Don’t Be the 2017 Royals

As we’re coming out of the All-Star break, and we are nearing the trade deadline, there are always those teams that are right there on the bubble.  And, it seems as though there are always a couple teams that miss their chance to capitalize on the opportunity to build for the future.  Teams like the 2017 Kansas City Royals who decided to hold on to several players that were headed to free agency, only to finish the season below .500, and 5 games out of the Wild Card race.  And, today, they have the worst record in the AL, and they don’t have a single prospect in the top 100.

Imagine what the Royals could have picked up in trade for the likes of Hosmer, Moustakas, Cain, etc.  But, because they thought they still had one last playoff run left in them, they missed out on their chance to begin building a team that could compete sooner rather than later.  And, the way I see it, there are two teams that are in danger of making the same mistake in 2018.  I would have included the Angels and Cardinals here, because they both probably need to admit they aren’t in legitimate playoff contention. But, they also don’t really have tradable pieces that would make a significant difference to a contender, with perhaps the lone exception of Ian Kinsler.  So, here are the two teams that – barring an incredible run in the next week – need to stop fooling themselves, and plan for the future.

San Francisco Giants

Yes, they currently have a winning record.  But, they’re in 4th place in the division, and are trailing by 4 games in the Wild Card with 5 teams ahead of them.  Meanwhile, they have some very appealing pieces that, if traded, could give this team a boost into the next year or two.

Andrew+McCutchen+San+Franciso+Giants+v+Los+GTZAcN0EeYplAndrew McCutchen plays a premium position, and currently has a .764 OPS in a very pitcher-friendly ballpark.  Nick Hundley would be a nice pick-up for a team needing some help at catcher.  Derek Holland hasn’t been lights out, but he could add depth to a contender’s bullpen.  All of these will be free agents at the end of this season.

If you really wanted to go into rebuild mode, and start planning for 2020, can you imagine the haul the Giants could get for Madison Bumgarner (who has one year left after this one before becoming a free agent)??  Relievers Will Smith and Tony Watson would also fetch a nice price on the trade market, and they will be free agents after 2019.  The Giants have a nice long-term core in Posey, Longoria, Cueto, Crawford, and Belt.  But, they also have a payroll over $190 million, and only one prospect in the top 100.  If now isn’t the time to start building momentum for the future, then I’m not sure when is.

Washington Nationals

The Nationals, more than any other team, are almost exactly where the Royals were a year ago.  They have several key pieces that will be free agents at the end of the year.  They have recent postseason experience.  And, they’re not technically out of the race this year.  But, let’s be realistic…

They’re 5.5 games behind the Phillies, who are likely going to make a trade to get even better before the trade deadline.  They’re 5 games out of the Wild Card, with half a dozen teams ahead of them.  And, since the end of May, they’ve gone 15-25.  This is not a team that is headed in the right direction.

But, take a look at the players that will be free agents at the end of this year:

  • Gio Gonzalez
  • Daniel Murphy
  • Ryan Madson
  • Shawn Kelley
  • Kelvin Herrera
  • Matt Adams
  • Jeremy Hellickson
  • And … hmmm … I keep thinking I’m forgetting someone … oh yeah … BRYCE HARPER!

19623203605_914875df50_kWith the exception of perhaps Madson and Murphy, every one of these names would be appealing to contending teams.  The Nats have a great young core in place with Trea Turner, Juan Soto, and Michael Taylor.  Plus, Victor Robles is on his way.  Add to that the prospects they could rake in by trading away these names … never mind “rebuild.”  The Nationals could be ready to compete again in 2019!

Well, that is, if they don’t make the same mistake as the 2017 Royals.

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3 Up 3 Down

As we’re heading into the final stretch of the season, there are some teams making a push for the playoffs, some teams sitting comfortably at the top of their division, and some teams starting to show some chinks in the armor. So, let’s take a look at three teams that are looking like they could make a legitimate postseason push (3 up), and 3 teams that may be primed for a late-season swoon (3 down).

3 UP

  • St. Louis Cardinals – this is a team that has underperformed in a pretty significant way. Despite the fact that they have outscored their opponents by more than 40 runs, they have only played to a 57-56 record. Their Pythagorean record is 62-51. So, what has happened? Well, they’re 5 games below .500 in 1-run games. They’re batting .262 with runners in scoring position (8th in the NL). So, with a little better luck, and some more timely hitting, this is a team that can capitalize on the fact that they have several games coming up against the Braves, Giants, Padres, and Reds.
  • Colorado Rockies – this might not seem like such a stretch to say that the Rockies are headed in the right direction. They’ve played to a .571 win pct. both before and after the break. And, it isn’t as if they have any chance of catching the red-hot Dodgers. But, consider this – they have already played most of the games they will play within their division. And, they have yet to play teams like the Marlins, Tigers, and Braves. Oh my.
  • Baltimore Orioles – at the time, I thought they made the worst trade-deadline decisions. A team that seemed clearly out of contention, and with players headed to free agency – they obviously should have been sellers, right? Well, don’t look now, but the offense in Baltimore has woken up. They’ve outscored their opponents by almost 30 runs since the break, and are now just 1.5 games out of the Wild Card. They’ll have plenty of opportunities to make up ground, too, as they will play several games against the teams right around them in the standings the rest of the way (like Tampa Bay, Seattle, and New York).

3 DOWN

  • Kansas City Royals – the Royals are 57-55. But, that record is a bit deceiving. Their Pythagorean win-loss record is 54-58, because they’ve actually allowed 21 more runs than they’ve scored thus far this season. And, while they went on a tear in June & July (33-19), they played an awful lot of games those months against the likes of the White Sox, Padres, Blue Jays, etc. They’re 2-6 thus far in August, and just lost their leader (Salvador Perez) for at least 10 days. I say they’re in position to have some mediocre days, and fall out of contention.
  • Seattle Mariners – yes, they’ve played to a 15-9 record since the All-Star break. But, they’ve managed to do that, in spite of actually being outscored by their opponents. They’re also an unsustainable 19-10 this season in 1-run games. So, it doesn’t seem likely that they will be able to sustain the run that has put them in a tie for the second Wild Card spot. They have middle-of-the-pack pitching, and rank 9th in the league in OPS. Not exactly the kind of stats that should make Mariner fans excited.
  • Milwaukee Brewers – the pitching that looked so good in the first half of the season (4th best team ERA in the NL), has begun to look more like what we should have expected (7th in the NL since the break), leading to a 9-15 record, and being outscored by 25 runs. But, even more telling is the fact that the Brewers racked up a ton of wins against some very bad competition in the first half: a 19-6 record against the Reds, Marlins, Mets, and Padres. They have series coming up against the Rockies, Dodgers, and Nationals, which is very likely going to push them out of serious contention.

2016 All-Star Ballot (part 1)

Every team in baseball has played more than 40 games, at this point.  And, you know what that means . . . we’re half way to the All-Star break!  So, I thought it was about time to discuss who is looking like an All-Star this year.  Emphasis on this year.  Unlike some voters, I don’t really care what a guy did last season, and whether or not he was “snubbed” from the Mid-Summer Classic a year ago.  How are you performing right now?  Are you putting up All-Star numbers?  If not . . . better luck next year.  Well, that, or you have about another month or so to get your act together if you want my vote(s).

Since it’s still early in the season, we won’t spend a ton of time discussing each position.  But, I do think it’s worth taking a look to see who is actually performing like an All-Star.  Because, there may very well be some surprises.  Keep in mind, the stats listed are all prior to last night’s games.

Catcher

AL – This is always one of the more difficult positions for me.  Trying to find the appropriate balance between offensive production, and defensive prowess is debated more behind the plate than anywhere else on the diamond.  At this point, though, in the American League, the decision is fairly easy:  Matt Wieters (BAL) – .283/.330/.455, 4 HR, 16 RBI.  There’s only one catcher in the AL with more than 100 PA’s that is legitimately out-performing Wieters offensively (McCann), and Wieters is lightyears ahead defensively.  On the flip side of that coin, there’s really only one catcher in the AL that is significantly better than Wieters behind the plate (Perez), and Wieters is head and shoulders ahead of him offensively, at this point.  So, for now, I believe Weiters is the best balanced candidate in the AL.

Others to watch:  Brian McCann (NYY), Jason Castro (HOU), Salvador Perez (KC)

NL – The catcher position in the National League is perhaps a little easier to decide:  Wilson Ramos (WSH).  Ramos is far and away the best offensive catcher in baseball, at this point.  His .347/.389/.525 slash line is especially impressive at a position that doesn’t really emphasize offense as much.  And, Ramos is middle of the pack defensively.  Depending on the metrics, there are about half a dozen catchers in the NL performing better than Ramos behind the plate.  But, only 2 of those are even having slightly above-average seasons offensively (Posey & Castillo).  For now, Ramos’ offense is so much better, that I think he deserves the vote.  But, if Posey heats up offensively, or if Molina or Lucroy make strides on defense to surpass Ramos, there could be a lot of fluctuation here.

Others to watch:  Buster Posey (SF), Yadier Molina (STL), Jonathan Lucroy (MIL)

 

First Base

AL – The choice here is easy:  Miguel Cabrera (DET).  Now, while I said it was an easy choice – that doesn’t mean it isn’t close.  Hosmer is just a notch behind Cabrera in pretty much every offensive category.  And, Cabrera even has him beat defensively at the moment.  Cabrera is quietly having another impressive season – .315/.388/.537, 9 HR, 26 RBI.

Others to watch:  Eric Hosmer (KC), Carlos Santana (CLE), Chris Davis (BAL)

NL – Another choice that was pretty easy, but still very close:  Anthony Rizzo (CHC) – .240/.379/.526, 11 HR, 34 RBI.  The bizarre thing about Rizzo’s stat line is that his OBP, and ultimately his OPS (which leads all NL first basemen), are both very high, in spite of the fact that his batting average is as low as it is.  But, that just further proves how obsolete of a stat batting average is becoming.  Rizzo is also one of the top fielding first basemen in the league.

Others to watch:  Brandon Belt (SF), Paul Goldschmidt (ARI), Chris Carter (MIL)

 

Second Base

AL – Wow.  There are some second basemen in both leagues that are having really impressive seasons, but likely won’t get close to starting in the All-Star game.  Mainly because there are two guys having unbelievable seasons.  In the AL, it’s Jose Altuve (HOU) – .328/.413/.582, 9 HR, 27 RBI, 15 SB.  If he keeps this up, he could be in the MVP discussion.  Well, if Houston doesn’t continue to tank, that is.

Others to watch:  Robinson Cano (SEA), Ian Kinsler (DET)

NL – Potential MVP candidate in the NL:  Daniel Murphy (WSH) – .387/.420/.607, 6 HR, 28 RBI.  He’s playing so well, I don’t think there’s more than one second basemen in the NL that has a shot at catching him before the break.

Other to watch:  Ben Zobrist (CHC)

 

Shortstop

AL – What a loaded position this is in the American League!  And, loaded with youth, which means we get to enjoy this for several years to come.  Right now, my vote goes to:  Xander Bogaerts (BOS) – .346/.397/.495, 4 HR, 25 RBI, 6 SB.  Bogaerts is also an excellent fielding shortstop.  His overall numbers are leading, but not necessarily overshadowing, others at this position.  So, there could be a decent amount of fluctuation between now and July.

Others to watch:  Francisco Lindor (CLE), Carlos Correa (HOU)

NL – While this is another position that often places an emphasis on defense, the two best offensive shortstops in the NL are so far ahead of everyone else, I’m going to ignore the fact that they are both a little below average with the glove.  Right now, my vote goes to a guy you’re going to have to write in:  Aledmys Diaz (STL) – .352/.386/.599, 6 HR, 23 RBI.  Taking the place of the injured Peralta, Diaz has played his way into the starting job, regardless of what happens to Peralta in my mind.  And, while Story had the hot start to the season, Diaz is batting almost 70 points higher, and his OPS is 40 points higher.  Plus, Story is striking out at an alarming 31.9%, while Diaz only 9.2%

Others to watch:  Trevor Story (COL), Zack Cozart (CIN), Corey Seager (LAD)

 

Third Base

AL – Two more no-brainers here.  In the American League, we’re looking at another potential MVP candidate:  Manny Machado (BAL) – .308/.367/.610, 12 HR, 26 RBI.  And, Machado is arguably one of the best gloves in the game – regardless of position.

Others to watch:  Nick Castellanos (DET), Travis Shaw (BOS), Josh Donaldson (TOR)

NL Nolan Arenado (COL) – .307/.383/.620, 14 HR, 34 RBI, and another excellent fielding third baseman.  Arenado isn’t as far ahead of the rest of the pack as Machado is, but it’s enough to say he’s the clear choice.  But, don’t be surprised if one or more of these others catch up with him.

Others to watch:  Kris Bryant (CHC), Matt Carpenter (STL)

 

Outfield

AL – It kinda makes me chuckle that no one is even talking about Trout, in spite of the season he’s having (.321/.411/.564, 10 HR, 31 RBI).  It’s almost like we just expect that from him now.  But, probably even more surprising was my third choice in the outfield: 1) Jackie Bradley, Jr. (BOS) – .342/.413/.618, 8 HR, 33 RBI; 2) Mike Trout (LAA), and . . . 3) Michael Saunders (TOR) – .322/.388/.570, 8 HR, 15 RBI.  Be honest – who saw that coming?  And yet, he is the clear choice, as everyone else is well behind him in overall offensive production.

Others to watch:  Mark Trumbo (BAL), Nelson Cruz (SEA), Jose Bautista (TOR)

NL – I don’t think there are any surprises here, other than perhaps the order: 1) Yoenis Cespedes (NYM) – .298/.381/.660, 14 HR, 35 RBI; 2) Dexter Fowler (CHC) – .316/.435/.533, 5 HR, 21 RBI, 6 SB; 3) Bryce Harper (WSH) – .260/.451/.565, 11 HR, 30 RBI, 7 SB.  Braun is neck-and-neck with Harper in overall offensive production, but lags way behind in defense, which is why Harper definitely gets the nod here.

Others to watch:  Ryan Braun (MIL), Christian Yelich (MIA), Stephen Piscotty (STL)

 

And, if you don’t know who to vote for at DH . . . you probably need to start reading a different blog.  Hahaha.  Let’s just say it’s your last chance to see him in the Mid-Summer Classic.  Happy voting!

Buy or Sell

One week down . . . 25 to go. With that much baseball left to play, you would think people would hold off on making too much of what has happened in just 5-7 games. But, as we often do, we get wrapped up in stories that get us excited early in the season. So, here are 3 trends I think we should “sell” (aka – don’t expect it to continue), and 3 we can “buy.”

SELL

1. The 5-1 Cincinnati Reds. Beating the Pirates 2 out of 3 is nice. But, it was at home, and neither win was dominant. And a sweep of the Phillies? Not exactly something to brag about, since the Phillies are probably the worst team in the NL. So, that 5-1 record is pretty deceptive. 

2. The 5-0 Orioles. The last remaining undefeated team. Sounds pretty good, right? Well… who exactly did they beat? The Twins and Rays. Two teams likely to finish at or near the bottom of their respective divisions. And, Baltimore’s offense wasn’t exactly on fire – 4.5 runs per game. When they face some good competition, we’ll have a better idea who Baltimore is. 

3. Trevor Story (COL). It’s a nice story (yeah, I said it), the way he has started the season. But, let’s be real, folks. Every game he has played thus far has been against a lot of mediocre pitching in the thin air of Coors Field. The guy had an .817 OPS in the minors. Don’t get me wrong – that’s not bad. But, this isn’t the next Tulowitzki. He’s going to come back down to earth, and I hope you weren’t foolish enough to trade for him in your fantasy league. 

BUY

1. The 4-1 Royals. So many “experts” were picking the Tigers or Indians or maybe even the White Sox to win this division. Here’s my question: what has changed? The Royals still have the best defense in baseball. They still have one of the top 2 or 3 bullpens. They still have an offense that puts the ball in play and pressures your defense and pitching. And, they still have starting pitchers that – while they may not be All-Stars – will pitch a lot of innings with a bend-don’t-break approach. It should surprise none of us if KC reaches a 3rd consecutive World Series. 

2. The Chicago Cubs offense. Through their first 6 games, they are averaging 7 runs per game – best in the NL. Obviously they won’t keep up that pace, especially this week in the cold air in Chicago. But, the additions of Heyward and Zobrist have helped round out an offense that got a little too homer-happy when it got to the NLCS. This now is an offense that is 2nd in the NL in OBP, leads the league in walks, and has some pop as well (6th in HR). 

3. The mediocrity that is the AL West. I was shocked to see a lot of folks picking one or more Wild Card teams to come out of the AL West before the season started. But, if you look at the division today, you’ll see what I expect we’ll see at season’s end. There’s only one team with a winning record right now – the 4-3 A’s. I’m not saying Oakland will win the division. Just that 84-86 wins is probably all you’ll need here. Every team has major holes that will be exploited by the better teams in the AL. Whether it’s offense (OAK – 3.28 runs/gm against so-so pitching; LAA – nothing beyond Trout), pitching (HOU – worst ERA in AL; TEX – very suspect beyond Hamels & eventually Darvish), or just plain mediocrity (SEA – middle of the pack in pretty much everything), this is not an exciting division. 

2016 Top 10 Left Fielders

Left field is an interesting position, to me.  Typically, it’s where a lot of guys get . . . well . . . stuck.  The guy that has a bat you want in your lineup – but, doesn’t get around very well, and doesn’t have the strongest or most accurate arm.  Those guys usually end up at either first base or left field.  So, if you have a quality bat in LF, and a quality defensive player, that’s just icing on the cake.  But, because the position is such an enigma – depending on why the guy’s playing the position in the first place – it’s difficult to pin down exactly how to designate the “best” left fielders.  Is it the best offensive players, even if they’re bad defensively?  Is it the rare ones who are also defensive assets – even if they don’t measure up offensively?  I believe I would lean toward the importance of offensive production, simply because of the lack of necessary defensive skills to play the position (it’s not like they’re playing SS).  Let’s take a look at MLB Network’s list:

  1. Michael Brantley (CLE)7476690220_bfa2c9cc61_z
  2. Starling Marte (PIT)
  3. Justin Upton (DET)
  4. Yoenis Cespedes (NYM)
  5. Alex Gordon (KC)
  6. David Peralta (ARI)
  7. Christian Yelich (MIA)
  8. Matt Holliday (STL)
  9. Corey Dickerson (TB)
  10. Brett Gardner (NYY)

Wow.  Just looking at that list should tell you how confusing this position is.  Peralta? Yellich? Dickerson?  Marte is #2??  And, when you look at the lists made by the analysts on the show, you’ll see that it gets even more convoluted, because they included the likes of Kyle Schwarber (CHC – a guy with all of 69 games at the big league level), Khris Davis (OAK), Melky Cabrera (CHW), Colby Rasmus (HOU), and Michael Conforto (NYM – even less experience than Schwarber).

As I began looking through the numbers, one of the most difficult parts was figuring out who would actually be playing LF this season.  Again, because so many end up there by default, it’s difficult to nail down.  So many who have stats there over the last couple years aren’t projected to be playing there this season.  And, many of them don’t even have starting jobs at this point.  I decided not to consider Schwarber or Conforto, because neither of them even have 70 games of experience at the major league level, and neither has played as many as 400 innings in left field.  So, while they do seem to have great potential (will both be in the top 10 next year, if they keep playing like they have), there just isn’t a large enough sample to consider.

This left me with 15 potential candidates for my top 10.  Melky Cabrera didn’t even make it onto my radar.  No idea why anyone would have him in their top 10.  Honorable mention for my list goes to Khris Davis, who has good offensive production, but when it came down to deciding on the bottom of my list, I was having to split hairs.  And, Davis is only average defensively, and he’s a bad baserunner (-2.9 BsR).  Nori Aoki (SF) was also in consideration, but ultimately wound up somewhere around 15th, because his only really productive area is OBP (.351 – 8th).  So, here are my top 10:

  1. Michael Brantley
  2. Yoenis Cespedes
  3. Justin Upton
  4. Alex Gordon
  5. Starling Marte
  6. David Peralta
  7. Matt Holliday
  8. Jayson Werth (WSH)
  9. Andre Ethier (LAD)
  10. Christian Yelich

So, you can see there’s a definite discrepancy between my list and MLB Network’s.  First of all, let’s consider the two guys I left off my list.  Corey Dickerson is a guy I can’t even consider for the top 10 until I see him play a full season away from Colorado.  His home/away splits are insane – nearly a 400-point difference in OPS!  And, he has only played a total of 265 games spread out over the last three seasons.  So, I don’t really care that he has the best SLG among left fielders over the last two seasons, when he hasn’t played as many as 70 games in two of the last three years.  Gardner was left off my list primarily because I give preference to offensive performance in LF.  And, of the 15 left fielders I considered, only Aoki had worse overall offensive production than Gardner.  Yes, Gardner is the best baserunner currently playing LF, and he’s still a top-10 defender. But, the others in consideration were well ahead of Gardner offensively, and didn’t lag far behind defensively (if at all).

20856226896_b6876507f2_zBrantley leads the way on my list, because in addition to having the best overall offensive production (145 wRC+), he’s also a top-5 baserunner, and an average defender.  Well, average for left fielders, that is.  I definitely leaned toward offense-first in my rankings.  That’s why Cespedes and Upton are next on my list.  Their offensive numbers were nearly identical, and Cespedes has slightly better defensive numbers.  Gordon and Marte were also difficult to determine.  Their OPS is identical, their wRC+ is separated by 2, they’re both in the top 10 in baserunning, and they’re both Gold Glove defenders.  It really came down to the fact that Gordon’s UZR of 31.8 (1st) far outshines Marte’s 9.4 (which is still good enough for 4th).

Holliday technically moved up on my list, but he’s ranked lower than some might expect.  Holliday is an on-base machine (.377 – 2nd only to Brantley), and he has good SLG (.432 – 11th).  And, even though he’s easily one of the worst baserunners in LF (-5.1 BsR), and is below average defensively, he might would rank higher, if it wasn’t for the “age factor.”  He’s going into his age 36 season, and has already been dealing with a number of injuries lately.  Yelich also slipped down my list a little, because of the emphasis on offense in LF.  He will compete for a Gold Glove one day, if he stays in LF.  But, his overall offensive production is middle of the pack, at best.  He has a nice OBP (.364 – 3rd best), but everything else is lagging behind the others.

My additions to the list that didn’t seem to be on anyone else’s radar are Werth and Ethier.  Yes, Werth is getting long in the tooth, and has had to miss time due to injury in the last year.  But, he still managed to rank 5th in OBP, and 3rd in BsR, while maintaining average defensive metrics in LF.  Ethier is just a notch behind Werth in offensive production (2-point difference in wRC+), but he’s one of the worst baserunners in LF.  His defensive metrics are better than Werth, but he’s only slightly above average.

I will say this has probably been the most difficult list to decipher.  What do you think?

2016 Top 10 Centerfielders

MLB Network does their annual series of shows right before spring training, in which they compile a list of the top 10 players at each position.  There’s always a considerable amount of debate, as many of the Network’s analysts don’t even agree with the list.  But, the list itself is generated by something called “The Shredder.”  This is supposedly a computer algorithm that takes into consideration the last two seasons of performance, and puts together the list strictly based on numbers – no emotion involved.  So, you can see why there’s a reasonable amount of debate.  On each of the episodes in which the list is revealed, there is an additional panel of analysts that reveal their own list, which is rarely in line with The Shredder.

It’s been a few years since I analyzed each position enough to come up with my own list.  So, let’s have some fun with this, shall we?  We’ll consider each position in the same order that they have been releasing the episodes on MLB Network.  We’ll start with the list provided by The Shredder.

Top 10 Centerfielders Right Now7260036620_39debc4e94_z

  1. Mike Trout (LAA)
  2. A.J. Pollock (ARI)
  3. Lorenzo Cain (KC)
  4. Andrew McCutchen (PIT)
  5. Jason Heyward (CHC)
  6. Adam Eaton (CHW)
  7. Kevin Kiermaier (TB)
  8. Randal Grichuk (STL)
  9. Carlos Gomez (HOU)
  10. Adam Jones (BAL)

Right off the bat, I have a problem with this list.  And, this is exactly why building a list like this strictly based on numbers is going to skew things from time to time.  Randal Grichuk??  The guy has played a total of 150 games spread out over the last 2 seasons, and spent a total of a little more than 300 innings in CF.  The guy has been their ultimate backup at each outfield position.  He’ll be a starter on a regular basis this year, since they lost Heyward.  And, even though the guy has played pretty well offensively, when he has played – ranking him among the top 10 after a season in which he played 103 games, and has less than 500 total professional plate appearances is ludicrous.  I’m guessing this is also why only 1 of the 4 analysts on the show even had Grichuk in his top 10 (at #10).

Secondly, I get that Kiermaier is a stud defensively.  But, even though that’s especially important in CF, let’s not make defense so important that we forget about offense.  Kiermaier has a combined .305 OBP over the last two seasons (just .298 last year!), to go along with his .737 OPS.  He’s basically right at league average offensively, an average baserunner, and a stellar defender.  #7 out of the 30 centerfielders in the league seemed like a massive stretch to me, when I first saw this list.  Though, when I started looking at the overall numbers, it wasn’t as much of a stretch as I thought it was going to be.

The numbers that I took into consideration were wRC+, OBP, SLG, BsR (the sabermetric stat for baserunning), DRS (defensive runs saved), and UZR (sabermetric stat that measures a player’s ability to get to the ball, defensively).  I also added a category for age.  And, it actually came into play at the very bottom of my list of center fielders.  Here’s how I look at it:  yes, the last two years of performance are going to tell us a lot about a player.  But, if those last two seasons were at the end of his prime years (say, his age 30 & 31 seasons), then I’m expecting a little drop off in production.  By contrast, if those were his age 24 & 25 seasons, I know that he’s just now going to be hitting his stride, and could actually improve.  So, if it’s ever a really close call, and one of the guys is 32 and the other is 26 – I’m going to give the edge to the younger guy.

So, before I reveal my list, let me share a couple names of guys that were just on the cusp of making the top 10.  First of all, Denard Span.  He’s 5th in OBP among CF’ers over the last two seasons, 7th in wRC+, and is an above-average baserunner.  His defensive metrics aren’t great, which is one of the reasons he didn’t make the list.  In the end, however, he probably is my #11 centerfielder, because of his age.  He’s going into his age 32 season, and has played in 150 games in a season only twice in his career (2013 & 2010).  A guy who’s already injury prone, and is heading into the downward slope of his career – that’s not a good combination, even if he is productive offensively when healthy.  Dexter Fowler is probably 12th on my list.  It baffles me that he still doesn’t have a job.  He’s 5th in OBP, 9th in wRC+, and a switch-hitter heading into his age 30 season.  His defensive metrics are underwhelming, but overall, he’s better than a lot of teams’ current starters.

Now it’s time for my top 10.

  1. Mike Trout
  2. Lorenzo Cain
  3. A.J. Pollock
  4. Andrew McCutchen
  5. Jason Heyward
  6. Adam Eaton
  7. Carlos Gomez
  8. Adam Jones
  9. Kevin Kiermaier
  10. Joc Pederson (LAD)

Pederson jumps into my top 10, because he’s similar to both Fowler and Span in his offensive production, but better than both defensively.  And, this is also in anticipation of him playing more like he did pre-All-Star break, compared to post-All-Star break.  His 20 HR and .851 OPS in the first half last year was incredible.  But, he was too committed to swinging for the fences, and pitchers took advantage of that.  I do expect growth in his approach (he is just 23, after all), so I’m willing to slide him in ahead of a couple guys that are several years older.

You see Kiermaier dropped just a couple spots.  I was surprised it wasn’t more, but his defense really is that good – he did win the “Platinum Glove,” which is given to the best overall defensive player in each league.  If he can raise his offensive production even a little, I think he could move up this list next year.

The only other major difference in my list is Lorenzo Cain.  I was pleased to see him get enough respect to be ranked as high as #3 by the Shredder.  But, I’m willing to bump him up one more spot, ahead of Pollock.  Cain is just a notch behind Pollock in offensive production, but he’s a significant step ahead in baserunning and defense.  It’s splitting hairs when you get down to trying to separate the two.  They’re both a lot of fun to watch.

Overall, I don’t think my list is all that different from “The Shredder.”  What do you think?

Underrated Champions?

I heard a national sports radio show yesterday discussing the potential Royals championship, and was at first intrigued . . . but, quickly disgusted by what I heard.  I started thinking more seriously about all that was said.  Why it was said.  How it was said.  And, I began to think that this might actually be a prevalent thought among sports fans.  Especially since I’ve heard it said about champions in other sports. Here’s the phrase that was used more than once:

“They might win the championship, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best team.”

I certainly understand that this happens at times in sports.  Certain matchups create issues for the best teams, and they falter.  Top to bottom, the Kentucky basketball team last year was obviously the best team in the nation.  They just ran into a team that created problems for them, and could actually play good defense.  I remember people saying this about the New York Giants who won the Super Bowl the year the Patriots went 18-0 leading up to the Super Bowl.  I remember people complaining about how boring the Detroit Pistons were when they won it all in 2004, because they “just” played defense, and there weren’t any real stars on the team.

So, yes, it is possible for the “best” team to falter, and someone else win the championship.  But, let me go on record and say:

IF THE ROYALS WIN IT ALL, YOU CAN’T SAY THEY AREN’T THE BEST TEAM IN BASEBALL!!

Kansas_City_RoyalsAs I listened more carefully to what was being said on the radio yesterday, I realized two things.  First of all, I realized that the guys on the show obviously know very little about baseball.  This is certainly an important factor in understanding why they were making such ridiculous claims.  Second, I came to the conclusion that these sportscasters (and potentially a number of fans out there, if their opinion is similar) are only considering one or two factors in determining who the “best” team in baseball actually is.  Allow me a few moments to explain why a Royals championship would be neither a fluke, nor a disappointment in the world of baseball.

#1 – Regular Season Record

I almost blew my drink out of my mouth when I heard one of the announcers declare that “obviously” the Cardinals were the best team in baseball this year because they won 100 games.  Seriously?  First of all, number of wins in the regular season is virtually irrelevant when it comes to determining who the best team actually is.  Especially when trying to compare teams across leagues and divisions.  Some divisions are more difficult than others, the schedule isn’t perfectly balanced, the AL has to deal with the DH, etc. etc.  So, the Cardinals got to 100 wins . . . and what exactly did that get them?  A comfortable seat on the couch after the first round of the playoffs.

Baseball playoffs are set up to prove who the better team actually is.  Other than the 1-game Wild Card round, the team that comes out on top is almost always the better team, because you have multiple opportunities to come out on top.  You have injuries that impact your team’s performance (one of the talking heads on the radio’s go-to excuse for St. Louis)?  Then you aren’t the better team this time, because the team you put on the field couldn’t win.  Better luck next year.  And, for the record, the Royals did have the best record in the AL, winning 95 games – hardly a lucky, back-door entrant into the postseason.

#2 – Offense

No, the 2015 Royals aren’t the ’27 Yankees.  They had three guys who hit 20+ home runs, and none that hit as many as 25.  And, to that, I say . . . so what???  Have we not yet realized that home run prowess is far from being the deciding factor in how great an offense is?  Did you see the Cubs this postseason?  Did you completely miss the fact that they became so home run happy with their swings after blasting through the NLDS, that they forgot the importance of putting the ball in play against the Mets?  No, the Royals don’t have the kind of power the kids in Chicago do, or the Blue Jays, or the teams in Texas.  But, how many of those offenses have made it to the World Series in consecutive years?

041112BMa0196So, why is this offense so good?  Well, in the famous words of Brad Pitt/Billy Beane, “they get on base.”  The starting lineup that the Royals put out there each night has six players with an OBP of at least .348 this season.  Other offenses in the playoffs? – Blue Jays: 4 (3 of which hit at least 39 HR). Cardinals, Pirates, Cubs & Dodgers: 3.  Yankees, Rangers, Astros & Mets: 2.  Think about that for a minute.  There are over 700 players who swung a bat at the major league level this year.  A little over 300 of them had at least 250 plate appearances.  Of those 300+, 71 of them (less than 25%) had an OBP as high as .348.  Of those 71 . . . 6 play in Kansas City.

What too many seem to have forgotten since the PED-enduced power-surge of the late-90’s and early-2000’s, is that home runs are not the best way to score runs, especially in the postseason.  They might be the most exciting thing for the fans to watch.  But, relying heavily on home-run power is going to catch up with you in the playoffs.  Better pitching will dominate a home-run-based offense, because teams that hit a lot of home runs also do a lot of something else . . . they strike out.  Since 2012, the Royals have been the most difficult team to strike out in baseball.  Why?  Because they don’t care how far they hit it – they just want to hit it.  Game 2 of the World Series was a perfect example.  They saw over 40 pitches with 2 strikes against them.  They swung and missed just three times.

Instead of striking out, this team puts the ball in play.  They get on base with a lot of singles and walks, with the occasional extra-base hit.  They go first-to-third as good as any team in the game.  They steal bases (5th in all of baseball).  This is one of the best offenses in the game!

#3 – Defense

This is such an underrated part of the game.  But, did you see the statistic that came up after Hosmer let that ball go under his glove and into right field on Tuesday?  Because of his error, the Mets scored an unearned run – the first allowed by the Royals this entire postseason.  That, after allowing just 1 unearned run all of last postseason.  The Royals currently have 4 finalists for Gold Gloves this season (most in the AL).  As a team, they led all of baseball in UZR and RZR – two metrics used to determine a player’s ability to get to the ball.  They were tied for 3rd in the AL in fielding percentage – which is a feat in itself, because the more balls you can get to, the more errors you are likely to commit.  I don’t know why so few seem to pay attention to this important part of the game, but the Royals are arguably the best defense in baseball.

#4 – Bullpen

WDavisEven the guys on the radio were ready to admit how amazing the Royals’ bullpen is.  Except, they passed it off as if it was a crutch.  In a conversation about run differential (as if that were somehow the end-all-be-all statistic), they said something about the Royals winning games that were close, while losing games that weren’t.  And, they actually said, “Well, that’s just because their bullpen is so good.”  And, why, exactly, is that a knock against this team??  The Royals have 3 relievers who had ERA’s no higher than 2.71, with WHIPs no higher than 1.12.  Almost 140 relievers pitched enough innings this season to qualify as league leaders in any category.  Of those, 30 (21%) had the combined ERA and WHIP as good as mentioned.  Three of those pitch in KC.  Only the Pirates and Padres can make the same claim.  As a whole, this bullpen finished 2nd in baseball in ERA, 2nd in WHIP, and 1st in BAA.  No other bullpen in baseball ranks even in the top 5 in all three categories.  You’re going to have a hard time saying this isn’t the best bullpen in baseball.

 

You want to pick on the fact that the Royals’ starting pitchers aren’t exactly elite?  I’m fine with that.  They were bottom 1/3 of the league in ERA, BAA, and WHIP this season – though, they did jump to middle of the pack after the All-Star break (which happened to coincide with the acquisition of Cueto).  If you want to call them out for not having a great starting rotation, be my guest.  But, when you have a relentless offense that pecks away at starting pitching and runs the bases as well as anyone, an elite bullpen, and incredible defense . . . are you really going to tell me this can’t possibly be the best team in the game?