Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Sox Pick Up Peralta, Fister

Fister joined the Bosox Friday and made his season debut two days later (CSNNE)
The Red Sox made a kiddie pool-sized splash on Friday by signing Jhonny Peralta to a Minor League deal and claiming Doug Fister off waivers. Peralta had been linked to Boston since St. Louis designated him for assignment earlier in the month, but the Fister move seemed to come more out of left field. While both were star players a few years ago, they have slipped considerably with age and are unlikely to contribute much to a Boston team that's clearly scrounging for reinforcements.

An All-Star as recently as 2015, Peralta's offense became below average (90 OPS+) as he battled injuries last year before bottoming out to .204/.259/.204 in 58 plate appearances with the Cardinals this year. Now 35, his OPS has fallen every year since 2013 and he's clearly in the twilight of his career. The three-time All-Star had a good run over the last decade, but it's hard to imagine him sparking the offense after failing to record an RBI or extra-base hit in 21 games this season.

Granted, third base has been a black hole for Boston this year, with Pablo Sandoval and co. combining to hit just .198/.250/.308 through Monday. Even a washed-up Peralta would do better than that, but how much better remains to be seen. The Sox are hoping he can find his swing in Pawtucket before calling him up, where Fenway would ostensibly help revitalize his sagging production, although it's worth remembering that the same plan failed with Allen Craig. Their best option remains cutting ties with Sandoval and promoting Rafael Devers, but good luck convincing the front office to swallow the remaining half of Panda's $95 million contract.

The Peralta pickup is reminiscent of last summer when the Red Sox traded not one, but two prospects to land a 34-year-old Aaron Hill from the Brewers. Hill was batting a solid .283/.359/.421 (106 OPS+) at the time but immediately fell apart after arriving in Boston, posting a lowly 53 OPS+ from there on out (Hill has been even worse for the Giants this year, so kudos to Milwaukee for selling high on Hill before he collapsed). At least Dealin' Dave didn't burn any prospects this time around, although he probably dangled a few before being reminded that no, sorry, you can't trade players when signing unrestricted free agents.

While Peralta has yet to take his first cuts in a Red Sox uniform, Fister was immediately thrown into the rotation and started Sunday's series finale against the Angels. While his quality start was encouraging, he's another player who's been trending in the wrong direction the past several seasons, as his walk rate his increased along with his WHIP every year since 2014. His ERA nearly doubled in that time, ballooning from 2.41 in '14 to 4.64 last year as his lack of strikeouts (career 6.0 K/9 rate) caught up with him. The 33-year-old doesn't throw hard and pitches to contact, which is a recipe for disaster at Fenway and in this new era of juiced baseballs. He'll merely be a back-of-the-rotation filler until Eduardo Rodriguez returns from the DL, but until then the Sox are merely hoping he can outpitch the likes of Hector Velazquez, Kyle Kendrick, and others who have filled this role for Boston lately.

With neither player likely to move the needle for the first-place Sox, the best explanation for these acquisitions might be that Dombrowski was familiar with them from their time on the Tigers earlier this decade, when both were markedly better players. Dombrowski originally traded for both, bringing Peralta over from the Indians in 2010 (and immediately re-signing him that winter) before dealing for Fister the following summer. Both excelled under Dombrowski's watch, with Peralta making two All-Star teams in his three full seasons with Detroit while Fister emerged as a solid mid-rotation starter behind Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Both were sent packing following Detroit's disastrous collapse to Boston in the 2013 ALCS as Peralta left via free agency and Fister was dealt to Washington (in one of the more widely criticized trades of recent times).

Dombrowski watched both players help his Tigers contend for several seasons and knows them well. While he clearly doesn't value prospects, he appears to have a soft spot for over-the-hill veterans.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Elusive 20 Wins

J.A. Happ was, improbably, a 20-game winner last year (Canada Sports Net)
With all the bullpen specialization and attention to pitch counts that has gone on recently, one would think that only the game's elite pitchers would be capable of winning 20 games in a season anymore. In reality, though, the list of hurlers who've done it recently is kind of a mixed bag. None of them are bad, obviously, but there's a good number of mid-rotation arms mixed in there with the cream of the crop.

Over the last several years, there's been about one pitcher per year who comes out of nowhere to win 20 games. In 2011 it was Ian Kennedy, and the following year it was R.A. Dickey and Gio Gonzalez. In 2015 Dallas Keuchel and Jake Arrieta did it, while last year both J.A. Happ and Rick Porcello reached the milestone. They've rivaled, and in some cases surpassed, the victory totals studs such as Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander and David Price, not to mention this list of pitchers (Cy Young winners starred)who have yet to win 20 games:
This year, Jason Vargas is atop the wins leaderboard, tied with Kershaw at 10 apiece. Rockies rookie Antonio Senzatela is just one behind them. I'm betting only Kershaw makes it, but then I would have said the same thing about Happ and Porcello last year.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Nashville-Born Ballplayers

Junior Gilliam has a street named after him in Nashville (90 Feet of Perfection)
While walking around Nashville last weekend during CMA Fest, I noticed there was a street running through the heart of the city named "Junior Gilliam Way," not far from Rosa Parks Boulevard. That made me wonder what other players hail/hailed from Smashville, and if Gilliam was truly the best (and thus worthy of the distinction as the city's only ballplayer with a street named in his honor). Turns out there were quite a few players born in Nashville -- 39 and counting according to Baseball-Reference. While none are Hall of Famers (yet), there were a few who came close, as well as one who will likely go into Cooperstown one day wearing the cap of my beloved Boston Red Sox.

Best Players:

Ben Chapman (41.3 bWAR)
Chapman barely edges out Gilliam in terms of career value, but he was never going to have a street named after him following his shameful treatment of Jackie Robinson while managing the Phillies in 1947. While he was clearly a despicable human being, Chapman was also a pretty good ballplayer, leading the Major Leagues in steals four times (but also caught-stealing four times) and batting .302/.383/.440 (114 OPS+) for his career. His most memorable highlight as a player, however, was being told by Ted Williams, "I'll be back, and I'll make more money in this bleeping game than all three of you (Boston's outfield) combined!" after being sent down from Spring Training in 1938. With Chapman playing for Cleveland the following year, Williams arrived for good and set about delivering on that promise.

Jim Gilliam (40.7 bWAR)
Gilliam, more popularly known as "Junior," spent his entire 14-year career with the Dodgers. Despite spending most of those seasons on the trading block, he was only Boy of Summer from the '50s who was still a meaningful contributor during the Sandy Koufax-Don Drysdale era. The speedy switch-hitter proved to be a lesser version of Robinson -- his predecessor at second base -- with his baserunning, defensive versatility, and table-setting skills. A two-time All-Star, Gilliam won NL Rookie of the Year honors in 1953 and drew MVP votes four times, finishing in the top-six twice. He also played in seven World Series, winning four. Had he not begun his career in the Negro Leagues, he might have made it to the Hall of Fame.

Roy Cullenbine (31.4 bWAR)
Cullenbine was similar to Gilliam, as both were patient switch-hitters who made two All-Star teams, received MVP consideration four times, and led their league in walks once while playing the outfield a lot. A journeyman outfielder from 1938 to 1947, Cullenbine possessed one of the sharpest batting eyes in baseball history. He posted a career 17.8 percent walk rate and set a record by drawing a walk in 22 consecutive games, finishing with a career .408 OBP. He also developed power later in his career, slugging 73 of his 110 home runs over his final four seasons. Cullenbine played for a pair of pennant winners despite switching teams seven times in his career, helping Detroit win it all in 1945. With his solid pop, strong throwing arm and elite ability to get on base, he would have had a much longer and more stable career had he been born half a century later.

Best Names:

So many good ones. Here's a smattering: Tiny Graham, Noodles Hahn (think he had a weak arm, or just really liked spaghetti?), Ray Hamrick, Foster Castleman, Mickey Kreitner, Bubber Jonnard (brother of Claude Jonnard), Ike Fisher (brother of Bob Fisher), Clyde McCullough (say that one ten times fast). There were also a pair of "Lefty"s -- Lefty Davis and Lefty Sullivan. Now I'm wondering if a team has ever had two "Lefty"s at the same time...

Greatest What-if?

Johnny Beazley (4.6 bWAR)
Beazley burned bright and fast like a comet, going 21-6 with a 2.13 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP at age 24 to help his St. Louis Cardinals upset Joe DiMaggio's New York Yankees in the 1942 Fall Classic (the only World Series that DiMaggio would ever lose). Then he went into the service, and when he returned three years later he wasn't the same. Who knows how his career would've played out had he come up after the war instead of before.

Current Stars:

Mookie Betts (21.1 bWAR)
Just four seasons into his career, Betts has already accumulated more than half the WAR of any other Nashville-born player. A tremendous defensive outfielder with elite power, speed, and contact skills, he's arguably the American League's best all-around player not named Mike Trout. And the best part is -- he's only 24.

R.A. Dickey (20.8 bWAR)
Okay, maybe not a current star given how awful he's been this year, but he enjoyed a brief run as one of the game's top pitchers. In 2012, he prevented Clayton Kershaw from joining Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson as the only hurlers to win four straight Cy Young awards (Kershaw won in 2011, then again in 2014 and '15). The Mets, knowing how fickle knuckle-ballers can be, wisely traded the then-38-year-old for a package of prospects that included Noah Syndergaard. Dickey's reverted into a Tim Wakefield-esque innings-eater since then, but 15 years and nearly 2,000 innings in the Majors are nothing to sneeze at.

Sonny Gray (10.1 bWAR)
Gray's career got off to a promising start with Oakland, as he went 33-20 with a 2.88 ERA over his first three seasons and finished third in the 2015 AL Cy Young vote. He struggled during an injury-plagued 2016 and is still trying to get back on track this year. He's only 27, though, so hope remains that he will once again be a quality starter.

While not stars, this is where I give shout-outs to Andrew Triggs and Caleb Joseph.

Not bad, Nashville. While not as prolific as pumping out ballplayers as you are at country music stars, you can still lay claim to a National League Rookie of the Year and Cy Young winner, a likely future Hall of Famer, and a Hollywood villan.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Red Sox Mashed in May

After scuffling in April, Boston's offense turned things around in May (CBS Boston)
After leading the majors in a host of hitting categories last year, including runs, hits, doubles, AVG/OBP/SLG/OPS, and total bases, the Red Sox were expected to have one of baseball's best offenses in 2017. Despite losing David Ortiz to retirement, they still boasted a fearsome lineup headed by Hanley Ramirez, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia, and Jackie Bradley--all of whom exceeded an .800 OPS last year. With a healthy Pablo Sandoval, an ascendant Andrew Benintendi and the solid-if-unspectacular Mitch Moreland in the mix, Boston's batting order looked potent on paper.

It was surprising, then, when runs were suddenly hard to come by during season's first month. After averaging 5.4 runs per game in 2016, Boston managed just 3.9 in April. Their power vanished, yielding only 15 home runs and a .111 ISO in 24 games--well below last year's .183 ISO. They were hitting the ball hard and often, but not into the gaps or over the wall with any regularity. A whopping 74 percent of their hits were singles, which obviously isn't ideal, especially for a team that plays its home games in front of a 37-foot high doubles magnet in left field.

The team's best hitters simply weren't driving the ball like they used to. Pedroia managed just one extra-base hit--a double--in 86 plate appearances, failing to live up to his Laser Show nickname. Bogaerts wasn't much better, tallying a mere two extra-base hits (no homers) in 80 plate appearances. Bradley, who's notoriously streaky, began the season in a slump and also totalled just two extra-base hits in April. Ramirez didn't provide his usual thump, taking 15 games to go yard, and Betts cleared the fence only twice in April.

These offensive woes led Bogaerts to voice the team's frustrations by saying how much they missed Ortiz's presence in the middle of the lineup, even though his replacement (Moreland) was their only steady source of power with 12 doubles (but just two homers).

Their paralysis at the plate followed them into the basepaths, where they looked like the station-to-station Red Sox of yesteryear rather than the athletic bunch that ranked sixth in the American League in steals last year. Despite having several players who can impact games with their legs, they didn't take advantage of all the extra stolen base opportunities that resulted from runners being on first base, rather than already in scoring position or back in the dugout after riding one out. But the Sox stole just 10 bases, too often waiting around for home runs that never came.

As the weather warmed, however, so did Boston's bats, producing 5.7 runs per game in May which was good for second in the AL. After never exceeding eight runs in any game during April (which they only did twice), the Red Sox eclipsed double digits five times in May. And after being held to one run or less in six of 24 April games, they only had one such game in 28 May contests.

Boston's average held steady at .269, but its hits went for extra bases much more frequently. They nearly doubled their home run output from 0.63 HR/G to 1.18 HR/G and saw a similar spike in doubles, which rose from 1.63 2B/G to 2.14 2B/G. Their ISO jumped 60 points month-over-month, and suddenly no one was talking about Big Papi anymore. The power surge corresponded to a slight uptick in strikeouts (19.3 K% in April vs. 20.2 K% in May) but an even larger rise in walk rate, which jumped from 8.3 percent to 10.5 percent. As such, the Sox improved their OBP from .334 in April to .351 in May, which also contributed to the bump in runs.

Not surprisingly it was two of Boston's Killer Bees--Betts and Bogaerts--who led the charge, combining for 32 of the team's 96 extra-base hits. Betts slugged seven homers and 10 doubles, giving him the second-most extra-base hits in the Majors last month. Bogaerts was back to his old self, batting .351 with 15 extra-base hits (tied for 10th in the MLB). Pedroia chipped in 10 extra-base hits and 16 RBI while slashing .295/.376/.442 (right in line with his career .301/.366/.443 marks) before landing on the DL. Bradley only had 17 hits in 77 at-bats (.221), but nine of them went for extra bases, including five that left the yard.

It also helped that they were more aggressive on the bases despite starting out in scoring position more frequently. After stealing just 10 bases in 16 attempts during April, the Sox swiped 22 in 28 attempts in May.

With the offense firing on all cylinders and David Price finally healthy, the Red Sox are rounding into form. After going 21-21 to open the season, they won eight of ten to finish May. They still have holes to address at third base (can we get a re-do on that Tyler Thornburg for Travis Shaw trade?) and could use more depth, but overall they appear to be in good shape heading into summer.

One final note is that the Red Sox haven't hit for power at home, with just 16 round-trippers and a ,113 ISO in 27 games at home compared to 33 dingers and a .172 ISO on the road. Fenway isn't a great home run park, but don't expect that trend to continue, especially if the offense is built more around singles and doubles rather than the long ball. Fenway's conditions are ideal for those kinds of hits, so you can bet the Sox will start hanging more crooked numbers on the manual scoreboard in left.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Who had the Best Non-Ruthian Season?

Who equalled Ruth's 1927 WAR? The answer may surprise you (Historian Insight)
Quick, without looking at the Baseball-Reference WAR leaderboard, which position player not named Babe Ruth had the most WAR in a single season (remembering of course that Ruth owns the three highest and six of the top 12)?

Your first guess (as mine was) might be Barry Bonds circa the early 2000s, when he broke baseball with his videogame numbers. Bonds is up there, but by then his defense and baserunning had deteriorated just enough for him to fall short.

Knowing that, you'd probably be inclined to pick someone who put up insane numbers while manning a premium position, like Rogers Hornsby or Willie Mays. I was certain it was Mickey Mantle, either his Triple Crown season in '56 or his .365/.512/.665 performance the following year, but once again I was wrong.

Another hint: he played left field for the Boston Red Sox.

Well in that case, it has to be Ted Williams! The man batted .406, for goodness sake, while slugging .735 and reaching base 55.3 percent of the time in 1941. All of those marks led the Majors, as did his 135 runs, 147 walks, 37 homers, and 235 OPS+. He struck out just 27 times in 606 plate appearances, and was about as close to perfect as one can be at the plate.

It wasn't him. It was his successor, Carl Yastrzemski, who everyone agrees was not the player Williams was. A tremendous ballplayer and deserving Hall of Famer in his no right, but no Williams.

But the numbers don't lie: The best non-Ruthian season anyone ever had was Yaz's 1967 when he piled up 12.4 WAR, meaning he was effectively as valuable as two All-Stars and a solid regular combined.

WAR is not the end-all, be-all, obviously, and it's only accurate to a certain point. Ranking players based on fractions of WAR is a fool's errand given the stat's margin for error. Still, the closest non-Ruth position player to Yaz is Hornsby's 1924 (12.1 bWAR), which is even less reliable given how long ago that was. Then you have another Ruth season (his first with the Yankees), two years when Bonds was on 'roids ('01 and '02), Lou Gehrig's 1927 (11.8 bWAR), and another Ruth season (1924) before finally getting to Cal Ripken's 1991, which is valued at 11.5 bWAR -- nearly a full win less than Yastrzemski's 1967 total. A good chunk of Ripken's value comes from his positional adjustment too, so one can say with a fair degree of accuracy that Yaz authored the best season by a non-pitcher since Roaring Twenties.

Anecdotally, that checks out. Yaz was superhuman in '67, willing the Sox to the pennant with clutch hitting, superb fielding, and timely baserunning. When Boston needed a homer, he went yard. When he needed a single, he found a hole. He famously went 23-for-44 (.523) over the final 12 games of the regular season, becoming almost impossible to retire. Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, who was a coach on that team, called it the greatest season he'd ever seen, and he was Teddy Ballgame's teammate when The Kid batted .406 and won a pair of Triple Crowns. Everyone who saw him play that summer have said similar things over the past half-century, solidifying its place as one of the greatest seasons ever (and only growing with stature when so many seasons passed without another Triple Crown).

From a numbers standpoint, though, I just can't quite wrap my brain around it. His raw stats are great, obviously, but they're not misprints. His Triple Crown figures of 44 homers, 121 RBIs, and a .326 average typically wouldn't be enough to lead one category, let alone all three. There are players who exceeded his .418 OBP and .622 SLG for their whole careers, Williams included, and even Yaz nearly outdid himself three years later. His 193 OPS+ is exceptional, but only the 78th-highest mark of all time. He stole 10 bases but was caught eight times. He played phenomenal defense, but left field is the easiest position to play besides first base (especially in Boston, where there's little ground to cover). '67 was a brutal year for hitters, but Fenway Park was also the best hitter's park in baseball at the time. As such, Yastrzemski's neutralized batting line of .334/.427/.638 is only marginally better than his real one.

WAR doesn't even incorporate Win Probability Added or Base-Out Runs Added, both of which he led the league in and would have given him a considerable boost. So...what gives?

Well, his offense alone was worth nearly 10 wins that year, which is pretty incredible. He generated 69 batting runs--more than Miguel Cabrera ever had. Throw in his outstanding defense (he led AL left fielders in putouts and assists) and plus baserunning, shake it all up in the magic WAR blender, and voila! You get 12.4 bWAR, the same total that Ruth produced during his 1927 season, when he swatted 60 homers.

I guess it's telling that since 1967, three players have exceeded 60 homers (six times in all), but only one man has won a Triple Crown. And for the record, Ruth never won a Triple Crown.