Raves

2015 Predictions

Despite my complete failure to predict anything correctly last year, I’ve decided to roll out another set of predictions this year, apparently because I am a depraved masochist.  While I referred to my 2014 predictions as “bold”, I make no assertion about the boldness of this year’s predictions.  I no longer care about my perceived boldness.  I just want to get one right.

1.  Each National League division winner from 2014 (Nationals, Cardinals, Dodgers) will repeat.

While the 2015 American League looks like a complete crapshoot, with various upstarts on the rise and traditional powers on the decline, I don’t expect much to change at the top of the NL.  The Nationals started with three excellent starters in Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Gio Gonzalez, and then over the past year have added 40% of what used to be the best rotation in baseball (Max Scherzer and Doug Fister from Detroit).  The Dodgers are still the best team in the West on paper and have the means to add whatever they need over the course of the season.  The Cardinals, on the other hand, do seem to be vulnerable in the Central after a rather underwhelming 2014, but I’m not sure their division rivals have made quite enough strides to overtake them this year.  Which leads me to my next prediction…

2.  The Cubs will be a massive disappointment.

Everyone seems to love what the Cubs have done over the offseason, from signing Jon Lester to poaching Joe Maddon.  Add that to the best group of prospects in baseball, and many are picking the Cubs to experience a huge turnaround.  In fact, fans and bettors are so excited that the Cubs are leading World Series odds in Vegas, now at 6 to 1.  I’m sorry, this is just insane.  This is still a team that finished in last place in 2014, and the success of the team is largely tied to the development of youngsters with little to no major league experience, such as Kris Bryant, Javier Baez and Jorge Soler.  I have no doubt that the Cubs are headed in the right direction, but those counting on big things for 2015 are going to end up being very, very sad.  I mean, we’re talking about the Cubs!  Have we learned nothing from the past 100+ years?

3.  Two of the three longest postseason droughts will come to an end.

Only three teams have failed to make the playoffs in the past ten years: the Blue Jays (21 year drought), the Mariners (13 years) and the Marlins (11 years).  All three are improved for 2015 and have major sleeper potential, and I expect at least two of these teams to finally break through and return to the playoffs.  Honestly, I hope it’s not the Marlins, because I despise this franchise and their scumbag ownership, but the bottom of the NL East (Atlanta and Philadelphia) looks terrible and the Fish should get fat playing those teams 19 times each.

4.  Baltimore will win the AL East.

The Orioles look mediocre on paper and are generally not highly regarded by the advanced stats community.  This has been true for the past three years, but the O’s have posted three straight winning seasons, averaging 91 wins a year.  And while they have lost some key contributors from last year, like Nelson Cruz and Andrew Miller, one must remember that they dominated the AL for significant portions of 2014 without Manny Machado, Matt Wieters and Chris Davis.  Sure, the rotation is nothing special, but the same can be said for nearly all of their AL East rivals.

5.  The Yankees will have a losing record for the first time since 1992.

The post-Jeter era in New York has begun, and it does not look pretty.  Sure, Jeter’s statistics were in sharp decline over the past few years, and he was barely a shell of himself during his farewell tour in 2014.  But people tend to forget that statistics can only measure so much…and that Derek Jeter is magic.  Without magic, there is no life to the Frankenstein’s monster of the Yankees roster.  All you’re left with is a bunch of inanimate rotting body parts sewn together.

6.  The Giants will miss the playoffs.

Like clockwork.  It’s an odd year.  This will mean that this “dynasty” (I shudder at this word) will have made a total of three playoff appearances over a span of seven seasons.  What a joke.

7.  The Tigers will not win 90 games.

This is the same prediction I made as last year, but it’s significantly less bold this year, as many see the Tigers as on the verge of falling off a cliff.  I wanted to go out on a limb and say that the Tigers wouldn’t make the playoffs at all, but I can’t do it.  Or rather, I don’t want to.  With all the parity in the AL and two wild-cards, who knows.  Plus, unlike their emerging division rivals, the Tigers are clearly in all-in mode, and can go for broke at the trade deadline if they are anywhere close to contending.  But, even with some good breaks, I think 90 wins is the ceiling.

8.  The Nationals will be the best team in 2015…and it won’t matter.

I’ve lost all faith in the playoffs.  They are a complete crapshoot, and the more the playoffs are expanded, the more crappyshooty they will be.  I think the Nationals are the best team in the majors, but since when does the best team win the World Series?  Or even a good team?  Whatever.  I think I’ll just root for a Beltway Series, that will be fun.  May the best team win?  Not likely.

Playoff predictions:

NL East:  Nationals
NL Central:  Cardinals
NL West:  Dodgers
NL Wild Cards:  Pirates, Marlins

AL East:  Orioles
AL Central:  Indians
AL West:  Mariners
AL Wild Cards:  Angels, Tigers

NLCS:  Nationals over Dodgers
ALCS:  Orioles over Indians

World Series:  Orioles over Nationals

The Terrible Tigers Bullpen

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The Detroit Tigers bullpen is a flaming wet turd. You may ask, how can something be both wet and on fire at the same time? Such is the seeming impossibility of this craptitude. The Tigers bullpen has a 5.65 ERA, ranked 29th in the majors. The only team that is worse so far is Houston at 6.05, but the Astros are not a real team. Well, they are real in the sense that they are physical objects and not illusions, but, according to reliable sources, the entire Astros roster is actually a barnstorming team from the 1890’s (people were generally smaller back then, so this explains the existence of Jose Altuve) that has been resurrected via Edo Tensei, which best translates as Impure Reincarnation Summoning Technique. In other words, the Astros are literally the walking dead. But…the Tigers’ aggregate bullpen numbers include 6 innings of scoreless “relief” thrown by Drew Smyly, a starting pitcher. Subtract Smyly’s innings from the total and the bullpen ERA rises to a spectacular 6.22. As mentioned in my season preview, the Tigers will likely struggle to create any space in the division all year, because the bullpen is the terriblest in the league. They are even terribler than a bunch of zombies.

Other thoughts this week:

  • Hitter of the year, to date: Who the hell is Charlie Blackmon? And what the hell is he on? He’s the #1 hitter in fantasy at the moment, hitting .402 with 5 HR and 6 SB. I’ve heard him mentioned in the same sentence as Mike Trout, and that sentence is usually “Let’s not get carried away and compare Blackmon to Trout.” But Trout hasn’t been running this year and has 31 strikeouts. Blackmon has struck out six times. SIX. I’ve always said that Trout, with his square head, blocky frame and red garb, looks like an Autobot, specifically Hot Rod (I’m talking about Transformers the Movie from 1986, not any of this Michael Bay garbage. If you have not seen it, you need to go see it immediately. I just made it a requirement for league membership). Blackmon, swathed in black and purple, may be Trout’s perfect Decepticon counterpart. Charlie Blackmon is Cyclonus




 Hm…looks like Mike Trout could use some more courage. 



So what is Charlie Blackmon on? A little energon and a lot of luck. Or maybe it’s a little luck and a hell of a lot of energon. And steroids. And HGH. I don’t know. But we know now, thanks to my connecting the dots, that he is definitely a bad guy. Because all Decepticons are bad guys. So nothing would surprise me. 

  • Pitcher of the year, to date: Adam Wainwright is the #1 pitcher in fantasy, and right now looks like he can do whatever he wants. He has not been scored on in 25 straight innings, and has only given up 9 hits in that span. Waino had two starts last week; he left the first start after 79 pitches and 7 innings because he tweaked his knee and left the second start after 99 pitches and 8 innings probably because of lingering concerns about that knee.  It looks like the knee will be a non-issue, but in normal circumstances, that should have been two shutouts. We are inundated these days with good starting pitching performances (ESPN reports that Sunday produced a record 10 pitchers throwing 7 innings with 3 hits or less allowed), but Wainwright still stands apart from the crowd. Despite my well-documented loathing of the Cardinals (I found a new reason this weekend, as I discovered their Hawk-Harrelson-esque announcers are audio vomit), this is not an attempt to jinx Adam Wainwright. I can be objective (sometimes), and I think Wainwright finishes the year as the #1 pitcher in fantasy baseball. It won’t even be close. 
  • Pitching line of the week #1: On Saturday: Danny Duffy, 0.0 IP, 0 H, 1 R, 0 ER, 0 BB, 0 SO, LOSS, 3 batters faced. The mystery is in the line; if he faced three batters, how come his line is all zeros? This was a disaster for Duffy. Hit batter, then the next batter bunted and Duffy threw it away. Then the following batter bunted and Duffy threw it away AGAIN as the winning run scored. You’ve really got to watch it, it’s spectacular. For all that, Duffy still gets to have an ERA of 0.00 for the season. Sometimes stats make no sense. 
  • Pitching line of the week #2: Again on Saturday, Brandon Morrow: 2.2 IP, 0 H, 4 ER, 8 BB, 1 K. This is how you get pulled from a no-hitter in the 3rd inning. Thing is, he almost got away with it. Despite walking four batters in the first two innings, two double plays helped Morrow to enter the third inning unscathed. He then walked four batters to allow one run to score, got pulled, then the reliever came in and gave up a grand slam. I blame the manager for this. Only one run had scored at this point. Leave Morrow in and either let him work it out or go for the all-time walks record (16). No-lose scenario. 

Baseball Card Lessons

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Life lessons that baseball cards taught me as a kid:

  • When I was a kid, I managed to accumulate several thousand baseball cards.  Obviously, I had no money back then, so I would try to persuade my mom to buy me cards by telling her that they were a good investment.  This was boom-time for the sports card industry, and I think the whole cards-as-investment thing was a lie that the card manufacturers foisted on children to sell more cards.  I mean, they knew that these cards were going to end up being worthless.  If you’re printing millions of cards at a time, I don’t care how many years go by, how are any of these cards going to be worth anything?  (I encourage everyone in the world to throw their baseball card collections away.  Only then could my cards possibly be worth anything.)  Lesson learned: the basic economic principles of supply and demand.
  • Baseball cards were the original form of fantasy baseball.  I still remember the first trade I ever made:  Eric Davis for Don Mattingly.  Davis was a rising star for the Reds, and I had his rookie card.  But I really thought Don Mattingly had a cool sounding baseball name, and he was really good and he looked sweet with that eye black.  But it wasn’t his rookie card I was getting back, so it wasn’t worth as much.  I didn’t care; I just really wanted a Don Mattingly card, so I got one.  In hindsight, this was a fair trade, since both cards are now worth exactly zero dollars.  Lesson learned: that Don Mattingly was once awesome and that the dude currently managing the Dodgers is some sad impostor.
  • I was also a huge fan of Jose Canseco.  I thought he would be the greatest baseball player of all time, especially after his 40 homer / 40 steal season in 1988.  So I decided to go all-in on Jose.  I traded a Dwight Gooden rookie card (plus other cards) for nine various Jose Canseco non-rookie cards.  I really liked Jose, and I figured that when he eventually broke every record and went to the Hall of Fame, I would be rich. Lesson learned: the perils of not diversifying one’s portfolio. (I was kind of obsessed with Jose Canseco.  When I was bored I would just randomly call the operator and ask for Jose Canseco’s number.  Then I would hang up giggling.  I don’t know why, but I thought this was great fun and the pinnacle of daredevilry.  Yeah, I was a weird kid.)
  • One of the most valuable cards I owned wasn’t a baseball card, but this Wayne Gretzky card (as further described below, I didn’t have many valuable cards).   This was worth something like $15 according to the Beckett price guide, which seemed like a ton of money to me at the time.  So I went to a local card shop to try to sell it, but failed because my negotiation skills were even worse than they are now.  I then forgot that the card was in my coat pocket, and of course my mom then washed my coat and ruined the card.  Lesson learned: that doing laundry is bad.

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Despite having so many cards,  my cards all sucked.  Everyone else had all the hot cards.  The rookie cards of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens or Bo Jackson.  The cool Mark McGwire Team USA Card.  Older cards from the 70’s that my friends had gotten from their dads or older siblings. Cards from Canada.  Autographed cards.  I had none of these.  Every pack of cards I got brought new promise and turned out to be crap.  Topps used to have these stupid checklist cards, those were the worst.  I had hundreds of those.

It was embarrassing how terrible my collection was.  I would meet with my friends to trade baseball cards and I would just sit there while they ignored my sad cards and traded with each other while I sat there alphabetizing my cards by team name and deeply pondering whether “A’s” goes before “Astros”.  I was sick and tired of it.   So I told my friend Mark that I owned a Mickey Mantle baseball card.  I was smart about it (or so I thought); I didn’t claim that I owned THIS Mickey Mantle card, I just said I owned a Mickey Mantle card.

Mark was impressed but he wouldn’t let it alone.  He asked to see it over and over again until I realized he wasn’t going to stop asking.  So I told him I would bring the card over to his house and then biked over there.  When I arrived I pretended to check all of my pockets and said, “Oh no…it  must have fallen out of my pocket when I rode over here!”   Mark freaked out and insisted that we go look for it.  Now, if I really wanted to commit to this lie, I should have gone outside during the middle of a Michigan winter to scour the streets for a few hours.  I should have shed a few tears.  But that all seemed like too much work to me.  So I just said, “No, it’s okay.”  Yes, this is the best method I could conceive to resolve this situation.  Lesson learned: don’t lie; not because lying is bad, but because I suck at it.  (Once, I didn’t feel like doing my work at school so I just threw my worksheet away and then went to the corner to read Curious George.  My teacher came over to ask me where my worksheet was.  I went to the turn-in basket, did a poor job of pretending to look everywhere, and said “I don’t know.”  She then proceeded to pick my crumpled worksheet out of the wastebasket.  She asked me, “Is this yours?”  I said, “No.”  She then uncrumpled the paper to reveal a blank worksheet.  Blank except for my name fastidiously scrawled at the top of the paper.  Thus, this lesson was reinforced; I suck.)

You Can’t Hit ‘Em Where They Ain’t If You Don’t Know Where They Are

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“You never hold still when the enemy knows exactly where you are.” – Ender’s Game

More than ever before, baseball teams are employing the shift on defense.  I tried to look up stats to show how this is true, but it’s completely unnecessary.  Just watch any game.  Against righties, against lefties, with men on base, with no one on; teams are shifting like crazy.  I don’t think this is just a fad.  If anything, we may see even more extreme use of the shift in the near future.  But in the evolution of defensive positioning, is the shift the end of all things?

There’s an old baseball aphorism that says “hit ’em where they ain’t.”  But shifting, no matter how extremely you do it, still allows a hitter to assess the fielding landscape prior to each pitch (i.e. figure out “where they ain’t”) because the fielders, despite having shifted, become static prior to the time of the pitch.  So what about putting the fielders in motion prior to each pitch?  The Amazing Coco Crisp (yes, he is a superhero now) has said that he doesn’t like to attempt steals in certain situations because he doesn’t want to distract the hitter.  Can you imagine how distracting it would be to a hitter if every fielder just started sprinting in a random direction as the pitch was thrown?  Even if hitters eventually adjusted to this, wouldn’t this be highly entertaining to watch?  Wouldn’t you pay to watch Yasiel Puig running random spirals in right field?

Moreover, couldn’t being in motion be a wise strategic choice for outfielders in certain situations?  This is like putting a player in motion prior to the snap in football (I’m thinking Canadian football for a better example, where the receiver can actually start running forward pre-snap).  Standing still, an outfielder needs to accelerate from zero; but if the outfielder were running at the time of the pitch (and in the generally correct direction), the amount of distance he could cover would be drastically increased.  Obviously, this would also increase the amount of time it would take for him to stop and turn around if he’s running in the completely opposite direction of the ball.  But if all three outfielders are in motion, could there possibly be an arrangement of their starting vectors that provides superior field coverage?  I’m thinking something like the right and left fielders both start in the center fielder’s normal position and the center fielder starts at the center field wall.  While the pitcher is in his windup, the left and right fielders sprint towards the left and right field lines respectively, while the centerfielder runs straight in towards the infield.  This could create a lot of field coverage, while also creating the most chaos right in the hitter’s field of vision.

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I’ve attempted to test my theory using this Web Gems game on ESPN by starting my fielder at the wall and then running towards the batter before the pitch is thrown.  I think this was an extremely scientific way to test this, but yet my results were somewhat inconclusive (though I did rack up almost 4000 points, which is a pretty good score, I think.  I get lots of girls).

This one time, I was playing centerfield during a softball game, and the other team had this guy who was just hitting lasers wherever he wanted.  He was hitting them where we weren’t; if I shaded over to left-center he would hit it to right-center and vice-versa.  Finally, I deliberately shaded far over to left, tantalizing him with a huge gaping hole in right-center field.  But as the pitch was in the air, I started to run over to right-center.  Sure enough, he laced a rocket to right-center, but I was perfectly positioned to easily catch it.  From center field, I could see the look of confusion on his face.  Wasn’t there a gap there?  Wasn’t that guy just in left-center?  Yeah.  I just destroyed you with my mind.  I am a softball ninja.  You can’t hit ’em where they ain’t if you don’t know where they are.  That’s the title of this article!

But seriously, I’m serious.  This idea isn’t as nuts as it sounds. Baseball already has fielders in motion in certain situations, specifically bunts (where the 1st/3rd basemen charge) and stolen base attempts (where the 2B/SS is running towards second base).  All I’m saying is that I think it’s highly likely that we can identify significantly more situations where putting fielders in motion is beneficial.  Now is that so crazy?

Fantasy Memories: Ryan Klesko

In late April 2001, I had just graduated from college and was planning to go backpacking through Europe for most of the month of May.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to check my fantasy baseball team very much while I was traveling (no smartphones in 2001), so the night before I left, I set my roster one last time.  I think my first baseman was hurt or something, so I just picked up the highest ranked first baseman available on the waiver wire, who happened to be Ryan Klesko.  Despite a solid 2000 season, Klesko had started 2001 slowly, hitting only .247 in April, so someone had dropped him.  I didn’t know much about the dude at all, so I was just hoping that he would stay relatively healthy and at least not hurt my team too much while I was gone.

When I returned to the U.S. at the end of May, I finally logged back on to a computer and took a look at the numbers next to Klesko’s name.  My jaw fell off my face.  Ryan Klesko had gone insane.  In May 2001, Klesko hit .354/.464/.788 with 11 homers, 40 RBI and 10 stolen bases.  That’s double digit steals and homers in a single month.  I have no idea whether anyone else has managed this feat, but it seems like it would be extremely rare.  I checked all of the 40/40 seasons in history (Canseco, Bonds, A-Rod, Soriano) and none of them did it.  And Klesko was primarily a first baseman!  While I was off traipsing across Europe, Klesko was doing work, carrying my fantasy team on his back for an entire month.

Fantasy baseball managers tend to develop irrational attachments to certain players, or at least I do.  Very often, it’s a guy you feel like you “discovered”, someone you bought into and believed in before anyone else did.  In those cases, a large portion of that ongoing attachment comes from personal pride in your own fantasy baseball skills.  You identified a star before he became a star, therefore, you are also a star and every time you see his name in your lineup, you feel good about you.  I definitely feel that way about some of the guys I’ve had on my team over the years, like James Shields or R.A. Dickey. But this wasn’t the case with Klesko.  I was just plain lucky that I happened to have added him right before he exploded; I can take no credit in this.  But I continued to roster him on many of my teams up until he retired in 2007, and this was a different kind of attachment.  Call it eternal gratitude.

The 2001 MLB season was perhaps the most memorable of my lifetime.  Seattle won 116 games.  Barry Bonds hit a billion homers.  Ichiro won rookie of the year and MVP honors.  Albert Pujols’ ridiculous rookie year as the oldest-looking 20 year old in history.   9/11.  The Jeter Flip.  All of this culminated in the greatest World Series I have ever seen.  So it’s not surprising that Klesko’s amazing May has been virtually forgotten.  But not by me.  My gratitude continues until this day.  For that amazing month, thank you Ryan Klesko.  Thank you until the end of time.

For The WIN: Defending the ‘W’

On Opening Day, Cliff Lee got the win in an ugly 14-10 victory over the Rangers, despite giving up EIGHT earned runs in five innings.  Obviously, he did not pitch well, and statheads like to point to results like these when criticizing the win as a statistic that accurately measures pitching performance.  Some go even further, suggesting that baseball should do away with the win altogether.  I think that’s too far.  Everybody already knows that the number of wins a pitcher racks up is largely dependent on team performance and luck, so the win is already de-emphasized in most people’s minds.  How else can you explain Felix Hernandez winning the 2010 Cy Young with a 13-12 record?  But the win has its merits, particularly in a historical context.  300 wins has long been an automatic ticket to the Hall of Fame and it still should be; even if you think wins are a bit lucky, a high career win total is, at the very least, a testament to a starting pitcher’s longevity.  There’s also the continuity argument: Denny McLain was the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season, back in 1968, and this was a big deal.  Baseball, more than any other sport, is all about tradition and history.  By eradicating the win, we’d basically be saying to future generations, “Grandson, there was this guy who won 30 games back in the day.  Wait, what do you mean you don’t know what a win is?”  And MLB is all about continuity, so they’ll never get rid of the win.  People need to stop shouting at the rain.  The win, flawed as it may be, will always be around.  Deal with it.

Some hardcore fantasy baseball leagues, frustrated with the arbitrary nature of the win, have moved away from the ‘W’ as a scoring category, replacing it with quality starts or some other category.  At the same time, however, more and more fantasy leagues are moving from traditional season-long scoring formats to weekly head-to-head formats.  Head-to-head, by breaking up the season into discrete scoring blocks, keeps more people engaged throughout the season, but at the same time, also introduces a greater element of luck.  You might have the best fantasy team in the league over the course of a season, but in any given week, any team can beat any other since the sample size is so much smaller.  The best team very often doesn’t win, and it seems that more and more fantasy baseball managers are willing to sacrifice accuracy for fun.  That’s why the win is still a perfect statistic for fantasy baseball; it’s the funnest stat out there (yes, I realize that “funnest” is not a word.  But it just looks funner than “most fun”.  And I’m all about fun).  I mean, sure, we could only credit a starting pitcher for what he does during the game.  But starters only go like six or seven innings these days.  What’s the incentive to watch the rest of the game once they leave?  That’s why the win is so great; even if your pitcher throws great and leaves with the lead, you can still enjoy the roller coaster ride of seeing if the bullpen can hold the lead.  There’s no more agonizing feeling than seeing a closer blow a lead for your starting pitcher (even more so if you own the closer as well.  Ouch).  On the other side, it’s just as uplifting to see your pitcher leave the game in line for a loss, only to see the offense rally after he’s left the game to give him credit for a win.  You get to root for or against everybody, not just the players on your roster, and that’s just fun.  And isn’t that what fantasy baseball is about?  Fun for the win.

Opening Day 2014: Bold Predictions

1.  The St. Louis Cardinals will win more than 100 games.

Let me just say first of all that I kind of hate the Cards.  I hate Ozzie Smith, who is one of the most overrated players of all time.  He’s in the Hall of Fame (on the first ballot, to boot) and Alan Trammell isn’t?  Seriously?  Dude contributed virtually  nothing with the bat for his entire career, I don’t care how good he was with the glove (and come on, is there really that much of a difference between Ozzie and Omar Vizquel?  For that matter, is there even much of a difference between Ozzie Smith and Ozzie Guillen?)  I hate Tony LaRussa, who is going into the Hall of Fame despite being a complete dick of a person and managing players who were some of the most egregious steroid abusers.  I hate the 2006 version of the Cardinals, who didn’t deserve to win a World Series over my beloved Tigers and are the worst World Series champion of all time based on winning percentage.  God I hate them.

But it’s been awhile since the franchise has really given me anything to hate, so my feelings are returning towards ambivalence, and with that comes objectivity.  Entering the 2014 season, the Cardinals are the only team that are an absolute lock for the playoffs.  If we fast forwarded to October and you told me that any other team (say the Red Sox or the Dodgers) missed the playoffs, I wouldn’t be too surprised.  But there isn’t any way in hell that St. Louis doesn’t make the postseason this year.  This team not only has a stacked rotation, bullpen, offense and defense, they have a loaded farm system and depth all around the diamond.  No other team is as prepared to handle the inevitable injuries that can pile up during the course of the long regular season.  Combine all that with their relatively weak division, and I think it’s completely reasonable that this team just runs away from everyone else in the National League.  No team has won 100+ games since Philly in 2011 and overall there might be even more parity this year, but the Cards, as much as I hate to say it, will be the exception.  I take no joy in this prediction whatsoever.

2.  The Oakland A’s will finish with the most wins in the American League (and get to the ALCS).

In 2012, no one picked the A’s to do much of anything, but they finished one game shy of the best record in the AL.  In 2013, very few people picked the A’s to repeat, but they again finished one game shy of the best record in the league.  I think most prognosticators have learned their lesson, so no one is picking the A’s for a complete collapse this year, but most are not picking the A’s to match their 96 wins from last year.  But I like their chances of not only winning their division, but having the best record in the league.

There’s still a lot of upside on this roster that wasn’t captured in 2013.  So while Josh Donaldson likely won’t match his MVP-caliber performance, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes are both primed to improve on poor 2013 season.  Coco Crisp won’t fall off as much as people think as long as he stays healthy (see previous post), and the A’s are getting close to perfecting the art of the platoon at both first base and at catcher (where I like both Derek Norris and John Jaso to have good seasons).  The real question with the A’s is with their rotation, after losing Jarrod Parker for the year and Bartolo Colon to free agency.  On top of that, A.J. Griffin is out for the first few weeks of the season.  But Sonny Gray looks like he could be a legitimate ace, something the A’s didn’t really have the last two seasons, and if they need another starter mid-season, I trust Billy Beane to go out and get one.  Moreover, I think any deficiencies in the rotation can be overcome by what looks like an even stronger bullpen than the 2012 and 2013 versions, which were both pretty damn good.

As for the postseason, the A’s deserved better than their two consecutive first-round exits at the hand of the Tigers.  So, I’ll say that they win the ALDS this year and exorcise some demons…but then lose in the ALCS in seven games to the Tigers, with Justin Verlander winning games 1, 4 and 7.  Sorry A’s fans, but hey, it’s one step further than last year.  I love Justin Verlander.

3.  The Toronto Blue Jays will contend for a playoff spot.

In the past two years, all four of the other teams in the AL East have made the playoffs.  It’s the Blue Jays’ turn!  Okay, well, baseball (and life) doesn’t exactly work like that, but I loved this team on paper last year and I like them even more this year.  The offense was fine last year and should be even better this season if Jose Bautista and Jose Reyes can stay somewhat healthy; I also like Melky Cabrera to come back and contribute, well, anything.  The bullpen, led by Casey Janssen, Sergio Santos, Steve Delabar and Brett Cecil, should be nails.  Like the A’s, the question marks are in the rotation. I’m a huge R.A. Dickey fan, so I think he has a good year, though maybe not quite Cy Young caliber.  Mark Buehrle is consistently mediocre, but at least he’s not going to kill you the way Josh Johnson did last year.  So really it comes down to Brandon Morrow, Drew Hutchison and Dustin McGowan in the back half of the rotation.  That’s an injury-prone strikeout artist with control issues, a high-upside rookie, and one of my favorite breakout fantasy candidates…from 2008 (and who has pitched less than 100 innings total at all levels since then).  That’s a ton of question marks, but I like the upside potential from this group.  If the Jays can get even league average performance from their starters, I like their offense and bullpen enough to keep them in the mix for a wild-card slot all year.  I’m not saying they’ll definitely make the playoffs, but they’ll get close.

4.  The Detroit Tigers will win less than 90 games.

Ahh…my Tigers.  I don’t even know what to do with these guys right now.  After an offseason and spring training where it appears ownership and upper management have gone collectively insane (Fielder-Kinsler trade, Fister trade, trading for two garbage shortstops to cover for Iglesias injury, failure to re-sign Scherzer, WTF Cabrera contract), this team just has a really bad juju to it.  I’m now prepared for the worst, but of course still hoping for the best.  But there is a ton of downside to this team.

– Offense:  With Prince Fielder departing, it looks like Miguel Cabrera could lead the league in homers…and the Tigers could finish last in the AL in home runs.  Where’s the power coming from in this lineup?  Even if you disregard power, however you set this lineup, spots six through nine in the batting order just look like black holes to me.  I expect Nick Castellanos to struggle to make contact his rookie year and I don’t have much hope for Alex Avila to be anything more than okay.  Granted, as long as the Tigers have Miggy they’ll at least be average, but will average be good enough?

– Starting pitching:  Despite the horrendously bad Doug Fister trade, I still think this could be the best 1 through 5 rotation in baseball if everyone stays healthy, even accounting for declines from Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer, but the Tigers have been pretty fortunate the last couple of years health-wise.  If even one of these guys goes down, there isn’t a single guy in the organization who can step in as a serviceable starter.  Jose Alvarez could have been that guy, but we just traded him for SS A. Romine (can’t remember whether he is Austin or Andrew) in a panic move.  One injury will be tough to recover from; two and the season’s over.

– Bullpen:  The Tigers’ achilles heel the last two postseasons has been the bullpen, though maybe more due to Jim Leyland’s mismanagement.  But as mediocre as last year’s bullpen was, this year’s is stacking up to be much worse.  The best three guys from the Tigers’ 2013 bullpen (Joaquin Benoit, Drew Smyly, Jose Veras) are gone (or, in Smyly’s case, moved to the rotation) and have been replaced by Joe Nathan and a bunch of garbage.  Now, Joe Nathan is a pretty good closer, but there’s no way that one closer makes up for three solid bullpen arms.  Despite having the big names on their roster, the Tigers have underperformed during the regular season the last couple years, largely due to bullpen weaknesses.  This is only going to get worse this year.

The Tigers aren’t going to win 90 games.  Their only hope really is that 88 wins or so is enough to win the AL Central.  I think it just might be enough, but if the Royals or Indians get a little lucky this year, we could be looking at the end of the Tigers’ three-year postseason streak.

Postseason Predictions:

AL East: Boston
AL Central: Detroit
AL West: Oakland
Wildcards:  New York, Toronto

NL East:  Washington
NL Central:  St. Louis
NL West:  Los Angeles
Wildcards:  Honestly, I would not be surprised if it were any teams other than New York, Miami or Chicago.  Let’s just say Cincinnati and San Francisco.

ALCS: Detroit over Oakland
NLCS: St. Louis over Washington

World Series:  Detroit (88 wins) over St. Louis (101 wins).  Revenge for 2006!  Suck it St. Louis.

Coco Crisp, Home Run Stealer

In March of 2013, Coco Crisp spoke to Grantland about his base-stealing philosophy:

“A lot of guys like to see what kind of pitches a pitcher will throw, for hitting. Since I don’t care about that [laughs] … I just like to go up there, see the ball, hit the ball. I don’t like too much information for hitting. But for base stealing, I can never have too much information. So I like to go in there and see what their first movement is, check on their times [to home]. With base stealing, the biggest thing is knowing what time you can steal off of a pitcher, and being patient with that. I just try to collect as much information as possible so I have a higher-percentage chance to steal.”

Coco then went on to hit a career-high 22 home runs in 2013, but posted the lowest stolen bases number of his A’s career (21).  I don’t know why he ran so little in 2013; maybe his legs weren’t fully healthy all year, maybe age started to take its toll, or maybe he gave away too much strategy in the Grantland article.  But I have a sneaking suspicion that he was able to hit so many homers not by sheer luck or statistical anomaly, but by applying a basestealer’s mindset to home run hitting.  He’s not hitting homers, he’s stealing home runs.

Coco has been a remarkable base stealer over the course of his career, and his success rate has improved with age.  In his four seasons with the A’s, he has posted a 87% success rate (better than Carlos Beltran’s career rate).  Here’s another quote from the Grantland article:

Q:  That whole thing about not making the first or last out of an inning at third base … will you never, or rarely, run if you’re on second with nobody out, or two outs, because of fear of getting caught?
A:  Well I’m always trying to make sure I don’t get caught. But even more so, I guess, in those situations. So I want to make sure that it’s 100 percent that I’m going to make it.”

For Coco, it’s not about attempting a steal every time he gets on base to rack up his total steals count.  Rather, it’s a case-by-case risk analysis.  If there are enough factors leaning in his favor (slow delivery, high leg kick, pitch type, game situation) he’ll go.  It seems to me he’s approaching home runs in the same way.  Here’s how he does it:

1.  Directional Hitting

Have you ever noticed that when reporters interview a guy after he hits a big home run, he often says something like, “I wasn’t trying to hit a home run, I was just trying to hit the ball hard”?  Very rarely do I ever see someone say, “Yeah, I was trying to dent the freaking moon.”  I kind of feel like this is one of those canned interview answers, like “both teams deserved to win” or “it’s not about me, it’s about the team” or “I only took steroids to recover from an injury”, but I also feel like this response has some truth to it.  Sometimes, a ballplayer really is just trying to hit a line drive, but accidentally hits a home run instead.

Coco Crisp is not one of these players, because he’s not strong enough.  (I’m speaking in relative terms.  Obviously Coco Crisp could beat the crap out of me; I’m just saying he doesn’t have the brute strength of a Miguel Cabrera, who probably often tries to park a double in the gap but instead hits a semi in the parking lot.)  Being the self-aware guy he is, he compensates for his lack of pure power by aiming down the lines.  This is where each of Coco’s homers landed in 2013:

Crisp_Coco_2013_scatter

You can see from the chart that Coco is an extreme pull hitter when it comes to home runs; if you chart his non-homers, he exhibits only slight pull tendencies and sprays the ball to all fields.  Out of his 22 homers, 21 were pulled strongly, many of them down the line, none were hit to center or the alleys, and one was hit to the opposite field.

What I see from this chart is intent.  When Coco decides to try for a home run “steal”, he maximizes his chances for success by taking advantage of (1) the shorter distance to the wall from the plate at the corners, and (2) the faster bat speed generated by pulling the ball.

2.  Situational Hitting

Using his pull-only approach, Coco will look for a particular pitch (seems to me like he guesses fastball or breaking ball about 50/50 on successful home runs) and if he gets that pitch on the inside half of the plate, he’ll let it fly.  But are there particular game situations where he is more likely to attempt a HR steal?

Let’s take a closer look at the differences in Coco’s approach when there are runners on base and when they are empty:

Bases empty:  8.1% BB, 13.2% K, 3.0% HR, 3.83 pitches/PA
Men on base:  9.9% BB, 8.8% K, 1.5% HR, 3.53 pitches/PA

These splits are over the last three seasons combined, but the differences in the ratios generally hold true for any of those three individual seasons.  In 2013, for example, he posted an ISO of .200 with the bases empty and .149 with men on.  16 of his 22 homers were solo homers (and 15 of the first 16).

Coco strikes out 50% more often and hits homers 100% more often with the bases empty.  This Jekyll-and-Hyde result appears to be due to a deliberate willingness to sacrifice contact for power with the bases empty.  With men on base, he appears to be much more of the self-proclaimed “see the ball, hit the ball” player.  I don’t think Coco is the only player to show a consistent situational split like this, but his does seem to be rather pronounced.

Why is this?  I’m not sure.  I think much of this has to do with the base-stealer’s mentality.  The element of surprise is a huge part of stealing bases, one that greatly increases the odds of success.  By that logic, it may seem to Coco that a game-changing home run is much more on a pitcher’s mind when there are runners on base than when the bases are empty.  Alternatively or in addition, it may be about risk for Coco.  While there is a greater reward for hitting a homer with men on base, there is also a greater penalty for striking out and failing to advance the runners or extend a rally.  I think that additional negative effect is hard to stomach for a base stealer that wants to be 100% sure he’s going to be successful on a stolen base attempt.

Of the players that hit 18 or more homers in 2013, Coco ranks dead last in average home run distance, and it’s not even close.   There was an article on FanGraphs last fall that questioned Coco’s ability to repeat his 2013 homer binge and suggested that “Crisp will have a difficult time replicating this season’s power numbers because in comparison to other home run hitters, he simply hasn’t hit his fly balls very far.”

I disagree, because Coco simply isn’t like other home run hitters.  He’s not a home run hitter at all, he’s a home run stealer.  I’d rather look at this the way we look at stolen bases: how many times did Coco attempt to hit a home run in 2013 and how many times was he successful?  Only Coco knows the answer to the first part of that question, but I think that Coco’s increase in homers in 2013 was driven more by an increase in home run attempts (i.e. more situations where Coco identified optimal go-for-it conditions) than an increase in success rate.  I would expect his rate of success would remain relatively constant or even rise as he becomes wiser with age (just as his SB success rate and BB/K rates have increased).  The real question then is how many times will Coco attempt to hit a homer in 2014?  If the answer to that unknowable question is something similar to 2013, I would give Coco a great shot to hit, nay, steal 20+ homers again in 2014.

Brad Ausmus, Managerial Reform and the Great Spring Hope

For the second straight postseason, Jim Leyland completely botched the management of his bullpen.  But after no playoff appearances in 19 years, the Tigers have made the playoffs four times in eight seasons since Leyland took over.  Also, by all accounts, the players adored and respected him.  He wasn’t going to get fired, period.  So when Leyland announced his retirement this offseason, man, was I relieved.

But where’s the relief in getting rid of a strategically-challenged manager only to replace him with another one?  With candidates like Dusty Baker, Charlie Manuel and Lloyd McClendon being mentioned for the job, I have to say that I agree 100% with the choice to hire former catcher Brad Ausmus.  Because even though Ausmus has no managerial experience and we have no idea what to expect from him as a manager, the unknown is better than the known garbage.

The hope is that Ausmus turns out to be a superior in-game strategos while also commanding the same respect that Leyland enjoyed.  And that’s how I would break down the primary roles of a baseball manager:  Strategy and People.

  • Strategy: This includes all of the manager’s roles as the field captain (i.e. determination of lineups, substitutions and rotations; managing bullpens; making calls for pinch-hitting, pinch-running, defensive subs or double switches; defensive alignment).  Strategy gets the most scrutiny in the media, because it’s the most visible.  We see Grady Little decide to leave Pedro Martinez in the game in the 2003 ALCS and we all have an opinion as to whether or not it was the right decision.  (For the record, I think it was a justifiable decision.)
  • People:  This role regards the management of human capital.  This is where the term “manager” makes the most sense, because in this aspect the baseball manager’s role isn’t any different from the manager of any other kind of business.  The manager needs to be able to understand and connect with his personnel.  He needs to maximize the results of the team by understanding how to motivate his troops.  When the media refers to a manager that has “lost” his players or a clubhouse that is out of control, this usually reflects a perceived failure in the People portion of the job (e.g. Terry Francona with the 2011 Red Sox or Bobby Valentine with the 2012 Red Sox).

Both roles are crucial to the performance of a manager.  But few managers actually appear to be competent at both.  As most managers tend to be former players and/or older men who are, uh, perhaps, more set in their ways, they tend to make in-game decisions relying on either a.) not enough statistical data (i.e. rely on their guts) and/or b.) the wrong statistical data (e.g. small sample size batter vs. pitcher data).  With all of the information that is becoming available to us through more and more advanced statistics, it seems like we are getting closer to understanding the ideal choice in nearly any game situation.  But given the level of mathematical inclination required to truly understand advanced stats (much less develop newer and better models than your competition), it almost seems too much to ask for one man to be responsible for both Strategy and People.

So how about having co-managers, one for each role?  Alternatively, each team should employ a strategy guru that would be on the field and have discretion to make most on-field decisions, while ultimately reporting to the manager or the front office.  Look, I can tell you right now that I think I could handle the Strategy role for a major league baseball team; but from the People perspective, I don’t know if I could command the respect of a clubhouse with no baseball experience whatsoever.

But then again, maybe it doesn’t matter.  I do think the People role is important, but how much does it really matter?  Is there any way to quantify this in terms of wins and losses?  Most people would say that Leyland was good at the People part of his job, but I would say that his Tigers teams of the last few years have underperformed, despite the playoff appearances.  We have enshrined Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa and Joe Torre into the Hall of Fame as managers, but we still don’t know definitively whether they were great leaders of men or just lucky enough to have been carried to championships by amazing players.

Do we even need field managers at all?  Honestly, they kind of look bored most of the time.  Can’t all of the Strategy decisions be handled by someone like the general manager, who can make those calls from a luxury box?  Can’t one of the players, like a team captain, handle the People portion of the role?  The demise of the player/manager role in baseball makes me slightly sad; I remember getting a Pete Rose baseball card when I was a kid and saw his position listed as “1B-MGR” and my mind was blown.  He’s a player…AND a manager???  How cool is that?!

Ultimately, stats have come a long way in determining the value of what players do on the field.  And it seems like we are getting closer, at least, to understanding the value of what managers do on the field (check out this paper from MIT Sloan’s Sports Analytics Conference).  But we’re still a long ways away from being able to quantify the effect of good managers on an organization off the field, much less figure out which managers are actually good and which are bad.  I mean, I have a pretty good idea, but it’s pretty hard to prove that because Joe Maddon brings magicians into the Tampa Bay clubhouse the Rays actually win more games.  Maybe these effects can’t be quantified.  And if that’s true, I guess that’s fine.  I’m okay with the mystery.  I’m okay with not knowing anything about how Brad Ausmus, the manager, will perform this season.  Because it’s spring, and because hope is the answer to every unanswered question in the spring.  Everything is going to be okay.

Yasiel Puig Sets Record For Longest Bat Throw

I’ve got to say something about Yasiel Puig. This kid has been ridiculous. Even the legendarily unflappable Vin Scully, who has seen everything over all his years of broadcasting, has gone from skeptical to ebulliently incredulous in a matter of days. Puig has singlehandedly changed the entire feeling around this Dodgers team; everyone has become the best versions of themselves over the past week. I can’t believe that a fantasy manager in my league had the foresight and the patience to have rostered him since day one; well done!

Puig also brought with him from Cuba a pretty awesome bat flip:

I love the way some lefties like Cano and CarGo just fluidly drop the bat after their home run swings; Puig’s righty hammer throw reminds me of Carlos Quentin’s massive bat tosses. I’m not sure if he still does this because he changed his batting stance, but Quentin used to throw his bat astronomically long distances after making contact, it was very amusing. I have a feeling that Puig’s tosses may get longer and longer; if this becomes a major story line or an on deck batter is injured, remember that you saw it here first.