Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Elusive 20 Wins

J.A. Happ was, improbably, a 20-game winner last year (Canada Sports Net)
With all the bullpen specialization and attention to pitch counts that has gone on recently, one would think that only the game's elite pitchers would be capable of winning 20 games in a season anymore. In reality, though, the list of hurlers who've done it recently is kind of a mixed bag. None of them are bad, obviously, but there's a good number of mid-rotation arms mixed in there with the cream of the crop.

Over the last several years, there's been about one pitcher per year who comes out of nowhere to win 20 games. In 2011 it was Ian Kennedy, and the following year it was R.A. Dickey and Gio Gonzalez. In 2015 Dallas Keuchel and Jake Arrieta did it, while last year both J.A. Happ and Rick Porcello reached the milestone. They've rivaled, and in some cases surpassed, the victory totals studs such as Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander and David Price, not to mention this list of pitchers (Cy Young winners starred)who have yet to win 20 games:
This year, Jason Vargas is atop the wins leaderboard, tied with Kershaw at 10 apiece. Rockies rookie Antonio Senzatela is just one behind them. I'm betting only Kershaw makes it, but then I would have said the same thing about Happ and Porcello last year.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Nashville-Born Ballplayers

Junior Gilliam has a street named after him in Nashville (90 Feet of Perfection)
While walking around Nashville last weekend during CMA Fest, I noticed there was a street running through the heart of the city named "Junior Gilliam Way," not far from Rosa Parks Boulevard. That made me wonder what other players hail/hailed from Smashville, and if Gilliam was truly the best (and thus worthy of the distinction as the city's only ballplayer with a street named in his honor). Turns out there were quite a few players born in Nashville -- 39 and counting according to Baseball-Reference. While none are Hall of Famers (yet), there were a few who came close, as well as one who will likely go into Cooperstown one day wearing the cap of my beloved Boston Red Sox.

Best Players:

Ben Chapman (41.3 bWAR)
Chapman barely edges out Gilliam in terms of career value, but he was never going to have a street named after him following his shameful treatment of Jackie Robinson while managing the Phillies in 1947. While he was clearly a despicable human being, Chapman was also a pretty good ballplayer, leading the Major Leagues in steals four times (but also caught-stealing four times) and batting .302/.383/.440 (114 OPS+) for his career. His most memorable highlight as a player, however, was being told by Ted Williams, "I'll be back, and I'll make more money in this bleeping game than all three of you (Boston's outfield) combined!" after being sent down from Spring Training in 1938. With Chapman playing for Cleveland the following year, Williams arrived for good and set about delivering on that promise.

Jim Gilliam (40.7 bWAR)
Gilliam, more popularly known as "Junior," spent his entire 14-year career with the Dodgers. Despite spending most of those seasons on the trading block, he was only Boy of Summer from the '50s who was still a meaningful contributor during the Sandy Koufax-Don Drysdale era. The speedy switch-hitter proved to be a lesser version of Robinson -- his predecessor at second base -- with his baserunning, defensive versatility, and table-setting skills. A two-time All-Star, Gilliam won NL Rookie of the Year honors in 1953 and drew MVP votes four times, finishing in the top-six twice. He also played in seven World Series, winning four. Had he not begun his career in the Negro Leagues, he might have made it to the Hall of Fame.

Roy Cullenbine (31.4 bWAR)
Cullenbine was similar to Gilliam, as both were patient switch-hitters who made two All-Star teams, received MVP consideration four times, and led their league in walks once while playing the outfield a lot. A journeyman outfielder from 1938 to 1947, Cullenbine possessed one of the sharpest batting eyes in baseball history. He posted a career 17.8 percent walk rate and set a record by drawing a walk in 22 consecutive games, finishing with a career .408 OBP. He also developed power later in his career, slugging 73 of his 110 home runs over his final four seasons. Cullenbine played for a pair of pennant winners despite switching teams seven times in his career, helping Detroit win it all in 1945. With his solid pop, strong throwing arm and elite ability to get on base, he would have had a much longer and more stable career had he been born half a century later.

Best Names:

So many good ones. Here's a smattering: Tiny Graham, Noodles Hahn (think he had a weak arm, or just really liked spaghetti?), Ray Hamrick, Foster Castleman, Mickey Kreitner, Bubber Jonnard (brother of Claude Jonnard), Ike Fisher (brother of Bob Fisher), Clyde McCullough (say that one ten times fast). There were also a pair of "Lefty"s -- Lefty Davis and Lefty Sullivan. Now I'm wondering if a team has ever had two "Lefty"s at the same time...

Greatest What-if?

Johnny Beazley (4.6 bWAR)
Beazley burned bright and fast like a comet, going 21-6 with a 2.13 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP at age 24 to help his St. Louis Cardinals upset Joe DiMaggio's New York Yankees in the 1942 Fall Classic (the only World Series that DiMaggio would ever lose). Then he went into the service, and when he returned three years later he wasn't the same. Who knows how his career would've played out had he come up after the war instead of before.

Current Stars:

Mookie Betts (21.1 bWAR)
Just four seasons into his career, Betts has already accumulated more than half the WAR of any other Nashville-born player. A tremendous defensive outfielder with elite power, speed, and contact skills, he's arguably the American League's best all-around player not named Mike Trout. And the best part is -- he's only 24.

R.A. Dickey (20.8 bWAR)
Okay, maybe not a current star given how awful he's been this year, but he enjoyed a brief run as one of the game's top pitchers. In 2012, he prevented Clayton Kershaw from joining Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson as the only hurlers to win four straight Cy Young awards (Kershaw won in 2011, then again in 2014 and '15). The Mets, knowing how fickle knuckle-ballers can be, wisely traded the then-38-year-old for a package of prospects that included Noah Syndergaard. Dickey's reverted into a Tim Wakefield-esque innings-eater since then, but 15 years and nearly 2,000 innings in the Majors are nothing to sneeze at.

Sonny Gray (10.1 bWAR)
Gray's career got off to a promising start with Oakland, as he went 33-20 with a 2.88 ERA over his first three seasons and finished third in the 2015 AL Cy Young vote. He struggled during an injury-plagued 2016 and is still trying to get back on track this year. He's only 27, though, so hope remains that he will once again be a quality starter.

While not stars, this is where I give shout-outs to Andrew Triggs and Caleb Joseph.

Not bad, Nashville. While not as prolific as pumping out ballplayers as you are at country music stars, you can still lay claim to a National League Rookie of the Year and Cy Young winner, a likely future Hall of Famer, and a Hollywood villan.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Red Sox Mashed in May

After scuffling in April, Boston's offense turned things around in May (CBS Boston)
After leading the majors in a host of hitting categories last year, including runs, hits, doubles, AVG/OBP/SLG/OPS, and total bases, the Red Sox were expected to have one of baseball's best offenses in 2017. Despite losing David Ortiz to retirement, they still boasted a fearsome lineup headed by Hanley Ramirez, Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia, and Jackie Bradley--all of whom exceeded an .800 OPS last year. With a healthy Pablo Sandoval, an ascendant Andrew Benintendi and the solid-if-unspectacular Mitch Moreland in the mix, Boston's batting order looked potent on paper.

It was surprising, then, when runs were suddenly hard to come by during season's first month. After averaging 5.4 runs per game in 2016, Boston managed just 3.9 in April. Their power vanished, yielding only 15 home runs and a .111 ISO in 24 games--well below last year's .183 ISO. They were hitting the ball hard and often, but not into the gaps or over the wall with any regularity. A whopping 74 percent of their hits were singles, which obviously isn't ideal, especially for a team that plays its home games in front of a 37-foot high doubles magnet in left field.

The team's best hitters simply weren't driving the ball like they used to. Pedroia managed just one extra-base hit--a double--in 86 plate appearances, failing to live up to his Laser Show nickname. Bogaerts wasn't much better, tallying a mere two extra-base hits (no homers) in 80 plate appearances. Bradley, who's notoriously streaky, began the season in a slump and also totalled just two extra-base hits in April. Ramirez didn't provide his usual thump, taking 15 games to go yard, and Betts cleared the fence only twice in April.

These offensive woes led Bogaerts to voice the team's frustrations by saying how much they missed Ortiz's presence in the middle of the lineup, even though his replacement (Moreland) was their only steady source of power with 12 doubles (but just two homers).

Their paralysis at the plate followed them into the basepaths, where they looked like the station-to-station Red Sox of yesteryear rather than the athletic bunch that ranked sixth in the American League in steals last year. Despite having several players who can impact games with their legs, they didn't take advantage of all the extra stolen base opportunities that resulted from runners being on first base, rather than already in scoring position or back in the dugout after riding one out. But the Sox stole just 10 bases, too often waiting around for home runs that never came.

As the weather warmed, however, so did Boston's bats, producing 5.7 runs per game in May which was good for second in the AL. After never exceeding eight runs in any game during April (which they only did twice), the Red Sox eclipsed double digits five times in May. And after being held to one run or less in six of 24 April games, they only had one such game in 28 May contests.

Boston's average held steady at .269, but its hits went for extra bases much more frequently. They nearly doubled their home run output from 0.63 HR/G to 1.18 HR/G and saw a similar spike in doubles, which rose from 1.63 2B/G to 2.14 2B/G. Their ISO jumped 60 points month-over-month, and suddenly no one was talking about Big Papi anymore. The power surge corresponded to a slight uptick in strikeouts (19.3 K% in April vs. 20.2 K% in May) but an even larger rise in walk rate, which jumped from 8.3 percent to 10.5 percent. As such, the Sox improved their OBP from .334 in April to .351 in May, which also contributed to the bump in runs.

Not surprisingly it was two of Boston's Killer Bees--Betts and Bogaerts--who led the charge, combining for 32 of the team's 96 extra-base hits. Betts slugged seven homers and 10 doubles, giving him the second-most extra-base hits in the Majors last month. Bogaerts was back to his old self, batting .351 with 15 extra-base hits (tied for 10th in the MLB). Pedroia chipped in 10 extra-base hits and 16 RBI while slashing .295/.376/.442 (right in line with his career .301/.366/.443 marks) before landing on the DL. Bradley only had 17 hits in 77 at-bats (.221), but nine of them went for extra bases, including five that left the yard.

It also helped that they were more aggressive on the bases despite starting out in scoring position more frequently. After stealing just 10 bases in 16 attempts during April, the Sox swiped 22 in 28 attempts in May.

With the offense firing on all cylinders and David Price finally healthy, the Red Sox are rounding into form. After going 21-21 to open the season, they won eight of ten to finish May. They still have holes to address at third base (can we get a re-do on that Tyler Thornburg for Travis Shaw trade?) and could use more depth, but overall they appear to be in good shape heading into summer.

One final note is that the Red Sox haven't hit for power at home, with just 16 round-trippers and a ,113 ISO in 27 games at home compared to 33 dingers and a .172 ISO on the road. Fenway isn't a great home run park, but don't expect that trend to continue, especially if the offense is built more around singles and doubles rather than the long ball. Fenway's conditions are ideal for those kinds of hits, so you can bet the Sox will start hanging more crooked numbers on the manual scoreboard in left.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Who had the Best Non-Ruthian Season?

Who equalled Ruth's 1927 WAR? The answer may surprise you (Historian Insight)
Quick, without looking at the Baseball-Reference WAR leaderboard, which position player not named Babe Ruth had the most WAR in a single season (remembering of course that Ruth owns the three highest and six of the top 12)?

Your first guess (as mine was) might be Barry Bonds circa the early 2000s, when he broke baseball with his videogame numbers. Bonds is up there, but by then his defense and baserunning had deteriorated just enough for him to fall short.

Knowing that, you'd probably be inclined to pick someone who put up insane numbers while manning a premium position, like Rogers Hornsby or Willie Mays. I was certain it was Mickey Mantle, either his Triple Crown season in '56 or his .365/.512/.665 performance the following year, but once again I was wrong.

Another hint: he played left field for the Boston Red Sox.

Well in that case, it has to be Ted Williams! The man batted .406, for goodness sake, while slugging .735 and reaching base 55.3 percent of the time in 1941. All of those marks led the Majors, as did his 135 runs, 147 walks, 37 homers, and 235 OPS+. He struck out just 27 times in 606 plate appearances, and was about as close to perfect as one can be at the plate.

It wasn't him. It was his successor, Carl Yastrzemski, who everyone agrees was not the player Williams was. A tremendous ballplayer and deserving Hall of Famer in his no right, but no Williams.

But the numbers don't lie: The best non-Ruthian season anyone ever had was Yaz's 1967 when he piled up 12.4 WAR, meaning he was effectively as valuable as two All-Stars and a solid regular combined.

WAR is not the end-all, be-all, obviously, and it's only accurate to a certain point. Ranking players based on fractions of WAR is a fool's errand given the stat's margin for error. Still, the closest non-Ruth position player to Yaz is Hornsby's 1924 (12.1 bWAR), which is even less reliable given how long ago that was. Then you have another Ruth season (his first with the Yankees), two years when Bonds was on 'roids ('01 and '02), Lou Gehrig's 1927 (11.8 bWAR), and another Ruth season (1924) before finally getting to Cal Ripken's 1991, which is valued at 11.5 bWAR -- nearly a full win less than Yastrzemski's 1967 total. A good chunk of Ripken's value comes from his positional adjustment too, so one can say with a fair degree of accuracy that Yaz authored the best season by a non-pitcher since Roaring Twenties.

Anecdotally, that checks out. Yaz was superhuman in '67, willing the Sox to the pennant with clutch hitting, superb fielding, and timely baserunning. When Boston needed a homer, he went yard. When he needed a single, he found a hole. He famously went 23-for-44 (.523) over the final 12 games of the regular season, becoming almost impossible to retire. Hall of Famer Bobby Doerr, who was a coach on that team, called it the greatest season he'd ever seen, and he was Teddy Ballgame's teammate when The Kid batted .406 and won a pair of Triple Crowns. Everyone who saw him play that summer have said similar things over the past half-century, solidifying its place as one of the greatest seasons ever (and only growing with stature when so many seasons passed without another Triple Crown).

From a numbers standpoint, though, I just can't quite wrap my brain around it. His raw stats are great, obviously, but they're not misprints. His Triple Crown figures of 44 homers, 121 RBIs, and a .326 average typically wouldn't be enough to lead one category, let alone all three. There are players who exceeded his .418 OBP and .622 SLG for their whole careers, Williams included, and even Yaz nearly outdid himself three years later. His 193 OPS+ is exceptional, but only the 78th-highest mark of all time. He stole 10 bases but was caught eight times. He played phenomenal defense, but left field is the easiest position to play besides first base (especially in Boston, where there's little ground to cover). '67 was a brutal year for hitters, but Fenway Park was also the best hitter's park in baseball at the time. As such, Yastrzemski's neutralized batting line of .334/.427/.638 is only marginally better than his real one.

WAR doesn't even incorporate Win Probability Added or Base-Out Runs Added, both of which he led the league in and would have given him a considerable boost. So...what gives?

Well, his offense alone was worth nearly 10 wins that year, which is pretty incredible. He generated 69 batting runs--more than Miguel Cabrera ever had. Throw in his outstanding defense (he led AL left fielders in putouts and assists) and plus baserunning, shake it all up in the magic WAR blender, and voila! You get 12.4 bWAR, the same total that Ruth produced during his 1927 season, when he swatted 60 homers.

I guess it's telling that since 1967, three players have exceeded 60 homers (six times in all), but only one man has won a Triple Crown. And for the record, Ruth never won a Triple Crown.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Trout Was Having Mantle-esque Season

Prior to his injury, Trout was giving Mantle a run for his money (CBS Sports)
We've been comparing Mike Trout to Mickey Mantle so often for so long that we might as well start calling him Mikey Mantle. Seriously though, the comparisons have always been justified, which you can't say about most players who've had their names mentioned in the same breath as Mantle's over the past half-century.

Here are their numbers through their age-24 seasons:

Trout: 811 G  168 HR  .306/.405/.557  168 wRC+  47.7 fWAR
Mantle: 808 G  173 HR  .308/.412/.560  164 wRC+  41.1 fWAR

Throw in the fact that they're both soft-spoken, crew-cut boys from working class families who grew into speedy, powerful center fielders for big-market American League teams, and you'd be justified in thinking Trout was Mantle reincarnated (it's impossible, however, because Trout had just celebrated his fourth birthday when Mantle passed away in August, 1995).

While Trout's edges in fielding and baserunning made him more valuable than Mantle through the first phase of their careers, he has yet to have a season that rivaled Mantle at his best. Peak Mantle won a Triple Crown at 24, batted .365 with a .512 OBP at 25, and nearly broke Babe Ruth's single-season home run record during that charmed summer of 1961. As incredible as Trout's been, he has yet to reach Mantle's prodigious heights. He hasn't belted 50 homers or slugged .700 in a season and has never won a batting title, much less topped .350 in consecutive years like Mantle. That's why Mantle has a pair of 11-WAR seasons on his resume (according to FanGraphs), while Trout has zero.

This year, it looked like that was going to change. At age 25 and in his seventh big league campaign, Trout had done the unthinkable. He found another gear, inflicting maximum damage with his swings by ambushing pitchers earlier in the count. Since 2012, we've been wondering what it would look like if Trout followed a normal aging curve and improved during his 20s like players are supposed to. Everything written or said about him came with the caveat that he wasn't technically in his prime yet, even though it was plain for all to see that he was already at or near his zenith.

But with every pitcher, catcher, and manager making it their life mission to exploit holes in Trout's swing, the best he could do was keep up. He was able to maintain, but not improve, although that's no knock against him. Producing at an elite level year-after-year is the hardest thing you can do in sports. Every player has a down year at some point, even Ted Williams.

Not Trout, whose consistency has been most often described as metronomic. Each year, however, he's taken a slightly different path to success. His traditional numbers have fluctuated quite a bit, but his WAR values have remained constant.

Trout's managed to sustain his excellence by constantly and rapidly adjusting. At various points, pitchers have tried to neutralize him with breaking stuff away, hard stuff in, and fastballs up in the zone. Each time, he made the necessary adjustments to handle these pitches. Unable to penetrate his airtight plate coverage, pitchers tried to use his discipline against him, attacking him earlier in the count to get ahead of him since he rarely swung at the first pitch. Trout quickly caught on, forcing them to go offspeed early in hopes of disrupting his timing and sneaking strike one by him.

Well, that hasn't worked either, and it seems that pitchers have, for the time being at least, run out of ways to fool Trout. Let the record show that during the first two months of the 2017 season, he was simply unstoppable. Through his first 47 games, he was sporting an absurd 1.203 OPS with 16 homers and 3.5 fWAR. He was on pace for close to 50 homers and well over 100 RBIs. In essence, he was duplicating Mantle's Triple Crown year:

Trout 2017: .337/.461/.742  (217 OPS+) 11.1 fWAR in 150 games (projected)
Mantle 1956: .353/.464/.705  (210 OPS+)  11.5 fWAR in 150 games (actual)

Then, Trout did what Mantle used to do all too frequently: He got hurt. It happened while Trout was stealing his 10th base in 11 tries this year, giving him double-digit thefts in six straight seasons and putting him on track for a fourth season of at least 30. Only Trout dove head-first, one of the stupidest things you can do on a baseball field besides turn your back on the pitcher or run out to play defense without your glove.

It ended poorly for Trout, who tore a ligament in his thumb and will miss the next 6-8 weeks after undergoing surgery. As it turns out, the only thing capable of slowing Trout down in 2017 was Trout himself.

And so, after losing its top pitcher (Clayton Kershaw) for most of last summer, baseball will be -- for the first time since 2011 -- without its best player for much of this one. He'll be sidelined for all of June and possibly July, though he'll likely be back around the All-Star break. Trout strikes me as the type of guy who will return on the early side of his recovery timetable, and maybe even before it. The Angels can't compete without him, and you can bet he'll do everything in his power to get back in the lineup as soon as possible.

Let's hope he does, so he can get back to doing what he does best; playing baseball better than anyone who's ever lived.

Boston's Lucky Number Seven

Is 7 Boston's lucky number? (Slow Trav)
The last time a year ended with a seven, the Red Sox won the World Series. Heading into 2017, they were favored to win again, which would be their ninth in franchise history and fourth of this millennium. Here's how their seasons have played out in previous years ending in seven (a real mixed bag, with some great seasons offset by some terrible ones):

1907 (59-90, 7th place out of 8)
This was not a good year for the Boston Americans, who would change their name to the Red Sox the following year. A dark cloud hovered over the season following player-manager Chick Stahl's suicide in late March, which left the organization scrambling to replace him on the eve of Opening Day. A franchise-record four managers presided over the club's second straight underwhelming season, although it represented an improvement over their 105-loss last-place finish the year before. Boston's offense was abysmal, averaging 3.12 runs per game and ranking last in scoring, steals, average, OBP, and OPS as none of the regulars batted .290 or posted a .700 OPS. As a result, the pitching staff received little run support and every hurler besides Cy Young (21-15, 1.99 ERA), Cy Morgan (6-6, 1.97 ERA), and Beany Jacobson (two innings) ended up with a losing record. It would be 15 years before Boston endured another season so poor.

1917 (90-62, 2nd place out of 8)
After winning consecutive World Series in 1915-16, the Red Sox finished nine games out after battling the Chicago White Sox for much of the summer. Boston's offense was ordinary, ranking middle of the pack in most categories, but the pitching was phenomenal. 22-year-old Babe Ruth won 24 games and fashioned a 2.01 ERA while completing 35 of his 38 starts -- most in the Majors. He was joined by another 20-game winner in Carl Mays, who went 22-9 and had a slightly better season than Ruth in terms of run prevention (1.74 ERA). Despite all their talent, the Red Sox were unable to match the World Series-winning White Sox, who won another pennant two years later before forever going down in infamy as the Black Sox.

1927 (51-103, 8th place out of 8)
Everyone remembers this season for Ruth's 60 homers, but unfortunately none of them came for Boston. He was now entrenched with the Yankees and part of one of the greatest teams ever assembled in Murderer's Row. Boston, meanwhile, had been stripped for parts and lost over the 100 games for the third straight season. The lineup was once again last in scoring (plus all three rate stats) while none of the regular pitchers had an ERA under four. Unfortunately for the Red Sox, they would endure another half-decade of misery before Tom Yawkey purchased the club and began turning things around.

1937 (80-72, 5th place out of 8)
Boston's 80 wins were their most since 1917 as all of Yawkey's spending began to pay off. Having recently acquired stars such as Joe Cronin, Jimmie Foxx, and Lefty Grove, Boston was finally moving in the right direction. While an improvement over recent editions, the offense was only middle-of-the-road and the pitching staff was thoroughly mediocre aside from Grove and Jack Wilson. Most notable was the debut of 19-year-old second baseman Bobby Doerr, who struggled initially (.626 OPS) but quickly established himself as one of the team's most valuable position players over the next decade and a half, punching his ticket to Cooperstown in the process.

1947 (83-71, 3rd place out of 8)
Hopes were high for Boston following its World Series appearance in '46, but a wave of sore arms dashed any hopes for a repeat. Dave Ferriss, Tex Hughson, and Mickey Harris were all victims, causing the burden to fall on the shoulders of Joe Dobson (a fine pitcher, but no ace) and Denny Galehouse. The offense dropped off some as well, with several players like Doerr and Rudy York proving unable to sustain their '46 performance. One player who did was Johnny Pesky, who led the Majors in hits for the third straight year that he was active (excluding the war years of 1943-1945). Another was Ted Williams, who won his second Triple Crown but was denied a second straight MVP award, as voters inexplicably chose Dom DiMaggio's big brother from the pennant-winning Yanks.
Williams had superb individual seasons on 3rd place clubs in '47 & '57 (ABC News)
1957 (82-72, 3rd place out of 8)
The Red Sox took over third place for good the day after Independence Day, but the highlight of the summer was Teddy Ballgame nearly hitting .400 again, ultimately settling at .388. As Williams told it, word had gone around the league that he could no longer pull the ball with power at age 38, leading opponents to abandon the shift against them. This opened things up for Williams, who also posted the second-highest home run total of his career with 38. Despite leading the Majors in hitting, OBP (.526), SLG (.731), OPS (1.257) and OPS+ (233), Williams lost out on another MVP to a Yankee center fielder (Joe DiMaggio's heir, Mickey Mantle). Offensively, he had help from Jackie Jensen and Frank Malzone (103 RBIs each), while center fielder Jim Piersall paced the club with 103 runs and 14 steals. Frank Sullivan was the staff leader in ERA (2.73) and innings (240 2/3) -- 2 1/3 more than Tom Brewer, who topped the rotation with 16 wins and 128 strikeouts.

1967 (1st place out of 10)
50 years after the Impossible Dream team gave birth to Red Sox Nation, their legacy still endures. At this point pretty much everything about the team is legend, from Billy Rohr's one-hitter and Jose Tartabull's throw to Tony Conigliaro's beaning and Carl Yastrzemski's September heroics. In classic Red Sox tradition, the Cardiac Kids mashed their way to October by leading the loop in nearly every hitting category, making up for a pitching staff that ranked third-to-last in the AL in ERA despite boasting the league's Cy Young winner in Jim Lonborg. And while most Boston teams became infamous for losing the final game of the season when everything was on the line (see: 1948, '49, and '78 editions), this resilient bunch clinched a pair of must-win games at home to close out the regular season and secure their first pennant in 21 years. Unfortunately, Bob Gibson proved too much for them to overcome in the Fall Classic, although things might have turned out differently for the BoSox had they not traded Earl Wilson the previous summer.

1977 (97-64, 2nd out of 7)
The '77 team boasted one of the most potent lineups in franchise history, slugging 213 home runs as five players cleared 25 and three others reached double digits. Carlton Fisk had the best season of his Hall of Fame career, George Scott returned from Milwaukee to belt 33 taters, and Butch Hobson had a career year with 30 homers and 112 RBIs at the hot corner. A resurgent Yaz slugged 28 homers and batted .296 at age 37, while Jim Rice's 39 dingers, .593 SLG and 382 total bases led the league. Even Bernie Carbo posted a gaudy .931 OPS in 86 games. The pitching struggled, however, with nobody exceeding 200 innings or 15 wins as Luis Tiant, Rick Wise, Fergie Jenkins, Reggie Cleveland, and Bill Lee all had underwhelming or injury-plagued seasons. The bright spot of the staff was fireman Bill Campbell, who was an All-Star and led the league in saves after signing on with Boston as one of baseball's first big free agents. His 2.96 ERA was the best on the team and was sustained over 140 innings in 69 appearances, enabling him to lead the staff with 13 wins. A strong September showing (22-9) wasn't enough to win the division, as the Red Sox finished tied for second with Baltimore, 2.5 games behind (who else?) New York. Fun fact; this was the lone season that legendary sports scribe Bob Ryan served as the Sox beat writer for The Boston Globe.

1987 (78-84, 5th place out of 7)
Fresh off a devastating defeat to the New York Mets in the previous year' s Fall Classic, the Red Sox were told by manager John McNamara to forget everything that happened in '86. That included how well they played before literally dropping the ball, as they plummeted to 78-84 and fifth place. Despite the disappoint record, several players enjoyed tremendous individual campaigns. Dwight Evans enjoyed a career year, setting personal bests in all three slash stats (.305/.417/.569) as well as home runs (34) and RBIs (123). He wasn't the only one having a banner year in the power department, as Wade Boggs tripled his home run output from the previous season (with a career-high 24) while winning his third straight batting title (.363) and leading the majors in OBP (.461) and the league in OPS (1.049) and position player WAR (8.3). The only American League worth more wins above replacement was teammate Roger Clemens, who cruised to his second straight Cy Young with the most wins (20), complete games (18), and shutouts (7) in the majors. Other highlights included Bruce Hurst's only All-Star nod and rookie center fielder Ellis Burks going 20/20 (but not receiving a single Rookie of the Year vote).

1997 (78-84, 4th place out of 5)
'97 was a bridge year for the Red Sox, with this being the season following Clemens' departure and Pedro Martinez's arrival. As such, the team did not have enough arms to compete, but it did receive a boost from AL Rookie of the Year Nomar Garciaparra. Nomar instantly became a fan favorite, leading the league in hits (209) and triples (13) while swatting 30 homers, stealing 22 bases, and batting .306/.342/.534. Garciaparra was one of seven Sox players to eclipse .300 over at least 300 plate appearances. Mo Vaughn provided the pop with a team-high 35 homers to go along with 96 RBIs and a .315/.420/.560 slash line. The pitching was a disaster, however, and Boston narrowly avoided finishing last in the division in its first season under Jimy Williams, beating out Toronto by two games.

2007 (96-66, 1st place out of 5)
This was the season that cemented Boston's status as a baseball dynasty in the first decade of the 2000s. The Red Sox won their first division title since 1995, finally breaking the Yankees' stranglehold on the AL East, before sweeping the ALDS and World Series en route to their second championship in four years. While mostly a veteran club with some familiar faces from the '04 title run (David Ortiz, Curt Schilling, Manny Ramirez, Jason Varitek), these Sox were infused by new additions Daisuke Matsuzaka, J.D. Drew, and Julio Lugo while receiving boosts from youngsters like Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, and AL Rookie of the Year Dustin Pedroia. This team was a powerhouse, posting a Pythagorean record of 101-61, and was also well balanced, leading the league in ERA and fewest hits allowed while running the league's second-highest OPS. This year did not signal a changing of the guard in the AL East, however, as Boston didn't win another division title until 2013.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Remembering Ryan Howard

With Howard's career likely over, it's time to do some reflecting (MLB.com)
It's been a couple weeks since the Braves released Ryan Howard from his Minor League contract, effectively bringing an end to the 37-year-old's career. The news didn't come as a shock to anyone who's watched him flail away over the past five seasons, but it's always sad whenever one of baseball's greats is told he can no longer play the game.

It's sadder still when one of those players starred during your childhood. When they retire, it feels like they're taking a small part of it with them. The player becomes great only in your memory, YouTube tributes, and grainy highlight reels. It also makes you realize how much time has passed since you first started cheering for them.

I wasn't a Phillies fan and never owned him in one of my fantasy leagues, so I can't say I truly rooted for Ryan Howard. But I remember the summer he exploded onto the national consciousness, establishing himself as a household name and one of the most feared hitters in baseball.

Bill Simmons once wrote somewhere that sports never matter more than when you're 14 years old. Now 10 (soon to be 11) years removed from that semi-magical age, I have to agree with him. The more I think back on it, the more sports memories I'm able to unearth from that time. It's like I'm drilling for oil, and the summer of 2006 is my Alaskan pipeline.

I think that's because I watched more Baseball Tonight (RIP) in that two-month stretch than I have before or since (this was in the dark ages before MLB Network, mind you). Every night, I'd go down into the basement and flip on BT or Sportscenter (whichever was on, though BT was infinitely better) while working out in preparation for eighth grade football.

So, yeah, I saw a lot of baseball highlights that summer, many of which involved Ryan Howard sending another meatball deep into the night.

By then, it was clear that Howard was having a special season. Expectations were high for him that spring, as they always are for players who've just won Rookie of the Year. Howard's were astronomical, though, given that his rookie numbers projected to 40 homers, 115 RBIs, and 325 total bases over a 162-game season.

Most people thought those numbers were Howard's ceiling. Few could have imagined that he'd blow them away.

Many rookies take a step back in their second season, especially strikeout-prone sluggers like Howard. The league adjusts to them, their weaknesses become exploited, and before long they look lost at the plate. There are strikeouts and pop-ups and growing pains, but it's all part of the process. The MLB learning curve is steep, sometimes taking years to master (just ask Jose Bautista).

Very rarely does a guy come up and rake from the start. A few of the all-time greats did -- Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Albert Pujols -- but many didn't, including Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Mike Trout. Some don't hit their stride until their 30s, like Raul Ibanez or Daniel Murphy.

Not Howard. He took off like a rocket ship, homering off reigning NL Cy Young winner Chris Carpenter on Opening Day and batting over .300 through the end of April. In May he barrelled through the stratosphere, slugging 13 homers and driving in 35 runs, but somehow did not win NL Player of the Month honors. Let me repeat that: A guy hit 13 homers and had 35 RBIs in one month and did not win Player of the Month. Some guy named Jason Bay (remember him?) did, with 12 homers, 35 RBIs, and a 1.090 OPS (72 points higher than Howard). 2006 was a different time.

When Howard didn't slow down in June (nine homers, 21 RBIs, .987 OPS), that's when I really began to take notice. Towards the end of the month, he ripped two homers and drove in all seven of his team's runs in a 9-7 loss to the Yankees while becoming the first player to hit a ball into the third deck in right field at Citizens Bank Park. When I saw his stat line in the box score the following day, I remember wishing the season would end already so I'd know what Howard's final numbers would like. My summer vacation had just started, and I was already pining for October.
Howard became an MVP frontrunner with his stretch run surge (Philly Phever)
A little more than a month later, after he'd been named to his first All-Star team and competed in the Home Run Derby, Howard produced the ultra-rare 0-for-0 stat line while playing a complete game. The Marlins walked him five times -- only once intentionally -- although I'm sure several were of the unintentionally-intentional kind. That was in the first game of a doubleheader. Florida pitched to him in the second game, but Howard made them pay with three hits, including a homer.

The five-walk game (which tied a Major League record) reflected a shift in how Howard was being approached. Prior to the All-Star break, he walked 31 times (five intentionally) in 352 plate appearances. In 352 PA's after the break, he walked 77 times, a whopping 32 of which were intentional. Only three men in baseball history received more intentional walks in a season; Barry Bonds, Willie McCovey, and Albert Pujols.

Seeing fewer strikes did nothing to slow Howard's roll in August, as he slammed 14 homers and drove in 41 runs (the highest monthly total since 1962) to win NL Player of the Month. He did not go more than three games without a tater, and he ended the month with six homers and 17 RBIs -- a great month for most players -- in his final nine games. When the dog days of August drew to a close, he had 49 homers (a new Phillies record) and 128 RBIs.

The Phillies, who had a losing record for much of the summer, had been out of the playoff picture for months by the time September rolled around, but their slugging first baseman continued to mash. After playing both ends of a doubleheader on the 2nd, he smashed three big flies in the first game of a second twin ball the following day and added two hits in the night cap for good measure. Following another multi-homer game on September 8th, he'd amassed 13 homers and 26 RBIs in his previous 16 games. With the season entering its final phase, Howard had found another gear.

And even though he had 56 homers with over three weeks to go, there was little talk of him reaching 60. The once-magic number had been cheapened by Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa surpassing it six times in the previous eight seasons, and fans had become de-sensitized to gaudy home run totals. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Congress and Jose Canseco, they'd recently become aware that America's pastime was teeming with bulked up roiders, causing the home run's once-mythic power to wane considerably in the public's eye. Howard's numbers were undoubtedly impressive, but were met with a collective shrug from the baseball world. Pretty cool, Ryan, but you're still a long way from 73.

Making matters worse for Howard was that, at precisely that moment, opposing pitchers and managers decided to stop pitching to him altogether. With teams battling for postseason berths and September call-ups trying to make names for themselves, no one could afford to get cute with Howard. So they hardly bothered, walking him 28 times (14 intentional) over his final 100 plate appearances. It was the closest thing we'd seen to the Barry Bonds treatment since, well, how pitchers were treating Barry Bonds that year, who was intentionally walked 38 times (one more than Howard) at age 41. The strategy worked, limiting Howard to just two long balls and 11 RBIs over his final 21 games. Despite reaching base 53 times via hit, walk, hit-by-pitch, or error during that span (excluding his two homers), he was driven in a mere eight times, indicating just how little protection there was for Philadelphia's cleanup man.

Howard was named Player of the Month again for September after slashing .385/.562/.750, and when the dust settled on October 1st his final numbers were extraordinary; .313/.425/.659 with 58 homers (the most ever by a player in his second season), 149 RBIs, 104 runs and 108 walks (37 intentional). His home runs and RBIs paced the Major Leagues, as did his 383 total bases. Still, one can only wonder what his stats might have looked like had opponents not waved the white flag in September, or if Charlie Manuel hadn't batted him fifth throughout the first half, thereby costing him several plate appearances. 60 homers, 160 RBIs, and 400 total bases were all within reach. As great as it was, Howard's season could have been legendary.

Even so, it was still pretty monstrous. So blinding were Howard's Triple Crown numbers that he momentarily convinced baseball writers he was better than the reigning NL MVP -- the best hitter in baseball, who also happened to be an elite defensive first baseman. After all it was Albert Pujols, not Howard, who led the Majors in slugging (.671) and OPS (1.102) that year while mashing a career-high 49 homers, winning a Gold Glove and leading St. Louis to a World Series title. Had he not landed on the DL for the first time in his career, he would have surpassed 50 homers as well and possibly 150 RBIs, in which case there would have been no debate as to which first sacker had the superior season.

While Howard followed up his MVP with several more remarkable seasons, he never again reached the heights of 2006. He never came close to batting .313 again, finishing at .258 for his career, and had only one other season with an OBP above .360. He never had another 50-homer season or slugged .600 again, as pitchers soon learned that he could be neutralized with breaking stuff low and away. He quickly became unplayable against left-handed pitchers and his body began to break down. After averaging 44 homers and 133 RBIs from 2006-2011, he was below replacement level in every season except one from that point forward. It was unfortunate that he fell off a cliff as soon as his five-year, $125 million contract extension kicked in, turning him into a punchline during his final seasons.

But even at the end, when his batting average fell below .200 and he could no longer hit lefties to save his life, the power remained. He went deep 25 times in his final season in just 331 at-bats, besting his rookie rate of 22 homers in 312 at-bats. The only difference was that his OPS was 214 points lower, and that he was a 36-year-old at the end of the line than a 25-year-old kid with his whole career ahead of him.

It's a shame Howard never got to DH (his natural position) full-time, as he had the size and strength to keep hitting home runs forever. The Yankees just should have put him in that Stadium and milked a few more seasons out of him for minimal cost. They still can, I guess, especially since he'd make a nice platoon partner for Matt Holliday, but the last thing Brian Cashman wants right now is another aging bat on his roster.

Man, 2006 really was a long time ago...

Monday, May 1, 2017

Ellsbury's Slam Saves Yanks

Ellsbury's 100th career homer was also his first grand slam (New York Daily News)
In the seventh inning of Friday night's wild slugfest at Yankee Stadium, which New York won 14-11 in 10 innings despite trailing 9-1 in the sixth and 11-4 in the seventh (way to go, Orioles bullpen), Yankee center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury did something he'd never done before in a Major League game.

New York trailed by seven runs when Ellsbury stepped to the plate with the sacks full and one out in the bottom of the seventh. The Yankees were threatening, but they desperately needed a hit from their cleanup man, who was 0-for-3 to that point (why's he hitting fourth in the first place?!). Their chances of winning were three percent, and it was starting to get late real early in the Bronx.

Hoping to keep the rally going, Ellsbury got himself into a 2-1 count against lefty Vidal Nuno, who was looking shaky after allowing Chase Headley to double and walking Matt Holliday to load the bases. Now Nuno needed to throw a strike, and everyone in the park knew it.

But as he lifted his right leg and aimed a 92 mile-per-hour fastball towards home plate, the possibility of a grand slam seemed remote. For starters, Ellsbury has never been much of a power hitter, reaching double digit homers only twice in 11 seasons. When he does go yard, it tends to be against right-handers and in the second half. The platoon split has become even more pronounced recently, as he managed just one homer in 196 plate appearances against lefties last year.

Career vs. RHP: 1 homer per 39 at-bats
Career vs. LHP: 1 homer per 75 at-bats

Career before July 1st: 1 homer per 71 at-bats
Career after July 1st: 1 homer per 34 at-bats

He also homers less frequently from the seventh inning on (about once every 54 at-bats), but the gap there is less substantial.

There was also the fact that Ellsbury had as many career grand slams as the nearly 37,000 non-Major Leaguers in attendance that night. He had hit 99 home runs, but none with ducks on the pond. He'd plated 73 runs in 106 bases-loaded plate appearances and amassed 478 career RBIs, but never four at once.

So, to recap: Ellsbury hitting a home run at all -- unlikely. Ellsbury hitting a home run off a lefty in April -- even more unlikely. Ellsbury knocking a grand slam out of the park -- unprecedented. The only thing working in Ellsbury's favor was Nuno's propensity for serving up long balls (career 1.5 HR/9 rate), but even that doesn't mean much when you consider that he's only thrown 340 innings in his career.

But that's the beauty of baseball. There are so many games and pitches and at-bats that crazy things happen all the time. Just this weekend, Anthony Rendon went 6-for-6 with three homers and 10 RBIs, the Dodgers drilled three straight homers before walking off in the bottom of the ninth, and Jacoby Ellsbury finally hits a grand slam.

How could he not? That pitch from Nuno was a meatball, straight as an arrow and right down Broadway. A batting practice fastball just begging to be crushed.

And Ellsbury crushed it alright, launching it 417 feet into the right-center bleachers -- his longest homer of the season by 35 feet. The scoreboard read 11-8, the Stadium was rocking, and New York's chances of victory had soared from three percent all the way to...10 percent. The psychological shift, though, was much greater. Teams almost never come back from seven-run deficits, particularly in the late innings. There's just not enough time, and bullpens are too deep nowadays. But get a few men on in an inning, and a three-run lead can disappear with one swing.

Sure enough, Ellsbury's blast proved to be a turning point in the game. The Orioles were so demoralized that after piling up 11 runs in the previous five innings, they managed only one baserunner over the next three frames. The rejuvenated Yankees, meanwhile, rallied to tie the game with three runs in the ninth before completing their epic comeback with three more in the tenth.

It took more than 5,000 plate appearances over 11 years for Jacoby Ellsbury to hit his first grand slam. At that rate, it might also be his last. But if it is, at least he made it count.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Earl Wilson Could've Saved the Impossible Dream

Earl Wilson could have been a game-changer for the '67 Red Sox (Boston Globe)
Like every franchise, the Boston Red Sox have made their share of regrettable trades over the years, from dealing Jeff Bagwell and Pee Wee Reese while they were still prospects to sending Sparky Lyle to the Yankees for Danny Cater. And while not a trade, the sale of Babe Ruth will forever haunt them.

One that few Sox fans remember, however, likely cost them the World Series in 1967. Because while the Impossible Dream team had an ace in Jim Lonborg, it could have easily had two.

Earl Wilson is remembered for being the first African-American pitcher in Red Sox history, and their second player of color after Pumpsie Green. But while Green was a utility player who lasted just five seasons, Wilson developed into one of the American League's better pitchers of the 1960s. In addition to becoming the Junior Circuit's first African-American to throw a no-hitter (in 1962), he followed Mudcat Grant as the league's second black 20-game-winner when he tied Lonborg with 22 victories in '67.

Unfortunately for Boston, Wilson was no longer a member of the Sox by then. He had been traded the previous summer following a racist incident during Spring Training, when Wilson was denied service at a bar in Winter Haven, Florida. Wilson reported it to the media against ownership's wishes, and after getting off to a slow start he was dumped to Detroit in June (along with another African-American -- Joe Christopher) for outfielder Don Demeter and pitcher Julio Navarro.

The deal immediately proved disastrous. Free from Boston's bigotry, Wilson finally reached his potential with the more integrated Tigers. He immediately turned his 1966 season around, going 13-6 with a 2.59 ERA and 1.00 WHIP the rest of the way. His success carried over into '67, as he posted a 3.27 ERA over 264 innings while keeping Detroit in the pennant race until the season's final day. He would remain effective through the rest of the Sixties before age and heavy workloads took their tolls.

Navarro never pitched an inning for the Red Sox and Demeter contributed little, playing just 93 games for Boston and hitting fewer home runs than Wilson from that point forward. The Sox salvaged the deal by flipping him the following summer for starter Gary Bell, who was instrumental to their playoff run and was an All-Star in '68. Wilson he was not, however, and Boston wouldn't have needed him to shore up the rotation had they simply held on to Wilson in the first place. Best-case scenario, the Red Sox would have had two 20-game winners in '67, co-aces who would have led them to an easy pennant and potentially a world championship.

The argument can be made, however, that Wilson never would have reached that level in Boston due to its stifling racism, which negatively affected the city's minority athletes for decades. Even if he just continued pitching at the same level, though, his performance would have been on par with Bell's. The difference is that Wilson would have started '67 with Boston rather than joining in June, and thus would have contributed nearly 100 more innings than Bell provided. A full season of Wilson would have been more valuable than two months of Billy Rohr (4.61 ERA in eight starts) and four months of Bell, who combined to produce just 0.4 bWAR for the Sox that year -- a figure Wilson exceeded every year on offense from 1962-1968.

Wilson, who was typically good for around 2-3 WAR per year during his Red Sox tenure, likely would have added a couple wins to Boston's ledger in '67 -- victories that might have made all the difference down the stretch. With Boston needing a win on the season's final day to guarantee at least a tie for the pennant, they were forced to expend Gentleman Jim rather than save him for the Series opener against Bob Gibson. Lonborg turned in dominant efforts in Games 2 and 5 before faltering on short rest in Game 7 against Gibson.

But if Lonborg had twirled his shutout in Game 1 rather than Game 2, he would have edged Gibson and turned a 2-1 Boston defeat into a 1-0 victory. Then, backed by five Red Sox runs, either Wilson or Jose Santiago probably take Game 2 and give the Cardiac Kids some momentum before heading to St. Louis. Boston still would have lost Games 3 and 4, when they scored just two runs combined, and possibly Game 5 as well, when they managed only three.

Even so, the Red Sox win Game 6 (regardless of who pitches) with a four-home-run explosion, setting up a classic Game 7 between a now fully-rested Lonborg and Gibson. Maybe Gibson still comes out on top given his superior postseason track record, but Lonborg was equally devastating in big games and may have gotten the best of him in a redux of Game 1. It's a toss-up, but Boston's odds dramatically improve with Lonborg gaining an extra day of rest (and if Wilson or Santiago pitches a gem in Game 3 or 5, then Game 7 never happens and the Sox take the flag in six).

Wilson might not have swung the Series, but he would have made it more thrilling by facilitating three duels between Gibson and Lonborg rather than just the one. The ending may have been the same for Boston, but at least Red Sox fans wouldn't still be wondering how Lonborg might have fared on regular rest.