SweetSpot: Prince Fielder

So you want to be a major league general manager?

Think of the ripple effect of one bad move.

At the trade deadline in 2011, Texas Rangers general manager Jon Daniels, tired or frustrated with the production of perennial tease Chris Davis, traded the slugging first baseman along with pitcher Tommy Hunter to the Baltimore Orioles for reliever Koji Uehara.

Davis had hit a robust .285/.331/.549 in his initial 80-game stint in the majors in 2008. But he had struggled to make consistent contact after that and had hit .230/.285/.407 with a 34 percent strikeout since then. He had even been sent back to Triple-A for 48 games in 2011 -- where he treated PCL pitchers like Babe Ruth treated Charlie Root in the 1932 World Series. Davis hit .368/.405/.824 there with 24 home runs and 66 RBIs in 48 games.

The Rangers still had Mitch Moreland and Michael Young to play first base and DH, plus Mike Napoli could play first when he wasn't catching. The Rangers reached the World Series, although Uehara gave up three home runs in the first two rounds of the playoffs and wasn't even included on the World Series roster.

Meanwhile, Davis blossomed in Baltimore. In 2012, the Rangers lost the AL West on the final day of the season and then the wild-card game. Their first basemen ranked 25th in the majors in wOBA (which doesn't adjust for park factors). Their DHs ranked ninth in the AL. In 2013, as Davis hit 53 home runs, the Rangers lost a tiebreaker game for the wild card. Rangers first basemen ranked 26th in the majors in wOBA and their DHs ranked 10th.

The decision to go with Moreland over Davis proved disastrous.

So that gets us here, to the bad news that Prince Fielder will have season-ending surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck. With poor production from first base and needing left-handed power, Daniels traded Ian Kinsler for Fielder, assuming most of Fielder's huge contract and taking on a player coming off his worst power season in the majors. We're here because of the Chris Davis trade three years ago. If the Rangers don't give up on Davis, they not only don't need Fielder, they may have gone deeper into the postseason the past two years.

But you can't cry over spilt milk or lost ballplayers. Daniels needed a slugger and was willing to make a risky trade to get one.

To be fair, despite his big-boned physique Fielder had been the most durable player in the majors. Earlier in his career many wondered about his long-term durability, but the fact that he had now played in over 500 consecutive games entering the 2014 season made him at least seem like a safe bet to stay on the field. Is the herniated disk a fluke injury or in some fashion related to his weight? I'll let the medical experts answer that one.

Aside from all that, what was Fielder's long-term prognosis? Here's a chart comparing the aging patterns of five other similarly built players, good hitters like Fielder -- Mo Vaughn, Prince's dad Cecil Fielder, Kent Hrbek, Greg Luzinski and Boog Powell. Luzinski primarily played left field, although not very well, while the others were first basemen. We used OPS+ from Baseball-Reference.com (100 is a league average hitter, above 100 is good).

Was there reason to believe Prince still had the potential for a couple more big seasons, at least using these players as a guideline? Not necessarily. Prince was in his age-30 season, the last big year for Vaughn. Cecil was never really quite as good as these guys, save for his monster 51-homer season in 1990. Hrbek peaked in his 20s and had some minor injury issues as his weight ballooned in his 30s. Luzinski peaked from 24 to 27. Powell's last 30-homer season came at 28.

So it's very possible that Fielder's downturn in 2013 wasn't just a bad season. He certainly hadn't shown signs of improving this season, although who knows how much of his struggles were related to the neck problem.

While the Tigers will pay $30 million of Fielder's contract in upcoming seasons, he's signed through 2020, when he'll be 36. None of these guys made it to that age.

As for the Rangers, can they win without Fielder, on top of all the other injuries? Well, Fielder hadn't actually been contributing so far. His -0.3 WAR means he was basically a replacement-level first baseman. Of course, the Rangers would have expected better production moving forward.

Moreland, a better glove, will move back to first base on a regular basis. He's hitting .275 but has just two home runs. Michael Choice was the DH in Thursday's 9-2 win over the Tigers. The Rangers are just a game under .500 and in the wide-open AL, they may not need to win 90-plus this year to reach the postseason. Do they have enough without Prince? It seems unlikely, but Shin-Soo Choo has been terrific, Adrian Beltre may get going, they'll get Jurickson Profar back at some point and they have one of the best starters in baseball.

You never know.
Detroit Tigers general manager Dave Dombrowski, coming off a season in which his club won 93 games and reached the ALCS, made two controversial offseason trades.

In November, he traded first baseman Prince Fielder and cash to the Rangers for second baseman Ian Kinsler.

Two weeks later, he traded starting pitcher Doug Fister to the Nationals for minor league pitcher Robbie Ray, reliever Ian Krol and utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi.

The first trade was met with generally positive reviews for both teams, as clearing Fielder's contract -- he's signed through 2020 at $24 million per season (the Tigers will pay $6 million per year of that from 2016 through 2020) -- was viewed as a way to clear some room for the Tigers to potentially sign impending free agent Max Scherzer. Plus, Kinsler would add needed speed and athleticism and allow Miguel Cabrera to move back to first base, improving the team's defense. As for the Rangers, they needed a lefty power bat in a lineup that skewed right-handed.

Still, there were concerns that the Tigers would miss Fielder's bat behind Cabrera, even though Fielder was coming off the worst OPS (.819) and lowest homer output (25) of his career.

The second trade was almost universally criticized. Fister is a sabermetric darling, a guy who ranked ninth in FanGraphs WAR from 2011 to 2013, behind much bigger names (including three of his teammates, Justin Verlander, Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez).

Ray, the centerpiece of the deal, wasn't seen as a prospect worthy of Fister. While Ray had a breakthrough year in the minors, striking out 160 in 142 innings between Class A and Double-A, he wasn't a top-100 guy on the various best-in-the-minors lists. The message was that the Tigers should have done much better for a valuable pitcher like Fister. Maybe Fister was Detroit's fourth-best starter, but he would be the No. 1 or No. 2 on many other teams.

How are those trades looking? Pretty good from Detroit's perspective. The Tigers (20-9) have the best winning percentage in the majors and are enjoying an eight-game winning streak that has given them a five-game lead in the AL Central. There were concerns that Kinsler would struggle away from Texas, where he always had a large home-field advantage, but he's hitting .309 AVG/.346 OBP/.423 SLG.

Fielder, meanwhile, is showing no signs that 2013 was just a down year. He's hitting .226/.347/.331 and while his eye at the plate seems as good as ever (although nine of his 21 walks have been intentional), he's hit just two home runs. His struggles against fastballs continue, meaning the speculation that his bat speed is declining still holds. He's hitting .286 against fastballs, which sounds good, but the best hitters feast off fastballs. He hit .272 against fastballs last year. In 2012, Fielder hit .348 and slugged .542 against fastballs; in 2011, he hit .323 and slugged .607. In 2009, when he hit 46 home runs, he hit .332 and slugged .620 against fastballs.

It's too early to draw conclusions on Fielder, but he's not providing the big power the Rangers expected. With his poor defense and baserunning, his WAR is a below-replacement-level minus-0.5. Ouch. And that's without getting into the $114 million the Rangers will owe him after this season.

As for Ray, he's pitched well in Triple-A and looked impressive Tuesday in his major league debut in a spot start for Sanchez. Granted, it was against the Astros, but he pitched with poise and confidence, showing command of his low-90s fastball and a good changeup. Buster Olney compared his mechanics to former Red Sox lefty Bruce Hurst. Fister hasn't pitched yet due to elbow inflammation.

Again, it's way too early to analyze this deal, but it certainly could be that Dombrowski and the Tigers simply evaluated Ray much higher -- and more accurately -- than everyone else. In the end, that's all that matters. We don't know what other deals Dombrowski could have gotten for Fister; the GM obviously was happy with the one he got.

General managers of teams with big payrolls never receive as much credit as Billy Beane in Oakland or Andrew Friedman in Tampa, and that's understandable, but Dombrowski's trade record is impressive. Consider some of his big deals:

• He acquired Sanchez and Omar Infante from the Marlins for the 2012 stretch. Jacob Turner, the big prospect in that trade, has yet to do much for the Marlins. (And the Tigers were able to re-sign Sanchez after the season).

• He acquired Fister from Seattle in 2011 in an absolute steal, with only reliever Charlie Furbush providing marginal value to the Mariners.

• Scherzer was a talented but erratic right-hander with Arizona, and Austin Jackson a toolsy prospect with the Yankees, when they came over in a three-team trade. The Tigers gave up Curtis Granderson, who was certainly very good with the Yankees, and Edwin Jackson, whom the D-backs quickly traded away. None of the three teams got burned, but Scherzer and Jackson have helped the Tigers to three straight playoff appearances.

• Of course, back before the 2008 season , he acquired Miguel Cabrera (and Dontrelle Willis, who was a flop) for Andrew Miller and Cameron Maybin (plus others), two of the top 10 to 15 prospects in baseball at the time. Obviously, a huge win for the Tigers as Miller and Maybin never developed in Florida.

In an era when prospects are more prized than ever, Dombrowski has almost taken the opposite approach, using them instead as trade leverage. But he's also made the proper evaluations: keeping Rick Porcello and Drew Smyly instead of Turner; trading away Francisco Martinez in the Fister trade while keeping Nick Castellanos; trading away Maybin and acquiring Jackson. The first key to a successful GM is properly evaluating your own talent. We'll see if Ray is the next guy Dombrowski was right about.

Most of Dombrowski's free-agent signings have also panned out -- guys like Victor Martinez, Jhonny Peralta and Torii Hunter have provided excellent bang for the buck. The Fielder contract was questionable, but now the Tigers are out from under most of that.

Dombrowski isn't perfect; the Tigers' lack of depth has been an issue even as they've made the playoffs in recent years. The Tigers started Quentin Berry in the World Series two years ago, after all, and counted on Delmon Young. Dombrowski's bullpens have certainly been inconsistent.

But when it comes to trading, I'm not sure I want to be the GM on the other end of the line when Dombrowski calls.

Early trends: Bruce, Fielder, Rizzo, Heyward

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
We've reached the point in the season where the first calls are coming into sports-talk radio. You know the kind. The ones that say "Bench (fill in the blank), he's terrible" or "(fill in the blank) is finally going to be a star."

But there are usually explanations for these small-sample spikes or sputters, the most common of which is "It's early!"

Nonetheless, some trends are starting to emerge. We'll see how long-lasting these are.

Jay Bruce
Bruce has been a victim of infield shifts this season.

He's 0-for-9 when hitting a groundball against a defensive shift and you can see from his spray chart that he's already got a fair number of outfield ground outs.

Bruce is a good example of someone for whom shifts have contributed to frustration in a number of areas.

Over the last five seasons, his batting average on groundballs has sunk from .314 to .275 to .205 to .185 to its current 1-for-14. That's what happens when you pull 71 percent of your groundballs, as he has this season.

Prince Fielder
Fielder is also having trouble with shifts.

But his issue isn't with pulled balls, it's with getting the ball through the middle of the diamond.

Fielder is 3-for-18 when hitting a grounder or soft liner against shifts. He's 0-for-9 on the ground balls hit between where the second baseman and shortstop would typically play, as since they've shifted slightly, they're in ideal position to field his ground balls. Last season, on balls hit to those same locations he was 21-for-78 (.269).

Anthony Rizzo
Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo is off to a good start after a 2013 in which his numbers never reached anything near the expectation level the Cubs had for him.

Anthony Rizzo got a base hit on this pitch against the Pirates last week.
Rizzo is hitting .319 in his first 47 at-bats and he can thank his duck snorts for that start.

Rizzo is 10-for-33 on balls classified as either softly-hit or medium-hit after batting .156 when hitting those same types of balls last season.

The classic example of that is this -- Rizzo reached out and got a base hit on a pitch that was thrown to the spot noted in the image on the right. Those hits make a big difference in the numbers this early in the season.

Jason Heyward
Last season, Victor Martinez of the Tigers got off to a slow start. But there was reason to believe that Martinez's performance would eventually catch up with how often he was hitting the ball hard (a lot) and it did.

This year, it looks like Jason Heyward is headed down the Martinez path.

Heyward is hitting .160 and is 4-for-11 when hitting a ball that our video-tracking system classifies as hard hit. Over the previous two seasons, Heyward hit .746 and .718 on his hard-hit balls.

Heyward is 0-for-15 in 2014 when hitting a fly ball that doesn't go out of the ballpark. That includes a pair of well-muscled fly balls that found gloves against the New York Mets and Washington Nationals.

He's also 1-for-11 on his groundballs despite not being regularly shifted against and that might be a little misleading since he has reached base twice on errors (had those been scored hits, his batting average would have jumped 40 points).

Matt Wieters
At least for two weeks, Wieters has used the center of the field as his primary means for reaching base. From 2011 to 2013, Wieters pulled 43 percent of the balls he put in play and hit 28 percent of them to center field. This season, he’s reversed those numbers, pulling 29 percent and centering 41 percent.

The result of that has been more line drives. Last year, Wieters totaled 15 line drives to center field as a left-handed hitter. In the first two weeks of the season, he’s already got seven. The effort to pull the ball less often is a route that Torii Hunter went last season with modest success. We'll see if Wieters has made the adjustment or if it's just temporary results.

Colby Lewis returns to the Rangers tonight to make his first major league start in 21 months. Eric and myself discuss the state of the Rangers.
We'll do a couple more of these before running the final results on Sunday.


Over or under on Prince Fielder hitting 30.5 home runs?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,476)

Prince Fielder once hit 50 home runs for the Brewers when he was 23 years old in 2007. He hit 46 in 2009. The past three seasons, however, his home runs have gone from 38 to 30 (his first year with the Tigers) to 25. He moves to the Rangers this year and many believe he just had a bad season in 2013, dealing with a divorce. Some point to numbers that show he hasn't been hitting fastballs like he used to, perhaps a sign that his bat speed is diminishing.

Everyone agrees that moving to Texas, a better park for home runs, will help in the power department. Still, Fielder didn't hit any better on the road last year -- he hit 13 home runs at home and slugged .467 and hit 12 home runs with a .448 slugging percentage on the road. In 2012, he hit 18 home runs at Comerica Park, 12 on the road. It's hard to argue that Comerica was costing him home runs, so I have doubts he's suddenly going to turn back into 38- or 40-homer guy like I've heard some people say. Especially when considering he'll now have to play more games in Seattle, Oakland and Anaheim, all tougher home run parks.

The projection systems do see the likelihood of more home runs. ZiPS has him at 30, Steamer at 29. Let's put the over/under at 30.5.

AL's defensive winter moves

December, 29, 2013
Today, Buster Olney rated the top defensive teams in the majors. We thought we’d take the time to look at the offseasons for each team from a defensive perspective. Here’s our American League look.

AL East

Blue Jays: The transition from J.P. Arencibia to Dioner Navarro behind the plate is likely a wash and there hasn’t been much of an overhaul to this team other than the departure of Rajai Davis (who did have a decent amount of defensive value).
Ryan Goins
The most interesting thing for the Jays will be how Ryan Goins fares as a regular second baseman. Goins racked up a hard-to-believe 12 Defensive Runs Saved (backed up on video review by 21 Good Fielding Plays and only a pair of Defensive Misplays & Errors) in a 32-game stint last season.

Orioles: The biggest issue on defense for the Orioles will be dealing with the loss of Manny Machado’s major-league leading Runs Saved, at least until he returns from injury. Baltimore did make one positive move that should upgrade its outfield defense, getting David Lough from the Royals for utilityman Danny Valencia.

Rays: The Rays made a long-term commitment to James Loney, which bodes well from a defensive perspective, and also made one to catcher Ryan Hanigan, who is considered one of the best base-stealing deterrents and pitch-framers in the sport. He’ll give them a solid alternative to Jose Molina.

Red Sox: Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts will likely step into everyday roles and fill the shoes of Jacoby Ellsbury and Stephen Drew. The Red Sox will also have a new catcher, though there isn’t much of a defensive difference between A.J. Pierzynski and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Both rate below-average statistically.

Yankees:There have been some pretty notable changes on the defensive side. Brian McCann’s pitch-framing rates well, but he’s not the baserunning deterrent that Chris Stewart was. Kelly Johnson and Brian Roberts could split time at second base but neither is the Gold-Glove-caliber glove that Robinson Cano was. Johnson could also wind up full-time at third base, a position at which he’s barely played more than 100 innings, if Alex Rodriguez gets suspended.

The Yankees should be great in center and left with an Ellsbury/Brett Gardner combo. Carlos Beltran has less ground to cover in the Bronx than he did in Busch. That could benefit his achy knees and help his defensive rating.

One smart thing the Yankees did: Hire Brendan Ryan to be their “shortstop closer” for the next two seasons and as much as it will pain Derek Jeter to leave games, it will be for the good of the team to let Ryan finish close games.

AL Central

Indians: The Indians tried to make a right fielder out of center fielder Drew Stubbs in 2013 and it didn’t work. They got themselves an upgrade in free agent David Murphy who rates adequate enough (5 Runs Saved in about a season’s worth of innings in right field) that his D could be a one-win upgrade by itself.

Royals: The best team in baseball, as it comes to Defensive Runs Saved, tinkered a little bit, swapping out Lough for Norichika Aoki in the outfield, which probably rates as a push (they’re both good … fair warning to Royals fans, Aoki likes to play a deep right field), and making an offensive upgrade by getting Omar Infante to fill the hole that was second base.

The one thing the Royals got from their second basemen last season was good defense (18 Runs Saved from the collection of Elliot Johnson, Chris Getz and others). Infante isn’t at that level, but he rates above average more often than not (he did by UZR, but not Runs Saved in 2013) and his offensive work should make up for any drop-off.

Tigers: The Tigers' defensive overhaul has been the biggest of the offseason as the team’s opening-day infield will be entirely different from 2013. Ian Kinsler is a definite upgrade at second base and we’ll see if Jose Iglesias’ wow plays add up over a full season (he has seven Runs Saved in just under 800 career innings at short).

Going from Prince Fielder back to Miguel Cabrera should actually be a slight upgrade.

The big question will be third base where the scouting reports on Nick Castellanos’ defense don’t inspire confidence. But even so, conservatively, the Tigers should be about 25 Runs Saved better in 2014, which takes them from being a lousy defensive infield to an average one.

Twins: The Twins made the career-preserving move of shifting Joe Mauer from behind the plate to first base and signed Kurt Suzuki, who has a good statistical history at the position. Suzuki has rated better than Mauer over the course of his career in Runs Saved, though he’s not as good at throwing out basestealers.

I asked Doug Glanville to assess what Mauer’s challenge will be in making the move to first:

“He is a super athlete and I am sure he will be fine. It will be tough to not be as involved with the game in every single moment. No one can compete with catchers in the leadership it requires to play that position and the need for constant vigilance. He has to sharpen his focus to deal with new lulls in time. I am sure he will.”

White Sox: The White Sox had the third-worst Defensive Runs Saved total in the majors in 2013 and they’ve been overhauled all over the place. Their worst position last season was center field (-19 Defensive Runs Saved in 2013) and they’ll have a new look there with Adam Eaton.

They’ll also be much different at first base with Jose Abreu, whose hitting has been compared to Ryan Howard's (but if his defense is, that’s not good) and third base with adequately-rated Matt Davidson, whom they got for Addison Reed. Will different equal better? They better hope so.

Al West

Angels: The aging of Albert Pujols will continue to be an issue both on offense and defense. Last season broke a run of eight straight seasons in which Pujols ranked in the top five among first basemen in Runs Saved.

Pujols will have a familiar teammate working at the opposite corner with the addition of third baseman David Freese, who had a dreadful season in 2013 per both Runs Saved and UZR, ranking third-worst in the former and second-worst in the latter. That’s something that will need to be dealt with.

Astros: The Astros traded away their second-best defender stats-wise from 2013 in Brandon Barnes to get Dexter Fowler from the Colorado Rockies. Fowler has less ground to cover in the gaps of Minute Maid Park, but has a deeper center field (and Tal’s Hill) to worry about. Fowler has posted a negative Runs Saved rating in four of his six seasons, but has fared well at handling balls hit to the deepest parts of the park.

Athletics: The Athletics made two moves that should definitely help their defense in 2014.
Craig Gentry
By adding Craig Gentry in a trade from the Rangers, they’ve obtained one of the game’s premier outfield defenders and one who could fit in well both in left field (to make Yoenis Cespedes a DH) and center (to give Coco Crisp a breather) very well.

The Athletics also added a valuable utility piece in Nick Punto, who could start at second base (ahead of Eric Sogard) or close games at shortstop (replacing Jed Lowrie, who rates as a poor defender). Either way, he’s a big upgrade over what they had.

Mariners:The Mariners now have a Gold Glove-caliber defender at second in Cano. He’ll need to cover more ground to his left than he did in New York, because the Mariners’ first-base options (Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison and Corey Hart) do not rate well. Morrison is going to present an issue wherever they put him. He’s not quite at the level of Michael Morse, but his ratings historically have been poor.

Rangers: The difference between Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland at first base is a sizable one, potentially 15 runs over the course of a season, so if the Rangers do decide to hang on to Moreland, they'd be best off playing him at first base and having Fielder DH. The Rangers could use a good defender at first, since Jurickson Profar is basically going to learn on the job at second base. Texas will also have some outfield concerns with Shin-Soo Choo having limited experience in left field and the team no longer having the security blanket of Gentry (traded to Athletics).

SweetSpot TV: Offseason rapid fire!

November, 26, 2013

It's another edition of Offseason Rapid Fire with Eric Karabell. We discuss the latest news and also ask: Which is the team to beat right now?

Cabrera won't suffer without Fielder

November, 22, 2013
There have been many, many sabermetric studies on the idea of "lineup protection." Do a Google search and you can find them easily enough. The studies all come to the same general conclusion: It doesn't really exist. Players don't change their performance based on who is hitting behind them.

But fans still believe in it. Media members still believe in it. Even some people who work in baseball believe in it. When Prince Fielder was traded to the Rangers, I read and heard people talking about how Miguel Cabrera will now suffer as a result -- without the fear of facing Fielder next, pitchers won't have to throw strikes to Cabrera. It's a topic you'll never change opinions on.

After all, didn't Cabrera just win back-to-back MVP Awards? Of course lineup protection exists! Don't be silly.

Here are Cabrera's last four seasons. Can you tell which two were the ones with Fielder hitting behind him and the two that weren't?

.344/.448/.586, 108 BB
.348/.442/.636, 90 BB
.328/.420/.622, 89 BB
.330/.393/.606, 66 BB

The two Fielder seasons are the second one (2013) and the fourth one (2012). In terms of wOBA, you'd rank them 2013, 2011, 2010, 2012. Cabrera's worst season was actually the best of Fielder's two seasons, and in theory the season when Cabrera received the most "protection."

OK, but let's dig into the numbers a little deeper. One way possible way to measure whether pitchers are pitching around Cabrera or challenging him more often is to look at the percentage of fastballs thrown him. If pitchers don't want to walk him -- and thus face Fielder with a runner or runners on base -- than Cabrera should see more fastballs to hit since the fastball is the easiest pitch command.

Here are the percentages of fastballs thrown to Cabrera the past four seasons:

2010: 52.3 percent
2011: 53.8 percent
2012: 54.0 percent
2013: 54.5 percent

OK, he has seen a few more fastballs. What does that mean in terms of total pitches? Cabrera has averaged about 2500 total pitches per season over the past four years; the difference between 52.3 percent and 54.5 percent is 55 pitches -- or about one extra fastball every three games.

What about the percentage of total pitches in the strike zone?

2010: 42.2 percent
2011: 41.5 percent
2012: 44.7 percent
2013: 44.8 percent

Again, a minor uptick -- an 82-pitch difference between 41.5 percent and 44.8 percent, or about one extra pitch in the strike zone every other game. That doesn't seem significant, especially once you factor in intentional walks (more on that in a second).

Now, there are two numbers which point in favor of Fielder helping Cabrera. He hit 68 home runs in 2010-11 but 88 in 2012-2013. That's 20 more home runs that maybe resulted from some juicier pitches Cabrera saw, right? Maybe. At the same, however, his doubles have gone down, from 93 in 2010-2011 to 66 in 2012-2013, leaving his isolated power relatively unchanged, other than a dip in 2011 when he hit just 30 home runs: .294, .241, .277, .288.

Yes, he had the injury at the end of 2013 that dragged down his final numbers; however, keep in mind that Fielder was much worse in 2013 than in 2012, and thus pitchers didn't have to "fear" him as much as in 2012. And it's true that Cabrera's walk rate increased in 2013 from the season before, perhaps because he was pitched around more (although note that the percentage of fastballs and pitches in the strike zone were basically identical both seasons).

Of interest as well is where those home runs were hit. The biggest increase the past two years came on home runs classified as being hit to "center" -- 22 versus eight over 2010-2011. Much of that is simply because Cabrera has done more damage on cripple pitches -- he hit .542 on pitches located in the middle of the strike zone the past two season versus .448 in 2010-2011, with the additional home run power.

The other category to note is intentional walks. Cabrera's intentional walks since 2010: 32, 22, 17, 19. So the intentional walks dropped a bit, particularly from 2010, when Brennan Boesch most often hit behind Cabrera.

This is the one argument you can make where protection comes into play. In 2010-2011, Cabrera batted 121 times with a runner on second and was intentionally walked 26 times (21 percent); in 2012-2013, he batted 145 times with a runner on second and was intentionally walked 18 times (12 percent). With runners on second and third, the ratios were 10 out of 29 and 5 out of 24.

So, yes, there were arguably about 10 plate appearances a season where Cabrera got to hit thanks to Fielder's protection. But also note that with Victor Martinez hitting behind him in 2011, the intentional walks were down from when Boesch hit behind him.

As for those who say Cabrera will just get a ton of free passes in 2014, here are his unintentional walk rates the past four seasons (removing all intentional walks from both total plate appearances and total walks):

2010: 9.3 percent
2011: 10.0 percent
2012: 7.2 percent
2013: 11.2 percent

He walked more often this year than the year Brennan Boesch was hitting behind him.

When you add it all up, there just isn't evidence that Prince Fielder made Miguel Cabrera a better hitter. Cabrera will be great again in 2014 because he's a great hitter.

In his newsletter yesterday -- sent out before the big trade -- Joe Sheehan wrote a column titled, "Money Don't Matter," making an argument that there's so much money flowing into the game now, and a relatively low percentage going back to the players (4 percent less of total revenue than NFL players receive), that our traditional methods of evaluating contracts are becoming outdated. Joe wrote:
It is so much money that it has a distorting effect on the market for talent, not just breaking our models, but arguably invalidating the first principle: that the opportunity cost of spent money matters. The combination of so much extra cash combined with so little talent becoming freely available -- due to teams locking up the best players in baseball long-term through their peaks -- means that there isn't much opportunity cost to spending. The money is there, and if it isn't spent on free agents it's not going to be spent in the draft or in the Dominican or on a superstar because the next superstar might not hit the market for another two years.

The money doesn't matter. It's not about whether the marginal cost of a win on the free-agent market is five million bucks or $7 million or $13 million; it's about that framework no longer being the way to evaluate signings. The extra dollars a team might spend to bring a player into the fold -- and turn a contract from a sabermetric win to a sabermetric loss -- are meaningless in the big picture because there's just no other good application of those dollars. The opportunity cost of not signing the player isn't "having the money to sign someone else", it's "having cash and no good way to use it."

This is essentially the argument for the Rangers trading for Fielder. They have money, they needed power and especially left-handed power, and Fielder was available, warts and all. The Rangers were willing to absorb his contract simply because they have the budget to do so.

On the other hand, the excellent Marc W. wrote this at the U.S.S. Mariner blog (scroll down to the bottom of the piece, past the stuff about the Mariners' 40-man roster moves):
Still, I wonder if we'll come to see the Fielder deal as some sort of peak in the value of pure power hitters on the open market. The Pujols deal may end up looking worse in time, and the Ryan Howard contract is still so bad it's basically in a separate category, but throw in Mark Teixeira and you're looking at a lot of dead money for 1Bs. As Dave's mentioned, this is part of a trend where contracts have lengthened, showing that teams are holding the line on single-year salary and stretching their commitment over time instead. But while Fielder's deal isn't going to seriously impact Robinson Cano’s negotiations, I wonder if we may not see many deals like, say, Joey Votto's extension for a while. We won't really be able to see for a while, not until the very reasonable extensions for young players like Arizona's Paul Goldshmidt run out, but the fact that the Reds will be paying Votto $25m in 2023 looks odd, and Votto's a much better hitter than Fielder. Basically, will this lead to a re-valuation of good-not-historically-great ballplayers?

This is essentially the sabermetric argument against the Rangers trading for Fielder -- that his decline in 2013 could be a harbinger of things to come, making him a very expensive player for his relative value. You can also argue that money is still a factor; for the Tigers, moving Fielder creates needed space to sign Max Scherzer to a big extension.

While that's likely true, you can also argue that for the Tigers this was strictly a baseball trade. They needed a second baseman and Kinsler fills that hole; they needed to improve the defense, and getting rid of Fielder and moving Miguel Cabrera to first base and installing highly rated rookie Nick Castellanos at third will do that. Even without Fielder's bat the Tigers may be a better team in 2014.

Some other reaction from across the interwebs, starting with Keith Law of ESPN Insider:
Compared to Fielder, Kinsler is showing greater signs of decline, with two disappointing offensive years as his legs have lost strength and his power has evaporated. After two 30-homer seasons in three years (2009, 2011), he's hit 32 total in the past two seasons in a good ballpark for power bats. His defense at second base improved with effort in his late 20s but has started to regress with his legs, and it's fair to worry that in a year or two his range will make him a liability at the position. He does fill a critical hole for the Tigers at second base in the short term, probably three wins above any internal options they had for the position, but their biggest gain in the deal is financial -- they save $76 million, which they can put toward retaining Max Scherzer or filling other needs. From a baseball perspective, however, I'd rather roll the dice on Fielder than Kinsler -- and with multiple sources indicating to me that the Rangers had shopped Kinsler but found no takers, it seems they had little choice.
Dave Cameron, FanGraphs:
If you're a Tigers fan, this is a deal to celebrate. Don't worry about narratives like "big bats" and "Cabrera needs protection," or listen to the criticisms of Kinsler's good-at-everything-great-at-nothing skillset. The Tigers just made a fantastic trade that sets them up to be even better in 2014 than they were the last two years.

Dave Dombrowski has made a lot of good trades; this might end up being one of his best.

Sam Miller, Baseball Prospectus, on Fielder's 2013:
Most of the lost value came in two areas: his walks dropped and he quit hitting as many of his fly balls over the fence. His plate discipline didn't show much change -- he didn't swing more overall, he didn't get thrown more strikes, he didn't chase more; the only real change was a couple-percentage-point drop in contact rate—so we can chalk that up almost entirely to a drop in intentional walks, perhaps a combination of batting behind Miguel Cabrera (lineup protection sometimes works both ways) and batting in front of a switch-hitter for most of the season.

So then the home runs. Had his fly balls left the yard at exactly the rate that they typically do, he would have hit 10 more home runs. Say five of those lost homers turned into doubles and five into outs. Had he hit those 10 homers, and had he drawn 13 more intentional walks to match his 2012 total, his line goes up to .287/.381/.504, hardly a decline at all. Why give him credit for those home runs? You probably shouldn't! But 10 fly balls pulling up just short is hardly enough to declare a guy's career over. And his average fly ball, at 294 feet, went just two feet shorter than his average fly ball in 2012, and four feet shorter than in 2011.

John Niyo, Detroit News, addressed Fielder's second straight disappointing postseason:
Fielder’s brief tenure as the Tigers’ cleanup hitter and the highest-paid player in franchise history finished amid a cascade of boos in Comerica Park and that infamous third-base flop at Fenway Park. But it also ended with a series of puzzling postgame interview sessions that revealed Fielder as either tone deaf or just plain dumb. ...

And yet his nonchalant explanation after Game 3 against the Red Sox last month was, "If they throw a mistake, I hit it. If not, I won’t." That comment didn't sit well with other leaders in the Tigers clubhouse, and though Fielder's work ethic was never questioned -- "He played hard, he played every day," (GM Dave) Dombrowski said -- it's not hard to understand why.

Prince Fielder wasn't brought here simply to hit mistakes.
Jean-Jacques Taylor, ESPNDallas:
Sure, there's risk involved. Fielder is a big man, and there's a chance he'll have a dramatic decline as he nears the end of his deal.

No guarantees exist in pro sports. Every deal of consequence contains risk. The best GMs aren't paralyzed by fear.

They study the deal from every angle, then make a pragmatic baseball decision.

The reality is [Jon Daniels] is on a pretty good streak when it comes to making franchise-altering moves.

More importantly, the move allows Jurickson Profar to play second base instead of being miscast as a utility infielder. Now, the Rangers have their middle infield of Profar and shortstop Elvis Andrus locked up for at least five seasons.
Jeff Passan, Yahoo:
No, this was about what Kinsler isn't: a $168 million cost over the next seven years. Even after sending cash to Texas, Detroit freed up $76 million to lock up Max Scherzer long-term or re-up Miguel Cabrera before his contract runs out after the 2015 season. Coming off the AL Cy Young, Scherzer likely never will find his market value as high as it is now. That didn't stop Detroit from giving Justin Verlander a $180 million contract over seven seasons after back-to-back years in which he finished first and second in Cy Young voting, and unless the Tigers divert their pot of gold to a left fielder -- (Shin-Soo) Choo makes all the sense in the world, actually -- it could be Scherzer's.

Just as likely is Detroit putting it toward the Let Miggy Retire a Tiger Fund. This is worth remembering: Cabrera will be only 32 after the 2015 season. Jayson Werth received $126 million at age 31. A $200 million contract for Cabrera is almost a certainty, even if he does go to first base, which is the logical next step after the Fielder deal.
Dustin Parkes, The Score:
I think what’s most interesting about this deal, though, is what we thought when these players signed their contracts with their previous teams. Fielder's nine-year, $214-million contract from a Tigers team with Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and Alex Avila already vying for future plate appearances from the 1B/DH spot seemed ridiculous. Kinsler signing his five-year, $75-million extension after a seven-win season in 2011 was a stroke of genius for the Rangers.

Since that time, Detroit has won two straight divisions, and made a World Series appearance. Fielder has put up seven wins, and arguably given room for Miguel Cabrera to emerge as not just an elite hitter, but perhaps the greatest many of our generation will have seen. Kinsler could never equal his 2011 performance. Since signing the deal, he’s become only a slightly above average player with most of his value coming from his defensive play.

It's not all roses for Fielder, nor is it Death Valley for Kinsler. The Rangers new first baseman had one of the worst years of his career last season, causing many to believe that the long-believed-to-be-impending decline due to his weight had finally begun. Meanwhile, Kinsler's contributions over the last two seasons have been limited as he battled injuries. With good health, Detroit's new second baseman could easily regain his status as one of the best up the middle players in the league.
Jon Paul Morosi, Fox Sports:
I fully expect Fielder will find greater contentment and gaudier power numbers in Texas. It won't surprise me at all if he swats 40 or 45 home runs next year, thanks to the welcome scenery change and hitter-friendly environment at Rangers Ballpark. Meanwhile, Miguel Cabrera is likely to see fewer pitches to hit now that Fielder isn't protecting him any longer. (Remember: Fielder has batted behind an MVP in each of the last three seasons -- Ryan Braun with the Brewers in 2011, Cabrera for the last two. That is not an accident.)

"It's going to be a bat we miss at times," Dombrowski admitted.

Last word to Miguel Cabrera ... considering all the pictures of Fielder and himself that he posted on Twitter, I think he's going to miss the big guy:

I've been saying all along that I believed the Texas Rangers were the sleeper team in the Robinson Cano sweepstakes; swapping Ian Kinsler for Prince Fielder is a move that helps increase the likelihood of that happening.

Yes, the immediate reaction is that this merely opens the door to play Jurickson Profar at second base; but I think Rangers CEO Ray Davis and general manager Jon Daniels have something even bigger in mind.

Here's what I mean. Trading Kinsler for Fielder by itself doesn't really make the Rangers all that much better; in fact, you can argue Kinsler, with his all-around game that includes defense and baserunning, is a better player than Fielder. Of course, Fielder isn't directly replacing Kinsler, but rather Mitch Moreland (or everyone the Rangers used at DH in 2013). Here are the Steamer WAR projections for 2014 published at FanGraphs:

Moreland: 1.3
Kinsler: 3.3
Total: 4.6 WAR

Fielder: 3.7
Profar: 1.4
Total: 5.1 WAR

So based on the projections (which predict Fielder to bounce back from his subpar 2013), the Rangers are making only a minor upgrade for 2014, while absorbing a large portion of Fielder's remaining contract in the process. Why do that?

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Rich Schultz/Getty ImagesRobinson Cano is widely considered the best free agent on the market this offseason.
Yes, Profar was the top prospect in baseball just a year ago and certainly has the potential to be a star -- maybe Daniels is banking on that happening in 2014.

More likely, this puts the Rangers in the bidding for Cano. The Rangers need and want power, having to replace Nelson Cruz, leaving as a free agent, and needing a general upgrade in that department as well. Fielder hit 25 home runs last year (30 in 2012) while Kinsler has averaged 16 the past two seasons. So that's an upgrade, but doesn't make up for the loss of Cruz.

Enter Cano. With Nolan Ryan ousted as CEO, Davis is eager to make a big splash. What bigger splash than trading for Fielder and signing the biggest free agent on the market? Meanwhile, that still leaves Daniels the option of trading Profar for a corner-outfield bat. How about making this deal: Profar for Cardinals prospect Oscar Taveras? It's a perfect match with the Cardinals needing a shortstop; instead of spending money on injury-prone Stephen Drew, they could use that money to bring back Carlos Beltran and/or go after Shin-Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury.

For the Rangers, that would give them this potential lineup:

SS Elvis Andrus
RF Alex Rios
2B Robinson Cano
3B Adrian Beltre
1B Prince Fielder
LF Oscar Taveras
DH Mitch Moreland
C Geovany Soto/other
CF Leonys Martin/Craig Gentry


Where do you think Robinson Cano signs?


Discuss (Total votes: 23,584)

Can the Rangers afford all this? Absolutely. Their 2013 payroll was about $125 million. Before this trade, Baseball-Reference estimated the Rangers' 2014 payroll (with the current roster) at about $107 million. With each team gaining about $25 million in additional revenue in 2014 from national TV contracts -- plus the Rangers' own local cable deal that begins in 2015 and triples their annual payment to about $80 million per season -- the Rangers will be swimming in cash. They will increase their payroll.

Cano to the Rangers. I don't know if Cano will get the $300 million he and agent Jay-Z have reported asked for, but Ray Davis isn't going to balk at $200 million.

The lament of Cabrera and Fielder

November, 4, 2013
When the Detroit Tigers look back on the opportunities they bungled in the 2013 ALCS, their biggest regrets on the offensive side are going to be the strikeouts by Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder with one out and runners on first and on third, trailing by a run in the eighth inning of Game 3.

Tigers fans, you are not alone in your laments. There is company in your misery when it comes to missed opportunities of that nature.

We pondered and came up with a few sets of fans who can sympathize.

1986 Angels fans: The lament of DeCinces and Grich
As bad a memory as the Dave Henderson home run is for Angels fans, it could have all been an afterthought had the Angels finished off the series in the bottom of the ninth.

After Henderson's home run gave the Red Sox the lead, the Angels tied the game in that frame and loaded the bases with one out, needing only a well-hit fly ball to end the series in five games.

But an overeager Doug DeCinces swung at Steve Crawford's first pitch and hit a fly ball to shallow right, not far enough out to challenge the best arm in the American League in Dwight Evans.

Grich would then hit a soft liner back to the pitcher and the game would go extra innings, with the Red Sox winning on a Henderson sacrifice fly. They would romp in the next two games to win the series in seven.

1988 Mets fans: The lament of Strawberry and McReynolds
Game 4 of the 1988 NLCS is best remembered for the game-tying homer hit by Dodgers catcher Mike Scioscia against Dwight Gooden in the ninth inning.

But the game did not end there. The Dodgers scored in the 12th on Kirk Gibson's homer, but the Mets had a great threat in the bottom of the frame, loading the bases with one out for their two best run producers.

Tommy Lasorda brought Jesse Orosco in from the bullpen and he coaxed a popout by Darryl Strawberry and then Orel Hershiser made a cameo appearance (after starting the previous game) to get Kevin McReynolds on a blooper to center on which John Shelby made the game-ending catch, evening the series, 2-2.

The Dodgers would go on to win the series in seven games.

1991 Braves fans: The lament of Smith, Gant and Bream
The instant classic that was Game 7 of the 1991 World Series presented both teams with opportunities to break a scoreless tie.

The Braves could have and should have, but didn't score in an eighth inning with multiple regrets. The first was when Lonnie Smith, who was on first base, got deked out by the Twins infield and was forced to hold at third on Terry Pendleton's double into the left-center gap.

Second and third and nobody out still presented the most golden of opportunities, but Jack Morris got the outs for which he became a legend (and a debatable Hall of Fame candidate), getting Ron Gant to ground to first, and after an intentional walk, Sid Bream to hit into a 3-2-3 inning-ending double play.

The Twins would win in 10 innings on Gene Larkin's single, winning a memorable series in seven games.

1996 Braves fans: The lament of Lopez and Polonia
Game 3 of the 2013 ALCS was very similar to Game 5 of the 1996 World Series between the Yankees and Braves, with Justin Verlander playing the role of tough-luck loser John Smoltz.

Similar to how the Tigers threatened in the eighth inning, the Braves had their chance down 1-0 in the bottom of the ninth after Chipper Jones doubled and Fred McGriff advanced him with a groundout.

Catcher Javy Lopez could not get the tying run home though, grounding to third against John Wetteland.

After an intentional walk to Ryan Klesko, pinch-hitter Luis Polonia hit a fly ball into the right-center field gap that looked like it would be a game-winning double.

But Paul O'Neill raced back, made a running catch and punched the outfield fence in delight as the Yankees headed home with a win, and a 3-2 series lead.

1999 Astros fans: The lament of Everett, Eusebio and Gutierrez
This one's not so much on the hitters, though Carl Everett, Tony Eusebio and Ricky Gutierrez did strand the bases loaded after no one was out in the 10th inning of a tie game of Game 3 of a 1-1 NLDS between the Astros and Braves.

This one is more remembered for Walt Weiss' amazing defensive play on Eusebio's grounder (which sandwiched Everett's forceout and Gutierrez's strikeout).

Weiss' diving stop and throw home for the out thwarted the Astros' hopes of a walk-off win and extended the game. The Braves would win in the 12th and send the Astros home after another year of postseason frustration.

2003 Yankees fans: The lament of Boone and Flaherty
Aaron Boone had the greatest moment of his career with his walk-off homer in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS against the Red Sox.

But his second opportunity at baseball glory didn't go as well.

The Yankees led the Marlins 2 games to 1 in the 2003 World Series. In the 11th inning of Game 4, with the score tied 3-3 and the bases loaded with one out, Boone came up against Braden Looper, but couldn't get the run in that would have put the Yankees ahead, striking out after a long at-bat. John Flaherty popped up and the game continued.

The Marlins would win in the 12th on Alex Gonzalez's series-knotting homer and would not lose again, beating the Yankees in six games for their second championship.

2013 Athletics fans: The lament of Reddick, Vogt and Callaspo
The Tigers did what was done to them unto others, in this case the Athletics in Game 4 of this year's ALDS.

Max Scherzer's great escape in the eighth inning protecting a one-run lead with the bases loaded and nobody out by striking out Josh Reddick and Stephen Vogt, and getting Alberto Callaspo to fly to center, is one fond memory for Tigers fans to take into this offseason.

It could have been fonder though, had Cabrera or Fielder come through just that once.
You like offense? Home runs make you happy and strikeouts make you sad? Then this is not the postseason for you.

But if you like dominant pitching and fastballs in the upper 90s and splitters that dive like Italian soccer players and changeups that dance around like whiffle balls, then this is the postseason for you. If you like tense, low-scoring baseball where one pitch, one swing of the bat, one miscue in the field can turn a game or an inning, then there’s been no shortage of October drama to appreciate.

The Boston Red Sox and Detroit Tigers were at it again in Game 3, Justin Verlander dueling John Lackey, Verlander striking out six in a row at one point, Lackey matching him pitch for pitch. The scoreless battle ended in the top of the seventh when Mike Napoli hammered a 3-2, 96 mph fastball into the left-center bullpen, Verlander’s one mistake in a textbook display of power pitching.

The game’s other decisive at-bats would come in the bottom of the eighth, after Craig Breslow had walked the struggling Austin Jackson and the struggling Torii Hunter had singled with one out off Junichi Tazawa to send Jackson storming into third. Bringing up Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder.

Red Sox manager John Farrell could have turned to lockdown closer Koji Uehara, he of the unhittable splitter. But there seems to be a building trend in these playoffs that closers can go four outs but for some inexplicable reason can’t go five outs.

Tazawa remained in the game and there may have been a good reason Farrell and pitching coach Juan Nieves kept him in: He throws harder than Uehara. And Cabrera, with his injury issues, has largely struggled with fastballs in September and the postseason.

The pitch sequence:

--94 mph fastball, swing and miss
--95 mph fastball off the plate, swing and miss
--94 mph fastball way outside
--94 mph fastball off the plate, swing and miss

Three swings, three swing-and-misses from Cabrera. During the regular season he swung and missed on 17 percent of fastballs thrown him, but in this game he swung and missed on eight fastballs. It was a poor at-bat by Cabrera; unable to catch up to the heat is one thing, but expanding the strike zone is something he rarely does.

That left it up to Fielder, 1-for-3 in this game and RBI-less in 14 postseason games going back to Game 1 of last year’s ALCS. He swung through a hittable 89 mph fastball, swung through another four-seamer down at the knees and then couldn’t lay off the 0-2 splitter, a weapon that’s as good as any pitch in baseball right now. For Prince, that makes it 15 postseason games without an RBI, a stretch that includes just one extra-base hit for Fielder. This is Fielder’s fourth postseason and he’s hitting .203 with five home runs and 11 RBIs in 36 games. He’s an RBI machine … until October rolls around.

One more note on how one pitch can swing a game. Victor Martinez -- isn’t it time to move him up in the order? -- led off the bottom of the ninth with a single, bringing in a pinch runner and Jhonny Peralta to the plate. The 1-1 pitch -- Billy Beane has called that the most important pitch, the one that swings an at-bat more than any other -- was a fastball just below the knees. Except Ron Kulpa called it a strike. The next pitch was a splitter and a 6-4-3 double play.

You hate to panic in the playoffs, but you wonder if Leyland should change his lineup around a bit. Martinez and Peralta have been the Tigers' best hitters but are batting fifth and sixth. Jackson struck out twice more and has fanned 18 times in 33 at-bats in the postseason. His postseason struggles aren't a new story, and you wonder if he's just a guy who can't hit good pitching. (Per Baseball-Reference.com, he hit .118 against "power pitchers" this season and .220 last season. You're probably seeing fewer finesse guys in October.) Fielder's walk rate has deteriorated in his postseason career compared with the regular season. It could be a small sample size thing -- 152 plate appearances -- but maybe he, too, doesn't hit good pitching (his slugging percentages against fastballs has gone way down over the past two seasons).

In the end, the Tigers wasted another great performance from Verlander. He matched Cliff Lee as the only pitcher in postseason history with three straight games of 10-plus strikeouts and one run or fewer. But his loss continues an amazing stretch the past few days. Verlander, Jon Lester, Max Scherzer, Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw and Adam Wainwright have started games in their respective League Championship Series and combined to allow eight runs in those six starts.

And their teams didn’t win any of those games.

* * * *

This was the 11th 1-0 postseason game won with a solo home run. The other 10:
  • 2001 ALDS, Game 3: Yankees 1, A’s 0 (Mike Mussina over Barry Zito, Jorge Posada HR, aka the Jeter Flip Game)
  • 1997 ALCS, Game 6: Indians 1, Orioles 0 (Mussina vs. Charles Nagy, Tony Fernandez HR in 11th off Armando Benitez)
  • 1995 WS, Game 6: Braves 1, Indians 0 (Tom Glavine vs. Dennis Martinez, David Justice HR off Jim Poole)
  • 1986 NLCS Game 1: Astros 1, Mets 0 (Mike Scott over Dwight Gooden, Glenn Davis HR)
  • 1983 NLCS Game 1: Phillies 1, Dodgers 0 (Steve Carlton over Jerry Reuss, Mike Schmidt first-inning HR)
  • 1974 ALCS Game 3: A’s 1, Orioles 0 (Vida Blue over Jim Palmer, Sal Bando HR, six hits total)
  • 1966 WS Game 4: Orioles 1, Dodgers 0 (Dave McNally over Don Drysdale, Frank Robinson HR)
  • 1966 WS Game 3: Orioles 1, Dodgers 0 (Wally Bunker over Claude Osteen, Paul Blair HR)
  • 1949 WS Game 1: Yankees 1, Dodgers 0 (Allie Reynolds over Don Newcombe, Tommy Henrich HR leading off bottom of ninth)
  • 1923 WS Game 3: Giants 1, Yankees 0 (Art Nehf over Sam Jones, Casey Stengel HR)
Another Game 5, so let’s try another running diary.

First, a couple quick notes on the starting pitchers. Joe Sheehan made a great point about Sonny Gray in his newsletter: Other than his Game 2 start against the Tigers, Gray has faced a pretty easy slate of opponents in his short career, including the Astros and Mariners twice, plus two starts against the Joe Mauer-less Twins in September. Of 329 pitchers to throw at least 50 innings, Gray was 255th in quality of opposing batters faced (per Baseball Prospectus).

That said, aside from those dominant eight shutout innings in Game 2, I think there are two other reasons Bob Melvin gave him the start over Bartolo Colon: (1) Gray has a 1.66 ERA at home and (2) Gray’s fastball has more juice than Colon’s. Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder have struggled against good fastballs, Cabrera of late due to his injuries and Fielder all season (he slugged just .439 against fastballs in the regular season). They’ve fed Cabrera a steady diet of fastballs and neither he nor Fielder have an extra-base or a walk in the series.

As for Justin Verlander, he’s allowed one earned run in three postseason starts against Oakland the past two years, striking out 11 each game. Of course, what he did last season isn’t all that relevant to this season, unless he’s in the heads of the Oakland hitters, and as a reminder the A’s did score five runs off Verlander in late August.

First inning
One major lineup change for the Tigers: Jhonny Peralta is back at his old shortstop position over Jose Iglesias with Don Kelly playing left field. With Verlander on the mound, it’s probably worth taking the defensive hit at shortstop, as Verlander’s a good bet to rack up strikeouts and he’s also more of a fly ball pitcher. Kelly gives Jim Leyland a much better glove in left and another left-handed bat to do battle against Gray’s curveball.

Both pitchers cruise through the first, one strikeout for Gray, two for Verlander.

Second inning
The Tigers run themselves into a double play when they try a strange hit-and-run with Fielder (who had walked) on first and Peralta at bat. Halfway to second base, Fielder turns around and tries to hop on the BART back to first base.

Verlander has another 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts, impressively blowing two fast ones past Brandon Moss.

Third inning
Is there any manager more lovably crusty than Leyland? In one of those between-innings interview he says Gray isn’t as sharp as Game 2, so they better get to him early. But he says it in that flat monotone, so you don’t know if he’s disgusted his team hasn’t scored or just perturbed he can’t go smoke a cigarette. The Tigers don’t have a hit through three innings, although Gray has thrown just 22 of 41 pitches for strikes.

Meanwhile, Verlander is nine up and nine down, firing a 96 mph 3-2 fastball right down the middle and right past Stephen Vogt for his fifth strikeout. These two pitchers have combined for 23 scoreless innings in the series and Verlander has 23 consecutive scoreless innings going back to the regular season.

Fourth inning
With one out, Torii Hunter grounds a 3-2, 94 mph four-seamer up the middle for the game’s first hit. There goes our dream of a double no-hitter! And then -- finally! -- Cabrera connects. A 93 mph fastball low and away for a ball and then a 94 mph fastball up and in that Cabrera powers over the left-field wall, just his second home run since late August. Not sure if it was Dennis Eckersley or Buck Martinez who said it on air, but with the way they’ve been getting Cabrera out all series by going away, away, away, that pitch was not the location the A's wanted. Tigers up 2-0.

With the way Verlander is pitching, that home run feels a lot like the two-run home run David Freese hit for the Cardinals on Wednesday night.

Also, Leyland was right. Unable to throw the curve for strikes, the Tigers are starting to sit on the fastball. Victor Martinez singles to left with two outs. Peralta singles. Very dangerous right now for the A’s as they can’t afford to give up anything else. Nobody is warming up.

Alex Avila walks to load the bases. Dan Otero finally gets up, but if Omar Infante singles here it’s 4-0 and the game just might be over. Gray is also at 27 pitches in the inning. Two balls to Infante, a foul ball, another foul on a high fastball out of the zone ... and a 6-3 grounder to escape the inning. A’s are still in it, but I’ll be surprised if Gray comes out for the fifth. He’s been a one-pitch pitcher tonight and you can’t live off fastballs alone. Well, unless you’re Walter Johnson.

Twelve up, 12 down for Verlander; just 51 pitches, 34 for strikes.

Fifth inning
Well, tells you what I know. Gray is back out there. I get that he’s only at 74 pitches, but he’s facing the 9-1-2 hitters, which means it will be the third time around for the top of the order. We’ll see. Gray survives a leadoff walk to Kelly and intentional walk to Cabrera by getting Fielder on a comebacker to end the inning.

Verlander averaged 12.7 swing-and-misses per game in the regular season. He’s at 17, with six strikeouts, and he’s still perfect after another easy inning. Pure domination. Don't think there's been a hard-hit ball off him.

Sixth inning
Not sure why Melvin waited for Gray to allow two more baserunners before taking him out. Otero almost escapes the jam, getting Infante to hit a hard grounder to third baseman Josh Donaldson, but Donaldson’s throw to turn the double play is in the dirt and Alberto Callaspo can’t turn it, allowing a run to score. Donaldson was an MVP candidate but hasn’t done anything in the series, hitting .158 with no extra-base hits and failing to turn a pretty easy double play there.

So the story now is pretty much just Verlander and his quest for perfection. And ... it ends after 16 batters. A 3-2 fastball to Josh Reddick is way outside. Vogt flies to deep right-center and Coco Crisp flies routinely to left. Maybe the A’s should try laying down a bunt in front of Cabrera or something. Or Fielder. Nine outs to go for the no-hitter. Right now, I’m thinking I'd bet on it.

Seventh inning
Did you know that from May 11 through Aug. 27 Verlander had a 4.49 ERA? OK, you probably did, since there a lot of "What’s wrong with Justin Verlander?" stories cropping up there. At one point, he said he found a flaw in his mechanics, although that was late July or early August and he didn't really turn it around until September.

Maybe it will be a minor blessing in disguise for the Tigers though, since Verlander threw 20 fewer innings this year than 2012 and 33 fewer than 2011, and he struggled at times in both postseasons (although in total pitches, he only threw 76 fewer this season than last season).

Donaldson whiffs swinging on 96 mph high-inside heat. Jed Lowrie flies out to left. Then Yoenis Cespedes ends the no-hit bid with a sharp single up the middle. No, Iglesias wouldn't have gotten to it, either. Verlander recovers by striking out Seth Smith on a curveball that Ted Williams in 1941 couldn’t have hit. Two amazing clutch performances we've seen these two nights, first from Adam Wainwright and now Verlander.

Eighth inning
Who would you say had more pressure tonight? I’m not saying either team felt it, but the A’s had that Game 5 history to overcome -- five straight Game 5 losses in the Division Series in 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003 and 2012. On the other hand, the Tigers have the weight of expectation and star talent -- that they should win, that they can’t afford to miss another postseason opportunity with guys like Verlander, Cabrera and Max Scherzer at their peaks.

In the bottom of the eighth, Reddick singles with two outs, but then Verlander strikes out Vogt -- he threw him four straight curveballs. I think Vogt could face Verlander a hundred times and not get a hit. The cameras show Verlander getting handshakes and little man hugs from his teammates. He's going to be done after 111 pitches, two hits, one walk and 10 strikeouts. In four starts against the A's the past two postseasons, Verlander has allowed one earned run in 31 innings with 43 strikeouts. Fair to say the A's hope never to see him again in October.

Ninth inning
After Grant Balfour retires the Tigers in order, it's up to Joaquin Benoit to put the finishing touches on Verlander's masterpiece. The A's will have the top of their order up.

Lowrie singles with two outs, giving A's fans one last bit of life. A bloop and a blast ... or hit batter and a blast. Cespedes is hit by a 2-2 changeup, although the Tigers thought he might have swung. So it's up to Smith (why is he batting ahead of 30-homer guy Moss?). Hard to stay within yourself here and not swing for the fences. Benoit struck out Smith to end Game 4 -- after Smith fouled off several pitches -- also when he was the tying run.

Key to Benoit is timing that fastball and laying off the changeup. Ball, strike, fastball up. Hitter's count. Fastball ... and Smith gets under it, Hunter makes the catch in right and Verlander finally breathes in the Detroit dugout.

Detroit is moving on to the American League Championship Series again, and the A's suffer the indignity of a sixth straight Game 5 loss in the ALCS.

Wins now buy Royals meaningful games

September, 15, 2013

A 1-0 win for the Royals to stay alive in the AL wild-card race? With Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer and Salvador Perez all playing starring roles? With Ervin Santana throwing zeroes and Greg Holland getting the save? In the broad strokes you almost couldn’t script it any better than that if you were Dayton Moore and you were willing to risk derision and go back to talking about “the process.”

Look at what the Royals are doing, here and now, and there’s a lot to like. Santana deals into the seventh before handing off a lead to one of the best bullpens in baseball. One run usually won’t get it done, but it did tonight thanks to Gordon.

Take this one play: Gordon fielding Omar Infante’s double in the left-field corner with two outs and the tying run on base in the ninth. Maybe other left fielders make that play as well, and maybe it’s easier to throw out a baserunner when it’s Prince Fielder. But in a situation that admits no mistakes on a team that has to buy meaning for every tomorrow by winning today, Gordon delivered a perfect peg to the cutoff man. It was an instant demonstration for why he earned a Gold Glove last year, whether you use advanced defensive metrics or not, and it was as decisive a bit of execution as Saturday’s games provided us.
[+] EnlargeAlex Gordon
Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY SportsWins like Saturday's got some of the Royals dancing, but not all of them.

No matter how grumpy we all might still be over last winter’s deal to get James Shields, set aside the snark and save it for winter -- it’ll keep. In the meantime, enjoy what this ballclub is. There’s that bullpen. And there’s one of the best defenses in the league, with a .694 Defensive Efficiency, fourth in the league, thanks in part to classic good-glove shortstop Alcides Escobar.

There’s also redemption, at least as far as top prospects are concerned. Hosmer has redeemed his blue-chip rep by hitting .333/.398/.484 since the All-Star break. Perez is the best young all-around catcher in the league, contributing above-average offense -- certainly better than Matt Wieters, since he’s producing almost 50 points more of OPS while also throwing out 35 percent of stolen-base attempts he hasn’t helped intimidate out of existence (second only to Wieters’ Orioles).

It’s also a team of odd and improbable combinations, providing proof that there’s more than one way to win. Because of his power, Gordon might be nobody’s idea of a conventional leadoff man, but his .330 OBP is still above league average at leadoff (.324). And which team is tied with the Red Sox for second in the AL in quality starts? The Royals, even having to resort to a season-saving switch to Bruce Chen -- you read that right, and who’d have guessed it, even among the half-dozen of us who are Bruce Chen fans? -- in the last slot of the rotation.

So the Royals are in this thing, even three back, even with just 14 games left to play, even with their odds running from long to slim day by day. Starting next week against the Indians puts only so much of their own fate in their own hands. Doing so while the Rays and Rangers go head-to-head to see who’s more determined to put the back of the pack back in the AL wild-card race means that every day, every win, no matter how narrow or how happenstance, buys them one more meaningful tomorrow.

As far as Moore is concerned, the future isn’t only now. Embarrassing as it might be if Wil Myers wins the AL Rookie of the Year vote, there’s still one more year to run on Shields’ clock via a $12 million team option for 2014 before Moore’s gamble is truly played out. When it does, Moore will still be able to say that the price paid in blood and treasure to bring Royals fans their most exciting season since 1989 or 1985.

Unfortunately, it hasn’t charmed those fans enough to put fannies in the seats -- this year’s per-game average attendance (21,415) is lower than last year’s, and the Royals haven’t drawn two million fans in a season since 1991. The hope is that they will, if they win something, if they win anything, even if it’s just an invitation to the one-and-done wild card in a few short weeks.

That's because even a near-miss might help attract free agents to a venue that might not seem quite so hopeless anymore. Circumstances certainly seem better now than they were when they threw Gil Meche $55 million dollars in 2007, and while you can argue they overpaid to keep Jeremy Guthrie around, that and Gordon’s extension reflects a willingness to talk eight-figure average annual values on multiyear contracts and be a player on the market. Maybe that’s part of Moore’s process: Don’t hate the player, hate the game he’s playing.

As for the Tigers losing, it would be easy to overreact and say this wasn’t Jim Leyland’s best game. If you’re rooting for the Orioles or Yankees or any of the other teams surviving day-to-day and game-to-game, you can kvetch that it’s a bit laissez faire to have Fielder on the bases in that situation instead of, say, Hernan Perez (28-for-35 on steals in the minors this year).

But in Leyland’s defense, his team isn’t in do-or-die territory; as far as this race is concerned, the Tigers already did, and with a few more wins they’ll be entirely done, at least with the AL Central. Some managers might hook their cleanup hitter for a pinch runner after a leadoff walk, just as some managers would play for the tying run in that situation. But with Holland on the mound, you’re facing the reliever with the best strikeout rate in the league among relievers with 40 or more innings; you can’t really blame Leyland for deciding to let it ride instead of counting on being able to dink his way to a win.

And besides, wouldn’t you rather take your chances and face the Royals in the postseason rather than the Yankees, or the Rays, or the Orioles? Maybe you would. It’ll be up to the Royals to change people’s minds. Wins like Saturday’s might just help do that.

Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

Fun with player comparisons

September, 6, 2013
We haven't done this in a while. If you haven't been paying close attention to the numbers, you may be surprised by some of these comparisons:

Player A: .265/.342/.496, 28 HR, 72 RBI, 132 OPS+
Player B: .283/.352/.468, 22 HR, 64 RBI, 134 OPS+

Player A is Evan Longoria, Player B is Kyle Seager. Longoria does hold the WAR advantage, 5.2 to 4.1, thanks to better defense, but Seager is quietly have another solid season at the plate.

Player A: .271/.359/.448, 22 HR, 117 OPS+, 1.0 WAR
Player B: .260/.370/.446, 17 HR, 131 OPS+, 3.1 WAR

Player A is Prince Fielder, Player B is Carlos Santana. Of course, I left out RBIs, and Fielder has 95 of those compared to 60 for Santana (Fielder has 81 more plate appearances). Has Fielder had a great RBI season? According to Baseball-Reference, the average major leaguer drives in 65 runs in 622 plate appearances, so Fielder is +30. Sounds good. But ... he's also had 98 more runners on base than the average hitter. In WAR, Santana moves ahead thanks to Fielder's poor defense and a positional adjustment for Santana, because he's played a lot behind the plate.

Player A: .233/.291/.448, 29 HR, 84 RBI, 1.5 WAR
Player B: .238/.299/.422, 19 HR, 62 RBI, 1.0 WAR

Player A is Mark Trumbo and Player B is Angels teammate Josh Hamilton. Trumbo has escaped criticism because he has more home runs and RBIs, but he's also another sub-.300 OBP guy in the middle of the Angels' lineup.

Player A: .243/.311/.433, 17 HR, 102 OPS+
Player B: .267/.316/.420, 18 HR, 98 OPS+

Looks pretty close, right? What if I told you one of these guys has 101 RBIs and has been touted as an MVP candidate by some (OK, at least one prominent national broadcaster), and the other guy has 60 RBIs.

Player A is Twins second baseman Brian Dozier and Player B is Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips. In terms of WAR, Dozier has the bigger advantage, 3.8 to 1.7. Look, Phillips is hitting .354 with runners in scoring position. He's also hitting .211 with a .249 OBP with the bases empty; those at-bats count, too. Phillips has made the fourth-most outs in the NL.

Player A: 209 IP, 145 H, 47 BB, 201 SO, 6.6 WAR
Player B: 187.2 IP, 158 H, 40 BB, 199 SO, 6.2 WAR

Pretty similar. Both are left-handed. One stat I left out: Player A has a 1.89 ERA, while Player B's is 2.97. Player A, of course, is Clayton Kershaw while Player B is Chris Sale. How can Sale be close despite an ERA a run higher? A few things. We're talking an NL pitcher versus an AL one, so Kershaw's run-scoring environment is a little lower. Home park: Kershaw pitches in Dodger Stadium, a good park for pitchers, while Sale pitches at The Cell, a hitter's park. Quality of opponents: Kershaw's opponents have averaged 4.20 runs per game compared to 4.51 for Sale's. Defense: Kershaw's is good, Sale's isn't. So why has nobody noticed Sale's season? He's 10-12. Put him on the Tigers and he'd be competing with Max Scherzer for Cy Young Award honors.

Player A: 193 IP, 180 H, 43 BB, 174 SO, 3.50 ERA, 4.1 WAR
Player B: 184 IP, 169 H, 50 BB, 172 SO, 2.98 ERA, 4.0 WAR

Cole Hamels is A, and Mat Latos is B. Of course, Hamels is 6-13 and Latos is 14-5, obscuring the fact that Hamels has been outstanding. Hamels was 1-9 with an ERA approaching 5 through May, and those bad starts (or good starts) stick in our memories. But since July, he's made 12 starts and posted a 2.17 ERA, allowing more than two runs just twice (though he has just four wins). He's still one of the best left-handers in the league.

One more:

Player A: 5-2, 1.48 ERA, 38 saves, 2 blown saves
Player B: 4-2, 2.19 ERA, 41 saves, 6 blown saves

Joe Nathan (A) and Mariano Rivera (B). By the way, Nathan's career save percentage since becoming a closer: 91 percent. Rivera's since becoming a closer: 90 percent, not including the postseason.