Thursday, July 24, 2014

...And That's Why, 10 Years Later, ESPN and FOX Show Only Yankees-Red Sox Games

Big hat tip to Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk for realizing the significance of this date. Take it away, Craig: 

On July 24, 2004, the Yankees were cruising. They had an eight and a half game lead over the Red Sox, who were tied with the Twins for the wild card. They beat the Red Sox 8-7 the night before. A month before that they swept Boston in the Bronx. On this Saturday, New York was up again, 3-0 in the top of the third when Alex Rodriguez stepped up to the plate to face Bronson Arroyo.
 A-Rod wasn’t yet the pariah he would become. Yes, a lot of people hated that he made the money that he made, but he had yet to be implicated in the PED story. He had yet to be caught cheating on his wife and dating pop stars. He had yet to strike narcissistic poses in glossy magazines and be on the outs publicly with his team. He was merely the best player in the game at that point who had maybe-a-bit-too-publicly forced a trade to a contender the previous winter. But heck, the Red Sox were actually the front-runners for him. Even struck a deal with Texas to acquire him, only to see it nixed by the union because A-Rod –selflessly! — had offered to rework his contract to make it happen.
But A-Rod had driven in the go-ahead run in the ninth inning of the Yankees victory the previous night and the Sox were a tad frustrated.  Then this happened:

It was a pretty good brawl as far as these things go. Not the half-hearted shoving you typically see these days. But it wasn’t a terribly special brawl. We’ve seen this sort of thing before. Sometimes we see them with more haymakers. But one thing did make this brawl special. This picture:

I link to the entire Hardball Talk piece at the top of this. (And I'm no lip reader, but is Rodriguez repeatedly shout "vacuum" to Varitek? Home plate must've been messy or something.)

Rodriguez and Varitek were both ejected, and the Red Sox won a wild game, 11-10. Of course, this was the year the Red Sox came back from a 3-0 deficit to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series and won their first World Series since the War of 1812 or something.

But more significantly, July 24, 2004 firmly established a Yankees-Red Sox narrative, a cultural marker that we're still stuck with, ten years later, when almost everybody on both of those teams is out of baseball (the only players still with the two clubs are Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, and, of course, Rodriguez), and neither team is particularly good. It's come to define baseball rivalries, and the networks show clips of the brawl when they do their endless promos for their endless series of Boston-New York televised games.

Sweet Play of the Day: July 23

You may have seen this play from a couple week ago, when Cincinnati Reds speedster Billy Hamilton somehow evaded a tag in a game against the Pirates:

Last night, Braves outfielder Jason Heyward pulled off a similar move against the Marlins. The thing is, Hamilton's listed at 6'0", 160, and widely acknowledged to be the fastest player in baseball. Heyward's a fabulous athlete, but he's also 6'5", 245, so there's a lot more of him to contort along the baseline.

(Note that the Marlins third baseman is Casey McGehee. Note, too, that when I discussed what a nice year he's having, I didn't talk about defense.)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Yankees Fans, Meet Chase Headley

Yesterday the New York Yankees traded their third baseman this year, Yangervis Solarte, and minor league pitcher Rafael De Paula to the San Diego Padres for third baseman Chase HeadleySolarte was an interesting story this year, as the 26-year-old rookie posted a strong .299/.369/.466 slash line through the end of May but a paltry .154/.267/.192 thereafter. Headley wasted no time endearing himself to the Bronx faithful, with a walkoff RBI single in his first game:

What's Good About Him? Headley was a fantastic player in 2012, with a .286/.376/.498 slash line and a Gold Glove. He was first in the National League with 115 RBI, fifth in total bases with 301, seventh in runs scored with 95, eighth in home runs with 31, and ninth in on-base percentage. That he compiled his offensive numbers at Petco Park, the most extreme pitcher's park in baseball, makes them doubly impressive.

What's Not So Good About Him? Well, every year since. In 2013, his slash line was .250/.347/.400 - still above average, considering Petco Park, but not star level - and his home runs and RBI fell from 31 and 115 in 2012 to 13 and 50 in 2013. So far this year he's been simply bad: .230/.296/.353, with 7 homers and 33 RBI--lousy timing, considering that he's a free agent at the end of the season.

So What Should Yankees Fans Expect? Getting away from Petco should help. Headley's batting average at home was actually higher than on the road this year, but only two of his seven homers came at home. Yankee Stadium is a good hitter's park, so Headley's moving from a tough stadium to a much more favorable one.

A return to his 2012 season doesn't seem likely. That year, over 21% of fly balls went over the fence. Every other year of his career, it's been less than 11%. So 2012 stands out as a fluke. Also in 2012, he slugged .568 against fastballs and .583 against offspeed pitches. He's never been higher than .440 as a regular other than 2012.

So if 2012's out, how about 2013? Headley was above average that year. He's swinging and missing less often than last year, he's not swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone, and the percentage of his fly balls that are home runs is barely down. What has changed is his batting average on balls in play: From .319 last year to .286 this year. (The National League average was .297 last year and .299 this year). As I've mentioned, most players' batting average on balls in play hovers around the league average. So you can make an argument that Headley's performance this year has been due to random variation rather than declining skills.

So you put it together, and you've got a guy who had a great fluke season in 2012 followed by an OK year in 2013. He's declined in 2014, but that's in part due to bad luck, and his batting stats in general have been hurt by his home park. Now, they should be helped.

So it's reasonable for the Yankees to expect something approaching league-average production from Headley for the remainder of the year. The question is what happens after that. With good production, will Headley sign a free agent contract to stay in pinstripes? Or will they let him go, given that they have another third baseman who'll be back next year--a 38-year-old to whom they owe $61 million for 2015-2017 as well as a $6 million bonus after his sixth home run next year?

Sweet Play of the Day: July 22

Rangers outfielder Leonys Martin and Yankees catcher Brian McCann haven't lived up to expectations. Martin, in his second year as Texas's center fielder, hasn't improved at the plate (.698 OPS last year, .696 this year), striking out more frequently and hitting fewer extra base hits. McCann, in the first season of a five-year, $85 million free agent contract signed before the season, has a .294 on base percentage and .373 slugging percentage, both career lows. They both remain in the lineup, though, in part because of their strong defense. Those paths crossed last night, as Martin turned what would have been McCann's eleventh home run of the year into an out.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Hope Springs Eternal, Even When It Probably Shouldn't

Before the season started, both Baseball Prospectus and ESPN predicted this order of finish in the American League East:
1. Tampa Bay
2. Boston
3. New York
4. Toronto
5. Baltimore

Here are the standings, as of this morning:
1. Baltimore
2. Toronto
    New York
4. Boston
5. Tampa Bay

(Technically, New York's ahead of Toronto on percentage points, but they're both four games out of first.)

I'm not picking on BP or ESPN, I'm just showing that the AL East has been a wild division this year. Generally considered the best division in baseball entering the season, its first place team has the worst record of the six divisional leaders, and all of the teams have glaring flaws.

Those flaws, it would seem, create an opportunity for the two worst teams in the division, Boston and Tampa Bay. Tampa Bay's won five in a row and are 16-5 over their last 21 games. The Red Sox are also on a five-game winning streak and have won nine of their last ten. The Rays are 47-53, eight games behind the Orioles. The Red Sox are 47-52, 7.5 games out. The two teams were generally thought to be the best in the division before the season. Is there time for the cream to rise?

Probably not. We're at about the 100 game mark for the 2014 season. I looked for teams with records below .500 after 100 games that also made the playoffs. It's an awfully short list:
  • The 1973 New York Mets are the only team to make the postseason with a record worse than Boston's and Tampa Bay's. They were 44-56 after 100 games, then rallied to win a weak NL Eastern division with an 82-79 record. They were the only team above .500. They beat the Reds 3-2 in the NLCS and fell to Oakland in a tight World Series, 4 games to 3.
  • A year later, the Pittsburgh Pirates were 48-52 after 100 games. They won the NL East with an 88-74 record but fell to the Dodgers in the NLCS, 3-1.
  • The 1981 Kansas City Royals were 49-51 after 100 games and made the playoffs but it doesn't count, because 1981 was a strike-shortened season (Kansas City played only 103 games) and baseball employed a split-season method to determine the playoffs. The Royals made the postseason on the strength of a 30-23 record in the second half of the season.
  • Three years later, the Royals were 48-52 after 100 games but won the AL West with an 84-78 record. They were swept in the ALCS by the eventual world champion Detroit Tigers.
  • The next team to make the postseason despite a losing record after 100 games was the 2003 Minnesota Twins, who were 49-51. They went on a 41-21 tear the rest of the way to win the AL Central by four games, but were bounced out of the playoffs by the New York Yankees, 3-1.
  • The 2006 Los Angeles Dodgers had the same record as the Rays after 100 games, 47-53. They ended the year 88-74, the same record as the San Diego Padres and the best in the NL West. The Padres won the season series, nine games to five, so they were the division champions. The Dodgers were the wild card team, and the New York Mets swept them in three games in the Divisional Series.
  • Finally, the 2008 Dodgers, 49-51 after 100, won the NL West with an 84-78 record. They swept the Chicago Cubs in the divisional series and lost to the eventual world champion Philadelphia Phillies in the NLCS, four games to one.
Before the leagues split into divisions, no team with a losing record over the first 100 games made the postseason, which then was only the World Series. In the 45 years since, only six teams below .500 have made the playoffs. Of them, two lost in the Divisional Series, three lost their league's Championship Series, and only one--the 1973 Mets--made the World Series, which they lost. 

This isn't to say that Boston or Tampa Bay can't rally and win everything. If they make the postseason, it'll be against extremely long odds, and if they win the World Series, it'll be unprecedented. I'd be thinking of next year were I they.

Sweet Play of the Day: July 21

I can tell that I haven't been diligent in keeping up with this feature when this is the first time all year I've featured the Braves' shortstop maestro, Andrelton Simmons.

Monday, July 21, 2014

What's Going On With: Casey McGehee

Miami's Casey McGehee is the frontrunner for National League Comeback Player of the Year, and here's why:
2010 27 MIL 157 610 70 174 38 1 23 104 1 1 50 102 .285 .337 .464 .801 114
2011 28 MIL 155 546 46 122 24 2 13 67 0 3 45 104 .223 .280 .346 .626 69
2012 29 TOT 114 318 36 69 16 1 9 41 1 1 29 70 .217 .284 .358 .643 77
2013 30 TOH 144 513 78 150 30 0 28 93 2 3 70 119 .292 .376 .515 .891
2014 31 MIA 96 373 38 120 21 1 2 56 2 0 42 55 .322 .387 .399 .786 118
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 7/21/2014.

To summarize: In 2010, he was the Milwaukee Brewers' starting third baseman, with an above-average on base plus slugging (his 114 OPS+ indicates he was 14% better than average, adjusted for his ballpark) and 104 RBI. In 2011, he was the starting third baseman for the NL Central champion Brewers, though his offensive stats nosedived. He was traded from Milwaukee to Pittsburgh before the 2012 season and from Pittsburgh to the Yankees in July that year and continued to struggle at the plate. (TOT above lists his totals for the two teams.) Granted free agency and unable to land a major league gig, he signed with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles (TOH) in Japanese Pacific League. McGehee hit well in Japan, and this spring, he signed a contract with the Miami Marlins. Of course, the Marlins are known for penny-pinching, and spending $1.1 million for a 31-year-old third baseman who was washed up in the majors two years ago seemed like a move destined to keep the Marlins-as-joke narrative alive.

Instead, McGehee is, at this writing, third in the National League in batting average, sixth in on base percentage, first in hits, and first in singles. It's not all great--he leads the league in grounding into double plays and he's hit only two homers as the Marlins' cleanup hitter--but his 118 OPS+ is second on the team to slugger Giancarlo Stanton. McGehee is a big reason why the Marlins, picked by many to be the worst team in the league, are, well, tolerable, with a 45-52 record that's better than the Padres, Phillies, Diamondbacks, Rockies, and Cubs, and a surprisingly strong fourth in the league in runs per game.

So What's Different? Mostly, it's plate discipline. It's really as simple as that. In 2011, his last year as a major league regular, he swung at 27.4% of pitches outside the strike zone, the 41st highest total among 66 in the National League. That's decent, but not remarkable. This year, only four NL batting title qualifiers have swung at fewer pitches outside the strike zone than his 22.6%. As a result, he's walked in 8.5% of plate appearances compared to 7.5% in 2011, and he's made contact 86% of the time he's swung, compared to 83% in 2011. 

And he's been a little lucky. His batting average on balls in play (BABIP) is .369. That's the second best in the NL, where the average is .299. Very high or very low BABIPs are usually not sustainable. McGehee certainly hasn't slowed down at all this year--his slugging percentage has improved every month this year, and he's batting .390 so far in July--but it's reasonable to assume he'll cool off some as his BABIP moves toward a more typical level.

Is It Sustainable? McGehee has cut down on his swing and become more selective at the plate. As a result, he's gone from being a low-average power hitter to a singles-hitting high-average hitter. It's a remarkable transformation. At 31, age will slow him down, and his BABIP will return to Earth, and he's probably not a reasonable choice for a No. 4 hitter. (There are six Marlins with more homers and four with a higher slugging percentage.) So no, he's not a good candidate to finish the year with the third highest batting average and sixth highest on base percentage in the National League. But as comeback stories, his is hard to beat.