The Royals are 13-12: Offensive Concerns and a Different Leadoff Option

It’s May, and things are…fine.

April started great, with the Royals splitting with the Mets, sweeping the Twins, and wining 3 of 4 at Minute Maid Park in Houston. After dropping 2 of 3 in Oakland, the Royals came home to win 4 of 6 against the Tigers and Orioles. Through 18 games, they sat at 12-6. This is a good start.

But April ended poorly. The Royals won only 1 game the rest of the way after getting swept by the Angels and losing 2 of 3 to the Mariners. The offense sputtered. The defense struggled. The pitching stumbled. The West Coast has not been friendly thus far.

So here we are, on May 2, and the Royals are 13-12. Things are fine. The first 3 weeks were, for the most part, strong. This past week has been, almost entirely, terrible. If that trend continues throughout the season, this team is a playoff team. The baseball season is long, and there are going to be times when the team is thriving and there are going to be times when the team is regressing. That’s baseball.

So that’s what we’re looking for: Trends. What are the current areas of concern that we ought to be worried about turning into trends?

Consider the case of Joakim Soria.

If I had written this post two weeks ago, Soria would’ve highlighted the argument. On Opening Night, Soria made his triumphant return out of the bullpen to take the bump for the Royals. He pitched the 8th inning, inheriting a 4-0 ballgame. He got 2 outs. He gave up 3 runs on 3 hits and 2 walks. He left the game with runners on 1st and 2nd and needed Luke Hochevar to get him out of it.

Between April 3 and April 19, Soria had a 7.71 ERA. He had given up 6 runs on 10 hits and walked 5 in 7 innings over 8 games. Opponents were hitting .333/.417/.567 off him. Not great.

But while the rest of the team has been floundering on the west coast, Joakim Soria has looked more like himself. From April 20 to May 1, his ERA is 2.21, and the only blemish is a home run to some guy named Mike Trout. The temporary concern did not become a trend, and the pumpkin turned back into a carriage. Or something.

So what are the concerns? And which of them are trends?

Save for a few poor outings, the pitching has been strong, and while the defense hasn’t been as tight as we are accustomed to it being, it’s not like the 9 guys who make up one of the best defenses in baseball suddenly got the yips and can’t play. They’ve had a few slow turns on double plays and couple plays by Escobar and Cain that we know they usually make. Those will come around.

No, the concern is on the offensive side of the ball. We know this. And it’s not just a couple guys either, it’s basically everyone not named Eric or Michael. Eric Hosmer has reached base in every game this season but one. He is hitting .337. Mike Moustakas is has 7 home runs. He is slugging .548. He can seemingly go to the opposite field at will.

The rest of the team is hitting .233/.283/.324. Basically, the rest of the team is hitting like 2015 Omar Infante. Infante, interestingly enough, is bringing up those numbers hitting a .256/.289/.346 this season. Take out his .256/.289/.346 from those numbers, and the rest of the team sits at a .230/282/.321.

The Royals have been shut out 3 times in the last 4 days at the hands of Felix Hernandez, Wade Miley and Gio Gonzalez. Two lefties and one of the best pitchers in baseball? Sure. But those numbers above aren’t just over the past week. It’s over an entire month of the season. And that’s concerning.

Who are we really talking about here? The biggest culprits are Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain and Kendrys Morales. Let’s throw Alcides Escobar into the mix too, although, when you don’t expect a lot of offensive production from a guy it’s tough to point to him as the problem. But he’s still a problem…just a different kind of problem. We’ll get to that at the end. The major issues are Gordon, Morales and Cain.

The Alex Gordon Concern

Alex Gordon’s issue is strikeouts. He’s already fanned 32 times in 2016 which means he’s on pace for 207. Last season, Chris Davis led all of baseball with 208 Ks. No one else had over 200. Last year Alex Gordon struck out 92 times. He averages 144 per 162 games. This is a problem, but is it a trend? There’s no way this strikeout rate will continue. It’s simply not consistent with Gordon’s career body of work. His .205 batting average is the lowest among our 9 starters.

I don’t know what the explanation is – it’s like he’s not picking the ball up or his timing is off or something. Last night, while facing Jonathan Papelbon in the 9th, Gordon couldn’t catch up to a 91 MPH fastball up in the zone. He got multiple pitches he typically feasts on, but he couldn’t barrel them. Something is off with Gordon, but I’m not totally sure what it is.

I can tell you this though: it’s Alex Friggin Gordon. He’ll work harder than any of us at finding out what his issue is. He has a body of work that over the course of a season is among the most consistent in baseball. There is about as much chance that Alex Gordon strikes out 200 times as there is the Chicago White Sox win the 122 games they’re currently on pace for. It’s early, and numbers do weird things in small sample sizes.

The Kendrys Morales Concern

But Kendrys Morales isn’t much better at .217. Big Ken had a slow start, hitting just .160 over the first 7 games of the season. But then he hit .324 from games 8 to 17. But over the past 8 games he’s hit a paltry .136 – just 3 hits in 22 ABs.

But Morales’s most recent struggles seem to be due to bad luck more than anything else. According to Fangraphs, Morales is making harder contact (38%) in 2016 than he has in any season in his career. He has hit the ball HARD over the past week or so. He blistered a deep ball to RF just foul in Seattle and had at least one line drive land barely foul down the LF line. Two nights ago he hit a line drive directly to the second baseman. Just last night he squared up a ball that the left fielder caught a foot shy of the wall.

Granted, his 19.2% soft contact rate is also his highest since 2008. Makes sense his numbers would be a bit polarized with the start he’s had, but all in all I don’t think there’s anything to be concerned about when it comes to Morales’s bat. Slow start, sure, but over the middle chunk of April he was excellent, and he’s had a ton of bad luck over the past few games. Look of him to take off in May.

The Lorenzo Cain Concern

Cain has gotten better and better every season over the past three years. Every year we expect him to regress, and every year he impresses us more than the year before. He’s an All Star, should be a Gold Glover, he finished 3rd in the AL MVP race last year. He’s on the verge of being a star. And at some point over the past few years – maybe it was winning it all, or maybe it was just missing out on the MVP – but at some point I think he bought into the hype himself and started trying to be more than he his.

Cain’s issue this season is that he’s trying to hit for too much power. He’s leaning back and ending up having terrible plate appearances. It looks like he’s guessing at the plate, hoping to connect with one. Rather than maintaining his balance and spraying pitches all over the park, he’s sitting back and hoping to guess right on a fastball.

Since this is a list of concerns, you know it hasn’t gone well. He’s hitting .231/.300/.297. He has 2 home runs, but otherwise doesn’t have any extra base hits. Zero doubles. Zero triples. His K% is up from 16.2% in 2015 to 27.0% in 2016 – not as bad as Gordon’s 32.7%, but it’s bad.

However, over the past 5 games or so, Lorenzo has begun hitting to right field again. In fact, all of his hits in the past week have been to CF or RF. He’s been pretty consistently bad over the season, scattering 2 or 3 hits over each series, but he seems to have identified what the issue is and addressed it.

I’m the most worried about Cain though because he doesn’t have the body of work present to point to and say, “See, that’s who he really is, he’ll turn it around.” No, Cain’s career success has really only been limited to the past two years, so I’m less optimistic that he’ll turn it around like I am with Gordon and Morales. But he’s already showing glimpses of his old self. I’m not ready to call this a trend yet though. I’m hopeful.

The Leadoff Hitter Concern

And finally, you get the one legitimate concern in the lineup. Our leadoff hitter, Alcides Escobar.

This has been well chronicled by many, but still: no team in baseball got less production out of the leadoff spot last year than the Kansas City Royals. Yet they won the World Series…in large part due to the overwhelmingly hot bat of Alcides Escobar. He was the ALCS MVP. He hit a leadoff inside the park homerun in Game 1 of the World Series. He was on fire.

But cmon. He has a career .261 AVG and .291 OBP. If we learned one thing from Moneyball it’s that you want the guys at the top of your lineup to get on base so that your sluggers can hit them in. But I understand, OBP isn’t the Royals gameplan – it’s ambush hitting, it’s putting the ball in play, it’s forcing the defense to make a play, and in that sense, I suppose he fits the Royals formula for success.

But the best argument against Escobar as the leadoff hitter is the one laid out by Craig Brown at Baseball Prospectus: over the course of a full season, do you really want Alcides Escobar to get 150 more at bats than, say, Alex Gordon? (Not on the streak he’s on right now, no, but you get the point.) Because that’s what is happening. A poor hitter is getting 150 more plate appearances than a good one. Doesn’t compute.

That said, I question whether there’s a better option. The only options I’ve heard are Alex Gordon, Lorenzo Cain or Jarrod Dyson. But regardless of how you structure it, those guys all present problems too. Gordon and Dyson both create a lineup that’s too lefty heavy at the top, and Dyson has never proven he can hit over a full season and Gordon basically sucks right now anyway. Cain creates a hole in the 3 spot, which would need to be plugged by…who? Hosmer? Morales? Gordon? Again, lefty heavy.

Here’s my alternative suggestion…

  • Mike Moustakas
  • Lorenzo Cain
  • Eric Hosmer
  • Kendrys Morales
  • Alex Gordon
  • Salvador Perez
  • Omar Infante
  • Jarrod Dyson
  • Alcides Escobar

Yep. That’s right. Just move Esky to the bottom and move everyone else up.

You can split hairs over who should go where in the 7-8-9 slots, but that’s not the point. The point is that the lineup now has the same turnover as it did before, only those extra 150 plate appearances from Escobar are now being spread out among the rest of your best hitters.

Is Mike Moustakas the prototypical leadoff hitter? Absolutely not. Doesn’t he have too much power to be hitting with no one else on base? Completely agree. But what other option is there? We don’t have a leadoff hitter on this team, so it doesn’t really matter who we go with. The point is that lineup construction generally doesn’t matter outside of which guys you want getting the most swings over a season. Who do I want getting those swings? Moose, Cain, Hosmer, Morales and Gordon.

So, what do we have to be concerned about? Is there an apparent trend we need to be aware of? Honestly, not really. Gordon’s track record suggests he’ll turn it around. Morales has been mostly unlucky. Cain has already shown glimpses of figuring out his stroke, but he’s the biggest worry of those three.

Finally, get Escobar out of the leadoff spot. And since we don’t actually have a legitimate leadoff hitter, why not do the simplest possible adjustment?

I’ll listen off the air, thanks.

-apc.

Photo cred: Fox Sports accessed here.

Defining an Ace III: Who will rise above the Ace Line in 2016?

If you missed Parts 1 & 2 in this series, here they are: Defining an Ace and Introducing Ace Line Calendar.

As we gear up for the 2016 season, there are some “ace” questions on my mind. Specifically three…

  1. Which starting pitchers can we confidently call an “ace” entering the season?
  2. Which starters below the “ace line” are most likely to break into ace status this season?
  3. Are there any starters who are likely to backslide and lose their ace status in 2016?

If you haven’t used the Ace Line Calendar yet, here’s a refresher on how it works. Find today’s date on the calendar. Click over to Bill James Online’s Starting Pitcher Rankings and compare the values listed there to the ones on the calendar. If the value is higher than the “Obvious Yes” value, then he is obviously an ace. If it’s lower than the “Definite No” value, then he’s definitely not an ace. If it’s in between, then it’s open to some debate.

To further understand it, let’s look at our first question.

Who are the aces entering the 2016 MLB season?

Today is March 30, and the values for that date on the calendar are 486.4 and 474.6. When we embed those values into the current BJO SP Rankings, the rankings look like this…

  1. Clayton Kershaw – 596.4
  2. Zack Greinke – 554.6
  3. Max Scherzer – 540.5
  4. Jake Arrieta – 539.4
  5. David Price – 533.0
  6. Madison Bumgarner – 533.0
  7. Chris Sale – 512.1
  8. Corey Kluber – 504.0
  9. Dallas Keuchel – 502.5
  10. Jon Lester – 500.9
  11. Cole Hamels – 499.2
  12. Felix Hernandez – 488.6
    —— Obvious Yes Line – 486.4 ——
  13. Johnny Cueto – 481.6
  14. Jacob deGrom – 476.0
  15. Stephen Strasburg – 475.3
    —— Definite No Line – 474.6 ——
  16. John Lackey – 471.6
  17. Jordan Zimmerman – 465.1
  18. R.A. Dickey – 464.3
  19. Tyson Ross – 463.4
  20. Sonny Gray – 463.0
  21. James Shields – 462.5
  22. Chris Archer – 461.7
  23. Jose Quintana – 461.6
  24. Francisco Liriano – 459.1
  25. Gerrit Cole – 456.1
  26. Lance Lynn – 447.3
  27. Edinson Volquez – 445.0
  28. Julio Teheran – 444.5
  29. Carlos Carrasco – 442.1
  30. Wei-Yin Chen – 442.0

Based on the Ace Lines, your obvious aces entering the 2016 season are Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Max Scherzer, Jake Arrieta, Madison Bumgarner, David Price, Chris Sale, Corey Kluber, Dallas Keuchel, Jon Lester, Cole Hamels and Felix Hernandez. There is some hesitation in calling Johnny Cueto, Jacob deGrom and Stephen Strasburg aces, so they’re on the bubble right now, and everyone ranked lower than that is currently on the outside looking in.

Which brings us two question two…

Which current non-aces will reach ace status in 2016?

The obvious answers are Johnny Cueto, Jacob deGrom and Stephen Strasburg. All it takes is one good start and they’re back in the club. Who is deeper on the list that we need to be watching for?

The first two names that come to mind are Matt Harvey (437.2) and Adam Wainwright (319.5) . Harvey could be in the mix as early as May or June he already had time to climb the ladder in 2015. Wainwright would have to pitch like Jake Arrieta did last season to come anywhere close to making it, but his name will be on the rise for sure.

Lots of folks are expecting Chris Archer (461.7) to break out in 2016 for the Rays, and I’m no different. I expect him to compete for AL Cy Young. His name will almost certainly be among the other aces by the end of the year. Carlos Carrasco (442.1) is currently behind Corey Kluber in the Indians rotation, but after back to back strong campaigns in 2014 and 2015, he is poised to make it there as well. It’s possible that Justin Verlander (433.0) might get his swagger back after fading significantly in 2014 and most of 2015, and Shelby Miller – the unluckiest pitcher in baseball in 2015 – could turn a corner now with the Diamondbacks, a team that plays solid defense and provides a lot of run support.

Finally, Gerrit Cole (456.1) is entering 2016 with a chip on his shoulder. He thinks he deserves a raise and an extension, and he’s probably right, but the Pirates aren’t budging and they certainly don’t have to. He’s set to make $541,000 in 2016 after going 19-6 with a 2.60 ERA in 2015, and he’s even more motivated this season. His name will almost certainly climb the rankings.

Of course, the names right around the line could rise or fade slightly, but those are the names I’ll be watching closely.

Any other names you’d expect to become obvious aces in 2016?

Which current aces will fall below the Ace Line in 2016?

Barring a season-altering injury, great pitchers don’t generally implode and turn terrible overnight, so predicting names to drop below the ace line in 2016 is tougher to pick, but there are a few names that could dip in 2016.

Madison Bumgarner has had a terrible spring. Granted, there is absolutely no correlation between Spring Training and regular season stats. Sometimes guys are trying out new pitches, or working on pitching inside or outside, locating pitches. Who knows? Winning isn’t important. It’s the practice that matters. But when the phrase “wasn’t very good” comes straight from the horses mouth, well…you have to wonder. He has lingering foot and ribcage injuries that he claims haven’t been nagging him, but you never know. When there’s smoke…

While we’re talking about the Giants, I’ll throw Johnny Cueto into the mix as well. We saw Cueto struggle with a new team, catcher and ballpark when he joined the Royals in the second half of last season. Developing rapport in Spring Training can only help, but I do wonder which Johnny Beisbol the Giants will see out the gate.

The only other name that gives me any pause is Corey Kluber, but I don’t think that’s founded on anything. His 2015 season was just bad luck. His 9-16 record looks awful, but his 2.97 FIP looks really nice. His 1.054 WHIP was down from 2014 and his K/BB rate was just as strong as well. I expect him to stay among the aces.

But really, everyone listed there belongs, and it’s hard to envision anyone who doesn’t belong among that group. Barring injury, I’d be surprised if any of them dropped below the line.

I’ll be monitoring this list throughout the season.

Is it April 3 yet?!

-apc.

Image cred: Getty Images, accessed via The Sporting News.

2016 MLB Predictions

I was going to wait until Alex Rios signed with a team before doing these predictions, but it seems he may not sign until after Opening Day. Which means the balance of power could still shift significantly. This is sarcasm.

Opening Day is just 6 short days away. The calendar is nearing April, which means the NCAA tournament has lost it’s intrigue and Spring Training games somehow feel even more pointless every day. I’m itching to get back to baseball, and what better way than to make some 2016 season predictions?

AL East

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

I can tell you who won’t win this division: the Orioles. What in the world are they doing in Baltimore? Going into the offseason they had a gap at 1B with the free agency of Chris Davis. Not only did they re-sign him to a stupid expensive contract, they tripled down on the position by also adding Mark Trumbo and Pedro Alvarez. Will they hit home runs? Absolutely. But they’ll also have to play Trumbo in right field where he is atrocious defensively, and their pitching is neither impressive nor deep. This team will lose a lot of 10-8 games.

Beyond that, this division appears wide open. Take your pick.

Toronto will score an insane amount of runs, but I refuse to pick a team with two stars (Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista) involved in contract disputes. The Red Sox are projected to be the strongest team with the addition of David Price and a maturing outfield. David Ortiz‘s final season could be memorable. The Yankees added Aroldis Chapman and now have the best 7-8-9 trio in baseball. The Rays have quietly built a deep (albeit unexciting) roster of talent. Kevin Keirmaier is the best defensive outfielder in the game and Chris Archer is soon going to find himself among the best.

I’ll take New York and Tampa with Boston just missing the cut.

AL Central

  1. Kansas City Royals
  2. Cleveland Indians
  3. Minnesota Twins
  4. Detroit Tigers
  5. Chicago White Sox

People say this division is the most wide open in baseball, but I just don’t see it. Perhaps what they really mean is “every team in this division is a regression candidate” which is the more accurate statement. You can assume consistency as much as you can assume regression, and the Royals have proven they are for real and they have a formula that works. And the next person who says, “Yeah, but they lost Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist!” can shove it. Neither of those guys were on the team until the end of July in 2015 – KC was 61-38 and up 9 games in the Central before their arrival – and the team they have right now is better than the one they began 2015.

The questions surround their challengers. Can Detroit bounce back or are they as washed up as they appeared in 2015? Will the Twins build on their surprising 2015 season or will their young talent backslide this season? And can the Indians – who have one of the strongest starting pitching arsenals in the league with Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar – do anything else well enough to succeed, or will their defense bite them again this season?

The White Sox will be bad despite what a handful of national experts will tell you. I’m almost as perplexed by their offseason as I am with Baltimore’s. Why do they need both Brett Lawrie and Todd Frazier? How many third basemen does one team need? Doesn’t make sense. This team will underachieve as they always do.

AL West

  1. Houston Astros
  2. Texas Rangers
  3. Los Angeles Angels
  4. Seattle Mariners
  5. Oakland Athletics

Everyone is picking the Astros in 2016, and for good reason. This Houston team is going to be really really good. The only question mark in their lineup is whether Jon Singleton and rookie A.J. Reed can lock down first base. Otherwise they’re strong up and down their lineup: Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Colby Rasmus, Carlos Gomez, Luis Valbuena, George Springer, Evan Gattis, Jason Castro. They even have solid outfield depth in Preston Tucker and Jake Marisnick.

The other two teams to watch in this division are the Angels and Rangers. The Halos still has Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, and they added Andrelton Simmons‘s gold glove defense this offseason. The question is whether their pitching can show up like it did in 2014, or whether they’ll continue to struggle. I don’t understand why they didn’t do more this offseason – they appear to be

The Rangers are the more likely team to beat out the Astros for the division. Prince Fielder appears to be his old self. Their rotation is deep with Cole Hamels, Yu DarvishDerek Holland, Colby Lewis and Martin Perez. Otherwise this is pretty much the same team that won 88 games in 2015 plus Josh Hamilton. It’s going to come down to Texas, Cleveland and Boston for the final wild card spot, and my money is on the veteran Rangers.

In recent years, the American League has been harder to predict because the competition is more level across the league. This year, there are scenarios in which nearly every AL team (besides Oakland, really) could make the postseason.

In the National League, I only count 8 possible postseason teams…

NL East

  1. Washington Nationals
  2. New York Mets
  3. Miami Marlins
  4. Atlanta Braves
  5. Philadelphia Phillies

In the East, there are only two options: Washington and New York.

The Mets strength is their rotation of Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom. They brought back Yoenis Cespedes. They added Asdrubal Cabrera and Neil Walker to play middle infield. Dusty Baker‘s Nationals also feature strong starters in Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, and they have a guy named Bryce Harper who seems decent. They added Daniel Murphy from New York. Twenty-two year old Trea Turner sounds a lot like Jose Altuve to me, but he was optioned to AAA last week, but it sounds like he’ll eventually get the job at shortstop later this season. If he clicks, watch out for the Nats.

This race will likely come down to two things: who can stay healthiest and who can beat the other three teams in the division the most. When you get to play 1/3 of your games against Miami, Atlanta and Philadelphia, you’ve got a chance to win a lot of games. I’ll take Washington to bounce back this year while New York inexplicably can’t put it together to defend their NL pennant.

One additional note about the Marlins: I can’t wait to watch this team improve under new skipper, Don Mattingly, and rookie hitting coach, Barry Bonds. I guarantee you this team will rake in 2016. Bonds is going to be dynamite. There’s not enough pitching talent to take them to the postseason, but they’ll be fun to watch in 2016.

NL Central

  1. Chicago Cubs
  2. St. Louis Cardinals
  3. Pittsburgh Pirates
  4. Milwaukee Brewers
  5. Cincinnati Reds

In the Central, it’s a three team race yet again. This division entered a new phase when the Cubs took down the Cardinals in the NLDS in 2015. They’re young, they’re deep, they’re loose and already have postseason success. It’s easy to understand why the Cubs are the favorites to win it all in 2016. Bringing back Dexter Fowler, signing Ben Zobrist and swiping Jason Heyward and John Lackey from the Cardinals this offseason only helps their case. They’ve got the reigning Cy Young in Jake Arrieta and the best manager in baseball in Joe Maddon. Postseason? Absolutely. World Series? Who knows.

The Cardinals did nothing this offseason. They just sat there and watched while the Cubs spent gobs of cash on the guys mentioned above. They’re all in on their “next guy up” philosophy in 2016. Their team fell apart in 2015 – Adam Wainwright missed the season with an Achilles injury, Matt Holliday only played 73 games, Matt Adams only played 60 games and Yadier Molina missed a month with a thumb injury…and they still won 100 games.

Last year’s roster was stabilized by consistent play from Matt Carpenter, Jhonny Peralta and Jason Heyward. But Heyward is gone and Peralta is already going to be out for a while with a thumb injury. Suddenly names like Tommy Pham and Stephen Piscotty are everyday players, and yet they’re almost certain to step in and fill in without causing the team to decline at all. They have a machine in St. Louis that churns out successful big leaguers and they’re all in on their system this year. And you know what? It feels foolish to bet against it. I’m betting they sneak into the Wild Card game this season.

And poor poor Pittsburgh. This team has been bitten by the Wild Card Game two consecutive years, and it’s not inconceivable to think that they could be where the Royals are had one of those games gone differently. Last year they had the second best record in baseball behind STL, and they have nothing to show for it. They need Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano to be nails this season and shore up their rotation, and they need Jung Ho Kang to return to health and stay hot this year. Josh Harrison becomes the everyday second baseman with the departure of Neil Walker, and John Jaso steps in for Pedro Alvarez at first. This team seems like they’re going to regress a bit, and I’m afraid Pittsburgh misses the playoffs this season. They deserve better.

NL West

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

And this is where it gets brutal. I see three playoff teams in this division too, but only two of them can make it. Which one misses the cut in 2016?

Giants: They added Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija (who I think is grossly overrated) to an already strong rotation with Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain. They added Denard Span in the outfield who I think is going to have a very strong campaign this year. Buster Posey is healthy, Hunter Pence is healthy, and 2016 is an even year.

Dodgers: They lost Zack Greinke, but they still have the best pitcher on Earth in Clayton Kershaw. They’ve got a new manager in Dave Roberts. Corey Seager is the man at SS this season which should be an improvement. They added Scott Kazmir to replace Greinke, but they’re also putting a lot of their hope in Kenta Maeda at SP. The Dodgers already has a string of injuries concerns (Andre Ethier, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Brandon McCarthey, Mike Bolsinger will all start the season on the DL), but they’ve brought in enough talent that this team ought to be able to survive it. If Second Half Joc Pederson shows up along with an unhealthy Yasiel Puig, this team might be in trouble. There are a lot of “if’s” on this team, but they should have plenty of money to solve them, right?

Diamondbacks: They gained Zack Greinke who, along with Shelby Miller, shore up a starting pitching unit that ought to be significantly improved upon from last season. Paul Goldschmidt is a perennial MVP candidate and A.J. Pollock emerged last season as a star in the league. Projections expect this team to hover around or just below .500, but I feel like that’s underestimating this squad. The offense was there last season and ought to be potent again this year, throw in a powerful rotation, and I really like what I see in this team. They went 79-83 in 2015, and got much better this offseason.

But I can’t pick all three to make the playoffs which means I have to pick against one of them, so I’m leaving out the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2016. It’s a bold prediction, but these things aren’t any fun if you don’t take some chances.

So here you go, my 2016 MLB predictions…

American League: Yankees, Royals, Astros, Rays, Rangers
National League: Nationals, Cubs, Giants, Diamondbacks, Cardinals

ALCS: Astros over Yankees
NLCS: Cubs over Giants

World Series: Cubs over Astros

AL MVP: Carlos Correa
NL MVP: Bryce Harper

AL CY: Chris Archer
NL CY: Zack Greinke

AL ROY: A.J. Reed
NL ROY: Corey Seager

-apc.

Image cred: The Washington Times accessed here.

Cactus League: Weirdo stuff at Camelback

KC was at Camelback Ranch in Glendale Thursday taking on the hated White Sox. Things got weird, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s start by talking about Camelback Ranch.

Camelback Ranch

I’ve now been to 4 different Cactus League. Surprise (Royals, Rangers) is pretty basic as far as Spring sites go. I went to Goodyear (Reds, Indians) and Mesa (Cubs) last year, and those are both really pretty, but Camelback Ranch (Dodgers, White Sox) is on another level.

Camelback features yellow seats – similar to the pale yellow seats of Dodger Stadium – and a beautiful red-brown concourse with a tarp overhang for extra shade. The buildings are stone and iron with vegetation built in around the edges. It’s really impressive. 

 

I’m hoping to make it to Salt River Fields (Diamondbacks, Rockies) on Saturday, and I hear their facility is the best out here. But for now, the park in Glendale is top of my list.

Duffy plunks two consecutive batters

Okay, now let’s get to the weird stuff.

Ian Kennedy was the starter. He went 3 innings ad only allowed 2 hits, one of which was a solo home run to Matt Davidson. Danny Duffy relieved him throwing innings 4 to 6. He also allowed 2 hits and also allowed a solo home run to Public Enemy #1, Brett Lawrie, in the 5th.

But the 4th inning was classic Danny Duffy. He started by giving up a single and a stolen base. Got a guy to pop out, but then promptly lost control and hit two consecutive batters – Hector Sanchez and Mike Olt. He was very deliberate in apologizing to Sanchez – not sure if he apologized to Olt or not – and then with the bases loaded and 1 out, just when you think Duffy is going to fall apart entirely, he got a strikeout and a groundout to end the inning with no damage.

The bullpen looked great too – 3 innings of 1 hit ball. Luke Hochevar threw a perfect 7th, Brian Duensing threw a perfect 8th, and Ross Ohlendorf – who has had an absolutely dreadful Spring to this point – stranded a leadoff double in the 9th.

Triple Play

Okay, now let’s get weirder. In the 5th inning Raymond Fuentes singled and Dusty Coleman walked, bringing up Tony Cruz with two on and nobody out.

The Royals tried a double hit and run. Coleman and Fuentes broke with the pitch and Cruz laced a fastball hard into left field. The ball carried and found leather on a line. The left fielder tossed it to the second baseman who tossed it on to the pitcher covering first, and the White Sox had turned a triple play. A 7-4-1 TP for those of you keeping score at home. Inning over.

Butera Inside-the-parker

Yet somehow things got even weirder.

The box score says the Sox committed 3 errors on the day, but those of us who were there know that was extremely generous. It easily could’ve been 5 or 6.

The most egregious “hit” call came in the 7th when the Royals blew the game open. They batted around and put up 7 runs.

Drew Butera was playing first base. In fact, all three KC catchers were in the game – Cruz catching, Salvador Perez DHing. Butera hit a line drive into left center. The left fielder took a bad angle and couldn’t close on it. Then he fell over. The ball rolled to the wall.

The center fielder, backing up the play, reached the ball first. He bent over to pick it up. He couldn’t. At this point, Butera is somewhere between second and third. The defender tried again and the ball evaded him again. Butera came around to score standing up – the Royals second inside the parker in three days.

But no, the outfield did nothing wrong, let’s give him a home run. Sure.

Royals won 9-2. The White Sox looked really terrible. And I sure don’t care much for Brett Lawrie. He couldn’t be a better fit on this Chicago team.

Headed back to Surprise today. Diamondbacks @ Kansas City. Until tomorrow.

-apc.

Cactus League: Gordon and Hosmer murder baseballs, KC wins 7-5.

Greetings from Arizona!

I’m in Phoenix over the next four days checking out Spring Training with my buddies, Dan and Zach. The weather is warm and the libations are on point. Life could be worse.

The Royals played two split squad games on Wednesday. I was in Surprise watching the Royals play the Milwaukee Brewers. Yordano Ventura got the start for the home team against Wily Peralta. The other was in Peoria against Seattle. Sounds like Drew Butera had a day there.

Here were the takeaways for me from yesterday’s game in Surprise.

Hosmer and Gordon hit balls far.

I don’t talk about Eric Hosmer enough. I forget about the guy. Maybe I take him for granted. He gets so much attention from the ladies and media that I don’t feel inclined to add to the noise. He’s fine, but I admit, he’s not my prototypical favorite ballplayer. I like generally appreciate defense, speed, versatility and pitching. He’s got a couple of those, I suppose. I gravitate towards shortstops, pitchers, centerfielders and utilitymen. Corner infielders and corner outfielders generally just aren’t my primary interest. Forgive me.

But Wednesday, the corners stole the show. Hosmer went 2-2 with a walk and HR (like 420′ to straightaway CF), Mike Moustakas went 2-3 with a double, and Gordon went 4-4 with a HR (like 440′ to CF). Multiple baseballs were murdered, obviously.

Hosmer launched his in the 3rd. It landed halfway up the centerfield batters eye. Gordon matched him in the 6th. His landed 3/4 of the way up and one hopped the wall beyond. Crushed. It.

See that green grass and wall beyond centerfield? Hosmer’s ball landed halfway up the grass. Gordon’s bounced to the wall.

Spring Training games are mostly pointless in terms of wins/losses, but what does matter is whether or not guys appear to be in rhythm. They’re called “Training” games for a reason. And the starters, in general, do appear to be in rhythm. Those three combined to go 8-9 vs the Brewers, which is about all you can ask for really.

Salvador Perez and Omar Infante left a lot to be desired, however. Infante batted third today and went 0-3 with 3 popouts. Salvy went 0-3 with a walk and grounded into a bases loaded double play. In that at bat, Salvy got ahead in the count 3-0, but had the green light for some reason (again, probably wouldn’t be swinging 3-0 during the regular season). If that ball had found grass, it could’ve really been a route.

Fortunately we only expect something from one of those two. I’m fully anticipating Christian Colon winning the second base job.

Yordano roughed up early, dirty late.

I’ve been impressed with our starters so far this spring. Kyle Zimmer has looked sharp. Edinson Volquez has felt sexy. Ian Kennedy impressed me. Yordano looked solid in his first start.

But Yordano got roughed up a bit on Wednesday giving up 3 runs on 5 hits in the first inning. It seemed like the Brewers were working on slapping the ball the opposite way off his fastball.

He settled down for the next two innings though throwing a perfect 2nd and 3rd. The last batter he faced was Chris Carter who he threw 4 pitches – 2 dirty breaking balls, a show-me 97 mph fastball, and one more knee buckling curve. Made him look foolish.

It seems like Ventura is figuring out he doesn’t just have to throw smoke to get guys out. He wasn’t spectacular in 2015. It’d be nice to see him revert back to his 2014 self this year. Overall, Wednesday was both poor and yet promising.

The Eephus League Scorecard

Most of you wont care about this one bit, but I’m trying out a new scorecard this week.

In the 1940s, a new pitch developed called the “eephus” pitch. Supposedly invented by Rip Sewell, it was basically a slowball junk pitch. Only one man ever hit one for a home run – that was Ted Williams in the 1946 All-Star Game. I think that stat is real. Maybe not. Apparently the word “eephus” is thought to come from the Hebrew word for “nothing,” as in, “that pitch ain’t nothing.”

The original scorecard is sleek and pocket sized. I bought the cheapest one as a trial run. If it goes well this week, I’ll get the half season one for the regular season. Just wanted to rep a pretty sweet company if you’re into scorekeeping like some of use nerds.

Check out Eephus League here.

Welp. That’s it for now. Headed to Camelback Ranch today to see KC take on the Worst Sox.

-apc.

Defining an Ace, Part II: Introducing the Ace Line Calendar

Introducing the Ace Line Calendar.

Over the past month or so, I’ve been slowly piecing together a pseudo-objective system for gauging whether or not an MLB starting pitcher is an “ace” or not on any given day. Ace. It’s a subjective term with an extremely loose definition. It’s also a fluid term that changes month to month, year to year.

What I’ve come up with is the Ace Line Calendar. Allow me to introduce you.

By the way, if you haven’t read my first post in this series, I recommend checking it out here.

Why create this system?

First, a story.

On July 26, 2015, the Kansas City Royals acquired Johnny Cueto from the Cincinnati Reds for a trio of lefty pitching prospects. Media outlets everywhere declared that the Royals had finally added the ace their team desperately needed. And they were right. According to Bill James Online’s Starting Pitcher Rankings on that day, Johnny Cueto ranked as the 7th best pitcher in all of baseball with a score of 547.1.

Two weeks later on August 10, Cueto dazzled in his first home start at Kauffman Stadium. He threw a complete game shutout, allowing only 4 hits, walking zero and striking out 8. When BJO’s rankings were updated the next day his score had jumped to 556, good for the 5th best pitcher in baseball.

From there, you may remember, it got rocky. Cueto got shelled numerous times during the months of August and September causing him to tumble 38 points to 518.5 by the end of the regular season.

The question of who to start in Game 1 of the ALDS for the Royals would have been obvious just two months prior, but many wondered whether or not the term “ace” still applied to Johnny Cueto. Was Cueto still an ace? Or was he merely a “good” pitcher at this point? Suddenly, instead of surrounding himself with names like Max Scherzer and David Price, he was hanging around the likes of John Lackey and R.A. Dickey. Still good pitchers. But not aces these days.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have some system – some quick metric – that could answer that annoyingly subjective terminology for you? I think it would. And even if it didn’t close the book on the discussion, it’d make the conversation that much richer.

So that’s my motivation. And the Ace Line Calendar just happens to be where I ended up.

By the way, the Royals threw Yordano Ventura in Game 1.

Using the Ace Line Calendar

Despite how the ensuing paragraphs appear, this isn’t a very complicated system. Bill James has done the hardest work for me in creating a fluid ranking system to utilize. All I’ve done is compiled it, plotted it and created a spreadsheet out of the numbers the data spit my way.

The Ace Line Calendar is a list of all 365 calendar days. It begins on April 1 and runs through March 31. For every day, it gives two numbers – the first number is the Obvious Yes Line, the second is the Definite No Line. The Obvious Yes Line declares that every starting pitcher with a score higher than that corresponding number is obviously an ace. The Definite No Line declares that anyone with a score below that corresponding number is definitely not an ace. For now, anyone in between is debatable.

Go ahead, pick any date in the last 6 baseball seasons. Okay, June 30, 2014. Or, the day some nobody named Jake Arrieta took a no hitter into the 8th inning at Fenway Park. Good choice.

From there, it’s a two step process:

Step 1: Go to the Ace Line Calendar and look up June 30.

Step 2: Compare the outputs with the BJO Starting Pitcher Rankings for 6/30/14. (You can select any date in the past 6 years on the SPR page.)

The output from the Calendar: 506.8/496.2.

The list for 6/30/14…

  1. Clayton Kershaw – 584.4
  2. Felix Hernandez – 557.7
  3. Adam Wainwright – 549.9
  4. Max Scherzer – 548.4
  5. Yu Darvish – 546.3
  6. David Price – 528.2
  7. Jon Lester – 526.4
  8. Cliff Lee – 523.3
  9. Chris Sale – 522.1
  10. Zack Greinke – 521.5
  11. Anibal Sanchez – 521.3
  12. Madison Bumgarner – 521.1
  13. Cole Hamels – 520.8
  14. Jered Weaver – 513.6
  15. Johnny Cueto – 513.1
  16. Justin Verlander – 507.8
    —> YES LINE – 506.8
  17. Kyle Lohse – 497.3
  18. James Shields – 497.0
    —> NO LINE – 496.2
  19. Jordan Zimmerman – 492.1
  20. C.J. Wilson – 491.1

The list goes on, but the takeaway is clear: according to my Calendar system, on June 30, 2014, everyone from Kershaw to Verlander (who came in just over the 506.8 Obvious Yes Line) is obviously an ace, Kyle Lohse and James Shields are questionable, but Jordan Zimmerman, C.J. Wilson and the rest of the list are definitely not aces coming in under the 496.2 Definite No Line.

Aaaaaaand, that’s pretty much it. That’s the “Ace Line.” Works for any day, all year long. Give it a try. See what you think and give me some feedback. It might not be perfect yet, but it feels pretty spot on so far. I’m excited to monitor it as the 2016 MLB season progresses.

How It Works

Okay, so this is where things get more dense, but here’s how I determined those values.

In Defining an Ace, Part I, I sifted through the past 6 MLB seasons (as far back as the BJO system goes), and broke the top pitchers into groups of Obvious Aces, Hesitations and Definite Nos based purely on my gut reaction. The number of individuals in these groups varied slightly each year, but there was a definite correlation in where the break happened between the Aces and Nos. The scores as of February 5 (when I did the initial research) were all somewhere in the 485 to 500 range.

Since the values are fluid throughout the season and offseason, my next goal is to discover a formula (y=ax + b) of best fit for the data, where “y” is the pitcher ranking score, “x” is the date in the calendar year,  “a” is the slope of the line and b is the starting point on the y-axis.

For “ace” caliber pitchers, scores generally rise throughout the season and then taper off consistently with the rest of the league during the offseason. Those who pitch in the postseason can continue to add to their scores. Postseason is included in the rankings, but it needs to be adjusted to a different slope due to the fact that the vast majority of starters are no longer pitching in November and their scores, therefore, are slowly decreasing.

To find this formula, I plotted the scores of the top 50 pitchers from each season on the 1st of every month (4/1/11, 5/1/11, 6/1/11, etc.). I ignored pitcher names entirely, and focused purely on rankings which causes each position on the graph to increase at generally the same rate throughout the season.

For example, in 2015, the 2nd best pitcher in baseball (after Clayton Kershaw) changed 4 times throughout the season. Due to his dominant 2014 postseason, Madison Bumgarner began the season ranked #2. By May 1, Felix Hernandez had passed him. By July 1, Max Scherzer – aided by a near-perfect game in which the only baserunner came when Jose Tabata leaned into a pitch in the 9th inning) – took over, but by September 1, Zack Greinke jumped him and finished the season at #2.

But when you ignore player names and focus only on the score of the individual ranked #2, the scores look like this:

  • April 1: 536.7
  • May 1: 551.7
  • June 1: 564.0
  • July 1: 584.6
  • August 1: 582.6
  • September 1: 583.2
  • October 1: 583.2
  • November 1: 592.1

The lower down the list you go, the more movement there is between pitchers day-to-day, but the scores end up creating a pretty consistent slope as the season progressed (which is what I’m looking for). But what slope – what ranking – should be used to determine what constitutes an ace?

Well, actually, it can’t be determined that easily because it varies year to year. The number of aces isn’t always consistent. It’s not just the Top 15 pitchers in baseball or the #1 guy on all 30 teams. That’s naive and lazy (which I tackled in my previous post on this topic). It’s fluid, not limited, so the number of aces one year might be 10 but the next year could be 18.

So I went back and looked at my lists of Yeses, Hesitations and Nos and plotted the corresponding individuals’ end-of-year ranking over the entire previous season. So in 2015, I thought Johnny Cueto (ranked #13 to end the season) was definitely an ace, Jacob deGrom (#14) and Stephen Strasburg (#15) caused me to hesitate and consider their cases, but I could quickly say that John Lackey (#16) was not an ace pitcher in 2015.

So I traced the 2015 Yes Line (Cueto, #13) back throughout the season as well as the 2015 No Line (Lackey, #16). I did this for all six seasons BJO has kept the Starting Pitcher Rankings, 2010-2015. Those individuals, if you don’t want to go back and look at the previous post again, were…

  • 2015: Cueto (Yes, #13), deGrom, Strasburg, Lackey (No, #16)
  • 2014: Strasburg (Yes, #14), Darvish, Weaver, Dickey, Shields, Samardzija (No, #19)
  • 2013: Sale (Yes, #15), Weaver, Dickey, Latos (No, #17)
  • 2012: Hernandez (Yes, #13), Gonzalez, Gallardo, Greinke, Latos (No, #17)
  • 2011: Shields (Yes, #16), Gallardo, Beckett, Garza, Price, Wilson (No, #21)
  • 2010: Lilly (Yes, #15) Johnson, Kershaw, J. Santana, Greinke, W. Rodriguez (No, #20)

When charted out, this is what those values look like. Again, this is not charted by individual, but by ranking. (If you’re on a mobile device, try turning it 90 degrees to better see the chart.)

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

2010

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

High

Low

4/1

490.1

475.6

487.2

473.1

481.4

475.5

489.2

479.6

486.5

470.5

487.3

468.7

5/1

488.5

472.0

488.8

480.2

491.2

483.3

498.0

489.6

496.4

476.9

490.3

482.3

6/1

499.4

487.1

504.6

496.2

493.7

491.2

501.2

493.8

495.6

485.4

501.8

495.6

7/1

504.5

499.2

513.1

492.1

503.3

496.8

509.0

499.6

502.2

492.5

513.7

498.3

8/1

511.8

504.7

509.1

503.9

511.1

503.7

509.0

502.5

502.6

498.9

519.1

508.2

9/1

525.5

510.1

511.2

503.5

530.7

514.4

529.8

514.2

524.7

506.6

528.7

515.4

10/1

525.5

510.1

531.0

516.5

523.2

520.2

526.9

523.3

526.2

519.1

531.4

518.2

11/1

518.6

509.1

522.5

510.5

518.0

512.9

528.3

513.3

524.7

512.1

524.3

511.2

Save for a few exceptions, each pair of columns begins roughly in the same place (481-490 high, 475-486 low), increases as the season progresses, reaches its height at the beginning of October before dipping down again during the postseason. If we continue these numbers into the offseason, each one decreases at a constant rate of a quarter point per day.

The one hiccup here is that the slope from April 1 to October 1 is different than from October 1 to November 1 due to postseason play. So we’ll need to find two different slopes.

When we aggregate and plot the 4/1-10/1 values, it generates the following slopes…

  • Obvious Aces… y = 7.0756x + 478.71
  • Definitely Not Aces… y = 7.2952x + 467.21

At first glance, I’m surprised that Nos have a steeper slope (7.29 vs 7.07) than the Yeses. I expected the higher ranking to have a slightly steeper slope, but the opposite is true. I’m not exactly sure why that is. I suppose the starting point is lower so the ending point is higher. Guys at the top are more established while the guys at the bottom of consideration are often up-and-coming names who and a lot further to climb.

When we do the same for the 10/1-11/1 values, we get…

  • Obvious Aces… y = -4.6333x + 532
  • Definitely Not Aces… -6.3833x + 524.28

The disparity of slopes here (-6.38 vs -4.63) appears much more drastic, and for two reasons. First, the regular season formulas above are considering 6 times the data that the postseason stats are, so the outputs are much less extreme. Second, simply put, true aces shine in the postseason while non-aces don’t.

And now that we have slopes for the entire year, we can simply “plug and chug” (as my high school algebra teachers used to say) for each date. Which yields a complete calendar of dates starting on April 1 and ending on March 31. All that’s left to do is copy/paste the results into a Google spreadsheet and share it here.

Now, none of this is perfect, and there are probably a dozen different reasons why this is off. A couple things I’m already aware of…

  1. Opening Day is not always April 1, the postseason doesn’t always begin October 1. I recognize that the better way to construct this would be around a 162 game schedule and have it begin and end exactly when the season does. Maybe if this beta version amounts to anything I can tweak it to be even more accurate?
  2. This whole thing is pretty arbitrary. Who knows how much things would change if I moved one spot up or down in the SPR data here or there. But one thing I know is the more data you average, the less variance there is over one tiny change in input. Or what if I’d chosen the 15th instead of the 1st of each month? How would the data adjust? I actually don’t think very much.
  3. What about Leap Year?! Well, I both skipped it and didn’t. I actually calculated February to be 28.25 days so I wouldn’t have to make adjustments for a 366th day. So, just read Feb 28. Or wait it out and check in March for all I care. You do you.
  4. There’s some level of error, I’m sure. And if I broke it down and plotted every single day before rather than just every 30 days, a line of best fit would be immediately more accurate. But cmon, let’s be realistic with my time here. The only place that might be necessary is between 10/1 and 11/1. More data would help there.

Besides, ultimately this is just my opinion on what makes a guy an “ace” – your threshold might be much more conservative or liberal than mine. But now that you know how I did it, you can go make your own ALC if you want. But just so everyone knows, this is the original.

-apc.

Photo cred: MLB.com accessed here.

Defining an Ace

What’s an ace?

It is, perhaps, the most subjective baseball term thrown around these days. “He’s the ace of their staff.” Or, “That guy is a true ace.” There are a lot of ways to define it, and none of them actually bring much clarity because it can’t really be done objectively. 

So the goal here might be impossible: to objectively define what makes a pitcher an ace.

The easiest (and laziest) way to define it would to be to say, “There are 30 of them – the best starter on each team.” That’s obviously bogus, and for a lot of reasons.

For some teams, there’s an obvious ace: Chris Sale and Felix Hernandez, for example. For a few teams, there could be multiple ace-calibur guys: the 2015 Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke) or Cubs (Jake Arrieta or Jon Lester). For many teams, there’s no clear ace at all: the Royals, for example, have a group of good starters but none of them are truly dominant. As much as we might call him “Ace,” Yordano Ventura is no where close to being an ace…yet.

However, every team does declare a #1 starter, and if they don’t say so explicitly, we can assume their best starter is the guy who throws on Opening Day. This yields names like Phil Hughes, Kyle Kendrick and Kyle Lohse, all Opening Day starters in 2015. We should all be able to agree these are not aces. There’s a distinct difference between an “ace” and a “number one.”

So where do we begin to create a definition amid this curious landscape?

First, we need a ranking system, which Bill James has so kindly constructed for us. Using his World’s #1 Starting Pitcher Rankings, we can see a list of all the MLB starters ranked from Clayton Kershaw to Matt Boyd.

If you want to know how the rankings work in detail, you can read more about it here. The short version is that every pitcher begins with a value of 300.0 then depending on their Game Score (which is calculated after every start they make) their overall number either goes up or down. So with each good start, a pitcher climbs the rankings as his overall score increases. If he has a poor start, or misses significant playing time, his score will decrease. The rankings are fluid. Think of them like golf or tennis rankings.

As of this post, Clayton Kershaw is currently ranked #1 with a score of 609.9. This is the third consecutive season he has begun the year as the #1 ranked starter in baseball. Prior to him it was Justin Verlander. Prior to him, Roy Halladay. Prior to him, Felix Hernandez, Halladay, Tim Lincecum, Halladay, CC Sabathia, Lincecum, Sabathia, Lincecum, etc., etc. etc. Players rise and fall. You get it.

I created a table of the Top 30 names going into each MLB season over the past 5 years as well as 2016. (If you’re on your phone, I recommend turning it sideways.) Here are the rankings…

2016

2015

2014

2013

2012

2011

Kershaw Kershaw Kershaw Verlander Halladay Halladay
Greinke Bumgarner Scherzer Kershaw Verlander Hernandez
Scherzer Hernandez Verlander Lee Lee Lee
Arrieta Scherzer Lee Price Kershaw Lincecum
Price Price Darvish Sabathia Hamels Sabathia
Bumgarner Sale Greinke Hamels Weaver Wainwright
Sale Lester Hamels Weaver Sabathia Hamels
Kluber Hamels Shields Cain Lincecum Oswalt
Keuchel Cueto Lester Shields Cain Verlander
Lester Greinke Sanchez Scherzer Hernandez Jimenez
Hamels Wainwright Wainwright Kuroda Lester Lester
Hernandez Zimmerman Price Dickey Carpenter Weaver
Cueto Kluber Hernandez Hernandez Haren Cain
deGrom Strasburg Bumgarner Gonzalez Romero Haren
Strasburg Darvish Sale Gallardo Kennedy Lilly
Lackey Weaver Weaver Greinke Shields Johnson
Zimmerman Dickey Dickey Latos Gallardo Kershaw
Dickey Shields Latos Fister Beckett J. Santana
Ross Samardzija Gonzalez Cueto Garza Greinke
Gray Fister Cain Halladay Price Rodriguez
Shields Lynn Kuroda Kennedy Wilson Arroyo
Archer Kuroda Bailey Sanchez Vazquez Sanchez
Quintana Gonzalez Lohse Lester Lilly Danks
Liriano Verlander Fister Lohse Greinke Price
Cole Tillman Wilson Bumgarner Rodriguez Carpenter
Lynn Sanchez E. Santana Harrison Santana Garza
Volquez Hughes Jimenez Arroyo Jimenez Billingsly
Teheren Quintana Strasburg Dempster Hudson Pettite
Carrasco Cobb Iwakuma Beckett Gonzalez Lackey
Chen Liriano Zimmerman Wilson Kuroda Guthrie

Two immediate thoughts. First: How did the 2011 Phillies fail? Second: What up, Jeremy Guthrie?

As I scanned the 2016 column, I began checking off the names I considered an ace entering that season. Kershaw? Yes. Greinke? Yes. Arrieta? Yes. But at a certain point, it gets hazy. For me, that certain point was Jacob deGrom. He’s the first person on the list who caused me to hesitate. My hesitation continues with Stephen Strasburg, but John Lackey is an definite “no.”

Moving over to 2015, I tried the same experiment. Adam Wainwright? Yes. Jordan Zimmerman? Yes. Corey Kluber? Won the Cy Young, yes. Stephen Strasburg? Yes. Yu Darvish? ….hesitation. I continue to hesitate on Jered Weaver, R.A. Dickey and James Shields, until I get to Jeff Samardzija and can easily say “no.”

Basically, just by using the eye test and our memories, each year can be split into three groupings: The Obvious Aces. Hesitations. Definite Nos.

As we think back to Opening Day 2014 and beyond, it gets harder to remember how we viewed each guy on the list at the time. However, I think our overall perception is better a few years later than it was in the moment. There’s no recency bias. I’m not compelled to call a guy an ace because I’ve seen his most recent body of work.

Here’s a good case: Chris Archer vs Doug Fister. There’s a chance Archer could take another step forward and be a legitimate ace in 2016. Or he could backslide. Okay, now look at Doug Fister: on the bubble from 2013 to 2015, and there was a chance for a few years he could’ve taken that last step, but he didn’t. This past season’s regression showed us he probably peaked in those years and isn’t an ace. Going into 2015, I might have been compelled to consider Fister an ace. Today, it feels silly to have ever considered it. I’m compelled to give Chris Archer the benefit of the doubt today, but a year or two from now, we’ll know the full story and will be able to look back with confidence.

As we go from column to column, here are my last “yes” all hesitations and first “no” for each year:

2016: Cueto (Yes), deGrom, Strasburg, Lackey (No)

2015
: Strasburg (Yes), Darvish, Weaver, Dickey, Shields, Samardzija (No)

2014
: Sale (Yes), Weaver, Dickey, Latos (No)

2013
: Hernandez (Yes), Gonzalez, Gallardo, Greinke, Latos (No)

2012
: Shields (Yes), Gallardo, Beckett, Garza, Price, Wilson (No)

2011
: Lilly (Yes) Johnson, Kershaw, J. Santana, Greinke, W. Rodriguez (No)

Maybe you disagree with me somewhat on where you stopped saying “yes” and started saying “no”, and that’s understandable. Each of us views these things somewhat differently – I love Zack Greinke, for example so I continued to hesitate on him in 2013 and 2011 when you may have been quick to say no. That’s fair. But generally, this is the area of the chart where, for me, I begin to question the label.

I went back to the rankings and looked at the scores, hoping to find some sort of correlation between the numbers. A trend developed. Again, these are their scores during the offseason between each season. The year above is the upcoming season.***

*** – By the way, I used the date of this research, February 5, as the date for each of these lists, only changing the year. I realize it’s an arbitrary offseason date, and I should probably choose Opening Day each year which varies up to a week each year. But for the sake of simplicity, I’ve used 2/5. Another note: these are offseason numbers, which decline steadily between the final day of the regular season and Opening Day.

2016
Cueto (495.1)
deGrom (489.5)
Strasburg (488.8)
Lackey (485.1)

2015
Strasburg (498.5)
Darvish (492.9)
Weaver (490.6)
Dickey (489.4)
Shields (488.5)
Samarzija (486.5)

2014
Sale (494.0)
Weaver (493.7)
Dickey (492.0)
Latos (488.9)

2013
Hernandez (504.3)
Gonzalez (500.0)
Gallardo (493.7)
Greinke (493.2)
Latos (489.3)

2012
Shields (500.7)
Gallardo (493.6)
Beckett (492.6)
Garza (491.0)
Price (490.4)
Wilson (488.1)

2011
Lilly (500.3)
J. Johnson (499.6)
Kershaw (498.6)
J. Santana (493.3)
Greinke (491.8)
W. Rodriguez (487.2)

Do you see the trend? Even in just glancing through the names, I somehow stumbled on a consistent set of scores. I’m actually shocked there’s some level of consistency here, but somewhere between 485 and 500 is the offseason barrier between ace and non-ace.

Now, this still isn’t totally objective because each of us varies in how strict we want to view the term, but it seems to me that somewhere in this range of scores is the answer to our question.

I have a few remaining questions though, that I’m not sure I’ve figured out still.

  1. Scores decline slowly but consistently during the offseason. Then as the season progresses, the top numbers rise through the season. The gap between the Opening Day low and Game 162 (and postseason, for those eligible) high is around 40-50 points. Is there some sliding scale we can create so that the 485-500 range that works today will be consistent in May, July, and September? Probably easy to do, but that’s for another post.
  2. What do we do with injuries? Are Matt Harvey and Adam Wainwright aces? Do they get grandfathered in somehow due to their past dominance, or do we require them to prove they still deserve the label and work back up the rankings?
  3. What do we do about a guy who has a meteoric rise one year, but hasn’t sustained it over time? Can we really call Jake Arrieta an ace, or does it take some time to establish himself?
  4. What do we do we call a guy with a 500+ score who isn’t the #1 starter on his team? He’s technically not a staff ace, but he still has all the other qualifications. Is there a name for that? Deuce? King? Off-Ace? Grasping.

Still working on the details, but it seems there is an objective way to say whether a starter is or is not an ace based on Bill James’s ranking system. I’ll have to do more research to determine what those barriers are over the course of the season. It’s just an algebra problem that needs plotting. Let me get my TI-83+ and follow up later.

Although, it’d be a lot easier if we just asked, “Is he better than Mat Latos?” and called it a day.

-apc.

 Image Cred: LA Times accessed here.