Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas

I hope everyone had a happy and healthy Christmas. Everyone enjoy the snow.

In the meantime, here are the Red Sox, wearing uniforms that make them look like Christmas trees.

Photo Credit: Tyler Kepner, New York Times

Friday, December 21, 2012

Boston.com is embarrassing

Greetings, noble readers. I apologize for my extended absence. As you may or may not know, I'm currently at Northeastern University, getting my Masters. I had a particularly busy semester this past fall, so some things had to take a back seat - this blog being one of them.

Going forward, while I will primarily be using this space primarily for baseball-related thoughts, I am going to begin posting more non-baseball musings as well. Music, culture, my travels, philosophy, and politics, amongst other things, will probably pop up from time to time. There are several reasons for this, but I think the biggest one is that when I had commentary on one of those topics in the past I was posting them on facebook, which is just sort of lame. I don't actively dislike facebook, in the way I do twitter, a self-congratulatory circlejerk which I have trouble discussing my feelings about without using profanity. (Is circlejerk a profanity? I mean, it's certainly more offensive than most profanities, isn't it?) I just think this is a more enjoyable forum.

Anyhow, the reason I logged in today was because of something I saw on Boston.com. I've used this space in the past to express my disagreement with items in The Boston Globe's Sports page, but at least the sportswriters generally talk about sports. Ever since the Globe created its subscription news website, Boston.com has become an embarrassing un-cool pop-culture "news," photos of wicked hip people at wicked hip bars, and mind-numbing slideshows about the top 27 hottest Bostonians, none of whom are actually from Boston. Oh, and pictures of "The Santa Speedo Run" which were at the top of the page for a week and totally wasn't just a way to generate hits by showing scantily clad women.

So perhaps an hour ago, I came across this subheadline.

"Kristen Stewart said she looks forward to having some time off. See what Kirsten Dunst, LL Cool J, and Prince William have planned."

Obviously intrigued, because who wouldn't be, I clicked the link, only to find that it was a recap of what people said on television. No need to do your own reporting to find out what Kirsten Dunst is doing for vacation, when you can have Entertainment Tonight do it for you!

If the Boston.com site is under the purview of new editor Brian McGrory, he has some work to do.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Orioles recall Lew Ford!


So nobody called me yesterday to tell me the Orioles purchased Lew Ford's contract. It was apparently "trending" on "twitter" which are things the kids do today so they don't have to call me when important things happen.

Anyhow, that's enough old man ranting from me. Ford got the start in left field, going 0 for 3 with a walk and an outfield assist in his first MLB appearance since 2007. Since leaving the Twins, he spent time in the Twins and Reds organizations, as well as with the Long Island Ducks of the Atlantic League.

I will be wearing my Ford-20 jersey sometime soon.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Trade Breakdown: Wandy Rodriguez to Pittsburgh

As you have likely heard by now, the Pirates acquired pitcher Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros on Tuesday in exchange for three minor leaguers: outfielder Robbie Grossman and pitchers Rudy Owens and Colton Cain. While Grossman is a pretty good prospect, this is a solid deal for the Pirates. Rodriguez is under contract for 2013 at $13M, a pricey but not burdensome amount; he also has a player option for the following year, which, as it will be his age-35 season, unless he has an excellent run between now and then, he is likely to exercise. Making a playoff run may give Pittsburgh additional payroll flexibility, and Rodriguez can have a direct impact on that.

Today it was announced, as expected, that Rodriguez would be taking the place of Kevin Correia in the rotation. This is a substantial upgrade, and makes the Pirates chances of making the playoffs much better. While Rodriguez isn't a star, he has been solid. After his career year in 2009, Rodriguez has had an ERA+ between 106 and 110 in every season. His K/9 rate is down a tad this year, from 7.8 to 6.1, he's worked around that by lowering his BB/9 from 3.3 to 2.2, while also cutting into his HR rate. He's pitched over 190 innings in each of the last three years, and is on pace to easily surpass that in 2012. Despite some injury concerns the past couple springs, Rodriguez has proven to be an above-average, durable starter. 

That is important for the Pirates, because Correia isn't really either. Despite making the 2011 All-Star team, he finished the year with a poor 77 ERA+. It was the fourth consecutive year where he'd been under 100 (and the third in those four when he'd been under 80), and with an 88 ERA+ to this point in 2012, along with a K/9 rate dropping below 4.5, Correia is unlikely to turn things around in the rotation. In addition, Rodriguez is not only a better pitcher, he's the more durable one - Correia has surpassed 160 innings only once in his career. There's a bright side to Correia too, though - he pitched well in the San Francisco bullpen half a decade ago, and until this year had solid (though not outstanding) stats in his first two trips through a lineup. It was the third time through that really seemed to give Correia real issues. So, not only is Rodriguez a clear upgrade in the rotation, there is a chance that Correia can provide value in the 'pen.

With the Pirates 2.5 games behind the first-place Reds, and with a small lead over fellow wild-card contenders in Atlanta, St. Louis, and Los Angeles, improvements like this can be major. The advanced stats may show that Rodriguez is probably worth between one and two wins more than Correia from now until the end of the year, but that's not necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison. Rodriguez, by pitching deeper into games, can force the Pirates to use their relievers slightly less frequently, improving their value as well.  Not to mention, in such a tight race, one or two games may well be the difference between a trip to the playoffs and a 21st-consecutive postseason-free autumn in Pittsburgh.

With that in mind, the cost involved is sensible, though the Astros should be credited with getting a decent haul as obvious sellers. None of the prospects involved were top-100 types, and Marc Hulet of FanGraphs has a pretty good breakdown here. Grossman is the top prospect. A centerfielder with some pop and a willingness to take a walk, he could reach Houston by midseason 2013. However, his value declines some if he needs to move to a corner. Most of his power so far has come in the form of doubles. If some of those start going out of the park, he may stick as a starter. If not, he's unlikely to sustain that walk rate against higher quality pitching. He could get stuck as a tweener, but I like his chances to at least have a career as a fourth outfielder.

Rudy Owens was looking like a real prospect after a very good 2010 season at Double-A Altoona, posting a 2.46 ERA and K/BB well above 5.0. He had a difficult adjustment to Triple-A last year, and while he's improved this year, his low strikeout rate and preponderance of fly balls pegs him as a fringe prospect with a peak as a #4 or #5 prospect. He has excellent control, so he shouldn't be neglected, but he has little in the way of star potential.

Colton Cain was a highly regarded amateur, taken in the 8th round of the 2009 draft with great stuff but very mediocre results. He's still only 21, but is struggling in High A. Houston will see if they can get a bit more out of the Texan.

So, while it's not exactly a treasure trove for Houston, they've added some necessary talent to the organization. It's not one of the more glamorous parts of the rebuilding process, but if they had several players who they could turn into top prospects, they wouldn't be the worst team in baseball. It's going to be a long way back for the Astros, and cutting payroll and adding organizational depth is what needs to be done. For the Pirates, they've improved their team for the playoff run without giving up any of their top prospects. With any luck, they'll be seen in the postseason for the first time since the era of Andy Van Slyke, Chico Lind, Doug Drabek, and that Barry Bonds fellow.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Midseason thoughts

I published my First-half awards earlier today, but I wanted to throw around my other thoughts on the season so far, and what to expect in the second half. 

Other thoughts, related and unrelated:

-Remember pre-season 2011? Everyone picked the Red Sox to play the Phillies in the World Series? Well the Phillies ran into Chris Carpenter and Father Time, the Red Sox couldn't stay healthy, and now both are in last place. The Red Sox have an outside chance to sneak into the second wild card spot, but the Phillies are probably playing for next year. Their five-year playoff streak is, surprisingly, the longest current streak in baseball.   

-Albert Pujols:
    -Opening day through May 4: 27 games (0 team games missed), .194/.237/.269, zero home runs.
    -May 5: Given the day off
    -May 6 to present: 58 games (0 team games missed), .305/.378/.555, 14 home runs.
Moral of the story - Pujols is probably not the best hitter in baseball anymore, but he is certainly a long way from done. The Angels resurgence has corresponded perfectly with that of El Hombre, and I'm pretty sure you don't want your pitchers to be facing him with the game on the line in the playoffs, do you?

-Matt Moore, ranked on several prospect lists (Kevin Goldstein, Jonathan Mayo, Jim Callis) ahead of both Bryce Harper and Mike Trout, has an ERA+ of 83 for Tampa Bay. That doesn't mean he won't turn into a great pitcher, but didn't it seem funny that he was ranked ahead of someone in Harper who a) seemed like a historically great prospect, and b) is four years younger? Especially considering that hitters are easier to project than pitchers, it seems likely that Moore was placed first more to generate controversy than out of a considered belief that he would turn into a better player. 

-Player Development isn't always smooth, Exhibit A: Justin Upton is hitting "only" .273/.353/.401, to the frustration of Diamondbacks fans. If a 24-year old outfielder was called up from Triple-A, he'd get Rookie of the Year consideration in many years. Upton came up so young that it's easy to forget how young he still is.

-Player Development isn't always smooth, Exhibit B: Jason Heyward, 22, is hitting .272/.340/.497, his career best slugging percentage. His more aggressive approach is causing some consternation from some, though. He's walking in only 8.9% of plate appearances, while striking out in 22.6%. Compare that to his rookie season of 2010, with a 14.6% walk rate and 20.5% strikeout rate. The payoff, of course, is in extra home runs - he's hitting one every 21.0 at bats in 2012, from ever 28.9 in 2010. Some in the Braves organization thought Heyward was too passive in 2011, leading to his disappointing sophomore campaign. We'll see where this goes.

-Looking for good bets to have a big improvement in the second half? Jose Batista is your best choice. His .215 BABIP seems artificially low, considering he's leading the league in home runs and has a .270 career number. Even with the bad luck on balls in play, he's at .244/.360/.540 on the season. Giving him the extra 13 singles that would move that BABIP up to .270? .286/.394/.581, again putting him among the best hitters in the league. 

-Tim Lincecum. He's 3-10 with an MLB-worst 6.42 ERA. FIP and other advanced stats tell us he shouldn't be that bad, but really nobody should be this bad, much less somebody who was the best pitcher in the league three years ago. His walk rate has increased gradually since 2009 and now is at 4.7 per 9. Still, it's hard to imagine a pitcher who still strikes out nearly 10 batters per nine innings continuing to be this bad. Don't expect a return to his old form, but a return to respectability should be in order here.
-Example of why more wild card spots doesn't equal more excitement - Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta and New York are all within a game of each other. Does having four of them, rather than three, make things more exciting? It seems to do the opposite to me. The more wild card teams you add, the worse the teams that are competing at the end of the regular season are. That's progress?

-Finally, the All-Star game gets a lot of flak these days. You know what? I'm going to watch all nine innings of it, and I'll enjoy every second of it. Sure, that doesn't mean it will be great baseball and it doesn't make the "This Year It Counts" gimmick any less infuriating (though it's no less random than the alternating system that was used through 2002). Best of all, the game will be in Kansas City. Twenty years ago, Royal Stadium (since renamed Kaufman Stadium) was the best of the cookie cutter circular stadiums, of which there were far too many. Now, cast against the new retro stadiums, its un-pretentiousness, its lack of manufactured nooks and crannies, makes it one of baseball's most unique. I'm looking forward to watching some home runs into the water fountain.

First-half Awards

I figured it was a good time to do one of those obligatory "hand out awards for a half-season of baseball that looks incredibly silly on October 1" type of posts! This needs no explanation, so let's dive in.

American League MVP:
1. Robinson Cano
2. Mike Trout
3. Josh Hamilton

Baseball-Reference.com's new WAR (rWAR) calculation has Brett Lawrie (.291/.334/.425) leading the AL with a 5.0, giving me pause about using their new calculation, ever. It seems to work better for pitchers than hitters. Trout is second in rWAR and first in FanGraphs calcuation (fWAR), but has played in only 64 games. I have trouble giving an MVP vote to someone who has only played in 3/4 of his team's games the award, even if it's a fake vote for a half-season award. Trout is having an amazing season, though, and if he continues at his current pace while playing full-time, would move into the lead for this award. Choosing between Trout and Bryce Harper for the future is probably a draw at this point. Harper is the better bet to dp something absurd like hit 900 home runs, but Trout does everything well already and is also less likely to miss half a season from getting punched in the face.

Cano gets the award both on merit and because he's really the only excellent player on a first place team. The guy is absolutely carrying the Yankees right now. Notoriously streaky, it will be interesting to see if he can keep it up.

Hamilton has cooled off after his April and May, when he put up a 1.180+ OPS in both months. He still leads the league in home runs, RBI and SLG, and if does that and stays healthy he'll have a good chance to win the real award.

National League MVP

1. Andrew McCutchen
2. David Wright
3. Joey Votto

I'll say this up front - any article you read that has anyone else in the top three is wrong, though a strong case can be made for any ordering. I chose McCutchen first because of the excellent Pirates story. Normally I don't vote for the "story," but the Pirates center fielder has been nearly as good as the other two, and is also doing so with a weaker supporting cast.

David Wright is probably the most under-appreciated player in baseball, which is why it stinks to be a New York Met. He's been the best all-around player in baseball this year, but always seems to be criticized more for what he can't do than praised for what he does. The New York Post will probably call his Hall of Fame induction speech overrated.

Votto is the best hitter in baseball and will likely continue to be. .348/.471/.617? Ho Hum.

American League Cy Young:

1. Chris Sale
2. Justin Verlander
3. Jake Peavy

In the provincial manner of Boston sports reporting, I've read a lot this year about how dumb it was to convert Daniel Bard into a starting pitcher. Some of the arguments are strong, but some are of the "why turn a successful reliever into a starter when you need help in the bullpen" variety. The answer, of course, is that if he's a good starting pitcher, you won't need as much help in your bullpen. Sale has made the conversion much better than the White Sox could have hoped, ranking second in the American League with a 2.19 ERA. That translates into a league best 194 ERA+. It will be interesting to see how he does as the innings pile up, but Sale is the latest successful case in the "make your good relievers into starters" trend that Nolan Ryan (and Mike Maddux) deserves a lot of credit for.

It could be said that Justin Verlander, deserves the nod over Sale due to his 36 additional innings pitched and league lead in strikeouts. To counter, Verlander has given up 17 additional earned runs in those 36 innings, and the strikeout lead is a funtion of that innings lead - he's striking out 8.7 per 9 IP, Sale at 8.6. I'll be honest - I'd be really, really surprised if Sale has better numbers than Verlander when the season ends, but right now he comes out on top.

Peavy gets the nod over Jered Weaver because of his better K rate, and over C.J. Wilson because of his better walk rate. I'm guessing no Angels fans read this blog, but if they did, they probably stopped approximately one sentence ago.

National League Cy Young:

1. R.A. Dickey
2. Matt Cain
3. Johnny Cueto

Dickey's "power knuckler" is the coolest of all things in baseball right now. With two consecutive one-hitters and a start for the NL in the All-Star Game, he's certain to be consi... wait what? Tony LaRussa is starting Matt Cain? You know what? I'll just say it. Tony LaRussa makes baseball worse. Anyhow, Dickey is 12-1, which I don't really care about but will help him, is second to Stephen Strasburg in strikeouts, is fourth in K/BB ratio, and fifth with his 2.40 ERA. There's no pitcher dominating all of these categories, and Dickey is doing it while essentially inventing a new pitch. That's really really cool.

Matt Cain threw possibly the best game ever pitched, which separates him from the herd - there are a lot of NL pitchers who are very close in value. Cain, historically unlucky, deserves some attention.

Johnny Cueto didn't make the All-Star team because they need to take relievers who have higher ERAs than starters in way less innings. I'll put him third out of spite and because there's nobody obviously better.

American League Rookie of the Year

1. Mike Trout
2. Yu Darvish
3. Tommy Milone

I'm told Trout was given rookie eligibility back because of time spent on the disabled list last season. If this is not the case, well... as always, it's good to keep in mind that I have no idea what I'm talking about.

Darvish picked a crummy year to be a rookie. Coming in with unreasonable expectations, he's tied for third in the American League in wins (10), is second in K/9 ratio (10.3) and has an ERA of 3.59. That's very good. His high walk rate means he has put more wear into his 100.2 innings pitched than he otherwise may have, but all other indicators are that he's going to continue to be the very good pitcher we expected him to be.

There's no obvious third place choice, but lots of candidates, including Will Middlebrooks and Yeonis Cespedes. Milone, a favorite of this site for his 59-mile-per-hour slow curveball, gets the nod. Milone is 8-6 with a 3.57 ERA, and an expectedly-low walk rate. It's his 6.0 K/9 rate that's making him an above average pitcher though - Milone is missing more bats than the scouts expected he would.

National League Rookie of the Year

1. Bryce Harper
2. Zack Cozart
3. Lance Lynn

Bryce Harper is really, really good at baseball. His one weakness is that the little hitch his swing does seem to leave him vulnerable to the strikeout. If that is the main flaw of a 19-year old baseball player, we're dealing with a special case.

Cozart is 26 and has a sub-.300 OBP, but he's on here for his defense. It's fair to include him with Alcides Escobar and Troy Tulowitzki among the best defensive shortstops in the National League. Also, you may have noticed that it is no longer 2001 - the average National League shortstop is hitting .258/.312/.385, so the Reds are not giving anything up offensively to get Cozart's outstanding D.

Is Lance Lynn a rookie? He comes up in the rookie reports on every site, but that doesn't seem possible. If he is a rookie, he's a clear choice for the third slot right now. After getting off to an outstanding start, he has slowed lately - he gave up 17 earned runs in 15.1 innings in his last three June starts. Six shutout innings to start July is promising, but as his workload builds, his results may continue to taper off.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

July 7, 2012: Red Sox 9, Yankees 5; Pedro Ciriaco ignites Boston


My wife's brother was in town for the weekend, so their sister got the four of us Red Sox vs. Yankees bleachers tickets for last nights game, the second of a doubleheader.
Fenway with the wife & in-laws

After an awful week for the Red Sox, a miserable first inning had me in a typically grumpy mood. However, the bats started to turn around, led by middle infielder Pedro Ciriaco. Down 3-2 going into the bottom of the sixth, the Red Sox scored three, gave one back in the top of the seventh, then scored another four to take a commanding lead. At the heart of both rallies was minor league veteran Pedro Ciriaco. 

Originally signed back in 2005, Ciriaco got a couple stints with the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Known for his glove, he was having his best offensive season for Pawtucket, making the International League All-Star game. His contract was purchased by Boston before Friday, and he went 0 for 4 in his Red Sox debut in game one of the doubleheader. 

In game two, though, he had a game to be remembered. Ciriaco went 4 for 5 with two doubles, driving in four of the Red Sox' runs. He also made several very nice plays at shortstop, which is really the reason he's made the major leagues. When he came to bat in the 8th, Ciriaco received a standing ovation from the grateful Fenway crowd, hungry for something that would spark the .500 Dead Sox, losers in seven of their last nine, to life. During the at-bat, chants of Pe-dro harkened back to the Pedro Martinez era.

While it's crazy to think that a shortstop with a .281 OBP at Triple-A will continue to be the team's offensive leader, it was a fantastic game to be present at, with real electricity and excitement, rather than seven and a half innings of dullness and then "Sweet Caroline," followed immediately by a steady stream toward the exits. 


Beyond the Ciriaco-inspired jubilation, some thoughts from the game, and on the Red Sox and Yankees in general:

-Nick Punto, career .247/.324/.326 but not hitting anywhere near that well this year, was batting second. The idea that the #2 hitter needs to be able to "handle the bat" is ridiculous. The #2 hitter needs to be able to hit well, it's one of the most important positions in the lineup, and putting a bad hitter there leads to a lot of unnecessary outs and the middle of the order batters getting too few RBI opportunities.

-Mauro Gomez played third base, despite the fact that he can't really. In fact, he got his fourth consecutive start at the position. On the first batter of the game, he managed to make two errors on a Derek Jeter grounder. Two batters later, a three run home run put the Red Sox in a hole. Gomez had 71 career minor league games at third base, zero since the start of 2010. The guy can hit, but even on a night where he went 3 for 4 with two doubles, he may have only evened out. It happens that someone needs to play out of position in an emergency, but continuing to put someone clearly out of position will end up having consequences. Jeter tried to bunt for a single toward Gomez in the seventh, but a very nice play by Matt Albers getting off the mound quickly and throwing Jeter out prevented that. It was a smart play by Jeter though, as Gomez wouldn't have had a chance to get him.

-Jarrod Saltalamacchia (who now has a .287 OBP) was batting cleanup. I know having a catcher who can hit for power is fun and all, but let's not trick ourselves on Salty. He's an all or nothing hitter who strikes out a ton and makes too many outs, and was used to separate Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz in the lineup. I know the common strategy is to separate the lefties in the lineup, but against a team who has Boone Logan and Clay Rapada as the lefties in the pen? Valentine needed to split his two best hitters up because he was scared they would have to consecutively face Boone Logan or Clay Rapada? As a result of this strategy, Gonzalez went 0 for 0 with runners on base. 

-Felix Doubront really showed some poise by settling down after a round first inning against a tough lineup. He struck out 6 in 6.1 innings, and he remains fourth in the American League with a K/9 ratio of a tick over 9.0. He'll be one of the players to watch in the second half for Boston. Will he make adjustments as he starts getting repeat appearances against teams, and start to get the home runs down a little bit? Will the adjustments go the other way, and will teams begin to hit Doubront better the more they've seen him? Will he begin to tire under what is already nearing a career-high in terms of innings pitched? He's at 96.0, nearly 30 away from his career high of 129.1 in 2008. Like Saltalamacchia, it's easy to overstate how good he's been because of how poorly others around him have done, but there are positives with Doubront and the Red Sox have to be thrilled with what he's given them.

-On the Yankees side, Russell Martin finally got a hit, ending an 0-for-30 slump. His swing looks terrible, and he's batting only .179. Unless Brian Cashman really believes his low BABIP is a result of bad luck rather than his slow bat, this is a position that the Yankees will likely try to upgrade at the deadline. The question is, how? The catching position is weak around the league, and the Yankees best prospects in the high minors, Banuelos and Betances, have really disappointed this year. In-house replacements Chris Stewart, Francisco Cervelli and Gustavo Molina are not upgrades. This may be a position the Yankees will simply have a disadvantage at for the time being.

-Girardi's decision to pinch-hit A-Rod for Martin the ninth inning of a game they were losing by five runs at the time was a rather curious one. It seemed to do little more than give Red Sox fans an extra opportunity to boo the guy.

-In a nice game where he went 3-for-5 with two doubles, Adrian Gonzalez extended his hitting streak to 18 games, during which time he has hit .377/.400/.481. That sounds nice, until remembering that Gonzalez hit .338/.410/.548 for the entire season in 2011. That's probably too much to expect in the second half, but the Red Sox will need something closer to player to get any chance of getting back into the race.

-Like I said above, it's crazy to think Ciriaco is actually a player who can hit enough to make a difference for the Red Sox, but maybe it's time to think a little crazy? Pe-dro! Pe-dro!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Monday, June 25, 2012

Good luck, Youk

So, I arrived home last night from an amazing two-week honeymoon to Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia to find that Kevin Youklis was traded to the Chicago White Sox yesterday in exchange for right-handed pitcher Zach Stewart and utility infielder Brent Lillibridge. The trade analysis is almost painfully simple. The Red Sox have had a better designated hitter and a better first baseman for a couple years now, and with the emergence of Will Middlebrooks, have a better third baseman. Youkilis - one of the best hitters alive from 2008-2010, with a .308/.404/.560 line - no longer had a place in the Red Sox lineup.

It's been a bit of a crazy few months for us Red Sox fans. First, Tim Wakefield officially retired. Then, a few days later, Jason Varitek followed suit. Now Youkilis has been traded, leaving David Ortiz as the only player with a 2004 World Series ring left with the team.

Red Sox fans have been following Youkilis since even before his famous inclusion in Moneyball. The 2001 tenth rounder out of the University of Cincinnati had been tearing up the minor leagues, rising fairly quickly through the Red Sox system until he reached Pawtucket, where he continued to mash but waiting a long time for his chance. Injuries got him some playing time in 2004, and the poor play of Kevin Millar led to calls from several circles to give him playing time the following year. Finally, in 2006 he beat out J.T. Snow for the starting first baseman job. (Admit it. You forgot J.T. Snow was on the Red Sox).

He played fairly well that year, came into his own in '07, and turned into a star in '08. In all, he spent six excellent years as a starter, working deep counts and ripping doubles inside the left field foul line. His grimacing (I believe it was Joe Magrane who said the look he makes after a called strike resembled a "bitter beer face") and bat throwing and shouting made him into something of a lightning rod, being a player that people either loved or loathed, but even his detractors appreciated his production.

Losing his job to Will Middlebrooks this year seemed almost poetic, as this season has marked something of a generational shift in the Red Sox. Varitek, Wakefield, Youkilis, Papelbon, Drew, Epstein and Francona are now all gone. A year ago, the departure of any one of them wouldn't have been surprising, but the loss of all of them in such a short time seems almost seismic. The current Red Sox would be unrecognizable to someone who saw them only one year ago. I can visualize my mother, listning to the game on the radio and asking me "who are these guys?"

Even though the move is sensible, it's impossible not to be sentimental. Youkilis was immediately recognizable, fiery, and really, really good. I miss that bitter beer face already.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Only a fun-hater wouldn't enjoy a no-hitter

I've had it.

I consider myself a "stathead." I love, to varying degrees, all of the little measurements that people a lot smarter than I am have come up with over the years. I love the fact that baseball fans, and baseball teams, act a lot more sensibly than they did 15 years ago, not necessarily because they are smarter, but because they have access to better information and better understand non-baseball concepts. The randomness in statistics is one good example.

As fans have becomes smarter regarding the inherent randomness, though, there's thing that's happened that I just cannot stand for. Every time there is a no-hitter, some smarty-pants commentators, particularly the type who use the insipid comment function on various websites, seem to feel the need to inform the rest of us that it was all "chance" or "luck" that a no-hitter happened. One such commenter, who I won't link to here, stated that a three-hitter is just as good as a game where a pitcher throws a no-hitter and allows two walks and a hit batsman. 

So what??

Seriously. Everyone knows that no-hitters require luck. Even the late Bob Feller, who the guy who invented the wheel would've considered "old school," stated as much. On the contrary, it's the luck involved in the no-hitter that makes them so cool. The confluence of good fielding, bad hitting, maybe a lucky call or fortunate bounce, and great pitching that results in the opponent having a "zero" in the H column is so awesomely cool that I can't understand why someone who likes baseball wouldn't be able to appreciate it.

So here's the deal. While I can't stand it when people tell others how they should enjoy something - it's one of my main pet peeves when a grouchy columnists at one of the dying newspapers around the country breaks out his annual "statheads and people who play fantasy sports aren't REAL fans like I am" rant - I'm going to go entirely against my usual inclination. If you don't like no-hitters, you're a fun-hating jerkface.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Johan Santana's no-hitter is a good reminder that he's awesome

As just about all of you already know, Johan Santana threw the first no-hitter in New York Mets history this past Friday. It was also the first no-hitter of Santana's excellent career. While no longer considered one of the ace pitchers in the game, Santana has been fantastic in his comeback this year. He only has three wins because of the sometimes-anemic Met offense, which had, until Friday's gem allowed Santana to fly somewhat under the radar, he now has a 2.38 ERA (6th in NL), 68 strikeouts (8th), a 1.029 WHIP (8th), and is the only pitcher in the majors with two complete games. He ranks tied for fifth (with fellow Met R.A. Dickey) in Baseball-Reference's WAR calculation.

Johan Santana (Credit: slgckgc)
Perhaps it's hard to imagine because of all the other stuff that went on around him during his time in Queens, but the trade for Santana may have been the best the Mets have ever made. Compare Santana, with a 2.80 ERA (144 ERA+) in 668 innings, giving him a 16.4 WAR, to David Cone, with his 3.13 ERA (113 ERA+) in 1209.1 innings, good for a 9.6 WAR. The theft of Cone from the Royals was cited by the MLB Network's Prime Nine program (not necessarily a bastion of objective analysis, but certainly an idea of the general consensus) as the 8th most lopsided trade in all of baseball history. Objectively, the Santana trade was better for the Mets.

Of course, we don't always consider these things objectively. The Mets were an elite team when Cone pitched for them, and Cone was a workhorse, pitching 200+ innings in each of the years he was in the rotation. Meanwhile, Santana got a huge contract and spent a bit of time on the disabled list, during a time when lots of Mets signed big contracts and spent time on the disabled list. It seemed like he was viewed as part of the problem more than part of the solution, which was unfair - it wasn't Santana's fault that Jason Bay broke down.

With a WAR over 50.0, two Cy Young Awards, and now a no-hitter, Santana may very well be the most difficult decision for the Hall of Fame of any active player. With only 136 wins and only two with more than 16, he doesn't have the traditional statistics voters tend to look for, so it's my guess that he won't get in. Still, no eligible player with two Cy Young awards has ever missed out on the Hall. It's hard to imagine Santana having enough left in the tank to get the 64 wins he'd need to reach 200, but it was also hard to imagine Santana carrying a 2.38 ERA through two months of the season. 

With that in mind, since he doesn't have the traditional stats, and HOF voters are far behind season-award voters when it comes to advanced stats, it's going to take a great narrative to get Santana into the Hall. With a no-hitter as part of a season that sees the Mets, improbably, in first place two months into the season, maybe he's getting that chance.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Your Friday morning Pearl Jam

Pearl Jam performs Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town at Buffalo's HSBC arena, May 2, 2003. I was lucky enough to be at this one.

SoxProspects.com: Cup of Coffee: Brentz, Bradley finish impressive May on high note

6/1 Cup of Coffee: Appropriately, May ended with big nights by the two players in the system who had the most dominant months - Bryce Brentz went 5 for 5 to lead Portland in a morning game, while Jackie Bradley, Jr. had a 4 for 5 evening that helped propel Salem to victory.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

An evening at Fenway: Red Sox 6. Tigers 3

I was lucky enough to get to go to the Red Sox game last night. A friend called last week and said he had extra tickets, which made me excited. Then I found out that Justin Verlander was scheduled to start, which made me even more excited. Then the Red Sox won on Monday, meaning that a win on Tuesday would bring them above .500 for the first time all season, and that made me apprehensive. After all, they'd been .500 six times already, and were 0-6 in games that would put them over the hump. With the seeming mismatch of Daniel Bard vs. Verlander, it seemed like they could be in line to make it 0-7.

Anyhow, my fears were allayed as the Red Sox won. The lessons from the night are that a) you don't pitch against the opposing starting pitcher, you pitch against the opposing team - this is important, because the Red Sox offense is excellent, and the Tigers really stinks, b) David Ortiz is really, really good, once again. 

From our seats up in the right field roof boxes, it was tough to tell how sharp either pitcher was. Verlander didn't get the results he normally does, but his fastball was hard, and it seemed like he had a good changeup. It looked as though the Sox really just did a good job hitting. The same cannot be said of the Tigers, baseball's most disappointing team right now at 23-26. After the signing of Prince Fielder, it looked like they were to be one of the better teams in the game, but they are eighth in the American League in scoring while allowing the fourth most runs in the league. While the pitching should come around - Scherzer is pitching better after his usually early-season troubles, and the rest of the starting rotation seems sound - the offense may be in more trouble. After Cabrera, Fielder and the injured Austin Jackson, they haven't received that much of an offensive contribution elsewhere. Alex Avila was in an awful slump but has brought his slugging percentage back over .400. The bigger issues are the sub .300 OBPs from right-fielder Brennan Boesch and designated hitter Delmon Young, along with the vortex that has been their second base position. Led by Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago (combined -2.1 WAR), Tigers' second sackers are batting .175/.253/.250, which probably has 55-year old Lou Whitaker interested in a comeback. The Tigers have built a pretty deep hole for themselves, and without some upgrades, will not be able to dig out of it.

As far as Ortiz, it's really a treat getting to watch him. My guess is that this won't actually be his last year in Boston, but it could, so I'm glad I got the chance to see him again. Ortiz went 3 for 4 with two doubles and a laser beam home run over the Green Monster. He's been one of the best hitters in the American League this year, and now has 331 home runs in a Red Sox uniform. I'm lucky to have had the chance to see him so many times.

Daniel Bard, who I wrote about this past weekend, had a nice game, though it's hard to say anything definitive. He was generally throwing about 93, where he's been all season, but did seem to have a few more topping out in the 95-96 range. It took him 94 pitches to get through 5.1 innings, and he allowed two home runs after only allowing three in his first nine games. Without Jackson in the lineup, the Tigers lineup wasn't Bard's toughest test, but it was a solid outing.

As far as the experience goes, the game was a blast, as Fenway Park almost always is. We had about a 45 minute rain delay as some pretty crazy thunderstorms moved through in the eighth. After that, it took only about 15 mintues to close out the game. I like the right field roof box seats, which give a nice open view of the field at a reasonable price. It's amazing to walk through and look at the changes made in the 10 years since the new ownership came on. Some of it is obvious to those watching at home, like the Green Monster seats and the roof deck over where the retired numbers are. 

My personal favorite is the concourse and picnic area in what used to be a storage area between the grandstand in the bleachers. It's a wide open area filled with food vendors and maintains the feel of the park, while also fixing what was once the biggest flaw of Fenway - the fact you couldn't walk all the way around it. If you had bleacher tickets, you were stuck either in the bleachers, or the area underneath. Now you can enter in any gate. 

My least favorite improvement is the shutting down of Yawkey Way on game day. It detracts from the whole "downtown ballpark experience" in my view. Part of the fun of having a park in a busy city location is all the people who don't have tickets walking around, enjoying the area - and just living. People who live over on Brookline Ave. or Boylston Street are just there. Now, though, if you want to get around the park on the outside, you have a pretty long route to navigate, making a miserable experience for the neighbors. I agree with closing the street to vehicle traffic, but you shouldn't need a ticket to walk down Yawkey Way.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The development of Daniel Bard and Clay Buchholz

Developing players is hard.

It seems like it should be so simple. Draft a guy, move him slowly, but not too slowly, through the minor leagues. In a couple years, they break into the major league rotation. They take their lumps for a couple years, before turning into a front end starting pitcher.

It's a tempting narrative, and it happens - C.C. Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw. All high draft picks, all with somewhat fast trips through the minors, all with some struggles when they first came up, and all, now, with Cy Young Awards. We see the 2011 draft giving us a truly incredible amount of pitching talent: Gerrit Cole, Danny Hultzen, Trevor Bauer and Dylan Bundy (who still hasn't given up a run) went in the top 4. Other first rounders like Jose Hernandez, Matt Barnes and Tyler Anderson are all pitching incredibly well. All of their teams - and the fans of these teams - are beaming, thinking of their shiny new 2015 Opening Day starter.

And that's ok - it's fun to dream about the new toy. That's why we spend so my time on prospect manuals, studying the draft, comparing an incredible number of lists. We wait breathlessly for those "Top 100" Lists that come out every preseason, especially the ones from the guys who really do know who and what they're talking about - Keith Law, Jim Callis, John Sickels, and the Baseball Prospectus Team.

Sometimes players become stars, and everyone is happy. Sometimes they bust, and we chuckle years later about how Andy Yount was going to save the Red Sox. There are a lot of guys in between, though, and they're the hard ones to deal with. Kerry Wood retired this week, and Joe Posnanski had a wonderful retrospective on appreciating Wood for what he was, rather than what we hoped he could become. They just had Pat Burrell Day in Philadelphia, which seems strange because he spent his entire time in Philadelphia failing to live up to the unreasonable expectations fans had built up for him.

That brings us to Clay Buchholz and Daniel Bard. Buchholz was the third of five first rounders selected by the Red Sox in 2005. Bard was the second of four first rounders the Sox took in 2006. Both were top prospects in the Red Sox system, both have had success in the major leagues, both are in the Red Sox starting rotation, and both are pitching not all that well.

The Red Sox, through last season, had accumulated more value from their draft picks since 2002 than any other organization, per this article in Fangraphs. So it seems incorrect to draw the conclusion that the Red Sox are simply incompetent. So, something else is going on here. Let's dig into both pitchers individually.

I'll start with Bard. I've written many times in this space that the best place for a team to find starting pitching help may be its own bullpen, and that pitchers who perform well in the bullpen are also likely to do so as starters. While I believe this to be true, it is also an oversimplification. The reason many successful relief pitchers turn into successful starters is because they were successful starters in the minors before being put in the bullpen to fill a need at the major league level. Derek Lowe, C.J. Wilson, Chris Sale, Neftali Feliz... all successful minor league starters.

Daniel Bard was never a successful minor league starter.

That is a big deal. I don't write it because I believe it makes him unable to transfer to the rotation, but it means he never adjusted to the way a starter pitches in the major leagues. Whenever we talk about a pitcher transitioning from the bullpen to the rotation, we talk about the pitcher learning to pace himself.  While that's part of the transition, that's an entirely incomplete description - it is not as though a pitcher just needs to throw a little bit slower, giving him the endurance to pitch for a longer time. A pitcher also needs to learn to cycle in his pitches, keep repeating his mechanics, set up batters not only for later pitches in the at-bat but for later at-bats within the game. Daniel Bard never learned to do that in the minor leagues. He came into games, threw close to 100 miles an hour, and occassionally made batters look silly with his slider and change-up, got between one and six outs, and hit the showers. It's certainly not as easy as that last sentence would have you believe, but he'd never learned to start in professional ball.

When Bard was drafted in 2006, he was a starting pitcher at the University of North Carolina. The #2 starter there, in fact, behind #7 overall pick and current teammate Andrew Miller. Though he struggled some with his control in college, his stuff and general results were excellent, and the Red Sox, already with one of the better minor league systems on the strength of that 2005 class, could afford a higher-risk guy like Bard. Bard also interviewed quite well, a bright guy and a real student of the game.

Because he pitched in the College World Series, the Sox decided not to have Bard pitch in 2006, instead waiting until 2007 to debut him at High-A Lancaster. In hindsight, the high-powered offensive environment of Lancaster might have been a poor fit for a guy like Bard to begin his career. He made five starts, pitching only 13.1 innings, compiling a 10.12 ERA, walking 22 batters and striking out 9. (That is not a misprint - he struck out less than half as many people as he walked). Bard was so bad that the Red Sox have not, to my knowledge, debuted a pitcher in High-A since then, even though they have long since left Lancaster for Salem, NC. He was placed on the disabled list at the beginning of May, and essentially given a month off to get his head straight before beginning June in Greenville. His results were little better: Bard made 17 starts, pitching only 61.2 innings with a 6.42 ERA, walking 56 and striking out 38.

The Red Sox converted him to a reliever and sent him to the Hawaii Winter League. He immediately turned things around, winning his Winter League's player of the year honor, then tearing through the minors. In 57 games at Greenville, Portland and Pawtucket from April 2008 through May 2009, Bard threw 93.2 innings, compiled a 1.44 ERA, allowed only 48 hits, walked 35 and struck out 136(!!!), earning a call-up to the majors, for good, on May 10. 

From then until the end of last year, he was a reliever, and generally an excellent one. He compiled a 2.88 ERA in 197.0 innings pitched, striking out 213, walking 76, and allowing 16 home runs - essentially spreading C.J Wilson's 2011 season over three years. Like just about every Boston pitcher, Bard ended 2011 poorly, but the common thought was that he would replace Jonathan Papelbon as the club's closer in 2012. Instead, Bard let the front office know that he was interested in trying to start, and the club, hoping to maximize his value, was inclined to give him that shot. (Seeing the difference between the contracts signed by Jonathan Papelbon and C.J. Wilson probably did little to deter Bard from believing that a move to the rotation was worth trying out).

So far in 2012, Bard's results have been uneven. Through nine games (eight starts) he has a 4.69 ERA in 48 innings. He's allowed 46 hits, and only 3 home runs, which are both encouraging numbers. On the other hand, he's walked 29 and struck out 28. A drop in strikeout rate is expected on some level, but usually the "rule of 17 applies" - strikeout rate usually drops about 17% in a move from the bullpen to the rotation - but Bard's has fallen off by over 40%. .Meanwhile, the increase in his walk rate goes back to the second half of last year. The confluence of the two has resulted in fears that even that mediocre 4.69 ERA is unsustainable - his FIP is 4.77, and his xFIP measures 5.22.

While those are numbers appear frustrating from someone who was a dominant reliever, they are quite impressive considering that he was never a successful starting pitcher in the minor leagues. Bard is still learning how to start, and patience is necessary. The difference between what starters and relievers get paid is appropriate - starters face three times as many batters, and when dominant can essentially win or lose games on their own. If Bard can be even a #3 starter, he'll be more valuable than the very good reliever he was.

The question then becomes whether Bard can get there while pitching in the major leagues. With options remaining, should Bard be getting his feel for starting down in Triple-A Pawtucket? In order to get a feel for cycling all his pitches while becoming comfortable with his mechanics as a starter, perhaps he needs to overmatch a few Triple-A hitters. If Bard is committed to the idea of being a stater long-term, would he be willing to sacrifice two to three months of service time in order to experience some sustained success as a starter?


Clay Buchholz is a much more difficult situation. Unlike Bard, Buchholz has obviously been a successful starting pitcher - not just as a professional, but in the major leagues. Everyone remembers his no-hitter in 2007, but his excellent 2010 season, where he had a 2.33 ERA and allowed only 9 home runs all year seems almost a mirage. He was solid last season, with a 3.48 ERA before being shut down for the season in June with a stress fracture in his back. Upon his return this year, something is quite obviously wrong - whether he isn't healthy, has lost his mechanics, or his confidence is shot, through 9 starts Buchholz has 7.84 ERA, worst among qualifiers in the major leagues. In 49.1 innings, he has allowed 67 hits, 11 of which have been home runs. He's walked 27 and struck out 27. His curveball has been flat, his fastball slow, a terrible combination.

Buchholz starts today against the Tampa Bay Rays, and another bad start will lead to some serious decisions. Daisuke Matsuzaka pitched very well yesterday in rehab start with Pawtucket, allowing only 1 hit and 1 walk in 5.0 innings. Ross Ohlendorf has a June 1 opt-out clause, and while he hasn't been fantastic with the PawSox, his 4.07 ERA and BB/9 rate under 2.5 look awfully inviting compared to Buchholz's struggles. Buchholz has not looked at all like a major league pitcher, and with an option remaining, woud he, like Bard, be a candidate for a demotion?

Unlike Bard, I think the decision here is more clear cut. Buchholz has been in this position before. After a terrible 2008 season, Buchholz began 2009 in the minor leagues. He worked closely with Rich Sauveur (the Pawtucket pitching coach) on rebuilding his delivery as well as his pregame preparation. If Sauveur can work his magic again, Buchholz and the Red Sox will both be better off. Unless he pitches well today, I would not be surprised to see the Boston front office send a pitcher - who only two years ago finished sixth for the Cy Young Award - back to the minor leagues.

Tying the question back to player development - is this a failure of the Red Sox? I don't believe so. While the Red Sox development of players is impressive, it hasn't been perfect - Craig Hansen was developed terribly, in one especially memorable example. Buchholz, though, doesn't resemble Hansen at all. In the case of Buchholz, in order to criticize the Red Sox, one would have to identify what they've done wrong. Specifically. Short of such evidence, the organization has earned the benefit of the doubt. Buchholz has proven to be a difficult guy to develop, and it's just as possible that another organization wouldn't have gotten nearly as much of a contribution as the Red Sox have from him.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Lew Ford signs with the Orioles!

Lew Ford, who played in parts of five seasons with the Twins and finished 24th in the 2004 MVP voting, has been signed to a minor league contract by the Baltimore Orioles and assigned to their Triple-A affiliate in Norfolk. Ford had been with the Long Island Ducks of the independent Atlantic League since the start of last season, consistently among the league leaders. Since leaving the Twins after the 2007 season, he'd also spent some time in the Colorado Rockies organization, Oaxaca of the Mexican League, and the Hanshin Tigers of NPB.

Ford has long been a personal favorite, and not just because he was drafted by the Red Sox and then dealt by Dan Duquette for Hector Carrasco in one of a series of ridiculous moves where Duquette emptied the Red Sox minor league system in 2001 and 2000 for average-ish major leaguers (see also Matt Kinney and Chris Reitsma). Ford became a favorite of mine in the spring of 2003, when he was the leadoff hitter for the Rochester Red Wings. As a senior in college that year, I had a parking space, and a car to put into that parking space. That car was used to take me to just about every Red Wings game in April and May of that year at Frontier Field.

Note: Frontier Field is an awesome baseball stadium. I've been to about a half-dozen minor league parks, and Frontier is by far my favorite, with all due respect to LeLacheur Park in Lowell. If you ever find yourself in Rochester for any reason, catch a Red Wings game.

Anyhow, every time Ford was announced, my friends and I, who were occassionally fairly alone in the $5 seats, would give him a long LLEEEEEEEEEEEEWWWWW cheer. Regularly batting second was Luis Rodriguez, who got a cheer of LLUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU-IIIS. It was not, of course, especially creative, but we were having fun. Ford seemed like a good guy, and played very well for the Red Wings, leading me to buy a #20 Ford t-shirt when he was called up to the Twins, a shirt I wore proudly when he had his best season the next year.

In today's game against the Pawtucket Red Sox, Ford went 3 for 5 with 2 doubles and 2 RBI, leading Norfolk to the 6-3 win, and he now sits at .500/.571/.667 after his first three games. At the very least, he provides some depth to the Orioles system, something they need with Nolan Reimold out longer than initially anticipated with a herniated disk. If Ford continues to play well, he could find himself next in line for a recall. If not, though, I'll at least be able to dust off that #20 Twins shirt and scream LLEEEEEWWW from the cheap seats.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Johan Santana gets first win since 2010

Johan Santana hasn't had very good luck the last few years.

First, he lost the 2005 Cy Young Award to Bartolo Colon in what was probably the last year that voters for that category cared about pitcher wins. With all the criticism of the BBWAA over the past several years for their award voting, they made Zack Greinke the Cy Young Award winner in 2009, Felix Hernandez in 2010. That shift has happened, and if the 2005 Awards were voted today, I have no doubt that Santana would win - possibly unanimously.

Second, he got traded to the Mets. Seriously, that's more bad luck than any individual deserves.What's worse, he seems to get a lot of the blame as the Mets have spent the past several seasons as a bit of an embarrassment. With that in mind, I'm going to make a semi-controversial statement:

Trading for Johan Santana was one of the best deals in Mets' franchise history.

Ok, that seems nuts. He's costing them a ton of money, and the Mets haven't done anything for years. So let me explain in a bit more depth.

First off, the Mets traded NOTHING of value to get Santana. As I've discussed in this space, Bill Smith got absolutely fleeced trading the best pitcher alive. Perhaps you would argue that the Mets don't deserve any credit for ripping off Bill Smith, since that seems to have been a general trend of the past several years, and I would grant you that point. Still, every other team out there had a chance to rip of Smith - the Mets stepped up and got it done. 

Second, Santana has been very good on the Mets. Not as good as he was from 2004 to 2007 with the Twins, but still, quite good. He's now appeared in 94 games with the Mets, In 631.0 innings, he has a 2.84 ERA, good for a 143 ERA+. For comparison, he had a 141 ERA+ with the Twins. That includes the 2000 and 2001 season where Santana worked as a reliever and wasn't good yet, but the idea that Santana has been a significantly worse pitcher with the Mets than they expected is just not correct. His peripherals have remained strong as well, with 530 strikeouts against 176 walks, putting him with a K/BB ratio just over 3.0. He's also given up slightly under a home run per 9 innings. 

After missing the entire 2011 season, Santana has pitched effectively in his first six starts of this season. He has allowed more than 1 run only twice, and now has three consecutive quality starts. He should have won his first game before Saturday, but don't forget, he pitches for the Mets. At a 9.87 K/9 rate and 2.61 ERA, and only 1 home run allowed, he is pitching like an ace. Of course,  he's pitched like an ace for a long time. Maybe he hasn't always been healthy, but he's pretty much always been very good.

The question now turns to what is next. Santana is owed roughly $46 million more over the next season and three-quarters. That's elite pitcher money, and while he looks like an elite pitcher so far this year, he still missed the entire 2011 season with a right shoulder injury. He's become the personification of high-risk/high-reward - he could be the best pitcher on a championship team, or he could break.

I do believe that Santana will be traded. The Mets are not going to compete this year, and probably will not next year. The Mets need to begin rebuilding their organization in earnest, and the Alderson/DePodesta team inspires much more confidence than previous regimes. As far as destination spots, the usual suspects are there. The Red Sox and Yankees both have miserable starting pitching, and may be willing to take on his contract. However, I'm going to suggest that Santana ends up with a less likely suitor in the same division: the Toronto Blue Jays. 

The Blue Jays, who lost out in their pursuit of Yu Darvish, have the money to spend, and the prospects to deal. They have a significant interest in making a deal as well - with a second wild card added, it's hard to picture the Jays being out of contention. Ricky Romero and Brandon Morrow have pitched well, but adding a top starter would really make them a serious contender. They play excellent defense and have significant power. Jose Bautista will NOT have a .177 BABIP this season (correcting his BABIP up to .304 would give him a season line of .279/.391/.452). Furthermore, unlike the Yankees and Red Sox, selling out the Skydome can be a goal for the Jays in this playoff-starved city. With the Raptors an afterthought, and a Maple Leafs team that locals would love an excuse to not think about for a summer, the Toronto sports scene is ripe for the plucking. Usually I'm against deals meant to "create excitement" but the advantage here is higher than usual. A move would send a clear sign that this Blue Jays team is not content to play for third place.

Alex Anthropoulos has gained a reputation as a shrewd GM, Mike Napoli for Frank Francisco aside. The Mets would not be able to rip him off. However, Anthropoulos also doesn't seem to be scared of taking a risk. Santana would seem like a sensible one. 

As far as the Mets are concerned, they may be able to get a better haul for Santana in 2012 than Omar Minaya gave up for him after the 2007. Read that last sentence again, and you'll probably understand why the Twins stink right now.

SoxProspects: Cup of Coffee: Anderson, Ciriaco lead PawSox over Pettitte

5/7 Cup of Coffee: Pawtucket knocked around a rehabbing Andy Pettitte, Portland's pitching shut down New Britain, and a balanced attack led Greenville over Rome. Defensive miscues were Salem's downfall in the only loss of the afternoon.

Friday, May 04, 2012

What do we know?

Welcome back! I apologize for the negligence in posting regularly - I just finished up my first year of graduate school, so posting here was lower on the priority list. It's disappointing though, because we had a pretty exciting first month of the baseball season. Bryce Harper and Mike Trout have been called up, probably for good. Jered Weaver has thrown a no-hitter, and Phil Humber a perfect game. The Rays and Rangers have emerged (unsurprisingly, especially in the Rangers' case) as teams that appear elite. Matt Kemp may now be the best player in baseball - a subject that deserves attention in more detail further down the road.

Today, I just want to go into some of the stuff we now know. It's easy to make overly rash judgments based on a month of games, but in truth, the first month usually IS a good indicator of things to come. Sure, people read too much into flukes and slumps, but there are some things that it's ok to read into. So, a month in to the 2012 season, here is some stuff I think I know.

Note: SOMETHING on this list will turn out laughably wrong, and will be saved on the internet forever. I have no idea what that is. If I did, I wouldn't write it. Just keep that in mind. 

1. If Stephen Strasburg is healthy, he is really, really good.
Strasburg has now thrown 124.0 innings as a major leaguer. He has a 2.18 ERA, 150 strikeouts, and 25 walks. He has now gone 64.1 innings since allowing his last home run. It's too early in the season for WAR to be truly meaningful, but his is 2.5 according to Baseball-Reference, best in all of baseball. If you've gotten the chance to watch him pitch, it's easy to see why - his fastball, overhand curve and changeup give him three pitches that are better than just about any other pitcher's best. He's a pitching freak, and for baseball's sake, I hope he stays healthy. If you believe in the whole "Inverted-W" mechanics being a major flaw, then you have reason to be worried. All the more reason to enjoy him now.

2. Mark Prior just signed a minor league contract with the Red Sox.
This, of course, is why we need to enjoy Strasburg now. Mark Prior, sadly, is now THE cautionary tale of phenom pitchers who broke down. The thing is, nobody can say for certain why Prior broke down - was it his mechanics, was it his overuse, was it just because some pitchers break? He will apparently pitch out of the bullpen in his attempt to work his way back up to the Sox.

3. Yu Darvish looks really quite good. 
One of the reasons the Rangers have emerged over the past three years as one of the best organizations in baseball is their pitching. With that in mind, this was the best possible place for Darvish to land. Through his first five starts, Darvish is 4-0 with a 2.18 ERA, with 33 strikeouts and 17 walks in 33.0 innings pitched. That walk total a little high for you? In his last two starts, against the Blue Jays and Yankees, he has pitched 15.1 innings, striking out 19 while walking 4, allowing just 1 run. Those two teams are third and fourth in the American League in walks, by the way, so it's not like he's pitching to a bunch of free swingers. He's settling in. Don't panic if there are adjustments to be made down the line, but Darvish looks, early on, like an ace.

4. The best place to find starting pitching may be your own bullpen. The Texas Rangers can be thanked for this.
It makes sense, doesn't it? Almost every successful major league pitcher comes up through the minors as a starter. There's an occasional college closer, sure, but usually players are put into relief because of a need. If this were 2007, Neftali Feliz, Daniel Bard, Chris Sale and Lance Lynn would likely all be in the bullpen (the first three, without question).  Lynn and Sale have been fantastic in the rotation, while Feliz and Bard have had more mixed reviews. The upside here clearly outmatches the downside, though. Suppose Feliz continues to walk a few too many people. The Rangers can send him back to the pen - they'll have a valuable reliever, and can take comfort in knowing they are getting the maximum value out of him. Compare that to  the Red Sox usage of Jonathan Papelbon, who likely would have turned into an excellent starter (and made himself twice as much money as a free agent), and relieved several of the depth issues the Sox had in their rotation between 2008 and 2011. So, while the infuriating closer usage patterns that developed in the late 1980's have not yet passed on, teams have finally re-identified the relative value of starting pitchers vs. relief pitchers.

This, which I will post in greater depth at a later date, is what Moneyball was supposed to be about. The point wasn't that college players and OBP were good - it was that they were undervalued. After the A's won in the early 00's, the market adjusted. Teams drafted smarter (a trend clearly visible if you look at the performance of first rounders in recent years compared to 15 years prior), and valued guys who didn't make outs. The Rangers are the team that exploited the next inefficiency, which was reliever usage. With C.J. Wilson, Alexi Ogando and now Neftali Feliz, they have found what had been an inefficiency, to free up the money to sign players like Darvish and Adrian Beltre. Keep an eye on relief phenom Robbie Ross, who could be in the Rangers 2013 rotation.

5. Free Alexi Ogando
An addendum to the previous paragraphs. After an solid year in the rotation last year, the Rangers have moved Ogando back to the bullpen. Not necessarily because they think he can't start, but because they think they have five better starters. They may be right about that. The Rangers sixth starter would be a top three starter on most teams, and the #1 on a couple. To his credit, instead of sulking in the pen, he has been marvelous. 12.2 innings pitched, 5 hits, 1 run allowed, no walks, 12 strikeouts. It would be possible to see him moved in a deal for a slugging first baseman if one were to become available, but there's no obvious counterpart out there.

6. Matt Wieters is breaking out
After enormous expectations on him as a rookie in 2009, his three year line of .265/.328/.415 with solid defense at catcher (8.3 WAR over the three years, according to B-Ref) was considered a disappointment. The expectations had become something of a curse, making it hard to enjoy the fact that Wieters had become one of the ten best catchers in the game. While 22 games isn't enough to say he's made the leap, it's impossible not to be impressed with a .303/.391/.618 line

7. No Pujols, No Carpenter, No Problem
I was among the many who thought the Cardinals would struggle this year, especially after hearing that Carpenter was having disc problems. Instead, they have baseball's best run differential, and the best record in the National League. Can they keep it up? Well, Lance Lynn and David Freese might be emerging stars, but I'm fairly confident that Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook and Jon Jay are playing way over thier heads. I'm also not confident in Carlos Beltran's ability to stay healthy. On the other hand, Lance Berkman has appeared in only 7 games, and Adam Wainwright has struggled after coming back from Tommy John surgery. If Wainwright puts it together (and his strikeout and walk numbers indicate that he will), and one of the Berkman/Beltran duo can stay healthy at a time (debatable), the Cardinals should, at worst, be competing with the Reds and potentially the Brewers.

8. Alex Rodriguez is no longer an elite player
Say it over and over. Repeat it every time you hear an announcer talk about how feared he is. Think about it especially hard when, for the next few spring trainings, we hear stories about how the guy is in "the best shape of his life." I hate to keep beating up on the guy (HA - don't believe that for a second, I enjoy it with every fiber of my being... ahem), but his OPS has crawled steadily downward for six years now. The fact that every home run he hits gets replayed on SportsCenter makes it seem like he has more than the 4 he does right now. Among 95 AL qualifiers, he is 48th in slugging, one point behind Alcides Escobar. I'm very skeptical at this point that he'll break Bonds' record of 762. Even if he stays healthy, a big if, I don't see him cracking 700 until mid 2014 at the earliest. Fortunately for the rest of baseball, he IS quite likely to get to 660, costing the Yankees a whole ton of money over the next six years.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A tribute to Chipper Jones, the greatest #1 draft pick of all time

As you've no doubt heard by now, Larry Wayne Jones announced that he is retiring at the end of the 2012 season. Unless the voters are stupid (sigh), he'll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. A fair argument can be made that he's one of the 50 greatest players of all-time, but this space isn't going to be used today to evaluate him relative to, say, George Brett or Wade Boggs. Instead, we are going to consider Chipper in the context of June, 1990, when the Atlanta Braves made him the first overall pick in the draft. No team has ever done better with the pick.

For all of the hype that comes with being the first overall pick, it's a mixed bag. Somewhat tragically, the same month that Jones announces his retirement comes news that the two worst #1 picks of all time, Brien Taylor and Matt Bush, were arrested on charges of purchasing a large amount of cocaine and a DUI hit-and-run, respectively.

Whenever a player is taken #1 overall, it's a career filled with hope and expectations. Some, like Alex Rodriguez and Bryce Harper are considered can't-miss phenoms. Others, like Joe Mauer and Bryan Bullington are roundly criticized as "signability" picks. In every case, though, the drafting team makes their pick hoping for a future MVP who will lead his team to a World Series championship, multiple playoff appearances, and eventually retiring to a certain Hall of Fame plaque with that team's logo on his hat. The drafting team is hoping for Chipper Jones.

In terms of production for the drafting team, I wasn't totally surprised that Chipper Jones shows up as the best. I was slightly surprised, however, when I read ESPN's Dave Schoenfield's piece and realized how great the margin was. Here are the top #1 draft picks all time, in terms of WAR (per baseball-reference.com):

1. Chipper Jones, Braves, 1990: 82.7
2. Ken Griffey Jr, Mariners, 1987: 67.6
3. Joe Mauer, Twins. 2001: 40.3
4. Darryl Strawberry, Mets, 1980: 37.3
5. Alex Rodriguez, Mariners. 1993: 37.1

Only Ken Griffey, Jr. has been even HALF as valuable to his team as any other #1 draft pick as Jones was to the Braves. Additionally, of these five, only Jones amd Strawberry won World Series with their drafting teams. Jones, Mauer and Griffey all won MVP awards for their drafting team (and Rodriguez won three after leaving).

Of course, in terms of career value, Rodriguez is the greater player. Is that what a team is looking for in a #1 pick though? Let me ask that question a slightly different way, to elucidate my point. Did the Nationals draft Bryce Harper in hopes that he'll win the 2022 MVP with the Yankees? I'll wait patiently for your answer.


It's hard to answer that question without using a curse word, right? OF COURSE they don't just hope he's great, they hope he's great AND stays with the Nationals. There's not any way to argue that Rodriguez was as valuable to the Mariners as Jones has been to the Braves. 

Aside: Griffey's worth to the Mariners does deserve a special mention. Not due to his production, which, while impressive, doesn't measure up to Jones'. Instead, Griffey really did save baseball in Seattle. If Griffey, who was tremendously popular and marketable, didn't break out in the early 1990's for the Mariners, it's quite likely they would have moved. Jones was a greater player who led his team to greater things on the field. Griffey kept his team in existence. Would the less charismatic Jones have had the same effect on the Mariners? Who knows? I'm not going to attempt to quantify the value in that, but it does need to be mentioned. 

What's been remarkable about Jones is his consistency. While he's rarely been the very best player in his league (he DID lead in offensive WAR during his MVP season), he has NEVER had a Sub-2.0 WAR season. His worst OPS? .803, as a rookie in 1995. Even in his decline phase, his last three injury-plagued seasons, he's hit .268/.371/.444. That .371 OBP would've placed him 10th in the NL in 2011. So, while he's far from his thirteen-year (!) peak of .314/.411/.555, Jones' playing time recently has not been coming out of charity. The dude can still hit. 

Another remarkable thing - Jones wasn't a pick of the can't miss variety, like Griffey, Strawberry and Rodriguez. In Baseball America's top 100 for the 1991 season, he was the #44 prospect. The consensus top prospect in the 1990 draft was a pitcher named Todd Van Poppel. However, Van Poppel was supposedly committed to going to the University of Texas. Was he serious, or bluffing for a big pay day? We found out the answer to that question when the A's took him with the #14 pick overall and gave him a then-record $1.55M signing bonus. The question we'll never know is this - would the Braves have taken Jones anyway? It's possible that the always-cagey Bobby Cox (who was GM at the time) was perfectly happy to let Van Poppel slip away and take the less heralded player he truly wanted.

So congratulations to Chipper Jones on a fantastic (and still unfinished!) career, and to the Atlanta Braves, for making the greatest draft pick of all time. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ryan Zimmerman's signs $100M extension

Earlier this month, I ranked some of the highest paid players in baseball based on how much they'd be worth to their teams, relative to their contracts. With that in mind, I thought I'd take a look at how Ryan Zimmerman's extension measures up. The contract will keep him in Washington through the 2019 season, and includes a $18M team option for 2020, or a $2M buyout if that option is not exercised. In total, Zimmerman is owed $116M over the next eight years. A lot of money, yes, but is Zimmerman worth it?

My analysis says yes. Sure, Zimmerman's 2011 season, where he played only 101 games, is a concern. However, I can't think anyone would have more information on his health than the Nationals do. And since the Nats seem to have moved, in a general sense, toward knowing what they're doing, I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt. In both 2009 and 2010, Zimmerman was a 5+ WAR player. That's easily worth what the Nationals are paying him.

I have Zimmerman estimated at about 31.1 WAR over the next 8 years, a number that would be worth about $156M, $40M more than he's actually scheduled to earn. That would rate him the fourth best of the megacontracts, behind only Braun, Tulowitzki and Kemp. Over the course of his contracted term with the Nationals, they're getting a great value.

Of course, Zimmerman was already under contract for the first two years, so I suppose the better question is whether he'll be worth the $100M from 2014 to 2019. My system has him worth 9 WAR over the next two years, and about 22.1 over the next six (covered by his extension). So obviously a big chunk of his value is coming now. However, think about eight years ago. Back in 2004, $20M a year was a massive contract, and $14M was considered extensive. Miguel Tejada's contract with the Orioles was 6 years, for $72M, an average annual value of only $12M - this, for a player regarded (correctly) as elite. While Zimmerman might not be worth quite the $18M he's due in 2019, at age 34, it's possible that he will. What's more likely is that he's worth so much more than the $14M he's due in most of the years before that nobody will care. Running his numbers, I estimate Zimmerman to be worth $113.3M over the six years covered by his extension - meaning the Nationals are taking a sensible gamble.

I suppose this means it's time to adjust our expectations of what a ONEHUNDREDMILLION player is. Certainly, this story got more press than it would have if Zimmerman's extension had been for merely $95M. The fact is, a non-elite-but-still-very-good player can be worth $15M-$18M a year now. With each win being worth something between four and five million, that's the new math. Be careful though - if signing non-elite players inhibits your chances to add an elite one, you've made a mistake. Bryce Harper is likely under team control until 2017, at which point the Nationals will have only two years and $34M committed to Zimmerman. A significant amount, but nothing that should smother them.

All in all, Zimmerman's contract rates as a smart risk for the Nationals.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Thank you, #49

Tim Wakefield, throwing his famous knuckleball: (By Waldo Jaquith on Flickr [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

As you probably know by now, Tim Wakefield will announce his retirement at a news conference tonight. I've written about Wakefield a few times here, and I'm not the one to write a full retrospective, of which I'm sure we'll get several, but I wanted to just run through some interesting facts from Wakefield's career:

  • You probably know that Wakefield was drafted as a first baseman out of the Florida Institute of Technology. He was taken in the 8th round of the 1988 draft, 200th overall. The 199th pick belonged to the Red Sox, and was used on Wakefield's future teammate Tim Naehring.Wakefield is the only player from the Florida Institute of Technology to play in the major leagues.

  • Other than Naehring, players named Tim who Wakefield played with: Tim VanEgmond, Tim Harikkala, Tim Young, and Mike Timlin.

  • Wakefield was the 200th pick in the draft, and won exactly 200 games.

  • Wakefield played exactly one year each with Barry Bonds (1992), Dennis Eckersley (1998), Rickey Henderson (2002).

  • Wakefield debuted on 7/31/1992 with a 10-strikeout complete game victory against the Cardinals (box score). His first strikeout was Luis Alicea. Wakefield made his first appearance with the Red Sox on 5/27/95 (box score). Alicea was his second baseman in that game, going 3-4 with a home run and a double, helping Wakefield to a 12-1 win.Alicea was later the first base coach on Wakefield's Red Sox.

  • Wakefield has more starts against the Tampa Bay Rays than any other pitcher, with 36. He finishes his career with a 21-8 record against Tampa, with a 3.71 ERA.

  • Wakefield retires with a 105 ERA+. Exactly the same as Jack Morris.