5/21/09

The Sporting News's "MLB's 50 Best" Is a Joke

We've read The Sporting News since we were young - well, younger - and are generally excited to read it.  We never cared for the feature pieces, really, but the individual analysis of all the teams in the leagues really grabbed us.  

But, as we've gotten older and learned to look at the game more intelligently, mainstream media has started to seem abhorrent to us.  Of course, everyone's favorite target is ESPN - and with good reason, considering how much of their airtime is filled with garbage analysis.  But hey, kudos for having 13 reporters covering a 1-hour slot dedicated to Michael Vick coming home.  Gripping stuff.

This, however, is not about ESPN.  This is about The Sporting News.  We got our issue today, and on the cover, a Herculean Albert Pujols gazed skyward: NO. 1, proclaimed the bold yellow font.  Alright, we thought, a good start.  But...our thoughts went sour quickly.  We'd post the rest of the list, but we don't want to waste any more of your time - though you can look through them here, if you'd like.  No, we're just going to highlight the egregiously bad parts.  Because this is a blog, you see, and all we're in this for is to criticize.  Oh, also this list was voted on by a collection of 99 baseball minds - 13 HOFers, 12 Cy Young winners, 12 MVPs, and 18 guys whose picture features them with a mustache included.  Oh, and Steve Phillips.  Steve Phillips is on there, too.  So 100 people were polled. This should be fun...let's get going.

4. Manny Ramirez: Yes, Manny's a great hitter.  But at this stage in his career, he's the fourth-best player in baseball?  Even with one of the worst gloves in the majors, at the easiest spot in the game?  For as much as defensive analysis has improved these days, putting an all-bat guy who can't be hidden in a DH slot at no. 4 in the lig is silliness. 

5. Hanley Ramirez: Basically, I'm just pushing for him to be in the 4th spot.  However, his manager did have this to say about him: "I think he can be in the top five, but I don't think he's there right now.  But surely he is in the upper third, the top 15."  Way to get your player's back, Fredi Gonzalez!  

8. Derek JeterReally, the pick that prompted this post.  We just want to be sure that we're on the same page as TSN here.  Let's even assume for a minute that we're talking about his entire career, rather than his value right now - when he's a barely average hitter (102 OPS+) and subpar defender.  We're still talking about a guy who's slugged .500 exactly once in his career.  A guy whose career OBP is under .400 - a lofty standard, sure, but not for a top-10 player in all of MLB.  A guy who's never once hit 30 home runs.  Great. Just making sure.  

Oh, and let's not forget this gem: in the writeup on why Jeter is no. 8 overall, the eminent Todd Jones explains why he'd vote for Jeter as no. 1.  Take it away, Todd!

"When I look at Derek Jeter, I see a champion. The captain.  A guy with the "it" factor."

Ok, well, yes, he is a champion.  But we're pretty sure there were 24 other guys on the Yankee teams that won titles.  Yes, he is the captain, but that doesn't have any bearing on whether or not he is skilled at playing the game of baseball right now.  And since "it" factor could mean literally anything, we'll give you that one...even though it's still incredibly stupid.

"A guy who handles whatever comes his way with so much savvy and cool we just shake our heads."

If we're talking about ground balls when we're talking about "whatever comes his way," then we think he sort of handles them with ineptitude.  Which, we guess, can leave us shaking our heads.  But savvy?  Cool?  Meh.  We'd rather have skill.

"During my career, I was giddy around a few players: Cal Ripken, Mark McGwire, Albert Pujols, and Jeter."

But we're really glad you were giddy around him!  Though...you were also giddy around Albert Pujols.  Who is better at everything having to do with the game of baseball.  Guess he just isn't savvy enough.

"Jeter always seems to be in the middle of big plays because he is involved in every pitch of every game....He isn't a guy who puts on his game face only when the red light comes on."

He's involved in every pitch of every game?  We guess so...in the sense that he's on the field.  It's sort of hard not be involved.  Even so, why does that make him great?  We're pretty sure that we'd be involved in every pitch of every game if we were in the majors, but it sure doesn't mean that we could make any plays.  And wait...what?  What red light?  We don't even know how to mock that, it's so bizarre.

MAN oh man we hate it when people praise Derek Jeter like that.

9. Mariano Rivera. We promise we're not Yankee haters.  This has more to do with the idea that a closer - which is a silly notion in and of itself - could be one of the best 50 players in baseball.  It's like putting a really good pinch hitter on the list.  Though we guess it's possible Mark Sweeney or Lenny Harris made this list a couple years ago.

10. Chipper Jones. Woohoo! Top 10!

11. Ryan Howard. His window is closing rapidly.  And we'd really like it if he could hit better than .220 for most of the season.  So, no, he's not the 11th best player.

14. Justin Morneau.  The guy hits 30 HRs and he's Canadian.  So, of course, we love him...but he's not one of the best 15 players in the game.  He's probably not even one of the 15 best hitters in the game. 

15. Jimmy Rollins. His numbers this year have been horrendous, so we're taking issue with his spot at no. 15.  But we're mostly mentioning this because in the writeup about him, the only thing they use to justify his ranking is that he's scored more runs from 2001-2008 than anyone in the NL except Albert Pujols.  And he's scored more runs than Ryne Sandberg or Bobby Doerr had when they, too, were 29.  Uh...congrats, we suppose.  

16. Josh Beckett. Also terrible this year.  Guy's been studly in October, so of course he gets overrated.  Great pitcher, yes.  Better than every starter except Johan and Doc Halladay?  No.

20. Evan Longoria. Too low.  Do we really think he's worse than, say, Jimmy Rollins or Dustin Pedroia?  

21. Lance Berkman. As we said in our post about David Ortiz a couple days ago, Berkman's not likely to be a viable player much longer.  And he's been really, really bad this year.  

30. Ichiro Suzuki. So the voters are confident that the 30th best player in all of baseball is a guy who is good at slap hitting, running, and throwing?  A guy who's barely OPSing .800 for his career?  Well, alright, Hall of Famers! And Steve Phillips.

33. Dan Haren. Too low for such an elite talent.  But we really liked the blurb on this one: "In his first four full seasons as a starter, Haren went 59-42 with a 3.56 ERA and two All-Star appearances.  In his first four full seasons as a stare, Pedro Martinez went 63-35 with a 2.95 ERA and three All-Star apperances."  Um...great!  And in HIS first four full seasons as a starter, Jack McDowell was 56-39 with a 3.52 ERA and two All-Star apperances.  Which is weird, since we just picked a random pitcher to illustrate the odd choice of Pedro as a Haren comparison (like that?) and he happens to have almost the exact same numbers as the ones TSN  chose to represent Haren.

34. Francisco Rodriguez. Never mind that's been trending downward for several years now.  Never mind that he never throws more than an inning.  We'd like to point out two things: relievers shouldn't make this list, and the blurb on him is Goose Gossage calling him very unprofessional.  Ok, Goose.  Go back to intentionally throwing at batters and griping that you weren't voted into the Hall of Fame.  

39. Joe Mauer. We think this is very, very low.  A good defensive catcher who's won two batting titles and should grow into some more power?  We think we'll always remember Torii Hunter saying this about Mauer: "He's only 23.  Wait 'til he grows man muscles."  Indeed, Torii. Indeed.

43. Cliff Lee.  Here's a problem with TSNs list.  They seem to think a guy has to be great for more than one year to be strongly considered, hence Tim Lincecum (19) and Zack Grienke (25)'s relatively low showings.  Well...if we're supposed to consider a body of work, don't you think that a guy who got sent down to AAA JUST A SCANT TWO SEASONS AGO should maybe not be on the list of the best players in baseball? 

50. Brian McCann.  We don't think it's our Braves bias talking when we say that such a gifted offensive catcher as McCann should be higher than 50, especially considering some of the names on the list.  

How about some notable omissions?  Let's look at some players who didn't make the cut, and who plays their position on the list 

Nick Markakis  should replace Ichiro Suzuki. Markakis is putting up a tidy .327/.405/.533 line this year, which is much better than Ichiro's .319/.355/.438 and has a higher career OPS (.858 vs. .807).  

Adrian Gonzalez should replace...well, someone.  It's a crime that Gonzo has to toil in PETCO.  Not only because the Padres are awful, but also because he'd be recognized as one of the best hitters in baseball if he could play in a regular park.  To wit: at home, he hits .264/.339/.440.  On the road: .299/.363/.558.  If he keeps up his hot start this year, maybe he'll finally cement his name as an All-Star caliber talent.  Unfortunately, there're no first basemen that we would replace since he's worse than Pujols, Teixeira, Howard, Berkman (maybe), and Youkilis.  

Matt Kemp should replace Torii Hunter.  Hunter's been getting by on reputation with his defense for a couple years now, and though he's been hot this year, he's still on the downside of his career.  Kemp, on the other hand, is a 24-year old slugger who's already got a better career OPS (.815 to .800) than the declining Hunter. 

Another problem: here are the pitchers on the list.  Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Mariano Rivera, Josh Beckett, Tim Lincecum, Zack Greinke, CC Sabathia, Brandon Webb, Dan Haren, Francisco Rodriguez, Jake Peavy, Chad Billingsley, Cliff Lee, Roy Oswalt, Carlos Zambrano, and Cole Hamels.  That's 16 pitchers, which, to us, seems too high.  Yeah, they might be talented, but do they have the most value to a team?  Guys who take the field more than every 5th day are going to contribute more to a team.  So, when hitters like Markakis, Gonzalez, Kemp, and even guys like Brandon Phillips, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman and Adam Dunn are bumped off the list in favor of pitchers who aren't top-shelf aces, that should raise some eyebrows.  Pare that pitching list down to at most 10 and remove relievers, and you've got a better list.  Rivera, Beckett, Rodriguez, Lee, Oswalt, and Zambrano should easily be taken off.  You might also consider, depending how anti-pitcher you are, losing Billingsley and Hamels.  

Oh, and, TSN?  When you're talking about how great pitchers are, please, please, PLEASE stop using win-loss records.  It's probably the single worst way to measure pitching performances.  And yet...out of those 16 hurlers, pitching records are mentioned in: 11.  And two of those guys are relievers, so realistically, they use wins as a direct measure of how good a pitcher is in 11/14 cases.  How obnoxious.

Well, that list was practically longer than the entire article.  Sorry if we got carried away...but we think we made our point.  The people who voted on this don't know what they're doing.  There, we saved you about 2000 words of reading.  Where's the Tylenol?!

5/16/09

Here's Looking At: David Ortiz

We had a lot of fun with the last HLA: post on Matt Holliday, so we decided we wanted to do one about David Ortiz now.  If you're reading this blog and don't know who Ortiz is, it's time to stop reading.  Oh, no, come back here - we need you.  Anyway, if you know Ortiz, you probably also know that he's been struggling mightily this year.  How mightily, you might ask?  Let us tell you!

David Ortiz, 2009: .208/.318/.300, 0 HR, 20 BB, 30 K, 13.3 BB%, 23.1 K%, 0 HR/FB%.

David Ortiz, career: .285/.380/.547, 13.5 BB%, 21.1 K%, 18.7 HR/FB%.

Obviously, the number that jumps out here is that 0 HR (or, if you're REALLY a stat nerd, the 0 HR/FB%).  Papi was one of the most feared sluggers in the league as early as two years ago, and was even in the upper tier last year, with a .914 second-half OPS.  So why the sudden dropoff?  Well, for one thing, guys like him don't age well.  Big bodies with long, powerful swings can be effective during their peaks and not long before or after.  See also: Howard, Ryan (didn't get called up until he was 27 because he couldn't put it together in the minors); Vaughn, Mo (cooked at 34); and Fielder, Cecil (cooked at 33).  Honestly, the Mo Vaughn comp is something we've been using forever with Ortiz - they have similar body types, they're both lefty sluggers who played in Boston, and they couldn't field a lick. They're fun while they last, but unfortunately they don't last long - usually, they fall off the table around the age of 33.  Let's take a look at Ortiz's comparable players and see if we can discern anything from there.  Similarly scores are in parentheses.  The higher, the more similar.

1. Lance Berkman (907): Was still going strong last year, but has fallen off the table this year.  And guess what?  He's 33!  We have hopes that Berkman's going to rebound, because he's a better athlete than Ortiz and some of the guys on the list, but maybe he's done, too.

2. Richie Sexson (883): Was terrible last year at the age of - you guessed it - 33.  Hasn't played this year, and may be out of baseball.

3. Paul Konerko (882): We were surprised to see Konerko on this list.  Konerko was a much earlier bloomer than Ortiz, and has never really had the kind of eye-popping year that Ortiz has.  In any event, Paulie looked like he might be done after last year, when he was 32, but he's rebounded nicely so far.

4. Derrek Lee (875): Another surprising comp.  Lee had one great year in 2005, and while he's been above-average forever, he's never really showed 54-HR pop like Ortiz.  But, more importantly, he's been awful this year, some of which may be attributable to a nagging neck injury.  And yet...this is his age 33 season...

5. Mo Vaughn (874): We were surprised he was so low on the list.  Vaughn, as mentioned before, was done being a productive player at 34.  

6. Hal Trosky (871): This one isn't really fair.  Trosky was enormously productive up until his age-28 season at which point he left to fight in WWII.  He came back for a year in 1944, at 31, and was pretty bad, and then was even worse when he took another year off in '45, slugging .334 as a 33 year old.

7. Danny Tartabull (861): Out of the majors at 34 after posting a decent enough age-33 campaign.  Tartabull, however, was a right fielder, so his body probably took more abuse than Ortiz's.  This may be as much health-related as it is declining skills - but either way, done at 34.

8. Carlos Lee (859): Run for the hills, Astros fans!  Your two best hitters are on this list.  El Caballo's 33 now...but he looks like he's going to put up his usual .300/.340/.500 and 30 tater tots, so he may be exempt from this list of doomed ballplayers.

9. Ryan Klesko (855): Played until he was 36, but wasn't useful after a mildly successful age-34 campaign.  Mitigating factor, though: he played out the last productive years of his career in PETCO Park, which may have aided in killing his power.

10. Cecil Fielder (848): Another fat DH, Fielder was out of baseball at 34, but was barely slugging .400 as a 33-year old.  

Our prognosis: Ortiz's comp list is loaded with guys who fell off the table earlier than most.  His bat has slowed, and while some of it may be related to the tendon sheath injury from last year, we think it's more than likely that he's just got OGS (either O.G. Status or Old Guy Syndrome; with Papi, it may be both).  We think his power is gone, and while he can still get on base - note the .318 OBP despite a .200 BA - he's never going to really hit like he has in the past.  Our official prediction is that Ortiz - barring a steroid-related resurgence - will be out of baseball after next year.  His contract is up after 2010, and we're certain that his skills will have eroded at least to the point where the Sox won't pick up the $12.5 million option for 2011 and probably to the point where other teams won't want him.  

5/15/09

Here's Looking At: Matt Holliday

"Here's Looking At:" is yet another of our sure-to-be-forgotten serial posts. In these posts, we'll take a look at a player whose performance - whether unexpectedly good or bad - merits a closer look. We'll try to sort out what's going right or wrong, as the case may be, and offer a prognosis on their future.

Today, we're looking at A's OF Matt Holliday. Supposed to be one of the premier bats in the league, and the guy who would bring lots of added thump to the middle of the punchless A's lineup, Holliday has instead fallen flat on his face outside of hitter-friendly Coors Field.  Which, we guess, is not entirely shocking; there is, of course, a history of guys like Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette, and Todd Helton, among others, struggling when not in the friendly confines of their offense-inflating home park.  Indeed, Holliday himself has struggled on the road throughout his career.  Let's take a look at some of his numbers.

2009 -  .240/.308/.388, 4 HR, 10 BB, 24 K, 7.6 BB%, 19.8 K%, 9.8 HR/FB%.

Career - .316/.383/.545, 8.6 BB%, 19.0 K%, 17.2 HR/FB%.

So, from this we can see that he's not hitting for as much average or power in Oakland as he was in the rest of his career (obviously), and that his walk rate is slightly down, his strikeout rate is slightly up, and he's hitting a lot less homers per fly ball.  This means that he's feeling the difference between Oakland's spacious stadium and the homer-condoning grounds in Denver, and also that he's probably pressing because of it.  But let's not make general statements; let's look at some more numbers.

Career @ Home: .351/.418/.634, 1.052 OPS, 125 tOPS+

Career on Road: .279/.345/.453, .798 OPS, 73 OPS+.

Wowee.  So Holliday becomes Albert Pujols (career .334/.425/.625) at home, and on the road, he turns into Melvin Mora (career .280/.355/.442).  Dr. Pujols and Mr. Mora?  This is one of the more pronounced splits we've ever seen, and the tOPS shows it.  What that number means is that, 100 being average, any number greater than 100 represents a positive difference in the split and any number below represents a negative difference in the shift.  So as good as he is at home, he's equally mediocre on the road. That should tell us something right there: teams should've been smart enough to leave him alone and let him inflate his stats with Coors' thin air. Though we guess Huston Street and Carlos Gonzalez aren't exactly a king's ransom.  Let's break down what he's doing at the plate to see if that holds any answers.

2009 - swings at 26.2% of pitches out of the zone, 69.4% in the zone, at 47% of pitches overall, and is making contact 77.7% of the time.

Career - swings at 25.2% of pitches out of the zone, 78.3% in the zone, at 52.2% of pitches overall, and made contact 77.7% of the time.

So he's swinging at a few more pitches that are outside of the zone, but isn't pulling the trigger as much on pitches at all, let alone inside the zone, where he's significantly cut down his swing rate.  So maybe he's trying to be more patient, to make up for the lack of tater tots with a greater walk rate.  Maybe he thinks that Billy Beane wrote Moneyball and his only way to stick with the team is to adhere to the book's preaching of the values of the walk.  We don't pretend to know.  In any event, we think the swing data is inconclusive.  So, let's look at the most frequently culpapable number that causes slumps: BABIP.

Batting Average on Balls In Play measures a player's batting average...but only on the balls he hits in play.  So, while batting average takes into account strikeouts and such, BABIP only measures how often the batter reaches base when he puts the ball in play.  As such, the average rates are higher than regular batting average rates; .300 for hitters is pretty good, but you'd definitely prefer it to be higher.  

So what's Holliday's career BABIP?  Well, we just happen to have it right here: .352.  An exceptional number, to be sure - one that, were any lesser player to post it through a couple of weeks or months, we'd be quick to dismiss as flukish, and the result of a small sample size.  

What's his BABIP in 2009?  Glad you asked!  It's a whopping - are you ready for this?! - .269.  The dude's getting unlucky with the balls he's putting in play.  And yet, there's still cause for concern.  While this number would normally increase as a matter of regression to the mean, the biggest determinant in a BABIP rise - line drive rate - is still poor for Holliday.  He's hitting fewer line drives this year (14.4%) than he has in his career (20.2%).  Furthermore, he's popping up on more balls - 42.3% this year vs. 36.4% for his career.  Basically, it looks like he's made a habit of getting under the ball this year.  This discrepancy is easily caused by a change in swing, loading patterns, or injury and the resulting change in swing path.  So because Holliday's hitting more balls in the air, maybe his back shoulder's hurting him and he's dropping it during his swing, causing him to get underneath the ball and put it high in the air.  Who knows?  The point is, Holliday's certainly not looking like the hitter he once was...and by once, we mean last year.   Oakland better hope he turns it around in a hurry if they hope to have a chance to hang with the resurgent Rangers and always dangerous Angels in the AL West race. 

Our prognosis: health and/or swing issues are preventing Holliday from getting a good whack at the ball.  He's getting underneath balls instead of driving them, resulting in a massive dropoff in his slash stats.  Or, maybe moving to Oakland's stadium - which doesn't just neutralize home runs, but also has a huge foul ground, causing more catchable popups - is just turning more of his line drives into fly ball outs.  If nothing else, the plate discipline is still there, so if he can somehow salvage his power, he can be a viable force again.  More balls need to fall in, and his line drive rate will have to return to his career mean, but we're getting to the point in the season where significant, prolonged slumps have actual meaning instead of being functions of a small sample size.  

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