Saturday, May 31, 2014

Fear the Phillies?

Rollins, Utley and Howard are enjoying their best seasons in years (RantSports)
The Phillies are in last place entering play today--exactly where most people thought they'd be this year after an offseason full of puzzling moves. But they're only four games below .500, and the same number out of first place in the NL East. They're still very much in contention, positioned so that one good week could vault them to the top of the standings.

The Phillies in first place after Memorial Day? Not as far-fetched as you might think.

One reason why the Phils are still in it is that their once famous infield core of Chase Utley and former MVPs Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard, are all having their best seasons in years. They've turned back the clock, so to speak; not quite to their heyday of 2006-2009, but closer than anyone had a reason to expect.

Let's start with Utley, who's having a downright fantastic season, easily his best in five years. He's leading the major league in doubles (with 22), batting well over .300 and posting the best OPS+ of his career. Healthier than he's been in years, the five-time All-Star is playing like it. He's been the team's most valuable position player thus far and the tenth most valuable position player in the Senior Circuit per bWAR. Some decline should be expected from the 35 year-old keystone, injury-related or otherwise, but the fact remains that he's still a very good player having a great season, which Carlos Beltran, Torii Hunter, and Victor Martinez have shown isn't out of the ordinary (another MVP-caliber season sure would go a long way towards boosting his Hall of Fame credentials, too).

J-Roll, the oldest of the bunch at 35-and-a-half,  is having, on an adjusted OPS basis, his best year with the bat since 2007, when he edged out Matt Holliday for NL MVP honors. Rollins has already equaled last season's home run total (6) and has shown a career-best walk rate of 13.7 percent, which explains his career-high .358 OBP. After years of putting up middling on-base percentages, Rollins finally seems to understand the importance of reaching base when batting near the top of the lineup. As long as he maintains his newfound plate discipline, his .250-ish batting average (which is essentially league average, now) will be tolerable for a table-setter.

And then there's Howard, now a Mark Reynolds/Adam Dunn-type all-or-nothing slugger. The team leader in long balls and RBI is on pace for around 30 and 110, figures he hasn't reached since 2011. But those shiny power numbers come at a cost: Howard is leading the major leagues in strikeouts, batting a meager .227, and his on-base percentage is a borderline unacceptable .303. Obviously those numbers are not ideal, but consider that last year only three players--Chris Davis, Miguel Cabrera and Paul Goldschmidt--topped both 30 long balls and 110 ribbies. The 34 year-old first baseman is very limited at this stage of his career, but he can still hit the ball out of the park and drive in runs.

Obviously the Phillies need all three to keep doing what they're doing if they hope to stay afloat in the crowded NL East. Their offense is already below average compared to the rest of the National League, so any slippage on their part would likely doom Philadelphia's lineup. The Phils rely on them and Marlon Byrd for the bulk of their offensive production, and for the first third of the season all three have exceeded expectations.

They've turned around their careers, at least for the time being. Now let's see if they can turn around the Phillies.

Friday, May 30, 2014

A-Rod: A Modern Willie Mays

A-Rod was the second coming of the amazing Mays (Examiner)
Willie Mays and Alex Rodriguez both rate as each other's second best comp according to Baseball-Reference. B-R says Ken Griffey Jr. was most similar to A-Rod and that Frank Robinson was the Say Hey Kid's closest match. Frankly, I don't see how two players could be any more similar. For starters, many of their career numbers are almost inseparable:

Doubles: Mays 523, A-Rod 519
Home runs: Mays 660, A-Rod 654
RBI: Mays 1,903, A-Rod 1,969
Steals: Mays 338, A-Rod 322
OPS: Mays .941, A-Rod .942
Iso: Mays .256, A-Rod .259
wOBA Mays .409, A-Rod .400
GIDP: Mays 251, A-Rod 240
SH: Mays 13, A-Rod 16
SF: Mays 91, A-Rod 101
BSR: Mays 32.9, A-Rod 33.3

The similarities don't end there, of course. Their careers shared many parallels despite playing out nearly half a century apart.
  • They both batted from the right side
  • They both played in New York and won one World Series playing there. They played for many great teams surrounded by numerous Hall of Fame-caliber players (Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Monte Irvin, and Juan Marichal for Mays, Griffey, Randy Johnson, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera for Rodriguez)
  • Were stellar in their first full seasons/broke out at age 20--Mays won the 1951 NL Rookie of the Year and Rodriguez finished second in the AL MVP race to Juan Gonzalez
  • Emerged as elite players in their third seasons--1954 for Mays (MVP) and '96 for A-Rod (MVP runner-up)--and won their one and only batting crowns
  • Their career batting lines are almost identical: Mays batted .302/.384/.557 and Rodriguez hit .299/.384/.558
  • Rodriguez won five home run titles and four slugging titles. Mays won four home run titles and five slugging titles
  • Both had five full seasons with an OBP better than .400
  • Both led the league in hits once and won a batting title (but not in the same season)
  • Each had one season with at least 100 walks
  • Mays topped 300 total bases for 13 straight seasons, from 1954 through 1966. Rodriguez exceeded 290 13 consecutive years; 1996 through 2008
  • Both had 13 straight seasons with at least 99 runs scored
  • Both won multiple MVPs (but deserved more) and were runner-up twice. Mays won his first and last MVP 12 years apart, something A-Rod would have accomplished if the voters in 1996 had an ounce of sense in their heads
  • Both had multiple seasons with at least 50 home runs, and each won their last MVP with a 50 home run season (Mays with 52 in 1965 and Rodriguez with 54 in 2007)
  • Each switched teams but never leagues, and called three separate cities home
  • Both supplemented their elite power with great speed, and were excellent baserunners/basestealers. Mays stole 338 bases and was caught 103 times (76.6 percent success rate), while Rodriguez swiped 322 and was nabbed 76 (80.9 percent). Reached 40 steals in a season one time each
  • Were regarded as outstanding defensive players and won multiple Gold Gloves, Rodriguez was a slick-fielding shortstop and third baseman while Mays is regarded as perhaps the best defensive center fielder of all-time (along with Tris Speaker)
  • Both had their shares of highs and lows in the postseason
  • Were the highest paid players in baseball for a time
  • Both had their last great season the year they turned 35 (1966 for Mays and 2010 for Rodriguez)
If Rodriguez's career is indeed over (only time will tell), he deserves to be remembered not for all his off-the-field transgressions, but for the greatness he displayed on the diamond. He was as close to Willie Mays as any player possibly can be, and that's pretty special.
A-Rod is fifth on the career home run list, six behind Mays

Monday, May 26, 2014

Sox Stop Skid, Beat Braves

The Red Sox halted their 10-game losing streak today with an 8-6 win over the Atlanta Braves. Boston had not won since Wednesday, May 14th in Minnesota, when they routed the Twins 9-4. What followed was a loss in the series finale and three consecutive sweeps to the Tigers and Blue Jays at home, then to the Rays on the road. The skid, Boston's longest since 1994, included three walk-off defeats and dropped them from second place in the AL East to fifth, aka last.

John Farrell's team won today with their biggest scoring output since their most recent win, rallying from a 6-1 deficit to stun the Braves. Trailing 6-1 in the top of the fifth thanks to another horrible start from Clay Buchholz, Boston hung five runs on the scoreboard to tie the game with a two-run single from Dustin Pedroia followed by a three-run bomb off the bat of David Ortiz.

Papi struck again in the top of the seventh, giving Boston the lead with his fourth RBI of the day; a go-ahead sacrifice fly that plated Brock Holt. The next batter, A.J. Pierzynski, knocked in Xander Bogaerts with a ground ball single to Andrelton Simmons.

Boston's airtight bullpen took it from there, as Junichi Tazawa set down the Braves in the bottom half of the frame and Andrew Miller did the same in the eighth. After getting Justin Upton to fly out to lead off the bottom of the ninth, Koji Uehara was touched for a single by Chris Johnson, which brought the potential tying run to the plate in the form of Simmons. But the slumping Simmons grounded into a game-ending 6-4-3 double play, giving Uehara his tenth save and Boston a much-needed win.

The Sox will look to turn this victory into a winning streak tomorrow with Jon Lester on the mound. Atlanta answers with Aaron Harang. Both have been very good this season, so expect a good old-fashioned pitcher's duel at Turner Field tomorrow night.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Where Does Cano Rank Among Yankee Second Baseman?

Now that Cano's tenure with the Yankees is over, is he their best 2B ever? 
I'm still getting used to the idea that Robinson Cano is a Seattle Mariner. But now that he is one and his days in Pinstripes are most likely over, I wondered where he rates among the Yankees' best second basemen in franchise history. Here's my top-five list:

5. Gil McDougald (.276/.356/.410, 111 OPS+, 40.7 bWAR
Though the native Californian actually played more games at other positions (shortstop and third) than he did at second, of the positions he did play he logged the most time at the keystone. The 1951 AL Rookie of the Year (an honor Minnie Minoso deserved) was the first Yankee to win the award and first rookie to hit a grand slam in the World Series, though he's probably best remembered for how he altered the career of another Rookie of the Year, Cleveland flamethrower Herb Score, with a line drive that struck Score in the right eye and effectively finished his career at age 23. History seems to have forgotten that McDougald was exceptionally consistent throughout his ten-year career, worth at least 2.5 bWAR every year as he helped Casey Stengel's Yankees capture eight pennants and five World Series. A five-time All-Star with a trio of top-ten MVP finishes, McDougald could be counted on for between 10-14 home runs per year (something he achieved in all but his two final seasons) and a good OBP, usually around .360. The versatile teammate of Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford could bat almost anywhere in the lineup and play three difficult infield positions well, making him a valuable asset during the New York dynasty days of the 1950s.

4. Willie Randolph (.275/.374/.357, 104 OPS+, 53.7 bWAR)
The Pirates traded him (along with Dock Ellis and George Brett's older brother Ken Brett) to New York for pitcher Doc Medich when Randolph was just 21, with only 70 major league plate appearances to his name. While Medich lasted only one season in Pittsburgh Randolph went on to make a name for himself in the Big Apple, manning the keystone position for the next 13 seasons and playing more games at second base than any Yankee who has ever lived. Batting first or second for many of the great Yankee teams of the late 1970s and early '80s, Randolph was an on-base machine (.373 career OBP while walking nearly twice as often as he struck out) with a good deal of speed, swiping at least ten bases in all but his final season in pinstripes and topping 30 four times. The sparkplug second baseman made five All-Star teams with the Bombers and though he never won a Gold Glove award, he was a great defensive second baseman on par with contemporaries Frank White, Lou Whitaker and Ryne Sandberg. Randolph was as steady as they come and could be counted on to hit around .280 with a very good OBP, usually around .370, and great glovework every year. With more than 60 career WAR according to both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, Randolph has a compelling case for the Hall of Fame.

3. Tony Lazzeri (.293/.379/.467, 120 OPS+,  48.3 bWAR)
"Poosh 'Em Up Tony" was the first great Yankees second baseman and a key contributor for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig's great Yankee squads, playing on six pennant winners. A mainstay at the keystone position for a dozen years from 1926 through 1937, Lazzeri held the record for most games played by a Yankees second baseman for nearly 50 years, until Randolph passed him late in the 1986 season. Lazzeri's numbers were never spectacular but consistently great. He hit between eight and 18 home runs every year, had ten seasons with at least 80 RBI, and registered an OPS+ below 100 only once, in his final year with the Yankees. He also played decent defense and could run a bit as well, exceeding ten stolen bases eight times and nabbing as many as 22 in 1927. Lazzeri was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veteran's Committe in 1991, 45 years after his death.

The top two: Robinson Cano and Joe Gordon

This is a very tough comparison for many reasons. Gordon debuted nearly 70 years before Cano did and the game played today is very different from the one played during the Great Depression. Gordon was also a righthanaded hitter who had to contend with the Old Yankee Stadium's Death Valley, whereas Cano was able to take advantage of the short porch in right. Gordon also missed two prime years to war. Who knows what would have happened during those years? (I have to think he would have continued to play well, and consequently would have been inducted into Cooperstown much earlier than 2009).

The best way to compare them, then, is to see how well they played compared to their peers while simultaneously comparing them to each other. Here goes:

Cano was clearly the better hitter, but not by much. Though Cano's batting average and slugging percentage were nearly 40 points higher than Gordon's, Gordon walked much more actually got on base at a slightly better clip, and because he played in a much more difficult ballpark their Adjusted OPS figures are almost identical. Their power numbers are also very close, as Gordon averaged 22 home runs and 88 RBI per season while Cano averaged 23 and 91. That said, Cano produced almost twice as many runs with the bat as Gordon did (180 to 97) during their respective Yankee careers, so I feel pretty comfortable saying Cano was a better hitter.

Cano's a good defensive second baseman, but Gordon was great and one of the best to ever play the position. Cano saved 23 runs with his glove in his nine seasons with New York, winning two Gold Gloves, but Gordon saved 103 in seven years and probably would have won the Gold Glove every year had the award existed back then. To put Gordon's greatness in perspective, he saved 21 runs defensively in one season--1939.

Both players were slightly below average baserunners. Cano was a touch better, but not enough to swing the argument. Any advantage you give Cano for baserunning, however small, would just be canceled out by Gordon's superiority in the postseason anyways.

Cano was a better hitter, but Gordon was nearly as good and more than made up for the difference with his glove. Gordon was the more valuable player on a per season basis. The numbers bear this out, as Cano averaged five bWAR per season with New York, while Gordon averaged 5.4. Gordon was also the only Yankee second baseman to ever win an MVP award, though Cano (and Bobby Richardson) came close. Thus, the choice is clear. Joe Gordon is the best second baseman the Yankees have ever had, but there's certainly an argument to be made for Cano, especially if you're skeptical of defensive metrics and/or give more weight to hitting.

2. Robinson Cano (.309/.355/.504, 125 OPS+, 45.1 bWAR)
Cano's Yankee career can essentially be split into two halves. For the first four years of his career, Cano was a good-not-great hitter (109 OPS+) who hardly ever walked and was still searching for his home run power. He showed flashes of brilliance, nearly beating out Joe Mauer for the batting title as a sophomore, but went through growing pains and had trouble remaining conistent under Joe Torre. His defense was also erratic, characterized by smooth glovework and lapses in focus. In the second half, Cano matured into a superstar under Joe Girardi. With his Ken Griffey Jr.-sweet swing, Cano blossomed from a frustrating, but clearly talented young player into a perennial All-Star and MVP candidate. After exceeding 15 home runs just once in his first four seasons, Cano hit no less than 25 in each of his next five seasons in addition to clubbing at least 41 doubles and batting well over .300 every year, ranking as baseball's fourth-most valuable player during that span (tied with Joe Votto behind Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist). He exhibited more patience and became the biggest bat on teams that included greats such as Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Mark Teixeira. He also emerged as one of the best defensive second baseman in the game. Had he stayed with New York, he surely would have retired as the best 2B in franchise history. But that would have meant turning down a contract that will pay him nearly one quarter of a billion dollars over the next decade, and who in their right mind would do that?

1. Joe Gordon (.271/.358/.467, 120 OPS+, 37.5 bWAR)
Like Lazzeri, Gordon shined bright but not for very long, and as a result he was not inducted into Cooperstown until decades after his death. A 23 year-old rookie in 1938, Gordon succeeded Lazzeri as New York's everyday second baseman and immediately proved himself to be just as good as his predecessor. His 25 home runs broke Charlie Gehringer's record for a rookie second baseman, a record that stood until Dan Uggla parked 27 in 2006. With his marriage of elite power and terrific defense, Gordon was named to the All-Star team in each of his next nine seasons, taking MVP honors in 1942 over Triple Crown winner Ted Williams (not to mention teammate Joe DiMaggio) and finishing in the top-ten four other times. Gordon lost two prime seasons, 1944 and 1945, to World War II and was not the same when he returned, as a combination of rustiness and injuries caused him to endure the worst season of his career in 1946. That fall, Larry MacPhail dealt him to the Cleveland Indians for Allie Reynolds, a swap that worked out wonderfully for both sides. Gordon revived his career in Cleveland, helping the Tribe win the pennant in 1948 with arguably his finest season, while Reynolds helped pitch New York to six World Series titles, including five straight from 1949-'53. Gordon finished his Yankee career with exactly 1,000 games played and 1,000 hits, the only player in history to do so.

Honorable Mentions: Alfonso Soriano, Bobby Richardson, Horace Clarke

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Sox Spring Struggles Continue

The Red Sox were booed off the field after Thursday's loss to Toronto (CBS Boston)
The Red Sox lost again last night, 1-0 at Tropicana Field on a pinch hit, walk-off double by Cole Figueroa, the latest no-name member of the Rays to channel his inner Dan Johnson/Jose Lobaton and sink the Sox with a clutch hit.

The reeling Red Sox, coming off a nightmare homestand in which they dropped all six games as they were swept by the Tigers and Blue Jays, have now lost eight in a row. Their last win came 10 days ago. Last year, their longest losing streak was three games. This year, they haven't even had a winning streak that long.

But as we get deeper and deeper into the season, it's becoming painfully obvious that this year's team, despite returning many of the same players, is not last year's team, which won 97 regular season games and the World Series.

The most notable difference has been the hitting, which has been a problem since day one. The 2013 Boston Red Sox fielded the best offense in baseball, leading the majors in runs scored and a host of other categories. This year's offense has been one of the worst in the league, ranking in the bottom five in runs, hits, home runs, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, and total bases.

Much of their struggles can be blamed on the absences of Jacoby Ellsbury, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and the recently returned Stephen Drew, as their replacements (Jackie Bradley, Jr., Grady Sizemore, A.J. Pierzynski) have not been up to snuff. Without Ellsbury, Boston's been much less aggressive on the basepaths, reverting to the station-to-station team they've generally tended to be throughout their history (with the exception of last year, when they ranked third in the AL in steals and were the most efficient basestealing team in baseball).

That's fine if you're following the Earl Weaver playbook, relying on walks and three-run homers, but this year's club has been light on power. With the exception of David Ortiz, nobody is providing pop--Papi is the only regular with a slugging percentage above .420. In fact, Ortiz accounts for nearly one-third of Boston's longballs thus far, contributing 11 of their 37 big flies.

He, Mike Napoli, and Xander Bogaerts are the only Red Sox position players who have not disappointed. Last year, the Red Sox had an OPS+ of 108 or better at every position except third base. This year, the same can be said of only three positions; second base, shortstop and DH. The outfield, comprised of Bradley, Sizemore, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, and Daniel Nava, has been atrocious, batting a combined .220/.291/.339. I bet the Red Sox wish they had Nelson Cruz right about now.

So without power, speed, and the ability to manufacture runs (the Sox have a .678 OPS with men on base), scoring has been an issue all season long. Boston's averaging just 3.94 runs per game, well below last year's league leading total of 5.27. If the Red Sox are going to catch fire and turn their season around, the bats need to wake up.

Until they do, most of the blame for Boston's sluggish start rests on their shoulders. The pitching has been very good for the most part (with the exception of last week, when Boston starters proved incapable of putting together a quality start), compiling the league's sixth-lowest ERA. Before Felix Doubront landed on the Disabled List with a strained shoulder after his most recent start, the original/intended rotation had failed to miss a start. Jon Lester and John Lackey have been stellar at the top of the rotation, with Lester looking like a Cy Young candidate again and Lackey proving that last year's revival was no fluke. Jake Peavy was great before his last two turns yielded 20 hits, and 11 earned runs, spiking his ERA by almost a run-and-a-half.

The rest of the rotation has been a disappointment, though. Clay Buchholz has been an unmitigated disaster, starting this season as poorly as he did 2012. Nothing seems to be physically wrong with him, though, so as long as he stays healthy (a big if for him) he should pitch better. Peavy has allowed a home run in every start, a disturbing trend, to say the least. He's been inconsistent and might not be much better than Ryan Dempster was last year. Doubront failed to take the step forward that many were hoping for in his third season, and is now hurt.

On the bright side, the bullpen, aside from Edward Mujica, has been terrific. Of the eight relievers Boston's used this year (excluding Mike Carp's catastrophic five-walk inning), Mujica's the only one with an ERA over 3.10. Everyone else--Burke Badenhop, Andrew Miller, Junichi Tazawa, Craig Breslow, Brandon Workman, Chris Capuano, and of course Koji Uehara--has been fantastic, which is why the bullpen's collective ERA currently sits below three, at 2.97. The 'pen is Boston's biggest strength at the moment.

But a good bullpen only gets you so far. The Sox aren't going anywhere until they start scoring runs and supporting their pitchers. Drew's return will help in that regard, but they still have major holes to address at third base (Will Middlebrooks has been terrible again), behind the plate (Pierzynski and David Ross aren't cutting it), and in the outfield, where Bradley, Nava, and Sizemore look lost offensively.

 John Farrell's daily Joe Maddon-esque juggling hasn't worked, so I think it's time for him to stop tinkering and settle on a lineup. Bat Bogaerts leadoff, Dustin Pedroia second, Ortiz, third, then Napoli, Gomes, Drew, and Victorino. Playing musical chairs with the batting order isn't going to make whoever hits near the bottom of it magically disappear, and this is a veteran team that would appreciate some stability.

It's very rare that a Red Sox team, playing half its games in one of the best hitter's parks in baseball, doesn't hit, so I have to believe the offense will come around as the weather warms. But this unit is too old and thin to be the run-scoring machine it was last year. The lineup has too many weaknesses and probably won't be much better than average offensively, unless they make some major changes at the trade deadline (still more than two months away).

Incredibly, Boston's horrible start has not doomed their season. Despite dropping eight in a row, they're still only six games out of first place in the shockingly mediocre AL East. The Red Sox are still very much in contention, and with a few good weeks could surge right back to the top the division. If the offense clicks, Buchholz figures it out and the Sox stay healthy, they'll be fine.

But dammit, they need to start hitting. And soon.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Fielder Finished

Fielder is done, and in all likelihood so are the Rangers (NBCDFW)
Prince Fielder will go under the knife on Tuesday to repair a herniated disk in his back, an operation that requires 3-4 months of recovery time and thus ends his first season with the Texas Rangers. For the first time since 2005--his rookie season--the previously durable Fielder will finish a year with fewer than 157 games played.

The Rangers, you might recall, swapped Ian Kinsler for Fielder last fall in an effort to beef up their lineup. Fielder's elite power, on-base and run producing skills were supposed to give Texas a major threat along with Shin-Soo Choo Adrian Beltre in the heart of their order.

Instead, Fielder was a failure, batting just .247/.360/.360--numbers that were actually on the rise after his abysmal April. Cecil Fielder's son, who just celebrated his 30th birthday two weeks ago, showed no signs of resurrecting his vanishing power, managing only three home runs and 16 RBI in 42 games. Moving to Texas, and one of the best hitter's parks in baseball, was supposed to reverse his declining numbers.

Didn't happen. While all three of his home runs came at home, he batted a paltry .187/.333/.347 in 22 games there (as opposed to .307/.388/.373 on the road). Arlington is a hitter's paradise, but Fielder was unable to take advantage of it in his brief 2014 campaign (I have to imagine he'll hit better there next year). Meanwhile, Kinsler has unexpectedly flourished away from Arlington, putting up some of the best numbers of his career and helping the Tigers maintain their grip on the AL Central.

Fielder's injury has to be incredibly frustrating for the Rangers. Not just because they paid him $24 million for replacement level production (-0.3 bWAR), but also because they've been crippled by injuries. Geovany Soto, Jurickson Profar, Matt Harrison, Colby Lewis, Derek Holland, Martin Perez, Joe Saunders, Tanner Scheppers, and now Fielder, among others, are all on the Disabled List or done for the season (and don't forget that Beltre and Yu Darvish already missed time earlier this year). Decimated doesn't even begin to describe the Rangers' injury woes this season, and it's a miracle that Texas is only one game below .500 entering play today. Fielder's injury doesn't just leave a gaping hole in the middle of Ron Washington's order; it effectively dashes whatever hopes the fourth-place Rangers had of clawing back in the playoff race.

They were counting on Fielder to get hot and pick up the offense, which ranks second-to-last in the American League in home runs. They were waiting for his power stroke return as the weather heated up. They were hoping he would start resembling Prince Fielder, you know, the beastly slugger who made five All-Star teams and smacked 283 homers over the past eight seasons.

Unfortunately for the Rangers, they'll have to keep waiting.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Drew Returns

Drew rejoins a Red Sox team that needs him now more than ever (Boston Herald)
Seven months after rejecting Boston's qualifying offer, Stephen Drew is a Red Sock once again.

Drew, who was reportedly eyeing a multi-year deal, instead settled for a one-year, $10.2 million contract that nearly matches the one he signed with Boston a year and a half ago.

Much has changed since then. The Red Sox bounced back from a 93-loss season to win the World Series, and Drew re-established himself as one of baseball's better shortstops after struggling with injuries in 2011 and 2012. Though Drew struggled mightily in the postseason, John Farrell stuck with him because of his plus defense and was rewarded with terrific glovework from J.D. Drew's little brother.

Less than two weeks after helping Boston win its third championship of the millennium, Drew was a free agent. The Red Sox, with Xander Bogaerts lined up to inherit his job, did not make much of an effort to bring Drew back and seemed ready to move on without him in 2014.

But there was a surprising lack of interest in Drew, largely because any team that signed him would have to forfeit a draft pick to Boston. So even though several teams (the Mets, Yankees, Tigers specifically) had a clear need at shortstop, they entered the season without even making Drew so much as an offer. It appeared that he would have to wait until after the MLB Amateur Draft in early June to land a deal.

That allowed the Sox to swoop in and sign the 31 year-old two weeks before the draft. All it took was a pro-rated version of qualifying offer, which Drew wished he'd accepted in the first place as he began the season without a home. It seems strange to me that he would sign now, when he probably could have fetched more money (and another year, probably) had Scott Boras made him wait just two more weeks. Not only did the Red Sox get a great deal, but they also kept him away from teams that needed him more than they did.

But make no mistake; Boston needs Drew. He joins a team that is sinking fast and growing desperate for someone to light a spark under them. They need someone who can stretch out the lineup and play solid defense, and Drew does both of those things.

He isn't going save the Red Sox season by himself, but he does make them better. His  return bumps Bogaerts to third base, which upgrades the defense at short and improves the offense at third by taking at-bats away from replacement level-Brock Holt (and probably Will Middlebrooks when he returns from the DL). Drew's going to need some time in the minors to face live pitching, but still has enough time to add two or three wins to the Red Sox by himself, assuming he plays at the level he did last year.

That's not going to matter much if they keep wallowing below .500, but it's a start.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Papi's Prodigious Power

Ortiz has outhomered all but two players in Red Sox history
After his recent home run barrage in Minnesota, David Ortiz has gone deep more times than anyone in the history of the Boston Red Sox, save Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski (who need no introduction). Ortiz already topped 23 taters in all 11 of his seasons with Boston prior to this one, averaging 34 per season, and with 11 already he's well on his way to doing it again in 2014.

Papi's power has been a mainstay in the heart of Boston's order for more than a decade. The Dominican DH has been soaring up the team's leaderboards since 2003, when he debuted with the Sox by slamming 31 home runs, posting a .961 OPS and finishing fifth in the MVP voting. It was the beginning of a remarkable run for Ortiz, who bashed 41 round-trippers the following year, 47 more the year after that and peaked at 54 in 2006--shattering Jimmie Foxx's single season franchise record of 50 which had stood since 1938. 

Even as Ortiz's home run production tailed off a bit after 2006 (he hasn't exceeded 35 since), Big Papi kept adding to his totals and climbed to fifth place midway through the 2010 season--his sixth with at least 30 dingers. He remained there until this year, when he leapfrogged Dwight Evans and Jim Rice in rapid succession. Ortiz needed much fewer at-bats than either of the long-time Sox sluggers; "Dewey" Evans came to the plate more than 10,000 times in his 19 seasons with the team, while Rice played his entire 16-year career in Boston and amassed over 9,000 plate appearances. Ortiz, now in his 12th season with the Sox, has yet to reach even 7,000 plate appearances. His 14.9 AB/HR ratio is fourth-best all-time among Sox sluggers, bested only by former teammate Manny Ramirez, Foxx, and Williams, and since the start of the 2003 season he has more long balls than everyone in baseball except for two: Albert Pujols and Adam Dunn.

After remaining in fifth place for nearly four years, the three-time World Series champion won't be escaping third place anytime soon. He still needs almost 70 bombs to reach Yastrzemski, who went yard 452 times in his 23 seasons. At 521, Williams is out of reach, unless by some miracle Ortiz remains a premier power hitter into his mid-forties. Assuming Papi finishes this season with around 400 dingers (perhaps a bit conservative seeing as how he's on pace to club 42 this year), he'd still need two more very good seasons to catch Yaz. Considering his age--38 and a half--that seems like a tall task, but Ortiz has showed no signs of slowing down and just might be able to pull it off. He's under contract for next year, and the Red Sox will surely bring him back as long as he continues to hit. 

So until an injury pops up or Ortiz starts to decline, it remains a very real possibility that the nine-time All-Star will finish his Red Sox career with more circuit drives than anyone besides Teddy Ballgame. And, if Papi eclipses Yaz or falls just short, he'll reach the 500 home run plateau and seriously bolster his Hall of Fame chances (more on that to come). Regardless of where he ends up, he'll go down as one of the best sluggers the Sox have ever had.

So even if he never hits another home run, his place in Red Sox history, as well as the organization's Hall of Fame, is secure. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Boston Takes Texas Series

Lackey was in control and guided Boston to another victory
Slowly but surely, the Red Sox are gaining steam.

With their 5-2 win over the Texas Rangers today, the Sox won their third straight series and lifted their record over .500 for the first time since April 3rd, when they were 2-1 after winning their season-opening series in Baltimore. At 19-18, Boston has now won six of its last eight and 14 of the last 23, coming alive after a slow start that caused the defending World Series champs to slip to last place in the AL East.

It looked like the visiting Red Sox were in for a long weekend after nearly getting no-hit by Yu Darvish in the series-opener, but they rallied to win 8-3 last night and take the rubber game today. Boston's bats staked John Lackey to an early 4-0 lead by scoring in the first two innings for the first time this season. The Sox scored three times to open the game in the top of the first. Mike Napoli doubled in Dustin Pedroia, and after a Jonny Gomes pop-out A.J. Pierzynski laced a single that plated Napoli and David Ortiz. Boston got another in the second from Shane Victorino's RBI groundout.

Rangers starter Robbie Ross, Jr. settled down after that, pitching into the seventh inning before Pedroia ended his day with a solo shot that barely made it over the left field wall. But Ross was not sharp enough to beat Lackey, who delivered another fine outing that lowered his ERA to 3.57 and improved his record to 5-2. The native Texan hurled seven innings of two-run ball, scattering seven hits and striking out nine while walking none. Shin-Soo Choo took him deep to lead off the bottom of the fourth and added another run in the seventh when Mitch Moreland doubled home Alex Rios.

Lackey nearly lost control of the game when, following Moreland's one-out double, J.P. Arencibia reached on an infield single that ate up Xander Bogaerts. Lackey screamed and stomped his feet the way he always does when a fielder fails to make a play behind him, leading John Farrell to send out Juan Nieves to calm him down. The move seemed to work, for Lackey fanned Leonys Martin and Rougned Odor--both of whom represented the potential tying run--to end the frame and finish his start on a high note.

The Red Sox bullpen took it from there. Andrew Miller worked around hitting Elvis Andrus with a pitch to deliver a scoreless eighth, and Koji Uehara closed the door with a 1-2-3 ninth, converting his 32nd consecutive save opportunity since last July 6th.

The surging Sox get an off-day tomorrow to travel to Minnesota, where they'll wrap up their six-game road trip. Look for them to continue their winning ways against the last-place Twins, who have the American League's second-worst pitching staff (ERA-wise) and a soft lineup.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Red Sox Reach .500

Uehara (right) sealed the win with a perfect ninth inning
For the first time in over a month, the Red Sox don't have a losing record. They evened their record at .500 (17-17) with last night's come-from-behind 4-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds.

The visiting Reds jumped out to an early lead, scoring two in the top of the third on a rare home run into the bullpen from Skip Schumaker, his 26th career blast and first of the season. Mike Leake held Boston scoreless until the sixth, when the Sox struck back to knot the score at two. David Ortiz singled home Jonathan Herrera and Mike Napoli followed with an opposite field double into the corner, plating Shane Victorino and sending Papi to third. Despite having two runners in scoring position with one out, Boston was unable to take the lead.

Cincinnati re-took the lead in the seventh, driving Jake Peavy from the game by loading the bases with nobody out. Chris Capuano induced a run-scoring groundout from Roger Bernadina before giving way to Burke Badenhop, who neutralized the still-bases loaded threat and escape the inning without further damage.

That proved crucial when the Red Sox rallied in the bottom of the eighth. With Leake finally out of the game, Boston got to Cincy's bullpen. Following an Ortiz strikeout, Napoli and Jonny Gomes worked one-out walks, then A.J. Pierzynski drove home Napoli with a game-tying ground-rule double. After J.J. Hoover intentionally walked Jackie Bradley, Jr. to load the bases and set up a potential force out at the plate/inning-ending double play, the slumping Will Middlebrooks ripped a single up the middle, past a diving Zack Cozart to score Gomes and give Boston the lead.

With the bases loaded and only one out, the Red Sox were poised to grab some insurance runs, but once again failed to get a big hit with men on base. Sean Marshall came on in relief and fanned pinch-hitter Mike Carp and Dustin Pedroia (Pedey's fourth whiff of the game) to end the frame.

No matter, for Koji Uehara came in and nailed down the save--his eighth of the season--by retiring Todd Frazier, Bryan Pena and Ryan Ludwick in order, all with K's. Koji now his 22 strikeouts (against just three walks) in 14.2 innings.

After taking both games of their short two-game interleague series with the Reds, Boston gets the day off today to travel to Texas. The Sox send a struggling Clay Buchholz to the mound as try to get over .500 for the first time since April 3rd, but to do so they'll have to get the best of Yu Darvish.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Morneau Making Comeback

Morneau has returned to form with the Rockies after several disappointing seasons
What do you know? Another Rockies post! (I'm a Red Sox fan, I swear). It's just that Colorado has so many compelling narratives right now. How do you not write about Nolan Arenado's hit streak, or Troy Tulowitzki's terrific start, or Charlie Blackmon's out-of-nowhere first month?

The narrative nobody seems to be talking about, however, is that of Justin Morneau, former American League MVP back from the dead after three disappointing seasons.

Maybe that's because it's been a great year for comebacks. Albert Pujols has returned to form, and so has Mark Teixeira. Derek Jeter's back for one final go-round after missing almost all of last year, and Grady Sizemore's a contributor again after missing all of the past two seasons.

Overshadowed by these more compelling narratives as well as the players on his own team, Morneau has slipped under the radar even though, after going 2-for-5 last night, he's hitting .336/.356/.600 on the year with ten doubles, seven home runs and 26 RBI. Buoyed by good health and a slight boost from Coors Field (he still has a .920 OPS on the road), he's hitting like the Morneau of old.

You do remember the Morneau of old, don't you? The one who (somehow) snuck away with the 2006 AL MVP award, was runner-up to Dustin Pedroia in 2008 and made four straight All-Star teams? The RBI machine who knocked in at least 100 runs every year from 2006 through 2009, averaging 30 home runs and 118 ribbies per year? The two-time Silver Slugger who teamed up with Joe Mauer to form a potent 1-2 punch in the heart of Minnesota's order, back when the Twins ruled the AL Central? Seems like ages ago, doesn't it?

He was on his way to another monster season in 2010 with a 1.055 OPS through the season's first 81 games. Then he suffered a concussion sliding into second base and his career went into a downward sprial. He missed the rest of the season and the playoffs, and 2011 was basically a lost season for him, too; he played only 60 games and posted a career-worst .618 OPS. He bounced back in 2012, hitting .267/.333/.440 (112 OPS+) with 19 home runs and 77 RBI in 134 games, but not to his previous levels.

He put up similarly mediocre numbers last year, and with his contract expiring at the end of the season Minnesota declined to pick up his option and dumped him on the Pirates late in the season. The lifelong Twin failed to make much of an impression in Pittsburgh, with only five extra base hits and three RBI in 117 plate appearances (including postseason). Not surprisingly, the Pirates opted not to bring him back.

Colorado, in need of a first baseman following Todd Helton's retirement, took a chance on the 32 year-old, giving him a two-year, $14 million deal to hold down first base, join former teammate Michael Cuddyer and hopefully revive his career with a little (or a lot) of help from Coors Field.

Sure enough, he has. Morneau looks like a new man and is playing his best baseball in half a decade. Who knows if it will last or for how long, but for the time being it appears Morneau has halted his decline and re-captured the offensive skills that made him one of the best hitters in the game not too long ago.

Tulowitzki Terrorizing NL Pitching

Tulo has Colorado off to a rip-roaring start (KFFL)
I think people are finally catching on to just how good Troy Tulowitzki can be.

The Rockies are off to an amazing start--one game out of first in the NL West--and their star shortstop's big first month is a big reason why. After last night's 3-for-4 performance, Tulo's hitting an outrageous .421/.522/.794, easily the best batting line in baseball at the moment. He also has 11 doubles and nine home runs, leads the sport in total bases and has scored more runs than anyone in baseball. And April's National League Player of the Month is getting hotter, with seven multi-hit performances over his late eight games.

Barely a month into the season, he's already provided Colorado with close to four wins above replacement level. Tulowitzki's a great player--a three-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glove recipient and twice a top-five finisher in the MVP race--but he's never been this hot before (not even in September 2010, when he hit 14 home runs in a 15 game stretch and was named NL Player of the Month).

Now in his ninth season, Tulo has long been one of the more underrated talents in baseball. I have a lot of theories why for why that is:
  • He plays in Colorado, which is not on a coast and doesn't have a ton of people and lacks a proud baseball tradition. The Rockies are an expansion era team that's barely been around for 20 years and has never won a World Series game. They don't have the rich tradition or wide fan base that the Red Sox, Yankees, Cardinals, and Cubs do.
  • Colorado simply hasn't been very good: before this year he had been on five losing teams in eight years, and one of the winning seasons produced only 83 victories. Tulo hasn't gotten much postseason exposure, playing in just 15 total playoff games. Last year the Red Sox played 16 postseason games. Tulo isn't a household name because he's not an October fixture like David Ortiz or Derek Jeter.
  • He plays half his game in Coors Field, a hitter's paradise, and so he gets dinged for that like every other Rockie who puts up big numbers. He's hit exceptionally well there over the course of his career and this year in particular, batting an absurd .608/.677/.1.098 in 15 home games so far.
  • Tulo isn't very flashy. Before this year he had never lead the league in any meaningful offenive cateogry. Offensively he's a .300-25-90 guy, which is obviously very good but won't win any batting titles or home run crowns. He plays good defense but doesn't dazzle the way Ozzie Smith did or Andrelton Simmons does. He's graceful and does everything well, a style that doesn't net much attention for whatever reason (see Carlos Beltran, Andruw Jones, Craig Biggio, etc.)
Still, it's kind of surprising that Tulo hasn't become one of the faces of baseball. I mean, a Gold Glove shortstop who's a career .298 hitter and averages 29 home runs and 104 RBI per 162 games ought to be a superstar, right?

Problem is, Tulowitzki has never played 162 games in a season. He's topped 150 twice, but both times were in the previous decade. From 2010 to 2013, he averaged just 110 games per season. His injury history on his Baseball Prospectus player page is scary long. He's been hurt pretty much everywhere at some point. I couldn't help but think of that old picture of Mickey Mantle with the arrows pointing to all his injuries.

I'm sure you could do something similar with Tulo, who's developed a reputation as one of those supremely talented guys who just cant stay on the field, similar to Larry Walker, Josh Hamilton, Barry Larkin and Jose Reyes. He missed 61 games in 2008, 40 in 2010, 19 the year after that, 115 in 2012, and 36 last year. That's the equivalent of about two full seasons, just in the past six years. And yet he's still managed five seasons with at least five bWAR, including four with more than six. When he's healthy, he's one of the best players in the game.

This year, health hasn't been an issue for the 29 year-old. He's played in 32 of Colorado's 35 games and been otherworldly, the driving force behind the National League's best offense. Plenty of Rockies are hitting well at the moment--Nolan Arenado and Justin Morneau and Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer before he got hurt--but none of them can hold a candle to Tulo, who's reminding everyone that he's not just the best shortstop in baseball, but one of its best players period.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Analyzing Arenado's Amazing Start

Arenado's sophomore season is off to a sizzling start (HoundSports)
Before I talk about Nolan Arenado's 2014 season, I want to talk about his 2013 season.

You see, Arenado was a pretty valuable baseball player last year, worth nearly four wins above replacement per Baseball-Reference. That's almost All-Star level. And yet he finished a distant seventh in the NL Rookie of the Year voting, tied with Evan Gattis, even though bWAR says he was more valuable than everyone that finished ahead of him except for Jose Fernandez (the winner) and Yasiel Puig (the runner-up). Arenado was also more valuable than every American League rookie who received votes (Wil Myers, Jose Iglesias, Chris Archer, etc.), none of whom exceeded 2.5 bWAR.

FanGraphs wasn't quite as generous, crediting Arenado with 2.7 fWAR, but that was still enough to make him the sixth most valuable rookie in baseball and fourth most valuable non-pitcher rookie, behind Puig, A.J. Pollock and Juan Lagares.

Point is, Nolan Arenado was good last year. What's interesting is how he was good. You'd expect a Rockies third baseman like him to post some pretty gaudy offensive numbers, similar to the ones Garrett Atkins or perhaps even Vinny Castilla used to put up. 

He didn't. The 22 year-old did not hit for much power, with only 10 home runs, 52 RBI, a .405 slugging percentage and a ..138 ISo. He didn't hit for a high average or get on base very often. He was not a factor on the basepaths, stealing only two bases.

All of his value came from his defense, for which he won the Gold Glove, becoming the first rookie third baseman to win the Gold Glove since Frank Malzone in 1957, the award's first year (when only one was given out for both leagues). Arenado was a regular Brooks Robinson at the hot corner, saving 30 more runs with his glove than the average third baseman according to B-R (FanGraphs said 22.6). Among National League third basemen he was first in range factor, second in double plays, assists, and putouts, fourth in fielding percentage and fifth in total zone runs. His defense, by itself, was worth between two and three wins, more than enough to compensate for his mediocre offense.

And boy, was his offense mediocre. He hit .267/.301/.405, which doesn't look terrible for a rookie, especially in today's suppressed offensive climate. But for someone who plays half his games in Coors Field, those numbers weren't very good. The league-average non-pitcher would have been expected to hit .276/.344/.429 and post an OPS 67 points higher than Arenado's. Thus, even though his raw OPS of .706 was a touch better than the league average of .703, he wound up with an Adjusted OPS+ of 82, which is quite poor (18 percent below average). FanGraphs had him at 21 percent below average. He also struck more than three times for every walk and bounced into 16 double plays, a considerable number.

So Arenado had the defense thing down. Hitting, however was another story.

This year, it hasn't been. In addition to providing his elite defense, Arenado's providing great offense to go with it. Following an offseason dedicated to improving his hitting, he's enjoying a phenomenal start to his sophomore season. Last night he extended his league-best hitting streak to 25 with a two-run homer off fellow sophomore Martin Perez, two shy of Michael Cuddyer's franchise record and almost halfway to Joe DiMaggio's magical 56. He's batting .313/,336/.515, and his 42 hits rank second in the league to Paul Goldschmidt. With six home runs, nine doubles, 22 RBI and a .201 ISo. thus far, his power is much improved, too.

My first instinct was to check Arenado's BABiP, but at .316 it's nothing out of the ordinary. He's actually hitting fewer line drives and ground balls at the expense of more fly balls and pop-ups (which would suggest that he's swinging for the fences more, but his swinging strike rate and strikeout rates have gone down). His average should be in the pooper, but right now he's finding enough holes. That seems to be the only explanation, as there's nothing in his plate discipline/approach to account for this change. He's whiffing less often and making a little more contact, but all of his contact gains are coming on pitches outside the zone, which should be harder to square up and result in weaker contact. 

Arenado's not going to keep hitting this well all season, but he's at an age (23) where improvement is expected, especially in the power department. He's probably getting a little lucky right now, but he's also probably just a better hitter. How much better is the true question, and right now it's too early to tell. I see him hitting .280/.320/.430 the rest of the way and finishing the season with close to 20 homers and 40 doubles. Those are good numbers anywhere, and I'm sure the second-place Rockies would happily take them going forward.

At the very least, Arenado has proven he's no longer a liability with the bat. Even he regresses to being just a league average hitter (or even a tick below), that still qualifies as a major improvement.