Saturday, October 31, 2015

Mets Make Comeback, Win Game 3

The Mets emerged victorious in Game 3 (Huffington Post)
There's a comedian--Brian Regan--who does a funny bit about the dumb questions sports reporters ask. One of his examples; "is this a must-win game for you?", to which players always say things like "of course" or "definitely." As Regan points out, though, unless it's an elimination game, it never is a must-win. Obviously, as a competitor, you want to win every game, but very rarely do you actually have to win.

But after losing games 1 and 2 of the World Series in Kansas City, the New York Mets absolutely had to win Game 3. Sure, they could lose the third game and still win it all, but despite what the 2004 Red Sox and a handful of hockey teams have shown us, going down 3-0 in a best of seven series is a death sentence. It's just too hard to win four in a row against an elite team, especially when half those games are on the road.

Having already thrown their two aces (Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom), the Mets pinned their hopes on Noah Syndergaard, their hard-throwing, lion-haired rookie. A kid who began the season in the minors and turned 23 two months ago--not exactly the grizzled, battle-hardened Jon Lester-type you'd want starting a game like that.

Nobody knew what to expect from Syndergaard last night, but it's safe to say nobody thought he'd open the biggest game of his life by buzzing Kansas City's leadoff batter on the very first pitch. Besides nearly inciting a riot in the Royals' dugout with that high and tight fastball aimed at Alcides Escobar's noggin, he also made a very loud, very clear statement; I'm the one in control here. We might be down in this series, but I'm not afraid of you. You're the ones who should be afraid of me.

His purpose pitch did, however, have the unintended side effect of lighting a fire under the Royals, who clearly don't take kindly to 98 mile-per-hour heaters headed for their helmets. They didn't wait around to exact revenge, knocking Syndergaard around for six hits and three runs through the first two innings. With Syndergaard struggling, it looked like it was going to be a long night for New York's bullpen, not to mention another victory for Kansas City.

Then, all of the sudden, Syndergaard became unhittable, He retired 12 Royals in a row, keeping Kansas City at bay while his teammates tied the game in the third, then took the lead in the fourth.

That is, until he ran into trouble again in the sixth. After fanning Lorenzo Cain and Eric Hosmer, he allowed Mike Moustakas to reach on an infield single. It was the kind of cheap hit that drives pitchers crazy, especially when  they come with two outs. That forced Syndergaard back to pitching out of the stretch for the first time in awhile, which seemed to disrupt his rhythm. He walked Salvador Perez--who probably would have taken a hack at that pitch that almost decapitated Escobar--on five pitches before losing Gordon on a full count.

With Syndergaard closing in on 100 pitches and New York's 5-3 lead very much in danger, the crowd at Citi Field began howling for a pitching change. One more hit would even the score and force Syndergaard out, turning the game into a battle of bullpens. Since that would obviously favor Kansas City, New York could not afford to lose its lead.

So it was curious, then, that Mets manager Terry Collins stayed put, sticking with Syndergaard as Alex Rios came up to bat. It was the most important at-bat of the game, and Collins had to choose between his tiring starter and a fresh reliever, albeit one from his shaky middle relief corps. He went with the former, hoping for one more out from the rookie. On his 100th pitch of the night, Syndergaard got it, suffocating Kansas City's rally and preserving New York's lead at two.

The lead would grow to six by the end of the inning, as the Mets erupted for four runs in their half of the frame. New York's bullpen took it from there, doing their best impression of the Royals' relief corps by shutting down Kansas City over the final three innings. So dominant were the Mets relievers that the Royals didn't manage so much as a single baserunner. And with that, it was a series again.

The Mets will send another rookie, Steven Matz, to the mound tonight as they look to even the Series at two-all. A native New Yorker, Matz understands the pressure riding on this game. It's the most important one of the series, as there's a huge difference between being tied at two games apiece versus being one loss shy of elimination. It's his job to ensure the former.

On the other side, the Royals will try to get back on track behind Chris Young. who surprised everyone by emerging as their best pitcher this year. A full 12 years older than Matz, he has a solid decade of major league experience on his kid opponent. And thanks to his relief appearance in Game 1, he has more World Series experience under his belt, too. Young was the winning pitcher in that crazy marathon, firing three hitless innings out of the 'pen as he put the sleepy Mets to bed. We'll see if he can do the same against their refreshed lineup tonight.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Game 2: Royals Roll

Cueto came up big last night for Kansas City (ABC News)
Six weeks ago, mired in perhaps the worst cold spell of his career, Johnny Cueto looked totally lost. After being one of the best pitchers in baseball during the first half, he'd come over to Kansas City in late July and promptly lost his mojo. He couldn't strike anybody out, and he was getting torched every time he took the mound. Over a four-week stretch his ERA approached 10. His transition to the American League was not going well, to say the least.

As his struggles persisted into mid-September, they raised alarm over whether Kansas City could rely on him come playoff time. The whole reason they'd got him was to bolster their middling rotation, which lacked a clear-cut number one without James Shields, and they believed that in order to win the World Series they needed an ace. When they acquired him, Cueto certainly qualified as such. Just one month later, however, he seemed completely broken.

That is, until pitching coach Dave Eiland fixed him. Eiland noticed Cueto's left shoulder flying open during his delivery, causing his pitches to flatten out. His cutter in particular had become straight as an arrow. He called Cueto in to have a look at the tape, and together they saw why the star pitcher was getting creamed.

Cueto was fine the rest of way, allowing three earned runs or fewer in each of his last starts. But Royals fans still had reason to be concerned. The final few weeks of the regular season amounted to garbage time for Kansas City, who'd locked up the AL Central before Cueto even arrived. How would he hold up during the most pressure-packed games of the season, especially after suffering an apparent "crisis of confidence" so late in the season?

Those doubts still lingered before last night's game, as Cueto had been shelled in his most recent outing against Toronto. The Blue Jays battered him for eight runs in two innings, teeing off on him like it was batting practice. It was by far his worst start of the season, worse than any of his late-summer beatings. His ERA since joining the Royals, postseason included, was now 5.27. With an unbeaten (in the postseason) Jacob deGrom lined up to face Cueto, Game 2 seemed likely to go New York's way.

Then the game started, and all of the sudden Cueto could do no wrong.
Cueto and the Royals celebrate their 7-1 victory over the Mets (Click2Houston)
Last night was a perfect example of why Dayton Moore traded for Cueto back in July, even with the playoffs all but assured by that point. When he's on, he's one of the best pitchers in the game.
Cueto delivered his best start since early August, spinning a complete game two-hitter as Kansas City trounced New York, 7-1. By GameScore, it was his best start since he shut out Detroit on August 10th. It was also the best postseason start of his career.

Kansas City's dreadlocked ace was dominant from the start, zipping through the first three innings while facing the minimum nine batters. He hit a snag his second time through the order, walking two and letting in the game's first run on a flare single by Lucas Duda with two outs in the fourth. Beyond that, though, Cueto was unstoppable. He retired the next 15 in a row, allowing just one baserunner (a Daniel Murphy walk) the rest of the way.

With Cueto starting opposite deGrom, Game 2 was billed as the best pitching matchup of the series. For the first half of the game, it certainly was. Both stumbled in the fourth, however, with Cueto surrendering the first run of the game and deGrom getting out of a bases loaded jam. But whereas Cueto settled down after his minor hiccup, deGrom disintegrated the very next inning.
The trouble started when Alex Gordon, the hero of Game 1, led off with a full-count walk.

Alex Rios, the Royals' most regrettable offseaon pickup, followed with a single to move Gordon up to second. That brought Alcides Escobar, who got the scoring started the previous night with his mad dash around the bases, to the plate. Once again, he delivered Kansas City's first run of the game, slapping a single up the middle that plated Gordon and tied the game.

After Ben Zobrist grounded out and Lorenzo Cain lined out, it looked like deGrom would escape the inning without further damage. Until Eric Hosmer, another Game 1 hero, struck again, poking a single up the middle that scored both Rios and Escobar. According to win probability added, it was the biggest play of the game, increasing Kansas City's chances of winning the game from 58 percent to 80 percent. Successive singles by Kendrys Morales and Mike Moustakas added another run to KC's ledger, improving their odds of victory to 87 percent by the end of the frame.

After that it was all Kansas City. Cueto cruised the rest of the way while New York's bullpen, summoned back into action after a taxing effort in Game 1, allowed three additional runs in the eighth to put the game out of reach. That also gave Cueto plenty of leeway with which to finish his start and saving Ned Yost the trouble of warming anyone up in case Cueto faltered. With a maximum of one more start this season (plus a possible Madison Bumgarner-esque relief effort if the series goes seven), the free agent-to-be was permitted to come back out for the ninth even though he'd already thrown 106 pitches. He finished the game having thrown 122.

Cueto did what deGrom could not--he saved the bullpen after an exhausting Game 1.
More importantly, he gave his team a commanding 2-0 series lead, bringing Kansas City to within two wins of its first World Series championship in 30 years.

Now, the Mets' championship hopes ride on a rookie starting pitcher who turned 23 two months ago. Make no mistake, Noah Syndergaard will be up to the challenge based on how he's performed up to this point, but you just never know how he'll handle this kind of pressure-cooker. He has to pitch knowing that if he loses, his team is in an 0-3 hole and their season is effectively over. That's a ton of pressure on a kid making his first World Series start.

The pitcher he's going up against, Yordano Ventura, isn't much older at 24. Ventura does have World Series experience, however, so he's been there before. His team is in the driver's seat, so he can pitch relatively worry-free.

While Game 2 was supposed to be a pitcher's duel, Game 3 has similar potential. Syndergaard and Ventura are two of the hardest throwers in the game today, which makes their matchup especially intriguing. Syndergaard's been the superior pitcher this year (in both the regular season and postseason), but Ventura does have that World Series experience to draw on. New York would seem to have the advantage, being at home with the better pitcher on the mound, but either hurtler is certainly capable of the kind of virtuoso performance Cueto enjoyed last night.

The Mets just better hope that their guy's better, because if not then they're finished.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Game 1: Royals Rally as Mets Melt Down

The Royals celebrate their walk-off win in Game 1 (ABC News)
Well, the World Series is certainly off to a great start.
I have to admit, I wasn't too excited about this year's Fall Classic. I didn't read the standard previews or carefully compare the two rosters. I simultaneously want both teams to win while not caring deeply about who ultimately prevails. I just don't have a dog in this fight.
But after last night, I think I might be getting sucked in. I was in New York yesterday on business, and I could feel the electricity in the air as I traversed downtown Manhattan. I passed throngs of New Yorkers donning blue Mets caps, wrapped in Mets jackets, and walking a little taller knowing their team is possibly championship-bound. I also noticed the kind of nervous faces and hurried walks that only manifest themselves when your team is on the eve of its biggest game of the season.
I'm sure the Mets and Royals were in a similar state as Game 1 approached. After spending all day watching rain fall on Kaufmann Stadium, they had no idea if they'd get to play. Thankfully they did, as the Mets and Royals proceeded to play one of the most thrilling World Series games of my lifetime.
Seriously, it was some game. An instant classic from the start.
We should have known we were in for a special night four batters into the game. Leading off the bottom of the first, Alcides Escobar launched Matt Harvey's first pitch of the evening into the left-center field gap. Yoenis Cespedes--a corner outfielder moonlighting in center--caught up to the ball but did not catch it. Left fielder Michael Conforto was converging on the play as well, creating some confusion as to whose ball it was. Neither called for it so Cespedes didn't get his glove up until it was too late, allowing the ball to land at his feet.
Still running full speed towards the wall, he compounded his mistake by kicking the ball, which bounced off the fence and skidded away from both Mets outfielders. By the time Conforto caught up to it in left field, Escobar was already rounding third and heading for home. He made it in standing up, without a throw, and when he crossed home plate he'd completed the 12th inside the park home run in World Series history--the first since 1929.
If you're the Mets, that's the worst possible way to start the World Series. After not trailing once in the NLCS, you find yourself down after one pitch and a play that should have been made. Plus you're on the road, and now 40,000 Royals fans are up and cheering before they've even had time to settle into their seats.
But New York didn't panic, didn't unravel after committing such a costly mistake to start the game. Harvey settled down, keeping Kansas City off the board until the sixth, by which point the Mets had gone ahead 3-1.
After five, New York appeared to be cruising. Not only were they winning, but Harvey had thrown just 62 pitches. He was on a roll, having retired the last 11 Royals in a row, and appeared to have a few more innings in him. In the Mets dugout, Terry Collins was hopeful he wouldn't have to call upon his shaky middle relievers in this one.
Escobar flies around the bases on his historic homer (NBC Sports)
That dream quickly came to an end, however, as Harvey immediately got himself into trouble. Ben Zobrist drilled his first pitch of the inning for a double, and Lorenzo Cain followed with a single that put runners on the corners. Hosmer hit an 0-2 pitch deep to center, and while it stayed in the yard it was still plenty deep enough to plate Zobrist.
Then, on what might have been the biggest play of the game, Cain stole second to put himself in scoring position. That proved huge when, after Kendrys Morales grounded out to Harvey, Mike Moustakas roped a single back up the middle to score Cain and tie the game.
It didn't look like it would matter when the Mets re-took the lead in the top of the eighth, pulling ahead 4-3 on Eric Hosmer's untimely error. That set the stage for a dramatic ninth inning, another showcase for Kanas City's incredible resilience.
The indomitable Jeurys Familia had already recorded two outs, needing just two more to nail down the victory for New York.  The Royals' chances of winning the game had been reduced to 11 percent.
These numbers apparently mean nothing to Kansas City, however, because the less likely they are to win the better they play. No matter how dire the situation gets, they always find a way to come back from the dead.
Fortunately for the Royals, they had their best player up in this critical moment--Alex Gordon. But Gordon is not really a slugger--he had just 13 home runs this year and 19 last year--and the Royals hadn't cleared the fences all night. They seemed unlikely to do so now, against a pitcher who had not allowed a run this postseason after posting a 1.85 ERA during the regular season.
But nobody's impenetrable come playoff time, not even Mariano Rivera. Gordon put a good swing on Familia's third offering of the at-bat and drove it out to center field, the deepest part of the ballpark. At first it looked like defensive replacement Juan Lagares might have a play, but the ball kept carrying, and carrying, until it carried right over the wall. Just like that, it was a brand new ballgame. Kansas City was still alive.
The game went into extra innings, and both teams began emptying out their bullpens. The 10th inning passed without any score, and so did the 11th. Nobody scored in the 12th, either. The 13th came and went, and still the score was knotted at 4-4.
By the middle of the 14th, both teams appeared to be dragging. The game was nearing the five hour mark, which meant both teams had exhausted their adrenaline supplies long ago. They'd spent their top relievers, too; Bartolo Colon was in the game now, ready to pitch until sunrise if he had to. It was after one in the morning, far too late (early?) to be playing baseball.
So the Royals ended it, right then and there. They got an assist from David Wright, whose throwing error allowed Escobar to reach safely with nobody out. Zobrist knocked a single--his third hit of the game--into right field, sending Escobar to third. Colon intentionally walked Cain to load the bases, setting up a force play at any base.
That brought up Hosmer, who'd helped key Kansas City's sixth inning rally but also made the miscue that nearly cost them the game. Now he had the chance to be the hero, the guy who finally ended this thing once and for all.
Thankfully he did, lifting a fly ball to right that scored Escobar easily. Curtis Granderson, with his noodle arm, never had a chance. Had it been Cespedes out there (Collins had moved him to left), there would have been a bang-bang play at the plate. Both teams might still be playing.
Based on the box score's symmetry, they probably would be. They scored the same amount of runs through 13 innings and wound up with equal numbers of hits and errors. Both teams hit one out-of-the-park home run. Matt Harvey and Edinson Volquez produced nearly identical pitching lines. Both bullpens performed admirably, but in the end Kansas City's superior relievers won out.
Going into this series the two contestants seemed evenly matched, and that's even more true today. The Mets will look to even the Series behind Jacob deGrom tonight, while the Royals will try to take a 2-0 lead to New York with Johnny Cueto on the hill. In a matchup of aces, we should be in for another nailbiter, but it will be tough to top last night's game.
I can tell you one thing; I'll be watching to find out.

Hunter Hangs 'Em Up

Hunter is retiring after a nice final season with the Twins (MLive)
After a stellar and tremendously consistent 19-year career, Torii Hunter is calling it quits.

Hunter had returned to the Minnesota Twins--who drafted him out of high school and watched him develop into one of the best center fielders of his generation--on a one-year deal for 2015. While he didn't explicitly say so, it was assumed he intended to retire as a member of the Twins, whom he played for from 1997-2007. He was going to be 40 in July, and while he'd been productive the last couple years one get the sense that his career was winding down. Why else would he want to come home?

Especially since the Twins have been terrible the last few years. When guys get to be Hunter's age and haven't won a ring yet, they usually want to go where they'll have a chance to do so. A popular, respected player with some juice left in his bat like Hunter could have latched on almost anywhere, had he been willing to take a discount. In need of a bat and veteran leadership for its up-and-coming team, Minnesota paid him above market value to come back.

It seemed like a sentimental move more than anything else. Hunter had been replacement level in 2014 and figured to be worse in 2015. That's nobody's idea of a $10 million player. But if anyone could afford to give a former star one last victory lap, the Twins could. With so much young talent to break in, Minnesota wasn't ready to contend.

As it turned out, the team and Hunter were both much better than expected. The Twins surprised everyone by finishing second in the AL Central, pursuing a wild card berth until the season's final week. Hunter hit 22 home runs--his most in a season since 2011--and played 139 games.

It was a fitting farewell for Hunter, one of the best and most popular Twins of all-time. Drafted by Minnesota in 1993, he made the big club in 1997 alongside David Ortiz, who like Hunter kept hitting throughout his entire 30s.

Also like Ortiz, it took Hunter a few years to get going. He didn't break out until he was 25, by which point he was in his fifth season--but once he did he never looked back. He hit 27 home runs and won his first of nine straight Gold Gloves that year (2001), made his first All-Star team and finished sixth in the MVP vote the following year, and had his first 100 RBI season the year after that. Nicknamed "Spiderman" for his amazing catches, he was quietly one of the best players of the 2000s, racking up eight Gold Gloves and topping 20 homers eight times (11 in all).

By the end of the decade he was an Angel, having moved on after a big walk year in 2007. When Vladimir Guerrero departed he moved over to right, which no doubt extended his career. He'd shown signs of slowing down in his last season as an everyday center fielder, batting .262 with his worst slugging percentage in over a decade.

But before long LA's outfield became too crowded for him, with Mike Trout taking over in center and Josh Hamilton signing on. Hunter found a home in Detroit, where he had two near-identical offensive campaings in 2013 and 2014.

It was towards the end of his first year with the Tigers that he was involved in what may be the most memorable play of his career. It was Game 2 of the ALCS and Boston, and Detroit led 5-1 in the bottom of the eighth. The bases were loaded and David Ortiz, Hunter's old teammate, stood at the plate, facing fresh reliever (Joaquin Benoit) summoned to extinguish the flames.

Ortiz turned on Benoit's first pitch and belted it deep into the night. 37,000 cold, tired fans leapt from their seats as the ball rocketed towards the right field bullpen. Hunter raced back to the wall and leapt, his glove hand stretched as high as it could go. Hunter had robbed many a would-be home run before, and it looked like he might do so again. He timed his leap perfectly, but without time to set his feet  he slammed into the wall, then flipped over it as his momentum carried him out of play. The ball followed him into the bullpen, having just cleared his outstretched mitt.

The game was tied, and within a matter of hours, so was the series. The Red Sox went on to win in six, then proceeded to beat the Cardinals in the World Series. Had Hunter made the catch, Detroit would have won the game and probably the series. It could have been them celebrating after defeating St. Louis. And Hunter, of course, would have been the hero for robbing a would-be game-tying grand slam.

Instead, he retires with the best play of his career occurring in an All-Star Game. It was a superb play, to be sure, but I guarantee Hunter would trade it in a heartbeat for the ALCS grab, especially since he nearly killed himself trying to make it.

But not even that could slow him down. Nothing ever did.

Oh sure, he lost range over time as all mortals do. His defense inevitably slipped, forcing him over to right field and eventually DH. But even as he became a non-factor on the bases and a liability in the field, he remained a threat in the batter's box.

It's rare that centerfielders age as well as Hunter did. I think of Mickey Mantle, Dale Murphy, and Ken Griffey Jr., all of whom broke down in their 30s. Same goes for Andruw Jones, Vada Pinson, Fred Lynn, and Cesar Cedeno. Jim Edmonds couldn't stay healthy. All that running and crashing into walls usually catches up to you.

Not Hunter. He had pretty much the same season every year for 15 years. He'd bat around .280 with 20 homers, 20 steals, and 90 or so RBI. Like clockwork. There were a couple years where he got hurt--in 2005 he was limited to 98 games and in 2009 played only 119--but for the most part he was in the lineup everyday.

You know whose career Hunter's reminds me a lot of? Johnny Damon's. They were never really great, All-Star caliber players, let alone serious MVP candidates, but they were really good for a long time and held up surprisingly well. They played on some terrific teams and were usually in the postseason. They were pretty indestructible, too.

Hunter wasn't quite as good as Damon, but he had a better career than most people realize. His counting numbers are actually very similar to Jim Rice's. He surpassed 350 homers and fell just short of some other big round numbers like 2,500 hits, 500 doubles, 200 stolen bases, 1,400 RBI, and 1,300 runs. Not quite Hall of Fame numbers, but Hall of Very Good for sure.

Most impressively, Hunter went out on his own terms, not because of injury or as some washed up bum on a team he didn't care about. He got to retire as a healthy contributor for his original team after a year in which they almost made the postseason. It's not the perfect final chapter, but it's still a happy ending.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Mantle vs. Mays

Mays was better, but for a while it was too close to call (
For many years during the 1950s and well into the 1960s, Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were the best center fielders in their respective leagues, if not the two best players in baseball. Throughout the first halves of their careers, before Mays' Giants moved to San Francisco, they were frequently compared with Duke Snider, the talented center fielder of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Snider and Mays both departed New York after the 1957 season, and while Snider was never again the superstar he'd been in Brooklyn, Mays flourished on the West Coast. He and Mantle were widely regarded as the best all-around players in baseball, and upon retiring found themselves on the short list of not just the best center fielders of all time (along with Tris Speaker and Mantle's one-time teammate Joe DiMaggio), but the best players period.

There's no question as to which one was better. That would clearly be Mays, who many consider the best ballplayer not named Babe Ruth. He was just as good as if not better than Mantle in his prime and lasted longer, which explains his advantage of nearly 50 bWAR.

But for a long time, Mantle hung in there. Despite the injuries, his offensive numbers were on par with Mays's and because Mantle walked more, he was a significantly better hitter. Mays was a much better baserunner and fielder, but as a total package Mantle was very nearly his equal.

Here are their stats from 1951 through 1964:
Mays:    8,002 PA 1,379 R 453 HR 1,290 RBI .313/.388/.589 161 OPS+ 109 bWAR 78.8 WAA
Mantle: 7,979 PA 1,472 R 454 HR 1,298 RBI .309/.429/.582 177 OPS+ 97.8 bWAR 73.5 WAA

After 1964, however, Mantle could no longer keep up. The Mick faded fast, becoming a .250 hitter with 20-homer power over his final four seasons. Mays remained a superstar for several more years, copping his second MVP with 52 dingers in 1965 and putting together a nine-win season in '66. He continued to be a solidly above average player into the early '70s, several years after Mantle retired, before hanging up his spikes after the 1973 campaign.

Many, myself included, maintain that Mantle was actually a hair better than Mays before he broke down. Are they right? Let's take a closer look, going year-by-year to determine which one was better.

1951 Mays
Both had massive expectations place on them from the start and, as 19 year-olds usually do, hit rough patches early on in their rookie campaigns. Mays famously went 1-for-his-first-26 (albeit with a home run off Warren Spahn) and became so discouraged that Leo Durocher promised Mays would remain the starting center fielder for the rest of the season to revive his confidence. Mantle was demoted in mid-July to New York's minor league affiliate in Kansas City, where he remained for six weeks and nearly quit before his father talked some sense into him.

Both rebounded from their early slumps. Mays caught fire in June (1.041 OPS) and July (10 home runs) en route to winning the NL Rookie of the Year award and helping the Giants overtake the Dodgers in a wild pennant race. Mantle rejoined the Yankees in late August in time for the stretch run and hit well enough to reclaim his spot at the top of the order. As fate would have it, the dynamic duo met up in the World Series. The Bombers, in the midst of claiming five straight titles, prevailed despite a gruesome knee injury suffered by Mantle when he caught his spikes in an outfield drainage ditch trying to make a play on a fly ball, a fly ball hit by none other than Willie Mays.

Statistically, Mays outproduced Mantle in almost every offensive category. Granted, part of that was because Mays played 25 more games, but even so he outslashed Mantle in average, OBP, and slugging, producing an OPS 36 points higher than Mickey's .792 mark. Combined with his plus defense in center field (Mantle played the less challenging position of right field with DiMaggio still patrolling center), Willie was worth almost four wins above replacement, more than double Mantle's 1.5.
Mantle and Mays faced each other in two World Series. Mantle's Yankees won both (Bama Media)
1954 Mays
Following a two-year hiatus in the Army, Mays returned to baseball a full-blown superstar. He more than doubled his home run output from his rookie year, improved his OPS by 250 points and scored more than twice as many runs. Mays made his first All-Star team and was voted league MVP after leading the majors in batting (.345), slugging (.667), and bWAR (10.6) while also pacing the NL in triples, OPS, and OPS+. To top it all off, he led the Giants to a World Series victory over the heavily-favored Cleveland Indians, winners of 111 games during the regular season.

Mantle, who'd developed into a great player while Mays was gone, continued to improve in his fourth season. In addition to batting .300 for the second time and exceeding a .400 OBP and 100 RBI for the first, he set career highs in nearly every category and scored an ML-best 129 runs.  The Mick was tremendous, worth almost seven wins, but Mays was playing in a different stratosphere that year.

1955 Mays
Very, very close this time around. Both B-R and FanGraphs give Mantle the slight edge in WAR, rating him closer to 10 while pegging Mays at nine exactly, but frankly I can't see how. Mays was arguably better in his MVP encore, leading the majors with 13 triples, 51 homers, 382 total bases, a .659 slugging, and a 1.059 OPS. Mantle was outstanding in his own right, emerging as a true superstar by leading the AL in triples, big flies, OBP, slugging, and OPS, as well as both leagues in OPS+ and bWAR.

Mays definitely had the bigger offensive season, however, compensating for Mantle's 31 point advantage in OBP with 14 additional home runs, 28 more RBI and a slugging percentage some 48 points higher. Mays also stole three times as many bases as Mantle and was already regarded as the best center fielder in the game after making "The Catch" the previous October. Advantage: Mays.

1956 Mantle
'56 was Mantle's signature season, a gem of a campaign that saw him win the major league triple crown and pile up 11.3 bWAR in addition to leading baseball in runs, runs created, total bases, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, WAR, extra base hits, and times on base. When the dust settled, he'd led the Yankees to another World Series championship, won his first MVP award (unanimously), and endeared himself to a new generation of Yankee fans with a season comparable to the best of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio. Mays, with 36 home runs, a major league leading 40 steals, and 7.6 bWAR, was also terrific, but Mantle was legendary.

1957 Mantle
In his final season in New York (before returning as a Met 15 years later), Mays won his first of 12 straight Gold Gloves. He also treated the fans to some impressive offensive statistics, slugging 35 home runs and a ML-leading 20 triples to go along with his 38 steals (also tops in the bigs) and a 1.033 OPS, good for the best OPS+ (173) in the National League. 

But Mantle, in some respects, had an even better year than his Triple Crown campaign. Not only did he bat a career-best .365 with a .512 OBP (fueled by 146 walks--most in the majors), but he also posted the highest OPS (1.177) and OPS+ (221) of his career. WAR says Mantle's '57 was every bit as valuable as the season that preceded it, and the voters agreed, giving him his second straight MVP trophy despite an otherworldly season by Ted Williams (.388/.526/.731 with 38 homers).
So with a three-bWAR edge over Mays, Mantle wins easily.

1958 Mantle
The Say Hey Kid's first season out west was a good one, as he batted .347/.419/.583 for a league-best 1.002 OPS and 165 OPS+. While his 29 homers were his fewest since his rookie season, he made up for it with personal bests in batting average and hits (208) as well as leading the majors in stolen bases again (with 31). His second season worth at least 10 bWAR was only good enough for second in the NL MVP race, however, as voters elected Ernie Banks (9.4 bWAR) and his prodigious power totals at shortstop.

Mantle fell back to earth a bit after his insane 1956 and 1957 seasons, but still clobbered a league-high 42 home runs, batted over .300, and worked more walks/scored more runs than anybody else in baseball. Despite batting 43 points lower than Mays, he still held significant advantages in OBP (24 points) and slugging (nine points), not to mention the best OPS+ in baseball at 188. That's why I'm giving the edge to him even though bWAR estimates Mays was worth about 1.5 more wins to his team. With Mantle clearly the better hitter and almost Mays' equal on the bases (he was a very efficient 18 for 21 in stolen base attempts), I'm not going to be swayed by unreliable defensive metrics.

1959 Mays
1959 was a major disappointment for Mantle and the Yankees, who finished only four games above .500 and failed to win the pennant for only the second time since Casey Stengel took over. The Mick suffered his worst season since 1953, hitting "only" 31 home runs with "only" 75 RBI. Those numbers would have been more palatable to Yankee fans had he not led the major leagues in whiffs with 126 (a career-high) and batted .285--his worst mark since his rookie season.
While '59 was a down year for Mickey, it was business as usual for Mays, who won another Gold Glove, slugged 34 home runs, drove in 104, and stole a league-high 27 bases in 31 attempts. Add it all up and Mays was worth over a full win more than Mantle, even though their offensive output was almost dead-even (Mays had a 156 OPS+ to Mantle's AL-best 151).
Mantle and Mays squared off in the first ever home run derby. Mantle won
1960 Mays
Offensively, Mays and Mantle were about dead-even in the first year of the '60s, with perhaps the slight edge going to Mantle. By this point, however, Mays was the much better fielder and baserunner, which means on the whole he was more valuable. This is bored out by bWAR, which puts Mays at 9.5--a full three wins better than Mantle's 6.3. Both players endured "down" years by their lofty standards, with Mays failing to reach 30 home runs for the second time in three years and Mantle batting .275 with a league-high 125 strikeouts. I'm nitpicking, of course, but I'm sure both players would tell you that 1960 wasn't their best.

1961 Mantle
Mays boosted his power numbers considerably in his second year at the 'Stick, generating his most home runs (40) and RBI (123) since his monster 1955 campaign and raising his slugging percentage nearly 30 points.

Even with the power spike, he still fell well short of Mantle, who along with teammate Roger Maris challenged Babe Ruth's hallowed single-season home run record. Mantle fell short at 54, but still led the majors in walks (126), slugging (.687) and bWAR (10.5). So feared was the Mick that Maris, despite launching 61 homers himself, did not receive a single intentional walk in 1961, for he spent most of the season batting in front of Mantle.

1962 Mays
Mantle may have won his third MVP but Mays eclipsed him in almost every category. Mantle had the superior rate stats, batting an obscene .321/.486/.605 (195 OPS+), but he also missed roughly a quarter of the season, which limited his value to about six wins. Mays, on the other hand, played 162 of a possible 165 regular season games, racking up personal bests in runs (130), RBI (141), and total bases (382) as well as 49 home runs--most in the majors. Mays was worth an incredible 10.5 bWAR that year, and yet somehow did not win MVP (voters gave it to Maury Wills, who shattered Ty Cobb's single season stolen base record that year).

Mantle got the best of Mays in that year's Fall Classic, which featured the Yankees and Giants in a rematch of the 1951 Series. New York won in seven despite Mantle's mediocre .120/.241/.160 performance. Perhaps the Giants would have won--they lost Game 7 by one run, had Mays done more than bat .250/.276/.321 with zero home runs and one RBI.

1963 Mays
Mantle seriously injured himself, missing almost 100 games after breaking his foot in a nasty collision with a chain-link fence. He was terrific when he did play, replicating his 1962 production, but Mays stayed healthy so there was no discussion.

1964 Mays
'64 was Mantle's last great season, yielding 35 homer runs and 111 RBI as well as the best OBP (.423), OPS (1.015) and adjusted OPS (177) in baseball. But Mays was right there with him, knocking in the same number of runs, socking 12 more home runs, leading the major leagues in slugging percentage at .607 and posting the NL's best raw (.990) and adjusted (172) OPS. Mays was much better in the field and on the bases at this point as well, with 19 steals to Mantle's six and Gold Glove defense in center compared to Mantle's abysmal defense. All said, Mays was worth more than twice as many bWAR (11.1) as Mantle (4.8), making him the obvious choice here.

After 1964, Mays vs. Mantle was no longer a debate. Age, injuries, and alcohol pushed Mantle over the cliff, as he batted just .254 over his final four seasons while averaging just 20 home runs and 53 RBI per season. Mays took much better care of himself, and thus aged more gracefully, winning his second MVP in 1965 and compiling almost 31 bWAR from 1964-1968. Their teams endured similar fates, as the Yankees plummeted to the second division while the Giants remained one of the best teams in baseball.

One can only wonder how Mantle's closing act would have played out had he stayed healthy and avoided the bottle. Based on how close the above comparisons are, I can't imagine it would have been much different from Mays.

Expanding Cooperstown's Circle

Simmons really should be in the Hall of Fame (I70 Baseball)
Interesting piece over at the Hardball Times got me thinking about the Hall of Fame, which I usually don't do for a few more months (when the ballots come out). Anyways, I thought it was cool how balanced the Hall is in regards to the number of players represented at each position. John pointed out that two positions--catcher and third base--are significantly underrepresented in Cooperstown, however, with just 16 enshrined at each position compared to the 21-24 at every other position (excluding pitchers).

I guess that's not too surprising when you think about it. Backstops tend to have shorter careers and their counting numbers are suppressed due to the toll catching takes on their bodies. On top of that, they typically can't play full seasons due to the off-days catching demands. Plus, until recently, we didn't have a good way of measuring defense at the position beyond caught stealing rates and passed balls. Pitch framing data has completely changed the way we evaluate catchers, but for a long time all we had to go on was the eye test.

As for the hot corner, well, it's a tricky position. It's not as tough to play as second base or shortstop, but still considerably harder than first base. As such, the men who play it are generally better hitters than up-the-middle guys, but not as big and strong as corner outfielders and first basemen. A third baseman needs to be a good hitter and a good fielder, a pretty rare combination.

All this got me wondering, if we were to elect five more players at each spot to make at least 21 Hall of Famers at every position, who would/should go in? That is, who are the five most deserving players at each position who are eligible but have yet to be elected? I have ranked my choices in order from most deserving to least.

I feel very strongly that Piazza will be elected this year. It's his fourth time on the ballot, and after starting out at 57.8% he's risen to 62.2% and 69.9%. If he makes a similar jump this year--let's split the different and say six percent--he'll have just enough support to clear the 75% threshold. With his former team making the World Series this year, I think he'll get the requisite boost.

Honestly, though, it's a bit ridiculous that Piazza hasn't been elected already. I mean, he was the greatest hitting catcher of all-time. His numbers are outstanding for any position, but for a catcher they're off the charts. Sure, he played in the best era for offense since the Great Depression, but he also spent his entire career in brutal pitcher's parks. That's why, if you neutralize his numbers, they barely change, dipping ever so slightly from .308/.377/.545 to .304/.371/.537. The time has come to give Piazza--the fifth-best catcher by JAWs and sixth-best per fWAR--his due.

For the life of me, I still can't figure out why Simmons hasn't made the Hall of Fame, much less how he lasted just one year on the ballot. By JAWS and FanGraphs, he's one of the 10 best catchers ever. Only Ivan Rodriguez amassed more hits and doubles among backstops, and only Yogi Berra knocked in more runs. And Simmons wasn't just a compiler, either; from 1971-1980 he averaged .301/.367/.466 (131 OPS+) with 17 home runs and 90 RBI per season. The only reason I can think of for why he's been so criminally underrated are that he starred on terrible Cardinals teams in the 1970s, which also coincided with a golden age for catchers. People just forgot about him.

Throughout his 15-year career, Freehan was the pre-eminent catcher in the American League, if not all of baseball. He made 10 straight All-Star trips from 1964-1973, then added an 11th in 1975. He won five consecutive Gold Gloves to close out the '60s, earning a third-place MVP finish in 1967 and placing runner-up to teammate Denny McLain the following year. Freehan was everything you could want out of a catcher; durable, good defender, hit for power, and had a good batting eye. Had he not declined so rapidly after turning 30 he'd probably be in the Hall of Fame today.

Along with Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker, Parrish is one of the forgotten stars from the great Detroit teams of the 1980s. He was well decorated during his playing days, making eight All-Star teams and winning three straight Gold Gloves. The six-time Silver Slugger recipient had phenomenal pop for a backstop, exceeding 20 homers in a season seven times and belting 19 two other times. He finished his career with 324 round-trippers in all--tied with Gary Carter for fifth all-time among catchers. He also knocked in over 1,000 runs, something 11 catchers have ever done. His numbers might look even better had he never suffered the sore back that cut short his 1986 season--which was shaping up to be one of his best--and hindered him for the rest of his career.

It seems pretty clear to me that Munson was on the Hall of Fame track before his life was tragically cut short in a plane crash. He'd been the American League's top catcher during the 1970s, making seven All-Star teams and winning three Gold Gloves along with two World Series rings. Had he not taken to the skies that fateful day, he likely would have finished his career with more than 2,000 hits (probably closer to 2,500, actually) and close to 60 bWAR. Unfortunately, we will never know.
Allen fell one vote shy of election in his most recent turn on the ballot (CSN Philly)
3B (I'm excluding Edgar Martinez because most people view him as a DH)
I've argued Allen's case too many times in this space to do so again, but basically it boils down to this; if he hadn't been such a jerk, I think he would have been inducted a long time ago. He was the Manny Ramirez or Albert Belle of the 1960s and '70s--unlikable, bad defense, sour attitude and a terrible teammate, but man, he was one hell of a hitter.

One of the best defensive third basemen of all-time, Nettles deserved to win more than two Gold Gloves. Alas, he spent the first half of his career in the shadow of Brooks Robinson, and the second half of it in Buddy Bell's. He was a much better hitter than both of them, though, slugging 390 home runs. He can also claim to be the best position player of the 1970s who never played for the Reds, ranking third in fWAR for the decade behind only Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan.

Boyer was basically Ron Santo before Ron Santo. Had he gotten an earlier start (military service delayed his career) or not completely fallen apart in his mid-30s (and thus remained an integral part of the 1967-'68 Cardinals squads), we'd probably hold him in higher regard. As it were he had nine wonderful seasons, but for most people that's not enough.

Buddy Bell
Bell was a ridiculously good defender, possibly the best at the hot corner not named Brooks Robinson. He was no slouch with the stick, either, accruing over 2,500 hits, 200 homers, and a 109 OPS+ for his career. He also had a better peak than most people realize, averaging just under six bWAR per season from 1978-1984. Bell wasn't a good baserunner and didn't have great power, finishing his career with a .127 ISO and more unsuccessful stolen base attempts than successful ones, but still cleared 60 career WAR for both B-R and FG.

Evans was the rare three-true outcomes type of third-sacker, blasting 414 home runs and logging a .361 OBP in spite of his .248 batting average. In that sense Evans was ahead of his time, for he surely would have been better appreciated today than he was during the '70s and '80s, when people griped about his low batting average. He actually didn't strike out that much--1,410 times in 21 seasons, which works out to be 67 per season. Nowadays guys strike out twice as often and hit half as many homers, so go figure.

Flex: Joe Torre
Torre's already in the Hall of Fame as a manager, but you could certainly make the case he deserved to go in as a player long ago. He had a sneaky good peak where he was one of the best players in baseball during the 1960s and early '70s. As with several others on this list, longevity was an issue, but he doesn't get anywhere close to the credit his playing record deserves.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Royals Return to Series

They're baaaaack (image courtesy of the Guardian)
The Kansas City Royals came within one game of winning it all last year. Now they're back to finish the job.

I still can't believe Kansas City is in the World Series--again. Last year seemed like such a fluke, from their crazy comeback against Oakland in the wild card game to stunning sweeps in the ALDS and ALCS. Were it not for Madison Bumgarner, they would've beaten the Giants, too. They'd overachieved by leaps and bounds, especially considering they'd only outscored opponents by 27 runs during the regular season.

That's why this year, I didn't see the Royals going .500 and certainly not getting back to the World Series. They hadn't been very good to start with and seemed due for serious regression, especially after losing James Shields and Billy Butler to free agency and spending what little money they had on guys who weren't very good (Alex Rios? Edinson Volquez? Kendrys Morales?). Compared to other teams, they were dangerously low on star power. Furthermore, Kansas City's strengths--speed, bullpen, and defense--are highly volatile, making its success more difficult to sustain.

Once again, however, everything fell into place for the Royals. Their new pickups (minus Rios) played well, and their bullpen was even stingier than it was last year. Lorenzo Cain emerged as an MVP candidate, while Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas finally started living up to their potential. They were aided by trade deadline reinforcements in Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist. Their defense remained airtight.

It also helped that the rest of their division cleared a path for them. The Tigers finally broke down, the Indians failed to take the next step, and the Twins and White Sox both fizzled out. That enabled the Royals to not only win AL Central handily, by a dozen games, but also helped them secure the best record in the American League and homefield advantage throughout the playoffs. That's been huge for Kansas City, who have won five straight at home since dropping Game 1 of the ALDS to Houston.

Now, for the second time in as many years, Kansas City will host the World Series. Once again, the Royals will have to go through some tough pitching, though this time there will be no Bumgarner standing in their way. Instead, they'll need to overcome Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, and Noah Syndergaard, three fireballers who will put their contact skills to the test. They'll also have to find a way to neutralize Daniel Murphy, something nobody's been able to do thus far.

I think the Mets have more talent and are more dangerous, especially because their starting pitching is so superior. Their offense has also been ridiculously hot over the past three months, which if it continues will force Kansas City's starters early from the game and take their relievers out of play. That being said, I do think the Royals have a more balanced team and deeper lineup, so it won't be a cakewalk for New York. Mets in six.