Friday, July 3, 2015

Red Sox Midseason Report

2015 hasn't gone as hoped for Sandoval and the Sox (Boston Herald)
With last night's 12-6 romp of the Toronto Blue Jays, the first half of the 2015 Red Sox season is officially in the books. The results--last place, seven games below .500 and six out of first--have been underwhelming, to say the least.

It's been a difficult year for the Red Sox, who were favored to win the American League at the season's outset. Now, they find themselves with more losses than every AL team except the snakebitten Oakland A's. A season that began with so much optimism has quickly degraded into a summer of gloom and doom, causing frustrated fans and media to turn on the team well before the season's halfway point.

Whereas last year's long march to last place was relatively scandal-free, this year's slog has gotten ugly. Pitching coach Juan Nieves was fired in early May, barely a month into the season and much to the rotation's disappointment (Boston was allowing 5.14 runs per game prior to his dismissal and has let up 4.45 R/G since). Wade Miley had a meltdown in the dugout, Pablo Sandoval was caught using Instagram during a mid-game bathroom break, and several veterans have been ejected recently for arguing balls and strikes.

Moreover, this is a team that has grown sick of losing, to the point where it's becoming visibly frustrated. Most everyone has experienced an extended slump by now, and many veterans are mired in down seasons. Struggling players can put on a happy face when the team does well, but when it doesn't they blame themselves and take it personally. Oftentimes this leads to pressing, which only makes things worse.

Accordingly the clubhouse, while not toxic as it was in 2012, does not seem like a fun place to be. Gone are many of the bearded characters (Jonny Gomes, David Ross) that made 2013 such an enjoyable ride. In their place is a random collection of the lazy, disinterested, and egotistical, not to mention expensive. Should the Red Sox fail to pick it up in the second half, John Farrell will likely be shown the door.

It's hard to believe how quickly this season has gone south for the Sox, who were in first place for much of April. Eight days after losing control of first (probably for good), they'd fallen all the way to last place, where they've toiled for the last month or so. Since going 9-5 to open the season, Boston's gone 28-39. Bad luck and injuries aren't to blame, as they have a winning record in one-run games and have remained fairly intact except for behind the plate. They just flat-out stink, having been blown out (losing by five or more runs) nearly twice as often as they've routed opponents and getting outscored by 45 runs on the season..
As expected, pitching has been a problem for Boston (Boston Globe)
Where did the Red Sox go wrong? Last summer seems like a good place to start, when they traded away four-fifths of their starting rotation--a rotation that won the World Series the previous fall and was actually pitching pretty well at the time (but nobody was hitting). None of those trades have panned out, least of all the one that sent John Lackey to St. Louis for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig--both of whom are now in Pawtucket. No, Boston wouldn't be better off if Jake Peavy and Felix Doubront were still around, but they'd probably be at least .500 if they still had Lackey and Jon Lester.

Boston's busy trade deadline was followed by a winter of big spending, highlighted by massive contracts for Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, and Yoan Moncada, among others. The struggles of Ramirez and Sandoval have drawn heavy criticism, but they're not the only well-paid personnel failing to play up to their contracts. Eight of Boston's ten highest-paid players, who are earning nearly $116 million between them (as much as an average team's payroll), have altogether provided roughly replacement level production: hardly money well spent.

Even worse is that the Red Sox prematurely extended several players before they had to and are already paying the price for it. Ben Cherington inexplicably gave Rick Porcello and Wade Miley multi-year contract extensions before either one ever threw a pitch for the Sox, which has proven disastrous. Before last year, David Ortiz secured a team option for next year (and potentially the year after) that will vest by summer's end (health permitting), which burdens Boston with a declining 40 year-old DH who can't hit lefties. And Dustin Pedroia, who turns 32 later this summer, still has six years remaining on his contract after this one--a scary proposition in light of his recent injury history and the rapid declines of Chase Utley and Robinson Cano.

The Red Sox have not invested wisely, which is why they're one of the worst teams in baseball despite having the sport's fifth-highest payroll. With many of the aforementioned players still in the first year of their deals, it would be premature to label them sunk costs, but the early returns have not been good.

As such, Boston's newcomers have not improved the team as much as pundits predicted. What do you get after adding a bunch of expensive, replacement-level players to a last place team? A (more expensive) last place team. Cherington bought new parts, but they didn't fix what was broken.

And when you lose 91 games, as Boston did last year, it's because there's a lot broken. That much is evident again this year. Head over to FanGraphs, and you'll see the Sox rank in or just outside the bottom 10 in offense, baserunning, defense, and pitching. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a bad baseball team. You can be bad at one or two of those things and still win/fix them by October, but not all of them midway through the year. There's no quick fix for a bad lineup, pitching staff, and defense. Barring a remarkable July, Boston should be sellers at the trade deadline.
That look from Junichi Tazawa pretty much sums it up (Mass Live)
The Red Sox have begun to play better lately, however, perhaps showing signs of better things to come in the second half. Since bottoming out with a seven-game losing streak in mid-June, Boston has gone 10-6, its best stretch of baseball since April. The pitching has calmed down, several hitters appear to be turning it around, and the team as a whole appears to have jelled.

The offense, which pounded out a season-high 19 hits last night, has slowly but surely come to life. Ortiz has returned from the dead, putting one of his patented painfully slow starts behind him with eight home runs over the past three weeks. Mookie Betts and Sandoval have caught fire after a disappointing first two months, and Xander Bogaerts is getting better every day. Brock Holt has proved that last year's success was no fluke, and Pedroia was having his best season in years before falling victim to the injury bug.

The pitching, mercifully, has also started to come around. Clay Buchholz has stayed healthy, providing the bounceback season Boston desperately needed from him. He's on quite the roll, with a 2.13 ERA over his past nine starts. Eduardo Rodriguez has been electric since debuting at the end of May, emerging as the team's best starter after Buchholz. Miley's quietly turned his season around, too, going 7-3 with a 3.41 ERA since May 9th.

In addition to keeping the team in games, better starting pitching also helps prevent Boston's shaky middle relief from being exposed. The back of the bullpen has been stellar, with Koji Uehara and Junichi Tazawa providing their usual dominance at the end of games. Alexi Ogando's been a revelation as well, but they're the only Sox relievers with an ERA under 3.70. The less Farrell has to use Craig Breslow, Matt Barnes, and Robbie Ross, the better.

So on the eve of the Fourth of July, Boston's season is far from dead. Returning from a 5-2 road trip to an eight-game homestand that will take them into the All-Star Break, the Sox are poised to continue their recent success and build some momentum going into the second half.

The Red Sox have reached a critical juncture in their season. They're at a crossroads, and their performance over the next four weeks will determine how they'll fare for the rest of 2015. If Boston plays well in July, one would expect the Sox to be aggressive at the deadline in the hopes of gearing up for a potential playoff push. The AL East is so tightly packed that a few good weeks would vault the Sox right back into contention.

Should Boston continue to sputter, however, then all bets are off. Cherington has made major roster shakeups in both of the team's failed seasons during his tenure, and if he feels that 2015 is a lost cause then he's going to start building for 2016. So if the Sox don't pull it together by the end of July, there's a good chance many of them will be gone come August 1st.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

The Real NL All-Stars

That blur is Dee Gordon, perhaps the fastest man in baseball (Business Insider)
C Buster Posey
Posey's been the National League's best-hitting catcher (only Oakland's Stephen Vogt has been better with the stick) and most valuable backstop in baseball per fWAR. That makes him an obvious choice for his third All-Star selection.

1B Paul Goldschmidt
If not for Bryce Harper's incredible season, we'd be showering all that praise unto Goldschmidt, whose .350 batting average, .466 OBP, and 62 walks are tops in the major leagues. He's also blasted 20 home runs, stolen 15 bases, and racked up 5.4 bWAR--a rounding error below Harper's 5.5.

2B Dee Gordon
I know in my heart of hearts that Joe Panik is the better ballplayer and will probably end up with better numbers, but there's no denying Gordon's first-half accomplishments. He's having the kind of year Jose Altuve did last year, what with his .350 batting average (just a tick below Goldschmidt), 26 steals, and ML-leading 114 hits. His .411 BABiP is unsustainable, he never walks (10 free passes) and just hit his first home run of the year the other day (an inside-the-park job), but I'd love to see his game-changing speed on display at this year's game.

3B Todd Frazier
Really close call between Frazier and Nolan Arenado, who's been hitting out of his mind lately, but Frazier's already superior numbers are even more impressive when you remember Arenado gets to play half his games at Coors Field. Arenado's defense has been better, but Frazier's been the game's best-hitter at the hot corner. What's more, his 48 extra base hits and 186 total bases are tops in the majors.

SS Brandon Crawford
Troy Tulowitzki and Jhonny Peralta are bigger names, but Crawford's been the best shortstop in baseball this year by a considerable margin. His 11 home runs (a career-high), 47 RBI, and .207 ISO top the position, and he's a strong defender to boot. The Giants have arguably the best double-play combo in baseball between him and Panik.

Harper's the very definition of an All-Star (ABC News)
OF Bryce Harper
Harper's been the best player in baseball this year. There's really nothing more to say.

OF Giancarlo Stanton
It's a shame Stanton got injured, because he was on pace for close to 60 home runs and 150 RBI. Nobody's hit 60 homers since 2001, when Barry Bonds and Sammy Sosa both did it, and 150 RBI hasn't been done since Alex Rodriguez during his 2007 MVP campaign. Stanton's the only player today capable of such historic power numbers, so let's wish him a speedy recovery.

OF Joc Pederson
I'm already growing tired of the Kris Bryant-Pederson rookie race coverage, but I can't wait to see what Pederson will do in his first All-Star Game. He's having a Jose Bautista-type season with a .240-ish average but stellar power and on-base numbers, and he also happens to be a pretty good center fielder. The 23 year-old is the NL version of Mike Trout.

As for who the starting pitcher should be, well, that's easy. Ladies and gentlemen: Max Scherzer.

The Real AL All-Stars

Cabrera is worthy of what would be his 10th career All-Star selection (Scout)
Today is the final day for fans to submit their All-Star ballots, which means today's your (and mine) last chance to determine who gets to start this year's Midsummer Classic.

I always wait until the last possible second to see how the stats shake out so I can make the most accurate comparisons possible. I'm a firm believer that the All-Star Game should reward the best players in the first-half, not necessarily the biggest names in the game. As such, I vote based on who I believe has been the top player at each position.

C Stephen Vogt
Vogt and Russell Martin are neck-and-neck in terms of overall value, but since Vogt's offensive numbers are clearly superior (he holds a 70 point edge in OPS despite playing in a much tougher ballpark) and defensive metrics, especially for catchers, are still somewhat murky, I'm taking the 30 year-old breakout. He's been the best-hitting backstop in baseball this year, surpassing even Buster Posey.

1B Miguel Cabrera
Whereas the National League has a glut of qualified first-sackers this year, Cabrera's clearly the top choice in the AL. After a "down" 2014, he's reclaimed his title as the best hitter in the Junior Circuit, if not baseball. In addition to batting .344 with 15 home runs and 53 RBI, he currently leads the league in OBP (.448), OPS (1.023) and OPS+ (182).

2B Jason Kipnis
Kipnis--the league leader in fWAR and bWAR--should be an easy call. Not only is he leading the league in hits (106), average (.346), and doubles (26), but he just had one of the greatest May performances of all-time. Brian Dozier, Jose Altuve, and Dustin Pedroia have been great too, but to me there's no excuse for picking anyone other than the league's best player. I swear if Omar Infante winds up as the starting second baseman, I'm never watching another All-Star Game again.

3B Josh Donaldson
Donaldson and Manny Machado are about even offensively, but I give the slight edge to Donaldson because of his superior power numbers. That, and he's been the most valuable third-sacker in the sport.

SS Jose Iglesias
As tough as it was to overlook his meager counting stats (16 runs! 11 RBI! Nine extra base hits!), I picked Iglesias over his only serious competitor, former teammate Xander Bogaerts, because Iglesias has been a better defender, baserunner, and hitter on a per at-bat basis. No, I don't think his .320/.372/.378 line is going to hold, but right now that's better than Bogie's .289/.324/.404. And while Bogaerts has made great strides in the field this year, he's still nowhere near the elite gloveman that Iglesias is.
The All-Star Game was made for players like Trout (Hardball Talk)
OF Mike Trout
An All-Star Game without Mike Trout would be, well, boring. The reigning MVP is currently pacing the league in slugging (.590) and bWAR (tied with Kipnis) while ranking second in OPS (.983), OPS+ (178), home runs (to teammate Albert Pujols), and total bases (171).

OF Jose Bautista
Ignore the .241 batting average and marvel instead at his .385 OBP and .510 SLG--good for a 148 OPS+. The AL-leader in walks has since recovered from his slow start and is on track to top 30 homers and 100 RBI again. Joey Bats has been an All-Star each of the past five years, and I'm inclined to think he deserves a sixth straight nod.

OF Brett Gardner
Gardner might seem like a surprising choice (I also considered J.D. Martinez and Adam Jones), but he's quietly having a great season for the Yankees. His well-rounded game (sixth in the league in oWAR, eighth in position player WAR) has produced a .304/.373/.495 (139 OPS+) batting line, 58 runs, and 15 steals in 18 attempts. He's been phenomenal in Jacoby Ellsbury's absence, flashing a .925 OPS out of the leadoff spot and manning center field. Suffice it to say, he's a big reason why the Yanks are only half a game out of first.

DH Nelson Cruz
Cruz is proving that his monster season with Baltimore last year was no fluke, especially now that he's playing in a much tougher ballpark in Seattle. He's continued to be among baseball's best sluggers, ranking third among American Leaguers in home runs (20), slugging (.557), total bases (160), and adjusted OPS+ (164).

And while I'm at it, the starting pitcher should be Chris Sale. Only one other guy has ripped off eight straight starts with 10 or more K's, and he's going into the Hall of Fame this summer.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Rays' Resilience

Archer and co. have pitched the Rays into contention (ISportsWeb)
Before Opening Day, the Red Sox and Blue Jays were the two teams most favored to win the AL East. Nobody gave the Rays, who finished 2014 with a losing record and recently lost Ben Zobrist, David Price, and the best manager in baseball (Joe Maddon) much of a chance. While their pitching looked great, their offense, or severe lack thereof, appeared to be a fatal shortcoming, and nobody knew what to expect from rookie skipper Kevin Cash. For the first time since becoming a powerhouse in 2008, people were picking them to finish last in their division.

Now, nearly halfway through the season, they are tops in the AL East. This isn't merely a recent development, as they've been in first or second place every day since April 24th. Until this week they were red-hot, too, having completed a torrid three-week stretch in which they went 15-5.

With each win and every day atop the standings, Tampa Bay continues to defy the pundits who forecast mediocrity for them in 2015. They've fashioned the third-best record (42-34) in the American League despite scoring just 18 more runs than they've allowed, a run differential that suggests their talent is closer to that of a .500 team than a division leader. Their record also equals that of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team with the highest payroll in baseball at approximately $275 million--or $200 million more than the 28th-ranked Rays are spending this season.

This is nothing new, as Tampa Bay has been assembling terrific teams without much cash or offensive firepower for years now. Their budgetary constraints and pitching-friendly ballpark have prevented them from building the type of potent, star-studded lineups found elsewhere in their division, and this year is no different in that regard. The Rays rank third-to-last in the American League in runs scored, which corresponds to their bottom-five rank in doubles, average, slugging, and OPS.

Their best hitter and franchise cornerstone, Evan Longoria, is mired in another disappointing season, and because of injuries to James Loney and Desmond Jennings he's not had much help. Were it not for the unexpected production of Steve Souza (a team-high 14 home runs), Logan Forsythe (.835 OPS) and Joey Butler (.845 OPS), the Rays would undoubtedly rank last in scoring. Tampa Bay has compensated for its deficiencies at the dish with aggressive baserunning and sound defense, as the Rays rank second among AL teams in stolen bases and fielding percentage.

Tampa Bay's real strength, as expected, has been their pitching, which boasts the lowest ERA in the Junior Circuit. This comes as something of a surprise given that two of their best starters, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb, haven't thrown a pitch for them in 2015. Cobb, who underwent Tommy John surgery in May, won't be coming back (neither will Drew Smyly, who managed just three starts before needing shoulder surgery). but Moore, who had the same procedure last year, is due back this week. An All-Star and Cy Young candidate the last time he was fully healthy, Moore figures to bolster what has been the second-stingiest rotation to date.

In their absence, Chris Archer has emerged a legitimate Cy Young candidate. He currently leads the American League in ERA (2.01), WHIP (0.95), and ERA+ (194). The 26 year-old has taken the leap after a pair of good but hardly-great seasons, displaying improved command (trimming a full batter off his career walk rate) and harnessing his elite strikeout potential (10.7 K/9) in his third full season. Jake Odorizzi was also in the midst of a breakout season (2.47 ERA, 1.02 WHIP) before landing on the disabled list with a strained oblique. The Rays are eagerly awaiting his return, which should be soon.

The rotation's true X factor has been Nate Karns, who had all of five big league starts under his belt prior to this season. Thrust into the rotation because of injuries, he's already tripled that number this year. More important than the quantity of his innings has been the quality, which has been better than anyone could have expected: his 3.28 ERA is nearly half of what his career mark was coming into the season.

Tampa's shutdown bullpen has been every bit as impressive, with its top five relievers in terms of appearances all flashing sub-three ERAs. A sixth, Jake McGee, has been stellar since making his way back from offseason elbow surgery, re-asserting himself as the team's top fireman with a 1.69 ERA and absurd 24/1 K/BB ratio. The former closer has been invaluable as the setup man for Brad Boxberger, who had just three saves to his name coming into the year but has already racked up 20. Thus, on the rare occasions when Rays starters struggle, their formidable bullpen is capable of stopping the bleeding and giving Tampa's offense a chance to climb back into the game.

So with Loney, Moore, Odorizzi, and John Jaso due back in the coming weeks, the Rays should enjoy a considerable boost from their midseason reinforcements. Odorizzi and Moore will make a great rotation even better, while Jaso and Loney should provide offensive upgrades over their placeholders (Rene Rivera, Jake Elmore) behind the plate and at first base. So although there are three teams within two games of Tampa Bay, it's possible the Rays won't need to add much at the trade deadline.

It's also possible that, as well as the Rays have played thus far, their best is yet to come.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Boston's Former Cardinals Crash and Burn

Joe Kelly will try to figure it out in the minors (Yahoo Sports)
With Joe Kelly's demotion to Triple-A Pawtucket today, the Red Sox have officially lost last summer's trade with the St. Louis Cardinals--the one that sent John Lackey packing to St. Louis in return for Joe Kelly and Allen Craig, neither of whom are currently on the big league roster..

In fact, I think it might be the worst trade Ben Cherington has ever made. Kelly and Craig have both been massive busts in Boston, while Lackey has continued to be an effective starter for the Cards. Kelly has not developed into a viable starting pitcher, much less the Cy Young winner he predicted he'd be. With a 5.67 ERA and 1.50 WHIP, he's been one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball this year. At this point, his best bet is to take his heater to the bullpen, where he may enjoy a renaissance a la Andrew Miller.

As for Craig, he has yet to rediscover the stroke that made him a .300 hitter and one of the league's best RBI men. Not even Fenway Park could help restore the former All-Star's bat, as he's hit a meager .130/.235/.192 since joining the Red Sox. His age, injury history, non-existent production, and costly price tag (he'll earn $11 million next year) makes him all but untradeable.

Meanwhile, Lackey has continued to thrive in St. Louis. He faded down the stretch last year but has bounced back strong this year, posting a 3.41 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 3.14 K/BB ratio. He's been one of the most reliable starters for the first-place Cardinals, leading the staff in innings pitched and helping pick up the slack in Adam Wainwright's absence. Even at 36, he shows no signs of slowing down.

At the time, trading a veteran starter in his mid-30s for a hard-throwing hurler in his mid-20s made plenty of sense, but taking on Craig's costly contract and expecting him to bounce back proved to be too much of a gamble. Boston really could have used Lackey in its rotation this year, and had absolutely no need for Craig given its already-crowded outfield situation when he arrived. Now it looks like the Sox are stuck with him, unless they can convince somebody that regular playing time will rejuvenate the soon-to-be 31 year-old's bat.

I still think Kelly has a future as a shut-down reliever, but that's not as valuable as a reliable starting pitcher, especially given the struggles of Boston's rotation this year. This trade is just one of many reasons why the Red Sox have underperformed this year, but it's now clear that they'd be better off had Cherington never done this deal.