Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cabrera's Forgotten Season

Cabrera was curiously ignored this season despite his impressive numbers (ESPN)
Maybe I wasn't paying close enough attention, but I felt like we just went through an entire baseball season without talking about Miguel Cabrera.

Not only did his Tigers capture their fourth straight division title, but they did so with Cabrera once again posting monster numbers in the middle of their lineup. While his production sagged below his career norms--especially compared to the last four years--it was still outstanding. He batted .313/.371/.524, good for a 147 wRC+ and .384 wOBA (both seventh in the American League). His counting stats were exceptional as well; 25 home runs, 109 RBI, 101 runs, 320 total bases and a league-leading 52 doubles. With 5.4 fWAR he was one of the ten most valuable position players in the American League, but nobody seems to be seriously campaigning for him to win his third straight award.

I just don't get it. The guy puts up huge numbers, his team wins the division, and we forget about him? Like all of the sudden he doesn't exist anymore? What makes this lack of recognition even more strange is that Cabrera was a constant presence, playing all but three games this year. It's not like he got hurt for a few weeks and fell off the face of the earth for a little while. He was out there everyday. How do you think he reached 25 home runs, 100 RBI and 300 total bases for the 11th straight year?

Cabrera's consistency went unnoticed, as a lot of other Tigers got more ink this year. Justin Verlander and Joe Nathan fell apart, and their demise attracted a lot of negative attention. Victor Martinez had a remarkable, MVP-caliber season batting behind Cabrera. Ian Kinsler was phenomenal in his Detroit debut, making everyone forget about Prince Fielder. Torii Hunter somehow warded off age for another year. J.D. Martinez came out of nowhere and emerged as one of the best hitters in baseball. Brad Ausmus replacing Jim Leyland. Detroit trading for David Price at the deadline and still almost not winning the division. Just on the Tigers alone, there were lots of other storylines besides Cabrera this year. He was overshadowed.

Part of me thinks it was a response to Cabrera became a little overrated over the last couple of years. He won the Triple Crown in 2012, something nobody had done in 45 years, but Mike Trout was clearly better. Last year was more of the same. Cabrera once again had awesome statistics, even better than the year he won the Triple Crown, but again Trout was better. Cabrera won the MVP both years even though he was the league's fourth-most valuable player each time. It was like Juan Gonzalez beating out A-Rod, Nomar Garciaparra, and Derek Jeter for MVPs in the late '90s.

Then Cabrera signed that ridiculous contract, the eight-year, $248 million extension that doesn't even kick in until after next year, and for the first time in over a decade baseball's highest paid player wasn't Alex Rodriguez. The love for Cabrera, one of the game's more underrated players for the first ten years or so of his career, had swung too far in the other direction. He'd gone from under-appreciated to horribly overrated.

So, when he had a merely great season this year, nobody seemed to notice. He very clearly declined, but not so much that people started asking "what's wrong with Cabrera?" or began calling him out for being an overpaid bum. He was not extraordinary enough to fawn over like Trout or Giancarlo Stanton or Clayton Kershaw, but he was still productive enough to skirt any criticism that might come his way.

Of course, the Tigers should be worried about Cabrera. Despite moving back to first base, his OPS still fell nearly 200 points compared to last year. He just had the second-worst ISO and third-worst walk rate of his career. After walking more than he whiffed in 2011 and maintaining an almost-even ratio last year, he fanned more than twice as often as he walked this year, something he hasn't done since 2008. He's going to be 32 next April. Alarm bells should be going off. It's Albert Pujols all over again.

But for now Cabrera continues to fly under the radar. That will probably change over the next couple weeks if he comes up with a few big hits or strikes out in key situations. The Tigers are still trying to win their first World Series in 30 years, after all, and if Cabrera helps them do that then he'll be back in the spotlight where he belongs.

Maybe he's not the best hitter on the planet anymore, but he's still among the best, and that's worth talking about.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Mike Trout: "Average" MVP

Trout will win AL MVP even though his batting average isn't exceptional 
While the debate's been raging over who deserves to be the National League MVP this year (clearly Clayton Kershaw), the American League's outcome has been a foregone conclusion for months. This is the year Mike Trout wins his first (should be third) MVP award.

What's interesting about that is that he batted "only" .287, well above the league average but also considerably below historical standards established by previous MVPs. I know batting average is not a great statistic, but I couldn't remember the last time someone won with a sub-.300 average. So after doing some research on Baseball-Reference, I found that there hasn't been an MVP with such a low average since 1987, when Andrew Dawson walked away with the NL trophy after leading the majors with 49 home runs and 137 RBI. In retrospect Dawson was a poor choice (Tony Gwynn, Jack Clark, Will Clark, and Darryl Strawberry had better cases), but here Trout is very clearly the right choice.

In fact, the last time anybody won MVP without hitting .300 was Jimmy Rollins in 2007 (another poor choice). It hasn't happened in the American League since 2003, when Alex Rodriguez finally won his first (like Trout, A-Rod's was long overdue).

I think it's telling that the best player in baseball isn't even a .300 hitter. It says a lot about how far we've come in terms of valuing players. It also speaks to league-wide declining averages due to rising strikeouts, more emphasis on defense, and more frequent shifts. It blows my mind that Trout, a phenomenal hitter with great speed, didn't even crack .290. Not that it matters, of course.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Kemp's Comeback

Finally healthy, Kemp has returned to his previous offensive levels (BlackSportsOnline)
With Yasiel Puig on the up-and-up, Clayton Kershaw headed for a Cy Young/MVP combo meal, and Adrian Gonzalez driving in runs like it's his job, Matt Kemp might not be the star of the Dodgers any more. But you know what? He's still a pretty darn good baseball player.

It was easy to lose sight of that the last two years, when Kemp was constantly hurt and his performance suffered. That was especially true last year, when he missed more than half the season and batted an empty .270/.328/.395. There was legitimate concern that he would never again resemble the two-time All-Star, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove recipient and one-time MVP runner-up. Though he was only 29 coming into the season, his best days appeared to be behind him.

This year Kemp has bounced back in a big way, staying healthy enough to play in all but a dozen games to date and re-asserting himself as one of the best-hitting outfielders in the National League. In that group he ranks sixth in wOBA and wRC+, fifth in home runs and fourth in RBI. Even after factoring in his iffy baserunning, he still rates as one of the Senior Circuit's 10 best offensive outfielders, better than Justin Upton and Ryan Braun, among others.

The bulk of that production has come in the second half. Kemp was horrible in the early going, hitting a paltry .238/.291/.398 through June 5th. He really looked done and was even benched. But then his bat got hot as the weather warmed, and since then he's looked like the Kemp of old. Starting on June 6th he's batted .307/.369/.549 with 23 doubles, 19 homers and 71 RBI in 97 games. Projected over the course of 162 games, those numbers work out to be roughly 30 homers, 40 doubles and 120 RBI. That early season rough patch is now a thing of the past, as most of Kemp's numbers are back up to his 2012 levels--a rebound deserving of the NL Comeback Player of the Year award.

Of course, any analysis of Kemp's performance must also include his defense, which has been abysmal in every sense of the word. A lot of the value he accrued at the plate has been lost to his brutal fielding, so much so that Baseball-Reference estimates him as being worth a mere one win above replacement level this year. FanGraphs is a bit more generous at 1.7, but it's pretty clear that Kemp has regressed as an outfielder. Remember how bad he was in 2010? He's been at least as bad this year, maybe worse. It goes without saying that he will not be winning his third career Gold Glove in 2014.

Kemp is also not the factor he once was on the bases. Since stealing 40 bases in 2011, he's failed to top nine since. Granted, Don Mattingly doesn't need to give him the green light as much now that he has Dee Gordon and Carl Crawford at his disposal, but it's clear that Kemp's hamstring woes have cost him a good chunk of his speed. Kemp's an old-30 and three years into an eight-year, $160 million contract that doesn't look like it's going to work out too well.

At least Kemp can still hit, and that resurgence at the plate was a big key to the Dodgers' winning the NL West again this year. He's second on the team in doubles, home runs, RBI, total bases, and tops in slugging for anyone who's played at least 100 games. He makes their lineup significantly more dangerous and has teamed with Gonzalez, Puig, and Hanley Ramirez to form a pretty intimidating heart of the order most nights. I think it's fair to say that without Kemp, the NL West would probably still be up for grabs.

The Dodgers can only hope that his monster second half doesn't end when October begins.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Ortiz Out

Ailed by a sore wrist and with his Red Sox hopelessly in last place, David Ortiz is likely done for the season. Expect him to ride this pine the weekend while Derek Jeter takes his last victory lap of his farewell tour at America's oldest and most beloved ballpark.

If we've indeed seen the last of Ortiz in 2014, kudos to him for making it through another full season in spite of his age and team's also-ran status. Big Papi continued to hit at age 38 even though nobody else on the Sox did. Though frequently pitched around, he still managed to sock 35 home runs--his most since 2007--and drive in 104 runs--also his most since 2007. That makes eight seasons with at least 30 home runs and 100 RBI with Boston, most all-time.

Though Ortiz was another year older in 2014, his production didn't diminish much. His ISO remained exactly the same, his walk rate held steady and his strikeout rate barely inched upwards. His batted ball distribution shifted significantly--fewer line drives and more fly balls--which explains his improved home run production but sinking BABiP and batting average. That suggests Ortiz was probably uppercutting more, trading singles and doubles for home runs.

That usually doesn't bode well for aging hitters in their late 30s given their declining power, but Ortiz still retained his pop. It cost him nearly 90 points in OPS compared to last year, but he still batted a robust .263/.355/.517 with a .369 wOBA and 135 wRC+. A cut below his eye-popping numbers from the past three years, but still tremendous production in any case.

The Red Sox can only hope that their designated hitter (owed $16 million next year, by the way) can ward off age for another year. That will be difficult if his wrist injury, similar to the one that forced him to the Disabled List in 2008 and triggered two down seasons, impacts his offseason workouts or lingers into spring training. Boston was smart to shut him down now, even if there was no reason for him to be playing at all with the team so far out of contention. They probably would have been better off shutting him down for the season earlier in the month along with Dustin Pedroia.

But hindsight is 20/20, and it's hard to argue with the Sox for letting a healthy Ortiz play. He needs to come back strong next year, however, as his bat is virtually impossible to replace. They need him in the heart of their order, putting up big numbers, doing what he's always done since joining Boston 12 years ago: rake.

Kershaw Clinches Division, MVP

Kershaw helped get the Dodgers over the hump this year (www.la.com)
The race for the National League West is over, and with it the race for NL MVP.

The second coming of Sandy Koufax was in top form in his final start of the season last night, hurling eight innings of one-run ball as the Dodgers beat up on the Giants. LA's bats picked him up after falling into an early 1-0 hole against Tim Hudson, scoring four runs in the sixth and four more in the eighth to fuel the Dodgers' 91st victory of the season.

With LA's second straight division title secure, champagne flowed in home locker room of Dodger Stadium after the win. Of all the celebratory Dodgers, none did more to help the team get there than Kershaw.

All the reigning Cy Young award winner did was turn in one of the most dominant seasons any pitcher has ever had. While he likely won't win the Triple Crown (his 239 strikeouts will probably be surpassed by Johnny Cueto and Stephen Strasburg, both at 235 with one start remaining), he's statistically head and shoulders above the crowd. Look no further than his 197 ERA+, which is based off his 1.77 raw ERA--the lowest by a pitcher since Pedro Martinez's 1.74 mark in 2000 and good enough for his record fourth straight major league ERA crown.

Just wait--there's more. His 1.80 FIP is the fourth-lowest mark of the live ball era, and his 0.86 WHIP rates seventh. His 10.8 K/9 was the best in baseball this year, and his 7.71 K/BB ratio paced the National League. Though injuries prevented him from reaching 200 innings (he'll fall five outs short), nobody has more complete games (six)--a testament to the fact that he averaged more than 7 and 1/3 innings per turn.

And as much as I hate wins, his 21 are tops in the bigs (and tie his career high). They're also the most-ever for anyone with as few starts as him (27) since 1880. In other words: a very long time. He only suffered three losses, which over the course of 27 starts is just ridiculous, and so his .875 W-L percentage is extraordinary as well.

Kershaw currently leads both leagues in bWAR, barely ahead of Mike Trout, and is first in the NL per fWAR. There's no doubt in my mind now. Clayton Kershaw is the National League MVP. 

Until recently, I wasn't ready to hand him the trophy just yet because of all the time he missed at the beginning of the season (41 days between his first start and second thought), my thought being that he absolutely had to finish strong in order to make up for that.

And boy, did Kershaw finish strong.  Including last night he won his last seven decisions, going eight innings in all but one of those starts--a 14-5 rout of the Cubs last Friday. He struck out eight or more in each start--65 in 53 innings of work against just 12 walks--and was untouchable, holding opponents to a .195/.245/.258 line over that span. During crunch time, with the Dodgers vying for a division title and guaranteed playoff spot, Kershaw was at his finest. 

That sealed it for me. Kershaw will be the first National League pitcher to win the MVP award since Bob Gibson in 1968. That was a special season, one of the all-time greats. Something tells me someday we'll look back on Kershaw's 2014 in a similar light. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

Lester Lights Out

Lester's been at the top of his game since arriving in Oakland (CBS)
The Oakland A's have been the subject of much derision lately because of their second half slide, falling from the top of their division to 10.5 games back of the Angels in six weeks. The A's have all but stopped hitting, and a lot of the blame for that has been laid at the feet of Billy Beane, who traded cleanup hitter and offensive force Yoenis Cespedes to Boston for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes. Cespedes has mashed with the Sox, while Gomes's struggles have followed him out west (no homers and .540 OPS with Oakland).

But saying the trade made Oakland worse would be a fallacy. Lester and Gomes combined have given the A's 1.6 wins above replacement in their brief time with the club, while Cespedes has provided Boston with 1.2. Acknowledging that narrow difference is too negligible to say this trade came out in Oakland's favor with any certainty, at the very least it's been even.

Because while Gomes has given the A's nothing of value, Lester's stepped up to become the undisputed ace of his new team. As good as Lester was with Boston during the first half, he's been even more dominant with Oakland. In his 10 starts with the A's, all quality, he's delivered 69 and 2/3 innings (almost seven innings per turn) of 2.20 ERA-ball. Opponents have batted just /226/.272/.354 against him during that time, which explains how he's compiled a 1.06 WHIP since he came over to Oakland. He's also maintained a nifty strikeout to walk ratio of 64/16 (4/1) and posted an average GameScore of 63.

Lester's pitched as well as advertised, and the A's have gone 7-3 in his starts. It's hardly his fault that Oakland's lineup went into hibernation, or that Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray have fallen off, or that the bullpen's been an absolute mess lately. Lester can only impact the team every five days, and he's done an excellent job of putting them in position to win. He's been money down the stretch, doing everything in his power to stop Oakland's slide even as the majority of his teammates have struggled.

He's been at the center of an epic collapse before, but if it happens again he's made damn sure well that he won't be the one to blame.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Longoria: Above the Nettles

Longoria is following in Nettles's footsteps (ESPN)
The more I think about it, the more Evan Longoria seems like a modern-day Graig Nettles to me, or at least a superior version of Nettles.

Think about it: they're basically the same player. Neither one hit for great average or had much speed, but both have above average on base skills because they walk a good amount. Both have good power, typically settling for around 20 homers and 90 RBI per season. Both have seen their numbers stifled by the pitching-dominated environments in which they play: Nettles spent most of his 22-year career in a wasteland for hitters (1967-1988) while Longoria has been victimized by the new Deadball Era, not to mention played half his games in the offense-suffocating Trop. For the most part they've been pretty durable, too.

Defensively, both are terrific. Nettles won two Gold Gloves and probably deserved a lot more, seeing as how B-R says his glove was worth nearly 21 wins over the course of his career (FanGraphs more or less agrees and has him at 18), though he was overshadowed by Brooks Robinson early in his career. Longoria also has a pair of Gold Gloves and has accrued the most defensive value of any third baseman since 2008, the year he broke in. His slick fielding combined with his elite bat has made him the best all-around third sacker during that span. He's been better than Adrian Beltre even, something I feel that most people don't appreciate.

Nettles had two top-six finishes in the MVP voting. Longoria also has two top-six finishes, though with admittedly more time to add more. Both came up with big hits in the postseason though their overall playoff numbers aren't great.

Nettles, of course, was a great player for a very long time; a borderline Hall of Famer. Longoria, with almost 40 bWAR through his age 28 season, is well on his way.  Though this year's been a bit of a struggle for him, he's remained healthy enough to play everyday and so his numbers will turn out alright. He was so good so young anyways that he really only needs a couple more big seasons to cement his Hall of Fame case, and seeing how he's signed through 2022 that shouldn't be too hard to do.

Nettles was very nearly a Hall of Famer, and Longoria's better than him. Few players play past 44, as Nettles did. But health and luck permitting, Longoria won't turn out to be the next Scott Rolen.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Other Martinez

Martinez has been a force since the calendar flipped to June (CBS)
A lot of praise has been showered on Victor Martinez for his MVP-caliber season, and rightly so. He's been one of the best hitters in baseball this year, putting up monster numbers in the face of sagging offensive production across the sport.

Just don't forget about the "other" Martinez on the Tigers, an unheralded Spring Training pickup who's having an outstanding season in his own right. I'm talking about J.D. Martinez (no relation), this year's Jose Bautista or Adam Lind.

Martinez was virtually unheard of before this year, but so it goes when you're a bad player on an awful team. You see, Martinez was a corner outfielder who didn't hit much or play much in his first three big league seasons, averaging just 84 games per campaign after arriving as a late-July call-up in 2011. Martinez actually hit decently that year with a .274/.319/.423 batting line (104 OPS+) and numbers that, when projected out over 160 games, worked out to be around 40 doubles, 18 home runs and 105 RBI. Martinez, just 23 years-old at the time, was a mild success on an abysmal Astros club that lost 106 games.

2012 wasn't any better for Houston, which lost 107 games, or Martinez, who struggled in his first taste as an everyday player. Despite a strong start his batting line shrunk to .240/.311/.375 (86 OPS+), leaving him below replacement level at -0.6 bWAR. On the plus side he showed a bit more patience and his power held steady, but didn't build off his solid debut so much as he took a step back from it.

2013 marked continued decline for Martinez, who batted an anemic .250/.272/.378 and was worth a full win below replacement despite barely playing half a season (86 games). Whatever strides he'd made in plate discipline the year before had disappeared, as he posted an abominable 82/10 K/BB ratio. The 25 year-old was supposed to be coming into his prime, but instead was merely treading water as a below average player. With minimal contributions in power, speed, and fielding, Martinez was a liability even the horrid Houston Astros couldn't afford to keep around.

So, in March of this year, with Spring Training drawing to a close, the Astros cut him. Based on what they'd seen from him--a .251 batting average, .300 on-base percentage, and sub-.400 slugging percentage in nearly 1,000 plate appearances--they were totally justified in doing so. Most teams would have given up on Martinez as well, I suspect.

The Tigers didn't. They scooped him up two days later, signing him to a minor league contract. Given his age (26) it wasn't entirely unreasonable for them to bank on a breakout, or at least hope he could be a productive fourth outfielder. But I'm guessing not even in their wildest dreams would they ever have expected Martinez to become a full-blown star.

An improved swing has led to better results at the plate (Boston Herald)
That's what happened in June, when Martinez mashed to the tune of .345/.367/.702 with nine doubles, seven home runs and 21 RBI. Given his spotty track record, one would have expected him to cool off sooner or later, but it hasn't happened. He's continued to rake since then and has been especially hot lately with 22 hits, six home runs and 17 RBI already in September. With the Tigers trying to fend off Kansas City, that barrage couldn't have come at a better time.

In Detroit Martinez has not only resurrected his career, but he's also emerged as one of the best hitters in baseball with his .398 wOBA, 157 wRC+, and .928 OPS. With his remade swing he's hitting well over .300, which makes up for his iffy on-base skills (only 25 unintentional walks) but is also completely tied to his .382 BABiP--a ridiculous number given his average footspeed that becomes even harder to explain after seeing only a slight uptick in line drive rate and considerable drop-off in ground ball rate.

But what's been most surprising has been his power. After managing just 24 home runs in his first three seasons (averaging one every 37.5 at-bats) he's already slugged 23 this year, going yard once every 17.6 ABs. He has as many home runs as Miguel Cabrera and his ISo is twice what it was last year. Power progression is to be expected as a player reaches his mid-20s, but seemed unlikely given his shift from a great home run park for righties in Houston to a much tougher one in Detroit. He's hit a few more fly balls than last year, but not enough to explain how he more than doubled his home run frequency.

Rather, that can be explained by his HR/FB ratio, which has more than doubled from last year's 9.5 percent to over 21 percent this year. There's probably some luck in there, as according to the ESPN home run tracker eight of his bombs just barely got out, but even if you take all those shots away he'd still have 15 on the year--a career high.

Martinez has noticeably improved against almost every type of pitch, but none more so than fastballs. After posting negative values against the heater in each of his first three seasons, he's been worth more than 21 runs above average against them this year. That, combined with better success against curveballs, sliders, and changeups, have made him a much more effective hitter.

And that's been huge for the Tigers this year, who've need every one of the four wins above replacement he's provided for them. If Detroit does hold on and win the division, Martinez's breakout season will be a big reason why.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Birds, Nats Clinch

Washington won its second division title in three years (Vavel)
Last night was a great night to be a baseball fan from the D.C. metro area. In Atlanta the Nationals blanked the Braves 3-0 to clinch the NL East for the second time in three years. In Baltimore the Orioles won their first division title since 1997, bludgeoning the Blue Jays 8-2 in front of a celebratory home crowd of 35,000-plus.

But while both of the nation's capital's baseball teams ended up in the same place--at the top of their division and postseason-bound--how they got there turns out to be two very different yet similar stories

It's impossible to talk about this season without first mentioning 2012, when both teams shed their also-ran status by making the playoffs. Washington was the best team in baseball that year, winners of 98 games and clear favorites to win the National League. The former Montreal Expos had been more or less irrelevant since moving to Washington after the 2004 season, never winning more than 81 games and finishing last in their division five times, but thanks to an influx of young talent and a killer pitching staff that had changed practically overnight. For the first time since 1933, there was playoff baseball in our nation's capitol.

That same year, the Baltimore Orioles also came out of nowhere to make the playoffs, winning 93 games and the AL Wild Card. The once-proud franchise had endured 15 straight losing seasons prior to its magical turnaround, going from a 69-93 last-place finish in 2011 to two games out of first the following year.

The Nationals were a veritable juggernaut. The Orioles were a Cinderella story, a good team that overachieved due to extraordinary luck in one-run games. And yet they both met the same fate: eliminated from the Division Series in five games, with Baltimore falling to their mighty division rivals from New York and Washington losing to the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals.

Still, 2012 was a banner year for the Nats, who were poised to be the crown jewel of the Senior Circuit for the foreseeable future. That season marked not just the beginning of a new era in Washington baseball, but also appeared to signal a changing of the guard in the NL East, a transition away from the Braves dynasty and Phillies mini-dynasty. With their tantalizing core of young position players (Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos) and plentiful pitching (Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez), Washington was armed and ready be kings of NL East for years to come.

For the first time since Clinton's presidency, the O's are AL East champs (Baltimore Sun)
The Orioles, on the other hand, were treated as a fluke. There was no such talk of a repeat performance in 2013, much less the next Orioles dynasty. They had an outstanding core of in-their-prime position players (Adam Jones, Matt Wieters, Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy), but not nearly enough arms to match their competitors in the AL East. Everyone knew that with natural regression they'd likely be a .500-ish team in 2013, and that's basically what happened. They won 85 games and fell back to the pack, finishing tied-for-third with the Yankees behind pitching-rich Boston and Tampa Bay. Nobody saw Baltimore as underachievers that year, but rather a club that played to its true talent level.

Not so with the Nationals, the preseason favorites to win the World Series. Washington was shockingly irrelevant last summer, 16 games out of first and four below .500 on the morning of August 20th. A late surge pushed them 10 games over .500 but still left them 10 back of the Braves and out of the playoffs. Almost the exact same results as the Orioles, one might notice, but drastically different expectations led to the Nationals' season being viewed as a massive disappointment, if not an outright failure.

Both responded with significant roster upgrades over the winter--Baltimore inked Nelson Cruz and Ubaldo Jimenez while Washington stole Doug Fister from Detroit--and have come back strong. The Nationals reclaimed their status as the top dog in their division and, as of this writing, the National League. Not that they had much competition--Atlanta was the only other rival with legitimate postseason hopes and now sits below .500--but first place wasn't guaranteed until mid-August, when Washington won 10 in a row and 12 out of 13 to wrap up the division. They've continued to roll since, breaking away from the pack and building their lead up to its high-water mark of 12.5 games.

Baltimore, on the other hand, wasn't given a snowball's chance in hell to win the AL East before the season began. The Orioles were widely viewed as one of the two weakest teams in the division, with the other being the Blue Jays. Boston, New York, and Tampa Bay were expected to duke it out for the top spot. Nobody gave Baltimore a second thought.

So when the Orioles were in first place for a good while in May, nobody thought it would last. And while they were only a few games over .500 for most of June, that was enough to stay near the top of the division. In early July they made their move, winning 10 of 13 leading up to the All-Star break to finish the first half 10 games above .500 and with a four game lead in the AL East. They've been in first place every day since, putting away the division with a torrid second half. Since the last day of June they've gone 49-21. That's a .700 winning percentage, folks, spanning almost half a season.

It's fitting that both teams ran away with their divisions around the same time, and that they'll likely finish the season with similar records. Because for the second time in three years, both teams will be playing in October, vying for the chance to compete in the first-ever all-DC area Fall Classic (a Beltway Series, I guess?). While I'd rather see a Freeway Series between the more exciting Dodgers and Angels (Yasiel Puig, Clayton Kershaw, and Mike Trout on the game's grandest stage? Yes please), that would be a pretty good series in its own right.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Martinez MVP?

Martinez has had an MVP-caliber season, but does he deserve the hardware? (zimbio)
Now that the Tigers are back in first place there's been some talk about Victor Martinez for AL MVP recently. Setting aside the fact that this award has been Mike Trout's to lose for months now, I want to talk about his candidacy for a minute.

For starters, Martinez is absolutely a legitimate MVP candidate. I think it's pretty safe to say that he's been one of three best hitters this year. He has the third-best wRC+ (162) in baseball, tied with Andrew McCutchen and behind only Trout and Jose Abreu. He's second in wOBA (.407) to Abreu. also has the best OBP (.400) in the majors as well as the second-best batting average and OPS, third-best slugging percentage and adjusted OPS, and a top-10 spot in basically every hitting statistic you can think of.  He's done everything you could ever ask of a hitter: hit for average and power, get on base, drive in runs, and rarely strike out. By old and new-school stats, Martinez has been phenomenal.

But as great as V-Mart's been with the bat this year, he's not the American League's most valuable player. FanGraphs rates his total contributions at about four wins above replacement--a terrific number, but hardly MVP-worthy (behind a couple teammates as well). Baseball-Reference is a bit more generous and has him at 4.7 bWAR--again a great number, but outside the top-10 when looking at position players.

In fact, both sites rate Martinez's value on par with that of teammate Miguel Cabrera, the two-time defending MVP who won't be making it a three-peat due to a pretty substantial decline in offensive production. Though Martinez has been the better hitter this year, Cabrera closes the gap with his defensive value even though there isn't much of it.

So while Martinez has clearly been one of the best hitters in baseball this year, that's not enough to earn MVP honors because he's primarily a DH, having played just 36 games in the field thus far. I don't mean to say that a DH can never be an MVP (Don Baylor won in 1979 while David Ortiz and Edgar Martinez have come close), but rather think winning should be more difficult for them. When it comes to offensive statistics, they should be held to a higher standard than players who have to field a position for nine innings every day.

In my opinion, to win an MVP a DH must have substantially better numbers than anyone else in the league. He has to lap the field, blow everyone else away. He needs to have the best numbers and lead by a considerable margin. When your contributions come solely from your bat (and legs, but most DH's don't run very well, which is often why they're there to begin with), you better have some otherworldly numbers to make up for sitting on the bench the rest of the time.

And Martinez's numbers, great as they are, aren't head and shoulders above everybody else's. Abreu's are equally awesome, and so are Mike Trout's. Jose Bautista's aren't far behind. Martinez might be the best hitter in the American League this year, but not by much
Now if he were hitting around .350 with a four-digit OPS and more power, that would be a different story. He'd have a real case then.

I'll readily concede that Martinez, despite what WAR says, has been the most valuable position player on the Tigers this year. He's been huge out of the cleanup spot for them, providing consistently tremendous production all season long (from both sides of the plate, to boot). I think he should finish in the top five, maybe even the top three if he goes on one last tear. But he's not the American League MVP; that's been Mr. Trout for a few years now.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Jeter Rage

Jeter's final season has been one to forget (NewsDay)
Barring a ridiculously hot finish the New York Yankees, five games out of the second wild card with 21 to play, aren't going to make the playoffs this year. The irony is that Derek Jeter, a leader and key contributor on all the great Yankee teams of the last two decades, is a big reason why. Not the only reason, of course, because when a team fails to reach the postseason there's always a bunch of reasons, but a pretty big one. With his punchless bat and shoddy defense at a premium position, he's done more harm than good.

It should come as no surprise that Jeter allowed himself to become such a detriment for his team. Because for all the praise showered on his leadership abilities, he has never been one to demote himself. Like Joe DiMaggio, he has too much pride and cares deeply about his image.

This was evident when Jeter did not offer to change positions to accommodate Alex Rodriguez when the Yankees traded for him in 2004, even though everyone knew that A-Rod was superior defensively. Rodriguez graciously shifted to third, even though he'd just won two straight Gold Gloves and was among the game's slickest-fielding shortstops at the time. Jeter did not want to defer to Rodriguez, to admit he was the inferior shortstop, so he remained at the infield's glory position. The following offseason, when Bernie Williams was in decline and New York needed a center fielder, Jeter's name was brought up, but once again he stayed put.

Now, ten years later, Jeter is still entrenched at shortstop long past his expiration date. 40 year-olds aren't supposed to play short on a regular basis, especially when they were never that good there to begin with. Jeter's defense has been statuesque for awhile now, his already iffy range demolished by recent ankle injuries, rendering him too immobile to man the most important infield position. One need not look at his range factor--by far the worst of his career--to know that he's not getting to many balls hit his way.

This all could have been avoided before the season. When Rodriguez was suspended and Robinson Cano departed via free agency, two less challenging positions opened up. Jeter did not volunteer to fill them, leaving the Yankees to settle  for doomed-from-the-start alternatives Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts. Had Jeter volunteered to switch, New York could have at least found a quality shortstop replacement in Jhonny Peralta or even Stephen Drew, who remained a free agent until late May. Drew's been terrible this year as well, but five months ago he looked like a much better player than either Johnson or Roberts (Jeter too, for that matter).

Jeter's done even more harm with his bat, which has produced an empty .260/.308/.311 batting line thus far. Adjusted for league and park, his .618 OPS is 23 percent below average. Throw in his mediocre baserunning, and Jeter's offense has been worth 17 runs below average, or almost two wins.*

*Two wins might not sound like a big deal, but when you're in the playoff hunt at this stage in the season two wins can mean the difference between life and death. Credit New York with two wins and remove two losses, and suddenly they trail Seattle by just three games for the second wild card, and their playoff chances look much, much better.

That wouldn't be so bad if Jeter was hitting eighth or ninth, where his poor bat would be minimized and not really a liability compared to the production most teams are getting from the bottom of their order. But Jeter, as you know, is not buried at the bottom of New York's star-studded lineup. He's batting second--the most important spot in the lineup--because that's where he's always hit, and because Joe Girardi has too much respect for Jeter to move him down (even though Joe Torre had no problem batting Alex Rodriguez--a much much better hitter than Jeter--eighth in a playoff game).

And Jeter, being Jeter (passive), has not volunteered to hit lower in the order, even though the Yankees would be better served by batting just about anyone else second.  A table-setter with a league average OBP and no pop or speed is a problem, especially when he has the third-most plate appearances on the team (only Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner have more).

When you have a flaw like Jeter or, more accurately, an offensive black hole, you're supposed to hide him, not expose him. Minimize your weaknesses and maximize your strengths, not the other way around. Jeter's 40 years old and is in his 20th big league season. He had to know he wasn't the same hitter he used to be, and that batting second was going to hurt the Yankees more than help them. He should have made it clear from the get-go: I'm going to try to play as much as I can and do what I can to help the team win, but realistically I'm limited and shouldn't be batting second.

Jeter did not do this. He did not do what was so clearly obvious for the best of the team. He left it up to the manager, knowing full well that Girardi would not have the gumption to slot the game's biggest icon and most popular player down in the order. Jeter was not proactive. He did not take the initiative. He wasn't, you know, a leader.

I take nothing away from Jeter as a ballplayer, because he's been a great one for many years. It just really makes my blood boil when people start going on and on about how what a great leader Jeter is and what great intangibles he has and how he's a winner. Great leaders know when to lead and when to defer to others, and in this regard Jeter has to be considered a failure. He is not the selfless saint that people make him out to be, and lately his teams have suffered as a result.

So when the playoffs start next month and New York is on the outside looking in, and fans and media are looking for someone to blame, they ought to point a finger at their beloved Captain.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Posey's Push for MVP

Posey's big second half should earn him some serious MVP consideration (FP911)
With the National League MVP race wide open, Buster Posey has forced his way into the discussion with his recent hot streak.

The 2012 MVP has been on fire since the day before the All-Star break with an extraordinary .363/.406/.621 batting line, 11 home runs and 37 RBI in that time. He's now up to .310/.361/.494-20-79 on the season, outstanding numbers for a catcher playing half his games in one of baseball's most pitching-friendly venues. One of the Senior Circuit's best hitters on a league and park adjust basis, Posey ranks third in offensive bWAR, fifth in adjusted OPS+ and eighth in adjusted batting runs.

Furthermore, Posey's hot play has helped his Giants keep pace with the Dodgers all summer long. As of this morning San Francisco sat just two games out of first in the NL West. With 20 games remaining on their schedule, the Giants still have plenty of time to pass the Dodgers and steal the division title out from under them. And considering how well San Francisco's played lately, winning 15 of their last 22, it's not hard to imagine them finishing with a fury and blowing by LA during the season's final days.

If that happens and Posey continues to rake, he's going to have a very interesting MVP case. Not only does he lead the team in most key offensive categories (home runs, RBI, all three slash stats), but on most days he also mans the most important non-pitching position on the demand (only Jonathan Lucroy and Miguel Montero have caught more games among NL receivers). It's no wonder, then, that Baseball-Reference rates him as the team's most valuable player by WAR.

So Posey may not have the flashy slugging numbers of a Mike Trout or Giancarlo Stanton, he definitely belongs in the MVP conversation.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Mesoraco's Monster Breakout

Though inconsistent, Mesoraco has enjoyed a tremendous season (RantSports)
The Reds were swept in Baltimore yesterday, falling to the Orioles 9-7 to wrap up an ugly road trip where Cincinnati lost all but one of its six games. It's been an ugly summer for the Reds, who were very much in contention through the All-Star Break but have sputtered since, losing 30 of 45 in the second half as injuries to Joey Votto, Mat Latos and Homer Bailey took their toll.

One positive takeaway from this season, however, is that Cincinnati appears to have developed an All-Star caliber catcher. 26 year-old Devin Mesoraco's been a revelation behind the plate, emerging as one of the game's most dangerous offensive catchers in his fourth big league season. In the wake of yesterday's 4-for-4 performance, he's now batting an eye-popping .286/.365/.542 (153 OPS+) on the year with 21 home runs--most among everyday catchers. His 69 RBI rank third behind Buster Posey and Miguel Montero, both of whom have significant advantages in playing time. In the National League only Giancarlo Stanton has a superior AB/HR ratio. If the Reds weren't so helpless out of the race, he'd make a pretty good MVP candidate.

It's not unusual to see catchers break out later than position players at other positions, but Mesoraco's transformation has been truly stunning. He was a nothing before this year, a career .225 hitter with 16 home runs and -0.5 bWAR to his name. Now he's one of the best hitters in baseball. Out of all this year's biggest breakthroughs (Charlie Blackmon, Corey Dickerson, Josh Harrison, Brock Holt), none of shined brighter than Mesoraco.

The only issue with Mesoraco (besides subpar baserunning, but good luck finding a catcher who runs well) is his incredible streakiness. All year long, it seems, has been alternating hot and cold streaks for the Reds' backstop, who began the year on fire. He was hitting .500/.541/.870 through May 18th, only to post a .521 OPS with 23 strikeouts over his next 21 games. That was followed by a torrid three-week stretch ending on the Fourth of July where he blasted six home runs and OPS'ed 1.287. He leveled off through the rest of July, then hit the skids in August, batting a measly .228/.340/.354 with just two home runs.

September should bring better results for Mesoraco, and by the looks of things yesterdat, it already has.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Cespedes Check-In

Cespedes has played well in his Red Sox debut (NESN)
There's not a whole lot of reasons to watch the Red Sox these days, unless you enjoy watching youngsters (Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts) cut their teeth in the big leagues, veterans playing out the string and Will Middlebrooks trying to salvage his major league career. Boston's an odd mix of old and young going nowhere fast, hopelessly out of contention and toiling in last place in the AL East.

Yes, the Red Sox title defense has gone horribly astray, especially in the past month or so since Ben Cherington dealt away many of the team's key pieces. There hasn't been a lot to cheer for lately, save one of the club's newest additions: hard-hitting outfielder Yoenis Cespedes.

Cespedes has performed as advertised: a tremendous source of righthanded power capable of batting cleanup behind David Ortiz. While the Sox have gone into free-fall mode since his arrival, going 13-18 since August 1st, Cespedes has been wonderful. In his 30 games in a Red Sox uniform Cespedes has hit safely in 24 of them, slashing .288/.306/.475 with a dozen extra base hits and 24 RBI. No Red Sock has more ribbies during that span, confirming Cespedes's status as one of the premier run-producers in the game (his 91 RBI rank fifth in the AL).

The downside is that Cespedes has all but abandoned any sense of plate discipline since coming to Boston, with only three walks in his time here against 26 strikeouts. Over the course of a season such a ratio would incur disastrous results, but thus far it hasn't hindered him. I'm sure the Sox would like to see him be a bit more patient, as his .304 OBP this year and .294 OBP last year fall below the league average, but those figures are certainly playable if Cespedes provides 25 homers and 105 RBI, as he's on pace to do this year.

Besides, Cespedes is one of the few Red Sox playing well at the moment (if it ain't broke...). Maybe his hyper-aggressive approach will prevent him from becoming the elite hitter he was during his rookie year, but at least he's still hitting plenty of homers and driving in truck loads of runs. Perhaps he's nothing more than a flashier Joe Carter, but that's okay. Boston could certainly use a Jim Carter-type these days.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Stanton Slugging Way to MVP

Stanton's superstar-caliber season should result in his first MVP award (RantSports)
Four weeks ago I wrote that given injuries to Troy Tulowitzki and Andrew McCutchen, Yasiel Puig had emerged as the new favorite for National League MVP because of his Mike Trout-esque production. But in light of Puig's recent offensive struggles (.185/.279/.217 with no home runs and four RBI since August 4th) his stock has fallen considerably.

During the same time Giancarlo Stanton's stock has risen substantially. With nine long balls, 27 RBI and a 1.078 OPS over the past four weeks, Stanton enjoyed one of his best stretches of the season during the dog days of August. And after slugging his 35th home run of the season last night, becoming the first player in either league to reach 100 RBI in the process, it's clear that if the season ended today Stanton would deserve to walk away with MVP honors.

He is, according to bWAR, the second-most valuable position player in the National League behind Jason Heyward (much of whose value derives from his defense) and third overall behind Clayton Kershaw and Heyward. FanGraphs rates him as the most valuable batter in the Senior Circuit, just a smidge above Jonathan Lucroy and tops among all major leaguers in WPA.

Of course, by most conventional metrics Stanton is clearly the best hitter in the National League. He ranks first in home runs and RBI, walks and OBP, total bases and SLG, OPS and OPS+, and a host of other categories like extra base hits, runs created, times on base, and adjusted batting runs. He's been incredibly durable, playing in all 137 of the Marlins' games thus far, a force in the middle of their lineup everyday.

But, contrary to what those who voted Miguel Cabrera over Trout the last two years believe, the MVP award should not simply go to the best hitter. It should go to the most valuable player which, in the case of a position player, includes defense and baserunning. Cabrera was clearly a liability in those two facets of the game, but Stanton is not. He plays a decent right field and runs the bases well for a big man, with 10 stolen bases in 11 attempts and three baserunning runs above average this year. He's not a well-rounded superstar like Trout or McCutchen, but he's not a one-dimensional slugger like Cabrera, either.

And to those who say an MVP must come from a winning team (and ignore the fact that one player has no control over how his teammates play or his front office constructs a roster), please take note of how much the Marlins have improved from last year. In 2013 with Stanton missing more than a quarter of the season, Miami lost 100 games and finished last in the NL East. This year, despite losing reigning Rookie of the Year and staff ace Jose Fernandez to Tommy John surgery in May, the Marlins have won almost as many games as they've lost and are third in their division. Few expected Miami to have anything close to a winning record, especially after losing an elite arm so early in the season.

But Stanton, to his credit, has carried the Marlins offense and helped keep the team within shouting distance of the second wild card. He's been integral to one of this season's most unlikely turnarounds, keeping Miami afloat long after it should have slipped beneath the waves. Stanton's made the Marlins relevant again. That might not be as sexy as leading a team to a division title, but after seeing how low they sunk last year it's still pretty darn impressive.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Amazing August 2014

Martinez was at the top of his game during the dog days of August
A quick look around at some of the MLB's best offensive performers in during the month of August.

Chris Carter
Carter's torrid production in July (1.005 OPS with eight homers and 19 RBI) carried over into August, with the Astros' slugger belting 12 home runs, knocking in 29 and slugging .613. His dozen long balls were tops for the month and increased his seasonal output to 33, putting him just two behind big-league leader Nelson Cruz. If Carter can stay hot, look for him to leapfrog Cruz (and Jose Abreu, with whom he is tied) during the season's final month.

Victor Martinez
V-Mart's monster season continued in August with 30 RBI--most in baseball--out of Detroit's cleanup spot (I guess it helps to hit behind Miguel Cabrera). He also banged out 41 hits and walked 19 times en route to slashing .350/.442/.547 for the month. Martinez made this list last year after similar production (44 hits, .386/.449/.491).

Nolan Arenado
Arenado had a big month for the rapidly fading Rockies, rapping out 36 hits and batting a robust .336/.400/.570. The 23 year-old's huge leap at the dish this year has been one of the few bright spots in an otherwise horrendous campaign for Colorado.

Giancarlo Stanton
Stanton's been a beast all year, so it should come as no surprise that he tore it up in August. Stanton supplied his usual big-time power, slamming eight home runs and driving in 25. He also walked 25 times, giving him a strong .289/.431/.567 batting line for the month. Stanton enters September atop the National League leaderboards in home runs, RBI, walks, slugging, OPS, and total bases, will be a slam-dunk MVP candidate if he can help the Marlins overcome their current 6.5 game deficit for the second wild card, or at least come close. I wouldn't expect him to get much to hit, though.

Danny Santana
Santana shined for the moribound Minnesota Twins with 41 hits, 23 runs and a .313/.357/.481 August line. Not bad for a 23 year-old shortstop.

Adrian Gonzalez
Gonzo's bounced back from a rough June with a fine July and an even better August, which he capped with a four-hit day in San Diego yesterday. The aging first baseman batted .337/.377/537--outstanding numbers for someone who calls Dodger Stadium home--while also driving in 20 runs. It's easy to forget about Gonzalez on the star-studded Dodgers, but he's been a rock in the middle of their lineup all season long.

Justin Upton
The Braves' cleanup hitter went bananas in August, putting together a 13-game hitting streak at one point and flashing the pop that made him a serious MVP candidate in 2011. B.J. Upton's little bro bashed seven home runs and knocked in 28 while batting a healthy .291/.383/.563. He's already established a career-high with 91 RBI and is poised to crack 100 for the first time in his career.

Josh Harrison
Harrison had a huge month in August, batting .347/.374/.602 with 41 hits (19 of the extra base variety) and 21 runs to shoot past Justin Morneau for first place in the NL batting race. Though he hit safely in 23 of 28 games last month I expect him to cool off in September and will be shocked if he finishes the season with a .300 average.

Jose Abreu
The Cuban rookie sensation continued to dominate the majors in August, raking big league pitching at a .376/.466/.475 clip with 38 base knocks and ending the month on a 12-game hitting streak. With only two home runs, however, Abreu all but guaranteed that he will fall short of Mark McGwire's single season rookie record of 49. As it stands Abreu needs 16 to tie.

Buster Posey
Posey put up numbers reminiscent of his 2012 MVP season with a .336/.372/.579 August line to go along with six home runs and 17 RBI. Red-hot since the All-Star Break, Posey's in the midst of a monster second half.

Jacoby Ellsbury
New York's shiny new (not to mention expensive) center fielder helped the Yankees stay in the hunt by hitting .324/.366/.539 and going a perfect 9-for-9 in stolen base attempts. With his combination of power and speed, Ellsbury resembled the 2011 version of his former self, at least for awhile.

Alex Gordon
Gordon began gaining traction as a viable MVP candidate (at least in the sabermetric community) in August as he and the Royals both got hot. Kansas City leapt into first place largely thanks to Gordon, who cranked nine home runs and batted .292/.356/.585. I'm not completely sold on Gordon as a legit MVP, so look for more to come from me on that front.