Thursday, November 26, 2015

Longoria Losing Power and Patience

Longoria's suffered two down years in a row when he should be in his prime (TBO)
For the first six years of his career, Evan Longoria was the best position player in baseball. Despite losing over a year's worth of games to injury, his combination of elite glovework at third base and a top-shelf bat made him a superstar when healthy.

Then 2014 happened. Injuries weren't the issue, as Longoria played all 162 games for the first time, but his production cratered. He'd been so good up to that point, though, and he was only 28, so it looked like nothing more than an off-year. Surely Tampa Bay's $100 million third baseman would bounce back.

He didn't. His numbers improved slightly, but his 2015 was essentially the same as his 2014. Once again he was healthy, appearing in all but two games, so injury-woes were not to blame. That made two down years in a row for Longoria, in what were supposed to be his prime years.

I don't have to tell you that unless there's a career-altering injury involved, great athletes typically don't get dramatically worse during their late 20s. Oftentimes, many get better. They're still young enough to be in their physical primes, but experienced enough to have acclimated to major league competition. These are supposed to be an athlete's greatest seasons.

For Evan Longoria, they have been his worst.

Longoria has had a weird career. When he debuted at 22 in 2008, he was mostly a finished product, winning Rookie of the Year unanimously and blasting 27 homers. He only improved from there, looking like a surefire MVP for years to come as he entered his mid-20s. All he had to do was take his game a little bit higher.

He never did. Injuries caused him to miss 117 games between 2011 and 2012, his age-25 and -26 seasons. He came back strong in 2013, playing 160 games and finishing sixth in the AL MVP vote, but his production had plateaued. Longoria was still a great player, just not quite the dominant force he seemed poised to become.

Over the last couple years, however, Longoria has slipped from a great player to a merely good one, declining in all facets of the game. The two-time Gold Glove winner hasn't won since 2010, with metrics now suggesting he's much closer to an average fielder than the vacuum cleaner he was previously. His baserunning has also fallen off considerably. While never a burner, he was an asset on the basepaths through the first three years of his career, stealing 31 bases in 36 attempts and providing a full win's worth of value over an average runner. In the five years since, he's managed just 14 steals and been four runs worse than average on the bases, providing positive value with his legs in just one year.

Defense and speed peak early, however, so it's not surprising that Longoria's lost some of both as he's advanced into his late 20s. What's concerning is how he's become a league average hitter after previously producing like David Ortiz.

How did Longoria fall so far, so fast? A major red flag is his plummeting walk rate, which has declined every year since 2011. Once a very patient hitter, he's now drawing free passes at a roughly league average rate. Longoria's chasing, and hitting, more pitches outside the zone than ever before, which explains both his eroding walk rates and hard-hit frequencies. He's swinging more in general, too, which wouldn't be a bad thing if he hadn't started hacking at so many non-strikes.

It could be that Longoria's new aggression is in response to seeing more first pitch strikes than ever before. Part of that's due to the larger strike zone, but it's also likely that pitchers have recognized Longoria's willingness to let the first offering go by. In 2015 the league hit just .225/.265/.344 after falling behind 0-1. Longoria isn't much better, batting .234/.277/.388 for his career after first pitch strikes. Since he's seeing more of those, it follows that his numbers have nosedived. And since he's on the defensive more often, he has to chase more often, thus explaining the loss of patience.

What's really troubling, though, is Longoria's loss of power. After averaging 33 home runs per 162 games with a .237 ISO through his first six seasons, he's averaged just 22 with a .158 ISO over the past two. His doubles were down too, from 41 per 162 games to 31, so it's not like he was just getting unlucky with his HR/FB rates (though those are down too).

The reason for Longoria's diminished power is simple (and one I alluded to earlier); he's not hitting the ball as hard as he used to. The only time he had a worse hard-hit % than he did the last two years was in his injury-hampered 2011. Meanwhile, his soft contact rate nearly doubled from 2013 to 2015, and his medium contact rate is up as well (the only time it was higher; 2009). This data, along with his rising pop-up rates, suggest he's not squaring up the ball as well as he used to. That's a side effect of hacking, to be sure, but he also might be losing strength and bat speed as he ages.

Longoria's career seems to be following the same path as David Wright's. Both peaked early and were at their best in their mid-20s, looking like future Hall of Famers. Then their performance started dropping off in their late 20s, because of injuries with Wright and the reasons outlined above with Longoria. Wright has yet to recapture the consistent greatness he exhibited through his first five seasons, and it seems unlikely that Longoria--who just turned 30 last month--will either.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Cano Can Still Rake

Cano collapsed in the first half last year (Fox Sports)
Apparently, Robinson Cano isn't happy in Seattle. Good thing he only has eight years to go on his current contract, which he signed prior to the 2014 season. Last time I checked, the Mariners were giving him 240 million reasons to be very, very happy.

Maybe it's because they haven't made the playoffs since he got there (they recently fired their GM, so there's a lot of uncertainty around the team right now, too). Maybe the weather's getting him down. Maybe he hates Starbucks.

I don't know. All I know is, happy or not, he's continued to produce. Even when he has one of the worst first halves I've ever seen.

Somehow, he still ended up with tremendous numbers. Somehow, he righted the ship after taking on water for three months. Cano has always been a better second-half hitter, but he'd never had a first half as ugly as this.

It all began innocently enough, with a tough opening week for the All-Star second baseman. Seeing as how plenty of players start slow--they're still getting their timing back and adjusting to better quality pitching than they faced in spring training--nobody noticed. They certainly couldn't have known it was the start of a three-month malaise.

That bad first week quickly snowballed into a bad first month, which saw Cano hit just .253/.292/.374 with one home run and six RBI in April. It was his worst April since 2008--his worst season--so that should have been a sign that his struggles were far from over.

At the time, though, it seemed to be nothing more than a slow start. Cano had been so consistently good for so long, enjoying a decade of uninterrupted brilliance (excluding '08), that his poor April barely registered. Anyone can have a bad month--it just so happened that Cano's was the first one, when there are no other stats to mask it. Besides, his month wasn't even that bad. Sandwiched in between a pair of sluggish weeks was an 11-game hit streak, over which he batted .409. He'd be fine. Did I mention that Cano usually starts slow?

His May was even worse. After starting to pull out of his funk in early May, Cano went ice-cold, batting his weight with just two extra base hits over the month's final three weeks. When the calendar flipped to June, Cano's slash stats were even worse than when May began. A third of the season had passed, and he had two home runs and 16 RBI to show for it.

By this point the fans and media were growing restless. "What was wrong with Cano?" they asked. "Where had his power gone?" "Am I crazy to drop him like a hot potato from my fantasy team?"

Historically, April and May have been the worst months of Cano's career, so there was hope that he'd get back to his old self in June, especially as the weather warmed. At the very least, positive regression to the mean would give him a boost. He couldn't possibly be any worse.

Except that he was. Cano had almost as many hitless games (11) as games with hits (14), which dragged his average down below .240. He struck out 22 times against a mere four walks. And his once prodigious power? Nowhere to be found.

It was incomprehensible that a perfectly healthy Cano could enter July hitting just .238/.277/.344 with four home runs and 24 RBI. Alarm bells were going off everywhere. His power had evaporated, he was striking out more than ever before, and his walks were down. This wasn't just a slump--this was a 32 year-old second baseman falling off a cliff. Dave Cameron said as much when he wrote Cano had the lowest trade value in baseball.
Cano flipped a switch in July and was fine the rest of the way (NY Post)
Yet, even in the midst of that deep-freeze, there were still signs that Cano would turn it around. Grantland's Jonah Keri noted that Cano was flashing one of the 20 best exit velocities in baseball. He was still hitting the ball as hard as ever--those rockets just weren't translating into hits. His BABiP was .277, nearly 50 points below his career average and almost 60 points off his 2014 mark. As long as Cano kept smoking line drives, it was only a matter of time before they began to fall.

And fall they did. Cano kicked off July with a 4-for-5 day--his first four-hit effort of the season--which included a double and a homer. Two days later, he rapped out three more hits, lifting his average up to .250. With nine hits in the week leading up to the All-Star Game, including three of the the extra base variety, he'd suddenly caught fire.

Without a Midsummer Classic or home run derby to compete in, Cano was able to get some much-needed rest and clear his head for a few days. It seemed to do him some good, for when the second half began he looked like the Cano of old. After swatting two home runs his second game back, against his former team in his old home park, he was off and running. He clubbed three more dingers before the month was out. When July ended, his OPS was 100 points higher than when it began.

Cano was just getting warmed up. After batting .337/.398/.622 in July, he raked at a .351/.403/.491 clip in August. He hit safely in 22 of 28 games that month, compiling a dozen multi-hit performances along the way. One of those was a five-hit day at Fenway Park; another was a four-knock night in Chicago. His OPS rose another 40 points in August as his batting line swelled to a respectable .283/.330/.416.

With Seattle playing out the string in September, Cano continued to mash. Saving his best for last, he recorded at least one hit in all but four of his final 42 games, blazing to the finish line on a 16-game hit streak. He also kicked his power up a notch, blasting seven home runs over the season's final month.

When the dust settled, Cano had batted .330/.383/.536 over his final 82 games, with 17 homers and 55 RBI. With even a normal first half, he would have finished with MVP-caliber numbers instead of the very good ones (.287/.334/.446--21--79) he wound up with.

Cano's remarkable turnaround was largely fueled by a bounce back in BABiP, which was .351 from July 1st onward. It's also possible that he benefited from a lineup change. After batting Cano third and occasionally second throughout the first half, Lloyd McClendon started hitting him cleanup after the All-Star Break and left him there. Cano had been hitting .252/.291/.384 before the switch but immediately went on an eight-game hitting streak, batting .333/.389/.528 the rest of the way.

So when baseball resumes in a few months, the Mariners would be wise to bat their best player fourth. He's far from done, and he's still worth every penny.

Monday, November 23, 2015

A Plea to Peyton Manning

Manning has been benched but insists he can still play (Washington Post)
Please, Peyton Manning, don't come back next year. Don't go all Brett Favre on us.

We know you're a gunslinger, but don't try to make one last heroic stand. You're out of bullets. You won't go out in a blaze of glory--you'll go out with a whimper, like a sick dog who has to be put down.

This year you tried to prove that your putrid finish to last year was a fluke. Instead, this year proved that it wasn't.

Next year will be more of the same, probably even worse. You'll try to show you still have something left in the tank, when clearly you don't. You're too slow. Your arm's not strong enough. Your reflexes aren't sharp enough.

Don't give us another year of missed passes, ugly interceptions, and wobbly throws, Don't cloud all our great memories of you with the sad sight of you hanging on too long. No more games like the one you had against Kansas City.

Nothing good will come of your stubborn return. You have nothing left to prove. You're a Super Bowl champion and the greatest quarterback of all time (statistically speaking). You don't need to take any more big hits, not when you have a surgically repaired neck. Not when a guy twice your size could shut your lights off.

Nobody blames you for coming back this year. You were so good last year. You wanted one more ring so little brother Eli, an inferior signal-caller in every regard, wouldn't finish with more than you. A return to form seemed possible.

It didn't happen. It usually doesn't for 39 year-olds. So what makes you think it will at 40? At some point, you just have to admit you can't do it anymore. We've reached that point.  You've been replaced by Brock Osweiler. Brock. Osweiler.

If you have a shred of dignity, you'll stop sulking, mentor the new kid, and call it quits after this year. You won't try to latch on with another team that will give you a chance. You'll bow out gracefully on your own terms, rather than be forced out when you fall apart again next year. Then you can get on with the rest of your life, which I'm sure will involve lots of commercials.

Please, Mr. Manning, don't make us suffer through another season of you stumbling around the pocket. Don't subject yourself to any more criticism. Just do us all a favor and just walk away.

Friday, November 20, 2015

My 2015 MLB Award Ballot

Just realizing I never released my unofficial ballot, as MLB awards week really snuck up on me this year. So now that the votes are in, here is how I would have filled out my ballot, if I had one.


1. Dallas Keuchel
2. David Price

AL Rookie of the Year

AL Manager of the Year
2. Jeff Bannister


NL Cy Young
1. Clayton Kershaw
2. Jake Arrieta
3. Zack Greinke

NL Rookie of the Year

NL Manager of the Year

Harper Wins Handily, Donaldson Defeats Trout

For the third time in four years, Trout was denied an MVP he deserved to win (LA Times)
This year's MVP race featured a pretty easy call in the National League and a brutally tough call in the American League. As usual, the BBWAA knocked the meatball out of the park but froze on the outside curve at the knees.

To be fair, that tough call was borderline impossible. Mike Trout's stats and Josh Donaldson's stats were virtually identical, and when that happens you tend to see voters falling back on wonky criteria to make their decisions, i.e. whose team made the playoffs, who had the better second half, who was part of a better story, etc. I'm sure some also felt less compelled to vote for Trout since he won last year, whereas Donaldson had never won.

Still, the fact remains that in tight races, the BBWAA seems to get the calls wrong more often than not. I'm thinking back to all those years Ted Williams lost out to his Yankee rivals (usually Joe DiMaggio), when Roger Maris edged out Mickey Mantle twice, how Sammy Sosa sneaked off with Mark McGwire's trophy, and the recent Trout and Miguel Cabrera debates. I could go on and on--Albert Pujols vs. Ryan Howard, Matt Kemp vs. Ryan Braun, any shortstop vs. Juan Gonzalez. Maybe I'm just not remembering the times voters have gotten the close ones right, but I can think of many more examples where the opposite was true.

I'm really starting to feel bad for Trout. The dude should have four MVPs by now, and instead he just has one and three second-place finishes. While that's still an impressive accomplishment, there's no trophy for second place. He could/should have been the first player in baseball history to be a four-time MVP before his 25th birthday, not to mention the only player not named Barry Bonds with more than three. Instead, he's still searching for his second.

Trout's starting to suffer from the Willie Mays effect, which is that even though everyone acknowledges him as the best all-around player in baseball, they still find ways to give the MVP to someone else. His seasons are all so great that none of them feel special anymore; it's just business as usual, another ho-hum nine-win season from Trout. People don't appreciate just how ridiculously good he has been--the best ever in baseball history at his age up to this point.

It's probably no coincidence, either, that despite leading American League position players in bWAR four years in a row, the only year he won MVP was the year his team made the playoffs--and that was his worst season individually! The other three times, he lost out to an inferior player on a postseason team. Voters are still failing to isolate the player from the team.

People didn't have that problem with Harper, who was far and away the best player in baseball this year even though he played for one of the most disappointing clubs in recent memory. The failures of his teammates not named Max Scherzer didn't stop him from winning unanimously, becoming the youngest player to do so (Trout had been the previous record-holder after winning unanimously last year).

It also helped that Harper had the trophy locked up by Memorial Day, surviving historic second halves from Joey Votto and Jake Arrieta. Of course, the MVP at the end of May isn't always the MVP come October, as we saw with Josh Hamilton in 2012 and Troy Tulowitzki in 2014, but Harper hit plenty over the season's final four months to protect his lead. When the dust settled, he had the highest WAR, OBP, slugging, OPS, and OPS+ in the majors, not to mention the most runs and long balls in the National League. Not even a surprise strangling by Jonathan Papelbon could knock him off. 

Harper is very much a modern MVP winner in that he won because he had the best numbers.  Even though he came from a crappy team, failed to drive in 100 runs, didn't play a premium position, and was not well-liked throughout the game--reasons voters might opt for someone else--he still won unanimously. His numbers were simply too overwhelming.*

*Which is funny, because he had the kind of season Ted Williams used to have every year, only Williams was usually dismissed for all the reasons I just mentioned
Unlike the AL award, the NL MVP was never in doubt (ABC6)
So while the NL race was effectively over by June, the American League remained an epic back-and-forth struggle between Trout and Donaldson throughout the summer. Whenever one seemed to take the lead, the other would get hot and pull even again.

The stretch that sealed it for Donaldson was the six weeks between the end of July and middle of September. Toronto took off during that time, rising from a game under .500 to first place in the AL East, leapfrogging three teams to get there. Donaldson went out of his mind during his team's ascension to the top of the standings, batting a sizzling .364/.433/.755 with 14 homers and 49 RBI over 39 games from July 29th through September 11th. With the Blue Jays firmly in control of first, no one seemed to notice how much he tailed off over the season's final three weeks, losing 31 points from his OPS.

While Toronto and Donaldson were kicking it into high gear for the stretch drive, Trout and the Angels were falling apart. Fourteen games over .500 and leading the AL West on July 23rd, Los Angeles plummeted to a game below .500 and 7.5 out of first by the end of August. Not surprisingly, LA's slide coincided with Trout's worst month as a professional. From August 1st through August 29th he batted .194/.336/.290 with just six extra base hits and six RBI.

Both rebounded in September, but were unable to make up the ground they lost in their late summer swoon. The Angels missed out on the second wild card by one game, and Trout was unable to overtake Donaldson in the MVP vote.

He should have. Trout was the best hitter in the American League--his raw OPS was 52 points better than Donaldson's in a much tougher hitting environment--while playing center field, a more demanding position than third base (Donaldson's position). Donaldson had better counting numbers, but that was largely because he had better hitters around him and walked less, so he ended up with 45 more at-bats even though Trout played one more game. Besides, we know stats like runs and RBI are team-dependent and thus should not hold much weight in these discussions.

So how did Donaldson win? Trout won last year, which probably hurt him, but I think the real reason was that that Donaldson had narrative on his side. He comes over in a blockbuster trade and then immediately leads his team to the postseason--their first playoff berth in 22 years, mind you--his very first year there. He had plenty of help from Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Russell Martin, and David Price, but people seem to think Donaldson, like Maris coming to the Yankees in 1960 or Bonds going to San Fran in '93, made the difference.

I don't think so. I think Toronto still makes the playoffs with Brett Lawrie at third, all else being equal but they probably don't win the division. Los Angeles, on the other hand, wouldn't have even sniffed the second wild card were it not for Trout. They had a negative run differential with their superstar center fielder, so they surely would have had a losing season without him. Trout single-handedly turned a mediocre team into a contender, whereas Donaldson made a contender the best team in the American League.

I'm more impressed by what Trout did for LA than what Donaldson did for Toronto. Then again, I'd still vote for Trout even if the Angels had lost 100 games. Because the best player is the most valuable, and once again Trout was the best.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Senor Consistency

Ortiz just became another year older, but that won't stop him from raking (iSportsWeb_
Saddened by the news that David Ortiz is retiring after next year. The game is not only losing one of its best hitters, but also one of its steadiest.
When the Red Sox won the World Series in 2013, his teammates began calling him Senor Cooperstown. While that's still a viable nickname, especially after he slammed his 500th home run last season, I have another one for him; Senor Consistency.

Few players have been better at putting up the same numbers year after year than Ortiz. His 2013 was a spitting image of his 2011, sandwiched around an injury-shortened but still beastly 2012. His 2009 was a lot like his 2008, and his 2005 mirrored what he did in 2004. He's hit at least 20 home runs every year going back to 2002, and in only one of those years (2009) did he fail to slug .500.
This year it looked like Big Papi would fall far short of his usual production after a miserable start, but he rebounded with a monster second half to finish with virtually the same numbers from his 2014 campaign:
Ortiz's 2014 602 PA 136 H 35 HR 104 RBI 75 BB 95 SO .263/.355/.517 140 OPS+ 2.9 bWAR
Ortiz's 2015 614 PA 144 H 37 HR 108 RBI 77 BB 95 SO .273/.360/.553 141 OPS+ 3.2 bWAR
Incredibly, Ortiz has nothing to show for those two years awards-wise. He received one measly 10th place MVP vote (not surprising considering Boston finished last both years), was not an All-Star either year, and was passed over for the Silver Slugger both times (to Kendrys Morales this year--a far inferior hitter). Maybe people are just so used to him putting up monster numbers that they aren't impressed by them anymore.
Papi turned 40 yesterday, so perhaps 2016 will be the year he finally drops off. But based on the last 15 years, I wouldn't bet on it.

Cubs Cleaning Up

Arrieta rode a historic second half to his first Cy Young award (
2015 was a pretty good year for the Cubs. Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber had outstanding debuts, Jake Arrieta evolved into one of the best pitchers in baseball, and Joe Maddon worked his usual magic from the dugout, guiding Chicago to 97 wins and the World Series championship that Back to the Future II predicted 26 years ago a postseason berth.

One would think the Cubbies won it all this year, based on how they've fared in the BBWAA awards thus far. On Monday it was announced that Bryant won NL Rookie of the Year unanimously. Tuesday brought the news that Joe Maddon had been named NL Manager of the Year, and Wednesday made it a three-peat when Jake Arrieta was voted NL Cy Young over Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke. That streak will end today, however, as Anthony Rizzo doesn't stand a chance against Bryce Harper for NL MVP honors.

As I wrote yesterday, Bryant was an easy choice based on the way he dominated this year's rookie leaderboards. Maddon was also an obvious pick after helming the Cubs--a last place team the last two years--to its first playoff appearance of the Obama administration. 

But Arrieta, as many have written, was not an obvious choice by any stretch. In fact, I'm pretty sure he was the wrong one.

Let me backtrack a bit. There really was no wrong choice for this year's NL Cy Young, as Arrieta, Greinke, and Kershaw were all equally worthy. They all had different things going for them. Arrieta led the majors in wins, complete games, shutouts, hit rate, and home run rate, plus enjoyed the best second half any pitcher has ever had. Greinke was tops in winning percentage, ERA, ERA+, WHIP, and pitcher bWAR. Kershaw tied Arrieta for most complete games and shutouts while registering the most innings, strikeouts, and pitcher fWAR. He also had the major's lowest FIP and National League's best strikeout rate. In the end, who you voted for was a matter of personal taste. 

Since I'm on board with the whole sabermetrics thing, I prefer FIP to ERA. I like lots of strikeouts and few walks. I want to see a low WHIP. And I want to see all of those things sustained over a large workload.

I think you see where I'm going with this. Nobody combined quantity with quality this year like Kershaw. He was the best pitcher in baseball based on things pitchers can control (though I still don't buy the idea that pitchers can control home runs, as that's heavily influenced by weather and ballpark) and threw more innings than anyone else. No pitcher was more valuable, in my eyes, at least. 

I don't mean to take anything away from Arrieta, because he had a Cy-worthy season as well. I just can't help but wonder how the voting would have played out had the Cubs finished last again, or had Greinke not split the vote with his rotationmate (Kershaw wins if you give him half of Greinke's point total). Since it was pretty much impossible to tell which Dodger pitcher was better, that all but guaranteed the award would go to Arrieta--Chicago's clear ace.

I also think it's funny that for the second year in a row, a pitcher rode a big second half to Cy Young glory over a pitcher who I thought was more deserving. Last year saw Corey Kluber edge out Felix Hernandez, and this year Arrieta won despite having a 3.40 ERA through mid-June. It's also interesting that Kluber and Arrieta were both first-time winners who were rewarded for their first season of dominance, whereas Hernandez and Kershaw had both won before with superior seasons. I'm sure there are some voters out there who'd rather not vote for the same guy year after year, who instead try to pick the player with the better narrative. That's why Josh Donaldson will beat out Mike Trout for AL MVP, even though Trout's numbers are better than Donaldson's as well as the ones he posted during his MVP campaign last year.
Keuchel shut out the Yankees in the AL Wild Card game (
While big second halves helped Kluber and Arrieta capture their first Cy Young awards, a strong finishing kick did not help David Price secure his second.

I was both surprised and happy to see Dallas Keuchel eek by David Price in the American League. I thought Price would win after sparking Toronto's second-half turnaround, essentially pitching them to the postseason the way CC Sabathia did Milwaukee in 2008. I guess that's karma for Price stealing the 2012 Cy Young that Justin Verlander deserved

Of course, Keuchel was every bit as instrumental as Price in helping his team reach the playoffs. He was the American League's most valuable pitcher per bWAR (FanGraphs had Chris Sale, which I don't buy considering he threw 23 fewer innings with an ERA nearly a full run higher) and led the league in a host of categories, including innings, shutouts, ERA+, WHIP, and wins. 

Keuchel "won" 20 regular season games--the only AL starter to do so--but that total doesn't include Houston's most important game of the season--a do-or-die, single elimination game at Yankee Stadium for the right to advance to the ALDS. Keuchel was masterful, spinning six shutout innings and limiting the Bombers to just three hits in his first-ever postseason start. He was equally dominant in his lone ALDS turn, stifling the Royals to one run over seven frames as he helped Houston come within one win of the ALCS. That proved to be Keuchel's last start of 2015, as the Astros never got that last win.

I don't mean to say that Price would have been a poor pick. His numbers were nearly identical to Keuchel's, so as in the NL it was a toss-up. For me it was innings--Keuchel threw 11 and 2/3 more, or about a start and a half--that made Keuchel the superior candidate. That doesn't sound like much over the course of a season, but when you consider that Houston won the second wild card by one game over the Angels, those dozen innings might have been the difference. No American League starter had more of an impact than Keuchel, who led the loop in batters faced, and nobody was definitively better. Price was just as good, but he simply wasn't as dominant; the only stat he led in was ERA--by 0.03 over Keuchel, which of course means nothing over 162 games.

In both leagues the voters had to split hairs. I think they split the right ones in the AL but the wrong ones in the NL. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Plenty of Power in 2015 Rookie Class

As expected, Bryant ran away with the National League award (CBS Sports)
In a year where power made a bit of a comeback in the MLB, 26 rookies reached double digit home run totals, including four who topped 20. With young guys like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, and Nolan Arenado all showing plenty of power early on, it's safe to say the next generation of sluggers has arrived.

It was fitting, then, when the top rookie home run hitter in each league was named Rookie of the Year on Monday. In the AL that was Carlos Correa, the 20 year-old wunderkind who led all shortstops with 22 long balls. In the NL it was Kris Bryant, a unanimous selection after delivering on the immense hype that preceded his debut.

An awesome spring training made Bryant the frontrunner for the award, and he didn't disappoint after the Cubs promoted him in mid-April. Other than taking three weeks to launch his first big league bomb, everything about his rookie campaign went off without a hitch. He played a smooth third base in addition to displaying light-tower power, the Cubs made the playoffs, and he walked away with NL Rookie of the Year.

Bryant was an easy choice after leading his rookie class in, well, just about everything. He was tops among first-years in WAR (both versions), home runs, RBI, runs, and doubles. He also led National League rookies in OBP, slugging, and OPS. In fact, only one other player in baseball history had as many runs, homers, RBI, doubles, and walks in their rookie season as Bryant. You may have heard of him; his name was Ted Williams.

Comparing Bryant to Teddy Ballgame is both premature and unfair, as Bryant is more of a slugger whereas Williams was the best pure hitter ever, but you get the point. Bryant is already in special company, and this is just the start of what figures to be a marvelous career. If he can cut down on his strikeouts, he has the tools to challenge Trout and Harper as the best players in the game.

The only issue I had with the National League vote was Joc Pederson finishing outside the top five. That would have seemed inconceivable four months ago, when he was battling Bryant for top rookie status. Despite Pederson's second half slide (just nine home runs and a .622 OPS after June 3rd), he still finished the year with more home runs than every rookie besides Bryant and the sixth-best walk rate in baseball, all while patrolling center field for the NL West-winning Los Angeles Dodgers.

Plus, Pederson was severely hampered by his home park while Bryant got a major boost from his. Pederson's OPS was 142 points better away from Dodger Stadium, but that still doesn't come close to matching Bryant's ridiculous home/road split. Bryant was a beast at Wrigley, batting .311/.408/.629 and sending 21 balls over the ivy. Everywhere else, not so much. His road stats; .243/.333/.360 and five home runs. Put Pederson in Chicago and Bryant in LA, and there's a very good chance this award goes to Pederson instead. They're very similar hitters--lots of walks, plenty of homers, and tons of strikeouts--so it will be interesting to see how their careers play out in different settings.

Of course, Bryant and Pederson weren't the only NL rookies to shine this year. Matt Duffy had a tremendous season for the Giants, batting .295 with 4.9 WAR, 12 homers, and 12 steals (didn't take long for San Francisco to replace Pablo Sandoval). Jung Ho Kang had a similarly impressive debut with the Pirates, making a smooth transition from South Korea to the major leagues at 28 and establishing himself as one of the best-hitting shortstops in the game. Justin Bour quietly enjoyed a big breakout with the Marlins, thumping 23 homers and 20 doubles in just 402 official at-bats.

And then there was Noah Syndergaard, who many think has the raw talent to be better than rotation-mates Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom. If you watched the playoffs, you know just how good he can be. With those three, plus Steven Matz and a healthy Zack Wheeler, the Mets have more young starting pitching than they know what to do with. But you know what they say about starting pitching and having too much of it...
Correa crushes another big fly (Red Orange Report)
The American League also featured an impressive collection of young talent, albeit not as strong as the National League's. The Junior Circuit's rookie field was headed by a pair of sensational shortstops, both of whom have yet to play their 100th game in the majors yet.

We'll remember 2015 as the year Carlos Correa took the baseball world by storm, just as Trout, Harper, and Yasiel Puig did in summers before him. Though he didn't debut until June 8th--a full two months into the season--he wasted no time getting his licks in against big league pitching. After just four weeks he was triple-slashing .315/.339/.593 and had already crushed seven home runs, resulting in a last-minute All-Star campaign for the slugging shortstop (based on how thin the AL was at the position, he certainly had a case). Correa came back to earth after that, but still finished the season with amazing numbers, especially for someone who didn't turn 21 until the regular season's penultimate week.

Like Bryant, he helped spark his team to a playoff berth for the first time this decade. Also like Bryant, he gained a huge advantage from his hitter-friendly home park, putting up a .949 OPS at Minute Maid compared to .773 everywhere else.

As good as Correa was, I actually think Francisco Lindor was a tad better. They were about even offensively, with Correa holding slight edges in wOBA (.365 to .358) and wRC+ (133 to 128). Over a full slate of games that difference would be more meaningful, but considering both played 99 it's essentially negligible.

But while Correa held a slight edge at the plate, Lindor was far superior in the field. Correa rated below average defensively, whereas Correa was the best-fielding shortstop in the American League according to FanGraphs. Even if he wasn't, the wide gap between their glovework easily exceeds the narrow one between their bats. Accordingly, Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs both deemed Lindor to be the more valuable player in 2015, Correa's moon shots be damned.

That said, I don't have a problem with Correa winning the award over Lindor, if only because defensive metrics are hard to trust and fluctuate wildly from year to year. The same metrics might say Correa's the better defender next year (though I doubt it). And with power-hitting shortstops all but extinct, Correa's going to be a special player in this game for a long time. He has a higher ceiling than Lindor, and I can't wait to see what he can do in a full season. Or Lindor. Or Miguel Sano.

The rest of the AL ballot more or less checks out, with the exception of poor Lance McCullers. McCullers, Correa's teammate, got shafted even worse than Pederso, as he was left off the ballot entirely. He deserved better after compiling a 3.22 ERA (125 ERA+) and striking out more than a batter per inning across 22 starts. The 21 year-old posted strong peripherals as well, with a 3.26 FIP, 1.19 WHIP, and 3.00 K/BB ratio. But McCullers was destined to be overshadowed this year, both by Correa and by rotationmate Dallas Keuchel--the deserving AL Cy Young winner. Hopefully he gets more credit for his talents going forward, but if the Astros remain competitive I'm sure he will.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Breaking Down Boston's Big Trade

Kimbrel helps the Red Sox, but did they give up too much to get him? (Sports on Earth)
Dave Dombrowski got the ball rolling on what figures to be a busy offseason for the Boston Red Sox, trading four prospects to the San Diego Padres for All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel.

As a Red Sox fan, I feel very conflicted about this deal. When the trade was first announced Friday I was vehemently against it (four prospects for a closer? What were they thinking??), but after giving it some thought this weekend I don't hate it. I definitely don't love it, though, which is why I want to examine both sides of the coin.

Why it's a good trade for Boston:

So much of the blame for Boston's last place finish fell on their starting rotation that it was easy to overlook how terrible their bullpen was last year. It wasn't just bad; it was one of the worst. Red Sox relievers ranked last in FIP and fifth from the bottom in ERA last year.  One might think they struggled because they were overworked, that they had to pitch more frequently because Sox starters got shelled so often, but that wasn't the case. In fact, Boston's bullpen pitched fewer innings than average.

The reason Red Sox relievers stunk was because they couldn't miss bats. Boston had the majors' fifth-lowest K/9 rate, which reflected the dearth of power arms on their roster. The strikeout is an essential weapon for any reliever, as it's the best way of getting out of jams and avoiding late-inning meltdowns. This is especially true in Fenway Park, where any ball hit in play can spell trouble.

In Kimbrel, the Sox are getting one of the nastiest flamethrowers in the game. He's been the best reliever in baseball since debuting in 2010, leading all firemen in saves, FIP, and xFIP during that time. He also has the second-best strikeout rate in baseball over that span, trailing only Aroldis Chapman (who was linked to the Red Sox last week).

Kimbrel will also solidify the back of Boston's bullpen. Current closer Koji Uehara, while still dominant, will be 41 in April. Compounding his age is his Clay Buchholz-like tendency to get injured, as he did last year when he suffered a season-ending wrist fracture in early August.

What's more, Uehara will be a free agent at season's end, whereas Kimbrel is under team control for three more years. Given his age, it's unlikely that Uehara will still be pitching by the time Kimbrel hits the market, making the latter more of a long-term solution. More importantly, Kimbrel is 13 years younger than Uehara and has never spent a day on the Disabled List. If they both stay healthy, Boston's going to have one of the best bullpen duos in baseball next year.

And for those worried about how Kimbrel will adjust to the American League, fear not. Kimbrel has had great success against the Junior Circuit throughout his career, posting a 1.44 ERA against AL teams, which is actually better than his 1.65 mark versus NL competition.

Lastly, none of the four prospects Boston gave up appeared to have much of a future with the team. The best players sent to San Diego in the deal--center fielder Manuel Margot and shortstop Javier Guerra--were both blocked by Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts, who figure to be franchise cornerstones for years to come (unless Dombrowski decides to trade them, too). Carlos Asuaje struggled at Double-A last year, batting just .251/.334/.378, and is also blocked at second base by Dustin Pedroia, who's signed through 2021. Last but not least is Logan Allen, who just graduated high school. Scouts like him and he pitched well across his eight minor league starts this year, but it's much too soon to predict his future. In any case, all were unlikely to crack the major league roster next year.

Boston needs to be aggressive after back-to-back last place finishes, and this move signals they're serious about contending again in 2016. Fans would have rather seen them address their starting pitching first, but it doesn't matter when you fix your issues so long as they all get fixed. This move is only the first of many, and it's one the Red Sox wouldn't have made if they weren't going to add more pieces later.

As for the prospects, well, I'm not crying over any of them. Boston boasts the best farm system in baseball, so they certainly have trade chips to spare. Dombrowski's predecessors seemed over-protective of their minor leaguers at times (can you imagine Ben Cherington making this deal?), but I'll never argue against exchanging kids for proven talent. Boston could afford to pony up the prospects and can afford to pay Kimbrel, so what's the problem? He's as good as it gets, and he makes the Sox better in the short run without harming their long-term plans.
Kimbrel might never be as good as he was with the Braves (Fox Sports)
Why it's a bad trade for Boston:

For whatever reason, managers and front offices are seduced by star closers and their ability to rack up saves. Like saves, the men who compile them are overrated. They pitch roughly 60 innings per year--usually one inning a few times a week--and the majority of those innings come when their team's already leading in the ninth inning. Teams convert 95 percent of ninth-inning leads anyways, meaning they pitch only when victory is all but assured. As such, the advantage of having a quote-unquote shutdown closer is marginal at best, meaning closers are not worth the lavish contracts they command

The Red Sox are paying a steep price for Kimbrel, both in terms of dollars and who they sacrificed to get him. He'll earn $11.25 million next year and $13.25 million the year after that, more than Wade Miley and nearly as much as  Pedroia. Kimbrel won't be nearly as valuable as either of those guys, meaning he'll be responsible for a disproportionate percent of the team's payroll. You could get a decent starting pitcher or a solid regular for that price.

And if that weren't bad enough, Boston also surrendered four prospects to San Diego in the trade. While the Red Sox farm system is deep, four prospects is a lot no matter how you slice it. Definitely too many for a guy who throws 60 innings a year. Dombrowski should have used those prospects to land a starter, something the Red Sox desperately need. Dombrowski says they'll attempt to do so via free agency, but that almost guarantees they'll be stuck with a massive contract they'll regret someday. Better to trade for a starter and pay for relievers, who can often be had on the cheap.

Another reason for concern is that Kimbrel's coming off the worst year of his career. Granted, it was still a terrific season by any standard, but it's still discouraging that he pitched significantly worse despite moving to the best pitcher's park in baseball. Pitchers peak early, meaning we may have already seen Kimbrel's best. Though he'll only be 28 next year, his decline phase could be well underway. His ERA and FIP have both increased in three consecutive seasons, while his strikeout totals have fallen every year since 2011.

And while Kimbrel's proven he can handle American League opponents, who knows how he'll fare in Fenway Park--a much better place for hitters than his previous homes in Atlanta and San Diego. Just because he's pitched well in the National League doesn't mean he'll replicate his success in the American League, either. The Red Sox have whiffed badly on the last few big-name NL relievers they've acquired, from Mark Melancon to Joel Hanrahan to Edward Mujica. You can add Andrew Bailey, Bobby Jenks, and Dan Wheeler to the list as well, even though they came from American League teams.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, this looks like a great trade for the Padres, who traded five players and took on B.J. (excuse me, Melvin) Upton's albatross contract to acquire Kimbrel last April (now that was a terrible trade). Pricey closers are expensive luxuries rebuilding teams don't need (just ask the Phillies), making Kimbrel expendable. More importantly, the swap helps replenish San Diego's farm system, which A.J. Preller gutted to acquire all those big names last winter. Netting two top-100 prospects and a couple of lottery tickets is a fantastic haul, not to mention a big first step towards recovery.

So who won? San Diego doesn't lose anything by giving up Kimbrel, so you can't really say they lost even if none of their new prospects pan out (at least they saved themselves some money). But for this trade to work in Boston, the Red Sox have to be good. Kimbrel's only useful if they have late-inning leads for him to protect. If they don't, well, it won't be long before Kimbrel finds himself on the trading block again.