Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sandoval Say What?

Pablo Sandoval is a good baseball player, but he is not worth $100 million.

As the nickname implies, Kung Fu Panda has no speed and is never going to win a Gold Glove at third base. All of his value comes from his bat, which is good, but hardly $100 million good.

First off, Sandoval's power is merely adequate for a corner infielder. Though he's shown the ability to hit for power before, exceeding 20 home runs and slugging over .550 in 2009 and 2011 (not to mention that Reggie Jackson-esque three-homer game in the World Series two years ago), his .176 career ISO is indicative of a player with merely average pop. Look no further than his middling home run totals; Fat Ichiro has failed to top 15 home runs in three of his past four seasons and his career high is 25. He can't be counted on for 20 home runs in a season, much less 30.

Consequently, Sandoval doesn't drive in nor score many runs. He's never scored 80 runs in a season and has driven in that many only once--in his career year of 2009. Obviously runs and RBI are team-dependent stats, but the point I'm trying to make is that because Sandoval doesn't hit many home runs, he doesn't drive himself in as often as guys like Miguel Cabrera and Chris Davis. His poor runs and RBI totals reflect that.

Another explanation for Sandoval's lack of runs (besides his non-existent speed) is that he doesn't get on base a whole lot. His .347 career OBP is good but hardly great, and the reason is that he doesn't walk very much. His solid on-base skills stem mostly from his ability to hit for good averages, as he's a .293 career hitter. But his averages have declined precipitously over the past three years, falling from .315 in 2011 to .283 in 2012 and .278 last year.

With strikeouts and defensive shifts on the rise, hitting for average is becoming increasingly difficult nowadays, and it's only going to get harder for Sandoval, who can't leg out hits the way Mike Trout and Billy Hamilton can. If Sandoval's declining batting average trend continues, or even holds steady at the .270-.280 range, he's going to lose a lot of offensive value unless he starts taking more walks (which, given his propensity for hacking at pitches off the plate, seems unlikely).

Durability's been an issue for Sandoval as well. The hefty third-sacker has averaged 134 games in his five full seasons, a solid number, but by missing 28 games per season for five years he's lost 140 games, almost the equivalent of a full season. Over the last three years his attendance has been even poorer, as he's averaged just 122 games per season. Typically players miss more games as they get older, which doesn't bode well for Sandoval's health going forward.

Now is also an appropriate time to mention that his Prince Fielder-ish body probably isn't going to age well. Weight has always been an issue for him so unless he takes a cue from CC Sabathia and David Ortiz and slims down considerably, his decline is likely going to hit like a ton of bricks. Chunky players like Sandoval tend to lose it overnight, as opposed to the more athletic types who age slowly and gracefully.

The best thing you can say about Sandoval is that his floor is pretty high. The two-time All-Star has never been terrible, or even below average. In his worst year, 2010, he still popped 34 doubles, put up a .732 OPS/99 OPS+, and was worth about a win and a half above replacement. His ceiling is also pretty high, as he was borderline MVP-caliber in 2009 and 2011.

One would think a potential away from San Francisco's pitching-friendly confines would help his numbers return to their '09/'11 levels, but in reality he's been a much better hitter there than on the road. At AT&T he's a .313/.366/.494 hitter: everywhere else he's a .275/.330/.447 hitter, essentially the difference between Sandoval at his best and Sandoval at his worst. His splits suggest that he's a much better left-handed hitter, though, so maybe he'd thrive in a park well-suited for southpaw sluggers. I hear the Yankees might be in need of a third baseman soon...(don't tell Alex Rodriguez that, though)

The bottom line: Sandoval is a good hitter, but that's all he is, and he probably won't be very good for much longer. The 27 year-old is off to a terrible start this year, and only time will tell if it's nothing more than an early season slump or the beginning of a premature decline.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Colorado crushing its way to top of standings

Tulowitzki's hot bat has helped carry Colorado  
Following last night's 8-5 victory over the scuffling Arizona Diamondbacks, the red-hot Rockies are 15-12, only half a game out of first place in the NL West. Fueled by early season hot streaks from Charlie Blackmon, Troy Tulowitzki, and Justin Morneau, Colorado leads the National League in virtually every meaningful batting statistic and is batting .295/.347/.478 collectively. Impressively, the Rockies have managed these outstanding figures despite playing more road games than home games.*

*Their home/road splits are still ridiculous, though. At Coors they're batting .346/.398/.586, which means everyone on the team is essentially hitting like Joe DiMaggio. Away from Coors, they're batting .253/.304/.388. That's an OPS difference of nearly 300 points.

It's nice to see Colorado, who hasn't enjoyed a winning season since 2010, jump out to a fast start, but right now that's all it is: a good start.

Remember last year, they went 13-4 to open the season, winning eight in a row at one point. They led the division as late as Memorial Day weekend and were in second place through the first week in July (despite having a sub-.500 record). They faded down the stretch and wound up at 74-88, last place in the NL West (despite pacing the Senior Circuit in hits, batting average, slugging percentage, total bases, and OPS).

They say it's not how you start, but how you finish. The Rockies certainly proved that last year.

Fundamentally, not much has changed. The offense is still dynamite, and the pitching is still horrendous. That formula might work for short stretches when their hitters get into a groove, but over the course of a full season it's not a winning recipe. Colorado can hit all it wants, but until the organization develops some quality pitching the playoffs are never going to be a real possibility.

Which is too bad, really, because they sure can hit.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Boston's Bats Bouncing Back?

Boston's bats haven't done much in the early going (YawkeyWayReport)
April's almost over and the slow-starting Red Sox are only half a game out of last place in the AL East. It goes without saying that the defending champions have disappointed thus far, primarily because their seemingly stout offense has slumped. It's why they've scored 15 fewer runs than they've allowed despite sporting the fifth-lowest ERA in the American League.

After averaging an MLB-best 5.27 runs per game last year, Boston's barely averaged four runs per game (4.04, to be exact). They've been held to three runs or less nine times already, which accounts for more than one-third of their games. Power has been scarce, as David Ortiz and Mike Napoli are the only players with more than two home runs. On a related note, the Sox have the fifth-lowest OPS in the league thanks to their ugly .241/.329/.379 batting line. 

Boston's been even worse in scoring opportunities, batting just .235/.321/.353 with men on base. With runners in scoring position, those numbers sink to .218/.307/.338. The Red Sox haven’t done themselves any favors by bouncing into 28 double plays--most in baseball. They simply aren't getting timely hits when they need them.

Boston's bats haven't been a total failure--they do rank second in the AL in doubles, fourth in walks, and sixth in home runs and total bases, after all. But as long as the lineup keeps hitting like Mario Mendoza with men on base, it won't be able to match the run-scoring machine that churned out 853 runs last year and paced the sport in a host of other offensive categories. 

To be fair, though, the Red Sox haven't been at full strength. After losing Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Stephen Drew over the winter, Boston began the season without Shane Victorino, who strained his right hamstring in spring training and opened the year on the Disabled List. Slugging third baseman Will Middlebrooks missed three weeks with a calf strain. Dustin Pedroia hurt his wrist in a play at second base, which probably explains why he hasn't hit a home run yet.

As a result, the Red Sox didn't play a game with their intended starting nine until April 25th. Now fully healthy, Boston took two of three from Toronto over the weekend, battering Blue Jays' pitching for 16 runs and 27 hits. With their cold spell hopefully behind them, the Sox look to gain momentum from their eight game homestand starting tomorrow night against the last-place Tampa Bay Rays. Depleted by injuries, Tampa's thin rotation should help Boston's bats get back on track.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Upton Starting Strong Again

Just like last year, Upton's been tremendous in April (RantSports)
On this date last year, Justin Upton smoked his 12th home run of the young season off Detroit's Joaquin Benoit. Atlanta's newly acquired outfielder finished the day batting a ridiculous .302/.384/.779, well on his way to winning NL Player of the Month honors for April and asserting himself as the early season MVP favorite. It looked like he had finally put it all together and was about to deliver the superstar-caliber season that had long been expected of him.

Didn't happen. It would be another two weeks before Upton homered again, the beginning of a lengthy power outage that lasted most of the summer. From April 28th through the end of July, a span of 77 games that comprised nearly half the season, Upton homered four times. Four. He struck out 85 times and batted .243/.339/.342, looking almost as lost as his big brother B.J. Upton. Monster April aside, Upton was essentially the same player he was during his disappointing 2012 campaign, the one that caused Arizona to give up on him when he was just 25 and still under team control for three more years.

This year, Upton is off to another phenomenal start. After his 2-for-4 performance today, he's currently hitting .330/.406/.625 with seven home runs and 16 RBI. The strikeouts have been an issue again: he's already fanned 32 times in 24 games, which puts him ahead of last year's pace when he whiffed 161 times--a career high. That makes me think the two-time All-Star can't sustain his hot streak for much longer, that he'll cool off soon and go through a dry spell similar to the one he endured last year.

Will it last three months? Probably not, but until Upton--currently on pace for 216 K's--cuts down on his whiffs and becomes more consistent, he's never going to be a superstar.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Abreu's Awesome Start

Abreu is tearing it up in his American debut (ESPN SweetSpot Blog)
When Cuban sensation Jose Abreu signed a six-year, $68 million deal with the Chicago White Sox last winter, we knew he was going to be good. I'm just don't think anyone expected him to be this good. 

After capping last night's three-hit, six-RBI performance with a walk-off grand slam that lifted the Chicago to a 9-6 win over the Tampa Bay Rays, Abreu became the first rookie in major league history to hit nine home runs before the end of April. The 27-year old first baseman now holds a tie of the major leagues in home runs (with a resurgent Albert Pujols), RBI (with Giancarlo Stanton and Chris Colabello), total bases (Pujols again), and extra base hits (with Josh Donaldson). He's also slugging .632, the fourth-highest mark in baseball behind Troy Tulowitzki, Charlie Blackmon, and Pujols.

I know I'm not breaking any new ground here, but it sure looks like he's the real deal, folks. Baseball's next big thing has arrived.

Abreu, who already has three multi-homer games on the young season, has come out swinging for the fences. He's already struck out 25 times in 24 games, and when he does make contact 40 percent of the time he hits it in the air. Nearly a third of his fly balls have left the yard, an unsustainable pace, but with the homer-friendly Cell as his home park he might be able to keep it up for a little longer.

With five home runs and 13 RBI in his past six games, Abreu can't get much hotter. His sizzling start is a big reason why the White Sox are in second place in the AL Central entering play today, and why they've scored the most runs in baseball thus far. It goes without saying that if Abreu can continue to power Chicago's offense, he'll be a lock for AL Rookie of the Year and serious MVP consideration.

But for now, let's see if he can continue adding to his impressive spring numbers. His 27 RBI are tied with Pujols for the most by a rookie in April. So if you've got nothing better to do on a Saturday night, you might as well check-in on Abreu's at-bats. He might just make history.

Friday, April 25, 2014

My Home Run Derby Vote

Cespedes outlasted Harper last year, but will the fans vote him back? (HuffingtonPost)
For the first time, the ever-progressive MLB is mixing it up by allowing fans to decide who will participate in this summer's home run derby, which will be held at Target Field in Minnesota--a notoriously tough park for power hitters, even in the middle of July.

I like that baseball is giving the fans the opportunity to have some say about who they'll see in the home run contest. Like the All-Star Game, the event has always been for the fans, and now like the All-Star Game the fans can influence who will compete. Power to the people!

I also like the change from four contestants in each league to three. The event dragged on for far too long in the past, so removing two players from the competition should shorten the running time considerably. Everyone loves home runs, but it's tough to sit through three hours of glorified batting practice. Even I don't have the attention span for it.

So here's something I don't get to say very often: kudos to major league baseball!

Now on to the fun part: the voting process (yay democracy!). Baseball has picked 20 candidates to choose from--ten in each league--and voters must select three from the American League and three from the National League, though some candidates are clearly undeserving Joe Mauer, for instance, has 34 home runs...since the start of the 2010 season, and Jason Heyward has averaged 18 home runs per season/never slugged above .480, and Buster Posey, like Mauer, is a great hitter but not a great home run hitter. But I digress. The only real problem I have is that last year's winner, Yoenis Cespedes, is not automatically re-entered into this year's contest. As the defending champ he deserves the right to, um, defend his title.

Without further adieu, here are the six players I want to see in this summer's home run derby:

American League
1. Chris Davis--Last year's major league leader in home runs (53), RBI (138), extra base hits (96), and total bases (370) certainly qualifies.
2. Miguel Cabrera--See if the current wearer of the "best hitter in baseball" crown can put on a show
3. Cespedes--Like I said, you have to give the reigning champ a chance to defend his title!

Also considered:
Prince Fielder--Won the event in 2009 and 2012, but he's just not the elite power hitter he used to be. If he wins again he'll tie Ken Griffey Jr. for most home run derby titles since the event's debut in 1985.
Jose Bautista--Through yesterday he was tied with Miguel Cabrera for most home runs in baseball since Opening Day, 2010, which is really impressive considering how much time Joey Bats has missed.

National League
1. Giancarlo Stanton--Three words: light-tower power. If he can muscle it out of Marlins Park, he can go yard anywhere.
2. Pedro Alvarez--A poor man's Davis, last year's NL home run champ has about as much raw power as anyone.
3. Bryce Harper--Last year's runner-up, the kid can hit the ball a country mile.

Also considered:
Paul Goldschmidt--Tied Alvarez for most big flies in the Senior Circuit last year
Jay Bruce--He, Cabrera, and Adrian Beltre were the only big leaguers to reach 30 home runs in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
Yasiel Puig--So much fun to watch, especially when he does stuff like this. Do you think he would still do his trademark bat flip after each home run?

Friday, April 18, 2014

Celtics Mount Rushmore

Russell is the greatest Celtics player of all-time (NBA)
Last month I picked my Red Sox Mount Rushmore of Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Davif Ortiz, and Tris Speaker (in retrospect, I replace Ortiz and Speaker with Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez). So who belongs on the Celtics version?

Well, Bill Russell, obviously--the man has 11 rings and is considered by many to be the greatest defender, if not the greatest player, of all-time. Larry Bird was another no-brainer.

But what about the last two spots? In my mind there are only three legitimate options: Bob Cousy, John Havlicek, and Paul Pierce.

Cousy's in because even now, 50 years after his last game, he's still regarded as one of the best point guards in basketball history. He led the league in assists eight straight seasons and, along with Russell, was instrumental in building the Celtics' dynasty of the late '50s/early 60's.

The last spot is a really tough call. Hondo spent his entire 16 year career with the C's and has that signature moment from the 1965 Eastern Conference Finals. He's also the franchise leader in games, minutes, field goals made, field goals attempted, and points scored. Pierce leads in three pointers made and taken, free throws made and taken, and is second in points/points per game. They were about equal as scorers and were also good passers, rebounders, and defenders.

It's really close--splitting hairs--made even tougher by the fact that I never saw Havlicek play. But I'll give the nod to Hondo, who played his whole career with Boston and helped raise eight championship banners.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Appreciating Aramis Ramirez

Ramirez is congratulated after his solo home run last night (BeaumontEnterprise)
The Milwaukee Brewers, as you may have heard, are off to a fabulous start. They won nine games in a row before falling to the St. Louis Cardinals Monday (and again last night). At 10-4 they have the best record in baseball (tied with Oakland), and everyone's wondering if this is merely an early season fluke or the first step towards contention for a team that lost 88 games last year and barely finished above .500 the year before.

So with the Brewers firing on all cylinders, I decided not to write about lightning rod Ryan Braun, or likely MVP candidate Carlos Gomez, or up-and-comers Khris Davis/Jean Segura, or the starting rotation, or Francisco Rodriguez. I wanted to talk about Aramis Ramirez for a minute.

The 35 year-old third baseman has been one of the main driving forces behind Milwaukee's early surge. He's played all 14 games thus far and has done his job as the team's cleanup leader, leading the Brew Crew with 12 RBI and driving in at least one run in ten games (eight of which were victories). He's also batting a scintillating .351, which leads the team as well.

And yet nobody seems to talk about Ramirez. He's made only two All-Star teams and has received only one Silver Slugger, which is strange considering he's one of the best-hitting third basemen of all-time. He has more home runs (356) than all but a dozen third basemen, including Dick Allen, Ron Santo, and George Brett. He ranks twelfth in doubles (443--more than Mike Schmidt) and has knocked in more runs (1,288) than Edgar Martinez, Matt Williams and Ken Boyer. His .501 career slugging percentage ranks 11th at the position, just a hair below the .509 career marks of Harmon Killebrew and Eddie Mathews.

(Quick tangent--for reasons I still don't understand, Ramirez was given the NL Hank Aaron Award, which honors the most outstanding offensive performer in each league, in 2008. While his season was very good--.289//380/.518, 27 homers, 111 RBI, 44 doubles--nothing about it qualifies as outstanding. How the award didn't go to Albert Pujols (1.114 OPS) or Ryan Howard (48 home runs, 146 RBI) or Lance Berkman (.986 OPS) is beyond me.)

If he can hang on a few more seasons, Ramirez will likely finish his career with around 500 doubles, 400 home runs, and 1,400 to 1,500 RBI, which, combined with his solid rate stats (.286/.345/.501), would make him one of the ten best offensive third basemen to ever play the game.

He's done so by quietly and consistently producing great numbers for over a decade, first with Pittsburgh, then with the Cubs, now with the Brewers. Starting in 2001, when he was just a 22 year-old kid with the Pirates who batted .300/.350/.536 with 34 home runs, 112 RBI, 40 doubles and 323 total bases, he's averaged 26 home runs and 93 RBI per season. During that span, he hit more home runs and piled up more RBI than any third baseman besides Alex Rodriguez (who was a shortstop until 2004) and Miguel Cabrera (who spent a lot more time at other positions, namely first base and outfield).

In that same span, Ramirez batted over .300 seven times. He topped 25 home runs ten times, exceeding 30 on four occasions. He had seven seasons with at least 100 RBI. He surpassed 30 doubles nine times, clubbing as many as 50 in 2012, when he led the league (his only meaningful black ink, unless you like sacrifice flies, in which case Ramirez was tops in 2002 and 2003). His OPS+ has been over 120 ten times.

(What impresses me most about Ramirez is that in this era of free-swingers, he's had only one season with triple digit strikeouts--100 on the nose in 2001).

Whenever Ramirez has fallen, he always comes back just as strong as before. When he nosedived in 2002 (to a woeful .666 OPS) following his breakout season, be bounced back with 27 home runs and 106 RBI in 2003. When he missed the final 35 games of 2005 with a strained quad, Ramirez rebounded with arguably the best season of his career in 2006 (career high 38 home runs, 119 RBI, and 333 total bases). When his career looked like it was headed south in his early 30s after he missed half of 2009 and slumped in 2010, he revived his bat like fellow Dominican David Ortiz and hit as well as he ever did.

Now in his age-36 season, he's proving he still has something left in the tank after missing 70 games last year. Like always, he's returned to form in the wake of a setback. The resilient Ramirez is doing what he's always done: hit.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Gyorko Gets Extension

Gyorko's elite power compensates for his deficiencies in other areas of the game (RantSports)
Padres second baseman Jedd Gyorko received a six-year, $35 million contract extension today that will take effect immediately. The deal, which makes Gyorko a cornerstone of San Diego's lineup through the rest of the decade, is the third-largest for a player with just one year of service time after Andrelton Simmons and Ryan Braun. It buys out his first year of free agency and also includes a club option for the seventh year/his second free agent year (2020--his age 31 season) priced at $13 million.

The Padres were quick to extend Gyorko, who made his big league debut last Opening Day. Though he's off to a slow start this year with a .531 OPS through his first 12 games, the 25 year-old appears to have a bright future after his strong 2013 campaign. His 23 home runs led the team and ranked second among MLB second baseman (behind Robinson Cano's 27) and was the third-most in big league history by a rookie second baseman, trailing Dan Uggla's 27 with the Marlins in 2006 and Joe Gordon's 25 for the Yankees in 1938.

That power outburst (he also socked 26 doubles), made even more impressive by the facct that Gyorko plays half his games at the power-sapping Petco Park, helped him finish sixth in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, ahead of Nolan Arenado and Evan Gattis but behind the quintet of Jose Fernandez, Yasiel Puig, Shelby Miller, Hyun-jin Ryu and Julio Teheran. Had he not missed 30 games to a groin injury, he may have reached 30 home runs and finished higher in the voting. As it is, he still managed to lead all rookies in home runs, OBP, and SLG. He also became the first rookie second baseman in baseball history to lead his team in RBI (with 63).

Gyorko's power is obvious but he is far from a finished product, or a complete ballplayer, for that matter. For starters, he doesn't contribute much defensively or on the basepaths (just one steal). His .249/.301/.444 batting line was not particularly impressive, though it still produced an OPS that was 13 percent better than average when adjusted for league and park. His plate discipline is also an issue as he whiffed 123 times while drawing just 32 unintentional walks last year, a nearly 4:1 ratio that has carried over into this season (16/4 K/BB) and is reminiscent of the figures Will Middlebrooks posted in his rookie season (which was followed by a brutal sophomore slump). Gyorko proved to be a streaky hitter last year, with 15 of his home runs coming after August 1st, and will likely remain one if he doesn't adopt a more patient plate approach. But seeing as how Gyorko's already in his prime at 25, he doesn't figure to get much better, but it's reasonable to expect he might become more disciplined as he gains more experience.

Regardless, 30-homer potential at the keystone position is almost unheard of and makes Gyorko pretty valuable. FanGraphs estimates he was worth 2.5 fWAR last year in approximately three-quarters of a season (125 games), so it's certainly possible that he'll be a 3-4 win player if he manages to play a whole season. Even if he holds steady at around two wins per season, that's still more than enough to justify his $6 million AAV. Gyorko will provide great value and offense for the Padres, an organization that craves both.

Perhaps more importantly, Gyorko also acts as an insurance policy for Chase Headley, who's in his walk year and may leave as a free agent following this season. Gyorko manned the hot corner in the minors and would have no problem shifting over to third should Headley leave (I have a feeling he will).

In the meantime, Gyorko will continue to provide big-time pop from a premium position, and that's plenty valuable enough.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Can Anyone Catch Bonds?

Bonds's home run record will likely stand for a long time (NPR)
All this talk about Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds last week got me thinking: is there anyone in baseball right now who might finish his career as the all-time home run king? I took a look at the players I feel have the best chances, with their career home run totals in parentheses (not including today's games).

Alex Rodriguez (654)
A-Rod is closest, needing 108 round-trippers to tie Bonds, but that doesn't seem likely to happen for a variety of reasons. First, it's unclear whether Rodriguez will ever play again after missing the entire 2014 season because of his PED suspension. He turns 39 over the summer, and age combined with failing health (88 games per season over the past three) will make it difficult to return to his previous level of his excellence. Plus, nobody has ever hit 108 home runs after turning 39, though Bonds and a few others (Darrell Evans, Carlton Fisk) came close.

Albert Pujols (494)
Pujols is 34 but should have his 500th home run by the end of next month (he's currently sitting on 494, having just passed Fred McGriff and Lou Gehrig). In a vacuum Pujols appears to be in a good spot, since only Rodriguez, Jimmie Foxx and Sammy Sosa hit more home runs through age 33. However, it's highly unlikely that he'll hit the 268 home runs (as many as Brooks Robinson and Joe Morgan had in their entire careers) needed to catch Bonds seeing as how his home run totals have gone down every year since 2009. Bonds and Aaron are the only players that have done what Pujols needs to do, but whereas Aaron got a late kick from Atlanta's launching pad stadium and Bonds, um, got his late kick from something else, Pujols is stuck in a pitcher's park that's only going to take home runs away from him.

Miguel Cabrera (366)
Cabrera's been so good for so long (a decade of sustained excellence) that it's surprising how far he still has to go to catch Bonds. Off the top of my head, I would've guessed that Cabrera was past 400 already, but in reality he still may not be at 400 by the end of this season (he has 366 currently). That means he still needs to hit almost 400 home runs which, given his age (31 on Friday) is going to be virtually impossible. After turning 31, only Bonds and Babe Ruth have hit the number of home runs that Cabrera needs to hit to catch Bonds. Put another way, he needs to hit as many home runs as Joe Carter did in his whole career, which probably isn't going to happen.

Prince Fielder (285)
Cabrera's former teammate has 285 taters through his age 29 season, but that still leaves him almost 500 short of Bonds. With a body type that doesn't age well, Fielder won't have the longevity to approach 700 even if he becomes a full-time DH.

Jay Bruce (166)
Bruce, who just turned 27, had more home runs through his age 26 season than Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson, Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez, Lou Gehrig, Barry Bonds, and Frank Thomas. He's helped by the fact that he broke in at 21 and showed power immediately, blasting 21 home runs that year (2008). His home run totals increased each year through 2012, peaking at 34 before dropping slightly to 30 in 2013. It also helps that he plays in a homer-friendly park and has been durable. Bruce is on track for 500-600 home runs, but 700 is going to be a challenge unless he can string together a few 40-50 homer seasons, which may be tough to do given how streaky and strikeout prone he is.

Giancarlo Stanton (121)
Just 24 and with 121 big flies under his belt, Stanton seems to have a good shot. He had the tenth-most home runs through age 23, but he would rank a lot higher on that list if he hadn't missed an average of 40 games per season in his first four years. In 2012, for instance, he slammed 37 home runs in just 123 games, which works out to be a 48-homer pace when projected out over 162 games. Stanton's light-tower power is well-documented and makes him a great candidate to break the record, but for a serious run at Bonds he has to stay healthier. It also wouldn't hurt if he could away from Miami's mammoth outfield dimensions.

Mike Trout (65)
Through age 21, only Mel Ott, Tony Conigliaro, Eddie Mathews, Frank Robinson, and Alex Rodriguez went deep more often than Trout. Including Conigliaro, whose career was tragically cut short by Jack Hamilton's beanball, the group's average home run total is 485.6. Ott and Mathews finished with near identical career totals (511 and 512, respectively) while Robinson reached 586 and Rodriguez is at 654 (and possibly still counting). That puts Trout in some pretty impressive company. Playing half his games in Anaheim hurts, but perhaps he will land a massive contract somewhere more hitter-friendly when his extension runs out.

Bryce Harper (43)
Harper hit 22 bombs as a 19 year-old and 20 more as a 20 year-old. Only Ott and Congiliaro homered more through the same age. Like Stanton, Harper has demonstrated massive power that should only improve as he reaches his prime years, but also like Stanton he must do a better job of staying healthy if he wants the all-time home run record.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Sizemore Swinging Hot Bat

Sizemore takes Sabathia deep at Yankee Stadium
I know it's early, but I just wanted to mention how thrilled I am by Grady Sizemore's hot start. Hitting a home run on Opening Day, his Red Sox debut and first big league game since 2011, was storybook. Though Boston lost that day, it was a huge victory for Sizemore.

In the last ten days, he's done everything he can to prove that swing wasn't a fluke. He had back-to-back multi-hit games versus Texas earlier in the week, then last night slugged a go-ahead three-run bomb off CC Sabathia. Today John Farrell rewarded him with a day off as the Sox try to ease him back into a substantial role (on a semi-related note, Boston lost).

Sizemore's batting .333/.394/.600 on the young season with two home runs, two doubles and a stolen base. There's no way he can keep hitting at that pace, of course, but it will be fun watching him try.

Ranking Baseball's Best Sluggers

Ruth towered over his era unlike any player before or since 
I meant to write this when Ralph Kiner passed away in February but am only just now getting around to it. A quick note: because slugging percentages are often inflated by batting average, I tried to give more weight to Isolated Power and AB/HR Ratio.

1 Babe Ruth 714 HR .690 SLG .348 Iso 11.76 AB/HR
It blows my mind that the Babe nearly slugged .700 for his career. He won 12 of his league's 14 home run titles from 1918 to 1931 and led the league in slugging every year in that timeframe except one (1925--when he slugged .543 and did not have enough at-bats to qualify).  From 1919 through 1932 he averaged 45 home runs per year and slugged .726. Ruth had 11 seasons with at least 40 home runs (a record) including seven straight from 1926-'32 (also a record). He also routinely outhomered entire teams by himself and ushered in the era of the modern slugger.

2. Barry Bonds 762 HR .607 SLG .309 Iso 12.92 AB/HR
The all-time and single season home run champ was also one of the game's most efficient sluggers. When he belted 73 home runs in 2001 he went yard once every 6.52 at-bats, the fastest pace of all-time. Bobby Bonds' son also holds the single season mark for slugging percentage--.863--also set in 2001. He had eight 40 homer seasons, 14 30 homer seasons (including a record 13 in a row from 1992 to 2004) and 19 20 homer seasons.

3. Mark McGwire 588 HR .588 SLG .325 Iso 10.6 AB/HR
Nobody in baseball history homered at a higher frequency than McGwire, who also owns the second best Isolated Power mark of all-time. Big Mac s one of just two players to hit 70 home runs in a single season and one of three to top 50 in four different seasons. He also owns three of the four best single season HR/AB ratios.

4. Hank Aaron 755 HR .557 SLG .250 Iso 16.38 AB/HR
With just one season with more than 44 home runs, Aaron wasn't the most dominant slugger who ever lived: he just did it longer than anyone else. He hit at least 20 home runs for 20 straight seasons, topping 40 eight times and 30 15 times. That's why he has the most total bases by a long shot and more home runs than anyone not named Barry Bonds.

5 Jim Thome 612 HR .554 SLG .278 Iso 13.76 AB/HR
Though often overshadowed by the likes of Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, and Ken Griffey Jr., Thome was one of the best sluggers of the last half century. He topped 20 homers 16 times, reaching 30 a dozen times and 40 half a dozen. Incredibly, Thome received only one Silver Slugger in his 22 year-career--as Cleveland's third baseman in 1996.

6. Lou Gehrig 493 HR .632 SLG .292 Iso 16.23 AB/HR
Larrupin' Lou's home run totals were often outdone by his teammate Ruth, though he did hit almost 500 in what amounted to be 14 full seasons and reached 49 in a season twice. Gehrig's gap power was phenomenal, helping him eclipse 300 total bases every year from 1926 to 1938 and surpass 400 in five of those seasons (a record). In all, the Iron Horse racked up almost 1,200 extra base hits over the course of his career.

7. Jimmie Foxx 534 HR .609 SLG .284 Iso 15.23 AB/HR
Few baseball players have ever hit the ball harder than Foxx, who hit at least 30 home runs every year from 1929 through 1940, averaging 40 per season and slugging .644 during that time. He very nearly broke Ruth's single season home run record in 1932 but finished at 58--still the record by an American League right-handed hitter.

8. Ted Williams 521 HR .634 SLG .289 Iso 14.79 AB/HR
Williams won four home run crowns and nine slugging titles, topping .700 in three separate seasons. He was also the total base champ six times. And while he only topped 40 home runs once (with 43 in 1949), he slammed at least 20 16 times in his 19 year career.

9 Ralph Kiner 369 HR .548 SLG .269 Iso 14.11 AB/HR
Kiner led his league in home runs seven straight years--something not even Ruth accomplished. Even more impressively, Kiner did so in the first seven years of his career. He hit at least 40 dingers in five consecutive seasons from 1947 through 1951, topping 50 twice and slugging .609 over that stretch.

10. Hank Greenberg 331 HR .605 SLG .292 Iso 15.69 AB/HR
The original Hammerin' Hank played only nine full seasons but led his league in home runs in four of them with a high of 58 in 1938. He and Foxx are the only righthanded batters to slug better than .600 for their careers.

Honorable Mention: Sammy Sosa, Harmon Killebrew, Mickey Mantle, Manny Ramirez, Willie Mays

Friday, April 11, 2014

Pujols Not Done Yet

Pujols just passed Lou Gehrig and Fred McGriff on the all-time home run list
I know it's early, but I'm starting to get the feeling that Albert Pujols is back. Yeah, I think the baseball world gave up on him too soon.

Everybody seems to think that Pujols has been a disaster since signing his mammoth contract with the Angels, and that's simply not true. He hasn't been as good as he was before he signed the contract, but we had no reason to expect him to be. Pujols was already past his prime at 32 when he inked his contract and was already on his way down, having suffered declining performance in each of the previous two years. Moving to Angels Stadium, a notoriously tough park for hitters, and a division with pitching friendly venues in Seattle and Oakland, wasn't going to help. Throw in the pressure of signing the third-largest deal in baseball history at the time (behind only the two signed by Alex Rodriguez) and it was pretty much guaranteed that we had already seen the best of Pujols.

It didn't help that Pujols made a bad first impression with his new team. He went homerless in April 2012, knocking in only four runs and batting just .217/.265/.304--easily the worst month of his career up to that point. With Pujols sputtering (and Mike Trout still in the minor leagues) the Angels struggled, going 8-15 and effectively dooming their postseason chances. It goes without saying that had Pujols hit like Pujols and Trout was on the team from the start, the 2012 Angels would have made the playoffs and maybe won the World Series, and if that had happened then people would surely have a much different perception of Pujols's Angels tenure.

Alas, we will never know. Pujols did not break out of his funk until he swatted his first home run of the year on May 16th. But from that point forward, he hit like the Pujols of old, batting .308/.371/.588 the rest of the way.

Though his .285/.343/.516 final line represented career lows in all three triple slash categories, it was still good for a robust 138 OPS+. He reached 30 homers for the 12th consecutive season, topped 100 RBI for the 11th time and had exactly the same number of hits (173) and total bases (313) as the year before. He also cranked 50 doubles--his most since 2004 and one shy of league leader Alex Gordon--and was worth nearly five wins above replacement according to Baseball-Reference.

If anything, Pujols was underrated that year. Though he was one of the league's ten most valuable position players, he did not make the All-Star team and finished a distant 17th in the MVP voting (after never having finished lower than fifth before that) behind the likes of Derek Jeter (2.2 bWAR), Fernando Rodney (3.8 bWAR) and Jim Johnson (2.5 bWAR). All-in-all, it was a pretty good year, though certainly a bit below expectations.

Then came 2013, the year that essentially destroyed Pujols's reputation as one of the game's elite. All because for the first time in his career, Pujols was unable to stay healthy. After averaging 155 games played per year from 2001 through 2012, Pujols played just 99 games in 2013 before he was shut down for the season in late July. Hampered by plantar fascitiis and various lower body ailments, Pujols played in pain the entire season, and it showed in his numbers. He batted a lowly .258/.330/.437, struggled in the field and was a nonfactor on the bases. Hobbled by injuries, Pujols clearly wasn't the same player, and given his age it was fair to wonder whether he would be ever again.

And so people counted Pujols out. They said he was old and washed up. They doubted his abilities. Everyone called his contract an albatross, a horrible mistake. They said he was done. All at once, everyone seemed to lose faith in the greatest hitter of his generation. Once money in the bank, he was viewed as one giant question mark or worse--damaged goods.

The more I think about it, the more I think we all overreacted. Pujols had one bad season, which wasn't even that bad. It was poor by his lofty standards, but really not so terrible otherwise. His OPS, when adjusted for league and park, was still 16 percent better than average. He was on pace for around 25 home runs and 100 RBI before he was shut down. And yet everyone grabbed their pitchforks and treated him like the next Jason Bay, or the next Vernon Wells. So it goes when you're locked into a ten-year, $240 million deal that expects you to earn the bulk of that money in the first few years of your contract.

All the talk about his decline seems premature and exaggerated. Pujols is 34, still young enough that he should have several more good years in him. He's not going to be the monster who won three MVP awards in five years, who like Miguel Cabrera was a threat to win the Triple Crown every year, but he still has the skills to be a very good hitter. He still has power, as he showcased the last couple nights, and he still has that perfect, balanced swing. He doesn't strike out very much. He remains a dangerous hitter, arguably more dangerous now that he has something to prove--that he can still rake.

Pujols still has something left in the tank. Not enough to catch Barry Bonds, but enough to keep climbing up the career leaderboards and cement his status as one of the greatest to ever play the game.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Aaron's Anniversary

40 years ago today, a new home run king was crowned. Hank Aaron, 40 years old at the time took Al Downing deep for the 715th home run of his career, breaking Babe Ruth's record. In the four decades since only one other player--Barry Bonds--has hit as many in his career. Bonds, of course, would up with 762, seven more than Aaron.

Both needed late career surges to get there. Bonds averaged 52 home runs per year from age 35 through 39, belting 258 in all. Aaron averaged 41 per season over the same age span, adding 203 to his career total. Ruth was not far off, hitting 192 from age 35 to 39, though his run followed a more natural age pattern as his home run totals dropped every year, falling from 49 at 35 to 22 at 39.

(Ruth was very nearly matched by the ageless Rafael Palmeiro, who cranked 190 big flies from ages 35 to 39 and has the fourth most home runs in that age bracket. I never would have guessed who was fifth: none other than Andres Galarraga)

It's not surprising that the three greatest home run hitters of all-time were also the three best home run hitters from age 35 to 39. Most sluggers begin to experience a power drop-off in their early 30s, so anyone who can average 40-50 home runs in his late 30s is truly remarkable.

I guess my point is that in order to have what can be considered one of the best careers of all-time, you have to remain elite into your late 30s. It's not enough to be great when you're young because almost all great players are great when they're young. What separates the best from the rest is the ability to stay healthy and retain your skills as you approach 40. Most players fall apart and retire. The best keep plugging along without skipping a beat.

Aaron always said the home run chase was incredibly draining and took a lot out of him. Based on his numbers in the years leading up to his achievement, you wouldn't have thought so. But I do find it interesting that after Aaron broke the record, he got old very quickly. He hit 20 home runs in 1974--half as many as the season before--and posted the second-lowest batting average, OBP, slugging, OPS, and OPS+ of his career. The Braves, perhaps sensing he was slipping, traded him to the Brewers so he could finish his career in Milwaukee. In his time with the Brewers he was merely a shell of his former self--not even DHing could revive his bat--and he called it quits at 42. Starting the day after he broke Ruth' record, Aaron hit .244 and slugged .397 over the remainder of his career. I guess even the best old players get too old at some point.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Baseball's Best Lefthanded Hitters

The Babe modeled his swing after Shoeless Joe: I'd say it worked out pretty well for him
1 Babe Ruth 206 OPS+ 197 wRC+ .513 wOBA 1,334 Rbat
Almost 80 years after he retired, Ruth still has the highest slugging percentage, OPS, and OPS+ in baseball history. His .474 OBP is second all-time (behind the next guy on this list) and his 714 home runs rank third behind Barry Bonds and Hank Aaron.

2 Ted Williams 190 OPS+ 188 wRC+ .493 wOBA 1,069 Rbat
Williams wasn't the greatest hitter who ever lived, but he came damn close. Had he not lost nearly five seasons to military service, he probably would be. His .482 career OBP will likely never be topped.

3. Barry Bonds 182 OPS+ 173 wRC+ .435 wOBA 1,129 Rbat .353 TAvg.
Whether people like it or not Bonds is the all-time home run champion. He also has more walks than anyone else. He had an OPS over 1.000 every year from 1992 through 2007 except one, and in the year he missed (2006--his age 41 season) it was .999. Most impressively, he was an above average hitter (by OPS+) in all of his 22 seasons, and was still going strong (1.045 OPS at age 42) when baseball shut him out of the game.

4. Lou Gehrig 179 OPS+ 173 wRC+ .477 wOBA 971 Rbat
Gehrig was a machine before ALS tragically curtailed his career. One can only imagine how a healthy end to his career would have played out and what his final numbers would have looked like.

5 Ty Cobb 168 OPS+ 165 wRC+ .445 wOBA 996 Rbat
Cobb's career average is .366, which he maintained for 24 seasons. He won 12 batting titles in 13 years, and in the year he didn't win he batted .371. And though he retired before the Great Depression, he still ranks second in hits, runs, and triples.

6 Stan Musial 159 OPS+ 158 wRC+ .435 wOBA 885 Rbat
The Man was the National League's answer to Ted Williams throughout the 1940s and '50s. He was so consistently dominant that he pretty much led the league in something every year into the late '50s, and his 1948 season is one of the best single season performances any hitter has ever had.

7 Tris Speaker 157 OPS+ 157 wRC+ .436 wOBA 819 Rbat
A slightly lesser version of Cobb, the Grey Eagle roped 792 doubles--most all-time--and batted .345 in his 22-year career. Had his career not overlapped with Cobb's, he certainly would have won more than one batting title.

8 Mel Ott 155 OPS+ 156 wRC+ .430 wOBA 775 Rbat
One of the best young hitters in baseball history, Ott posted a 1.084 OPS at age 20 and remained an elite hitter through his mid-30s. Few players have ever taken advantage of their home park as well as Ott, who tailored his swing to fit the Polo Grounds (where he hit 323 of his 511 home runs--63 percent) and won six home run titles in an 11 year span.

9 Johnny Mize 158 OPS+ 157 wRC+ .433 wOBA 505 Rbat
The Big Cat has been largely forgotten by baseball history, but at his peak he was one of the most lethal hitters in baseball history. He batted a Joe DiMaggio-esque.324/.409/.588 over his first ten seasons, which included a three-year interruption because of World War II. Also like DiMaggio, he hit for power (359 home runs) and rarely struck out, whiffing in just 7.1 percent of his plate appearances.

10 Shoeless Joe Jackson 170 OPS+ 165 wRC+ .443 wOBA 439 Rbat
Banned from baseball after one of his finest seasons, Shoeless Joe was well on his way to a Hall of Fame career. As it stands, his .356 batting average is third-highest of all-time behind Cobb and Rogers Hornsby. He only got to play one season in the live ball era, so it's interesting to speculate how his numbers would have turned out had he lasted through the 1920s.

Honorable Mentions: Bill Terry, Jim Thome, Eddie Mathews, Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs, Larry Walker, Ken Griffey Jr.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Cleveland Keeps Kipnis

Cleveland locked up its second baseman at a very reasonable price
The Cleveland Indians announced today that they extended second baseman Jason Kipnis for the next six years (including this one) at a cost of "only" $52.5 million. The extension--nearly identical to the one Matt Carpenter signed with the Cardinals last month--also includes a team option for 2020, when Kipnis will be 33.

For the Indians, that's a terrific deal. Kipnis, who turned 27 on Thursday, ranked as one of the league's ten best position players last year and was rewarded with his first All-Star nod and an 11th place MVP finish. Among American League second basemen, only Robinson Cano and Dustin Pedroia were more valuable per bWAR, and both of them just netted long-term nine figure deals. By comparison, Kipnis is a veritable bargain.

Kipnis doesn't excel at one thing, but like Pedroia and Ben Zobrist he does almost everything well, which has made one of the game's five best second basemen since the start of the 2012 season. He hits for power, gets on base, steals bags, and scores/drives in runs. His defense isn't great, but it's not terrible either. He can hold his own in the field, and while that's not going to win him any Gold Gloves, it also means he's not a liability like Dan Uggla.

Bottom line: you can never go wrong by signing an in-his-prime second baseman for about $8.5 million per year.