Archive for July, 2017

It seems that there now really is no basketball offseason. Weeks after the hectic part of the offseason — the draft, trades of star players, free agent signings, firings of GMs — ended, the only thing that seemingly still had to happen for the offseason to be complete was a trade of Carmelo Anthony, the Knicks’ divisive superstar. And while a trade of Melo will be a big deal whenever it happens, the fact that it’s been expected for so long will lessen the talk and excitement around it. But just as the offseason was winding down, down came the bombshell from Cleveland whisperer Brian Windhorst of ESPN: Kyrie Irving wants to be traded.

Originally, everyone assumed that Kyrie’s request was the final nail in the coffin for LeBron in Cleveland. Surely Kyrie knew that James was going to leave and wanted to escape too, right? Why else would Irving want to leave the Cavaliers? But those initial assumptions were wrong. The truth, in fact, is the opposite: shockingly enough, Kyrie Irving wants to leave Cleveland in order to get away from LeBron James. The reactions to this were mixed, but a lot of people immediately panned the decision as stupid. LeBron is the perfect player for Kyrie to play with, they said. Where does he have a better chance to win than in Cleveland?

While I initially didn’t really understand this take, I realized that this response is indicative of the shift in the NBA landscape this decade. Ever since LeBron’s move to the Heat, it seems like everything has been about gravitating toward a few teams and winning for star players. We saw that most obviously with Kevin Durant. We just saw it with Chris Paul, who chose to take a one year qualifying offer instead of a boatload of money so he could play for Houston, a team with much better prospects than the Clippers. We saw it with Pau Gasol, who put up 19 and 17 points per game in the two seasons before sacrificing money and playing time to sign with the Spurs. Likewise with Gordon Hayward, who left money behind in Utah partially because Boston gives him a better chance to win. Ten years ago, players like Anthony and Paul George may have been content making more money for their average teams. Now, George asked for a trade (and was granted one to a better OKC team), while Anthony wants to be traded to either the Cavs or the Rockets, par for the course for the modern NBA star. It seems like Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo might be the next guys to spurn their average teams for something bigger and better. Everyone seems to want to move to the handful teams — Cleveland, Boston, Golden State, San Antonio, Houston — with legitimate chances of making and winning the Finals (although I’d argue that, providing health, only one team has a real chance of winning the Finals next year). And fans and analysts alike have been conditioned to expect players to care first and foremost about winning championships. That’s what happens when the very best players in the league — LeBron, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, and Steph Curry — seem to care first and foremost about winning championships. So when Kyrie Irving, the second best player on the Cavs and obviously an irreplaceable player for the three-time reigning Eastern Conference champs, asks to leave, people are surprised. When’s the last time a superstar player left or asked to be traded from a team with a clear path to a championship (Durant doesn’t count, considering where he moved)? I can’t even remember. But it’s ok — in the longterm, probably even beneficial — for guys like Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook to care about things other than putting themselves in a position where they can quickly win.

According to Windhorst’s reporting, Irving “wants to be in a position where he can be more of a focal point.” And guess what?? That makes sense!! He didn’t choose to play with James, after all. He signed a five-year extension 10 days before James decided to come home. He’s a 25-year-old at the height of his powers, and he’s overshadowed. Heck, I didn’t even know how good he was last year until the last few days. He averaged 25 points and six assists per game on 47/40/91 shooting! I had no idea! It’s telling that, when ranking the best point guards, people get six or seven (seventh was most common among the rankings I looked at) or eight names deep before mentioning Kyrie Irving. I know it’s a deep position, and I don’t even know where I’d rank Kyrie (it might be sixth or seventh), but that’s kind of the point. Kyrie Irving is a famously confident guy. Think about it from his perspective — if I’m Kyrie, I’m wondering what the heck I can do to get the respect I deserve. Win a championship? Check. Play exceptionally well in the playoffs? Check. Put up 25 points per game? Check. Wow people with my finishing ability? Check. Become one of the most efficient scorers in the league? Check. And after all that, I’m still not a top-five point guard??? Yeah, maybe I’d want to leave, too.

According to reports, Kyrie mentioned four specific teams that he’d like to play for: San Antonio, Minnesota, New York, and Miami. I believe that the T-Wolves are on there because Irving is good friends with Jimmy Butler and would like to play with his buddy. If Butler were still on the Bulls, Minnesota would be off the list and Chicago would be on it. The Knicks and Heat make a whole lot of sense, too, because both places would give Irving the chance to shine as the unquestioned superstar in a big media market and a great place for a 25-year-old to live. I must say that the addition of the Spurs puzzles me a little bit, but I can see the argument. Because Kawhi Leonard is so quiet and wary of the media, Irving would immediately become the leader of the team, if not in the locker room than certainly outside of it. He’d get the chance to take over from Tony Parker as the next great Spurs point guard.

Of course, that list of four teams means diddly squat. Unlike Melo, Irving doesn’t have a no-trade clause, so the Cavs can trade him to whichever team gives them the best package. But Irving’s list of teams certainly clues us in to the type of atmosphere and situation he wants.

Coming from someone who is far from a Warriors hater and who hasn’t said one critical word about Kevin Durant’s decision, it’s not good for the league to have all of its talent concentrated on two or three teams. Yes, the Warriors play beautiful basketball, but there are a good 20 fanbases who go into every season knowing they can’t win a title and another five or six who are probably just delusional. And guess what? Golden State kept everyone and got even better this offseason. That trend has to reverse at some point, and I think Kyrie might help make that happen. I didn’t criticize KD because I think that guys who work as hard as NBA stars do to get into the positions that they do have earned the right to play for whomever they want, wherever they want. I’m sure as heck not going to criticize Kyrie Irving for wanting to take on a bigger role as a franchise player in a city other than Cleveland. Instead, I’m going to praise him, because I think it’s a decision that makes sense career-wise and one that could help the NBA in the long run.

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The Los Angeles Angels and the Washington Nationals just completed a quick two game series, which meant we all sat through three days of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper discussion. In the first game, the two players didn’t disappoint; Harper went 4-4 and was a double away for the cycle, while Trout homered and drove in two of LA’s three runs. The climax of the game came in the first inning, when both Harper and Trout homered. For people who are obsessed with the Trout-Harper faux-rivalry, yesterday was disappointing, as Harper was rested in a 7-0 Angels win that featured another Trout homer.

I understand why Harper and Trout are compared to each other. They were once the top two prospects in baseball and each had his first full season in 2012. Each player won the Rookie of the Year. Both players are outfielders, both have been perennial All-Stars from the get-go (Harper’s made five All-Star teams in six years, while Trout is six-for-six), and both are among the best players in baseball. But to compare Bryce Harper to Mike Trout is to overlook the extent of Mike Trout’s greatness. Bryce Harper is a great player and will probably end up in the Hall of Fame. Mike Trout is on pace to be one of the best players of all-time and one of the few guys with a legitimate claim of being the GOAT. And that isn’t really up for debate. No matter what stat you prefer, Trout is an order of magnitude better than Harper. His career slash line is .308/.408/.567, good for a .975 OPS, significantly higher than Harper’s .906. He has more singles, doubles, triples, and homers than Harper. Heck, all you need to know is that Trout, a guy who was never projected to have more than average power, has hit more homers per plate appearance (4.9% of his PAs have been HRs) than Harper (4.6%), who was an elite prospect because he profiled as a plus-plus power hitter. While Harper does indeed have plus-plus power, so does Trout. As long as that is the case, any comparison between the two value-wise is pretty silly, because Trout is so much better at everything else.

After a two year blip, Trout’s base-stealing has returned over the past couple of years. He swiped 30 bags last year and has 11 through 52 games (remember, he missed about six weeks due to injury) this season. Trout now has 154 career steals, while Harper has 60. With the return of his base-stealing (I was going to say speed, but I don’t think that ever left) and the improvement of his arm, we can again officially say that Trout is a five-tool player. He’s not the flawless centerfielder he was as a young player, but the 25-year-old is at least a league-average defender in center. Meanwhile, Harper has improved his defense, but he’s no better than a league-average rightfielder. Again, clear advantage to Trout.

As you might expect, the advanced stats also favor Trout. Since the start of 2012, he’s been worth 50.7 WAR, per Fangraphs. That’s more than 10 more WAR than the second most valuable player (Clayton Kershaw) and 17.4 more than the second most valuable hitter (Josh Donaldson). Harper’s been worth 27.5 WAR, placing him 10th among hitters. Here’s another way to think about it: over the last five and a half years, Trout’s been outpacing Harper by about 4.2 WAR per season. Given that the current going rate on the open market is about $8 million per win above replacement, Trout’s been worth an average of more than $33 million more than Harper per year. Guess how many players will make $33 million this year? One. Clayton Kershaw. Now, most elite players never reach free agency early in their primes (although it seems likely to happen with Harper), which is why you don’t see a lot of $50 million per year deals and why the $33 million figure I mentioned may be a bit misleading. But you get the idea. 50.7 is a lot more than 27.5.

It’s also worth noting that Trout ranks second in baseball since the start of 2012 in baserunning value added (per Fangraphs), behind only Billy Hamilton. He ranks first in wRC+, which adjusts for ballpark effects (Harper is ninth, but Trout is again way out in front of the pack with a 173 wRC+). He’s easily first in Win Probability Added, another all-encompassing metric. Harper is 10th, again providing slightly more than half of Trout’s value. I think that’s a pretty good way to think about this. Harper’s probably about 60% of the player that Trout is. There’s no shame in that, but there’s also no use comparing the two.

I think it’s more fair and worthwhile to compare Trout to players from previous generations than it is to compare him to Harper. After all, according to Baseball Prospects’s WARP, Trout is halfway to being a top-10 all-time hitter despite being between 6,000 and 10,000 plate appearances behind every player in BP’s top-10 (Bonds, Mays, Aaron, Henderson, Frank Robinson, Mantle, Schmidt, Pujols, A-Rod, Yastrzemski). I like BP because, as you can tell from that top-10, its model really values baserunning (how else could Rickey Henderson be the fourth best hitter of all-time??) and defense.

For players as good as Trout, it’s hard to find comparisons. But baseball-reference.com helps with its similarity scores. Since Trout doesn’t turn 26 until August, this is considered his age-25 season, making last year, his last full season, his age-24 season. So let’s ignore the amazing numbers Trout has put up this year and see where he stacks through 24. According to baseball-reference, the most similar batters to Trout through 24 are Mickey Mantle, Ken Griffey Jr., Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson and Mel Ott. That’s scary good. Guess what’s scarier-good? Trout’s first five full seasons were better than Mantle’s, Griffey’s, Aaron’s, Robinson’s, and Ott’s. In fact, his 47.7 WAR through age-24 is most all-time, barely edging Ty Cobb. After those two, nobody else is particularly close. Burt Blyleven is surprisingly third, followed by Mantle and 19th century giant Silver King (what a name! Unfortunately, he added just more than 4 WAR after his age-24 season). The list of the top young hitters is basically the list of the best hitters of all-time (not so with the pitchers, as Blyleven and King can attest to). After Mantle comes Ott, followed by Jimmie Foxx, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, A-Rod, and Griffey. By the way, Harper is 24th and rising. By the end of the season, he could be around 15th. Another sign that Harper is in fact darn good and a likely Hall of Famer.

The elephant in the room is that, as things stand now, Trout has a legitimate chance to be one of the very best players of all-time. I find it hard to believe that he out-WARs Babe Ruth (168.4) or Barry Bonds (164.4). But those are unfair benchmarks. Ruth played nearly a century ago, and Bonds’s stats were inflated by PEDs. Willie Mays and Ty Cobb each were worth more than 149 WAR, so Trout is barely a third of the way to the Say Hey Kid and The Georgia Peach. It seems unlikely that he’ll ever approach 149, but what made those guys so special was their longevity. Peak-wise, Trout is as good as anyone. He has again proved that this year, as he’s putting up astronomical counting stats that we haven’t seen in years. But Trout’s also been injured this year, showing how fragile all of this is and how much has to go right to be an all-timer. Trout’s a future Hall of Famer and will be one of the best centerfielders of all-time when he retires, barring catastrophic injury. Whether or not he possesses that supernatural longevity will determine how high up the list he can get.