Sunday, August 31, 2014

What's Wrong With Wright?

As the Mets play out the string on another noncompetitive season, half a game out of last place in the NL East and 10 below .500 entering play today, their struggles seem to have infected David Wright, their star third baseman. An All-Star each of the past two years, Wright's been one of baseball's five best players since he debuted in 2004. He's consistently hit for power and average, gets on base, and runs the bases well, all while offering good defense at a demanding position and serving as the face of New York's other baseball franchise.

This year, at the age of 31, he hasn't been doing any of those things. He's scuffling along at .263/.322/.363, well below his established career standards. He only has eight home runs and 56 RBI after averaging 22 and 88 over his first 10 seasons, and his ISo. this year isn't even half of what it was last year. He's been caught stealing nearly as many times (5) as he's been successful (6).

His walk rate--over 10 percent every year except his first--has fallen beneath 8 percent. And his strikeout rate--between 16 and 17 percent the last two years--has jumped to over 18 percent. After homering once every 23.3 at-bats prior to this season, he's gone deep just once every 62.4 at-bats in 2014.

Put it all together and Wright's on track for the worst non-injury affected offensive campaign of his career. My question is: why?

One reason is that Wright's BABiP, which traditionally has been north of .340, has fallen to .313 this year. Still better than the league average, but below average by his personal standards. If anything, Wright's BABiP should actually be higher than last year's, as he's hitting more line drives and ground balls, both of which can be expected to turn into hits more often than fly balls and pop-ups, of which Wright is hitting fewer this year. So yeah, there's definitely some bad luck in there. Give Wright his standard .340 BABiP and his average jumps to .290.

Still, what has to be more concerning for the Mets (who have Wright under contract through 2020, during which time they owe him $107 million) is his sudden loss of power. With the exception of 2009, when Citi Field opened, and 2011, when Wright was hurt, he has always provided big-time power numbers. His career slugging percentage was .506 through the end of last year, and a healthy Wright could always be counted on to supply 20-30 home runs and around 100 RBI.

This year Wright's been (mostly) healthy, playing in all but 10 of the Mets' games thus far. but the power numbers haven't been there. He homered on Opening Day, then didn't hit his next bomb until May 10th. He's in the midst of an even longer drought now, homerless since July 11th--a span of 40 games and 167 plate appearances. Wright's endured a massive funk since then, batting .211/.277/.237 with as many GIDP (10) as RBI and, of course, zero home runs. The second half has not been kind to Wright, who's been dogged by injuries but refuses to go on the Disabled List or shut it down for the year.

He's hitting slightly fewer fly balls than he did last year and compared to his career rate, but enough to explain such a massive decline in home runs. What's odd is that only 5.5 percent of Wright's fly balls have left the yard, easily the lowest of his career. The only other time that figure was below 12 percent was 2009, when Wright had to contend with the cavernous dimensions of Citi Field for the first time. But he's been playing there six years now, so the ballpark adjustment is no longer a viable excuse.

It could be that Wright, who's played only one full season over the past three, is simply wearing down at this stage of the year. Perhaps he's been affected by injuries (recent bouts of neck spasms and recurring right shoulder contusions) more than he lets on. Maybe 2014 is just a down year, nothing more than a fluke from which he will bounce back in 2015.

Or maybe this is the beginning of the end of David Wright as a great player. He's done worse against all pitch types this year except change-ups, with his biggest decline coming against fast balls. That would appear to be the sign of a slowing bat, if not an aging player.Wright's routinely crushed fastballs throughout his career, even in his lesser years, but this year he's been horrible against them. Opposing hurlers aren't pitching him any differently as far as what pitch they throw him, but they should be.

The only thing David Wright's done well this year is play above average defense at the hot corner, which combined with his roughly league average bat has helped him stay above replacement level. But the Mets aren't paying him $20 million this year (nearly one-quarter of their Opening Day payroll) to be a merely average player; they're paying him to be a superstar.

And if Wright's superstar days are truly behind him, then the Mets will most certainly regret locking him up through his age-37 season.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What Happened to Cano's Power?

Cano's having another excellent season despite middling power numbers
Robinson Cano went yard in Seattle's 5-0 win over the Texas Rangers last night, crushing a solo homer off Rangers starter Nick Martinez in his first at-bat of the game. The long ball, Cano's only hit of the game, was just his 12th of the year. That puts him on pace to finish the season with 15, his fewest since 2008 and a far cry from the 28 he averaged over his last five seasons in New York. His .143 ISo would be the second-lowest of his career, ahead of only 2008's .139 mark.

Obviously the Mariners were hoping for a bit more pop when they signed him to that crazy 10-year, $240 million contract last winter. Cano has shown some lately with five home runs since the start of August, but it's too little, too late for someone who managed only two through his team's first 64 games of the season.

So what's going on with Cano? The natural inclination is to blame his power drop-off on the switch from Yankee Stadium, a park perfectly suited for his pull-power stroke, to the offense-depressing wasteland known as Safeco Field. But Cano actually has more dingers at home (7) than he does on the road (5), so that's not it.

Rather, what appears to have happened is that Cano altered his swing, focusing on hitting to all fields as opposed to hammering everything to right field. This shift is evident in his splits, which reveal that Cano has become a phenomenal opposite-field hitter this year, but at the expense of success on balls he hits to other parts of the park.

2013 Pull .385/.385/.754
2014 Pull .313/.313/.646

2013 Middle .351/.347/.554
2014 Middle .360/.357/.434

2013 Oppo .387/.379/.548
2014 Oppo .459/.453/.682

So as you can see, what Cano's essentially done is reverse his strengths. In 2013, playing half his games at a park that rewarded lefthanded fly ball hitters, he was lethal when he used right field. Now, playing in a park with fences that are extremely difficult to clear, he's become more of a line drive spray-hitter. Rather than try to make his strengths work in his new digs, he's adjusted to his surroundings and become a different, albeit still great, hitter.

This modification is reflected in Cano's batted ball distribution, which shows a career-low fly ball rate and his highest ground ball rate since 2007. For the first time in his career he's hitting more than twice as many ground balls as fly balls, and when you do that it's very difficult to hit home runs.

The trade-off has resulted in more base hits for Cano, who's sporting his lowest strikeout rate in five years and batting .326, which if he sustains it will be his highest average since he hit .342 in 2006. Those extra hits, combined with his solid walk rate, are fueling his .394 OBP--a career-best and the third-best mark in the American League.

So while Cano's days of threatening 30 homers appear to be over, he's still every bit as effective at the dish as he was in 2012 and 2013--when he slugged 33 and 27 home runs--after adjustments for league and park. His 147 OPS+ this year is almost identical to the 148 mark he posted in both those seasons. He's still the best second baseman in baseball, an elite hitter, obvious All-Star, and intriguing MVP candidate.

Considering Cano hit only one home run each in April, May, and July, that's pretty freaking impressive.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Choo's Injury Caps Disappointing Season

Shin-Soo Choo's season is over. The Texas Rangers outfielder has a bone spur in his left elbow and will need to go under the knife in the next two weeks to remove it.

Under normal circumstances this would be a devastating blow for the Rangers, losing a player of Choo's ability a week before September, but their season has been anything but ordinary. A slew of injuries has turned a talented team that many thought would contend for first place in the AL West to the worst team in baseball.

Choo was one of the few Rangers to avoid serious injury, having played 123 of the club's 129 games to date. Unfortunately for the 32 year-old his good health did not translate into good production, as he scuffled through the worst season of his career since he began playing regularly in 2008.

Signed by the Rangers to a seven-year, $130 million prior to the season, Choo came to Texas with the reputation of a durable, 20/20 outfielder who got on base a ton. Installed as the team's leadoff hitter, he was expected to bolster the lineup as an elite table-setter for Adrian Beltre, Prince Fielder and Alex Rios. Instead, he showed none of the tools that made him an All-Star caliber player and turned out to be an enormous bust in the first year of his new deal--bad news for a player on the wrong side of 30.

Even before his injury, pretty much everything that could go wrong for Choo did go wrong. His .242 batting average and .340 OBP were his lowest marks since 2005, his rookie season, and his .374 SLG., .714 OPS and 100 OPS+ were his worst since 2007.  Compared to last year his walk rate plummeted, his strikeout rate soared, and his BABiP tumbled 30 points even though his batted ball distribution was virtually identical to what it was in his monster 2013 campaign.

Choo, always a poor hitter against southpaws, struggled mightily against righthanders as well, batting just .244/.348/.384 against them (down from .317/.457/.554 against righties a year ago). Versus righties he had trouble hitting pitches down the middle--something that should never be an issue for a hitter of Choo's caliber--and did noticeably worse on inside pitches as well. This development would seem to suggest diminished bat speed as a cause for his struggles and, based on his difficulties with fastballs this year, that's probably the case.

Decline is to be expected given Choo's age, but it was very surprising to see him become a nonfactor on the bases virtually overnight. Formerly a lock to steal 20 bags per year, he nabbed just three in seven attempts after swiping 96 over his previous five seasons. Throw in his shoddy defense in left field and frequent turns at DH, and he was a replacement level player at best.

Mercifully for Choo, his disastrous season is over. He can look forward to getting his swing right and returning to health in 2015, when hopefully for Texas he'll be able to start living up to his massive contract. Because if this is what Choo is going forward--a league average bat with middling power and limited speed who profiles as a corner outfielder/DH type--they're going to be stuck with his albatross of a contract for the rest of the decade.

Of course, Choo is still young enough that a bounce back isn't out of the question, especially if this injury was nagging him for awhile and caused his production to suffer. His proven track record is too distinguished and Texas is too good a hitter's park to write him off after one bad year. But the Rangers have to be prepared for the probability that they're not going to get back the impact player they thought they were getting last winter, and that what they saw from him this year might be as good as it gets.

Castro and Rizzo Rebounding

Castro and Rizzo are enjoying big bounce back years after disappointing 2013s
Baseball fans have been spoiled by the recent, immediate success of the sport's numerous young stars. With so many guys showing up and setting the world on fire right away--Buster Posey, Jose Abreu, Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Yasiel Puig, etc.--the bar has been raised for how top prospects are expected to perform once they reach the big leagues.

What's more common is for young players to experience ups and downs, deal with the growing pains that are a natural part of the development process. The league adjusts to players, exploiting their holes and weaknesses, forcing the players to make their own adjustments that ultimately help them become better ballplayers. They're supposed to make mistakes, learn on the job through trial and error. They're supposed to fail. Just look what's happened to Xander Bogaerts, Gregory Polanco, and Kelton Wong this year. Does anybody doubt that their futures are still incredibly bright?

The Chicago Cubs recently experienced these issues with two of their most promising young position players. In 2012 both Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo were 22 years old, hailed as an up-and-coming tandem of stars that was supposed to help turn their struggling franchise around. Castro made his second straight All-Star team that year, batting .283/.323/.430 with a career-high 14 home runs and 25 steals while playing solidly above average shortstop. Worth somewhere between 3 and 3.5 WAR that year, he was easily a top-10 shortstop overall and one of the five best in the National League.

Rizzo, in his first season with Chicago after being traded by San Diego that January, started the year in Triple-A but was in the majors by the end of June and made. He immediate impact, slugging four home runs in his first ten games and winning NL Rookie of the Month honors for July. Entrenched as the Cubs' everyday first baseman, he played well the rest of the way, finishing the year with a .285/.342/.463 slash line. He displayed good power as well, clubbing 15 doubles and 15 homers to go along with 48 RBI in roughly half a season (87 games).

Both appeared to be cornerstones of a rebuilding Cubs team that dropped 101 games in 2012 but had its eyes set on the future. Chicago improved marginally the following year, losing 96 games, but did so without much help from Castro and Rizzo. Castro bottomed out, flailing at the plate (hitting just .245/.284/.347 with a measly 72 OPS+) and regressing in the field, resulting in a sub-replacement level season.

Rizzo, despite once again showing good power (40 doubles, 23 dingers) and patience (76 walks), was also a disappointment. He batted only .233/.323/.419--roughly league average production when adjusted for league and park--and struck out 127 times in his first full season. He and Castro had been expected to improve, but instead appeared to take significant steps back.

This year both were selected to the NL All-Star team and appear to have gotten themselves back on track. Rizzo's emerged as one of the sport's top sluggers, with his 29 long balls just three shy of Giancarlo Stanton for the league lead. He's more than just a power hitter though, as his robust .278/.376/.510 batting line has made him one of the Senior Circuit's ten best hitters this summer, which is also evident in his high standing on many of the league's leaderboards.

Castro has also returned to form at the dish, with his .284/.333/.429 slash line nearly a dead ringer for his 2012 stats. He's one home run away from his personal best and needs only two more walks to tie his previous high. His defense has held steady compared to last year and he's all but abandoned his running game (four steals in seven attempts), but at least he's back to being one of the better-hitting shortstops in baseball.

The Cubs, who have improved again this year and can count on more hitting talent arriving shortly, have to be encouraged by these recent signs of progress. Castro and Rizzo are All-Star caliber players expected to be cornerstones of the organization's next postseason contender, which could be ready as soon as next year. For the Cubs to reach their full potential, Castro and Rizzo have to reach theirs, and based on their performance this year they appear to be doing just that.

Ranking Baseball's Best First Basemen

More than 70 years after his premature death, Gehrig is still the best
Writing about Jim Thome's recent retirement got me thinking about where he rates on the list of all-time great first basemen. Here's my top-10 list:

1. Lou Gehrig
75 years since the Iron Horse played the last of his 2,130 consecutive games, Gehrig is still the greatest first baseman of all time. Larrupin' Lou leads the position in OPS, OPS+, and JAWS score with both the highest career and peak WAR of any first sacker.

2. Albert Pujols
Pujols is very much the modern day Foxx. Their career OPS+ scores are dead even at 163 and bWAR has them less than half a win apart (in Foxx's favor). But since Pujols has played fewer games, he's been slightly more valuable on a per-game basis. He also comes out ahead in peak bWAR, which I believe since the numbers suggest he was a better baserunner and defender than Foxx while matching him with the bat. Thus, I give the nod to the Machine.

3. Jimmie Foxx
Double X was the righthanded Gehrig. When he hung up his spikes for good in 1945, his 534 home runs were the most by any man not named Babe Ruth.

4. Jeff Bagwell
Until Pujols came along, Bagwell had been the best first baseman of the post-World War II era. A tremendous all-around player, the 1994 NL MVP combined great power and plate discipline with speed and strong defense.

5. Frank Thomas
Thomas was a better hitter than Bagwell, but played more than half his games at DH. A career National Leaguer, Bags had no such luxury. It might very well have extended his career, which ended abruptly in 2006 spring training because of an arthritic shoulder. But even without the extra time at the back end of his career, Bagwell was still the superior ballplayer, which is reflected in his better bWAR (career and peak) totals.

6. Jim Thome
The recently-retired Thome has the most home runs and walks of any first baseman. A terrific slugger and on-base machine for many years, Thome was just a notch below Thomas.

7. Eddie Murray
Steady Eddie enjoyed two decades of uninterrupted productivity, from his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1977 through his final full and penultimate season in 1996. In between he made eight All-Star teams and won a trio of Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers. And while he never won a Most Valuable Player award, he was runner-up twice and finished in the top-eight eight times. He was a better defender than Thome and was a good player for a very long time, but Thome's sizable superiority as a hitter more than made up for Murray's advantages elsewhere.

8. Johnny Mize
The Big Cat had the equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's career--seven phenomenal seasons prior to World War II and a few more big ones afterwards--but has never received his due for it. Such a shame that his name has largely been forgotten to history, because this Hall of Famer was one of baseball's best players for more than a decade. In fewer than 7,500 plate appearances, he still managed to contribute more on offense than Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew and Willie Stargell did, which is really impressive considering all of them made at least 9,000 trips to the plate.

9. Mark McGwire
Steroids aside, Big Mac did some amazing things as a hitter. There are the 583 home runs, of course, the four conseutive seasons of over 50 including back-to-back campaigns with 70 and 65. His .982 career OPS is the fifth-highest of any first baseman who played at least one full big league season and, oh yeah, he holds the best HR/AB ratio of all-time. It's impossible to know how much PEDs helped him, but there's no denying that he reached heights nobody had ever reached before.

So why did I rank him below Mize? An interesting question, especially given how close many of their numbers are:

Mize: 1,884 G 7,370 PA 1,118 R 1,337 RBI .959 OPS 157 wRC+ 3,621 TB 809 XBH 71 bWAR
Mac: 1,874 G 7,660 PA 1,167 R 1,414 RBI .982 OPS 157 wRC+ 3,639 TB 841 XBH 62 bWAR

Both had extraordinary peaks but otherwise brief careers, were tremendous sluggers who never won an MVP. As hitters they come out about even, with the slight edge probably going to McGwire. But defensively and on the bases Mize was better, and thus rates as a more valuable players according to B-R and FanGraphs. While Mize's peak wasn't quite as high as McGwire's, it was still pretty darn good and he sustained it longer despite missing three full years to the war (many of McGwire's seasons were hampered by injuries). That's why I give Mize the slightest of edges.

10. Hank Greenberg
I had a hard time deciding where to place Greenberg. How much credit should one give to him for losing almost five full seasons to military service? At his best, he was every bit as good as Foxx and Gehrig.

From 1934-1940, between them won four MVPs, five home run crowns (Foxx and Greenberg shared in 1935) and five RBI titles. One of them led the league in OPS every year (Gehrig and Foxx three times each, Greenberg once).

Gehrig:     .337/.457/.626/1.083 174 OPS+  349 Rbat 39.8 oWAR 14.77 AB/HR ratio
Greenberg .329/.424/.645/1.070 166 OPS+  337 Rbat 40.8 oWAR 14.81 AB/HR ratio
Foxx:       .329/.440/.633/1.072 166 OPS+  384 Rbat  46.3 oWAR 13.58 AB/HR ratio

Hammerin' Hank had a killer peak, winning two MVPs, neither one of which was given to him the year he fell one short of Gehrig's AL RBI record (1937) or the following year when he challenged Ruth's single season home run record. Greenberg finished third both times, and with better luck could have been the first player to win four MVPs. And he was still great when he returned from the war in his mid-30s too, pacing the Junior Circuit in home runs and RBI in 1946 with all of baseball's brightest stars back in uniform. There's little doubt that, health permitting, he would have continued to rake during the war years and ended up with some truly impressive career numbers. Unfortunately we'll never know for sure, and I just can't give him credit for something he didn't accomplish. In his prime he was easily a top-five, probably top-three first baseman, but I can only rank a player with fewer than 1,400 big league games so high.

Honorable Mention: Willie McCovey, Rafael Palmeiro, Harmon Killebrew