SweetSpot: Torii Hunter

Why Tigers are AL favorites

June, 29, 2014

With the season nearly half over, the Detroit Tigers have stumbled to first place in the AL Central. And yes, I said "stumbled." As you might recall, the Tigers were the ESPN Forecast preseason prediction to be the American League representative in the World Series. Yet so far they have the second-best record and worst run differential of the three AL division leaders.

As bland as leading a division by 4.5 games can be (which can make all the difference in sudden-death wild-card formats), the 2014 Tigers could have been even worse. I wouldn’t call it karma, but trading Prince Fielder seemed fortunate, especially after he stuck his neck out with some rather nonchalant comments about last year’s playoffs but before he had the season-ending neck injury. Throw in slow starts from Austin Jackson, Torii Hunter and Miguel Cabrera, a false start from Joe Nathan, and no start at all from their original starting shortstop, Jose Iglesias, and even the Cleveland Indians (briefly) looked competitive.

That phase has passed. After Saturday's come-from-behind victory over the Houston Astros, the Tigers are 8-2 in their past 10 games while other teams in the AL Central have wilted. Cabrera, their reigning Triple Crown winner, has a .994 OPS over the past week. To complement Cabrera, Victor Martinez hasn't exactly been roster filler either, nesting himself among the league leaders in hitters. And the guy they acquired for Fielder? Ian Kinsler's got a higher WAR than Martinez and Cabrera. While you might be dazzled by the offense, don't forget that the Tigers have two Cy Young award winners, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander, on their staff which can make all the difference in a short series playoff format. Furthermore, they have remaining upside on both sides of the ball if Jackson returns to form and Nathan returns to relevance.

[+] EnlargeIan Kinsler
Bob Levey/Getty ImagesIan Kinsler for Prince Fielder? The Tigers have certainly gotten the better end of that deal so far.
But what if Jackson falters or Nathan remains, um, not good? What separates the Tigers from the other AL division leaders and wild-card wannabes is that they have much more flexibility to make moves at the trade deadline, getting the players needed to win in 2014. It is no secret that Mike Ilitch, the elder Tigers’ owner, badly wants to win a World Series. Ilitch has thrown, wisely, his support (and let’s not forget the money) to a front office headed by GM Dave Dombrowski, who has provided Detroit with one of baseball's rarities, a team that perpetually wins.

We’ve seen evidence of Dombrowski's handiwork beyond the Fielder trade. Before the season, he signed J.D. Martinez to a minor league contract and called him up near the end of April to avert an offensive outfield offense. While Martinez has been used sparingly and is highly unlikely to continue to post an elite OPS of .957, he’s bought time for the rest of the offense to find its wheels. Meanwhile, though Rookie of the Year candidate Nick Castellanos has been serviceable at third base, Dombrowski’s early promotion of Eugenio Suarez to plug the shortstop hole is paying off offensively, if not defensively, so far.

Furthermore, there’s little that blocks Dombrowski from making a future move. Though the Tigers' farm system isn’t the richest in the world, there is still some talent that can be used to snatch players from “rebuilding” teams. Meanwhile, they can still take on more money despite having a payroll in excess of $161M. Comparatively, the Blue Jays and A’s are both near their limit payroll-wise. Sure, they can acquire players for prospects (which would be a break for the norm for both of them), but the Tigers can swim in both ends of the pool.

If Hunter continues to look better smiling than he does hitting, he can ride the bench and be sent on his merry way while a star player (and their ensuing salary) is brought on. Ilitch has the finances to absorb a Nathan demoted to middle reliever status if it means bringing on a still-working closer. If Castellanos (or some other Tiger) goes into a horrible slump, the Tigers can make a move. Those are worst case scenarios from a front office that wants to win. If Castellanos achieves his upside, pure gravy cometh.

The AL East and AL West are still tight races, meaning that even the Oakland A's, with their lofty run differential, could get bumped out early in either a wild-card game or short series. We also know that there are teams "in the hunt" such as the Los Angeles Angels or (gasp) the New York Yankees that will spend. While the Tigers, at present, have neither the best record nor the best run differential, they have an outstanding group of core talent, they are in the best position to win their division and have the kind of roster that can go far in the playoffs. Furthermore, they have a front office empowered to make moves that their rivals just can't or won't make.

Richard Bergstrom writes for Rockies Zingers, a SweetSpot network blog on the Colorado Rockies.

Five thoughts on Monday’s battle between the first-place Detroit Tigers and first-place Baltimore Orioles, a 4-1 Tigers win that was more interesting than the final score indicates and evidence of why they were No. 1 in this week's Power Rankings.

1. Bud Norris did a very dumb thing. Norris had locked up with Rick Porcello in a nice pitcher’s duel, the Tigers leading 2-1 in the eighth inning when Ian Kinsler hit a 1-1 fastball for a two-run homer. Two pitches later Norris drilled Torii Hunter in the ribs, angering Hunter and setting off a little benches-clearing meet-and-greet where Hunter said something along the lines of "I’m going to take that piece of equipment jockeys carry for their horses and use it on your posterior."

Norris, who was ejected, appeared to say, "It’s a fastball inside."

Well, OK. Wayyyyyyy inside.

If you ask me, Norris was clearly upset after giving up the two-out homer. But what did Hunter do? I love that pitchers will get upset when a batter flips his bat but it’s OK for pitchers to throw at hitters for no reason.

[+] EnlargeTorii Hunter
AP Photo/Nick WassTorii Hunter had a few choice words about getting hit by a pitch by the Orioles' Bud Norris.
"I understand the emotion," an understated Orioles manager Buck Showalter said after the game. "But it happens."

Well, sure. It also will be interesting to see if the Tigers attempt to retaliate on Tuesday.

The bigger question: Should Norris have still been in the game? Kinsler was up for the fourth time and studies show that pitchers get progressively worse each time through the lineup. He had thrown more than 100 pitches and had walked Alex Avila to start the inning. The bullpen had not been worked very hard over the weekend, so it wasn’t a question of Showalter needing the starter to soak up some innings. Plus, in a 2-1 game in the eighth you’re not really worried about preserving the bullpen.

2. Rick Porcello continues to impress. Porcello allowed five hits and no walks in six innings, improving to 6-1 with a 3.22 ERA. He has never walked many but his control has taken a leap forward this year as he’s walked just six in seven starts. Certainly, improved defense in the infield has helped the ground-ball specialist and maybe given him more confidence that he doesn’t have to throw the perfect pitch.

But Porcello has made a major change in his approach this year, as well, throwing more sliders and fewer curveballs:

2013: 182 sliders, 467 curveballs
2014: 99 sliders, 93 curveballs

Whether it's new pitch selection or simply throwing more strikes, it's an improved Porcello and now a valuable part of the Detroit rotation instead of being the "other guy" behind Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Anibal Sanchez.

3. Victor Martinez actually struck out. One of my favorite stat lines of the season: Martinez has eight home runs and just seven strikeouts, his seventh coming on Monday night. In this era when hitters swing for the fences no matter the count, Martinez has mastered the lost art of putting the ball in play. Martinez went 2-for-4 and is now hitting .331/.380/.583, inheriting the Prince Fielder role of batting behind Miguel Cabrera and outperforming what Prince.

How impressive is Martinez’s non-strikeout start? Since 1980, only George Brett and Barry Bonds have had seasons with more home runs than K’s. Martinez isn’t going to do that -- he had 62 strikeouts and 14 home runs in 2013 -- but this is a special hitter. With two strikes he’s hitting -- get this -- .343/.356/.657. Six of his eight home runs have come with two strikes and he has fanned just those seven times in 73 two-strike plate appearances. When you hear announcers talked about the “toughest out” in baseball, Martinez is at the top of that list so far in 2014.

4. Miguel Cabrera is driving in runs and he hasn’t even gotten hot yet. This is kind of a scary thing for opposing pitchers to consider: Cabrera is hitting .290/.331/.478 with five home runs -- nice numbers but nice isn't usually the word used to described Cabrera at the plate -- but he still has 30 RBIs in 34 games.

There’s still something not quite right about Cabrera, however. He has just eight walks and 27 strikeouts. That’s a 5.4 percent walk rate and 18.2 percent K rate, compared to walking 13.8 percent and whiffing 14.4 percent of the time last year. I’m not quite sure what’s going on there because his chase rate on pitches out of the zone is barely higher than last year and his swing-and-miss percentage is actually down one percent. Pitchers aren’t giving him the free passes like a year ago when he had 19 intentional walks (he has just one this year), but that could be a function of having more runners on base in front of him and thus fewer open bases or managers not fearing Cabrera as much.

My prediction: Cabrera starts heating up as the weather warms. Then we'll start seeing pitchers pitch around him more often.

Assuming they want to pitch to Martinez, that is.

5. The Tigers' defense is better. I alluded to this in the Porcello comment, but the Detroit defense has looked much better than it did in 2013, with one notable exception. The Tigers were at minus-14 Defense Runs Saved entering Monday’s game, but Hunter is at minus-10 in right field and the ill-fated Alex Gonzalez experiment at shortstop resulted in a minus-4 rating. A year ago, the Tigers allowed a .306 average on balls in play; this year it’s at .292.

So, Tigers sitting at No. 1 in the Power Rankings? I'm not going to disagree.

Defensive notes: Rockies, Heyward, Hunter

April, 24, 2014
Perhaps you caught regular Insider contributor Mike Petriello’s article on the Indians defensive struggles on FanGraphs.

It's worth a read (and a watching of the videos within the piece) and it also served as inspiration for a look at some of the season's early defensive notes.

Many people say it's dangerous to make observations from a small sample of defensive data, but I think there are some things that can be gleaned already. Here are a few thoughts.

Tulo and Arenado look like best in the business
A healthy Troy Tulowitzki could have a big impact on the left side of the infield for the Rockies in tandem with one of the the most impressive rookie defenders from 2013, Nolan Arenado.

The Rockies are converting groundballs hit to the left of the second base bag into outs at the highest rate in baseball (78 percent). Tulowitzki has six Defensive Runs Saved already. He's had as many as 31 in a season and his presence could make a big difference for Rockies pitchers. (Eric Garcia McKinley has a piece on the Rockies' infield shifting -- or rather, the lack of it.)

Yankees/Twins have it right
In terms of right sides of infields, the ones doing best at converting groundballs hit to the right of second base into outs are the Yankees and Twins, both doing so at about an 83 percent rate.

The story here is that the Yankees haven't missed a beat with the departure of Robinson Cano and temporary absence of Mark Teixeira (and perhaps the increase in shifting has something to do with it), and Joe Mauer's move to first base hasn't yet set off any alarms for the Twins.

Heyward not taking his offensive struggles into the field
Jason Heyward isn't hitting yet (we've written about that already), but he's making up for it with defense.

Heyward already has 10 Defensive Runs Saved, the most among right fielders.

The Braves have the third-most outs recorded on balls hit to right and right center by our computing (76, using a pre-designed field grid), and have allowed the fewest fly ball/line drive doubles and triples (eight).

The Braves outfield defense is off to a great start this season, with a combined 19 Defensive Runs Saved.

Torii Hunter may be getting old
If you thought that Torii Hunter’s Defensive Runs Saved total from last season (he cost his team 10 runs) was a fluke, given that he'd ranked second and third in that stat the previous two years, you might reconsider.

Hunter is already a worst-in-baseball -7 Defensive Runs Saved in right field for the Tigers.

The Tigers have the fewest outs recorded on fly balls and line drives hit to right field and right-center (38), but are tied for eighth in most doubles and fly ball/line-drive triples allowed to that same area (18).

White Sox shift their stance
What team has most shifted positions with regards to the shift? How about the Chicago White Sox, who have already shifted more times this season (84 shifts on balls in play) than they did all of 2013 (73).

Perhaps it's no coincidence that the White Sox lead the majors in "Out of Zone plays," a stat charted at FanGraphs.com that measures how often players are converting outs on balls outside of the areas in which they typically turn batted balls into outs.

Of course, given that the team's ERA is hovering around 5, we'll see how patient Robin Ventura and his pitching staff are with this new philosophy.

Is anyone worthy of a reverse shift?
Lastly, one thing I've been wondering about with the emphasis on shifting is whether any players would be worthy of a "reverse shift" -- in other words, a right-handed hitter for whom the defense tilts its infield to the right, rather than the left.

Derek Jeter took his opposite-field hitting to extremes earlier this season.

There was a hitter who was worthy of this for a bit, but he's since balanced things out a little.

Derek Jeter leads the majors in percentage of groundballs hit to the opposite field.

It's not quite as extreme now as it was in the image on the right (he's pulled five of 29 ground balls), which comes from the first two weeks of the season, but it's still notable.

Maybe Joe Maddon will have the guts to try something like a reverse shift on Jeter. Stay tuned.
It looked like the Oakland A's were going to complete one of the most impressive sweeps of the season, going into Detroit and beating the Tigers in four games started by Anibal Sanchez, Justin Verlander, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer by scores of 8-6, 6-3, 14-4 and 6-3. On Thursday, they knocked out Scherzer after five innings -- as they also did with Sanchez, Verlander and Fister -- appearing to hand him just his second loss of the season.

A's closer Grant Balfour had blown just one save opportunity all season and entered the ninth with that 6-3 lead. He was facing the top of the Tigers' lineup, but Miguel Cabrera had been removed two innings earlier after discomfort in his abdominal region. In other words, Jim Leyland had decided he'd weaken his chances of winning by removing Cabrera, probably to ensure that he'd be ready for Friday's division showdown with Cleveland.

Entering Thursday, teams were 1,654-92 when leading after eight innings, a winning percentage of 94.7 percent. Teams had scored four or more runs in the ninth just 43 times all season -- 1.4 percent of all half innings. While FanGraphs pegged the Tigers' Win Expectancy at 4.1 percent at the start of the inning, it seems like it would actually be a little lower than that, especially with a closer as solid as Balfour on the mound and no Cabrera in the lineup.

Austin Jackson walked on four pitches -- all outside. But Andy Dirks popped out to shortstop and Alex Avila, hitting in Cabrera's spot, struck out (Win Expectancy down to 1.5 percent). Prince Fielder walked on four pitches -- all up in the zone, three inside off the plate and one high and outside. Considering Balfour had also fallen behind Dirks and Avila, it was pretty clear by now he had no command, particularly with the fastball.

He did get ahead of Victor Martinez with a slider, and a foul ball on another slider made it 0-2. Before Thursday, when Balfour got to 0-2 on a hitter, batters were hitting .162 off him, with 22 strikeouts in 39 plate appearances. Martinez was hitting .161 after falling behind 0-2. The next pitch was a curveball that didn't break and ended up high and outside. Balfour is a high-energy, hyperactive pitcher on the mound, and he was up to 21 pitches now, tugging at his jersey, his cap and the two chains around his neck between. The TV camera flashed to A's manager Bob Melvin in the dugout. He turned to somebody and smiled.

Martinez is one of the tougher hitters to punch out, however, and he then fouled off another curve and then a fastball into the third-base stands. The sixth pitch was a fastball, high and inside -- a pretty good pitch actually -- but Martinez fisted it into shallow center for a bloop single. It was his 11th hit of the series and it scored a run, bringing the winning run to the plate in Torii Hunter. Martinez didn't have a line-drive single, but rather a tough, grind-it-out base hit by a hitter who knows how to grind out at-bats against good pitchers.

The A's had a visit to the mound. Pitching coach Curt Young had a long discussion with Balfour and catcher Stephen Vogt. The camera panned to Melvin. He was not smiling.

Balfour opened with a slider off the plate that Hunter lunged at and fouled off. The 0-1 pitch was a fastball up -- perhaps leaving Hunter to guess slider on the next pitch, considering Balfour's lack of fastball command. The next pitch was a slider on the outside corner, but it was letter high and Hunter crushed it to left-center for the dramatic walk-off home run. Balfour exited to a string of expletives as Hunter was mobbed at home plate by the happy Tigers, who, trailing 6-1 earlier in the game, had pulled off their biggest comeback win of the season.

While obviously an exciting win for the Tigers, it was probably more of a huge defeat for the A's. Detroit has a comfortable six-game lead over the Cleveland Indians in the AL Central, pending the Indians' result Thursday night against the Braves. The A's are chasing the Texas Rangers in the AL West, now down three games instead of two.

Baseball players are trained to forget about defeats. Closers, of course, have to have short memories, and I'm sure Balfour will be fine in his next outing. But this one hurts. The A's have to face David Price on Friday, but my guess is this loss will linger longer than most.

As for the Tigers, it's proof that this lineup is deeper than just Cabrera and a nice lift heading into the Cleveland series.

Scherzer is still 19-1. He just knows how to win … and, apparently, how to avoid losses.

The big questions for this season’s All-Star selections as we headed into Saturday’s selection show: Would Yasiel Puig make it? Who backs up Miguel Cabrera at third base in the American League from a strong field of candidates? Who represents the Astros?

But I’m left with this one: Could the American League have chosen a worse, more boring squad?

Remember, the All-Star squads are chosen by a four-tiered system: The fans vote in the starters, the players vote for the reserves at each position, plus the top five starting pitchers and top three relievers, the managers choose the rest of the squad (with their choices limited due to having to name a representative for each team) and then the fans vote again for the final man.

Got all that?

The player vote is the one that usually causes the biggest mistakes. Last season, for example, the players voted in Cubs first baseman Bryan LaHair as the backup first baseman even though he was a platoon player with 28 RBIs at the time of selection. Similarly, Lance Lynn, who had a big April, was voted in as one of the top five starters even though he ranked 28th in the National League in ERA. The ripple effect for selections like those end up causing more worthy All-Stars to not make it. This season, a similar thing happened, most notably with Torii Hunter named as an outfield reserve in the AL.

My quick reaction to this season's American League and National League squads:

Best fan selection: Chris Davis, Orioles. Hardly a household name before the season, his offensive numbers are just too good to ignore, and he’s a deserving starter over Prince Fielder.

Worst fan selection: Bryce Harper, Nationals. The fans generally do a good job -- better than the players -- and while I don’t see Harper as a glaring mistake (I’d put him on my NL roster as a reserve), he did miss significant time with the knee injury. Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates or Carlos Gomez of the Brewers would be a more deserving starter (both should be starting over Carlos Beltran as well).

Most controversial AL selection: Justin Verlander, Tigers. He’s not having a terrific season, with a 9-5 record and lukewarm 3.54 ERA, but I don’t have a huge problem with American League manager Jim Leyland selecting the guy who’s been the best pitcher in baseball the previous two seasons.

Most controversial NL selection: Marco Scutaro, Giants. The NL roster is actually pretty solid, but you can nitpick Scutaro and Allen Craig. With Matt Carpenter being voted in by the players, manager Bruce Bochy didn't have to add a third second baseman, but he did select his guy and take a slot away from a deep pool of outfield candidates -- Puig and Hunter Pence were added to the final-vote group, but Starling Marte, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo all had All-Star first halves. But, hey, even All-Star teams need professional hitters.

How the Astros screwed the AL: Salvador Perez being voted in by the players as the backup catcher meant Jason Castro was named as a third catcher to represent the Astros. Actually, this is a little unfair, since Castro is having a season equal to or better than Perez’s. But having three catchers on the squad takes a slot away from one of the much more deserving third basemen -- Evan Longoria, Josh Donaldson or Adrian Beltre.

[+] EnlargeMax Scherzer
Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY SportsWith the American League's weak pitching staff, Max Scherzer could see a couple innings.
How the players screwed the AL: Hunter rode a .370 April to an All-Star berth, but he’s down to .307 with just five home runs. It’s not a great season for AL outfielders, but Hunter is kind of a joke selection: He ranks 24th among AL outfielders in FanGraphs WAR (0.9). Brett Gardner or Jacoby Ellsbury are better options.

Weirdest selection: Brett Cecil, Blue Jays. The Jays already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion, so there was no need to add Cecil. Don't get me wrong, he is having a nice season -- 1.43 ERA, 50 strikeouts in 44 innings -- but this is also a guy with a 4.79 career ERA entering the season. (Granted, mostly as a starter.) Rangers starter Derek Holland was the better choice here.

Team with a gripe: The A’s have a better record than the Tigers yet ended up with one All-Star to Detroit’s six.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, AL: Longoria. Seventy All-Stars were named today, but somehow one of the top 10 players in the game didn't make it.

Most-deserving guy who didn't make it, NL: Not including the players eligible in the final-player vote, I'd go with Pirates outfielder Marte or Braves defensive whiz Andrelton Simmons.

Worst final-player vote ever: American League. Choose from Joaquin Benoit, Steve Delabar, David Robertson, Tanner Scheppers and Koji Uehara. Can I go to a dentist appointment instead? Unless you have a fetish for right-handed relief pitchers, this isn’t exactly the best way to get fans enthused about the All-Star final vote. Why not at least have a final-man vote with Longoria, Beltre and Donaldson?

Most predictable final-player vote ever: National League. Is there any way Puig doesn’t beat out Ian Desmond, Freddie Freeman, Adrian Gonzalez and Pence for the final vote?

In a perfect world, Jim Leyland does this: The AL pitching staff is a little shaky, so he should try to ride his top starting pitchers. Assuming Max Scherzer starts, I’d pitch him two innings and then bring in White Sox lefty Chris Sale for two more innings so he can face the top of the NL lineup that would probably feature Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Yu Darvish and Felix Hernandez take over from there and hand the ball to Mariano Rivera, with Glen Perkins and Cecil used as situational lefties if needed.

Offensively, Cabrera and Davis should play the entire game, as they’ve clearly been the dominant offensive forces in the AL. Frankly, I’m not too thrilled with the AL bench, especially the outfield. Mike Trout and Bautista should also play the entire game. Use Fielder and Encarnacion to pinch hit as needed for J.J. Hardy or Adam Jones. Manny Machado can replace Cabrera in the late innings if the AL is ahead.

In a perfect world, Bruce Bochy does this: The NL squad looks much better on paper. Assuming Matt Harvey starts, he should be followed up with Clayton Kershaw and Cliff Lee (Adam Wainwright is scheduled to pitch on Sunday and will be unavailable). From there, I’d match up -- Madison Bumgarner or Jordan Zimmermann -- and then turn the game over to three dominant relievers: Jason Grilli, Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel. (Kudos to Bochy for going with all starting pitchers after the mandatory three relievers.)

Offensively, David Wright should play the whole game in front of the home fans, and assuming Paul Goldschmidt gets the nod as the designated hitter, I’d let him and Votto play the entire nine as well. Without a regular center fielder in the starting lineup (although Beltran, Gonzalez and Harper have all played there in the past), I’d get McCutchen in the game as soon as possible, with apologies to Gomez. I’d hit for Brandon Phillips in a key situation with a better bat like Buster Posey or Craig or maybe for Gonzalez against a left-hander (although he’s hit very well against lefties this season).

And Puig? Yes, once he makes the team, I’d like to see him play as well.
  • Just like that the Padres are interesting, climbing a game over .500 after winning six in a row at home over the Braves and Diamondbacks. Clayton Richard, who had been horrible (the Padres had won just one of his nine starts), was the star in Sunday's 4-1 win over Arizona, pitching eight innings although he struck out just one batter. How did the Padres get here, two games out of first place? Well, it helps that the NL West is so mediocre, but Richard has a 7.01 ERA and Edinson Volquez 5.87. There's some smoke and mirrors here, especially with Jason Marquis, who is 9-2 despite a high home run rate and a terrible strikeout-to-walk ratio. Their success has mostly been fueled by a solid offense -- although no one player has even 30 RBIs -- and underrated leadoff man Everth Cabrera (.382 OBP, 31 steals). Look, they'll have to find a way to upgrade the rotation because Richard isn't good, Volquez is inconsistent and Marquis' luck is due to run out, but in the NL West, anything is possible. Plus, it just feels good to be over .500 for the first time since April 6, 2011.
  • Congrats to Torii Hunter for hitting his 300th career home run. Nice that it came in Minnesota, where he starred for many years. I can't say Hunter has been underrated -- he's made four All-Star teams and won nine Gold Glove Awards -- but he's sort of been underrated. The stat analysts were never huge fans of his because of his mediocre on-base percentages and he was hitting 25 home runs a year when the big sluggers were hitting 35-plus. He probably won a couple Gold Gloves after he'd lost or step or two in center, but you combine the defense, the power and the longevity and he's had a great career. Baseball-Reference has his career WAR at 48.3, which isn't really a Hall of Fame standard, although similar to another former Twins outfielder, Kirby Puckett, who was at 50.8
  • The Rangers have scored two or fewer runs in six straight games -- the first time they've done that since 1986 -- but most distressing is that it came at home against the Indians and Blue Jays, not exactly two pitching-rich teams. They lost all six of those games, including Sunday's 7-2 loss to Chien-Ming Wang, who had been pounded in his first start of the season. Yes, the Rangers can point to the absence of Ian Kinsler and Mitch Moreland from the lineup, but since a 32-17 start they've gone 6-14 their past 20 games and hit just .238. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Rangers haven't played the Astros or Angels in those games and just once against the Mariners.
  • Manny Machado doubles watch: He hit four more over the weekend, including this one on Saturday. That's 32 already, putting him on pace for 74. Incredible. The Orioles beat the Red Sox 6-3 on Sunday as Chris Davis hit his MLB-leading 23rd home run, climbing to 1.5 games behind Boston.
  • After going 8-20 in May, the Royals looked dead. But now they've gone 11-4 in June after taking three of four from the Rays. That was after taking two of three from the Tigers. Those two series could have wiped out the Royals, but now they're 33-34 and, like the Padres, at least interesting. The pitching has allowed more than three runs just once this month, averaging 2.2 runs per game. George Brett hasn't really turned around the offense -- it has a .680 OPS in June compared to .684 through May -- although at least the Royals have hit six home runs their past six games.
  • Corey Kluber? Sure, Corey Kluber. He's allowed one run in 16 innings his past two starts.

Hunter's new approach produces big results

May, 14, 2013
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY SportsTorii Hunter's hitting game plan is working very, very well.

Over the final 2 1/2 months of the 2012 season, Torii Hunter had the kind of breakthrough that a major league hitter of any caliber rarely goes through.

In his final 73 games with the Los Angeles Angels, Hunter had 100 hits, although only six home runs.

Hunter's batting average on balls in play was a staggering .443 –- 94 hits on the 212 opportunities in which the ball did not leave the park.

Hunter has always been a productive hitter, one whose BABIP ranged from the .290s to the .330s, averaging out at about .310 over the 14 seasons in which he played 90 games or more.

The .443 second-half took a BABIP that was .324 at the break and turned it into .389 by season’s end.

Since this was so out of character for Hunter, it figured that Hunter would return to a more normal level in 2013, perhaps even decline a bit since he turns 38 in July.

But the first 27 games of 2013 were a lot like those last 73 in 2012, with Hunter getting 42 base hits on the first 100 balls that stayed in the ballpark. Add that to last season, and it gave him a .436 BABIP over a 100-game span.

The idea of Hunter being as good as he was over those 100 games, and with two different franchises, was intriguing. Our analytics team pegged it as something with about 4,000-to-1 odds of happening. So we took a closer look at how a hitter could produce at that level for that long.

What did we find?

Borrowing from an idea from Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus, I watched every Hunter hit in that 100-game span and took some notes.

The first thought was that there had to be some luck involved. And in going through those 136 hits that stayed in the ballpark, I noticed some "cheapies" -- balls that fielders just missed, took a funny hop or barely landed in fair territory, plus a couple of questionable scoring decisions (including an egregious ruling of a base hit on a ball Jeff Francoeur muffed) -- but not what instinctively seemed to be an outrageous amount.

Every hitter gets some breaks. But every hitter loses some hits due to really good plays, too.

The folks at Baseball Info Solutions do video tracking of every batted ball based on where it is hit and how hard it is hit and compute an "expected BABIP" based on historical data. They quantified Hunter's expected hit total to be about 16 hits fewer than what he actually had.

Others looked at Hunter's numbers from last year and guestimated that Hunter should have had even fewer hits given his ground ball rate.

But even taking away 16 hits, Hunter’s BABIP in these 100 games would still be nearly .380, which is still really good. So while luck could explain some of Hunter's success, it seems there is something more going on.

The biggest thing I noticed in watching video was that the Hunter from these 100 games was a hitter who was a slasher more than a basher. He was hitting line drives and hard ground balls more than he was drilling the ball in the air. He's not hitting the ball harder (I checked with the folks at Sportvision who have access to Hit F/X data) or hitting more line drives. But he is hitting the ball legit to all fields, with what seemed like a conscious, frequent aim at the first-base/second-base hole. MLB.com’s Jason Beck noted this a week into Hunter's Tigers career.

Next on the list was to check the heat maps and hit charts we have access to through our collection of data resources. The most stark improvements among the combinations checked were against pitches to one area -- knee-high pitches on or just off the outside corner. (We'll call them "low and away.")

The chart on the right shows Hunter's hitting pattern against those pitches. Simply put, Hunter went from trying to pull outside pitches to trying to hit them to the opposite field.

This was gradual. In the second half of 2012, Hunter began spraying the ball more to center field. With the Tigers, he's been very aggressive in hitting the ball to right field.

What resulted from that?

Take a look at this other important chart and note the difference in performance. Spreading the ball around has resulted in a lot more success. And opposite-field hits, a rarity for Hunter in the past, are now part of his repertoire.

There are other examples of this within Hunter's data sample, another being that he's shown an increase in taking the "right-down-the-middle" pitch to the opposite field, with a more modest improvement than versus down and away.

"He's Jeterian!" exclaimed one colleague when shown the data.

Hunter's not taking things quite to the extreme of Derek Jeter, but he's closer to that than he used to be.

Here's a theory and judge for yourself if it fits the player:

Hunter has a reputation of being an intelligent player and a total professional by those inside the game. Is it reasonable to think that at some point midway through last season (not necessarily at the break), he took notice of both his age and role and realized that the best way to stay ahead of the game and be of value (in lineups that featured Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, and now Miguel Cabrera and Prince Fielder) was to adapt the mentality of the type of batter who sacrifices power for smarter hitting.

For 100 games, the approach worked amazingly well. But in time, pitchers will adjust to the newer version of Hunter.

We'll be curious to see what he does to deal with that and what the next 100 games bring.

Offseason report card: Angels

February, 13, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 89-73 (88-74 Pythagorean)
767 runs scored (3rd in American League)
699 runs allowed (7th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Signed free agent Josh Hamilton to five-year, $125 million contract. Traded Kendrys Morales to Mariners for Jason Vargas. Traded Jordan Walden to Braves for Tommy Hanson. Signed free agents Ryan Madson, Sean Burnett and Joe Blanton. Traded Ervin Santana to Royals. Lost Torii Hunter, Zack Greinke, Dan Haren, Maicer Izturis, LaTroy Hawkins and Jason Isringhausen.

What to make of general manager Jerry Dipoto's busy offseason? In some ways, it's just a reshuffling of the deck chairs.

Hunter: 5.5 WAR, 88 runs created in 584 PAs
Hamilton: 3.4 WAR, 115 runs created in 636 PAs

At quick glance, Hamilton looks like the far superior hitter in 2012, creating 27 more runs in a few more plate appearances. Once you adjust for home-park environment, Hunter edges a little closer, then when you factor in Hunter's superior defense (Hunter plus-15 defense runs saved, Hamilton minus-9 DRS), you can see why Hunter moves ahead in wins above replacement. That doesn't mean Hamilton was a bad signing; Hunter was unlikely to repeat his season -- at the plate or in the field -- and Hamilton might have a better year. In terms of 2012 value versus 2013 value, however, this looks pretty even.

Vargas and Hanson: 2.8 WAR and minus-0.9 WAR (392 IP)
Haren and Santana: minus-0.6 WAR and minus-1.6 WAR (354.2 IP)

Haren and Santana were pretty bad last year, posting high ERAs despite playing in a pitchers' park and with a good defense behind them. Hanson remains an injury risk, but Vargas has developed into a solid innings-eater and should put up good numbers in Angel Stadium with Mike Trout and Peter Bourjos running down fly balls behind him. This should be an upgrade of a few wins over 2012 performance. However, some of that is given back with the Blanton signing, given that he's unlikely to replicate the Greinke/Jerome Williams rotation slot. So unless Hanson is healthy and pitches better than last year, this looks like a minor upgrade -- maybe a win or two.

Morales out, Bourjos in.

Bourjos won't produce as much offense as Morales, but adding his elite glove back to the outfield on a regular basis is a big plus. Still, if Morales is 20 runs better at the plate than Bourjos and Bourjos is 20 runs better than Mark Trumbo in the outfield, that's another equal tradeoff.

The bullpen should be better, although Madson -- returning from Tommy John surgery -- has already been shut down with a sore elbow.

In the end, I can't give the Angels' offseason that high of a grade, especially given that they didn't get the guy they really wanted: Greinke. But at least give Dipoto credit for adjusting to not getting Greinke by signing Hamilton and trading for Vargas.

Position Players

The Angels have the best player in baseball, a 40-homer guy, one of the greatest players of all time who is still pretty good even if he's in decline, a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder, a 32-homer designated hitter and two middle infielders who hit pretty well for middle infielders. The catcher hits OK for a catcher, and the third baseman at least puts up a decent OBP.

That's a lineup without a glaring weakness. It's a lineup that will be as fun to watch as any in the game. Is it a great lineup, however, or just very good?

Aside from Trout's sophomore campaign and Hamilton's transition across the AL West, Albert Pujols is the guy to pay attention to. Take away his homerless April and he hit .297/.357/.553. His days as a .400 OBP machine are long gone thanks to the continued deterioration in his walk rate, but a lot of teams would still like Pujols anchoring their lineup.

The one problem area? Depth. There is none (no, Vernon Wells doesn't count). The Angels do have some players with injury histories, so we'll see whether that comes into play.

Pitching Staff

A year ago, we were talking about the possibility of the Angels having four 220-inning starters. Instead, C.J. Wilson led the staff with 202.1 innings.

Jered Weaver, Wilson and Vargas should be a solid top three, although Wilson had his elbow cleaned out in the offseason. His first season with the Angels was a bit of disappointment -- 3.83 ERA after a 3.14 ERA with the Rangers over the previous two seasons -- and if his walk rate remains at 4.0 per nine innings, it's going to be difficult to get that ERA under 3.50.

Blanton is a bit of wild card in the fifth spot. He's the opposite of Wilson -- a guy who basically throws strikes and hopes his defense helps him out. He had a 4.79 ERA in the National League over the past three seasons, so there's a good chance he won't last the season in the rotation.

The Angels' bullpen had a 3.97 ERA last year, ranking ahead of only Cleveland and Toronto in the AL. But it was arguably even more problematic than that. Only the Yankees' pen threw fewer innings, so Mike Scioscia was able to concentrate his innings in his best relievers. Although Ernesto Frieri did an excellent job as the closer after coming over from the Padres, it was the middle relief that hurt the club. The Angels lost 12 games when they led heading into the seventh inning -- 3.5 more than the major league average. Madson was supposed to help out there (or assume closer duties, with Frieri sliding to the seventh and eighth) but is a big question mark. The one thing the Angels do have is three good lefties in Burnett, Scott Downs and rookie Nick Maronde, if he's kept on the big league roster as a reliever instead of starting in the minors.

Heat Map to Watch
With a quick glance at Trout's heat map, you can see he punished low pitches. On pitches in the lower half of the zone, he hit .360/.396/.608 -- the best OPS in the majors against pitches down in the zone. Does that mean pitchers should attack Trout up high this year? Possibly. But if you attack up in the zone, that means doing it with the fastball. Trout hit .297/.397/.509 in plate appearances ending in fastballs. Which is actually kind of scary: He already has shown he can cream the off-speed stuff. Good luck, pitchers.

Mike Trout heat mapESPN Stats & InformationWhere do you pitch Mike Trout? Working him low in the zone didn't pay off in 2012.
Overall Grade


How many games will the Angels win?


Discuss (Total votes: 5,753)

The Angels might be the best team in the American League. With Trout, Pujols and Hamilton, they might have the best offensive trio of any team in baseball. In Weaver, they have a legitimate No. 1. That makes them one of the top World Series favorites, at least according to the latest odds in Vegas.

But they were in that position last year and failed to make the playoffs despite Trout's monster rookie season. I worry about the lack of depth behind the starting nine and the back end of the rotation. I don't think Pujols will put up better numbers than last year, and I don't think Hamilton will hit 43 home runs again. The Angels will surely be in the playoff chase, but I don't expect them to run away with the division -- and they might not win it.

What do you think?

Offseason report card: Tigers

February, 1, 2013
2012 in review
Record: 88-74 (88-74 Pythagorean)
726 runs scored (6th in American League)
670 runs allowed (5th in AL)

Big Offseason Moves
Re-signed Anibal Sanchez. Signed Torii Hunter. Lost Jose Valverde and Delmon Young.

It has been a relatively quiet offseason for general manager Dave Dombrowski, but his two major signings made perfect sense. Bringing back Sanchez gives the team another reliable innings-eater in the middle of the rotation, even if he's not quite as good as his three terrific starts in the postseason, when he posted a 1.77 ERA.

Snapping up Hunter for two years and $26 million was one of the sleeper free-agent signings of the winter. While the Tigers ranked 25th in the majors with minus-32 defensive runs saved, the biggest defensive liability wasn't Miguel Cabrera at third base or Prince Fielder at first base, but the collection of right fielders (primarily Brennan Boesch). Hunter will be a clear defensive upgrade there, and while he won't hit .313 again (he'd never hit .300 before 2012), he'll provide more offense than the .235/.285/.357 line the Tigers got from right field in 2012 (the lowest OPS in the AL).

Position Players

The return of Victor Martinez is addition by subtraction, because it means the departure of Young and his .296 on-base percentage. Martinez is a career .303 hitter, but he is 34 and returning from missing an entire season following knee surgery.

Certainly, any lineup with Cabrera and Fielder is going to score runs; it's knowing you can build around two of the most durable players in the league (they missed only one game between them last year). Despite their presence, the Tigers ranked just 10th in the AL in home runs and they'll remain one of the slowest teams in the league. But if Martinez hits and Alex Avila hits like he did in 2011, there is potential for more runs here.

Pitching Staff

They have the best pitcher in baseball in Justin Verlander and follow that up with the underrated Doug Fister (how did the Mariners trade this guy?), Max Scherzer (fourth-best ERA in the AL in the second half) and Sanchez. Drew Smyly is one of breakout candidates for 2013, and clearly the Tigers believe so as well if the trade rumors involving Rick Porcello are true.

The question mark: Who closes? Following Valverde's meltdown in the playoffs, Phil Coke handled the position just fine, but his 4.05 career ERA and ugly .854 OPS allowed in 2012 have led to speculation that hard-throwing rookie Bruce Rondon -- with no major league experience -- will be given the chance to close. I have my doubts about that, considering Rondon has fewer than 30 innings above Class A and enough command issues (4.4 walks per nine in the minors) that Jim Leyland might want to see the kid throw some strikes before handing him the ninth. The closer issue moves the overall grade of the staff down a notch.

Heat Map to Watch
Miguel Cabrera's 44 home runs was one element of the Triple Crown. Impressively, he hit 40 of those off right-handed pitchers -- and you can see from the heat map Cabrera's ability to turn on inside pitches.

Miguel CabreraESPN Stats & InformationMiguel Cabrera hit 44 of Detroit's 163 home runs in 2012 -- 40 off right-handers.
Overall grade


How many games will the Tigers win?


Discuss (Total votes: 15,707)

Despite their World Series appearance a year ago, the Tigers were hardly a super team, top-heavy around the big three of Verlander, Cabrera and Fielder. Winning 88 games in the weak AL Central doesn't necessarily inspire a lot of confidence, but I have a feeling the rotation will be stronger after Fister and Scherzer had strong second halves, a full season of Sanchez and the full-time addition of Smyly. Hunter is big upgrade in right field as well. The Tigers will be heavy favorites once again to win the division.

Power rankings: All 30 teams!

December, 22, 2012
Last weekend, I presented the top 10 teams in my personal power rankings. That was before the Blue Jays officially acquired R.A. Dickey, so I updated my top 10 after that trade, and, to spur on more debate, now present the rest of my rankings. Agree or disagree, but I do think this is the most parity we've seen in a long time. It's why the Orioles and A's were able to surprise this past season and why we will undoubtedly see another surprise team in 2013. It's a great time to be a baseball fan.

1. Nationals
Most talented rotation in the majors, deep lineup, depth. Re-signing Adam LaRoche to add another lefty power bat will help.

2. Reds
Superb rotation could be better if the Aroldis Chapman transition works, bullpen is deep enough to absorb his loss and Shin-Soo Choo provides a needed leadoff hitter.

3. Yankees
I think they can stretch things out more season with a deep rotation, excellent bullpen and power. Remember, they had the largest run differential in the American League last season.

4. Tigers
Deep rotation, great 1-2 punch with Miggy and Prince, and Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez should improve the lineup.

5. Braves
Left-handed power, power bullpen and a young team that could improve from last year's 94 wins.

6. Blue Jays
Addition of Dickey adds a needed No. 1 to a rotation that could be dominant if Josh Johnson and Brandon Morrow remain healthy.

7. A's
Young teams that show big improvement are usually for real, and this team has a solid rotation, a strong outfield and power arms in the bullpen.

8. Dodgers
Have to love the Clayton Kershaw-Zack Greinke combo and an offense with big upside if Matt Kemp and Adrian Gonzalez come close to 2011 levels.

9. Rangers
I think the rotation is playoff-caliber with Yu Darvish, Matt Harrison, Derek Holland, Alexi Ogando, Martin Perez and Colby Lewis.


Which of these five teams should be No. 1 right now?


Discuss (Total votes: 35,031)

10. Cardinals
Have to replace Kyle Lohse, but they'll score plenty of runs as long as Carlos Beltran (36 years old in April) and Matt Holliday (33 in January) keep producing.

11. Rays
Still some holes in the lineup, and replacing James Shields' 220-plus innings won't be that easy, but underestimate the Rays at your own risk.

12. Angels
Oddsmaker Bovada.lv has the Angels with the second-best odds to win the World Series (behind the Blue Jays), but I see a rotation with a lot of question marks behind Jered Weaver, and Josh Hamilton only replaces Hunter, who was terrific in 2012.

13. Giants
I discussed my issues with the Giants here. I could be wrong, although our friends at Bovada only put the Giants tied for ninth in their World Series odds.

14. Diamondbacks
Their run differential wasn't much different than the Giants last year, and they've added Brandon McCarthy, infield depth and still have Justin Upton.

15. Phillies
I want to say we're all underestimating a team that includes Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay, but then I see an outfield of Darin Ruf, Ben Revere and Domonic Brown, and an infield defense that includes Michael Young and Ryan Howard and 30-somethings Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley.

16. Brewers
They can score runs -- most in the National League last season -- and if the bullpen regroups after 2012's gruesome late-inning efforts, this team could surprise.

17. Red Sox
There will be no expectations after the disaster in 2012 (the franchise's worst record since 1965), but I see a big rebound coming.

18. Royals
I'll buy -- but I'm not buying a playoff spot. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas have to take huge leaps forward ... or the Royals could be headed for another rebuild.

19. Orioles
Last season's 93-win playoff team provided a beautiful ride, but the Orioles haven't added that big bat they need.

20. Padres
Young team is moving in the right direction after winning 76 games in 2012. Can rotation improve to push Pads over .500?

21. Mariners
Mariners have pursued a big bat all offseason but were only able to pick up Kendrys Morales, and he cost them Jason Vargas, opening up a 200-inning hole in the rotation. Looks like 2014 before Mariners can make a push in the tough AL West.

22. Pirates
Still no No. 1 or even No. 2 starter (sorry, A.J. Burnett is a No. 3 at best) and not enough support for Andrew McCutchen. One of these years, Pirates fans, one of these years.

23. White Sox
No A.J. Pierzynski, a declining Paul Konerko, good year/off year Alex Rios due for an off year. Then again, White Sox had a bigger run differential in 2012 than the Tigers.

24. Cubs
Rotation of Edwin Jackson, Jeff Samardzija, Travis Wood, Scott Baker and Scott Feldman could be competitive, but offense won't be.

25. Mets
At least Mets fans can dream of a future rotation that includes Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Jonathon Niese and Noah Syndergaard. Unfortunately, the 2013 version still includes Frank Francisco and a bunch of fourth outfielders.

26. Marlins
Giancarlo Stanton still makes this team worth watching on a daily basis.

27. Indians
Getting Trevor Bauer in the Choo deal added a much-needed starting pitcher prospect. Unfortunately, much of the rest of rotation remains suspect.

28. Twins
Kevin Correia, Vance Worley, Mike Pelfrey ... what, Rich Robertson and Sean Bergman weren't available?

29. Rockies
At least the Twins have a direction as they wait for young position players to reach the majors. I have no clue what the Rockies are doing, intend to do, want to do, wish to do or hope to achieve.

30. Astros
Welcome to the AL West, boys.
Assuming the Giants weren't interested in the big-dollar free-agent outfielders -- Josh Hamilton, Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher -- re-signing Angel Pagan to a four-year, $40 million deal appears to be a solid deal, even if the Giants ended up going to a fourth season they would have preferred not doing.

Still, let's be honest here: $10 million a year for a 31-year-old outfielder who has had two good seasons as a full-time player (2010 and 2012) is obviously not risk-free ... and certainly a sign of the money available in the game right now. Since 2009 Pagan has hit .285/.337/.427, which makes him a slightly above average offensive performer, especially for a center fielder. In 2012, he hit .289 and slugged .483 away from AT&T Park (seven of his eight home runs came on the road). Having a player comfortable with hitting at AT&T -- and not getting frustrated when a long fly ball is caught deep in the gap -- had to be an important consideration for the Giants.

The questions: How good is Pagan defensively, and how long will he stick in center field? His Defensive Runs Saved the past three seasons:

2010: +21
2011: -8
2012: -6

Certainly, the Giants like his ability to play center, or at least believe that he can cover all that ground in San Francisco well enough. But what are the odds he sticks in center field for the next four seasons? Next year is technically his age-31 season (he turns 32 on July 2), so this deal takes him through his age-34 season. Here are the number of full-time center fielders (500 plate appearances, at least half their games played in center) by age over the past five seasons:

Age 31: 8
Age 32: 5
Age 33: 1 (Torii Hunter in 2009)
Age 34: 1 (Hunter in 2010)

That's not per season. That's total. Center field is a young man's position. The only regular out there at age 33 and 34 was Torii Hunter.

Hmm ... this makes the deal appear a lot more questionable, doesn't it? Pagan may already be losing a step in center from just a couple years ago, so he's very unlikely to still be out there in three or four seasons. For the short term, this contract should be fine; but in the final two years, Pagan is unlikely to have the speed and range to play a quality center field, and his bat could be questionable for a corner outfield spot.

Hey, if Pagan can help the Giants win another World Series in 2013 or 2014, they probably won't care too much if he's a $10 million fourth outfielder in 2016.
The Detroit Tigers had four major weaknesses in 2012:

1. Right field. Tigers right fielders hit .235 with 13 home runs, ranking last in the AL in OPS and runs scored at the position. On top of that, they ranked 29th in the majors in Defense Runs Saved at minus-17. Most of this came courtesy of Brennan Boesch.

2. Designated hitter. Tigers DHs -- mostly Delmon Young -- ranked 12th in the AL in OPS, 13th in home runs and 12th in OBP. The return of Victor Martinez should provide a big upgrade here, even if Martinez doesn't match his .330/.380/.470 line of 2011.

3. Second base. Tigers second basemen -- Ryan Raburn, Ramon Santiago, Danny Worth, Omar Infante -- hit .213 and ranked last in the AL in OPS and runs scored and next-to-last among AL teams in Defensive Runs Saved at minus-8. A full season of Infante will provide adequate defense and at least slightly improved offense.

4. Overall team defense. Defense Runs Saved evaluated the Tigers at minus-32 runs -- 25th in the majors -- but as mentioned, the highest percentage of that came from right field, not any one individual in the infield.

[+] EnlargeTorii Hunter
Elaine Thompson/AP PhotoTorii Hunter, coming off one of the best seasons of his career, is a solid upgrade offensively and defensively for the Tigers in right field.
You can include the bullpen and left field, but those were more mediocre than weak. Throw all that in the mixer and obviously right field was the most important position for the Tigers to upgrade, which they did Wednesday with the sensible signing of Torii Hunter to a two-year, $26 million contract. It won't get the hype of a Josh Hamilton or Zack Greinke signing, but it could be one of the best deals of the offseason.

Hunter is coming off arguably the best season of his career, at age 36, hitting .300 for the first time and accumulating a career-best 5.5 Baseball-Reference WAR. That figure was fueled by two primary data points: (1) the .313 batting average, which Mark Simon tweeted included a .449 batting average on balls in play over his final 63 games -- for the season, Hunter registered a .389 BABIP, second-highest in the majors to Dexter Fowler's .390 mark; (2) 15 Defensive Runs Saved, third-best among all right fielders.

Based on 2012 WAR numbers, Hunter is a nearly 7-win improvement over Boesch, a testament to Hunter's under-the-radar campaign and Boesch's all-around dismal play. Boesch was so bad that the Tigers eventually dumped him for an Andy Dirks-Avisail Garcia platoon late in the season, but Garcia needs more time in the minors and Dirks is currently the best option for left field.

Of course, it's not likely that Hunter will repeat his 2012 numbers, especially on offense. Hunter's walk rate was actually his lowest since 2007 and his strikeout rate the highest of his career, so I don't think we saw a new approach that suddenly turned him into a .300 hitter. Batting second behind Mike Trout may have meant he saw a lot of fastballs to feast on as well. The high BABIP suggests a fluke season. Still, even if Hunter returns to his 2011 line of .262/.336/.429, he's a decent bat and a big improvement with the glove over Boesch. Hunter was about a 3-win player in 2010 and 2011, and that's probably a better estimate of his value moving forward. We're still talking a 4- or 5-win improvement in right field for the Tigers. At $13 million per season, it's a good, low-risk signing.

Suddenly, the Tigers' lineup looks a lot better than what we saw Jim Leyland run out there during the World Series:

CF Austin Jackson
LF Andy Dirks
3B Miguel Cabrera
1B Prince Fielder
RF Torii Hunter
DH Victor Martinez
SS Jhonny Peralta
C Alex Avila
2B Omar Infante

What's even scarier for the rest of the AL Central is that the Tigers may not be done. They could sign a closer to replace free agent Jose Valverde and, who knows, maybe another outfielder like Nick Swisher or Hamilton is still in play. The Tigers lost over $20 million in 2012 payroll with the departures of Valverde, Young and Brandon Inge, so they may still have some of owner Mike Ilitch's cash to play with.

Omar Vizquel and the Hall of Fame

September, 24, 2012
Omar VizquelRick Osentoski/US PresswireOmar Vizquel won 11 Gold Gloves in his career. Will that get him elected to Cooperstown?
A few weeks ago, Joe Posnanski challenged his readers to construct a Hall of Fame argument for Jack Morris. The catch: Whatever your framework for Morris as a Hall of Famer, you then had to agree that any pitcher who also met those criteria should also be a Hall of Famer. So, for example, if your argument is that "Morris won 254 games," any pitcher with more wins should also be in Cooperstown (Jamie Moyer, Jim Kaat, Tommy John and others). As Posnanski wrote, you also end up with issues like Bob Forsch winning more games than Sandy Koufax or Jerry Reuss winning more games than Pedro Martinez if you apply the framework to other pitchers.

You can read the whole post and reader comments here. That idea leads me to Omar Vizquel, who is winding down the final days of his 24-year career. It's actually fairly easy to construct a Hall of Fame framework for Vizquel: Any position player with at least 10 Gold Gloves is clearly one of the greatest fielders of all time and merits a Hall of Fame selection purely on his fielding ability. The list of those with at least 10 Gold Gloves:

Brooks Robinson, 16
Ozzie Smith, 13
Ivan Rodriguez, 13
Roberto Clemente, 12
Willie Mays, 12
Omar Vizquel, 11
Keith Hernandez, 11
Johnny Bench, 10
Mike Schmidt, 10
Ken Griffey Jr., 10
Al Kaline, 10
Roberto Alomar, 10
Andruw Jones, 10
Ichiro Suzuki, 10

Most of those guys are already in the Hall of Fame or will eventually get elected. OK, you'd have to include Keith Hernandez (who peaked at 10.8 percent of the vote but was a fine player and MVP winner) and Andruw Jones (Willie Mays-like in center field and has more than 400 home runs).

So that wouldn't be so bad. We have to include the "10 Gold Gloves" corollary, because you once you get below that you start getting to names like Don Mattingly and Torii Hunter (nine Gold Gloves) or George Scott, Mark Belanger and Frank White (eight apiece), players who don't really fit a Hall of Fame profile.

Of course, Vizquel's Hall of Fame currency doesn't solely reside on his defense. You could add a few other things:

1. Played more games at shortstop than any other player.
2. Ranks 41st on the all-time hits list (2,874) and 78th all time in runs scored (1,444).
3. Key member of six division winners with Cleveland.
4. .272 career hitter with more than 400 stolen bases, so not a complete zero on offense.

There are probably a few other things you could add on his ledger, but those are the big ones.

* * * *

When Vizquel joins the ballot in a few years, his candidacy -- like the one with Morris -- will spark an intense debate, divided among old-school purists and new-school statheads. When it comes to career Wins Above Replacement, Vizquel does not fare particulary well: His 40.6 Baseball-Reference WAR, while higher than some of the more marginal Hall of Famers, is well-below the general threshold of most Hall of Famers.


Is Omar Vizquel a Hall of Famer?


Discuss (Total votes: 1,634)

Complicating the debate is that many will hold up Vizquel as a beacon of the steroids era, a little guy who played the game the right way in an era of muscled-up sluggers. Vizquel will also be hailed as the National League version of Ozzie Smith, down to the singular first name. The latter debate is a difficult one to make when you look at WAR:

Ozzie: 73.0
Omar: 40.6

Compared to his contemporaries at shortstop, Ozzie was a little more productive at the plate: 44.5 offensive Wins Above Replacement compared to Vizquel's 27.8. Compared to an average hitter of his time, Smith was 119 runs below average over his career while Vizquel was 243 runs below average. Of course, this gets back to the steroid era argument. Vizquel is being evaluated against all those big hitters (and players at his position that included Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Miguel Tejada), while Ozzie gets Garry Templeton and Shawon Dunston.

Still, this brings the argument back to Vizquel's fielding. How good was he? Baseball-Reference does rate him as a superb fielder, 29th among all players since 1947 in runs saved and fifth among shortstops (behind Belanger, Ozzie, Cal Ripken and Luis Aparacio). Belanger (240 runs saved) and Ozzie (239 runs saved) rank second and third overall behind Brooks Robinson. You may not like advanced fielding metrics, but it's hard to argue with the rest of Baseball-Reference's top-10 list: Jones, Clemente, Adrian Beltre, Carl Yastrzemski, Mays, Ripken and Barry Bonds. Maybe you don't recognize Belanger's name, but he was the shortstop for the Orioles during the Earl Weaver dynasty years, a tall, think shortstop with great range but even less of a bat than Ozzie or Omar. He won those eight Gold Gloves despite a .228 career average, so was certainly recognized as a great fielder during his time.

Even if you believe the metrics underrate Vizquel a bit, is there enough there? Even at his peak, he was the fifth-best shortstop in the American League. He received MVP votes just once in his career (16th in 1999), which isn't a reason to dismiss him entirely, but doesn't equate with a player viewed in his own time as one of the best in the league (Ozzie once finished second in the MVP vote).

Vizquel's longevity, while unique, doesn't increase his value; he just managed to hang a long time. Since turning 40, he's scratched out 400 more hits while batting just .250/.305/.310. Many voters will cite his career hits total, but that ignores that he hung on for six seasons as basically a replacement-level player.

Two more issues to raise. Personally, I would find it hard to see Vizquel as a Hall of Famer while Alan Trammell (67.1 career WAR) remains unelected. Any easy rule for any Hall of Fame debate: Is he the best player at his position not in the Hall of Fame? But Trammell doesn't have that one signature element to his career like Omar ("Best shortstop other than Ozzie!") and besides he'll be off the ballot in four years.

Finally, there are players like Jones and Hunter, who nobody seems to really consider as Hall of Fame-caliber even though they were regarded as terrific fielders (remember, Hunter has won nine Gold Gloves) and contributed more at the plate than Vizquel, even for their positions. What makes Vizquel a better candidate than them?

You can probably see where my opinion sits. It's been an amazing career, no doubt; as someone who watched him when he first came up with Seattle, I can guarantee you that there wasn't one Mariners fan who believed Little O would someday turn into a Hall of Fame candidate. I actually think he will get elected after a few years on the ballot.

Maybe Jack Morris will be sitting behind at the induction ceremony.

Angels will need more than Pujols

August, 5, 2012

Now this is what Arte Moreno signed up for. With Saturday night’s home run against the White Sox, that’s six home runs in five games in five days off the bat of Albert Pujols. And all of them hit against the Rangers and White Sox, both potential playoff rivals. Better than any playbook, that’s exactly what the Angels ordered when Moreno shelled out $240 million to import Albert to the left coast last winter.

Say what you will about the big picture, but at some fundamental level that money wasn’t about rebranding a ballclub. It was not about telegraphing seriousness or an intent to contend. It was not about whatever meta-messaging you might have wanted to invest signing Pujols with. Gargantuan expense was supposed to generate gargantuan power, and since that ugly, homer-free initial 27-game introduction to Angels fans, Pujols has delivered, slugging .629 with 24 home runs through Saturday night.

So for all those who doubted that Albert Pujols was going to be Albert Pujols, shame on you. To think that somehow the burden of on-demand greatness in Southern California was supposed to crush the man who will redefine all-time excellence at first base? Perish the thought. And all you folks worried overmuch about that slow start, shame on you.

To bring things back to the big picture, though, the question is whether the Angels will live up to the billing they earn as we head toward the stretch. Much like the Yankees or Rangers, the Angels’ cast of characters seems like a made-to-order highlight reel, a guaranteed collection of show-stopping entertainments. Perhaps nobody was seen as more automatic than Albert Pujols himself, but he’s not alone. When he isn’t conjuring up conversations over whether he should be compared to Fred Lynn or Willie Mays or both, Mike Trout seems to reinvent the definition of what a Web Gem ought to be on a nightly basis. Mark Trumbo is making everyone who doubted his Rookie of the Year worthiness last season eat that skepticism. And every fifth day, Jered Weaver takes his shot at mowing down any team, any lineup, any batter with the relentlessness of an animatronic strike machine.

The question is whether all that highlight material and all that star power adds up to a team that can catch the Rangers in the American League West, or whether it will have to take its chances in the one-and-done wild-card play-in at season’s end. We’re probably all aware that determining the American League’s playoff field is going to be brutal. Say we swap in the Red Sox for the Orioles because you think they’ll be strong while the injury-riddled O’s fade. That means we’re talking about eight contenders in the AL. Maybe the league-leading Rangers and Yankees come back to the pack, maybe they don’t.

That still leaves a six-team pack the Angels need to separate themselves from. Guess what? Thirty-six of the Angels’ last 54 games are against American League contenders. Not even the consolation of facing the Mariners in six of their final nine games can help much -- if the Angels are going to make a move, it has to be in the next month.

As much as seeing their “name” players shine is cause for highlight-related fun, the less happy fact of the past week is how badly Angels pitching has been clouted in the Weaver-free ballgames. Even including Weaver’s shutting down Texas on July 31, the Halos been hammered in their five games before Saturday’s action, allowing 44 runs in 44 2/3 IP against the Rangers and White Sox, including 64 hits (10 of them homers). That won’t fly in October, not for long.

What those drubbings indicate to me is two things, or one big interrelated thing, which is a problem on pitching and defense. It’s easy to pick on Ervin Santana’s schizophrenic failures or Dan Haren’s struggles, just as it’s easy to suggest that Zack Greinke will fix things because he’s being swapped in for merely adequate fifth-starter material in Jerome Williams or Garrett Richards -- or maybe Santana.

But whether Richards replaces Santana as the starter behind Door No. 5 loses sight of the problem that everyone’s had to work with over the past two weeks, which is the absence of shortstop Erick Aybar on defense. Relying on Maicer Izturis and Andrew Romine doesn’t seem all that coincidental with the sudden outpouring of base hits dropping in against Angels’ pitching, at least not where advanced defensive metrics have Izturis’ work at short. And if Aybar is back in time to play against the Oakland Athletics in the three-game series that starts Monday, that’s a little bit of help from someone beyond those better Angels who might pick everybody up.

Getting help from players beyond the famous people is going to be crucial for the Angels down the stretch in other ways as well. It can show up in something as simple as seeing Howard Kendrick plate Alberto Callaspo with the winning run in the top of the 10th against the White Sox. Not Pujols, not Trout, not Trumbo, but Kendrick, and not with some feat of strength that you’ll still be talking about at work in the break room on Monday.

Better was expected from Callaspo and Kendrick and more beside. While their seasonal slumps didn’t get the same attention as Pujols, breaking them for keeps will make a big difference -- perhaps not as noisily as Pujols’, but significantly. Callaspo, Kendrick and Izturis have all done better than the struggle that each has endured this season to post an OPS above .700. Seeing better work from all of them down the stretch should happen, in the same way that a healthy Aybar should make a difference on defense. Getting Chris Iannetta back from the disabled list isn’t going to set headlines ablaze, but it should repair a slot in the Angels’ lineup that has been dead for months. And if Torii Hunter keeps on keeping on …

Which is why you can believe in Angels, because just as a team is more than the sum of its stars, there are plenty of reason to expect improvement down the stretch. Not just because of the big names or the highlights, but because of some of the other guys who should do better, in part because they couldn’t do much worse. If they do that just as the Halos’ schedule turns fearsome, who knows, there could be credit to go around -- to names small as well as big.

Michael TaylorKelley L Cox/US PresswireMichael Taylor isn't taking a bow for striking out, but he's being polite about it.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.
First base: Magical ending. It's only 43 games and crazy things can happen between games 44 and 162, but it's starting to look like one of those seasons for the Dodgers. They're now 30-13 after one of the most exciting wins of the season, rallying from a 6-1 deficit to defeat the sinking Diamondbacks, 8-7. First, Ivan DeJesus Jr. hit a two-run, two-out double off Arizona closer J.J. Putz in the top of the ninth. Then, after Arizona put runners on the corners with one out, Kenley Jansen induced Jason Kubel to ground into a 4-6-3 double play, with Dee Gordon flying through the air as Justin Upton took him out and James Loney scooping Gordon's bounced throw. A key play happened on Upton's base hit, with Tony Gwynn Jr. making a nice play in right-center to hold Upton to a single. And Kirk Gibson didn't send Upton on the 3-2 pitch to Kubel (understandable considering Jansen's strikeout rate). As Dodger Thoughts' Jon Weisman writes, "I can't explain ... anything that is going on." Matt Kemp last played on May 13. The Dodgers are 7-2 without him and averaging 5.1 runs per game. "I'll never forget this game," DeJesus said.

Second base: Harper versus Halladay. Terrific anecdote from Mark Zuckerman, who covers the Nationals at NatsInsider.com. He tells the story of Harper saying in spring training that he's watched Roy Halladay and says he starts a lot of hitters with a slow curveball. In the third inning on Tuesday, sure enough Halladay threw Harper a first-pitch curve and Harper ripped it for a two-run triple, putting the Nationals ahead. The Nats are now 4-1 against the Phillies, setting the stage for tonight's Harper-Cole Hamels showdown.

Third base: Wilson's gem. C.J. Wilson shut down the A's, allowing one hit over eight scoreless innings, a Cliff Pennington single in the fifth. With Vernon Wells out 8-to-10 weeks after thumb surgery, the Angels can finally play the lineup they should have been playing all along: Peter Bourjos in center and Mike Trout in left. With Torii Hunter temporarily out, red-hot Mark Trumbo has been playing right field. With the ground Bourjos and Trout can cover, the Angels can live with Trumbo's lack of range. In fact, even when Hunter returns, I'd stick with this lineup -- making Hunter more of the utility guy instead of Trumbo, who needs to play every day considering the Angels' offensive problems. Yes, Bourjos is off to a slow start at the plate (.197), but it's only 84 plate appearances. Oh ... and that Albert Pujols guy hit his third home run in seven games.

Home plate: Tweet of the Day.