Wednesday, March 16, 2016

White Sox Lose LaRoche

LaRoche is leaving on his own terms (Chicago Tribune)
It's jarring how quickly athletes lose their talents, their ability to do their jobs. One year they can hit a 95-mile-an-hour fastball, and the next they can't. One day they're hitting shots from everywhere on the court, and a few months later they're missing all the same shots. We've seen it happen so many times, guys going from great to horrible practically overnight. And yet, when it happens, it never fails to surprise us. We can't believe that Peyton Manning is suddenly throwing more interceptions than touchdowns, or that Derek Jeter can no longer reach a ball that isn't hit directly at him. Wasn't it just yesterday that they were making highlight reel plays and seemingly at the top of their games?

It's something most of us can't comprehend because most of us don't have skills that can decline so rapidly. Barring some sort of traumatic brain injury, you're not going to wake up in a year and forget how to type or make a sandwich or drive your car. If you play recreational sports, this happens to a much lesser extent. You feel yourself getting older, slower, thicker, but the same thing is happening to everyone else. The teams aren't being re-stocked with fresh 22-year-olds every year, which is why you can hang on in your pick-up basketball league long after you've lost the ability to jump, and why you can play beer-league softball even after developing a pretty substantial beer gut.

Obviously, that is not the case in professional sports. The level of competition is so high, the margin for error so small, that almost imperceptible drops in performance can make the difference between being a star and washing said star's laundry. Lose a mile on your fastball or a foot on your passes, and you'll be out of a job before long.

It's scary, how quickly it can (and does) disappear. Just ask Adam LaRoche.


This time last year, things were looking up for Adam LaRoche. He had just signed a two-year, $25 million deal and was coming off a typical Adam LaRoche season of 26 homers, 92 RBI, .817 OPS. Even though he was 35, some thought he could still improve on those numbers, as he was moving to U.S. Cellular Field (a slugger's paradise) and could focus on his hitting full-time as an everyday DH.

"Physically, I still feel great," he said after joining the White Sox. "I'm looking forward to hopefully being in the middle of that lineup and having a chance to drive some runs in."

Fast forward one year, and he's retiring following the worst season of his career.

It was some career, 12 seasons defined by remarkable consistency, If LaRoche had 12 more seasons like them, he'd be going to the Hall of Fame.

Nine times he swatted 20 or more home runs in a season, but only twice did he top 30. Eight times he drove in at least 78 runs, but never more than 100. His batting average rarely strayed more than 10 points in either direction from .270 before ultimately settling at .260.

Even as the game changed around him, LaRoche remained the same. Every year starting in 2006, the major leagues set a new record for strikeouts, but LaRoche struck out at pretty much the same rate every year. Walk rates continued creeping up as well, but LaRoche didn't become increasingly patient. Batting averages fell as all the walks, strikeouts, and better positioned defenses sucked up hits, but LaRoche's didn't.

Constant changes of scenery never phased LaRoche, either. He changed teams six times in his dozen seasons, but no matter where he played--Atlanta, Chicago, Arizona, Washington--he always seemed right at home.

For nearly a decade, nothing got in the way of LaRoche's eternal quest for those 25 home runs and 80 RBIs. Not age, not defensive shifts, not the expanding strike zone, and not even injury. In 2011 he needed shoulder surgery after batting just .172 in 43 games at age 31. For many first basemen, that would be a death sentence. He came the next year and slugged 25 home runs with 100 RBI--a career high.

LaRoche could never run and didn't play first base particularly well, despite winning a Gold Glove, but he always hit, which is why it seemed like he always would. LaRoche looked like he'd keep on hitting until he was 40, especially after moving to the American League and being able to take advantage of the DH. When he signed that contract with Chicago, it felt as though a new chapter of his career was just beginning.

That chapter turned out to be very short, however, because in 2015 LaRoche finally stopped hitting. He batted .207/.293/.340 with just 12 home runs and 44 RBIs--the worst full-season numbers of his career. He struck out 133 times in only 429 at-bats--the second-worst percentage of his career. I he was worth 1.4 wins below replacement.

It wasn't just a terrible season; it was an embarrassing season. For the first time in his life, his only job was to hit, and he'd responded with the worst offensive campaign of his career. He was often benched against lefties (due to his .383 OPS against them) and struggled versus righties (against whom he had a .697 OPS). Many picked the White Sox to make the playoffs, or at least contend, but instead they finished 10 games below .500. LaRoche barely played in September as Chicago played out the string.

LaRoche could have walked away at any point over the winter, and everyone would have understood. To his credit, though, LaRoche came back. He worked hard during the offseason and showed up to Spring Training, ready for his 13th major league season.

It turned out to be LaRoche's final season, as well as his shortest. It lasted just two Spring Training games before he called it quits, deciding to step away for personal reasons.

And just like that, his career was over.


People, myself included, don't appreciate how hard it is to hit consistently at the major league level. As if playing everyday for 7-8 months isn't hard enough, you're constantly traveling, facing new pitchers, and trying to master an ever-changing strike zone. You deal with different weather, altitudes, and hitter's backgrounds. The scouting report on you gets a little longer, so pitchers know how to attack your weaknesses and the defense knows where you're going to hit it before you do. No wonder hitters are like mad scientists, constantly making adjustments, tinkering with their swings, toying with their stances, trying whatever they can think of that might help them gain an edge and hoping to God it actually works.

Whatever Adam LaRoche was doing, it worked pretty darn well for 12 years.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Praise Parity

It's going to be tough for KC to repeat with so much competition (CNN)
If you thought there was a lot of parity in the American League last year, just wait. Everybody's going for it this year, which means anyone could win. It's going to be a fun summer.

I've highlighted the strengths of each team below, outlining the reasons they could be this year's American League champions. The teams are ordered by FanGraphs' projected standings, with their projected records and run differentials included in parentheses.

AL East--We've reached a point where every year it seems like every team in the division could have a winning record. Maybe that happens this year.

Boston Red Sox (88-74, +69)
After another busy offseason, Boston now has the division's best pitcher in David Price as well as a shutdown bullpen and a promising lineup. They're blessed with two great young catchers (Blake Swihart and Christian Vazquez) who complement each other perfectly, are extremely talented up the middle and project to have an amazing outfield defense of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Rusney Castillo. This is pretty much the same team that was favored to represent the American League in the World Series last year, only with a better bullpen and the ace that Ben Cherington refused to acquire.

Toronto Blue Jays (84-78, +32)
The best lineup in baseball is back and ready to mash its way to the playoffs, giving pitchers plenty of nightmares along the way. Marcus Stroman, Drew Hutchison, and Aaron Sanchez will have to step up and cover the losses of Price and Mark Buehrle (who finally retired), but if they do it could mean a second straight division crown for Toronto.

New York Yankees (82-80, +11)
New York returns essentially the same crop of position players that outscored every team except Toronto last year, and that was despite having three offensive black holes up the middle in Didi Gregorius, Stephen Drew, and Jacoby Ellsbury (Chase Headley wasn't anything to wrote home about, either). Gregorious is never going to hit, but Drew's gone (replaced by Starlin Castro) and Ellsbury should be better with improved health.  Their rotation has loads of potential if Luis Severino and Michael Pineda break out to supplement Masahiro Tanaka, and their bullpen is so good that they may never lose a game they're leading after the sixth inning.

Tampa Bay Rays (81-81, -1)
PECOTA picked Tampa Bay to win the AL East, and if you look at their starting rotation it's not hard to see why. Headed by Cy Young candidate Chris Archer and filled out by Jake Odorizzi, Drew Smyly, Matt Moore, and Alex Cobb, the Rays rotation could be the AL's best. Its offense should also pack more punch this year--especially in the outfield--with a healthy Desmond Jennings and the plundering of Corey Dickerson from Colorado.

Baltimore Orioles (80-82, -7)
Baltimore boasts a power-laden lineup that ranked third in the majors in home runs last year and could easily lead both leagues this year, which is why FanGraphs expects them to outscore every team except the Blue Jays. Most of their position players are in or near their primes, Manny Machado is still only 23, and Matt Wieters could be in line for a big bounce back as he plays for his next contract. Their bullpen was very good last year, and the rotation could get a boost if young starters Kevin Gausman (25) and Dylan Bundy (23) make the leap.
Chris Sale (pictured) and Jose Abreu lead an improved Chicago club (
AL Central--No longer Detroit's to lose, but they're not going down without a fight.

Cleveland Indians (86-76, +45)
The Indians have what FanGraphs believes to be the run prevention in the American League, which could be the case if its flamethrowing rotation holds up. Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco make for a formidable big three, and there's plenty of arms beyond them in Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin, and Cody Anderson. Cleveland's lineup is balanced, with only one glaring weakness in center field, and their infield looks tremendous on paper. A full season of Francisco Lindor will help, too.

Detroit Tigers (81-81, -1)
After stripping down their team last summer, the Tigers reloaded during the winter and are poised to make another run. Jordan Zimmermann joins what should be a solid rotation, especially if Daniel Norris breaks out and Justin Verlander rebounds a bit. Their dynamite offense, bolstered by Justin Upton, could improve as well if Victor Martinez bounces back, Miguel Cabrera stays healthy, and Nick Castellanos progresses.

Chicago White Sox (81-81, -4)
Two consecutive offseasons of upgrades has the Sox on the brink of contention. Their offseason wasn't as splashy as the cross-town Cubs, but they still improved themselves plenty by signing Mat Latos and Austin Jackson in addition to trading for Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie. The result is a very well-rounded roster that should make a lot of noise in an up-for-grabs division.

Minnesota Twins (77-85, -34)
Minnesota surprised everyone by remaining in contention deep into lastyear, and their young players are only getting better. Miguel Sano looks primed for an MVP season and Bryon Buxton should make more of an impact. A healthy Ervin Santana will help the rotation.

Kansas City Royals (77-85, -39)
Coming off two straight pennants and a World Series victory, Kansas City is this division's team to beat. They're bringing back pretty much the same team from last year, too (minus Johnny Cueto, who stunk for them anyways).

Already, the best shortstop in baseball, Correa could be AL MVP this year (
AL West--Houston appears to be the top dog in this dogfight.

Houston Astros (87-75, +60)
Houston has plenty of power and speed after ranking first and second in the AL last year in steals and long balls, respectively. Full seasons from George Springer, Carlos Gomez, and Rookie of the Year Carlos Correa will add more of both.  Their rotation is really good too, led by defending Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and fortified by Collin McHugh, Lance McCullers, and Doug Fister. The Astros are the most complete team in this division and loaded with young talent, making the AL West theirs for the taking.

Seattle Mariners (82-80, +12)
The M's are like the Rays--loaded with pitching but short on bats. Their rotation projects to be one of the better units in the league, especially if Taijuan Walker steps it up in his third season and Felix Hernandez rebounds from what was a down year for him. They'll have plenty of help from newcomers Wade Miley and Nate Karns as well as the always-underrated Hisashi Iwakuma. Bounce backs by Kyle Seager and Robinson Cano will infuse the offense and relieve some of the pressure on Nelson Cruz.

Los Angeles Angels (81-81, -3)
Mike Trout, a healthy Albert Pujols, and C.J. Cron can do some serious damage, and they now have the game's best defensive shortstop in Andrelton Simmons. The rotation will be better than last year with better health from Matt Shoemaker and C.J. Wilson, improvement from Andrew Heaney and a rebound from Jered Weaver.

Texas Rangers (80-82, -8)
Texas has big bats all over the place with Prince Fielder, Adrian Beltre, Ian Desmond, Josh Hamilton, and Shin-Soo Choo leading the charge. Those are all veterans, but the Rangers have talented youngsters too, as Rougned Odor is trending up and everyone's in love with Jurickson Profar. They also have a pair of bona fide aces in Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish, which will make them tough to beat if their stars ward off age for another year.

Oakland Athletics (79-83, -17)
The A's were one of baseball's unluckiest teams last year, so if their luck flips they'll be contenders again. As always, they're a deep team with talented players manning every position, which makes them better able to withstand injuries. They also have one of the best young pitchers in baseball in Sonny Gray, who heads an intriguing rotation. Full seasons from Kendall Graveman and Jesse Hahn, plus a renaissance from the seemingly rejuvenated Rich Hill, could add up to a successful year for Oakland.
My take: As a Red Sox fan I'm tempted to pick Boston, but Houston appears to have the best all-around team on paper. I think their division might be a little easier, too, since LA and Oakland aren't that good and Texas could easily regress if everyone gets old at once. They're a team on the rise, and I like their chances in 2016.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Is This Boston's Year?

Boston won the World Series 100 years ago (Danish Home of Chicago)
I saw a cool post a little while ago about how the Yankees have done in seasons that end in 6, as in 1996, 2006, etc. Historically, the Red Sox have fared pretty well in such years, winning one World Series and two pennants. That doesn't mean a thing going into 2016, but when your team has finished last two years in a row you start looking for signs that things are about to turn around.

The Boston Americans, as they were then called, suffered their first losing season in franchise history. In fact, it was one of Boston's worst seasons ever, as they went 49-105 and finished last in the American League. This triggered the first managerial firing in Red Sox history, as player-manager Jimmy Collins was relieved of his skippering duties and was replaced by Chick Stahl, who tragically ended his own life during the subsequent offseason. Despite having several players who'd helped them win baseball's first World Series three years prior, including a 39 year-old Cy Young, the Americans had both the worst offense and worst pitching in the league--not exactly a winning combination. It was a tough year for Boston baseball in general, as both teams (the Braves being the other) lost over 100 games and finished last in their respective leagues.

In 1916 the Great War and Boston's first baseball dynasty were both in full swing, as the Red Sox won their second straight World Series and third in five years. Despite trading Tris Speaker to Cleveland in early April, Boston still retained two-thirds of its stellar outfield with Duffy Lewis and Harry Hooper. Boston's best position player was third baseman Larry Gardner, who was worth 4.7 bWAR and led the team with his .308 batting average, .372 OBP and 127 OPS+. The Sox didn't hit much, even by Deadball era standards, but their pitching was outstanding. 21 year-old Babe Ruth emerged as the best southpaw in the game, winning 23 games and the ERA title in a season worth 10.4 bWAR. He had plenty of help from rotation-mates Dutch Leonard, Carl Mays, and Ernie Shore--all 25 or younger--who combined for 52 wins and a 2.45 ERA in just under 745 innings. Rube Foster was the rotation's elder statesman at 28, but excelled in the fifth-starter role by going 14-7 with a 3.06 ERA. Together, those five completed 73 games and accounted for all but 160 of the team's innings that year.

Boston's World Series with Brooklyn was close, with three of the five games decided by one run, but the superior pitching of the Red Sox ultimately prevailed.

By the Roaring Twenties, Boston's baseball dynasty had been reduced to ashes. Following Harry Frazee's infamous and ill-fated sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees, New York immediately usurped them as the nation's pre-eminent sports franchise. The Red Sox, meanwhile, traded away most of their talent and soon became cellar-dwellers. They followed up a 105-loss season in 1925--their first 100-loss season since 1906--with 107 losses in '26, the most in franchise history at that point. The hapless Sox went on to endure another 100-loss season in 1927, while the Babe was busy beating his home run record, and would not return to contention for over a decade.

After a decade and a half of mediocrity, the Red Sox started showing signs of life in the mid-30s. Under new owner Tom Yawkey, the team began acquiring top-flight stars such as Lefty Grove, Joe Cronin, and Jimmie Foxx in an effort to return to contention. 1936 was Foxx's first year on the club, and he did his part with 41 home runs, 143 RBI, and a 1.071 OPS. He didn't have much help, however, and despite his monster season Boston finished second from the bottom in runs. That was the main reason why they finished six games below .500, as their pitching was actually quite good. Wes Ferrell, whose brother (and future Hall of Famer) Rick Ferrell was the team's catcher, won 20 games while Grove won 17 and led the league in ERA. All four members of the starting rotation posted an above average ERA after adjusting for league and park, giving Boston the second-best ERA in the American League that year. For once, it was the club's hitting and not their pitching that was their downfall.

The most dominant Red Sox team since their early-century dynasty ran away with the pennant in baseball's first year back from war, winning 104 games and the AL flag by a dozen over Detroit. Boston had the best offense in baseball, anchored by MVP Ted Williams along with his good friends Bobby Doerr, Dom DiMaggio, and Johnny Pesky. First baseman Rudy York chipped in with 17 homers and 119 RBI--second on the team only to Williams' 123. The rotation was just as outstanding, featuring four solid starters in Dave Ferriss, Tex Hughson, Mickey Harris and Joe Dobson. Hughson won 20 games with a 2.75 ERA in a team-high 278 innings while Ferris won 25 and recorded an ML-best .806 win percentage. The Red Sox even had a good bullpen--a rarity for teams during those days--headed by relief specialists Earl Johnson and Bob Klinger. It was surprising, then, when they lost the World Series to the Cardinals in seven games, victimized by Enos Slaughter's mad dash around the bases. Even more puzzling is how all that talent failed to win another pennant.
The 1946 Red Sox were one of the best teams in franchise history (Fair Trade Milwaukee)
The Sox were solid in '56, going 84-70 and finishing fourth. As usual, Boston featured a fearsome lineup but came up short on pitching. This team featured one of the better-hitting outfields in club history with Williams (1.084 OPS), Jimmy Piersall (a team-high 40 doubles) and Jackie Jensen (97 RBI and a .901 OPS) leading the offense. They also squeezed a great year out of 38 year-old first baseman Mickey Vernon, who slashed .310/.403/.511. The team had two terrific starters in Tom Brewer and Frank Sullivan, who went 19-9 and 14-7 with mid-three ERAs in 240-odd innings apiece, but the rest of the staff was a nightmare. Mel Parnell pitched gallantly in his final season, contributing a 3.77 ERA and pitching a no-hitter along the way.

The Impossible Dream was preceded by a recurring nightmare, as the Sox suffered their eighth straight losing season by going 72-90. There appeared to be a light at the end of the tunnel, however, as that marked a 10-game improvement over the previous year. It was also encouraging that Boston had the third-best record in the American League after July 3rd, going 44-39 to close out the season.

Though they had the youngest lineup in the MLB (only one of the team's 12 players who received 200 plate appearances, Don Demeter, was older than 29), the Red Sox featured an above average offense led by Tony Conigliaro, Joe Foy, George Scott, and Carl Yastrzemski. Their youthful rotation wasn't as effective, but several starters such as Jim Lonborg and Jose Santiago showed promise. More importantly, Boston's staff as a whole improved after the All-Star break, lowering its ERA from 4.31 to 3.44 to fuel the team's second-half surge. With their young nucleus primed for a collective breakout under new manager Dick Williams, who had managed many of them in the minors, the Red Sox had the pieces in place to make their miracle run in '67.

After coming within one game of winning it all the previous October, Boston regressed into an 83-win, third place team in '76. The Sox started slow under manager Darrell Johnson, who was replaced by Don Zimmer midway through the season (much to Bill Lee's chagrin). The summer of America's bicentennial was not a happy one around Fenway, as the team's beloved owner Tom Yawkey passed away on July 9th, his dreams of bringing a World Series championship to Boston unfulfilled.

On the field, the Sox fielded a potent lineup that led the league in home runs, total bases, slugging, and OPS. Boston's Gold Dust Twins--Fred Lynn and Jim Rice--followed up their outstanding rookie seasons with strong sophomore campaigns, while a timeless Yastrzemski continued to hit pacing the team with 102 RBI. The Red Sox got next to nothing from third basemen Butch Hobson and Rico Petrocelli, however, the latter of whom retired at season's end.

Boston received great pitching from its formidable trio of Luis Tiant, Rick Wise, and Fergie Jenkins, but Lee missed nearly two months after getting hurt in a dust-up with the Yankees. They were often betrayed by their bullpen, however, which struggled at inopportune times and contributed to the team's 22-29 record in one-run games. Flip those figures and the Sox would have won 90 games which, along with their 87-75 pythagorean record, suggests this team under-performed its true talent level.

The most painful season in Red Sox history, 1986 was the year that led many to believe the team was cursed. Three times the Sox were one strike away from winning their first Fall Classic in 68 years, and three times those pesky Mets staved off elimination. Then this happened.

Up until that moment, however, '86 had been a banner year for Boston. Dwight Evans slammed the first pitch of their season out of Tiger Stadium, Wade Boggs won another batting title, Jim Rice had his last great season, and Roger Clemens set a major league record by whiffing 20 Seattle Mariners in addition to copping the league's MVP and Cy Young honors. The good times continued in the playoffs, as the Sox overcame 3-1 ALCS deficit to the California Angels after being down to their last strike. Somewhere, Dave Henderson is leaping for joy.

The Sox slipped a bit after winning the division in '95, dropping to 85 wins and third place in '96--the Rocket's final season in Boston and Nomah's first. Sunk by a 6-19 start, they failed to repeat as division champs despite a torrid second half. Their offense was only average even though reigning MVP Mo Vaughn had the best year of his career, mashing 44 home runs to go along with 143 RBI and a 1.003 OPS. Jose Canseco added firepower from the DH spot with 28 homers and a .989 OPS, while Mike Stanley (24 homers, .889 OPS) enjoyed a terrific season behind the plate. Clemens was once again the ace of the staff, striking out a league-high 257 batters--including 20 in a game for the second time. The rest of the rotation was a disaster, however, and the bullpen was equally atrocious. The 'pen's lone bright spot was closer Heathcliff Slocumb, who notched 31 saves and a 3.02 ERA in his Red Sox debut. General manager Dan Duquette would make a huge mistake by letting Clemens leave in free agency, but he redeemed himself the following summer by trading Slocumb to the Mariners for Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek.

This was a disappointing season for Boston, who missed the playoffs after making three straight trips. The BoSox faded down the stretch after spending most of summer in first place, going 9-21 in August and getting swept by the Yankees in a five-game series at Fenway. The Red Sox ended up in third place--their worst finish since 1997. On the bright side, David Ortiz broke Jimmie Foxx's franchise home run record, slamming 54 to lead the American League. It was a big year for Big Papi, who finished third in the MVP race after topping the circuit in walks, RBI, and total bases. He and Manny Ramirez (35 homers, 102 RBI, and a league-best .439 OBP) proved to be a lethal tandem in the heart of Terry Francona's order. They had help from newcomers Mike Lowell (20 homers, 80 RBI, 47 doubles) and Kevin Youkilis, who broke out in his first full season by batting .279/.381/.429 with 42 doubles and 100 runs. Rookie closer Jonathan Papelbon was untouchable, posting a 0.92 ERA and 35 saves. The rest of Boston's pitching was a problem, though, especially since Josh Beckett struggled in his transition to the American League. Curt Schilling surprised everyone, however, by bouncing back from an injury-plagued 2005 to win 15 games and surpass 200 innings for the final time at age 39.

Stay tuned...

Monday, March 7, 2016

Panda's Poor Attitude

Sandoval did not slim down following his disastrous 2015 (Boston Globe)
Pablo Sandoval doesn't think he has something to prove.

Well guess what, when you're making $19 million a year, you always have something to prove: namely, why you're getting paid so much in the first place. That's why Alex Rodriguez took steroids, even though he already had more natural talent than anyone in the game. As the owner of the richest contract in sports, he felt he had to be the best at his craft--and he was.
Sandoval clearly doesn't feel the same way, especially if he truly doesn't view last year as a disappointment. It wasn't just the worst season of his career, but the worst by a position player who qualified for the batting title last year. Disappointing is an understatement.

But then, if Sandoval did feel like he had something to prove or regretted his performance last year, he might have actually tried to shed some pounds over the winter. Instead, he arrived at Spring Training looking like an over-stuffed panda bear (see above).

I know the Red Sox said they don't care about their third baseman's weight, but they have to be at least a little miffed that he didn't show up in the "best shape of his life." Hanley Ramirez was just as bad as Sandoval last year, and he came to camp noticeably slimmer. That's typical, as most athletes do everything they can to get themselves in peak physical condition following a down year. If they're truly over-the-hill, they need to know it's because their reflexes are too slow or they've lost a few miles off their fastball, but not because they're out of shape. They don't want laziness to be the reason they're out of a job.
Instead, Sandoval continues to slide, as 2015 marked the fourth straight year in which his production declined.

Sandoval has no excuse for not taking care of himself, not when 40 year-olds like David Ortiz and A-Rod look considerably better than he does. And they don't even have to play the field. Sandoval mans third base--a position that requires agility and being quick on your feet. You would think he'd want to slim down after rating as one of the worst defensive third-sackers in the game last year.

You would also think he'd grow tired of becoming a punchline every spring, of seeing the internet littered with unflattering pictures of his prodigious paunch. If you were constantly the butt of jokes like these, wouldn't you want to do something about it?

Then again, if you were earning $19 million, maybe not.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

How Ian Desmond's Slump Cost Him $100 Million

Desmond didn't get the payday he deserved (
Ian Desmond has to be kicking himself. Two years ago, he passed on a seven-year, $107 million contract extension, thinking he could make more in free agency. Well, after spending the whole winter in free agent purgatory, he was forced to settle for a one-year deal that will pay him a mere $8 million. Ouch.

How did Desmond fall so far, so fast? How did his value, once sky-high, hit rock bottom? How did he go from almost becoming one of baseball's richest players to accepting a contract worth half of the qualifying offer he turned down?

Desmond didn't get hurt, as he played 154 games in 2014 and 156 last year. He didn't stop stealing bases or hitting home runs. He didn't get in trouble off the field.

No, what happened to Desmond is what happened to Evan Longoria, Pablo Sandoval, and countless other players as they approach 30; he declined.

Between 2013 and 2015, Desmond's OPS dropped 110 points, turning him from a solidly above average hitter into an offensive liability. His strikeouts shot up, his power waned, and his defense started slipping. The bottom fell out in 2015, as Desmond batted a dismal .233/.290/.384 (83 wRC+) with a whopping 187 strikeouts and 27 fielding errors. Through the All-Star break, he was arguably the worst everyday player in baseball.

Desmond rebounded with a strong second half, but that robust finish wasn't enough to salvage his walk year, much less his reputation as one of the game's elite. Everyone seemed to forget that over the last four years, Desmond was the best shortstop in baseball.

But when he became available, nobody wanted him, even though he was still better than half the shortstops in baseball last year (and thus would have been an upgrade for all but a handful of teams). Nobody wanted to shell out for a 30 year-old shortstop whose numbers had declined for three straight seasons, the last of which was perhaps the worst of his career. He was just too risky.

So in one of the strongest free agent classes in recent memory, Desmond became an afterthought. He got the Stephen Drew treatment. Days turned to weeks and weeks into months...and no one came calling. Spring Training got underway, and still nothing. The market for Desmond never materialized, and it soon became clear that the big contract he originally sought wasn't coming.

Just before Spring Training games were about to start, the Texas Rangers came forward with a terrible offer; one-year, $8 million, and Desmond would have to change positions to accommodate their incumbent shortstop, Elvis Andrus. Worse, he would have to split time with Josh Hamilton--who got the kind of fat contract Desmond was seeking (which the Angels immediately regretted)--when he returns. Desmond took it.

I don't know what's more humiliating--the terms of his contract or the fact that he's losing his position and at-bats to inferior players.

But does Desmond complain? Of course not. Being the stand-up guy that he is, he's been all smiles since joining the Rangers. After sweating it out for four months, he's just happy to have a contract.

Now he has to go play for his next one.
Desmond didn't do much with the stick in 2015 (
Free agency, like the rest of baseball, is all timing. Hit the market after a huge year, like Hamilton did, and you can strike gold. Become a free agent following a down year, however, and you're more likely to strike out.

Desmond couldn't have picked a worse time to have the worst two months of his career. It wasn't even two whole months--more like seven weeks, actually. A span of 39 games--not even a quarter of a season. He was fine before that and even better afterwards, but from the end of May through the first series after the All-Star break, Desmond didn't hit at all.

When Desmond woke up in Cincinnati on the morning of May 30th, everything was awesome. He was on fire, having smoked two hits the night before and 19 in his past 13 games. His bat was coming around after a slow start, and his fielding had settled down after a case of early-season jitters. Washington was in first place, just like everyone said they'd be.

Then, his bat went into hibernation again. Desmond took an 0-for-4 that day, and the Nationals lost. He went 0-for-4 the next day, and Washington lost again. It was the beginning of a horrific slide for the free agent-to-be. In June, he had more games without hits than games with hits. He struck out in a third of his plate appearances, so it wasn't like he was just getting unlucky. He batted .161 with a .194 OBP.

Things only got worse in July. Through the month's first dozen games, he totaled three hits in 43 plate appearances. His batting line--already an unimpressive .250/.290/.399 at the end of May--plummeted to a ghastly .204/.248/.324 after his 0-for-3 on July 19th. Every time Desmond dug in, the batter's box became a pit of quicksand. The harder he tried to escape the throes of his slump, the more stuck he became. For Nationals fans, it was hard to believe they were watching the same guy who'd won the last three Silver Sluggers at shortstop.

Mercifully, Desmond pulled out of it, batting .272/.343/.464 the rest of the way and falling one long ball shy of his fourth straight 20-homer season. But he still finished with career lows in batting average and on-base percentage, set a career-high in whiffs and stole just 13 bases--his fewest for a full season. His power totals also declined, from 24 homers and 91 RBI in 2014 to 19 and 62 in 2015. After being worth close to four wins the year before, he was worth merely two. Desmond was no longer the best shortstop in baseball; he was damaged goods.


If I were a major league GM, especially one on a limited budget, I wouldn't even consider signing a free agent before February. All the guys that go early get grossly overpaid and rarely provide commensurate value (especially ones on the wrong side of 30). I'd rather wait until February, when things have died down and all the stars are long gone, then swoop in and sign a bunch of leftovers/mid-tier impact players for a fraction of the cost. You could have got two quality starting pitchers (Yovani Gallardo and Mat Latos), an everyday center fielder (Dexter Fowler) and a regular shortstop (Desmond)--for under $50 million total and with no future commitments beyond 2017 season. Zack Greinke alone is costing the Diamondbacks $34 million next year for the next six years.

If you're a bargain hunter, February is the time to strike. Just ask the Rangers

Latos is still the best deal of the offseason by far, but the Desmond deal isn't far behind. Texas got an incredible bargain for a guy who was considered one of the best players in baseball this time last year. He's a lot less risky than Hamilton, and he only has to be worth one win to earn his contract, which should be a breeze as long as he doesn't regress to his first-half numbers from last year.

Because while those numbers are semi-tolerable for a shortstop who can field, they're utterly unacceptable at any other position. In order for Desmond's bat to play in left field, his numbers must return to their 2012-2014 levels. A sub-.300 OBP with fewer than 20 homers just isn't going to cut it, especially for a team with its sights set on October.

Desmond should see his numbers improve in Texas, which is notoriously kind to hitters and a considerably better place to hit than Washington. Unfortunately he's never played there, so there's no sample size on which to make predictions. Most projections systems are expecting him to bat .250 with around 20 homers, which would make him quite the steal should it come to pass.

Usually when you have a two-time All-Star shortstop who's 27 and signed through the next seven years, you're not looking to add another shortstop via free agency. With Desmond, however, the price was too good to pass up.