Author Archive

The Real Problem With The Detroit Bullpen

For the fourth consecutive season, the Detroit Tigers are AL Central champions, but this time around, it wasn’t exactly smooth sailing toward another title. Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera have had down years, at least compared to their previous greatness. Injuries suffered by Jose IglesiasAnibal Sanchez and Alex Avila, along with the trade of Austin Jackson, have tested the team’s depth. The defense hasn’t been a strength, particularly at third base (Nick Castellanos) and right field (Torii Hunter). And shortstop has been a trouble spot all season.

Despite all that, they managed to hold off the Royals by a single game, thanks in large part to the continued excellence from Max Scherzer, surprisingly great years from Rick PorcelloJ.D. Martinez and Victor Martinez, and the acquisition of David Price. But as the Tigers prepare to travel to Baltimore to meet the Orioles in the ALDS on Thursday, one big question hangs over them: When will first-year manager Brad Ausmus‘ seemingly questionable bullpen decisions cost Detroit a playoff game?

That’s an issue that has taken on a life of its own over the past few weeks, as Ausmus has stuck with his season-long plan of Joba Chamberlain in the eighth inning and Joe Nathan in the ninth, despite the consistent struggles of the 39-year-old Nathan and the presence of July trade acquisition Joakim Soria, who was a star closer in Kansas City before undergoing Tommy John surgery. Soria was in the midst of a rebound season with the Rangers when he was traded, and he has appeared in 13 games for the Tigers. Only one of those appearances was a save situation, and even that was just because Nathan was unavailable, having thrown 42 pitches in the previous two days.

Ausmus’ strategies are easy to question. But what never seems to come up is this: The Tigers’ bullpen has generally been awful no matter what Ausmus has done. Maybe the issue is less with the managers’ deployment of the relievers and more with the simple performance of the players in uniform? Read the rest of this entry »

Does Home Field Matter In The Playoffs?

For the teams that have already clinched playoff spots, what’s the most important thing they can do in the last few days of the regular season? Get rested and healthy, sure. Try to line up their pitching rotations if they can, definitely. If they’ve already punched their tickets to the playoffs, then they’ve earned the right to manage their teams with more than the final meaningless regular-season games in mind.

But what about getting home-field advantage? Shouldn’t a team that knows it’s headed to October do everything it can to play as many games at home as possible, in front of its screaming fans, without having to fly, potentially across the country? Getting the best record in the league not only ensures you face the wild-card team, but it gets you home-field advantage throughout the league playoffs. Getting the second-best record at least gets you the advantage over the third-best division winner in the Division Series, plus a chance to play at home in the Championship Series if the wild card pulls a first-round upset.

Objectively, that makes sense, and every team wants it. But is it really worth keeping the pedal to the metal after a playoff spot has been clinched? The numbers say, maybe not that much. Read the rest of this entry »

The Underrated Chris Sale

Chris Sale has absolutely no chance of winning the American League Cy Young Award, and that’s no knock on him. It’s simply an acknowledgement that Felix HernandezJon Lester andCorey Kluber have also been outstanding this year, and they’ll throw about 50 more innings than Sale, considering he missed more than a month early in the season because of a sore left elbow.

Toss in pitchers such as Max ScherzerDavid PriceJames Shields — clearly, there’s no shortage of excellent AL starters these days, even with Yu Darvish and Masahiro Tanaka injured — and Sale might not even finish in the top five. But that is no excuse to allow his sensational season to go under the radar.

Sale isn’t just having a season that easily ranks him among the best pitchers in the league. Even including Wednesday’s rough outing, which finally pushed his ERA over 2.00, he’s having a season that’s nearly as dominant as the unquestioned best pitcher in baseball, the man who very well might win the NL’s MVP award as well as its Cy Young. Chris Sale isn’t doing everything that Clayton Kershaw is doing, but Sale has at least been in the ballpark.

Sale and Kershaw, both lefties, were born almost exactly one year apart — Sale is a year younger — and if you were to compare some of their more important stats, the similarities are a lot closer than you might realize. Read the rest of this entry »

Oakland’s Team Effort Collapse

The Oakland Athletics, universally lauded back in July after making a pair of trades that netted them Jon LesterJeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, are in the midst of one of the biggest late-season collapses in recent history. At one point up by six games in the AL West, the A’s are now down by 10 games to the surging Los Angeles Angels, and after having lost 21 of their past 30 games, they’re suddenly in danger of not even earning a wild-card spot.

What happened here, and why? Well, there are plenty of reasons for the collapse, and we’ll detail them in a second. But were you to ask the general population or certain members of the local media, you’d likely hear that the loss of Yoenis Cespedes, who was traded to Boston for Lester and Jonny Gomes, from the lineup (and outfield) is the main reason, and it’s easy to see why. In the 39 games since the trade, they’ve scored four or more runs just 14 times, 35.9 percent of the time. In the previous 107 games, they did so 67 times, 62.6 percent of the time. That’s an enormous downturn, and since the removal of Cespedes was the major change, it has understandably been the focal point when trying to understand Oakland’s disintegration.

That’s overly simplistic, though, because it’s about so much more than Cespedes. Here’s how the A’s have managed to go from a World Series favorite to a playoff uncertainty. Read the rest of this entry »

Instant Replay Is Worth Having

Braves president John Schuerholz, a member of the instant-replay approval committee, indicated in January that the first year of expanded replay would be a “work in progress,” that this year would be merely “a start” in a three-phase process. His words ring true today, nearly one full season into the experiment. Make no mistake: Replay hasn’t been perfect. The review process often takes too long. Some of the rules haven’t always been clear. And the logistics of actually initiating a replay are clunky and badly in need of a change.

Between those valid issues, a few high-profile mistakes and some pushback from a vocal minority, you might think replay has been more failure than success. But as you slowly walk out to the umpire, wait for your bench coach to give you a thumbs-up to challenge and then have the MLBAM operations center in New York review that opinion, the indisputable result comes back: Replay has been a massive success, and was long overdue. Sure, there are kinks to be worked out, it’s not going away anytime soon, nor should it. Read the rest of this entry »

Why Young Prospect Bats Struggle Early

Early in the 2014 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates were getting criticized from all angles over their treatment of prospect Gregory Polanco. The 22-year-old outfielder carried a .400 average into May for Triple-A Indianapolis, while Travis Snider (82 wRC+ over the first two months) and Jose Tabata (84) struggled in right field for a Pirates club that at one point sank to 9.5 games out in the NL Central.

While Pirates general manager Neal Huntington indicated that he felt Polanco needed more time in Triple-A, the team was accused of being cheap — for reasonably wanting to ensure that they delayed Polanco’s free agency by a year — or overly conservative, watching the division slip away a year after making the playoffs for the first time in two decades. When Polanco finally came up in June and promptly set a Pirates rookie record by collecting at least one hit in each of his first 11 games, it seemed as though perhaps the dissenters had a point.

On Monday, Polanco was optioned back to Triple-A. He’d struggled so badly after his hot start that his wRC+ now sits at 88, 12 percent below league average and barely better than what Snider and Tabata had done. It’s a valuable lesson: No matter what the minor league stat line says, hotshot-prospect hitters often struggle in their first extended look in the majors. So why is that? Read the rest of this entry »

Washington’s Path To The World Series

Even before the Washington Nationals ripped off 10 wins in a row and counting, they were extremely well-positioned to win the NL East, if only due to the lack of competition. The Mets, Phillies and Marlins aren’t serious contenders this season, and the Braves have played losing baseball (50-54) for months since getting off to a 17-7 start. Before their winning streak started, FanGraphs had the Nationals’ odds of winning the division at 92.4 percent. Now it’s 98.2 percent. Barring a calamitous collapse, this race is over.

Of course, the Nationals don’t have their goals set simply on a division title. After bowing out in the first round of the 2012 playoffs and missing October entirely in 2013, their mandate is to win the World Series — and it might be the best-positioned National League team to get there. Here’s why. Read the rest of this entry »

The Wild, Messy NL MVP Race

By just about any measure you care to use, Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has been the best player in the National League this year. Before he dropped off the leaderboards earlier this week, he was leading the league in batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. You can say “yeah, but Coors Field …” because those stats are not park-adjusted, but wRC+ is, and his 173 mark was still the best. Add in some very good defense at an important position, and Tulowitzki was worth every bit of the league-leading 5.1 WAR that FanGraphs has him down for.

You’d think that such credentials would make him an easy MVP leader, but it isn’t going to happen. Even if a disappointingly high percentage of voters didn’t still cling to the outdated notion that MVPs can come only from winning teams — the Rockies are, of course, awful again this year — the recent news of Tulowitzki’s season-ending hip surgery essentially ends his candidacy.

Now our attention turns to the other MVP options in the NL, and you realize … wow, what a mess. Five of last year’s top eight NL vote-getters are either on the disabled list right now or have spent considerable time there this year. Between the fact that there are 11 non-Tulo players who already are worth more than 4.0 WAR, and the fact that almost all of them have some sort of perceived issue that can easily be pointed to, the 2014 NL MVP race may end up being the most debated — and fractured — we’ve seen in years, especially when compared to the AL, which has a pretty clear-cut favorite in Mike Trout.

With about six weeks left before votes are due, who will pull away? Can anyone? Let’s have a look: Read the rest of this entry »

The Curse Of The Unnecessary Contract Extension

When the Phillies gave first baseman Ryan Howard a five-year extension worth $125 million in April 2010, the deal was roundly ridiculed throughout baseball. Howard was a one-tool player, and older than most people realized — thanks to the presence of Jim Thome in Philly, his first stint as a full-time major leaguer came at 26. By the time GM Ruben Amaro Jr. gave him that suspect extension, Howard was already 30 years old.

Making matters worse, the deal didn’t even start immediately; instead, it was tacked on to the end of his contract. Starting in 2012, or almost two full seasons after it was signed, Howard’s new contract would run through the 2016 season, just shy of his 37th birthday.

If two seasons doesn’t seem like that long, think about what Major League Baseball looked like exactly two years ago. At this time in 2012, David Wright was coming off a monster first half, and Chase Headley was in the midst of a monster stretch run; both third basemen were arguably among the top five players in the game. Over in the American League, Derek Jeter was on his way to leading the majors in hits. Justin Verlander was a year removed from being the league MVP and Cy Young winner. Nobody had ever heard of Yasiel Puig. The Houston Astros were still in the National League.

In baseball, a lot can change in a short period of time.

Read the rest of this entry »

Four Young Pitchers Showing They Belong

Not all great pitchers are picked at the top of the draft, like Clayton Kershaw or David Price, or imported expensively from overseas, like Masahiro Tanaka or Yu Darvish. As we all know, young, quality arms often sneak up on us, emerging from under the radar to provide an unexpected boost.

For these four young pitchers, there’s hope that what they’ve shown in 2014 is just the start of things to come — that soon, despite fairly modest pedigrees, they could prove to be an irreplaceable part of a big league roster for years to come. Read the rest of this entry »

Royals Most Likely To Make A Mistake

As we enter the final week before the July 31 trade deadline, it’s a fun diversion to try to figure out who ought to be “sellers” and who ought to be “buyers.” But in the world of two wild cards per league, that’s not as easy a distinction as it used to be. These days, some teams wind up not really belonging in either category.

Still, we can look at the current FanGraphs playoff odds and split baseball pretty evenly in half to get a good idea of who should be doing what.

Fifteen teams have at least a 25 percent chance of making it to the playoffs, or in the case of theNew York Yankees, are within one game of a playoff spot. Everyone else is looking at odds that are less than 15 percent, and while mathematically generated odds don’t automatically rule out a late run, a low probability isn’t exactly a reason to dive into the trade market looking for help.

Most of those bottom-feeding clubs have no uncertainty about where they are, of course. Teams like the San Diego Padres, Chicago Cubs and Texas Rangers have known for a while now that 2014 won’t be their year. Others, such as the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets and Minnesota Twins have begrudgingly accepted that they won’t be playing in October. These teams might not outright be sellers, but they aren’t going to give up the future for this year, either. That is, except for one team, a team that looks increasingly unlikely to make a run but seems hell-bent on making the wrong decision anyway: the Kansas City Royals. Read the rest of this entry »

How Garrett Richards Became A Star

It’s pretty easy to argue the Oakland Athletics are the best team in baseball, and maybe they are. After all, they do have the most wins, the best run differential and a rotation recently reinforced by Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. They could be headed for their third consecutive AL West title.

But don’t count out those Los Angeles Angels, who quietly won 10 of 11 games heading into the break. They find themselves just a game and a half behind the A’s and are no doubt thinking about earning more than just a wild-card spot.

So how did the Angels get to this position after finishing 18 games out the past season? Well,Mike Trout has solidified his position as the no-doubt best player in the game, but he was this great in 2012 and 2013 too, and it didn’t get the Angels to October. Rebounds by Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton from disappointing 2013 seasons have helped of course, as has cutting out dozens of lousy starts from the 2013 group of Tommy HansonJoe Blanton and Jerome Williams.

But those improvements were countered somewhat by steps back and injury concerns from the veteran duo at the front of the rotation, Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Rather, the biggest reason the Angels are 20 games over .500 at this point because of the emergence of a 26-year-old who can rightfully be thought of as the staff’s ace: Garrett Richards. Read the rest of this entry »

What Happened to Cards’ Offense?

The St. Louis Cardinals stormed their way to the NL Central title (and then the World Series) last season, and the popular thinking was that it was largely on the strength of their talented young pitching, with Shelby MillerMichael Wacha and Trevor Rosenthal joining the consistently excellent veteran leader Adam Wainwright. To a certain extent, that was true, because only four teams allowed fewer runs than the Cardinals did, and despite injuries to Wacha, Joe Kelly and Jaime Garcia, the pitching has again been good in 2014. In fact, no starting rotation in baseball has allowed fewer runs.

Yet something isn’t quite the same. After winning the most games in the National League last year, the Cardinals have been stuck in second place in the NL Central behind the Milwaukee Brewers all season and sit on the precipice of the second wild-card spot. It’s not that being eight games over .500 is a problem, of course, but this year’s Cardinals team is not in the driver’s seat as it was last year.

And why aren’t they? Well, last year’s team scored the most runs in the National League, and the third-most in baseball. The 2014 version has outscored only the whiff-happy Atlanta Braves and the historically awful San Diego Padres, and they’ve hit fewer home runs than any team in the league. What caused this scoring outage, and more importantly, can it be fixed? Read the rest of this entry »

Will Contact Rate Keep George Springer Good Rather Than Great?

Let’s be resoundingly clear about one thing: George Springer has been everything the Houston Astros could have hoped for and more. His .240/.346/.469 slash line is good for a 127 wRC+, which means that he has been 27 percent more productive on offense than a league-average hitter. It puts him among the top-40 marks in the game, and he’s all but certain to smash Lance Berkman‘s team record for homers by a rookie (21 in 2000).

The Astros have rebounded from a wretched start to play close to .500 ball over the past two months, and Springer’s contribution is a huge reason why. In fact, only the performances of both Masahiro Tanaka and Jose Abreu will keep him from being the obvious AL Rookie of the Year award recipient this fall.

Given his plus speed — he stole 77 bases in the minors in 2012 and 2013 — and center-field-quality defense, Springer can provide considerable value in other ways than just at the plate. And yet it’s difficult to shake the feeling that because of all the incredible things he has done in his short time in the big leagues, we’re willfully turning a blind eye to the one thing he’s really, really bad at, which happens to be quite important: making contact with the baseball.

So the question must be asked: Will Springer’s contact issues ultimately make him merely a good player rather than a great one? Read the rest of this entry »

Anthony Rizzo, Superstar

At some point in the next few weeks, the Chicago Cubs are going to blow up what has surprisingly been a very good starting rotation (by at least one measure, the best), continuing the cycle of accepting present-day pain for potential future gain. Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel will likely head elsewhere via trade, to be replaced for now by the likes of Chris Rusin and Tsuyoshi Wada, and the pitching will suffer for it. Almost certainly, the season will end with the Cubs in fifth place in the NL Central for the sixth consecutive year.

If that sounds like it’s painting a bleak picture for Cubs fans, it shouldn’t. The Cubs are already seeing the fruits of last year’s deadline trades in the big leagues thanks to Jake ArrietaJustin GrimmMike Olt and Neil Ramirez, and potential Hammel/Samardzija trades should only bring in more talent. In the minors, third baseman Kris Bryant has done nothing but destroy baseballs, continuing to test the organization’s otherwise reasonable assertion that he won’t see the bigs until 2015.

That might not make another 90-loss trip to last place any easier to watch as fans continue to hear about “the future,” but this should: Right now, in 2014, the best first baseman in baseball might just be wearing Cubbie blue. Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t Sell The Farm For Samardzija

Another year, another Chicago Cubs starting pitcher on the trade market. As was the case with Ryan Dempster in 2012 and Matt Garza and Scott Feldman in 2013, the Cubs again have a desirable starter available to trade in Jeff Samardzija, who could very well be moved by the July 31 deadline.

Though the argument exists that the Cubs might be best served by signing Samardzija to an extension and having him around as their enviable collection of young hitting prospects arrives, it seems more likely they are looking to trade him to add more youth.

Samardzija is in the midst of the best season of his career, and he and David Price are the two best pitchers who are seemingly available this summer. That being the case, some team is going to pay dearly to obtain him — contenders in Oakland, Toronto, San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore and Anaheim — among others — could all use a rotation boost, and since Samardzija is controlled through 2015, the price will be even higher. Think about the bounty Chicago extracted from the Texas Rangers last season for two months of Garza — the one that Rangers GM Jon Daniels admitted already regretting earlier this year — and go up from there.

Then again, Samardzija isn’t the only pitcher likely to be available this summer, and the biggest purchase isn’t always the best one. In fact, there are a few other seemingly available National League pitchers who can put up similar production to Samardzija at a fraction of the cost. Read the rest of this entry »

Oakland’s Young & Unique Arms

On May 24, the Oakland Athletics gave the final inning of a 5-2 loss in Toronto to Jeff Francis, a 33-year-old veteran of 10 big league seasons who had been claimed off of waivers from the Cincinnati Reds six days earlier.

That lone inning was just one of thousands in a major league season, one that no one other than Francis himself likely remembers anything about. It’s less notable for the impact it had on the game than for what it says about the structure of the Athletics, the American League’s best team: It’s the only inning pitched all season by an Oakland pitcher beyond his age-31 season. (And, since 30-year-old Jim Johnson‘s June 27 birthday falls just before the traditional July 1 cutoff for what defines a player’s seasonal age, Francis is, for the moment, the only Oakland pitcher to have seen his 31st birthday.)

The A’s don’t have the youngest pitching staff in baseball — their average of 27.8 years is older than that of Miami, St. Louis and Atlanta, and is essentially even with those in Cleveland, Anaheim and Houston — but they do have one of the best. Oakland has the lowest ERA in the game and the seventh-best fielding independent pitching (FIP). And, as usual, the A’s are doing things their own way. Read the rest of this entry »

How To Fix The Red Sox Outfield

In 2012, absolutely nothing went right for an injury-riddled Boston Red Sox team, which lost 93 games and finished in last place in the AL East. In 2013, absolutely everything went right — rebound seasons, unexpected health — as they won their third World Series title in a decade. With most of the championship roster returning in 2014 (minus a key contributor or two), plus a full season from top prospect Xander Bogaerts and the exciting potential of a Grady Sizemorecomeback, the Red Sox seemed positioned to contend again.

Instead? Through 50 games, the 2014 squad was actually five games behind the pace of the 2012 disaster. Through Thursday, the Red Sox were in fourth place, eight games behind theToronto Blue Jays. Maybe this won’t be their year, but there’s no indication that the Red Sox are ready to pack it in, as evidenced by last week’s move to bring back Stephen Drew. Unlike what’s happening in Texas, this isn’t an injury-fueled disaster that can’t be overcome, and despite how impressive the Jays have been, the AL East looks to be as weak as it has been in years.

If the Red Sox can merely get some of their bats to bounce back to long-established career norms, and possibly figure out what’s ailing Clay Buchholz (easier said than done, of course), this is still a talented team that can contend.

Well, except for the outfield, which absolutely cannot go on as it is.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Twins And How Not To Assemble A Roster

Once again, major league baseball players are striking out at previously unseen levels, with 20.5 percent of plate appearances ending in a whiff, which would set a record for the ninth year in a row. And once again, the Minnesota Twins’ pitching staff is doing its best to go against that trend.

Twins pitchers currently sit in last place in strikeout percentage; their 14.9 percent whiff rate is a full 1.6 percent behind the No. 29 White Sox. (If you prefer K/9, their 5.85 rate is also in last place, well below the league average of 7.85.) Not that this is new. The Twins had the majors’ lowest strikeout percentage rates in 2011, ’12 and ’13 as well.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Twins’ cumulative pitching strikeout percentage dating to 2010 pulls up the rear by a considerable amount: Read the rest of this entry »

Key Weaknesses for Contenders

It’s the first week of May, and so that means it’s still early in the season, but maybe not quite as early as you think. No, none of the various starting pitchers with ERA marks south of 2.00 are going to keep that up all year long — well, maybe Jose Fernandez — but most teams have played about 18 percent of their schedules at this point.

It’s enough that it can’t be totally discarded, and where we can at least take an early look at contenders, identify some potential trouble spots and see if there’s anything they can — or should — do about fixing their early-season ailments.

Here’s a look at key weaknesses that have emerged for three contenders. Read the rest of this entry »