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?

Posted in Hall of Fame | 1 Comment

Replacement Level Production

You may have noticed that yesterday’s post was just my fifth of the year. While that probably does reflect the relative weight of baseball compared to other priorities in my life, it doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about baseball at least a few hours a day. Here’s an update on just a few of my baseball-related pursuits over the past few months.

Over at High Heat Stats, I’ve been cataloguing every bunt by a National League player this season and studying the use and effectiveness of the strategy. Here’s my most recent post there. I also had a piece on bunting published in the USA Today Sports Weekly this week, but since that paper is only available in print, I’ll post my unedited version at the end of this entry, rather than linking.

I’ve been writing about the Red Sox for the Forecaster, a southern Maine newspaper, again this year. Here’s my season preview and another one in which I opine that the Red Sox will start winning again when Shane Victorino returns. They’re 0-1 so far with Shane, but I still believe he’s the spark they need.

While we’re on the Red Sox, Cards Onclave asked fans of various teams to contribute to a feature called Playing Pepper. I joined seven Red Sox bloggers in chatting about Boston’s 2014 outlook.

I’ve also been enlisted by a group of bright and ambitious baseball minds to help create the GWN Hall of Fame, an alternate Hall of about 300 players, in which players are voted into the Inner, Middle, or Outer Circle. Starting with hypothetical 1936 elections and simulating the BBWAAA/Veterans Committee process, we’ve voted through 1981 and inducted 42 players to the Inner Circle, 66 to the Middle Circle, and 86 to the Outer Circle. I hope to share more about this process and the participants in this space in the future.

Between GWN, the High Heat Stats Circle of Greats, and the Hall of Stats’ Hall of Consensus, I probably spend more of my time pondering and arguing about Hall of Fame cases than I do caring about baseball in 2014.

___________________________________________________________________

Here’s the USA Today Sports Weekly piece in its original form:

On Sunday, April 13, Atlanta’s BJ Upton came to the plate in the bottom of the first against Washington’s Gio Gonzalez. Jason Heyward had led off the inning with a walk, resulting in a typical sacrifice bunt situation. Upton laid down a good one, and when Gonzalez threw the ball away, Heyward and Upton found themselves on second and third with no outs. Heyward scored on Freddie Freeman’s sacrifice fly, and Upton came around on his brother Justin’s home run. The Braves were well on their way to a 10-2 win and sole possession of first place, thanks in no small part to a quality bunt.

The sacrifice bunt is much maligned among more progressive baseball analysts, and it’s not hard to see why. Almost every “successful” sacrifice, which advances a runner one base in exchange for an out, yields a negative Win Probability Added (WPA). In other words, teams willing to give up an out for a base are less likely to score enough runs to win a game than teams who would prefer to swing away in such situations. What this assessment misses, though, is that not every bunt results in an out.

So far in 2014, National League teams have dropped 196 bunts. 149 of these came in traditional sacrifice situations, with fewer than two outs and runners on first, second, or both. Just 82 of those bunts (55%) were scored as sacrifices, while 19 (13%) put the batter on base, whether via hit, error, or an ill-fated fielder’s choice. On the other end, five bunts have resulted in double plays, while another 43 failed to move the runner.
All outcomes considered, these bunts have yielded an average WPA of -1.3%.
Of the other 47 bunts, in which the batter’s intention was clearly to reach base, win probability has increased by 0.57%, as the league has batted .447 on these attempts.

All told, the average bunt has produced a negative result, but the average bunt is not attempted by the average hitter. Pitchers, of course, are more likely to bunt than position players, having accounted for 85 bunts in 2014 and averaged -2.6% WPA. When position players bunt, though, they yield positive results, increasing WPA by 0.44% over a 111-bunt sample. The average non-pitcher plate appearance in the NL this year has yielded 0.08% WPA, meaning bunting, irrespective of intent, has been marginally more successful than swinging away when a non-pitcher is at the plate. And many of the National League’s frequent bunters are light-hitting, fast running players like Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton, who do less damage swinging the bat, but can wreak havoc on defenses once the ball is in play.

Setting Win Probability Added aside, National League teams have bunted 71 times in tie games so far in 2014. 38 times (54%), the bunting team went on to win the game. That in itself does not justify the sacrifice bunt, but early returns suggest that light hitting players are giving their teams at least as good a chance to win when they test the opposing defense with a bunt as when they swing away.

BJ Upton is batting under .200 again this year, and his -0.54% WPA tells us that the Braves have not benefitted from his offensive services. Maybe he should drop a few more bunts.

Posted in Braves, Hall of Fame, Predictions, Red Sox | 2 Comments

Fun With Aging Curves

It’s long been known that major league baseball players traditionally peak in their late twenties, hang on through their decline phase in their thirties, and, if they’re lucky, maintain a modicum of value into their late thirties. Various analysts have used various data samples and assumptions to plot the aging curve on a graph. The below curve was stolen directly from Jeremy Greenhouse of The Baseball Analysts, and while I won’t comment on the relative merits of this study and other, similar ones, his logic seems reasonable enough for me to use it to draw ridiculous conclusions.

WARAgingCurve

I should note that I shifted every data point up by two wins to keep all the WAR numbers positive. This way, I could assign a year-to-year change percentage to every two-year group. You might call my work unscientific. I might call you a jerk.

Let’s start with our old friend Barry Bonds. Of every position player ever to play baseball, only Babe Ruth has earned more WAR (per baseball-reference) than Bonds’s 162.4, and the two are basically tied at the top (Ruth had 163). The argument that Bonds is the greatest baseball player of all time doesn’t sit well with some people because his late career surge was- shall we say- chemically enhanced. Disregarding the similar chemicals injected by pitchers of the time and the changes in ballpark dimensions and strike zones that had scores of players launching home runs at record rates, let’s use the average player’s aging curve above to take a guess as to what Barry’s late career might have looked like without pharmaceutical help.

Here’s Bonds’s actual WAR curve:

BondsActualAgingCurve

Bonds’s first peak came from ages 24 to 28, when he put up annual WAR figures of 8.0, 9.7, 7.9, 9.0, and 9.9. After the strike kept him to 6.2 and 7.5 WAR in ’94 and ’95 (his rate stats held steady, but he played fewer games), he shot back up to 9.6, 8.1, and 8.1 in his early thirties. By age 33, he had earned 99.5 WAR, more than all but 18 prior players had accumulated in their entire careers. At 34, he suffered through his first injury-plagued campaign, held to 3.8 WAR despite a 156 OPS+ over 102 games. If we assume it was after that season when he started using steroids (or at least got better at using steroids), we need to establish a baseline for his age 35 season. If we assume that injury was a harbinger of things to come, we could reduce his 3.8 WAR by the ~14% most players lose after age 34. If we assume 1999 was a fluke, we could reduce his 8.1 WAR from 1998 by the 12.5% most players lose at 34 and 14% for 35. I chose to average these two figures with his 1997 campaign, regressed three times, and arrived at an expected WAR of 4.9 in 2000. This feels conservative, as aside from ’99, 4.9 WAR would be Barry’s lowest total since his age 21 season, when he hit .223 for the 1986 Pirates.

From there, we keep slashing away at his numbers, cutting half his age 35 WAR by age 38 and all of it by 40, consistent with the experience of so many one-time superstars. This demolition of the end of his career leaves Bonds with 120 WAR, which would be good for 11th all time, between Ted Williams and Alex Rodriguez. Here’s the cynic’s view of age ravishing the greatest player of his generation:

BondsDrop

Now we’ll jump ahead a generation, to a player putting up numbers nobody except Bonds has managed since the days of Mantle and Mays, and numbers nobody has ever achieved at his age. Mike Trout was worth 19.7 WAR over his first two full seasons (fangraphs gives him 20.4), which he played at 20 and 21. Applying the Greenhouse aging curve to Trout’s early career, we get this:

TroutProjected

Yeah, those are four 14-win seasons. Babe Ruth had one season at exactly 14 WAR, and he’s the only player ever to top 12.5. Trout projects to have eight 12.5-win years. Again, I used a blended approach to projecting Trout’s age-22 season (this year), averaging 10% growth on his age-21 year and two years of growth on his superior age-20 season.

Total WAR? 210. That’s 29 percent more than Ruth. If we include Ruth’s 20.6 pitching WAR, standard-aging-curve Trout still beats him by 26 wins, or three full MVP seasons.

But we’re not done. Let’s say Trout has his own personal McGwire/Griffey/Sosa (we’ll call him B. Harper- no that’s too obvious- let’s call him Bryce H.) breaking home run records, winning championships, and getting more attention than Trout gets. By age 35, Trout is down to a human (though still superstar-caliber) 7.5 WAR, not far off of Bonds’s last two healthy seasons before the video game numbers shrouded by so many asterisks. Let’s send Trout to Barry’s pharmacist and apply the Bonds ending to his already-legendary career. Those four seasons Bonds had in his late thirties, which are some of the best seasons in baseball history, would actually fall short of every season in hypothetical Trout’s nine-year peak. Still, they’d give him a career that looks like this:

TroutBondsEnding

…and a tidy 243 WAR, roughly equal to the career totals of Barry Bonds and Jeff Bagwell. Or Mickey Mantle and Tris Speaker. Or Derek Jeter and Ernie Banks and Mark McGwire and Jim Rice.

I don’t think Mike Trout’s career will follow any aging curve we’ve ever seen, but if it follows a typical one, with or without the Bonds ending, we’re going to need some new record books.

Posted in Angels, Giants, Pirates | 3 Comments