04 October 2015

Why Pitching Stats Are Sketchy: A Case Study From Game 161

"It looks like an infield popup in the boxscore." --Comment about a home run ball snagged by a leaping outfielder.

Besides its towering significance in the standings, still in limbo with a day left in the season, Saturday night's barn burner between the Rangers and Angels was a lesson in how unhelpful even ERA can be, particularly over short stretches like a single season.

In case you hadn't heard, Texas, poised to clinch the AL West before an adoring crowd, broke open a back-and-forth game to establish a 10-6 lead entering the ninth inning. Interim closer Shawn Tolleson, pitching for the fifth straight day, entered the final frame and proceeded to cough up consecutive home runs to Erick Aybar and Kole Calhoun before manager Jeff Bannister correctly cut his losses and handed the ball to veteran reliever Ross Ohlendorf.

After inducing Mike Trout to ground out, Ohlendorf fooled Albert Pujols, who popped up behind first. Poor communication between Mike Napoli and second baseman Rougned Odor led to a collision of gloves and two bags for a hustling Pujols who was inexplicably awarded a double.

Ohlendorf fanned Daniel Murphy, bringing the Rangers to the brink of clinching and reducing the Of Anaheims to playoff life support. He then fooled C.J. Cron into bouncing a 15-hopper to the left of second base that shortstop Elvis Andrus recognized late and failed to retrieve. The Pujols run, which should have been charged to Odor, accrued to Ohlendorf's record.

Next, following a sharp David Freese single, Ohlendorf splattered Carlos Perez's bat on a two-strike pitch. But the ball leaked into shallow center and Cron, who was aboard entirely because of luck, tallied the tying run before a slack-jawed crowd. Charge that run to Ohlendorf.

Up came Johnny Giavotella, who swung awkwardly at a slider and popped a single off the end of his bat, scoring the go-ahead run. Which the record will show was Ohlendorf's fault.

Pitching coach Mike Maddux went to the bullpen after his reliever had failed him, but let's review the record. Ohlendorf allowed one hard hit ball -- Freese's single. His fielders failed to retire Pujols and Cron, and serendipity sang paeans to Perez and Giavotella.  Ohlendorf got ahead on every hitter and made the pitches he wanted. Of his 27 offerings, 21 caught the strike zone.

And yet, Ohlendorf is charged with three runs on five hits, a blown save and a loss in two-thirds of an inning. Those searching for explanations will trot out the old moralizing shibboleths: "he isn't clutch," "he isn't a big game pitcher," "he doesn't have heart," "he chokes," and "he wilts on the big stage," when in fact he faced seven batters and should have recorded six outs. The only missing element of the story is a reliever following him and allowing his baserunners to score.

This outing stands as testament to the need for fielding independent pitching statistics and for measures like Deserved Run Average that separate the results of a pitcher's work from what he can actually control. DRA and its cousins are still relatively primitive and may never achieve their goal of teasing out real pitching acumen, but that is a quest worth the effort.

As a coda to this story, the Rangers did nothing to rescue Ohlendorf in their final at bat. With two outs and Elvis Andrus on first, the runner easily swiped second to position himself in scoring position for a potential tying hit. But Andrus slid past the bag and was tagged out to end the game, and consign Ross Ohlendorf, who did everything his team could ask to salvage the victory, to goat status.

(Double coda: the "winning pitcher" was Jo-Jo Reyes, who threw one seemingly meaningless pitch to record an out in the bottom of the eighth, before Anaheim's Big Adventure began.)

The Too Close To Call

As a young adult, I felt it was my civic duty to investigate every policy issue facing our country and have an informed opinion on each. As I've aged, this need has ebbed, and I'm now perfectly comfortable not having an opinion on some complex issues. I can continue to cast informed votes on representatives and referenda without possessing exhaustive knowledge of every issue upon which they must rule.

When it comes to baseball awards, however, that's exactly the demand we make of voters. They must have a definitive opinion on who is the MVP or the Rookie of the Year, etc. But this year, there is one race in which it's just impossible to distinguish between a couple of candidates.

The AL Cy Young contest pits David Price's Blue Jay brilliance, following a trade from Detroit, against Astro ace Dallas Keuchel, whose season-long excellence stumbled a bit in September.

For the season, Keuchel's 20-8, 2.48 is Cy-worthy. Price is right too -- 18-5, 2.45.

Accounting for ballparks, Keuchel leads in ERA+, 162-161. In other words, the two pitchers allowed the same number of runs.

Price's 4.70 K/BB ratio is slightly superior to Keuchel's 4.24. Pitchers can't control anything as much as they can control walks and strikeouts. So that's a relative feather in Price's ball cap.

Keuchel owns a small edge in WHIP, 1.017-1.076. He's allowing fewer base runners. Because they keep the ball in the park at the same rate, that's one for Keuchel.

Keuchel has pitched 12 more innings, 232-220, which partially accounts for his superior WAR of 7.2 versus Price's 5.9.

The various defensive metrics generally like Houston's defense behind Keuchel better than Detroit and Toronto's defense behind Price. That might partially explain why teams scored 10 unearned runs against Price and only four against Keuchel. Those runs don't show up in ERA. That would seem to tilt towards Keuchel.

But fielding independent pitching measures -- about which you should be a little leery -- suggest Price has "earned" a 2.78 ERA; Keuchel has earned a 2.91.

Now, you make sense of all that. About the only thing we can say about the best pitcher in the American League this year is that it's Dallas Keuchel and David Price. (Oakland's Sonny Gray, 14-7, 2.73, is next best, but he tailed off by summer's end and pretty clearly fell out of the race.) Writers who split their votes are disdained for their indecision, or lack of guts, but in this case I think it's not just defensible, its indicated.

03 October 2015

The Myth of Home Field Advantage

The Mets and Dodgers are engaged in a great battle, testing whether their team, or the other team, so dedicated to the proposition of winning the World Series, can long endure. They are met on separate battlefields -- the Mets at Citi Field against Washington and the Dodgers in L.A. versus the Padres. 

A portion of that home field will serve as a final resting place for one team's playoff hopes so that the other team's might live on. 

Is it altogether fitting and proper that they should do this? 

Likewise, the Pirates and Cubs do indirect battle for home field in their one-game play-in. Will people little note, nor long remember, who batted last?

The answer, as even a Phillies fan in Gettysburg can see, is that these are very different questions.

For the season, home teams have emerged victorious roughly 55% of the time. Home cooking, familiarity with the field, a partisan crowd and the final at bat conspire to roughly a 10% advantage. That's not an insignificant edge in a game pitting essentially even teams like Pittsburgh and Chicago in a single, sudden-death tilt.

New York and L.A. are also essentially even, having both played .560 ball this year en route to division titles. But home field conveys so much less advantage to them, even though the Dodgers have won two-thirds of their games at Chavez Ravine and just 45% of their games as the visitor. 

Their series will be seven games long. If the series ends after four or six games each team will have hosted half the contests. In a five-game set, the lower-ranked team actualy has the home field advantage in a 2-3-2 format. 

So home field "advantage" is a small disadvantage in a truncated series and is a benefit only in a seven-game set, and even then, worth just 10% in that one game. Because roughly a quarter of series extend to their full measure, homefield accounts for just a 2.5% edge. That's the difference between the Mets at 89-70 and the Dodgers at 90-70, which is where they stand at this writing. Factoring in the home field deficit through Game Five, the total value of the better record is essentially a rounding error.

You'd rather have home field than not, but teams would be much better advised to spend their time arranging their rotations, resting their bullpens, healing the injured and preparing their entire rosters psychologically for the amped emotions of playoff baseball. 

And "analysts" would be better advised to just shut up about home field advantage.

30 September 2015

The Latest Unwritten Rule

Like the anonymously invented law that the Heisman Trophy winner has to come from a national championship contender...

Like the suddenly ascendant notion that the Rookie of the Year must perform for a playoff team...

Like the unwritten rule that you don't bunt to break up a no-hitter when your team is down 2-0...

Like the apparent acceptance that there won't be a traveling violation call if you're taking a layup...

...comes another orphan rule, devoid of known parentage, bereft of logic, indefensible beyond the circular reasoning that it exists because it has existed.

It's the latest kerfuffle around Cam Newton's claim that he was told he didn't get a roughing the passer call because he hasn't achieved sufficient status.

We heard for years that umpires afforded extra dispensation on the outside corner for Tom Glavine because he was a great pitcher.

We heard general acceptance of the claim that Michael Jordan got away with more malfeasance than others on the basketball court because he's the Greatest of All Time.

This is evidently accepted wisdom, except for one thing: there's nothing wise about it.

Why should the best players get the benefit of the doubt? Don't lesser players need it most? Who decides when this new status kicks in? Is there some pre-approved matrix of performance and tenure that arbiters consult?

It's all just more nonsense that sometimes serves as gravity in the bizarre sports universe. If your team wants to subscribe to these fabricated truths, it should knock itself out. But my team is bunting against a tough pitcher down 2-0.

20 September 2015

The Rookie of the Year Award Isn't About Jake Arrieta

The baseball world is making strides. Local broadcasts show players' OBP and OPS. Most Valuable Player discussions regularly invoke WAR. WHIP and fielding independent measures pepper Cy Young debates. These advanced metrics -- (if you can call them that: OBP and SLG are as old as Yogi Berra, though they didn't storm the shores of Normandy) -- aren't the final word, but they're superior to the old standard of BA-HR-RBI and W-L, ERA.)

It's been gratifying to see that most fans and reporters have begun to digest the argument that a player's value has little to do with his teammates' performance. Unless his world craters in the last 15 games, Bryce Harper will win the MVP award he deserves in a rout, despite the Nationals' 2015 face plant.

Some of the credit for this belongs to MLB itself, which has embraced the new analysis and all the fun tools like Statcast and PitchFX. Articles on MLB.com are replete with references to True Average, WAR, BABIP, FIP and myriad other helpful measuring tools.

Simultaneously though, we're backsliding on that notion in other bailiwicks. Much of the Heisman discussion over the past five years has centered on the best team's best player, rather than on simply college football's standout performer.

Along those lines, I commend to your attention this article from Sports On Earth, a generally excellent site with lots of good insight. In it, the writer suggests that candidacies for the Rookie of the Year award waxed and waned based on team fortunes. We've seen this illogic before.

There is utterly no justification to holding an individual baseball player responsible for the performance of his 24 teammates. Moreover, while some retrograde writers still cower behind the "valuable" nomenclature of the MVP award to denigrate the candidacies of great players on non-contenders, there is no such fig leaf in the Rookie of the Year award. It is simply a measure of the first-year player who has had the best season. Period.

Kris Bryant is almost surely the 2015 NL Rookie of the Year, not withstanding the final 15 games. He's posted a .317 True Average at the plate, defended third base reasonably well and contributed five wins to his team, the best of the freshman lot. That his team will make the playoffs is absolutely, completely and undoubtedly irrelevant.

17 September 2015

The Moment the Rangers' Season Turned Around

You may have noticed that the season, and the Texas Rangers, have finally caught up with the youthful Houston Astros. The Rangers have launched themselves into first place in the AL West with a 31-15 record since July 28, when  the Yankees blitzed them 21-5.

It's also two days before the Rangers plucked Cole Hamels out of Philadelphia.

Texas stood five games under .500, eight games out and in third place. 

So as you might imagine, all the talk this week has been about identifying the catalyst for the Rangers' rebirth.

Did the shellacking by New York incite new determination?

Did a players-only meeting light a spark?

Did Hamels bring new energy?

Of course, that's only how it works in Ex Post Facto Analysisland. In real life, teams make large improvements by compiling a series of small improvements until they reach a critical mass.

Certainly Hamels, and the return from injury of Derek Holland, helped. They bumped two replacement-level starters from the rotation. That meant Colby Lewis and Yovanni Gallardo no longer had to shoulder the load.

Consequently, at least in part, the Rangers lopped a run off their ERA after August 1.

In addition, after splitting their first 42 one and two-run games before July 28, Texas captured 17 of 24 close games. Timely hitting and relief pitching can do that.

The offensive juggernaut of the first half hasn't slowed and the defensive metrics say the fielding is up a tick. Put that all together and wheels once stuck in the mud gain traction. It didn't hurt that the Rangers have played 26 of their last 42 against losing teams.

We have a tendency to look for that epiphany, that one moment where the worm turned. We attribute it all to something that correlates with the hot streak without any evidence of causation. You see it all the time with managerial changes, as if a new manager could transform a lousy nine into world beaters in his first day.

Ranger manager Jeff Bannister had it exactly right today when asked what sparked the turnaround. He said Spring Training, where the team adopted a never-quit culture.  That's a far better explanation than a team meeting, a clubhouse presence or a bad loss.

Though acquiring Cole Hamels doesn't hurt.

12 September 2015

Joey Votto and the Idiocy of Umpires

With limited instant replay reviews, baseball now has a formula for overturning all kinds of missed umpire calls on the field. Managers can challenge whether fouls balls were called fair, runners were safe, catches were made, and fly balls cleared the fence.

Every case contains within it the implicit recognition that umpires make mistakes, and that getting the call correct is paramount.

Calls cannot be challenged that involve judgment, or that if overturned would cause havoc. For example, if a ball was originally ruled foul, there is no going back and re-running the play if the videotape reveals that it was actually fair (except in the case of a home run.)

There is one glaring and utterly indefensible exception: balls and strikes. The most common and impactful missed call of all is the ball-strike because it alters the tenor of games. Research shows that the strike zone has been expanding over the past few years -- mostly at the lower end -- and with it scoring has contracted. Batters must now defend a larger zone than ever, and must adjust their calculations depending on the whim and idiosyncrasies of the given arbiter on the given day.

What's more, the ball-strike call is not simply a judgment; it appears to be a personal statement. Some umpires are known to have low strike zones, others like the outside pitch, etc., as if strike zones are just a matter of style and preference.

All of which led to this recent outrage by umpire Tim Welke, who chafed at Joey Votto's constant chirping about ball-strike calls, refused to grant him time, and then ran Votto when he complained to his dugout. In fact, replays showed that Votto had reason to gripe about several strike calls that were clearly out of the zone. What made matters worse in this case is that Welke escalated the dispute with his unjustifiable refusal to allow Votto to take time and blow off steam.

All this could be cured with existing technology that can accurately pinpoint the swing-worthiness of every pitch. It is available to television broadcasts, so that everyone watching the game at home knows how embarrassingly often home plate umpires gack up the call, or has imposed his personal preferences over the rule book.

Calling pitches correctly is unfathomably difficult. The ball is small and the strike zone dependent on the size of the batter. Pitches are spinning, moving at 90 mph or more and changing planes often in two directions at once. Research by Scott Lindholm of SB Nation shows that umpires miss the pitch call about 15% of the time, or about 40 times per game. How is that acceptable?

It's long past time to replace umpire decisions with existing technology that that can accurately, definitively and instantaneously determine balls and strikes. It would eliminate the griping that led Joey Votto to request time, Tim Welke to pout and both of them to engage in juvenile pyrotechnics. Not to mention a wholly unwarranted two-game suspension for the Cincinnati star.

11 September 2015

Matt Williams, Geniu...Um Ditz

Now that the Washington Nationals' 2015 playoff aspirations have been plausibly quashed*, and Matt Williams' boneheaded miscalculations have been picked apart like a Thanksgiving turkey, I have some questions for all the baseball writers who voted him Manager of the Year in 2014.

*I know, this is asking for trouble. But although leads this large have evaporated in shorter periods, the odds are squarely against the Nats, particularly because they have played so miserably all season.

Did the all the smart decisions just leak out of the head of last year's best NL manager?

Or was a he just the random monkey in front of a computer keyboard who produced MacBeth in 2014?

Was he a dope who received too much credit for the team's primacy in the NL last year?

Or is he a genius being unfairly tarred with the brush of his squad's 2015 failure?

Or is he perhaps neither a dope nor a genius, but just muddling along, and happened to be holding the reigns when his team spiked the finish in 2014 (45-23 after the All Star break) and spit the bit in 2015 (22-29 after the All Star break)?

Finally, whichever theory you now subscribe to, how stupid do you feel for electing him Manager of the Year in 2014?

The wildly varying demonstration of skills that should correlate heavily from one year to the next is yet more proof, as if there was any doubt in the first place, that no one has any idea who the best manager is, particularly in a given season, because most of the good work managers do is in the clubhouse, away from public view. Anyone who wants to claim that they know the best managers is going to have to explain why those with reputations as savants -- Joe Maddon, Bruce Bochy, Terry Francona, Mike Scioscia, etc. -- are rarely so honored.

I have the explanation. It's because the honor is meaningless. Abolish the Manager of the Year award.

10 September 2015

Chris Davis Regressing To His True Mean

An axiom of prognosticating the future performance of veterans who break out is to regress them back to the mean. Last year, Chris Davis regressed to the mean, the meaner and the meanest, putting his starting job with Baltimore in jeopardy.

This year, the bulky first baseman has found his own true average by mashing like he did in 2013 but without the gaudy average. The point with him is that as long as he goes yard and collects his walks he can be awfully valuable.

Let's take a look at the numbers:

In his first four seasons with Texas and Baltimore, Davis contributed below-average production at the plate while flashing 20-home-run power.

Then in 2013 he raked .286/.370/.634 with a league-leading 53 homers, 42 doubles and 138 RBIs, earning third place in the MVP voting.

Last season, the bottom fell out. His average sank to .196 with 26 home runs. Lumbering and defensively-challenged, Davis was a liability for the Orioles.

If you averaged those two seasons you'd get a .250 batting average with 40 home runs. With 60-70 walks, that's a middle-of-the-lineup Gulliver. Davis was headed that way, but at a lower batting average until he got hot, roughly coinciding with the O's collapse.

Today Chris Davis has the slash line up to .260/.351/.556 with 41 home runs. He's above four wins over replacement at the plate, which puts him at All-Star level with two dozen games yet to play.

When three true outcomes players like Davis -- i.e., he walks, strikes out or homers on most at bats -- get their average up to .260 they radically enhance their value, even beyond their own stat line. Opposing pitchers have to account for him every time the top of the order rolls around because of the damage he can do. That means pitching more carefully to everyone else, which leads to more opportunities up and down the lineup.

Davis is unlikely to ever again crush the record books the way he did two years ago. But .260 with 70 walks and 40 home runs will do just fine.

09 September 2015

The Controversy Around Harvey, the Rabbit

In the 1950 movie "Harvey" Jimmy Stewart's character keeps the world at bay with his invisible six-foot tall rabbit, Harvey.

In 2015, the Mets kept pennant talk at bay with an invisible six-foot controversy about Harvey, the pitcher. It seems that his doctor and agent want him to return home after hurling a definitive number of innings. The Mets, on the other hand, want Harvey available for either the playoffs, or for the race that will punch their ticket.

Harvey for his part, appears to  be listening to whoever spoke to him last.

It's obvious that both sides have reason for concern. In his first year following elbow surgery, Harvey might be medically fragile and need to avoid throwing while fatigued. This has got to be a consideration for the team as well, which receives no benefit from his massive talent if he's laid up again.

The Strasburg experiment, followed by the Nationals' ineptitude this campaign, has sucked the justification out of speculative benching during a post-season run. The Mets are going to need their 6'4" righty to succeed in the playoffs.

And so, the obvious and predictable conclusion. Terry Collins has the starters in a six-man rotation, with Harvey skipping some starts. But if they make the playoffs -- which now seems likely -- all of Gotham will be relying on its Dark Knight. 

After all, Harvey the movie had a happy ending.

P.S. With their come-from-ahead collapse last night, Washington is now six out with 24 to play. But keep in mind, the Mets held a seven game cushion in '07 with 17 to play before crashing out of October. Those screams last night at Nationals Park were the Fat Lady's sister singing.

06 September 2015

Long Games and Low Scoring? Think Football, Not Baseball

People who don't understand baseball complain that a game takes too long and produces insufficient scoring. While the pace of the game is often unnecessarily sluggish -- weighted down by ceaseless pitching changes and bizarre batting rituals -- this criticism is more reasonably leveled at America's most popular sport.

Exhibit A this weekend was BYU's unfathomable 33-28 thriller over Nebraska. In case you missed it, the Cornhuskers led all the way until a last-second Hail Mary heave that they somehow failed to defend.

Sounds like riveting viewing, right? Except it suffered from all the maladies attributed to "boring" baseball:
1. The contest was completed in regulation and took three hours and 45 minutes.
2. Every single play was followed by, as George Will has pointed out, a committee meeting.
3. The final score was, in baseball terms, 5-4.

It's counter-intuitive but true: football involves less scoring than baseball. It just obscures its offensive anemia in two ways. First, when a team fails to do the equivalent of plate a run, it has a back-up option: kick a field goal. This is akin to baseball teams getting credit for half a run every time a runner reaches third.

Second, it awards crooked numbers for its scores. So Nebraska, which tallied four touchdowns (and four of those formalities called extra points, which are the equivalent of a butt slap from the third base coach), boasts a 28-point outburst. When a baseball team manufactures four scores per game, we decry their middling offense.

For its part, BYU crossed home four times (skipping the formality of the tushy touching at game's end) and reached third twice, for the margin of victory. Yawn.

That the game ended with a blown save by the defensive secondary in the most dramatic fashion shouldn't obscure the fact that the game suffered from the very characteristics that dog baseball in the public's eye.

Was that game an anomaly? At the very same time, , Alabama spent more than three hours defeating Wisconsin 4 1/2 - 2 1/2, Auburn held on for a three-hour-plus 4 1/2 -3 1/2 victory over Louisville, and Notre Dame needed more than three hours to smother Texas 5 1/2 - 1/2. And because there's a clock limiting late game possibilities, utter futility attended an entire quarter of that game. 

And all those yards they chew up? Cubbie third baseman Kris Bryant's latest bomb accounted for 185 yards on one play alone. Baseball is exciting. Football needs to speed up play.

01 September 2015

Sports Predictions Are Like Confedrate Money: Worthless

This is the time of year that pundits make their predictions for the college and professional football season. It's a fascinating study in recurrent, global amnesia. And its lessons apply to punditry in all sports.

Take the college prognosticators who are busy predicting who will compete in this season's four-team championship tournament. Let's examine their myths and the truths:

Myth:  Determine the four best teams and you have your playoff.
Truth: Have you never witnessed a college football season? One or two plays can transform a team's season and launch them into or out of a championship. Consider the bizarre occurrences that put Auburn in the title game two years ago.

Myth: The team with the most talent going into the season is the best team.
Truth: Have you already forgotten Cam Newton? Honey Badger? Robert Griffin? Maurice Clarett? Jameis Winston? Johnny Manziel?  These relatively unheralded freshmen catapulted their teams to greater heights than anyone thought possible at season's start.

Myth: If you can name all the biggest stars and quote their gaudy statistics you have insight about which team will sweep through its schedule.
Truth: Even the "analysts" spewing this nonsense know it's not true. They know that an offensive or defensive line, whose accomplishments are hard to measure, can have an immense impact.

Myth: To determine the playoff teams, first determine which of the five BCS leagues will fail to earn a bid.
Truth: Were you not alive during the two-team playoff era? Because way back then (20 months ago), two teams from the same league played for the title several times. In addition, even last year the weak ACC produced an undefeated team, which made the playoffs. So two or even three leagues could fail to produce a single title contender if a team from a smaller league routs its opponents and garners a bid.

Myth: Determine a team's record by examining its schedule and figuring how many times they will be the underdog.
Truth: Sure, that's how it works. There are never any upsets in college football. Boise State never beat Oklahoma in the '05 Fiesta Bowl. Oregon State didn't take down undefeated USC in 2008. Navy didn't best Notre Dame in '07. App State never defeated Michigan. Jacksonville State's win against Ole Miss five years ago never happened. Neither did Utah over Alabama in the '08 Sugar Bowl. Or Division 1-AA  James Madison over Virginia Tech that same year.  Ohio State didn't take the championship from Miami in '03. Need I go on?

Myth: A team will win its league because it plays its tough opponents at home.
Truth: Which means it plays its weak opponents on the road. So a crippling loss to an inspired squad exhorted by a gleeful crowd is far more possible.

Myth: The experts know anything.
Truth: Thank goodness they don't or the season would be predictable. Did you know that Ohio State has earned the top pre-season perch seven times in the past and won the NCCA championship exactly none of them?

The best prediction you're going to read about the college football season:
Some unexpected things are going to happen. Yay.

30 August 2015

How To Make 10 Million Dollars

You wanna make $10 million? Can you squat? Can you frame a pitch? Can you hit .227 with 14 home runs in Double-A? Ah, there might be the rub.

Jeff Mathis is a career backup backstop. He's never recorded more than 328 plate appearances in a season -- for the Angels in 2008. That year he hit .194 and slugged nine homers.

In his best season at the plate, 2012, Mathis batted .218 with nine walks and 68 strikeouts for Toronto. But he did punish opposing pitchers with eight home runs in 227 PAs. In 2011 he batted .174/.225/.259, the same year Arizona Diamondbacks pitchers hit .186/.230/.250.

In case you're wondering, the wiffle bat is egalitarian. Mathis can't hit lefties or righties, at home or away, in day games or night games and in any month except April. In the season's first month, Mathis torches the league for a .232/.285/.399 line, or nearly average for a catcher. But then May blooms and Mathis slugs .223.

The 32-year-old Floridian is considered a defense-first receiver. In 2013, he became Jose Fernandez's personal catcher. Fernandez earned a 1.56 ERA throwing to Mathis, 3.27 to everybody else. 

He is credited with 8.8 WAR defensively behind the dish. It offsets his sub-replacement hitting, so that overall he's contributed a solid win divided among three teams across 11 years. 

Like Tiger Woods and Albert Pujols, Mathis is struggling to match his lofty production of yesteryear. This season for the Marlins, he's been used sparingly and delivered a .321 OPS, or about what Jason Kipnis is batting.

For services rendered, Mathis is working off a three-year, $4.5 million contract and will become a free agent at the end of the season. If no one offers him a roster spot, he'll have earned more than $10 million in the Majors and will retire comfortably well below the Mendoza line.

29 August 2015

The Bonanza of Breakout Stars

Remember the kerfuffle over Kris Bryant's demotion to Triple-A for two weeks to start the season and stay his service clock? That move has devastated his performance so that he leads Major League rookies in plate appearances and WAR, and is hitting for a .319 True Average.

Oh, the humanity!

And though Bryant is the leading NL Rookie of the Year candidate, you've probably noticed that he isn't alone among breakout stars this year. Indeed, we've seen a bonanza of first-year players in 2015. Fifty-one rookies are on pace to earn a win above replacement this season, with 38 of them already there. That compares to 33 all last year.

Twenty rookies are on pace for two WAR, compared to 13 last year. Two WAR is roughly what a player needs over a full season to start at his position. Consider that many of these newbies have not played a full season, yet will achieve starter-quality status.

Take keystoner Enrique Hernandez, who has cracked the gunslinging Dodger lineup for 190 plate appearances and a .305/.349/.500 performance. If he plays effectively full-time through the end of the regular season, he'll earn more than three WAR in just 380 plate appearances. That's All-Star quality.

And maybe most telling to the untrained eye, eight of the top rookies by WAR toil for playoff contenders -- Cubs, Giants, Pirates, Cardinals, Astros, Cubs, Blue Jays, Twins. You're hearing their names because they are having a real impact on pennant races (and because several of them were named to the All-Star team.) (Their names are: Bryant, Matt Duffy, Jung-ho Kang, Randall Grichuk, Carlos Correa, Kyle Schwarber, Devon Travis and Trevor May.)

And that doesn't include some mid-season call-ups torching the league the first time through -- Michael Conforto and Sean Gilmartin of the Mets, Miguel Sano of the Twins and Stephen Piscotty of St. Louis, to name four.

Beyond that, these are no Bob Hamelins or Scott Williamsons, whose career path headed roughly straight down from their Rookie-of-the-Year seasons. Correa is already being called the best shortstop in the game. Bryant, Schwarber, L.A.'s Joc Pederson, the Phils' Maikel Franco, the Blue Jays' Roberto Osuna and the Mets' Noah Syndergaard are considered future stars.

All this helps explain why the standings are upside down, with Houston, New York and Kansas City near the top and Oakland, Washington and Boston scuffling. It's been a magical regular season and we can thank a gaggle of guys with short resumes for part of that.

27 August 2015

Pick: Red Sox over Padres in World Series

Take a trip back to April 1, 2015. If some prankster had that day whispered in your ear that he had bet the house that the Red Sox, Tigers, A's, Nationals and Padres would all win their divisions; that the NL Central would be a stinking cesspool of mediocrity; and that the Yankees, Blue Jays, Royals, Twins, Astros, Mets, Cubs, Pirates and Giants would all be selling off at the trade deadline; you wouldn't have thought it an April Fools gag.

Those results were totally plausible...and exactly wrong. All the presumed division winners other than the Nationals have been eliminated from contention, if not literally than practically, and the Nats' hopes hang on a very fragile thread.

Meanwhile, it appears that five of the seven presumed also-rans are playoff locks, with only the defending champs keeping hope alive for a post-season berth.

As things currently stand, only the Cardinals and Dodgers would repeat their division titles, though L.A. would secure its position mostly by the scuffling of its division rivals. 

Part of the magic of baseball is that even its unpredictability is unpredictable, but this is unusual even for the National Pastime. Houston, which has 71 wins with a quarter of the season to play, hadn't tallied 71 in a full season for six years. The Mets had lost more games than they've won every season since '08, when Johan Santan, Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes led the club. Toronto's last meaningful October skirmishes pre-date email, the nation of Serbia and the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.

And the Cubs, well, they've been the Cubs since they got Bartmanned by the Marlins more than a decade hence. Their time seemed anon, but not this anon. Who's Kyle Schwarber again?

It's making for quite a fun campaign, particularly for fans of several woebegone franchises. It'd be fun to see any one of the upstarts win it all.

24 August 2015

Don't Look Now But Here Come the Phillies

Phillie fans began realizing last year that they were in for an Astros-Pirates type of rebuild that hadn't even started yet. Their aging core of highly paid former stars was in deep decline and the team didn't have much in the pipeline. Worse yet, management didn't seem to recognize that the Everything Must Go! sale needed to begin ASAP.

The meritocracy of baseball has a way of steeling minds against cognitive dissonance. A GM can only deny reality for so long before the standings tell him objectively that his theory is faulty.

So, with the team well-positioned for oblivion, Ruben Amaro finally acknowledged what was obvious two-three years ago and has begun the sell-off. And -- surprise! -- he's reaped nice returns for some of the pieces.

The result suggests a condensed rebuild schedule: since the All-Star break, Philadelphia is 21-12 and has climbed out of sole possession of the NL East cellar. Another week of Atlanta losses and the Phillies could claw themselves into third place.

The best part is, it's not newly oiled rusting parts, but the young pieces that are carrying the team, which gives rise to hope. While Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz take to the bench, and Chase Utley and Cole Hamels have been sent to greener pastures.

The heart of the resurgence is under 25, led by slugging outfielder Maikel Franco (now on the 15-day DL), and buttressed by righty Aaron Nola, shortstop Freddy Galvis, speedster Cesar Hernandez at the keystone, promising center fielder Osdubel Herrera and catcher Cameron Rupp. Nola, a recent call-up, is 4-1, 3.59. Franco, the Phils' best hitter all season, has supplied on base and power production; Herrera offers speed, defense and a .294 batting average; and Hernandez has delivered 18 steals and a .345 OBP.

Add to that the haul produced by Utley, Cole Hamels, Ben Revere, Jimmy Rollins and Marlon Byrd, some of which will soon join the nubiles now exciting the faithful. Among the dead weights, only Howard and Ruiz are signed through next year, which means the roster has nearly completely turned over. 

So here's where the Phillies stand: right now, they are the third best team in the NL East. Though that's damning with faint praise, it's still two notches higher than they were at season's commencement. With some more seasoning, the youngsters could be even better next year, multiplied by the next round of talented call-ups. The corner has already been turned, the bottom already hit. The team has spent all of 2015 looking up at their opponents in the standings. Now things are looking up for them.

22 August 2015

Shelby Miller's Fantastic 5-10 Season

"Poor, poor, pitiful me." -Warren Zevon

The Atlanta Braves knew what they were doing when they let Jason Heyward's expiring contract go to St. Louis for young righty Shelby Miller this past off-season. While most saw currency as the driver of the deal, GM John Hart knew that Miller was worth every bit of Heyward and that he'd be Atlanta's at a discount for at least four more seasons.

Now Miller is 5-10 and hasn't recorded a victory in 16 starts dating to May 17, back when Jeb Bush was the Republican presidential nominee. He's absorbed eight losses and  eight no-decisions during that time and the Braves have lost 13 of the 16 games.

So is Miller putting the team in the hole early or is he fading as games go on? Well, neither.

Even during the losing streak, Miller has pitched to a 3.03 ERA and averaged six-and-a-third innings, which accounts for a lot departures for pinch hitting. His worst stinker was a five-inning, five run performance in Colorado in which he walked one and fanned seven. Five times he's lasted seven frames and limited the opposition to a run.

As you might imagine, the Braves' lineup has proved feckless in those 16 games. They've contributed one run or none in half of Miller's starts, and delivered more than three runs just twice -- after Miller left the mound. 

For the season, Shelby Miller sports a 2.43 ERA with two shutouts and four wins against replacement. His accomplishments on the hump just haven't been reflected in game scores.

21 August 2015

A Look Back: Boy Could He Rake

David Ortiz's next home run launches him into the rarefied air above Lou Gehrig and solidly in the middle of a Hall of Fame discussion. 

The subject has been examined here before: 
  • he's slightly lacking on the numerical end because his star didn't rise until he was nearly 30; 
  • his peak is Hall of Fame worthy; 
  • he is a larger-than-life character and helped bring three world titles to beleaguered Boston; 
  • he is a DH by necessity, which means he has cost his teams many runs on defense; 
  • for several years he collected a skein of big hits in key spots that turned around games; 
  • he allegedly tested positive for steroids before they were outlawed in baseball.
Decide what to make of that brew on your own. That's not the point of this post. But it's worth noting that in the five-year stretch from '03-'07, Big Papi walloped 42 homers a year, knocked in 128 and hit .302/.402/.612, finishing second, third, fourth twice and fifth in the MVP balloting. Want evidence of how fearsome he was? Pitchers intentionally walked him, despite a solid lineup around him, 60 times during that stretch.

All of that is noteworthy while remembering another performer whose Hall of Fame credentials are being debated. Already an MVP and Hall of Famer-to-be, it's generally acknowledged that Barry Bonds began tinkering with the juice after 1998, and from 2000 to 2007 was the most spectacular and dominating hitter ever.

With Ortiz as the benchmark of greatness, here's what you might have forgotten about Bonds: in those eight years he crushed an average of 40 homers and walked 131 times, despite averaging just 123 games played. His slash stats of .322/.517/.724 dwarf Big Papi's -- and everyone else's. Ortiz compiled an OPS 56% above average; Bonds was 121% above average. In other words, Bonds was more than twice the hitter the average player was. He was competing at a whole other level than the next best baseball player in the world.

Remember the year Bonds smashed the home run record, with 73? He walked a league-leading 177 times that year, leaving just 476 opportunities to swing for the fences. The next year he walked 198 times -- with 46 home runs -- and two years later he walked a mind-boggling 232 times and still managed to smash 45 homers in just 373 at bats. That season, 2004, Bonds was 37 years old.

We think of Ortiz as "clutch," but if there was a guy to avoid in a key spot, it was Barry Bonds. Remember those 60 intentional walks for Ortiz over five years? Pitchers purposely sent Bonds to first 60 or more times in each of three seasons. For his steroid period, these were his intentional walk tallies: 

2000 - 22
2001 - 35
2002 - 68
2003 - 61
2004 - 120
2005 - hurt most of the season
2006 - 38
2007 - 43 
bold = led Majors 

That's with Hall of Fame candidate Jeff Kent batting behind him. Bonds earned 688 lifetime intentional passes. That more than all of Hall-of-Famer Jim Rice's walks -- intentional or otherwise -- in a 16-year career.

Bonds also led the league in on base percentage in six of those last seven seasons, including his age 41 and 42 years. That's right, no team would pick up Bonds at age 43 in 2008 because his skills had deteriorated so badly that he could only muster 28 home runs in 126 games, lead the league with a .480 OBP and post an OPS 69% better than average. For good measure, Bonds swiped 30 of 32 bases in his last six campaigns. 

It's difficult to describe to someone who didn't experience Bonds's career how devastating and dominating he was in those years. He would wait out pitchers' fearful nibbling until he got a pitch in the zone and then he'd explode on it and send the ball into McCovey Cove. If that pitch never came, he'd diffidently remove his body armor and stroll to first without regret. The entire defensive philosophy against the Giants revolved around Barry Bonds. His body language and personal style were arrogant, self-centered and often brutish. But boy could he rake.

For his career, Bonds won seven MVPs, finished second twice, fourth once, fifth twice and eighth once. He would have fared better but writers didn't understand on base percentage and thought he was a bastard. Imagine if they had liked and appreciated him.

If you ever had the thought that you'd like to see what "so-and-so" could do on steroids, don't bother. We saw what the Willie Mays of the 90s actually did on steroids and it was unimaginable.

20 August 2015

The Deficit In Washington

Here's the blog post I did not write 16 days ago, thank goodness:

All you dopes analyzing the Mets-Nationals dogfight for first place in the NL East, shut up!  There is no race: the Nats are twice as talented and have all their key pieces returning to the field. The NY stagecoach turns back into a pumpkin right about now.

Which is exactly what happened -- in a parallel universe opposite ours. In our bizarre, shared reality,  Washington lost 20 of 30 games, including six in a row, and has fallen under .500, dangerously behind not only the Mets, by five games, but the second Wild Card, by nine games. The only person in Washington less able to explain their performance is Hillary Clinton, but at least she's tried to obscure the evidence.

Now, there are still seven weeks left in the season, an eternity in the standings. As Sports on Earth's Will Leitch points out, the Rays, Orioles, Giants and Nationals were all locked into playoff berths seven weeks ago. Indeed, just 19 days ago, Washington owned a 2.5 game lead on the Mets, a 7.5-game turnaround in much less time than we have left.

But for another turnaround to happen, the Nationals, favorites to win 100 games when the goldenrod was just beginning to blossom, will have to perform as they have not yet.

Indeed, the issue with Matt Williams' club, beyond perhaps Matt Williams, is that nothing much and everything is responsible for their mediocrity simultaneously. Besides Bryce Harper and Max Scherzer, most of the team has been hurt, ineffective or both. Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth all own sub-.300 OBP. Last year's star, Anthony Rendon, has struggled through 167 plate appearances. It's been so bad that Tyler Moore, Matt den Dekker and, for god's sake, Dan Uggla have seen serious action. (Top OPS+ among them, den Dekker's 65.)

On the hump, chickens have come home to roost on Doug Fister's declining velocity and Stephen Strasburg's fragility. Then, GM Mike Rizzo snagged diva Jonathan Pappelbon to replace Drew Storen at closer, and instead of setting up, Storen blew up, allowing 10 runs in his last six innings, after allowing just seven runs in the previous 42. 

Add to middling at the plate and on the hill, a defense tagged bottom third in the league by all the defensive metrics and you get 59-59, right where the D.C. Comics stand now.

Appropriately for a team where everything and nothing is the issue, there is plenty of time and none at all to win the East. (The Wild Card appears out of play.) The schedule gods have offered up the woeful Rockies, Brewers, Padres and Marlins on the catch-up alter, so if Washington is going to right the ship and make up ground, there's no time like the present.

All the pressure is on them, the 100-win favorites. The Mets are playing with house money and enjoying the entertaining narrative -- which is all Washington is good for these days anyway.

18 August 2015

Tim Tebow, Michael Sam, Arian Foster and David Denison Walk Into a Bar...

Q. What do Tim Tebow, Michale Sam, Arian Foster and David Denson have in common?

Tebow is the over-enthusiastically Christian quarterback attempting to crack the Eagles' roster as the third starter this off-season. Sam is the openly gay defensive lineman picked in the seventh-round who couldn't stick in the NFL or the CFL.  Foster is the Houston Texans' avowedly atheist star running back. And Denson is a first baseman for the Milwaukee Brewers' Rookie League affiliate in Helena, Montana who last week announced his homosexuality.

What you'll notice immediately about three of these is that they've run out of talent just before the majors. Tebow's NFL career is likely to end this pre-season. Sam is already done. And Denson is, at 20 years of age in rookie ball, roster-filler. Only Foster, who has gained 1,200+ yards-a-season in four of his six years in the league, has spent any significant time drawing a check from a pro sports franchise.

On the surface, of course, each of them has presented a highly controversial persona to the public, either by exiting the closet or proclaiming his religious beliefs publicly. In each case, the athlete has taken a road less traveled and likely more difficult. There are plenty more of each of them, for sure.

But what they really have in common is this:

A. In the brutal meritocracy that is professional sports, ultimately, no one cares about what you are. They care about what you produce. Tebow, Sam, Foster and Denson all will be, and largely have been, measured by their performances on the field. Your religious affiliation and your sexual orientation (not to mention your race and national origin) ultimately make no difference.

And that's as it should be. Bless them all.

But we're not quite there. When Jackie Robinson entered baseball, that was earth shattering. When Larry Doby broke the AL color line it was less dramatic. By the time Willie Mays joined the Giants four years later, fans were more focused on his talent than on his skin color. Two decades later, even the end of the bench was integrated, demonstrating that race wasn't even a tie-breaker.

Likewise, Frank Robinson's rise to manager was ground-breaking, but his firing was more significant. Today, managers of all races come and go.

So it's wonderful that Tebow, Sam & Denison, and Foster can reveal their true selves and be accepted. But we will have really achieved something when there isn't any reason for, or interest in, the proclamation.