Sunday, June 30, 2013

Orioles More Than 1-Run Mirage

Now that we are at the midway point of the baseball season, it is a good time to reflect upon what we have seen and what it might tell us about the future. Granted, the All-Star break is the symbolic half-way point, but sometime this weekend every team will play games 81 and 82 of the season. Now is also the time when fans, no longer distracted by other sports, ,look in for the first time since opening day and see if their team is worth paying attention to. Some will be delighted, others disappointed as they set their sports clocks to football season. For those who love the game there are plenty of stories to read about and consider as teams embark on the second half of the season, fighting through the dog days of summer for a spot in the postseason. Today, I direct your attention to a magical team from last season, the Baltimore Orioles. That magical season paved the way for this season, which should not be as shocking as some imagine.

The 2012 season, like many before it, had its share of surprises. The Oakland A's winning the AL West, Mike Trout, Miguel Cabrera winning the first triple crown in 45 years. Each had its own appeal, its own ability to pull you in and ask; why, how, is this even possible? Amidst these stories the Orioles marched along and, in an effort only appreciated when it is over, led the league with an unprecedented 29-9 record in one run games. That .763 winning percentage is the highest ever over a season. On the strength of that record, the Orioles snatched a wild card berth and made it to the playoffs for the first time in 15 years.

Early season predictions gave the Orioles only token respect in not forecasting them to take last place in the AL East finish. Across the board the common argument was that 2012's record in 1-run games was unsustainable. Given that it was the highest winning percentage in 1-run games ever, that was more or less a given. It was also short sighted. Overlooked was that among the 3 other teams who played 38 or fewer 1-run games (Cleveland 24-12, LA Angels 18-18, Atlanta 25-13) only the Angels failed to have a winning percentage over .650 in those games. Perhaps there is a small sample problem that doesn't get corrected before 40 games played, maybe the three teams just had competent closers. A little research shows that the Orioles were not quite the outliers you might have been led to believe.

Setting an analysis on one factor also overlooked so many positives that should have indicated the Orioles were not going to fade away so easily. There is the Buck Showalter effect --he finished in the top 5 Managers of the Year voting in the second full season at every stop, four teams and counting. There was also the emergence of Chris Davis who, at 26, produced a .270/.326/.501 slash line with 33 home runs in his first season with over 500 plate appearances. Many players achieve their power peak somewhere between 26-28, somehow an emerging star was overlooked by the majority of pundits. With 28 home runs already this season, it is safe to say he will not be sneaking up on anyone going forward.

Perhaps the most telling factor for continued effect was the defensive core that was formed after the 2012 trade deadline when Manny Machado was called up and Nate McLouth was acquired. Adam Jones, J.J. Hardy, and Matt Wieters all received gold gloves for their defense last year. When the entire middle of a defense (CF, SS, C respectively) earns gold gloves in a season that team's defense is top notch. That does not include McLouth, a former gold glove winner in left, or former recipient Nick Markakis in right. Machado moved from shortstop to third to accommodate Hardy and has showcased the skill, range, and arm to win multiple gold gloves at third or short over his career. McLouth, 31, and Hardy, 30, are the only regular everyday players over 30. With only 25 errors and a .992 fielding percentage the Orioles lead all of baseball at their halfway point.

This is not to say that the Orioles should have been locks to win the AL East or are without faults.I have not mentioned starting pitching for a reason; they are lacking a clear ace, similar to last season.
As great as the bullpen was last season, it is almost impossible to expect a bullpen to repeat as successful a season as 2012 was. Indeed Jim Johnson has blown 5 saves this season after saving 51 games last year.

I have not even mentioned the offense, aside from Davis, but given the relative youth most players had room to grow and improve. I am not sure if anyone foresaw Machado threatening the single season doubles record. That is its own story, a story that we should appreciate today, but wait to reflect upon once the season is over. Pundits overlooked the Orioles based on an impressive statistical anomaly. They refused to look deeper and really see this Orioles squad for what it is: young, hungry, driven, and led by one of the best managers in the game today. They are young enough to not accept limitations or conventional norms. It is time to look beyond the pundits mirage. The Orioles are more than a 1-run record and have been since Machado and McLouth joined the team. At 45-36, they are once again in position for at least a wild card birth, which is not as shocking as you might think.


Saturday, June 22, 2013

Trade Winds Blow, but Lee is Anchored in Philly

Now that the first year player draft is over for 2013, General Managers can get back to improving their major league rosters and getting set for possible post season runs. (If you missed the draft, don't worry. Most players are years away from really impacting your team.) Deciding to be active in the trade market is an important decision for each team. Whether buying or selling, the decision puts a very public light on each team's thinking. Selling off prime players usually indicates punting this season, something not always well received. For teams looking to win now, starting pitching is always a rich topic for trade debate and the current top prize is Cliff Lee. Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe is the latest to tout him as the #1 pitcher available on the trade market. While I do not doubt Mr. Cafardo's sources, I just cannot figure out the logistics of Cliff Lee being offloaded this trade deadline.

The object of player transactions in major league baseball is centered around talent acquisition and financial considerations. A team looking to win now will acquire a player and his salary in the short term and are willing to sacrifice longer term prospects to get it. Recently, teams have included cash in a trade in order to get better prospects. The addition of an extra wildcard in each league has upped the number of buyers, increasing the price sellers can extract. Neither of these factors supports the idea of a Cliff Lee mid-season trade.


For Ruben Amaro Jr and the Philadelphia Phillies, trading Cliff Lee would present a potentially great opportunity to replenish a barren farm system. Due to years of trading prospects for talent, including Cliff Lee back in 2009, the farm system has largely been stripped bare of top tier talent. At the beginning of the season Baseball America ranked the Phillies farm system 24th overall. With an aging core in Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Jimmy Rollins, and Carlos Ruiz; the Phils need to decide whether or not they have one last push in them.

If available-- and with the state of their farm system, few players should be untouchable-- Lee would be the top trade target. To date, he sports a 9-2 record with a 2.53 era and a sub 1.0 whip. As a dominant lefty it doesn't take a vivid imagination to see him atop several contending teams rotations. For his part Lee has stated his desire to win a championship. Lee has been traded three previous times and I would not expect his 21 team no-trade clause to be an impediment to his acquisition. Any trade involving Lee would likely center around young, top-tier arms in return.

Were it just Cliff Lee and just for this season this would be a no-brainer acquisition for just about any contending team. No doubt the Phillies will be seeking a Zack Grienke-esq return that Milwaukee received last season. However, he is currently 34 and has at least $78 million coming his way through the 2016 season, which really complicates matters. In his article, Cafardo states that the Phillies could trade Cliff Lee and not have to cover any of his salary while still getting top prospect(s) in return. With $78 million still owed, I just don't see it happening.

Teams would be paying (and hoping) that Lee did not decline too rapidly over the life of the contract, and that he stays healthy. The modern trend of teams seeking younger, more affordable pitching is at odds with Lee's status and affects his trade value. The Orioles are one potential trade team, but they are not going to give up Dylan Bundy's 6 cost-controlled seasons for Cliff Lee. The top players are likely off the table for any team unless the Phillies toss in $25-35 million. The best the Orioles might offer in return are good MLB-ready pitchers who may benefit from a change of scenery and a fresh look as starters such as Brain Matusz or Jake Arrieta. Not terrible names, especially if they parted with both players, but hardly the restocking haul the Phillies are seeking. If you want to mention the Yankees because they have deep pockets that is fine, but their farm system is equally devoid of MLB ready impact players.


Shedding salary is actually not quite the issue it might have been. Every team gets increased television revenue from national contracts starting next season. Given that, payroll relief is less important for next season than it has been previously. If necessary, the Phillies could pick up a portion of Lee's remaining salary and still come out ahead depending on the players sent back.

Teams looking to add the veteran, however, are less inclined to pay for veterans. Veteran players seem to have more traction on as a one year rental or a 1.5 season player (which allows the potential for draft pick compensation to be attached) recently. Zack Wheeler for Carlos Beltran and Jean Segura for Zack Greinke are recent trades supporting this. The longer a veteran is tied to his contract the greater the risk of injury or a production drop off. Most teams have hesitated to take on longer contracts for fear of them becoming albatrosses rather than aids. This increases the salary chip-in while still lowering the prospect returns. Consider A.J. Burnett to the Pirates as an example.  

Additionally, the Phillies have a new local television contract to consider. Their current deal is set to expire after the 2014 season and dumping one of their best players would not aid the Phillies in those negotiations. Given that the deal will run into the billions of dollars and for up to 25 years, the lasts thing teams want to do is hurt their negotiating position. I cannot say how much of an impact Lee's presence will make, but it is not insignificant in the short term.

Due to the size of his remaining contract and his age, I do not see the Phillies finding a trade that will offset losing a bonafide ace when faced with the looming television deal. Throw in that the Nationals are under-performing this season and the Phillies might convince themselves they can put together a run at the NL East this season. The Phillies would love to replenish their farm system and starting pitching is always in demand at the trade deadline. However, with Lee's contract diminishing the return and a looming contract deal tossed into the mix, expect to see Lee remain anchored in Philadelphia this summer.

Can you see a trade being made? Am I missing something, or overlooking a desperate team? Feel free to let me know in the comments below.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Zack Greinke: The Pitcher Who Cries 'Foul'

The Dodgers have shown signs of life exactly two times this season, April 11 and June 11. Both were Zack Greinke starts, both involved brawls with division rivals opponents. It is hard to call the San Diego Padres or the Arizona Diamondbacks any teams rival, especially when their opponent is mired in last place as the Dodgers currently are. It is mere coincidence that both starts occurred on the 11th of a month; it is no coincidence that Greinke was in the center of it. Greinke's stand-offish demeanor hides the sad bully lurking within, waiting to lash out at perceived slights, then hiding behind a victim's veil when the spotlight shines. 

A brief recap of the man. In the 2010-2011 offseason, Greinke demanded a trade from the Kansas City Royals, reportedly because he did not feel motivated being part of a rebuilding team. This was in the midst of his 4 year/$38 million dollar contract he signed in January of 2009. Part of the basis for this contract was built upon his reputation for pinpoint control. He has hit only 48 batters of the 6421 faced in his career. Between 2009 and 2010, Grienke hit 11 batters, including Carlos Quintin.

Today, Zack Greinke is a solid pitcher who is getting paid like an ace (6year/$147 million) based off one elite season in 2009 (AL Cy Young Award Winner/All-Star) and several slightly above average ones. Since 2011, he has beaned 9, including 3 this season. Put another way, 1/3 of his total hit batsmen for the last three seasons has occurred over 2 starts against division rivals.

In the April 11 incident, Grienke beaned Quintin, the most beaned man in his league the last 2 seasons. Steps were taken, barbs were traded, neither backed down and it ended with Grienke breaking his collarbone. Quintin had been beaned twice previously by Grienke when they were division rivals in the AL Central where Quintin was a member of the Chicago White Sox. Apparently for Quintin, three beans and you charge. Deciding right and wrong in a baseball brawl is an exercise in futility. Batters feel slighted for getting hit, pitchers get incensed (or at least feign surprise) when they are accused of throwing at a batter intentionally. So it happened in San Diego: Quintin challenged Grienke and Grienke refused to back down. Suspensions and DL stints resulted.

Last night was slightly different, but Grienke once again played center stage. It began in the 5th inning when Cody Ross was plunked by Grienke. The next batter, Jason Kubel, homered and usually that is a tit-for-tat that most teams will take. In the bottom of the sixth however, Ian Kennedy (who led the NL in hit batsmen last season) came in high and tight and hit rookie phenom Yasiel Puig on the nose. The next batter, Andre Ethier, promptly tied the game with a two-run home run. Again it easily could have been over here, unless you think Kennedy meant to throw at Puig's head.

Grienke felt he did. The next inning he threw behind Arizona catcher Miguel Montero hitting him in the back. Throwing behind a batter belies any attempt to claim a loss of control. It is done deliberately and meant to send a message. He did not attempt to go after Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona's big slugger. If that was a lesson beaten into him by Quintin or not is a moot point today. He went after the most important batter he knew he would face the next inning. This was unnecessary given the result and the current game score (2-2), but much like in San Diego, Grienke cared more about getting the final bean in than the outcome of the game.

That Ian Kennedy would respond in kind and plunk Grienke with yet another head high fastball was a near certainty when he was allowed to bat for himself. The brawl played out, ejections occurred and the scrum was pretty entertaining.

Grienke was even allowed to stay in and run for himself when everything was said and done. He slid hard through Didi Gregorius legs at second on a force out that brought only a sad head shake from the rookie shortstop. Even when he was not on the mound Grienke was determined to get the last lick in.

While never the friendliest guy on the diamond, Greinke's ego appears to have grown to match his paycheck. Even after cementing himself in the middle of the controversy, he plays the role of the victim. When he left KC, he downplayed demanding a trade and claimed it was for KC's benefit. After hitting Quintin, it was all about how he would be out longer with the injury. And on a warm June night the spin will be how he was plunked last before the melee ensued.

Ultimately, he may be most upset that despite his growing paycheck he is once again playing for a non-contender or he might be mad that he missed out on the Nolan Ryan school of mound defense. Either way, he needs to take accountability for his actions or at least stop playing the victim. Look beyond who was hit last and you will see Greinke standing tall on the mound, a thin-skinned bully with a fastball, bound and determined to get his. I may be at the forefront, but the rest of the villagers need to pay attention and stop reacting when he cries foul.

Comments and feedback are always welcome below

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Bring Back Peanuts and Crackerjack

I finally made it to my first baseball game of the season last month. I enjoyed myself even as the Oriole bats were silenced by Matt Moore and the Tampa Bay Rays 3-1. The result was a disappointment, but most of the rest of the day went perfectly. The weather cooperated and Natty Boh flowed freely even if the image warns you just how awful it is, with the one-eyed bitter beer face.
 In fact, if it wasn't for the seventh inning stretch I would have been elated to get to the game regardless of the outcome. Unfortunately for fans, baseball just is not patriotic enough on its own, despite being America's pastime. Ever since September 2011 ballparks across America have shelved or shoved aside "Take me out to the ballgame" in favor of standing for "God Bless America" during the seventh inning stretch. It made sense then as baseball helped people heal and get back to normalcy in light of terrible events, but most teams should stop doing this, get back to the carefree song and let fans enjoy themselves.

Baseball has long been America's pastime and while the NFL might be eclipsing it in popularity, it just does not have the history to fully take that mantle. This is why the inclusion of God Bless America bothers me so. Baseball is American, it does not need additional patriotism to make it more patriotic. Whats more the continued inclusion cheapens my experience by making me feel like I am not being patriotic enough and need to rush out and buy war bonds or some such nonsense.

 Baseball, like all sports, is a competitive distraction for fans. The intended desire of fans is to be entertained, to keep their minds off everything else for a few hours. Ideally the home team wins, but so long as the game is competitive fans will feel like they got their money's worth. "Take me out to the ballgame" has been apart of baseball since the Cubs last won the world series. It has been woven into the fabric of the game for generations.

God Bless America was penned in 1918 and is a fine song in its own right, but I just don't see what it has to do with baseball. Teams need to focus on the enjoyable and carefree nature of long games and long seasons. The seventh inning stretch was created to get fans up and moving to cheer on the home team late in the game. For a while it made sense to go with God Bless America, but for most stadiums that time is done. Both songs are patriotic in their own ways. Baseball fans across generations look forward to going to games, hearing vendors hawk their wares, and root root root for the home team. It is time to get back to the seventh inning song that best highlights that, it is time to bring back peanuts and crackerjack.