24 August 2016

This Guy Seager? No His Brother. He's Not Too Bad.

Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager has now played 148 games between his 2015 call-up and the first 121 games of this season. In that time, he has begun authoring history.

Playing in a pitcher's stadium; facing the likes of Madison Bumgarner, Zack Grienke and Petco Park; and staffing the middle infield, Seager has pummeled NL pitching. His 26 homes and 47 doubles/triples make him one of the league's top sluggers -- at age 22. He's produced 52% better than the average batter and earned more than seven wins against replacement. 

Seager, the younger brother of Mariner star third baseman Kyle, was born the same year ARod began his career -- 1994. Less than a calendar year into his career, he's the Dodgers' best everyday player, despite a roster of multi-millionaires, and he's beginning to climb some impressive lists, many of which go beyond rookie status.

Seager is now the most homerific shortstop in Dodger history. He's the youngest shortstop in history to wallop three homers in one game. He's the first Dodger ever with a three-homer game and a three-double game in the same season. He owns the L.A. rookie record for doubles, with more than a month left in the season. He leads the Dodgers in WAR and most everything else that's good, batting .326/.387/.547 to start his career.

Here's the thing: even if you've heard of him, he's not top of mind, even among the plethora of young stars in the game. For a first-round draft pick playing in Hollywood, he generates a minimum of buzz.

That will end soon. The Dodgers are playoff-bound again, and a longer stay will finally put him in the spotlight. Even absent that, Seager is a cinch to win the Rookie of the Year and is in the conversation for MVP.

Go ahead and ignore him. The record books are already noticing.

21 August 2016

Ryan Lochte's "Apology" Will Cost Him Millions

You've perhaps heard of Ryan Lochte now. Lochte is the unfortunate lad who has swum in Michael Phelps' wake for the last 12 years, the world's best swimmer except for the guy setting all the records.

Now Lochte is famous for being an idiot and for sparking an international incident, mostly with his mouth.

Once the story began unraveling and the merda hit the fan, Lochte's PR team went into full Ryan Braun mode.

The Legalistic Non-apology
You've heard the non-apology, non-acceptance of responsibility in which Lochte used the words "apology" and "I accept responsibility" both in his Instagram post and in an interview on national television with Matt Lauer.

Here's his Instagram apology:
"I want to apologize for my behavior last weekend. I'm sorry for not being more careful and candid in how I described the events of that early morning."

That's it. No acknowledgement of what he did, that he lied and embarrassed a nation, that he acted like a drunken moron in someone else's country. ln a statement apologizing for a lack of candor, Lochte lacked candor.

Reading From a Script
For icing on an already sour cake, there's the Lauer interview. (That is, setting aside Lochte's repeated use of the redundant "over-exaggerated".) Lochte attempted a samba in which he appeared contrite and apologetic without ever admitting any of the details of his lie. He even suggested that his bald-faced lie about having a gun at his temple could be a matter of interpretation.

Pressed repeatedly by Lauer to admit the truth, Lochte's PR training kicked in. Looking ever earnest, he simply re-read from the script without ever answering Lauer's questions. He repeatedly claimed to accept responsibility while attempting to evade it. It's understandable, because actually answering the questions would have required Lochte to admit he had lied. On the other hand, a genuine, apology would have humanized him and put a cap on the dramatics.

I knew nothing of, and had no opinion of Lochte. the person, prior to this incident. I have an opinion now: he's a lying, conniving, contemptible, disingenuous jackass, not because he got drunk and destroyed a bathroom, not even because he originally lied about the incident. 

Goodbye Cheerios...and Everyone Else
Lochte loses my respect because he hasn't the common decency to stand up and admit what is transparent to the world anyway. He's hiding behind a PR strategy, presumably to save millions in endorsements.

Well, I've got bad news for Ryan and his PR dopes. The cover-up was worse than the crime. He'll lose those endorsements not because he acted like a knucklehead and wove a tall tail afterwards, but because of his lack of candor and refusal to accept responsibility once the story blew up.

I wonder how much he's paying to get really terrible advice.

12 August 2016

And Now A Word From Our Sponsor

In case you're wondering why the Olympic coverage seems oddly unsatisfying, here's 20 minutes of your life you can never get back:

Following Michael Phelps' dramatic gold medal performance in the 200 IM, NBC offered you four minutes of commercials you'd already seen ad nauseum. 

They followed that with the playing of the U.S. National Anthem. Note to NBC: we've heard the national anthem before.

Then four more minutes of commercials, including promos for shows that are comedies, ironically, only because they think they are.

Then several minutes of showing Phelps meandering around the pool waiting for his next event with a clock ticking off the minutes since his last competition. Evidently NBC was oblivious to the fact that it was also cataloging the time since its audience had last seen any action.

Then an interview with Ryan Lochte, who had finished fifth in the event and had, like all the other media-savvy swimmers, nothing to say.

Followed by four minutes of commercials

Or at least I assume it was four minutes. I turned off the TV at that point and read a book -- without commercial interruption.

Alex Rodriguez's Baseball Eulogy

And so, one of the most spectacular, infamous, intriguing, exasperating baseball careers comes to a close exactly the opposite of how you would expect. It fizzles to an ending without a conclusion.

Unless he perks up for his last game, Alex Rodriguez's last RBI will come on an 0-4 day in which he grounded out weakly with the bases loaded. Contrast that with Derek Jeter's last at bat. Contrasting with Derek Jeter will always be ARod's fate, which is why he will always be remembered as both a phenomenon and tragedy.

Today, Alex Rodriguez will play his last game, a shadow of a shell of anything he ever was on the diamond. A sub-Mendoza DH over the last calendar year, ARod may have been removed from the field by the Yankees, but it's hardly as if they had a choice. He has nothing to offer them but the lost opportunity of exposing a prospect to MLB pitching.

There is talk of ARod playing elsewhere to bolster attendance, but this seems like nonsense. The hometown Marlins? An NL team in a playoff race? Fans are not going to pay for the possibility that ARod might pinch hit. 

Sure, Rodriguez could carry on to reach 700 home runs, something only three others have ever done. But it is clear the tank is empty. It could take more than the 48 games remaining for him to reach the mark, during which time he would be dragging down all his other accomplishments.

So while his career droops to an anti-climax, let's just remind ourselves what an all-time great, inner-circle Hall of Famer Alex Rodriguez was:

  • He won the batting title, hitting .358/.414/.631 at age 20.
  • He hit 33 homers the year he turned 40.
  • He led his league in HR five times, in runs scored five times and in slugging four times.
  • He topped 1.000 OPS six times.
  • He slugged 150 HR for three different teams, which no one else has done.
  • He slugged 250 HR from two different positions, which no one else has done.
  • He slammed 696 HR and stole 329 bases. Only Barry Bonds has more of both.
  • His 435 home runs was the most in the 2000s.
  • He hit 35+ home runs for 11 straight seasons.
  • He topped 8 WAR -- the benchmark for an MVP season -- in 8 different seasons.
  • He dragged the Yankees to the playoffs almost singlehandedly in 2007, hitting .314-54-156 and leading the league with a 1.096 OPS -- one of his three MVP seasons.
  • He batted .365/.456/.801 in the 2009 playoffs, leading the Yankees to their last World Series title.
  • He played shortstop! Shortstop! When you think of all the other modern all-time great offensive players -- Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr. -- they all played the outfield, not the most important defensive position behind the pitcher.
Alex Rodriguez will evidently begin employing his prodigious coaching and speaking talents going forward, and it's a good bet he will perform admirably and become an ambassador for the game he once sued. Let's hope he finds some peace in his life now that he's no longer chasing expectations on the field. If he does, he might soften some hearts hardened against him and repair some of his legacy. Because after all is said and done, he was one of the greatest who ever donned a uniform.

06 August 2016

...And Talk About Irrelevant -- There's Olympic Basketball

It beggars the imagination how any American can manufacture excitement about the Olympic men's basketball "competition."

There are 12 players on each team. The American squad fits entirely among the 15 best players competing, meaning the tournament has all the intrigue of Russia's invasion of Crimea.

The US team of NBA stars will oppose the amateurs from China and Venezuela during the tournament. It's hard to believe a single American will watch these debacles and cheer for "their" team.

It's hard to believe this is even an Olympic sport. It's really just embarrassing.

Are 77 Million Paying Customers Irrelevant?

I have a lot of opportunity to listen to sports talk radio -- not that I do, just that I have the opportunity. For one thing, there's no such thing as sports talk radio anymore; there's 24/7 NFL radio with an NBA side dish and some miscellaneous dessert. Around this time golf and Olympics comprise the postprandial offerings. 

In the process, baseball, hockey and all other sports have been relegated to sports talk Siberia. Someone should inform Mike, and also Mike, that Major League baseball games are actually being played during the summer, whereas there is absolutely nothing happening in pro football and basketball, save the verbal diarrhea that pours out across the airwaves about an irrelevant tweet, arrest or contract dispute.

Which brings me to the main point here: how utterly preposterous NBA talk is until the second round of the playoffs in May. Consider this:
  • Today is August 6.
  • The NBA finals take place in June, 2017, 10 months from now.
  • We can agree with nearly 100% certainty that the Cleveland Cavaliers will play in the NBA finals in 2017 unless LeBron James gets hurt.
  • We can agree with nearly 100% certainty that if the Cavs don't advance, the East representative will get shellacked in the finals.
  • We can agree with nearly 100% certainty that the Golden State Warriors or San Antonio Spurs will represent the West in the NBA finals.
  • No other team has any reasonable hope of vying for the title.
And yet, there have been several times more NBA talk on the radio than baseball talk the last two weeks -- even during the run-up to the trade deadline and while the pennant races are shaping up. Actually, that undersells the discrepancy because there was essentially no baseball talk despite the flurry of trade activity.

I understand that football and basketball are young fans' universe, though with supply-side pressure like that, how could they not be? But more than twice as many people attended MLB games last year than NBA and NFL games -- combined

So if 77 million people paid hard-earned American legal tender to enjoy ballgames, doesn't it stand to reason that a few of them, occasionally, would rather hear about baseball games actually being played than about some off-season hypotheticals in a league whose first meaningful contests are months away?

04 August 2016

To Err Is Human; To Acknowledge is Preller

The story of redemption is as old as, well, stories. It's even more compelling than the story of success, because of the added intrigue of the fall.

If A.J. Preller's signing and trading binge preceding the 2015 season had catapulted the San Diego Padres to the playoffs, that would have been noteworthy: A "small market" team with a history of mediocrity (or worse) opens the vault and imports a division title.

Instead, what Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Andrew Cashner, James Shields and Derek Norris delivered was the familiar stench of ineptitude, three games worse than the previous year's 85-loss season.

The recent head-scratching trade of Matt Kemp to Atlanta for Hector Olivera -- a 31-year-old washout with a domestic abuse suspension -- amounts to the final unconditional surrender following that brief episode, which unraveled less than halfway through its first season. With Kemp's departure -- a pure salary dump; Olivera was designated for assignment immediately -- and not withstanding the continued employment in SoCal of catcher Norris and his .191 BA, the slate has been wiped clean.

The Padres have banked some prospects in the process, saved some cash to allocate elsewhere and continue their merry prance through the bottom of the NL West, 15 games under .500.

So the future is next year for the Padres, as it almost always has been, except for one thing: the speed with which GM Preller acknowledged the failure of his plan and pivoted to a new one. In the space of a year-and-a-half he has course-corrected 180 degrees. That demonstrates remarkable maturity and aptitude, even in a business where your successes and failures are displayed publicly in the standings every day.

02 August 2016

A Bad Ending To a Nice Story

Two unfortunate jammed thumbs in the same game have sent Trevor Story to the operating room to repair his ulnar collateral ligament and ended his rookie season.

View the sad video here.

Story had just eclipsed the home run record for rookie shortstops with his 27th when he lost his battles with the second base bag and the ground.

It's a shame for Story, for the surging Rockies and for all baseball fans, who were robbed on one of the greatest years by a first year middle infielder.

So to soften the blow, for at least those of us without a rooting interest, let's extrapolate his whole season and see what we get.

The 23-year-old Texan was batting .272 with 67 runs, 21 doubles, four triples, 27 home runs, 72 RBIs, 35 walks and eight stolen bases in 97 games (of 105) as a rookie. Entering Tuesday, his 27 home runs led the National League and his 72 RBIs were fifth in the NL.

So for the mythical full season, Trevor Story, as a 23-year-old rookie shortstop who flashed leather at that key position, batted .272/.341/.567, 20% better than the average NL batter. 

He contributed:
  • 42 home runs,
  • 32 doubles,
  • six triples,
  • 103 runs scored,
  • 111 RBIs,
  • 54 walks and
  • 325 total bases.

He's rated at 4.6 WAR by Baseball Reference, a number dampened by his home park.

Trevor Story won't win the Rookie of the Year award and he won't make the playoffs. And some rookie shortstop in the near future is going to crush his home run record.  Baseball is a cruel game.

01 August 2016

What To Do About A-Rod

Alex Rodriguez is over. Over like the Macarena, like Debby Boone, like Carrot Top (pictured right-- look away!)

ARod spent his 41st birthday on the bench -- for the fifth straight game -- and for good reason. He's as creaky as loose stairs. Two hip operations later, he can't play the field. He swings like a rusty gate and now he's dancing with Mario Mendoza's legacy at .206/.256/.364. His 227 plate appearances have cost the Yankees a win.

A-Rod could just retire but for the $42 million he's owed for this year and next. The Yankees could just jettison him but, well, you get the idea.

So there he is, taking up roster space on a team that's skidding sideways.

A great piece on Baseball Prospectus documents what good company ARod is keeping with players who posted abysmal OPS+ in their final or age 40 seasons. BP's research shows that no one who plays this poorly this late in his career bounces back.

Besides, what would Rodriguez bounce back to? After a torrid start to 2015, he hit .191/.300/.377 in the final two months.

The Yankees seem caught between ARod and a hard place with their former slugger. But I have a solution for them.

My ARod Plan
First, once the Yankees have acknowledged that they aren't winning a playoff spot this year, they should play ARod every day. Give him a chance to either produce or convince everyone the tank is empty. It also allows him to record his 700th home run, from which he stands four shy.

Then, after the last dregs are drug up, let Alex Rodriguez realize on his own that he needs to leave. Give him the space to approach the Yankees for a buyout -- what basically amounts to ransom. "Pay me a big pile of money and I won't clog up your roster."

If he fails that test, Brian Cashman can turn the tables and offer the buyout. The team would have some leverage too. They could offer a nice retirement package with a ceremony and a happy ending. Or, they could cut his sorry butt and let his checkered career end ingloriously. His choice.

But what if he foils the plan by beating the odds and playing well? Great! Same plan, but this time, offer him the opportunity to retire on top, like David Ortiz. Let him plausibly say it was his decision, to show one last time he could still bring it at 41, and then leave the game.

It's not a perfect solution, but such things have never existed with Alex Rodriguez. Despite the other-worldly talent, good looks, fame and fortune, there's never been an easy way with him, at least not since his Mariner days of the last century. So you take what you can get, which is a few million in savings and a roster spot for someone who can actually contribute.

30 July 2016

This Is Miguel Cabrera in Decline

It had to happen sooner or later. After a five year stretch in which he led the AL in batting average four times, on base percentage three times and slugging percentage twice, Miguel Cabrera finally appears to be paying his debt to Father Time.

Cabrera, unaffected by serious injuries, is nonetheless suffering his worst season since 2008. He's on the way to contributing the fewest extra base hits in a full season since his second year, at age 21. He's posting his lowest batting average since 2008 and headed for the fewest RBIs in any full season of his illustrious 14-year career.

Horrors, right?

Well, not so much. After 101 games, the 34-year old first baseman is spanking AL pitching at .301/.383/.521 with 21 home runs. He's still performing at a solidly All-Star level.

This is how a hitting savant ages. The first couple of years of decline, the star continues to shine, but there's a slight dulling of the luster. Then he drifts down towards the median. Then he gets hurt and his value wanes. Finally, he has nothing left but occasional flashes, like a quark.

Cabrera is a Hall of Fame shoe-in. He's sure to reach 500 homers and his lifetime .320/.398/.560 shines 54% brighter than average. He's already earned 70 wins against replacement, more than the average first base Hall of Famer, and he'll add to that total over whatever portion of the nine years remaining on his contract that he still dons a uniform.

For now, this is what greatness looks like in retreat: a .904 OPS, tied for ninth in his league. Enjoy it while you can.

29 July 2016

Stop Calling Them Favorites!

In a post I wrote earlier this week, I almost described the Chicago Cubs as "World Series favorites." I quickly edited myself because, as experience has taught us in the Wild Card era, there is no such thing.

It's true that the Cubs are almost certain playoff participants, which seems to be the one and only corollary with champion. Every team that has won the World Series has first earned a playoff spot.

Beyond that, there are no guarantees, or even good bets. Consider this:

Does the best team win? Since 2010, only three of the 12 teams with their league's best record earned a World Series berth.
Does the team with the best top two starters win? This old wives tale has gained currency, but there is nothing backing it. The Royals won the pennant the last two years without an ace. The Dodgers with Kershaw and Greinke made exactly zero World Series. The Red Sox anchored by Jon Lester and Clay Bucholz? won the 2014 Series over the Cardinals' tandem of Adam Wainwright and ... Shelby Miller? And so on.
Does a shutdown bullpen win the Series? Sure, that worked for the Royals, but every contender has a great arm at the back of the pen. The 2014 World Champion Giants' closer, Sergio Romo, sported a 3.72 ERA and lost his job the following season.
Does the hottest team win the pennant?  Lots of research on that one: nope, no correlation whatsoever. Indeed, the 2006 Series pitted a stumbling 83-win Cardinals against a Detroit squad that finished 12-17 in the season's final month.
What role does chance play? Now you're talking. The playoffs are a lottery.

On the other hand, the better your team, the better you like your chances. You can at least avoid the play-in game and get that tiny home field advantage. Two great starters is a real asset. And you'd rather have a reliable bullpen than not. So in that sense, the Cubs have as good a chance as anyone who makes the playoffs.

Just not any better.

27 July 2016

With Logic Like This, Who Needs Pretzels?

Among my many life duties, I teach college students how to write. But before they can write, they have to know how to think. This is a problem for most people, as the presidential nomination process has amply demonstrated.

In the course of my class, I have learned that I must reconnoiter and teach logic. Most humans lack the ability to follow basic logic principles.

Every sportswriter and broadcaster should take a logic course. One can regularly see and hear spewed out on broadcast media and splayed across print media the irrational rumblings of supposedly learned persons.

With Chris Sale suspended for his sartorial critique, the White Sox went on a four-game victory binge. During an interview with a national baseball reporter, a national talk show host asked whether it's possible that the incident "galvanized" the team. The questioner's tone suggested that he understood how utterly ludicrous this notion was.

I won't belabor the point. You don't need it explained to you that even horrible teams have four-game win streaks in Major League Baseball, and that no incident can "galvanize" a team into four straight wins, particularly one where a popular teammate is reasonably suspended for cause.

In the great universe of random events, this is a mere twinkle. Correlation isn't causation. There's not a shred of evidence to support a "galvanized" clubhouse. And all that.

So here's the nameless national sportswriter's answer: he asked a teammate that very question and the teammate denied any connection between the suspension and the winning streak. "But you're right, it has sort of galvanized them. They're playing very good ball since then."

So to recap:
1. There's no evidence of a connection.
2. It's illogical that there would be one.
3. Four games doesn't mean anything in the first place. (It doesn't even necessarily mean they're playing well.)
4. A teammate denied there's a connection.
5. Conclusion from sportswriter: There must be a connection!

Keep in mind next time you hear the gospel according to some "analyst," "guru" or "insider extraordinaire" that those words are often substitutes for "person who thinks logically."

26 July 2016

Both Sides Won the Chapman Deal

I own an automobile. Granted, it's a little four-cylinder Toyota Yaris, bought for 13 grand five years ago, but it runs reliably, hauls my bicycle and sips gas.

If you gave me a better car, say a 2016 Honda Fit, I would drive that instead. (I like small hatchbacks.) I might even be willing to pay something for it, but not much, because I already have an automobile.

If you then offered me a third automobile, even a Mercedes or Lexus, I wouldn't be very interested. What do I need three cars for?

Th-h-h-h-h-he Yankees Win!
The analogy isn't exact, but it suggests why Aroldis Chapman is so much more valuable to the Chicago Cubs than to the New York Yankees, and why the Yankees might have made the Chapman trade announced yesterday even if they believe they are competing for the Wild Card in 2016. As one of three shutdown relievers, Chapman has less value to NY than he has to Chicago, which lacks confidence in their now-former closer, Hector Rondon.

Yankee fans bemoan the loss of their shutdown closer, but they didn't lose their shutdown closer, they lost their shutdown seventh inning. Andrew Miller, whose fastball also blazes white hot, who also fans more batters than a bakery air conditioner and who also allows a run once every new moon will move from the eighth inning to the ninth. Ditto for Dellin Betances, who will shut down the eighth inning rather than the seventh. In other words, the loss to the Yankees is pretty minimal, whether they're contending or not.

The Cubs Win Too!
For the World Champion-or-Bust Cubs, a fireman like Chapman can alter the course of events. His acquisition tells the roster and the fans that they are all-in for a championship. Even more to the point, as the value of closers appears to magnify in October, Chapman may be the piece that catapults the team from playoff guarantee to World Series behemoth.

Cubs boss Theo Epstein relinquished a boatload of young talent for 30 innings of Chapman. Under ordinary circumstances, he got fleeced. But here too, the automobile analogy applies imperfectly. Adam Warren, who excelled in his two Bronx seasons, was getting drilled by NL hitters. Shortstop Gleyber Torres, the key prospect sent to NY, has limited value to a Cubs roster that sports All-Star Addison Russell in that position, and All-Star performers at second and third.

The Perfect Trade
In other words, this is the prototype of a synergistic trade. Each team gained more than it lost, in the Yankees' case, much more. Their high-priced, doddering roster was promising years of pain prior to the acquisition of four legitimate Major League prospects. And If the Cubs win their first World Series in 108 years, nothing those prospects achieve will matter on Chicago's North Side.

12 July 2016

The Mid-Season Cy Youngs

Going into the final two starts of the first half, Chris Sale had a stranglehold on the half-way American League Cy Young, perhaps better described as the Cy Adolescent. At 13-2, 2.79, with 23 BB and 109 K in 113 innings, the lanky lefty was keeping the White Sox in contention.

Then July burst upon him like a heat-seeking missile. After a five-run start that nonetheless added to his win column, Sale ran into the red hot Atlanta Whoaretheseguys, who hung eight runs and 10 hits on him in just five innings.

Suddenly Sale's ERA skyrocketed to 3.38, dropping him from third to 12th in the league as he enters the break. According to ERA, Sale isn't even the best starter on the Chicago staff: Jose Quintana comes in at 3.21.

Does one horrible start against the game's weakest-hitting team disqualify Sale from this phantom award? Oh yeah.

Because lurking in the shadows the whole time was Danny Salazar, a fourth-year Cleveland righty who showed a lot of flame-throwing promise last season. Salazar hasn't pitched as much as Sale -- 21 fewer frames -- but his 10-3, 2.75 ledger, and 118 strikeouts, are mighty impressive. According to wins against replacement, Salazar paces the league by a substantial margin.

Over in the NL, Whoa Nellie! It's the anti-presidential race, with a a whole host of qualified nominees:
Madison Bumgarner -- 10-4, 1.94 and two home runs of his own
Johnny Cueto -- 13-1, 2.47 and four complete games
Jake Arrieta -- 12-4, 2.68 and he's batting .282/.349/.561 with two homers
Noah Syndsergaard -- 9-4, 2.56, but only because he's hurt
Stephen Strasburg -- 12-0, 2.62 and 132 K in 107 innings
Jose Fernandez -- 11-4, 2.52 off Tommy John surgery
Drew Pomeranz -- 8-7, 2.47 though that's in San Diego
Jon Lester -- 9-4, 3.01, making him the #2 starter on the Cubs

Zak Grienke -- 10-3, 3.62 despite a brutal start
Max Scherzer -- 10-6, 3.03
Tyler Chatwood -- 8-5, 3.29 in Denver!

And yet, not one of these guys sniffs the award. Clayton Kershaw is 11-2, 1.79 and his BB/K numbers look like a typo: 9/145 in 121 innings. He's hurled three shutouts. The league has a .205 OBP against him.

In other words, Clayton Kershaw the pitcher makes the world's best hitters look like Clayton Kershaw the batter. He is the runaway halfway Cy Young over competition that could go five or six deep for the award.

What are the odds that Salazar and Kershaw are still the premier pitchers by season's end? For rising stars like Salazar the odds are -- off the top of my head -- less than 50-50. But Kershaw is the exalted poobah of his trade, with a Hall-worthy lifetime tally of 125-58, 2.39, more strikeouts than innings and a 4-1 K-BB ratio.

All hail to Clayton Kershaw.

11 July 2016

The Highly Uncoveted Mid-Season MVP Awards

You're probably tired of hearing this, but Angels center fielder Mike Trout is the best player in baseball. 

As he's done since his debut, he's playing every day and hitting for a high average, walking with the league leaders, popping lots of extra base hits, stealing bases at high efficiency, running the bases like a dervish and mastering a key defensive position. 

In other words, Mike Trout is among the five or ten best in the world at every aspect of baseball.

This year, Trout is hitting .323/.427/.567 with 18 home runs and 15 of 16 thefts. He paces the Junior Circuit in on-base percentage. Various measuring systems have him leading the AL in WAR, at 5.7. 

Halfway through the season, there's your AL MVP.

That's no slight against other players performing similarly. The Astros' Jose Altuve is a superb second baseman leading the AL in batting average and powering up more than ever. He's swiped 23 of 26 bases. It's a rich compliment to be described as "nearly as great as Mike Trout."

David Ortiz leads the league in slugging and OPS. He's on pace for more than 100 extra bases. What a valedictory season for Big Papi. But he's no asset on the basepaths or in the field, and so no serious candidate for MVP.

Not like Josh Donaldson, the slick-fielding Blue Jays' hot cornerman who has the best case against Trout. At .301/.415/.590 with 22 HR and five of five steals, the only "knock" against his candidacy is positional.

Kudos as well to Orioles third baseman Manny Machado, Red Sox shortstop Xander Boegarts and Mariners keystoner Robinson Cano. All deserve serious consideration for this mythical award that is not coveted in any way.

In the senior circuit it's much more of a muddle. Kris Bryant (.280/.379/.575) is the slick fielding sophomore Cubs third baseman who leads the league in big flies. Washington's Daniel Murphy (.349/.388/.593) is harder to replace at second base, except for below-average glove work. The Rockies' Nolan Arenado (.290/.363/.577) mimics Bryant's profile but adjusting for the high altitude mattes his luster. Matt Carpenter (.298/.420/.568) and solid keystone defense for the Cardinals also has a claim. 

At this point, Bryant has the edge according to WAR, but one hot week from someone else could wipe it out. 

Take your pick, or consider D'backs third baseman Jake Lamb (.298/.371/.615), who leads the league in slugging and extra base hits, but gets some help from Bank One Ballpark. If Lamb is your favorite, your MVP is a guy who didn't even make the All-Star team.

Good thing for all of them Madison Bumgarner only bats every fifth day.

Let's take a look at two fascinating Cy Young races next time.

08 July 2016

Windshield, Meet Bug

When the Braves took the field against the Cubs yesterday, it was like a nail squaring off against a hammer. Take a look at the lineups:

Braves: Jace Peterson, 2B, .285 True Average
Cubs: Tommy La Stella, 3B, .302 True Average
Cubs +17
Braves: Adonis Garcia, 3B, .241
Cubs: Kris Bryant, OF, .350
Cubs +109
Braves: Freddie Freeman, 1B, .333
Cubs: Anthony Rizzo, 1B, .346
Cubs +13
Braves: Nick Markakis, OF, .260 (5 HR in last 1049 PA)
Cubs: Ben Zobrist, OF, .321 (5 HR in last 135 PA)
Cubs +61
Braves: Jeff Francoeur, OF, .259

Cubs: Wilson Contreras, C, .342
Cubs +83
Braves: Gordon Beckham, SS, .310 (in 110 PA)
Cubs: Jason Heyward, OF, .246
Braves +64
Braves: Tyler Flowers, C, .286
Cubs: Addison Russell, SS, .282
Braves +4
Braves: Ender Inciarte, OF, .236
Cubs: Javier Baez, 2B, .290
Cubs +54
Braves: Lucas Harrel, P, lifetime 4.79 ERA
Cubs: Jason Hammel, P, lifetime 4.43 ERA
Cubs +36
Braves: Manager Brian Snitker, organization lifer, interim manager
Cubs: Manager Joe Maddon, generally regarded as baseball's smartest skipper

This is a short-handed Cub team that's lost Dexter Fowler (.320 TAv), Jorge Soler (.281) and Kyle Schwarber (.307 last season) to injuries, but it still dominates at 7 of 9 positions, and we haven't even looked at the pitching staffs. Facing Atlanta means worrying about one hitter -- Freddie Freeman while the Cubs scare you two-through-six at least.

Utility infielder/outfielder Javier Baez is 10th on Chicago with 1.2 WAR so far this year. That would place him third on the Braves, behind Freeman and Julio Teheran.

So, needless to say, David slew Goliath, 4-3, with power-challenged cleanup hitter Nick Markakis slamming two home runs.


07 July 2016

Another Strong Performance By the Fans

Yet again, Major League Baseball fans acquitted themselves knowledgeably with their All-Star selections, thanks to a system that allows the most committed fans, like my own personal self, to vote 35 times, or even more if you're willing to find another computer and email address. (I was.) These dedicated voters sway the balloting towards the considered and well-reasoned and the result is that ballplayers most deserving of recognition generally receive it.

There are no criteria for All-Star selection, nor even a stated purpose. Are the selections a reward for great play or roster-building of the best team? I believe the former, and based on that, I think we can agree that it should be some combination of how well a player generally performs and how well he is performing this year. So, Andrew McCutchen is a great player who is scuffling this year and is appropriately not on the team. Bryce Harper, who might not be one of the three best NL outfielders so far this season, is appropriately starting.

Conversely, Aledmys Diaz and Trevor Story have had wonderful first halves, but without any previous exhibition of skill, we can't have confidence they will keep it up. If they do, they'll make a bid for the next Mid-Summer Classic.

C: Salvador Perez, Royals
1B: Eric Hosmer, Royals
2B: Jose Altuve, Astros
3B: Manny Machado, Orioles
SS: Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox
OF: Mookie Betts, Red Sox
OF: Jackie Bradley Jr., Red Sox
OF: Mike Trout, Angels
DH: David Ortiz, Red Sox

C: Stephen Vogt, Athletics
C: Matt Wieters, Orioles
1B: Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2B: Robinson Cano, Mariners
3B: Josh Donaldson, Blue Jays
SS: Francisco Lindor, Indians
SS: Eduardo Nunez, Twins
OF: Carlos Beltran, Yankees
OF: Ian Desmond, Rangers
OF: Mark Trumbo, Orioles
DH: Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays

RHP: Dellin Betances, Yankees
RHP: Brad Brach, Orioles
LHP: Zach Britton, Orioles
RHP: Alex Colome, Rays
RHP: Wade Davis*, Royals
RHP: Marco Estrada, Blue Jays
LHP: Cole Hamels, Rangers
RHP: Will Harris, Astros
RHP: Kelvin Herrera, Royals
RHP: Craig Kimbrel, Red Sox
LHP: Andrew Miller, Yankees
RHP: Danny Salazar, Indians
LHP: Chris Sale, White Sox
RHP: Steven Wright, Red Sox

All We Can Do Is Quibble
The fans did a fine job with the AL team. My only quibble is with Eric Hosmer over Miguel Cabrera based on the criteria just described. But Hosmer is a perfectly reasonable selection. You could also have chosen Michael Saunders or Ian Desmond instead of Mookie Betts in the outfield, and Josh Donaldson over Manny Machado at third (particularly because Machado has played more short this season) but, tomato tomahto.

The manager has a much more difficult job because he has to construct a roster, and it has to include every team. I don't think much of the backup catchers, but the pickings were slim. I would have taken Vogt as the backup to represent Oakland and left Wieters off. I don't know why Ned Yost felt it necessary to have a backup DH or include Carlos Beltran, who is having a wonderful rebirth with the stick but otherwise can't play baseball. I would have preferred to see Saunders, Ian Kinsler and George Springer in the game.

I've always thought there ought to be a rule that at least two-thirds of the pitchers in the All-Star game have to be starters. After all, if you eliminate middle relievers -- who are mostly failed starters -- there are twice as many rotation spots as closers/set-up men. That said, rotational excellence is at a premium in the AL this year. I would make the case for adding Aaron Sanchez of Toronto (9-1, 2.94, 3-1 K/BB ratio) in place of one of the many relievers whose bid is based on 20 innings of work.

C: Buster Posey, Giants
1B: Anthony Rizzo, Cubs
2B: Ben Zobrist, Cubs
3B: Kris Bryant, Cubs
SS: Addison Russell, Cubs
OF: Yoenis Cespedes, Mets
OF: Dexter Fowler, Cubs
OF: Bryce Harper, Nationals

C: Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers
C: Wilson Ramos, Nationals
1B: Paul Goldschmidt, D-backs
1B: Wil Myers, Padres
2B: Daniel Murphy, Nationals
3B: Nolan Arenado, Rockies
3B: Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
SS: Corey Seager, Dodgers
OF: Adam Duvall, Reds
OF: Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies
OF: Odubel Herrera, Phillies
OF: Marcell Ozuna, Marlins

RHP: Jake Arrieta, Cubs
LHP: Madison Bumgarner, Giants
RHP: Johnny Cueto, Giants
RHP: Jeurys Familia, Mets
RHP: Jose Fernandez, Marlins
RHP: Kenley Jansen, Dodgers
LHP: Clayton Kershaw*, Dodgers
LHP: Jon Lester, Cubs
RHP: Mark Melancon, Pirates
RHP: A.J. Ramos, Marlins
RHP: Fernando Rodney, Marlins
RHP: Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
RHP: Noah Syndergaard, Mets
RHP: Julio Teheran, Braves

Curb Your Chicago Enthusiasm

The fans didn't reach quite the same heights with respect to the Chicago Cubs All-Star Team. Splitting hairs, not one of the Cubs infielders is the best choice at his position, and Addison Russell doesn't even belong on the All-Star team. My vote went to Paul Goldschmidt, the best first baseman in the game; batting average leader Daniel Murphy at second, whiz-kid Corey Seager at short; and two-way phenom Nolan Arendado at third. But again, the chosen player, with that one exception, is unquestionably All-Star worthy.

[Aside: Russell is the single worst selection, which is actually a compliment, because it's not egregious, but his addition crowds out both budding superstar Corey Seager from the starting team, and waiver wire reject Aledmys Diaz from the roster. Diaz is one great story that won't be told during the broadcast.]

The reserves are a sterling crew, absent Sterling -- Marte, of the Pirates. He would have made the team if the sensation that is Adam Duvall had a decent teammate. Duvall and his .287 OBP might very well become a footnote by season's end, but every team needs a representative and Terry Collins really didn't have many options there.

The pitching staff is something of a no-brainer. Six unhittable aces give the NL a clear edge in this contest.

So three cheers for the selection process and its results. The game isn't nearly as interesting, what with the homogenization of the leagues and daily inter-league play. But as a recognition of excellence, the people doing the choosing have generally demonstrated their own.

05 July 2016

Snakes Alive! Or Maybe Not...

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it in their own home ballpark. The Arizona Diamondbacks made the big splashes this off-season when they signed Zack Greinke to a gargantuan contract and traded the #1 draft pick for Shelby Miller. The plan hasn't panned out, at least not so far, as Arizona stands 37-47, 15 games out of first. With the trade deadline bearing down, questions about their future abound.

There is precedent for the Snakes in the very recent past.

The 2015 "Sadres"
In the winter preceding the 2015 season, the San Diego Padres bet the house on a pennant. Fledgling GM A.J. Preller scooped up the toxic contracts of Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and James Shields. He flipped assets for Wil Myers, Will Middlebrooks and Derek Norris. Added to what appeared to be a strong foundation of arms, there was hope in SoCal following another 77-win season

Alas, the big names stumbled, the defense cratered and even the pitching teetered, leaving San Diego three games worse than the year before. By the time of Opening Day this year, Upton, Middlebrooks and Shields were gone. Norris and Kemp sport OBPs of .265 and .277 respectively for the 33-46 Pads. However bad the team was in 2014, it's both worse and further behind today.

The 2013 "Blooper" Jays
The 2013 Toronto Blue Jays have a similar story, though a happier ending. Frustrated by two decades of soul-crushing mediocrity, GM Alex Anthopoulos fashioned what some thought was a World Series roster, banking Mark Buehrle, Melky Cabrera, Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, Josh Johnson, Macier Izturis and some smaller pieces. To obtain them, he sacrificed, among other things, Noah Syndergaard and Travis D'Arnaud.

Reyes and Cabrera missed a full season between them in 2015. Dickey's Cy Young mojo disappeared and Buehrle suffered the lowest WAR of his career. Johnson endured the last 81 innings of his career in 6.20 ERA misery. Izturis's .597 OPS cost his team a win. The Jays drowned in the AL East.

Toronto didn't panic though, and it was rewarded. Reyes and Cabrera played solid seasons in 2014. Dickey and Buehrle rebounded. The team jumped back over the .500 mark and set the table for a division title a year later.

Can Phoenix Rise?
Which of these teams is the Diamondbacks? The answer remains to be seen, of course, but each of the three made its move following a season of roughly 85 losses, so they're all in the same starting place. 

Miller and Grienke, in addition to incumbent stars Paul Goldschmidt and AJ Pollock, aren't going anywhere in the near term and are all good bets for continued stardom. That already distinguishes them from San Diego.

Moreover, there are some solid pieces behind that quartet. Jake Lamb, 25, looks like the future at third. Keystoner Jean Segura is back to his on-base stylings. With young outfielders Yasmany Tomas and Chris Owings, this team has the capacity to field a formidable lineup.

The hill has been their Achilles heal, to the extent that a snake can have such a thing. It's going to take better seasons from Miller, Robby Ray and Patrick Corbin to catapult the Dbacks in future seasons.

Arizona needs to restock its farm and develop some talent around the four stars. They also need to be patient around the trade deadline and avoid the temptation to move product. If they succeed, and the winds of fortune blow their way, they can reprise the Blue Jays' experience.

03 July 2016

Ridiculous Things You Notice at a Braves Game

Hied ourselves to Atlanta for Braves-Marlins on Independence Day weekend. Jose Fernandez versus Lucas Harrel making his Braves debut. It was 9-1, just as you expected, except Fernandez was the smoked, not the smoker.

Baseball's a crazy game.

Some more oddness I observed:

• There are six or eight young women in every major American market who can list their summer job as "professional ballpark waver." At the Braves game we witnessed, these women walked onto the field for all the pre-game and between-inning promotions and did the following: smiled and waved to the crowd. Occasionally they held signs. So what are the qualifications for this position? How do they distinguish among the 200 pretty, young female applicants to determine which half-dozen would become professional wavers? Wrist pronation ability? 

• Organist Matt Kaminski, who plays the walk-up music for opposing players, is a comedic genius. He played "We're Off To See the Wizard" for Marcell Ozuna and "Jesus Is Just All Right With Me" for Christian Yelich. Matt, I want you to know that I got the jokes and was richly amused.

• I was shocked to see Jose Fernandez loaf on the basepaths after bunting early in the game. The Braves had trouble handling the ball and barely threw him out, so he would have been safe had he hustled. How does a manager allow that? I hoped he was nursing a leg injury, and the way he pitched, he might have been. More shocking: Ichiro jogged after a key base hit in the sixth inning. The runners moved up an extra base and Atlanta ended up scoring seven in the frame and breaking the game open. I would like to see a manager walk onto the field a la Bobby Cox and remove a player for lollygagging.

•  The umpires reviewed a close play at first early in the game. It took them several minutes to decide
whether the runner beat the throw. There should be a new rule: if they can't determine a call after three slow-motion replays it's too close to matter. Uphold the call and move on. As it was, after three minutes of review, it's very likely they got it wrong.

• There's nothing more annoying at an MLB game than the incessant, inane, commercial video chatter between innings at decibel levels designed to drown out passing aircraft. It nearly ruined my experience last year in Detroit and Cincinnati. In Atlanta, it was much more subdued. Note to league: can that crap.

• Based on one pinch hit at-bat, there is something wrong with Giancarlo Stanton. Dude fanned on three Little League swings. He looked like his own grandfather, not that I've ever seen the gentleman.

• At every home game, the Braves make a big show of replacing the number on the outfield wall
corresponding to how many MLB games are left at Turner Field. How tone deaf can you be? This is an abomination. The franchise is costing local residents something in the area of a billion dollars by ditching a perfectly fine 20-year-old stadium and conning a local suburb into building them a sparkling new many-hundred-million-dollar edifice. Hey Marietta: get a 50-year lease.

• Prior to the game, a local country act performed in the area of Turner that might be called the lobby or atrium. Wife and I stood 10 feet away and commented to each other on the fine craftsmanship. At one point I asked her, "why couldn't these two songs be hits on the country charts?" See, I'd never heard of John Berry before. Now I have. The songs were She's Taken A Shine and What's In It for Me, which reached #2 and #5 respectively on the country charts. Then Berry performed the national anthem on his guitar and slayed it.

• In days of yore, a kid went to a Major League game in the hopes of catching a foul ball. Today, kids dream of seeing themselves on the video board. So teams oblige by showing waving, screaming, shimmying, incredulous kids on the board every chance they get. This is a most bizarre phenomenon; don't these kids know what they look like? 

• The new video boards provide so much awesome information, like real time updates on out-of-town games and background on the batter and pitcher. I really appreciate that. But c'mon Braves, how about entering the 21st century and provide OBP and SLG. Sure, Ichiro is batting .340, woo-woo, but he hasn't worked a walk since the NBA playoffs started.

• Contrary to popular belief, there is no Augusta, GA. We stopped on the way home for a stroll on the River Walk along the Savannah River. Then we GPS'd downtown and it took us to -- nothing. We GPS'd City Hall and it's -- nowhere. We found a street that looked like it might bustle but it was two blocks long and ceased to exist if you turned any corner. This is a city of 200,000 residents. Not a single exit sign on the highway directs traffic "downtown." They did have a nice mall with a Whole Foods on the fringes of the "city" though. And a Moe's. Welcome to Moe's!

01 July 2016

Ten Performances No One Could Have Predicted

Every year, for grins and giggles, I post Baseball Prospectus's pre-season projections for teams and individual players. They're as accurate as long-term weather forecasts.

And to prove it, let's talk about Adam Duvall. Here's what SB Nation said in March about Duvall, a spare part in a trade that sent fourth starter Mike Leake to the Giants.

"A bench bat. Duvall plays the corner outfield and infield spots with something that couldn't quite be called aplomb. He has enough power to run a fastball here and there, and enough plate discipline to be a decent pinch-hit bat. He could be a useful bit part as the Reds reboot. That's it. You don't have to read more."

And here's what the 28-year-old Kentuckian has done: He's smacked 22 league-leading home runs in 268 at bats while posting a .587 slugging mark.

Adam Duvall is this year's Shane Spencer, the Yankee phenom who batted .373 and crushed 10 homers in the final 27 games of 1998 and ended his career mostly as a backup with a .262 average and 57 dingers. Duvall flashes iron at a variety of positions, runs like molasses going uphill and sports a .287 OBP even in his surprising breakout season. So no one is writing epic poems about the majesty of his play. Still, the experts thought he'd be a bench bat.

2. Mark Trumbo -- You forgot about Trumbo, didn't you? Once a 30-HR slugger for the Angels, he averaged 18 homers and 64 RBIs, posted a .303 OBP and averaged 0.2 WAR per season the last two years while butchering first base. A liability on the basepaths, his baseball hourglass seemed to be running out of sand, even after the Orioles picked him up this off-season from the Mariners for a relief pitcher.

Lo and behold, Trumbo leads the Majors in yard blasts and his .331 OBP has helped him earn two wins for the O's, anchoring a record-slugging Baltimore lineup. PECOTA projected him for 0.6 WAR all season.

3. Steven Wright -- He put instant coffee in the microwave and went back in time. He spilled spot remover on his dog and made it disappear. He bought some batteries but they weren't included.

No wait, that's Stephen Wright. Steven Wright is a right-handed knuckleballer for the Red Sox who bounced between the bullpen and the rotation last year, and had to compete for the last spot in the Boston rotation this spring. This year he's leading the AL in ERA, complete games and fewest home runs allowed. If you failed to pick him up in your fantasy league, where he was certainly available, the joke's on you.

4. Trevor Story -- Here's the story of a man named Trevor, who was definitely a prospect in the Rockies' farm system. In fact, he was rated their 11th best before connecting on a pair of bombs in game one against Zack Greinke. Story set April on fire and has cooled since, but his 19 homers and good defense at short have added two wins to the Colorado ledger, and it's not like anyone predicted that.

5. Danny Salazar -- It's not like Salazar came out of nowhere -- he went 14-10, 3.45 and whiffed 195 batters for Cleveland last season. But he's broken out this year -- 10-3, 2.22 with 107 Ks in 93 innings. The projection systems pegged him for 12-10, 3.56.

6. Carlos Beltran --Add 39 years, two broken-down knees, one lifeless glove and a useless 2014 and you get Carlos Beltran. The question going into the season wasn't whether he'd make the All-Star team; it was whether he'd garner playing time in the Bronx.

Well, the borderline Hall of Famer is making his case, with a .297 batting average and 19 home runs. As long as you don't look at the low walk rate, the putrid defense and the complete loss of speed, his play sure looks like more than the notch above average that it is.

7. Tyler Chatwood -- His 8-4, 3.15 is a lot more impressive when you realize he pitches in Denver, Home of the Dinger. The projections had him at 5-6, 4.30 after missing 2015 with his second Tommy John surgery. Still, he's owned in only a third of fantasy leagues, suggesting that no one can believe what they're seeing.

8. Wil Myers -- Remember when Wil Myers was the best rookie on the planet, and then the worst sophomore, then given up on by the Royals, then fading into oblivion -- all in the span of three years? This spring, Dave Cameron of Just A Bit Outside wondered, "Are Wil Myers' flaws fixable?"

Looks like it, Dave! Myers has already established career highs in homers, RBIs, runs scored and OPS in half a season in Petco, where bats go to die. He's the best player on San Diego this year, which isn't saying much, but gets you an All-Star berth.

9. Chris Tillman -- Every year, Baltimore confounds the pundits by competing in the AL East when all the number-crunching says they shouldn't. One of the key reasons is one hurler or another outperforming his expectations by several orders of magnitude. 

Tillman has done this before -- four times, in fact. But his inability to strike anyone out led to doubts about his future and a 4.99 ERA last year. This year his 91 Ks in 99 frames has him at 10-2, 3.71 as the ace of the American League East pacesetters.

10. Aledmys Diaz -- It's pronounced Uh-led-mas, which is important, because no one in the U.S. knew that three months ago. The only Aledmys in MLB history, this Cuban free agent showed promise in the Minors and was penciled in to help replace Jhonny Peralta at short for the Cards this season. 

Few people projected full-time play for him, much less a rookie performance of .316/.374/.517 and 10 home runs in his first 75 games.

Bonus! Rich Hill -- Hill was rattling around the independent leagues a year ago and hadn't started a Major League contest since 2009. In 11 starts with Oakland this year he's 8-3, 2.25, whiffing 10 hitters per nine and earning the same value as Miguel Cabrera. You can look it up!