Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Appreciating Aramis Ramirez

Ramirez is congratulated after his solo home run last night (BeaumontEnterprise)
The Milwaukee Brewers, as you may have heard, are off to a fabulous start. They won nine games in a row before falling to the St. Louis Cardinals Monday (and again last night). At 10-4 they have the best record in baseball (tied with Oakland), and everyone's wondering if this is merely an early season fluke or the first step towards contention for a team that lost 88 games last year and barely finished above .500 the year before.

So with the Brewers firing on all cylinders, I decided not to write about lightning rod Ryan Braun, or likely MVP candidate Carlos Gomez, or up-and-comers Khris Davis/Jean Segura, or the starting rotation, or Francisco Rodriguez. I wanted to talk about Aramis Ramirez for a minute.

The 35 year-old third baseman has been one of the main driving forces behind Milwaukee's early surge. He's played all 14 games thus far and has done his job as the team's cleanup leader, leading the Brew Crew with 12 RBI and driving in at least one run in ten games (eight of which were victories). He's also batting a scintillating .351, which leads the team as well.

And yet nobody seems to talk about Ramirez. He's made only two All-Star teams and has received only one Silver Slugger, which is strange considering he's one of the best-hitting third basemen of all-time. He has more home runs (356) than all but a dozen third basemen, including Dick Allen, Ron Santo, and George Brett. He ranks twelfth in doubles (443--more than Mike Schmidt) and has knocked in more runs (1,288) than Edgar Martinez, Matt Williams and Ken Boyer. His .501 career slugging percentage ranks 11th at the position, just a hair below the .509 career marks of Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Mathews.

(Quick tangent--for reasons I still don't understand, Ramirez was given the NL Hank Aaron Award, which honors the most outstanding offensive performer in each league, in 2008. While his season was very good--.289//380/.518, 27 homers, 111 RBI, 44 doubles--nothing about it qualifies as outstanding. How the award didn't go to Albert Pujols (1.114 OPS) or Ryan Howard (48 home runs, 146 RBI) or Lance Berkman (.986 OPS) is beyond me.)

If he can hang on a few more seasons, Ramirez will likely finish his career with around 500 doubles, 400 home runs, and 1,400 to 1,500 RBI, which, combined with his solid rate stats (.286/.345/.501), would make him one of the ten best offensive third basemen to ever play the game.

He's done so by quietly and consistently producing great numbers for over a decade, first with Pittsburgh, then with the Cubs, now with the Brewers. Starting in 2001, when he was just a 22 year-old kid with the Pirates who batted .300/.350/.536 with 34 home runs, 112 RBI, 40 doubles and 323 total bases, he's averaged 26 home runs and 93 RBI per season. During that span, he hit more home runs and piled up more RBI than any third baseman besides Alex Rodriguez (who was a shortstop until 2004) and Miguel Cabrera (who spent a lot more time at other positions, namely first base and outfield).

In that same span, Ramirez batted over .300 seven times. He topped 25 home runs ten times, exceeding 30 on four occasions. He had seven seasons with at least 100 RBI. He surpassed 30 doubles nine times, clubbing as many as 50 in 2012, when he led the league (his only meaningful black ink, unless you like sacrifice flies, in which case Ramirez was tops in 2002 and 2003). His OPS+ has been over 120 ten times.

(What impresses me most about Ramirez is that in this era of free-swingers, he's had only one season with triple digit strikeouts--100 on the nose in 2001).

Whenever Ramirez has fallen, he always comes back just as strong as before. When he nosedived in 2002 (to a woeful .666 OPS) following his breakout season, be bounced back with 27 home runs and 106 RBI in 2003. When he missed the final 35 games of 2005 with a strained quad, Ramirez rebounded with arguably the best season of his career in 2006 (career high 38 home runs, 119 RBI, and 333 total bases). When his career looked like it was headed south in his early 30s after he missed half of 2009 and slumped in 2010, he revived his bat like fellow Dominican David Ortiz and hit as well as he ever did.

Now in his age-36 season, he's proving he still has something left in the tank after missing 70 games last year. Like always, he's returned to form in the wake of a setback. The resilient Ramirez is doing what he's always done: hit.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Gyorko Gets Extension

Gyorko's elite power compensates for his deficiencies in other areas of the game (RantSports)
Padres second baseman Jedd Gyorko received a six-year, $35 million contract extension today that will take effect immediately. The deal, which makes Gyorko a cornerstone of San Diego's lineup through the rest of the decade, is the third-largest for a player with just one year of service time after Andrelton Simmons and Ryan Braun. It buys out his first year of free agency and also includes a club option for the seventh year/his second free agent year (2020--his age 31 season) priced at $13 million.

The Padres were quick to extend Gyorko, who made his big league debut last Opening Day. Though he's off to a slow start this year with a .531 OPS through his first 12 games, the 25 year-old appears to have a bright future after his strong 2013 campaign. His 23 home runs led the team and ranked second among MLB second baseman (behind Robinson Cano's 27) and was the third-most in big league history by a rookie second baseman, trailing Dan Uggla's 27 with the Marlins in 2006 and Joe Gordon's 25 for the Yankees in 1938.

That power outburst (he also socked 26 doubles), made even more impressive by the facct that Gyorko plays half his games at the power-sapping Petco Park, helped him finish sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, ahead of Nolan Arenado and Evan Gattis but behind the quintet of Jose Fernandez, Yasiel Puig, Shelby Miller, Hyun-jin Ryu and Julio Teheran. Had he not missed 30 games to a groin injury, he may have reached 30 home runs and finished higher in the voting. As it is, he still managed to lead all rookies in home runs, OBP, and SLG. He also became the first rookie second baseman in baseball history to lead his team in RBI (with 63).

Gyorko's power is obvious but he is far from a finished product, or a complete ballplayer, for that matter. For starters, he doesn't contribute much defensively or on the basepaths (just one steal). His .249/.301/.444 batting line was not particularly impressive, though it still produced an OPS that was 13 percent better than average when adjusted for league and park. His plate discipline is also an issue as he whiffed 123 times while drawing just 32 unintentional walks last year, a nearly 4:1 ratio that has carried over into this season (16/4 K/BB) and is reminiscent of the figures Will Middlebrooks posted in his rookie season (which was followed by a brutal sophomore slump). Gyorko proved to be a streaky hitter last year, with 15 of his home runs coming after August 1st, and will likely remain one if he doesn't adopt a more patient plate approach. But seeing as how Gyorko's already in his prime at 25, he doesn't figure to get much better, but it's reasonable to expect he might become more disciplined as he gains more experience.

Regardless, 30-homer potential at the keystone position is almost unheard of and makes Gyorko pretty valuable. FanGraphs estimates he was worth 2.5 fWAR last year in approximately three-quarters of a season (125 games), so it's certainly possible that he'll be a 3-4 win player if he manages to play a whole season. Even if he holds steady at around two wins per season, that's still more than enough to justify his $6 million AAV. Gyorko will provide great value and offense for the Padres, an organization that craves both.

Perhaps more importantly, Gyorko also acts as an insurance policy for Chase Headley, who's in his walk year and may leave as a free agent following this season. Gyorko manned the hot corner in the minors and would have no problem shifting over to third should Headley leave (I have a feeling he will).

In the meantime, Gyorko will continue to provide big-time pop from a premium position, and that's plenty valuable enough.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Can Anyone Catch Bonds?

Bonds's home run record will likely stand for a long time (NPR)
All this talk about Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds last week got me thinking: is there anyone in baseball right now who might finish his career as the all-time home run king? I took a look at the players I feel have the best chances, with their career home run totals in parentheses (not including today's games).

Alex Rodriguez (654)
A-Rod is closest, needing 108 round-trippers to tie Bonds, but that doesn't seem likely to happen for a variety of reasons. First, it's unclear whether Rodriguez will ever play again after missing the entire 2014 season because of his PED suspension. He turns 39 over the summer, and age combined with failing health (88 games per season over the past three) will make it difficult to return to his previous level of his excellence. Plus, nobody has ever hit 108 home runs after turning 39, though Bonds and a few others (Darrell Evans, Carlton Fisk) came close.

Albert Pujols (494)
Pujols is 34 but should have his 500th home run by the end of next month (he's currently sitting on 494, having just passed Fred McGriff and Lou Gehrig). In a vacuum Pujols appears to be in a good spot, since only Rodriguez, Jimmie Foxx and Sammy Sosa hit more home runs through age 33. However, it's highly unlikely that he'll hit the 268 home runs (as many as Brooks Robinson and Joe Morgan had in their entire careers) needed to catch Bonds seeing as how his home run totals have gone down every year since 2009. Bonds and Aaron are the only players that have done what Pujols needs to do, but whereas Aaron got a late kick from Atlanta's launching pad stadium and Bonds, um, got his late kick from something else, Pujols is stuck in a pitcher's park that's only going to take home runs away from him.

Miguel Cabrera (366)
Cabrera's been so good for so long (a decade of sustained excellence) that it's surprising how far he still has to go to catch Bonds. Off the top of my head, I would've guessed that Cabrera was past 400 already, but in reality he still may not be at 400 by the end of this season (he has 366 currently). That means he still needs to hit almost 400 home runs which, given his age (31 on Friday) is going to be virtually impossible. After turning 31, only Bonds and Babe Ruth have hit the number of home runs that Cabrera needs to hit to catch Bonds. Put another way, he needs to hit as many home runs as Joe Carter did in his whole career, which probably isn't going to happen.

Prince Fielder (285)
Cabrera's former teammate has 285 taters through his age 29 season, but that still leaves him almost 500 short of Bonds. With a body type that doesn't age well, Fielder won't have the longevity to approach 700 even if he becomes a full-time DH.

Jay Bruce (166)
Bruce, who just turned 27, had more home runs through his age 26 season than Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, and Frank Thomas. He's helped by the fact that he broke in at 21 and showed power immediately, blasting 21 home runs that year (2008). His home run totals increased each year through 2012, peaking at 34 before dropping slightly to 30 in 2013. It also helps that he plays in a homer-friendly park and has been durable. Bruce is on track for 500-600 home runs, but 700 is going to be a challenge unless he can string together a few 40-50 homer seasons, which may be tough to do given how streaky and strikeout prone he is.

Giancarlo Stanton (121)
Just 24 and with 121 big flies under his belt, Stanton seems to have a good shot. He had the tenth-most home runs through age 23, but he would rank a lot higher on that list if he hadn't missed an average of 40 games per season in his first four years. In 2012, for instance, he slammed 37 home runs in just 123 games, which works out to be a 48-homer pace when projected out over 162 games. Stanton's light-tower power is well-documented and makes him a great candidate to break the record, but for a serious run at Bonds he has to stay healthier. It also wouldn't hurt if he could away from Miami's mammoth outfield dimensions.

Mike Trout (65)
Through age 21, only Mel Ott, Tony Conigliaro, Eddie Mathews, Frank Robinson, and Alex Rodriguez went deep more often than Trout. Including Conigliaro, whose career was tragically cut short by Jack Hamilton's beanball, the group's average home run total is 485.6. Ott and Mathews finished with near identical career totals (511 and 512, respectively) while Robinson reached 586 and Rodriguez is at 654 (and possibly still counting). That puts Trout in some pretty impressive company. Playing half his games in Anaheim hurts, but perhaps he will land a massive contract somewhere more hitter-friendly when his extension runs out.

Bryce Harper (43)
Harper hit 22 bombs as a 19 year-old and 20 more as a 20 year-old. Only Ott and Congiliaro homered more through the same age. Like Stanton, Harper has demonstrated massive power that should only improve as he reaches his prime years, but also like Stanton he must do a better job of staying healthy if he wants the all-time home run record.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sizemore Swinging Hot Bat

Sizemore takes Sabathia deep at Yankee Stadium
I know it's early, but I just wanted to mention how thrilled I am by Grady Sizemore's hot start. Hitting a home run on Opening Day, his Red Sox debut and first big league game since 2011, was storybook. Though Boston lost that day, it was a huge victory for Sizemore.

In the last ten days, he's done everything he can to prove that swing wasn't a fluke. He had back-to-back multi-hit games versus Texas earlier in the week, then last night slugged a go-ahead three-run bomb off CC Sabathia. Today John Farrell rewarded him with a day off as the Sox try to ease him back into a substantial role (on a semi-related note, Boston lost).

Sizemore's batting .333/.394/.600 on the young season with two home runs, two doubles and a stolen base. There's no way he can keep hitting at that pace, of course, but it will be fun watching him try.

Ranking Baseball's Best Sluggers

Ruth towered over his era unlike any player before or since 
I meant to write this when Ralph Kiner passed away in February but am only just now getting around to it. A quick note: because slugging percentages are often inflated by batting average, I tried to give more weight to Isolated Power and AB/HR Ratio.

1 Babe Ruth 714 HR .690 SLG .348 Iso 11.76 AB/HR
It blows my mind that the Babe nearly slugged .700 for his career. He won 12 of his league's 14 home run titles from 1918 to 1931 and led the league in slugging every year in that timeframe except one (1925--when he slugged .543 and did not have enough at-bats to qualify).  From 1919 through 1932 he averaged 45 home runs per year and slugged .726. Ruth had 11 seasons with at least 40 home runs (a record) including seven straight from 1926-'32 (also a record). He also routinely outhomered entire teams by himself and ushered in the era of the modern slugger.

2. Barry Bonds 762 HR .607 SLG .309 Iso 12.92 AB/HR
The all-time and single season home run champ was also one of the game's most efficient sluggers. When he belted 73 home runs in 2001 he went yard once every 6.52 at-bats, the fastest pace of all-time. Bobby Bonds' son also holds the single season mark for slugging percentage--.863--also set in 2001. He had eight 40 homer seasons, 14 30 homer seasons (including a record 13 in a row from 1992 to 2004) and 19 20 homer seasons.

3. Mark McGwire 588 HR .588 SLG .325 Iso 10.6 AB/HR
Nobody in baseball history homered at a higher frequency than McGwire, who also owns the second best Isolated Power mark of all-time. Big Mac s one of just two players to hit 70 home runs in a single season and one of three to top 50 in four different seasons. He also owns three of the four best single season HR/AB ratios.

4. Hank Aaron 755 HR .557 SLG .250 Iso 16.38 AB/HR
With just one season with more than 44 home runs, Aaron wasn't the most dominant slugger who ever lived: he just did it longer than anyone else. He hit at least 20 home runs for 20 straight seasons, topping 40 eight times and 30 15 times. That's why he has the most total bases by a long shot and more home runs than anyone not named Barry Bonds.

5 Jim Thome 612 HR .554 SLG .278 Iso 13.76 AB/HR
Though often overshadowed by the likes of Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey Jr., Thome was one of the best sluggers of the last half century. He topped 20 homers 16 times, reaching 30 a dozen times and 40 half a dozen. Incredibly, Thome received only one Silver Slugger in his 22 year-career--as Cleveland's third baseman in 1996.

6. Lou Gehrig 493 HR .632 SLG .292 Iso 16.23 AB/HR
Larrupin' Lou's home run totals were often outdone by his teammate Ruth, though he did hit almost 500 in what amounted to be 14 full seasons and reached 49 in a season twice. Gehrig's gap power was phenomenal, helping him eclipse 300 total bases every year from 1926 to 1938 and surpass 400 in five of those seasons (a record). In all, the Iron Horse racked up almost 1,200 extra base hits over the course of his career.

7. Jimmie Foxx 534 HR .609 SLG .284 Iso 15.23 AB/HR
Few baseball players have ever hit the ball harder than Foxx, who hit at least 30 home runs every year from 1929 through 1940, averaging 40 per season and slugging .644 during that time. He very nearly broke Ruth's single season home run record in 1932 but finished at 58--still the record by an American League right-handed hitter.

8. Ted Williams 521 HR .634 SLG .289 Iso 14.79 AB/HR
Williams won four home run crowns and nine slugging titles, topping .700 in three separate seasons. He was also the total base champ six times. And while he only topped 40 home runs once (with 43 in 1949), he slammed at least 20 16 times in his 19 year career.

9 Ralph Kiner 369 HR .548 SLG .269 Iso 14.11 AB/HR
Kiner led his league in home runs seven straight years--something not even Ruth accomplished. Even more impressively, Kiner did so in the first seven years of his career. He hit at least 40 dingers in five consecutive seasons from 1947 through 1951, topping 50 twice and slugging .609 over that stretch.

10. Hank Greenberg 331 HR .605 SLG .292 Iso 15.69 AB/HR
The original Hammerin' Hank played only nine full seasons but led his league in home runs in four of them with a high of 58 in 1938. He and Foxx are the only righthanded batters to slug better than .600 for their careers.

Honorable Mention: Sammy Sosa, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Manny Ramirez, Willie Mays