Tuesday, September 30, 2014

MLB Postseason Pitching: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


As with the regular season, the 2014 MLB postseason is likely to hinge on pitching


When pitching began to dominate Major League Baseball in the late-1960's, the game responded with a number of concrete moves designed to change the game and bring back offense. When hitting began to dominate Major League baseball in the late-1990's, the game responded by finally addressing the PED issue. Now, runs are down about 1 per game, and batting averages are down about 20 points since 2000.

Baseball has ebbed and flowed over it's century and a half existence, alternating "dead ball" eras with "live ball" eras, allowing hurlers their day, and then propping up batters for a bit. In the last few years, there has been a steady decline in offense and a rise in pitching influence. Now here in the 2014 postseason, as in the regular season, it is likely to be the best pitching that wins it.

Which playoff team is best positioned for a deep October run this time around? Here are some thoughts, with a nod to an old Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, on which pitching staffs will give their club the best chance at lifting a World Series trophy at the end of the month.


THE GOOD

Washington Nationals
Owners of not only the best pitching staff in all of baseball, but also the deepest, Washington sits at the very top of the Fangraphs Pitching WAR rankings. The Nats had five (5) starters with double-digit Wins totals this season, and in the post-season will send out perhaps the best front four in Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, and Gio Gonzalez. They have two experienced closers, each of whom registered double-digits in Saves. The bullpen features not only those two right-handed closers in Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano, but a trio of left-handers as well in Matt Thornton, Jerry Blevins, and Ross Detwiler. The righty relief core of Tyler Clippard, Craig Stammen, and the under-appreciated Aaron Barrett will be supplemented in post-season by the usual 5th/6th starters, Tanner Roark and Blake Treinen. This team isn't really just "good" on the mound, they are elite. This group has the best chance, the most options, to get their team all the way through to the Promised Land.


Underrated Doug Fister a Nats rotation key

Detroit Tigers
The best pitching staff that the American League has to offer, Detroit is 3rd in Fangraphs Pitching WAR, and one of only a couple that could matchup well with Washington in a World Series. Four (4) starters won in double-digits: Max Scherzer, David Price, Justin Verlander, and Rick Porcello. A fifth would have were it not for injury, and that pitcher, Anibal Sanchez, may give them a strong bullpen option in post-season play. They have a bunch of lefty options out of the pen with Phil Coke, Ian Kroll, Blaine Hardy and Kyle Lobstein. They have veteran righty options in Evan Reed, Joba Chamberlain, and Al Alburquerque. But it all may hinge on the effectiveness of closer Joe Nathan. One of the best in the business for the last decade, Nathan had a poor season overall. But in September, the veteran registered 7 Saves and 1 Win across 10 appearances, with just a single blown Save opportunity. His last three appearances were all "clean" - and that is the kind of consistency this club needs for him to carry over into October.

Kansas City Royals
It has been well-publicized that KC is back in the post-season for the first time in nearly three decades. That return was largely predicated on pitching and defense. The Royals have the best 'D' in baseball to help out a staff that doesn't really need much help to begin with. The Fangraphs 5th-ranked WAR staff had four (4) starters with double-digit Wins totals, and a fifth just miss out in Danny Duffy. He will likely give them a strong southpaw option out of the bullpen in post-season. The front four of 'Big Game' James Shields, Yordano Ventura, Jeremy Guthrie, and Jason Vargas all logged over 180 IP this season. In addition to Duffy, they have Bruce Chen as another lefty with starting experience who could help in the pen. That bullpen is baseball's best and deepest. Righties Kelvin Herrera, Aaron Crow, and perhaps the best non-closer in the game in Wade Davis, and lefties Tim Collins, Scott Downs, and young Brandon Finnegan join Duffy and Chen as options to setup elite closer Greg Holland. 

Oakland Athletics
The big additions during the season of Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija, and to a lesser extent Jason Hammel to the rotation joining Scott Kazmir, Sonny Gray and Jesse Chavez took a weakness and turned it into an Oakland strength. This post-season was the reason that the now 8th-rated Fangraphs Pitching WAR club made those moves. Hammel and Chavez become righty bullpen options now. The Lester-Gray-Samardzija-Kazmir front four give the A's strong matchups every time out. Lefties Tommy Milone and Drew Pomeranz have starter experience, and at least one could be a key if Eric O'Flaherty continues with recent physical troubles. Chavez and Hammel join Luke Gregerson, Ryan Cook, and Dan Otero in an embarrassment of righty bullpen riches. They all setup one of the game's best, most under-appreciated closers in Sean Doolittle. All this pitching depth only helps either Kansas City or Oakland, as they meet in the AL Wildcard. The winner will move into an ALDS with a pitching staff superior to the team they will meet, a division champ that is the next club on the list below.


THE BAD

Los Angeles Angels
It didn't hurt them one bit in the regular season. On the contrary, the loss of young frontline starters Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs seemed to galvanize the Angels. But despite their excellence and the late, strong burst, the Halos were just 12th in MLB at Fangraphs in Pitching WAR. In Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson, the Angels have a pair of veterans who are capable of matching up with anyone, but also are capable of the odd blowup start as well. Matt Shoemaker has been excellent down the stretch, but is trying to battle back from a rib cage injury in time to help. Hector Santiago, a lefty, has been the 4th starter, with Cory Rasmus stretched out from the pen for a handful of short emergency starts down the stretch. I said at mid-season that the Angels needed to add not one, but a couple of proven starters if they wanted to win this season. They proved me wrong in the regular season, but I believe that I will be proven correct now in post-season. The Angels simply do not have enough, or good enough, starting pitching to win this thing. Huston Street is an elite closer. He is setup by strong righties in Ernesto Frieri, Jason Grilli, Fernando Salas, Mike Morin, Kevin Jepsen, and Joe Smith. The main, possibly only, lefty out of the pen is Wade Leblanc.

Closer Huston Street was a key Halos pickup


Los Angeles Dodgers
Whaaat? Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Kenley Jansen bad? No, of course not. But there is a reason that the Dodgers ranked just 13th in MLB in Pitching WAR at Fangraphs. Beyond their elite guys, there are tons of injuries and under-performers. If Hyun-Jin Ryu is healthy, a big "if" since he has been battling a shoulder issue for a while now, then LA has a 4th strong SP option. They absolutely must win on days that Kershaw and Greinke pitch. Losses on any of those days could be devastating. The bullpen has experienced arms in righties Jamey Wright, Chris Perez, Brian Wilson, and Roberto Hernandez, the latter of whom may be called on to start a game or two if Ryu cannot go. The lefties out of the pen are likely to be J.P. Howell and some combo of Paco Rodriguez and Scott Elbert. Most of the bullpen options have been inconsistent, to say the least. That bullpen could prove an Achilles' Heel...or the vets could get their acts together and turn a weakness into a difference-making strength. That is probably what will be needed if they want to go all the way.

Baltimore Orioles
Ranked one spot below the Dodgers at Fangraphs Pitching WAR, the O's pitching has been masterfully handled by manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Dave Wallace. Rookie Kevin Gausman and perennially injured Miguel Gonzalez emerged in the 2nd half to give a major boost to the rotation, bumping veteran Ubaldo Jimenez to the pen. Gausman is likely to join Jimenez in the post-season bullpen, with Gonzalez joining Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, and Bud Norris in the rotation. They have all pitched well at times and struggled at times. It's hard to imagine them all suddenly turning it on together. Even if they don't, Buck goes to the pen and trots out righties Darren O'Day, Tommy Hunter, and Ryan Webb or the impressive lefty trio of Andrew Miller, T.J. McFarland, and Brian Matusz to get him to young closer Zach Britton. If the rotation guys don't absolutely blow up, the Orioles always have a chance, as their regular season record demonstrates.

Saint Louis Cardinals
The rotation is led by one of the best in the business, Adam Wainwright, and the other options are all talented in John Lackey, Lance Lynn, Shelby Miller, and Michael Wacha. The bullpen has a big strikeout guy in closer Trevor Rosenthal, but he also is wild at times. He is setup by a strong righty trio of Pat Neshek, Seth Maness, and Carlos Martinez with the experienced Jason Motte around as well. Lefty options include Randy Choate, Sam Freeman, and Kevin Seigrist. The Cards staff ranks just 18th in Fangraphs Pitching WAR, and a great deal of that is the inconsistency shown by almost everyone except Wainwright and Neshek. They could really use Wacha returning to his magical post-season performance level of a year ago.


THE UGLY

San Francisco Giants
Hard to believe that a San Fran playoff team pitching staff is being called "ugly", but they are here. Much as with the Cardinals, the Giants rotation is led by one of the best in Madison Bumgarner. The season-ending injury to Matt Cain and continued deterioration of Tim Lincecum were off-set by the solid free agent signing of Tim Hudson and the trade acquisition of Jake Peavy. Hudson and Peavy are proven veterans with post-season experience that could be invaluable this October. The Bumgarner-Peavy-Hudson troika should be joined by Yusmeiro Petit, with both Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong heading to the pen, joining Jean Machi and J.C. Gutierrez as righty options. Javy Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt give the GMen a pair of veteran lefties in the pen. Santiago Casilla has supplanted Sergio Romo as the closer, but both are capable veterans who have shown they can shut the door at the back end of that bullpen. Despite pitching half their games in a pitcher's haven, the San Fran staff was near the bottom, 28th overall of 30 MLB teams, in Fangraphs Pitching WAR. Aside from Bumgarner, they don't overpower people. That should open up more opportunities for opposition hitters than most of the other staffs they will faceoff against in post-season play.

Pittsburgh Pirates
Only the Mets kept the Giants and the 29th-ranked Pirates from the bottom of Fangraphs Pitching WAR rankings. The individual pieces don't look all that bad. Gerrit Cole was an exciting 2nd year starter who is one of the game's rising star pitchers. Veterans Edinson Volquez and Francisco Liriano pitched well. Vance Worley and Jeff Locke were solid, if unspectacular, 4th and 5th starter options. Mark Melancon emerged as a solid closer, and he is setup by spectacular righty rookie John Holdzcomb, righties Jared Hughes, John Axford, Jeanmar Gomez, Stolmy Pimentel, and Brandon Cumpton, and lefties Justin Wilson and Tony Watson. Overall, the group tends towards inconsistency, walking too many while striking out too few, and giving up too many longballs. Like the Giants, they have enough talent to put it all together. But to do so against stronger, deeper, more consistent, proven staffs over the next month is asking a lot. The Bucs and GMen should enjoy the NL Wildcard Game, since the winner has to face Washington, and likely won't last too long.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

MLB Defensive Team of the Year 2014

Andrelton Simmons of the Braves is the best
defensive shortstop in the game today
For the casual fan of the game, the least appreciated and valued part of most baseball games is defense.

Until some egregious error is made that costs their team a run, or worse yet, a game, many fans simply do not value this part of the sport nearly enough.

Simply put, good defense is vital to a team succeeding over the long haul of a 162-game season, and can prove the difference in what are often tough, low-scoring playoff and World Series games.

Just as much as a massive homerun in a close game, or a key base hit at clutch time, or a pitcher striking out a batter in a pivotal moment with runners on base, a sensational dive, leap, catch, throw...sometimes all four together, can change the course of a game, a series, and a season.

Many of my fellow Phillies fans, who shared the thrill of the 2008 post-season run to a World Series crown, might have a hard time remembering some of the big hits during that series against the Rays. But every single one of those fans remembers "The Deke", the Chase Utley defensive play that may have been the real difference.

The Phils were up 3-1 in the series and trying to win it at home, avoiding a return to Tampa where anything could happen. Game 5, tied at 2-2 after 6 innings, had been delayed by monsoon-like rains that had caused a suspension of play for two days.

The teams finally returned to action, exchanged runs, and went into the top of the 7th tied at 3-3. The Rays had shortstop Jason Bartlett on 2nd base as the potential go-ahead run with two outs as speedy 2nd baseman Akinori Iwamura stepped to the plate and shot a grounder up the middle.

With Iwamura's speed, it looked to at least be an infield hit. Utley fielded, and turned as if to throw to try to get Iwamura at 1st base. Tampa's 3rd base coach, Tom Foley, sensed an opportunity to take the lead at a pivotal moment and frantically waved Bartlett to the plate for the go-ahead run.

It was here that Utley made a play for the ages, the type of heads-up, hustling play that has defined the Phillies' 2nd baseman's career. Instead of throwing to first, Utley actually pumped his arm, and in the same motion turned and fired a one-hop throw to catcher Carlos Ruiz. "Chooch" fielded it and dove to tag out Bartlett, who himself was diving headfirst for the plate.

The Phils scored a lone run in their half of the 7th to re-take the lead at 4-3, and two innings later Brad Lidge dropped to his knees after striking out Eric Hinske to give the club it's first championship in 28 years. As much as any other factor, it was the Utley play that keyed the victory.

Jim Edmonds, June 10th, 1997, my personal fave

Whether it was Willie Mays' "The Catch" in the 1954 World Series, Joe Rudi leaping against the left field wall in the early 1970's, or Ozzie Smith diving into the hole in the 1980's, Derek Jeter's "The Flip" in 2001, or my personal favorite of all-time, Jim Edmonds' version of "The Catch" in 1997, defense has not only sparked victories, but defined them.

The following are my own choices for the 2014 Major League Baseball Defensive Team and Player of the Year.

-----------------------------------------------------------

Best Defensive Team
Kansas City Royals

Defensive Player of the Year 
Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta (shortstop)

Defensive Team of the Year
1B - Adrian Gonzalez, LAD
2B - Dustin Pedroia, Boston
SS - Andrelton Simmons, Atlanta
3B - Chase Headley, NYY
C   - Jonathan Lucroy, Milwaukee
LF - Alex Gordon, Kansas City
CF - Jackie Bradley Jr, Boston
RF - Jason Heyward, Atlanta
P    - Zack Greinke, LAD

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

21st Century Dynasty: Why Not Phillies?

The night of October 26th, 2000 was a beautiful, cool but comfortable one in New York City. In the pre-9/11 world of the Big Apple, this would be a far from typical Autumn evening.

The 5th game of the 2000 World Series, the last official Fall Classic of the 20th century, was being held that night at Shea Stadium. What made it all the more special was that it was the first 'Subway Series' since 1956.

The visiting New York Yankees took a 3 games to 1 lead into that 5th game over the host New York Mets. The game would feature a matchup between a pair of classic lefties: Andy Pettitte for the Yanks, and Al Leiter for the Mets. The two neighbors battled into the 9th inning tied at 2-2, the Mets looking to stay alive, the Yanks looking to win the series.

With two outs in the top of the 9th, the Yankees pushed across a pair of runs against the always-tough Leiter, taking a 4-2 lead. With two outs in the bottom of the 9th, in a matchup between a pair of likely future Hall of Famers, closer Mariano Rivera got Mets catcher Mike Piazza to fly out to the deepest part of the ballpark as the tying run.

The Yanks mobbed one another around the mound, celebrating the 3rd World Series title in succession for future Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre's club. There was really no more fitting way to end the century, as this third straight crown made it 26 World Series titles for the Bronx Bombers during the 20th century, 17 more than the next-highest club had won.

Monday, September 15, 2014

MLB Mid-September Power Ranking

Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg front
the NL-best Wasington Nationals top-ranked pitching staff
This marks the 6th Power Ranking released in the 2014 season, with previous versions released on June 1st, July 1st, August 1st, August 15th, and September 3rd.

In each of those previous versions, the focus has largely been on teams from the American League. Frankly, that is because the Power Rankings are based on overall performance in the areas of Hitting, Pitching, and Defense over the course of the full season to that date, and the teams of the A.L. have just simply been better than their National League counter-parts.

But today we can finally focus on an N.L. club, because the top team in the league has clearly caught up with the top A.L. clubs. The Washington Nationals are that team. With a losing record, they were not even given a "Best of the Rest" mention in that first June ranking article. But they took off, and have pulled away in the N.L. East Division.

Saint Louis, Atlanta, and the LA Dodgers are lined up behind the Nats in the N.L. Rankings. But all four of those clubs are significantly behind Washington. This would appear to be the Nats year, finally. The talent is clearly there. Now it is going to be up to the team to actually perform under the glare of the October post-season spotlight.

Meanwhile, over in the A.L., the Royals, Angels, and Orioles remain the clear top three teams. But Kansas City is still in a tough divisional race with the more veteran and proven Detroit Tigers. Here then is the next-to-last MLB Power Ranking of the 2014 season.

POWER RANKING - SEPTEMBER 15TH


1. KANSAS CITY ROYALS
The Royals led the ranking of July 1st, and then returned to the top again in the most recent ranking on September 3rd. They have held on to the top spot as we enter the final two weeks of the regular season, despite having fallen behind the Detroit Tigers in the A.L. Central race. KC's problem seems to be that they just can't figure out a way to beat the more seasoned, 3-time defending divisional champs head-to-head. In a pair of series over the past two weeks, one at each home park, the Tigers took 5 out of the 7 games, and now lead by 1.5 games. The Royals are holding on to the 2nd A.L. Wildcard spot, but only lead that race by a single game over Seattle. The club remains 1st in Defense, and they are 4th in Pitching. But the inconsistency of their 12th-ranked Offense keeps holding them back. They will post a winning record for the 2nd straight season. But a return to the post-season for the first time since 1985 is still not assured.

2. BALTIMORE ORIOLES
The O's have the 2nd best overall record in all of baseball, behind only the LA Angels, with whom they are now tied here in the Power Rankings. I am listing the Orioles first, because Baltimore took 4 of 6 head-to-head meetings between the two teams in the 2nd half of July. Both clubs will make the post-season, and could be headed for an ALCS showdown. The Orioles have the #2 Offense and Defense in the entire game. It is their 16th-rated Pitching that is keeping the club from being truly dominant. Their 'X-factor' is manager Buck Showalter, who has been an absolute magician under the circumstances, and who is a serious AL Manager of the Year candidate because of it.

2. LOS ANGELES ANGELS
The Halos have been at or near the top of the Power Rankings all summer long. They now possess the best overall record in all of Major League Baseball. They have opened up a massive 10 game lead in the A.L. West Division. They are hot, having won 9 of their last 10 games, 16 of their last 19. The only losses in that stretch have inexplicably been to Houston. Led by A.L. MVP front-runner Mike Trout, the Angels have the game's top Offense, are 7th in Defense, and are 12th in Pitching. It is the possibility that their starting pitching could falter in a short playoff series that could be their biggest Achilles' heel.

4. OAKLAND ATHLETICS
Battling with the Angels for Power Ranking supremacy for much of the summer, and leading the A.L. West for much of the first half, the A's have seriously faltered over the last month and a half. They are just 5-8 so far in September, and that's having won their last two games. This follows a 12-17 month of August. Overall, the team is still 6th in Offense, 8th in Defense, and 12th in pitching. Much has been made of a collapse following the trade deadline deal of slugging outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to Boston for lefty starter Jon Lester and outfielder Jonny Gomes. But the A's were struggling before that, and the deals to bring in Lester, Jeff Samardzija, and Jason Hammel to shore up what was a weak point in the rotation, while sound on paper, has not worked in practice. The division is lost to the Angels now, but Oakland still owns the top Wildcard playoff spot by 1.5 games over KC, and a playoff berth by 2.5 over Seattle. There is no reason that they shouldn't be able to right the ship enough to battle for a post-season berth right to the end.

5. BOSTON RED SOX
Nothing has confounded me more than running the Fangraphs numbers every month, now every two weeks, relating to MLB Offense, Pitching, and Defense, and come up with a result showing that the Boston Red Sox are one of the game's top 5-10 teams statistically each and every time. But that has indeed been the case, despite the fact that measured by win-loss record, this has been a dismal season for the defending World Series champions. The Bosox now rank as the game's #3 Defense and #8 Pitching club. As I surmised previously, the Offense, ranked just #16, is the single major reason that they have not been able to win consistently. The sum of the parts is not bad. With a couple of tweaks, there is no reason that this team cannot return to contending next year. Time will tell.

6. SAINT LOUIS CARDINALS

7. ATLANTA BRAVES

8. LOS ANGELES DODGERS

9. TAMPA BAY RAYS

10. TIE - SEATTLE MARINERS / NEW YORK YANKEES

Best of the Rest:
Detroit, Toronto, Cleveland, San Francisco, Milwaukee, Pittsburgh

My Call:
The Orioles, Angels, and Nationals have made their winning of the A.L. East, A.L. West, and N.L. East respectively easy calls with their play over the first two weeks of September. The call here is also that the Saint Louis Cardinals, currently with a 3.5 game lead, will win the N.L. Central. The Cards have gone 10-4 in September, the only blemish being a 3-game sweep of them by the Reds in Cincy last week, and they don't play 2nd place Pittsburgh again. On the other hand, I am not calling the N.L. West, where the Dodgers lead the longtime rival Giants by 3 games. San Fran took 2 of 3 over the weekend, and the two clubs meet head-to-head in a 3-game series next Monday-Wednesday at Dodger Stadium. That series should decide things. The same could be said in the A.L. Central, where the Tigers lead the Royals by just one game in the loss column, and the two clubs are slated to meet this coming weekend in KC's Kauffman Stadium. The AL Wildcard race is being fought among Oakland, Seattle, KC and Detroit. The NL should see one Wildcard spot go to the Giants. For the other, the Pirates hold a 2-game lead on the Brewers and a 4-game lead on the Braves in the respective loss columns. Both those two trailers have been playing awful. The Bucs have enough weaknesses that they shouldn't run away and hide, so if either Milwaukee or Atlanta can right their ship in the final two weeks, that final NL spot could still be a race.

Phillies:
Nothing to see here, unless you're looking for some good, R-rated entertainment for the kiddies, supplied by Jonathan Papelbon. Very likely he just burned his last bridge here in Philly with his crotch-grabbing, er, athletic cup-adjusting antics yesterday. Shame, because he has actually been very good for the Fightins this season. The bullpen, especially with Jake Diekman and heir apparent closer Ken Giles setting up, has been excellent as the Phillies have gained some measure of stability over the last month or so, having gone 21-19 since August 1st. Still, in the full Power Rankings of all MLB clubs, the Phillies rank 27th of the 30 teams, and they are at the very bottom of the NL rankings.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Shady Tip-Gate

I've always operated by a credo that I heard Steve Martin use in the film "My Blue Heaven":

"It's not tipping that I believe in: it's over-tipping."

I almost always tip well. Check comes, I do the math out to 20%, and then usually round-up a bit. I realize this is how many servers make much of their real money.



But...and this is a key "but"...whether it's me, or Philadelphia Eagles running back LeSean "Shady" McCoy, or you, or anyone else, a tip should always reflect what the customer feels is appropriate based on the service that they received in their given situation. 

I could care less if the server is a "great guy", or if everyone else on earth had them before and the server was "great" to them. What matters is how you are treated/served in your specific encounter.

If Shady felt that he was treated poorly in his encounter at the PYT restaurant in Philly, then he would have been reasonable in leaving nothing at all. A "tip" is something one has to work in order to earn, it is not something to be assumed. It is a bonus, something placed by the customer on top of the check. But only if the customer feels they received good service.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

American League Most Valuable Player

Like yesterday's evaluation of the National League Most Valuable Player candidates, and the selection of my own Top 10 vote, there is a hitter-pitcher element in the AL this season.

The starting pitcher candidate in this case is Seattle Mariners righthander "King Felix" Hernandez. Like his NL counterpart, Clayton Kershaw, the King is most certainly the runaway favorite to win his league's Cy Young Award for the top pitcher. And like his NL counterpart, to this evaluator, that is where he should rightly and properly be honored.

Winning the Cy Young Award is not a "secondary" or "lesser" honor to the Most Valuable Player Award in any way. The Cy Young goes to the best pitchers in the game. Position players have no shot at it. Winning the honor says that you are the absolute best at your most-valued of all positions.

Both Kershaw and Hernandez are just that, the best pitchers in the game today. They deserve those awards. And they deserve MVP votes because neither of their teams would likely be a contender without them. But the same can be said of each of the position players, and those position players, and to a slightly lesser extent the best closers, affect team outcomes nearly every single game.

With all that said, take a look back when you get a chance at yesterday's NL MVP evaluation, and now enjoy my personal 10-player American League Most Valuable Player ballot, were I to have one, and were the season to end today:

10)   Josh Donaldson, 3B, Oakland
The offensive leader of a team that was baseball's best for much of the season, Donaldson has emerged over the last two years as an All-Star caliber performer. This year he has 26 homers and 93 rbi, and has scored 85 runs. He provides the middle-of-the-order pop that teams need to contend. Despite their slide of recent weeks, the A's remain in control of the top AL Wildcard spot. Much as with Miggy in Detroit, whether Oakland hangs on to a post-season berth will largely depend on his continued production over the last couple of weeks.

9)   Felix Hernandez, SP, Seattle
Already covered this above: the best pitcher in the American League, the easy choice for this year's AL Cy Young Award. The King has a 14-5 record with a 1.12 ERA and an 0.92 WHIP. He has allowed just 153 hits across 212 innings. His K/BB ratio is at 217/41. There is only one other player who has been more of a difference-maker to the M's emergence as a contender this season, and he is found much higher on the list.

8)   Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston
I struggled with putting a player on a team that is 17-games under the .500 mark and in 4th place in their division, never having been a contender all season long, on the list at all. But Altuve is a special case. The Astros are an extremely young, inexperienced team that has been losing for years. Altuve has stepped up as a leader, and with a ton of good-looking prospects coming, is exactly what they need at the crest of the wave of talent. He has game-changing speed, swiping 51 bags and scoring 78 runs for one of the lowest-scoring teams in the game. He is hitting .336 and is a serious contender for the AL Batting crown, and carries a .373 on-base percentage. Not a big power guy, he still has 50 rbi.

7)   Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago
Very rarely do I rank a player this high on a losing team, especially when that team has a decent chance to finish last in their division. Couldn't they team be that putrid without him? Yes, they could. But the White Sox could also be down battling Texas for the worst record in baseball were it not for this Cuban rookie's production. He sports a .317 average, .372 on-base percentage, and has 33 homers with 99 rbi. He is an easy choice for the AL Rookie of the Year. Just as impressively, he is one of the game's best hitters already.

6)   Miguel Cabrera, 1B, Detroit
It has supposedly been an off-year for the man who has won the last two AL MVP Awards and the Triple Crown in 2012. Bothered most of the summer by what has been revealed as heal spurs, Miggy's power was sapped by the pain in his base. But he still remained one of the game's supreme hitters, and his power outburst last week almost single-handedly drove Detroit back into a Wildcard position. Even hurt, he has managed 22 homers, 101 rbi, and 91 runs scored while hitting .311 and with a .371 on-base percentage. Whether the Tigers return to the post-season or not largely depends on what he does in these final 2 1/2 weeks of the regular season.

5)   Victor Martinez, 1B, Detroit
With Cabrera slightly off from his 2-time MVP pace this year, Detroit desperately needed VMart to stay healthy and produce in order to stay on top in the AL Central race. He has delivered, batting .335 with a .406 on-base percentage. He has 30 homers, 96 rbi, and 79 runs scored and is battling Altuve for the AL Batting crown in a neck-and-neck race. Despite this, the Tigers have been caught by Kansas City in the standings. They remain in a battle for another division crown, and also cling to a Wildcard berth, largely thanks to Martinez' consistent production.

4)   Alex Gordon, OF, Kansas City
Much as with Anthony Rendon in the NL, Gordon doesn't receive nearly as much attention as he should for this honor. The Royals had another strong start to the season. But unlike a year ago, KC has not only stayed in the playoff race, but they have stayed in the race for an AL Central Division crown. A big reason has been the leadership, production, and the key hits and defensive plays from the unquestioned team leader Gordon. His raw numbers don't pop out at you, one reason that he won't be a favorite to actually win the AL MVP Award outright, and isn't a Top 3 guy on this ballot. He has 19 homers, 66 rbi, 77 runs scored. But perhaps as much as anyone on this list he epitomizes what I believe the award to be all about - true value to your team, which incorporates those intangibles such as leadership, and coming through in the biggest moments.

3)   Nelson Cruz, OF, Baltimore
The Orioles took over first place in the usually rough and tumble AL East in the early weeks of the season, and have steadily pulled away over the course of the summer to a point where they own a 10-game lead, the biggest in baseball, and already have a 'Magic Number' down to single-digits. Signing Cruz as a free agent in the off-season has proven to be one of the biggest such moves in baseball. With first catcher Matt Wieters and then Manny Machado lost for the season, Cruz has delivered with 39 homeruns, 101 rbi, and 82 runs scored. He seems to deliver his biggest bombs at the important moments. Despite the presence of his outstanding fellow outfielder Adam Jones, the O's are not where they are without Nelson Cruz.

2)   Robinson Cano, 2B, Seattle
The former Yankee signed a lucrative free agent contract in the off-season to move all the way across the country to play for a team that had not reached the post-season since 2001, and had finished in 4th place eight times in the last decade, including the last four seasons in a row. The Mariners are now 14 games over .500, just a half game out of a Wildcard berth. The Yanks are 4 over .500, 5 1/2 out of the Wildcard. The difference is clearly Cano. He has hit .320 with a .386 on-base percentage, with 75 rbi and 73 runs scored. His homers are down at a dozen, but that can largely be attributed to the ballpark factor. What is clearly up is the effect that his presence has in the Seattle batting order. 

1)   Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles
The man (we have to stop referring to him as "kid" at some point) who finished as the runner-up for the AL MVP in his first two seasons should finally win it this time around. He has driven his team to the top of the standings. His Angels have not only taken charge of the AL West lead over the last month, but they now have the best record in the sport. Some of Trout's ridiculous numbers of the last two years are down, but his impact on the game and his team are not. He is hitting .288 with a .372 on-base percentage. With 32 homers and 103 rbi, he has emerged as a true major power threat. His speed has allowed him to score 99 runs, and he still has stolen 14 bases in a season that saw his team restrict those opportunities for him. For the 3rd straight season he is clearly the best all-around player in the game. Now he will be recognized as it's Most Valuable as well.

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NO APOLOGIES for not putting the following players on either my NL or AL ballots the last two days. Fact is, they absolutely deserve consideration. Fact is, they will receive MVP votes in the real voting. But you only get so many choices, and we all have to make tough decisions. A few names who deserve mentioning that I did not vote for are:

NL - Justin Upton (Atl), Adrian Gonzalez (LA), Freddie Freeman (Atl), Jayson Werth (Was), Josh Harrison (Pit), Adam LaRoche, (Was), Matt Kemp (LA), Adam Wainwright (ST)
AL - Jose Bautista (Tor), Michael Brantley (Cle), Jacoby Ellsbury (NYY), Albert Pujols (LA), Adam Jones (Bal), Ian Kinsler (Det), Melky Cabrera (Tor), Corey Kluber (Cle), Kyle Seager (Sea)

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

National League Most Valuable Player

As the 2014 Major League Baseball season sprints into it's stretch run, each week separates post-season wheat from chaff. Time runs out on some clubs, and the words "Magic Number" once again emerge into the game's vocabulary for others.

As teams push for the pennant, they are often driven forward by one man, one lead character playing hero in that season. He may be a slugger. He may have a golden arm. He may come up with clutch hits at crucial moments of many of these dramatic, decisive games.

At the end of it all, teams win, and players are honored for their individual achievements. The voting for the 'Most Valuable Player' award in both the National and American League takes place before the post-season, so it is a reflection on the performance of the top players in the game over the course of the regular 162-game season that has unfolded over the previous full 6 months.

These centerpiece awards have been given out in MLB since 1931 by the Baseball Writer's Association of America. Two baseball writers from each city in each league vote annually for the recipient, and the winner is announced at the conclusion of the World Series.

The BBWAA has never given out a clear definition of "most valuable", and that has been a bone of contention among many voters, commentators, writers, fans, and even players themselves. What makes a player valuable to his team, and how is that measured? Can a starting pitcher, for instance, who only affects team performance once or twice a week, possibly be as valuable as a position player, who affects team outcomes every game?

Without definitive direction, I have always been guided by what I consider common sense. To me, especially since pitchers already have an award specifically dedicated for their excellence in the Cy Young Award, I cannot personally consider a starting pitcher to be more valuable than the most valuable of position players.

This is not to say that starting pitchers, such as Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers, are not valuable. Clearly they are, and clearly the Dodgers, as one example, would not be the same team, and perhaps not even a contender, without Kershaw. So for me, a pitcher like Kershaw would absolutely receive acknowledgement on my ballot. But he would not be the top choice.

On each ballot, the writer's doing the voting select 10 players and rank them 1-10 in the order in which they feel these players have been "most valuable" to their particular team. A player then receives 14 'points' for every first place vote, 9 for a 2nd place vote, 8 for 3rd, 7 for 4th, on down to 1 point for a 10th place vote.

The following would be my personal 10-player National League Most Valuable Player ballot, were I to have one, and were the season to end today. I will present my 10-player American League MVP ballot tomorrow:

10) Francisco Rodriguez, RP, Milwaukee
You would be hard-pressed to make a case that any player has been more influential to his team's success as a complete surprise than has KRod proven for the Brew Crew. Once arguably the game's most dominant closer, he re-emerged in that role this season for the Brewers. He has registered 39 Saves with a 2.95 ERA and a magnificent 0.98 WHIP, and with a 69-14 K/BB ratio across 61 extremely valuable innings at the end of now-fading Milwaukee's closest games.

9)   Hunter Pence, OF, San Francisco
His raw numbers of 19 homers, 69 rbi, 101 runs scored, 13 steals while compiling a .295 batting average make Pence one of the best all-around offensive threats in the NL. Combine the numbers with his hustling defense and his passionate leadership, and factor in that he plays his home games in a pitcher's haven at AT&T Park in San Francisco, and you have a legit MVP candidate for a legit contender that wouldn't be so without him.

8)   Dee Gordon, 2B, Los Angeles
The only rival to KRod as a surprise MVP candidate, Gordon's emergence has arguably been even more unlikely. Not even a starter entering the spring, Gordon took the 2nd base job and ran with it, literally. Hitting .287, he has stolen 59 bases to lead all of baseball, has scored 80 runs, and generally been exactly what the first-place Dodgers needed: a catalyst at the top of the batting order on a consistent basis. His team is very likely once again struggling for runs and under-achieving if not for his sudden emergence as an impact player this year.

7)   Clayton Kershaw, SP, Los Angeles
The best starting pitcher on the planet. Period. On his return to the team after missing the first few weeks of the season, Kershaw took up right where he had left off during the team's showcase opening series in Australia in March, where he left off last season in a Cy Young campaign. He has dominated. With an 18-3 record, 22 of 24 Quality Starts, a 1.67 ERA and 0.82 WHIP, and with an unreal 210-27 K/BB ratio over 177.1 IP, Kershaw is the clear NL Cy Young Award winner once again.

6)   Giancarlo Stanton, OF, Miami
The most sensational individual performer in the National League this season on a daily basis, Stanton likely gets the honors as the Most Outstanding Player in the NL: 37 homers, 105 rbi, 88 runs scored, 11 stolen bases, a .291 batting average with a .396 on-base percentage. He is improved defensively, and has a cannon for a right arm. Stanton does it all, and has most importantly stayed healthy this year. The only thing keeping him from the top spot? His team is not, and won't be, in the post-season race. They could lose without him. They are losing with him. His performance keeps them fighting for .500, but for this writer, to win the honors you need to elevate your team to contention.

5)   Craig Kimbrel, RP, Atlanta
The most valuable Closer in the game today, he is the perfect weapon in the 9th inning. In that role, he impacts 3 times the number of actual game results than does a starting pitcher like Kershaw. He has registered 43 Saves, tied for the NL lead. He has a 1.61 ERA and 0.93 WHIP. He has an 80-18 K/BB ratio across 56 innings. The Braves are just 1 1/2 games out of a Wildcard berth that they wouldn't even be sniffing without him.

4)   Carlos Gomez, Milwaukee
The Brewers are just a game and a half out of the Wildcard, but they have been seriously fading, and with that fade Gomez' own shot at the NL MVP Award is also fading. But Milwaukee led the NL Central for much of the season, and they remain in the post-season hunt, largely thanks to Gomez' taking his game to another level. He has 21 homers, 67 rbi, 87 runs scored, and 29 steals while hitting at a .284 clip, and has taken the mantle away from Ryan Braun as the biggest threat in the Brew Crew everyday lineup. His teammate, Jonathan Lucroy, would also be a worthy nominee, and will finish high on some ballots, but it is Gomez who is the better all-around player.

3)   Anthony Rendon, Washington
Playing largely at 3rd base due to Ryan Zimmerman's season-long injury troubles, Rendon has been a whiz at the hot corner for the first place Nats. He also seemlessly slid over to play 2nd base for a month when Zimmerman was briefly able to get healthy. All the while, he has emerged as the most consistent offensive threat in their batting order. His 102 runs scored leads all of baseball. He has 18 homers, 77 rbi, and 15 steals as well. There is a sense is that he is only scratching the surface of his all-around game. Aleady one of baseball's best hitters, Rendon is the MVP of a team running away with a division crown. Hard to beat that as a league MVP endorsement. I was extremely tempted to list him in the top position.

2)   Andrew McCutchen, Pittsurgh
The Pirates have again emerged as a playoff contender for the 2nd straight season. Their run to the post-season a year ago was a prime factor in McCutchen taking home the 2013 NL MVP. Their return would be a major factor in his winning the honors in back-to-back fashion, something accomplished only by Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, and Miguel Cabrera in the last three decades. He has the raw numbers: 22 homers, 74 rbi, 76 runs, 17 steals, and a .311 batting average with a .402 on-base percentage. And he is getting hot and coming up with big hits lately in clutch situations. The Pirates have taken over a Wildcard spot, and if they hold it, he will be a top finisher when all the votes are counted.

1)   Buster Posey, San Francsico
The 2012 NL MVP, his raw numbers are good enough on their own: a .309 batting average, 20 homers, 79 rbi, 67 runs scored. That he produces this offense mostly from the catchers position makes him the game's top threat in that regard from the position. The Giants have wisely reduced his catching, shifting some of the load to more appearances at 1st base to keep his potent bat in the lineup, while also finding him more scattered rest opportunities. The result has been that Posey is fresh, the game's hottest hitter over the last month as the Giants halted a slide and re-emerged as contenders. They now lead the Wildcard race, and are still within range of running at the Dodgers for the division crown. They are at neither spot without him. At least for now with 3 weeks to go, on this man's ballot it is between Posey and McCutchen, the last two winners of the award, for NL MVP.


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

MLB September 2015 Power Ranking

Alex Gordon (4) and KC are Power Ranking royalty
When it's July 1st and you're ranked at the top of the Power Ranking, as the Kansas City Royals were back on that date, it may still be a little too early to get overly excited.

When you're an evaluator and you put a team like the Royals, who have not reached the MLB playoffs in over two decades, on top that early in the season there will be those who scoff, saying that you are just trying to get attention by being different. And scoff at yours truly they did.

No one is scoffing any longer. In fact, others have jumped on the bandwagon, now that the Royals good play has been rewarded with an actual run to the top of the A.L. Central standings. After a couple of months that saw the A's and Angels dueling for the honors, the Royals are back on top of the latest Power Ranking.

It's no longer June and early. It's September, and it's starting to get late. The Royals are still baseball's top statistical defensive team, are being led by legitimate A.L. MVP candidate Alex Gordon, and for the first time since the 1980's, Kansas City fans have a true World Series contender.

POWER RANKING - SEPTEMBER 3RD

1. KANSAS CITY ROYALS
After holding the top spot in the first Power Ranking of the season back on June 1st, the Royals dropped back a bit as summer got underway and the A's and Angels see-sawed for supremacy. But KC got hot after the All-Star break, ran down the Detroit Tigers in the A.L. Central, and moved up to the #2 spot in the mid-August Power Ranking. Now they are back on top here in early September. Their defense has been ranked #1 almost all season. With the #8 offense and pitching staff, they are one of only two clubs in MLB ranked in the Top 10 of all three areas of evaluation. 30-year old leftfielder Alex Gordon is their senior player, their unquestioned leader, and an A.L. MVP candidate.

2. LOS ANGELES ANGELS
The Halos battled all summer for the Power Ranking top spot with their division rivals, the Oakland A's. Just over two weeks ago, they had fallen to 3rd, with Oakland on top. But then the Angels got white hot. They are now on a 15-5 run that has seen them open up a 4.5 game lead on the A's in the division. Included in that run have been 5 straight wins head-to-head vs Oakland. Led by A.L. MVP candidate Mike Trout, they are the game's top offense. With the #7 defense and 10th-ranked pitching staff, they join KC as the only other MLB club in the Top 10 of all three major categories.

3. BALTIMORE ORIOLES
The fast-risers in the Power Ranking, the O's were ranked 6th in mid-August. Though they have been a regular Top 10 club all summer, they have not been able to push into the very upper echelons. But since losing 3 of 4 at home to the Rays at the end of June, they have been on a tear. Their record since that series is 38-18, and they have pulled away to a 9.5 game lead in the usually tough A.L. East. Having lost catcher and leader Matt Wieters early, and budding star Manny Machado late, and with a mediocre starting rotation, Buck Showalter is pushing seriously for the A.L. Manager of the Year award. Baltimore is ranked 2nd in both offense and defense in all of baseball. Only their middling 15th-rated pitching staff is keeping them from the top.

4. WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Back on June 1st, the Nats lost to Texas to fall a game below the .500 mark. They were not included at all in that first Power Ranking. Three months later, they are the top team in the National League. Much as with their Beltway brothers from the A.L. in Baltimore, the Washington side have been white hot ever since, having gone 51-31 since that June-opening defeat. They have opened up a 7-game lead in the N.L. East. They have baseball's #1-ranked pitching staff, and the game's 6th-rated offense. Only their mediocre 14th-rated defense holds them down a bit. Bryce Harper, baseball's erstwhile wunderkind, is finally looking fully healthy and is getting hot. They may get veteran leader Ryan Zimmerman back soon. As they get healthier, they are getting tougher to beat, and are serious World Series contenders.

5. OAKLAND ATHLETICS
The top team for much of the summer, and still at that lofty perch just over two weeks ago with the mid-August Power Ranking, the A's have slipped. After winning the first two of a big 7-game stretch with their division rivals, the Angels, Oakland dropped the final 5 straight games. The slide is part of a 7-15 mark over the past few weeks that has seen them fall 4.5 games behind the Angels in the A.L. West. It is showing in the Power Ranking now, and the A's need to rally fast. They still possess the game's 3rd-most potent offense, but it has been less so since dealing away slugger Yoenis Cespedes. With the game's 9th-rated defense and an improving pitching staff, there remains time to right the ship.

6. BOSTON RED SOX
BONUS NOTE: the Bosox stats continue to bely their position in the standings. A last-place team for much of the season, they have also spent the summer among the Top 10 teams statistically. They have the game's 3rd-ranked Defense, and 6th-ranked Pitching. The 16th-rated Offense has struggled for runs all year, and has led to the poor record. They remain a serious bounce-back candidate for 2015.

7. Atlanta Braves

8. Tampa Bay Rays

9. Saint Louis Cardinals

10. Los Angeles Dodgers

Best of the Rest:
Chicago Cubs (that's right), Seattle Mariners, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees,
San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays, Milwaukee Brewers,
Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates

My Call:
The Orioles will win the A.L. East, the Washington Nationals the N.L. East. Every other division is too close to call, though the Angels have done an impressive job opening a solid lead on Oakland in the A.L. West. I still believe that could turn around again over a 2-week stretch that goes in the A's favor, much as the last two have gone the Halos way. The Brewers and Indians in the respective Central divisions are, to me, the two most likely to fade completely out of the races. And watch the Cubs now: 11-6 over the last three weeks, their improvement is for real. Won't win anything this year, but they will be tough on everyone they play, and are primed for contending as soon as 2015.

Phillies:
Ruben Amaro Jr has been given the old "Vote of Confidence" from interim President Pat Gillick, who is supposed to be minding the store only until ailing David Montgomery can get healthier after battling cancer. We wish Mr. Montgomery the best, of course. But Amaro has done a poor job in his tenure, and it is this evaluator's opinion that improvement will not come under his watch. The team won the World Series in 2008 with Gillick as GM. Since then under Amaro: 2009 - lost World Series, 2010 - lost NLCS, 2011 - lost NLDS, 2012 - a .500 finish, 2013 - losing record, 2014 - last place in NL East. The farm system is consistently rated no better than mid-level, and usually in the bottom 1/3 of MLB, by reputable outside evaluators. In the Power Ranking of all 30 MLB teams, the Fightins are at #28, with only the White Sox and Astros rated lower. Their pitching is 20th-rated, and that is the strong point of a club with the #24 Defense and #27 Offense. That is all Amaro's responsibility. A change at the top is needed. Desperately. Period.