Friday, October 31, 2014

Poor Royals


While the San Francisco Giants are basking in the glory of their third championship in five years (which I guess makes them a dynasty), the Kansas City Royals are surely reeling from such a heartbreaking defeat. Losing Game 7 by one run is tough, especially when you're on your home field and especially when you last made the playoffs in 1985. It's tougher still when the game ends with the tying run standing on third base.

With Alex Gordon 90 feet away after Gregor Blanco misplayed his two out single, Salvador Perez needed only a single, just a little single, to tie the game and possibly chase Madison Bumgarner from it. All he needed was for a blooper to fall in, for a ground ball to find a hole, and it would have been a brand new ballgame.

Bumgarner, well aware of Perez's aggressive tendencies, fed the catcher a steady diet of high fastballs. Perez couldn't resist. On the sixth one, he popped up.

Pop ups, at least in my opinion, are the most disappointing type of out a player can make. The ball goes up, and right away you know nothing good can happen. The best case scenario is that it lands in the seats--foul--or that the fielders can't get to it in time or they miscommunicate and it falls harmlessly to the ground. By the time it's reached its apex you can usually tell whether it's going to be caught or not. And then you wait, wait for it to drop into the fielder's mitt below.

A pop out is perhaps the easiest out to predict before it happens, because so much time passes between the ball leaving the bat and settling into the fielder's glove. It allows time to think, and more importantly to recognize what is about to transpire. When Perez popped up and Pablo Sandoval chugged under it, we knew the game was over. The series was over, and with it the season. The Royals had lost. The Giants had won. Game, set, match..

Other teams have come closer--the 1986 Red Sox and 2011 Texas Rangers come to mind, one strike away from victory. But man, the Royals were right there. If only they'd held on to win Game 4. If only Eric Hosmer hadn't dived into first base. If only Gordon sprinted out of the box on that soft single to center. If only.

The 1967 Red Sox couldn't overcome Bob Gibson. The Yankees were helpless against Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, then Josh Beckett two years later. And the 2014 Royals couldn't figure out Madison Bumgarner. Better luck next year.

Youkilis Retires

Youkilis shows off hi bizarre hitting style (NYTimes)
After one season in Japan, former Red Sox corner infielder Kevin Youkilis is calling it a career.

Youkilis, known simply as Youk to Fenway Faithful, enjoyed a 10-year major league career, spending the first eight and a half of those seasons with Boston. Drafted by Dan Duquette in the eighth round of the 2001 draft, the disciplined third baseman received a new nickname--"Greek God of Walks"--from Billy Beane's Oakland A's organization. That patience would serve him well in the big leagues, where he maintained a robust .382 OBP and 12.2 BB%.

Youkilis arrived on the scene in 2004, just in time to help the beleaguered BoSox end their 86-year championship drought. He was a solid reserve on that team and the following year's squad, backing up Kevin Millar at first and Bill Mueller at third. Both left following the 2005 season, allowing Youkilis to inherit the everyday first baseman job with the Red Sox acquiring Mike Lowell, an All-Star third-sacker, in their trade for Josh Beckett.

Already 27 by that point, Youkilis was more than ready. He batted .279/.381/.429 in his first full season along with 42 doubles and a career-high 91 walks and 100 runs scored. He was even better the following year, improving from a three win player to a five win stalwart and earning his first and only Gold Glove.

More importantly, Youkilis sparked Boston to another World Series title that year. A non-factor in the '04 run with just two at-bats, he was one of the team's best hitters in '07 and proved crucial to their victory. Youk was especially lethal during Boston's come-from-behind ALCS victory over the Cleveland Indians, batting .500/.576/.929 with 14 hits, three home runs, seven RBI, and 10 runs scored. Against Colorado in the Fall Classic he capped off a terrific postseason in which he batted .388/.475/.755 with 19 hits in 14 games.

The following year, 2008, would be the best of Youk's career. He enjoyed a power breakthrough with 29 home runs--equaling his output from the previous two seasons combined--43 doubles, 306 total bases, and 115 RBI, all career highs. He also hit .312/.390/.569, made his first All-Star team, won the American League Hank Aaron Award, and finished third in the MVP race behind teammate Dustin Pedroia and Justin Morneau. Youkilis was instrumental in helping the Red Sox reach the postseason again, and enjoyed another monster LCS (1.008 OPS), but it was not enough as the Sox were outdone by the Rays in seven games.

Statistically, 2009 was just as good for Youkilis, who posted a .961 OPS and was worth 6.6 bWAR while making the All-Star team again and finishing sixth in the MVP polling. He was on track for similarly great numbers in 2010 when a torn abductor muscle in his right thumb ended his season at the beginning of August. The injury effectively marked the end of Youk's brief reign as one of the best players in baseball.

The final year of Youk's career were frustrating and tumultuous (CBSSports)
His career started heading south in 2011, his last full season with the Sox. He moved back to third base to accommodate Adrian Gonzalez but the position change likely did more harm than good, as Youkilis was again plagued by injuries during the second half. He missed 42 games in all and appeared in just 22 from August 1st on, batting a reduced .190 over that time. Had he been able to stay healthy or hit more effectively down the stretch, Boston likely would have won at least one more game and thus been spared the humiliation of its great September collapse.

In the wake of said meltdown, Youkilis lost the trust of his teammates due to suspicion that he had leaked the chicken and beer information to the press. 2012 quickly turned out to be a nightmare for him and the team, as he got off to a slow start, had his effort questioned by new manager Bobby Valentine, and spent more time on the Disabled List. In his absence rookie call-up Will Middlebrooks excelled, making Youkilis expendable in the eyes of the organization and giving them a convenient excuse to trade him away. Ben Cherington did just that, dealing Youkilis for two nobodies in return. In a fitting finale, Youkilis had two hits, including a triple, in the last game he ever played for the Red Sox.

He moved on to Chicago, where he hit better with the White Sox but not well enough to convince anybody that his glory days were coming back. That led to his signing a one-year deal with the Yankees, which turned out to be a huge bust when he got hurt yet again and appeared in just 28 games. Nobody wanted him when his contract expired, and he took off for Japan.

The end came hard and fast for Youkilis, as it does for many athletes in their early 30s. Youk was an All-Star at 32, cast-off at 33, and done at 34. It wasn't surprising he tailed off so fast given his physique and unmatched intensity. Nobody played the game harder or with more passion than Youkilis, and like a shooting star he burned out quickly. Injuries took their toll as well, but he was a great player when he did play and had a Hall of Fame peak, even if it was short-lived (three years). Though he didn't play much (barely 1,000 games) or for very long, he accomplished a hell of a lot during his all-too-brief career.

And he did it with one of the most unorthodox batting stances I've ever seen.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

San Francisco's Sneaky Dynasty

Watching the Giants win the last game of the season has become commonplace
It took the Giants 53 seasons to win a World Series after leaving New York following the 1957 season. The drought, snapped in 2010, has been followed by a deluge, as San Francisco has won two more championships since, all under the guidance of future Hall of Fame manager Bruce Bochy.

The Giants have done it with solid all-around teams. None of those title teams had a 30 home run hitter or a 20 game winner, but they were all deep and balanced. Kudos to GM Brian Sabean for building winning rosters year after year.

The first of those teams--the 2010 edition--was a good one. The '10 Giants won 92 games and the NL West, scoring nearly 700 runs while allowing below 600 for a strong run differential of +114. They were middle of the pack offensively but fielded an elite pitching staff that led the National League in ERA and strikeouts. Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum fronted a rotation that included a 20 year-old rookie named Madison Bumgarner. The bullpen featured Brian Wilson at the peak of his powers (48 saves, 1.81 ERA) along with a pair of dominant relievers in Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla.

Minus Bumgarner, the pitching staff was largely comprised of players in their prime. The starting nine was an odd mix of young (20 year-old Buster Posey in his rookie season, 23 year-old Pablo Sandoval in his third) and mostly old veterans and cast-offs (Aubrey Huff, Aaron Rowand, Pat Burrell, Edgar Renteria). But pretty much everyone could hit for some power and get on base, and so the Giants cobbled together a surprisingly effective lineup. They beat the Braves in four in the NLCS, toppled Philadelphia in six for the pennant, then glided past the Texas Rangers in five games for the championship.

After missing the playoffs with an 86-win season in 2011, the Giants won their division again in 2012. Though they won two more games than and outscored their 2010 predecessors by 21 runs (thanks almost entirely to Posey's MVP-season, Melky Cabrera's PED-fueled outburst, a career year from Angel Pagan, and Hunter Pence's late-season contributions), their pitching wasn't as good and their run differential slipped to +69.

Looking back, it's hard to believe how that lineup scored more than 700 runs when only one guy (Posey) hit more than a dozen home runs and only three reached double digits. Similarly, only those three exceeded 60 RBI, with Posey the only one over 65. But while the Giants did not have much power, ranking dead last in home runs with 100, they did excel at getting on base and getting hits. With many of the veterans from the 2010 squad gone or phased out, San Francisco was a younger and more athletic team (as evidenced by their 118 steals).

The key to that team's success was a rotation that remained remarkably healthy. The starting five of Bumgarner, Cain, Lincecum, Barry Zito, and Ryan Vogelsong started all but two games that year. Lincecum went off the rails (10-15, 5.18 ERA), but the rest of the rotation was formidable enough to compensate. The bullpen was still led by Casilla, Romo, and Javier Lopez though Wilson had become irrelevant. Jeremy Affeldt, a member of the 2010 outfit, emerged as one of the team's best relievers to give San Fran a strong relief corps.

Those 2012 Giants were lucky to even reach the World Series. They went the distance against the Reds in the NLDS and prevailed over St. Louis in Game 7 of the NLCS. After that it was smooth-sailing, as they swept the heavily-favored Tigers in the World Series.

2013 was a nightmare season for San Francisco, which lost 86 games and was never really in contention. The Giants were better in 2014, good enough to make the playoffs but still not a great team. They earned a wild card berth with 88 wins and a +51 run differential mostly because of torrid second halves from Buster Posey and Jake Peavy.

The lineup, as always, had few standouts but was solidly constructed, overcoming significant injuries to four of the nine main contributors. Of the 10 players with the most plate appearances on the club, all but one (Brandon Hicks) had an OPS+ above 100. Like the 2010 version, they could all get on base and hit for a bit of pop, which goes a long way. The speed from the 2012 team was absent, however, as the plodding Giants swiped just 56 bases and finished last in the NL.

With Cain hurt and Lincecum ineffective, Bumgarner was the clear-cut ace. He had help in the form of Tim Hudson and, in the second half, Peavy, but San Fran's rotation was pretty thin (as exposed by the weak-hitting Royals in the Fall Classic). The bullpen was still headed by Affeldt, Romo, Lopez, and Casilla in addition to Jean Machi. Like the rotation, it was neither great nor terrible, which explains how San Francisco was so average.

But while this year's championship edition was the worst of the three, it had the easiest run up to the World Series. The Giants cruised past the Pirates in the play-in game, washed away the Nationals in four games in the NLDS, then upset the Cards in five games. They stumbled in the Fall Classic, nearly going down three games to one before rallying to win Games 4, 5, and 7. They may have needed plenty of help from Mr. Bumgarner, but at the end of the day they still got the job done.








The Magnificent Madison Bumgarner

Bumgarner capped a stellar postseason with a marvelous World Series (Yahoo)
Even before last night, we knew Madison Bumgarner's 2014 postseason run was spectacular, one of the best ever, in fact. We knew it represented a pitcher at his absolute best. We knew we were witnessing a level greatness rarely sustained for long during playoff time.

What we did not know, however, was how that run would end. We knew Bumgarner was going to make a relief appearance in Game 7 three days after spinning the first Series shutout in over a decade. Nobody could have known how long he'd stay in or how effective he would be.The general consensus was that he'd pitch one to three innings.

He went five, closing out the game and the series with the most memorable postseason relief appearance this side of Pedro Martinez.

Bumgarner, as he was all month, was absolutely nasty. Once again he proved to be the Royals' kryptonite, muting their bats over five scoreless innings. Kansas City managed just two hits against him, both singles. For the third time in the series, they were completely and utterly helpless against him.

They were hardly the only ones looking overmatched against him this fall (his ERA this postseason: 1.03). First he blanked the Pirates on the road in the wild card play-in game, and that was just the appetizer. He turned in seven strong innings in his lone NLCS start versus the Nationals, then seven and 2/3 scoreless frames in St. Louis in Game 1 of the NLCS. Back at home for Game 5, he went eight innings and allowed three runs in the pennant clinching game.

By the time the World Series rolled around, the 25 year-old southpaw was all warmed up. He pitched the Giants to an easy victory in Game 1 with seven innings of one-run ball. He hurled a four-hit shutout in Game 5 to bring San Francisco within one game of the title. And, after Jake Peavy and Tim Hudson faltered in Kansas City, Bumgarner took his team all the way with five scoreless frames.

MadBum was as deserving as a World Series MVP possibly can be. He put the team on his back, carried them on his shoulders, and delivered them to their third World Series title in five years. While he was credited with the save in Game 7 (Jeremy Affeldt got the win), for all intents and purposes he won three games in this series.

Bumgarner's stat lines from this series are just ridiculous. There's the one earned run in 21 innings, of course, which works out to a 0.43 ERA. He walked only one batter over that span (Lorenzo Cain in Game 1) and allowed just nine hits (only three of which went for extra bases), resulting in a 0.48 WHIP. Of the 74 batters he faced, he retired 63 of them (85 percent), 17 by way of the K. Opponents batted just .127/.151/.197 against him, and he threw 70 percent of his 291 pitches for strikes.

What we saw was a great pitcher at the peak of his powers, and the result was probably the best postseason any pitcher has ever had. Even more incredible is that Bumgarner was able to do what he did after tossing a career high 217 and 1/3 innings during the regular season. Including his five inning relief appearance, he basically made 40 starts this year and remained sharp to the last out.

Bumgarner's been a great pitcher for several years now (did you know he was a two-time All-Star?), but this World Series felt like his coming out party the way 2003 was for Josh Beckett. Madison Bumgarner is now a household name the way Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander are. The best part is; he's barely 25.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Stats that Don't Mean Anything Tonight

Here are 7 stats that won't mean a thing in tonight's winner-take-all Game 7:

1. The Royals have never lost a Game 7.
Why it's meaningless: They've only played two.

2. Tim Hudson is the oldest pitcher to ever start a Game 7.
Why it's meaningless: Hudson was an All-Star this year and has a dozen postseason starts under his belt. I'd trust him more than I'd trust Jeremy Guthrie.

3. Buster Posey does not have an extra base hit in these playoffs.
Why it's meaningless: Posey's one of the best pure hitters in baseball, coming off a regular season in which he batted .311/.364/.490 with 22 home runs. Posey has plenty of pop, even if his power has been absent in October.

4. Alex Gordon is batting .125 with no walks in the World Series.
Why it's meaningless: Gordon was Kansas City's clear MVP this year. All good players go through slumps, and there's no doubt that Gordon's in one, but he's such a good all-around player that he's still an asset even when his bat is quiet.

5. Only one of the games in this World Series was decided by fewer than five runs.
Why it's meaningless: Despite the lopsided scores of every game except the third, these teams are very evenly matched. KC has won 100 games this year, San Francisco has won 99. The Royals have scored 25 runs in this series, the Giants have plated 27. Any way you look at it, this game's a toss-up.

6. Madison Bumgarner has never made a relief appearance in the World Series before.
Why this is meaningless: MadBum's enjoying one of the most dominant postseason runs of all time and has baffled the Royals. He can't lose.

7. Nobody has lost a World Series Game 7 at home since 1979.
Why it's meaningless: That streak will end eventually.

Royals Rout Giants, Force Game 7

The Royals staved off elimination with a blowout victory (TheStar)
It was a game the Kansas City Royals absolutely had to win, and it was over by the third inning.

Faced with a win-or-go-home scenario in Game 6 of the 2014 World Series, just two days removed from managing a mere four hits against Madison Bumgarner, Kansas City broke out the bats. The Royals hung seven on the board in the second, equaling in one inning what they scored across 27 in San Francisco, and plated 10 in all. Kansas City's Game 6 run total exceeded its output in Games 1, 3, 4, and 5 combined.

The offensive outburst couldn't have come at a better time. There will be a Game 7 after all.

For that the Royals can thank Jake Peavy, who followed up his poor Game 2 start with an abysmal outing. He recorded only four outs before departing, leaving San Francisco's bullpen to mop up the remaining six and 2/3 innings. Peavy was about as bad as a pitcher can be, allowing five runs on six hits and giving the home team a commanding early lead. The poor Giants never even had a chance.

Then again, Peavy could have pitched brilliantly and still would have lost, as San Francisco scored nary a run. The Giants certainly had their chances, as 11 of them reached base, but the visitors came up empty in their six opportunities with runners in scoring position. They were thus shutout by Yordano Ventura, then Jason Frasor, and finally Tim Collins.

Speaking of Ventura, what a performance! 23 years old and fresh off his first full big league campaign, he rose to the occasion in the biggest game of his life. With five walks in seven innings he wasn't quite Bumgarner-esque, but nevertheless shut down San Francisco to eliminate whatever slim hopes there were of a comeback. Move over, James Shields; there's a new big game pitcher in town.

Of course, Ventura's effort will be in vain if Kansas City loses tonight. With a championship on the line, in the biggest baseball game the city has seen in three decades, the Royals will be counting on...Jeremy Guthrie, a thoroughly mediocre pitcher in 2014 with a 4.13 ERA and 1.30 WHIP across 202 and 2/3 innings. Guthrie earned the win in Game 3 but has failed to complete more than five innings in either of his postseason starts. It's a good thing Kansas City's bullpen is well-rested after Ventura's outing, because Ned Yost is going need all hands on deck for this one.

The Giants will counter with Tim Hudson, a grizzled veteran of 39 years, 16 of them spent in the big leagues. Still searching for a ring in his seventh postseason, Huddy has the chance to decide his team's destiny tonight. He was the tough-luck loser in Game 3 and will be looking to erase an entire career's worth of October frustration. Does his right arm, which has logged more than 3,000 innings in the big leagues, have enough bullets to keep Kansas City's spotty lineup at bay? The Giants' third title in five years depends on it. He has so much at stake in terms of pride and reputation, combined with such a distinguished track record, that I can't envision him pitching poorly. If he loses, it's going to be close, and it's going to hurt.

Adding to the intrigue is that both Yost and Bruce Bochy can call upon their aces if necessary. With two days rest, Shields and Bumgarner would typically use today as a throw day, but given the circumstances will be available to come out of the bullpen. That has to be a terrifying thought for the Royals, who've been utterly helpless against MadBum in this series. They better jump out to an early lead against Hudson, because if they have to deal with Bumgarner late in the game they're screwed.

I've said all along that the Giants were going to win this thing, and I'm not going back on my prediction now. I say they take Game 7 by a score of 4-2.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Dubious History of the Hank Aaron Award

Yesterday's post about Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Trout winning this year's Hank Aaron awards got me thinking about past award winners and whether or not they were deserving. I was surprised to find that in many years the winner was not truly the most outstanding offensive performer, as voters were oftentimes seduced by big home run and RBI totals. See for yourself:

(It's worth noting that the voting procedure for this award has changed constantly since its inception in 1999. See a detailed history here).

1999 NL Sammy Sosa over everyone else
Slammin' Sammy's 397 total bases and 89 extra base hits led all of baseball, but with 5.0 oWAR he was barely one of the NL's ten best offensive performers. Larry Walker, winner of baseball's sabermetric Triple Crown, would have made a better choice, as would have Mark McGwire, the major league leader in home runs (65) and OPS+ (176). NL MVP Chipper Jones would have been a good one as well with his league-leading 7.9 oWAR and 165 runs created. Sabermetricians would have preferred Jeff Bagwell, the NL-leader in walks, runs, and times on base. I'm torn between Bags and Big Mac, but in either case it's clear Sosa should not have won.

2001 AL Alex Rodriguez over Jason Giambi
With his league-leading 52 home runs, 393 total bases, 87 extra base hits, and 9.2 oWAR, Rodriguez was absolutely worthy. But to me, at least, it's pretty clear that Giambi was more deserving. Giambi was right behind him in oWAR with 8.7, had just as many extra base hits, and was third in total bases. But that's just the tip of the iceberg, because Giambi paced the AL in many categories. He was first in OBP (.477) and slugging (.660), resulting in a whopping 199 OPS+ and 1.137 OPS that was almost 100 points higher than the next-closest American Leaguer (Jim Thome). Giambi was also tops in doubles with 47, walks with 129, runs created with 171, and times on base with 320. The counting stats favor Rodriguez slightly, but the rate stats say Giambi was way better, especially after taking into account their home ballparks (A-Rod in Texas and Giambi in Oakland).

2002 AL Alex Rodriguez over Jim Thome
Rodriguez once again posted monster numbers with Texas, leading the major leagues with 57 home runs, 142 RBI, and 389 total bases. But as in 2001, there was a slugger with similar counting stats and far better rate stats who deserved the award. This time, it was Jim Thome, the American League leader in slugging (.677), OPS (1.122--more than 100 points higher than A-Rod's), OPS+ (197), walks (122), and runs created (155). The advanced stats say Thome was better, and I'm inclined to agree with them.

2003 AL Alex Rodriguez over Carlos Delgado
For the third year in a row, Rodriguez enjoyed a tremendous offensive season but was not the best in his league. This time he was outdone by Delgado, who won the award in 2000. Delgado, then with the Toronto Blue Jays, posted the league's second-highest OBP (.426), slugging (.593), oWAR score (6.5), home run total (42), and walk total (109), plus topped the Junior Circuit in OPS (1.019), OPS+ (161), RBI (145), runs created (152), and times on base (300). Very close here, as Rodriguez did lead in runs, homers, slugging, oWAR, and AB/HR, but Delgado had the better year from an offensive standpoint.

2003 NL Albert Pujols over Barry Bonds
With all apologies to Prince Albert, who had a hell of a season, this award should have gone to the man who batted .341/.529/.749 (a 1.278 OPS!) with 45 home runs, 148 walks, and 8.6 oWAR, even if he was taking performance enhancing substances.

2005 AL David Ortiz over Alex Rodriguez
One look at the leaderboards this year tells you all you need to know. Ortiz led the league in RBI (148), extra base hits (88), and a trio of advanced metrics (WPA, RE24, and REW). A-Rod led in just about everthing else. For starters, his league-leading 9.4 oWAR dwarf's Ortiz's, which didn't even crack the top 10. Rodriguez also topped the Circuit in slugging (.610), OPS (1.031), OPS+ (173), runs (124), homers (48), runs created (163), and times on base (301) while finishing second in a bunch of other categories (AB/HR, Power-Speed, total bases, batting average, and OBP). A-Rod beat out Big Papi in the league MVP voting, and he should have done the same here.

2005 NL Andruw Jones over Derrek Lee
Jones had the flashier power numbers with a league-leading 128 RBI and ML-best 51 big flies, but with a .263 batting average and .347 OBP was hardly worthy of the honor. He didn't even finish in the league's top 10 in runs created, OPS, or oWAR. Lee's 46 homers and 107 RBI weren't quite as splashy, but his overall body of work was much stronger that year. He was undoubtedly the best hitter in baseball, topping the bigs in doubles (50), batting average (.335), slugging (.662), OPS (1.080), OPS+ (174), total bases (393), extra base hits (99) and runs created (167). He also led the National League in hits (199) and oWAR (7.2).

2006 AL Derek Jeter over David Ortiz
Jeter led the league in oWAR and times on base, with 7.1 and 295, respectively, but his season was nowhere near as dominant as Big Papi's. Ortiz led the league in a host of categories, winning two-thirds of the Triple Crown with 54 dingers and 137 RBI while batting .287/.413/.636, giving him the league's second-best slugging percentage, seventh-best OBP, and third-best OPS. He also led the league in walks with 119, total bases with 355, runs created with 152, and AB/HR with 10.3. He also placed second to Jeter in times on base and second to Grady Sizemore in extra base hits. Seeing as how this was the year Justin Morneau walked away with MVP honors, it was a tough season awards-wise.

2007 NL Prince Fielder over Matt Holliday
In a redux of the 2005 vote, Fielder won on the strength of his huge power numbers (including a league-best 50 homers) even though Holliday had the superior all-around numbers. Cecil Fielder's son only led the NL in one other category--WPA--while Holliday placed first in several, such as batting average (.340), hits (216), doubles (50), total bases (386), RBI (137), extra base hits (92), and runs created (151). Fielder was better than Jones in '05 and Holliday wasn't quite as good as Lee, but even after dinging Holliday for Coors Field he still comes out ahead.

2008 AL Kevin Youkilis over Alex Rodriguez
Not sure what happened here, as Youkilis did not lead the American League in a single offensive statistic. Rodriguez, meanwhile, was tops in oWAR (6.5) and slugging (.573) while placing second in OPS (.965) and OPS+ (150) as well as power-speed, adjusted batting runs and wins, and offensive win percentage. A-Rod wasn't the clear favorite, as one could make a case for Josh Hamilton, Milton Bradley, and Joe Mauer as well, but he was definitely better than Youk.

2008 NL Aramis Ramirez over Albert Pujols
This has to be one of the most questionable selections in the history of the award. Ramirez had a fine season, batting .289/.380/.519 with 27 home runs and 111 RBI, but failed to lead the league in any significant statistic. Pujols, the National League MVP, had perhaps his best offensive season. All the Machine did was bat .357/.462/.653 and lead the major leagues in slugging, OPS (1.114), OPS+ (192), total bases (342), oWAR (7.4), runs created (160), and times on base (296). Pujols should have been a no-brainer, and the fact that he didn't win that year blows my mind.

2009 AL Derek Jeter over Joe Mauer
Jeter was magnificent in 2009, batting .334/.406/.465 with 212 hits and 30 steals, but he was not the best offensive performer in the American League that year. Not by a long shot. Jeter didn't lead the league in anything besides times on base (289), and wasn't even the best hitter on his own team (Mark Teixeira, the MVP runner-up, was). League MVP Joe Mauer should have been an easy choice after he won the Junior Circuit's sabermetric Triple Crown with his .365/.444/.587 line, making him the only American Leaguer with a four-point OPS. Mauer also paced the league in oWAR (7.6), OPS+ (171), and runs created (138), too name a few. This is just another example of Jeter being overrated. Mauer Power was robbed.

2010 AL Jose Bautista over Miguel Cabrera
Joey Bats was not the American League's top offensive performer in spite of his major league-leading 54 big flies and 351 total bases. Cabrera didn't hit as many bombs but still had the superior offensive season, with his 1.042 OPS (just two points shy of Hamilton for the league lead) clocking in at nearly 50 points higher than Bautista's .995 mark. Furthermore, Miggy led the league with his 126 RBI, 420 OBP, 178 OPS+, 141 runs created, and 272 times on base. He was also second in extra base hits, total bases, runs scored, slugging, and batting average.

2012 NL Buster Posey over Ryan Braun
I was all in on Posey for MVP that year, but I don't think he was the league's top offensive performer despite leading the majors in batting average (.336) and OPS+ (171). I believe Braun, who topped the Circuit in runs (108), homers (41), OPS (.987), total bases (356), extra base hits (80), runs created (142), and power-speed #, was.

That's 14 of the 32 selections to date--not a very good success rate. As you can see the awards have been more accurate over the past five or so years, which hopefully means the iffy years of the award's early history are behind us. One thing's for certain; at least Derek Jeter will never steal another one of these awards from a more deserving player ever again.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Stanton, Trout Deserved Hank Aaron Award

Trout (left) and Stanton earned some much-deserved hardware (SportsPyder)
While MLB awards season is not quite yet underway, there was some notable hardware handed out the other day. Before Game 4 of the World Series, Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton were named the 2014 winners of the Hank Aaron Award, presented by none other than Hammerin' Hank himself. Aaron votes for the award, as do the fans and a panel of Hall of Famers comprised of Roberto Alomar, Johnny Bench, Paul Molitor, Eddie Murray, Frank Thomas, and Robin Yount.

The award, which serves to recognize the best offensive performer in each league, was an easy call in the Junior Circuit. Trout was once again the most valuable position player in baseball, leading the sport in WAR and oWAR for the third straight year. His 137 runs created and 8.7 oWAR led both leagues, as did his 115 runs, 338 total bases, and 84 extra base hits. In addition to his American League-leading 111 RBI, he also swatted 36 home runs and 39 doubles to go along with his .939 OPS, good for a 167 OPS+. He unseated two-time defending champion Miguel Cabrera and should do the same in the MVP award as well.

Stanton was not quite as dominant as Trout but still had a phenomenal season in his own right, posting the fourth-highest OBP, SLG, and OPS in baseball. His 37 home runs, .555 slugging percentage and 299 total bases were tops in the National League, as were his 14.6 AB/HR ratio, 69 extra base hits, and 24 intentional walks. Per Baseball-Reference, only Andrew McCutchen--Stanton's closest competition for the award--had a higher Adjusted OPS+, more runs created, and a higher oWAR total than Stanton among National Leaguers. Had he not been beaned in the face with 17 games still remaining on the schedule, Stanton would have likely finished the season with around 40 home runs, 120 RBI, 100 runs and walks, and well over 300 total bases--gaudy totals that reflect just how dominant a year Stanton was having at the time of his injury.

One could certainly make the case that McCutchen was slightly more deserving in the Senior Circuit, but the numbers say they're a virtual toss up. Both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference rate McCutchen as the slightly more valuable offensive player, and since he played just one more game than Stanton it's not like that difference can be chalked up to Stanton's injury. And while McCutchen only led Stanton by two points in OPS, the former's OPS was significantly more valuable after adjustments for league and park (eight point difference in OPS+, nine in wRC+) and when OBP and SLG are properly weighted (with 'Cutch ahead in wOBA .412 to .403). In terms of baserunning they come out about even, so that doesn't move the needle either way.

All things considered, McCutchen was probably more deserving by the slimmest of margins, but he and Stanton are so close that I can't blame the voters for being seduced by the latter's titanic big flies and monster power figures. Those kinds of numbers, especially in today's offense-challenged climate, are impossible to ignore. Stanton's season definitely felt more dominant, and with the benefit of a healthy September I think he beats McCutchen by a nose.

Just to wrap things up quickly here, Stanton and Trout are first-time winners but are likely to repeat given their age. Stanton is not yet 25 and Trout is just 23. Two of the most exciting talents in the game, both appear to have many fine seasons ahead of them.

Bumgarner Delivers

Bumgarner was lights-out in the crucial fifth game of the World Series (NYDailyNews)
Madison Bumgarner was spectacular once again last night, pitching the San Francisco Giants to within one game of their third World Series title this decade.

MadBum was electric in front of a capacity crowd at AT&T Ballpark, gifting the fans with one of his best performances in the final game of the season there. He was truly masterful, yielding only four hits and no walks while striking out eight as he shut out the Royals. Only twice did he allow runners to reach scoring position. For the second time this series, in which he now has a 0.56 ERA, the 25 year-old southpaw got the better of "Big Game" James Shields.

Shields, to his credit, pitched well, scattering eight hits over six innings and permitting just two runs. He redeemed his poor Game 1 performance by keeping his team in the game before turning said game over to the bullpen, which for the second night in a row gave the game away. Kelvin Herrera surrendered two runs in his lone inning of work (the seventh), and Wade Davis allowed one in his (the eighth). The way Bumgarner was pitching, spotting him a five run lead may as well have been 15.

Offensively the Giants were led by Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval, who continued their monster series with two hits and two runs apiece. Pence is now batting a ridiculous .474/.545/.737 in this Fall Classic, while Sandoval is raking at a .364/.364/.455 clip. Yordano Ventura and the Kansas City bullpen must find a way to neutralize them in Game 6, as well as the always-dangerous Buster Posey, if they're going to have any chance of playing Game 7. Ventura pitched well enough in Game 2, making it into the sixth inning after allowing two runs on eight hits, but given the Royals' recent bullpen woes he may need to be even stingier.

With the series shifting back to Kansas City, San Francisco has two chances to close out the title. In Game 6 the Giants will try to do so behind Jake Peavy, who pitched poorly in Game 2 (four runs in five innings). He'll need to be better than that against Kansas City's live-armed rookie, otherwise his team will be in the unenviable position of playing a Game 7 on the road.

I like the Royals' chances tomorrow night, back at home and with the superior pitcher on the mound. I'd also love to see a Game 7. Hopefully the home team can pull it out.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Pats Blast Bears

Brady was in top form in the Pats' rout of the Bears this afternoon (CBSSports)
It was another glorious fall afternoon in Foxborough as the New England Patriots walloped the Chicago Bears 51-23.

The game was over by halftime, at which point the Patriots already led 38-7. Tom Brady continued his recent resurgence with one of the best games of his career, highlighted by five touchdowns including three to his favorite target Rob Gronkowski. The others went to Brandon LaFell and Timothy Wright. Brady was remarkably accurate, completing 30 of his 35 pass attempts for 354 yards as he tore Chicago's secondary to pieces. Of the five passes Brady failed to complete, four were dropped by his receivers.

Brady looked even better in comparison to Jay Cutler, who was absolutely miserable in the first half. Cutler lost a fumble and was picked off in the closing minutes of the first half, with the fumble recovered by Rob Ninkovich for a crushing touchdown. By the time Chicago's signal caller got his act together in the second half it was far too late, with two of his three touchdowns and the majority of his 227 yards coming in garbage time. I wonder what Brandon Marshall has to say after this one.

With the win New England moved to 6-2 to remain one game ahead of the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East. After a shaky September the Pats were unbeaten in October, winning all four of their games. They'll look to extend their home winning streak to 14 against Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos next Sunday.

Royal Collapse

The Royals appeared to have the series well in hand, until the Giants came back (ESPN)
When the San Francisco Giants inevitably win this World Series, we will point to the second half of Game 4 as the moment when it all fell apart for the Kansas City Royals, just as one looking to explain Detroit's collapse in last year's ALCS need only mention David Ortiz's series-shifting grand slam off Joaquin Benoit.

Because the Giants, for all intents and purposes, were toast. Done. Finished. They entered the bottom of the fifth inning of Game 4 down 4-2 in the game and 2-1 in the series. It goes without saying that if San Francisco loses that game their season's essentially over, because they have to beat James Shields in Game 5, then travel to Kansas City and win back-to-back games on the road. No way they were winning three straight against a team that began this postseason 8-0.

So San Francisco, with its back basically to the wall, rallied. More than that, the Giants exploded for nine runs, all against a Kansas City bullpen that had previously been untouchable. San Fran scored two in the fifth to tie it, three in the sixth to pull ahead, and four in the seventh to put the game out of reach. When the smoke cleared at game's end, the home team had pounded the Royals for 11 runs and 16 hits, equaling their run total from the series' first three games.

Now, with the series even at two games apiece and their ace, Madison Bumgarner, on the mound tonight, the Giants have new life. They have the best pitcher in the series going for them, one who has been nothing but filth these playoffs (1.40 ERA in five starts). The 25 year-old southpaw is on such a roll right now that he can't lose, nor will he in the most important game of the season. Bumgarner, like Josh Beckett and Curt Schilling before him, is going to come through for his team when they need him the most.

The same can't be said about Shields, who's tarnished his "Big Game" nickname with his recent lackluster performance.  He was battered in Game 1 to the tune of five runs and seven hits in three innings, spiking his 2014 playoff ERA to 7.11 and his career postseason mark to 5.74. Shields is better than that and still the best starting pitcher Kansas City has, but if I'm Ned Yost or a Royals fan I definitely don't feel too great about my chances tonight.

The irony is that Shields was brought to Kansas City for precisely this moment; a must-win playoff game. Dayton Moore was willing to give up Wil Myers to have Shields available for a game like this. But with the Royals in their first postseason since 1985, Shields has been more of a detriment than asset. The free agent-to-be has the chance to redeem himself tonight, in what will most certainly be the final game he ever pitches for the Royals. But if he gets shelled again, then the Royals' losing the World Series is going to be on him, and Moore's going to have to live with the fact that he traded Myers for the wrong guy.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

Royals Return Favor

Billy Butler came up big for the Royals with a pair of RBI singles (BleacherReport)
After getting pounded 7-1 by the San Francisco Giants in Game 1, the Kansas City Royals responded with a 7-2 victory in Game 2 to even the World Series at one win apiece.

Though the scores of the games were nearly identical, they played out very differently. Game 1 was all Giants from the outset, as they jumped all over James Shields for three runs in the first and led the entire game. San Francisco was in control from start to finish. Game 2, at least through the first five innings, was closely contested.

Once again the Giants drew first blood, this time on a Gregor Blanco leadoff homer. Unfazed, Yordano Ventura regained his composure and set down the next three Giants in order. Kansas City responded with a run of its own in the bottom half to knot the score at one on a Billy Butler RBI single. The Royals took their first lead of the series the following inning when Alcides Escobar doubled home Omar Infante. After a scoreless third, the Giants evened the score at two-all in the top of the fourth on Brandon Belt's RBI double.

The score remained 2-2 until the bottom of the sixth, when Kansas City blew the door down with a five run frame. Giants' starter Jake Peavy was still dealing (Ventura had departed in the top half), but Bruce Bochy quickly lifted him from the game after Lorenzo Cain singled and Eric Hosmer walked to begin the inning. Four pitching changes later, and the Royals had themselves an improbable 7-2 lead. Butler singled Cain home for the go-ahead run, putting Kansas City ahead for good. Following an Alex Gordon fly out, Salvador Perez provided some insurance with a two-run double, preceding Infante's back-breaking two-run shot that finished the Giants.

San Francisco was unable to scrape anything together in the final innings as the Royals went on to win 7-2. The series shifts to San Francisco for Game 3 on Friday night, which will feature Jeremy Guthrie against Tim Hudson. As well as Guthrie pitched in his ALCS start against Baltimore (five innings, one earned run, three hits and two walks allowed) I have to give the edge to Hudson. Huddy's had the better year, the better career, and has the advantage of pitching at home, where he was slightly more effective this year with a 3.76 K/BB ratio, 1.21 WHIP and .704 opponents OPS compared to 3.29, 1.25 and .720 on the road. Expect the Giants to bounce back on their home turf in Game 3.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

My Favorite Baseball Books

Mickey Mantle rounds third after homering in the '64 World Series 
Here's a list of some of my favorite nonfiction baseball books, in no particular order. Also I'm probably forgetting some, so I may need to update this list in the future:

The Teammates
I like how Halberstam balances the past and present here, telling two different but interconnected stories of the relationship between Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio. He covers the familiar ground of their time as teammates quite well, but it is his re-telling of their modern relationship and reunion that makes this read special.

Summer of '49
Superb tale of two amazingly talented teams and their epic war for the pennant. Postwar America and the baseball of that time was very different (train travel, games on the radio, fledgling integration) but Halberstam wonderfully recalls all of it.

October 1964
1964 was a time of great change in America and in baseball, which Halberstam masterfully encapsulates with his re-telling of the gripping '64 Fall Classic between the Yankees and Cardinals. The juxtaposition of the aging, white Yankees dynasty and the emerging, fully integrated Cardinals squad embodies the shifting demographics of the game at that time. Baseball would never be the same, and Halberstam gracefully brings this watershed moment to life.

The Last Boy
The best baseball biography I've ever read. Jane Leavy's thoroughly researched portrait of Mickey Mantle captures him as he really was; a humorous and charming but deeply flawed man who also happened to be one of the greatest baseball players of all time.

Emperors and Idiots
For my money, the best book on the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry. Mike Vaccaro does a great job of bringing history to life here with his vivid writing style and language that pops off the page.

The Yankee Years
I used to be a big Tom Verducci guy, and I have to say he really knocked it out of the park with this one. Co-authored by Joe Torre, it's an eye-opening read about the famed Yankee skipper's tumultuous tenure at the helm. Let's put it this way; you'll be glad you're not managing the Yanks or answering to George Steinbrenner after reading this one.

56
Kostya Kennedy's incredible journey through Joe DiMaggio's legendary 56 game hitting streak. Expertly takes the reader back to that time and place as well as inside Joe D's head. I learned a lot about the hardships he faced during the streak as well as more intimate details about his personal life.

Bums
Loved this book. I learned so much about the Brooklyn Dodgers dynasty of the late 1940s and early '50s. Very cool oral history that lets the players bring their stories to life.

The Greatest Game
Great in-depth look at the 1978 playoff tie-breaker game between the Red Sox and Yankees.

Mickey and Willie
Explores the parallel lives of Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, regarded by many as the two greatest center fielders of all-time. They both played in New York during the 1950s and twice met in the World Series.

Now I Can Die in Peace
Gotta love Bill Simmons. Too bad he hardly ever writes about baseball anymore/

The Victory Season
Very much a modern Summer of '49, except for the 1946 baseball season. It was an exciting time to be a baseball fan with the game's greatest stars back from the war, and Weintraub makes those feelings palpable.

Moneyball
Great book. Great movie. A must-read about Billy Beane and the 2002 Oakland A's.

Mantle's Miserable Closing Act

All great things, especially great athletic careers, must end (LIFE)
With the 50th anniversary of the 1964 World Series just having passed, I've been thinking a lot about the players on those teams, but I keep circling back to one in particular: Mickey Mantle.

Everybody remembers the 1964 Fall Classic as Mantle's last hurrah. It was the last World Series he ever played in, and statistically it was also one of his greatest. He slugged three home runs, including a walk-off blast in Game 3 that broke Babe Ruth's record for Series homers. He also knocked in and scored eight runs apiece while batting .333/.467/.792. Mantle was a beast and, had the Yankees prevailed over Bob Gibson in Game 7, likely would have copped World Series MVP honors.

After that great series, at the end of Mantle's last great season, it was all downhill for the Mick and his Yankees. His final four years, 1965-1968, are generally regarded as an exercise in futility. An old 33, worn down by his many injuries and years of hard living, Mantle declined sharply after the 1964 season. His last four seasons produced a meager .254 batting average, dragging his lifetime mark down from .309 to .298. To make matters worse, the Yankees were horrible during this time, losing 41 more games than they won and never sniffing a pennant. Mantle's misery was compounded by the failures of his team, and vice versa.

Theoretically, one could pinpoint the beginning of Mantle's decline midway through the 1964 campaign, Mantle's last truly great season. Through July 15th he was hitting .335/.453/.631, right in line with what he'd done the previous two seasons. Had he stayed on that pace, he probably would have secured his fourth MVP. As it were, he tailed off a bit and batted .271/.393/.550 the rest of the way. Still great numbers, but bringing his seasonal stats down enough for Brooks Robinson to steal the award out from under him.

What's often forgotten is that Mantle came roaring out of the gates in 1965, with four home runs in his first 11 games and seven through his first 24. Halfway through May he was hitting .275/.451/.623--in line with his second half performance from 1964. Then Mantle went into an extended slump, scuffling through the next three months, with just five home runs in June and July combined. He rebounded in August to hit .325/.404/.519, but went out with a whimper in September. After homering in his first two September games, Mantle went into a major funk, collecting just four hits in his final 34 at-bats, with no homers and no RBI. In those final three weeks he lost more than 40 points off his OPS, as his batting line fell from a respectable .269/.392/.480 to a more pedestrian .255/.379/.452 (still good for a 137 OPS+). Believing Mantle's retirement to be imminent, the Yankees hosted Mickey Mantle Day for their beloved legend at Yankee Stadium on September 18th.

Mantle had missed 40 games and struggled when he did play, posting the lowest batting average of his career to that point. It hadn't helped that the Yankees slipped to sixth in the standings, their worst finish since 1925. Embarrassed by his poor performance, Mantle very nearly retired following the 1965 season. Ailed by his battered legs and a shoulder injury that hampered his swing and throwing ability, Mantle made up his mind to quit. But when he went to New York to inform the Yankees, Ralph Houk talked him out of it. He said Mantle shouldn't retire on a bad note, and that he'd still be valuable even if he was only able to play half a season..
By the late '60s Mantle was no longer the physical specimen he had once been
1966 was better for Mantle, but not at first. It took him 21 games to launch his first home run. For most of the first half his numbers were in line with the previous season's until he enjoyed the last great power binge of his career. From June 23rd through July 19th, a span of 28 games, Mantle mashed 15 home runs. For one glorious month, he was the Mantle of old. His revival sparked the moribund Yankees to a brief spurt, helping them climb from ninth place at the All-Star Break to sixth place after play ended on July 29th. New York's hot streak ignited talk of a possible second half surge, but such speculation quickly dissipated as the Bombers bombed in August and stumbled towards a last place finish.

Mantle reverted to his old self, too, parking only two more dingers the rest of the way. With 21 in late July, he should have been able to bank one last 30 homer season, but managed only two in August and none in September. He had a real shot at batting .300 one last time and topping a .400 OBP as well, but did neither, falling short at .288 and .389. Mantle was not an All-Star for the first time since his rookie season even though he compiled a .927 OPS (170 OPS+).

1967 marked the true beginning of the end. Mantle was moved from the outfield to first base to preserve his body (which worked, as Mantle played 144 games that year and the next) as well as limit the harm he could incur on defense, which had been terrible for five years by that point. Once again it took awhile for Mantle to get going, as he went without an extra base hit in his first 10 games of the season and managed but one RBI. He caught fire after that though, homering in consecutive games and launching 11 in all over the next month, including the 500th of his career on May 14th, Mother's Day. Mantle celebrated by hobbling around the bases on a dreary day at the Stadium.

Mantle's numbers remained strong through late July, with his OPS just a shade under .900. But like most old players, Mantle crashed and burned during the dog days of summer. From July 26th through the end of August, Mantle managed just one home run and six RBI while slugging .308.  By September Mantle was clearly out of gas, and once again his numbers were dragged down by a terrible finish. Hitting .259/.403/.462 midway through September, he recorded just three hits in his final 12 games and lost nearly 40 points off his OPS, which fell from .864 to .825 over the season's final two weeks. He failed to go yard in his last 22 games of the season as well, ending up with 22 taters on the year when he easily could have had 25+.

Looking back, it's puzzling as to why Mantle did not hang it up after that miserable '67 campaign, which had been even worse than his 1965 season. The Yankees were still terrible, having lost 90 games and finishing 9th in 1967. Whitey Ford, his good friend, drinking buddy and last remaining link to the team's heyday of the 1950s, had retired, giving Mantle the perfect opportunity to go out side-by-side with one of the few pals still left from his glory days, With 518 home runs and a .302 batting average, Mantle should have been satisfied. He should have called it a career. He should have walked away.

But Mantle did not quit. He came back to play one more season at age 36, though nobody was certain that the 1968 season would be Mantle's last. He did not officially retire until the next spring training, but there was a general sense that Mantle's pride and ability had diminished to the point where retirement was going to be a superior option to grinding out another meaningless season.
Late-career Mantle made home run trots look painful (Yanks Go Yard)
Sure enough, that's what 1968 wound up being for Mantle and the Yankees. New York improved considerably, going 83-79 to bump themselves up to fifth place, but were never seriously in contention and finished 20 games out of first. Mantle got off to a decent start with a .918 OPS at the end of April, but that turned out to be an early season mirage. His numbers flatlined in May, save for a turn-back-the-clock performance against the Senators on May 30th in which Mantle stroked two home runs and a double as part of a 5-for-5 day.

Mantle had one multi-hit game in June, no homers in July, and a thoroughly mediocre August. He entered September stuck on 534 career home runs, having gone homerless since tying Jimmie Foxx on August 22nd. It would take him awhile to eclipse Foxx, and only because Denny McLain gifted him several pitches in a meaningless late season game against the World Series-bound Tigers. The following day Mantle ripped his 536th and final home run, taking reigning AL Cy Young winner Jim Lonborg deep at the Stadium. It was Mantle's last highlight as a big leaguer, for he managed just one hit--a measly single--and three walks over his final 21 plate appearances as his batting line tumbled to .237/.385/.398. Mantle played his last game at Fenway Park, popping up in his lone plate appearance before walking off the field for the final time.

Looking back, Mantle should have sailed off into the sunset after 1965. Joe DiMaggio retired after his lone bad season. So did Hank Greenberg and, for all intents and purposes, Derek Jeter. Ted Williams almost did the same before going out on his terms with one last monster season. It would have been better for everyone. Mantle could have spared himself and his fans three more years of watching him flail away for terrible Yankee teams. All that pain and misery could have been avoided. Plus, had he done that, Mantle would have retired with a .306/.426/.576 line and a career 1.002 OPS. He would have been one of only eight players to finish their careers with a four-point OPS (the others being Ruth, Williams, Foxx, Greenberg, Barry Bonds, Lou Gehrig, and Rogers Hornsby).

So yeah, Mantle hung on too long, but most great athletes do. Even Willie Mays did. But Mantle knew he was washed up long before he said goodbye, and came oh so close to retiring a full three years before he did. If only he had gone through with it.