World Series Game 2: An incredible game of inches (feat. Puig’s glove & bat).

What a game. The Astros beat the Dodgers last night in one of the more entertaining World Series games you’ll ever see.

Dodgers led early. Astros tied it late and took the lead in extras. Dodgers tied it up again. Astros took the lead back. Dodgers brought the tying run to the plate in the 12th, but couldn’t close the gap a second time. Astros won 7-6.

As is the case with most baseball games played at the highest level, the one came down to a handful of plays that tipped the scale the Astros’ way. This one seemed to have a dozen such moments – “game of inches” moments where neither team necessarily did one thing better than the other, the ball simply found a glove or didn’t, and they all would’ve had drastic implications on the turnout of the game.

For example, the ball that landed in front of a diving Chris Taylor. Instead of bouncing over the centerfielder’s head and rolling to the wall for a possible triple or inside-the-park home run, it caught the bill of Taylor’s cap and rebounded directly into the hands of Joc Pederson in left. Game of inches.

Or another example: In the bottom of the 11th, down two runs, both Corey Seager and Justin Turner hit rockets off Houston reliever Chris Devenski. Seager’s found the mitt of Cameron Maybin deep in the outfield, Turner’s was hit directly to Carlos Correa. If either of those balls are hit slightly up, down, left or right on the bat/ball, Charlie Culberson‘s home run is a 2- or 3-run shot instead, and his reaction around the bases is much more appropriate to the situation. Game of inches.

A third example: In the bottom of the 10th with the game tied and two outs, Devenski tried to pick Enrique Hernandez off of second base. The throw was wild and sailed 10 feet to the shortstop side of the base. Cameron Maybin was shifted towards right field and there was a lot of green grass available out in left-center. For a moment, it looked like Hernandez was going to advance to third, and potentially score if Maybin wasn’t able to scamper over to it quick enough. Instead, the ball hit umpire Laz Diaz in the thigh, thudded to the ground. Instead of being the winning run, Hernandez wasn’t able to advance advance at all. Game of inches.

The moment that defined the game for me more than any other is really two moments – the second a response to the first. This “game of inches” moment happened in the top of the 8th, with the Dodgers leading 3-1.

Alex Bregman led off and sliced a fly ball into the right field corner. Off the bat it seemed destined to find grass, but Yasiel Puig made a long long run and looked to have a beat on it and this wouldn’t be his first magical defensive play. He dove headfirst toward the corner, glove hand extended. The ball found leather, but not enough leather. It ricocheted off Puig’s glove, bounced once off the outfield grass and over the short wall in the right field corner for a ground rule double. Game of inches.

Within a matter of seconds, Puig hopped to his feet and did this:

102517_lad_puig_glove_spike_med

A quick aside: Yasiel Puig is wonderful and so good for the game of baseball. He’s having fun, but not at the expense of his team or his own success. There have been times a times when many of us – myself included – wondered whether he would be able to dial it in to where his energy was a positive and not a negative. When he was sent down to AAA in Oklahoma City last season I wondered if Puig’s actions were indeed misguided. I think he’s proven this season that he can be fun and quirky and play with significant passion without it negatively impacting the outcome of the game.

Yet announcers continue to use words like “emotion” and “passion” (which I recognize I also used above) to describe him, but their words are still laced with so much disdain.  No one defends him. No one says they like him or support him or even enjoy him. Instead, they drop judgmental comments about his antics and say loudly that they disapprove without needing to say it at all. So of course when he stands up from missing the fly ball, the internet and the broadcast booth are too focused on the outburst and fail to understand what’s totally happening in that moment.

Puig’s glove spike reminded me of Moises Alou’s outburst in the 2003 NLCS when Steve Bartman leaned over the left field rail at Wrigley Field and interfered with a ball that probably would’ve landed in Alou’s glove. Alou threw a tantrum, spiked his glove and glowered at Bartman from the left field foul line. I remember watching that game thinking he was acting like such a baby. Throwing your glove because and barking at a fan? Cmon, man.

But there’s an obvious difference between the two situations. Alou was crying about someone else, about something out of his control. Alou’s screaming and whining is directed away from himself and toward Bartman. Puig is mad at himself, his own effort. Which is always totally fine in sports.

The glove spike communicates three things to me:

  1. Yasiel Puig desires to perform to the best of his ability.
  2. Yasiel Puig wants to win very badly.
  3. Yasiel Puig understands the situation well.

And what’s the situation? Instead of making the first out of the inning, there’s now a runner in scoring position in a 2-run game with the Astros best bats coming up in Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa. Second, and of perhaps even more importance, Dave Roberts is forced to turn to Kenley Jansen earlier than desired to get the final 6 outs. If the tying run isn’t at the plate, Jansen likely stays in the bullpen and starts with a fresh 9th.

Altuve advanced Bregman to third on a ground out. Correa slapped one up the middle for a single, scoring Bregman and making it a 1-run ballgame. Jansen then gave up a solo homer to Marwin Gonzalez in the 9th to tie the game, 3-3.

Now, if Puig catches that ball, it’s the first out of the inning, Altuve’s grounder is the second out, and Correa is stranded at first because Yuli Gurriel popped out immediately after and that would’ve ended the inning. Granted, all of those happenings could have changed with 1 out and nobody on and Brandon Morrow still pitching instead of Kenley Jansen.

Baseball-Reference.com gave the Astros a 13% chance of victory before the Bregman double, and a 22% chance after – the miss cost the Dodgers 9%. If Puig catches the ball, that number likely drops from 13% to something like 7%, a difference of 4%. Overall, a 15% swing in winning probability added (WPA).

Here’s the other thing that moment did though: it lit a fire in Yasiel Puig. Yes, he always plays with passion, but a moment like that gets under your skin and effects how you view the game from that point farther. Puig feels responsible for a chunk of the team’s winning probability (again, around 15%), and he wants to do right by himself and his team. A player like Puig wants to fix where he erred, and his opportunity to do it is at the plate.

Which brings us to the second moment – the response to the first.

By the time Puig bats again, he’s leading off the bottom of the 10th and the Astros have taken a 5-3 lead. Houston is sitting pretty at a 91% chance to win the game.

Puig, of course, destroys the baseball and does this:

giphy-2

Do you see what Puig does here?! He is re-writing his own narrative. This is so great, and I hope I can do a solid job explaining what I love about it.

First, he unloads on the baseball, undoing the damage he feels he inflicted by being unable to corral the catch earlier (which few players even get to, let alone nearly catch). That homer dropped the Astros’ WPA from 91% to 80% according to Baseball-Reference. That’s 11%, which is greater than 9%, if you’re keeping score at home like Puig undoubtedly is in hi ahead. If he’d made an out, the Astros WPA jumps to something like 96%, a jump of 5% and an overall net of 16%, which is greater than 15%, the overall WPA adjustment when he didn’t catch the ball. In one swing, he has mathematically salvaged what he feels he shouldn’t have allowed earlier.

But he’s not done – and this is the amazing part: Puig, the guy who is notorious for smooth yet obscene batflips in all sorts of moments, slowly and methodically places the murder weapon on the grass.

Why?

Because he spiked the glove in the field.

Do you see what he’s doing?! It’s brilliant. He made up for the ground rule double by hitting the dinger, but he’s also reconciling his reaction to the play. Setting down the bat undoes his glove spike! His response in the good undoes his response in the bad. If he bat flips, he’s doubling down on passion. But by setting the bat down gently, he is actively adjusting his own narrative away from the out of control player with too much emotion for the game and toward the centered ballplayer who is focused enough to perform calmly in the biggest of moments.

Of course, after reconciling his performance and his character, he’s back even when he came up to the plate as the tying run with two outs in the bottom of the 11th. This time he doesn’t have a score to settle so who knows what he’s going to do.

He struck out.

Photo: AP Photo/Mark J. Terrell. Accessed here.

 

2017 MLB Predictions

Take a deep breath as you gaze upon the glorious striped stirrups of Francisco Lindor and calmly repeat to yourself, “Baseball is back. Baseball is back. Baseball is back.” Repeat it as many times as you need to until college basketball, the NBA and NFL Draft buzz completely dissolve into the peripheries of your brain. 

“Baseball is back.” 

Now exhale and remember: the darkness is behind us. Winter’s time is over. This is our time. Baseball – along with those two-toned beauties – is back.

Phew. Repeat as many times as necessary. It’s going to be okay, you guys.

It feels like an eternity has passed since we had some meaningful baseball to enjoy. Maybe it’s because we didn’t have October baseball in Kansas City last season. Or maybe winter just always feels this long. Winter is just the worst.

We’ve had a fortnight of rain in KCMO, which means spring has sprung, and somewhere some kids are really enjoying sliding practice. We made it, you guys. Opening Day is here! Which means it’s time to post another set of predictions for a new MLB season.

But first, I gotta hold myself accountable for last season’s performance. Let’s talk a bit about my 2016 picks…

<Stands up. Opens window. Jumps out window.>

Not great.

As always, the National League was much easier to predict – I got the Nationals and Cubs winning their divisions, and I’ll give myself a pat on the back for knowing either the Cardinals or Pirates would miss he playoffs…turns out they both did. I had the Giants making it, and they did, but as a Wild Card. Didn’t have the Mets as a Wild Card either.

My biggest gaffe was excluding the Dodgers. I took a gamble on the Diamondbacks and goodness gracious everything that could possibly go wrong did. AJ Pollock was injured before the season starts. Zack Greinke had a horrendous year, and Shelby Miller was comically worse. How did I ever pick them over Los Angeles? Woof. That’s what I get for over thinking these things.

The AL was just atrocious. I was all-in on the Astros, but they never recovered from an 8-18 start, and going 15-4 against their inter-state rival didn’t help. The Rangers ran away with it. I at least had them as a Wild Card team.

I picked the Royals, hoping with all my heart, but injuries derailed their chance at a third straight AL pennant. The Indians were my first team out. They ended 1 run away from winning the World Series.

The AL East is the hardest to pick every year, and this year will be no different. How hard is it? Well, I picked the Yankees and Rays in 2016 and the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles all made the playoffs. Goodnight.

So what’s that…4 of 10 postseason teams?! Yuck. I shouldn’t even be allowed to make predictions after that nonsense. (But hey – I knew Corey Seager would win the AL Rookie of the Year, so that’s a consolation prize or something, yeah? Please. Candy from a baby.)

In retrospect, I either overthought it or picked with my heart. But not this year. This year is all brain (but not too much!), and zero emotion (okay maybe a little?). Trust me – we’ll be dissecting a perfectly predicted postseason bracket here come October.

Believe me. Nobody picks winners like I do. I make the best picks. I’m going to bat 100% on picks this year. Believe me.

(Postseason teams in italics.)

NL East

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

Washington boasts arguably the best rotation in baseball, and Bryce Harper is going to bounce back in a monster way. The Mets re-signed Yoenis Cespedes and return essentially the same roster as last year featuring their strong rotation. The Braves are young (including newly-acquired and forever-young Bartolo Colon). They may surprise us and be decent. The Marlins lost a step with the tragic loss of Jose Fernandez. The Phillies are still bad.

NL Central

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

The reigning World Series champs are going to be tough to beat, and for a long time. We all know this. The Cardinals pulled a Reverse Jason Heyward signing Dexter Fowler away from Chicago. He’ll replace Matt Holliday in the outfield which is an all around improvement. Their starting rotation will improve as well – Carlos Martinez, Adam Wainwright are both All-Stars and the drop off to Lance Lynn, Michael Wacha and Mike Leake isn’t drastic. But make no mistake – nobody’s dethroning the Cubs.

NL West

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

This division is a two team race. Both LA and SF are playoff teams, it’s a matter of which avoids the Wild Card game and, in turn, the Cubs in the NLDS (not that meeting the Nationals in the NLDS would be a cakewalk, but you get it). I’m going with the Dodgers. They re-signed Justin Turner, Kenley Jansen and Rich Hill. They added Sergio Romo (double whammy since the Giants lost him), and the Darkhorse Move of the Offseason is LA acquiring Logan Forsythe from the Rays.

The Diamondbacks could bounce back behind Greinke, but I’m not counting on anything from them after last season, and the Rockies will score about 80 runs/game but they’ll give up 100. The Padres are young and won’t contend, but keep an eye on them in 2019 and beyond.

AL East

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

The Red Sox were already good before they traded for Chris Sale. The Yankees are getting better – Greg Bird is back from injury and hit more HRs in Spring Training than anybody. They also brought back Aroldis Chapman, and signed Matt Holliday. The Orioles re-signed Mark Trumbo who can’t possibly have another boomstick season like 2016, but I’ve been wrong about the Orioles before – Manny Machado and Adam Jones have the clout to get it done.

I just don’t like the Blue Jays. They probably won’t finish last, but they sure look good there.

AL Central

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

The Indians added Edwin Encarnacion, so they’re immediately better than last year. Their starting pitching is strong despite Trevor Bauer‘s personality. Andrew Miller should maintain his recent dominance (although, he seemed very human in the World Baseball Classic, but that doesn’t count for much). If I could pick any one position player to build a team around, it’d be Francisco Lindor. The Indians are the team to beat here.

The Royals and Tigers are the other two notables here. The Tigers are getting older, so health is going to be their greatest concern. Justin Verlander seems to have figured out how to pitch as an old man, but the margin for error on this team is thin.

The loss of Yordano Ventura hurts in so many ways – even still, the addition of Jason Hammel, Nathan Karns and Travis Wood makes this Royals rotation actually better than it was last year. Danny Duffy has arrived and could win the Cy Young (I heard he’s going at 33-1 right now). The additions of Brandon Moss and Jorge Soler beefs up their lineup. This isn’t your 2014 high contact, low strikeout team anymore. They’re going to hit homeruns, and I, for one, am disappointed.

But…Alex Gordon will improve on a bad bad bad 2016 campaign. Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain, Alcedis Escobar and Mike Moustakas are all in contract years, so you know they’ll “Come to Play.” Raul Mondesi Jr. won the 2B job and will bring speed and excitement to the bottom of the lineup. I think #Ace30 becomes a catalyst for this already-motivated group. They’ll be in it down the stretch, but I think they miss again this year. Hope I’m wrong. If they’re out early, a fire sale starting with Eric Hosmer wouldn’t be the worst thing.

Dang. I told myself I wouldn’t get carried away talking about the Royals, but alas, here I am. Onward.

AL West

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

The Astros are going to be fun. They added Carlos Beltran to DH and Brian McCann to catch. Their rotation is…fine, but they’ll win because of their young offense. But the Rangers seem to have their number and I see no reason to pick against them again this year.

The intriguing team in the mix here is, as always, the Mariners, who, thanks to their never-satisfied, always-ready-to-make-another-move GM, Jerry Dipoto, have kept their core but flipped the rest. There are 18 new faces on their 40-man roster. Typically I’d be skeptical of any team with that much instability, but these are all supplementary guys. Jarrod Dyson finally gets his shot as an everyday center fielder. This team will be knocking at the door come September again this year. I think they make some deadline moves and sneak in as the second Wild Card.

Angels and Athletics are meat. It’s unfortunate the best player in the game plays on one of the least interesting teams in baseball. Mike Trout deserves better.

***

Not risking much this year, but outside of the last AL Wild Card spot, I don’t see a lot of surprises. Every division appears to be clear or a two team race. The NL Wild Card is really only between 4 teams (STL, PIT, and 2nd place in the East and West). So here are my postseason predictions:

National League: Dodgers over Cubs

American League: Red Sox over Indians

World Series: Dodgers over Red Sox

It’s baseball season, you guys. Go hug somebody and spread the good news.

-apc.

Photo Cred: Sports Illustrated, accessed here: http://www.si.com/nfl/2016/06/28/fantasy-baseball-francisco-lindor-cleveland-indians

 

The Royals are 60-60: So you’re telling me there’s a chance?

This is the second year in a row I’ve done absolutely no blogging in June or July. When the Kentucky Derby ends, this site just sits idle until mid-August when the postseason race heats up. Not by choice, necessarily. It’s a time commitment thing. Summer is busy. August, on the other hand, is not.

So let’s talk Royals.

I want to talk about two different things today. First, a quick look at how we got here. Second, stew a bit about what we’re rooting for the rest of the way.

How did we get here…what went wrong?

Nearly everything has gone wrong that could’ve gone wrong. 

Looking at pitching first: Luke Hochevar is done for the season. Offseason addition, Joakim Soria, has been mostly terrible in his Royals return. Kris Medlen is done for the season. Wade Davis is on the DL. Chris Young spent time on the DL and was atrocious in the rotation. Hopeful September call up, Kyle Zimmer, is done for the year (again). Mike Minor has had setbacks on his return. It’s a mess, really.

On the offensive side of the game: Mike Moustakas is out for the season with an ACL injury. Alex Gordon missed some time on the DL too, but even when he was healthy he’s been terrible. Gordon’s batting average was below .200 as late as August 9, yet somehow Eric Hosmer has been even worse since winning All Star Game MVP. Lorenzo Cain spent time on the DL. If you’d told me all those things at the start of the season, I’d tell you we’d only win 70 games.

How did we get here…what went right?

Yet somehow this team is 60-60 with 42 games left. They sit 9.0 games out of the Central behind Cleveland and Detroit and 6.5 games out of the Wild Card behind a half dozen different teams. And therein lies the biggest problem – no matter what the Royals do down the stretch, there are enough teams ahead of them it’s still extremely unlikely they’ll break into the postseason. But we’ll get there in a second.

For as much misfortune as the Royals have had, it’s easy to overlook the fact that a lot of things have actually tipped their way. Things like Paulo Orlando competing for a batting title and Cheslor Cuthbert hitting .290/.327/.443 and turning in a different web gem nearly every night in Moose’s absence. Cuthbert has been so good that we’re literally asking the question, “What do we do with this guy when Moustakas comes back?” (The answer, of course, is that he takes over at DH for Kendrys Morales next season when he doesn’t return.)

Danny Duffy is 10-1 with a 2.73 ERA and is in the AL Cy Young conversation. Yordano Ventura has taken another step. Ian Kennedy – despite leading the majors in home runs – has been more than adequate. Kelvin Herrera has been his normal dominant self and if Matt Strahm has been equally solid since being called up this past month. #VoteOmar has been cut and replaced by #2HitWhit and #RAM. 

If you told me all that stuff back in April, I’d’ve thought we’d been pace to win 95 games.

So when you think about it, of course they’re .500. They’ve balanced the good and the bad, injures with unexpected success stories. All in all, it’s been a very polarized season, but over the course of a long long baseball season, extreme good and extreme bad have a way of averaging out to .500.

On July 31, the Royals were 49-55 and 12 games back in the division. On August 9 they were 6 games under .500. Since then they’ve gone 7-1 and if they haven’t resurrected their season yet, they’re at least resurrected a blog post like this one. Sure, suddenly this team is .500 again, but .500 teams don’t play in the postseason. So the Royals will have to finish very strong to defend the crown in 2016. And some other things probably need to tip their way too.

For the sake of time and energy let’s say the Royals finish something like 27-15. They’ve got 10 games left against the Twins and 7 against the White Sox, so that number is certainly possible. And with the exception of next week’s road trip to Miami and Boston, the remainder of the schedule is either at home, or on the road vs AL Central opponents. That finish would put KC at 87 wins, which is right on the bubble of being a Wild Card team.

The Wild Card

The issue here is not the record – 6.5 games back with 42 to play is absolutely doable. If it was about the record, I’d just end this post now by saying, “The Royals need to win 27 or more games before they lose more than 15” and wrap it up. Cause that would do it, it it was just us vs another team. The issue, as I said at the top of this post, is the number of teams the Royals are chasing.

Here’s the current American League Wild Card standings:

  • BOS 67-52 (+1.0)
  • BAL 66-53
    —-
  • SEA 64-55 (2.0 GB)
  • DET 63-57 (3.5)
  • HOU 61-59 (5.5)
  • NYY 61-59 (5.5)
  • KC 60-60 (6.5)

The Royals need to pass FIVE different teams to land the final Wild Card spot currently held by Baltimore. The Red Sox and Mariners are hot. The Tigers and Astros are not. Baltimore and Yankees are somewhere in between. Additionally, the Red Sox are only 1 game behind the Blue Jays in the AL East, so Toronto is actually in the mix as well.

Boston, Baltimore and Toronto: The first thing that must happen is at least one of these teams needs to have a bit of a free fall. The Orioles are the most obvious option as they’re in 3rd, but I sure do hate Toronto. The Red Sox are rolling, it’s tough to think thy’ll let off the gas.

Which leads to the second thing that needs to happen: The other two teams need to stay hot. I know that sounds counterintuitive at first, but all these teams play each other multiple times over the next 6 weeks. Baltimore/Boston: 7 games left. Baltimore/Toronto: 6 games left. Boston/Toronto: 6 games left. The best way to gain ground on the final Wild Card spot is for the Sox and Jays to hand the O’s a combined 13 losses. That opens things up immediately.

If those teams all split the series, then the Royals likely won’t gain enough ground to overtake any of them. Doesn’t matter which one plummets, but one of them has to. And the best thing that can happen is the other two mow down the rest of the competition around the league.

Detroit: Just swept these guys, and it did wonders for our chances. We can’t waste our time worrying about what Detroit will do. We have 6 games left against them. If we take care of business against them, we can make up the ground ourselves. Assuming the Royals do their part, we control our own destiny against the Tigers to some extent. That said, they’re playing the Red Sox this weekend, and if Boston is going to be one of those teams to pull away, might as well root for the Sox this weekend. We’ll know more on these guys by Monday, but if we’re worried about the Tigers, then we’ve already lost.

Yankees: What a shock to see this team in the mix. Major sellers at the trade deadline, yet due to an influx of youth, they’ve hung around are are in the mix in late August. What do we want from the Yankees? Well, we want them to follow suit based on what the other three AL East teams do. They have 9 games against the Orioles left, 7 against Toronto and 6 against the Red Sox. They need to help beat the team that fades, but lose to the two teams that pull away. But again, if we’re worried about the Yankees, then we’ve already lost.

Astros and Seattle: I’ve been high on Houston from the beginning. While the White Sox were busy fooling everyone into wondering, “Is Chicago for real?” the Astros were so bad out the gate, many thought their season was over. Not me. The season is long, and good teams rise to the top and bad teams eventually drown. And here we are in mid-August and the Astros are in the mix.

The Mariners, on the other hand, are on a surprising surge. They’re finally looking like the team many of us believed would be great back in 2014 and 2015. These two teams play each other 6 times down the stretch. Houston has 4 games vs Baltimore this weekend and Seattle has 3 games vs Toronto in September. Otherwise, it’s AL West matchups galore for them. We need to be huge Angels and Athletics and Rangers fans.

So there’s a lot here, but again, none of it means anything if the Royals don’t finish strong themselves. The best thing you can do to make the postseason is win a lot of games. Right.

The Division

And then there’s Cleveland, currently sitting at 68-50. They’re 18 games over .500 and up 9.0 games on the Royals in the division. The two teams play each other 6 times the rest of the way. 

If you look at it a certain way, it’s actually easier to make the playoffs by winning the division than it is by winning the Wild Card. If we continue to assume the Royals finish at least 27-15 (a big assumption, sure, but understandably necessary), and the Indians finish 19-25, then, eureka!, we’ve done it.

The Indians are essentially a lock for the playoffs. They have been for some time now. But their remaining schedule is anything but soft. In fact, the Indians have the hardest remaining schedule in the AL Central besides the Twins, for whom every game is hard. The next 10 games for Cleveland: 3 vs TOR, 3 @ OAK, 4 vs TEX. Throw in 4 vs HOU, 6 vs KC and 7 vs DET in September/October, and that’s a bit of a gauntlet. Nine games is a lot to make up, but it’s not impossible. Some examples:

  • The 2009 Twins were 7.0 back on September 7. Won the division.
  • The 1969 Mets were 9.5 back on August 13. Won the division.
  • The 1995 Mariners were 12.5 back on August 15. Finished 25-11. Won the division.

It’s not unprecedented. Sure, it’s still unlikely, but who knows? All it takes is one bad week. Maybe next week is it? Go Blue Jays, Athletics and Rangers. We’ll see.

But for now, this weekend vs Minnesota is a must win. Do another sweep, boys.

-apc.

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.

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.

Outfield Options

The Royals have been active this offseason and have spent more money than ever before.

They added Joakim Soria to the bullpen to help make up for the loss of Greg Holland and Ryan Madson. They re-signed Alex Gordon to the largest contract in Royals history: $74M over 4 years. They added Ian Kennedy to the second largest contract in Royals history: $70M over 5 years. They added Dillon Gee and Peter Moylan to minor league contracts hoping one or both might pan out as the next Ryan Madson or even the next Joe Blanton.

And as it stands right now, their team is better entering 2016 than it was entering Spring Training a year ago. Their overall payroll projects to be around $127M for 2016 according to Royals Review, Royals Authority and Pine Tar Press.

The only possible place they could still improve – realistically speaking, of course – is adding an additional outfield option on the cheap.

Yes, Dayton Moore and Ned Yost have both said that Jarrod Dyson deserves a legitimate shot at s starting spot in the outfield this season, and I believe them when they say it. And he’s earned it. His defense is among the best in the league. His speed is the best in the league. His role as a fourth outfielder and speed demon off the bench has been extremely valuable in helping KC make it to back to back trips to the Fall Classic.

But his bat versus lefties is poor. It’s his glaring weakness. And in order to seriously give him a shot, the Royals will have to platoon him with Paulo Orlando, who had a decent 2015, but who many believe – myself included – was mostly smoke and mirrors and is not someone we can fully trust to start roughly 1/3 of 162 games.

So the Royals may need an additional outfielder. Specifically someone who is cheap, isn’t a defensive liability, and is right-handed with strong splits versus lefties.

Here are the available outfield free agents as of this post, along with their 2015 stats, via Fangraphs. (If you’re on your phone, try turning the screen sideways to see the full chart.)

Name G PA HR SB BB% K% AVG OBP SLG Off Def WAR
Dexter Fowler

156

690

17

20

12.2%

22.3%

0.25

0.346

0.411

8.1

0.6

3.2

David Murphy

132

391

10

0

5.1%

12.5%

0.283

0.318

0.421

-0.1

-9.8

0.3

Marlon Byrd

135

544

23

2

5.3%

26.7%

0.247

0.29

0.453

0.3

-7.8

1

Jeff Francoeur

119

343

13

0

3.8%

22.4%

0.258

0.286

0.433

-6.3

-10.6

-0.7

Austin Jackson

136

527

9

17

5.5%

23.9%

0.267

0.311

0.385

-3.4

8.3

2.3

Chris Denorfia

103

231

3

0

6.5%

24.2%

0.269

0.319

0.373

-4

4

0.8

Grady Sizemore

97

296

6

3

6.8%

20.3%

0.253

0.307

0.381

-3.7

-11.9

-0.6

Will Venable

135

390

6

16

9.5%

24.1%

0.244

0.32

0.35

-1.4

0.4

1.2

Drew Stubbs

78

140

5

5

10%

42.9%

0.195

0.283

0.382

-5.4

0.2

-0.1

Skip Schumaker

131

268

1

2

8.6%

19%

0.242

0.306

0.336

-9.5

-9.3

-1.1

Alex Rios

105

411

4

9

3.6%

16.3%

0.255

0.287

0.353

-11.8

-0.2

0.2

Shane Victorino

71

204

1

7

7.8%

15.7%

0.23

0.308

0.292

-5.6

-0.9

0

Matt Joyce

93

284

5

0

10.6%

23.6%

0.174

0.272

0.291

-14.5

-7.8

-1.4

Not listed here: Nate McLouth, who didn’t play in 2015. But he’s a poor defender and he’s left handed and bad at baseball so we can just ignore him probably.

Okay. Process of elimination.

There are 4 lefties on the list: Matt Joyce, Will Venable, Skip Schumaker and Grady Sizemore. They can all be scrapped for various reasons (in addition to their left-handedness). We can eliminate Joyce and Sizemore immediately due to their atrocious defensive numbers. And as much as I would love Schumaker’s defensive flexibility – he can play infield and outfield – his defense last year was poor, and he’s a career .215 hitter off lefties, so he’s likely out of the running as well. Venable is an average defender, but he’s a career .222 hitter against lefties, so he’s out too.

Dexter Fowler is way too expensive. No time to dream here. Moving on.

Drew Stubbs is a terrible hitter. No.

Austin Jackson is the best defender on the list, and that’s always intriguing when we’re talking about Kansas City. Last year he hit .281/.333/.437 off lefties, which okay, but his strength is his glove and his legs…which sounds like Jarrod Dyson. He’s going to want a bigger contract than we’ll want to give him, but throwing his name into the mix with Cain/Dyson certainly makes one salivate a bit over the platoon possibilities. But he’s probably the most expensive guy on the list not named Fowler.

Tough to be objective about Frenchy. The Jeff Francoeur Reunion Tour would sure be fun. He had an okay year last year in Philadelphia representing the meat of their pitiful lineup. We all know about his arm and his smile, but it’s just not worth it.

That leaves these names…

Marlon Byrd
Chris Denorfia
David Murphy
Alex Rios
Shane Victorino

ESPN’s Jayson Stark tweeted this yesterday about David Murphy:

David Murphy is an intriguing option for two reasons. First, he’s got a solid bat versus lefties: .304/.360/.435 in 2015. Second, he’s a high contact guy who is tough to strike out and even harder to walk. He would fit in well offensively. But he’s a poor defender, and I agree with Stark that he’s likely out of KC’s price range for what his role would be.

Shane Victorino has never been my favorite ballplayer, but you know what you’re getting at this point. The guy has hit .300 vs lefties in his career and is coming off a season where he hit .333. He’s also a high contact guy. His defense has been solid in the past – especially when he played in the tiny right field in Fenway Park – but last year in Anaheim his defense slipped. Maybe it’s due to age, but I think it’s the size of the outfield there. And Kauffman is even larger. He’s not the best option.

Bringing back Alex Rios isn’t out of the question if the price is right. We all know Rios’s trajectory from last year: Great first week of the season before he was hit by a pitch in the hand, spent time on the DL and took basically the entire year to recover fully. He looked off the rest of the way. His defense is worse than Orlando’s but his bat is still better. We paid him $11M in 2015, and he’d have to take like a $7M pay cut to come back. But he played the hero numerous times in the postseason. And dem legs. Plus he’s a familiar face in the dugout. Last year he struggled overall and only hit .265 against lefties, but in 2014 he hit .325 and slugged .525. If the price is right, I don’t hate it.

Marlon Byrd, along with having one of the coolest names in baseball, is 38 years old, and even though power isn’t really the Royals M.O., he’s still got some pop in his bat for his age. He sucks against righties and his old guy defense is obviously below average. He spent time in Cincinnati and San Francisco last year, hitting .271 against lefties and slugging just shy of .500. If the Royals added him, he would need to compete for Orlando’s role. He’d be a safety net in case of injury, but I see him being a solid bench bat at best. I’d rather stick with what we’ve got and call up Bubba Starling or Brett Eibner in case of emergency instead.

Finally, we come to Chris Denorfia. He’s a career .285/.353/.419 hitter against lefties, and his defense is the second strongest on this list after Jackson. He was the Cubs 5th outfielder last year, and Royals fans may remember him as the guy who took Miguel Almonte deep in the 11th inning of that Wrigley makeup game last September. (See above.) He had a disappointing year in 2015, spending two stints on the DL with a hamstring issue, and struggled against lefties for the second year in a row.

Denorfia versus LHP since 2010…

2010 – .295/.382/.381 with SDP
2011 – .328/.391/.496
2012 – .337/.390/.500
2013 – .284/.355/.479
2014 – .220/.287/.300 with SEA
2015 – .211/.294/.303 with CHC

Not sure what to make of that decline over the past two years. He clearly liked hitting in San Diego. The Cubs only paid him $2.6M, and with his struggles last year I’d imagine he’d be a $1M option. We could even offer him some performance incentives to keep the payroll safe. He’s 35 years old – same age as Victorino, a year older than Murphy and Rios – but he’d be significantly cheaper than all three of them. He’s not a risk at all, but has the potential to compare with them offensively if he can get back some of that Padre lefty line. The Royals have a history of looking past recent struggles and more at a full body of work. If they believe they can resurrect Denorfia’s ability to hit lefties, they could take a flier on a guy with minimal risk.

So who do you want out of that group? Well, it all depends on what you really are looking for.

If you want a cheap guy to supplement a Dyson/Orlando platoon while you wait for prospects to be called up, I’d give Denorfia a look despite his 2014-15 numbers and hope he bounces back. If you want a guy who can step in and be an every day outfielder and push Dyson and Orlando back into their 2015 roles, I’d suggest bringing back Rios over stretching the bank for Victorino or Murphy. If you want to blow the payroll and bring in a guy who’d be a great fit for Kauffman Stadium, I’d suggest Jackson.

And it’s entirely possible Dayton Moore might value the status quo over any of those options, and I’m fine with that too. I’d be more inclined to spend big at the trade deadline than break the bank before the season even starts. If they sign anybody, I’m in for Chris Denorfia. Stay tuned.

-apc.

Image cred: NBC Chicago accessed here.

1945 World Series

The 1945 World Series is considered by some to be one of the worst World Series ever played, mostly due to how World War II had depleted the MLB rosters. I wrote a lot about what the war did to MLB rosters in my 1944 World Series post.

Researching these wartime World Series is tough. Every stat I look at, every performance I read about, needs an asterisk next to it that reminds me: “The best baseball players on the planet weren’t even playing that season, so of course they dominated.”

Imagine facing the 2015 Dodgers if Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke both enlisted in the military. Suddenly Buster Posey is hitting .400 off Brett Anderson and Friends and the defending champion Giants are making a postseason run in an odd year for a change.

But the flip side of the conversation is also true: If the Dodgers didn’t have their staff aces, then the Giants probably wouldn’t have Buster Posey or Madison Bumgarner either. So the featured matchup is no longer Kershaw/Posey…instead you’re really excited for Brett Anderson vs Nori Aoki or something. Shoot, if half the league was off to war, suddenly Aoki might be an All Star and a Gold Glove outfielder.

My point here is two-fold. 1. Wartime baseball was mediocre baseball all around the league and 2. Statistics can’t be given any significant value. It’s all a mirage.

So when I tell you the Chicago Cubs led the NL in team ERA (2.98) and batting average (.277) take those stats with a grain of salt. This is exemplified in Phil Cavarretta, who hit .355/.489/.500 and won the NL MVP that season, despite never coming close to those numbers in any other year. He was a career .293 hitter, but his best years were 1944 and 1945 due to the war.

Bullpens have evolved over the years as teams are becoming more and more aware of their value, but the Cubs apparently never had one. They led the league in complete games in 1945 with 86 – over half of their games. Their primary regular season arms were Claude Passeau, Hank Wyse, Paul Derringer and Ray Prim, but they acquired Hank Borowy from the Yankees mid-season and he became their best pitcher down the stretch. Chicago Manager Charlie Grimm leaned heavily on this battery in the Series – especially Borowy and Passeau – and, in the opinion of this blogger, was the primary reason the Cubs failed to win it all that year.

There are two other major reasons the Detroit Tigers managed to come back from a 2-1 series deficit and steal 3 of 4 games at Wrigley Field to win the 1945 World Series. One is a human. The other is not.

Hammerin’ Hank

The human is Hall of Fame slugger, Hank Greenberg, who was the first ballplayer to return to baseball from active duty. He hadn’t played since 1941, yet on July 1, 1945, he hit a home run against Connie Mack‘s Philadelphia Athletics in first game back in the bigs. From there, he started poorly: .219/.324/.438 in his first 29 games back. Essentially for the month of July he was 2015 Omar Infante with a slight power boost. But then over the final 49 games of the season he hit .362/.448/.603 and powered the Tigers to the AL pennant finishing a game ahead of the Washington Senators.

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Here’s a fun story: on the final game of the 1945 regular season, the Tigers were playing in Sportsman’s Park against the reigning AL Champs, the St. Louis Browns. The game was 3-2 Browns in the 9th. It was getting late and the umpire was about to call the game due to darkness. The bases were loaded for Greenberg, when the umpire said, “Sorry Hank, I’m gonna have to call the game. I can’t see the ball.”

Hank replied, “Don’t worry, George. I can see it just fine.” He hit the next pitch over the fence and the Tigers won the pennant, avoiding a one game playoff against the Senators.

In the World Series, Greenberg hit over .300, slugged nearly .700 and hit the only two Tiger home runs of the series. So if the Cubs want to point the finger at one person who cost them the 1945 World Series, it’s Hank Greenberg.

But Cubs fans rarely point the finger at a human at all. Instead, they blame a goat.

The Curse of the Billy Goat

The Cubs went into Game 4 – the first game at Wrigley Field – having taken two games in Detroit and leading the series 2-1. All they needed to do was win 2 of the next 4 at home.

Greek immigrant and tavern owner, Billy Sianis, purchased two tickets to Game 4. And accompanying him to the game was his pet goat, Murphy. The goat had fallen off a truck outside his tavern one day and Sianis decided to take in the animal as a sort of mascot. The goat was allowed to enter the ballpark, and was allowed to stay in its seat through part of the game. Some complaining from nearby fans were quelled early, but after a short rain delay, the goat began to stink, and that was when Sianis and his goat were asked to leave Wrigley Field.

Upon leaving, the angry tavern owner supposedly declared a curse on the Cubs, stating that the team would lose the game, the Series, and would never play in a World Series again.

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The Cubs lost Game 4, and proceeded to lose Games 5 and 7 as well, dropping the series 4 games to 3, and as of this post, 1945 was the last time the Cubs have ever played in a World Series. Despite a few exceptionally good Cubs teams, the Curse of the Billy Goat has yet to be broken.

Charlie Grimm loves Hank Borowy

But again, when I look at this series on paper, I don’t think Hank Greenberg OR Murphy the Goat were the reasons for the Tigers eventual triumph over the Cubs. If I’m pointing the finger somewhere, I’m pointing it at manager Charlie Grimm’s use of starting pitcher Hank Borowy.

Borowy debuted as a rookie in 1942 and even got some MVP votes. He won 14 games for the Yankees’ 1943 championship team and won Game 3 of that series. In three and a half years in New York he won 56 games to the tune of a 2.74 ERA. And down the stretch with Chicago in 1945, he was even better, going 11-2 with a 2.13 ERA. He was downright dominant – all during the war, mind you…he was exceptionally average in 1946 and beyond.

So sure, ride your ace to the championship. I get it. It’s a solid strategy that we’ve seen play out numerous times. But this was on another level.

Hank Borowy

First of all, Borowy threw a complete game shutout in Game 1 in Detroit scattering 6 hits and 5 walks and a hit batsman. The Cubs led 4-0 after the first, 7-0 after the third, eventually won 9-0. A potential first demerit against Grimm: the game was well in hand after the first few innings, why couldn’t he have rested his best pitcher a bit? And it’s not like he was dominant – he faced 37 batters and allowed 12 baserunners. But you can’t really get on his case about it. It was a different era entirely, and why waste other pitchers? It’s nitpicking, I suppose, and inconsequential to Grimm’s major blunder later in the series.

So since he threw a bazillion pitches in Game 1, he didn’t pitch again until Game 5 in Chicago. He made it into the 6th with minimal damage – the score was tied 1-1 at that point, the only run coming off a sac fly. But then the floodgates opened the third time through the Tigers’ lineup: Doc Cramer singled, Greenberg doubled making it 2-1, Roy Cullenbine singled advancing Greenberg to third and Rudy York singled scoring Greenberg and forcing Borowy out of the game with 2 baserunners on, nobody out, and the score 3-1. Those two baserunners would score, making it 5 earned runs credited to Hank Borowy, who would got the loss.

Game 6 was a marathon. It was 5-1 Cubs entering the 7th inning, but when starter Claude Passeau – who had thrown a 1 hit shutout in Game 3) gave up his second run of the ballgame, Grimm made a move and brought in Game 2 starter Hank Wyse.

Wyse was, in a word, awful. He gave up another run before getting the final out in the 7th. The Cubs scored 2 in the bottom half with Wyse striking out with 2 outs and the bases loaded to end the inning. Wyse came back out for the 8th and gave up 2 more runs before getting an out. Grimm had seen enough and made another move bringing in Game 4 starter, Ray Prim, who gave up 2 more – one inherited form Wyse and the other his own. The Cubs failed to score in the bottom half. The score was 7-7 entering the 9th.

It was an ugly chain of events. Grimm couldn’t have known Wyse and Prim would be so awful. Nor would he have known the pitchers spot would come up with the bases loaded after the Cubs sent 8 men to the plate the next half inning. Up 2 with 10 outs to go, He probably thought he could ride Wyse and Prim to victory and bring back Borowy for Game 7 on short rest. Plus, now with the Cubs one loss away from elimination, Grimm had to pull out all the stops.

When Charlie Grimm looked over at the bullpen, he saw 5 options…

Paul Derringer, Hy Vandenberg and Paul Erickson had thrown the most during the regular season. Derringer was in the rotation before Borowy was acquired from New York, and was moved to the bullpen for the World Series. He had also thrown 2 innings the day before. Vandenberg and Erickson had both made appearances in Games 4 and 5 the previous 2 days and weren’t as fresh, but in an elimination game everyone is available.

Bob Chipman was probably just happy to be there. The 26 year old was one of the few young guys in the Series with the majority being drafted into military service. He’d faced two batters the day before, walking one before recording a groundout. So he was availble. But he was a lefty, and the Tigers had Rudy York, Jimmy Outlaw and Bob Swift coming up – all righties. Not a terrific option either.

Which left the guy who had just given up 5 earned runs in 5+ innings the day before: Hank Borowy.

Incredibly, Borowy was awesome. He allowed two singles to reach in the 9th before Houdini-ing out of the jam with a play at the plate. He then faced the minimum the rest of the way allowing two more singles, but getting Greenberg to hit into a double play in the 10th and Joe Hoover was caught trying to steal in the 12th.

He went 4 scoreless before the Cubs finally managed to win 8-7 in 12 on a Stan Hack walkoff double scoring the speedy pinch runner Bill Schuester from first.

The Cubs had survived, but the Tigers had forced the bullpen dry. With a day off between Games 6 and 7, the Cubs manager had another choice: Who should start Game 7?

Derringer was the best option. The guy was a 6-time All Star once upon a time, and he had finished in the Top 10 of MVP voting three different times and as recent as 1942. He had logged 30 starts and 213.2 innings during the regular season. And he was fresh having not pitched since Game 5. Grossly under-utilized.

Vandenberg, Erickson and Chipman were all options too. They’d combined for 26 starts during the regular season and had each put up an ERA in the low- to mid-3’s. Prim and Wyse had only thrown an inning or so each, so should’ve both been available to start. Even Passeau, who had thrown 6.2 innings two days ago, would’ve been a better option than the man who got the ball.

Because Grimm did the unthinkable.

He gave the ball back to Hank Borowy.

I mean, come on. He’s literally the only guy who should not have been an option. Sure, he’d shocked everyone by throwing 4 shutout innings just two days ago, but he was fortunate to get out of that unscathed, and he’d thrown 5+ innings and taken the loss just the day before that magic act. How in the world Grimm thought the solution to the problem was Hank Borowy is beyond me.

To start the game, Borowy gave up 3 consecutive singles and Grimm pulled him for Derringer. The Tigers scored 5 in the 1st and went on to win the game 9-3 and the Series 4-3.

The Tiger were beatable. The Cubs were the better team outside of Greenberg. Cubs fans can act like they’re cursed by some smelly wet goat, but the truth is this: Charlie Grimm’s inability to manage his pitching staff is what cost the Cubs the 1945 World Series. Overusing Borowy and underusing the rest of the bullpen, specifically Derringer.

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The Last of the Living from 1945

One last bits of info: the last living ballplayer from that Detroit Tigers team is Ed Mierkowicz. The only action he saw in the World Series was playing left field the final three outs of Game 7 as a defensive replacement for Hank Greenberg.

The first batter of the inning singled to Mierkowicz in left, but Detroit starter, Hal Newhouser (who got roughed up in Game 1, but threw all 9 innings of Games 5 and 7) gets the next three outs to end the game and Mierkowicz gets to party on the field, running in from the outfield. I encourage you to go read his story by The Detroit News here.

And the last living Cub from that 1945 team died last Spring. Lennie Merullo was 98. He played shortstop for the 1945 squad. Here’s an article from the NY Times about his life and legacy.

-apc.

Image credits: Program here. Billy Goat here. Wrigley facade here. Greenway card here. Borrow card here.