Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Let Loo-Eee In

Tiant was one of the best pitchers of his time and all-time (ESPN)
With the Hall of Fame induction ceremony coming up this weekend and the Red Sox playing well (for now), I wanted to take a look at a pitcher who many feel was overlooked by the Hall, a pitcher who would undoubtedly go in wearing a Red Sox cap if he's ever enshrined.

I'm talking, of course, about Luis Tiant, a fan favorite and talented pitcher with Boston for much of the 1970s. El Tiante was a beloved figure in Beantown, where he revived his career in his 30s and emerged as that decade's equivalent of Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez with the Sox. 

But before I talk about Tiant's brilliant tenure with Boston, I think it's important to remember that he was a great pitcher long before he ever put on a Red Sox uniform. Purchased by the Cleveland Indians for $35,000 in the summer of 1961 (about $279,000 in today's dollars), Tiant earned a midsummer call-up to the Indians three years later. His first start was one of the most impressive debuts any pitcher has ever had, a four-hit shutout of the defending and eventual AL champion Yankees at the Stadium. He outdueled Whitey Ford in the second game of a doubleheader, fanning 11 Bombers (including Roger Maris twice) to earn the first of his 229 major league wins. 

A star was born. The 23 year-old Tiant pitched well down the stretch, finishing his rookie year with a 10-4 record, 2.83 ERA and 1.11 WHIP, good for nearly four wins above replacement. He gradually got better in each of the next four seasons, lowering his FIP and walk rate every year while improving his K/BB ratio. The last of those seasons, 1968, was by far the best of his career.  In addition to going 21-9, he led the American League in ERA (1.60), ERA+ (186), shutouts (9), FIP (2.04), and pitching WAR (8.4). He also had the lowest hit rate in baseball at 5.3/9, limiting opponents to a .168/.233/.262 batting line and posting a 0.87 WHIP. On top of all that, he racked up 264 punchouts in 258-and-a-third stellar innings, part of his 3.62 K/BB ratio. Fun trivia fact: Tiant was the Junior Circuit's starting pitcher in that year's All-Star game. Not so fun fact: Tiant failed to receive a single Cy Young vote that year (but yet finished fifth in the MVP voting).

Tiant's masterful 1968 season is one of the great seasons forgotten to history. Because it coincided with the Year of the Pitcher, a season that saw Denny McLain win 31 games, Bob Gibson compile a 1.12 ERA and Don Drysdale hurl 58 consecutive scoreless innings, Tiant had a hard time standing out above the crowd/making noise for an also-ran Indians team.

Not yet 28 at the end of his big breakout campaign, Tiant had established himself as one of the premier pitchers in baseball. With 23 WAR already under his belt, he'd been one of the American League's five most valuable pitchers since breaking in. Furthermore, he'd done nothing but improve over his first 1,000 big league innings. No one could have foreseen that in three short years, he would very nearly be out of baseball.

1969 was a terrible year for Tiant and the Indians, who went from third place and 86 wins in '68 to 62 wins in 1969. Cleveland finished last in the newly minted AL East, 18 games behind the next-worst team (New York). Tiant tumbled to 9-20, leading the majors in losses, walks, and home runs allowed. Overnight, Tiant had gone from the American League's best pitcher to one of the worst in baseball. 

He was gone before Christmas. The Indians whisked him away to Minnesota along with Stan Williams in return for Dean Chance, Graig Nettles, Bob Miller, and Ted Uhlaender, a trade that would have worked out wonderfully for Cleveland had a) Chance not fallen apart the second he got there and b) they'd held on to Nettles for more than three years. 

Tiant must have been excited to escape the moribound Indians and land with a first place club in Minnesota. He flourished in his new digs, going 6-0 with a 3.12 ERA in his first 10 starts with the Twins before a fractured right scapula derailed his bounce back season. Tiant missed more than two months, and while he returned in time for the stretch run he wasn't quite the same. His first taste of the postseason was a bad one; mop-up duty in Game 2, in which he recorded two outs only after surrendering a two-run homer to Davey Johnson. He did not pitch again in the series, as Minnesota was swept the next day.

The injury that had ruined Tiant's first year with the Twins now jeopardized his once-promising career. After an ineffective and injury-plagued spring training, the 30 year-old was unconditionally released. His playing days appeared to be numbered. A couple weeks later the Braves picked him up for a 30 day trial with their Triple-A affiliate in Richmond, and at the end of the 30 days decided he was not worth a major league roster spot. That two teams had given up on him in the span of six weeks didn't discourage the perpetually pitching-strapped Red Sox from scooping him up two days after Atlanta cur him loose. It turned out to be one of the best decisions they've ever made.

A finally healthy Tiant returned to form in Boston (Bostinno)

Tiant's stint with the Sox lasted eight seasons, during which time he won 122 games with a 3.36 ERA, made two All-Star teams, piled up 36.4 bWAR and finished in the top-six of Cy Young voting three times. It was during this time that El Tiante earned a reputation as one of baseball's best big game pitchers. He was phenomenal throughout the pennant races of 1972, 1974 and 1978, pitching valiantly for Red Sox teams that were always coming up just short. Though Tiant struggled during the one pennant race Boston did win, he was at his absolute best in that year's wild postseason. After firing a complete game shutout against the three-time defending World Series champs in Game 1 of the ALCS, Tiant came back one week later and spun another shutout in the first game of the World Series against the vaunted Big Red Machine. He again went the distance in Game 4 to even the Series. He finally ran out of gas in Game 6, but luckily for him Bernie Carbo, Dwight Evans and Carlton Fisk had some late-game heroics up their sleeves.

After the heartache of '78 Tiant, by then 38 and desperate for a ring, defected to the Yankees via free agency. Nobody could blame him for latching on with the winners of the last three American League pennants and two World Series. The irony, though, is that  the streak ended as soon as Tiant donned pinstripes. New York finished fourth in 1979, Tiant's last good season, and would not win another title until 1996, by which point Tiant was closing in on 56. He was a great old pitcher, but nobody, not even Tiant, could hang around that long. He hung up his spikes for good after 1982 after 19 seasons and nearly 3,500 regular season innings. He has since been inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame and Hispanic Heritage Hall of Fame, but still waits for the call from the only Hall of Fame anyone actually cares about, as in the one located in upstate New York.

Now, did what El Tiante accomplish during that time merit a plaque in Cooperstown? The writers voted unequivocally no. Tiant stayed on the ballot for all 15 years of eligibility, but only in his first year did he receive more than 20 percent of the vote. After that, he was never really a serious candidate. Should he have been?

It's easy to make the case that the answer to that question is no, that he was a Hall of Very Good pitcher who was more style than substance. Tiant never won a Cy Young award, finishing no higher than fourth and drawing votes in only three seasons. He made only three All-Star teams. His rate stats are all good but not great. Though Tiant paced AL pitchers in WAR in '68, many would say McLain had the better year, meaning Tiant was never the best pitcher in his league, let alone the game. With only three seasons among the league's five most valuable pitchers, he didn't dominate. And sure, he was great in the postseason, but how many World Series did he win? Mickey Lolich was more or less Tiant's equal, and one doesn't hear many clamoring for him to make the Hall of Fame. In fact, seven of Tiant's 10 best statistical comps are currently outside the Hall and none are currently up for election.Many of his seasons were mediocre, with nine of his 19 years rating between below average to barely above average based on ERA-. 

But Tiant, even if he does fall short on Black Ink, Gray Ink, the Hall of Fame monitor and Hall of Fame standards, does have a strong statistical case. He was the American League's third-most valuable pitcher when he played, behind only Bert Blyleven (Class of 2011) and Lolich, the latter a respected member of the Hall of Very Good. Expand the timeframe from 1951 through 1990, a stretch of 40 seasons, and Tiant still ranks as the league's fifth-best pitcher. Better than Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Catfish Hunter, and the man he beat in his first big league start. What's more, three of his six closest comps are already in the Hall. With over 66 career bWAR, Tiant is very much a viable candidate for Cooperstown. By the standards of the Hall of Stats, he makes it in comfortably.

 JAWS rates him 51st all-time among starting pitchers. Remove the guys who started their careers before 1900, and Tiant's one of the 50 best starting pitchers of all-time. Seeing as how he ranks 21st in shutouts, 39th in strikeouts, and 40th in pitching WAR, I buy that. Though he's a bit below the established standards for peak and longevity, he still comes in ahead of luminaries such as Jim Bunning, John Smoltz, Don Sutton, and Early Wynn. It does concern me that of the 59 starters already in the Hall, including Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, Tiant outranks just 13 of them. He rates lower than Wes Ferrell, Kevin Brown, and Rick Reuschel, among others. 

The two things I look for in a Hall of Fame case are a peak and longevity. Tiant obviously had good longevity, as he pitched until he was almost 42 and made close to 500 big league starts. He had eight seasons with more than 200 innings, three more than just missed and four others with over 100. 11 times he made 29 or more starts in a season. 

As for peak, well, Tiant technically had two peaks. He had his five-year run with Cleveland, which wasn't so much a peak as it was one amazing season preceded by several good ones. Then there was his second prime, covering his last seven seasons with Boston and his first in New York. In both cases he was one of the league's five-best pitchers for an extended period of time (40 years, in fact, as I noted a few paragraphs before). And as one of baseball's 50 best since 1900, which gets narrowed to 25 if you exclude those who debuted before Jackie Robinson, then it becomes pretty clear that Tiant is indeed Cooperstown-worthy. I'd say there are more-deserving pitchers still waiting to be inducted (Clemens, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, and the aforementioned Brown come to mind), but Tiant at least deserves another look from the Veteran's Committee. The BBWAA has not done a great job of electing starting pitchers who aren't slam-dunks, leaving recent generations of pitchers poorly represented in the Hall. It's up to the VC to rectify those mistakes.

I'll admit I wasn't totally sold on the idea of Tiant as a Hall of Famer when I started writing this, but after taking a closer look I think I'd give him a pass. He had five truly great seasons--1968, 1972-1974, and 1976--and enough success in other years (his first few with Cleveland a few more in the late '70s). Throw in his celebrity status in Boston and his track record of success in big games (which, unlike Jack Morris, extended beyond one game) and I think he did just enough to get over the top. 

It's a really tough call though, and if you check back with me tomorrow I might not feel the same way.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Yaz or Papi?

As great as Ortiz has been, he can't hold a candle to Yaz 
With David Ortiz passing Carl Yastrzemski on the all-time home run list last night, sports radio was rife today with passionate debate over which one was better.

To me, this isn't even an argument. Yaz by a lot. Case closed.

Now I'll readily concede that Ortiz, at least since he's come over to the Red Sox, has been a better hitter than Yastrzemski. Interestingly enough their career batting averages are identical at .285, and their career OBPs are within a point of each other as well. Both were fantastic in the clutch, too. Still, there's no question that Ortiz, with his 84 point edge in slugging percentage/ISo and more home runs in about 5,300 fewer plate appearances, has been the superior slugger. Yaz managed only eight seasons with at least 20 homers in his 23-year career, while Ortiz already has 13 such seasons (consecutively, I might add) in his 18 years.

That said, it must also be remembered that the long ball is much more commonplace nowadays than it was when Yaz played. For most of Ortiz's career, baseball teams have typically averaged about one home run per game, usually a little more. Back in Yastrzemski's day, that number tended to be around 0.7 or 0.8. So for Yaz to have as many 40 homer seasons--3--as Ortiz is really quite impressive. For all of Ortiz's dingers, he still has only one home run title--same as Yastrzemski (who, fun fact, shared his with Harmon Killebrew in 1967).

Looking at batting runs, Ortiz also comes out on top on a per-game basis. With 372 batting runs above average in just over 2,000 games, Ortiz has averaged a batting run every 5.5 games played. With 450 in 3,308 games, Yaz tallied one every 7.35 games. A pretty sizable difference, but also note that Yastrzemski produced next to nothing in this category over his final nine seasons, managing only 50 in his last 1,200 or so games. Before 1975 he had 400 batting runs in in just over 2,100 games, meaning he was right there with Ortiz.

So yes, Ortiz been a better hitter and run producer than Yaz was, but not by as much as his advantage in power numbers would suggest. It's really close, actually, after considering the context of the eras in which they played. Yastrzemski's greatest seasons came during the offensively-suppressed 1960s and '70s, while many of Ortiz's best years came when offense was booming in the mid and late 2000s, before the recent downturn for hitters. Thus, Yastrzemski's career adjusted OPS of 130 (134 through age 38) isn't that far off from Ortiz's 139 mark (and was maintained for thousands of more at-bats, to boot). Similarly, his .375 wOBA is not dwarfed by Ortiz's .390, but is rather quite comparable.

Also don't forget that Ortiz had Manny Ramirez hitting behind or in front of him during his best seasons. Yaz was surrounded by his fair share of talent, especially during the second half of his career, but never a hitter of Manny's quality (Jim Rice was great, but not quite on Manny's level), particularly during his peak seasons, when Boston's biggest threat besides Yaz was Reggie Smith. Another good player, but no Manny.

But if these past two MVP debates between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera have taught us anything, it's that there's more to baseball than hitting. With 168 stolen bases, Yastrzemski holds a clear edge on the bases compared to Ortiz, who's managed a meager 15. Yaz was a good baserunner in his younger days and basically broke even for his career, whereas Ortiz has always been a liability because of his size and lack of foot speed. That closes the gap some.

Then there's defense, which puts Yaz way over the top. A seven-time Gold Glove recipient, Yaz learned to play the Green Monster to perfection and earned a reputation as one of the best defensive outfielders of all-time. In his heyday Yaz was like a young Barry Bonds, the complete package capable of winning a ballgame with his bat, legs, or glove. Ortiz, a full-time DH, has only ever been able to win games with the lumber. He almost never plays the field and adds no value via defensive contributions. He can barely play first base competently, let alone one of the trickiest outfields the majors.

So whatever edge one grants to Ortiz for his hitting, a bigger edge must be given to Yastrzemski to account for his better baserunning and superlative defense. According to Baseball-Reference, Yaz had one 12-win season (his MVP/Triple Crown year in 1967, of course), one 10-win season (1968--The Year of the Pitcher) and a nine-win season (in 1970). Ortiz has had one season--2007--where he was worth more than six, and zero where he was worth over seven. Yastrzemski compiled nearly 100 WAR (B-R and FanGraphs) in his Hall of Fame career; Ortiz will be lucky if he gets to 50.

For one at-bat, I'd take Ortiz. But for an entire game, season, career, what have you, it's gotta be Yastrzemski.

Way to Go, Wright

Wright's achieved a lot in the ten years since his first game (BleacherNation)
Yesterday marked the ten-year anniversary of David Wright's major league debut (the Mets lost, of course). So in honor of the Mets' 31 year-old third baseman, here are ten of his most impressive accomplishments:

1--Wright's ranking in Mets franchise history in RBI, hits, doubles, total bases, walks, runs scored, sacrifice flies, times on base, extra base hits, runs created, and strikeouts. They call him Mr. Met for a reason, you know.

2--Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers Wright has won. Wright received both in 2007 and 2008.

3--NL Player of the Week awards; one in 2005, another in 2006 and his most recent in 2011. Also the number of times he's stolen more than 20 bases in a season.

4--Winning teams Wright has played for. Also the number of times he's finished in the top-ten of the NL MVP voting.

5--The number worn by Wright on the back of his jersey (great number, by the way). Also the number of All-Star Games in which he's been National League's starting third baseman.

6--Seasons with at least 20 home runs for Wright, who's currently sitting on 230 for his career.

7--All-Star selections. Wright made the NL squad every year from 2006 through 2010, then again in 2012 and 2013. Also the number of times he's hit better than .300 in a season.

8--Seasons with an OPS over .850/OPS+ over 120.

9--Wright's rank among active players in Power-Speed #. On a related note, also the number of consecutive seasons (not including this one) where Wright's recorded at least 10 homers and 10 steals.

10--Postseason games, all in 2006 when the Mets took the eventual World Series champion Cardinals to the brink in the NLCS. Don't ask Mets fans (or Carlos Beltran) how that one turned out.

Boston Blasts Blue Jays

Papi paced Boston's big win with a pair of two-run homers (Boston Globe)
For the first time this summer, it feels good to be a Red Sox fan. Not only have they won eight of their past nine to climb out of last place (however temporarily), but they’ve outscored their opponents 22-2 over their last three games. The pitching’s been untouchable and the offense, sparked by rookie call-ups such as Christian Vazquez and Mookie Betts, has finally come around. After a listless half of baseball, the Red Sox seem to be kicking it into high gear with the threat of a possible trade deadline roster shakeup hanging over their heads.

After sweeping Kansas City at home over the weekend, the defending champs kicked off their ten-game road trip in Toronto with a smashing 14-1 victory. A season’s worth of frustrations came pouring out at the Rogers Centre last night as the Red Sox steamrolled the Blue Jays in what was easily the former's most convincing win of the season. 

The floodgates opened after a scoreless first inning with Boston grabbing a quick 2-0 lead in the second behind run-scoring singles from Stephen Drew and Vazquez. In the third they strung together five two-out hits, the last an RBI double by Jackie Bradley, Jr. that chased Toronto starter Drew Hutchison from the game. The Blue Jays got one back in the bottom half of the frame with consecutive doubles from Erik Kratz and Juan Francisco, but John Lackey settled down to induce three straight groundouts, the last two of which were hit right back to him for easy outs.

The Red Sox continued their onslaught in the fourth against Brad Mills, who was brought in to put out the fire but instead proceeded to toss gasoline all over it. With Brock Holt on second via a leadoff double, David Ortiz took Mills deep for the 452nd home run of his career, tying another legendary Red Sox hitter by the name of Carl Yastrzemski (you may have heard of him) on the all-time list.

Big Papi, who has more home runs at the Rogers Centre than any active player besides Alex Rodriguez, would pass Yaz his next time up, drilling another two-run shot off Mills (again with Holt on base) the very next inning. By that point Boston's lead had swelled to 13-1, and they still weren't done. Mike Napoli followed up Ortiz's blast with one of his own, forcing John Gibbons to mercifully remove Mills from the game. Mills' stat line: seven hits (including three homers) and eight earned runs in two ugly innings. Poor Mills couldn’t catch a break; the Red Sox feasted on his fastball, pounding his every mistake like it was batting practice.

Boston battered Toronto pitching for a season-high 14 runs and 18 hits, four of which cleared the fences and four more landed for doubles. Napoli, Daniel Nava and Xander Bogaerts all went 3-for-5 while Holt, Ortiz, Bradley, and Stephen Drew recorded two hits apiece (Vazquez had the other and Dustin Pedroia/Jonny Gomes combined to go 0-for-5 out of the two-hole). Yes, even the slumping Stephen Drew got in on the action, slugging his third home run of the season and first since the Fourth of July.

Oh, and did I mention that John Lackey was wonderful? Pitchers are always forgotten in slugfests such as these, but Lackey was truly terrific in his first start of the second half. Goofy run support aside, Lackey earned his 11th win of the season by going seven innings, allowing only one run and two Blue Jays to reach base (the back-to-back doubles by Kratz and Francisco). With no walks and only 76 pitches through six, he likely would have gone the distance had the score not been so lopsided.

Boston will look to make it nine out of ten tonight with Jake Peavy, who could desperately use a win, on the mound. The Blue Jays, 13-25 since June 7th, will try to stop their skid with J.A. Happ on the hill. Happ, a lefty with an ERA just under five, has to be an inviting target for the Sox, who've hit considerably better against southpaws with a .714 OPS against them compared to .698 versus righties. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Streaking Sox Sweep Royals

With their 8-3 loss to the Chicago White Sox on July 8th, the Boston Red Sox hit rock bottom. They'd dropped seven of their last eight games, all at home, to fall 12 games below .500 and 10.5 games out of first. They were last-place in the AL East. They were dead.

Except that they weren't. They salvaged their miserable homestand in thrilling fashion with a [air of walkoff wins against Chicago. Then they traveled to Houston and closed out the first half by taking two of three from the Astros, the last of which was their most convincing victory of the season--an 11-0 romp.. Following the All-Star Break, they returned home for a three-game set with Kansas City and took all three for their first sweep at Fenway in over a month. And just like that, well, maybe the Red Sox weren't dead after all.

With their sweep of the Royals, the Sox have now won seven of their last eight games. It hasn't been enough to climb out of the AL East basement, where Boston's still mired in last place, but at least it's closed the gap for first place to 7.5 games. That's still a sizable deficit, but significantly smaller and easier to overcome than a double digit one.

More importantly, with five straight wins at Fenway the Sox now have a .500 record at home, something they haven't been able to say for much of the year. There were those two walk-offs against the White Sox, of course, followed by the three-game sweep of Kansas City. Boston beat KC 5-4 in Friday's series opener, overcoming a 4-1 deficit with a four-run rally in the sixth inning, a comeback keyed by two-run homers from Xander Bogaerts and Jonny Gomes. With Clay Buchholz gone, four Red Sox relievers made the lead stand up.

Saturday's game was a classic pitcher's duel between Danny Duffy and Rubby De La Rosa, both of whom have pitched surprisingly well this year and with almost identical levels of success (Duffy's ERA after the game was 2.66, just a smidge worse than De La Rosa's 2.64). Once again it was the Royals who took the early lead, only to watch the Red Sox fight back and win with a six-inning deathblow. This time it was Mike Napoli snapping a 1-1 tie with a majestic home run--his 11th of the season--over the Green Monster. Andrew Miller and Koji Uehara kept Kansas City at bay to preserve the lead and De La Rosa's third win of the season.

Sunday's series finale was all-Boston. The Sox scored early and often, hanging six runs on young Yordano Ventura through four. He was gone after one out in the bottom of the fifth, leaving a bases loaded mess for Francisley Bueno to clean up (which he did). That was more than enough for Jon Lester, who dominated the Royals with eight shutout innings. The All-Star lefty was in top form, permitting just four hits (three singles) and two walks while striking out eight. Junichi Tazawa and Edward Mujica retired the Royals 1-2-3 in the ninth to finish off the shutout and the sweep.

The Red Sox will be back on the road this week, first in Toronto against the scuffling Blue Jays and then in Tampa to take on the red-hot Rays. By playing well against both Boston could improve its position in the standings and potentially gain some ground on the first place Orioles. John Lackey will look to put his recent woes behind him in first start of the second half tomorrow night.