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.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Will Wright Recover?

Another devastating injury has placed Wright's future in doubt (Sporting News)
Spring Training is supposed to be a time for optimism, especially for baseball's fallen stars. Players are in the best shape of their lives, eager to prove they can still hack it. Last year's slumps are in the past. There's hope that Jason Heyward and Pablo Sandoval will hit again, that Matt Harvey and Sonny Gray will rediscover their dominance. Everyone has a clean slate, and even the most unlikely comebacks seem possible (remember Grady Sizemore?).

For David Wright, however, this spring has brought only more pain and misery. He hasn't been able to throw since being diagnosed with a right shoulder impingement in late February, and likely won't be able to until the Mets break camp. Wright will stay behind in Florida, where he'll once again set down the road to recovery.

But as the 34-year-old works his way back from yet another injury, scribes have called his future into question while simultaneously reminding us how great he used to be. When the news was first announced, ESPN wondered if Wright was finished. SI lamented how his body began falling apart just as the Mets started coming together.

Wright's career arc has been tragic, marked by late-season collapses, poor supporting casts, and debilitating injuries that have prevented him from logging a full season since 2012 and derailed what was shaping up to be a Hall of Fame career. They've caused him to age more like Scott Rolen than Adrian Beltre, limiting him to a .266/.339/.396 (107 OPS+) slash line and 3.0 bWAR over the past three seasons combined. He can no longer play the field, doesn't contribute on the bases and is merely average at the plate, which are all problems for a guy earning $20 million a year.

Still, all this talk of Wright's demise seems premature. He still has three years remaining on his contract beyond 2017 and is closer to 30 than 40. Even if he sits the entire year out, he could still conceivably return next year and be productive at 35. While most of his skills have deteriorated, his pop and patience are still intact (as evidenced by his .212 ISO and 15.9 percent walk rate last year), so he's not totally useless. He'd have more value to an American League team as a DH, but this winter revealed the demand for his skill set to be at an all-time low.

It wasn't too long ago that Wright was one of the most desirable players in baseball, a five-tool third basemen seemingly destined for Cooperstown. Now he's on the sidelines again, and one has to wonder how much suffering he'll go through before deciding to stay there.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

2017 MLB Award Predictions

Can anyone challenge Mike Trout? (LA Times)
Seeing that Chris Sale was tabbed as the Cy Young frontrunner in the American League while researching my last post got me thinking about who will take home the hardware this fall. Here are my picks:

AL MVP: Mike Trout
Trout has never been better, coming off his second 10-win season and about to enter a player's traditional prime at age 25. He led the majors in walks (116), runs (123), OBP (.441), and OPS+ (174) last year while smacking 29 homers, stealing 30 bases and driving in 100. As always, the biggest obstacle to Trout winning the award will be his teammates, who project to be not very good and will inevitably open the door for a lesser player on a contender to challenge Trout. Of the mere mortals, Josh Donaldson probably has the best chance after averaging 7.8 bWAR over the past four seasons, but his team may also struggle to stay above .500. Same goes for Manny Machado, who's not quite Donaldson's equal as a hitter but is a superior fielder and is still improving. Mookie Betts and Jose Altuve will give Trout a run, too, though I'm not convinced either will duplicate last year's power spikes. If Trout wins he'll become the youngest three-time winner in baseball history.

AL Cy Young: Corey Kluber
As noted above, Sale is the early favorite, and I could see him winning if he pitches as well as he did last year and wins 22 games instead of 17 thanks to Boston's better, well, everything. But he's a lefty in Fenway, so it wouldn't surprise me if he winds up with the highest ERA of his career (which is currently 3.41), especially if his strikeout rate doesn't rebound. New rotation-mate David Price could bounce back if his elbow holds up, although Rick Porcello is bound to regress along with several other top finishers from last year, including J.A. Happ, Aaron Sanchez, Zach Britton, and Justin Verlander (don't hate me, Kate Upton). My money's on Kluber, the 2014 recipient who placed third last year after leading the league in FIP (3.26), ERA+ (149) and shutouts (2). Cleveland looks poised to run away with the division this year, which should help him win a healthy number of games. And while he turns 31 ten days into April, his arm has a lot less mileage (887 1/3 innings) than most hurlers his age.

AL Rookie of the Year: Andrew Benintendi
It's been a decade since the Red Sox had continuity in left field (miss you, Manny Ramirez), but that's about to change real soon. Benintendi dazzled during last year's call-up, proving he's the real deal by slashing .295/.359/.476 with 14 extra-base hits in 34 games. Recently named baseball's top prospect, he appears ready to set the league on fire this year at the age of 22. There's been talk of batting him third in Boston's lineup, which could result in some impressive counting stats if he sticks there all season. He'll likely lose some playing time to Chris Young if he doesn't improve against lefties, however, after batting just .179 with no extra-base knocks against them last year.

AL Comeback Player of the Year: Michael Brantley
Brantley suited up for just 11 games in a lost 2016 and was notably absent from Cleveland's World Series run, making it easy to forget the guy who batted .319/.382/.494 over the previous two seasons. Look for the nearly-30-year-old to get back on track this year and spark the Indians to another division title.

NL MVP: Bryce Harper
Harper looked well on his way to a second straight MVP last April, slugging nine home runs with 24 RBIs and a 1.274 OPS over his first 19 games before a shoulder injury reduced him to a league-average hitter the rest of the way. Now fully healthy, expect the 24-year-old to mimic his Ted Williams-esque production from two years ago for a Nationals team seeking its fourth division title in six years. If he's unable to stay on the field, however, reigning winner Kris Bryant is looming and Corey Seager could be even better as a sophomore. Don't sleep on Nolan Arenado either if the Rockies compete this year.

NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw
If Kershaw's healthy, he's pretty much a lock. He missed a third of the season last year and still finished fifth. Nobody was better on a per-inning basis, and he was every bit as dominant when he returned from his back injury in September. If Kershaw wins again this will be his fourth, putting him in elite company with Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson as the only hurlers with more than three. If the injury bug bites again, however, the race becomes crowded by the likes of Max Scherzer, Madison Bumgarner, and Noah Syndergaard.

NL Rookie of the Year: Dansby Swanson
Swanson shined in his 38-game debut last year, batting .302/.361/.442 for an Atlanta team that fell out of contention on Opening Day. They project to be better in 2017, however, and getting a full season from 2015's first overall draft pick can only help. The 23-year-old may have a Francisco Lindor-type season in store.

NL Comeback Player of the Year: Kyle Schwarber
After missing all but two regular season games along with the NLDS and NLCS, Schwarber returned for the World Series and didn't skip a beat, batting .412 with a .500 OBP against Cleveland's stingy staff. The 24-year-old should be all-systems-go for 2017 and will look to build off the .842 OPS he flashed as a rookie in 2015.

Sale Already a Savior

Sale was solid in Monday's Spring Training debut (Chowder and Champions)
It's been a little more than three months since the Red Sox rocked the sports world by trading for Chris Sale, and I'm still having trouble eating solid food. That's because my jaw is still unhinged from when I first heard the news of baseball's biggest offseason maneuver, a stunning blockbuster that altered the courses of both franchises for years to come. Four months after courting Sale at the trade deadline, Boston finally got its man -- at an exorbitant price.

Only now is it starting to sink in. Sale made his first appearance with his new team in Spring Training this week, and it went reasonably well. He didn't dominate, but he "felt strong," which is all anyone cares about this time of year. The rust will dissipate, the command will come.

Of course, any other news would have been worrisome. It was Sale's first start -- he should feel strong. But with the aftershocks from last week's David Price scare still reverberating throughout New England, a positive update on his co-ace was highly encouraging for Red Sox Nation. At least one of Boston's elite arms is healthy.

Most teams don't even have a pitcher like Price to begin with, and the ones that do could hardly afford to lose him. The Red Sox can, however, because they are in a unique position. They have a younger, better version of Price in Sale -- a poor man's Clayton Kershaw. If the whitecoats pronounced Price out for the season tomorrow, Boston could still be reasonably expected to win 90 games and the AL East. That speaks to how good the rest of their roster is, as well as Sale's ability to carry a staff.

That's what the Red Sox envisioned when they mortgaged their future for him. Boston failed to land Sale at the deadline, settling for Drew Pomeranz instead, but upped the ante when Chicago made him available again during baseball's winter meetings. Once Dave Dombrowski fixates on a player, he'll do whatever it takes to acquire him, whether that's shell out over $200 million for Prince Fielder (and Price) or strip his franchise of its most coveted prospects.

Given that Boston already runs one of the highest payrolls in professional sports, Dombrowski's resorted to cannibalizing its once-bright farm system in a series of trades for Pomeranz, Craig Kimbrel, Tyler Thornburg, and now Sale. No team had ever traded the number one prospect before, until Dealin' Dave flipped Yoan Moncada to the White Sox along with Michael Kopech -- a flamethrower who's been clocked at 105 -- and a pair of decent throw-ins (Victor Diaz and Luis Alexander Basabe, both of whom have big league potential). Boston boasted the sport's best farm system when Dombrowski took over in August, 2015. Eighteen months later, they have one of the worst.

The transformation at the Major League level has been equally swift, however, as Dombrowski's wheeling and dealing paid immediate dividends. A last place team when Dombrowski arrived on the scene, the Red Sox won the division in their first full year under his watch and enter 2017 as favorites to make the World Series. Not since 2011 have the Sox been so star-studded.

Their loaded roster is a byproduct of Dombrowski's eternal commitment to winning now, future be damned. Whereas his predecessor, Ben Cherington, was a conservative prospect-hugger who preferred to open his checkbook for players he wanted, Dombrowski never met a prospect he wouldn't trade (not even Andrew Benintendi, baseball's new number one prospect and already a fan favorite, was safe). Their wildly different approaches manifested in the players they pursued; Cherington sought mid-tier, impact veterans such as Shane Victorino, Hanley Ramirez, and Pablo Sandoval, whereas Dombrowski reaches for the stars. Cherington didn't acquire a true superstar during his four years at the helm, while Dombrowski has already acquired two future Hall of Fame starters and the decade's best closer in half the time. Cherington's 2015 club didn't have an ace; Dombrowski obtained two in the span of 12 months.

There's a new sheriff in town, and a trigger-happy gunslinger at that.
Price has struggled with his health and performance in Boston (CBS Boston)
It was this sweeping shift in philosophy that made the Sale swap possible, because Cherington never would have had the stomach for it. To get a lot you need to give a lot in return, and Dombrowski was willing to pony up. Boston got another ace to pair with Price, giving them their best 1-2 pitching punch since Curt Schilling joined Pedro Martinez in 2004. Chicago netted a budding superstar and a potential ace in return, accelerating its rebuild with what Dave Cameron hailed as the winter's best transaction.

Indeed, the future is bright for both sides. The Red Sox are the prohibitive favorites in the AL East and a top-five team despite losing David Ortiz -- the best hitter in baseball last year -- to retirement. The White Sox now have the foundation for a winning team and should emerge as contenders by decade's end. On paper, the trade was a classic win-win.

And yet, I was admittedly lukewarm about the Sale acquisition when it was announced back in December. I felt then, and still feel now, that Boston overpaid for Sale's services. They gave up six years of Moncada for three years of Sale, plus whatever Kopech and co. provide (which could be substantial, given how hard Kopech and Diaz throw and the tools Basabe displayed as a teenager). If Moncada and Kopech realize their potential, this trade is a clear win for Chicago. If all four do, it will be disgustingly lopsided.

What bothered me most about the trade, however, was that the Red Sox didn't need Sale. They already had an ace and one of the best rotations in baseball, finishing top-10 in ERA and fWAR last year. Their stable featured two Cy Young winners (Price and Rick Porcello) at the top, two 2016 All-Stars (Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz), and a likely future All-Star in Eduardo Rodriguez. They still had Clay Buchholz at the time too, another former All-Star and occasional Cy Young contender when healthy, but quickly dumped him on Philadelphia after Sale made him expendable.

For all of Buchholz's struggles last year, he was a meaningful contributor in a variety of roles and was a dominant starter as recently as 2015. He still provided value last year despite posting the
second-worst ERA (4.78) and highest FIP (5.06) of his career, and almost certainly would have pitched better this year, especially if used exclusively in relief. He could have given this year's outfit something if not depth, but obviously Dombrowski felt differently. Gaining Sale meant losing Buchholz along with the aforementioned prospects -- too much, in my estimation.

And so I did not feel the ecstasy that baseball fans are supposed to feel when their team scores an ace, the way I felt when the Sox got Schilling and Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka. Too much had been sacrificed to fill a void that did not exist, to make an already great team marginally better. It did nothing to address the gaping hole in the middle of Boston's lineup, which most agreed was the team's most pressing issue entering the offseason and one that could have been readily filled by any number of inexpensive right-handed sluggers (Mike Napoli, Chris Carter, Mark Trumbo, et. all) who would have fit perfectly in Fenway. If Dombrowski wanted to make a splash, he could have wooed Edwin Encarnacion or Jose Bautista a moderate sum. Instead, he paid a king's ransom for Sale and signed Mitch Moreland to man first.

Circumstances have changed since December, however, and now Sale appears even more valuable. With Price's 31-year-old elbow in question and his future uncertain, it's comforting to know that Boston still has someone to lead the rotation. Were it not for Sale that would have been Porcello, who's had one great year in his eight-year career and is more of a number two at best. The pressure on him would have been enormous, and we all remember how well (or rather, how poorly) he performed the last time he faced sustained pressure after signing his huge contract extension early in 2015. His postseason numbers (0-3, 5.66 ERA) tell a similar story.

Sale has never pitched in October, but he has fronted a staff for the past half-decade. All he's done during that time is make five straight All-Star teams and finish in the top six of Cy Young voting every year. Last year he focused on pitching deeper into games and recorded a career-high 226 2/3 innings -- just 10 outs shy of Price's ML-leading 230 -- and won 17 games for a losing team. He could easily win 20 on the Sox and possibly the Cy which has eluded him. Sale can be counted on for over 200 quality innings, a similar number of strikeouts and an ERA around three -- the same steady production for which Boston made Price the highest-paid pitcher in history. If both stay healthy, the Red Sox should have one of the best rotations in baseball and will be difficult to beat come playoff time.

Dombrowski drew a fair amount of criticism for going all-in on Sale. After investing nearly a quarter-billion dollars in Price the previous winter, it was hard for him to justify doubling down on another ace. Sale was a luxury Boston didn't need. But when you splurge on a sports car the warranty becomes an afterthought, and whether they knew it or not the Red Sox were essentially getting an insurance policy on Price in Sale. And like all insurance policies, you never truly appreciate it until you need it.

Friday, January 20, 2017

17 To Watch in 2017

After breaking out in 2016, is Sanchez headed for a sophomore slump? (CBS Sports)
Some players performed far below their standards last year, while others will look to build on unprecedented success. Here are 17 worth following in 2017.

1. Byron Buxton
The second overall pick of the 2012 draft has struggled at the plate, batting .220/.274/.398 in 138 big league games thus far. The 23-year-old was demoted last summer but showed promise after returning to the majors in September, smacking nine home runs and flashing a 1.022 OPS over the season's final month. The toolsy center fielder is already worth watching for his ridiculous range, but if he starts hitting he'll become a star.

2. Gary Sanchez
Sanchez set the world on fire as a 23-year-old rookie last summer, smashing 20 home runs in just 201 official at-bats. The most he ever hit during a minor league season was 18 (twice), so it will be interesting to see how his power numbers shake out, especially since his 40% HR/FB ratio was the highest of any player with at least 50 plate appearances. He probably won't keep hitting like Babe Ruth, but he should be good for 30 homers in a full slate of games.

3. Julio Urias
Urias held his own after debuting at the tender age of 19 last year, compiling a 3.39 ERA, a 3.17 FIP and a 9.8 K/9 rate across 77 innings. His command (3.6 BB/9) could use some polish, but he's already one of the game's best young moundsmen.

4. Andrew McCutchen
Few players saw their stock tumble as much in 2016 as McCutchen, who went from one of the NL's best batsmen in 2015 to a barely league average hitter last year. The former MVP appeared to be pressing too much to dig out from a slow start, but ultimately finished strong and may be poised for a big bounce back in his age-30 season.

5. Jason Heyward
Heyward cratered after signing an eight-year, $184 million deal with the Cubs last offseason, looking completely and utterly lost as he slashed .230/.306/.325 with a career-low seven homers. He's in the heart of his prime at 27 and had a career .768 OPS prior to last season, so the smart money's on him bouncing back, although it remains to be seen how he'll fare with his re-tooled swing.

6. Pablo Sandoval
Kung Fu Panda's been a huge bust since signing a five-year, $95 million deal with Boston two winters ago, and is coming off a season in which he lost his starting job and played three games before requiring surgery. The 30-year-old is still young enough to replicate his San Francisco success, which may happen now that he appears to be in great shape. The Red Sox are counting on him to produce (in what will be a pivotal year for him) after trading Travis Shaw and Yoan Moncada during the offseason.

7. Bryce Harper
His OPS dropped nearly 300 points from 2015 as his production returned to his pre-MVP levels. It's widely assumed that Harper was playing through a shoulder injury last year, which may explain why he fell off after a hot start. Still just 24, can he recapture the Ted Williams-like greatness he displayed two seasons ago?

8. Yasiel Puig
What happened to this guy? Once one of the game's brightest talents and a budding superstar, his OPS has decreased every year since he debuted in 2013. The Dodgers seemed to give up on him last year, putting him on waivers after demoting him in August. That seemed to light a fire under Puig, who tore up Triple-A and returned to LA with a vengeance in September. He could bounce back at 26...if he stops coasting on his natural tools and shows the focus required to succeed over 162 games.
Are Brad Miller's and Daniel Murphy's revamped power strokes legit? (ESPN)
 9. Brad Miller
Miller came out of nowhere to slug 30 homers last year, nearly tripling his previous career high of 11. While his 20.4% HR/FB rate was almost double his previous best, exceeding the likes of noted power hitters such as Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Donaldson, and Todd Frazier, there are several indications his power surge was legitimate. He pulled the ball more than ever before and appeared to sell out more often, striking out at the highest clip of his career. When he did make contact, however, he inflicted more damage, as improved exit velocity resulted in the best hard-hit rate and average batted ball distance of his career. Only one player in Rays history has produced consecutive 30-homer seasons (Carlos Pena); could Miller be the second?

10. Jose Bautista
Bautista made waves last winter by announcing his desire for a five-year, $150 million contract, but he didn't get anything close to that on the heels of his worst season this decade. He drew little interest after batting .234/.366/.452 with 22 homers in 116 games last year, leading him to return to Toronto on a one-year deal. Back in familiar confines north of the border, the 36-year-old will try to reverse two straight seasons of decline.

11. David Price
Price had his worst season since his rookie year after signing the largest contract ever for a pitcher last winter. He pitched better after a slow start, but just didn't look like himself for most of the year( except for July and August, his ERA was over four every month). His velocity was down, which explains why his strikeout rate declined and how he allowed the most hits in the majors. His walk rate also went up, which spoke to how uncomfortable/easily frustrated he appeared at times, which led to a lot of bad innings. It usually takes players a year to get used to Boston, even aces like him (see Josh Beckett and John Lackey), but the stats indicate his best days may already be behind him.

12. Rich Hill
Hill pitched like a Cy Young contender last year when healthy, but recurring blisters limited him to just 20 starts. He's exceeded that number only once -- all the way back in 2007 -- and it's hard to see him suddenly becoming a workhorse at age 37. Still, he's in a prime position to succeed with Los Angeles (one of the friendliest pitching environments in the majors -- just ask Zack Greinke) and could be a great sidekick for Clayton Kershaw.

13. Daniel Murphy
Murphy carried over his Ruthian postseason performance in 2015 into the '16 regular season, emerging as one of the National League's top hitters. In addition to pacing the senior circuit with 47 doubles, a .595 slugging and a .985 OPS, he batted .347 and socked 25 homers with 104 RBIs. Can he approach similar numbers in his age 32 season? Or will he regress into the .288/.331/.424 hitter he was before last year?

14. Matt Harvey
Harvey's 2016 was utterly disastrous, as he went 4-10 with a 4.86 ERA before being shut down for thoracic outlet surgery. Gotham's Dark Knight is expected to be fully recovered and will try to get re-establish himself as one of baseball's premier hurlers.

15. Clayton Kershaw
Kershaw continued to be the best pitcher on the planet last year, producing mind-boggling numbers such as a 1.69 ERA, a 1.80 FIP, a 0.73 WHIP, a 0.7 BB/9, and a 15.64 (!!!) K/BB ratio. Were it not for a back injury that caused him to miss about a dozen starts, he would have cruised to a fourth Cy Young and possibly another MVP. He's never been better as he prepares to enter his age-29 season.

16. Adrian Beltre
Last year Ichiro Suzuki became the 30th big leaguer with 3,000 hits. This year, Beltre becomes the 31st. He's only 58 knocks away from the magic number, which he could reach by Memorial Day. He's also on the cusp of several other round numbers, including 450 homers (five away), 600 doubles (nine away), 1,600 RBIs (29 away), 5,000 total bases (60 away), and 1,500 runs (72 away). Only three players have eclipsed all those milestones; Hank Aaron, Stan Musial, and Carl Yastrzemski. You're in pretty good company, Mr. Beltre.

17. Mike Trout
2017 will be Trout's age-25 season, meaning he's entering what is traditionally considered a player's prime. Good luck, AL pitchers. You're gonna need it.

Monday, January 9, 2017

MLB's 16 Best of 2016

Betts would have been the best of 2016, were it not for Trout (Suffolk Voice)
Counting down the 16 best baseball players of 2016 while the season's still (relatively) fresh in our minds:

1. Mike Trout
After becoming more of a strikeout-prone slugger in 2014 and '15, Trout returned to his five-tool roots by replicating his marvelous 2012 campaign. His 123 runs, 116 walks, .441 OBP, 174 OPS+ and 10.6 bWAR were all tops in the Majors, leaving the BBWAA no choice but to vote him MVP despite his team's 74-88 record. Trout also totaled 29 home runs, 100 RBI, and 30 steals in 37 attempts while slashing his strikeout rate to 20.1 percent -- the second lowest mark of his career.The 25-year-old generational talent has never been better.

2. Mookie Betts
In a universe where Mike Trout doesn't exist, Betts runs away with the 2016 AL MVP award. Instead, he finishes second despite amassing 9.6 bWAR and leading the Majors with 359 total bases. Betts was the complete package last year, batting .318/.363/.534 with 31 homers and 26 steals while winning a Gold Glove for his work in right field. He also knocked in 113 runs despite leading off 109 games for Boston. Like Bryce Harper, he's only 24.

3. Kris Bryant
Bryant followed up his unanimous Rookie of the Year campaign with a near-unanimous MVP run, scoring all but one first place vote after pacing the Senior Circuit with 121 runs and 7.7 bWAR for the World Champion Cubbies. Bryant improved significantly as a hitter in his sophomore campaign, slashing his strikeout rate from 30.6 percent to 22.6 percent while adding even more power. With above average defense and baserunning to go with his elite bat, he's already a superstar entering his age-25 season.

4. Jose Altuve
Houston had a disappointing season in 2016, but Altuve's was the best of his career. In addition to winning his second batting title (.338) and leading the Majors in hits with 216, he achieved personal bests in home runs (24), RBI (96), OBP (.396) and slugging (.531). The diminutive second baseman has steadily improved his power stroke over the past three seasons, emerging as a perennial MVP candidate.

5. Josh Donaldson
Donaldson continued to produce at an MVP level, notching his fourth straight season with at least 7.0 WAR after clubbing 37 home runs and slashing .284/.404/.549 (155 wRC+). He also became more selective or pitchers started being more afraid of him, as his 109 walks were easily a career high.

6. Robinson Cano
Cano carried his torrid second half of 2015 all the way through last season, belting a career-high 39 home runs (more than the previous two years combined) while batting .298/.350/.533. His defense also returned to his previous Gold Glove level after slipping below average last year, helping him amass 7.3 bWAR. He now has more than 60 for his career and would be a Hall of Famer if he retired tomorrow.

7. Daniel Murphy
Murphy transformed from a solid, two-win second baseman into MVP runner-up overnight, starting with his Babe Ruth impersonation during last year's playoffs. He nearly won the batting title last year at .347 while launching 25 home runs -- more than he had in the previous two seasons combined (23). His power surge was no fluke, either, as his 47 doubles and .595 slugging led the NL. It's hard to believe this is the same guy who hit nine home runs and barely slugged .400 in 2014.

8. Manny Machado
Machado essentially replicated his 2015 breakout campaign at the plate, creating the same number of runs (113) while adding a bit more power to finish with career highs in runs (105), homers (37), RBIs (96), total bases (341) and slugging (.533). He also transferred his excellent defense from third base to shortstop for a good chunk of time while JJ Hardy was on the mend, even if the switch likely cost him a second straight Gold Glove at the hot corner.

9. Brian Dozier
After several seasons as one of baseball's most underrated stars, Dozier etched his name in history by becoming the first American Leaguer to sock 40 home runs while manning the keystone. He belted 42 in all, 23 of which came during the season's final two months. His career year went largely unnoticed during Minnesota's ghastly season, and led to his finishing 13th in the MVP race despite totaling 6.5 bWAR. More than a slugger, he's also an above average defender and baserunner (18 steals in 20 attempts).
Kershaw was superhuman despite missing 1/3 of the season (Pixels Talk)
10. Clayton Kershaw
Kershaw was having his best season ever when a back injury sidelined him in late June. He returned in September without skipping a beat, then finally exorcised his postseason demons by nailing down the last two outs of NLDS Game 5 with the winning run on base. His regular season was so otherworldly, however, that he finished fifth in the Cy Young vote despite missing two and a half months. He went 12-4 with a 1.69 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and a 1.80 FIP. He also paced the Majors with three shutouts despite making only 21 starts. Most impressively, he walked just 11 batters in 149 innings and his 15.64 K/BB ratio was the best in history.

11. Nolan Arenado
Arenado proved 2015's power spike was legit, leading the league in homers (41), RBI (133), and total bases (352) for the second straight year. He also showed the ability to reach base at an above-average clip for the first time in his career, doubling his walk rate to boost his OBP from .323 in '15 to .362. Throw in a near-.300 batting average (.294) and a fourth consecutive Gold Glove, and he's a bona fide star (6.5 bWAR). His numbers are much better at Coors, but his 16 road homers and .832 OPS away from home indicate he can hit anywhere.

12. Adrian Beltre
Beltre continues to age like fine wine, turning in one of the best seasons ever by a 37-year-old third sacker last year. His power returned after two straight seasons with less than 20 homers, as he totaled is most home runs (32) and RBIs (104) since 2012. In addition to batting .300/.358/.521 (130 wRC+), he netted his fifth Gold Glove for still being a human vacuum cleaner at the hot corner. Just 58 hits shy of 3,000 for his career, Beltre figures to reach several milestones this year, including 1,500 runs (72 away), 1,600 RBIs (29) away), 600 doubles (nine away), and 450 homers (five away). He's quickly turning into a slam-dunk Hall of Famer.

13. Max Scherzer
Scherzer's numbers were nearly identical to 2015's, when he finished fifth in the Cy Young voting, but he won the award after his record improved from 14-12 to 20-7. He topped the circuit in wins, innings (228 1/3), and K/BB ratio (5.07) while leading the Majors with 284 strikeouts and a 0.97 WHIP. Scherzer wasn't the best pitcher in the National League last year (that was Kershaw), but his combination of excellence and durability made him the top choice. His signature performance came against his former team -- the Tigers -- on May 11, when he became just the third pitcher ever to whiff 20 batters in a nine-inning game. That was his first double-digit strikeout performance of the year, but he would notch a dozen more (over 26 starts) before the season was through.

14. Joey Votto
Votto batted .207/.330/.367 through the season's first 50 games, causing many to question whether the 32-year-old was toast. He proceeded to hit .377/.479/.630 the rest of the way, proving he's still as lethal as ever. His .434 OBP and 160 OPS+ led the National League, while his .326 average was the second-highest mark of his career.

15. Justin Verlander
For the second time in the past five seasons, Verlander finished second in a Cy Young race he deserved to win (Kate Upton apparently thinks so). David Price robbed him of consecutive Cy's in 2012, and Price's current teammate Rick Porcello stole another election from him four years later. He was basically the AL equivalent of Madison Bumgarner, who was just a hair worse than Scherzer. His 254 strikeouts, 1.00 WHIP and 6.6 pitching bWAR all led the American League, and he finished just 2 1/3 frames shy of Price for the league-lead. If he can lower his home run rate (1.2 HR/9) next year, he may win the second Cy that has eluded him since 2011.

16. David Ortiz
All Ortiz did was have the greatest season ever by a quadragenarian hitter. The 40-year-old's 48 doubles, .620 slugging and 1.021 OPS all led the Majors, while his 127 RBI topped the American League. It wasn't a picture-perfect ending for the Sox slugger, as he managed just one hit while his team was swept out of the ALDS, but Ted Williams ain't got sh*t on him.