Thursday, August 29, 2013

V-Mart's Remarkable Turnaround

Martinez's 2013 season has been a tale of two halves
Every year there are players who start out slowly, then recover in the second half and wind up with their usual numbers. Think Dan Uggla in 2011, Albert Pujols in 2012, and Mark Teixeira pretty much every year.

This year, Victor Martinez is one such player.

After sitting out all of 2012 with a torn ACL, Martinez had a lot of rust to shake off. Understandably, it took him a while to get his timing back. He batted .221 /.290/.274 in April. He didn't hit his first home run of the season until May 4th, and by the end of the month his overall batting line stood at .228/.273/.305. In June he "raised" it to .232/.290/.337. Although Martinez was improving, slowly but surely, he looked nothing like the V-Mart of old. 2013 was shaping up to be a lost year for the four-time All-Star.

Finally, things started clicking for him once the calendar flipped to July. He strung together a 14-game hit streak just before the All-Star Break, then came back and rapped out nine hits in a three-day span. He closed out the month strong and has continued to rake in August. With three more hits last night, Martinez boosted his batting line to .294/.347/.415. Over the past two months, Martinez has batted a sizzling .386/.436/.526. He's seeing the ball so well, and making such consistent contact, that he hasn't struck out once in his most recent 49 plate appearances (by comparison, Chris Carter has fanned 21 times in his previous 49 trips to the plate).

Credit Tigers manager Jim Leyland for staying the course while Martinez was lost at sea. The veteran skipper showed extraordinary faith in his slumping star, dutifully penciling him into the lineup everyday and always batting him fifth--behind Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder. Martinez's established track record warranted a long leash, and sure enough, the patience paid off.

With Detroit leading the AL Central and gearing up for another playoff run, V-Mart's hot streak couldn't have come at a better time. The Tigers are going to need him come October. They certainly could've used him in last year's World Series, when they were swept largely because they couldn't muster any offense against the San Francisco Giants. If Detroit does return to the Fall Classic, it will be Martinez's first appearance on baseball's biggest stage.

The Tigers can only hope he hits as well in the October chill as he does during the dog days of August.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Soriano Smashes 400th Homer

Soriano smashes his milestone home run at the Rogers Centre
Alfonso Soriano, featured in this space two weeks ago while in the midst of a scalding hot streak, crushed two more home runs last night. The pair of long balls pushed his career total to an even 400, something only 50 men (six of them Yankees) have accomplished before.

New York was already leading Toronto 1-0 when Soriano stepped in for his first at-bat, and threatening to add more with Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano aboard. The ever-aggressive Soriano jumped all over the first pitch he saw from J.A. Happ and crushed it--a towering, no-doubt-about-it moonshot into the left field stands. His monster three-run jack dealt a major blow to the Blue Jays, but more importantly it gave Andy Pettitte a nice cushion to work with before he even toed the rubber.

The score was still 4-0 when Soriano led off the top of the third, but it didn't stay the way for long. Soriano swung at the first pitch again and got the same result. His second blast barely cleared the yard, sailing over a leaping Kevin Pillar and bouncing off the back of the left field fence. Mark Reynolds and Alex Rodriguez later added solo shots of their own, and that proved to be more than enough support for Pettitte. The crafty southpaw hurled seven shutout innings, handcuffing Jose Reyes, Edwin Encarnacion and co. as the Bronx Bombers cruised to a 7-1 victory over their division rivals.

The win was a big one for the Yankees, who have won 12 of their past 17 but still sit 4.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot. With a month left in the season, New York still has time to make up that ground--about one game in the standings per week. The odds of that happening, however, are slim. Baseball-Prospectus estimates their playoff chances are seven percent. is only slightly more optimistic, pegging their postseason odds at ten percent.

There's no margin for error. The Yankees need to sprint to the finish line and hope the guy in front of them slips on a banana peel. They have one more game in Toronto tonight--a likely win with Hiroki Kuroda on the bump--before heading back to the Bronx for a pivotal ten-game homestand. They're fighting for their playoff lives, but at least they'll get to battle on their home turf, where they're significantly better (.585 winning percentage) than they are everywhere else (.478).

And if last night's performance is any indication of things to come from Soriano, he's going to win some games with his bat down the stretch. His heavy hitting has fueled the Yankees' recent tear, and if he keeps it up he may be able to single-handedly slug New York into the postseason. If he can do that, the late-July trade that brought him back to the Big Apple, that was ordered by Hal Steinbrenner against the wishes of Brian Cashman, will go down as one of the best midseason deals of all-time.

Yankee management has made a lot of questionable moves recently, whiffing on the likes of Kevin Youkilis, Travis Hafner, and Vernon Wells. But bringing back Soriano, another old and overpaid star, has been a home run.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Starlin Castro's Catastrophic Season

Coming into the 2013 season, Starlin Castro seemed to be a player on the rise. Just 23 years old, he'd already made two All-Star appearances and amassed over 500 hits. His power was developing and he'd improved upon his subpar defense. All signs pointed to a player who was trending upward, who was only going to get better until he reached his superstar ceiling in a few short years.

Well, so much for that.

Rather than continuing to progress, Castro's cratered. His latest slump (just seven hits--all singles--in the past two weeks) has dropped his batting line to .238/.276/.333. His strikeouts are up, way up, and his walks are down. His season-long slump has sapped his confidence, causing Castro to look worse with each passing day.

Those offensive struggles seem to have followed him out onto the field, where he's regressed into the below average shortstop he was prior to last season. He's shown poor decision making on the basepaths as well, getting thrown out in six of his 14 steal attempts.

In short: everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. And on top of that, his Chicago Cubs are wallowing in last place, playing out the string in what will become their fourth straight losing season and, more importantly, 105th consecutive year without a World Series championship.

But Castro was supposed to be one of the few bright spots for the Cubbies in 2013, a building block for a rebuilding franchise. Instead, he's unraveled. His numbers have flatlined to the point where he been the team's least valuable position players per bWAR.

As is usually the case with such dramatic drop-offs, he's been victimized by bad luck. His .287 BABiP isn't crazy low compared to the league average, but it is nearly 40 points below his career norms. His batted ball distribution hasn't changed much, so declining contact rates, especially on pitches within the strike zone, appear to be the culprit for his struggles at the plate. As for his issues on the bases and in the field, those have more to do with his Hanley Ramirez-esque mental lapses than anything else.

Castro's better than this, and I have to believe he'll bounce back next year. He showed far too much promise in his early 20s to be written off. Players who succeed at such an early age (i.e. Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols) tend to thrive, if not get better. Even the best young baseball players struggle, as we've seen with Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, and Eric Hosmer.

Growing pains are part of the game, and it's clear that Castro still has some growing up to do.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Mr. 4,000

Last night, Ichiro Suzuki did something that only two men in baseball history (Pete Rose and Ty Cobb) have done before him: he notched the 4,000th hit of his professional career.

With the Toronto Blue Jays in town and more than 36,000 on hand at Yankee Stadium, the great Ichrio dug in against reigning NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey. Both have struggled this year, with Dickey failing to replicate his magical 2012 and Suzuki batting nearly 50 points below his career average.

That didn't seem to phase either combatant last night, for Dickey delivered a strong start and Suzuki made history--in his first at-bat of the evening, no less. Dickey was off to a good start, having just struck out Brett Gardner looking sharp as Ichiro performed his signature pre-batting ritual. The crowd trained its phones and cameras on Suzuki, hoping to witness something nobody had seen since Ronald Reagan's presidency.

Thankfully, Suzuki didn't make them wait long. On the third pitch he saw, Ichrio reached out, flicked his wrists and lined a bullet past third baseman Brett Lawrie, who lunged towards the smash but couldn't come up with it. Kevin Pillar scooped it up in left as Suzuki motored around first, his knock official. Play was stopped, and the Yankees dugout emptied--not to fight, as they had on Sunday, but to celebrate--as Ichiro was swarmed by congratulatory teammates.

The swing (pictured above), and the hit that followed, was classic Ichiro. Suzuki used his quick hands, masterful bat control, and blazing speed to slap and poke his way to a career unlike any other. From 2001--the year he won both the AL Rookie of the Year and MVP awards (something only Fred Lynn has ever done)--through 2010, he batted above .300, rapped out more than 200 hits, won the Gold Glove and made the All-Star team every freaking year. His average season produced 105 runs, 224 hits, 38 steals, and a .331/.376/.430 batting line. He was like Tony Gwynn, Roberto Clemente, and Rod Carew all rolled into one.

Since then, age (combined with the wear and tear of playing everyday) has deteriorated Suzuki into a merely average player. The two-time batting champ is a .276 hitter (with no power) over the past three years. His arm is still as powerful as ever, but he's lost a step in the field and so his overall defensive value has diminished. He can run, just not as often.

But Ichiro is fit and trim--he takes excellent care of himself--as he prepares to celebrate his 40th birthday this October. He still has another year with the Yankees and will likely play beyond that, if he so chooses. The baseball legend should have no problem finding a job as he closes in 3,000 big league hits (he has 278 to go). Someone will pay him to wear their uniform when he achieves the milestone.

It was easy to take the first couple thousand for granted. Ichiro made it look so easy, as if he could place the ball exactly where he wanted. He was an artist. He was a machine. It was beautiful to watch.

So now, with a great player approaching the end of a storied career, let's appreciate every drag bunt, seeing-eye single, and screaming line drive. Because there's never been a baseball player like Ichiro before. And there might never be another.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Suspensions Stall Career Years

The MLB suspended 14 players for their involvement with the now-infamous Biogenesis clinic. Alex Rodriguez got hit with a 211-game ban, far and away the harshest punishment handed down, but he's allowed to play as he appeals his ridculously (and unfairly) long suspension. Ryan Braun was slapped with a 65 game ban and didn't fight it. Neither did the other 12, who were given standard 50 game suspensions as first time offenders under baseball's drug policy (A-Rod and Braun were also technically first-time offenders even though they had failed drug tests before. Therefore, they should've been suspended 50 games like everyone else).

Of those dozen, three were All-Stars this year on their way to big seasons. For fun, I projected out some of their numbers to see what they would've looked like at the end of the year:

Everth Cabrera (no relation to Miguel Cabrera)
The 2012 NL stolen base leader was in the midst of a breakout campaign. Not only was Cabrera leading the league in steals again, but he was also hitting .283 and posting a 113 OPS+. Furthermore, the first-time All-Star had been worth three wins for the Padres despite spending three weeks on the Disabled List with a hamstring injury. Seeing as how he didn't miss any games outside of his DL stint, I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and assumed he wouldn't have taken anymore days off.

145 games, 82 runs, 165 hits, 56 stolen bases--all career highs

Nelson Cruz
With Josh Hamilton, Mike Napoli, and Michael Young gone, Cruz stepped up and provided big-time power numbers for the Texas Rangers. Adrian Beltre is the team's best hitter and undisputed MVP, but it's Cruz who leads the Rangers in home runs and runs batted in. Health permitting, the slugging rightfielder was on pace to play 156 games and crush his previous career highs in big flies, RBI, and total bases. His first 40 homer/100 RBI season was well within reach, and it couldn't have come at a better time for the free-agent-to-be. Needless to say, Cruz's suspension deals a big blow to Texas, currently clinging to a 1.5 game lead over the A's for first place in the AL West.

159 hits, 39 homers, 110 RBI, 302 total bases--all career highs

Jhonny Peralta
Coming off a disappointing season in which he batted just .239/.305/.384, Peralta (playing for a contract) righted the ship with a strong bounce back performance (.305/.361/.461 and his second All-Star selection). In fact, he was the American League's top shortstop. He'd already accumulated 3.5 bWAR of value for the Tigers and was poised to continue his success in the second half, batting .316/.361/.544 post-All-Star Break. Normally, losing a key player like that for the rest of the season would spell trouble for a team trying to win its division, but Detroit mitigated his loss by acquiring shortstop-of-the-future Jose Iglesias from Boston in the Jake Peavy trade. Iglesias can't come close to matching his predecessor's impact on offense, but he's a much better defender than Peralta, who's an average fielder at best. Bottom line: the Tigers will be fine.

155 games, 180 hits (career high), 43 doubles (career high), 16 homers, 80 RBI, 273 total bases

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Shields & Santana Royal Success

Shields (pictured) and Santana are lifting the Royals to new heights
The red-hot Royals have roared back into contention over the past month. They've won 21 of their 29 games since the All-Star Break, including 17 of 20 from July 23rd through August 12th. They're pitching well, playing extraordinary defense, and scoring just enough runs to scrape by.

And, for the first time in who knows how long, they have a formidable 1-2 punch at the top of their rotation. Their two biggest offseason acquisitions--James Shields and Ervin Santana--have stepped up to lead the staff with the best ERA in the American League. They rank second and tenth, respectively, in innings pitched and are tied for tenth in ERA, combining for about five wins above replacement.

Before the season began, though, nobody was hailing the dynamic duo as saviors. Instead, every baseball fan with a working brain was ripping Royals GM Dayton Moore for giving up so much to acquire Shields, Wade Davis and a player to be named later (Elliot Johnson). Moore, in a desperate effort to win-now, dealt Wil Myers and three prospects to Tampa Bay for Shields and spare parts. Shields is a number two starter who's going to be a free agent after the season. Myers is a 22 year-old phenom who's already setting the world on fire and is going to be a star for years to come.

It's scary to imagine what would've happened if Shields had gone bust--either by getting hurt or regressing to the dismal form he displayed in 2009 and 2010. The baseball universe would have imploded. Moore would be out of a job and probably dead; hanged, drawn, and quartered through the streets of Kansas City by bloodthirsty Royals fans.

Thankfully, Shields has lived up to his end of the bargain by doing what he does best--staying healthy and pitching very well. The ever-durable Shields hasn't missed a start and has thrown more innings than any American League hurler not named Justin Masterson, while maintaining the second-best ERA of his career. He's completed six innings or more in 23 of his 26 starts and has never pitched fewer than five Even on days when he doesn't have his best stuff, he still manages to go deep into games and preserve the bullpen.

Santana, on the other hand, represented a much bigger question mark. Nobody knew what to expect from the 30 year-old pitcher with a spotty track record coming off the worst season of his career, one in which he led the majors in home runs allowed and had an ERA over five. That didn't discourage the Royals from taking him off the Angels' hands and hoping that he would pitch like he did the two years before last, when he delivered over 450 innings with a 3.65 ERA.

Sure enough, Santana's bounced back. He's been every bit as valuable as Shields, and probably a hair better. They have the same 3.19 ERA, but it's Santana who owns the superior W-L record, WHIP, and K/BB ratio. The gamble has paid off.

So now, with the Royals gunning for their first postseason appearance since 1985, they need both workhorses to continue pitching at their top of their games. Big Game James must live up to his reputation and Santana can't afford to relapse. They've spent all summer making Dayton Moore look good. It would be a real shame if they let him down now.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Examining Torii Hunter's High Batting Averages

Hunter's hitting for the highest averages of his career 
Torii Hunter has been a great baseball player for many years. He's made five All-Star teams, won nine Gold Gloves and smashed more than 300 home runs. His track record includes countless highlight-reel catches, MVP votes, postseason success, and nearly 50 bWAR accumulated across 17 big league seasons. That probably won't be enough to land him a spot in the Hall of Fame, but there's no questioning his plaque in the fictional Hall of Very Good.

But for all of Hunter's accomplishments, he had never batted .300 in a season until 2012, his final season with the Los Angeles Angels. He'd come awfully close in 2009, when he hit .299, but most years his batting average settled near .270 or .280. It was surprising, then, that his average spiked from .262 in 2011 to .313 the next year, the same summer he turned 37. Incredibly, Hunter managed to pump up his BA 51 points--an increase that is almost unheard of for players his age--despite posting the worst strikeout rate of his career.

The explanation behind his batting average boost was a fluky .389 BABiP, the second-highest mark in baseball last year (one point below Dexter Fowler's .390 mark). Hunter's not getting any faster at this stage in his career, so he must have gotten luckier, right?

Well, to some degree, yes. Fortune always plays a part in BABiP and batting average, but there's more to it then that. Hunter did get lucky, but he also altered his batting approach. To compensate for his diminishing power stroke, Hunter leveled out his swing, an adjustment that resulted in a career-best line drive rate and ground ball rate, as well as a career-low fly ball rate. Accordingly, his BABiP went through the roof. Fly balls that don't leave the park tend to wind up in outfielders' mitts. Line drives and ground balls, on the other hand, find holes and take funny hops. They are tougher to convert into outs.

This year Hunter's BABiP and batted ball data have regressed closer to his career norms, though he's still enjoying good luck on balls in play with his .347 mark. One would expect his batting average to suffer a similarly drastic drop off, but instead it's dipped just five points down to .308.

So how is he pulling that off? Hunter's been able to maintain his high average by getting the bat on the ball more frequently and becoming hyper-aggressive at the plate. His strikeout rate is down, his contact rate, is up, and he's swinging at everything. No wonder his walk rate is down to 4.1 percent, easily the lowest of his career. Here's another stat to illustrate just how trigger-happy Henter's become: in a 52 game stretch between June 9th and August 12th, he walked four times.

That kind of approach would spell disaster for most players, but it's working for Hunter. After batting .274 in his first 15 seasons, he's a .310 hitter in his most recent thousand at-bats (which should represent the decline phase of his career). And he's not slowing down. Over the past two months he's batted .329 and slugged .552, providing plenty of offense for the Detroit Tigers, who got hot and lead their division by 6.5 games entering play today. Barring a late season collapse, the defending American League champs will return to the postseason, putting Hunter in position to bolster his already-impressive resume with one more credential: a World Series ring.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Streaking Soriano

When the Yankees traded for Alfonso Soriano back on July 26th, they were hoping he could provide some righthanded power for a lineup that desperately needed it. In the 21 games leading up to the trade, he'd smacked 10 home runs to go with 21 RBI and a 1.044 OPS. With Soriano swinging the bat so well, and few impact bats available leading up to the trade deadline, putting the former Yankee back in pinstripes seemed like a pretty solid move at the time.

Except that Soriano stopped hitting the moment he switched teams. In the 15 games immediately following the trade, he batted just .193/.220/.368 while striking out in one third of his at-bats. He was flailing, perhaps trying too hard to be the savior. Somehow, Soriano found a way to be worse than the players he was replacing in Joe Girardi's lineup card.  Once again it seemed the Yankees had whiffed by pinning their hopes on a overpaid, over-the-hill veteran.

But Soriano is streaky. For as hot as he was in July, he had one measly home run and two measly RBI in his first 27 games of the season. So it should come as no surprise that after looking lost at the plate for three weeks, he's reversed direction on a dime and is now ridiculously hot.

With the Angels in town on Tuesday night, Soriano struck out swinging in each of his first two at-bats (against Jason Vargas, who doesn't miss many bats), seemingly destined for another fruitless night at the plate. His inauspicious start gave no indication of the barrage he was about to unleash.

Because in the bottom of the fifth, with the Yankees trailing 3-2, Soraino belted a two-run shot to put New York on top. He roped an RBI single his next time up, then capped his monster game by jacking a three-run homer to the opposite field. The Yankees had a huge night with the bats, scoring 14 runs and pounding out 19 hits, but Soriano was the star of the show, going 3-for-6 with three runs scored, two big flies and six RBI--a single game career high.

Soriano was even better in his encore performance last night, another Yankees rout. He got the party started by lashing a first inning grand slam to center field to open the floodgates against Jered Weaver. Soriano came up with the bases loaded again in his next AB, and sure enough he delivered, ripping a double into the left field corner that scored Robinson Cano and Alex Rodriguez. His third time up, Soriano led off the fifth inning with a solo smash deep into the left field bleachers. He walked in his final plate appearance and came around to score, finishing the game 3-for-3 with three runs scored, two dingers and seven RBI--a new single game career high--to pace New York's 11-3 victory.

In the process, Soriano became one of just three players in big league history to drive in six or more runs in consecutive games, joining Rusty Greer and Geoff Jenkins (who would've guessed those two?) . He also became the first Yankee to hit multiple homers in consecutive games since 2005, when Jason Giambi did it at the end of August.

Soriano continued to rake today, stroking four singles. The Yankees fell 8-4 in the series finale, but at least they can feel confident heading into this weekend's showdown in Beantown with Soriano leading the way.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Baseball Brothers: The DiMaggios

Joe DiMaggio, Dom DiMaggio, and Vince DiMaggio were three of baseball's best centerfielders spanning the years from the Dust Bowl through the Korean War. The sons of Italian immigrants, they were born in California and grew up playing baseball. All three cut their teeth playing for the San Francisco Seals, a local minor league team (Double-A) in the Pacific Coast League, where their talents caught the eye of major league scouts. And so rather than becoming fishermen, as their father hoped, the brothers made their living playing America's national pastime instead.

Here's a brief look at their careers:

Joe (1936-1951)
The Yankee Clipper crammed a lot into his 13-year career. An All-Star every year, Joltin' Joe was inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame in 1955. His other achievements include nine World Series championships, three MVP awards, two batting titles, and one incredibly long hitting streak. With a resume like that, it's no wonder he was introduced as baseball's greatest living player until his death in 1999, long after it stopped being true.

Dom (1940-1953)
"The Little Professor" was every bit the centerfielder that Joltin' Joe was, earning comparisons to Tris Speaker for his ability to play shallow and still get back on deep fly balls. The youngest DiMaggio was also the ideal leadoff hitter, using his great speed and on-base ability to ignite the powerhouse Red Sox lineups of the late '40s and early '50s. Ted Williams always insisted his bespectacled teammate was Hall-worthy, and had DiMaggio not lost three prime seasons to World War II he'd have a plaque hanging in Cooperstown, too.

Vince (1937-1946)
The eldest and least talked about of the DiMaggio trio was said to be the fastest. He was also the least polished. His claim to fame is a dubious one: setting the NL record for strikeouts with 134 in 1938, one of six times he led the league in that department (weird considering that his two brothers rarely struck out). Not surprisingly, DiMaggio batted just .249 for his career, well below the league average of .267 during his playing days. Even so, the two-time All-Star was by no means a poor baseball player. In fact, he was a pretty good one, rating above average as a power-hitter, fielder, and baserunner. More importantly, he blazed the trail for his two younger brothers. It was Vince who convinced the Seals manager to give Joe a spot on the team (at shortstop), thereby launching Joe's professional career. Dom followed in their footsteps, breaking in with the Seals in 1937 after Joe and Vince reached the big leagues.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Quick Hits

Grady Sizemore likely to sign in offseason
There's a name I haven't heard in awhile. Five years ago Sizemore was one of the best young talents in the game, coming off a remarkable run from 2005 to 2008 in which he averaged 116 runs, 41 doubles, 27 home runs, 29 steals and 6.2 bWAR per season. Then injuries ruined what was supposed to be the prime of a Cooperstown-worthy career, limiting him to just 210 games from '09-'11, then all of 2012 and 2013. At 31 he's still young enough to make a comeback, but there's no way he can recapture the promise he showed with Cleveland. Sad.

Paul Konerko placed on waivers
Not expecting anyone to bite. The 37 year-old has fallen off a cliff this year and looks finished as an everyday player. He's had a great run with the White Sox, but I don't see them bringing him back when his contract expires at the end of the year. Given his back issues, he's probably going to retire.

Rangers release Manny Ramirez
Good riddance. I don't ever want to see this man-child in a baseball uniform again.

Justin Morneau placed on revocable trade waivers
Hasn't been the same since a concussion cut his 2010 campaign short. Like Konerko, he's in the final year of his contract and will probably be playing somewhere else in 2014. Has been swinging a hot bat lately, so that could draw interest from other teams.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Mantle at Full Strength

Injuries and alcoholism prevented Mantle from realizing his potential
Last night I was thumbing through Jane Leavy's "The Last Boy" (great read by the way). In it, Leavy recounts several conversations she had with Mickey Mantle--the biography's subject. When Leavy asked Mantle who was better--Willie Mays or himself--Mantle conceded that Mays had the superior career, but with the caveat that Mantle felt he played most of his games at 80 percent.

That got me thinking: what would his career totals look like if he was 100 percent? After crunching the numbers, I found that his adjusted figures look almost identical to those of the player he is most often compared to:

2,095 runs--would rank 7th all-time (Mays had 2,062)
3,019 hits--would rank 26th all-time (Mays had 3,283)
670 home runs--would rank 4th all-time (Mays had 660)
1,886 RBI--would rank 12th all-time (Mays had 1,903
5,639 total bases--would rank 8th all-time (Mays had 6,066)
2,166 walks--would rank 3rd all-time (Mays had 1,464)

The world will never know what a fully healthy Mantle could've accomplished. Perhaps he would've shattered Babe Ruth's home run record before Hank Aaron did. As it stands, Mantle is probably one of the 10 or 12 best non-pitchers in baseball history. Had he been able to stay healthy and avoid the bottle, maybe we would look back on his career as the best that any player ever had.

Giants Gone Wrong

The Giants find themselves in last place after their summer meltdown (AP)
As the baseball season drags through the dog days of August it becomes easier to separate the contenders from the pretenders. A lot can change from now until the end of the season, but right now we have a pretty solid idea of where things stand. The Braves are certainly going to the playoffs, and one can feel similarly confident about the chances of the Tigers, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cardinals, and (gulp) Pirates, all of whom have at least a 92 percent chance of going to the dance. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is no hope for the Marlins, Astros, and White Sox. They haven't played meaningful baseball in months and were essentially eliminated on Opening Day.

But nobody expected those teams to be good. The San Francisco Giants, winners of two of the past three World Series, were supposed to make another title run. Almost all of the players who hoisted the championship trophy last October returned, and almost all of them have remained healthy. With a stellar starting rotation, deep bullpen, and reigning MVP Buster Posey anchoring their lineup, the Giants were supposed to be one of the National League's most formidable teams.

Instead, they're toiling in last place, 13 games below .500, playing out the string when they should be battling the Dodgers for the division crown. How did that happen?

For starters, the rotation that was the backbone of last season's championship squad has underachieved. Young Madison Bumgarner is quietly putting together a Cy Young-caliber campaign, but the rest of his rotationmates have been massive disappointments. Matt Cain's enduring the worst season of his career. Tim Lincecum has been wildly inconsistent, unhittable at times but brutal at others.  Barry Zito's been terrible (surprise). Ryan Vogelsong pitched terribly before getting hurt. Put it all together, and the rotation sports a 4.34 ERA, well above last year's 3.73 mark.

It doesn't matter that the bullpen has been even better than it was last year, because by the time Bruce Bochy deploys his relievers it's usually too late. San Fran's pitchers have a 4.72 ERA in the first three innings and 4.13 ERA in the middle innings. All too often, the Giants find themselves down early in the game. And once they fall behind, they typically stay behind. The punchless Giants lack the offensive firepower needed to slug their way back into ballgames, for they rank second-to-last in the NL in runs scored, runs per game, home runs, total bases, and slugging percentage. One would think San Francisco should compensate by swiping bases to manufacture runs, but they rank fifth from the bottom of the league in steals. This may have something to do with the fact that the Giants field the league's third-oldest starting lineup.

It seems impossible to remember now, but the Giants got off to a good start. In fact, they were leading the NL West as late as Memorial Day weekend and were still in second place four weeks after that. The wheels fell off in late June/early July, when the Giants dropped 14 out of 16 games from 6/23 through 7/10. With the offense sputtering lately, they've continued to lose ground over the past month and let Los Angeles run away with the division.  Since May 26th, their last day in first place, they're 24-43 (.358)--the worst team in the Senior Circuit.

It's time for the Giants to start thinking about next year, which means re-signing Hunter Pence, figuring out who's going to play left field and deciding whether Tim Lincecum is worth keeping. As nightmarish as this summer has become for San Francisco, they still have a lot to be optimistic about for 2014. They have one of the game's most indispensable players in Posey and a bona fide ace in Bumgarner. Breakouts Brandon Belt and Brandon Crawford could get even better as they enter their prime years. Marco Scutaro is aging well, and I'm confident Pablo Sandoval and Cain will bounce back. There's plenty of talent here, so it shouldn't take much retooling from GM Brian Sabean for the Giants to get back to their winning ways next year.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

25 Bold(ish) Predictions for the Rest of the Season

  1.  Chris Davis won't get to 60 home runs, but he'll clear 50 easily 
  2. The Reds and Cardinals will both pass the Pirates in the NL Central standings
  3. Every member of the Red Sox starting lineup winds up with at least 10 home runs, and 11 Red Sox reach double digits overall
  4. R.A. Dickey will be the only Blue Jays starter with a winning record
  5. Matt Holliday gets his batting average up over .300
  6. So will Robinson Cano...
  7. ....And Dustin Pedroia
  8. Both AL Wild Card teams will come out of the AL East
  9. Somebody besides Giancarlo Stanton leads the Miami Marlins in home runs
  10. Jon Lester finishes with a better ERA than Felix Doubront
  11. The Nationals improve and win more games than they lose
  12. Prince Fielder fails to bat his weight
  13. Adam Wainwright ends up with the same amount of walks as starts
  14. Paul Goldschmidt isn't the top RBI man in the NL when the dust settles
  15. The Orioles will once again win over 90 games despite only having one starter win more than a dozen decisions
  16. The Colorado Rockies, currently third place in the NL West, will finish dead last
  17. Domonic Brown finishes with more home runs than Chase Utley and Ryan Howard combined
  18. Michael Bourn ends the year with more RBI than Nick Swisher. Both have 35.
  19. CC Sabathia will lead the Yankees in losses
  20. Ian Kennedy's ERA will be at least two runs lower with San Diego than it was with Arizona
  21. Carlos Gonzalez will go 30/30 for the first time
  22. David Wright won't catch teammate Marlon Byrd either both home runs or RBI
  23. Max Scherzer will throw a no-hitter
  24. The White Sox lose more games than the Marlins from this point forward
  25. Raul Ibanez sets a career high in home runs at the ripe old age of 41

Middlebrooks Comes Back

The Red Sox recalled Will Middlebrooks from Pawtucket yesterday, a move that reaped immediate rewards when he keyed Boston's 5-3 victory over the red-hot Royals.

Middlebrooks, who had not faced major league pitching in seven weeks, didn't skip a beat in his return. Starting at third base and batting ninth, he went 2-for-4 with two runs soored and two more driven in. After flying out in his first at-bat, he was at the center of the Red Sox's four-run fourth inning. With two men in scoring position and Boston looking to build upon its 1-0 advantage, Middlebrooks slashed a single to right that plated Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Stephen Drew. He didn't spend much time on first though, coming around to score when Jacoby Ellsbury doubled into the right-centerfield gap.

By the time he came up again in the top of the sixth, Boston's lead had been trimmed to 4-3. Royals starter Jeremy Guthrie was still in the game, needing only to retire Middlebrooks to get through the frame. He would have no such luck. Though Middlebrooks didn't hit the ball hard this time, it was well-placed, and so he reached base via an infield single. He then motored home on another RBI double from Ellsbury, who was thrown out trying to take third on the play.

The bullpen took it from there and held on for the win, Boston's 71st of the season (most in the American League). Other notes from last night's game:

  • Ellsbury had a big night, cracking four hits and swiping his ML-leading 42nd stolen base. (with an outstanding 91.3 % success rate) of the sesason. He started slow out of the gate but has been hitting like an MVP all summer. Since May 26th he's batted .353/.405/.527 with 28 steals.
  • Speaking of hot hitters, Drew extended his hitting streak to 11 games with an RBI double. Drew's been terrible for much of the season but has come on strong as of late, batting .415/.510/.610 with nine RBI over the course of his streak. Perhaps he's turned the corner and can help his team win the division, as he did for Oakland last year.
  • Another rough night for Mike Napoli, who went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts. With just eight hits (and 24 strikeouts) in his past 15 games, the streaky slugger is mired in a horrendous slump. 
  • Great work by Boston's bullpen, which came up big with five shutouts innings after Felix Doubront departed without recording an out in the fifth. Credit rookie Brandon Workman for stopping the bleeding to earn the win in his first high-leverage relief appearance. Still, it'd be nice if John Lackey could pitch deep into today's game and give the relievers some rest.
  • Koji Uehara pitched a scoreless ninth to earn the save. He has not allowed an earned run since June 30th.
  • Two more doubles for Billy Butler, who's amassed 196 two-baggers since the start of the 2009 season. Only Robinson Cano (with 204) has more. 
  • With two hits last night, Eric Hosmer now has seven multi-hit performances in his last eight games. He's batting .299 on the year and is poised to push his average north of .300 for the first time in four months.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Dumb Diamondbacks

Kennedy is the latest Diamondback to be traded for pennies on the dollar
The two most notable trades leading up to an otherwise quiet trading deadline involved starting pitchers not named Cliff Lee. The first had Jake Peavy changing Sox (from white to red). The second was consummated between divisional rivals--the Arizona Diamondbacks and the San Diego Padres--sending Ian Kennedy from the former to the latter.

Since I already analyzed the Peavy trade in this space last week, I wanted to breakdown the Kennedy trade while it was still fresh. My first impression is that it's a curious move for the Diamondbacks, who led the NL West for most of the summer before slipping behind the hard-charging Los Angeles Dodgers (cue Yasiel Puig highlights). Arizona's fighting to stay above .500 at the moment, but they're still within striking distance of first and could feasibly make a run down the stretch. So why trade Kennedy, a sturdy starter who takes the ball every fifth day, when it's common knowledge that one can never have too much pitching?

The explanation is quite simple, really. Arizona's GM Kevin Towers has a history of trading away young, struggling talent. In fact, this trade makes four times in the past year that Towers has sold low. Let's take a look.

Stephen Drew: traded to Oakland on 8/20/12
J.D. Drew's kid  brother was one of the National League's top shortstops before a fractured ankle took him out of commission for 11 months. When he returned midway through the 2012 season--his walk year--he clearly wasn't the same player. He was still shaking off the rust off when the Diamondbacks traded him to Oakland on August 20th.  Though he was batting below .200 at the time, Drew bounced back in September, helping the A's stun Texas and win the division on the season's final day. Billy Beane gave Arizona Sean Jamieson, a 24 year-old who's yet to play a single game above Single-A. Rather than deal a slumping, rehabbing Drew, Towers should have held on to Drew and let him recoup some of his lost value. The Diamondbacks weren't in contention last year anyways, so what was the harm in letting Drew play out the string and seeing if he could rediscover his stroke? Had he continued to flail, then nobody would have thought twice about letting him go as a free agent.

Trevor Bauer: traded to Cleveland on 12/11/12
Arizona's first round selection (third overall) in the 2011 draft pitched all of 16 innings in his lone season with the D-Backs before he was sent packing to Cleveland in a three-way trade that acquired Drew's replacement, Didi Gregorius. Gregorius has been solid, but his ceiling is nowhere near as high as Bauer's. The future ace has yet to take off, but he's just 22 and still has plenty of time to figure it out. Even if he never pans out, I would much rather roll the dice with the next Tim Lincecum rather than settling for a competent but unspectacular shortstop.

Justin Upton: traded to Atlanta on 1/24/13
The Diamondbacks were downright foolish to move B.J. Upton's younger brother, whom they still controlled through 2015. Frustrated by his inconsistency, attitude problems and inability to realize his massive potential, they gave up on him after a down 2012. Towers could have and should have been able to get more for a budding superstar than two complementary players (Martin Prado and Randall Delgado) packaged together with three so-so prospects. The result has been a punchless Diamondbacks outfield that's slugged just .383 with 25 home runs. Upton has 20 by himself. He should be hitting in front of Paul Goldschmidt instead of playing in the same outfield with his older brother and Jason Heyward.

Ian Kennedy: traded to San Diego on 7/31/13
Once a treasure of the Yankees farm system, Kennedy was dealt to Arizona after the 2009 season as part of the three-way trade that put Curtis Granderson in pinstripes and sent Max Scherzer to Detroit. Two years later, he emerged as one of baseball's best starting pitchers when he won 21 games and finished fourth in the NL Cy Young race. While that superlative season now appears to be a fluke, he's still a durable starting pitcher who should approach or exceed 200 innings pitched for the fourth consecutive year. And yet, all Towers could fetch for him was a prospect and a lefty reliever (Joe Thatcher). Granted, teams aren't lining up for someone with an ERA over five, but Kennedy's 4.29 xFIP and strand rate suggest that luck was not on his side. He's not as bad as his year-to-date numbers suggest. With regression to the mean and some assistance from PetCo Park, he should be able to turn his year around. Expect a second-half resurgence similar to the one Josh Beckett enjoyed with the Dodgers last summer.

In an alternate reality where Towers didn't make these trades, it's quite possible that Arizona would still be sitting atop the NL West, or at least giving LA a run for their money. Instead, the D-Backs are fading fast. When October comes around they'll be on the outside looking in, giving their fans plenty of time to ponder what might have been.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Too Little, Too Late

The MLB took a big step in combating PED use within the sport by handing out suspensions to 13 players today, forcing those associated with the latest BioGenesis scandal to pay the piper.

Not surprisingly, Alex Rodriguez was the only player not to accept his suspension. He's appealing, and will thus get a chance to spark the fourth-place Yankees into the postseason. Hope he owns a good pair of earplug, because he's going to be the target of some vicious booing over the next two months. His "nightmare" is only going to get worse.

But as good as it feels to see Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, and others go down in flames/get what they deserve, it's too late. Where were these suspensions ten years ago, when Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds were re-writing the record books? Testing has, for the most part, cleaned up the game in recent years. Selig can pat himself on the back all he wants, but no amount of suspensions will ever erase the damage that was done during the late 90's and early 00's.

It's good that baseball is taking such an aggressive stance against PED use. If only they'd been 20 years sooner....

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Remembering George Scott

George Scott, a member of the Red Sox Hall of Fame and former All-Star, passed away on Monday at age 69.

Boomer, a big man with a big swing, will be remembered for many things, namely his referring to home runs as "taters." He named his glove "Black Beauty." He wore a batting helmet while playing the field, a measure of protection against road fans who would throw hard objects his way. A latter-day Babe Ruth, he enjoyed consuming prodigious amounts of food more than he enjoyed hammering home runs. In the end it caught up with him.

Scott's legacy extends far beyond his quirky mannerisms and big-time power. It's important to remember that Scott was one of the saviors of baseball in Boston. Along with Tony Conigliaro, Rico Petrocelli, Reggie Smith, and Joe Foy, Boomer was one of the many talented young Red Sox to blossom at the tail end of the team's dark age in the mid-1960s. He also overcame the burden of being one of the team's first African American stars, coming along just seven years after Pumpsie Green broke the franchise's color barrier in 1959.

Scott hit the ground running in his 1966--his rookie campaign--by swatting 11 home runs in his first 26 big league games. He went on to play in all 162 games that year, was chosen as the AL's starting first baseman in the All-Star Game and finished third in the Rookie of the Year vote behind Tommy Agee and Jim Nash. As sensational as the 22 year-old was, his all-or-nothing approach at the plate produced 27 home runs, 90 RBI, and 152 strikeouts--most in the majors. Scott, like most of his young teammates, had plenty of potential but lacked the polish needed to realize it.

Looking back, Scott probably didn't get the credit that his impressive power figures deserved because of his .245 batting average, even though he actually bettered the league average by five points. And while we wouldn't give too much thought to his 152 strikeouts today, it's important to remember that hitters back then fanned 29% less often than they do in 2013. Adjusted to current league averages, Boomer would've whiffed 196 times. Imagine the outcry that would have ensued had he done that in 1966!

There was no sophomore slump for Scott, who was instrumental in helping Boston capture its first pennant since 1946.  Though his power numbers suffered a bit, he showed signs of maturity under new manager Dick Williams. His walk rate improved and he cut down on his strikeouts, helping him boost his batting average to .303. He also won his first of eight career Gold Glove awards: among first basemen, only Don Mattingly and Keith Hernandez have more.

While Baby Boomers remember Carl Yastrzemski single-handedly willing the Red Sox into the World Series with his clutch hitting down the stretch, Scott did his part by batting .357 with two home runs in the last seven games of the season. Unfortunately, he couldn't carry that momentum into the Fall Classic, where he batted .231 with nary an RBI. Boston lost to Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games, and Scott would never again experience the thrill of a postseason at-bat.

The defending AL champs slumped to fourth place in 1968, but nobody regressed more than Scott. He cratered in "The Year of the Pitcher," enduring what was probably the worst offensive season of all time. For someone who played 124 games, his numbers are staggeringly bad: 23 runs, three long balls, 25 RBI, and a .171/.236/.237 batting line. Even considering the offense-starved context, those triple slash stats translated to a putrid 40 OPS+. Though he won the Gold Glove award again, B-R calculates that his embarrassing incompetence at the plate cost the Red Sox three wins that year.

Scott bounced back in 1969 (it's not like he could've been any worse) but still had a subpar year with the stick. We'll never know if he would've won a third straight Gold Glove award, for he moved across the diamond to third base (where he played in the minors) so Dalton Jones could man first. This wasn't Miguel Cabrera going back to the hot corner to make room for Prince Fielder, though, and Scott would return to first full-time two years later. He picked up where he left off, winning his third Gold Glove award in addition to clubbing 24 home runs. Boomer was back.

But as good as Scott was, there was the sense he wasn't playing up to his potential. He'd yet to replicate the home run and RBI totals from his rookie year, failing to develop into the .300-30-100 monster he seemed destined to become. That October, Scott was one of six Red Sox packaged together with Jim Lonborg, Ken Brett, Billy Conigliaro in a blockbuster trade with the Milwaukee Brewers that netted four players, including All-Star Tommy Harper, in return. If Boston's front office thought Scott had already reached his ceiling, they were sorely mistaken. In reality, he was just coming into his prime.

Away from the Boston's intense media scrutiny and polarizing racial divisions, Scott enjoyed his peak seasons with Milwaukee. He emerged as one of the league's best sluggers and continued playing top notch defense. In his five seasons with the Brewers, he was a Gold Glove recipient every year while averaging 23 dingers, 93 ribbies and a 131 OPS+ per season. His best year came in 1975, when he won two legs of the triple crown by topping the Junior Circuit in home runs with 36, tying Reggie Jackson, and runs batted in with 109. He also paced the AL with 318 total bases and was an All-Star selection for the first time since his rookie year.

After a comparatively down year in 1976, Scott was traded back to Boston for Cecil Cooper, an up-and-coming first baseman who, like Scott, would make Red Sox management look foolish by starring in Milwaukee long after Boomer hung up his spikes. To be fair, Scott's first year back in Beantown was a good one, but by '78 he was 34 and a shell of his former self, a liability for a team that missed out on a postseason berth by one win. He struggled even worse in 1979, causing the Red Sox to trade him away to Kansas City. The Royals needed just two months to realize he was over the hill, then flipped him to New York, where he enjoyed one final blaze of glory by batting .318 in his 16 game stint with the Yankees.

Scott finished his 14 year-career with 271 home runs, 1,051 RBI, and 1.992 base hits. Not Hall of Fame numbers, but still pretty good nevertheless. Had he stayed in better shape, he probably could've played into the 1980s and might have landed a DH gig somewhere. Even so, he's still one of the 50 best first basemen ever. Surprisingly, the Red Sox haven't had very many good first basemen, so Scott has a legitimate case as the best in team history (depending on how much you value his defense). Since I believe a first baseman's bat is much more important that his glove, I rank Scott third behind Jimmie Foxx and Mo Vaughn among Red Sox first sackers.