23 October 2016

Cubs, Wait 'Til Next Year

It's the most satisfying World Series match-up I can remember.

I loved the Angels-Giants of '02, a pair of franchises that had not won a championship in their cities.  White Sox-Astros of '05 thrilled because Houston had never seen a dogpile and the South Siders had last stood atop the baseball world in 1917.

Of course, the ending of the curse in Boston in '04 was special, mostly because of the ALCS comeback against the hated Yankees. But that World Series was something of an anti-climax.

Last year's Royals-Mets Series gave us a pair of distinct styles, not to mention long-suffering fan bases. That my team prevailed was extra special.

With the Cubs and Indians, what's exciting is not just that one fan base or the other will revel in the first World Championship of its lifetime. It also feels like the two best teams are competing for the title. The Cubs won eight more games than everyone else despite cruising home the last third of the season.

In the AL, the three division champs  won roughly the same number of games, but the metrics suggested the Rangers were something of a fluke. Boston and Cleveland were the contenders for best AL squad, and despite a pitching staff depleted by unfortunate injuries, the Tribe dominated the division series between them before dispatching Toronto with relative ease.

In the Words of Tom Hanks, Go Tribe!
And now, despite the 108-year wait for the Cubs, I hope Cleveland takes the title. Why? Because the Cubs, with their immense youth, talent and deep pockets, really can wait 'til next year. Their team stays intact, Kyle Schwarber returns and they can always add a free agent -- if they can find a weakness. How much worse will it be for North Side fans if their nine breaks a 109- or 110-year old curse?

The Indians, on the other hand, have caught lightning in a bottle. Their future is much more murky.  Youngsters Francisco Lindor, Tyler Naquin and Jose Ramirez have shocked us with their play, but can they keep it up? What if their two injured starters aren't the same after this year?They can't get by on a rotation of Cory Kluber and a Bunch of Goobers. It just feels like a shakier foundation there.

Cleveland should be formidable next year, regardless, but there is so much more uncertainty with them. So I'd like to see them win the World Series in a dramatic seventh game, and then watch the Cubs return next season to take the title.

At least that's how it would happen if I were writing the screenplay.

21 October 2016

It's Over: There's No Way the Cubs Lose to the Dodgers*

The Cubs go back to Wrigley with a 3-2 lead after winning two of three in L.A. So the series is over. After all:

  • The Cubs have never lost a 3-2 lead in an NLCS when returning home for games 6 and 7.*

*Cough - Bartman - Cough

  • Clayton Kershaw. the Dodgers Game 6 starter, can't win in the postseason.*

*His Game 2 shutout in this series not withstanding.

  • The 103-win Cubs never lost two games in a row this season.*

*Except for the 19 times they did.

  • The home team has a big advantage.*

*Having lost three of the five games so far in this series.

  • The Dodgers aren't going to win two elimination games against a great team.*

*The way they did against the Nationals a week ago.

  • The Cubs get a huge pitching mismatch in Game 7 with Cy Young incumbent Jake Arrieta against journeyman Rich Hill.*

*Hill won the first match-up between them 6-0.

  • The Cubs have momentum.*

*Which they had after Game 1, before losing the next two. Which the Dodgers had after Game 3 before losing the next two.

  • Chicago is a team of destiny.*

*Unless they're not.

20 October 2016

Imagining Cubs Vs. Indians

Let your mind consider the delicious possibility of Indians vs. Cubs.

  • The 108-year curse vs. the 68-year drought. To anyone under 75, it's the same thing.
  • Terry Francona vs. Theo Epstein. The Hall-bound strategist vs. The Hall-bound strategist. The battle of the 86-year-old '04 curse killers.
  • Yankee trade deadliner Aroldis Chapman vs. Yankee trade deadliner Andrew Miller.
  • The pitiful fans of the Browns vs. the pitiful fans of the Bears.
  • The city of Jordan's Bulls vs. the city of LeBron's Cavs.

  •  The team of destiny vs. the team no one expected.

Dodgers, nothing personal, but please get out of the way.

19 October 2016

What We've Learned From the Playoffs So Far


No really, we haven't learned a thing.

The playoffs are a lottery. A five-game series at a particular moment in time doesn't tell us anything about the two teams that are competing, unless the Chicago Cubs are playing O'Neil's Texaco, my winless Little League team.

The Indians deserve credit and congratulations for defeating Toronto in the ALCS. Terry Francona earned his master's degree in Pitching Strategy and the bullpen delivered like an obstetrician. But Cleveland, now down to one reliable starter, can't claim a superior rotation to Toronto's quartet of Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman and Marco Estrada, and it can't claim bigger boppers than the Blue Jays'.

But when speedster Coco Crisp hits home runs and rookie Ryan Merritt, he of 11 Major League innings, pitches shutout ball, it vividly demonstrates what a roll of the dice a handful of games is.

By the same token, what can we possibly deduce from Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist becoming Sandy Koufax -- the hitter -- for the playoffs? It's all of seven games at this writing, three of which involving Madison Bumgarner and Clayton Kershaw.

We're down to three teams, one of which will win the World Series, and there's two chances in three they'll erase a multi-generational curse while they're at it. It'll serve to spark a dogpile, quench a fan base and add to jewelry collections.

It just won't prove a thing.

05 October 2016

The Wild Card Kerfuffle Over A Closer

The controversy over Buck Showalter leaving his unhittable reliever in the bullpen with Baltimore's Wild Card elimination game against Toronto hanging in the balance reminds me of the dust-up in MLB's inaugural Wild Card game between Atlanta and St. Louis.

In that contest, a highly questionable infield fly call cost the Braves a bases-loaded rally in the eighth inning of a game they ultimately lost 6-3.

In that contest, the Braves didn't lose because of one infield fly rule, as was pointed out convincingly here. They lost because they made three infield gaffes and stranded a dozen runners.

Similarly, the Orioles' loss can't be laid at the feet of their skipper for mis-managing his pen. While it's hard to defend Showalter's determination to husband Zach Britton -- season ERA 0.54 -- for a save situation, that had less to do with their defeat than producing four base runners in 11 innings did.

The O's lived and died by the home run all year and Tuesday it served as their post-season hemlock. The Jays were the better team anyway and now we'll see what they can do in the playoffs.

04 October 2016

Great World Series Matchups I'd Like to See

For years, baseball fans fantasized about a Cubs-Red Sox World Series. It would be the Futility Series -- 86 years for one fan base and 100+ years for the other since the last championship.

Sadly, David Ortiz and his band of self-styled morons shot that to pieces in 2004 and then again in 2007 and 2013. Boston is no longer the land of near misses but the annoying home of multi-sport titles. 

That is no longer the World Series I want to see, especially if the band from Boston were to emerge victorious.My main criterion for rooting, if I don't have a horse in the field, is to cheer for the longest-suffering.

So for me, the marquee match-up now is Chicago vs. Cleveland. The Indians have not won the World Series in nearly 70 years, which means whichever team would emerge from that series would be quenching a multi-generational thirst. Moreover, like the Cubs, the Indians have been relentlessly pathetic during the long drought.

In truth, the Cubs against anyone is the dream World Series this year, but wouldn't the drama be heightened if they faced Texas, which has never won a World Series, than Baltimore, which has gone 33 years without a title, but has plenty to admire from its past? I'd say, at least a little.

My next favorite match-up is the Rangers and Nationals, two teams that have never won a World Series. Texas is the former Washington Senators, so some old-timers could admire that.  A Texas-San Francisco tilt would reprise the 2010 World Series, but the excitement would depend on the Rangers exacting revenge. I'm plenty tired of the Giants. Give some other fan base a chance.

How about the Nationals and Orioles in a Beltway Battle? I'd find that intriguing and so would much of the nation's capital, but would the rest of the country care? Padre fans, wanna weigh in on that one? Either one of you?

If the Blue Jays and Nationals squared off we would be pitting Canada's only team against Canada's former team, as Washington emigrated from Montreal. I wonder if any Expo fans now root for the Nats.

How about a 30th anniversary edition of the Mets and Red Sox, with Mookie Wilson throwing out the first pitch? Bill Buckner could set up as backstop and let it roll between his legs.

The Amazing Mets of 2016 taking on the Orioles -- would that wake the echoes of 1969 at all? I think we're starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel now.

The truth is that any World Series not involving the Giants or Red Sox would pit two long-starved fan bases. Among the Mets, Nats, Dodgers, Cubs, O's, Jays, Tribe and Rangers, the most recent champion is the 1993 Blue Jays, 23 years ago. That's a full generation of fans who have never seen their team win. Can you imagine Vin Scully in the Fox booth calling the ninth inning of game 7 with the Dodgers playing? It would be like going to heaven without dying.

And that said, a Red Sox appearance would place Big Papi on the big stage one more time, following the greatest retirement season in horsehide history. I'd like to see him take his hacks against Clayton Kershaw, the greatest pitcher of this generation.

Okay, let's get it started. My mouth is watering.

03 October 2016

Just When We Were Writing Off Those Goofy Seamheads...

It's been fun in recent years to malign the SABR eggheads for their silly attempts to guess the final standings at season's start. I post the Baseball Prospectus projections at the start of every season with a healthy dose of disclaimer.

So just when the ridicule was reaching a critical mass, they nailed it.

Take a look at this. It's the BP projection for the AL East throughout the course of  the 2016 season. You'll notice that, other than flipping Baltimore and Tampa, a not unreasonable mistake, they had the  division pretty dead-on.

Notice how little the Red Sox (in red, duh) wavered from being the favorite on Opening Day. For a couple of days there in late June they slipped beneath the Orioles as Baltimore began pulling away from the division. Then in August the Blue Jays surged ahead, as they did in the actual standings. But Boston always enjoyed high odds of making the playoffs. And BP's number crunching system came to the conclusion by June that the Rays and Yankees were toast.

I won't impose the rest of these projection graphs on you. You can find them here. (That's the AL East you'll see, but you can toggle for each division as you like.) Suffice to say that BP correctly identified the Indians as the best team in the Central, briefly credited the White Sox for their early-season heroics and never gave Detroit much of a chance, even as they bore down on the Wild Card,

In the NL East, BP knew it was a two horse race between New York and Washington, and gave Atlanta and Philadelphia zero chance of earning a slot. Well okay, didn't we all.

And sure, the Cubs were a shoo-in, but it's interesting that BP was squirrely about St. Louis and totally unimpressed with Pittsburgh as far back as April 1.

You might remember some of the adulation for Arizona's big moves in the winter, but BP saw through them, tabbing the Dbacks a 10-1 underdog to play deep into October. Their algorithms correctly tabbed the Dodgers as top dog and Giants as understudy.

Only in the AL West did BP create the mashup that educated guesses get you. At season's commencement, they credited Houston with a 68% chance of making the post-season, Seattle at 32%, the Angels at 25%, Oakland at 20% and lowly Texas least likely at 19%. The Rangers sport the Junior Circuit's best record while Anaheim and Oakland peed on themselves for six months. 

Still, five of the six teams they tabbed as "most likely" made the playoffs, with all but the decimated Mets winning their division. It's a pretty good showing that should quiet the critics like me -- until next season's projections.

02 October 2016

The Braves are the New Pirates..Or Astros...or Whoever

It seems like a long time ago that the Atlanta Braves were a dumpster fire of Minor Leaguers and MLB castoffs. On July 24, the team had lost 66 of their 99 games, on pace to jettison their manager and finish with 104 losses, the most futile outfit in the sport.

Many of us recognized that Brave management had punted 2016 and were arranging their chips for 2017 or 2018, with the bloom still on their new suburban ballpark. In this space I had identified Cincinnati as the most hapless franchise because, while their Major League talent was slightly greater than Atlanta's, they seemed to lack a plan.

The Braves, on the other hand, simply appeared to be in Year One of the rebuild that had begun Year Two in Philadelphia, and that had recently paid dividends in Pittsburgh, Houston and elsewhere.

Turned Into a Newt, They Got Better
One thing about young talent: it has the capacity to learn and improve. By year's end, the Braves had nearly caught the Phaltering Phils, jumped over feckless teams in Minneapolis, San Diego, Cincinnati and St. Petersburg and moved within a half game of two other teams. Winners of 11 of their last 13, the Braves could have surpassed the records of seven MLB teams given another week of the season.

Deals of their tradeable commodities for future assets helped pave the way, giving the youngsters a free year to sharpen their craft, which they did. In the waning days of the season, they flipped a Minor League albatross for Matt Kemp, adding badly-needed power and a veteran leader for next season. 

With under-25 Dansby Swanson, Ender Inciarte and Mallex Smith joining Freddie Freeman and Kemp in next year's lineup, and with Julio Teheran anchoring a juvenile staff that benefits from a year of schooling under its belt, Atlanta has a chance to make some noise next year. They appear to have passed Philly in that department and have certainly left the Reds, Brewers, A's and others in the rear view mirror.

01 October 2016

The End of Ryan Howard and the Evolution of Baseball Analysis

By the end of 2009, Ryan Howard had won a Rookie of the Year, an MVP and a World Series. He had smashed 45+ home runs and knocked home 136+ runners each of the past four seasons. Many was the number of fans who believed Howard, with the gaudy RBI totals, was Batman to Albert Pujols' Robin.

We laugh at that now, but it wasn't generally recognized as lunacy back then. Most fans were still swimming in the shallow end of the analysis pool, and because they didn't understand the new analysis that was transforming how we measured performance, they discounted it. Most baseball observers -- including baseball writers -- were still drinking the BA-HR-RBI Kool Aid, and treating fielding ability as nothing more than a tie-breaker.

A two-headed monster made us realize our folly. First, Howard's limited skills turned tail and abandoned him. After age 31, he never managed 30 home runs, 100 RBI or even a middling .320 OBP. Over the past five seasons, Howard has cost the Phillies 4.5 wins against replacement and led their slide into irrelevance.

After this season, the Phillies will pay Ryan Howard $10 million to go away. Thirty-seven-year-olds who can't hit for average or power, run, or play the field don't have many baseball suitors. If they did, I'd be getting Qualifying Offers.

We're On Board With TAv
And now, many baseball fans -- and even some writers -- speak the language of TAv, BABIP, OPS, WAR and their ilk. They understand that a walk is often as good as a hit, that fat helpings of luck can distort ordinary stats, and all the other new ideas that have infected the game.

Looking back, Baseball Reference reports that Howard was worth just 14 WAR over his four best seasons, partly because his glovework was so stony, and partly because he played home games in a launching pad. During that time, Pujols earned 28 WAR -- twice as much -- not only because he was a Gold Glove first baseman, but because he hit for a higher OBP than Howard and -- get this -- led the league in slugging three of the four seasons. A few extra home runs and RBIs on Howard's part couldn't make up for, well, everything else.

In that 2006 season when Howard took home Pujols' MVP award, Albert had a higher batting average, on base percentage and slugging average. He ran the bases better, struck out a third as often and caught 1.2 more balls hit per nine innings than Howard. (In case you're wondering, that's a seismic difference, like winning a 100 yard dash by 1.2 seconds.) Pujols was superior at everything -- except coming to bat with RBI opportunities.

As Ryan Howard bows out, we'll remember his big smile and the big bat he once wielded. And we'll remember some of the ridiculous things we believed about baseball but now better understand.

30 September 2016

The Final Countdown: Who Do the Mets Want To Play?

With three games left in the season we are basically down to this question: will it be the Cardinals or the Giants facing the Mets in the NL play-in game.

The divisions arranged themselves like Russian dolls two weeks ago. The pretenders, having hung around mostly due to contender inconsistency, are finally out of runway. The Blue Jays and Orioles, in whatever order, have separated themselves from the rest of the league. It will take a three-game meltdown on one of their parts and a surge by Detroit to upset the current arrangement.

So the only team with a post-season question is NY. Would they rather play the even-yeared Giants or the perennially-contending Cards. (This assumes, by the way, that the Metroplitans don't gack it up in the final three days of the season. It would take a whitewashing by the incompetent Phillies, accompanied by a trio of St. Louis wins and at least one win for San Fran, and then a tie-breaker loss, to fritter away their current edge. They are rated as 96.5% likely to take the Wild Card.)

On the surface, the Mets would much prefer to avoid the three-armed Giant monster of Bumgarner/Cueto/Samardzija to anything the Cardinals could throw at them. Then again, since their win totals are so close, the Redbirds must be compensating in some other way, like hitting 220 homers as a team without a single 30-home run slugger. (BTW, no one has ever done that before.)

The Mets are 4-3 against the Giants and 3-3 versus St. Louis. The Cards have prospered on the road, so playing at Citi Field is a wash. The Giants and Mets have little to offer in home-road splits, so the home field issue feels pretty moot.

What isn't moot is what a dumpster fire Bruce Bochy's team has been of late, 27-42 since the All-Star break. In addition, the Giants and Cardinals have mostly feasted on bad teams, with St. Louis 11 under against .500+ teams and San Francisco 9 under. The Mets have played good opponents to a draw, but aren't on the plus side only because the Nationals and their ultra-motivated second-baseman have owned them.

It's all an effort to find the two-percent edge and that effort doesn't appear to have come to much. If you bleed orange and blue, well, first of all, see a doctor. But then take your pick. Would you prefer to face a team that's scuffling or avoid a pitching ace. Either way a victory brings you to the ornery and talent-rich Cubs.

29 September 2016

Mike Trout Update: He's #2

Mike Trout is #1 in almost any measure you want to examine. At .318/.441/.559 and 27 steals from the center field position he's the runaway best player in baseball this year, though the writers might once again fail to award him the AL MVP. 

But in one respect he's merely #2.

In his age 24 season, his fifth year of Major League ball, Mike Trout has now surpassed 994 of the 995 gentlemen who have ever played for the Angels franchise in career WAR.

In just five seasons, Trout has amassed 48 WAR for the Angels. Jim Fregosi, who played 11 seasons for the California Angels and who earned MVP votes in eight of them, managed 45.

Tim Salmon, who played his entire 14-season career for the Anaheim Angels, and crushed 30+ homers four times, accounted for 41 WAR.

Only Chuck Finley, a 14-year Angels veteran with 165 wins for the club, stands precariously ahead of Trout in nearly three times as many seasons of service. He'll fall to second by next All-Star break. 

But order is restored to the universe in this sense: Trout's first five seasons establish him as the greatest player of all time, so far.

No one matches his accomplishments by age 25; no one matches his accomplishments in their first five seasons. Not Ty Cobb, not Mickey Mantle, not Joe DiMaggio or Willie Mays or Walter Johnson or Christy Matthewson or Marv Throneberry.

Trout isn't the best hitter ever during that period -- Williams is -- but with a 170 OPS+ he's second. He's not the best base runner or fielder or slugger. But he's among the greatest in all those categories and they add up to #1.

Right where he belongs. Don't let the fact that his teammates stink confuse you.

27 September 2016

Was Jose Fernandez Headed for the Hall?

You've no doubt heard by now that Marlins' phenom Jose Fernandez was killed in a boating accident Sunday at the tender age of 24. The All-Star pitcher had a joie de vivre that lit up ballgames almost as much as his mid-90s fastball.

I have nothing to add to the touching tributes and heartfelt expressions of grief from the team and others.

I just have two observations that should be understood as mere fly's eyelashes on the larger story.

Euphemisms Need to Pass Away
First, many media references to Fernandez's death mention his "passing away." Jose Fernandez did not pass away. Life did not ebb out of him as he lay comatose in his bed. He was killed instantly in a high-speed crash against a pile of rocks. Let's stop using euphemisms about the death of a young man.

Second, Fernandez was an amazing talent. Before he even entered the Bigs at 21, he endured a Cuban defection story familiar in its contours if not exactly in its details. The story included jumping out of a boat and into shark-infested waters to save his mother.

On the diamond, he was the cold-blooded killer. In his four years -- two shortened seasons wrapped around TJ surgery -- he earned head-shaking numbers -- 38-17, 2.58 and 589 strikeouts in 471 innings. In his only full season he was voted Rookie of the Year and finished third in the Cy Young voting. This year he was an All-Star and was certain to attract Cy Young support.

Was He Headed for the Hall?
All of which had me wondering -- how much of a Hall of Fame track was Fernandez on? Do pitchers who start like him finish in Cooperstown? He was dazzling and dominating, of course, but he also brought the heat using an elbow held together by surgeon's glue and a hip flexor. The answer floored me.

For some perspective, I checked Baseball Prospectus's Active Player HOF Draft. Two wags picked players from current rosters to compile a team with the most Hall of Famers. (This contest will take years to settle.) You can guess most of the names, with Pujols, Suzuki, Beltre, Ortiz, Cabrera and Trout at the top. Fernandez was the 32nd pick, which means he is a borderline case, at least according to a duo of baseball writers. Past patterns suggest that roughly 30 players today will eventually enter the Hall.

By another measure, though, he's not close. Not one of Fernandez's closest comparables accomplished much of anything, though Jacob deGrom might someday. After him, the names are a who's who -- I mean really, who? -- Dick Hughes, Butch Wensloff, Mark Fidrych, Mark Prior and a slew of 19th century hurlers. Dick Hughes wowed the NL in 1967 with a 16-6, 2.67 performance in 221 innings at age 27 to finish second in the Rookie of the Year race. He threw 86 innings the rest of his career.

The middle two years shredded by ligament replacement are the wild card for Fernandez. If it was just a bump in the road, he was headed for enshrinement. If it was a harbinger of future issues, then Fernandez was the next Mark Prior.

Sadly, it's all moot now.

24 September 2016

Those Amazing Mets...and Yankees

There's a guy at my gym who's a diehard Mets fan -- the kind of fan who whose opinion of a player's moral fiber is directly proportional to his batting average over the last six weeks.

Mostly I giggle when we talk, but every once in a while I make an attempt to reorient him to reality. Met fans should be making sacrifices to the baseball gods for the team's continued Wild Card contention.

This is an outfit built on an eye-popping young rotation and a couple of other assets. Sixty percent of the starters are on the shelf and manager Terry Collins has lost the services of his team leader, his slugging first baseman, his star keystoner and various others. His only remaining power bat has bulled through a serious of pulls and strains throughout the season.

The Mets' Wild Card fortunes turn on the contributions of rookies Seth Lugo, Robert Gsellman and Logan Verrett, and veteran castoffs Kelly Johnson, James Loney and Rene Rivera. And they're 10 games over .500.

The House That Refsnyder Built
The Yankees are likewise in a Wild Card chase, if only peripherally, but their miracle has a somewhat different shape. A broken down old roster with questionable pitching at season's start, the Bombers jettisoned their best players at the trade deadline and began the youthful march towards 2017.

Yet somehow, the future's remained now. Gary Sanchez, in a mere 44 games, is the team's second most valuable player by WAR. But besides him, this is a team without hitting (next to last in the AL in OPS) or pitching (non-Tanaka starters sport a robust 4.78 ERA).  Their roster rates as below average by Wins Against Average and they've been outscored on the season by 25 runs with eight games left.

It's hard to imagine either team making much noise beyond Fan Appreciation Day. The Yankees will need a miracle finish and they just don't have the horses. The Mets might slip into October baseball where anything can happen, but how will they score runs?

Nonetheless, both teams merit some props for making it interesting. And then, there's next year.

22 September 2016

No Brainers: Rookie of the Year Awards

"We're #2. We Try Harder." --Avis Car Rental 's longtime slogan.

Washington's center fielder, rookie Trea Turner, is hitting .345 with 12 homers. He's swiped 27 of 31 bases in less than half a season of work. His .338 TAv describes his entire offensive output scaled to batting average.

So is he the NL Rookie of the Year?

Not no. Hell no.

Corey Seager has owned the game in his inaugural season. The Dodger shortstop is the team MVP with his .316 average and 25 homers in 147 games.

Apologies to Aledmys Diaz and Trevor Story, but Seager, with a .330 TAv over a full season, should be the unanimous NL Rookie of the Year.

Over in the American League , Indians first-year centerfielder Tyler Naquin is tearing up opposing arms with a .300/.371/.535 in 107 games. But he's not the AL Rookie of the Year. For that he can thank Alex Rodriguez.

The departure of old, broken down ARod has given the re-issued, best-player-in-the-game ARod an opportunity to shine. 

So in his first 43 MLB games, Yankee catcher Gary Sanchez is hitting .337/.409/.725 and dragging the Bombers into the playoff race. He's reached 19 home runs faster than any player in baseball history, which goes back more than 100 years before Sanchez's parents were born.

Willie McCovey won the ROY award in 1959 by slamming 13 homers in just 52 games from the first base position. If he plays every remaining game, Sanchez will reach 54 games, and unless the magic dust suddenly wears off, he will join McCovey's on that list.

And that could work out well. McCovey hit another 508 dingers in his career, earned VIP status in a quaint upstate New York village and got a prominent cove named for him.

19 September 2016

What Are the Odds?

With 14 games left in the season, seven American League teams still have a conceivable chance of earning a slot in the Wild Card play-in game. (Baltimore and Toronto have fading hopes of winning the AL East; the Orioles play a set in Boston starting tonight.)

Orioles       82-67    --
Blue Jays    81-68    --
Tigers         79-70    2
Mariners   79-70    2
Astros        78-71    3
Yankees     77-72    4
Royals       76-73     5

With 13 games left, there's plenty of opportunity for the two teams leading the charge to falter and for a team down near the bottom to streak its way in.

If you figure that 88 wins will be necessary for a Wild Card game appearance, Baltimore and Toronto still need to go 6-7 and 7-6 to get in. Each team has done worse over 13 game periods at various times during the season.

Detroit and Seattle have to get hot -- 9-4 -- but nothing outrageous. Each team has posted 9-4 records over 13-game stretches previously. (Indeed, Seattle is in such a stretch.)

For New York and KC, great drama would be necessary. The Yankees, stripped of their best hitter (pre-Gary Sanchez) and their two best relievers, would need to win 11 of 13 to pass four competitors ahead of them. The Royals would have to reprise recent miracles and win 12 of 13. 

Baseball Prospectus, which uses all kinds of fancy calculations about strength of schedule, real team performance and so on to derive its playoff odds, puts Baltimore and Toronto at 76% and 63% respectively. That seems high to me, particularly considering the drama we've seen in recent years.

BP also suggests the Tigers and Mariners each have a 23% chance of getting in. It doesn't feel right that the odds could be so against a team that would be at 50/50 with two wins.

In case you're wondering, the Astros are listed at 13%, Yankees at 2% and Royals at .3%. 

Go ask the 2011 Red Sox and Braves about those odds. Ask Rhonda Rousey and Ian MacGregor. Ask anyone (like me) who dismissed the idea that an ignorant, unqualified, juvenile jackass clown could become President of the United States.

Go Royals.

Blessed Are the Cy Young Voters, 2.0

I do a lot of editing of other people's writing in my work, and one of the things I try to avoid is making edits that are distinctions without differences. There's no reason to alter a writer's copy if the change is no better or worse.

Distinctions without differences divide the AL Cy Young candidates so far this year, and by so far, we mean 90% of the way through the season.

Again, let's consider the contenders and shake our heads at the red pubic hair of difference among them. For a discussion of the statistics, see the previous post.

Masahiro Tanaka, 13-4, 2.97, 194 Inn, 160 K, ERA+ 148, FIP 3.27Chris Sale, 15-8, 3.03, 202 Inn, 205 K, ERA+ 133, FIP 3.43
Corey Kluber, 17-9, 3.12, 205 Inn, 215 K, ERA+ 153 FIP 3.26
Jose Quintana, 12-10, 3.05, 192 Inn, 171 K, ERA+ 133 FIP 3.43
Rick Porcello, 20-4, 3.12, 202 Inn, 167 K, ERA+ 146, FIP 3.45
Danny Duffy, 12-2, 3.18, 170 inn, 181 K, ERA+ 139 , FIP 3.53
Aaron Sanchez, 13-2, 3.17, 173 Inn, 140 K, ERA+ 136, FIP 3.60
Cole Hamels, 14-5, 3.24, 181 Inn, 181 K, ERA+ 141, FIP 3.98
J.A. Happ, 19-4, 3.27, 176 inn, 152 K, ERA+ 132, FIP 4.03
Justin Verlander, 14-8, 3.33, 200 Inn, 216 K, ERA+ 124, FIP 3.64
David Price, 16-8, 3.91, 212 Inn, 217 K, ERA+ 118, FIP 3.46

If you like advanced metrics, Kluber's your guy, but Porcello sports a sparkling W-L record and an ERA and FIP that are about the same as the other best contenders. Price leads this group in innings pitched and strikeouts, and though his ERA is high from early season struggles, FIP has him third best.

Good luck with that vote. I think Kluber has an edge on Porcello right now, but Tanaka could win the award with a couple of sterling starts that catapult the Yankees into the playoffs. And if you think Hamels or Sale is this year's Cy, I have no argument against it.

16 September 2016

Good Luck With That Cy Young Vote

There are roughly 16 games left in the MLB season as this is being written, and if you know who should win the Cy Young Award in each league, you deserve a prize with the name of dynamite's inventor on it.

In the old days it was easy: find the guy with the best won-loss record and a reasonable ERA and cast your vote. But today we are cursed with knowledge, and the more we know about pitching performance, the less we're able to distinguish top pitchers.

Let's take a look at the top contenders, first in the NL:

(ERA+ adjusts for the ballpark; FIP adjusts for defense. Bold indicates league leaders.)

  • Kyle Hendricks, 15-7, 2.03, 173 Inn, 157 K ERA+ 197, FIP 3.38
  • Jon Lester, 17-4, 2.40, 184 Inn, 179 K, ERA+ 167, FIP 3.46
  • Noah Syndergaard, 13-8, 2.43, 174 Inn, 205 K, ERA+ 165, FIP 2.26
  • Madison Bumgarner, 14-9, 2.66, 206 Inn, 231 K, ERA+ 153, FIP 3.20
  • Tanner Roark, 15-8, 2.75, 193 Inn, 157 K, ERA+ 152 FIP 3.67
  • Max Scherzer, 17-7, 2.78, 211 Inn, 259 K, ERA+ 150, FIP 3.09
  • Johnny Cueto, 16-5, 2.86, 207 Inn, 181 K, ERA+ 143, FIP 3.06
  • Jake Arrieta, 17-6, 2.91, 179 Inn, 171 K ERA+ 137, FIP 3.49
  • Jose Fernandez, 15-8, 2.99, 174 Inn, 241 K, ERA+ 131, FIP 2.40

...and the wild card, Clayton Kershaw, 11-3, 1.81, 129 Inn, 155 K, ERA+ 214 FIP 1.70

In other words, according to ERA+ and FIP, the Cubs pitchers pitch in a good hitting park before the best defense in the game. Noah Syndergaard plays his home games in Supression Stadium but Jose Reyes at third and Yoenis Cespedes in center are catnip for opposition hitters.)

How Do You Value Kershaw?
The first thing voters are going to have to do is determine whether Kershaw is a candidate. He's the king of the hill, but it's not possible for him to be as valuable to the Dodgers in 129 innings as other top candidates are in 200 frames for their teams.

Kyle Hendricks has a real edge in ERA over the field, but fielding independent statistics suggest he's had a lot of luck on his side. Eight unearned runs burnish his ERA. 

Thor is the best pitcher by the advanced stats, but accounting for the shaker of salt we take them with pushes him back to the pack. Lester has the gaudy record and second best ERA, but he has the best team behind him. Fernandez has dominates since returning from injury with 12.5 punchouts per 9 innings and the second best FIP. But the non-fancy stats have him ninth in ERA.

Max Scherzer is near the top in everything, which might tilt the scales in the voting. He's pitched almost as many innings as the league leader and he paces the league in whiffs, with the sixth best ERA and the third best FIP (not counting Kershaw, who isn't eligible for the league lead in those categories.)

The last three weeks will likely decide things, but woe are those who must decide. 

We'll take a look at the AL next, but the song remains the same.

06 September 2016

Fireman of the Year Award Goes To Terry Francona

The Fireman of the Year Award doesn't exist anymore. It was retired in 2011, long after the notion of employing your best relief pitcher to extinguish a rally was itself extinguished.

Blame Tony LaRussa and Dennis Eckersley
The closer killed the award, given annually by The Sporting News. When the fireman was in his prime, managers called upon him in any late inning to get key outs with runners on base, then quell the riot for another frame or two.

In 1977, Sparky Lyle won the Cy Young Award (and the Fireman, of course) hurling 137 innings and winning 13 games without ever starting. Mariano Rivera, who tallied nearly three times as many saves in his career as Lyle, averaged about half as many innings per year and never pitched even 80 in a season once he became a closer.

Chapman vs. Miller
Which brings us to the two bullpen back-enders packaged by the Yankees to Chicago and Cleveland to help those two woebegone franchises make a run at a title this year. One flame-throwing lefty, Aroldis Chapman, is closing quite nicely for the Cubs, allowing two earned runs in 13 innings while fanning 22 of 53 batters he faced in August. That's exactly what Theo Epstein and his front office cadre paid a high price for.

Over in the AL, former Red Sox skipper Terry Francona was reunited with lefty flamethrower Andrew Miller, who served as Chapman's eighth-inning caddy in New York. Because he wasn't wed to saves, Miller has been amenable to serve in the old fireman role. He's entered games most often in the seventh inning, and sometimes in the eighth or the sixth. Miller has been used in only three save situations, but like Chapman, he's allowed two earned runs in 15 innings and whiffed 24 of 52 batters.

But they're not the same. They've pitched roughly the same number of innings, faced the nearly same number of batters, smoked roughly the same number and allowed the same number of runs, Miller has been much, much more valuable.

Win Probability Added
By Win Probability Added, a statistic that determines the likelihood that a team will win when a reliever enters a game and the likelihood when he exits (100% in the case of a save), Miller has gifted 1.3 wins to the Indians in just one month, while Chapman has earned just .15 for the Cubs. 

That's because a team ahead by two entering the ninth is virtually a lock to nail down the win even without the closer, whose successful "save" adds nearly nothing to the team's win probability. Contrast that to a fireman who enters with the bases juiced and a one-run lead in the seventh. That game is close to a toss-up, but if he can induce a double play, or fan the two batters, he's put out the fire and vastly improved his team's odds of winning.

The risk for a manager of trodding this weeded-over path is that another reliever blows a ninth inning lead and the hometown blowhards call for your head. But a self-confident helmsman like Terry Francona can do it, and a tip of the cap to him for trying it.

Maybe if the Tribe wins the World Series, everyone else will finally try what should never have been abandoned.

04 September 2016

Should Snakes Sell Off Greinke? Not Just No, Hell No!

If you lived in Phoenix -- or Tucson or Flagstaff, for that matter -- you'd be hearing a lot of "Trade Zack Greinke" talk. It's not hard to understand: the Dbacks are unfathomably bad and Greinke is more like an actor in community theater doing a bad Zack Greinke impersonation, complete with a 4.17 ERA and a $200+ million contract.

Certainly if this sorry outfit, skidding to 95 losses, were considering a massive deal with Greinke now, you'd dismiss that as dumb on the scale of building a wall along the Mexican border. (Come to think of it, Phoenix is close to the Mexican border; maybe we can get Mexico to pay Greinke's contract.)

It's been reported that the Dodgers offered to take Greinke's contract off Arizona's hands; i.e., without sending anything back in return. The team's brain trust -- if you want to be generous to team president Tony LaRussa and general manager Dave Stewart -- scoffed at the offer.

The contract was rubbish (from the team's point of view; Mrs. Greinke, I'm sure, thinks it's genius) the day it was inked because it assumed that Greinke would continue to pitch like his 2015 career year (19-4, 1.66) rather than like the 32-year-old, 14-9, 3.40 pitcher he is. 

Nonetheless, Greinke is about the only mound asset Arizona has. They are last in the league in ERA even with their ace and 42-73 without him.

And while their offense has been inconsistent, it positively pulsates with talent. A trio of stars  -- first baseman Paul Goldschmidt, outfielder A.J. Pollock (who's been hurt all season) and keystoner Jean Segura -- is complemented by a passel of promising young players -- hot cornerman Jake Lamb, swingman Chris Owings, outfielder Yasmany Tomas and catcher Wellington Castillo, to name four. That's a solid core to build around for next year and beyond. (In addition, any team with a Tuffy and a Socrates has yin and yang covered.)

Relief pitching can be found, often by keeping the arms already on the roster. So starting pitching is this team's Achilles heel next year and it can't be healed on the free agent market. There won't be anything out there unless Tony LaRussa and Dave Stewart want to empty the vault -- assuming that's not already it's state -- for Edinson Volquez or Andrew Cashner. No kidding, those are the top names on the 2017 free agent pitching market.

No, the Dbacks have a chance to be quite improved next season, but only if they keep the only reliable starter they have. They need to scuttle the front office experiment and get a real team president and GM. Then develop the impressive talent on board, find a couple of third starters and run Greinke out 35 times. They could be the Miami Marlins of 2017.

03 September 2016

Please God, Deliver Us From This

I know they're the worst team in Major League Baseball this year (the Twins' August swoon notwithstanding), but don't the Atlanta Braves owe their audience some professionalism off the field?

Look, I get it: the pre-game show is the sub-basement of sports announcing. And I get that doing 162 of them -- particularly for a franchise that mailed in 2016 before it started -- has got to wear on a guy.

And I understand that ignorant and uninformed are trendy these days. And since the subject of this diatribe is a vote, I see the parallel.

Your Atlanta Braves Radio Network
But that doesn't excuse the kind of stupid that I thought was cured by now. Announcers on the team's radio network, which spans the entire Southeast from Florida to Kentucky, should know more about baseball than a time traveler from 1933, don't you think?

So that brings us to Ben Ingram, Chris Dimino and Buck Belue, the Braves' pre-game announcers earlier this week. Why I was listening to this offering in the first place is another story that I'm not proud of. (I was washing dishes during a tropical storm that closed the library and precluded TV watching.)

To begin with, let's acknowledge that Buck Belue was a star quarterback at Georgia 1981-1983 and Chris Dimino is a New Joisey guy who got hired to sports talk radio in 1993 after calling repeatedly and arguing with the hosts. This isn't Baseball Mensa to begin with.

Veteran Leadership >> Hitting, Fielding, Baserunning
The trio was discussing the post-season awards with common dopiness -- Anthony Rizzo's RBIs (duh, he bats behind Kris Bryant), Jake Arrieta's pitching wins, teammates dividing votes, that sort of thing. I shook my head and listened, bemused.

In a discussion about the AL MVP, the name Mike Trout -- you know, the actual MVP -- never came up. The Mike who came up was Napoli, who after all, is providing 29 home runs and veteran leadership to the first place Indians. ("He really has them playing great," said Dimino.) That Napoli is a butcher in the field, runs like a Yugo, and sports a middling .345 OBP is apparently of little magnitude to the on-air trio; he's an MVP contender because he's a good coach.

Evidently first base coach Sandy Alomar doesn't slap tushies the right way. Hitting coach Ty Van Burkelo smokes cigarettes and snoozes during batting practice. Manager Terry Francona isn't doing his job. Without Mike Napoli's veteran leadership the team would be adrift.

Time To Move Beyond 1977
Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but no one is entitled to their own facts. Napoli is seventh on the Indians in Wins Against Replacement. With his one signature skill, he has four more homers than Trout. To get there, he's cost his team 47 more outs, stroked a dozen fewer doubles and triples, stolen 14 fewer net bases and cost his team 2.6 losses in the field relative to Trout. Trout's WAR, according to Baseball Reference, is 8.8; Napoli's is 1.0.

If the people talking about the games employed by a Major League team haven't a clue, how are the fans supposed to learn anything?

Thirty-nine years and counting...