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.