Sunday, July 29, 2012

100 Games in

As many teams reach the century mark in games played, let's take stock of what we've learned from the season's first 100 games played.
  • After piling up 106 losses last year, the lowly Houston Astros (34-68) are the worst team in baseball again.  After dealing Carlos Lee, Wandy Rodriguez and Brett Myers, they essentially have no established major league talent.  I guess that's one way to rebuild; start from scratch and embrace the youth movement.  Let's just say they won't be making the playoffs anytime soon.
  • The Cincinnati Reds and Washington Nationals are tied with the New York Yankees for the best record in baseball at 60-40.  Business as usual for the Bronx Bombers, but surprising for the two NL teams given that both finished below .500 last year--the Nats were 80-81 and the Reds were 79-83.
  • Not even Theo Epstein's magic touch can save the Cubs from another season buried near the bottom of the standings.  As for Magic Johnson and the LA Dodgers?  That's another story.
  • Ten years later, Billy Beane is still a genius.  And there's something crazy happening in Oakland.  Just imagine if Manny Ramirez had made the team.
  • The Red Sox still can't get their act together.  And Red Sox/Yankees has lost its luster.
  • The Pirates are legitimately good.  For real, this time.  The Orioles, however, are not.
  • Joey Votto is the best pure hitter in baseball, Justin Verlander is the best pitcher, and Jose Bautista has the most power, but the title of best all-around player is up for grabs.  Trout?  Matt KempRyan Braun?  What about Josh Hamilton and Andrew McCutchen?  Whomever you choose, chances are he plays the outfield.
  • Adam Dunn is not "done," but Ichiro Suzuki is.
  • Andy Pettitte, like his old pal Roger Clemens, has a hard time walking away from the game.  He still hasn't reached Brett Favre territory.
  • Bryce Harper and Mike Trout are just as good as everyone said they would be.  So are international imports Yu Darvish and Yoenis Cespedes, for that matter.
  • The addition of a second Wild Card has changed everything.  If it feels like every team is still in the playoff hunt, it's because many of them still are.  In the AL only three teams--Kansas City, Minnesota, and Seattle--are definitively (at least ten games back) out of the race.  Over in the NL, you have four--Chicago, Colorado, Houston, and San Diego.  That's why nobody's selling and everybody's buying as the trade deadline draws near.
  • The American League is still superior to the National League (based on Interleague play), the final score of the All-Star Game notwithstanding.
  • For the third year in a row, offense is down.  Pitching and defense still reign supreme
  • Other important trends; teams are shifting on defense more than ever before, batters are striking out more than ever before and players are spending more time on the DL than ever before.  Attendance is up 1,652 fans per game from the same time last year.
  • We need expanded use of instant replay, especially when October rolls around.  Umpires are still missing way too many calls.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Angels Win Greinke Sweepstakes

When the Los Angeles Angels signed C.J Wilson last December, adding him to a rotation that already featured a formidable big three in Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, and Ervin Santana, I firmly believed LA had the best starting pitching in the Amiercan League, if not the majors.  The Yankees would challenge that title when they surrounded C.C. Sabathia with Hiroki Kuroda and Michael Pineda, and you won't have any trouble making a case for Philadelphia and its exceptional trio of Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Cole Hamels

But now with 2009 AL Cy Young winner Zack Greinke on board, it's not even close.  The Halos have used trades, free agent signings and homegrown talent to construct the deepest, most talented starting fives in recent memory.  Maybe ever.  I can't remember a rotation as loaded as this one.  Top to bottom, it's stacked.  Each member is a current or former All-Star with a resume that includes postseason experience, Cy Young consideration, and multiple seasons of above average performance. To provide a snapshot of the caliber of talent that's been assembled here, just look at what these guys did last year:

Weaver: 18-8, 2.41 ERA, 1.01 WHIP, 235.2 IP, 198 Ks, 158 ERA+, 6.7 bWAR, All-Star, Cy Young runner-up
Wilson: 16-7, 2.94 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 223.1 IP, 206 Ks, 150 ERA+, 4.4 bWAR, All-Star, 6th place Cy
Haren: 16-10, 3.17 ERA, 1.02 WHIP, 238.1 IP, 192 Ks, 120 ERA+, 4.0 bWAR, 7th place Cy
Santana: 11-12, 3.38 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 228.2 IP, 178 Ks, 112 ERA+, 2.7 bWAR
Greinke: 16-6, 3.83 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 171.2 IP, 201 Ks, 103 ERA+, 1.4 bWAR

By my calculations, that adds up to 77 wins, 1,097.2 innings pitched, 975 punchouts and 19.2 bWAR.  Good luck finding a team, real-life or fantasy, that ever got those kinds of numbers from their five hurlers.  It's mind-blowing.  They always say you can never have enough pitching, but it's hard to imagine having more than the Angels do at the moment.

Give credit to Angels General Manager Jerry Dipoto for taking a good thing and making it even better, like adding crispy bacon strips on top of a mouth-watering cheeseburger.  The pitching-rich Angels were already playoff bound, but he wasn't satisfied with merely making the postseason.  He had his eye on that shiny World Series trophy. He believes 2012 is his team's year, and he's all-in.  Dipoto didn't have to sell the farm to secure Greinke, but he did have to get rid of some of his more promising livestock.  The package he sent to the Brewers includes rookie shortstop Jean Segura as well as a pair of righthanded double A starting pitchers, Ariel Pena and Johnny Hellweg. Segura is a 22 year-old speedy, slick-fielding shortstop who has the ceiling of a Jimmy Rollins/Jose Reyes kind of player.  Baseball America ranked him as the Angels' fourth best prospect and rated him #55 among all prospects coming into the season.  Pena, rated the ninth best prospect in the Angels system, is 23 and pitched well in AA with the second most strikeouts in the Texas League. He could be ace material.  Hellweg, a 23 year-old towering bean pole, stands 6'9 tall but weighs just 210 pounds.  His record is an uimpressive 5-10, but he has a solid 3.38 ERA.  Best case scenario, he develops into a capable back-end of the rotation starter.

It happens all the time, but I've never understood the logic behind dealing established major league talent for unproven prospects.  Greinke has built a track record of success, proving he's one of the top hurlers in the game.  We know what he is and what he can do, but have no idea if the prospects will even make the majors, let alone succeed there.  So many prospects never pan out.  It's a total crapshoot, which is why these kinds of trades usually involve multiple prospects--to increase the odds that at least one can achieve at the big league level.  The Brewers were in an enviable position as one of the few teams selling in a market crowded with buyers (the second Wild Card has made so many more teams contenders).  They committed to trading him early on and dangled his name in trade rumors for much of the summer.  With Greinke just months away from free agency and likely to command north of $100 million on the open market, it made sense for the Brewers to squeeze some young talent out of a contender looking to make a splash at the deadline.  Once Cole Hamels signed that massive contract extension with the Phillies, Greinke's value soared even higher.  He was so coveted that GM Doug Melvin could have asked for the moon, and some desperate team woud have found a way to make it happen.   The Rangers were also in the hunt for Greinke, but backed off when they thought Melvin's asking price was too steep.  Now he's working in the same division, pitching against them.  Oh, the irony.  We'll have to wait and see if this mistake comes back to bite them in September and October with playoff games on the line.

I believe the Angels had already surpassed Texas as the best team in the AL West before the trade, even though they're still four games behind the Rangers in the standings. LA is 55-45 entering play today, which doesn't scream "best team ever," but since dropping 15 of their first 22 games/calling up MVP candidate Mike Trout they've gone 48-30 (.615 winning percentage). Maintain that pace for an entire season, and you win 100 games.  Meanwhile, Texas has lost steam and faltered in July, going 8-11 with a minus-17 run differential.  Josh Hamilton hasn't hit in two months, Michael Young and Nelson Cruz are underperforming, and Roy Oswalt has been a profound disappointment.  No wonder Nolan Ryan has been getting antsy.  The Rangers are still a great team, but maybe just not as good as they seemed before the All-Star Break.  Their flaws--mainly streaky hitting and a shaky back of the rotation--have been exposed.

But no team is perfect, and even the best have to slog through a rough patch every now and then. In  my mind these are the two best teams in baseball, and I'd be shocked if one of them doesn't make it to the World Series.  Their relationship is starting to resemble the Red Sox-Yankees power struggle that dominated the baseball landscape for much of the new milennium.  I'd love to see them square off in the ALCS with the Fall Classic at stake.  Texas has the better offense, but you'd have to give the edge to the Angels (in seven) on account of their superior pitching.  My gut feeling is that LA will go all the way, but I could just as easily see the Rangers making a third consecutive trip to the Series.  Stay tuned.
Now the Angels have four aces, and pitching to spare
But I want to talk a little more about that awesome Angels rotation.  For all intents and purposes, they have four number-one starters!  Let's take a deeper look.

Jered Weaver (13-1, 2.26 ERA)
Simply put, he's one of the best pitchers in the game.  The younger Weaver brother is the main threat to Justin Verlander's quest to take home another AL Cy Young trophy  Since the calendar flipped to May, LA has gone 12-1 in Weaver's starts.  If that's not an ace, I don't know what is.

C.J. Wilson (9-6, 2.89 ERA)
The California native has thrived in his Angels debut.  Was especially dominant over a six week period from May 22nd through July 1st, when the Angels won all eight of his starts.  Wilson allowed one earned run or fewer in seven of those outings, maintaining a sparkling 1.35 ERA while limiting opponents to .197/.282/.251 and yielding just one home run in 53.1 masterful innings of work.  Made the All-Star team and his 0.5 HR/9 rate leads the American League. Takes the mound against the Rays today in search of his first win in more than a month.

Dan Haren (8-8, 4.59 ERA)
Since the Cardinals traded him as the centerpiece of a three player package to Oakland in exchange for Mark Mulder following the 2004 season, he's been one of the most consistent and durable arms in the game.  He's made at least 33 starts and completed no less than 216 innings every year, averaging 195 strikeouts per season and 4.3 whiffs for every walk.  His velocity is down a bit this year and he's struggled at times, but his numbers look bad because he tried to pitch through a lower back strain in June before landing on the Disabled List. If you remove that abysmal one month stretch from June 9th through July 3rd his ERA falls to 3.35.  Since returning from the DL he's beaten a pair of tough opponents in the Texas Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Haren is poised for a strong second half and should finish the year with numbers similar to his 2010 statistics. 

Ervin Santana (4-10, 6.00 ERA)
The Greinke deal means Big Erv becomes the number five starter, but on most teams he's be a number three.  When you talk about good pitchers having disastrous seasons--Tim Lincecum, Jon Lester, and  Ricky Romero come to mind--Santana belongs in the discussion. Prolonged struggles are nothing new for Santana, who's been plagued by inconsistency throughout his career.  He's suffering from a servere case of gopheritis this year, as he's already been taken deep 23 times and is allowing nearly two homers per nine innings pitched.  Nearly one in every five fly balls he allows leaves the yard even though he's keeping the ball on the ground more than ever before and has a career best 1.51 GB/FB ratio.  Nothing has gone right for him this year; his walks are up, his strikeouts are down and his strand rate is an ugly 65.5%.  He hasn't shown any signs of righting the ship, either, as he's failed to make it out of the second inning in two of his past three starts.  The Angels mercifully skipped his turn in the rotation when Haren returned from the DL, and when Santana makes his next start there will be a 15 out restriction in effect. That way he won't have to pace himself as much; he can just go out there and throw for five innings. This has been a lost year for him, but hopefully he can rediscover the form that helped him completed more than 220 innings and keep his ERA under four in each of the past two seasons. His velocity and command hasn't changed, and his usage rate of different pitches indicates that he' not attacking hitters any differently. I'm surprised the Brewers didn't take a flier on him and see if he could take advantage of the National League boost.  Hey, if A.J. Burnett can do it, anyone can.  Except maybe John Lackey.
Zack Greinke (9-3, 3.44 ERA)
After a brief hiatus in the Senior Circuit, the one-time Kansas City Royal returns to the American League.  In Milwaukee he was victimized by the brutal Brewers defense, which is why his ERA there doesn't reflect how well he pitched (hence the All-Star snub).  In California he'll benefit from Gold Glovers Albert Pujols and DL-bound Erick Aybar backing him in the infield along with defensive wizards Trout, Peter Bourjos and Torii Hunter patrolling the outfield.  Just as long as he keeps the ball away from Mark Trumbo, he should be fine.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Karma's A-Bitch

What goes around comes around. 

We've all heard that one before.  It's a simple lesson that's been drilled into most of our heads since our formative days on the playground.  If you're a bad person who does bad things, chances are bad things are going to happen to you.  Sooner or later, you're gonna have to pay the piper. 

Alex Rodriguez is learning that lesson the hard way.

For the longest time, A-Rod did whatever the hell he wanted off the field without regard for the consequences of his actions.  He lied.  He said one thing and did another.  He cheated on his wife with a bevy of strippers.  He played underground poker even though Major League Baseball repeatedly told him not to. He was loose and reckless.  He pretended to be the "clean" candidate that would one day make sure that we never had to say "Barry Bonds" and "career home run leader" in the same sentence ever again.  He was the baseball equivalent of Tiger Woods.  On the ballfield, his conduct has been called into question on numerous occasions.  Tipping pitches to opponents (allegedly).  Slapping the ball out of Bronson Arroyo's outstretched glove.  Shouting while passing a Blue Jays infielder on the basepaths, causing enough of a distraction to force an error on a routine pop-up.  Intruding upon the sacred dirt of Dallas Braden's mound.

No wonder everybody hates him.  And I haven't even mentioned his steroid use yet.

I'm not going to delve into the details, but the point is that he used performance enhancing drugs, and then lied about using them.  He could have stayed silent, kept his big mouth shut and declined the "60 Minutes" interview in December, 2007.  He didn't have to reinforce the facade that he was one of the good guys who kept his nose clean. But he probably thought he was in the clear since his name didn't show up in the recently-released Mitchell Report.  He thought he'd gotten away with it, that he'd beaten the system, so he lied. To you, me, Katie Couric, and millions of Americans. On national TV.


That was the last straw.  Karma has reared its ugly head, and as his body continues to break down Rodriguez seems to be paying the price for years of debauchery, escapades, and cheating in various forms.  Since looking Couric in the eye and claiming, in no uncertain terms, that he had never used PEDS, the typically durable Rodriguez has become more injury prone than J.D. Drew.  It's hard getting used to his never-ending string of injuries because for a long time Rodriguez was one of the most rugged players in the game.  Nobody works harder to keep himself in shape during the offseason, and even as he enters his late thirties he's still as fit as ever.  You can criticize his makeup and ability to hit in the clutch all you want, but you can't question his work ethic and borderline OCD-commitment to conditioning.  In the past it made him indestructible.  We're talking about a guy who:
  • Missed just one game in his three prolific years with the Texas Rangers
  • Averaged 159 games played from 2001 through 2007
  • Played in all 162 the year he turned 30
No, he wasn't the Iron Man that his idol Cal Ripken Jr. was, but he showed up for work everyday and played through an assortment of aches and pains that would have forced lesser men out of the lineup.  You practically had to staple him to the bench if you wanted him to sit one out.  Now he's a ticking time bomb counting down to a DL stint that we all know is lurking just around the corner.

Not even additional time at DH can keep him on the field.  Joe Girardi has tried to preserve his aging superstar by letting Eric Chavez give him the occasional breather at third base, but to no avail. Notice how Rodriguez's games played total decreases even as more of his games qualify as "half days."

2005--162 games played,  1 at DH,  0.6 percent
2006--154 games played,  3 at DH,  1.9 percent
2007--158 games played,  4 at DH,  2.5 percent
2008--138 games played,  7 at DH,  5.1 percent
2009--124 games played,  9 at DH,  7.3 percent
2010--137 games played, 12 at DH, 8.8 percent
2011--99 games played,  10 at DH, 10. 1 percent
2012--94 games played,  26 at DH,  27.7 percent

Interestingly enough Derek Jeter, a player whom Rodriguez is frequently compared to, has DH'ed 33 times since 2008, about half as often as A-Rod's 64 appearances there.  Yet from '08 through '11, DJ has remained a model of health, averaging 23 more games played than Rodriguez despite fighting the disadvantages of being one year older and playing the more demanding position.  But Jeter is a class act, so karma is on his side.
Rodriguez has spent a lot more time watching games from the dugout recently
I don't want to turn this into a comparison between A-Rod and the Yankees Captain.  Let's take a closer look and examine Rodriguez's recent injury-checkered past to see how he deteriorated from "Iron Man" to the Yankees' modern day Mickey Mantle

2008 (quad)
Following a rather slow four week stretch to open the season, Rodriguez lands on the DL at the end of April with a grade 2 quadriceps strain.  He is just one of many Yankees (Jorge Posada, Hideki Matsui, Chien-Ming Wang, and Carl Pavano, among others) to miss extensive time this year, the only season dating back to 1995 in which the Bronx Bombers failed to make the playoffs. He sits out 17 games and does not return to action until May 20th.  Fully healthy, he goes yard in his first game back and enjoys a typical A-Rod season from that point forward by batting .305/.402/.589 with 31 home runs over the season's final four months.  His 35 dingers were just two behind Miguel Cabrera's league leading 37, but one has to imagine Rodriguez would have taken his sixth career home run title had he not missed those three weeks in May.

2009 (hip)
Following a tumultuous winter in which Joe Torre calls him out in his book "The Yankee Years" and SI's Selena Roberts reveals A-Rod tested positive for steroids in 2003, Rodriguez misses Spring Training and sits out April rehabbing a torn labrum in his hip and misses the team's first 28 games.  He doesn't skip a beat, homering on the first pitch he sees.  Girardi, eager to slot his cleanup hitter behind a struggling Mark Teixeira, plays Rodriguez 38 straight games.  But after a June swoon it becomes clear that Alex is fatigued.  He sits out consecutive games (save for a pinch-hitting appearance) and proceeds to go on a three week tear.  From then on Rodriguez receives occasional breathers; two in July, two in August, and four in September/October.  The strategy works, as he seems to get stronger as the season wears on and carries the Yanks to their first World Series championship since 2000.  The 2009 postseason marks the last time A-Rod is a truly dominant hitter.

2010 (calf)
To his credit, Rodriguez stays healthy for the first three quarters of the season, missing just seven games through August 16th.  But two days after powering up for the fourth three home run performance of his career, he strains his calf and misses 17 games.  This absence ultimately costs him the major league RBI crown, as his 125 fell just one short of Miggy Cabrera for most in the bigs.

2011 (knee, thumb)
Alex claims he's poised for a monster year after a winter without rehabilitation and enjoys a hot start to the season. Misses just six games in the first half and bats close to .300, but nagging knee and shoulder injuries sap his power by preventing him from driving through the ball.  Heading into the All-Star break he'd failed to go yard in 85 at-bats, the longest drought of his career at the time.  The knee injury turns out to be a torn meniscus that required surgery.  Spends six weeks on the shelf and did not return until August 21st, but immediately jams  his thumb in his first game back.  Looks uncomfortable at the plate and batted just .191/.345/.353 the rest of the way before disappearing against the Tigers in the ALDS.

2012 (hand)
Undergoes experimental blood-platelet surgery (popularized by Kobe Bryant) before the season in an attempt to heal his knee.  Heading into the spring training, Girardi and Rodriguez both emphasize their goal for the season is to get A-Rod into 140-150 games.  By DH'ing his three-time MVP more than ever before, Girardi keeps him fresh enough to play in all but three of the team's first 97 games.  A misplaced 82 mile-per-hour Felix Hernandez changeup puts an abrupt stop to that, fracturing A-Rod's hand and sidelining him for the rest of the summer.  Tough luck, but that's what happens when you wear the number 13 on your back everyday.
The latest in a long line of injuries for Alex Rodriguez
There's not much you can do to avoid a fluky injury like that, but it still has to be incredibly frustrating for Rodriguez.  His bat was finally starting to come around and he looked like he'd found his rhythm at the plate.  Aside from last season, he tends to finish the season strong and will look forward to putting together some quality at-bats come September and October.

Enjoy your 37th birthday, A-Rod.  Try not to pull something when you blow out the candles on your cake.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Hamels Hauls in $144 Million

The Philadelphia Phillies, still wallowing at the bottom of the NL East nine games below .500, just locked up Cole Hamels with a six year deal worth $144 million.  If that seems like a lot of money, it's probably because it is.  Among pitchers only C.C. Sabathia (seven years, $161 million) has ever received a larger payday, though Johan Santana (six years, $137.5 million) wasn't too far behind.  Impressive company, and it's worth noting that all three are lefties.  

Starting pitchers typically don't command nine figure contracts, and could never even dream of banking more than $200 million like Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder have in recent years, simply because no general manager in his right mind is going to hand a starter a ten year deal when he could blow out his arm tomorrow and never throw another pitch again. Comparing pitchers and position players is no different than comparing apples and oranges, but it must be said that the former are notoriously riskier investments because they're more volatile.  They put so much stress on their arms while slinging a baseball 95 miles per hour, and as a result are much more prone to injury and tend to be less consistent on a year-to-year basis.  Everybody know this, yet it remains unbearably frustrating to watch teams pour millions upon millions of dollars into starting pitchers that don't pan out. Don't you think the Red Sox front office would like to have all the money they spent on John Lackey and Daisuke Matsuzaka back?  Ask Yankee fans what they have to say about Carl Pavano and A.J. Burnett.  And while you're in the area, hitch a ride to Queens and ask the Mets how that Santana deal is working out. 

I'm not saying Hamels is going completely fall apart like they did.  I don't think he will.  But he could, and the very possibility of such an expensive collapse is enough to keep Phillies GM Ruben Amaro Jr. awake at night.   If you're a Phillies fan, all you can do is cross your fingers and hope for the best.  If he gets hurt, at least the rotation still boasts a pair of Cy Young winners, so things could be worse.

At least Hamels won't have to be worry about what team he'll be pitching for next year, or even next week.  There was much speculation that the pending free agent would be traded before the July 31st deadline if both sides were unable to reach an agreement.  And even if the Phillies hung on to him for the rest of the season, there was no guarantee they'd be able to retain his services.  Not when the 28 year-old southpaw was expected to be one of the most coveted commodities in the open market.  Many teams had already expressed interest in the three time All-Star, and had he remained available there would have been potential suitors lined up around the block hoping to acquire his services.  Philadelphia may have outbid itself--we'll never know--but that's the cost of securing him early and avoiding protracted, potentially messy negotiations or a bidding war.  It's not like Hamels was going to give them a hometown discount, anyways.

So the question about where Cole Hamels will pitch has been answered.  Now the question is this: will Cole Hamels be worth $144 million?

Hamels is good.  Really good.  With the exception of 2009, when he went 10-11 with a 4.32 ERA during the regular season before wetting the bed in the playoffs, you can't find much to complain about his track record. His postseason resume, highlighted by NLCS MVP and World Series MVP honors in Philadelphia's glorious 2008 championship run, is just as impressive.  He's been everything you could ever ask for out of a starting pitcher.  Still, at this point in his career it's safe to say that he falls just outside of the elite class of Tim Lincecum, Roy Halladay, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, and Sabathia. He's not quite on their level.  Not even in the conversation.  To me, he's in the tier below them, more of a Matt Cain/Dan Haren/Jon Lester type.  When I think of the top hurlers in the game, the bona fide aces, Hamels never springs to mind.  Maybe it's because he doesn't create that special buzz of energy at the ballpark.  Maybe it has something to do with his lack of explosive velocity and intimidating mound presence.  Maybe I just haven't seen him pitch enough.

Just to be clear, in no way, shape or form am I doubting the fact that Cole Hamels is a great pitcher. After examining his statistics, I realized that I've been underrating him for quite some time.  He's durable, his peripherals are always excellent and he's one of the most consistent pitchers in the game.  But so has the aforementioned Cain, who just inked in his own contract extension but at 78 percent of the cost.  Statistically they're very similar, and Cain is nearly a full year younger but will make $30 million less.  Hamels is better than Cain, but not that much better. It's splitting hairs, really. And besides, $24 million a year seems like an awful lot of money to give a pitcher who:

-Has never finishEd Higher than fifth in the Cy Young voting

-Has never won more than 15 games in any season, though he's on pace to do it here in 2012

-Has just one season (2010) with more than 200 strikeouts

-Has just one season (2011) with an ERA below three

-Hasn't thrown a shutout since 2009

I'm just not convinced he'll be worth the dough. And since the Phillies can no longer rely on their core of Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Chase Utley--all on the wrong side of 30--to remain both healthy and productive, I think it would have made more sense to reserve those funds to address the lineup, which will only get weaker if and when Hunter Pence is traded. If I were Amaro, I would have dealt Hamels, kept Pence (the second best hitter on the team in the first half behind Carlos Ruiz) and stashed the money to pursue some much needed offensive firepower in the offseason.  Now with so much money--more than $100 million--committed to Hamels, Howard, Utley, Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, and Jonathan Papelbon, it seems unlikely that he'll be able to make a serious run at free-agents-to-be Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton

Unlikely, but not impossible.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Lester Hits Rock Bottom

Yesterday afternoon, with the Boston Red Sox desperately trying to stave off a sweep at the hands of the Toronto Blue Jays, the Bosox were counting on Jon Lester (winless in July) to pitch like the Lester of old.  You know, the Lester who always seems to be a preseason Cy Young candidate.  The dominant pitcher who hurled a no-hitter.  The workhorse that made two All-Star teams.  The crew-cut kid who beat cancer, and then the Rockies to secure Boston's World Series championship in 2007. 
The Red Sox needed their ace to ride to the rescue and salvage a win before hitting the road to do battle with the top two teams in baseball.

Instead, he suffered the worst outing of his major league career--according to the Bill James GameScore metric--with a stinker that produced a rating of negative 3.  It was sad.  Pathetic.  Pitiful.   The Blue Jays, sans Jose Bautista, bludgeoned the struggling southpaw for eleven runs (a career worst) in the first five innings of what became a 15-7 slugfest.  The beatdown capped off a demoralizing three game sweep that dropped the Sox to 48-48, back to the bottom of the AL East.    

Lester was in trouble from the get-go when Brett Lawrie slammed his first pitch of the day out of the park for a leadoff home run.  Things snowballed from there.  The Blue Jays went through the order  and piled on four more runs, making Lester burn through 29 pitches.  Red Sox fans have seen this horror movie too many times before, as the first inning has been a major problem for the staff all season long.  Almost every game now they find themselves in a hole right off the bat, perpetually playing catch-up. 

It didn't take long for the Sox to rally off Jays' starter Henderson AlvarezAdrian Gonzalez, who's been red hot over the past month, got three runs back with one swing of the bat when he launched his third home run of the week.  You got the feeling that if Lester could just settle down and perform some damage control, Boston would eventually scrape together some runs and climb its way back into the game. 

Unfortunately, his second inning was nearly as rough as the first.  After issuing a leadoff walk to Lawrie, Lester got two quick outs and needed just one more strike to put away Edwin Encarnacion and escape the inning unharmed, but walked him on a full count.  Power hitting backstop J.P. Arencibia made him pay with a backbreaking three-run bomb that sucked the life out of the crowd.  Then Rajai Davis (Rajai Davis, WHO HOMERS ONCE EVERY 100 AT-BATS) followed suit with a solo shot, just for good measure. 

Lester clearly had nothing, needing 55 pitches to get through those two messy innings, but Bobby Valentine kept the laboring lefty in the game. The skipper simply couldn't afford to dip into his bullpen so early, not with three games coming up against baseball's most potent offense. He had to preserve the bullpen, even if that meant hanging Lester out to dry. And who knows?  Maybe if he could bounce back and end the day with a few decent innings, he'd have something to feel good about and build on heading into his next start.

Sure enough, he seemed to recover a bit by keeping Toronto off the board in the third and fourth, ending each inning by inducing ground-ball double plays.  Boston loaded the bases with just one out in the bottom of the fourth, but only managed to push across one run on a Mike Aviles sac fly. Alvarez was on the verge of unraveling, but lucky for him Lester walked Davis to start the fifth. No surprise there, as he'd allowed the leadoff batter to reach base in all five of his innings (so he was basically pitching from the stretch the entire afternoon, which is never good).  Travis Snider tagged him for a two-run shot into the batter's eye, his first major league home run in over a year.  Jarrod Saltalamacchia jogged out to the mound to calm Lester down/give Junichi Tazawa more time to warm up.  I imagine their conversation went something like this:

Salty: "Jesus, Jon.  It looks like batting practice out here.  What's the matter with you today?"
Lester: "I dunno, man.  Just not my day, I guess.  I've had a rough couple of weeks here, to tell you the truth.  Could really use a drink right about now."
Salty: "Don't worry about it.  I saw meltdowns like that all the time when I was with the Rangers. (Velentine hops out of the dugout) At least it's over now."
Lester: "About time. I should have been out of this game an hour ago.  So relieved when I saw Hideki Okajima warming up out there."
Salty: "John that's not...never mind."
Lester: "Oh right.  Dice-K.  My bad."
Salty: (shaking his head)
Lester: "Well I was thinking of maybe ordering some KFC, cracking open a cold one and kicking back in the clubhouse.  See if Josh and John Lackey are around.  You in?"
Salty: "What? I got a game to catch."
Lester: "Ahhh that's right.  Maybe some other time?"
Salty: "I don't think so, Jon.  That suff is banned in the clubhouse now."
Lester: "Suit yourself.  Just keep it between us, alright?  Bobby doesn't need to know."
Salty: "Sure. Whatever"
Lester: "I mean it.  Snitches get stitches, bro.  Why do you think they traded Kevin Youkilis?  Fella couldn't keep his big mouth shut.  It would be a real shame..."
Salty: "I get it."
Lester: "Good.  (Valentine arrives) Alright man, I'm out of here.  Take it easy.  I'll save a drumstick for ya!"
Salty (sighs): "Good talking to you, too."
Valentine: "What the hell was that about?"
There's not really much to say, Salty
All kidding aside, Lester has to be frustrated with his recent slump.  Before trudging to the dugout while the disappointed Fenway Faithful showered him with boos, he walked a career-high five batters. He surrendered four home runs.  To put that in perspective, he had allowed five in his previous nine starts. What has already been a tough season for him has continued to get worse; his ERA swelled to an unsightly 5.46--two full runs higher than last year--and his bloated WHIP sits at 1.46.  His record fell to 5-8, and Boston has now lost six of his last eight turns. 

It would be one thing if this one disastrous start was an isolated incident, a bump in the road, but it's not. It's a troubling trend. That makes three starts in a row now that Lester has failed to complete the fifth inning.  And let me tell you, it's been a grisly couple of weeks.  Spanning just 12 and one-third innings, he's been pummeled for 25 hits and, get this, 21 earned runs, good for a 15.32 ERA.  Opposing hitters have destroyed him, batting .439/.522/680.  48.8 percent of balls put into play have turned into hits, and his average GameScore has been below 18.  To be fair, all three starts came against excellent offenses (Yankees, White Sox, and Blue Jays) at Fenway, which has never been a southpaw's best friend. 

These Tim Lincecum-esque struggles are puzzling, to say the least, and are even more confounding because he's been so steady over the past four seasons, winning between 15 and 19 games with an ERA between 3.21 and 3.47. He's 28 years old.  He's healthy. There hasn't been a drop off in velocity, an issue that's plagued rotation-mate Josh Beckett.  In my first half pitching review a week ago I predicted a nice turnaround in the second half, and I'm sticking to my guns.  Lester is better than this, so I'm not going to count him out just yet.  He's hit rock bottom, and there's nowhere to go but up.

Even if his next start is at Yankee Stadium this Saturday.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Larkin, Santo Inducted

Today Barry Larkin and Ron Santo will take their rightful places in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.   Congratulations to both men, who were excellent all-around players in midwestern cities who were criminally underrated for a variety of reasons (both played in small markets, were overshadowed by their peers, and didn't post monster stats, to name a few).  And while the two ended up at the same destination--Cooperstown00their journeys couldn't have been more different, with Santo's being much longer and more tragic. 

Santo starred with the Cubs in the '60s and '70s
In 1980, his first year on the ballot, Santo failed to attain the requisite five percent of votes needed to stay there, so he fell off the ballot until reappearing in 1985.  He slowly gathered momentum but ultimately fell well short of induction, topping out at 43.1 percent of the vote his last year of eligibility.  15 times his name was on the ballot and 15 times the voters denied him entry.  Santo's health rapidly deteriorated shortly thereafter, and he made it clear that he wanted to see his plaque enshrined while he was still alive.  Sadly, he died on December 2nd, 2010 with the reputation as the best baseball player outside the Hall.  More than a year later Santo was posthumously elected by the "Golden Era" Veteran's Committee, a 16 member panel consisting of former greats such as Hank Aaron, Al Kaline, Ralph Kiner, Juan Marichal, Brooks Robinson, Al Rosen, and longtime teammate Billy Williams.  Santo received all but one possible vote.  Shame on the Hall of Fame for waiting too long, allowing more than 30 years to pass before inducting Santo, who was second only to Eddie Mathews among third baseman at the time of his retirement.  Better late than never, I suppose, but I can't get over the fact that Santo was robbed of the opportunity to cherish the honor with his family, friends, and teammates.  Nobody would have enjoyed Hall of Fame weekend more.

Larkin played his entire 19 year career
in Cincy
Thankfully, the BBWAA did not make the same mistake with Larkin.  He debuted on the ballot in 2010 with 51.6 percent of the vote and jumped to 62.1 percent the following year.  The general consensus was that Larkin was one of the ten best shortstops of all time and clearly deserved a place in the Hall of Fame, but that his track record was not distinguished enough to merit a prestigious first ballot induction.  If that logic doesn't make a whole lot of sense to you, join the club.  Given the extremely weak class of 2012 (best candidate: Bernie Williams) Larkin was all but guaranteed to make it in, and did by receiving 86.4 percent of the vote.  It will be interesting to see if this helps Alan Trammell's case at all...

I wrote more extensively about the lifelong Reds shortstop and the beloved Cubbie third baseman during the winter.  To read more about my opinions on the Hall of Fame, check out my "Hall of Fame" tab.

Ross Raking

Cody Ross watches his walk-off home run leave the yard
In what has become another crazy, whirlwind, injury-plagued baseball season for the Boston Red Sox, Cody Ross has stepped up and become the team's best position player in 2012. 

Let that sink in for a second.  On a team that employs the services of numerous perennial All-Stars/MVP candidates such as Adrian Gonzalez, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carl Crawford, a team that has sunk over $173 million into its roster, Cody Ross (of all people) has been the best position player through the first 95 games of the season.  That might sound shocking to you, but anyone who's watched this team on a regular basis knows how valuable Ross has been.  And just to be clear, I'm not including pitchers or David Ortiz, who only brings his glove to the park for interleague games.  In fact, I'm not sure he would defend first base even if Bobby Valentine stacked Chips AHoy! on top of it (yes, I know he's slimmed down, but they didn't call him the Cookie Monster in Minnesota for nothing). 

But let's get back to this Cody Ross business.  If I made this claim a week ago, when Ross had just one hit in his previous 30 plate appearances, you might have rolled your eyes.  Really? Cody Ross? But on the heels of a monster series against the White Sox that saw him belt a trio of three-run homers, including a walk-off shot on Thursday, in a span of eight at-bats, that sounds a little more reasonable, doesn't it? 

But like I said before, if you've been paying attention to this team, then you've seen Ross blast enough bombs over that giant green wall in left to know he's having a pretty good year.  And for just three million bucks, he's a cost effective throwback to the days when Theo Epstein played rich-man's Moneyball, surrounding his superstar core (Manny Ramirez, Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez) with undervalued free agents such as Mark Bellhorn, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, David Ortiz, and Todd Walker.  After seeing the front office waste so much money on guys like Crawford, John Lackey, and Daisuke Matsuzaka, it's a nice change of pace to see them score on such a cheap investment.  It goes without saying that Ross has been a pleasant surprise as well as a veritable bargain on baseball's second largest payroll.

That's not the only reason to like Ross, though.  He's been incredibly accomodating, willing to do whatever the team asks of him--like play all three outfield positions or bat anywhere from second to eighth in the lineup--with a smile on his face.  His upbeat attitude, penchant for big hits (1.011 OPS with runners in scoring position), and patented celebratory bat-flips have made him a fan favorite even though he's been with the team just six months.  On January 23rd, the Bosox inked Cody Ross to an unheralded one year deal as a replacement option for J.D. Drew

To be honest, I didn't think much of the signing at the time.  I remembered the 2010 NLCS MVP coming up with some key postseason hits as he helped the Giants win their first World Series since moving to San Francisco, but hadn't seen enough of him to have much of an opinion.  At first glance he seemed like the prototypical Red Sox pickup, a righthanded power-hitter without much in the way of speed or defense.  All I knew was that I did not want to see Ryan Sweeney and his .378 career slugging percentage man right field all season long. 

The original plan was to platoon them, to get Ross's power into the lineup against lefties (he's feasted on them for a .940 OPS throughout his career, while Sweeney has an anemic .581 mark against southpaws) and take advantage of Sweeney's superior defense and plate discipline with righties on the bump.  But when Crawford opened the season on the Disabled List and Ellsbury joined him soon thereafter, that strategy went out the window and Ross became an everyday player again.  He's been the one constant in an outfield decimated by injuries; despite missing a month of action with a fracture foot his 65 games played are tops in Boston's patchwork outfield.  Valentine has been forced to trot out Marlon Byrd, Darnell McDonald, Scott Podsednik, Ryan Kalish, and Daniel Nava, among others.  There has been no stability.  But even if you didn't know who was going to make up two-thirds of the outfield on any given night, you could count on Cody Ross to show up and play his heart out.

And it doesn't hurt that he's having the season of his life at the plate, either.  The 31 year-old, who's been more or less average offensively for the past decade, is putting together a career year in his Sox debut.  Skeptics can say that he's overachieved and will be quick to point out that his 21.6 HR/FB% is well above his career 13.3% rate.  A pull-hitter with power, Ross's swing is tailor-made for Fenway, where he can take advantage of the Green Monster in left.  After spending the bulk of his career playing in pitcher's parks in Florida and San Francisco, he's flourishing in the old yard's friendly confines.  At home he's turned into Jimmie Foxx, slugging .640 there this season and clearing the fences once every dozen at-bats. Everywhere else he's performing like, well, Cody Ross, slugging .451 with a home run every 18 at-bats.  If he could play all his games at Fenway, he'd have a plaque enshrined in Cooperstown someday.  But then again, you could say the same about a lot of hitters.

Home/Road splits notwithstanding, Ross has outproduced all of his star-studded teammates not named Ortiz. If you remove Big Papi from the equation, Ross rates:

By many measures, Ross is #1 on the Red Sox
-first on the team in slugging percentage with a robust .565 mark, a solid 63 points ahead of Will Middlebrooks
-first with his .914 OPS and first with his 138 OPS+.  The latter figure, if sustained over the course of his career, would rank better than Ken Griffey Jr., George Brett and Al Kaline.
-first in intentional walks, with two! 
-first with a .291 ISO, which trails Ortiz by just two percentage points
-first in oWAR and oRAR
-second in home runs (16), just two fewer than Jarrod Saltalamacchia.  If Valentine can keep finding ways to get him in the lineup, he could eclipse his career high of 24, set in 2009 (his career year) with the then-Florida Marlins
-second in RBI with 50, five behind Gonzalez, who has played 28 more games and accrued 137 additional plate appearances
-second in runs scored (45) and nipping at the heels of Gonzalez, who leads Ross by one

I mean, I knew he had been good, but I had no clue he'd been this good. He's been the best righthanded hitter on the team, he's sporting a .380 wOBA and has been worth 136 wRC+.  That's damn good.  The question, as always, is can he possibly keep this up?  Aside from the slightly fluky HR/FB rate and isolaTed Power, all of his batted ball data checks out.  ESPN has him projected to finish the year with 27 home runs and 85 RBI. FanGraphs is slightly less optimistic, predicting a more significant drop off but a solid bottom line of 24 big flies and 81 ribbies.  Those numbers sound about right to me.  He's been playing a little over his head, but I believe his skills are legitimate. 

With Ellsbury and Crawford back in the lineup (knock on wood) there's a logjam in right and playing time will likely become an issue.  I for one would like to see Ross out there almost everyday; I don't care for Sweeney and his zero home runs and am not convinced that Daniel Nava is a capable major league ballplayer.  Obviously Ross's defense leaves a lot to be desired, and he's going to struggle against righthanders, but after everything that's happened this season he has earned it.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Belated First Half Awards

The second half of the baseball season is now a week old, but here are my belated midseason awards.  Better late than never!

AL MVP-Josh Hamilton
Still riding the wave that crested in May, because it bears mentioning that since June 1st he's hitting just /.207/.303/.422.  He had to fall back to Earth at some point, though, and despite the funk he leads the majors in home runs and RBI.

Honorable Mentions: Robinson Cano, David Ortiz, Mike Trout, Mark Trumbo, Miguel Cabrera, Adam Jones

AL Cy Young-Justin Verlander
There has been no drop off in performance for the 2011 AL MVP/Cy Young.  Check this out:
2011  2.40 ERA  172 ERA+  0.92 WHIP  6.2 H/9  0.9 HR/9  2.0 BB/9  9.0 K/9  4.39 K/BB
2012  2.43 ERA  170 ERA+  0.93 WHIP  6.3 H/9  0.7 HR/9  2.0 BB/9  8.7 K/9  4.25 K/BB
While he hasn't been receiving the same fanfare/hype/attention/whatever you want to call it as he did last year, he's been every bit as dominant this season.

Honorable Mentions: Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, David Price, Chris SaleFelix Hernandez

AL Rookie of the Year-Mike Trout
The 20 year old phenom leads all of baseball in runs scored and stolen bases with 66 and 30, respectively.  But that's not all; he ranks second to David Wright in bWAR, is running away with the AL batting title (his .352 mark leads Joe Mauer by 23 points) and has the best OPS+ (177) in the Junior Circuit.  He has to cool off at some point, but it's safe to say that when the dust clears his rookie campaign will rate as one of the best of all time.  This piece of hardware is all but guaranteed.

Honorable Mentions: Yu Darvish, Ryan Cook, Will Middlebrooks, Yoenis Cespedes

AL Comeback Player of the Year-Adam Dunn
Dunn isn't done, after all. He remains on pace to obliterate Mark Reynolds' single season strikeout record, but he's tied with Hamilton for the major league lead in home runs with 28.  His .863 OPS has bounced back nearly 300 points from last season's woeful .569 low water mark, and he just stole his first base since 2008!  His return to form has played a citical role in Chicago' ascendance to the top of the American League Central

Honorable Mentions: Jake Peavy, Jason Hammel, Joe Mauer, Alex Rios, Jonathan Broxton, Joe Nathan

NL MVP-Joey Votto
A torn meniscus derailed what was shaping up to be a Ted Williams-esque season from Votto-matic, who was tripe-slashing .342/.465/.604 at the time of the injury.  With 36 doubles in mid-July he was also poised to make a serious run at the single season record of 67 two-baggers, set by Boston's Earl Webb in 1931.  The 2010 NL MVP is due back sometime in August, at which point he should resume terrorizing National League pitching.   Alas, Webb's place as a footnote in the rich annals of baseball history is secure.  For now.

Honorable Mentions: Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Braun, Carlos Beltran, David Wright, Carlos Gonzalez,

NL Cy Young-R.A. Dickey
The 37 year-old knuckleballer boasts a remarkable 13-1 record this season with his lone loss coming at the hands of the division rival Braves all the way back on April 18th.  Another cool stat: the Mets are 15-4 when he starts, and 32-41 when he doesn't.  By surrendering five earned runs in three of his past five starts he's struggled since firing back-to-back one-hitters in June, so he might pull a Ubaldo Jimenez circa 2010 and fade after dominating the first half. 

Honorable Mentions: Stephen Strasburg, Matt Cain,  Lance Lynn, Jordan Zimmermann, Ryan Dempster, Tim Lincecum (kidding)

NL Rookie of the Year-Bryce Harper
The 19 year-old is having the best season by a teenager since Tony Conigliaro's 1964 debut.  Nothing in his stat line jumps off the page; but he's enjoying a well-rounded season and has performed well in every aspect of the game.  Could go 20/20 and score 100 runs.

Honorable Mentions: Wade Miley, Wilin Rosario, Todd Frazier

NL Comeback Player of the Year-David Wright
What a turnaround for Wright, who hasn't played this well since 2008.  Wright was a major disappointment/missed 60 games last season but is leading the Show in bWAR and playing like an MVP in 2012.  
2011  .254/.345/.427
2012  .353/.443/.586

Honorable Mentions-Johan Santana, Adam LaRoche, Stephen Strasburg, Adam Wainwright,