Monday, February 23, 2015

2015 MLB Predictions

If the recently released Vegas odds are a reliable indicator of how the 2015 pennant races will turn out, fans are in for a few surprises. I have included current payroll estimates in the table below because--as much as this makes some people uncomfortable--there is a strong correlation between player salaries and postseason success. Counter-intuitive to the "Moneyball" philosophy, the general rule of thumb is: the higher the payroll, the higher the order of finish. It's an inconvenient but incontrovertible principle. The Giants had the seventh highest payroll in baseball last year. Three of the six teams with higher salary costs appeared in the playoffs. Billy Beane and his followers can rage against the establishment all they want, but it won't change the fact that the A's haven't won a World Series since 1989. Chances are good that they won't until they start shelling out some real money. 

 Anyway, here's how the teams will stack up in 2015--according to Vegas odds makers:


        East                                            Central                                              West

Red Sox  ($182.1M)                          White Sox  ($115M)                          Angels  ($145.9M)
Blue Jays  ($127.3M)                         Tigers  ($172.3M)                              Mariners  ($125.9M)
Yankees  ($214.3M)                           Indians  ($85M)                                 A's  ($80.5M)
Orioles  ($121.2M)                             Royals  ($111M)                                Rangers  ($141.1M)
Rays  ($74.6M)                                  Twins  ($107M)                                 Astros  ($69.7M)


         East                                             Central                                              West

Nationals  ($160.5M)                          Cubs  ($117.5M)                               Dodgers  ($264M)
Mets  ($98.2M)                                  Cardinals  ($120.5M)                         Padres  ($97.2M)
Marlins  ($69.5M)                               Pirates  ($88.2M)                              Giants  ($170.6M)
Braves  ($96M)                                   Reds  ($117.7M)                               Diamondbacks  ($89.8M)
Phillies  ($139.3M)                              Brewers  ($101.7M)                          Rockies  ($101.3M)

Of course there are those who beg to differ with the current odds. In a recent article, Bleacher Report correspondent Stephen Nelson labeled the Giants as "contenders" and the Cubs as "pretenders." A writer from the Boston Herald echoed that sentiment, stating that the Cubs will go nowhere in 2015 while the Blue Jays and Marlins will be teams to watch. Jesse Spector of the of The Sporting News feels that the Pirates will be in Wild Card contention. Paul Hoynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group predicts a fifth straight AL Central title for the Tigers.

Three Things I'll be following this season:

 1.) Ichiro's quest for 3,000 hits.
The most successful Japanese player in major league history will be 41 years old and playing for the Marlins this year. He needs 156 hits to reach 3,000. With all the young talent in the Miami outfield, it's doubtful he'll get enough playing time to make a serious run, but hey--you never know.

2.) The Return of A-Rod 
Like it or not, Alex Rodriguez will be in spring training with the Yankees. He hasn't seen live pitching in well over a year. He wasn't hitting it very well before then. Does he have anything left in the tank at all or will he just end up embarrassing himself? Most people (myself included) are pulling for the latter scenario.

3.) The Red Sox Back on Top?
After winning a World Series in 2013, the Sox traded away their best players and ended up in last place. They made some blockbuster deals in the offseason. Will they be as good as everyone says? It will be interesting to find out.  

Monday, February 16, 2015

Biggest Winners in the 2015 Hot Stove Sweepstakes

Boston Red Sox
After trading away most of the players who led the club to a World Series title in 2013, the Sox have taken several positive steps toward rebuilding a winner. Coming off his best season ever, Rick Porcello is set to make his Boston debut this year. The right-hander attained several career-best marks with the Tigers in 2014, gathering 15 wins and 3 shutouts while posting a 3.43 ERA. He'll have the offense to back him up with Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval playing behind him. Hampered on and off by injuries, Ramirez has posted a .308 batting average over the past two seasons with the Dodgers. Though he hasn't reached the 30-homer mark since 2008, the Green Monster should boost his power numbers considerably. The same goes for Sandoval, who has been one of the Giants most reliable players over the past five years. He has good range at third base and is a steady offensive presence.

San Diego Padres
The Padres took great strides toward respectability this offseason with the acquisition of  several high profile players. Right-hander James Shields will anchor their rotation in 2015. Shields was a major contributor to the Royals' remarkable turnaround last year and has kept his ERA in the mid to low-three's over the past four seasons. Other notable signings for the Padres include outfielders Justin Upton and Matt Kemp. Acquired from the Braves, Upton is coming off his first 100-RBI campaign. Among the most productive Dodger hitters in recent past, Kemp has a pair of Gold Gloves to his credit as well. 

Miami Marlins
After a disastrous 2014 campaign, the Marlins have made several useful upgrades. Though he's been slowing down a bit over the past few seasons, 41 year old Ichiro Suzuki may still be a viable presence in the lineup. Ichiro needs just 156 hits to reach the 3,000 mark and can still field his outfield position with the best of them. Other significant imports for Miami include infielder Dee Gordon and starting pitcher Dan Haren. Gordon led the NL last year with 12 triples and 64 stolen bases. Haren, who requested a trade from the Dodgers, is not as durable as he used to be. But he has put up double digit win totals for ten straight years. Last season, he was 13-11with a 4.02 ERA.

Washington Nationals
The Nationals have failed to live up to expectations over the past few seasons. This year's squad will feature the recently acquired Yunel Escobar. Entering his ninth season, Escobar has moderate power and hits for decent average. He has excellent range and good hands as well, having led AL shortstops in fielding percentage during the 2013 slate. The Nationals bolstered their pitching corps considerably with the signing of right-hander Max Scherzer--the AL wins leader for two seasons running. In 2013/'14, Scherzer posted a record of 39-8 with a cumulative ERA of 3.02 for the Tigers. Another move that may or may not pay off for Washington: slugging second baseman Dan Uggla was signed to a minor league contract. Uggla enjoyed his best years with the Phillies, but has been mired in a hitting funk over the past three seasons. If he can get back on track, it's good news for the Nationals.

Chicago White Sox
The Sox have been shut out of the playoffs for six years straight. In the offseason, they decided to do something about it, signing closer David Robertson and first baseman Adam LaRoche. Robertson saved 39 games for the Yankees last year while striking out 96 batters in 64.1 innings of work. LaRoche was Washington's top RBI man in 2014. Discounting an injury plagued 2011 season, he has averaged 25 homers per year since 2005. 

Other notable offseason signings include Atlanta's acquisition of Nick Markakis and Detroit's signing of Yoenis Cespedes. A reliable RBI producer at the beginning of his career, Markakis served as the Orioles' lead-off man last year. He has won Gold Gloves in two of the last four seasons and currently carries a .290 lifetime batting average. Entering his fourth season, Cespedes is a bit error prone in the outfield, but mixes power and speed at the plate. Appearing in the heart of the order for Oakland and Boston last year, he hit .309 with runners in scoring position. Though he has seldom been asked to, he can steal bases as well. In 2012 and 2014, he was successful in 23 of 29 attempts.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Baseball's Sad Passings: 2014-Present

Rocky Bridges
Died: Jan. 30, 2015
Bridges was a colorful character who became more widely known for his witticisms than his on-field accomplishments. An infielder, he played for seven teams between 1951 and 1961, spending his longest stretch with Cincinnati. He earned the first and only All-Star selection of his career while playing for the Senators in 1958. "I never got in the game, but I sat on the bench with  Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Yogi Berra," Bridges joked. "I gave 'em instruction in how to sit." After compiling a .247 average in eleven seasons, he coached for the Angels. He later served as a minor league manager for multiple franchises.

Ernie Banks
Died: Jan. 23, 2015
A Hall of Fame infielder and beloved ambassador for Chicago baseball, Banks was nicknamed "Mr. Cub." He was also known to many as "Mr. Sunshine" for his pleasing persona. In nineteen big league seasons, he hit more than 500 home runs--277 of them as a shortstop--the second highest total for any player at that position. Banks also spent plenty of time at first base. His career highlights included eleven All-Star selections, two MVP Awards and a Gold Glove. Banks got his start in the Negro Leagues and was the first black man to play for the Cubs. A statue of Banks was erected outside of Wrigley Field after his retirement. It was moved to a downtown location following his death so his legions of fans could pay their respects.

Alvin Dark
Died: Nov. 13, 2014
Captain of the New York Giants during the 1950s, Dark was named to three All-Star teams and played in three World Series. He captured Rookie of the year honors with the Braves in '48, hitting .322 with 39 doubles. His 41 doubles in 1951 were tops in the National League. In the '51/'54 World Series, Dark compiled a .404 batting average with 4 RBIs and 7 runs scored. After retiring as a player, he embarked on a successful managerial career, leading the Giants to a pennant in 1962. In 1974, he guided the Oakland A's to their third consecutive World Series title.

Tony Gwynn
Died: June 16, 2014
Gwynn spent his entire Hall of Fame career with the Padres. In twenty seasons, he collected more than 3,100 hits and captured eight batting titles. During the strike-shortened '94 slate, he carried a .394 average into the second week of August. He was on a 9-for-18 tear when the season was preempted. Gwynn captured five Gold Gloves and was named to fifteen All-Star teams before he retired. He later became head coach at San Diego State. He also served as a TV analyst for ESPN. He was only fifty-four years old when he died of salivary gland cancer.

Don Zimmer
Died: June 4, 2014
Zimmer began his career as a power-hitting infielder in the minors. Two serious beanings stunted his development as a player. He had a few good seasons with the Dodgers and Cubs during the late-50s/ early '60s. He appeared in two World Series with the Dodgers. Zimmer is best remembered for his long career as a manager and coach. He spent significant periods of time at the helm of the Red Sox and Cubs. He served as interim manager of the Yankees in '99 while Joe Torre recuperated from surgery. Short and pudgy, Zimmer earned the endearing nickname of "Popeye." His baseball career spanned portions of fifty-seven seasons.

Ralph Kiner
Died: February 6, 2014
Kiner was the reigning NL home run king from 1946-1952. He drew a lot of walks, leading the league with a robust .452 on-base percentage in '51. The short left-center field porch at Forbes Field in Pittsburgh (originally designed for Hank Greenberg) became known as "Kiner's Korner." In September of '47, Kiner set a major league record with 8 homers in four games. The previous month, he had launched 7 long balls in a four-game span. The Pirates were a non-contending club in those days and GM Branch Rickey eventually refused to meet Kiner's salary demands. The slugger finished his career with the Indians. After his retirement, Kiner was a long time broadcaster for the Mets. His postgame show was appropriately named "Kiner's Korner." He became renowned for his unintentionally funny comments. He once remarked that: "If Casey Stengel were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave."

Jim Fregosi
Died: Feb. 14, 2014
Originally signed by the Red Sox in 1960, Fregosi was left unprotected in the expansion draft. He was one of the Angels' most productive players until injuries began to take their toll in the 1970s. Between '62 and '70, Fregosi made six All-Star appearances as a shortstop. During his peak offensive season, he collected 60 extra-base hits and drove-in 82 runs. He led the league with 13 triples in '68. In December of '71, he was traded to the Mets in exchange for four players--one of whom was Nolan Ryan. Fregosi slowly faded from the majors as Ryan became a Hall of Famer. Following his retirement as a player, Fregosi began a fifteen-year managerial career with several teams. He led the Angels to a playoff berth in '79 and the Phillies to a pennant in '93. His last season as a skipper came in 2000.

Jerry Coleman
Died: Jan. 5, 2014
 Coleman was the Yankees' primary second baseman for several years during the dynasty of the late-'40s/ early-'50s. He spent nine years in the Bronx, appearing in six World Series and winning five rings. After retiring as a player, he served as the Yankees play-by-play announcer for several seasons. He managed the Padres in 1980 and worked as a San Diego broadcaster until the end of the 2013 campaign. In 2005, he received the prestigious Ford Frick Award from the Baseball Hall of Fame. Like Ralph Kiner, he was known for his malapropisms (nicknamed "Colemanisms"). During one memorable broadcast, he called a play as follows: "Winfield goes back to the wall. He hits his head on the wall and it rolls off. It's rolling all the way back to second base! This is a terrible thing for the Padres!"



Monday, February 2, 2015

The All Bat/ No Glove National League All-Star Team

It's interesting to note that, without the designated hitter rule in place, National League managers have been forced to find creative ways to hide defensively challenged players for well over a century now.

Here are my nominees for the National League All Bat/ No Glove All Time All-Stars:

Lonnie Smith: Rare are the instances in which modern outfielders finish with double digit error totals. Smith managed to accomplish this four times during his career. He received the nickname "Skates" in reference to his clumsy footwork in the field. Offensively, he carried his weight, exceeding the .300 mark at the plate on six occasions. He led the NL in runs scored during the 1982 campaign and finished among the top five in stolen bases for four consecutive seasons. His reputation took a serious hit when he testified at the Pittsburgh drug trials of 1985. He served a full year suspension for his long term drug abuse.

Dave Kingman: Kingman was a prolifically bad fielder at multiple stations. He began his career as a first baseman, finishing first or second in errors on three occasions. San Francisco manager Charlie Fox tried to convert him to a third baseman, but the experiment was a flop as Kingman committed 48 errors in 154 assignments. Eventually moved to the outfield, the man known to many as "Sky King" placed among the top three in muffs during thee seasons. Some would say that he was worth his weight in miscues. At one time, he had more home runs than any player not in the Hall of Fame (442). He hit some of the longest shots in history. One of his blasts sailed out of Wrigley Field and bounced onto the porch of a neighboring house. He also hit the roof at the Astrodome and Metrodome. The ball he hit in Minnesota got stuck in a drainage hole and didn't come down. 

Babe Herman: One of the premier batsmen of the late-'20s/ early-'30s, Herman peaked at .393 in 1930 after posting a .381 batting average the previous year. He spent a large chunk of his career with the Brooklyn Robins (later known as the Dodgers) and was a poster child for ineptitude when he didn't have a bat in his hands. Called out for passing runners on the basepaths multiple times, he once slid into a bag occupied by two of his teammates. An unconfirmed story alleges that he was hit in the head with a pop fly. He began his career at first base and was later assigned to the outfield, where it was presumed he could do less damage. He committed no fewer than 28 errors in five consecutive seasons and his lifetime total as a right fielder ranks #21 among players at that position.

Dick Stuart: During the 1956 campaign, Stuart drew comparisons to Babe Ruth when he led the Western League with 66 homers. Though he never lived up to the hype, he clubbed 27 or more long balls in four major league seasons while reaching the century mark in RBIs on three occasions. Stuart was such a liability at first base, he carried three different nicknames: "Dr. Strangeglove," "The Boston Strangler" and "Stone Fingers." Embracing his incompetence, he had a vanity license plate that read: "E3." A crowd at Fenway Park once gave him a standing ovation for cleanly fielding a hot dog wrapper that had blown onto the field. While playing for the Red Sox and Pirates, Stuart led the league in errors for seven straight seasons (1958-'64)--a major league record. 

Fred Pfeffer: No one would ever have accused Pfeffer of not being able to hit. A reliable offensive presence, he drove-in no fewer than 73 runs in nine of ten seasons from 1884 to 1893. But his lifetime total of 857 errors is an all time record for second basemen. It wasn't entirely his fault. In Pfeffer's day, infielders used thin, fingerless gloves made of heavy fabric. Though they provided marginal protection from the impact of hard-hit grounders, there was no webbing to trap the ball with. Consequently, error totals were much higher in those days. Though Pfeffer was a pitiful fielder by today's standards, he led his contemporaries in putouts eight times and double plays turned on seven occasions.

Ian Desmond: It's only fair to throw an active player into the mix. Desmond holds his own offensively. Over the past three seasons, he has averaged 23 homers and 81 RBIs while maintaining a steady .275 batting average. But his glovework leaves much to be desired. In 2010, he committed 34 errors--the most by any NL player. Since then, he has placed first or second among NL shortstops in errors three times while compiling a fielding percentage significantly below the league average. A 2014 article in the Washington Post criticized Desmond for handling grounders with "stiff hands" and making "erratic throws." Desmond is still only 28 years old and there's plenty of time for improvement, but right now his name often surfaces in discussions of the league's worst. If his offense drops off, he could find himself looking for a job outside of Washington.   

Charlie Hickman: Again, it's probably not fair to include old-timers in this survey. Though fielder's mitts had come a long way by the time Hickman ascended to the majors, pitchers routinely doctored the baseball and umpires kept them in play until they were lopsided and soggy. Excuses aside, Hickman's stupendously bad defensive season in 1900 is among the worst on record. Hickman had one of the greatest nicknames of all time--"Piano Legs"--a moniker given to him for his somewhat paunchy stature. It was said that he needed piano legs to mobilize him in the field. He swung a pretty reliable bat, topping the .300 mark at the plate three times between 1899 and 1902. In the latter campaign he led the league in hits and total bases. During the 1900 slate, he set the bar for defensive futility with an incredible total of 91 errors--that's nearly three times the amount committed by Evan Longoria, Pablo Sandoval and Adrian Beltre combined in 2014! Hickman later established an American League record with 5 errors in a game. 

Ivey Wingo: In the early-1900s, teams manufactured runs the hard way--by bunting, stealing and sacrificing. Wingo, whose career began in 1911, was busier than most contemporary catchers. Consequently, his defensive shortcomings became glaringly obvious. A left-handed hitter, Wingo was more than competent offensively. He rarely struck out, was an adept bunter and routinely hit around .260 or better. He also had excellent speed for a catcher. Between 1912 and 1921, he led the league in errors seven times. In that same span, he paced the loop in stolen bases allowed four times and passed balls twice. His lifetime mark of 234 errors is the most by any backstop in history. Even so, statistician Bill James ranked Wingo among the top 100 catchers of all time in the revised edition of his classic Historical Baseball Abstract.