Monday, September 30, 2013

Werth Worth it

In a season where they won 86 games, finished second in their division and made a late push for the playoffs, the Washington Nationals were considered disappointments. But Jayson Werth, their highest paid player, put together a terrific season while starting to shed the "bust" label that described his first two and a half seasons with Washington.

How Werth came to be not just the most expensive National, but the 14th most expensive player in baseball history, is well understood. It was autumn, 2010, and Werth was coming off a career year. He had just led the National League in doubles with 46, scored 106 runs, batted .296/.388/.532 and produced around five wins above replacement. He'd also finished eighth in the NL MVP voting for his contributions as the top position player on a 97-win Philadelphia Phillies squad.

Still, the Scott Boras client did not seem likely to command a nine-figure contract on the open market. He was a late-blooming outfielder on the wrong side of 30 who'd never batted .300 or driven in 100 runs in any of his eight seasons. While a very good complementary player, he was not somebody to build a franchise around.

That's what made it so surprising when the Nationals gave him a seven year deal for $126 million, way more than he deserved and way more than anyone else was willing to give him. It was a curious move by Washington at the time given that they had just lost 93 games and were still a few years away from contending.  To be fair, they did have a huge void to fill in the middle of their order following the departure of Adam Dunn, who signed his own free agent deal with the Chicago White Sox two days prior. Werth could never dream of matching Dunn's power numbers, but he was a vastly superior all-around player who contributed additional value with his defense and baserunning.

The Nationals improved to 80-81 in 2011, but not because of anything Werth did on the diamond. His OPS plunged more than 200 points, he struck out a career-high 160 times and knocked in only 58 runs. Put it all together and he was barely a one-win player. Washington's fans and media, many of whom weren't excited about Werth's arrival in the first place, soured on him.

In 2012 Werth's performance rebounded, but he missed three months with a broken wrist and didn't hit for much power. He played 81 games that year, his fewest since 2003. FanGraphs and BR both agree that Werth was worth just 0.7 WAR. That didn't stop the Nats from winning 98 games, most in baseball. Young superstars Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg sucked up all the press with their flamboyant style of play, so nobody cared too much that Werth's numbers projected to 10 home runs and 62 RBI over the course of a full season.

2013 appeared to bring more of the same disappointing results. Werth got off to a slow start and was hitting just .260/.308/.400 through May 2nd before a strained hamstring forced him back to the Disabled List. He missed a month, but the time off seemed to do him some good. He returned to action on June 4th, and from that day forward he was one of the best hitters in the National League. The 34 year-old batted .334/.421/.569 with 21 homers and 72 RBI the rest of the way, prompting Davey Johnson to move him down from the two hole to maximize his RBI opportunities. For the first time in his Nationals career, Werth proved himself capable of shouldering the offensive burden that a middle-of-the-order hitter is expected to carry.

Werth, who got stronger as the season wore on, was particularly lethal over a two month stretch from June 30th-August 29th in which he batted a scalding .393/.484/.669. When Washington roared back into contention in September, they were able to do so largely because Werth's heavy hitting had kept them afloat all summer. Though the Nats ultimately fell short of the postseason, Werth established personal bests in batting average (.318), OPS (.931), OPS+ (154) and bWAR (4.8). He led the team in most major offensive categories and was the team's most valuable position player.

While Werth's big season has done much to salvage his reputation, he still has four years and $83 million remaining on his backloaded contract. As he gets deeper into his thirties, Werth will have a hard time staying healthy and productive enough to justify that salary. But let the record show that in 2013, at least, he was worth every penny.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cano's Crazy Contract

How valuable is Cano? We're about to find out (NBC)
Robinson Cano is going to be a free agent this winter--the free agent--and reportedly wants a contract just north of $300 million.

He's ridiculous, right? Nobody, except maybe Mike Trout, is worth that kind of investment. He wants more money than Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols, who signed their record-deals at roughly the same age and were already much more accomplished. By the time they turned 30 they were slam-dunk Hall of Famers, two of the greatest players of all-time. Cano, who has zero Hall of Famers among his ten most similar batters, still has quite a ways to go.

First on that list is Chase Utley, who dropped off significantly after turning 31--the same age Robinson Cano will be on October 22nd. Cano's second closest comp is David Wright, who signed a lengthy contract extension with the other New York team just last winter. Wright received an eight year deal worth $138 million that made him the highest paid player in franchise history.

$138 million is a lot of money. It's also a long way from $305 million.

But Cano's been better than Wright, and just about every other ballplayer, for that matter, over the past four years. Since Opening Day 2010 only Miguel Cabrera has been more valuable per FanGraphs WAR and only by about half a win per season. Only Prince Fielder has played more games. Only Cabrera has more RBI. Nobody has more doubles. Cano has emerged as the best player on a team loaded with All-Stars and future Hall of Famers. He is a superstar in every sense of the word.

But Cano will be 31 when his next contract begins, and aging curves for second basemen in their thirties are pretty scary. He may have a few more big seasons, but his best years are probably already behind him. With so much money tied up to Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, and CC Sabathia, the last thing New York needs is another albatross contract weighing down its payroll. Even though they have the money they can't afford to break the bank for Cano, not if they want to get under the laxary tax threshold any time this decade.

It's obvious the Yankees need to keep Cano, but at what cost? His market value will be determined by the level of interest he draws from other teams. If nobody makes Cano a serious offer, New York will have all the power at the bargaining table. But if someone like the Dodgers gets involved in a bidding war, then the Yankees will have a tough decision to make.

Will they do what they've always done: open up their checkbooks and pay top-dollar to secure elite talent? Or will they change course by tightening their belt and letting their most indispensable player walk?

I'm pretty sure New York will pay almost any price to keep Cano in pinstripes. I have no idea how high they're willing to go, but I'm willing to bet it's a good deal short of $300 mil.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

September 2011: Who Was to Blame?

As the Red Sox built up an insurmountable lead in the AL East earlier this month, I couldn't help but think of the last time they held a big September lead, only to watch it slip through their fingers.

I'm talking about 2011 of course, the most painful experience in my lifetime as a Red Sox fan. Worse than the time New York walked into Fenway park and swept a five game series. Worse than the 19-8 beating they handed us in Game 3 of the 2004 ALCS. Worse, even, than the Aaron Boone home run.

I still can't get over it. I don't think I ever will.

It's been two calendar years since Boston swaggered into the season's final month atop the AL East, 1.5 games in front of the Yankees and nine games ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays for the Wild Card. The Sox were coming off an incredible three-and-a-half months of baseball and were considered postseason shoo-ins. All they had to do was finish what they started, cruise into October and win the World Series trophy that had been theirs for the taking since Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford came on board the winter before.

We all know what happened next. The Bosox endured the worst collapse in baseball history, going 7-20 in the season's final month and allowing the Rays to leapfrog them in the standings on the season's final day. What made the choke even worse was that the Red Sox were winning--one strike away, in fact--and the Rays were down seven runs in the eighth inning that night, only to have their fortunes reversed. Boston blew its lead and the Rays came back, ultimately winning on Evan Longoria's walk-off homer.

Naturally, fans and media looked for people to blame in the aftermath of such a devastating meltdown. The targets were plentiful. Team manager Terry Francona got the Grady Little treatment and did not have his contract renewed. GM Theo Epstein, the architect of two World Series championship teams, jumped ship to become president of the Chicago Cubs. Fingers were pointed at Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and John Lackey for drinking beer and eating fried chicken in the clubhouse while their team's seemingly impenetrable lead was reduced to ashes.

While such issues made for great cannon fodder in the press, they ignored the real reasons behind Boston's failure. Injuries, especially to Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka, left the team short on starters during the season's most important games. The lack of quality arms, in combination with untimely slumps from their aces and hiccups from their most trusted relievers, doomed the Red Sox. Boston pitchers compiled a 5.84 ERA in September. No team, not even one with an elite offense like the Sox had, can overcome that level of mediocrity from its pitching staff.

So who were the greatest contributors to the team's downfall? Let's take a look, starting with the pitchers:

Jon Lester (1-3, 5.40 ERA)
On the surface it seems like Lester played a prominent role in his team's demise. The Sox lost five of the six games he started that month and scored 14 runs in the lone win. However, a closer look reveals that he didn't pitch as poorly as his ERA suggests. Aside from one putrid outing--on September 24th the Yankees tagged him for eight earned runs and drove him from the game in the third inning--he wasn't all that bad. He struck out more than a batter per inning and the bullpen blew two games where he left with the lead. Boston's 14 run explosion notwithstanding, the Red Sox scored just ten runs in the other five games he started. On the final day of the season with Boston desperately needing a win, he delivered a quality start (six innings, two earned runs) and was in line for the W before Jonathan Papelbon blew the save.

Josh Beckett (1-2, 5.48 ERA)
Beckett was Boston's ace all year long but disappeared when the team needed him most. In his last two starts of the season, both against the last-place Orioles, Baltimore battered him for six runs each time and won.

John Lackey (0-2, 9.13 ERA)
Lackey was historically awful the entire year, but his September was especially bad. Case in point: he failed to notch a win despite the Red Sox scoring 35 runs in his five starts that month.

Kyle Weiland (0-2, 7.36 ERA)
A rookie hurled into the fire of a red-hot pennant race, Weiland had no business pitching meaningful innings, but limited options forced Francona to throw him in and hope for the best. Weiland made three starts in September, failed to get through the fifth in any of them, and walked as many batters (7) as he struck out. Not surprisingly, Boston lost them all. Weiland was traded to the Astros with Jed Lowrie for Mark Melancon, lost all three of his starts there, and hasn't pitched in the majors since.

Tim Wakefield (1-2, 5.25 ERA)
With the rotation in shambles, Francona leaned on his old war horse during crunch time, trying to squeeze a few more halfway decent starts out of Wakefield's 45 year-old arm. Wake made the last four starts of his career in September and allowed at least five runs to score in all of them. He managed to walk away with a win--the 200th of his career--in one of them because Boston hung 18 runs on the scoreboard.

Andrew Miller (0-2, 11.70 ERA)
His two September starts--both losses--did not go well: 13 hits and 11 earned runs allowed in 6 and 1/3 innings of work with more walks than strikeouts.

Daniel Bard (0-4, 3 BS, 10.64 ERA)
Seeing as how he was directly responsible for five Boston losses in September, Bard deserves much of the blame for the collapse. He'd been superb as Jonathan Papelbon's setup man before then, but was unable to get the job done during the season's most crucial moments.

Jonathan Papelbon (0-1, 2 BS, 3.72 ERA)
Pap blew as many save chances--two--as he converted in September.  previous five months. Even worse, he suffered his only loss of the season at the season's most critical moment--one strike away from clinching at least a tie of the Wild Card.

Also bad: Erik Bedard (5.25 ERA), Michael Bowden (5.73 ERA) Matt Albers (7.20 ERA), and Dan Wheeler (10.38 ERA). Pretty much everyone minus Alfredo Aceves, Scott Atchison, Franklin Morales.

The prolific Red Sox lineup continued to crank out runs in September--5.41 per game (their season average exactly--but those runs were not well-distributed. For instance, Boston scored 18 runs in a game twice that month and cracked double digits three other times. Blowouts are nice, but some of those runs could've been better used elsewhere, like in the five games Boston lost by one run. Uneven run distribution is why the Red Sox played below their expected W-L level of 11-16 for the month.

While Dustin Pedroia, Adrian Gonzalez, and MVP candidate Jacoby Ellsbury were all doing their thing, there were a few guys who failed to carry their share of load:

Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.162/.174/.368)
Salty struggled with the stick in September, which wasn't all too surprising given that 2011 was his first full season as an everyday catcher. He actually hit pretty well early on in the month, only to have his bat go ice cold during the final two weeks of the season (three hits and 15 Ks in his last 34 plate appearances).

Carl Crawford (.264/.295/.440)
Considering how poor Crawford's season was, his September could actually be considered somewhat of an improvement over his previous play. Still, his performance that month wasn't particularly good (one home run, one steal, 21/4 K/BB ratio). I'll never forgive him for not getting to Robert Andino's sinking liner that scored the winning run in Game 162. It wasn't an easy play, but it was a play that had to be made and a ball he could've got to.

David Ortiz (.287/.396/.372)
Big Papi's power stroke disappeared in September--he went yard once and drove in only eight runs. I feel bad criticizing Ortiz, but cleanup hitters need to provide more pop than that.

Kevin Youkilis (.167/.302/.222)
Youk was diagnosed with hip bursitis and played just ten games in September before being shut down for the season midway through the month. The combination of getting hurt and not playing well when he was healthy (just two extra base hits and two RBI in those ten games) didn't do Boston's lineup any favors.

Jason Varitek (.077/.200/.192)
Playing on his last legs, the grizzled Red Sox captain limped through the last nine games of his career. A clear liability with the bat in his hands, he recorded just two hits in his final 30 (mostly empty) plate appearances. As much as I hate to see rookies thrust into tight spots, Francona would have been better off benching 'Tek in favor of rookie backstop Ryan Lavarnway.

As you can see, it took a true team effort to produce Boston's implosion. If I had to pick one goat, it's probably Bard with Papelbon being  a close second for his Calvin Schiraldi moment. But many things had to go wrong for the Red Sox to fall apart the way they did, and no single man (or play, for that matter) should be faulted. Win as a team, lose as a team.

Boston won 90 games that year. If only they'd won one more.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Best Seasons Derailed By Injury

While writing a recent post about Hanley Ramirez, I started thinking about players who had really good seasons that were severely impacted by injury. There were several that came to mind, and I'm sure there are many more I'm forgetting. In the wake of Manny Machado's recent knee issue, this post feels particularly relevant.

The only rule is that a player must have appeared in fewer than 100 games because of injury. They are presented in chronological order, and strike-shortened seasons do not count.

Joe DiMaggio 1949 (76 games)
Plagued by a painful heel injury, DiMag didn't take the field until June 28th. It wasn't a moment too soon for the Yankees, who swept the Red Sox in a three game series at Fenway Park behind Joltin' Joe's four home runs and nine RBI. The Yankee Clipper continued to produce at an MVP-level throughout the rest of the summer, providing four and a half WAR in half a season's worth of games. He closed out the year hitting .346/.459/.596. If DiMaggio doesn't make it back that year, there's no way the Yankees overtake the Red Sox on the season's final day.

Projected: 116 R, 188 H, 28 2B, 12 3B, 28 HR, 134 RBI, 110 BB, 324 TB, 8.8 bWAR

Ted Williams 1950 (89 games)
The reigning AL MVP was well on his way to winning the award again. Teddy Ballgame pulled into the All-Star break batting .321/.466/.690. In just 70 games, he'd already accumulated 82 RBI, 75 runs, and 73 walks to go along with his 25 home runs and 22 doubles. Unfortunately, Williams suffered a broken elbow during the All-Star Game when he crashed into the scoreboard after hauling in a long drive off the bat of Ralph Kiner. While Williams remained in the game and later smacked a go-ahead single, he would miss nearly two full months of meaningful baseball. Losing the Splendid Splinter struck a devastating blow to Boston, who finished four games out of first and may very well have won the pennant had Williams remained healthy.

Projected: 150 R, 172 H, 44 2B, 50 HR, 164 RBI, 146 BB, 370 TB, 7.5 bWAR

Mickey Mantle 1963 (65 games)
While many of Mantle's seasons were curtailed by injury in some form or fashion, he missed the most time in 1963. The Mick got off to a rip-roaring start that year and seemed poised to run away with the league's most valuable player award. He was batting .310/.441/.647 when he got his foot caught in the chain-link fence at Memorial Stadium on June 5th. Mantle missed two months but returned in time to help New York capture its fourth consecutive pennant.

Projected: 104 R, 120 H, 20 2B, 40 HR, 100 RBI, 104 BB, 260 TB, 9 bWAR

Tony Conigliaro 1967 (95 games)
Tony C. had already missed 22 games before an errant Jack Hamilton fastball crashed into his eye. He was slumping at the time, but with a strong finish could've cleared 30 home runs and 100 RBI.  More importantly, he may have delivered some key hits in the Fall Classic that could have propelled the Impossible Dream Red Sox to a World Series victory over Bob Gibson and the St. Louis Cardinals.

Projected: 90 R, 150 H, 30 HR, 100 RBI, 271 TB, 5.5 bWAR

Dick Allen 1973 (72 games)
The 1972 AL MVP was at it again in '73, batting .316/.394/.612. He suffered a fractured fibula on June 28th and appeared in just three more games that year.

Projected: 78 R, 158 H, 40 2B, 32 HR, 82 RBI, 14 SB, 66 BB, 306 TB, 6 bWAR

Mark McGwire 2000 (89 games)
Nagging injuries took their toll on the 36 yer-old slugger, limiting him to just 89 games. His performance was still on par with his ridiculous 1998-99 levels, for he crushed 32 long balls, drove in 73 runs, worked 76 walks, and batted .305/.483/.746. He homered once every 7.38 at-bats that year.

Projected: 120 R, 144 H, 64 HR, 146 RBI, 152 BB, 352 TB, 8.4 bWAR

Ivan Rodriguez 2000 (91 games)
Pudge was putting together an otherworldly encore to his MVP campaign before fracturing his thumb while trying to gun down a would-be basestealer on July 24th. The injury required season-ending surgery, but the 91 games he did play were truly remarkable. He had already swatted 27 home runs, 27 doubles, and knocked in 83 runs. He was hitting .347/.375/.667, on his way to one of the finest all-around seasons any catcher has ever had.

Projected: 100 R, 190 H, 40 2B, 40 HR, 125 RBI, 363 TB, 9 bWAR

Josh Hamilton 2007 (90 games)
Hamilton has always had trouble staying on the field, and it began in his rookie season. He spent time on the DL with gastroenteritis in late May/early June, then missed five weeks in the middle of the summer with a sprained wrist. He finished the year batting .292/.368/.554 but received no Rookie of the Year votes.

Projected: 78 R, 131 H, 26 2B, 29 HR, 71 RBI, 248 TB, 3.8 bWAR

Justin Morneau 2010 (81 games)
Morneau enjoyed a phenomenal first half (.345/.437/.618), putting himself on track to win his second MVP award. He suffered a concussion on July 7th and miss the rest of the season. He hasn't been the same since.

Projected: 106 R, 204 H, 50 2B, 36 HR, 112 RBI, 100 BB, 366 TB, 9.2 bWAR

David Ortiz 2012 (90 games)
Big Papi was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise bleak season for the Boston Red Sox. The team's lone All-Star representative batted .318/.415/.611 with 23 home runs and more walks than strikeouts. On July 16th, Ortiz injured his Achilles while rounding the bases on an Adrian Gonzalez home run. He appeared in just one more game before being shut down.

Projected: 118 R, 186 H, 47 2B, 42 HR, 108 RBI, 101 BB, 359 TB, 6 bWAR

Evan Longoria 2012 (74 games)
After a huge April (.994 OPS) Longo missed all of May, June, July, and the first week in August with a partially torn hamstring. In his absence the Rays went 41-44, ultimately missing the playoffs because they were unable to survive the loss of their top position player.

Projected: 78 R, 158 H, 28 2B, 34 HR, 110 RBI, 66 BB, 288 TB, 5 bWAR

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Lackey Leads the Way

For the first time since 2009, the Boston Red Sox are headed back to the playoffs.

After dropping a pair of close games with Baltimore, the Red Sox avoided the sweep by beating the Orioles 3-1 Thursday night. John Lackey went the distance for Boston, yielding just two hits in what was easily his finest performance of the season (highlighted by 6 and 1/3 innings of no-hit ball). Adam Jones took him deep in the top of the seventh, but Lackey bore down to retire Nick Markakis and Danny Valencia, escaping the innings without allowing further damage.

It was fitting that Lackey, whose improbable/remarkable/where-did-that-come-from? turnaround has mirrored that of his team, was the one who pitched Boston into the postseason. Lackey caught a lot of flak (much of it deserved) during his first three seasons with the Sox, whose decline coincided with their signing him to a five-year, $82.5 million contract. Lackey's historically awful 2011 season contributed to the team missing the playoffs by one game that year, made worse by his role as one of the now infamous fried chicken and beer pitchers (Jon Lester and Josh Beckett were the others). His poor performance, negative attitude, questionable work ethic and high price tag made him the team's most despicable player, not to mention the poster boy for everything that had gone wrong with the Red Sox.

This year has been different. He's symbolized everything that's gone right for the Sox. After missing all of 2012 to recover from Tommy John Surgery, Lackey reported to spring training noticably trimmer.  Nobody expected much from him, but the new-look Lackey has responded with his best season in years. While Clay Buchholz missed three months and Lester, Felix Doubront and Ryan Dempster have all battled bouts of inconsistency, Lackey's been the team's most reliable starter all season long. He's been a rock, and his resurgence has been instrumental to Boston's success. He may not be the most likable guy, but at least he's helping the team win (and earning his keep, too).

As well as Lackey's pitched this year, he hasn't received much run support from his teammates. That wasn't the case on Thursday, as the Red Sox scored three runs in the second to give him a nice early cushion. Stephen Drew smacked a two-run homer that just barely cleared the Green Monster, and two batters later Dustin Pedroia drove home Jackie Bradley Jr. with an opposite field single. Orioles starter Chris Tillman did his best to keep Baltimore in the game but was unable to match Lackey's brilliance.

The O's will try to bounce back in Tampa Bay this weekend as the Red Sox host the last place Toronto Blue Jays for their final home series of the regular season.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Trout the Terrific

Mike Trout is not going to win the MVP this year. If he couldn't win it last year, when he was worth 10.9 bWAR and led the majors in runs and steals, all while playing superlative defense in center field, then he's not going to win it this year. Not with Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis standing in his way. Trout will be lucky to get a first place vote.

It's sad, really, to see Trout not get the kind of recognition his special season deserves. He's been every bit as good as he was last year, and in some respects a bit better. He's leading the league in runs, walks, and wins above replacement. He has a four-digit OPS. He's already surpassed 10 WAR again (according to FanGraphs), which makes him the first player with back-to-back ten win seasons since a pumped up Barry Bonds did it during his second prime.

What makes Trouts success even more impressive is his age. He celebrated his 22nd birthday just last month. Nobody's ever been this good, this young before.

Nobody in the game today can match his combination of elite speed, defense, and offensive ability, either. It's not his fault the Angels stink. He couldn't control Josh Hamilton sucking and Albert Pujols getting hurt and the pitching staff falling apart. Trout can do a lot of special things on the diamond, but he can't cover the entire outfield or toe the rubber. He's just one man on a team of 25 guys, and no matter how well he plays, he can only elevate them so much.

He can do it all, but he can't literally do it all.

Once again, Mike Trout is the most valuable player in baseball. But once again, he won't have an MVP trophy to prove it.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Sox Sweep Yankees

The Red Sox swept the Yankees in their final showdown of the season
The red-hot Red Sox kept rolling over the weekend by sweeping a three game set from the Yankees at Fenway Park.

The series opener was the closest and thus the most exciting. Boston jumped out to an early four-run lead, only to watch the Yankees battle back and tie the score. Jarrod Saltalamacchia became the hero when he smashed a grand slam that propelled Boston to an 8-4 victory.

The middle game was billed as a pitching duel between southpaws Jon Lester and CC Sabathia, and while Sabathia turned in another stinker, Lester was masterful. Lester's been lights-out over the past month and was exceptional once again on Saturday afternoon, delivering eight innings of one-run ball and allowing just five baserunners. Sabathia was not up to snuff and Boston prevailed 5-1.

After honoring Mariano Rivera before Sunday's game, the Red Sox routed the Yankees in their final regular season meeting of the year The Sox shelled Ivan Nova and co. for nine runs. That was more than enough for Clay Buchholz, who surrendered a lone run (unearned) in six innings of work.

Though the games didn't mean much for Boston--who now lead the AL East by 9.5 games--they could cripple New York's postseason hopes. The Yankees came into the series with a 23 percent chance of winning the wild card, but left town with their odds down to 6.5 percent. They trail Tampa and Texas by three games for the second wild card spot with 12 remaining, which means they're still alive, but only barely.

The Red Sox magic number to clinch the AL East is down to four, so they should wrap up the division title sometime this week. They finished the year 13-6 against their archrivals.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Some Surprising Stats

A few things that jumped out at me from my stroll through Saturday's box scores:
  • A lot has gone wrong for the Blue Jays this year, but one of the few things that hasn't is Colby Rasmus. He has 20 home runs and an .828 OPS despite spending over a month on the Disabled List
  • Everyone loves talking about Chris Davis's home run figures, RBI totals and whether or not he can catch Roger Maris. I'm more impressed by two things: that he's hitting close to .300 (.258 hitter coming into the season) and that he has 41 doubles (previous career-high was 23). He could finish the year with more than 100 extra base hits, which hasn't been done since 2001 and was achieved by just one man--Stan Musial--between World War II and the beginning of the steroid era
  • B.J. Upton is still batting below .200. It's hard for me to believe a player of his talents has struggled so much for so long, but his batting average hasn't been above the Mendoza line at any point this year. I can't help but wonder what the future holds for him.
  • Not sure what's more surprising: that the Giants scored 19 runs or that they destroyed Ricky Nolasco, who's having what's easily the finest season of his career
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka, now with the New York Mets, earned his first win of 2013. That makes 18 wins for him since 2008, the year he won 18 games and finished fourth in the AL Cy Young race (won by Cliff Lee). His ERA in the years since: 5.58.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Hanley Ramirez is a Superstar (Again)

Ramirez has rediscovered his stroke with the Dodgers (Sporting News)
Over a four year stretch from 2006 to 2009, Hanley Ramirez was probably the second best player in baseball. Albert Pujols was far and away the best, but Ramirez wasn't too far behind. A Rookie of the Year, MVP runner-up and batting champion all before he turned 26, HanRam was a Hall-of-Famer in the making.

Then in 2010, his OPS dropped 100 points and his defense deteriorated. He wasn't an MVP caliber-player anymore--just merely a very good one. He still made the All-Star team, still batted .300 with 21 homers and 32 steals, but it was a bit of a down year by his standards. That, combined with Florida's frequent losing, is what likely caused his now-notorious attitude problems to emerge that summer.

The following year--his last full season with the Marlins--was also the worst of his career. He batted just .243/.333/.379 before injuring his shoulder in early August and missing the rest of the season. He was never quite right that year.

2012 was supposed to be a fresh start for the Fish, who moved into a new ballpark, changed their name to the Miami Marlins, and purchased a trio of pricey free agents--Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell. The new-look Marlins were supposed to improve significantly on their 72-90 record from the year before. Ramirez moved to third base to accommodate Reyes--something Derek Jeter would not do for Alex Rodriguez--but clearly wasn't happy about it.

It all backfired. The Marlins were worse. Ramirez's glovework at the hot corner was subpar, and to make matters worse he struggled offensively while learning his new position. When Miami traded him to the Los Angeles Dodgers a week before the deadline, he was hitting just .246/.322/.428 at the time.

The change of scenery, as well as the move back to his natural position, seemed to revitalize Ramirez. He promptly started hitting again, smashing 10 home runs with 36 RBI in his first 38 games wearing Dodger blue. It couldn't compare with Manny Ramirez's first impression four years earlier, but it was enough to salvage what was shaping up to be another lost year for the three-time All-Star.

More importantly, that strong second half was a sign of things to come. 2013 has marked a return to form for Ramirez. Though a torn thumb ligament and hamstring injury limited him to just four games through the first two months of the season, he's been so ridiculously productive when healthy that he's produced five bWAR in less than half a season's worth of games. And while he won't have enough plate appearances to lead the league in anything, his batting average, slugging percentage and OPS would all rank first in the National League. Throw in his speed and improved defense, and Ramirez is fast reclaiming his title as one of the sport's elite.

He is a superstar again, only now he's surrounded by them--Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez, and Yasiel Puig. On a stacked team like that, Ramirez is just another face in the crowd, another big name that Don Mattingly gets to write in his lineup card every night. He's 29 and in his ninth big league season. He doesn't electrify fans the way he used to, or run like he used to, or get to balls deep in the hole that he used to get to. The novelty's worn off.

But we should pay Hanley Ramirez more attention. He's playing the best baseball of his career.

Buchholz Back

Buchholz was dealing in his return to action last night (ESPN)
Clay Buchholz made his first start since June 8th last night, shutting down the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in a 2-0 Red Sox win.

Buchholz, who missed more than three months with a strained neck, looked sharp in his pitch count-shortened return. He tossed five scoreless innings, allowing just three hits (all singles) and one walk while strking out six, reminding everyone why he was the AL Cy Young favorite before landing on the Disabled List.

Buchholz needed to be at the top of his game, too, given how well David Price pitched. Price was perfect until the fifth, when Mike Napoli doubled off the top of the centerfield wall to lead off the frame. Jonny Gomes drove him home with a single up the middle, then took second on Demond Jennings' wild throw to the plate. Daniel Nava bunted him over to third, allowing him to score easily on Jarrod Saltalamacchia's long sacrifice fly.

Boston's bullpen took it from there. Craig Breslow followed Buchholz with a pair of shutout innings, and Junichi Tazawa got the Sox two outs closer to victory in the eighth before Yunel Escobar doubled. That brought the tying run to the plate in the form of rookie sensation Wil Myers. Not taking any chances, John Farrell called upon Koji Uehara to retire the phenom.

Uehara, as he always does, came through, inducing Myers to pop out harmlessly into foul territory. The Red Sox closer came back out for the ninth and shut the door on the Rays, retiring Ben Zobrist, Evan Longoria and Matthew Joyce in order.

While beating Tampa Bay always feels good, it was made even sweeter by Buchholz's dominant performance. He looked fully recovered from the injury issues that sidelined him for most of the summer. A healthy and effective Buchholz will make a big difference in the postseason, giving the Sox a true ace at the top of their rotation. When he's pitching well, the Red Sox are a much more dangerous team, and I feel a lot better about the Boston's World Series chances now that he's back.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Middlebrooks Mashing

After a lengthy slump and a stint in Triple-A, Middlebrooks is back
As the Boston Red Sox storm towards a division title and possibly the best record in baseball, it seems like almost everyone on the roster--from Daniel Nava and Mike Carp to John Lackey and Koji Uehara--has contributed to the team's successful season. It's why they lead the league in chest bumps, fist pumps and bro-hugs.

There have been a few disappointments, of course (there always are). Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey got hurt early on. Clay Buchholz has once again proven himself to be incredibly fragile. Jackie Bradley Jr. didn't set the world on fire like we thought he would.

But nobody underachieved more than third baseman Will Middlebrooks, who spent much of the season trying to recapture the immense promise he displayed as a phenom in 2012.

Big things were expected from Middlebrooks this year, but that's what happens when you rake from day one and take Kevin Youkilis's job. One of the few bright spots to emerge from Boston's Bobby Valentine nightmare, Middlebrooks was supposed to be a fixture at the hot corner for the foreseeable future.

Instead, he fell into a prolonged slump early on from which he was unable to recover. Pitchers quickly figured him out and exploited his weaknesses, namely his willingness to swing at anything remotely close to home plate. John Farrell tried dropping the struggling sophomore down in the order to take some of the pressure off, but Middlebrooks continued to flail. He was helpless.

As spring became summer and it became clear the Red Sox were going to be serious postseason contenders, it was obvious a change needed to be made. Middlebrooks wasn't helping the team win games. Jose Iglesias was. So Iglesias--a shortstop by trade--moved to third and Middlebrooks was sent down to Pawtucket to get his swing right and regain his confidence. At the time of his demotion in late June, he was sporting an unpalatable .192/.228/.389 batting line--a far cry from his .288/.325/.509 showing as a rookie.

Though Middlebrooks did not hit exceptionally well with the PawSox (.790 OPS), the time on the farm appears to have done him some good. Since making his big league return on August 10th, he's batted a jaw-dropping .368/.434/.621 with 6 home runs and 16 RBI.  He's been especially hot in the month of September with four big flies, nine RBI, and 13 hits in seven games this month to help Boston pad its division lead. With the Red Sox eyeing a postseason berth, his resurgence couldn't have come at a better time.

And it isn't just a random hot streak, either. The more mature Middlebrooks has shown signs of becoming a more polished, refined hitter. Before his demotion, his strikeout to walk ratio was a lopsided 60/9. Since returning, it's been a much better 20/10. Accordingly, his strikeout rate has fallen considerably, from just under 28 percent to 20 percent. He's not getting himself out so much by swinging at tough pitches, and so his newfound patience is helping him make hard contact more consistently.

With his sophomore slump behind him, Middlebrooks is back on track, poised for greatness not just in the coming weeks, but in the years to come. Yes, his 2013 campaign has been a trying year marked by growing pains and squandered potential, but it has also been a valuable learning experience that will shape the course of his career.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Seven September Storylines

Here are seven players to watch as the regular season draws to a close.

1. Chris Davis' assault on Roger Maris
2. Miguel Cabrera's quest for another Triple Crown
3. Clayton Kershaw's ERA
4. Yu Darvish gunning for 300 strikeouts
5. The last of Mariano Rivera
6. Matt Harvey injury updates
7. The end of Todd Helton

Bombs Away

The Red Sox played home run derby last night at Fenway Park, going deep eight times to tie a franchise record. David Ortiz (twice), Stephen Drew, Daniel Nava, Mike Napoli, Jacoby Ellsbury, Ryan Lavarnway, and Will Middlebrooks all went yard in a breathtaking display of power.

For all the years the Red Sox have played and all the great offenses they've assembled, a home run barrage of this magnitude had only happened once before: on the Fourth of July (how fitting), 1977. Jim Rice, Carl Yastrzemski, Butch Hobson, Bernie Carbo, Fred Lynn (twice) and George Scott (twice) homered that day, but all but one blast came with nobody on base. The damage was limited, but still enough to beat the Blue Jays 9-6.

This year's team is not exceptionally powerful--they rank seventh among AL teams in dingers and only Ortiz has popped more than 20--but it still boasts the top-scoring offense in baseball. That was evident last night as the Sox annihilated the Tigers 20-4. After going down 1-2-3 in the bottom of the first, Boston scored in each of its next seven times up to bat. Eight runs came across in the bottom half of the sixth, putting the game out of reach and helping Ryan Dempster improve his record to 8-9 on the year.

After a performance like that, the Red Sox have to be feeling good about themselves as they leave town for a pivotal four game set versus the Yankees, who have several star sluggers themselves in the form of Robinson Cano, Alfonso Soriano, and Alex Rodriguez.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

August Awesomeness (Hitters)

Here are, in my opinion, the ten best (unranked) hitting performances in the month of August:

Miguel Cabrera (.356/.430/.733)
More of the same from baseball's best hitter, who bolstered his MVP credentials with 11 taters and 31 ribbies in the August heat.

Jayson Werth (.380/.468/.620)
Coming off the heels of a monster July (1.072 OPS), Werth topped himself in August, remaining red-hot during the summer's dog days. After a pair of disappointing seasons with Washington, Werth is enjoying--on a per game basis--the finest season of his career.

Will Venable (.367/.395/.697)
With the Padres headed for another disappointing finish, Venable kicked it into high gear. He hit safely in 15 straight games to open the month, then reeled off a nine-gamer the day after his first streak was snapped. He finished the month with 40 base knocks--17 of which went for extra bases. Amazingly, he managed to sustain that success despite striking out nine times for every unintentional walk he drew (27/3).

Alfonso Soriano (.257/.314/.578)
Soriano went out of his mind in the middle of the month, providing one of the most breathtaking displays of power the game has ever seen. He hit 11 home runs in August, knocked in 31 runs, and even stole six bases. His heavy hitting clearly put a charge into the Yankees, who've forced their way back into contention.

Victor Martinez (.386/.449/.491)
Though V-Mart didn't do much in the power department (just two home runs), he made up for it with his sheer volume of hits. Martinez rung up 44 of them in August after piling up 41 in July, raising his batting average from .232 to .298 in that span.

Mike Trout (.337/.500/.590)
Given the statistics-oriented nature of this website, I had to recognize Trout for reaching base in half of his plate appearances last month. Trout's exhibited much better command of the strike zone this season, using that keen batting eye of his to draw 25 free passes last month.

Martin Prado (.374/.425/.565)
Like Martinez, Prado produced next to nothing in the season's first half but has been on a tear since the calendar flipped to July. He recorded 43 hits in August, including 10 doubles, and drove home 30 runs.

Andrew McCutchen (.384/.483/.535)
Every morning when I checked the box scores, it always felt like McCutchen had gotten two hits the night before. Sure enough, he enjoyed 15 multi-hit games last month, and 14 of them were of the two-hit variety.

Brandon Moss (.288/.352/.663)
Moss cleared the fences eight times in just 80 official at-bats, a pace superior to that of Chris Davis. He inflicted most of that damage between August 19th and 29th, a span of 10 games in which he crushed seven long balls and knocked in 14 runs.

Adrian Beltre (.381/.479/.577)
Not quire as good as his July (nine home runs, 1.084 OPS), but an impressive performance nevertheless. Not known for his patience, Beltre worked 17 walks in August--the same amount of free trips to first he took in May, June, and July combined.

Honorable Mention: Shane Victorino, Robinson Cano, and Khris Davis