oakland athletics

Bold Predictions Revisited

In March, I made a few predictions about how the season would go.  Let’s see how I did:

Prediction #1:  The St. Louis Cardinals will win 100 games.

WRONG.  The Cards still won the NL Central, but they only won 90 games.  My prediction was based on the Cardinals’ impressive organizational depth, but what good is depth if it doesn’t yield any impact players?  Hot prospect Oscar Taveras failed to impress in his debut and Allen Craig fell flat and ended up in Boston along with Joe Kelly and his high 90’s heat that somehow doesn’t yield any strikeouts.  The seemingly deep rotation suffered heavier than anticipated losses, with Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia losing many games to injury and Shelby Miller experiencing severe growing pains.  But despite all that, the Cards were deep enough to weather a great deal of adversity and make the postseason for the fourth straight year.  So I was sort of right.  Okay, fine, I wasn’t right at all.

Prediction #2:  The Oakland A’s will win the most games in the AL.

WRONG.  This prediction looked great at the end of July.  The A’s had the best record in the majors, had just traded for Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester and were gearing up for a deep playoff run.  I looked like a genius.  But then, as has been well documented, the A’s crashed hard to earth and barely snuck in to the playoffs as a wild card while it was the division rival Angels that captured the best record.  The A’s finished with the fifth best record in the AL, so I wasn’t even close…but it feels close to me.

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

WRONG.  Again, this prediction looked really good earlier in the season, before the Orioles (!) pulled away from everyone in the division.  The Jays were flying high until their wings were clipped by injuries to Brett Lawrie and Edwin Encarnacion.  (I say their wings were clipped because Blue Jays are birds and have wings.  I have such a way with words.)  Anyways, the Jays weren’t officially eliminated until the final week of the season, but they weren’t a real contender at any point during the home stretch.

Prediction #4:  The Detroit Tigers will win less than 90 games.

WRONG.  Unlike the other predictions, I was actually close on this one.  The Tigers won exactly 90 games, and needed every single one because the Royals finished second in the AL Central with 89.  My concerns about the bullpen were exactly on point (except the part where I thought Joe Nathan would be any good) as were my worries about the depth of the rotation (Anibal Sanchez missed significant time and his replacements, such as Robbie Ray and Kyle Lobstein, weren’t very good).  The offense actually turned out to be better than I thought despite a down year from Miguel Cabrera, thanks to a career best season from Victor Martinez (32 homers) and a breakout performance from J.D. Martinez.  Anyways, I was close, but still 100% wrong…but I’m glad I was wrong.  Though it would be nice if I were even wronger, and the Tigers had won 100 games.

Prediction results:  0 for 4

Revised Postseason Predictions:

I predicted only two of five AL playoff teams correctly (Detroit and Oakland), but got four out of five NL playoff teams right (Washington, Los Angeles, St. Louis and San Francisco) plus all three division winners.  Though the teams I predicted to be in the League Championship Series are all still alive (Detroit, Oakland, St. Louis, Washington), I’m going to change my predictions because the Cardinals haven’t been as good as I thought they would be and because Clayton Kershaw is an animal.

AL Wild Card:  Oakland over Kansas City
NL Wild Card:  Pittsburgh over San Francisco

ALCS:  Detroit over Oakland
NLCS:  Los Angeles over Washington

World Series:  Detroit over Los Angeles

2014 All-Star Rosters: Addition By Subtraction

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Imagine that it’s the late innings of the 2014 All-Star Game, baseball’s summertime showcase where all of the best and brightest stars across MLB are on the field together.  The score is close, and the outcome of the game hinges on each pitch.  In from the bullpen comes…Tony Watson????….to face….Kurt Suzuki????

Let me say it simply: the All-Star Game sucks.  It SHOULD be much better.  But it’s been watered-down and dumbed-down to the point where the game itself is a complete farce.  And that starts with the roster selections.  Now, in the past, I’ve advocated for broad, wholesale changes to the game format.  But apparently no one is listening.  So let me take a moment to plead for one simple change: reduce the roster sizes from 34 to 25.

The huge current roster size is one of the reasons why the All-Star Game itself is such a clowncar shitshow.  It also dilutes the value to the player of receiving an All-Star Game invitation: is it really such an honor for a closer to be named an All-Star when 25% of all closers are named to the team every year?  No wonder many players would rather go on vacation than show up.  And yes, while contracting rosters might lead to more deserving players being snubbed, well, a lot of those players are being excluded anyways (e.g. Chris Sale, Ian Kinsler, Stephen Strasburg).

So let’s take this year’s rosters and trim the fat a little bit:

American League 

CUT:  C Derek Norris and C Kurt Suzuki
There’s already a rule that allows a player to re-enter the game to replace an injured or ejected catcher.  So why do we need THREE catchers on a roster, as is the case this year with both the AL and the NL?  Suzuki is still nothing more than a journeyman and Norris has only recently emerged from strict platoon player status.  Let Victor Martinez be the backup catcher for the AL; he can handle it.

CUT:  RP Dellin Betances
While I don’t think it should be impossible for a middle reliever to make an All-Star Game if they are having a mind-blowing season, the bar should be very high.  Generally, middle relievers aren’t even the best relievers on their own teams, so why are they getting All-Star nods?  Betances has been really really good for the Yankees and has thrown a ton of innings for them (over 50), but he has no past track record of this kind of success.  And yeah, he’s racked up a lot of strikeouts, but his strikeout rate of 13.95 per nine innings is only second best on his team, behind closer David Robertson (16.43).

CUT:  RP Sean Doolittle
Even after cutting Betances, there are still three relievers on this team, which is one too many.  I’m going to keep Glen Perkins, since Minnesota (where the ASG is being played) should have at least one representative.  I’d probably take Koji Uehara instead of either Greg Holland or Doolittle, but since I’m just cutting and not adding, I’ll remove Doolittle, who’s only had the closer job for a month and a half.

CUT:  1B Brandon Moss and 3B Kyle Seager
No doubt, both Moss and Seager are having great years.  But there simply isn’t room for Moss with two more deserving first basemen (Miguel Cabrera and Jose Abreu) already on the roster.  Same thing for Seager, who’s behind Josh Donaldson (he’s been slumping, but I’m honoring the fan vote for now) and Adrian Beltre (longer track record, more star power).

CUT:  OF Yoenis Cespedes
You don’t need three extra outfielders, so I’m cutting one.  To me, Michael Brantley is clearly deserving, so it comes down to Cespedes and Alex Gordon.  Advanced stats love Gordon’s defense, ranking him third overall in FanGraphs WAR largely due to his glove and arm, and I have a hard time stomaching Cespedes’ mediocre .316 OBP.  (The A’s ended up with an insane seven All-Stars (if you count newly acquired Jeff Samardzija) and I’m cutting four of them here.  The thing is, if I were adding players, I’d probably cut Scott Kazmir for Chris Sale or Corey Kluber or Garrett Richards.  And as mentioned above, I’d consider cutting Donaldson as well if he weren’t already voted in as a starter.  And Samardzija’s not going to pitch in the game.  So yeah, the A’s are probably the best team in the majors right now, but they are doing it without any true superstars; they could just as easily have ended up with zero All-Stars.)

CUT:  SS Alexei Ramirez
There are those who are complaining about Derek Jeter’s inclusion in this year’s game, but there simply aren’t any really worthy candidates at shortstop who are being shortchanged here.  It’s picking the best of a mediocre lot.  We don’t even need a backup here; just let Jetes play the whole game.

Trimmed AL Roster

C Salvador Perez
1B Miguel Cabrera
2B Robinson Cano
3B Josh Donaldson
SS Derek Jeter
OF Jose Bautista
OF Mike Trout
OF Adam Jones
DH Nelson Cruz

SP Mark Buehrle
SP Yu Darvish
SP Felix Hernandez
SP Scott Kazmir
SP Jon Lester
SP Max Scherzer
SP David Price
SP Masahiro Tanaka
RP Greg Holland
RP Glen Perkins

1B Jose Abreu
2B Jose Altuve
3B Adrian Beltre
OF Michael Brantley
OF Alex Gordon
DH Victor Martinez

National League

CUT:  RP Pat Neshek and RP Tony Watson
Again, middle relievers, and neither of these guys have even been as good as Betances.

CUT:  C Devin Mesoraco
Having a good year, but again, don’t need three catchers.

CUT:  3B Matt Carpenter and 2B Daniel Murphy
As above, the team doesn’t need a third 3B or 2B.  Murphy’s having a nice half year for the Mets, but I’d like to see a little more before granting him All-Star status.  (Elimination of Murphy would mean there are no Mets on the NL team.  A necessary result of the reduction of roster size would be the elimination of the one-player-per-team rule, which would be a great thing.)

CUT:  SP Tyson Ross
Ross is the token Padre, but he’s actually been pretty good this year.  Still…not quite good enough and everyone from the Padres has the stink of their awfulness.

CUT:  OF Charlie Blackmon
Blackmon is a result of player and fan balloting starting WAY too early in the season.  After a scorching April, Blackmon has proven he’s nothing special in May and June.

CUT:  OF Josh Harrison
WAAAAAAHAHAHAHA.  Seriously?  Get outta here.

Trimmed NL Roster

C Yadier Molina
1B Paul Goldschmidt
2B Chase Utley
3B Aramis Ramirez
SS Troy Tulowitzki
OF Andrew McCutchen
OF Carlos Gomez
OF Yasiel Puig

SP Madison Bumgarner
SP Johnny Cueto
SP Zack Greinke
SP Clayton Kershaw
SP Julio Teheran
SP Adam Wainwright
SP Jordan Zimmermann
RP Aroldis Chapman
RP Craig Kimbrel
RP Francisco Rodriguez

C Jonathan Lucroy
SS Starlin Castro
3B Todd Frazier
1B Freddie Freeman
2B Dee Gordon
OF Hunter Pence
OF Giancarlo Stanton

Now isn’t that much better?  We were even able to preserve the one-player-per-team standard for the American League.  We can talk about snubs another time; but as you can see, simply cutting down the roster size greatly improves the overall quality of these rosters and would result in a much more interesting game as well.  Unfortunately, I have little to no hope that this will ever change.  So, whatever.  Stay tuned for another rant about All-Star selections next year.

The Rules of Booing

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Jim Johnson has sucked hard this year.  Really hard.  I’m talking Phil Coke level sucking.  (I simply don’t have the words or the energy to rant anymore about the disaster that is the Tigers bullpen.  Coke, for example, may have some utility remaining as a LOOGY (Lefty One Out GuY) who faces lefties exclusively.  But he should not be facing ANY right handers at any point of any game, not even switch hitters who hit worse right handed and are being “turned around” against Coke.  I don’t understand.  This has been true for years, and this year it’s even worse: righties have an OPS over 1.000 against Coke in 2014.  And yet, somehow, he’s faced more righties than lefties.  Why does Tigers management insist on continually running him out there against right handed hitters?  Are they hoping he’s going to figure it out or something?  My deepest fear is that Coke starts to get lucky later on this season and somehow gain more trust from Brad Ausmus, increasing the chances that Coke is in the game in a big situation during the stretch run or in the playoffs.  I’m actively rooting for Coke to suck more right now, even if it means the Tigers lose, because the sooner that the Tigers get it through their thick skulls that this guy is a walking turd and release him, the better.)

Wait.  What was I saying?  Oh, right.  Jim Johnson.  So, Johnson has been terrible ever since the moment he arrived in Oakland, and A’s fans have been booing him mercilessly since April.  Johnson’s new teammates have scurried to his defense, making public statements beseeching the fans to stop booing him.  The tone of these statements have ranged from reasoned (“It doesn’t make him pitch better when you boo”) to clichéd (“We don’t come boo you at your place of work”) to condemning (“You are terrible people if you boo”).  A’s fans have continued to boo anyways, because Johnson has continued to suck.  This culminated in an incident last week where Johnson’s wife was booed at a team charity event.  I think booing Mrs. Johnson was, while slightly hilarious, over the line.  But where, exactly, is that line?

Look, I believe firmly that we as fans should generally be free to boo who we want to boo.  We the fans are the reason that players get paid millions of dollars, so players shouldn’t whine about being booed; better to be booed than to have no one watching at all.  So yeah, the general rule should be that you can boo anyone you want, whether he’s on the opposing team or on your team.  But as with most general rules, there needs to be a few exceptions to preserve the rightness of the universe:

The Human Decency Exception:  Don’t boo or cheer if a player is lying on the field injured.  Don’t be a bigoted booer.  Don’t heckle opposing players with a stream of non-stop expletives when you’re sitting next to a bunch of kids (maybe a few scattered f-bombs are okay).  These are all, like, duh.

The Derek Jeter Exemption:  A few years ago, Jeter started the season in a horrific slump, and he started to get booed a little bit at home.  This is after he’d already won four championships and pretty much established himself as the greatest shortstop in Yankee history.  This was messed up.  If you’re a Yankee fan, you do NOT boo Derek Jeter because he’s in a freaking slump.  To make this a more general rule, you don’t boo a guy on your own team solely based on performance if that guy still has a significant net credit with your franchise.  So let’s take the A’s, for example, who’ve made two consecutive postseason appearances.  Should any of the guys who were fundamental pieces on the 2012 and 2013 teams (e.g. Coco Crisp, Josh Donaldson) be booed if they were having a rough start to 2014?  No way; there’s no way that a few horrendous months can offset what they’ve done previously.  Obviously, the length of the exemption depends on the magnitude of the positive contribution.  Maybe you can start to boo Coco next year, but franchise-changing guys like Derek Jeter have lifetime exemptions.   This is why it’s completely okay to boo Jim Johnson; he has zero track record with the A’s.  The exemption only applies if the booing is based solely on performance; if the booing is based on off-the-field stuff (like if Miguel Cabrera started drinking again), the exemption would no longer apply and booing would be permitted.

The Jacoby Ellsbury Corollary:  This is an offshoot of the Derek Jeter Exemption.  What happens when a guy who has given a ton to your franchise, including a couple of World Series titles, leaves as a free agent to go to your arch rival?  This was the sticky situation with Jacoby Ellsbury this year.  When he returned to Boston for the first time, the response was very mixed.  Some people cheered and some people booed.  Both were right.  This is a gray area.  Go with your heart.  You are free to boo or cheer as you please, regardless of what that player has done for your team in the past, because that player no longer plays for your team.  The only exception to this is that booing is not permitted when (1) a player had previously earned a lifetime Derek Jeter Exemption and (2) did not completely burn his bridges with his old team.  So Albert Pujols, who earned a lifetime exemption in St. Louis and left as a free agent largely because the Cardinals wouldn’t pay him his market value, should never be booed in St. Louis.  But LeBron James, who came close to earning a lifetime exemption in Cleveland, left so acrimoniously that he deservedly was booed every time he returned.

The Women and Children Caveat:  When I went to the Detroit Lions’ only playoff game victory in their history in 1991, there was a presentation at halftime to the national winners of the Pass, Punt & Kick competition.  These were kids between the ages of 7 and 14.   The Lions were well on their way to winning the game and going on to face Washington in the NFC Championship.  Washington had obliterated Detroit earlier that season, but it was a game that Barry Sanders didn’t play and Lions fans were itching for a chance at a rematch.  So when it was announced that one of the Pass, Punt & Kick winners was from Washington, the entire stadium booed the poor kid.  I mean, it wasn’t a malicious or threatening kind of booing; it was more like a collective reaction by 70,000 people to the announcement of the word “Washington.”  It was kind of awesome.  Anyways, the point is this: the rules of conduct in a stadium aren’t quite the same as in real life.  It’s perfectly acceptable to boo a player from the stands, but if you met him in person on the street and started booing him, you’d look like a crazy person.  A sporting event is entertainment and the spectators are the audience; it’s okay to respond to the presentation, even if it’s not directly related to the game.  So if they showed Mrs. Jim Johnson’s face on the Oakland Jumbotron, I think it would be okay to boo her (not saying that I would personally do that, but I’m not condemning it either).  But it wouldn’t be okay to harass a player’s family at a game since that’s not a part of the presentation, and booing Mrs. Johnson at a charity event is probably not okay as well.  But I wasn’t there, so I can’t say for sure.   It’s all about context.  I mean, if it was really funny, maybe it was okay.

The Douchebag Catch-all:  None of these exceptions apply to Alex Rodriguez.  Boo him on the street.  Boo his family.  Boo him while he’s sleeping.  Boo him forever.  BOOOOOO.

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.)

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.

My Existence Is a Curse

Dating back to mid-2011, the Tigers are now 0-7 in games I have attended in person. I celebrated my birthday at the Tigers-A’s game on Friday in Oakland and of course the A’s walked off on our faces. Whatever. And then the Tigers proceeded to beat down the A’s the rest of the weekend. Including last year’s playoffs, the Tigers are now 0-3 when I go and 5-0 when I don’t in their last eight games against the A’s. I spent $500 on a ticket for Game 1 of the World Series last year, which actually turned out to be a pretty great deal because they were good seats and the same seats ended up going for nearly double for Game 2…and it was still a damn waste of damn money. If I had any good sense I would just stop going to games and stick to watching on TV…but I don’t have any good sense. None.

Inge-sane!…but not an All-Star

Over his last six games, Brandong Inge unbelievably has four separate 4-RBI games, including two grand slams. This has sparked something in the Bay Area called “Ingesanity”. All this for a guy still hitting .188 on the season. One of the radio hosts I was listening to this morning labeled Inge the single most important player on the A’s roster and was actually half-serious. Oakland A’s fans make me sad. (In 2009, Inge posted a .186 average in the second half with a .541 OPS, 19 walks and 85 strikeouts. That is the same season that he was “selected” to the All-Star team, becoming the worst position player All-Star in the history of the sport (other than players selected to satisfy the one player from each team rule), and the same season that he became the first person in history to post an 0 for 4 with 3 strikeouts during the Home Run Derby.)