Saturday, January 26, 2019

Stottlemyre the Savior

Stottlemyre helped extend the post-war Yankees dynasty one more year (NYT)
Earlier this month, former MLB pitcher and pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre passed away from cancer. He was 77.

In an 11-year playing career spent entirely with the New York Yankees, Stottlemyre distinguished himself as one of the best pitchers in franchise history. A five-time All-Star, Stottlemyre averaged 15 wins per season while compiling a sparkling 2.97 ERA for his career. He was also a workhorse, topping 250 innings every year from 1965-1973 and leading the American League in complete games twice.

That success on the mound served Stottlemyre well over the next three decades, first as a roving instructor and then as a pitching coach. He tutored some of baseball's best hurlers during stints with the Mariners, Mets, Astros, and Yankees, including Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Felix Hernandez, Mike Mussina, and the great Mariano Rivera. While he never won a World Series as a player, his teams won five championships with him on the bench.

Stottlemyre's greatest accomplishment on the field, however, was helping pitch the Yankees to the 1964 pennant as a 22-year-old rookie. After winning 104 games and the pennant in '63, New York got off to a slow start in '64 under new skipper Yogi Berra, who had trouble reining in the same players who'd been his teammates and drinking buddies the year before. When Stottlemyre arrived in August to stabilize the rotation, the Yanks were in third place and 3 1/2 games out of first, putting them in jeopardy of missing the World Series for the first time in five years.

The season seemed to be slipping away when Stottlemyre took the hill for his first Major League start on Aug. 12 against the second-place Chicago White Sox, who had taken the first two games of a four-game set at Yankee Stadium. Having lost seven of their previous nine, the Yankees were in desperate need of a spark from the fresh-faced 22-year-old, who was leading the International League (AAA) with 13 wins, six shutouts and a 1.42 ERA at the time of his call-up.

Stottlemyre answered the bell, tossing a complete-game seven-hitter to halt New York's skid. Even the offense appeared rejuvenated, bashing four homers in support of the rookie, who hadn't even received an invitation to Spring Training just a few months before. It was, in the words of New York sportswriter Til Ferdenzi, "movie script stuff."

Stottlemyre's next pressure-packed start came four days later in Baltimore against the first-place Orioles, led by eventual league MVP Brooks Robinson. That didn't faze Stottlemyre, however, who limited the O's to just one run on five hits over 8 2/3 sterling innings. A rare error by Clete Boyer with two outs in the ninth prevented Stottlemyre from notching his second straight complete game, but once again he had come up big for the Yankees.

Stottlemyre wasn't getting much help from his teammates, however, who promptly dropped six in a row before his next turn on Aug. 22, falling 5 1/2 games back of the Orioles and seemingly out of the race. The sputtering Yankees once again turned to Stottlemyre to stop the bleeding, and once again he responded, delivering a complete-game shutout in the nightcap of a doubleheader at Fenway Park to keep their pennant hopes alive.

The win proved to be a turning point, igniting a furious 30-11 run by the Yankees to close out the season that featured six additional Stottlemyre victories -- three of which were complete games. He won five straight starts during the heart of that stretch, including the game that moved New York into first place for good on Sept. 17. When the dust settled in early October, Stottlemyre had gone 9-3 with a 2.06 ERA across 96 innings, helping New York overtake Chicago and Baltimore in the standings to capture the pennant by a single game.

After putting the Yankees over the top during the regular season, he nearly did the same in the World Series. After New York lost Game 1 in St. Louis, Stottlemyre bested the Cardinals' Bob Gibson in Game 2 to even the series. The duo squared off again in Game 5 at the Stadium, with Stottlemyre twirling seven innings of two-run ball. The Yankees lost in the 10th, however, after Tim McCarver belted a crushing three-run homer to put St. Louis up in the series. The Yanks bounced back to win Game 6, forcing a Game 7 showdown between Stottlemyre and Gibson, both of whom were working on two days' rest.

The pair traded zeroes through three innings before Stottlemyre stumbled in the fourth, giving up three runs after shortstop Phil Linz threw away a potential double play ball. Berra lifted his young star for a pinch-hitter in the top of the fifth, only to watch the bullpen immediately surrender three more runs in the bottom of the frame. A 6-0 deficit against Gibson proved to be insurmountable for even the mighty Yankees, who rallied for three homers but ultimately fell short, losing 7-5.

Still, the future appeared bright for Stottlemyre, who appeared poised to be the next great Yankee ace. He lived up to his end of the bargain in '65, winning 20 games even as the team crumbled around him. Despite toiling for generally mediocre clubs, he established himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball over the next decade, ranking fifth in wins and second in innings from 1965-1973. Had his career not ended when he was just 33 years old, he'd probably be in the Hall of Fame, alongside several pitchers he later went on to coach.

So while the Yankee dynasty died a painful death in the mid-60s, Stottlemyre helped wring one more pennant out of its aging core, proving to be one of the most impactful midseason call-ups in baseball history. It may not have had the ending he or his teammates wanted, but it still made for a pretty good story.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Harper and Machado Waiting it Out

Harper (left) and Machado are holding out for record paydays (12Up)
For nearly two decades, Alex Rodriguez has held the record for the largest free-agent contract in American professional sports. On December 11, 2000, Rodriguez signed a 10-year, $252 million deal with the Texas Rangers, doubling the contract of the highest paid professional athlete at the time --Kevin Garnett of the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves. Seven years later, Rodriguez opted out of that deal to sign an even bigger one with the New York Yankees worth $275 million over 10 years, with the potential to earn an additional $30 million in incentives for reaching certain home run milestones (which later became controversial following his PED admissions).

Records are made to be broken, but so far neither deal has been surpassed by a free agent* in any sport. The closest anyone's gotten were Albert Pujols and Robinson Cano, who both signed 10-year, $240 million deals in 2011 and 2013, respectively. That's going to change this winter, however; it's only a matter of when.

[*Giancarlo Stanton (13 years/$325 million) and Miguel Cabrera (10 years/$292 million) both later eclipsed Rodriguez via contract extensions, not as free agents. The highest paid athlete is boxer Canelo Alvarez, who's currently on an 11-fight, $365 million deal.] 

Bryce Harper and his agent, Scott Boras (the same agent who negotiated Rodriguez's first megadeal), have had their sights set on the record since Harper was smashing 500-foot homers and making magazine covers as a teenager. He debuted with the Washington Nationals at 19 in 2012, making his first All-Star team en route to winning NL Rookie of the Year honors. He was an All-Star again in 2013 before putting together one of the greatest offensive seasons ever in 2015, when he won the NL MVP unanimously. The Chosen One had arrived.

While Harper hasn't been able to replicate that historic campaign, he showed what his ceiling can be. He showcased it again last summer by winning the Home Run Derby at Nationals Park, wowing the hometown crowd with a display for the ages that included 14 homers in the final 47 seconds and 45 overall. While injuries have often prevented Harper from reaching his full potential, he's still been one of baseball's 12 most valuable position players throughout his career. He's slugged at least 20 homers and been an All-Star in all but one of his seven seasons, and he was headed for a second MVP award in 2017 before hyperextending his knee after slipping on a wet base. Harper's 26 years old, he just led the Major Leagues in walks, and he has MVP potential. He is, in other words, a superstar.

He's not the only one whose services are available this winter, however. Manny Machado, last seen during the World Series with the Los Angeles Dodgers, is arguably just as good as Harper. Machado, who's just four months older than Harper, also debuted in 2012 and immediately emerged as one of the best players in baseball. In 2013 he was an All-Star en route to leading the AL in doubles, and starting in 2015 he's topped 30 homers every year.

While not quite the force that Harper is at the plate, Machado's a comparable baserunner and an elite defender at a more challenging position, earning a pair of Gold Gloves for his outstanding work at the hot corner (he can also play shortstop, but not as well as third). He's one of 15 position players to compile at least 30 fWAR since 2012, tallying virtually the same amount as Harper in one fewer game. That hasn't translated to an MVP yet, but it has helped the four-time All-Star to three top-10 finishes despite playing for mostly mediocre teams in Baltimore. And whereas Harper has struggled with injuries, Machado has been extremely durable, appearing in at least 156 games in five of his last six seasons.
Nearly 20 years later, A-Rod's superdeal is still the standard (SI)
Baseball hasn't had a free agent so good and so young since 2000, when Rodriguez was a 25-year-old shortstop coming off three straight 40-homer seasons with the Seattle Mariners. Now it has two, in the same winter, no less.

In the old days, that would have sparked a feeding frenzy between baseball's richest teams. The Red Sox Yankees, Cubs, and Dodgers would've opened up their vaults for them, spawning a bidding war the likes of which baseball has never seen. But, as last winter's slow-moving market proved, times have changed. Teams are not willing to pursue free agents as aggressively as they used to, not when it means committing large sums of money to ageing players who will cost them compensatory draft picks, luxury tax penalties, and payroll flexibility. Better to drag out negotiations and drive down the price once Spring Training is underway and players start getting desperate.

But if there was ever a player to break the bank for, it's Machado and Harper. Sure, they have red flags and rub a lot of people the wrong way, but they're young and athletic and certifiable stars. There's not too many of those left in baseball these days, so they're sure to attract eyeballs and sell jerseys. Neither has won a championship, which should continue to drive them after the ink dries on their new contracts. They'll instantly transform whichever lineup they join and add multiple wins to a team by themselves. Not everyone can afford them, but everyone could use them.

It's hard to reconcile, then, why both remain unsigned despite playing different positions and negotiating with different teams. The Dodgers have the money and the roster space for Harper after trading away Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig, while the Phillies, White Sox, and Yankees all need Machado on the left side of their infields. So what's taking so long?

It's not as though teams haven't tried to sign either player. Harper rejected a 10-year, $300 million offer from the Nationals, which would have made him the richest free agent ever (Washington has reportedly since upped its offer). Machado received an offer from the White Sox, albeit a smaller one closer to $200 million. Both are worth more than that, and they know it. But is there a team willing to give it to them?

We'll just have to wait and see.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Despite Flaws, Sox Among Best Ever

Despite facing numerous obstacles, Boston made it look easy (The Atlantic)
The 2018 Boston Red Sox will go down as one of the greatest teams in baseball history. After storming their way to a franchise-record 108 wins during the regular season, they proceeded to blitz through October, going 11-3 against the Yankees, Astros and Dodgers to capture the club’s fourth World Series title of the century and ninth overall. All told, their 119 victories were the second-most for a World Series champion, trailing only the 1998 New York Yankees.

Obviously, a lot has to go right for a baseball team to win that many games, and a lot did go right for this year’s Red Sox. Mookie Betts turned in one of the greatest individual seasons ever, amassing 10.4 fWAR en route to AL MVP honors. J.D. Martinez had a strong case for the award as well after threatening the Triple Crown with 43 homers, 130 RBIs and a .330 batting average. Andrew Benintendi avoided the dreaded sophomore slump after finishing second to Aaron Judge in the 2017 Rookie of the Year race. Xander Bogaerts and Eduardo Rodriguez overcame injuries and finally started living up to their potential. Chris Sale was arguably the best pitcher in baseball on a per-inning basis, and Rick Porcello bounced back from leading the Majors in losses in 2017 to leading the team in wins. David Price recovered from an injury-marred 2017 to go 16-7 with a 3.56 ERA before exorcising his playoff demons. Craig Kimbrel continued being one of baseball’s best closers, and the rest of the bullpen was surprisingly solid. Midseason trades for Nathan Eovaldi and World Series MVP Steve Pearce paid huge dividends, especially during the postseason. Rookie manager Alex Cora made his job look easy, navigating a full season in Boston’s fishbowl without a hint of controversy and pushing all the right buttons in October.

And yet, the Red Sox were a great team in spite of everything that went wrong for them. They endured 26 separate DL stints – only seven teams had more. Hanley Ramirez slashed .254/.313/.395 through 44 games before being released in late May. Dustin Pedroia was limited to just three games due to knee injuries, and his replacements (Eduardo Nunez, Ian Kinsler, Brock Holt, the ghost of Brandon Phillips) struggled to pick up the slack. Boston’s catching corps was the worst in baseball, ranking dead last in wRC+ (44) and fWAR (-2.1). Jackie Bradley Jr. didn’t hit during the first half, and Mitch Moreland didn’t hit during the second. Benintendi eluded the sophomore slump, but Rafael Devers didn’t. Sale hardly pitched during the final two months of the season and was noticeably diminished during the playoffs. Price scuffled in the first half and continued to flounder against the Yankees. Drew Pomeranz turned into a pumpkin. Steven Wright, Tyler Thornburg, and Carson Smith missed most of the season for the second year in a row. Joe Kelly was plagued by inconsistency. Blake Swihart wasted away on the bench as his development continued to stall. Kimbrel saw his walk rate balloon during the regular season before nearly blowing multiple games during October. The farm system is still utterly barren, and Boston will have to pay luxury tax penalties after outspending every team in baseball this year – partially because they paid Pablo Sandoval and Rusney Castillo a combined $30 million to play in San Francisco and Pawtucket.

So no, the Red Sox were not a lucky team by any stretch of the imagination – but it’s scary to think how good they could have been if they were.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Stanton Finally Realizing Potential

It's taken Stanton nearly a decade to put it all together (SI.com)
Last night, Giancarlo Stanton matched his career high for home runs in a season...at 37.

That number feels preposterously low for a slugger of Stanton's stature and caliber. After all, we're talking about a guy with one of the five best HR-per-AB ratios in baseball history. We're talking about a guy who's absurdly strong, a guy who did this. And this. Annnd this (don't worry, there's plenty more where those came from). Every time he goes deep he seems to re-write the record books by hitting a ball where no one has before. He is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful and most electrifying players in baseball history, not to mention the highest paid professional athlete on the planet.

By comparison, his numbers have always felt supremely disappointing. You look at Stanton's Baseball-Reference page and think Really? That's it? No 50-homer seasons, or even a 40-homer season. No MVPs. There's some black ink there, but it's pretty sparse. His list of most similar batters is even more underwhelming, littered with the likes of Richard Hidalgo, Brad Hawpe, Mark Trumbo, Carlos Quentin, and Russell Branyan. There's not a single Hall of Famer in his top 10, or anyone who came even remotely close, for that matter. Pretty soon you start asking yourself; the Marlins paid $325 million for this guy?!

They sure did, and at the time, nobody questioned it. Everyone knows what Stanton's capable of, even if his statistics have only provided a glimpse.

Like most players with Cooperstown-level ability, Stanton was destined for greatness from the beginning. After earning a promotion to the Majors at age 20 in 2010, he proceeded to belt 22 home runs in his first 100 games. He followed that up with 34 the following year and 37 in 2012, despite missing 39 games because of knee surgery. With his home run totals on the rise and still several years away from his prime, Stanton seemed poised to dominate the leaderboards for years to come.

Because of injuries, however, that hasn't happened. Stanton slumped to .249 with 24 homers in 2013 while missing two months with a strained hamstring. He bounced back in 2014 and was challenging Clayton Kershaw for NL MVP honors before a fastball to the face ended his season on September 11th, leaving him stuck on 37 homers. He was so far ahead of the pack that year that he still led the National League in long balls and total bases (299) despite missing the last three weeks of the season.

When Stanton returned in 2015, he was a man on a mission. By the final week in June he already had 27 home runs and 67 RBIs in 74 games. He was just laying waste to the league, and it seemed like everything was coming together for the 25-year-old. Until he broke the hammate bone on his left hand, ending his season on June 26th. We'll never know what he would have done during the second half, when power figures started rising across the sport.

2016 brought more of the same for Stanton, who slumped to .240 but still slugged 27 homers in 119 games.  Many were beginning to wonder if he would ever stay healthy. enough to log a full season. In his first seven, he averaged only 118 games and 426 at-bats per year, missing roughly a quarter of the season each year. He had reached his prime and still wasn't a dominant player, with just one home run crown and one 100-RBI season under his belt. Six players hit more home runs from 2010-2016, all of whom are well into their 30s or retired now. The next Babe Ruth he was not.

This year, at the magic age of 27, that's finally changed. Stanton's healthy, having played all but two of Miami's 110 games, and he's crushing the ball. He's taken advantage of the new home run environment to match his best home run total in 15 fewer games than 2012 and 37 fewer games than 2014. He's not going to win MVP as long as Bryce Harper's healthy, but he should blow most of his previous career highs out of the water in a season that finally feels worthy of the hype (and the money).

(*August 9th update: Stanton slugged his 38th home run last night, establishing a new career high. He now has five home runs in his last five games and leads the Majors with 12 dingers since the All-Star break)

Friday, August 4, 2017

Adrian Beltre's Weird Career

Beltre salutes Rangers fans after doubling for his 3,000th hit (New York Times)
Adrian Beltre has had a weird career. A great career, to be sure, one that will ultimately see him enshrined in Cooperstown, but a weird one nevertheless. In his 20s it was full of ups and downs before he settled into one of baseball's best and most consistent players in his 30s. It goes without saying that this is not a normal aging curve.

Let's start at the beginning. Did you know the Dodgers broke MLB rules to sign Beltre out of the Dominican Republic when he was 15? It's true. Less than four years later he was up in the big leagues, struggling to bat his weight during the summer of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

It didn't take long for Beltre to adjust, however, and the following year saw him bat .275/.352/.428 (102 OPS+) with 15 homers while ranking as one of the league's best defensive third basemen. His 18 steals and 61 walks from that season remain career highs. In 2000 he was even batter, hitting .290/.360/.475 (114 OPS+) with 20 homers and 12 steals. Still several years away from his physical prime, he appeared to be a superstar in the making.

Then he was derailed by an appendectomy, of all things, which kept him out of the lineup until mid-May and caused his OPS to tumble more than 100 points in 2001. His defense cratered as well, as he was below average in the field for the first and only time in his career. While his power and glovework bounced back in 2002-'03, his patience never did, and his average continue to fall along with his BABIP, which bottomed out at .253 in 2003. With his early flashes of stardom receding in the rearview, he seemed to be settling into a solid but unspectacular third baseman.

Then came 2004, the year Beltre finally put everything together. He more than doubled his home run output from the previous season to lead the Majors with 48. His average soared to .334 as he trimmed his strikeout rate from 16.9 percent to 13.2 percent, and his walk rate rebounded as well. He was worth 9.5 bWAR and, in an alternate universe where Barry Bonds doesn't become a freak of nature, he wins the MVP over Albert Pujols in a photo finish. Instead he finishes second, unable to overcome Bonds' record-setting .609 OBP, which is just 20 points lower than Beltre's slugging percentage in '04.

A free agent heading into his age-26 season, Beltre has timed his monster season perfectly. He is going to get paid, and it is the Mariners who land him. He signs for five years and $64 million, giving him another crack at free agency when he's 30.

The next half-decade nearly ruins Beltre, who doesn't come close to replicating his 2004 season. He wins a pair of Gold Gloves but his bat regresses, stymied by Safeco Field and the cool, damp air currents of the Pacific Northwest. The strikeouts rise and the walks fall, reflecting a player pressing to prove he is worth the money and put a stop to the "overrated" jeers he hears on a nightly basis. Seattle slips into mediocrity, which only exacerbates the criticism. Beltre has duped the Mariners and their fans. He is not the player they thought they were getting, the slick-fielding home run champion who, for a season, rivaled Bonds and Alex Rodriguez as the best player in the game. He becomes a poster-boy for the walk-year phenomenon.

In 2009, Beltre's final season in Seattle, he becomes a punchline. After scuffling in the spring, his summer hot streak is interrupted when a grounder takes a bad hop and nails him in the groin. Beltre isn't wearing a cup and lands on the DL. He finishes the year with eight home runs and 44 RBIs, his lowest totals since his rookie year. Having reaped the rewards of free agency after his best season, he struggles to find a contract in the wake of his worst.

The Red Sox, knowing a good deal when they see one, scoop him up on a one-year deal. Free of Seattle's toxic environment and finally aided by his home park for the first time in his career, Beltre returns to form. He racks up 7.8 bWAR and makes his first All-Star team, batting .321 with 28 homers, 102 RBIs and an MLB-high 49 doubles (he's no Fenway fluke, either, hitting for a higher average and notching 30 of his doubles away from home). He is not flashy enough for the Sox, however, and they let him walk in free agency.

Since then Beltre's been with Texas, where he's turned his Hall of Fame chances from unlikely to a first-ballot lock. He's become a steady .300 hitter while posting four of the five highest home run totals of his career, taking advantage of Arlington's homer-friendly environment. He's also continued to showcase his excellent defense at third, adding three Gold Gloves to his trophy case. After years of underrating him, the press finally caught on to his greatness and have rewarded him with five top-10 MVP finishes this decade, during which he's been baseball's third-most valuable position player behind Mike Trout and Joey Votto.

Now 38, Beltre has shown no signs of slowing down. He's still batting close to .300 with power and playing a mean third base. He looks like the next version of David Ortiz, a player who will leave on his own terms rather than being forced into retirement by diminishing skills. With several milestones such as 500 home runs and 700 doubles potentially in reach, he may want to stick around a few more years after his contract expires next season. He still hasn't won a World Series, either, which has to be a motivating factor after coming oh-so close in 2011.

Whenever he decides to retire, though, we'll look back on his career as one of the most unusual ones we've ever seen.