Friday, May 31, 2013

Ellsbury Running More, Hitting Less

Ellsbury has been wreaking havoc on the basepaths despite struggling offensively
Jacoby Ellsbury ran wild during Boston's 9-2 beatdown of the Philadelphia Phillies last night. The Red Sox lead-off man, who reached base five times via three singles, a walk and a hit by pitch, showcased his elite speed by swiping five bases off Philadelphia pitching and helpless catcher Eric Kratz. In addition to setting a team record, the five thefts boosted Ellsbury's season total to 21 while vaulting him past Nate McLouth and Everth Cabrera for the major league lead.

Last night's performance was classic Ellsbury, who once stole home off Andy Pettitte and now has a chance to lead the league in steals for the third time in his career. Two seasons removed from a fluke year in which he finished second to Justin Verlander in the AL MVP voting by slugging 32 home runs and stealing 39 bases, Ellsbury has reverted to the player he was in 2008 and 2009, when he went deep 17 times but stole 120 bases, leading the American League in '08 and both leagues in '09. Ellsbury's 21 steals are impressive, but what's even more impressive is that he's been caught only two times, giving him a 91.3 percent success rate. He's been unstoppable.

Even so, Ellsbury's performance to date has been somewhat disappointing. Yes, Boston's centerfielder has regained his status as one of the sport's premier basestealers, but his power stroke has all but disappeared. With one-third of the 2013 season already in the books, the pending free agent has gone yard once--all the way back on April 7th in Toronto. He's now gone 225 plate appearances without a home run and his slugging percentage has tumbled 180 points over that span. Ellsbury's never going to provide much pop, but he needs to supply more than the two extra base hits he accumulated from April 26th through May 25th.

However, Ellsbury seems to be turning his season around after slumping through most of May. He's shown signs of life at the plate with 11 hits, including five of the extra base variety, in his past five games. It's encouraging to see him drive the ball with authority again; the Red Sox need him set the table by getting on base in front of Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Mike Napoli. Boston's offense is much more dangerous when Ellsbury uses his speed as a weapon to distract pitchers and get himself into scoring position, as he did last night.

But it all starts in the batter's box. Even Jacoby Ellsbury can't steal first base.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

13 Stats I Can't Believe

Where has Matt Kemp's power gone?
  1. After batting below .230 in three of the past four years, Kelly Johnson is hitting .299
  2. James Shields is 2-6 even though he sports a 2.96 ERA and 1.06 ERA. He also leads the American League in complete games and innings
  3. Nate McLouth is leading the AL in stolen bases
  4. According to bWAR, Hisashi Iwakuma has been the most valuable pitcher in the Junior Circuit thus far
  5. Howie Kendrick, who hit eight home runs in 2012, already has seven here in 2013
  6. Cole Hamels has just one win and eight losses, most in the majors
  7. Patrick Corbin is tied for the National League lead in wins with eight
  8. Allen Craig has driven in 36 runs despite managing just three dingers
  9. Matt Kemp has only two home runs, 17 RBI and a .340 slugging percentage
  10. Shin-Soo Choo has already been hit by 14 pitches
  11. Brandon Phillips is leading the National League with 43 RBI
  12. Jordan Zimmermann, who completed just one game in 81 career starts prior to this season, leads the majors in complete games with three
  13. The two pitchers who have allowed the most home runs in the NL are Matt Cain and Dan Haren

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Darvish Dominating

After a strong but somewhat uneven debut last year, Yu Darvish has emerged as the bona fide ace Nolan Ryan thought he was getting when he invested $112 million in the Japanese pitching phenom. Hailed as a preseason Cy Young favorite, Darvish has begun building the foundation for his case with a stellar start to his sophomore campaign.

Since coming within one out of a perfect game in his first start of the season, Darvish has been on a roll. The 26 year-old currently leads the majors in strikeouts (91), K/9 rate (12.3) and starts (10). He also sports a 7-2 record, 2.84 ERA, 0.96 WHIP and 4.14 K/BB ratio while limiting opponents to a .179 batting average. At the rate he's going, he could punch out 300 batters by season's end, which hasn't happened since Randy Johnson passed the benchmark in 2002. What's more, 300 Ks would put him in the same club as immortal hurlers such as Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, and Pedro Martinez.

He's improved his already-elite strikeout rate by making a key adjustment in his approach. Rather than trying to blow everyone away with his blazing fastball, as he seemed to do last year, he's relying less on his heater. Instead, he's going to his slider more than twice as often as he did last year, a wise decision given that his slider is the best in the business. As a result, Darvish is getting more swinging strikes and weaker contact than he did last year. He's keeping batters off-balance and on their toes instead of letting them sit on his fastball.

However, the main driving force behind Darvish's breakout is improved command. He's getting more first strikes, which allows him to get in the driver's seat and dictate how each at-bat plays out. Whereas he issued 89 free passes last season-fourth most in the American League--and posted a 4.2 BB/9 rate, he's trimmed his walk rate to 3.0 batters per nine innings in 2013. This improvement has helped him become more efficient with his pitches and last deeper into ballgames, as he's completed at least six innings in all but one of his starts this season.

Look for Darvish to shine in his first interleague start of the year on Monday against the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Cabrera At It Again

Once again, Miguel Cabrera is far and away the best hitter in baseball
Last year, Miguel Cabrera became the first man in 45 years to lead his league in home runs, RBI, and batting average. This year, he could become the first player ever to win the Triple Crown in consecutive seasons.

Only two men have ever won multiple Triple Crowns, and their names are Ted Williams and Rogers Hornsby. Williams accomplished the feat five years apart, in 1942 and 1947, but might have won in 1943 had he not been serving his country during World War II. He nearly won in 1941, when his .406 batting average and 37 home runs paced the major leagues, but his 120 RBI fell five short of Joe DiMaggio's league-leading total.

Hornsby also came tantalizingly close to becoming a repeat Triple Crown winner. He won his first in 1922 but came within an eyelash of winning the year before. Rajah won the batting crown (.397) and RBI title (126) in 1921 but his 21 long balls were bested by High Pockets Kelly's 23. Hornsby won his second Triple Crown in 1925.

While it's still way too early to be talking about a serious Triple Crown run, the reigning MVP's hot start has put him on track to make history. Cabrera currently leads the major leagues in both batting average  (.384) and RBI (49) while ranking third in home runs (12), tied with Edwin Encarnacion and Mark Reynolds but just one behind league-leaders Chris Davis and Robinson Cano.

Cabrera is raking right now, and while his batting average is guaranteed to drop off he's still a good bet to win his third straight batting title. As for his power, it's possible the best is yet to come given how well he finished last season--36 home runs and 105 RBI from this date forward. While it's going to be almost impossible for him to sustain his current level of run production (he's on pace for 185 RBI thanks to his absurd .509/.586/.912 batting line with runners in scoring position), he could benefit from even more RBI opportunities once Austin Jackson returns from his hamstring injury early next week.

Until then, look for him to do some serious damage when the last-place Minnesota Twins come to the Motor City for a four-game set this weekend.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Middlebrooks Coming Around

Will Middlebrooks is heating up at the plate after a brutal start to the year
Will Middlebrooks continued his recent hot streak by belting a tie-breaking solo home run off Pedro Hernandez during Boston's 5-1 victory over the Minnesota Twins yesterday. Since May 10th, Middlebrooks is hitting .278/.316/.611 with eight extra base hits in nine games. He's still striking out too much (28.2 K%, same as Ryan Howard) and not walking often enough (a decidedly un-Kevin Youkilis-like 4.1 BB%), but at least he's providing power near the bottom of Boston's lineup. The 24 year-old appears to have put his early season slump behind him and will look to keep swinging a hot bat against the Chicago White Sox tonight.

5 Players to Worry About

Last week I looked at players who have started slowly but are bound to turn it around. Here are five players who are still struggling and probably won't rebound to the production levels we've come to expect from them:

Jimmy Rollins (.251/.302/.389)
J-Roll's walk rate and contact rates have fallen every year since 2010 while his whiff rate has increased, disturbing trends  for a 34 year-old shortstop. His infield hit rate and stole base numbers are down as well, suggesting that he's lost a step or two.

Paul Konerko (.224/.280/.340)
The 37 year-old is striking out more than ever before, his walks are down, and he's not making nearly as much hard contact. These stats, compiled by ESPN fantasy baseball analyst Tristan Cockcroft, pretty much tell the story here.
2012 first half: .195 isolated power, .223 well-hit average, 10.3 BB%
2012 second half: .174 isolated power, .205 well-hit average, 8.3 BB%
2013 to date: .116 isolated power, .164 well-hit average, 6.2 BB%
This drop-off is more than just a slump: it signifies an erosion in skills.

Josh Hamilton (.216/.271/.351)
Blame the pressure living up to his new contract if you wish, but the truth is that Hamilton has been a bad hitter for almost a full calendar year. From June 1st onward last year, he batted .245 while striking out in 28.7 percent of his plate appearances. So far this season he's been even worse. His walk rate has fallen off a cliff (down to 5.9) percent) and he's still striking out a ton. His pop-out rate has more than doubled. He's chasing way too many pitches out of the strike zone and swinging at the first pitch far too often. Unless he adjusts and corrects those bad habits, he's not going to pull out of this funk.

David Freese (.223/.292/.282)
Freese, an All-Star last year, didn't hit his first home run of the season until last Friday (at least it was a grand slam, so he got the most out of it). That was hardly surprising, though, given his off-the-charts 4.17 GB/FB ratio. He needs to stop pounding the ball into the ground and start elevating it into the air. He is 30, so it could be possible that what we're seeing is the beginning of a downward trend in his career.

Ryan Howard (.245/.282/.430)
It's no secret that Howard's days as an elite slugger are behind him. Since 2011, he's a .229 hitter with a 4.26 K/BB ratio. His walk rate has nosedived down to 5.5 percent and he's swinging the bat more than ever before. His new aggressive approach isn;t paying off though, since his contact rate is down and he's coming up empty more often. It doesn't help that the 33 year-old is completely and utterly helpless against southpaws, too.

The First Place(?) Yankees

This was supposed to be the year the New York Yankees tumbled from their perch atop the American League East. They were too old, inured, and washed-up. They'd grown weaker over the winter while their division rivals reloaded. The writing was on the wall, and some went so far as to predict that, come September, the Yankees would be bringing up the rear in the AL East.

Well here we are, a quarter of the way through the season, and such speculation seems premature at best, downright foolish at worst. The decrepit Yankees have defied the odds, overcoming every obstacle that's threatened to derail their quest for another division flag. Age? Irrelevant. Injuries? Not a problem. The battered Yankees have taken their lumps and bruises, losing Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Kevin Youkilis, Curtis Granderson, and now Andy Pettitte for large chunks of time, but still they keep winning.

How? Glad you asked.

1. Their cast-offs are stepping up
New York endured its fair share of criticism for filling out its roster with old, past-their-prime players that nobody else wanted. But while many of last winter's splashy acquisitions (Josh Hamilton, B.J. Upton, R.A. Dickey) have disappointed, the Yanks have gotten great early returns from several key additions:

Vernon Wells--The Yankees were mocked after trading for Wells, thereby adding another albatross contract to their bloated payroll. But the 34 year-old has enjoyed a renaissance in the Big Apple. His ten home runs rank second on the team to Cano as he's been a steady source of righthanded pop for a team that craves it.

Travis Hafner--Brian Cashman scored a massive bargain by signing the 35 year-old DH to a one-year, $2 million deal. Pronk's provided plenty of power batting cleanup for the Bronx Bombers. He also leads the team in OBP and OPS.

Lyle Overbay--Playing for his fifth team in four years, Overbay has been perhaps the most pleasant of all New York's surprises. He'd done a capable job filling in at first with Teixeira on the mend. The 36 year-old ranks second among Yankees in doubles, RBI, and total bases to Cano.

Not sure any of these guys will still be producing at a high level a couple months from now, but that won't matter so much when Jeter, A-Rod, Tex, and Grandy are all back in the lineup.

2. Robinson Cano is really good
Without his star-studded supporting cast, Cano has been forced to shoulder more of a burden on offense and be the "go-to" guy. New York needed Cano to step up and produce like the superstar he is. Well, after a rough first week of the season in which Cano went just 3-for-23, he's been the elite offensive force we all expected him to be. Tied for the league-lead in home runs with 12, he ranks second in total bases behind only Miguel Cabrera. He has hundreds of millions of dollars riding on his performance this year, so don't expect any lapses in focus or motivation from the perennial All-Star.

3. Big Three in the rotation
The Yankees boast the second best ERA in the American League despite the struggles of Phil Hughes and Ivan Nova. CC Sabathia isn't quite as dominant as he once was, but that hasn't prevented him from taking care of business as the team ace. Hiroki Kuroda continues to age like fine wine and has been one of the best starters in the American League this year. Andy Pettitte was still somehow a dependable number three at age 40 before going on the Disabled List.

4. The long ball
Yankee hitters have been woefully ineffective with men on base, batting a collective .237/.303/.381 with men on. They've been even worse with runners in scoring position, batting .224/.312/.364 in such situations. New York has compensated for this inability to manufacture runs by relying on the long ball. Their 52 dingers rank fourth in the AL and a dozen different Yankees have already homered this season.

5. Stellar bullpen
New York's bullpen, arguably the team's greatest strength entering the season, has performed as expected. David Robertson, Boone Logan, and Adam Warren have all been wonderful. But when it comes to Yankee relievers, the conversation starts and ends with Mariano Rivera. Mo, fully recovered from the torn ACL that ended his season last May, leads the majors in saves and has re-established himself as the best closer in baseball. When there's a lead that needs protecting at the end of a game, the timeless Rivera is money in the bank.

With Granderson back and Teixeira due to return by the end of the month, New York is only getting stronger by the day. That has to be a scary thought for their division rivals as they fight to wrestle away first place from NY in the coming weeks. Obviously there's still a long way to go, and I have my doubts about how such an old, injured roster will hold up over the summer, but for now it appears that those rooting for the Yankees' demise will have to wait until next year.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Harvey's Hot Start

After bursting onto the scene with ten magnificent starts last year, Matt Harvey has proven himself as one of the best pitchers in baseball this year. The major league leader in WHIP, bWAR, starts, winning percentage and H/9 has already earned comparisons to Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, and Stephen Strasburg, and is talented enough to outpitch them all. With the New York Mets well on their way to another mediocre season, Harvey (along with David Wright) figures to be one of the few bright spots in what's shaping up to be a boring summer for Mets fans. Here's what April's NL Pitcher of the Month has done so far:
  • Harvey has made nine starts this year. Eight of them were quality starts, and in the lone exception (April 29th against Miami, of all teams) he allowed just one earned run
  • Threw nine innings of one-hit ball against the Chicago White Sox on May 7th
  • He's averaged over seven innings per start
  • The Mets are 7-2 (.778) when he pitches, 9-21 (.300) when he doesn't
  • Harvey has 68 strikeouts already. No other Mets pitcher has more than 27
  • Opponents have been utterly helpless against Harvey, batting just .149/.203/.214 off him so far
  • After receiving wins in each of his first four starts, Harvey has managed only one win over his past five despite his 2.08 ERA. For that he can thank New York's offense, which has scored 16 runs in his last five starts combined. With a little more run support, he could easily be 9-0
  • Two thirds of Harvey's pitches have been strikes, which explains why his K/BB ratio is just under five (4.86)
  • After averaging two walks per start in April, he's issued just two free passes in the month of May
  • The three batters that have taken him deep are Justin Morneau, Matt Kemp, and Clint Barmes. Which of these does not belong?
It remains to be seen if the 24 year-old can sustain his dominance over the course of a full season, but I see him putting together an R.A. Dickey kind of year, which means I see an All-Star nod (especially with the game being played at Citi Field) and plenty of Cy Young votes in his future.. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Machado: 2013's Mike Trout

Thanks to his recent hot streak (39 hits in his past 21 games), Baltimore Orioles' third baseman Manny Machado has forced himself into the discussion everyone's having about who deserves the title of Best Young Player in Baseball. Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are easy answers, but Machado has a compelling case as well. As of this writing, the 20 year-old leads American League position players in bWAR and base hits. But that's just the tip of the iceberg: he ranks second in runs, doubles, and extra base hits, too.

It hasn't taken Machado long to realize the superstar potential Baltimore saw when they drafted him out of high school with the third overall pick of the 2010 draft (in which Harper, baseball's LeBron James, went first). Little more than a year later, Machado made his major league debut. He was promoted from Double-A one month after his 20th birthday, arriving to the Show on August 9th, 2012 against the Kansas City Royals.

The Orioles lost 8-2 that day, snapping their five-game win streak, but Machado made a good first impression. Batting ninth, he went 2-for-4 with a triple and a run scored. He was even more spectacular the following day, when he led the O's to victory by slamming a pair of home runs and knocking in four runs off Luke Hochevar.

A star had arrived.

Pegged by many as a breakout candidate during the preseason, Machado is well on his way to surpassing those expectations. He's earned comparisons to Alex Rodriguez after emerging as one of the top third baseman in the American League, if not baseball; an MVP candidate as well as a potential Gold Glove winner. His stellar all-around play is a big reason why Baltimore sits just 1.5 games behind the New York Yankees in the AL East standings.

Given his rise to stardom at such a young age, it's hard not to draw parallels to Trout, last year's AL Rookie of the Year and MVP runner-up. Their rookie seasons were remarkably similar.

Mike Trout's 2011:  40 G  20 R  6 2B  5 HR  16 RBI  9 BB  30 SO  .220/.281/.390
M. Machado's 2012:  51 G  24 R  8 2B  7 HR  26 RBI  9 BB  38 SO  .262/.294/.445

Of course, we all know what Trout did for an encore, which was put together one of the greatest seasons a baseball player (let alone a 20 year-old) has ever had. Machado will be hard-pressed to approach Trout's historic level of production, but at the rate he's going he could wind up with 200 hits, 50 doubles, 20 home runs, 100 runs/RBI and a .300+ batting average.

But for now, let's just enjoy the ride.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Slow Starts I'm Not Worried About (AL)

Victor Martinez (.215/.272/.306)
The Bad: V-Mart has looked very rusty after missing all of 2012 with a torn ACL. Martinez didn't hit his first home run of the season until May 4th. Despite batting fifth in Detroit's lineup behind Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder, he has just 18 RBI on the season. He's striking out more than ever before and has worked only two walks since April 20th. At 34, he's reached an age where most players begin to suffer marked deterioration in their performance.

Why he'll turn it around: That .234 BABiP is bound to come up, as will his 3.5 HR/FB%. His stellar track record suggests he's going to figure things out sooner or later, and when he does he's going to knock in truckloads of runs batting behind Cabrera and Fielder.

Josh Willingham (.205/.378/.411)
The Bad: After a solid opening month, Willingham has seen his power stroke disappear in May. In his past 14 games he has no home runs and just seven hits. He's seeing fewer strikes than last year, so pitchers may be trying to avoid him more.

Why he'll turn it around: High strikeout, feast-or-famine hitters like Willingham tend to be streaky. Let's just chalk his recent slide up to a standard slump and assume the next power binge is right around the corner, especially as the weather starts warming up.

Yoenis Cespedes (.204/.270/.435)
The Bad: Cespedes already spent time on the DL with a thumb injury, which may still be affecting his swing. He has just one multi-hit game in May and hasn't drawn a walk since May 3rd. He fanned 30 times in a 22 game span from April 2nd through May 10th. He stole 16 bases last year, when he finished second in the AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Mike Trout, but has yet to swipe one this year.

Why he'll turn it around: His .203 BABiP is due for some serious correction, especially when his line drive percentage (8.6) starts to climb.

Albert Pujols (.248/.328/.418)
The Bad: Playing on a surgically repaired knee and through plantar fasciitis seems to be taking its toll on the 33 year-old first baseman. His strikeout rate is the highest it's been since his rookie season. He's leading the league in double plays grounded into and is once again a main culprit for LA's sluggish start (though Josh Hamilton is more to blame).

Why he'll turn it around: Pujols was even worse last spring, when he batted just .192/.228/.277 through May 11th. From that point forward he batted .310/.373/.581. He's one of the best hitters of all time, and he's worthy of your patience. His .246 BABiP will rise, as will his 12.0 HR/FB%.

Adam Dunn (.156/.255/.391)
The Bad: There's a lot of bad. Dunn went 34 straight plate appearances without a base hit from April 12th to April 20th. He had just two multi-hit games in April and three overall. His walk rate is way down. His numbers don't look much better than they did in 2011, when he had one of the worst seasons a hitter has ever had. The last place White Sox need more from him.

Why he'll turn it around: After slamming three home runs in his past two games, Dunn may already be emerging from the depths of his early season slump. Given that he's totaled at least 38 dingers in eight of the past nine years, the home runs are going to start coming in bunches. His .155 BABiP has nowhere to go but up.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Slow Starts I'm Not Worried About (NL)

It's hard to believe, but we're nearly a quarter of the way through the baseball season. Here are five players who have been major disappointments to their teams, fans, and fantasy owners so far but are bound to get back on track:

Miguel Montero (.192/.291/.280)
The Bad: The Arizona Diamondbacks are in second place in the National League West in spite of their All-Star catcher, who has gotten off to a painfully slow start. The 29 year-old catcher has been unable to find his power stroke with just five extra base hits to date. What's more, he went a full month between his first and second home runs (April 2nd-to-May 3rd). It's not like he's producing in other ways, either, as he's recorded just one multi-RBI game and four-multi-hit efforts to date.

Why he'll turn it around: Montero hasn't lost his batting eye. He posted a career high 12.7 BB% last year and has sustained that improved patience this year. He hasn't responded to his slump by expanding his strike zone and is letting the ball come to him. His .216 BABiP has nowhere to go but up.

Jay Bruce (.258/.306/.403)
The Bad: In addition to piling up strikeouts with frightening regularity (he leads the National League with 52, tied with Dan Uggla), Bruce has seen his walk rate plummet to 6.5 percent. However, the main concern about Bruce is his lack of power. With just three home runs through his first 38 games, he looks nothing like the slugger who averaged 33 dingers per 162 games in his first five seasons.

Why he'll turn it around: Bruce is a streaky hitter, prone to blistering hot streaks and wicked cold ones. He struggled in April but has been much better since the calendar flipped to May, totaling eight extra base hits and 10 RBI in 10 May games. Another sign the long balls are coming is that only 8.3 percent of his fly balls have left the yard so far--less than half of his career rate. That might have something to do with the fact that Bruce has been hitting lots of line drives (almost 30 percent of batted balls) at the expense of fly balls (33.6 percent--around 10 percent below his career norm) so expect that ratio to even out as the season progresses.

Matt Kemp (.276/.325/.345)
The Bad: Kemp just hasn't been the same since hamstring injuries derailed the fast start to his 2012 season. He has just one homer on the season and has shown no signs of ending his power outage. The Dodgers are in last place in the NL West, and Kemp's sluggish start is a big reason why.

Why he'll turn it around: Kemp's HR/FB% sits at anemic 2.6 percent, and in each of the past two years it was north of 21 percent. Sooner or later he's going to have a power surge. Kemp's currently riding a 13-game hitting streak and seems to be finding his groove at the dish.

Martin Prado (.235/.290/.346)
The Bad: While Justin Upton has gotten off to a preposterously hot start in Atlanta, Prado has yet to break free of his early season slump. Manager Kirk Gibson was forced to drop him from the two spot in the batting order. Prado's funk extends beyond the batter's box: after stealing a career high 17 bases last year, he's swiped just one bag so far and has been caught twice. He's not driving in runs either, as he's managed just nine RBI so far.

Why he'll turn it around: Prado's batted ball data is identical to his figures from last year, when he batted .301 with 42 doubles. That, and the fact that his .246 BABiP is bound to improve.

Adam LaRoche (.213/.297/.311)
The Bad: Fresh off signing a two-year, $24 million deal to stay with the Washington Nationals, LaRoche has been a non-threat batting in the heart of Davey Johnson's order. He hasn't homered since April 20th and has knocked in just four runs over that span. His K rate has skyrocketed to just under 30 percent but has not coincided with a power spike.

Why he'll turn it around: Like Mark Teixeira, LaRoche is a perennially slow starter. For his career, his OPS rises each month from .695 in April to .911 in August. His first half OPS (.760) is a full 126 points lower than his second half OPS (.886). LaRoche is working on an 11-game hitting streak and may have already turned the corner. He's socked at least 20 homers in each of his last seven full seasons, so as long as he's healthy his numbers will be there in the end.

Monday, May 13, 2013

What's Behind the Red Sox Recent Struggles?

After opening the 2013 season with four weeks of near-perfect baseball, the Boston Red Sox have hit their first rough patch of the year. The stumbling Sox have lost eight of their past ten, falling from first place to third in the American League East.

First, the Sox got swept by the Rangers in Texas. Whatever. The Rangers are a great team. They have the best record in baseball. It happens.

But then Boston dropped three out of four to the Minnesota Twins at home. The Twins are not a great team. Not a bad team (they're .500?!?!), but not a good team either. The Red Sox should have been able to split that series, at the very least.

Things only got worse when the Toronto Blue Jays, who can't seem to do anything right these days, came to town and took two of three from the Red Sox. There's two ways to look at that. On one hand, the Blue Jays are the worst team in the division. They sport a negative-47 run differential and their starting pitching has been atrocious. But on the other hand, Toronto is a dangerous team, one that is simply too good to keep playing sub-.400 ball for much longer. With many of their best players (Jose Bautista, R.A. Dickey, Brett Lawrie) underperforming, it's only a matter of time before they right the ship.

As for the Red Sox, it's not hard to identify what's gone wrong. Offense has been hard to come by recently, with the Sox averaging just 3.27 runs per game over their past 11. David Ortiz and Mike Napoli have cooled off after their hot starts, while Stephen Drew and Will Middlebrooks are still struggling to get in a groove at the plate. Jacoby Ellsbury has slumped lately and isn't getting on base often enough for Boston's big bats. It also didn't help that the team's biggest offensive output in the past two weeks--an eight-run outburst last Wednesday--was wasted when their pitching staff allowed 15 runs to a mediocre Twins offense. Slumps happen and the Red Sox have a good lineup, so I'm not going to worry about it.

However, those offensive woes have coincided with a breakdown in pitching. Boston has allowed 6.2 runs per game over its previous ten. My natural inclination was to assume its starters fell back to earth after their torrid Aprils, but that's hardly the case. Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester (11-0 combined) are still going strong. Ryan Dempster is stabilizing the rotation and keeping his team in the game. Even John Lackey has been effective.

The one eyesore has been Felix Doubront, who has gotten bombed in each of his past two outings. He needs to turn it around soon, or else John Farrell will have to start looking elsewhere (Alfredo Aceves? Allen Webster?) for quality starts.

The bullpen has endured a few lickings lately, but on the whole is still solid even with Joel Hanrahan lost for the season. Luckily Farrell has a proven closer in Andrew Bailey who can step up and fill Hanrahan's shoes, but Bailey's checkered injury history concerns me. He's fine now, but it wouldn't surprise me if Ben Cherington finds himself shopping for a closer in a couple months.

The Red Sox get a day off to lick their wounds before hitting the road. They'll stop in Tampa Bay, Minnesota and Chicago, and if they don't figure things out by the time they come back then it might be time to re-think the idea of this team being a legitimate contender.

Questioning Ortiz

Longtime Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy made waves last week when he questioned the validity of David Ortiz's hot start. Shaughnessy has since caught his fair share of flak for insinuating that Ortiz is using performance enhancing drugs, especially since he did so without any hard evidence to back up his accusations.

But was what Shaughnessy did wrong? I don't think so.

Everyone seems to forget that Ortiz's name is on the list of players who tested positive for performance enhancing drugs. Whereas unlikable players such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Alex Rodriguez have constantly been forced to answer to their past mistakes, Ortiz's murky history has been more or less swept under the rug.

That history is particularly relevant given his recent career trajectory. Ortiz struggled mightily in the first two months of 2009 and finished the season with a .238 batting average, nearly 100 points lower than the .332 mark he posted two years before. In 2010 he endured an equally painful start and struck out a career-high 145 times. Though still a great hitter, Ortiz was in his mid-thirties and clearly appeared to be a player in decline.

Then, in 2011 at the age of 35, Ortiz re-established himself as one of the game's dominant offensive forces. By slimming down, cutting his strikeouts in half and improving his performance against lefties, Ortiz rebounded to bat .309/.398/.554 with 29 home runs and 96 RBI (I'm still mystefied as to how he failed to receive any MVP consideration). The following year he was on his way to even bigger numbers when a torn Achilles derailed his season, limiting him to just one game after July 16th..

The same injury cropped up again this year and sidelined him until April 20th, but the combination of injury and missed time didn't stop him from pounding the ball upon his return. In his first 13 games back, Big Papi batted .440/.473/.840 with 17 RBI and a dozen extra base hits. He looked like the David Ortiz of old, hitting the ball with authority to all fields, driving in runs, and anchoring the heart of Boston's order.

Though Ortiz's torrid start to the season was unexpected, that does not mean it was without precedent. As Gordon Edes pointed out, Joe DiMaggio and Ted Williams both raked under similar circumstances. Ortiz is hardly the first player to perform so well at such an advanced age, either. Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Frank Robinson were still studs in their age 37 seasons. Furthermore, it makes sense that Ortiz is aging gracefully as he's spent most of his career in the DH role, thus avoiding the wear and tear that results from playing the field on a daily basis.

Still, Shaughnessy was fair to wonder whether Ortiz is getting outside help. The steroid era has conditioned baseball fans to suspect everything and trust nothing. Everyone's burned too many times to simply accept a great story at face value. Baseball is much cleaner than it was ten years ago, but PEDs are still a problem. It would be naive not to acknowledge the possibility that Ortiz, who's used them before, could be juicing again.

PEDs are part of his story. They're part of the game. It's a touchy subject but, whether we like it or not, someone had to bring it up.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

April All-Stars

I find it ridiculous how MLB opens up its All-Star voting in late April, when some teams are getting snowed out. I understand the league is trying to capitalize while interest in the sport is still high from the Opening Day hangover effect (baseball! spring! grass!), but it's still far too early to make judgments about who should get to attend the Midsummer Classic. The stats are still out of whack.

With only four weeks of baseball in the books, a lot of numbers look fluky because they haven't had time to normalize. But those figures are all we have, dammit, so of course you're going to pick John Buck for the All-Star team. Go ahead, by all means, but beware that a few months down the road, such choices look awfully foolish. That's how we end up with guys like Bryan LaHair making the All-Star team.

That said, here's what the All-Star team would probably look like based on April stats, and nothing else:

C John Buck
It's easy to forget Buck was an All-Star back in 2010, his lone season with the Toronto Blue Jays, when he set a career high with 20 big flies. That power has re-emerged in the early-going--he already has nine home runs and a National League-best 27 RBI.

1B Chris Davis
His long-anticipated breakthrough was for real, folks.

2B Daniel Murphy
The always-solid second baseman is batting .295 with 11 extra base hits and 19 runs scored. With his table setting skills, Murphy's a big reason why the Mets currently rank third in the NL in runs scored.

3B Josh Donaldson
In his age 27 season, Donaldson has come out of nowhere to provide elite production at the hot corner for the Oakland A's. Thanks to his improved batting eye, he's batting .314/.397/.495 with 11 doubles. He's also been coming through with men on base: Miguel Cabrera is the only AL third baseman with more RBI.

SS Jed Lowrie
Lowrie has built upon his breakout with the Astros last year. He's making a great impression with his new team--the Oakland A's--thanks to a .327/.412/.519 batting line and 11 doubles.

OF Coco Crisp
Crisp is a player who generates most of his value with his legs, but so far it's been his surprising power burst that's been making waves. With five long balls, he's almost halfway to last year's homer total (11). The Oakland A's can only hope his DL-stint doesn't derail that early momentum.

OF Nate McLouth
MVClouth (too soon?) has been a force batting at the top of Baltimore's lineup, batting .329 with a .433 OBP and 22 runs scored.

OF Daniel Nava
The miracle worker has keyed Boston's fast start with his heavy hitting.

OF Vernon Wells
Wells has rediscovered the form that convinced the Toronto Blue Jays to hand him a seven-year, $126 million contract. While he's still not worth that kind of money, he is providing steady power batting in the heart of New York's depleted lineup.

OF Starling Marte
With Pittsburgh's purported big bats (Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez) slumping, Marte has picked up the slack with a blistering start. Betcha didn't know he's currently pacing the Senior Circuit in hits.

DH Travis Hafner
Like Wells, Pronk has enjoyed a renaissance in pinstripes. Healthy and hitting for power, Hafner has managed .304/.429/.638 triple slash numbers that line up with the averages from his peak seasons.

SP Ervin Santana
When Santan's bad, he's bad (see last year). But when he's good, like this year or the year before last, he can be quite good.

SP Carlos Villanueva
Back in the NL after a two-year hiatus with the Blue Jays, Villanueva looked great in his first month with the Chicago Cubbies. Forget his 1-1 record and focus on the good stuff, like his 2.29 ERA, 0.82 WHIP and 3.22 K/BB ratio.

SP Clay Buchholz
Buchholz was unquestionably the best starting pitcher in baseball last month and appears to be making a run at the Cy Young award.

SP Matt Moore
Moore enjoyed a solid rookie season last year, but a lack of command (4.1 BB/9) prevented him from achieving consistent dominance. Walks have been an issue for him in the early going, but incredible good fortune (.151 BABiP) has helped him go 5-0 with a 1.13 ERA. Unless he starts finding the strike zone more often, he's going to be in trouble when the hits start falling in.

SP Hisashi Iwakuma
The 32 year-old Japanese hurler has continued to baffle major league hitters in his sophomore campaign. His 0.69 WHIP is the best in baseball and his 7.4 K/BB ratio is off the charts. Unfortunately the Mariners are incapable of providing run support, which means his W-L record won't reflect how well he's truly pitched.

CL Jim Henderson
The 30 year-old sophomore has emerged as a top flight closer in the wake of John Axford's atrocious opening week. Henderson's elite ability to miss bats (career 12.7 K/9) suggests that he's a perfect fit for ninth inning duties.

CL Jason Grilli
After Joel Hanrahan hightailed it up to Boston, Grilli stepped in as the Pirates' closer and has been immaculate. His 11 saves lead the big leagues, he's allowed just one earned run in 12 innings of work and he's striking out 4.5 batters for every one he walks.

CL Addison Reed
Reed was an unmitigated disaster after taking over the closer's role last May, posting a 5.80 ERA after May 15th. The White Sox stuck with him though, and so far the early returns have been excellent. The 24 year-old has gone a perfect 9-for-9 in save chances, boasts a 1.50 ERA and is striking out more than a batter per inning.

Some of these players probably won't be relevant in a few months, but several others will have formed legitimate All-Star cases. I'll weigh my options then, when I have a half-season worth of data to pour over. But for now, I'll hold off on voting. If Josh Donaldson makes the All-Star team over Adrian Beltre, I don't want to be responsible for it.