Monday, June 30, 2014

Ortiz On Way To Cooperstown

Holt and Pedroia congratulate Ortiz on his big three-run homer (Concord Monitor)
David Ortiz swatted the 450th home run of his career last night, a three-run bomb into Yankee Stadium's right field bleachers off Chase Whitley. By scoring Brock Holt and Dustin Pedroia, it gave Boston a 4-0 lead at the time in a game the Red Sox would go on to win 8-5.

The 25 year-old Whitley, a rookie making his first career start against the Boston Red Sox, became a footnote to history. To his credit, he got the best of Ortiz in their first meeting by getting him to bounce into an inning-ending double play. The second time around, though, Ortiz took him deep, making Whitley the 307th pitcher Ortiz has homered off. It was also his 41st against the Yankees and 52nd three-run shot

Papi's prodigious blast snapped a three-way tie for 37th place on the all-time home run list with Jeff Bagwell and Vladimir Guerrero, both contemporaries of Ortiz as well as deserving Hall of Famers. Among active players only Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Albert Pujols, and Adam Dunn have more, and Ortiz figures to pass Dunn shortly (Papi needs only two to tie Dunn, which he could do tonight).

And while Ortiz's numbers are down compared to what they've been the last three seasons, he's still having a good year at 38 and is on pace for another 30 homer, 100 RBI season (his eighth if he can reach both benchmarks). He might also be an All-Star for the tenth time, as he's currently outpolling every DH not named Nelson Cruz. The Red Sox might be struggling, but Ortiz's march towards Cooperstown continues.

Ortiz's Hall of Fame case is very polarizing, primarily because he's done most of his damage as a full-time designated hitter. Paul Molitor and Frank Thomas's inductions notwithstanding, people have been very harsh towards and critical of DHs when it comes to Cooperstown, and evaluating their batting statistics in general. Many feel it's appropriate to hold them to higher offensive standards because they don't contribute on defense. Others, who I assume for the most part are National League fans otherwise known as baseball "purists," dismiss their accomplishments altogether because they were one-dimensional, incomplete players.

Well, so are a lot of players who play the field (Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew, Ted Williams), and they actively hurt their team by doing do. I don't think it's fair to hold that against Ortiz, who would (and has) play(ed) the field when needed. Where he plays is the manager's decision, not his.

I don't even think it's fair to compare designated hitters to relief pitchers, both of whom have been deemed "specialists" akin to football's punters and special team players. Relievers throw one inning every other game, while DHs get three-to-five at-bats per game. Designated hitters have much more of an impact over the course of a season and a career than relievers do, which is reflected in their superior WAR figures. An elite hitter is much more valuable than an elite reliever or closer, and yet people seem to have no problem with relief pitchers going into the Hall of Fame.

So yeah, I think it's ridiculous that Edgar Martinez, one of the greatest hitters of all-time, still hasn't gotten the call 10 years after his retirement. I can only hope voters are more receptive to Ortiz (but, due to his PED-history, probably won't be), because he is also a deserving Hall of Famer in his own right.

The two keys to a Hall of Fame career are longevity and a terrific peak, and Ortiz has both. From 2003 through 2007 he was the American League’s best hitter, ranking first among AL players in doubles, walks, RBI, and OPS, second in home runs and third in the FanGraphs version of Wins Above Replacement (despite contributing nothing in the field or on the bases). Big Papi batted .302/.402/.612 over this five-year stretch, averaging 42 home runs and 128 RBI per season and finishing in the top five of MVP voting every year.

After a few down (but still good) seasons, Ortiz re-claimed his status as one of baseball’s best hitters, batting a combined .311/.401/.571 from 2011 to 2013. Even at 38 he seems to have plenty of juice left in the tank, and if that is indeed the case then several milestones, such as 500 home runs, appear to be in reach.

As for longevity, Ortiz has sustained his greatness for more than a decade and compiled some very impressive career numbers along the way. The nine-time All-Star just recorded his 2,000th hit and 500th double last year and continues to climb the all-time leaderboards. He ranks in the top-50 in slugging percentage, OPS, doubles, home runs, extra base hits, and AB/HR ratio.

Strictly based on his regular season body of work, Ortiz already has a compelling case for Cooperstown, and there are a host of other factors that strengthen his case even more.One of the best clutch hitters of all-time, Papi deserves extra credit for his legendary postseason heroics that spurred Boston to a trio of World Series titles since he joined the team in 2003. His three walk-off hits in the 2004 postseason come to mind, as do last year’s game-tying grand slam against Detroit in the ALCS and World Series MVP performance versus the Cardinals. His name is plastered all over the postseason leaderboards, hardly a surprise given that the man they call “Senor Octubre” always seems to rise to the occasion.

Ortiz has been exemplary off the field as well, embracing his status as a local legend and role model in the community. He founded the David Ortiz children’s fund in 2007. The following year, he released his own charity wine label (with all proceeds going to his children’s fund) and received UNICEF’s Children’s Champion Award. In 2011 he received the Roberto Clemente Award, given annually to the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual's contribution to his team.” A leader on the field and off, Ortiz finished third in Boston’s 2013 mayoral race with 560 write-in votes.

Lastly, Ortiz deserves to be recognized as one of the best designated hitters in baseball history. His seven Outstanding Designated Hitter Awards and six Silver Slugger Awards are tops for a DH, and The Sporting News named him “Designated Hitter of the Decade” from 2000-2009. With the most hits, home runs, and RBI by a DH, he’s reached heights that no other designated hitter has.

Ortiz’s offensive numbers aren’t otherworldly, especially for someone who rarely plays the field and is a liability on the basepaths, but they’re still Hall of Fame-caliber. As one of the best hitters, Red Sox players, designated hitters, and postseason performers of all-time, Ortiz has done more than enough to merit induction. It seems his teammates were on to something when they bestowed a new nickname upon him last year: “Cooperstown.”

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Is Vince Carter Hall of Fame Worthy?

Carter's had his ups and downs, but few have reached the heights he has (ABC)
The first of hopefully many articles contributed by Robert Simms, a new writer for SB Nation's Celtics Blog:
When people think of Vincent Lamar Carter, they tend to think of one thing: dunking. This is justifiably so. Carter is widely regarded as one of the best in-game dunkers of all time. His performance in the 2000 NBA All-Star Dunk Contest is the stuff of legend and his monstrous slam over 7’2" French center Frederic Weis in the 2000 Summer Olympics is remembered as "le dunk de la mort", the dunk of death, by the French media. 
But Carter does not deserved to be remembered solely as a dunker. That is a legacy better reserved for high-flying specialists like the Suns' Gerald Green. Vince Carter deserves to be remembered in a way befitting someone as accomplished as he is. Vince Carter deserves to be remembered as a Hall of Fame player.
Carter’s NBA career began in 1998 with a draft day trade that sent him from the Golden State Warriors to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for college teammate and close friend Antawn Jamison. The Raptors were a fledgling franchise and, like most expansion teams, they struggled in their first few years. Carter, along with cousin Tracy McGrady, instantly changed this. Carter followed up his 1999 Rookie of the Year campaign by making the All-Star team in 2000 and leading the Raptors to their first-ever playoff berth. 
Carter and McGrady were the stars of that team, but veteran big man Charles Oakley was the backbone. Though Oakley's level of play slipped as he aged, his presence provided vital emotional leadership for a young Raptors team. Both Carter and McGrady have stated that Oakley’s mature veteran guidance had a huge impact on their developments in the league. 
After suffering a 3-0 sweep at the hands of the Knicks in the first round of the 2000 playoffs, the Raptors conducted a sign-and-trade deal that sent McGrady to Orlando, separating the pair of talented wing scorers. And yet, the ensuing 2001 season turned out to be a success for the Raptors, as they won the Atlantic Division with a franchise-record 47 wins. After beating the Knicks in the first round of the 2001 playoffs –revenging their loss from the prior season—the Raptors faced off against the eventual Finals runners-up Philadelphia 76ers.
Carter starred in the series--a seven game gem--taking center stage against Sixers point guard Allen Iverson. Carter performed impressively in his first trip to the Conference Semis, averaging over 30 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists per contest, including a 50 point effort in Game 3. Unfortunately, Iverson dropped two 50 point games of his own in the series and the Sixers ultimately escaped Game 7 with a victory after Carter missed a go-ahead jumper with two seconds remaining. Despite the loss, the season was not a disappointment for the Raptors organization, who saw a bright future ahead.
Carter is now booed whenever he returns to the Air Canada Center, largely because of his behavior and performance in the seasons following that Game 7 loss to the Sixers. When Charles Oakley left in the 2001 offseason, Carter lost his mentor and the Raptors lost a veteran presence capable of keeping their young star grounded. Frustrated by a perceived (and perhaps real) lack of ambition in Toronto's front office, Carter’s production suffered over the coming years. Carter’s camp will point out that much of the dip in production can be attributed to injuries, and to an extent they are correct. But many of Carter’s ailments were fictitious and even the legitimate ones were often drawn out. Carter’s milking of small injuries is reminiscent of the way Manny Ramirez used to remove himself from lineups for phantom infirmities during his days with the Boston Red Sox. 
Carter’s lack of effort is not justifiable, but his frustration is certainly explainable. After a few consecutive terrible seasons, team president Richard Peddie cleaned house and hired Sam Mitchell as the Raptors’ new head coach and Rob Babcock as the new GM. Babcock quickly expressed his interest in rebuilding the team, slowly. He publicly stated that the team was "not worried about how many wins we get right away, or whether we make the playoffs within the first year or two." 
For someone accustomed to winning like Carter, this was bad news. He had already endured multiple seasons in the basement of the Eastern Conference and was not interested in remaining there much longer. Carter’s negative attitude put a stink on the whole team, resulting in frequent fourth quarter benchings. With his discontentment abundantly clear to team management, Carter was traded to the New Jersey Nets.
Carter had an instant impact for his new team and returned to his All-Star level of play as he entered the prime of his career. In his five seasons with New Jersey, Carter averaged just under 24, 6, and 5 per game. These Nets teams starred the memorable trio of Carter, Jason Kidd, and Richard Jefferson and made the playoffs in each of Carter's first three seasons there. After getting knocked out of the 2007 playoffs by the eventual runners-up Cavaliers, the Nets traded Jason Kidd midway through the 2008 season, finishing under .500 that year and the next. Carter was also dealt--to the Orlando Magic--in a move that effectively ended his days as a superstar player. Carter had a few forgettable seasons in Orlando and then Phoenix before finally settling in Dallas, missing their 2011 title over LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh by one year. It is Dallas where he has reinvented himself as a role player, making use of his still excellent three-point range to contribute off the bench. 
While no longer a star, Carter remains a key contributor for the Dallas Mavs (FoxSports)
In many ways, Carter has had a prototypical Hall of Fame level career. Following impressive high school and college years, he immediately proved his worth in the pros. From there he quickly grew to become a franchise player, earning several All-Star nods and making a pair of All-NBA squads. Towards the tail end of his career he morphed from a star into a quality role player where he has served as a valuable veteran scorer and contributed some big playoff moments (such as his game-winning three against San Antonio in the first round this year). Carter has had a definitive career arc filled with enough substance to earn a spot in the Hall of Fame.
Some of you might be asking me to pump the breaks here, but if you look at the full body of Carter’s career, you might be surprised by how impressive it is. For instance, did you know that Carter is 25th on the NBA’s all-time scoring list? He has scored more points than several legendary Hall of Fame scorers like Larry Bird, Clyde Drexler, Bernard King and Elgin Baylor. Assuming he plays two more seasons, it is conceivable that Carter could finish his career as high as 23rd on the list, just ahead of Charles Barkley. Realistically, he’ll end up 24th because it’s a safe bet that LeBron James will pass him during the coming season. Looking at it another way, Carter was the 27th player in league history to reach 23,000 points. Every other player that has accomplished that feat is either already in the Hall or is a lock to get in once eligible. 
23,000 points?! That’s a lot of dunks! Well, yes and no. While it’s true that Carter is known primarily for his action above the rim, he is also one of the league’s most prolific long distance shooters, ranking seventh all-time in three pointers made. By now it should be pretty clear that Vince Carter was a scoring machine who scored, well, a lot. And I mean A LOT.
Carter’s first ten years in the league compare favorably with the first decades of other Hall of Famers. Here are the stat lines for four players through their first ten seasons in the league:
Player A: 751 games played, 23.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.6 stocks, .463/.399/.845 shooting splits
Player B: 758 games played, 20.9 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 5.8 apg, 2.8 stocks, .485/.285/.787 shooting splits
Player C: 697 games played, 23.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 4.2 apg, 2.1 stocks, .447/.375/.794 shooting splits
Player D: 707 games played, 23.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.5 apg, 2.1 stocks*, .451/.336/.834 shooting splits
*stocks = steals per game + blocks per game
The numbers look pretty similar, don’t they? Player A is Mitch Richmond, the high scoring shooting guard who was just inducted into the Hall of Fame. Player B is Clyde Drexler, another Hall of Fame wing scorer and notable member of the 1992 Olympic Dream Team. Player C is Vince Carter. Notice how similar his numbers are to the others listed here, Player D in particular. Much like Carter, Player D was also renowned as an explosive offensive force gifted with incredible dunking ability. Likewise, Player D also contributed to the souring of a locker room environment and essentially forced a trade to another team towards the end of his first decade in the league.ᶟ Player D also milked injuries during times when his team had a down year. 
Player D, believe it or not, is Kobe Bryant. Though Kobe’s career has certainly been more successful than Carter’s overall, their careers after one decade in the league are nearly identical statistically. In the second half of their careers, Kobe has vastly outperformed Carter, but so what? A poor man’s Kobe Bryant is still a Hall-worthy player. And that’s exactly what Vince is. A little less hard-working, a little less competitive, and a little less talented (arguably a little less moody as well). 
I’m going to remember Vinsanity’s dunking for the rest of my life. One transcendent skill does not a Hall of Famer make, (see: Gerald Green) but when that skill is complemented by a worthy career, the player’s chances of entry to the Hall should be high. If Ray Allen were merely a three point shooter, would he be in the discussion? Probably not. If Dirk only had his midrange game, would he be? Unlikely. The same applies to Vince. Were he only a dunker, he would not be worth discussing. But Vince was not only a dunker. Vince was a star. A star that just happened to shine brightest above the rim.
All stats courtesy of BasketballReference

Napoli Bombs Tanaka, Yankees

Napoli follows through on his go-ahead home run (NYDailyNews)
With one flick of his wrists last night, Mike Napoli lined a missile into Yankee Stadium's right field bleachers that gave the Boston Red Sox a 2-1 lead in the top of the ninth, a lead that stood up when Koji Uehara closed the door on the Yankees 15 minutes later.

Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka was still in the game when Napoli stepped up to the plate with two outs in the top of the ninth, having just retired David Ortiz on a double play groundout into the shift. Tanaka had been terrific up to that point, his lone mistake coming in the third inning when David Ross took him deep to put Boston out in front 1-0. But the Yankees had quickly rallied with a run of their own in the bottom of the frame, setting off a classic game of tug-of-war between Tanaka and Boston's Jon Lester.

The score remained knotted at one into the ninth. New York's undisputed ace, who had already fanned Napoli twice in the game already, had the Red Sox slugger right where he wanted him. With a 1-2 count on a notoriously poor two-strike hitter, Tanaka was in the driver's seat, one strike away from calling it a night and getting out of the inning unscathed.

Looking to match power against power, the Japanese phenom reared back and fired his fastball in an attempt to blow Boston's bearded first baseman away. But at the last second Tanaka's 112th pitch of the night, a heater tagged at 96 miles per hour, darted back over the plate. Belt-high and on the outer half, it was the kind of mistake that Napoli crushes for a living, and he didn't miss it. He extended his arms and went with the pitch, driving it on a line towards Alfonso Soriano in right field. Soriano sprinted back, turned as if to expecting to play the carom off the wall, then watched the ball sail into the first row of seats behind the yellow W.B. Mason sign. Napoli's 10th home run of the season just did get over.

An exultant Napoli clapped his hands together as he rounded first. Tanaka's legs buckled on the mound. He looked on in abject horror, like he'd just witnessed one Bleacher Creature eating another. Napoli completed his trip around the bases, high-fived Stephen Drew at the plate and chugged back to the Boston bench, all smiles as he apparently shouted "What an idiot!" to his beaming teammates.

Somewhat surprisingly, Joe Girardi left the rattled hurler in to finish what he started. This time Tanaka finished the job, recovering to fan Drew on four pitches for his eighth K of the night. But it was one batter too late, and Tanaka trudged off the mound, knowing full well that he had likely cost the Yankees the game. For all their struggles this year, the Red Sox--armed with arguably the best closer in baseball--have not lost a game they've led after the eighth inning.

Sure enough, Uehara mowed down Carlos Beltran, fellow countryman Ichiro Suzuki (pinch-hitting for Soriano) and Brian McCann for his 17th save of the season. Lester earned the win for his remarkable performance: eight innings, five hits, a single unearned run and six strikeouts. Tanaka was the tough-luck loser, suffering his second straight loss and falling to 11-3 on the season despite the complete game effort.

The Red Sox will go for the series win as they wrap up their 10-game road trip tonight. With just one road series win in their last eight, their last coming in a two-game sweep of the Braves at Turner Field in late May, the Sox desperately need a turnaround performance from John Lackey, who was shelled by the Mariners his last time out and failed to make it through the fourth inning. Boston's bats will look to wake up against Chase Whitley, a rookie making his ninth career start. The odds appear to be in Boston's favor, which isn't something you've been able to say about them a lot this year.

M&M Boys: Mantle and Mathews

Mathews, Mantle and Aaron pose for a picture in spring training
Throughout the 1950s and into the 60s, Eddie Mathews was essentially a poor man's Mickey Mantle. By this I mean no disrespect to Mathews, easily one of the five greatest third baseman of all-time and a most-deserving Hall of Famer. If you're going to be a poor man's version of somebody, after all, you couldn't do much better than The Mick.

It's fascinating how much their personal lives and baseball careers overlapped. They were born one week apart in October, 1931 in the rural Midwest, with Mathews hailing from Texas and Mantle a progeny of Oklahoma. Both signed as amateur free agents in 1949 and played their first full season in 1952 with similar results; Mantle had 23 home runs in 142 games, Mathews slugged 25 in 145, and both drew MVP votes despite leading their respective leagues in strikeouts.

Thus marked the beginning of two outstanding careers that lasted until 1968, when both posted the worst batting averages of their careers and promptly retired, clearly done. But not before they hit milestone homers in that Year of the Pitcher, with Mantle taking Denny McLain deep to pass Jimmie Foxx and Mathews, by then a teammate of McLain's eclipsing Mel Ott with the last home run he'd ever it.

In between they didn't see a whole lot of each other, as they played in different leagues during a time when AL and NL players met twice a year; in the Midsummer Classic and the Fall Classic. They were All-Stars in the same year nine times and crossed paths in two World Series--in 1957 and again the following year. Milwaukee won their first meeting but New York took the rematch, with both series going the full seven. Mathews played better in the first one, Mantle fared better in the second.

In the end, Mantle was clearly the better player and enjoyed the superior career, but some of their numbers look remarkably similar:

Mantle: 2,401 G 2,415 H 344 2B 72 3B 536 HR 1,509 RBI 4,511 TB 109.7 bWAR
Mathews: 2,391 G 2,315 H 354 2B 72 3B 512 HR 1,453 RBI 4,349 TB 96.4 bWAR

They were both patient power hitters who drew their fare share of walks and weren't afraid to strike out. They both established themselves as great young players and peaked early on, but by the same token crashed and burned rather prematurely in their mid-thirties. They ended up as one of the five best to play their respective positions, even if their walk-drawing and run-scoring skills wouldn't get the credit they deserved for many years. Mantle wasn't fully appreciated until Roger Maris arrived midway through his career and took most of the heat off him, and Mathews remains criminally underrated to this day.

Off the field, they both led difficult lives and drank too much, which may have led to their somewhat early demise as players and as men (neither one played past 36 or lived to 70).They were ultimately tragic figures then, exceptional players but flawed human beings with a whiff of unfulfilled potential. The Commerce Comet was frequently criticized for not living up to his great Yankee predecessors of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio, while it was Mathews' fate to be overshadowed by teammate Henry Aaron.

Not surprisingly, Mathews is rated as Mantle's closest comp on Baseball-Reference. Mantle is the fourth-best match for Mathews, following Mike Schmidt, Ernie Banks, and Willie McCovey. Pretty good company.

With so many similarities, it's easy to see why:
  • Both had four seasons with at least 40 home runs (Mantle topped 50 twice) and 14 with at least 20. Mathews had 10 seasons with more than 30 bombs, one more than Mantle's nine. 
  • Because they walked so much, neither one knocked in as many runs as one would expect given their huge power totals. Mantle exceeded 100 RBI four times, while Mathews did so five times. Each managed five additional seasons in which they plated more than 90 (but less than 100). Additionally, Mathews' career high of 135 barely exceed's Mantle's personal best of 130.
  • Because they walked so much, both scored tons of runs. Mantle had 11 straight seasons with at least 90 runs, including nine with over 100. Mathews had 10 consecutive seasons with 90 or more runs, including eight with at least 100. 
  • Both struck out a lot. Mantle led the league in the dubious K statistic five times, something Mathews did in 1952, when both led their respective leagues, with Mathews' 115 edging Mantle's 111 for the ML-lead. 
  • Both finished their careers with near 1:1 strikeout to walk ratios. Mantle walked 23 more times than he whiffed for a 1.01 BB/K ratio, while Mathews fanned 43 more times than he walked and thus had a 0.97 BB/K ratio.
  • Neither one hit a lot of doubles. Each had only one season with more than 30.
  • Mantle was caught stealing 38 times, one fewer than Mathews.
  • Mathews bounced into 123 doubles plays, Mantle 113. Both had more than 10 in a season only three times, and never bounced into more than 11.
  • Mathews had six seasons with at least 300 total bases, one more than Mantle's five.
  • Mantle was intentionally walked 126 times, but Mathews wasn't far behind at 107. Both were clearly feared by opposing pitchers and managers.
  • They were both All-Stars in 1953, then every year from 1955 through 1962

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Jeter Just Doing Enough

Jeter's not contributing much, but his performance hasn't flatlined (IBTimes)
Derek Jeter turned 40 on Thursday, which unfortunately for him was an off-day for the Yankees. Jeter is a born-winner, but even he can not win a game that isn't played.

So last night must have been the next best thing, then, as New York trampled their longtime rivals from Boston 6-0 at Yankee Stadium. With Toronto losing and Baltimore splitting its doubleheader against Tampa Bay, the victory moved New York to within two games of first place and just half a game out of second. Despite age, injuries, and underperformance, the banged-up Bombers have battled their way into contention and, with better luck in the second half, could very well walk away with a winnable division.

Jeter has not done much to help the Yankees this year*, but he isn't killing them, either. He went 2-for-4 with a run scored last night, raising his batting line to .271/.327/.330. With only two home runs, 11 extra base hits, 17 RBI and a slugging percentage not much better than his career batting average, Jeter's not providing much power. But then again, nobody expected him to. With three stolen bases in four attempts he's not providing much speed, either, but few 40 year-olds do.

*One thing Jeter hasn't been is clutch. With only two go-ahead hits to date, hes batted .105/.244/.158 in late and close situations, .133 with no extra base hits when there've been runners in scoring position with two outs, and .170/.278/.213 in high leverage situations. If you're a Yankees fan, Jeter's not the guy who want at the plate when the game's on the line.

Jeter has hit for a solid average and gotten on base at a decent clip, which is all anybody could have really asked for. He's also been incredibly consistent, with a .660 OPS in April, .670 OPS in May, and a .635 OPS thus far in June. As steady as ever, Jeter's gone two straight games without a hit only twice this year, and never three. Joe Girardi shouldn't be batting Number Two second of course, but Jeter's held his own offensively and has remained reliable, if nothing else. He's avoided anything resembling a slump, which at his age is truly remarkable.

Also, Jeter's defense has not been nearly as bad as many (myself included) expected it to be. It's not good, obviously, as his range is still terrible (the worst of his career), but on the whole it could be worse. FanGraphs acutally gives him a positive defensive rating, while Baseball-Reference estimates that he's saved only four fewer runs than the average shortstop. Jeter's still making the plays on the balls he can get to, with a .973 fielding percentage that's right in line with his career .976 mark and slightly better than the league average of .971. Like I said, steady as ever.

Throw it all together and Jeter's been a hair above replacement level, which is about where he was the three seasons before last year. That might not be the winning Mariano Rivera-esque comeback story some were hoping for, but he's played as well as we could have reasonably expected him to. His performance has been far from great, but he's not embarrassing himself either. He's holding on.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Cruz Crushing

Cruz has been one of 2014's biggest first half surprises (
When the Baltimore Orioles signed Nelson Cruz to a one-year, $8 million deal during spring training, nobody expected him to emerge as the team's best player. Not on a roster loaded with younger, in-their-prime standouts such as Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, and Manny Machado. Cruz appeared to be a player in decline, and there were serious doubts about what he'd be able to give the Orioles. He was, after all, about to turn 34, coming off a 50-game ban for PED use, and leaving a hitter's paradise in Arlington behind. Why do you think so many teams passed on him?

Well, Cruz quickly erased those doubts by homering in the first two games of the season and hasn't stopped hitting since. He slumped briefly at the beginning of June, but seems to have turned it around with three home runs and nine RBI in his past ten games, including a game-tying grand slam on Wednesday night that sparked the Orioles to an extra-inning victory.

Cruz now leads the major leagues in home runs (with 24) and RBI (64), on pace for 49 and 131, respectively. Even if he falls well short of those totals, he'll still blow his career highs (33 and 90) out of the water. He might as well go ahead and take the rest of the year off, because he's already earned his pay and then some. He's already been hailed as the best bargain of the offseason, and rightly so.

It's tempting to say Cruz can't and won't keep this up, that he'll cool off in the second half like so many sluggers with big first halves tend to do. But it's important to remember that he was hitting well last year before baseball suspended him for the rest of the season. Dating back to the start of last year, a span of 185 game for Cruz (essentially seven months of baseball), he's swatted 51 home runs, driven in 140 and slugged .541. That's a fairly large sample size, and Cruz was successful before that, too.

Could Cruz be juicing again? Given his history, it's not out of the question. It's rare to see players have career years at 33/34, but Cruz was a late-bloomer to begin with. He didn't play his first full season until he was 28, so experience-wise he's where most players are at in their late twenties. That, and the fact that he doesn't have nearly as much mileage as most outfielders in their mid-thirties, could explain why it's clicking for Cruz (and a few more fly balls flying over the fence never hurts, either).

Even if he does tail off in the second half, his pre-All-Star Break performance has been strong enough to merit a considerable pay raise when he becomes a free agent again this winter. He's a good bet to break 40 homers and 100 RBI for the first time, numbers that few in the game today are capable of reaching. That kind of big-time power deserves a big-time contract, and this time around I'm sure someone will give it to him.

Lincecum's Lost Greatness

Lincecum was lights-out against the Padres in a rare strong performance for him (SBNation)
Tim Lincecum's no-hitter on Wednesday was sad, in a way. Not just because it confirmed how pathetic the Padres offense has been this year (ranking last in runs, hits, OPS, and total bases; barely scoring three runs per game and batting .213), but because it reminded the baseball world of the great pitcher Lincecum used to be. Notice the past-tense. He can still be that pitcher from time to time, but more often than not these days he turns in a bad start rather than a good one. Wednesday's outing was only the second all year in which he completed more than six innings, allowed zero runs, or recorded a GameScore over 70.

Tim Lincecum's no-hitter was a great feat, no doubt. It was his second in less than a year, making him one of just 32 men in baseball history to pitch multiple no-nos. But it is also a reminder of the splendid pitcher he once was, rather than the mediocre pitcher he is today.

Not too long ago, Lincecum was unquestionably the best pitcher in baseball. He won consecutive Cy Young awards in 2008 and 2009, joining Sandy Koufax, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson as the only pitchers to win back-to-back Cys in the National League. In 2010, he paced the Senior Circuit in strikeouts for the third straight year and topped the majors in K/9. In 2011 he compiled a 2.74 ERA and fanned 220 batters, good for fifth and third in the NL, respectively. He was an All-Star all four years, and at 27 still seemed to have several fine seasons in front of him.

We all know what happened next. Lincecum didn't break down, as so many great young pitchers seem to do, especially nowadays with the Tommy John epidemic ravaging hurlers left and right. Many thought that he would because he was a little guy who whipped the ball so unnaturally hard, but it hasn't happened yet. He's remained remarkably healthy and durable, to his credit, stringing together six straight seasons of at least 32 starts and on pace to do it again here in 2014.

No, his arm didn't fall off. What happened to him happens to everyone who repeatedly throws a baseball upwards of 90 miles per hour hundreds of times a week and thousands of times a year. His arm, once a live wire capable of electric stuff, started wearing down. He lost zip on his fastball, so to compensate he started relying more on his offspeed stuff (mainly sliders). In turn, his command suffered. He became more hittable and less accurate, never a good combination.

And so Lincecum has struggled. Since the start of 2012, a span of 81 starts and roughly 475 innings of work, he has a 4.70 ERA that, when adjusted for league and park, has been 27 percent worse than average. That ERA is so bad, in fact, that it ranks as the seventh-worst in baseball among qualified pitchers, placing him in the same low-rent neighborhood as Edinson Volquez, Joe Saunders, Felix Doubront, and Edwin Jackson. Per Baseball-Reference, Lincecum's also been worth 2.5 wins below replacement level during that time.

And yet, the Giants just gave him a two-year contract last winter that will pay him $17 million this year and $18 million the next. Which begs the obvious question, what was Giants general manager Brian Sabean smoking? Lincecum's deal makes the five-year, $90 million extension he gave Hunter Pence look good.

If Sabean was banking on Big Time Timmy Jim recapturing his glory days, he was sorely mistaken. Predictably, Lincecum's already declining strikeout rate has continued to fallAll pitchers lose velocity as they get older, and once it's gone it never comes back. Not even the best pitchers can avoid this inevitable erosion of skills, as Justin Verlander, CC Sabathia and the now-retired Roy Halladay have recently discovered. All those pitches and innings take their toll sooner or later.

No-hitters aside, Lincecum clearly isn't the pitcher he used to be. So unless he develops impeccable command (like Cliff Lee) or becomes a master at changing speeds (like the deceptive Koji Uehara), he'll continue to be erratic. Occasionally great, but in the end the bad will outweigh the good. In his prime he was the Freak, capable of seasons that rank with the best of Johan Santana, Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens. Now, he's just another guy, a back of the rotation innings-eater. A washed-up has-been at the age of 30. He's become the next Barry Zito, sans the never-ending contract. At least Lincecum's has a light at the end of the tunnel.

So look on the bright side, San Francisco. On the one hand you're still a World Series-caliber team despite paying your former ace $17 million to actively hurt your team, and on the other you're only stuck with him for one more year. Hopefully next time his contract expires, your front office will be wise enough to let him go.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Williams: What Might Have Been

Were it not for a couple of wars, Williams would've produced some mind-blowing numbers
There are many ways baseball students have tried to replace what Ted Williams lost to his nearly five years of military service. I published my own method two-and-a-half years ago, and like everyone else concluded that Williams would have wound up with some gaudy career statistics.

After reading Ben Bradlee, Jr.'s new and well-researched biography on (and titled) The Kid, I decided to alter my method. Near the end of Teddy Ballgame's career as he was pursuing several milestones, a Boston sportswriter estimated that Williams lost out on 2,534 at-bats to wartime. I'm not sure how he arrived at that precise figure (Bradlee doesn't explain), but it sounds reasonable to me--because he walked so much, Williams was typically good for around 520 official at-bats per season--so I'll run with it.

All I did was divide some of the Splendid Splinter's career totals by his at-bats, 7,706, to determine more of his rate stats (i.e. AB/HR, 2B/HR, and so forth). To calculate hits and total bases I simply left his career batting average and slugging percentage intact, though it's certainly possibly those figures would have been higher given that he hit .356/.496/.647 in the 1940s, which began when he was 21, by the way.

Anyways, here's what I came up with:

591 R
873 H
173 2B
171 HR
605 RBI
665 walks
1,606 TB
40.5 bWAR
728 runs created

After adding those to his career totals one gets:

2,389 R (1st all time)
3,527 H (5th all time)
698 2B (5th all time)
692 HR (4th all time)
2,444 RBI (1st all time)
2,686 walks (1st all time)
6,490 TB (2nd all time)
163.6 bWAR (1st all time)
3,056 runs created (1st all time)

Pretty close to what I originally projected. But no matter how you slice it, it becomes clear that under different circumstances, Williams would not just be regarded as the greatest hitter of all-time (which many people, myself included, do), but the best player of all-time, period. Better than Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and all the rest.

Even without the three prime years and two additional seasons in his mid-thirties, he still ranks up there. If only because nothing, not even a World War and a combat crash-landing, could stop the Kid from hitting.

Buchholz Beats Mariners in Return

Buchholz improved his record to 3-4 and lowered his ERA below 7 with last night's start
Clay Buchholz gave the Red Sox a surprisingly effective outing last night in his first start in a month, helping Boston to a much-needed 5-4 win by getting 22 outs in their series finale with the Mariners.

Buchholz, who last pitched on May 25th before a hyperextended knee forced him to yet another stint on the Disabled List, needed just 76 pitches to get those outs, as he didn't walk anybody and struck out only two. But pitch count be damned, John Farrell lifted him in the bottom of the eighth shortly after Buchholz surrendered a leadoff homer to Brad Miller. Miller's bomb was Seattle's third off Buchholz and drew the M's to within a run. There was no need to push Buchholz any further; he had already done his job by putting the Red Sox in position to win and helping preserve the bullpen after a couple of ugly starts by Jake Peavy and John Lackey.

Farrell brought in Andrew Miller, who finished off the eighth by fanning pinch-hitters Willie Bloomquist and Cole Gillespie (not the stiffest competition, but whatever). After the Sox went down 1-2-3 in their half of the ninth, it was Koji-Time.

Until about a week ago the game would have been as good as over, but not with the way Uehara's walked the tightrope lately. His most recent run of appearances can be best described as adventurous, and last night was no exception. After retiring Robinson Cano, he gave up a single to the red-hot Kyle Seager, who notched his third hit of the day, then proceeded to walk Logan Morrison. (I don't know which was more improbable--Uehara walking his fifth batter of the year or Morrison drawing his seventh free pass of the season).

With Seattle threatening to storm back and tie the game, if not win the thing in walk-off fashion to sweep Boston, (how devastating would that have been?) Uehara bore down. He whiffed Mike Zunino, who'd gone deep earlier in the game, then closed out the win by getting Dustin Ackley to ground out out Brock Holt, who flipped to Uehara at first just in time to nab Ackley.

Shaky or not, Uehara got the job done, as did Buchholz and the top-half of Boston's order (1-4 hitters went 8-for-16 with four of Boston's five runs, two of which scored on David Ortiz's 449th career home run). In the end it proved to be just enough to defeat Hisashi Iwakuma and the streaking Mariners, and so the Sox were able to escape Safeco with a win before traveling back east for a weekend showdown with the Yankees.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Toronto Tailspinning

The Blue Jays have sputtered in recent weeks as their bats have gone cold
The Toronto Blue Jays have been in first place everyday for the last month, but the way they're playing they could be in third place by the end of the week.

Since beating the St. Louis Cardinals 3-1 on June 6th to extend their winning streak to six games, the Blue Jays have fallen apart. They got shut out in the remaining two games of that series with the Cards (at home, I might add) as Shelby Miller and Jaime Garcia, neither of whom qualify as world-beaters by any stretch of the imagination, silenced Toronto's bats. The Blue Jays proceeded to lose two of three to the Twins, a mediocre team in every sense of the word.

Then Toronto hit the road for a 10-game trip, and that's where things really fell apart. They split a four game set against a very beatable Baltimore pitching staff (losing to an abysmal pitcher in Bud Norris and a green one in Kevin Gausman) then got swept by the Yankees in the third iteration of the House That Derek Jeter Ruth Built. The Bluebirds saw their division lead dwindle from 4.5 games to 1.5 games as they fell first to Masahiro Tanaka--a legit Cy Young candidate--then to lesser pitchers Chase Whitley (a rookie) and David Phelps.

After that it was on to Cincinnati for an interleague duel with the Reds. The Blue Jays blasted the home team with 14 runs in the series opener, but while giving up nine to one of the National League's five worst offenses. The following day was worse, as Mike Leake stifled Toronto, J.A. Happ got hammered, and the Jays were routed 11-1.

Desperately needing a win to salvage the series finale and end their rough road trip on a high note, Toronto took a tough 4-3 loss as Johnny Cueto outdueled R.A. Dickey. The Blue Jays lost more than the game, though. Brett Lawrie had to leave when he was hit by a pitch that fractured his index finger, and was placed today on the DL. To make matters worse their best hitter, Jose Bautista, left the game with a strained hamstring and is day-to-day.

So, after an incredible month of May and strong start to June, the Blue Jays gave up most of their gains over the past two weeks by dropping 11 of 15. Their lead over the AL East, once a comfortable margin of six games, is now a mere 1.5 over the Orioles and Yankees. They'll have to regroup at home against Joe Girardi's Bombers, who are on a roll of their own after winning 10 of their past 16 and are looking to make up more ground in the standings, perhaps even grab hold of first if they pull off another sweep.

It's not like the Jays have home field advantage, though, as they've actually played better away from the Rogers Centre. They're fortunate they won't have to face Tanaka, for their slumping bats wouldn't stand much of a chance against the Japanese phenom currently leading all of baseball in wins and the league in ERA+. Make no mistake, Toronto's offense is to blame for their recent run of futility; they've scored three runs or fewer in 11 of their past 16 games, of which the Jays have lost 10. They'll need to be better against Whitley tonight, Phelps tomorrow and the ageless Hiroki Kuroda on Wednesday, which will be tough without Lawrie and Bautista.

Because if they don't, Toronto will lose first place in a matter of days. And once that happens, in a division as competitive as theirs, they might never get it back.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Sox Salvage Series Finale

Dustin Pedroia and the Sox won today despite a late inning meltdown by the bullpen
The Boston Red Sox narrowly avoided a four-game sweep at the hands of the Oakland A's today, escaping with a 7-6 extra-inning win over the team with the best record in baseball.

Boston's slumbering offense, which had scored two runs or fewer in seven of its previous eight games (and three in the eighth) woke up against soft-tossing Tommy Milone, scoring early and often to stake Jon Lester to an early lead. The Sox scored two in the first and one in the second, third, fifth, and eighth to build a 6-1 lead over the A's.

With Jon Lester in full control, the game appeared to be well in hand. But with two outs in the bottom of the eighth, Lester stumbled. The southpaw hit Craig Gentry with a pitch, then walked former teammate Jed Lowrie following Gentry's steal of second. With Lester fading after 111 pitches, John Farrell yanked him in favor of Burke Badenhop.

Lester left in line for his ninth win, entrusting Boston's five run lead to the bullpen for the final four outs. Badenhop was unable to get that third out, however, allowing consecutive singles to Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, and Derek Norris. Three runs scored before Farrell returned to the mound to remove Badenhop and bring in Andrew Miller, who retired Coco Crisp to end the inning and preserve Boston's two-run advantage.

Dan Otero kept the Red Sox at bay in the top of the ninth, not that it was going to matter much with Koji Uehara coming in to protect Boston's lead. When Uehara's pitching, after all, a two-run edge feels insurmountable. Since the start of last season (postseason included), he'd allowed more than one earned run only two of his 119 appearances.

Today marked the third time. Alberto Callaspo grounded out to lead off the last of the ninth, then Stephen Vogt took Uehara deep for his second home run of the season. It didn't look like the run was going to matter when Nick Punto popped out to Jonathan Herrera for the second out.

Down to their last out, the A's went to their deep bench. Bob Melvin pinch-hit John Jaso for Gentry, a move that paid off when Jaso golfed the first pitch he saw from Uehara over the right field wall, tying the game with a blast of his own and sending the Coliseum fans into a frenzy. Ueheara rebounded to retire Lowrie and send the game to extra innings.

Melvin's next decision, calling upon Fernando Abad, didn't work out so well. Whereas pinch-hitting Jaso provided immediate returns, bringing in Abad backfired just as quickly. The first batter he faced, David Ortiz, went yard to put Boston back on top. Abad set down the next three Red Sox in order, but that run proved decisive when Oakland was unable to rally again in the bottom of the tenth. Uehara remained in the game and redeemed himself, retiring the A's 1-2-3 to seal Boston's 35th win of the season.

The Red Sox continue their west coast swing tomorrow in Seattle, where they'll send John Lackey to the hill. The Mariners will counter with Felix Hernandez, who's having another Cy Young caliber season and presents a challenge for Boston's woeful offense. It was nice to see them score seven runs and pound out 13 hits today, but they'll be lucky to get half as many tomorrow night against King Felix, who's been unhittable at Safeco this year (.201 opponent BA against him) and has traditionally pitched well against the Red Sox (7-2 with a 3.00 ERA). Lackey's going to have to bring his A game, but even if he does Boston will probably lose anyway given how poorly they've been swinging the bats lately, today's outburst notwithstanding.