Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Top Catchers For 2015

Buster Posey is one of the best players in the game today (ESPN)
Reviewing Devin Mesoraco's new contract extension got me thinking about where he ranks among today's catchers. To determine this list I relied heavily on data from the three previous seasons, giving more weight to 2013 and 2014, of course.

Note: I am excluding Evan Gattis, who joins a crowded catcher situation in Houston and will probably see more time at DH, first base, and in the outfield.

1. Buster Posey
There's no question that Posey's the top catcher in the game today. Offensively, he is without peer at the position,  having batted .311/.381/.497 (147 wRC+) since the start of the 2012 season, and he's a quality defender as well. The 2012 NL MVP and batting champion also adds extra value by handling first base about 30 times a year, thus keeping his bat in the lineup almost everyday. He's putting together a Joe Mauer-ish run here and is already a three-time World Series champion at 28, putting him on the Cooperstown track for now.

2. Jonathan Lucroy
Lucroy's quietly evolved into the best-hitting catcher not named Posey, batting .297/.359/.472 (128 wRC+) with 43 home runs and 95 doubles over the past three years. The Brewers backstop is also durable, having caught 125 games or more in three of the past four seasons. More importantly, he's one of the best pitch-framers in the business. Put it all together, and you have someone just a tick below Posey who might very well win the MVP if he's able to turn a significant portion of last year's 53 doubles into homers.

3. Yadier Molina
A longtime defensive stalwart with seven straight Gold Gloves to prove it, Molina has recently developed into one of the game's best offensive catchers as well.  The youngest Molina brother batted .313/.361/.481 (132 wRC+) from 2011-2013, leading all backstops in fWAR during this time. The lifelong Cardinal was on his way to another good season before a thumb injury cost him seven weeks in July and August, then negatively impacted his swing by limiting him to just .269/.309/.317 with no home runs after returning. Molina's getting up there in years--he'll turn 33 this July--and has logged nearly 11,000 innings behind the plate, but he's showed no signs of slowing down and will be considered an elite catcher until he proves otherwise.

4. Russell Martin
Sure, he's about to turn 32 and has a ton of miles on him, but he also just had the best offensive season of his career and is moving to the launching pad in Toronto. Defensively, the former Gold Glover is one of the game's best, and he's never had a bad year offensively due to his strong on-base skills (.354 career OBP) and decent power (six seasons with double-digit home runs). I'm not a fan of the recent contract he got from the Blue Jays, but I also happen to think he'll be pretty good for at least another year or two.

5. Salvador Perez
Coming off back-to-back Gold Gloves and All-Star nods, Salvy, who turns 25 this spring, is poised to be one of the AL's best catchers for the rest of the decade. The American League's answer to Molina isn't a polished batter, but he's a proven .300 hitter and his home run totals have improved every year he's been in the league. Hardly ever walks because he hacks at everything, which is okay so long as he bats over .300, as he did from 2011-2013 but won't be if he hits .260 again like he did last year. There's still some upside here (could hit .300 with 20 bombs), but if he doesn't become more patient then I don't see him reaching his full potential as a hitter.

Gomes supplanted Carlos Santana as Cleveland's everyday catcher (ESPN)
6. Yan Gomes
The 2014 AL Silver Slugger recipient is coming off strong back-to-back seasons that saw him hit a combined .284/.325/.476 (125 wRC+) with 8.2 fWAR between 2013 and 2014. He's shown tremendous power for a backstop, slugging 21 home runs and 25 doubles last year in his first full season, and is a good bet to replicate those numbers in his age-27 season. My only concern is that he's struck out more than four and a half times for every walk (cue Will Middlebrooks flashbacks), but it's possible he improves his plate discipline with more experience.

7. Matt Wieters
Wieters was off to a hot start last year before undergoing Tommy John surgery, making him an enticing rebound candidate for 2015. Wieters never developed into the superstar many thought he would become, but he's turned out to be plenty valuable as a good defensive catcher with 20 home run power. The Orioles are counting on their switch-hitting backstop to return strong this year at age 29, and I wouldn't bet against it.

8. Devin Mesoraco
Tough to rank Mesoraco given his relative lack of experience, but if he can prove last year was legit he'll shoot into the top-five easily. For now he's comfortably in the top-10, albeit towards the lower end. I think he's probably more of a .250-20-70 guy than the .273-25-80 guy he was last year, but that's still pretty darned good. 2015 is also going to be his age-27 season, and you know what that means...

9. Wilin Rosario
Rosario has flown under the radar thanks to his presence on some terrible Rockies teams, but when healthy he's one of the best-hitting catchers out there. Injuries hampered his production last year, but in the two seasons before that he crushed 49 home runs and posted an .820 OPS (107 OPS+). Like the rest of his teammates (looking at you, Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki), he needs to avoid the Disabled List, but I see the soon-to-be 26 year-old getting back to his mashing ways in 2015. It doesn't hurt that he plays half his games in Coors Field, either.

10. Brian McCann
As McCann enters his age-31 season, the Yankees have to be concerned about his recent slippage. He's batted below .260 in each of the past three seasons, hitting a combined .238/.305/.419 and becoming  liability on offense. McCann's still a good defensive catcher, however, and his power has held steady with 20 or more home runs in all three of those seasons, so he still has plenty of value. He's just not the perennial All-Star/Silver Slugger candidate he was with the Braves.

Honorable Mention: Miguel Montero, Carlos Ruiz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Wilson Ramos, Derek Norris

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Mesoraco Move Makes Sense

Mesoraco was an All-Star and an elite hitter in 2014 (Fantasy Baseball Dugout)
The Cincinnati Reds haven't done much to applaud this offseason, mainly because they haven't done much at all. Cincy made an outstanding move yesterday, however, locking up catcher Devin Mesoraco with a four-year, $28 million extension that will cover his three arbitration seasons and first year of free agency.

Given that teams are paying roughly $6 million for a win on the open market these days and accounting for inflation, Mesoraco will only need to be worth about one win above replacement per year over the life of the contract to earn his keep. Seeing as how he was worth around 4.5 WAR last year alone, he should have no problem accruing a similar value over the next four years combined (which, by the way, also happen to cover the prime ages of 27-30).

Unless, of course, Mesoraco turns out to be a massive fluke, but I don't think he is (neither does ESPN's David Schoenfield). One might question last year's 25 home runs and .893 OPS (149 OPS+) in light of his 16 home runs and .641 OPS (74 OPS+) from 2011-2013, but I wouldn't. I see Mesoraco's breakout as a product of age (he was 26 last year) and increased experience (he had just 589 major league plate appearances before last year). Catchers also tend to bloom later than other position players, not that there's anything out of the ordinary about a 26 year-old putting it all together.

As for the how/why behind Mesoraco's breakthrough, Jeff Sullivan over at FanGraphs provides a detailed explanation. From what I can see, the Reds' receiver enjoyed a huge boost in BABiP, which at .309 is only 10 points higher than the league average but represents a mammoth improvement over his career average. That was strange to see, considering that a) his line drive rate remained about the same as 2013, b) he hit more fly balls than ground balls last year, and c) he's slow as molasses. Perhaps last year was mere regression to the mean after three straight years of horrendous luck on batted balls, but a .309 BABiP just doesn't jibe with Mesoraco's 2014 hit distribution. Accordingly, I'd project him to be a .250 hitter going forward rather than the .273 batter he was last year.

And what about the power? Mesoraco can hit .250 all he wants if he keeps hammering 25 balls out of the yard every year, something only Brian McCann and Wilin Rosario have proven to be capable of doing among the current crop of backstops. Given the large increases in his strikeout and fly ball rate, Mesoraco appears to have sold out for the long ball by lengthening his swing, which certainly worked for him last year (and should continue to in Great American Ball Park). That said, in 2014 his fly balls left the yard about twice as often as they had in the past and more frequently than the league average, which leads me to believe he's due for a bit of regression in this area. Not much, but enough to cap him at roughly 20 big flies rather than 25 or 30.

I guess this is all a long-winded way of saying that I think Mesoraco's true talent level is probably closer to what he did during the second half last year. He was a monster in the first half, doing his best Mike Piazza impression by batting .320/.387/.667 through June 24th. After that, natural regression combined with pitcher adjustments limited him to .244/.342/.449 the rest of the way. Those are still terrific numbers for a catcher in today's offense-challenged times, and I'll readily admit that Mesoraco could make his own adjustments this year. It's just highly unlikely he'll be as good as he was last year, if only because he was so exceptionally good last year.

Then again, he doesn't have to be. If he's only 75-80 percent of the player he was last year, he's still an awesome hitter. And if last year does turn out to be a fluke, and he's only a so-so hitter from this point onward, then he'll still comfortably exceed one WAR per year so long as he's healthy. The Reds aren't banking on four more All-Star seasons from Mesoraco; they're merely paying him to be an everyday catcher. If his bat turns out to be legit, then he'll wind up being an incredible bargain, but he'll still be one even if it doesn't.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

12 Greatest Shortstops

At a time when pitchers ruled the sport, Wagner towered over the game (ESPN)
With the recent passing of Ernie Banks and retirement of Derek Jeter, I was thinking about where they rank among shortstops. This is by no means definitive, as it gets really close after the top five and 6-12 could be ranked in almost any order, but I did my best:

1. Honus Wagner (131 bWAR, 138.1 fWAR, 92 WAA)
Almost a full century after his last game, Wagner is still the greatest shortstop who ever lived. The Flying Dutchman was the best position player in baseball history until Ty Cobb came along, and probably would have won five or six MVPs had the award existed back then. The amount of black ink on his Baseball-Reference page is staggering; eight batting and OPS titles, seven doubles titles, and five stolen base and RBI crowns, to name a few. Wagner dominated the game, and I think it's pretty telling that when the first Hall of Fame class was inducted in 1936, he received as many votes as Babe Ruth.

2. Alex Rodriguez (116 bWAR, 111 fWAR, 77.4 WAA)
The enduring image of Alex Rodriguez as a baseball player will be that of an aging, broken-down, scandal-ridden third baseman. That's too bad, because for the first decade of his career he was a full-time shortstop, and an otherworldy one at that. PEDs aside, what A-Rod did during his time in Seattle and Texas defied belief. He reeled off six straight 40-homer seasons, when no other shortstop had so many at all, let alone consecutively. He had back-to-back 50-homer seasons, shattering Banks's single-season record for most home runs by a shortstop, then breaking his own mark the very next year with an unthinkable 57. He went 40/40, something only three other people in baseball history have ever done.  Rodriguez was a great defender, too, winning consecutive Gold Gloves in 2002 and 2003 before joining the Yankees and moving over to third in deference to Jeter (an inferior player, by the way). I often wonder how his career would have turned out had he just stayed the Rangers shortstop and captain. It couldn't have turned out any worse.

3. Cal Ripken Jr. (95.5 bWAR, 92.5 fWAR, 53.1 WAA)
People remember Ripken so much for the streak that they forget just how great he was during his prime. He was a two-time MVP who had at least 21 home runs and 81 RBI every year from 1982 to 1991, when he was arguably the best player in baseball. He was an All-Star 19 times, winning eight Silver Sluggers as well as a pair of Gold Gloves. And yes, Iron Man was a freak of nature who played 2,632 consecutive games and 3,001 in all (and yet was only a liability in his final season). Ripken played the game the right way--the Ripken way.

4. Ernie Banks (67.5 bWAR, 63.3 fWAR, 28.5 WAA)
Until Alex Rodriguez came along, Banks set the standard for power-hitting shortstops, which were exceedingly rare until the 1980s. Mr. Cub was at his absolute best from 1955-1960, batting .294/.359/.579 (148 OPS+) with 47.3 bWAR and five 40 homer/100 RBI seasons. Only Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays were more valuable during this span, which saw Banks win back-to-back MVPs and lead all players in home runs and RBI. A knee injury suffered during the 1961 season forced him to first base full-time, but his prime years were truly a thing of greatness.

5. Derek Jeter (71.8 bWAR, 73.5 fWAR, 30.4 WAA)
Jeets would rank much higher if not for his terrible defense, which cost the Yankees a lot of runs and wins over the years. He also struck out a lot for a guy with medium power and was largely a singles hitter in the final third of his career. That said, Jeter played shortstop at a high level for almost two full decades (notwithstanding his horrible last couple seasons) and finished with impressive career statistics, his 3,465 hits chief among them. In his prime he was a durable 20/20 guy who hit well over .300, got on base a ton, and played passable defense. He was also a "winner" who came through time and time again for the Yankees during the postseason.

Jeter is one of the five greatest shortstops ever (MLB)
6. Robin Yount (77 bWAR, 66.5 fWAR, 37 WAA)
It took Yount, who debuted at 18, a good half decade to develop into an above average hitter. But once he did, he became one of the best all-around players in baseball. He owned the 1980s, winning two MVP awards and compiling 55.1 bWAR/50 fWAR during the decade. According to FanGraphs, only Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs, and Mike Schmidt were more valuable than Yount, who batted .305/.365/.485 (135 OPS+) for the decade while leading all players in hits and doubles (and ranking second in runs). Yount was a center fielder during his 30s but played over half his games at shortstop, which explains why he's included here. Like Ripken, Yount combined several elite seasons with longevity, playing long enough to surpass 3,000 hits.

7. Arky Vaughan (72.9 bWAR, 72.6 fWAR, 47.3 WAA)
Vaughan is one of the most underrated ballplayers ever, probably because he spent his prime years on lousy Pittsburgh teams during the Depression. Sure, he played in a fantastic era for hitters, but a .318/.406/.453 (136 OPS+) stands out in any case. Also, this is not a misprint; in 1935 he batted .385/.491/.607 (190 OPS+) en route to a 9.2 bWAR campaign. Even more astounding is that he was not named NL MVP that year (he finished third, behind Gabby Hartnett and Dizzy Dean).  Vaughan didn't play very long--only 14 seasons--so his counting numbers aren't that great, but for the bulk of his career he was one of the three best position players in baseball. Had he not voluntarily sat out three seasons in his early 30s, he probably would have ended up with close to 1,500 runs and 2,500 hits.

8. Barry Larkin (70.2 bWAR, 67.6 fWAR, 42.2 WAA)
Larkin was basically Jeter value-wise, only he wasn't able to stay as healthy. So while Larkin, just as good a hitter and a better baserunner/defender, was better than Jeter on a per-game basis, I can't overlook the fact that Jeter played almost 600 more games and had nearly 3,600 more plate appearances. From 1988-2000, Larkin wasn't just the best shortstop in the National League; he was one of the five most valuable position players in baseball. There were Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., and everyone else, but Larkin was at or near the top of the everyone else list.

9. Luke Appling (74.5 bWAR, 72.7 fWAR, 41.5 WAA)
Appling's another guy who seems to have been forgotten, which is hard to reconcile given his .310 career average, .399 OBP, and 2,749 hits. Like Vaughan, he had one monster season in the heart of the Depression, putting up a .388/.474/.508  (139 OPS+) line and 128 RBI in 1936, only to come up short in the MVP voting (Appling finished second to Lou Gehrig, who was absolutely the right call with his 49 home runs and 1.174 OPS). Appling was a lot like Vaughan, actually, albeit with less power. Appling was also phenomenal old player, batting .301 with 121 walks in 1949 at age 42. If not for World War II costing him almost two full seasons, he would have been a good bet to reach 3,000 hits, 1,500 runs, and 500 doubles.

10. Alan Trammell (70.4 bWAR, 63.7 fWAR, 40.2 WAA)
Trammell was a skilled defensive shortstop (four Gold Gloves) who also had a number of strong offensive seasons, none better than his 1987 campaign when he batted .343/.402/.551 (155 OPS+) with 28 home runs and 105 RBI. The six-time All-Star did everything well; defense, hitting for power, speed, getting on base, et. al. He teamed with Lou Whitaker for two decades to form the best double-play tandem baseball has ever seen.

11. Ozzie Smith (76.5 bWAR, 67.6 fWAR, 41.6 WAA)
Smith was nothing special offensively (career 83 OPS+), but was so dazzling on the field and bases that he was able to cruise into Cooperstown on his first try with over 91 percent of the vote. Rewarded with a (shortstop) record 13 consecutive Gold Gloves from 1980-1992, Smith is widely considered to be the best defensive shortstop all-time. The Wizard was also a phenomenal basestealer, swiping 580 at a 79.6 percent clip. So while he wasn't much with the stick and had virtually no power to speak of (only 28 career big flies), the 15-time All-Star compensated by getting on base enough (.337 OBP) and winning games with his legs.

12. Joe Cronin (66.4 bWAR, 66.6 fWAR, 35.9 WAA)
With a .301/.390/.468 (119 OPS+) career line, Cronin was one of the best-hitting shortstops of all-time. He was an excellent RBI man, topping 90 every year but one from 1930-1941 and piling up 1,424 in all. Cronin also had really good power for a shortstop, with 803 of his 2,285 hits going for extra bases. A seven-time All-Star, he finished in the top-seven of MVP voting five times. His defense has been called into question, however, and his numbers are less impressive after accounting for context (he played mostly in the 1930s and spent a lot of years at Fenway Park).

HM: Jimmy Rollins, Vern Stephens, Omar Vizquel, Miguel Tejada, Lou Boudreau

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bye Bye Banks

Banks was a tremendous shortstop and Cubs icon (Huffington Post)
Cubs legend and Hall of Famer Ernie Banks passed away yesterday, eight days shy of his 84th birthday.

"Let's play two"was his mantra, and one he took to heart. Banks played at least 130 games in all but three of his 19 seasons, exceeding 150 a dozen times and leading the league in six of those years. The Cubs were often abysmal, but their constant losing never stifled his love for baseball. Perhaps no player ever seemed to get more unbridled joy from the game than Banks, who at one point played 717 consecutive games at shortstop.

It was therefore terribly unfair that he spent his entire career with one of baseball's losing-est franchises, never once getting a taste of the postseason. That Chicago collapsed down the stretch in 1969, at the end of Banks's last impactful season, was a particularly cruel twist of fate. He and the Cubs came so close, only to crash and burn in September.

By then Banks was at first base, the position he manned for most of the 1960s. But in the 1950s, Banks became baseball's first slugging shortstop, re-defining a position that had typically been reserved for speedy, slap-hitting guys like Luis Aparicio. Before a knee injury forced him to move across the diamond in 1962, Banks was on track to be the greatest offensive shortstop since Honus Wagner. In the half century since, only Alex Rodriguez has equaled the power numbers Banks put up during his heyday.

Groomed in the Negro Leagues, Banks seamlessly transitioned to the majors and became a star almost instantly. He excelled during his 1953 call-up and was runner-up in the following year's NL Rookie of the Year race before finishing third in the 1955 NL MVP vote.

1955--that was the year Banks became a star. He made his first All-Star team, batted .295/.345/.596 (144 OPS+), and was valued at 8.2 bWAR. More notably, he set the home run record for shortstops with 44 including five grand slams--a single season record that stood for 30 years. Two years later, Banks challenged his own record by slamming 43 out of the yard.

The late '50s were Banks's heyday, In 1958 and 1959, he became the first National Leaguer to win back-to-back MVP awards despite playing for second division teams (Chicago finished fifth out of eight both years with losing records). In '58 Banks played every game, batting .313/.366/.614 (155 OPS+) and leading the major leagues with 47 home runs, 129 RBI, 379 total bases, and 81 extra base hits. Those 47 big flies set a new major league record for shortstops, one that has since been surpassed by Rodriguez but still remains that NL record.

Banks's '59 season was just as good, if not better. He once again played every game, clubbed 45 home runs, knocked in an ML-best 143 runs, batted .304/.374/.566 (156 OPS+), and was worth an astounding 10.2 bWAR. In 1960 Banks had another MVP-caliber year worth 7.8 bWAR, pacing the majors with 41 home runs while winning his first and only Gold Glove.

That would be Banks's last elite season, capping a six-year run in which he was the most valuable position player in baseball not named Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. He went on to become a steady, solid first baseman, but never came close to replicating his peak seasons due to age and declining levels of offense. The move helped Banks play past 40, allowing him to reach milestones such as 500 home runs, 1,600 RBI, and 2,500 hits.

An 11-time All-Star, Banks was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility. First-ballot induction is typically reserved for the game's true legends, the inner-circle Hall of Famers. I can think of few men more deserving of that honor than Mr. Cub.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Rangers Get Gallardo

Gallardo's not good enough to survive the Texas run environment (Bases Loaded)
The Texas Rangers made their first major offseason move yesterday (seriously, it's about time), sending three players to the Milwaukee Brewers in exchange for Yovani Gallardo. The Brewers also agreed to cover $4 million of the $14 million owed to Gallardo in 2015, the final year of a five-year extension he signed back in 2010.

Gallardo, a former All-Star, has been one of the steadiest starting pitchers in baseball over the past six years. Though walks have often limited his ability to pitch deep into games, he's made at least 30 starts and completed more than 180 innings every year dating back to 2009. Gallardo's compiled a 3.73 ERA (equivalent to his FIP) during that span, putting him in the same neighborhood as Max Scherzer (3.61), James Shields (3.62), and Dan Haren (3.80).

A very promising pitcher at the start of the decade, the hard-throwing righthander never quite became the ace he was supposed to be. He settled down as a good, if occasionally frustrating pitcher; a fine number two or three but not a number one. With 16 fWAR over the last six years, he's been the 31st most valuable starting pitcher in baseball, near the likes of Matt Cain, Ricky Nolasco, and Jake Peavy.

Gallardo, who's going to be 29 this year, will have to adjust to the American League as well as an incredibly tough park for pitchers in Texas. Such a transition would be difficult for any hurler, especially one whose strikeout rate has gone into free-fall. Since peaking at 9.9 K/9 in 2009, Gallardo's whiff rate has fallen every year since then save 2012, when it remained the same as the year before. Once an elite strikeout artist who fanned at least a batter per inning every year from 2009 through 2012, Gallardo is now below average in that department after making a more concerted effort to pitch to contact, which has resulted in his averaging just seven whiffs per nine in 2013 and 2014 combined.

In spite of his waning whiff rate, Gallardo has remained effective by become more of a ground ball pitcher in recent years, as his ground ball rate has steadily risen every year since 2010 (he added a sinker to his repertoire in 2011). Last year, for the first time in his career, more than half of the batted balls he generated were on the ground. That bodes well for him moving to Texas and a new home park that turns long fly balls into homers. He'll benefit from a superior infield defense with the Rangers, who boast Adrian Beltre and Elvis Andrus on the left side of their infield as opposed to Aramis Ramirez and Jean Segura in Milwaukee, but will lose out on Jonathan Lucroy's magnificent pitch-framing capability.

So how will Gallardo fare in his American League debut? Not great, says Steamer. The projection system predicts continued regression in his strikeout rate and an uptick in his walk rate, which was a career-best 2.5 BB/9 last year. These developments, combined with a spike in home run rate, would likely drive his ERA and FIP over four. Steamer expects his ERA to rise to 4.61, more than a full run worse than his 3.51 mark a year ago. That seems a bit excessive to me, but I agree that his ERA is going to exceed his previous career-worst of 4.18 set two years ago.

Gallardo's just not a great pitcher any more, which makes him vulnerable to the hitter's park in Arlington and more formidable American League lineups. He's an average pitcher at best in this stage of his career, which qualifies as an improvement only because of how horrendous the Rangers' rotation was last year. Of the nine pitchers who started eight or more games, only one--Yu Darvish--had an ERA under 4.35. Texas desperately needed pitching help, and Gallardo will provide some, but his ERA probably won't be much better than that and is far more likely to be worse.

As such, Gallardo is a minor upgrade that won't make much difference for a team that lost 95 games last year. Obviously the Rangers need all the help they can get, and every little bit helps, but Gallardo's not going to move the needle much. The Rangers really need another ace to complement Darvish, and could have used a Jon Lester or a James Shields. Instead, they settled for mediocrity and got Gallardo.

Fowler Fits Cubs Plan

Trading for Fowler is a win-now move by the Cubs (USA Today)
The Chicago Cubs continued to improve this offseason, swapping a utility man (Luis Valbuena) and a busted starting pitcher (Dan Straily) to the Houston Astros for Dexter Fowler yesterday.

The Cubs sold high on Valbuena, their third baseman who enjoyed a career year last year at 28. With uberprospect Kris Bryant expected to take over at the hot corner shortly, Valbuena had become expendable, so Chicago turned him and Straily into a center fielder, something the Cubs never really had last year.

Former skipper Rick Renteria relied primarily on Emilio Bonifacio (fine utility guy, but not an everyday player) and, after Bonifacio was dealt to the Braves, a raw 22 year-old rookie by the name of Arismendy Alcantara, who did his best Jackie Bradley, Jr. impression by posting a paltry .621 OPS. Junior Lake, Ryan Sweeney, and Justin Ruggiano, none of whom are any good, also spent significant time in center. Not surprisingly, Chicago got next-to-nothing from its center fielders, who batted a measly .222/.264/.346 last year, making that the team's weakest position OPS-wise. No team got less offense from its center fielders than the Cubs, who had the third-worst crew of center fielders overall based on fWAR.

Fowler, a solidly above average hitter with an established track record, represents a clear upgrade offensively that figures to add several wins to Chicago's ledger this year. The Cubs are getting a 29 year-old center fielder who's typically good for 10-15 home runs, 10-15 steals, and a very high on-base percentage every year. Last year, the former Rockie proved he could hit away from Coors Field by enjoying his best offensive season on a league and park adjusted basis with a 124 wRC+, batting .276/.375/.399 despite missing seven weeks in the middle of the season with back tightness.

That high OBP wasn't a fluke, either. Fowler has always been great at getting on base and owns a .366 career OBP to prove it. The switch-hitting leadoff man also brings some speed to the table, having swiped 94 bases and legged out 57 triples over the past six seasons. Despite his mediocre theft success rate (67.6 percent), he ranks 25th in baserunning value since the start of the 2009 season. He's no Juan Pierre either, offering slightly above average power (career .149 ISO) that stands to benefit from Wrigley Field's friendly confines.

While Fowler is a good hitter, he is not without flaws. He strikes out a lot for someone who's never hit 15 homers or slugged .475 in a season, and the metrics have never loved his defense. Like many Rockies past and present, Fowler's also had trouble staying healthy, as he's never played 145 games or recorded 500 official at-bats in any season. As such, B-R and FanGraphs agree that he has never once been worth three WAR.

Fowler is also not a long-term fix. Now in his final year of arbitration, he expects to earn around $10 million this year before becoming a free agent next winter, meaning he's a not inexpensive short-term solution.

But he is a solution, and a good one at that. With Chicago leaning on so many youngsters to carry the offensive load this season, Fowler is a proven performer with a steady history of success. In addition to setting the table for the likes of Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Jorge Soler, he'll add some much-needed veteran presence and leadership to a team short on both. Best of all, he's a good center fielder, which is something the Cubs desperately needed (but could trade if they stumble through another terrible season).

Based on their splashy Jon Lester signing and serious pursuit of Russell Martin earlier this winter, the Cubbies are making a strong push to contend in 2015. Fowler fits into the plan.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Nationals Sign Scherzer

Did the Nationals really need another top-flight starting pitcher? (DodgersNation)
The Washington Nationals won 96 games and the NL East last year, largely thanks to a talented pitching staff that topped the majors in ERA, FIP, and fWAR. Their loaded rotation, comprised of Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, and Tanner Roark, were primarily responsible for that, delivering 936 innings of 2.92 ERA-ball and missing just 13 starts between them. With all of them healthy, in their 20s (save Fister), and under contract for 2015, the Nationals did not need pitching help. They were more than set.

Max Scherzer, the 2013 AL Cy Young winner and a free agent*, was a $200 million luxury Washington didn't need. And yet, Scherzer is now a member of the Washington Nationals. Unless the rumors of a possible Strasburg or Zimmermann trade come to fruition, he'll bump Tanner Roark, a borderline Cy Young candidate who compiled a 2.85 ERA in just under 200 innings last year, to the bullpen.

Look out, National League.

*Scherzer, who boldly rejected Detroit's six-year, $144 million contract extension offer prior to the 2014 season, looks like a genius, by the way. He bet on himself, had another big season, and reaped the rewards. 

Just when you thought the Nats couldn't get any more stacked, they go out and ink the prize possession of this winter's free agent pool. In an era where most teams are settling for mediocrity, hoping for 85+ wins and a shot at the second wild card, Washington is one of the few franchises trying to separate themselves from the pack. They're all in.

Thing is, the Nationals were already head and shoulders above the rest of the NL East. Last year, they were the only team with a winning record in their division, which they won by an astounding 17 games. Even with the Marlins and Mets projected to be better this year, Washington was still heavily favored to end up in first place again. The aging Phillies are only getting worse and the re-shuffling Braves will probably be about the same, if not worse. There was no serious challenger threatening Washington's ironclad grip on the NL East in 2015.

Now, the division title that was all but guaranteed to go to Washington is only more of a sure thing. They now claim the best 1-2 top of the rotation punch outside of Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke, backed by a former 20-game winner in Gonzalez and a pair of top-notch arms in Zimmermann and Fister. All have received Cy Young consideration at least once in the last three years, and nobody's going to be older than 31 this year. Roark, should he stick around, provides excellent insurance if an injury crops up. Throw in a lights-out bullpen and a formidable starting nine and you have a team that could easily win 100 games in 2015, no small feat given the improved parity throughout the sport.

Did the Washington Nationals need Max Scherzer? Probably not*. But are they a better team with him on board? Absolutely. They say you can never have enough pitching, but it appears the Nats have more than enough to take them all the way. I know it's only January, but I think the Nationals just punched their ticket to the World Series.

*Though I can see why Washington wanted Scherzer. Fister's on the wrong side of 30, Gonzalez got hurt in an uneven 2014, Strasburg and Zimmermann are recovered Tommy John patients, and Roark has a mere 36 big league starts under his belt. Pitchers are inherently risky, and everyone in the Nationals rotation had at least one question mark. There's no such thing as a sure thing in baseball, especially when it comes to pitching. Scherzer's also one of the five best pitchers in baseball, so there's that.

Friday, January 16, 2015

2015 MVP Predictions

AL MVP: Mike Trout

It’s a well-known fact that Mike Trout is the best all-around player in baseball. His combination of elite power, speed, and defense at a premium position is unmatched in the game today. 

Trout is the total package. Over the past three years he has been the sport's best hitter on a league and park-adjusted basis, leading all of baseball with a 170 wRC+ (meaning he created 70 percent more runs than a league average hitter would have in the same number of plate appearances) while also ranking first inbaserunning value. Not surprisingly, he has produced more offensive value in the last three years than anyone else, all while playing a solid, if sometimes spectacular, center field. 

As such, Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs ranked Trout as baseball’s most valuable player in each of thepast three seasons based on wins above replacement (WAR). This trio of standout seasons has resulted in three straight All-Star nods and impressive MVP results for Trout, who was runner-up to Miguel Cabrera in 2012 and 2013 before winningunanimously last season, becoming the youngest player ever to do so. 

While Trout is clearly a superstar according to these advanced metrics, his excellence is also apparent in the traditional stats that voters love. Since the start of the 2012 season he ranks first in runs scored, second in slugging percentage, third in on-base percentage, fifth in RBI (a favorite stat of MVP voters), seventh in home runs, and eighth in steals and batting average.   

Playing time is an important factor in MVP voting as well, and Trout is no slouch in this regard. Athletic, durable, and built like a tank, he’s never spent a day on the Disabled List and played in 157 of a possible 162 games in each of the last two years. Trout has a clean bill of health and should have no problems staying on the field this year. 

It also helps that Trout plays for a great team in a big market: the Los Angeles Angels. The Angels had the best record in baseball last year, winning 98 games and cruising to the AL West title by a 10 game margin over the Oakland A’s. With their two most serious challengers, the A’s and Seattle Mariners, failing to considerably improve so far this offseason, LA has to be considered favorites to repeat as division champs. And with star teammates Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton indecline, Trout is obviously the best and most indispensable player on the Halos, and thus will continue to fare well in MVP voting.  

Lastly, since Trout is just 23 years old, he’s still at an age where he should be getting better, not worse. He’s still a few years away from what are traditionally considered to be a player’s prime years (ages 25-29). Health permitting, Trout is poised to be a force in MVP voting for another decade.
NL MVP: Andrew McCutchen 

Andrew McCutchen is the National League’s answer to Mike Trout; a supremely gifted all-around center fielder at the top of his game. Per the FanGraphs version of WAR, McCutchen has been the second-most valuable position player since the start of the 2012 season, trailing only the aforementioned Angels superstar. Like Trout, ‘Cutch has won an MVP in a landslide and came close two other times. So long as he’s healthy, McCutchen figures to be a strong candidate again in 2015. 

Though McCutchen’s offensive statistics are not always overwhelming—he has just one 30-homer season on his resume and has never knocked in 100 runs—he’s produced far more offensive value than any other National Leaguer over the past three years. He owns the league’s highest batting average, on-base percentage, and wRC+ during that span, as well as its third-highest slugging percentage and weighted on-base average (wOBA).  In fact, McCutchen is the only major leaguer to exceed a .300 batting average, .400 OBP, and .500 SLG in all three of those seasons. Like Trout, he received three Silver Sluggers for those same seasons as well. 

McCutchen is also a very good baserunner, having stolen no less than 18 bases in all six of his big league seasons and averaging 24 per year at a 74 percent success rate. His defense, while not highly rated by advanced metrics, passes the “eye test” (meaning he looks like a good fielder to the casual observer) and was rewarded with a Gold Glove in 2012. 

Last season’s short DL-stint notwithstanding, McCutchen has also been exceptionally durable throughout his career. He played at least 154 games every year from 2010 to 2013. After spending the minimum 15 days on the Disabled List with a rib injury last August, he suffered no drop-off in his performance after returning and helped lead Pittsburgh back to the postseason by posting a1.042 OPS in September. And at 28 years old, McCutchen is squarely in his prime coming off four consecutive All-Star seasons, so one would not expect his performance to fall drastically this year. 

Although the Pirates do not play in a big market, they are a relevant team due to their recent success. They’ve finished second in the NL Central each of the last two seasons, making the playoffs both years after going 20 seasons (1993-2012) without a postseason berth. Their division will be more crowded this year with the emergence of the Cubs and a likely rebound from the Reds, but Pittsburgh boasts a young, quality team that should be in the mix for several more years at least. And because the Pirates are built around depth more so than star power, McCutchen is far and away the best player on his team, which guarantees MVP consideration if they do well. 

McCutchen might not be as much of a sure thing as Trout, especially if Giancarlo Stanton has another monster season or Bryce Harper puts it all together, but he’s pretty much guaranteed to be in the running for the next few years. If he doesn't win in 2015, he'll at least come close.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

2015 Comeback Candidates (NL)

Uggla is hoping to win a job with the Nationals this year (Chat Sports)
The following National Leaguers should do better in 2015 than they did a year ago.

C Wilin Rosario
After cranking 49 home runs and posting an .820 OPS (107 OPS+) between 2012 and 2013 combined, a couple of DL stints limited the Rockies backstop to just 13 home runs and a .739 OPS (93 OPS+) last year. Health permitting, he'll hit much better in his age-26 season.

1B Mark Trumbo
Trumbo's first season in Arizona was a disappointment, as he missed nearly half the season with a stress fracture in his left foot and was worth 1.1 wins below replacement. Seeing as how he averaged 2.6 bWAR from 2011-2013, when he was mostly healthy, and blasted 95 home runs. The 29 year-old slugger deserves a mulligan, unless the Diamondbacks decide to trade him.

2B Dan Uggla
Uggla's career went south in a hurry, from 2012 All-Star to spring training invite with the Washington Nationals. Many pointed to his age as the reason for his dramatic decline, but few were aware that Uggla was playing through an undiagnosed concussion last year, when he had a .442 OPS in 52 games. The condition prevented him from picking up the ball and undoubtedly contributed to his horrendous batting figures. The soon-to-be 35 year-old is still a longshot to make the big club with Anthony Rendon entrenched at the keystone, but the three-time All-Star is suddenly much more intriguing now that he can actually see what he's trying to hit.

3B David Wright
Wright was a mess last year, playing through a shoulder contusion that hampered his power and resulted in what was the worst season of his career by far. The seven-time All-Star should do better than the .698 OPS he managed last year, especially given his proven ability to bounce back from previous down years (2009 and 2011).

SS Jean Segura
The 2013 All-Star stunk last year, hitting just five home runs to go along with his lowly .246/.289/.326 batting line. Hit well down the stretch (.784 OPS after September 2nd), which gives me hope that he'll have more success in his age-25 season. I don't think he's as good as his 2013 numbers suggest, but I'm willing to bet he's better than last year's numbers say he was.

Gonzalez was both hurt and ineffective in 2014 (Rox Walk Off)
OF Bryce Harper
Injuries prevented Harper from being the dynamic player he was in his first two big league campaigns, limiting him to just 100 games, four stolen base attempts, and 13 home runs. Still just 22, Harper has plenty of room to grow, and this could be the year he finally makes the leap to superstardom.

OF Carlos Gonzalez
Gonzalez missed a ton of time last year, needing two separate surgeries on his index finger and left knee. No wonder he batted a meager .238/.292/.431 (89) OPS+ when he did play. Missing time is nothing new to CarGo, who's never played more than 145 games in any season, but even last year's paltry total of 70 was a new career low for him. Expect the 29 year-old former batting champ to be on the field more regularly and play better this year.

OF Jay Bruce
Bruce was brutal last year, bottoming out at ..217/.281/.373 (84 OPS+). He struggled mightily after returning from knee surgery in late May, but says he feels great and should be good to go for 2015. When healthy, Bruce is one of the best right fielders and power hitters in the game, and a big rebound from him will go a long way towards helping Cincinnati contend in the loaded NL Central.

U Ryan Braun
The last two seasons have been well below Braun's standards, but the 31 year-old is still young enough to have another big season or two left in him. The last two years combined he's had 28 homers, 119 RBI, and 15 steals, numbers I see as a good baseline for his 2015 production.

San Francisco could use Cain to get back on track (StanGraphs)
SP Cliff Lee
Lee made just 13 starts last year due to strains in his throwing arm that required two separate trips to the 60 day DL, but was still effective when healthy. The few times Lee was able to pitch, he was the same old guy, putting up a 2.96 FIP and striking out six batters for every one he walked. He's getting up there in years (turns 37 in August), but still appears to have plenty left in the tank.

SP Matt Harvey
Harvey never threw a pitch in 2014 because he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. He was filthy prior to the injury, and the Mets hope he's still filthy when he comes back at age 26.

SP Jose Fernandez
The 2013 NL Rookie of the Year was off to a sizzling start before Tommy John surgery cut his sophomore season short. Miami's hoping their 22 year-old budding ace doesn't skip a beat in his first post-surgery season.

SP Brandon McCarthy
McCarthy pitched 200 innings for the first time last year but wasn't very good, going 10-15 with a 4.05 ERA splitting time between Arizona and New York (Yankees). Lucky for him, he's in the perfect place to rejuvenate his career: Dodger Stadium.'

SP Matt Cain
Cain failed to complete 180 innings for the first time since 2005, making just 15 mediocre starts and missing the entire second half after undergoing elbow surgery to remove bone chips. A clean elbow in his throwing arm should do wonders for Cain, one of the National League's better starting pitchers before last year (an NL version of James Shields, really). The Giants need him to return to form if they want to repeat as World Champions in 2015.

RP Jason Grilli
The 2013 All-Star closer will try to regain his mojo with Atlanta after a down 2014 in which he spent time on the DL, lost his closer's job in Pittsburgh to Mark Melancon, and was traded to the Angels (where he was a setup man in a shaky closer situation). The Braves are going to be bad after trading away their two best positon players--Jason Heyward and Justin Upton--but hopefully Grilli won't be.

Monday, January 12, 2015

2015 Comeback Candidates (AL)

New York re-signed Drew, who looked utterly lost in 2014 (Boston Herald)
Here's my team of American Leaguers who should enjoy more success in 2015 than they did last year.

C Brian McCann
Despite slugging 23 homers and appearing in 140 games, McCann was a significant disappointment in his Yankees debut. He hit only .232 with a career-low .286 OBP--well below his career .350 mark prior to last year. McCann hit considerably better down the stretch, however, with 12 home runs and a .500 slugging percentage from August 2nd onward. 31 next month, he's still young enough to bounce back some, especially in a ballpark well-suited to his strengths. Like Curtis Granderson and Alex Rodriguez, he should do much better in year two with the Yanks.

HM Matt Wieters

1B Prince Fielder
Fielder's first season in Texas was a nightmare, as he started slow, then got hurt just as his bat appeared to be warming up. A herniated disk in his back cost him the last four and a half months of 2014, preventing him from playing 157 games for the first time since 2005. Won't turn 31 until May 9th and will be fully healthy, so should still be capable of providing big numbers in that hitter's paradise.

HM Joe Mauer

2B Jason Kipnis
An All-Star and fringe MVP candidate in 2013, Kipnis was mediocre (85 OPS+) and barely above replacement level in 2014 (0.9 bWAR). His down season was a big reason why the Indians narrowly missed the playoffs. He missed most of May with an oblique strain and never really got back on track after that, hitting just .241/.299/.315 the rest of the way. Look for a big bounce back from Cleveland's keystone defender, who will be 28 this year.

HM Dustin Pedroia

3B Evan Longoria
2014 was easily the worst year of Longoria's career, as he hit only .253 with a career-worst .320 OBP and .404 slugging percentage. His once-sterling defense also took a hit, resulting in his first complete season where he failed to earn an MVP vote. Don't expect that to happen again next year, health permitting, as he's still in the heart of his prime at 29.

HM Chase Headley

SS Stephen Drew
Sure, he'll be another year older (32 in two months), but there's no way he hits .162/.237/.299 (51 OPS+) again.

HM Jed Lowrie
Choo could use a comeback (Kaplan Production)
LF Shin-Soo Choo
Choo was a huge bust in the first year of his seven-year, $130 million contract. Before sitting out September with a bone spur in his elbow, he'd been a far cry from the MVP candidate he was with the Reds in 2013, batting a mere .242/.340/.374 with just 13 home runs and 40 RBI in 123 games. Worse, a nagging ankle sprain hampered his wheels, limiting the perennial 20/20 threat to just seven stolen base attempts before it, too, required surgery. Fully recovered from both surgeries, 2015 Choo should be the guy Texas thought they were getting when they threw all that money at him last winter. I see a Jayson Werth-like resurgence coming here.

HM Alejandro De Aza

CF Austin Jackson
A-Jax struggled mightily after the deadline deal that sent him from Detroit to Seattle, where he batted .229/.267/.260 with just six extra base hits (no homers) in 54 games. Safeco's a much tougher place to hit than Detroit, but look for Jackson to adjust and get back to being a productive center fielder in his age-28 season.

HM Colby Rasmus

RF Shane Victorino
The Flyin' Hawaiian opened the season on the DL with a strained hamstring and was never right. He came back for a month, only to land on the Disabled List by re-injuring his hamstring. He made another brief appearance in July before shutting it down for the year for surgery on a bulging disc in his lower back. Here's to a healthier 2015 for the 34 year-old, who still considers himself Boston's starting right fielder.

HM Allen Craig

DH Billy Butler
Country Breakfast hit a career-low .271/.323/.379 with just nine home runs--his fewest since he hit eight in his abbreviated rookie season. It's also tough to bounce back in Oakland's offense-dampening park, but there was nothing wrong with him physically and he'll be 29 next year. I don't see him hitting .300 with 20 homers again, but .285 with 15 homers should be doable. If Billy Beane's banking on a bounce back, so am I.

HM Kendrys Morales
Nolasco needs a big turnaround (Zimbio)
SP Clay Buchholz
Boston's erstwhile ace was victimized by a lot of bad luck last year and will benefit from positive regression to the mean. Will he stay healthy, though? That's the question.

SP Justin Verlander
Was last year just a down year for Verlander, or is it the beginning of a Tim Lincecum-esque demise? We'll find out soon enough.

SP CC Sabathia
This one doesn't look promising, but the Yankees need him and he's been too good to write off just yet. One more bad year, though...

SP Ricky Nolasco
Nolasco was battered in his American League debut to the tune of a 5.38 ERA in 27 starts. His home run rate doubled, his strikeout rate plunged, and his hit rate soared. His walk rate stayed the same, though, and he somehow got raked for a .351 BABiP even though his line drive and ground ball rates decreased from the previous season. Given that his FIP was more than a run below his ERA, Nolasco is due for better luck this year.

SP Justin Masterson
Boston bought low on the former Red Sox and believe in his bounce back potential. So do I.

RP Daniel Bard.
This Boston Globe article says it all.