Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sweet Play of the Day - July 30

Manny Machado is one the favorites around here. The Orioles third baseman demonstrates why here. Sometime, go to a baseball diamond, and just try to make the throw to first from where he did on this play, let alone doing it off balance, on a line.

Sweet Play of the Day - July 28

Watch this one carefully. It's a routine chopper to short, but it takes a crazy bounce. That's why Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons had to do this:

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Did Yu Know?

Texas Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish is one of the best right-handers in baseball. He also has a first name that sounds just like the work you. This, per Sam Miller at Baseball Prospectus, has proved to be irresistible for headline writers.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Sweet Play of the Day - July 26


This was actually an important play, as Miami was leading Houston by two runs with the Astros threatening, runners on the corners and nobody out.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Reality Check: Defensive Shifts

Tom Verducci writes about baseball for Sports Illustrated and talks about on the MLB Network. He's a smart guy and a great writer. He's passionate about the game as well, writing on occasion about ways it could be better. He did so last week, proposing that baseball do something to limit defensive shifts: moving fielders to one side or the other of second base in order to take advantage of hitters' tendencies to hit the ball there. You know, like this:
Verducci cites the situation pictured above in particular, when the player at the plate is lefthanded, he tends to hit balls to the right side of the infield, and, in addition, he's slow. (I can't speak to the speed of the guy at the plate in this picture; I can't make him out.) He cites slow left-handed batters who pull having down years: Chris Davis, Ryan Howard, Jay Bruce, Adam Dunn, Brian McCann, Shin-Soo Choo, David Ortiz, and Adrian Gonzalez, among others. He has a pretty convincing table: batting average on balls in play (i.e., excluding at bats that result in strikeouts or home runs) for left-handed hitters when they hit the ball to the right side of the infield:
   2005   .379
   2006   .386
   2007   .353
   2008   .358
   2009   .350
   2010   .351
   2011   .332
   2012   .313
   2013   .323
   2014   .301

In 2010, Howard, McCann, Ortiz, Bruce, Dunn, Choo, Curtis Granderson and Adam LaRoche all were among the best lefthanded hitters in the game. None of them were All-Stars this year. Fewer hits to the pull field – into the shift – is one reason. Throw in former All-Stars Mark Teixeira and Carlos Beltran, two more slow-footed sluggers (and using only their numbers batting lefthanded), and you can see how the shift is harming lefthanders...
Ignore that some of those guys haven't been good for years. His point, that the shift's affected lefties since the Tampa Bay Rays started becoming shift-happy in 2008, seems to be borne out by the numbers above. His solution: That baseball should look into establishing an "illegal defense rule" that'd limit the number of infielders on either side of second base to two. 

Verducci's proposal met with a fair amount of criticism on the Internet, partly because he's proposing a pretty significant change to the rules of the game. I don't really buy that. The rules of baseball aren't inviolable; we added replay and removed home plate collisions this year. If there's a problem in the game, let's address it.

The problem I have is that I'm not sure the response Verducci's proposing--limiting defensive shifts--will address the problem of a decline in offense, simply because there's not a lot of evidence I can see that shifts are the culprit. I'm going to show you a somewhat busy table, so let me explain the columns. The first one, Year, is self-explanatory. BABIP is the batting average on balls in play--that is, the batting average when the batter puts the ball in play (doesn't strike out, walk, get hit by the pitch, etc.) and doesn't hit a home run. Ground is the batting average on ground balls. L vs. L is the batting average for left-handed hitters--the focus of Verducci's research--against left-handed pitchers. L vs. R is the batting average for left-handed hitters against right-handed pitchers. If defensive shifts are hurting offenses, particularly with lefties at the plate, we should see all of these batting averages decline with time, as shifted fielders turn what used to be hits into outs. Here's the table:
   Year    BABIP  Ground  L vs. L  L vs. R
   2005    .295    .233    .295     .299
   2006    .301    .236    .294     .302
   2007    .303    .239    .301     .312
   2008    .300    .237    .298     .302
   2009    .299    .232    .286     .299
   2010    .297    .234    .299     .298
   2011    .295    .231    .291     .301
   2012    .297    .234    .287     .299
   2013    .297    .232    .293     .300
   2014    .299    .237    .297     .307

Do you see any evidence from those number that defensive shifts--which have grown in popularity especially in the last couple years--have hampered offense? I can't. As of today, the batting average on balls in play at its highest level since 2009. The batting average on grounders is the highest it's been since 2008. Left-handed hitters are hitting better against lefties than any year since 2010 and against righties since 2007. Offense is surely down, but it's not because defensive shifts are resulting in plummeting batting averages. So I don't see a need to legislate against shifts.

As to why offense if down: batters are striking out in 20.3% of plate appearances, the most in history--the rate's risen for nine straight years--the walk rate's declined for five straight years and is now at its lowest level since 1968, batters are hitting balls on the ground,  which produce a lower OPS than balls hit in the air, at the highest rate since stats became available in 2002, and the percentage of fly balls leaving the park has declined for two years, to the lowest level since 2011. That's why. Sounds like a problem of good pitching rather than innovative defense.

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. 

Kind of Sweet Play of the Day, July 20

Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo made a circus catch in yesterday's game against the Diamondbacks with runners on first and third and one out.

And it cost the Cubs a run, and possibly the game.

Here's the play:

The problem, as Hardball Talk pointed out, is a little-known rule in baseball, rule 7.04(c), which states: 

If a fielder, after having made a legal catch, should fall into a stand or among spectators or into the dugout or any other out-of-play area while in possession of the ball after making a legal catch, or fall while in the dugout after making a legal catch, the ball is dead and each runner shall advance one base, without liability to be put out, from his last legally touched base at the time the fielder fell into, or in, such out-of-play area.
(highlighting mine)

So by catching the ball while falling out of play, Rizzo allowed the run to score. Had he let the ball drop foul, there still would have been runners on first and third, nobody out, 0-1 count on the batter. So there's still a pretty good chance the Diamondbacks would have scored a run. (To date this season, teams have scored 1.67 runs in innings in which they had runners on first and third with nobody out.) But they might not have. And that one run was the margin of victory in a 3-2 win for Arizona.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Trailing 30 - All-Star Break

Here are the top (and bottom) performers over the past 30 days, made possible through the magic of Fangraphs and its fabulous Leaders application. Comment for the week: I should've done this on Monday - I've picked up a couple days of no activity. I'm going to skip this next Sunday--the All-Star Break puts a big hole in the schedule - but I'll be back after that. As for this listing--JD Martinez, in three seasons with the Astros prior to this year: 975 plate appearances, 24 HR, 87 R, 126 RBI, .251 BA, .300 OBP, .387 SLG. This year with the Tigers: 205 PAs, 13 HR, 27 R, 43 RBI, .346/.380/.654. Talk about a change of scenery... 

   American League              National League
   Team W-L                     Team W-L      
1. Los Angeles     21-7      1. Cincinnati      19-10       
2. Oakland         19-9      2. Los Angeles     18-10        
   Detroit         19-9      3. Atlanta         17-12         
3. Baltimore       18-10        St. Louis       17-12   
4. Tampa Bay       18-11     5. Washington      16-11        

   Worst Team W-L               Worst Team W-L
1. Texas            5-23     1. Colorado         8-20      
2. Houston          9-18     2. San Francisco    9-18       
   Toronto          9-18     3. Miami           10-18      
4. Minnesota       12-17     4. Arizona         11-15
5. Bos, Chi, NY    12-16     5. Chicago         13-16

   Batting Average              Batting Average     
1. JD Martinez, Det .405     1. McGehee, Mia     .355        
2. Altuve, Hou      .377     2. Morneau, Col     .354      
3. Beltre, Tex      .375     3. Gennett, Mil     .353           
4. Vogt, Oak        .375     4. Wright, NY       .351         
5. Encarnacion, Tor .366     5. Hamilton, Cin    .344      

   Lowest Batting Average       Lowest Batting Average  
1. Bogaerts, Bos    .115     1. Segura, Mil      .172          
2. Willingham, Min  .127     2. Crawford, SF     .185       
3. Murphy, Cle      .130     3. Valbuena Chi     .188
4. Davis, Bal       .143     4. Howard, Phi      .191           
5. Beckham, Chi     .146     5. Parra, Ari       .198      

   On-Base Percentage           On-Base Percentage  
1. Encarnacion, Tor .464     1. Goldschmidt, Ari .469           
2. Trout, LA        .438     2. McGehee, Mia     .441            
3. JD Martinez, Det .430     3. Mesoraco, Cin    .427         
4. Crisp, Oak       .420     4. Freeman, Atl     .418          
5. Cano, Sea        .420     5. Wright, NY       .414       
   Slugging Percentage          Slugging Percentage   
1. JD Martinez, Det .784     1. Mesoraco, Cin    .667        
2. Trout, LA        .709     2. McCutchen, Pi    .648     
3. Encarnacion, Tor .690     3. Wright, NY       .636       
4. Abreu, Chi       .673     4. Gennett, Mil     .624       
5. Pearce, Bal      .617     5. Coghlan, Chi     .612        
   Home Runs                    Home Runs
1. Abreu, Chi         10     1. Byrd, Phi           8
   Trout, LA          10     2. Adams, SL           7        
   JD Martinez, Det   10        McCutchen, Pit      7
4. 3 with              7        Mesoraco, Cin       7
                                Rizzo, Chi          7

   Runs                         Runs    
1. Calhoun, LA        29     1. Rendon, Was        26
2. Trout, LA          23     2. Freeman, Atl       22     
   Pujols, LA         23     3. Byrd, Phi          21
4. Kinsler, Det       21        Coghlan, Chi       21
5. 2 with             20        McCutchen, Pit     21
   RBI                          RBI      
1. JD Martinez, Det   29     1. Adams, SL          23        
2. Trout, LA          28        Hamilton, Cin      23      
3. Pujols, LA         27        McCutchen, Pit     23       
4. Seager, Sea        24        Werth, Was         23
   Ortiz, Bos         24     5. Davis, Mil         21

   Stolen Bases                 Stolen Bases             
1. Altuve, Hou        17     1. Hamilton, Cin      13            
2. Jones, Sea         10     2. Rollins, Phi        9     
3. Dyson, KC           8     3. Frazier, Cin        8   
4. Fuld, Min           7        Revere, Phi         8
   Aybar, LA           7        Young, NY           8
   Saves                        Saves
1. Smith, LA          10     1. Chapman, Cin       10
2. Britton, Bal        9        Kimbrel, Atl       10
   Rodney, Sea         9        Rosenthal, SL      10
4. Robertson, NY       7     4. Jansen, LA          9
   McGee, TB           7        Soriano, Was        9

   ERA                          ERA
1. Lester, Bos      0.97     1. Kershaw, LA      0.22
2. Richards, LA     1.51     2. Wainwright, SL   0.96
3. Quintana, Chi    1.51     3. Lincecum, SF     1.24
4. Hernandez, Sea   1.66     4. Hahn, SD         1.46
5. Price, TB        1.69     5. Arrieta, Chi     1.78

   Worst ERA                    Worst ERA
1. Guthrie, KC      6.21     1. Jackson, Chi     7.92
2. Happ, Tor        5.76     2. Hudson, SF       6.07
3. Hutchison, Tor   5.72     3. Haren, LA        6.06
4. Lackey, Bos      5.59     4. Miller, SL       6.03
5. Verlander, Det   5.54     5. Estrada, Mil     6.00

   WHIP                         WHIP
1. Hernandez, Sea   0.66     1. Kershaw, LA      0.51
2. Bucholz, Bos     0.71     2. Arrieta, Chi     0.71
3. Young, Sea       0.79     3. Lincecum, SF     0.74
4. Lester, Bos      0.81     4. Latos, Cin       0.80
5. Quintana, Chi    0.84     5. Garza, Mil       0.84

   Strikeouts                   Strikeouts
1. Price, TB          53     1. Kershaw, LA        55      
2. Richards, LA       50     2. Hahn, SD           42
3. Hernandez, Sea     42        Kennedy, SD        42
4. Darvish, Tex       41        Ross, SD           42
5. 2 with             40     5. 2 with             41

Friday, July 11, 2014

Sweet Play of the Day: Sox Edition

The White and Red Sox completed a four-game series in Boston yesterday. On Wednesday, one of the highlights was this catch by Boston outfielder Jackie Bradley, robbing the White Sox's Tyler Flowers:

So Thursday, Chicago outfielder Adam Eaton returned the favor,  avoiding a collision to rob Boston's David Ortiz:

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Other Side of the A's-Cubs Trade

Late on the Fourth of July, the Chicago Cubs traded starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel to the Oakland A's for three minor leaguers--shortstop Addison Russell, outfielder Billy McKinney, pitcher Dan Straily--and a player to be named later. The analysis of the trade has focused on (1) how it's an all-in, win-now, flags-fly-forever move by Oakland, which already had the best record in baseball, to try to win the World Series, and (2) how the Cubs farm system, already one of the best, is now flush with top prospects. Fair enough. But here's another aspect: The 2014 Cubs have lost two-fifths of their rotation. They were a last-place team with Samardzija and Hammel, and they'll be worse without them. Does that mean anything?

Yes, I think, in two ways. One, it sets up Cubs to improve their position in the next amateur draft. Baseball teams draft amateurs based on the reverse order of standings. Here are eight teams with fewer than 40 wins as I write this:
   Team          W  L  GB
   Houston      37 54  --
   Colorado     37 53 0.5
   Arizona      38 53 1.0
   Texas        38 51 2.0
   Philadelphia 38 51 2.0
   Cubs         38 49 3.0
   Boston       39 50 3.0
   Minnesota    39 49 3.5

Obviously, "games behind" here refers to games behind the team that'll pick first in the draft. As you can see, the race for worst is tight. The Cubs can improve their draft position by losing more.

Second, if the Cubs lose more, it'll benefit the teams they play. In fact, playing against a weak Cubs team could impact all three National League divisional races:
  • In the NL Central, the Brewers (first place) and Cardinals (second, 4.0 games out) have ten games left with the Cubs. Reds (fourth, 5.0 games out) have nine. But the Pirates (third, 4.5 games out) have just six. That gives Pittsburgh's opponents more easy games.
  • In the NL West, the first-place Dodgers have seven games left with the Cubs. The second-place Giants, one game out, have only three. As if the Dodgers needed help...
  • In the NL East, the first-place Braves have three games remaining with the Cubs. The second-place Nationals, half a game behind, have none.
Look, having the Cubs on the schedule was a relative advantage for the Brewers, Cards, Reds, Dodgers, and Braves before the trade was made. Even with Samardzija and Hammel, Chicago wasn't a very good club. But that relative advantage has widened a little. If the races stay tight, the teams now in first may have Cubs President Theo Epstein to thank, in part, for their post-season appearances.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Reality Check: Ray Fosse

I listened to most of yesterday's Blue Jays-A's game while on a long drive in order to hear the Oakland debut of Jeff Samardzija, acquired in a July 4 trade with the Cubs. (He did pretty well: One run and five baserunners in seven innings.) Going from the Cubs, the worst team in the NL Central, the A's, with the best record in baseball, is a huge upgrade for Samardzija. The color man on the A's broadcast, former major league catcher Ray Fosse, talked about what that's like. 

Fosse is best remembered as the catcher whom Pete Rose flattened while scoring the winning run in the 1970 All-Star Game, one of the most memorable plays in All-Star history. Fosse suffered a separated shoulder and, it was said, was never the same again. That claim may be a little hyperbolic. It's true that Fosse never approached the .312/.366/.527 slash line that he'd compiled at the 1970 All-Star Break, but a lot of players put together a great half-season. And it's not like he became worthless. He was an All-Star the following season and won a Gold Glove. He was a regular only three more seasons, though, and, worn down by a succession of injuries, he retired at age 30.

In March 1973 season, Fosse was traded from the Indians to the A's. Like Samardzija, he went from a poor team (the 1972 Indians were fifth in the six-team AL East) to a good one (the 1972 A's won the World Series). On the broadcast, he talked about how exciting it is for a player to go from an also-ran to a championship-quality team, even though it means you're no longer a big fish in a small pond. Fosse noted (I'm paraphrasing here) that he went from batting fourth to batting eighth. 

Is that true? Did he really go from being a cleanup hitter to a No. 8 hitter? Doesn't that sound overly dramatic?

It turns out Fosse's memory is correct. In 1970, the year of the collision with Rose, he had 498 plate appearances, the majority (59%) batting fourth. That made sense, as led the Indians in batting average and slugging percentage. In 1971, he led the team in batting again but his power slipped, and he was more often the No. 3 hitter (33% of plate appearances) than No. 4 (30%). In 1972, his last year in Cleveland, he batted just .241/.312/.354, but his .666 OPS was about league-average--this was a pitching-dominated year, and the American League adopted the designated hitter the next season in an attempt to revive offenses. Fosse had 508 plate appearances, with a narrow plurality in the No. 4 position (33%) followed by No. 6 (32%). He was a pretty bad cleanup hitter, batting .216 with a .327 slugging percentage, but his recollection is correct: he batted fourth more than in any other lineup position for the 1972 Indians.

For the 1973 A's, he's absolutely correct: 80% of his plate appearances were from the eighth position in the lineup.

Fosse's point wasn't that it was a bummer going from batting fourth to batting eighth; it was that going from Cleveland to Oakland was invigorating because it gave him a chance to play for a winning club. And he did: The A's won the World Series in 1973 and 1974 with Ray Fosse as their catcher.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Trailing 30 - July 6

Here are the top (and bottom) performers over the past 30 days, made possible through the magic of Fangraphs and its fabulous Leaders application. Comment for the week: The AL West has the league's three best teams AND its two worst over the past 30 days. 

   American League              National League
   Team W-L                     Team W-L      
1. Los Angeles     19-8      1. Los Angeles     19-10       
2. Oakland         17-10     2. Pittsburgh      18-10        
3. Seattle         17-11     3. Atlanta         18-11         
3. Kansas City     16-10     4. Cincinnati      17-11   
4. Tampa Bay, Balt 17-12        Washington      17-11        

   Worst Team W-L               Worst Team W-L
1. Texas            8-19     1. Colorado         9-20      
2. Houston         10-18     2. San Francisco    9-18       
   Toronto         10-18     3. Arizona         10-17      
4. Chicago         10-17        Miami           10-17
5. Minnesota       11-17        New York        10-17

   Batting Average              Batting Average     
1. Altuve, Hou      .394     1. McCutchen, Pit   .367        
2. JD Martinez, Det .383     2. Morneau, Col     .363      
3. Calhoun, LA      .380     3. McGehee, Mia     .358           
4. Beltre, Tex      .376     4. Lucroy, Mil      .350          
5. Pearce, Bal      .367     5. Gordon, LA       .350       

   Lowest Batting Average       Lowest Batting Average  
1. Bogaerts, Bos    .100     1. Cabrera, SD      .132          
2. Arcia, Min       .130     2. Segura, Mil      .168       
3. Davis, Bal       .140     3. Parra, Ari       .182
4. Donaldson, Oak   .160     4. BJ Upton, Atl    .209           
5. Lowrie, Oak      .167     5. Jones, Mia       .209      

   On-Base Percentage           On-Base Percentage  
1. Trout, LA        .444     1. Goldschmidt, Ari .470           
2. Altuve, Hou      .435     2. Martin, Pit      .467            
3. Pearce, Bal      .431     3. McGehee, Mia     .444         
4. Crisp, Oak       .429     4. McCutchen, Pit   .430          
5. Calhoun, LA      .425     5. Lucroy, Mil      .417       
   Slugging Percentage          Slugging Percentage   
1. JD Martinez, Det .755     1. McCutchen, Pit   .679        
2. Trout, LA        .706     2. Dickerson, Col   .596     
3. Pearce, Bal      .667     3. Lucroy, Mil      .590       
4. V Martinez, Det  .648     4. Ramirez, Mil     .573       
5. Calhoun, LA      .633     5. Granderson, NY   .570        
   Home Runs                    Home Runs
1. Abreu, Chi         10     1. Byrd, Phi           9
2. Trout, LA           9     2. McCutchen, Pit      7        
3. Jones, Bal          8     3. 4 with              6
   JD Martinez, Det    8     
   V Martinez, Det     8     

   Runs                         Runs    
1. Calhoun, LA        22     1. Freeman, Atl       24        
   Trout, LA          22     2. Rendon, Was        21     
   Cabrera, Det       22     3. Polanco, Pit       20
4. Cano, Sea          21     4. 4 with             19
5. V Martinez, Det    20     
   RBI                          RBI      
1. Trout, LA          24     1. McCutchen, Pit     27        
2. JD Martinez, Det   23     2. Morneau, Col       25      
3. Seager, Sea        22     3. Castro, Chi        21       
   Abreu, Chi         22     4. 3 with             20
5. 2 with             21     

   Stolen Bases                 Stolen Bases             
1. Altuve, Hou        15     1. Hamilton, Cin      13            
2. Jones, Sea         10     2. Revere, Phi        10     
3. 4 with              6     3. Frazier, Cin        9   
                                Rollins, Phi        9
                             5. Marte, Pit          8
   Saves                        Saves
1. Rodney, Sea         9     1. Kimbrel, Atl       12
2. Britton, Bal        8     2. Rosenthal, StL     10
3. Robertson, NY       7        Chapman, CIn       10
   Uehara, Bos         7     4. Rodriguez, Mi       9
5. Holland, KC         6        Jansen, LA          9

   ERA                          ERA
1. Hernandez, Sea   1.19     1. Kershaw, LA      0.41
2. Richards, LA     1.83     2. Wainwright, StL  0.59
3. Lester, Bos      1.93     3. Arrieta, Chi     0.78
4. Porcello, Det    2.00     4. Alvarez, Mia     1.67
5. Duffy, KC        2.01     5. Hamels, Phi      1.71

   Worst ERA                    Worst ERA
1. Whitley, NY      6.90     1. de la Rosa, Col  7.04
2. Verlander, Det   6.16     2. Estrada, Mil     6.83
3. Wilson, LA       5.94     3. Haren, LA        5.29
4. Elias, Sea       5.55     4. Chacin, Col      5.28
5. Cobb, TB         5.51     5. Hernandez, Phi   5.24

   WHIP                         WHIP
1. Hernandez, Sea   0.62     1. Arrieta, Chi     0.49
2. Price, TB        0.89     2. Kershaw, LA      0.66
3. Richards, LA     0.90     3. Lincecum, SF     0.77
4. Porcello, Det    0.97     4. Zimmermann, Was  0.83
5. Tanaka, NY       1.00     5. Beckett, LA      0.84

   Strikeouts                   Strikeouts
1. Hernandez, Sea     54     1. Kershaw, LA        60      
2. Price, TB          52     2. Arrieta, Chi       46
3. Darvish, Tex       51     3. Hamels, Phi        42
4. Scherzer, Det      50        Teheran, Atl       42
5. Sale, Chi          44        Hammel, Chi        42