Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cabrera's Forgotten Season

Cabrera was curiously ignored this season despite his impressive numbers (ESPN)
Maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention, but I felt like we just went through an entire baseball season without talking about Miguel Cabrera.

Not only did his Tigers capture their fourth straight division title, but they did so with Cabrera once again posting monster numbers in the middle of their lineup. While his production sagged below his career norms--especially compared to the last four years--it was still outstanding. He batted .313/.371/.524, good for a 147 wRC+ and .384 wOBA (both seventh in the American League). His counting stats were exceptional as well; 25 home runs, 109 RBI, 101 runs, 320 total bases and a league-leading 52 doubles. With 5.4 fWAR he was one of the ten most valuable position players in the American League, but nobody seems to be seriously campaigning for him to win his third straight award.

I just don't get it. The guy puts up huge numbers, his team wins the division, and we forget about him? Like all of the sudden he doesn't exist anymore? What makes this lack of recognition even more strange is that Cabrera was a constant presence, playing all but three games this year. It's not like he got hurt for a few weeks and fell off the face of the earth for a little while. He was out there everyday. How do you think he reached 25 home runs, 100 RBI and 300 total bases for the 11th straight year?

Cabrera's consistency went unnoticed, as a lot of other Tigers got more ink this year. Justin Verlander and Joe Nathan fell apart, and their demise attracted a lot of negative attention. Victor Martinez had a remarkable, MVP-caliber season batting behind Cabrera. Ian Kinsler was phenomenal in his Detroit debut, making everyone forget about Prince Fielder. Torii Hunter somehow warded off age for another year. J.D. Martinez came out of nowhere and emerged as one of the best hitters in baseball. Brad Ausmus replacing Jim Leyland. Detroit trading for David Price at the deadline and still almost not winning the division. Just on the Tigers alone, there were lots of other storylines besides Cabrera this year. He was overshadowed.

Part of me thinks it was a response to Cabrera became a little overrated over the last couple of years. He won the Triple Crown in 2012, something nobody had done in 45 years, but Mike Trout was clearly better. Last year was more of the same. Cabrera once again had awesome statistics, even better than the year he won the Triple Crown, but again Trout was better. Cabrera won the MVP both years even though he was the league's fourth-most valuable player each time. It was like Juan Gonzalez beating out A-Rod, Nomar Garciaparra, and Derek Jeter for MVPs in the late '90s.

Then Cabrera signed that ridiculous contract, the eight-year, $248 million extension that doesn't even kick in until after next year, and for the first time in over a decade baseball's highest paid player wasn't Alex Rodriguez. The love for Cabrera, one of the game's more underrated players for the first ten years or so of his career, had swung too far in the other direction. He'd gone from under-appreciated to horribly overrated.

So, when he had a merely great season this year, nobody seemed to notice. He very clearly declined, but not so much that people started asking "what's wrong with Cabrera?" or began calling him out for being an overpaid bum. He was not extraordinary enough to fawn over like Trout or Giancarlo Stanton or Clayton Kershaw, but he was still productive enough to skirt any criticism that might come his way.

Of course, the Tigers should be worried about Cabrera. Despite moving back to first base, his OPS still fell nearly 200 points compared to last year. He just had the second-worst ISO and third-worst walk rate of his career. After walking more than he whiffed in 2011 and maintaining an almost-even ratio last year, he fanned more than twice as often as he walked this year, something he hasn't done since 2008. He's going to be 32 next April. Alarm bells should be going off. It's Albert Pujols all over again.

But for now Cabrera continues to fly under the radar. That will probably change over the next couple weeks if he comes up with a few big hits or strikes out in key situations. The Tigers are still trying to win their first World Series in 30 years, after all, and if Cabrera helps them do that then he'll be back in the spotlight where he belongs.

Maybe he's not the best hitter on the planet anymore, but he's still among the best, and that's worth talking about.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Mike Trout: "Average" MVP

Trout will win AL MVP even though his batting average isn't exceptional 
While the debate's been raging over who deserves to be the National League MVP this year (clearly Clayton Kershaw), the American League's outcome has been a foregone conclusion for months. This is the year Mike Trout wins his first (should be third) MVP award.

What's interesting about that is that he batted "only" .287, well above the league average but also considerably below historical standards established by previous MVPs. I know batting average is not a great statistic, but I couldn't remember the last time someone won with a sub-.300 average. So after doing some research on Baseball-Reference, I found that there hasn't been an MVP with such a low average since 1987, when Andrew Dawson walked away with the NL trophy after leading the majors with 49 home runs and 137 RBI. In retrospect Dawson was a poor choice (Tony Gwynn, Jack Clark, Will Clark, and Darryl Strawberry had better cases), but here Trout is very clearly the right choice.

In fact, the last time anybody won MVP without hitting .300 was Jimmy Rollins in 2007 (another poor choice). It hasn't happened in the American League since 2003, when Alex Rodriguez finally won his first (like Trout, A-Rod's was long overdue).

I think it's telling that the best player in baseball isn't even a .300 hitter. It says a lot about how far we've come in terms of valuing players. It also speaks to league-wide declining averages due to rising strikeouts, more emphasis on defense, and more frequent shifts. It blows my mind that Trout, a phenomenal hitter with great speed, didn't even crack .290. Not that it matters, of course.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Kemp's Comeback

Finally healthy, Kemp has returned to his previous offensive levels (BlackSportsOnline)
With Yasiel Puig on the up-and-up, Clayton Kershaw headed for a Cy Young/MVP combo meal, and Adrian Gonzalez driving in runs like it's his job, Matt Kemp might not be the star of the Dodgers any more. But you know what? He's still a pretty darn good baseball player.

It was easy to lose sight of that the last two years, when Kemp was constantly hurt and his performance suffered. That was especially true last year, when he missed more than half the season and batted an empty .270/.328/.395. There was legitimate concern that he would never again resemble the two-time All-Star, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove recipient and one-time MVP runner-up. Though he was only 29 coming into the season, his best days appeared to be behind him.

This year Kemp has bounced back in a big way, staying healthy enough to play in all but a dozen games to date and re-asserting himself as one of the best-hitting outfielders in the National League. In that group he ranks sixth in wOBA and wRC+, fifth in home runs and fourth in RBI. Even after factoring in his iffy baserunning, he still rates as one of the Senior Circuit's 10 best offensive outfielders, better than Justin Upton and Ryan Braun, among others.

The bulk of that production has come in the second half. Kemp was horrible in the early going, hitting a paltry .238/.291/.398 through June 5th. He really looked done and was even benched. But then his bat got hot as the weather warmed, and since then he's looked like the Kemp of old. Starting on June 6th he's batted .307/.369/.549 with 23 doubles, 19 homers and 71 RBI in 97 games. Projected over the course of 162 games, those numbers work out to be roughly 30 homers, 40 doubles and 120 RBI. That early season rough patch is now a thing of the past, as most of Kemp's numbers are back up to his 2012 levels--a rebound deserving of the NL Comeback Player of the Year award.

Of course, any analysis of Kemp's performance must also include his defense, which has been abysmal in every sense of the word. A lot of the value he accrued at the plate has been lost to his brutal fielding, so much so that Baseball-Reference estimates him as being worth a mere one win above replacement level this year. FanGraphs is a bit more generous at 1.7, but it's pretty clear that Kemp has regressed as an outfielder. Remember how bad he was in 2010? He's been at least as bad this year, maybe worse. It goes without saying that he will not be winning his third career Gold Glove in 2014.

Kemp is also not the factor he once was on the bases. Since stealing 40 bases in 2011, he's failed to top nine since. Granted, Don Mattingly doesn't need to give him the green light as much now that he has Dee Gordon and Carl Crawford at his disposal, but it's clear that Kemp's hamstring woes have cost him a good chunk of his speed. Kemp's an old-30 and three years into an eight-year, $160 million contract that doesn't look like it's going to work out too well.

At least Kemp can still hit, and that resurgence at the plate was a big key to the Dodgers' winning the NL West again this year. He's second on the team in doubles, home runs, RBI, total bases, and tops in slugging for anyone who's played at least 100 games. He makes their lineup significantly more dangerous and has teamed with Gonzalez, Puig, and Hanley Ramirez to form a pretty intimidating heart of the order most nights. I think it's fair to say that without Kemp, the NL West would probably still be up for grabs.

The Dodgers can only hope that his monster second half doesn't end when October begins.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Ortiz Out

Ailed by a sore wrist and with his Red Sox hopelessly in last place, David Ortiz is likely done for the season. Expect him to ride this pine the weekend while Derek Jeter takes his last victory lap of his farewell tour at America's oldest and most beloved ballpark.

If we've indeed seen the last of Ortiz in 2014, kudos to him for making it through another full season in spite of his age and team's also-ran status. Big Papi continued to hit at age 38 even though nobody else on the Sox did. Though frequently pitched around, he still managed to sock 35 home runs--his most since 2007--and drive in 104 runs--also his most since 2007. That makes eight seasons with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBI with Boston, most all-time.

Though Ortiz was another year older in 2014, his production didn't diminish much. His ISO remained exactly the same, his walk rate held steady and his strikeout rate barely inched upwards. His batted ball distribution shifted significantly--fewer line drives and more fly balls--which explains his improved home run production but sinking BABiP and batting average. That suggests Ortiz was probably uppercutting more, trading singles and doubles for home runs.

That usually doesn't bode well for aging hitters in their late 30s given their declining power, but Ortiz still retained his pop. It cost him nearly 90 points in OPS compared to last year, but he still batted a robust .263/.355/.517 with a .369 wOBA and 135 wRC+. A cut below his eye-popping numbers from the past three years, but still tremendous production in any case.

The Red Sox can only hope that their designated hitter (owed $16 million next year, by the way) can ward off age for another year. That will be difficult if his wrist injury, similar to the one that forced him to the Disabled List in 2008 and triggered two down seasons, impacts his offseason workouts or lingers into spring training. Boston was smart to shut him down now, even if there was no reason for him to be playing at all with the team so far out of contention. They probably would have been better off shutting him down for the season earlier in the month along with Dustin Pedroia.

But hindsight is 20/20, and it's hard to argue with the Sox for letting a healthy Ortiz play. He needs to come back strong next year, however, as his bat is virtually impossible to replace. They need him in the heart of their order, putting up big numbers, doing what he's always done since joining Boston 12 years ago: rake.

Kershaw Clinches Division, MVP

Kershaw helped get the Dodgers over the hump this year (www.la.com)
The race for the National League West is over, and with it the race for NL MVP.

The second coming of Sandy Koufax was in top form in his final start of the season last night, hurling eight innings of one-run ball as the Dodgers beat up on the Giants. LA's bats picked him up after falling into an early 1-0 hole against Tim Hudson, scoring four runs in the sixth and four more in the eighth to fuel the Dodgers' 91st victory of the season.

With LA's second straight division title secure, champagne flowed in home locker room of Dodger Stadium after the win. Of all the celebratory Dodgers, none did more to help the team get there than Kershaw.

All the reigning Cy Young award winner did was turn in one of the most dominant seasons any pitcher has ever had. While he likely won't win the Triple Crown (his 239 strikeouts will probably be surpassed by Johnny Cueto and Stephen Strasburg, both at 235 with one start remaining), he's statistically head and shoulders above the crowd. Look no further than his 197 ERA+, which is based off his 1.77 raw ERA--the lowest by a pitcher since Pedro Martinez's 1.74 mark in 2000 and good enough for his record fourth straight major league ERA crown.

Just wait--there's more. His 1.80 FIP is the fourth-lowest mark of the live ball era, and his 0.86 WHIP rates seventh. His 10.8 K/9 was the best in baseball this year, and his 7.71 K/BB ratio paced the National League. Though injuries prevented him from reaching 200 innings (he'll fall five outs short), nobody has more complete games (six)--a testament to the fact that he averaged more than 7 and 1/3 innings per turn.

And as much as I hate wins, his 21 are tops in the bigs (and tie his career high). They're also the most-ever for anyone with as few starts as him (27) since 1880. In other words: a very long time. He only suffered three losses, which over the course of 27 starts is just ridiculous, and so his .875 W-L percentage is extraordinary as well.

Kershaw currently leads both leagues in bWAR, barely ahead of Mike Trout, and is first in the NL per fWAR. There's no doubt in my mind now. Clayton Kershaw is the National League MVP. 

Until recently, I wasn't ready to hand him the trophy just yet because of all the time he missed at the beginning of the season (41 days between his first start and second thought), my thought being that he absolutely had to finish strong in order to make up for that.

And boy, did Kershaw finish strong.  Including last night he won his last seven decisions, going eight innings in all but one of those starts--a 14-5 rout of the Cubs last Friday. He struck out eight or more in each start--65 in 53 innings of work against just 12 walks--and was untouchable, holding opponents to a .195/.245/.258 line over that span. During crunch time, with the Dodgers vying for a division title and guaranteed playoff spot, Kershaw was at his finest. 

That sealed it for me. Kershaw will be the first National League pitcher to win the MVP award since Bob Gibson in 1968. That was a special season, one of the all-time greats. Something tells me someday we'll look back on Kershaw's 2014 in a similar light.