Thursday, September 3, 2015

V is for Votto

Votto has never been more locked in (CBS Sports)
While the American League MVP race is very much alive thanks to Josh Donaldson's amazing August and Mike Trout's mediocre one, the NL award has been sewn up for months. Ever since Bryce Harper took a torch to National League pitching in May, he's merely marked time until his inevitable christening as the Senior Circuit's MVP.

Here are his numbers through yesterday:

.333/.461/.630 (195 OPS+) 31 HR 78 RBI 100 BB 107 K 267 TB 6/10 SB in 531 PA

He's not the only National Leaguer having such a superlative season, though. Take a look at Joey Votto's numbers, also through yesterday:

.315/.458/.563 (179 OPS+) 26 HR 78 RBI 116 BB 101 K 252 TB 8/11 SB in 568 PA

Obviously Harper's been a little better, which also comes across in his superior bWAR total (he has eight to Votto's 6.5). But those numbers are awfully close--they even have the same number of hits (141).

The difference will be much greater when MVP votes are tabulated next month. While Harper is expected to walk away with the award, Votto will be lucky to get even one first-place vote. As great as his season has been, nobody's giving him the nod over Harper or Zack Greinke given how poorly his team has played compared to theirs.

Such is the curse of being an outstanding player on a terrible team. Unless you're a historically-great slugging shortstop, a la Ernie Banks or Alex Rodriguez, your chances of winning MVP are about as good as the Phillies' odds of winning the World Series this year.

Because he plays for an often-mediocre small market team, Votto is used to such snubs. Only once has he ever finished higher than sixth in an MVP race (when he won in 2010), and he couldn't even muster a hometown All-Star selection this year with Cincinnati playing host (Todd Frazier went instead). Even though he's been one of the league's three best players based on WAR and common sense, my guess is that he'll finish outside the top-five again as writers opt for the likes of Buster Posey, Andrew McCutchen, and Anthony Rizzo (all younger, flashier, and playoff-bound).

Between Cincinnati's suckiness and his hot and cold first half, the soft-spoken Canadian flew under the radar for much of the summer. As recently as six weeks ago, nobody was talking about him as a viable MVP candidate. In fact, nobody was talking about him much at all.

Boy, how that's changed. Based on the recent batch of articles lauding his batting excellence, however (more on that in a moment), people are only now just realizing what an incredible season Votto's having. Meanwhile, Harper's hot start announced his leap to superstardom, and he's been riding the wave ever since. Harper's held baseball's attention all summer long, while Votto's showing up just in time for Labor Day.

The four-time All-Star might be late to the party, but he sure knows how to make an entrace! While Harper has more or less plateaued since his monster May, Votto's gone bananas since the All-Star Break. His second half slash line is an otherworldly .399/.581/.739, elevating his seasonal numbers into Harper's stratosphere (see above). It's those kind of numbers that got people talking about Votto. Finally.

The Ted Williams comparisons, while a bit exaggerated, are nevertheless fitting (Harper earned the same comparisons earlier this year). Votto, like Williams, has impeccable plate discipline, hits for high averages, and is blessed with tremendous power. Also like Williams, Votto has been subjected to endless criticism for being too selective, for refusing to alter his approach with runners on base (hence the low RBI totals). His gaudy stats are less impressive, the critics argue, because he doesn't help his team win.

It's easy to say that now because the Reds aren't winning, though they have made three postseason appearances during Votto's nine seasons. It's just bad timing that the finest campaign of his career has coincided with Cincinnati's worst. In a year where everyone seems to have a fighting chance at a playoff spot, the Reds have fallen a whopping 31.5 games behind the Cardinals. Of all the last place teams, they are in last by the most extreme margin.

As if to prove Votto's performance and the results of his team are mutually exclusive, the Reds have only gotten worse as their first baseman's caught fire. They cratered in August after trading Johnny Cueto, managing an 8-21 record last month. Imagine how much worse they'd have been without Votto's 1.140 OPS in August.

So with Cincy playing out the string, all Votto can do is ride out this scorching hot streak as long as he can. It won't win him his second MVP award, but at the very least it will keep him in the discussion. It's just crazy one of the best pure hitters in the game had to have a run like this to get noticed.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

What's Wrong with the Red Sox?


The Red Sox have hit a major rough patch (Baseball Revival Files)
Man, the Red Sox sure know how to ruin a summer.

They keep finding new ways to do it, too. They threw away four great months with a historic collapse in 2011. 2012 was a mess from start to finish. In 2014 they forgot how to hit, and in 2015 they forgot how to pitch.

It’s not just the losing that’s bothersome. It's how poorly the Red Sox have handled losing, the disgraceful manner in which they've lost. They haven't just been bad; they've been embarrassing.

It all started with the fried-chicken and beer fiasco of 2011, which cost Terry Francona--the greatest manager in Red Sox history--his job and prompted Theo Epstein to move on. Then there was Bobby Valentine's brief reign, which felt like the previous September stretched out over six months. In 2013 Boston finally did something right by winning the World Series, only to revert to its losing ways the following year. 2014 saw the Sox trade all their World Series heroes away, and in 2015 they resorted to cleaning out the front office because there was no one left to trade.

Once perennial contenders, Boston has become constant disappointments. It's mind-boggling that the Red Sox have spent more than $1 billion in player salaries over the past six years and have just one postseason berth to show for it. Granted, they made the most of that magical run, but they've also proved it was a fluke by posting the worst record in baseball since.

Somewhere along the line, the former powerhouse seemed to have lost its way. Boston's downfall has been puzzling because the Red Sox have great players, smart management, and one of the most advanced analytics departments in baseball. They're also blessed with one of the sport’s largest payrolls, its best farm system, and a devoted fan base that still fills Fenway park (paying the highest ticket prices to do so) no matter how well the team is doing.

Boston has no excuse. They have all the tools to succeed, and yet they're still one of the worst teams in baseball. Nobody does less with more. They're the misguided kid who graduates from Harvard and goes straight to working at McDonald's.

Given all its resources and talent, Boston's prolonged stretch of mediocrity is inexcusable. The bad years should be .500 seasons, not last place finishes, especially since the AL East has become so eminently winnable these days. With the Yankees' great core aging out and the Rays unable to afford their top players, the Red Sox were primed to rip off four or five division titles. Instead, they've become cellar-dwellers, missing a golden opportunity to dominate their division.

There's no easy explanation for it, other than that they've just played really poorly. They’ve made mistakes, costly mistakes, on the free agent market, but who hasn’t? They’ve battled injuries, but so does everyone over a 162-game season. A lot of their prospects haven’t panned out, but that’s baseball.
Boston is still searching for answers (The Boston Herald)
This year was supposed to be different. The Sox spent wildly, shelling out roughly $400 million for Rusney Castillo, Yoan Moncada, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, and Rick Porcello. Vegas bought into the hype, declaring them World Series favorites. Another worst-to-first campaign seemed possible, especially after an encouraging spring training and strong start to the season.

Then the losses began piling up, and it didn't take long for things to turn ugly. Pitching coach Juan Nieves was fired after getting barely a month to break in a new rotation, as if it was his fault Boston built a crummy staff. The players quickly soured, losing their temper with the manager, umpires, and with each other.

Pedestrian performances by the rest of the league kept Boston in it through the All-Star Break, until an eight-game losing streak knocked them out of contention. They were once again sellers at the trade deadline, only this time they had nothing to sell.

For once it seemed like the Sox were going to quietly fade away, bottoming out in relative obscurity a la the Rockies, A's, and Phillies.

Instead, August has turned out to be Boston's most eventful month (off-the-field, at least). Larry Lucchino announced he was stepping down at season's end. John Farrell was diagnosed with cancer. Dave Dombrowski came aboard as president of baseball operations, ousting Ben Cherington from his post as general manager. Even Don Orsillo, the team's beloved play-by-play man for 15 years, is out of a job.

Only the Red Sox could create so much controversy while playing out the string, They still have unfinished business to attend to, like finding a new general manager and figuring out how to fix this mockery of a team. Another meaningless month of baseball awaits them, but if one thing's for certain it's that Boston will keep making headlines between now and season's end.

Friday, August 28, 2015

New Life in New York


For the first time in a long time, Mets fans have reason to smile (Denver CBS)
I was going to start this post by noting that it's been awhile since both New York's baseball teams were good at the same time, but then I remembered that it's been awhile since either one was good. The Yankees barely finished above .500 the last two years, missing the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time in the wild card era. And until this year, the Mets had yet to enjoy a winning season during Obama's presidency.

More mediocrity was expected from both clubs this year. The Yankees were too old and the Mets didn't have enough bats. Nobody saw either seriously contending for the top spots in their divisions, not with the re-tooled Red Sox and juggernaut Nationals standing in their way.
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And yet here we are, in the final week of August, and both teams are sailing towards October. The Yankees have a firm grip on the AL's top wild card spot and are still a threat to win the AL East, where they sit just 1.5 games back of the Blue Jays. FanGraphs estimates their playoff odds at over 90 percent.

The Mets are in even better shape, having opened up a 6.5 game lead over the scuffling Nats. With only one month to go, FanGRaphs gives New York an 83 percent chance of winning a division that 100 percent of people expected Washington to not just win, but run away with this year.

Both teams are succeeding, but in completely different ways. The Mets are built around young arms, having assembled a dynamite rotation of Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard, who between them had just three years of major league experience prior to this one. Between their excellence, a solid bullpen, and a top-10 defense, it's not surprising to see New York carry the National League's third-lowest ERA.

But while the Mets are great at preventing runs, they've had a much more difficult time scoring them. Scientists are still trying to determine how they scored any during the first four months of the season, before Yoenis Cespedes and his booming bat arrived. David Wright's prolonged absence stretched what was already a thin lineup to its limit, reducing New York's offense to Lucas Duda, Curtis Granderson, and...that was pretty much it. Despite not hitting for power or average and minimizing risks on the basepaths (only two teams have attempted fewer steals), the Mets somehow scraped together enough runs to make its stellar pitching stand up.

Offense hasn't been hard to come by lately, however, as New York just set a new monthly club home run record. For that they can thank Cespedes, who's lifted the offense since arriving in a trade deadline swap with the Tigers. His eight homers and 23 RBI are tops on the team since he came over, adding some much-needed thump to a lineup that has also benefited from the emergence of Travis d'Arnaud and the return of Mr. Wright.

So with their pitchers still going strong and their offense rounding into form, the Mets are poised for a strong finish that, barring a miraculous surge by the Nationals, will result in their first postseason appearance in almost a decade. And with all that young pitching just starting to bloom, it's likely the first of many.
Aging players like Rodriguez have led the charge for the Yankees (NY Times)
While the Mets' success was unexpected, anyone following the organization closely could see greatness on the horizon. We just didn't expect it to come so soon.

As for the Yankees, it seemed as though their time had passed. They still had all the big-names, but most of them were has-beens. Over the hill. If the Mets were supposed to be the team of the future, the Yankees were the team of the past.

But like the Spurs or the Patriots, they just won't go away. Even as the game has become dominated by young players, the Yankees keep marching on. They might be grayer and a little slower than you remember, but they still look damn good in those pinstripes.

It's remarkable, really, how well the Yankees have performed with a roster devoid of youth. They're impossibly old, with every member of the starting nine over 30 save Didi Gregorious, who only just inherited the shortstop job from his 41 year-old predecessor--Derek Jeter. Gregorious is also the exception in that he is the only regular besides Stephen Drew who isn't having at least an average season at the plate (per OPS+), but both compensate with strong defense up the middle.

The Yankees must have discovered the fountain of youth during spring training, because how else could so many players on one team defy their age? The weighted average age of Yankee position players is 31.5--nearly two years older than the next oldest team. Their dugout should be doubling as an infirmary. Instead, Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira are mashing like they did during their prime, and only Jacoby Ellsbury has missed significant time.

The pitching has also held up much better than anyone could have expected. Masahiro Tanaka's elbow became a ticking time bomb once he opted not to undergo Tommy John surgery. but that hasn't stopped him from reclaiming his status as team ace. After making just 13 starts in the past three years combined, Michael Pineda has regained the form that made him an All-Star as a rookie. Adam Warren deserves credit for stepping up while Ivan Nova was out for much of the first half, and Nova has pitched well since returning.

The Yankees rotation might not scare anybody (except Yankee fans when CC Sabathia is pitching), but its shutdown bullpen definitely does. New York's relief corps is among the best in baseball, rivaling the Royals' in sheer dominance. With Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller slamming the door at the end of games, opponents are finished if they trail after seven innings. Rivera may be gone, but his spirit lives on.

***

The last few summers have been tough on New York baseball fans, but ones like this don't come around too often. The Mets are a great story in the way that any young team starting to realize its potential is fun to watch. The Yankees are a great story just as teams and athletes that recapture their former glory always make great theatre. They're winning, they're interesting and, perhaps most importantly, they're different. What's not to like?

It's been awhile since New Yorkers have been able to dream on a Subway Series. Pretty soon they'll be able to let their imaginations run wild.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Dombrowski to the Rescue

Dombrowski (second from right) has his work cut out for him (Reformer)
Just when another listless Red Sox season seemed to be quietly winding down, Boston made major waves off the field by shaking up its front office.

That should come as no surprise, however, because whenever the Red Sox do poorly, heads are bound to roll. In the wake of Boston's 2011 crash, Terry Francona was let go and Theo Epstein jumped ship, even though it was clearly the players who were the issue. When the team finished last the following year, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez were traded and Bobby Valentine was shown the door. In 2013 Boston won the World Series, so everyone got to keep their jobs, but a last place finish in 2014 resulted in much of the title-winning roster getting booted, including four-fifths of the starting rotation and several key role players.

This year brought more of the same. Pitching coach Juan Nieves got canned in May, barely a month into the season. Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino--two of the few remaining World Series champions--were traded. Team president and CEO Larry Lucchino announced he was stepping down at season's end.

But as the Red Sox spent another summer in the AL East basement, one got the sense that neither Ben Cherington, the team's architect, nor John Farrell, the team's skipper, would not return next year. No one could have imagined that they'd both be gone so soon, under such extraordinary circumstances, within a few days of each other.

Farrell, of course, was forced out by lymphoma, which he began chemotherapy for Tuesday. He will not return this season, though he expects to be ready for spring training if his treatment goes well. His job is safe for the time being (firing a cancer patient is one way to alienate your fans), though with two years remaining on his contract he was probably never in serious danger of being fired anyways, especially since he's never caused ownership any headaches (unlike his predecessor, who somehow survived an entire season before getting axed).

And besides, it wasn't Farrell's fault he got stuck with a position-less Hanley Ramirez, an overweight third baseman who swings at balls that hit him, and a truly awful starting rotation. A manager can only work with what he's given, and what he got has amounted to a steaming pile of garbage.

The man who handed him that trash bag was Cherington, who is leaving his post as Boston's general manager after three and a half seasons. With Dave Dombrowski, former GM of the Detroit Tigers, taking over as Boston's president of baseball operations, Cherington is following Lucchino out the door as well.

Gone with him is Boston's slavish devotion to analytics, which many point to as the root of the team's recent failures. The front office's severe misjudgment was most obvious during this past offseason, which has turned out to be a disaster. Analytics may have said a starting rotation of Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Wade Miley, Justin Masterson, and Joe Kelly would be fine, but any sensible person could see it was doomed from the start. Cherington trusted the same analytics that believed Ramirez could play left field, that said Pablo Sandoval was worth almost $100 million, and that valued Rusney Castillo at another $72.5 million.

Look, analytics are a great tool, and it's better to have them than not, but they can't be used blindly. Just as WAR shouldn't be the end-all, be-all stat for any baseball discussion, analytics shouldn't be the only method teams use for evaluating players. They're a good place to start, but you need to supplement with scouting.

Enter Dombrowski, one of the few remaining "old-school" baseball people. He may seem like a dinosaur to some, but his results on the field speak for themselves. While Dombrowski never won a World Series with the Tigers, he transformed them from one of the worst teams in baseball to a perennial powerhouse. He'll seek to do the same in Boston, aided by baseball's best farm system and a gargantuan payroll.

With Cherington gone, his first order of business is to find a new general manager. The frontrunner appears to be Frank Wren, former general manager of the Atlanta Braves. Like Dombrowski, Wren's a more traditional baseball mind who enjoyed great success with his last team. With him and Dombrowski at the helm Boston would seem to be in good hands.

Like his predecessor, Cherington left behind a huge mess to clean up. Hopefully Dombrowski and his new general manager can get things back in order as quickly as he did.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Reeling Red Sox Rout Mariners

Pablo Sandoval paced the assault with three hits and three RBI (MLB.com)
John Farrell never lets himself be the story. In his three tumultuous seasons as manager of the Boston Red Sox, he has never said anything even remotely controversial. He stays out of his own way, keeps his opinions to himself and his foot out of his mouth. In that sense he is the ideal manager, especially in a baseball-crazed town like Boston. No matter how stormy the seas get, he doesn't rock the boat.

Farrell is nothing like his predecessor, a diva manager who loved the spotlight and became a running punchline during his lone season at the helm. Perhaps that's why the Red Sox hired Farrell in the first place; because he was the exact opposite of Bobby Valentine.  

Now, because of circumstances beyond his control and almost certainly against his wishes. John Farrell has become the story. 

***

2015 has been a lost season for the Red Sox, a season of lost gameslost hopes, and lost personnel. Through it all Farrell has been his usual stoic self, keeping a steady hand and a straight face throughout another rocky season. He's kept an even keel even when his players lost their cool, the media ripped him to pieces, and Red Sox Nation called for his head as he steered the team towards a second-straight last-place finish.

Now, the Red Sox will have to carry on without him. Yesterday Farrell announced that he has treatable lymphoma, and that he'll be stepping away from the team for the remainder of the season. Red Sox bench coach Tory Lovullo will take his place in the dugout. 

Farrell's bombshell was the latest and most severe blow in a season wracked by frustration, disappointment, and underperformance. When it rains, it pours, like when Carl Beane and Johnny Pesky passed away during Boston's nightmare 2012 season. The Red Sox just learned they're losing Larry Lucchino, their CEO since 2002, at the end of the season. Now they've lost their manager, too. 

It's probably a blessing that the Sox are in last place as they deal with the unexpected departure of Farrell. Suffering such an emotional blow in the middle of a pennant race would have been even more devastating. It's still a punch in the gut regardless of the team's standing, but it would have been tough for the Sox to mount a playoff run without their skipper. There's no pressure on Lovullo or his players, who are free to play out the string and start preparing for next year.

Thankfully there was a game--or more accurately, a distraction--last night, which allowed the Red Sox and their fans to get back to the business of playing ball. With the Farrell news breaking earlier in the day, there was a dark cloud hanging over Fenway Park even though it was a gorgeous evening. The crowd spoke of Farrell's condition in hushed tones, anxiously seeking updates as they tried to keep pace with the developing story. For once Farrell was the headline, only everyone wished he was anything but. 

The Fenway Faithful needed something to celebrate. What they needed was a win.

The Red Sox delivered, pulling out their most dominant victory of the season with a 15-1 rout of the Seattle Mariners. Boston's 15 runs, 21 hits, and 14-run margin of victory were all season-highs. How fitting was it that the Sox followed their worst loss of the season with their most resounding win? It was the highest peak of what has been an up-and-(mostly) down year, the finest hour of a team struggling through its darkest.

The Bosox rallied behind their cancer-stricken skipper, putting on a show for their sellout crowd. Seattle scored the game's first run, but after that it was all Boston. The game produced several memorable moments, including another multi-homer performance from Travis Shaw and another highlight-reel catch by Mookie Betts.

Last night's rout of the Mariners was the best kind of win, the kind where everyone contributes. Nine different Red Sox banged out two or more hits, and the only Bostonian to go hitless (Xander Bogaerts) still contributed by scoring a run. Even Joe Kelly--a trainwreck on the mound this year--was masterful, firing six innings of one-run ball while striking out six. For a night, at least, the Red Sox could do no wrong.

As it turned out, Boston's bats were just getting warmed up. They followed the romp with an even bigger outburst on Saturday, demolishing the previous night's season highs with 22 runs and 26 hits. They lit up one of the sport's best pitchers in Felix Hernandez, pounding him for 10 runs on 12 hits and knocking him out in the third inning. Six different Red Sox finished the game with three hits or more, and every member of the starting nine registered at least one except Shaw.

So far this weekend has been exactly what the Red Sox and their fans needed: to vent four months of frustration by beating another team's brains out. The Red Sox haven't won much this year, but for two days they've played like the juggernaut they were supposed to be. 

Unfortunately winning isn't a cure-all. Winning won't treat Farrell's cancer. But it sure can make everyone feel a little bit better.