Sunday, August 31, 2014

What's Wrong With Wright?

As the Mets play out the string on another noncompetitive season, half a game out of last place in the NL East and 10 below .500 entering play today, their struggles seem to have infected David Wright, their star third baseman. An All-Star each of the past two years, Wright's been one of baseball's five best players since he debuted in 2004. He's consistently hit for power and average, gets on base, and runs the bases well, all while offering good defense at a demanding position and serving as the face of New York's other baseball franchise.

This year, at the age of 31, he hasn't been doing any of those things. He's scuffling along at .263/.322/.363, well below his established career standards. He only has eight home runs and 56 RBI after averaging 22 and 88 over his first 10 seasons, and his ISo. this year isn't even half of what it was last year. He's been caught stealing nearly as many times (5) as he's been successful (6).

His walk rate--over 10 percent every year except his first--has fallen beneath 8 percent. And his strikeout rate--between 16 and 17 percent the last two years--has jumped to over 18 percent. After homering once every 23.3 at-bats prior to this season, he's gone deep just once every 62.4 at-bats in 2014.

Put it all together and Wright's on track for the worst non-injury affected offensive campaign of his career. My question is: why?

One reason is that Wright's BABiP, which traditionally has been north of .340, has fallen to .313 this year. Still better than the league average, but below average by his personal standards. If anything, Wright's BABiP should actually be higher than last year's, as he's hitting more line drives and ground balls, both of which can be expected to turn into hits more often than fly balls and pop-ups, of which Wright is hitting fewer this year. So yeah, there's definitely some bad luck in there. Give Wright his standard .340 BABiP and his average jumps to .290.

Still, what has to be more concerning for the Mets (who have Wright under contract through 2020, during which time they owe him $107 million) is his sudden loss of power. With the exception of 2009, when Citi Field opened, and 2011, when Wright was hurt, he has always provided big-time power numbers. His career slugging percentage was .506 through the end of last year, and a healthy Wright could always be counted on to supply 20-30 home runs and around 100 RBI.

This year Wright's been (mostly) healthy, playing in all but 10 of the Mets' games thus far. but the power numbers haven't been there. He homered on Opening Day, then didn't hit his next bomb until May 10th. He's in the midst of an even longer drought now, homerless since July 11th--a span of 40 games and 167 plate appearances. Wright's endured a massive funk since then, batting .211/.277/.237 with as many GIDP (10) as RBI and, of course, zero home runs. The second half has not been kind to Wright, who's been dogged by injuries but refuses to go on the Disabled List or shut it down for the year.

He's hitting slightly fewer fly balls than he did last year and compared to his career rate, but enough to explain such a massive decline in home runs. What's odd is that only 5.5 percent of Wright's fly balls have left the yard, easily the lowest of his career. The only other time that figure was below 12 percent was 2009, when Wright had to contend with the cavernous dimensions of Citi Field for the first time. But he's been playing there six years now, so the ballpark adjustment is no longer a viable excuse.

It could be that Wright, who's played only one full season over the past three, is simply wearing down at this stage of the year. Perhaps he's been affected by injuries (recent bouts of neck spasms and recurring right shoulder contusions) more than he lets on. Maybe 2014 is just a down year, nothing more than a fluke from which he will bounce back in 2015.

Or maybe this is the beginning of the end of David Wright as a great player. He's done worse against all pitch types this year except change-ups, with his biggest decline coming against fast balls. That would appear to be the sign of a slowing bat, if not an aging player.Wright's routinely crushed fastballs throughout his career, even in his lesser years, but this year he's been horrible against them. Opposing hurlers aren't pitching him any differently as far as what pitch they throw him, but they should be.

The only thing David Wright's done well this year is play above average defense at the hot corner, which combined with his roughly league average bat has helped him stay above replacement level. But the Mets aren't paying him $20 million this year (nearly one-quarter of their Opening Day payroll) to be a merely average player; they're paying him to be a superstar.

And if Wright's superstar days are truly behind him, then the Mets will most certainly regret locking him up through his age-37 season.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What Happened to Cano's Power?

Cano's having another excellent season despite middling power numbers
Robinson Cano went yard in Seattle's 5-0 win over the Texas Rangers last night, crushing a solo homer off Rangers starter Nick Martinez in his first at-bat of the game. The long ball, Cano's only hit of the game, was just his 12th of the year. That puts him on pace to finish the season with 15, his fewest since 2008 and a far cry from the 28 he averaged over his last five seasons in New York. His .143 ISo would be the second-lowest of his career, ahead of only 2008's .139 mark.

Obviously the Mariners were hoping for a bit more pop when they signed him to that crazy 10-year, $240 million contract last winter. Cano has shown some lately with five home runs since the start of August, but it's too little, too late for someone who managed only two through his team's first 64 games of the season.

So what's going on with Cano? The natural inclination is to blame his power drop-off on the switch from Yankee Stadium, a park perfectly suited for his pull-power stroke, to the offense-depressing wasteland known as Safeco Field. But Cano actually has more dingers at home (7) than he does on the road (5), so that's not it.

Rather, what appears to have happened is that Cano altered his swing, focusing on hitting to all fields as opposed to hammering everything to right field. This shift is evident in his splits, which reveal that Cano has become a phenomenal opposite-field hitter this year, but at the expense of success on balls he hits to other parts of the park.

2013 Pull .385/.385/.754
2014 Pull .313/.313/.646

2013 Middle .351/.347/.554
2014 Middle .360/.357/.434

2013 Oppo .387/.379/.548
2014 Oppo .459/.453/.682

So as you can see, what Cano's essentially done is reverse his strengths. In 2013, playing half his games at a park that rewarded lefthanded fly ball hitters, he was lethal when he used right field. Now, playing in a park with fences that are extremely difficult to clear, he's become more of a line drive spray-hitter. Rather than try to make his strengths work in his new digs, he's adjusted to his surroundings and become a different, albeit still great, hitter.

This modification is reflected in Cano's batted ball distribution, which shows a career-low fly ball rate and his highest ground ball rate since 2007. For the first time in his career he's hitting more than twice as many ground balls as fly balls, and when you do that it's very difficult to hit home runs.

The trade-off has resulted in more base hits for Cano, who's sporting his lowest strikeout rate in five years and batting .326, which if he sustains it will be his highest average since he hit .342 in 2006. Those extra hits, combined with his solid walk rate, are fueling his .394 OBP--a career-best and the third-best mark in the American League.

So while Cano's days of threatening 30 homers appear to be over, he's still every bit as effective at the dish as he was in 2012 and 2013--when he slugged 33 and 27 home runs--after adjustments for league and park. His 147 OPS+ this year is almost identical to the 148 mark he posted in both those seasons. He's still the best second baseman in baseball, an elite hitter, obvious All-Star, and intriguing MVP candidate.

Considering Cano hit only one home run each in April, May, and July, that's pretty freaking impressive.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Choo's Injury Caps Disappointing Season

Shin-Soo Choo's season is over. The Texas Rangers outfielder has a bone spur in his left elbow and will need to go under the knife in the next two weeks to remove it.

Under normal circumstances this would be a devastating blow for the Rangers, losing a player of Choo's ability a week before September, but their season has been anything but ordinary. A slew of injuries has turned a talented team that many thought would contend for first place in the AL West to the worst team in baseball.

Choo was one of the few Rangers to avoid serious injury, having played 123 of the club's 129 games to date. Unfortunately for the 32 year-old his good health did not translate into good production, as he scuffled through the worst season of his career since he began playing regularly in 2008.

Signed by the Rangers to a seven-year, $130 million prior to the season, Choo came to Texas with the reputation of a durable, 20/20 outfielder who got on base a ton. Installed as the team's leadoff hitter, he was expected to bolster the lineup as an elite table-setter for Adrian Beltre, Prince Fielder and Alex Rios. Instead, he showed none of the tools that made him an All-Star caliber player and turned out to be an enormous bust in the first year of his new deal--bad news for a player on the wrong side of 30.

Even before his injury, pretty much everything that could go wrong for Choo did go wrong. His .242 batting average and .340 OBP were his lowest marks since 2005, his rookie season, and his .374 SLG., .714 OPS and 100 OPS+ were his worst since 2007.  Compared to last year his walk rate plummeted, his strikeout rate soared, and his BABiP tumbled 30 points even though his batted ball distribution was virtually identical to what it was in his monster 2013 campaign.

Choo, always a poor hitter against southpaws, struggled mightily against righthanders as well, batting just .244/.348/.384 against them (down from .317/.457/.554 against righties a year ago). Versus righties he had trouble hitting pitches down the middle--something that should never be an issue for a hitter of Choo's caliber--and did noticeably worse on inside pitches as well. This development would seem to suggest diminished bat speed as a cause for his struggles and, based on his difficulties with fastballs this year, that's probably the case.

Decline is to be expected given Choo's age, but it was very surprising to see him become a nonfactor on the bases virtually overnight. Formerly a lock to steal 20 bags per year, he nabbed just three in seven attempts after swiping 96 over his previous five seasons. Throw in his shoddy defense in left field and frequent turns at DH, and he was a replacement level player at best.

Mercifully for Choo, his disastrous season is over. He can look forward to getting his swing right and returning to health in 2015, when hopefully for Texas he'll be able to start living up to his massive contract. Because if this is what Choo is going forward--a league average bat with middling power and limited speed who profiles as a corner outfielder/DH type--they're going to be stuck with his albatross of a contract for the rest of the decade.

Of course, Choo is still young enough that a bounce back isn't out of the question, especially if this injury was nagging him for awhile and caused his production to suffer. His proven track record is too distinguished and Texas is too good a hitter's park to write him off after one bad year. But the Rangers have to be prepared for the probability that they're not going to get back the impact player they thought they were getting last winter, and that what they saw from him this year might be as good as it gets.

Castro and Rizzo Rebounding

Castro and Rizzo are enjoying big bounce back years after disappointing 2013s
Baseball fans have been spoiled by the recent, immediate success of the sport's numerous young stars. With so many guys showing up and setting the world on fire right away--Buster Posey, Jose Abreu, Jose Fernandez, Matt Harvey, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Yasiel Puig, etc.--the bar has been raised for how top prospects are expected to perform once they reach the big leagues.

What's more common is for young players to experience ups and downs, deal with the growing pains that are a natural part of the development process. The league adjusts to players, exploiting their holes and weaknesses, forcing the players to make their own adjustments that ultimately help them become better ballplayers. They're supposed to make mistakes, learn on the job through trial and error. They're supposed to fail. Just look what's happened to Xander Bogaerts, Gregory Polanco, and Kelton Wong this year. Does anybody doubt that their futures are still incredibly bright?

The Chicago Cubs recently experienced these issues with two of their most promising young position players. In 2012 both Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo were 22 years old, hailed as an up-and-coming tandem of stars that was supposed to help turn their struggling franchise around. Castro made his second straight All-Star team that year, batting .283/.323/.430 with a career-high 14 home runs and 25 steals while playing solidly above average shortstop. Worth somewhere between 3 and 3.5 WAR that year, he was easily a top-10 shortstop overall and one of the five best in the National League.

Rizzo, in his first season with Chicago after being traded by San Diego that January, started the year in Triple-A but was in the majors by the end of June and made an immediate impact, slugging four home runs in his first ten games and winning NL Rookie of the Month honors for July. Entrenched as the Cubs' everyday first baseman, he played well the rest of the way, finishing the year with a .285/.342/.463 slash line. He displayed good power as well, clubbing 15 doubles and 15 homers to go along with 48 RBI in roughly half a season (87 games).

Both appeared to be cornerstones of a rebuilding Cubs team that dropped 101 games in 2012 but had its eyes set on the future. Chicago improved marginally the following year, losing 96 games, but did so without much help from Castro and Rizzo. Castro bottomed out, flailing at the plate (hitting just .245/.284/.347 with a measly 72 OPS+) and regressing in the field, resulting in a sub-replacement level season.

Rizzo, despite once again showing good power (40 doubles, 23 dingers) and patience (76 walks), was also a disappointment. He batted only .233/.323/.419--roughly league average production when adjusted for league and park--and struck out 127 times in his first full season. He and Castro had been expected to improve, but instead appeared to take significant steps back.

This year both were selected to the NL All-Star team and appear to have gotten themselves back on track. Rizzo's emerged as one of the sport's top sluggers, with his 29 long balls just three shy of Giancarlo Stanton for the league lead. He's more than just a power hitter though, as his robust .278/.376/.510 batting line has made him one of the Senior Circuit's ten best hitters this summer, which is also evident in his high standing on many of the league's leaderboards.

Castro has also returned to form at the dish, with his .284/.333/.429 slash line nearly a dead ringer for his 2012 stats. He's one home run away from his personal best and needs only two more walks to tie his previous high. His defense has held steady compared to last year and he's all but abandoned his running game (four steals in seven attempts), but at least he's back to being one of the better-hitting shortstops in baseball.

The Cubs, who have improved again this year and can count on more hitting talent arriving shortly, have to be encouraged by these recent signs of progress. Castro and Rizzo are All-Star caliber players expected to be cornerstones of the organization's next postseason contender, which could be ready as soon as next year. For the Cubs to reach their full potential, Castro and Rizzo have to reach theirs, and based on their performance this year they appear to be doing just that.

Ranking Baseball's Best First Basemen

More than 70 years after his premature death, Gehrig is still the best
Writing about Jim Thome's recent retirement got me thinking about where he rates on the list of all-time great first basemen. Here's my top-10 list:

1. Lou Gehrig
75 years since the Iron Horse played the last of his 2,130 consecutive games, Gehrig is still the greatest first baseman of all time. Larrupin' Lou leads the position in OPS, OPS+, and JAWS score with both the highest career and peak WAR of any first sacker.

2. Albert Pujols
Pujols is very much the modern day Foxx. Their career OPS+ scores are dead even at 163 and bWAR has them less than half a win apart (in Foxx's favor). But since Pujols has played fewer games, he's been slightly more valuable on a per-game basis. He also comes out ahead in peak bWAR, which I believe since the numbers suggest he was a better baserunner and defender than Foxx while matching him with the bat. Thus, I give the nod to the Machine.

3. Jimmie Foxx
Double X was the righthanded Gehrig. When he hung up his spikes for good in 1945, his 534 home runs were the most by any man not named Babe Ruth.

4. Jeff Bagwell
Until Pujols came along, Bagwell had been the best first baseman of the post-World War II era. A tremendous all-around player, the 1994 NL MVP combined great power and plate discipline with speed and strong defense.

5. Frank Thomas
Thomas was a better hitter than Bagwell, but played more than half his games at DH. A career National Leaguer, Bags had no such luxury. It might very well have extended his career, which ended abruptly in 2006 spring training because of an arthritic shoulder. But even without the extra time at the back end of his career, Bagwell was still the superior ballplayer, which is reflected in his better bWAR (career and peak) totals.

6. Jim Thome
The recently-retired Thome has the most home runs and walks of any first baseman. A terrific slugger and on-base machine for many years, Thome was just a notch below Thomas.

7. Eddie Murray
Steady Eddie enjoyed two decades of uninterrupted productivity, from his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1977 through his final full and penultimate season in 1996. In between he made eight All-Star teams and won a trio of Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers. And while he never won a Most Valuable Player award, he was runner-up twice and finished in the top-eight eight times. He was a better defender than Thome and was a good player for a very long time, but Thome's sizable superiority as a hitter more than made up for Murray's advantages elsewhere.

8. Johnny Mize
The Big Cat had the equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's career--seven phenomenal seasons prior to World War II and a few more big ones afterwards--but has never received his due for it. Such a shame that his name has largely been forgotten to history, because this Hall of Famer was one of baseball's best players for more than a decade. In fewer than 7,500 plate appearances, he still managed to contribute more on offense than Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew and Willie Stargell did, which is really impressive considering all of them made at least 9,000 trips to the plate.

9. Mark McGwire
Steroids aside, Big Mac did some amazing things as a hitter. There are the 583 home runs, of course, the four conseutive seasons of over 50 including back-to-back campaigns with 70 and 65. His .982 career OPS is the fifth-highest of any first baseman who played at least one full big league season and, oh yeah, he holds the best HR/AB ratio of all-time. It's impossible to know how much PEDs helped him, but there's no denying that he reached heights nobody had ever reached before.

So why did I rank him below Mize? An interesting question, especially given how close many of their numbers are:

Mize: 1,884 G 7,370 PA 1,118 R 1,337 RBI .959 OPS 157 wRC+ 3,621 TB 809 XBH 71 bWAR
Mac: 1,874 G 7,660 PA 1,167 R 1,414 RBI .982 OPS 157 wRC+ 3,639 TB 841 XBH 62 bWAR

Both had extraordinary peaks but otherwise brief careers, were tremendous sluggers who never won an MVP. As hitters they come out about even, with the slight edge probably going to McGwire. But defensively and on the bases Mize was better, and thus rates as a more valuable players according to B-R and FanGraphs. While Mize's peak wasn't quite as high as McGwire's, it was still pretty darn good and he sustained it longer despite missing three full years to the war (many of McGwire's seasons were hampered by injuries). That's why I give Mize the slightest of edges.

10. Hank Greenberg
I had a hard time deciding where to place Greenberg. How much credit should one give to him for losing almost five full seasons to military service? At his best, he was every bit as good as Foxx and Gehrig.

From 1934-1940, between them won four MVPs, five home run crowns (Foxx and Greenberg shared in 1935) and five RBI titles. One of them led the league in OPS every year (Gehrig and Foxx three times each, Greenberg once).

Gehrig:     .337/.457/.626/1.083 174 OPS+  349 Rbat 39.8 oWAR 14.77 AB/HR ratio
Greenberg .329/.424/.645/1.070 166 OPS+  337 Rbat 40.8 oWAR 14.81 AB/HR ratio
Foxx:       .329/.440/.633/1.072 166 OPS+  384 Rbat  46.3 oWAR 13.58 AB/HR ratio

Hammerin' Hank had a killer peak, winning two MVPs, neither one of which was given to him the year he fell one short of Gehrig's AL RBI record (1937) or the following year when he challenged Ruth's single season home run record. Greenberg finished third both times, and with better luck could have been the first player to win four MVPs. And he was still great when he returned from the war in his mid-30s too, pacing the Junior Circuit in home runs and RBI in 1946 with all of baseball's brightest stars back in uniform. There's little doubt that, health permitting, he would have continued to rake during the war years and ended up with some truly impressive career numbers. Unfortunately we'll never know for sure, and I just can't give him credit for something he didn't accomplish. In his prime he was easily a top-five, probably top-three first baseman, but I can only rank a player with fewer than 1,400 big league games so high.

Honorable Mention: Willie McCovey, Rafael Palmeiro, Harmon Killebrew

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Dick Allen: A Better Jim Rice

So yesterday's Ken Boyer vs. Ron Santo post got me thinking about another debate between a borderline Hall of Fame guy and a recent inductee. With Jim Rice's place in the Hall of Fame secure, Dick Allen deserves a plaque as well. And if there's only room for one of them, well, then it should be Allen no question.

But Rice is in, and Allen is not. The voters deemed Jim Ed worthy of a berth in Cooperstown. How they did not come to the same conclusion with Allen is beyond my comprehension. I mean, if Jim Rice is a Hall of Famer (which he is, even if many feel that he shouldn't be), then Dick Allen is absolutely, positively a no-brainer Hall of Famer. Rice made it into Cooperstown on his hitting and his hitting alone, and the numbers clearly show that Allen was a better baseball player. At the very least, Allen was a better hitter and more deserving candidate, essentially Jim Rice 2.0.

Let me explain. The similarities between the two as men and ballplayers are numerous. Both were tempestuous African American stars aggravated by the racist cities and times in which they played; mercurial sluggers with few friends in the media and stands; intense players worn down by the even more intense fans and press corps that all but suffocated them. Rice paid dearly for his surly demeanor, languishing on the writer's ballot for the full 15 years before he finally squeezed through Cooperstown's doors in his final year of eligibility. Allen, an even more polarizing figure, never came close to induction and is still waiting for the call.

Both were powerfully built righthanded sluggers with vicious swings that put the fear of God into opposing pitchers. Rice cracked 382 home runs, topping 40 once and winning three home run crowns. Allen socked 351, also exceeding 40 once and leading the league twice. Each was named AL MVP during the 1970s--Allen in 1972 and Rice six years later. Neither won a championship and both will be forever linked with teams that endured historic late season collapses (the '64 Phillies and '78 Red Sox) even though both enjoyed exceptional individual campaigns as their teams crumbled around them.

Rice played 16 years, one more than Allen, but because the former DH'ed and had better luck with injuries he was able to squeeze an additional 340 games out of his career. Thus, his counting numbers surpass Allen's in virtually every category except for walks and steals. Allen was much better at his peak though, with three seasons of at least 7.5 bWAR compared to Rice's one. Their numbers are remarkable similar on a 162-game basis:

Allen: 102 R 171 H 30 3B 7 3B 33 HR 104 RBI .292/.378/.534 313 TB
Rice: 97 R 190 H 29 2B 6 3B 30 HR 113 RBI .298/.352/.502 315 TB

Both burst on the scene with monster rookie seasons at the age of 22 (Allen copped Rookie of the Year honors and Rice would have too had he not debuted the same year as Fred Lynn), beginning a run of excellence that lasted over a decade until they dropped off dramatically before their 35th birthdays. Rice lost his lifetime .300 average, finishing at .298 like Mickey Mantle, and fell short of other notable milestones such as 400 homers, 1,500 RBI and 2,500 hits. Allen also fell short of 400 dingers, barely making it to 350, and failing to reach even 2,000 hits.

Allen last 3 years: .246/.334/.410  32 HR  142 RBI  0.5 bWAR
Rice last 3 years:  .263/.330/.395  31 HR  162 RBI  0.0 bWAR

For a long time it looked as though that sudden, steep decline was going to keep Rice out of the Hall. With Allen it's even more pronounced, leaving his counting numbers well short of what many consider Hall of Fame quality from an outfielder.

But Allen's career totals are close to Rice's, and his slash stats are much better. Allen walked a lot--much more than Rice, who rarely took a free pass unless it was intentional. So while Rice outhit Allen .298 to .292 for their careers, Allen has the much higher on-base percentage at .378 to Rice's .352. That advantage, combined with the former's 32 point edge in slugging percentage, means Allen was a far better hitter over the course of their careers. The numbers bear this out, as Allen's .912 OPS, .400 wOBA and 156 OPS+ dwarf Rice's .854, .375 and 128.  Allen also far outpaces Rice in batting runs above average, with 435 to Rice's 297, and outranks him by almost 25 offensive WAR, which combines hitting and baserunning. Allen was an above average baserunner while Rice was below average, but that's not enough to explain the huge gap in their offensive production.

Rice has no excuse, as he benefitted from batting in the middle of Boston's fearsome lineups and playing half his games in baseball's best hitter's park at the time. Allen did not enjoy these same advantages. He played in the National League, which everyone knows was the superior league during the 1960s and '70s (read: more competitive), and did not enjoy the same level of supporting talent or the perks of playing in Fenway.

This is apparent in their neutralized numbers. Rice's barely change, as his friendly home park negated the difficulties of playing the offense-suppressed 1970s and '80s. Allen's figures improve considerably, however. His batting line jumps to .307/.396/.561, raising his OPS to more than 100 points higher than Rice's. He's also credited with 378 homers, 1,261 RBI, nearly 2,000 hits and almost 1,000 walks. Still borderline numbers, but more comparable to Rice's at least.

 There's not much point comparing their defense because frankly, both were terrible. If Rice had been good he wouldn't have DH'ed so much, but in his defense the Red Sox already had a tremendous left fielder in Carl Yastrzemski when he arrived. Rice eventually turned himself into a halfway decent defender as he learned to handle the Green Monster, but never came close to matching the defensive prowess of his predecessor. Allen butchered every position he played; third base, first base and left field, but his offense was especially valuable during his time at the hot corner. The difference between a bad defender and a worse defender is not enough to compensate for the huge disparity in their hitting.

Even though Rice played the equivalent of two more full seasons and played better defense, Allen comes out significantly ahead in WAR. Baseball Reference, Baseball Prospectus, and FanGraphs all credit him with roughly 60 for his career, about 10 more than Rice. Based on his Hall of Stats rating of 115, Allen is a worthy Hall of Famer. With a score of just 82, Rice is decidedly not.

And yet, nearly 40 years after his last game, Allen is still on the outside looking in. Blame the writers for stiffing him, the fans for not supporting his candidacy, and Allen for being a giant jerk, but Richie's waited long enough. His omission from the Hall is one of Cooperstown's most glaring oversights. How could they pass over a hitter who was so great, Hall of Fame caliber for 15 years, for so long?

Allen made many enemies and they've kept him from coming anywhere close to induction. He never even received 20 percent of the vote in any of his 14 years on the ballot. Based on his on-field accomplishments, Allen should have been inducted long ago, and had he been a swell, stand-up guy like Dale Murphy he probably would have.  Rice didn't have a lot of friends either, but eventually stances softened on him as people came around to seeing what a great hitter he had been. When is that going to happen with Allen? Will it ever?

Sabermetrics punched Bert Blyleven's ticket to the Hall of Fame, and with the same concerted effort Allen could get there one day as well. Unfortunately there just doesn't seem to be that same level of support for him. The grudges against him aren't going away. Who's clamoring for Dick Allen to take his rightful place in the Hall of Fame? Not very many, it seems, and if they're out there they're not being vocal enough. Allen might not seem like a Hall of Famer at first glance, but once you do a little digging it becomes as clear as day. He was one of the best hitters of not just his era, but baseball history. The Hall of Fame is a lesser place without him.

They say time heals most wounds, and in this writer's opinion enough time has passed to forgive Allen for his personal flaws and let bygones be bygones. The Wampum Walloper was baseball's best hitter for more than a decade, on par with contemporaries Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and Willie McCovey, and deserves to be commemorated in Cooperstown for it. Allen's in his early 70s now, and he might not be around much longer. Better to induct him while he's still alive and able to enjoy it, lest the Hall waits too long to open its doors to him a la Ron Santo. The ceremony will be long overdue, of course, but better late than never.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ken Boyer Belongs in Cooperstown

Okay, so this long-winded post is admittedly a few years overdue, but better late than never.

Now that Ron Santo has taken his rightful place in baseball's Hall of Fame, shouldn't Ken Boyer get to as well? I mean, they were pretty much the same player when you get down to it. Both were slick-fielding, power hitting third basemen that had 15-year careers in which they won five Gold Gloves apiece and were perennial All-Stars during their heyday. Each was voted one of the National League's 10 most valuable players 4 times, and together they won 10 of 11 NL Gold Gloves handed out at the hot corner between 1958 and 1968, with the stray trophy going to Jim Davenport in 1962.

The similarities don't end there, either. They both spent the majority of their careers with a Midwestern National League club (Boyer with St. Louis, Santo in Chicago). Heck, their careers even overlapped for ten years from 1960--Santo's rookie year--to Boyer's last season in 1969. And just look how similar their career numbers are!

Boyer: 1,104 R 2,143 H 282 HR .287/.349/.462 .810 OPS 116 OPS+ 62.8 bWAR
Santo: 1,138 R 2,254 H 342 HR .277/.362/.464 .826 OPS 125 OPS+ 70.4 bWAR

It should come as no surprise that Boyer rates as Santo's fourth-most similar batter, behind a pair of third basemen who deserve to go into the Hall someday--Adrian Beltre and Scott Rolen--and a classic borderline case in Dale Murphy. With almost identical career slugging percentages, their power was certainly comparable. Boyer enjoyed 12 straight seasons with at least a dozen long balls, one fewer than Santo. Both men had eight years with upwards of 90 RBI.

Santo, because of his advantages in power and on-base ability, has the edge as a hitter, but Boyer was a better baserunner and, according to the metrics, a superior defender as well. Though both played for 15 years, Santo was more durable and thus squeezed about an extra 209 games out of those years. Thus, his counting numbers are more impressive and closer to traditional Hall of Fame levels, whereas Boyer's would seem to fall short.

Boyer has other things in his favor besides better glovework, though. He won an MVP award and a World Series championship, two things Santo never achieved. Boyer also had a bit of speed as well, swiping 105 bases in his big league career with a high of 22 in 1955, his rookie season. Boyer is one of only seven third baseman with more than 250 big flies and 100 stolen bases. Santo, with only 35 career steals, was never the threat on the bases that Boyer was.

Boyer beats the throw home to Yankee catcher Elston Howard in the '64 Series
An excellent two-way third baseman for a decade, Boyer was basically Santo before Santo. He made seven All-Star teams, won five Gold Gloves, and should have cemented his Hall of Fame status when he was named MVP in 1964 after playing all 162 games, leading the major leagues in RBI with 119 (becoming the first third baseman to do so since Home Run Baker in 1912), and batting .295/.365/.489 with 24 home runs for the World Series-winning Cardinals. He came up big in that year's Fall Classic against the Yankees, fueling the Cards' Game 4 victory with a grand slam and stroking three hits--including a double and a homer--to back Bob Gibson in Game 7 (Clete Boyer also homered, marking the first and only time in baseball history that brothers have homered in the same World Series contest). Unfortunately for Santo, he never had the opportunity to prove himself on the game's biggest stage.
That proved to be Boyer's last hurrah, as his career quickly went downhill after the '64 Series (ditto Mickey Mantle). The primary problem with Boyer, as it is with so many guys who seemed to fall just short of the hall, is that he stopped hitting in his early 30s. He had ten great years, the last coming in his MVP year at 33, and then was essentially done. The same thing happened to Jim Rice, Vada Pinson, Tony Oliva, Dale Murphy, Dick Allen, and many others who find themselves on the outside looking in when it comes to Cooperstown.

Boyer was also cursed with being boring. Never a flashy player, Boyer was consistent, and consistency is underrated. He hit 24 home runs four years in a row, batted over .300 four years in a row, and ended up with between 90 and 100 RBI six times in the seven seasons spanning 1956 to 1962. Had he come up with the handful of additional RBI necessary to push past 100 those years, he could have finished his career with eight 100 RBI seasons instead of two. I have to think that would have made a big difference in his Hall of Fame case. Voters back then loved big RBI totals and it would have been hard to ignore someone with eight seasons over 100. Likewise, if even just a few of his 24 homer seasons had been 30 homer seasons instead, Boyer would have eclipsed 300 career homers. As it were, he only had one season with more than 28 and managed just 40 over his final five seasons, falling 18 shy of 300 for his career.

As it is, Boyer is still a deserving Hall of Famer, albeit barely. His career bWAR score of 62.8 clears the threshold of 60 that typically defines a Cooperstown-caliber career. What's more, the average JAWS score of a Hall of Fame third baseman is 55.0, and Boyer's right there at 54.5. Though he falls a bit short on longevity, he makes up for it in peak value. He had six seasons where he was worth more than six wins, including two where he was over seven and two others with more than five. His peak WAR score ranks ninth at the position, better than Brooks Robinson and Miguel Cabrera and almost even with those of Adrian Beltre and Chipper Jones. A lot of that value stemmed from his defense, though he was still a terrific hitter. For those who prefer more traditional metrics, during his best seven-year stretch--1958-1964--Boyer averaged 155 games, 26 home runs, 101 RBI, a .303/.372/.500 batting line (128 OPS+), and totaled 45 bWAR.

That's a tremendous peak, something that's evident in his numerous All-Star appearances. Boyer's 11 All-Star Games (six starts) are the most of any third baseman not in Cooperstown, and everyone else who played in nine or more is in or will be (looking at you, Miguel Cabrera). It's one-fewer than Wade Boggs, Eddie Mathews, and Mike Schmidt, for God's sake, and two more than Santo. Obviously All-Star Games aren't everything, but they do reflect a player being recognized as one of the best at his position or in his league during a given year. And yes, Boyer's totals are skewed somewhat by the fact they played two Midsummer Classics per year from 1959 through 1962, so technically Boyer was an All-Star seven times. But still, seven All-Star nods is impressive.

The problem with Boyer is that he didn't have enough good years surrounding that peak. In two of the three seasons before it he clocked a 94 OPS+, and in the five years afterwards his aggregate OPS+ was 97. Boyer's case essentially rests on his first 10 seasons, and in two of those years he was actually subpar with the bat. So that leaves eight good seasons, and while they are very good, they don't jump off the page. I can see why many people don't view Boyer as a Hall of Famer, for the longest time I didn't either.

But now I see that in those ten years, Boyer was the second-best third baseman in baseball to Eddie Mathews. He was baseball's eighth-most valuable position player over that span behind seven slam-dunk Hall of Famers; Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Mathews, Al Kaline, Frank Robinson, and Ernie Banks. Consider that five of them were in the Senior Circuit in the time, and Boyer being named MVP looks even more impressive.

More than anything else, though, this right here is what put me on Boyer's side once and for all (and no, it wasn't the endorsements of former teammates Stan Musial and Tim McCarver). And that is from 1900 through 1968, Boyer's penultimate season, he was, according to WAR, the best third baseman not named Eddie Mathews. That means until the end of of the '60s, he had a legitimate claim as the second-best third baseman of the modern era, which by that point was near the end of its seventh decade. Case closed. That's enough for me.

Third base has traditionally been an underrepresented position in the Hall of Fame. That Santo, one of the 10 best third basemen ever, had to wait almost 40 years after his last game to go in (posthumously) remains one of the Hall's biggest mistakes. There are several more behind him lined up to go in, namely Boyer, Graig Nettles, and Dick Allen. It's too late for Boyer, who passed away more than 30 years ago, but better late than never. That's what the Veteran Committees are for.

Of course it all comes back to my original argument; if Boyer is basically Santo or just a tick below, and Santo's a deserving Hall of Famer, then by transitive property Boyer is too. It's really that simple.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Upton and Down

On Friday night the Upton brothers homered in the same game for the fifth time, setting a new major league record in the process. Each touched Stephen Strasburg for a two-run dinger, with Justin's breaking a scoreless tie in the first and B.J.'s doubling the lead to 4-0 the following inning. The Braves survived a late rally from the Nationals and held on to win 7-6.

After another bomb by Justin yesterday, the Upton siblings now have 28 long balls between them this year; 20 from Justin and 8 off the bat of B.J.

That Justin Upton leads his older brother by such a big margin is hardly groundbreaking news, as the former has been a much better player since they came together to form two-thirds of the Braves outfield. But as recently as 2012, B.J. Upton could claim outright superiority in that department. At that point the elder Upton had outhomered his kid brother 118 to 108 with three 20-homer campaigns to Justin's two. B.J. had just popped a career-high 28 with the Tampa Bay Rays, while Justin had only managed a disappointing 17 with the Arizona Diamondbacks in a much friendlier park for hitters.

It's fascinating how much their careers have diverged since. In the three seasons before they joined forces in Atlanta, both players compiled 10.7 fWAR apiece. But seeing as how most of Justin's came during his stellar 2011 campaign and B.J. was between three and four wins every year, the latter could certainly claim to be more consistent.

At the time B.J. was coming off the better season, having just established personal bests in home runs and total bases (260). Justin was trying to forget a down year in which he hit 17 home runs with a .785 OPS and 2.1 fWAR, a far cry from his MVP-caliber 2011 that produced 31 homers, an .898 OPS and 6.1 WAR. For the second time in three seasons, WAR rated B.J. ahead of Justin.

The last two years, however, it's like they're playing in completely different leagues. B.J.'s fallen off a cliff since the ink dried on his instantly regrettable five-year, $75 million pact with Atlanta. In his 235 games with the Braves he's batted a paltry .197/.273/.310 (62 OPS+) with 17 home runs, 55 RBI and 297 strikeouts, making him a sub-replacement level player this year and last. Justin, on the other hand, has been comfortably above replacement level thanks to his still-dangerous bat, which since he was traded to Atlanta rates almost 30 percent better than average after adjustments for league and park.

With B.J. already an albatross and Justin a borderline All-Star, the disparity between the two has never been greater. It's just funny to think that not too long ago, B.J. was actually the better player.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Martinez Mashing

For more than a year now, playing in the shadow of Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez has quietly been one of the best hitters in baseball.

It all started midway through last year, with Martinez scuffling at the plate after missing the entire 2012 season because of a torn ACL. Towards the end of June the then-34-year-old was hitting just .225/.283/.332, still shaking off the rust despite playing everyday for almost three full months.

Then, finally, the hits started falling for the slumping switch-hitter. He ripped off a 14-game hitting streak just before the All-Star Break, part of an incredible July in which he batted .390/.429/.581 with 41 base knocks. V-Mart remained red-hot through the dog days of August, roping 44 hits and batting .386/.449/.491 as a follow-up. In September he finally cooled off, but still strung together a 12-game hitting streak and batted .315/.367/.483 for the month to notch his fourth straight .300 season and seventh overall. All told, Martinez hit .370/.422/.519 over his final 82 games of the season, helping the Tigers go 49-33 in those games in narrowly beat out the Indians for the AL Central crown.

This year's been even better for Detroit's designated hitter, who's hitting for more power now than he has at any other point in his career. His .238 ISO and .560 slugging percentage are easily career bests, with the latter mark good for fifth in baseball among qualified hitters. His 23 home runs have him tied for ninth with Oakland bash brothers Brandon Moss and Josh Donaldson and are only two short of his personal high.

Even at Martinez's advanced age (35), it's not unusual to see him hitting .321 or getting on base more than 38 percent of the time. The five-time All-Star is a .304 career hitter who's career walk to strikeout ratio is nearly even. He still retains the tremendous bat speed, sharp reflexes and remarkable strike zone recognition needed to keep up with today's flamethrowing hurlers.

No, what's curious about this year is his unexpected power resurgence. While Martinez has always been a great hitter, his power appeared to be declining. His slugging and isolated power decreased in the two seasons since he left the Red Sox, and he swatted only 26 home runs in those years after exceeding 20 five times between 2004 and 2010. Given his advancing age, diminishing HR/FB rates, and the cavernous outfield dimensions of his home field, Martinez losing power was only natural. It seemed unlikely to ever return.

He's reversed that trend this year, however, by trading a good number of ground balls for fly balls. With more elevation in his swing, he's kept his GB/FB rate under one for just the second time in ten years. More fly balls typically translates to more big flies, but Martinez is also benefiting from the best HR/FB rate of his career. At 16.2 percent, it's more than double his rates from the last two seasons (both in the low sevens) and much higher than his career rate of 10.5 percent.

Could it be a small sample fluke? Maybe. Martinez crushed 20 home runs through June 25th but has only three since, which could be an indication that regression under way. According to ESPN's nifty home run tracker, seven of V-Mart's bombs have qualified as "just enough." Take those wall-scrapers away and he's sitting on 16, still a good number but nowhere near the pace that has him on track for his first 30-homer season. But with an average true distance of 389 feet and average speed off the bat of almost 104 miles per hour, many of Martinez's dingers have been legit. Five qualify as no-doubters and eleven left the yard by plenty. Even without the aforementioned "lucky" shots he'd have already exceeded his home run totals from his two most recent seasons. His HR/FB rate would be 11.3 percent, still above his career average and the highest it's been since 2009. Put simply, his power surge is not an aberration.

By improving his pop at 35, Martinez has found a new way to defy baseball's aging curve. Ballplayers typically don't have their best power seasons in their mid-thirties unless they're using certain performance enhancing substances (see Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds) or move to a hitting-friendly venue (Adrian Beltre, Hank Aaron). Comerica suppresses home runs, so that means the second explanation is out. I don't mean to suggest that Martinez is on something, but in this day and age a semi-suspicious power spike from a 35 year-old former catcher does make one wonder.

But Victor Martinez has always been a great hitter and displayed the ability to hit for power before, so I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Great hitters like him stay great longer, especially when they don't have to play the field. All I'm really trying to say with this post is that V-Mart is a phenomenal hitter, and has been one for a long time. This year, he's been a great power hitter, which hasn't always been the case, especially recently, and that merits a closer look.

Coghlan's Comeback

Coghlan's been on base a lot lately (CSN Chicago)
Remember Chris Coghlan?

Until about a week ago, I'd completely forgotten the 2009 NL Rookie of the Year. After looking at his recent track record, it's not hard to see why.

In the four years between his rookie season and this one, he batted .242/.307/.352 with 12 home runs and 70 RBI in just over 1,000 plate appearances. Across 265 games he put up a 79 OPS+ and was worth -1.4 fWAR. Injuries played a big part in that, robbing him of almost the entire second half of his sophomore season (knee surgery), nearly 60 percent of his 2011  (inflammation in the same knee), and almost three months last year (lower back strain). In this regard he was like the National League equivalent of Grady Sizemore; an outfielder who'd shown tons of promise early in his career only to see his prime years ruined by injuries.

Still, the fact remains that when Coghlan was healthy enough to play during those years, he wasn't very good. So it came as no surprise that the Marlins, the only team Coghlan had ever known, non-tendered him last winter. It was time. Even bad teams like the Marlins can't afford to waste a roster space on a corner outfielder in his late 20s who can't hit, run, or field. With young Christian Yelich showing promise and ready to replace him, Miami had to cut Coghlan loose. No regrets and no hard feelings.

Closing in on 30, beaten down by injuries and five years removed his last (and only) good season, Coghlan looked like he was going to be remembered as one of those Rookies of the Year who fell off the map, a one-hit wonder whose best season just happened to come at the beginning of a career that, for whatever reason (injuries, failure to make adjustments, bad luck) never panned out. Added to the list of vaguely familiar names like Angel Berroa, Bobby Crosby, and Jason Jennings, recent Rookie of the Year recipients nobody remembers.

The rebuilding Cubs took a flier on him, giving him a minor league deal with an invitation to Spring Training. He wasn't on the big league roster when camp broke and was optioned to Triple-A Iowa, where he got on base a good amount (.379 OBP) but failed to hit a home run in 24 games there. He was basically Daniel Nava.

So it was somewhat surprising when the Cubs called him up in early May. Initially Coghlan played sparingly, limited to pinch-hitting duty and the occasional start. He began receiving regular at-bats in June and became more comfortable at the plate as a result. His batting line rose steadily throughout the month, from .139/.184/.139 on the first to .204/.281/.330 by the end of June.

In July, with the Cubbies no longer in contention, Coghlan began to shine. He hit safely in 13 of 14 games before the All-Star Break, catching fire and becoming a mainstay in Chicago's lineup. His power, dormant for so long, emerged as well with eight doubles and three homers.
Coghlan continued raking after the break, notching hits in 14 of 17 games to open the second half and raising his batting line all the way up to .302/.382/.498 after a 3-for-3 effort on August 6th.

It's been far and away Coghlan's best prolonged stretch of hitting since he batted .321/.390/.460 as a 24 year-old rookie in 2009. Rick Renteria, the Cubs manager, has responded by batting him leadoff, using Coghlan's on-base skills to jumpstart a lineup that doesn't have much offense outside of Starlin Castro and Anthony Rizzo (much like how John Farrell's been batting Brock Holt leadoff to try to spark an otherwise lifeless Red Sox lineup). With Coghlan notching 13 multi-hit games and reaching base more than 46 percent of the time since the calendar flipped to July, scoring 23 times as a result, the move has paid off. He's setting the table and giving the guys behind him lots of opportunities to drive in runs, which is all anyone can really ask of a leadoff man.

Coghlan's unexpected comeback has been of the better stories in baseball lately, seeing as how he appeared to be out of a job not too long ago. A career-best walk rate and improved strikeout rate have fueled his success along with the highest HR/FB rate of his career and a more balanced batted ball distribution. His .337 BABiP is significantly better than average but not out of whack with his .320 career rate, though his .413 rate since the start of July screams small sample fluke. Accordingly, neither Steamer nor ZiPS expect the 29 year-old to keep hitting this way much longer. Both predict that his OPS to fall about 50 points between now and the end of the season, but neither one projects him to totally fall apart, either.

That's because for the first time in half a decade, Chris Coghlan's a legitimately good baseball player again.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

We Want a Homer, Just a Little Homer

Hosmer hasn't developed into a slugger, and neither have the other Royals
The other day Joe Posnanski, while examining the Royals' struggles on offense, wrote that a big reason why they have issues scoring runs is because they're an “average conscious team." After perusing yesterday’s box scores, I have to agree with him. Kansas City has the third-best batting average in the American League and of the team’s top 11 hitters in terms of plate appearances, all but one (Mike Moustakas) are batting over .260. However, only one—Lorenzo Cain—is over .285.

The problem with that approach is that those averages are largely empty. KC ranks dead last in homers and walks and second-to-last in OPS. Seeing as how they rank 11th among the 15 AL teams in runs scored, it's clearly not working. All those singles and doubles aren't putting points on the board, even with the Royals hitting a more-than respectable .267/.331/.402 with runners in scoring position.

They’ve made up for their light-hitting ways by stealing a bunch of bases, most in the American league, but aggressive baserunning can only help so much. At some point you have to drive guys in, and that’s always easier when the ball goes over the fence. It's much more efficient to get a single, walk, and three-run jack than it is to string together multiple hits with a steal or two mixed in.

Kansas City doesn't have guys who can do that. Their top home run hitter is Moustakas with 14, and he shouldn't even be on the field with his .263 OBP. Eric Hosmer hasn't built on the promising power he displayed as a rookie in 2011. Billy Butler's always been more of a doubles guy, and so has Alex Gordon. Salvador Perez has good power for a catcher, but you never want your backstop to be the best power hitter on your team (unless he's Johnny Bench). The Royals, more than anything else, desperately need somebody capable of going deep every now and then. It’s something they haven’t had in a long time and probably won’t have for a while, given inability to acquire big name sluggers and stupid deal for James Shields that sacrificed Wil Myers, the minor leagues' second-best home run hitter in his last full year on the farm.

The Royals play in a park that encourages singles and doubles, rewards speed, and suppresses home runs. Their offense reflects this. But they play half their games in other parks, and still the results have not been pretty (.388 road SLG). If the Royals could just be an average home run hitting team and draw some walks every once in a while, they’d be a playoff team. But they don’t, and so they’re not.

It’s bad enough that they can’t afford to even be in the conversation when a top power bat hits the free agent market. It’s even worse that they haven’t been able to develop hitters with game-changing power. The Red Sox just traded Jon Lester, a free agent in two months, for Yoenis Cespedes, one of baseball’s best raw power hitters. With James Shields set to join him and command much, much more than Kansas City can possibly afford, there’s no reason the Royals couldn’t do that trade, except that they’re the Royals, and they never make trades like that, and the one time they did, it was a colossal mistake.

When you’re a team like the Royals, a team that rarely walks and can go weeks without hitting a home run, then it isn’t enough to have the league’s third-highest batting average. You need to have the best, and by a considerable margin. You need to have multiple .300 hitters, guys who can be counted on to get hits with runners in scoring position and produce runs that way. But in an age where better defensive positioning and tougher pitching are stealing countless base hits every day, that’s a tough strategy to follow. The Royals are living in the past, playing an AstroTurf style of baseball on grass, trying to make the 1980s brand of baseball work in the 2010s. Maybe that's why they haven't made the playoffs since 1985.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Holliday Heating Up

After three tough months at the plate, Holliday finally looks locked in
You wouldn't know it by looking at the final numbers, but Matt Holliday got off to a painfully slow start last year. When play began on June 3rd he was hitting .244/.329/.415 with eight home runs through his first 51 games of the season. The early season slump, combined with his age (33) and coming on the heels of back-to-back seasons of declining OPS, led many to speculate that Holliday's best days were behind him.

Only the six-time All-Star wasn't done. Far from it, in fact. Holliday proceeded to snap out of his , of course, and was fine from that point forward. He hit .333/.423/.535 the rest of the way, ending up with a .300/.389/.490 batting line in addition to his 22 home runs and 94 RBI. Another typically excellent offensive campaign for the St. Louis Cardinal, who was one of just nine players last year to top 20 home runs, 90 RBI and a .300 batting average. Only three National Leaguers did it; Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman, and Holliday. Note that Goldy and Freeman play first base, a less challenging defensive position than left field per Bill James's defensive spectrum.

This season appears to be following a similar script; sluggish start, strong finish. Only this time around, the funk was a little deeper, lasting  about a month longer. Through July 7th Holliday was hitting a disappointing .260/.367/.373 with only five home runs, showing none of the power that helped him swat at least 19 every year for the past nine. Once again, it seemed as though Holliday had seen better days.

And once again, he's done everything he can to dispel that notion. In the four weeks before last night's 0-for-3 against Boston, he batted .307/.381/.653 with seven home runs, going yard more times in those 21 games than he did in the previous 87. The power surge has coincided with an increased strikeout rate for Holliday, who whiffed 21 times over that stretch (one per game) as opposed to 54 times prior to that (.62 per game). Holliday may be consciously trying to sacrifice contact for power, but if that's the case it hasn't negatively affected his average. Or it could merely be that July has traditionally been his best home run month.

Whatever the reason, Holliday's swinging the bat well and it's had a positive impact on St. Louis, which went 12-9 during his hot streak. Currently one game behind the first-place Brewers in the NL Central, the Cards could certainly use a big finishing kick from Holliday like the one he provided last year. Though he leads the team in doubles and RBI and ranks tied for second with Matt Adams in home runs, his .792 OPS could stand to jump another 50 or 60 points between now and the end of the season, if not more. 

At least Mike Matheny needn't worry about his number three hitter. Holliday, who's done nothing but hit for the past decade-plus, is hitting now, so there's really no reason to doubt him. He's dug himself out of a big hole before, and here in 2014 he appears to be doing it again.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Explaining Chris Davis's Sudden Drop-off

2014 hasn't been kind to last year's home run and RBI champion, or anyone who drafted him onto their fantasy team.  Crash back to earth is what Chris Davis has done, reverting into a replacement level player after finishing third behind Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout in the 2013 AL MVP race. His current OPS is 300 points lower it was a year ago.  He's hitting not just below his weight (230) but also the Mendoza line, and he leads the league in strikeouts. Crush has regressed into the whiff machine he was prior to 2012, leaving a gaping hole in the heart of an Orioles' lineup that was counting on 30-40 home runs and at least 100 RBI from him.

So how has Davis turned from Babe Ruth into Mark Reynolds overnight? As is usually the case in these scenarios, the BABiP of the slumping player in question has taken a major nosedive. It's at .250 right now, 74 points below his career average and 86 points less than what it was last year. Given that his line drive rate is over 26 percent--a career-best--Davis appears to be suffering from horrible luck this year. It doesn't help that like most lefthanded pull hitters, he faces defensive shifts on a regular basis. Based on his .145 average on ground balls (.199 last year), it would seem Davis has lost more than a few base knocks to these strategic alignments.

The sharp downturn in BABiP fully explains why his batting average is down almost 90 points from last year.  That's not the only thing that jumps out from his batted ball data, though. He's also showing slight dips in his fly ball rate, from 45.7 percent last year to 40.3 percent this year, and home run/fly ball rate, from almost 30 percent to just a shade under 23 percent. The latter is likely a result of normal regression to the mean, as it's very difficult to hit three fly balls out of the yard for every ten put in play.

So bad luck combined with aggressive defenses and normal regression--all factors outside of one's control--have combined to put a hurt on Davis, but the simple truth is that he hasn't the same hitter he was in 2013. Less complete, less dangerous. Where he's really struggled is against offspeed pitches and breaking stuff, as Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs points out here. Davis has more or less been the same hitter he was against fastballs as he was last year, but this year he's been a mess against non-heaters. Pitchers have exploited this weakness, throwing him fewer fastballs in favor of more curves and changeups, against which Davis has been helpless.

All that flailing has led to the second-worst worst contact rate and strikeout rate of his career. It also doesn't help that he's seeing more first pitch strikes than he did last year, causing him to fall behind early in the count (never good for a big-swinger such as Davis). He's been more selective, which should be a good thing, but based on the previous fact it seems that his discipline may be working against him, especially when he lets those first pitch fastballs go by. It's good to see him laying off more balls, but it would probably serve him well to be more aggressive against pitches in the zone, particularly early in the count when he's more likely to see a fastball. After that, he's going to see more breaking and offspead stuff used to put him away.

(I also might as well bring up the fact that Davis spent time on the Disabled List earlier in the season with an abdominal strain. Before going on the DL his OPS was .754; since returning, it's .688.)

Is there any hope for Davis, whose numbers have declined every month since May? Well for all his struggles, he continues to do what he's always done best: hit for power. With six home runs over the last month and 19 on the season, he's still on pace for around 30 homers and 80-85 RBI--essentially a repeat of his 33-85 production two years ago. With a playable on-base percentage over .300 (which should only improve as his luck turns), there's a regular spot for him in Baltimore's lineup. Just not in the middle of it.