Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Greetings, loyal readers! I wanted to let you all know that I am going to be a News Writer at SoxProspects.com. I will continue to update this blog (though perhaps not quite as frequently) with information and analysis covering all of baseball. I'm very excited for this chance, and I want to thank all of you who have read and given suggestions over the last few years.

Friday, November 18, 2011

New Toronto Blue Jays Uniforms are Excellent

Sorry about the mediocre quality of the photo, lifted from CP24, but it was the best one I could find. Anyhow, I like it a lot.

It has the word "Blue" back in it! The "Jays" uniform/logo never did it for me. Plus, the old alternate uniform being black? Never made sense to me. This logo seems like an excellent mix of an homage to their original logo, with the double-line lettering, and the maple leaf, acknowledging their status as Canada's Team.

Important note. The Blue Jays can be called Canada's Team because they are the only Major League Baseball team that plays in Canada. Unlike in America, where some team, usually the Dallas Cowboys, tries to claim to be America's Team. Only they aren't, because there are lots of other teams in America, and most importantly, lots more people who like other teams better than the team claiming to be America's Team. Especially when it pertains to the Cowboys. Does ANYONE actually like the Dallas Cowboys?


Ok, back to Canada's Team. As you can see from this video from the Blue Jays website, the new uniforms are great, looking like a modern version of their classic uniform. I can't see these getting anything other than universal acclaim. The split font/double-line lettering gives the Blue Jays a look that is instantly recognizable, and the alternate uniforms (usable both at home and the road), might be my second favorite in the game behind the Royals' powder blue number.

The Blue Jays' football counterparts, the Toronto Bills, are 5-4 this year, and I feel strongly that the upgrade in uniform is the biggest reason for their improvement. With that in mind, these new Blue Jay uniforms have to be what, at least a five game swing, right? I exaggerate, but only somewhat - they really do look sharp. Way to step up, Blue Jays!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Melky Cabrera for Jonathan Sanchez Trade Breakdown

When I first saw the news of the deal where the Royals sent outfielder Melky Cabrera to the Giants for starting pitcher Jonathan Sanchez and minor leaguer Ryan Verdugo, my first thought was that it was a great deal for the Royals – they traded a mediocre outfielder coming off his best season for a high-upside power lefty coming off of a down year, a move that upgrades their rotation and opens up the center field spot in 2011 for Lorenzo Cain. It seemed like a classic case of buying low and selling high executed by Dayton Moore, and the opposite by Brian Sabean. I had this rated as a big ripoff by the Royals.

At second glance, though, I started to wonder. There were a lot of unanswered questions. Was Jonathan Sanchez really any sort of good bet to turn his career around? Is Melky Cabrera actually better than I’ve given him credit for? Is Lorenzo Cain good enough to play center in the majors? Did Dayton Moore actually trade an ex-Brave for a non-ex-Brave without the world collapsing into itself?

This is a pretty classic trade of two teams dealing from strengths to fill weaknesses. The Giants had the second best ERA by their starting pitchers in the National League, behind only the Phillies. They had four qualified starters, and of the four, the highest was Madison Bumgarner’s 3.21 ERA. It’s probably not fair to expect Ryan Vogelsong to duplicate his 2011 season, but Bumgarner along with Lincecum and Cain are probably the best 1-2-3 in baseball outside of Philadelphia. A “high-upside” fifth starter who they’ve been trying for years to develop was probably one of the luxuries Brian Sabean felt they couldn’t afford. That’s particularly true of the Giants, who had a .228/.299/.347 line from the CF position in 2011, the lowest OBP and OPS in the NL. Meanwhile, the Royals had the second worst starting pitcher ERA in the American League, and do have depth in the outfield.

Trading from strength for weakness alone doesn’t make a good trade though. The Phillies won’t be trading Cole Hamels for Lyle Overbay just because they have good starting pitching and need a first baseman for 2012. The trade also needs to be at least somewhat even, right?

First, Jonathan Sanchez. There will always be a demand for lefty power pitchers. That’s especially true when it’s a lefty with a K/9 of 9.4 in over 700 career innings, and a no-hitter on his resume. There’s no doubt that Sanchez has talent. In 2010, what appeared to be a breakout season, he allowed only 142 hits while striking out 205 in 193.1 innings. He also led the National League with 96 walks, but you take the good with the bad, right? That still left him with a K/BB over the magic 2.0 threshold. In 2011, though, he took a big step backward. The K/9 dropped from 9.5 to 9.1, the BB/9 leapt from a barely sustainable 4.5 to a totally untenable 5.9, causing his ERA to go from 3.07 to 4.26. Sanchez also missed significant time with a biceps injury, going on the DL from June 26 until August 1, then again from August 17 to the end of the year. It’s fair to assume that the biceps injury was negatively affecting the pitching, but still, this was a great disappointment coming off of a 2010 that seemed to be his big breakthrough. At the end of the year, Sanchez is left with an ERA+ of only 97 for his career with a K/BB ratio under 2.0.

Then, there’s Melky Cabera. I posted here earlier this year comparing Cabrera’s offense to the much more highly touted B.J. Upton. However, the point of that post wasn’t to praise Cabrera as much as it was to bury Upton. Cabrera did have a legitimately good season at the plate in 2011, by far the best of his career. That makes some sense though, as it was his age 26 season. A lot of the years when Cabrera kind of stunk for the Yankees, it’s important to keep in mind he was doing it at an age where most guys are in college. In 2011, Cabrera had a .305/.339/.470 slash line. The power was new – that slugging percentage of .470 blew away his previous career high of .416, and he set career highs not only in raw doubles and home runs, but also in the rate that he hit them. So, was this a breakout or a fluke? It’s hard to say for sure, but there are a couple of discouraging signs. Since it’s likely that the power increase was at least somewhat for real, it’s also likely that he was just hitting the ball harder in general. However, he’d never been close to that .335 BABIP before – for his career, he was at .293 going into 2011. On top of that, his walk rate was much lower than it had been previously. Once every 20 PA, down from one every 12. Considering the increase in his power stats, one might assume that he was just making more contact early in his at-bats, but his strike out rate was actually worse than his career rate. Bring his BABIP down from .335 to a more likely .315, and his slash line drops to .289/.322/.453.

Keep in mind. .289/.322/.453 is still a pretty solid center fielder, especially since for the Giants. Again, that position managed only a .228/.299/.347 line in 2011. Is Melky Cabrera really a center fielder though? According to Baseball-Reference.com, his dWAR in 2011 was -1.9. FanGraphs shows him with a -8.6 UZR, fifth worst in baseball. This is a major problem. When I compared Cabrera positively with B.J. Upton earlier in the year, that was an offense-only comparison. Upton is one of the better defensive centerfielders around, which is why he has so much more value than Cabrera. If we’re predicting him to have an OPS somewhere in the .775 range, that’s tough to take in a corner for most teams. It's possible Cabrera really is a tweener, without the glove to carry him in center or the bat to carry him at a corner. Though, in what is likely a fluke but deserves some attention, left fielders around baseball simply stunk in 2011 – only three teams got a .775 OPS out of the left field position. So, with that info, it's fair to say Cabrera is due more credit than he gets. Regarding the San Francisco Giants, the possible alternatives just don't seem to be all that strong. Melky Cabrera may not be an optimal choice in LF/CF, but he is an significant upgrade in San Fran.

If you clicked on that link of left field production, you notice that the Kansas City Royals were one of those three teams, getting an excellent year out of Alex Gordon, who finally blossomed this year. The Royals are committed to their youth movement with Lorenzo Cain (though it’s fair to note that Cain is only 20 months younger than Cabrera). Going into the offseason, many thought it would be Cain on the trading block, coming off a very strong minor league season. Reports linked him to the Braves in a potential Jair Jurrjens deal at the trading deadline. Dayton Moore is sticking with the rebuilding plan, though, and Cain’s .305/.377/.476 line in 671 Triple-A plate appearances shows that he’s earned his chance. 

In the interest of providing a complete analysis, know that Ryan Verdugo's future is in the bullpen. After some successful years in the low minors as a reliever, the Giants worked at converting him to starting in Double-A. The rise in home run rate and drop in strike out rate means a move back to the pen is forthcoming. With 167 strikeouts in 113 innings from 2008 to 2010 in the bullpen, it's not fair to write Verdugo off as a non-prospect, but he will turn 25 very early in the 2012 season and has not yet had success above Single-A. 

For the Royals, I think this was a no-brainer. They got what may end up being the best season of Melky Cabrera’s career in exchange for nothing, then spun him for a potentially good starting pitcher while giving his long-term replacement some useful seasoning in Triple-A. Dayton Moore did a great job here, and I think this move makes the Royals closer to being a contender.

However, the fact that it was definitely a good move for the Royals doesn’t mean it’s a bad one for the Giants. Sanchez is at best a fourth starter in their organization, and their outfield is dreadful, particularly with the news that Pat Burrell’s career is probably over. Melky Cabrera is an upgrade for them even if he regresses to where I think he will. The only way I could criticize the Giants is if I thought they could’ve gotten more for Sanchez. Perhaps it was a mistake to trade him coming off of a down year, and they could have brought him to camp and shown the world he was healthy, but the Giants are looking to contend in 2012. They need to have a roster of guys who can help them win in place on opening day, and not worry about showcasing pitching for other teams. The Giants are better after this trade than they were before it, which means Brian Sabean did his job.

Maybe it’s boring or too noncommittal to analyze a trade and say it was a sensible move for both teams, but that’s where I stand on this one.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Twins Dismiss GM Bill Smith

After using this space for a couple negative posts about the now-former Twins GM, I finally post about what I believe is a sensible move made by Bill Smith. He gets fired three days later.

On the most basic level, this move can't be described as shocking. With all due respect to the Red Sox and Braves, the Twins were 2011's most disappointing team. Harboring playoff hopes in spring training, they lost 99 games. When a team has a 31-game dropoff, management has to be seen as accountable, right? However, most of the narrative regarding the Twins' season seemed to revolve around the injury problems to Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau, while ignoring the dreadful trade history that led them to be so dependent on those two. Even the senseless dump of Delmon Young didn't seem to get much attention, even when Young was hitting home runs for a division rival in the playoffs. Long story short - while there were a lot of reasons to be blaming Bill Smith for the the terrible season the Twins were having, it didn't seem like many of the major news outlets were. 

Perhaps that's because the idea of the Twins firing their GM never occurred to anyone. If that's the case it's for good reason. (If you need to read this sentence twice, that's ok - I didn't believe it either.) The Minnesota Twins had never fired a General Manager before. I repeat. The. Minnesota. Twins. Had. Never. Fired. A. General. Manager. Calvin Griffith was owner and GM when he moved the team to Minnesota from Washington in 1961. He remained in that position until selling the Twins in 1984. Howard Fox was the interim GM until owner Carl Pohlad hired Andy McPhail to the position permanently. McPhail stayed on until 1994, when he resigned to take the Chicago Cubs job. Terry Ryan was hired to replace him, and Ryan stayed until 2007, when he resigned, citing burnout. So Bill Smith is the first Minnesota Twins GM to ever be fired. Ever the model of stability, Twins ownership has handed the reins back to Terry Ryan, at least on an interim basis.

While Smith had garnered great accolades as a talent evaluator before taking the GM job, his inability to properly assess value seems to have been his undoing. His failure wasn't necessarily trading the wrong players, just that he always seemed to trade players at the point when their value had cratered. Assessing the skill of a player is different from assessing the value of a player, and for all the renown Smith garnered in the Twins organization for the former, he never did seem to get a handle on the latter.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Twins and Matt Maloney are a Good Match

I've used a fair amount of this space to criticize Minnesota Twins GM Bill Smith. In the interests of fairness, I must say that his early offseason waiver acquisition of left-handed pitcher Matt Maloney seems like a sensible one. I don't think it's the kind of move that's going to vault the Twins back into contention on its own, but I do think it's the sort of low-level signing that mid-market teams need to be on the lookout for. Maloney and the Twins seem specifically to be a good pairing.

When you think of the prototypical Minnesota Twins starting pitcher over the last 15 years, what comes to mind? For me, it's a bunch of guys with middling stuff who succeed by pounding the strike zone. Sure, there were the three exceptional Johan Santana years from 2004 to 2006, where he did everything he's supposed to. But in general, when I think of Twins pitching, it's more in the Brad Radke or Kevin Slowey mode.

The concept of Twins starting pitchers as strike throwers is not a figment of our imaginations. In 2011, Twins pitchers finished with the sixth fewest walks in the American League. However, in the ten years previous, they finished third in walks one time (2003), second three times (2001, 2002 and 2007), and first the other SIX times. From 2004 until 2010, they had the fewest walks in the American League every year except one. In 2010, they only walked 383 batters all season, 69 fewer than the Seattle Mariners, who finished second. That number shot up to 480 in 2011, an increase of .6 every nine innings. The demise of the pinpoint control that was so long the standard in Minnesota didn't get talked about much simply because it came in a season where so many other things went wrong. If Twins had done everything else they'd done well in 2010, maybe we'd have been hearing a bunch of "why have Twins pitchers stopped throwing so many strikes" stories. 

If throwing strikes is the the qualification, Maloney is hired. In 80 major league innings, he has walked only 17 batters. In 516 Triple-A innings going back to 2007, he has only 108 walks. He fits in perfectly with the Twins mantra of pounding the strike zone, making batters earn their way onto first base.

Now, maybe some Cincinnati Reds fan is reading this, shaking his head and saying "wait a second - there's a lot more to pitching than throwing strikes. I've seen Matt Maloney enough over the past three years, and he stinks!" 

Those are both good points. There is obviously a lot more to pitching than simply not walking people. Josh Tomlin had the lowest walk rate in the American League this year, and he was only able to translate that into a mediocre 4.25 ERA. Meanwhile, Gio Gonzalez was walking men at almost four times Tomlin's rate, and ended up with a 3.12 ERA. This is appropriate to Maloney who has a 5.40 ERA at the major league level, despite a BB/9 rate of under 2.0. Why is his ERA so high? Because he has allowed more home runs than walks - 18 in those 80 innings. Oof. 

So if Maloney gives up so many home runs, why would the Twins want him? There are two possible reasons. The first is that he Twins may believe that his high home run rate so far is a fluke, based in part on a disastrous 1.2 inning relief appearance against the Diamondbacks where he allowed three home runs. The second is that the Twins may be so desperate for pitching that they're willing to sign anyone who proves himself capable of throwing a baseball 60 feet, 6 inches. There is some truth, I think, to both of these suggestions.

Maloney's minor league home run rates are totally within the realm of acceptability. 48 home runs in those 516 Triple-A innings shows that he's been keeping the ball in the park at that level. There is some evidence that minor league hitters don't deal well with pitchers who change speeds and mix pitches well--which is why they're in the minor leagues. This tends to inflate the minor league numbers of some junkballers. So, perhaps Maloney is in the Lenny Dinardo category. Let's be fair, though - even Dinardo got 257 major league innings to prove he didn't have major league stuff. Often, those types of pitchers will see a jump in their walk rate once reaching the majors, which Maloney has not.

Maloney's short 2011 stint has some ugly numbers, based on some unsustainably unlucky rate states. A .408 BABIP? Home runs allowed on 22.6% of fly balls?? I don't think there are home runs on 22.6% of fly balls in the home run derby. Regression to the mean and a move from Great American Ballpark to the more pitcher-friendly Target Field will bring that down significantly. Two of the top three in HR/FB% among 100 pitchers were Edinson Volquez and Bronson Arroyo - the ball was flying out of that place last year. Maybe Maloney's stuff makes him more prone to a high percentage of fly balls leaving the yard, but 12%-15% is probably the peak.

Matt Maloney pitching for Louisville against the Syracuse Chiefs.
With a K/BB ratio that's remained over 3.0 in the majors, (even during his crummy 2011 stint), ball in play that should improve by accident and a more friendly ballpark, what should we look for from Maloney in a Twins uniform? He has a 3.57 Triple-A ERA, and a 4.57 major league xFIP, so far. I think that 4.50 ERA range is a good estimate. That's not going to win him the Cy Young Award, but it would make him an improvement over several of the guys the Twins went through in 2011. 

Quick recommendation to the Twins management (who I assume will never see this) - PLEASE resist the urge to make Maloney a short/one-out reliever. His lack of a fastball has led to a total lack of any platoon advantage. There's nothing in his profile that suggests he'd be more successful out of the bullpen. If he's not in the starting rotation, he should either be a traditional "long reliever," or hanging out as insurance in Triple-A Rochester, where he can enjoy a DiBella's Sub while waiting for the call. Matt, I recommend the Dagwood. 

While Maloney isn't going to be any kind of franchise savior, I think Bill Smith has made a good move for a useful pitcher who can provide some depth and innings at somewhere slightly above replacement level. After an ugly 2011, the Twins need that.

Photo credit: "Matt Maloney pitching in Syracuse, NY" by BubbaFan, uploaded from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMatt_Maloney_2009.jpg

Friday, October 28, 2011

That Was Awesome

You kind of had a feeling, didn't you?

The Rangers were one strike away from winning the World Series. Up by two runs, bottom of the 9th, Neftali Feliz on the mound. Yet - the season didn't quite feel ready to end. After a regular season with the most exciting final day of the wild card era? After three of four division series went all five games? After an LCS where both series went six, with the winning teams doing so in pretty unconventional, bullpen-centric ways? Nah, this season would live on  another night.

So when David Freese ripped a two run triple over the head of Nelson Cruz, was anyone really surprised? Excited, sure. But that's the way this year has gone.

So we go extra innings for the first time in World Series since 2005. (World Series' the last few years have been duds, I have to say). After losing the chance to win, many teams might have been deflated. The Rangers? A Josh Hamilton two run homer in the top of the 10th. That had to seal the game right? I mean, a team hadn't scored two runs in the top of the 10th inning in a World Series and still managed to lose since Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.




I've heard some talk today that there's no way the Rangers come back and win after such a crushing blow last night. To that, the only thing I can say is... REALLY? You've been watching baseball the last three weeks and you think that Rangers team is going to roll over and die? They already put up a two run 10th after leading by two with one strike to go. Sure, Chris Carpenter might be dominant tonight, and maybe the narrative will be that it's because the Rangers were "demoralized," but I'll be pretty skeptical of that. 

So, here we go. Game 7. I love baseball.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Mike Napoli, Hall of Famer?

One of my favorite articles written in the past few years comes, not surprisingly, from Joe Posnanski. In The Hall of Could Have Been, Joe discusses several players who might be described as "alternate universe" Hall of Famers - guys who might be in the Hall today if their careers had taken slightly different turns. He leaves out discussion of guys whose career was cut short by injury or interrupted by war, and focuses on those players who just didn't catch their breaks.

Some were obvious - Bert Blyleven's case, for example, and he fortunately did finally gain induction this year. Fred Lynn's statistical dropoff after leaving Boston has also been much-discussed. Others, less so. The Matt Stairs reference really piqued my interest at the time. His career numbers were so far short of a Hall of Famer, I'd never thought of him that way. I discussed this in an earlier post, and it's worth pointing out that Stairs' career home run rate was higher than that of Jim Rice.

In the last few months, while he was dominating the American League, I thought about Mike Napoli. I mentioned that in my World Series preview. With his performance the last two nights, Napoli stands a great chance of winning the World Series MVP Award if the Rangers hold on to win. In light of these occurrences, I'd like to make a bold pronouncement.

If he hadn't spent his 20's playing for a manager that didn't value his offense, Mike Napoli would be headed for the Hall of Fame.

Who are the best hitting catchers of all time? Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench and Mike Piazza. (Josh Gibson, too, but we don't have enough statistical information on him).  Through age 29, Berra homered once every 21.9 at bats, Bench every 19.3, Piazza every 15.6, playing in the greatest offensive era of all time. Mike Napoli? At 15.7, he is the slightest tick behind Piazza, a player with similar defensive difficulties to Napoli who nevertheless got a chance to play because, well, you'd either have to be an idiot or Mike Scioscia to not want a guy who could be a reasonable facsimile of a catcher and hit a home run once every 15.6 at bats. Sure, Piazza hit for a much higher average than Napoli, and Berra and Bench were vastly superior defensive players. But it's not like those three are borderline Hall of Fame guys. Bench was elected, on 96.4% of ballots cast, in his first year of eligibility. Berra had to wait until year two, because voters in the 1960's and 70's did things like that - Joe Dimaggio didn't even get in on his first year. Piazza might have to deal with ridiculous steroid allegations, but on the numbers alone, he'd be in the Hall upon eligibility in 2013.

Let's look at Napoli's career numbers:



What do you notice? First off, the guy homers a LOT. He also strikes out a lot, leading to some batting averages that some people wouldn't be thrilled with, but overall that's pretty amazing production from the catching position.

For comparison's sake, let's take a look at the guy Mike Scioscia often preferred to play, Jeff Mathis.


Mathis gets bagged on a lot. I'm sure he's a nice guy and a fine defensive catcher, but the guy is an automatic out. It's hard to picture any manager other than Mike Scioscia giving a hitter like this half the playing time over a five year period. I'm not sure how bad Napoli would have to be defensively and how good Mathis would have to be to make up for the difference in their offensive production. I'm pretty sure it would involve Mathis framing every single pitch so that Angel pitchers never threw a ball, and Napoli using the Bob Uecker knuckleball approach on every single pitch, simply waiting until it stopped rolling to pick it up to toss it back to the pitcher. Even then, it would be close. If Napoli has a lower batting average than you'd like, how can you take a guy who has a lower career OBP than Napoli's batting average? The difference has become more pronounced in the last two years, with Mathis compiling an OPS+ of exactly 37 in both seasons. I'm not the biggest plan of OPS+, but THIRTY-SEVEN? Over 499 plate appearances? In his last 499 plate appearances, Mike Napoli has 33 home runs! His home run total is almost as high as Mathis's OPS+! These numbers are mind boggling.

So, let's move to an alternate universe. One in which Mike Napoli is not within the clutches of Mike Scioscia, and his manager instead notices that he's managing the best power hitting catcher in the world. Said manager gives Napoli 550 plate appearances per year. Let's recalculate his stats, based on that, shall we? I've left his rookie 2006 season intact, and pro-rated every season since.

Note: Because of rounding, some of the calculated seasonal rate stats will vary slightly from what they were in reality. 



Hmmm. We now have a player who has seasons of 40 and 38 homers, twice has 90+ RBI, and has 50 extra base hits for four consecutive years. Let's compare that to some other Hall of Fame catchers through their age 29 seasons.

Fake Napoli307526274426961406168450359750.265.363.515.878
Johnny Bench630455548241491294212871038655941.268.343.484.827
Mike Piazza3482311951110381484200644330493.333.396.575.972
Carlton Fisk2825249141171012023114376272405.285.360.489.849
Gary Carter50254422608119022422188688485597.269.342.457.799
Yogi Berra43333964646117517737181790332179.296.354.497.851

Unsurprisingly, Napoli is second in slugging percentage. Perhaps more suprisingly, he's also second in on-base percentage, assisted by a comparatively high walk rate. It should be noted that Bench, Piazza, Carter and Berra have a sizable lead in counting stats, even over alternate universe Napoli, simply because they got earlier starts. All except Piazza were big prospects (especially Bench), and Piazza got immediate playing time once he made it to the big leagues.

So, I decided to take the our alternate universe Mike Napoli and calculate some of his similarity scores based on the baseball-reference.com version. Here's what I came up with for players through age 29. 

Note: These may be incomplete, since I was running through the players based on the similarity scores of other guys. There were about 100 players that I calculated similarity scores for, and probably 100 more that I looked through. Least similar player that I ran a score for? Bobby Doerr.

1. Javy Lopez (919)
2. Gabby Hartnett* (907)
3. Charles Johnson (905)
4. Carlton Fisk* (904)
5. Matt Nokes (886)
6. Gus Traindos (885)
7. Toddy Hundley (8801)
8. Del Crandall (881)
9. Gene Tenace (876)
10. Ramon Hernandez (876)

Ok - so of the top 10 comparable players, only two are Hall of Famers. Interesting to note, though, that these comparability scores are all so far off. Of this group, only Lopez had a home run rate better than every 20 at bats. Napoli, of course, is under 16. Also, I don't care for how B-R uses batting average, rather than OBP, in their calculation. Let's swap that out.

1. Gabby Hartnett* (929)
2. Carlton Fisk* (921)
3. Javier Lopez (919)
4. Victor Martinez (890)
5. Charles Johnson (887)
6. Gene Tenace (885)
7. Earl Battey (867)
8. Todd Hundley (862)
9. Gus Triandos (859)
10. Mike Piazza^ (855)

*Dave Nilsson rated an 898 on the first list, and a 910 on the second, if you put his position as a catcher. He only played about 1/2 his time up to his age 29 season as a catcher, and very little in the last few years. I decided to use a weighted position scale, which dropped him out of the top 10, but it's likely that some would include him.

So we lose Nokes, Crandall, and Hernandez and replace them with Martinez, Battey and Piazza. Hartnett and Fisk move up to 1-2. The underrated Tenace moves up to 6th. This is a pretty impressive group of comparables. Among these players, only Piazza has more home runs. Only Piazza and Hartnett have a higher SLG. 

To conclude, while Alternate Universe Mike Napoli isn't quite a slam dunk "I'm only 29 and I'm surely headed to the Hall of Fame" case that Johnny Bench was, his career lines up nicely with some guys who did make it. Real-life Mike Napoli has no such luck. 

Still, out of Mike Scioscia's doghouse, Napoli has gotten a real opportunity to shine. Again, the power hasn't been a surprise - he's always hit for power. Arguably more rewarding has been the plaudits Napoli has earned on defense. Most metrics seem to agree with the Ranger coaching staff that Napoli has been improved behind the plate. And for Scioscia, shouldn't that be more damning than anything else? I mean, it's one thing to overemphasize defense over offense - it's quite another to be considered a master instructor, and than have a former player improve mightily from the moment he escapes. If Scioscia's tyranny kept Napoli out of the Hall of Fame, it's fair to imagine that Napoli's emergence might do the same to Scioscia - once considered one of the best managers in the business, his reputation has taken a hit this year.

In the end, while it will always be interesting to consider the career arc of Alternate Universe Mike Napoli, what's really thrilling is seeing the real life version finally make the impact we knew he was capable of. Now we can all live Napoli Ever After.

Tables were made using TABLEIZER!

Monday, October 24, 2011

No Theo, Thank You

No snark. I mean that.

You likely have heard by now that Theo Epstein has taken a job with the Chicago Cubs. Upon his departure, he took out a full page ad in the Boston Globe, thanking "Red Sox Nation."

No need to thank us, Theo. We've been harder on you than you've deserved, particularly in the last 18 months. Last year's team wasn't that great, and this year they sort of fell apart, so I suppose that's expected. Still, the narrative that Theo was overrated and hadn't done a good job seemed a little silly. After all, he was the GM for two World Series Champions in Boston.

Rewind for a second. It's fall 2002, Theo has just been hired. You visit the oracle, and he tells you that Theo will win two World Series, but that when he leaves in 2011, people will be calling him an overrated failure. What would your response be to that oracle? Mine would be "wow, Red Sox fans are really the miserable jerks that the world thinks we are, huh?"

First, the myth that Dan Duquette really built the 2004 championship team, and Epstein just skated in on Theo's work. After all, Theo is the one who had brought in star players Manny Ramirez and Pedro Martinez. Anyone who has been following the Red Sox for any length of time knows that having stars has never been the problem. It's been filling out the roster sensibly, getting production from second tier guys. Those mid-level pickups that other teams always seem to find, but Boston never does. Right? Well, let's check out The Greatest Game in Red Sox History (Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS).

For those of you who don't remember (likely anyone who is under the age of 10, because if you're older than that and don't remember that game, you're not reading this blog right now), let's give a quick reminder. Against the greatest closer in history, controversial Theo Epstein acquisition Kevin Millar walks to lead off the 9th inning. Theo Epstein acquisition Dave Roberts pinch runs for Millar, and steals second base. Theo Epstein acquisition Bill Mueller then hits a single to right field, scoring Roberts. Theo Epstein acquisition Keith Foulke pitches 2.2 scoreless innings out of the bullpen. Finally, in the bottom of the 11th, Theo Epstein acquision David Ortiz hits a game winning home run.

That was not a Dan Duquette team. Theo Epstein had built an offense of patient, professional hitters. He rebuilt a bullpen that had significant trouble in the first half of 2003. Top put them over the top, he acquired a top starter in Curt Schilling to take some of the workload off of the bullpen, and hired a manger in Terry Francona whose temperament was just right for dealing with that group.

Was the 2011 team overpaid and underachieving? Of course. That collapse was everyone's fault, from the players to the manager to the GM to the ownership. The lack of pitching that killed them at the end of the season didn't sneak up on them - they'd been pitching badly all season, and expecting to hit so much to overcome that was probably a tad myopic. He went out and got injury-plagued Erik Bedard, who turned out to get injured. They didn't give Alfredo Aceves a chance to start (and the press buried David Ortiz for stating the obvious regarding it), and he ended up being second on the staff in September innings anyway. 

You know what though? The Red Sox scored the most runs in the major leagues in 2011. For all the mistakes that he made, Theo Epstein STILL had built the dominant lineup in baseball. He's inheriting a bigger challenge with the Cubs, of course. Theo DID have the cornerstone of a franchise in place when he came aboard in Boston, something he doesn't have the benefit of in Chicago, an organization that needs to be completely rebuilt from top to bottom. It's a bigger challenge. I wish him luck.

In the meantime though, he deserves our thanks. He set out to bring Red Sox fans a championship. He won us two. That's how he should be remembered.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Top Ten Reasons to Watch the World Series

I've heard a few people complaining about the World Series this year, talking about how the "ratings" are going to be too low, how they were rooting for other teams to make it, and on and on. While this wasn't the matchup I was expecting, there are a ton of storylines that any good baseball fan should be excited about. Here are 10 I find appealing.

1. Old vs. New

Up until the Giants and Dodgers moved in 1958, the St. Louis Cardinals were the "western" team in Major League Baseball. They still have a huge fan base throughout the west. This is their 18th National League Pennant, and they are looking for their 11th World Series title - both are leaders among National League Franchises. They're the only team who has appeared in as many as three of the past 10 World Series. Their manager, Tony LaRussa, has won 2,728 games, third most all time. Their best player, Albert Pujols, is the greatest player in the game today, a sure bet Hall of Famer, and, by the time he is finished, may be one of the top 10 players of all time.

The Texas Rangers have never won a World Series. Before last year, they'd never even won a playoff series. They've spent their existence in the shadow of the Dallas Cowboys. "It's a football town" people would say, and the Rangers never really did anything to prove otherwise. In the last couple of years, though, things have changed. Some shrewd moves by GM Jon Daniels and a new organizational philosophy led by team president Nolan Ryan, manager Ron Washington, and, with far less fanfare, pitching coach Mike Maddux has had the Rangers winning, and perhaps more importantly, the fans responding. The Ballpark in Arlington has been louder the last two years than any other stadium in baseball. The New Yankee Stadium has the louder fans pushed back too far - the place doesn't rumble like the old yard. Fenway Park has become too expensive, and the rabid fans of previous decades have been replaced by business customers and yuppies more interested in singing "Sweet Caroline*." Rangers' fans have really picked up the slack. Is it bandwagon jumping, or is this the real deal? It's hard to tell. Football will always be king in Texas, but that doesn't mean baseball can't be huge as well. The Dallas-Arlington-Fort Worth metroplex is the fourth largest in the United States. The three who are larger (NY, LA, Chicago) each have two baseball teams who BOTH get tons of support. Doesn't it seem likely that the Rangers can join them? They've been well-run and have a huge population (a.k.a. revenue) base to work off of. They just signed a new TV contract last fall worth $80M a year. The word "dynasty" was thrown out in a couple spots, which is dumb, because they haven't won a World Series yet, but the Rangers have everything in place to be able to be an annual contender the way the Red Sox and Yankees are. They combine effective traditional scouting and development with smart statistical analysis. They are baseball's new school.

*Ok, I actually like Sweet Caroline. It's a good little ditty. But hearing it over and over in the midst of the Red Sox collapse made it, and the Sox fanbase, something of a laughingstock. The idea that it "rubbed off on the team" was preposterous - the Red Sox didn't lose their lead because they were complacent, they lost because their pitching stunk. The complacency of the fans singing whimsically while their baseball team collapsed around them is a pretty strong narrative of the change in mindset over at Fenway in the last 10 years. Anyway, that's the last I have to say about the Red Sox today. This is about the Cardinals and Rangers. I swear.

2. Star Power.

Albert Pujols. Josh Hamilton. Your 2011 World Series on Fox, coming up next.

That sounds... about right. I mean, doesn't it? Two of the best, most exciting and most popular players in the game, as the centerpiece of their pennant winning teams. Hamilton's season was off quite a bit from his 2010 MVP campaign, but his .536 slugging was still good for 8th in the American League. And his story is well-established.

Albert Pujols had the worst season of his career, when he hit .299/.366/.541. That should pretty much speak for itself. . During the first two round of the playoffs, he's hit .419/.490/.721. His first double of the World Series will set the record for most in a single postseason.

Baseball-reference.com gives him a career WAR of 89,1, good enough for 41st all time. At 31 years old, that puts him immediately below Randy Johnson, Warren Spahn and Cal Ripken. He's 18.3 away from the top 20. Whatever your feeling are on the WAR statistic, it seems to get the overarching career narrative down. Pujols is one of the greatest players of all time, and he's playing in the World Series. Isn't that enough of a reason to watch?

3. Chris Carpenter vs. C.J. Wilson


Neither pitching staff did especially much in the league championship series. Carpenter got the win with 5 mediocre innings against the Brewers. C.J. Wilson followed up his bad start in the LDS with a start that didn't get him out of the 5th inning and another where he gave up 6 runs in 6 innings. So far in the playoffs, he has an 8.04 ERA with 6 homers allowed in 15.2 innings.

That's only part of the story. Carpenter pitched a gem in game 5 of the NLDS, a 3 hit, complete game shutout against Roy Halladay. He NEEDED to be that good, too - Halladay gave up only one run. Carpenter was that much better that day, and it's the reason his team is still playing. He had two additional complete game shutouts in September. He's won one Cy Young Award, and also has a second place and third place finish on his resume. Since joining the Cardinals in 2004, he has 95 wins and a 3.04 ERA (good for a 134 ERA+). He is one of the few true, established aces in the game.

C.J. Wilson was a relief pitcher through 2009. Benefitting more than anyone from the tutelage of Nolan Ryan and Mike Maddux, he's complied 427 innings over the past two years. After last year, I was skeptical of his, and the Rangers success. In this year's AL West preview, I wrote that "If he can get that walk rate down from 4.1 per 9 to the mid 3's, then he may be able to keep up his success. If that walk rate stays up though, his ERA will follow." Wilson did more than that - he got his walk rate to a flat 3.0 per nine, and his strikeout rate jumped from 7.5 to 8.3 - the jump in K/BB from 1.83 to 2.78 resulted in a drop in ERA from 3.35 to 2.94. The success of Wilson and the success of the Rangers seem to very much be the same story. Both proved me wrong - the Rangers proved to be a legitimate contender, and Wilson proved to be a legitimate ace.

4. Breakout performers in the 2011 playoffs who aren’t actually that young. 

David Freese. Nelson Cruz. Alexi Ogando. Mike Napoli. Marc Rzepczynski*. Jason Motte. 
Only Freese is younger than 28, and he just had one of the best LCS performances in history. Arbitration eligible, he's been a good player since being called up in 2009, but has probably won himself a nice raise and enough goodwill to not have to compete for the starting 3B job next year. Cruz might not totally belong on this list, because he's made an All-Star team, but his ridiculous ALCS performance demands it. Ogando was named ace of the All-Ugly team. Rzepczynski had a 1.93 ERA and a memorable Game 6 performance where Tony LaRussa actually let a reliever pitch to more than 3 batters. He also has a name that rather lends itself to memorability. Jason Motte has pitched 8 scoreless innings in the playoffs, saving four games. The playoffs lend themselves particularly well to previously little known relievers becoming household names - Brian Wilson appearing in Taco Bell commercials goes to show that power.

For me though, the most satisfying is Mike Napoli. His dominant offensive statistics and lack of playing time led people to write things that would make you think Mike Scioscia was some sort of evil dictator or complete fool. Ok, maybe he is those things, because HE DIDN'T PLAY MIKE NAPOLI. Evoke the name of Matt Stairs, and some smart people, like Bill James and Joe Posnanski, will tell you that if he'd gotten the chance to play in his 20's he might have been a Hall of Famer. People will be saying the same thing about Napoli, only there is more evidence to back it up. He's been a dominant offensive player for six years, and he now gets the chance to show everyone.

*Note: On my original draft of this, I correctly spelled Rzepczynski, but misspelled "Marc," ending it with a k. Sounds about right.

5. Bullpens – overused or just awesome?

In the NLCS, St. Louis starting pitchers had only 24.1 innings in six games, leaving 28.2 for the bullpen. Tony LaRussa made 28 pitching changes, 4.66 per game. Yet they managed to win 3 games and compile a 1.88 ERA. Lance Lynn, not even on the previous rounds roster, pitched in 5 games. He gave up zero runs. Rzepczynski also pitched in 5 games. In game 6, he pitched 2.1 innings; in the other four games, he pitched a total of 2.1 innings. 

In the ALCS, Texas starting pitcher made it 28.2 innings in their six games, leaving but a meager 27.1 for the bullpen. Ron Washington made 25 pitching changes, 4.12 per game. Yet their bullpen won all four games, with a 1.32 ERA. Mike Adams pitched in 5 games, Feliz and Ogando in four apiece. Ogando, arguably the teams second best starter all year, won two of their games and gave up only 1 run in 7.2 innings, striking out 10. What appeared to be a tired arm down the stretch appears to be revitalized pitching in shorter stretches. 

Can they keep it up? This sort of usage is extreme, and it's easy to say "if these teams want to win, they're going to get more use out of their starters. But the truth is that both teams, particularly the Rangers, have a TON of talent in their bullpens. I wouldn't ADVISE a strategy that involves taking out your starter in the 5th inning with the bases loaded and 6 runs already allowed, but both these teams have the offensive firepower and bullpen talent to overcome it.

6. Implications for Free Agents

Ok, this isn't something I'm personally interested in, because I hate to see good players leave good teams. Baseball is definitely better off if Albert Pujols stays on the Cardinals, and probably better off if C.J. Wilson does the same. Equally importantly, both players are probably better off if they stay in the same place, as the enormous goodwill for Michael Young shows. There's something to be said for a player being identifiable with a team. If Jorge Posada wasn't a Yankee in 1996, he wouldn't have been one in 2011. That said, the story is there, and will be talked about. 

The truth is, there's nothing Albert Pujols could do in this series to change his value, other than perhaps suffer some horrific injury. If he went 16 for 18 with 12 home runs, he probably wouldn't earn one cent more. If he goes 0 for 18 and strikes out 14 times, he probably won't get one cent less. His record of excellence is established, and anyone who thinks they're going to measure him based on four to seven games is a fool. Be ready, though, for a lot of "will this be Albert's final this, this and this as a member of the Cardinals."

Measuring CJ Wilson on the (possible) two games he'll pitch in this series is probably just as silly, but he certainly has a chance to set perception of him as an elite performer. He will be the best free agent pitcher available - I'm ignoring CC Sabathia who will almost definitely a) listen to some posturing about how the Yankees would not be happy to renegotiate with Sabathia if he opts out, b) exercise his opt-out clause, then  c) resign with the Yankees, for six or seven years, in relatively short order. There's little that shocks me anymore in baseball, but a chain of events that isn't as I described would at least surprise me. Anyhow, that leaves Wilson as the best starting pitcher available as a free agent. Wilson is on the cusp of ace-ville. He has 9.4 WAR over the past two years, going 31-15 with a 3.14 ERA in 67 starts, striking out 376 and walking 176 in a pretty tough place to pitch. In the playoffs, though? He's 1-4, with a 5.40 ERA. He's completed six innings in just 3 of his seven starts, never completing seven. Fair or not, a mediocre or poor World Series will solidify him in the minds of many as a good pitcher, but something less than a franchise player. A big Series, and he could be looking at $100M plus. 

There are other free agents - Edwin Jackson probably has a nice deal coming - but Pujols and Wilson are going to get the bulk of the attention.

7. The impact of potential over-management.

 LaRussa, as I wrote here, took out Lance Lynn for no reason in Game 2. Washington, I wrote here, had Josh Hamilton bunt in a game he was losing 6-0. (It came out the next day that Washington did not put on the bunt sign, but he thought it was a good play. I'm sure that's just protecting Hamilton, but it would've been ok for him to say something like "I love that he was willing to give him up for the team, but we need Josh to be swinging there").

I discussed above the number of pitching changes both managers made. Part of that was necessitated by poor starting pitcher performance. Part was just overdoing it on the matchups. LaRussa loves the sacrifice bunt, with 57 non-pitcher bunts. Leading the way was Daniel Descalso, who sacrificed 10 times - including twice when he was put in as a pinch hitter. Neither manager employs the intentional walk frequently, which is nice. Washington used the second fewest in the majors, with 21. His intentional walk of Miguel Cabrera very nearly burned him - it took a fantastic Nelson Cruz throw to get him off the hook.

So, I don't think we'll be in a situation where it's a repeat of 2001's Game 4, when Bob Brenly THRICE had Craig Counsell sacrifice Tony Womack, a strategy that produced a run in zero of those three chances, and the Diamondbacks lost by one run. That is still my go-to bad managing moment. Keep an eye on the pitching changes, though. Both managers got good results on their pitching changes in the LCS, but good results aren't always the product of good decisions. Both of these teams have offenses good enough to make an ill-timed pitching change look really, really bad.

8. The re-emergence of batting average. 

Batting average has taken a lot of heat in recent years, and with good reason - it doesn't correspond to run scoring as well as on-base percentage or slugging percentage, and it is subject to huge variation based on luck in balls in play. However, that doesn't mean batting average is useless. Guys like Wade Boggs, Tony Gwynn, Ichiro Suzuki and Derek Jeter hit for high batting averages for years, despite not hitting for much power. Why? Because hitting for average is a skill. It's true that there is variation based on luck, and it's true that some players fluctuate more than others. That doesn't completely devalue the statistic totally, it just means you need to be cognizant of possible external factors.

There's been a line of thinking, one that I'm trying to do some research on whenever I get the chance, that teams who are good at hitting for average succeed in the playoffs. Why? Because they are better at hitting good pitches. Teams with a low batting average that rely on walks and the home run have trouble in the playoffs, because the teams they are playing against are likely there because their pitcher do a good job avoiding walks and home runs. This was pointed to a lot when The Oakland A's lost in the first round four straight years in the early 00's, but that was partially because traditionalists were trying to find any reason the de-legitimatize the statistical approach of Billy Beane and, somewhat ironically, tried to use statistics to do it. "My statistic is better than your statistic" became the baseball version of "my dad could beat up your dad." In this case though, maybe there was something it. After all, it sounded reasonable.

So far in 2011, the team with the better regular season batting average has won all six series. That includes Detroit, who beat the higher scoring New York Yankees, and Milwaukee, who beat the higher scoring Arizona Diamondbacks. The story was especially prevalent in that Tigers-Yankees series, where the middle third of the New York order, Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez, and Nick Swisher, all notably struggled. All three hit below .280 and derive much of their value from power and patience. This is particularly true of Teixeira, who is now .207/.315/.322 in the playoffs in 143 plate appearances .

This is a small sample that doesn't "prove" anything, but if it had been the Moneyball A's rather than the Moneybag Yankees who did this, the narrative would be less that the players choked, and more that the organizational approach failed.

9. We’re on schedule for a really, really, really good one.

I've been watching baseball since 1988. The two best World Series of my baseball watching life were 1991 and 2001. There really isn't too much debate about it. Both are generally talked about as being among the best of all time. Following that pattern, 2011 should be classic.

10. The Yankees aren’t here. 

Which is awesome. The World Series is always more enjoyable to me when the Yankees are either not there, or lose. Either way. 

There's a larger point though. I've read a couple articles about how low the TV ratings are probably going to be for these two teams. So what? Do you choose your favorite TV show based on how many people watch? Are the best movies the ones that make the most money? Of course not. Baseball, as I've pointed out several times, shoots itself in the foot by constantly promoting the same teams. In the last seven years, the Yankees have been in one World Series, and the Red Sox have been in one World Series. The Cardinals and Rangers are both in their second in that span. 

So if you're choosing not to watch because of the way MLB chooses to promote themselves (or, more accurately, how ESPN and Fox choose to promote them - the MLB Network actually does a good job at least trying to promote the entire league), you deserve to miss out.

So that's it. 10 reasons to watch. If that's not enough for you, I'm sorry.

My prediction? Rangers in 7.

After all, they had the better batting average this year.