Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Debunking Some Ted Williams Myths

The Boston press attacked Williams with invented weaknesses (SI.com)
Last week I got around to reading Impossible Dreams, an excellent anthology of Red Sox writing compiled by Glenn Stout that's worth a look for all Sox fans. One of the sections centers on Ted Williams, of course, given that he inspired more copy than any athlete in Boston sports history--most of it overwhelmingly negative. 

The press was hostile to him for most of his career, especially at the beginning of the 1954 season when Williams, 35 and just back from Korea, was contemplating retirement. Although he had returned with a bang the previous summer, batting .407/.509/.901 with 13 homers and 34 RBIs in 37 games, the writers were hardly begging him to stay. Instead, they begged him to quit, daring him to hang up his spikes immediately rather than wait until season's end. Thankfully, Williams did play out the season and several more, sticking around until 1960. 

Anyways, the 1954 piece I'm referring to levelled several common criticisms of the day against Williams that have since been accepted as truth, namely that Williams struggled against the Yankees, tanked in the clutch, and was more concerned with his own statistics than helping the Red Sox win.

Writers rarely supported their arguments with statistics back then, and if they had they would have realized they had no ground to stand on. Williams batted .345/.495/.608 against New York in his career, nearly identical to his overall .344/.482/.634 slash line. So how did writers get the notion that he wilted against the Yankees? Likely after the final days of the 1949 season, when Boston dropped its final two games at Yankee Stadium to blow the pennant while Williams went 1-for-5, losing the batting title to George Kell in the process. Williams did not choke, however, reaching base in four of his eight trips to the plate and scoring two of Boston's seven runs. The press, which had a long memory with Williams when it came to his failings but a short one for his successes, also apparently forgot that just one week before, Williams had led the Sox to a two-game sweep of the Yanks at Fenway Park by homering in each game. 

The last two games of '49 were lumped in with the 1948 tiebreaker game against Cleveland (in which he went 1-for-4) and his poor World Series performance in 1946 as evidence that Williams couldn't perform when it counted most. In the 10 biggest games of his life, writers often reminded their readers, he was 7-for-34 (.206) with no extra-base hits and just one RBI. However, 10 games is much too small of a sample size to draw any meaningful conclusions from, especially since Williams was hurt during the Fall Classic and the other three came at the end of long, grueling pennant races. It was seldom mentioned that Boston wouldn't have gotten that far in the first place without Williams, who earned MVP honors in 1946 and '49 while finishing third in '48. But since the Red Sox always fell short in the end, their failures magnified those of Williams when people went searching for explanations.

Looking at Williams' overall body of work (and not cherry-picking 10 games from a career of 2,292), however, there's ample evidence that suggests he was actually pretty good in the clutch. In high leverage situations, for instance, he batted .329/.467/.607 -- not far off his career marks. When games were late and close, he performed at a .312/.449/.613 clip -- not quite his career levels, but still outstanding. And when there were two outs and runners in scoring position, he batted .315/.524/.647. 

That last stat line (note the on-base percentage) drew the ire of sportswriters who blasted Williams for refused to expand his strike zone with men on base. He was selfish, they said, because he would rather take a walk than help the team by driving in a run (which is often said about Joey Votto today). It's been proven, however, that the occasional RBI gained by swinging at balls is not worth the trade-off of making more outs. Besides, Williams drove in plenty of runs despite often being pitched around in such situations, leading the league four times and racking up 1,839 in all (130 per 162 games). He was hardly the only Boston batter capable of driving in runs, either, as he often had great RBI men behind him such as Jimmie Foxx, Bobby Doerr, Vern Stephens, and Jackie Jensen. The best thing a hitter can do to help his team is avoid making outs by getting on base, and no one in baseball history was better at that than Williams.

As a hitter, Williams was pretty much flawless. The press made up weaknesses so they'd have something to write about, and they got away with it because great sites like Baseball-Reference didn't exist yet. But now that they do, we can see how the Knights of the Keyboard exaggerated the few (but memorable) failures in Williams career to create these illusive shortcomings. 

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Aaron Judge is Also the New Babe Ruth

A couple weeks ago I wrote that Aaron Judge is the new Mike Trout. With Trout coming back on Friday, however, Judge needs a new comparison, and quick. Thankfully his epic Home Run Derby performance revealed his true colors.

Judge is not Mike Trout 2.0: he's a modern-day Babe Ruth. Both are larger than life (literally, in Judge's case) who demolish baseballs, strike out a lot and play right field for the Yankees. I don't believe in re-incarnation, but Judge might actually be Ruth brought back to life.

That might even be under-selling Judge a little. Ruth hit some long ones during his day, but I'm not sure he could do this:

Breaking Down Boston's All-Stars

Betts, Kimbrel, and Sale are in the midst of terrific seasons (MLB.com)
The Red Sox sent three players to the All-Star Game in Miami last night, and all three played a role in the American League's 2-1 victory. Chris Sale started and tossed two scoreless innings, Craig Kimbrel earned the win in relief, and Mookie Betts made a pretty good throw. They were at their best against the National League's best, and I'm sure the American Leaguers were happy to have them on their side.

So are the Red Sox, given how well the trio has performed this year:

Chris Sale (3.9 bWAR)
Sale has been the best pitcher in the American League this year and arguably the best pitcher in baseball. He's gone at least seven innings while allowing three or fewer runs in 12 of his 18 starts and has a dozen starts with double-digit strikeouts, including eight in a row at one point that tied his own (and Pedro Martinez's) record. These strong showings have been reflected in his awesome GameScores, which have exceeded 70 nine times and have averaged 67 (he only has one lower than 54). He's currently leading the Majors in strikeouts (178), FIP (2.09) and K/9 rate (12.5) while also pacing the AL in innings (127 2/3), WHIP (0.90) and K/BB ratio (8.1). Assuming his arm doesn't fall off in the second half, he looks like a lock for his first Cy Young award.

Mookie Betts (4.3 bWAR)
Offensively, the Red Sox have gotten the 2015 version of Betts rather than last year's version who finished second to Mike Trout in the MVP race, but he's compensated by taking his defense to new heights. After winning his first Gold Glove last year with an incredible 32 fielding runs per Baseball-Reference, Betts is on pace to surpass that number with 20 under his belt already. With a glove like that, anything he provides on offense should be considered a plus, except that his bat was nearly as valuable as his leather last year (30 batting runs). He's slipped a bit offensively due to another slow start, but he's still leading the Majors in doubles (29) and has a shot at 30 homers and 30 steals. Betts has also shown flashes of breaking out recently, suggesting he might have another big second half in store. Even if he doesn't, he's still one of the league's 10, if not 5, most valuable players.

Craig Kimbrel (2.3 bWAR)
Kimbrel's numbers had been trending in the wrong direction before he was traded to Boston, and his first season with the Red Sox was a disappointment. He got hurt, struggled with his command (5.1 BB/9) and posted a career-worst 3.40 ERA. Heading into 2017, there was talk that Kimbrel might be a problem rather than a solution in the bullpen. Well, that hasn't been the case this year, as the flamethrowing righty has silenced the critics by reclaiming his status as one of the game's premier closers. You need a microscope to see his 0.50 WHIP, as he's stopped walking people (five of the 134 batters he's faced) and is more unhittable than ever, striking out nearly two batters per inning and limiting opponents to a .110/.157/.181 batting line. He's been lights-out when he gets the call -- converting 23 of his 25 save opportunities -- and he hasn't suffered a loss yet after dropping a career-worst six decisions last year. If he keeps it up, Sale won't be the only Boston pitcher on Cy Young ballots.

So yeah, they've all been pretty good. Any game that Sale starts and/or Kimbrel finishes is as good as a win, and with Betts always a threat to have a monster day at the plate, he's capable of winning ballgames all by himself, too.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Red Sox Roll into Second Half

Boston's strong finish to the 1st half looks like a sign of things to come (CBS)
Well, it's officially the All-Star break and the Red Sox are right where they're supposed to be; leading the AL East and on pace for 90-plus wins. It hasn't been the smoothest ride, but Boston had an uneven first half last year too en route to winning 93 games and the division. And although they limped into the break by losing four of their last five, that came on the heels of a six-game winning streak that equaled their season-high. Overall, the Sox are in good shape heading into the second half, having gone 29-16 since May 21 as several of their top hitters and pitchers have come around.

On the hitting side of things, Boston rates fourth in the AL in runs per game and total runs despite ranking dead last in home runs. They've compensated with a contact-heavy approach that's yielded the league's second-highest batting average and third-fewest strikeouts. The lineup has proven to be deep and balanced, with regulars posting an OPS+ over 100 at every position except catcher and third base. Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts are both batting .303, Mitch Moreland's having one of the best years of his career, and each member of the Killer B's outfield has an OPS north of .800. Hanley Ramirez had another slow first half, but he caught fire towards the end and looks poised to go on a tear post-All-Star break.

Still, this clearly isn't the same offense that led the sport in runs last year. They've missed David Ortiz in the heart of their lineup, as it seems unlikely that anyone will replicate his standard 30 homers and 100 RBIs (not to mention his leadership). Catcher and third base have been black holes, with the Sox tied for last in the AL in fWAR at both positions. Third base has been a revolving door thanks to Pablo Sandoval's ineptitude, and while Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon are fine receivers, neither can hit. Not much can be done about the catching situation given the dearth of quality backstops available, but Todd Frazier is on the block should Boston be inclined to upgrade externally rather than promote Rafael Devers.

The Red Sox have graded out as top-10 defensive team, which isn't surprising given their young, athletic outfield and their stellar double-play combination of Pedroia and Bogaerts. This has undoubtedly aided the pitching staff, which hasn't been the super-rotation that some predicted but still ranks second in the AL in ERA. BoSox pitchers have been terrific on their own merit, however, issuing the fewest walks in the league and ranking third in strikeouts with more than one whiff per inning. So while their offense has been predicated on avoiding whiffs, their pitchers have thrived by racking them up.

It's impossible to over-state the impact that Chris Sale has had this year, as he's accounted for 1/6 of the team's innings and has been arguably the best pitcher in baseball. Boston hasn't had a pitcher this dominant since Pedro Martinez, and he's been a true savior since the day he donned a Red Sox uniform, making up for Rick Porcello's regression and the injury woes of David Price and Eduardo Rodriguez (both of whom have been effective when healthy). He's their MVP of the first half. Drew Pomeranz has also stepped up and appears to have settled into Boston after struggling in the second half last year and early this year.

The bullpen has also flourished despite getting nothing from two of the club's top relievers, Carson Smith and Tyler Thornburg. Craig Kimbrel has rebounded after scuffling in his first year with Boston and is having one of the best seasons ever by a modern closer. Joe Kelly has been nearly as good setting him up, becoming the shutdown reliever everyone knew he would be once he was finally freed from the rotation. Matt Barnes and Heath Hembree have been solid in middle relief, while Fernando Abad has pitched much better than his last name would suggest. This strong stable of relievers have helped Boston maintain a winning record (11-9) in one-run games and, more importantly, should be enough to prevent Dave Dombrowski from shipping out more prospects at the trade deadline.

Add it all up and the Red Sox have played as well as their record suggests, with a 51-38 Pythagorean W-L record (plus-65 run differential) to match their 50-39 actual record. They've been lucky in extra-inning games (7-1), but everything else about them appears legitimate and they are trending in the right direction. The rotation will finally be at full strength when Rodriguez returns after the All-Star break, which could allow Boston to pull away from the pack if everyone stays healthy. The Red Sox will also look to capitalize on a favorable schedule that puts 42 of their remaining 73 games at home, where they've gone 25-14 (.641) this year.

Accordingly, the Red Sox don't need to make any major moves at the trade deadline. They're a well-rounded, mostly-complete team with few holes to fill. An upgrade at the hot corner would be nice, but not worthwhile if the plan is to bring Devers up in September (or, if by some miracle, Jhonny Peralta finds his swing in Triple-A). Pitching depth is always appreciated, but not a priority. Firing John Farrell would be a dream come true, but for now that's all it is; a dream.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

2017 NL Final Vote Analysis

Turner is having a year reminiscent of peak George Brett (Los Angeles Times)
If you haven't cast your ballot for the All-Star Game Final Vote, it's not too late! Polling closes at 4 PM EST, so make sure you get those votes in. After deciding that Logan Morrison was the most worthy of the five American League candidates, it's time to take a look at the National League five, ranked in order of FanGraphs WAR:

Justin Turner (3.9 fWAR .384/.473/.571 182 wRC+ .446 wOBA)

Anthony Rendon (3.7 fWAR .297/.398/.549 145 wRC+ .397 wOBA)

Kris Bryant (2.5 fWAR .263/.394/.505 135 wRC+ .381 wOBA)

Justin Bour (1.8 fWAR .289/.365/.557 138 wRC+ .384 wOBA)

Mark Reynolds (0.7 fWAR .286/.372/.517 116 wRC+ .378 wOBA)

There's a much bigger range here than in the AL, where four of the five candidates were clustered in the 2-3 win range. We can immediately eliminated Bour and Reynolds, who have posted lesser numbers at first base compared to their league-mates at third. Reynolds has been a product of Coors Field with a 1.084 OPS there compared to .729 everywhere else. Bour is having a fine season with 19 home runs, but he's clearly had an inferior year to the three hot-corner men on the ballot.

And that's where it gets tricky, just as separating the trio of AL shortstops proved difficult. Bryant is the reigning MVP and undoubtedly the biggest star on the ballot, but he's also fallen off a bit from last year and hasn't been as good as Rendon or Turner. What you do with him depends on your philosophy of what the All-Star Game should be. If you feel the Midsummer Classic should showcase the game's household names, then Bryant's your guy. If you feel the best players of the first half should be honored (as I do, to a point), then you're looking elsewhere.

While Rendon's having a fantastic year, his numbers can't compete with Turner's, which are truly remarkable. Aside from Freddie Freeman, he's been the National League's best hitter this year, with only the otherworldly Mike Trout and Aaron Judge surpassing him in the American League. Only Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt have produced more offensive value in the Senior Circuit, and both play first base. The best hitter on the NL's most dominant team should be a no-brainer.

2017 AL Final Vote Analysis

LoMo is the clear-cut choice in the AL (CBS Sports)
The All-Star Game's Final Vote closes at 4 PM EST today, so it's time to make some last-minute picks! In the American League, we have a pair of slugging corner infielders pitted against a trio of good-hitting shortstops. Who deserves to go Miami next week? Let's dive in with a quick glance at the candidates (ranked in order of FanGraphs WAR):

Logan Morrison (2.9 fWAR .256/.366/.579 145 wRC+ .386 wOBA)

Xander Bogaerts (2.6 fWAR .308/.362/.448 110 wRC+ .345 wOBA)

Elvis Andrus (2.2 fWAR .301/.347/.473 114 wRC+ .350 wOBA)

Didi Gregorius (2.2 fWAR .302/.331/.477 112 wRC+ .341 wOBA)

Mike Moustakas (1.6 fWAR .269/.305/.559 120 wRC+ .356 wOBA)

We can one we can eliminate right off the bat, and that's Moustakas. While his 25 home runs are impressive, his on-base percentage is on par with the three shortstops' batting averages. With no steals and uninspiring defense at third base, Moustakas has been a mostly one-dimensional slugger who can be dismissed in favor of the three shortstops -- who have rivaled his offense while playing a more demanding position -- and Morrison, who has been a much better hitter.

It's almost impossible to separate the three shortstops, who rank 5-7 in fWAR among MLB players at their position with at least 100 plate appearances. Gregorius (2.2 fWAR) has been arguably the best hitter of the trio on a per at-bat basis, but he's also played the least due to a lengthy stay on the Disabled List that delayed his season debut until April 28. He's shown the most pop with 10 homers and 12 doubles in 239 at-bats, but he's also worked only nine walks and hasn't made the same impact on the bases (two steals in three tries). He'd need to have a clear edge in rate stats to compensate for his lesser playing time, but since he doesn't he's the next to go.

Bogaerts (2.6 fWAR) has the best average (.308) and on-base percentage (.362) of the trio, but is also toting a considerably lower slugging percentage (.448) despite playing his home games in Fenway Park. He's still recovering from his 41-game homerless streak to start the season, although he's gone deep six times in 39 games since. He's stolen nine bases in 10 attempts and is playing solid defense, but he's essentially been a slightly lesser version of Andrus, who has nearly twice as many homers (11) and more than double the steals (20, although he's been caught seven times) while posting a slightly stronger batting line.

That brings us to our most deserving candidate, Mr. Morrison (2.9 fWAR), who's blown the other four candidates out of the water in terms of offensive production and rates the highest for overall value. He was inexplicably snubbed in the first round of fan voting and was also passed over for the Home Run Derby in favor of Gary Sanchez, which he's rightfully ticked about. In any case, Morrison should have gotten the starting nod to begin with, as he's third among all first basemen in fWAR behind only Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto, who are having MVP-caliber seasons. He's putting up the same numbers as starting first baseman Justin Smoak, albeit in a much tougher ballpark for hitters. Morrison is having a career year and should be rightfully honored for it.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Boston's One-Man Wrecking Crew

Betts matched his career high with eight RBIs on Sunday (BoSox Injection)
Mookie Betts has been a streaky hitter throughout his Major League career (just look at his monthly splits from 2015 and 2016), but it's a clear sign that he's hot when he has a game like today's where he ruthlessly pounds the enemy into submission. He was the driving force behind Boston's 15-1 massacre of Toronto this afternoon, slugging a pair of homers and singles while driving in eight runs, setting a new franchise record for RBI by a leadoff man.

While the Red Sox would have won easily even if Betts had gone 0-for-6 rather than 4-for-6, his performance Sunday is just the latest example of him destroying the other team from the batter's box. He's done this several times now since the start of last year:

5/21/16: Betts paces Boston's 9-1 win over Cleveland by going 3-for-5 with a double, two home runs (including a grand slam) and three runs scored. He doubled and scored their first run in the third, extended the lead to 4-0 with a solo shot in the next inning, and put the game out of reach with his grand slam in the seventh. WPA = 0.083

5/31/16: Betts wipes out the Orioles by homering three times and driving in five of Boston's six runs in its 6-2 victory. The Sox cruised after Betts put them up 5-0 through the first inning and a half with his first two homers. He went deep two more times the following day, but no one was on base either team and the Red Sox fell 13-9. WPA = 0.326

8/14/16: Mookie has another three homer game, knocks in eight and scores four during a 4-for-6 effort as Boston routs Arizona 16-2. Until today, this was the gold standard of Betts' monster performances. WPA=0.237

8/16/16: Betts obliterates the Orioles again by going yard twice and driving in all five BoSox runs, fueling a 5-3 victory. Both homers were go-ahead shots, with his first clout shattering a scoreless tie in the fifth and his second putting Boston ahead for good in the eighth. WPA=0.506

6/14/17: Betts powers Boston past Philadelphia, 7-3, by going 4-for-5 with a double, two homers, three RBIs and four runs. Both home runs were solo shots, however, and provided insurance, coming after the Red Sox already led 5-3. WPA=0.228

Betts' ability to have such dominant performances multiple times throughout a season have transformed him into an MVP candidate. Most players are lucky to have one game like that per season, or even in their careers, but Betts has them semi-routinely, jamming a month's worth of production into a handful of games. It's games like these that cement his status as a superstar, proving he can carry a team to victory with his bat on any given night.

2017 MLB Midseason Awards

Goldschmidt is having an MVP-caliber season for the D-backs (MLB.com)
With many teams at or near the midway point of their season, it's time to hand out some hardware!

AL MVP: Aaron Judge
An easy call, as Judge is leading all position players in WAR (and pretty much everything else).

AL Rookie of the Year: Aaron Judge
Only two players have ever won Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season; Fred Lynn in 1975 and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. Judge is on track to become the third.

AL Cy Young: Chris Sale
The preseason favorite is now the midseason frontrunner, as Sale leads all of baseball (pitchers and position players) in WAR after twirling seven shutout innings and striking out 11 in Toronto yesterday. He's currently on pace for 22 wins and 332 strikeouts, which would be the most since Randy Johnson's 334 in 2002. NESN notes that he has 56 more K's than baserunners allowed, putting him on pace eclipse Pedro Martinez's record differential of 110 from 2000 -- regarded by many as the best season a pitcher ever had.

AL Comeback Player of the Year: Alex Cobb
I'm never sure how to choose this award, but I feel like it's more geared towards players coming back from injury rather than substandard seasons. As such, Cobb is the choice here after making five starts last year in an abbreviated comeback from Tommy John surgery. He's rounded into form after struggling in his first handful of outings, posting a 3.38 ERA while holding opponents to a ,255 average over his past 12 starts. He's also on track for over 200 innings, which would be a career high, while providing stability for Tampa Bay's rotation beyond Chris Archer.

NL MVP: Paul Goldschmidt
Close call here between him and Joey Votto, who's been a slightly better hitter (and the best in the NL), but Goldschmidt makes up the difference on the bases and with superior glovework at first. He's leading the Majors in runs (70) and RBIs (66) as a driving force for Arizona's 51-31 start. Voters love RBI guys on winning teams, but more analytically-inclined writers should have no problem getting behind his 1.029 OPS.

NL Rookie of the Year: Cody Bellinger
The NL's answer to Aaron Judge is going to run away with the award, if not hit 50 homers (he currently leads the NL with 24).

NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer
If you've been on the internet lately, then you've heard that Scherzer has unofficially surpassed Clayton Kershaw as the NL's top hurler, as even Kershaw has fallen victim to the home run epidemic sweeping across baseball. Surprisingly Scherzer, who has been homer-prone at times throughout the career, has not. That's pretty much the difference between them right now, so if Kershaw can keep the ball in the yard and/or Scherzer endures another bout of gopheritis, then order will be restored and King Clayton will reclaim his throne.

NL Comeback Player of the Year: Brandon McCarthy
McCarthy has already surpassed his innings total from the past two seasons combined and is pitching like he was in his prime at the start of the decade. Injuries sabotaged his first two seasons with the Dodgers, but now that he's healthy he's pitching like the guy they thought they were getting when they signed him to a four-year, $48 million deal following his lone 200-inning campaign in 2014.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Two Birds of a Feather

I submit to you the 2017 stats of two thirty-something, injury-prone outfielders, both of whom signed new contracts last winter and are now batting leadoff for their respective bird-named teams

Player A: .234/.341/.416 11 2B 14 HR 37 RBI 50 R 4 SB 2 CS 121 TB 13.1 BB% 23.3 K%

Player B: .245/.336/.481 10 2B 13 HR 35 RBI 40 R 3 SB 2 CS 116 TB 11.9 BB% 20.6 K%

Basically the same player, right? Player B has hit for a bit more power, while Player A has walked and struck out a little more.

If I told you one of those players was Jose Bautista, you'd think he's Player B due to the higher slugging percentage. He's actually player A, however, while Player B is...Dexter Fowler(?!).

I find it fascinating that their stats are so similar given how different their profiles are. Bautista is a former home run champion, a mashing corner outfielder who averaged 38 homers and a .945 OPS from 2010-2015. Fowler's a fleet-footed center fielder who has more career steals than homers and has never hit more than 17 dingers in a season.

After looking at their Baseball-Reference pages, I noticed that their numbers were pretty similar last year, too:

Bautista 2016: 116 G 517 PA .234/.366/.452 (118 OPS+) 191 TB 16.8 BB% 19.9 K%

Fowler 2016:   125 G 551 PA .276/.393/.447 (123 OPS+) 204 TB 14.3 BB% 22.5 K%

Despite producing similar seasons at the plate, Fowler was a much better baserunner and outfielder en route to tallying a career-high 4.2 bWAR, while Bautista's liabilities in those facets dragged his value down to 1.0 bWAR. That, combined with their age difference (Bautista is more than five years older than Fowler) led to Fowler receiving a five-year, $82.5 million contract from the Cardinals while Bautista returned to the Blue Jays on a one-year, $18.5 million deal.

Both teams have to be reasonably happy with their production thus far, as both have overcome miserable starts to provide solid first-half production. While Toronto and St. Louis are treading water in the standings, neither should be regretting their decisions to ink Bautista and Fowler last winter.