Thursday, May 28, 2015

Donaldson Dialed In

Donaldson has as many big flies as Giancarlo Stanton (Fox Sports)
Much of the early season baseball coverage, including my own, has paid notice to streaking sluggers Bryce Harper and Nelson Cruz, allowing an equally torrid hitter to fly under the radar north of the border.

When Josh Donaldson stepped up to bat in the bottom of the ninth of yesterday afternoon's White Sox-Blue Jays game, Toronto's chances of winning stood at a mere 11 percent. The Bluebirds were down 3-2 with one out and nobody on against David Robertson, who held a sub-one ERA just a couple days ago and has been one of the best relievers of the decade.

For the third time this year, however, Robertson blew a save opportunity. After falling behind in the count, he left his 2-0 offering up and out over the plate. Donaldson didn't miss it, crushing the mistake into the second deck of the left field bleachers to tie the game. The White Sox would rally to win the game in 10 innings and salvage the series finale, largely because Donaldson did not receive another at-bat.

If he had, he might have well gone deep again. The long ball was Donaldson's 13th of the season, eighth of the month, and fourth in the past three days. Saying he's on fire right now might be the world's greatest understatement, as he's batting a blistering .309/.378/.629 in May and .314/.374/.590 on the year while coming up with these kinds of heroics on a regular basis. It's scary to think where Toronto--currently five games under .500 in a mediocre AL East--would be without him.

When Donaldson was traded from the Oakland Athletics to the Toronto Blue Jays last November, it was understood that his numbers would likely receive a boost from leaving behind a pitcher's paradise in Oakland and moving to a more hitting-friendly venue. I don't think anyone could have guessed just how much he'd enjoy hitting in the Rogers Centre, which plays well for sluggers like him and is much kinder to batters than the cavernous Coliseum.

Sure enough, Donaldson has flourished in his new digs. In 26 games at home, Donaldson has 10 doubles, 10 home runs, and a 1.156 OPS. In 23 games everywhere else, he has just three doubles, three home runs, and a .731 OPS. That's about as extreme as home/road splits can  be, with the vastly dissimilar results reflecting Donaldson's differing approaches. He has been much more aggressive at home, posting a meager 3.6 percent walk rate there compared to a 13.9 percent walk rate on the road. Normally a patient hitter, Donaldson is walking less this year while putting up career-best numbers across the board.

It will be interesting to see if Donaldson maintains his more aggressive approach throughout the season. His swing rate is up and his contact rate is down, which should be yielding worse results. Perhaps those figures will normalize over the course of the year, which we're still not even a third of the way through yet. I also find it interesting that decreased patience has aided Donaldson given that Bryce Harper, one of the few hitters more productive than him, has enjoyed much better results by greatly improving his selectivity. That's probably a function of their different positions on the aging curve, as young hitters like Harper benefit from increased patience whereas older hitters like Donaldson ward off age by hacking more to counteract declining bat speed.

As hot as Donaldson is right now, don't expect much fireworks from him over the next week: Toronto's traveling to Minnesota today.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Wright Following in Rolen's Footsteps

Wright has missed significant time in 5 of the past 6 seasons (CBS New York)
With David Wright sidelined by yet another injury, this time out indefinitely with spinal stenosis, I couldn't help but think of another talented two-way third baseman who became a walking medical bill in his 30s.

For almost a decade before Wright burst on the scene with the Mets, Scott Rolen was the National League's best at the hot corner. In fact, from 1997-2004, Rolen ranked third among MLB position players in fWAR behind only Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez. I was surprised to see that during this time, Rolen was a more valuable player than Chipper Jones, who many feel is Hall of Fame-bound.

Rolen appeared headed for Cooperstown as well following his monster 2004 campaign, in which he was worth 9.1 bWAR and posted a 1.007 OPS. Like Nomar Garciaparra and countless others throughout baseball history, however, he was unable to sustain his early success as injuries sapped his performance during his 30s. Multiple shoulder surgeries wrecked his career, preventing him from completing what was shaping up to be a Hall of Fame resume.

Wright, who also had a Cooperstown-caliber start to his career, has closely mirrored Rolen's trajectory. Both debuted at 21, secured everyday roles at 22, and immediately emerged as elite players. After remaining mostly healthy and productive throughout their 20s, they began experiencing injury problems and deteriorating performance in their early 30s.

Through age 32 (Wright's current age) their numbers are remarkably similar:

Rolen 1,505 G 954 R 380 2B 261 HR 1,012 RBI 104 SB .283/.372/.507 (126 OPS+) 55 bWAR
Wright 1,516 G 910 R 375 2B 231 HR 943 RBI 193 SB .298/.377/.494 (134 OPS+) 49.9 bWAR

Wright's future is unknown in the wake of his latest malady, but appears gloomy based on how the second half of Rolen's career played out. Constantly beset by injuries, Rolen averaged just 11 home runs and 57 RBI per season during his 30s. The Mets can only hope that Wright, who is owed $87 million over the next five seasons, avoids a similar decline.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Beltre vs. Cabrera

Beltre belts the 400th long ball of his career (Fox Sports)
Adrian Beltre launched the 400th home run of his career last Friday night, slamming a 3-0 pitch his first time up against Bruce Chen into Globe Life's grassy knoll. With the solo shot, Beltre became just the fifth third baseman to surpass 400 career homers, joining Hall of Famers Mike Schmidt and Eddie Mathews, future Hall of Famer Chipper Jones, and Hall of Very Good member Darrell Evans.

The Rangers third baseman is off to a slow start this year, batting just .259/.296/.416 with five home runs and 15 RBI. It's too soon to tell whether this is merely an early season slump or the beginnings of decline for the 36 year-old, who is owed $16 million this year and $18 million next year. It's hard to believe he simply lost it overnight after averaging an .899 OPS (139 OPS+) with 29 home runs and 96 RBI over the past five years, but he is at an age where that happens to hitters. Bad luck seems to have played a part (his BABiP is .260), but his hard-hit percentage and HR/FB rate are down for the third straight year, which suggests his bat speed is in decline.

If this is indeed the beginning of the end for Beltre, he's had one helluva run. The 400 homers barely scratch the the surface for the 2004 NL MVP runner-up, who's amassed over 2,600 hits, 500 doubles, and 100 stolen bases. His next RBI will be the 1,400th of his career. The four-time Gold Glove winner has also been one of the best defensive third basemen in recent memory, which combined with his excellent production at the plate has helped him accumulate nearly 80 career bWAR. If he retired today he'd be a deserving Hall of Famer.

The same could be said for Miguel Cabrera, who also joined the 400 home run club last week. Cabrera became the 53rd player in baseball history with at least 400 career big flies the day after Beltre became the 52nd. Like Beltre's, Cabrera's was a first-inning solo shot to dead center that made landfall in a grassy batter's eye (at Comerica Park). Interestingly, neither has homered since.

Unlike Beltre, however, Cabrera has shown no signs of slowing down. Miggy's off to a rip-roaring start with 10 home runs, 31 RBI and a scorching .336/.440/.592 line thus far. To be fair, he is a full four years younger than Cabrera, which can be the difference between a player's prime and twilight when he's on the wrong side of 30. Cabrera has also benefited from spending the bulk of his career at first base, a much less demanding position than third, although he did man the hot corner for awhile in his younger days and again when he and Prince Fielder were briefly teammates.
Cabrera rounds the bases after his rain-soaked milestone blast (SB Nation)
Though their 400th home runs took nearly identical trajectories, the career paths of Beltre and Cabrera could not be more different. Both debuted at young ages (Beltre was 19, Cabrera 20) and put up similar numbers in their age-20 seasons, but after that their careers diverged. Cabrera immediately developed into a star, stringing together 11 straight seasons of 25 or more home runs and at least 100 RBI--numbers which he's on pace to surpass for the 12th consecutive season in 2015. He peaked as a hitter in his late 20s, as most ballplayers do, when he became the first man in 45 years to win the Triple Crown and copped back-to-back MVP awards.

It took Beltre much longer to reach that elite level. His progress stalled in his early 20s, throughout which he was an average hitter outside his fluky monster 2004, when he belted an ML-leading 48 home runs and put up a 1.017 OPS. His numbers were stifled by brutal home parks (Dodger Stadium and Safeco), and through age 30 his career line stood at .270/.325/.453--hardly Cooperstown worthy. In light of his monster contract, most viewed him as a disappointment.

Over the past six years, however, he's benefited from two of the best hitter's parks in baseball (Fenway and Arlington), which have helped him enjoy the sustained stretch of dominance most Hall of Fame voters look for in a career. At ages when most players slip offensively, Beltre became one of the best hitters in the game. We've seen this happen with "late bloomers" like Jose Bautista and Raul Ibanez as well, but the difference is that Beltre accomplished enough during his 20s to compile Cooperstown-caliber statistics.

Although their overall numbers are similar, their playing styles are as different as night and day. Cabrera is the prototypical plodding slugger, a slow first base/DH type with impressive power totals and a patient plate approach. At 6'4 and 240 pounds, he looks the part and has a smooth swing to boot. Cabrera also plays the game with a smile and boyish enthusiasm reminiscent of Ernie Banks.

Beltre, on the other hand, plays the game with a Ty Cobb level of ferocity unrivaled in today's game. He scowls far more often than he smiles, and his swing could best be described as vicious. The slick-fielding third baseman is also much more athletic than Cabrera, probably a byproduct of his compact but powerful 5'11, 220 pound frame.

It's funny, then, that both played third base. Beltre was one of the best to ever play the position, while Cabrera was one of the worst. Cabrera was a much better hitter than Beltre, however, and so they'll likely wind up even in terms of career value. In both cases, though, they will have more than enough to make the Hall of Fame.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Analyzing Harper's Hot Start

Harper's having a tremendous start to the season (Zimbio)
Bryce Harper was at it again yesterday, going 3-for-4 with a triple and home run in Washington's 10-5 rout of the San Diego Padres.  The blast, Harper's NL-leading 14th of the year, was also his ninth in the past dozen days. And while he fell a double short of the cycle, the big day raised his batting line to a Ruthian .338/.476/.729 (221 OPS+).

Granted, we're not even a quarter of the way through the season yet, but it's impossible not to marvel at what Harper's done thus far. He's put the Nationals' slumping lineup on his back, accounting for one-third of the team's home runs and driving in a major-league leading 37 runs. Opponents have pitched around him, intentionally walking him five times already and 36 overall (both lead the majors), but that hasn't stopped him from inflicting major damage on the few strikes he does see.

Harper went yard on Opening Day and hasn't stopped hitting since. Following a strong April in which he posted a .985 OPS, he's been even better thus far in May with nine home runs, 22 RBI, and 14 walks with two weeks to go before the calendar flips to June. His OPS for the month currently stands at an astronomical 1.511.

Harper's been the best hitter in baseball over the first six weeks, and thus appears to have become the superstar he was always destined to be. After three years of coming up short in comparisons to Mike Trout, baseball's other wunderkind, Harper has finally ascended to Trout's level. Right now it's Harper, not Trout, who currently leads all of baseball in refWAR.

There's a lot of interesting trends going on with Harper's hellacious start. The first is his walk rate, which has ballooned to over 21 percent--more than double his career 10.4 percent mark coming into the year. A lot of that has to do with how poorly the Nationals not named Harper and Denard Span have hit, but at the same time Harper's also exhibited improved patience and strike zone knowledge in his fourth big league campaign. His overall swing rate is the lowest of his career, as he's been much more selective on pitches both in and out of the zone.

His batted ball data also reveals major shifts from his first three seasons, starting with his spray charts. Harper's pulled over half the balls he's put in play this year, after never having done so on even 40 percent of his batted balls in any prior season. He's using center field about the same, meaning he's going the other way a lot less often. This shift helps explains Harper's massive power surge, as players rarely hit to the opposite field with power and tend to pull the majority of their home runs.

Harper has also become a different hitter in terms of how he elevates the ball. He's become much more of a fly ball hitter, hitting more fly balls than grounders for the first time in his career. That would also explain why his power numbers are through the roof, and should help them stay up even as his 34.1 percent HR/FB inevitably falls back to earth. Impressively, he's managed to loft the ball much more frequently without increasing his pop-out rate, which is just a tick below his career rate.

Harper's also hitting more line drives than ever before, which helps explain how he's been able to bat .383 on balls in play despite lifting almost half those balls into the air. With FanGraphs classifying nearly one-quarter of his batted balls as line drives, it's no wonder that he's flashing the highest hard-hit percentage of his career, either, with two-fifths of his batted balls qualifying as such.

So what does all of this mean? Harper, the age of a typical college graduate, is still improving. He's walking more (a lot more), striking out less, and hitting the ball with authority. Luck has absolutely played a part in his hot start--that home run rate and BABiP are bound to fall--but Harper has proven himself to be a demonstrably better hitter. His increased patience is indicative of a maturing player, while his superior results on swings suggest he's honing in on pitches he can crush. It's plain for all to see that Harper is locked in, which is always a sight to behold when a player with his unlimited ability develops the right approach to complement it.

The last few years there was no doubt about who the best player in baseball was. Now it's very much up for debate.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Brady Busted

Brady, who has not missed a game since 2008, will sit out the first four of 2015 (EW)
In America you are innocent until proven guilty. Apparently that is not the case in the NFL.

The New England Patriots were severely punished for their role in Deflategate, which was finally put to rest with today's punitive actions. Tom Brady, who according to the Wells reports (I'm paraphrasing here) "probably knew something about the balls being deflated," was suspended four games and will spend all of September watching Jimmy Garoppolo cut his teeth under center. The team was fined $1 million, and must also forfeit next year's first round draft pick as well as a fourth-round pick (so random) in 2017.

This is an obvious show of force by Roger Goodell, who handled all of last year's scandals with about as much care as a two-year old would with a full carton of eggs. After drawing heavy fire from fans and media for being too lenient in punishments of Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, he overcompensated by coming after the Patriots here (reminiscent of how Bud Selig went after Alex Rodriguez). Goodell sees being tough on the Pats as a quick fix for his shattered reputation, and an easy one at that given how universally reviled they are outside of New England and their previous infractions.

New England effectively got screwed for the next three years, and that hardly seems fair given how speculative the Wells report actually was. Most of the evidence against Brady and co. was circumstantial at best, pure conjecture at worst. The report lacked the concrete evidence one would want for a conviction, especially since scientists quickly debunked Deflategate. It seemed about as (in)accurate as JFK.

Lack of sound basis aside, this is obviously a huge blow to the Patriots, who will have to face Pittsburgh, @ Buffalo, Jacksonville, and @ Dallas without their franchise quarterback. It's a very real possibility that New England is 1-3 when Brady returns. The defending Super Bowl champs are still the best team in their division and should have no problem making the playoffs (unless Brady balloons during his layoff the way Pablo Sandoval did last winter), but reclaiming the AFC's top seed now appears out of the question.

Given that Brady's going to be 38 next year, it's probably a good thing that he'll get an extra month of rest at the beginning of the season, especially after seeing what happened in the second half last year to Peyton Manning at the same age. Brady needs all the recovery time he can get at this stage in his career, and I'm more than okay with him sitting out September if it keeps him fresh into January.

Still, the harshness of these penalties leave me with more questions than answers. I wonder if the footballs were inflated, and Brady really did know about, if his suspension would have been less harsh had just come clean in that awkward press conference. I also wonder how the punishment would have differed had New England lost the Super Bowl. Malcolm Butler may have saved the day, but at the same time might have inadvertantly hurt his team down the road. The league loves making an example out of the Pats whenever they got caught for doing the same things everyone else admits to doing.

And is it really just a coincidence that Brady's first game back will be against, who else, the Indianapolis Colts? Let the conspiracy theories