Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Defending Champion Royals Have Moved Back Into First Place

Over the past two calendar years nobody has played better baseball than the Kansas City Royals. Since their late season playoff push in 2014 the franchise's postseason success has changed how MLB front offices view and assemble defense and bullpens. In 2016, in addition to dealing with the usual championship hangover, the team has overcome offseason losses of Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist as well as injuries to 2015 all-stars Mike Moustakas and Alex Gordon. Despite all this the Royals are once again right in the middle of the American League playoff race.  

As a team the Royals are continuing to play to their strengths of putting the ball in play, playing defense, and dominating the late innings. However, it is clear that the offseason losses and injuries are affecting the offense. After ranking fifth in baseball last year with 4.56 runs per game the team is now 22nd in the league and scoring just 4.00 per game. To combat this the Royals have been slightly more aggressive on the bases, increasing their stolen bases per game from 0.64 a year ago to 0.74 in 2016, which ranks fifth in baseball. The pitching staff is benefiting greatly from the addition of Ian Kennedy as the team ERA has only risen from 3.77 in 2015 to 3.80 this season.

Although the Royals are not built on any one superstar it is clear that Eric Hosmer has become the team's best overall player. After winning gold gloves in each of the past three seasons Hosmer is having a breakout season offensively. Through 50 games he leads the team with 10 home runs and 33 RBI. He is also posting career highs with a .323 batting average and a .370 on base percentage. If he keeps carrying one of the league's best teams like this it is not out of the question to see him enter the MVP conversation come September.

One of the biggest strengths of the Royals is having a relief pitcher who has finished eighth and sixth respectively in each of the last two Cy Young votings. While he does not get talked about the way Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman do, Wade Davis has been just as effective since becoming a full time reliever. In addition to leading the American League with 14 saves he has posted a 0.96 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 18.2 innings pitched in 2016. He is still one of the best closers in baseball but Kansas City has to be careful not to overuse him as his strikeout to walk ratio has now decreased each of the past two seasons.

After winning four straight games this weekend the Royals moved into first place in the AL Central with a 28-22 overall record, which is 1.5 games ahead of the Indians and two in front of the White Sox. Chicago looked to be like the dominant team in the AL for a while but have lost eight of their last ten. After starting 11-5 the Royals overcame a rough 5-13 stretch to finish May by going 12-4. With no AL team separating themselves from the pack this could be the start of a third straight pennant for Kansas City.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Get To Know Dodgers 19-Year-Old Rookie Phenom Julio Urias

Outside of Clayton Kershaw's dominance the Dodgers have been very ordinary this season. Currently the team has a record of 25-23, which is good for second place in the NL West and 4.5 games behind the red-hot Giants. The mediocre start can be attributed to a number of possibilities, including the off-season loss of Zack Greinke or the sluggish offensive starts of Adrian Gonzalez, Yasiel Puig, and Corey Seager. Despite the highest payroll in baseball the Dodgers also have some of the best prospects in the minors. On Friday night they will unveil 19-year-old Julio Urias, who will be making his major league debut on the road against the defending National League champion New York Mets.

According to Baseball America Urias entered the 2016 season as the best pitching prospect in baseball and number four overall behind Seager, Byron Buxton, and Yoan Moncada. The Dodgers signed him out of Mexico in 2012 when Urias was just 16 years old and he has since dominated every level of the minors. In 263.1 innings over four seasons he has struck out an eye-popping 308 batters with a 2.63 ERA. 

As a Mexican born player Urias' impact on the Dodgers will extend culturally as Los Angeles has a very large Mexican population that will only increase his star power. He is arguably the country's most talented prospect of all time with the ability to develop into an ace for years to come. In 2016 at the AAA level he has a 1.10 ERA with 44 strikeouts in 41 innings.

It's unclear what the plan for Urias is after Friday night. The Dodgers have already said they are considering using him out of the big league bullpen later this season, which makes sense given his young age and probable innings limit. He has not thrown more than 82 pitches in a game this year. However, even as a reliever Urias could have a big impact on the playoff race due to his high strikeout totals and low number of walks allowed. He won't be in the bullpen for long though and could follow in the great line of Dodgers lefties that includes Sandy Koufax, Fernando Valenzuela, and Kershaw. 

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Can The Rangers Repeat As AL West Champs?

No division winner from 2015 was more surprising than the Texas Rangers claiming the AL West. Coming off a last place, 67 win season in 2014 the Rangers began the year 8-16. They remained under .500 through August 3rd where the team rallied behind trade deadline acquisition Cole Hamels. They would go on to win 38 of their final 59 games to finish with 88 wins and the division crown. Despite losing to the Blue Jays in the ALDS the Rangers have come back strong in 2016. This was supposed to be the year the Houston Astros became a perennial World Series contender but the Rangers are taking advantage of a wide open division by playing as well as they finished last season.

Currently Texas is 26-20, which is good for second place in the AL West and just 1.5 games behind the Mariners. The biggest reason for the team's success has been Hamels. Dating back to last year he is 12-0 in his last 12 decisions and has not lost since August 7th. This season he is 5-0 with a 2.83 ERA and 62 strikeouts in 57.1 innings pitched. He is striking out batters at the second highest rate of his career and if it weren't for Chris Sale's historic start Hamels would be generating early Cy Young buzz. He is a good bet to make his first all star team since 2012. 

What makes the Rangers so dangerous moving forward is the pending return of Yu Darvish this weekend. Although it takes time for pitchers to regain their full potential after Tommy John surgery, the arrival of Darvish gives the Rangers as good of a 1-2 punch as there is in baseball this year. Texas won the division in 2015 without Darvish throwing a single pitch. On Saturday they will be getting back a pitcher who struck out a ridiculous 277 batters in his second to last healthy season. For his career Darvish has struck out over 11 batters per nine innings. 

Another addition to the 2016 Rangers has been rookie phenom Nomar Mazara. The 21-year-old outfielder began the season with little intention of playing in the majors. However, due to the injuries of Josh Hamilton and Shin-Soo Choo, Mazara got called up on April 10th and hasn't looked back since. He is batting .317 with 7 homers and 18 RBI through his first 38 games and is the early favorite for AL Rookie of the Year. 

Mazara has been an injection of youth into an otherwise aging roster. He has played a supporting role offensively to veterans Adrian Beltre, Ian Desmond, and Elvis Andrus, all of whom are having fine seasons. More help is on the way offensively as the team just called up Baseball America's number 10 prospect Joey Gallo. Texas is not without holes, however. Prince Fielder is still hitting below .200, Choo has played in just six games, and the bullpen has already undergone a closer change. Yet if the Rangers can keep things together until Darvish gets going they are as dangerous of a team as any in a wide open American League. 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Ichiro Closing In On 3,000 Hits

First things first how many baseball fans knew Ichiro was even still playing? At 42 he is the second oldest player in baseball, just a few months younger than Bartolo Colon. In spring training Ichiro declared he wants to play until at least 50. While this may be a bit far-fetched he has shown that he still has some life in his bat as a fourth outfielder for the Marlins. Over his past three games he has collected 10 hits, giving him a total of 2,960 and just 40 shy of 3,000.

Now think about how hard it is to reach 3,000 hits. In the history of baseball dating back to the late 1800s only 29 players have ever done it. Cap Anson was the first. Alex Rodriguez was the most recent. The other players that have reached the milestone this millennium are Cal Ripken Jr, Rickey Henderson, Rafael Palmeiro, Craig Biggio, and Derek Jeter. Reaching 3,000 hits takes a combination of hall of fame talent, longevity, and durability. The fact that Ichiro did not begin his MLB career until he was 27 makes his accomplishment that much more ridiculous. 

Technically Ichiro surpassed 3,000 hits a long time ago. He broke into Japan's Professional League at just 18 years old and was an everyday player starting in his age 20 season. Over his nine seasons in Japan (seven playing everyday) he won seven gold gloves while batting .353 and collecting 1,278 hits. Adding these to his MLB hits total would give Ichiro 4,238 for his career, which would be the second most all time behind Pete Rose's record of 4,256. So while Ichiro is just 40 shy of 3,000 MLB hits he is also 18 shy of the all time hits record if his Japanese stats are included. 

Ichiro hasn't been an all-star since 2010 so it's easy to forget how dominant he was when he first came over to the United States. In his 2001 rookie year Ichiro won Rookie of the Year, AL MVP, the batting title, a gold glove, a silver slugger, and was an all-star. He led the Mariners to a record 116 wins. In the 10 year span from 2001 to 2010 Ichiro appeared in 10 all star games, won 10 gold gloves, two batting titles, and led the league in hits seven times. In all 10 of those seasons he hit at least .300 with at least 200 hits. He stole at least 30 bases in every season but one. 

It's always bittersweet when players reach these milestones past their prime but that's usually how it goes. Hopefully fans will use this as a chance to remember Ichiro's greatness. It's difficult to say he's hanging on too long though. After hitting .229 last season he's up to .417 in limited action this year. Manager Don Mattingly has said Ichiro played too much last season and that he would only serve a complementary role in 2016. This will surely delay the time it takes for Ichiro to reach 3,000 but if he stays healthy there's no reason it shouldn't happen this summer. Regardless of how long he plays for, five years after Ichiro finally retires he will become the first Japanese born player to be inducted into Major League Baseball's hall of fame.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Here Come The Even Year Giants

What's interesting about the San Francisco Giants' recent run of success (World Series titles in 2010, 2012, 2014) is that they have not even made the playoffs during the odd years. In an era designed to prevent dynasties and repeat champions the Giants have found a loophole, creating a mini-dynasty by only winning every other year. Whether that is a byproduct of an organizational philosophy or simply a coincidence we don't know. What we do know is that it's an even year and the Giants are back at it again. 

Over the weekend San Fran took two out of three from the Cubs, giving them wins in ten of their past eleven overall, which is good for first place and a four game lead in the NL West. The Cubs are still the best team, the Nationals have a better record, and the Mets are defending NL champs, but nobody wants to play the Giants come October. 

The reason for this, of course, is Madison Bumgarner. In addition to his highly impressive post-season resume MadBum is having a career year. Including last night's 7.2 shutout innings versus the high powered Cubs, the Giants have won each of his past six starts. During this stretch Bumgarner is 5-0 with a 1.25 ERA. Overall for the season he is 6-2 with a 2.17 ERA and 77 strikeouts in just 66.1 innings pitched.

What makes the Giants dangerous in 2016 is the addition of Johnny Cueto. After signing a reasonable six year, $130 million contract this off-season the 30-year-old is having a career year. Through nine starts he is 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA and a league-leading two complete games. He is taking advantage of spacious AT&T park, having given up just two homers in over 66 innings. Cueto is also allowing a career low 1.6 walks per nine, which has been a big part of the team's overall pitching success. While the Giants rank 10th out of 30 teams in overall ERA, they are giving up the third fewest walks per nine in all of baseball. 

On the offensive side the Giants are taking advantage of walks. Out of 30 teams San Fran ranks 14th in runs, 11th in batting average, 11th in stolen bases, and 27th in home runs. However, they rank fifth in OBP and fourth in walks. If we learned anything from Moneyball it's that walks had more value than we thought. While this is now common knowledge it shows the franchise has adjusted after finishing 2015 ranked 19th in walks per game. 

While Buster Posey is off to a slow start Brandon Belt and Hunter Pence are having good seasons to carry the offense. Closer Santiago has pitched to a 1.93 ERA. The 2016 Giants are following the same formula as the former championship teams and are once again positioned for a deep playoff run. Death, taxes, and the San Francisco Giants in an even year.

Appreciating Jose Fernandez

No starting pitcher has been better at striking batters out in 2016 than Miami Marlins ace Jose Fernandez. The 23-year-old leads all of baseball with 13.1 strikeouts per nine innings. The next highest rates are Max Scherzer and David Price with 11.4 each. It's a shame Fernandez has been stuck on irrelevant Marlins teams so far in his career because similar to other young phenoms in small market cities he doesn't get talked about enough nationally. 

As a 20-year-old rookie in 2013 Fernandez took the baseball world by storm. In 28 starts he went 12-6 with a 2.19 ERA and 187 strikeouts in 172.2 innings pitched. An all-star that season he went on to win the NL Rookie of the Year award while finishing third in the Cy Young voting. 

He was somehow pitching even better to start his sophomore season in 2014 with a 2.44 ERA and 70 strikeouts through 51.2 innings pitched. However, after getting hit in the thigh on his second to last start Fernandez was forced to change his delivery in his next game. The result of that required him to undergo Tommy John surgery. 

He returned midway through 2015 looking, surprisingly, like his old self. In 11 starts Fernandez went 6-1 with a 2.92 ERA and 79 strikeouts in 64.2 innings pitched. Most pitchers coming back from the surgery struggle with control but in 2015 he posted the lowest walks per nine of his career (1.9). While this was a very encouraging sign heading into the season Fernandez has struggled with walks in 2016.

In his first full season back from Tommy John surgery Fernandez has been fantastic. The only troubling sign is that he has more than doubled his walk rate from a year ago (4.0 per nine). This has led to a career high 3.02 ERA. Keep in mind that a 3.02 ERA is very, very good and shows just how great Fernandez can be if he finds a way to cut back on the walks. He should do this even if it means lowering the strikeout rate, which is a formula that has led Chris Sale to having a career year

Reducing walks allowed is easier said than done. However, with a career BB/9 of 2.9 Fernandez has a track record that gives reason for optimism. Although starting pitchers return from Tommy John between 12-18 months after surgery, many have said they do not feel like themselves right away. Perhaps he is still shaking off the rust but with a career ERA just one-tenth of a run higher than Clayton Kershaw's, Fernandez certainly has the potential to be the best pitcher in all of baseball.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Should The A's Fire Billy Beane?

Midway through 2014 the Oakland Athletics were the best team in baseball. With a 59-36 (.621) record entering the All-Star break many figured this team would be General Manager Billy Beane's best chance at making the World Series. The second half of the season featured an almost historic collapse by the A's. The team finished 10 games behind the Angels in the AL West and barely clinched the second Wild Card spot. Despite a 7-3 Oakland lead entering the bottom of the eighth in the one game playoff against the Royals the A's went on to lose in extra innings, which ended their season.

The 2014 collapse marked the end of an era for Beane and the Athletics. When the "Moneyball" A's era ended in 2006 the organization spent the next five years rebuilding before a three year playoff run from 2012-14. From 2012 until the 2014 All-Star break the A's went an extremely impressive 249 - 170 (.594). Since then they have gone 116 - 154 (.430). Clearly they are once again starting from scratch.

The reason Beane's job should be called into question here is not because the A's need to rebuild. This is the way baseball works in Oakland. The reason is two disastrous trades by Beane have set the rebuild back. 

In the middle of that 2014 season Beane made a trade that was very uncharacteristic of him. He traded the future for the present by sending Addison Russel, along with two others, to the Chicago Cubs for Jeff Samardzjia and Jason Hammel. These pitchers may have helped Oakland get into that one game playoff but there is no doubt Beane would want a do over. After the season Beane sent Samardzjia to the White Sox for a package headlined by shortstop Marcus Semien. While Semien has 10 home runs so far in 2016, Russel is one of the best young shortstops in baseball and is under club control through 2022.

Sensing the need to rebuild after the season Beane made another curious decision by trading away rising star Josh Donaldson to Toronto for Brett Lawrie and prospects. Donaldson still had four years left of club control at the time of the trade and went on to win AL MVP in his first year with the Blue Jays. One of the minor leaguers Beane received was Franklin Barreto, who is now the A's top prospect. While Barreto could salvage some value from the deal it is clear Toronto has already won this trade.

What's interesting about all the praise Beane receives as a GM is that he's never won a World Series. He's never even been to the World Series. The closest the A's have gotten in the past decade was the ALCS in 2006. They got swept. 

It's unfair to only judge Beane by these two trades gone wrong. There have been countless deals where he came out on top. The problem with firing him is that the A's would be hard pressed to replace him with someone better. He is known as one of the best GMs in the game for a reason. Although it should bother A's fans that the current roster could feature Russel and Donaldson, at the end of the day Beane is the best option to get them back to relevance due to the fact that he has done it twice already. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Get To Know American League Cy Young Candidate Danny Salazar

The Cleveland Indians have a track record of starting pitchers that have break out seasons and win the Cy Young award. CC Sabathia (2007), Cliff Lee (2008), and Corey Kluber (2014) have all been recipients of this honor in the past decade. While Chris Sale's absolutely dominant start to 2016 has him as the current favorite for the award, a new ace is emerging in Cleveland. His name is Danny Salazar. 

Entering 2016 the Cy Young odds for Salazar were +2500, which was tied for 12th best in the American League. He has always had great "stuff" as evidenced by his career 10 strikeouts per nine innings. In his 2013 rookie season Salazar struck out an impressive 65 batters in just 52 innings. 

Expectations were high entering 2014. While he was still striking out over a batter per inning, Salazar was far too hittable and allowed a whopping 9.6 hits per nine innings en route to a disappoints 4.25 ERA. In 2015 he decreased his hits per nine to 7.6, which lowered his ERA to 3.45.

No starting pitcher has been tougher to get a hit off of in 2016 than Salazar. He has allowed just 27 in 50 innings, which is good for a league leading 4.9 hits per nine. In his eight starts he is 4-2 with 61 strikeouts and a 1.80 ERA. 

What's interesting about Salazar's season is he is allowing 4.1 walks per nine, which is well above his career average of 2.9. This means that Salazar can afford some regression in his hits allowed if he can cut down on the walks. The award is currently Sale's to lose but Salazar's progress will be a story worth monitoring if he continues his breakout season.

Xander Bogaerts Is Becoming The Best Shortstop In Baseball

Entering this season Carlos Correa was thought to be baseball's best young shortstop. After winning the rookie of the year award in just 99 games last season, Correa has hit .273 with 7 homers and 19 RBI so far in 2016. What is most impressive about his start is how he has increased his walk rate from 9.3% in 2015 to 13.7% this year. This shows the 21-year-old is developing a better understanding of the strike zone and is increasing his ability to get on base. While there is still an argument to be made for Correa as the best shortstop in baseball, the favorite for that honor now belongs to Xander Bogaerts.

Despite a strong showing for Boston in the 2013 playoffs as a rookie, Bogaerts struggled in 2014 both offensively and defensively. Mid way through the year the Red Sox made a huge mistake by signing Stephen Drew and shifting Bogaerts to third base, which he has admitted shook his confidence. All in all that year he made 10 errors in 99 games at short and 10 more errors in 44 games at third. To his credit, however, he has improved tremendously defensively. In 2015 he made the same 10 errors but this time in 156 games. Through 37 games in 2016 he has made just one.

From 2014 to 2015 Bogaerts raised his batting average a whopping 80 points, from .240 to .320 and won the silver slugger award. A major reason for this was Xander cutting down on the strikeouts. As a 23-year-old in 2016 he has reduced his strikeout to walk ratio for the third straight season. He currently leads the American League in hits and is hitting .338. Since April 20 he is batting an insane .414 with 41 hits in just 23 games. He is also quieting concerns about his power, or lack thereof. After hitting just seven homers in 2015, Bogaerts already has four this year.

Baseball has a track record of groups of young shortstops coming up at the same time. In the late 1990s we saw Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and Nomar Garciaparra all rise to stardom together. In the mid 2000s it was Jose Reyes, Hanely Ramirez, and Troy Tulowitzki. Bogaerts and Correa headline this next wave and are joined by Corey Seager, Addison Russell, and Francisco Lindor. We do not yet know who of this new generation will rise to the top. The good news for Red Sox fans is it appears Bogaerts has the inside track. 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Were The Houston Astros Just A One Year Wonder?

2015 was the year the Astros arrived ahead of schedule. After failing to surpass 70 wins in four straight years the team expected moderate improvements but the 86 win playoff season took many by surprise. Jose Altuve became a star, Dallas Keuchel won the Cy Young, Carlos Correa won rookie of the year, and the Astros look positioned for a long term run of success.

So what does that make 2016? It has been a year of disappointment as the team is off to a 15-24 start, which is good for last place in the AL West. As a young, up and coming franchise the Astros were a trendy World Series pick before the season but have seen both their offense and pitching take steps back this year.

Offensively the team have seen their runs per game decrease from 4.48 in 2015 (7th in MLB) to 4.26 in 2016 (16th in MLB). The Astros last year relied heavily on the long ball, leading all of baseball with 1.43 hit per game. This season they rank eighth, with just 1.23 dingers per game. The 2016 Astros lead baseball in both stolen bases and the number of times caught stealing. While they ran just as aggressively last year they aren't generating the same amount of offense to sustain the pace this season.

Although they are scoring less runs per game than last year the real problem for the Astros has been the pitching. After posting a team ERA of 3.59 in 2015 (6th in MLB), that number has ballooned to 4.67 in 2016 (25th in MLB). Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel has doubled his walk rate, which has led to a 2-5 record and 5.58 ERA. Colin McGugh has given up the most hits in the league, which has led to his own 5.58 ERA. The big offseason trade of Vince Velasquez for Ken Giles has worked out terribly, as Velasquez has a 2.70 ERA for the Phillies while Giles lost the closer job and has a 7.20 ERA. 

All of this leaves the Astros nine games under .500 and seven out of first place. While Houston has gone a respectable 10-10 at home, they are a miserable 5-14 on the road. Keuchel was due for regression after seemingly coming out of nowhere last season but nobody expected him to be this bad. There are no great teams in the AL West, or all of the AL for that matter, so the Astros have time to turn it around. It all starts with Keuchel pitching tonight against the White Sox. 

Monday, May 16, 2016

Previewing The Upcoming Free Agent Hitters

When Stephen Strasburg signed his contract extension last week it began talk about how weak it left the rest of the starting pitching free agency class. It's only May and there is still a lot of baseball left to play but the contract status of the names mentioned below could have a significant impact on this year's trade deadline and pennant races. So while it is admittedly way too early to be doing this, let's preview the upcoming free agency bats.

Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Mets

Cespedes signed an extremely unique three year, $75 million contract this past off-season that includes an opt out after year one. After hitting a career high 35 homers in 2015 Cespedes' hot start looks like he could surpass that total this season. In 33 games so far he has hit 12 home runs with 32 RBI and a .287 batting average. His OBP (.365) and slugging percentage (.648) are much higher than his career averages of .322 and .494, respectively. Assuming Cespedes continues his career year he will likely opt out of his current deal and receive the long term deal he wasn't able to get this past winter. 

Jose Bautista, OF, Blue Jays

Bautista has been underpaid for quite some time now so it is understandable why he wants to really cash in this winter. He is in the final season of a team-friendly five year, $65 million contract that he signed back in 2011. He has played full seasons the past two years and hit 35 and 40 homers, respectively. Despite never hitting for much of a batting average Bautista has always been a high on base guy, as evidenced by his career .368 OBP. That ability could be huge for teams wary of giving the 35-year-old a long term deal.

Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Blue Jays

Toronto will have a tough decision to make when it comes to their two big bats. While it is unlikely they can re-sign both they will feel pressure from fans to keep at least one, especially after losing David Price to the division rival Red Sox this past winter. Many speculate the team will choose Encarnacion due to the fact that he is two years younger than Bautista and has shown to be more durable by playing in at least 128 games in each of the past five seasons. Since his breakout season in 2012 Encarnacion has averaged nearly 38 homers per season. After saying he will not negotiate in-season there are now rumors that extension conversations will take place over the all star break.

Cespedes, Bautista, and Encarnacion represent the big three bats available in this year's upcoming free agency class. Other names worth mentioning include Carlos Gomez, Mark Trumbo, Matt Wieters, Mark Teixeira, and Carlos Beltran. There will be plenty of coverage on those guys come November but the bottom line is it will be easier to find hitting this off-season, than it will starting pitching. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Chris Sale Is Having A Dominant Career Year

Entering the 2016 season Chris Sale was a good bet to capture his first American League Cy Young award. From 2012 to 2015 Sale finished sixth, fifth, third, and fourth in the voting respectively. He has been considered an elite pitcher for years now but has yet to put together that one truly dominant season. Through eight starts in 2016 it's looking like this could be the year.

Currently Sale is 8-0 with a 1.67 ERA and 53 strikeouts in 59.1 innings pitched. He leads the league in wins, innings, complete games, shutouts, and WHIP. The biggest difference for Sale in 2016 compared to past seasons is effectiveness. His eight strikeouts per nine innings would be the lowest of his career, however, he also has the lowest hits per nine and walks per nine rates of his career as well. This could be the result of a smart pitcher realizing he doesn't have to blow everybody away.

Sale's former strikeout tendencies most likely result from his time as a reliever, where strikeouts are the name of the game. What is interesting about his rise to Cy Young favorite is that he was groomed to be a future closer. 

The White Sox selected him in the first round of the 2010 draft and he found himself pitching for the big league bullpen later that very season. He was an instant sensation pitching in 21 games with a 1.93 ERA and a ridiculous 12.3 K/9. He remained an effective reliever in 2011 before transitioning to becoming a full time starter in 2012, which is when he began his current streak of four straight top six finishes in the Cy Young voting.

The White Sox have rode Sale's dominant start to a 24-13 record, which is good for first place in the AL Central and second best overall in the American League. The biggest reason for optimism that this is his year is the struggles of other pre-season Cy Young hopefuls. David Price, Dallas Keuchel, Sonny Gray, and Chris Archer have all struggled immensely. Felix Hernandez represents his current competition for the award but through mid-May Chris Sale has been the unquestioned best pitcher in the American League.

Friday, May 13, 2016

The Red Sox Offense Is Out Of Control

Following two straight last place finishes expectations were up in the air for the Boston Red Sox entering 2016. The team made two huge offseason additions by signing David Price and trading for Craig Kimbrel. While these moves were aimed at strengthening the team's pitching staff, it has been the offense that has carried the team to a 22-13 start.

Currently the Red Sox lead all of MLB in runs, hits, doubles, total bases, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, and stolen base percentage. Six of the top 17 batting average leaders in the American League play for Boston. They are averaging 5.91 runs per game, which includes an absurd average of 6.79 runs per game at Fenway. On their current home stand the Sox have scored a combined 51 runs in the past four games.

In addition to hitting on all cylinders the Sox are stealing bases both aggressively and efficiently. Currently they are second in baseball with 27 steals while swiping them at a ridiculous 93.10% success rate. For comparison the next highest rate is 79.31%. This is a major improvement from 2015 when the Sox finished 19th in the league in steals.

The team is getting contributions from everyone but what is legitimately scary is their leadoff hitter Mookie Betts has yet to fully heat up. He is currently slashing .253/.293/.430, which is well below 2015's .291/.341/.479 triple slash line. Betts started slow last year as well so should be expected to heat up soon once again.

The biggest surprise for Boston has been Jackie Bradley Jr. Bradley is in the midst of a 18 game hitting streak where he is hitting .412 with six home runs, five doubles, three triples, 25 RBI and a 1.290 OPS. He has 14 RBI in the past four games alone. However, as a career .230 hitter it remains to be seen if he can be a valuable offensive player for the duration of the season.

If the season ended today the 2016 Red Sox average of 5.91 runs per game would rank fourth all time for Boston behind only the 1950 (6.67), 1938 (6.01), and 2003 (5.93) teams. With Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, and Xander Bogaerts all having excellent seasons health seems to be the only factor that could prevent this offense from becoming historic. 

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Madison Bumgarner Is Getting Even Better

When baseball fans hear the name Madison Bumgarner they think one thing. Playoffs. Bumgarner is a legendary postseason performer having already played an integral part in three World Series victories. In the 2014 postseason alone he registered a 1.03 ERA in 52.2 innings pitched with 45 strikeouts and two complete game shutouts. Since his rookie season in 2010 he has always been one of the best pitchers in the league, which makes it scary that he's getting even better.

The biggest development for Bumgarner thus far in 2016 is that he is striking batters out at the highest rate of his career. In fact his strikeouts per nine have increased every year since 2012 when he was at 8.3. Through 49.2 innings this season Bumgarner has 60 strikeouts, which is good for 10.9 K/9. 

Unfortunately Bumgarner's walks have also increased. After allowing just 39 free passes in 2015 he has already issued 18 this season. The walks have yet to catch up with his results however, as he holds a 2.72 ERA through eight starts, which would be the lowest of his career for a full season.

The rise in strikeouts this season may go hand in hand with the increase in number of walks. So to lower the amount of free passes may mean not as many strikeouts for Bumgarner. This would be alright because his 10.9 K/9 rate is so insanely higher than his 2015 total and previous career high of 9.6. 

Bumgarner's prime has been overshadowed by Clayton Kershaw's historic run of excellence. Despite all his regular season accomplishments Bumgarner has never finished higher than fourth in the Cy Young voting. With Kershaw off to another dominant start a shot at the award seems unlikely this year. However, it's worth noting that Bumgarner is continuing to improve. At just 26 years old he is having his best season yet.

The Red Hot Seattle Mariners Are In First Place

The Seattle Mariners are arguably the worst franchise in the history of major league baseball. Since joining the league in 1977 the team has never been to the World Series and has made the postseason just four times. They have not made the playoffs since 2001. However, the team is playing well thus far in 2016. Led by Robinson Cano they have won 16 of their past 21 games, which has launched them into first place.

Cano signed a 10 year, $240 million contract before the 2014 season to become the face of the Mariners along with Felix Hernandez. Cano played well through the first two years of the deal but wasn't hitting for power the way he was with the Yankees. Early on in 2016 that has changed as Cano leads the American League with 12 home runs and 33 RBI. 

Cano is supplemented in the lineup by Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager, who have six and seven home runs respectively. The offense is also receiving contributions from sophomore shortstop Ketel Marte, who is hitting .349 over his last 15 games.

The pitching has been anchored by Felix Hernandez, who has been the ace of this staff for nearly a decade now. The 30-year-old is up to usual stuff this year with a 2.27 ERA after seven starts. However, he is striking out just 6.8 batters per nine innings, which is well below his career average of 8.5/9. It is something to monitor.

King Felix is no longer the only weapon the rotation has. 23-year-old Taijuan Walker has made huge strides in his second full season. Through seven starts he has a 2.63 ERA with 38 strikeouts in 37.2 innings pitched. So far in 2016 he has lowered his walk rate to 1.4/9 from 2.1/9 a year ago. 

It's a shame King Felix has still never pitched in the playoffs. Back in 2013 he signed a seven year contract to remain with Seattle because he wanted to win with the only franchise he has ever known. To do this the Mariners will have to continue taking advantage of their division, specifically the underperforming Astros and injury ridden Angels. This 21 games stretch could simply be a hot streak, or it could be the start of Seattle's first playoff push in 16 years.

The Albert Pujols Contract Is Turning Ugly Fast

Before Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, and Clayton Kershaw there was Albert Pujols. Following the retirement of Barry Bonds and the decline of Alex Rodriguez, Pujols became the unquestioned best player in baseball. He held this title from roughly 2008-2010. So basically before Trout and Harper entered the league for good in 2012. 

During this time frame Pujols finished first, first, and second in the NL MVP voting. In this three year span he led the league in homers twice, slugging twice, runs twice, OBP once, RBI once, and intentional walks three times. His excellence dates all the way back to his 2001 rookie season. From 2001-2010 he never hit lower than .312.

In his final year with the Cardinals in 2011 Pujols finally showed some slight decline. His batting average fell from .312 to .299 and OBP from .414 to .366. However he still hit 37 home runs and went on to have a three-homer game in the World Series, which the Cardinals won.

The 11 year track record of success netted Pujols a 10 year, $240 million contract from the Angels. Since then his OBP has continued to decline every year. Despite the drops in batting average and OBP he was able to hit 40 home runs in 2015 and become an all star for the first time since 2010.

The Angels knew the Pujols contract would look bad on the back end but what is concerning is how quickly that time is coming. He continues to be a power threat, as evidenced by last season and his six homers through 33 games in 2016. However, he is hitting .185 with a .261 OBP. It's early in the season but that is not the start you want to see from a 36-year-old who's on base skills have been declining every year.

The Angels are having injury issues, have little budget flexibility, and control few impact prospects, which means it's not going to be an easy fix for the last place club. Making matters worse is the fact that the Pujols contract is backloaded, which means that AFTER 2016 it still has five years and $140 million left. Albert Pujols was once the unquestioned best player in baseball. Now he might have the unquestioned worst contract in baseball.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Stephen Strasburg's Contract Leaves Behind A Weak Free Agent Pitching Class

Nationals co-ace Stephen Strasburg was set up for an enormous pay day this winter. As the only impact arm in the 2016 free agent class teams needing pitching would have been forced to outbid each other for his services. However, Strasburg shocked the baseball world this week by agreeing to a seven year, $175 million extension with opt outs after 
years three and four. 

Those teams that would have had to outbid each other for Strasburg? They won't have many options to choose from now. The "best" available pitchers are in the graphic above, and it's difficult to determine who the best of that group even is. Many MLB teams knew this group would be this bad, which is why David Price and Zack Greinke signed record setting contract this past offseason.

With no quality arms available via free agency teams will be forced to look towards the trade market. Sonny Gray, despite his early season struggles, figures to be the most prominent name available. His services won't come cheap though. Pitching needy teams will either have to give up valuable top prospects through a trade, or settle for one of the underwhelming free agency options.

The Strasburg contract is for the same money and years that Felix Hernandez signed for back in 2013. Strasburg could have theoretically made more this offseason but after having career derailed once by Tommy John surgery he chose the security. The contract is the longest ever for a pitcher who had the surgery.