Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Path to The Playoffs

*Warning: This post is completely based on Wins Above Replacement. If you hate this or don't understand the concept then I understand if you want to skip this one, but I plan to keep this at the most basic levels of the concept.

The Boston Red Sox were a long way away from a playoff spot last year. In fact, they finished closer to the worst record in the league (the 55-107 Houston Astros) than they did to a playoff spot. At 69 wins, the Sox would have to realistically add about 21 wins to their roster to get back to the playoffs. Though Baltimore and Texas tied at 93 wins apiece last year for the two Wild Card slots, I would guess that most years, 90 wins would be enough to claim the final Wild Card spot. So how do the Sox get those 21 wins and head back to the promise land? It’s all about being average and avoiding terribleness.

Before we get into how the team will get there, let’s talk a little bit about Wins Above Replacement (WAR), specifically the concept of a replacement player. The replacement player is not tangible. According to Baseball Prospectus (one of the earliest proponents and creators of the concept), “replacement-level players are of a caliber so low that they are always available in the minor leagues because the players are well below major-league average.” Sources differ on this, but most say that a team full of replacement players would win about 50 games in the Major Leagues (only slightly worse than the Astros last year and actually better than the Detroit Tigers in 2003). So when a player has a WAR above 0 they are incrementally improving that hypothetical replacement team by that many wins. 

A great illustrator of this concept is last year’s Red Sox. Using Baseball-Reference (this site and are the two main sources of WAR, but they differ because each uses different defensive stats for the final tally. WAR is far from perfect, but it gives a good data  point and it is a good tool to use in discussions like this) we see that the Red Sox got 18.9 WAR out of their roster last year (17.7 from the offense and a putrid 1.2 from the entire pitching staff. Yikes). If you round that up to 19 WAR and add that to the 50 win baseline you get 69 wins, or exactly as many as the team won last year*.
*Please note that this does not always work out so nice and tidy. WAR is a number assigned to an individual performance, not divided up by how many wins a team has at the end of the year. A lot of factors go into a team's wins and losses that are beyond an individual's control, so most of the time team WAR+50 does not equal the actual win total.

There are a lot of ways to go from 69 wins to 90 wins. One is to add significant top line talent like the Blue Jays have this year. The Jays one just 73 games last year, but when they looked at the rest of the AL East and AL in general, decided that there was a path to winning enough games to make the playoffs if they could add top line talent. They imported Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle, Josh Johnson, Melky Cabrera and R.A. Dickey and now Vegas is listing them as the World Series favorite.

Another way is to replace terrible with average, and that is just what Boston is doing. Let’s start with removing terrible. In 2012, the Red Sox employed 12 pitchers who combine to provide negative 7 wins to the team (Beckett, Padilla, Thomas, Carpenter, McDonald, Bailey, Melancon, Bard, Stewart, Aceves, Cook, Matsuzaka). This means that these guys performed worse than an average minor leaguer would have. In 2011, it was even worse as the pitching staff had 12 guys combine to post negative 11 wins, thanks mostly to Lackey and Tim Wakefield.

Having terrible on the team is unavoidable, especially on the pitching staff. Every year a team is going to suffer injuries or ineffectiveness, but the key is minimalizing it. In the years the team was successful they were able to limit their negative wins on the pitching staff to around 3. With the team getting rid of 9 of the 12 players on that list (and potentially 11 if Bard and Aceves fail to make the roster) the team is off to a good start.

The next step the team is taking is adding a lot of average players. Assuming Mike Napoli signs, the team has added 8 players this off season, none of whom would be considered a super star (though about half have had super star seasons in the last three years). It is reasonable to expect that they will all be average this season given their recent performances and age.

Last year I wrote a post talking about league average hitters. I argued that being an average player is not a bad thing at all and that the word “average” carries a negative connotation. I wrote that “a hypothetical team with perfectly average hitters and pitchers would be in playoff contention every year.” In 2013, it seems like the Red Sox are putting that theory to the test.

Boston has a very few players on their roster that could post a true super star season. Pedroia, Ellsbury and Lester are the most likely and you could envision a scenario where Middlebrooks, Victorino, Napoli or Buchholz do the same. A super star season usually means about 5 WAR. All of these guys, though, are more likely to post average seasons, or about 2.5 WAR. But if all of these guys do just that, the Sox will be in great shape in 2013.

Ok, time for a quick back of the napkin math section. If you have stuck with me this long then hopefully you won’t mind this too much. Let’s start with the starting the lineup as it is likely to look right now. I am going to assume that just about every regular player in the lineup will post an average season, and that any platoon spots (LF and C) will combine to produce an average season. Based on recent track record, the major stretches here are that Stephen Drew will be average and that Pedroia won’t be well above average.

Ellsbury – 2.5 wins
Victorino – 2.5 wins
Pedroia – 2.5 wins
Ortiz – 2.5 wins
Napoli – 2.5 wins
Middlebrooks – 2.5 wins
Gomes/Nava – 2.5 wins
Drew – 2.5 wins
Salty/Ross – 2.5 wins
TOTAL - 22.5 wins

Now we get to the rotation, where we have to do a little bit of wishful thinking, though not a lot. I will assume that the top 3 (Lester, Buch, Dempster) will be average this year, though I do think Lester and Dempster will be better than that and Buch a bit worse. Lackey and Doubront are the tricky cases where we have to dream a bit. Before Lackey’s miserable 2011, he posted consecutive seasons of about 1.5 wins. I am hoping that 2011 was so terrible because of the arm problems he spent 2012 recovering from and that he can return to the pitcher he was in ’09-’10. Doubront was exactly replacement level last year (0 WAR), but he was just 24 in his first time as a rotation pitcher and showed good skills so I am going to assume he can improve some this year with the experience under his belt.

Lester – 2.5 wins
Buchholz – 2.5 wins
Dempster – 2.5 wins
Lackey – 1.5 wins
Doubront – 1 win
TOTAL – 10 wins

This leaves us with 82.5 wins (50 for the baseline, 22.5 for the starting offense, 10 for the rotation) before we consider the bench and rotation. Since I have already included 2 key bench players in the projections (Nava and Ross) for the starting offense, I will only add 1 more win for whoever makes up the rest of the bench. If Ferrell can manage left/right matchups and defensive replacements properly then this should be easy to achieve. For the bullpen, I expect it to be above average, but for the sake of this exercise, let’s consider it to be average. If we speculate that the rotation will average 6 innings per start (probably a stretch, but we will use it as a round number) that leaves about 500 innings for the bullpen to handle. A starting pitcher is expected to throw about 200 innings per season, so for 500 bullpen innings we can consider that 2 and a half starters. If we multiply 2.5 starters by 2.5 wins, we get just over 6 wins.

Bench - 1 win
Bullpen - 6 wins
TOTAL - 7 wins

That covers just about all of it. There are other factors like the manager, mid-season trades and prospect call-ups that can affect the final tally, but to keep it simple we end up with 39.5 wins above replacement, or 89.5 total wins. I set out looking for the team to get to 90 wins and it looks like they are reasonably set up to get there. For a team of average or worse players, it is easy to see how they can make the playoffs. In a division that looks to be more vulnerable than at any point in the last 10 years, the Sox have as good a shot as any besides maybe the Blue Jays to contend for the playoffs. When you hear people lament the fact that the team added a lot of average and mediocre players, be content in knowing that this has a strong chance to be a winning plan.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Going Dempster Diving

The Boston Red Sox have signed free agent starting pitcher Ryan Dempster to a 2 year, $26.5 million contract, marking the 4th contract this offseason they’ve given with an average annual value of approximately $13 million (if I was an insane person, like Dan Shaughnessy, I might try to connect this to some mystical curse, write a book about it and then go on every TV and radio show that will have me and present it as a fact). After dedicating their offseason shopping spree almost exclusively to the offense, Ben Cherington finally addressed a pitching staff that allowed the third most runs in the American League in 2012. Let's take a look at Dempster before we get to whether Cherington made a good deal or not (do you feel the suspense? That's how you keep people reading!).

Dempster has had a really interesting career. He was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the third round in 1995, but traded the next year to the Florida Marlins for old friend John Burkett (ironically, people are trying to compare Dempster to Burkett, who signed with the Sox when he was 36 as a softer throwing righty at the end of his career). In his first 6 seasons with the Marlins and Cincinnati Reds, Dempster was an ineffective starting pitcher. He had decent strike out numbers, but walked way too many batters and gave up a lot of home runs. The Reds released him after just a season and a half. At just 27 years old, it appeared Dempster’s career as a starter was over.

He latched on with the Chicago Cubs and transitioned to a bullpen role. His strikeouts remained steady and his walks actually ticked up, but he was able to cut his homeruns by 2/3 and was suddenly a very useful pitcher. After just one season, he became the Cubs closer, where he would remain until 2007. In that season, his home run problems started to come back and his ERA suffered. Heading into the 2008 season, former phenom Kerry Wood was finally healthy after years of injury issues and the Cubs decided to make him the new closer. With Dempster’s job no longer available, the Cubs decided to give him another shot in the rotation.

Because baseball is ultimately completely unpredictable, Dempster, now 31, responded by setting career bests in ERA (2.96), walk rate (3.31 per 9) and strike out to walk ratio (2.46 to 1). He basically became a completely new pitcher, focused on throwing strikes to keep runners off base. He stopped inducing as many ground balls as he was as a reliever and his home runs rate hovered around league average, but with less runners on base, the home runs did less damage. For the next 5 years, Dempster averaged more than 3 Wins Above Replacement (according to Baseball-Reference) and was one of the better starters in the National League. But with the Cubs out of contention in 2012, they traded him to the Texas Rangers for his first taste of American League action.

At the time of the trade, Dempster was among the NL leaders in ERA. So what does he do in his first 3 starts in Texas? Allow 16 earned runs (19 total runs) in 17 1/3 innings for a 8.31 ERA. It appeared like Dempster would fail where so many other NL pitchers have over the last decade making the transition from the NL to the much tougher AL. However, as he has done so many times before, he fought the perception and pitched really well in his last 9 starts posting his highest strike out rate (9.4 per 9 innings) of his career and a better than average 4.01 ERA. Because the Rangers shit the bed, he was unable to continue this success in the post season. Now, at 35 years old, Ryan Dempster will pitch a full season in the American League for the first time in his career.

So what did the Red Sox get with Dempster, a man who seemingly reinvents himself every 4 or 5 years?

Most importantly they got a durable pitcher. Since he returned to the rotation in 2008, Dempster has thrown more than 200 innings in every season but last, when he threw 173 innings. He had 2 separate unrelated DL stints last year, but neither were for serious injuries (strained quad and a strained shoulder). Now the caveat that he is an aging pitcher coming to a team with a questionable medical staff apply here, but his recent track record shows a pitcher who will take the ball every fifth day. More than anything, this is what the Red Sox have lacked the last two years. In 2011 and 2012 the Sox had just 1 pitcher pitch over 200 innings, and that was Jon Lester’s largely ineffective innings last season. Most playoff teams in 2012 had multiple pitchers throw 200 innings or more than 30 starts. The Reds had 5 starters make 30 plus starts and 4 starters throw at least 200 innings. If you want your team to win over 90 games, then you want at least your top 4 starters making about 75% of your teams starts. If the Sox can get 30 starts out of Dempster, Lester, Clay Buchholz and Felix Doubront (or if they sign someone like Edwin Jackson) this season, they will win 90 games. That is a Sexy Guarantee.

Of course throwing 200 innings can only happen if they are quality innings. Luckily, at least for 2012, I would expect quality innings out of Dempster. I would predict that Dempster will be average or better this year because he has been so good ever since returning to the rotation. His strikeouts have remained steady over the last 5 years and his walk rate continue to be good, which limits the damage from his occasional homeritis. He also gets a healthy amount of groundballs, which will be great in front of an infield defense that features former Gold Glover Dustin Pedroia and the second coming of Ozzie Smith at short stop. 

The other great thing about this signing is that it is for only 2 years. At Dempsters age there is a decent chance that he either falls off a cliff in his abilities or injuries start to take a toll and he spends some time on the DL. The risk of this happening would only increase after 2 years. If Dempster can make it through 2013 reasonably healthy and effective, I think he will have satisfied the needs of the team. By 2014 I think the Sox will have another 1 or 2 young starters ready to join the rotation and if Dempster starts to slip then, the team will be covered. Also, he could head back to the bullpen and prove useful there as he has in the past.

Of course there are risks in signing any pitcher, let alone one towards the end of his career moving to a tougher league. Someone once said that once you’ve displayed the ability for a skill then you own the potential to repeat that. In Dempster’s case that can be a good thing as he has had many good seasons, but it could also mean that he reverts to the wild tendencies of his youth. If you combine his previous high walk rates with his high home run rates, you get a pretty bad pitcher. Dempster also has a fairly large platoon split in his career, giving up an .807 OPS against lefties compared to just .701 against righties (this split may be muted this year though as he pitches more in Fenway, a tougher place for lefties to hit, and he added a cut fastball in 2012 aimed at neutralizing left handed power). In Yankee Stadium with the short porch against guys like Robinson Cano, Curtis Granderson and Mark Teixeira, this is a scary proposition. He also continues to lose velocity on his fastball, from an average speed of 91.1 MPH in 2008 to just 89.7 MPH in 2012.

The final verdict is that this is another strong signing by the Red Sox. They haven’t landed any superstars this offseason, but they have filled some obvious holes on the roster with solid players. The offense has a mixture of power and speed and a handful of guys who can grind out at bats (though at present is very right heavy). The rotation now has a durable innings eater to join the upside of pitchers like Lester, Buchholz and Doubront along with some top pitching prospects in the high minors to provide depth should any of these guys get hurt. I would expect this closes the book on the major moves the Sox make for the rest of the offseason. I think they will continue to monitor the market for a Jacoby Ellsbury trade and there is probably a 10% chance they still sign Nick Swisher and a 25% chance they add another starter. More likely we will see them add another left handed hitter that can play outfield and first base and then make a trade to clear up the catching and reliever log jam. There is still too much offseason left to judge how my buddy Cherington did, but at this point he is heading for a solid B+/A-.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


The Boston Red Sox signed Shane Victorino, 31 year old switch hitting outfielder, for 3 years and $39 million yesterday. The Boston Red Sox confused the shit out of me yesterday. Victorino is not a bad player and has a lot of positive qualities including the ever important "intangibles", but this type of money for this player in the role he looks to be fulfilling right now is baffling. Let's take a look at all the reasons this deal made me hope it was April Fools and then I will close with what few positives I can find.


Victorino was not a good player in 2012, statistically or visually. He had career lows in batting average (.255), OBP (.321) and slugging (.383) and a career high in strikeouts (80). He was a below average offensive player for the first time since 2007. If you want to say that he suffered from some bad luck, then I wouldn’t say you are completely wrong. Victorino’s batting average on balls in play (BABiP) was .278 on the year, which is below his career average of .296 and MLB average of about .300. BABiP is a good measure of whether a player had a lot of “atom” balls (balls hit well right at the defender) or a lot of seeing eye singles. However, going beyond the stats we turn to former Toronto Blue Jays front office man Keith Law of “his bat speed was noticeably slower in 2012, especially later in the season.” So this makes me think that this is not just a bout of bad luck, but a decline in skills.

The Future
Despite what the Mayans claim, we can’t predict the future. 3 years from now (assuming the world doesn’t end on December 21), Shane Victorino could go down as one of the most beloved members of the Red Sox of all time. He could be a high performing mentor for the wave of young talent set to come to Fenway. He’s a dynamic personality with a great  nickname and he was a really really good player in 2011 so it is possible that this becomes a completely moronic post (wouldn’t be the first). More likely though, is that he follows the career path of players who had similar careers up to their age 31 season. lists the top 10 similar players for Shane Victorino and it is not an inspiring group (see the list here). Crisp and Dejesus are still playing so we can’t tell much from them, but that leaves 8 players with which to guess how the next three years might go for Victorino. Landreaux, Skinner, Bradley and Gonzalez were either out of the league or done as full time players by the time they reached age 34. Winn was an average hitter who actually maintained his value on defense (this is what I would say the Red Sox are expecting, and it would validate the contract they gave him). Kelly and Finley started to show some decline in their hitting and a significant decline in fielding. Then they joined new teams in the late 90s and saw a big jump in offense. These teams (Texas and Arizona, respectively) had noted steroid cultures and lots of veterans with late career spikes. The final player is Jose Cruz, who maintained offensive and defensive value until he turned 38 and is by far the best case scenario; however I don’t know if I would compare Cruz to Victorino as Cruz is a much bigger guy whose body could hold up better over time. I am not sure if this list is all that instructive since we have to remove 2 active players and discredit 2 potential steroid users, leaving us with only 6 players: 1 really good outcome, 1 average outcome, 4 scary outcomes. But if there is even a little predictive power in this list, we should all be very nervous. 

Right now it appears Victorino is set to be the Red Sox’s every day right fielder. I will talk about the positives in this positioning later, but since people know me as a negative person, let’s start there. Right field is a position where I look for my team to get at least good offense. Cody Ross, J.D. Drew and Trot Nixon (the last 3 regular right fielders for the Sox) all provided above average offense for the majority of their time with the team. They either had 20+ home run power (Ross), the ability to get on base (Nixon), or both (Drew). Victorino has never hit 20 home runs (he tops out at 18) and while he has a decent walk rate (about 8% in his career, just slightly better than Ross), he’s not the type of guy to work deep into counts and keep a pitcher working (he ranked 105 out of 143 in pitches per plate appearance last year). Offense is down around the board in baseball, but I still would have preferred a guy with some pop in right field. Another smaller qualm with his position is that he can only play outfield. I was looking forward to the team signing Nick Swisher (which I'll discuss later) who could play outfield and first base so the team could mix and match players a little more and allow Mike Napoli to catch more frequently.

Jose Iglesias
Why am I bringing up the Red Sox short stop in a post about Victorino? I believe that if the team is serious about playing Iglesias at short stop this year, they have to have no holes at any other spot in the lineup. Iglesias is most likely going to be a terrible hitter, not much better than a pitcher. He is going to make outs in close to 75% of his plate appearances. If Victorino repeats what he did last year, this offense will be really shallow. I really like Will Middlebrooks going forward, but I would not be surprised if we see a slight step back this year and he is not someone who gets on base a lot anyway. I like whatever group of catchers the team ends up with, but they can definitely be pitched to. In my opinion there are only 4 sure thing hitters on this team right now: Jacoby Ellsbury, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Napoli. Even among that group there are significant injury and age risks. I was really hoping the team would sign someone that they could count on for offense and lengthen the lineup some to make up for the black hole at the bottom.

Switch hitter in name only
Victorino takes at bats from both sides of the plate. Notice I didn’t say he “hits” from both sides of the plate. In his career, from the right side against left handed pitchers he has posted an .881 on base plus slugging (OPS) and from the left side against right handed pitchers he has a .732 OPS; over the last three years this has dropped to .701 (thanks again to Law for this stat). The guy can’t hit right handed pitching and is getting worse. If this were reversed and he couldn’t hit left handed pitching I would not be so worried, but last season the Sox faced right handed starters in 69% of their games. This means that Victorino will be a well below average hitter in over 2/3 of games for the next 3 years. And for those of you who say he should just stop switch hitting and only hit from the right side: in 91 plate appearances from the right side against right handed pitchers, Victorino has a .563 OPS.

Right handed pitching
This warrants two paragraphs. The Red Sox are going to struggle against right handed pitchers next year unless they sign or trade for some more left handed hitters. We already covered Victorino’s struggles there, but there are a lot of other right handed hitters on this team who also have decent sized splits:
Napoli (.911 OPS vs. Lefties/.845 OPS vs. Righties)
Jonny Gomes (.974/.715)
Middlebrooks (.906/.798)
Pedroia (.853/.821 not bad but much more pronounced in his last 2 seasons)
Gomes will not be playing against many righties, but that still leaves 4 players with worse numbers in 69% of games in addition to Iglesias who can’t hit anyone. David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury are going to need to really step up in these games.

Josh Hamilton and Nick Swisher
Basically this entire post could be reversed to talk about why the Sox did a great job signing Hamilton or Swisher. They both had strong seasons in 2012. They hit with power and get on base (Swisher especially so). They play good enough defense for the large Fenway right field and can fake it in center on a short term basis. Barring injuries, they are sure thing hitters that lengthen the lineup. They both hit right handers well (Hamilton really, really well). They project to age reasonably well (Hamilton’s case there is a lot of risk, but at least he has a higher baseline of talent so there is more room for him to regress). The only reasons I can think why the Sox signed Victorino instead of these two guys are price, length of contract and surrendering a draft pick. Hamilton is said to be looking for a deal for 7 years and around $25 million a year and Swisher is looking for something for 6 years and over $100 million total. I would not want to pay these prices either, but I think the team jumped the gun going for plan C here. I think both players will eventually have to drop their demand and end up being within what the Sox would be willing to pay them. As for the draft pick, the Sox would lose their second round pick if they signed either guy. I know they want to build through their farm system, but a second round pick turns into a big league regular less than 10% of the time and this is supposed to be a really weak draft, so this likelihood is even less. I am going to be really upset when Hamilton signs a 4 year deal somewhere.

That is a whole lot of negatives and a whole lot of words. I hope you didn't think that just because I haven't posted in a long ass time that I couldn't still fill it up. To spare all of you, I will bullet point the potential positives here:

·         Defense in right: Victorino’s defense in center has been about average lately, but a move to right (especially combined with Ellsbury in center) gives the Sox some good outfield defense. Despite his size, Victorino’s got a really strong arm that is made for right.
·         Ability against lefties: This team is going to murder left handed pitching and the AL East has quite a few lefties: CC Sabathia, Andy Pettite, Wei-Yin Chen, Zach Britton, Mark Buehrle, Ricky Romero, David Price, Matt Moore. That’s 2 per team, so the Sox may actually see more lefties this year than in years past.
·         Trading Ellsbury: I am not 100% certain that I want to trade Ellsbury, but he is unlikely to sign here long term so it would be smart to get something for him before he leaves. Adding Victorino gives the Sox the option to trade Ellsbury for pitching, an outfield bat, or both and slide Victorino to center.
·         Hamilton/Swisher: If the Sox trade Ellsbury for pitching, I would think this allows them to re-open discussions with Hamilton or Swisher, rendering the millions of words I wrote in this post moot.
·         Chemistry: Every player the Sox have added this year is supposed to be great in the clubhouse and Victorino is no different. I don’t place a lot of value in this, but given how the last two years played out, maybe I am not giving chemistry enough credit. I’d still prefer talent any day of the week, but Victorino’s attitude and hustle are certainly good things.
·         Value of a dollar: The value of a dollar in baseball is skyrocketing right now due to massive TV contracts bringing in more and more revenue. While $13 million seems like a ton of money, that is about the rate of an average player. It is not impossible to imagine Victorino remaining an average player, with his ability to hit lefties, field, run and throw, for most of this contract.
·         2007-2011: In these years, Victorino was really a very good player. He averaged 3.8 Wins Above Replacement (if you are into that sort of thing) including his best season in 2011. If you look at 2011 and 2012 as outliers instead of 2012 being his new ability, he maintains that 3.8 WAR average. If Victorino is even a 3 WAR per year player over the course of this contract, then it is a really good deal.

I still think the negatives far out weight the positives here. I also think the team could have either found better value for the dollar or waited a little longer for the market to play out. With the previous signings (Gomes, Ross, Napoli) I have been asking people to be patient and wait to see the rest of the moves the Sox make this offseason. It appears they have a plan and until Victorino I thought I knew what it was. But maybe for now I should take my own advice and wait and see.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Round 1 Predictions

This will be the shortest post ever because I have to run out to the draft party.

Prediction for tonight:

Trade up to get Brockers from LSU (ideally I'd say Barron, but I think it would cost too much).  Trade out of #31 for whoever wants to move up and get Fleener from Stanford.

Bobby's Boners 4/25/12

I promise I do not plan to make this a daily occurrence. I also promise that I don’t place the team’s near collapse last night on the manager even a little bit. Clay Buchholz has been brutal this year and when your second best bullpen pitcher is a guy who should really just be a lefty specialist (Franklin Morales), it is hard to critique bullpen decisions. But last night’s bullpen management in the sixth inning is another example of Bobby Valentine’s head-up-his-own-assness and adds to my nervousness over his ability to competently manage this team. So on to the mini-boner, the McBoner if you will (because Irish dudes are supposed to have small wangs).

After teetering on the edge of disaster all night, Buchholz entered the sixth with a 7-1 lead. After striking out the first batter, he allowed 2 singles (granted one was a bunt), a run scoring double and then a walk to load the bases with one out. Now 7-2, Leatherface replaced the starter with righty Scott Atchison to face lefty Joe Mauer. In a vacuum, this move is not awful. I happen to think Atchison should not be on a Major League roster and definitely should not be pitching in a big spot. But, as I mentioned before, this team is bereft of solid relief pitchers so Atchison is sadly one of the best options available in this situation. If Bobbo wants to let him work out of this jam and finish the inning then I can’t really blame him.

Of course, Senor Sandwich Wrap had no intention of letting Atchison finish the inning. He gave up a 2-run single to Mauer (guess what, a lot of people have given up hits to Joe Mauer) and that was the end of his night. And then his boner emerged.

Valentine’s next stroke of genius was calling on Justin Thomas. I’m not sure who saw what in this guy, but there is no way he should be anywhere near a major league roster. However, he is technically the “lefty specialist” until Rich Hill is healthy or Andrew Miller figures out how to pitch again. So while I do not want him on the roster, he is on the roster for a reason and that is to get lefties out. Coincidentally (yes, coincidentally, since it seems there is no rhyme or reason for V’s moves) the Twins had lefties Justin Morneau and Chris Parmelee coming to the plate next. So what’s the problem, right?

Well in case you weren’t paying attention, as Leatherface clearly was not, Joe Mauer is also a lefty. The Twins gifted the Red Sox with 3 lefties in the middle of the lineup last night and Bobby decided to use a specialist to face 2 of the 3. If he wanted to use Atchison to face all 3 lefties, I would understand that since even without the platoon advantage he is a better pitcher than Thomas. If he put Thomas in to face all 3 lefties, I would understand that since he is technically a lefty specialist. But having the righty Atchison face the lefty Mauer and then pulling Atchison for the lefty Thomas to face 2 more lefties makes no sense in any universe. And if you think that maybe Mauer doesn’t have any platoon split against lefties and righties because he is such a good hitter, you’d be wrong because his OPS against righties is .937 and against lefties it is .752. That’s a platoon split people.

Ultimately the Red Sox did win the game and it was only close because Buchholz, Atchison and Thomas did not do their jobs (Thomas allowed a double to Morneau and hit Parmalee). But the more that Leatherface puts the wrong guys in bad situations, the tougher he makes it for them to succeed. He needs to pick a consistent strategy and stick with it (ultimately the right strategy would be best, but at this point I just strive for consistency). If you want to use a lefty specialist, use him for ALL the lefties in a row. If you don’t think you need a lefty specialist and would rather just use your best reliever, use him for ALL the batters.

I’ll close with one more example of his lack of consistency that really shows how crazy this SOB is. In a game a week or so ago, I think it was the Yankee debacle, the Yankees had the bases loaded with 1 out and were down a run. Bobbo decides to play the infield in to cut the run down at the plate. OK. Fine. I would have played at double play depth to end the inning on a grounder, but whatever. So the Yankees get a couple hits, score a couple runs and load the bases again. With 1 out, still. Exact same situation. Bobbo plays the infield at double play depth. Wait, what? You just showed a couple batters before that you like to play the infield in and now you are playing them back in the same situation? What is going on in that ranch dressing filled brain of yours (a lot of wraps have ranch dressing in them I think)?

Mr. Valentine, your boner is showing. Please see yourself out.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Bobby's Boners: 4/24/12

Welcome to a new column gimmick called “Bobby’s Boners” where I chronicle the obvious (to everyone but Bobby V) boner moves that the new Red Sox manager makes. My goal here is not to say that Leatherface is the sole route of the team’s malaise. This team has problems that run much deeper than its sun-kissed skipper. My goal is also not to be nitpicky. Managers, broadcasters and fans all have different opinions on certain situations and often times there is no one right answer or no one wrong answer. I won’t be calling him out for a slow hook on a pitcher (unless it is wildly obvious like when he left Daniel Bard in too long against Tampa after 8 straight balls) or for ordering most stolen bases. But in the short 16 games he has managed this team and the 5 months he’s been a part of this organization, Bobby has had more boners than a Tijuana gang bang. Last night's boner came in the form of a sacrifice bunt.

It was the top of the second inning. Twins starter Nick Blackburn had already issued 5 hits and 3 runs in the first inning and was sitting on a 3-1 defecit to open the second. The first batter, the number 9 hitter Kelly Shoppach, doubled to deep right field. Man on second. No outs. 3-1 game. Top of the second inning.

The next batter was leadoff hitter Mike Aviles. In the 8 games since Aviles took over the leadoff spot, he was hitting .333, with a .371 OBP and .576 SLG thanks to 2 HR and 2 doubles. He opened last night’s game with a double to deep center field. In his subsequent at bats he had 3 hits including another double and a home run.  Only David Ortiz, who is hitting .444, is more locked in at the plate right now.

So the team’s second hottest hitter comes to the plate with a runner ALREADY IN SCORING POSITION and no outs. A single (or better) to the outfield will score him. A grounder to the right side will move him over. A fly ball to the outfield will move him over. A strikeout will still give the next 2 batters the opportunity to drive him home. All 4 options will at least give the team a fighting chance to not concede an out in a situation where they do not need to concede an out. So what does Leatherface do? He has his leadoff man and second hottest hitter concede an out. 

“Here you go Nick! I know that we’ve been destroying you all night already and you haven’t really gotten Major League hitters out at all this year. And I know it’s the second inning and we are winning 3-1 and a big inning could put this game away. But what if I told you I would give you a free out to move my runner who is already in scoring position to a DIFFERENT scoring position, meanwhile taking the bat out of my second best hitter’s hands, AND playing for a one run inning that will keep your team within striking distance for another inning. Is that something you might be interested in? If not, how about a wrap?”

Leatherface had the opportunity to go for the jugular with the top of his order coming up against a weak pitcher. He employs one of the top offenses in baseball and has already had no problems scoring runs. He also employs the worst pitching staff in baseball so it would behoove him to get as many runs as possible. Instead, he employed some pussy small ball tactic that has been proven with mountains of data to be the wrong move unless you absolutely need to play for just one run (like in the 9th inning of a tie game). While the team ended up piling on the runs in the 3rd and 4th inning anyway, to me this just justifies how completely boneheaded it was to call for a bunt in that situation. This isn’t Japan or the National League or the 1980s. We are the Red Sox of the new millennium and we hit the piss out of the ball. Do not deprive the players of that ability. 

Mr. Valentine, your boner is showing. Please see yourself out.

Monday, April 23, 2012

On Schedules and Turn Arounds

Through 14 games, the Red Sox stand at 4-10. Through 14 games last year, the Red Sox stood at 4-10. Though those records are identical, all 4-10 teams are not created equally.

This team just seems like it’s in more dire shape than its counterpart from a year ago. Though I’m sure none of this is a surprise, here are some of the sad realities that make this year’s team seem worse off than last year’s:
  • The scar from last year’s collapse has made an already cynical fan base even more cynical
  • The new imposed budget means an impactful upgrade is not walking through the door
  • 2/3 of the starting outfield is on the DL
  • No true relief aces (like Pap and Bard) to right the sinking bullpen ship
  • Even though Bard and Doubront have pitched better than Lackey and Dice-K did last year, people somehow just assume they will implode
  • Youkilis is teetering on the verge of a major decline
  • Mike Aviles is the leadoff hitter and Cody Ross has hit cleanup
  • Let me repeat that last one: Mike Aviles is the leadoff hitter and Cody Ross has hit cleanup
  • Leatherface
With all of that I can understand if nobody has any optimism left. If you come by the Fenway neighborhood at 5:30 PM each day this week you just might find a wild eyed fan with a Yaz tattoo picketing Yawkey way for Leatherface’s head on a platter (and yes, I know he is not the main problem, but he is absolutely not a solution and you can’t fire players). With all that has gone wrong with this team since last September, things look as bleak as the coming winter in Westeros (happy Sarah? A nerdy Game of Thrones reference). But, just like last year, I am here to provide you with that one tiny silver lining. One glimmer of hope. One beacon on the horizon. The schedule.

This season the Red Sox have (unofficially) played the most difficult schedule in baseball. They have faced the three teams most “experts” project as division winners (NY, Texas, Detroit) and two other division rivals who project to be in the wild card race the whole season (TB and Toronto). While you’d like to see better success against these teams, the truth of the matter is that even the best teams typically have a losing record against the other best teams over the course of the season. Last year, the Yankees were 6-12 against Boston, 9-9 against Tampa, 3-4 against Detroit, and 7-2 against Texas. Texas was 6-4 against Boston, 5-4 against Tampa, 2-7 against New York, and 3-6 against Detroit. The winning teams beat up on each other, there is no way around it. It may not sound as romantic, but playoff teams earn their spots by beating up on the bad teams.

Luckily for the Red Sox, they have bad teams lined up for as far as the eye can see. Starting today, the Red Sox play the following teams: Minnesota, Chicago (AL), Oakland, Baltimore, Kansas City, Cleveland, Seattle. That’s a stretch of 22 games against teams that all should finish under .500 this season. Meanwhile, in that time the Sox should get Carl Crawford and Dice-K back (I know they sucked last year, but if anything this will help the bullpen and lineup depth considerably) and see if Marlon Byrd (and Youk) have anything left. Even without the returning and new players, I would suspect the team will have “turned it around” by that point if for nothing else than the incredibly weak level of competition especially relative to the first 14 games. If the Sox are not hovering around .500 at that point we can all officially storm the gates. But I would bet we won’t have to. 

If you want some evidence of scheduling playing a major role in a team’s “turn around”, look no further than last year. As the Sox stood at 5-10, their next 22 games were against the following: Oakland, Los Angeles (AL), Baltimore, Seattle, Los Angeles (AL), Minnesota, Toronto. In that time they went 12-10. Not great, but good enough to get within shouting distance of .500 and change the mood from one of impending doom to wide-eyed optimism. The only downside I see here is that when they do “turn it around”, Leatherface’s job will most likely be saved. If only we could get him to admit he admires Fidel Castro, Sadam Hussein and Roger Clemens…

Friday, April 6, 2012

Hasty Predictions After 1 Game

It was a very strange Opening Day for me. I am an unabashed score checker. If I can’t watch a game live, I am checking the score on my phone or computer every five minutes like pretty much every stereotypical man from a commercial in the last 5 years. But yesterday I decided to put aside my primal need to know, record the first official Red Sox game of 2012 and watch it after work. For 2 hours and 55 minutes I did an incredible job avoiding my phone, Facebook and any baseball site that may have a live scoreboard. Then, at 3:55 I got this text from a friend who we’ll call “Mrs. Black”: “Papi J”.

Sheeeeeiiiiiitttttt! I looked at the time again and realized that 2 hours and 55 minutes is about how long it takes for a game to finish the top of the ninth inning. An inning where “Papi” (David Ortiz to the lay women) could easily generate an emoticon. I couldn’t be sure about this, but I was pretty positive that the Sox were winning this game. So I got home and watched the Sox and Tigers trade zeroes until the 7th inning when the Tigers broke through for 2 on Jon Lester. Was I worried? Not at all, I had “Papi J” on my side. 

The Sox went down in the top of the 8th with nothing more than a whimper and I became a little concerned. The Sox were down 2 going into the top of the 9th and Papi was due up third. Could he really have hit a 3 run homer to take the lead against the Tigers closer that was 49 for 49 in saves last year and all I got was one “Papi J” text? The inning started and Dustin Pedroia led off with a double. Hmmmmm. Ok. Next, Adrian Gonzalez laced a nice little opposite field single and Pedroia moved on to third. Suddenly, I was back to being very confident in “Papi J” and started looking forward to seeing our new closer, Alfredo Aceves, shut the door on this game. It took the Sox 7 games to break the ice last year, but we were going to get it out of the way early this year. Of course, Papi hit a sac fly to score the runner from third. The Sox were still down.

Though they tied the game two batters later, they would go on to lose when the two headed puppy dog at the back of the bullpen could not keep the bottom of the Tigers lineup off the bases. So why am I telling you this story? Besides the fact that I want to rub it in “Mrs. Black’s” face a bit for getting my hopes up, it leads into my first hasty prediction after 1 game:
  • I will never watch a recorded game again. Between text messages, emails, sports websites and social networks, there are way too many places to learn about what is happening in a sporting event. What’s worse, if you accidentally get a small peak at some of this information, it can form a false sense of hope or doom that will hang over the game watching experience.
  • 2009-10 Jon Lester is not coming back this year, and may never come back. That version of Lester was a true ace and someone who could legitimately win a Cy Young. He struck out more than a batter an inning and while his walk totals were on the slightly high side, he seemed to walk people more because he was trying for strikeouts than because he was wild. There were a couple at bats yesterday where he just had no control of the ball at all. One in particular was in the 6th inning when he started Miguel Cabrera 0-2 or 1-2 and then threw 3 straight pitches up and away that were nowhere near the plate. This is what he was doing last year when he had the worst walk rate of his career. This doesn’t mean he isn’t still a very good pitcher, but after 2010 there was reason to hope and expect he would be on the level of Felix Hernandez and C.C. Sabathia. If he can’t get his control back, he will be something less than that this year.
  • Jose Valverde will finish in the bottom 5 for blown saves this year. After going a perfect 49 for 49 in save opportunities last year, Valverde blew his first chance this year (though he still “earned” a win. Anyone want to try arguing the merits of pitcher wins after this one?) By saying he will finish in the bottom 5 this year isn’t to say he will have a much worse season than he did last year. It is just a way to point out that it is nearly impossible to predict how a reliever, even an elite one, will do from year to year. On the contrary, it speaks more to the fact that Valverde is a good pitcher and entrenched in his role that he will be able to have enough save opportunities to finish in the bottom 5. The last pitcher to have a perfect save season with at least 40 saves was Brad Lidge in 2008 when he went 41 for 41. The next season? 11 blown saves.
  • Miguel Cabrera will lead the league in walks and Prince Fielder will hit less than 30 home runs. Cabrera already got off to a fast start with 3 walks in front of his new bash brother and I think this is going to be a trend. Fielder looks like he can be pitched to if you have enough left handed pitching. With teams having 7 and 8 man bullpens (including the Sox, who would have had Kelly Shoppach as their only bench player if the game went extra innings yesterday), most have at least 2 lefty relievers. Prince can be neutralized be a decent left hander and as soon as AL Managers figure this out (apparently Bobby V already has), Cabrera will be pitched around quite a bit. Welcome to the AL, Prince. 
  • Jacoby Ellsbury will finish with fewer than 20 home runs and a sub-.300 batting average. I was going to make this prediction before yesterday’s 0-fer. I see a big Willie Mays Hayes in Major League II year out of Jacoby. For those unfamiliar with this sequel, Hayes bulks up in the off-season and begins to think he is a power hitter leading to a lot of fly balls to the warning track and a slow start to the season. After Ellsbury’s 30 homer outburst last year, he no doubt views himself as a power hitter and will start to try and lift the ball too often. This will not work out well. On the plus side, it could lower his demands in a contract extension.
  • Michael Bowden will lead the team in saves. Alfredo Aceves is due for a huuuuuge regression this year after leading the league in relief innings last year. Add in the fact that he really has no out pitch and there is no reason to expect him to be able to close games. I bet he sees more work in the 6th inning as the 5th best bullpen pitcher than he does as the closer. Mark Melancon DOES have an out pitch (a pretty sweet looping curve), but he was “turtling” both literally and figuratively. When he goes into his windup his head retreats into the top of his body. Where the hell does his neck go? And then when he gave up that deeeeeep flyball to Ryan Raburn to open the ninth you could see the feces running down his pants. But at least he was smart enough to come out and criticize the new manager for his quick hook in an outing where he barely looked like a AAA pitcher. I fear this could be a Ramiro Mendoza repeat: a formerly successful Yankee pitcher who infiltrates the Red Sox in an attempt to ruin their season.

I was just about to cut this off after the last prediction when I realized they were pretty much all negative. So here are some quick hit positive predictions to close us out…Adrian Gonzalez will win the batting title this year…Mike Aviles will start  (and deserve to start) more games than any other shortstop in the organization…Including the Wild Card playoff game…Bowden will not only lead the team in saves, he will become a legit ninth inning guy…Franklin Morales is going to have a strong season as the lefty stopper…Papi will have one more “Papi J” season in him…Lester, Josh Beckett and Clay Buchholz will combine for 48 wins...The Sox will win 93 games. Thanks for stopping by.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

No, You Ahhh!!!: Spring Edition

"No, You Ahhh!!!" is going to be my new gimmick this season where I work through some common bar room arguments about the Red Sox. For those of you who have been in such an argument you know that it usually devolves into name calling and ends in one or both participants screaming, "no, you ahhh!!!" Also, to keep the bar room feel, I will keep deep statistical analysis to a minimum. Most of the time.

To start strong I am going to lay to rest 3 common debates from Spring Training this year. Enjoy, ya bastaahds.

Who's gonna be ahh friggin showt stawp kid?

Mike Aviles. This debate was basically settled this week when Jose Iglesias was optioned to AAA to start the season. There were some reports that Bobby Valentine (more on him later) and my boy Ben Cherington were already butting heads and Aviles v. Iglesias was allegedly at the center of it. Bobby V, who most of us know was the manager of the last all-glove-no-bat phenom Rey Ordonez, wanted Iglesias turning two with Pedroia, while Cherington felt he wasn't ready.

I agree with Ben on this one. This team is good enough this year that it doesn't have to hope for a phenom to reach his upside to take them to the playoffs. Aviles plays good enough defense at short, has some power in his bat, and may be able to post a good average at Fenway. Iglesias can probably blow him away with the glove, but almost definitely won't hit as well as Aviles and possibly not even as well as Josh Beckett.

The point is that this team does not need to rush Iglesias like the Mets did with Ordonez over a decade ago. The Sox have their first potential long term fix at short stop since Julio Lugo (kidding, just seeing if you were still paying attention) and need to do everything they can to make sure he succeeds in the long run. I have my doubts over whether or not Iglesias will ever be able to hit in the majors, but I know for a fact he can't right now. Let him learn his craft in the minors for another season or two and see what you've really got. Confidence is a big part of being a big leaguer. If the kid can't even hit .200 he may be lost forever. But, if he can learn how to hit a little in the minors before coming to the bigs, he should be able to hit enough so that his otherworldly defense makes him an above average player.
What ahh we gonna do with Bahhhd guy?

Let him start. Pretty much every move made this off season has been made for two reasons: a new hard line budget and turning Daniel Bard into a starter. The team traded infield and outfield depth for bullpen help. They used up almost half of the remaining budget to replenish that outfield depth with Cody Ross. They made half-assed plays for Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt. All this with the eye towards Bard starting.

So why the sudden change of heart with just a week left to go in the longest spring training of all time? Because he has walked a whole lotta guys this spring.

Before I continue, I have to admit that I thought this was a really bad idea when it became clear they were going to convert Bard back to the rotation. The last time he started in Single-A, he walked 75 in 78 innings. I am not at all shocked that he is running into the same problems again.

Even with that, I think the team needs to go ahead with its original plan on a trial basis. If this was just an isolated decision I would say there is no problem with abandoning the plan. But since all the other moves resulted from this one move, the team owes it to itself to give it a real shot. Spring training is a time for players to work on their craft and get back into shape. There is the slightest chance Bard was just working on his expanded repertoire and pacing himself through a longer outing. I doubt it, but there is a chance. Let's give him a shot and see if he can use that blazing fastball for good.

The other reason I would rather Bard than Alfredo Aceves start the season in the rotation is because it would be easier to send Bard back to the pen if he fails and easier to stretch Aceves out because he has done it before. I also don't think Aceves, with his low strikeout rate and high fligh ball rate, is going to be some rotation savior like some people seem to think. Go with Bard for now and adjust accordingly.

Ahh you as sick of Bawbby V as I am dude?

My. Good. God. I am 100% out on Bobby V and the season hasn't even started yet. Shut up dude! You are a baseball manager. Your job is about as important as a kindergarten teacher or the U.S. Vice President. You are there to babysit and make an occasional decision like "should I go with red finger paint or blue finger paint today?" (which applies to both kindergarten and the U.S. government. Political satire!)

This team has a ridiculous amount of talent. They collapsed last year mostly under the weight of a mountain of injuries and poorly timed shitty pitching. There is nothing that your leathery orange face can do to change that, unless you brought back some ancient Japanese secret for keeping players healthy. If he does anything  other than roll the balls out and let the guys play I am going to be a very angry boy. 

Valentine was fired in 2002 and went 10 full seasons without getting hired again. There were numerous other managerial openings in that time including 2 with the Red Sox. Now the team brings him back after he spent an entire year on national television bad mouthing half the guys he now has to make feel good about themselves. 

Imagine if there was a TV show where kindergarten teachers talked about the performance of pre-school students before they become kindergarteners. Then imagine if one of the commentators on that show was scheduled to become your sons teacher the next year. We'll call him Carl. The teacher was on record as saying that Carl has lost his skills as a block builder, doesn't play well with others and didn't deserve his lofty status as "Best See-Sawer." Now that teacher, we'll call him Mr. V., has to see little Carl every day, look him in the eye and tell him he is special and happy to have him in class. Carl may be just a child, but he's no fool. Now, as Carl's parent, would you be happy that this man is in charge of your kid? I didn't think so.

I want my manager to be like a Milford Man: neither seen nor heard (another Arrested Development reference. I'm gonna keep making them until every one of my readers watches the show. The whole series is on Netflix, hop to it!). As long as Bobby V wants to make himself the center of attention, I will continue to dislike him as a manager. I'm also not sure I'm alone in this feeling. His contract is for two years. I would be shocked if he goes any further than that and I actually don't think he will even last that long.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

2012 AL East Preview

1) New York Yankees
2) Boston Red Sox
3) Tampa Bay Rays
4) Toronto Blue Jays
5) Baltimore Orioles


Nothing gives me less pleasure, not even a frontal massage from a 6'5" Swede named Ulf, than predicting the Yankees to win the division once again. The only thing I can dream on is that this will be a great jinx of their success, but I don't think I have that kind of power. Yet. There is just no denying the superior talent level of this club this year. Let's address the elephant in the room for this team first, and that is its age. The core of Jeter, A-Rod, Rivera and Pettite (who decided to come out of retirement to piss me off) is all a year older and in varying states of decline. Mark Teixeira also started to show some drop off last year. But even with that decline, the team still finished 2nd in runs scored and 3rd in runs allowed last year. They haven't lost anyone of significance on the offensive side, though I'd be shocked if Granderson performs as well as he did last year, and they have added 3 new starters that should be improvements on Freddy Garcia, second-half Bartolo Colon and A.J. Burnett. Hiroki Kuroda was a star for the Dodgers the last few years and though he should face some difficulties leaving a big park and coming to a stronger offensive league, I would expect him to slot perfectly behind Sabathia as the number 2 starter. Michael Pineda has experienced some troubles in spring training, but he is a 23-year-old, 6'8" work horse who can throw 95+; ask the Sox or Rays if they would like to have that person as their number 3 starter. Finally, the prodigal son returns. I have no idea what Pettite will be able to offer this club, but I know for a fact he is better than what the Sox can throw out at the back of their rotation.

A full Red Sox preview is in the works, so all I will say for now is this. The Red Sox finished second in the AL in runs last year and even with some regression from Ortiz, Ellsbury, and the short stop position, there is enough room for improvement in right, left, third and first (that's right, I'm predicting an even BETTER year from Gonzalez) that the offense should be about the same last year. The point I want to make, though, is about the back end of the rotation. With all the hand-wringing (that's a term I've seen "trained" journalists use) about the 4th and 5th starters, it's important to consider that last year's 4th and 5th starters were beyond awful; or below replacement level for any stat geeks reading this. According to ESPN's Dave Schoenfield (read the whole article for some serious optimism), in 64 starts by John Lackey, Kyle Weiland, Tim Wakefield and Erik Bedard, the team gave up 265 runs over 357 innings, or 6.67 runs per nine innings. A typical bad starter, AKA Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront, will give up around 5 or 5.5 runs per nine innings. Even if we use 5.5 runs per nine, that equals 218 runs for the year, 47 less than last year's 4 and 5 starters allowed. That work out to almost 5 extra wins just by having the 4th and 5th starters be bad  rather than historically bad. This is a playoff team, I assure you.

I'm back and forth on the Rays. Some days I think their 9 deep rotation (yes, while the Red Sox can't figure out which reliever or minor leaguer will be the 4th starter, the Rays will send 2 above average major league pitchers to the pen and 2 others to AAA) will make them unstoppable over the marathon season. I also look at the core of their offense (Longoria, Joyce, Zobrist, Jennings, Upton) all between the ages of 24 and 30 with average to great speed and see an above average offense that does not need to score a ton of runs to win games. On other days I look at their bullpen led by 35 year olds Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta and think that their is going to be a lot of late inning sadness for the 754 fans in Tampa. I also look at the "big" additions of Carlos Pena (.776 OPS last 2 years), Luke Scott (.703 OPS last year and Grade A crazy person) and Jose Molina (37 years old and never had more than 297 plate appearances in a season) to a lineup that really only has one sure thing in Evan Longoria, coming off his worst season as a pro, and think there will be a lot of frustrated starting pitchers in Tampa. So I am going to split the difference and say third place with 87 wins and miss the playoffs by a couple games.

Toronto is one of a seemingly high number of trendy sleeper teams this year (including the Royals, Nationals, Marlins, and Indians). They do have a potentially scary middle of the lineup with Jose Bautista, Adam Lind and Brett Lawrie surrounded by solid role players in Colby Rasmus, Yunel Escobar, J.P. Arencibia, Kelly Johnson and Edwin Encarnacion. But they had most of this roster in place last year. Sleeper teams, like the Rays in '08 and the Diamondbacks last year, tend to make huge, unexpected leaps with improved bullpens and improved defense. The Jays already finished last year with the 4th best defense in the AL according to Baseball-Reference, so there is not much room for improvement there. The bullpen had just the 9th best ERA. To that, they added Sergio Santos, Francisco Cordero and Darren Oliver, three pitchers who could post an ERA below 3. The problem there is that they also lost 4 pitchers from last year's bullpen, 3 of which were just as good as this trio in Frank Francisco, Octavio Dotel, and Mark Rzepczynski (no bull shit, I almost spelled that right without looking except I put the "c" after the first "z" instead of the second). I just don't see where this team takes another big step unless Lawrie goes bananas and fulfills his lofty fantasy baseball draft status (unlikely) and Rasmus reverts to the player he was projected to be a few years ago (more likely but still not enough). I think this is another year where they finish just over .500 and fall short of the playoffs. Next year though, watch out. They have a top 3 minor league system and are set up to be the Rays 2.0 (what term did we used to use before "2.0" to describe a newer version of something before the internet and computers started?). The Yanks and Sox are not going to be able to make signings like John Lackey and A.J. Burnett much longer.

Do I really need to write about the Orioles? Dan Duquette is back and the cartoon bird on the hat returns. The pitching is still a mess and formerly highly touted prospects Adam Jones, Matt Weiters and Nick Markakis have proven to be just below star level. For good teams, having 3 near-star players at key positions is huge. For a team that has missed the playoffs every years since 1997, you need probably two of those to actually be stars.

Player to Watch over 35

Mariano Rivera, RP, Yankees, 42 years old

Predicting the Yankees first AND giving them the player to watch over 35??? Ya, well the first one is inevitable and the second one is kinda forced by the fact that they have 6 guys on the team over 35. Plus, as Red Sox fans it is easy to not fully appreciate the brilliance of Mo. Here are some numbers on Rivera:

  • In his 15 years as a full time closer, he has AVERAGED 40 saves per season. Over that same time only 4 closers have averaged 40 saves per season over just 5 years: Trevor Hoffman, Francisco Rodriguez, Joe Nathan, and Robb Nen.
  • Since 2006, when he turned 36, Mo has given up 60 walks total, or 10 per season.
  • In 2008, at age 38, Mo posted a 12.35 strike out to walk ratio in 70 2/3 innings. This is the second best mark in baseball history for any pitcher with at least 70 innings. Dennis Eckersley blows him out of the water at an unthinkable 18.25 ratio, but still. Pretty damn impressive for the old man.
  • His lowest single season ERA was 3.15 in 2007. He still posted a 6.17 strike out to walk ratio, good for 46th best all time for pitchers with at least 70 innings.
  • In his 16 seasons as a full time reliever, he has just 5 seasons with an ERA above 2.00, and only the one above 3.00. Let that one sink in for a second. Jon (he no longer receives the "athan" from me) Papelbon has had 4 out of 7 seasons above 2.00.
  • Has the most top ten Cy Young finishes of any reliever (though no wins) since 1970 with 6. Dan Quisenberry, Goose Gossage, Mike Marshall and Bruce Sutter are second with 5 (Eck has 6 but 2 came as a starter).
  • The playoff stats have been beaten to death, and if my prediction comes true you are bound to hear them again this year. So until then, marvel in this man's brilliance even if you (like me) hate his friggin guts.
Jose Molina, C, Rays

Admittedly, among the 4 contenders in this division there are not a lot of starters that make you say, "him?" (Arrested Development reference for those in the know). Ya, the Red Sox shortstop options aren't great and the back of the rotation is suspect, but we went over the reasons for the 4th and 5th starters and I don't expect the shortstops to be a big downgrade over last year. Encarnacion and Johnson are candidates from the Jays, but both have upside in their games. The Yankees probably shouldn't be playing Jeter at short or Raul Ibanez at DH, but I don't see either as major atrocities. To me, the biggest "him?" of the 4 contenders has to be Rays' off-season pickup Jose Molina, he of the flying Molina brothers. At 37 years old, this will be his first season as a full-time starter. He is coming off his best season at age 36 in which he posted an OPS of .757, his only season above .681 in his career. His season high in home runs is 6; in walks is 15. The main reason, as far as I can tell, why Molina was brought in is a new dive into catcher's defensive statistics. The study, which is long over-due, done by Max Marchi of Baseball Prospectus looks at blocking pitches, controlling the running game, fielding balls and framing pitches (it's numbers heavy, but really interesting). In this, Molina is merely average at fielding and blocking pitches, but when you look at the running game and framing pitches he is way above average even in limited playing time. From these skills, he adds about 1 and a half to 2 wins to his team each year. With full playing time, the thought is that he might increase this. My thought is that with full playing time these stats will regress towards the mean and with his way below average bat, I don't see how this Molina is a positive for this team. With 6 teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Jays, Rangers, Angels) fighting for 3 playoff spots, every win will count. The Rays are clearly trying to exploit what might be an undervalued skill, but I think they are getting a little too cute this time by overlooking a properly valued skill, hitting.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

2012 NL West Preview

Is this the poster for the new Judd Apatow flick?

1) Arizona Diamondbacks
2) San Diego Padres
3) Los Angeles Dodgers
4) San Francisco Giants
5) Colorado Rockies

Looking Back
I don't know what the hell to make of these teams. Last year I predicted the Dodgers to finish first (they finished third) and the Diamondbacks to finish last (they finished first). I didn't accurately predict where a single team would finish in this division. Having said that, I predicted this division as well as any other divisions in baseball. Huh? Well I may not have predicted their final record accurately, but what I said about each team was almost dead accurate, with the exception of missing on how good Arizona's rotation would look. I predicted returns to stardom for Matt Kemp and Justin Upton (2nd and 4th in the MVP ballot, respectively). I tabbed Clayton Kershaw as my player under 25 to watch and he won the Cy Young. I predicted that Aubrey Huff and Andres Torres had fluke seasons the year before and because of that they and Miguel Tejada would submarine the Giants' playoff chances despite the second best rotation in the league. I even predicted Cameron Maybin's break out and Willie Bloomquist landing and failing in the lead off spot. Even with almost everything going exactly as I said (save for the D-Backs not pitching and Ubaldo Jimenez having a great year again), I utterly failed in predicting this division. I fear I will make the same mistake this year...

Looking Ahead
Honestly, I feel more uncertain about picking this division than Joe Black would before a surgery to remove his third ball. I like the D-Backs offense to do about what they did last year. I don't see why Upton can't improve on his season and they still have solid hitters in Stephen Drew, Miguel Montero, Chris Young and Paul Goldschmidt. It is anyone's guess what journeyman Ryan Roberts will do following his surprising year, but they added Jason Kubel to give the offense a slight boost. What I don't quite get is why the team would not focus more on their defense to back up a pitching staff that, besides Ian Kennedy, does not strike out a lot of batters. Gerrardo Parra was a third center fielder for this team, but he will now be on the bench behind the lead-footed Kubel. Goldschmidt and Roberts aren't exactly Keith Hernandez and Brooks Robinson either. Add in the fact that the team out performed their run differential by six wins, and I don't feel good about this pick at all. But they did win their division by 8 games and I expect the second place team from last year to be worse.

SLEEPER ALERT!!! SLEEPER ALERT!!! If you want a team that could surprise this year it is the San Diego Padres (not the Nationals, Marlins, Royals or Blue Jays). Some facts in their favor:

  • 2 seasons ago they won 90 games
  • Last season they under performed their run differential by 8 wins
  • Added Carlos Quentin and Yonder Alonso at positions that performed terribly for most of last year
  • While they lost their best pitcher Mat Latos, their ball park should make some mediocre pitchers look pretty good in his stead including the volatile Edinson Volquez and 27 year old Corey Luebke
  • None of the other teams in this division look to be all that good
So that's my best bet for a sleeper this year. I could see them win this division actually. Or they could be horrible. God I hate this division.

The Dodgers get the 3rd spot simply because they have the best hitter and best pitcher and were a little better than you probably realized last year. It took them time to shake off the negativity of the McCourts, but  Kemp and Kershaw kept them respectable throughout the year. Since the Dodgers didn't make the playoffs, Kemp was denied the MVP award, but I don't think people realize how great his season was. In addition to 39 homers and 40 steals, he played very good defense and got on base. According to Baseball-Reference, he had the 46th best season of any player under 30 by Wins Above Replacement. Unfortunately the rest of his teammates aren't very good so sports writers didn't think he was as valuable as the guy who played with Prince Fielder, Yovani Gallardo, Shaun Marcum, Zack Greinke and John Axford. If anything, the Dodgers added downgrades in a lot of spots so 3rd is as high as I think they will finish this year. And still, Frank McCourt.

What the hell are the Giants doing? Are they just cool with the 1 World Series? That was enough for Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain and now Madison Bumgarner? They have 3 of the best pitchers in the National League, none of whom is older than 28 and their big offensive addition this year is Melkey Fucking Cabrera? This team had the worst offense in the National League and they added a mediocre outfielder coming off what was by far his best season? Why would Cain want to stay beyond this season? Why is Brian Sabean still employed? Why am I getting so fired up about the Giants?

You could seriously flip my predictions over and have that be how this division turns out this year. The Rockies could field a strong offense led by Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez. But I think their pitching will really struggle this year. I was ready to make this team my division winner until I looked at the depth chart. Jeremy Guthrie in Coors Field? They may have to keep the balls in a pool before the game instead of a humidor to keep them in the park. And he is their number 2 pitcher. Besides Tulo, Marco Scutaro is the second youngest at 36. Casey Blake and Todd Helton are both 38. They added Michael Cuddyer to the outfield, but I find him to be one of the more overrated players in the game because people give him too much credit for his intangibles. The one saving grace could be rookie pitchers Alex White and Drew Pomeranz busting out in spring training, earning rotation spots and carrying the rotation through the year. But if you think it's safe to rely on not one but two rookie pitchers then I've got a bridge I want to sell you. Or something like that.

Player to Watch Over 35

Todd Helton, 1B, Rockies, 38 years old

Helton is going to make for a very interesting Hall of Fame case. His career was very obviously helped by Coors Field (1.071 OPS at home, .869 OPS on the road), but at some point we have to give some credit where it is due. A 1.071 OPS over 15 seasons is still an amazing feat. His power dropped pretty dramatically after the implementation of the Coors Field Humidor (49 HR in 2001, 30 in 2002), but he has still posted a .939 OPS in the 10 seasons since then mostly thanks to a ridiculous .424 OBP over that time. He has always been a good defender, albeit at first base. Some of his top comparables include Hall of Famers Johnny Mize and Orlando Cepeda, but they also include borderline candidates Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez and Will Clark (also Jeff Bagwell, who is technically borderline but only because sports writers are very ignorant). In career Wins Above Replacement he is surrounded by other borderline guys like Keith Hernandez, Buddy Bell, Dick Allen and Graig Nettles. The best comparable to me is Walker, just because he shares the Scarlet C (for Coors Field) with Helton and is not gaining much traction despite strong evidence that he was great outside of Coors as well. Helton has two more years on his deal and though he does not play full time anymore he posted a decent season last year. Two more of those and maybe they will be enough to change the BBWAA's mind...but I doubt it. "Thinking outside the box" is not a requirement for entry into that little club.


Aubrey Huff, 1B, Giants and Brandon Crawford, SS, Giants

That anger over the Giants has not subsided yet. Imagine if I had a reason to be angry with my favorite team? I do? Oh shit. Anyway, the team had the worst offense in the NL last year and had two spots where they could make huge upgrades. Huff had a good not great year in the Giants' World Series year so they gave him a 2 year deal. He responded by posting a .306 OBP in the middle of their lineup. Brandon Crawford took over for Zombie Tejada and put up a .288 OBP. But, um, he's young so I guess that's nice. Now I shouldn't get so mad with the team because the Free Agent market was weak in first basemen and short stops and they don't have any internal options. Wait, what? That's right, the strength of this market was first basemen and short stops AND they have an internal replacement in Brandon Belt at first. I understand not going after Pujols or Fielder because they had Belt in the wings. But how could this team not sign Jose Reyes, Jimmy Rollins or Rafael Furcal? Yes they all come with risks, but good god. A .288 OBP in an already shitty lineup? I I am Matt Cain next year, how can I not sign with the Red Sox or another team with even a mediocre offense? It's like they got so mad at the Bonds/Kent era that they hate offense now. If these two are the starters for the majority of the season, the Giants have no shot at the playoffs.

2012 NL Central Preview

1) Cincinnati Reds
2) St. Louis Cardinals
3) Milwaukee Brewers
4) Pittsburgh Pirates
5) Chicago Cubs
1,535,704,345) Houston Astros

Looking Back
This was my worst division winner prediction. Last year, the Cubs were my "bold prediction". This year I will have none of those. I thought a rotation led by Matt Garza would be the best in the division (barely edging out the Astros; I must have been drunk). I thought the offense would be underrated. Truthfully, I look back and can't understand what I was thinking. I seriously discounted the top 3 pitchers on the Brewers and the advantage having two MVP candidates (Braun and Fielder) in your lineup provides. I had no idea Lance Berkman was still Lance Berkman or that the Braves would defend their rightful playoff birth like the French in WWII, but that's no excuse for choosing the team with the best player in baseball to finish 4th. I will try to do better this year.

Looking Ahead
I am rolling these previews out based on how exciting I think each division will be. The only reason I don't think this division will be as exciting as others is because of it's lack of star power. Gone are Fielder and Pujols. Ryan Braun will probably be suspended for the first 50 games. Lance Berkman should go back to being Fat Elvis. The Pirates have Andrew McCutcheon, but how many of you really know much about Andrew McCutcheon. And I challenge you to name one player on the Astros besides Carlos Lee (and I bet most of you would not have even got that one). However, I do think there will be a great race at the top.

The Reds did the most to upgrade their team this year simply by not losing any MVP candidates. Instead, they added a potential number 1 pitcher that could be as good as any pitcher in the division. Mat Latos is coming over from the San Diego Padres so you may expect he may see some struggles going from the best pitchers park to one of the worst, but he's allowed a .635 OPS at home and a .637 OPS on the road. They also have the new king of the NL Central, Joey Votto, coming off a season that was almost as good as his MVP season. Jay Bruce may never be the superstar that I expected, but he should make a few All Star teams and serve as a great Jazzy Jeff to Votto's Fresh Prince. Their already deep bullpen is now deeper with the addition of lefty setup man Sean Marshall and new closer Ryan Madson. They have the feel of last year's Brewers to me, some good top end talent and enough depth to take the division. In addition, a great way to pick a team on the rise is to look at how the team performed relative to their run differential (runs scored vs. runs allowed). The Reds under performed their expected record by four wins. With the addition of three players that could add about 6-8 wins, this team could improve by double digit wins next year.

The Reds will face serious competition from the defending champion Cardinals (I'm actually dubious about this team without Pujols, but I've been burned too much by this team in the past so I'm going to pretend this is what I think). They may have lost the second best player in team history (Stan the Man had a longer career), but they may have done enough to cover up that loss. Adam Wainwright will return from Tommy John surgery and has the ability to win the Cy Young this year if he is healthy. That alone is enough to make up Pujols' production last year. The team also added Carlos Beltran who had a nice bounce back last year after struggling with injuries the previous few years. They will get a full season out of Rafael Furcal that could solve their leadoff issues and they should see improvements from Allen Craig, John Jay and playoff hero David Freese. Ultimately I think they will fall just short of the Reds because I don't think Berkman can do what he did last year and there are more injury risks on this team than any other from the old guys (Carpenter, Berkman, Holliday, Beltran, Furcal) to the young guys (Freese, Wainwright, Craig).

The Brewers will not repeat as division champs if Ryan Braun is suspended. The Brewers may even fall behind the Pirates if Ryan Braun is suspended. The team did a good job preparing for Life After Fielder with the addition of Aramis Ramirez. They still have a great front 3 in their rotation and a closer, Jon Axford, who was among the best in baseball last year. But if Ryan Braun misses the first 50 games, this team will fall too far behind the Reds, Cardinals and possibly the Pirates. Also, as the Reds under performed their expected record, the Brewers OUT performed theirs by 6 runs, which shows their talent levels were not all that different last year. Of course, one of the best ways to out perform your record is with great end of the game pitchers like the Brewers had in Axford and Francisco Rodriguez. Relief pitching is so unpredictable though when you aren't named "Mariano Rivera" that it would be foolish to predict how these two will pitch this year.

Rather than talk about the Pirates, who I think are headed for their 19th straight sub-.500 season though they will be a pesky team, I want to talk about their young star, Andrew McCutcheon. McCutcheon is a 24-year-old centerfielder who plays excellent defense, runs the bases, gets on base and hits with power. He made his first All-Star game last year on the back of a nearly .900 OPS in the first half of the season. In his 3 season career, he has posted OBPs of .365, .365 and .364. This guy should be a huge star. I was going to say that if he were playing in a big market like Boston or New York he would be. But seeing as how Reggie Smith and Ellis Burks, excellent centerfielders for the Red Sox who never got the attention they deserved, are his top comparable players, it makes a little more sense. For some reason, and I hope it's not race, this particular skill set is undervalued by the general public.

The Cubs stole Theo Epstein from us and until they pay us back I refuse to talk about them.

The Astros have the potential to put the least talented team on the field in the history of baseball. Bud Norris is the only player on this roster who could be a part of a contending Astros team years and years from now. A shitty owner that hired a shitty general manager have doomed this franchise. Luckily for the good folks of Houston, those two are gone and have been replaced by forward thinking management. This, combined with the first overall pick this year and most likely the first overall pick next year, should speed up their rebuild.

Player to Watch Over 35

Chris Carpenter, RHP, Cardinals, 37 years old

Carpenter has had a really strange career. He was a completely average pitcher his first 6 seasons with the Blue Jays (his ERA+ was 99, which means his ERA over that time was almost exactly league average). He didn't strike out many guys; he walked a few too many guys; he gave up far too many home runs. Then he was released by Toronto, picked up by St. Louis and lost a full season to Tommy John surgery. When he returned and hooked himself up to the Dave Duncan Rejuvenation 5000 he was a completely different pitcher. His strikeouts improved by over 1 per nine innings; his walks dropped by 1.5 per nine innings; his homers remained highish, but with few free passes he could survive a few solo shots. Then he had 2 seasons that placed him in the conversation for best player in baseball (including 1 Cy Young Award) before going down with another elbow injury and missing almost 2 full years. When he returned he was again one of the best pitchers in the league 3 years running. Which brings us to now, where I have reservations on whether he will remain successful. In the last ten years there have been just 7 pitchers aged 37 with ERAs more than 10% better than average, or less than 1 per year. While these are some VERY arbitrary cutoffs (why 10%? why exactly 37? why the last ten years? I don't know, this post is getting long, stop questioning my methods), I think it shows just how rare it is for a 37 year old pitcher to have an elite season. That group includes Curt Schilling's magical 2004, Pedro Martinez's last good season for the Mets and Randy Johnson's Cy Young season in 2001. Carpenter is better than some of the other players on that list (Rick Reed and Kenny Rogers) but there are also a lot of pitchers that had better careers than Carpenter that did not make it to this list (Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens pre-steroids). This makes him my player to watch over 35.


Bronson Arroyo, RHP, Reds

Your acoustic guitar isn't going to save you this season Bronson. After a completely disastrous 199 inning season last year, Arroyo should be on a shorter leash than the one around my friend Joe Black's three balls. Arroyo allowed 46 home runs for a rate of 2.1 HR per 9 innings. The rate was the 9th worst of ALL TIME (you may be surprised to learn that 7 out of the bottom 10 seasons happened after 2000). The total? 3rd worst ever. Only Bert Blyleven with 50 (in 72.2 more innings than Arroyo) and Jose Lima with 48 (who, you know, is Jose Lima) allowed more. In a season where the division could be decided by 1 or 2 games, Arroyo cannot be allowed to pitch if his gopheritis returns. I would argue he should not be allowed in the rotation (there are 5 better Reds starters I believe) barring injury. Of course, with Dusty Baker at the helm, anything is possible. If I didn't have such strict personal rules on my "Y-Factor" I would make Dusty my guy. I mentioned before that strong bullpens help teams out perform there run differentials. One of the factors in teams under performing their run differentials is a bad manager. So the Reds under performing last year was probably luck, but it could also be the man with the toothpick, who, sadly, will be in line to capture manager of the year if the Reds win the division this year.