain as possible. The next person who comes up with a fool-proof way of predicting every injury will be the first.
PS: Can we talk about your outfield? Would you have traded Aaron Cunningham without Coco Crisp in the fold? What are you guys thinking about for a Michael Taylor ETA? Whither Travis Buck? How pissed will you be if even one fly ball lands on the outfield grass? I imagine you guys are excited about your outfield defense with Rajai Davis and Ryan Sweeney flanking Coco. I'm throwing a lot at you, but just some general thoughts about the state of the A's outfield would be great.
DF: Well, I will admit, it certainly looks crowded out there right now. But, as we’ve found out the last few years, these things have a way of sorting themselves out. There’s no doubt that outfield defense (and defense in general) was a priority for us of late, and with the possibility of Sweeney, Crisp, and Davis out there at the same time, we feel really good about the prospects of turning some doubles into outs. The rest of the candidates out there are no slouches either – we think Taylor has a chance to be an above average corner guy, Travis has put a lot of effort into his defense over the last year and made a lot of improvement, and Gabe Gross has always done a good job at all 3 OF spots. Bob has a lot of good options when it comes to the outfield, and we always say that having too many good, healthy major league players is never a problem.
PS: Thanks a lot, David. To wrap things up, could you just discuss what, if any, overarching goals the A's Baseball Ops staff has on a year to year basis? I am from Boston and a lifelong Red Sox fan, and we hear Theo discuss the goal of putting a product on the field every year capable of winning 95 games. Understanding you don't have Boston's resources at your disposal, 95 wins annually may be too much of a stretch. But what is it that you guys are trying to do year in and year out?
DF: Without sounding incredibly boring and cliché, our goal every year is to win the division. That’s what we get paid to do and that’s what our fans expect. Last time I checked, they don’t hand out trophies for Best Trade or Best Looking Prospects or Most Marginal Wins by Payroll (trust me, we’ve tried on that one). At the same time, we are aware of our resources and the balancing act that needs to be done so that we’re not sacrificing the success of future teams. Every front office in the game wants to have a team that is competitive each and every season. But, in a market like ours, if we misread where our club is in the “Success Cycle,” we run the risk of setting the franchise back years. So, we’re constantly assessing the current club, the options available to us to make improvements for the “now” and for the future, and having to decide what gives the A’s the best chance to be successful for an extended period of time. I hope that helps explain at least a little bit what we’re “trying to do year in and year out.”
PS: Thanks again, David, and good luck to the A's in 2010.
A Quick Note on Josh Beckett & John Lackey
Some of the rationale for extending Josh Beckett that I have come across hinges on comparing Beckett to his new teammate, John Lackey. This makes sense, since they are just about the same age and are similar pitchers in many regards. The conclusion most often drawn, however, looks off-base to me. Yes, the Beckett decision has a lot to do with Lackey. No, the Red Sox should not sign Josh Beckett because they signed John Lackey.
Each off-season presents its own set of challenges and opportunities. This off-season, the Red Sox thought that allocating a large chunk of their free-agent spend towards a marquee starting pitcher on the wrong side of 30 was a good idea. Since Beckett is probably a tick better than John Lackey and is himself set to enter free agency after the 2010 season, one school of thought is that the Red Sox’ logic would somehow be inconsistent were they to choose to let Beckett walk just one season after bringing aboard Lackey. It’s a dream storyline for talk radio, and you can be sure they’ll be ready to pounce in 2011 and beyond should Lackey falter and Beckett excel wearing some other uniform.
All a front office sets out to do is maximize their team’s chances for short term and long term success. And as I noted the last time I addressed the topic of a possible Beckett extension, signing pitchers over the age of 30 to long-term contracts is risky. Signing two of them, having as much as 25% of your annual payroll tied up in two aging starters, is even more risky. Should Beckett walk, it’s no indictment of his pitching. Instead, it will have simply been the wrong time for the Red Sox and Beckett to strike a long-term deal. Given a choice of Beckett or Lackey for the next five seasons, maybe Boston would have chosen Beckett if he was a free agent after 2009. But he wasn’t, Lackey was, the Red Sox wanted another pitcher and Lackey was available. Now Boston must manage their longer-term prudently, which could mean letting Beckett go.
And so while the sports radio guys salivate at the chance to tell you that “YOU HAVE TO SIGN BECKETT IF YOU SIGN LACKEY”, the reality goes something more like this. If you sign Lackey, you had better think long and hard before you decide two aging starting pitchers should account for 20-25% of your payroll. As Craig Calcaterra said on the topic, “it’s just business.”
Stakeholders - St. Louis Cardinals
From now through the beginning of the regular season, we will not be posting in-depth round-tables previewing each division like we have in years past. Instead we will feature brief back-and-forths with "stakeholders" from all 30 teams. A collection of bloggers, analysts, mainstream writers and senior front office personnel will join us to discuss a specific team's hopes for 2010. Some will be in-depth, some light, some analytical, some less so but they should all be fun to read and we are thrilled about the lineup of guests we have teed up. Today it's Bernie Miklasz on the St. Louis Cardinals.
Patrick Sullivan: Let's just get this out of the way right off the bat. I can't think of a less interesting sideshow of a non-story than the "Big Mac is a distraction" meme that seems to emanate from mainstream sports media circles. I think it's petty and self-fulfilling. Where do you come down on it? Is the team distracted? Do fans that you come across really care that much if Mark McGwire is the hitting instructor for the St. Louis Cardinals?
Bernie Miklasz:: I happen to agree with your opinion on McGwire. This is primarily a media-driven story generated to please, well, the media. Somewhere along the line mainstream baseball writers and columnists -- and I am a member of that particular tribe -- appointed themselves to sit on the high court and hand down moral judgments. That's above my pay grade. McGwire used steroids. He shouldn't have used steroids. He admitted using steroids. He apologized for using steroids. He'll never get into the Hall of Fame because of steroids. What else is there to add, really? Whatever McGwire says won't be good enough for some folks. We're now into dissecting apologies. We're going line by line and grading the confessor on his sincerity, candor, style, emotional appeal, etc. The judges at the Cannes film festival aren't this snooty.
As for McGwire being a distraction ... I'm in Jupiter, Fla. at the Cardinals' camp. McGwire is working hard. The players clearly enjoy working with him. He seems to be off to a good start. They're bonding. He's already fixed a loop in Ryan Ludwick's swing. They all seem to be happy. I don't see any distractions. I guess it's possible at some point. You never know when card-carrying members of the BBWAA will show up to deliver another sermon on the mount. Or mound.
PS: The Cardinals have a nice luxury in that they have three of the very best players in the game in Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Adam Wainwright. You could throw Chris Carpenter in there too if you'd like. From there, construct the road map to 90-95 wins for me. Which players have the potential to step forward this year? Is the back end of the rotation good enough?
BM: The back end of the rotation was pretty weak in 2009. The top three -- Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter and Joel Pineiro - combined for a 2.79 ERA in their 94 starts. The other six pitchers who started games had a 5.16 ERA. Despite that instability and ineffectiveness in the fourth spots, the team still won 91 games.
So what's changed? Pineiro left as a free agent. Brad Penny was recruited on a one-year deal and he seems like an ideal turnaround candidate for Dave Duncan, the horse whisperer of big-league pitching coaches. Duncan has coveted Penny for a long time, so I'm assuming Penny will benefit from the working relationship, as many other starters have before him. Kyle Lohse wasn't healthy last season - he had a sequence of weird, non-pitching injuries - and he should bounce back strong in 2010. There are a few decent options (Kyle McClellan, Jaime Garcia, the surgically-repaired Rich Hill) for the fifth-starter job, and all of them are better than Todd Wellemeyer, who was the No. 5 last season. I think there's a fair chance that the Cardinals will have a better rotation in 2010. Penny and Lohse are the keys. There's some anxiety over Ryan Franklin as a closer, but I'm thinking we'll address this in another question, no?
Offensively, the Cardinals should make gains in at least a couple of areas. They'll have a full season of Matt Holliday in left field. He likes the league. He likes the home ballpark. He likes the run-producing opportunities presented to a man who hits behind Albert Pujols. Ryan Ludwick's days of slugging .600 are probably over, but he's been working with batting coach Mark McGwire to reduce the loop in his swing; will that help Ludwick push his line-drive rate back to 2008 levels? Possibly. But I'm going to resist nitpicking Ludwick too much; over the last two seasons he ranks third among MLB outfielders in RBIs, fifth in homers and 13th in OPS.
Colby Rasmus had a subdued rookie season in 2009; his good start was negated by a hiatal hernia that sapped his strength. Rasmus is healthy now, and stronger. He did a reasonably solid job against lefties during his progression in the minors, so I'm going to suggest that he'll do a lot better than hit .160 against LHP's - which was what he did with them last season. David Freese certainly has a lot to prove at third base, but look at it this way: Cardinals' third basemen ranked 28th in the majors in OPS last season, and Freese should ratchet that up a bit. Right now the Cardinals have a sketchy, thin bench. It will be young. It could be a liability. But I also think GM John Mozeliak will address the area via trade at some point.
The Cardinals were mediocre at getting on base last season (.332 OBP) and that's a primary reason for hiring McGwire as the batting coach. He's emphasizing a more selective hitting approach.
The Cardinals should be better defensively. Brendan Ryan played exceptionally well at shortstop, but logged only 830 innings (26th among MLB shortstops). He'll play more (and prevent more runs) in 2010. I don't know what to say about Skip Schumaker at 2B; his defensive metrics in 2009 were rather unsightly, and he was almost hopeless in going to his left for ground balls. But he improved as the year went on. (Will you take my word on that? Probably not.) Dare we propose that Schumaker can approach average ratings in 2010? And Freese is a better fielder than the assortment of loose parts used at 3B by the Cardinals last season.
There's also this Pujols fellow. I'm told he's pretty good in all phases of the game.
PS: A quick reaction to your last answer: I find your commentary on the supporting cast to be altogether persuasive. I think there are some really interesting parts flying under the radar. But I find your remarks about Holliday and the "top three" (you acknowledge Pineiro's departure will hurt) a tad problematic because I think their performances are unlikely to hold constant. Matt Holliday had a .380 in-play average (Pujols' average was .299 by comparison). Without taking anything away from Adam Wainwright or Chris Carpenter, both out-pitched their fielding independent numbers and I still have to think Carpenter's health is something of a question. Thoughts?
BM: Granted, Holliday won't be able to sustain the burst of offense (.353 / .419 / .604) he provided after coming over from Oakland in late July. His numbers were sick. But even if Holliday fulfills his CHONE projection for 2010, we're talking about 25 homers, 100 runs, nearly 100 RBIs and an OPS of around .900. Plus above-average defense. Last season the Cardinals had all sorts of problems in the outfield. Ludwick's slugging fell off, Rasmus was diminished by the hernia, Rick Ankiel lost his plate discipline, and the other corner outfield spot was a wasteland. It explains why the Cardinals' outfield had a .743 OPS, which ranked 24th in the majors. If everyone holds up physically, and Holliday-Rasmus-Ludwick start 150 or more games, that OPS should spike in 2010. If there's any injury, watch out. But isn't that true of every contender?
As for the rotation, obviously there's a big problem if Carpenter goes down. When he's been healthy, the Cardinals are a playoff team. When he's been unable to pitch, the Cardinals don't make the playoffs. But you may have more of a reason to worry about Wainwright. He pitched 233 innings last season. He averaged 106 pitches per start. On the pitcher-abuse points chart, he was No. 6. Will this impact him in 2010? Interesting question. But Wainwright is a strong guy, and he gets smarter about pitching every year. So we'll see if all of those innings (and 3,614 pitches) took anything out of him.
PS: It doesn't hurt that the NL Central is awful, right?
BM: No question, that's been a factor in the Cardinals' success over the years. Interestingly, since becoming the Cardinals manager Tony La Russa has a higher winning percentage (.562) against NL West teams than he does against NL Central teams (.558).
But back to the Central question. How much is this a matter of the Cardinals being good as opposed to the others being so lousy? I suppose it depends on your perspective. But the Cardinals have had impressive stability and continuity, and that's a strength. This is La Russa's 15th season in St. Louis, and during that time the other five NL Central teams have employed 34 managers. And over these 15 years the Cardinals have had one owner and two GMs. And the second GM, John Mozeliak, was trained by the first, Walt Jocketty. But look around the rest of the division. Four of the other five NL Central franchises have been sold at least once, and the fifth, Houston, is for sale now. And I can't count all of the GMs and various rebuilding projects. The Cardinals get major points for having a consistent plan, philosophy, and steady leadership.
PS: There's an Ed Wade joke in here somewhere, but I'll abstain. Thanks so much for participating, Bernie. Want to offer up a quick 1-6 prediction for the NL Central and we'll wrap this up?
BM: 1. St. Louis: A lot of terrific pieces are in place, including Albert Pujols and the strong 1-2 rotation punch of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. But the Cardinals will need Carpenter to make 30 starts. And watch out for the closer, Ryan Franklin. He got swings and misses only 18 percent of the time last season, and the random nature of luck caught up to him late in the 2009 season. There isn't a clear alternative closer in the bullpen.
2. Chicago: I actually think the Cubs will be better than many think. No, the Cubs aren’t getting good value for their $140 million payroll. I like the projected Fukudome-Nady platoon in right. But if Zambrano and Lilly stay healthy, and if Soriano doesn't have another season in which he plays like an 83-year-old – well, there’s a chance if the Cardinals slip.
3. Cincinnati: The Reds have become something of a trendy pick. Not to win anything, but to move up. A rising team. I’ll buy some of that stock. I like the rotation and figure that the offense will wake up a bit in 2010.
4. Milwaukee: Not enough starting pitching.
5. Houston: Bad farm system, strange spending habits, declining stars. The arrow is definitely pointing down.
6. Pittsburgh: In the words of David Byrne: Same as it ever was.
Bernie Miklasz, 51, has been the lead sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since 1989. He's also written for the Dallas Morning News and the late Baltimore News-American. He grew up in Baltimore and learned baseball by watching Earl Weaver manage.
Stakeholders - Washington Nationals
From now through the beginning of the regular season, we will not be posting in-depth round-tables previewing each division like we have in years past. Instead we will feature brief back-and-forths with "stakeholders" from all 30 teams. A collection of bloggers, analysts, mainstream writers and senior front office personnel will join us to discuss a specific team's hopes for 2010. Some will be in-depth, some light, some analytical, some less so but they should all be fun to read and we are thrilled about the lineup of guests we have teed up. It might be a misrepresentation to characterize today's guest as a Nats "stakeholder" but he certainly was a huge fan of the Montreal Expos. It's Jonah Keri on the Washington Nationals.
Patrick Sullivan: First, thanks a lot for joining us, Jonah. It's no secret that you look back on your days as a Montreal Expos fan with fondness. So tell me, if the 2009 Washington Nationals were in the same division as the 1994 Expos and they faced one another 19 times, what would Washington's record have been in those games?
Jonah Keri: Expos 18, Nationals 1. Montreal wins the first 18 games of the season series, escalating their post-game drinking after each win. The Expos finally lose Game #19 after Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Pedro Martinez and John Wetteland consume so much Molson Canadian that they begin hallucinating, mistake Adam Dunn for a fire-breathing dragon, and jump into the St. Lawrence River.
PS: Speaking of Adam Dunn, any idea why he is still playing in the National League? I had the "chance" to watch him play a game at 1st Base for the Nats last September at Wrigley and it was one of the worst single-game defensive performances I've witnessed. Oh and did I mention he started 84 games in the outfield last season?
JK: He's playing in the NL because no AL team saw fit to match the Nats' offer. Teams are (mostly) wise to the limited value of one-dimensional players. Most of the teams that aren't wise to this (say, KC) don't have the money to sign 'em anyway.
PS: Makes sense. Where do you come down on a signing like Jason Marquis? On the one hand, he won't figure into the next (first) Nats World Series team but on the other, you need to field a competitive baseball team. My personal take is that sometimes bad teams take too much heat for playing in the free agent middle market. What do you think?
JK: I agree with the general point, that you still have to puts butts in seats - plus always the option to flip a vet for prospects later. Just depends on the particulars of a given signing. In this case the price didn't seem too egregious.
JK: I expect Strasburg to be in the Nationals' rotation and pitching well by June 1, if not sooner. His unique contract ensures the Nats don't need to play any dodgy games of service time suppression; the Rays got the benefit of a full Evan Longoria season in 2008 for similar reasons, and that worked out great. Strasburg instantly becomes one of the two best players on the team, with enough star power to be the rare player who gooses attendance by himself by dint of the "Dude, let's go see the Nats tonight! Strasburg's pitching!" demographic.
Zimmerman's the real deal. He's still only 25 so there's additional power potential there, which is scary after he cranked 73 extra-base hits last season. He's also a great defender and a worthy challenger to Beefcake McWright for the title of best third baseman in the NL.
I'm not completely sold on Nyjer Morgan. Yes, I'm well aware of the UZR numbers that say that Nyjer Morgan was more valuable than Joe Morgan last season (I'm almost not kidding). I'm just not ready to throw a parade in someone's honor for one year's worth of defensive data. Yes, he looked good in limited playing time in previous seasons, but this was Morgan's first year as a (near-)everyday player. I'm not convinced this is a player who's a lock for nearly 3 wins of value on his defense alone. The fact that he turns 30 this year doesn't inspire confidence either. If I were the Nats, I would have shopped Morgan this off-season after what was likely a career year. The problem is that the teams who will properly identify his great defensive value are also probably intelligent enough to be skeptical of one-year numbers and generally aware of the risk of regression to the mean. So the Nats will be stuck with a cheap defensive whiz who gets on base and steals tons of bases. There are worse fates, even if 2009 was the best we'll ever see from Morgan.
C - Pudge
Am I nuts or is that a decent lineup? Tell me what you think and then give me a prediction for this Nats team. Where would you set the over/under on wins?
JK: Pudge is finished and Guzman is a pretty lousy hitter when he's not over .300. Otherwise, absolutely. Loved the Adam Kennedy signing in particular. It's entirely possible that Kennedy's .337 wOBA last year was a fluke and that he'll revert back to being a negative at bat. But he put up those numbers playing in the AL, in Oakland no less, and his BABIP wasn't so far above career norms (.326, vs. .311 lifetime) that it suggests a huge regression ahead. Yes he's 34, no he's never been anything close to an elite player - but for $1.25 million, after the season he had in '09, Kennedy's a good get.
Dunn, Zimmerman and Willingham speak for themselves, all very good offensive players. Morgan's a useful table-setter and Dukes has plenty of upside in him, if the Nats will just leave him alone and give him 500 PAs.
Wins might be another story. Factors like bullpen can make a huge difference in converting talent into actual wins, and you're right that the Nats haven't made much of an effort to build out that part of the roster - with good reason, because giving big contracts to relief pitchers when you're not a contender makes little sense. PECOTA has the Nats at 76 wins, CHONE says 74. If Strasburg is in the rotation all year, or most of the year, I could see it. Otherwise, given the holes that come after the team's top few players, I'd take the Under on that 75-win midpoint.
PS: Great. Thanks so much, Jonah. Seems like the Nats might be a pretty decent bet for biggest jump in year over year win totals.
Jonah Keri is a writer for Bloomberg Sports (check out Bloomberg Sports' full suite of fantasy baseball tools here). He's also writing a book about the Tampa Bay Rays, their climb from worst to first, and the Wall Street-inspired methods they used to get there (Spring 2011, ESPN Books/Ballantine).
Stakeholders - Seattle Mariners
From now through the beginning of the regular season, we will not be posting in-depth round-tables previewing each division like we have in years past. Instead we will feature brief back-and-forths with "stakeholders" from all 30 teams. A collection of bloggers, analysts, mainstream writers and senior front office personnel will join us to discuss a specific team's hopes for 2010. Some will be in-depth, some light, some analytical, some less so but they should all be fun to read and we are thrilled about the lineup of guests we have teed up. We kick our Stakeholders series off today with none other than Dave Cameron on the Seattle Mariners.
Patrick Sullivan: Dave Cameron, longtime Mariners fan, how much do you miss Bill Bavasi? It's OK, you can tell us, your friends at Baseball Analysts.
Dave Cameron: As a fan, not at all. As a blogger, more than you could imagine. We started blogging about the Mariners during the decline years of the Gillick era, when stuff started to go badly, so the first six years of USSMariner's existence essentially boiled down to a series of "Oh God no don't do that" posts, which were easy to write. Bill gave us Jose Vidro, Designated Hitter, for heaven's sake. From the perspective of someone who needed something to write about regularly, Bill was a gold mine. As any Royal fan will now tell you, covering a disaster of a GM doesn't take much creativity. It's easy.
Jack is not nice enough to provide similar material. The new front office stole all of our thunder, preaching the value of defense and guys who don't swing at everything. They basically implemented the plan we were begging Bill to put in place, and so now, we're left writing some version of a pat-on-the-back post. Oh, you found another undervalued good glove role player for the league minimum? Thanks, but what am I supposed to say that I haven't said yet? They're making us into cheerleaders, and frankly, I'm not comfortable in this role. I don't know how to root for a well run organization. I've never had these emotions before. They're new and they scare me.
But that doesn't mean I want Bill back.
PS: Everyone loves the off-season Seattle just had. We get it. But now I want to understand where you think they could have done better. I mean isn't there a real chance that the lineup is just awful?
DC: Interestingly, the move that I have the most reservations about has nothing to do with the offense. The "Your Brandon Is Better Than My Brandon" trade is the one move this winter that I think could end up turning out really poorly. Brandon Morrow is, without a doubt, a frustrating pitcher with a lot of red flags - lousy command, inconsistent secondary stuff, inability to get lefties out, a history of arm problems, and diabetes are just a few of the reasons he might never turn into anything. But he's still a 25-year-old pitcher making the league minimum with more strikeouts than innings pitched in his career. And the M's turned him into a relief pitcher.
Now, Brandon League is a good relief pitcher, and the bullpen needed help, but still, that trade has a lot of downside. Maybe the odds of Morrow putting it all together weren't great, but the potential payoff if he did was huge. The M's cashed in a high risk, high reward pitcher for a safer play to help them in 2010, but potentially surrendered a lot of long term value in the process. I can understand the reasoning behind the deal, but I still think that there were other ways to bolster the relief corps without sacrificing a guy with significant upside.
As for the offense, sure, there's a chance they could be terrible, but again, our DHs the last four years have been Carl Everett, Jose Vidro, and Ken Griffey Jr. We know how to cope with teams that can't score. And, honestly, I think this group of hitters is better than people give them credit for. Their runs scored total from a year ago is misleading, as the team performed horribly with men on base, and that's not predictive. A lot depends on Milton Bradley and how often he can stay in the line-up. If he gives the team 120+ games, the offense should be average-ish, maybe a tick below. Ichiro and Figgins are quality hitters, Bradley is as well when he's in the line-up, and Lopez/Kotchman/Gutierrez are all about average. Byrnes and Garko kill lefties and have enough upside to potentially be useful regulars. This isn't the 27 Yankees, but the Mariners should score 700 to 725 runs, which isn't awful for a team that plays half of its games in Safeco Field.
PS: I agree on Milton Bradley being the key to the offense. I'm rooting like heck for him. I've been accused of making too many excuses for Bradley but I just think he was never set up to succeed in Chicago. Who do you think will write more about Bradley this year, the Chicago or Seattle press? Out of the chute, Chicago has a HUGE edge.
DC: It will be interesting to see how the media in Seattle handles Milton. For the most part, it's a lower pressure group, and one that will not be as confrontational as the Chicago group was. But they won't turn a blind eye if he gives them something to write about. There is one beat writer in particular (Geoff Baker, Seattle Times) who won't hesitate to stir the pot when he senses a potential story, and he focuses quite heavily on the clubhouse interaction side of the game, so he won't be covering for Bradley if he's acting out. But, I think there are reasons to think this could work.
Seattle is not Chicago. Bradley has thrived in other low pressure markets like Texas and San Diego, which Seattle is more comparable too. And, while we obviously lean more towards the talent side of things in the chemistry debates, having Ken Griffey Jr around can only help. Bradley's been outspoken about his respect for Junior, and having someone he'll listen to may allow them to put out some small fires before they turn into an explosion. There are reasons to think that the Mariners may get the reasonably well behaved version of Bradley that was a big part of some good teams in the not too distant past.
But, of course, it could go badly wrong. There's no denying the fact that Milton has talked himself off of almost every team he's ever been part of. If he slumps out of the gate and the team isn't doing well, he's an easy target for people who will want to blame the team's regression on the decision to upset the clubhouse chemistry from a year ago. It's a pre-written narrative for the media, and they will take advantage of that storyline if handed the opportunity. So, it's in everyone's best interests for Bradley to hit the crap out of the ball in April and the team to get off to a hot start. If they're in last place in May, people will blame Milton, and I don't think the M's want to bet their season on Bradley responding well to criticism.
DC: As those two go, so go the Mariners. It's certainly a risk to put your eggs in the basket of two pitchers, and an extended DL stint for either one probably takes the Mariners out of contention. But, these two are legitimately among the top arms in baseball, and the Mariners will be the favorite in every game where they take the hill. If they can get 65 starts out of that pair, there's a good chance they'll get 45+ wins in those games, and they could then play below .500 ball the rest of the season and still be a playoff contender. That's the blueprint, essentially - win early and often when Felix and Lee are on the hill, try not to get pummeled when the other guys start.
Will it work? I don't know. But if it does, and the Mariners end up making the post-season, that duo makes them a nightmare to face in a short series. The Mariners certainly aren't as good as the Yankees, Red Sox, or Rays, but in a 7 game series where Felix and Lee take the hill four times, the differences are minimized. With these two guys, the Mariners have a roster built for October. Whether the surrounding pieces are good enough to get them there, we'll see, but there are certainly two cornerstones in place for a post-season run that ends
PS: Thanks so much for your time, David. Want to wrap with a prediction? Maybe even a kind word about Jered Weaver?
DC: I predict that there will be far too many words written about the Mariners this year. Based on the quantity of articles written this winter, it seems that the Mariners have become the new go-to-story for national media looking to focus on how an organization is changing the game, and unfortunately, this team is going to become something of a litmus test for the value of defense. There have been so many words written about how the M's have gone gaga for fielding that I feel like the skeptics of defensive metrics are just waiting for this team to struggle so they can hold the Mariners as evidence that defense doesn't really matter or UZR isn't accurate.
So, let me just throw this out there - this team very well might not win. They've bet big on a few guys staying healthy and productive, and they're counting on guys playing better than they have in the recent past in order to score enough runs to contend. There are a ton of risks in this roster, and it could all go horribly wrong. There are plausible scenarios where this team loses 90 games, and they have nothing to do with defense being overrated.
I am rooting for this team to do well as a fan, but also as someone who has fought hard for the acceptance of defensive value over the last few years. Defense matters, whether the Mariners end up winning with this particular roster or not.
As for Weaver, I still see him as a mid-rotation starter, but I will say that his splits have led me down an interesting path, which I think may end up leading us to better understand how certain pitchers can indeed use deceptive motions and arm slots to sustain "lucky" performances against same handed hitters. It's not exactly the highest compliment I could pay someone, but not every innings eater ends up pushing knowledge forward, so thanks for being weird, Jered.
Dave Cameron is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and is also the managing editor of the FanGraphs blog. He also contributes to the Wall Street Journal, and was the editor of the Maple Street Press 2010 Mariners Annual. His wife deserves a medal for allowing him to do all this.
Ostensibly, the 2009 Red Sox had one of the very best bullpens in the American League, trailing only Oakland for bullpen ERA. I was reminded of this since I finally had a chance this week to dig into my Hardball Times 2010 Annual on a cross-country flight, and one of the points Evan Brunell's 2009 AL East round-up makes is that relief pitching was really the only area where Boston enjoyed an edge over the rival Yankees.
If ERA is your thing, Jonathan Papelbon had another excellent year. Hideki Okajima, Takashi Saito, Ramon Ramirez and Daniel Bard combined for over 235 innings of 3.21 ERA pitching. Billy Wagner pitched effectively down the stretch. Of the Red Sox relievers slated for regular work in 2009, it was only Manny Delcarmen that struggled.
While Wagner and Saito have both moved onto Atlanta, Delcarmen, Ramirez, Bard and Okajima are back. And when you peek more closely at the second half performance in 2009 of these four, the outcome is not quite as pretty. All four saw their performances drop off dramatically. Ramirez and Okajima's peripherals were awful, Delcarmen was finally shelved after his performance made it plainly evident that he was hurt and Bard suffered from some tough in-play luck. By the time the post-season started, the Red Sox bullpen was limping to the finish line. Papelbon's Game 3 meltdown against the Angels in the ALDS seemed a fitting ending for a team that struggled for bullpen consistency over their last 70 games or so.
With their starting pitching looking top notch, their defense much improved and a lineup in store for another big year, the Red Sox come into 2010 with some questions in the bullpen. Have a look at Boston's relief holdover contingent's fielding independent figures from 2009:
xFIP Papelbon 3.98 Bard 3.25 Delcarmen 5.32 Okajima 4.59 Ramirez 5.09
If you take Boston's starting rotation plus Tim Wakefield and then add these five, the Red Sox would appear to have one roster spot available in the bullpen. But given what I have run through thus far, it seems like contingency planning for subpar performance from Delcarmen, Okajima and/or Ramirez would be smart. Likewise, Papelbon's walk rate spike is worth monitoring. Bard seems like he might be the most solid of the bunch.
Smartly, the Red Sox seem to be planning for the worst case with a host of youngsters, live arms, reclamation projects and hangers-on with mixed track records in professional baseball. The list won't knock your socks (Sox?) off, but it would seem likely that a couple of effective arms would emerge from the likes of Joe Nelson, Brian Shouse, Boof Bonser, Ramon A. Ramirez, Michael Bowden, Fabio Castro, Scott Atchison, Dustin Richardson, Felix Doubront, Fernando Cabrera, Junichi Tazawa and others. Some will move on because they are out of options or because they negotiated out-clauses in their Minor League contracts, but it appears that the Red Sox should have enough alternatives throughout the organization to move quickly should the bullpen falter early.
Since he is out of options and because he would seemingly fit the Justin Masterson role of live righty arm who can spot start, I am rooting for Boof Bonser to have a big Spring. From there, I think the rest of it will have to sort itself out as the year goes on.
Josh Beckett: To Extend or Not?
Whether you think they've shaped up as a bunch of banjo-hitting ninnies or the stingiest run prevention unit this side of the 1968 St. Louis Cardinals, or both, or somewhere in between, the Boston Red Sox have set their 2010 roster for all intents and purposes. While Red Sox players and fans alike gear up for another exciting season with high expectations, it falls to the Boston front office to focus on longer term roster planning, no small task given the personnel shifts that are sure to continue.
In the lineup David Ortiz, Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre will become unrestricted free agents at the end of the 2010 season. Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon's contract also expires and given his not-so-subtle eagerness for his big payday, it's fair to say he will probably be moving on. The most critical looming free agent decision, however, will center on Josh Beckett. Beckett will pitch out his 30-year old season this year, his fifth in a Red Sox uniform.
The choice to extend Beckett will test Theo Epstein and his Baseball Operations staff. Beckett's popular, both with teammates and Boston's rabid fan base. We all know that Beckett has experienced an inordinate amount of post-season success. And yet, whether it's a nagging injury here or there, his proclivity to give up the gopher ball or the mere fact that he will be 31 in the first season of his new contract, the Red Sox have a number of red flags to consider. Let's take stock of the factors surrounding Beckett's case.
The first thing to understand is that Beckett is a truly elite pitcher. Since he joined the Red Sox, let's look at where he has ranked in the American League in both xFIP and Wins Above Replacement (WAR):
xFIP WAR 2006 21 30 2007 4 2 2008 2 8 2009 7 7
In just under 800 total innings pitched since 2006, Beckett has a 116 ERA+ but if you take out his outlier 5.01 ERA season his first year in Boston, that ERA+ figure jumps to 126 while averaging just under 200 innings per season. To see how he has stacked up since 2007 with other American League pitchers, consider below:
IP ERA+ Greinke 553.2 149 Halladay 710.1 141 F. Hernandez 629.2 133 Lackey 563.2 129 Sabathia 593.1 129 Beckett 587.1 126
You get the picture. Josh Beckett is an excellent power arm with historically standout peripherals and dependable durability, and that's a critical part of this equation. He's not Mike Hampton or Barry Zito. And yet, before you commit the sort of dollars it will take to secure Beckett's services, it's essential to understand how pitchers perform from 31 on.
Above, I showed where Beckett stacked up among American League pitchers from 2007 to 2009 with at least 500 innings pitched. Applying the same parameters but extending it out to include the National League and pitchers 31 and older, we get a total of 10 pitchers (as opposed to 35 under 31). Half of them posted ERA+ totals under 100 over that time, and the rest of the list looks like this:
IP ERA+ Lilly 588.2 124 D. Davis 542.0 110 Lowe 605.2 108 Pettitte 614.0 104 Washburn 523.1 102
The rest of the list includes Kevin Millwood, Jamie Moyer, Braden Looper, Jeff Suppan and Livan Hernandez. Aside from Ted Lilly, I think the Red Sox would be disappointed with output in line with any of the other 9 pitchers. But let's tinker with the list further. Let's say the Red Sox or any other team giving Beckett 5 years would like him to average 175 innings per season. So let's set the following Play Index list parameters: at least 875 innings (5x175) with an ERA+ of at least 110 from 2000 to 2009, age 31 and older. Here is what we get.
Whoa. You might have to go to the very bottom of that list before you even get to a non future Hall of Famer. In Major League Baseball, only the truly elite starting pitchers survive. And Jamie Moyer and Tim Wakefield, I suppose, but that's another story.
The first lesson here is that it's critical to understand that there is a premium to be paid on the unrestricted free agent market, and that you have to recalibrate performance expectations. You might not get the late-aughts Beckett for his next contract, and it might feel like you've overpaid at times, but when you consider how much value Boston got in this last contract, it could all even out. Let's take the John Lackey deal as an example and given Lackey's similarities to Beckett, it's not a bad proxy at all. If you believe Fangraphs free agent dollar values assigned to each win, all the Red Sox need from Lackey to make the deal worthwhile is output like Scott Baker or Carl Pavano produced in 2009, or Andy Sonnanstine in 2008. Can Beckett do that in his 31 to 35 seasons? Maybe.
The second lesson is that, given the odds of a 30-plus pitcher living up to his end of the deal, there are probably better areas to allocate your free agent spend. In Boston's case, this is especially true given the commitment they have made to John Lackey this off-season. As a Red Sox fan, I am not ready to state explicitly that they should let Beckett walk but $35-$40 million committed to Lackey and Beckett annually from 2011-2014 has the potential to hamper Boston's flexibility. As with anything else, this decision will come down to Boston's ability to meld medical, scouting and performance analysis insight to generate an accurate projection of Beckett's future output.
Now don't mess it up!
On Xavier Nady & An Off-Season Lost
To the extent that you want more solid MLB-caliber players than not on the roster, the addition of Xavier Nady is a nice get for the 2010 Cubs. Short money, decent enough right-handed bat, positional flexibility, in some ways the move was a no-brainer. Almost any team in baseball would improve, some more than others, as a result of having Nady on their roster.
The problem for the Cubs, and any other team for that matter, is that resources and roster spots are finite. Coming off of 83 wins playing in one of baseball's weakest divisions, a few focused, tactical moves could have resulted in enough wins added to spring the North Siders into contention. As it stands at the end of the Hot Stove season, their starting rotation looks thin and injury prone while their offense looks to be improved. On the whole, it looks like this Cubs team should be just a bit better than last year's club. With luck, they'll contend. With Xavier Nady in the fold, they'll still need luck.
It's hard not to think back to the Milton Bradley episode and how much it distracted Chicago when looking at their moves this off-season. Losing Bradley and picking up Carlos Silva and Marlon Byrd, wherever you come down on the argument that they just had to part ways with Bradley, amounts to wheel-spinning. Byrd is no better than Bradley, Silva is just awful. Nady might hit southpaws better than Kosuke Fukudome, but how much of that differential offensively does Nady give back when he takes the field in right? As I see it, the most enticing part of this addition is that it protects against further Soriano deterioration. That's no small thing, but in an off-season where just a few shrewd moves could have made all that difference, Bradley, Byrd, Silva, Nady - the Cubs just haven't seem focused.
With the ownership commotion surrounding the club and Soriano's bi-weekly direct deposit hamstringing baseball operations, I can empathize. But at the same time, this was an off-season that called for even greater focus. There wasn't going to be a lot of money to spend, but the Cubs had a roster on the cusp. And it still is on the cusp, so it's not like they've mismanaged their way out of any hope for 2010. They just could have done more, and the announcement of the Nady signing tells me that they're not thinking strategically enough. Nady just won't make much of an impact, when there was impact at a great price still to be had on the free agent market.
You want to go short money and improve the club? Well what about Orlando Hudson or Felipe Lopez for a team whose second basemen hit .254/.310/.357 in 2009? If the Cubs opted to bolster their starting pitching instead, to avoid relying on some combination of Tom Gorzelanny and Randy Wells and Sean Marshall for 400 innings, then Jon Garland and his 200 league average innings could have helped. Garland would have led the 2009 Cubs in innings pitched. And heavens, Johnny Damon is still sitting out there. Maybe you don't want to hurt Alfonso Soriano's feelings or you otherwise sense a logjam in the outfield, but Damon is still an excellent player whose value seems to have plummeted without good reason.
Again, I want to stress that I can't get too worked up about any of the Cubs moves this off-season. I understand the chemistry stuff and the case for why Bradley had to go. Center field was a hole that Marlon Byrd should be able to fill. Xavier Nady adds some depth and a nice platoon partner if deployed appropriately. But if the Cubs looked at their roster and determined they only had a few moves to make this off-season, I wish they would have been executed with more focus and precision. Because a couple wins could mean all the difference in the National League Central.
In Response to Murray Chass
Recently, former New York Times journalist and J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner Murray Chass took to the pages of his blog titled Murray Chass On Baseball to discuss Hall of Fame voting. He addressed an array of topics, from Hall voting eliciting strong opinions, to Tommy John's Hall of Fame candidacy, to my own personal "track record". There's no need to FJM someone like Chass - he's just writing on his blog that he refuses to acknowledge is a blog, snarling at (certain) stats and just sort of watching the world pass him by. Honestly, it has to be difficult. On a human level, I pity Murray Chass.
Since I guess Chass probably maintains a broad readership and has decided to come at me personally in his column, I suppose I should respond to a few of the points he made. It's evident to me that Chass doesn't like the tone of the Hall of Fame debate, and I suppose that's reasonable. Heck, we get awfully passionate around here about it, maybe excessively so on occasion. Chass points out one reader who emailed to say that one candidate "clearly deserved" enshrinement, and Chass thought that language was too strong. Fine, I suppose, but surely there are "clearly deserving" Hall candidates, no? Anyway, and Craig Calcaterra has already dealt with this nicely, problems arise when Chass veers off "can't we all just get along" course and into this:
“Clearly deserve” in whose judgment? His, of course. Does that make him right and me wrong? Of course not. Am I right? Yes. Why? Because my opinion counts and his doesn’t. My ballot was one of the 539 counted in the election. He did not have a vote. Therefore, his opinion is worthless as far as the election is concerned.
Someday, a curious individual might set out to understand why it was that baseball websites were able to amass strong followings at a time when the profession of mainstream media baseball writing was still so entrenched in American culture. How could Rob Neyer and Nate Silver and Jonah Keri and Joe Sheehan and Keith Law and David Cameron and Sky Andrecheck and Cliff Corcoran have risen to such prominence, when the baseball writing establishment was still churning out columns? Well, that individual researching why it was that new internet baseball writers succeeded will stumble across what Chass has written above, and it will all make sense.
You don't get credibility because you hung around clubhouses for 30 years. Or because you traveled on the team plane, have had cocktails with Lou Gorman, were at Fenway the day Bucky Dent hit his home run or because you can recall the fear in opposing pitchers' eyes as Jim Rice came to the plate. You don't even get credibility because you have a vote. You get credibility by doing good work. And if your work is good, it stands on its own. If a new age of writers comes along with a new way of thinking about the game, and a new medium like the internet emerges, you don't kick and scream and yearn for yester-year, you evolve and learn and continue to do good work.
As for the notion that a non-voter's opinion is "worthless", tell that to Bert Blyleven or the proprietor of this site. Blyleven has publicly expressed gratitude for Rich Lederer time after time, and recently Peter Gammons praised Rich's work as well. About a dozen writers have explicitly attributed their Blyleven support to Rich's Blyleven series. How many more writers have been persuaded and not admitted as much? Rich may not have a vote, and he may not have swayed Murray Chass, but his opinion is anything but "worthless".
To be sure, there are nobler causes to take up, but there is virtue in working to ensure the Hall of Fame voting process is more just. A baseball career is a man's life's work, and there is no more prestigious recognition than to be enshrined in Cooperstown. So if Murray Chass and Dan Shaughnessy can't be bothered to figure out who the best players were, others will have to take it up. Whether we're writers or salespeople or money managers or entrepreneurs or consultants or lawyers, we'll take it up. We'll do so by building strong cases for the candidates we think deserve enshrinement, and we'll do so by exposing and discrediting flimsy logic. Because flimsy logic, when it comes to the Hall of Fame, can lead to a man's life's work being remembered in the wrong light, or even not remembered at all. Readers, fans, other voters - they'll be the ones to decide whose judgment should be called into question. Not Murray Chass through a baseless assertion on his baseball blog.
As I noted at the outset, Chass also came at me personally in his blog entry, and I want to address it quickly. It was actually quite harmless but let me just offer up a few thoughts. Chass wrote the following...
Patrick Sullivan, a name unknown to me, ridiculed Dan Shaughnessy, a highly respected columnist for the Boston Globe, for writing that … well, just about anything. I don’t know that Shaughnessy wrote a sentence that Sullivan didn’t ridicule.
All I can say is if you're going to be called out in public by a washed-up sportswriter on his baseball blog, this is how you want it to be done; in a fashion that is so self-evidently discrediting. We learned three things from this Chass excerpt:
1. Chass thinks Shaughnessy is right and I am wrong because Shaughnessy has a track record with which he's familiar.
2. Chass thinks Shaughnessy would be right and I would be wrong on ANY subject because Shaughnessy has a track record as a baseball sportswriter and I do not.
3. He thinks Jack Morris was better than Curt Schilling.
Two thoughts. One, how harebrained do you have to be to admit freely that you won't entertain the merits of a particular argument, but rather will simply appeal to authority? What a great way to discredit your whole philosophy in one fell swoop.
Two, and I can't be clear enough about this. If you think Jack Morris was a better pitcher than Curt Schilling, THEN YOU DON'T KNOW THE VERY FIRST THING ABOUT BASEBALL. Talk about life's work? The life's work of Murray Chass, all those days and nights hanging around a smelly clubhouse, and what does he have to show for it? A baseball mind that leads him to believe that Jack Morris is better than Curt Schilling. It's nothing short of embarrassing.
The piece ends the way so many of these do. After berating those of us who look to statistics to form the basis of our baseball-related arguments, he transitions to Tommy John's Hall of Fame case, comparing his to Blyleven's.
John had a career 288-231 record with a 3.34 earned run average. Blyleven’s record was 287-250 and his e.r.a. 3.31. John retired 57 percent of the batters he faced, Blyleven, with all his strikeouts, 59 percent.
Yup, stats. But not just any stats, moronic, wrong stats that say Tommy John yielded a career .430 on-base percentage and Bert Blyleven yielded a .410 figure. Truth is, John's career on-base against was .315 while Blyleven's was .301. I am not sure where that gets us, but at least we're dealing in reality.
Anyway, back away from the word processor, Murray. People, successful people, knowledgeable people who adore baseball, are all laughing at you.
Do the Cubs Need More Risk?
The Chicago Cubs boast a core group of championship caliber position players that includes Aramis Ramirez, Derrek Lee, Geovany Soto, Alfonso Soriano, Marlon Byrd, Kosuke Fukudome and Ryan Theriot. Their front three starting pitchers, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster and Carlos Zambrano, form a perfectly adequate top end of a World Series aspirant club. In the bullpen, arms like Carlos Marmol, Angel Guzman, John Grabow and Sean Marshall offer Manager Lou Piniella a pool of live and (often) dependable arms for late in ballgames. All of this is to say that the Cubs, as currently constituted, look like a solid club.
Of course a "solid club" when you're looking up at the St. Louis Cardinals might not do the trick and to their credit, the Cubs are looking to round out their roster with a player or two still available on the free agent market. As I concluded in my piece over the weekend, it's likely that the Cubs will still have a strong pitching staff, just not one that stacks up to their outstanding 2009 unit. They can expect some improvement offensively, but for a team looking to make a big leap from 83 wins to contender, it doesn't look like the offense will do enough to get them over that line. The Cubs are looking for another starter.
Now, if you were to diagnose what went wrong with the Chicago Cubs in 2009, you would point to four separate players. Soriano and Soto battled injuries and sub-par performance all season long, Ramirez missed too many games and Milton Bradley failed to live up to his potential. The Cubs signed three of those four players to splashy free agent contracts, and Soto was the 2008 NL Rookie of the Year. All four are stud talents, and while the Cubs SHOULD be able to pencil in improvement from Soriano, Soto and Ramirez (Byrd fills in for Bradley), there is still a high-risk high-reward element at play.
This brings me to their starting pitching decision. The Cubs are rumored to be in hot pursuit of right-handed pitcher Ben Sheets, the man whose medicals are said to be disastrous. Even for smallish money, the choice to depend on Ben Sheets for 2010 would amount to a classic high risk/reward strategy for Chicago. With lingering uncertainty offensively, why fill out a borderline contender with another player who brings along as much downside as Sheets would?
If one were to assess where the Cubs might struggle in 2010, you might start with starting pitching depth. With the likes of Tom Gorzelanny, Randy Wells, and good grief, Carlos Silva filling out the back end of the rotation, and with some injury concerns surrounding Lilly and Zambrano, I am not sure a flier on Sheets is the play. Make me in charge of Cubs personnel choices and I would opt for the guy I know will take the ball every fifth day and give the offense a chance to win the game. In my estimation, the right target for the Cubs would be Jon Garland.
Garland is by no means the superstar some might have thought he would become after his breakout 2005 campaign with the Chicago White Sox, but his 162-game career average of 208 innings at a 104 ERA+ clip could be just what the doctor ordered for a Cubs team searching for stability.
Jim Hendry's 2010 Strategy: Play Better
A few months back I wrote a piece on the Cubs and the merits of inaction. Sometimes when it's not your year, the best moves are the ones you don't make. Chicago battled injuries and under-performance all season long, and stumbled their way to a disappointing 83-win season.
Prompted in part by this piece from David Cameron at Fangraphs, I now realize that I had not thought through the Cubs roster and how they might project for 2010 properly. The gist of my piece was that, with their rock-solid pitching, bounceback seasons from key players could well be enough to catapult them back to the top of the National League Central. The problem, of course, is that their pitching is unlikely to hold up as well as it did in 2009.
Now, it's one thing for a guy who follows and roots for the Cubs from a distance to make a mistake of this nature. It's another thing entirely for the individual tasked with making sure the best Cubs roster possible takes the field on Opening Day to make a similar error. Consider the following remarks by Jim Hendry from yesterday's edition of suburban Chicago newspaper the Daily Herald:
"We have to have our best players play like they're our best players, and that's something they didn't do that last year,'' Hendry said in a quiet moment amid the insanity of the Cubs Convention. "We had five guys have terrible years all in the same year at the same time, and you don't figure that to happen, but it sure happened to us.''
One of the players Hendry identified was Carlos Zambrano.
"It would be huge for us if he does what he's capable of doing, which is 18-20 wins with a lot of innings and a lot of quality starts,'' Hendry said. "The good thing is he's upset about it. He knows it wasn't a good year and he says he's mad about it.
And you knew this one, a favorite of Craig Calcaterra's, was coming.
"He's also in better shape than I've seen him, so that's a real good sign.''
Of course he is. Anyway, in one sense Hendry is spot on. Leaving aside Zambrano for a moment, let's assume Hendry is referring to Alfonso Soriano, Milton Bradley, Aramis Ramirez and Carlos Marmol. Soriano has $90 million left on his contract, and turned in a .241/.303/.423 year in 117 games last year. It's safe to say Chicago needs more from their left fielder and should get a lot more output in 2010. Bradley has been shipped off to Seattle and replaced with the more dependable but less talented Marlon Byrd. Ramirez was excellent, but in only 342 plate appearances. Marmol struggled with his control all season long. You could also toss Geovany Soto in there, too. Chicago's backstop figures to be much better in 2010. So, yes, the Cubs will need better play from these roster spots and should be able to count on it.
For Cubs fans, though, there are a couple of red flags in Hendry's thinking as revealed by these comments. The first is that he thinks Zambrano was a problem for the Cubs last season. But when you look at Zambrano's career numbers, 2009 seems right in line. He threw fewer innings than you'd ideally like (169.1) and his walk rate was up but the rest of it was a typical Zambrano season. In fact, his strikeout rate was up too, and Fangraphs had Zambrano at 3.6 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), his best total since 2006. If the bedrock of an improved Cubs team in 2010 is a drastic uptick in Zambrano's output, then they're already in a hole.
The second problem with Hendry's thinking, and the one I alluded to at the outset of this piece, is the notion that the rest of the team will just stay constant while the disappointments from 2009 pick up the slack. Let's start with the starting pitching staff, an impressive 2009 unit that returns in place aside from Rich Harden. With rumors of an imminent Ben Sheets signing swirling, for our purposes, let's assume similar output from Sheets (or Gorzelanny) as the 2009 Harden. For the other four, here are their 2009 ERA's, 2009 xFIP (a fielding-independent and more accurate and predictive measure of actual pitching quality), and their 2010 CHONE and MARCEL projections.
2009 2010 ERA xFIP CHONE MARCEL Dempster 3.65 3.81 4.12 3.76 Lilly 3.10 3.98 4.21 3.73 Zambrano 3.77 4.27 4.28 3.84 Wells 3.05 4.24 4.53 3.66
The Cubs team ERA+ was 117 in 2009, good for 2nd best in the National League. Their starters' ERA was 3.71, another excellent figure. In 2010, Chicago's pitching will not be as good. Three of the four pitchers listed above figure to under-perform their 2009 levels, and don't even get me started on what happens if Carlos Silva starts to take a regular turn. It's a good pitching staff, but I don't see it as one of the league's very best the way it was in 2009.
Offensively, because 2009 was such a disappointment for the Cubs, it's easy to forget just how good Derrek Lee was last year. At age 33, he hit .306/.393/.579 while in his 30-32 seasons, from 2006 to 2008, he hit .301/.378/.485. As you might imagine, projections have him closer to those levels for 2010. While the Cubs offense figures to improve year over year, it figures to do so in spite of lost production from Lee.
One of the most common themes in year-end performance self-evaluations at companies across America and around the world is the tendency to overstate successes and gloss over or ignore failures. Hendry's comments are not entirely analogous, but you can see a similar phenomenon taking hold. He's glossing over the great performance the Cubs got from their starting pitching in 2010. Ted Lilly and Derrek Lee were two of the very best players in baseball last season. He's brushing off the bad seasons in 2009 as though they were somehow fluky, but is someone like Soriano a guarantee to come back strong in 2010? How he thinks he's getting more out of Zambrano is beyond me. It seems like Hendry does not want to own some of his roster failures.
The best teams project future performance through an honest assessment of successes and failures, what's predictive and what's not. Taking the successes from a given season, penciling them in for the next season and banking on disappointments to return to form is a sure way to stay a few steps behind the teams more dynamically and realistically striving to improve.
Suggestion to Sunday Boston Globe: Chuck the "Bill Chuck files"
The Boston Sunday Globe's Baseball Notes column achieved must-read status for me at an early age. Peter Gammons wrote it. Gordon Edes tackled it for a number of years. More recently it's been Nick Cafardo, not necessarily a personal favorite of mine but the template was in place and he's largely done a fine job. Last week, an up and comer on the Boston sports media scene, Amalie Benjamin, handled the duties.
There is one terrible, corrosive portion of the column that I want to address. It's something called the "Bill Chuck files", it's at the very end, and it's more often than not just misleading tripe. As far as I can tell, giving Cafardo and Benjamin the benefit of the doubt, it's designed to point out interesting statistical oddities and nothing more. The end result, however, is that a mass audience is subjected to nonsense. Here are a few examples from the last few weeks:
From Benjamin's 1/3 column:
From the Bill Chuck files: Runs produced (RBIs plus runs minus home runs) is a good tool to measure batter effectiveness. Albert Pujols led the majors in 2009 with 212 runs produced. Jason Bay ended up with 186, the same as Mark Teixeira...
How terrible is that? "Runs produced is a good tool to measure batter effectiveness." Here's how "effective" the measure is:
With proper context, sure, it's fine to mention it. Runs produced is a tool. It tells you something. But good grief, a good tool to measure batter effectiveness? No.
This was another gem from the same paragraph last week:
Over the last three seasons, Stephen Drew (left) hit .264 with 45 homers and 192 RBIs, while older brother J.D. Drew hit .276 with 54 homers and 196 RBIs. Stephen made $1.5 million in 2009, while J.D. made $14 million . . .
Given my mild obsession with J.D. Drew and his treatment by the mainstream media and many fans, you can imagine this one got under my skin. Here's a portion of the email I sent Benjamin last weekend:
First of all, Stephen has not had a chance to be an unrestricted free agent. JD has. From the outset, it's an unfair comparison. JD also makes more money than Chase Utley and Joe Mauer and Jon Lester and Felix Hernandez - that's the CBA's fault, not JD's. But salaries aside, the brothers Drew are not comparable players...JD has walked 240 times since 2007, Stephen 150. JD's OBP is .390 since 2007, Stephen's .322. JD has slugged .485, Stephen .436. Stephen has made 289 more outs (albeit in 330 more plate appearances). Finally, J.D. is one of baseball's best RF according to UZR. Stephen has a spotty defensive record at SS. JD is just a way better player, a fact that might be lost on your readership given the way you framed your comment.
And now, this week, we get this from Cafardo:
Carlos Beltran and Adrian Beltre each has had 6,877 plate appearances. Beltre has 1,700 hits, Beltran has 1,705. Beltre has 348 doubles, Beltran 340. Beltran has struck out 1,086 times, Beltre 1,084 times. Beltre is a lifetime .270 hitter with 250 homers and 906 RBIs. Beltran is a lifetime .283 hitter with 273 homers and 1,035 RBIs.
All that's needed here is some context because even I find this to be interesting. Adrian Beltre and Carlos Beltran have similar names, the same amount of plate appearances and a number of similar statistics. A lead-in like this might work.
"While Beltran is a far better player, an excellent center fielder who gets on base way more often and steals bases prolifically and as efficiently as anyone in baseball, there are nonetheless statling and coincidental similarities between Beltran and new Red Sox 3B Adrian Beltre."
Ok maybe that's a run-on and I need an editor but you get the point. With just the excerpt published in the Globe, I can only imagine how many Red Sox fans think their new third baseman is every bit the player the Mets' center fielder is. Just to hammer this point home.
PA BB SB CS Outs Belran 6,877 730 286 38 4,556 Beltre 6,877 478 111 38 4,837
Beltre is a nice player who should help the Red Sox a lot in 2010. Beltran is a few more good seasons away from having an excellent Hall of Fame case.
In fairness, writers like Michael Silverman of the Boston Herald and Benjamin have been doing a great job of articulating the meaning of more advanced defensive metrics for their local readership as the Red Sox have undergone their off-season makeover. But cherry picking certain statistics and presenting them as though they tell a story the way Cafardo and Benjamin have with Runs Produced, the Drew brothers comparison and now the Beltre/Beltran comparison, do a disservice to their sizeable audience.
In Which a Baseball "Expert" Asserts Jack Morris Was Better Than Curt Schilling
I tend to think this medium is best left to its originators but I couldn't resist FJM'ing Dan Shaughnessy's latest "effort" for SI.com. It's so devoid of logic, so arrogant, so venomous towards those of us that like to think about the game, that I wanted to have a look at the column bit by bit and present it here at Baseball Analysts.
Fortunately, we expect the mood to pick up around here later today when the 2010 HOF class is announced. The latest BBTF vote tracker, through 118 ballots, has our guy Bert Blyleven trending above the 75% threshold. Let's cross our fingers.
Baseball's 2010 Hall of Fame class will be announced on Wednesday, and I'm betting that Edgar Martinez comes up short in his first year of eligibility for Cooperstown. Edgar presents voters with a unique choice because he is the first candidate who compiled virtually all of his resume as a designated hitter.
This article is off to a great start. Edgar does present a tough choice. He didn't rack up a ton of plate appearances by Hall standards, and all of his value is derived from his hitting, so I am assuming we can anticipate an interesting discussion on just how good that hitter should be in order to be considered Hall-worthy as a DH.
In 18 seasons, all with the Seattle Mariners, Edgar batted .312 with an on-base percentage of .418 and a slugging percentage of .515. This makes him one of 20 players in hardball history with lifetime numbers over .300, .400 and .500, respectively. He has a higher on-base percentage than Stan Musial, Wade Boggs and Mel Ott. He is one of only eight players with 300 homers, 500 doubles and the aforementioned .300/.400/.500 line. He won a couple of batting titles and was an All-Star seven times.
Oh ok, I see where you’re going. Edgar is SO good as a hitter, that you probably have to put him in. .300/.400/.500 over a whole career is a pretty special accomplishment.
He stayed with the same team for his entire career, so there would be no controversy regarding which logo to put on his Hall cap.
Crisp writing. Way to stay on point. It's essential that we think about "Hall cap", particularly in the free agent era, as we decide which ballplayers merit consideration for the game’s most prestigious honor.
The Mariners have campaigned madly for Edgar and it pains me to withhold my vote, but I just can't bring myself to put him in Cooperstown alongside Ted Williams, Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.
Nobody cares at all that it “pains” you, Dan. Nobody.
If I squint here, I think Dan is saying he’s a “small hall” guy. That would be fine. It really would. A Hall of Fame that enshrines fewer players, as Sky demonstrated yesterday, would be great. But Dan, not only did you vote Jim Rice in, but you were like Chuck Norris to John McCain, touting Rice's candidacy at every opportunity for what seemed like a full decade. You can’t – CAN’T – be a “small hall” proponent and also advocate for baseball’s 258th best position player of all time. It’s a complete joke.
I have been a Hall voter for more than 25 years and it's the most important task assigned to the baseball writers of America. In recent years the Hall ballot has become heavier as voters are asked to make character judgments regarding players who may have padded their statistics with illegal and/or banned substances.
Funny story: Tainted by the Scourge is actually the name of a Worcester garage band Dan followed around Central Massachusetts during his days at Holy Cross.
I just don't think he's a Hall of Famer, and that doesn't make him less than great. It doesn't take away his numbers. I like Dwight Evans, Dale Murphy, Alan Trammell and Andre Dawson, but I don't think they're Hall of Famers, either.
Oh, well ok. I happen to agree on all but Trammell (although I struggle badly with Dewey) but that's cool, sounds like you've been thoughtful about this. Interesting stuff. I’m eager to learn more about your thought process. These guys don't measure up to your standard and it's your ballot so hey, tell me about your standard.
Each Hall voter applies his own standards, and mine often references the famous line that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart applied to pornography. Stewart argued that he might not be able to define what was pornographic, "but I know it when I see it.''
/falls off chair
Indeed. Hall of Famers, just like pornography! Except, no. Just, no. You DON’T know it when you see it. Branch Rickey didn’t know it when he saw it. Robinson Cano LOOKS like a Hall of Famer to me. Sweet, powerful swing. Smooth and athletic in the field. But he’s not! He might yet become one, but I know he’s not because I can check his performance record and note that his does not stack up to others in the HOF. If I didn't know more about his numbers and that he hadn't played long enough, and I had the same standard of "knowing it when I see it" then I might conclude Cano was, right now, a Hall of Famer.
For me, it's the same with Hall of Famers. Some guys just strike you as Cooperstown-worthy and others do not. Edgar Martinez was a very fine hitter, but I never said to myself, "The Mariners are coming to Fenway this weekend. I wonder how the Sox are going to pitch to Edgar Martinez?''
YOU might not have said that but why don't you talk to Red Sox advance scouts? Because I am positive they agonized over it.
But there you have it, this is Dan’s standard. At this point, given how much we know about what makes a baseball player good, isn’t this just criminal. Isn’t this the very height of arrogance. Stat folks are often criticized for being arrogant themselves, but isn’t it the person that says “it is because I know it to be” who’s arrogant? Not the person who arrives at some sort of logical, objective and defensible conclusion based on reason?
"Virtually all sportswriters, I suppose, believe that Jim Rice is an outstanding player. If you ask them how they know this, they'll tell you that they just know; I've seen him play. That's the difference in a nutshell between knowledge and bullshit; knowledge is something that can be objectively demonstrated to be true, and bullshit is something that you just 'know.' If someone can actually demonstrate that Jim Rice is a great ballplayer, I'd be most interested to see the evidence."
Thanks, Bill! And great timing, because guess who Dan's going to bring up next?!?!
It was different with players like Eddie Murray and Jim Rice. They were feared. Murray got into Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility (thanks to 500 homers, no doubt), while it took Rice 15 years to finally get the required 75 percent of votes.
But what about Eddie Murray’s cap? So many teams!
Anyway, Murray and Rice were feared, but Edgar Martinez was not. That’s Shaughnessy’s point. Let's pretend this makes any sense at all - this "fear" stuff. The best way I can think to measure it is by the intentional walk.
Murray was walked intentionally 222 times (once every 57 plate appearances), an incredible figure. As a switch hitter who played for a very long time and had a ton of plate appearances, this isn’t too surprising. Beyond being a good hitter, Murray presented opposing managers late-inning bullpen match-up problems.
Edgar was intentionally walked 113 times (once every 77 plate appearances). Martinez hit in some stacked Mariner lineups though, with the likes of Ken Griffey, Jr., A-Rod, Jay Buhner, Tino Martinez, Paul Sorrento and others. It’s a respectable total, but one that was influenced downward by the excellent hitters surrounding Edgar. Remember, Roger Maris wasn’t walked intentionally once in 1961.
So I would say it’s best not to use the “feared” argument at all, because once you start to investigate the claim in any meaningful way, you end up with a lot of information pulling you in different directions. Directions like the exact opposite one you're hoping for when you argue that Rice was a HOF'er because he was "feared."
Both were feared sluggers who spent a lot of time in the field before becoming DHs as elder statesmen.
But there you go again! With the “feared”! You just can’t help yourself! Why don’t we keep it simple? AVG/OBP/SLG – OPS+ - Plate Appearances
Murray: .287/.359/.476 – 129 – 12,817
Ding Edgar for no defense. Ding him for not enough plate appearances, but good grief, admit he was a much, much better hitter than both Eddie Murray and Jim Rice!
This year I voted for Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris.
I guess that’s good. Two of the three are deserving but there are some glaring omissions.
Alomar goes down as one of the greatest second basemen of all time and was the best at his position for just about the entire time he played. This is his first year on the ballot and I think he'll be the top vote-getter in the class of 2010.
Blyleven has been on the ballot for 13 years and may come up short again, but he won 287 games, ranks fifth all-time in strikeouts and compiled a 3.31 ERA over 22 seasons, pitching for a lot of bad ball clubs.
Yeah, you got it.
Morris won 254 games in 18 seasons and pitched one of the greatest World Series games of all time, a 10-inning, 1-0 Game 7 victory over the Braves in 1991. There's already support for Boston blowhard Curt Schilling, who won't be on the ballot for another three years, but Morris has to get in before Schilling gets in. Morris was better.
We're going to pause here so that everyone can appreciate this. Jack Morris is better than Curt Schilling. Let that sink in for a moment.
Here’s a man who covers baseball for a living. Think of what you do for a living, how you have trained to come to understand what you need to in order to carry out your job well. How you strive to learn as much as you can so that you can perform to the best of your abilities.
And now ponder for a moment what it must be like to spend your career working in baseball, to laying claim to and having others bestow upon you some measure of expertise. And you assert that Jack Morris was better than Curt Schilling. I get Dan's schtick, but it's just so beyond the pale.
Curt Schilling was a career 127 ERA+ pitcher with a 4.38 K/BB ratio in 3,261 innings. Jack Morris was a career 105 ERA+ pitcher with a 1.78 K/BB ratio in 3,824 innings. The innings difference is not insignificant, but those innings amount to an additional 563 frames of 6.46 ERA ball. Like, two or three full seasons of Adam Eaton. If you place a lot of stock in peripherals, a stat like K/BB, then although Schilling might be lacking in longevity compared to other Hall performers, he is still one of the best of all time. Jack Morris is kind of like Livan Hernandez or Tim Wakefield.
As for their post-season performance, Morris was 7-4 with a career 3.80 ERA in the playoffs. Schilling was 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA.
Now, you’re a Sports Editor. You like Shaughnessy because he’s plucky and he attracts readers because he appeals to some segment of sports fans I'll never understand while irritating another segment. But at what point does self-respect come into play? At what point do you say to yourself, “Enough’s enough. It reflects too poorly on my organization and me professionally to continue to provide this guy a forum”? Does that point ever arrive? Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but with the likes of Joe Posnanski and Rob Neyer and Keith Law furthering their march into the mainstream, that day’s coming a lot sooner than Dan Shaughnessy may think. It's simply preposterous to lay any claim whatsoever to baseball expertise and simultaneously hold that Jack Morris was better than Curt Schilling. It's irreconcilable.
The toughest omissions this year were Dawson, Barry Larkin, Fred McGriff ... and Edgar.
But not Raines or Trammell. And certainly not McGwire, what with his taint of the scourge and all.
A lifetime .312 average is impressive and Edgar's OPS puts him in an elite class. But he wasn't a home run hitter (309), he couldn't carry a team, he didn't scare you, and (sorry) he rarely played defense. Edgar spent a couple of years at third for the M's in the early 1990s before taking over as full-time DH.
Two facts (a lifetime .312 average IS impressive, his OPS DOES put him in an elite class) and then meaningless and/or counter-factual assertions. He "wasn't a home run hitter" with "309" listed parenthetically. How does one amass 309 home runs without being a "home run hitter"?
"He couldn't carry a team." Good grief, well who can? 9 players HAVE to come to the plate! "He didn't scare you." He didn't scare who! You?! Why should he?! So dumb. So very dumb. Ask Andy Pettitte (career 1.132 OPS vs Edgar) or Bartolo Colon (1.049) or Chris Carpenter (1.183) if Edgar scared THEM!
The stat geeks, those get-a-lifers who are sucking all the joy out of our national pastime, no doubt will be able to demonstrate that Edgar was better than Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby. I'm not buying. Stats don't tell the whole story. A man can drown in three feet of water.
Nope, nobody has said he was even close to as good as either of those players. And really, who sucks the joy out of baseball? The fan eager to enhance his or her understanding of the game or the sportswriter who trusts his eye/gut over any sort of elementary performance metics? Oh, hold on, I know, it's the third option; it's the writer who has built his career by being a know-nothing instigator. THAT guy sucks the joy out of the sport.
Edgar Martinez was a fine hitter and got on base a lot. But he was a corner infielder who didn't hit a lot of homers and then he became a guy who spent the majority of every game watching from the bench.
You know who else spends the majority of the games behind the bench? EVERY SINGLE PITCHER EVER VOTED INTO THE HALL OF FAME! But really, great point.
Ok, that's done with. Hopefully Baseball Analysts readers for whom Rich Lederer's tireless work advocating for Bert Blyleven's candidacy has resonated can stop back later on today and we can all toast some good news. And to end on a positive note with Dan himself, given that he cast a vote for Bert, he will have had a hand in that potential bit of good news. So at least there's that!
J.D. Drew, Bargain
Engage a J.D. Drew detractor, try and dissuade him, try and convince him Drew might be a good player, and the conversation will go something like this:
Supporter: J.D. Drew is very good at baseball.
Detractor: Drew is hurt all the time, doesn’t hit many home runs and doesn’t drive anybody in. What am I missing?
Supporter: Well, you’re missing that he is on base all the time, that he hits with quite a bit of power and that given the type of player he is, one that puts the ball in play more seldom than most, he’s bound to have smallish RBI totals. Also, he plays great defense.
Detractor: Fine, fine. Maybe it’s his demeanor that gets me. But you have to admit, he’s overpaid.
And it’s right about there that the legions of Drew supporters – and they’re out there – lose their energy. It seems we have arrived at a place on Drew where fans who think he’s not a very good player have come around on that front while the olive branch from the pro-J.D. side is to concede that Drew may be overpaid. To get a good sense for the mindset of the Drew detractor, check out this August piece from Bleacher Report. Keep in mind that Bleacher Report is all bloggy and of the intertubes and forward thinking and part of the future. Drew hate is not limited to the broadsheets and tabloids. Here’s a little taste:
The Red Sox are probably wishing that Victor Martinez was a right fielder so they could sit Drew and his $14 million salary for the rest of the season.
This is nothing new, either. Here is something called JT the Brick responding to news of Drew’s signing in Boston:
Christmas has come early to every member of the Boston sports media as J.D. Drew has agreed to a new five-year, $70 million contract. There is no doubt in my mind that Drew will eventually get run out of Beantown by the Red Sox fans and several members of the media after they figure out what he is all about.
Boston sports media institution Bob Ryan wasted no time, saying to Theo Epstein on a conference call announcing the Drew acquisition, "“On behalf of an eager constituency, let’s hope the rumor is not true" before Epstein could even speak. Boston Dirt Dogs, in one of its characteristically bland posts lacking any sort of wit or creativity, described Drew's role this way:
Media Gathers In Anticipation of Press Conference to Introduce the Man Who Would Replace Trot Nixon at Five Times the Salary
Oh, how Steve Silva loves him some Trot Nixon. Anyway, you see the point. Many do not like J.D. Drew. Those who concede he might be decent at baseball will complain of his injuries or how much money he makes. That he's hit .276/.390/.485 since joining the Red Sox, or that he's a terrific defensive player, are no matter.
I imagine those reading this are familiar with the Fangraphs practice of assigning a dollar value to each Win Above Replacement (WAR). Baseball Analysts’ Sky Andrecheck has his own methodology as well. Dave Cameron at Fangraphs has already addressed the question of whether or not Drew is overpaid (he's not). This piece will not set out to determine whether or not Drew was worth the money per se – that discussion is subject to countless variables which are specific to individual team needs and budgets, and even how one assigns a dollar value to a player's performance.
Instead, we will just have a look at how his performance has stacked up against the other free agents in his class. After all, given the CBA, there is no sense in comparing Drew to a pre-arb player like Matt Kemp or guys who have never been unrestricted like Matt Holliday or Albert Pujols. By the same token, it’s not fair to evaluate Boston’s choice to ink Drew to a 5-year, $70M contract by pointing out cheaper players that might have put up comparable value. Unrestricted free agents are paid differently, and we should evaluate Drew vis-a-vis this peer group in determining to what extent he has “earned” his money. The Red Sox needed an outfielder heading into the 2007 season, had nobody they felt could fill the role internally and did not wish to make a trade. They turned to the free agent market.
So let’s see how Drew compares to his 2006-2007 free agent class. Then we can assess whether the Red Sox made a good decision, and if Drew has held up his end of the bargain. We will start first with a look at every free agent that signed a contract for a total value of more than $9.5 million in the off-season preceding the 2007 campaign. For Kei Igawa and Daisuke Matsuzaka, I have included posting fees in their respective total contract values. "Duration" is in years and "Total $" in millions of dollars.
Player POS Duration Total $ Value Soriano, A. OF 8 136 Zito, B. SP 7 126 Matsuzaka, D. SP 6 103.1 Lee, C. OF 6 100 Ramirez, A. 3B 5 75 Drew, J.D. OF 5 70 Meche, Gil SP 5 55 Matthews, Jr. OF 5 50 Schmidt, J. SP 3 47 Igawa, K. SP 5 46 Pierre, J. OF 5 44 Suppan, J. SP 4 42 Lilly, T. SP 4 40 Lugo, J. SS 4 36 Padilla, V. SP 3 33.75 Batista, M. SP 3 25 Eaton, A. SP 3 24.5 Mussina, M. SP 2 23 Marquis, J. SP 3 21 Huff, A. 1B 3 20 Edmonds, J. OF 2 19 Baez, D. RP 3 19 Garciaparra, N. 1B 2 18.5 Thomas, F. DH 2 18.12 Roberts. D. OF 3 18 Speier, J. RP 4 18 Molina, B. C 3 16 Pettitte, A. SP 1 16 Bonds, B. OF 1 15.8 Gonzalez, Alex SS 3 14 Durham Ray 2B 2 14 DeRosa, Mark 3B 3 13 Catalanotto, F. OF 3 13 Mulder, Mark SP 2 13 Williams, W. SP 2 12.5 Hernandez, O. SP 2 12 Walker, J. RP 3 12 Dellucci, D. OF 3 11.5 Schoenweis, S. RP 3 10.8 Bradford, C. RP 3 10.5 Glavine, T. SP 1 10.5 Maddux, G. SP 1 10 Kennedy, A. 2B 3 10 Payton, J. OF 2 9.5
Prior to the 2007 season, Drew signed the 6th richest free agent contract as reflected by total value over the life of the deal. Bob Ryan was aghast. I recall LA Times columnist T.J. Simers booked solid for a full week on Boston sports radio to rail against Drew.
I want to frame Drew's relative value as clearly as I can here, so I will next present a list of players who have provided negative or no value at all - replacement level value or worse - over the life of their respective deals signed. Let's try and contextualize the term overpaid as it relates to Major League Baseball players for folks like JT the Brick. We will use Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement to measure on-field contribution.
Player POS Duration Total $ WAR since '07 Schoenweis RP 3 10.8 -1.5 Dellucci OF 3 11.5 -1.5 Matthews OF 5 50 -1.1 Walker RP 3 12 -0.6 Baez RP 3 19 -0.5 Mulder SP 2 13 -0.4 Igawa SP 5 46 -0.2 Speier RP 4 18 -0.2 Garciaparra 1B 2 18.5 -0.2 Williams SP 2 12.5 -0.1 Roberts OF 3 18 -0.1 Catalanotto OF 3 13 -0.1 Schmidt SP 3 47 0 Eaton SP 3 24.5 0
That's $313.8 million (!) paid out to players that have provided less value than your typical AAAA Minor League veteran kicking around just about any organization. You see that list right above this paragraph? THOSE guys are overpaid. Prior to the 2007 season, Ned Colletti saw fit to guarantee Nomar Garciaparra $18.5 million, in part to replace the offense J.D. Drew had provided. The Nomar deal was a masterstroke in comparison to his signing of Jason Schmidt. The Dodgers had decided they did not want to try and re-sign Drew once he decided he wanted to exercise his opt-out. Said Colletti:
"He wants out, he can have out. He's moving on, we're moving on. We'll find players who like playing here. If he doesn't want to be here, he has the right to leave, and he's exercising that right."
But Drew didn't necessarily want to leave Los Angeles. He just wanted more guaranteed money, and had every right to exercise the option in his contract. Here's Drew's agent, Scott Boras from the same ESPN article:
"J.D. was very happy in Los Angeles. He liked the players. He liked the team. & He's not opposed to going back," Boras said. "We let the Dodgers know we're interested in returning and discussing a new contract. Obviously, it was something we had to do in free agency."
Losing J.D. Drew is the best thing to happen to the Dodgers since they lost Milton Bradley...
So instead of entertaining re-signing Drew, how did the Dodgers address their roster prior to the 2007 campaign? They dished out $109.5 million to Nomar, Schmidt and Juan Pierre, three players who contributed a combined 3.4 wins in three seasons. You don't need to be Tom Tango or Sky Andrecheck to figure out that $32 million per win is not great value.
Ok, so we know there were a bunch of atrocious contracts handed out in the 2006-2007 off-season, by the Dodgers and plenty of other teams, so right off the bat we know Drew is going to be looking better than those that provided negative or no value. Well what if we set aside money for a moment and just try and assess who the best players of that class have been since the beginning of the 2007 season?
Player POS Duration Total $ WAR since '07 Ramirez 3B 5 75 12.3 Meche SP 5 55 10.9 Drew OF 5 70 10.3 Lilly SP 4 40 10.0 Mussina SP 2 23 8.2 DeRosa IF 3 13 8.1 Soriano OF 8 136 8.0 Matsuzaka SP 6 103 7.7 Marquis SP 2 21 7.3
If WAR is to be believed, J.D. Drew has been the third most productive player of his class since 2007, just behind Gil Meche and a ways behind Aramis Ramirez, who is just a terrific baseball player. Since we know he signed the sixth largest contract that off-season, checking in as the third most productive player suggests Drew has offered the Red Sox considerable value. To distill his peer group even further, how about we look at other outfielders, this time with a cost per win calculation included.
Player Duration Total $ WAR $ per win Bonds 1 15.8 3.9 4.05 Drew 5 70 10.3 4.07 Lee 6 100 9.2 5.43 Pierre 5 44 3.6 7.33 Edmonds 2 19 1.9 10.00 Payton 2 9.5 0.7 13.57 Dellucci 3 11.5 -1.5 NA Matthews 5 50 -1.1 NA Roberts 3 18 -0.1 NA Catalanotto 3 13 -0.1 NA
This list tells us that, outside of Barry Bonds and the one-year deal he signed in his last season, no team that signed a free agent outfielder before the 2007 season has enjoyed a better bargain on a per-season basis than the Red Sox have in paying for Drew's services.
Successfully negotiating the free agent market is a critical component of Major League Baseball roster composition. You can promote from within your organization, you can make a splashy trade, you can lock up your pre-arb players and buy out a year or two of their free agency. But you also must dabble in the free agent market in order to assemble a championship caliber club. Given this fact of life for MLB General Managers, it is useful to evaluate the "value" of a certain deal vis-a-vis other free agents and more specifically, other free agents that were available that year. Supply matters when evaluating value. And if you think of the J.D. Drew contract in this light, not only has his contract turned out to be a worthwhile one for the Red Sox, but it's been a full-fledged bargain.
Boston Sports Journo Tries Hand at Logic, Irony Ensues
Cameron, while not as big a star as Lackey, is a top-tier defensive outfielder who has some power and can steal a base. General manager Theo Epstein did overdo it with the superlatives, saying, “He’ll get his 20 to 25 home runs every year, play outstanding defense, sees a lot of pitches at the plate. We just think he’s an underrated offensive player.”
You could force Steve Buckley to stare at that second paragraph for hours on end, just have him read it over and over, and the irony would not hit him. Yes, Mike Cameron has a career .250 batting average and yes he has a career .340 on-base percentage. If you choose not to take the time to understand more about his specific skill-set or you decide to ignore context, then sure, Cameron will look as though he's been an average offensive player to you. What's great about Buckley presenting those stats as his evidence that Cameron is average and not underrated is that it's precisely BECAUSE of those (and other) numbers that Cameron IS underrated.
Cameron's career OPS+ is 107, comfortably above average. 7 center fielders eclipsed the mark in 2009, 10 in 2008, 7 in 2007. wRC+ paints an even better picture, as it takes into account stolen bases and appropriately weights on-base versus slugging. His career 114 mark is better than Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon or Joe Carter. Think Buckley would refer to any of those three as "average"?
Like his new teammate JD Drew, Cameron does not put the ball in play as often as most big league hitters. Since 1999, only Jim Thome has struck out more times. Over that same time period, however, Cameron ranks 21st in bases on balls, ahead of Damon, Carlos Beltran, Derrek Lee and Derek Jeter. Not bad at all, but also not the skill set that will grab the attention of the Steve Buckleys of the world.
Finally, Cameron has toiled for much of his career in Safeco and Petco and Shea, tough hitters parks all. Mike Cameron may turn out to be merely average in 2010. He is 37 now, after all. But with Buckley making the case simply by highlighting Cameron's career batting average and on base, I thought some additional context and reasoning were in order.
“We talked about this a lot at the end of the year, that we’re kind of in a bridge period,’’ he said. “We still think that if we push some of the right buttons, we can be competitive at the very highest levels for the next two years. But we don’t want to compromise too much of the future for that competitiveness during the bridge period, but we all don’t want to sacrifice our competitiveness during the bridge just for the future. So we’re just trying to balance both those issues.’’
John Henry and Theo Epstein are preparing you for the Big Slide. While they continue to raise ticket prices and drain every dollar out of Fenway, they are telling you to put your expectations on the shelf. No more “championship-driven’’ campaign for your Red Sox. The Sox are building a “bridge’’ for the future. They are giving up on competing with those big, bad Yankees.
The Sox still need a couple of bats. They still need one or two guys like Jason Bay, Matt Holliday, Adrian Gonzalez, or Miguel Cabrera. But Boston’s loyal fans should be happy that the Sox are spending money and going for Lackey. It demonstrates that the brass is still trying to compete with the Yankees, still willing to commit big dollars in the quest for a championship.
Boston was due for a good old-fashioned Red Sox media sh*tstorm. After all, things have been pretty quiet over years around here. What is there to say about a team that has qualified for the playoffs in six of the past seven seasons, including two World Series titles and two ALCS Game 7 losses? There are only so many times the fan base can bitch about J.D. Drew when the team they're rooting for is winning 60% of the time. But, you know, Theo Epstein had the audacity to use the word "bridge" and if you think Dan Shaughnessy was going to show any sort of restraint or understanding or maturity or sobriety in handling that remark, well, you're not a Boston sports journalism enthusiast.
If you read the first quote above, it's pretty evident what Theo was saying. The Red Sox front office is really excited over their low-minors talent and, according to John Sickels, with good reason. Having graduated Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Jonathan Papelbon, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Daniel Bard and others over the last few seasons, the high-minors cupboard, understandably, is looking somewhat bare. This means that the Red Sox need to be thoughtful about how they operate as they look to link up their current core to the 2011 and 2012 ETA's.
Maybe he could have worded Boston's situation differently or better anticipated the backlash that might ensue from the word "bridge" (really, you can't imagine how up in arms folks here were over the comment), but all Epstein said was that he would not compromise the Red Sox bright future for short-term gains. There would be no ridiculous package being sent away for Roy Halladay, no long-term free agent signing that might hamper the team down the road and/or block a better, cheaper option that might emerge in 2011 or 2012. While Shaughnessy might prefer a press conference jointly announcing the additions of Matt Holliday, Jason Bay, Adrian Gonzalez, Lackey, Cameron, Halladay, Jim Rice, Nick Esasky and a new book deal for a certain curly haired Boston scribe, as a fan, I'm thankful for Epstein's approach.
With regard to the third quote listed above, let's leave aside for a moment that Shaughnessy convinced himself that Boston's brass succumbed to pressure he applied in the December 10th column. Rather, let's focus on his assertion that, even after the additions of Lackey and Cameron, Boston needs "one or two guys like Jason Bay, Matt Holliday, Adrian Gonzalez, or Miguel Cabrera." The specific contention is obviously nuts - that a team that won 95 games last year and just added two very good baseball players NEEDS two of the 20 best hitters in the game - but I think a more tempered iteration might go something like this; "Who's gonna hit for this team?". It's a fair question.
Offensively, replacing Bay with Mike Cameron will hurt. Bay hit .274/.380/.534 as a Red Sox, while Cameron turns 37 soon and has managed a .350 on-base just once in the last eight seasons. Mike Lowell hit .290/.337/.474 in 2009, a batting line his replacement in the 2010 Red Sox lineup at this point, Casey Kotchman, will in all likelihood struggle to match. Kevin Youkilis will be 31 and is coming off of a career year. Will Drew be able to play 137 games again? You get the picture. There are some questions surrounding the Red Sox offense.
There also is some good news. Marco Scutaro, however much regression you factor in for him coming off of a career year in 2009, will serve as an upgrade at shortstop. In 2009, Red Sox shortstops combined to hit just .235/.297/.358. In addition, Victor Martinez will play a full season in a Red Sox uniform. Most of that time will be behind the plate, but the Red Sox also have a nifty little platoon option at their disposal. Jason Varitek, who OPS'd .807 against southpaws last year, could move Victor to first base against lefties, spell Kotchman and give Martinez a break from behind the dish. Thankfully, CHONE projects significant improvement for David Ortiz.
Losing Bay is a big hit, so you net it all out and I think we can expect some regression for the Red Sox offense. The question is, does it matter? Wins are wins, and if you can make up for a spotty offense with top-notch pitching and defense, maybe you can keep enough runs off the board to grade out as a better overall team. So let's look at the run prevention side of the ledger for the Red Sox.
In looking at the offense, we started with swapping Bay out for Cameron so we'll start there defensively, too. As David Cameron's prescient analysis pointed out, the gap in their defensive ability makes up for Bay's significant edge at the plate. If UZR is to be trusted, the Red Sox could be looking at a 20-run defensive improvement simply by playing Cameron instead of Bay. Cameron's been one of the best outfielders in the game over the last decade. Bay is one of baseball's very worst.
Elsewhere on the defensive side, Mike Lowell and Jacoby Ellsbury showed as two of the worst defensive players in baseball last season. Kevin Youkilis should be an upgrade over Lowell while Ellsbury, whether he is in left field or center, figures to improve considerably. There seems to be a consensus out there that his 2009 defensive performance was anomalous. Even if the Red Sox decided not to make one change on their pitching staff, by virtue of defensive improvements alone, I think the Red Sox might have made up for their lost offensive output.
But of course the Red Sox HAVE made changes to the pitching staff. Cliff Corcoran summed it up nicely in his recent piece for SI.com:
The Red Sox rotation behind Jon Lester and Josh Beckett struggled mightily in 2009. In the 98 games not started by Lester or Beckett this past season, Red Sox starters went 36-36 with a 5.40 ERA, and 1.57 WHIP. With Clay Buchholz having emerged as a legitimate mid-rotation starter in August and Daisuke Matsuzaka having made a strong comeback in mid-September, the Red Sox already had hope for improvement in their rotation heading into 2010, but the addition of Lackey, easily the best starting pitcher in a weak free agent market, ramps that improvement up from modest to drastic.
If you want a model for how the Red Sox can succeed without "one or two guys like Jason Bay, Matt Holliday, Adrian Gonzalez, or Miguel Cabrera", just look to 2007. Listed below are where the Red Sox ranked in 2007 and 2009 in a bunch of different offensive and defensive categories.
RS OPS+ RA ERA+ DER BABIP UZR 2007 3 3 1 1 1 2 4 2009 3 3 3 3 13 14 7
*DER is Defensive Efficiency Rating, BABIP is batting average on balls in play, UZR is ultimate zone rating.
With their pitching and defense improvements, the Red Sox look like the 2007 run prevention unit once again. Fans waiting for the other shoe to drop in the form of a deal for Adrian Gonzalez might be disappointed, but the Red Sox could wrap for the off-season, take this team to Fort Myers and have every reason to believe they will once again be in the thick of things. If their offense can hold somewhat steady from 2009 to 2010, the pitching and defense improvements should be more than enough to help them blow right through their annual goal of 95 wins.
OK in Arizona?
Like others I had no idea what Josh Byrnes might have been thinking when I first heard of yesterday's trade. Now, I'll admit it, I am no longer as appalled by the deal from the Diamondbacks' perspective as many of the writers and analysts I have seen. Arizona gave up Max Scherzer, a power pitcher with a longstanding history of arm troubles. As Keith Law noted in his write-up, it's likely that Scherzer will one day soon transition to the bullpen due to ongoing injury issues. He should be a good reliever, but not only could the D-Backs afford to give up a player who projects out as a quality 70-inning guy, but they absolutely should have. They gave up Dan Schlereth as well, a live-armed lefty whose limited performance record in pro baseball hasn't told us much about what he figures to become. We know he has a good arm, we know he struggled some in 2009 with Arizona.
In return, the Diamondbacks get two starters they hope to run out 30 times or so in 2010. Edwin Jackson is not as good as his 2009 performance might suggest, but he now transitions from the AL to the NL. Ask Brad Penny and John Smoltz how that worked out. While Scherzer might be more talented, Jackson should be able to offer more quality innings and quality starts over the next two seasons. In Ian Kennedy, Arizona receives a player who has dominated Minor League ball and struggled in spot Major League action. There's plenty still to like about Kennedy, and his return from a freak 2009 injury should not be much of an issue.
In the end this deal comes down to a relatively new and key performance projection factor, or what's often referred to as a player's "medicals" or "meds". Arizona might think they have a ticking time-bomb in Scherzer, while their diligence on Jackson and Kennedy (both with durability questions of their own) indicates they now have a couple of work-horses. If that's the case, with Brandon Webb back in the fold and Dan Haren taking the hill every 5th game, the Diamondbacks now have a nice little rotation. Whether the haul was maximized or not, at the very least, I don't think folks should be as dismissive of Arizona's decision to try and retrieve value elsewhere for Scherzer.
Oh, and yeah, the Yankees did great to acquire Curtis Granderson.
Casey Kelly to Pitch, Steve Jobs to focus on Apple, Phil Micklelson to Forego Luge at 2010 Winter Olympics to Work on Golf
Any news is big news for Red Sox fans, and so yesterday when it was announced that prized farmhand Casey Kelly would pitch full-time and give up his career as a shortstop, reporters pounced. The Boston Globe and Boston Herald were quick to post stories. Twitter was abuzz.
Last night, I offered my two cents on my Twitter feed:
Big news for #redsox today: Casey Kelly chooses pitching. Elsewhere, Martin Brodeur remains goalie & NOT moving to forward.
I understand reporters have to cover these sorts of things - nothing at all against Amalie Benjamin or John Tomase. Benjamin's report, loaded with quotes from Red Sox Minor League infield instructor Gary DiSarcina, was terrific. The joke lies in the extent to which the writing was on the wall for Kelly. He could have continued at shortstop for part of the year if he wished. A bigtime recruit to play quarterback for the University of Tennessee, Kelly's ability to return to play college football offered him leverage even as the Sox urged him to focus on his pitching.
But just look at his numbers. He's a career .219/.282/.336 hitter in the Minors. Meanwhile, as a hurler, he has flashed command well beyond his years. It's no secret just how great the Red Sox brass thinks Kelly can be. At first glance, his 74 strikeouts in 95 professional innings pitched might underwhelm a bit. But when you consider he was 19 splitting the season between the Sally and Carolina leagues and sported a 4.63 K/BB, you can start to appreciate what the Red Sox see. For context, the list of Major League pitchers who were able to post a 4.63 K/BB in at least 95 innings in 2009 consisted of Zack Greinke, Javier Vazquez, Dan Haren and Roy Halladay.
We all have to make choices in our careers that shape how our professional lives play out. Yesterday Casey Kelly made a smart (and obvious) career move.
The Problematic Cubs Outfielder
The Chicago Cubs have an outfielder who tends to miss games due to injury, flashes brilliance, makes a lot of money and struggles with his attitude from time to time. His name is Alfonso Soriano. He turns 34 in January. In the last two seasons, Soriano has managed to hit just .260/.323/.476 in 226 games played. His defense in left field is suspect. Few players in baseball enjoy more job security.
Milton Bradley had an off year in 2009. With a career .450 slugging percentage and coming off of a career high .563 number in 2008, you can understand why Cubs fans were frustrated with Bradley's lack of power. Still, Bradley managed a .378 on-base percentage and netted out as an asset to the club on the field. He wasn't worth his contract in 2009, but he helped the Cubs win baseball games more than he hurt them. The Cubs cannot say that same thing of Soriano's 2009 season. Yet, probably because he has a more favorable contract and dozens of other reasons beyond me, by all accounts, the Cubs seem determined to move Bradley and not Soriano.
When the Cubs acquired Bradley after his career season in 2008, they knew precisely what they were getting. They knew he had the ability to get on base and hit with a lot of pop if he could stay on the field. Anything approaching his 2008 campaign could have put them over the top. They also knew of his past. They knew he was emotional and complex. They also knew he was sincere. Here's Jim Hendry at the announcement of Bradley's signing:
"As we left the restaurant and stood on the curb waiting for the driver ... [Bradley] said, 'I know it's going to take some time and you have some work to do, but I want to be a Chicago Cub if you want me,'" Hendry said.
Hendry was moved by this. So much so, that he felt comfortable looking past Bradley's occasional meltdown and offering him a lucrative multi-year offer.
And here's Bradley:
"I don't feel like everybody is against me anymore," Bradley said. "I really felt like that in the past, and that I had to watch my back about everything, and I learned you have to trust somebody at some point. In Oakland, I had great teammates [and in] San Diego, Texas. Once I got around good guys who all they wanted to do was support and play with you and be a friend, I felt that love. Anybody, all they want is to be loved.
So there it is. He wants to be loved. When he hasn't felt "loved" in the past, he has reacted very poorly at the first signs of adversity. No question, Bradley bears responsibility for all of his past transgressions, but he also has shown that in an environment of acceptance and happiness, he can thrive. But at this point, at 31, Bradley is a known quantity.
When an employer looks to add to its workforce, it's hiring criteria rests on two components: ability and fit. Ability is straightforward. Does he/she interview well? How's the resume? Can they sell? Can they program? Are they innovative marketers? You get the point.
Fit is a bit more complicated. In a hands-off environment, can the individual thrive autonomously? In a more micro-managed organization, will the prospective employee be able to conform? The calculus runs deeper still. If the fit is there, maybe you make tweaks in your style. Maybe you have a candidate that could make such an impact, you decide it's appropriate to handle that employee differently than others. On the other hand, maybe the individual's working style and personality align so perfectly with your organizational culture that you can look past a mediocre resume or lackluster interview.
In this regard, in the Human Resources department, the Cubs failed miserably with either their acquisition of Milton Bradley or their subsequent handling. Either they knew that they would have to go to great lengths to make him comfortable once they brought him on board and just failed, or they signed him thinking he would be an excellent fit. It's impossible to know.
It's not too late. Imagine the impact a press conference from the Winter Meetings in Indianapolis would have if the Cubs, with Jim Hendry and Lou Piniella at the podium, said something to the following effect:
In January of this year, we acquired one of the very best players in baseball in 2008. He failed to meet our expectations on the field in 2009, he failed to meet his own expectations as well. We also think that we could have done a better job of fostering a productive environment for Milton. In 2010, that all changes. We cannot wait to welcome Bradley back to the Chicago Cubs. We urge our fans to do the same.
There is no way to know what kind of impact this would have on Bradley's play, but I know this approach would be better than eating salary and trying to pass him off for pennies on the dollar. Moreover, instead of handing Soriano a lineup spot for 2010, at least take other teams' temperature on him as well. I recognize his contract is far more burdensome than Bradley's - he's owed $18M annually through 2014 - but spilled milk is spilled milk. And Soriano is far more problematic for the Cubs than Bradley is.
Bradley is younger than Soriano, projections (at least CHONE) have him looking like a good bet to outperform Soriano, and the market for Bradley is thin thanks to teams appropriately questioning whether Bradley would make for a good fit. In this light, the Cubs would be smarter to try and move Soriano at all costs than they would be trying to move Bradley.
Stop Hawking Hawk
As a number of readers know, I am from Boston and a lifelong Red Sox fan. I also have married into a family of Cubs fans and so, in the spirit of concentrating on those things I feel I am most knowledgeable and passionate about, you will likely start to see the focus of the Wednesday Change-Up column narrow. Just as it did over this past weekend, more and more of my writing will center on the Red Sox and Cubbies. And to continue the theme, I thought I would look at the Hall candidacy of Andre Dawson, a Cub for six seasons and a Red Sox for two.
Dawson got on base less often than the average major leaguer of his time. That's just a very tough thing to overlook.
To counter that thinking, Ken Rosenthal has led a group of writers who contend that you can't blame Hawk for not getting on base more; that it was well within his skill set to get on base more often (the same argument was made for Jim Rice, by the way). I thought Law dealt with that line of reasoning nicely:
Yes, you will hear the argument that the value of OBP wasn't recognized during Dawson's career to the extent that it is today and that he shouldn't be penalized for it. But OBP measures how often a hitter doesn't make an out, and if you think that players, coaches and executives in the 1970s and 1980s didn't realize that making outs was bad, you are saying that people in the game in that era were, collectively, a giant box of rocks.
I would take Keith's point further. Whatever the conventional wisdom of the time, outs have always mattered the same. Each out brings you 1/27th of the way closer to the last chance for your team to score runs. That was the case in 1908, in 1946, in 2009 and certainly in 1985. Avoid outs, runners advance, runs score. It's that simple. Make outs and the club is that much closer to running out of chances to score.
Very few players managed to produce outs as prolifically as Dawson did during his career. On Baseball-Reference's Play Index, I ran a list of players who had at least 8,000 plate appearances during Hawk's playing days, 1976 to 1996. They are sorted by the number of outs made. Plenty of interesting tidbits leap off the screen but for our purposes here, let me compare Dawson to three Hall of Famers, as that seems to be the standard we should be concerned with.
During Dawson's playing career, Paul Molitor came up to the plate 235 more times than Dawson. Despite this, Dawson managed 391 more outs than Molitor. Put another way, Dawson managed this despite Molitor playing in what would amount to 50 full games more than Dawson, which would give Molitor a good 150-out head start on Hawk if you consider Molitor's career outs-per-PA numbers. Dawson managed to make up the 541-out difference. If you accept the commonly held calculation that an out is worth about -0.27 runs, then those outs Hawk gave back were worth about 146 runs, or 14-15 wins.
What about Robin Yount? He had 509 more plate appearances than Dawson between 1976 and 1996. That's about a season's worth of PA's for a platoon player or maybe a regular who does a 60-day DL stint (insert J.D. Drew jokes here). During that time, he made just 21 more outs than Dawson. How valuable would a guy that manages a .959 on-base percentage in 509 plate appearances be for a club? Let's not even give Yount credit for any hitting or power, and just assume those are all walks. With the run value of a walk at 0.30 and keeping with the -0.27 value of an out, Yount's mini-season (stretched out over 20 years of course), would be worth about 140 runs or, again, about 14 wins.
The crazy part about the Yount and Molitor cases is that, even though both were excellent players, neither was off the charts in terms of their ability to get on base. So what about someone like Rickey Henderson? Between '76 and '96, Henderson had 418 fewer plate appearances. So, in fairness, Dawson had 418 more chances to make outs than Rickey. But Dawson made 990 more outs. To put that into perspective, let's do this. Give Hawk back the 418 more chances to even up the plate appearances. We will forgive him that brutal 0-for-418 stretch that any player can go through. That still leaves him with 572 more outs. It would be as though in his 1985 season, when Dawson had 570 plate appearances, he made nothing but outs. Which, now that I look at it, he didn't come too far from doing given his paltry .295 on-base percentage that year.
You get the picture. Hawk's case amounts to counting up a bunch of numbers. He had 2,774 hits, 438 home runs, almost 1,600 RBI, 8 Gold Gloves, etc. That's fine. If you want to ignore a critical rate statistic like Dawson's .323 on-base and focus on the counting stats, then at least be thorough and consider ALL of the relevant counting statistics. Because those 7,479 outs sure stick out for me.
Bob Ryan & the Burgeoning Boston Chapter of the Alex Gonzalez Fan Club
Bob Ryan took to the pages of the Boston Globe yesterday to list Alex Gonzalez's departure for Toronto as the latest in a series of shortstop mishandlings by Red Sox General Manager Theo Epstein. The logic seems to go something like this: Gonzalez suits my eye when I watch him field a baseball. He even hits a little bit. Theo has no credibility on shortstops. Therefore Gonzalez should have been retained.
But let's be perfectly clear on Alex Gonzalez. He's one of the very worst hitters in Major League Baseball and has been for a number of years running. He's now 33 years-old, and while his solid glove has made him as good as an average player or so in his best seasons, there is no reason for a championship-aspirant club to simply hand such a mediocrity the role. Not with Jed Lowrie in the fold, and not with Marco Scutaro very much available. Here's the class of hitter Gonzalez finds himself in, presented in a table of the worst hitters since 2005 as measured by OPS+ (min 1700 PA's):
But in fairness to Gonzalez, we should incorporate fielding into our analysis, something we can easily do thanks to Fangraphs' Wins Above Replacement (WAR) statistic. For a direct comparison to Scutaro, consider that in Gonzalez's two best seasons were 2.8 and 2.5 in 2003 and 2007 respectively. On the other hand, Scutaro, in his first two seasons as a full-timer in 2008 and 2009, averaged 3.6 Wins. Even if Scutaro should sign with Seattle or Texas or the Dodgers, Sean Smith projects Lowrie at .249/.334/.385 to Gonzalez's .249/.291/.374. Like Gonzalez, Lowrie has held up quite well with the glove at shortstop.
I feel for Bob Ryan and his loyal followers that they will have to wait for Gonzalez's number retirement ceremony to welcome their hero back to Fenway. But in the meantime, trust me, the Red Sox will be just fine without Alex Gonzalez.
The Cubs and the Virtues of Inaction
Coming off consecutive NL Central crowns, 97 wins in 2008, and with bigtime acquisitions like Rich Harden and Milton Bradley set to be in the fold for a full season, Chicago Cubs fans had every reason to believe that the 2009 edition of their club could finally end their century-old title drought. Then the Cardinals started hot, the Cubs suffered some injuries, good players did not play to their potential and before long, it was evident that 2009 was going to be anything but the Cubs' year.
Human nature compels us to identify and address problems. It also compels us to shield ourselves from external criticism. Action, therefore, trumps inaction. "Do something" and fail, heck, at least you tried. As the Cubs look to rebound from their disappointing 2009, the boys in the buffet line smell blood. Milton Bradley must go, say the mainstream baseball commentariat. "He's too volatile." "They need to just release him." But you know how the old saying goes, "If you're taking your player personnel cues from Jon Heyman, Jay Mariotti and Phil Rogers, you've already forfeited any hope for 85 wins." Or something like that.
Barring exceptional opportunities in the trade or free agent markets and outside of some run-of-the-mill year-to-year tinkering, Cubs GM Jim Hendry should more or less stand pat this off-season. He returns a top-notch pitching staff, and has a stable of bats ready to bounce back from down years. Let's look at the Cubs hitting in 2009 and compare it to how Sean Smith's CHONE projection system sees them in 2010. If you are skeptical of such improvement up and down the lineup, remember the unit that could only muster a team OPS+ of 88 in 2009 had the second best figure - 102 - in 2008. Coming off one of the finest years of his career, only Derrek Lee figures to regress.
2009 2010 AVG OBP SLG AVG OBP SLG Soto .218 .320 .382 Soto .265 .354 .456 Lee .306 .390 .579 Lee .283 .363 .485 Cubs 2B .254 .310 .357 Fntnot .260 .329 .397 Theriot .286 .346 .372 Thriot .280 .350 .367 Cubs 3B .278 .352 .466 Ramirz .291 .361 .504 Cubs LF .240 .304 .414 Sriano .259 .312 .471 Cubs CF .260 .358 .417 Fukdme .258 .363 .403 Cubs RF .264 .373 .412 Bradly .275 .383 .461
On the pitching side, Chicago's 117 team ERA+ trailed only the San Francisco Giants in 2009. They return Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, Ryan Dempster, Randy Wells and Tom Gorzelanny. They may miss Harden, the electric righty whose stuff can dominate when he manages good enough health to take the mound. But his high walk-rate and tendency to give up the long ball make him dispensable. Kudos to Hendry for not feeling as though he needed to retain Harden. In limited action last season, both Sean Marshall and Gorzelanny outpitched him.
Since any GM needs always to prioritize improving the club, Hendry should be on the lookout for a bigtime deal, should one present. Given their woeful center field defense, a play for someone like Curtis Granderson at the right price would make some sense. Replacing Soriano should be a priority, but that will be tough to do given Soriano's contract and besides, that option already seems to be available with their current personnel. Sam Fuld in center, with Fukudome and Bradley in left and right is arguably a better outfield. A great defensive 5th outfielder could help. Hendry might consider one more starter to provide a little insurance at the back end of the rotation. I think Mike Fontenot is a perfectly acceptable everyday option at second base but if you want to find an upgrade there, I understand.
The point is that, coming off of an 84-win Pythag season in which so much of the roster underperformed expectations, the Cubs should not feel in any way desperate to make sweeping changes. This is especially the case considering key free agents Matt Holliday and Joel Pineiro look set to depart the 2009 NL Central Champion Cardinals. Jim Hendry's approach should stem from two beliefs: (1) that Milton Bradley's value as a Cub far exceeds his trade market value and (2) that the Cubs are already darn close to a 90-win team as is. From there, a sober look at where the realistic and cost-effective upgrades can be had should get the North-siders right back into contention.
On Greinke and Things Related
Zack Greinke won the 2009 American League Cy Young Award yesterday, capturing 25 of 28 first place votes. I am going to dive into Baseball Reference's Play Index to try and gain some perspective on Greinke's 2009 season, but first let's have a look at a couple of mainstream baseball pieces that appeared yesterday.
Since we tend to wander into the realm of media criticism from time to time here, let's start off with the negative, a look at Steve Kornacki's defense of his first place vote for Justin Verlaner.
Verlander received my first-place vote because nobody was tougher on the mound with the season on the line for his team.
Verlander was excellent in 2009, don't get me wrong. I don't know about "inspirational horse" but whatever, he was really good. But an honest 30-second comparison between Verlander and Greinke should do away with any confusion as to which pitcher had the better 2009 season. But Kornacki's writing in Detroit and more or less employed the classic BBWAA "I know what my eyes tell me" crutch to cast a vote for Verlander.
And that's fine. He's just one voter, and Greinke ran away with the thing. Unfortunately for Kornacki, as Tyler Kepner notes, yesterday may have represented a landmark in terms of advanced statistics infiltrating the mainstream, and Kornacki appears to have missed the boat. There's always next year, Steve!
You won't find a better piece of baseball writing all year in a daily newspaper, so be sure to go on over and check out Kepner's piece on yesterday's Greinke vote and its broader significance. But here are a couple of excerpts:
It was not surprising that Greinke won, since his earned run average, 2.16, was the lowest in the American League since 2000. But his decisive margin of victory over Seattle’s Felix Hernandez was a sign that voters overlooked his deficiency in another bedrock statistic: wins.
The article goes on to note that, thanks to his teammate Brian Bannister, Greinke has been turned on to more progressive pitching metrics. And really, in a world where so many still value wins, who can blame a Kansas City Royals starting pitcher for looking to convince himself that he really is pitching well? One can imagine how the dialogue between Bannister and Greinke might go:
Zack: Sheesh, sure feels like I am pitching well. But I only have 11 wins.
Zack: Oh, cool. But wait, I have been digging into this stuff, and...wait...did we really just trade for Yuniesky Betancourt?
Brian: Let's not got there, Zack. Stay focused. You're an awesome pitcher.
I have read and re-read this next excerpt about 12 times now, because I can't even believe it. Kepner writes:
To that end, Bannister introduced Greinke to FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, the statistic Greinke named Tuesday as his favorite. It is a formula that measures how well a pitcher performed, regardless of his fielders. According to fangraphs.com, Greinke had the best FIP in the majors.
A big, hearty congrats to the guys over at Fangraphs. They're doing great work, and fans, media members and Cy Young Award winners alike are taking notice.
OK, how great was Greinke in 2009? First of all, he eclipsed the 200 ERA+ mark. Let's just go ahead and put that one into perspective. Since 1959, it has been done 13 times by starters who have tossed at least 200 innings.
Here is the complete list of 200-inning, 200 ERA+ or better seasons in the last 50 years. Zack's at the bottom, but he is also one of the youngest on the list. I bet we see him back on here in the next few seasons.
As you can see from the company Greinke is keeping in the tables above, his 2009 campaign was truly one for the ages. That the voters recognized this, or that they at least looked past his win total and saw that he was the AL's best in 2009, is a great sign of progress. That Greinke himself, in the pages of the country's most famous newspaper, confessed to pitching to keep his FIP as low as possible, makes yesterday even more remarkable. And the cherry on top of it all is that Greinke is a genuinely modest and curious young man who has overcome incredible mental health struggles to get to where he is today. Baseball fans and suckers for compelling personal stories alike can get behind a story such as this one.
Here's the Catch: Jorge Posada & Jason Varitek
Throughout baseball history, there have been a number of memorable positional rivalries that have unfolded within broader team battles. The 1950's in New York come to mind, when Duke Snider, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were all playing center field for their respective clubs. The Yankees also featured Phil Rizzutto while Brooklyn had Pee Wee Reese at shortstop. Bar room arguments raged.
Since the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees could both reasonably lay claim to team of the decade thus far in the 21st century, positional battles within this rivalry have garnered attention. Nine or ten years ago, it looked like Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra would battle head to head throughout their careers, but the Red Sox would trade Nomar away while Jeter remained and continues to perform at a remarkably high level. Nomar faded, but another positional dual emerged.
Jorge Posada has won 4 World Series rings and Jason Varitek 2. While nobody would dispute that Posada has had the better career, both are two of the finest catchers in the last 25 years or so, and with Posada coming off his latest title and Varitek looking like his time as a starter is coming to an end, a retrospective seems in order.
I want to be clear about one thing as it relates to Varitek and Posada. They are not comparable players. That statement takes nothing away from Varitek's terrific playing record and has everything to do with my belief that Posada is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer. Posada's career OPS+ of 124 bests Varitek's season high of 123. Yes, they've both been very good players. But more than how they have performed on the field, it's their longevity, the number of times they've faced one another and the fact that each has toiled their entire MLB careers for the Yankees and Red Sox respectively that will forever link the two players.
Varitek has caught 1,381 games in his career, again, all as a Red Sox. Posada has caught 1,490 games, all as a Yankee. Varitek has played in 163 regular season games against the Yankees, Posada 184 against the Red Sox, They competed against one another in the 1999, 2003 and 2004 ALCS. They both won World Series championships with Johnny Damon.
The Red Sox and Yankee rivalry has had three separate "golden ages", if you will. There was the David Halberstam Summer of '49 era, when the Ted Williams Red Sox tried time and again to take down the Bronx Bombers. They managed to in 1946, but lost the World Series in 7 games to the St. Louis Cardinals. Meanwhile, the Yankees won the 1947 championship, their first of 6 titles in 7 years.
In the 1970's, the Red Sox once again boasted some great teams, except that their 1975 World Series appearance, which seemed at the time to portend great things for a young Red Sox club, turned out to be their only showing that decade in the Fall Classic. The Yankees won the AL pennant in 1976 and then took home the 1977 and 1978 titles. Like this most recent era, the Sox and Yanks each featured terrific catchers in Carlton Fisk and Thurmon Munson.
It's been better during the time of Jorge Posada and Jason Varitek that the rivalry has flourished more than any other period. For one, post-season expansion now allows for the Yanks and Sox to compete against one another in the LCS. Say what you will about the Wild Card, say what you will about how tired you are of the Red Sox and Yankees, but when these two clubs hook up in the post-season, it's just terrific theatre. Even the least dramatic of their three LCS tilts, the 1999 ALCS, was unbelievable. Like Posada and Varitek, I was at Fenway for Game 3 when Pedro Martinez faced Roger Clemens and I will never forget it. I haven't heard Fenway like it since. Not in 2003, 2004 or 2007. Game 3 of the 1999 ALCS was as loud and batsh*t insane as Fenway Park has ever been. So there's that - they now play each other sometimes in the playoffs. Also, the Red Sox now win World Series titles. The hammer and nail thing no longer applies. That makes the "rivalry" more of a rivalry.
Tim Wakefield played with Varitek on the 1999 Red Sox. Jeter, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera were Posada's teammates on the '99 Yanks. These have been the mainstays (Pettite's Houston stint notwithstanding). But Varitek and Posada play the same position, and it's not just any position. It's catcher. They're field generals. They both switch hit. Varitek wears a big stupid "C" on his jersey. Their teammates gush over how important each player is, an attribute I typically don't care too much about but after 10+ years of it, you have to defer to the guys hanging around them everyday at some point, no? When Bill Simmons writes his Yankees/Red Sox book in 2034 looking back at this era of the rivalry, he had better devote a full chapter to the two backstops.
If you're a Yankees fan, how much do you love Posada for his ownership of Curt Schilling alone? Posada has tuned the loudmouth up for a .326/.383/.558 line in 47 plate appearances. Heck he has hit .274/.380/.493 against the Red Sox for his career. And these weren't the Aaron Sele and John Wasdin Red Sox. These were the Pedro, Derek Lowe, Schilling, Josh Beckett and Jon Lester Red Sox. Posada can go cold, he can be quiet for periods of time, but it's always his own doing. He is never, ever over-matched.
One cannot say the same of Varitek. In his career, he hit .171/.227/.214 against Mike Mussina. Against the Yankees, he managed just a .225/.305/.388 line. But on those big, bad, slugging 2003 Red Sox, how great was it when 'Tek would come to the plate right-handed against Pettitte or David Wells? Varitek slugged .630 for his career off of Wells and hit Pettitte at a .310/.388/.466 clip. Perhaps an indicator of his toughness, he has managed a .742 OPS against the immortal Mariano Rivera.
Over the last 30 years, of catchers with at least 5,000 plate appearances, Posada ranks 2nd with a .859 OPS and Varitek 5th with a .779 mark. Jorge is well on his way to Cooperstown, but Varitek might as well be joining him. That's because when fans look at Posada's plaque, they will always associate Varitek with him.
Baseball Analysts - The HR Files
Two days before Game 1 of the World Series, three managerial moves dominated the Major League Baseball headlines. The San Diego Padres officially announced Jed Hoyer as their General Manager, the Cleveland Indians named their new Manager, Manny Acta, and the St. Louis Cardinals made Mark McGwire Hitting Coach.
Hoyer is 35 and as some may recall, a friend of Baseball Analysts. In 2007 he was kind enough to discuss with Rich and me his background and how he thinks about personnel evaluation, among other topics. I'm not sure there's a more comprehensive look at Hoyer's mindset anywhere else so if you're interested, check it out. Here's an excerpt:
Pat: Do you have any regrets about trading Hanley Ramirez?
Jed's just a total pro, and we wish him all the best as he endeavors to rebuild a San Diego Padres organization that is currently in tough shape.
In hiring Manny Acta, the Indians have given the reins over to a Manager with a career .385 win percentage. So, how and why is he qualified? What does General Manager Mark Shapiro see in Acta? Terry Pluto's report from the Cleveland Plain Dealer may offer a glimpse:
I asked Acta what were his favorite stats, and he gave an answer right from the Tribe's playbook: The on-base percentage and OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage).
Ah, yes. "The on-base percentage."
This interview with Squawking Baseball also confirms Acta's philosophy:
SB: You’re obviously a very statistically-inclined manager. How do you think that gives you an advantage over managers that aren’t as progressive?
Acta seems to say all the right things and it's not hard to see why Shapiro might like him. Now that Acta takes over a club that was just a game away from the World Series in 2007 (albeit without the two Game 1 World Series starters, but still...), Acta should have a chance to prove his open-mindedness can generate results.
I'm inclined to give McGwire a chance. He saw a ton of pitches every season and his career 114 walks per 162 games played screams of precisely the sort of approach that I would want my offensive attack to adopt. Whether he will be able to teach inferior sluggers to focus on pitch recognition and patience, or if he even realizes that such a philosophy was much of what made him a great hitter, remains to be seen. But if the way he took to the plate is directionally where the Cards want to head as an organization, that would be good news to me if I were a St. Louis fan.
The common thread in these three personnel choices is that there is a progressive approach that Hoyer, Acta and McGwire take in their respective roles. Hoyer is a Wesleyan grad who has worked alongside Theo Epstein his whole career in baseball, Acta speaks openly about sabermetric principles and McGwire's patient approach over the course of his career reflected many of these same principles. Baseball continues to evolve.
We Came Out West Together With a Common Desire
After spending two days in Austin, Texas to start my work week, I was happy to be coming home to Boston. Since I was on a Jet Blue flight from Austin to Boston last night, replete with leather seats and television screens, I was even happier since I would be able to watch Game 4 of the ALCS. The FOX telecast started as we took to the skies.
I had the option of Joe Buck and Tim McCarver or my iPod, and having spent 48 hours or so in Austin, maybe the best music city in the country, you can understand why I might not have been eager to ditch the tunes for the telecast. Emmylou Harris was playing and as the game was about to start, the cameras cut to Derek Jeter and the Yankee bench. Emmylou belted out "We came out west together with a common desire." Two More Bottles of Wine was playing, and two more wins was all the Yankees needed to advance to their first Fall Classic since 2003.
The Yankees are ridiculously talented, without a doubt the best team in baseball based on their performance in 2009. That guarantees you nothing in the post-season, but it should be said. The Angels are also excellent, probably the second best team in baseball. I note these things because when you boil a game down, you can never set aside pure talent. Alex Rodriguez can hit. C.C. Sabathia can pitch. That's a lot of your Game 4 story right there.
But for me, looking a bit further, this game came down to Scott Kazmir's inability to command his off-speed stuff, and an excellent Yankee approach that seemed to be predicated on an understanding that Kazmir might struggle to command his off-speed stuff. For the latter, credit the Yankees advance scouting effort. What makes Kazmir so tough, however, is that he commands his fastball exceptionally well. The Yankees game plan seemed to be to bear down with their pitch recognition, pick up the fastball and attack it, and whenever possible let the braking ball pass. Chances are it will be a ball anyway.
To start the game, Jeter saw a fastball at the knees on the outside corner - a terrific pitch. On the next offering, another fastball, Jeter was ready and he muscled a base hit to right field. Jeter would be picked off, Johnny Damon would ground out and Mark Teixeira would come to the plate with two outs and nobody on. If you're a baseball fan, like you really really love the game within the game, you loved last night's Kaz/Tex match-ups.
In his first at-bat against Kazmir, Tex worked the count to 2 and 2. Kazmir then rolled a loose change-up to about 56 feet for ball 3. It was 3-2 and Tex knew what he was looking for. He crushed two inside fastballs foul. He was just a tick off. With nobody on base, Kazmir thought he would try his hand at a breaking ball. Sure enough, Tex was taking but Kaz managed to find the plate for strike 3. Tex walked confidently back to the dugout, like he knew that given his approach for the evening, what had just transpired was precisely the downside he had already calculated. Kazmir was out of the first inning.
The Yankees patience was on display once again in the second. A-Rod worked an easy walk after watching a few breaking pitches pass for balls. Jorge Posada owned Kazmir his first time up, almost laughing to himself as Kazmir's breaking pitches landed nowhere near the strike zone. After A-Rod stole easily - another advance scouting triumph given the jump he had - Posada worked a walk. Kazmir would settle down and induce three consecutive lazy fly balls to get out of the inning but still, the formula was clear for the Yanks. Wait out the soft stuff, pounce on Kazmir's fastballs that catch too much of the zone.
Teixeira would come to bat once again in the third with Damon on first. He got up 2-0 after watching two Kazmir fastballs go by for balls. Kaz then was the beneficiary of a gift called strike on a hanging breaking ball that looked both high and outside. Now it's on between these two again. Kaz lets a fastball go a little high and away and Tex, sitting on it, swings through it. He usually won't chase, but that's a pitch he wanted. Now, at 2-2, Kazmir could use some of his opponent Sabathia's command. Instead he bounces another slider to 57 feet or so. The count goes to 3-2 and as a result of the wild pitch, in a scoreless game with two outs, Damon advances and is now in scoring position. On the 3-2, Teixeira sits dead-red on a fastball and to his credit, Kaz breaks off his best pitch of the night; a hard cutter/slider that dives right into Tex's kitchen. He swings over it. Strike 3. Again, Tex had the exact right approach but Kazmir made a pitch. No sign of frustration or disappointment this time around either for Teixeira. He knew what he was up against tonight.
Kazmir's command struggles came to a head in the 4th. A-Rod worked Kazmir over a bit and then roped a single. After watching off-speed pitch after off-speed pitch bounce to the plate in his first plate appearance, Jorge Posada came to the plate a step ahead of Kazmir. The lefty thought he would change up his approach with Posada and started him with a fastball. Posada was all over it and ripped a double down the left field line.
Again, a moment that makes baseball so great. Hideki Matsui comes up with two ducks on the pond and with Kazmir on the ropes, Matsui promptly takes two sharp sliders for strikes. Had Kazmir commanded his off-speed like this all night, who knows what this series looks like this morning? Even better, on the 0-2, Kazmir busts Matsui in with a fastball he feebly offers at. A quick punch out. After a Robinson Cano fielder's choice that plated A-Rod, now it's Nick Swisher. And again, he works a tough at-bat and gets to a full count. Kazmir tries the inside slider that he got Tex with in the 3rd but misses badly. Ball 4, bases loaded. Again, the off-speed command evades Kazmir.
Now it's Melky, the one mediocre hitter in baseball's best lineup. Seemingly sick of letting hitters get away from him by offering poor breaking pitches, Kaz starts with two fastballs for strikes. Then, like the football team that runs twice on the goal line and then predictably goes play action on 3rd down, Kazmir rolls a crappy breaking ball to the plate. No way Cabrera was going to swing at that, yet another bouncer. After fighting two pitches off, Melky then delivers a base hit that scores two more Yankee runs.
The 4th was Kazmir's undoing. The rest of the game was all about Sabathia pitching lights out and the Yankees tatooing the dregs of the Halos bullpen. Sabathia commands all of his pitches and notably, in stark contrast to Kazmir, after bouncing a breaking ball to the plate on a 1-1 pitch to Torii Hunter in the 6th, Sabathia kicked the dirt on the mound. That pitch, the hard breaking ball bouncer that Kazmir must have featured a dozen times, is entirely unacceptable to C.C. I am not sure there's much difference between Sabatia and Kazmir's stuff. There's a world of difference between their command and control.
The Yanks would cruise to a win, thanks to their approach at the plate. They knew Kazmir's strengths and weaknesses and with an approach content to let his rare well-placed breaking balls beat them, wore down the talented Angels lefty. Now they're two games up, and one game from fulfilling that common desire they came out west to fulfill.
Before I hop into the links - we want to highlight the writers around the internet getting us through the post-season - let me just say that yesterday's performance by Pedro was nothing short of astounding. He kept the Dodgers off balance all day long, and carried himself with the same bravado that always characterized his pitching style. He backs down from nobody. It might not be 1999 anymore, but Pedro seemed not to care one bit. We'll never know what kind of baseball history Charlie Manuel robbed non-Dodger fans everywhere of witnessing, but back where it all began for Pedro, at Dodger Stadium, he regained his vintage form in his biggest start in 5 years.
Rob Iracane of Walkoff Walk was kind enough to allow me to contribute to his "This Guy Is Playing Golf Right Now" series, a look at some of the better players around baseball who did not qualify for post-season play. I chose to profile Dan Haren. Check it out!
...Pitchers emerge and fade, the better ones vacillating season-to-season in quality anywhere from above average to Cy Young Award candidate; and that's if they're fortunate enough to stay healthy. The best? I mean the very, very best? They get it done every season. Roy Halladay leads this list given Johan Santana's recent injury troubles, although Santana isn't far behind. Roy Oswalt's on it. So is C.C. John Lackey and Felix Hernandez may have a claim.
We were thrilled to see Angel fan Sean Smith of Chone projection system fame stop by yesterday to comment on Rich and Jeremy's entertaining back and forth on the ALCS. We're not there yet, there's still plenty of baseball to be played this season, but you're going to want to keep tabs on his Baseball Projection site this off-season to see how your favorite team is shaping up.
As for specific team sites, you know Rev Halofan and the crew at Halos Heaven will be guiding you through every twist and turn during the playoffs. Understandably, the gang wasn't exactly enamored with last night's performance.
On the Yankees side, our buddies Alex Belth and Cliff Corcoran are still getting it done at Bronx Banter. Cliff approves of Mr. Sabathia's work last evening. I'm just impressed that he figured out the upside down exclamation mark in the title. Nice work, guys!
Also offering comprehensive playoff coverage is Jay Jaffe at his Futility Infielder blog. A Yankee fan with a soft spot for the Dodgers, he's a must read these days. He also just joined the Twittersphere, so if that's your thing, you can follow Jay here.
I have to say that in the few months since I have joined Twitter, it's been a blast. The ability to comment quickly and real-time makes it seem like the medium was made for sports. Keith Law, Rob Neyer, Jonah Keri, Iracane, Larry Granillo of Wezen Ball, Tommy Bennett of Beyond the Boxscore, Jon Weisman and Crashburn Alley and many more are tweeting with regular baseball updates. It's great fun.
Speaking of Weisman and Crashburn Alley, with their two teams squaring off in the NLCS, you'll want to keep tabs on both sites. Like Bronx Banter and Futility Infielder, Dodger Thoughts is a true classic, offering the best Dodgers content you'll find anywhere. As for Crashburn Alley, Bill Baer leads with the headline "Chase Knoblauch" this morning. OUCH!
Enjoy the weekend, everybody. Hoepfully we get Game 2 of the ALCS in tonight and boy oh boy, if the first two games are any indication, it appears like we may be in for a classic NLCS. Cliff Lee and Hiroki Kuroda tomorrow night at CBP.
Ramblings on LCS Eve
Since the dance cards were set for the two League Championship Series, there's been no shortage of interesting baseball content being generated around the web. With three of the four LDS series having ended abruptly - of the LCS participants, only the Phillies failed to sweep their opponent - there was time to step back, reflect on what took place in the LDS and even shift gears a bit.
To start, there's been no shortage of controversy surrounding the umpiring thus far in the post-season. C.B Bucknor was atrocious in the Boston-Los Angeles series, while a horrible foul ball call compromised the Twins' chances of taking Game 2 of the ALDS at Yankee Stadium. With K-Zone type features viewable on nearly every pitch now for post-season telecasts, the practice of placing a human being behind home plate to determine if a 95-mph pitched passed the plate while in a tightly defined area known as the strike zone seems, well, antiquated. It's not hard to envision baseball turning to sensors and cameras like the ones tennis uses to help determine if balls are in or out or foul balls. And for calls on the basepaths, how much longer would a quick overrule take when video evidence clearly refutes the call on the field?
Jonah Keri took to the pages of the Wall Street Journal and wondered if umpires are even necessary. The whole piece, including a history of why umpires were deemed necessary to begin with, is well worth a read. But the following excerpt hammers home a critical point:
At the end of the day, Mr. Port [VP of Umpiring for MLB] says, the whole argument about umpires comes down to this: "Do we want the tradition of 18 people on the field doing their best to help their teams win, officiated by four trained gentlemen also doing their best? Or do we want to translate over to some sort of technologically advanced video endeavor that removes human elements from the game?"
To the extent that a wholesale technological officiating solution would be cost-effective or otherwise feasible, contrary to Port's contention, it would do nothing to "remove the human elements from the game" that any fan cares about. Humans compete hard all season long in baseball, only to have their fate determined by other humans. Only the latter are humans the paying customers do not come to see, and they also turn out to be ill-equipped and incapable of administering the rules appropriately. Keri's point here is that the human we care most about as it relates to the 11th inning play at Yankee Stadium is Mauer and not Phil Cuzzi. Let's get it right so Mauer and every other competitor in post-season play gets an honest shot at pursuing a World Series championship.
I will admit that the thought crossed my mind. With A-List Closers Huston Street, Jonathan Papelbon and Joe Nathan faltering badly in their respective Division Series appearances, it occurred to me that it must be nice to have a relief pitcher operating on an altogether different plane when the time comes to nail down a win. Mariano Rivera once again looked dominant in the Yankees 3-0 sweep of Minnesota.
So yes, that thought crossed my mind - that it sure must be nice to have Rivera. What did not cross my mind, however, was to draw overarching conclusions about the nature of post-season pitching based on a handful of innings of work from some very good relief pitchers in the first round of the 2009 playoffs. But that's why we have Tom Verducci. Tom, take it away!
Why is the ninth inning so much harder for pitchers in October than in the other six months? There is the element of pressure, of course. But there are also so much more detailed scouting reports and so much studying of that information. (Players couldn't possibly absorb and apply that much information over 162 games without frying their brains, but it works for a five- or seven-game series with off days.) Finally, there is also more intense focus by the batters in the postseason. No one gives away an at-bat in the ninth inning of a postseason game. No one. Yes, it does happen during the regular season.
So there's "pressure", there's "scouting", and there's "more intense focus" by the hitters. Got it. What about the prospect that the hitters are also just better in the post-season? Or better yet, maybe it was just random. Maybe with another 18 innings to look at, since these guys are excellent pitchers, we would see entirely different outcomes? Why don't we look historically at how relievers have fared in the 9th inning of post-season play versus the regular season to see if we're working with anything meaningful? That way there, we aren't devoting a full paragraph of conclusions drawn from 18 innings of work. Someone missed sample size class at baseball school.
Let's play a quick game. I will re-write that paragraph:
Why is the ninth inning so much harder for hitters in October than in the other six months? There is the element of pressure, of course. But there are also so much more detailed scouting reports and so much studying of that information. (Players couldn't possibly absorb and apply that much information over 162 games without frying their brains, but it works for a five- or seven-game series with off days.) Finally, there is also more intense focus by the pitchers in the postseason. No pitcher lets up for a hitter in the ninth inning of a postseason game. No one. Yes, it does happen during the regular season.
See what I did there? Doesn't make any less sense, does it? And in Verducci's world, it may have even been applicable had Street, Nathan and Papelbon pitched as they usually do. Assertions are fun!
The Arizona Fall League is under way. This is a very good thing, as most anyone who ever has attended will tell you. Promising players, beautiful weather, relaxed atmosphere. It's supposed to be just great fun. Your best source for real time information, at least as far as I can tell, is going to be Keith Law's Twitter feed. I am sure his column over at the World Wide Leader will be excellent as well. Law's on the ground in the Grand Canyon State, and updating frequently. MLB.com's AFL page is terrific, too, with the neatest feature of all being that there is Pitch f/x installed in Surprise and Peoria, home to 3 of the 6 teams. Here's Harry Pavlidis at Beyond the Boxscore recapping the first day's data.
Stephen Strasburg and Dustin Ackley are there. Jason Heyward, Mike Stanton and Buster Posey are there. Pitch f/x is there. You're going to want to keep tabs.
We're back with a full NLCS preview tomorrow and a special ALCS look on Friday featuring our resident Southern California and New York natives going back and forth. There are four terrific teams still standing, and we can't wait to share our thoughts as the action unfolds.
ALDS Roundtable: Boston Red Sox vs. Los Angeles Angels
Zombie Season here in the northeast! I put my wool Red Sox game-cap on this morning with my business casual attire as I left for work. Is it a silly look? Sure. Do the Red Sox start another playoff series tonight against a balanced Angels team that scares the living daylights out of me? You bet.
These are the 2nd and 3rd best teams in baseball (I'll never tell which team I think is which), and it ought to be one heck of a series. The gang's all here to discuss it. Enjoy!
Sully: The Red Sox and Angels are meeting in the ALDS for the fourth time in six seasons. I look at the two teams and the first thing that stands out is that, unlike in past seasons, the Angels appear to have the superior offensive attack while the Red Sox boast better pitching. But when you peel back the onion, I am not so sure that's the story. The Angels pitching staff came on in the 2nd half while the Red Sox, thanks to the addition of Victor Martinez, really solidified their offense after the trade deadline. What are fans to make of these two teams?
Jeremy: I agree that the additions of Scott Kazmir for the Angels and Martinez for the Red Sox bolstered both teams. The Sox still probably have an edge in pitching, especially if they can use a shortened rotation. Meanwhile, the Angels have a definite edge fielding the ball, and they have home field advantage. I think the Angels' offense matches up well with the Sox' run prevention unit, and the Yankees' for that matter, since the Angels are renowned for putting the ball in play, while the Sox and Yankees both build their defenses around power pitching and subpar fielding. However, the Sox offense can take advantage of possibly facing two lefties in Kazmir and Joe Saunders.
Sky: I think the Martinez pickup is one of the biggest additions any playoff team made this summer and with him, I put the Sox hitting on even par with LA. Martinez was key because he not only is he a good player, but Boston badly needed someone who could hit behind the plate. Varitek - nice of a guy as he is - has had awful plate production for some time now and the upgrade is significant. Even with the addition of Kazmir, I like the Boston's pitching staff over LA's as well.
This is the third time in a row we'll be seeing the Boston-LA matchup and so far the Red Sox have dominated. Is it possible it starts to get in the heads of LA if they lose a Game 1? Or is that kind of momentum thinking mostly baseball myth?
Rich: I don't know, Sky. I think winning Game 1 is important because it gives you a huge advantage the rest of the way in a short series. The losing team has to win three of four. Other than that, I wouldn't overemphasize the importance of Game 1. To the extent that it's a bigger deal for the Angels to win the opener than the Red Sox, I think it would be due to the loss of home field advantage.
Sky: I tend to agree with you, Rich. I think the feeling of "here we go again" is something that perhaps would get to the fans, but not the players. Plus, with the history of a World Series championship just a few years ago, it's not as if the Angels are fighting 86 or 100 year psychological demons. Even in that situation I think that kind of effect would be somewhere between small or non-existent. The fact that I even brought it up shows I've been hanging out with Cub fans for too long...Anyhow, I'm really excited for this series, as it's a great matchup given the history of the clubs, the opposing styles of play, and the overall quality of the teams - either of which has a good shot at the title.
Rich: Speaking of 2002, the Angels lost the first game of the ALDS to the Yankees and then swept the next three games. The Halos then lost the first game of the ALCS to the Twins and swept the next four games. Finally, the club lost the opening game of the World Series to the Giants and won four of the next six to capture its first world championship ever.
Not that it has much relevance this year, but I'm quite certain that Mike Scioscia will remind his troops of those comebacks should the Angels lose the opening game to Boston. And, besides, he's got Jered Weaver starting in Game 2.
Sully: Weaver's your boy, Rich! By nature, a short baseball series is difficult to handicap but this one is even tougher than your average series. There are two reasons for this. First, there has been enough personnel turnover that a season's worth of statistics bear little meaning to the two teams taking the field now. Second, it's hard to figure out if some of the shorter-term player performances bear any predictive value. Are Kendry Morales and Howie Kendrick the best right side in baseball, the way they have played for two months now? Is JD Drew a .415/.550 guy like he has been in the 2nd half?
Rich: No and no. As for Morales and Kendrick, that's an easy one. They're both good but not nearly the best right side in baseball. For one, Boston's right side is better. But there are others as well. Mark Teixeira is better than Morales and Robinson Cano is better than Kendrick. Ryan Howard is better than Kendry as well and Chase Utley is way, way better than Howie. I might go as far as to say Albert Pujols at first base and anyone of us at second base would outperform those Angels. And I haven't turned two in a long, long time.
Jeremy: Pujols by himself is the best right side of the infield, left side of the infield, and the best team in baseball. And Sully, I'm surprised you're underselling your Sox infield with the reigning MVP at the keystone and the AL's second best hitter this year at first. Come to think of it, the only positions where I'd give the Angels a definite advantage this season are on the left side of the infield and in center.
Sully: I agree, guys. My only point is that if they've been this good for this long - Morales and Kendrick, what's 5, 10, 15 more games?
Rich: As a fan, I hope it's more than five games.
Sky: I'm not a big fan of the hot hand theory. For a two month period, the standard error of OBP, is 35 points - larger for SLG or OPS. The variability out there due to chance is just huge, so it's hard to read into what's going on. Kendrick in particular has had a big second half, but over the course of the year and over the course of his career, he's been about a league average hitter. Is it possible he's made adjustments and is a far better hitter than he was in May? Yes, but I'd bet that most of the uptick is due to random variation.
Sully: Ok let's start digging into some of the personnel. Can we agree the Red Sox have the two best starting pitchers in the series? Even the most charitable interpretation of the Angels pitching resurgence in the second half does not render John Lackey or Kazmir or Weaver better than Jon Lester or Josh Beckett, right?
Sky: I'll agree with that. I also like the Boston bullpen. Papelbon has a significant edge over Fuentes in my opinion, and in the postseason, the closer really takes on added importance - especially now that they've added more off days to the schedule. Fuentes also hasn't pitched more than 1 inning in a game all season long - it will be interesting to see if that changes come playoffs. We know the Sox won't be shy about putting Papelbon out there for extended outings.
Rich: The Angels bullpen has been up and down all year long. Like all Scioscia's closers, Fuentes has a lot of saves, but he doesn't inspire much confidence in highly leveraged situations. A lefthander, he's slinging 89-91 mph fastballs up there. The combination of his arm angle and breaking ball has been successful against left-handed batters (.239/.308/.282 with no HR in 78 TBF), but it's been rather pedestrian vs. right-handed hittters (.261/.358/.428 with 6 HR in 164 TBF). Kevin Jepsen has much better stuff. He developed a cutter during the season and was lights out for a long stretch during the second half. He also throws a 96+ mph fastball and a nasty breaking ball. I suspect he's not very well known right now but believe he may get his due on the national stage this week. I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Ervin Santana's potential impact on the bullpen. It's easy to forget that he was the Angels best starter last season. His fastball/slider combo figures to be a welcomed addition throughout the playoffs.
Dave: Yeah Jepsen has really flown under the radar as a very good reliever. This year he has struck out more batters per inning and walked fewer batters per inning than Fuentes. Plus he is an extreme ground ball pitcher (16% LD, 57% GB, 27% FB) while Fuentes is an extreme fly ball pitcher (17% LD, 36 % GB, 47% FB). It would be interesting to see what Scioscia would do if, say, he had both pitchers available going into the ninth up by one with Bay, Lowell and Vartiek due up. All three hit lefties much better. I think Scoscia would be giving up a lot sticking with his traditional closer there.
Sully: While the Red Sox may have more and better options, the specific deployment will be a more difficult task than meets the eye. Terry Francona will face some of the challenges that Scioscia figures to. Hideki Okajima, Manny Delcarmen, Ramon Ramirez and Daniel Bard have all struggled of late. In fact, Delcarmen will not even be on the roster for the ALDS. Will Takashi Saito and Billy Wagner be Francona's go-to setup men?
Rich: Kudos to Boston's front office for picking up Wagner. The lefty is still throwing gas and striking out batters like always. Incredible. Saito's strikeout rate is down and his walk and home run rates are up since his years with the Dodgers, but he's still been a pretty effective pitcher the past couple months. Neither reliever, however, has been used on back-to-back days very often. Both are approaching 40 and coming off injuries so they seem like high-beta risks and rewards from afar.
Dave: Jumping topics a little bit. One thing to consider is that if the Yankees want to force the Twins/Tigers winner to play games two days in a row they will take the long series that starts Wednesday. That means the Angels/Red Sox series will be the short one and both team will be forced to use four-man rotations. Do you guys think that is a clear advantage to either team?
Rich: Not really. I think both teams have a strong four. Lester, Beckett, Buchholz, and Dice-K vs. Lackey, Weaver, Kazmir, and Saunders. Saunders may be the weakest link here, mainly due to his poor strikeout rate. But he has been a much more effective pitcher since returning from the DL in August. He's throwing harder and with better command than in the first half of the season. Most writers and analysts have conceded the starting and relief pitching edge to the Red Sox. While I understand why, I don't think the advantage is as large as the consensus believes.
Sully: I think this series actually sets up nicely for the Red Sox. You have to think they can muster a split with the big pitching advantage in Games 1 and 2. Then, they're so good in Fenway that they might be able to win a high scoring affair or two should Buchholz or Matsuzaka falter. What do you guys forsee happening?
Sky: I like both the Red Sox pitching as well as hitting over the Angels, but it's close. I'm going with the Red Sox in 5, with the bullpen making the difference.
Jeremy: I think the Red Sox win in 4. I don't see them losing a game where Beckett or Lester pitches.
Sully: I think the Red Sox win in 4 as well, but I think that is a certifiable fanboy prediction. This series has me really uneasy; this might be the best Angels team of their whole recent run of success.
Dave: I think the Red Sox are the slightly better team, but with the home field advantage I am going to go Angels in 5.
Rich: This series is between two of the best three teams in baseball. It's a shame that one of them will get knocked out this early. But that's the nature of the post-season. I believe it could go either way. I'll give the smallest of edges to Boston until proven otherwise. Red Sox in five.
We considered giving an in-depth series preview the ol' college try for the Minnesota Twins and New York Yankees ALDS match-up but by the time the Twins secured the AL Central, so many good previews were already popping up at some great sights around the web, there wasn't much to add. Here's a sampling:
This is David versus Goliath, if Goliath wore pinstripes and David was tired from dousing himself with champagne the night before, but fortunately for the Twins their slingshot is still warm.
Papa Bear Rich Lederer chimed in with the following:
The ALDS between Minnesota and New York can be summed up by tonight's pitching matchup: Twins (Brian Duensing) at Yankees (C.C. Sabathia)
I'm afraid I am with Rich here.
We'll have an in-depth roundtable previewing the Sox-Halos series tomorrow. Come on back!
Over the weekend I happened across this Joe Posnanski blog entry on Theo Epstein after Posnanski heard the Boston Red Sox GM on a local radio station with Boston sports media personalities Tony Massarotti and Michael Felger. You can listen to that interview here. The money excerpt takes place beginning at the 15:55 mark or so, when Theo asks Mazz and Felgy, who typify the mindset of the average Red Sox fan in so many ways, why they haven't asked him about J.D. Drew.
As Red Sox fans will probably remember, Drew has been treated unfairly in Boston since before his signing was even announced in the off-season prior to the 2007 season. Bob Ryan famously remarked on a media conference call, “On behalf of an eager constituency, let’s hope the rumor is not true" in reference to the possibility that the Red Sox would sign Drew. It wasn't limited to the mainstream, either. Our friend Chad Finn was very much against the deal, and you can see here in this Baseball Think Factory thread, Sox fan Jim Furtado says "this will not end well for Drew or the Red Sox".
Now, we are three years in. And let's just list out his record:
Not that any of this will silence Drew's critics but seriously, by what measure was the Drew signing anything but a great one?
Towards the end of August of this season, as Jon Lester was wrapping up a month in which he would strike out over four times as many batters as he would walk and hold opposing hitters to a .178/.242/.271 line, I thought it might be interesting to see how he was stacking up from an historic perspective thus far in his young career. Let's leave aside his personal story for the moment and take note of the fact that at the age of 25, he has now posted back to back seasons of better than 140 ERA+ pitching while throwing a good amount of innings and backing it up with impressive peripherals. What's more, his strikeout rate has jumped more than 50% in 2009 over 2008 to nearly 10 strikeouts per nine innings, suggesting he may have developed to the point where he will be an elite pitcher for years to come.
But let's stick to the present. I wanted to have a look at how many other players in the last 50 years had pitched as impressively as Lester had in his 24 year-old and 25 year-old Big League seasons. So of course, I ventured over to Baseball Reference's Play Index. Parameters: Since 1959, the best combined 24-25 seasons, minimum 350 innings pitched, as determined by Adjusted ERA+. Admittedly I cherry-picked these parameters because they apply specifically to what I had observed about Lester - that he had been very good in his 24 and 25 seasons. Here is the list this criteria produced:
Player From-To ERA+ K/9 K/BB Appier '92-'93 173 6.77 2.26 Lincecum '08-'09 170 10.51 3.48 Santana '03-'04 166 10.11 4.30 Greinke '08-'09 155 8.88 4.07 Pedro '96-'97 154 10.36 3.85 Seaver '69-'70 152 7.84 2.98 Clemens '87-'88 148 9.02 3.77 Zito '02-'03 145 6.40 1.98 Oswalt '02-'03 145 7.89 3.47 Webb '03-'04 143 7.78 1.80 McLain '68-'69 143 6.28 3.55 Lester '08-'09 143 8.16 2.91
Yes, it’s arbitrary but take a look at that. We are witnessing three of the best 25 year-old pitchers of the last 50 years. In fairness, Tim Lincecum and Zack Greinke are in a league all their own but Lester holds his own, showing up 12th on the list. And with his peripherals as strong as ever but his balls in play luck down a bit, Cole Hamels, another 25 year-old, probably deserves a spot here as well. Had he posted ERA numbers similar to his 2007 and 2008 seasons in 2009, he would be right there.
What’s even more interesting is that when you take a look at the head scratchers, the guys that might make you inclined not to place much stock in such a list, a look at their peripheral numbers accurately predicts which pitchers would continue their greatness and which pitchers might take a step back. Kevin Appier and Barry Zito, for instance, rank at the bottom of the list in K/9 and K/BB. Soon after their 24-25 seasons, Appier and Zito would both settle in as very good pitchers and not the great ones their ERA figures might have suggested they had become. You could place Brandon Webb in that category, too, but his ridiculous 119 walks in 2004 badly skews his numbers. Never again has he even approached that number of bases on balls. Denny McLain’s K/BB numbers were terrific but his K/9 figure did not quite stack up. Either way, injury and off-the-field trouble would derail McLain’s career.
So we have whittled the list down a bit. We’re going to keep Webb for the reasons specified above but eliminate Appier, Zito and McLain. Also, let’s take the following into account; since the All-Star Break 2008, in 43 starts, Lester has posted a 9.2 K/9 and 3.48 K/BB – numbers that push him a lot closer to that Lincecum and Greinke neighborhood than the Appier one. Like Timmy and Zack, Lester’s future looks bright. With our new list, Lester finds himself alongside the no-brainer 2009 AL and NL Cy Young Award winners, Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez, Tom Seaver, Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt and Webb. Not bad company at all.
The Play Index is great fun for things like this. If you suspect one of your favorite players might be inching up (or down) into select company, have a look. In this case, I learned that baseball is currently showcasing some of the most promising - historically promising - young pitching talent to burst onto the scene simultaneously in years. And that Jon Lester is one heck of a pitcher.
The Boston Red Sox have not played the Baltimore Orioles or the Toronto Blue Jays over their last four games but during that stretch they have won all four, having outscored their opposition 20-3 in the process. I am not sure what this will do to persuade Tony Massarotti of The Boston Globe that the Red Sox might have a chance in the post-season, but you never know. In a recent blog entry on boston.com titled "A Sox Smokescreen?", Mazz voices concern over Boston's ability to take on the better teams in baseball.
Boston is 24-6 this season against Toronto and Baltimore, which compels Mazz to all but encourage Red Sox fans to pack it in and settle in for football season. This was written last Wednesday, September 9th.
The Orioles have not been the Sox' only punching bag. The Sox are 11-4 against Toronto (another doormat) and went 11-7 against the inferior National League. That leaves the Sox at 46-45 against everyone else. All of this suggests the Sox are far closer to being a mediocre team than they are an elite one.
That last sentence is quite a statement - "the Sox are far closer to being a mediocre team than they are an elite one". For those unfamiliar with his work, Mazz has a history of writing nonsensical, provocative statements of this nature which vacillate between vitriolic and just plain dumb. He and Curt Schilling have famously butted heads in the past, to the point where Mazz threatened not to cover his charity events if Schilling continued to bypass the sports media and engage his fans directly. So who knows, maybe Mazz is doing his "look at me" routine or maybe he really does think the Sox are more mediocre than elite? Either way it reflects poorly on him.
Let's take stock of where the Red Sox are right now. They are 85-58, 5.5 games clear of the Texas Rangers for the AL Wild Card lead. They boast a +126 run differential, better than every team in baseball except for the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. They are on pace for 96 wins, they have not had one month where they were under .500, and they have not had one month where they failed to outscore the opposition. They have weathered their share of bumps at times, there have been major swings all season long, but if the Red Sox are not an "elite" team, then I guess I should brush up on my vocab because apparently I don't know what the word "elite" means.
The thing about the Blue Jays and Orioles is that they still play Major League Baseball. In a league where the best teams tend to win 60% of their games and the worst 40%, that qualifier means that they are very much capable of beating the best teams in the league with regularity. They're just like the Red Sox or Yankees, only they win one less game a week or so. That the Red Sox have so dominated Toronto and Baltimore is not a red flag, but rather an indication that they are probably quite good. Or better yet, it's probably not all that significant at all and probably just attributable to small sample; sort of like Boston's poor play against the Texas Rangers this year. And if the Jays and O's are so bad, then sheesh, how bad are the Yankees? They've lost 3 of their last 4 against the AL East "doormats", yielding 30 runs over that span.
The truth of course is that, since it is more difficult to beat good teams, even good teams will have mediocre records against other good teams. This has always been the case. Here is how the last 10 World Series champions have fared against teams that played .500 ball or better.
Year Team W - L 2008 Philly 42-44 2007 Boston 44-40 2006 St. Louis 21-26 2005 Chicago 39-33 2004 Boston 40-31 2003 Florida 53-48 2002 Angels 37-40 2001 Arizona 42-43 2000 Yankees 42-43 1999 Yankees 39-26
Total it up and those teams played .509 baseball. In 2009 the Red Sox are 37-34 against teams who have won more games than they have lost, good for a .521 win percentage. When you factor that consideration, it sure makes a statement like this sound stupid, doesn't it? From the same piece linked at the top:
But we're now 138 games into the 162-game marathon, and we still have no evidence that the Sox of late 2009 can compete with the big boys.
Define a "big boy", Mazz. Would a record of 15-7 against the AL East and AL Central division leaders qualify? Might that be some evidence? Like so many other Massarotti "antagonistic for the hell of it" pieces, this one too falls flat.
I had the pleasure of having lunch in Cambridge with Jonah Keri and David Cameron last Saturday. The next day my Baseball Analysts colleague Jeremy Greenhouse accompanied me at Fenway to watch Jon Lester turn in yet another gem against the Tampa Bay Rays. All three are thoughtful, ridiculously intelligent and open to new and different ways of thinking about baseball. Read some of their work, then go back and check out a couple of Mazz pieces and then decide for yourself. Where is the best baseball writing taking place?
Keys to the Pennant Races & Beyond
To be sure, there are better players than those included below on the rosters of Major League contenders. Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Miguel Cabrera, Bobby Abreu, Chase Utley, Albert Pujols, Ubaldo Jimenez, Matt Cain - you know about all of them. What follows is a list of those players (and one unit for that matter) that figure to skew pennant races or the post-season one way or another who haven't factored like they are now all season long. A season is a process, and it is often the best playoff-qualifying team on October 1st that wins the World Series and not the team that has been the best all season long. These players, many not factors at all for their current clubs for much of the season, will impact their teams' chances for better or worse from here on out. In the case of the Dodgers offense, of course they have been "factors" all season long. I include it because it has been such an enigma of late. I include it because it seemed like it could be counted on for much of the year. It's not a specific player like every other entrant, but its performance is just as uncertain and critical as the other players listed.
Bumgarner made his debut for San Francisco last night, an event that should have been met with great anticipation and zeal by Giants fans. In his 19 year-old season (he turned 20 on August 1), Bumgarner is a career 27-5 Minor League pitcher and boasts a 4.65 K/BB ratio. Problem is, the Giants only gave the kid the Big League nod because baseball's best pitcher was scratched with back problems.
Back problems could mean just one start but there is also the possibility that it could be something much worse. Should Tim Lincecum miss an extended period of time, it will be up to Bumgarner to take his turn in the rotation. With a lineup as inept as San Francisco's, a Lincecum gem is more of a necessity than a luxury. The Giants lost 4-3 last night, a respectable run prevention showing by any measure. But the Giants had only yielded as many as four runs in six of Lincecum's previous 20 starts. In other words, a typical Lincecum start last night wins. Lincecum's injury and Bumgarner's adaptability will play critical roles in the National League Wild Card race.
Penny's peripherals have been respectable all season long, and in two starts with the Giants so far he has been terrific. If Penny can maintain his effectiveness, he will give San Francisco one of the more solid one-through-five rotations in baseball, with Lincecum (Bumgarner), Matt Cain, Barry Zito and Jonathan Sanchez filling out the remaining spots.
As Red Sox fans can attest, Penny's mistakes seem to be hit as hard as any pitcher's in baseball. But when he limits the mistakes, or when the competition is less fierce (sorry, but let's be honest), he can definitely take a turn in a championship-aspirant rotation.
The Dodgers offense
Prior to the All-Star Game, even without Manny Ramirez for much of that time, this was an offense firing on all cylinders. Since the All-Star break, things have gone south. An offense that, despite playing home games in one of the more favorable pitcher's parks in baseball, was 2nd in the league in OPS heading into the break has ranked just 9th since then.
Pre ASB Post ASB AVG OBP SLG AVG OBP SLG Manny .355 .487 .669 .264 .373 .466 Pierre .328 .387 .417 .282 .345 .321 Kemp .320 .384 .495 .308 .333 .538 Blake .285 .364 .486 .252 .333 .409 Ethier .250 .338 .475 .333 .410 .612
James Loney and Rafael Furcal never quite found their strokes this season. In Loney's case, help may be on the way in the form of Jim Thome, though the veteran's defensive limitations will preclude him from playing regularly. Thank heavens for Andre Ethier.
To kick off the month, Gonzalez is chasing a .371/.432/.714 August with a .357/.455/.679 September. With apologies to Seth Smith, Tulo and Dexter Fowler, it has been Gonzalez's emergence that have transitioned the Rockies from pesky Wild Card contender to a legitimate World Series-caliber force.
To the Rockies credit, they do not sit tight when they think they have a superior performer hanging around somewhere, whether it be on the dugout, the Minor Leagues or the waiver wire. Ask Garrett Atkins and Ryan Spilborghs. You'd better perform if you want to hang onto your job in Denver.
The Colorado bullpen is rounding into form thanks to these two. After injuries and struggles as a starter relegated Morales to the Minor Leagues after playing such a key role on the 2007 NL Champions, he has come back late in 2009 as a force out of the bullpen. Add Betancourt to the fold, whom the Rox acquired from the Cleveland Indians at the trade deadline, and all of a sudden it appears Colorado has the makings of a shut-down late inning 1-2 punch. In just under 40 combined innings since the All-Star Break for Colorado, the two have combined for 43 strikeouts, 14 walks and just 27 hits.
Look, the Red Sox couldn't wait around to see if Smoltz would turn this corner. They saw his stuff and liked it. They saw his peripherals and took note. If it were April when he made his first start, you can bet they would have kept running him out there through May, through June, etc to see if he would turn the corner he seems to have.
You might have come across this David Cameron piece about Smoltz after the Red Sox designated him. To me it wasn't controversial because of the key point it was making - that Smoltz still appeared to have good innings left in him. It was the ease with which he dismissed the Red Sox evaluative process.
Cardinal fans just picked up a pretty good pitcher for the league minimum, thanks to the continued overestimation of the usefulness of ERA. The sooner people realize that it’s an obsolete pitching statistic, the better off baseball will be.
Indeed. The Red Sox brass could learn a thing or two about how there is more to pitching than ERA. It was this dig that stood out for me; the presumption that Boston's front office - Theo Epstein and Tom Tippett and Bill James - overvalue ERA and worse, hold baseball back as a result. Boston was in the thick of a race and didn't have the luxury of finding out if Smoltz's strong peripherals and his complete ineptitude versus left handed batters would correct itself. With a comfortable lead in its division, St. Louis did have that luxury and has benefited.
Either way, Cameron looks pretty smart these days with Smoltz and Penny performing the way they are, the former with a ridiculous 28 strikeouts against just one walk in four starts with St. Louis.
Speaking of strong K/BB ratios, in four starts with the Phillies, Pedro is now at 27 strikeouts and four walks. He is still getting hit pretty hard at times but it looks as though Philadelphia has found themselves some options when it comes playoff time. Joe Blanton and J.A. Happ have also been great lately, and Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee are, well, Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee. Pedro may yet find himself on the outside looking in when October rolls around, but if he continues to pitch the way he has, Charlie Manuel won't have a choice.
Like Colorado, Philadelphia's bullpen stands to benefit from two late additions. Romero and Myers have returned from injuries and not a moment too soon with Brad Lidge struggling as badly as he has. These two will be worth watching down the stretch as the Phillies try and figure out optimal post-season deployment of their pitching talent. All of a sudden they have remarkable starting pitching depth and if Romero or Myers struggles, it may be worth considering converting one or more of their starters into relievers.
After his second consecutive season spending extended time on the Disabled List, McCarthy returns to the Rangers rotation in the thick of a playoff chase. If not for Akinori Otsuka and Adam Eaton, it's almost as if McCarthy would be best known for occupying the short end of a bad Jon Daniels trade.
But here he is, the #49 prospect on Baseball America's 2005 Top 100 list, and he still has that wiry frame that has served so many other pitchers well. He has won his first two decisions since coming back, but with shaky peripherals in the process. He will need a couple more good starts to stick through September because the player whose rotation slot he took, Dustin Nippert, had been throwing pretty nicely.
Since being recalled from Triple-A Oklahoma City on August 7th, all Borbon has done is hit .329/.397/.486 with 13 steals against just one caught stealing. Marlon Byrd hasn't been so bad either (.287/.328/.486). Now Ron Washington is going to have some decisions to make. Josh Hamilton (.270/.318/.426) and Andruw Jones (.217/.329/.482) are set to return from injury but each game is crucial to the Rangers' hopes. If playing time is to be doled out on a meritocratic basis, Borbon and Byrd should not be sitting much down the stretch.
Since returning to the Big Leagues on the 4th of July, Kendrick is hitting .361/.397/.511. Since the All-Star break, it's .373/.405/.545. Who knows if Kendrick has finally arrived or if this is some sort of short-term blip - my guess is the former for what it's worth - but let's put this in perspective. An excellent fielding second baseman OPS'ing .900+ is more commonly known as an MVP candidate. Or Chase Utley. Or Joe Morgan.
You get the point. On a team with a lot of excellent players, Kendrick might be the Halos' very best at the moment.
I have heard some friends in baseball circles refer to "change of scenery" guys and to be candid, it made little sense to me. The concept is that the player, for whatever reason, is unable to perform up to his ability because of external factors specific to a given team or city. That makes enough sense, that a player's environment can impact their performance, but how could you know that any other environment would suit him better? Well in light of Smoltz, Penny, Julio Lugo, Matt Holliday and now Kazmir, I am becoming more of a believer. The southpaw is flashing a 1.35 ERA in his first 13.1 innings with the Halos.
On a team badly lacking pitching pitching depth, Detroit's World Series road-map consists of little more than two or three shut-down performances from Jackson and Justin Verlander per series, and then figure it out from there. Unfortunately for Tigers fans, Jackson is looking like he may no longer be capable of filling such a role.
April 7 to June 6 June 7 to Sept 9 ERA K/BB ERA K/BB Jackson 2.16 3.26 3.88 1.88
He has still been good, but the Tigers need the dominant Jackson back to make a run in the post-season. Unless their bats get a big boost...
...which brings me to Guillen. Miguel Cabrera is the only Tiger OPS'ing over .800 on the season, a problem for a team with thin starting pitching and a bullpen that can look shaky. But since the All-Star Break Guillen has been terrific, raking at a .276/.374/.530 clip. Magglio Ordonez has come on and the addition of Ryan Raburn has helped, too. It looks like the new road map for the Tigers might be simply to outslug teams. It would have seemed unlikely a few months ago, but their lineup may yet round together.
Clay Buchholz, anyone who can get them to October
Josh Beckett and Jon Lester are known commodities, even if the former has struggled of late. The Red Sox #4 and #5 starters, with Penny and Smoltz long gone, Tim Wakefield's back a major question, Daisuke Matsuzaka's return unclear, Junichi Tazawa struggling and Paul Byrd even in the mix to begin with, could be considered, um, uncertain. Which leaves Buchholz.
He has been inconsistent to date in 2009 but seems like he might - might - have turned a corner. In 21.1 innings in his last three starts he has yielded just 16 baserunners and posted a 4.25 K/BB ratio. If this, or even some loose variant of this, is the Buchholz Boston gets for the rest of the year and they manage to qualify for the post-season, they're contenders.
I won't belabor this one because Rob Neyer already did such a nice job with it. The Yankees are the best team in baseball, but if you could undergo any tinkering at all with their squad, what would you do? In a piece titled "How to make the Yankees perfect" Neyer writes:
Which is where Hughes comes in. Chamberlain is the Yankees' No. 4 starter. Sergio Mitre is the Yankees' No. 5 starter. Which means the Yankees, as things stand now, have only three reliable starters. And again, you need four of them when the leaves are turning in New England.
Will the Yankees shift personnel around this late in the season as Neyer is proposing? It might be the key to them nailing down their first title since 2000.
Along Came Jones
Baseball pundits, purists, analysts and announcers disagree on a wide array of issues relating to the game. DH or no DH? What are the virtues of the sacrifice bunt? Small ball or the three-run homer? But one thing that everyone seems to agree on is that what makes baseball particularly neat is that you never know when you might witness something extraordinary. Maybe it's a perfect game, or a speedster steals home or a nail-biter between division foes ends in an unassisted triple play. When you show up at the park, you never know what you might witness.
One can extrapolate that very same principle over the course of a week, a month or an entire season. You just never know. For instance, Mark Reynolds has 40 home runs. I find that to be absolutely remarkable. The New York Yankees have had five key contributors - Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon, Hideki Matsui and Andy Pettitte - all on the wrong side of the age of 35, make marked improvements over their 2008 campaigns. What are the odds? And perhaps most stunningly of all, Garrett Jones, 28 year-old Garrett Jones, Garrett Jones of the 1,038 Minor League plate appearances in 11 seasons at a .258/.312/.450 clip, is hitting .291/.360/.602 for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2009.
Jones' transaction history (thanks B-Ref) offers a glimpse of what an afterthought he was coming into 2009:
June 2, 1999: Drafted by the Atlanta Braves in the 14th round of the 1999 amateur draft. Player signed June 18, 1999.
And yet, here he is. Let's have a look at how Jones is stacking up in 2009. Let me caveat everything I am about to present by noting that small sample size warnings apply. Jones has played in just 53 games and come to the plate only 228 times in 2009. He may tank before the end of this season. Still, it's fun to have a look. Here is how he ranks among MLB hitters in AB/HR (minimum 200 PA's):
AB/HR Pujols 10.9 Pena 11.6 Reynolds 11.8 Jones 12.4 Dunn 12.8
And what about the Major League OPS+ leaders? Again, minimum of 200 plate appearances:
OPS+ Pujols 190 Mauer 181 Gonzalez 162 Fielder 161 M. Ramirez 157 H. Ramirez 156 Dunn 156 G. Jones 153 Utley 152 Beltran 149
Ok ok, so we know that Jones is right there offensively with the best sluggers in the game for 2009. But is his rookie season, at the age of 28, taking on historic significance? Is there much precedent for the way Jones has performed in 2009? The answer is "no".
Oh sure there was Johnny Schulte in 1927 and Bill Kenworthy in 1914 - I am sure you remember both - but for ballplayers in their rookie campaigns at the age of 27 or later, it does not get much better than Jones in 2009. Have a look for yourself.
It's unlikely that Jones keeps up anything resembling this clip but let's put his rookie campaign in perspective, much the way we would when we witness a cycle, no-hitter or 4-home run game. Maybe they lack big-picture significance but they're significant achievements on their own.
A Wednesday Night at Wrigley
When I learned I would be arriving in Chicago on business earlier than originally planned Wednesday night, I decided to call the Cubs box office to pick up the best available single I could buy for that evening's game against the Washington Nationals. While my support for the Boston Red Sox will never waver, my wife comes from a long line of Cubs fans and I must admit that their devotion to the North Siders has rubbed off over the years. I like the Cubs. I like Wrigley Field. I like baseball. I managed a seat in the fifth row of section 115 (pictured terribly on the right).
When I arrived at the park about 30 minutes or so before the first pitch, a few things struck me. First, there was a nonstop procession of promotions; honorary batboys and batgirls and I swear to you there were four separate "first pitches". Interestingly it was Phillips Exeter grad Sam Fuld who somehow pulled promotion duty that evening. I couldn't tell if it was simply Sam's turn or if they just tell the 5'7" kid who went to Exeter and Stanford to go and make nice with the community. Whatever it was, Fuld was doing just about everything but preparing to play an actual baseball game leading up to the first pitch. Of course, he also wasn't in the lineup that night.
The other thing I noticed was a peculiar, unspoken game of one-upmanship in which Cubs fans try and evidence their love of the team by donning a $22 tee-shirt with some of the club's lesser known players' names on the back; the less heralded, the better. Ryan Theriot? I saw at least 25. Koyie Hill? You bet. Ryan Dempster? Everywhere. Tom Gorzelanny? Now on sale. I did not see one Milton Bradley tee shirt.
The clear fan favorite of the Chicago Cubs is Derrek Lee. The Cubs started to become what they are now - a veritable power brand in MLB - beginning in the 1998 season if you ask me. You could point to any number of players that will live on in peoples' memories as most representing this era of Cubs success (four playoff appearances in 11 seasons), but as time goes on and with steroid allegations tarnishing images as they seem to do, it just may be Lee that stands taller than the rest. Sure there's Sosa and Prior and Wood and Aramis and Zambrano, but Lee's steadiness, professionalism and off-the-charts awesome 2005 season position him a bit differently.
Maybe you're a Frank Chance kind of guy/gal but Lee has a fine argument as the best first baseman ever to wear a Cubs uniform. Looking back, it's a credit to my father-in-law's respect for his daughter's independence that he let me have her hand in marriage; in the Spring of 2004 I did after all argue to him that Hee Seop Choi would be better than Lee after they were traded for one another. I was adamant, too.
My scorecard pencil eraser saw work immediately. I had Nyjer Morgan leading off and playing center field, right where he was the previous night, right where he had been for the 48 other games he had played for the Washington Nationals in 2009. Willie Harris would take his position that night, however, as Morgan would miss the game with reported flu-like symptoms and then later be placed on the DL for the remainder of the year with a fractured hand. You can imagine my disappointment.
I love Fangraphs and think it's data is indispensable. But I am not one of these fans that takes their value lists at face. I am a skeptic, though would defer to it ahead of my own instinct most of the time if I had to make a call on a certain player. So back to Morgan. According to Fangraphs, he ranks 14th in total value this season amongst all Major League position players; better than Mark Teixeira, better than Troy Tulowitzki. I find this surprising but I do not necessarily doubt it. That's why I was so eager to see Morgan, a player whose value is so tied to his defense. What kind of jump does he get? I wanted to see how quickly and easily he could track down a surefire gap shot. But it wasn't to be.
The game itself was clean for seven innings or so. The Cubs managed two runs against Livan Hernandez and then another off of Jason Bergmann. Bradley had all three RBI for the Cubs through seven innings, two of which came after a long home run he pulled to right field off of Hernandez. As he made his way back to the Cubs dugout after crossing the plate, he opened and closed his hand repeatedly, the way one might if they were mocking someone for talking too much. He clearly has no use for the Chicago media or even the fans. As David Cameron notes, Bradley has not provided great value for the Cubs but he also has not been nearly as disastrous as, say, Alfonso Soriano.
Hernandez struck out the first two batters he faced and looked for all of Wrigley Field like he might have something special in him that night. Of course you would never know it from the radar gun. The velocity on at least ten of his pitches that I saw did not eclipse 66 miles per hour. But when his night was done he had given up just seven baserunners and two runs in six innings. He struck out six. For his part, Rich Harden was both dazzling and infuriating, struggling with command but blowing hitters away with his pure stuff. He pitched every bit as well as Hernandez, a back-handed compliment of sorts for a pitcher of Harden's ability ("hey, I went pitch for pitch with Livan Hernandez tonight, guys!").
Just as I was eager to witness Morgan's defensive prowess, I couldn't help but notice Adam Dunn's fielding ineptitude. It's something to behold. To lead off the eighth inning, Kosuke Fukudome hit a sharp ground ball no more than four feet to Dunn's right between the second baseman and where Dunn was playing, first base. He never moved. Later in the inning Dunn misplayed a Jeff Baker grounder that was charitably ruled a hit. The Cubs broke the game open, Dunn did not commit an error but he definitely cost his team two outs that at least 25 other Major League first baseman would have had no trouble at all handling. It was exhibit A for the inadequacy of traditional defensive statistics (errors, fielding percentage).
The Cubs would score six in the eighth, the Nats two in the ninth and the game would end up a 9-4 win for the Cubbies. Wrigley's energy was a bit zapped by the previous night's drubbing to the lowly Nationals and the overall disappointment that has characterized the 2009 season for Chicago. The lack of energy only served to make my personal experience all the more pure and somehow, timeless; it was August Major League Baseball between two teams without a chance this year featuring no shortage of intriguing players. I was at a beautiful, historic park in a world-class city. I had an Old Style, a hot dog, met some nice people, kept score. There were empty seats.
I love taking in a game with a friend as much as the next guy but there was something about this meaningless game in August, alone, away from my hometown that made me feel closer to the game than I had been in a long time. I'm recharged. The dog days are behind us.
Now bring on the stretch run.
Billy Wagner & Post Tommy John Pitching
A deal finalized yesterday between the Mets and Red Sox gives Boston another live arm while raising questions about Billy Wagner's health and more broadly, how to handle a pitcher post-Tommy John Surgery. With respect to his chances for success this season and beyond, it seems Wagner is fortunate to be a relief pitcher.
David Young at SI.com pointed out as much in his recent piece focusing on Tim Hudson's chances for making a successful return to the Big Leagues.
Perhaps an argument in favor of going to the bullpen is the high-profile closers and relievers that have been able to perform well at the major-league level post-TJS. Danys Baez, Rod Beck, Manny Delcarmen, Octavio Dotel, Frank Francisco, Eric Gagne, Tom Gordon, Hong-Chih Kuo (twice), Jose Mesa, Rafael Soriano and Bob Wickman were all able to pitch competitively after receiving TJS.
There can be no questioning Wagner's record of success. He is a relief pitcher of historic stature, the career leader both in K/9 and K/BB for relief pitchers with at least 600 career innings. In two Big League innings for the Mets in 2009, he struck out four, walked one and did not allow a hit. It's unclear what role he will fill for Boston but their once dominant bullpen has stumbled a bit of late. Takashi Saito, Hideki Okajima and Jonathan Papelbon have remained steady, but Ramon Ramirez, Daniel Bard and Manny Delcarmen have looked shaky. Adding Wagner to the mix can only help.
With Wagner's health of central concern to Boston and the American League Wild Card race, I sought out some professional perspective on Wagner, how the Sox should handle him and what he will need to do in order to sustain success. Craig Friedman is Director of Methodology at Athletes' Performance and works with Cactus League clubs preparing MLB pitchers for a long season during Spring Training. Here is what he had to share:
Billy Wagner’s acquisition by the Red Sox brings up the lingering question of Tommy John surgery—can pitchers fully recover after surgery, and if so, how can the Sox (or any team) best set up the pitcher for long-term success?
So, there you have it; don't overuse him or under-use him, get him to bed early, keep him in shape and keep an eye on his "kinetic linking". Do all of that and the Red Sox may have the Billy Wagner of old, slamming the door late in games down the stretch.
As Director of Methodology for Athletes' Performance, Craig Friedman designs and implements performance training systems for professional athletes of all sports as well as elite youth through college athletes. He also continues to specialize in Major League Baseball Spring Training preparation at the Arizona facility and served as a Performance Specialist for the German National Soccer Team during their run to a 3rd place finish at the 2006 World Cup in Germany. He is also involved with numerous developmental initiatives integrating performance training and technology for both Athletes' Performance and Core Performance as a leader of the Performance Innovation Team at AP.
Craig received both his Master of Science and Bachelor of Science degrees from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where he worked with the Women's Athletic Training Department. He gained additional experience as a graduate assistant at the University of Arizona as the Assistant Football Athletic Trainer, where he was responsible for the acute care, assessment, and rehabilitation of injured players before shifting his emphasis toward performance training.
Your One Stop American League Round-Up
In the throes of the dog days of August, it's easy to lose sight of the importance of the baseball games being played night-to-night. In baseball there's the season's beginning, the excitement around the trade deadline and the September pennant races that seem to garner the most attention. But these are interesting times in Major League Baseball, and I thought it might be useful to stop and take stock of where we are at the moment. We'll start with the American Legaue.
In the AL East, the New York Yankees seem to be on cruise control, bashing their way to their first division crown since 2006. Their team OPS+ is 116 and with only one regular OPS'ing under .800, this is the finest edition of the Yankees in a number of years. They are getting hot at the right time, too, having gone 24-8 since the All-Star Break. Of the top-22 in OPS since the break, five are Yankees. One through nine, it's easily baseball's scariest lineup.
Elsewhere in the division, the Boston Red Sox are tied with the Texas Rangers for the American League Wild Card lead but it's been a tough slog for Boston of late. Just 13-17 since the All-Star Break, it's hard to envision these Red Sox qualifying for post-season play without really catching fire. Fear not, Sox fans. Paul Byrd goes tonight in Pawtucket. Help is on the way!
Three games back of the Red Sox and Rangers in the AL Wild Card race are the Tampa Bay Rays. The Rays field four legitimate MVP vote-getters every night, have a great front end of the rotation and an overachieving bullpen. And yet, they can't seem to string wins together consistently. Should they miss the playoffs this season, you can point to four players. Scott Kazmir and his 6.61 ERA is one, and here are the three others:
AVG OBP SLG Upton .240 .316 .370 Burrell .224 .326 .388 Navarro .220 .252 .336
In the Central, the Detroit Tigers are three games clear of the Chicago White Sox. Detroit has added Jarrod Washburn and now Aubrey Huff, and despite a negative run differential for the month, are 10-7 in August. They don't really hit much, though, and while Justin Verlander continues to dazzle, Edwin Jackson has yielded a .896 OPS since the All-Star Break. If Washburn and Jackson struggle and the offense limps to the finish line, this division is there for the taking should Chicago or even Minnesota step up.
Kenny Williams has grown tired of his team's underachieving ways but don't blame 22 year-old rookie third baseman, Gordon Becham. He's been Chicago's best player of late, hitting .322/.415/.517 since the Break. The problem with the White Sox has been that Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko are doing what old people do, slowing down. Meanwhile for 40% of their games Chicago pretends Jose Contreras and Freddy Garcia are still Major League starters. Get healthy, Mr. Peavy.
For Minnesota's part, their catcher's having a pretty good season, huh? I don't really feel compelled to jump into the absurd Joe Mauer vs. Mark Teixeira MVP debate, but a few things I have read especially resonated with me. There is this article from Dayn Perry at Fox Sports which reminds the BBWAA of the voting criteria, and that their job is not to award the hardware to "the player with the most RBI or most home runs or dirtiest uniform on a team bound for the playoffs."
There was also this tweet (hate that word but it is what it is) from Ken Tremendous, formerly of Fire Joe Morgan fame and writer for NBC's The Office and Parks and Recreation.
Joe Mauer is hitting .383/.448/.653/1.101. He has a 10.6 WARP3, and it's mid-August. If he doesn't win the MVP, I quit America.
But maybe David Cameron has it right over at FanGraphs. I tend to feel the same way these days about the Hall of Fame vote. In a piece he titles "Why Do We Care?". he writes...
If they want to think that Teixeira was the most important player to his team in the league this year, that’s fine. Most of us probably disagree, and we’re under no obligation to report that as any kind of factual statement. I’ll be telling people that Mauer was the most valuable player in the American League for 2009, and I’ve got a mountain of information to back it up. How other people view the definition of the word value has no real world impact on me.
As for Minnesota's team hopes, they sit 6.5 games back. Switch out Matt Tolbert, Alexi Casilla and anyone else who has manned second base for the Twins for Robinson Cano and the Twins are in the thick of a division race and there is no question at all about whether the guy putting up the best season ever for a catcher should capture a long overdue first MVP award. Also of note in the AL Central, Billy Butler is raking to the tune of a .331/.393/.589 line in the second half for the Kansas City Royals.
Out west we have witnessed quite a role reversal in 2009. The Texas Rangers lead baseball in Runs Saved Above Average while the Los Angeles Angels lead the Big Leagues in runs per game and batting average. Seven Angels regulars are OPS'ing over .800 on the season while the two that are not, Howie Kendrick and Erick Aybar have posted a .986 and .878 mark respectively in the second half. I wonder if Mike Scioscia has reconsidered some of his philosophies regarding how runs are plated.
The Rangers improved run prevention can be attributed in large part to their defense. Led by Elvis Andrus, Texas is second in the American League in Defensive Efficiency Rating. Texas has a tough road the rest of the way, with seven remaining against the Angels, six against the Rays and three against New York. Their last seven games of the season will be away from Arlington. They look strong - they might even be the favorites for the Wild Card - but let's see them close. It's been a while.
I'll be back next Wednesday with a similar look at the National League.
Shortstops Still Standing Out
There is a shortstop playing for one of the Florida teams this season batting .336/.391/.541, heating up at the right time and overall posting one of the better offensive years by a player at his position in recent memory. Yes, Hanley Ramirez (.351/.413/.556) is having another banner year but the first sentence here applies to Tampa Bay Rays shortstop, Jason Bartlett.
The players manning Tampa Bay's middle infield represent two of this year's biggest surprises in Bartlett and Ben Zobrist. Coming into this season, Bartlett was a career .276/.337/.362 hitter more renowned for his clubhouse presence (2008 team MVP!!) and glove than for his contributions with the bat. Now he's OPS'ing over .900. And really, how much playing time would Zobrist even have seen if Akinori Iwamura did not go down?
But I want to focus on shortstops for the purposes of this article. I wrote at the beginning of the 2007 season how 2006 was just the sixth ever season in which four or more shortstops eclipsed the 120 OPS+ mark. For all of the talk of how A-Rod, Nomar, Jeter and Tejada represented the peak for shortstop productivity by posting banner season after banner season around the turn of the century, that era seems never to have gone away.
Since 1985, there have been 103 seasons of 110 OPS+ batting by MLB shortstops playing at least 90 games (a convenient cutoff given Bartlett's DL stint this year). 42 of those seasons occurred between 1985 and 1998, the first 14 of the 25 years I analyzed. From 1999 through 2009, in those eleven years there have been 61 shortstops eclipse the 110 OPS+ mark in a given season.
While their simultaneous emergence captivated baseball fans everywhere, Alex Rodriguez would eventually move to third base, Nomar Garciaparra would fall off badly and Derek Jeter began producing unspectacular but steady seasons. When Miguel Tejada regressed significantly in 2007 after three great seasons in Baltimore, it seemed the age of the high-producing offensive shortstop may have come to a close.
But now there is a new crop of shortstops, young and old, toiling in smaller markets and to much less fanfare than did Nomar and Jeter and A-Rod during their shortstop heyday. In fact, 2009 may well be the best season in baseball history for shortstop productivity. Sticking with the metric mentioned earlier, players posting 110 OPS+ and higher, only 2002 matches this season in terms of the amount of players besting the mark. In both years, seven shortstops accomplished the feat.
AVG OBP SLG OPS+ A-Rod .308 .392 .623 158 Tejada .308 .354 .508 128 Nomar .310 .352 .528 127 Hernandez .288 .356 .478 120 Cora .291 .371 .434 119 Renteria .305 .364 .439 113 Jeter .297 .373 .421 111
AVG OBP SLG OPS+ HanRam .351 .413 .556 154 Bartlett .336 .391 .541 139 Tulo .275 .360 .535 126 Jeter .318 .387 .452 121 Escobar .307 .374 .464 120 Scutaro .295 .386 .441 118 Tejada .323 .350 .463 115
A quick glance at both lists makes it pretty easy to explain why the 2009 group gets so much less publicity. The first group was still considered part of a revolutionary time in baseball, and it didn't hurt that they were largely either in huge baseball markets or playing for the best teams in the game. A-Rod, Nomar and Jeter were referred to as the Holy Trinity, Tejada came on later but grabbed headlines for the great Oakland A's teams of the turn of the century. Edgar Renteria played for St. Louis at the time, a great market with a large and attentive fanbase.
This season's group is a different story. Ramirez and Bartlett's teams have combined to draw less than the Yankees this year. Speaking of the Yankees, it seems like for once Jeter might be overlooked! Newcomers Mark Teixeira, C.C. Sabathia and A.J. Burnett are grabbing headlines as the Yankees cruise to their best season in a few years. Troy Tulowitzki is in Denver, Yunel Escobar in Atlanta, Miggy is now in Houston and the excitement directed towards Marco Scutaro at the beginning of the season seems to have faded with the hopes of the Blue Jays.
We are still in the middle of a golden era of shortstop productivity, perhaps even at the peak of it. If the Marlins and Rays make a big push and qualify for the post-season, it will have to be thanks in large part to their respective shortstops. If that happens, then maybe this crop of slugging glove-men will get their due.
Conventional Wisdom Had the Night Off
A quick one today because I was up way too late last night watching the Red Sox lose to the Tampa Bay Rays in 13 innings, but here is some of what happened last night around Major League Baseball:
Lest anyone question baseball's awesomeness, I would point you to the evening of August 4th, 2009. Baseball is fun and unpredictable, and I think it's safe to say that we are in for one hell of a stretch run over these last two months.
How Close Are the O's?
Just like each of the previous 11 seasons, it's been a tough year of baseball in Baltimore. They're 42-57 and in last place in the American League East. Almost without question, they will end up in last place, too. The Orioles will not even sniff 80 wins, a mark the franchise has failed to reach every season since 1997. You could forgive an Orioles fan for losing hope.
Compounding matters is the fact that Major League Baseball forces Baltimore to play an unbalanced schedule against some of the league's best teams. They will have played 57 games against the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays by the end of the season, clubs sporting the top three run differentials in the American League and three of the top five in all of baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays, the other American League East team, is not so bad either.
Despite all of this, there is ample cause for optimism in the Charm City. The Orioles boast an offensive core they can build around to go along with some of the most promising pitching prospects in all of baseball. Moreover, close to $46 million of payroll will come off the books after the 2009 season. The Orioles will be in a position both to promote good players from within and leverage new-found financial flexibility to fill holes. And before we get too far ahead of ourselves, they might also be able to address the 2010 club and beyond before Friday's trade deadline.
Let's take a look at what their 2010 lineup and pitching staff might look like and try and figure out what they might do to give themselves the best shot to compete next season (2009 stats shown below).
POS Name Age Level(s) AVG OBP SLG C Wieters 23 AAA/MAJ .289 .356 .446 1B Snyder 22 AA/AAA .300 .371 .501 2B Roberts 31 MAJ .279 .342 .434 3B Wigginton 31 MAJ .256 .303 .385 SS Izturis 29 MAJ/AA .263 .296 .320 LF Reimold 25 AAA/MAJ .327 .413 .565 CF Jones 23 MAJ .297 .352 .488 RF Markakis 25 MAJ .292 .348 .463 DH Scott 31 MAJ/L-A .283 .367 .546
Baltimore can count on average or better production from catcher, second base, all three outfield positions and designated hitter. From there, Baltimore President of Baseball Operations Andy MacPhail will be forced to make a series of judgment calls, beginning this week. Will Brandon Snyder be ready to fill everyday duties at first base (or DH if you want to slide Luke Scott to 1st)? What can George Sherrill get in the form of a third baseman or shortstop? Might Brian Fuentes' recent struggles compel the Angels to bid for Sherrill's services? Have they soured on Brandon Wood given his career .188/.250/.280 Major League mark? Wood would almost certainly be too much for Sherrill alone but what about Dodgers third base prospect Josh Bell? The National League's best club is rumored to be interested in Sherrill.
There are also a number of options on the free agent market. Adrian Beltre's offensive struggles this season might mean that he could be had on the cheap. He remains a top-notch defender and is a strong bounce-back candidate at the plate given how precipitous his decline has been. Chone Figgins might be another option at third, an all-around good guy who has won a lot and could be a terrific influence on a young team.
If Baltimore does not think Snyder is ready for an everyday job and decides to move Scott to first, maybe they could pursue a full-time DH like Vladimir Guerrero or Jermaine Dye. The 2010 free agent class of shortstops is thin but a number of them would represent an upgrade over Izturis. If Baltimore could acquire Marco Scutaro, Jack Wilson, Adam Everett or Orlando Cabrera at a reasonable price, it may be well worth their while.
In Matt Wieters, Brian Roberts, Nolan Reimold, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis and Luke Scott, the Orioles have a legitimate offensive nucleus. What they do to fill in the holes will go a long way in determining the type of season they have in 2010.
Name Age Level(s) IP K/BB WHIP ERA Uehara 34 MAJ