Monday, October 20, 2014

2014 World Series Preview

San Francisco should win its third title this decade (InForum)
Six teams won at least 90 games in 2014. None of them are in the World Series. The Kansas City Royals, with 89 wins, are, and so are the San Francisco Giants--an 88-win club. And so the World Series will be without a 90-win team for the first time in a season not shortened by strike or war. Given that 10 teams make the playoffs now, it was only a matter of time, I suppose.

Both contestants are good teams, obviously, but neither can be considered the best in their division, let alone their league. The Giants didn't have a particularly good run differential at +51, but that was still better than the Royals at +27. There's a reason both teams were Wild Card entries.

But here they are, the last teams standing in their respective leagues. San Francisco is shooting for its third World Series title in five years. The Royals hope to cap their first playoff appearance since 1985 with a championship.

Who's the favorite, you ask? I say San Francisco, and not just because they're more seasoned when it comes to October baseball.

Offensively, the Giants are considerably better after adjusting for league and park. They outscored the Royals by 14 runs and posted a superior OPS (.699 to .690) despite playing in a tougher park and hitting pitchers much more frequently. Their on-base abilities are about even with the slight edge going to Kansas City (.314 OBP to San Fran's .311), but the Giants displayed much more power. They outhomered the Royals 132 to 95 and had six players exceed 10 home runs (the Royals had three). Kansas City is a much faster team with nearly three times as many stolen bases, but San Francisco is clearly more dangerous given their long ball ability via Buster Posey, Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval.

San Francisco touts the best starting pitcher in this series, 25 year-old Madison Bumgarner. MadBum's been lights-out in these playoffs, posting a 1.42 ERA and 28/5 K/BB ratio in four starts, of which the Giants have won three. He'll get the ball in Game 1 against James Shields in a matchup that favors San Fran, although perhaps not as much as one might think given that Kansas City fared better against southpaws during the regular season with a .710 OPS against lefties compared to .682 versus righties. The rest of the rotations shake out pretty evenly, but since San Fran's has better strikeout stuff I'll give the slight edge to them.

The Royals hold clear advantages on defense (especially with that outfield of Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain, and Nori Aoki) and in the bullpen, where Greg Holland, Wade Davis, and Kevin Herrera have been unstoppable. San Francisco has a much smarter manager in Bruce Bochy, a Hall of Fame-bound skipper. Everyone knows Ned Yost is not a good manager, and that the Royals made the postseason in spite of him rather than because of him. I wouldn't be surprised if his blunders finally catch up to him in the biggest, most pressure-packed games of the season.

Prediction: Giants in 6

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

How the Royals Won the Pennant


I can't believe I'm writing this. The Royals have won the pennant. They are American League champs. Kansas City is hosting the World Series.

Nobody's been able to say that in 29 years. Not since 1985 have the Royals appeared in the Fall Classic (which they won, by the way, in seven games over the St. Louis Cardinals). The intervening three decades have not been kind to the team or its fans. As Joe Posnanski loves to remind us, they were filled with numerous boneheaded plays, poor personnel decisions, inadequate spending, questionable managing, and of course, many, many losses.

That generally terrible performance finally came to an end last year, when Kansas City won 86 games and stayed in contention for much of the season. They were a young team on the rise, loaded with talented position players, a shut-down bullpen, and just enough veteran pitching to hold it all together. Some, myself included, picked the Royals to make the playoffs, albeit as one of the two wild card teams.

Sure enough, that's what happened. KC wasn't good enough to prevent the Tigers from capturing their fourth straight division title, but as one of the five best teams in the American League they earned a postseason berth. Honestly, I didn't expect them to make it past the wild card playoff, much less all the way to the World Series.

But here we are, in the middle of October, and that's the situation we find ourselves in. The Kansas City Royals are the last team standing in the American League.

First they had to get by the Oakland A's, a superior team in every regard. They had to go through Jon Lester, one of the American League's best pitchers this year and an awesome postseason pitcher. They trailed 7-3 entering the bottom of the eighth inning. Somehow, they found a way to win in extra innings.

Then Kansas City was paired up with the star-studded Los Angeles Angels, the best team in baseball at 98-64. The Royals, an 89-win team, appeared to have little chance, especially after expending their ace, James Shields, in the play-in game. Somehow, they swept the Halos, winning the first two games in extra innings before routing Mike Trout and co. in Game 3.

In the ALCS the Royals were pitted against the Baltimore Orioles, winners of 96 games and the AL East. Baltimore boasted a fearsome lineup, one that led all of baseball in home runs. Except Baltimore's booming bats fell silent against the Royals, managing just two big flies (courtesy of Adam Jones and Ryan Flaherty) as they were swept in four games, all of which were decided by two runs or less.

Now the red-hot Royals, winners of their last eight, can catch their breath. They have nearly a week to rest uo as the NLCS is decided between San Francisco and St. Louis. Then, on October 21st, they will take the field at Kauffman Stadium as they get back to the business of bringing Kansas City its first World Series championship in three decades.

Remembering the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals

The '64 Cardinals: a model of integration and loaded with talent (The Baseball Page)
Piggybacking off this morning's post: here's a quick look at the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals team that won it all. Everyone remembers the Phillies' epic collapse that year, but St. Louis made it possible by forging an eight-game win streak in late September to pass Philadelphia, then win the final game of the season to avoid a three-way tie with Philly and Cincinnati.

Without further adieu. your 1964 World Series champions:

C Tim McCarver
McCarver was just 22 years-old but already in his fifth season with the Cards. He batted a very solid .288/.343/.400 while catching 137 games, good for 3.4 bWAR.

1B Bill White
White was one of the team's elder statesmen at 30, but still young enough to continue his run as the National League's top all-around first baseman. An All-Star for the fifth and final time, White won his fifth straight Gold Glove award in addition to batting .303/.355/.474. He finished third in the MVP race thanks to his strong counting numbers: 5.4 bWAR, 21 home runs, 102 RBI, 92 runs, 191 hits, 37 doubles, and 299 total bases.

2B Julian Javier
Javier was barely above replacement level due to his .644 OPS, though his 12 homers and 65 RBI were career-highs up to that point.

3B Ken Boyer
The major league RBI leader (with 119) was also the National League MVP, even if Dick Allen was clearly more deserving. Boyer was outstanding in his last great season, playing every game, batting .295/.365/.489, and compiling 6.1 bWAR. The All-Star third baseman also socked 24 homers, scored 100 runs, and racked up 307 total bases.

SS Dick Groat
The former MVP and batting champion with the Pirates was still among the league's best shortstops at 33. Had no power whatsoever (1 home run) but played all but one game and made the All-Star team for the fifth and final time. Batted .292/.335/.371 with more walks (44) then strikeouts (42). Also ripped 35 doubles.

LF Lou Brock
Acquired midseason from the Cubs via trade, Brock helped ignite the Cardinals to the pennant. The 25 year-old future Hall of Famer batted a scintillating .348/.387/.527 with 12 home runs and 33 steals in 103 games with St. Louis, contributing 5.7 bWAR while hitting out of the two hole.

CF Curt Flood
Flood made his first All-Star squad, won his second Gold Glove, and paced the National League with 211 hits. The Cards' leadoff hitter also batted .311, scored 97 runs, and was worth 4.7 bWAR.

RF Mike Shannon
"Moonman" missed most of the first half with injuries but rebounded with a healthy second half to finish the year with a solid .261/.315/.410 line.

Bench

LF Charlie James
The starting left fielder displaced by Brock, James was relegated to pinch-hitting duties after the trade.

RF Carl Warwick
Warwick helped cover for Shannon while he was out and provided a close approximation of Shannon's slash lines at .259/.306/.373.

RF Bob Skinner
A midseason trade to the Cardinals, Skinner supplemented Shannon in right and was also used as a pinch-hitter.

Rotation

SP Bob Gibson
A pitcher on the rise in '64, Gibson was still a few years away from becoming "Bob Gibson." That said, he was still an incredible talent. His 287 innings, 3.01 ERA, 245 strikeouts and 2.85 K/BB ratio topped the rotation. He also won 19 games, completed 17 of his 36 starts, and was worth six wins above replacement.

SP Curt Simmons
At 35 and in his 17th big league season, Simmons wasn't blowing hitters away (3.8 K/9) but was still crafty enough to fool them. He also had impeccable control, with only 1.8 BB/9. How else do you explain how he completed 244 innings, won 18 games and went the distance in 12 starts?

SP Ray Sadecki
The team's lone 20 game winner, Sadecki was a 23 year-old southpaw still finding his way in the big leagues. He tossed 220 innings but was clearly the team's third-best starter behind Gibson and Simmons.

SP Roger Craig
After a couple rough years with the Mets, Craig appeared to enjoy pitching for a contender. Between his 19 starts and 20 relief appearances, Craig contributed 166 innings of 3.25 ERA-ball.

SP Ernie Broglio
Was pitching decently (3.50 ERA in 11 starts) before being traded for Brock.

SP Ray Washburn
Pitched very well in May and June with a 3.29 ERA in his 10 starts. Was shifted to the bullpen afterwards and struggled there, allowing eight earned runs in only five appearances.

Bullpen

CL Barney Schultz
The aging knuckleballer had a sparkling 1.64 ERA and 0.93 WHIP during the regular season, but he'll always be remembered for giving up Mickey Mantle's walk-off blast in Game 3.

RP Ron Taylor
Led Cardinal relievers with 63 appearances and 101 innings, but was very effective with a 4.62 ERA and 1.40 WHIP.

RP Mike Cuellar
Before he was a 20-game winner and anchor of those great Baltimore Orioles rotations under Earl Weaver, he was a rookie reliever with a 4.50 ERA in 72 innings. Talk about an inauspicious beginning.

RP Bob Humphreys
One of the team's most effective relievers with a 2.53 ERA in 28 appearances.

RP Gordie Richardson
Like Humphreys. very effective (2.30 ERA) in limited action (47 innings)

Manager

Johnny Keane
In his fourth year at the helm of the Cardinals, Keane led them to a repeat of their 1963 record (93-69). While that was only good enough for second place in '63, in '64 it won the pennant. He was on the hot seat for much of the season before his team improbably passed the Phillies in the final weeks of the season. Shockingly, Keane resigned after winning the Series, a decision he'd made in late September at the height of the pennant race. He would manage the Yankees in 1965, replacing Yogi Berra.

After examining both rosters, I think the Cardinals had a better team even though they won fewer games. St. Louis's starting lineup was stronger and more balanced, and stayed healthy enough to prevent Keane from relying on his weak bench. Pound for pound the rotation was just as good as New York's, though the bullpen was definitely weaker. Overall the Yankees had more depth, but St. Louis had more players in their prime and more "stars". Their best players were better than New York's, even if their worst players were worse than New York's. Accordingly, I am not surprised the Cards took the Series in 7.

McCarver, Boyer, and Gibson celebrate (I70Baseball)

October 1964: 50 Years Later

New York's team picture lacks faces of color (TheDeadballEra)
50 years ago today, the St. Louis Cardinals won the World Series by beating the New York Yankees in a decisive Game 7 at Busch Stadium. The Cards won 7-5 behind Bob Gibson, who went the distance in his third Series start despite surrendering three long balls and nine hits in all. It was, David Halberstam wrote 30 years later, a turning point for the sport, the end of one dynasty coinciding with the birth of another. More significantly, the torch was passed from a still largely-white organization to a shining example of integration.

The Yankees, winners of their fifth straight pennant, needed every one of their 99 wins to squeak by the White Sox (98 wins) and Orioles (97). They wouldn't win another pennant until 1976. Here's a quick look at that great Yankees squad (check back later for a breakdown of the Cardinals):

Starting Lineup

C Elston Howard
The 1963 American League MVP finished third in the balloting behind Brooks Robinson and Mickey Mantle. The All-Star receiver batted .313/.371/.455, won his second straight Gold Glove, and played 146 games behind the plate (150 overall). Was worth 5.6 bWAR.

1B Joe Pepitone
All-Star swatted 28 home runs and drove in 100, though his rate stats were horrible at .251/.281/.418.

2B Bobby Richardson
All-Star and Gold Glove recipient. Was limited offensively (.626 OPS), but provided decent counting numbers such as 90 runs, 181 hits, and 11 steals in 13 tries.

3B Clete Boyer
A black hole on offense (.573 OPS) but an elite gloveman at the hot corner, second only to Brooks Robinson.

SS Tony Kubek
Couldn't hit a lick (.615 OPS) but still played good enough defense to be worth two wins above replacement.

LF Tom Tresh
Switch-hitting outfielder struggled compared to his previous two seasons, but still smacked 16 home runs and was a perfect 13-for-13 in stolen base attempts.

CF Mickey Mantle
In his last great season, the MVP runner-up mashed 35 home runs and had 111 RBI. Physically, the Mick (then-32) was a mess, but that didn't stop him from posting the highest OBP (.423), OPS (1.015) and OPS+ (177) in the major leagues. Pitchers wisely avoided him, throwing him four wide ones on 18 occasions, most in the AL.

RF Roger Maris (3.9 bWAR)
In his last good season with the Yankees, Rajah slugged 26 home runs and batted .281/.364/.464.

Bench

Phil Linz
Posted a solid .332 OBP and clubbed 21 doubles in 417 plate appearances.

Hector Lopez
Provided 10 home runs off the bench to go along with his .260/.317/.418 slash line in 313 PAs.

Johnny Blanchard
Blanch batted a robust .255/.344/.435 with as many walks (24) as strikeouts, albeit in only 189 plate appearances.

Pedro Gonzalez
Failed to go yard in 123 plate appearances but still managed to bat a solid .277/.331/.366.

Rotation

Jim Bouton
"Bulldog" followed up his breakout 1963 campaign with another stellar season in '64, posting a 3.02 ERA and 1.06 WHIP over 271 and 1/3 innings--third most in the American League. True to his nickname, the 25 year-old Bouton topped the American League in starts while leading his team in innings and wins. It would be his last great year before arm troubles ruined his career.

Whitey Ford
Sharp as a tack at 35, Ford ranked second to Cy Young winner Dean Chance in the American League with 6.7 pitching bWAR. Slick posted the lowest FIP (2.45) and second-lowest ERA (2.13) of his Hall of Fame career in 244 and 2/3 innings. An All-Star for the eighth and final time, the Chairman of the Board notched his 200th career win in his second start of the season.

Al Downing
Like Bouton, Downing was in the second full season of his career. Also like Bouton, he regressed a bit from his breakout 1963 but still wound up with good numbers in '64. The 23 year-old completed 244 innings and led the American League in strikeouts with 217, but was also wild and paced the Circuit in walks too. He'd become forever famous 10 years later for serving up the gopher ball to Hank Aaron that broke Babe Ruth's career home run record.

Ralph Terry
After throwing 594 and 2/3 innings in 1962 and 1963 combined (World Series included) Terry fell apart in his final season with the Yankees, going 7-11 with a 4.54 ERA and 1.40 WHIP. The scuffling 28 year-old was demoted to the bullpen midseason, and though he returned to the rotation pitched sparingly in September. He'd be dealt to Cleveland after the season, enjoying a bounce back year in 1965 before retiring two seasons later.

Mel Stottlemyre
A 22 year-old rookie, Stottlemyre made his debut in mid-August and stabilized New York's rotation down the stretch. He helped spark the Yankees to the pennant by going 9-3 with a 2.06 ERA.

Rollie Sheldon
One of five Yankees to exceed 100 innings, Sheldon made 12 starts for the Bombers and seven relief appearances. He pitched well with a 3.61 ERA, 1.08 WHIP and 3.17 K/BB ratio.

Bullpen

CL Pete Mikkelsen
The 24 year-old closer was Berra's most-used reliever, leading the club with 50 appearances, 27 games finished and 12 saves.

RP Stan Williams
"Big Daddy," a one-time All-Star with the Dodgers, made 10 starts and 11 relief appearances but failed to distinguish himself.

RP Hal Reniff
"Porky" was second on the team in appearances with 41. He pitched well out of the pen with a 3.12 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, and nine saves

RP Bill Stafford
Not only did Stafford go 5-0 with a 2.67 ERA, but he also started a game, saved four, finished 12, and appeared in 31.

RP Steve Hamilton
The tall, lanky left-hander was New York's primary southpaw reliever.

Manager

Yogi Berra
Upon Berra's retirement in 1963, incumbent skipper Ralph Houk was promoted to general manager and Berra became field manager. While Berra guided his team to another pennant and came within one win of delivering a championship, he was not well-respected by his players, almost all of whom were former teammates. The future Hall of Famer was axed following the '64 Series.

Upon further review, I'm kind of dumbfounded as to how this team won 99 games, even though their Pythagorean Record (98-64) says it was no fluke. The offense had multiple weak spots (pretty much the entire infield save Howard), yet somehow finished second in runs scored despite ranking fifth in OBP, fourth in slugging, and fourth in OPS (all middle-of-the-pack in a 10 team league). They had good power but not much speed. I guess the fact that three regulars carried an OPS+ below 75 was offset by strong bench play, with the four most-used reserves posting an OPS+ of 92 of better.

Their pitching could be explained in a similar way. The rotation had a big three of Ford, Bouton, and Downing, though I'm very shocked they only won 48 games between them given that they accounted for more than half (50.4 percent) of the Yankees' innings. Except for Terry, the fourth and fifth rotation spots were surprisingly decent, especially after Stottlemyre's call-up. The bullpen was solid, with no obvious weak links but no standouts either. It also helped that New York fielded a very strong infield defense, capable outfield (except Mantle, who by that point was a wreck), and a tremendous catcher in Howard.

Nowadays, I think this team would win 90 games. But back then, when there were only 10 teams in the American League, teams could be more flawed and still win.

(From L to R) Pepitone, Tresh, Maris, and Mantle (MyYESNetwork)


Monday, October 13, 2014

Nice to Konerko You

Konerko was a mainstay on the South Side for 16 years (Chicago CBS)
Lost in the hype surrounding Derek Jeter's dramatic departure from baseball was that Paul Konerko, beloved member of the Chicago White Sox for 16 years, also retired.

It was fitting that Konerko, one of the game's most underappreciated and little-talked about players, went out without much fanfare. Overshadowed by Jeter as well as his own teammates (Jose Abreu and Chris Sale were pretty good this year, huh?), he slipped out of the game, leaving on his own terms.

Like Jeter, Konerko was a model of consistency for many years. But also like Jeter, Konerko simply wasn't good enough to be an everyday player anymore. While Joe Girardi kept sending Jeter out to shortstop and batting him second everyday, Konerko graciously accepted a part-time role and played only 81 games this year. At .207/.254/.317, his bat was no longer potent enough to merit anything more than that, especially as a first base/DH type.

Konerko's bottoming out marked the end of a four-year decline in which he went from one of the game's best hitters to one of its worst. Such is life for an aging slugger in his mid-to-late 30s. Given his struggles at the plate the last two years (.639 OPS), it's hard to remember that he was an All-Star as recently as 2012 (for the sixth and final time).

It's also easy to forget that Konerko played for two other teams before he joined the White Sox. A first round draft pick by the Dodgers in 1994, Konerko debuted with Los Angeles in 1997 but was traded to Cincinnati the following year. After the 1998 season he was traded again, this time to Chicago, for Mike Cameron straight-up.

Cameron went on to have a fine career, but not with the Reds. He was included in the package that netted Ken Griffey Jr. one year later. Konerko, meanwhile, would go on to play 2,268 games in a White Sox uniform.

Better yet, he immediately broke out upon joining the White Sox. His first year with the team was his third in the Show, and the then-23 year-old shined in his first full season. Konerko clubbed 24 home runs and 31 doubles, knocked in 81 runs and batted .294/.352/.511. Granted, those numbers look a lot more impressive today than they did back in 1999, but he maintained them in each of the next three seasons as well.

After a down year in 2003, Konerko responded with back-to-back 40 home run campaigns, the latter coming in 2005. The White Sox won the World Series that year, ending an 88-year drought (which nobody seemed to care about because of what Boston had done the previous fall). Konerko played a big role, slamming five home runs and driving in 15 as Chicago breezed through the postseason. He took home ALCS MVP honors as well.

Konerko would only get one more crack at the postseason--in 2008--but the White Sox were eliminated from the ALDS by the upstart Rays. Once again Konerko shined, smacking two home runs and posting a 1.040 OPS over the four games. He remained a dangerous hitter over the next several seasons, putting up huge numbers through his mid-30s as he continued to pile up impressive career numbers. When it was all said and done, he finished his playing days a .279/.354/.486 hitter with 439 home runs (42nd all-time) and 1,412 RBI. He also notched 2,340 hits, 410 doubles, over 4,000 total bases and close to 1,000 walks.

A poor man's Eddie Murray, Konerko never led the league in anything important but was as steady as they come. He exceeded 20 home runs 13 years out of 14 from 1999 through 2012, and in the one year he missed he had 18. He topped 100 RBI six times and was over 90 three other times. Eight times he had at least 30 doubles.

Add it all up and Konerko was a pretty good first baseman. Not a Hall of Fame one, but a very good one nonetheless.