Archive for April, 2016

NHL Round Two Preview — Western Conference

Posted: 04/29/2016 by levcohen in Hockey

Well, the first game of the wildly hyped Capitals-Penguins game was… interesting. It was definitely an exciting game, with the Capitals winning 4-3 in overtime on T.J. Oshie’s third goal. While it was an entertaining game, it wasn’t particularly well-played, which isn’t what I would have expected from these two teams. But guess what? Who cares! As long as the games are interesting, I’m happy. In fact, the most well-played games are often also the least fun. So let’s hope that these second round games are interesting and not necessarily mistake-free.

St. Louis Blues over Dallas Stars in six: I didn’t watch much of either of these teams this season. I see that the Stars picked up a West-best 109 points while the Blues were just two points behind, but that doesn’t really tell me anything. I did watch a lot of each team’s first round series, and from that there’s no conclusion I can make but that the Blues are the better hockey team. The Stars were playing a Minnesota Wild team that had lost its last five games in the regular season and was without top goal scorer Zach Parise. In game one, it looked as if they had folded already, as the Stars coasted to a 4-0 win. They went up 2-0 in the series and 2-0 in game three, and the series looked to be over. But then the Stars let the Wild back into the series, dropping game three and barely taking game four. Then, the Stars gave up a goal at home to Mikko Koivu with about three minutes left in game five, tying the game 4-4 and sending it to overtime, where Koivu sent the series back to Minnesota with another goal. The Stars went up 4-0 after two periods in Minnesota… and almost blew it, winning just 5-4. My point? If the Stars were barely able to put a shorthanded team like Minnesota (a team, by the way, which fired its coach in the middle of the season) away, how will they do?

There’s no question that Dallas has a prolific offense. They led the league in goals this year and put 21 goals past Minnesota in six games even though point-per-game scorer Tyler Seguin, the team’s second leading scorer, was out with an injuring. Jamie Benn was the NHL’s second leading scorer this year, and he backed up his play in round one with 10 points in six games. Although not the flashy star that Sidney Crosby or Patrick Kane is, Benn is one of the best players in the NHL. Jason Spezza and ex-Blackhawk Patrick Sharp both have a ton of experience and skill, and they scored 13 combined points in the first round. Assuming Seguin comes back at some point this series, there isn’t a group of forwards I would fear more than Dallas’s… But then there’s the defense, which is clearly inferior to St. Louis’s, and, more to the point, the goalie, Kari Lehtonen. Lehtonen is nothing more than an average goalie, and he’s been downright awful in his limited playoff experience before this year. Already, he’s been benched once, after his first loss of the postseason. The problem is that backup Antti Niemi isn’t any better, as he was the Sharks’ goalie as San Jose shrunk in the spotlight year after year. Niemi has a Stanley Cup with the Blackhawks, but even then he wasn’t a great goalkeeper. The Stars clearly aren’t confident in either of their goalies, which is often a recipe for disaster in the playoffs.

One could argue that the Blues, too, made their first round matchup harder than it had to be. Indeed, St. Louis coughed up a two game series lead and a two goal lead in game seven before finally pulling it out. But the Blues weren’t playing the Wild; they were playing the Blackhawks. Given their postseason history, it showed a lot of mental toughness to win that game seven, and that toughness, along with St. Louis’s talent, should serve them well in what could be a high-scoring series. Goalie Brian Elliot isn’t Carey Price, but he’s far better than whomever the Stars will throw out in goal. His .930 regular season save percentage dwarfed both Lehtonen’s and Niemi’s, and Elliot came up clutch against the Blackhawks. He also has a much better defense in front of him than Lehtonen will. The Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Colton Parayko, Jay Bouwmeester top-four is excellent, and all four of those guys has been playing 20+ minutes per game in the playoffs (Pietrangelo is at 30:33). The Blues allowed the fourth fewest goals in the league this season, and they should be up to the task, given that they allowed just six goals in four regular season matchups, three of which were Blues wins. If this team has a weakness, it’s a lack of firepower aside from sniper Vladimir Tarasenko, who scored 40 goals this season and added four more in the first round. But they always seem to get contributions from lesser players when necessary, and I expect them to get a lot of offense from their defense, as they often did this season.

In the end, the question is simple: which team do I trust more in a close game? The Stars will have a few offensive outbursts, but I don’t think they’re tough enough to consistently close out games against the Blues, which is why I’ll take St. Louis in six games.

San Jose Sharks over Nashville Predators in five: Even though the games were late on the East Coast, I watched a lot of San Jose’s series against the Los Angeles Kings, and I was very impressed. Consider that the Sharks last made the playoffs two years ago, and consider that they took a 3-0 series lead against, you guessed it, the LA Kings. Now consider that they blew their lead in horrific fashion, dropping the final four games by at least three goals. With that in mind, I was skeptical of the Sharks’ chances when they were matched up with the Kings, a team that scored four more points than they did and more importantly a team with a lot more postseason success. But I watched the series, and I’m happy I did, because it was some fantastic hockey. The Sharks won the series in five games, but the first four games were all decided by a single goal. Coming out of the series, I still think the Kings were a good team this year… but the Sharks are clearly better. There’s something about this team that’s just different than previous Sharks teams. Goalie Martin Jones, who allowed just 2.18 goals per game in the first round against his ex-team, might be part of it. Has Jones learned something from his ex-mentor, Mr. Postseason Jonathan Quick? In past years, Anti Niemi (not to keep bringing him up) often let the Sharks down in the playoffs. I’m confident that Jones is readier for primetime than his predecessor was. Then there’s the offense, which looks pretty good too. Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, and Patrick Marleau are all battle-tested, and they’re all desperate for playoff success. Logan Couture had a disappointing season, but he always has had the ability to put the puck in the net. And then there’s defenseman Brent Burns, who has a ferocious beard and a ferocious shot, which might be why he scored 27 goals this season as a defender and two more in the first round. There’s something about this team, and especially the core of the team, that I just trust. They didn’t bat an eye against a powerful team like the Kings, and I don’t expect them to blink against a frankly overmatched Nashville team.

The Predators go as Pekka Rinne goes. Shea Weber and Roman Josi are both great defenders, but outside of those two, Rinne is about all the Preds have. The Predators are surely tired and bruised after a long, trying series against the Anaheim Ducks. Rinne won them the series with outstanding performances in games six and seven, and he’s going to need to do the same over the course of an entire series against an even better team than the one they just beat. Can Rinne win them the series? Of course he can. Although he slumped down the stretch, he has the talent to pull off a Michal Neuvirth-esque stretch against the Sharks. But the odds are certainly against Rinne and the Predators, and I like San Jose’s chances. I think they’ll win this series in an easier-than-expected five games.

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NHL Round Two Preview — Eastern Conference

Posted: 04/28/2016 by levcohen in Hockey

Why do they have to be so annoying? By they, I mean the NHL. Last night, the first round of the playoffs concluded in Anaheim, as the Nashville Predators held on against the host Ducks in a physical game seven which saw the hosts get the better of the chances but get denied time after time by Pekka Rinne. Also last night, though, the second round began. It was unceremonious, because most people were still focusing on the first round, but the New York Islanders took a 1-0 series lead in Tampa Bay, chasing goalie Ben Bishop with their fourth goal despite being outshot 36-22 in the game (third period shots were 17-5). As a result, my preview of the next round has to come after the round has started. Of course, the same thing will happen in the NBA, and it makes sense, as some series end earlier than others and you wouldn’t want teams to have to wait for upwards of a week to start the next round. But it makes things harder for me, which means that is annoying. Anyway, the first round was a good one, with many a close game and a few deep series’ between teams who weren’t too fond of each other. Round two promises to be even better, with a matchup between Ovechkin and Crosby and some teams who we aren’t used to seeing at this stage of the playoffs. I personally am relieved and happy that none of the Original Six teams (Chicago, Montreal, Boston, New York, Detroit, Toronto), many of whom often make it this far (besides the Maple Leafs, of course), are still alive. I’m also happy that the San Jose Sharks finally exorcised their demon (the Kings) and that traditional playoff strugglers like the Islanders, Blues, and Capitals are in contention. I would have loved to see an all-California series between Anaheim and San Jose or a Lightning-Panthers matchup, but I’m pretty happy with the ones we have. I also watched a lot of the first round, and I’m going to rely more upon the eye test than I will on the advanced stats. Without further ado…

Lightning over Islanders in seven: If the most under-the-radar first round series was Florida-New York, this one is an early favorite to be the most neglected second round matchup. It must be something about the Islanders, a team that slumped at the end of the regular season and was arguably outplayed by the Panthers but a team that manages to find a way when they need to, as evidenced by their three overtime wins in the first round. Everyone expects the winner of the Caps-Penguins series to advance past the winner of this matchup, and I’d agree with that. But let’s recognize that both of these teams are pretty darn good. The Lightning had no trouble dispatching the Red Wings, even without superstar Steven Stamkos. They won in five games, allowing just eight goals thanks to the strength of Bishop and their defense. Now, this might not sound good now that the Bolts gave up five goals in game one (including an empty-netter), but I expect the defense and the goalie to show up in this series, much like they did last year en route to a Stanley Cup Final appearance. Victor Hedman is a big, commanding presence on the blue line, and I think he’s one of the best defensemen in the league. Not only does he serve as an intimidating d-man and expert shot-blocker, but he also keys the offense with his long two-line passes and shots from the point. Without Stamkos, that’s vital, because outside of the “triplets” line of Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Nikita Kucherov (who combined for seven of Tampa’s 12 first round goals and two of three last night), the team is very shallow offensively. They’re going to need to win two or three 2-1 or 1-0 games if they expect to win this series as I predict they will.

On the other side, Thomas Greiss has somehow given the Islanders world-class goaltending in the absence of starter Jaroslav Halak. Halak is nearing full health, but it might not matter, because Greiss has been superb. Of course, he’s only had to be superb because the Islanders have given up a plethora of shots. In the series against Florida, it seemed as if the Panthers were getting shot after shot after shot on goal, and it’s a miracle that Greiss only gave up one goal in each of the final two games, both of which were decided in double-overtime. One might argue that Tampa’s Stamkos-less offense would be the perfect remedy for the overmatched defense, but I’d still give the Lightning the edge over a defense that was dominated by the Panthers. Offensively, the Islanders are of course powered by John Taveras, who powered shot after shot at Roberto Luongo in the first round and ended up with nine points in six games before adding two more last night. With Stamkos out, Taveras is certainly the most skilled player in the series, and he should be able to make a huge impact on the ice, especially when the Islanders are home and have last change and can therefore get their star on the ice with favorable matchups. Of course, the Islanders will need more offense than Taveras, which was a problem they often had in the regular season. They were able to score plenty in game one, but if Bishop can get on his game and Hedman can stifle Taveras, it might be more of a slog offensively going forward.

There’s no question in my mind that the Lightning were the more impressive team in the first round. They didn’t blow the Red Wings out of the water, but I never once thought they would come anywhere close to losing the series. They have a strong defense and (generally) stellar goalie, which along with their one great line should at a bare minimum keep them in the series. They need some more scoring from someone who is not on the top line or named Alex Killorn, and they’ll get a chance against a defense I consider to be lackluster. They’ve put themselves in a 1-0 hole, but this team has the fortitude, experience, and talent to climb out of the hole and win the series in seven games.

Capitals over Penguins in seven: Please, God, let this series go seven games. It’s Ovi and it’s Sid, and in my mind it’s also the two best teams in the business. The Penguins destroyed the Rangers, continuing their trend of terrific play after a sluggish start to the season. This is the definition of a high-octane offense, and you know your team’s rolling when there’s a real debate over to plug Evgeni Malkin back into the lineup. They scored 21 goals in the five games against the Rangers, with Malkin putting up seven points, Crosby adding eight, and 11 players scoring at least once. This team is full of talent, and it’s 18-3 in its last 21 games. Against the Rangers, the fact that goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was out with a concussion didn’t much matter. Jeff Zatkoff went 1-1 in the first two games despite hemorrhaging six goals, and then Matt Murray came in and stopped 85 of the 89 shots that were sent his way in the last three games of the series. Murray, of course, is one of the keys to the series. The 21-year-old is considered one of the best young goalies in the NHL, but he’s also unproven and will have to start again with Fleury still a ways off from a return. Is he mature enough to stave off a challenge from the tough Capitals?

The Rangers tried to bully the quick, skilled Penguins from the get-go, to the tune of 50 and 57 hits in the first two games. The problem was that the Rangers were neither big enough nor skilled enough to slow Pitt’s roll. You know who is big enough and skilled enough? The Washington Capitals, who just got through a very physical series against the Flyers. Tough first round series’ generally aren’t particularly beneficial for the eventual victor, but this might be an exception. The Caps need to hit the Penguins like the Flyers hit them. They won the series in six comfortable games, but it could easily have been a sweep, as the Capitals outshot their opponent 32-25 and 44-11 in their two losses. They also have the skill to match the Penguins. Pittsburgh might have Crosby, but Washington has Ovechkin. The Penguins have Malkin, but the Capitals have Backstrom. I can go on and on, but you get the point. Both of these teams also have very good power plays and penalty kills, with a combined 16 PP goals in round one and just three allowed. The real difference between these teams, as I see it, is Braden Holtby, the presumptive Vezina trophy winner and a goalie who often looked unbeatable this season and against the Flyers. Murray has his spurts of dominance, but Holtby has proven and re-proven himself all season. That difference, along with Washington’s home ice advantage, gives them a pretty clear edge in this series…

… And yet, I have it going seven games. Why? Well, because the Penguins are coming into this series as the hotter and more explosive team, and because I’m still not convinced that the Capitals are totally mentally over their previous postseason struggles. I’d be shocked if this were a short series or one without scary moments for Capitals fans, simply because it’s never that easy, not even in the first round when they went up 3-0 before losing two straight. This is the series with the most on-paper talent, and I can only imagine how incredible a game seven in Washington would be. I’ll take the Caps to advance to the Conference Finals in seven, as their physicality and Holtby will be too much to overcome for the speedy, talented Penguins.

In baseball, pitchers are generally undervalued and talked about by fans for two basic reasons. First of all, baseball fans generally like runs. Conventional wisdom says that more runs = more excitement, and the pitchers are hence the players trying to restrict the amount of fun fans have. Secondly, starting pitchers pitch just once every five games. Naturally, someone would get more connected to a guy they see on the field every day than a player who generally plays just once a week. So yeah, pitchers generally get the short end of the stick. But, after the homer-friendly early 2000s, MLB is quickly becoming a pitcher’s league. With that in mind, I tried to comprise my top tier proportionally. Given that eight (in the NL) or nine (in the AL) hitters play every day and five starters start consistently, a 2:1 ratio made sense. Now, in the end I didn’t use the 2:1 guideline, but the top tier sorted itself out that way because I truly believe that these are the six players who are by far the best in the sport. In a pitcher’s league, there are a plethora of really, really good pitchers. It’s these too guys, though, that stand apart.

Clayton Kershaw: Already a HOFer?

Let’s call Clayton Kershaw the Mike Trout of pitchers. That is, the guy who has been utterly dominant for years. Kershaw’s reign of dominance has continued for much longer than Trout’s; since the start of 2009, he has a 2.28 ERA. Since 2011, he’s been even more dominant, with a 2.10 ERA, five consecutive All-Star appearances, and five straight top-three finishes in the Cy Young voting with three victories. Of course, playoff success has still been elusive, but that’s not what I’m focusing on here. Like with Trout, the list of pitchers most similar to Kershaw through 27 is jaw dropping, with Tom Seaver, Pedro Martinez, and Roger Clemens rating as most similar. Also similarly to Trout, Kershaw has more WAR (48.5 on Baseball-reference, 48.1 on Fangraphs) than any of his comps at the same age. At this point, the Dodger is on a rampage that even Dodger great Sandy Koufax might not have matched. Koufax’s famed prime was five short years in which he won three Cy Young Awards while posting a 1.95 ERA and .93 WHIP and striking out more than a batter per inning. Since 2011 began, a 5+ year span, Kershaw has the same three Cy Young’s and strikeout proficiency while putting up a 2.10 ERA and .93 WHIP. They’re very similar numbers, but Kershaw already had two sub-3 ERA seasons on the board before 2011 (3.17 total pre-2011) while Koufax had a 3.94 ERA before he broke out. The point is, I guess, that Kershaw would have similar career accolades and stats to the all-time great if he retired today. He obviously doesn’t have the playoff success Koufax had, but he also obviously isn’t retiring anytime soon. Like Trout, he has an excellent chance at being considered one of the best in the sport… ever.

Kershaw’s started the year predictably Kershaw-esque, with 30 strikeouts, three walks, and a 1.50 ERA in 30 innings across four starts. How is he so darn good? Well, in addition to getting a lot of strikeouts, he also forces a ton of ground balls. Once mediocre at keeping the ball on the ground, his ground ball rate has edged over 50% over the last two full seasons, thus becoming well above-average. Since the start of 2013, his first truly incredible season (he’s had one every year since), Kershaw’s ground ball/fly ball rate is in the top quarter of qualified starters. He basically has three pitches, given that just 2.7% of his career pitches have been changeups and given that I’m not including this 46-MPHer (talk about an insane pitch). All three of the pitches are elite. His fastball has steadily averaged 92-94 MPH since his rookie year and is by far the best in the bigs. Since 2011, Kershaw’s fastball has saved 131.5 runs of value. Among 183 qualified starters, Johnny Cueto’s fastball has been second-best… at +75.7. Even on a per-100 fastball basis which obviously doesn’t value quantity of production, Kershaw’s +1.31 runs saved leads baseball, although Matt Harvey is close behind at +1.28. Others throw the fastball much harder, but nobody throws it any better.

Then there’s the offspeed stuff. Kershaw’s slider has saved a cumulative 72.9 runs since the start of 2011, second in baseball behind Francisco Liriano. On a per-100 pitch basis among pitchers who had at least a prolonged experiment with a slider, Kershaw’s eighth at +1.67, behind Jose Fernandez, Yu Darvish, Sonny Gray, Masahiro Tanaka, Jhoulys Chacin, Tyson Ross, and Liriano, all of whom are known for their devastating sliders. But the pitch Kershaw’s really known for is his curveball, which is often called the best in baseball. Again since 2011 (the year I’m using since it’s the start of Kershaw’s Koufax-esque run), the curve has saved 48.9 runs total and 2.36 per 100 curveballs, numbers that rank second (behind Adam Wainwright) and second (behind Corey Kluber). So the ace has easily the best fastball in baseball, an incredible curveball, and a great slider. I’m running out of adjectives.

This is why the guy ranks first in the league in pretty much every stat since the start of the 2011 season, from strikeout-walk % (23.1%), opponent’s average (.197), ERA (2.10), FIP (2.32), WHIP (.93), strikeouts (1279), wins (90), complete games (20), shutouts (11)… I could go on and on, and most of these leads are by a wide margin.

Yeah, Kershaw’s good. There may be a debate over who the best hitter in baseball is. The best pitcher, though? No such debate. Kershaw’s the best by a mile, not to diminish the insane success of…

Jake Arrieta: A Shocking Breakout

Let me make this clear: there’s no comparison between Kershaw and Arrieta in terms of their career achievements. But that doesn’t make Arrieta’s recent success any less incredible. Last week, the Cubs’ ace threw a no-hitter. Is happened to be among the least surprising no-hitters I can remember, simply because the guy who threw it is so dominant (and also threw a no-no last season). First, some background. In the summer of 2013, as Kershaw cruised to a 1.83 ERA, Jake Arrieta was floundering to the tune of a 7.23 ERA on the Baltimore Orioles and a 4.41 ERA at the Orioles’ AAA affiliate. Then 27, Arrieta, who had once been a top prospect, seemed en route to a career in AAA. Even before his ugly 7.23, Arrieta had posted a 5.33 ERA in his first three seasons with the Orioles. Then, on July 2, the Cubs traded for the pitcher… and promptly sent him to AAA. He ended up making nine starts for the Cubs that year, putting up a 3.66 ERA but continuing to struggle with walks (4.2 per nine innings) while failing to strike guys out (6.4 per nine), usually a fatal combination for a pitcher’s chances at the highest level. And then… the proverbial light turned on. In 2014, Arrieta started 25 games and had a 2.53 ERA and .99 WHIP. The difference? Control. The walk rate had gone down to 2.4 per nine innings, while the K rate was up to 9.6 per nine. Arrieta wasn’t a top tier pitcher, but he was just a notch below the top guys, as evidenced by his ninth-place finish in the Cy Young Award voting. His first 13 starts last year seemed like a small step back, as Arrieta was “just” 6-5 with a 3.40 ERA. Then he became the best pitcher ever, or so it seems.

Since his start on June 21, 2015, Arrieta has made 24 starts. He’s 20-1 with a .86 ERA. He has two no-hitters. He’s struck out 173 batters and walked 33 in 178 innings. He’s thrown five complete games and four shutouts and has won a Cy Young Award. There are no words that can describe this stretch. It’s obviously an unsustainable stretch, but pitching this well for this long puts Arrieta in rarified air. In his record-breaking year, Bob Gibson’s best 25-start (I wanted to do 24, but his best stretch included a 25th) stretch saw him go 19-5 with a .86 ERA (how he had five losses in that stretch, I have no idea). I like the identical .86 ERAs. Totally random? Yes, but they show just how good Arrieta has been.

As I said before, Arrieta’s career resurgence has come almost entirely because he’s gone from having no control to great control. But he also altered his ineffective slider and replaced it with a terrific slider-cutter (nobody knows which it really is, which might be the point). Here is a terrific article from before last year on the pitch. The pitch has made the pitcher pretty much unhittable. Since the start of the 2014 season, Arrieta’s ERA is 1.99, just six ticks behind Kershaw’s. The slider/cutter has saved 42.8 runs and 2.41 per 100 pitches, both easily the best in baseball. Most aces have at least one put-away pitch, and when Arrieta found his, he became one of the best pitchers in baseball. What’s happened since has been simply mind-blowing. I don’t know how much longer this 24-start stretch of amazingness can continue. But I do know this: Jake Arrieta may not be Clayton Kershaw, but he’s definitely here to stay. Now, can he lead the Cubs to a World Series?

One of the central debates in sports, from the time they became mainstream until the day they go away, is a debate over who the best player in any given sport is. Sometimes, the answer is obvious (like LeBron James or Sidney Crosby for much of the last decade), which really limits the extent of any actual debate (although it doesn’t stop contrarians from popping up every so often), while sometimes there is a real question over who the best player in any given sport is. In baseball right now, there is a real debate, a change given that Mike Trout has held the Best Player in Baseball tag for nearly half a decade now. But now Bryce Harper has entered the discussion with a bang (46 bangs, in fact, in the past calendar year). Either Trout or Harper is definitely the best player, or at least the best hitter, in baseball. But everyone talks about those two, so I won’t. Instead, let’s talk about the top tier of baseball players. Trout and Harper are obviously in that tier, but I think four other players are clearly a step ahead of anyone else. Those four players are Josh Donaldson, Manny Machado, Clayton Kershaw, and Jake Arrieta. Instead of trying to rank the six, let’s just celebrate the amazingness of the two outfielders and the two third basemen today and the two pitchers tomorrow.

Trout and Harper: Why do we have to choose?
In the first three years of his career, Bryce Harper was a good but not great hitter. The power he was expected to have wasn’t really there, as he hit just 22, 20, and 13 homers in his first three seasons. He walked a moderate amount and struck out a lot while hitting between .270-.274 in the three seasons. Then, in his age-22 season last year, the light switch turned on for Harper. The no-brainer top overall pick in the 2010 draft suddenly became the player everyone thought he could be, hitting .330/.460/.649 while adding 9.5 WAR. The missing power? Missing no more (42 homers). The strikeouts are still there, but they were accompanied by a 19% walk rate last year, second in baseball to Joey Votto. Add in his hot start to this season, and Harper is hitting .335/.457/.682 with 10.1 WAR in the past calendar year. It’s clear that he’s here to stay, but what has he done to become such a scary player to pitch to? Well, as you would imagine by the walk rate, his plate discipline improved. While in 2014 Harper swung at 35.7% of pitches outside of the zone, last year that number shrunk to 28.2%. But even more than an improvement in plate discipline, Harper’s improvement has been the result of a change in approach at the plate. What do you do when you want to start hitting for more power? Well, hitting the ball in the air more and pulling it more seems like a good start, and that’s exactly what Harper has done. Tapping into his raw power, his pull rate has increased from 38.9% two years ago to 45.4% last year to 50% this season. Instead of being a hit-to-all-fields hitter in the mold of Mike Trout (career 35% pull, 36% up the middle, 29% opposite field), Harper has realized that his best skill is pure power and that he can bully pitchers by smoking pitches to right field. He’s also realized that he should be hitting the ball in the air and not on the ground. His ground ball rate has gone from 43.6% to 38.5% to 28.3% while his fly ball rate has increased from 34.6% to 39.3% to 56.6%. In the span of a single offseason, Harper went from being a fringe All-Star to one of the best players in baseball and certainly the best pure hitter in the sport. While he’s still fairly slow (although he has three steals already this season) and a poor defender, his bat alone puts him in the top tier.

Meanwhile, Mike Trout is a 24-year-old who’s been the presumptive top player in baseball for four+ years. No big deal, right? I don’t want to talk about Trout much, because I’ve already done so and because everyone knows how good he is. Instead, let me just post a chart from baseball-reference that shows the 10 most similar players to Trout through their respective age-23 seasons. Here’s a link for a cleaner version. Keep in mind that baseball-reference has a different method for WAR calculation than Fangraphs, whose numbers I usually use and who has Trout at 33.6 WAR right now.

 Sim  Player              From  To Yrs  WAR   G    AB    R    H   2B  3B  HR  RBI  BB   SO    BA   OBP   SLG   SB   CS OPS+ 
+---++-------------------+---------+--+-----+----+-----+----+----+---+---+---+----+----+----+-----+-----+-----+----+---+----+
      Mike Trout          2011-2015  5  37.9  652  2448  477  744 143  32 139  397  361  647  .304  .397  .559  113  21  169
 941* Mickey Mantle       1951-1955  5  29.7  658  2411  510  719 114  38 121  445  412  479  .298  .400  .528   33  15  155
 936* Frank Robinson      1956-1959  4  23.5  596  2277  415  680 112  21 134  366  239  360  .299  .374  .543   46  15  137
 933* Ken Griffey         1989-1993  5  30.1  734  2747  424  832 170  15 132  453  318  404  .303  .375  .520   77  38  146
 930* Hank Aaron          1954-1957  4  22.6  579  2294  387  718 125  35 110  399  171  212  .313  .360  .542    8   8  143
 916  Miguel Cabrera      2003-2006  4  15.0  563  2106  358  654 145   8 104  404  243  465  .311  .384  .535   15  10  141
 912* Orlando Cepeda      1958-1961  4  16.9  602  2362  366  731 137  15 122  439  135  366  .309  .351  .535   65  34  137
 902* Jimmie Foxx         1925-1931  7  25.5  656  2165  461  710 126  48 116  498  344  281  .328  .421  .591   26  27  154
 902* Mel Ott             1926-1932  7  31.4  831  2787  582  895 159  30 153  608  462  210  .321  .421  .564   37 ---  153
 900  Vada Pinson         1958-1962  5  24.6  644  2622  466  807 156  36  80  340  197  343  .308  .357  .486  104  37  122
 893* Al Kaline           1953-1958  6  27.5  768  2857  436  880 137  32  98  450  272  247  .308  .368  .481   41  27  127
+---++-------------------+---------+--+-----+----+-----+----+----+---+---+---+----+----+----+-----+-----+-----+----+---+----+
 Average of all 10 Players           5  24.7  663  2462  440  762 138  27 117  440  279  336  .310  .384  .531   45  21  139
 Avg of all 9 Retired Players        5  25.7  674  2502  449  774 137  30 118  444  283  322  .310  .383  .530   48  22  141

W0w. Eight of these 10 guys are Hall of Famers, while Miguel Cabrera will surely join that list eventually. But Trout isn’t just a likely Hall of Famer, he’s also way way way better than anyone on this list. He’s a full, MVP-caliber season’s worth of WAR (7.8) above Ken Griffey Jr., the #2 guy. He’s behind only Mel Ott in homers, he’s first in steals, and he’s first in OPS+. And that’s just his hitting stats, because let’s not forget that Trout is also a very good defender. He’s on track to become one of the best players in baseball history.

Donaldson and Machado
In 2013, Josh Donaldson came out of nowhere. He was a member of the Oakland Athletics, which isn’t surprising. He was a first round pick (the 48th pick in the 2007 draft), sure, but he had spent nearly three full seasons in AAA with only a .840 OPS to show for it. He seemed liked the classic AAAA player. Before 2013, the then-26-year-old had contributed just 1.2 career WAR. Then came a 7.6, a 6.5, and an 8.7, accompanied by fourth, eighth, and first place finishes in the AL MVP race. Now on the Blue Jays, Donaldson has kept things rolling this year and now has added 8.8 WAR in the last calendar year, fourth only to Trout, Harper, and Kershaw. Until last year, Donaldson was the prototypical very-good player who hit 20-30 homers, added a lot of defensive value, and got on base at a good clip. But then he hit 41 homers last year without losing any of his batting average (.297), plate discipline, or defense, and, voila, he won the MVP. This year, he’s already hit seven homers and has a .307 average, numbers that lead me to believe that his season last year aren’t a fluke. Unlike Harper, Donaldson didn’t make any huge changes. His pull and fly ball rates stayed steady, and he actually started swinging at a few more pitches out of the zone as he got pitched more carefully to. The difference for the Jays’ third baseman was simple: he started hitting fly balls harder and further, pulling his HR/fly ball rate from 14.6% to 21.8% to this year’s unsustainable 30.4%. His defensive prowess and ability to put the ball in play while drawing walks already make him an All-Star, but it’s Donaldson’s new power stroke that put him comfortably into the top tier. He’d easily be considered the best third baseman in baseball if not for…

Manny Machado didn’t come out of nowhere. He was the third pick of the 2010 draft and immediately started drawing comparisons to a guy named Alex Rodriguez. A slick fielding shortstop, Machado’s path to the big leagues was blocked by J.J. Hardy, so the Orioles moved him to third base and called him up for the stretch run of the 2012 season, a year in which he looked incredibly raw offensively but already established himself as one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball. Three+ years later, Machado’s solidified his place atop the defensive elite even while continuing to play out of position as the Orioles gave Hardy an extension. Over the past three calendar years, Machado has added 49.9 runs on the defensive side of the ball (per Fangraphs), third only to Andrelton Simmons and Lorenzo Cain. But until last year, his value came almost entirely on the merit of his defense. No longer. Last season, he had a monster .286/.359/.502 season with 35 homers and 20 steals. And until today, he’d accumulated a hit in every game this season. Even after his 0-fer today, Machado’s hitting .380/.436/.746 and is second in baseball in WAR at 1.6. Two seasons after being just an average hitter, he’s one of the best, which, along with his defensive skill, makes him one of the best players in the league. Machado’s simply a more selective hitter now, a common development for a young player to make. In 2014, he swung at 36.1% of the pitches that came in out of the zone and at 50.8% of all pitches; last year, he offered at 25.7% of the non-strikes he faced and 43.6% of all pitches. When you lay off on bad pitches, you get ahead of the count, and when you get ahead in the count, you have a much better chance of making good contact. A few years ago, Machado grounded out a lot, and when you put the ball on the ground, you’re unlikely to earn more than a handful of singles. Now? He just smokes the ball, and a Manny Machado who smokes the ball is a guy who, by the time he moves to shortstop as I think he will at some point, will be established as a top-three player in baseball.

Tomorrow: Kershaw and Arrieta

Are the Chicago White Sox Legit?

Posted: 04/20/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

Originally, I had planned on writing posts about Tyler White, Trevor Story, and Eugenio Suarez and their hot starts to the season. I wrote about the first two, but haven’t written about Suarez yet. But while the Reds’ third baseman still has a .866 OPS a couple of weeks into the season, he’s cooled off considerably since when I wanted to write about him. In his first six games, Suarez had four homers and nine RBIs while hitting .435 with a .500 OBP for the 5-1 Reds. Well, let’s chalk that one up to a small sample size; since, he’s 5-for-32 with just a single walk and seven strikeouts as the Reds have lost six of their last nine. I still think Suarez is going to be a fine player, but he probably won’t do much better than he did last season, when he hit 13 homers and posted a .761 OPS with a good average but poor plate discipline. Useful player? Sure. Guy I’m excited to write about? Absolutely not. Instead, let’s talk about the 10-5 Chicago White Sox!

In 2012, the White Sox were close to a playoff spot before losing a small division lead to the Tigers and missing out. Since then, it has been a rough ride for the South Siders. They’ve lost 274 games over the last three years, never going better than 76-86. Their average run differential has been -100 per season. This year, not much was expected. 31 ESPN experts predicted AL Central winners. 15 picked the World Series champs, 11 picked the Indians, three picked the Tigers, and two brave men (Jim Caple and Eddie Matz) picked the Twins. Zero picked the White Sox. 31 ESPN experts picked AL wild cards, and just two, Doug Padilla and Dan Szymborski had the Sox sneaking in. So it’s safe to say that not much was expected out of this team. A little more than two weeks later, the White Sox are one of three teams with double-digit wins. The other two? Their Chicago neighbors and the Nationals. That’s pretty good company.

It’s easy to brush off the early start as a product of a small sample size. The White Sox, after all, have yet to play any teams that are among the supposed elite of the American League. But there’s where point #1 in favor of the Sox comes into play. I think the AL is wiiiiide open. In the National League, there’s a pretty clear oligarchy. The Cubs, Nationals, and Dodgers all look like sure playoff teams, while the Mets also look pretty good. The last playoff spot will likely be one of the Cardinals, Giants, or Pirates. According to Fangraphs, four NL teams have an 80%+ chance at a playoff spot, while seven other teams are at less than 10%. In the AL, quite the opposite is true. The slow-starting Twins are the only team under 10%, while the sub-.500 Red Sox actually have the best chance of making the playoffs at 62.7% (I will note that Fangraphs’ stat models continue to undervalue the Royals). This sets things up perfectly for a team like the White Sox to turn a hot start into a surprising playoff berth. So the opportunity is there. Now the question is: can the Sox keep up their solid play for longer than a couple of weeks?

The team’s leader is Chris Sale. That much is for sure. The 27-year-old is one of the best pitchers in baseball, with four straight top-six finishes in the Cy Young voting. Predictably, Sale’s led the way so far, picking up his fourth consecutive win to start the season today. He has a 1.80 ERA and a .67 WHIP, with three walks and 26 strikeouts in 30 innings. In his last two starts, Sale has faced just 53 batters in 16 innings and hasn’t given up a run. So the White Sox have something that very few others teams have. They also seem to have a much deeper rotation this year than they have in the recent past. Jose Quintana is a very solid #2, as he’s thrown 200+ innings in three consecutive seasons while posting ERAs between 3.32-3.51 every season. Carlos Rodon got hammered in his last start, but the former #3 overall pick has great stuff and had a 3.75 ERA in his rookie year and a 1.81 ERA over his last eight starts of the season. And, three starts into his White Sox career, it looks like free agent acquisition Mat Latos might be returning to form after the 28-year-old had an awful season last year. Latos is 3-0 with a .49 ERA and just six hits allowed, indicating that last year might have been a fluke for a guy in his prime with a career 3.46 ERA. Now, the White Sox still need to find someone to fill the fifth spot, because John Danks simply won’t cut it at this point in his career. But even if the Sox don’t find anyone to provide good innings out of the #5 slot, they have an above-average rotation, assuming Latos really is at the beginning of what is to be a resurgent season.

I’d also expect the bullpen to be pretty good. David Robertson is a tremendous closer who 3.41 ERA last year probably should have been a run lower. Matt Albers doesn’t strike out a lot of guys, but he had a 1.21 ERA last season and hasn’t yet given up a run this season. Nate Jones, the owner of a career 9.58 K/9 rate, does strike out a lot of guys and seems capable of taking another step up. He’s throwing his overpowering fastball (96.6 mph on average) more often (75% of the time, career average 60%) and more effectively, setting up his slider as a devastating two strike pitch. I could go on and on, because the bullpen is deep, but you get the idea. There’s a reason that the bullpen ranks first in baseball in ERA and third in WAR.

I expect the pitching staff to be among the best in the AL, which should take a lot of pressure off of an offense that is very different than it was last season. More than half of the lineup is new, with Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie coming in via trade and Jimmy Rollins, Dioner Navarro, Alex Avila and Austin Jackson joining the team as free agents. The team’s three best hitters are holdovers. Adam Eaton is the rare leadoff hitter who can actually get on base; he has a career .355 OBP. Melky Cabrera has been terrific in the last two even years and seems set to bounce back from a disappointing season. Jose Abreu, of course, is the slugger, with 30+ homers in each of his first two seasons. The problem is that the White Sox had all three of those guys last season and still scored the fewest runs in the American League. It’s clear that they’re going to have to get a lot from their new additions, and they just haven’t gotten it so far. Jackson and the two catchers (Navarro and Avila) have been horrific, with 14 combined hits in 93 at bats. Rollins is about as bad of a two-hole hitter as I can remember, while Frazier has been in a slump to start the season. Frazier, whom the White Sox gave up a lot to get from the Reds in December, has got to be considered the key guy here. He’s a streaky hitter who doesn’t get on base much, but he also could be the protection Abreu needs in the lineup. Frazier hit 43 doubles and 35 homers last year, and numbers like that would be a huge boon to Chicago’s chances, especially since their third basemen were atrocious and a revolving door. And maybe the White Sox can get some help top prospect Tim Anderson, a shortstop who currently is in AAA and who would probably be an immediate upgrade over Rollins.

Look, this offense isn’t very good. But does it have to be? Well, it definitely has to be better than last year’s, and I don’t think it could be any worse. I don’t think it has to be even average, though, for the White Sox to make a playoff push, since the pitching staff is so stacked. If the Sox can somehow get average production out of the offense, they could approach 90 wins. But even if they don’t, 85 or so wins may be enough to sneak into the playoffs. Do I think they’ll make the playoffs? I think the odds are still probably still worse than a coin flip. But before the season, I would have said almost definitely not. I think their chances have improved more over the first few weeks than any other team’s have.

Are They Legit Part II: Is Trevor Story Legit?

Posted: 04/14/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

I realize I haven’t done an NHL first round playoff preview yet. Blame the NHL for such a quick turnaround from the end of the season to the start of the playoffs. I’ll try to get a preview out before anyone plays a game two, but no promises. At least this is just the first round. Anyway, tonight I’m going ahead with the second part of the three-part series of reactions to super-good super-early baseball performances. Last time, I discussed Astros’ first baseman Tyler White, who with just two hits over the past two games is now hitting a measly .483. Now it’s on to Rockies’ shortstop Trevor Story, whose numbers would be even better had the Rockies not added height to their fences this offseason; he just missed out on two homers, settling for triples instead.

Trevor Story, SS, COL: Entering today, Trevor Story was second only to White in WAR at .8. Story went 1-for-4 with a walk and three strikeouts today, a pretty inconsequential showing that I’m going to ignore for simplicity’s sake (some stats sites update only on a once-a-night basis, not after the completion of every game). I also don’t want to have to say “before today” every time I bring up a stat, so let’s just pretend today hasn’t happened yet. Story has played just eight games. He has seven homers and two triples. Yes, unlike White, Story’s first-week hype is almost entirely a result of his power. He blasted six homers in his first four games and another one two nights later. His slugging percentage is 1.057. And lest you think that Denver’s thin air is the only reason Story’s hit so well, consider that his four homers in the opening series against the Diamondbacks came on the road. He has two homers against Zack Greinke, the man who posted a mind-blowing 1.66 ERA last year. He has one against Shelby Miller, who cost the Diamondbacks first overall pick Dansby Swanson and valuable outfielder Ender Inciarte in a trade and who had a 3.02 ERA last year. He hit one against Patrick Corbin, who has great stuff and a career 3.75 ERA. Basically, Story’s been really impressive. Oh, and by the way, he’s a shortstop.

Like White, Story is a rookie. Also like White, Story wasn’t a top prospect, and he wasn’t even a top prospect on his own team. Most preseason prospect rankings had Story in the 7-13 range among Rockies prospects. Oh, before I’m done with White, here’s one more similarity: the Rockies, like the Astros, have another more well-regarded prospect at the same position in shortstop Brendan Rodgers, the third pick in last year’s draft. That’s not to say that Story has come out of nowhere. He was a first round pick in 2011, and entering 2013 he was a consensus top-100 prospect and Baseballprospectus’s #34 prospect. Then came the 2013 season, when he hit just .233/.305/.394 and struck out 183 times. He rebounded a bit in 2014 and then had 70 extra base hits last year, but he had lost his shine, at least according to the prospect-rankers. One thing is clear: this type of power isn’t sustainable. Now, nobody can hit a homer every day, but I don’t think Story will ever be a 35-40 homer hitter. His 20 homers last year were the most he’s hit in a single season, and I think mid-high 20s is about as good as it’s going to get. Luckily, Story’s a shortstop, a position where even 20 homers is well above-average.

You might think that, as a power-hitting shortstop, Story’s biggest problem is his defense. You’d be wrong. Now, the guy’s never going to win a gold glove, but he’s also not going to be forced to third base as a result of lackluster fielding. He has fine range and good arm strength, and the 23-year-old is more than athletic enough to stay at the position. While not particularly fast, Story also proved to be a good base-stealer at the minor league level, with 96 SB’s and just 13 CS’s in five seasons. So he’s powerful, helpful on the base paths, and decent defensively. What’s the catch? Well, in a word: strikeouts. I said before that he had 183 strikeouts in 2013, but he also had 121 in 2012 (A ball), 144 in 2014 (three levels), and 141 last year (two levels). A strikeout rate in the 25-30% range at the minor league level is certainly a red flag, and Story had already struck out 12 times in eight games before K-ing three more times today. He can probably improve that strikeout rate a little, but he’s going to be near the top of the league in strikeouts. But the top six in baseball in K-rate last year were all productive players in some aspect, with all six adding at least 1 WAR and Chris Davis (first in K-rate) and Kris Bryant (third) both ending the year in the top 15 in WAR. What those guys do, though, is walk. Will Story walk? He’s walked just once in his first eight games, but he had no trouble drawing BBs in the minors. He walked at a 10%+ rate at most of his stops in minor league baseball, although his 5.8% walk rate in AAA last year is a bit concerning.

With Story, I don’t think the question is whether he’s a MLB-caliber player. He certainly is, at least as a utility player and probably as a starter. Instead, the question is: can he be an above-average, All-Star shortstop? I think the answer to that question hinges on the walks. Story’s baseline is league-average defense, good baserunning, and a .250/.290/.440-ish line with 20 homers. That’s starter-caliber but not All-Star caliber. If he walks more like he did in the minors and cut down on the strikeouts a little bit, he could have a ceiling around .275/.350/.500 with 25 homers. Story was once considered Troy Tulowitzki’s heir apparent, and those numbers would validate that original expectation and place him near the top echelon (Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Xander Bogaerts, Corey Seager) of the stellar young shortstops who seem set to dominate baseball for years to come.

Verdict: With a track record of solid all-around play at shortstop and the ability to play second and third base, Trevor Story is a lock to have a nice career in the bigs. If he can draw more walks and hit for average to go along with his above-average power, he will be considered one of the best shortstops in the NL and just a step below the cream of the crop. I think he’ll settle into a .260/.325/.470 player who provides good but sub-elite value.

Are They Legit Part I: Is Tyler White Legit?

Posted: 04/12/2016 by levcohen in Baseball

Entering today, no baseball team had played more than seven games, while the Cleveland Indians had played just four contests. That means teams are anywhere from 2.5% to 4.3% of the way through the season. In other words: nothing has really happened. If this were a football season, no team would have finished a single game. This, my friends, is what we call a small sample size. And this is why, when you look at the WAR leaderboards (per Fangraphs), you’ll see guys like Jeremy Hazelbaker (#5) mixed in with studs like Manny Machado (#2) and Carlos Correa (#9). Very few people actually fall into the trap of thinking random small sample size standouts are actually star players, but from time to time players actually can randomly break out and become at least solid regulars. Over the next few days, I’m going to focus on three hitters (given that most starting pitchers have pitched just once at this point, talking about pitchers seems like a stretch) who have come out of nowhere to post torrid starts. None of the three players will keep up their current paces (because, well, duh), but are we seeing something that’s at all sustainable? Are any of these three developing into valuable everyday players, or has this week been a total flash in the pan for all three? Let’s start with the leader in Fangraphs WAR through a week…

Tyler White, 1B, HOU: Through a week, Tyler White is hitting .545, as his 2-for-4 night last night brought his batting average down 11 points. He has six singles, three doubles, and three homers. His OPS is 1.668, his WAR is .8, and he was named AL Player of the Week. All of these numbers are, of course, ridiculous. Tyler White’s a 25-year-old rookie who was drafted in 2013 with the first pick… of the 33rd round. The fact that he’s even in MLB given where he was drafted means his career’s been a success. But will he be a productive player at the highest level? Well, he’s hit like Mike Trout at every level. At Western Carolina University, he hit .325/.405/.475. In 1249 minor league plate appearances, he hit .311/.422/.489. Lest you think he started slumping as he faced more difficult pitching, I’ll note that he hit .362/.467/.559 in 259 AAA plate appearances. White’s got a nice-looking swing with quick hands and great plate discipline. He’s also walked more times than he’s struck out over the course of his professional career. So how the heck hadn’t we heard about this guy before now? Well, there are a few reasons he wasn’t considered to be one of the Astros’ top prospects coming into the season. First of all, he doesn’t look like a first baseman simply because he’s short (5’11”), which I’d assume is a major reason that he lasted until the 33rd round. But the lack of attention can be attributed to more than White’s stature. He’s played both first and third base in his professional career, and he stinks at both, because he’s slow and because he lacks the great instincts that make good infielders good. And what do most slow, stocky (read: fat), poor-fielding first basemen do rather well? If you guessed “hit for power,” you’d be correct. But White doesn’t hit for power, three fluky first-week homers aside. He homered in just 2.8% of his plate appearances in the minors, which suggests that he’ll never top 20 homers in a season, especially since he’s had a fully-developed body throughout his professional career. So Tyler White’s a first baseman who will provide negative value on the bases and on defense while hitting 15-ish homers. Now the lack of attention before the season is beginning to make sense. And here’s another little thing that may explain why White was so overlooked heading into the season: the Astros’ top prospect is a first baseman who was thought to have a good chance at winning the job out of spring training. I’m speaking, of course, of A.J. Reed, a very different prospect than White. Reed was drafted in the second round in 2014; he got a $1.35 million draft bonus, while White’s was $1,000. He’s 6’4″, plays decent defense, and has great power (34 homers last year). There’s a reason Reed’s a higher-rated prospect than White, and there’s a reason he’s still the longterm answer at first base. Of course, that doesn’t preclude the guy currently hitting .545 from having value himself in the long run.

To me, the question of whether White will have longterm value is one that has a very different answer now than it would have had for a similar player 15 years ago. In the early 2000s, the answer would likely have been “no.” Maybe White would have served as a pinch hitter, but he probably wouldn’t have been an everyday starter. Why? Because in the height of the steroid era, there were plenty of slow, bad defenders at first base who could hit for average and also hit for a ton of power. 15 years later, though, it’s a lot harder to find pure hitters. White has a lot of weakness, but he’s also a pure hitter. He’s hit at every level, he has great plate discipline (he’s swinging at just 21% of pitches outside of the zone), and he looks the part when he’s at the plate with his sweet swing and ability to hit to all fields. While high-contact, low-power minor leaguers often fail to hit big league pitching, I don’t think that’s going to be an issue for White. I’m sure he won’t hit anywhere near the .362 he hit in AAA last year, but I think a line like .290/.375/.420 is realistic. Again, for a likely DH that line wouldn’t have been acceptable 15 years ago. Now, it would make White a regular for almost every team, including NL ones who would have to stomach his poor fielding.

Verdict: I don’t think White will ever be a star, and I don’t even think he’s the longterm solution at first base for the Astros. A.J. Reed is the higher-rated prospect, and rightly so. But will White be able to stick in the lineup, or lineup, going forward? I think he will.

Coming up: Eugenio Suarez and, of course, Trevor Story