24 May 2017

Maybe the Snakes Are Better Than We Thought? Nah.

Entering 2017, one could be forgiven for looking kindly upon the chances of the team in Phoenix, anchored as it is by some real talent. Zack Greinke is a true rotation ace. Paul Goldschmidt is a quiet superstar -- maybe the best first baseman in the game. A.J. Pollack and Jake Lamb are stars and David Peralta is another good outfielder.

Unfortunately for the Diamondbacks, the measure of a team isn't its cleanup hitter or its ace, but its  #8 hitter, its fourth starter and its set-up guy. Thanks in large part to the disastrous front office tenure of Tony LaRussa and Dave Stewart, the Dbacks' cupboard is bare beyond those players named.

Coming into the season, the Dbacks were projected to field among the worst players in the game at catcher, second base, shortstop, and left field.  Add to that the worst bullpen in the Majors, and you have too much for Zack Greinke, Paul Goldschmidt, Jake Lamb and A.J. Pollack to overcome.

Well, we're 46 games into the season and Arizona has a .587 winning percentage, "on pace" for a 95-win campaign. The reason, in its entirety, is that players at the above-mentioned positions have performed better than league average. When you're expected to be the worst team in the league at your position, and instead your 12th or 13th our of 30, that's a big improvement.

And maybe the team is better than we thought they were. Maybe the kindly lookers were right about them. But probably not.

New research by Jeff Sullivan at Fangraphs shows that even though pre-season analytical projections don't have much of a track record, they are more than twice as predictive of a team's performance after Game 50 as a team's performance in the first 50 games of the season is. In other words, the first 50 games can be very deceptive and bear very little relationship to how good a team actually is.

What 's that telling us about the Diamondbacks? It's telling us to take them with a grain of salt. In fact, consider every team's start the same way. If you're a fan of the Giants, Mets and Blue Jays, that's good news. If you like the Brewers, Rockies and Twins, it's not so much.

Just remember one thing: the first 50 games do count. So if the Dbacks are 10 game over .500 and play a mere .500 the rest of the way, they will end the season at 86-76. And that could get them into the Wild Card.

23 May 2017

More Stuff About Mike Trout You're Totally Sick Of

Yeah, sorry, this is another Mike Trout episode.  Guy is so freakin' amazing, it's hard not to sing odes to him.

As of May 22, he's hitting .350/.466/.757 with 14 home runs this season. He leads the league in OBP, SLG, OPS and, well, what else you got? He's "on pace" for 57-137-.350 with 36 steals. Just another year.

You know the phenomenon that has been Eric Thames? He's put up unprecedented numbers, almost as awesome as Trout's. Trout has a higher batting average, on base average, slugging percentage, OPS, home runs, RBIs, steals and well, everything but runs scored and air time.

Trout is now the youngest player ever to 150 homers and 150 steals. Not exactly a surprise, right?

He's jumped to fourth on the Angels' home run chart -- after five and a half years.

He's got more lifetime WAR, 52, than Lou Brock, Kirby Puckett and Jim Rice. They're in the Hall of Fame, you know.

He's 9th on the active list for WAR in only his sixth full season. The next player under age 26 is Manny Machado...at 54th. Trout has three times Bryce Harper's WAR.

How Hall of Fame is Trout? He's already over the "Black Ink" measuring tool for an average Hall of Famer. Black ink measure the number of categories a player leads his league in. Trout is at 28.

He's at 98 on Bill James' Hall of Fame monitor, where 100 is the Hall standard. He has already out-earned the average HOF center fielder in peak WAR value. 

That's Trout's first 851 games. If he repeats this performance over his next 851 games, he'll have 104 WAR, more than Joe Morgan, Jimmy Foxx, Eddie Matthews, Cal Ripken and George Brett. And he'd be 30.

Life doesn't work that way, of course. Players can get hurt, exploited, diverted or old. Diving into second base ahead of a catcher's throw 30 times in a season takes its toll. So we'll see.

But we've already seen. Mike Trout is the best ever at this point. Sorry, I just had to point it out again.

22 May 2017

Baseball's Golden Age

For some reason, and unlike any other sport, baseball's fans love to denigrate the game and pine for days of yore when everything was better.

We hear constantly about how baseball is too slow, how its popularity is declining, how the umps are all inept, how the playoffs are all wrong and so on.

Although I agree that some changes could be made to goose the pace of games, in every other respect these complaints are unwarranted. More people attend a month of MLB games than the entire NFL schedule. Instant replay has demonstrated how incredibly close many calls are in all sports. Baseball's playoff format might be the best of any major American sport's given the utter ineptitude of the NBA and NHL to fashion a coherent tournament.

(At the risk of beating a long since buried and mourned horse, and of drifting off on a tangent, the NBA, after three desultory rounds of their tournament, is a month later careening to a finals match-up that any casual follower could have predicted last June. In the NHL, one of the conference finalists, the one going home today with a chance to claim a spot in the championship series, lost as many games as it won this season and qualified 16th for the playoffs.)

The Cubs and Red Sox Have Won the World Series, For Godsakes
All of which flooded into my head recently when a petitioner in a Fangraphs chat asked the writer to identify the best era in baseball history. My immediate reaction was, right now! (To his credit, the writer agreed.)

Consider the last 16 years in the Majors. Eleven different teams have won the World Series, and of the three teams that have repeated, one of them hadn't won a Series in 87 years, another in 56. Eight of the winners claimed their first ever title (Diamondbacks, White Sox, Angles) or won for the first time in 28+ years (Giants, Red Sox, Phillies, Royals and Cubs.) Compare that to the often-named Golden Age, when the hardware never moved from The Bronx. Yawn.

It's far beyond that, of course. We've never seen an era of young talent, particularly at the keystone and shortstop positions. Rougned Odor might not even qualify among the game's top 10 second baseman, except when rating right crosses. Yet he slugged 33 home runs last year. A list of the 10 best shortstops includes one player over 29 (30-year-old Brandon Crawford). And we haven't even mentioned the historic starts of Kris Bryant, Manny Machado, Bryce Harper and the greatest 25-year-old in baseball history

Exit Velocity and Launch Angles
You like the guys who bring the heat instead? Basically every 100 mph pitch ever thrown in MLB games has been recorded this decade. We know how fast pitches go because we know more about the game than we could ever have thought to ask two decades ago, thanks to Statcast and advanced baseball analytics.

The second Wild Card, the trade deadline and the concept of the total teardown have created interest in the game across America, even among fan bases rooting for teams bumbling their way to triple-digit losses. You want to get closer to the game? You can tweet to your favorite player and he might answer you. Who needs an autograph?

And don't forget the stadiums. There has never been a ballpark like PNC Park, Camden Yards or AT&T, and we still have Fenway and Wrigley. The game is 150 years old and we're seeing things we've never seen before. It's an amazing time.

You're Living In It
I'm sorry to disappoint you, but baseball has not only never been better, it's never been close. The best era for baseball -- it's today.

And the best news is, it's fixing to be tomorrow too.

19 May 2017

My Favorite Player This Year is J.D. Martinez

Tigers outfielder J.D. Martinez is pummeling the ball like no one else and he's somehow flying under the radar.

We're now in game number 40-something and Martinez has walked 4.5 times as often as he's struck out. He's batting .500 and nearly two-thirds of his hits have been home runs.

That gives him an OPS of 2.118. Babe Ruth's best was 1.379.

Why is no one paying attention?

Is it because he's not in the NY or LA markets?

Is it because of his team's mediocrity?

Is it discrimination against Latinos?

Is it because he's played in six games?

Maybe that's it. 25 plate appearances.


16 May 2017

What Eric Thames Figured Out

 You might be surprised to know that Eric Thames isn't any better at slugging than he was when he began his career.

It's true. Thames arrived in the Big Leagues in 2011 with plenty of power. The muscular 210-pounder slammed 30 home runs in his only full Minor League season at Double-A and went yard 12 times in half a season at the Big League level the following year.

Sometimes it's what you don't do that makes you better. Thames figured out in Korea that he had to stop diving after pitches out of the zone. Korean hurlers don't throw as fast, so they have to use location to get batters out. Once Thames learned patience overseas he began swatting like no others.

Thames's primary improvement from his pre-Korea days is his ability to scoff at the bad stuff and wait for a pitch he could drive. Thames has the 11th best rate of laying off pitches outside the strike zone -- known as O-swing rate -- at 20.8%. That compares to 36.8% in 2011 before he headed east.

It's more testament to the fact that the biggest, strongest and most athletic ball players are not necessarily the best hitters. Combine athletic ability with focus, maturity and patience and you get a star from material that yielded marginal Major Leaguer on talent alone.

14 May 2017

I Want My Team to Trade for Matt Harvey Right Now

Matt Harvey is a mess. You may have noticed. The Dark Knight appears to have struck midnight and turned into a pumpkin. So, of course, I want him for my team.

Following stellar freshman and sophomore half-seasons for the Mets, a visit to Dr. Andrews in 2015 and then a bounce-back junior year, Harvey stood at 25-18, 2.53 with 449 strikeouts and just 94 walks in 427 innings heading into last season. He lived off 98 mph heat, two wicked secondary pitches, and praise from hitters and former pitchers alike. His future seemed assured

But the unsettling stirrings were already there, even beyond the serious health issue. Harvey and his agent, Darth Vader Scott Boras, had complained about overuse heading into the playoffs after his TJ surgery, a complaint they later backed down from. Then 2016 turned into a disaster, with his fastball cooling to 92-93, his ERA ballooning to 4.86 and an eventual diagnosis of Thoracic Outlet Syndrome.

Get Rid of the Bum
Coming into 2017, no one knew what to expect. With less heat, Harvey could no longer simply overpower hitters. Questions remained about whether he could retire batters with a different pitching style than the fastball-first repertoire that got him there. And then last weekend, when Harvey got sauced and missed a game, then feigned self-righteousness and threatened to appeal the resulting suspension. He eventually backed down and acknowledged his immaturity.

Met fans would like to be rid of Matt Harvey, but the team labors in the real world. In that place, Harvey's value is at its lowest point, given his lack of performance, character and health. Although he has regained some of his high heat, the early results this season, following last year's travails, suggest this knight will never regain his armor.

So what is Matt Harvey at this point? Tantalizing potential and nothing more.

The problem for Met brass is this: every other team knows all this, decreasing Harvey's trade value to near-nothing With team control ending after next season, even a mediocre Harvey will soon get much more expensive. If Sandy Alderson wants to rid the franchise of a perceived cancer, he has no choice but to trade him for an empty gesture.

Give Me A Shot at the Knight
The Mets really have no choice but to hang onto Harvey and see what he can offer. Even if he's not the Cy Young candidate he appeared on his way to becoming, league-average starters have tremendous value, particularly to a team with Wild Card aspirations and a disintegrating rotation. But if they decide to dump him, I want my team to snag him.

The reason is that it won't take much to secure this lottery ticket with a chance of hitting. Maybe the payoff won't be the mega jackpot, but with so little invested, even a small payoff is a positive development. Matt Harvey has already been successful in the Majors, which puts him ahead of any  prospect my team would have to relinquish.

12 May 2017

The False Testimony of Derek Jeter

Oh how we have missed Derek Jeter. We've managed to survive two years and 35 games without him, (Thank God for the Cubs!) during which time the official sculptor of the New York Yankees has been busy carving his likeness onto a plaque for unveiling this weekend.

So the tributes will flow and the accolades will fill the air. To the sold-out crowd's delight, Jeter's spirit magic will enter The Stadium as they retire his number 2 and his aura will ascend to heaven. Already, sports shows that treat baseball like gum on their sneaker bottom have dedicated segments to his monumental character and leadership. 

He Should Be President
Yes, the same America that smiled upon the character and leadership of Donald Trump is transfixed by those attributes in Derek Jeter. But I'm sure that will not give the crowd, or the mesmerized sports media, a moment's pause. 

Just to be clear, I don't doubt that Jeter is a great guy with strong character and outstanding leadership skills. It's just that he has become the vessel into which we have poured all our appreciation for leadership in sports. There were literally dozens of athletes who shared these characteristics during Jeter's career -- maybe more. He's the only one we celebrated at all, much less continuously at full voice for 20 years.

The Perstistence of an Overblown Narrative
I want to relate a story that the fine baseball writer Buster Olney is telling this week as testimony to Jeter's great character.  Olney remembers a game in 1998 in which a popup fell between fielders, prompting pitcher David Wells to react with frustration. Olney received word that young Jeter had chewed out Wells in the clubhouse, demanding that he show his teammates respect. Olney asked Jeter about it and Jeter denied it vociferously. Within a minute Olney discovered that in fact it was quite the tongue-lashing. 

Olney tells this story as an encomium to Jeter's great character -- that he would take the initiative to set the tone for his team, but then reject efforts to bestow credit upon him. Fine, spin it that way if you like. What I heard was that Jeter lied to Olney's face. Imagine the umbrage Olney would have taken had any other ballplayer lied so blatantly to him.

In fact, what happened there is just confirmation bias piling up more evidence for the narrative that has engulfed the sporting public. Imagine all the alternative scenarios and ask yourself if Olney would have drawn any different conclusion:

1. Jeter deflects question saying what happens in the clubhouse stays among the players.
Conclusion: Jeter is a great team leader who refuses to take credit.

2. Jeter refuses to talk about it.
Conclusion: Jeter is a great team leader who refuses to take credit.

3. Jeter admits there was a discussion but plays it down.
 Conclusion: Jeter is a great team leader who is reluctant to take credit.

4. Jeter defends his actions and says in no uncertain terms that the team won't tolerate disrespect.
Conclusion: Jeter is a great team leader who is setting the tone for a championship team.
You see, there is no scenario in which Olney doesn't retell this story as a tribute to Jeter. In fact, Jeter chose the least magnanimous option -- lying through his teeth. But when the narrative of Jeter as the Mother Teresa of horsehide has as much momentum as it has had for years, it's very difficult to avoid getting caught up in it.

But I've managed.

04 May 2017

From Superstar to Bench Warmer: Andrew McCutchen's Demise

Remember Dale Murphy, the Braves' star center fielder who stood atop the baseball mountain from 1982 to 1987? He hit 45% better than average, smashed 36 homers a year, won five Gold Gloves and two MVPs, and was headed to Cooperstown.

Then, at age 32, he turned into a pumpkin. In his last six seasons, he hit just .234/.307/.396 with just 88 homers. He stole the same number of bases in those six seasons as he had in '87 alone (16) but was caught four more times (10). He moved to right field as his glove got ragged and he never sniffed the Hall.

The same thing appears to have happened to Andrew McCutchen, except in a much shorter period of time. Year before last, he was a certified superstar, a five-tool highlight reel and a perennial top 5 MVP candidate. He hit .313/.404/.523 for the four years corresponding with his age 25-28 seasons, while commanding center field and delivering 26 WAR. He won the MVP in 2013 and was even better in '14. The woebegone Pirates made the playoffs.

McCutchen wasn't the same last year, at age 29, and the whispers began. His fielding was, by all accounts, no longer tolerable in center. His hitting waned to .259/.336/.430, below average for an outfielder. And the Bucs stayed home in October.

Most confoundingly, there didn't seem to be any underlying injury to blame for the slippage. Pitchers just seemed to be able to get him out. Or maybe he was just hiding something.

So 2017 has bloomed with Cutch in right field. His fielding has ticked up so far. And his hitting has ticked further down. Now it's early, but there's no sign of the guy who, just two years ago, finished fifth in MVP balloting. He's hitting .235/.321/.435, almost all of it against lefties.

So now the talk has begun: is Cutch a platoon player? Is he a fourth outfielder? Was that it? He's 30 years old!

It's only early May and McCutchen might bounce back to his old form. But every day he's just ordinary is another piece of data suggesting that's what he now is. It's a mighty, and mighty quick, fall for a guy who was the face of the game just yesterday.

24 April 2017

On "Polarizing" Tim Tebow and Religious Bigotry

Tim Tebow is playing for the Mets' Mid-A affiliate in Columbia, South Carolina, just up the road from me in Charleston. The 29-year-old outfielder is hitting .208 with a pair of home runs for the Fireflies. 

That is to say, he is so far neither a prospect nor an asset to his team on the field. But he is having fun chasing a dream. Bully for him.

This story graced the front page of my Sunday newspaper. The headline discusses "taking sides" on Tebow.  

This ignorant tripe found its way into the sports section the same day. In it, the writer claims the experiment is working because the Fireflies are winning "in some ways, because of him." They are winning in absolutely no way because of an outfielder who has three extra base hits and a .269 OBP in 52 plate appearances.

The author also opines that "it’s not just Tebow’s production, or his strong Christian faith, that’s helping him fill seats in minor league parks. It’s also his flair for the dramatic." Every element of this statement is transparently false. Tebow's sub-replacement production is not drawing fans. Plenty of ballplayers have "strong Christian faith" but don't bring out the crowds. And it's hard to find flair for the dramatic in a guy who isn't contributing. No, Tebow is filling seats because he's a celebrity. People have heard of him and want to see what he can do.

Controversial Tim Tebow
What continues to puzzle me about Tebow is the "controversy," the "doubters," the people "questioning his motives," and all that nonsense. This all strikes me as religious bigotry.

Tim Tebow is a gentleman, a scholar and a team player. He is a serial philanthropist. He is a humble, polite, Grade-A role model. I don't share his faith, but as I've noted before, I don't share the faith of Martin Luther King, Mohandas Gandhi or the Dalai Lama, but I recognize them as three of the greatest citizens of the 20th century. Where is the controversy?

There has been a tremendous amount of discussion about Tebow's expressions of faith. But they are not unusual in the sports world. While Tebow wore eyeblack with Biblical references and kneeled in prayer on the sideline, baseball is full of guys with tattoos citing Bible verses, pointing to the sky after every home run, or crossing themselves when approaching the plate. If any of this is a crime, who is the victim?

Tebow has established a charity called “Night to Shine,” which creates proms for kids with special needs. He is quoted in the article saying, "...if you can use the platform to try to help people and bring smiles to faces — that’s what I tried to do in football, and what I’m going to try to do in this game as well.” Where is the controversy?

C'mon, He'll Never Make the Majors
There are those who doubt his motives. It's obvious what his motive is: he wants to play ball. If you had the skill to play professional baseball, wouldn't you like to try? It's true that his celebrity is responsible for the opportunity to play, but...so what? The Fireflies are drawing 2,000 more people a game to see him. What's wrong with making fans happy?

A nice guy who had a career as a professional football player wants to try his hand at baseball. He's willing to start at the bottom, act like one of the guys and help people along the way.  I wish him the best.

We officially live in a country where a gentleman who respects everyone and tries to be his best is disdained. and an ignorant sociopath who mocks disabled people and admits to molesting women is elected president. God help us.

22 April 2017

...And Another Career Ended a Day Later

Add to the roster identified yesterday Josh Hamilton, the Greek tragedy of Baseball, whose Great Fall preceded a Phoenix-rise and then a fall back into ashes. At 36, Hamilton was released from his Minor League contract with the Texas Rangers after sustaining yet another knee injury.

Just to recap, Hamilton was the first pick in the 1999 draft by Tampa, a chiseled, 6'4" blue chip whose rapid ascent to the Majors was derailed by drug addiction. He fought his way back and debuted with the Reds in 2007. Following a trade to Texas for pitcher Edinson Volquez, Hamilton busted out in 2008, hitting .304 with 32 homers and a league-leading 130 RBI while staffing center field. 

Two years later, his .359/.411./.633 led the American League and won him the MVP, but the seeds of his demise were planted the year before when he missed half the season with a variety of injuries. He played 140 games just twice after that.

Cashing In
Despite all the missed time, Hamilton finished the Texas portion of his career averaging .305 with 28 homers and 101 RBI. Though he performed poorly in the playoffs and was booed by the fans, Anaheim signed him to a five-year, $125 million contract that they would regret.

Injuries and drug relapse characterized the next three years, during which Hamilton averaged .255 with 13 homers and 49 RBIs and was, because of the drug issues, far more trouble than he was worth, the massive contract aside. Anaheim essentially gave Hamilton back to Texas, where he contributed little before getting hurt again. 

Shorn of his playing value, Hamilton lost all of 2016 to knee surgery. In January, the Rangers signed him to a Minor League contract and in February he underwent left knee surgery, delaying his debut on the farm. Yesterday, the team revealed they had cut him loose after he inured his right knee while rehabbing the left one.

Turn the Lights Out: It's Over
It's hard to imagine that Josh Hamilton's career has any more legs. He has missed 367 games (and counting) over the last three-plus seasons, produced about two wins over replacement during that time, requires constant chaperoning to keep him on the wagon and will be bearing down on 40 if and when he is ready to return to baseball. There aren't many teams clamoring for an old, oft-injured slugger who can no longer play the outfield and is dragging around heavy personal baggage.

That is a fourth prominent sports career that may have effectively ended with an announcement the last two days.

21 April 2017

Three Great Athletes We Probably Said Goodbye to Yesterday

Three spectacular sports careers appear to have come to an end yesterday and it's not clear that people are much noticing. Two of those careers ended for all practical purposes years ago. In one case, the sporting public continued to fixate upon the athlete as if he were still at the top of his game. The other has been largely forgotten. And then the third has sprung news upon the world that might mean the denouement of her amazing career, though we can't be sure.

I'm referring, of course, to Tiger Woods, David Wright and Serena Williams. Woods and Williams are, or were once, considered the greatest athletes who ever played their sport. Wright might simply be the greatest Met ever, though that accolade depends largely upon Tom Seaver's 10 seasons elsewhere.

Serena, Greatest of All Time
Williams, the most decorated tennis player ever and at 35 still the best female tennis player in the world, announced yesterday that she is pregnant. The media reported this development in great detail, though it seemed to consider the identity of the father, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, to whom Williams became engaged in December, as an afterthought. Regardless, she says she expects to continue playing after giving birth, but she will be 36 and her attention will be attenuated. It is fair to assume that her dominance has ended as her morning sickness begins.

Tiger, Almost the Greatest of All Time
Serena and Tiger Woods share key attributes with regard to their sports, even beyond their transcendence. Both were racial trailblazers, dragging golf and tennis into the 20th century in their acceptance of black athletes. Both transformed the physique of the average athlete in their sport. Woods's influence appears ephemeral in the former; Williams's in the latter. Additionally, both athletes displayed emotion on the battlefield, something altogether novel on the links, if not on the court.

Unlike Serena, (each needs but a first name to be recognized) Tiger has been a has-been for years. He abdicated his golfing throne on Thanksgiving Day of 2009, when his marital issues spilled into the public consciousness. Knee and back injuries have derailed him since, with a yearlong hiatus from March 2013 to May 2014 when he briefly recaptured the world #1 ranking. But since back surgery that year, Tiger has hardly played, and hardly mattered to golf, except in his absence. News of a fourth back surgery at age 41 is likely the final nail in the coffin of his career on the links and also of the headlines about his absence.

Wright, Mr. Met
David Wright, 34, who from 2004-2010 hit .305 and averaged 24 home runs and five wins against replacement, and who was tabbed by Bill James after the 2008 season as the one ballplayer he'd start a team with, has been hampered by back issues for the better part of this decade. He's suited up for just 75 games since 2015 and requires hours of stretching and treatment just to get on the field of play. His return to the 60-day DL yesterday suggests that there really is no endgame here, except to hang around long enough to collect the last $67 million he is contractually owed over the next four years (2017 included.) At this point the Mets would be wise to work out a deal that pays him off and opens a roster spot for a third baseman who can actually play the position.

This triumvirate has earned something like half a billion dollars from their sports and many millions more in endorsements, so no one is crying for them. But every next tournament win for Serena would have been a new record; every Major for Tiger brought him closer to the mountaintop; and every game played, at bat, hit, run scored, RBI, and walk for Wright extended his career Met record. And now they probably won't happen.

It's a good reminder that young athletes who look like Mt. Rushmore material now can easily be derailed by injury or even by life. We very possibly said goodbye to three of the greatest in their sports all on the same day in April of 2017.

18 April 2017

A Tour Down the Thames

We've seen it before. In the first 27 games of his career, Shane Spencer hit .373 for the Yankees with 10 home runs. In the six seasons that followed he hit .257 with 49 home runs. Pitchers made an adjustment, Spencer adjusted to the adjustment. Pitchers further adjusted and Spencer didn't have much of an answer.

So I don't want to make too much of Eric Thames. He's burst out of the gate for Milwaukee with a 1.479 OPS and 7 home runs in just 12 games. He's already been worth more than a win against replacement, about what Travis d'Arnaud has been worth in his career. It's fun and exciting and we know it won't last.

On top of that, he's an immobile first baseman best positioned at DH. If he sinks to league average at the plate he's got little value to the Brewers.

But there is a reason to think he won't sink to average. In fact, there's a reason to believe this isn't all that surprising. The reason is Cecil Fielder.

I mean, a 1.479 OPS is always surprising even if Miguel Cabrera produces it. But the thing about Thames, as I mentioned in a season preview, is that he showed some muscle in his two Major League half-seasons before getting his head straight in South Korea. He terrorized KBO pitching and earned the nickname "God" while he was there. (Evidently Koreans believe in a one-tool god.)

This is all reminiscent of Fielder, an immobile slugger without much to show for his first four years in the Bigs before lighting it up in Japan. Upon his return, Fielder smashed 160 homers and earned 15 WAR in his next four MVP-candidate seasons. Others have done the same: work out the kinks overseas and then bring the improved skills stateside.

Will Thames follow in Fielder's footsteps? That's a tall order. Fielder had a fuller resume than Thames when he left -- for one year -- and returned at age 26. Thames, gone for four years, is 30, the age at which Fielder lost his star status. On the other hand, Thames is a physical specimen, something only the World Eating Federation would have said about Fielder.

We know for sure Thames won't put up a 1.000 slugging percentage. It will be fun to see what he does manage to do. I'm rooting for him. As we say in Korea, 행운을!

17 April 2017

Because PItching is Harder Today, That's Why

The biggest criticism I hear from itinerant baseball fans today about the 21st century player is astonishment that pitchers are such weenies.

Tommy John threw 200+ innings seven times after his eponymous surgery (five times prior), peaking at 276 innings in 1979 at age 36. John hurled 162 complete games in his career, more than all of Major League Baseball racks up in a season.

So why can't some 240-pound stud last into the seventh without replacing his ulnar collateral ligament?

Answer: See the title of this post.

Behemoths With Bats During Tommy John's career in the 60s and 70s, and even into the early 80s, every lineup was stocked with batters, often including a pitcher, who couldn't reach the centerfield fence if you spotted him second base. Bud Harrelson anchored the Miracle Mets' World Series run in 1969 weighing in at 160 pounds with change in his pocket. Harrelson produced seven home runs in his 16-year career and I'd be willing to bet my Toyota Yaris that at least four of them rolled around the field of play while he circled the bases.

In 2016, even a novelty like Jose Altuve, all of 5'5" and 165, pokes 24 home runs in a season.

In fact, the year of Tommy John's return from elbow surgery, there were 86 players listed at 175 pounds or less who made 300 plate appearances. Last year, there were 12. That same year, 102 players with 300 PAs tallied fewer than five home runs. That's three or four semi-regulars per team. Last year, there were 31 -- one per team.

Back then, a pitcher could cruise through much of the lineup secure that only a couple of bats were capable of doing real damage. Today, every single pitch matters.

Rougned Odor, Keystoner, 33 Jacks
To counteract this, or rather to survive it, MLB teams grow tight ends who can light up radar guns. (Literally, in the case of Jeff Samardzija.) And they throw pitches Tommy John never heard of, like cut fastballs, 90-mph change-ups and 75 mph knuckleballs. They are being bred to snap off breaking pitches that scratch the corners at high velocities. They are not being bred to go the distance. For that, they raise relief pitchers, cultivated for their triple-digit heat, now crowding bullpens that held two or three second-string arms in Tommy John's day. The late innings are their dominion, not the starter's.

In the 70s, more than three-quarters of at-bats ended with a ball put in play. Pitchers could serve it up and allow their fielders to handle the batted balls. Today, about two-thirds of balls are put into play. That's about 650 more walks, strikeouts, and home runs per team each season, which means more pitches thrown per at bat. Today, every one of a starter's 100 precious pitches is delivered with maximum effort to 6'4" shortstops who can crank it out to the opposite field. There are no more Jerry Kenneys, the Yankees' 170-pound shortstop with a lifetime .299 slugging percentage.

Put it all together and you get 21st century baseball. Pitchers aren't wusses today and their ligaments aren't any more tender; in fact, they're bigger, stronger, better conditioned and more adept than ever before. They just have a more strenuous job.

16 April 2017

12 Things We've Already Seen in 2017

We're two weeks into the season, not nearly enough time to draw any conclusions. But there's plenty to keep our eyes on. Here are 12 interesting things we've seen:

  1. On the same day that the Cardinals' Carlos Martinez walked 8 and fanned 11 in five innings against the Yankees, Jacob deGrom whiffed 13 with one walk against the Marlins. Neither pitcher earned a win.
  2. Milwaukee first baseman (and Korean baseball legend) Eric Thames is batting .382 with five home runs after four years out of Major League baseball. 
  3. The woeful Cincinnati Reds own the best record in the NL, in part because they have nothing to lose. Team brass has decided to use their bullpen optimally, with top reliever Raisel Iglesias serving as fireman, not closer, and the next three best bullpen pieces -- Drew Storen, Michael Lorenzen and Tony Cingrani, pitching whatever number of innings they are needed. The results so far have been stellar and bear further observation. 
  4.  It's way too early to panic, but Toronto's 1-9 bodes poorly. In the last 12 years, no team starting 1-9 has finished above .500. But they're 2-9 today and if they're 3-9 tomorrow the equation shifts in their direction.
  5. If you're looking for signs from Andrew McCutchen and Bryce Harper, keep looking. Cutch is hitting like last year; Harper a little better than career average, 50 plate appearances in.
  6. There was a lot of off-season discussion about why no team had rushed to bring Joe Blanton on board, after two excellent seasons as a reliever. Perhaps this is why: 0-2, 6.43 so far this season for Washington. But no walks, seven strikeouts and a WHIP of 1 suggest better times ahead.
  7. The White Sox held onto ace Jose Quintana (i.e., the ace once Chris Sale was dispensed) for a better haul mid-season than was being offered in the winter. How's that working out, 0-3, 6.75?
  8. The Best Start Award goes to Ervin Santana. The 13-year veteran, now toiling for the Twins, is off to a 3-0, 0.41 start in 22 innings. He's allowed just five hits and struck out 15.
  9. His teammate, highly touted outfielder Byron Buxton, might have earned the Worst Start Award. A one-for-three day yesterday got him to .100/.143/.150 with strikeouts in 53% of his at bats. Minnesota is going to let him figure it out with the big club; it's not as if they're going anywhere without him.
  10. Chris Sale has lasted at least seven frames for his new team, allowing 0-2-1 runs. His Red Sox teammates have scored 0-1-2 runs for him. He could have stayed in Chicago for that.
  11. In case you're wondering, the Royals' revolution is over. If you think they're bad this year, wait 'til you see the tear-down that starts next year.
  12. The broadcast of the Braves' opener at Sun Trust Park was a craven three-hour commercial for the new stadium and its titular sponsor. The announcers, Joe Simpson and Chip Caray, extolled the park and allowed company brass to croon about serving the fans, unchallenged. They should hand in their journalist cards right now and preface every broadcast with a consumer warning that they are wanton shills for their employers. Abandoning beautiful Turner Field after just 20 years for a new park in the suburbs, where the white people live and will be saddled with its unnecessary costs, was an abomination. And the new park itself? Not a single interesting feature, as far as I could tell.

05 April 2017

On the Edge of Our NBA Seats

Evey year at this time, with just a handful of games left in the NBA season, some enterprising sports journalist writes a story that says, essentially, that various playoff races are building to their exciting conclusions.

The Bias of Sports Media
Many Americans believe that American journalism is guilty of a left-right partisan bias. Generally people who say this are revealing their own left-right partisan bias. But there is a significant bias in American news media: a bias for news.

It's why all kinds of irrelevancies bubble up as news, and often last for weeks. Witness this week's dust-up over the inevitable confirmation of a highly-qualified Supreme Court judge. American journalists have wrung weeks of stories out of this controversy, even though the result is a foregone conclusion.

Which brings us to the ineluctable stories about NBA playoff races. The writers of these pieces know that battles for seeding are nonsense, that way more teams are allowed into the tournament than have any hope of winning the title, and that the best team doesn't have to nab the top seed. But they want a story, so they put on the blinders and outline the races. (Also, their employers own the broadcast rights to these shenanigans.)

Who's the #1 Seed? Who Cares!
For example, there is uncertainty about whether Cleveland or Boston will take the top seed in the East. We all know it hardly matters, because both Cleveland and San Antonio have won recent NBA titles as the two seeds in their conference. The big advantage of finishing first is a home game 7 in a series two months from now.

Then there is the battle for three and four in the East between Toronto and Washington. Are you seeing the humor in this? If the seeds are 1. Boston 2. Cleveland 3. Toronto 4. Washington, the ostensible second round match-ups are the same as if the teams finished 1. Cleveland 2. Boston 3. Washington 4. Toronto. If your goal is to avoid Cleveland, it's not clear that you want to nail down the third seed.

Even more significant are the races for the last playoff slots. Where you sit isn't nearly as important as simply getting a seat at the table. Two games separate Atlanta, Chicago, Miami, Indiana and Milwaukee with four spots available. Sounds compelling, until you consider that these thoroughly mediocre teams are just cannon fodder. LeBron James could beat any one of them himself.

In the West, the intrigue is around whether Portland's losing record will edge Denver's losing record for the right to get slathered by Golden State in the first round. Or is it whether Utah or the Clippers will earn the fourth seed? The stakes are high, because if Utah wins that race, they play the Clippers in the first round. Whereas if L.A. jumps up a seed, they get the Jazz in round one. 

All of this is utter rubbish, of course. The regular season is just a preliminary bout. The first round of the playoffs is just warm-ups. They could skip the first two rounds of the playoffs altogether and eliminate the need to seed anyone. Let Golden State and San Antonio square off for the right to host the Cleveland-Boston winner, and we won't have the charade of .500 teams filling up the bracket.

Instead, we'll have another week of this dreck. And don't even get me started on hockey.

04 April 2017

Save the Save...for the Dustbin of History

It only took one day. One day to remind us of the save's utter fecklessness, and to make us wonder anew why it hasn't been retired to the junk pile, along with the game-winning RBI and the hold.

I refer to the Opening Day tilt between the Phillies and Reds, very possibly a match-up of divisional basement residents. In that game, the Phils held a 4-1 lead going into the bottom of the ninth when they brought in their closer, Mr. Jeanmar Gomez.

Jeanmar the Bullpen Keystone
Ol' Jeanmar earned his closer stripes by notching 37 of 43 saves last season, and also by sucking somewhat less than the rest of the Philadelphia bullpen. In his 69 innings, he allowed a 1.46 WHIP, a .289 batting average and 4.85 ERA. Baseball-reference.com suggests his value was less than replacement level.

Maybe some of that was the immobile, aging defense the Phillies rostered behind him. With the detritus cleared out, maybe Gomez is a better pitcher than those numbers indicate.

Saving the Victory
Well, don't tell yesterday that. Needing three outs to earn a save, Gomez got one, allowed a Zack Cozart single, fanned another and the watched mighty Scooter Gennett take him yard. I don't know anything about the single, but I doubt the dinger could be blamed on Ryan Howard's iron glove, even if he were still playing.

Gomez settled down to coax out number three for a 4-3 win and the save. 

Gomez earned the save solely because the Phillies had the foresight to craft a three-run lead. Consider this: 
  • Had Gomez entered a 2-1 game he would have earned a loss. 
  • Had he entered a 3-1 game a blown save would stain his record. 
  • A 5-1 score would not have provided him with a save opportunity. 
This is a very wise policy. At this rate, the Phils will win all their games, Jeanmar will break the saves record and small children 50 years from now will sing paeans to his door-shutting powers. The 18.00 ERA will be lost to history. 

Which should be the fate of the save.

02 April 2017

Go Game Vaginas!

Shouldn't the South Carolina women's basketball team be called the Game Vaginas?

Whatever you call them, they are now NCAA champs.

 I get to crow about that as a resident of the state of Sa' Calina, once described as too small to be a state and too large to be an insane asylum.

It's been quite a year sportswise for a state without a single major professional team.

The USC women hoopsters have achieved the pinnacle.

The South Carolina men's team beat the odds to make the Final Four.

The Clemson football team is the reigning national champ.

And Coastal Carolina University sits atop the throne of the NCAA baseball world.

We're very proud here. Front page news everyday. It distracts us from the fact that our schools academically rank somewhere in the vicinity of 113th among states in the union, just behind catatonia and just ahead of Mississippi.

Go 'Cocks. And other South Carolina appendages.

31 March 2017

10 Predictions for 2017 That Can't Go Wrong

Anything can happen in baseball. The season is as long as a butterfly's entire life and then they start all over again to determine the champs. Balls take funny bounces, key ligaments incur the wrath of sliders and strokes get lost or discovered.

The game defies prediction.

And yet, there are events that can be foreseen by dropouts with bad depth perception. Here are a few that jump to mind:

1. Someone with an unimpressive resume will bash out of the gate, Adam Duvall style. Hosannas will be sung; articles will be written. And before the electrons are dry, pitchers will figure him out and he'll fade back to well-compensated oblivion.

2. Some September cellar occupant will rattle off early season wins. Try not to have an orgasm. The blooms of May are long forgotten by Labor Day.

3. Some dope with a microphone in his face and diminishing brain cells will rant against analytics, unaware that the debate is over, every team employs a gaggle of numbers crunchers, and MLB itself puts a tape measure and radar gun on every ball thrown, hit and chased. Just because a guy could snap off a curve -- or hit one -- in the 70s doesn't make him smarter than a Pet Rock. (That's White Sox resident Bozo Ken Harrelson proudly posing as avatar of this prediction.)

4, We will continue to hear about momentum, as if it's a thing in sports. Most speakers will mean that a team is playing well and has confidence, but they will invoke momentum as if it's a magic potion created with crystals and feng shui.

5. We'll see fewer infield shifts. You know why? Because those pesky advanced analytics tell us they don't generally work. (Damn those facts! Don't they know America doesn't do facts anymore?) They only make sense for a handful of players who pull everything and won't/can't adjust.

6. Mike Trout will continue his reign as best baseball player on Planet Earth, but he won't win the MVP. Voters get tired of voting for the same guys repeatedly, especially when they're as personally exciting as toast.

7. At least one MVP or Cy Young winner will rise up from the floorboards. Think R.A. Dickey, Brandon Webb, Terry Pendelton, George Bell. 

8. The trend towards using relievers in more optimal ways will continue to grow. Several long relievers will pitch key innings, not mop up, and their teams will benefit from it, particularly as starter throw fewer and fewer innings.

9. People will be surprised when Stephen Strasburg goes on the DL, Pablo Sandoval earns a starting job and the weather turns hot during the summer. Either we have short memories or we're distracted by our phones.

10. Some throwaway name like Tampa Bay shortstop Brad Miller will slug 30 home runs out of nowhere this year. Oh wait, Miller did that last year. Who knew?

29 March 2017

Not the 2017 Standings

What will the 2017 standings look like at season's end? Probably not like the chart below. This is Fangraphs' Zips projections for each team, which has every bit as much value as every other projection system, but less than toilet paper, which has at least one other important use.

Still, it's a starting point for understanding the upcoming season.

Some items to note: 
1. None of the projection systems see much in the way of division races. Zips has the Red Sox winning the AL East by 4 games, but after that there's no drama. It's got Cleveland by 8 in the Central and Houston by 10 in the West.  In the NL, it projects the Nats by 8 and Cubs by 17, and the Dodgers over the Giants by 7 in the West.

2. If all goes according to form, which it literally never does, the Wild Cards are a pair of shootouts at the October corral. This chart rates the Angels Mariners, Rangers and Rays as a toss-up for the second Wild Card behind the Blue Jays. In the NL, the Giants, Mets, Cardinals and Pirates will battle for the play-in game.

3. The most volatile projections belong to the Anaheim Angels, Baltimore Orioles and St. Louis Cardinals. Zips puts the Halos at 83 wins and a Wild Card while Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA rankings have them at 77 wins and 85 losses. PECOTA doesn't believe in the Orioles either, tabbing them at 74 wins and the AL East cellar. And PECOTA is unfathomably dubious about St. Louis, forecasting just 77 wins and a finish behind Milwaukee.

So where do all those wins go in PECOTA? To the basement. Its worst team -- the Royals -- still win 71 games, more than four teams in the ZIPS projections

4. No one is much buying the Rangers, who ran away with their division last season. The advanced metrics suggested that was more a matter of serendipity than talent and regressed the Rangers to their natural ability level. A healthy Yu Darvish could mess with that.

5. The Mets' outlook is dampened severely by health concerns on the mound. They are rated as just the fourth best staff in the NL, barely ahead of Washington in fifth. But if the breaks go their way -- or actually, if there are no breaks, and pulls, tears, strains, tweaks, stiffness, contusions and syndromes are kept to a minimum -- they could be scary good at preventing runs. Of course, if the queen had testicles she'd be king.

6. The White Sox will look to deal whoever isn't nailed down mid-season, so their numbers could suffer in the short term in order to improve quickly down the line. The projections already like the path the Braves are on.

Are you ready? Opening Day's just a couple of days away.

27 March 2017

Here's What 33 Homers Can Do For Your Career

Rougned Odor has an extremely entertaining name. The one bequeathed to him by his father makes our noses itch. The one preceding it, bestowed upon him by (presumably) his mother, makes our brain frown. 

What's more, Roogie packs a punch, as Jose Bautista's jaw can attest. So does his bat, which deposited 33 pitches over the outfield fence in 2016, his third MLB season.

Being 23 and smacking 33 homers has great value, particularly when you're a middle infielder. It's so valuable to the Texas Rangers, that they have reportedly signed him to a six-year $49.5 million contract that takes him through all three years of arbitration and a pair of free agent years. (There is also a seventh-year option.)

Odor would have been in line to make a little more than $500,000 this season before becoming eligible for arbitration after the World Series. Keeping up his current level of play, Odor could have been expected to earn about $24 million in arbitration, and then around $16-$20 million/year in free agency. Moving in early earned the Rangers a discount of $7-$15 million, which seems like a reasonable ending point that puts the major risk on the team.

But at 23, Odor may actually have peaked. The Venezuelan doubled his home run quotient despite walking a meager 19 times. His OBP hovered below .300 and his defense suggests he might be a first baseman by mid-career. For all his power and youth, Odor earned just 2 WAR in 2016, which roughly means he's an average starter at his position -- the keystone. None of these bode well for the future. Few players develop a batting eye with experience, but plenty exhibit one anomalous power season. (FWIW, the projection systems have Odor almost exactly where he was in 2016, with a handful fewer home runs and couple more walks.)

It seems like a reasonable deal for both sides, which is why it got done. Second basemen who leave the yard that often are hard to find. Batters who fan 7X as often as they walk are also hard to find -- in the Majors. We'll see which Odor lingers.