Thursday, December 15, 2016

Boston Finds Another Ace

When Boston needed an ace last year, Porcello stepped up (BoSox Injection)
When the Red Sox signed David Price to a seven-year, $217 million contract last winter, they got one of baseball’s finest pitchers in return. In a rotation without a clear number one starter, he immediately became Boston’s undisputed ace.

In his first season with the Red Sox, however, Price was anything but. He struggled mightily during the first half, carrying a 4.74 ERA into July before settling at 3.99 -- his worst mark since he was a 23-year-old rookie (as was his 1.20 WHIP). He surrendered the most hits (227) in the Majors and was prone to mid-game meltdowns, including one that ended his lone postseason start after 3 1/3 innings.

Thankfully for Boston, another pitcher stepped up to lead its rotation. Enter Rick Porcello, Price’s former teammate in Detroit who now finds himself flanking the 2012 AL Cy Young winner yet again.

Only this time, the roles are reversed. Porcello was Boston’s top starter in his second year with the club while Price is still finding his groove. After scuffling in his Red Sox debut, Porcello bounced back to win the AL Cy Young, leading the Majors with 22 wins and a 5.91 K/BB ratio.

Porcello's success wasn't just limited to 2016, either, as he was arguably Boston’s best pitcher in the second half of 2015, posting a 3.49 ERA after Independence Day. He was even better down the stretch with a 3.14 ERA over his final eight starts. Since coming off the Disabled List that August, Porcello has looked like a completely different pitcher, striking out batters at the highest rate of his career.

Once a ground-baller who struggled to miss bats, Porcello’s now a whiff-machine. He went from middle-of-the-rotation innings-eater to staff ace almost overnight–a truly stunning transformation. He began relying on his sinker again after getting away from it in the early part of 2015, mixing it with nasty change-ups and cutters. The result has been a whole new pitcher; Rick Porcello 2.0.

Of course, Porcello is unlikely to be the ace in 2017 with Chris Sale now on board and Price expected to bounce back, but he doesn't have to be. Even if he regresses to 2015 levels, he'll still be a strong number-three -- precisely what the Red Sox were hoping for when they signed him to that $82.5 million extension.

Sandoval Shaping Up

Can a slimmed-down Sandoval save his career? (Boston CBS Local)
Pablo Sandoval was probably pretty disappointed when he found out he was going to need season-ending shoulder surgery last May. Nobody wants to be told they’re done for the year when it’s only just begun, especially when your only memorable highlight was busting your belt. If there’s a silver lining from Sandoval's lost season, however, it’s that surgery might yet save his career.

Because let’s face it; even if he'd stayed healthy, Sandoval wasn't going to offer much last year. Coming off the worst season of his career, he arrived at spring training overweight (again), failed to bat said weight and wound up losing his starting job to a player making $17 million less than him. Sandoval rode the pine in April, appearing in just three games as Travis Shaw and the Red Sox got off to torrid starts.

Sandoval was stuck. His team had little use for him while his contract and recent performance made him untradeable. So he wasted away on the bench, watching Shaw’s success systematically destroy whatever shot he had at redemption in 2016.

Now, with Shaw out of the picture, Sandoval has another opportunity to get back in Boston’s good graces. He wisely used his time off to get in "the best shape of his life" and prove he’s serious about his conditioning. Hopefully he also used that time to fix his swing and work on his defense, but both should improve if he maintains his svelte physique.

A year off could do Sandoval wonders. It certainly did for John Lackey, another West Coast star who initially struggled upon signing a big contract with the Red Sox. After pitching at a historically awful level in 2011, Lackey missed all of ’12 recovering from Tommy John surgery. It was a turning point in his career, as a slimmed-down Lackey returned to form in 2013 and is still going strong into his late 30s.

After last year, Sandoval has nowhere to go but up. It’s not hard to imagine him having a similar renaissance in 2017, given that he’ll only be 30. He’ll also be extra motivated to prove himself after everything that's happened since he landed in Boston.

On the other hand, going under the knife may only hasten Sandoval’s decline. Adrian Gonzalez fell off significantly as a hitter following the same procedure, which doesn’t bode well for Sandoval -- a much lesser hitter to start with. He may also find that taking a whole year off severely disrupts his timing, which could prevent him from having the kind of start he needs to secure regular playing time again (Shaw may be gone, but Brock Holt and Rafael Devers are looming).

How the rest of Sandoval’s career plays out will likely be decided by what he does over the next calendar year. If he keeps the weight off and recovers the skills he showed in San Francisco, he'll return from the abyss. But if his body balloons and his struggles persist, he may lose his job for good.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Pudge Deserves First Ballot

Rodriguez might be the best catcher ever (Century21 Riverpointe)
Nineteen former players are eligible to be inducted into baseball's Hall of Fame for the first time this year. While a couple should be slam-dunks based on their numbers alone (Manny Ramirez says hello), it's possible none of them will be elected, especially with holdovers Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, and Trevor Hoffman all coming off near-misses last year (each received at least 67 percent of the vote). As such, the BBWAA may continue clearing the backlog of deserving candidates rather than welcome anyone new this year, although it's possible one lucky newcomer will break through.

Ivan Rodriguez is easily the strongest addition to this year's ballot, and an inner-circle Hall of Famer by any measure. He won an MVP and a World Series, along with seven Silver Sluggers (six consecutively from 1994-1999) and 13 Gold Gloves -- the most ever by a pitch-caller. He leads the position in numerous statistics, including games caught, runs, hits, doubles, and weighted runs created.  Fourteen times he was an All-Star.

Rodriguez was the perfect catcher. He hit for power (311 career homers) and average (.296 lifetime). He had speed (127 steals). He was also, as you may have inferred from his Gold Glove total, the best defensive backstop the game has ever seen. Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs both have him ranked number one, and by a considerable margin. Although his bat declined in his later years, he remained a top-notch receiver until the very end, placing fifth among NL catchers in Total Zone Runs in his final season despite playing just 44 games. Even as a 39-year-old backup catcher who couldn't hit, he was still above replacement level.

Based on defense alone, Pudge is worthy of a place in Cooperstown, but it's his contributions with the stick that make him worthy of first-ballot induction. In addition to slashing .296/.334/.464 (104 wrC+) for his career, he also approached 3,000 hits and 600 doubles, settling at 2,844 and 572, respectively. He drove in and scored more than 1,300 runs. He was an offensive force in 1999 -- the year he edged Pedro Martinez for MVP honors -- and again the following year, when he had a 1.042 OPS before a fractured thumb ended his season in late July.

Put it all together, and Rodriguez has a legitimate case as the greatest catcher in baseball history. Jay Jaffe's JAWS metric, which combines career value with peak value, ranks him third behind Johnny Bench and Gary Carter. Pudge combined Bench's defense with the longevity and offense of the previous Pudge -- Carlton Fisk. He was remarkably durable and consistent for a catcher; according to FanGraphs, he was worth at least three wins every year from 1995 through 2005 (and worth 2.9 WAR in 2006, when he batted .300 for the final time and helped lead Detroit to a pennant).

And yet, despite all that, Rodriguez will likely be barred from the Hall this year due to rumors of steroid use during his career. He never tested positive, but Jose Canseco claimed Rodriguez juiced during their time together in Texas, and Canseco's been right about these things more often than not. Some may also see Rodriguez's slimmer physique and declining home run totals during the testing era as proof, but by that point he was in his early 30s and should have been declining naturally (his last season as an above average hitter came at 32). It is suspicious, however, that he was able to catch more games than anyone in history despite spending 13 seasons in the Texas heat. He seemed especially superhuman during the late '90s, when he was putting up monster offensive numbers while catching more than 140 games per year.

Based on what happened with similar cases (Bagwell and Mike Piazza), steroid suspicion will likely prevent Rodriguez from gaining entry on the first ballot. Now that Piazza's in, however, there's no legitimate reason for keeping Rodriguez out. He was a better defender and compiled superior counting stats, plus won an MVP and was a key leader on a World Series winner. The electorate has become more forgiving of PED-associated players in recent years, but my guess is that Rodriguez may fall just short of election this year. Hopefully they prove me wrong.