29 July 2015

You Can't Make This Stuff Up



Baseball is a great game because we can atomize everything about it yet tomorrow always presents a surprise. To wit:

Evan Gattis leads the Astros this year with seven triples. He had one triple in his entire career previously.

Royals rookie Paulo Orlando’s first three career hits were triples. Victor Martinez has three lifetime triples in 6,400 plate appearances.

Jenrry Mejia managed to face 27 batters between suspensions that will sideline him for 242 games.

You think the Tigers are out of it? On June 30, the Yankees were in third place in the AL East, four games above .500. Less than a month later they have a seven-game lead and a 57-42 record.

Clayton Kershaw in July: 3-0, 0.27; two walks/45 strikeouts; three extra base hits allowed, all doubles. He’s back.

The last time the Cubs were no-hit, before Cole Hamels got them, Gomer Pyle USMC was the top-rated comedy on TV.

Carlos Ruiz has served as Cole Hamels’ battery mate 207 times, most in the Majors. With Hamels on his way elsewhere and Ruiz riding the pines, that number may not change.

After 101 games, the Astros were tied for first place. Time travel back to April 1 and read that statement.

Nats’ reliever Drew Storen is third in the Majors in saves, sports a 1.73 ERA, has allowed just one home run and fanned five times as many batters as he’s walked. And he’s about to lose his closer job to Jonathan Papelbon.

Jose Fernandez since returning from Tommy John surgery: 4-0, 2.53; 10.4K/game; WHIP under 1; 5-1 K/BB ratio. Pretty much the same as when he got hurt last season.

Julio Teheran has a 2.37 ERA at Turner Field and a 7.24 ERA on the road. 

Nick Markakis’s resume included 141 lifetime homers when the Braves signed him this year. He’s hit one out in two-thirds of a season. Rays rookie catcher Curt Casali has seven homers in 50 at bats after hitting just 30 in five Minor League seasons.

The Baltimore Orioles won 18 of 23 at one point in the season but they’ve also lost five in a row three separate times. The Chicago White Sox lost five of six before their current six game winning streak. The Minnesota Twins lost six of seven, then won nine of 10, then lost 11 of 14 then won seven of eight, then lost 9 of 13, then won four in a row, then lost seven of nine.

Scoring is up this year, if ever so slightly, and strikeouts are down, by a similar margin. Game times have fallen by nine minutes. Rah.

27 July 2015

A Red Letter Day for Royals

Theirs is a most unusual, perhaps even unique formula for winning: no power, no starting pitching; all relief pitching and defense. The Royals are like a man with two broken legs who walks very fast on his hands. It's not that it can't be done; it's just not the way most do it, primarily because it's really hard.

Conventional playoff wisdom demands at least one ace, if not two, which is two more than Kansas City had. So, with an eye towards October, which GM Dayton Moore's club is now seven games closer to than their division rivals, they boldly swung a deal for Johnny Cueto. It feels like a quintessential win-win, even if it doesn't work out well for anyone.

Even with a third of a season of Cueto, the Royals still appear light on the mound in the first six frames of every game. Nabbing Cueto, who has hurled 1,000 innings of 2.72 ERA over the last five years, increases the already favorable odds (at least relatively speaking) of re-capturing the AL crown.

KC was a popular choice for the AL Central basement this year. Banking on reprised performances from a relief corps is a fools errand, and although defense tends to be less fickle than hitting, even a small dip in the field would have doomed the punchless Royals. Somehow, though, they've bottled lightning and charged to the top of the standings.

If you thought Kansas City was talent-challenged before this season, wait until Alex Gordon leaves after it's over. Between that and the unpredictability of their hitting, the Royals could return to perpetual doormat status starting in 2016. So it makes sense that Moore wanted to strike while the iron was hot.

It seems like they gave up a lot of future value for Cueto. No one ever knows with prospects, but 22-year-old Brandon Finnegan was a first-round pick who is pitching like one, now with the big club. John Lamb, a once-and-future Minor League star following TJ surgery, and semi-prospect Cody Reed, round out the deal. It seems like a nice haul for Cincinnati in exchange for 12 starts from a pitcher who can choose his hometown after the last wisps of the World Series trail off into the ether.

So the Royals make a run for it while they can and the Reds stockpile arms at essentially no cost. It's a good deal for both teams. Now we'll have to see whether the gods smile upon either or both ends.

26 July 2015

Are the A's and BoSox In or Out?


The Oakland A's have allowed the fewest runs in the American League and stand fifth in tallies of their own. They also own the second worst record in the circuit, alternating in dead last with the Boston Red Sox. That would be the high-payroll, star-studded Sox of David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Xander Boegarts, Clay Bucholz and others.

Five score games into the season, both teams face dueling realities: on one hand, their personnel is several quanta better than their record and there's plenty of season left for a comeback. A couple of good weeks could put them right back in the thick of the Wild Card race. Sure, and Carly Fiorini could rally for the Republican presidential nomination. But neither is the way to bet. Both teams would be well-advised to flip short-term assets for help next year and beyond.

However...

This should not be confused with a rebuild. Both teams are talent-stocked and have the resources to compete in 2016. The A's have the human resources, the Red Sox less in-their-prime talent but more ability to import some. Relinquishing any veterans of value in exchange for long-term potential -- the modus operandi of rebuilds -- would set the A's and Sox back another year.

For the Red Sox, that limits trade bait to but a few players, and unfortunately for them, not the disastrous off-season signings of Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez. (Aside: I have never seen anyone so ineptly don a glove in a Major League outfield as Ramirez. He looks like a T-baller lost in daydreams among the grass blades. Baseball-Reference.com agrees, rating the deprivation of his glovework as so severe it unravels the entire value of his offense, and then some.)

Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Justin Masterson and Alejandro de Aza are all free agents after this season, having contributed a combined two wins to the team's last place charge. Whatever little this quartet might earn in return, Boston should consider. There's no place for a gloveless wonder like Napoli next year under any circumstances, and probably not for an injury-riddled 35-year-old Victorino either. Boston needs to get better on the mound and younger in the field. Anything they could get that is Big League-ready would be a bonus.

If, by some miracle, Ben Cherington can bamboozle a rival GM into taking David Ortiz, Sandoval, Ramirez and maybe Rick Porcello off his roster, all the better. By avoiding the pursuit of old, fat, slow, clueless and ineffective this coming off-season, New England's favorite team would have a chance in 2016.

Oakland's calculations are colored by cost, but that shouldn't stop the team from considering turning around multi-position asset Ben Zobrist and closer Tyler Clippard, much as they did with Scott Kazmir. All are free agents come the Fall and could bring back actual value in return.

Unlike the Red Sox, the A's have youth, positional flexibility, pitching and plenty of cost control on their side. Only two market-price contracts -- Coco Crisp and Billy Butler, each at roughly $11 million next year -- soak the books beyond this season. Consequently, there's much less imperative for a flurry of trades at the deadline. Billy Beane would be wise to simply hit the reset button next year in hopes of winning more than the 13 of 42 one-run and extra-inning affairs that have been the team's downfall this season.

Neither club has demonstrated that it's a player in 2015 but both have hopes for 2016. Their actions leading to the trade deadline should be controlled burns, leaving enough old growth and new sprouts to provide a thick forest just a year later.

18 July 2015

The Big Reveal About Clayton Kershaw

If you watched the All-Star Game, you saw the moundsman who last year didn't even give up anything to the opposition for Lent allow a pair of runs and absorb the loss. Because the All-Star Game is an exhibition asymptotic to not mattering at all, no one could accuse him of choking in a big moment. In fact, he was responsible for the loss in a meaningless contest.

On the other hand, when he allowed a couple of ill-timed home runs in the playoffs last year, the prevailing narrative was that he "isn't a big-time pitcher" or "isn't a great post-season pitcher" or whatever colloquialisms get spewed to indicate transparent nonsense. 

Compared to his regular season, when he went 21-3, 1.77 and led the NL in basically everything that mattered, Clayton Kershaw could hardly have measured up in the playoffs. In fact, other than the home runs, Kershaw was the same magician in the post-season, fanning 19 and walking two. (I recognize that I've just made an "other than that Mrs. Lincoln" kind of statement, but it's relevant to understand that over 12 innings the result of three pitches can get exaggerated.)

Making matters worse, the Claw was being compared to Madison Bumgarner, who got filthier in the playoffs than Pig Pen. Leading the Giants nearly single-handedly through the playoffs to a World Series championship, MadBum's six starts and one long relief appearance stand in contrast to Kershaw's struggles.

But maybe you've noticed, those struggles have continued in 2015, at least relative to Kershaw's previous four Cy Young seasons. He's halfway through his worst full season, with the lowest ERA+ (i.e., relative to league average) since his rookie campaign.

Would you like to guess why that is? Right: his home run rate has doubled. He's dominating batters in every other way just as he had the previous two seasons, but Mr. Big Fly has already visited him more times this season than all of last. That's led to more crossings of the plate than all of last year, which makes him look a lot more human.

So here's the big reveal: Clayton Kershaw didn't become a different pitcher in last year's playoffs. He started to become a different pitcher then and has continued that way this season. Despite his pinpoint control and knee-buckling curve, he's lost that patina of invincibility, either because he's doing something different or because batters have adjusted in some small way to him. He's still an ace, an All-Star, a Cy Young candidate, but he's not the undisputed best in the game, at least not now.

So, there goes the idiotic narrative -- based on two starts! -- that Clayton Kershaw is a great regular season pitcher, but not the guy you'd want in a big game. 

16 July 2015

The Greatest Living Players At Each Position

For years, Joe DiMaggio demanded, in return for his participation in Old Timers ceremonies, that the the Yankees introduce him as the "greatest living ballplayer." That was debatable, to be kind to Joltin' Joe, as long as the "Say Hey Kid" was alive. But Willie Mays wasn't invited to the Yankees' Old Timers games and now Joe is gone.

Tuesday's All-Star announcements of Mays, Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench and Sandy Koufax as winners of a fan vote for greatest living players got me thinking about the actual titleholders, since Bench and Koufax, giants among the their peers though they were, have no claim to that title.

For added fun, I considered the greatest players around the diamond. Before you read my selections, think for a moment about whom you would choose at each position.

Here goes:

First base: Albert Pujols
Jeff Bagwell edges out Frank Thomas and Willie McCovey for backup. While Thomas and Stretch were magnificent hitters, Bagwell was superior at every other aspect of the game.

Second base: Joe Morgan
The irony of Morgan is that he played the game like a SABR junkie while slathering the airwaves as an announcer with ignorance about what made him great. Robby Alomar beats our Rod Carew for backup in part because Carew moved to first for a significant portion of his career. 

Craig Biggio and Alomar are nearly identical players who hit for average, got on base, piled up doubles and triples, swiped lots of bases and played defense. Biggio got on base via HBP more; Alomar was more adept with the leather, which ultimately swayed me.

Shortstop: Alex Rodriguez
Now the fun begins. ARod has played slightly more games at short than at third. If you count him as a shortstop, that bumps Cal Ripken to backup and Derek Jeter off the team.  That's hard to fathom. So is this: Ozzie Smith can't even get consideration. It's a testament to the 90s as the decade of the shortstop.

Third base: Mike Schmidt
If ARod were a third baseman George Brett wouldn't make the team. Brett knocks Wade Boggs and Chipper Jones off the squad by the microscopic margin of Pete Rose's credibility.

Catcher: Johnny Bench
Yogi Berra gets the nod for backup because he was a better hitter than the two Pudges and a better backstop than Mike Piazza.

Outfield: Barry Bonds, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron
Three of the greatest players of all time. The next group is Rickey Henderson, Frank Robinson and Ken Griffey, Jr. See what's going on there? I didn't consider outfield position, yet each group contains a left, right and center fielder. 

You could make a case to replace Junior with Yaz or Al Kaline. Junior had the higher peak but Yastrzemski and Kaline maintained their productivity to the waning days of their long careers.

DH: Edgar Martinez 
David Ortiz is the backup. It's a perverse irony that the more defensive value a player could confer at another position, the less consideration he would get here. Consider Jim Thome and Paul Molitor, who might have out-hit Ortiz for their careers but are paradoxically weaker candidates because they played large portions of their careers elsewhere on the diamond.

Starting pitchers: Roger Clemens, Tom Seaver, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, Bob Gibson
Your backups are Pedro Martinez and Steve Carlton.

Closer: Mariano Rivera
I suspect that one would be unanimous. Rich Gossage is the backup. Comparing old-time firemen to today's closers is a bit dicey, but Gossage was the best of the firemen and his flame throwing was built to overwhelm batters for today's cheap saves too. (A fireman who throws flames: wow, that's some heavy-duty metaphor mixing.)

There were a few folks victimized by position change, like Robin Yount, Pete Rose, Paul Molitor and Rod Carew, but I'm confident that it wouldn't have made any difference. I wish Gary Carter and Ernie Banks had been eligible. We lost Mr. Cub earlier this year; we lost The Kid way too soon three years ago.

Finally, who would make my living Mt. Rushmore? Chemical boosters not withstanding, Mays, Bonds, Clemens and Rodriguez are pretty obviously the greatest living ballplayers. Disqualifying the steroidal triplets from that list leaves us with Mays, Aaron, Henderson and Seaver. That's an unintentional slight to Frank Robinson and Greg Maddux, and a very purposeful dismissal of Mariano Rivera, who hurled all of 1284 innings in his illustrious career, less than Tom Terrific accumulated in his first five years in the Bigs.

15 July 2015

All Star Observations

The All-Star game is an exhibition but real life intrudes with every pitch.

For starters, there's Royals manager Ned Yost, exhorting his charges pre-game to play as if it mattered, because it might, as his personal testimony could attest. Last season, KC stood seven games out at the ASB, yet returned home for the seventh game of the World Series thanks to an American League victory.

Which they lost, demonstrating that even in the unlikely event that your team runs the gauntlet to the Fall Classic, and in the even more unlikely event that the series goes seven games, even then, the advantage conferred upon the home team is barely worth noting. 

The All-Star game is still a game, and ballers are still ballers. Did you notice how Bryce Harper adjusted his position in the batter's box with two strikes on him? That's one reason he has grown into his talent and now plays the part of George Washington in today's NL Mount Rushmore. In the same inning, Adam Jones, who possesses the same wealth of talent, swung at two balls down and off the plate on the way to a strikeout. That's about the only reason Jones has made a mint in the game, but won't pose for any monuments.

The introduction of elderly Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax and an aging Johnny Bench was a stirring addition to the opening ceremonies. Kudos to MLB for its promotion of the four greatest living players vote.

Lost in the years since the playing days of Aaron and Mays, who stand a head taller than anyone else who might join them in the top four, is that both were sons of the South who overcame racist hatred with aplomb and helped smash the race barrier. They are not just all-time great ballplayers; they have been great men. Let's not forget it.

Meanwhile, Tom Seaver, Greg Maddux and others had to be scratching their heads about Koufax. The Left Arm of God was almighty during the final six years of his career, winning three pitching triple crowns and three Cy Youngs, averaging 22-8, 2.19 and 286 strikeouts. But in his other six seasons he averaged 6-7, 4.10 with 114 strikeouts and more than half as many walks.

Seaver flummoxed batters from age 22 to 40, earning three Cy Youngs and six other top five finishes. His 106 career WAR is twice that of Koufax. The record is nearly identical for Maddux, whose peak was slightly higher but who tailed off more before retiring.

Bob Gibson, Roger Clemens, Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson also have strong cases against Koufax. Longevity and consistency matter: Koufax was a phenomenon, but far short of the greatest living pitcher.

The rule that every team gets an All Star representative is less popular than Congress, but its impact was minimal this year. Even the worst teams -- Milwaukee with KRod, Philly with Papelbon (or Hamels), Colorado with Arenado and Tulo, Boston with Holt (or Bogaerts), Oakland with Gray and Vogt and so on, provided legitimate candidates. 

The biggest stretch is probably Justin Upton representing the Padres, hitting .253 with 14 dingers. But Upton has a history of good play, faces a daunting ballpark for hitting and offers excellent outfield defense and 17 of 18 steals.  There's not much to complain about there.

Hearing Bryce Harper laud Mike Trout's speed burst around third was priceless. It'd be like Carlos Santana marveling at Eric Clapton's axe grinding.

If Ryan Braun can get selected to an All-Star game, it's time to drop the artifice and welcome Pete Rose back into the game; fold up the placards decrying Alex Rodriguez; and elect Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and the rest into the Hall of Fame. Instead of bestowing such an honor on that unapologetic disgrace, the NL manager should select Braun's cynical spin doctors, handlers and script writers.

12 July 2015

You Could Have Predicted the 2015 MVPs in 2012

Baseball is cruel.

In a 2-2 game with the Rockies, Braves closer Jason Grilli pitched to one batter in the ninth. He induced a soft grounder in the first base hole fielded easily by Chris Johnson, but the runner earned a hit when Grilli tore his Achilles covering first.

Reliever Dave Aardsma faced three batters, fanning one, walking one and hitting one to load the bases. Mike Foltynewicz entered and allowed the game-winning bloop hit. The run and the loss were charged to Grilli, whose frying (or perhaps Grilling) will involve larger fish, like massive pain killers, surgery and rehabbing for next season at 38 years of age.

Is there anything sillier -- not withstanding Donald Trump's ramblings -- than the aphorism that the teams leading their divisions at the All-Star break will survive the scrum? A week ago, Houston enjoyed a five game lead over Anaheim in the AL West; today they're percentage points apart. A week ago, the Giants and Dodgers were neck and neck in the NL West; L.A. now leads the division by 5.5 games while San Fran bobs around .500. And the entire AL East, sans Boston, was a knot last week; three games separate the Yankees  from the crowd today, despite an up-and-down week for the Bombers.

Despite similar pre-season expectations, fans of the Red Sox are hopeful as we enter the mid-season break while Tigers supporters are apoplectic. You'd never know the Sox have lost four more times than they've prevailed while the Tigers stand a game above .500. Both teams entered the season with pitching concerns in a winnable division. But Detroit has scuffled more than expected while the Royals and Twins have been shockingly adept. Meanwhile, the AL East has delivered as advertised, sporting the worst first-place winning percentage in the game. And despite miserable pitching (last in ERA) and sloppy defense (below average in zone rating and errors), Boston is on the upswing, closer to first than the Tigers by three games.

There's also reason for optimism in New England. David Ortiz and Mike Napoli have fought demons at the plate that each has demonstrated an ability to vanquish in the second half. Rookie hurler Eduardo Rodriguez gives them a second starter behind Clay Bucholz. The return of Dustin Pedroia from the DL and the insertion of Alejandro de Aza in the outfield add two more data points to the positive calculations.

At Comerica, the math isn't adding up. The home nine have already enjoyed the fruits of a monster lineup that ranks first in OPS and third in runs scored, leaving little room for improvement. The woeful pitching will depend on a breakout from Justin Verlander following a triceps injury that has limited him to five awful starts. Absent that, there's not much to bank on going forward.

The first half 2015 MVPs are exactly who you predicted they would be in 2012: Bryce Harper and Mike Trout. Extrapolating them for a full season, Trout will hit .309 with 52 home runs and 11.8 WAR. Harper would be at .341 with 52 home runs and 12.4 WAR. Neither one is 24 yet. Hello, Cooperstown?

Dallas Keuchel is all of 27 and Zack Greinke is a grizzled 31-year-old veteran. They're your first half Cy Young laureates. Keuchel is 11-4, 2.23 and leads the league in innings pitched (137) shutouts (two) and WAR (4.7). Greinke leads the NL is ERA (1.39), innings pitched (123) and WAR (5.4). The full season award would sit beside another: Greinke earned the Cy in 2009 for Kansas City.

When A.J. Pollock is introduced at the All-Star game next week, many will mutter. Like you, few baseball fans outside of Phoenix have heard of him or seen him play. At age 27, Pollock's full half-season follows about a half season of work last year. Combined, the skilled center fielder has produced a .302/.352/.483 batting line with 18 homers, 99 runs scored and 7.9 WAR. His glove will keep him on the field, so if he continues to deliver even average offense you can add his name to the long list of young stars glittering in the baseball universe these days.

10 July 2015

Where's This Year's Ellie Rodriguez?

The voters are taking all the fun out of the All-Star vote.

Seriously, the Royals obsession not withstanding, the fans have sapped the game of debate fodder. They've generally chosen the most worthy player, and when they haven't, the players and managers have bailed them out.

If you love to ridicule the gimpy veteran, the scuffling fan-favorite, the injured hometown hero, the lagging lone representative, you're out of luck this year. There's no .230 hitter making the Midsummer Classic because of his name. There's no first-half wonder whose star will have faded by Labor Day. Sadly, the best players will gather in Great American Ballpark.

There's no Ellie Rodriguez, a journeyman catcher who made the '69 All-Star squad despite a .236 average and two home runs that season. He produced less than a win against replacement.

I could quibble about this year's selections: Alcides Escobar is not the AL's best shortstop this year or for his career. Jose Iglesias is a superior fielder and is trumping him with the bat this season. And he's on the team.

Jason Kipnis and his 150 OPS+ is the best keystoner in the AL this year by the length of Jose Altuve.  But Altuve is an All-Star dynamo and the fact that he starts and Kipnis finishes is small potatoes. 

The over-abundance of relievers is a product of the game's new faux-significance. Managers choose guys who can light it up for an inning because that's what pitchers are called upon to do in the All Star game.

Cole Hamels (113 innings of excellence) should represent Philly rather than Jonathan Papelbon (33 innings of excellence). Welcome to All-Star hair splitting.

The biggest talk has surrounded Alex Rodriguez, but it's been pretty half-hearted. That's the best controversy we can muster. ARod has been a pleasant surprise but he's this year's third best DH who contributed nothing in the second half of last season. There's really no room for him in a game that won't feature a designated hitter.

So we'll have to content ourselves with all the nascent talent, all the first time All Stars, the future of the game. It's exciting and bodes well for baseball. Of course the youngest one of them all will make his third All Star appearance. That's still Bryce Harper.
 

06 July 2015

Buying and Selling at the Trade Deadline

It's that time of year when Major League teams are compelled to decide whether they're contenders or pretenders, and therefore, buyers or sellers in the non-waiver trade market. At least that's the prevailing wisdom. But not all contenders should be renting expensive properties in exchange for long-term investments, and not all bottom feeders should be swapping out their best players.

Let's take a look at some of the most intriguing teams.

First, let's speak truth to power pitching. If anyone thought the Reds were a serious contender this year after trading Alfredo Simon and Mat Latos in the off-season they were smoking more than pork. Likewise, the team is not going to contend for Johnny Cueto's continued services after this season. They should jettison their oft-injured stud starter and concentrate on signing Mike Leake and developing some talent for the future.

Speaking of power pitching, there are the Mets. Their management is smart enough to know that  the playoffs are beyond their reach in 2015. But with their bevy of young rotation pieces they have the bulwark of a future contender. Flipping young talent for a veteran rental would be lunacy, but if the Mets could dangle some excess farm arms to obtain a Major League bat, they would be a force to reckon with starting in 2016.

The Astros are for real in 2015 and beyond, but they're another team that should not sacrifice the future for some veteran bottled lightning. The youngest team in MLB, Houston should stick with the plan, and if this year doesn't pan out, it wasn't supposed to anyway.

It's a different story for the Dodgers and Nationals. Their future is now, but L.A. needs some rotational help and Washington needs a bat. They should be willing to pull the trigger on a potential-for-present value deal. The Dodgers need help after Kershaw and Greinke; the Nats are so weak at the plate that Dan Uggla has found employment with them.

If the Rockies have visions of a playoff berth anytime between now and 2021, they'd be idiots to trade Troy Tulowitzki. Tulo is signed for six years, so exporting him, as rumors suggest, means they don't believe they're contenders anytime in the next half dozen seasons. Unless they know something about him that diminishes his value (he's hitting .319 with good defense this year) they should build around him.

The Brewers are a dumpster fire, poisoned by the bad karma of Ryan Braun's return (and possibly a complete lack of pitching.) Third baseman Aramis Ramirez, starter Kyle Lohse and reliever Jonathan Broxton will be seeking the highest bidder come October. They aren't much, but they could bring back something, which is more than Milwaukee has now.

The Blue Jays went all in for this year and now find themselves among the AL East muddle, thanks to the best offense in baseball. With Mark Buehrle, R.A. Dickey and Jose Bautista on expiring contracts, Toronto needs to fill holes ASAP. They should do whatever it takes to stop the bleeding at closer and get another rotational arm.

The Padres are the 2015 version of the 2013 Blue Jays, 2012 Marlins, 2011 Brewers. They created a window of opportunity and threw all the assets they could find in the house. It worked for Milwaukee, who won 96 games that year, but crashed in Miami and Toronto. It's come up snake eyes so far in San Diego, and it might be time to make some adjustments. Does A.J. Preller double down, pull the plug or tweak? There aren't any minor league assets to swap, so further investment in the present is unlikely. The Pads may have to ride out the season and see what develops.

The A's were an off-season mystery and have continued their whodunit ways. They've outscored opponents by 50 runs and have the league's second worst record. The supporting data suggests a bounce back, but even if life worked that way they have a lot of ground to make up. Billy Beane is just the man for that job.

Braves announcers talk as if Atlanta is in a Wild Card chase. Puh-leeze. When two games under .500 is a pleasant surprise you know October will be vacation time. GM John Hart has his eyes set on 2017 and the players to make it work. Don't expect him to lift a finger.

The Marlins made bizarre noises about a playoff run this year when they picked up Dan Haren, who has delivered, and Mat Latos, who hasn't. With a juvenile roster featuring Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Fernandez, Christian Yelich and Adeiny Hechavarria, Miami will improve with some seasoning. If they can get anything for the two veteran hurlers fine; if not, they should carry on. I'd keep Ichiro around to show the youngsters what preparation means.

And then there are the Phillies. They should sell everything not nailed down, including the rotting remains of Ryan Howard's gargantuan contract, the Gatorade dispenser, the final days of Ruben Amaro, Jr.'s tenure as GM  and next week's clubhouse buffet. The problem is, recompense would flow away from Philadelphia to unload everything there but the food. On the other hand, Cole Hamels and Jonathan Papelbon have some value. They need to get something for those guys because the Phils' next meaningful game will not be during Barak Obama's presidency.

03 July 2015

Why Adam Jones Is A Waste of Talent

Orioles center fielder Adam Jones is a five-tool monster who's led his team to two division crowns, and batted in the .280s with 29+ home runs each of the last three years. He's made four All-Star squads, earned four Gold Gloves and demonstrated the skill of health.

What a waste.

Adam Jones ought to be a superstar. He ought to be hitting over .300 every year and challenging for the MVP. The reason he isn't is this: There are few hitters in MLB with worse approaches at the plate than he. The accomplishments above are a testament entirely to talent absent the leavening of discipline.

Adam Jones has the plate discipline of Chris Christie. He is no more discerning than Beliebers, or people who buy those "starving artist" paintings mass produced in China. No one should ever throw him a pitch in the strike zone.

Consider this one at bat against Sam Freeman of the Rangers Thursday night. With runners on second and third and two outs in a 0-0 game, Freeman offered Jones three straight pitches wide of the strike zone. Jones swung at one. He was lucky he missed, because there was nothing he could have done with it anyway.

Three more pitches off the outside of the plate followed. Jones, evidently failing to catch on, swung at two of them, fouling one off. He had seen six balls, all in the same spot, and gave chase to half of them. 

Jones fouled off two more ever further from the plate before Freeman finally decided to come inside. That pitch nearly hit the batter otherwise who knows what Jones would have attempted.

This is the second time I've seen Adam Jones fed a steady diet of pitches off the plate that he just couldn't lay off. The first time, batting with the bases loaded, he grounded out weakly on a pitch six inches shy of the strike zone. I've seen probably five Jones at bats this season and two of them were appalling.

Or brilliant, depending on your perspective. By constantly fouling off pitches that he shouldn't have been swinging at, Jones forced the pitcher to exhaust nine pitches on a walk. But that was just fortune smiling upon him. In fact, the only way Adam Jones walks is when the pitcher throws him two walks worth of balls.

Last season Jones came to the plate 682 times and coaxed 19 bases on balls. That's 2.8% of his plate appearances, about a third of the league average. His .281 batting average yielded a paltry .311 on base percentage, inflated substantially by 12 HBP. This is a meager result from a hitter with such transcendent skills.

It's worse than that. In the two instances I recount, the hurlers knew they could pump him with junk and let him get himself out. If pitchers were forced into the choice of challenging or walking him, Adam Jones would do more of everything good. He'd hit for a higher average because he'd see some pitches he could handle. He'd hit even more home runs, which is scary for a guy who is again on pace to reach 30. His on base skills could be Pujolsian.

Consider this: if Adam Jones had walked merely at a league average rate last year -- about 8.5% -- he would have made 39 fewer outs. It would have raised his batting average to .300 and OPS by 88 points. (Admittedly, this overstates it slightly because Jones occasionally pokes a hit off a bad pitch or extends an at bat by swinging that later results in a hit. On the other hand, a slugger with his skill set should walk way more than average.) That's absent the salutatory effects of seeing hitters' pitches described above.

Adam Jones has the talent to be Andrew McCutchen. He seems content with his current level of aptitude, which is an order of magnitude less. It's got to drive Orioles fans crazy.

01 July 2015

Eleventh Anniversary of an Iconic Play That Never Happened

Major League Baseball's marketing department is enjoying 24-hour erections today; the 11th anniversary of Derek Jeter's storybook dive into the stands to catch a foul ball. Why not roll out the video and let every boy and girl see how Captain America saved the day against the arch enemy Red Sox on July 1, 2004.

And so here's the story and video.

Oh wait, here's why not: he didn't actually dive into the stands for the ball. And now you've shown the video proof of him not diving into the stands for a ball that he actually caught in fair territory. A nice catch to be sure, but not really all that noteworthy, except that if we can gloss over the facts and believe hard enough it burnishes Jeter's fairy tale reputation as the Golden Boy. So showing the video unravels the legend, which has lived on in our hearts and seeped into our minds for over a decade. That's why not. Oops.

Except, MLB has nothing to fear, because America will continue to watch the video with its heart and not its eyes, and will continue to remember this catch as something it's not, evidence be damned. 

Here's something many people fail to credit to the great Yankee captain: that very year, under his legendary leadership, the Bronx Bombers authored the most spectacular collapse in baseball playoff history, gakking up a 3-0 AL Championship Series lead to the Sox. Now there's an accomplishment that Jeter admirers can truly claim as uniquely their hero's. 

While you were revisiting the catch, did you notice the little side paean to Jeter just below, the clip of him juking Jason Kipnis into a double play. What a great, heads-up play by the Yankee immortal. 

I wonder what we'd be calling that move if Alex Rodriguez had done it. "Cheap?" "Petty?" "Low class?" "Minor league?" "Phony?" Weren't those the words used when ARod called for a popup while running the bases? What's the difference between faking out a runner and faking out a fielder?

Finally, let's circle back to the enraptured MLB marketing department, which might, next time they need some hagiography written on the site, consider hiring a writer with an expertise in, you know, vocabulary. 

The story written by Chris Landers contends Jeter "leaped" into the stands. There was no leaping of any kind, stands-ward or otherwise, except perhaps by victorious Yankees after John Flaherty's winning hit. Leaping involves a vector opposite that of diving, which is what Jeter did, into the stands, 15 feet after catching the ball, in fair territory, in a game in July.

28 June 2015

The Best Player Not to Make This Year's All-Star Team

After exercising my first 70 (of 105) All-Star franchises, I initiated a thought experiment about who would eventually wind up in Cincinnati and, more to the point, who wouldn't. Who would be the best player left off the All-Star roster?

It didn't take long before a name popped so far out it couldn't be ignored. The research ended there, less exhaustive than exhausted, so take it with an extra grain of salt. 

It appears that only injury or a bizarre desire on the manager's part to select five first baseman will punch Freddie Freeman's Mid-Summer Classic ticket in 2015. Freeman is having a fine season -- a .327 True Average, the best of his career, along with solid defense at the cold corner. It doesn't appear that will suffice.

Ahead of Freeman are a pair of MVP candidates, the Dbacks' Paul Goldschmidt and Cubs' Anthony Rizzo, and two veteran stars, the Reds' Joey Votto and Dodgers' Adrian Gonzalez. The quartet rank second, third, ninth and tenth in OPS in the NL this year. With Votto playing at home, he's a nearly sure bet to be selected, while Gonzalez's offensive-subduing home field and Gold Glove credentials argue for him.

That leaves Freeman fifth for three -- maybe four at most -- spots on the All-Star roster.

In a way, it's a microcosm of Freeman's career. A milquetoast guy on a middling team, Freeman has demonstrated broad excellence (a lifetime .304 TAv) but has rarely stood out. He's hit .300+ once and knocked in 100 runs once in his five-year career. He's never bopped more than 23 homers, stolen bases or claimed many Web gem moments. He's a steady-Eddie kind of player, the type who rarely earns much notice.

So he appears to be the best player who won't make this year's All-Star team. Of course, that might change once my research moves beyond first base.

Addendum: Another reason Freeman might not make the All-Star team is that he's now on the shelf with an injury. I don't think it was true when I wrote this, but if it was, it was a new development that hadn't filtered down to me yet.

24 June 2015

History Right Under Our Noses

There's nothing special to report about well-traveled backstop A. J. Pierzynski, currently a body filling the lineup for the future-looking Atlanta Braves.

Pierzynski provides that "veteran presence," while hitting .271/.316/.416, a tick above average. He had been splitting duties with defensive specialist Christian Bethancourt, but has usurped the starting job as Bethancourt struggles to hit his weight. 

The Braves hope to develop Bethancourt's bat enough to keep his glove in the lineup for years to come as they focus their efforts on building a contender for the 2017 opening of SouthTrust Park in the Atlanta suburbs.

But look closely and you'll see something remarkable about Pierzynski. In his 18th year with his seventh team, the left-handed hitting Floridian is performing at a notable level for a 38-year-old who squats every day.

How unusual is it for a catcher that old to play regularly and flash a league-average stick? Two words: Pudge and Yogi.

That's the list of catchers in MLB history who have played that long, held down the starting job at age 38 and out-hit half the league. I'd just like to be in a room with Pudge and Yogi; A.J. Pierzynski is in the conversation with them. (That's Carlton Fisk, not ersatz-Pudge Ivan Rodriguez.)

There's a long way to go in the season and Pierzynski is bouncing back from a 2014 during which it appeared he was filling out his retirement papers at the expense of Boston and St. Louis. This year, so far, he's resurrected most of his 2012-13 seasons when he averaged in the .270s with 22 homers.

So keep an eye on him. If he remains in the lineup and represents himself well he will be making history. Right under our noses.


23 June 2015

Pete Rose Colored Glasses

There has been a lot of good, smart discussion about Pete Rose since the most recent revelation that he bet on baseball while a player, and therefore, has never stopped lying. If the door was ever cracked to Rose's return to Baseball, that loud shudder you heard yesterday was the room shaking in the shadow of a slam.

For those still clinging to sympathy for the hit king, the argument against is tough to oppose. Rose is now in league with those inveterate liars -- Lance Armstrong, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Bill Clinton, et. al. -- who treated the truth as a strategy to be employed only when effective. MLB did then and does now exhort players endlessly about its absolute prohibition -- and the consequences if violated -- against gambling of any kind.

So therefore, goes the argument, Pete Rose, a 17-time All Star, .303 lifetime hitter, three-time batting champ, 15-time MVP candidate, and contributor of 79 lifetime WAR, that guy should be banned from the game and hence from the Hall of Fame. Smarmy creep. Lying bastard. And all that.

It's a convincing argument. Screw Pete Rose.

But how about me? How about you?

We want Pete Rose in the Hall of Fame because we want the Hall to mean something about baseball. We grew up with a Hall of Fame that welcomed Ty Cobb's virulent racism and Tris Speaker's KKK membership and Babe Ruth's serial infidelity and Mickey Mantle's raging alcoholism and Joe DiMaggio's mob ties and Gaylord Perry's career-long cheating and on and on. Now we're being asked to accept the exclusion of all-time great players like Rose, Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Alex Rodriguez and perhaps others.

It doesn't make sense. It's not just that he Hall shouldn't exclude those wanting in character; it's that it hasn't.

I say screw Pete Rose too. And Bonds, Clemens and the rest of them. But induct them into the Hall of Fame because it's not their Hall of Fame; it's mine. And I want the best players enshrined in Cooperstown.

21 June 2015

You Don't See That Very Often

Dodgers rookie center fielder Joc Pederson has slammed 18 home runs three weeks short of the All-Star break. Only three rookies in National League history have gone yard 18 or more times before the All-Star break. The names with which Pederson cohabits are: Mike Piazza, Frank Robinson and Albert Pujols.

Chris Sale shut down the Texas Rangers for eight shutout innings, allowing just two hits and no walks while whiffing 14 batters. But Sale didn't earn a win. His team lost when reliever David Robertson allowed the same number of hits, plus two walks and two runs in a single inning.

On the other side of the equation, Phillies starter Phillipe Aumont walked seven Cardinals while fanning three in just four innings. That's just the fifth time in the last two years that a pitcher has walked seven or more and struck out three or fewer.

The near-perfection of Max Scherzer's performance Saturday pointed out how prosaic his no-no was. There have been 289 no-hitters in MLB history, roughly two-a-year, including Edwin Jackson's sow's ear in 2010 when he walked 8 Rays, hit a batter and missed the strike zone on 47% of his 149 pitches. Perfectos? Just 23 all time, or fewer than two-a-decade.

That's even less often than an everyday player reaches 3,000 hits. Remember when that was special? Alex Rodriguez became the 29th to join the club last week, but only the third member to reach the 600 HR/3,000 hit heights, which he achieved, appropriately, with a dinger. Yet zzzzz. I hope we care more when Ichiro, Prince Albert and Miguel Cabrera reach that vaunted status.

Three position players toed the rubber on Friday, and not in the same game. It's the first time that happened in nearly 100 years -- since 1918 to be exact.

One of those "pitchers" was Rays keystoner Nick Franklin, who hurled a frame of three-hit, two-run ball against the Nats. During that contest, the Nats ran out pitcher Joe Ross to replace the DH, thereby becoming the first National League pitcher to DH. Ever. That he did so against a position player will probably leave him alone in history for awhile.

Remember all that talk about the Kansas City Royals dominating the All-Star voting? As more precincts report it will seem like ancient history. Most knowledgeable voters, the kind who exercise their 35 ballots, wait until the last weeks to weigh in. By then, the ranks of the deserving -- e.g. Josh Donaldson at third, Miguel Cabrera at first, Nelson Cruz at DH, Jason Kipnis or Dustin Pedroia at second -- will claim their rightful spots.

Chris Young, the Yankees' ostensible outfielder, needed six weeks in May and June to cobble together three RBIs. Chris Young, the Royals pitcher, drove in three runs in an inter-league game last week.

The Houston Astros lead the AL in homers, steals and strikeouts. They are the first AL team in nearly 80 years to nail all three legs of that stool. They also sport the third lowest batting average in the league. Drop down two more notches and they will be alone in history.

Pirates starter Charlie Morton entered his tilt against the Nationals Sunday with a 1.62 ERA. After two-thirds of an inning, during which the Nats pounded Morton for eight hits and nine runs, he left with a 3.97 ERA. There goes the All-Star berth.