Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Ten Thoughts on Thomas

Here are ten thoughts on new Hall of Famer Frank Thomas:

1. During The Big Hurt's incredible ten-year run from 1991 through 2000, he walked 363 more times than he struck out. When he peaked during his back-to-back MVP seasons of 1993-1994, he slugged 79 home runs while fanning only 115 times.

2. I'm amazed at how consistent his runs scored totals stayed during the '90s. In his eight straight seasons with over 100 runs from 1991 through '98 he scored between 102 and 110 runs, scoring 106 in back-to-back seasons ('93 and '94) and 110 in consecutive years as well ('96 and '97).

3. Thomas's on-base percentages are just off-the-charts. He was well over .400 in each of his first eight seasons--when his OBP was over .450 every year but one--and 11 times in all. He peaked at .487 in 1994, led the league four times and had four other top-four finishes. His .419 career mark is the 19th highest of all-time and second only to Barry Bonds among players who began their careers in the last 60 years.

4. Like Duke Snider, Thomas managed five 40 homer seasons but never exceeded 43 in any season. What's even more astonishing is that despite five 40 homer seasons, four others with more than 30 and 521 for his career, Thomas never led the American League in long balls. He was runner-up four times, third once and fifth twice, but never tops. It's also just as amazing to me that he knocked in over 1,700 runs and enjoyed 11 seasons with more than 100 but never led the league, despite driving in 125 or more four times including as many as 143 in 2000.

5. It blows my mind that a player who averaged 36 homers, 118 RBI, and a .330 batting average for eight years not only never won the Triple Crown, but came away with zero home run crowns, zero RBI titles and only one batting championship. That's all he would win in a career that produced 521 long balls, 1,704 RBI and a .301 batting average. The '90s were just a different time.

6. I find it pretty amazing that even as a full-time designated hitter at age 39, Thomas still managed to stay on the field for 155 games, blast 26 home runs and drive in 95. It's almost as amazing that the next year he was done at 40, posting the worst OPS of his career and not even playing half a season. When players lose it, especially at that age, it often happens overnight.

7. Funny how his career paralleled that of Ken Griffey Jr. Junior debuted in 1989, one year before Thomas, and both were first round draft picks. They dominated the American League throughout the 1990s, when they were perennial All-Stars and won three MVP awards between them. They had their last truly great season in 2000 before injuries ravaged the second half of their careers, limiting them to sporadic success in their thirties. Both retired following their age 40 season.

Griffey '90-'00 6,813 PA 1,102 R 1,763 H 774 XBH 1,209 RBI .299/.384/.579 65.3 oWAR
Thomas '90-'00 6,799 PA 1,083 R 1,755 H 715 XBH 1,183 RBI .321/.440/.579 65 oWAR

8. One can pretty much draw a dividing line in Thomas's career at the 2000 season. In his 11 seasons before 2001 he bettered a .300 average and .400 OBP ten times and had nine seasons with at least 100 runs, RBI and walks. After 2000 he never again batted .280, scored 100 runs, or made an All-Star team and had only one season with a .400 OBP. He actually became a better slugger in the second half of his career, averaging one home run per 15.4 at-bats after age 32 compared to one every 15.9 before. A career .321 hitter through age 32, he batted just .262 over his final eight seasons and nearly lost his lifetime .300 average a la Mickey Mantle.

Thomas '90-'00 .321/.440/.579 1.018 OPS 169 OPS+ 835/1188 K/BB 15.9 AB/HR 58.7 bWAR
Thomas '01-'08 .262/.376/.507 .884 OPS 130 OPS+ 562/479 K/BB 15.4 AB/HR 15 bWAR

9. I'm shocked that Thomas made only five All-Star teams. How he didn't make it in 1991, when he led the majors in walks, OBP, OPS, and finished third in the AL MVP voting is beyond me. Or how about 1992, he he led the majors in doubles and American League in walks, OBP, and OPS? Or in 2000, when he was MVP runner-up. Thomas did not make an All-Star team in any of his 11 final seasons, even though he eclipsed 100 RBI four times, had a pair of 40 homer seasons and another with 39, and five times posted an OPS over .900.

10. The 1990s had so much power/home runs that Thomas had to slug .729 just to lead the league. He slugged over .600 five other times and never led the league in any of those seasons.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Santana Smoking Hot

Santana's swinging a hot bat after slumping through April and May (WahoosOnFirst)
The Cleveland Indians are deservedly off today after 11 straight road games to open the second half. And while I'm sure every Indian's thankful for the reprieve, especially with Cleveland having lost six of its last eight, something tells me Carlos Santana wouldn't mind another game tonight.

The former-catcher-turned-corner-infielder has been unconscious over the past week, hitting safely in seven straight games and launching six home runs during that span. His hitting streak, modest as it is, has also produced three doubles and six singles. That makes 15 base knocks in 27 at-bats, a .556 clip that's hiked his season average from a Mario Mendoza-esque .204 to a still-lowly-but-more-respectable .232.

But it's the home runs--five of 'em in the past three days and 14 since the start of June--that have people talking. Santana's slugging percentage rose from .380 after last Sunday to .456, just a tick below his 2014 high-water mark of .462 four games into the season. The 28 year-old Dominican kicked off his monster weekend with a pair of long balls off the young Yordano Ventura Friday night, a performance made even more impressive by the fact that Santana had played 14 innings--a game and a half--the day before.

But despite his big day at the plate, the Indians lost that game and the next one, too, blowing a five run lead on Saturday that Santana started with a solo shot off Jeremy Guthrie. He walked later in the inning and doubled his next time up, but Zach McAllister couldn't keep the Royals at bay and the Tribe fell, 7-5.

After losing the first three games of their series in Kansas City and falling behind early in the fourth, Cleveland salvaged the series and road trip with a 10-3 rout yesterday. The switch-hitting Santana led the way, smashing a two-run homer off Bruce Chen and another off Aaron Crow. The pair of bombs gave him eight on the month and upped his season total to 20, equaling his figure from last year but in 59 fewer games. They also raised his OPS to .827, 101 points higher than where it stood one week ago.

With Cleveland one game below .500 but only 3.5 out of the second wild card spot, Santana's hot streak couldn't have come at a better time for Terry Francona's scuffling club. They need him to keep producing big power numbers out of the cleanup spot if they're going to stay in the hunt for a second straight postseason berth. Thankfully for them he appears to have put his miserable start (.572 OPS through May 21st) behind him. After going through a recent rough stretch where he struck out 14 times in the seven games leading up to the All-Star Break, Santana seems to be seeing the ball more clearly and has had much more success making contact lately, with nine walks against four whiffs in his first 51 plate appearances of the second half.

Santana has always been a patient hitter who's at his very best when he waits for his pitch, putting himself in a position where he can lay back and drive the ball, taking advantage of the natural power that's cranked out 85 homers over the past three and a half seasons. This year's major league leader in walks has definitely been doing that a lot lately, and he'll try to stay hot tomorrow night against Seattle's Hisashi Iwakuma.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A New (England) Season is Born While Another Dies

The Red Sox died a grisly death in Toronto today (Boston Herald)
Today was a pivotal day in Boston sports with the dawn of one season coinciding with the end of another.

Today was the first day of Patriots training camp, a day that ignited Super Bowl dreams across New England. With an improved defense (welcome aboard, Darrelle Revis), renewed health (Vince Wilfork, Tommy Kelly, and Rob Gronkowski, oh how we missed thee) and a perfect marriage between the sport's smartest coach (Big Bill) and one of its finest quarterbacks (Tom Terrific). Patriots fans are hopeful this will be the year their team snaps its decade-long championship drought.

But while the Pats' preseason was getting underway in Foxborough, marking the glorious return of football and inspiring optimistic predictions of a sixth Super Bowl appearance for Belichick and Brady, Boston's bumbling baseball team effectively blew what little chance it had left to make the playoffs. Winners of eight of nine following a big 14-1 win on Monday night, the streaky Sox proceeded to drop the next three games against the Blue Jays. Playing what amounted to a must-win game in late July, the Red Sox got their butts kicked in this afternoon's series finale. It was the final nail in the coffin of a season that (unoffically) ended weeks ago.

With his team desperately needing a win, Rubby De La Rosa simply wasn't up to task. He failed to keep the Sox in the game, allowing runs in four of the five innings he pitched in and seven in all. Not that it mattered, because any amount of runs De La Rosa allowed was going to be too much on this day, unless that number was zero. Boston managed one measly hit--a Shane Victorino single--and was shut down by 23 year-old Marcus Stroman. Though the game wasn't truly out of reach until the fifth inning, for all intents and purposes it was over as soon as the Blue Jays plated their first run. The Red Sox went down without a whimper.

Boston's third straight loss dropped them to eight games below .500 on the season and deeper into last place, where they've resided for most of the month. The struggling Sox will try to turn it around tomorrow night against the surging Tampa Bay Rays, winners of seven straight and 25 of their last 36. Expect another quiet day for Boston's bats against David Price and a tough-luck loss for Jon Lester as a result.

It's hard to believe that just three days ago Boston appeared to be on the verge of climbing back into the race. Now they're dead, and September can't come fast enough.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Let Loo-Eee In

Tiant was one of the best pitchers of his time and all-time (ESPN)
With the Hall of Fame induction ceremony coming up this weekend and the Red Sox playing well (for now), I wanted to take a look at a pitcher who many feel was overlooked by the Hall, a pitcher who would undoubtedly go in wearing a Red Sox cap if he's ever enshrined.

I'm talking, of course, about Luis Tiant, a fan favorite and talented pitcher with Boston for much of the 1970s. El Tiante was a beloved figure in Beantown, where he revived his career in his 30s and emerged as that decade's equivalent of Roger Clemens or Pedro Martinez with the Sox. 

But before I talk about Tiant's brilliant tenure with Boston, I think it's important to remember that he was a great pitcher long before he ever put on a Red Sox uniform. Purchased by the Cleveland Indians for $35,000 in the summer of 1961 (about $279,000 in today's dollars), Tiant earned a midsummer call-up to the Indians three years later. His first start was one of the most impressive debuts any pitcher has ever had, a four-hit shutout of the defending and eventual AL champion Yankees at the Stadium. He outdueled Whitey Ford in the second game of a doubleheader, fanning 11 Bombers (including Roger Maris twice) to earn the first of his 229 major league wins. 

A star was born. The 23 year-old Tiant pitched well down the stretch, finishing his rookie year with a 10-4 record, 2.83 ERA and 1.11 WHIP, good for nearly four wins above replacement. He gradually got better in each of the next four seasons, lowering his FIP and walk rate every year while improving his K/BB ratio. The last of those seasons, 1968, was by far the best of his career.  In addition to going 21-9, he led the American League in ERA (1.60), ERA+ (186), shutouts (9), FIP (2.04), and pitching WAR (8.4). He also had the lowest hit rate in baseball at 5.3/9, limiting opponents to a .168/.233/.262 batting line and posting a 0.87 WHIP. On top of all that, he racked up 264 punchouts in 258-and-a-third stellar innings, part of his 3.62 K/BB ratio. Fun trivia fact: Tiant was the Junior Circuit's starting pitcher in that year's All-Star game. Not so fun fact: Tiant failed to receive a single Cy Young vote that year (but yet finished fifth in the MVP voting).

Tiant's masterful 1968 season is one of the great seasons forgotten to history. Because it coincided with the Year of the Pitcher, a season that saw Denny McLain win 31 games, Bob Gibson compile a 1.12 ERA and Don Drysdale hurl 58 consecutive scoreless innings, Tiant had a hard time standing out above the crowd/making noise for an also-ran Indians team.

Not yet 28 at the end of his big breakout campaign, Tiant had established himself as one of the premier pitchers in baseball. With 23 WAR already under his belt, he'd been one of the American League's five most valuable pitchers since breaking in. Furthermore, he'd done nothing but improve over his first 1,000 big league innings. No one could have foreseen that in three short years, he would very nearly be out of baseball.

1969 was a terrible year for Tiant and the Indians, who went from third place and 86 wins in '68 to 62 wins in 1969. Cleveland finished last in the newly minted AL East, 18 games behind the next-worst team (New York). Tiant tumbled to 9-20, leading the majors in losses, walks, and home runs allowed. Overnight, Tiant had gone from the American League's best pitcher to one of the worst in baseball. 

He was gone before Christmas. The Indians whisked him away to Minnesota along with Stan Williams in return for Dean Chance, Graig Nettles, Bob Miller, and Ted Uhlaender, a trade that would have worked out wonderfully for Cleveland had a) Chance not fallen apart the second he got there and b) they'd held on to Nettles for more than three years. 

Tiant must have been excited to escape the moribound Indians and land with a first place club in Minnesota. He flourished in his new digs, going 6-0 with a 3.12 ERA in his first 10 starts with the Twins before a fractured right scapula derailed his bounce back season. Tiant missed more than two months, and while he returned in time for the stretch run he wasn't quite the same. His first taste of the postseason was a bad one; mop-up duty in Game 2, in which he recorded two outs only after surrendering a two-run homer to Davey Johnson. He did not pitch again in the series, as Minnesota was swept the next day.

The injury that had ruined Tiant's first year with the Twins now jeopardized his once-promising career. After an ineffective and injury-plagued spring training, the 30 year-old was unconditionally released. His playing days appeared to be numbered. A couple weeks later the Braves picked him up for a 30 day trial with their Triple-A affiliate in Richmond, and at the end of the 30 days decided he was not worth a major league roster spot. That two teams had given up on him in the span of six weeks didn't discourage the perpetually pitching-strapped Red Sox from scooping him up two days after Atlanta cur him loose. It turned out to be one of the best decisions they've ever made.

A finally healthy Tiant returned to form in Boston (Bostinno)

Tiant's stint with the Sox lasted eight seasons, during which time he won 122 games with a 3.36 ERA, made two All-Star teams, piled up 36.4 bWAR and finished in the top-six of Cy Young voting three times. It was during this time that El Tiante earned a reputation as one of baseball's best big game pitchers. He was phenomenal throughout the pennant races of 1972, 1974 and 1978, pitching valiantly for Red Sox teams that were always coming up just short. Though Tiant struggled during the one pennant race Boston did win, he was at his absolute best in that year's wild postseason. After firing a complete game shutout against the three-time defending World Series champs in Game 1 of the ALCS, Tiant came back one week later and spun another shutout in the first game of the World Series against the vaunted Big Red Machine. He again went the distance in Game 4 to even the Series. He finally ran out of gas in Game 6, but luckily for him Bernie Carbo, Dwight Evans and Carlton Fisk had some late-game heroics up their sleeves.

After the heartache of '78 Tiant, by then 38 and desperate for a ring, defected to the Yankees via free agency. Nobody could blame him for latching on with the winners of the last three American League pennants and two World Series. The irony, though, is that  the streak ended as soon as Tiant donned pinstripes. New York finished fourth in 1979, Tiant's last good season, and would not win another title until 1996, by which point Tiant was closing in on 56. He was a great old pitcher, but nobody, not even Tiant, could hang around that long. He hung up his spikes for good after 1982 after 19 seasons and nearly 3,500 regular season innings. He has since been inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame and Hispanic Heritage Hall of Fame, but still waits for the call from the only Hall of Fame anyone actually cares about, as in the one located in upstate New York.

Now, did what El Tiante accomplish during that time merit a plaque in Cooperstown? The writers voted unequivocally no. Tiant stayed on the ballot for all 15 years of eligibility, but only in his first year did he receive more than 20 percent of the vote. After that, he was never really a serious candidate. Should he have been?

It's easy to make the case that the answer to that question is no, that he was a Hall of Very Good pitcher who was more style than substance. Tiant never won a Cy Young award, finishing no higher than fourth and drawing votes in only three seasons. He made only three All-Star teams. His rate stats are all good but not great. Though Tiant paced AL pitchers in WAR in '68, many would say McLain had the better year, meaning Tiant was never the best pitcher in his league, let alone the game. With only three seasons among the league's five most valuable pitchers, he didn't dominate. And sure, he was great in the postseason, but how many World Series did he win? Mickey Lolich was more or less Tiant's equal, and one doesn't hear many clamoring for him to make the Hall of Fame. In fact, seven of Tiant's 10 best statistical comps are currently outside the Hall and none are currently up for election.Many of his seasons were mediocre, with nine of his 19 years rating between below average to barely above average based on ERA-. 

But Tiant, even if he does fall short on Black Ink, Gray Ink, the Hall of Fame monitor and Hall of Fame standards, does have a strong statistical case. He was the American League's third-most valuable pitcher when he played, behind only Bert Blyleven (Class of 2011) and Lolich, the latter a respected member of the Hall of Very Good. Expand the timeframe from 1951 through 1990, a stretch of 40 seasons, and Tiant still ranks as the league's fifth-best pitcher. Better than Jim Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Catfish Hunter, and the man he beat in his first big league start. What's more, three of his six closest comps are already in the Hall. With over 66 career bWAR, Tiant is very much a viable candidate for Cooperstown. By the standards of the Hall of Stats, he makes it in comfortably.

 JAWS rates him 51st all-time among starting pitchers. Remove the guys who started their careers before 1900, and Tiant's one of the 50 best starting pitchers of all-time. Seeing as how he ranks 21st in shutouts, 39th in strikeouts, and 40th in pitching WAR, I buy that. Though he's a bit below the established standards for peak and longevity, he still comes in ahead of luminaries such as Jim Bunning, John Smoltz, Don Sutton, and Early Wynn. It does concern me that of the 59 starters already in the Hall, including Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, Tiant outranks just 13 of them. He rates lower than Wes Ferrell, Kevin Brown, and Rick Reuschel, among others. 

The two things I look for in a Hall of Fame case are a peak and longevity. Tiant obviously had good longevity, as he pitched until he was almost 42 and made close to 500 big league starts. He had eight seasons with more than 200 innings, three more than just missed and four others with over 100. 11 times he made 29 or more starts in a season. 

As for peak, well, Tiant technically had two peaks. He had his five-year run with Cleveland, which wasn't so much a peak as it was one amazing season preceded by several good ones. Then there was his second prime, covering his last seven seasons with Boston and his first in New York. In both cases he was one of the league's five-best pitchers for an extended period of time (40 years, in fact, as I noted a few paragraphs before). And as one of baseball's 50 best since 1900, which gets narrowed to 25 if you exclude those who debuted before Jackie Robinson, then it becomes pretty clear that Tiant is indeed Cooperstown-worthy. I'd say there are more-deserving pitchers still waiting to be inducted (Clemens, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, and the aforementioned Brown come to mind), but Tiant at least deserves another look from the Veteran's Committee. The BBWAA has not done a great job of electing starting pitchers who aren't slam-dunks, leaving recent generations of pitchers poorly represented in the Hall. It's up to the VC to rectify those mistakes.

I'll admit I wasn't totally sold on the idea of Tiant as a Hall of Famer when I started writing this, but after taking a closer look I think I'd give him a pass. He had five truly great seasons--1968, 1972-1974, and 1976--and enough success in other years (his first few with Cleveland a few more in the late '70s). Throw in his celebrity status in Boston and his track record of success in big games (which, unlike Jack Morris, extended beyond one game) and I think he did just enough to get over the top. 

It's a really tough call though, and if you check back with me tomorrow I might not feel the same way.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Yaz or Papi?

As great as Ortiz has been, he can't hold a candle to Yaz 
With David Ortiz passing Carl Yastrzemski on the all-time home run list last night, sports radio was rife today with passionate debate over which one was better.

To me, this isn't even an argument. Yaz by a lot. Case closed.

Now I'll readily concede that Ortiz, at least since he's come over to the Red Sox, has been a better hitter than Yastrzemski. Interestingly enough their career batting averages are identical at .285, and their career OBPs are within a point of each other as well. Both were fantastic in the clutch, too. Still, there's no question that Ortiz, with his 84 point edge in slugging percentage/ISo and superior home run total in about 5,300 fewer plate appearances, has been the superior slugger. Yaz managed only eight seasons with at least 20 homers in his 23-year career, while Ortiz already has 13 such seasons (consecutively, I might add) in his 18 years.

That said, it must also be remembered that the long ball is much more commonplace nowadays than it was when Yaz played. For most of Ortiz's career, baseball teams have typically averaged around one home run per game, usually a little more. Back in Yastrzemski's day, that number tended to be around 0.7 or 0.8. So for Yaz to have as many 40 homer seasons--three--as Ortiz really is quite impressive. For all of Ortiz's dingers, he still has only one home run title--same as Yastrzemski (who, fun fact, shared his with Harmon Killebrew in 1967).

Looking at batting runs, Ortiz also comes out on top on a per-game basis. With 372 batting runs above average in just over 2,000 games, Ortiz has averaged a batting run every 5.5 games played. With 450 in 3,308 games, Yaz tallied one every 7.35 games. A pretty sizable difference, but also note that Yastrzemski produced next to nothing in this category over his final nine seasons, managing only 50 in his last 1,200 or so games. Before 1975 he had 400 batting runs in in just over 2,100 games, meaning he was right there with Ortiz.

So yes, Ortiz been a better hitter and run producer than Yaz was, but not by as much as his advantage in power numbers would suggest. It's really close, actually, after considering the context of the eras in which they played. Yastrzemski's greatest seasons came during the offensively-suppressed 1960s and '70s, while many of Ortiz's best years came when offense was booming in the mid and late 2000s, before the recent downturn for hitters. Thus, Yastrzemski's career adjusted OPS of 130 (134 through age 38) isn't that far off from Ortiz's 139 mark (and, don't forget, was maintained for thousands of more at-bats). Similarly, his .375 wOBA is not dwarfed by Ortiz's .390, but is rather quite comparable.

Also don't forget that Ortiz had Manny Ramirez hitting behind or in front of him during his best seasons. Yaz was surrounded by his fair share of talent, especially during the second half of his career, but never a hitter of Manny's quality (Jim Rice was great, but not quite on Manny's level). Yastrzemski's supporting cast was especially weak during his peak seasons, when Boston's biggest threat besides Yaz was Reggie Smith. Another good player, but no Manny.

But if these past two MVP debates between Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera have taught us anything, it's that there's more to baseball than hitting. With 168 stolen bases, Yastrzemski holds a clear edge on the bases compared to Ortiz, who's managed a meager 15. Yaz was a good baserunner in his younger days and basically broke even for his career in terms of added value there, whereas Ortiz has always been a liability because of his size and lack of foot speed. That closes the gap some.

Then there's defense, which puts Yaz way over the top. A seven-time Gold Glover, Yaz learned to play the Green Monster to perfection and earned a reputation as one of the best defensive outfielders of all-time. In his heyday Yaz was like a young Barry Bonds, a complete package capable of winning ballgames with his bat, legs, and glove. Ortiz, a full-time DH, has only ever been able to win games with the lumber. He almost never plays the field and adds no value via defensive contributions. He can barely play first base competently, let alone one of the trickiest outfields the majors.

So whatever edge one grants to Ortiz for his hitting, a bigger edge must be given to Yastrzemski to account for his better baserunning and superlative defense. According to Baseball-Reference, Yaz had one 12-win season (his MVP/Triple Crown year in 1967, of course), one 10-win season (1968--The Year of the Pitcher) and a nine-win season (in 1970). Ortiz has had one season--2007--where he was worth more than six, and zero where he was worth over seven. Yastrzemski compiled nearly 100 WAR (B-R and FanGraphs) in his Hall of Fame career; Ortiz will be lucky if he gets to 50. Even if you gave Ortiz as many plate appearances as Yastrzemski, there would still be no question as to which one was more valuable.

For one at-bat, I'd take Ortiz. But for an entire game, season, career, what have you, it's gotta be Yastrzemski.