Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Stanton Finally Realizing Potential

It's taken Stanton nearly a decade to put it all together (SI.com)
Last night, Giancarlo Stanton matched his career high for home runs in a season...at 37.

That number feels preposterously low for a slugger of Stanton's stature and caliber. After all, we're talking about a guy with one of the five best HR-per-AB ratios in baseball history. We're talking about a guy who's absurdly strong, a guy who did this. And this. Annnd this (don't worry, there's plenty more where those came from). Every time he goes deep he seems to re-write the record books by hitting a ball where no one has before. He is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful and most electrifying players in baseball history, not to mention the highest paid professional athlete on the planet.

By comparison, his numbers have always felt supremely disappointing. You look at Stanton's Baseball-Reference page and think Really? That's it? No 50-homer seasons, or even a 40-homer season. No MVPs. There's some black ink there, but it's pretty sparse. His list of most similar batters is even more underwhelming, littered with the likes of Richard Hidalgo, Brad Hawpe, Mark Trumbo, Carlos Quentin, and Russell Branyan. There's not a single Hall of Famer in his top 10, or anyone who came even remotely close, for that matter. Pretty soon you start asking yourself; the Marlins paid $325 million for this guy?!

They sure did, and at the time, nobody questioned it. Everyone knows what Stanton's capable of, even if his statistics have only provided a glimpse.

Like most players with Cooperstown-level ability, Stanton was destined for greatness from the beginning. After earning a promotion to the Majors at age 20 in 2010, he proceeded to belt 22 home runs in his first 100 games. He followed that up with 34 the following year and 37 in 2012, despite missing 39 games because of knee surgery. With his home run totals on the rise and still several years away from his prime, Stanton seemed poised to dominate the leaderboards for years to come.

Because of injuries, however, that hasn't happened. Stanton slumped to .249 with 24 homers in 2013 while missing two months with a strained hamstring. He bounced back in 2014 and was challenging Clayton Kershaw for NL MVP honors before a fastball to the face ended his season on September 11th, leaving him stuck on 37 homers. He was so far ahead of the pack that year that he still led the National League in long balls and total bases (299) despite missing the last three weeks of the season.

When Stanton returned in 2015, he was a man on a mission. By the final week in June he already had 27 home runs and 67 RBIs in 74 games. He was just laying waste to the league, and it seemed like everything was coming together for the 25-year-old. Until he broke the hammate bone on his left hand, ending his season on June 26th. We'll never know what he would have done during the second half, when power figures started rising across the sport.

2016 brought more of the same for Stanton, who slumped to .240 but still slugged 27 homers in 119 games.  Many were beginning to wonder if he would ever stay healthy. enough to log a full season. In his first seven, he averaged only 118 games and 426 at-bats per year, missing roughly a quarter of the season each year. He had reached his prime and still wasn't a dominant player, with just one home run crown and one 100-RBI season under his belt. Six players hit more home runs from 2010-2016, all of whom are well into their 30s or retired now. The next Babe Ruth he was not.

This year, at the magic age of 27, that's finally changed. Stanton's healthy, having played all but two of Miami's 110 games, and he's crushing the ball. He's taken advantage of the new home run environment to match his best home run total in 15 fewer games than 2012 and 37 fewer games than 2014. He's not going to win MVP as long as Bryce Harper's healthy, but he should blow most of his previous career highs out of the water in a season that finally feels worthy of the hype (and the money).

(*August 9th update: Stanton slugged his 38th home run last night, establishing a new career high. He now has five home runs in his last five games and leads the Majors with 12 dingers since the All-Star break)

Friday, August 4, 2017

Adrian Beltre's Weird Career

Beltre salutes Rangers fans after doubling for his 3,000th hit (New York Times)
Adrian Beltre has had a weird career. A great career, to be sure, one that will ultimately see him enshrined in Cooperstown, but a weird one nevertheless. In his 20s it was full of ups and downs before he settled into one of baseball's best and most consistent players in his 30s. It goes without saying that this is not a normal aging curve.

Let's start at the beginning. Did you know the Dodgers broke MLB rules to sign Beltre out of the Dominican Republic when he was 15? It's true. Less than four years later he was up in the big leagues, struggling to bat his weight during the summer of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

It didn't take long for Beltre to adjust, however, and the following year saw him bat .275/.352/.428 (102 OPS+) with 15 homers while ranking as one of the league's best defensive third basemen. His 18 steals and 61 walks from that season remain career highs. In 2000 he was even batter, hitting .290/.360/.475 (114 OPS+) with 20 homers and 12 steals. Still several years away from his physical prime, he appeared to be a superstar in the making.

Then he was derailed by an appendectomy, of all things, which kept him out of the lineup until mid-May and caused his OPS to tumble more than 100 points in 2001. His defense cratered as well, as he was below average in the field for the first and only time in his career. While his power and glovework bounced back in 2002-'03, his patience never did, and his average continue to fall along with his BABIP, which bottomed out at .253 in 2003. With his early flashes of stardom receding in the rearview, he seemed to be settling into a solid but unspectacular third baseman.

Then came 2004, the year Beltre finally put everything together. He more than doubled his home run output from the previous season to lead the Majors with 48. His average soared to .334 as he trimmed his strikeout rate from 16.9 percent to 13.2 percent, and his walk rate rebounded as well. He was worth 9.5 bWAR and, in an alternate universe where Barry Bonds doesn't become a freak of nature, he wins the MVP over Albert Pujols in a photo finish. Instead he finishes second, unable to overcome Bonds' record-setting .609 OBP, which is just 20 points lower than Beltre's slugging percentage in '04.

A free agent heading into his age-26 season, Beltre has timed his monster season perfectly. He is going to get paid, and it is the Mariners who land him. He signs for five years and $64 million, giving him another crack at free agency when he's 30.

The next half-decade nearly ruins Beltre, who doesn't come close to replicating his 2004 season. He wins a pair of Gold Gloves but his bat regresses, stymied by Safeco Field and the cool, damp air currents of the Pacific Northwest. The strikeouts rise and the walks fall, reflecting a player pressing to prove he is worth the money and put a stop to the "overrated" jeers he hears on a nightly basis. Seattle slips into mediocrity, which only exacerbates the criticism. Beltre has duped the Mariners and their fans. He is not the player they thought they were getting, the slick-fielding home run champion who, for a season, rivaled Bonds and Alex Rodriguez as the best player in the game. He becomes a poster-boy for the walk-year phenomenon.

In 2009, Beltre's final season in Seattle, he becomes a punchline. After scuffling in the spring, his summer hot streak is interrupted when a grounder takes a bad hop and nails him in the groin. Beltre isn't wearing a cup and lands on the DL. He finishes the year with eight home runs and 44 RBIs, his lowest totals since his rookie year. Having reaped the rewards of free agency after his best season, he struggles to find a contract in the wake of his worst.

The Red Sox, knowing a good deal when they see one, scoop him up on a one-year deal. Free of Seattle's toxic environment and finally aided by his home park for the first time in his career, Beltre returns to form. He racks up 7.8 bWAR and makes his first All-Star team, batting .321 with 28 homers, 102 RBIs and an MLB-high 49 doubles (he's no Fenway fluke, either, hitting for a higher average and notching 30 of his doubles away from home). He is not flashy enough for the Sox, however, and they let him walk in free agency.

Since then Beltre's been with Texas, where he's turned his Hall of Fame chances from unlikely to a first-ballot lock. He's become a steady .300 hitter while posting four of the five highest home run totals of his career, taking advantage of Arlington's homer-friendly environment. He's also continued to showcase his excellent defense at third, adding three Gold Gloves to his trophy case. After years of underrating him, the press finally caught on to his greatness and have rewarded him with five top-10 MVP finishes this decade, during which he's been baseball's third-most valuable position player behind Mike Trout and Joey Votto.

Now 38, Beltre has shown no signs of slowing down. He's still batting close to .300 with power and playing a mean third base. He looks like the next version of David Ortiz, a player who will leave on his own terms rather than being forced into retirement by diminishing skills. With several milestones such as 500 home runs and 700 doubles potentially in reach, he may want to stick around a few more years after his contract expires next season. He still hasn't won a World Series, either, which has to be a motivating factor after coming oh-so close in 2011.

Whenever he decides to retire, though, we'll look back on his career as one of the most unusual ones we've ever seen.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Bellinger Blasts Way Into Record Books

Bellinger leads off the second innings with a 410-foot moon shot (Fox Sports)
Last night Cody Bellinger launched another homer, his second in as many days and his 30th of the season. The milestone blast put the 22-year-old freshman in rare company, making him just the 10th rookie in National League history with at least 30 bombs. That Bellinger reached the mark in only 87 games is even more impressive, as most of the others required a full season. The only one who came close to matching his breakneck pace (which projects to 56 homers over 162 games) was Ryan Braun, who needed 91 games to club 30 homers back in 2007 -- the last time an NL rookie hit that many (as did Chris Young).

With a third of the season to go, Bellinger is a lock to break the Senior Circuit rookie long-ball record of 38 shared by Wally Berger and Frank Robinson, which hasn't been matched since 1956. He still has an outside shot at breaking Mark McGwire's all-time rookie record of 49, although Aaron Judge -- who leads the Majors with 34 -- has better odds. In addition to playing his home games at the homer-friendly Yankee Stadium, where New York will play 29 more times this year, he gets six more games in Toronto, three in Boston, and three in Baltimore (not to mention three in Texas). He could easily go deep multiple times in any of those series, especially against the lesser pitching staffs of the Blue Jays, Rangers, and Orioles.

The deck remains stacked against Bellinger, however, who plays in one of baseball's toughest home run parks and probably baseball's least long-ball friendly division. While the Dodgers only have 21 of their remaining 55 games at home, the constant travel may wear down Bellinger during the dog days of August and September. He's already cooled off considerably from his torrid start, going deep six times in his last 30 games after belting 24 in his first 57. His 26.4 percent strikeout rate isn't doing him any favors, either.

The talk in June of Judge and Bellinger both breaking McGwire's record now appears premature. I still like Judge's chances, but his second-half slump is certainly a concern. Bellinger would have a few more dingers under his belt had he not spent most of April in Triple-A, which may wind up costing him the record. Even if they both fall short, however, they should each clear 40 with relative ease, which would be the first instance in baseball history of multiple rookies with 40 homers in the same season. McGwire is still the only one to reach that rarefied air, but he should have some company before long.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Bags, Rock & Pudge


This weekend Ivan Rodriguez, Jeff Bagwell, and Tim Raines joined the Cooperstown ranks alongside executives Bud Selig and John Shuerholz. Trevor Hoffman and Vladimir Guerrero narrowly missed joining them, falling just a handful of votes short of election. Both are virtual locks to make it next year.

Even without the greatest closer not named Mariano Rivera and one of last decade's most exciting players, this year's class was a formidable one. It had arguably the greatest catcher of all-time (or at least the greatest since Johnny Bench), the greatest basestealer of all-time (in terms of success rate), and perhaps the greatest first baseman of the integrated era (or at least until Albert Pujols came along).

If  Rodriguez is not the greatest backstop of all-time, then he is certainly the best defensively. Both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs have him leading the position easily in defensive WAR, with each putting him in the top 10 all-time for all positions. FanGraphs has him as the fourth-most valuable defender ever, ranking behind only Ozzie Smith, Brooks Robinson, and Mark Belanger. The drop-off between him and other backstops is so severe that it's hard to imagine anyone challenging his title, much less his record (for a catcher) of 13 Gold Gloves (Yadier Molina is still five away, in case you're wondering). Throw in his sizeable offensive contributions -- 311 home runs, 2,844 hits, a .296 lifetime average -- and it's clear that he's one of the three greatest catchers ever along with Bench and Yogi Berra.

It's hard to argue that Raines was the greatest base-stealer ever, especially since Rickey Henderson already claimed the title for himself. He never stole 100 bases in a season, which has been done 21 times throughout baseball history (he topped out at 90), and the difference in total thefts between him and Henderson is a whopping 598 -- more than all but 18 players have stolen in their entire careers. But Henderson got caught a lot more than Raines -- 189 times more, to be exact. As such, Raines' 84.7 percent success rate is considerably better than Henderson's 80.8 percent. It's also the highest of all-time for anyone who stole that many bases. So while Raines may not have been the most prolific base-robber of all-time, he was the best at combining volume and efficiency. And like Rodriguez, Raines brought a lot to the table with his bat, too, slashing .294/.385/.425 (123 OPS+) for his career with 2,605 hits and far more walks (1,330) than strikeouts (966). Add it all together and Raines was the second-greatest leadoff hitter of all-time, which somehow took the BBWAA 10 years to recognize.

And last but not least there's Bagwell, who was Pujols before Pujols. Check out their averages through their first 14 seasons:

Bagwell: 151 G 665 PA 108 R 32 HR 108 RBIs .297/.408/.542 (150 OPS+) 99 BB 110 K 14 SB
Pujols: 150 G 660 PA 108 R 37 HR 114 RBIs .317/.403/.588 (162 OPS+) 80 BB 65 K 7 SB

Pujols hit for a higher average and a bit more power while striking out less, but Bagwell walked more and stole twice as many bases. They were both good fielders, winning Gold Gloves for their play at first base, but the metrics say Pujols was better. Overall, you have to give the edge to Pujols, but it's close.

And yet, it took Bagwell seven tries to get into the Hall of Fame, whereas Pujols will be a slam-dunk as soon as he's eligible. The difference is that Bagwell played just 39 games in his 15th season and retired at 37, leaving him well short of several notable milestones such as 500 homers and 500 doubles. Pujols, whose contract runs until he's 42, has continued to play on through debilitating lower body injuries that have rendered him a full-time designated hitter. He's padding his career totals without adding much value on the field, socking his 600th homer this season in a year where he's been over a win below replacement level. A lifetime National Leaguer, Bagwell never had that option except during interleague games, playing a grand total of 10 games as a DH. Perhaps the DH would have lengthened his career, but we'll never know.

If nothing else, this year's class raises the bar for the average Hall of Famer. Next year we'll get Hoffman and Guerrero, along with likely newcomers Chipper Jones and Jim Thome. It's good to see the stars of the '90s and 2000s get the recognition they deserve. Now if we could only do something about the '70s and '80s...

Lee May's Miserable Timing

Lee May was never in the right place at the right time (UPI)
Lee May was a good hitter for many years. He slugged 354 home runs -- more than Joe DiMaggio -- and had 11 straight seasons with at least 20. He played more than 2,000 games and amassed over 2,000 hits. A three-time All-Star, he received MVP consideration in six seasons, finishing in the top 10 twice. His career OPS+ was 116, which is equal to Barry Larkin's and Roberto Alomar's and Ken Boyer's, despite a mediocre .313 OBP.

Lee May was not good at reaching round numbers. He had three seasons with over 100 RBIs, but in four years he finished with either 98 or 99 and in another year, he had 94. He had one season with 39 home runs, and another with 38. Similarly, he had one year with 29 long balls, and another with 28. He usually missed 10-15 games per season, but with better luck he could have had a pair of 40-homer seasons on his resume and seven or eight 100-RBI campaigns.

Those are impressive numbers in any era, but they really would have stood out during his playing days. He debuted in 1965, during the heart of the Second Deadball Era, and had his breakout season in 1968, the Year of the Pitcher. He came up with Cincinnati but was shipped out after the 1971 season, bringing back Joe Morgan in the trade that jump-started the Big Red Machine. He then spent three prime seasons in purgatory, playing half his games in the pitcher's paradise formerly known as the Astrodome. While the Reds won a pennant in their first season without him, May's Astros finished third, 10.5 games behind Cincinnati. The Reds repeated as division champs the following year and won 98 games in '74; meanwhile, the Astros barely reached .500 both years.

After that May was dealt to Baltimore, having just missed their dynastic run in the late '60s and early '70s. The Orioles made only one postseason appearance in his seven years there, losing to Pittsburgh in the 1979 Fall Classic. May began the decade on World Series losers in Cincinnati and ended it on World Series losers in Baltimore, failing to reach the playoffs in between.

By then May was 36 and had played his last full season as a regular. With his career winding down, he played sparingly over the next three seasons, the last two of which came with the Royals. He had missed their epic postseason clashes with the Yankees in the late '70s and their World Series appearance in 1980. Kansas City give him one last crack at October baseball in '81 but fell short, and May retired after '82.

Timing, they say, is everything in life. If you put May on the Orioles during his Cincinnati years, he wins two championships, and if you put him on the Reds during his Baltimore years, he wins two more. If that had happened, perhaps he'd be remembered a bit more fondly by fans in those cities, the way Tony Perez and Boog Powell are celebrated.