Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ortiz Back on Track

Ortiz, 39, was mired in a nasty slump for the better part of two months (4 KomMedia)
David Ortiz is no stranger to slow starts. In 2008, 2009, and again in 2010, Ortiz slumped badly at the beginning of the year. Every time fans and media questioned whether he was done, and each time Papi proved them wrong. Granted, those were the three worst seasons of his Boston career, but he still averaged 28 home runs, 97 RBI, and an .854 OPS, proving there was plenty of life left in his bat.

This year, however, it really looked like Ortiz was done for good. For more than two months he was helpless at the plate, scuffling through his worst slump in five years. Following play April 27th, he was hitting .200/.312/.415. One month later his line was even worse, at .216/.303/.377. A closer look revealed that he was not the victim of bad luck or small sample size, but rather was suffering from increased ground balls (which, in his case, means more outs into the shift) and weaker contact. Papi had become, at age 39, a demonstrably worse hitter.

John Farrell had seen enough, and gave his struggling DH a few days off to clear his head. The break seemed to pay off when Ortiz responded with six hits over his next four games, but the boost proved short-lived. On June 10th--more than a third of the way through the season--he checked in batting a lowly .219/.297/.372 with just six home runs and 21 RBI to his name.

More troubling than Ortiz's terrible average and on-base figures was the disappearance of his once-prodigious power. Just one year removed from his eighth 30-homer, 100 RBI season (and his second straight with a .255 ISO), Ortiz was on pace to finish with his worst power numbers since his forgettable Minnesota days. His signature power was absent for much of the spring: from April 25th through June 9th, he managed only two home runs and 13 RBI.

As his failures and frustrations mounted, it appeared increasingly obvious that Ortiz was near the end of the line. Boston's cleanup hitter was dragging down the lineup, with numbers that would make Mario Mendoza wince. Dan Shaughnessy compared Papi's pursuit of 500 home runs (he began the year with 466) to Tim Wakefield's interminable (and ultimately costly) quest to reach 200 career wins.  There were calls for him to be removed from the starting lineup against lefties--long his kryptonite--so that Hanley Ramirez could mercifully take a break from left field on occasion. Not wanting upset his team's elder (and notoriously cranky) statesman, Farrell refused, dutifully penciling in Ortiz's name every night in spite of his worsening skid.

With Ortiz's cold spell persisting into June, Boston faced a rather uncomfortable situation. Ortiz, who is due a pricey vesting option in 2016 (which, barring a season-ending injury, he will reach), swore he would block any trade, which he can do thanks to his 10-5 rights (10 years in the majors, five with one team). Boston and Ortiz were stuck together like Matt Damon and that guy who looks nothing like his supposed twin, only nobody was laughing.

Ortiz wouldn't budge, and Farrell wasn't about to bench his biggest star and a future Hall of Famer. All the while, Boston was stuck in the mud or, more accurately, the cellar. Even with the Sox stinking up the joint in the first half (and Ortiz was a big reason why), the team's longest tenured member preferred to go down with the ship rather than abandon them for a contender. Both sides refused, or perhaps were unable, to give up on each other.
Ortiz has turned his season around, but the Red Sox haven't (Fox Sports Radio)
Fast forward six weeks, and Farrell's patience (or was it just stubbornness?) has paid off.

Slump? What slump? All is fine with the three-time World Series champion's swing, thank you very much. The ball is jumping off his bat again and flying out of the ballpark. His OPS has climbed back over .800--a 133 point improvement since tumbling to .670 on June 10th. He's righted the ship, even if the team he plays for hasn't.

Slowly but surely, Papi's bat has come around. He rediscovered his power stroke as the weather warmed, slugging seven home runs and driving in 15 over the last three weeks of June. He still wasn't hitting for average, with just three multi-hit games and a .254 mark during that time, but at least he was back to clearing the fences with regularity.

In July he's been back to the Ortiz of old, tearing the cover off the ball and making pitchers pay for their mistakes. His hot streak culminated in one of the best games of his career Sunday night. Both the Red Sox and Ortiz were at their best, as Papi paced Boston's 11-1 romp over Detroit with two home runs and a career-high seven RBI as part of a four-hit day. He continued his torrid hitting last night as well, bashing his 20th* homer of the season off John Danks (a lefty!) in the bottom of the first.

*That makes 14 consecutive seasons with at least 20 round-trippers for Ortiz--the longest streak in the majors. Once in danger of missing that plateau, he now has his sights set on for another 30-homer season, which would be his third straight and ninth overall.

With 14 homers and a .616 slugging percentage over the past six weeks, Ortiz has followed up one of his deepest funks with one of his hottest tears. After the drought has come a deluge, washing away the misery of Ortiz's April and May. Someday he'll stop hitting, but that day doesn't appear to be coming soon. The lesson, as always, is never count David Ortiz out.

Monday, July 27, 2015

MLB Midseason Awards

The 2012 Rookies of the Year will likely both be named MVP this year (CBS Sports)
I'm a few weeks late with these, but I wanted to get them in before we get into the dog days of August. All stats through Saturday, July 25th except where otherwise noted.

AL MVP: Mike Trout
A few weeks ago I would have said Josh Donaldson, but Trout's recent hot streak After today's 4-for-4, two-home run performance, he's up to .315-31-64 on the season. The major league leader in home runs, runs, and total bases has fueled the Angels' recent rise to the top of the AL West, where they now reside after today's win and an Astros loss. Already the first player to ever win consecutive All-Star Game MVPs, he seems like a sure bet to win his second straight MVP award as well (which should be his fourth, but I digress).

NL MVP: Bryce Harper
Finally healthy after a pair of injury-plagued seasons delayed his inevitable rise to superstardom, Harper's been healthy and Ruthian in 2015. His .331/.462/.679 (212 OPS+!) looks like it came off Ted Williams's statsheet, and his 27 long balls lead the Senior Circuit. Even if Giancarlo Stanton were healthy and Andrew McCutchen had avoided his slow start, Harper would still be the runaway winner.

AL Cy Young: Chris Sale
The White Sox have been major disappointments this year, but Sale's been as dominant as ever. His 170 strikeouts, 2.31 FIP and 11.5 K/9 rate are all tops in the American League, and his 2.85 ERA and 1.00 WHIP aren't too shabby either. So long as Sale stays healthy, this award is his to lose.

NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer
Despite getting roughed up in his last start at Pittsburgh, Scherzer still holds a sparkling 2.33 ERA (almost a perfect match for his 2.34 FIP) to go along with a 0.83 WHIP and major league best 10.38 K/BB ratio. Read that again, remember that he's leading the National League in innings, and you don't have to think too hard about anyone else (apologies to Johnny Cueto).

AL Rookie of the Year: Carlos Correa
Correa didn't debut until the first week of June was already in the books, but his Yasiel Puig-esque first month in the Show has him on the fast track to win this award. There's been a dearth of power-hitting shortstops lately, but the 20 year-old Correa has already established himself as one of the best sluggers at the position.

NL Rookie of the Year: Joc Pederson
It's a virtual toss-up between Pederson and Kris Bryant, but for now the edge goes to Pederson due to his advantages in playing time, positional difficulty, and park-adjusted production. As impressive as Bryant's first year has been, Pederson's been even better, as evidenced by his 26 point edge in OPS and eight additional home runs. Pederson's also played every game, while Bryant has not (through no fault of his own, but that matters).

AL Comeback Player of the Year: Alex Rodriguez
With his three home-run outburst in Minnesota Saturday, A-Rod now has 23 big flies and 58 RBI to go with a .277/.375/.539 (152 OPS+) slash line. When Rodriguez returned to the field during spring training, most had those numbers on the optimistic end of his full-season projection. In other words, nobody expected him to have those numbers with 40 percent of the season yet to play. On track for his first 30-homer season in five years, he's been healthy and one of the best hitters in the American League--two things nobody thought he'd be in 2015.

NL Comeback Player of the Year: Joey Votto
The former NL MVP has returned to form after an uncharacteristically poor 2014, posting rate stats right in line with his career averages. His power's back after dipping last year, when he managed just six home runs and a .154 ISO (he has 18 bombs and a .218 ISO this year). The Reds are struggling again, but at least this time around Votto's not the reason why.

AL Team: Kansas City Royals
Kansas City has proved last year's magical run was no fluke, as they currently sport the best record in the American League and second-best in baseball with pretty much the same team and formula. All-Star (mainly Omar Infante) jokes aside, the reigning AL champs are a very well-rounded team, especially now that they have a true ace in Johnny Cueto. They could still use another starting pitcher, but with Detroit fading and Minnesota due for regression they're going to run away with their division regardless.

NL Team: St. Louis Cardinals
Despite losing Adam Wainwright for the season and enduring slow starts and/or injuries to numerous regulars, the Cardinals have been far and away the best team in baseball this year. Having won nearly two-thirds of their games thus far, they're in firm control of the NL Central and own the biggest divisional lead in baseball. With Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina and Jason Heyward finally rounding into form, look for St. Louis to make a run at 100 wins as long as its pitching holds.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Pitchers Wanted

The Red Sox could really use a pitcher of Martinez's ilk these days (Fox Sports)
It's a good thing that Pedro Martinez is going into the Hall of Fame today, because Red Sox Nation needs something to celebrate.

They're not going to find it at Fenway Park, the place that shook with excitement every time Martinez took the mound during his seven Red Sox seasons. The team that was a perennial contender during Pedro's eventful time there, finishing second in the AL East every year (to the Yankees, of course) and winning 90+ games five times, is now the doormat in the division it used to own. And they're not just bad: they're boring. There's nobody close to Martinez's caliber in terms of talent or watchability on the current roster, -which just sent Brock Holt and Holt alone to the All-Star Game in Cincinnati (but kudos to Brock for making the most of it).

You don't need to look at a map to know that Cooperstown is a long ways from Beantown. While several current Red Sox may one day join Martinez there, none of them are as captivating as Pedro was in his prime. Heck, I'm pretty sure Pedey could come out of retirement right now and earn a spot in Boston's dreadful rotation.

It's been more than a decade since Martinez last suited up for the Red Sox, and a lot has changed since then. David Ortiz is his only active former teammate. The club has won two additional World Series after not having won any in the 86 years prior to Pedro's last in Boston, but has also finished last two (soon to be three) times. The sellout streak that began during Pedro's penultimate Red Sox season has since ended, and the once-fierce rivalry between New York and Boston has fizzled.

The intervening time has also reminded Red Sox fans just how lucky they were to witness Martinez at his best. Pedro was, without a doubt, one of the best pitchers of all-time. During his peak in 1999 and 2000, he was probably the best there ever was. Boston has had several aces come through since then, be it Josh Beckett or Jon Lester or pre-injury Daisuke Matsuzaka, but there may never be another Pedro.

Red Sox fans were particularly spoiled in that they had just experienced 13 years of Roger Clemens before Martinez arrived on the scene. From 1984-2004, there was only one season--a bridge year in 1997--where the Red Sox did not have either the Rocket or Pedro to call their own. It's just too bad Dan Duquette didn't keep Clemens, because the Sox probably would have ended their championship drought a few years earlier with that dynamic duo at the top of their rotation.

Ben Cherington opted not to pursue such an ace this year, a misstep that's yielded disastrous results and may potentially cost him his job. Boston's pitching has been as bad as everyone feared, and for the second year in a row the team has scuffled at the plate. What was supposed to be one of the best offenses in the American League has been among the worst, failing to generate much run support for a rotation that needs all the help it can get. Throw in shaky defense around the diamond, inexperience behind the plate with Blake Swihart, and the inability of John Farrell to ignite his team, and it's been a real bummer of a summer for Sox fans.

And so Boston enters play today a season-worst 12 games below .500 and 12 out of first in the AL East--their largest deficit of the season. They just endured an eight-game losing streak that effectively ended their season, and their bats have gone back into hibernation mode (they've scored 16 runs in nine games since the All-Star Break). With Dustin Pedroia back on the DL, Clay Buchholz sidelined until September, and Joe Kelly rejoining the rotation, things are only getting worse.

At least with the trade deadline now only five days away, a shake-up appears imminent. Not the kind that will save Boston's season--it's too late for that--but the kind that may allow them to play respectable baseball again in 2016. Hopefully Cherington and co. will re-evaluate whatever idiotic reasoning led them to give Rick Porcello nearly $100 million before he ever threw a pitch for the Red Sox rather than re-sign Jon Lester at a similar cost last spring, or bring in James Shields for less over the winter. Hopefully they go out and acquire some real pitching talent for a change rather than try to make do with a rotation of Justin Mastersons and Wade Mileys.

Pedro Martinez won't be trying on a Red Sox jersey at a press conference next winter, but David Price or Johnny Cueto or Jeff Samardzija better be. Because if they aren't, then Boston hasn't learned a thing from this busted season.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

RIP Red Sox

Image courtesy of CBS Boston
It's over. There's no coming back from this: last place, nine games out of first and nine below .500. Better luck next year.

Boston's ill-fated 2015 season died a horrible death yesterday in Anaheim, as the soaring Angels (first place, 11-3 in July) annihilated the Sox 11-1 and 7-3 in what was a decidedly lopsided doubleheader. Mike Trout, Albert Pujols and co. treated the twin-bill like batting practice, feasting on Boston's thin pitching staff while sending Sox starters Eduardo Rodriguez and Steven Wright (6.2 innings between them) to early exits. In the span of four days, but mostly within eight-hours yesterday, the Halos erased three weeks of strong play from the Bosox, who seemed to be turning things around after an ugly spring.

This weekend's bloodbath snuffed out any such illusions, all but eliminating the Sox from contention. Sure, they're technically still in it by virtue of seven American League teams (Boston included) being below .500 today (two more--Detroit and Toronto--are .500 exactly). But even if the Angels series didn't totally eradicate their chances (they're only five out of the second wild card), it was still a major setback, if not a fatal blow, for the stop-and-go Red Sox.

Just two weeks ago, you see, they were rolling, finally showing signs of life after a sluggish first half. Boston appeared to be gaining steam just before the All-Star Break, winning eight out of 10 at one point and cutting their AL East deficit from 10 games to five in three weeks' time.

Then, just when things were looking up, they fell flat on their faces. With the first-place Yankees in town and a chance to cut deeper into New York's lead, the Sox dropped two out of three to their former rivals. The 8-6 loss in the series finale was particularly painful, as Boston left baserunners all over the place (10 total) and lost with the tying run at the plate.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the mid-July reprieve seemed to sap all their momentum. They must've left their bats behind in Boston, because the Red Sox lineup sleepwalked through those four games in Anaheim. They managed one run--one measly run--in the first 32 innings of the series, largely because their incredibly frustrating woes with runners in scoring position persisted (Boston was 2-for-19 in such situations). By the time their hitters woke up in the finale, they were already down 6-0 in the top of the sixth. It was too little, too late.

And that's what any type of midseason upgrade is going to be for this team at this point. They've lost too many games, they've fallen too far behind. Talk of Boston possibly pursuing an ace (because Ben Cherington realized he needs one about six months too late) at the trade deadline now seems as unlikely as Dustin Pedroia enjoying a delayed growth spurt. The Sox are sellers again, only this time they don't have much to sell. When a 27 year-old utilityman, 40 year-old closer, and Alejandro De Aza are your best trade chips, you're in trouble.

The Red Sox find themselves in a similar situation to where they were in 2012 (minus, thank God, the Bobby Valentine shenanigans): a bad, expensive team drowning in bloated contracts. Only this time, the Dodgers aren't coming to the rescue. The Sox are kidding themselves if they think they're going to find someone dumb enough to bite on the likes of Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, and Rick Porcello, whose contracts all smelled rotten before the ink had dried and reek even worse now. They're not going anywhere, and it's going to be tough to find any takers for the team's other overpriced, over-the-hill veterans (Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Allen Craig, et. al). Who would a) want those guys, and b) give up anything meaningful (beyond salary relief) in return?

Ten days. That's how long Ben Cherington has to answer those questions and purge his roster of as many bad contracts as he can. Ten days to strip this hunk of junk for parts and get whatever he can in return. He's been very active during his tumultuous tenure, so he'll probably do his share of wheeling and dealing before the dust settles on July 31st. It's just too bad he doesn't have anything good to sell.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Dozier, Kershaw for Final Vote

Image courtesy of Sporting News
Today is the final day to vote in the All-Star Game's Final Vote, which allows the fans one last chance to send another Kansas City Royal (um, I mean player) from each league to next Tuesday's Midsummer Classic in Cincinnati.

With Brett Gardner, one of the five American League candidates, already getting the call to replace Alex Gordon, who will miss eight weeks with a strained groin, the AL field has already been reduced to four, which makes the voting somewhat easier. All American Leaguers are position players, which makes comparisons easier, but hardly easy as they all play different positions (one outfielder, a second baseman, a third baseman, and a shortstop).

Not surprisingly, the National League ballot is dominated by pitching. There are three starting pitchers up for election, all of whom are having fantastic years and all of whom just strengthened their cases with outstanding efforts this week. They're easy to compare, but there's also a closer and a shortstop throwing a wrench into the debate. Given that there are entirely too many relief pitchers named as All-Stars every year, I can tell you right now the closer won't be getting my vote and shouldn't be getting yours, either.

Surprisingly, this ballot is devoid of first basemen, who typically show up on these things due to the plethora of players having strong offensive seasons at the position. I'm not at all surprised by their omission on the AL ballot, as the only worthy candidates were Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols (not the still-adjusting Jose Abreu, shockingly), but there absolutely should have been a place for Joey Votto in the NL.

Anyways, on to the analysis. Candidates for each league are presented in alphabetical order, and I have included their WAR totals (Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs) in parentheses besides their names. All WAR really shows is that most of these guys have been remarkably similar in terms of value up to this point, which makes the decisions that much tougher.
Gardner is going to his first All-Star Game (River Ave Blues)
American League

Xander Bogaerts (2.6 bWAR/2.3 fWAR)
Bogaerts has been one of the few bright spots on an otherwise disappointing Red Sox roster. He's also been, according to FanGraphs, the best shortstop in the American League. Granted, that's not saying a lot when Jose Iglesias, Brad Miller, and Alcides Escobar are your closest competition (and Carlos Correa has barely played a month), but someone's gotta be number one. He's hitting over .300 and flashing improved defense at short, though his average is largely empty as he's managed just three home runs and 16 walks to date. Bogaerts should go by virtue of being the best at his position outside of Brandon Crawford, but he's simply not the best on this ballot. Despite being a big Red Sox fan who does not want Brock Holt to be my team's sole All-Star, I must pass.

Yoenis Cespedes (2.9 bWAR/2.8 fWAR)
Cespedes has been outstanding in his Detroit debut, making Ben Cherington look foolish for giving him and two minor leaguers up for the dreadful remains of what was once Rick Porcello. The Cuban slugger is on pace for his best season since his now-forgotten stellar rookie year. He still hasn't figured out this thing called patience, but that's fine so long as he keeps hitting close to .300 with top-shelf pop (he's third in the AL in doubles and fifth in extra base hits). The hard-hitting outfielder's power is second to a fellow candidate's, however, making him an indefensible choice in light of his .318 OBP.

AL Brian Dozier (3.2 bWAR/fWAR)
An All-Star snub last year, Dozier was again shut out this year despite being the best player on what was a first place team for much of the first half. The Twins second baseman has been one of the league's best power sources, pacing the AL in extra base hits and ranking second in doubles (one behind Jason Kipnis), fifth in total bases, and tenth in home runs and slugging. He's also second in runs with 64--as many as Mike Trout and just one behind Josh Donaldson for the league lead. Dozier has also made an impact on the bases, stealing nine bags in a dozen attempts, and is playing well defensively, leading the league at his position in range factor, assists, and double plays turned while placing second in fielding percentage. Put it all together, and you have the second-best second baseman in baseball. I think we have a winner.

Mike Moustakas (2.7 bWAR/2.1 fWAR)
Absolutely not. We already have enough Royals going to the All-Star Game. Plus he's come crashing back to earth since his fluky April, batting .276/.329/.397 since. Sorry. but that's not an All-Star third-baseman, unless we want to invite Pablo Sandoval, too.

Vote: Dozier
Dozier deserves to be an All-Star (Twin Cities)
NL National League

Johnny Cueto (2.9 bWAR/2.6 fWAR)
Cueto is coming off his best start of the season, a two-hit shutout of the Nationals in which he struck out a season-high 11 batters. Last year's NL Cy Young runner-up has been phenomenal again this year, posting a 2.61 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, and 5.29 K/BB ratio to date. The numbers say Cueto is worthy of his second straight All-Star nod, and it would be nice to see the hosting Reds get another representative.

Jeurys Familia (1.9 bWAR/0.6 fWAR)
As great as Familia has been for the Mets, you can toss him out immediately. The last thing the All-Star Game needs is more relief pitchers.

Clayton Kershaw (2.3 bWAR/3.7 fWAR)
The reigning NL MVP and Cy Young winner has slipped a bit only compared to last year's historic numbers. In a vacuum, though, his stats can only be considered otherworldly. With an ML-leading 160 strikeouts in 123 innings, he's currently whiffing nearly a dozen batters per nine innings and is on pace to threaten 300 K's for the season. He also boasts a 2.85 ERA, 2.40 FIP, 1.02 WHIP, and 5.93 K/BB ratio, all of which are quite impressive. Though Cueto's numbers are slightly better, Kershaw has been the best pitcher in baseball over the past five years, and you can't have the All-Star Game without him. Furthermore, he's pitched better than his ERA and 6-6 record would indicate.

Carlos Martinez (2.5 bWAR/1.5 fWAR)
The 23 year-old Cardinal has been sensational in his first season as a full-time starter, going 10-3 with a 2.52 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning in the first half. He's been incredibly dominant lately, allowing just nine earned runs over his past ten starts and providing ace-level production in Adam Wainwright's absence. He doesn't have the name recognition or mind-blowing peripherals of Cueto and Kershaw, which is why I'm going to pass, but there's no shame in finishing behind those two.

Troy Tulowitzki (1.5 bWAR/1.2 fWAR)
It's been a strange year for Tulo, who's taken a notable dive in his age-30 season. His power is down, strikeouts are up, and plate discipline has disappeared. His formerly Gold Glove defense has also deteriorated. On the bright side, he's hitting well over .300 and has hit safely in 33 of his past 34 games, including his last 21 straight--a major league season-high. More importantly the injury prone shortstop has stayed on the field, missing just eight Rockies games to date. If he were in the American League he'd be a no-brainer, but against the Senior Circuit's more formidable field he doesn't quite make the cut. It also must be said that his numbers would be much more impressive if he didn't play half his games in Coors Field.

Vote: Like last year's AL Cy Young race between Felix Hernandez and Corey Kluber, it's a virtual toss-up between Cueto and Kershaw. Both have their arguments--Cueto pitches for the hometown team but Kershaw has the better reputation, and their performance has been almost indistinguishable. Both are worthy and I'm sure both will get to go once somebody inevitably backs out or decides he's unavailable to pitch. I simply can't fathom an All-Star Game without Kershaw, who's pitched tremendously this year and my gut tells me has been more dominant (Cueto's benefiting from a .229 BABiP), so that's why I'm going with him.

Cueto's numbers are a bit better, but Kershaw's the bigger star (Rant Sports)