Stats & Info: MLB

Shields adds durability to Padres' rotation

February, 9, 2015
Feb 9
James Shields has performed better after the All-Star break in recent seasons.
Right-hander James Shields has agreed to a four-year contract with the San Diego Padres, according to multiple reports. The agreement adds one of baseball’s biggest innings-eaters to the Padres, who continued a busy offseason with the deal.

Padres add another
Shields is the latest in a string of acquisitions by the Padres, who have had a very busy offseason, most notably in revamping their outfield with trades for Matt Kemp, Justin Upton and Wil Myers.

Shields and free agent Brandon Morrow will be the two newcomers in the team’s rotation, which is currently headed by Andrew Cashner and Tyson Ross. The team also should be helped by Josh Johnson and Cory Luebke, who is expected to return from Tommy John surgery in 2015.

Padres starters ranked ninth in the majors with a 3.55 ERA last season, but half of their games were at pitcher-friendly Petco Park. Looking at ERA minus, which provides added context to ERA, they ranked 19th. The team’s starters ranked 23rd in the majors in innings pitched. In fact, the Padres’ rotation has ranked 22nd or 23rd in innings in each of the past three seasons.

Shields has a track record of logging a lot of innings. He’s one of three pitchers to throw at least 200 innings in each of the past eight seasons (when he was with the Tampa Bay Rays and Kansas City Royals), along with Justin Verlander and Mark Buehrle.

What Shields does best
Shields has won in the past with the help of a highly regarded changeup, one that netted 109 strikeouts in 2012, second most in the majors. He’s scaled back the use of it as a wipeout pitch over the past two seasons, going with his fastball a little more frequently in two-strike situations.

But he still ranked fifth in strikeouts with the pitch last season with 67.

Though Shields struggled in the 2014 postseason, he closed the regular season strong, with a 2.48 ERA in his last 13 starts. This is something that he has done consistently over the past three seasons.

In that span, his ERA before the All-Star break has been 3.66. After the break, it has been 2.83.

The Padres' player payroll has been on a fairly consistent uptick the past five seasons. Their Opening Day payroll in 2010 was $37.8 million. It steadily rose and was $90.6 million last season. Before signing Shields, their 2015 payroll was $83.6 million.

Scherzer's off-speed stuff easy to miss

January, 19, 2015
Jan 19

Tommy Gilligan/USA TodayMax Scherzer was among the 2014 leaders in strikeout and miss percentage among qualified starters.
Max Scherzer reportedly has agreed to a seven-year contract with the Washington Nationals, according to multiple media reports. Scherzer will join a rotation that led the major leagues in ERA in 2014.

The deal is for $210 million with half deferred, according to multiple reports. Scherzer reportedly will receive $15 million annually for 14 years. The deal also includes a record $50 million signing bonus, a person familiar with the negotiations told The Associated Press.

The three largest contracts given to pitchers in terms of total value before Scherzer’s deal were $215 million to Clayton Kershaw, $180 million to Justin Verlander and $175 million to Félix Hernández. The Nationals' deal with Scherzer, if reports are correct, would become the second-richest for a pitcher in baseball history, but the richest for a free-agent pitcher.

Scherzer excels in getting misses on swings against his off-speed stuff. Scherzer got batters to miss on 33 percent of their swings against his slider on two-strike counts in 2014, above the American League average. This led him into the top 10 in Major League Baseball in strikeout and miss percentage among qualified starters.

The Nationals and the Detroit Tigers finished 2014 ranked below the league average in strikeout and miss percentage among starting pitchers. The Nationals ranked 24th and 18th, and the Tigers 26th and 21st, respectively.

What a rotation the Nationals could run out there this season. All five starters – Scherzer is projected to join Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Doug Fister and Gio Gonzalez - posted an ERA of 3.57 or lower, and all but Gonzalez were in the top 20 in baseball in strikeout-to-walk ratio last season.

Scherzer’s 12.7 wins above replacement the last two seasons rank third among pitchers, behind Kershaw and Chris Sale, both of whom are currently locked into long-term contracts.

Scherzer reportedly turned down a contract extension offer from the Tigers worth $144 million before the 2014 season. The contract uncertainty didn’t appear to affect his performance. He registered statistics that were similar to those from his Cy Young performance from 2013. In 2013, his fielding independent pitching was 2.74; it was 2.85 last season. In 2013, his strikeout percentage was 28.7 percent; it was 27.9 percent last season.

Top stats on Hall of Fame selections

January, 6, 2015
Jan 6

Rich Pilling/Getty ImagesRandy Johnson ranks second all time in strikeouts.
Three pitchers in their first year of eligibility were elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Tuesday, and they were joined by a player who missed induction last year by two votes.

Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz led the balloting of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, making this year the first time three pitchers were elected in the same year. Craig Biggio got votes on 82.7 percent of the ballots after receiving 74.8 percent -- 0.2 percent short of the necessary threshold -- last year.

Below are some of the most remarkable statistical accomplishments of this year’s class.

Randy Johnson
Johnson, who received votes on 97.3 percent of ballots, had the fifth-most wins of any left-handed pitcher (303).

He ranks second all time with 4,875 strikeouts (behind Nolan Ryan, who had 5,714). Johnson had six 300-strikeout seasons, tied with Ryan for the most. No other pitcher has had more than three such seasons.

His 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings are the most for anyone with at least 1,000 career innings pitched.

Johnson won five Cy Young Awards (more than anyone else except Roger Clemens), including four in a row from 1999 to 2002, and was a 10-time All-Star.

Johnson is one of five pitchers with 300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts and a no-hitter. The others are Ryan, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry and Tom Seaver.

Among pitchers with at least 300 wins, Johnson’s .646 career win percentage ranks fifth.

Pedro Martínez
Martínez (voted on 91.1 percent of ballots) won 219 games and three Cy Young Awards and was an eight-time All-Star. At his best, he was one of the game's most dominant pitchers.

Martínez’s peak can stack up against anyone else’s in MLB history. From age 25 to 33, Martínez produced 69.7 WAR, the third most by any pitcher over those ages in history.

The Elias Sports Bureau offered this to put Martínez's top two seasons in perspective: Since ERA became an official stat, there have been five instances of pitchers posting 40 wins, 500 strikeouts and an ERA under 2.00 over a two-year span. Martínez’s performance in 1999-2000 is one of them. The four others are by Sandy Koufax (1963-64, 1964-65 and 1965-66) and Bob Gibson (1968-69).

Among pitchers with at least 200 wins, only Whitey Ford had a higher career win percentage (.690) than Martínez (.687).

John Smoltz
Smoltz (82.9 percent) is the only pitcher in baseball history with at least 200 wins and 100 saves. Smoltz had 213 and 154. He joins former Atlanta Braves teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine in Cooperstown. Smoltz was an eight-time All-Star.

Smoltz was known during his career as a big-game pitcher. He was 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA in 41 career postseason appearances.

Smoltz became a full-time closer from 2002 to 2004. During that stretch, his 144 saves were second in baseball behind Eric Gagne's 152 and 23 more than Mariano Rivera.

Craig Biggio
Biggio is the Astros' all-time leader in games, at-bats, runs, hits, doubles and extra-base hits.

During a seven-year run from 1993 to 1999, Biggio ranked as the fourth-best player in baseball. He had 41.5 wins above replacement in that time, trailing Barry Bonds (53.3), Ken Griffey Jr. (49.2) and Jeff Bagwell (47.2).

Biggio is one of four players with at least 2,500 hits, 250 home runs and 400 stolen bases. The other three: Bonds, Rickey Henderson and Joe Morgan.

Biggio's 668 doubles rank fifth all time and are the most of anyone whose career began within the past 50 years.

Next closest
Mike Piazza (69.9 percent) received the most votes among those who weren’t selected, followed by Bagwell (55.7) and Tim Raines (55.0). No one else received more than 40 percent of votes.

Stats to know: 2015 Hall of Fame preview

January, 6, 2015
Jan 6

ReutersRandy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz are among the most likely Hall of Fame selections.
The Baseball Hall of Fame will announce its newest elected members at 2 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Early returns (compiled on Twitter by baseball fans Ryan Thibs and Darren Viola) indicate that there is a strong likelihood that four candidates will be elected by the BBWAA: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio, with the potential for a fifth, Mike Piazza.

The writers have elected four or more candidates three times, with the last instance coming in 1955, an inaugural class headed by Joe DiMaggio.

Johnson, Martinez could be close to unanimous
Johnson and Martinez have received the public support of almost every writer who has filed a ballot. They will not be unanimous selections but could come close to that level of support.

The record for highest percentage of votes received is 98.84 percent by Tom Seaver in 1992. Five players have received at least 98 percent of the vote: Seaver, Nolan Ryan (1999, 98.79), Cal Ripken Jr. (2007, 98.53), Ty Cobb (1936, 98.23) and George Brett (1999, 98.19).

Johnson ranks second all time with 4,875 strikeouts and had the fifth-most wins of any left-handed pitcher (303). He won five Cy Young Awards, including four in a row from 1999 to 2002, and was a 10-time All-Star. His 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings is the most for anyone with at least 1,000 career innings pitched.

Martinez won 219 games and three Cy Young Awards and was an eight-time All-Star. At his best, he was one of the game's most dominant pitchers.

The Elias Sports Bureau offered this to put Martinez's peak in perspective: Since ERA became an official stat, there have been five instances of 40 wins, 500 strikeouts and an ERA under 2.00 over a two-year span. Martinez’s 1999-2000 performance is one of them. The four others are by Sandy Koufax (1963-64, 1964-65 and 1965-66) and Bob Gibson (1968-69).

Smoltz's distinct combination
Smoltz is the only pitcher in baseball history with at least 200 wins and 100 saves. He has the chance to join former teammates Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine in Cooperstown. Smoltz won 213 games and was an eight-time All-Star.

Smoltz was known during his career as a big-game pitcher. He went 15-4 with a 2.67 ERA in 41 career postseason appearances.

Biggio the leading returnee
Biggio finished two-tenths of a percentage point shy of election last season, receiving 74.8 percent of the vote. He is the Houston Astros' career leader in games, at-bats, runs, hits, doubles and extra-base hits.

Biggio's 668 doubles rank fifth all time and are the most of anyone whose career began within the past 50 years. He is one of four players with at least 2,500 hits, 250 home runs and 400 stolen bases. The other three are Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson and Joe Morgan.

Piazza trying to make a big jump
Piazza received 62.2 percent of the vote last year, his second year on the ballot, but early returns indicate he's poised to make a jump.

Piazza is the career home run leader as a catcher, a 12-time All-Star and a 10-time Silver Slugger Award winner. He's one of 10 players to hit .300 and hit at least 400 home runs, and he is the only one of those 10 not in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Bonds and Clemens still have a ways to go
Bonds and Roger Clemens, each in their third year on the ballot, are not expected to be elected. In fact, both received less than half of the needed 75 percent of votes last year.

Bonds is the career home run leader and a seven-time MVP (no one else has won more than three). Clemens ranks third in strikeouts and ninth in wins and has won seven Cy Young Awards (most all time).

Padres adding power to their outfield

December, 17, 2014
Wil Myers is reportedly headed to the San Diego Padres, with the Tampa Bay Rays agreeing to trade the 2013 American League Rookie of the Year winner. Myers played in nearly an identical number of games in 2014 as he did in 2013, missing time due to a wrist inury. His production went down considerably from a .293 batting average, 13 home runs and 1.9 WAR in 2013 to .222 with six home runs and -0.9 WAR in 2014.

This was the second time that Myers has been dealt. He was previously traded from the Royals to the Rays in the 2012-2013 offseason in a deal that netted the Royals James Shields and Wade Davis.

What are the statistical storylines behind a Myers deal?

This is an unusual kind of trade
The Elias Sports Bureau notes that Myers will be the first Rookie of the Year winner to switch teams within two years of winning the award since Butch Metzger and Pat Zachry won in 1976 and were traded a season later.

Zachry was traded from the Reds to the Mets as part of a deal that brought the Reds back future Hall-of-Famer Tom Seaver.

A notable drop-off
Exactly 200 players have had at least 300 plate appearances in each of the last two seasons. Only five of them experienced a larger drop-off in OPS from 2013 to 2014 than Myers did (.831 to .614).

Myers’ performance was down even before he suffered the injury at the end of May that sidelined him until late August.

He had a slashline of .227/.313/.354 before the injury. He came back a bit rusty, posting a .213/.263/.268 slashline and only one home run in 127 at-bats after returning.

Myers’ upside
The reason that the Padres would want Myers is because of his potential. He wowed at times in 2013 after being heralded as one of the game’s top prospects.

When Myers is going good, he crushes pitches at the top of the strike zone and up around the eyes.

He hit a major-league best .390 against pitches in the upper-half of the strike zone and above in 2013.

He saw a lower rate of pitches up there last season (the rate decreased from 36 percent to 30 percent and his performance dipped against them as well (he hit only .209 in at-bats ending in those pitches).

A revamped outfield
The Padres deal for Matt Kemp is not yet finalized, but if it is, the team will have done a significant overhaul of its outfield.

Padres outfielders ranked last in the majors in slugging percentage (.347) last season. Their 29 home runs ranked fourth-worst.

Myers had a .478 slugging percentage as a rookie. Kemp slugged .470 in 2013 and .508 in 2014. He slugged .606 after the All-Star Break last season.

One potential weakness: Defense
PETCO Park is spacious and a challenge to hit in. There’s also a lot of ground for outfielders to cover.

Kemp ranked last among outfielders last season with -23 Defensive Runs Saved. In 150 games in right field, Myers has compiled -11 Defensive Runs Saved.


What does Grandal bring to Dodgers?

December, 11, 2014
The primary purpose of the Los Angeles Dodgers trading Matt Kemp to the Padres was to both clear salary and clear an outfield logjam to free up space for promising rookie Joc Pederson. But the Dodgers did get one player back who will have an immediate impact in catcher Yasmani Grandal.

ESPN Insider Mike Petriello wrote a piece recently extolling the virtues of Grandal as a potential breakout candidate for 2015.

What does Grandal bring to his new team?

In spite of the numbers, he can hit
Grandal’s offensive numbers look unimpressive on the surface (.225 with a .327 on-base percentage, .401 slugging percentage and 15 home runs in 128 games). But there are some bright spots to consider.

For one, he has hit well in the past. In his rookie season, 2012, he had a .297/.394/.469 slashline with eight home runs in 192 at-bats

For another, he closed 2014 very well – posting a .270/.373/.467 slashline with six home runs in his last 42 games (and 137 at-bats).

Lastly, Grandal does hit the ball hard at an above-average rate.

Inside Edge, which provides batted-ball data to teams and media, rates every batted ball as hard-hit, medium-hit or soft-hit.

Grandal registered hard-hit balls in 18 percent of his at-bats, 19 percent against right-handed pitching.

When he actually hit the ball, he hit it hard 25 percent of the time.

By comparison, Kemp’s overall hard-hit rate last season was 16 percent. And his hard-hit rate when making contact was 22 percent. Grandal rated better in each area. And he’s well ahead of his new backstop mate, A.J. Ellis, who had a 15 percent overall hard-hit rate last season.

Pitch-Framing: A coveted skill
One of the popular statistics in the sabermetric community (a group that would include the Dodgers new management team) relates to pitch framing: How well does a catcher do at making sure pitches in the strike zone are called strikes and how well does the catcher do at “stealing strikes” – taking pitches outside the strike zone and getting them called strikes.

Simply put: This is an area in which Grandal has excelled.

Grandal rated best in the majors at getting strikes called when he should. Umpires called 89 percent of the pitches he caught in the strike zone as strikes, six percentage points above the major-league average.

Grandal also got called strikes on 10 percent of pitches that the Pitch F/X tracking system deemed to be out of the strike zone. That ranked eighth-best among the 40 catchers who caught the most pitches last season.

There is a significant difference between Grandal and Ellis, as noted in the chart on the right.

Grandal’s weakness: Doesn’t deter baserunners
Though Grandal does excel at one aspect of catcher defense, he struggles in another.

Opposing baserunners were caught only six times in 55 stolen-base attempts (11 percent of the time) against Grandal last season. You could argue that some of that is due to the Padres pitchers and that’s partly true. But consider that the Padres other catcher, Rene Rivera, threw out 33 percent of would be base-stealers last season.

Ellis has an edge here. Over the last two seasons, he’s thrown out 31 percent of would-be basestealers.

It will be interesting to see how Don Mattingly handles his end-game catching choice. Will he go with the catcher better at framing pitches (and thus keeping runners off base) or the one who rates better at holding runners once they reach?

Stat to Remember: A winning player?
The Padres have finished under .500 in each of the past three seasons, but when Grandal played, they were a considerably better team.

The Padres went 99-80 when Grandal started. They were 130-177 when he did not.


Porcello, Cespedes have valuable arms

December, 11, 2014
After missing out on the Jon Lester sweepstakes, the Boston Red Sox continued the retooling of their pitching staff by obtaining Rick Porcello from the Detroit Tigers for Yoenis Cespedes and two minor leaguers.

In need of a solid arm

The Red Sox struggled to get consistent starting pitching last season, posting a combined ERA of 4.36, third worst in the American League. Porcello joins the Red Sox coming off the best season of his career. Last season, the right-hander set career-bests in wins, ERA, WHIP and walk rate. He also reached 200 innings for the first time and pitched the first three shutouts of his career.

He was worth 4.0 Wins Above Replacement last season. In 2012 and 2013 combined, Porcello was worth 3.9 WAR.

Porcello has consistently ranked as one of the top ground-ball inducers among starting pitchers. His 53 percent ground-ball rate over the last three seasons ranks 12th among the 100 pitchers who have thrown the most innings in that span.

Porcello might also benefit from getting away from Comerica Park. He has a 4.56 ERA there over the last three seasons, compared to 3.63 on the road. His 2.66 ERA road ERA last season ranked 10th in the majors.

Big Bat, Better Arm

Céspedes’ departure clears a glut in the Red Sox outfield and gives the Tigers another powerful bat. He's averaged 24 home runs and 27 doubles in his first three major-league seasons.

Though Céspedes will certainly add to an already potent Tigers offense, his largest contributions will likely come on defense. His 12 Defensive Runs Saved ranked third among leftfielders last season. Those runs come mainly from the value of his throwing arm. He led the majors with 16 outfield assists last season. He has 35 assists over the last three seasons. Only Alex Gordon of the Royals has more (42).

Tigers outfielders combined for -33 Defensive Runs Saved last season, third-worst in the majors.

Cespedes was worth 4.1 Wins Above Replacement last season. This makes for a case of the rich getting richer. He'll join a Tigers team that has four returning players who were worth at least 4.0 WAR last season-- Victor Martinez, J.D. Martinez, Miguel Cabrera and Ian Kinsler. The Tigers and Pirates were the only teams to have four position players worth at least 4.0 WAR last season.

Cespedes will likely be the Tigers' ninth different opening day leftfielder in the last nine seasons. Only the Padres have a longer active streak of different Opening Day leftfielders-- 10 straight seasons



Miley may be better than his 2014 numbers

December, 10, 2014
The Boston Red Sox didn’t sign Jon Lester, but they’ve reportedly added a left-handed pitcher with a skill set that is to their liking by trading for Diamondbacks southpaw Wade Miley.
Wade Miley
Miley’s numbers jumped a bit in 2014. He had a 4.34 ERA, a big jump from the 3.44 ERA he posted in 2013 and 2012 combined. But a look beyond that shows some things that the Red Sox management found to be of value.

What does Miley bring to his new team?

Miley is one of 15 pitchers to throw at least 190 innings in each of the last three seasons. The only pitchers younger than him on that list are Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner.

Strikeouts and Ground Balls
Miley was one of 14 pitchers to qualify for the ERA title and have a strikeout rate of at least 20 percent and a ground-ball rate of at least 50 percent in 2014.

He gets ground balls because of his ability to keep the ball down. He threw 59 percent of his pitches in the lower third of the strike zone or below in 2014, the highest percentage for anyone who threw at least 100 innings.

Miley was hurt a little bit more by ground balls than he had been previously. Opponents had a “reached-base percentage” (via hit or error) of .277 on ground balls and bunts against him. Their reached-base percentage was .254 from 2012 to 2013.

Controlling the running game
Miley excels in controlling the running game. Baserunners are 15-of-34 in steal attempts against him for his career. He’s never allowed more than five stolen bases in a season.

Miley’s 10 pickoffs since the start of 2013 are tied for sixth in the majors.

Getting out of Arizona
Miley has been much more effective on the road than at home over the last two seasons, which is tied directly to the long ball.

He’s allowed 29 home runs in Arizona the last two seasons, giving him a 4.90 ERA there. He’s yielded only 15 on the road, where his ERA is 3.13.


Rollins still has some SS skills

December, 10, 2014
The Los Angeles Dodgers shored up one of their few remaining holes by obtaining shortstop Jimmy Rollins from the Phillies on Wednesday.

Rollins ranks either first or second in Phillies history in games played, hits, extra-base hits, doubles and stolen bases.

He made three All-Star teams, won four Gold Glove Awards and was the NL MVP in 2007.

Rollins is in the final season of a four-year deal and is scheduled to make $11 million in 2015.

Why the Dodgers pursued Rollins
The Dodgers were aggressive in trying to obtain a shortstop after the loss of Hanley Ramirez, who signed a four-year deal with the Boston Red Sox.

In Rollins, they are getting someone who might be a better all-around player (or at least more durable).

Rollins was valued at 3.9 Wins Above Replacement last season. That ranked tied with Erick Aybar for third among shortstops, trailing only Jhonny Peralta (5.8) and Troy Tulowitzki (5.5). Ramirez ranked sixth with 3.5 WAR. The 3.9 Wins Above Replacement was Rollins' highest total since 2008, when he had a 5.4 WAR and the Phillies won the World Series.

Rollins has averaged 148 games played over the last 14 seasons. In the last four seasons, Ramirez played fewer than 100 games twice.

Still has something left
Rollins was much better in 2014 than he was in 2013, and it was driven by a combination of his power returning (he went from six home runs to 17), and a significant improvement in how the defensive metrics evaluated his defense (he went from -15 Defensive Runs Saved to four Defensive Runs Saved).

Those were Rollins’ best defensive numbers since he had five Defensive Runs Saved in 2007.

Rollins was one of four players (and the only infielder) to have at least 15 home runs and 25 stolen bases last season, along with Charlie Blackmon, Jacoby Ellsbury and Carlos Gomez).

The one downside was that Rollins hit only .243, matching his lowest single-season batting average for his career.


After strong year, Lester rewarded by Cubs

December, 10, 2014

Steve Bisig/USA TodayJon Lester’s 1.80 ERA from June 12 on was the best in the American League.
Jon Lester, regarded as one of the two biggest catches in this year's free agent pool, agreed to a six-year, $155 million contract with the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday night. The deal reportedly could be worth $170 million in light of a vesting option for a seventh year.

Excelled in 2014
Lester is coming off the best season of his career. He posted career bests in ERA (2.46), WHIP (1.10) and K/BB ratio (4.6). He had a 3.52 ERA in his first 13 starts and then closed the season with a 1.80 ERA in his last 19 starts. The 1.80 ERA was second-best in the majors from June 12 on, trailing Clayton Kershaw's 1.32.

Lester continued in 2014 a trend that began in 2012. That year, he posted a 4.82 ERA in more than 200 innings pitched. He improved in 2013 – to a 3.75 ERA – before he re-established himself as an ace in 2014 with a 2.46 ERA.

What was behind this renaissance?

Improved strikeout and walk rates: Lester has steadily improved his strikeout rate over the last three years – from 19 percent to 20 percent to 25 percent in 2014 – and reduced his walk rate – from 8.0 percent in 2012 to 5.4 percent last season.

Fewer home runs: In 2012, he allowed 25 home runs (3.2 percent of the batters he faced). In 2014, that was down to 16 (1.9 percent).

Better versus right-handed hitters: Since 2012, Lester has lowered his batting average allowed against right-handed hitters by 48 points and lowered his OPS allowed by nearly 170 points.

Let’s examine that last point more closely. Lester used to be unsuccessful throwing his fastball inside to righties. Not anymore. He has increased the frequency with which he’s throwing inside to righties, and he’s having more success when he does.

Right-handed batters hit .251 against his fastball on the inner half in 2014, a far cry from 2012 (.315) and 2013 (.297).

The contract
Lester and fellow free agent Max Scherzer were widely regarded as capable of threatening the record for largest contract issued to a free agent pitcher. The $155 million deal Lester agreed to is the largest contract issued by the Cubs and trails only the contract of CC Sabathia for the largest total value of a contract issued to a free agent pitcher. Lester's average salary in the reported deal is $25.8 million, which would be the biggest given to a free agent pitcher on a multiyear deal in history.

The Cubs' 73-89 record in 2014 represented another sub-.500 season, but it was a 12-win improvement from two 2012. Armed with well-regarded prospects, with Lester heading the pitching rotation and with Joe Maddon as manager, Cubs fans appear to have reason for hope.

White Sox make big pitch to improve

December, 9, 2014
The Chicago White Sox made a big push to improve their pitching staff with the reported late-night agreements on a trade for Jeff Samardzija and an agreement with free-agent closer David Robertson.

Why the White Sox would trade for Samardzija
Samardzija threw a career-high 219 2/3 innings in 2014, split between the Cubs and Athletics, and finished with a 2.99 ERA.
Jeff Samardzija
Samardzija’s acquisition bolsters a White Sox rotation that already includes lefties Chris Sale and Jose Quintana, both of whom finished in the top 10 in Fielding Independent Pitching (also known as FIP, an ERA estimator based on a pitcher’s strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed). Samardzija ranked 17th in FIP, with 3.20.

Even with Sale and Quintana, White Sox starters ranked 25th in ERA and 26th in FIP last season, as the back end of their rotation was lacking in quality arms.

Disregard the win-loss record
Samardzija was 7-13 last season through no fault of his own. He made five starts in which he allowed no runs and pitched at least six innings, and he didn’t earn a win in any of them (amazingly, his team lost all five games).

He also got no-decisions in three starts in which he went at least six innings and allowed only one run.

What made him so good
Samardzija improved from 2013 in large part because he harnessed his fastball. His walk rate dropped from 8.5 percent in 2013 to 4.9 percent last season.

He’s thrown his fastball in the strike zone more and more often over the past three seasons. In 2011, he did so only 42 percent of the time. By 2014, he was at 54 percent.

Why they got Robertson
Robertson should be a huge upgrade for the White Sox bullpen, particularly in terms of his ability to finish off hitters.

White Sox relievers had a 4.38 ERA (28th in the majors) and an 18 percent strikeout rate (29th in the majors) last season. They've now made two acquisitions to shore that up, with Zach Duke and Robertson signed to long-term deals.
David Robertson
Robertson has a 2.20 ERA over the past four seasons. He struck out 37 percent of the hitters he faced in 2014 (10th in the majors).

Robertson comes with both an impressive fastball and a curveball against which hitters missed on nearly half their swings last season (47 percent). That was the sixth-highest miss rate among the 101 pitchers who threw the most curveballs last season.

His success is keyed by an ability to get out of jams. Opponents have hit .184 with runners in scoring position against him over the past four seasons. They were 3-for-29 with 19 strikeouts with the bases loaded in that span.


Names to know: Winter Meetings targets

December, 5, 2014
Getty ImagesJon Lester and Matt Kemp could find themselves with new teams after the Winter Meetings.
The Winter Meetings begin Monday in San Diego and there are expectations of major wheeling and dealing by baseball executives.

Here's a look at some of the players who figure to be headline-grabbers at this year's gathering.

Max Scherzer and Jon Lester
Max Scherzer and Jon Lester are the two premium pitchers available in free agency this year. Both could threaten or exceed the record for largest contract issued to a free agent pitcher, $161 million by CC Sabathia with the Yankees.

In 2012, Lester posted a 4.82 ERA in over 200 innings. It improved in 2013 to 3.75 before he re-established himself as an ace in 2014 with a 2.46 ERA. What was behind this renaissance?

Improved strikeout & walk rates: Lester has steadily improved his strikeout rate over the last three years – from 19 percent to 20 to 25 in 2014 – while simultaneously reducing his walk rate – from 8 percent in 2012 down to 5.4 percent last season.

Fewer home runs: Lester allowed 25 homers in 2012 (good for 3.2 percent of batters faced). He allowed just 16 (or 1.9 percent) in 2014.

Improvement against righties: Since 2012, Lester has lowered his batting average allowed vs righties by 48 points, and lowered his OPS allowed by nearly 170 points.
In 2011, Scherzer posted a 4.43 ERA, before taking a step forward in 2012 with a 3.74 ERA. He’s been a true ace since the start of last season, however, eclipsing 200 innings in both while finishing in the top-5 in the AL Cy Young in both 2013 and 2014.

What led to this improvement?

Better versus lefties: From 2011-12, left-handed batters hit .286 with an .837 OPS against Scherzer. Since the start of last season, lefties have hit just .233 with a .666 OPS.

Now a strikeout artist: Scherzer’s strikeout rate jumped from 8.0 per 9 innings to 11.1 from 2011-12, and has stayed above 10 strikeouts per 9 innings since. This relates to his performance with two strikes – opponents hit .206 from 2011-12 with two strikes, and just .149 since then.

Added a curveball: Scherzer did not throw a curveball in 2011, before throwing it under two percent of the time in 2012. He’s steadily increased its usage, though – from seven percent in 2013 to over 10 percent in 2014.

Matt Kemp
Kemp may be dangled to other teams by the Dodgers to alleviate their outfield logjam. He had a huge second half last season, leading the majors with a .606 slugging percentage and 35 extra-base hits. His 54 RBI ranked second to teammate Adrian Gonzalez.

Kemp’s value may be hurt by his defensive metrics. He ranked last among outfielders last season with -23 Defensive Runs Saved.

Kemp was one of 24 players to have an OPS+ (measure of OPS relative to league average) of 140 or better last season. His 1.1 Wins Above Replacement was the lowest of the group. He was one of only three of those players with a WAR below 3.0.

Justin Upton
Justin Upton
J. Upton
The Braves have been rumored to be shopping Upton, who had a career-best 102 RBI last season. He brings durability, having played at least 149 games in each of the last four seasons.

Upton had four really good months and two bad ones last season. He didn’t close well, hitting .169 with 30 strikeouts in 83 September at-bats.

Yoenis Cespedes
Cespedes, like Kemp, may be dealt to deal with overload at a position. He’s also coming off a career-high with 100 RBI between the Athletics and Red Sox last season.

Cespedes can make a good case that he’s a difference-maker in a lineup (despite on-base percentages of .294 and .301 the last two seasons).

The Athletics went 229-136 when Cespedes played for them from 2012-14. They were 49-72 in all other games.

Jeff Samardzija
Samardzija may be the best pitcher available via trade. He had a 2.99 ERA last season, split between the Cubs and Athletics, his best ERA in three seasons as a starting pitcher.

Samardzija is one of five pitchers with at least 200 strikeouts in each of the last two seasons, along with Scherzer, Chris Sale, Kershaw and Felix Hernandez.

James Shields
James Shields
James Shields may not command the price of a Scherzer or Lester, but whoever signs him will be getting an arm with a lot of mileage on it.

Including the postseason, only two pitchers have logged more innings than James Shields’ 1,969 2/3 since he debuted in 2006 – Justin Verlander (2,065) and Felix Hernandez (1,976 1/3).

Melky Cabrera
For the third time in four seasons, Cabrera produced a .300 batting average and .800 OPS. In fact, he was one of only three outfielders to achieve that in 2014 The others were Andrew McCutchen and Michael Brantley.

David Robertson
David Robertson
David Robertson is reportedly seeking one of the largest free agent contracts ever issued to a relief pitcher. The current mark is Jonathan Papelbon’s four-year, $50 million deal with the Phillies.

For his career, Robertson has struck out 524 batters in 393 innings pitched, the best strikeouts per 9 rate of any active pitcher with at least 350 innings (12.2).

Andrew Miller
Miller has evolved from a top prospect who was struggling significantly to one of the most dominant relievers in the game. His 43 percent strikeout rate last season ranked second to Aroldis Chapman’s 53 percent among pitchers who threw at least 50 innings in 2014.

Cruz fills big power need for Mariners

December, 1, 2014
No American League team needed Nelson Cruz more than the Seattle Mariners. Last season, the Mariners designated hitters combined to hit .189 with an OPS of .568. Both of those numbers ranked last in the American League.

The M’s also struggled to find power from the right-hand side. The Mariners .604 OPS from righties was the lowest single-season mark for a team since the 1988 Pirates righties had an OPS of .603.

Nelson Cruz
Cruz parlayed a terrific 2014 season into a reported four-year deal to help fill those voids in Seattle. The $57 million dollar deal would be the third-largest in total value ever given out by the Mariners trailing only a five-year deal worth $64 million to Adrian Beltre and a 10-year, $240 million dollar deal for Robinson Cano.

Value added
This past season, Cruz was the only player in baseball to hit 40 home runs while driving in 100 runs.

From a wins above replacement standpoint, Cruz was worth nearly five wins last season (4.7), after putting up a WAR total of 4.3 from 2011 to 2013.

Although the 4.7 WAR marked a career high, Cruz did have a similar season in 2010 with the Texas Rangers when he had a WAR of 4.1, despite playing in just 108 games.

From Camden to Safeco
While the assumption was Cruz would benefit from playing at Camden Yards last year, he was actually much better on the road than at home. Cruz hit .289 with 25 home runs on the road, while batting .252 with 15 home runs at his hitter-friendly home park.

Despite a .234 career batting average at Safeco Field, all of Cruz’s 15 home runs at Camden Yards this past year would also have been home runs at Safeco.

Good omen for Seattle?
Cruz is not the first slugger to spend just one season in Baltimore before moving on. It was 38 years ago that Reggie Jackson made a splash in New York after spending one season with the Orioles. The Yankees went on to win consecutive World Series titles in his first two seasons.

Gil Bransford, Justin Havens, Paul Kinney and Kenton Wong contributed to this post

Stats to know: Red Sox add Hanley Ramirez

November, 24, 2014

AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Hanley Ramirez has reportedly agreed to a four-year deal with the Boston Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox are wasting no time revamping their lineup, reportedly agreeing Monday to a four-year, $88 million deal with Hanley Ramirez. There is a fifth-year vesting option worth an additional $22 million.

The Red Sox also have an agreement in place with third baseman Pablo Sandoval, according to ESPN sources and a report.

Ramirez, who was traded by the Red Sox to the Miami Marlins nine years ago Monday, has ranked among the game’s top players, but his future success will likely be determined by how he holds up health-wise.

What he brings: Impressive bat, injury-prone
Ramirez has been effective, but oft-injured of late. He averaged a .277/.351/.464 the past four seasons with the Marlins and Dodgers, but in only an average of 116 games per season. He hit .283 with 71 RBIs in 128 games in 2014 with the Dodgers.

Defense is not Ramirez’s strong suit. He contributed minus-37 Defensive Runs Saved in the past four seasons, though a position change could be in order, given the composition of the Red Sox roster and some future moves.

Even with the struggles in the field, Ramirez has been worth 8.9 Wins Above Replacement the past two seasons, and that’s despite playing in only 66 percent of his team’s games.

Where does he play?
Ramirez could see time at shortstop, third base, or even in left field with a potential trade of Yoenis Cespedes.

The Red Sox have had four players serve as their primary shortstop the past four seasons: Marco Scutaro, Mike Aviles, Stephen Drew and Xander Bogaerts. The highest OPS among them was Scutaro’s .785 in 2011. Bogaerts finished 2014 on a high note with an OPS of .806 and four home runs in September.

Stats to know: Sandoval signs with Red Sox

November, 24, 2014
The Boston Red Sox and third baseman Pablo Sandoval have an agreement in place, according to ESPN sources and a report. Here are the top stats to know on the signing.

Capable at the corner
Sandoval played a steady third base last season, finishing with four defensive runs saved. His performance at the position has fluctuated, having shown the potential to be both very good (15 runs saved in 2011 ranked second among third baseman) and not so great (minus-10 in 2012 and 2013 combined).

He's done enough to rank among the upper-end third basemen. Sandoval ranks sixth among third basemen in wins above replacement over the last four seasons, with 14.3.

Postseason greatness
Sandoval owns three World Series rings and has been an integral part of two title-winning teams.

Sandoval’s .344 postseason batting average is the third highest among active players with at least 75 postseason plate appearances, trailing only James Loney’s .354 and Ichiro Suzuki’s .346.

He is a .426 career hitter in the World Series and went 8 for 16 in the last four games of the 2014 series against the Royals.

Strength: Plate Coverage
Sandoval has been one of baseball's best bad-ball hitters. He's led the majors in hits against pitches out of the strike zone in each of the last two seasons, netting 58 in 2013 and 70 in 2014. His .265 batting average against those pitches this season was fourth highest in the majors.

Sandoval had 35 batted balls that registered as "hard-hit" by our video-review system on pitches out of the strike zone, tied with Victor Martinez for the most in the majors.

Weakness: Hitting left-handed pitching
Sandoval hit .281, .299 and .270 against left-handed pitching from 2011 to 2013, but plummeted to .199 last season.

A big deal
Sandoval received the second-largest free-agent contract for a third baseman in terms of total value. The only one that’s bigger is Alex Rodriguez’s $275 million deal with the Yankees. Adrian Beltre’s five-year, $80 million deal with the Rangers previously ranked second.