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.

12 July 2017

Peering Through the First-Half Windshield To the Second Half

Well, that was quite a ride from April through half of July. A record home run pace, a record strikeout pace, some unbelievable performances by individuals and teams, even a classic All-Star contest. Let's take a look at what the next 75 games portend.

Biggest Surprise, Team Edition -- Chicago Cubs, no question. We were all penciling them in for dynasty status and here they are laying an egg in year Champ+1. They returned essentially the same team, traded a spare part for a proven closer, added Kyle Schwarber for a full season and they're on pace for 24 fewer wins.

Biggest Surprise, Dude Edition -- So many to choose from, but since I knew nothing of Yank Aaron before the season, Mr. Judge would be the answer. Lifetime .223 hitter Justin Smoak gets the nod among veterans.

Second Half Come-upance Award, Team Edition -- The Brewers and Rockies have to be thinking playoffs right now, so if either fails to earn a slot, they "win" this particular recognition. Unless, of course, someone like Boston or Cleveland topples in the second half. That would be catastrophic and outweigh any pretender's fall. But it's also about as likely as real health care reform.

Biggest End of Season Laugh Based on His All-Star Status -- When Kris Bryant's name starts showing up on MVP ballots at season's end, we'll be scratching our heads about how he was passed up for an All-Star berth. We'll see how long Zack Cozart's bonafides are All-Star worthy, particularly considering his new donkey-caring responsibilities.

Aaron Judge's Final Homer Total (now at 30) -- 48

Cody Bellinger's Final Homer Total (now at 24) -- 35

Avisail Garcia's Final Batting Average (now at .310) -- .284, the exact midpoint between his lifetime average prior to now and his first half average.

2017 World Series Matchup -- The AL and NL playoff teams that win the two (or three) tossup series necessary for the pennant. Bet against the Padres and A's.

Best (Plausible) 2017 World Series Matchup -- Too many to name, like Cubs-Red Sox, Cubs-Indians repeat, Nationals/Dodgers-Red Sox/Indians (Scherzer/Kershaw-Sale/Kluber), Diamondbacks-Rays (no weather issues), and so on. No matter how compelling the match-up, none involving the Yankees is aesthetically pleasing, just because.

Worst (Plausible) 2017 World Series Matchup -- Rockies-Indians would be baseball's first Ice Bowl series. 

Most Impactful Second-Half Addition -- Easiest question ever. Mike Trout to Angels. 

Most Impactful Second-Half Acquisition, wise guy -- White Sox' Jose Quintana, wherever he goes, because he has two years left on his contract.

Dumbest Second Half Controversy -- Wasn't it amazing how little debate there was about Erick Aybar's attempt to bunt in the 8th inning of Justin Verlander's no-hitter? The score was 3-0, so the baserunner mattered. Verlander did piss and moan about Unwritten Rule 6.A., subsection L, but there has been relatively little public chatter about it. 

Perhaps that's because the bunt got Aybar aboard on an error, the no-no dissolved that inning and the Angels tallied twice to force Verlander out and send the game to extras. Perhaps it's because the sporting public hasn't read the Unwritten Rulebook and doesn't give a rat's ass about it. Perhaps we're all coming to our senses. The evidence doesn't support that last one.

You might have noticed that all this is an obfuscation, that I have evaded the subject at hand. I don't do "dumbest." There's too much of that in America today. If you're intent on learning more about "dumbest," check out Twitter.

Is the All-Star Game better or worse now that it doesn't count again? --  That all depends: can you handle an ASG tie? Because avoiding the "travesty" of the 2002 tie was the only reason to shoehorn some phony gravity into it. Instead, you saw a 2017 version that was fun, carefree and absent the hypocrisy of previous editions. Score one for Rob Manfred. 

Highest Floor Award -- Literally, the team in Denver, of course. But figuratively, the Dodgers and Nationals have to make the World Series to consider 2017 a success.  The Cubs have their flag, the Astros have next year, Boston has the Patriots and Cleveland's just happy to have a team that doesn't suck.

Lowest Ceiling Award -- At this point, the Phillies have to be hoping just to trip on their own shoelaces a little less in August and September. Improvement among the youngsters irrespective of your final record is not exactly pennant aspirations.

The White Sox' fervent desire to trade off anything of value gives the players the rest of the season off, so that's aiming quite low too

And I suppose "try to avoid the cellar" is a pretty low bar, so here's to Oakland and San Diego.

The first half of the season set the bar high for entertainment. Let's hope the stretch run lives up to it.

04 July 2017

Post-Mid-Season Questions Answered

You have more questions! I'm not done making up answers!

Q. Why couldn't you answer all these questions in the last post?
A. Like this one? You didn't ask it until now.

Q. Two years ago, the metrics said Jonathan Lucroy was the best framer in baseball, and one of the best ever. Today he's the worst in baseball. Can that be? Is he really worse at a skill that doesn't require much athletic activity? Or are the numbers just wrong?
A. Yes. 

Something you said is correct; we just don't know which. Research has found that Lucroy's targets are set a few inches higher now than a couple of years ago and that might affect low strike calls. 

We know that Lucroy was catching better pitchers than he is today, and that could be reducing the number of balls he gets called strikes. 

And we know that framing is a young metric that might need to be taken with a grain of salt just yet. I suspect all three are conspiring to drag him down.

The real question is, why does MLB accept a situation in which catchers routinely confuse umpires into making the wrong call? If we went to automated ball-strike calls, there would be no catcher framing. Problem solved.

Q. Who was the biggest snub of the All-Star selections?
A. They're not snubs; they're just different ways to split hairs. Of the guys left off the original team, it's a shame that there wasn't enough room for the bonanza of great NL third basemen -- Justin Turner and Kris Bryant particularly. Elvis Andrus and Xander Boegarts were also worthy of AL shortstop slots.

Alex Wood is having a great year pitching for the Dodgers. Tommy Kahnle's been superb in relief for the White Sox, though I love Terry Francona's decision to choose mostly starters for his pitching staff. They deserve most of the slots.

The good news is that with all the injury defections, everyone I named will probably end up in Miami.

As for the fan selections, I thought they did a great job. I would quibble with Zack Cozart over Corey Seager for NL shortstop only because I don't choose an All-Star based solely on half a season of work. Seager is far more likely to maintain the pace than Cozart, which is why I voted for him even if Cozart enjoys a slight edge so far in 2017.

Q. I know this isn't a baseball question, but what do you make of the controversy surrounding John McEnroe's comments about Serena Williams?
A. What controversy? McEnroe called Serena the greatest women's tennis player of all time but declined to anoint her the best without qualification because she couldn't compete on the men's tour.

McEnroe was simply stating a self-evident fact of biology. For example, the women's record for running the mile is 4:12:56. Five hundred six male high schoolers have run faster than that. There is nothing sexist about McEnroe's statement, though I would have added that in her realm, Serena is the greatest ever. She has dominated women's tennis more and for longer than any man has dominated men's tennis.

Q. What can baseball do to return the All-Star game to its former grandeur?
A. Eliminate half a century of improvements and innovations, like cable television. A more useful advance would be for old-timey baseball fans to recognize that the All-Star game will never again bring the nation to a halt.

Q. You said last time that Adrian Beltre is going to the Hall of Fame. No way. He's only made four All-Star teams.
A. Babe Ruth never made an All-Star team. We should yank him from the Hall.

All-Star teams are half-season rewards. They are meaningless when it comes to Hall resumes. In his 20-year MLB career, which is still going strong, Beltre has 91 wins against replacement (fourth all-time among third basemen), 450 home runs (third) and will secure his 3000th hit this season. He is a stellar fielder with 27 defensive WAR. Althon Sports and ESPN both rate him the eighth best hot cornerman in history. His top 10 similar players include eight HOFers and a future HOFer (Carlos Beltran). Guy is a lock.

Q. You seem to be selling the Milwaukee Brewers short. Can't they win the NL Central?
A. Sure they can; it's just highly unlikely. The race isn't always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong. But that's the way to bet. The Cubs just have too much talent, and the Brewers too little pitching, for the status quo to continue for 162 games. But who knows? Stranger things have happened.

Q. The Rockies seem to be drowning and now their Wild Card lead isn't so formidable. Do they still make the playoffs?
A. If I knew that for sure I would be tanning on a Tahitian beach or camera-hunting wild nyala on an African safari right now. I'd rather start the second half with a six-game cushion than deficit, and I'd rather put my money on a team 12 games over .500 than another two under. But who knows? It would be really strange if all of today's leaders made the playoffs.

Q. Name one player in for major regression in the second half and one who will rebound.
A. Anyone who follows baseball can compare a player's first half performance to his career norms and predict a return to them. That would mean second-half leaps for Manny Machado, Hunter Pence, Jonathan Lucroy, David Price and Carlos Gonzalez, to name a few. Conversely, it would tab Yonder Alonso, Avisail Garcia, Zack Cozart, Jason Vargas and all the rookie sensations for decline.

I don't have any insight into which guy has changed his profile and which guy is headed for a fall/rebound, though Price and Lucroy have been trending this way since last year.

Q. What changes do you expect now that the All-Star game is back to an exhibition without impact on the post-season?
A. We've already seen it: Tito named deserving starters to the AL squad, rather than loading up on relievers who are accustomed to entering games midway through. 

Q. Will Miguel Montero ever criticize his pitcher again? 
A. Maybe once. But then, never again.

Q. How good was the play Dustin Pedroia made yesterday?

A. It was a heads-up play executed brilliantly. It was a lot like Derek Jeter's play cutting off the throw to the plate and nailing Jeremy Giambi in the playoffs, but because Dustin Pedroia isn't a vessel we pour all our goodness into, it will not be lauded for generations. Nonetheless, it was every bit as fine a piece of work.

Q. Do you believe that participating in the Home Run Derby messes up players' swings? 
A. No evidence of that. Some sluggers might lose their dinger mojo following the derby, but correlation is not causation. Sluggers suffer power outages all the time.

Q. What is your favorite site for baseball analytics?
A. I read Fangraphs every day. Baseball Prospectus has become a fantasy site, of no use to me. MLB.com, SB Nation, The Ringer, The Hardball Times, 538.com and local team sites also provide lots of interesting material. Also, check out the blog Braindrizzling for brilliant insights and unequaled humility, particularly if you love Derek Jeter, Ryan Braun and Donald Trump.

Q. With the Cubs and Red Sox in the win column, which team do you think is the most overdue for a World Series?
A. Which is worse, Cleveland's last title coming 68 years ago or Houston's entire 54 years without a ring? Whichever you choose is the answer.

The Rangers are at 55 years as a franchise without a World Series title, but that includes 11 years in Washington, so that pain isn't borne by the Metroplex locals. The Padres have failed to win a championship in their 47 years as have the Brewers and Nationals if you include their time as the Pilots (one year) and Expos (35 years) respectively. Seattle has had the Mariners for 39 campaigns without even a World Series appearance. After that, you're looking at ordinary droughts of 37 years for the Pirates, 33 for the Orioles and 32 for the Tigers. The Rockies and Rays have also never won titles in their 24 and 19 seasons respectively.

Q. What is preventing the best baseball players from congregating on the same few teams the way NBA players do?
A. The Yankees were doing essentially this in the 80s and 90s. It was terrible for the game. Today, there are so many barriers to hording:
1. Teams control players for their first six seasons in the Bigs.
2. The salary cap is very punitive.
3. A team would need to sign five of the best starters and eight of the best everyday players to resemble the Golden State Warriors of horsehide.
4. The game is played in the summer, consequently, players aren't clamoring to avoid cold weather cities. Milwaukee and Toronto are probably more comfortable to play in than Dallas, Houston and Miami.
5. Baseball players aren't generally able to transcend the game the way hoopsters are. They can't be as dominant and don't play in their underwear.
6. Unlike the NBA, the season matters and the playoffs are a tossup, so assembling the best players only guarantees a post-season berth.

In short, it just isn't worth the trouble and cost, and wouldn't ensure a title.

Q. I have a bet with a friend who says a team of average players would be average. I say they would be better than average. What say you?
A. You win handily. By definition, most MLB players are below average. Above average players take the first few positions and below average players divide the remaining innings. After the first three starters, two relievers and five or six position players, the rest of an average 40-man roster is sub-median. 

An all-average roster would win, I would guess, 84-88 games.

Q. Have baseball analytics come any closer to quantifying the value of a manager?
A. I doubt it ever will. 

Q. Is it possible, with all the objective measurements, for someone to be "most under-rated" or "most over-rated?"
A. The margins are smaller, but yes. Ironically, as we do a better and better job of measuring what's on the field it's the intangibles that become more weighty in discussions of parsing player valuations. A guy like Jose Bautista might be over-rated because he galvanizes the opposition. (I don't know how true even the premise is there.) Maybe Yasiel Puig the same. A guy like Mike Napoli might be the reverse. 

The one guy I'd like to mention is Ender Inciarte, a terrific all-around ballplayer who does a little of everything. He's a speedy outfielder with good instincts; he sets the table and runs the bases adroitly. He's not a big power guy but pitchers can't sleep on him.  And guys seem to love playing with him. So maybe he's under-rated, though it could be that many baseball observers already knew what you just read.

And that's enough reading for you, young man or woman, as the case may be. Keep those questions coming...

30 June 2017

Mid-Season Questions Answered

Been fielding a lot of informal questions during this extraordinary baseball season. Here are some of them...

Q. Is the ball juiced?
A. Some research, to which I've previously alluded, seems to indicate it's bouncier and the seams are flatter. The differences are minute but they add up over thousands of pitches thrown, which only takes a few games. I doubt it's purposeful but it seems to be a factor in all the long balls.

Q. Are all the home runs and strikeouts bad for baseball?
A. All the talk about home runs and strikeouts being bad for baseball is bad for baseball. The game itself is fine. If no one informed you about all the home runs and strikeouts you would hardly realize it by watching. 

The difference between this remarkable season and the previous record for home runs is a bomb every 10 games per team. Let's say you're a Padres fan,* would you even notice an extra blast every two weeks?

* I picked them to avoid confusion because there aren't actually any Padre fans.

Sure, a large number of strikeouts and walks is dull. Home runs are exciting and make every lead a hair-trigger situation. So on balance, let's just enjoy the games.

Q. Can Aaron Judge keep this up? Will he win the MVP?
A. It's always unlikely that the hottest player in the game will remain that hot all season, and that's particularly true of anyone who has never done it before. And it's double true with a cherry on top when his BABIP is .400. At the same time, only a truly good hitter can produce an 1.150 OPS over 80 games. So I expect Judge to regress some, but he's obviously a very good hitter. By the way, he's also athletic despite his size and has flashed solid defensive and base running skills.

Q. Are the Twins really this good?
A. "This" is the illusion of weak competition. The Twins are barely a .500 team, but because the rest of the division's GPS is recalculating, they've been occupying first place. So sure, they can continue to play .500 ball and finish 10 games out of first.

Q. Are the Phillies really this bad?
A. We have this false notion that a franchise that flips its veterans for minor league talent will automatically contend five years later. It turns out the young prospects acquired by the Phillies just aren't that good, whether because of talent or development. The Braves are experiencing the same problem, though they have executed some wily trades and signings of veterans and earned an upgrade to mediocrity.

Q. Which team currently under .500 has the best chance of earning a playoff spot?
A.  With the Rockies possibly fading, I'd say ... the Cardinals? If the Mets get healthy-ish it could be them.

Q. Is all this launch angle and exit velocity stuff just a fad? Don't you still have to hit the ball to be good?
A. Oh yeah, just like the running craze. In the 70s, people would get up early in the morning, put on sweats and special running shoes, eat some high protein food like an egg or a shake, and go outside to run for miles. Just run, and end up right back where they started. I couldn't wait for that fad to end.

Q. Some folks are saying the Orioles are just awful but it's being camouflaged by their hot start. Do you think they're awful and should blow it up?
A. The people who say the Orioles are awful said the Orioles were awful in 2016. And 2015. And 2014, 2013 and 2012. During that time they won the division once, the Wild Card twice and never finished under .500. I think the Orioles are less awful than the projection tools of those who denigrate the Orioles.

That said, man their pitching sucks.

Q. Is Craig Kimbrel going to the Hall of Fame?
A. I'm sure he can afford a flight to Albany and a car rental to Cooperstown.

As for enshrinement, it's so tricky with relievers. At this moment, there is not a single pitcher in the Hall who was primarily a closer. Rivera will be the first. 

That said, Kimbrel's leading the league in saves for the fifth time in nine years and sports a 1.80 career ERA and 14.6 strikeouts per 9 innings. Let's see him do that for another eight years and then I'll guarantee him entrance without a ticket.

Q. Which active players would make the Hall if they retired today?
A. Pujols, Ichiro, Cabrera, Kershaw (it's his 10th season), Beltre, Beltran. Maybe Cano.

Q. Who will be the next guy after that group into Cooperstown?
A. Buster Posey? Heck, it might be Trout. He's already 13th in WAR among active players.

Also, I didn't include Utley, but he's right on the borderline. Easy now to forget how terrific he was '05-'09.

Q. Who was on your All-Star ballot?
A. I doubt you want to read the whole thing. I did put Trout on the team so he can be honored and replaced by Mookie Betts. I chose Paul Goldschmidt over Ryan Zimmerman, Joey Votto and the injured Freddie Freeman for NL first baseman, and Justin Smoak over Logan Morrison for AL first baseman, mostly because Smoak is from my neck of the woods. NL third base was the toughest pick with Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rendon, Justin Turner, Jake Lamb and Travis Shaw. I picked Arenado.

Q. What if the Cubs are like this all season?
A. Imagine the NL Central champ with 84 wins. But I really do believe they have too much talent (and money) to be this middling for an entire season. The rotation is their Achilles heal right now and they can always go into the market for a pitcher. Or, they can just reload next year.

Q. Are the Nats toast with that bullpen?
A. They'd cruise into the playoffs with 50 Cent as their closer, so the question is about the post-season. The benefit of having one truly glaring need is that it's easy to fill that hole and instantly improve. So Washington will snag a closer and set-up man before the trade deadline passes.

Q. How good does Bryce Harper have to be in his career to not be considered a bust?
A. He's got to be near Hall worthy. Keep in mind, though, he's younger than Aaron Judge and already owns 26 WAR. He's almost a lock for 60 or 70 career WAR, which puts him in the Hall conversation.

Q. I'm a Met fan. Woe is me. What should we do?
A. Wail unceasingly. Rend garments. 

At least you have the Jets and Kni...nevermind.

Q. If you were a member of a championship team, would you go to the White House to meet the President?
A. Of course. This isn't about the buffoon in office; it's about our team's accomplishment being honored at the White House. 

But I'd leave my wife home.

Q. Why are there no Lavar Balls in baseball?
A. For the same reason there were no Lavar Balls in any sport until this year. Guy is a genius who has made himself rich and famous. And anyone who pays more than 50 bucks for his sneakers is a moron.

Q. From the influx of young infielders who burst on the scene together, who do you think we'll be remembering in 20 years and who will turn out to be pretenders?
A. I don't think any of them are pretenders. Carlos Correa, Manny Machado, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Nolan Arenado, Xander Boegarts, Andrelton Simmons, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo have all proven they're the real deals. The days of shortstops and second basemen being the weakest hitters are over for a while.

Q. Should the Yankees acquire a pitcher at the trade deadline?
A. They have to be very careful not to mortgage the future. They're a juggernaut waiting to happen and they can't allow premature success to divert them from their plan. Or, they could, and that would be fine with me.

Q. The Giants' record in the second half will be...
A. .500 or better. They're not this bad and Bumgarner returns. But prognosticating baseball is for fools who are soon parted from their money.

Q. What player's absence would hurt his team most?
A. Chris Sale or Max Scherzer. Neither team has the rotation to incur the loss of their ace.

Q. Same question with position players only.
A. It'd be interesting to see how many other Yankees would fall off if they lost Judge.

Arenado off the Rockies would hurt because his defense polishes up the pitching and Colorado has to hang onto that Wild Card for 81 games.

Q. Joey Gallo has 20 homers and 13 singles. Have you ever seen anything like that?
A. I wrote about Adam Dunn doing that a few years back, but it wasn't such a wide margin. Gallo is the new breed of Three True Outcomes hitter -- young and athletic.  Guy is sub-Mendoza but playing regularly because of the jacks and his defense and base running.

Q. You've made a habit of denigrating Derek Jeter's diving catch into the stands. So what was the best catch you've ever seen?
A. It's not denigrating Jeter's catch to point out the fact that he didn't come anywhere near diving into the stands to make it. He caught the ball in fair territory 15 feet from the stands, took two long strides and then flung himself over the railing. We see catches this good or better twice a week on Web Gems, but because they weren't made by Derek Jeter, they're forgotten five minutes later.

Here's a screen grab of your diving catch in the stands.

The best catch I've ever seen was made by Garry Matthews Jr. and has never received its due.

Q. Why do you suck?
A. Because I drink through a straw.

...and on that note, Happy Independence Day and let's have a great second half of the season.

28 June 2017

What A (Half-) Season It's Been

Hard to believe we're nearly 81 games into the 2017 MLB season. Wasn't Opening Day just last week?

It's been an amazing season. Truly. Little acorn teams have sprung up into mighty oaks. A couple of the mighty have shriveled and gone to seed. A gaggle of mediocre veterans have become Albert Pujols, who himself has become holes of poo.

Most importantly, the game's tectonic plates have shifted. Swing up; hit 'em out.

Let's take stock of the biggest stories of this season so far:

1.  The Launch Angle Revolution -- Hitters have decided that a level swing gets them hard-hit singles. Better to swing up and trade a few more fly outs for a gaggle more home runs, particularly when infields are shifting against your strength.

It's working for White Sox outfielder Avisail Garcia, whose OPS is 150 points higher than ever before.

It's working for A's first baseman Yonder Alonso, whose home run total in half of 2017 is greater than in any two of his previous seven campaigns.

It's working for J.D. Martinez, whose .658 slugging is 100 points higher than at his peak.

And for the Nationals' Ryan Zimmerman and Tampa Bay's Corey Dickerson and Toronto's Justin Smoak, who previous to 2017 placed on the Career Bust leaderboard. His two-and-a-half wins of value is double any previous full season.

All these guys are coming out of the woodwork and tearing the cover off the ball like never before. But wasn't it Babe Ruth who discovered that swinging hard and angling up offered the best results?

2. Aaron Judge -- And Cody Bellinger too. Out of nowhere, a couple of rookies are vying for their league's respective MVP. Between them, they have slugged 50 homers and earned 7.3 wins against replacement.

And Bellinger didn't start the season with the big club.

And Judge batted .179 in 95 plate appearances last fall.

And he's the second coming of Derek Jeter in comportment, except he's, like, 100 pounds heavier.

3. The Return of Bryce Harper -- Whew! Following a disheartening 2016 in which many observers thought the boy phenom was hurt, he's bounced back to an All-Star first half of 2017, posting an OPS over 1000 and hitting walk-off home runs.

4. The Ascendance of the Yankees, Diamondbacks and Rockies -- At press time* all of these teams have been passed by superior rivals. But they all seem poised to make a post-season run, something not generally in the Tarot cards at the commencement of festivities. They're back to bombing in the Bronx, Colorado has finally solved the home/away puzzle and Phoenix is where the scrubs are supporting the stars.

*There is no press. I write without deadlines. This statement is meaningless.

It will be fascinating to see how long they can keep it up. The Yankees' rotation is suspect, the Rockies' bullpen has regressed and the Dbacks are living off contributions from the likes of Robbie Ray, Taijuan Walker and Zach Godley.

5. The demise of the Giants, Mets and AL West. You hear that sound? That was the sound of the Houston Astros clinching the AL West. Premature? Then it must have been the sound of the Giants hitting the Earth. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. We knew the Mets would only be as good as their pitchers' health, but did anyone see this coming in San Francisco? How does a rotation of Johnny Cueto; Jeff, uh, The Shark; and Madison Bumgarner lose more games than all but one team? 'Tis a puzzlement.

6.The accidental? juicing of the ball -- A report by The Ringer found that the baseballs used in MLB games are ever so slightly springier and their stitches are ever so slightly smaller. That means they don't move around as much when pitchers hurl them and they bounce farther off bats. That leads to more home runs, which, coupled with item #1 above, leads to even more home runs, more per batted ball than ever before by a significant margin, as you can see below.

7. The head-scratching Cubs -- As recently as 10 weeks ago, the Cubs were the Golden State Warriors of baseball, a juggernaut that would crank out victories until the end of time. Then their pitching staff cratered, their defense became suddenly offensive and Kyle Schwarber found himself in Iowa. We keep saying Chicago will be fine...and they keep losing every other game. Could this be the beginning of the next 108 years?

8. The Brewers' slow burn -- By building their team backwards; i.e., by signing bench parts, utility fielders, middle relievers and fourth starters who have an edge on their league-wide counterparts, the Brewers have embarked on a teardown without the teardown. There aren't any stars on the team, particularly with Ryan Braun on the DL, but their bench is as good as anyone's, and that's kept them over .500 all first half. (The one glaring Achilles heal on the Giants this year is the opposite; their non-starters have been gruesome.) When their farm finally bears fruit they could be a contender without ever having hit rock bottom.

9. The rise of Statcast and the official end of the debate over analytics -- With MLB adopting advanced metrics, and even developing its own, the Luddites have been completely drowned out. Exit velocity, launch angle and other MLB inventions have muted the frustration over useful measurements like TAv, WAR and FIP. Plus Luddite-in-Chief Hawk Harrelson is retiring. The King is dead. Long live the King.

...and we're only halfway through the season.

25 June 2017

The Mets & the False Dichotomy of Buyers and Sellers

"Do you think the Mets will be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline?"

I've been asked this numerous times by NY fans desperate for a Met-amorphosis for their favorite team.

The answer, Met fans, is: No.

Not no, they will be neither. No, that is not the question. 

It is not the question because it is a false dichotomy. 

Somehow we have alighted on this bent twig of buyers and sellers, as if any team that is not in the playoff chase this season should simply tear itself down and start all over, like it's undressing for bed.

Sell the Free Agents; Keep the Rest
But the Mets are not the Reds, Tigers or White Sox. It is not true that they are doomed to failure for the foreseeable future unless they completely retool. They do not roster star players whose useful years will have passed by the time they next contend.

The Mets have been slowed not so much by poor play this year or lack of talent as by injury. If they can keep their talent on the field, and particularly on the mound, they are eating at the adult table.

The Mets aren't playing for 2017 anymore. They're hopelessly behind in the standings in both the division and Wild Card chase. So they can punt this season. But they need to strengthen themselves for 2018 when they could be a pennant prospect.

Sure, if they can get anything for Curtis Granderson, Lucas Duda, Neal Walker, Addison Reed and Jay Bruce they should go ahead and flip them. Those players are all free agents after this season. Unfortunately, Walker is hobbled, Granderson's tank is empty and Dudas grow on trees. It's hard to see them receiving anything useful in return. Reed and Bruce might generate some return, though the Sandy Alderson would like to re-sign their sterling set-up man/back-up closer.

The Mets are Not Alone
Those kinds of short-term moves make sense, but only if they help the team win next year. The next division winner might very well include the starting staff now in Queens and plenty of the everyday players on the roster.

There are other teams in this situation. The Pirates and Cardinals have sufficient talent to compete next year, with a few tweaks. Neither should jettison every veteran in uniform, the way the Tigers and Royals absolutely must to avoid a decade of obsolescence. If the Blue Jays, Mariners or Rangers conclude that the curtain has likely fallen on their 2017 act, they also need to tiptoe through the trade season.

The point is, it is not simply a matter of choosing between emptying the farm for a late season surge or dumping the veterans with an eye towards 2021. There are plenty of teams that are good enough to win -- next year -- and should try again with the roster they have now, more or less.

21 June 2017

Jansen and Kimbrel: Order is Restored

The most amazing relief pitcher in baseball is Kenley Jansen.

The most valuable relief pitcher in baseball is Craig Kimbrel.
All is right with the world.

In 30 frames Jansen and his all-World cutter have whiffed 50 batters and walked, hey, where did the walks go? I can't find any walks. Did you see his walks?

No one has ever fanned 36 batters without issuing a free pass. Jansen has blown by that by 33%. He has a K/BB rate of . . . infinity.

Jansen's 0.91 ERA is fueled by a very low Z-contact rate (rate of contact on balls in the strike zone) and a very high O-swing rate (rate of swings at balls outside the strike zone.) Put them together and you get a finisher who is flummoxing the National League. He has allowed 17 hits and recorded 15 saves. 


Kimbrel, now in his second season in Boston, might be even more dominating. He leads all relievers in WAR with 2.2 after just 70 games. He's on pace for the best season by WAR of his illustrious career, better than any season as a closer by Mariano Rivera.

In 32 innings, only nine batsmen have hit safely against him. With five walks and 59 strikeouts -- nearly two an inning, Kimbrel is simply overpowering AL batters. His 0.85 ERA and 0.44 WHIP outshine everyone, including Jansen.

For his career, Jansen has a lifetime 2.11 ERA, a 0.87 WHIP and 682 Ks in 438 IP. 

For his career, Kimbrel has a lifetime 1.79 ERA, a 0.91 WHIP and 705 Ks in 433 IP.  After 2017, he will have Cy Young votes in five of his nine seasons. Coming out of the bullpen!

For both pitchers, none of that includes the last 60% of their best year so far.

It's nice to see these two performing at their peak. It makes it fun to think about what would happen if they kept it up for a bunch more years.

18 June 2017

Is This All There Is?

Take a look at the standings 70 games into the season. Could it really be that there is almost nothing left to learn?
By a combination of poor prospects entering the season and predictably poor performance, the following teams are essentially eliminated from the playoffs:
San Diego
White Sox

Thank you for playing. You get the home version of our game as a parting gift.

The Giants appear to be felled by a 26-44 start. They border on mathematical elimination in the NL West and sit 17.5 games out of the Wild Card.

So there is one-third of MLB that can cash it in for the season -- in mid-June.

On the other hand, the Nationals and Astros are on the verge of clinching. The Dodgers too, though theirs is conceivably a Wild Card.

The NL Central is a dumpster fire, but it seems inevitable that the Cubs will cobble together enough pitching to win that flaccid division.

That doesn't leave us much drama in the Senior Circuit. 

Colorado and Arizona have performed surprisingly well, and it's hard to believe they can maintain a .634 and .623 level of play (respectively), but who is going to run them down? The Marlins, Mets, Cardinals or Pirates, 11 or 12 games behind? Even if the Mets got the gang back together for an extended period and played .600 ball the rest of the way, that would get them to 87 wins, a number the Rockies and Dbacks will surpass even if they lose more games than they win going forward.

It appears we have our National League playoff teams mapped out already. By Father's Day.
In the AL, anyone can win the East or snag a Wild Card and maybe Texas or Seattle can challenge them. The Twins will eventually wake up and discover they are the Twins, probably around the time Cleveland blows by them for the AL Central lead.

And that will be that. The Yankees and Red Sox look strong; add the Indians and Astros and you have a five-way battle for the play-in game.

We're 70 games in and so much has been decided. Can that be all there is?

15 June 2017

100 Bucks for . . . What???

I haven't paid attention to boxing in decades and to MMA ever. I'm not even clear on the difference between MMA and UFC.

But I don't live under a rock. (I live under suspicion.) So "news" of a Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor fight has reached me. Probably you too.

It's a big event. A Big Event. This year's Fight of the Century kind of thing. Hundreds of millions of dollars involved. And I've been hearing talk of a $100+ pay-per-view pricetag.

This makes me laugh.

Look, I don't know anything about this fight or these guys, but I do know enough to realize that it is a farce, a money grab, a publicity stunt and nothing else.

Consider some logic for a second:

1. Floyd Mayweather retired two years ago. He's coming out of retirement not to fight a great boxer, but for this sideshow. He's a massive favorite, which means he has nothing to gain except...an immense payday.

2. Mayweather's fights are notoriously dull. They are bad viewing. He's a defensive fighter with few knockouts. His last Fight of the Century against an aging Manny Pacquiao was reputedly a snorefest.

3. Conor McGregor isn't a boxer. Sure, he viciously punches people, but he also kicks and wrestles them. And he won't be allowed to do any of that in this fight. There are 45 boxers with a better chance than McGregor of winning this fight.

4. The run-up to the fight is where the action is. McGregor is a poet with a rapier wit and a mean streak. His scathing psychological carve-ups of opponents is incredibly entertaining. But that's yours for free. You don't need to pay $100 for it.

A lot of things in America boggle my mind. Unlike this, some of them actually matter. Nonetheless, I can't imagine why anyone would pay to see this carnival, or even dedicate an hour to it, much less shell out 100 clams for it. 

P.T. Barnum was a genius.

11 June 2017

An Even More Worserer Contract

Recently, I mentioned that Albert Pujols's contract was the worst ever. Big money, small returns, never the player the Angels expected and now declining rapidly with four more brutal years left.

So, a defensible position.

But I neglected to consider a large ursine bamboo eater. Yes, the Big Panda

Pablo Sandoval inked a five-year, $95 million deal with the Red Sox that's nearly half done and he has "contributed" two losses against replacement. 

For $95 million he has made the Sox worse. And he has done it each year.

For three years he has hit, fielded, run the bases and avoided injury about at the level of an American Legion baseball player. Without a contract he would literally be out of professional ball right now.

And there are two more years left on his deal. Plus an option that the Red Sox are sure to pick up. And throw in the garbage.

So that might be the worst contract ever because literally every penny of it, all $95 million, was a waste.

My bad.