Monday, April 25, 2016

The Way-Too-Early All-Stars

It's that time of year again, baseball fans--time to vote for the MLB All-Star Game!

Don't worry, you didn't bump your head back in April and miss all of spring with a concussion. May is still a week away.

But wait, isn't the All-Star Game in July? And wasn't Opening Day, like, yesterday?

Not quite, but it sure feels that way. The season is only three weeks old, and everyone still seems to be getting their legs under them. We've only just begun.

And yet, MLB wants us to start picking who should start the All-Star Game in San Diego, even though the stats are pretty much useless at this point. There's not much to glean from a handful of starts or three weeks of at-bats, as the sample size is just too small. We haven't seen close to enough baseball to know who's legit and who's not. We've only had a taste.

Besides, what's the rush? The game is 11 weeks from Tuesday, which means many teams have about 70 games to go until the Midsummer Classic. A lot can change between now and then, including perceptions of possible All-Stars.

But say the voting closed tomorrow and we had to choose today. Who would you pick?

If you were filling out your ballot based on who's played the best so far, it might look something like this:
Get used to that friendly face, baseball fans (
American League

An All-Star each of the past three years, so this makes sense.

Chris Davis is a bigger name, but White has been a hair better.

Could win MVP this year.

Tough to say no to Josh Donaldson, but Machado's hit for just as much power while batting close to .400.

In a relatively weak crop of shortstops, Correa's shadow looms large. He missed out last year, but this should be his first nod of many.

I wasn't sure off the top of my head if Trumbo had been an All-Star before, as it's been awhile since he was actually good. Turns out he was--once--in 2012, when he had that ferocious first half before face-planting in the second.

Rasmus has never made an All-Star team, which is certainly disappointing considering he received Rookie of the Year consideration in 2009 and hit 23 home runs with a 132 OPS+ the following year at age 23. Five years ago, Rasmus looked like a future star. Perhaps that future is finally here?

A boring pick, but the right one. Joey Bats has been an All-Star every year this decade, which I don't think anyone else can say (at least for position players).

It's Big Papi's final season. Even if he wasn't crushing the ball, you're not going to not vote for him, unless you're a Yankees fan, in which case you have no soul and are voting for Alex Rodriguez instead.
I have no idea who that is (kdding--Denver Post)
National League

C Wellington Castillo
I'm pretty sure he has more homers than all the other NL catchers combined (not really, but it's close).

He can keep flirting with the Mendoza line all year as long as he keeps putting up those big-time power numbers.

He's picking up right where Daniel Murphy left off. Apparently playing second base for the Mets in the past six months causes players' power production to go through the roof.

Nolan Arenado's better, but the laws of baseball dictate that any and all Rockies hitters be harshly penalized for playing half their games in Coors Field. That's why Larry Walker's not in the Hall of Fame, and it's also why no Colorado player has won an MVP in almost 20 years..

Never heard of him.

They used to say the All-Star Game was made for Willie Mays. It was also made for Bryce Harper.

He's back, baby (but hopefully not back on the 'roids).

Two months ago he was unsigned despite having the best year of his career in 2015. Did everyone just sort of forget about him? I think everyone forgot about him. Who were we just talking about?

Some of these guys will be deserving All-Star starters, but some will be best suited as reserves or left off the team altogether. I don't think anyone would rather see Castillo start in place of Buster Posey or White taking Chris Davis's place at first. So please walk, don't run, to the ballot boxes. Trust me, you have plenty of time.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Cardiac Kids: A Dream Deferred

This year's Red Sox conjure memories of the Impossible Dream (Boston Globe)
With the 2016 season now underway, Red Sox fans have plenty to be excited about. This year's team features one of the best starters in the game (David Price), one of the best relievers in the game (Craig Kimbrel) and, for the final time, the great David Ortiz.

That's all well and good, but what Sox fans should really be psyched about is Boston's youth. Whereas the teams that won World Series in 2004, '07 and '13 were veteran-laden clubs, this year's outfit oozes youth. With Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Blake Swihart, Henry Owens, Eduardo Rodriguez, Christian Vazquez, Travis Shaw, and Jackie Bradley Jr. 25 or younger on Opening Day, the Sox boast their best young core in years. In fact, one might argue it's been nearly half a century since Boston had such an abundance of twenty-something talent.

If you want to make a Baby Boomer feel old, tell him or her it's been almost 50 years since the Impossible Dream (they'll remember it like it was yesterday). For Red Sox fans, the story of the fabled 1967 Red Sox is as familiar as Paul Revere's midnight ride and the Pilgrims' landing at Plymouth Rock. Tabbed 100-to-1 World Series longshots after after finishing ninth in a ten-team league the year before, the Cardiac Kids shocked the world by by winning the pennant on the season's final day. Then, just as improbably, Boston failed to win another one until 1975, by which point only two Impossible Dreamers remained (three if you count Tony Conigliaro, who played just 21 games and retired that summer) and the Sox had been re-built around a new generation of emerging stars.

The dream was ephemeral, a dream in the truest sense. While the Cardiac Kids are credited with saving baseball in Boston, revitalizing a franchise that had suffered eight losing seasons in a row and gone over two decades without a pennant, their failure to win another flag was somewhat disappointing. The '67 Red Sox were impossibly young, sporting baseball's second-youngest lineup and zero starting pitchers over 30. Considering that young players typically get better or at least stay the same, and that many Boston regulars weren't even in their primes yet, the team should should have improved throughout the late '60s and into the '70s.

Instead, the Red Sox went backwards, following up their pennant with a fourth-place finish and then three straight third-place finishes in their new six-team division. After winning 92 games in '67, the Sox didn't win that many again until 1975.

So why didn't Boston emerge as the powerhouse it seemed poised to become? The main reason is that their resurgence coincided with Baltimore's run as one of the most dominant teams in baseball history. The 1966 AL champs had a down year in '67, hired Earl Weaver midway through '68, and then ripped off three straight 100-win seasons and pennants from 1969-71. Their injury-marred '67 and subsequent re-shuffling opened a brief window for Boston and other teams to contend, but that window quickly slammed shut as Baltimore reloaded under Weaver.

By 1972, Boston's roster looked dramatically different from that which had fallen one game short of winning it all five years earlier. The entire infield had turned over with the exception of Rico Petrocelli, who had moved to third base to accommodate aging future Hall of Fame shortstop Luis Aparicio. Conigliaro, Jim Lonborg, and Dick Williams were all gone, too. Carl Yastrzemski still remained, but at 32 his best days were behind him. It was unusual for teams to dismantle so quickly in the days before free agency, but within half a decade the soul of the Impossible Dream team was gone.
Aside from Yaz, the '67 Red Sox didn't have much staying power (ESPN)
So that's one reason, Boston swapping out most of its pennant winning pieces within a few years. They gave up too soon on Joe Foy and Sparky Lyle, couldn't make it work with Ken Harrelson, failed to realize Reggie Smith's value, dealt their 27-year-old second baseman (Mike Andrews) for a 37-year-old Luis Aparicio, and traded George Scott before the best years of his career (then traded back for him after they'd already happened). Some of those trades worked out and some didn't, but the point is that the Red Sox didn't make themselves any better.

One could also argue that Cardiac Kids simply weren't that good to begin with. They were heavily reliant on Yastrzemski and Lonborg, that year's MVP and Cy Young winners, and were just a handful of wins away from finishing fifth. The problem with that argument is while Boston won the pennant by a combined five games over the three closest teams, they were still the American League's best team that year in several respects, leading the league in scoring, run differential, and road record. Anytime you win a pennant on the season's final day, you're going to need some breaks, but Boston didn't luck into its flag by any means, as they had a losing record in one-run games and extra innings.

It's not like all the Red Sox happened to have career years in 1967, either. Sure, Yaz won the Triple Crown, but he was arguably just as good the following year and again in 1970. The best of George Scott and Reggie Smith was still to come, while the best seasons of Boston's double play combo (Petrocelli and Mike Andrews) remained in the future.

Maybe the real reason the dream ended so soon was that it quickly became a nightmare for two of the team's best players. Tony Conigliaro was just 22 in 1967, but he was already a home run champion as well as the club's second-best hitter after Yastrzemski. The future seemed bright for the Red Sox slugger until a Jack Hamilton fastball crashed into his face on August 18th, costing him the rest of '67 and all of '68, as well as much of the vision in his left eye. Tony C would return to produce effective campaigns in 1969-70, but he was traded to California and played just 95 games after that.  Had Hamilton's heater sailed one foot higher, Conigliaro likely would have remained a star throughout the 1970s and gone on to enjoy a Hall of Fame career. Instead, he was basically finished by 26.

Four months after Conigliaro was carried off the field on a stretcher, another Boston star suffered a career-altering injury. Fresh off signing a $50,000 contract for 1968, Lonborg shredded his knee while skiing at Lake Tahoe just before Christmas. The reigning Cy Young winner made just 44 starts over the next three seasons, effectively wasting his prime years. Losing Lonborg, who had carried much of the load in '67 by ranking second in innings pitched during the regular season before making three World Series starts, was a devastating blow to Boston's rotation. It would be several years before the team found another reliable ace and big-game pitcher in Luis Tiant, whose first season in Boston coincided with Lonborg's last. Had Lonborg stayed healthy, Boston likely would not have traded him following the 1971 season, pairing him with Tiant for years to come.

The dual-loss of Conigliaro and Lonborg likely cost the Sox around eight wins in 1968, as both were four win-players the year before by bWAR (any regression suffered by Lonborg likely would have been negated by a full season and continued improvement from Conigliaro). While manager Dick Williams was able to adequately replace Tony C by shifting first baseman Ken Harrelson to right, a healthy Conigliaro would have let Williams play Hawk at first and bench George Scott instead. The portly first baseman batted a dreadful .171/.236/.237 and was worth 2.8 wins below replacement that year, so Williams could have saved Boston several wins by replacing Scott early on. Throw in a typical Conigliaro season and a less dominant but still effective year from Lonborg, and Boston probably wins more games than they did in '67 and challenges Detroit for the American League pennant. Instead, they slipped from 92 wins to 86 and finished fourth, 17 games off the pace.

After that there was no beating Baltimore, but it seems likely that, had Conigliaro and Lonborg been healthy, the Red Sox would have been consistent 90-95 game winners with them, seeing as how they usually won 85-87 without them. Perhaps that would have convinced Boston's front office to keep the Cardiac Kids together, rather than slowly ship them out one by one until most of them were gone. They had built a team capable of competing with the Orioles; they just never knew it because fate intervened.