Friday, January 31, 2014

Young Bows Out

Young is leaving the game before his performance starts to suffer (ESPN)
It's fitting that two days after Lance Berkman called it quits, Michael Young is following him out the door. Fitting because they were both gifted hitters who made their names playing 257 miles from each other in Texas: Berkman in Houston and Young in Arlington.

Born eight months apart in 1976, they retired just two days apart in 2014, each at the age of 37 after enduring back-to-back disappointing seasons. But whereas Berkman was more or less forced out by injuries, Young is choosing to leave the game on his own terms after playing 147 games for the Phillies and Dodgers last year and batting a respectable .279 with a 102 OPS+.

Even still, their careers overlapped pretty well, which is funny considering how different they were as ballplayers. Berkman was a native Texan and a lumbering, switch-hitting slugger who played first base and left field, while Young hailed from California and was more of a slap-hitting shortstop. It's surprising, then, just how well some of their career totals match up:

Berkman: 1,879 G, 1,146 R, 422 2B, 86 SB, .293 Avg, 3,485 TB, six All-Stars
Young: 1,970 G, 1,137 R, 441 2B, 90 SB, .300 Avg, 3,491 TB, seven All-Stars

And here are some other similarities:

-Berkman debuted in 1999, one year before Young played his first big league game
-Both played at least 100 games at four different positions (not counting DH) and were very poor fielders
-After having somewhat down years in 2010, both bounced back for one last big season in 2011, when each made the All-Star team. Berkman finished seventh in the NL MVP voting while Young placed eighth in the AL race
-Both were traded away from their Texas teams and finished their careers elsewhere (though Berkman eventually made his way back to Texas to play for the Rangers)
-Neither won an MVP or Silver Slugger
-Both played in two World Series, including the 2011 Fall Classic when Berkman's Cardinals beat Young's Rangers in seven games

But that's enough about Berkman. I haven't written extensively about Young since he got his 2,000th career hit back in the summer of 2011--his last great season. He batted .338 with 106 RBI--both career highs--while sharing the major league lead for hits (213) with Boston's Adrian Gonzalez. At the time, he seemed to have an outside chance at 3,000 hits.

Then the following year, at age 35, his numbers dropped dramatically. His batting average plummeted more than 60 points, his OBP nearly 70, and his slugging by more than 100. Sensing the end was near, Texas traded him to the Phillies with cash for a pitching prospect (Lisalverto Bonilla) and a nothing reliever (Josh Lindblom).

There was hope that Young might be able to revive his career in Philadelphia, but all he did there was round out an aging infield of washed-up stars that already included Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. Young's numbers were almost identical to his 2012 production, and at the end of August the Phillies dealt him to the Dodgers for a pitching prospect (Rob Rasmussen) with a 6.46 ERA in Triple-A. Young was lucky to jump off the sinking Phillies ship and climb aboard the contending Dodgers just in time for the playoffs, but his last shot at that ever-elusive World Series ring was derailed by an old nemesis (St. Louis) in the NLCS. Young didn't do much to help matters there, coming up empty in all seven of his plate appearances.

So rather than hang around to pad his hit totals and chase a ring, Young called it a day. He can protect his .300 career batting average and leave long before he hits rock bottom. It's better this way.

A couple months from now Derek Jeter may have wished he'd done the same thing. I bring up Jeter in part because he is another shortstop in his late 30s (soon to be 40, actually), but also because I want to call attention to just how similar they were for a full decade. Check out how close they were from 2002--Young's first full season--through 2012--Jeter's most recent (and probably last) full season.

Jeter: 7,644 PA  1,153 R  2,105 H  336 2B  156 HR  .309/.376/.435  .811 OPS 114 OPS+
Young: 7,616 PA  1,028 R  2,134 H  396 2B 166 HR .304/.350/.447 .796 OPS 106 OPS+

I'm really surprised Jeter doesn't show up as one of Young's comps on his B-R page. They were very durable. They also struck out a good amount and bounced into a lot of double plays. Defensively they were about the same, with Young costing his team 8.6 wins and 126 runs with his glove while Jeter cost the Yankees 7.8 wins and 160 runs. Jeter, of course, was a much better baserunner with almost three times as many steals, and compensated for Young's power edge by getting on base more often. The point is that Young was very nearly Jeter's equal as a hitter for a long time. Take away 2002 (when Young had a .690 OPS) and 2012 (.682), and he comes out ahead.

That said, it can not be ignored the degree to which Young's numbers were enhanced by playing half his games in Texas. Like many hitters, Young got a big boost from his home ballpark. He batted a George Brett-esque .320/.368/.479 in Arlington, and if he had hit that well everywhere else we'd probably be discussing him as a serious Hall of Fame contender. As it were, his road OPS is more than 100 points lower.

For that reason (and others), Young was simply not as good as his numbers suggest. FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference agree he was worth around 25 WAR for his career, which leaves him well short of the Hall of Fame. JAWs has him as the 92nd best shortstop of all time, which seems baffling considering a lot of his counting numbers rank within the position's top 20. On the surface, a .300 career hitter who played the vast majority of his games at shortstop, second base and third base (all premium positions) would appear to be a very valuable player. Where was the disagreement between perception and reality coming from?

For starters, Young's offense really wasn't worth that much--about 60 runs for his career according to FanGraphs. Taking everything into account, that makes sense. Yes, Young got a lot of hits (six seasons with more than 200) and hit for some power (almost 700 extra base hits), but he didn't walk that much (typically around 50 times per season) so his on-base percentage of .346 is merely good, not great. Most of his power was in the form of doubles which obviously are not as valuable as home runs, so his career .141 ISo and .342 wOBA aren't very impressive either.

When he did get on he was a slightly above average baserunner, but any value he provided there was canceled out by his propensity for grounding into double plays. He also struck out quite a bit for somebody who never hit 25 home runs in a season. Throw in his friendly home park and the high-scoring era in which he played, and his numbers aren't anything special, as his .265 True Average and 104 wRC+/OPS+ indicate. He was only 61 runs better than the average hitter over the course of his career, which works out to be about 4.36 runs above average per year.

Then add to the mix his subpar glovework (2008 Gold Glove notwithstanding) which subtracts about a win per season from his value (two in his later years), and we're left with a slightly better than average hitter who has some nice counting numbers.

I don't mean to take anything away from Young. He was a good player for many years, a batting champion who set Rangers franchise records in numerous categories. But he's not a Hall of Famer (even though five of his ten best statistical comps are, and he probably would have been had he played in the 1920s or 30s), and not as good as some of his numbers suggest. Young is a perfect example of how advanced metrics and analysis can paint a more complete picture than those old-school statistics (like hits, RBI and batting average) ever can.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Ranking the Best Switch-Hitters

Mantle is the gold standard for switch-hitters (SI)
Reviewing Lance Berkman's career got me thinking about the best switch-hitters in baseball history. Here's what I came up with:

1. Mickey Mantle 172 OPS+ 170 wRC+ .354 TAv .428 wOBA 802 Rbat
An obvious choice. Though the Mick was devastating from the left side, injuries hampered his southpaw swing later in his career and he would have been better off never having learned to switch-hit at all. He batted .330/.416/.575 from the right side compared to .281/.419/.546 from the left.

2. Chipper Jones 141 OPS+ 141 wRC+ .319 TAv .397 wOBA 557 Rbat
His favorite player was Mickey Mantle, which is interesting given that he was born four years after Mantle's final season. Jones is the only switch-hitter with a career .300 average and at least 400 home runs, something Mantle would have accomplished as well had he retired before 1968.

3. Eddie Murray 129 OPS+ 127 wRC+ .299 TAv .365 wOBA 389 Rbat
Steady Eddie leads all switch-hitters in RBI and ranks second in home runs to Mantle. He is one of only four players to eclipse 500 home runs and 3,000 hits, the others being Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Rafael Palmeiro.

4. Pete Rose 118 OPS+ 121 wRC+ .289 TAv .354 wOBA 368 Rbat
The Hit King.

5. Lance Berkman 144 OPS+ 144 wRC+ .318 TAv .400 wOBA 420 Rbat
His OPS was better than .900 in 10 of his 15 seasons and his .943 OPS ranks 26th all-time. He holds the National League record for most home runs (45--tied with Jones) and RBI (136) by a switch-hitter in a single season (2006).

6. Tim Raines 123 OPS+ 125 wRC+ .294 TAv .365 wOBA 290 Rbat
Even after removing all of Raines' steals from the equation (for they have nothing to do with hitting), his offensive resume is still an impressive one. The Rock batted .294 for his career and was the 1986 NL batting champion. He also led the league in OBP that year, one of 11 times he reached base more than 39 percent of the time.

7. Reggie Smith 137 OPS+ 137 wRC+ .306 TAv .379 wOBA 309 Rbat
One of the most underrated ballplayers in baseball history, Smith was a phenomenal talent who's numbers were depressed by the era in which he played as well as Dodger Stadium. His neutralized career batting line of .296/.377/.505 is quite good.

8. Mark Teixeira 130 OPS+ 131 wRC+ .298 TAv .381 wOBA 245 Rbat
Teixeira has been ridiculed so much during his time in New York that it's easy to forget just how great he was before joining the Yankees. He had eight straight seasons with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBI from 2004 through 2011 and set the major league record for most single-season RBI by a switch-hitter with 144 in 2005. His future is in doubt after wrist problems limited him to just 15 games last year, and it's possible that his power may never return. That would be a shame considering nobody has homered from both sides of the plate in the same game as often as Teixeira, who's done so 13 times to date.

9. Bernie Williams 125 OPS+ 126 wRC+ .292 TAv .373 wOBA 295 Rbat
Williams was a Yankees legend who played in 25 postseason series across 12 Octobers, during which time he compiled the most RBI in playoff history. He also ranks second in hits, doubles, home runs, total bases, and runs scored. Williams was no slouch during the regular season either, batting above .300 every year from 1995 through 2002 and winning the batting title in 1998 on his way to a .297 career average.

10. Carlos Beltran 122 OPS+ 122 wRC+ .296 TAv .365 wOBA 249 Rbat
The only switch-hitter with more than 300 home runs and stolen bases. He's also the best postseason hitter for all-time, for what it's worth.

11. Roberto Alomar 116 OPS+ 118 wRC+ .284 TAv .359 wOBA 240 Rbat
A career .300 hitter, Alomar had good power for a second baseman with over 500 doubles and 200 home runs.

12. Frankie Frisch 110 OPS+ 112 wRC+ .370 wOBA 158 Rbat
His .316 career batting average is still the highest ever for a switch-hitter, so it should come as no surprise that he and Chipper Jones are the only switch-hitters to bat above .300 from both sides of the plate (min. 5,000 plate appearances).

Honorable Mention: Ted Simmons, Jorge Posada, Chili Davis

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Bye-Bye Berkman

Berkman was an outstanding hitter before his body gave out (SportingNews)
Lance Berkman announced his retirement from baseball today. The soon-to-be 38 year-old is leaving the game after a pair of injury plagued seasons in which he played just 105 games and batted .246.

But Berkman accomplished a lot during his 15 big league seasons, the first 11 and a half of which were spent with the Houston Astros. During that time he made his mark as one of the greatest switch hitters ever (more on that to come).

I already wrote a good deal about Berkman's career when he signed with the Texas Rangers last winter, but even then I don't think I realized just how impressive some of his numbers were. His 293/.406/.537 triple slash stats are tremendous, nearly identical to those of one-time teammate Jeff Bagwell (.297/.408/.540). His career .943 OPS has been bettered by only 25 men and is the 14th best mark for players who debuted after World War II. His 144 OPS+ is tied for the 48th best mark of all-time.

Perhaps most surprising was how well he rates by Baseball-Reference's advanced statistics. He has the 29th best Win Probability Added of all-time, which suggests he was good at coming through in tight spots. He also rates inside the top-35 in Base-Out Runs Added (31st), Situational Wins Added (33rd) and Base-Out Wins Added (34th). The traditional numbers bear this out too: he batted .311/.432/.550 with men on base and posted a .963 OPS in high leverage situations.

Because Berkman's prime years overlapped with Albert Pujols's (and Barry Bonds' ridiculous run) he  never won an MVP, but did finish third twice and in the top-10 four other times. He never won received a Silver Slugger despite enjoying an eight year-stretch from 2001 to 2008 where he was worth 40.6 bWAR, averaging 33 home runs and 110 RBI per season in addition to his .303/.417/.564 batting line. FanGraphs rates him as the sixth most valuable position player during the 2000s, behind Alex Rodriguez, Pujols, Bonds, and a couple of other phenomenal switch-hitters--Chipper Jones and Carlos Beltran.

But that decade is pretty much the entirety of Berkman's career. He played just 34 games before it and struggled with age and injuries after it. Because of the relatively short length of his career (fewer than 8,000 plate appearances and not even 6,500 official at-bats), his counting numbers are a bit lacking. He failed to reach 2,000 hits and 400 homers, for instance.

Actually, some of Berkman's numbers are almost indistinguishable from those of another great hitter who recently retired: Todd Helton. Both were pure hitters who walked a lot, drove in tons of runs, hit for power and posted high batting averages.

Berkman 1999-2013: 366 HR  .293/.406/.537  .943 OPS  six All-Star appearances
Helton 1997-2013: 369 HR  .316/.414/.539  .953 OPS  five All-Star appearances

But while Helton is a deserving Hall of Famer (though not by much), Berkman is not (but also not by much). By all established Hall of Fame standards (JAWS, Bill James, Hall of Stats), Berkman falls a tad short. His numbers aren't strong enough for a corner outfielder/first baseman who was a liability in the field and on the basepaths. Berkman's peak was Cooperstown quality for sure, but he didn't do enough after leaving Houston and so his 52 career WAR don't cut it. He needed at least two or three more quality seasons, but unfortunately injuries essentially finished him after his age 35 season.

Big Puma, like most sluggers of his ilk, simply wasn't built to last. Players like him rarely age well, especially when they play more games in the outfield than they do at first base. Had Bagwell not blocked first until 2005, perhaps Berkman would still be playing. Maybe he would have fallen apart anyways, since he didn't become serious about his conditioning until it was almost too late. The point is that both were great players, and the Astros were lucky to have them.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Brilliant Bobby Abreu

Abreu is returning to the Phillies, where he starred from 1998 to 2006
Last week the Philadelphia Phillies, who I'm convinced are trying to field baseball's oldest team this year, signed Bobby Abreu to a minor league deal that would pay him $800,000 if he makes the team. I wouldn't bet on the 39 year-old's comeback, but part of me hopes he can get on the field this year just so the baseball world can have one last chance to appreciate the greatness which was so often overlooked throughout his wonderful career.

(Had he spent more than two and a half seasons in Pinstripes, that definitely wouldn't be the case, especially since he signed with the Angels less than nine months before the Bombers won the World Series. The same can be said for his Phillies tenure, which ended half a season before they became a National League powerhouse with Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Jimmy Rollins, Cole Hamels, etc. and will resume a few seasons too late, after Roy Halladay's retirement).

The thing about Abreu is that he was so steady, so consistent. He was insanely durable, playing no fewer than 151 games every year from 1998 through 2010--his age 36 season. The year after that, he played 142 games at 37. His career is devoid of the peaks and valleys that define so many athletic careers. He never had that one awesome, standout season, but he never had a year in his prime where he got hurt or his performance dropped inexplicably. He aged gracefully, but was clearly not as good in his 30s as he was in his 20s. Consistency and durability are always underrated skills, so I suppose Abreu was doomed to be under-appreciated from the start.

One of the easiest ways to determine if a player is underrated is to simply look at his walks, and Abreu walked a lot: more than 100 times every season from 1999 through 2006, 100 times per 162 games and nearly 1,500 times in his career. Add all those free passes to his 2,437 career hits and 33 times hit by pitch and he's reached base almost 4,000 times in his career. Only 50 men have reached base more than Abreu did, and some of the players who didn't were Mike Schmidt, Eddie Mathews, Harmon Killebrew, Willie McCovey, Tony Perez, Jeff Bagwell, and Fred McGriff.

Abreu's career on-base percentage is a marvelous .396, and he's drawn more free passes than all but 21 players in baseball history. He has more walks than Jimmie Foxx, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson--three of the most intimidating sluggers the game has ever known--despite coming to bat considerably fewer times than they did. Abreu was so good at walking that he was among his league's ten best at doing so every year from 1998 through 2011 except for one--2008, when he walked "only" 73 times.

Those walks didn't happen by accident, either. Abreu was notorious for his excellent plate discipline, and took a lot of pitches. Since FanGraphs started tracking such data in 2002, Abreu has offered at little more than a third of all pitches thrown to him (35 percent). He's so selective that he rarely swings at a bad pitch, chasing just 15.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. In 2004, when Abreu walked a career high 127 times, that number was less than 10 percent.

Abreu did much more than walk, though. He hit tons of doubles--565 of them so far, which ranks 23rd all-time. He also hit a good number of home runs. His career total of 287 isn't a lot*, certainly not by the Steroid Era standards, but he did reach 30 twice and topped 20 on seven other occasions. That power helped him exceed 100 RBI eight times (same as Jim Rice, twice as many as Mickey Mantle) even if he never drove in more than 110.

*(Seeing as how he cleared the fences only 11 times in his most recent 254 major league games dating back to September 2010, it's highly unlikely that he'll stroke the 13 dingers he needs to join the 300 club. If he gets there and steals one more base, he'll be one of two players with at least 300 long balls, 400 steals and 2,000 hits. The other is Barry Bonds).

He was also an excellent baserunner, which no doubt helped him score at least 96 runs every year from 1999 through 2009. Abreu swiped at least 19 bases every year from 1998 through 2011, piling up 399 career thefts at a 75.7 percent success rate. He only needs one more to reach 400. If he plays and gets on base, I'd have to imagine he'll have the green light until he reaches the milestone.

Few players have blended power and speed as well as Abreu. He has a 30/40 season, a 30/30 season, two 20/30 seasons and five 20/20 seasons. His power speed number is the 13th best of all-time, better than Carlos Beltran's. Reggie Jackson's and Dave Winfield's. Combined with his excellent on-base ability, Abreu's well-rounded skill-set made him a very valuable player. He was worth 41.4 bWAR from 1998 through 2004, averaging nearly six wins per season with a .942 OPS over that span. FanGraphs estimates he was the fifth most valuable player in baseball during that time, behind only Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones and Scott Rolen.

But because that's when offensive numbers were off the charts, Abreu's all-around skills were overshadowed by his peer's prodigious power numbers. That explains why he was an All-Star only twice--in 2004 and 2005.  2004 was the year in which he won his only Silver Slugger, and in 2005 he netted his only Gold Glove. He has as many top-ten MVP finishes as me and you put together, but did receive votes in seven separate seasons. Always very good but never dominant, Abreu is woefully short on black ink: he led the major leagues in triples in 1999, the National League in doubles in 2002, and the major leagues in walks in 2006.

That's what makes his Hall of Fame case so interesting, and yes, he does have a legitimate Hall of Fame case. He enjoyed a strong seven year peak from 1998 through 2004 and had another five or six seasons that were pretty good. By traditional metrics he falls a bit short, but advanced metrics show him more support. His career bWAR total is above 60, albeit barely, which puts him in the Cooperstown conversation. He ranks in the top-100 for offensive WAR and inside the top-50 for runs created. His 129 OPS+ is the same as Eddie Murray's and is better than Rickey Henderson's, Johnny Bench's, and Ron Santo's.

He exceeds Bill James's Hall of Fame standards despite low gray and black ink scores. JAWS has him as the 19th best right fielder, pretty much dead even with Sammy Sosa, Ichiro Suzuki, Dave Winfield, and Vladimir Guerrero. He's below the established peak and career standard at the position but still rates higher than Gary Sheffield, not to mention multiple Hall of Famers like Enos Slaughter, Sam Rice and Chuck Klein.

Without looking at his list of most similar players, I immediately thought of Bernie Williams who, after falling off the ballot on his second try, was decidedly not a Hall of Famer. Sure enough, Williams ranks first on Abreu's list of most similar batters, ahead of some other good-not-great players such as Luis Gonzalez (second), Dwight Evans (fourth), Dave Parker (fifth), Paul O'Neill (ninth) and John Olerud (tenth). In my opinion, Evans and Carlos Beltran are the only deserving Hall of Famers on that list, so Abreu's bid for the Hall of Fame, whenever that may be, probably won't go well even though he has no ties to PEDs as of yet.

My point is that while Abreu was not quite a Hall of Fame caliber-player, he was very very good and probably only one or two good seasons away from being one. You can certainly make the case that he was one without sounding like a lunatic. You just have to dig a little deeper.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Are the Yankees Back?

Tanaka is a Yankee. Should've seen it coming (SI)
David Schoenfield pointed out that the Yankees have spent almost half a billion dollars this offseason, which is kind of crazy when you think about it. Not too long ago, New York was committed to getting its payroll under the 2014 luxury tax threshold of $189 million

Because of that brazen strategy the Yankees pinched pennies last year--as much as any team that spends more than $200 million in player salaries can--and it showed on the field. When injuries downed key stars such as Alex Rodriguez, Curtis Granderson, Kevin Youkilis, Mark Teixeira, and Derek Jeter, there was nobody to replace them. New York trotted out the likes of Jayson Nix, Eduardo Nunez, Chris Stewart, etc. and still found a way to win 85 games.

So the Yankees did what they always do when things don't go their way: spend truckloads of money for free agents. It's impossible not to draw a parallel between this offseason and the one that followed 2008--the only time between 1995 and 2012 that New York fell short of the playoffs. The Bombers dropped $423 million that winter for CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Teixeira, and Nick Swisher, a spending spree that paid immediate dividends when they helped New York win 103 regular season games and its first World Series since 2000.

Given how much money they spent this winter, it's tempting to crown them Hot Stove champions and start printing World Series tickets. But let's not start planning any parades through the Canyon of Heroes just yet. Yes, the Yankees spent a lot of money, but that's no guarantee of anything. Just ask the Angels, who poured almost $450 million into Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson and Josh Hamilton.

It's also not much of a stretch to say that New York didn't invest that money very wisely. All the players they've purchased are flawed in some way and raise several questions about how they will perform in the future:

Masahiro Tanaka for seven years, $155 million--The latest Japanese sensation is 25 and supremely talented, but who knows how he's going to fare in the major leagues? The track record of Japanese starting pitchers that transitioned to the Show is not a particularly long or distinguished one, and the Yankees have to hope he'll be better than his over-hyped predecessors Hideo Nomo and Daisuke Matsuzaka. I happen to think he'll be pretty good, but will he win the Cy Young? Probably not.

Jacoby Ellsbury for seven years, $153 million--A good but injury-prone centerfielder who runs well, plays strong defense and can hit. Reputation aside, I just don't see what makes him so much more highly regarded than a Michael Bourn, Shane Victorino or Brett Gardner. His skill set suggests that he won't age well.

Brian McCann for five years, $85 million--The seven-time All-Star is one of the top catchers in the game, averaging 21 homers and 80 RBI per season over his past eight. But he played 102 games last year--his fewest since his rookie season--and turns 30 next month. His last two seasons have been substandard for him, so it's quite possible the Yankees just signed up for the decline phase of McCann's career.

Carlos Beltran for three years, $45 million--Beltran can bat from both sides of the plate and is still a dangerous hitter, but he turns 37 early in the season and creaky knees have diminished the value he once offered in the field and on the basepaths. All of his value is tied up in his batting, so if that starts to go...

Hiroki Kuroda for one year, $16 million--Soon to be 39 and coming off a poor second half, Kuroda is a gamble.

Matt Thornton for two years, $7 million--Former All-Star is a decent lefty option out of the 'pen, but his strikeout rate has nosedived from 12.0 K/9 in 2010 to 6.2/9 last year, when his WHIP was 1.43 and opponents batted .285 off him.

Brendan Ryan for two years, $4 million--Jeter's insurance policy. Ryan's a defensive whiz but can't hit for beans, as he's batted just .196/.268/.275 in the past two seasons combined. The Yankees would be wise to invest in Stephen Drew, who can hit and field (what a concept!)

Kelly Johnson for one year, $3 million--Robinson Cano's replacement represents a huge downgrade at the keystone position. Johnson has batted .226/.307/.395 over the last three years and doesn't figure to see those numbers improve much in his age 32 season. At best, Johnson projects to be a two-win player. Cano could be worth eight.

Brian Roberts for one year, $2 million--36 years old and hasn't played more than half a season since 2009.

With more talent and better luck than last year's edition, New York figures to contend in a loaded AL East and could very well win the division. But once again, their roster is old and top-heavy, so a couple injuries could do enough damage to sink their postseason hopes. I don't think they're going to be a fourth place team, as some have projected, but they're not good enough to win 100 games either. I'm thinking around 90, maybe 92-93 if everything goes right.

Are the Yankees back? As spenders, definitely. But as for on the field, we'll have to wait and see.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Sox Sign Sizemore

Once a star, Sizemore hopes to catch on with the Red Sox (Boston Herald)
Since Jacoby Ellsbury vacated their center field spot in early December, the Boston Red Sox seemed content to roll the dice on Jackie Bradley Jr. and hope the soon-to-be 24 year-old was ready to hold down the job. There was no talk of moving Shane Victorino, a natural center fielder, over from right field. Ben Cherington didn't trade for Matt Kemp or sign a new outfielder. It looked like Bradley had the gig all to himself. 

The situation just became a little more complicated yesterday, when Boston signed Grady Sizemore to a one-year, $750,000 deal that could pay up to $6 million with incentives. Though Sizemore has not played a major league game since September 22nd, 2011, he says he's healthy and eager to get back on the field. 

It's been a long time since Sizemore was healthy, much less able to stay that way for any appreciable length of time. One of the baseball's best and brightest young players five years ago, Sizemore watched what should have been the prime of his career go up in flames. Injuries kept him off the field in 2012 and 2013, and he hasn't played anything close to a full season since 2008. It's probably going to take awhile for him to get his timing back, especially now that he's 31 years old, but the Red Sox are hoping he recover some of the ability that made him a three-time All-Star and perennial 30/30 threat with the Indians.

I don't think he'll ever again be anything close to the six-win player/fringe MVP candidate that he used to be, but at his price all he has to do is contribute on some level to qualify as a major bargain. Competent center fielders don't grow on trees, you know.

Worst case, Sizemore doesn't pan out and the Sox are on the hook for less than $1 million, which is just a drop in their $160 million bucket. At the very least, he'll provide a healthy dose of competition for the center field job, which hopefully inspires Bradley to work and play harder. There's something to be said about making young players prove themselves and earn their jobs rather than just handing it to them on a silver platter. Better than anyone, the Red Sox know how dangerous entitled athletes can be (see: 2011 and 2012). Perhaps Sizemore's mere presence at Spring Training can help bring out the best in Bradley.

Call me crazy, but I have this sneaky feeling that Sizemore still has something left in the tank. Not enough to play everyday, mind you (not on two surgically repaired knees), but maybe enough to be a quality fourth or fifth outfielder type. He could be this year's Mike Carp. Maybe that doesn't sound like much for someone who's most similar player through age 26 was Barry Bonds, but at least it's something. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Dodgers' Pricey Outfield

I read something that blew my mind today. The Los Angeles Dodgers have upwards of $57 million committed to three outfielders this year: Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, and Andre Ethier. In other words, the Dodgers are giving those three guys close to what the Chicago Cubs and Minnesota Twins paid their entire teams last year, not to mention more than the Astros and Marlins combined.

That wasn't what surprised me though. The Dodgers are the richest team in baseball by far and will spend around $250 million this season. They seem to have infinite money; with a roster that includes four players earning over $20 million apiece and another six set to earn more than 10, they were still able to dig deep and give Clayton Kershaw a $215 million contract extension, then make Masahiro Tanaka an offer. Theirs is a team built around expensive talent

No, what shocked me was that the Dodgers have so much money tied up in those three--about $300 million in future salary commitments if Ethier's vesting option kicks in--and none of them are very good anymore. Or at least they weren't last year, when they were worth about five bWAR put together. A few years ago, that outfield would have been a superb collection of talent. All have Gold Gloves, Silver Sluggers, All-Star appearances, and serious MVP consideration on their resumes. They all brought something different to the table: Crawford had ridiculous speed, Kemp blended speed with power, and Ethier got on base and hit for power.

Unfortunately for the Dodgers, it's not 2010 anymore. Their star-studded outfield has deteriorated to the point that somebody will need to accept a reduced role so Yasiel Puig can play everyday. If LA had succeeded in trading Kemp, then this wouldn't be an issue, but nobody was too interested in potentially damaged goods who's still due $130 mil over the next six seasons.

So who's it going to be? Puig saw action at all three outfield positions last year but spent the lion's share of his time in right, which would seem to push former Gold Glover Andre Ethier out. But Ethier proved he could play a halfway decent center field while Kemp was on the mend and had the best offensive season of the three. Kemp, a two-time Gold Glove winner in center, will need to prove himself by showing he can stay healthy. Crawford's been a left fielder all his life, spending 1,429 of his 1,468 career games there and winning a Gold Glove in 2010, but his offense is no longer worthy of a corner outfield spot.

Let's take a closer look at each one to try to figure this out:

The youngest, most talented and most expensive of the group is Kemp, who's set to make $21 million this year. That salary comes from the eight-year, $160 million deal he signed after his monster 2011, when he showed just how awesome he could be. Kemp put it all together that year, finishing runner-up to Ryan Braun in the MVP race after falling one home run shy of 40/40 and piling up 8.1 bWAR.

But injuries have ravaged his career since then, limiting him to 106 games in 2012 and just 73 last year, during which his power was non-existent. Health is a big question mark for Kemp going forward, and it remains to be seen if he can recapture the form that made him one of the game's best all-around players before last season. He's too young to write off and has the most bounce back potential of the three.

Then there's Crawford, who's going to cost LA $20 million and some change. Crawford, you might recall, signed his seven-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox prior to their infamous 2011 disaster. Crawford struggled mightily that year and was hurt the next, causing Boston to dump him (along with Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Nick Punto) on the Dodgers in late August. He got off to a hot start last year, only to miss five weeks with a hamstring injury and bat an uninspiring .270/.307/.361 after returning in early July.

Since landing his huge payday, Crawford has not proven himself to be anywhere near the excellent player he was with Tampa Bay. Various injuries have knocked him out of the lineup too often, causing him to miss an average of 70 games per season over the past three. To make matters worse, he hasn't been very productive when he does play, as his 97 OPS+ and 2.3 bWAR in that time can attest. He can still run a bit and hit a little--skills that play well in Dodger Stadium--but doesn't do nearly enough of either to justify his massive salary. That doesn't figure to change much as he prepares to turn 33 this summer. He sucked against southpaws last year, managing a meager .551 OPS against them, and could be the odd man out if he doesn't show signs of rebounding.

Last but not least we have Andre Ethier, who just completed the first year of his ill-advised five-year, $85 million contract extension and will collect $15.5 million this season. Ethier was the most valuable of the trio last year by sheer virtue of staying healthy enough to play 142 games. That looks like far too many for a player who can't hit lefties to save his life (.613 OPS against them last year, .644 for his career) and doesn't offer much power (averaging 14 homers and 68 RBI over his last three seasons).

That said, Ethier is still a comfortably above average offensive player even if his traditional numbers leave something to be desired. He gets on base at a good clip--.360 OBP last year, .362 for his career--and hits lots of doubles, much like Nick Markakis. His bat, which produced a 122 OPS+ last year, was worth close to three wins by itself. So even though Ethier doesn't offer much in the way of speed or defense, he still hits enough to merit a spot in the everyday lineup (with off days coming against lefthanders, of course). He'll be 32 in April, so some decline should be expected.

So to sum it up, Crawford should be the one to sit at first. If I were Don Mattingly I'd keep Puig in right, Kemp in center, and shift Ethier to left. If Kemp breaks down again, let Ethier cover for him (or maybe even give Puig a shot at the glory position) and slide Crawford back to left. It hurts to spend more than $20 million on a fourth outfielder, but that's what teams have been doing with Vernon Wells for years. And besides, if any team can afford to eat that kind of money, it's the Dodgers.

Parker vs Rice Redux

When people argue for a player's Hall of Fame candidacy, a common tactic they use is to compare said player to lesser players already enshrined in Cooperstown. For example, if Bill Mazeroski and Joe Gordon are in, then Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker should be no-brainers. If Ron Santo is in, then really Dick Allen should be, too. Gotta put Jeff Bagwell and Fred McGriff in if you're going to have a Hall of Fame with Jim Bottomley and Ray Schalk, right?

Since making it into the Hall of Fame by the skin of his teeth in 2009--his last chance on the writer's ballot--Jim Rice has frequently been used in such arguments. It's no secret that he's generally thought of as one of the weaker players to be inducted in recent memory. JAWS rates Rice as the 27th best left fielder of all-time and below 14 of the 18 that have attained Hall of Fame status. He falls short of decidedly non-HOFers like Jose Cruz, Roy White and Luis Gonzalez, who was just booted off the ballot after tallying a mere five votes in his debut.

For a long time, Rice was a borderline candidate who typically polled in the 50-60 percent range. But once the issues of the steroid era came to light in the mid-2000s, people suddenly had more appreciation for what Rice had done as a natural slugger during the offensively depressed 1970s and 80s. Writers who stuck it to Rice for being such a jerk to the media during his playing days eventually came around, and that was just enough to sneak him into the Hall.

So where am I going with this? Well, now that Jim Rice is in the Hall of Fame, shouldn't Dave Parker? Look how close their numbers are:

Rice: 1,249 R, 79 3B, 382 HR, 1,451 RBI, 670 BB .298/.352/.502, 128 OPS+, 47.2 bWAR
Parker 1,272 R, 75 3B, 339 HR, 1,493 RBI, 683 BB .290/.339/.471, 121 OPS+, 40 bWAR

You'd be hard-pressed to find two players with careers that overlapped so perfectly. Parker broke in one year before Rice did but they both became stars in 1975, when they finished third in their leagues' respective MVP voting (Rice also finished second in the Rookie of the Year to teammate/fellow outfielder Fred Lynn, who took home MVP honors). They fell off a bit in 1976 but were both very good, then embarked upon a three-year stretch of dominance as they came into their primes.

Both were arguably the best players in baseball in the last three years of the 1970s, followed by substantial drop-offs in the early 80s. They bounced back to produce several more good years in the mid-80s, but by the end of the decade they were old and washed-up. Rice retired in 1989, Parker two years later. Neither one was able to match the brilliance of the men they replaced: Yaz in Boston and Roberto Clemente in Pittsburgh.

The similarities don't end there. They each led the league in games played once, hits once, slugging percentage twice, OPS once. Both were named MVP in 1978 and finished near the top on several other occasions (four other top-five finishes for Parker, five for Rice). Parker racked up 3.19 MVP shares, just a hair more than Rice's 3.15.   Rice made eight All-Star teams, Parker made seven. Parker won three Silver Sluggers, Rice received two. It's no wonder Parker rates as the tenth most similar player to Rice on Baseball-Reference.

One key difference is that Parker actually played a bit more than Rice, appearing in nearly 400 more games (about two and a half seasons worth) and logged an additional 1,100 plate appearances. Parker played past his 40th birthday, whereas Rice had his last good season at 33 and retired at 36. Parker's longevity helped him accumulate 2,712 hits, of which 940 went for extra bases. But seeing as how Parker was worth -0.4 bWAR over his last six seasons, he could certainly be accused of hanging on too long a la Craig Biggio.

One point in Parker's favor is that he won two World Series rings, which is two more than Rice ever won. And while Parker's postseason resume is pretty poor (.647 OPS in October), he did bat .345 in the 1979 Fall Classic to help Pittsburgh prevail over the Baltimore Orioles in seven games. In his early years, Parker could run a bit (154 career steals) and earned a good defensive reputation, winning three straight Gold Gloves from 1977-'79 while flashing a powerful arm. Rice learned to play the Green Monster over time, but never mastered it like his predecessor Carl Yastrzemski. He was never a threat on the basepaths either. Rice was the better hitter, but Parker was the more complete player. He was baseball's fourth-most valuable player from 1975-1979, behind only Mike Schmidt, George Brett and George Foster.

So why is one in the Hall of Fame while the other never even got 25 percent of the vote? Rice made enemies in the press, but so did Ted Williams. Writers never gave Mickey Mantle much love in the first half of his career. Time heals most wounds, and Rice's talent was undeniable. Parker's problem was that a combination of injuries, weight problems, and cocaine use sabotaged his career in the first half of the 1980s, when his performance drastically declined (.281/.319/.431 from 1980-84). He got a reputation for not caring about the game, and for squandering his immense potential.

Nothing in life is sadder than wasted potential. The feeling is that Parker needed a few more good years to solidify his case, but that his off-field issues prevented him from doing so. Parker was very much a black mark on the game, and the writers shunned him for it.

My other thought is that Rice has more impressive power numbers, which always catch the eye and confirm the belief that he was one of the strongest and most feared hitters of his era. He also spent his entire career with one team, whereas Parker bounced around during the second half of his career. Rice had continuity in the nation's most baseball-crazed city. Parker played in depressed smaller markets known as Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Rice also hit traditional benchmarks more often. He reached 100 RBI eight times, 20 homers 11 times and 200 hits four times. He also batted better than .300 seven times and was a .300 career hitter up until his final season. Parker had just four 100 RBI campaigns, one 200-hit season and topped out at 34 home runs, when Rice reached 39 on four separate occasions. Parker did win two batting titles, but batted just .264 over his last six years and ended up with a lower career average than Rice.

I'm not saying I think Parker should be in the Hall of Fame. Despite what he says, he shouldn't be. JAWS puts Parker 36th among rightfielders, behind the likes of Bobby Bonds, Jack Clark, Brian Giles, Tony Oliva, and Rocky Colavito. He falls short in the position's established standards for peak and career value. He was just up for election on last fall's Expansion Era ballot and failed to get in, and there aren't many people championing his case.

But now that Rice (and Andre Dawson) is in, it's very hard to justify Parker's absence. Rice is a more qualified candidate for the Hall of Fame, but only slightly. Rice's Hall of Fame score is 43 (the average Hall of Famer's is 50), and Parker's is 42. More than any other statistic, that one shows just how close they really were.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Dodgers Break Bank for Kershaw

Last winter LA made Zack Greinke very rich, but Kershaw's even richer
The way the Los Angeles Yankees Dodgers have been throwing around money lately, it was only a matter of time before they made their ace Clayton Kershaw an offer he couldn't refuse.

Yesterday both parties agreed to a seven-year extension that will pay Kershaw $215 million, making him the highest paid pitcher in history by a comfortable margin. With an average annual value of $30.714 million, it will also make him the most expensive player at any position (exceeding CC Sabathia). Kerhshaw has one more season to go before the contract kicks in and he can opt-out after five years, which he's likely to do seeing as how he'll be 31 at that time and could easily score another giant payday (barring serious injury or decline).

Of course, if there's any pitcher on the planet worth that kind of money, it's Kershaw, who's only 25 but has already proven himself to be on par with the likes of Sandy Koufax, Johan SantanaPedro Martinez. He's won two of the past three NL Cy Young awards and probably deserved to win in 2012 as well, when he was runner-up to R.A. Dickey. He's posted the sport's best ERA in each of the past three seasons, something only Koufax, Greg Maddux and Lefty Grove have accomplished during the live ball era.

All metrics, advanced and traditional, agree that Kershaw has been one of baseball's best pitchers over the past three years. Since the start of the 2011 season he ranks first in ERA, ERA-. FIP, WHIP, strikeouts, and opponent batting average. On top of that, he rates second in shutouts and complete games, third in wins, innings pitched, and xFIP, and fourth in K/BB ratio. Only Charlie Morton does a better job at keeping the ball in the park, and FanGraphs estimates that only Justin Verlander has been more valuable per fWAR.

So while investing lots of years and dollars in pitchers is always risky, Kershaw is about as safe as they come. He's young, dominant, and durable (not to mention left-handed), presumably with many more great years in front of him. At his age, two of his three most similar pitchers are Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer (the other is Gary Nolan, who was on the Cooperstown track before injuries ended his career before his 30th birthday). He's a Hall-of-Famer in the making, and the Dodgers were wise to lock him up for at least the rest of the decade before he could reach free agency.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Rodriguez in Ruins

Alex Rodriguez is finally answering for his PED infractions (ABCNews)
In recent years, it's been a total crapshoot trying to predict how many games Alex Rodriguez could be expected to play in the coming season. Once a model of health who could regularly be counted upon to suit up almost everyday, Rodriguez has averaged just 111 games played per season since signing his monster ten-year, $275 million contract following his monster 2007.

Well as of today, Rodriguez--now 38 and with 20 big league seasons under his belt--will not play a single game in 2014. His original 211 game suspension, handed out last August, was reduced to 162 games, which will cover the entire 2014 regular season (and postseason, if the Yankees should make it there). It will be the largest PED-related suspension in baseball history.

A-Rod, a man who was supposed to smash the game's most prestigious records, now has the most dubious one in the sport.

The suspension, now official, puts on exclamation mark on the collapse of Alex Rodriguez, indisputably one of the greatest baseball players who ever lived. The reputation he once worked so hard to maintain has been reduced to ashes, and he is nothing more than a glaring black mark on the sport he has dominated like few others have.

It's sad. One gets the sense that over the past few years, baseball became an escape for Rodriguez more than anything else, a place where he could go to get away from the incessant noise he created off the field. He cherished the game he was paid so handsomely to play. Baseball might not have always seemed like his top priority, but it's impossible to question his work ethic and the amount of preparation he put into each and every game. Now his sanctuary is being taken away from him.

And he is being taken away from us, the fans, which saddens me. Not because I like(d) Rodriguez (at this point I think it's fair to assume nobody does) but because he's a constant source of entertainment. Who else match his knack for daily drama, unintentional comedy, constant feuding, lack of self-awareness and misguided attempts at love? The answer, of course, is no one. Even as his skills diminished, A-Rod found himself in the news (and in trouble) more than ever before. He became daily cannon fodder for the press, causing his already bright star to soar just when it should have begun to crash. We can mock Rodriguez for a great number of things, but the man sure knows how to stay relevant. He absorbs media attention like a sponge.

That doesn't figure to change anytime soon. Rodriguez isn't going to disappear and quietly enjoy his millions. Instead, he plans to continue the fight in federal court. He also wants to attend spring training, and says there's nothing the Yankees can do to stop him. He loves the game, and the spotlight that comes with it, too much to stay away. Baseball is his drug, but unfortunately it wasn't his only one.