Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Jeter Rage

Barring a ridiculously hot finish the New York Yankees, five games out of the second wild card with 21 to play, aren't going to make the playoffs this year. The irony is that Derek Jeter, a leader and key contributor on all the great Yankee teams of the last two decades, is a big reason why. Not the only reason, of course, because when a team fails to reach the postseason there's always a bunch of reasons, but a pretty big one. With his punchless bat and shoddy defense at a premium position, he's done more harm than good.

It should come as no surprise that Jeter allowed himself to become such a detriment for his team. Because for all the praise showered on his leadership abilities, he has never been one to demote himself. Like Joe DiMaggio, he has too much pride and cares deeply about his image.

This was evident when Jeter did not offer to change positions to accommodate Alex Rodriguez when the Yankees traded for him in 2004, even though everyone knew that A-Rod was superior defensively. Rodriguez graciously shifted to third, even though he'd just won two straight Gold Gloves and was among the game's slickest-fielding shortstops at the time. Jeter did not want to defer to Rodriguez, to admit he was the inferior shortstop, so he remained at the infield's glory position. The following offseason, when Bernie Williams was in decline and New York needed a center fielder, Jeter's name was brought up, but once again he stayed put.

Now, ten years later, Jeter is still entrenched at shortstop long past his expiration date. 40 year-olds aren't supposed to play short on a regular basis, especially when they were never that good there to begin with. Jeter's defense has been statuesque for awhile now, his already iffy range demolished by recent ankle injuries, rendering him too immobile to man the most important infield position. One need not look at his range factor--by far the worst of his career--to know that he's not getting to many balls hit his way.

This all could have been avoided before the season. When Rodriguez was suspended and Robinson Cano departed via free agency, two less challenging positions opened up. Jeter did not volunteer to fill them, leaving the Yankees to settle  for doomed-from-the-start alternatives Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts. Had Jeter volunteered to switch, New York could have at least found a quality shortstop replacement in Stephen Drew, who remained a free agent until late May. Drew's been terrible this year as well, but five months ago he looked like a much better player than either Johnson or Roberts (Jeter too, for that matter).

Jeter's done even more harm with his bat, which has produced an empty .260/.308/.311 batting line thus far. Adjusted for league and park, his .618 OPS is 23 percent below average. Throw in his mediocre baserunning, and Jeter's offense has been worth 17 runs below average, or almost two wins.*

*Two wins might not sound like a big deal, but when you're in the playoff hunt at this stage in the season two wins can mean the difference between life and death. Credit New York with two wins and remove two losses, and suddenly they trail Seattle by just three games for the second wild card, and their playoff chances look much, much better.

That wouldn't be so bad if Jeter was hitting eighth or ninth, where his poor bat would be minimized and not really a liability compared to the production most teams are getting from the bottom of their order. But Jeter, as you know, is not buried at the bottom of New York's star-studded lineup. He's batting second--the most important spot in the lineup--because that's where he's always hit, and because Joe Girardi has too much respect for Jeter to move him down (even though Joe Torre had no problem batting Alex Rodriguez--a much much better hitter than Jeter--eighth in a playoff game).

And Jeter, being Jeter (passive), has not volunteered to hit lower in the order, even though the Yankees would be better served by batting just about anyone else second.  A table-setter with a league average OBP and no pop or speed is a problem, especially when he has the third-most plate appearances on the team (only Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner have more).

When you have a flaw like Jeter or, more accurately, an offensive black hole, you're supposed to hide him, not expose him. Minimize your weaknesses and maximize your strengths, not the other way around. Jeter's 40 years old and is in his 20th big league season. He had to know he wasn't the same hitter he used to be, and that batting second was going to hurt the Yankees more than help them. He should have made it clear from the get-go: I'm going to try to play as much as I can and do what I can to help the team win, but realistically I'm limited and shouldn't be batting second.

Jeter did not do this. He did not do what was so clearly obvious for the best of the team. He left it up to the manager, knowing full well that Girardi would not have the gumption to slot the game's biggest icon and most popular player down in the order. Jeter was not proactive. He did not take the initiative. He wasn't, you know, a leader.

I take nothing away from Jeter as a ballplayer, because he's been a great one for many years. It just really makes my blood boil when people start going on and on about how what a great leader Jeter is and what great intangibles he has and how he's a winner. Great leaders know when to lead and when to defer to others, and in this regard Jeter has to be considered a failure. He is not the selfless saint that people make him out to be, and lately his teams have suffered as a result.

So when the playoffs start next month and New York is on the outside looking in, and fans and media are looking for someone to blame, they ought to point a finger at their beloved Captain.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Posey's Push for MVP

With the National League MVP race wide open, Buster Posey has forced his way into the discussion with his recent hot streak.

The 2012 MVP has been on fire since the day before the All-Star break with an extraordinary .363/.406/.621 batting line, 11 home runs and 37 RBI in that time. He's now up to .310/.361/.494-20-79 on the season, outstanding numbers for a catcher playing half his games in one of baseball's most pitching-friendly venues. One of the Senior Circuit's best hitters on a league and park adjust basis, Posey ranks third in offensive bWAR, fifth in adjusted OPS+ and eighth in adjusted batting runs.

Furthermore, Posey's hot play has helped his Giants keep pace with the Dodgers all summer long. As of this morning San Francisco sat just two games out of first in the NL West. With 20 games remaining on their schedule, the Giants still have plenty of time to pass the Dodgers and steal the division title out from under them. And considering how well San Francisco's played lately, winning 15 of their last 22, it's not hard to imagine them finishing with a fury and blowing by LA during the season's final days.

If that happens and Posey continues to rake, he's going to have a very interesting MVP case. Not only does he lead the team in most key offensive categories (home runs, RBI, all three slash stats), but on most days he also mans the most important non-pitching position on the demand (only Jonathan Lucroy and Miguel Montero have caught more games among NL receivers). It's no wonder, then, that Baseball-Reference rates him as the team's most valuable player by WAR.

So Posey may not have the flashy slugging numbers of a Mike Trout or Giancarlo Stanton, he definitely belongs in the MVP conversation.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Mesoraco's Monster Breakout

Though inconsistent, Mesoraco has enjoyed a tremendous season (RantSports)
The Reds were swept in Baltimore yesterday, falling to the Orioles 9-7 to wrap up an ugly road trip where Cincinnati lost all but one of its six games. It's been an ugly summer for the Reds, who were very much in contention through the All-Star Break but have sputtered since, losing 30 of 45 in the second half as injuries to Joey Votto, Mat Latos and Homer Bailey took their toll.

One positive takeaway from this season, however, is that Cincinnati appears to have developed an All-Star caliber catcher. 26 year-old Devin Mesoraco's been a revelation behind the plate, emerging as one of the game's most dangerous offensive catchers in his fourth big league season. In the wake of yesterday's 4-for-4 performance, he's now batting an eye-popping .286/.365/.542 (153 OPS+) on the year with 21 home runs--most among everyday catchers. His 69 RBI rank third behind Buster Posey and Miguel Montero, both of whom have significant advantages in playing time. In the National League only Giancarlo Stanton has a superior AB/HR ratio. If the Reds weren't so helpless out of the race, he'd make a pretty good MVP candidate.

It's not unusual to see catchers break out later than position players at other positions, but Mesoraco's transformation has been truly stunning. He was a nothing before this year, a career .225 hitter with 16 home runs and -0.5 bWAR to his name. Now he's one of the best hitters in baseball. Out of all this year's biggest breakthroughs (Charlie Blackmon, Corey Dickerson, Josh Harrison, Brock Holt), none of shined brighter than Mesoraco.

The only issue with Mesoraco (besides subpar baserunning, but good luck finding a catcher who runs well) is his incredible streakiness. All year long, it seems, has been alternating hot and cold streaks for the Reds' backstop, who began the year on fire. He was hitting .500/.541/.870 through May 18th, only to post a .521 OPS with 23 strikeouts over his next 21 games. That was followed by a torrid three-week stretch ending on the Fourth of July where he blasted six home runs and OPS'ed 1.287. He leveled off through the rest of July, then hit the skids in August, batting a measly .228/.340/.354 with just two home runs.

September should bring better results for Mesoraco, and by the looks of things yesterdat, it already has.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Cespedes Check-In

Cespedes has played well in his Red Sox debut (NESN)
There's not a whole lot of reasons to watch the Red Sox these days, unless you enjoy watching youngsters (Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts) cut their teeth in the big leagues, veterans playing out the string and Will Middlebrooks trying to salvage his major league career. Boston's an odd mix of old and young going nowhere fast, hopelessly out of contention and toiling in last place in the AL East.

Yes, the Red Sox title defense has gone horribly astray, especially in the past month or so since Ben Cherington dealt away many of the team's key pieces. There hasn't been a lot to cheer for lately, save one of the club's newest additions: hard-hitting outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.

Cespedes has performed as advertised: a tremendous source of righthanded power capable of batting cleanup behind David Ortiz. While the Sox have gone into free-fall mode since his arrival, going 13-18 since August 1st, Cespedes has been wonderful. In his 30 games in a Red Sox uniform Cespedes has hit safely in 24 of them, slashing .288/.306/.475 with a dozen extra base hits and 24 RBI. No Red Sock has more ribbies during that span, confirming Cespedes's status as one of the premier run-producers in the game (his 91 RBI rank fifth in the AL).

The downside is that Cespedes has all but abandoned any sense of plate discipline since coming to Boston, with only three walks in his time here against 26 strikeouts. Over the course of a season such a ratio would incur disastrous results, but thus far it hasn't hindered him. I'm sure the Sox would like to see him be a bit more patient, as his .304 OBP this year and .294 OBP last year fall below the league average, but those figures are certainly playable if Cespedes provides 25 homers and 105 RBI, as he's on pace to do this year.

Besides, Cespedes is one of the few Red Sox playing well at the moment (if it ain't broke...). Maybe his hyper-aggressive approach will prevent him from becoming the elite hitter he was during his rookie year, but at least he's still hitting plenty of homers and driving in truck loads of runs. Perhaps he's nothing more than a flashier Joe Carter, but that's okay. Boston could certainly use a Jim Carter-type these days.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Stanton Slugging Way to MVP

Stanton's superstar-caliber season should result in his first MVP award (RantSports)
Four weeks ago I wrote that given injuries to Troy Tulowitzki and Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig had emerged as the new favorite for National League MVP because of his Mike Trout-esque production. But in light of Puig's recent offensive struggles (.185/.279/.217 with no home runs and four RBI since August 4th) his stock has fallen considerably.

During the same time Giancarlo Stanton's stock has risen substantially. With nine long balls, 27 RBI and a 1.078 OPS over the past four weeks, Stanton enjoyed one of his best stretches of the season during the dog days of August. And after slugging his 35th home run of the season last night, becoming the first player in either league to reach 100 RBI in the process, it's clear that if the season ended today Stanton would deserve to walk away with MVP honors.

He is, according to bWAR, the second-most valuable position player in the National League behind Jason Heyward (much of whose value derives from his defense) and third overall behind Clayton Kershaw and Heyward. FanGraphs rates him as the most valuable batter in the Senior Circuit, just a smidge above Jonathan Lucroy and tops among all major leaguers in WPA.

Of course, by most conventional metrics Stanton is clearly the best hitter in the National League. He ranks first in home runs and RBI, walks and OBP, total bases and SLG, OPS and OPS+, and a host of other categories like extra base hits, runs created, times on base, and adjusted batting runs. He's been incredibly durable, playing in all 137 of the Marlins' games thus far, a force in the middle of their lineup everyday.

But, contrary to what those who voted Miguel Cabrera over Trout the last two years believe, the MVP award should not simply go to the best hitter. It should go to the most valuable player which, in the case of a position player, includes defense and baserunning. Cabrera was clearly a liability in those two facets of the game, but Stanton is not. He plays a decent right field and runs the bases well for a big man, with 10 stolen bases in 11 attempts and three baserunning runs above average this year. He's not a well-rounded superstar like Trout or McCutchen, but he's not a one-dimensional slugger like Cabrera, either.

And to those who say an MVP must come from a winning team (and ignore the fact that one player has no control over how his teammates play or his front office constructs a roster), please take note of how much the Marlins have improved from last year. In 2013 with Stanton missing more than a quarter of the season, Miami lost 100 games and finished last in the NL East. This year, despite losing reigning Rookie of the Year and staff ace Jose Fernandez to Tommy John surgery in May, the Marlins have won almost as many games as they've lost and are third in their division. Few expected Miami to have anything close to a winning record, especially after losing an elite arm so early in the season.

But Stanton, to his credit, has carried the Marlins offense and helped keep the team within shouting distance of the second wild card. He's been integral to one of this season's most unlikely turnarounds, keeping Miami afloat long after it should have slipped beneath the waves. Stanton's made the Marlins relevant again. That might not be as sexy as leading a team to a division title, but after seeing how low they sunk last year it's still pretty darn impressive.