Thursday, August 14, 2014
So yesterday's Ken Boyer vs. Ron Santo post got me thinking about another debate between a borderline Hall of Fame guy and a recent inductee. With Jim Rice's place in the Hall of Fame secure, Dick Allen deserves a plaque as well. And if there's only room for one of them, well, then it should be Allen no question.
But Rice is in, and Allen is not. The voters deemed Jim Ed worthy of a berth in Cooperstown. How they did not come to the same conclusion with Allen is beyond my comprehension. I mean, if Jim Rice is a Hall of Famer (which he is, even if many feel that he shouldn't be), then Dick Allen is absolutely, positively a no-brainer Hall of Famer. Rice made it into Cooperstown on his hitting and his hitting alone, and the numbers clearly show that Allen was a better baseball player. At the very least, Allen was a better hitter and more deserving candidate, essentially Jim Rice 2.0.
Let me explain. The similarities between the two as men and ballplayers are numerous. Both were tempestuous African American stars aggravated by the racist cities and times in which they played; mercurial sluggers with few friends in the media and stands; intense players worn down by the even more intense fans and press corps that all but suffocated them. Rice paid dearly for his surly demeanor, languishing on the writer's ballot for the full 15 years before he finally squeezed through Cooperstown's doors in his final year of eligibility. Allen, an even more polarizing figure, never came close to induction and is still waiting for the call.
Both were powerfully built righthanded sluggers with vicious swings that put the fear of God into opposing pitchers. Rice cracked 382 home runs, topping 40 once and winning three home run crowns. Allen socked 351, also exceeding 40 once and leading the league twice. Each was named AL MVP during the 1970s--Allen in 1972 and Rice six years later. Neither won a championship and both will be forever linked with teams that endured historic late season collapses (the '64 Phillies and '78 Red Sox) even though both enjoyed exceptional individual campaigns as their teams crumbled around them.
Rice played 16 years, one more than Allen, but because the former DH'ed and had better luck with injuries he was able to squeeze an additional 340 games out of his career. Thus, his counting numbers surpass Allen's in virtually every category except for walks and steals. Allen was much better at his peak though, with three seasons of at least 7.5 bWAR compared to Rice's one. Their numbers are remarkable similar on a 162-game basis:
Allen: 102 R 171 H 30 3B 7 3B 33 HR 104 RBI .292/.378/.534 313 TB
Rice: 97 R 190 H 29 2B 6 3B 30 HR 113 RBI .298/.352/.502 315 TB
Both burst on the scene with monster rookie seasons at the age of 22 (Allen copped Rookie of the Year honors and Rice would have too had he not debuted the same year as Fred Lynn), beginning a run of excellence that lasted over a decade until they dropped off dramatically before their 35th birthdays. Rice lost his lifetime .300 average, finishing at .298 like Mickey Mantle, and fell short of other notable milestones such as 400 homers, 1,500 RBI and 2,500 hits. Allen also fell short of 400 dingers, barely making it to 350, and failing to reach even 2,000 hits.
Allen last 3 years: .246/.334/.410 32 HR 142 RBI 0.5 bWAR
Rice last 3 years: .263/.330/.395 31 HR 162 RBI 0.0 bWAR
For a long time it looked as though that sudden, steep decline was going to keep Rice out of the Hall. With Allen it's even more pronounced, leaving his counting numbers well short of what many consider Hall of Fame quality from an outfielder.
But Allen's career totals are close to Rice's, and his slash stats are much better. Allen walked a lot--much more than Rice, who rarely took a free pass unless it was intentional. So while Rice outhit Allen .298 to .292 for their careers, Allen has the much higher on-base percentage at .378 to Rice's .352. That advantage, combined with the former's 32 point edge in slugging percentage, means Allen was a far better hitter over the course of their careers. The numbers bear this out, as Allen's .912 OPS, .400 wOBA and 156 OPS+ dwarf Rice's .854, .375 and 128. Allen also far outpaces Rice in batting runs above average, with 435 to Rice's 297, and outranks him by almost 25 offensive WAR, which combines hitting and baserunning. Allen was an above average baserunner while Rice was below average, but that's not enough to explain the huge gap in their offensive production.
Rice has no excuse, as he benefitted from batting in the middle of Boston's fearsome lineups and playing half his games in baseball's best hitter's park at the time. Allen did not enjoy these same advantages. He played in the National League, which everyone knows was the superior league during the 1960s and '70s (read: more competitive), and did not enjoy the same level of supporting talent or the perks of playing in Fenway.
This is apparent in their neutralized numbers. Rice's barely change, as his friendly home park negated the difficulties of playing the offense-suppressed 1970s and '80s. Allen's figures improve considerably, however. His batting line jumps to .307/.396/.561, raising his OPS to more than 100 points higher than Rice's. He's also credited with 378 homers, 1,261 RBI, nearly 2,000 hits and almost 1,000 walks. Still borderline numbers, but more comparable to Rice's at least.
There's not much point comparing their defense because frankly, both were terrible. If Rice had been good he wouldn't have DH'ed so much, but in his defense the Red Sox already had a tremendous left fielder in Carl Yastrzemski when he arrived. Rice eventually turned himself into a halfway decent defender as he learned to handle the Green Monster, but never came close to matching the defensive prowess of his predecessor. Allen butchered every position he played; third base, first base and left field, but his offense was especially valuable during his time at the hot corner. The difference between a bad defender and a worse defender is not enough to compensate for the huge disparity in their hitting.
Even though Rice played the equivalent of two more full seasons and played better defense, Allen comes out significantly ahead in WAR. Baseball Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and FanGraphs all credit him with roughly 60 for his career, about 10 more than Rice. Based on his Hall of Stats rating of 115, Allen is a worthy Hall of Famer. With a score of just 82, Rice is decidedly not.
And yet, nearly 40 years after his last game, Allen is still on the outside looking in. Blame the writers for stiffing him, the fans for not supporting his candidacy, and Allen for being a giant jerk, but Richie's waited long enough. His omission from the Hall is one of Cooperstown's most glaring oversights. How could they pass over a hitter who was so great, Hall of Fame caliber for 15 years, for so long?
Allen made many enemies and they've kept him from coming anywhere close to induction. He never even received 20 percent of the vote in any of his 14 years on the ballot. Based on his on-field accomplishments, Allen should have been inducted long ago, and had he been a swell, stand-up guy like Dale Murphy he probably would have. Rice didn't have a lot of friends either, but eventually stances softened on him as people came around to seeing what a great hitter he had been. When is that going to happen with Allen? Will it ever?
Sabermetrics punched Bert Blyleven's ticket to the Hall of Fame, and with the same concerted effort Allen could get there one day as well. Unfortunately there just doesn't seem to be that same level of support for him. The grudges against him aren't going away. Who's clamoring for Dick Allen to take his rightful place in the Hall of Fame? Not very many, it seems, and if they're out there they're not being vocal enough. Allen might not seem like a Hall of Famer at first glance, but once you do a little digging it becomes as clear as day. He was one of the best hitters of not just his era, but baseball history. The Hall of Fame is a lesser place without him.
They say time heals most wounds, and in this writer's opinion enough time has passed to forgive Allen for his personal flaws and let bygones be bygones. The Wampum Walloper was baseball's best hitter for more than a decade, on par with contemporaries Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and Willie McCovey, and deserves to be commemorated in Cooperstown for it. Allen's in his early 70s now, and he might not be around much longer. Better to induct him while he's still alive and able to enjoy it, lest the Hall waits too long to open its doors to him a la Ron Santo. The ceremony will be long overdue, of course, but better late than never.
Tuesday, August 12, 2014
Okay, so this long-winded post is admittedly a few years overdue, but better late than never.
Now that Ron Santo has taken his rightful place in baseball's Hall of Fame, shouldn't Ken Boyer get to as well? I mean, they were pretty much the same player when you get down to it. Both were slick-fielding, power hitting third basemen that had 15-year careers in which they won five Gold Gloves apiece and were perennial All-Stars during their heyday. Each was voted one of the National League's 10 most valuable players 4 times, and together they won 10 of 11 NL Gold Gloves handed out at the hot corner between 1958 and 1968, with the stray trophy going to Jim Davenport in 1962.
The similarities don't end there, either. They both spent the majority of their careers with a Midwestern National League club (Boyer with St. Louis, Santo in Chicago). Heck, their careers even overlapped for ten years from 1960--Santo's rookie year--to Boyer's last season in 1969. And just look how similar their career numbers are!
Boyer: 1,104 R 2,143 H 282 HR .287/.349/.462 .810 OPS 116 OPS+ 62.8 bWAR
Santo: 1,138 R 2,254 H 342 HR .277/.362/.464 .826 OPS 125 OPS+ 70.4 bWAR
It should come as no surprise that Boyer rates as Santo's fourth-most similar batter, behind a pair of third basemen who deserve to go into the Hall someday--Adrian Beltre and Scott Rolen--and a classic borderline case in Dale Murphy. With almost identical career slugging percentages, their power was certainly comparable. Boyer enjoyed 12 straight seasons with at least a dozen long balls, one fewer than Santo. Both men had eight years with upwards of 90 RBI.
Santo, because of his advantages in power and on-base ability, has the edge as a hitter, but Boyer was a better baserunner and, according to the metrics, a superior defender as well. Though both played for 15 years, Santo was more durable and thus squeezed about an extra 209 games out of those years. Thus, his counting numbers are more impressive and closer to traditional Hall of Fame levels, whereas Boyer's would seem to fall short.
Boyer has other things in his favor besides better glovework, though. He won an MVP award and a World Series championship, two things Santo never achieved. Boyer also had a bit of speed as well, swiping 105 bases in his big league career with a high of 22 in 1955, his rookie season. Boyer is one of only seven third baseman with more than 250 big flies and 100 stolen bases. Santo, with only 35 career steals, was never the threat on the bases that Boyer was.
|Boyer beats the throw home to Yankee catcher Elston Howard in the '64 Series|
That proved to be Boyer's last hurrah, as his career quickly went downhill after the '64 Series (ditto Mickey Mantle). The primary problem with Boyer, as it is with so many guys who seemed to fall just short of the hall, is that he stopped hitting in his early 30s. He had ten great years, the last coming in his MVP year at 33, and then was essentially done. The same thing happened to Jim Rice, Vada Pinson, Tony Oliva, Dale Murphy, Dick Allen, and many others who find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to Cooperstown.
Boyer was also cursed with being boring. Never a flashy player, Boyer was consistent, and consistency is underrated. He hit 24 home runs four years in a row, batted over .300 four years in a row, and ended up with between 90 and 100 RBI six times in the seven seasons spanning 1956 to 1962. Had he come up with the handful of additional RBI necessary to push past 100 those years, he could have finished his career with eight 100 RBI seasons instead of two. I have to think that would have made a big difference in his Hall of Fame case. Voters back then loved big RBI totals and it would have been hard to ignore someone with eight seasons over 100. Likewise, if even just a few of his 24 homer seasons had been 30 homer seasons instead, Boyer would have eclipsed 300 career homers. As it were, he only had one season with more than 28 and managed just 40 over his final five seasons, falling 18 shy of 300 for his career.
As it is, Boyer is still a deserving Hall of Famer, albeit barely. His career bWAR score of 62.8 clears the threshold of 60 that typically defines a Cooperstown-caliber career. What's more, the average JAWS score of a Hall of Fame third baseman is 55.0, and Boyer's right there at 54.5. Though he falls a bit short on longevity, he makes up for it in peak value. He had six seasons where he was worth more than six wins, including two where he was over seven and two others with more than five. His peak WAR score ranks ninth at the position, better than Brooks Robinson and Miguel Cabrera and almost even with those of Adrian Beltre and Chipper Jones. A lot of that value stemmed from his defense, though he was still a terrific hitter. For those who prefer more traditional metrics, during his best seven-year stretch--1958-1964--Boyer averaged 155 games, 26 home runs, 101 RBI, a .303/.372/.500 batting line (128 OPS+), and totaled 45 bWAR.
That's a tremendous peak, something that's evident in his numerous All-Star appearances. Boyer's 11 All-Star Games (six starts) are the most of any third baseman not in Cooperstown, and everyone else who played in nine or more is in or will be (looking at you, Miguel Cabrera). It's one-fewer than Wade Boggs, Eddie Mathews, and Mike Schmidt, for God's sake, and two more than Santo. Obviously All-Star Games aren't everything, but they do reflect a player being recognized as one of the best at his position or in his league during a given year. And yes, Boyer's totals are skewed somewhat by the fact they played two Midsummer Classics per year from 1959 through 1962, so technically Boyer was an All-Star seven times. But still, seven All-Star nods is impressive.
The problem with Boyer is that he didn't have enough good years surrounding that peak. In two of the three seasons before it he clocked a 94 OPS+, and in the five years afterwards his aggregate OPS+ was 97. Boyer's case essentially rests on his first 10 seasons, and in two of those years he was actually subpar with the bat. So that leaves eight good seasons, and while they are very good, they don't jump off the page. I can see why many people don't view Boyer as a Hall of Famer, for the longest time I didn't either.
But now I see that in those ten years, Boyer was the second-best third baseman in baseball to Eddie Mathews. He was baseball's eighth-most valuable position player over that span behind seven slam-dunk Hall of Famers; Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Mathews, Al Kaline, Frank Robinson, and Ernie Banks. Consider that five of them were in the Senior Circuit in the time, and Boyer being named MVP looks even more impressive.
More than anything else, though, this right here is what put me on Boyer's side once and for all (and no, it wasn't the endorsements of former teammates Stan Musial and Tim McCarver). And that is from 1900 through 1968, Boyer's penultimate season, he was, according to WAR, the best third baseman not named Eddie Mathews. That means until the end of of the '60s, he had a legitimate claim as the second-best third baseman of the modern era, which by that point was near the end of its seventh decade. Case closed. That's enough for me.
Third base has traditionally been an underrepresented position in the Hall of Fame. That Santo, one of the 10 best third basemen ever, had to wait almost 40 years after his last game to go in (posthumously) remains one of the Hall's biggest mistakes. There are several more behind him lined up to go in, namely Boyer, Graig Nettles, and Dick Allen. It's too late for Boyer, who passed away more than 30 years ago, but better late than never. That's what the Veteran Committees are for.
Of course it all comes back to my original argument; if Boyer is basically Santo or just a tick below, and Santo's a deserving Hall of Famer, then by transitive property Boyer is too. It's really that simple.
Monday, August 11, 2014
On Friday night the Upton brothers homered in the same game for the fifth time, setting a new major league record in the process. Each touched Stephen Strasburg for a two-run dinger, with Justin's breaking a scoreless tie in the first and B.J.'s doubling the lead to 4-0 the following inning. The Braves survived a late rally from the Nationals and held on to win 7-6.
After another bomb by Justin yesterday, the Upton siblings now have 28 long balls between them this year; 20 from Justin and 8 off the bat of B.J.
That Justin Upton leads his older brother by such a big margin is hardly groundbreaking news, as the former has been a much better player since they came together to form two-thirds of the Braves outfield. But as recently as 2012, B.J. Upton could claim outright superiority in that department. At that point the elder Upton had outhomered his kid brother 118 to 108 with three 20-homer campaigns to Justin's two. B.J. had just popped a career-high 28 with the Tampa Bay Rays, while Justin had only managed a disappointing 17 with the Arizona Diamondbacks in a much friendlier park for hitters.
It's fascinating how much their careers have diverged since. In the three seasons before they joined forces in Atlanta, both players compiled 10.7 fWAR apiece. But seeing as how most of Justin's came during his stellar 2011 campaign and B.J. was between three and four wins every year, the latter could certainly claim to be more consistent.
At the time B.J. was coming off the better season, having just established personal bests in home runs and total bases (260). Justin was trying to forget a down year in which he hit 17 home runs with a .785 OPS and 2.1 fWAR, a far cry from his MVP-caliber 2011 that produced 31 homers, an .898 OPS and 6.1 WAR. For the second time in three seasons, WAR rated B.J. ahead of Justin.
The last two years, however, it's like they're playing in completely different leagues. B.J.'s fallen off a cliff since the ink dried on his instantly regrettable five-year, $75 million pact with Atlanta. In his 235 games with the Braves he's batted a paltry .197/.273/.310 (62 OPS+) with 17 home runs, 55 RBI and 297 strikeouts, making him a sub-replacement level player this year and last. Justin, on the other hand, has been comfortably above replacement level thanks to his still-dangerous bat, which since he was traded to Atlanta rates almost 30 percent better than average after adjustments for league and park.
With B.J. already an albatross and Justin a borderline All-Star, the disparity between the two has never been greater. It's just funny to think that not too long ago, B.J. was actually the better player.
Sunday, August 10, 2014
For more than a year now, playing in the shadow of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez has quietly been one of the best hitters in baseball.
It all started midway through last year, with Martinez scuffling at the plate after missing the entire 2012 season because of a torn ACL. Towards the end of June the then-34-year-old was hitting just .225/.283/.332, still shaking off the rust despite playing everyday for almost three full months.
Then, finally, the hits started falling for the slumping switch-hitter. He ripped off a 14-game hitting streak just before the All-Star Break, part of an incredible July in which he batted .390/.429/.581 with 41 base knocks. V-Mart remained red-hot through the dog days of August, roping 44 hits and batting .386/.449/.491 as a follow-up. In September he finally cooled off, but still strung together a 12-game hitting streak and batted .315/.367/.483 for the month to notch his fourth straight .300 season and seventh overall. All told, Martinez hit .370/.422/.519 over his final 82 games of the season, helping the Tigers go 49-33 in those games in narrowly beat out the Indians for the AL Central crown.
This year's been even better for Detroit's designated hitter, who's hitting for more power now than he has at any other point in his career. His .238 ISO and .560 slugging percentage are easily career bests, with the latter mark good for fifth in baseball among qualified hitters. His 23 home runs have him tied for ninth with Oakland bash brothers Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson and are only two short of his personal high.
Even at Martinez's advanced age (35), it's not unusual to see him hitting .321 or getting on base more than 38 percent of the time. The five-time All-Star is a .304 career hitter who's career walk to strikeout ratio is nearly even. He still retains the tremendous bat speed, sharp reflexes and remarkable strike zone recognition needed to keep up with today's flamethrowing hurlers.
No, what's curious about this year is his unexpected power resurgence. While Martinez has always been a great hitter, his power appeared to be declining. His slugging and isolated power decreased in the two seasons since he left the Red Sox, and he swatted only 26 home runs in those years after exceeding 20 five times between 2004 and 2010. Given his advancing age, diminishing HR/FB rates, and the cavernous outfield dimensions of his home field, Martinez losing power was only natural. It seemed unlikely to ever return.
He's reversed that trend this year, however, by trading a good number of ground balls for fly balls. With more elevation in his swing, he's kept his GB/FB rate under one for just the second time in ten years. More fly balls typically translates to more big flies, but Martinez is also benefiting from the best HR/FB rate of his career. At 16.2 percent, it's more than double his rates from the last two seasons (both in the low sevens) and much higher than his career rate of 10.5 percent.
Could it be a small sample fluke? Maybe. Martinez crushed 20 home runs through June 25th but has only three since, which could be an indication that regression under way. According to ESPN's nifty home run tracker, seven of V-Mart's bombs have qualified as "just enough." Take those wall-scrapers away and he's sitting on 16, still a good number but nowhere near the pace that has him on track for his first 30-homer season. But with an average true distance of 389 feet and average speed off the bat of almost 104 miles per hour, many of Martinez's dingers have been legit. Five qualify as no-doubters and eleven left the yard by plenty. Even without the aforementioned "lucky" shots he'd have already exceeded his home run totals from his two most recent seasons. His HR/FB rate would be 11.3 percent, still above his career average and the highest it's been since 2009. Put simply, his power surge is not an aberration.
By improving his pop at 35, Martinez has found a new way to defy baseball's aging curve. Ballplayers typically don't have their best power seasons in their mid-thirties unless they're using certain performance enhancing substances (see Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds) or move to a hitting-friendly venue (Adrian Beltre, Hank Aaron). Comerica suppresses home runs, so that means the second explanation is out. I don't mean to suggest that Martinez is on something, but in this day and age a semi-suspicious power spike from a 35 year-old former catcher does make one wonder.
But Victor Martinez has always been a great hitter and displayed the ability to hit for power before, so I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Great hitters like him stay great longer, especially when they don't have to play the field. All I'm really trying to say with this post is that V-Mart is a phenomenal hitter, and has been one for a long time. This year, he's been a great power hitter, which hasn't always been the case, especially recently, and that merits a closer look.
|Coghlan's been on base a lot lately (CSN Chicago)|
Until about a week ago, I'd completely forgotten the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year. After looking at his recent track record, it's not hard to see why.
In the four years between his rookie season and this one, he batted .242/.307/.352 with 12 home runs and 70 RBI in just over 1,000 plate appearances. Across 265 games he put up a 79 OPS+ and was worth -1.4 fWAR. Injuries played a big part in that, robbing him of almost the entire second half of his sophomore season (knee surgery), nearly 60 percent of his 2011 (inflammation in the same knee), and almost three months last year (lower back strain). In this regard he was like the National League equivalent of Grady Sizemore; an outfielder who'd shown tons of promise early in his career only to see his prime years ruined by injuries.
Still, the fact remains that when Coghlan was healthy enough to play during those years, he wasn't very good. So it came as no surprise that the Marlins, the only team Coghlan had ever known, non-tendered him last winter. It was time. Even bad teams like the Marlins can't afford to waste a roster space on a corner outfielder in his late 20s who can't hit, run, or field. With young Christian Yelich showing promise and ready to replace him, Miami had to cut Coghlan loose. No regrets and no hard feelings.
Closing in on 30, beaten down by injuries and five years removed his last (and only) good season, Coghlan looked like he was going to be remembered as one of those Rookies of the Year who fell off the map, a one-hit wonder whose best season just happened to come at the beginning of a career that, for whatever reason (injuries, failure to make adjustments, bad luck) never panned out. Added to the list of vaguely familiar names like Angel Berroa, Bobby Crosby, and Jason Jennings, recent Rookie of the Year recipients nobody remembers.
The rebuilding Cubs took a flier on him, giving him a minor league deal with an invitation to Spring Training. He wasn't on the big league roster when camp broke and was optioned to Triple-A Iowa, where he got on base a good amount (.379 OBP) but failed to hit a home run in 24 games there. He was basically Daniel Nava.
So it was somewhat surprising when the Cubs called him up in early May. Initially Coghlan played sparingly, limited to pinch-hitting duty and the occasional start. He began receiving regular at-bats in June and became more comfortable at the plate as a result. His batting line rose steadily throughout the month, from .139/.184/.139 on the first to .204/.281/.330 by the end of June.
In July, with the Cubbies no longer in contention, Coghlan began to shine. He hit safely in 13 of 14 games before the All-Star Break, catching fire and becoming a mainstay in Chicago's lineup. His power, dormant for so long, emerged as well with eight doubles and three homers.
Coghlan continued raking after the break, notching hits in 14 of 17 games to open the second half and raising his batting line all the way up to .302/.382/.498 after a 3-for-3 effort on August 6th.
It's been far and away Coghlan's best prolonged stretch of hitting since he batted .321/.390/.460 as a 24 year-old rookie in 2009. Rick Renteria, the Cubs manager, has responded by batting him leadoff, using Coghlan's on-base skills to jumpstart a lineup that doesn't have much offense outside of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo (much like how John Farrell's been batting Brock Holt leadoff to try to spark an otherwise lifeless Red Sox lineup). With Coghlan notching 13 multi-hit games and reaching base more than 46 percent of the time since the calendar flipped to July, scoring 23 times as a result, the move has paid off. He's setting the table and giving the guys behind him lots of opportunities to drive in runs, which is all anyone can really ask of a leadoff man.
Coghlan's unexpected comeback has been of the better stories in baseball lately, seeing as how he appeared to be out of a job not too long ago. A career-best walk rate and improved strikeout rate have fueled his success along with the highest HR/FB rate of his career and a more balanced batted ball distribution. His .337 BABiP is significantly better than average but not out of whack with his .320 career rate, though his .413 rate since the start of July screams small sample fluke. Accordingly, neither Steamer nor ZiPS expect the 29 year-old to keep hitting this way much longer. Both predict that his OPS to fall about 50 points between now and the end of the season, but neither one projects him to totally fall apart, either.
That's because for the first time in half a decade, Chris Coghlan's a legitimately good baseball player again.