Kirby Puckett

Kirby Puckett

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Phillies? The Phillies!

     I can't believe I'm writing this. After the first week of the season, I was enjoying nothing more than watching the Phillies self-destruct before we even got into April. I was having fun predicting when Gabe Kapler would get fired, how many times Pedro Florimon would pitch, the specific date fans would begin throwing things on the field. Then something weird happened. The Phillies started winning. It wasn't gradual, it was like someone flipped a switch. Out of nowhere, Philadelphia fans were back to being as insufferable as they always are. Now, as we get into June, let's take a look at why the Phillies have been successful to the point that they're knocking on the door of the division lead.
     Odubel Herrera comes to mind. We'll get to him but he's not the biggest reason why Philadelphia is back. That would be the pitching. Gabe Kapler's doing the same thing with them as he was at the beginning of the year, pulling his starters an almost annoyingly early in the game- but now it's working. Number one starter Aaron Nola is fourth in baseball in innings pitched. To find another Phillie you need to travel all the way down to number 83 where Nick Pivetta sits. The strategy's paid off. Under the reduced workload the rotation has posted a collective ERA of 3.33, good for fourth best in the National League.
     With that strategy in place, it seems ironic that the most successful would be Nola, who carries the biggest workload of the group. Nola, in 84 innings pitched, has posted a 2.35 ERA while striking out 8.5 patters per nine innings. But when the other four starters are on the mound, the Phils go to their bullpen much more often. Edubray Ramos has been nothing short of dominant, pitching 22 innings with a miniscule 0.81 ERA.
     Of course, they've scored runs too, and leading the charge there is Odubel Herrera. His first couple years in the big leagues he was like the Eddie Rosario of the national league: oozing with potential, but strikeout-prone and too much of a swinger for his own good. In 2017, he swung at a whopping 40 percent of pitches that were outside of the strike zone. This year he's slashed that to 33. The patience has paid off. So far through Saturday, he's on pace for career highs in batting average (..305), on base percentage (.368), slugging percentage (.462) and OPS+ (127).
     The rest of the Phillies lineup is composed of players who would have been scoffed at in the pre-Moneyball era, but are valued assets now. Aside from Herrera, no one is hitting over .300, but half of the order has an on-base percentage above .340, with no one embodying that type of particular player more than Carlos Santana. The free agent signing from Cleveland has only hit .221 in his first year with the Phillies, but has been above-average in terms of OBP with a mark of .341. He fits right into the philosophy that Gabe Kapler's been teaching.
     It will be tough for the Phillies to make the playoffs this year, sharing a division with both the Nationals and the upstart Braves, but they've already exceeded expectations from both the beginning of the year and the first week of the season. And as more young players like J.P. Crawford and Mickey Moniak develop, things will only get better from here.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

The Case For.. A Timberwolves Upset

     Let's get this first part out of the way before we start: I'm not particularly concerned with this upcoming Timberwolves-Rockets playoff series. I get that the Rockets are coming off of their best season since the Hakeem Olajuwon days and have a historically great offense. I know the Wolves are huge underdogs and an eight has only beaten a one three times since the turn of the century. I don't care about that. I used to go to Wolves games when the Target Center was so quiet you could hear the shoes squeaking off the floor and Dante Cunningham was in the starting lineup. Just to be playing in a best-of-seven is plenty for me. With that said, the Timberwolves do seem to be getting overlooked just a tad by the national media going into the series.
     Every April, the basketball writers at ESPN make their picks for each round of the playoffs. Of the 22 writers who made selections, all 22 had the Rockets winning. One had them winning in seven games. The other 21 had them in four or five. Again, I get that the Timberwolves have an uphill battle, but that seems extreme.
     For starters, the Wolves aren't a typical eight seed. When Jimmy Butler went down with a meniscus injury on February 23, they were 36-26 and one game behind the Spurs for third place in the conference. The Rockets would be favored against any other team in the West, but it's hard to picture them being considered a slam-dunk like they are now if this was a typical one-three matchup that would happen in the second round and would have been plausible if Minnesota had the roster they're using now for the entire season.
     Another thing to keep in mind: James Harden has never exactly been known as a killer in the playoffs. For his career, he averages three fewer points, one fewer assist and shoots at a roughly four percent clip worse in the playoffs than he does in the regular season. This doesn't mean that trend will automatically continue into this year, but it is something to watch for.
     The biggest key for the Wolves is Andrew Wiggins. Wiggins has taken a lot of heat this year for various reasons. He takes possessions off on defense, he plays too passively, he settles for jump shots. All that's true. But if the Andrew Wiggins that played against Denver in the regular season finale shows up to this series it will be competition. Offensively that night, Wiggins was patient but not passive on offense, shooting 5-for-9 and scoring 18 points. More importantly, his defense showed why he was considered a lockdown defender coming out of Kansas in 2014. He embraced his role on the team and did enough to contribute to the season-saving victory.
     Keeping the Rockets pick-and-roll game in check will be essential if the Wolves want any shot at keeping the series competitive. With Butler most likely guarding Harden Wiggins will need to provide some help defense to contain it.
     If I had wanted to keep this column shorter I could have only mentioned one reason the Wolves will be competitive and it would have been two words long: Jimmy Butler. Butler is capable of getting hot at any point and swinging a game by himself. We saw it in December against the Nuggets when he went for 39 including 12 in overtime. As good as the Rockets are they aren't a great defensive team. If Harden folds under the pressure of being the one seed, Wiggins plays well like he has at points this year and Butler goes off, there's no reason this series can't at least be interesting. Let's get this started.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

MLB Preview 2018! NL Edition

East
Washington Nationals
It took awhile, but Stephen Strasberg is finally here. He posted a 2.52 ERA last year and looked just solid in his first start this year, giving up one earned run over six and a third innings. He's also not the best pitcher in Washington. That would be reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer. On the offensive side, Adam Eaton's back, just in case Bryce Harper and company needed any more help.
New York Mets
I'm not quite as high on the Mets as some are. Noah Syndergaard and Yoenis Cespedes are both reliable mainstays, but I'm not sold on the rest of the roster. Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey need to prove that they can stay healthy. Their lineup is also surprisingly thin beyond Cespedes. Amed Rosario is intriguing, but if you're betting on prospects to bring you to the playoffs it's a losing battle.
Atlanta Braves
The Braves could surprise some people, especially after Ronald Acuna comes up. Dansby Swanson is only 24 years old and it's way too early to count him out. Meanwhile, Freddie Freeman has quietly emerged as one of the best first basemen in baseball. Since 2013 he's averaged 24 homers a year with a .299 batting average. With those three leading the way, if they can get a little help from the pitching staff they could be interesting.
Philadelphia Phillies
This is one of the advantages of writing these a week into the season. I made the predictions a before the season started, but I wouldn't have even mentioned Gabe Kapler. Now he's all I can talk about. Managers like him never succeed. Managers who try so hard to be innovative. It's the managers like Joe Torre or Joe Maddon who do well. They're not trying to hard, what they do is slightly more by-the-book and even natural. But for now I'll enjoy the Kapler experience for a few months. I'm sure the ever-logical Philadelphia fans will understand.
Miami Marlins
Please don't make me write about the Marlins.
Central
Chicago Cubs
It's weird to say this about a team that was considered up-and-coming just two years ago, but we pretty much know what the Cubs are at this point. They'll score a bunch of runs with a lineup led by Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, field well and the pitching is just a little shakier. That's the big question with Chicago: how long will the pitching hold up? Lester's 34 and not the pitcher he used be. They signed Yu Darvish, but he's 31. If there's a key player here it's Kyle Hendricks. He had a 3.03 ERA last season and will need to emerge as a number one if the Cubs are going to sustain this.
St. Louis Cardinals*
The Cards had a solid offseason, smartly pillaging the Marlins' sinking ship and coming out with Marcell Ozuna. That's a really good outfield they have along with Tommy Pham and Dexter Fowler. Now, if Carlos Martinez can emerge as a number one they could be looking very, very dangerous.
Milwaukee Brewers
For me, the Brewers are like the Mariners of the NL. Both teams are haven't made the playoffs in at least a few years, look like they potentially have the pieces, but I just can't quite justify picking them. Lorenzo Cain was a cagey signing, and so was trading for Christian Yelich, but Milwaukee's biggest issue last year was pitching and they didn't really address it. No one in their rotation had an ERA under 4.50 in 2017 and I just don't think they'll be able to keep up.
Pittsburgh Pirates
The Pirates are the early stages of rebuilding. McCutchen and Cole were the first to go, but soon enough Josh Harrison will be gone, quite possibly followed by Starling Marte, leaving the Bucs with the core of Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco. You could build around worse players, but that's a group that isn't making the playoffs until 2020 at the earliest.
Cincinnati Reds
We're about three years past knowing the Reds need more than Joey Votto to compete, and now in the third year of the Reds' front office apparently not getting that memo. Billy Hamilton is always fun to watch and Adam Duvall has some power, but ultimately Cincinnati doesn't have... enough.
West
Los Angeles Dodgers
There isn't a lot to say about the Dodgers because they're bringing back the same team they brought out last year. Hopefully for them, Kershaw will stay healthy and Puig will have his head on straight. Other than that, this is the biggest slam-dunk in the league. 
Colorado Rockies*
This is a critical year for the Rockies. All the pieces are in place, everyone has another year of maturity. They need to take a step forward. Obviously Blackmon, Arenado and LeMahieu perform, but Trevor Story and the pitching staff are crucial. 
Arizona Diamondbacks
This is a very good team who wouldn't surprise me if they made a run. I think A.J. Pollock will take another step forward after his 2016 leg injury and the pitching staff is the same as it was last year. Their biggest issue is the bullpen and that's always easy to find solutions to at the trade deadline.
San Francisco Giants
I'm just not sold with the Giants. For the record, I made these predictions before Madison Bumgarner got injured because even with him there they don't have the pitching and Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria aren't going to change that. Even worse than their pitching last season was their fielding; according to Fangraphs their gloves cost the team 44 runs last year. McCutchen and Longoria won't help enough with that either.
San Diego Padres
They signed Eric Hosmer. Great. They still have a ton of problems and, as much as I like Hosmer, he's not Mike Trout and he and Wil Meyers can't do it by themselves. The roster as a whole just isn't very good. On the other hand, this paragraph is about three times longer than the one I wrote last year so... progress?
Awards
MVP: Nolan Arenado
He's the Manny Machado of the NL, the best fielding third baseman in the league by far and has developed into an excellent hitter. The only thing that can cost him is the annual Coors Field penalty, but I think he his all-around game will be enough to overcome it this year.
Cy Young: Noah Syndergaard
Why not? 2017 was just a speed bump in Thor's career path. He has everything you look for in a pitcher: size, an upper-90s fastball, wipeout slider and terrific hair. He's the full package.
Rookie of the Year: Ronald Acuna
This might be the easiest call in the entire column. Acuna raked in Spring Training and is only in Triple-A now because of service time nonsense. 
Playoffs
Wildcard: Rockies over Cardinals
NLDS: Nationals over Rockies, Dodgers over Cubs
NLCS: Nationals over Dodgers
World Series: Indians over Nationals

Sunday, April 1, 2018

MLB Preview 2018! AL Edition

I'm a little late. Don't worry, I was late last year and the predictions sure as hell weren't any better than usual. Asterisk denotes wildcard.
East
New York Yankees
This is the worst. A season after I thought my Yankees hate had peaked they go out and get the best slugger in the game. I could see Stanton and Judge combining for 115 homers this year. Another prediction: Greg Bird has a breakout season. The starting rotation will be good enough. They can give up four runs in six innings before handing it off to Kahnle, Betances, Chapman and Robertson. Not that it will matter because the lineup will have already scored eight runs. This is going to suck.
Boston Red Sox*
J.D. Martinez was my favorite signing of the offseason. This was a quietly really good lineup all year and now they're getting better. Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts both had mildly disappointing seasons last year, but they're both young and have shown the ability to play better than that, so I think they'll bounce back. The biggest question mark is pitching. Chris Sale will be great as usual, and Drew Pomeranz was a nice surprise, but David Price and Rick Porcello need to return to form for the Bosox to hang with the Yankees.
Toronto Blue Jays
The back end of the East is surprisingly weak this year. The Blue Jays have just run out of gas. Encarnacion and Bautista are gone, Donaldson and Tulowitzki aren't who they used to be. They had their shot in the 2015 ALCS and it's over now. If I'm Ross Atkins I'm getting rid of Donaldson, Russell Martin and Kendrys Morales, hanging on to Justin Smoak, Kevin Pillar and Marcus Stroman and trying to go big in next year's free agent class.
Baltimore Orioles
Things the Orioles need to happen to surprise this year: Manny Machado has a career year (conceivable), Tim Beckham shows why he was a number one pick (also conceivable given his reworked swing. He's trying to follow J.D. Martinez and Josh Donaldson as guys who put the ball in the air more), Chance Sisco has a great rookie year (possible) and they get a little help from their starting pitching (not as likely).
Tampa Bay Rays
Chris Archer will be better than he was last year. I don't think he's ever returning to his 2015 form, but he'll be solid. But the most important part of the Rays is the outfield. The reunion we've been waiting for.. Denard Span and Carlos Gomez together again at last. Kevin Pillar between them, this could be a great- oh, never mind.
Central
Cleveland Indians
I don't know what happened against the Yankees in the ALDS. It might have been that this is a young team and the pressure and expectations got to them. I don't know if they just had the bad luck of their pitching failing them at the wrong time. I do know one thing: the Indians in the regular season were really good. Over the offseason they lost Jay Bruce but added Yonder Alonso. We'll see if Francisco Lindor can combine the power he showed last year with the average he had the previous two years. They're going to roll through the next six months.
Minnesota Twins*
Losing Jorge Polanco for the first 80 games is going to hurt. Polanco was great as the three hitter in August and September. Beyond that, I think this will be better than last season. It would be hard for the pitching to be worse, but if Odorizzi figures it out and the Gibson that showed up after the All-Star break isn't an illusion this could be a lot of fun.
Chicago White Sox
I kind of like this lineup. Avisail Garcia broke out last year and Yoan Moncada will be fun. I'm also a much bigger Nicky Delmonico fan than most. On the pitching side, Lucas Giolito is finally healthy. This isn't their year, but the White Sox could be fun down the road.
Kansas City Royals
Kansas City had a pretty strange 2017. They looked like the Bad News Bears in April, going 7-16 before turning it around and even making a brief push for a wildcard. But without Eric Hosmer, Lorenzo Cain and Salvador Perez (for at least a month or two) they don't have much of a shot this season. They're bringing back enough guys from that mediocre team that they can be less than mediocre in a weak division.
Detroit Tigers
As ugly as this roster is, Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera are still on it, and even at a combined 157 years old they still scare the living daylights out of me in any big situation. Nick Castellanos has quietly become a solid third baseman, but there just isn't much on this team.
West
Houston Astros
Houston continues to do everything right. After writing the book of how to build a winner from the ground up last year they added a chapter titled "Don't be Complacent After Winning the World Series". Gerrit Cole is a bounce-back candidate. I think he'll benefit from a change of scenery. Everyone's returning from the lineup. The Astros will playing deep into October.
Los Angeles Angels
I was a big believer in Shohei Ohtani this winter. After seeing him in Spring Training, I am somewhat less of a believer. I don't have a ton to analyze other than to say he just hasn't looked that good. This will be an interesting subplot throughout the season. Most of my other Angels thoughts are here.
Seattle Mariners
I really want to pick the Mariners to make the playoffs. I love Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano and Dee Gordon. But ultimately, I don't trust James Paxton and the rest of the pitching staff to do enough to keep the Mariners competitive.
Texas Rangers
I'd be a lot more excited about the Rangers if it was five years ago. To make a run Elvis Andrus, Cole Hamels, Shin-Soo Choo and Doug Fister will all have to discover a time machine buried in an oil field or something. Willie Calhoun and Nomar Mazara could be fun, but that's about it.
Oakland Athletics
The A's have a few guys with some Todd Frazier potential. That's about it. This is the closest thing the AL has to the Marlins.
Awards
MVP: Mike Trout
This is something like the fifth year in a row I've chosen Trout. And you know what? I'm not stopping picking him. He's the best player in baseball and no one else is particularly close. He would have won last year if he hadn't gotten injured. There's no reason the expect anything else in 2018.
Cy Young: Chris Sale
The fact that he seems to fall off at the end of every year is a bit concerning, but I think this is finally the year he wins it.
Rookie of the Year: Shohei Ohtani
After Spring Training I'm not feeling great about this pick. But I figure he'll at least be good at one thing and that will be enough for him to win it.
Playoffs
Wildcard Game: Twins over Red Sox
ALDS: Astros over Twins, Indians over Yankees
ALCS: Indians over Astros

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Odorizzi Trade

     The Twins lost out on Yu Darvish. And that's fine. I would have loved sign him as much as anyone but not for 126 million and definitely not for six years. Now that Darvish is off the board, the Twins are turning their focus to others like Lance Lynn, Alex Cobb, and, more recently, Jake Odorizzi, who they acquired Saturday for minor league shortstop Jermaine Palacios.
     A little background on Odorizzi: He's 27 years old and is under team control after the 2019 season. His best year came in 2015 when he posted a 3.35 ERA. His subsequent years haven't been as good, although they have been consistent. He pitched 187 innings in 2016 before injuries limited him to 143 innings last year. His ERA in both years was between 3.60 and 4.15. His ERA+ was 108 and 100 respectively. He was about as average as a pitcher can be.
     An average pitcher is something the Twins could badly use. Only three members of the rotation topped 100 innings in 2017. One of those three (Kyle Gibson) had an ERA north of 5.00. Things got so bad that they had to sign Bartolo Colon in July. Adam Wilk, Nik Turley, Dietrich Enns and Nick Tepesch all started games. At minimum Odorizzi can be a stabilizing force who keeps things from going too far south between Santana and Berrios' starts.
     One concerning thing with Odorizzi is that his numbers have gotten worse each year since his breakout. There isn't anything that jumps off the page, but his ERA, FIP, and walk rate have all steadily increased since 2015. His FIP has also been consistently higher than his ERA, indicating that's he's been luckier than average, but that might not be a huge issue in Minnesota. The Twins collectively saved 20 runs defensively last year and the Rosario-Buxton-Kepler outfield trio especially helps out fly ball pitchers like Odorizzi (48% fly ball rate last year).
     His biggest issue last year was the long ball. His homer rate spiked to 15.5 from 12 in 2016, even as he gave up fewer hits per nine innings than he had his entire career. Again, the move to Minnesota could help that. Just in the last few years the Twins have seen improvements from pitchers who were plagued by homers in the past. Phil Hughes halved his rate when he arrived in 2014, and Ervin Santana's rate has remained consistent with the rest of his career despite arriving at Target Field at the beginning of the homerun boom in 2015.
     The bottom line: Trading for Odorizzi is a low-risk move that could potentially pay off in a big way. The Twins are looking to take another step, and they can't do that without just some stability throughout the roster. Odorizzi isn't a flashy name, but he can provide that.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Angel Question

     On September 29, the Los Angeles Angels played the Seattle Mariners. Mike Trout had an excellent game, going 2-for-3 with a walk and two homers in an 6-5 Angel Victory. The only problem was that the game meant nothing. The White Sox had eliminated the Angels the night before on a walk-off shot from Nicky Delmonico. Days like that were nothing new for Los Angeles who, since Trout became a star in 2011, have appeared in the postseason once, in 2014 when they were swept in the ALDS by the Royals.
     Those years have been frustrating to watch, not even as an Angels fan but just as baseball fan, seeing a front office bungle their opportunities with a generational talent. The stretch began before Trout was a part of the plans in the offseason of 2011, when they signed Albert Pujols to a 10-year, 240 million dollar deal. This was a fine move at the time; Pujols was the undisputed best player in baseball and even if it was too many years, that's the kind of thing you need to do for the best. In 2012, behind Trout and a still very good Pujols, they went 89-and-73 but missed the playoffs, finishing behind the A's and Rangers in a tough AL West.
     That offseason they signed what they thought would be the missing piece: star outfielder Josh Hamilton. The front office hoped Hamilton would help compensate for a shaky pitching staff that had benefitted from trading for the now-Dodger by this point Zack Greinke at the previous deadline. He did not. Hamilton dropped off in every statistical category from the previous year, while the staff posted a collective 4.24 ERA and gave up the third most homers in baseball.
     It was at this point the even bigger problems began manifesting. Los Angeles had lost their first round draft picks as compensation when they signed Pujols and Hamilton. They also traded three of their top prospects to Milwaukee for Greinke earlier that year. In short, their farm system was bare. At ESPN, Keith Law placed their system dead last in his annual rankings. Yes, I did just cite Keith Law in a column. This is weird. Let's move on.
     The Halos finally broke through in 2014 thanks to some (finally) decent pitching. However, that core didn't even last through the season. Garrett Richards had emerged as a legitimate ace, going 13-and-4 with a 2.61 ERA until ending his season with an ugly knee injury in August. Elsewhere on the staff, Hector Santiago had a solid season, but his underlying numbers showed a somewhat lucky pitcher with a FIP almost half a run higher than his ERA. The team ended up stumbling down the stretch, going 5-9 to end the regular season and getting swept by the Orioles in the ALDS.
     They missed the playoffs 2015, due in large part to the pitching regressing.
     The Angels finally started showing signs of life last year. Andrelton Simmons came around to provide enough pop at shortstop to be a formidable hitter as well as the best fielder in the league. Trout had his characteristically great season, even though he missed a month with an injury. General Manager Billy Eppler followed that up with a masterful offseason, re-signing trade deadline aquisition Justin Upton, trading for Ian Kinsler, signing Zack Cozart and, of course, signing Shohei Ohtani. The way Upton finished 2017 combined with Cozart and Ohtani's power can create a devastating middle of the order combination along with Trout. The only question mark here is- stop me if you've heard this one before- the pitching.
     Notice I didn't say it was bad. I said it was a question mark. Ohtani is suppose to be a stud (I'm a believer) but foreign prospects are always risky. Parker Bridwell had a solid 2017, posting a 3.65 ERA, but there's little to suggest he'll keep that going; He had a low strikeout and groundball rate coupled with a high fly ball rate tends to cause trouble. Richards hasn't ever completely recovered from that knee injury. He's hoping this will finally be the year he puts it behind him. Matt Shoemaker is another guy who's dealt with some injuries and hasn't shown his full potential. The Angles will put up plenty of runs and are certainly intriguing, but if the pitching doesn't come around, it will be just like every other year.