2017 MLB Playoffs: Could bullpenning change baseball?

After a 162-game marathon, it all comes down to 11 wins (or 12 for wild card participants) for those in the 2017 MLB Playoffs. Baseball’s top eight teams compete to be crowned World Series champions, but only one will prevail. Teams tend to rely on the old adage that defense wins championships.

But offense has been on the rise this postseason. Through 12 postseason games, the average combined score of each game has been over 14 runs per game. That has led some to question the traditional use of starters and relievers to try and stymie this outrageous offensive output.

From starters and relievers to just pitchers

2017 MLB Playoffs

Kenley Jansen posted a 1.32 ERA in the regular season, and could be a huge weapon for the Dodgers (espn.com).

There has been a growing movement among baseball to eliminate starters and relievers and their expected roles. Have the best pitcher start the game, and go from there. And in this postseason, that seems like a sound idea. In the first inning alone, 25 runs have been scored.

Starters like Luis Severino, Ervin Santana, Jon Gray, Taijuan Walker and Doug Fister all gave up three-plus runs in the first inning. That type of performance put their teams at a severe disadvantage, as three of those five lost their teams the game.

These struggling starters eventually gave way to their bullpen counterparts. And in the Twins vs Yankees AL Wild Card game, they came in hot and heavy. Yankees skipper Joe Girardi used four different relievers to bridge the gap between the first and the ninth inning.

But it wasn’t by choice, as starter Luis Severino gave up three runs before handing over the ball in the first inning. Even so, those four relievers (Green, Robertson, Khanle, Chapman) only allowed one run. They also struck out 13 Twins on their way to victory. Even though it wasn’t by design, the Yankees showed how effective bullpenning could be.

Blurring the line between starters and relievers

2017 MLB Playoffs

David Price has found the fountain of youth in the bullpen (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images).

The difficulty accompanying bullpenning is the use of pitchers not accustomed to pitching a high number of innings. Many of these guys pitch 60-70 innings a year, while starters can easily top 200 innings if they stay healthy.

But the playoffs are a whole different animal. Gone are the dog days of summer and the long home stands. With only a handful of games separating teams from immortality and oblivion, managers should utilize their best weapons in the ideal situations. And as previously proven, that would be at the beginning of the game.

But the idea of bullpenning isn’t limited to utilizing those 60-70 innings pitched guys like Chapman and Kimbrel. A new breed of reliever has started to take form: the super reliever. Pitchers like Chris Devenski and David Price have made the move from starting to the bullpen and have had plenty of success.

And with their experience of starting games, they give their respective managers a valuable weapon. They are capable of pitching multiple innings out of the pen. But what if they just skipped straight into starting the game?

How bullpenning could work

2017 MLB Playoffs

Chris Devenski has been a vital option for the Astros, both starting and relieving (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images).

Bullpenning is a new concept for a lot of traditional baseball fans. Many of us grew up watching dominant starters blow the opposing team away, and those types of performances can still be found. But the argument for bullpenning is not one against starters.

It’s main premise is to utilize the best pitchers at the beginning of the game to maximize their potential. This strategy would not work with a 162-game schedule, but in a condensed postseason (around 20 games or so), it could be a huge equalizer for teams lacking starting pitching.

The ideal situation for bullpenning would be to have the team’s best reliever start the game. That way the offense has the opportunity to score early while having the best chance to limit opposing runs. Said reliever would pitch an inning or two to maximize his potential, followed by another reliever and maybe a starter or long reliever.

By using this strategy, teams can essentially shorten the game and put the pressure on the opposing offense. And with the plethora of relievers able to hit 99+ mph and include effective breaking pitches, offenses could see their run totals plummet.

Relievers often enter the game when the score has already gotten out of hand or is precipitously close to doing so. Their ability to prevent runs is what their teams value the most. But what if, instead of trying to stop the bleeding, it never begins in the first place?

 

Feature image by Frank Franklin II/AP Photo

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How the Yankees can challenge the Indians

The New York Yankees matched up against the Minnesota Twins Tuesday night in the AL Wild Card game. And boy, was it wild. After a slug-fest of a first inning that saw six total runs scored, the Yankees were able to bullpen their way to an 8-4 victory. But even with a rough outing from starter Luis Severino, the Yankees showed why they belong in these playoffs. They also showed something more; the grit and determination to give the Cleveland Indians a run for their money.

Four is better than one

Yankees starter Luis Severino was chased from the AL Wild Card game after just 1/3 IP (Jim McIsaac/Getty Images).

Playoff baseball is different animal, as Luis Severino quickly found out. He couldn’t tame the Twins, allowing three earned runs in 1/3 IP. But after ousting the startled starter, the Minnesota Twins could only muster one run for the remainder of the game. The Yankees sent four different relievers to the mound, and the Twins were baffled by each one. Chad Green, David Robertson, Tommy Khanle, and Aroldis Chapman combined to whiff 13 Twins, en route to a dominate bullpen performance.

This masterful performance by the Yankees bullpen cannot be understated. The Minnesota Twins were one of the highest scoring offenses in the late stages of the season, catching fire at the plate at the beginning of August. But after Severino’s struggles, the Yankees were able to throw out four high-quality relievers to shut the game down. The starting rotation may be the weakest link of this Yankees team, but when Girardi can rely on a bullpen as deep as his, it almost doesn’t matter.

Deeper than the long ball

Matt Holliday will provide the Yankees with clutch ABs off the bench. (sportingnews.com)

After rookie sensation Aaron Judge mashed 52 long balls to take the rookie HR crown, he began his search for a new crown Tuesday night. His quest began in style, taking Twins reliever Jose Berrios on a two-run ride to left field. But it wasn’t just Judge providing the offense, as the Yankees had contributions from the whole lineup. Only three players were held without a hit, as Starlin Castro, Jacoby Ellsbury and Todd Frazier went 0-fer on Tuesday night.

The Yankees offense also extends to it’s bench, as grizzled veterans Matt Holliday and Chase Headley ride the pine. Both players had 60-plus RBIs in the regular season, and have 30-plus homer seasons under their belts as well. With that much power on the bench, the Yankees are one of the deeper offense in the playoffs.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

The former Cy Young winner will look to continue his renaissance season in the playoffs (Kathy Willens/Associated Press).

While the starting rotation may be the weakest link of the team, having a former Cy Young winner in C.C. Sabathia can help strengthen that link. Being able to pair Sabathia with prized trade deadline acquisition Sonny Gray and Japanese import Masahiro Tanaka gives the Yankees a solid starting rotation.

But they may not even need it. With the bullpen showing its mettle in the Wild Card game and the offense being one of the deepest in the playoffs, the Yankees have multiple ways to win. And they will definitely need to employ each one to have a chance against the Cleveland Indians.

With a combination of savvy veteran starters, fire throwing relievers, and a dynamic offense, the Yankees have a collection of talent to rival any other team in these playoffs. Whether its the baby bombers Judge and Sanchez, or the dynamic duo Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances, the Yankees can score with anyone and completely shut down everyone. Needless to say, the Indians will have a challenge on their hands. The Yankees are similar to the Indians of the past; a young and hungry team with the talent to match up against anyone.

Feature image from Associated Press. 

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The race to the top: The AL Wild Card

As the trade deadline draws nearer, teams have to determine if they will be buyers or sellers. The separation between the two is pretty evident in the National League (minus the NL Central). But with six teams within two games of the last American League Wild Card spot, the race is wide open. Even so, only two teams make it to the Wild Card game. Let’s take a look at the top four teams vying for the coveted Wild Card berths and determine if they have what it takes to make it to the playoffs.

New York Yankees (44-37)

AL Wild Card

C.C. Sabathia has been a key contributor in the Yankees rotation (Kathy Willens/Associated Press).

Current Wild Card Standing: 1st Wild Card

After spending the majority of the season atop the AL East standings, a rough patch has left them two and a half games back of the Boston Red Sox. Even so, the Bronx Bombers are making a comeback, with an offense that can rival any team in the American League. Just look at the numbers; fourth-best team batting average in the majors (.269), fourth-most home runs (125), and second-best on base percentage (.347). That also included AL MVP front-runner Aaron Judge, who has buoyed the Yankees offense.

The pitching staff has also performed well. With the sixth-best team ERA in the majors (3.93), fifth-best WHIP (1.24), and fourth-best batting average against (.237), the Yankees are a complete team. Even though team ace Masahiro Tanaka has struggled this season with a 5.56 ERA. Jordan Montgomery and C.C. Sabathia have been key contributors for Joe Girardi. And with Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman in the ‘pen, the Yankees can hold a lead as well as anyone. Look for them to be a lock for the AL Wild Card and to contend for the AL East for the remainder of the season.

Tampa Bay Rays (43-41)

Current Wild Card Standing: Tied for 2nd Wild Card

AL Wild Card

Corey Dickerson has been an excellent addition to a surprising Rays’ offense (mlb.com).

Even occupying the second Wild Card spot hasn’t been enough to earn the Rays the attention they deserve. But with only one player making the AL All-Star roster (Corey Dickerson), the Rays have relied on timely hitting and clutch pitching so far. The offense’s strength has been power, with the second-most home runs in the majors (128) and seventh-best slugging percentage (.447). Even though the offense has the ability to bludgeon opponents, it hasn’t had to. The pitching staff has done more than hold its own this season.

Ranking in 11th place in the majors in team ERA (4.18), WHIP (1.31) and tied for ninth in batting average against (.250), the pitching staff has given the offense plenty of opportunities to win games. Chris Archer and Alex Cobb have both had average seasons so far, and will need to turn it on down the stretch to ensure the Rays stay in contention. But if rookie Jacob Faria can maintain his 2.23 ERA, the pressure on Archer and Cobb will be vastly diminished. The Rays should hover around the top of the Wild Card standings and could make a run for the top spot.

Kansas City Royals (42-40)

AL Wild Card

Jason Vargas has put up a Cy Young caliber season in Kansas City (mlb.com).

Current Wild Card Standing: Tied for 2nd Wild Card

Of all of the teams in contention for the AL Wild Card, the Royals are the most interesting. Just two years removed from winning the Fall Classic, the majority of the championship roster remains intact. Although the team has a World Series pedigree, the offense has been sub-par. Ranking 20th in the majors in team batting average (.251), 29th in on base percentage (.303) and 22nd in slugging (.414) doesn’t bode well for their playoff hopes. Even strong seasons from Lorenzo Cain and All-Star starter Salvador Perez haven’t been enough to right the offense.

The pitching staff has fared better than the offense, but not by much. With the 13th best team ERA in baseball (4.26), 18th best WHIP (1.37) and 19th best batting average against (.260), the pitching staff has been below league average. The bright spot in the rotation has been Jason Vargas, who is a legitimate AL Cy Young candidate. Vargas and Danny Duffy have carried the pitching staff, but it’s not nearly enough to keep the Royals in contention. With a tough division and even tougher Wild Card race, the Royals don’t have enough to contend. Look for them to be big sellers at the trade deadline and gear up for a long rebuild.

Minnesota Twins (42-40)

Current Wild Card Standing: Tied for 2nd Wild Card

AL Wild Card

Sano has been terrific this season, earning his first All-Star appearance (mlb.com).

After years of rebuilding, the Twins are trying to turn promise into playoffs. But so far, the results have been mixed. Miguel Sano has turned into an All-Star third baseman, while second baseman Brian Dozier has put up an average season. Their contributions have led to the Twins 18th best team batting average in the majors (.252), 10th best on base percentage (.328) and 23rd best slugging percentage (.413). Even with a middling offense, it has driven the team’s success so far, as the pitching staff has struggled.

Ranking in the bottom third of the majors in team ERA (4.88, 27th), WHIP (1.44, 26th) and batting average against (.269, 26th) has kept the Twins from being true contenders in the AL. Even with Ervin Santana and Jose Berrios pitching well, the remainder of the Twins’ staff has let the team down. The Twins are in a precarious position; too young to rebuild but not quite good enough to be serious contenders. They could add a pitcher at the deadline, but it wouldn’t make much difference in a competitive AL Wild Card race. The Twins will ride out the remainder of the season and finish around the .500 mark.

Feature image by John Sleezer, TNS. 

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Transcending eras: Clayton Kershaw

When you think of the great pitchers of the game, there is generally a consensus on most of the names. Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Greg Maddux, Nolan Ryan, Pedro Martinez. The list could go on and on with dominant pitchers who have played the game. Even so, how about we add one more name to that list; Clayton Kershaw.

The burly lefty may only be 29 years old, but when you review his career so far, it’s hard not to see how truly dominant he has been. But does he truly match up to the likes of Randy Johnson and Nolan Ryan? Let’s delve into the numbers and see how the Dallas native compares to the past greats.

Best pitcher of all-time

Clayton Kershaw is arguably one of the best pitchers of all-time (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images).

Mature beyond his years

That could be one of the more accurate statements made in regards to Kershaw. When the southpaw made his major league debut at the ripe old age of 20, no one could have predicted what he was to become. After being drafted seventh overall in the 2006 MLB Draft, he was pegged to be a future top of the rotation arm, a potential ace. Kershaw quickly proved that to be true after he posted a 2.79 ERA in his 21 year old season. He also punched 185 tickets in 171 innings pitched that season, proving to have electric stuff.

That season was just a glimmer of what Kershaw would become. Throughout his twenties he pitched like a grizzled veteran, compiling Hall of Fame type numbers. In his first 10 seasons in Los Angeles, he has a career 2.38 ERA with 2,033 strikeouts in 1,863.1 innings pitched. Kershaw became the second fastest to reach 2000 career strikeouts this season, bested by only Randy Johnson. The pitchers behind Kershaw on that list read like a who’s who of great MLB pitchers; Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez, to name a few.

Even so, it’s much to early to mention Kershaw in the same breath as the likes of Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson, isn’t it?

Lefty on lefty

When Kershaw became the second fastest player to reach 2,000 career strikeouts, many people both in and out of the game of baseball took notice. But if that was their first exposure to the Dodgers’ ace, then they have been missing one of the most masterful pitchers in baseball history. That may sound blasphemous to some die-hard baseball fans, but when put up against the game’s greats, Kershaw does more than hold his own. Let’s take Randy Johnson for example.

The Big Unit didn’t make his major league debut until he was 24 years old. Even so, we will compare his first 10 seasons to Kershaw’s, given that is the breadth of Kershaw’s career so far. In Johnson’s first 10 years in the league, he posted a 3.37 ERA, over one full run more than Kershaw’s 2.38 ERA.

Johnson also struck out an even 2000 batters over 1734 innings in those 10 years, 33 less than Kershaw. Even though Johnson was 33 strikeouts off of matching Kershaw, Johnson pitched 129 fewer innings than Kershaw, so that statistic can be misleading. That explains Johnson’s edge in SO/9, with 10.4 compared to Kershaw’s 9.8 SO/9. With the small difference in SO/9, Kershaw still easily bests Johnson in run prevention, the main responsibility of a pitcher. It can be reasoned that Kershaw has pitched better than Johnson in his first 10 seasons, but what about another great?

Righty on lefty

Best pitcher of all-time

Nolan Ryan’s greatness was on display for decades, but Kershaw might be catching up with him (baseballhall.org).

Nolan Ryan has largely been lauded as one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. The 12th round MLB Draft pick out of Refugio, Texas defied expectations, making his MLB debut at 19 years old. He put up a 3.09 ERA in 21 games in 1968, and struck out 133 batters in 134 innings pitched. In his first 10 seasons, Ryan was a force for both the Mets and Angels. With a 3.11 ERA and 2085 strikeouts in 1935 innings pitched over his first 10 seasons, Kershaw matches up well with his fellow Texan.

Kershaw again has the lead in ERA, with a 2.38 ERA compared to Ryan’s 3.11 ERA. Ryan has more strikeouts than Kershaw (2085 compared to 2033), but their SO/9 is eerily similar. Ryan possesses a 9.7 SO/9 compared to Kershaw’s 9.8 SO/9. The similarity in SO/9 is remarkable, and means Kershaw and Ryan have been about the same in regards to their strikeout ability. Even so, Kershaw again has an edge over his counterpart, with a lower ERA and similar SO/9 in their first 10 seasons.

Kershaw’s dominance can not be overlooked. And when you compare his career to some of the game’s greats, his dominance becomes even more evident. If Kershaw retired today, he would garner considerable Hall of Fame consideration. But with no signs of slowing down on the horizon, and at only 29 years old, Kershaw could continue dealing at a high level for years to come.

Feature image by USATSI.

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The most underrated hitter in MLB

There have been many later round draft picks that have performed well beyond their expectations in the majors. Dallas Keuchel was a seventh round draft pick, and an eventual Cy Young winner. Albert Pujols was a 13th round selection, and recently joined the 600 home run club. Daniel Murphy was also a 13th round selection, and turned into a Silver Slugger. The list could go on and on. But one thing sticks out about these late round success stories; they have gained ample amounts of national notoriety.

How does one of the most successful hitters in the game not get as much fanfare as the three previously listed players? Is it because he was an eighth round selection out of San Marcos State University? Or is it because he has spent his seven year career in the desert? Either way, Paul Goldschmidt is arguably the best hitter in the game, and has been for years. It’s okay if you didn’t know that. I’ll fill you in.

Underrated hitter in MLB

Luis Gonzalez has been overcome by Paul Goldschmidt as the best hitter in franchise history (venomstrikes.com).

Best Hitter in Franchise History

When comparing Goldschmidt with the best players in Diamondbacks history, one can begin to comprehend his greatness. Using WAR, Goldschmidt edges out one of the most revered players in franchise history, Luis Gonzalez. Gonzalez spent eight seasons in Arizona and amassed 30.0 wins above replacement in that time. He also garnered five All-Star appearances, and helped put the franchise on the map.

In Goldschmidt’s seven seasons in the desert, he has already surpassed the great Gonzalez. Compiling 31.8 wins above replacement and posting a career 147 OPS+ compared to Gonzalez’s 130 OPS+ in Arizona, Goldschmidt has quickly become the best hitter in franchise history. But given Arizona’s short history (founded in 1998), some may discredit Goldschmidt’s accomplishments, citing the franchise’s limited history and success. To counter that argument, let us examine where Goldschmidt ranks among the best hitters in the game today.

Best Hitter in the Game?

Underrated MLB hitter

Bryce Harper may have a MVP award, but Goldschmidt has the lead in all major statistics (sportingnews.com).

Okay, that may be a little bit of a stretch. Even so, in an era with Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto, Goldschmidt does more than hold his own. Goldschmidt came into the league in 2011, but didn’t cement his status as a full-time starter until the 2012 season. If we use 2012 as a starting point, his career aligns favorably with one of the most hyped prospects ever to play the game; Bryce Harper.

Harper busted onto the MLB scene in 2012 and has been a dominant force ever since. With a 40 home run season, one MVP award and a ROY award already on his mantle, there’s no way a player like Goldschmidt could compare to that right? Think again. Over the same time period, 2012-2017, Goldschmidt has a slash line of .302/.404/.531. Compared to Harpers’ .282/.386/.511, Goldschmidt is clearly the better hitter. But if a few percentage points are not enough to sway you, let us delve a little deeper.

Harper has hit 136 home runs, driven in 378 RBIs and posted a 141 OPS+ since 2012. Goldschmidt has hit 145 home runs, driven in 526 RBIs and has a 149 OPS+ in the same time period. In all measurable statistics, Goldschmidt is better than Harper. Even in stolen bases, with Goldschmidt swiping 107 bases compared to Harper’s 59. So if Goldschmidt is an overall better player, including defensively (three Gold Gloves for Goldschmidt, zero for Harper), why isn’t he getting as much coverage?

Underrated MLB hitter

Paul Goldschmidt is looking to get the notoriety he deserves as the Diamondbacks improve (Jim McIsaac/Getty).

Hidden in the Desert Sun

Goldschmidt has finished second twice in the NL MVP voting in his career. Even so, the Diamondbacks slugger has deserved much more consideration in his career. Ironically enough, Goldschmidt finished second in 2015 to none other than Bryce Harper, and to Andrew McCutchen in 2013. It can be argued that playing in Arizona has hampered Goldschmidt’s exposure, and caused him to be highly overlooked.

The Diamondbacks haven’t exactly been as successful as Goldlschmidt has, without a winning season since his rookie year in 2011. With an inept franchise in a small market like Arizona, it is easy to see why Goldschmidt has been overlooked by fans and media alike. But with the team sitting at 34-25 and Goldschmidt performing like he always has, maybe he’ll finally get the recognition he deserves.

He certainly has from me, and now hopefully from you now as well.

Feature image by Rick Scuteri/USA TODAY Sports.

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Andrew McCutchen

The fall of Andrew McCutchen

Four top-five N.L. MVP seasons, one N.L. MVP award, five-time N.L. All-Star, four Silver Slugger awards and one Gold Glove. The accomplishments read as almost a prerequisite for greatness in the majors. But even though it was as little as two years ago that he garnered an All-Star appearance and a Silver Slugger, Andrew McCutchen is far removed from his glory days.

Gone are the All-Star appearances, the Silver Sluggers, the MVP discussions. In their place are trade rumors and position changes, as a former star tries to adjust to his diminished skillset.

But how did the man who resurrected baseball in Pittsburgh become expendable?

An up and down 2016

Andrew McCutchen

The 2016 season was a roller coaster ride for Andrew McCutchen (Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY Sports).

Many look at Andrew McCutchen’s 2016 season, compare it to his career, and call it a “down season”. And while that may be true, when you look closer, the numbers tell a different story.

Andrew McCutchen is a notoriously slow starter, and 2016 was no different. But even with a .226 batting average at the end of April, his 115 OPS+ was still respectable.

He seemed to be finally turning it on in May, when he hit .284 and posted a 119 OPS+. All signs pointed to McCutchen getting hot, that is until the calendar turned to June.

McCutchen hit a miserable .202 in June with a paltry 52 OPS+. The month of June is really what brought McCutchen’s numbers down.

Whether it was fatigue or an undisclosed injury or just the randomness of baseball, June 2016 was the worst we had ever seen Andrew McCutchen play.

Even so, he picked it up after June, hitting .247 in July and posting a 91 OPS+. While still a low number, it was a stark improvement from June.

And once July ended, the Andrew McCutchen of old seemed to return. A .280 batting average in August helped him earn a 119 OPS+, and set him up for a monster end of the season.

In September and October, McCutchen hit .287 with six home runs, 22 RBIs and a 141 OPS+. Gong by the last few months of the season, it seemed McCutchen had returned to form, and gave some glimmer of hope for the 2017 season.

But an offseason of trade rumors and a position change left McCutchen in flux, and the doubts of his performance again began to crop up. Any tempered optimism that fans had in regards to McCutchen’s 2017 season were dashed once the games began to rack up.

Rock bottom: The 2017 season

While the calendar has just turned to June, the performance of Andrew McCutchen so far has left much to be desired. Those who called his 2016 season a downfall have only had their points enforced by his play this season.

In 52 games, McCutchen has hit .223 and posted an 86 OPS+. Some thought that a return to center field would provide a spark for McCutchen. But in his 38 games played in center field for the suspended Starling Marte, McCutchen has done little to show a return to form.

Many have speculated the cause for McCutchen’s decline, and I will add to that speculation. When looking at the advanced metrics, one thing stood out to me more than any other: a sign of declining speed. McCutchen had always been known for his blend of power and speed, and even though he hit .256 last season, he still hit 24 home runs.

That is right in line with his 162 game average of 24 per year. But his legs seem to be giving out on him, causing his overall performance to decline.

Explaining McCutchen’s decline

Andrew McCutchen

A decline in speed may be the culprit behind McCutchen’s decline (Dylan Buell/Getty Images).

One statistic I saw a major drop in was his BABIP. With a career .328 BABIP, the .247 mark posted this season by McCutchen is well below his usual performance.

BABIP can be impacted by a number of factors, one being the speed of a player. It can be reasoned that the faster a player, the better chance he has at beating out a throw to first for a base hit. And that was something that McCutchen excelled at.

With a 9.2 percent infield hit rate, McCutchen was able to beat out ground balls for base hits. But this season, McCutchen’s 3.1 percent infield hit rate is vastly lower than his career mark.

With a lower infield hit percentage this season compared to his career, it seems that his speed has sorely diminished. And when you take into account his stolen base numbers, it becomes even more evident.

From 2009-2015, McCutchen averaged 22 stolen bases per season. In 2016, that number dropped to six stolen bases. He was also caught stealing seven times last season. The decline in stolen bases was a precipitous one, but only part of the decline of Andrew McCutchen’s game.

But at only 30 years old, it remains to be seen if the former MVP can adjust to playing the game with a diminished skill set.

 

Feature image by Jim Mcisaac, Getty Images.

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2017 MLB Season

We have liftoff: The rise of the Houston Astros

No one saw what was to come of that October night in 2005. The Chicago White Sox had just swept the Houston Astros in four games to win the World Series, and the celebration that occurred in Minute Maid Park was one that left a sour taste in Astros’ fans mouths. Little did they know that it was a precursor to the next few years of Astros baseball.

But with a long rebuild finally in the rear-view mirror, fans have a winning team again. That night in 2005 seems a lot longer ago that 12 years, and that is in large part thanks to the success the franchise is experiencing. But how did a team that hadn’t finished better than 11 games back of first place average 85 wins in the past two seasons and have one of the best records in the majors this season? It took some savvy moves, and the ability to admit that change was needed.

Houston Astros

Dallas Keuchel was one of the shiniest diamonds in the rough ever, winning the 2015 AL Cy Young Award (Colin E. Bradley/AP Photo).

Cultivating the Farm

Even though the Astros lost the World Series in 2005, the core of the roster was held onto long after their glory days. With aging stars like Lance Berkman, Roy Oswalt and other core components still on the roster, management made a change for the better that came to a head in 2010.

Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt were both shipped off to contending teams, but their hauls didn’t bring back any impact players for the Astros. Even so, their trades were still a key component in the rebuild process.

With the team being stripped to the bare bones, the rebuild was officially underway in 2011, as Houston lost 106 games.

But that season saw the first glimpses of the dynamic and diminutive second baseman, Jose Altuve. They also drafted center fielder George Springer in the first round of the MLB Draft that year. The duo of Springer and Altuve have become the core of the Astros, and have set the franchise up for a succesful future.

Young studs like Carlos Correa, Lance McCullers and Alex Bregman were also acquired via the draft, and have helped to lift the club back into contention.

They also found a Cy Young winner in the seventh round of the 2009 MLB Draft. After struggling in 2012 and 2013, Dallas Keuchel would go on to win the 2015 AL Cy Young award. But it wasn’t just the farm system that helped lift the Astros to relevancy

Bargain Deals and Smart Investments

Houston Astros

Will Harris has had a massive impact on a dominant Astros bullpen (Mike Carlson, Stringer).

The Astros were just as good at finding talent on the free agent market and waiver wire as they were in the MLB Draft. Right hander Collin McHugh was one of the worst starters in the league in 2012 and 2013, putting up a combined 8.94 ERA in that time.

But when he came to the Astros in 2014, he became a whole new pitcher. His 3.71 ERA in an Astros uniform is a stark contrast to his younger years, and he has developed into one of the Astros’ better starting pitchers.

But it hasn’t been just the starting rotation that has benefited from free agency. Will Harris came into Astros spring training in 2015 just trying to make the roster. Little did anyone know that he would finish the season with a 1.90 ERA out of the pen. His contributions were also joined by another relief pitcher in 2015.

Prized free agent reliever Pat Neshek made the move from St. Louis to Houston in 2015 and immediately made an impact. With a 3.36 ERA in his two seasons in Houston, Nesheck became a valuable member of a much improved bullpen.

Joined by fellow free agent additions Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, the Astros have had excellent success in the free agent market. By not overspending on free agents and being able to exploit the bargain bin, the Astros have put together a consistent winner in Houston.

Putting it all together

The Astros have had an interesting approach to rebuilding the team. By tearing the team down to its roots, they lost in the present to win in the future. And the future has finally arrived with a 31-16 record in the AL West and a young core to build around.

The front office has proven to be more than adequate at picking up well-priced free agents and finding contributors on the waiver wire. With the ability to put solid contributors around an excellent young core, the Astros are primed to fully wipe away the taste of the 2005 World Series and replace it with a savory World Series title.

 

Featured image by Troy Taormina, USA Today.

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MLB Trade Deadline Targets

With a quarter of the season in the books, we are drawing ever closer to the trade deadline. Contenders and pretenders are weeding themselves out, and the trade market is forming. Accordingly, we will analyze four of the top trade targets and their potential landing spots.

SS Zack Cozart – Cincinnati Reds

After hitting a career high 16 home runs last season, Cozart has improved his play in 2017. The 31 year old is batting .352/.433/.602 with four home runs and 19 RBIs. He has been a key cog in the Red’s offensive attack, but his days in Cincinnati may be numbered. With the Reds slowly fading to the bottom of the NL Central, the Reds may have no choice.

Sitting at 20-22, the Reds are fourth in their division and 4.5 games back of first place. While they have performed well to this point, they are starting to show their true colors. With a 3-7 record in their past 10 games, Cozart may become expendable. Given his age and his potent season, the Reds may sell high and get a crop of young players in return.

Best Fit – Baltimore Orioles: Sitting at 25-16, the Orioles are primed to wrestle control of the division. J.J. Hardy has not had an OPS+ over 100 in the past five seasons, and at 34, it may be time to move Hardy to the bench.

1B Justin Smoak – Toronto Blue Jays

A solid 8.5 games out of first place and a 18-26 record have the Blue Jays as sellers at the trade deadline. And with all the moves the team has made in recent seasons, the organization could use an influx of young prospects. That leaves first baseman Justin Smoak as a prime target at the trade deadline.

His .279/.344/.537 slash line is by far the best of his career, and Toronto could capitalize on his success. And with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs, Smoak has proven to be a consistent contributor in the Blue Jays’ lineup. Given his hot start and his teams struggles, it makes too much sense to hold onto him.

Best Fit – New York Yankees: Even if trades to division rivals are few and far between, this is one that could be the exception. Chris Carter has been absolutely dreadful in pinstripes. And Greg Bird, when healthy, hasn’t been much better. Given the Yankees’ deep farm system, Smoak should be easy to acquire.

SP Gerrit Cole – Pittsburgh Pirates

As the season progresses, the fate of Pirates ace Gerrit Cole is becoming all too clear. Sitting in the cellar of the NL Central, it seems the Pirates’ window of opportunity has finally closed. And with star center fielder Starlin Marte out for the season, there is little hope in Pittsburgh. But what hope does exist lies with Gerrit Cole.

The staff ace sports a 2.84 ERA in his nine starts this season, providing a great opportunity for the Pirates to earn a W every time he takes the hill. The 26 year old also has four years of MLB service, and will demand top dollar on the open market. And with the Pirates falling deeper into obscurity, the time is now to capitalize on Cole’s value.

Best Fit – Houston Astros: With a 29-14 record, the Astros have seemingly no holes. But if the team is serious about being top flight contenders, then a player like Gerrit Cole would elevate them to the next level. He would fit in perfectly behind Dallas Keuchel to form one of the best one-two punches in any rotation.

SP Andrew Triggs – Oakland Athletics

Andrew Triggs has been a revelation for the A’s (John Hefti/USA TODAY Sports).

The Oakland Athletics are always one of the more active sellers at the trade deadline. And sitting at nine games back of the Houston Astros for first place in the AL West, this season will be no different. But one of their top trade chips is someone you have probably never heard of – Andrew Triggs.

His 2.12 ERA in eight starts for the A’s has been spectacular. The 28 year old was solid in Oakland last season, but has brought his production to new heights in 2017. Given his age, performance and the A’s willingness to trade away players, he won’t be in green and gold for too much longer.

Best Fit – Colorado Rockies: The Rockies are 27-17 and in first in the NL West, but the Dodgers and Diamondbacks are hot on their heels. Pitching has always been a source of woe for Rockies fans, but Triggs could help stabilize the rotation. With a short track record of success, Triggs shouldn’t demand a king’s ransom on the market. Triggs would be a welcome addition in Denver.

Feature image by Gene J. Puskar/AP Photo.

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Eric Thames

Evaluating Top Performers in MLB

There are players in the majors that far exceed expectations every year. Whether it’s a young rookie blowing away the competition or a veteran player who has finally found “it,” these are the players that draw the most attention.

Let’s look at four of the most surprising performers this season and see if their success can be explained. The numbers never lie, so let’s take an in-depth look at some of the more advanced metrics on these four players and see what they tell us.

1B Yonder Alonso – Oakland Athletics

Surprise MLB Performers

Yonder Alonso has finally found “it” in Oakland (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)

Yonder Alonso has been a revelation for the A’s this year after a lackluster season last year. He’s put up a .303/.389/.687 slash line in 32 games. He also has 11 home runs and 27 RBIs.

The home runs are more than he has slugged in any of his previous seven seasons. How has Alonso been so productive this season?

Numerous metrics vary widely from the norm for Alonso, and they may just be the reason for his resurgence. Alonso has a fly ball rate of 46.7 percent this season. That is much higher than his 27.5 percent last year.

What does this really mean? It means Alonso is putting the ball in the air almost 50 percent of the time he makes contact. That allows him to utilize his power and drive the ball for more doubles and homers.

He has also lowered his ground ball rate from 44.6 percent last year to 26.7 percent this year, causing him to have more opportunities to turn those hit balls into base knocks.

His improved fly ball rate has caused his home run numbers to increase, and his ability to hit the ball up the middle at a 40 percent clip has helped anchor his average. He is also making hard contact on 41.3 percent of the balls he puts into play, far outperforming his career 31.0 percent.

Alonso is having a career season, and it’s easy to see why. His 41.3 percent hard-contact rate combined with his 46.7 fly ball rate have resulted in Alonso being one of the most productive first basemen in baseball this season. If he keeps it up, don’t expect him to remain in green and gold for long.

SP Jason Vargas – Kansas City Royals

Jason Vargas has had an up and down career, but he has transformed himself into a new player in Kansas City. In his four years in a Royals uniform, he has a 3.35 ERA, a solid mark for any starter.

However, he has taken his play to a whole new level this season. He has a 1.19 ERA in six starts and is striking out 8.4 batters per nine innings. How has Vargas gone from solid to spectacular?

One way he has improved is his ability to leave runners on base. His 87.4 left-on-base percentage is much higher than his career 73.3 percent. By leaving runners on base, he has drastically lowered his ERA.

Vargas isn’t relying on smoke and mirrors to produce his minuscule ERA. Opposing hitters have a .282 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). While that is lower than the average .300 BABIP experienced by pitchers, he is still relatively close to the norm. Vargas isn’t relying on an unsustainable BABIP to produce, meaning his performance is strong and should carry on throughout the season.

Another indicator of his sustainable success is his fielding-independent pitching (FIP). FIP measures a pitcher’s ERA independent of the fielders behind him, leading to a more accurate measure of the pitchers performance. With a 2.15 FIP this season, Vargas is performing at an elite level.

Don’t expect his 1.19 ERA to last throughout the season, but he will keep putting up spectacular numbers throughout the season.

1B Ryan Zimmerman – Washington Nationals

Ryan Zimmerman has found the fountain of youth in 2017 (Photo by Cliff Owen/AP).

When you’re hitting like Ryan Zimmerman, it seems like luck is on your side. Zimmerman is having a renaissance year in Washington and is currently tied or leading in all three Triple-Crown categories.

His .393 batting average and 34 RBIs lead all of baseball. He is also tied with Aaron Judge and Eric Thames for the lead in home runs with 13. How has a player that hit .218 last season vaulted himself into contention for the Triple Crown?

The metrics are mixed on Ryan Zimmerman’s performance this season. He has an unsustainable .422 BABIP, which has helped loft his batting average to around .400. His BABIP will surely drop as the season continues, and with it his batting average.

Even so, he is getting hard contact on 45.8 percent of the balls he puts into play. He also has a medium-contact rate of 43.8 percent. His hard-contact percentage will surely drop, but it should increase his medium-contact percentage.

Zimmerman’s home-run-per-fly-ball (HR/FB) percentage is also astronomical, hovering around 36.1 percent so far. It will surely regress, but no one is taking away his league leading 13 home runs.

Even with regression imminent, Zimmerman is still performing exceptionally well this season. He has been a key cog in the Nationals lineup, and he shouldn’t experience too much of a drop off in performance.

1B Eric Thames – Milwaukee Brewers

Eric Thames is close to becoming in the U.S. what he was in Korea: a spectacle of epic proportions. His performance this season has been among the best in all of baseball.

His .331 batting average, 13 homers and 25 RBIs are close to the rate of success he experienced in Korea. Surely major league pitching will figure him out soon, right?

If they do, it won’t be any time soon. Thames is tearing the cover off the ball with a 47.1 percent hard-contact rate. His ability to produce solid hits off of the bat has allowed him to increase his batting average as well as his home run total.

However, he may be due for regression in the slugging department. His 36.1 percent HR/FB rate is astoundingly high, and will surely regress as the season moves forward.

His .351 BABIP is also pretty high, and has helped carry his batting average. Even with a regression in BABIP, HR/FB rate and a lower hard-contact percentage, Thames will still be a productive player for the Brewers. Look for Thames to be a key piece in the rebuilding Brewers’ lineup.

 

Featured Image by Sporting News

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MLB Rookies

The Rookie’s Rise to Stardom

In a game with one of the biggest learning curves in sports, rookies have surprisingly been doing well. Baseball has had a number of young players develop into stars in recent seasons.

To fully comprehend this shift in the game, we must first examine how players make it from being a prospect in the minor leagues to making it to the show.

From Prospect to Pro

MLB Rookies

Even top picks like Colorado’s Brendan Rodgers must pay their dues in the minors (GJ Sentinel).

Major League Baseball is vastly different from the NFL and NBA when it comes to rookies. While there is no limit to how long a player must wait to be signed professionally, baseball still averages the oldest rookies of all three of the major sports.

That is due to the way the game is played. To be successful in the majors, most players need to be at their peak of maturation, normally around 24 to 25 years old. Being fully developed allows baseball players to utilize their bodies to the fullest.

Unlike the NFL or NBA where players can rely on physical talent alone, baseball requires a honed set of skills. It doesn’t matter if you can hit a fastball 450 feet. If you can’t handle a breaking ball, you will fail in the majors.

That is why baseball has such an advanced minor league system. The combination of developing a player’s physical and mental capabilities to be successful in the majors takes time. The average rookie last year was 24 years old, giving credence to the time it takes to develop. However, what happens when players start breaking the mold, and advance beyond our wildest dreams?

2012: just the beginning

MLB Rookies

Mike Trout and Bryce Harper transformed the way rookies played in 2012 (nbcsports.com).

The Rookie of the Year award has always been the bar that rookies strive for. However, not all ROY winners are made the same.

From 2007-2011, ROY winners averaged 3.1 wins above replacement (WAR). Baseball Reference rates that as better than an average starter in the majors, proving that the ROY winners were truly something special.

Many have noted the increase of rookie production in the past few years, and the numbers certainly support that. From 2012-2016, ROY winners have averaged 5.4 WAR. That is a staggering jump in production, and evidence of a new age dawning in baseball.

This trend really began in 2012 with a pair of ROY winners: Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. Both players had been premium draft picks for their respective teams, but it was Harper that was seen as the next big thing in baseball.

Some players fold under such lofty expectations, but Harper flourished. He put up 5.2 WAR in his rookie year, topping all NL ROY winners since 2007 by at least 1.3 WAR. If Harper signaled a shift in the way rookies played, Trout was the zenith of their potential.

No one saw what Trout had in store. At 20 years old in his rookie season, he blew away the competition with a staggering 10.8 WAR. That is MVP type production, and earned him a second place finish in the 2012 AL MVP voting. While it may be unfair to compare Trout to other rookies due to his Hall of Fame trajectory, his fast start should not be diminished. Even so, Trout and Harper were only the beginning, setting the stage for other acts to follow.

continued success

MLB Rookies

Even Nolan Arenado, one of the games best young players, couldn’t take home the ROY award. (The Denver Post).

Since that fateful 2012 season, the way we view rookies has never been the same. That’s not just Trout and Harper’s doing either.

The rookies that have followed have helped carry their success into new seasons. Seemingly gone are the days when players like Dustin Pedroia could put up 3.9 WAR in 2007 and bring home the ROY award. Pedroia’s 2007 season would have been good enough for the third most WAR by a rookie in 2016. A new type of player is taking over the majors, and they are raising the bar of rookie performance.

Never before have we seen such young players perform so well so quickly. The NL has had two ROY winners in a row post seasons of 6.0 WAR or higher: Kris Bryant in 2015 (6.1 WAR) and Corey Seager in 2016 (6.0 WAR).

From 2007-2011, five of the 10 ROY winners posted WAR over 3.5 in their rookie years. From 2012-2016, eight of the 10 ROY winners have posted WAR over 3.5 in their rookie years. ROY of course is not the be all end all of the story of growing rookie dominance.

We saw 11 rookies post seasons of 2.5 WAR or higher last year, compared to the 2007 season in which only six rookies reached the 2.5 WAR milestone. Players like Nolan Arenado, Trea Turner, Francisco Lindor and Gary Sanchez all had rookie seasons of at least 3.0 WAR, and still weren’t able to bring home the ROY award. It will only become more difficult to bring home the ROY award with the rise in production of rookies.

The way the game is being played is changing. Younger, less-experienced players are taking over the game. Don’t let their lack of experience fool you. These young studs will dominate the game for years to come. The youth movement in baseball is upon us, and it doesn’t show any signs of slowing down soon.

 

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