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 Williamson, 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 winner 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 losing ground on 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, hasn't tallied 71 in a full season for six years. The Mets have 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 net 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.

16 August 2015

Everyone in the Pool!

The baseball team representing my alma mater plays about 40 games in a full season. With 40 games left in the MLB season, it seems pretty clear that the Kansas City Royals will play October baseball, and not the play-in variety. They have a 12-game lead in the AL Central and a formula that worked reasonably well last year without hitting, which they now have, if not in abundance then at least in sufficiency.

The Yankees, Blue Jays and Astros all appear poised to join K.C., but at only 10-13 games over .500, a two-week skid could bury any of them. Consider that Toronto rode an 11-game win streak that ended this weekend to climb from also-ran to favorite. At the same time the Yankees blew an eight-game lead over the Jays to fall temporarily into second. New York is elderly and its mound corps is spotty. For Toronto, spotty is an improvement. The Astros are frightfully young, untested and almost entirely relying on two pitchers.

The Angels own the second Wild Card spot, but just five games clear of .500 and a game ahead of Baltimore, two ahead of Tampa, two-and-a-half in front of Minnesota and Texas. Indeed, everyone but Boston, Oakland and Seattle sits within six games of the Wild Card, including Cleveland, the Central's cellar dwellers. Any one of them could catch a fortnight's rocket ride into that last playoff berth.

Indeed, think of recent years' late season fireworks. The AL Champs themselves were barely above .500 well after the All-Star break before claiming the last post-season spot and then the pennant.  The Rangers crash landed in 2013 to miss the playoffs. And the Red Sox and Braves famously choked away the 2011 season by stumbling down the stretch and losing on the last day.

No one knows which team is the one that catapults into the playoffs or slides out of them, which is why, if you peruse Baseball Prospectus's playoff odds calculations, the chances of, for example, the Indians, Twins and Tigers entering the post-season are rated at 8.6%, 3.5% and 3.0% respectively. (The A's and BoSox are listed at under one percent. That's the rough equivalent of good night.) But there is an 80% likelihood that it won't be the five teams now occupying those spots.

So if you have a dog in the fight, be neither complacent nor hopeless.  There is a full college season's worth of games remaining.

15 August 2015

A Good Decision That Didn't Work

What's the difference between a good decision and a bad one? If you said a good one works out well and a bad one doesn't, you're exactly wrong.

If we knew the outcomes of our decisions for sure, they wouldn't be decisions. I don't "decide" to brush my teeth in the hopes that I'll remove food and plaque; I brush them -- every single week, sometimes twice -- because I know that will be the result. 

A good decision is one made for good reasons, free from irrational emotion and based on a thorough accounting of the facts, the best understanding possible of the potential outcomes and a reasonable estimation of their odds. Baked into that equation is the possibility of failure.

That brings us to a decision by Blue Jays manager John Gibbons on Friday that cost Toronto the lead, the game and first place during their tilt with the Yankees. Gibbons is being excoriated both for not replacing ace starter David Price to start the eighth inning and for pulling him four batters later.

Price took the mound for the eighth time that night with a 3-0 cushion and 90-something pitches thrown. The unflappable lefty, whom Toronto had coaxed from Detroit in a deadline deal for just these kinds of weighty encounters, has a demonstrated ability to go 110-120 pitches deep into a game. Leaving him in was perfectly defensible.

With one out, Price hit the skids. He surrendered three straight hits, including Chase Headley's run-scoring double that left runners on second and third and the go-ahead run at the plate. With 112 pitches thrown, Gibbons exercised the hook and inserted right-hander Aaron Sanchez to face righty Chris Young.

It's likely that Gibbons knew pulling Price would bring switch-hitter Carlos Beltran in to pinch-hit. The 18-year veteran has no platoon splits to speak of -- he gets on base slightly more from the left side and hits with a little more power from the right. For what little it's worth, he was a dumpster fire batting against lefties last season.

Price had become ineffective. The pitch count was starting to matter. Sanchez had been turning out the lights for the previous several weeks, allowing one run in his previous 11 appearances. It was a perfectly defensible decision, and probably the right one.

It just didn't work out. Beltran socked a two-strike pitch into the seats to give the Yankees the lead, the win and first place. 

There was a lot of talk in Baseball land about those two decisions, particularly the switch. It's all made with hindsight. Gibbons makes dozens of decisions each game and on the difficulty barometer, this one was not very high up.  He played the odds, bet the seven and came up snake eyes. It was still the right decision.

12 August 2015

The Newest Most Under-rated Player

When I was filling out my All-Star ballot, there was one player for whom I voted (on several of my roughly 100 ballots) who did not make the team at all; indeed, his name was hardly spoken, as if he were Valdemort.

He's exactly the kind of player who falls through the cracks, or at least used to, before we realized that batting average, home runs and RBI are simply the outline, leaving out all the colors inside the lines.

He hits doubles and triples, plays excellent defense, earns his share of walks, employs his speed judiciously, doesn't make a lot of noise and plays for a last-place team in a second-tier market.

Since he became a regular in 2011, he's hit .296/.354/.431, stolen an average of 15 of 19 bases and played above-average defense in left and center field. He's also improved over that time, to the point that he hit over .300 with 20 home runs last season. His OPS is 20% better than average and he's earned 3.5 WAR/year with a third of this season remaining.

You get 23 guesses (that's his number) and you still won't name him: Indians outfielder Michael Brantley, who is batting .313 this year and leading the AL in doubles. He's swiped 12 of 13 bases and played 101 of the team's 110 games. Brantley's True Average ranks fifth among AL left-fielders, which means 10 other teams would love to employ him.

Tribe brass know what they have. They signed Brantley to a four-year, $33 million contract that buys out his arbitration years and one season of free agency. And if Cleveland can get a bullpen, a third baseman and a center fielder, Brantley might have enough pieces around him to capture some All-Star votes.

10 August 2015

Tweedledee Vs. Tweedledum

A duality of bi-partisan narrow-mindedness popped up this past week to remind us all that there remain pockets of willful ignorance on both sides of the Sabermetric divide, even while most of us have managed without too much effort to balance intuition with statistical analysis.

First, in reviewing the spinning wheel of trading deadline transactions, some of the seamhead community relied on their projection systems to determine whether teams should be buyers or sellers.

Here are two examples from Baseball Prospectus:
"...maybe baseball executives aren't as smart as we think. That's one way to read the White Sox's decision to hang onto Samardzija at the deadline, despite their 9 percent playoff odds at the time of the deadline." 

(With respect to the Blue Jays) "... if PECOTA has the talent levels of everyone pegged correctly, they probably can't do enough to realistically make themselves AL East favorites."

But as the chart below demonstrates, BP’s projection system, PECOTA, provided as little insight into 2012’s final standings as Donald Trump on immigration (or anything else). In this small sample, the system bombed on the Orioles, Red Sox, A’s, Angels, Rays, Indians, A's, Mets, Braves and Reds.

2012 American League

Team   Opening Day Projection    July 4th Projection   Final Win Total

New York Yankees  91.7         95.1                   95

Boston Red Sox    83.5            83.8                   69

Tampa Bay Rays    83.7           83.6                   90

Baltimore Orioles 75.3           80.5                   93

Toronto Blue Jays 76.0           78.7                   73

Chicago White Sox 87.2          88.2                 85

Cleveland Indians 83.6           83.6                  68

Detroit Tigers    86.6               83.1                  88

K.C. Royals         69.7               71.3                  72

Minnesota Twins   69.0          68.9                 66

Texas Rangers     94.9           97.4                   93

Anaheim Angels    90.1        89.2                   89

Oakland A's            73.8        78.3                   94

Seattle Mariners    68.8       68.5                   75

2012 National League 

Team  Opening Day Projection   July 4th Projection   Final Win Total

Washington Nats   80.5       90.5                  98

Atlanta Braves    85.6           85.3                  94

New York Mets     79.1        84.2                  74

Miami Marlins     84.3         78.9                  69

Philly Phillies       86.0         77.6                   81

Cincinnati Reds   86.7          88.4                   97

St. Louis Cards   87.4           87.8                   88

Pittsburgh        74.7             84.3                   79

Milwaukee       90.4            80.4                   83

Chicago Cubs    73.3           67.7                   61

Houston Astros    61.9       63.4                   55

San Fran Giants   86.6         88.7                   94

L.A. Dodgers      80.0           84.4                   86

Arizona D'backs   83.9        82.2                   81

San Diego Padres  78.6       69.9                   76

Colorado Rockies  76.8       66.3                   64

That’s because first half results aren’t destiny, and neither is some statistical formula. Teams are fluid, and even when their lineups don’t vary much, player performance does. Some players improve while others wear out. Teams rise and fall over the course of a 162-game grind. Making personnel decisions based solely on statistical formulas is nonsense; it’s why general managers are people, not robots. They need to evaluate not just the numbers but the people who comprise their rosters.

Sometimes the statheads need to take a humility pill and recognize that they rarely have definitive answers about how humans will act.

And then there's Harold Reynolds
On the flip side, you’ve probably seen Harold Reynolds and Dan Plesac on MLB Network doing their Johnny Appleseed imitations, except what they’re spreading all over the land is wanton ignorance.

In a recent discussion of top rookie hitters and pitchers, they made their picks based largely on reputation and hype, after which Matt Vasgersian offered WAR statistics for top rookies. In each case, the duo had failed to even mention the player with the top WAR number. They’re response was to dismiss WAR with essentially these words:

I don’t understand WAR, therefore it has no value.

The details are irrelevant, though Plesac and Reynolds appear never to have heard of Taylor Jungmann, a first-round draft pick now spinning a 2.26 ERA for the woebegone Brewers (and hitting .316 to boot.)

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical about WAR, particularly for pitchers. WAR accounts for defense with tools that are still as inexact as a Yasiel Puig throw. When applying it to pitchers, WAR attempts to parse the defense of every fielder behind the pitcher and then adjust the pitcher's performance based on how much help he's getting from the defense. Tiny misjudgments in the assumptions can ripple out to very large errors in the final numbers and so should be taken with a sea's worth of salt.

But that doesn't exonerate the two ex-ballplayers. If they are going to comment on player performance, they ought to learn something about the new tools available to them. Announcing their professional ignorance, indeed reveling in it, is akin to Bill Gates refusing to acknowledge that people are accessing the Internet on phones now. Except Bill Gates would be bankrupt while Plesac and Reynolds somehow keep their jobs.

I don't know what the average baseball fan thinks when they see this pair unknowingly admit that they are unintelligent, incompetent and unprepared, but my reaction was to write them off with extreme prejudice. That can't possibly be the reputation they're going for.

02 August 2015

There Are No Playoff Favorites

Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
--George Santayana

Now that teams have re-positioned the linen on a laundry list of free agents and more starkly defined the balance of power in the two leagues, we're starting to hear some of the usual late-season drivel from the baseball media.

Specifically, you're starting to hear about who the pennant favorites are, as if there are no lessons to be gleaned from past post-seasons.

I even read one story by a former general manager calling the Royals the "odds-on favorites" to return to the World Series.

Right, because Kansas City entered last year's playoffs as clearly the best team. Oh wait, no they didn't. In fact, they had a 50% chance of being eliminated even before the playoffs really began.

Which was the same path paved by the World Champion Giants, who entered the post-season with the worst record among playoff teams and a sub-.500 second half.

In 2012, the teams with the four best records -- Oakland, New York, Washington and Cincinnati -- all fell to lesser teams. Indeed, three of the four lost in the first round. The Yankees fell in the ALCS to a Tigers team without a bullpen -- the secret sauce we correlate with post-season success.

In 2011, the Cardinals trailed the Brewers by six games at season's end, but enjoyed the final dogpile of the season.

And so on going back to the advent of the Wild Card. The playoffs are a flat out lottery. Get into the tournament, then get healthy, get hot and get lucky.

So who are the World Series favorites this year? No one, the same as every other year. 

Some teams could be said to be favorites in the sense that they will likely make the tournament, which 20 teams won't. But even if they win their division, the odds are 3-1 against them flying a 2015 pennant.

It would be nice if baseball "journalists" and "analysts" could make such calculations. But they're reluctant to remove their shoes in public.

01 August 2015

The Hamels Trade: Ruben Amaro's Vindication

Much-maligned Ruben Amaro, Jr. may be headed for the exit in Philadelphia at the end of the season, but give him credit for a late-inning comeback. Amaro had endured the bric-a-brats for a year as he kept ace hurler Cole Hamels on the trading block, waiting for just the right deal before pulling the trigger.

And he got it. Trades like this are all about fit and the Texas Rangers were the perfect fit for the Phils.

Betting that Hamels can team up with returning star Yu Darvish,. the sub-.500 Rangers sent a quintet of high sheen prospects to Amaro for Hamels and Jake Diekman, a cost-controlled middle reliever with command issues but the stuff to close.

Having already borne the fruit of two previous off-loads when Maikel Franco and Aaron Nola ascended to the Bigs this year, Amaro has added three arms, a catcher and prized outfield prospect to the farm. Add to that Matt Harrison, attempting to regain his All-Star form after losing most of three years to a pair of back surgeries.

Texas could offer the prospects because the addition of two #1 starters next year offers promise to bolster league-worst pitching while their mid-pack offense enjoys the recent addition of Josh Hamilton. Meanwhile, the Phillies just shortened the window of deprivation from indefinite to two more years.

If the deal works out as the Phillies may reasonably hope, outfielder Nick Williams, catcher Jorge Alfaro and righty Jake Thompson will join Franco and Nola in the next two years, forming the core of a division contender. That still leaves Harrison and two other arms from this deal that could contribute as well. 

Kudos to Amaro and to Rangers GM Jon Daniels. This could go long way to returning both teams to their former positions as post-season regulars.

31 July 2015

The Trade: Dodgers 4, Braves 0, Marlins Coming To Bat

The Dodgers, Braves and Marlins have consummated a trade that significantly boosts L.A.'s starting and relief corps, adds a near-ready middle infielder and cost some hemi-prospects and a boatload of legal tender. This is what former Tampa Bay boy wonder GM Andrew Friendman can do when you give him resources. In fact, Friedman was able to leverage the team's checking account to dislodge talent from cash-poor teams.

For the Marlins, this is another example of a salary dump following a failed signing spree. God help Giancarlo Stanton.

The real head-scratcher here is the Braves, who appear to be so awestruck by a 30-year-old Cuban third base prospect whom they attempted to sign last year that they sold the farm -- and the MLB roster -- to get him and some free cash.

Here's the tally:

The Dodgers add two solid starters in Mat Latos from MIami and Alex Wood from Atlanta to complement Kershaw and Greinke for the stretch run and playoffs. Latos is a veteran #2 or #3; Wood is a very promising left-handed, 24-year-old with a 3.10 lifetime ERA in career 387 innings.

Then they pack the bullpen with Jim Johnson, who was serving capably as Atlanta's closer, and they acquire Jose Peraza, a Triple-A speedster who projects to provide solid middle infield defense and good on-base skills.

The Dodgers didn't get that ace starter many expected them to chase. Instead they got a haul that improves them all over the field.

What it cost them is a bunch of maybe prospects and the acquisition of two dead contracts -- Bronson Arroyo, who is sitting at home collecting his millions, and Mike Morse, whose .214 batting average and inability to play defense suggest he'll be doing the same.

It's nearly the exact opposite in Atlanta, whose role in this deal is hard to fathom. They sacrificed all that Wood has to offer and all the promise that Peraza represents for some salary relief and Hector Olivera, whose multi-million dollar signing bonus was the Dodgers' responsibility. (Johnson is a free agent at season's end, so the only lost value there for the Braves is the opportunity cost of trading him for something worthwhile.) 

We should find out soon if Olivera can play; the Braves should activate him right away. They also obtained two minor-league arms and a Miami draft pick. Unless those farm hurlers turn out to be Glavine and Smoltz, it's going to be difficult to justify this deal.

30 July 2015

Reinventing the Wheeler Trade

What's the opposite of ruing the day? Can you unrue? Thank your lucky stars?

Whatever it is, that's what the Mets will do down the road when considering the aborted deal that would have sent star pitcher Zack Wheeler and Wilmer Flores to Milwaukee for Carlos Gomez.

Zack Wheeler is going to be a star. He's an asset. If they're going to trade him, the Mets need a real power bat in return.

Gomez is a Gold Glove center fielder. But the Mets already have a Gold Glove center fielder in Juan Lagares. Gomez is signed through next year, Lagares through 2019.

Gomez is an average hitter, which is certainly better than Lagares. He's got some pop, with 47 home runs in his previous two years combined. But he's got just eight this year and his numbers would sink in spacious Citi Field.

Carlos Gomez is a good player. But Zack Wheeler (and Wilmer Flores) should return more than him. So Met fans can say this about the Carlos Gomez trade that was scuttled due to injury: 

Hip, hip hooray.

Don't Swallow the Cap: Nationals Most Improved

Someone is going to swing a deal for Cole Hamels and analysts will suggest that team is the favorite for something or other. 

The Royals grabbed Ben Zobrist and Johnny Cueto and now, presumably, the AL pennant, as if that is automatically conferred on the best team. 

If David Price moves, the recipient will look more formidable. KRod will make a nice addition to someone's bullpen. The Mets now have a third baseman, a backup with punch and another reliever to complement Familia.

Toronto upgraded at shortstop and picked up a relief pitcher, while the Angels added three outfielders in Shane Victorino, David Murphy and David DeJesus. Houston, hot on Anaheim's heels, secured Scott Kazmir, to support Keuchel and McHugh.

But no team has improved like the Washington Nationals, and all they did was replace one shutdown closer with another.

Often overlooked among the deadline deals is the value of returns from the Disabled List, particularly if they're healthy. For Washington, the renewed health of Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Jason Werth, along with the acquisition of Jonathan Papelbon, could radically improve the roster.

First to Papelbon, the new closer. That drops effective reliever Drew Storen to setup man, giving the Nats ownership of the final two innings once Scherzer, Zimmerman, Fister and Gonzalez are done putting on a show. (And that's discounting an effective return from Stephen Strasburg.) The Papelbon pickup bolsters a bullpen that had been beset by injuries. This will not only help them pull away with the division but solidify the team for the playoffs. Washington has won the most games over the last three seasons but failed to secure a single playoff series.

Zimmerman's bat was missed less than his first baseman's mitt. Fill-in Clint Robinson hit for a respectable .819 OPS in Zimmerman's stead -- Zimmerman's lifetime mark, exactly -- but the former Gold Glove hot cornerman is a much superior defender at the cold corner. 

As for left field, Michael Taylor is no Jayson Werth, whose return adds a further power dimension to the lineup and allows Taylor to slot more comfortably to defensive replacement and spot centerfielder. 

Rendon's reactivation ripples through the lineup. Back at third with his high on-base skills and gap power, Rendon pushes Yunel Escobar to super-sub at second, short and third, and displaces desperation substitutes Wilmer Difo (.250 OPS) and Dan Uggla (.589 OPS). That's a big upgrade.

Bottom line: the best team in the East has strengthened its entire infield, solidified its outfield and complemented the NL's best starting staff with a star-studded bullpen. The Mets picked up Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson? How quaint.

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.