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.

14 September 2017

What the Hell Happened to the Dodgers?

'Tis a puzzlement: how does a 91-36 team lose 11 in a row and 15 of 16 games?

No 90-win team had ever lost that many.

No team had ever lost 15 of 16 in the same year they had won 15 of 16.

The 11-game losing streak is the worst in baseball this season -- and it was "accomplished" by the best team.


After 127 games, the Dodgers were on a record-tying 116-win pace. They held a 12-game lead over...everyone. Their entire starting lineup was above average at the plate. Their backup catcher was hitting .300 with power. They employed the best starting pitcher and the best reliever in baseball. Their fourth starter was 11-4, 3.77.

Then, good God. They became the 1899 Cleveland Spiders. Their hitting was not just the worst in baseball during those two-plus weeks; it was about half as good as the average team offense. 

Every starter but Justin Turner became a below average hitter. Neither Clayton Kershaw not Yu Darvish could get through the fifth inning of a start. The bullpen gakked up close games. 

The entire team fell off the cliff together.

Baseball is unpredictable. That is part of its allure. MVP-level players can suddenly lose their mojo. But for 25 teammates at once to suddenly slump, that's unprecedented. 

After 400,000 games of Major League Baseball, it's never happened before.

So which Dodgers are the 2017 Dodgers? Are they the 91-36 team or the 1-15 team? Or are they the 93-52 team that represents their record as of this writing?

Bill Parcels said you are what your record says you are. That's probably right for L.A. this season. 

I Have a Theory... 
that explains how a historically great team could be historically terrible for an extended period.

Here goes:

They've assembled an awesome roster in L.A. this year. Talented players all producing career-type seasons, particularly on offense. Chris Taylor, Cody Bellinger, Austin Barnes even Justin Turner had never before done quite this. The entire roster was playing over its head.

The game always wins in the end. A player can only take from Baseball for so long before he has to pay the tab. Payback came to each Dodger player at the same time. The whole team outperformed its talent for 127 games and then fell to earth together.

On other teams, players heat up and slump on their own schedules. The team record reflects that. They get to their win total in fits and starts. Not the Dodgers.

What does that mean for tomorrow? It means nothing. They're still a great team. They won't lose 15 of 16. They probably won't win at their previous .716 clip either. Some guys will cook again. Others will remain mired. Still others will bounce halfway back.

What does it mean for the playoffs? Even less. There's no relationship between how well a team plays in September and how well they play in October. 

So let's just enjoy seeing something that has never happened before in 131 years of Major League Baseball.

13 September 2017

There's No Crying in Baseball!

Congratulations to Matt Chapman, Juan Graterol and CC Sabathia,for sharing this week's Jimmy Duggan Award. Each of them gets a certified MLB hankie to wipe his eyes and blow his nose, which is clearly out of joint.

Sabathia earns his piece of this prestigious prize for whining about how the Red Sox' Eduardo Nunez successfully bunted on him. 

As you might be aware, Sabathia is a fat tub of goo who is disadvantaged in his ability to run, bend over and stand straight, all of which is necessary in the fielding of bunts. Kinda makes you wonder why teams don't just lay down one bunt after another on him.

Graterol deserves the honor for boo-hooing about Oakland batters peaking at his signs from the catcher's box. 

Give Graterol credit: his .434 OPS suggests this might constitute the peak of his fame. If this is the best Anaheim can produce at the backstop position, then they might be well-served reaching high dudgeon about sign stealing since they can't bank on remaining in the Wild Card race.

Chapman might have a greater claim than Graterol to the award. He took strong exception to the Angels' catcher glaring at him. 

"It's not a very comfortable feeling having the catcher stare at you when you're digging into the box," he complained. 

Heaven forbid the opposition make you uncomfortable! Next thing you know, they'll throw pitches that curve!

Since when did Major League Baseball start playing its games in the obstetrics unit? Waaa!

10 September 2017

Zigging When Everyone Else Zags

The story of the 2017 MLB season is the launch angle. Batters have discovered that swinging hard, and upwards, yields a few more strikeouts and a lot more home runs.

And so we have record numbers of both.

The result? Forty MLB batters sport SLG percentages of .500 or better, double the number two years ago. Nineteen sluggers blasted 30+ homers in 2015. We've got 35 this year with 28 or more and three weeks left in the season.

Twenty-plus home run hitters this season include such luminaries as:
Javier Baez,
Nick Castellanos,
Didi Gregorious (pictured left),
Marwin Gonzalez,
Scooter Gennett,
Brett Gardner,
Tim Beckham,
Ryon Healy,
Francisco Lindor
Yonder Alonso,
Travis Shaw.
Not to mention a host of rookies.

The 30+ club includes Steven Souza and Justin Smoak.

This is a collection of middle infielders, speed merchants, fourth outfielders and guys who never hit 20 homers in their entire Minor League careers. 

And bucking this trend are two veteran sluggers having among the best seasons of their careers.

First. let's take Colorado Rockies' cornerman Mark Reynolds. If ever a player was designed for Denver, it's this big fly wind machine. Reynolds has been a three true outcomes hitter his whole career, hitting 30+ home runs in his full seasons while fanning more than 200 times.

As his batting average dipped into Mendoza territory 2013-2015, Reynolds' batting prowess slipped below average, a bad place for a fielder whose best position is DH. In Denver, it stood to reason that all the fly balling would pay off.

Au contraire, mon ami.  With the Rockies, Reynolds has reduced his flyball tendencies by 20% and hit 11% more ground balls, just as the league has switched tactics. The result: he has goosed his batting average by 60 points while adding back a few walks.

Make no mistake, Mark Reynolds is still a slugger. His slammed his 29th today, a grand slam that kept the Rockies three games ahead in the NL Wild Card race. He's just less of an all-or-nothing hitter.

Joey Votto never had to worry about all that. One of the game's most intellectual and effective hitters, Votto has five times led the NL in OBP, with a .427 lifetime mark. Votto possesses Hall of Fame-caliber power, average and plate discipline, but evidently decided this year that swinging too hard was robbing him of results. His OPS sank all the way down to .985 last season.

So in 2017, Votto has cut down on his swing, particularly with two strikes. It's bizarre to watch a 6'2", 220-pound slugger grip the bat mid-tape, particularly in this all-or-nothing era, but the results speak for themselves: he's reduced his strikeout rate nearly in half.  Better yet, it doesn't appear Joey is any less Vottomatic, as his 34 homers attest.

Going against the grain has probably saved Mark Reynolds' starting job and kept Joey Votto in the MVP discussion. It will be interesting to see how many batters take a page from either of their books next year.

24 August 2017

The Braves Are in More Trouble Than the Phillies

There's been a lot of chatter in the baseball sphere about the crash of Philadelphia's multi-year rebuild. The Phils have the worst record in the game in 2017, the year their youth movement was supposed to bear fruit. It's the fifth straight season they have fielded a sub-.500 team.

It may be that the front office overestimated the talent of their rebuilding core, or they poorly developed them. It could be that the core has struggled in unity as prelude to a system-wide breakout. Perhaps we'll find out next season. This squad is fat with potential.

Home of the Braves
The Braves teardown began one year later, and with the new ballpark in the suburbs opening this season, there was hope the team would be ready to shine. Atlanta has taken a different road than Philadelphia, attempting to weave veterans in with the graduating Minor Leaguers as they look to improve.

As a result, the Braves have bounced back quicker. They stand today 10 games clear of the Phils after finishing three behind last season.

And certainly the Braves seem to have some better assets. Freddie Freeman is a certified star in this game. Had he not missed a month of play he would be part of the NL MVP discussion. Ender Inciarte is a superb center fielder who can hit a little and Mike Foltynewicz shows a great deal of promise on the mound. Freeman and Inciarte are superior to anyone the Phils can run out daily.

Yet, the Braves' rebuild, masked by veteran talent, is in much worse shape. Nick Markakis has delivered as advertised on his three year deal, and Matt Kemp and Brandon Phillips have returned from the dead with solid contributions. The backstop pairing of Flowers and Suzuki has been a revelation. R.A. Dickey is eating innings and while Bartolo Colon was a bust, they jettisoned him early to limit the damage.

All over 30, those guys are supposed to be a bridge to the good times, not their main source. The youngsters were supposed to start toddling without help by now. Instead, #1 pick Dansby Swanson, Julio Teheran and several of the younger pitchers have stepped back this year, and no one from the farm has burst on the scene Judgelike.

In short, there's nothing to dream on here.

It's been a long summer in Philadelphia, much longer than in brand new Sun Trust Park. But the return to contention may take a lot longer in Marietta.

20 August 2017

What Is It With Braves' Backstops?

Before the 2015 season, catcher A.J. Pierzynski inked a cheap two-year deal with the rebuilding Atlanta Braves to provide some stability for the juvenile pitching staff and a veteran's perspective for the rest of the roster's youths.

At 38, little was expected of Pierzynski, whose sub-replacement level performance the previous season had yielded no other offers for work.

And then, Pierzynski proceeded to author the best age 38 season behind the plate in history.  Worth two-and-a half wins with the bat, it was the third best season in Pierzynski's 19-year career. 

Fast forward two years as the rebuild continues in Georgia. Braves brass signed Bartolo Colon, R.A. Dickey and paired journeyman catchers Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki to shore up the roster until the cavalry comes -- or matures.

Prior to this season, the two backstops had produced one above average season with the bat in their combined 18 campaigns.

But the Atlanta traffic seems to have inspired Flowers and Suzuki. The former is producing 135 points of OPS above his career average and handling a pitching staff -- including knuckleballer Dickey -- with aplomb. The latter is slugging .500, far and away his career best.

Combined, the duo has smacked 22 home runs and knocked home 73 runners, earning four-and-a-half wins between them. The tandem ranks as the best in baseball.

Enjoy it while you can, Braves. The year after Pierzynski's record-setting season, he hit .219 with two homers and cost the team more than a win. Flowers and Suzuki are too young for that kind of crash, but don't be surprised if they return to normal.

18 August 2017

Scooter and the Babe

Reds utility man Scooter Gennett has had himself quite the season.

In this, his fifth year in the Bigs, Gennett has already set career bests in home runs and RBIs and will likely reach new heights for a full season in batting average, OBP, SLG, OPS, etc.

He also did some record-breaking with a four-home run, 10-RBI day in June.

But nothing will compare with earlier this week, when he hit his 20th home run and came in for mop-up pitching duty in a 15-5 loss to the Cubs. 

In doing so, Gennett became only the second player in MLB history to hit his 20th home run in a game in which he pitched.

The other player to do so also had a nickname.


Put that on your resume.

16 August 2017

A New Group of Greatests

ESPN is mining old ground this week with its look at the top black athletes of all time. Not withstanding our bemusement at how utterly bereft of ideas they must be to spend five minutes on this subject -- I wonder if there will be any basketball players or boxers on the list -- it brings to mind their top 100 list of athletes of the 20th century.

Now, if you're 25, that was a lifetime ago. But I've spent most of my life in the 20th century and can't believe we're already more than a sixth of the way through the next one. So it astonishes me to consider again who wouldn't have made that list in 2000.

Before I lead you on a stroll down that list, a few definitions:
  • Let's take a global view. Plenty of great athletes worth mentioning aren't American.
  • That said, there are some sports you and I know nothing about. Sorry, world's greatest cricketers, badminton players and rugby athletes.
  • This list is speciesist. No non-humans.
  • Discounting athletes whose greatness was recognized before 2000. That eliminates Shaq, Brett Favre and Barry Bonds.
Now the list:

Michael Phelps -- Very possibly the greatest Olympic athlete of all time, and certainly the greatest swimmer of all time. 
Usain Bolt -- Also could make a claim to greatest Olympic athlete of all time, and certainly the greatest sprinter of all time. 
Tiger Woods -- Even though his career fell off a cliff, he's still one of the three greatest golfers of all time.
LeBron James -- the debate is whether he's the equal of Michael Jordan. Let's say he's not. Then he's the second greatest basketball player ever.
Tom Brady -- greatness plus longevity could make him the top quarterback of all time.
Serena Williams -- the best women's tennis player ever. The greatest tennis player relative to her competition ever.
Roger Federer -- the greatest tennis player in history.
Floyd Mayweather -- is he the best pound-for-pound boxer in history? Certainly in the discussion.
Lance Armstrong -- I don't know what you do with this guy -- probably eliminate him. But if you include him, then he's the greatest cyclist of all time.

Wow. What a list. Nine athletes who are on their sports' Mt. Rushmores. And it's not even complete. How about these down-ballot nominees:

Steph Curry, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan
Peyton Manning and LaDanian Tomlinson
Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Albert Pujols
Rafael Nadal
Sidney Crosby and Jaromir Jagr
Lionel Messi, Ronaldo and Zinedine Zidane
Katie Ledecky -- maybe the greatest female swimmer ever
Allyson Felix -- maybe the greatest female sprinter ever

Who am I neglecting?

14 August 2017

Okay, So I Might Have Been Wrong

If you're over a certain age, you remember the nation coming to a halt during the World Series.

It was the best team from the National League battling the best team from the American League for the championship.

Willie Mays against Mickey Mantle.

Bob Gibson and Carl Yastzremski.

The Big Red Machine versus the Bronx Bombers.

Teams that didn't know each other squaring off not just for team supremacy but for league bragging rights. The DH league versus the pure league. The senior circuit against the upstarts. Natural grass or (God help us) turf.

Baseball was the national pastime then. Even as football was eclipsing it in popularity, it maintained an exalted place on the sports map.

It's just a different time now.
  • Baseball is a sport of regional interest more than national interest, so millions of Americans don't watch if their team is not involved. 
  • Eliminating most league distinctions has reduced league partisanship that once fed World Series interest. 
  • Inter-league play and movement of players through free agency have sapped the Series of its fascination. 
  • Multiple divisions and Wild Cards have drawn out the post-season into a month of games and added a randomness to the final match-up, which sometimes leads to mediocre teams playing for the title.
  • Playoffs have pushed the Series so late into the Fall that the weather is often unacceptable for baseball.
For the most part, these are unfortunate side effects of necessary changes. But it means the World Series will never again hold the nation in thrall.

So, How I Was Wrong
This was not my starting point when I bemoaned the addition of a third division in each league and the introduction of the Wild Card. I wanted the best teams in the World Series. Fewer playoff slots don't yield fewer races; they yield races that have more urgency.

The truth though is that baseball has found that sweet spot. The current set-up offers half the fan bases a rooting interest while also keeping the bar reasonably high for entrance into the tournament. And it disadvantages the weaker teams that sneak in.

This year's AL Wild Card race has turned into a seven-team mud-wrestling tournament. With 45 games to go, half the league is within 2.5 games of a ticket to October. Without the Wild Card, Houston, Washington and Los Angeles would be galloping away with pennant dreams, leaving Boston, Cleveland and New York in the one playoff race.

I'm coming to appreciate 10 playoff spots, even as I'm offended by teams like the '03 Marlins and (especially) the '06 Cardinals dogpiling in the end. I would like to see the team with the league's best record afforded a greater advantage in their series against the surviving Wild Card -- like all the games at home. There is something objectionable about a team with 87 wins riding a couple of favorable bounces to four victories out of seven against an opponent 15 games better during the season.

But something else has changed that makes that objection nearly moot: the playoffs are no longer an extension of the season; they are a separate event. As we've seen, teams alter their make-up specifically for the post-season. The attributes of a great regular season team don't apply in the tournament -- and every team knows that going in.

It's a New Era
In Seattle right now, and Anaheim, and the Metroplex, the Twin Cities, Tampa Bay and western Missouri, people can still get excited about their nine despite 115 games of abject mediocrity and a 15-game deficit in their division.

And there's something to be said for that. 

Let's just hope the best teams survive the gauntlet and square off come Halloween.

12 August 2017

What You're Not Hearing About Colin Kaepernick

Colin Kaepernick hoped to spark discussion when he kneeled during the National Anthem last NFL season. Boy did he succeed.

Of course, the discussion isn't the one he had hoped to launch, and he's being blackballed from the game for his actions.

In a game that restores rapists, wife-beaters, dog torturers and accessories to murder after a few games' suspension, it's puzzling on one hand why Kaepernick would seem to be the third rail of quarterbacks in the minds of NFL coaches and owners.

On the other hand, I could have told Kaepernick at the time that messing with the flag and the Star Spangled Banner is the express train to outrage and misunderstanding.

Many Americans are irrational and obsessive about those symbols of freedom -- even beyond the actual freedom itself.

Think about it. People who express disappointment in the U.S. are often criticized for denying that America is the greatest country, and encouraged to leave if they don't like it. This is said without a hint of irony.

Criticizing American society isn't unpatriotic; it's the very hallmark of patriotism. What's unpatriotic is denouncing people for expressing their opinion.

(Many Americans also fail to understand that we did not invent democracy -- we were 2,500 years late on that -- and we're not the only country on Earth with freedom of speech, religion and assembly. There are literally dozens of other nations enjoying these rights. And if you consider the measures of what you might call happiness, or a functioning system, measures like the murder rate, suicide rate, infant mortality, income inequality, illiteracy, academic performance, chronic disease rates, and so on, the U.S. performs quite poorly compared to most industrialized countries.)

Colin Kaepernick hoped to bring attention to the vexing spurt of unarmed black men being gunned down by police.  

Surely all citizens can find a way to agree that police have a very tough job and deserve our appreciation, and also that they shouldn't be killing unarmed people, and that when they do, they ought to be prosecuted.

At the same time, Kaepernick chose the wrong venue for his protest, guaranteed to incite misinterpretation. 

Look at the reaction of veterans groups, who conflated Kaepernick's actions with failure to appreciate their sacrifices.  

So now he is paying a hefty price. It's hard for me to blame the owner of a billion-dollar asset dependent on a ticket-buying public for declining to risk that asset by championing (or tolerating) an unpopular cause.

Considering Kapernick's diminished value, it's not surprising that he is unemployed. If only he could play as well as ... Greg Hardy.

06 August 2017

Another Way This is a New Era in Baseball

The Houston Astros are the runaway best team in the American League this year. They clinched their division in February* behind the league's best hitting, top three baserunning, sixth best pitching and middle of the pack defense.

*Caution:  may be slightly hyperbolic.

Their avalanche of offense has six regulars sporting WAR of 2.0 or more, best in the majors by far.

Yet when Houston brass tinkered around the edges at the trade deadline, landing just left-handed bullpen piece Francisco Liriano, many 'Stros' fans were disappointed. Staff ace Dallas Keuchel spoke for many of them.

"I'm not going to lie. Disappointment is a little bit of an understatement."

What's going on here? We would never have heard this 10 years ago or probably not even five. Fans of the team with the best record and a 14-game division lead would be psyched about the approaching playoffs.

But at some point, teams realized that Billy Beane was right: "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs." And now we have a new game.

Front offices unbound from the old playoff traditions started recognizing that some of the elements of success during the marathon regular season -- a deep rotation and a solid closer -- were the wrong concoction for the sprint of the post-season. Once they determined that the key to playoff success is three aces and a stacked, two-handed bullpen, they started turning the non-waiver trade deadline into Relieverfest.

You may have noticed that the flow of everyday players during this year's dealmaking was a trickle. J.D. Martinez was the only significant hitter (unless you're counting Lucas Duda) to change hands. But a flurry of flamethrowers, both in the rotation and the pen, changed uniforms, many at high cost.

After the Yankees nabbed Sonny Gray, the Dodgers picked up Yu Darvish and the Cubs swapped for Jose Quintana, the parade of bullpen moves took off. Tommy Kahnle and David Robertson headed to the Bronx. Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle and Brandon Kitzler joined Washington. Milwaukee added Anthony Swarzack and Cleveland claimed Joe Smith. Addison Reed joined the Red Sox and Justin Wilson, the Cubs. And so on.

Today, there are two parts to the baseball campaign: the regular season and the post-season. A team's first goal is punch its ticket to the post-season. Once there, the fourth and fifth starters lose their relevance as the best pitchers take all the starts. Meanwhile, as managers aim for every 1% advantage in short series, bullpens pitch an average of nearly four of the nine innings per game.

Don Larsen would have come out after the sixth.

The trend began slowly with the 2001 Diamondbacks, who rode Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling to the title. But it really took off after the 2015 Royals won the World Series behind a mediocre starting staff and a trio of bb-throwers out of the pen.

Combine the two and you get today's situation, which appears to be only the front end of an increasing trend.

This may be the new normal. The best teams win their divisions with five starters of diminishing quality and a recognizable bullpen while targeting a couple of aces and bevy of relievers stashed during the season on weaker teams. And if that's the formula, the Houston Astros may find themselves, after bowing out in the playoffs, quoting Mr. Beane.

05 August 2017

Mike Trout is Being Ridiculous Again

Remember Mike Trout? He was the runaway AL MVP until he tore ligaments in his thumb in May. At the time he was hitting .337/.461/.742 with 10 of 11 steals.

He's been back for three weeks and he's doing it again. It appears that the injury has sapped his power, as his slugging has dropped 100 points. He's now down to a desultory .368/.476/.646. He's only crushed five home runs in his 18 games back.

Trout is now back up to third in the American League in Wins Against Replacement, behind the Mutt and Jeff duo of Jose Altuve and Aaron Judge.* Altuve hit .485 in July, while Judge has cooled off since the All-Star break, as he inevitably had to.

*That's Fangraphs' WAR calculation. Trout is 9th according to Baseball Reference, 6th among everyday players. B-R also has Andrelton Simmons second, half a run ahead of Judge.

At this point, the MVP race is among Fangraphs' top three. Putting aside irrelevant considerations, like whether Judge reaches a milestone number of home runs, or how their teams perform around them, or whether one should vote for a player who misses a quarter of the season, it will be interesting to see if Trout can catch Altuve and Judge in WAR.

Fangraphs' projections suggest all three will finish the season with about 7.2 WAR. That means Trout will have contributed as much to his team in 120 games as Judge and Altuve contributed in 160. It takes the otherworldly comparison against Mike Trout to steal the shine from Aaron Judge's amazing debut and Jose Altuve's spectacular career arc.

Whoever is most valuable this season, Mike Trout is best. That race isn't close.

04 August 2017

A Tale of Two Hitters

 Consider these two players:

The first guy is a beast. He hits .328/.420/.617, averaging 41 doubles and 40 homers over 11 years. He walks 25 times more per year than he fans. He averages 7.9 WAR a season and earns 10 top 5 MVP finishes.

His club pays him $9.5 million/year.

The next guy costs $22.7 million/year. He hits .262/.320/.464, averaging 25 doubles and 27 homers over six years. He whiffs 26 times more each season than he walks and averages 2.3 WAR. He never earns a top 15 MVP finish.

Now the reveal.

Player one is the St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols.

Player two is the Anaheim Angels' Albert Pujols.

And the gap is wider than that. The Angels owe Pujols another $114 million for ages 38-41, even though he has already slipped to well below average at the bat and albatross status afield. He's cost them a win against replacement this season.

Teams have learned to stop offering these kinds of deals to superstars. Pujols was already in decline at age 31 when Arte Moreno signed him, and the backloading of the contract was understood at the time to be lost money.  

Today we can recognize this as one of the worst contracts in baseball history. At the time it seemed, perhaps, extravagant, but Pujols was the best player in the game.

Bryce Harper and Mike Trout will still be approaching their primes when they sign their next big deals, so each could get buried in a pile of Benjamins. But you won't see age 40 seasons included in those contracts, or probably in any long-term contracts in the foreseeable future.

Pujols -- and Miguel Cabrera -- have taught front offices a lesson.

03 August 2017

A Game That Was Just Waco

Dallas Keuchel faced off against Austin Pruitt last night in an AL tilt between Tampa and the hometown Astros.

It was the sixth time in baseball history that the two starting pitchers' names represented cities in the state in which the game was played.

Three of those games involved pitchers named Dennis (Martinez, Leonard and Eckersley) squaring off in Boston. 

The Rays blanked Houston, handing Keuchel his first loss of the season. Score one for the state capital. 

Keep Austin Weird! And pitching well.

22 July 2017

The World Series Favorite...

I got a chuckle today when someone on a sports radio talk show asked his guest his choice for World Series match-up -- Astros and Dodgers or the field.

Here's how I would have answered it:

Let's change the question to 1927 Yankees or the field? The field.

2001 Mariners or the field? The field.

A collection of All-Stars or the field? The field.

God and Satan or the field? The field.

To his credit, the guest correctly pointed out that too much could happen to sidetrack what appears at the moment to be the best team in each league reaching the Series. Besides injuries, poor play, and trades that improve opponents, there's the randomness of playoff baseball.

We knew last July who would meet in the NBA finals the following June. But baseball isn't basketball.


20 July 2017

The Worst Deal Ever?

In case you hadn't noticed, relief pitchers are hot commodities around trade deadline these days. Consider the haul the Yankees made off with for a few months of Aroldis Chapman last season. Or what Washington had to relinquish just a week ago for two good-but-not-great bullpen arms.

Now consider Tommy Kahnle, formerly of the White Sox. In 36 innings this season he has walked 7 and whiffed 60. He hasn't allowed a homer in three years (102 innings). Advanced defensive stats say his 2.50 ERA vastly understates his actual value.

Finally, consider that the team controls Kahnle at below-market rates until 2020. That's quite an asset right?

Here's what the White Sox received in return for sending him to the Yankees:
  1. The #30 prospect, now at Low-A ball (here in Charleston). Not the Yankees' top prospect, whom they received as part of the package for Chapman.
  2. Two other guys.
Seems a little light, right? I mean, the contenders all need bullpen help. There's lots of demand for someone like Kahnle. He's good and cheap and will stick around for awhile. And Chicago let him go for three guys who might never sniff the Majors.

But that's not the big problem with this trade. 

The big problem is that Kahnle isn't even the best player in the deal. He accompanied the closer he'd been setting up in Chicago, David Robertson. Robertson, the former Yankee closer, owns 123 saves the last 3+ seasons and is signed through next year.

For these three Minor leaguers, only one of whom is really anything to look at, the Yankees didn't just get one top-of-the-line bullpen arm. They got two. 

But wait, it gets worse.

Chicago also picked up the albatross contract of Tyler Clippard, owed about $6 million more this season before he becomes a free agent. Clippard has no value to the rebuilding White Sox and was thrown in as a salary dump for the Yankees.

So on top of giving away two first-rate relievers in high demand on the trade market for very little return, White Sox brass also did Yankee brass a $6 million favor.

This sounds like the worst deal since Lincoln agreed to those free theater tickets. 

And it just gets worse.

You've probably heard that Greg Bird is out for the season. The flotsam and jetsam the Yankees have inserted at first have left them with the worst performance at that position in the AL. If they're going to make any kind of playoff run, they need someone to play first.

So the White Sox sweetened a sugar-coated deal by adding Todd Frazier to the mix. Frazier doesn't hit for average, but he's a Jersey guy who walks plenty and socks home runs and can slide over to third when Joe Girardi gets tired of watching Chase Headley not hit.

So to recap:
  • The Yankees received a closer everyone was after.
  • The Yankees received a set-up guy who could be an incredible asset for three years after this one.
  • The Yankees received salary relief by dumping Tyler Clippard and his 4.95 ERA out of the pen.
  • The Yankees filled a desperate need at first with the acquisition of Todd Frazier.
  • The White Sox received New York's 2016 first-round draft pick.
  • The White Sox received some organization filler who might possibly turn into something but probably won't.
The days of stupid GMs left us with the firing of Ed Wade in 2005. In fact, most GMs have a GM as their boss, often called a president of baseball operations, and they make decisions as a team using a combination of scouting and advanced statistical analysis. So the White Sox front office must know something I don't. But on the surface, this appears to be significantly less return than Chicago could have received elsewhere, or by swapping out these assets separately.

Finally, consider one more thing, the Yankees' bullpen:
Tommy Kahnle
Adam Warren
David Robertson
Dellin Betances
Aroldis Chapman

I know the bullpen has struggled in the Bronx in recent weeks, but holy smokes that's a lot of heat. C.C. Sabathia never has to pitch another sixth inning again.

19 July 2017

The White Sox and Tigers: A Tale of Two Rebuilds

Since 2015, the Detroit Tigers have been perched on the canyon of crushed dreams. Though they won 86 games last year, it has been clear that their aging core and financial inflexibility were going to lead to ruin.

The Chicago White Sox are less in decline than in continued misery. Lousy since 2011, management finally accepted the inevitable and began selling off parts after last season.

This season, both rosters have been for sale. The White Sox, a stars and scrubs outfit, have auctioned off all their best veterans and stockpiled one of the best farm systems. Detroit is another story.

The Tigers, like the city that hosts them, are stuck.  Their roster is fat with aging veterans on regrettable contracts. 
  • The great Miguel Cabrera, reduced to 13% above average at the plate but lacking a position on the field, is guaranteed $180 million after this season.
  • Justin Verlander has a 4.66 ERA and $56 million coming to him. 
  • Jordan Zimmermann is a sixth starter due $74 million. 
  • The Victor Martinez ship has sailed and left behind an $18 million bill for next year.
In other words, the best players in Detroit would not be assets to trade partners. Even if the Tigers eat the bulk of the contracts, the combined value in 2017 of these four players has been one win.

While the White Sox convert assets like Chris Sale and Jose Quintana into top prospects, the Tigers are stranded. They probably need to endure this pain for another two years before VMart and Verlander come off the books. They've cashed in J.D. Martinez, and Justin Upton might still entice some interest, but the clock can't yet begin on their future.

17 July 2017

The Beginning of the End of the Cubs Dynasty

When I was in high school, the Ford Administration declined to bail out New York City from its undisciplined and profligate spending.

On the day of the President's decision, the Daily News, then in a battle royale against the even more brazen NY Post for readers, ran the headline, "Ford to City, Drop Dead."

It was a blatantly sensationalist and utterly unwarranted headline.

Which brings us to this post, whose headline is also mildly sensationalist.

The point is this: The Cubs' acquisition of pitcher Jose Quintana at the expense of top prospect, Eloy Jimenez; a top pitching prospect; and two other farmhands; marks a seminal moment for the team in their adventure to dynasty status.

When the feckless Cubs were dropped into the care of Curse-killer Theo Epstein in 2011, his first task was a gut job of the existing foundation. He auctioned off every artifact of present value, like Ryan Dempster and Matt Garza, in return for future value that turned into the likes of Anthony Rizzo, Addison Russell and Jake Arrieta.

Combining high draft picks and strong development, Epstein and GM Jed Hoyer built, brick by brick, the incredibly talented and youthful Cubs we have today.

By 2015 it was becoming clear that the rebuild was complete and it was time to decorate. The Cubs signed Jon Lester, flipped highly-prized Gleyber Torres for Aroldis Chapman, and turned potential star Jorge Soler into reliable closer Wade Davis. Epstein and Hoyer were using their incredible minor league stash to fashion a World Series champion.

With Quintana's addition, that phase is now complete. The Cubs' farm system is now deflowered, with all their prospects on the 40-man roster. If they are going to produce multiple World Series championships, it will be with this group.

For the next five years, for better or worse, these are the Cubs. There will be no more uber-talented teenagers to crash the party and suggest championships into the unforeseeable future.

That has huge implications for 2017. With the team floundering at .500, 4.5 games behind Milwaukee, the future is in the hands of the present. The cavalry will not ride in from the Minors. There's nothing of trade value down below to dangle in exchange for a missing piece. Either Kris Bryant, Kyle Scharber and John Lackey play better or they will miss the playoffs.

And the same for next year. And the year after that. As of this week, we have seen the end of the build in Chicago.