Friday, June 30, 2017

Aaron Judge is the New Mike Trout

With Trout sidelined, Judge has been dominating baseball (The Current)
It's been over a month since Mike Trout landed on the disabled list with a torn ligament in his left thumb, thereby opening the door for someone else to claim the title of Best Player in Baseball, if only for a while. Even if Trout hadn't gotten hurt, however, there's a good chance he would have relinquished his crown anyways, because Aaron Judge has been every bit as good.

When Trout went down, he was slashing an absurd .337/.461/.742 -- good for a 208 wRC+ and a .475 wOBA. Through yesterday, Judge was batting .331/.451/.699, which translates to a 200 wRC+ and a .470 wOBA. Not only are those numbers nearly identical to Trout's, but they've been sustained over an additional 28 games and 122 plate appearances. Excluding Freddie Freeman, who's also hurt and hasn't played in six weeks, no one else is even close to those numbers.

Judge isn't merely a one-dimensional slugger, either. He's stolen six bases in eight attempts, and isn't the liability on the bases like most elite power hitters. He doesn't have the game-changing speed of a Trout or Billy Hamilton, but he runs well for a man his size, which has helped him score an MLB-high 70 runs this year. FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference only credit Trout for contributing 1-2 more runs than Judge on the bases -- a fraction of a win in the grand scheme of things.

And while Judge isn't going to win a Gold Glove for his work in right field, he holds his own on defense. He has a strong throwing arm and decent range, while his wingspan and length allow him to reach balls that smaller players might miss. For all of Trout's home run robberies and jaw-dropping catches, it's important to remember that he has never won a Gold Glove, either, and that side from his rookie season, he has never rated as a great defender. Both B-R and FG have Judge as the superior outfielder this season by roughly 0.2 wins, which cancels out Trout's advantage on the bases.

So with mirroring batting lines and equal contributions outside the batter's box, Trout and Judge have been essentially the same player this year. If Judge keeps it up, he'll finish the season with over 10 WAR (both versions), which is something that only Trout has done since 2004. He's pretty much a lock to win Rookie of the Year at this point, and he'll probably win MVP, too, which not even Trout was able to accomplish as a freshman.

The similarities don't end there, either. They've both dominated in their first full season after struggling during brief cups of coffee, emerging as fully-formed baseball gods. They're both 25 and play for big-market teams but aren't quite comfortable in the spotlight, projecting the aw-shucks personality that made Mickey Mantle (whom both have been compared to) so endearing. They wow fans and teammates with their superhuman feats on the ball field, but off the field they appear to be regular guys. They're clean cut, avoid controversy and stay away from drugs, alcohol, or any other vice that would compromise their tremendous skills. They're more Roger Maris than Mantle in that sense, and they're nothing like fellow prodigy Bryce Harper. They're living proof that you don't need to grow wild hair or fight pitchers to make baseball fun again; all they have to do is play the game to the best of their ability.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

My NL All-Star Picks

Harper has the potential to dominate the ASG (Sporting News)
Voting ends in under 10 hours! Here are my National League picks (more tough ones than in the American League, I think), with all stats current through yesterday:

C Buster Posey
It's Posey and everyone else in the Senior Circuit this year, as he's been one of the few bright spots on a putrid Giants team with his .344/.422/.529 line (155 wRC+). His 10 homers are tied with Yasmany Grandal for most at the position in the NL, and his 3.0 fWAR lead the field comfortably (nobody else has two).

1B Paul Goldschmidt
The best offensive player in baseball deserves the nod here. Eric Thames and Ryan Zimmerman have cooled down considerably from their hot starts, while Freddie Freeman still hasn't returned from the wrist injury he sustained in May. Joey Votto is having a great first half for once, but he's essentially been a lesser version of Goldschmidt.

2B Daniel Murphy
Josh Harrison's neck-and-neck in WAR but Murphy blows him away on offense, as he's essentially replicating the MVP-caliber year he had at the plate last season with a .339/.391/.578 line and 14 homers.

3B Justin Turner
Arenado's locked into a ridiculously close race with Kris Bryant, but the real battle should be between Anthony Rendon and Justin Turner, who are presently tied atop the NL WAR leaderboard with 3.3 apiece. Rendon's had a sneaky-good year for Washington despite being overshadowed by Bryce Harper, Max Scherzer, and others, while Turner is batting an insane .379/.466/.535 thanks to his .414 BABIP. Turner's clearly been the best hitter at the position this year in either league, putting up numbers that shouldn't be possible in Coors Field, let alone the pitcher's paradise of Dodger Stadium. It's telling that Turner leads NL third basemen in FanGraphs offensive value despite playing just 55 games thus far, which is why I'm giving him my vote (it also helps that he's been a plus on defense).

SS Corey Seager
This is a two-horse race between Zack Cozart and Corey Seager, who are almost indistinguishable in terms of value. Cozart has been the best-hitting shortstop in the NL this year, but Seager gets on base at the exact same rate and has played 15 more games. Defensively they're both excellent, and offensively it's very close when you account for their home parks, as Seager's is brutal on hitters whereas Cozart's is quite generous. When it's too close to call for All-Star candidates I defer to the one with more star power (it is an All-STAR game, after all), which in this case is Seager.

OF Bryce Harper
When your life's mission is making baseball fun again and you have hair like this, you kind of have to be in the All-Star Game.

OF Marcell Ozuna
Having a very underrated season, batting .315/.378/.565 with 20 homers already. If you asked fans to pick a Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton would win in a landslide, but Ozuna has the same number of homers and leads his teammate in most offensive categories, hence why his fWAR total is nearly twice as great (2.7 - 1.5). Ozuna got off to a huge start last year before fading in the second half, so it remains to be seen if he can sustain this level of play for an entire season.

OF Cody Bellinger
It's close between him and Charlie Blackmon, but Bellinger has the same number of fWAR (2.4) in 19 fewer games and has been obliterating baseballs lately. He's much more fun to watch than Blackmon and is a far better hitter after taking their home parks into account. He's also on pace for a bajillion home runs (roughly) and needs to be on the field so someone can replicate this picture with him and Aaron Judge.

If fans got to pick a starter I'd vote Max Scherzer, who's surpassed Clayton Kershaw as the best pitcher in baseball this year (for now).

My AL All-Star Picks

Houston's double-play combo deserves to start the All-Star Game (
All-Star voting ends at midnight tonight, which means it's time to cast those last-minute votes for the Midsummer Classic if you haven't already. Here are mine, with all stats through June 28:

C Alex Avila
Gary Sanchez is a bigger star, Salvador Perez has larger counting stats, and Brian McCann is having a vintage season, but Avila has been the American League's top catcher in the first half with a .321/.435/.597 slash line (174 wRC+) in 191 plate appearances (only 14 fewer than Sanchez). He's been the best-hitting backstop in baseball this year and leads AL receivers in fWAR with 2.4 (nobody else has more than 1.9), making him a fairly easy choice.

The only problem is Avila's not on the ballot, so I have to write him in. This is the problem with starting All-Star voting in April, as James McCann was Detroit's primary catcher at the time with Avila relegated to backup duties. Their roles have flipped, however, due to McCann's slow start and
Avila's monstrous performance.

Avila's resurgence has been one of the biggest surprises of the first half given that he'd batted just .222/.337/.362 from 2012-2016, making his 2011 All-Star nod look like a fluke and distant memory. Now 30, he's looking like a Comeback Player of the Year candidate after playing fewer than 70 games in a backup role each of the past two seasons.

1B Logan Morrison
Tough call here between LoMo, Yonder Alonso and Justin Smoak, since all three have almost identical batting lines. I immediately eliminated Smoak on the basis of his home park being much friendlier, then give Morrison the edge over Alonso for sustaining his performance over an additional 50 plate appearances (roughly 1/6 of the season thus far). It's also a point in Morrison's favor that his 22 dingers are tops for an AL first-sacker.

2B Jose Altuve
Altuve enjoys a comfortable lead in fWAR at the position with 3.5 -- more than a win higher than anyone else. His traditional stats back it up, as he's slashing .328/.402/.527 (150 wRC+ -- the highest for a qualified second baseman) with 11 homers and 14 steals.

3B Jose Ramirez
Miguel Sano should have been the pick here, but a .167/.242/.333 slump since June 9 has caused his OPS to fall more than 100 points, allowing the surging Ramirez to edge ahead:

Ramirez: .322/.377/.557 145 wRC+ .391 wOBA 2.9 fWAR
Sano:      .274/.375/.548 140 wRC+ .384 wOBA 2.3 fWAR

Ramirez is also a superior fielder and has maintained his numbers over 25 more PA's, so Sano would need to have a significant offensive lead to wrestle the spot away. This is a good example of why you should wait until the last possible moment to vote, as a few good or bad weeks can dramatically alter a player's candidacy.

SS Carlos Correa
Francisco Lindor jumped out to an early lead and Xander Bogaerts isn't far behind, but Correa's recovered from a slow start to lead AL shortstops in a host of categories, including counting stats like fWAR (2.8), homers (14, tied with Lindor), runs (52) and RBIs (49), as well as rate stats such as slugging (.514), OPS (.900), wRC+ (141), and wOBA (.380).

OF Aaron Judge

OF Mike Trout
Hasn't played in a month, but he was so good during his first two months that he still deserves a spot. He's been an All-Star every year since 2012, so let's preserve the streak.

OF George Springer
Has as many fWAR as Trout, albeit in 27 more games and 126 additional plate appearances. Still, it's not too often he'll be able to say that. There's a pretty big drop-off from Judge and Trout to Springer, but then there's another big drop-off from Springer, making him an easy choice for the third spot.

DH Corey Dickerson
Dickerson's rate stats are almost identical to Springer's. He's batting a robust .333/.373/.583 (154 wRC+) with a league-leading 103 hits, including 17 homers. He's producing like he did at Coors Field, except now he plays his home games in Tampa Bay's hitter's graveyard. The DH field is wide open this year without David Ortiz, and Edwin Encarnacion is still digging himself out from a miserable start. Dickerson's .381 BABIP suggests he won't necessarily be an All-Star in the second half, but right now he's the obvious choice.

If fans got to pick the starting pitcher, my vote would go to Chris Sale.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Is Carlos Beltran a Hall of Famer?

Beltran, pictured with the Rangers last season, is a worthy Hall of Famer (Sporting News)
A couple weeks ago when the Red Sox were playing the Astros, a friend asked me if Carlos Beltran is a Hall of Famer.

I answered in the affirmative, with the caveat that he won't get in on the first ballot and may need a few rounds of voting before receiving his plaque in Cooperstown. While Beltran is a clear Hall of Famer from a statistical standpoint, I can see why the support for his candidacy won't be overwhelming. His case has been built quietly over time, as he was never a player who could claim to be the best in baseball during any of his 20 seasons. He never dominated discussions or statistical leaderboards, and was never even a serious candidate for MVP. The fact that my friend posed this question in the first place reflects the doubt that exists among knowledgeable baseball fans who witnessed his entire career.

There shouldn't be much of a debate, however, as Beltran is one of the 10 greatest center fielders in baseball history by several measurements (Hall of Stats has him seventh, JAWs puts him eighth, and he's ninth in FanGraphs career WAR).  He's a near-perfect match for the average Hall of Famer at his position in terms of peak and career bWAR, with his career value almost evenly divided between peak (52%) and longevity (48%) per Hall of Stats. He's well above the Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor threshold as well, grading out a score of 126 when 100 gives a player a strong chance at induction.

All of that aligns with what Beltran produced on the field. For over a decade he was one of the best all-around players in baseball, routinely clearing 25 homers/steals and 100 runs/RBIs with a bat that was about 20 percent better than average after adjusting for league and park. His speed and smarts on the bases made him one of the 20 best baserunners of all time, helping him steal over 300 bases at a mind-bending 86.4 percent success rate (the highest ever for a player who spent at least a decade in the Major Leagues). He was also one of baseball's best defensive outfielders before knee surgery forced him to shift to right field in 2011, earning three consecutive Gold Gloves for his efforts. He might have won more had he not been so graceful, making difficult plays look easy.

Even after his defense and speed deteriorated in his mid-30s, he retained value until his 40th birthday as a slugging corner outfielder. That's what separates him from many borderline Hall of Famers who fell off in their early 30s, as lots of players have worthy peaks but lack the longevity needed to stand out. Beltran has both. There was a brief period at the start of the decade when his career appeared to be in decline, but he remained mostly healthy throughout the remainder of his 30s and had the kind of 20-homer, 2-3 WAR seasons that round out a Cooperstown resume. After appearing in just 145 games combined in his age-32 and 33 seasons, he averaged 138 games per year from ages 34-39 without suffering a drop-off in production:

Beltran 1999-2010: 134 G 23 HR 88 RBI .282/.359/.494 (119 OPS+)
Beltran 2011-2016: 138 G 24 HR 79 RBI .280/.343/.487 (126 OPS+)

Staying productive for so long enabled him to compiled some impressive career totals. By season's end, he'll have close to 1,600 runs and RBIs and more than 2,700 hits, which will include upwards of 550 doubles and 430 homers. Depending on which website you use, he'll either be just over or just under 70 career WAR -- squarely in the middle of the 60-80 range of most Hall of Famers. He's also one of only five players with at least 400 homers and 300 steals - a testament to his rare combination of elite speed and power.

While Beltran was never named MVP or led the league in any significant offensive category, he was consistently one of the baseball's top players for nearly two full decades, as evidenced by his nine All-Star selections. Since his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1999, Beltran has been the fifth-most valuable position player in terms of fWAR, trailing only Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Adrian Beltre, and Miguel Cabrera -- all of whom are surefire Hall of Famers. He was worth roughly eight more wins than Ichiro Suzuki -- another first-ballot Hall of Famer -- during that same span despite playing fewer games. While that works out to be only half a win per season, over time it adds up to be an additional MVP-caliber season that Beltran provided for his teams. And again, we're talking about a slam-dunk Hall of Famer in Ichiro.

So why won't Beltran get in right away? There's a couple reasons, I think. He bounced around a lot, suiting up for seven different teams and spending roughly half of his career in each league (when he gets in, he'll have a difficult choice to make about which hat to put on his plaque). As a result, he had several seasons that were split between two teams, including his near 40/40 season in 2004, when he switched leagues for the first time. '04 was the second-best season of his career after '06, but he only has a 12th place NL MVP vote to show for it because he spent the first half of the year in the Junior Circuit.

He was also doomed to be underrated for being great at everything rather than shining at one or two things, which is why his Baseball-Reference page is conspicuously devoid of black ink. He never had a signature season that stood out above the rest, as his career was defined more by sustained excellence than a brilliant peak (only one top-five MVP finish). Some of his brightest seasons occurred in relative obscurity with Kansas City in the early 2000s, when they were the laughingstock of baseball. Even though he won Rookie of the Year in '99, it took people a while to catch on, as he didn't draw MVP votes until 2003, wasn't named to an All-Star team until 2004, and didn't win his first Gold Glove until 2006. His Mets career is viewed as a mild disappointment, as his best years there were marred by late season collapses and playoff failure (the signature highlight of his career is not a game-winning homer or a spectacular catch, but the called strike three he took to end the 2006 NLCS). He also dealt with injuries and was traded away during the final year of his contract, after which he became a journeyman bat for hire.

He was a beast in October (David Ortiz-esque), but his team never won it all. That could change this year, as Beltran's Astros are looking like the Cubs from last year, albeit without much help from Beltran, who's suddenly showing his age at 40. That would be a nice way for Beltran to end his career, as his contract's up at the end of the season and he's unlikely to find work unless his hitting picks up in the second half. There would be nothing left for him to accomplish, anyways. He's already done enough -- more than enough -- to earn a plaque in baseball's Hall of Fame.

A History of Great Red Sox Outfields

The Red Sox have a long lineage of talented outfields (Boston Baseball Prospectus)
Before the season began there was an ungodly amount of hype surrounding Boston's young outfield of Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mookie Betts -- who, you might remember, made the cover of Sports Illustrated (thankfully, the jinx has spared them). Some went so far as to crown them the best outfield in team history, on par with the club's vaunted trio of Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, and Dwight Evans during the mid and late 1970s.

While the current crop certainly has that level of talent (Betts and Benintendi both have Hall of Fame ceilings, while Bradley could wind up being a modern day Reggie Smith), such talk is wildly premature. They haven't even played 100 games together yet! Benintendi's just 22, and it's far too early to project how his career will pan out. Betts -- a superstar on the rise -- has yet to celebrate his 25th birthday and stonewalled Boston's attempts to lock him up last winter, meaning his future in a Red Sox uniform is far from guaranteed. Bradley is the outfield's elder statesman at 27, and yet he's actually the most volatile in terms of performance due to his streakiness. His glove is amazing, but his ebbs and flows at the plate have led some to wonder whether he'll be Clay Buchholz with a bat in his hands.

In any event, this is shaping up to be an outstanding outfield for the next few years at least, and hopefully more. But the Red Sox have been often blessed with many great outfields, going back to their first dynasty a century ago.

Indeed, Boston's original golden outfield consisted of Duffy Lewis in left and Hall of Famers Tris Speaker in center and Harry Hooper in right. The trio led the Olde Towne Team to championships in 1912 and 1915 before Speaker was traded at the start of the '16 season. But so rich with pitching were the Sox that they still won it all without Speaker that year, then won again two years later with Babe Ruth caddying in right when he wasn't pitching.

Following the sale of Ruth in 1920, the Red Sox were largely bereft of talent at all positions throughout the next two decades, but by the late '30s they had once again assembled a stellar outfield. The 1938 trio of Joe Vosmik, Doc Cramer, and Ben Chapman all bettered .300, leaving no room for a brash 19-year-old rookie by the name of Ted Williams, who would have to wait until '39 to get his chance.

The Kid's arrival signaled a changing of the guard, as Dom DiMaggio joined him a year later. By the time Williams was chasing .400 in 1941, Boston had a completely new outfield from the one he'd been shut out of three years prior. Williams and DiMaggio were mainstays into the early '50s, when DiMaggio retired and Williams briefly departed for Korea, but in all that time the Red Sox never found a long-term right fielder to round out their trios. Sam Mele, Stan Spence, and Al Zarilla proved capable, but none stuck.

When Williams returned from Korea, he joined Jim Piersall in center and Jackie Jensen in right. By this point Williams was well into his 30s and increasingly banged up, missing an average of 36 games per season from 1954-1960. While still a fearsome hitter, he was unable to suit up enough to approximate his sublime production during the '40s, when he averaged just under 10 bWAR per season from 1941-1949. Piersall was a defensive wizard in the mold of his precessor, DiMaggio, but didn't stand out offensively. Jensen hit a lot of homers and drove in lots of runs, even stealing the MVP from a vastly more deserving Mickey Mantle in 1958.

The retirements of Williams and Jensen in the early 1960s paved the way for the next great Red Sox outfield, which came together during the franchise's dark days in the middle of the decade. Williams' replacement, Carl Yastrzemski, took over left field in 1961 and quickly emerged as one of the league's best at the position. He was joined in right three years later by teenaged phenom Tony Conigliaro, who immediately made his mark as one of the most prolific young sluggers in baseball history. Reggie Smith completed the outfield during the Impossible Dream summer of '67, finishing as AL Rookie of the Year runner-up. Unfortunately, Red Sox fans never got to see that outfield live up to its potential, as Tony C caught a fastball in the eye and was never the same.

It would be nearly a decade before Jim Ed and Freddie Lynn joined Dwight Evans in Boston, with both receiving cups of coffee in 1974 before bursting onto the scene as Rookie of the Year and MVP frontrunners in '75, leading the Red Sox to their first pennant since '67. The Gold Dust Twins, as they were called, were at their best from 1975-1979, but Evans didn't truly blossom as a hitter until the '80s, by which point Lynn was out west and Rice was past his prime. They never wonted for a third musketeer, however, as the likes of Tony Armas, Mike Greenwell, and Ellis Burks ensured that Boston always had one of the league's top outfields during the '80s.

Once Rice retired in 1989 and Evans left the following year, however, the Red Sox struggled to find an identity for their outfield. After decades of having Cooperstown-bound fixtures patrolling left, right, and center, the Red Sox filled their ranks with a motley crew of solid, if unexceptional veterans. Jack Clark, Otis Nixon, Troy O'LearyReggie Jefferson, Jose Canseco, and the legendary Tom Brunansky all rotated through. It was definitely a weird time for Red Sox outfields, with no real continuity to speak of.

That came to an end, briefly, in the early 2000s, when the Red Sox inked Manny Ramirez to an eight-year, $160 million deal before the 2001 season. He was joined the following season by Johnny Damon, giving the Red Sox an excellent outfield for the first half of the decade with Trot Nixon in right. Together they helped their beleaguered franchise end its 86-year curse in 2004, etching their names in Boston lore.

Until the Killer B's coalesced, however, the mid-2000s to mid-2010s resembled the '90s in that the outfield was constantly in flux. Left field became a revolving door after Manny forced his way out of town, with cameos from Jason Bay, Carl Crawford, Cody Ross, Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava, and Brock Holt. Coco Crisp didn't materialize into Damon 2.0 while Crisp's successor, Jacoby Ellsbury, was unbearably injury prone. J.D. Drew manned right field for five utterly forgettable seasons before fading away, while Shane Victorino had that one magical year during the 2013 World Series run before breaking down.

That brings us to today, with what is likely the most athletic outfield in Red Sox history. Boston essentially has three center fielders, as all three have played the position. Bradley and Betts are arguably the best defenders at their positions, and Benintendi isn't your typical first baseman/DH masquerading as a left fielder (looking at you, Hanley Ramirez). They're all fast and graceful and have great arms -- they all belong in the outfield. So they're probably the best defensive outfield the team has ever had, plus they can hit, too. And dance. Boy, can they dance.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Sox Pick Up Peralta, Fister

Fister joined the Bosox Friday and made his season debut two days later (CSNNE)
The Red Sox made a kiddie pool-sized splash on Friday by signing Jhonny Peralta to a Minor League deal and claiming Doug Fister off waivers. Peralta had been linked to Boston since St. Louis designated him for assignment earlier in the month, but the Fister move seemed to come more out of left field. While both were star players a few years ago, they have slipped considerably with age and are unlikely to contribute much to a Boston team that's clearly scrounging for reinforcements.

An All-Star as recently as 2015, Peralta's offense became below average (90 OPS+) as he battled injuries last year before bottoming out to .204/.259/.204 in 58 plate appearances with the Cardinals this year. Now 35, his OPS has fallen every year since 2013 and he's clearly in the twilight of his career. The three-time All-Star had a good run over the last decade, but it's hard to imagine him sparking the offense after failing to record an RBI or extra-base hit in 21 games this season.

Granted, third base has been a black hole for Boston this year, with Pablo Sandoval and co. combining to hit just .198/.250/.308 through Monday. Even a washed-up Peralta would do better than that, but how much better remains to be seen. The Sox are hoping he can find his swing in Pawtucket before calling him up, where Fenway would ostensibly help revitalize his sagging production, although it's worth remembering that the same plan failed with Allen Craig. Their best option remains cutting ties with Sandoval and promoting Rafael Devers, but good luck convincing the front office to swallow the remaining half of Panda's $95 million contract.

The Peralta pickup is reminiscent of last summer when the Red Sox traded not one, but two prospects to land a 34-year-old Aaron Hill from the Brewers. Hill was batting a solid .283/.359/.421 (106 OPS+) at the time but immediately fell apart after arriving in Boston, posting a lowly 53 OPS+ from there on out (Hill has been even worse for the Giants this year, so kudos to Milwaukee for selling high on Hill before he collapsed). At least Dealin' Dave didn't burn any prospects this time around, although he probably dangled a few before being reminded that no, sorry, you can't trade players when signing unrestricted free agents.

While Peralta has yet to take his first cuts in a Red Sox uniform, Fister was immediately thrown into the rotation and started Sunday's series finale against the Angels. While his quality start was encouraging, he's another player who's been trending in the wrong direction the past several seasons, as his walk rate his increased along with his WHIP every year since 2014. His ERA nearly doubled in that time, ballooning from 2.41 in '14 to 4.64 last year as his lack of strikeouts (career 6.0 K/9 rate) caught up with him. The 33-year-old doesn't throw hard and pitches to contact, which is a recipe for disaster at Fenway and in this new era of juiced baseballs. He'll merely be a back-of-the-rotation filler until Eduardo Rodriguez returns from the DL, but until then the Sox are merely hoping he can outpitch the likes of Hector Velazquez, Kyle Kendrick, and others who have filled this role for Boston lately.

With neither player likely to move the needle for the first-place Sox, the best explanation for these acquisitions might be that Dombrowski was familiar with them from their time on the Tigers earlier this decade, when both were markedly better players. Dombrowski originally traded for both, bringing Peralta over from the Indians in 2010 (and immediately re-signing him that winter) before dealing for Fister the following summer. Both excelled under Dombrowski's watch, with Peralta making two All-Star teams in his three full seasons with Detroit while Fister emerged as a solid mid-rotation starter behind Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer. Both were sent packing following Detroit's disastrous collapse to Boston in the 2013 ALCS as Peralta left via free agency and Fister was dealt to Washington (in one of the more widely criticized trades of recent times).

Dombrowski watched both players help his Tigers contend for several seasons and knows them well. While he clearly doesn't value prospects, he appears to have a soft spot for over-the-hill veterans.

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.