Thursday, November 26, 2015

Longoria Losing Power and Patience

Longoria's suffered two down years in a row when he should be in his prime (TBO)
For the first six years of his career, Evan Longoria was the best position player in baseball. Despite losing over a year's worth of games to injury, his combination of elite glovework at third base and a top-shelf bat made him a superstar when healthy.

Then 2014 happened. Injuries weren't the issue, as Longoria played all 162 games for the first time, but his production cratered. He'd been so good up to that point, though, and he was only 28, so it looked like nothing more than an off-year. Surely Tampa Bay's $100 million third baseman would bounce back.

He didn't. His numbers improved slightly, but his 2015 was essentially the same as his 2014. Once again he was healthy, appearing in all but two games, so injury-woes were not to blame. That made two down years in a row for Longoria, in what were supposed to be his prime years.

I don't have to tell you that unless there's a career-altering injury involved, great athletes typically don't get dramatically worse during their late 20s. Oftentimes, many get better. They're still young enough to be in their physical primes, but experienced enough to have acclimated to major league competition. These are supposed to be an athlete's greatest seasons.

For Evan Longoria, they have been his worst.

Longoria has had a weird career. When he debuted at 22 in 2008, he was mostly a finished product, winning Rookie of the Year unanimously and blasting 27 homers. He only improved from there, looking like a surefire MVP for years to come as he entered his mid-20s. All he had to do was take his game a little bit higher.

He never did. Injuries caused him to miss 117 games between 2011 and 2012, his age-25 and -26 seasons. He came back strong in 2013, playing 160 games and finishing sixth in the AL MVP vote, but his production had plateaued. Longoria was still a great player, just not quite the dominant force he seemed poised to become.

Over the last couple years, however, Longoria has slipped from a great player to a merely good one, declining in all facets of the game. The two-time Gold Glove winner hasn't won since 2010, with metrics now suggesting he's much closer to an average fielder than the vacuum cleaner he was previously. His baserunning has also fallen off considerably. While never a burner, he was an asset on the basepaths through the first three years of his career, stealing 31 bases in 36 attempts and providing a full win's worth of value over an average runner. In the five years since, he's managed just 14 steals and been four runs worse than average on the bases, providing positive value with his legs in just one year.

Defense and speed peak early, however, so it's not surprising that Longoria's lost some of both as he's advanced into his late 20s. What's concerning is how he's become a league average hitter after previously producing like David Ortiz.

How did Longoria fall so far, so fast? A major red flag is his plummeting walk rate, which has declined every year since 2011. Once a very patient hitter, he's now drawing free passes at a roughly league average rate. Longoria's chasing, and hitting, more pitches outside the zone than ever before, which explains both his eroding walk rates and hard-hit frequencies. He's swinging more in general, too, which wouldn't be a bad thing if he hadn't started hacking at so many non-strikes.

It could be that Longoria's new aggression is in response to seeing more first pitch strikes than ever before. Part of that's due to the larger strike zone, but it's also likely that pitchers have recognized Longoria's willingness to let the first offering go by. In 2015 the league hit just .225/.265/.344 after falling behind 0-1. Longoria isn't much better, batting .234/.277/.388 for his career after first pitch strikes. Since he's seeing more of those, it follows that his numbers have nosedived. And since he's on the defensive more often, he has to chase more often, thus explaining the loss of patience.

What's really troubling, though, is Longoria's loss of power. After averaging 33 home runs per 162 games with a .237 ISO through his first six seasons, he's averaged just 22 with a .158 ISO over the past two. His doubles were down too, from 41 per 162 games to 31, so it's not like he was just getting unlucky with his HR/FB rates (though those are down too).

The reason for Longoria's diminished power is simple (and one I alluded to earlier); he's not hitting the ball as hard as he used to. The only time he had a worse hard-hit % than he did the last two years was in his injury-hampered 2011. Meanwhile, his soft contact rate nearly doubled from 2013 to 2015, and his medium contact rate is up as well (the only time it was higher; 2009). This data, along with his rising pop-up rates, suggest he's not squaring up the ball as well as he used to. That's a side effect of hacking, to be sure, but he also might be losing strength and bat speed as he ages.

Longoria's career seems to be following the same path as David Wright's. Both peaked early and were at their best in their mid-20s, looking like future Hall of Famers. Then their performance started dropping off in their late 20s, because of injuries with Wright and the reasons outlined above with Longoria. Wright has yet to recapture the consistent greatness he exhibited through his first five seasons, and it seems unlikely that Longoria--who just turned 30 last month--will either.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Cano Can Still Rake

Cano collapsed in the first half last year (Fox Sports)
Apparently, Robinson Cano isn't happy in Seattle. Good thing he only has eight years to go on his current contract, which he signed prior to the 2014 season. Last time I checked, the Mariners were giving him 240 million reasons to be very, very happy.

Maybe it's because they haven't made the playoffs since he got there (they recently fired their GM, so there's a lot of uncertainty around the team right now, too). Maybe the weather's getting him down. Maybe he hates Starbucks.

I don't know. All I know is, happy or not, he's continued to produce. Even when he has one of the worst first halves I've ever seen.

Somehow, he still ended up with tremendous numbers. Somehow, he righted the ship after taking on water for three months. Cano has always been a better second-half hitter, but he'd never had a first half as ugly as this.

It all began innocently enough, with a tough opening week for the All-Star second baseman. Seeing as how plenty of players start slow--they're still getting their timing back and adjusting to better quality pitching than they faced in spring training--nobody noticed. They certainly couldn't have known it was the start of a three-month malaise.

That bad first week quickly snowballed into a bad first month, which saw Cano hit just .253/.292/.374 with one home run and six RBI in April. It was his worst April since 2008--his worst season--so that should have been a sign that his struggles were far from over.

At the time, though, it seemed to be nothing more than a slow start. Cano had been so consistently good for so long, enjoying a decade of uninterrupted brilliance (excluding '08), that his poor April barely registered. Anyone can have a bad month--it just so happened that Cano's was the first one, when there are no other stats to mask it. Besides, his month wasn't even that bad. Sandwiched in between a pair of sluggish weeks was an 11-game hit streak, over which he batted .409. He'd be fine. Did I mention that Cano usually starts slow?

His May was even worse. After starting to pull out of his funk in early May, Cano went ice-cold, batting his weight with just two extra base hits over the month's final three weeks. When the calendar flipped to June, Cano's slash stats were even worse than when May began. A third of the season had passed, and he had two home runs and 16 RBI to show for it.

By this point the fans and media were growing restless. "What was wrong with Cano?" they asked. "Where had his power gone?" "Am I crazy to drop him like a hot potato from my fantasy team?"

Historically, April and May have been the worst months of Cano's career, so there was hope that he'd get back to his old self in June, especially as the weather warmed. At the very least, positive regression to the mean would give him a boost. He couldn't possibly be any worse.

Except that he was. Cano had almost as many hitless games (11) as games with hits (14), which dragged his average down below .240. He struck out 22 times against a mere four walks. And his once prodigious power? Nowhere to be found.

It was incomprehensible that a perfectly healthy Cano could enter July hitting just .238/.277/.344 with four home runs and 24 RBI. Alarm bells were going off everywhere. His power had evaporated, he was striking out more than ever before, and his walks were down. This wasn't just a slump--this was a 32 year-old second baseman falling off a cliff. Dave Cameron said as much when he wrote Cano had the lowest trade value in baseball.
Cano flipped a switch in July and was fine the rest of the way (NY Post)
Yet, even in the midst of that deep-freeze, there were still signs that Cano would turn it around. Grantland's Jonah Keri noted that Cano was flashing one of the 20 best exit velocities in baseball. He was still hitting the ball as hard as ever--those rockets just weren't translating into hits. His BABiP was .277, nearly 50 points below his career average and almost 60 points off his 2014 mark. As long as Cano kept smoking line drives, it was only a matter of time before they began to fall.

And fall they did. Cano kicked off July with a 4-for-5 day--his first four-hit effort of the season--which included a double and a homer. Two days later, he rapped out three more hits, lifting his average up to .250. With nine hits in the week leading up to the All-Star Game, including three of the the extra base variety, he'd suddenly caught fire.

Without a Midsummer Classic or home run derby to compete in, Cano was able to get some much-needed rest and clear his head for a few days. It seemed to do him some good, for when the second half began he looked like the Cano of old. After swatting two home runs his second game back, against his former team in his old home park, he was off and running. He clubbed three more dingers before the month was out. When July ended, his OPS was 100 points higher than when it began.

Cano was just getting warmed up. After batting .337/.398/.622 in July, he raked at a .351/.403/.491 clip in August. He hit safely in 22 of 28 games that month, compiling a dozen multi-hit performances along the way. One of those was a five-hit day at Fenway Park; another was a four-knock night in Chicago. His OPS rose another 40 points in August as his batting line swelled to a respectable .283/.330/.416.

With Seattle playing out the string in September, Cano continued to mash. Saving his best for last, he recorded at least one hit in all but four of his final 42 games, blazing to the finish line on a 16-game hit streak. He also kicked his power up a notch, blasting seven home runs over the season's final month.

When the dust settled, Cano had batted .330/.383/.536 over his final 82 games, with 17 homers and 55 RBI. With even a normal first half, he would have finished with MVP-caliber numbers instead of the very good ones (.287/.334/.446--21--79) he wound up with.

Cano's remarkable turnaround was largely fueled by a bounce back in BABiP, which was .351 from July 1st onward. It's also possible that he benefited from a lineup change. After batting Cano third and occasionally second throughout the first half, Lloyd McClendon started hitting him cleanup after the All-Star Break and left him there. Cano had been hitting .252/.291/.384 before the switch but immediately went on an eight-game hitting streak, batting .333/.389/.528 the rest of the way.

So when baseball resumes in a few months, the Mariners would be wise to bat their best player fourth. He's far from done, and he's still worth every penny.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Plea to Peyton Manning

Manning has been benched but insists he can still play (Washington Post)
Please, Peyton Manning, don't come back next year. Don't go all Brett Favre on us.

We know you're a gunslinger, but don't try to make one last heroic stand. You're out of bullets. You won't go out in a blaze of glory--you'll go out with a whimper, like a sick dog who has to be put down.

This year you tried to prove that your putrid finish to last year was a fluke. Instead, this year proved that it wasn't.

Next year will be more of the same, probably even worse. You'll try to show you still have something left in the tank, when clearly you don't. You're too slow. Your arm's not strong enough. Your reflexes aren't sharp enough.

Don't give us another year of missed passes, ugly interceptions, and wobbly throws, Don't cloud all our great memories of you with the sad sight of you hanging on too long. No more games like the one you had against Kansas City.

Nothing good will come of your stubborn return. You have nothing left to prove. You're a Super Bowl champion and the greatest quarterback of all time (statistically speaking). You don't need to take any more big hits, not when you have a surgically repaired neck. Not when a guy twice your size could shut your lights off.

Nobody blames you for coming back this year. You were so good last year. You wanted one more ring so little brother Eli, an inferior signal-caller in every regard, wouldn't finish with more than you. A return to form seemed possible.

It didn't happen. It usually doesn't for 39 year-olds. So what makes you think it will at 40? At some point, you just have to admit you can't do it anymore. We've reached that point.  You've been replaced by Brock Osweiler. Brock. Osweiler.

If you have a shred of dignity, you'll stop sulking, mentor the new kid, and call it quits after this year. You won't try to latch on with another team that will give you a chance. You'll bow out gracefully on your own terms, rather than be forced out when you fall apart again next year. Then you can get on with the rest of your life, which I'm sure will involve lots of commercials.

Please, Mr. Manning, don't make us suffer through another season of you stumbling around the pocket. Don't subject yourself to any more criticism. Just do us all a favor and just walk away.

Friday, November 20, 2015

My 2015 MLB Award Ballot

Just realizing I never released my unofficial ballot, as MLB awards week really snuck up on me this year. So now that the votes are in, here is how I would have filled out my ballot, if I had one.


1. Dallas Keuchel
2. David Price

AL Rookie of the Year

AL Manager of the Year
2. Jeff Bannister


NL Cy Young
1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Jake Arrieta
3. Zack Greinke

NL Rookie of the Year

NL Manager of the Year

Harper Wins Handily, Donaldson Defeats Trout

For the third time in four years, Trout was denied an MVP he deserved to win (LA Times)
This year's MVP race featured a pretty easy call in the National League and a brutally tough call in the American League. As usual, the BBWAA knocked the meatball out of the park but froze on the outside curve at the knees.

To be fair, that tough call was borderline impossible. Mike Trout's stats and Josh Donaldson's stats were virtually identical, and when that happens you tend to see voters falling back on wonky criteria to make their decisions, i.e. whose team made the playoffs, who had the better second half, who was part of a better story, etc. I'm sure some also felt less compelled to vote for Trout since he won last year, whereas Donaldson had never won.

Still, the fact remains that in tight races, the BBWAA seems to get the calls wrong more often than not. I'm thinking back to all those years Ted Williams lost out to his Yankee rivals (usually Joe DiMaggio), when Roger Maris edged out Mickey Mantle twice, how Sammy Sosa sneaked off with Mark McGwire's trophy, and the recent Trout and Miguel Cabrera debates. I could go on and on--Albert Pujols vs. Ryan Howard, Matt Kemp vs. Ryan Braun, any shortstop vs. Juan Gonzalez. Maybe I'm just not remembering the times voters have gotten the close ones right, but I can think of many more examples where the opposite was true.

I'm really starting to feel bad for Trout. The dude should have four MVPs by now, and instead he just has one and three second-place finishes. While that's still an impressive accomplishment, there's no trophy for second place. He could/should have been the first player in baseball history to be a four-time MVP before his 25th birthday, not to mention the only player not named Barry Bonds with more than three. Instead, he's still searching for his second.

Trout's starting to suffer from the Willie Mays effect, which is that even though everyone acknowledges him as the best all-around player in baseball, they still find ways to give the MVP to someone else. His seasons are all so great that none of them feel special anymore; it's just business as usual, another ho-hum nine-win season from Trout. People don't appreciate just how ridiculously good he has been--the best ever in baseball history at his age up to this point.

It's probably no coincidence, either, that despite leading American League position players in bWAR four years in a row, the only year he won MVP was the year his team made the playoffs--and that was his worst season individually! The other three times, he lost out to an inferior player on a postseason team. Voters are still failing to isolate the player from the team.

People didn't have that problem with Harper, who was far and away the best player in baseball this year even though he played for one of the most disappointing clubs in recent memory. The failures of his teammates not named Max Scherzer didn't stop him from winning unanimously, becoming the youngest player to do so (Trout had been the previous record-holder after winning unanimously last year).

It also helped that Harper had the trophy locked up by Memorial Day, surviving historic second halves from Joey Votto and Jake Arrieta. Of course, the MVP at the end of May isn't always the MVP come October, as we saw with Josh Hamilton in 2012 and Troy Tulowitzki in 2014, but Harper hit plenty over the season's final four months to protect his lead. When the dust settled, he had the highest WAR, OBP, slugging, OPS, and OPS+ in the majors, not to mention the most runs and long balls in the National League. Not even a surprise strangling by Jonathan Papelbon could knock him off. 

Harper is very much a modern MVP winner in that he won because he had the best numbers.  Even though he came from a crappy team, failed to drive in 100 runs, didn't play a premium position, and was not well-liked throughout the game--reasons voters might opt for someone else--he still won unanimously. His numbers were simply too overwhelming.*

*Which is funny, because he had the kind of season Ted Williams used to have every year, only Williams was usually dismissed for all the reasons I just mentioned
Unlike the AL award, the NL MVP was never in doubt (ABC6)
So while the NL race was effectively over by June, the American League remained an epic back-and-forth struggle between Trout and Donaldson throughout the summer. Whenever one seemed to take the lead, the other would get hot and pull even again.

The stretch that sealed it for Donaldson was the six weeks between the end of July and middle of September. Toronto took off during that time, rising from a game under .500 to first place in the AL East, leapfrogging three teams to get there. Donaldson went out of his mind during his team's ascension to the top of the standings, batting a sizzling .364/.433/.755 with 14 homers and 49 RBI over 39 games from July 29th through September 11th. With the Blue Jays firmly in control of first, no one seemed to notice how much he tailed off over the season's final three weeks, losing 31 points from his OPS.

While Toronto and Donaldson were kicking it into high gear for the stretch drive, Trout and the Angels were falling apart. Fourteen games over .500 and leading the AL West on July 23rd, Los Angeles plummeted to a game below .500 and 7.5 out of first by the end of August. Not surprisingly, LA's slide coincided with Trout's worst month as a professional. From August 1st through August 29th he batted .194/.336/.290 with just six extra base hits and six RBI.

Both rebounded in September, but were unable to make up the ground they lost in their late summer swoon. The Angels missed out on the second wild card by one game, and Trout was unable to overtake Donaldson in the MVP vote.

He should have. Trout was the best hitter in the American League--his raw OPS was 52 points better than Donaldson's in a much tougher hitting environment--while playing center field, a more demanding position than third base (Donaldson's position). Donaldson had better counting numbers, but that was largely because he had better hitters around him and walked less, so he ended up with 45 more at-bats even though Trout played one more game. Besides, we know stats like runs and RBI are team-dependent and thus should not hold much weight in these discussions.

So how did Donaldson win? Trout won last year, which probably hurt him, but I think the real reason was that that Donaldson had narrative on his side. He comes over in a blockbuster trade and then immediately leads his team to the postseason--their first playoff berth in 22 years, mind you--his very first year there. He had plenty of help from Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Russell Martin, and David Price, but people seem to think Donaldson, like Maris coming to the Yankees in 1960 or Bonds going to San Fran in '93, made the difference.

I don't think so. I think Toronto still makes the playoffs with Brett Lawrie at third, all else being equal but they probably don't win the division. Los Angeles, on the other hand, wouldn't have even sniffed the second wild card were it not for Trout. They had a negative run differential with their superstar center fielder, so they surely would have had a losing season without him. Trout single-handedly turned a mediocre team into a contender, whereas Donaldson made a contender the best team in the American League.

I'm more impressed by what Trout did for LA than what Donaldson did for Toronto. Then again, I'd still vote for Trout even if the Angels had lost 100 games. Because the best player is the most valuable, and once again Trout was the best.