Sizing up the Dodgers and Giants

Two bitter rivals playing in the same division are clawing for every win down the stretch, both expecting to play in October, but fighting nonetheless to show up the other. And the Red Sox and Yankees are both bad this year.

The Orioles, Angels, Nationals, and probably Cardinals have locked up their respective divisions. The Royals are in a thrilling race with the Tigers, but they’re getting by on defense, relief pitching, and a healthy dose of magic. The one division race that’s worth a good look down the stretch is in the NL West, where the Dodgers’ lead over the Giants is down to two games as of this writing.

I’ve alluded in these pages to the Dodgers’ perceived superiority over the Giants. They have baseball’s biggest payroll, the best pitcher on the planet, and players worthy of making this year’s All-Star Game at almost every position. Meanwhile, the Giants have Hunter Pence. I’ll try to put that bias aside in comparing the teams, position by position.

Catcher
We’re off to an easy start. Buster Posey batted .305 and contended for Rookie of the Year in 2010. The Giants won the World Series. Posey got hurt and missed most of the season in 2011. The Giants missed the playoffs. Posey came back strong in 2012 and won MVP honors, batting .336 and clubbing 24 homers. The Giants won the World Series. When Buster came back to Earth in 2013, the Giants missed the playoffs. Posey’s raking again in 2014, hitting .306/.358/.486 and perhaps making a bid at another MVP award. The Giants are headed back to the playoffs. Meanwhile, AJ Ellis is a capable backstop who takes a lot of walks. He’s also batting .188 and playing below replacement level, per fangraphs.

Huge edge: Giants

First base
First base has been a team effort for San Francisco, with Michael Morse leading the way. Morse and Brandon Belt have hit 16 and 11 homers, respectively, though Morse’s on-base skills (.338) are modest for a corner guy and Belt’s (.296) were downright embarrassing before he succumbed to injury in early August. Los Angeles plays Adrian Gonzalez at first, and while he’s not the hitter he was in his youth, Gonzalez has an offensive line similar to Morse’s and plays slick defense.

Edge: Dodgers

Second base
San Francisco has been host to a parade of miserable second basemen this season: Brandon Hicks, Ehire Adrianza, Matt Duffy- even Marco Scutaro and Dan Uggla gave it a shot. Not until rookie Joe Panik showed up did they get anything resembling a bat at the keystone. Panik’s hitting .322 in 57 games, albeit with little patience or power. He hit for average in the minors, and there are early signs that he can hold his own in the field, although defensive numbers don’t mean much in 57-game samples. The Dodgers’ Dee Gordon has been a revelation since being freed from the pressures of shortstop. He’s batting .288 with a league-leading 59 stolen bases, good for 3.1 fWAR so far, and was an All-Star for the first time in 2014.

Edge: Dodgers

Shortstop
Take your pick: offense or defense. Brandon Crawford has the glove, but his 94 wRC+ (6% worse than league average) is a career high. Hanley Ramirez is more of a third baseman playing out of position at this point in his career, but history gives us plenty of reasons to believe he’s even better than the impressive 126 wRC+ he’s put up so far.

Edge: Dodgers

Third base
WAR says this one’s close, but the eye test likes San Francisco’s Kung Fu Panda. Pablo Sandoval is hitting .286/.333/.486 with 16 homers and defensive range that belies his panda-esque frame. Juan Uribe has a similar line (.302/.326/.429), with even better defense. If we believe in Uribe’s late-career renaissance (he compiled a career-high 5 fWAR last year at age 34), this one’s a push. If we prefer the guy in his prime, the edge goes to the Giants.

Slight edge: Giants

Left Field
Quick: who plays left field for the Giants? If you answered that Gregor Blanco has been there since Morse moved to first, you’re probably a Giants fan. Blanco has speed (15 steals) and makes the occasional highlight reel catch, but he’s never been worth as many as three wins in a season. Meanwhile, the Dodgers can throw out two past MVP candidates in Carl Crawford and Matt Kemp in left, but Scott Van Slyke has been their best left fielder this year, slugging .505 and playing above-average defense. $230 million can buy you that kind of depth.

Edge: Dodgers

Center field
Like Blanco, Angel Pagan is fast (14 steals) and gets on base enough (.344), but the defensive metrics don’t love him. We’ve seen Van Slyke and Kemp in center at Chavez Ravine as well, but the Dodgers’ primary center fielder now is Yasiel Puig. Puig has more than his share of mental lapses, but a 142 wRC+ and an arm like Bo Jackson’s help atone for his foibles.

Edge: Dodgers

Right Field
What can I say about the enigma that is Hunter Pence that Grant Brisbee didn’t already say better? Somehow, Pence is a brilliant baseball player, perhaps even an MVP candidate. He’s hitting .294/.348/.474, with 19 home runs and 13 stolen bases. Against Puig, I’m not sure I’d go with Pence, but with old man Kemp getting most of the innings in right now, Pence is an easy call.

Edge: Giants

Rotation
Madison Bumgarner is awesome. Tim Hudson still succeeds (3.12 ERA) without striking anyone out (5.64/9 IP). Yusmeiro Petit is striking out more than a batter an inning and just threw an 84-pitch complete game. Jake Peavy has somehow revived himself after looking thoroughly cooked in Boston, to the tune of a 2.36 ERA in 8 NL games. Ryan Vogelsong is… still a major league pitcher.

Those five guys have totaled 8.2 fWAR so far, a passable total for a rotation, particularly one in which two guys have thrown fewer than 100 innings for the team. Clayton Kershaw has 6.3 fWAR by himself, and he missed almost a month with his own injury earlier this year. Kershaw’s historic season aside, the Dodgers can throw another two ace-like pitchers at you in a short series. Hyun-jin Ryu’s 2.60 FIP is second in the NL this year, albeit not in the same stratosphere as Kershaw’s 1.89. Zack Greinke has a 2.73 ERA in a team-leading 178 1/3 innings. After that, things go downhill, as Dan Haren is basically another Vogelsong at this point in his career, and Roberto Hernandez, nee Fausto Carmona, was a desperate wish to fill the solid innings Josh Beckett turned in when healthy earlier in the year.

If all five pitchers are needed, the Giants may have the edge in the last two spots, but in a short series, it’s all…

Edge: Dodgers

Bullpen
While deposed closer Sergio Romo has struggled this year, Santiago Casilla has filled in capably. The Giants have some bullpen depth, with Jeremy Affeldt, George Kontos, and Jean Machi all with ERAs and FIPs of 3.25 or better, and Tim Lincecum stepping into the long-man role that’s often crucial in October.

In LA, Kenley Jansen remains one of the game’s premier closers, striking out more than a batter and a half per inning. JP Howell and Pedro Baez have FIPs under 2, and former closers Brandon League and Brian Wilson lurk, though neither has been spectacular this season.

Overall, the Giants bullpen ranks fourth in MLB in ERA; the Dodgers 17th. The Giants are seventh in FIP, the Dodgers 13th. Both play in extreme pitchers’ parks, so any adjustments affect them both. In October, with days off between many games, there’s extra value in having an elite closer. Still, San Francisco’s depth is an important edge.

Slight edge: Giants

In summary, the Dodgers have the edge at five of eight positions, though the biggest edge goes to Posey at catcher. The Dodgers have the best pitcher, enviable #s 2 and 3, and the better closer, but the Giants have depth in both the rotation and the bullpen. The Dodgers are clearly the better team, but with just over two weeks of games to be played, anything can happen. If the two meet in October, expect a bitter battle between two teams with a lot of shared history and a lot of recent and distant past animosity toward one another.

My money’s on the Dodgers, but I’ve probably overstated their superiority in past articles. Besides, the Giants have proven me wrong before.

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2014 Award Preview

It’s hard to believe we’re a week into September and I haven’t rapped at ya once about who I think should/will win the major awards this season. Let’s take a look, starting with the easy ones:

AL Rookie of the Year
For much of the season, it looked like this award was Masahiro Tanaka’s to lose. Then he went down with an injury and he’ll never be eligible again. Xander Bogaerts emerged as a candidate in June, hitting the cover off the ball and playing a passable shortstop. Then the Red Sox signed Stephen Drew, moved Bogaerts to third, and watched him decompose offensively and defensively.

Now there’s only one rookie standing. Chicago’s Jose Abreu leads the majors in slugging percentage (.598), weighted on base average (.416), and perhaps the best measure of offensive potency, weighted Runs Created+ (167). If he offered any defensive value, he’d be a strong MVP candidate. As it is, he’s a lock for RoY.

Should win- Abreu
Will win- Abreu
Honorable mention- Kevin Keirmaier

NL Rookie of the Year
Last year, the NL was loaded with strong rookies, while the AL was a wasteland. This year, it’s the reverse. Billy Hamilton has been a mixed blessing for the Reds. He’s gotten on base more than expected (.301), though still not enough for a leadoff man. He’s flashed some surprising power (6 home runs). He’s stolen 55 bases, which sounds great until you learn that he’s been caught 21 times.

It’s hard to give Hamilton a major award for this season, but there’s not much competition. Joe Panik has hit well in San Francisco (.309/.354/.381), but only for 55 games. Jacob deGrom has pitched well in New York (2.87 ERA/3.01 FIP), but only for 19 games. Kolten Wong does a little of everything in St. Louis, accumulating 1.8 fWAR.

Should win- Hamilton
Will win- Hamilton
Honorable mention- deGrom

AL Cy Young
One man has stood ahead of the pack in this race all year, but he’s never completely run away with it. Felix Hernandez is 4 innings short of the league lead (206), .09 points out of the ERA lead (2.18) and the FIP lead (2.59), is within .2 fWAR (5.5) of the lead, and leads in fangraphs’ RA9-based WAR (6.9).

Jon Lester is even with Hernandez in fWAR (5.5), striking out a batter per inning and walking less than two men per nine. Corey Kluber leads in fWAR (5.7, with a 2.47 ERA, a 2.59 FIP, and almost 10 K/9) without much fanfare. Max Scherzer leads the league in strikeouts (226, with a 2.83 FIP), David Price leads in innings (219, with a 2.85 FIP), Phil Hughes dominates by never walking anyone (0.72/9, for a 2.64 FIP and the best strikeout/walk ratio in baseball history), and Chris Sale has probably been the league’s best pitcher (2.09 ERA), but in only 155 innings.

Hernandez feels like the right guy at the moment, but let’s try my personal Cy Young formula, where I give pitchers full credit for FIP wins, half credit for LOB wins, and quarter credit for BIP wins, over which pitchers have the least control.

Kluber 5.70
Hernandez 5.53
Lester 5.18
Sale 5.13
Scherzer 4.90
Hughes 4.80
Price 4.25

Kluber is one start ahead of Hernandez, and may finish a tick behind him if they both start 34 games by season’s end.  Either would be a great candidate, as would any of the above, but I still like Felix’s combination of innings, run prevention, and success in fielding-independent outcomes.  We don’t know what will happen over the next three weeks, but I think the voters will too.

Should win- Hernandez
Will win- Hernandez
Honorable mention- Kluber and the other guys above.

NL Cy Young
Nothing to see here, other than one of the greatest seasons in baseball history.

Clayton Kershaw has started 23 games. He’s given up one run or fewer in 16 of them. He’s struck out 9 or more batters in 13 of them. He’s walked as many as three men once. He’s completed at least seven innings in each of his last 15 games, never surrendering more than three runs. His 1.70 ERA leads the NL by more than half a run. His 1.89 FIP leads by even more (.71), and would be just the eighth sub-2 season since 1920.  A leaderboard similar to the one above:

Kershaw 6.35
Cueto 4.50
Wainwright 4.25
Zimmermann 4.23
Hamels 3.98

Should win- Kershaw
Will win- Kershaw
Honorable mention- Cueto, I guess

AL MVP
Those of us who write about baseball and care about objective analysis have been waiting for Mike Trout’s first MVP for a while now. It looks like he’s going to get it, but it’s hard to get all that excited. In 2012, at age 20, Trout was an offensive force, hitting .326 with 30 home runs, but he excelled in other facets of the game as well, swiping 49 bases and robbing four potential home runs in center field. Fangraphs credited him with 10.1 WAR, a ludicrous total for a player his age.

In 2013, Trout was even better at the plate, drawing 110 walks on the way to a Bondsian .432 OBP. The wheels were still there (33 steals), and the glove was still good, though a healthy Peter Bourjos moving him to left field cost him some WAR. Nonetheless, fangraphs graded him even better than the year before (mostly due to 18 extra games played), at 10.5 WAR.

This year, Trout went through at least two of the deepest slumps of his career. He’s struck out in over a quarter of his plate appearances, up from about 20% in his fist two seasons. His slash line numbers (.285/.370/.552) are all career lows, though his isolated power is up, thanks to a career-high 32 dingers. Worst of all, he’s not stealing as many bases (just 14 so far), and fangraphs doesn’t like his centerfield defense (5.4 runs below average). The result is a pedestrian (for Trout) 6.6 WAR so far.

So why are we still talking about Trout? Because, while his first few seasons made us numb to ridiculous stats, the numbers above are still really good (he’s ninth in OBP and fourth in slugging). He leads the majors in position player WAR, half a win ahead of Alex Gordon. While Gordon’s numbers are buoyed by absurd fielding runs (16.7, more than two wins better than Trout), Trout’s case benefits from the voter’s assumption that, given his history, he can’t possibly be as bad defensively as the numbers suggest. Josh Donaldson actually leads the AL in baseball-reference’s WAR (7.0 to 6.9 over Trout), but he’s lifted by even crazier defensive totals. Kyle Seager and Michael Brantley are having great seasons too, but it seems like Trout, at an age when most players are still in the low minors, is about to get a lifetime achievement MVP.

Should win- Trout
Will win- Trout
Honorable mention- Gordon

NL MVP
Here’s the great race. Eight players are within one win of the fWAR lead. They include the defending MVP (Andrew McCutchen), who missed a bunch of time in August and watched his team plummet in the stanndings, an otherworldly slugger (Giancarlo Stanton), whose team will finish more than a dozen games out in its division, a rightfielder (Jason Heyward) whose case is built almost entirely on defense, and two infielders (Anthony Rendon and Jhonny “sic” Peralta) whom you probably didn’t even know were good this year.

Who didn’t I mention above? The surging Hunter Pence, whom I refuse to admit is a decent baseball player. His teammate Buster Posey, who’s a brilliant hitter and a brilliant pitcher on a good team, but hasn’t been the best catcher in the league. And my pick, Jonathan Lucroy.

Lucroy can rake (.299/.366/.478).  He walks (94.% of his PAs) almost as often as he strikes out (11.3%).  He’s not an awful runner (4 steals and a positive Baserunning Runs Above Average).  And most importantly, he does everything behind the plate.  He’s caught about a quarter of would-be basestealers and allowed just four passed balls, and he’s well regarded as one of the best pitch framers in the business.  He’s remarkable durable, having started four more games than any catcher in either league.  And he’s at least partially responsible for the Brewers outperforming expectations all season.

Stanton has 36 home runs.  Pence and Posey are keeping San Francisco afloat longer than Lucroy and Carlos Gomez kept Milwaukee in contention.  McCutchen’s hitting better, at least on a rate basis, than he did in winning the MVP last year.  I’ll reserve my final pick for the guy who separates himself from the pack in September.  But at the moment, I like Lucroy.

Should win- Lucroy
Will win- Stanton
Honorable mention- McCutchen, Pence, and others mentioned above, honorably

 

 

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Celebrating Fresh Blood

The Red Sox and Rangers are not going to the playoffs this year. The Yankees and Cardinals are barely above .500 and not guaranteed to play in October. The Braves are in a free fall, watching their postseason hopes dwindle with every 27th out.

For fans of those teams, particularly the first two, this may not be a thrilling baseball season. For the rest of the baseball-loving world, it doesn’t get much better. There’s a real chance that some team will end a long World Series drought this year, and that other teams will end various playoff droughts as well.

Let’s take a look at the thirteen teams with the best odds of winning a World Series (at least 1.5%) and what the past several years have been like for those teams:

1. Washington Nationals (96.8% chance of making playoffs, 18.4% chance of winning World Series)

Last championship: Never

Last World Series appearance: Never

Last LCS appearance: Never

Last playoff appearance: 2012

The Montreal Expos’ two best seasons both happened in strike years: 1981 and 1994. The Nationals’ best year came in 2012, when they had the best record in baseball, only to lose the NLDS in five games to the Cardinals. Fangraphs gives them a 35 percent chance of cracking their first NLCS in any city in 2014.

2. Oakland Athletics (99.8%, 15.3%)

Last championship: 1989

Last World Series appearance: 1990

Last LCS appearance: 2006

Last playoff appearance: 2013

The A’s have been a fixture in October for much of the two and a half decades since Eck and the Bash Brothers carried them to their last title. They’ve lost the ALDS to the Tigers each of the last three seasons, and may face them again if the Royals hold off Detroit for the division and the Tigers beat the Angels in the Wild Card game.

3. Detroit Tigers (76.2%, 12.8%)

Last championship: 1984

Last World Series appearance: 2012

Last LCS appearance: 2013

Last playoff appearance: 2013

The Tigers seemed like a better team than the Red Sox last fall, when Boston took advantage of a porous bullpen to strike back after getting no-hit well into each of the first two LCS games. They looked like a better team than the Giants in 2012 when the Giants pounced on Justin Verlander and never looked back in sweeping the Series. They looked like a far better team than the 2006 Cardinals, who exploited errors by various pitchers to win in five games. This year, they’ll need to keep the relievers off the field as much as possible to conquer the demons that have kept them from October glory since Trammell, Whitaker, and Willie Hernandez.

4. Los Angeles Dodgers (98.8%, 12.5%)

Last championship: 1988

Last World Series appearance: 1988

Last LCS appearance: 2013

Last playoff appearance: 2013

I know what you’re thinking. Tigers? Dodgers? I thought this piece was about the usual suspects not being in the hunt this year.

Did you realize the Dodgers haven’t even been to the World Series in 26 years? They seem to be the best team in the NL every year, particularly since Magic Johnson and the ownership group decided to spend all of the money on all of the talent. But they lost the NLCS in 2009 and 2013 and actually missed the playoffs each of the three interceding years. Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershiser provided the last magical baseball memories in Hollywood. I’d guess Clayton Kershaw and Yasiel Puig will provide the nest ones, perhaps this fall.

5. Los Angeles Angels (97.1%, 9.4%)

Last championship: 2002

Last World Series appearance: 2002

Last LCS appearance: 2009

Last playoff appearance: 2009

Setting aside the Rangers’ brief flirtation with success, when the A’s don’t win the AL West, the Angels do. It hasn’t been all that long since David Eckstein and Francisco Rodriguez hoisted the trophy, but consider this: The Marlins have won a World Series more recently. The Astros have played in a World Series more recently. And the Twins have made the playoffs more recently.

6. Baltimore Orioles (90%, 7.6%)

Last championship: 1983

Last World Series appearance: 1983

Last LCS appearance: 1997

Last playoff appearance: 2012

Now we’re back to the real droughts. Jim Palmer was on the last Orioles team to play in the World Series. Cal Ripken still had hair in 1983. Jimmy Key and Chris Hoiles were on the last Orioles team that won a playoff series.

7. St. Louis Cardinals (67.6%, 4.5%)

Last championship: 2011

Last World Series appearance: 2013

Last LCS appearance: 2013

Last playoff appearance: 2013

Ok, ignore this one. But note that the Cards are a third place team, as close to the eighth-best record in the NL than to the division-leading Brewers.

8. Pittsburgh Pirates (69.5%, 4.3%)

Last championship: 1979

Last World Series appearance: 1979

Last LCS appearance: 1992

Last playoff appearance: 2013

Since the days of Stargell and Parker and Blyleven and Tekulve, the Pirates have flirted with greatness only during the Barry Bonds years, each of which ended in heartbreak. Last year’s team made the playoffs for the first time in 21 years. This year’s team could make the World Series for the first time in 35.

9. Kansas City Royals (46.4%, 2.9%)

Last championship: 1985

Last World Series appearance: 1985

Last LCS appearance: 1985

Last playoff appearance: 1985

Well, that was clean and easy. Exit Brett and Quiz, exit Kansas City’s playoff hopes. Fangraphs’ projections don’t put as much stock in the Royals’ current division lead as they do in the Tigers’ better players. If the bullpen and the defense can carry the Royals even as far as the Wild Card game, they’d be in territory unchartered since Eric Hosmer and Greg Holland were born.

10. Seattle Mariners (42.5%, 2.7%)

Last championship: Never

Last World Series appearance: Never

Last LCS appearance: 2001

Last playoff appearance: 2001

The turn-of-the-millennium Mariners employed Ken Griffey, Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez, and Ichiro Suzuki, four of the 75 or so best players ever to play the game. The latter three were gone by 2001, but Ichiro’s first Mariners team won an all-time record 116 games. The playoffs are cruel in their fickleness, as 116 wins guarantee nothing but a chance to play a few more. Seattle would likely have to topple the superior Angels, A’s, and Tigers to make their first World Series this year. It’s not probable, but it’s possible.

11. San Francisco Giants (50.3%, 2.3%)

Last championship: 2012

Last World Series appearance: 2012

Last LCS appearance: 2012

Last playoff appearance: 2012

You can ignore this one too. The Giants can’t buy a win these days, but they’re still coasting off a great first half and none of the other NL Wild Card contenders seems interested in keeping them from defending their even-year title.

12. Milwaukee Brewers (69.8%, 2.2%)

Last championship: Never

Last World Series appearance: 1982

Last LCS appearance: 2011

Last playoff appearance: 2011

The last time the Brewers made the playoffs, Ryan Braun was still popular. The last time they won a series, everyone in baseball had a moustache. When Harvey’s Wallbangers led that World Series three games to two, Brewers fans probably thought they’d see another World Series game in one league or the other in the next thirty years. Oops.

13. Toronto Blue Jays (21.5%, 1.5%)

Last championship: 1993

Last World Series appearance: 1993

Last LCS appearance: 1993

Last playoff appearance: 1993

In the mid-’90s, the Blue Jays were baseball’s most powerful force, back-to-back defending champs with pockets as deep as anyone. Then they stopped playing baseball for a while. When baseball came back, the Blue Jays weren’t good anymore. And that’s all we’ve known since.

This year’s Jays lost some ground by losing their last two in Seattle after finishing a 19-inning win against Detroit on Sunday. Still, they’re one of 13 teams with at least a 1.5 percent chance of winning it all this year, better than the Braves or Yankees.

This could be the first season since 1993 when neither the Yankees nor the Red Sox plays in the postseason. It’s time for someone else to take the reins. One of the above teams will.

Posted in Angels, Athletics, Blue Jays, Brewers, Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants, Mariners, Nationals, Orioles, Pirates, Royals, Tigers | 2 Comments

2014 Second-Half Reset

The American League definitively and thoroughly defeated the National League in the All-Star Game, despite maximum effort from Mike Matheny, Adam Wainwright, and the senior circuit.  That means it’s time for an obligatory recap of the first half (read: 56-60%) of the baseball season and a look forward at the stretch run. Let’s use Fangraphs’ projected standings as a starting point, since they reflect both what we’ve seen before (current records) and what we might expect based on objective assessments (ZIPS projections) of the true talent of each team’s available players.

AL East
Orioles 86-76
Blue Jays 83-79
Yankees 79-83
Rays 78-84
Red Sox 78-84

What a dumpster fire this division turned out to be. The Orioles have a three-game lead despite a National League-quality pitching staff at best, and underperformance from Chris Davis and Manny Machado. Fangraphs sees them as a .493 team going forward, likely due to regression from Nelson Cruz and Steve Pearce, but that should be enough to win a division in which the two best teams (per ZIPS) are each 9.5 games out of first.

The Blue Jays have the talent to win the division, and might become favorites with a David Price or Cole Hamels in the rotation, but at four games out, they’ll need to recapture some of that May magic to pass the other birds. ZIPS sees the Yankees as a .477 team going forward, and it’s hard to see them even being that good unless Masahiro Tanaka and Michael Pineda come back healthy and soon. This team should be a seller at the deadline and a 90-loss team, but the Yankees don’t operate that way, so the range of potential outcomes is probably bigger for them- say, 68 to 90 wins- than it is for most teams.

ZIPS has been slow to admit that the Red Sox really can’t hit, assuming until their most recent nosedive that they had the talent to come back and win the division. Now that the youth movement has begun (expect a few more moves in that direction), the Sox project to win 52% of their games for the rest of the year, good enough for, well, last place. The Rays project as the best team in the division for the rest of the season, but that’s (1) not enough to make them a playoff team and (2) not realistic with the impending departure of David Price. We could be in for a three-team scrum at the bottom of the AL East standings between the three teams that usually contend for the title.

AL Central
Tigers 93-69
Indians 83-79
Royals 82-80
Twins 75-87
White Sox 75-87

Ladies and gentleman, the other AL East.  Except there’s a good team this time. The Tigers have the arms and bats to win the title this year, and are rounded enough that they’re unlikely to make any significant moves at the deadline.  The biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s, aside from Ian Kinsler giving them a little defense, is that Justin Verlander looks like a fourth starter/postseason bullpen piece, while Rick Porcello seems ready to take his place near the front of the rotation.

Kansas City as been a great story, and they’re Wild Card contenders, but don’t expect them to make a run at the division. Ditto Cleveland, who somehow projects as a .525 team for the rest of the season. Minnesota and Chicago should be selling off useful parts with eyes on the future.

AL West
A’s 97-65
Angels 94-68
Mariners 85-77
Astros 70-92
Rangers 69-93

Now here’s an interesting division. The best team in the league, the team with the best player, the most intriguing team, the worst team, and the most injury-ravaged team. The Angels chasing the A’s could make for the best drama in the AL this fall, as Oakland’s first-round playoff bye has seemed preordained most of the season. If the Trouts can steal the division, Oakland may have to face Felix Hernandez (or David Price, for some team) in a winner-take-all-game, then take out the Tigers and Angels to reach the World Series. There’s lots of incentive for the A’s to play well down the stretch.

Seattle making the playoffs could be the best feel-good story of 2014. ZIPS has them as a better-than-.500 (.505) team going forward, with Hisashi Iwakuma stepping up behind King Felix in the rotation and Kyle Seager joining Robinson Cano as a force in the middle of the lineup. They still don’t hit enough, but given all the wins they’ve banked, they could be a real contender with one or two more pieces.

The Astros are showing some of the promise we expected to see in 2015 or 2016, with Dallas Keuchel, George Springer, and Jon Singleton emerging and Jose Altuve and Jason Castro evolving into the veteran leader roles. The Rangers, on the other hand, are Darvish and Beltre and pay for effective Tommy John surgeries. If any team is going to lose 100 this year, it might just be the Rangers.

NL East
Nationals 91-71
Braves 87-75
Mets 76-86
Marlins 75-87
Phillies 72-90

On the surface, it would appear that all three NL races should go down to the wire in thrilling fashion, but ZIPS sees one team as well ahead of the pack in each division, most notably the Nationals, whose .577 ROS projection is the best in either league. Washington’s pitchers have more of a track record than Atlanta’s, and a healthy Bryce Harper could be a difference-maker for Washington. I see this one as closer than four games, with both teams likely jockeying for position into the final days.

After the post-Fernandez Marlins faded, this division settled into a more predictable order, with two contenders and three teams that should be looking to next season. Will this be the year when Ruben Amaro finally realizes the Phillies are going nowhere and puts Hamels and maybe Cliff Lee on the block? Time will tell.

NL Central
Cardinals 86-76
Brewers 85-77
Reds 84-78
Pirates 84-78
Cubs 70-92

Here’s the best race we’ve got in 2014, and it involves every team except the one that had the NL’s best rotation until the recent Samardzija/Hammel trade. St. Louis sits one game behind Milwaukee and projects to win at a .520 clip going forward- far less than the pace they’d expect with a healthy Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia in the rotation. That opening may let the Brewers stay on top despite true talent well under .500 (.479), or it could open doors for the Reds or Pirates, both of whom played in last year’s Wild Card game and returned similar rosters in ’14.

I see the Cardinals overtaking the Brewers soon and never looking back, likely with a new reclamation project for Dave Duncan in the rotation, but all four teams are certainly contenders, both for the division and for the Wild Card spots.

NL West
Dodgers 90-72
Giants 88-74
Padres 73-89
Rockies 72-90
Diamondbacks 71-91

ZIPS tends to be conservative, which helps explain the modest projection for the loaded Dodgers, but doesn’t explain why their ROS expectation (.554) is less than that of the Nats and A’s. It’s hard to imagine a Kershaw/Greinke/Ryu/Beckett rotation and a Puig/Ramirez/Gonzalez/Kemp lineup not running away with the West.  Then again, they’ve lost 44% of their games to-date and were stuck in second place into July.  Such is baseball.

The Giants hit a ton of homers, and Madison Bumgarner is an emerging ace, with Tim Lincecum still showing signs of life. As ZIPS suggests, this may make San Francisco the favorites to win the first Wild Card. There’s not much else to look at in this division, unless you think MVP frontrunner Troy Tulowitzki will get traded, which could render much of the above data and projection moot.

It’s hard to argue with objective projections, but they don’t know much about players’ health, trade possibilities, or the way teams tend to play in September when there’s more variance in motivation to win, so I’ll take a stab at my own projections.  These teams will finish .500 or better:

Orioles 88-74
Blue Jays 85-77

Tigers 95-67
Royals 83-79
Indians 81-81

A’s 94-68
Angels 90-72
Mariners 83-79

Nationals 93-69
Braves 92-70

Cardinals 88-74
Pirates 86-76
Brewers 84-78
Reds 84-78

Dodgers 96-66
Giants 87-75

Wild Card Games
Angels over Brewers
Giants over Braves

Division Series
A’s over Orioles
Tigers over Angels
Nationals over Cardinals
Dodgers over Giants

Championship Series
Tigers over A’s
Dodgers over Nationals

World Series
Dodgers over Tigers

The playoffs are a coin-toss, of course, so this prediction is more “the Dodgers and Tigers have ridiculous pitching staffs” than “the Dodgers and Tigers will beat the Nationals and A’s in October”.  Either way, whoever emerges from the sure-to-be-fascinating NL division/Wild Card scrum, the playoffs are likely to be light on usual suspects, with the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rangers all thinking about 2015.  None of the four teams I pick to make the LCS has won a title in the last 23 years, and only the Tigers have even played in the World Series in that time. 

Unless the Giants find their way again or the Cardinals blow by everyone in September or October, we’re getting some fresh blood this fall.  Let’s enjoy it.

Posted in Angels, Athletics, Blue Jays, Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants, Nationals, Orioles, Predictions, Tigers | Leave a comment

Are the Brewers For Real?

Sometimes I’m wrong.

In my season preview, I ranked the Brewers 22nd among all teams in terms of likelihood to win the 2014 World Series. The point I came to regret quickly was this: “ZIPS actually has the Brewers finishing above .500, but I think some of their individual projections are a little optimistic.”

Ok, and maybe this on too: “There’s not much to love on the mound, with Yovani Gallardo and Matt Garza headlining the staff.”

Let’s start at the end. Gallardo (3.34 ERA, 4.09 FIP) and Garza (4.02 ERA, 3.69 FIP) have pitched about as well as I expected them to. But this staff isn’t necessarily “headlined” by those two. Like so many in my field hobby, I’ve done a great job of ignoring Kyle Lohse for well over a decade now.

Lohse started his career as one of many uninspiring, pitch-to-contact Twins, winning 27 games between 2002 and 2003 despite striking out fewer than six batters per nine and giving up 54 homers in 381 innings. He bounced from team to team in ’06 and ’07, and was fortunate to land on the Cardinals in ’08, where he received the typical Dave Duncan bump, going 15-6 with a 3.78 ERA despite striking out hitters at an even lower rate (5.36/9 IP) than in the past. As a 33-year-old in 2012, Lohse went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA, bringing his K/9 rate back over 6, while suppressing walks (1.62/9) and homers (0.81/9) at near career-best rates. Still, when the Brewers signed him before the 2013 season, I had no expectations for him, and after a bland 2013 (11-10, 3.35 ERA, 4.08 FIP), there was little reason to believe he’d be the ace of a contending staff at age 35 in 2014.

But here we are. Lohse is striking out more batters (6.31/9) than ever, and continuing to walk no one (1.68/9). That’s led to a 9-2 record and a 3.20 ERA. With Wily Peralta (3.02 ERA, 3.93 FIP) also pitching well, the Brewers are getting quality innings from four fifths of their rotation. And while Marco Estrada has a home run problem (24 allowed in just under 90 innings), he’s also leading the team with 81 strikeouts and has posted a 6-4 record to-date.

What I really missed was that the Brewers are actually loaded with everyday players who are legitimate stars. Jonathan Lucroy is an MVP candidate- probably the leading candidate among voters who believe an MVP should play for a playoff contender. Not only is he hitting .331/.397/.520 with eight homers and 26 doubles, but he’s among the game’s best backstops, routinely among the league leaders in pitch framing.

Carlos Gomez is another two-way star, batting .317/.382/.532 with 12 homers and 11 steals and covering everything from Kenosha to Sheboygan with his glove. Throw in Scooter Gennet’s .310 batting average, Jean Segura’s 13 stolen bases, and double-digit homers from Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Mark Reynolds, and Khris Davis, and it’s no surprise that the Brewers are second in the NL with 351 runs scored. Fangraphs ranks Milwaukee fourth in offensive runs above average (11.5), fifth in defense (30.2) and first in baserunning (6.0).

Looking ahead, I’m not convinced the Brewers are better than the Cardinals, but with a 5.5-game lead, they may be good enough to hold them off and take the division. The pitching may not continue at this level- the rotation’s 3.39 ERA belies a 4.15 FIP- but it’s time to stop doubting Lohse; and Gallardo, Garza, and Peralta round out a playoff rotation that can keep enough runs off the board to win games. At least as long as Lucroy, Gomez, Ramirez, and co. keep defying (my) expectations by playing like they always have.

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A 2014 All-Star Ballot

The All-Star Game is less than a month away. Does that mean it’s time for an official ballot? Probably not, but it’s what I’ve been thinking about lately, so sit there and read my thoughts. It’s easier than doing stuff.

Here’s the process: For each league, I’ll pick a starter at each position, including DH (pitchers should never bat in the All-Star Game). Then I’ll round out a 30-man team with a seven-player bench and 14 pitchers. I know the actual rosters are bigger, but I don’t care about representing each team or rewarding ROOGYs with 15 holds.

My basic premise, which I stole from my friend Dan McCloskey a few years ago, is that players should be rewarded for their performance since the last All-Star game. I’ll rank players at each position by Fangraphs WAR over the past calendar year, then prioritize offensive performance, which is more measurable than defense, and 2014 performance, as I prefer stars who are more than a flash in the pan, but are playing well now. I won’t rule out adjustments for postseason performance, but won’t make them a priority, as such opportunities are obviously not distributed uniformly. Here we go:

National League
Catcher
Jonathan Lucroy, Brewers- Lucroy doesn’t get the press Yadier Molina and Buster Posey get, but he’s been phenomenal over the past year, hitting .309/.372/.487 and playing his standard excellent defense. He laps the field in WAR, leading Molina, 5.6 to 4.3.

First Base
Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks- Joey Votto is the star, and he’s played quite well when healthy over the past year, but Goldschmidt and Freddie Freeman have emerged as contenders to Votto’s crown as the NL’s best hitter. Surprisingly, Goldschmidt’s 34 home runs make him the only NL first baseman with as many as 30 since last June 12.

Second Base
Chase Utley, Phillies- Utley’s 35, but he can still play. He exploded out of the gate in ’14, and he’s hitting .300/.361/.482 in the last year, while fielding far better than any other contender for this spot.

Shortstop
Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies- You were expecting Neifi Perez? Tulo might win the NL MVP award unanimously if a vote were held today, despite the Rockies’ recent slide. Even having missed some time last summer, he’s earned 6.5 WAR since last June, hitting an absurd .356/.448/.667 in 2014 with 17 homers and the best non-Andrelton glove in the league.

Third Base
Matt Carpenter, Cardinals- A second baseman in 2013 and a third baseman in 2014, Carpenter deserves to start somewhere, and his competition is tougher at second than third, where the Dodgers’ Juan Uribe is second in WAR. Carpenter brings every tool, hitting over .300 with good defense, good speed, and 67 extra base hits over the past year.

Outfield
Andrew McCutchen, Pirates
Yasiel Puig, Dodgers
Giancarlo Stanton, Marlins

There’s no left fielder close to the WAR leaderboard, so I’ll start Stanton in left. McCutchen is the reigning MVP and leads all NL players with a .435 OBP over the past calendar year. Puig has batted .313/.398/.528 and stolen 18 bases. Stanton’s 38 homers lead the NL, and he’s walked in over 14 percent of his plate appearances. Carlos Gomez is the most difficult omission so far, as his 6.5 WAR since 6/12/13 trail only McCutchen at any position, but he’s clearly not the best center fielder in the league and it’s hard to ignore the other guys’ offensive exploits.

Designated Hitter
Hanley Ramirez, Dodgers- A shortstop as a DH? Why not? Hanley’s been a bat-first shortstop his whole career, and his 163 wRC+ leads all players not listed as starters above.

Starting Pitcher
Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers- Adam Wainwright has more wins (19) since last June, and Johnny Cueto has the shiny ERA (1.85) this year, but over a year (or just about any interval since Kershaw debuted in the league), Kershaw’s been the best pitcher. His 2.15 ERA trails only Jose Fernandez, who’s thrown 25 fewer innings, and his 2.14 FIP leads the league by a healthy margin.

Bench
Yadier Molina, Cardinals
Freddie Freeman, Braves
Andrelton Simmons, Braves
Juan Uribe, Dodgers
Carlos Gomez, Brewers
Jason Heyward, Braves
Jayson Werth, Nationals

Bullpen
Jose Fernandez, Marlins
Adam Wainwright, Cardinals
Zack Greinke, Dodgers
Stephen Strasburg, Nationals
Cole Hamels, Phillies
Cliff Lee, Phillies
Madison Bumgarner, Giants
Andrew Cashner, Padres
Julio Teheran, Braves
Steve Cishek, Marlins
Kenley Jansen, Dodgers
Tony Watson, Pirates
Craig Kimbrel, Braves

6 Dodgers, 5 Braves, no Mets, no Cubs, one LOOGY with 16 holds (and a 1.00 ERA). Ok, moving on…

American League
Catcher
Salvador Perez, Royals- Perez is in a virtual dead heat with the Indians’ Yan Gomes over the past full year, and his performance is driven largely by his glove, but he’s outperformed Gomes in 2014 by half a win. Catcher defense is hard to evaluate, but the numbers match Perez’s reputation as the best backstop in the AL. He’s caught 10 of 19 would-be base-stealers in 2014 after nabbing 25 of 71 in 2013.

First Base
Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays- Chris Davis has hit 43 homers since last June, and Brandon Moss has developed into a middle-of-the-order force for the A’s, but neither is particularly close to Encarnacion, who’s slugging .571 and has hit 39 homers of his own over the past year.

Second Base
Robinson Cano, Mariners- Brian Dozier has been an offensive force in 2014, but the ever-steady Cano has batted .338 with 15 homers and 9 stolen bases since last June, walking nearly as often (9.3% of PAs) as he strikes out (10.5%).

Shortstop
Alexei Ramirez, White Sox- Xander Bogaerts and Manny Machado are both playing third base at the moment, and haven’t played enough to contend with Ramirez’s calendar year numbers, so we’ll wait one more year before those two start sparring for this spot every season. Meanwhile, Ramirez has hit .302 with 12 homers and 29 steals since last June, out-WARing Erick Aybar and the field by more than half a win.

Third Base
Josh Donaldson, Athletics- Only the great Trout has earned more WAR in the AL since last June than Donaldson’s 7.7. He balances his 32 home runs with the best defensive numbers at third this side of Machado.

Outfield
Mike Trout, Angels
Jose Bautista, Blue Jays
Alex Gordon, Royals

Trout dipped all the way from 11 WAR from 6/12/12 to 6/12/13 to 10.6 over the next year. Since he might struggle to play all three outfield positions, we’ll add Bautista, who’s rebounded this year to hit .311/.434/.548 after missing most of last season to injury, and Gordon. Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino match Gordon’s performance over the past year based almost entirely on 2013 production, but we’ll go with the guy who’s steadily performed throughout the last year, hitting 21 homers, stealing 14 bases, and playing Trout-esque defense in left.

Designated Hitter
Miguel Cabrera, Tigers- I suppose I could switch Cabrera and Encarnacion, both of whom are butchers with the glove, but I’m not sure it matters as long as both get to start and neither has to play the whole game in the field. Cabrera always hits, and he’s hit .332/.413/.603 since last June. Big Papi would need about 6 more ALCS-saving grand slams to match what Cabrera does night-in and night-out.

Starting Pitcher
Felix Hernandez, Mariners- We’ve seen a lot of flavors-of-the-month start the All-Star Game based on 15 great outings to begin a season, but the full-year method tends to bring out the best. Max Scherzer was lights-out last year and Masahiro Tanaka has been phenomenal so far this year, but Felix just keeps on ticking, earning 6.6 WAR over the past season with a 2.99 ERA and an AL-best 2.41 FIP.

Bench
Yan Gomes, Indians
Brandon Moss, Athletics
Brian Dozier, Twins
Evan Longoria, Rays
Adrian Beltre, Rangers
Jacoby Ellsbury, Yankees
Adam Jones, Orioles

Bullpen
Max Scherzer, Tigers
Yu Darvish, Rangers
David Price, Rays
Chris Sale, White Sox
Jon Lester, Red Sox
John Lackey, Red Sox
Mark Buehrle, Blue Jays
Hisashi Iwakuma, Mariners
Anibal Sanchez, Tigers
Masahiro Tanaka, Yankees
Scott Kazmir, Athletics
Greg Holland, Royals
Koji Uehara, Red Sox

3 Blue Jays, 3 Red Sox, 3 Tigers, 3 Royals, 3 A’s, 3 Mariners, no Astros. And one rookie, as Tanaka’s performance in 2014 has been too good to ignore, while Bogaerts, Jose Abreu, and Yangervis Solarte fall short.

Posted in All-Star Game, Athletics, Blue Jays, Braves, Dodgers, Mariners, Red Sox, Royals, Tigers | 1 Comment

The All-Never-Won-A-World-Series Team

I spend way too much time batting baseball frivolities around in my head. Things like whether a team made up of Hall of Fame snubs who hit the ballot before 2000 could beat a team made up of guys rejected in the last decade or so. Things like how the last-place Rays stack up against the first-place Blue Jays position-by-position. I’m sharing tonight’s frivolity with you.

As I put my son to bed tonight, I tried to mentally compile a team of great players who never won the World Series. Ok, I use the word “tried” in the second clause of that sentence, but it was probably easier than the former task. Anyway, the list I came up with was entertaining for a few primary reasons. One might expect the list to be loaded with Red Sox and Cubs, and it was. But Boston’s two best players between 1919 and 2003 both happened to play the same position as the greatest player who ever lived, and lest you forgot, his closest shot at a title was squashed by a Game Six rally in 2002. Still, I found room for those two Sox.

And the Cubs landed three players on the team in my head, but when I “checked my work” using Hall Rating from the Hall of Stats, a few of them were deposed. I used the Hall of Stats’s positional rankings as a guide, but I didn’t get too stuck on positional considerations, since I’m looking for a team full of the best players who fell short of the ultimate glory in October.

C: Carlton Fisk: I had Mike Piazza in my head, but Fisk played 24 seasons for two teams, neither of which won a title in the 51 years before he debuted or the 11 years after he retired.

1B: Jeff Bagwell: An easy one, though I had to exclude Cap Anson, Roger Connor, and Dan Brouthers, whose careers were over by the time the first World Series was played.

2B: Nap Lajoie: In my head, I went with Ryne Sandberg, assuming Lajoie must have been on one champion in the days when there were only 16 teams in the league and the Yankees weren’t good yet, so titles were spread a little more broadly. But Nap played 13 seasons in which a Word Series was played and his Indians and A’s never reached one. The only case I can make that Ryno was a better player involves lots of talk about population and globalization and evolution that you’ve read over and over if you’re not new to these pages, so I’ll spare you and take the guy with almost double the other guy’s Hall Rating.

SS: Arky Vaughan: So, about those three Cubs… As it turns out, Vaughan’s Dodgers lost in 1947, his only postseason appearance. And even if I counted Ernie Banks as a shortstop and ignored Vaughan, Luke Appling was well ahead of him in Hall Rating too. At least the Cubs get this one…

3B: Ron Santo: Whew. It took the 1996 Yankees carrying an ancient Wade Boggs on horseback and the 2006 Cardinals stealing one late in Scott Rolen’s career to finally get us a Cub.

LF: Barry Bonds: You were expecting Ed Delahanty?

CF: Ty Cobb: I had Ken Griffey, Jr. penciled in here before learning that Cobb’s Tigers lost the Series in ’07, ’08, and ’09. The Jim Kelly of centerfielders.

RF: Carl Yastrzemski: I feel like I’ve made enough hey you guys, Larry Walker was a lot better than you think statements here that I can take a left fielder and assume his bat would be worth what the team might (or might not) give up on defense. Yaz could’ve slotted in at first base, where he logged a lot of late-career innings, but Bagwell narrowly outpaces Walker in Hall Rating, 162-149.

DH: Ted Williams: He didn’t care about defense anyway.

RHP: Phil Niekro: As it turns out, most great pitchers won a title or two. I’m a little hesitant to trust Niekro in this fictional game, since it seems like his 12th-best-ever Hall Rating is driven more by longevity than peak, but the guy had a 1.87 ERA in 207 innings in 1967 and 10 WAR in 1978. Those are two pretty good peaks.

LHP: Chuck Finley: Did you know Steve Carlton pitched 4 innings in relief for the ’67 Cardinals? Me neither. Anyway, this one took some reseach, as each of the 63 pitchers with the best Hall Ratings were either right-handed, pitched all or most of their careers before 1903, or pitched for at least one World Series winner.

We’ll round out the rotation with righties- Gaylord Perry, Mike Mussina, and Ferguson Jenkins. Robin Roberts has to learn to pitch with his other hand to take Finley’s spot.

This exercise wouldn’t be complete without a lineup:
1. Cobb, CF
2. Williams, DH
3. Bagwell, 1B
4. Bonds, LF
5. Yastrzemski, RF
6. Vaughan, SS
7. Santo, 3B
8. Lajoie, 2B
9. Fisk, C

Where am I wrong?

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