Monday, September 28, 2015

National Disaster: The Ending to a Disappointing Season

No matter who you ask they will tell you that a team has to finish strong down the final stretch of September.  That is exactly what the Washington Nationals did in 2014, but 2015 is a completely different story.

September 28, 2014: Washington Nationals starters go 13-0 with a 0.89 ERA down the stretch. This was capped off by a Jordan Zimmerman no-hitter against the Miami Marlins, in a game where Henderson Alvarez was the starter.  The same Henderson Alvarez who threw a no-hitter against the Detroit Tigers to end the 2013 season but this game went very differently for the Marlins.  Zimmerman allowed only 2 base runners, a walk to Justin Bour and a wild pitch strike 3 to Garrett Jones (picked off almost immediately by Wilson Ramos), while striking out 10, throwing 104 pitches with pinpoint accuracy (79 strikes and 25 balls). This was the first no-hitter thrown by a Washington pitcher since Bobby Burke threw one for the Senators in 1931 against Boston. But not only was it the perfect ending to a season that saw the Nationals win 96 games but even this perfect ending had a perfect ending to it thanks to a remarkable diving catch by Steven Souza with two outs in the ninth inning to preserve the incredible start by Jordan Zimmerman.

So now jump ahead a year.

September 28, 2015: The Washington Nationals' clubhouse is in shambles and the phrase "any press is good press" no longer applies thanks to the ending to the train wreck that they have called a season. Today Max Scherzer threw 7.2 innings of no-hit baseball before allowing 2 hits and a run with 10 strikeouts across 8 innings.  But even that is not enough to overshadow the main event of yesterday, Jonathan Papelbon attacking Bryce Harper.

In the bottom of the eighth inning of Sunday's game against the Philadelphia Phillies, Bryce Harper hit a pop fly to left and disappointedly dropped his head before jogging down the line to first.  No big deal right?  Especially considering it was the first game since the Nationals were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention but Papelbon decided he wanted to "teach" the National League MVP a lesson about always giving it your all.  As Bryce was walking back into the dugout Papelbon was screaming at him so Bryce gave a little back and then Papelbon decided his words were not enough, so he pushed Bryce up against the dugout wall with his hand around his throat before being pulled off.  After this Bryce Harper left the game (not due to injury), while Papelbon went out and pitched the ninth inning, which is absolutely ridiculous considering he attacked another member of his team.  After the game Matt Williams was asked why he still let Papelbon pitch the ninth inning and his answer was "He's our closer", which is absolutely ridiculous and embarrassing answer if you ask me, even if it was later rescinded because he was not aware of the severity of the situation.  That second answer could honestly be worse considering Williams was in the dugout at the time and it means he did not take the time to actually see what was happening among his players during the game.  There has been talk of Williams being out as the manager of the Nationals after this season and it was almost 100% but once you account for this whole debacle it can't be almost 100% it needs to be done.  It is a manager's job to be aware of what is going on in his dugout and among his players and his answer just shows how oblivious he is to what goes on around him no matter how important it is.

Neither player was immediately suspended for the incident but that changed earlier today.  Papelbon was suspended four games, starting Thursday, by the Nationals' front office who stated in a press release that "the behavior exhibited by Papelbon yesterday is not acceptable," and "that is not at all in line with the way our players are expected to conduct themselves and the Nationals organization will not tolerate it in any way."  Add that to the three game suspension Papelbon is now serving for dropping his appeal for throwing at Manny Machado and Papelbon will not return and pitch for the Nationals again this season.  And if the Nationals front office handles this correctly he will never throw another inning for them.  Whether that be trading him this offseason or just releasing him all together and eating the $11 million that they still owe him for the option they were forced to pick-up when they made the deal for him.  I realize $11 million is a lot of money to just pay without any performance but considering Bryce Harper is the face of their franchise and under control through the 2018 season, that is just a small price to pay.

But let's be completely honest here this had little to nothing to do with Bryce Harper not sprinting down the line to first.  Everyone knows that there are occasions where Bryce won't fully run out a fly ball but the majority of the time he is the most competitive player on the field, has an incredible work ethic and is completely committed to the Nationals winning ballgames.  And if you don't remember he has been ripped in the past for playing too hard and sacrificing his body to make a play.  So don't let anyone fool you there is not a more dedicated player on the Nationals.  So while I can't say with 100% certainty, I feel it is safe to say that this has very much to do with what happened when Papelbon hit Machado back on September 23.  To begin with the Orioles' bench cleared and the Nationals' players did not really move or come to Papelbon's defense.  And the bigger reason for this is after the game when asked about the whole situation Harper said "I mean, Manny freaking hit a homer....[and he].....Walked it off, and somebody drilled him. I mean, it's pretty tired. It's one of those situations where it happens, and, I don't know, I'll probably get drilled tomorrow."  Bryce used this to publicly call out a player with a bad temper who knows his teammates don't have his back, I don't think it is a coincidence that this now happens less than a week later.

But with the exception of the actual fight the worst part about it, isn't the way Matt Williams and the Nationals' handled the situation (at least initially).  The worst part is the way people and other players DEFENDED Papelbon's actions, like choking your teammate is ok.  Choking your teammate or another person for that matter is not ok no matter the circumstance.  Can you imagine if a prosecutor got annoyed in court and started choking the defense attorney?  Or can you imagine if a doctor got annoyed at another doctor for the way they were handling something like paperwork and just attacked him?

Joe Girardi: "Well I think the first thing you want to do is break it up because you don't want players to get hurt. It's a tough thing to go through as an organization. It's a game where there are heated exchanges sometimes, sometimes you go overboard, there's frustration in this game and sometimes it's not handled the way you want it to be handled. But you have to deal with it and you have to move on from it and try to learn from it. Those are the things we're going through. My guess is that they'll get to spring training and it probably won't mean nothing. But right now it's just a heightened situation."

Bengie Molina also tweeted something along the lines of: it is ridiculous that Papelbon was suspended for trying to be a leader and yelling at an entitled young "superstar"; but I can no longer find the actual tweet because it was taken down.  It is a disgrace that these these veterans who the young players are supposed to look up to are condoning violence.  To say that it is just a part of the game is an unacceptable answer to violently attacking and CHOKING another player.  But not everyone sided with Papelbon.  Cliff Floyd and Mark DeRosa publicly came out and said that what Papelbon did was not acceptable and Floyd took it a step further and said that if it was him, he would be planning his retaliation.  At the end of the day this will eventually blow over and most likely be concluded with Matt Williams and Jonathan Papelbon no longer members of the Washington Nationals' organization.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Why Francisco Lindor should win AL Rookie of the Year

When you hear someone say American League or AL Rookie of the Year admit it the first name that you think of is Houston Astros’ star shortstop Carlos Correa.  But there is another candidate who has been sneaky good and could take home the award.  That candidate is also a shortstop, but this one hails about 1,300 miles north in the The Rock and Roll Capital of the World.  Francisco Lindor, the shortstop for the Cleveland Indians is only 21, already one of the best shortstops in baseball and is the AL Rookie of the Year candidate that has my vote even if many have already handed the award to Correa.

Lindor was called up on June 14, 2015 and has since played 86 games posting a Wins Above Replacement of 3.8, while Correa was called up on June 8, 2015 and has since played 87 games posting a Wins Above Replacement of 2.7.  If you look at some other offensive metrics however they are neck and neck, such as they both have a wOBA of .357.  Then if you look at weighted runs created plus (wRC+) Lindor sits at 128, while Correa sits at 127.  So while they are both well above league average (28% and 27% respectively) only one of them can win the award.  As you can see they are pretty equal in terms of overall offensive, with Correa maybe having the slight advantage being a power hitting shortstop (18 HRs vs. Lindor’s 10 HR).  But defense is where Lindor takes home the award.

Too often people see web gems that players make and automatically think that a guy must be a good defensive player.  When in actuality there is no correlation between the two and Carlos Correa is a prime example of this (at least in 2015).  For example, he has made some of the best plays in baseball this year (as you can see below) but if you look at the metrics he is a well below average defensive shortstop (once again at least in 2015) while Lindor is in that top tier.  

The Cleveland Indians’ shortstops not named Francisco Lindor have a combined to cost the Indians 1 run, while Lindor has saved 7 on his own, which is good enough to rank fifth among all MLB shortstops, while Correa’s -2 would be tied for 14th.  Another advanced defensive metric Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) also shows just how good Lindor is at fielding his position.  Through 751.1 defensive innings he has a UZR of 6.7 which ranks 7th in all of baseball.  And if you adjust it per 150 defensive games he has a UZR/150 of 15.1 which ranks 5th in all of baseball.  Compare this to Correa who has a UZR of -4.1 which ranks 17th and a UZR/150 of -10.9 which ranks 23rd, right ahead of Marcus Semien of the Oakland Athletics who you will never hear anyone call a good defensive player.  Overall defensive value ranks Lindor (10.5) first on the Indians, 8th among MLB shortstops and 17th among all MLB players.  While it ranks Correa (-0.2) 28th on the Astros, 21st among MLB shortstops and 83rd among all MLB players.  But my absolute favorite Lindor statistic is his inside edge fielding, where he has fielded 83.3% of the plays ruled unlikely (10-40% chance of being fielded), 77.8% of the plays ruled even (40-60% chance of being fielded), 100.0% of the plays ruled likely (60-90% chance of being fielded) and 96.0% of the plays ruled routine (90-100% chance of being fielded).  While there is a 433 defensive innings difference between Lindor and the consensus best defensive shortstop in all of baseball, Andrelton Simmons, Lindor’s percentages are not only better but they blow Simmons away in fact (unlikely: 30.0%, even: 33.3%, likely: 83.3%, routine: 99.5%).  There is one exception to this and that is plays ruled remote (1-10% chance of being fielded) where Lindor has not made any of these, Simmons has made 6.7% of them in 2015.  Then compare this to Correa who has fielded 60% of the unlikely plays, 60% of the even plays, 81.8% of the likely plays and 96.6% of the routine plays, in about the same number of defensive innings.

Carlos Correa has the talent to be the top shortstop in Major League Baseball and one of the elite players in baseball and in a few years most likely will be.  But for the moment Francisco Lindor is the all around better player and the top rookie in the American League and it is for that reason that he should win American League Rookie of the Year in 2015.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Bryce Harper vs. Yoenis Cespedes MVP Debate

The Most Valuable Player or MVP is not always a player from the best team or even a player on a team that makes the playoffs, the MVP is the player who means the most to his team win or lose.  The Baseball Writers' Association of America tells their members very little in regard to who “qualifies” as an MVP candidate.  They do send out a letter every year though and one of the things they do specifically state is that “the MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier”, that’s because a team makes the playoffs not a single player by himself, a player should not be looked up as better because his team is in first place, just like a player shouldn’t be looked upon worse because his team is in last place.  Just look at Ernie Banks, one of the greatest baseball players ever.  He won NL MVP in both 1958 and 1959 despite the Cubs finishing 10 games under .500 in ’58 and 6 games under .500 in ’59.  Are people looking back to those years and saying he didn’t deserve to win MVP because the Chicago Cubs didn’t make the playoffs, no they are not.  Look at Ryan Howard in 2006, he finished the year hitting .313 with 58 home runs and won NL MVP based off his numbers, he wasn’t wrongfully penalized by voters because the Phillies finished 12 games back of the Mets in the NL East.  Then we can look at the inverse of that, in 1992 Dennis Eckersley won AL MVP as a member of the Oakland Athletics, a team that won the AL West by 6 games.  Despite his team making the playoffs he did not deserve to win MVP in 1992, he wasn’t even the best MVP candidate on his own team, Mark McGwire was.  Why should a player’s MVP candidacy be disputed because of the other 24 players on a team’s roster and because of decisions made by his own coaches and members of the team’s front office?

Ever since Yoenis Cespedes had his first multi-hit game for the New York Mets on August 3rd against the Marlins, a game in which he had three hits all doubles and four RBIs in a 12-1 win, he has appeared in the National League Most Valuable Player discussion.  Then on August 21st against the Colorado Rockies when he went five for six with three home runs, a double, seven RBIs and a stolen base this discussion became part of the MVP debate and the talks really escalated.  At this point they were 12-6 with him and this was the beginning of a seven game winning streak, the second five game winning streak they had in their brief time with Cespedes.

Since that time he has hit nine more home runs, bringing him up to fourteen in his first 36 games with the Mets, including six already in the first eight games of September.  Over those same eight games he has 16 of the Mets 84 hits (19.048%) and has accounted for 13 of their 53 RBIs (24.528%).  So while those numbers might look ridiculous even for an eight game period there is another MVP candidate who has played even better not only over those eight games, not only over the whole span of Cespedes being a member of the Mets, but over the course of the whole 2015 season, Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals.

Cespedes as a member of the Met: .312/.357/.675
Harper since the Cespedes trade: .352/.491/.600
Cespedes in all of 2015: .298/.333/.554
Harper in all of 2015: .336/.467/.657

This extreme differential in on base percentage can be attributed to the contrast in walks.  Since becoming a member of the Mets, Cespedes has walked nine times and 28 times total in 2015 compared to Harper who has walked 35 times just since Cespedes became a Met and 109 times in 2015, which ranks second in baseball to only Joey Votto.  So while Cespedes and his OPS of 1.032 (36 games) have been a great addition to the Mets, the Nationals would be one of the worst offensive teams in baseball without Bryce Harper and his MLB best OPS of 1.124 and his MLB best wRC+ of 201 (0.104 and 23 ahead of second place Miguel Cabrera) (2015 season).

Bryce Harper has not only been the best player in the National League and the best player in all of baseball this year but the season he is putting up at the age of 22 is one of the best ever.  According to baseball reference WAR calculations if the season ended today Bryce Harper would finish with a WAR of 9.0 which would be good for 8th best ever by a player 22 or younger, ahead of the season Mike Trout had for the Angels back in 2013 (8.9), ahead of even the season Trout had last year when he won AL MVP (7.9) and ahead of the season Eddie Mathews had for the Milwaukee Braves back in 1953 (8.3) when he hit 47 home runs, the most ever by a player 22 or younger.  But some people don’t like WAR so we can look at his slash line also, the ONLY other player to have slash line like Harper’s or better at the age of 22 or younger is Ted Williams back in 1941 (.406/.553/.735).  And do you know the last time any player had a slash line like Harper’s or better, it was Barry Bonds in 2004 and guess what he won, NL MVP.  So before you say that Cespedes deserves to be NL MVP or even really be in the discussions, think about this, Harper’s current slash line has only been produced 27 times, by 12 players, 7 of whom are in the Hall of Fame but I know the Nationals aren’t going to make the playoffs so Harper can’t be as valuable to his team.