SweetSpot: Detroit Tigers
It was quite the exciting winter meetings. A few thoughts on some of those recent transactions ...
1. Dodgers trade Matt Kemp and Dee Gordon, acquire Howie Kendrick, Jimmy Rollins and Yasmani Grandal.
It's risky blowing up a 94-win team, and although trading Kemp certainly helps clear some of the logjam in the outfield and gives the Dodgers additional money to play with, this series of transactions doesn't have as much to do with improving clubhouse chemistry or making manager Don Mattingly's life any easier as it does with something far less complicated: improving the team's defense.
New team president Andrew Friedman came from Tampa Bay, where the Rays turned their franchise around in 2008 by improving the team's defense and emphasizing it ever since. General manager Farhan Zaidi came from Oakland, where the A's had also made defense a bigger priority in recent seasons.
The Dodgers arguably ended up improving their defense at five positions:
Shortstop: Rollins > Hanley Ramirez
Second base: Kendrick > Gordon
Center field: Pederson > Yasiel Puig
Right field: Puig > Kemp
Catcher: Grandal > A.J. Ellis
Look at the upgrades, based on 2014 defensive runs saved per 1,200 innings:
SS: +16 runs
2B: +11 runs
CF: Puig rated as average here; Pederson projects as average or slightly above.
RF: +10 runs
C: Friedman loves pitch framing, and Grandal rates very well here while Ellis rates as one of the worst in the majors. Grandal isn't a great overall defensive catcher -- he had trouble throwing out runners -- but you have to believe the Dodgers' internal metrics rate Grandal has a sizable upgrade.
Yes, the Dodgers have lost two guys from the middle of the order, but Rollins (17 home runs in 2014) could replace much of Ramirez's power, Pederson projects as a 20-homer guy if he plays every day, and Kendrick is an offensive upgrade over Gordon. The Dodgers also replaced two injury-prone players in Ramirez and Kemp.
Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke predictably ripped the Kemp trade, but when you view the big picture, it looks like a terrific series of moves to me (not even factoring in the Brandon McCarthy signing).
2. Padres acquire Kemp.
My friend Ted the Mariners fan emailed me after hearing about this trade, saying, "We couldn't beat this?"
It may look like a low return for Kemp, but Kemp's reputation exceeds his actual value by a large factor. You're not just trading for Kemp; you're also getting his contract. He's a 30-year-old outfielder who played below-average defense even in right field and had injury issues the past three seasons. FanGraphs valued him at just 4.6 WAR total over the past three seasons and just 1.8 in 2014 despite hitting .287/.346/.506. If Kemp can stay healthy and match his second-half production over the next several years, the Padres won't regret the deal. But Kemp isn't the superstar some fans think he is.
3. Tigers acquire Yoenis Cespedes and Alfredo Simon, trade away Rick Porcello and Eugenio Suarez.
Overall, I'd say the Tigers are just spinning their wheels in the mud so far if you factor in the loss of Torii Hunter and the assumed departure of Max Scherzer. (GM Dave Dombrowski said the club will no longer negotiate with Scherzer and agent Scott Boras.) Cespedes is certainly a defensive upgrade over Hunter, and if he can spike his OBP back over .300, the Tigers will certainly roll out what should be one of the better offenses in the league:
2B Ian Kinsler
RF J.D. Martinez
1B Miguel Cabrera
DH Victor Martinez
3B Nick Castellanos
C Alex Avila
CF Anthony Gose/Rajai Davis
SS Jose Iglesias
Even then, the lineup could have OBP issues once you get past Cabrera and Victor Martinez, especially if J.D. Martinez doesn't maintain his 2014 level of play.
I don't like the Simon trade, in which Detroit gave up Suarez for one year of a pitcher who has had half of a good season in the rotation ... and that half was fueled by a low BABIP. The downgrade from Porcello to Simon could be significant, and I think Suarez is going to be the better player than Iglesias.
4. Red Sox add Porcello, Justin Masterson and Wade Miley (trade pending) to the rotation.
Boston had better have good infield defense with this group. Throw in Clay Buchholz and Joe Kelly and the Red Sox should have the staff that will throw the most ground balls in the majors, probably by a large margin. (Paul Swydan of FanGraphs has a piece on Boston's ground ball fetish.)
How good is it, however? The Steamer projection system actually projects Boston to have the sixth-best rotation in the majors via WAR -- but the fifth-worst ERA. Seems like there's a wide range of potential outcomes here based on those figures and some park adjustments going on that help those WAR numbers. Everyone seems to think the Red Sox will still make another move, either signing James Shields or trading for Cole Hamels. I'm not as sure about that. Considering the lack of top starters across the AL East, the Red Sox may just stick with this group, keep all those young starters they have and see if Henry Owens, Matt Barnes or Eduardo Rodriguez develop enough to help out later in the season.
5. Marlins acquire Gordon, Mat Latos and Dan Haren -- if he doesn't retire.
The Marlins' second basemen hit .236/.303/.334 in 2014, compared with Gordon's .289/.326/.378, so it looks like a small offensive upgrade, especially when you factor in Gordon's speed. But Gordon had just a .300 OBP in the second half (when he drew only four walks). He does, however, provide dynamic speed -- an element the Marlins lacked -- and if Gordon can learn to draw a few more walks, the top of the lineup has potential:
LF Christian Yelich
RF Giancarlo Stanton
3B Casey McGehee
CF Marcell Ozuna
1B To be acquired?
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia
SS Adeiny Hechavarria
OK, the Marlins need a better cleanup hitter. Latos is a big gamble coming off a season during which his velocity declined nearly 2 mph as he battled bone chips in his elbow and eventually had surgery. A rotation of Latos, Henderson Alvarez, Nathan Eovaldi, Jarred Cosart, Tom Koehler, Haren and eventually Jose Fernandez, who is expected to return at midseason, has potential -- especially if youngsters Eovaldi and Cosart develop consistency. But it could also feature a bunch of No. 4s. Call me lukewarm on the Marlins' moves so far.
6. Angels acquire Andrew Heaney for Kendrick.
It's hard to fault the Angels for making this move, in which they picked up Heaney and his potential, plus six years of team control for Kendrick, who hits free agency after the season. But losing Kendrick without a clear replacement on hand could be a huge blow. Kendrick was the club's second-most-valuable player last season behind Mike Trout. I'll be curious to see what happens at second base, as Josh Rutledge, acquired from the Rockies, projects as about a one-win player, if that. That's a four-win decline from what Kendrick provided in 2014, and if Garrett Richards and Matt Shoemaker regress, the Angels will face in a tough battle for the playoffs a year after racking up the most wins in the majors in 2014.
7. White Sox acquire Jeff Samardzija, sign David Robertson and Adam LaRoche.
You have to love the job Rick Hahn has done the past two offseasons, signing Jose Abreu and stealing Adam Eaton from the Diamondbacks last year, and now landing Samardzija, Robertson and LaRoche. I'd still pick the White Sox to finish fourth in the AL Central, but if they add another starter or outfielder it could be a great four-team race.
8. Cubs sign Jon Lester, trade for Miguel Montero.
Did you know Doug Fister has a lower career ERA (3.34) than Lester (3.58) and roughly the same postseason ERA (2.57 for Lester vs. 2.60 for Fister)?
9. Twins sign Ervin Santana.
Hey, he could be the new Ricky Nolasco! (Sorry, Twins fans.) OK, Santana is probably better than Nolasco, but $54 million seems like a lot for a guy who just posted a 3.95 ERA in the National League and whose best season of the past three came in Kansas City, where he played in a good pitcher's park in front of a terrific defense that complemented his fly ball tendencies.
10. Pirates re-sign Francisco Liriano.
At three years and $39 million, this was a good deal for Pittsburgh, which got a solid starter who didn't break the payroll. You always worry about his health and the potential that he'll lose his command at any time, but he's had two good seasons now -- and pitching coach Ray Searage seems to get the most out of his starters.
11. Cardinals sign Mark Reynolds.
St. Louis definitely needed a right-handed power bat, either to platoon with Matt Adams or to come off the bench. We saw the Giants' lefty relievers exploit the Cardinals in the NLCS. Reynolds can fill in at first and third, and for $2 million, he's an inexpensive pickup who could pay small dividends.
12. A's do a bunch of stuff.
More to come on this in a separate post later today.
13. Royals sign Kendrys Morales for two years, $17 million.
1. Cole Hamels to the Mariners for P Taijuan Walker, P Brandon Maurer and IF Ketel Marte
Phillies fans are expecting a huge haul for Hamels, but I think they're expecting too much, considering the trade partner is trading for Hamels and Hamels' contract. It's one thing to sign Jon Lester to a huge deal, but if you trade for Hamels -- who is owed at least $96 million over four years or as much as $114 over five, if his option vests -- do you want to pay $100 million in salary and give up three premium prospects? That's a huge price to surrender, no matter Hamels' value.
Everyone seems to think Hamels will go to the Red Sox or maybe the Dodgers, so let's think outside the box here. The Mariners are focused on improving their offense, and understandably so, but there's no need to lock in on improving just one area. Improvement is improvement, no matter where it comes from, and the Mariners have reasons to be concerned about their current rotation.
The 2014 Mariners did tie for second in the American League in rotation ERA, but consider: (A) They play in a pitcher's park and ranked 16th in FanGraphs WAR; (B) Felix Hernandez had arguably his best season and will probably regress a bit; (C) Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma have been ridden pretty hard the past two seasons, and both looked fatigued down the stretch; (D) Walker and James Paxton have potential but have dealt with minor injury issues; (E) They received surprisingly solid seasons from Chris Young (now a free agent) and Roenis Elias and acquired JA Happ, who is unlikely to be as good as Young was.
So let's see Jack Zduriencik pull a shocker and get Hamels to go alongside King Felix. It's a big contract to take on, considering the money Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz will be getting, as well as Kyle Seager's recent $100 million extension. But Seager doesn't start making huge money until 2018, which will be the final year for Cruz and possibly Hamels. With the Astros and Rangers likely tougher in 2015, the Mariners need to make big strides to make the playoffs in 2015. The Phillies get a potential top-of-the-rotation starter in Walker, a power arm in Maurer (whom they could try as a starter or use as a bullpen weapon alongside Ken Giles) and the slick-fielding Marte, Seattle's No. 3 prospect, according to Baseball America.
The Nationals need a second baseman, and though Utley has veto rights over any trade as a 10-and-5 guy, you have to think he'd consider leaving Philly at this point. Utley makes $15 million in 2015 and has $15 million options each of the next three seasons that vest if he gets 500 plate appearances. Souza was a third-round pick way back in 2007 who suddenly exploded in 2014 to hit .350/.432/.590 with 18 home runs and 26 stolen bases. He's ready for the majors but currently blocked in Washington. Reetz is a flyer on a low-level catching prospect.
3. Jonathan Papelbon and cash to the Tigers for P Buck Farmer
Dave Dombrowski has to upgrade his bullpen at some point, doesn't he? The Papelbon contract has been a waste of money for the Phillies, but not because he hasn't pitched well. He's had a 2.45 ERA over his three seasons in Philly, but with the emergence of Giles, he's an unnecessary luxury. He's owed $13 million in 2015 with a $13 million vesting option for 2016. Farmer, Baseball America's No. 3 Tigers prospect (a weak system), jumped from Class A to the majors last season and made just four starts in the upper levels in the minors. He owns a solid-average fastball for a right-hander with good control who needs more seasoning in the minors. In any Papelbon deal, the Phillies will likely have to eat some of the salary.
4. Marlon Byrd to the Orioles for P Tim Berry and a low-level prospect
Byrd's late-career renaissance continued in 2014, with another solid season in which he hit .264/.312/.445 with 25 home runs. With an $8 million contract for 2015 and potential vesting option for 2016, consider him a less expensive option than Matt Kemp or Justin Upton at nearly the same rate of production.
With the losses of Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis, the Orioles will be looking for an outfielder, especially one in their pay range. Berry is a 23-year-old lefty who pitched in Double-A in 2014 and ranked No. 7 on Baseball America's prospect list for the Orioles. He owns a low 90s fastball, curve and changeup. He projects as a back-end starter but is close to the majors.
5. Carlos Ruiz to the Rangers for IF Luis Sardinas and a low-level pitcher
Ruiz turns 36 in January but remains a solid defensive catcher who contributes at the plate. If the Rangers consider themselves contenders in 2015 (after all their injury issues), they'll need to upgrade at catcher. Signed for two more years at $8.5 million per year, Ruiz is the perfect stopgap until prospect Jorge Alfaro is ready. Sardinas reached the majors last year at 21; he's a good glove at shortstop but with little power at the plate and no room to play in Texas with Elvis Andrus, Rougned Odor and Jurickson Profar ahead of him. He and Marte could eventually form a slick-fielding double-play combo.
Let's do one more half-full, half-empty look: left fielder Melky Cabrera, who hit .301/.351/.458 with 16 home runs in 139 games with the Blue Jays.
Jim Bowden predicts a four-year, $64 million deal for Cabrera.
Let's see if he'd be worth it.
Cabrera can hit, simple as that. Over the past four seasons, he's hit .309 and topped .300 in three different seasons. The one year he didn't hit .300 was 2013, when he battled a knee injury and his season ended early when he had surgery to remove a benign tumor from his back. You try hitting .300 with a tumor in your back.
In this age of batters striking out with increasing frequency, Cabrera is a solid contact hitter who had the 12th-lowest strikeout rate in the majors in 2014. In some regards, he's like Pablo Sandoval in that Cabrera is a switch-hitter with an aggressive approach, but he's not the same free swinger that Sandoval is. While Sandoval led the majors with a chase percentage on pitches outside the strike zone of 43.5, Cabrera's chase rate of 30.7 percent ranked 45th, the same as Victor Martinez. In other words, Cabrera isn't a hacker up there.
So while Cabrera doesn't draw a lot of walks, he doesn't get himself out a lot, either. That's why he's a .300 hitter and projects to continue hitting around .300 into the future. As you can see from the heat map, he's also one of the best high-ball hitters in the majors:
Cabrera hit .386 on pitches up in the zone in 2014 -- best in the majors. His 1.178 OPS ranked second behind only Jose Abreu. Not surprisingly, Cabrera is a good fastball hitter -- .315 in 2014, .326 over the past four years. But he's also hit .290 against "soft" stuff, so there is no easy pattern to get Cabrera out with. Again, this suggests a good pure hitter who should age well into his 30s.
In case you still have doubts about the bat, Cabrera ranked fourth among American League outfielders in OPS (or fifth if you want to include Nelson Cruz). Unlike Sandoval, Cabrera is also equally effective from both sides of the plate, with an .827 OPS versus left-handers and an .802 versus right-handers over the past four seasons. That makes him a valuable asset if you want to plug him between two hitters of the same side.
Cabrera's range isn't great in left field, but he's relatively error-free and had 13 assists in 2014, second among AL left fielders.
Sure, Cabrera can hit for average, and while that's a nice trick, he's kind of a one-trick pony. He doesn't hit for a ton of power; he's never hit 20 home runs in a season. He doesn't draw many walks, is a below-average defender and a below-average baserunner, and has a PED suspension in his past. Plus, his body is more body by Pablo than body by Jake.
That means a lot of Cabrera's value is tied up in his batting average. So if he hits .279, as he did in 2013, he doesn't really bring a lot to the table except some singles and a few extra-base hits. If you give him $15-16 million a season, you're expecting him to continue to hit .300 over the length of the contract.
And that defense ... it's already below average (minus-6 defensive runs saved in each of the past two seasons). What's it going to be in two years, let alone four? And you have to worry about a player's knees if he's suggesting he doesn't want to play on turf. While he slots in as a top-of-the-order hitter, he's a below-average runner on the bases; you'd certainly prefer more speed from your No. 1 or 2 hitter.
Cabrera was worth 3.1 WAR in 2014. Sure, if he can maintain that, $16 million sounds about right. But it's difficult to envision him putting up bigger numbers -- unless you're buying into that 2012 season -- and it's more likely that he'll regress over the life of a long-term contract, making a three- or four-year contract a bit of a gamble.
What do you think? Half-full or half-empty?
Hall of Fame season is kind of like Christmas season: It brings gifts and memories but also a lot of acrimony and stress, and it lasts way too long. Hall of Fame ballots were mailed out Monday to eligible members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, which means the next six weeks will feature many Hall of Fame columns, debates, analyses and other assorted name-calling and belligerence.
Here are 10 main questions of conversation this Hall of Fame season:
1. Who are the new names on the ballot?
Last year's star-studded ballot that featured the election of first-timers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas is followed by another long list of intriguing newcomers: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, Gary Sheffield and Carlos Delgado are the top names.
2. How many of those guys get in?
Johnson should be a unanimous selection with his 303 career wins, five Cy Young Awards, four ERA titles, nine strikeout titles and six 300-strikeout seasons, but 16 of the 571 voters last year failed to vote for Maddux, so Johnson likely awaits the same slight and will get 95-plus percent of the vote but not 100 percent.
Martinez would certainly appear to be a lock to get the required 75 percent, but Hall voters tend to emphasize wins at the expense of everything else for starting pitchers and Martinez has just 219, so you never know. The BBWAA hasn't elected a starter with that few wins since Don Drysdale, who had 209, in 1984. Still, with the second-best winning percentage since 1900 of any pitcher with at least 150 wins (behind only Whitey Ford), three Cy Young Awards, five ERA titles and the best adjusted ERA for any starting pitcher in history, Pedro should cruise to Cooperstown at well above the 75 percent line. Really, like the Unit, there is no reason not to vote for him.
Smoltz has a little more complicated case and may suffer in comparison to being on the same ballot with Johnson and Martinez. While Pedro was 219-100 with a 2.93 ERA, Smoltz was 213-155 with a 3.33 ERA. He did pick up 154 saves while serving as a closer for three-plus seasons and maybe that will resonate with voters. Smoltz also has a great postseason record -- 15-4, 2.67 ERA -- but similar postseason dominance didn't help Curt Schilling last year when he received just 29 percent of the votes. I believe Smoltz does much better than that, but I don't see why Schilling -- 216-146, 3.46 in his career with 79.9 WAR compared to Smoltz's 69.5 -- would receive just 29 percent and Smoltz 75 percent.
Sheffield, with the PED allegations, has no chance despite 509 career home runs and over 1,600 RBIs and runs. Delgado put up big numbers in an era when a lot of guys were putting up big numbers, and his 473 career home runs with 1,512 RBIs may not be enough to even keep him on the ballot (you need to receive 5 percent to remain on).
3. Does Craig Biggio get in this year?
He fell just two votes short last year on his second time on the ballot, so you have to think at least two voters will add him, assuming some of the holdovers don't change their minds. Biggio's Hall of Fame case is kind of ironic in that he was probably one of the more underrated players in the league while active. He finished in the top 10 of the MVP voting three times (10th, fifth, fourth), but the same writers who once dismissed him as an MVP candidate will now be putting him in the Hall of Fame. He's a deserving candidate, but if he hadn't played that final season when he was terrible and cleared 3,000 career hits, you wonder if he'd be even this close. Voters love their round numbers.
4. What's the new 10-year rule?
Candidates will now be allowed to remain on the ballot for only 10 years instead of 15. Three current candidates -- Don Mattingly (in his 15th season), Alan Trammell (14th) and Lee Smith (13th) were allowed to remain on the ballot.
For the first time, the names of all voters will also be made public, although neither the Hall of Fame nor BBWAA will not reveal an individual's ballot.
5. Who will be most affected by this?
Well, all the steroids guys, obviously. Mark McGwire, for example, is on the ballot for his ninth year, not enough time in case voter attitudes toward PEDs starts reversing course. Aside from that group, Tim Raines is on the ballot for the eighth year. He received 46 percent of the vote last year; that was actually a drop from the 52 percent he had in 2013. Historically, nearly every player who received 50 percent of the vote from the BBWAA eventually got elected, but now Raines has just three years left and was affected by the crowded ballot last year.
6. But the ballot is still crowded, right?
Yep. Remember, voters are allowed to vote for up to 10 players -- although most ballots don't get to 10, so the "crowded" ballot is somewhat of an overrated issue. Still, it's there, and several players saw their vote totals decrease last year. Anyway, I would argue there are as many as 22 or 23 players who have some semblance of a Hall of Fame case based on historical precedent. In order of career Baseball-Reference WAR: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Mike Mussina, Schilling, Jeff Bagwell, Larry Walker, Trammell, Smoltz, Raines, Edgar Martinez, Biggio, McGwire, Sheffield, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Kent, Fred McGriff, Delgado, Lee Smith. Plus arguably Nomar Garciaparra and Mattingly, who had high peak levels of performance but short careers.
Anyway, those who believe in a big ballot will once again have to make some tough choices on whom to leave off.
7. For which players is this an important year?
Raines needs a big increase this year, but it's starting to look slim for him. That makes Bagwell and Piazza two of the more interesting names. Piazza was at 62 percent last year on his second year, a 4.4 percent increase from 2013. If he sees another vote increase, we can assume he's on his way to election; but if he holds at the same percentage, we can probably assume there are enough voters who put him in the PED category and are thus keeping him permanently under that 75 percent threshold. Similar issue with Bagwell; he was 54 percent last year, actually down from 59.6 percent in 2013. If he gets back up over 60 percent, he may be back on a Cooperstown trek.
8. Hey, Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling look like pretty good candidates.
That's not a question, but, yes, yes they are. Mussina (270 wins, 82.6 WAR) and Schilling are overwhelmingly qualified by Hall of Fame standards, even by BBWAA-only standards, especially when factoring in Schilling's postseason success. That both received fewer than 30 percent of the vote in their first year on the ballot was a little shocking and definitely disappointing.
9. What about the steroids guys?
No changes -- or progress, if you prefer -- here. Clemens (35.4 percent) and Bonds (34.7 percent) both received fewer votes than the year before. Rafael Palmeiro already fell off the ballot, and I suspect Sosa (7.2 percent) falls off this time.
10. What about Jack Morris?
Mercifully, Morris is no longer on the ballot so we don't have to spend all December arguing his case yet again. His candidacy goes over to the Expansion Era committee, which will next vote in 2016. I suspect Morris gets in then.
When Mariano Rivera called it a career after the 2013 season, David Robertson graduated from eighth-inning reliever to closer. In 2014, he went 4-5 with 39 saves and a 3.08 ERA while allowing a .192 batting average. This fall, he turned down the Yankees' $15.3 million qualifying offer -- which would have been the largest single-season salary ever paid to a relief pitcher – and decided instead to seek a multiyear contract on the free-agent market.
Is Robertson worth it? Let's do another half-full, half-empty.
This year's World Series teams showed the importance of a deep, dominant late-inning bullpen crew, as both the Royals and Giants (with the exception of Madison Bumgarner) had mediocre rotations but terrific bullpens. Just ask the Nationals or Tigers about the importance of a shutdown reliever. The Nationals might have won two World Series titles by now if Drew Storen hadn't blown crucial save opportunities in the 2012 and 2014 postseasons, and the Tigers have struggled with their bullpen for years. Both teams could be interested in Robertson.
There's no denying Robertson's late-inning dominance. Over the past four seasons, his 2.20 ERA is sixth in the majors among pitchers with at least 200 innings in that time span -- and that's come in Yankee Stadium, where routine fly balls to right field land three rows deep in the stands. He's allowed a .201 batting average over those four years with a strikeout rate of 34 percent -- again, sixth overall in the majors. Not bad for a onetime 17th-round draft pick.
He's showing no signs of slowing down; indeed, his 2014 strikeout rate of 37.1 percent was the highest of his career. Robertson throws a cutter and a curveball (and a very occasional changeup). It's that curveball, one of the best in the game, that has made him an elite reliever:
The curveball is a swing-and-miss pitch and generates a lot of ground balls, owing to that sharp 12-to-6 break and location down in the zone. Obviously, it's Robertson's go-to pitch when he's ahead in the count. Since 2011, batters have hit .161 against it with one home run, 140 strikeouts and just seven walks.
Robertson has had two minor DL stints in recent seasons, but neither was an arm-related injury. He repeats his delivery well, and considering he's entering his age-30 season, he's a good bet to remain healthy over a three- or four-year contract.
Importantly, he's pitched in New York. If he ends up leaving the Yankees, there should be no concerns about how he will handle the pressure of closing elsewhere.
There's a reason the Papelbon contract was much derided at the time: Relievers, even good ones, just don't create enough value to be worth huge, multiyear contracts. Plus, it's not that hard to come up with good ones. Look at the Phillies; They have Ken Giles ready to take over as closer but are stuck with Papelbon's big contract.
Even if a team is desperate for a closer, where's the guarantee that Robertson does the job in October if you get there? He has one season of closing under his belt and has never had to save a postseason game. There are a lot of great regular-season closers who haven't done the job in October.
Yes, there has been consistency in his performances over the past four seasons. But relievers tend to burn out quickly. Do you want to gamble $40 million that Robertson will remain healthy and productive in a role that's fairly easy to fill?
What do you think? Will he return to the Yankees or will the Tigers be desperate and give him a Papelbon-like deal?
We've looked at Jon Lester and Nelson Cruz in our half-full/half-empty series. Now let's examine the pitcher everyone views as the prize of the 2014-15 free agents, right-hander Max Scherzer.
Scherzer reportedly turned a six-year, $144 million extension from the Tigers last offseason. Colleague Jim Bowden predicts that Scherzer will receive a seven-year, $189 million contract, an average annual value of $27 million. If that contract materializes, it would be the second-largest total ever given to a pitcher, behind the $215 million deal Clayton Kershaw signed with the Dodgers.
Scherzer is a Scott Boras client, so don't expect him to sign anytime soon. Obviously, all the big-market teams will be rumored to have interest. Will Scherzer be a good investment?
With Scherzer, you start with the stuff. Few pitchers have the raw arsenal that Scherzer possesses, with four plus pitches: four-seam fastball, slider, changeup and curveball. He added the curveball during the 2012 season, and the addition of that pitch is one reason Scherzer took his game to a new level.
Good pitching starts with a good fastball and fastball command. Scherzer's four-seamer has a natural tail to it and some sinking action. While its average velocity of 92.8 mph doesn't blow you away, he cranked it up as high as 98 mph in 2014, so he keeps a little in reserve when needed.
For the most part, however, he lets that natural movement work. He does tend to throw the pitch up in the zone, but it's still an effective pitch: It sets up the off-speed stuff, and he generates a good share of strikeouts with it. Look at how he pitches with his fastball to left-handed batters:
Lefties have hit .226/.292/.380 against Scherzer's fastball the past two seasons. When you limit damage against your fastball, it makes your other pitches that much tougher. Scherzer has 143 strikeouts the past two seasons against left-handers with his fastball, most in the majors. (Felix Hernandez is second with 124, but only four other pitchers have 100.) As a comparison, Stephen Strasburg struggles somewhat against lefties because his fastball isn't a great strikeout weapon against them, with just 59 K's over the past two years.
With pitchers, you always worry about injuries, but Scherzer has made 30-plus starts in each of his six seasons in the majors. He's also a student of the game. As Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports wrote last offseason:
Max Scherzer is meticulous, the sort of person who sees baseball as a game of centimeters, because inches are too big. Every so often, in the middle of a long season, Scherzer will pore over video of his last start, pause it mid-delivery and vow to change things. A centimeter can mean that much.
His right arm is his gift and his treasure, and if ever he notices his elbow above his shoulder line -- even a hint of the dreaded Inverted W, which is correlated with though not scientifically proven to cause arm injuries -- he corrects it. Little gets past Scherzer.
"You've seen in history guys blow out that way," he told Yahoo! Sports last September. "I've never been a guy who does it, but every now and again, it'll creep higher than that plane, and I'm very cognizant of it."
Seven years is a long time. A lot can happen. But his health history is a big plus.
Then there's this: Scherzer has put up good numbers while pitching in front of some lousy defenses in Detroit. The Tigers were 28th in MLB in defensive runs saved in 2014, 28th in 2013, 25th in 2012. Imagine him pitching in front of a good defense, or in the National League, where he'd get to mow through the bottom of the lineups.
You want to make Scherzer the second-highest-paid pitcher in the game? A guy with one career complete game? A guy who has had an ERA under 3.00 exactly once in his career, and even then it was barely under, at 2.90? A guy who has been just OK in the postseason with a 3.73 ERA? A guy who has pitched 220 innings just once in a season? Hernandez, by comparison, has topped 230 innings five times.
There's no denying Scherzer's stuff or strikeout rates, but he's had the luxury of being the No. 2 guy behind Justin Verlander in the Detroit rotation. Can he handle the pressure of a megadeal? Is he the guy who will take the ball in a big game and give you eight innings? Pitch efficiency has never been Scherzer's strength, which is why he's been more of seven-inning starter than an eight- or nine-inning guy.
You also have to factor in leaving Comerica Park, or the AL Central. Scherzer does pitch up in the zone, so he will give up fly balls. Comerica isn't the supreme pitchers' park everyone thinks, but it's been about average in giving up home runs, and more than a few balls hit to that deep area in center and right-center would have left other parks. Pitching in Wrigley Field might not be as enjoyable as pitching in Comerica. Plus, Scherzer has faced a lot of weak offenses through the years in that division.
Jason Hammel allowed a higher slugging percentage. It appears that Scherzer just grooves too many pitches when he's behind in the count, and that explains why his hit rate is high given his strikeout rate.
And, of course, you simply can't ignore this: Seven years for a pitcher in his 30s ... how often does that work out? Maybe you reap the rewards of two or three great seasons, but we've seen seemingly durable pitchers like CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee go down with injuries. Pitchers get hurt.
What do you think? Half-full or half-empty?
Most Valuable Player voting is often about the narrative that develops during the long march of the season as much as the numbers -- in some cases the narrative may be more important than the numbers. In the American League, there was really only one narrative to consider this season: Mike Trout. He was the obvious choice and the voters made him just the 18th unanimous MVP winner and the first in the AL since Ken Griffey Jr. in 1997.
In the National League, there were season-long debates between Clayton Kershaw and Giancarlo Stanton and then Andrew McCutchen -- who made a late push, hitting .347 with five home runs in September as the Pirates surged into the playoffs. There were those in the analytical regions of the Internet pushing for Jonathan Lucroy, who had a terrific offensive season as a catcher for the Brewers while getting recognition as one of the best pitch framers in the business.
Stanton and McCutchen were great; just not great enough. Kershaw collected 18 of the 30 first-place votes, placed second on nine other ballots and easily outdistanced the runner-up, Stanton.
It's easy to see why. Kershaw went 21-3 with a 1.77 ERA. At one point, the Dodgers had won 20 of 21 games he started. He was the best pitcher in the majors in 2013 and he got better in 2014, improving his strikeout/walk ratio from 4.46 to 7.71. After his one bad outing of the season -- he gave up seven runs in 1.2 innings to Arizona on May 17 -- he posted a 1.43 ERA over his final 23 regular-season outings. That start against the D-backs was his only one all season in which he allowed more than three runs. The numbers were so juicy that even though he pitched just 198 innings in 27 starts, the voters couldn't deny him MVP honors.
The debate heading into the MVP vote was whether Kershaw could overcome the pitcher bias existent in MVP balloting; no NL pitcher had won MVP honors since Bob Gibson in 1968, and Justin Verlander's win in 2011 was the first for a starting pitcher in the AL since Roger Clemens in 1986 and just the second since 1971.
The advanced metrics tell us Kershaw was the most valuable player in the NL in 2014. He led the NL in Baseball-Reference WAR at 8.0, topping Cole Hamels (6.9), Lucroy (6.7), Stanton (6.5) and Anthony Rendon (6.5). He led in FanGraphs WAR at 7.6, topping McCutchen (6.8), Rendon (6.6), Lucroy (6.3) and Stanton (6.1).
But Kershaw didn't win because of those metrics. He won because of the narrative. He won because he went 21-3. (He actually had a higher WAR in 2013 but finished seventh in the voting as he went just 16-9.) He won because he was clearly the most dominant player in the league.
Even if he was a pitcher.
The past two American League MVP races were hotly contested debates between Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout -- well, hotly contested in cyberspace. When the voters in the Baseball Writers' Association actually got around to turning in their ballots the results weren't close at all: Cabrera received 22 of 28 first-place votes in 2012 and 23 of 30 in 2013.
Trout's obvious advantages in advanced metrics, defense and baserunning were trumped by Cabrera's Triple Crown and RBIs and the fact that Cabrera's Tigers made the playoffs and Trout's Angels didn't (although Trout's team actually won more games in 2012).
Anyway, in 2014, Cabrera didn't put up the monster offensive numbers, the Angels had the best record in the majors and Trout led the league in both runs scored and RBIs. The writers couldn't mess it up this year.
The ironic part of Trout's win -- he became the third Angels player to win after Don Baylor in 1979 and Vladimir Guerrero in 2004 -- is that by the advanced metrics that us stat guys love, Trout had his worst season:
2012: 10.8 Baseball-Reference WAR, 10.1 FanGraphs WAR
2013: 8.9 Baseball-Reference WAR, 10.5 FanGraphs WAR
2014: 7.9 Baseball-Reference WAR, 7.8 FanGraphs WAR
Now, that 7.9 WAR was still the best in the league, making Trout the obvious choice on top of his conventional numbers. The main reason for the decline in WAR was a drop in defensive and baserunning value. In 2012, he was credited with 21 defensive runs saved (which Baseball-Reference uses) while that figure has been -9 the past two seasons. He's also declined in FanGraphs' defensive metric, ultimate zone rating (-8.4 runs). His steals have dropped from 49 to 33 to 16.
Of course, Trout didn't win because of advanced metrics. The fact that Victor Martinez -- who started 116 games at designated hitter -- finished second in the voting shows the voters still place an emphasis on offensive numbers while essentially ignoring the value of things like defense, position and baserunning. Martinez had a terrific season, but he wasn't the second-best player in the AL. On the other hand, it was nice that the voters recognized the great season that Michael Brantley had by putting him third in the voting even though the Indians didn't reach the playoffs.
Otherwise, it was scattershot results in the voting, as expected. Martinez did receive 16 second-place votes, but seven different players were placed there on the ballot. Ten different players received third-place votes.
Anyway, I have the feeling this won't be Mike Trout's only MVP award.
Let's look at these deals.
As you know, Martinez is coming off the best year of his career at age 35. He hit .335/.409/.565, including a career-high 32 home runs; his previous best homer total had come when he hit 25 back in 2007, in a completely different offensive context (the average AL team scored 4.90 runs per game that year compared with 4.18 in 2014). The .335 average isn't a fluke -- he hit .330 in 2011 -- but the power spike turned him into a top-three MVP finalist.
But what can the Tigers expect moving forward? The Steamer projection system predicts a .309/.377/.486 line with 20 home runs in 2015, still good enough to make him one of the better hitters in the league. Here's a quick list of the best wOBA totals over the past 10 years for players 36 or older with at least 400 plate appearances (Martinez had a .411 wOBA in 2014):
- Chipper Jones, 2008: .445
- Manny Ramirez, 2008: .432
- Barry Bonds, 2007: .428
- Jim Thome, 2007: .412
- Barry Bonds, 2006: .409
- David Ortiz, 2013: .400
- Manny Ramirez, 2009: .398
- Moises Alou, 2005: .396
- Frank Thomas, 2006: .392
- Matt Stairs, 2007: .388
Well, you can see some of the issues with that list. Plus, only Ortiz makes the top 10 before offensive numbers start taking a big downturn in 2010. After Ortiz, the next-best figure from the past five seasons is Paul Konerko in 2012 at .371, Todd Helton in 2011 at .371 and then Ortiz again in 2014 at .369. Steamer's triple-slash line equates to a .371 wOBA for Martinez in 2015, so he's still projected as one of the best "old" hitters of recent vintage.
Maybe the most interesting comparison for Martinez is Chipper Jones -- another switch-hitter who didn't strike out a lot. As you can see above, Chipper had a monster season at age 36, leading the NL with a .364 average and .470 OBP. His totals from 37 through 39 weren't nearly as good, though:
Age 37: .264/.388/.430
Age 38: .265/.381/.426
Age 39: .275/.344/.470
Would the Tigers be happy with that kind of production? American League DHs hit .250/.320/.425 in 2014, so you'd still be looking at better-than-average production.
Anyway, the key for the Tigers is they need Martinez for 2015. This team is built to win now with David Price in his final year before free agency, Miguel Cabrera still one of the most feared hitters in the game but getting older, and Ian Kinsler entering his age-33 season. If Justin Verlander's decline is permanent and Max Scherzer signs elsewhere, the Tigers' window to compete for a title may be gone when Price departs as a free agent. So they had to bring back Martinez, even if the final year or two of the contract ends up being an overpay.
As for Gose, he's an ultra-athletic center fielder who hasn't produced much at the plate in stints over three seasons with Toronto: a career .234/.301/.332 batting line (that was even worse in 274 PAs in 2014). Considering he owns a .259 lifetime average in the minors, the bat will likely never play up in the majors. But he's just 24 and allows the team to move Rajai Davis back to left field (despite his speed, he's not a good center fielder) with J.D. Martinez replacing Torii Hunter in right. This should make for a better defensive outfield, as Gose is an upgrade in center, and Martinez, while not great, is probably better than Hunter, whose defense has slipped a lot over the past two seasons.
The Tigers give up one of their better prospects in Travis, who hit .298/.358/.460 at Double-A. But with the return of Jose Iglesias to play shortstop, the Tigers still have Eugenio Suarez as a future replacement for Kinsler. The Blue Jays have a big hole at second base, so Travis should have the opportunity to win the starting job, or at least surface as a midseason call-up.
All in all, it looks like a good day for the Tigers.
Trout league's best player?
Shoemaker pleasant surprise
Yet steamrolled by Royals
Lost Manny, Matt, Chris but still
Ran away with East
In playoffs shouldn't dampen
League's best rotation
The Bison is back
But Clayton couldn't kill Cards
Donnie gets last chance?
Death of Taveras
Casts pall on terrific year
Still class of Central
Undermined starting pitching
Now replace V-Mart
Who needs walks, homers?
An "abundance" of bunting
Outfield defense ... whoa!
Cespedes got dealt
Team's offense dried up with it
Beane's "stuff" didn’t work
Three titles -- five years
Can they keep Panda?
Burning Cole last game
Trying for division tie
Might have cost Play-In
Cano did his thing
Felix, Hisashi duo
Not quite good enough
Kluber conquered all
But rest of staff slogged through year
Michael Brantley ... star!
Jeter’s farewell tour
Now A-Rod longest-tenured
Not your dad's Yankees
All five starters had
Double-digit wins, but four
Had ten-plus losses
Led till late August
Won nine all of September
Lucroy's framing tops
Shutout 16 times
NL's next to last runs scored
Let's just watch Kimbrel
DeGrom great story
Wheeler looked good, stayed healthy
Harvey's back, Big 3!
Last in all slash stats
No-hit by Timmy ... again
Front office rebuilt
Despite losing Fernandez
Can they sign Stanton?
Friedman, Maddon gone
Price dealt for cheaper prospects
Has their window closed?
Votto hardly seen
But Mesoraco burst out
Cueto stayed healthy
Abreu? Real deal
Chris Sale's elbow still attached?
Thank you, Konerko!
Top prospects galore
Renteria won't see them
Maddon works magic?
Vets went untraded
Amaro kept job somehow
Get used to last place
Bradley, Bogaerts ... meh
Buckholz saw ERA triple
Lester will be missed
Altuve a star
If only they could have signed
1st rounder Aiken
Hughes K'd 1-8-6
Is that allowed on their staff?
Mauer's bat slumping
Given multitude of hurts
Washington bowed out
Tulo missed 70 games
Fast start, then crash, burn
Gibson, Towers done
Can Hale, Stewart make team rise
Like a phoenix? Eh!
Diane Firstman runs the Value Over Replacement Grit blog and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.
For a quick assessment of value at each position, I used wins below average, via Baseball-Reference.com, which includes both offense and defensive value at the position.
1. Detroit Tigers 3B: 3.7 wins below average
This might surprise you since Nick Castellanos had a solid rookie season at the plate, hitting .259 with 46 extra-base hits. But solid isn't the same as good, as the Tigers ranked 18th in the majors in wOBA at third base. But the biggest liability here was Castellanos' defense: His -30 defensive runs saved ranked worst in the majors -- at any position.
Fix for 2015: It's still Castellanos' job. The Tigers have to hope for improvement in all areas.
2. Houston Astros 3B: 3.5 wins below average
Matt Dominguez started 147 games here, but the Astros ranked last in the majors with a .255 OBP and .252 wOBA at third base as Dominguez hit just .215 with 29 walks. He comes with a better defensive reputation than Castellanos, but grades out about average with the glove. First base wasn't much better for the Astros -- 3.4 wins below average as their first basemen hit .168 (!).
Fix for 2015: Dominguez is just 25, but his sophomore season showed decline instead of improvement. There is no obvious internal fix other than giving Dominguez one more shot. Could the Astros be a dark horse to sign Pablo Sandoval or Chase Headley? If only they had drafted Kris Bryant in 2013 instead of Mark Appel.
No surprise here: Ryan Howard is awful, even if he did drive in 95 runs. He had a .302 wOBA -- the same as Alcides Escobar. The Phillies slugged .392 at first base -- 22nd in the majors -- and backed that up with Howard's poor defense and baserunning.
Fix for 2015: Howard will make $50 million the next two years. No, I can't see a scenario where he gets traded.
4. Cincinnati Reds RF: 3.3 wins below average
If there's an award for Most Disappointing Player of 2014, it probably goes to Jay Bruce, who hit .217 with a .281 OBP and 18 home runs. Bruce had knee surgery in early May, came back quickly and simply never got going. The knee might have played a role as he actually homered just as often on fly balls as in 2013, but his fly ball rate dropped 10 percent.
Fix for 2015: Bruce turns 28 in April, so he's certainly a good bet to bounce back.
5. Tampa Bay Rays C: 3.1 wins below average
The Rays love the defense Jose Molina and Ryan Hanigan provide, but it's hard to overcome a .191/.274/.250 batting line.
Fix for 2015: Both are under contract for 2015, and Curt Casali is the only other catcher on the 40-man roster. Molina looks done as a hitter so the Rays are going to need Hanigan to catch more.
6. Atlanta Braves 3B: 3.1 wins below average
Chris Johnson and his .292 OBP and below-average defense helped this position score worst overall, but the Braves also scored lowest in the majors at center field (-2.6 wins) and second base (-2.8 wins).
Fix for 2015: The Braves foolishly signed Johnson to a long-term deal after his BABIP-driven .321 season in 2013. While the salaries aren't prohibitive, the deal also means Johnson probably returns in 2015. Phil Gosselin, who hit .344 without power at Triple-A, might get an opportunity, although he hasn't played much third in his career.
7. St. Louis Cardinals RF: 3.1 wins below average
Cardinals right fielders ranked last in the majors in wOBA.
Fix for 2015: The death of Oscar Taveras means the Cardinals will probably look for a right fielder, as Randal Grichuk isn't primed for full-time duty. They could move Jon Jay back there and give Peter Bourjos more time in center; but considering the Cardinals' lack of power in 2014, look for them to seek a right fielder with some ability to hit the ball over the fence -- maybe Nelson Cruz, if they're willing to take the hit on defense, or maybe Carlos Gonzalez in a trade with the Rockies.
This was mostly David Murphy, who put up lukewarm numbers at the plate while seeing his defensive metrics slide (-16 defensive runs saved). The Indians also had -2.2 wins from DH (Nick Swisher had the most PAs there with 143), so if they can improve these two positions, they're a good sleeper playoff pick for 2015.
Fix for 2015: Murphy is still under contract, but he's 33; I wouldn't bet on a better year. The DH problem can be solved by just putting Carlos Santana there and maybe there's room in the budget for a first baseman like Adam LaRoche, leaving Swisher to share time in right, first base and DH.
9. Chicago Cubs LF: 2.9 wins below average
Cubs left fielders -- Chris Coghlan had the most playing time out there with 394 PAs -- actually ranked 11th in the majors in wOBA, but they were a collective -19 defensive runs saved.
Fix for 2015: Outfield prospects Billy McKinney and Albert Almora are still two to three years away from the majors, so it could be more Coghlan and Junior Lake unless the Cubs make a trade or sign a veteran free agent.
10. Miami Marlins 1B: 2.9 wins below average
Their first basemen (mostly Garrett Jones) hit .258/.313/.403, putting them 19th in the majors in wOBA, and mixed in below-average defense and a lack of speed.
Fix for 2015: Jeff Baker is still around as a potential platoon mate against LHP. Jones is signed for $5 million; so while LaRoche would also make a nice fit here, that contract might mean the Marlins stick with Jones.
11. Texas Rangers 1B: 2.8 wins below average
Obviously, Prince Fielder's neck injury was the story here as Texas first basemen hit just .216 with 16 home runs.
Fix for 2015: Hope for Fielder's return to health.
12. Chicago White Sox RF: 2.8 wins below average
Avisail Garcia was supposed to be the solution here, but he hurt his shoulder in early April and Dayan Viciedo ended up getting most of the time in right. He combined a below-average OBP with terrible defense.
Fix for 2015: Garcia returned in August and hit .244/.305/.413; he’ll get another shot. He should be an upgrade, but he's another guy who might struggle to post a league-average OBP.
13. San Diego Padres 2B: 2.8 wins below average
Jedd Gyorko would rate right behind Bruce in that most disappointing category. After signing a six-year, $35 million extension in April following his 23-homer rookie season in 2013, Gyorko collapsed and hit .210 with 11 home runs in 111 games, missing time with plantar fasciitis. He went on the DL in early June with reports saying he injured his foot in late May. He wasn't hitting before then, so it's possible he tried to play through the injury or maybe the pressure of the contract got to him or maybe he just didn't hit. Anyway, when he returned in late July, he hit .260/.347/.398 the rest of the way. (Just three home runs, however.)
Fix for 2015: Like Bruce, Gyorko is a good bounce-back candidate.
Dodgers catchers hit .181/.283/.261 as A.J. Ellis got on base (.322) but didn't hit otherwise, and the backups were even worse. Dodgers pitchers like throwing to Ellis, but the defensive metrics have never rated him as a good pitch-framer.
Fix for 2015: Speculation suggests the Dodgers could go after free agent Russell Martin.
15. Boston Red Sox 3B: 2.7 wins below average
Will Middlebrooks, Xander Bogaerts and Brock Holt got the majority of playing time here and Holt was the best of the three. He isn’t the 2015 solution, however. Overall, Boston's third basemen hit .211 with just 10 home runs.
Fix for 2015: With Bogaerts likely moving back to shortstop and Middlebrooks just about out of chances, the Red Sox could give Garin Cecchini, a career .298 hitter in the minors, a shot, although he has just 21 home runs in four minor league seasons. There are several third basemen out there in free agency: Sandoval, Headley, Hanley Ramirez (if you want to move him off shortstop) and Jed Lowrie (ditto). Seems Boston is likely to go after one of those guys.
OK, we'll do Part 2 of the list on Thursday.
The Baltimore Orioles are advancing to their first American League Championship Series since 1997. I think it's pretty clear the better team won here. The edge everyone believed the Detroit Tigers had -- starting pitcher -- just wasn't the big edge everyone presumed, not with the way the Orioles' rotation had pitched down the stretch. And the edges that Baltimore had -- bullpen and defense -- proved key in this three-game sweep.
Here are five key moments/thoughts from Sunday's 2-1 victory:
1. Nelson Cruz takes David Price just deep enough.
How can you watch Nelson Cruz for any amount of time and throw him anything where he can extend his hands on outer half?— TigersProspectReport (@TigersProspects) October 5, 2014
Nelson Cruz is just wearing the #Tigers out. In 9 career postseason G vs. them now: 14-for-33 (.424 AVG), 8 HR, 18 RBI.— Tristan H. Cockcroft (@SultanofStat) October 5, 2014
Cruz didn't crush his sixth-inning home run off Price, who had been in complete control until that point. It's 330 feet down the right-field line at Comerica Park and Cruz snuck it just inside the foul pole and just over the line. Cruz didn't even seem to think it would stay fair, not even running out of the box.
It was a tough-luck inning for Price. Adam Jones had singled on a 1-1 changeup that was low and well off the plate. Jones, a notorious free swinger, managed to get just enough wood on it to sneak up the ball the middle with shortstop Andrew Romine playing Jones to pull. Good pitch, bad result.
The pitch to Cruz was also off the plate, another changeup. It was off the plate and thigh high, maybe not as low as Price wanted, but he wanted it off the plate, as Cruz -- like Jones -- will chase. Again, a decent pitch with a bad result.
As for the cries to tie up Cruz inside, that just isn't Price's style. Check out Price's heat map versus right-handed batters this season:
That's what he does: He pounds the outside corner. As for not allowing Cruz to extend his arms, that's simply not true either. Cruz's numbers this season on inside and outside pitches:
With his open stance, Cruz is actually pretty adept at getting his hands in and pulling inside pitches. He does have the strength to hit it out to the opposite field (10 of his 40 home runs went to right field or right-center), but for the most part pitchers do work Cruz outside more often than in. Give Cruz credit here: He just beat Price.
2. Buck Showalter rolls the dice.
The "book" says not to put the potential winning run on base w/an IW. Love how Showalter used his own book. Master tactician.— Jack Curry (@JackCurryYES) October 5, 2014
This took a serious pair of ... dice.
After Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez had doubled off Zach Britton to lead off the ninth to cut the score to 2-1, Showalter intentionally walked No. 7 hitter Nick Castellanos. The potential winning run. No matter who the Tigers had coming up, that's playing with fire.
It worked. The Tigers had already used Rajai Davis, their one potential useful guy on the bench (who is battling an injury as it is). Due up were weak-hitting shortstop Andrew Romine and weak-hitting backup center fielder Ezequiel. Brad Ausmus sent up Hernan Perez, who had all of six plate appearances in the major leagues this season after hitting .287 in Triple-A. Tough spot for a guy coming off the bench who hasn't played much in September. Britton induced a 5-4-3 double play and Showalter looked like a genius.
Of course, it also exposed the same weakness the Tigers have played through the past four seasons: A weak bench.
3. Buck Showalter gives the ball to Bud Norris.
Miguel Gonzalez was the assumed Game 3 starter but Showalter told Norris on the flight from Baltimore that Norris would get the Game 3 start.
Serious props to Bud Norris. Out-pitching David Price in your first postseason appearance is no small feat.— Dan Epstein (@BigHairPlasGras) October 5, 2014
What prompted the change? From Eduardo A. Encina of the Baltimore Sun: "As for Showalter’s decision to start Norris in Game 3, he said there were a variety of factors what went into the decision, among them Norris’ dramatic day-night splits, the ability to use him out of the bullpen in a possible make-or-break Game 5 and getting him back on the mound after 10 days off."
That would make sense, except the facts don't line up. This was a day game. Norris had a 5.57 ERA during the day and 2.99 at night. The other assumption is that Norris is a little more excitable than Gonzalez, so pitching him in Game 3, with a 2-0 series lead, would have less pressure than a Game 4.
Either way, you can forget that 5.57 ERA during the day in the regular season. It's now 0.00 after he threw 6⅓ scoreless innings, allowing just two hits. His biggest out came in the third with two outs and runners at second and third when he got Victor Martinez to fly out to shallow center on the ninth pitch of the plate appearance, getting a 95-mph pitch in on Martinez's hands.
4. Andrew Miller comes on.
This guy is starting to look like a huge, huge weapon this October. He replaced Norris with one out in the seventh and faced five batters and retired all of them. Fun matchup for the final out in the eighth: He got Miguel Cabrera. When the Tigers acquired Cabrera from the Marlins back in 2008, Miller was supposed to be the prize catch for the Marlins: The sixth pick in the 2006 draft with No. 1 potential as a starter. He never panned out with the Marlins and moved to the bullpen with the Red Sox. He has found a home there and his ability to go more than one inning has provided Showalter a great bridge between his starters and his closer.
5. Silence in Detroit.
Given the way this team was built, 90 wins and a trip to the ALDS was about right. Not really upset. Pretty amazing how normal this feels.— Neil Weinberg (@NeilWeinberg44) October 5, 2014
Has the window closed?
The past four years the Tigers won 95, 88, 93 and 90 games, reaching one World Series and two ALCS. But Max Scherzer is a free agent, Victor Martinez is a free agent, Torii Hunter is a free agent, Justin Verlander had a bad season, and the bullpen and bench remain messes. For the years, the Tigers took advantage of a weak AL Central, but the Royals and Indians have had back-to-back solid campaigns and the White Sox and Twins have some young players to build around or are about to arrive in the big leagues.
The Tigers have a had great core of star players, but in the end, this group may go down in history like the 1995-1998 Mariners, who had enormous star power with the likes of Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and Alex Rodriguez, but never won a title (never even made it to the World Series).
So, yeah, I have no idea what Tigers manager Brad Ausmus will do with his bullpen in Game 3. David Price, get ready for nine innings of work. The Orioles won a dramatic Game 2 by the score of 7-6, leaving the Tigers and their fans in a state of shock. Five big moments:
1. Delmon Young, postseason hero.
Baltimore Orioles (@Orioles) October 3, 2014
At a time when 95-mph relief studs seem to be falling off trees, the Tigers have a $170M payroll and no bullpen whatsoever. Amazing.— Anthony Castrovince (@castrovince) October 3, 2014
WHY WOULD YOU EVER THROW A FIRST PITCH TO DELMON YOUNG ANYWHERE NEAR THE STRIKEZONE? pic.twitter.com/b82aK7bMO9— Cork Gaines (@CorkGaines) October 3, 2014
Did this really happen? As the bottom of the eighth inning began, I emailed my friend Thomas, a big Tigers fan. I jokingly said: "Joba and Nathan can hold a three-run lead, right?"
Nope. The Tigers didn't even get to Joe Nathan; Joba Chamberlain and Joakim Soria self-combusted as the Orioles scored four runs in the eighth. It all began when Chamberlain hit Adam Jones with one out, which nearly sent Dennis Eckersley into hysterics in the TBS broadcast, and ended with former Tigers postseason hero Young pinch hitting and haunting them with a bases-clearing double into left field. Three quick notes on that hit:
A. Tigers pitching coach Jeff Jones visited the mound after Soria had walked J.J. Hardy to load the bases.
B. Young hit a first-pitch slider. Probably not a bad pitch because Young is known as a first-pitch fastball hitter. But the location, as you can see above, was terrible.
C. J.D. Martinez slightly bobbled the carom off the wall, Ian Kinsler's relay throw was to the outside of home plate and Hardy made a great slide.
2. Anibal Sanchez comes into the game . . . and then exits.
IMPRESSIVE ...#Tigers Anibal Sanchez comes in, bails out Verlander and restores order to the "Cats" bullpen. This is HUGE for Tigers.— Dan Plesac (@Plesac19) October 3, 2014
Everyone knows about the shaky Detroit bullpen, so when Justin Verlander could only go five-plus innings and left after a leadoff single in the sixth, it was up to Sanchez to hold things down. He had pitched just once since missing seven weeks with a right pectoral strain but retired all six batters he faced, throwing 30 pitches. Apparently that was enough because Ausmus didn't let him go back out there for the eighth, which ... well, see above.
3. Tigers foolishly send Miguel Cabrera.
Meanwhile, the Tigers cost themselves one and maybe two runs when Miggy tried to score with 0 outs half an inning ago. #smrtbaseball— keithlaw (@keithlaw) October 3, 2014
This has to be on third-base coach Dave Clark. Victor Martinez had just doubled off the wall in center, scoring Torii Hunter, but Clark rescued Kevin Gausman and the O's by waving home Miggy. Unlike the Tigers, the Orioles completed a good relay -- second baseman Jonathan Schoop has a hose -- and Cabrera was easily out at home, defusing a potential big rally that in the end was very much needed. (Jeff Sullivan of FanGraphs has a take on the play, suggesting it made sense to send Cabrera if he can make it 82 percent of the time. Which looked unlikely from the positioning of Cabrera when Schoop received the relay throw.)
4. J.D. Martinez hits a three-run homer.
J.D. Martinez, the day he was cut: “If there’s not room for me to get at-bats ... it’s best to let me go" http://t.co/HZTQTrvGFk— Evan Drellich (@EvanDrellich) October 3, 2014
One day the Astros will develop a hitter as good as J.D. Martinez.— Jonah Keri (@jonahkeri) October 3, 2014
Orioles starter Wei-Yin Chen had cruised through the first three innings, but everything fell apart in a 10-pitch span in the fourth that erased Baltimore's 2-0 lead -- a Hunter single, Cabrera's double off the center-field wall, Victor Martinez's RBI single and then J.D. Martinez mashing a first-pitch slider to left for a three-run homer followed by Nick Castellanos hammering the next pitch out to right. It blew up so quickly on Chen that manager Buck Showalter didn't have time to get Gausman properly warmed up and into the game.
J.D. Martinez's storybook season continues. Cut in spring training by the Astros, he now has become part of the monster 3-4-5 middle of the Detroit lineup. He had cooled down somewhat in July and August but rebounded with a big September, when he hit .354 and six home runs. He's kept going in the postseason.
5. That double play.
Ryan Flaherty with the diving stop, Schoop with the excellent turn, Miggy's lack of speed once again hurting the Tigers. Pretty stuff.
The Baltimore Orioles took a 2-0 lead over the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of their ALDS on Friday when Nick Markakis' two-run homer stood up after an umpire review. Markakis' shot came with two outs in the third inning off Justin Verlander.
The ball bounced off the top of the bullpen dugout's roof in right field. It's a bit of an awkward alignment as the roof juts out from the back of the fence in front of the stands, but if a ball hits the roof it's apparently considered a home run by Camden Yards ground rules.
Verlander had retired the first eight batters before Jonathan Schoop singled on an 0-2 fastball with two outs. The rookie second baseman is still undisciplined at the plate -- 122 strikeouts and just 13 walks this season -- so throwing him such a hittable pitch with two strikes was questionable. Schoop hit just .153 against curveballs, so 0-2 seemed to be a good count to throw him a curveball off the plate, or another slider like the 0-1 slider that Schoop swung at and missed.
Against, Markakis, Verlander threw seven straight fastballs, with Markakis fouling off three before connecting on a 3-2, 94 mph heater that was up and middle-in.
Verlander's fastball isn't what it once was, of course, and batters slugged .456 against it this year, a number that had Verlander ranked 98th out of 147 pitchers with at least 100 innings.
The offense quickly picked up Verlander, however, scoring five runs in the top of the fourth off Wei-Yin Chen, as Miguel Cabrera doubled off the center-field wall, J.D. Martinez belted a three-run home run and Nick Castellanos followed with a solo shot.
The first game of the division series between the Baltimore Orioles and Detroit Tigers was much closer and exciting than the 12-3 final score. Your five key moments ...
1. Chris Tillman gets Torii Hunter with the bases loaded in the fifth.
Tillman had retired 11 in a row after allowing back-to-back home runs to Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez in the second inning before Andrew Romine and Rajai Davis, the bottom of the Detroit lineup, singled with two outs in the fifth. Ian Kinsler then worked a nine-pitch walk (after battling for 14 pitches in his previous at-bat), bringing up the crucial showdown with Torii Hunter. Tommy Hunter had started warming up in the Baltimore bullpen during the Kinsler plate appearance, but Buck Showalter stuck with his starter, who was at 99 pitches.
This had the feeling of a game-turning or game-deciding battle. Tillman was going through the lineup for a third time and the numbers show that, on average, starters don't fare as well the third time through the order. Tillman was still cranking his fastball up to 95 mph, however. On the other hand, he throws a lot of high fastballs and Hunter is a pretty good high fastball hitter, hitting .273/.346/.470 on fastballs up in the zone, ranking him 49th out of 147 qualified regulars against that type of pitch.
Hunter fouled off a fastball, took a cutter for a ball and then fouled off a changeup that was well off the plate. Hunter will chase pitches out of the strike zone, but with the bases loaded it's a little more difficult to throw pitches out of the zone. Tillman went after Hunter with two high fastballs, which Hunter fouled off, and then Tillman finally induced a 5-4 force play with a good curveball at the knees.
2. Buck Showalter goes early to Andrew Miller.
I truly adore how Buck Showalter manages. He hasn't used Andrew Miller in the sixth once all year but brings him in for heart of order.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) October 2, 2014
One thing bloggers and writers like myself constantly pound managers for in the postseason is not going to their best relievers earlier in the game or in the game's most critical situations -- see Ned Yost in the sixth of the AL wild-card game, when he refused to bring in a guy he prefers to save for the seventh or eighth innings, Kelvin Herrera, and instead brought in a starter who had thrown 73 pitches two days before. At least Yost was willing to think outside the box.
Showalter's decision was made a little easier by the fact that Tillman had thrown 105 pitches in his five innings, but instead of bringing in Tommy Hunter -- his fourth-best reliever, at best -- he brought in the left-handed Miller, even though two of the next three batters were Miguel Cabrera and J.D. Martinez, two right-handers. Miller, acquired from the Red Sox at the trade deadline, had been primarily a LOOGY the past two seasons with Boston, but elevated his game to a dominant level this season, with 103 strikeouts in 62.1 innings and a .145 average against right-handed batters.
He walked Cabrera but struck out both Martinezes and got Alex Avila on a popup and ended up getting five outs. Showalter brought in closer Zach Britton with two outs in the eighth, when it was still a one-run game. Kudos to Showalter for his willingness to extend his best relievers a few extra outs.
3. Torii Hunter lines into a double play in the eighth.
First the bunt and then the line out DP. Not Torii Hunter's night. Cabrera's HR should have been the tying hit...— Jared Purcell (@JaredPurcellDET) October 3, 2014
The Tigers are one of the slowest teams in the majors, although they did rank fourth in the AL in stolen bases thanks to Rajai Davis' 36 steals. Kinsler is one of the other guys who can run, and after reaching on an infield single to start the eighth with the Tigers down 4-2, he was running on the 2-2 pitch to Hunter, who hit a line drive to shortstop J.J. Hardy for an easy double play.
It was a good call by manager Brad Ausmus to send Kinsler, just bad luck. Hunter grounded into 18 double plays and had a double play percentage of 17 percent (double plays grounded into given possible opportunities), well above the major league average of 11 percent. O'Day gets a lot of ground balls with that sidearm sinker. It just stung even more when Cabrera followed with a home run.
4. Nelson Cruz strikes early.
Tigers fans remember Cruz all too well from the 2011 American League Championship Series, when he popped six home runs and drove in 13 runs as the Rangers knocked out the Tigers in six games. One of those came off Max Scherzer, a game-tying home run in the seventh inning of a Game 2 the Rangers would eventually win in 11 innings. That home run came on a 1-2 fastball, lined out to left field.
Now, Scherzer faced Cruz in the bottom of the first with two outs, after he had just gotten Adam Jones on a 6-4-3 double play after the first batters had reached. Jones had swung at the first pitch and maybe Scherzer figured Cruz would take a pitch. He didn't, unleashing that quick, powerful stroke on a 94 mph fastball over the plate and drilling it out to right field for a quick 2-0 lead.
In 35 career postseason games, Cruz now has 15 home runs, tied with Babe Ruth for 10th on the all-time list (yes, Ruth didn't have multiple rounds to accumulate his home runs, although he had 167 plate appearances while Cruz hit his 15th in his 138th career PA).
Most HR in 1st 35 Career Playoff Games Nelson Cruz 15 Carlos Beltran 15 Mickey Mantle 11 Jayson Werth 11 http://t.co/2vRwJOQLun— Baseball Reference (@baseball_ref) October 2, 2014
Anyway, Cruz got off to that monster start in the regular season, with 20 home runs through May. He then hit .214 with 15 home runs from June through August before heating up again in September, with a .349 average and five home runs. Cruz's power hasn't been a product of Camden Yards -- he hit 15 home runs at home and 25 on the road -- and if he keeps his hot bat going the Tigers may end up with a sense of déjà vu.
5. Orioles add insurance as Detroit's flaws exposed.
By that, I mean defense and relief pitching. First, with a runner on, Ausmus pulled Scherzer after 98 pitches and a runner on in the eighth.
And yes, it could be the parting look from Scherzer's final outing as a Tiger, depending on how series unfolds.— Jason Beck (@beckjason) October 3, 2014
Then shortstop Andrew Romine, in there because his glove is better than Eugenio Suarez's, made an error, with Alejandro De Aza scoring from second thanks to an aggressive send by third-base coach Bobby Dickerson (White Sox fans tweeted about De Aza often getting thrown out on the bases, but I have to think Dickerson waved him home here).
Balls in play are bad news for Detroit.— Ben Lindbergh (@BenLindbergh) October 3, 2014
Then some more hits off Joba Chamberlain and Joakim Soria and suddenly it was a blowout and the confidence in Detroit's bullpen for the rest of the series takes a hit. There may be some talk about the bullpen's performance in the eighth inning, but the Orioles still scored five runs off Scherzer. That's the bigger story of the night.
Baltimore Orioles: Low OBP
The Orioles led the AL in home runs but ranked just 11th in the league in on-base percentage. In other words, they rely on home runs to generate a large percentage of their offense.
You would assume that the rate of home runs goes down in the postseason as teams face better pitching. While that's been true the past two postseasons, it's not always the case:
2013 regular season: HR every 35.6 at-bats
2013 postseason: HR every 45.3 at-bats
2012 regular season: HR every 33.5 at-bats
2012 postseason: HR every 41.4 at-bats
2011 regular season: HR every 36.4 at-bats
2011 postseason: HR every 26.9 at-bats
2010 regular season: HR every 35.8 at-bats
2010 postseason: HR every 36.4 at-bats
2009 regular season: HR every 32.9 at-bats
2009 postseason: HR every 32.2 at-bats
The bigger problem facing the Orioles: The Angels, Royals and Tigers were the three best teams in the AL at preventing home runs (in the case of the Angels and Royals, in part due to the parks they play in). For the Tigers, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander and Rick Porcello each gave up 18 home runs in over 200 innings, not an excessive total. The most interesting matchup will be David Price, who allowed five home runs in his 11 starts with Detroit but 25 overall. He loves to pound the strike zone, but you wonder if he will look to expand it a bit against an Orioles team that doesn't draw many walks.
Remember, the Orioles reached the 2012 postseason with a similar type of offense -- that team hit 214 home runs and had a .311 OBP while this team hit 211 home runs with a .311 OBP -- and hit just .187 in a division series loss to the Yankees, hitting just three home runs and drawing only eight walks. Adam Jones went 2-for-23 in that series with six K's and zero walks, and he walked even less this season than two years ago.
Detroit Tigers: Defense
Yes, the bullpen is a potential liability; Mike Petriello outlined the problems with Joe Nathan & Co. the other day on ESPN Insider, although Anibal Sanchez could prove to be a viable weapon.
Aside from that, Detroit's defense is another issue. The Tigers ranked 28th in the majors in defensive runs saved at minus-65 runs. The biggest problem has been the lack of range of third baseman Nick Castellanos and the aging Torii Hunter in right field. Rajai Davis has also not graded out well in either left field or center field, despite his speed. He is actually a question mark for the division series due to a strained pelvic ligament suffered Saturday, although he is on the roster. If he can't go, Ezequiel Carrera is the likely starter in center.
Another possible issue if they end up meeting the Royals in the ALCS: The Tigers allowed the most stolen bases in the AL -- although they had the third-best caught stealing rate. Nathan is a huge liability here, allowing 10 steals, while none of the starters allowed more than 13.
Los Angeles Angels: Starting rotation
The Angels' finished sixth in the AL in rotation ERA -- ahead of the much-vaunted Detroit rotation -- but that includes the superlative season from Garrett Richards, who went down in late August with an ankle injury. Here's an interesting catch, however: The Angels had a 3.72 rotation ERA when Richards went down and 3.21 after. Much of that was due to the emergence of rookie Matt Shoemaker, who had a 1.13 ERA in six starts after Richards was injured. Shoemaker, however, missed the final two weeks of the regular season with a rib-cage injury. The Angels have him scheduled to start Game 2 of the series, with Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson in Games 1 and 3.
The rotation is thin after those three. The Angels could bring back Weaver on three days' rest for Game 4, with Shoemaker going on regular rest in Game 5, so the division series setup with its two off days will help the Angels. Considering the depth of their bullpen, they won't expect the starters to go deep anyway. Still, with Shoemaker's health and Wilson's control as possible issues, the Angels may have to rely on their league-best offense to outscore their opponent.
Kansas City Royals: Lack of power
And you thought I was going to say Ned Yost! The Royals hit just 95 home runs, not only last in the American League but last in the majors. On the other hand, the Cardinals were 27th in the majors in 2013 (125 home runs) and reached the World Series and the Giants (103 home runs) were last in 2012 and won the World Series.
Still, for the Royals to win, they are going to have to hit some home runs or receive extraordinary pitching. The Cardinals hit six home runs in five games in beating the Pirates in last year's division series and then held the Dodgers to 13 runs in six games in the NLCS. But they hit just two home runs in the World Series and went down in six games. In 2012, the Giants hit 14 home runs in 16 playoff games (outhomering their opponents), so they picked up the pace.
Maybe the Royals can scratch and claw their way to enough offense, but they are not going to steal seven bases every game. To advance past the Angels, they are going to need a few big pops. Yost will presumably keep the same lineup he's used his past nine games, with Alcides Escobar, Norichika Aoki and Lorenzo Cain hitting 1-2-3. Those three combined for nine home runs all season. Meanwhile, his two leading home run hitters -- Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez -- have been batting sixth and seventh (and both struggled in September).