Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Braves Hit Their First Home Run In 15 Games Last Night

These aren't your older brother's Atlanta Braves. Gone are the 11 straight division titles from 1995-2005. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, and Chipper Jones aren't walking through that door anytime soon.

Following last night's loss to the Red Sox the Braves have fallen to an MLB worst 4-17 on the season, good for a .190 winning percentage. It has been a steady decline for the Braves since their latest division title in 2013:

Despite the struggles there is reason to be optimistic about the Braves, who are following the Astros model of "tanking". That word is in quotes because tanking in baseball is not as egregious as it is in the NBA. Make no mistake though. It is about as close as you can get to trusting the process in MLB.

Atlanta realized they could not compete and instead of trying to remain a .500 team they decided to rebuild. They shed Melvin Upton's contract by including him in the Craig Kimbrel trade a year ago and continued that process this past offseason by trading Andrelton Simmons for prospects.

However, the best trade Atlanta has made recently was sending Shelby Miller to the Diamondbacks for the 2015 number one overall draft pick. Never before had the first overall draft pick been traded that quickly. The early signs from the move look promising as Miller is struggling in Arizona with a 8.69 ERA through five games while Swanson is hitting to a .333/.438/.520 clip in the minors.

As frustrating as the next couple of years will be for Braves fans the thought process makes sense. The team won't compete for division titles this year or next so there is no point in trying to reach .500. Instead Atlanta will spend some time building up their minor league system, which is a process that has proven to work for teams such as the Astros, Cubs, and Royals.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Bryce Harper Has Overtaken Mike Trout As Baseball's Poster Boy

ESPN"MAKE BASEBALL FUN AGAIN." Four words, stitched in red onto a white trucker's cap, sitting atop Harper's head as he addressed the media after homering on Opening Day. Let the fun begin. Let the culture war begin.

Mike Trout or Bryce Harper? This was the question all of baseball was asking themselves back in 2012 when both players were rookies. Trout had the better season, finishing second in the MVP voting, but Harper was still an all star and at just 19 years old was a year younger than Trout.

In the two years that followed Trout dominated Harper in every aspect, finishing second in the MVP voting in 2013 and finally winning the award a year later. Trout was humble and durable while Harper was thought of as an injury prone jackass. 

Things began to change last year when Harper became the youngest unanimous MVP in baseball history. In his age 22 season Harper led the league in OBP, slugging, and WAR while hitting .330 with 42 homers. Trout was still great with another second place MVP finish, but it became clear Harper had figured things out. If all of baseball had a re-draft Bryce should be taken first overall.

What most separates Harper from Trout is his marketability. Trout is the humble, soft spoken golden boy who calls his mom after every game. Aside from his gameplay he doesn't make many headlines. Harper is bold and brash. He isn't afraid to run into walls or say that baseball is tired. Now Harper is making headlines with his "Make baseball fun again" slogan.

Even baseball diehards will tell you that the game needs a little bit of life, which is why Harper is coming along at the perfect time. He is having a great start to the season too, leading the league with nine home runs and 24 RBI. He has the same amount of homers as strikeouts. Trout is great for the game too but he isn't having the cultural impact Harper is. This time last year Trout was the reigning MVP and Harper was an overrated punk. Things have changed. Here's to hoping Bryce can continue making baseball fun again.

Where Is All The Kenta Maeda Hype?

Over the weekend Dodgers rookie Kenta Maeda threw 6 1/3 scoreless innings against the Rockies to improve to 3-0 in his four starts on the season. The 28-year-old signed a unique eight year, $25 million contract over the winter, coming to the United States with considerable less fanfare than fellow countrymen pitchers Daisuke Matsuzaka, Yu Darvish, and Masahiro Tanaka.

Aside from not being as talented as those three a big reason Maeda has not been hyped too much is because we have not yet seen a Japanese have sustained success in MLB. When Dice-K first came over people legitimately thought he had a never before seen pitch called a gyro-ball. Although Mastuzaka had a successful first couple of seasons in the majors, including winning a World Series game, the remaining four years on his contract were an utter disaster. Darvish has been the best of the group but is currently recovering from Tommy John surgery and while Tanaka has been good he has not been the ace he was advertised as. The shelf life for Japanese starters seem to be about three seasons.

There are a number of reasons Japanese pitchers struggle when they transition to the majors. Aside from culture shock the toughest adjustment is transitioning from pitching every seven days to every five days. You would think front offices would want to keep their investments as comfortable as possible but teams have been reluctant to plan their entire pitching schedule around just one arm. Other transitions to MLB include traveling through time zones (Japan is a single time zone), a different mound, and even a different ball.

This brings us back to Maeda. In addition to his 3-0 record he has a 0.36 ERA with 23 strikeouts in 25.1 innings pitched. The early success is a good sign but MLB fans have seen this story too many times to get caught up in the hype. For every Ichiro or Hideki Matsui we have seen multiple Kei Igawas. It is great that MLB has a relationship with the Japanese professional league. Not every player that comes over is either a star or bust. There are contributors such as Koji Uehara, Tadahito Iguchi, and Hideki Okajima. These players improve the MLB product, just don't expect fans to get too worked up about "the next big thing".

Monday, April 25, 2016

Wake Up With Curt Schilling's Bloody Sock Game

Curt Schilling's post playing career has been a strange one. Following his retirement after the 2007 season Schilling began to sink all his time and money into his video game company, which left him bankrupt by 2012. He began his ESPN career in 2010 and became the subject of political controversies every now and then. Last week's transgender comments ultimately got the 49-year-old fired. 

Before all that, however, Schilling was one of the best pitchers of his era - and one of the most dominant postseason starters of all time. In 19 career playoff games the three time World Series champion posted an 11-2 record with a 2.23 ERA and 120 strikeouts in 133.1 innings pitched. In the World Series itself Schilling went 4-1 with a 2.06 ERA. 

The Hall of Fame induction process has turned into a joke but there's no reason Schilling shouldn't eventually get in. In addition to his incredible postseason resume the six time all star accumulated 216 wins and over 3,000 strikeouts, feats that took place during the heart of the steroid era. While he never got that elusive Cy Young award he finished second three times in a four year span from 2001-2004. His post career decisions may turn away some Hall of Fame voters, even though it shouldn't, but Schilling would deliver one hell of an induction speech if he ever does get in.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Stephen Strasburg Is About To Get PAID This Offseason

Ever since Strasburg's seven inning, 14 strikeout performance in his 2010 MLB debut, expectations have been sky high for the former No. 1 overall pick. In fact, expectations have been too high. For years analysts and the general public would group Strasburg in with the top tier of starting pitchers, which only led to the belief that his underwhelming and injury shortened seasons were a disappointment. Through 2013 Strasburg's season by season statistics looked like this:

These numbers don't look that bad overall, but fans really wanted to see him put it all together for one dominant, Cy Young caliber season. 2014 looked like he was making that step. Strasburg led the National League with 34 games started and a whopping 242 strikeouts (in just 215 innings pitched). He finished ninth in the Cy Young voting with a 14-11 record and a 3.14 ERA. 

Expectations were as high as ever entering 2015 and early on Strasburg could not have disappointed worse. Through mid May the ace had registered a 4.73 ERA, a reduced strikeout rate, and was struggling with a shoulder injury. It looked as if he would never recapture the magic from his 2010 debut. 

However, since this low moment the 27-year-old has been nothing short of fantastic. Including this season's three starts Strasburg has a 1.65 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, and 131 strikeouts over his last 103.2 innings pitched. His recent history looks even more appealing if we consider 2015's first half an outlier and extend this run of dominance to his very impressive 2014 season. Thus far this season Strasburg is 3-0 with a 1.25 ERA and 21 strikeouts in 21.2 innings pitched. 

This is a big year for Strasburg, a Scott Boras representative, as he is going to become a free agent afterwards. This past offseason the Yankees famously did not sign a single free agent, presumably clearing budget space to make a splash in the coming years. There has been speculation that they are gearing up for a run at Strasburg's teammate Bryce Harper in three years. 

But three years is a long way away and if the Yankees miss the playoffs in 2016 they might be tempted to do whatever it takes to sign Strasburg. Whether it's the Yankees or somebody else, if Strasburg keeps pitching this way he could wind up commanding more than David Price's record setting seven year, $217 million deal with the Red Sox from this past offseason. 

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Alex Rodriguez Is Struggling Following Last Season's Bouneback

ESPNLess than 24 hours after pooh-poohing the idea of a lineup shakeup, New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi has done precisely that, dropping Alex Rodriguez, his No. 3 hitter for nearly all of last season, to No. 6 for Sunday's game against the Seattle Mariners and elevating the hot-hitting Carlos Beltran into the 3-hole.

Following his season long suspension in 2014, expectations were low for A-Rod entering 2015. Fans legitimately wanted the Yankees to just eat the remaining three years on his contract to send him away for good. A shell of his former self, A-Rod's recent play suggested he would be too much of a distraction to contribute in a significant way. 

However, as we all know, A-Roid proved the haters wrong and went on to have his best all around season since 2010. As the full-time DH he played in 150 games for the first time since 2007, hitting 33 homers with 86 RBI and a .356 on base percentage along the way. The Yankees went on to make the playoffs and A-Rod's big season became one of the most interesting stories of the year.

Unfortunately for A-Rod and the Yankees things haven't started as well this season. First he announced he would retire in two years once his contract expired. Then he took it back. Now it looks like father time is once again catching up with the 40-year-old. Thus far A-Rod is hitting just .118/.231/.294 while striking out in exactly one-third of his plate appearances. It's early, and he is certainly not the only star off to a slow start, but it is becoming fair to wonder if last season's resurgence is going to end up being an outlier in this last phase of Alex's career. 

He has earned back a lot of goodwill recently, both for his 2015 play and for his impressive broadcasting last fall, but if he doesn't turn it around soon things will get ugly. Alex knows this better than anyone.

Wake Up With Jackie Bradley Jr. Making Another Crazy Catch

Just another day at the office for Jackie Bradley Jr. Similar to the NFL, baseball can be considered a copycat league. Teams are naturally inclined to repeat the process of winners. We saw this with teams emphasizing on base percentage post Moneyball and we are seeing it now with teams emphasizing defense and bullpens following the Royals' success. Guys like Jackie Bradley Jr. simply were not valued in the steroid era but now every team wants what he brings to the Red Sox. 

The key for Bradley Jr, as is the case with many of these "defense specialists" is whether or not they can hit. It's been a roller coaster career thus far for the 26-year-old. After hitting .419/.507/.613 in Spring Training in 2013 Bradley Jr. was appointed the next big thing. He struggled mightily the next two seasons however, hitting just .196 in 479 at bats between '13 and 2014. 

After starting 2015 in the minors Bradley Jr. got called up on June 25 and in his last 50 games of the season hit .294/.366/.613 with nine home runs. While these numbers would make him one of the more valuable players in the league, the Red Sox would take a .250 batting average to go along with the stellar defense and highlight reel plays Bradley Jr. provides them with on a day to day basis.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Wake Up With Carl Crawford Stealing 6 Bases In A Game

What an absolute bust Carl Crawford has become. Prior to the 2011 season Crawford signed a 7 year, $142 million deal with the Red Sox that single handedly ruined his career. Since signing this deal he has yet to play in more than 130 games in a season. Amazingly his best year on this current contract came in 2011 when he hit 11 home runs with a .255 batting average. Following an August 2012 trade to the Dodgers Crawford has had flashes of his former self (23 steals with a .300 average in 105 games in 2014) but overall has not come close to his previous level of play. 

However in his prime with Tampa Bay Crawford was one of the most dangerous all around players in baseball. Stealing six bases in a single game requires speed, aggressiveness, and the ability to get on base. During his Tampa Bay career the four time all star led the league in stolen bases and triples four times each and on May 3, 2009 Crawford became just the seventh player in MLB history to steal six bases in a single game. 

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Rangers Call Up OF Nomar Mazara, Fantasy Owners Should Do The Same

ESPN - On Saturday, Texas Rangers right fielder Shin-Soo Choo suffered a strained right calf while running the outfield prior to a game against the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim. As it turns out, the injury is serious enough that it has landed him on the DL, and he'll miss 4-6 weeks.
In his stead, Texas called up Nomar Mazara, a member of the pool of talented prospects the Rangers have in their system. Mazara, still 16 days shy of his 21st birthday, is a player Keith Law ranked No. 9 on his top 100 prospects list and Baseball Prospectus ranked as the fifth-best prospect in baseball.
As far as major-league debuts go, Mazara was nothing short of sensational. He singled in his first two at-bats, then hit a 443-foot home run to center field in his third at-bat. On a day in which Jered Weaver baffled many of the Texas hitters, Mazara never really appeared to be fooled. Instead, he stayed back on the ball and drove it, finishing 3-for-4 on the day. In short, it was the kind of hitting performance that many coaches would love to use to show proper swing mechanics.

Well it didn't take long for the first major call up of the MLB season. While most of the fantasy community is busy marveling at Trevor Story's historic start, the Texas Rangers quietly called up top prospect Nomar Mazara Sunday morning. The 20 year old burst on to the scene today by collecting hits in his first three at bats, including a towering solo home run. Entering the 2016 season the plan for Mazara was to get some more seasoning in the minors and if he did well than Texas would call him up for the playoff push. Due to Choo's injury however the Rangers felt they needed to make a move and fantasy owners should do the same.

The first reason is Mazara's potential. In 131 games last season between AA-AAA the young outfielder hit 14 home runs with an impressive .296/.366/.463 triple slash line. 111 of these games came at the AA level, where Mazara was the second youngest player in his league. The Rangers showed their confidence in him today by not only calling him up but by batting him in the fantasy friendly number two spot in their batting order. During Choo's absence fantasy owners can count on a respectable batting average with a little bit of power and plenty of run scoring opportunities hitting in front of Adrian Beltre and Prince Fielder. If all goes well the left handed slugger could force his way into regular playing time even when Choo returns.

The other reason Mazara needs to be owned is his marketability. Fantasy players love to have the next big thing and are often willing to overpay for it. Scouts were bullish on him coming into the season with Baseball America ranking him as their 21st top prospect and ESPN ranking him 9th. If you own Mazara already there are probably owners in your league willing to give you a king's ransom for him. While I wouldn't be aggressively shopping this kid I would certainly entrain offers for him if a league mate offered a top 25 outfielder. And if Nomar stays hot this coming week owners can make the price to acquire him even higher.

Basically the worst case scenario for owners picking up Mazara is he appears severely overmatched the next couple of weeks, the Rangers send him down, and you send him back to the waiver wire. However the best case scenario of a rookie of the year type season makes the 20 year old worthy of a pickup in all fantasy formats.