Saturday, June 29, 2013

End of an Era

Six years after it began, the second Big Three era in Boston has officially come to an end.

A few months from now Doc Rivers, the team's head coach for nine seasons, will be drawing up alley oops for Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the greatest Celtics since Larry Bird and Kevin McHale, will be suiting up for the Brooklyn Nets. And Ray Allen, who broke Reggie Miller's career three-point record with the Celts, will be back with the Miami Heat helping them gun for their third straight NBA championship.

The thought of all that, of Pierce and KG not retiring with the Celtics, of Rivers coaching against them, of Allen helping LeBron James instead of hurting him, is hard for me to wrap my head around. It shouldn't, because this day was a long time coming. Danny Ainge said over and over that he wasn't going to repeat Red Auerbach's mistake of keeping McHale and Bird into their golden years instead of trading them when they still had value. Red's unwillingness to break up the original Big Three (along with the death of Len Bias and not getting Tim Duncan in the '97 draft) was a big reason why the team went 21 years between Finals appearances.

Ainge took that lesson to heart. There's no room for sentimentality in sports. When the time came, he'd do what needed to be done, no matter how much it hurt.

So now, with his stars approaching the twilight phases of their careers and the team in a state of transition, he pulled the trigger on a pair of blockbuster trades to reshape his roster and start preparing for life after Pierce, Garnett, and Allen.

Still, a small part of me didn't want to let them go. I wanted to see Pierce and Garnett play their last games wearing the Celtics green. I wanted Doc to guide them through the rebuilding process. I wanted a chance to say good-bye.

Now, all that's left of the Big Three is the memories, the fondest of which have been fading for quite some time.

There was the title year of 2008, when the Celtics were just as good as everyone thought they'd be. Boston's new super-team ran roughshod over the league, winning 66 regular season games and hoisting the franchise's 17th Finals trophy on the Parquet floor in June after thoroughly dismantling Kobe Bryant's Lakers. At the time it felt like we were witnessing the birth of the next Celtics dynasty, when in reality it was just the beginning of a prolonged hunt for that elusive 18th title.

Then came the much-anticipated title defense of 2009, as Boston looked to become the franchise's first repeat champions since Bill Russell's 1968-'69 teams. They probably would have done it, too, had they not lost Kevin Garnett to a season-ending knee injury in February, forcing them to lean heavily on Brian Scalabrine and Glen Davis during the playoffs.

That was followed by the crushing near-miss of 2010, when the Celtics went up 3-2 in their finals rematch with the Lakers, only to have Kendrick Perkins' knee explode in Game 6 and blow a 13 point third quarter lead in Game 7. In 2011 Perkins was traded to the Thunder for Jeff Green, dealing an emotional blow to a team that felt like it would have beaten the Lakers had Perkins remained healthy. Demoralized and depleted, they were bounced from the first round by Miami's juggernaut and seemed to be finished as serious championship contenders.

But in 2012, the Celtics made everyone believe again. Dismissed as too old and slow, they somehow willed themselves to within one win of the NBA Finals before the Heat snuffed out their hopes for one last shot at a title. The Celtics had no business getting that far, but they defied the odds and penned a heartwarming postseason story. Perhaps with the right moves, they'd be able to fight Father Time for another year and keep their championship window open just a bit longer.

We didn't know it at the time, but that was the beginning of the end. It started when Ray Allen--the greatest pure shooter of all time--defected to the Miami Heat for less money. He felt disrespected after Ainge tried to trade him (twice) and brought in Jason Terry. At the end of the day, money wasn't everything, especially for a man who'd earned nearly $200 million of it. Allen knew joining forces with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh greatly improved his chances of winning another ring. Sure enough, Allen got the last laugh when he helped the Heat clinch another NBA title.

Back in Boston, Terry and Courtney Lee weren't the answer and the team's playoff hopes went up in smoke when Rajon Rondo shredded his ACL in late January. Ainge missed a prime opportunity to tear the team apart at the trading deadline, instead deciding to hold out and explore his options after the season. To their credit, the resilient C's fought on without Rondo, hanging tough with the New York Knicks for six games in the first round. However, it was obvious the once proud Celtics had deteriorated into a .500 team, good enough to make the playoffs but not nearly talented enough to compete for a championship. Drastic changes were required.

Rivers saw the writing on the wall and jumped ship. He made it clear that he didn't want to stay, essentially forcing his way out of town a la Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony. He turned his back on a front office that stuck with him during the rough times early in his tenure and recently made him the league's highest paid coach. In return, all the Celtics could fetch for him was an unprotected first round pick in 2015, not Eric Bledsoe and/or DeAndre Jordan as they originally hoped.

I hate the manner in which Rivers left Boston, bailing out with three years left on his contract, but if he couldn't commit to the rebuilding process then he wasn't the right man for the job. You don't want to be here? Fine. Go. Good riddance. Besides, I've always felt that he's better handling veterans than he is with fostering the growth of young players (not that there were many of those in recent years). The Celtics would benefit from a new voice on the bench, a patient coach willing to put the work in now and reap the rewards later.

That said, the Clippers are lucky to have Rivers, a spiritual leader who connected with his players and always seemed to squeeze the most out of them. He's also the best coach in the league when it came to drawing up plays out of time outs. Rivers represents a significant upgrade over Vinny Del Negro, whose incompetence has prevented the Clippers from reaching their full potential these past two years. With Rivers at the helm, LA looks like a serious championship contender.

So do the Nets, who now boast a starting five of Pierce, Garnett, Joe Johnson, Deron Williams, and Brook Lopez. Pierce and Garnett are old, but they can still play at a high level. The future Hall of Famers are much better than the men they'll replace: Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace.

The Celtics, on the other hand, aren't going to raise that 18th championship banner anytime soon. Realistically, it'd be in their best interest to tank this season and land a top draft slot in next year's draft, which is shaping up to be one of the best in years. The last time they tried that they missed out on Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, but ended up trading for Allen and Garnett so everything worked out.

In the meantime, Boston is officially Rajon Rondo's team, which I suspect is how he always wanted it to be. They've been his team at various points in recent seasons, especially during the playoffs, but now they're really his team. He'll have to make the most out of a less than stellar supporting cast--Humphries, Wallace, Jared Sullinger, and Avery Bradley--but the onus is on him to elevate his game (read: scoring) and play like the superstar he's shown himself capable of being when he wants to be (aka national TV Rondo).

Boston fans can only hope he gets along better than the new coach than he did with Rivers. Otherwise, it won't be long before he gets pushed out the door, too.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Pujols Putting Slow Start Behind Him

Albert Pujols is no stranger to sluggish starts.

Statistically speaking, April and May are the two worst months of his career by OPS. He's not quite Mark Teixeira, but in recent seasons he's looked like a shadow of himself during the spring. For the third year in a row, he slumped so badly out of the gate that many questioned whether we've seen the end of Albert Pujols as we know him--an elite offensive force and one of the best hitters of all time.

Once again, Pujols has proved such talk to be premature. Since June 4th he's belted five home runs, driven home 15 runs, and batted a Pujolsian .338/.400/.631 in 16 games.

He's back, which is hardly surprising. We've seen this movie before, so we know how it ends:

Pujols slumped at the beginning of his walk year after his contract negotiations with the St. Louis Cardinals fell through. The slugger went a month between home runs (April 23rd to May 23rd). Through May 29th was batting just .257/.326/.395 and had already grounded into 16 double plays

Rest of the way .322/.388/.623

Many players struggle immediately after signing a big contract (Carl Crawford, Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre), and Pujols was no exception. After signing the third largest deal in baseball history behind Alex Rodriguez's two megadeals, he didn't make a good impression with his new team. Pujols went homerless in April and didn't launch his first big fly of the season until May 6th. Through May 14th he was batting just .197/.235/.275, reminiscent of the brutal cold spells endured by David Ortiz in 2009 and '10.

Rest of the way .312/.374/.589

After hitting well--albeit without much power--in the first few weeks of April, Pujols went into an extended funk that saw his batting line plummet to .243/.315/.408 through June 3rd. There's no denying that age and injuries have diminished the three-time MVP, but he's raked since then, and will probably continue to rake throughout the rest of the summer. His rate stats aren't going to climb back up to his career marks, but he's a good bet to reach 30 home runs (something he's done every season) and 100 RBI (every year except 2011).

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Kyle Blanks Breaking Out (Again)

By now, most baseball fans are familiar with the rollercoaster of a career arc experienced by Alex Gordon. Hailed as the next George Brett, Gordon ripped up minor league pitching but failed to satisfy those lofty expectations once he reached the majors. After four frustrating seasons with Kansas City, Gordon finally broke through in 2011 and has since settled into one of baseball's best (and most underrated) outfielders.

Gordon's come to epitomize the post-hype sleeper, a player who attracted lots of attention early in his career and eventually realized his talent, but only after injuries/subpar performance sidetracked his career and caused people to forget about (or even give up) on him.

Chris Davis is one such player. Kyle Blanks is another.

Drafted by the San Diego Padres in the 42nd round (1,241st overall) of the 2004 draft, then 17 year-old Blanks didn't make much of an impression. Like most teenagers, he was raw, unpolished, and inexperienced. Even so, he excelled in the minor leagues, becoming the Padres top prospect after being named the organization's Minor League Player of the Year in 2008. The following year he was promoted to the Show on June 19th when Cliff Floyd went on the Disabled List, never to play again.

It took the 22 year-old a month to get his feet wet before he exploded. From July 21st onward he batted .296/.389/.653 with 10 home runs in 113 plate appearances before plantar fasciitis ended his power binge and his season on August 28th.

Accordingly, expectations were high for Blanks in 2010. He was installed as the club's cleanup hitter behind Adrian Gonzalez and homered on Opening Day, but his season only went south from there as pitchers began exploiting the holes in his swing. The strikeouts piled up and his batting average plunged below the Mendoza Line. Six weeks into the season, his year was mercifully cut short by elbow reconstruction surgery.

Blanks began 2011 on the Disabled List and didn't return to the majors until July 22nd. He hit well in August (.890 OPS) but went homerless in September. Despite his horrendous finish to the season, he could feel good about cutting his strikeout rate from 38.3 percent to 26.8 percent.

With his re-tooled approach, there was hope Blanks would make good on his promise in 2012. His body did not cooperate, however, and he appeared in only four games before tearing the labrum in his left (nonthrowing) shoulder.

Free of the burdens that weighed down his first few seasons and finally healthy, Banks has come back strong. He played well during spring training, only to find there was no room for him on the big league roster with Yonder Alonso holding down first base and Carlos Quentin patrolling left field. He didn't have to wait long for the opportunity to prove himself, though. In mid-April Quentin got suspended for his role in a fight, opening up space for Blanks. An injury to Cameron Maybin gave him additional job security and allowed him to play everyday.

After a slow start he's hit his stride; since the calendar flipped to June he's belted five home runs, knocked in 13 runs and compiled a 1.003 OPS, moving his batting line up to .282/.362/.507 on the year. His strikeout rate is all the way down to 21.5 percent--easily the best mark of his career. At 26 the hulking slugger seems to have finally figured it out and should be a major offensive force for the Padres going forward.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Baseball's Best Father-Son Combos

Like father, like son
In honor of Father's Day, here are my choices for the five best father-son duos in baseball history:

1. Bobby Bonds and Barry Bonds
Both Bonds blended power and speed better than anyone since Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. The elder Bonds slugged 332 home runs and stole 461 bases. Barry inherited those abilities and took them to another level, stealing 514 bags and smashing 762 big flies to break Hank Aaron's career home run record. The Bonds hold the record for most individual 30/30 seasons with five apiece.

2. Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey Sr. was a fine outfielder, compiling over 2,000 hits in a big league career that spanned 19 seasons. However, when it came to power he couldn't hold a candle to his son, who slammed 630 home runs and led the league four times. Griffey Jr. also won 10 straight Gold Gloves and made 13 All-Star teams in his 22 seasons. Both Griffeys played together on the Seattle Mariners in 1990 and 1991, playing 51 games together and even hitting back-to-back home runs off Kirk McCaskill on September 14th, 1990.

3. Gus Bell and Buddy Bell
Gus starred for the Cincinnati Reds during the 1950s, making four All-Star teams and driving in 100 runs four times. His son, Buddy, was also good with the stick but earned a reputation as one of the best defensive third baseman to ever play the game. Buddy received six straight Gold Gloves for his work at the hot corner and played long enough to amass more than 2,500 hits.

4. Cecil Fielder and Prince Fielder
"Big Daddy" starred as the game's premier power hitter during the early '90s, smashing 51 homers in 1990 and 44 the following year while finishing second in the MVP voting both times (to Rickey Henderson and Cal Ripken Jr., respectively). In 2007, his son emerged as an elite slugger by blasting 50 home runs at the tender age of 23. Prince has since joined Miguel Cabrera in Detroit to form one of the scariest slugging tandems in modern times.

5. Felipe Alou and Moises Alou
Both played 17 seasons and accumulated over 2,100 base hits. Felipe made three All-Star squads and twice led the majors in hits. His son Moises was a bit more accomplished, making six All-Star teams, slugging 332 home runs and batting .303/.369/.516 for his career.

Honorable mention: Mel Stottlemyre and Todd Stottlemyre, Ray Boone and Bob Boone, Sandy Alomar Sr. and Roberto Alomar

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Working the Count Works

Some sportswriters, Tom Verducci among them, have called out the passive approach of major league hitters who take pitches in the hopes of grinding out at-bats and drawing walks. Because hitters are striking out more than ever before, the critics say the "Moneyball approach" not working.

Never mind the fact that hitters are seeing the same amount of pitches per plate appearance as they did 20 years ago, or that contact rates have more or less held steady. I came across some interesting numbers in today's Boston Globe, numbers that made me think. Here are the four players who have taken the most called strikes this year:

1. Matt Carpenter (.324/.408/473)
The leadoff man for Mike Matheny's St. Louis Cardinals is a patient hitter, and even though he leads the league in called strikes he doesn't whiff very often with a 12.6 K%.rate. He can afford to take pitches because he's so great at making contact; Carpenter gets the bat on the ball on over 97 percent of pitches in the strike zone that he swings at.

2. Joe Mauer (.327/.415/.482)
Plunging contact rates on pitches outside the strike zone have cause Mauer's strikeout rate to rise every year since 2010, but that hasn't stopped him from producing excellent results at the plate. More K's haven't translated into more power from Mauer, who hasn't come remotely close to matching the 28 bombs from his '09 MVP campaign.

3. (tied) Mike Trout (.301/.375/.547) and Mike Napoli (.262/.347/.467)
Trout's numbers are down slightly from his superlative rookie season even though he's trimmed his strikeout rate from 21.8% to 18.1%. Napoli's fanned in over one-third of his plate appearances so far, but he's always been a feast-or-famine hitter. Chris Carter is the only player who's struck out more this year, but Napoli's made up for it with lots of doubles and RBI.

Those are four tremendous ballplayers. Mauer's an MVP, Trout should have been MVP, and Napoli's a former All-Star. Carpenter deserves to make the All-Star team this summer, as do Mauer and Trout. Doesn't sound like taking strikes is adversely affecting their performance at the plate. Maybe more, not fewer, hitters should do the same.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Diamondbacks Defying the Odds

Somehow, someway, the plucky Arizona Diamondbacks are exceeding expectations
I'm not sure how they're doing it, but the Arizona Diamondbacks are sitting at the top of the National League West above the defending World Series champions. Chalk it up to grit, heart, and tenacity all you want, but this is not a new development: Arizona took over first place four weeks ago and hasn't relinquished it despite playing .500 ball over that stretch, which explains why they haven't been able to pad their cushion larger than 2.5 games.

Once again, the Diamondbacks have one of the better offenses in the National League, ranking second in doubles, third in walks, and fourth in runs. They've managed to scrape together runs by hitting well with runners on base (.765 OPS with men on versus .690 OPS with the sacks empty), overcoming injuries to and slumps by most of their key position players. Miguel Montero hasn't hit a lick. Aaron Hill hasn't played since April 14th because of a strained left wrist. Cliff Pennington is all glove and no stick. Martin Prado's been victimized by bad luck (.263 BABiP) and hasn't provided anything close to what Justin Upton has given the Atlanta Braves. Jason Kubel hit well in April but missed time and hasn't done much since. Cody Ross has disappointed after signing a three-year, $26 million deal last winter. A.J. Pollock makes too many outs and produces all of his value with defense.

So where is the scoring coming from? Let's start with NL RBI leader Paul Goldschmidt, who's evolved into one of the best hitters in baseball. Goldy's mashed all year long and finds himself at the center of MVP discussions. The teammate he's driven in most often is leadoff hitter Gerardo Parra. Perhaps the best defensive outfielder around, Parra leads the Senior Circuit in doubles and has been the league's second most valuable postition player (according to bWAR) behind only Carlos Gomez. Then there's rookie shortstop Didi Gregorius, who's batting over .300 and might end up stealing NL Rookie of the Year honors from Shelby Miller. Eric Chavez and Wil Nieves have been big coming off the bench, too.

Unlike most great teams, the Diamondbacks lack strong starting pitching. In fact, their rotation has been subpar (4.30 ERA) despite remaining healthy and receiving strong defense behind them. Sophomore Patrick Corbin, a Cy Young candidate, is the lone exception with his 9-0 record and 2.28 ERA, Trevor Cahill, the next best starter, has been merely average. Ian Kennedy keeps getting worse, making his stellar 2011 look more like a fluke with every passing start. Wade Miley has taken a massive step back after finishing second to Bryce Harper in last year's NL Rookie of the Year voting. Brandon McCarthy hasn't looked anything like the pitcher he was with Oakland the last two seasons. Perhaps time on the DL will do him some good, but he just hasn't been the same since taking a line drive to the head last year.

The bullpen, on the other hand, is one of baseball's best (3.04 ERA). Brad Ziegler, Matt Reynolds, Josh Collmenter,  and Will Harris have all been tremendous. Heath Bell's bounced back from a disastrous season with Miami, filling in for injured closer J.J. Putz. No wonder the D-Backs are 15-9 in one-run games.

A few months ago nobody thought the Diamondbacks would be where they are now. It's tough to see them holding up without adequate starting pitching, especially since Corbin and the bullpen are bound to regress at some point. It will help when the hitters get healthy and start producing like they can, but I still don't see Arizona winning the division. San Francisco's pitching is going to come around, and when it does the Giants will take their rightful place (as in first). Seeing as how San Francisco gets 10 straight games against the Padres, Marlins, and Dodgers starting on Monday, I expect them to overthrow the Diamondbacks by the end of June.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Gomez Getting No Love

Gomez belongs in the discussion of baseball's best players
According to Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, Carlos Gomez has been the most valuable player in baseball this year. More valuable than Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis, and Joey Votto. A five tool stud, Gomez leads the majors in triples, plays excellent defense in center field, and runs the bases well. In fact, he's on his way to posting almost identical numbers to the ones another great centerfielder--a young man by the name of Mike Trout--compiled last year:

Trout's 2012:   129 runs  182 hits  27 doubles  30 home runs  83 RBI  49 steals .326/.399/.564
Gomez's pace: 103 runs  191 hits  37 doubles  27 home runs  88 RBI  32 steals .326/.366/.594

But even with Gomez doing his best Trout impersonation, the Milwaukee Brewers have been terrible. Poor pitching has sunk them 11 games below .500 with only half a game separating them from the Chicago Cubs and last place in the NL Central.

Because of their struggles (and, to some degree, his unimpressive track record) Gomez isn't getting the attention his stellar first half deserves. Accordingly, he's getting shafted in the All-Star voting. Among National League outfielders he ranks twelfth (!) behind guys like Hunter Pence (6th), Angel Pagan (9th), Matt Holliday (10th) and, worst of all, Gregor Blanco (11th).

Pence (2.7 bWAR) has been good this year--much better than he was last year--but not better than Gomez. Angel Pagan should change his name to "Average" Pagan with his 99 OPS+ and 0.0 bWAR. Holliday's having the worst season of his career. And then there's Blanco, who has yet to hit a home run this season and slugging a pitiful .358.

Give me a break. Gomez will make the team as a reserve, but he deserves to start. Instead, he's going to have to settle for being the other Brewers outfielder (the one not named Ryan Braun) at this year's Midsummer Classic.

But after playing six seasons in relative obscurity, the 27 year-old should be used to flying under the radar. Signed out of the Dominican Republic at 16 and promoted to the Show at 21, Gomez stalled out in the majors when his power failed to develop. His speed was evident from day one, when he outraced Jose Reyes in spring training, but he frustrated the Mets, Twins, and Brewers by producing just 30 home runs and a sub-.300 OBP in his first 1,875 big league plate appearances.

Then, halfway through last year, something clicked. From July 23rd onward, he mashed 14 homers and stole 22 bases (getting caught just three times). He also struck out six times as often as he walked over the same stretch; hardly a recipe for success. Gomez appeared to be another B.J. Upton in the making, but instead he's elevated himself into baseball's elite.

So what's driving his MVP-level performance? The first thing that jumps out his is BABiP, which has skyrocketed 80 points from .296 last year to .376 this season. The rest of his peripherals haven't changed much from 2012 His walk rate has remained the same, and he's striking out a little less.  His contact rate and line drive rate are up a bit, and he's not popping up as much.

What we're seeing is an excellent all-around player finally putting it all together, like Matt Kemp did in 2011 and Andrew McCutchen did last year. He's taking the leap to stardom, even if few people outside Milwaukee seem to notice or care.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Braves Outfield Disappoints

Dan Uggla greets Heyward after a long home run
Hopes were high for Jason Heyward and the Atlanta Braves coming into the 2013 season. After winning 94 games last year while ushering Chipper Jones into retirement, the Braves went out and signed B.J. Upton to the largest free agent contract in franchise history. Two months later, they fleeced the Arizona Diamondbacks for Justin Upton, scoring a 25 year-old superstar-in-the-making who won't become a free agent until after the 2015 season.

Adding the Upton brothers to its incumbent right fielder gave Atlanta one of baseball's best outfields. All three are young, athletic ballplayers projected for greatness long before they ever set foot on a big league diamond. Blessed with power and speed, the trio of former first round draft picks are three of the game's brightest talents.

So why aren't they playing like it?

More than two months into the season, the outfield that was supposed to lead Atlanta back to the postseason has gone bust. elder Upton's been a train wreck at the plate, striking out in one-third of his plate appearances and showing no semblance of the power stroke that helped him blast 28 home runs last year. Justin carried the Braves with his monster April  but hasn't done much lately, batting just .222/.343/.326 since April 28th.

And then there's Heyward, who's slow start to the season was exacerbated by an emergency appendectomy that forced him onto the Disabled List in late April and caused him to miss 23 games (the same operation derailed Adam Dunn early in 2011, and we all know how that turned out). Since returning to action on May 17th, it's taken Heyward a couple weeks to get his timing back and regain his footing at the plate.

But with both Uptons still dragging their feet in June, Heyward has shown signs of life at the plate. After going 2-for-5 with a double last night, Heyward now has hits in each of his last 10 games--including seven multi-hit efforts--to push his batting line up to .215/.324/.362.  He's been squaring up the ball better and making hard contact more consistently. These improvements are reflected in his improved strikeout rate, which he's trimmed from 18.8 percent before June 2nd to 12.8 percent since.

Credit Fredi Gonzalez for sticking with his slumping 23 year-old, batting him second even as his batting average languished below the Mendoza line into early June. Many managers would have dropped Heyward down in the lineup or benched him in an effort to help get him going, but such moves can end up doing more harm then good. They reflect a lack of faith on the manager's part and can end up damaging the ballplayer's already diminished confidence. Gonzalez's long leash has served him (and Heyward) well.

Even after getting swept by the San Diego Padres, Atlanta still leads the NL East by six games. The Braves are a first place team in spite of their vaunted outfield, not because of them. The rotation's remained healthy and everybody's pitching well. Evan Gattis and Chris Johnson are picking up the slack on offense. The defense is as good as expected.

Still, one can only imagine how strong the Braves will be once Heyward and the Uptons start doing what they're capable of.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Adam Lind is Back

Lind has been one of the few bright spots on a terrible Toronto team
A lot has gone wrong for the Toronto Blue Jays this season.  Melky Cabrera has regressed into the player he was pre-2011. Jose Reyes played all of ten games before getting hurt, and Brett Lawrie struggled mightily before joining him on the Disabled List. Emilio Bonifacio has been terrible. J.P. Arencibia can't get on base to save his life. The entire rotation, from R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle to Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow, has gone bust.

However, it's not all bad. The bullpen has been phenomenal, and the starting pitching seems to be coming around a bit. Late-bloomers Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista have provided plenty of power and deserve to make the All-Star team.

And then there's the resurrection of Adam Lind, the former Blue Jay star who was lost but now is found.

Lind debuted in 2006 but didn't burst onto the scene until 2009, his first full season. He roped 46 doubles, smashed 35 home runs, drove in 114 runs, and piled up 330 total bases. He batted .305/.370/.562, won the Designated Hitter Silver Slugger (taking advantage of David Ortiz's worst season with the Red Sox), and picked up some MVP votes. The future appeared bright for Lind, who at 25 was just coming into his prime.

With everyone watching to see what he could do for an encore, the wheels fell off in 2010. After a fast start, he abandoned his plate discipline during his first prolonged slump of the season. The results were disastrous. His batting line sunk to .237/.287/.425 and he struck out in 23.5 percent of his plate appearances, a career worst. Even more troubling was his complete and utter helplessness against lefthanded pitchers, against whom he batted a pathetic .117/.159/.182.

In 2011, Lind got off to a great start again and seemed to be back. He was hitting .317/.348/.524 before May 7th, when left the game with lower back stiffness. He missed four weeks. After returning on June 4th, he reverted into the Lind of 2010 and batted .229/.279/.412 the rest of the way. His overall numbers were better than they had been the year before, but only slightly so.

Those struggles carried over into 2012 and got so bad that Lind was demoted to Triple-A Las Vegas in mid-May. Two weeks later, Toronto placed him on waivers. Nobody claimed him.

That seemed to spark Lind. He crushed the ball in Vegas. returned to the big club on June 24th, and batted .296/.339/.473 from that point forward (even though his futility against southpaws persisted). Nobody paid much attention while the injury-plagued Blue Jays played out the string.

Expectations were sky high for the 2013 Blue Jays following a flurry of winter moves netted four former All-Stars, including the reigning NL Cy Young winner. But winning the offseason does not always translate to winning the regular season, and Toronto's new superteam started slow out of the gates. Lind was no exception. Through May 2nd, he batted just .220/.394/.280 with no home runs and three RBI, seemingly well on his way to a fourth straight disappointing season.

Then, a funny thing happened. Lind started hitting again, and he hasn't stopped. Following a 3-for-5 performance against the White Sox last night, he brought his batting line up to .344/.418/.540 on the season. Manager John Gibbons has been wise to limit Lind's exposure against southpaws, giving him just 22 at-bats against lefties to date.

However, Lind's hot streak has much more to do with getting back to the approach that made him so successful four years ago. Lind has become incredibly selective, offering at just 38 percent of pitches he sees (well below his career average of 47.4 percent). He's swinging smarter. His outside swing percentage, which jumped as high as 37.1 percent in 2011, is down all the way to 23.4 percent, right in line with where it was in '09 (24.7 percent). Not surprisingly, his walk rate is the highest it's ever been.

So instead of trying to do too much and getting himself out, Lind is letting the pitchers come to him. Luck's been on his side, as his .391 BABiP will attest. but his adjustments in the batter's box are legit. As long as stays within himself and doesn't try to single-handedly save Toronto's season, he should continue to produce strong numbers going forward.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sox Score Bargain with Carp

Carp has been more than just a feel-good story 
In their quest for outfield depth after injuries forced Bobby Valentine to use about a bajillion outfielders last year, the Boston Red Sox got Mike Carp for next to nothing on February 20th, when they acquired the 26 year-old from the Seattle Mariners for a player to be named later or cash considerations (a bag of balls, essentially). Carp was coming off a down year in which he batted just .213/.312/.341, and the M's didn't have much use for him after signing Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay and Mike Morse during the offseason.

The Red Sox didn't appear to have much need for him either, not with Jackie Bradley Jr. poised to make a big splash in the big leagues. But Bradley bombed during his first two weeks in the Show and was quickly demoted to Pawtucket for additional seasoning. That opened up playing time for Carp, who smashed three extra base hits in his first start with the Sox--a 6-3 win over the Cleveland Indians on April 17th--and hasn't stopped hitting since. After going 2-for-5 with a pair of RBI in last night's extra inning marathon victory over the Tampa Bay Rays, Carp hiked his batting line is up to an impressive .322/.367/.667 over 98 plate appearances.

Like Cody Ross last year, Carp's performed way better than anyone could have possibly predicted. He's taken his game to another level as one of the unsung heroes driving Boston's excellent first half. Carp has smacked more home runs than Dustin Pedroia, driven in more runs than Jacoby Ellsbury and compiled more total bases than Shane Victorino. Not bad for someone barely making more than $500,000 this year.

Carp came into the season expecting to spend lots of time on Boston's bench as the club's fifth outfielder (behind Ellsbury, Victorino, Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes), but his heavy hitting has forced John Farrell to overlook his lackluster glove and pencil him into the starting lineup more frequently. After making just eight starts in the season's first six weeks, Carp's appeared in 15 of Boston's previous 18 games, starting 13 of them. Consistent playing time has helped him get in a groove at the plate; since the calendar flipped to June, he's belted three home runs, knocked in nine, and batted a scintillating .444/.484/.852.

When a player's that hot, you don't take him out of the lineup, regardless of where he stands on the depth chart.

St. Louis Surging

The Cardinals can do no wrong
On paper, the St. Louis Cardinals were not baseball's best team coming into the season. Heck, most people didn't even pick them to win their own division, which got decidedly more competitive with the Houston Astros playing in the American League West this year.

It's surprising, then, that the Redbirds are the MLB's winning-est team (41-22) entering play today. They've held sole possession of first place in the NL Central since the last day in April, exceeding expectations thanks to depth, timely hitting, stellar starting pitching and strong defense.

What the Cardinals lack in power (they've outhomered only four teams so far) they make up for by raking with runners in scoring position. The Cards have batted a collective .339/.410/.457 in such situations. If sustained over the course of the season, that performance would set MLB records for highest batting average and OBP.

But even taking expected regression into account, St. Louis still sports a very dangerous lineup. The Cards fielded one of the league's best offensive units last year (without Albert Pujols, no less), so it should come as no surprise that they rank at or near the top of the league in most offensive categories again this season. St. Louis leads the National League in scoring, runs per game, batting average, and on-base percentage.

The lineup doesn't have the star power of a Miguel Cabrera or Robinson Cano. Instead, it's a balanced group of veterans and professional hitters. The biggest and most pleasant surprise has been Matt Carpenter's blossoming into an All-Star. Yadier Molina has evolved into the NL's answer to Joe Mauer while outplaying last year's MVP Buster Posey (Molina's .354 batting average and 19 doubles top the NL). 36 year-old Carlos Beltran brings the power with 14 home runs and 42 RBI. Allen Craig's compensating for his power outage by leading the team in RBI. Third baseman David Freese finally emerging emerged from the depths of his painfully slow start with a 19-game hitting streak. Middle infielder Daniel Descalso and slugging first baseman Matt Adams have been excellent coming off the bench but haven't played much because the team has enjoyed unusual health. Freese is the only starter to spend time on the Disabled List.

What's more impressive is that St. Louis has been an offensive juggernaut even though its best hitter (Matt Holliday) hasn't been himself. Pete Kozma--Rafael Furcal's replacement at shortstop--hasn't done much offensively. Jon Jay's struggles caused manager Mike Matheny to drop him out of the leadoff spot in favor of on-base machine Matt Carpenter.

As potent as the offense has been, the starting rotation has been every bit as incredible. Cardinals' starters have compiled a 2.73 ERA, 1.12 WHIP and 3.57 K/BB ratio despite missing Chris Carpenter (out since late February), Jaime Garcia (done for the season) and Jake Westbrook (out since May 9th but expected to return by the end of the week).

It all starts with staff ace Adam Wainwright, now fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery that wiped out his 2011 season. He's pitching even better than he did in the two seasons before his operation, when he finished in the top three of Cy Young voting both years. Lance Lynn has improved in his second season as a full-time starting pitcher and probably deserves to make the All-Star team again. NL ERA leader Shelby Miller is well on his way to winning Rookie of the Year unless Yasiel Puig keeps hitting like Barry Bonds. Rookie call-up Tyler Lyons has pitched very well since Garcia was lost for the season.

The Cardinals' lone weakness so far has been unreliable middle relief. The bullpen's been mediocre, allowing too many baserunners (1.40 WHIP) and runs (4.33 ERA). That said, Trevor Rosenthal and Edward Mujica might be the best 8th and 9th inning combo around. The 23 year-old Rosenthal recovered from a shaky April and hasn't allowed an earned run since April 24th. Mujica is proving himself to be one of baseball's premier closers since replacing Mitchell Boggs (who replaced the injured Jason Motte) midway through April. He's a perfect 18-for-18 in save opportunities and his 0.61 WHIP leads all relievers.

In addition to receiving plenty of run support, Cardinals pitchers have also benefited from steady defense behind them. St. Louis is not a quick team by any means (only the Cincinnati Reds have stolen fewer bases) but its fielders don't make many mistakes on the balls they do reach. The surehanded Cardinals have made fewer errors than every team not named the Baltimore Orioles (who had a trio of Gold Glove defenders at premium positions last year). Molina--the anchor--is fast cementing his status as one of the best defensive catchers of all time; when he retires we'll probably be talking about him the same way we talk about Johnny Bench and Ivan Rodriguez.

On the whole, it seems that the Cards have been playing over their heads a bit in the early going. They're definitely good enough to make the playoffs, but there's enough room for regression (Miller, Carpenter, Molina, the RISP numbers, health) that I feel confident saying they won't maintain their 105-win pace all year. I don't think they'l have baseball's best record when the dust settles, either (I'm feeling Atlanta or Cincy), but they should be able to keep it up for a few more weeks at least. Expect them to continue their winning ways with 12 of their next 15 games against the Mets, Marlins, Cubs, and Astros.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Pitchers Drafted First

Of the 48 men who were chosen first in baseball's amateur draft, only 13 (27 percent) were pitchers. Given their underwhelming track record, it's not hard to see why teams have traditionally been wary of taking hurlers with the number one draft pick.

1973 David Clyde
Texas Rangers owner Bob Short, desperate to boost attendance for a team bound for 105 losses, instantly promoted his 18 year-old phenom to the Show without letting him throw so much as one minor league pitch. The results were disastrous, for Clyde soon developed arm troubles and made his last MLB appearance at age 24.

1976 Floyd Bannister
A one-time All-Star, Bannister had the misfortune of wallowing for terrible teams throughout most of his 15-year career. The 1982 American League strikeout champion was a solid starter for most of the 1980s, but his unwillingness to pitch inside resulted in hitters teeing off on him for lots of long balls.

1981 Mike Moore
Struggled initially but eventually found his way. An All-Star and a workhorse, Moore averaged over 227 innings per season from 1984 through 1993, leading the league in starts three times despite posting a 100 ERA+ over that span.

1983 Tim Belcher
Belcher got off to a great start to his career with the Dodgers, compiling a 2.82 ERA through his first three seasons and leading the majors in shutouts in 1989. His career spiraled downward after he left Hollywood following the '91 campaign as he regressed into a merely average starting pitcher.

1988 Andy Benes
Benes, known as Rain Man, recorded double digit win totals in every year from 1990 through 2000 except one--the strike shortened '94 campaign. His 31.7 bWAR is still tops among the 13 pitchers that have gone first in the draft.

1989 Ben McDonald
Threw a shutout in his first major league start and produced a 115 ERA+ in his nine-year career, but was never anything special.

1994 Paul Wilson
Part of "Generation K" along with Jason Isringhausen and Bill Pulsipher during his rise through the Mets minor league system, only to disappoint at the major league level.

1996 Kris Benson
Was a perfectly average starting pitcher, as his 100 ERA+ attests. He's more well-known for marrying model Anna Benson, possibly the hottest baseball wife of all time.

1997 Matt Anderson
The only pitcher here not to make a single big league start. Anderson was worth -0.6 bWAR for his career, which doesn't seem so bad compared to his 5.19 ERA and 1.58 WHIP.

2002 Bryan Bullington
Pitched a grand total of 81 and two-thirds major league innings across five seasons for four different teams. Is now playing in Japan.

2006 Luke Hochevar
Hochevar had a 5.44 ERA in 128 starts for Kansas City before the Royals finally came to their senses and converted him to a reliever. He's thrived out of the bullpen here in 2013, so perhaps he's finally found his calling.

2007 David Price
The Tampa Bay Rays scored an ace with Price, winner of the AL Cy Young award last year (over Justin Verlander). He was also the runner-up for the trophy in 2010 to Felix Hernandez. Interestingly, Price was the first lefty starting pitcher drafted first overall since Floyd Bannister in '76.

2009 Stephen Strasburg
Strasburg was a stud from the start, whiffing 14 Pittsburgh Pirates in his first big league appearance. One of the most dominant pitchers in the game today, he's averaged 10.7 K/9 for his career and is primed to be an annual Cy Young candidate for years to come.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Teixeira Teeing Off

Teixeira watches his grand slam off Justin Masterson leave the park
Since returning from the 60-day disabled list on May 31st, New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira has been able to avoid the kind of slow start that's plagued him throughout his major league career. Showing no ill affects from the strained wrist tendon that caused him to miss 53 games, Tex has jacked three home runs and compiled eight RBI in his past four games--all Yankees victories--to help New York keep pace with the Boston Red Sox in the American League East.

That kind of offensive production couldn't have come at a better time for the Yanks, who had lost five in a row before Teixeira came back. Despite unexpected heroics from the likes of Lyle Overbay, Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner, New York's offense has been a far cry from the powerful run scoring machine that slugged 245 long balls last season. The Bronx Bombers have been stretched thin due to injuries to Texeira, Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, and Kevin Youkilis, forcing Joe Girardi to rely on an aging cast of journeymen and washed-up veterans to plug the leaks.

But with Teixeira back in the fold, Girardi can pencil another big bat into his lineup to complement Robinson Cano. Even though the 33 year-old is clearly in decline, he still brings plenty of power, patience and plus defense to the table everyday. He's overpaid, but at least he's on the field helping the team win, which is more than Jeter and A-Rod can say.

I don't think you'll hear any complaints from Girardi, Brian Cashman or the Steinbrenners. At this point, they'll take any help they can get.

Baseball's Best Number One Draft Picks

The MLB Amateur Draft has always been a crapshoot, so much so that multiple number one draft picks fizzled out in the minor leagues and never even made it to the Show. However, every now and then a can't miss prospect comes along, a once-in-a-generation talent who makes good on his potential  and dominates at the big league level.

With that in mind, here's my list of the ten best number one draft selections in baseball history. Notice that there are no pitchers--more on that later.

1. Alex Rodriguez (1993)
A-Rod delivered on the otherworldly promise he displayed as a high school prodigy by becoming the best shortstop since Honus Wagner, winning three American League MVP awards and leading the New York Yankees to the franchise's 27th World Series championship in 2009.

2. Ken Griffey Jr. (1987)
Baseball's best and most decorated player of the 1990s, Griffey was a perennial All-Star nod and Gold Glove winner.  Even though injuries sabotaged the second half of his career, the fan favorite still rates as the fifth best center fielder of all time (behind Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, and Mickey Mantle) according to JAWS.

3. Chipper Jones (1990)
Originally drafted as a shortstop, Jones switched over to the hot corner and became one of the five best third basemen who ever lived (along with Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Eddie Mathews, and Wade Boggs). Among switch-hitters, only Mantle (and maybe Eddie Murray) were better than the lifelong Atlanta Brave.

4. Joe Mauer (2001)
The only catcher in MLB history to win three batting titles (.347 in 2006, .328 in '08 and .365 in his '09 MVP campaign), the Twins franchise player has already cemented his status as one of the best backstops of all time.

5. Darryl Strawberry (1980)
The 1983 NL Rookie of the Year made eight All-Star squads prior to his 30th birthday and appeared on his way to Cooperstown before drug abuse ruined his career.

6. Harold Baines (1977)
The prototypical professional hitter, Baines enjoyed a 22 year career in the majors that produced 2,866 hits, 384 home runs and 1,628 RBI. The six-time All-Star holds the MLB record for most games as a Designated Hitter with 1,652.

7. Adrian Gonzalez (2000)
The Florida Marlins and Texas Rangers have to be kicking themselves. Both teams traded the sweet-swinging first baseman during his formative years, only to watch him emerge as one of the best two-way first basemen in the game.

8. Josh Hamilton (1999)
Like Strawberry, Hamilton's personal demons overwhelmed his supernatural talent. It took him eight years to reach the Show, but since arriving for good in 2007 he's become one of baseball's biggest stars.

9. Rick Monday (1965)
The first pick in baseball's first amateur draft, Monday was much more than an answer to a trivia question. The centerfielder lasted 19 years in the bigs, made two All-Star teams and retired with a 125 OPS+, same as Yogi Berra.

10. Pat Burrell
Pat the Bat was one of baseball's most underrated power hitters of the new millennium. Overshadowed by teammates Bobby Abreu, Scott Rolen, Jim Thome Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, and Chase Utley, Burrell never got the attention he deserved for averaging 28 home runs, 92 RBI and 87 walks per year from 2000 through 2008.

Honorable Mention: B.J. Surhoff (1985), Darin Erstad (1995), and Bob Horner (1978)

Likely to join the list: Justin Upton (2005), David Price (2007), Stephen Strasburg (2009) and Bryce Harper (2010)