13 November 2017

No More Third Time Through

Remember how crazy it was in the World Series when Rich Hill was pulled after 4 1/3 shutout innings?

The Dodgers had established a policy on Hill never to let him see the opposing order a third time. Previous experience suggested that he fared significantly worse when batters started to size him up.

Of course, that put an awful strain on the bullpen and maybe prevented Dave Roberts from yanking Yu Darvish in Game 7 after five pitches. We'll never know.

What we do know is this: most pitchers suffer this effect. 

There is a lot of justification for going to the pen the third time through when many starters are on the mound.

In other words, get used to it. 

The revolution in pitching is already underway, so it wouldn't be surprising to see teams double-up on starters. Starter A goes 18 batters, starter B goes 18 batters and the bullpen cleans up if there's anything left. Fewer LOOGYs and more long relievers/short starters. 

Or maybe it won't be fewer LOOGYs; it will be fewer backup catchers. Teams will continue to value defensive flexibility, making the Evan Gattises of the world more valuable as double-backup catchers, thereby allowing for yet another arm.

In any case, if you thought baseball as you knew it was nothing like 2017, wait 'til 2018.

12 November 2017

Nothing Has Changed for the Mets

Before the 2017 season started, I noted that the Mets had the widest array of possible outcomes in 2017 of any team in baseball. 

I mean, no one was projecting the Padres to win their division, or the Indians to finish last. We knew more or less what the Reds were, and the Twins too. And while we missed by a mile on the Twins, they still won only 85 games, not 95. That would have shocked us more than passage of a coherent tax code.

But the Mets, they were such a wild card. They had the most intriguing starting staff in baseball, six deep, but their health was a major question. They had some real assets at the plate, to the point where all the talk in Spring Training was which valuable outfielder was going to sit on the bench.

But they also had a suspect bullpen, a dearth of team speed and a pile of iron gloves. And then, the arms all fell off, Matt Harvey's psyche imploded, Cespedes got hurt again and the Mets were mathematically eliminated by the trade deadline (if you use that new math.)

So now what for 2018? With the late season sell-off, the roster is holier than the Pope and the rotation is a big guess. The young players mostly haven't panned out -- but still could. There's even uncertainty at the skipper's post. The one constant -- David Wright -- doesn't move the needle on the field in either direction.

There are plenty of bad teams in baseball, but few worse owners than the Wilpons or worse training staffs than the Mets, evidently. Sandy Alderson will be severely tested this off-season.

The bottom line, at least this early in the process, is that the Mets are right back where they were -- a total wild card. If the starting rotation gets healthy, Conforto and Cespedes can play, a couple of useful free agents join the team and hell doesn't break loose in Queens, they could challenge the Nats for the division. 

If none of that comes to pass, well, the Phillies are getting better and may not be there to cushion the fall.

02 November 2017

The Worst of Baseball on Display in Game 7

It breaks my heart to observe it...but that was an awful game.

Game 7 of a great World Series wasn't just devoid of drama, it was a showcase of why baseball is turning off a lot of people. 

Talk about pace of play, this game loses a footrace to a sloth, a snail and Brian McCann.

The bottom of the 5th inning, in which Houston twice replaced the pitcher, and the catcher instigated roughly 11 visits to the mound, an inning that featured two hit batsmen but not a single run -- that half inning alone obliterated a half hour of your life. You can never get it back.

Ah, but it was heaven for advertisers. For that half inning alone, including just prior and just after the frame, you were subjected to twelve 30-second ads, not including all the announcer reads and the lovely innovation of short in-frame spots during lulls in the play.

Not to be outdone, the 6th inning, top and bottom, wasted away another half hour of your life. No pitchers were removed mid-inning and only one run scored. 

There were 284 pitches thrown in a game that produced just six runs, two of them on a single swing. Lance McCullers recorded seven outs, held L.A. scoreless and needed 49 pitches.


I mean that literally: the game was nearly three hours old with a third of the way to go. 

I went to bed. In the middle of Game 7 of the World Series. I have never done that before.

I would have stayed up all night to see the World Series play out. But it wasn't playing out; it was droning on, withering before our eyes. This was basically a series of advertisements punctuated by mound conferences. 

Evidently I didn't miss a thing. The combined 14 innings of one-run ball pitched by the two teams' "relievers" would have been exciting to start the game, but with the score already 5-0 it was a snoozefest. So I decided to snooze for real.

There is plenty of time in the off-season for deeper thoughts on the underlying causes of this and how bad it is for baseball. I've long advocated for a rule preventing a pitching change if the pitcher on the mound hasn't yielded a run in that frame. But this isn't the time for that.

It should be the time to celebrate the Astros and their first World Championship in 56 years of existence. It's exhilarating to see a team dogpile in ecstasy at the conclusion.

But I was deep into REM sleep by then.

27 October 2017

Why John Smoltz is Right. And Also Wrong

Things were better in my day, sonny. Men were men, not the sissies of today. We had to get up and change the channel. If we wanted to call someone, we had to wait to get home and hope they were too. We made our own coffee or drank sludge from a gas station. Why these kids today...

That's John Smotlz the broadcaster, a pitcher from yesteryear when starters hurled 220 innings and worried about winning 20 games. (Of course, the previous generation wondered why the limp-wristed weenies of Smoltz's day couldn't throw 30 complete games and 300 innings.) 

Watching perfectly good starters get yanked after four frames has been a tough pill for him to swallow. He hasn't been out of the game that long and already it's transformed.

So he's having trouble adjusting. When Dave Roberts pulled Rich Hill from Game 2 in the 4th inning after giving up just one homer, Smoltz blew a cork. He lamented how burning the starter with five innings to go would put tremendous pressure on each member of the bullpen who comes in to pitch. Each of them has to be effective.

Smoltz is right about that. More pitchers, more margin for error. In a close game, that matters.

This matters more, though: bullpens are designed for long appearances. Managers now remove pitchers before they get into trouble in the playoffs because every game is critical; every out counts. 

Relievers in Smotlz's day were either closers or failed starters. No more. Today many of them are better than the starters. They throw bb's and let it all fly for one frame. The Dodgers' pen is stocked with these guys.

The Reasoning
Astro starter Justin Verlander was cruising when Roberts pulled the plug on Hill. One run looked like it could be determinate. With the heart of the order due up for the third time, it made sense to end Hill's night.

Pitchers generally, and Hill particularly, struggle against opposition when facing them a third time in a game. In previous playoff games in which Hill pitched, Dave Roberts had yanked him at or near the 18th out -- two full times through the order.

Roberts Was Right Too
The results weren't what Dodger fans wanted this time, but that was primarily because the Astros spit in Superman's face -- scoring twice against unhittable Kenley Jansen. That's not generally the way to bet.

Roberts did the right thing, but Smoltz has a point too. Managers should be careful about pat answers.

26 October 2017

A Brief Side Trip to the "College" Gridiron

It's that time of year when the sports talk monkeys begin speculating about which for-profit Minor League Football franchises loosely affiliated with major universities will earn bids to the playoffs, with the promise of extra revenue and alumni support.

The conversation always sounds the same: "If (Team X) wins out, can they make the tournament?"

Let me just save them all a lot of time, trouble and hot air right here. The answer is yes.

Because, if these professional sports observers had actually observed "college" football anytime in the last 30 years, they would have noticed that teams don't win out. Upsets happen. Teams ebb and flow week-by-week.

Cases in point already this year:
  • Three touchdown favorite Clemson, the defending national champs, fell to ... Syracuse?!
  • Seventeen-point favorite Washington lost at middling Arizona State. 
  • Oklahoma minus four touchdowns, at home, after a bye, came up short against Iowa State.
  • Undefeated Washington State was a two-touchdown favorite over California when they got shellacked by 34 points. 
  • Mediocre South Carolina handled otherwise undefeated NC State in North Carolina. 
  • LSU lost to Troy. Troy! Their last big win against Sparta required a trick play. And that was, like 2,500 years ago, so that's a pretty old team. Probably a lot of redshirts and graduate students.
  • And so on. And on. And on.
Anyone actually paying attention has noticed that it all shakes out in the end. There are very few big-time undefeated and one-loss teams left in December. 

So if you're alma mater's football franchise has one loss on its record and can survive the remaining gauntlet, yes, they're going to qualify for the playoff. The problem is, they probably won't.

There, that's settled. Now the sports talk monkeys can spend their time learning something about baseball.

24 October 2017

Astros v. Dodgers

When the betting lines on the World Series started heating up back in March, the favorites likely would have been Houston and Los Angeles. 

Now six months, 162 games, two play-ins, four Division series and two League Championship series...here we are, back where we started.

The Astros led the flaccid AL West pretty much wire to wire

The Dodgers overcame torrid starts from Colorado and Arizona to win at a 116-win clip before crashing to Earth in September. The losing streak -- 16 of 17 and 11 in a row -- slashed their division lead to nine games.

The playoffs threw plenty of challenges their way. We've already seen perhaps the most fearsome relief pitching corps ever dispatched by Houston bats (at home.) 

We've seen perhaps the best pitching staff overall in Cleveland fall by the wayside one series earlier.  

The terrific balance of the Nationals succumbed to the defending champs, who themselves were ravaged by LA.

100-Win Opponents
That leaves us with the first World Series pitting 100+ win teams since the 1970 match-up between the Baltimore Orioles, with their three 20-game winners (to be four the following season), and the emerging Big Red Machine in Cincinnati. The Baltimorons won that series 4-1.

These two franchises have played each other far more than any other World Series pair -- 711 times before this week. (LA is 388-323.) That is, of course, a function of Houston's 51 years in the National League. It's the first World Series appearance of a team that switched leagues.

It'll be the first warm weather Series in a while. That will be nice, because baseball was not designed to be played in the cold evenings we've already seen, much less the sleet and freezing temps of recent seasons.

Who Will Win
It's more or less a tossup, as are most World Series. The Dodgers have an edge on the hill and Game Seven at Chavez Ravine, so they're a small favorite. But either team could dogpile at series end. It's something no Astro team has ever done.

(Indeed, no Texas team has ever hoisted the trophy -- is there a trophy?  Okay, no Texas team has ever worn the rings. The Rangers came within a strike of winning the 2011 Fall Classic before succumbing to the Cardinals in seven. The year before they fell to the Giants in five.)

Is Second Time the Charm?
The Astros have made one appearance, in 2005, but have yet to win a WS game in their entire 55 year history. Although they played four competitive games then, they suffered the ignominy of a sweep at the hands of the White Sox. Then as Biggio, Bagwell and the rotating third Bee aged out, the franchise plunged into a full rebuild, losing 324 times from 2011-2013 before the star core of Altuve, Keuchel, McCullers, Correa and Springer rose to the Big League club.

Dodger fans like to bemoan their failure to make the finals since Kirk Gibson's home run beat the A's in 1988, 29 years ago. But they've been contenders the last few seasons and have 20 appearances as a franchise underneath their belt, seven of them since Houston's entry in the Bigs in 1962.

The Series Narrative
The storylines are thin. Kershaw and Jansen against that lineup, whose #8 and 9 hitters batted over .300 with power. Two NL teams battling for supremacy. Fox will be stretching.

I think the real narrative is the changing of the guard. Look at the stars; other than Kershaw, Altuve and maybe Kenley Jansen, you never heard of any of these guys five years ago. I named the Houston core; the Dodgers' lineup is paced by Justin Turner, Cody Bellinger, Corey Seager, Chris Taylor, Yasiel Puig and Austin Barnes. If you're not following the game closely, this World Series will make your head spin.

That's probably not great for the casual fan. But it's awesome for people like me who really enjoy the new crop of heroes.

23 October 2017

The Return of the Big Market Clubs

In 1977, Bill James released his Baseball Abstract, tearing down the house built on BA-HR-RBI and W-L records. He demonstrated empirically how inadequate those measures were in player evaluation, ushering in an era of discernible -- and exploitable -- market inefficiencies.

The exploding capabilities of the PC and the rise of the Internet multiplied the power of James's observations and allowed low-revenue baseball teams -- starting with the Oakland A's -- to compete with the big boys.

The Internet also paved the way for athletes to become famous wherever they played, allowing LeBron James in Cleveland, Stephen Curry in Oakland and Bryce Harper in Washington to emerge as global brands.

That significantly leveled the playing field and removed the nearly insurmountable advantage enjoyed in MLB by the Yankees, who had money, market and intangibles on their side in the 90s and 2000s. They won largely by throwing money at all the best players and managing them wisely.

Money Matters Again
That formula doesn't work anymore, but a new one does. The Yankees still have the largest market and the most money, as do the Dodgers and Cubs in the NL. Instead of investing in free agents, they have invested in the best baseball operations people, in player development and in the secret formula that small market teams were riding to success -- statistical analysis.

Forty years after Bill James threw a hand grenade into baseball's intelligentsia, his wisdom is finally received in total. The big market clubs are taking their reduced advantage in disposable income and leveraging it to raise the best young players. 

Investing in Management Rather Than Labor
Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez Greg Bird, Luis Severino and Aaron Hicks are not an accident or serendipity. They are products of  a well-capitalized player development plan. They teach Baby Bombers to play smart defense, become students of the game, learn patience at the plate, stay even-keeled when behind, and so on.

The fleecing of the White Sox to procure the services of Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson and Todd Frazier was not simply good fortune. Top dollar buys the best front office too. Brian Cashman has done this before in his career, such as when he stole Bobby Abreu from the Phillies for Cory Lidle in 2006. Abreu added 7 WAR to their playoff-run efforts in a little more than two seasons.

The Dodgers have used smart analytics and the power of the purse to build the deepest team in baseball, one that delivers quality well beyond the 25-man roster. So when L.A. suffered a string of injuries this season, a wily front office employed the disabled list to stash pitchers between starts to stretch the roster and then dipped into a pungent minor league system to promote MLB-ready replacements.

And so here we are, back to the 70s when NY and LA dominated the World Series. 

It's Could Be Horrible for the Game
It could be horrible for the game that a few big market clubs make regular playoff visits because it's could be horrible for fans in Cleveland and Milwaukee and Minneapolis and, well, almost everywhere else. It was boring, frankly, to see the same teams win every year, unless you were fans of those teams.

Watching the Yankees ascend within a game of the World Series and knowing that they will soon sign Bryce Harper and a host of other young free agents and dominate the American League again makes me miserable. It should make you miserable too unless you happen to be a Yankee fan. 

But it's the new reality. Now that the playing field has returned to level with respect to intelligence, money matters again.

21 October 2017

Revisiting That Ridiculous Yankee-White Sox Deal

Back in the heat of the baseball season I shared my impression of the Yankee-White Sox trade that send two key relievers, a slugging third baseman and salary relief to New York for a prospect and two roster pegs. 

The impression I shared looked like this: The Worst Deal Ever? with a photo of Hitler and Chamberlain shaking hands.

Now that we've had the rest of the regular season and some of the post-season to digest the swap it's a good time to reconsider it.

And so, with the perspective of time and some additional evidence, I offer this evaluation:

It was worse than I thought.

Of course, if you're a Yankee fan, it's even better.

On Chicago's Side
The three White Sox minor leaguers obtained in the deal continued to do what they were doing before hand. One 23-year-old outfielder hit pretty well at Double-A. The 22-year-old relief pitcher looks good at High-A, but at that age at that level he's not a prospect. The 20-year-old at mid-A is nothing to look at.

The White Sox might have brought back a relief pitcher and possibly an outfielder with speed. Time will tell but the tea leaves aren't steeping in their direction.

On Bronx's Side
The Yankees obtained Kahnle and Robertson. Both have been as advertised. Kahnle whiffed 36 in 26 innings and hadn't relinquished a postseason run until the team's final loss in the playoffs. Robertson limited opponents to a 1.03 ERA with the Yankees. Together, they have formed half of a shutdown bullpen in the post-season.

And they'll both be back next season at very affordable prices.

Then there's Todd Frazier. Many saw him as the pill the Yankees had to swallow in order to procure such a scrumptious meal. For the year, Frazier hit 27 home runs, played stellar defense at the hot corner and earned 3.4 wins against replacement. 

He wasn't much in the division series against Cleveland, but hit well against Houston. 

The Final Calculus
The Yankees netted two highly-coveted, first-rate, fireballing relievers and a solution to their problems at the corner. Beyond that, they get to keep the bullpen guys -- one for 2018 and one for three years. In addition, they saved salary by dumping Tyler Clipparrd on the White Sox. (Chicago flipped him to Houston where he locked opponents down to six-and-a-half runs a game and got left off the post-season roster.)

What they gave up might very well be nothing. Maybe a guy. Certainly nothing as enduring as a pennant. There had to be better offers out there for a pair of highly coveted relievers, plus, plus.

Worst deal ever, White Sox.

19 October 2017

Kicking Around Expansion and Proposed Alignment

Tracy Ringolsby at Baseball America has written about proposed MLB expansion to two new cities and a realignment to fewer divisions, fewer games and elimination of the two leagues. I say bravo, if they do it right.

He's talking about Montreal and Portland hosting the new franchises. That's a discussion for another day. Neither you nor I knows all the details about placing new teams there or anywhere else.

Thirty-two teams makes for good math. It's a nice logarithmic number. 32 is two 16s, four 8s, eight 4s and 16 twos.

The Divisions
He proposes four eight-team divisions, organized more or less geographically, without regard for current league. So Arizona, Oakland, San Diego and Seattle (among others) would all compete in the West. More importantly, the city and state rivalries get wratched up six notches. The New Yorks, Chicagos, Los Angeleses, Pennsylvanias, Ohios and Canadas each share divisions, which means they compete directly and play each other regularly.

There would be four division winners and eight wild cards. Those eight teams play-in for four playoff slots against the four division winners. It almost guarantees that division winners are really good teams that deserve their bye.

The Schedule
The season would be shortened to 156 games to make the math work. Each team plays its seven division foes 12 times each, its 24 non-division opponents three times each. Inter-league play would die without leagues, but it had run its course anyway. Small price to pay.

The Twins are the odd-team out in this arrangement. If Portland joins the Majors, that pushes Colorado into the Midwest and Minnesota into the North with seven other Eastern Time (and mostly big market) teams. C'est la vie.

No More Halloween Baseball
Six fewer games could move the playoffs forward a week. Reduce the odds of playing the World Series in sleet. That alone would be worth the price of admission.

It also means lost revenue, ameliorated by reduced travel costs. Ringolsby says it's a push. I don't work for Travelocity, so I don't know. Or care.  Ain't my dime.

Two more Wild Cards is sub-optimal, but it's from a slightly larger pool. The play-ins place a further premium on winning a big division. The odds of taking a division with 89 wins would be quite low.

This really is quite sensible. It's transformative, which means not every fan base will love it, but there's no way to please everyone, even with the current arrangement.

Go for it, Rob Manfred!

17 October 2017

At What Point Is the Sample Conclusive?

Egghead stat geeks like to make sport of the blatherrati for talking about who is a clutch performer and who chokes in the playoffs. In the broad sense, the evidence debunks the view that someone who performs a particular way in one or two series or one or two playoff seasons is "a great post-season player" or "can't handle the post-season."

Barry Bonds was always a good example of this. The greatest player I've ever seen, he struggled in his first few playoff series with the Pirates and Giants, managing just one home run in 27 games and a .310 OBP. 

He was labeled a choker who couldn't handle the big games.

Then in 2002 and 2003, he blasted eight home runs in 21 games, and got aboard at a .576 pace while leading his team to the World Series in '02. In that losing World Series effort against Anaheim, he hit .471/.700/1.294 for an otherworldly 1.994 OPS.

So much for choking.

Which brings us to Clayton Kershaw. After 10 seasons he has a 144-64, 2.36 career mark with seven seasons (I'm including 2017) finishing in the top 5 of Cy Young voting. 

He is without a doubt and by a wide margin, the greatest pitcher of this generation.

But he's stunk in the playoffs, and he's now played seven years of them. At what point is it fair to call him a regular season pitcher?

In 11 playoff series, Kershaw has a 5-7, 4.57 record. He's allowed 15 bombs in 100 innings, about what the league does against him in 220 regular season innings. His K/BB ratio is worse, his WHIP is worse; in short, he's not the same guy. And that's been true in almost every series in which he's pitched.

During the regular season, Clayton Kershaw is unhittable. He's Pedro Martinez. 

In the playoffs, he's a guy. He's Bud Norris, Bruce Chen, Randy Wolf.  

He's not just not Clayton Kershaw. He's leave-off-the-playoff-roster guy.

Is it possible that Kershaw just isn't very good in the playoffs? Maybe the stress gets to him. Maybe the way post-season games mess with normal rhythms of pitching unravel him. Maybe he hates cold weather, though there isn't much of that in Southern California (or Phoenix, their previous foe).

I don't know whether Kershaw isn't "clutch" or "chokes" or whether he doesn't perform as well for some other reasons. But at this point the evidence makes it pretty clear, he's not the same guy in the post-season.

10 October 2017

Let's Beat a Dead Horse Just a Little More

Once upon a time, in a land called Playoff Baseball, three teams went up two games to none in their Division Series.

Each of these teams enjoyed an insurmountable lead because they had momentum.

Team One -- we'll call them the Dodgers, like the Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist fame -- went to the desert and swept the third game to win the series.

Team Two -- we'll recognize the genius of George Jetson's dog by naming them for him -- scored three times early in the next game and then got plastered 10-3. Uh oh, momentum gone! They came back from a deficit to win the series in Game 4.

Team Three -- the one that lost three straight deciding games to gakk up the 2016 World Series -- lost two straight deciding games in New York despite the largest gap in regular season wins between division series opponents (11 games). Now they must return to Cleveland with all the momentum switched to the other side. They might as well give up.

Three 2-0 counts; three different results. 

Momentum sure is predictive. Of nothing.

07 October 2017

Okay, Okay, I'll Tell You Who Should Be MVP

On a per-game basis, the best -- which is to say, most valuable -- everyday players in MLB this year were obscure gentlemen named Trout and Harper. But this isn't the Per Game Award.

A Mr. Julio Daniel Martinez was the NL's best batman with an 1,107 OPS, but JD played half his season for Detroit in the other league.  Besides, that's his entire toolbelt. He doesn't run, play the field or make a mean casserole. (Maybe the casserole's great, but it's not like any of the voters are benefiting from it.)

A bevy of hurlers rate high on the Wins Against Replacement scale, but who knows what that means? Comparing the apples of Mr. Kluber with the cantaloupes of Mr. Judge is like, well, you get it.

How About Pablo Sandoval?
Pablo Sandoval could make a claim on the MVP for his contributions to the Yankees and Tigers this season. First, he skimmed $95 million from John Henry's Red Sox war chest before finally departing with an addition-by-subtraction resume. Then, reunited with the league-worst Giants he contributed the winning hit in Game 162 that gave Detroit the top draft pick. What's the WAR for those two accomplishments? (Guy is so fat he can only play Seek.)

That leaves us with slim pickens, and I don't mean this guy.

Don't Judge Me for My AL Pick
In the AL, the long and the short of it is Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge...er, well, the other way around. Judge brings more thunder, Altuve more lightning. Altuve gets my vote for two reasons: 1. As a speedster and middle infielder he did more things to help his team and 2. He didn't disappear in August. Yank Aaron will have to settle for the Rookie of the Year and a slew of records.

In the NL, good freakin' luck. If WAR is your thing, Baseball Reference has Max Scherzer, Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Votto and Nolan Arenado alll close.  WAR, what is it good for? Not nothing, but it includes a defensive component whose precision is still insufficient to fly an airplane. Arenado is a great player, but between all the credit for defense and relatively little adjustment for playing in Colorado, I'm dubious. He performed so much worse on the road that I really can't consider him.

Scherzer is my guy as a Nationals fan, but I believe in letting pitchers vie for the Cy Young and sparing the MVP discussion from impossible comparisons. Numerous others have a case -- Paul Goldschmidt, Tommy Pham, Anthony Rendon, Kris Bryant, Charlie Blackmon, Trea Turner, Marcel Ozuna, and so on.  But there are chinks in all their armor -- mostly that they didn't perform as well as Stanton and Votto.

In the NL, Go Dead Red
Once again it comes down to the on-base machine versus the beast, and once again, I think the safety-maker is the better player.

All due respect to Giancarlo and his 59 bombs, but Vottomatic also made it rain regularly (36 homers) while leading the league in walks, on base percentage, OPS and OPS plus. And the way he zagged while all of baseball zigged -- reducing his strikeouts and increasing his ground ball rate, that's just such genius. Votto is a mere first baseman, but one of the league's best with the leather and he's a surprisingly good runner considering he needs two green lights to cross the street.

In short, Votto is an intellectual with a military haircut. I dig those kinds of guys.

Maybe You Differ
You punched out the chad for Judge and Stanton? Or Kluber and Bryant? Sure, why not? There's a fair amount of tossing up this season. My picks are Altuve and Votto.

There are no sighs in the Cy races. Kluber pretty clearly caught and passed Chris Sale in August and September. Scherzer outlasted Kershaw and Strasburg. I'd love to see them meet in the World Series.

06 October 2017

That September Momentum

There was a lot of talk in Game One of Yankees-Indians about momentum coming into the playoffs. New York has it. Cleveland has it. Aaron Judge has momentum. Cory Kluber has momentum. It is exuding from people's pores, by the announcers' telling.

It is true, of course, that both teams entered the playoffs after hot Septembers. All that was dutifully recounted.

Here's what wasn't recounted -- all the empirical evidence that demonstrates unequivocally that it doesn't matter. Not one iota.

There is literally no correlation -- zero, zilch, nada -- between how well a team played in September and how well it plays in October. We have 100 years of performance to guide us and its lesson is conclusive. Change the parameters and get the same result. How well they played the last week, or the second half, or since X happened. Doesn't matter.

This conversation is literally irrelevant.

But that doesn't seem to stop the talkers from talking about it. And it's going to get worse.

In the wake of Game One, the ordained analysts are going to chirp endlessly about the Astros' momentum and the Indians' momentum. They each won ONE GAME! But now they have that invisible force on their side.

Until they don't.

04 October 2017

What A Season!

I'm going to miss some things here. I mean, the 2017 regular season was such an historic, folkloric, sophomoric, unpredictable, spectacular, roller coaster ride, I don't know how I can possibly remember every amazing tidbit from the season.

So forgive me in advance.

But you might have noticed that nothing went as planned.

  • The team with the best record in baseball lost 11 in a row and 16 of 17 -- and won 103 games. Wuh?
  • Teams that lost 78, 87, 93 and 103 games in 2016 are the 2017 Wild Cards
  • In 2016, the largest margin of victory in a division was 17.5 games by the eventual champs. In 2017, three teams coasted to 17-, 20- and 21-game cushions. Another won by 11 games. 
  • A rookie of whom little was expected smashed 52 homers this season, set numerous rookie records and will contend for the MVP. Oh, he also fanned 209 times.
  • The all-time game-wide home run record, established via chemicals 15 years ago, was splattered in a shower of long balls with weeks left in the season.
  • The worst team in each league, just as you predicted, were San Francisco and Detroit
  • On July 19, the Cleveland Indians stood 48-45, a half game ahead of Minnesota. They went 53-15 the rest of the way.
  • Discounting their August slump, the Dodgers won 102 of 144 games, a 115-win pace.
  • A record 33 batters pounded 30+ home runs, including known sluggers Stephen Souza Jr., Yonder Alonza, the immortal Stephen Schebler (quick, what team does he play for?), Red Sox reject Travis Shaw, career flameout Justin Smoak, leadoff hitter Charlie Blackmon, and Mike Moustakas, who set the Royals' all-time single season record with 38. In all, a record 110 players hit 20+ home runs, including your mom.
  • The number of players with 500 at bats and single digit home runs is not a number. It is D.J. LeMahieu, Nick Markakis, Joe Mauer, Alcides Escobar, Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon. That's the entire list. There were 19 such players 10 years ago.
  • At the same time 136 players struck out 100+ times. Joey Gallo, accounted for 55% of his 355 outs (while batting .209 and cracking 41 bombs among his 94 hits), by whiffing -- 196 times. 
  • In a season that set strikeout records as players swung for the fences, Joey Votto walked 134 times and fanned just 84. He still hit 36 dingers.
  • Chris Sale became the first pitcher to strike out 300+ batters since Pedro 18 years ago.
  • JD Martinez hit .305 with 45 home runs and the highest slugging percentage in baseball while missing 24 games. And the Tigers traded him for prospects. 
  • The Yankees accumulated 10 relief pitchers who fanned more than a batter an inning, including Chad Green and Dellin Betances, who whiffed 203 in 129 frames.
  • The AL MVP will likely come down to Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge, the shortest and tallest players in the game at 5'6" 165 and 6'7" 282.
  • MLB tested Eric Thames for drug use repeatedly at the season's start because of a hitting binge that had him at .345 with 11 home runs in April. He finished at .247 with 31 homers, only eight of them in the second half.
  • That lying, sanctimonious punk, Ryan Braun, made the error that allowed the Cardinals' winning run to score and eliminate Milwaukee from the playoffs. Karma is just getting started.
  • Phillies rookie Rhys Hoskins announced himself to MLB by slugging 11 homers faster than anyone in history. He hit six homers in his next 107 plate appearances and none in his last 14 games.
  • Remember the Mets and their star-studded pitching? Their entire starting staff hit the DL, the team skidded to 91 losses and by year's end half the roster had been traded. 2018 will be interesting.
  • in an injury-plagued season, Madison Bumgarner struck out five times as many batters as he walked and earned a lovely 3.32 ERA. The Giants saddled him with nine losses against four wins. He did hit three homers in 34 at bats.
  •  While you were focused on Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger, Athletics' rookie Matt Olsen slugged 24 homers in a third of a season and slashed .259/.362/.651. 
  • And Cardinals' rookie outfielder Jose Martinez hit .306/.377/.517. These two guys could be Rookie of the Year candidates any other season.
  • Cy Young favorite Cory Kluber had a slow start. From June on he went 15-2, 1.63 with 23 walks and 224 strikeouts.
  • This is the year that pitcher usage jumped the shark. It's the first full season in which no starter lasted 215 innings. Even in shortened 1995 three hurlers cracked that ceiling.  The paradigm now is a starter who goes five and a series of specialists to follow.
Forgive me: I missed something noteworthy. It's been a hell of a season.

03 October 2017

The Good Vibe Playoffs

The Playoffs begin this week with Wild Card action between the Yankees and Twins, and the Diamondbacks and Rockies.

Jump in Dr. Emmet Brown's DeLorean DMC-12 and head forward to the past and see how that statement sounds. The Yankees were rebuilding. The Twins were woebegone. The Diamondbacks had been wracked by mismanagement and were coming off a 93-loss season. And Colorado continued to refuse the Rockies' plea to come down to sea level.

It's a most unlikely set of Wild Card match-ups.

Even more unlikely would be the Twins and Rocks making noise in the post-season. Each is a distant last team in. Minnesota, the last AL team over .500, trailed New York by seven games and Cleveland, the Wild Card winner's first round opponent, by 17.

The Rockies backed into the playoffs six games behind the coasting Dbacks. They finished 16 games worse than the Wild Card winner's reward, the L.A. Dodgers.

In case you missed it, here are the final standings.

I'd like the regular season to matter, so I find it hard to root for them to get beyond the Wild Card. But I'm certainly rooting for the Twins to defeat New York.

Go AstroNatIndianCubDbackDodgers!
As I always root for teams whose fan bases have suffered most, I'm thrilled to see Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington each win 97+ games and waltz to division titles by 20+ games. Cub fans would not be over-indulging to win a second championship in 109 years. And Arizona last ended in a dogpile 16 years ago in one of the most entertaining World Series ever. Go, all of them.

The only teams I could do without this post-season are New York and Boston. The Yankees need to go bereft for half a century before they stir my sympathy. New England has enjoyed sports superiority for a decade and could use a rest. They're still cleaning up the confetti from the last parade, whether that was the Red Sox, Celtics or Patriots.

Cleveland/Houston versus L.A./Washington would undoubtedly validate the regular season and present us with clashes of the titans. It'd be a fitting end to an historic season.

02 October 2017

2017 Showed Us That Harper and Trout are the Game's Best

On the final day of the season, a recovered Bryce Harper stung the ball four times, twice for singles that led to runs. In his final at-bat, he smashed a 114 mph line drive and later sprinted around the basepaths from first to home, helmet airborne, on a long single by a teammate.

Harper is back and ready for the playoffs.

Harper was cruising to another MVP season when he suffered a gruesome leg injury while stepping on a slippery base at full speed after a rain delay. The 50 games he missed left him with merely 29 home runs in a .319/.413/.598 season. 

I've already waxed poetic about Mike Trout, also the MVP of his league had he not ripped up his thumb sliding on a steal. Trout and Harper, the two ends of the charisma continuum, won't earn a single MVP vote between them.

But 2017 reminded us that they are the two best players in the game. That's despite the influx of great young players, particularly middle infielders, over the past three-four seasons. Among them, Jose Ramirez, Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado and Aaron Judge will get serious MVP consideration this season.

Those four, and many more, are amazing talents who are rejuvenating the game. 

But they're all second fiddle to Trout and Harper.

01 October 2017

Farewell Ichiro -- Please!

Back in 2008 -- that's a decade ago -- I noted in this space how little value Ichiro provided the Mariners when his batting average declined to the Mondoza-and-a-half line. At .302 that season, nearly all of it singles, Ichiro was barely an average hitter. That generally doesn't cut it in a corner outfield position.

Now Ichiro was a whiz on the bases (43 of 47 steals that year) and a Gold Glover in the field. He was an awesome ballplayer. But the point was that his value offensively depended largely on his batting average.

Fast forward to Ichiro's baseball dotage. It's always amazing when a professional athlete can compete in his 40s. There's no shame in getting passed by young'ins at that age. 

In fact, Ichiro has lost a step, so buh-bye to all the infield hits. Since 2011 he's produced just .269/.310/.345 with the bat -- 16% worse than average. Despite the amazing stretching regime, he can't play the field much anymore and this season was relegated to pinch hitting for the Marlins. 

He's Ichiro without the Itch. That leaves 0, as in nothing.

Ichiro said this week that he expects to come back for more at age 44. For what? He hit .256 with nine extra base hits this year.  He stole a single base. 

The rebuilding Marlins must move on with youth. Who will sign Ichiro? Young teams need to make way for the future. Those in contention need every roster spot in the era of 13 pitchers. There is no more room for novelty acts.

Some Kinda Record at Stake
I know that Ichiro is a hit away from the all-time hits record, if you combine his Japanese league hit total with his MLB hit total. But honestly, who is even keeping track of that?

It's easy for me to say, but if Ichiro wants the illusion of control, he should retire. The alternative is to audition for dubious front office types at 44 and face the humiliation of rejection. 

On the off-chance some dope GM wastes a roster spot for his "veteran presence," he'll find himself enjoying the grind of travel and the end of the bench. And perhaps the indignity of getting cut halfway through the season.

Instead, Ichiro Suzuki can start the clock on his Hall of Fame induction. There won't be any dubious front office types rejecting him for that.

18 September 2017

Does Mike Trout Have a Chance at MVP?

It's scary, really. Mike Trout has spent 40-something games this year in civilian clothes with a torn ligament in his thumb. And he still might be the most valuable player in the league. 

In all of baseball, actually.

Per game played, Trout is out-performing the amazing Mike Trout. Consider the baseline for that statement. In his first five seasons he has been the best player in the league each season. (The writers have seen fit to bestow upon him the MVP just twice, but he's finished second three times.)

Yet this year, at the ripe old age of 25, he's surpassed even that level of accomplishment.

Trout leads baseball in on base percentage, the measure of how few outs he makes.

He leads baseball in slugging percentage, a measure of power. 

Obviously, he leads in OPS, the measure of all-around hitting prowess. He's hitting 91% better than the average batter. Not including pitchers. 

Trout has also stolen 21 of 25 bases and plays stellar defense in the most demanding outfield position. 

Trout is, by far, the game's best player. 

That is, among the greatest ballplayers on the planet, a collection of hitting and fielding savants whose talents are nearly unfathomable, Trout stands head and shoulders above the most elite of that group. He has been worth six wins above a replacement player in just 102 games. That's a rate of more than nine wins for the season.

That's the issue, though. Even if Trout plays in the Angels' remaining 14 games, he will have missed nearly two months of play. During that time, he contributed as much on the field as you have.

Jose Altuve has missed four games. During the other 42 that Trout was hurt, Altuve was Altuving

Altuve is no Trout because no one is. He's merely leading the league in batting, getting on base at a 40% clip and ripping 38 doubles and 23 homers. He's also swiped 31 of 37 bases and earned high marks for keystone defense. 

He's basically Trout light. Or short.

Altuve's performance has been worth seven wins above replacement to the Astros. That's far short of Trout's value per game, but nearly a full win more of raw value over the course of the season. 

We're talking about the Most Valuable Player award. It's Altuve's to lose and there isn't much time left for him to lose it. (I should mention here that Andrelton Simmons is close to Altuve in WAR, but much of that is defensive WAR, which we trust much less. Aaron Judge is a few non-significant ticks ahead of Trout also. Neither will out-poll Altuve.)

So Mike Trout will likely once again fail to win the MVP. At least he's got this: he's now the most valuable player in Angels' team history -- after six seasons. 

And early next season he'll pass David Ortiz's career mark. Just start carving that bust now.

16 September 2017

Are the Yankees This Year's 2015 Royals?

Remember the World Champion Royals from 2015? They returned from a surprise appearance as the Wild Card in the 2014 World Series, 90 feet from being tied in Game Seven, to rout the Mets (remember them?) for the title in five games.

The Royals were an unconventional team, particularly for these times. They rode mediocre starting pitching and an offense built on low strikeout totals and speed, great outfield defense and lights-out relief to 95 regular season wins and the crown.

This year's Royals might be the Yankees.

They aren't an exact analog. NY's offense is all pop, not speed, with Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and Todd Frazier leading the power barrage.

Their defense isn't Royalsesque, though Baseball Prospectus rates them fourth overall in Defensive Efficiency.

And their starters are far more accomplished. KC hadn't anyone you would call an ace. The Yankees developed Luis Severino into one of the game's best hurlers; they acquired Sonny Gray as their Game 2 starter and CC Sabathia has enjoyed something of a Renaissance this year.

The Pen is Mighter
What really ties New York to the 2015 champs is that pen. Though Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances have had their struggles this season, they're still lighting up the Jugs guns and setting down the batters. Along with Chasen Shreve and Chad Green, the Yankees trot out a quintet of relievers who have fanned 307 batters in 203 innings.

But wait, there's more!

This is a franchise that scooped up David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle at the waiver deadline. The duo has combined to whiff 63 batters in 49 frames for New York, allowing a 1.84 ERA.

That's right, the Bombers have six closer-level firemen, each of them firing beebees.

They could conceivably bail out a starter after three innings without any of them tiring his arm. That is a huge strategic advantage in the playoffs, where the bullpen's value is multiplied.

The Royals showed baseball what an unprecedented triple-headed monster could do out of the pen. The Yankees have now doubled that. 

Is this a brilliant strategic move or have they taken the Royals to their illogical extreme. Stay tuned.

15 September 2017

Rhys Hoskins and the Power of Recency Bias

Quick, which is more impressive:

The Phillies' rookie Rhys Hoskins socking 18 homers faster than anyone in baseball history.


Giancarlo Stanton threatening the 60 home run mark, which only two players have met unsupported by chemical enhancement?

This question was actually raised on an ESPN broadcast. 


What Rhys Hoskins is doing is interesting. It's impressive. It's unprecedented (obviously). But if he goes a week without a homer it will cease to be any of those things. 

And if he returns to Earth, or even to the average slugger's planet, it will fade into a moment in time, like Eric Thames' early season run. 

Flashes of greatness are pretty common. Do you remember:

  • Shane Spencer
  • Mark Fidrych
  • Bob Hamlin
  • Hurricane Bob Hazle
  • Joe Cowley
  • Joe Charbonneau
  • Bobo Holloman
  • Chris Shelton
  • ...takes a deep breath...
  • and many many more?
Each of them had their Rhys Hoskins moment.

Sustained greatness is sweeter by far. Giancarlo Stanton is a world class slugger. He has proven that over the years. This season is the culmination of that. Or maybe it isn't. Maybe there is even more of this to come.

In any case, a full season of greatness outweighs a flash in the pan -- even one of epic proportions.

And a career of greatness, well, that is truly remarkable.