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!

28 June 2016

The False Dichotomy of Being Buyers or Sellers

A newt
You may have noticed that the Pirates look like a sinking ship. Andrew McCutchen has been turned into a newt. Jeff Locke misses more lunar eclipses than bats. Francisco Liriano, Juan Nicasio and Jon Neise have left a mess on the mound and there's no one to help closer Mark Melancon clean it up. After a 6-20 stretch from May to late June, they're under .500 and so far behind the Cubs they're about to be lapped.

So, the thinking seems to go, management either believes they can win a Wild Card or they're going to sell off parts at the trade deadline.

Talk about a false dichotomy.

Trading away valuable veterans makes sense if your team won't contend until those veterans leave or lose their value. If Pittsburgh brass believes 2016 is a lost cause they might want to unload a player who turns free agent in November. But jettisoning assets from a team that won 98 times last season for future value is the work of a paranoid schizophrenic.

Total Rebuild as Default
We have become so accustomed to the total rebuild that we've lost sight of what a dramatic and desperate act it is. It's tantamount to giving up in hopes of bouncing back twice as strong a few years hence. Which is why it shouldn't be the default position for any franchise, much less one that seems to be in nothing more than a slump.

That's even assuming the Pirates are a lost cause. In fact, they're a fine offensive and defensive team, except for a rotation that's lighting up scoreboards and dragging the team to a 37-40 record. If you're going to suffer the extended scuffling of good players, it might as well be in the element of the game that is most inconsistent under the best of circumstances.

Small Improvement = Wild Card Contender
Indeed, if Bucco hurling improves from fourth worst to middle of the pack in their remaining 85 games, the Pirates could easily make up the 4.5-game gap between them and the Wild Card. With a pitching coach, Ray Searage, considered something of a mound whisperer, and a rotation of hurlers who have achieved success in the past, that is eminently possible. It might even be predictable.

If GM Neal Huntington believes third basemen David Freese and Jung-ho Kang are sufficiently redundant to swap one for a set-up man or a third starter, that's defensible. If he wants to hedge his bets on sacrificing the long-term for a Wild Card charge that might fall short, that's understandable. 

If he announces he's flipping the roster for draft picks and Single-A All Stars, I want to see a picture ID, because that's some irrational fan talking, not the savvy team builder who turned the franchise around from the two dark decades that preceded him. 

The Pirates have more choices than just buyers or sellers. If the pundits don't know it, I guarantee that the people who run the club do.

26 June 2016

Yes Way Jose: Mets Sell High and Buy Low on Reyes

Buy low and sell high, goes the cliche about investing in the stock market. If we could gaze confidently into the future, we all would have bought Apple stock in 2003 and sold it on Feb. 23, 2015. But we couldn't, so we didn't.

Baseball teams do have some future-gazing tools, which the NY Mets employed when superstar shortstop Jose Reyes qualified for free agency following a stupendous 2011 season. What they saw was a sufficiently high risk of injury and declining performance as he entered his 30s to dissuade them from making a nine figure commitment to him.

Big Contract; Middling Returns
So Reyes signed with a Miami outfit that was going for broke in 2012, and, in fact, broke. He was swapped to Toronto, which attempted a similar all-in policy with the same results, at least in the first two seasons. That strategy paid off in a division title for the Blue Jays last year, but not until after they tossed their oft-laid-up shortstop to Colorado for his doppelganger -- Troy Tulowitzki. 

It's fair to say both teams lost that deal. Reyes' skills have been knocked down twice by Father Time and the inevitable TKO may be imminent, but the $70 million remaining on his contract continues in fine fettle. Then, in the wake of a 51-game suspension for "alledgedly" knocking around his wife while on winter vacation, Reyes was jettisoned to his own devices by the Rockies.

(I'm purposely avoiding any discussion of Reyes and his "alleged" wife-beating because we've been down this road before. For the record, I'm opposed to any kind of person-beating and endorse long suspensions for such actions, even when cases won't hold up to the exceptionally high standard of reasonable doubt necessary for prosecution that could lead to a conviction. That is exactly what Commissioner Rob Manfred imposed on Reyes at a cost to the ballplayer of $7 million. He has now served his time, expressed his contrition and agreed to further conditions. So I'll focus on the baseball end of things and hope that he has learned to treat his bride with the respect she deserves.)

The Price Has Come Down
So this week, two-thirds (or some similar fraction) of Jose Reyes was available for roughly 1/66th of the price. The New York Mets, desperate for any species of offense after being repeatedly white-washed by the International League Atlanta Braves, signed their old speedster for $300 grand -- the financial equivalent for an MLB club of a pizza party.

Assuming Reyes can stand upright without help, this is like dumping a stock immediately following its peak and then purchasing it again after it had crashed. Any positive performance will be a bargain.

Is There a Position for Him?
Of course it's not that simple. There is no mutual exclusivity in stock ownership: you can own Apple and Samsung and Google and Microsoft and Facebook all at once. Baseball players are different in that they can each only play one position. The Mets already have a better option at short -- Asdrubal Cabrera -- and a better option at second -- Neil Walker -- and there is scant evidence that Reyes can play third. (He has staffed the hot corner exactly never in 1,562 career games.) 

Beyond that, there is replacement value that is not present in stocks. Reyes is worthless to the Mets if he can't outperform Wilmer Flores at third.

Other alternatives, like moving Reyes to the keystone and swapping Walker to third, are fraught with danger and only pay off if Reyes can recapture some measure of his past glory.

It's the Way to Bet
Still, it's a no-downside bet for Citi's denizens, who have outsourced their manufacturing of runs to a shell corporation in Imagistan. Even with their historically-talented pitching staff, the Mets need a run or three to contend for a Wild Card, much less the division. So bring in Reyes and see what he's got. And management can smile about the $105,700,000 they didn't pay him.

21 June 2016

Shelby Miller Doesn't Suck

Psst. Wanna buy a pitcher cheap? Have I got a deal for you.

Take this Shelby Miller. He's a bargain. 

What? Yeah, I know he's 2-6, 6.36. Yeah, he's lasted just 52 innings in 11 starts and allowed 61 hits and 30 walks. Right, right, that's dreadful. Heck, it isn't even replacement level.

That's why he's a bargain.

No, really. Look at this. In his first 10 starts he was beyond awful. That grotesque motion had him so flexed he was scraping the mound with his pitching hand on the follow-through. He was literally a knuckle-scraper.

The D-backs sent him to the Minors to tweak his motion. He made two starts. Walked one and fanned 19. Gave up one run in 12 innings.

Sure, sure, that's 19-year-olds. 

Then he faced the semi-Major League Phillies at Citizens Bank Ballpark. He didn't touch the mound once -- at least not with his hand. (You might want to check the bottom of his spikes.)

He went seven frames and allowed a run on five hits. Walked one and struck out five.

Okay, maybe he's still not Clayton Kershaw. Who is? But he's a decent pitcher. Lifetime 3.47 ERA in 107 starts gotta count for something, yeah?

Look out for this guy. He's gonna make another 15 starts and lower that ERA below 4 before the season's over, you wait.

Don't say I didn't warn ya.

20 June 2016

The Real Reason the Warriors Aren't Champs

In baseball, it took 100 years to assert and demonstrate the imposing presence of luck. It has an over-sized impact on who wins the championship.

In basketball, it's something else, and it was the difference between Golden State celebrating the greatest season of all time and walking off their home court in shock.

Listen to the analysis during and after Game 7 of the NBA Finals and you will hear a lot of insightful commentary about match-ups, switches, spacing and the like. No doubt these are all important.

They don't determine games, though.

The Golden State Warriors lost Game 7, the finals series, the championship and their magical season because in the finals series they missed their shots.  

It's that simple.

All the strategy you can fit on the court is weak sauce if the opponent puts the ball in the basket. Certainly a good defensive strategy can make it more difficult. But the Warriors' genius was that they were immune to those kinds of efforts.

If you watched the series, you saw each team take ridiculous, ill-advised shots. And score. Then you saw players slip past their defenders for an easy layup. And clank it. There was no deduction for poor judgment on the first shot and no consolation for great floor play on the second.

The Warriors won 73 regular season games on the strength of making impossible shots. For four games in the finals, those shots went awry. 

In the last two games on their home court, they missed 63% of their attempts in Game 5 and 61% in Game 7. They were outshot by a wide margin in all four losses.

The MVP of the league, the rabbit-pulling hoops master, the player who thrilled us all season by tossing in bombs despite two hands in his face, missed 45 of 73 shots in the four Warriors losses. 

What more do you need to know? 

Imagine how completely different the narrative would be had Steph Curry hit just two more shots in Game 7 and reclaimed the crown.

No one sounds smart on TV asserting that the difference in the game is that one team is making baskets and the other isn't. But ultimately, that's all it is.

15 June 2016

Can Braves Broadcast Do Better Announcing This Stinkbomb of a Team?

Braves' broadcasts offer an intriguing experience this season because of the challenge facing the broadcast crew when their team is hopeless. 

Braves lose....again.
A really good broadcast team recognizes the following and adjusts accordingly:

1. No individual game matters. If the Braves win tomorrow, they'll be 19-46. If they lose they'll be 18-47. Eight percentages points worth of suck one way or the other.
2. Almost none of their current players matter. Jeff Francoeur, AJ Pierzynski and Nick Markakis are just filler.  The cavalry is coming but it's not here now.
3. The corollary to #2 -- the players who will lead this team to success are mostly elsewhere. Like on the farm -- or in someone else's farm.
4. It's much more important that the young players learn their craft than perform well now. If Matt Wisler and Aaron Blair are the future, they will have to improve.
5. The Braves are in the market to trade veterans for prospects. The young players on other teams should be of more interest to Braves fans than the veteran flotsam and jetsam on their own roster.

One would expect to hear less about the contributions of Erick Aybar, a 32-year-old shortstop, than about the progress made by Mallex Smith, a 23-year-old center fielder. Indeed, listeners should be salivating for news about the progress made by Minor Leaguer Dansby Swanson, the Braves' shortstop of the future, than about anything Aybar does for the team today.

Broadcasters Haven't Given Up
Alas, the broadcasters, though acknowledging their team's futility, are still struggling to accept the full reality. Last night it reached comic proportions with 25-year-old ace Julio Teheran on the mound. Teheran's record tells you everything you need to know about the performance of him and his team: he's the ace of the staff with a 2.93 ERA, 85 K and just 24 BB. And his record is 2-7.

Aside from openly rooting for a timely Atlanta hit or Teheran strikeout, broadcasters Jim Powell and Don Sutton delved into the prospect of a trade of Teheran. The discussion is mostly nonsense.

Ain't Gonna Happen
The best player on the team isn't going anywhere. He's 25 and is signed through his age 29 season at a nice discount. What can Atlanta possibly get for the ace of their staff that would make them better in 2018, which is management's time horizon?

If they did decide to swap Teheran, it would have to be for an investment in the future. The announcers proposed that the Braves would only accept a "middle of the order bat, 25 or less and under team control" for their pitcher. Well sure, in the same way that I'm not selling my cat except for a winning Powerball jackpot ticket. That is, it ain't gonna happen. No trade partner is sufficiently stupid.

No, You're Not Getting Bryce Harper
Teheran has been worth 8-9 wins against replacement his first three full years -- about three a year. That's a good pitcher. But it's not what the announcers described -- Kris Bryant or Nolan Arenado, players worth 5-6 wins a season. No contender is going to trade one asset for another in order to acquire the lesser asset.

Any plausible Teheran deal would have to be present value for future value, the kind Atlanta pulled off in acquiring Swanson from Arizona for Shelby Miller. That can only mean Teheran for a boatload of prospects from the low Minors. 

So why are Powell and Sutton entertaining such silliness? Because Teheran is their guy. they like him. They have to see him in the clubhouse after the game. So while they feel compelled to discuss the possibility that he's shipped off, they bloat his value beyond objectivity. They are prayercasting and it's not serving their listeners.

Bottom line, it's the right discussion for the third inning of a meaningless mid-June tilt against the woebegone Reds. It's just a pretty silly conclusion. I'll be listening to see if the Braves announcers improve over the course of the lost season too.

11 June 2016

You Can't Believe This...

Matt Kemp has worked 4 walks this season and fanned 61 times. That's how a guy who pounds 15 home runs in 60 games still produces an OPS under .700.

The Cubs have won by far the most games in the Majors this year, but if you were to name an NL All-Star team right now they wouldn't have a single starter. In fact, the only player you could make a case for would be Dexter Fowler in center field.

The 40-man roster of the Atlanta Braves has hit 25 home runs this season. A washed up outfielder named Mark Trumbo has hit 20.

The world is upside down: Seattle is second in the Majors with 92 homers. The Cardinals are second in NL with 82.

The boom and bust Orioles have hit 3 triples. Twenty-four individual players have 3 or more, including speedsters Jay Bruce and Jonathan Lucroy with 5 each.

Red Sox base runners have been thrown out five times while stealing 43 bases. Astros right fielder George Springer has been thrown out six times while stealing four bases.

Clayton Kershaw has allowed six bases on balls while whiffing 122 batters. Mike Pelfrey, Yordano Ventura and Clay Bucholz have combined for three fewer strikeouts while walking 91.

Kershaw, Jake Arrieta, Noah Syndegaard and Johnny Cueto have allowed 16 HR combined, the same number as Max Scherzer.

Who's this year's best hitting rookie? You've been hearing about Trevor Story's home run binge, Aledmys Diaz's league-leading batting average and Nomar Mazzara's shiny future. But the rookie most tearing the cover off the ball is 33-year-old Korean Dae Ho Lee. The giant Mariners' first baseman is hitting .301/.339/.592 with 10 homers in 41 games.

You may have heard that Cincinnati Reds' relievers should be arrested for arson. They have closed out eight saves in 20 chances as a team.
Jeanmar Gomez & Mark Melnacon each have each also had 20 save chances. Each has converted 19 of them. Indeed, 19 individual pitchers have more saves than entire Reds bullpen.

On top of that, the Reds have the Majors' worst starter -- Alfredo Simon. His record: 2-6, 9.11. In 52 innings he's allowed 76 hits, 27 BB, and 14 HR. The league is hitting .338 against him. He's 2.2 losses worse than a Minor Leaguer the Reds could pick up at a quarter of the price.

05 June 2016

The Revisionist History Around Muhammad Ali

A funny thing has been happening over the years as Muhammad Ali was sliding into decrepitude from Parkinson's disease, and now that he has slipped away from all of us. 

For decades, going back even before he ceremoniously lit the torch to the Atlanta Olympics 20 years ago, we have been revising the Muhammad Ali story.

Not so much with respect to Ali himself.
He deserved most of the accolades, though I don't recall anyone contemporaneously -- except Ali himself, of course -- crediting Ali as the greatest fighter of all time. There were the Sugar Rays -- Leonard and Robinson, the undefeated Marciano, Joe Louis, Jack Dempsey and now there's Floyd Mayweather, Jr. Many at the time thought Joe Frazier was the greater heavyweight, particularly after he knocked down and defeated Ali.

The real revisionism is about Ali the Beloved, America's sweetheart of the boxing world, who stood up against injustice to widespread applause.

In fact, Muhammad Ali was reviled by much of white America during his boxing career. Social conservatives, especially here in the South, hated everything about him. To them he was an "uppity nigger" who pointedly championed civil rights, eschewed Christianity, defied authority, opposed the Vietnam war and bragged about himself ceaselessly. 

Vulnerable and Nonthreatening
Only since Ali became vulnerable and nonthreatening, has all of America embraced him. More importantly, the dawning recognition that he was right about everything has created a collective amnesia about all those who opposed him with every fiber of their being. 

It's easy to say now that Ali was the good guy: America was treating blacks unfairly, as his own life demonstrated. Authority was wrong about the Vietnam war, a waste of 58,000 American lives. Athletes can be flamboyant and still lovable. And Ali was the prettiest, and if not the greatest, certainly among the greats.

Injustice, Hypocrisy and Hatred
But in the 60s and 70s, these were highly inflammable issues. In style, tone and message Ali was the anti-Christ, challenging norms everywhere he went. Successful black Americans at the time acted like Booker T. Washington, not like Stokely Carmichael. Remember, Jackie Robinson had to absorb all the abuse without comment in order to break into the Majors successfully.

It's great to celebrate the life and career of Muhammad Ali, and it's heartening that ultimately the good guys won these cultural skirmishes. But let's not let America off the hook so easily. Ali is great because he ran counter to type and paid a heavy price for soldiering on against the injustice, hate and hypocrisy that dominated America not so long ago.

04 June 2016

Why the Mets Are Thrilled That Cespedes Might Opt Out

Pity the poor Mets and Cubs. They signed Yoenis Cespedes and Dexter Fowler, respectively, to multi-year deals with first year opt outs. Each is tearing it up and likely to move on to heftier paydays after this season.

Cespedes is slashing .273/.347/.593, among the league leaders in
dingers and playing a lovely center field. Fowler has topped that, slashing .312/.434/.512 in addition to his usual bag of tricks like defense and baserunning.

So you can just imagine Mets GM Sandy Alderson and Cubs management guru Theo Epstein doing cartwheels.

Wait, what?

Yeah, cartwheels.

Both Cespedes and Fowler will be 31 next year. The odds that 2016 is their zenith are strikingly high. That's particularly true because they are currently center fielders, a position that demands youth like a boy band.  In addition, each is playing out of his mind. Cespedes has doubled his walk rate; Fowler has added 60 points of OBP to his career high.

So the Mets and Cubs got great value from the deals they struck with these players, essentially one-year contracts. One great year.

If they leave, someone else will overpay them based on their career-best season, and maybe into their baseball dotage. Sandy and Theo can spend their money on another big outfield bat with a one-year opt out. Cespedes and Fowler win the lottery and the ball clubs get a year each of great performance. Everybody's happy, even the agents, who pocket 10% of bigger numbers.

The player opt-out is now paradoxically the antidote to the late-contract overpay. And when it's inserted after one year, the team gets an extra-motivated player.

03 June 2016

Random Observations From An Unhinged Mind

Stuff floating around my brain with nowhere to go...

This is the year of the flexfielder. Ben Zobrist has made a career of playing everything but the battery. This year Cubs slugger Kris Bryant has donned an outfield glove, an infield glove and a first baseman's mitt. The Cardinals are talking about moving Jhonny Peralta and Matt Carpenter about the infield in order to keep shortstop Aledmys Diaz on the field.

The Royals lost two stars for extended periods on this one play. Then they lost their star catcher for a month. Then they stormed back from a 7-1 ninth inning deficit to defeat the division leader. They're just different.

Ryan Howard has more strikeouts than total bases. This is very hard to do. You need to start with a .172 batting average. Don't try this at home: this man is a professional.

You know how you have to get to a great pitcher early or you miss your chance? New research shows that's poppycock. In fact, almost every pitcher in history was worse the third time through the order, than the first time through, even though he generally had to be having a good day in order to still be in the game the third time through. 

 Are dominant starters more dominant than ever or am I just now noticing it?  Look at this:
Clayton Kershaw -- 7-1, 1.56; 5BB/105K
Jake Arrieta -- 9-0, 1.72; 21BB/67K
Chris Sale -- 9-1, 2.26; 14BB/69K
Madison Bumgarner -- 6-2, 2.12; 22BB/83K
Noah Syndergaard -- 5-2, 1.87; 9BB/79K

A 21-1 K-BB ratio for Kershaw? These are video game numbers.

Big Papi is halfway to matching the WAR of the greatest final season ever before retiring. (Shoeless Joe Jackson earned 7.6 WAR in his final season but he was banned mid-career, not retired. Roberto Clemente earned 4.8 WAR before dying in a plane crash.) At 2.3 WAR, he's closing in on Jackie Robinson (4.5 WAR), Barry Bonds, 3.4 WAR), Hank Greenberg (3.4 WAR), and Ted Williams (3.0). As of Memorial Day. Big Papi was hitting .339/.420/.720, leading the league in OBP, SLG, doubles and RBI.

Mike Trout's 150th home run last week added his name to a list of 18 players who have stroked 150 home runs before age 25 season. Two things to note here:
1. Trout has two-thirds of that season to add to his total.
2. Home run hitting is not his signature skill.

Home field advantage has gone all woolly mammoth on us. Fourteen of the 30 teams have winning road records, including Arizona, which is 8-18 at home. It doesn't include Colorado, which is .500 on the road and a losing record at home; or Atlanta, which is a mortifying 4-20 at Turner but 10-14 away from it.

In the decade of the shift, recent research shows batters actually have higher batting averages when shifted against -- but slug for fewer bases. It sounds as if they are purposely hitting the ball the other way through the hole left for them, but in effect sacrificing opportunities to hit for power. On aggregate, shifts have not been effective. Which means calls for prohibiting them is even dumber than you thought.

Royals rookie Cheslor Cuthbert hails from Little Corn Island about 43 miles east of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. His home is a mile square. A tropical rain forest, it gets 170 inches of rain a year. Although residents of a Spanish-speaking country, Corn Islanders are English-speaking. A natural Royal, Cuthbert is a direct descendant of the last king of eastern Nicaragua. 

In a game on Saturday, Russell Martin, who had managed just four extra base hits all season, ripped a game-tying double to the wall against Craig Kimbrel, who had allowed just three extra base hits all season. It was Kimbrel's second blown lead of the game, about what he normally does in half-a-season.