Friday, October 31, 2014

Youkilis Retires

Youkilis shows off hi bizarre hitting style (NYTimes)
After one season in Japan, former Red Sox corner infielder Kevin Youkilis is calling it a career.

Youkilis, known simply as Youk to Fenway Faithful, enjoyed a 10-year major league career, spending the first eight and a half of those seasons with Boston. Drafted by Dan Duquette in the eighth round of the 2001 draft, the disciplined third baseman received a new nickname--"Greek God of Walks"--from Billy Beane's Oakland A's organization. That patience would serve him well in the big leagues, where he maintained a robust .382 OBP and 12.2 BB%.

Youkilis arrived on the scene in 2004, just in time to help the beleaguered BoSox end their 86-year championship drought. He was a solid reserve on that team and the following year's squad, backing up Kevin Millar at first and Bill Mueller at third. Both left following the 2005 season, allowing Youkilis to inherit the everyday first baseman job with the Red Sox acquiring Mike Lowell, an All-Star third-sacker, in their trade for Josh Beckett.

Already 27 by that point, Youkilis was more than ready. He batted .279/.381/.429 in his first full season along with 42 doubles and a career-high 91 walks and 100 runs scored. He was even better the following year, improving from a three win player to a five win stalwart and earning his first and only Gold Glove.

More importantly, Youkilis sparked Boston to another World Series title that year. A non-factor in the '04 run with just two at-bats, he was one of the team's best hitters in '07 and proved crucial to their victory. Youk was especially lethal during Boston's come-from-behind ALCS victory over the Cleveland Indians, batting .500/.576/.929 with 14 hits, three home runs, seven RBI, and 10 runs scored. Against Colorado in the Fall Classic he capped off a terrific postseason in which he batted .388/.475/.755 with 19 hits in 14 games.

The following year, 2008, would be the best of Youk's career. He enjoyed a power breakthrough with 29 home runs--equaling his output from the previous two seasons combined--43 doubles, 306 total bases, and 115 RBI, all career highs. He also hit .312/.390/.569, made his first All-Star team, won the American League Hank Aaron Award, and finished third in the MVP race behind teammate Dustin Pedroia and Justin Morneau. Youkilis was instrumental in helping the Red Sox reach the postseason again, and enjoyed another monster LCS (1.008 OPS), but it was not enough as the Sox were outdone by the Rays in seven games.

Statistically, 2009 was just as good for Youkilis, who posted a .961 OPS and was worth 6.6 bWAR while making the All-Star team again and finishing sixth in the MVP polling. He was on track for similarly great numbers in 2010 when a torn abductor muscle in his right thumb ended his season at the beginning of August. The injury effectively marked the end of Youk's brief reign as one of the best players in baseball.

The final year of Youk's career were frustrating and tumultuous (CBSSports)
His career started heading south in 2011, his last full season with the Sox. He moved back to third base to accommodate Adrian Gonzalez but the position change likely did more harm than good, as Youkilis was again plagued by injuries during the second half. He missed 42 games in all and appeared in just 22 from August 1st on, batting a reduced .190 over that time. Had he been able to stay healthy or hit more effectively down the stretch, Boston likely would have won at least one more game and thus been spared the humiliation of its great September collapse.

In the wake of said meltdown, Youkilis lost the trust of his teammates due to suspicion that he had leaked the chicken and beer information to the press. 2012 quickly turned out to be a nightmare for him and the team, as he got off to a slow start, had his effort questioned by new manager Bobby Valentine, and spent more time on the Disabled List. In his absence rookie call-up Will Middlebrooks excelled, making Youkilis expendable in the eyes of the organization and giving them a convenient excuse to trade him away. Ben Cherington did just that, dealing Youkilis for two nobodies in return. In a fitting finale, Youkilis had two hits, including a triple, in the last game he ever played for the Red Sox.

He moved on to Chicago, where he hit better with the White Sox but not well enough to convince anybody that his glory days were coming back. That led to his signing a one-year deal with the Yankees, which turned out to be a huge bust when he got hurt yet again and appeared in just 28 games. Nobody wanted him when his contract expired, and he took off for Japan.

The end came hard and fast for Youkilis, as it does for many athletes in their early 30s. Youk was an All-Star at 32, cast-off at 33, and done at 34. It wasn't surprising he tailed off so fast given his physique and unmatched intensity. Nobody played the game harder or with more passion than Youkilis, and like a shooting star he burned out quickly. Injuries took their toll as well, but he was a great player when he did play and had a Hall of Fame peak, even if it was short-lived (three years). Though he didn't play much (barely 1,000 games) or for very long, he accomplished a hell of a lot during his all-too-brief career.

And he did it with one of the most unorthodox batting stances I've ever seen.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

San Francisco's Sneaky Dynasty

Watching the Giants win the last game of the season has become commonplace
It took the Giants 43 seasons to win a World Series after leaving New York following the 1957 season. The drought, snapped in 2010, has been followed by a deluge, as San Francisco has won two more championships since, all under the guidance of future Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy.

The Giants have done it with solid all-around teams. None of those title teams had a 30 home run hitter or a 20 game winner, but they were all deep and balanced. Kudos to GM Brian Sabean for building winning rosters year after year.

The first of those teams--the 2010 edition--was a good one. The '10 Giants won 92 games and the NL West, scoring nearly 700 runs while allowing below 600 for a strong run differential of +114. They were middle of the pack offensively but fielded an elite pitching staff that led the National League in ERA and strikeouts. Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum fronted a rotation that included a 20 year-old rookie named Madison Bumgarner. The bullpen featured Brian Wilson at the peak of his powers (48 saves, 1.81 ERA) along with a pair of dominant relievers in Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla.

Minus Bumgarner, the pitching staff was largely comprised of players in their prime. The starting nine was an odd mix of young (20 year-old Buster Posey in his rookie season, 23 year-old Pablo Sandoval in his third) and mostly old veterans and cast-offs (Aubrey Huff, Aaron Rowand, Pat Burrell, Edgar Renteria). But pretty much everyone could hit for some power and get on base, and so the Giants cobbled together a surprisingly effective lineup. They beat the Braves in four in the NLCS, toppled Philadelphia in six for the pennant, then glided past the Texas Rangers in five games for the championship.

After missing the playoffs with an 86-win season in 2011, the Giants won their division again in 2012. Though they won two more games than and outscored their 2010 predecessors by 21 runs (thanks almost entirely to Posey's MVP-season, Melky Cabrera's PED-fueled outburst, a career year from Angel Pagan, and Hunter Pence's late-season contributions), their pitching wasn't as good and their run differential slipped to +69.

Looking back, it's hard to believe how that lineup scored more than 700 runs when only one guy (Posey) hit more than a dozen home runs and only three reached double digits. Similarly, only those three exceeded 60 RBI, with Posey the only one over 65. But while the Giants did not have much power, ranking dead last in home runs with 100, they did excel at getting on base and getting hits. With many of the veterans from the 2010 squad gone or phased out, San Francisco was a younger and more athletic team (as evidenced by their 118 steals).

The key to that team's success was a rotation that remained remarkably healthy. The starting five of Bumgarner, Cain, Lincecum, Barry Zito, and Ryan Vogelsong started all but two games that year. Lincecum went off the rails (10-15, 5.18 ERA), but the rest of the rotation was formidable enough to compensate. The bullpen was still led by Casilla, Romo, and Javier Lopez though Wilson had become irrelevant. Jeremy Affeldt, a member of the 2010 outfit, emerged as one of the team's best relievers to give San Fran a strong relief corps.

Those 2012 Giants were lucky to even reach the World Series. They went the distance against the Reds in the NLDS and prevailed over St. Louis in Game 7 of the NLCS. After that it was smooth-sailing, as they swept the heavily-favored Tigers in the World Series.

2013 was a nightmare season for San Francisco, which lost 86 games and was never really in contention. The Giants were better in 2014, good enough to make the playoffs but still not a great team. They earned a wild card berth with 88 wins and a +51 run differential mostly because of torrid second halves from Buster Posey and Jake Peavy.

The lineup, as always, had few standouts but was solidly constructed, overcoming significant injuries to four of the nine main contributors. Of the 10 players with the most plate appearances on the club, all but one (Brandon Hicks) had an OPS+ above 100. Like the 2010 version, they could all get on base and hit for a bit of pop, which goes a long way. The speed from the 2012 team was absent, however, as the plodding Giants swiped just 56 bases and finished last in the NL.

With Cain hurt and Lincecum ineffective, Bumgarner was the clear-cut ace. He had help in the form of Tim Hudson and, in the second half, Peavy, but San Fran's rotation was pretty thin (as exposed by the weak-hitting Royals in the Fall Classic). The bullpen was still headed by Affeldt, Romo, Lopez, and Casilla in addition to Jean Machi. Like the rotation, it was neither great nor terrible, which explains how San Francisco was so average.

But while this year's championship edition was the worst of the three, it had the easiest run up to the World Series. The Giants cruised past the Pirates in the play-in game, washed away the Nationals in four games in the NLDS, then upset the Cards in five games. They stumbled in the Fall Classic, nearly going down three games to one before rallying to win Games 4, 5, and 7. They may have needed plenty of help from Mr. Bumgarner, but at the end of the day they still got the job done.

The Magnificent Madison Bumgarner

Bumgarner capped a stellar postseason with a marvelous World Series (Yahoo)
Even before last night, we knew Madison Bumgarner's 2014 postseason run was spectacular, one of the best ever, in fact. We knew it represented a pitcher at his absolute best. We knew we were witnessing a level greatness rarely sustained for long during playoff time.

What we did not know, however, was how that run would end. We knew Bumgarner was going to make a relief appearance in Game 7 three days after spinning the first Series shutout in over a decade. Nobody could have known how long he'd stay in or how effective he would be.The general consensus was that he'd pitch one to three innings.

He went five, closing out the game and the series with the most memorable postseason relief appearance this side of Pedro Martinez.

Bumgarner, as he was all month, was absolutely nasty. Once again he proved to be the Royals' kryptonite, muting their bats over five scoreless innings. Kansas City managed just two hits against him, both singles. For the third time in the series, they were completely and utterly helpless against him.

They were hardly the only ones looking overmatched against him this fall (his ERA this postseason: 1.03). First he blanked the Pirates on the road in the wild card play-in game, and that was just the appetizer. He turned in seven strong innings in his lone NLCS start versus the Nationals, then seven and 2/3 scoreless frames in St. Louis in Game 1 of the NLCS. Back at home for Game 5, he went eight innings and allowed three runs in the pennant clinching game.

By the time the World Series rolled around, the 25 year-old southpaw was all warmed up. He pitched the Giants to an easy victory in Game 1 with seven innings of one-run ball. He hurled a four-hit shutout in Game 5 to bring San Francisco within one game of the title. And, after Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson faltered in Kansas City, Bumgarner took his team all the way with five scoreless frames.

MadBum was as deserving as a World Series MVP possibly can be. He put the team on his back, carried them on his shoulders, and delivered them to their third World Series title in five years. While he was credited with the save in Game 7 (Jeremy Affeldt got the win), for all intents and purposes he won three games in this series.

Bumgarner's stat lines from this series are just ridiculous. There's the one earned run in 21 innings, of course, which works out to a 0.43 ERA. He walked only one batter over that span (Lorenzo Cain in Game 1) and allowed just nine hits (only three of which went for extra bases), resulting in a 0.48 WHIP. Of the 74 batters he faced, he retired 63 of them (85 percent), 17 by way of the K. Opponents batted just .127/.151/.197 against him, and he threw 70 percent of his 291 pitches for strikes.

What we saw was a great pitcher at the peak of his powers, and the result was probably the best postseason any pitcher has ever had. Even more incredible is that Bumgarner was able to do what he did after tossing a career high 217 and 1/3 innings during the regular season. Including his five inning relief appearance, he basically made 40 starts this year and remained sharp to the last out.

Bumgarner's been a great pitcher for several years now (did you know he was a two-time All-Star?), but this World Series felt like his coming out party the way 2003 was for Josh Beckett. Madison Bumgarner is now a household name the way Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander are. The best part is; he's barely 25.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Stats that Don't Mean Anything Tonight

Here are 7 stats that won't mean a thing in tonight's winner-take-all Game 7:

1. The Royals have never lost a Game 7.
Why it's meaningless: They've only played two.

2. Tim Hudson is the oldest pitcher to ever start a Game 7.
Why it's meaningless: Hudson was an All-Star this year and has a dozen postseason starts under his belt. I'd trust him more than I'd trust Jeremy Guthrie.

3. Buster Posey does not have an extra base hit in these playoffs.
Why it's meaningless: Posey's one of the best pure hitters in baseball, coming off a regular season in which he batted .311/.364/.490 with 22 home runs. Posey has plenty of pop, even if his power has been absent in October.

4. Alex Gordon is batting .125 with no walks in the World Series.
Why it's meaningless: Gordon was Kansas City's clear MVP this year. All good players go through slumps, and there's no doubt that Gordon's in one, but he's such a good all-around player that he's still an asset even when his bat is quiet.

5. Only one of the games in this World Series was decided by fewer than five runs.
Why it's meaningless: Despite the lopsided scores of every game except the third, these teams are very evenly matched. KC has won 100 games this year, San Francisco has won 99. The Royals have scored 25 runs in this series, the Giants have plated 27. Any way you look at it, this game's a toss-up.

6. Madison Bumgarner has never made a relief appearance in the World Series before.
Why this is meaningless: MadBum's enjoying one of the most dominant postseason runs of all time and has baffled the Royals. He can't lose.

7. Nobody has lost a World Series Game 7 at home since 1979.
Why it's meaningless: That streak will end eventually.

Royals Rout Giants, Force Game 7

The Royals staved off elimination with a blowout victory (TheStar)
It was a game the Kansas City Royals absolutely had to win, and it was over by the third inning.

Faced with a win-or-go-home scenario in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, just two days removed from managing a mere four hits against Madison Bumgarner, Kansas City broke out the bats. The Royals hung seven on the board in the second, equaling in one inning what they scored across 27 in San Francisco, and plated 10 in all. Kansas City's Game 6 run total exceeded its output in Games 1, 3, 4, and 5 combined.

The offensive outburst couldn't have come at a better time. There will be a Game 7 after all.

For that the Royals can thank Jake Peavy, who followed up his poor Game 2 start with an abysmal outing. He recorded only four outs before departing, leaving San Francisco's bullpen to mop up the remaining six and 2/3 innings. Peavy was about as bad as a pitcher can be, allowing five runs on six hits and giving the home team a commanding early lead. The poor Giants never even had a chance.

Then again, Peavy could have pitched brilliantly and still would have lost, as San Francisco scored nary a run. The Giants certainly had their chances, as 11 of them reached base, but the visitors came up empty in their six opportunities with runners in scoring position. They were thus shutout by Yordano Ventura, then Jason Frasor, and finally Tim Collins.

Speaking of Ventura, what a performance! 23 years old and fresh off his first full big league campaign, he rose to the occasion in the biggest game of his life. With five walks in seven innings he wasn't quite Bumgarner-esque, but nevertheless shut down San Francisco to eliminate whatever slim hopes there were of a comeback. Move over, James Shields; there's a new big game pitcher in town.

Of course, Ventura's effort will be in vain if Kansas City loses tonight. With a championship on the line, in the biggest baseball game the city has seen in three decades, the Royals will be counting on...Jeremy Guthrie, a thoroughly mediocre pitcher in 2014 with a 4.13 ERA and 1.30 WHIP across 202 and 2/3 innings. Guthrie earned the win in Game 3 but has failed to complete more than five innings in either of his postseason starts. It's a good thing Kansas City's bullpen is well-rested after Ventura's outing, because Ned Yost is going need all hands on deck for this one.

The Giants will counter with Tim Hudson, a grizzled veteran of 39 years, 16 of them spent in the big leagues. Still searching for a ring in his seventh postseason, Huddy has the chance to decide his team's destiny tonight. He was the tough-luck loser in Game 3 and will be looking to erase an entire career's worth of October frustration. Does his right arm, which has logged more than 3,000 innings in the big leagues, have enough bullets to keep Kansas City's spotty lineup at bay? The Giants' third title in five years depends on it. He has so much at stake in terms of pride and reputation, combined with such a distinguished track record, that I can't envision him pitching poorly. If he loses, it's going to be close, and it's going to hurt.

Adding to the intrigue is that both Yost and Bruce Bochy can call upon their aces if necessary. With two days rest, Shields and Bumgarner would typically use today as a throw day, but given the circumstances will be available to come out of the bullpen. That has to be a terrifying thought for the Royals, who've been utterly helpless against MadBum in this series. They better jump out to an early lead against Hudson, because if they have to deal with Bumgarner late in the game they're screwed.

I've said all along that the Giants were going to win this thing, and I'm not going back on my prediction now. I say they take Game 7 by a score of 4-2.