Saturday, May 2, 2015

NL April All-Stars

Gonzalez leads a crowded field at first base (Huffington Post)
All stats through May 1 unless otherwise noted. Scroll down to see my AL team.

C Derek Norris
Gave a lot of thought to A.J. Pierzynski, who's currently hitting above .400, but went with Norris because he's played almost twice as many games and has still been really good. With just two walks to his named this year, Norris hasn't shown any of the patience that helped him to a .361 OBP last season, but he's made up for that by cracking 10 doubles and batting .329.

1B Adrian Gonzalez
As great as Paul Goldschmidt's been, Gonzalez has been a little better. His eight homers and 65 total bases lead the National League, while his .765 slugging, 1.189 OPS, and 228 OPS+ are tops in the majors. Simply put, those are videogame numbers. Sincere apologies to Joey Votto and Anthony Rizzo as well.

2B Dee Gordon
The Marlins' new second baseman and leadoff man is playing out of his mind right now, with a major league-leading 41 hits and .423 batting average. Incredible, none of those hits have cleared the fences and only six have gone for extra bases, so Gordon's currently pulling the rare trick of batting above .400 but slugging below .500. He does have nine steals, but those have been counterbalanced by his six caught-stealing attempts.

3B Matt Carpenter
Carpenter continues to excel in his role as the catalyst of the Cardinals offense, batting an obscene .378/.446/.656 with 21 runs scored and an ML-leading 14 doubles. His sizzling start his him on track for a similar season to the MVP-caliber one he enjoyed two years ago.

SS Troy Tulowitzki
Hasn't been able to replicate his ferocious start from a year ago but still had a great April, hitting .308/.321/.526 with 11 doubles. Tulo has only two home runs so far, but the power will come so long as he's healthy.

OF Giancarlo Stanton
Stanton's picked up right where he left off last year, slashing .282/.378/.588 with six bombs and a league-leading 22 RBI.

OF Bryce Harper
Harper's light-tower power has already produced five home runs, but it's his new and improved batting eye that's drawn attention. His .433 OBP has been fueled by 23 walks--most in the bigs. He's also stayed healthy, appearing in all two dozen of Washington's games. If he can stay off the disabled list, this could be the year he finally breaks out and becomes the superstar he was pre-ordained to be.

OF Matt Kemp
Petco hasn't put a dent in Kemp's numbers, as the 30 year-old is batting a healthy .330/.359/.474 with 10 extra base hits, 14 RBI, and four steals in four attempts. Only one home run so far, but I wouldn't worry given that he's topped 20 in five of the past six seasons.
Harvey has regained his form since returning from TJ surgery (CBS New York)
SP Matt Harvey
Harvey has returned from Tommy John surgery just as dominant as he was before the procedure, going 5-0 with a 2.41 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. His 8.5 K/BB ratio is unreal.

SP Johnny Cueto
Last year's NL Cy Young runner-up and free agent-to-be is setting himself up for a giant payday. The Reds ace is leading the majors in innings and WHIP with more than a strikeout per inning, not to mention a 1.95 ERA.

SP Gerrit Cole
Cole appears to have taken the leap to acehood based on his 1.76 ERA and 10.3 K/9 mark through his first five starts.

SP Zack Greinke
Greinke's become something of an afterthought while sharing the same rotation with Clayton Kershaw, but he's having a fabulous season in his own right with a 1.93 ERA and 0.92 WHIP.

SP Max Scherzer
1-3 record aside, my preseason NL Cy Young pick is making me look good with his league-leading 1.26 ERA and 1.93 FIP.

RP Tony Watson
In line to become the Pirates closer if and when Mark Melancon stumbles, Watson's been lights-out with a 2.51 ERA and 0.77 WHIP out of Pittsburgh's 'pen.

CL Aroldis Chapman
Cincinnati's flamethrowing closer has yet to allow an earned run in 11 appearances and currently sports a 16 K/9 rate. Need I say more?

AL April All-Stars

Vogt may not be an All-Star come July, but right now he is (Bay Area Sports Guy)
Even though the All-Star Game is still more than two months away, voting for this year's midsummer classic is already underway. I'm holding off until the last possible second to determine who's truly worthy of All-Star recognition, but if I had to pick my American League All-Star team right now these are the players I'd choose. All stats are through May 1 unless otherwise noted.

C Stephen Vogt
Another A's late-bloomer, Vogt's been the best-hitting backstop in baseball to date with his impressive .348/.432/.594 slash line and 16 RBI. He's already almost halfway to last year's home run and RBI totals, and will keep getting plenty of chances to add to those totals now that he's no longer splitting time with Derek Norris. Also considered Salvador Perez.

1B Miguel Cabrera
Cabrera's cooled a bit since his monster first week, but he still  concluded April with a .373/.465/.627 batting line to go along with five home runs and 17 RBI. Those are the kind of numbers we're used to seeing from the two-time MVP.

2B Devon Travis
Really close call between him and Jose Altuve, though I was ultimately swayed by Travis's superior power totals and slash line. The 24 year-old rookie has been a revelation at the keystone for Toronto, batting .325/.393/.625 with six home runs and 19 RBI--both tops at the position. He started the season batting ninth but has quickly been moved up to the top of the order, where he figures to stay with Jose Reyes sidelined by a cracked rib.

3B Josh Donaldson
Donaldson's continued to post MVP-type numbers north of the border, hitting .330/.390/.585 with six taters and an AL-leading 20 runs entering play today, all while providing his typically excellent defense at the hot corner.

OF Hanley Ramirez
Hanley's gotten off to a huge start with the Red Sox, clubbing 10 home runs and driving in 22 runs while slashing .293/.341/.659 for the month of April. Only Nelson Cruz has more long balls and ribbies than HanRam, who's currently on pace for close to 80 and 170. Hanley has a better chance of keeping his helmet on.

OF Mike Trout
Trout's continued doing all the things that make him the best player in baseball, namely hit the tar out of the ball (.325/.439/.588) while making an impact on the bases (6-for-6 in stolen base attempts) and in center field. He's also leading the league in runs scored--something he did in each of the past three years as well.

OF Adam Jones
Jones was out of his mind in April, batting .400/.440/.707 with five homers, 19 RBI, and 17 runs scored. The current AL batting leader is walking more and striking out less than last year, which is always a good sign. I could nitpick by mentioning that he's still searching for his first stolen base and hasn't homered in two weeks, but otherwise his offensive production has been near-flawless.

DH Nelson Cruz
If you thought Safeco was going to harm Cruz's power numbers, think again. All he's done is hit more home runs, piled up more total bases, and drive in more runs than anyone else in baseball. He's also leading the American League with his .747 slugging, 1.125 OPS, and 215 OPS+. Last year's major league home run king still has a firm grasp on his throne for now.
Hernandez has remained has dominant as ever (Fox Sports)
SP Felix Hernandez
Hernandez is still the king with a perfect 4-0 record, 1.82 ERA, and 36 strikeouts against only six walks. Think maybe he's got something to prove after losing last year's Cy Young race to Corey Kluber?

SP Chris Archer
Archer appears to have taken the next step after a pair of solid seasons, elevating himself to ace status in the early going. In addition to leading the league in strikeouts with 37, he also holds a 0.84 ERA and has not allowed an earned run since his first start of the season.

SP Dallas Keuchel
Not only has the southpaw proved last year's breakout was no fluke, but he's also been arguably the best pitcher in baseball this year. He currently leads the majors in WHIP, H/9, HR/9, and innings pitched. He's not allowed a home run yet and has surrendered just three earned runs in 37 innings of work. Regression is coming, as he's not this good, but the talent level he displayed last year appears legit.

SP Scott Kazmir
The born-again lefty is off to a sensational start with a 1.62 ERA, 0.93 WHIP, and over a strikeout per inning.

SP Sonny Gray
Gray has built off last season's success with a 1.98 ERA and 0.88 WHIP. Although his strikeout rate has tumbled to 6.2 K/9, he's compensated by cutting his walks rate in half.

RP Dellin Betances
The Yankees setup man has done a terrific job in the early going, not allowing an earned run despite leading the loop in appearances. He's already racked up 21 strikeouts in 13 and 1/3 innings to complement his 1.05 WHIP and 1.82 FIP. He's been a bit wild, walking eight batters and uncorking a pair of wild pitches, but those are minor blemishes on an otherwise spotless track record.

CL Andrew Miller
There was some uncertainty over who would be the Yankees closer this year, but it appears Joe Girardi made the right call by going with Miller/slotting Betances to eighth inning duties. The towering reliever has converted all nine of his save opportunities (most in the AL) and has yet to allow an earned run yet this year. He's also been blowing hitters away with 21 strikeouts in 12 and 1/3 innings, notching at least one K in all of his appearances. Carrying a 0.57 WHIP into today's action, he's been untouchable.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Sox Walk-Off

Betts celebrates his walk-off (Barstool Sports)
This season's first meeting between the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays turned out to be a good one, though it did not start well for the Olde Towne Team. The half-hour rain-delay may have affected both starting pitchers, who each needed 36 pitches to get through the first and allowed five runs between them.

Jose Reyes got Toronto off and running by ripping Joe Kelly's second pitch of the night for a single, stole second, then came around to score when Devon Travis singled to right. Kelly walked Josh Donaldson, losing him on a full-count. Two outs later, he lost another full count when Russell Martin turned on Kelly's ninth pitch of the at-bat and smashed two-run double down the left field line. Kelly stranded Martin on second by getting Michael Saunders to fly out to deep center and end the inning, by which point he had already thrown 36 pitches and dug Boston into a 3-0 hole.

The Red Sox rallied immediately, getting two runs back in their half of the first on an opposite field single from Pablo Sandoval. The game would have at least been tied, however, had Mookie Betts not been thrown out trying to steal second base. Betts had tipped his hand by trying to steal on the previous pitch, which Dustin Pedroia fouled off.

Following a scoreless second inning in which both sides went down in order and failed to hit the ball out of the infield, the Jays struck again. Travis, the red-hot rookie, continued his incredible start by lining an 0-2 pitch over the Monster to lead off the third. Kelly recovered to fan Donaldson, Jose Bautista, and Edwin Encarnacion, blowing away the heart of Toronto's order with his high-90s fastball.

Kelly ran into trouble again in the fourth as his control abandoned him. He walked Martin on four pitches and Saunders on five, setting up Kevin Pillar's run-scoring single. The game might have gotten out of hand were it not for consecutive outstanding plays by Boston's defense. The first was Sandoval showing off his surprising agility by laying out, Bobby Orr-style, to snag a blooped bunt off the bat of Dalton Pompey. The second was an unassisted double play by Xander Bogaerts, who gunned the speedy Reyes at first and has looked much more comfortable at shortstop this year than he did last.

Sandoval's web-gem led to an early exit for the lumbering third baseman due to whiplash-like symptoms (he's been cleared to play tonight), but not before he belted his first Fenway home run in the bottom of the fourth. He hit a rocket into the bullpen off Aaron Sanchez, bringing the Sox to back within two. Boston closed the gap to one in the following frame after Kelly set down the Jays in order. Betts started the rally with a two-out double to left, then scored when Sanchez airmailed Dustin Pedroia's tapper out of play. The error, committed on a play which would have ended the inning, proved costly.
Kelly wasn't sharp, but kept his team in the game (Chat Sports)
With both starters gone by the seventh inning, John Gibbons entrusted his shaky bullpen to protect Toronto's one-run lead. Aaron Loup made short work of the Sox in the seventh, needing just eight pitches to retire the side. Alexi Ogando, the former reliever-turned starter-turned reliever again, did his part by keeping the Jays off the board in the seventh and eighth.

Gibbons tapped Roberto Osuna to navigate the eighth inning, a move that immediately misfired when he allowed back-to-back singles and uncorked a wild pitch. He walked David Ortiz to load the bases, only to face Boston's hottest hitter in Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez delivered, nearly finding the gap with a liner to left but settling for game-tying sacrifice fly. Osuna preserved the tie, escaping the inning without further damage by whiffing Allen Craig and getting Daniel Nava to line out to Donaldson, who made a spectacular leaping catch--one of his many great defensive plays on the day--to end the inning.

With the score all even at 5-5 heading into the ninth, it was Koji Time, and Koji Uehara did not disappoint. He whiffed Saunders and Pillar before getting Pompey to pop out to third, setting Boston up for some bottom of the ninth heroics.

And who better to play the hero than Betts, who in spite of his poor numbers has dazzled Red Sox fans with his highlight-reel theatrics and flair for the dramatic in the early-going. With one out and runners on second and third, Gibbons made the curious move of not walking Betts to set up a force at the plate and potential inning-ending double play. He let Miguel Castro pitch to the kid, who made Toronto pay by singling through its drawn-in infield for his third hit of the night, plating Bogaerts for the winning run.

The win improved Boston's record to 11-9, moving them into a tie for second place in the AL East with Tampa Bay, who lost to New York (AL) 4-1. The loss dropped Toronto to last place in the division, half a game behind Baltimore. The Red Sox will look to win again tonight behind Clay Buchholz, while the Jays will counter with Drew Hutchison.

Hamilton Headed Back to Texas

Hamilton's brief but costly tenure with the Angels is over (Rant Sports)
On December 15th, 2012, the Los Angeles Angels signed Josh Hamilton to a five-year, $125 million deal. Two and a half years later, they traded him away for essentially nothing--either a player to be named later or a fraction of the $80 million he's still owed.

There have been a lot of ugly contracts handed out in recent years, but Hamilton's might trump them all. Depending on how much the Rangers pay, which is believed to be anywhere from $6-8 million to $15 million, the Angels are on the hook for at least $110 million for a season and a half of mediocre production. Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs agree Hamilton produced about three wins above replacement in 2013-2014 combined, meaning he cost the Angels around $35 million per win--five to six times what a win is supposed to cost on the open market.

The Angels bought high on Hamilton, who was coming off five straight All-Star appearances and a big 43-homer season. His first year in LA was a massive disappointment, as his OPS fell nearly 200 points and he hit half as many home runs in the same number of plate appearances. The Angels also flopped, going 78-84 after winning 89 games the year before.

Hamilton's second go-round with the Angels wasn't much better, as he played all of eight games before landing on the disabled list with a thumb injury, which he sustained while doing what everyone knows is one of the riskiest and least rewarding plays in baseball--diving headfirst into first base. The daring play cost him two months and much of his power, for he slugged just .386 after returning to action in early June. He missed most of September with shoulder soreness and was a bust in the playoffs, going hitless in 13 at-bats as the Angels were swept in the ALDS.

Hurt again, Hamilton is currently recovering from shoulder surgery. He also relapsed recently, which proved to be the straw that broke the camel's (more specifically, Arte Moreno's) back. The Angels owner had had enough of Hamilton, who was costing him truckloads of money and giving him next to nothing in return.

That Hamilton's career soured so quickly was hardly surprising, though it was something of a worst-case scenario. He has been undone by all the flaws that made this pact so risky in the first place. His high strikeout rate in 2012 proved to be the new normal, as he followed up that year's 25.5 percent whiff rate with a 24.8 percent mark in 2013 and 28.3 percent mark last year. His injury woes followed him, limiting him to just 89 games last year and shelving him for the start of 2015.

He was also hurt by the move away from Texas, putting up a .690 home OPS in 2013 and a .616 home OPS in 2014. Age has certainly been a factor as well, as Hamilton's decline is on par with what most athletes experience in  their early 30s. Lastly, he was unable to shake the personal issues that have plagued him his entire career, ultimately preventing him from realizing his full potential.

In light of all this, one can understand why the Angels were so eager to cut bait and move on. They realized Hamilton was a sunk cost and not worth the headaches. Obviously they feel they will be better off without him, even if that means paying most of his contract for him to go away.

As for the Rangers, they can't be any worse with him. They are currently last in the AL West and are getting nothing offensively from their outfielders. Hamilton had his best years in Texas, so it's worth finding out if he can recapture some of his former glory with his old team. Hopefully he does Alex Rodriguez-style, because when he's right he's one of the most electrifying talents in the game. If he doesn't, the cost to the Rangers is entirely inconsequential. They can't lose.

The Angels, meanwhile, will continue to lose money on Hamilton for three more years. All they can do is hope he doesn't return to form with their division rivals and take advantage of all those opportunities he'll get to punish the team still signing his checks.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Baseball's Elite Eight

PED use aside, Bonds (left) and A-Rod are two of the greatest living ballplayers (NYPost)
So is letting fans determine the four greatest living players in baseball history (a title Joe DiMaggio proudly but wrongly held from 1969 until his death in 1999). Only not really, because voters are selecting from a ballot of eight candidates, several of whom shouldn't be there. Several writers, Joe Posnanski chief among them, have already pointed out the lunacy of Sandy Koufax's inclusion, and by extension Pedro Martinez (who was a lot like Koufax, only with better developmental seasons and a handful of years tacked on at the end of his career). Johnny Bench seems to be an odd choice as well, and I probably wouldn't have given Tom Seaver much thought.

If I were in charge of creating the ballot, these are the eight guys I'd put on there:

Barry Bonds
Nobody had a career anything close to the one that Bobby Bonds's son did, which is why the most similar batter to him has a similarity score of only 761 (fun fact: it's his godfather). He leads the world in home runs and walks, has more MVPs than anybody, stole 514 bases, and was the best (or nearly so) defensive left fielder of all-time. 2000-2004 Bonds was the closest anyone has come to dominating the game like Babe Ruth since, well, Babe Ruth.

Roger Clemens
The pitching equivalent of Bonds is, in all likelihood, the best pitcher to ever grace this earth (check back with us in 15 years, Clayton Kershaw).  The crazy thing about Clemens is how he was so good for so long. He won his first Cy Young award and was named MVP in 1986 at age 23; He won his seventh and final Cy Young in 2004 at 41, was the major league ERA champion the next year, and had a 2.30 ERA (194 ERA+) the year after that.

Hank Aaron
Aaron may have ceded his title as the Home Run King to Bonds, but he's still number one all-time in RBI, total bases, and extra base hits. What blows my mind about Aaron is that he was so good for so long, drawing MVP votes every year from 1955 through 1973, but came away with only one MVP award. He finished third six times, but for some reason I'm just really surprised by that, especially since he kept raking even as offense disappeared in the 1960s.

Willie Mays
At his best, Mays was the best all-around ballplayer there ever was. He had 50-homer power, 40-steal speed, was a threat to win a batting title, and played center field better than anyone not named Andruw Jones. It's scary to think what he could have accomplished had he not lost two full seasons to military service and played in one of the worst possible offensive environments (Candlestick Park in the '60s) imaginable.

Randy Johnson
The Big Unit also had a Koufax-esque run for the ages in the late '90s/early '00s, earning four straight Cys and five in all. The nine-time strikeout champion punched up more K's than everyone besides Nolan Ryan, won over 300 games, and staked his claim as the best southpaw to ever take the bump (apologies to Koufax, Kershaw, and Lefty Grove).

Greg Maddux
Mad Dog matched the peak of Koufax (four consecutive Cys, 2.15 ERA over a seven-year stretch) while remaining healthy and durable enough to complete more than 5,000 innings. Think about it--that's averaging 250 innings per year for 20 years. Nobody today, not even of Mark Buehrle, is capable of that.

Rickey Henderson
Henderson may not have the as great as he thought/proclaimed he was, but he was still pretty damn good. Man of Steal stole more bases and scored more runs than anybody in baseball history, reached base over 5,200 times, swatted nearly 300 home runs, and swiped 100 bags or more in a season three times. Henderson, who maintained a .401 OBP over 25 seasons and 13,346 plate appearances, was also exceptional into old age, leading the league in walks and steals at 39 and batting .315/.423/.466 at 40.

Alex Rodriguez
If nothing else, Rodriguez is reminding us this year of the incredibly gifted player once considered the best all-around talent in baseball. From his Mike Trout-esque beginnings in Seattle to his towering seasons in Texas to his continued dominance in New York, Rodriguez has been a force in major league baseball for two decades now. He's done some incredible things along the way, like win five home run crowns and three MVP awards while playing top-shelf defense and stealing hundreds of bases. The sad thing is that he probably still could have done all those things without PEDs.

Of these eight, I'd vote for Bonds, Aaron, Mays, and Clemens. If the ballot could have stretched to 10 I would have included Mike Schmidt and probably Seaver, with Frank Robinson just missing the cut.