Monday, April 24, 2017

Chris Devenski Is Andrew Miller On Steroids (And A Discussion On When Teams Should Use Their Best Relievers)

I had never heard of Chris Devenski until this year. There may be a lot of baseball fans who still don't know who he is. In order to catch you up to speed here is what you need to know:

--He was a 25th round pick by the White Sox in 2011 who was traded to the Astros a year later as the "player to be named later" in the Bretty Myers deal.

--He reached the majors as a 25-year-old in 2016 and finished fourth in the American League Rookie of the Year voting. His 2.16 ERA led all AL pitchers who threw at least 100 innings.

--Devenski made 48 appearances last season, which included five as a starter. Once he became a full time reliever in the second half he threw 49 2/3 innings and struck out 57 with a sub 2.00 ERA.

Basically he's a pretty good reliever. So what? There's plenty of those in the majors these days. That's true, except Devenski isn't your typical relief pitcher - at least not the way he's being used right now by Astros manager A.J. Hinch. I want to call him the next Andrew Miller but even that isn't a perfect comparison. Here's Devenski's game log so far in 2017. Notice how many innings he's pitched in each appearance:

The Astros are a very analytically oriented club so they are subscribing to the theory of using your best relievers in the game's biggest spots regardless of the inning. And whether or not you buy in to advanced stats the thought process is hard to argue with.

So this begs the question - when should baseball teams use their best relief pitcher? Traditionalists will tell you to save him for the ninth inning since those are "the three toughest outs to get". In a sense this is true. The final three outs of a ball game are when every batter is locked in and all the fans/media are watching closely. But what if the opposing team has their 7-8-9 hitters coming up to bat in the ninth and you have a three run lead? Is it worth using your best reliever in this spot? If it's a must win game, sure, but we don't want to fall into the trap of having to use your best bullpen arm in the ninth just because it's the way we've always done it. 

I'm going to use my favorite team, the Red Sox, as an example here. Let's say it's the eighth inning and the Sox have a one run lead against the Orioles. Coming up to bat is the heart of their order including Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and Mark Trumbo. Should Boston use their perfectly fine set up man Matt Barnes, or their dominant "closer" Craig Kimbrel? Traditional baseball wisdom would have you use the set up man since it's the eighth inning, but that would mean Barnes would pitch against the Orioles' best hitters while (assuming all went well) Kimbrel would get the bottom of the order. That doesn't make sense. If Kimbrel is Boston's best reliever, and if in this particular game the eighth inning happens to be the highest leverage spot, shouldn't the Red Sox use him then?

Of course, not every example is going to be that cut and dry. The point is not just to use your best arm against the opponents best bats. The point is that teams should be open to thinking differently when it comes to bullpen usage. But each team is different. Some have three great relievers while others only have one. Part of what makes the Indians so dangerous is they can use Andrew Miller in the earlier innings and still hand the ball off to a dominant Cody Allen in the ninth. During the first few weeks of 2017 Houston appears to have a similar luxury, with Ken Giles typically handling the ninth while Devenski filling in wherever he's needed.

All this bullpen usage theory has gotten me away from celebrating the great Devenski. Through 13 1/3 innings he has a 1.35 ERA with 25 strikeouts and just one walk. Essentially the Astros are using him the way the Indians used Andrew miller last post-season. They'll bring him in to pitch in high leverage situations (whether it's the fourth inning or eighth inning) and they'll ride him for multiple innings. The only difference is that Devenski was a starter so recently that he can go four innings on a day if need be. Right now he is on pace to throw around 120 innings out the bullpen, which is very out of the norm for relief pitchers. But that's why Chris Devenski isn't your typical reliever. He's Andrew Miller on steroids.

Takeaways From A Wild Weekend Against The Orioles

--Let's get right into the biggest story of the weekend, which was the fallout from Manny Machado's hard slide into Dustin Pedroia Friday night. There's already been a lot said and written about this so I don't want to spend too much time on the matter. My thoughts are that Machado was definitely intending to slide hard into second base. However, he was definitely not trying to cleat Pedroia, as evidenced by how he immediately went to help him up. I think what happened was that he slid harder than he wanted to, realized he had come in too hard, and then went to help Pedey up.

--Still, Machado slid hard at one of our best players so he deserved to get beaned in the ass. Or in the shoulder. Not the head. Absolutely not the head. Maybe Matt Barnes' pitch slipped a little but he definitely shouldn't have done what he did. On one hand good for Matty B for protecting one of his best players. He just should have been smarter about where he was throwing the ball. On the other hand if you're the Orioles you're now going to be seeking revenge. Baltimore comes to Fenway a week from today, Monday May 1st, and I have a feeling we haven't seen the end of this drama yet.

--What is getting lost in yesterday's fiasco is how well the Red Sox played. Markus Lynn Betts continued his streak of hitting homers at Camden Yards and Hanley Ramirez finally hit his first of the season, but the day belonged to Andrew Benintendi. Benny Baseball became the youngest Red Sox player since Tony Conigliario in 1967 to record five hits in a game. Benny went a perfect 5-for-5 (all singles) to raise his batting average on the year to .347 (!!!), which is good for fourth best in the American League. Even more impressive right now is his .415 on base percentage. I cautioned fans after his Opening Day homer to temper expectations from him in the power department. Well he hasn't homered since but that's alright. The contact skills and batting eye are legit. So far Benny is rewarding manager John Farrell's faith to bat him second at just 22 years old.

--On the pitching side of things, the Barnes/Machado incident overshadowed a brilliant start by Eduardo Rodriguez, who threw six shutout innings with seven strikeouts. This outing was particularly impressive since the left handed Rodriguez was dealing with a murderers row of right handed Baltimore bats. This was easily Fast Eddy's best start of the year and his ERA on the season now sits at 3.12 to go along with 22 strikeouts in 17 1/13 innings pitched. The concern for him right now, other than continuing to develop a reliable third pitch, would be the 12 walks he has allowed. I'm skeptical as to whether or not he will ever become a top of the rotation starter, but if he gets the walks under control the upside is immense.

--It would have been interesting to see what Chris "Best Pitcher in the American League" Sale would have done had he been starting over the weekend. He's intense enough to plunk Machado but also seems like the type who would prefer to just strike him out three times. Regardless Sale has been even better than we could have hoped for so far in 2017. Last Thursday afternoon he dominated a pathetic Blue Jays lineup for eight shutout innings while racking up 13 K's. Through his first four starts as a Red Sox Sale has pitched 29.2 innings while giving up just three runs (0.91 ERA) and has struck out a league leading 42 batters. His 0.71 WHIP ranks second in the majors and only Mike Trout (1.9) has accumulated more WAR than Sale so far (1.8) according to baseball-reference.

--I have zero problem with Farrell pulling Sale after 102 pitches against the Blue Jays on Thursday. We want him fresh come October and he was handing the ball off to one of the best relief pitchers in baseball so far in 2017. Many fans were nervous about Craig Kimbrel entering the year. How could you not be after he walked 5.1 per nine in his first season in Boston? Yet through his first 9 1/3 innings Kimbrel has been dominant this year. He has a 1.93 ERA with a 17-to-2 strikeout to walk ratio. His 1.9 walks per nine right now would be the best of his career if the season ended today.

Random Stuff:
--I want to take a moment to recognize the job done by manager John Farrell thus far this year. Farrell receives a ton of well deserved shit from fans and the media year after year. No, he is not a great (or even good) in game manager, but so far I think he's managed the bullpen very nicely. For the most part Matty B and Heath Hembree have been used in the right spots to close the bridge to Kimbrel. 

--David Price is scheduled to throw a 45-50 pitch bullpen at Fenway on Monday. He's going to be taking breaks in between to simulate an actual start and if all goes well the team will design a plan for him to start pitching in rehab games. We aren't out of the woods yet but if this session goes well we should receive an actual timetable for his return to Boston. 

--The Sox now return to Boston for a 10 game home stand against some good competition. They'll face the Yankees three times, the Cubs three times, and the Orioles four times. Through 19 games the Sox have a record of 11-8, but we'll know a lot more about how good we are after this week and a half.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Quick Reactions To Madison Bumgarner Is Going To The Disabled List For The First Time In His Career

Maybe we shouldn't be surprised that the Giants' season is already going down the drain. It's an odd numbered year after all. Since 2010 the Giants have won the World Series that year, in 2012, and in 2014. They have missed the playoffs altogether in 2011, 2013, and 2015. Last year, in 2016, the team made the post-season, fell down two games to none to the Cubs, won game three, and came within a game four bullpen meltdown to forcing game five. The formula has always been the same. Posey + Pitching = Championships. While the Giants still have Posey and some decent pitchers, losing one of baseball's five best starters might be too much to overcome.

This injury marks Madison Bumgarner's first ever trip to the disabled list. The fact that it happened as a non baseball related injury shows how durable he's been over the years. In every season from 2011 through 2016 MadBum made at least 31 starts while pitching over 200 innings. That type of workhorse ace just doesn't exist in 2017. Throughout the years no matter what else was ailing the Giants they could always look towards giving the ball to Bum every five days.

What should have San Francisco most concerned is the type of injury Bumgarner is dealing with, which is the AC joint in his shoulder. The problem with shoulder injuries is they tend to be unpredictable and are often re-aggrivated down the line. That means that even if Bum returns in his six to eight week projection, there could be setbacks.

Right now the Giants are just 6-11 and find themselves in last place in the National League West. If they remain out of contention as Bumgarner's return nears they should keep him out even longer. Bum is just 27 years old and the last thing San Fran wants is for this shoulder to become a problem in 2018 and beyond. Unless they feel like they have a real good shot at the playoffs this year they should operate as cautiously as possible.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

BRYCE HARPER IS OFFICIALLY BACK!!! (With Some Advanced Stats To Prove It)

Well we are not even three full weeks into the 2017 season and it seems like we can already declare that Bryce Harper is BACK. Last night Bryce had one of those games where he reminds you of how he became the youngest unanimous MVP in the over 100 year history of Major League Baseball. Bryce went 4-for-4 with two home runs, a double, five RBIs, a walk, and three runs scored as the Nationals beat the piss out of the Braves 14-4. It's been the continuation of a three weak tear for Harper that began in the very first game of the year.

Bryce Harper on Opening Day:
2013: 2 home runs
2014: N/A
2015: 1 home run
2016: 1 home run
2017: 1 home run

His incredible month of April continued on Easter Sunday when he came up to bat with two on and two outs with the Nationals trying by one. Bryce then did this:

We know Harper was disappointing last year following his MVP performance in 2015. I'll be the first to admit that Bryce rubs a lot of people the wrong way so everyone wanted to jump onto the bandwagon of this meaning he was a flash in the pan or that he couldn't live up to the hype he had set for himself. But for the millionth time let's take a look at what happened last year:

He began 2016 on a hot streak similar to what he's doing right now. Through his first 15 games he hit .321 with eight home runs and 22 RBIs. If anything he was performing even better than the year prior and he had idiots like me declaring he had won the Trout versus Harper debate. He was so good that the Cubs wanted absolutely nothing to do with him during a four game series in May where they walked him 13 times. Baseball hadn't seem someone get that type of respect since Barry Bonds. And then...nothing. The production just stopped. Harper became a shell of himself and finished the year with a .243 batting average and just 1.6 WAR.

So what happened? Were the haters right? Well if it his start to 2017 is any indication it looks like he was just playing hurt. It came out once during the season and then again this off-season that Bryce was dealing with a shoulder injury suffered mid way through last year, which just so happens to be around when he started struggling. Hmmm. What do shoulder injuries do to a hitter? They affect a hitter's ability to hit the ball hard that's what. So let's look at a stat called soft contact percent, which is exactly what it sounds like. It measures how often a hitter makes soft (weak) contact on a batted ball.

For some perspective, in Harper's MVP season he had a soft contact percent of 11.9 according to FanGraphs. That number rose to 19.8 (!!!) percent in 2016. For his career, including when he played through this shoulder injury, Bryce's soft contact percent is 15.0. So what does that mean? Well for one it likely proves he was playing hurt during the second half of last year. If you want to tell me he regressed a little after 2015, well I can buy that too. His breakout season was so good it would've been tough to repeat it. But what you cannot tell me is that his soft contact percent rose that much for no reason. There was something else going on and the timing of the shoulder injury makes too much sense. 

Fast forward to this year. As stated earlier Bryce is off to a scorching hot start. Through 14 games entering Thursday night he is slashing .404/.516/.846 with six home runs and 18 RBIs. His 1.3 WAR according to Baseball-Reference ranks second among position players. Just to make sure everyone is reading that triple slash line correctly, yes, that means Harper has gotten on base over 50% of the time so far. And how should we know he's "back" as opposed to just having a couple of good weeks? His soft contact percent this year is 7.1. Freed of last season's shoulder injury he is making weak contact at a rate even lower than his unanimous MVP winning 2015. It's official, Bryce is back.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Chris Sale Is Back To Striking Batters Out And It's Glorious

Chris Sale had a weird season in 2016. On the bright side, he finished with career highs in games started (32) and innings pitched (226 2/3). However, the increased durability resulted in a lot fewer strikeouts and his rate stats fell drastically.  After leading the league in K/9 in both 2014 (10.8) and 2015 (11.8) that number dropped to 9.3 last year. Often times a decrease in strikeouts, combined with a drop in velocity, could mean a pitcher is headed for a decline.

But that was not the case for the best pitcher in the American League. It turns out that Sale's strikeout numbers were actually down on purpose. It was part of a plan developed by Sale and White Sox pitching coach Don Cooper to allow the ace to pitch deeper into games by having easier innings. The thought process made sense - Sale was 27 at the time and had four seasons under his belt as a starting pitcher exerting maximum effort during every at bat. By making a conscious decision to pitch more to contact by pounding the strike zone he would be able to save some bullets for the playoffs.

The plan worked, and actually had an unintentional consequence that could help Sale have a career year in 2017. While Chicago wasn't able to reap the rewards in the playoffs the experiment gave him another method of attacking hitters. Throwing hard and striking batters out can only work for so long. Eventually a pitcher's velocity will decline and if they haven't learned other ways of pitching to batters then they are not going to have success into their 30s (think Tim Lincecum).

But so far in 2017 Sale is not there yet. His velocity is back and with it so are the strikeouts. In 21 2/3 innings this year he has struck out 29 while recording a 1.25 ERA. He has already complied two games of 10+ strikeouts, which represents half of his total from a year ago (when he did not record his first double digit strikeout game until the beginning of August). 

This means we are witnessing prime Chris Sale right now. So far he has been able to both strike guys out and go deep into games. He has the stuff to get a K when he needs it, yet has also learned to pitch to contact if his pitch count is getting high. And sometimes even when he's "pitching to contact" he'll strike guys out because his stuff is that good. Chris Sale is not back to being his old self - he's the best version of himself we have ever seen.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Eric Thames Is The Story Of The 2017 Major League Baseball Season (So Far)

What Eric Thames is doing right now is fucking nuts. Through just 12 games entering Tuesday night he is batting .405 while leading the league in home runs (7), runs scored, slugging, OPS, OPS+, and total bases. You may remember him from his first stint in Major League Baseball with the Blue Jays and Mariners in 2011/2012. In those two seasons Thames was a free swinger who compiled 175 strikeouts compared to just 38 walks. He had power, no doubt, but that type of strikeout to walk ratio is practically impossible to sustain for a big league hitter. 

Following a 2013 season spent in the minors Thames asked for his release and then went to play in Korea for three years. In this USA Today article he credits the Korean league for teaching him plate discipline as well as teaching him the mental side of baseball. It's a cool story of the transformation from a major league castoff to becoming a Korean superstar that earned him the nickname "God". In three seasons in Korea Thames batted .348 with 124 home runs. In 2015 he hit 47 long balls while stealing 40 bases and won league MVP honors. But most importantly he began walking at much a higher rate while striking out at a much lower one.

We have just two weeks of data to go off of, but so far there are two advanced metrics that really highlight how good Thames has been. The first one is isolated power (ISO). You can read more about it here but what you need to know is ISO measures how many extra bases a player averages per at bat. Basically, it tells you whether or not a player is a legit power hitter. Typically a good ISO is anything above .200. In 2016 David Ortiz led baseball with a .305 ISO. For more historical perspectives Babe Ruth had a .473 ISO in 1920 and Barry Bonds had a .536 ISO in his 73 homer 2001 season. Entering Tuesday night Thames has an ISO of .595.

That number will regress. Unless we are witnessing the craziest baseball story of all time then Thames is not a Hall of Fame player, or even an MVP caliber one. Instead the reason I point out this stat is to show how dominant his first 48 plate appearances of the season have been. Pitchers will adjust to him and that ISO will come very much back down to Earth. It will then be up to Thames to adjust back to how guys pitch him. But there's another stat that shows his success so far is much more than just a fluke.

This stat is even more nerdy and FanGraphs has a full breakdown of it here but it is called Z-Contact% and it measures how often a batter makes contact on pitches he swings at in the strike zone. Cruising the leaderboards of this stat you'll find a lot of line drive type hitters with good bat on ball skills such as Mookie Betts and Joey Votto. Think the opposite of what Chris Davis of the Orioles is. What you don't see on that leaderboards list are players with a .595 ISO (okay fine that ISO won't last but the point is you don't see big time power hitters on this list).

Entering Tuesday night's game Thames ranked 28th on the Z-Contact% leaderboard, which signals a massive improvement in strike zone judgement and contact skills from his first stint as a big leaguer. Basically when he swings at a pitch in the strike zone he's making contact. And when he makes contact he's going for extra bases. That's what happens when you combine his Z-Contact% with his isolated power. And remember that ridiculous strikeout to walk ratio he had back in 2011 and 2012? Well so far in 2017 he has struck out 11 times and has taken five free passes. It's not elite, but it's pretty damn good. 

If Thames was just hitting for power or only showing improved contact skills, then his contract would still be a success for the Brewers. He is owed $4 million this season, $5 million in 2018, and $6 million in 2019. He also has a $7.5 million player option in 2020 that at this rate he won't be picking up. Thames is 30 years old right now, which means he will be entering his age 33 season at the earliest when he reaches free agency. That's a long ways away so he may never be properly compensated for how well he's playing right now. Then again it's only April 18th. Like I mentioned earlier pitchers are going to adjust to him. What is going to separate him from being a flash in the pan to a star in this league is whether or not he adjusts back. His newfound contact skills give him such a high floor that I'm betting he'll do just fine.

The Red Sox Win Three In A Row To Close Out Patriot's Day Weekend

Well it was an action packed Patriot's Day weekend for Boston sports. While neither the Bruins nor Celtics were able to pull out a victory, the Red Sox recovered from Friday night's loss to win three in a row against the Tampa Bay Rays. Through 13 games the Sox now stand at 8-5 as they head out on a six game road trip to Toronto and Baltimore. Let's take a look back at what happened against the Rays:

--The story of the weekend has to be the incredible performance of the Red Sox bullpen. Matt Barnes and Heath Hembree have turned into legit, reliable set up men while closer Craig Kimbrel looks as good as he ever has. I was admittedly worried about Kimbrel entering the year after he allowed a worrisome 5.1 walks per nine innings in his first season in Boston last year. However, his control seems to be back in 2017 and the 28-year-old has converted all six of his save chances (and 25 straight dating back to 2016). In seven innings pitched this season Kimbrel has allowed just one run while striking out 12 and walking just two. Many fans were understandably worried about the bullpen after the Tyler Thornburg injury but so far they have pitched to an incredible 1.84 ERA.

--Outside of Chris Sale the Sox starting rotation has been nothing to write home about. In fact, it's been particularly bad in the first inning of games. A lot of this damage came from Steven Wright's disaster of a "performance" against Baltimore last week but right now the rotation's first inning ERA is over 9. This is obviously going to have to change and it comes down to Wright, Drew Pomeranz, and Rick Porcello to simply be better. All three have shown flashes at times this season but they won't be able to keep getting bailed out by the bullpen. For what it's worth Wright finished with a quality start yesterday afternoon, giving up just one earned run over six innings.

--A lot of people were concerned that 22-year-old Andrew Benintendi was batting too high in the order to start the year. After homering on Opening Day he admittedly went into a bit of a funk but has now busted out of it with back to back three hit games. Benny Baseball is now batting .314 with an extremely impressive .390 on base percentage while primarily hitting second for Boston. What struck me most when watching him Monday afternoon was his ability to hit to the opposite field. The Rays were shifting him hard to the right side so Benny did what great players are able to do - he hit three of his four batted balls away from the shift. This kid is going to be special.

--The Sox offense has been good so far this year. However, we have hit just six home runs through 13 games. Not great. Our 1-5 hitters from yesterday's game (Pedroia, Benny, Mookie, Hanley, Xander) have combined for just one long ball this year, which came from Benny on Opening Day. The team has made up for this with a ton of doubles, and you have to figure that the power will come, but it's something to monitor over the next few weeks.

Random Stuff:
--Markus Lynn Betts hasn't struck out since September 12, 2016. It's a streak spanning 124 consecutive plate appearances, which is the second lost streak since Juan Pierre in 2004. Mookie hasn't yet broke out this year but stats like this are a reminder of how fucking good he is. 

--Chris "Best Pitcher in the American League" Sale dominated once again Saturday afternoon. So far in 2017 he has pitched 21.2 innings, struck out 29, allowed just five walks, and has a 1.25 ERA. It's now safe to say he is the best pitcher Boston has seen since Pedro.

--Eduardo Rodriguez will be on paternity leave for his scheduled start in Toronto tonight, so Brian Johnson will be replacing him. It's a tough spot for the left handed Johnson as the Blue Jays have a ton of good right handed bats. However, Josh Donaldson is on the DL right now and the team's offense was struggling even before he got hurt.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Red Sox Take Two Of Three From the Orioles And Pirates

It's a great time to be a Boston sports fan right now. The weather is warming up, the Bruins won their first playoff game, and the Celtics have a real chance at making it to the Eastern Conference Finals. But most importantly the Red Sox are back to playing good baseball and there's a lot to be excited about the team moving forward.

It was an interesting few days for the local nine. They returned home from Detroit having lost three of four before splitting a quick two game series against the Orioles. With the Blue Jays off to a horrendous 1-8 start it looks like Baltimore will be our biggest opponent in the AL East. I like Boston's chances of course but the Orioles have more wins over the past five years than any other American League team. It should be a good race that'll last all season. 

Finally, the team pulled off an awesome come from behind victory to beat the Pirates yesterday afternoon. The win completed the three game sweep dating back to the opening series of 2017. Yesterday's game was a make up from a week prior that was canceled due to rain. Now let's take a look at the biggest storylines from this week:

--There's something about early season comeback victories that set the tone for the rest of the year. We are not even two full weeks into the 2017 season and already the Sox have come back twice to win. That doesn't count the game in Detroit with Pablo's three run homer (eventually lost by Joe Kelly) or Sandy Leon's walk off three run homer that occurred in a tie game. This Red Sox team is so young and talented that they were always going to be a likeable bunch but combined with these exciting victories in April fans seem to be really buying in.

--Although Xander Bogaerts got the game winning hit yesterday the real hero was David Ortiz's replacement at DH, Hanley Ramirez. Hanley came up with the bases loaded and one out, and proceeded to crush a ball into the triangle out in center field. Although Markus Lynn Betts was thrown out at the plate the hit tied the game and had Fenway in a frenzy. Hanley Hustle hasn't played the field at all this year due to a shoulder injury but he seems to be really embracing his role as the DH. If he continues to hit in big spots like this the fans will embrace him as well.

--Speaking of Bogaerts I'm psyched he's starting to heat up at the plate. Over the last two games he is a combined 5-for-9 and the go ahead hit yesterday was a perfect example of his tremendous opposite field approach. The 24-year-old came into the majors with so much upside that perhaps I'm a little harsh on him when it comes to the power department. I've also always been #TeamMookie when debating the two but I of course recognize Xander is still a top five young shortstop in baseball. If he can start hitting for power this year the way he was during the first half of 2016 then the sky is the limit. For now Sox fans are glad to see him hitting at all following his terrible second half last year.

--Drew Pomeranz surprised the fuck out of me when he pitched six innings of one run ball Tuesday night. In total he gave up four hits, walked one, and struck out six. What was most encouraging to see was him hitting in the mid 90s with his fastball. A few weeks ago this guy's season was in jeopardy and now there's hope he could be the legit number three starter this team needs. For what it's worth Pomeranz has a track record of starting hot and then fading as the season goes on (probably because he should be a reliever) but Tuesday night's game was encouraging enough for me to give him a chance. 

--Steven Wright's Wednesday night start was, how do we say, not encouraging. The knuckleballer ended his "performance" with as many outs (four) as home runs allowed. In total Wright gave up eight runs and you could tell right away he didn't have it. There's all these stats out there about how the knuckle doesn't work in humidity or when it's moist out, blah, blah, blah. Personally I'm ready to move on from him as anything more than rotation depth once (if?) David Price returns. And that's not just a reaction to this past start. Everyone and their mother could see regression was coming after the first half last year.

Random Stuff:
--Eduardo Rodriguez rebounded nicely after allowing a two run first inning homer to Andrew McCutchen yesterday. He ended his day allowing two earned runs in 5 2/3 innings with eight strikeouts. I'm not sure he will ever become a top of the rotation starter since he still only has two pitches, but I'm excited to see what he can do this year if he remains healthy.

--Sandy Leon and Christian Vazquez are a combined 6-for-7 throwing out potential base stealers this year. If this keeps up any longer teams might stop trying to steal on us altogether.

--Friday night is the start of a four game AL East showdown with the Tampa Bay Rays, kicking off with Rick Porcello versus Chris Archer in game one. The series culminates with the annual 11:00 AM Patriot's Day game Monday morning, which will come in the middle of a five day stretch where a Boston sports team is playing in a playoff game every day. Buckle up.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

It's Time To Start Talking About How Good Francisco Lindor Is

Shortstop as a position is absolutely loaded right now. The combination of Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, and Xander Bogaerts reminds many baseball fans of the late 90s quartet of A-Rod, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciappara, and Miguel Tejada. Also in the discussion of great young shortstops right now are Trea Turner, Addison Russell, Trevor Story, and Aledmys Diaz. With all these guys producing at such a high level it seems like each has taken a turn in the role of best young shortstop in baseball. Coming off a Rookie of the Year award in 2015 Correa was the guy entering 2016. By June of last year Bogaerts was hitting .350 and had taken control of the race. At the end of the season it was Seager getting all the love when he won his own ROY and finished third in the National League MVP voting. Now it's Lindor's turn and holy shit is he fun to watch.

Lindor was drafted out of high school as the 8th overall pick in 2011 and had a steady rise to the majors before becoming Baseball America's 9th ranked prospect entering 2015. He made his debut in June that season and despite playing in just 99 games he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting. Lindor adjusted to the majors right away and closed his rookie campaign with a .313 batting average. In 2016 he made his first all star appearance, won a gold glove, and finished ninth in the MVP balloting. He did this by slashing .301/.358/.435 with 15 homers, 19 steals, and playing great defense.

Since last October no young shortstop has received more time in the national spotlight (and rightfully so) than Lindor. Despite injuries to several key contributors his Indians made it all the way to extra innings in the seventh game of the World Series. You don't go on an unexpected run like that without having some special playoff moments along the way. In game one of the ALCS versus the Blue Jays Lindor provided one:

I remember watching that hit and realizing something special was happening with Cleveland. In his first ever postseason Franky played 15 games and slashed .310/.355/.466, which is remarkably similar to his career averages. I'm not positive if the clutch gene exists but I definitely believe that some guys are better at keeping their heartbeat steady under duress and not letting the bright lights get the best of them. The fact that Lindor did this as a 22-year-old should have Cleveland fans extremely excited for their future. 

His reputation as a big game player carried over to the World Baseball Classic this year when in seven games for Team Puerto Rico he slashed a ridiculous .370/.419/.630 with two homers. If you're keeping track at home that means his triple slash line increased from the regular season to the playoffs and then from the playoffs to the WBC. Early on in 2017 it looks like he's ready to make yet another leap. 

Rewind to last week - just the third game of the regular season for the Indians, who seem hell bent on rectifying last year's World Series loss. Lindor is known most for playing the game loose, smiling, and having fun. Unfortunately for the Rangers this was the night fans got exposed to angry Lindor. He made an error in the sixth inning and was clearly upset with himself, so as any great player would he homered in his next at bat. Then in the ninth with Cleveland trailing by one he did this:

We've reached the point where any time the Indians are making noise offensively this kid is right in the middle of it all. Happy Lindor is a great player but angry Lindor is fucking incredible. Through seven games in 2017 he already four home runs. Ken Rosenthal made some news before the season began when he pegged Lindor as his AL MVP for the year. It seemed ambitious at the time but not so much any more. If Cleveland winds up with one of the best records in the American League he will be a major reason why.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Recapping The Strangest Red Sox Weekend Of My Life

What a weird start to the year. Through the first five days of the Major League season (Sunday 4/2 - Thursday 4/6) the Red Sox played just twice due to a rainout and two off days. In their second game of the year they were missing their best position player, Markus Lynn Betts, due to the flu. My first thought was that sucks but I expected him back within a day or two. What I did not expect was half the organization to be out of commission along with him. Hanley missed four games due to this and while Andrew Benintendi was able to play he reportedly puked in the middle of a game. 

On top of all this the team lost Xander Bogaerts and Matt Barnes to the bereavement list due to deaths in their families. I have no problem with players taking time off for this but the situation got magnified in Bogaerts' case since we were already missing some good players and because his flight got delayed which caused him to miss a fourth game instead of just the three he was expecting to be absent for. As if this weren't enough Jackie Bradley Jr. is now on the 10 day DL with a knee injury he suffered running the bases. Ultimately the Sox lost three of four in Detroit and return to Boston for a seven game home stand with a record of 3-3. Regardless of the weirdness surrounding the team the games went on. Here are some thoughts:

--Monday was an absolute waste of a gem thrown by Chris "Best Pitcher in the American League" Sale. In 7 2/3 innings he gave up two runs on five hits while walking one and striking out 10. In the 14 2/3 innings he has pitched through his first two starts the offense has scored a total of ONE run for him. Sale legitimately looks as good as advertised so far, in terms of both his stuff and his demeanor on the mound, so the run support for him is something that needs to change right away.

--Even on a day when he didn't have his best stuff Sale's co-ace Rick Porcello gave the Sox a chance to win Sunday afternoon. He gave up three runs on 11 hits through six innings to go along with one walk and eight strikeouts. It was Rick's second straight outing of throwing a quality start without completely taking the game over, which is alright. Nobody expects Porcello to match last year's numbers but he should still be better moving forward. He got off to a similarly pedestrian start to the season last year before coming into his own once Summer hit.

--A lot is being made of Pablo Sandoval's go ahead three run homer from Friday's game. It was a much needed clutch at bat that unfortunately was squandered by the bullpen. I am rooting for Pablo this year and was happy to see him have his first meaningful Red Sox moment (although it came in year three of his $95 million contract), but aside from that one hit he hasn't done much. Overall he's hitting .130 with a couple of errors in the field. I hope there are more moments like Friday's homer moving forward but he still needs to play better before Red Sox fans fully embrace him.

--First impressions matter so much in Boston, which is why people were anti-Mitch Moreland after just two hitless games from our new first baseman. But right now he's our hottest bat and will enter Tuesday night's game with a .333 batting average and a league leading five doubles. Moreland is one of those left handed hitters that is always described as having "a perfect swing for Fenway". Ironically enough he has done all his damage on the road this year but his weekend resurgence was great to see for an offense missing most of its big bats.

--The other hot hitter in the line up is none other than Sandy Leon. I wrote last week that he will remain this team's starting catcher for as long as he hits. So far he's doing his part and has gotten the game winning hit in two consecutive Red Sox wins. First there was the walk off three run homer from last Wednesday night. Then there was Sunday's go ahead two run single. There has been so much talk about his hitting I nearly forgot he only ever made it to the majors in the first place for his defense. So far this year base runners are 0-for-3 trying to steal against Leon.

Random Stuff:
--Drew Pomeranz makes his season debut against the Orioles tonight. I'm not holding my breath for him to be anything different than the mediocre starter he was last year. Trading away top prospect Anderson Espinoza for him is my least favorite Dombrowski move of the past two years.

--19 of our next 23 games are against AL East opponents. Now would be a good time for everyone to get healthy and for the offense to start hitting.

--Next Monday (Patriot's Day) is going to be a great day for Boston sports. The Sox play the Rays at 11 AM, the Boston Marathon will be underway, and the night concludes with the Bruins' first home playoff game of the year.

Monday, April 10, 2017

It's Not Talked About Enough That The Blue Jays Traded Noah Syndergaard For RA Dickey

Along with Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale, Noah Syndergaard has officially become one of my three favorite starters to watch pitch. Yesterday evening on Sunday Night Baseball Thor was his usual dominant self, going seven innings while giving up one earned run, fives hits, and striking out nine. What makes Syndergaard so appealing to watch is the fact that he has three plus pitches that can all be thrown for strikes during any count of an at bat. Syndergaard combines a 98mph fastball, which was the fastest average velocity among starters last year, with a slider that breaks away from righties and a change up that tails away from lefties. This makes it so difficult to hit the ball hard off him and is a major reason why he surrendered a league low 0.5 home runs per nine innings in 2016.

Over the past calendar year Syndergaard has properly been talked about as one of the best starting pitchers in baseball. What hasn't gotten talked about enough (outside of New York and Toronto) is how the Mets acquired their best player. The majority of their rotation is home grown so I think most people assume they drafted Syndergaard. However, he was actually part of the seven player trade that sent reigning NL Cy Young award winner RA Dickey to the Blue Jays following the 2012 season. 

Even at the time of the deal it was a puzzling move for Toronto. They were trying to take advantage of the Yankees and Red Sox being vulnerable in the AL East but trading for Dickey at the height of his value when regression seemed inevitable was odd. Yes he gave them a better chance to win that year and yes during his Toronto tenure he ate up a lot of innings but the Blue Jays parted with two great prospects in Syndergaard and Travis d'Arnaud (who was actually considered the better of the two at the time). d'Arnaud has been a frustrating player for Mets fan at times, mostly due to injuries, but when healthy he has certainly been a serviceable player. 

Back to Syndergaard. He was was the 38th overall pick by Toronto in the 2010 draft. By the time he made his major league debut in 2015 he had risen to 11th on the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list. His promotion to the Mets that season was a major reason why the team advanced all the way to the World Series. At just 22 years old that year he struck out 10 batters per nine innings with a 3.24 ERA. In 2016 he took another step forward by lowering his ERA to 2.60 and raising his K/9 to 10.7 en route to finishing eighth in the Cy Young voting.

He entered 2017 looking like a great bet to establish himself as a consensus top three pitcher in baseball (and possibly capture his first Cy Young award). Through two starts he has pitched 13 innings with a 16/0 strikeout to walk ratio and has allowed just one earned run. If you're the type of fan that also needs an ace to succeed in the playoffs well then Thor checks that box too. In 26 postseason innings the 24-year-old has 36 strikeouts and a 2.42 ERA. In last year's NL Wild Card game he went toe to toe with Madison Bumgarner and ended the night with seven shutout innings, 10 strikeouts, and just two hits allowed.

Ultimately Toronto still has fellow young arms in Aaron Sanchez and Marcus Stroman, and they've made the playoffs in each of the past two years - but on some level it has to hurt knowing they traded away the best of the three and were on the wrong end of potentially one of the most lopsided baseball trades of the decade.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Some Takeaways From Game Two Of The 2017 Red Sox Season

Fenway Park was freezing last night. It was a weeknight in April, the Celtics were playing a huge game, the Bruins are entering the playoffs, and hot chocolates were going for $8.25. Yet Sox fans still showed up to see the beginning of the Chris Sale era, which was cool to see. Most importantly the team got the win despite the weather clearly affecting players from both sides (as well as any opportunities for offense). Not a single run crossed the plate until Sandy Leon's walk of three run homer in the bottom of the 12th. It was the type of night where it would have been easy for the Sox to mail it in. Between the cold weather and not having Mookie there were plenty of built in excuses. Instead the team decided not to waste Sale's fantastic Red Sox debut. Here are my major takeaways from game two of 2017:

--Entering the year I figured it was only a matter of time until Leon lost the starting catcher role to either Christain Vazquez or Blake Swihart. That still might happen - it's only been two games. But early on Sandy is clearly determined to keep his job. After a 3-5 performance last night (including the afformentioned homer and a double) he is 5-8 through two games. It's going to take a couple months of swinging the bat well for him to have any sort of job security, but so far so good for Leon supporters. The walk off last night will put him in the good graces of Boston fans and could provide the type of team/fan bonding that is so valuable in the early going of a long baseball season.

--Leon's heroics took away from the main event of the night, which was Chris "Best Pitcher in the American League" Sale's Boston debut. After just one start it looks like the AL Cy Young race is all but over as Sale was everything we could have hoped for and more. He was able to work around early pitch count trouble to go seven innings while striking out seven, giving up three hits, and walking just one. Sale also lived up the his reputation as a bit of a nut job (in a good way). While many players were wearing long sleeves and hoodies, Sale pitched the entire game in nothing but a tee shirt under his jersey. He's going to fit in with Boston just fine.

--Since Mookie missed the game with the flu Bogaerts was bumped up to the three spot in the batting order. We'll give him (and the rest of the offense) a bit of a pass since the conditions were so poor for hitting but it was still discouraging to see him go 0-5 with two strikeouts. It would be foolish to think he won't eventually turn things around from his horrible second half in 2016, but last night's game reaffirmed my belief that he shouldn't be hitting in the top four of the batting order until he strings together a few good weeks of at bats.

UPDATE: Bogaerts was placed on the bereavement list Thursday, which is used when a player has to leave the team due to a death or illness in the family. Hopefully everything is alright with Xander's family but the Sox will definitely miss him this weekend in Detroit. The move means that Bogaerts is required to miss at least three games, which makes him eligible to return Monday.

--Pablo Sandoval had such a good spring (leading the Grapefruit league in RBIs!!!) that I expected him to come out of the gate hot. Again, it's only been two games, but Sandoval's shaky start has Red Sox fans ready to turn on him again - before they even had a chance to love him. What's more concerning than his 1-8 start at the plate is the fact that he has made a defensive error in both games. The crowd had some fun with this last night as they cheered loudly when he caught a simple infield pop up one batter after making his error. Judging by the ovation he got on Opening Day fans seem eager to welcome him into our good graces but for that to happen he'll need to start playing better.

Random notes:

--I have no way of quantifying this and can't find footage of the plays but Benintendi twice played a ball hit off the monster as perfectly as they could be played. Ideally he'll be doing this for the better part of the next decade.

--Your "What The Fuck" fact of the day: Joe Kelly hasn't lost since August of 2015 and in the process has 13 straight wins, which is the longest active streak in the majors.

--The lineup looked extremely thin with Betts out due to the flu. Comapred to last year the offense was missing David Ortiz and Mookie - our two best hitters from last season. We knew we wouldn't have Papi this year but it wasn't until last night when I realized that this team simply cannot afford a prolonged loss from one of the big bats.

--Today's afternoon game was rained out, which should actually help the Sox after having to use the bullpen for five innings last night. Now the team can rest both the pen and Mookie after a long, cold night. The Sox begin a four game series in Detroit Friday afternoon.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

What The Chris Sale Era Means For Boston

Boston is a city that wants sports titles. Sorry, Boston is a city that demands sports titles. 10 championships in 15 years will do that to a fan base. And if you're not ending a season with a parade you better be playing hard to keep us on your side. This year's Celtics team is a good example. Most fans realize we likely aren't going to the finals this year, but Isaiah Thomas and company give us everything they have on a night to night basis so they have our support.

This mentality translates to individual players as well. A position in which it has been discussed with recently is the ace of the Red Sox. Dating back to the late 90s with Pedro Martinez the Sox have a history of front end starters with bulldog like mentalities. Boston fans have been lucky enough to also witness Curt Schilling, Josh Beckett, and Jon Lester possess this trait. 

The low point of this position came in 2015, which was the year with the infamous John Farrell quote of "I think we have five number ones". In reality that team didn't even have a number two starter. David Price was supposed to change this last year but he hasn't exactly endeared himself into the hearts of Red Sox fans. Rick Porcello has come closest since we lost Lester, but even he didn't get all the way there in his Cy Young winning 2016.

Enter Chris Sale. Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski recognizes his team has a chance to compete for a title right now so he went out and got the best pitcher in the American League. Over the past five seasons Sale has averaged 203 innings pitched, and during individual years has led the league in strikeouts once, ERA+ once, FIP once, and K/9 twice. He has five all star appearances during this time and has yet to finish lower than sixth in the Cy Young voting since he became a full time starter. 

The one knock on Sale is...well actually there is no knock on Sale. He hasn't pitched in the playoffs yet but before 2016 neither had Corey Kluber. Judging by Sale's personality and commitment to winning one would expect him to excel in a postseason atmosphere.  One criticism could be his violent delivery leading to arm trouble but as stated before he has averaged over 200 innings per year since becoming a starter. I haven't been as excited to see a Red Sox starting pitcher since I was a kid watching Pedro.

Unless I'm forgetting someone it was Sale who received the loudest ovation from fans during Opening Day's pregame ceremonies. Price's inability to connect with the Boston fans and media has led to us really wanting Sale to become "the guy". So far he is doing his best to just fit in, evidenced by when he acknowledged Porcello should pitch the first game of the season. Hopefully Sale gets his Red Sox career off to a great start tonight but ultimately all the regular season success in the world won't mean much if he and the team don't perform over the next few Octobers. One way or the other it's going to be an entertaining three year window for Boston baseball. As for now, enjoy the beginning of what could eventually be known as the Chris Sale era.