Friday, January 20, 2017

17 To Watch in 2017

After breaking out in 2016, is Sanchez headed for a sophomore slump? (CBS Sports)
Some players performed far below their standards last year, while others will look to build on unprecedented success. Here are 17 worth following in 2017.

1. Byron Buxton
The second overall pick of the 2012 draft has struggled at the plate, batting .220/.274/.398 in 138 big league games thus far. The 23-year-old was demoted last summer but showed promise after returning to the majors in September, smacking nine home runs and flashing a 1.022 OPS over the season's final month. The toolsy center fielder is already worth watching for his ridiculous range, but if he starts hitting he'll become a star.

2. Gary Sanchez
Sanchez set the world on fire as a 23-year-old rookie last summer, smashing 20 home runs in just 201 official at-bats. The most he ever hit during a minor league season was 18 (twice), so it will be interesting to see how his power numbers shake out, especially since his 40% HR/FB ratio was the highest of any player with at least 50 plate appearances. He probably won't keep hitting like Babe Ruth, but he should be good for 30 homers in a full slate of games.

3. Julio Urias
Urias held his own after debuting at the tender age of 19 last year, compiling a 3.39 ERA, a 3.17 FIP and a 9.8 K/9 rate across 77 innings. His command (3.6 BB/9) could use some polish, but he's already one of the game's best young moundsmen.

4. Andrew McCutchen
Few players saw their stock tumble as much in 2016 as McCutchen, who went from one of the NL's best batsmen in 2015 to a barely league average hitter last year. The former MVP appeared to be pressing too much to dig out from a slow start, but ultimately finished strong and may be poised for a big bounce back in his age-30 season.

5. Jason Heyward
Heyward cratered after signing an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Cubs last offseason, looking completely and utterly lost as he slashed .230/.306/.325 with a career-low seven homers. He's in the heart of his prime at 27 and had a career .768 OPS prior to last season, so the smart money's on him bouncing back, although it remains to be seen how he'll fare with his re-tooled swing.

6. Pablo Sandoval
Kung Fu Panda's been a huge bust since signing a five-year, $95 million deal with Boston two winters ago, and is coming off a season in which he lost his starting job and played three games before requiring surgery. The 30-year-old is still young enough to replicate his San Francisco success, which may happen now that he appears to be in great shape. The Red Sox are counting on him to produce (in what will be a pivotal year for him) after trading Travis Shaw and Yoan Moncada during the offseason.

7. Bryce Harper
His OPS dropped nearly 300 points from 2015 as his production returned to his pre-MVP levels. It's widely assumed that Harper was playing through a shoulder injury last year, which may explain why he fell off after a hot start. Still just 24, can he recapture the Ted Williams-like greatness he displayed two seasons ago?

8. Yasiel Puig
What happened to this guy? Once one of the game's brightest talents and a budding superstar, his OPS has decreased every year since he debuted in 2013. The Dodgers seemed to give up on him last year, putting him on waivers after demoting him in August. That seemed to light a fire under Puig, who tore up Triple-A and returned to LA with a vengeance in September. He could bounce back at 26...if he stops coasting on his natural tools and shows the focus required to succeed over 162 games.
Are Brad Miller's and Daniel Murphy's revamped power strokes legit? (ESPN)
 9. Brad Miller
Miller came out of nowhere to slug 30 homers last year, nearly tripling his previous career high of 11. While his 20.4% HR/FB rate was almost double his previous best, exceeding the likes of noted power hitters such as Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, and Todd Frazier, there are several indications his power surge was legitimate. He pulled the ball more than ever before and appeared to sell out more often, striking out at the highest clip of his career. When he did make contact, however, he inflicted more damage, as improved exit velocity resulted in the best hard-hit rate and average batted ball distance of his career. Only one player in Rays history has produced consecutive 30-homer seasons (Carlos Pena); could Miller be the second?

10. Jose Bautista
Bautista made waves last winter by announcing his desire for a five-year, $150 million contract, but he didn't get anything close to that on the heels of his worst season this decade. He drew little interest after batting .234/.366/.452 with 22 homers in 116 games last year, leading him to return to Toronto on a one-year deal. Back in familiar confines north of the border, the 36-year-old will try to reverse two straight seasons of decline.

11. David Price
Price had his worst season since his rookie year after signing the largest contract ever for a pitcher last winter. He pitched better after a slow start, but just didn't look like himself for most of the year( except for July and August, his ERA was over four every month). His velocity was down, which explains why his strikeout rate declined and how he allowed the most hits in the majors. His walk rate also went up, which spoke to how uncomfortable/easily frustrated he appeared at times, which led to a lot of bad innings. It usually takes players a year to get used to Boston, even aces like him (see Josh Beckett and John Lackey), but the stats indicate his best days may already be behind him.

12. Rich Hill
Hill pitched like a Cy Young contender last year when healthy, but recurring blisters limited him to just 20 starts. He's exceeded that number only once -- all the way back in 2007 -- and it's hard to see him suddenly becoming a workhorse at age 37. Still, he's in a prime position to succeed with Los Angeles (one of the friendliest pitching environments in the majors -- just ask Zack Greinke) and could be a great sidekick for Clayton Kershaw.

13. Daniel Murphy
Murphy carried over his Ruthian postseason performance in 2015 into the '16 regular season, emerging as one of the National League's top hitters. In addition to pacing the senior circuit with 47 doubles, a .595 slugging and a .985 OPS, he batted .347 and socked 25 homers with 104 RBIs. Can he approach similar numbers in his age 32 season? Or will he regress into the .288/.331/.424 hitter he was before last year?

14. Matt Harvey
Harvey's 2016 was utterly disastrous, as he went 4-10 with a 4.86 ERA before being shut down for thoracic outlet surgery. Gotham's Dark Knight is expected to be fully recovered and will try to get re-establish himself as one of baseball's premier hurlers.

15. Clayton Kershaw
Kershaw continued to be the best pitcher on the planet last year, producing mind-boggling numbers such as a 1.69 ERA, a 1.80 FIP, a 0.73 WHIP, a 0.7 BB/9, and a 15.64 (!!!) K/BB ratio. Were it not for a back injury that caused him to miss about a dozen starts, he would have cruised to a fourth Cy Young and possibly another MVP. He's never been better as he prepares to enter his age-29 season.

16. Adrian Beltre
Last year Ichiro Suzuki became the 30th big leaguer with 3,000 hits. This year, Beltre becomes the 31st. He's only 58 knocks away from the magic number, which he could reach by Memorial Day. He's also on the cusp of several other round numbers, including 450 homers (five away), 600 doubles (nine away), 1,600 RBIs (29 away), 5,000 total bases (60 away), and 1,500 runs (72 away). Only three players have eclipsed all those milestones; Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, and Carl Yastrzemski. You're in pretty good company, Mr. Beltre.

17. Mike Trout
2017 will be Trout's age-25 season, meaning he's entering what is traditionally considered a player's prime. Good luck, AL pitchers. You're gonna need it.

Monday, January 9, 2017

MLB's 16 Best of 2016

Betts would have been the best of 2016, were it not for Trout (Suffolk Voice)
Counting down the 16 best baseball players of 2016 while the season's still (relatively) fresh in our minds:

1. Mike Trout
After becoming more of a strikeout-prone slugger in 2014 and '15, Trout returned to his five-tool roots by replicating his marvelous 2012 campaign. His 123 runs, 116 walks, .441 OBP, 174 OPS+ and 10.6 bWAR were all tops in the Majors, leaving the BBWAA no choice but to vote him MVP despite his team's 74-88 record. Trout also totaled 29 home runs, 100 RBI, and 30 steals in 37 attempts while slashing his strikeout rate to 20.1 percent -- the second lowest mark of his career.The 25-year-old generational talent has never been better.

2. Mookie Betts
In a universe where Mike Trout doesn't exist, Betts runs away with the 2016 AL MVP award. Instead, he finishes second despite amassing 9.6 bWAR and leading the Majors with 359 total bases. Betts was the complete package last year, batting .318/.363/.534 with 31 homers and 26 steals while winning a Gold Glove for his work in right field. He also knocked in 113 runs despite leading off 109 games for Boston. Like Bryce Harper, he's only 24.

3. Kris Bryant
Bryant followed up his unanimous Rookie of the Year campaign with a near-unanimous MVP run, scoring all but one first place vote after pacing the Senior Circuit with 121 runs and 7.7 bWAR for the World Champion Cubbies. Bryant improved significantly as a hitter in his sophomore campaign, slashing his strikeout rate from 30.6 percent to 22.6 percent while adding even more power. With above average defense and baserunning to go with his elite bat, he's already a superstar entering his age-25 season.

4. Jose Altuve
Houston had a disappointing season in 2016, but Altuve's was the best of his career. In addition to winning his second batting title (.338) and leading the Majors in hits with 216, he achieved personal bests in home runs (24), RBI (96), OBP (.396) and slugging (.531). The diminutive second baseman has steadily improved his power stroke over the past three seasons, emerging as a perennial MVP candidate.

5. Josh Donaldson
Donaldson continued to produce at an MVP level, notching his fourth straight season with at least 7.0 WAR after clubbing 37 home runs and slashing .284/.404/.549 (155 wRC+). He also became more selective or pitchers started being more afraid of him, as his 109 walks were easily a career high.

6. Robinson Cano
Cano carried his torrid second half of 2015 all the way through last season, belting a career-high 39 home runs (more than the previous two years combined) while batting .298/.350/.533. His defense also returned to his previous Gold Glove level after slipping below average last year, helping him amass 7.3 bWAR. He now has more than 60 for his career and would be a Hall of Famer if he retired tomorrow.

7. Daniel Murphy
Murphy transformed from a solid, two-win second baseman into MVP runner-up overnight, starting with his Babe Ruth impersonation during last year's playoffs. He nearly won the batting title last year at .347 while launching 25 home runs -- more than he had in the previous two seasons combined (23). His power surge was no fluke, either, as his 47 doubles and .595 slugging led the NL. It's hard to believe this is the same guy who hit nine home runs and barely slugged .400 in 2014.

8. Manny Machado
Machado essentially replicated his 2015 breakout campaign at the plate, creating the same number of runs (113) while adding a bit more power to finish with career highs in runs (105), homers (37), RBIs (96), total bases (341) and slugging (.533). He also transferred his excellent defense from third base to shortstop for a good chunk of time while JJ Hardy was on the mend, even if the switch likely cost him a second straight Gold Glove at the hot corner.

9. Brian Dozier
After several seasons as one of baseball's most underrated stars, Dozier etched his name in history by becoming the first American Leaguer to sock 40 home runs while manning the keystone. He belted 42 in all, 23 of which came during the season's final two months. His career year went largely unnoticed during Minnesota's ghastly season, and led to his finishing 13th in the MVP race despite totaling 6.5 bWAR. More than a slugger, he's also an above average defender and baserunner (18 steals in 20 attempts).
Kershaw was superhuman despite missing 1/3 of the season (Pixels Talk)
10. Clayton Kershaw
Kershaw was having his best season ever when a back injury sidelined him in late June. He returned in September without skipping a beat, then finally exorcised his postseason demons by nailing down the last two outs of NLDS Game 5 with the winning run on base. His regular season was so otherworldly, however, that he finished fifth in the Cy Young vote despite missing two and a half months. He went 12-4 with a 1.69 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and a 1.80 FIP. He also paced the Majors with three shutouts despite making only 21 starts. Most impressively, he walked just 11 batters in 149 innings and his 15.64 K/BB ratio was the best in history.

11. Nolan Arenado
Arenado proved 2015's power spike was legit, leading the league in homers (41), RBI (133), and total bases (352) for the second straight year. He also showed the ability to reach base at an above-average clip for the first time in his career, doubling his walk rate to boost his OBP from .323 in '15 to .362. Throw in a near-.300 batting average (.294) and a fourth consecutive Gold Glove, and he's a bona fide star (6.5 bWAR). His numbers are much better at Coors, but his 16 road homers and .832 OPS away from home indicate he can hit anywhere.

12. Adrian Beltre
Beltre continues to age like fine wine, turning in one of the best seasons ever by a 37-year-old third sacker last year. His power returned after two straight seasons with less than 20 homers, as he totaled is most home runs (32) and RBIs (104) since 2012. In addition to batting .300/.358/.521 (130 wRC+), he netted his fifth Gold Glove for still being a human vacuum cleaner at the hot corner. Just 58 hits shy of 3,000 for his career, Beltre figures to reach several milestones this year, including 1,500 runs (72 away), 1,600 RBIs (29) away), 600 doubles (nine away), and 450 homers (five away). He's quickly turning into a slam-dunk Hall of Famer.

13. Max Scherzer
Scherzer's numbers were nearly identical to 2015's, when he finished fifth in the Cy Young voting, but he won the award after his record improved from 14-12 to 20-7. He topped the circuit in wins, innings (228 1/3), and K/BB ratio (5.07) while leading the Majors with 284 strikeouts and a 0.97 WHIP. Scherzer wasn't the best pitcher in the National League last year (that was Kershaw), but his combination of excellence and durability made him the top choice. His signature performance came against his former team -- the Tigers -- on May 11, when he became just the third pitcher ever to whiff 20 batters in a nine-inning game. That was his first double-digit strikeout performance of the year, but he would notch a dozen more (over 26 starts) before the season was through.

14. Joey Votto
Votto batted .207/.330/.367 through the season's first 50 games, causing many to question whether the 32-year-old was toast. He proceeded to hit .377/.479/.630 the rest of the way, proving he's still as lethal as ever. His .434 OBP and 160 OPS+ led the National League, while his .326 average was the second-highest mark of his career.

15. Justin Verlander
For the second time in the past five seasons, Verlander finished second in a Cy Young race he deserved to win (Kate Upton apparently thinks so). David Price robbed him of consecutive Cy's in 2012, and Price's current teammate Rick Porcello stole another election from him four years later. He was basically the AL equivalent of Madison Bumgarner, who was just a hair worse than Scherzer. His 254 strikeouts, 1.00 WHIP and 6.6 pitching bWAR all led the American League, and he finished just 2 1/3 frames shy of Price for the league-lead. If he can lower his home run rate (1.2 HR/9) next year, he may win the second Cy that has eluded him since 2011.

16. David Ortiz
All Ortiz did was have the greatest season ever by a quadragenarian hitter. The 40-year-old's 48 doubles, .620 slugging and 1.021 OPS all led the Majors, while his 127 RBI topped the American League. It wasn't a picture-perfect ending for the Sox slugger, as he managed just one hit while his team was swept out of the ALDS, but Ted Williams ain't got sh*t on him.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Boston Finds Another Ace

When Boston needed an ace last year, Porcello stepped up (BoSox Injection)
When the Red Sox signed David Price to a seven-year, $217 million contract last winter, they got one of baseball’s finest pitchers in return. In a rotation without a clear number one starter, he immediately became Boston’s undisputed ace.

In his first season with the Red Sox, however, Price was anything but. He struggled mightily during the first half, carrying a 4.74 ERA into July before settling at 3.99 -- his worst mark since he was a 23-year-old rookie (as was his 1.20 WHIP). He surrendered the most hits (227) in the Majors and was prone to mid-game meltdowns, including one that ended his lone postseason start after 3 1/3 innings.

Thankfully for Boston, another pitcher stepped up to lead its rotation. Enter Rick Porcello, Price’s former teammate in Detroit who now finds himself flanking the 2012 AL Cy Young winner yet again.

Only this time, the roles are reversed. Porcello was Boston’s top starter in his second year with the club while Price is still finding his groove. After scuffling in his Red Sox debut, Porcello bounced back to win the AL Cy Young, leading the Majors with 22 wins and a 5.91 K/BB ratio.

Porcello's success wasn't just limited to 2016, either, as he was arguably Boston’s best pitcher in the second half of 2015, posting a 3.49 ERA after Independence Day. He was even better down the stretch with a 3.14 ERA over his final eight starts. Since coming off the Disabled List that August, Porcello has looked like a completely different pitcher, striking out batters at the highest rate of his career.

Once a ground-baller who struggled to miss bats, Porcello’s now a whiff-machine. He went from middle-of-the-rotation innings-eater to staff ace almost overnight–a truly stunning transformation. He began relying on his sinker again after getting away from it in the early part of 2015, mixing it with nasty change-ups and cutters. The result has been a whole new pitcher; Rick Porcello 2.0.

Of course, Porcello is unlikely to be the ace in 2017 with Chris Sale now on board and Price expected to bounce back, but he doesn't have to be. Even if he regresses to 2015 levels, he'll still be a strong number-three -- precisely what the Red Sox were hoping for when they signed him to that $82.5 million extension.

Sandoval Shaping Up

Can a slimmed-down Sandoval save his career? (Boston CBS Local)
Pablo Sandoval was probably pretty disappointed when he found out he was going to need season-ending shoulder surgery last May. Nobody wants to be told they’re done for the year when it’s only just begun, especially when your only memorable highlight was busting your belt. If there’s a silver lining from Sandoval's lost season, however, it’s that surgery might yet save his career.

Because let’s face it; even if he'd stayed healthy, Sandoval wasn't going to offer much last year. Coming off the worst season of his career, he arrived at spring training overweight (again), failed to bat said weight and wound up losing his starting job to a player making $17 million less than him. Sandoval rode the pine in April, appearing in just three games as Travis Shaw and the Red Sox got off to torrid starts.

Sandoval was stuck. His team had little use for him while his contract and recent performance made him untradeable. So he wasted away on the bench, watching Shaw’s success systematically destroy whatever shot he had at redemption in 2016.

Now, with Shaw out of the picture, Sandoval has another opportunity to get back in Boston’s good graces. He wisely used his time off to get in "the best shape of his life" and prove he’s serious about his conditioning. Hopefully he also used that time to fix his swing and work on his defense, but both should improve if he maintains his svelte physique.

A year off could do Sandoval wonders. It certainly did for John Lackey, another West Coast star who initially struggled upon signing a big contract with the Red Sox. After pitching at a historically awful level in 2011, Lackey missed all of ’12 recovering from Tommy John surgery. It was a turning point in his career, as a slimmed-down Lackey returned to form in 2013 and is still going strong into his late 30s.

After last year, Sandoval has nowhere to go but up. It’s not hard to imagine him having a similar renaissance in 2017, given that he’ll only be 30. He’ll also be extra motivated to prove himself after everything that's happened since he landed in Boston.

On the other hand, going under the knife may only hasten Sandoval’s decline. Adrian Gonzalez fell off significantly as a hitter following the same procedure, which doesn’t bode well for Sandoval -- a much lesser hitter to start with. He may also find that taking a whole year off severely disrupts his timing, which could prevent him from having the kind of start he needs to secure regular playing time again (Shaw may be gone, but Brock Holt and Rafael Devers are looming).

How the rest of Sandoval’s career plays out will likely be decided by what he does over the next calendar year. If he keeps the weight off and recovers the skills he showed in San Francisco, he'll return from the abyss. But if his body balloons and his struggles persist, he may lose his job for good.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Pudge Deserves First Ballot

Rodriguez might be the best catcher ever (Century21 Riverpointe)
Nineteen former players are eligible to be inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame for the first time this year. While a couple should be slam-dunks based on their numbers alone (Manny Ramirez says hello), it's possible none of them will be elected, especially with holdovers Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Trevor Hoffman all coming off near-misses last year (each received at least 67 percent of the vote). As such, the BBWAA may continue clearing the backlog of deserving candidates rather than welcome anyone new this year, although it's possible one lucky newcomer will break through.

Ivan Rodriguez is easily the strongest addition to this year's ballot, and an inner-circle Hall of Famer by any measure. He won an MVP and a World Series, along with seven Silver Sluggers (six consecutively from 1994-1999) and 13 Gold Gloves -- the most ever by a pitch-caller. He leads the position in numerous statistics, including games caught, runs, hits, doubles, and weighted runs created.  Fourteen times he was an All-Star.

Rodriguez was the perfect catcher. He hit for power (311 career homers) and average (.296 lifetime). He had speed (127 steals). He was also, as you may have inferred from his Gold Glove total, the best defensive backstop the game has ever seen. Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs both have him ranked number one, and by a considerable margin. Although his bat declined in his later years, he remained a top-notch receiver until the very end, placing fifth among NL catchers in Total Zone Runs in his final season despite playing just 44 games. Even as a 39-year-old backup catcher who couldn't hit, he was still above replacement level.

Based on defense alone, Pudge is worthy of a place in Cooperstown, but it's his contributions with the stick that make him worthy of first-ballot induction. In addition to slashing .296/.334/.464 (104 wrC+) for his career, he also approached 3,000 hits and 600 doubles, settling at 2,844 and 572, respectively. He drove in and scored more than 1,300 runs. He was an offensive force in 1999 -- the year he edged Pedro Martinez for MVP honors -- and again the following year, when he had a 1.042 OPS before a fractured thumb ended his season in late July.

Put it all together, and Rodriguez has a legitimate case as the greatest catcher in baseball history. Jay Jaffe's JAWS metric, which combines career value with peak value, ranks him third behind Johnny Bench and Gary Carter. Pudge combined Bench's defense with the longevity and offense of the previous Pudge -- Carlton Fisk. He was remarkably durable and consistent for a catcher; according to FanGraphs, he was worth at least three wins every year from 1995 through 2005 (and worth 2.9 WAR in 2006, when he batted .300 for the final time and helped lead Detroit to a pennant).

And yet, despite all that, Rodriguez will likely be barred from the Hall this year due to rumors of steroid use during his career. He never tested positive, but Jose Canseco claimed Rodriguez juiced during their time together in Texas, and Canseco's been right about these things more often than not. Some may also see Rodriguez's slimmer physique and declining home run totals during the testing era as proof, but by that point he was in his early 30s and should have been declining naturally (his last season as an above average hitter came at 32). It is suspicious, however, that he was able to catch more games than anyone in history despite spending 13 seasons in the Texas heat. He seemed especially superhuman during the late '90s, when he was putting up monster offensive numbers while catching more than 140 games per year.

Based on what happened with similar cases (Bagwell and Mike Piazza), steroid suspicion will likely prevent Rodriguez from gaining entry on the first ballot. Now that Piazza's in, however, there's no legitimate reason for keeping Rodriguez out. He was a better defender and compiled superior counting stats, plus won an MVP and was a key leader on a World Series winner. The electorate has become more forgiving of PED-associated players in recent years, but my guess is that Rodriguez may fall just short of election this year. Hopefully they prove me wrong.