Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Top Catchers For 2015

Buster Posey is one of the best players in the game today (ESPN)
Reviewing Devin Mesoraco's new contract extension got me thinking about where he ranks among today's catchers. To determine this list I relied heavily on data from the three previous seasons, giving more weight to 2013 and 2014, of course.

Note: I am excluding Evan Gattis, who joins a crowded catcher situation in Houston and will probably see more time at DH, first base, and in the outfield.

1. Buster Posey
There's no question that Posey's the top catcher in the game today. Offensively, he is without peer at the position,  having batted .311/.381/.497 (147 wRC+) since the start of the 2012 season, and he's a quality defender as well. The 2012 NL MVP and batting champion also adds extra value by handling first base about 30 times a year, thus keeping his bat in the lineup almost everyday. He's putting together a Joe Mauer-ish run here and is already a three-time World Series champion at 28, putting him on the Cooperstown track for now.

2. Jonathan Lucroy
Lucroy's quietly evolved into the best-hitting catcher not named Posey, batting .297/.359/.472 (128 wRC+) with 43 home runs and 95 doubles over the past three years. The Brewers backstop is also durable, having caught 125 games or more in three of the past four seasons. More importantly, he's one of the best pitch-framers in the business. Put it all together, and you have someone just a tick below Posey who might very well win the MVP if he's able to turn a significant portion of last year's 53 doubles into homers.

3. Yadier Molina
A longtime defensive stalwart with seven straight Gold Gloves to prove it, Molina has recently developed into one of the game's best offensive catchers as well.  The youngest Molina brother batted .313/.361/.481 (132 wRC+) from 2011-2013, leading all backstops in fWAR during this time. The lifelong Cardinal was on his way to another good season before a thumb injury cost him seven weeks in July and August, then negatively impacted his swing by limiting him to just .269/.309/.317 with no home runs after returning. Molina's getting up there in years--he'll turn 33 this July--and has logged nearly 11,000 innings behind the plate, but he's showed no signs of slowing down and will be considered an elite catcher until he proves otherwise.

4. Russell Martin
Sure, he's about to turn 32 and has a ton of miles on him, but he also just had the best offensive season of his career and is moving to the launching pad in Toronto. Defensively, the former Gold Glover is one of the game's best, and he's never had a bad year offensively due to his strong on-base skills (.354 career OBP) and decent power (six seasons with double-digit home runs). I'm not a fan of the recent contract he got from the Blue Jays, but I also happen to think he'll be pretty good for at least another year or two.

5. Salvador Perez
Coming off back-to-back Gold Gloves and All-Star nods, Salvy, who turns 25 this spring, is poised to be one of the AL's best catchers for the rest of the decade. The American League's answer to Molina isn't a polished batter, but he's a proven .300 hitter and his home run totals have improved every year he's been in the league. Hardly ever walks because he hacks at everything, which is okay so long as he bats over .300, as he did from 2011-2013 but won't be if he hits .260 again like he did last year. There's still some upside here (could hit .300 with 20 bombs), but if he doesn't become more patient then I don't see him reaching his full potential as a hitter.

Gomes supplanted Carlos Santana as Cleveland's everyday catcher (ESPN)
6. Yan Gomes
The 2014 AL Silver Slugger recipient is coming off strong back-to-back seasons that saw him hit a combined .284/.325/.476 (125 wRC+) with 8.2 fWAR between 2013 and 2014. He's shown tremendous power for a backstop, slugging 21 home runs and 25 doubles last year in his first full season, and is a good bet to replicate those numbers in his age-27 season. My only concern is that he's struck out more than four and a half times for every walk (cue Will Middlebrooks flashbacks), but it's possible he improves his plate discipline with more experience.

7. Matt Wieters
Wieters was off to a hot start last year before undergoing Tommy John surgery, making him an enticing rebound candidate for 2015. Wieters never developed into the superstar many thought he would become, but he's turned out to be plenty valuable as a good defensive catcher with 20 home run power. The Orioles are counting on their switch-hitting backstop to return strong this year at age 29, and I wouldn't bet against it.

8. Devin Mesoraco
Tough to rank Mesoraco given his relative lack of experience, but if he can prove last year was legit he'll shoot into the top-five easily. For now he's comfortably in the top-10, albeit towards the lower end. I think he's probably more of a .250-20-70 guy than the .273-25-80 guy he was last year, but that's still pretty darned good. 2015 is also going to be his age-27 season, and you know what that means...

9. Wilin Rosario
Rosario has flown under the radar thanks to his presence on some terrible Rockies teams, but when healthy he's one of the best-hitting catchers out there. Injuries hampered his production last year, but in the two seasons before that he crushed 49 home runs and posted an .820 OPS (107 OPS+). Like the rest of his teammates (looking at you, Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki), he needs to avoid the Disabled List, but I see the soon-to-be 26 year-old getting back to his mashing ways in 2015. It doesn't hurt that he plays half his games in Coors Field, either.

10. Brian McCann
As McCann enters his age-31 season, the Yankees have to be concerned about his recent slippage. He's batted below .260 in each of the past three seasons, hitting a combined .238/.305/.419 and becoming  liability on offense. McCann's still a good defensive catcher, however, and his power has held steady with 20 or more home runs in all three of those seasons, so he still has plenty of value. He's just not the perennial All-Star/Silver Slugger candidate he was with the Braves.

Honorable Mention: Miguel Montero, Carlos Ruiz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Wilson Ramos, Derek Norris

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Mesoraco Move Makes Sense

Mesoraco was an All-Star and an elite hitter in 2014 (Fantasy Baseball Dugout)
The Cincinnati Reds haven't done much to applaud this offseason, mainly because they haven't done much at all. Cincy made an outstanding move yesterday, however, locking up catcher Devin Mesoraco with a four-year, $28 million extension that will cover his three arbitration seasons and first year of free agency.

Given that teams are paying roughly $6 million for a win on the open market these days and accounting for inflation, Mesoraco will only need to be worth about one win above replacement per year over the life of the contract to earn his keep. Seeing as how he was worth around 4.5 WAR last year alone, he should have no problem accruing a similar value over the next four years combined (which, by the way, also happen to cover the prime ages of 27-30).

Unless, of course, Mesoraco turns out to be a massive fluke, but I don't think he is (neither does ESPN's David Schoenfield). One might question last year's 25 home runs and .893 OPS (149 OPS+) in light of his 16 home runs and .641 OPS (74 OPS+) from 2011-2013, but I wouldn't. I see Mesoraco's breakout as a product of age (he was 26 last year) and increased experience (he had just 589 major league plate appearances before last year). Catchers also tend to bloom later than other position players, not that there's anything out of the ordinary about a 26 year-old putting it all together.

As for the how/why behind Mesoraco's breakthrough, Jeff Sullivan over at FanGraphs provides a detailed explanation. From what I can see, the Reds' receiver enjoyed a huge boost in BABiP, which at .309 is only 10 points higher than the league average but represents a mammoth improvement over his career average. That was strange to see, considering that a) his line drive rate remained about the same as 2013, b) he hit more fly balls than ground balls last year, and c) he's slow as molasses. Perhaps last year was mere regression to the mean after three straight years of horrendous luck on batted balls, but a .309 BABiP just doesn't jibe with Mesoraco's 2014 hit distribution. Accordingly, I'd project him to be a .250 hitter going forward rather than the .273 batter he was last year.

And what about the power? Mesoraco can hit .250 all he wants if he keeps hammering 25 balls out of the yard every year, something only Brian McCann and Wilin Rosario have proven to be capable of doing among the current crop of backstops. Given the large increases in his strikeout and fly ball rate, Mesoraco appears to have sold out for the long ball by lengthening his swing, which certainly worked for him last year (and should continue to in Great American Ball Park). That said, in 2014 his fly balls left the yard about twice as often as they had in the past and more frequently than the league average, which leads me to believe he's due for a bit of regression in this area. Not much, but enough to cap him at roughly 20 big flies rather than 25 or 30.

I guess this is all a long-winded way of saying that I think Mesoraco's true talent level is probably closer to what he did during the second half last year. He was a monster in the first half, doing his best Mike Piazza impression by batting .320/.387/.667 through June 24th. After that, natural regression combined with pitcher adjustments limited him to .244/.342/.449 the rest of the way. Those are still terrific numbers for a catcher in today's offense-challenged times, and I'll readily admit that Mesoraco could make his own adjustments this year. It's just highly unlikely he'll be as good as he was last year, if only because he was so exceptionally good last year.

Then again, he doesn't have to be. If he's only 75-80 percent of the player he was last year, he's still an awesome hitter. And if last year does turn out to be a fluke, and he's only a so-so hitter from this point onward, then he'll still comfortably exceed one WAR per year so long as he's healthy. The Reds aren't banking on four more All-Star seasons from Mesoraco; they're merely paying him to be an everyday catcher. If his bat turns out to be legit, then he'll wind up being an incredible bargain, but he'll still be one even if it doesn't.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

12 Greatest Shortstops

At a time when pitchers ruled the sport, Wagner towered over the game (ESPN)
With the recent passing of Ernie Banks and retirement of Derek Jeter, I was thinking about where they rank among shortstops. This is by no means definitive, as it gets really close after the top five and 6-12 could be ranked in almost any order, but I did my best:

1. Honus Wagner (131 bWAR, 138.1 fWAR, 92 WAA)
Almost a full century after his last game, Wagner is still the greatest shortstop who ever lived. The Flying Dutchman was the best position player in baseball history until Ty Cobb came along, and probably would have won five or six MVPs had the award existed back then. The amount of black ink on his Baseball-Reference page is staggering; eight batting and OPS titles, seven doubles titles, and five stolen base and RBI crowns, to name a few. Wagner dominated the game, and I think it's pretty telling that when the first Hall of Fame class was inducted in 1936, he received as many votes as Babe Ruth.

2. Alex Rodriguez (116 bWAR, 111 fWAR, 77.4 WAA)
The enduring image of Alex Rodriguez as a baseball player will be that of an aging, broken-down, scandal-ridden third baseman. That's too bad, because for the first decade of his career he was a full-time shortstop, and an otherworldy one at that. PEDs aside, what A-Rod did during his time in Seattle and Texas defied belief. He reeled off six straight 40-homer seasons, when no other shortstop had so many at all, let alone consecutively. He had back-to-back 50-homer seasons, shattering Banks's single-season record for most home runs by a shortstop, then breaking his own mark the very next year with an unthinkable 57. He went 40/40, something only three other people in baseball history have ever done.  Rodriguez was a great defender, too, winning consecutive Gold Gloves in 2002 and 2003 before joining the Yankees and moving over to third in deference to Jeter (an inferior player, by the way). I often wonder how his career would have turned out had he just stayed the Rangers shortstop and captain. It couldn't have turned out any worse.

3. Cal Ripken Jr. (95.5 bWAR, 92.5 fWAR, 53.1 WAA)
People remember Ripken so much for the streak that they forget just how great he was during his prime. He was a two-time MVP who had at least 21 home runs and 81 RBI every year from 1982 to 1991, when he was arguably the best player in baseball. He was an All-Star 19 times, winning eight Silver Sluggers as well as a pair of Gold Gloves. And yes, Iron Man was a freak of nature who played 2,632 consecutive games and 3,001 in all (and yet was only a liability in his final season). Ripken played the game the right way--the Ripken way.

4. Ernie Banks (67.5 bWAR, 63.3 fWAR, 28.5 WAA)
Until Alex Rodriguez came along, Banks set the standard for power-hitting shortstops, which were exceedingly rare until the 1980s. Mr. Cub was at his absolute best from 1955-1960, batting .294/.359/.579 (148 OPS+) with 47.3 bWAR and five 40 homer/100 RBI seasons. Only Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were more valuable during this span, which saw Banks win back-to-back MVPs and lead all players in home runs and RBI. A knee injury suffered during the 1961 season forced him to first base full-time, but his prime years were truly a thing of greatness.

5. Derek Jeter (71.8 bWAR, 73.5 fWAR, 30.4 WAA)
Jeets would rank much higher if not for his terrible defense, which cost the Yankees a lot of runs and wins over the years. He also struck out a lot for a guy with medium power and was largely a singles hitter in the final third of his career. That said, Jeter played shortstop at a high level for almost two full decades (notwithstanding his horrible last couple seasons) and finished with impressive career statistics, his 3,465 hits chief among them. In his prime he was a durable 20/20 guy who hit well over .300, got on base a ton, and played passable defense. He was also a "winner" who came through time and time again for the Yankees during the postseason.

Jeter is one of the five greatest shortstops ever (MLB)
6. Robin Yount (77 bWAR, 66.5 fWAR, 37 WAA)
It took Yount, who debuted at 18, a good half decade to develop into an above average hitter. But once he did, he became one of the best all-around players in baseball. He owned the 1980s, winning two MVP awards and compiling 55.1 bWAR/50 fWAR during the decade. According to FanGraphs, only Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs, and Mike Schmidt were more valuable than Yount, who batted .305/.365/.485 (135 OPS+) for the decade while leading all players in hits and doubles (and ranking second in runs). Yount was a center fielder during his 30s but played over half his games at shortstop, which explains why he's included here. Like Ripken, Yount combined several elite seasons with longevity, playing long enough to surpass 3,000 hits.

7. Arky Vaughan (72.9 bWAR, 72.6 fWAR, 47.3 WAA)
Vaughan is one of the most underrated ballplayers ever, probably because he spent his prime years on lousy Pittsburgh teams during the Depression. Sure, he played in a fantastic era for hitters, but a .318/.406/.453 (136 OPS+) stands out in any case. Also, this is not a misprint; in 1935 he batted .385/.491/.607 (190 OPS+) en route to a 9.2 bWAR campaign. Even more astounding is that he was not named NL MVP that year (he finished third, behind Gabby Hartnett and Dizzy Dean).  Vaughan didn't play very long--only 14 seasons--so his counting numbers aren't that great, but for the bulk of his career he was one of the three best position players in baseball. Had he not voluntarily sat out three seasons in his early 30s, he probably would have ended up with close to 1,500 runs and 2,500 hits.

8. Barry Larkin (70.2 bWAR, 67.6 fWAR, 42.2 WAA)
Larkin was basically Jeter value-wise, only he wasn't able to stay as healthy. So while Larkin, just as good a hitter and a better baserunner/defender, was better than Jeter on a per-game basis, I can't overlook the fact that Jeter played almost 600 more games and had nearly 3,600 more plate appearances. From 1988-2000, Larkin wasn't just the best shortstop in the National League; he was one of the five most valuable position players in baseball. There were Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., and everyone else, but Larkin was at or near the top of the everyone else list.

9. Luke Appling (74.5 bWAR, 72.7 fWAR, 41.5 WAA)
Appling's another guy who seems to have been forgotten, which is hard to reconcile given his .310 career average, .399 OBP, and 2,749 hits. Like Vaughan, he had one monster season in the heart of the Depression, putting up a .388/.474/.508  (139 OPS+) line and 128 RBI in 1936, only to come up short in the MVP voting (Appling finished second to Lou Gehrig, who was absolutely the right call with his 49 home runs and 1.174 OPS). Appling was a lot like Vaughan, actually, albeit with less power. Appling was also phenomenal old player, batting .301 with 121 walks in 1949 at age 42. If not for World War II costing him almost two full seasons, he would have been a good bet to reach 3,000 hits, 1,500 runs, and 500 doubles.

10. Alan Trammell (70.4 bWAR, 63.7 fWAR, 40.2 WAA)
Trammell was a skilled defensive shortstop (four Gold Gloves) who also had a number of strong offensive seasons, none better than his 1987 campaign when he batted .343/.402/.551 (155 OPS+) with 28 home runs and 105 RBI. The six-time All-Star did everything well; defense, hitting for power, speed, getting on base, et. al. He teamed with Lou Whitaker for two decades to form the best double-play tandem baseball has ever seen.

11. Ozzie Smith (76.5 bWAR, 67.6 fWAR, 41.6 WAA)
Smith was nothing special offensively (career 83 OPS+), but was so dazzling on the field and bases that he was able to cruise into Cooperstown on his first try with over 91 percent of the vote. Rewarded with a (shortstop) record 13 consecutive Gold Gloves from 1980-1992, Smith is widely considered to be the best defensive shortstop all-time. The Wizard was also a phenomenal basestealer, swiping 580 at a 79.6 percent clip. So while he wasn't much with the stick and had virtually no power to speak of (only 28 career big flies), the 15-time All-Star compensated by getting on base enough (.337 OBP) and winning games with his legs.

12. Joe Cronin (66.4 bWAR, 66.6 fWAR, 35.9 WAA)
With a .301/.390/.468 (119 OPS+) career line, Cronin was one of the best-hitting shortstops of all-time. He was an excellent RBI man, topping 90 every year but one from 1930-1941 and piling up 1,424 in all. Cronin also had really good power for a shortstop, with 803 of his 2,285 hits going for extra bases. A seven-time All-Star, he finished in the top-seven of MVP voting five times. His defense has been called into question, however, and his numbers are less impressive after accounting for context (he played mostly in the 1930s and spent a lot of years at Fenway Park).

HM: Jimmy Rollins, Vern Stephens, Omar Vizquel, Miguel Tejada, Lou Boudreau

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bye Bye Banks

Banks was a tremendous shortstop and Cubs icon (Huffington Post)
Cubs legend and Hall of Famer Ernie Banks passed away yesterday, eight days shy of his 84th birthday.

"Let's play two"was his mantra, and one he took to heart. Banks played at least 130 games in all but three of his 19 seasons, exceeding 150 a dozen times and leading the league in six of those years. The Cubs were abysmal most of those years, but the constant losing never stifled his love for baseball. Perhaps no player ever seemed to get more unbridled joy from baseball than the boyish Banks, who at one point played 717 consecutive games at shortstop.

It was therefore terribly unfair that he spent his entire career with one of baseball's losing-est franchises, never once playing in a postseason game. That Chicago collapsed down the stretch in 1969, at the end of Banks's last impactful season, was a particularly cruel twist of fate. He and the Cubs came so close, only to crash and burn in September.

By then Banks was at first base, the position he manned for most of the 1960s and the second half of his career. But in the 1950s, Banks became baseball's first slugging shortstop, re-defining a position that had typically been reserved for speedy, slap-hitting guys like Luis Aparicio. Before a knee injury forced him to give up his shortstop job in 1962, Banks was on track to be the greatest offensive shortstop since Honus Wagner. In the half century since, only Alex Rodriguez has bested the power numbers Banks put up during his heyday.

Groomed in the Negro Leagues, Banks seamlessly transitioned to the majors and became a star almost instantly. He shined in his 1953 call-up, was runner-up in the following year's NL Rookie of the Year race to Wally Moon, and then finished third in the 1955 NL MVP race behind Roy Campanella and Duke Snider, two of Brooklyn's famed Boys of Summer.

1955--that was the year Banks became a star. He made his first All-Star team, batted .295/.345/.596 (144 OPS+), and was valued at 8.2 bWAR. More notably, he crushed 44 home runs (including five grand slams--a single season record that stood for 30 years), setting a single season record for shortstops. Two years later, Banks proved he was no fluke by slamming 43 out of the yard, falling just shy of his single season record.

In 1958 and 1959, Banks became the first National League player to win back-to-back MVP awards, and did so despite playing for second division teams (Chicago finished fifth out of eight both years with losing records). In 1958 Banks played every game, batted .313/.366/.614 (155 OPS+), and led the major leagues with 47 home runs, 129 RBI, 379 total bases, and 81 extra base hits. Those 47 big flies set a new major league record for shortstops, one that has since been surpassed by Alex Rodriguez but still remains that National League record.

His '59 season was just as good, if not better. Banks again played every game, clubbed 45 home runs, knocked in an ML-best 143 runs, batted .304/.374/.566 (156 OPS+), and was worth an astounding 10.2 bWAR. In 1960 Banks had another MVP-type season (7.8 bWAR), pacing the majors with 41 home runs while winning his first and only Gold Glove.

1960 would be Banks's last elite season, capping a six-year run in which he was the most valuable position player in baseball not named Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. He went on to become a steady, solid first baseman, but never came close to replicating his peak seasons due to age and the second deadball era. The move helped Banks play past 40, extending his career long enough for him to reach several milestones like 500 home runs, 1,600 RBI, and 2,500 hits.

An 11-time All-Star, Banks was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility. First-ballot induction is typically reserved for the game's true legends, the inner-circle Hall of Famers. The Ted Williamses, Hank Aarons, and Stan Musials. I can think of few players more deserving of that honor than Mr. Cub.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Rangers Get Gallardo

Gallardo's not good enough to survive the Texas run environment (Bases Loaded)
The Texas Rangers made their first major offseason move yesterday (seriously, it's about time), sending three players to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Yovani Gallardo. The Brewers also agreed to cover $4 million of the $14 million owed to Gallardo in 2015, the final year of a five-year extension he signed back in 2010.

Gallardo, a former All-Star, has been one of the steadiest starting pitchers in baseball over the past six years. Though walks have often limited his ability to pitch deep into games, he's made at least 30 starts and completed more than 180 innings every year dating back to 2009. Gallardo's compiled a 3.73 ERA (equivalent to his FIP) during that span, putting him in the same neighborhood as Max Scherzer (3.61), James Shields (3.62), and Dan Haren (3.80).

A very promising pitcher at the start of the decade, the hard-throwing righthander never quite became the ace he was supposed to be. He settled down as a good, if occasionally frustrating pitcher; a fine number two or three but not a number one. With 16 fWAR over the last six years, he's been the 31st most valuable starting pitcher in baseball, near the likes of Matt Cain, Ricky Nolasco, and Jake Peavy.

Gallardo, who's going to be 29 this year, will have to adjust to the American League as well as an incredibly tough park for pitchers in Texas. Such a transition would be difficult for any hurler, especially one whose strikeout rate has gone into free-fall. Since peaking at 9.9 K/9 in 2009, Gallardo's whiff rate has fallen every year since then save 2012, when it remained the same as the year before. Once an elite strikeout artist who fanned at least a batter per inning every year from 2009 through 2012, Gallardo is now below average in that department after making a more concerted effort to pitch to contact, which has resulted in his averaging just seven whiffs per nine in 2013 and 2014 combined.

In spite of his waning whiff rate, Gallardo has remained effective by become more of a ground ball pitcher in recent years, as his ground ball rate has steadily risen every year since 2010 (he added a sinker to his repertoire in 2011). Last year, for the first time in his career, more than half of the batted balls he generated were on the ground. That bodes well for him moving to Texas and a new home park that turns long fly balls into homers. He'll benefit from a superior infield defense with the Rangers, who boast Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus on the left side of their infield as opposed to Aramis Ramirez and Jean Segura in Milwaukee, but will lose out on Jonathan Lucroy's magnificent pitch-framing capability.

So how will Gallardo fare in his American League debut? Not great, says Steamer. The projection system predicts continued regression in his strikeout rate and an uptick in his walk rate, which was a career-best 2.5 BB/9 last year. These developments, combined with a spike in home run rate, would likely drive his ERA and FIP over four. Steamer expects his ERA to rise to 4.61, more than a full run worse than his 3.51 mark a year ago. That seems a bit excessive to me, but I agree that his ERA is going to exceed his previous career-worst of 4.18 set two years ago.

Gallardo's just not a great pitcher any more, which makes him vulnerable to the hitter's park in Arlington and more formidable American League lineups. He's an average pitcher at best in this stage of his career, which qualifies as an improvement only because of how horrendous the Rangers' rotation was last year. Of the nine pitchers who started eight or more games, only one--Yu Darvish--had an ERA under 4.35. Texas desperately needed pitching help, and Gallardo will provide some, but his ERA probably won't be much better than that and is far more likely to be worse.

As such, Gallardo is a minor upgrade that won't make much difference for a team that lost 95 games last year. Obviously the Rangers need all the help they can get, and every little bit helps, but Gallardo's not going to move the needle much. The Rangers really need another ace to complement Darvish, and could have used a Jon Lester or a James Shields. Instead, they settled for mediocrity and got Gallardo.