Nate Karns could be a welcome surprise

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Credit: Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

You’ve all heard the saying-‘Hope springs eternal’. Every year players report to Florida and Arizona with the hope that this year will be a year of improvement. The work is put in all throughout the winter as players aim to improve on any flaws in their game. Another common goal is to stay healthy and that is the position Royals pitcher Nate Karns is in, as he missed most of the 2017 season while dealing with thoracic outlet syndrome, a surgery that a number of former and current Royals have undergone over the last few years.

The good news is that it felt like Karns was moving in the right direction during the eight games he started last year. In his nine appearances overall (eight starts and one relief outing), he posted a 4.17 ERA, a 1.19 WHIP and 0.4 fWAR over 45.1 innings. On the surface, those numbers feel like an average pitcher putting up average numbers. But when you dig deeper you notice a difference over his performance the previous two seasons.

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The most notable difference was in his strike out and walk rate. His strike out rate increased for the third straight year in 2017, moving from 23.4% in 2015, 24.2% in 2016 and then bumping up to 27.1% last season. Karns can point a lot of this success to his knuckle-curve, which has been a very effective pitch for him the last couple of seasons. Karns has seen his use of the pitch see an incline during that span. Karns was throwing a curveball 29.4% of the time back in 2015; the last two years he was throwing a curve 36% of the time (36.4% in 2016, 36.3% in 2017). In fact, there is a pattern of him throwing less off-speed stuff when he is utilizing his curveball more:

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This is a good thing, since Karns’ changeup has been less effective over the last couple seasons. Karns also has a higher whiff percentage on his breaking pitches the more he uses the knuckle-curve:

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So in some ways, Karns’ success is tied in with how often he is throwing the knuckle-curve. Unfortunately, it is better for Karns to get to the batter early on, since he struggles the third time through the order:

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This is actually fairly common throughout baseball and is part of the reason why Karns is not a pitcher who works deep into the game. So for Karns to have success, he needs to be throwing his curve and throwing it often.

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His walk rate also saw improvement in 2017, dipping down to 6.9%, the lowest of his career. There appears to be a few reasons for this. One, his percentage of first pitch strikes went up last year, 58.0% from 2016’s 57.4%. Not a big increase, but an increase. Karns also saw 0-2 counts more last year, moving up 31.4% from 25.6% the year before. To top it all off, his percentage of getting into a 3-0 count took a big dive, down to 5.9% from 8.1% in 2016. As most anyone will tell you around the game, when you work ahead in the count as a pitcher, you are bound to have more success. Karns did that in 2017 and it appears to have improved his production.

But it isn’t just the strike outs and the walks that improved for Karns. He was getting more hitters to swing outside the zone (31.1%) and inside the zone (65.6%), which made his swing percentage in general higher as well (46.2%, up from 43.6% in 2016). Hitters also made less contact against Karns, as his contact rate fell to 72.8%, down from 74.9% in 2016 and 79.3% in 2015. He also had a higher swinging strike rate, as it bumped up to 12.5%, the highest of his career. Add in a higher soft hit percentage (23.0%) and a higher ground ball to fly ball ratio (1.30) and you have a pitcher who appeared to be moving in the right direction before his injury.

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But the numbers that impressed me the most were his win probability numbers. Karns (in limited action, remind you) put up a 0.66 WPA and a 4.25 RE24. Both numbers were in the negative category in 2016 and both are stats that accumulate the more you play. It’s very apparent that the improvements that former pitching coach Dave Eiland suggested were working and it makes you wonder what would have been had Karns been able to stay healthy throughout 2017.

The one reminder to all of this is how these numbers are just a small sample size. Eight starts isn’t a lot to go off of and it’s understandable if anyone is skeptical of the improvement. But digging deeper into the numbers appear to show a pitcher who was making some slight adjustments and showing improvement almost all across the board.

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The biggest hurdle for Karns this year will be just to stay healthy. On top of last year’s injury, 2016 saw him deal with back problems, 2015 saw him shut down late in the year with a forearm strain and he even dealt with some leg issues in 2013. Karns is now entering his age 30 season and it feels like the main thing holding him back is his health. While he may never be mistaken for a top of the rotation starter, he has the ability to be a mid-rotation guy for the Royals. Kansas City would welcome an arm of Karns’ caliber to the rotation in 2018. It’s all just a matter of staying away from the trainer’s room.

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Finding a Spot for Raul Mondesi

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When the news broke last week that the Royals were looking to bring Alcides Escobar back into the fold, a lot of questions were needing to be asked. Most asked why, a few asked what we had done to anger Dayton Moore but one question hovered over the rest: Where does this leave Raul Mondesi?

The belief all winter was that Mondesi would take over at shortstop and (for the most part) would be allowed to sink or swim. Now that idea has been turned on its head by not only the Escobar news but also a piece that ran on Fangraphs last week that didn’t paint a fuzzy picture of the relationship between the organization and Mondesi. In fact, it felt like a damning piece for the former prospect’s future:

The term “makeup” might have different meanings from scout to scout. In Mondesi’s case, evaluators are concerned about his defensive consistency, especially as it pertains to throwing accuracy, and have seen him fail to execute routine plays. Others were not thrilled with what they saw from Mondesi as he worked back into playing shape following his PED suspension in Arizona, citing poor effort and on-field focus which they particularly disliked in an environment laden with young, impressionable teenagers.

With Nicky Lopez coming up fast through the Kansas City system, it feels like Mondesi isn’t the “Chosen One” anymore and that the Royals have moved on to a prettier girl, so to speak. But…that can all change in an instant based on how he performs this spring or at the beginning of the minor league season. It’s forgotten sometimes because of how long we have heard about him, but Mondesi will only be entering his age 22 season in 2018, so it’s not like he is a washed up prospect trying to make it work in his late 20’s.

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Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

So I’m going to play devil’s advocate. Let’s throw out a couple of situations and find a spot in the lineup for Raul. This activity is a best case scenario and more than likely the reality will be somewhere in between this and struggling in the minors. The good news is that Mondesi has some versatility and a few options besides shortstop.

Scenario #1: Mondesi has a great spring offensively and forces the Royals to move him back to second base.

Sound crazy? It wouldn’t be completely out of the realm of possibility, considering he had a good spring last year, even if the numbers weren’t telling the entire truth.

So they could start the year with Mondesi at second base, moving Whit Merrifield to the outfield. Whit played center field a little bit in the minors and has seen a bit more time in left field, which could slide Alex Gordon over to center. While Merrifield has experience at the position and played there quite a bit in college, this scenario doesn’t feel like a long-term solution.

Gordon playing there could be a bit more interesting, but you would have to question how he would hold up manning the position for a full season. One could make the argument of Whit going back to being a super-utility player, although I doubt the Royals would allow that to happen after the season he pulled off in 2017. The best case scenario for playing Mondesi at second base would be a trade of Merrifield, which doesn’t look likely at the moment.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Toronto Blue Jays
Credit: Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Scenario #2: Mondesi has a great spring and wins the center field job.

Alright, I think this is actually possible, despite the fact it sounds crazy to me. Mondesi has always been lauded for his glove and it feels weird that the Royals would move a guy that is that good defensively in the middle of the infield and plop him down in the outfield, where he has never played professionally. Obviously the organization has been thinking of doing this for a while, as it was first brought up in July:

“He’s such a good athlete. We’ve even talked about his ability to play the outfield – centerfield specifically – not that we’re necessarily moving on that right now.”

Let’s be honest here: the Royals right now don’t have a great center field option. There is Paulo Orlando, Billy Burns and…maybe Bubba Starling. That’s really it. This is what the Royals have to deal with unless they go out and sign a free agent this spring. So the idea of Mondesi playing center isn’t the worst idea ever; if he hits well, adapts to the outfield and shows some patience at the plate, he could be a possibility. Chalk this up as a long-shot, but one that might just pan out.

Scenario #3: Mondesi starts the year in AAA and gets off to a hot start. The Royals struggle offensively and decide to recall him and see if he can inject some life into the lineup.

We’ve all seen the Royals’ bats go cold early in the season. In fact, we just saw it last year. Mondesi actually had a good offensive season for AAA in 2017 and has shown a pattern of improving at different levels in the minors after his second go around at that level. He hit .305/.340/.539 in 357 plate appearances last year in Omaha and we continue to see his power numbers improve the older he gets. I’m not saying he has figured out AAA pitching, but it does appear that he is learning and his production could be on the upswing.

The main issue I see with this scenario is the same one we saw in scenario #1: who gets bumped out of the lineup? We can probably assume that Escobar will be trotted out there every day, so scratch him off the list. Whit is a possibility, but only if he is in the middle of a big cold spell. Center field still looks like the best spot, unless Whit shuffled around the diamond.

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Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Scenario #4: Mondesi is the starting shortstop.

The likelihood of this happening is probably slim and none. But it does make you wonder just what it would take for the Royals to break camp with Mondesi in the starting role. Outside of an injury, it’s hard to think of a situation where the Royals would pick Mondesi over Escobar. Even if Mondesi tore it up this spring, my belief is that the team would find another role for him rather than picking him over Esky. Now, if Raul continued to play well as the season progresses there could be a situation where he would start seeing more playing time than Escobar, but that feels like an August-September situation rather than a March-April one.

The one scenario that feels like a step back is the one where Mondesi makes the team as a backup infielder. The key at this point is for Raul to continue his development, which could be stunted sitting on the Kansas City bench. Ned Yost is not widely known as a manager who uses his bench regularly and if this happened the worry would be how much playing time Mondesi would actually see. Repetition is what he needs and the only way that happens is with regular playing time.

The good news is that while it looks a bit bleak right now for Mondesi attaining a starting big league job, those tides can turn fast. He is just a Merrifield trade or an Escobar injury away from getting his shot to show what he can do. The Royals obviously have their concerns and most of us aren’t too blind to see them. He needs to work on his plate discipline, continue to improve his power numbers and fix whatever small flaws he has on the defensive side of the ball.

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Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

The Royals did him no favors back in 2016 when they called him up to the big leagues and they would be doing him a disservice now by looking past him. Luckily, at 22-years old it wouldn’t take much for him to get back into the organization’s good graces. Solid play with continued development feels like the best way to get management’s attention. While Mondesi might not be in favor at the moment, there is too much talent there to ignore what he could still be.

Call to the Bullpen

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In what has been a slow offseason that has seen the coldest of ‘Hot Stove’s’ we’ve ever seen, we needed a bit of a pick me up. Luckily, on Thursday we got one:

That’s right: in 2018, we could see the return of the bullpen cart in baseball! The unfortunate thing is that baseball is not considering this because the carts are one of the coolest aspects of the baseball experience. No, no, no. They are wanting to bring it back to help the pace of play initiative going on within the game. But would it help? Luckily, the greatness that is Grant Brisbee looked into how much it could improve the pace of a baseball game:

There are an average of about six pitching changes per game between both teams, but that also includes relievers who start an inning. Let’s be generous and suggest there are an average of four mid-inning pitching changes in every game.

That’s about two minutes. It’s not nothing. Slap together 20 changes just like it, and you have some real progress. Not to mention that the real tire-fire games probably have more mid-inning pitching changes, which means the dullest blowouts could be trimmed by five minutes, perhaps.

So there would be an improvement, even if just a slight one. But as I should have expected, Grant wasn’t done with ideas:

We’ll have lots of time to revisit the idea during the strike this year or next year.

Maybe they could have a drone carry the player to the mound.

What about a sled with wheels that’s pulled by 16 trained Alaskan Malamutes, all of whom are very good dogs?

I wouldn’t mind those dogs who let a monkey ride on their back pull some of these carts. Maybe that is too mean…maybe they could pull a Segway? a street luge? The Cardinals could go get a couple of Clydesdale’s to pull the cart…or what about pygmy horses? I hope Grant realizes he opened up a can of worms here. No matter the case, I am all for the return of the bullpen cart. I’m already looking forward to when the first cart dies near the mound and 30 minutes are spent trying to figure out how to get it off the field. That should improve that pesky pace of play!

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Moss, Buchter Traded to the A’s; Royals Continue to Stockpile Arms

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With Spring Training almost two weeks away, the Kansas City Royals swung another deal on Monday night, trading OF/DH Brandon Moss and reliever Ryan Buchter to the Oakland A’s for pitchers Jesse Hahn and Heath Fillmyer. Cash was also involved, as $3.25 million was sent from the Royals to the A’s. This frees up about $5 million on the Kansas City payroll, which already has some (like myself) speculating on why the Royals would want to do that:

So while the Hosmer rumors can now run wild (brother), let’s take a look at what the Royals gave up and are receiving.

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Moss had a very underwhelming 2017, his only season in Kansas City. Moss posted a line of .207/. 279/.428 with 22 home runs, 50 RBI’s and an OPS+ of 84. Moss struggled out of the gate and it wasn’t until later in the summer that he started producing like the Royals expected. Moss will be entering his age 34 season in 2018 and while he would have seen consistent playing time somewhere for Kansas City (whether it was at first base or DH), he probably would have also been taking playing time away from some younger talent like Jorge Soler, Hunter Dozier or Jorge Bonifacio. While the move feels like a salary dump, it also allows the Royals to see what they have with Dozier or Soler without a veteran like Moss blocking them. While Moss didn’t have many memorable moments in a Royals uniform, he was always very honest about his performance on the field and never made excuses for the lack of production. My favorite Moss moment will be from Star Wars day at The K this past year. My wife, son and myself got to listen to a couple of fans give their “analysis” of Moss’ issues at the plate, which included the serious line of “he needs glasses; he can’t see the ball.” We listened for what felt like fifty innings to these two “special” fans rag on Moss non-stop. Then…he stepped up and hit a three-run home run. At that point, our “friends” left their seats and got out of Dodge. If anything, I became a Brandon Moss fan that day. But it wasn’t just Moss packing his bags for Oakland…

Kansas City Royals v Cleveland Indians

Ryan Buchter was the bigger catch for the A’s, as they can plug-in another lefty into their bullpen. While Buchter incurred a few issues during his short stint in Kansas City, he was a very reliable part of the Padres pen and has produced some great numbers these last couple of seasons:

Over the past two seasons combined, Buchter’s 16.7% infield fly ball rate (IFFB) ranks 10th in the majors among qualified relievers. He also ranks 14th during that span with a 26% soft contact rate against. Buchter is even tougher against lefties, limiting them to a .160/.255/.306 batting line during his MLB career.

The Royals started the winter with a couple of strong lefties in their pen, but with this trade and the trade of Scott Alexander, that depth has taken a big hit. The team still has Eric Stout, Brian Flynn, Tim Hill and Eric Skoglund as lefty options currently on the 40-man roster, and a prospect like Richard Lovelady could slither his way into the conversation this spring. While losing Buchter could be looked at as a loss, the Royals did get a couple of positive gains in this trade.

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Credit: BRIAN ROTHMULLER/ICON SPORTSWIRE

Jesse Hahn is entering his age 28 season for the Royals and looks to be an option as either a starter or a reliever. More than anything, Hahn just needs to stay healthy as he has dealt with various ailments over the last couple seasons. He pitched in only 14 big league games last year, producing a 5.30 ERA, 3.62 FIP and an ERA+ of 81. Early in his career he showed a lot of promise but the injuries have derailed his career since 2015. The Royals have been focusing on ground ball pitchers this winter, as they are looking to counter the rise of home runs in the league the last two years, and Hahn fits that profile. He’s produced a 49.7% groundball rate throughout his career and a slightly below hard hit rate of 28.3%. If he can stay healthy, Hahn could fit at the back of the Royals rotation in 2018 and either way will probably stick on the roster, since he is out of options.

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Credit: Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Heath Fillmyer is the intriguing catch of this trade for the Royals, as he slides into the 28th best prospect in the Kansas City system according to MLB.com. Let’s start with the scouting report on Fillmyer:

Fillmyer has a quick arm and typically throws his fastball in the 92-96 mph range with good sinking action that nets him ground-ball outs and results in few home runs. He has a pair of above-average secondary offerings in a curveball, which he throws with tight spin and late bite, and a changeup, a pitch he made big strides with last season. Improved feel for repeating his delivery has led to him throwing more strikes, though he regressed with both his control and command in his first full Double-A campaign.

With his athleticism, big arm and feel for three average-or-better pitches, Fillmyer has the ingredients to become a No. 4 or 5 starter in the big leagues.

Once again, the Royals have put an emphasis on ground ball pitchers and Fillmyer is another that fits the mold. He dealt with some control issues in 2017 (his walk rate bumped up to 8.0%) but he will be entering his age 24 season this year and looks to be a good candidate for a bounce-back year. I wouldn’t be shocked to see him start the year in AAA Omaha when camp breaks.

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Credit: SCOTT WINTERS/ICON SPORTSWIRE

This trade accomplished a couple of check marks off the Royals “to do” list. Acquiring Fillmyer helps them continue their goal of re-stocking the farm system, while adding Hahn gives the team another option in the rotation. Obviously dealing Moss was a way to pare down payroll, although it feels like a preemptive measure to help accommodate incoming payroll from a certain first baseman. While I wasn’t a big fan of the Alexander/Soria trade earlier this winter, this trade felt more like a solid gain (and possibly even a win) for Dayton Moore. I am fully on board with the team targeting ground ball pitchers and actually I felt that should have been done a couple of years ago. I also wouldn’t be shocked to see another trade in the near future, as veterans Jason Hammel and Kelvin Herrera could help the team shed more payroll and force the Royals overall to get a bit younger. We could also see a free agent signing…I mean, this is what these moves are leading to, right? Time will tell, but I wouldn’t be shocked if the team signs Eric Hosmer sometime in the next couple weeks. For now, this move was simply a way to dump some payroll while building up some pitching depth. At the end of the day, that is a positive.

 

 

Goodbye Lorenzo; Hello Alcides

MLB: Kansas City Royals at San Diego Padres

In a span of less than 24 hours, Kansas City Royals fans felt a mixture of pain, sadness, joy and confusion. Thursday night we finally found out the destination of Lorenzo Cain, as he signed a five-year, $80 million deal with the Milwaukee Brewers. Many of us felt sad for the finality of Cain finally being gone, but also a sense of pride as he flourished during his time in Kansas City and had become one of the more productive center fielders in baseball. Then Friday morning, news broke that the Royals were close to a deal with Alcides Escobar, which left fans…well, confused to say the least. So what do these moves mean for the Royals (and the Brewers) moving forward?

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Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

First, lets look at the LoCain contract, which actually looks to be a pretty good deal in what has been a very slow market:

Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports that Cain will earn $13MM in 2018, $14MM in 2019, $15MM in 2020, $16MM in 2021 and $17MM in 2022 (Twitter links). He’ll also receive an additional, deferred payment of $1MM in each of the five years following the contract’s conclusion. The no-trade provision offers complete protection in year one of the deal and limited protection each season thereafter, dropping down to five teams in the final year of the contract. More specifically, MLB.com’s Adam McCalvy adds that Cain can block deals to 15 teams in 2019, seven teams in 2020 and five in 2021-22.

The biggest takeaway from the deal appears to be that Cain gave up a higher rate of money per year with other teams so he could get the fifth year of this contract. To be honest, I don’t blame him. Cain will be entering his age 32 season this year and with his injury history it would appear his value could be hurt if he had taken a smaller year total. The good news is that the Brewers have a couple of young outfield prospects and as long as they don’t go and trade Keon Broxton for pitching, more than likely he will eventually take over center field and move Cain to right. I would be really surprised if Cain was still a center fielder by the end of this deal, since the final year of his contract will be his age 36 season.

It also puts him back onto a contending team, as the Brewers showed in 2017 that they are getting closer and closer to being a threat in the National League Central. Cain would appear to be a player to lean on (or lean back) when October rolls around, as he is one of the few on the Brewers roster with postseason experience. Considering that teams like the Giants, Rangers and the Blue Jays were showing interest in him earlier in the winter, returning to Milwaukee (the place where his career began) looks to be a win/win situation for LoCain thanks to their role as contenders and what he got out of the contract.

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Before we could even digest the Lorenzo Cain news, reports started trickling out that the Royals were working on bringing Alcides Escobar back into the fold. It wasn’t long until an agreement had been made:

A little bit later, the financials became public:

So Escobar is back on a one-year, $2.5 million deal. The next question most of us were asking is whether Esky starts or if Raul Mondesi was still the front-runner at shortstop this year:

To say Royals twitter handled this news well…that would be false. Yep, most fans lost their mind. To a degree I get it; Escobar has been a below average offensive player throughout his major league career (his highest OPS+ was 96 back in 2012) and he is infamously known for being a free-swinger, posting a 3.9% walk rate throughout his career. While his defense has been good (he ranks sixth among Major League shortstops in Ultimate Zone Rating (+18.5) over the past seven seasons), there has been a slight shift in just how good he is these last two seasons, as he posted an UZR of 0.8 in 2016 and 1.9 in 2017 (after averaging 3.1 UZR over the previous five seasons, including years of 9.6 and 10.9).

But the bigger question is what happens with Mondesi? On the surface it would appear that the Royals have their concerns about Raul (which it turns out is accurate) and bringing Esky back is an insurance policy in case he struggles. It looks as if Escobar will be the starter and Mondesi will either float around at different positions or return to AAA for another season. With the Royals rebuilding, it makes sense to let Mondesi go out and just play, but it feels like Kansas City just doesn’t have that kind of confidence in him. That is where Escobar fits in.

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To be honest I wasn’t surprised by the signing and even predicted it a couple of times since October. First, my comments at the end of the season:

Alcides Escobar was almost a ghost in the first half of the season, posting a line  of .226/.242/.306 and a wRC+ of 39 (league average is 100). Escobar was able to pick it up in the second half of the season, hitting .282/.309/.424 with a wRC+ of 90 and might have even earned himself a new contract this offseason.

Even just a few weeks ago, it seemed obvious that Esky would be back:

If the Moustakas market feels cold, then Escobar’s is Antarctica. To say the rumors of interested teams for Esky is limited would be an understatement. There’s the Padres, who showed interest in him before acquiring Freddy Galvis to play shortstop, and then there are…ummm…there is also the…uhhh…no one. Nope, I haven’t seen any other team linked to Escobar this winter, outside of a few writers suggesting locations that might need him. The honest truth is that Escobar has been a weak hitter these last few years who has gotten by on his defense…which has begun to regress. So it shouldn’t be a shock to say that the market for a light hitting shortstop, entering a period where his defense and speed will start to wane as well, is sparse. There aren’t many options for Alcides, so at this point he might have to just take what he can get, even if it is a role as a backup mentor on a rebuilding team.

Likely Destination: Kansas City Royals

So I wasn’t outraged when I heard the news on Friday. In fact, I’m not opposed to the signing at all. For one, it is only a one-year deal for a minimal amount of money. It’s not like the Royals opened bank for the guy. Second, with the team rebuilding, Escobar is a nice veteran that can be a mentor to some of the younger players, including Mondesi. Finally, if the organization is this concerned about Mondesi and his future, they might not even look at him anymore as the future shortstop. In fact, after the season Nicky Lopez had in 2017 it wouldn’t surprise me if he had jumped over Raul in the shortstop pecking order. If this is the case, signing Esky for one year is not a bad deal at all. We can discuss his actual value all day long (and to be frank about it, the Royals value him way more than any other team does) but it’s not like the team is going anywhere of substance in 2018; it’s one and done for Escobar…I think.

Cleveland Indians v Kansas City Royals
Credit: Getty Images

Baseball is a business and sometimes as fans I think we forget that. While most of us hate the idea of Lorenzo Cain putting on another uniform, I understand the process for the players and don’t blame them a bit. Cain’s absence will leave a big hole in center field for the Royals that will not be easily filled. While many will hate it, getting Escobar back for one more year also isn’t the end of the world and seems to be a short-term solution to the bigger picture at shortstop. Expecting him to be much more than a placeholder is probably wishful thinking and I’m already expecting articles being written mid-summer this year about how he should be displaced…and to a degree, it will probably be warranted. When one door closes, another one opens with a new opportunity. That is what we are seeing with both Cain and Escobar. Next up? Hosmer and Moustakas. No one said this would be easy.

 

 

 

BBWAA Elects 4 to Hall of Fame; IBWAA Elects 6

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On Wednesday, the National Baseball Hall of Fame got a little bit bigger as the BBWAA (Baseball Writers’ Association of America) voted in four new inductees: Trevor Hoffman, Chipper Jones, Jim Thome and Vladimir Guerrero. Add in Alan Trammell and Jack Morris and you have six induction speeches on a sunny July afternoon in Cooperstown. Meanwhile, my brethren in the IBWAA did some house cleaning as well, as we inducted six players (Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds and Trevor Hoffman) into our digital Hall of Fame. In my eyes, all the players mentioned above were worthy of this honor. It is also showing a shift in the thinking of baseball writer’s across the baseball landscape.

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First, let’s discuss the BBWAA voting, which almost led to a five man class in 2018:

First, it was very obvious going into Wednesday that Chipper, Vlad and Thome were locks. All three were over 90% for the polling (which was sitting at around 55% of the  ballots made public) that morning. Hoffman was a bit dicier, as he was sitting around 78.2% of public ballots. It appeared on the surface that he would get in, since he fell just five votes short in 2017.

Meanwhile, Edgar Martinez came up just a bit short, despite the fact he had been polling in the 80% range for the last couple weeks. The good news is that Edgar jumped up to 70.4%, less than 5% to the promised land as he enters his final year on the ballot in 2019.

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Credit: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports

Also making ground this year on the ballot was Mike Mussina and Larry Walker. Mussina bumped up to 63.5% and Walker 34.1%. Mussina feels like a lock for induction sometime in the next couple of years, while Walker has only two more years of eligibility left. Clemens, Bonds and Curt Schilling all appeared to stay put around where they have been, so next year could be a big one for all three of them.

I was glad to see Scott Rolen and Andruw Jones get enough support to stay on the ballot, and their climb could get a bit easier over the next couple of years, since there are less Hall-worthy candidates on the horizon. The one disappointment was Johan Santana, who is a borderline candidate for the hall. If you are like me and believe strongly in WAR7 (which is the seven-year peak or that players best seven years) and notice the similarities with Sandy Koufax, then you are probably leaning toward him being in. If you believe in a long career and lots of innings for a pitcher, then you are probably against him. The one thing that most of us can agree on is he probably deserved to at least stay on the ballot and let his case be judged for a few more years. Unfortunately, he is now bumped off and like Lou Whitaker, Jim Edmonds and Kenny Lofton before him, he won’t get a fair shake of letting his case be heard.

Overall I felt like the BBWAA did an admirable job and it does appear as if the ballot logjam is starting to sort itself out. That should be a good thing for fringe candidates and those players like Mussina and Martinez who need a little extra nudge to get them over the finish line.

Now onto an organization I am part of, the IBWAA. If you want to talk about making room on the ballot for the future, I believe we took care of that this year:

Six players are entering our “Digital Hall of Fame” and I’ll be the first to admit I was a bit shocked that we elected Clemens and Bonds, just because they have been floating around on our ballot as well. This is just me throwing out a theory, but our members tend to skew a bit younger and it has felt over the last couple of years like the younger writers have less of an issue with the “Steroid Era” than the older ones. I’m sure there are different reasons for that, whether it is the lack of testing during that period making it harder to really know who did what, or feeling like the rest of baseball was able to get off scot-free while inducting then-Commissioner Bud Selig just last year. Whatever the case may be, Bonds and Clemens were joined by Chipper, Thome, Mussina and Hoffman as part of the IBWAA Class of 2018.

With six players off the ballot, that should make it easier for us to focus on some other deserving candidates next year. Schilling and Walker both took big jumps and Scott Rolen posted a nice 44.7% of the vote in his first year on the ballot. Even Santana stuck around for round two, as he got 36 votes and sits at 21.1% in his first year. With next year’s class of Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay and Todd Helton being the main first year candidates, it should be easy for us to keep honoring players who deserve this highest honor. We also get 15 votes instead of the BBWAA’s 10, which also helps us keep players on the ballot longer. All in all, I feel like we as a group did a great job this year and I look forward to the results in 2019.

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Credit: MLB Photos

In 2013, the BBWAA voted no player over the 75% threshold, which meant a very quiet summer in Cooperstown. Luckily, the last few years have made up for that error, as the writers have voted in 16 players over the last five years. Whether you prefer a bigger Hall of Fame or a smaller one, the truth is that we have seen a lot of worthy entries over these last few years. For every Tim Raines or Edgar Martinez that have to struggle and have people preaching their cause, there are the Chipper Jones’ and Jim Thome’s that have the numbers and look the part. Baseball is better when a light can be shone on the players of year’s past that helped make this the great game that it is. For all its flaws, baseball at its pinnacle is the grandest game of them all. To get to honor those that encompass that greatness…well, that just makes this process a whole lot sweeter.

 

 

The Expectations for Jorge Soler

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Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

“Boy, you gotta carry that weight
Carry that weight a long time
Boy, you gonna carry that weight
Carry that weight a long time”

~The Beatles, “Carry That Weight”, 1969

History has shown that the Kansas City Royals are no strangers to bad trades. Ed Hearn for David Cone. Mike Wood, Mark Teahen and John Buck for Carlos Beltran. Neifi Perez for Jermaine Dye. Yuck…I feel dirty just writing Neifi Perez’s name. I’m sure you the reader can think of a few more bad trades that the Royals have been party to. To take that a step further, I’m sure a few would even mention the trade last winter of Wade Davis to the Cubs for slugging outfielder Jorge Soler. But don’t count me in that camp…yet. Because while Soler was awful during his short time in the majors in 2017, this trade is not won or lost on one year alone.

In fact, the whole crux of this trade was about team control. The reason the Royals only got Soler for Davis was because Kansas City was giving up one year of Wade for four years of Soler. While it would have been nice to get a haul similar to what the Yankees got for Andrew Miller, the truth is they were able to get that much since Miller had 2+ years still left on his contract. Even the Aroldis Chapman deal was a different beast, as it was a trade made right before the deadline. With the Davis trade going down during the winter, it meant the Royals weren’t going to get the same kind of deal as other elite relievers. With that being said, four years of control for a younger talent is nothing to sneeze at.

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Credit: Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

It also means that a little bit of patience should be involved when it comes to Soler. He will be entering his age 26 season and more than anything he will need consistent at bats this year for the Royals to really see a difference. One of the reasons the Royals sent him to AAA a couple of times last year was the lack of at bats he was getting for the big league team. At the time, Kansas City was pushing for a playoff spot and the team just didn’t have the time necessary to help him get out of his slump. More than anything, he just wasn’t comfortable:

“It’s just been a struggle to get going,” Yost said. “He just doesn’t look comfortable in the box. He just hasn’t been able to get on a roll up here. We were hoping after his stint down there where he was hitting .320 and hitting homers that he could get up here and get comfortable. But we just need him to get at-bats.”

Between the spring oblique injury, the sporadic playing time for Kansas City and the demotion to the minors, Soler never got a chance to get situated with his new team. Luckily, 2018 will be a new year and with the Royals looking to rebuild it will give him the perfect chance to just go out and play.

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Tampa Bay Rays

While there wasn’t much positive to come from last year, there are a few glimmering signs of hope that Royals fans can clutch onto. One is his walk rate, which has always been a positive and 2017 was no different. Soler put up a 10.9% walk rate in 110 plate appearances, which is above his career rate of 9.3%. In fact, one of his issues last year very well could have been too much patience, as addressed early in the season at beyondtheboxscore.com:

Right now, Soler is displaying the difference between plate approach and pitch recognition. His current approach at the plate is a good one: take a lot of pitches, look for ones to drive, and hit the ball in the air when they come. But there’s no evidence Soler has made progress in pitch recognition. While he’s laying off the pitches he shouldn’t chase early in the count, he’s also laying off the pitches he needs to swing at early in the count. This is leading to a lot deep counts, walks, and strikeouts; it’s not leading to a lot of hits and home runs, which are kind of important.

Sounds like what we saw last year, doesn’t it? The good news is that pitch recognition is something that players normally grow into the longer they are in the league. A number of the advances that both Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas saw these last 3-4 years appeared to be from recognizing pitches and realizing which pitches to pounce on and which ones to try to go the other way with. While it can be frustrating, it can also be worth it in the long run.

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees
Credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

It also appeared that Soler was hitting the ball in the air a tad more, as his fly ball rate continued the upward trajectory it has been taking throughout his career. Soler’s bread and butter is the home run and it won’t do him any good if he is hitting the ball on the ground. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few more line drives, as they have taken a downward turn these last few years. Soler’s high for his line drive rate was 27.8% back in 2015; the last two years he has posted rates of 17.1% and 18.0%. Those two years have also seen a slight move up in ground balls, but not enough to get worried about. It does appear obvious what he should be working on when he reports to camp next month.

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Credit: AP images

With Terry Bradshaw sliding into the hitting coach role this year, Soler should be near the top of the list of priorities for him this spring. With a focus on pitch recognition and driving the ball, we could see Soler start to put up the numbers we all envisioned from him when he was acquired last winter. It’s unfair to expect him to produce at the level of the man he was traded for. The legend of Wade Davis is of an unstoppable force that compiled two of the best seasons for a reliever not only in Royals history, but in baseball lore. He will also be remembered as the man on the mound for the final out of the 2015 World Series. The expectations for Jorge Soler aren’t to match what Davis did in his Kansas City tenure. No, the expectations are simple. All the Royals need from him is to go out and produce above league average for a couple of seasons and be a force in the middle of the batting order. Asking him to be on par with a legend is being unrealistic of why he was acquired in the first place.

My 2018 Hall of Fame Ballot

MLB: Baseball Hall of Fame-Induction Ceremony
Credit: USA Today

There is no greater honor in any sport than getting a plaque in the baseball Hall of Fame. I’m sure someone who believes the NFL or NBA is a greater honor will debate me on this, but there is never the sort of debate toward their hall’s as there is in baseball. That debate has grown into a fervor amongst baseball fans, writers and even players, as every one seems to have an opinion on this topic. What has made it even more intense is what we should do with players who were “suspected” of enhancement thanks to steroids and other performance enhancement drugs, and whether or not they deserve a spot in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown or left on the outside looking in. In some ways, the people who vote on this honor are the judge, jury and executioner, as testing was not done during this period so for many of the players of that era there is no definite of what they did or did not do. Even Hall of Famer Joe Morgan has spoken out on the topic recently, which stirred the pot even more. As a member of the IBWAA, this will be my fourth year of voting for ‘the Hall’ and as I have said in years past, I have no issue voting for anyone suspected for PED use, since I feel those players played within the parameters of the rules allowed at that time. I’ve long considered the Hall of Fame a museum of the game, not a church, and because of this I vote based on performance alone. Now, there are a few differences between us in the IBWAA & our brethren in the BBWAA, one of which is the players we have already inducted. Last year we inducted Vladimir Guerrero and Ivan Rodriguez, and in years past we had already voted in Edgar Martinez, so he will not show up on our ballot this year. Also, we are allowed to vote for up to 15 players, where the BBWAA can only vote for 10. Before we get to my actual votes, you can read my previous votes: Here is 201420152016, and 2017. Also, follow Ryan Thibodaux on Twitter. That way you can follow how the voting is going before the big announcement on January 24th. Without further ado, here are my votes for the 2018 Hall of Fame ballot.

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Barry Bonds

I have voted for Bonds every year and will continue to until he is finally elected. In my eyes, this is a no-brainer, as Bonds is one of the greatest baseball players ever, not just of his era. I could rattle off all the numbers that show how great he was, but I think the best way to explain it is this way: before there was any whispers about suspected steroid use, Bonds was a 5 tool player who could literally do anything on the baseball field…and then he became an offensive juggernaut that could not be contained. The all-time home run king took that whole era to another level and it wasn’t even close. You might not like him or what he had to do to elevate his game, but I am not concerned about any of that when it comes to voting. To me, Bonds is a slam dunk pick and should already be in the Hall of Fame.

 

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Credit: DOUG BENC/GETTY IMAGES

Roger Clemens

Like Bonds, Clemens is an easy pick, the greatest pitcher of his era and one of the greatest pitchers of all-time. Clemens won the Cy Young Award seven times throughout his career, and is on a list of statistics that garner him near the top of almost all pitching leader boards. Both Bonds and Clemens seem to be garnering more support, as the election of former Commissioner Bud Selig to the Hall seems to have allowed some voters to start putting an ‘x’ in the box next to their names. At one time it appeared both men would have to wait until they showed up on the Veteran’s Committee ballot before they would get elected; now we could see that wall busted through in the next couple of years.

 

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Credit: Getty Images

Billy Wagner

Wagner was a seven time All-Star, twice was in the top ten of the NL Cy Young award and took home the 1999 NL Rolaids Relief Award. While he sits in 6th place all-time in saves, that doesn’t mean as much to me as his 86% conversion rate, which is close to Trevor Hoffman’s 88.8%. What does interest me is some of the deeper numbers when compared to fellow relievers. Wagner is 5th all-time for relievers in ERA+, 14th for relievers in bWAR (in fact, just under Hoffman), 4th in strikeouts for a reliever, 86th in Adjusted Pitching Runs, 93rd in Adjusted Pitching Wins, 55th in RE24, and 36th in Win Probability Added. All this was done in less than 1,000 innings, which for some is a hindrance rather than a positive. I get that relievers today aren’t used in the same scenarios as their forefathers, and because of that their innings totals will seem meek in comparison. But that is also what the role calls for nowadays and there is something to be said for compiling numbers like this in a much shorter amount of time. For Wagner, it was more about the efficiency than the longevity; Wagner came in, shut down the opposing team and was done. In some ways, Wagner and Hoffman are linked in that they both pitched about the same amount of time, in the same period and were equally efficient. Both were top of the food chain for their position and in my eyes, both should be in Cooperstown.

 

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Credit: MLB.com

Chipper Jones

If there is a position that is under-represented in Cooperstown, it is third base. Only 16 third baseman are enshrined into the “Hallowed Halls” (which is the lowest of any single position) but it looks as if number 17 will be inducted this summer, as Chipper Jones feels like a slam-dunk to get voted in. When it comes to just third baseman, Chipper is ranked high among the elite at his position: 6th in WAR, 8th in WAR7 (which are a combination of his seven best seasons), 8th in JAWS (which is a combination of the previous two WAR stats), 6th in hits, 3rd in home runs, 2nd in RBI’s, 7th in on-base percentage, 4th in slugging and 9th in OPS+. In the Hall of Stats, Chipper is ranked 6th all-time at the position and considering the other numbers that feels like a fair spot for him. While it is obvious he ranks among the best at his position, that did make me curious to see where his place was in the all-time rankings of baseball history.  The numbers actually tell the story of a great baseball player: 51st in career WAR (32nd for position players), 25th in offensive WAR, 54th in on-base percentage, 51st in slugging percentage, 37th in OPS, 60th in career hits, 32nd in total bases, 33rd in home runs, 34th in RBI’s, 16th in career walks (this actually surprised me a bit), 72nd in OPS+, 25th in runs created, 28th in extra base hits, and 15th in career Win Probability Added. It is easy to tell that Jones was a Hall of Famer but there is more to it than just his place in history. Jones was drafted as a shortstop by the Braves, but ended up only playing 49 games at the position in the big leagues. While Chipper is known as a third baseman (and that is where he played the most games), Jones did spend the 2002-2003 seasons out in left field, as the Braves had Vinny Castilla playing at third base. To me, this felt a bit like Kris Bryant, who has floated around for the Cubs the last few years at third base and the outfield. Jones was also a switch hitter and easily one of the best of his kind in baseball lore. In fact, Fangraphs ranked the greatest switch hitters  in MLB history a few years back and Jones came in at number two, just behind Mickey Mantle and ahead of Hall of Famers Eddie Murray, Tim Raines and Roberto Alomar. But what statistic stood out to me the most in Chipper’s career? From 1996 to the end of his career in 2012, Jones never posted an OPS+ below 116. In other words, for the duration of his career, Chipper never produced an offensive season below league average (his lowest was a 108 that he posted in his rookie year of 1995). To play 19 seasons in the big leagues and never get below the league average is the definition of consistency and is just one of many numbers that prove that Chipper Jones deserves induction to the baseball Hall of Fame.

 

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Credit: Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Jim Thome

Some hitters are adored for their ability to get on base, some are praised for their mastery of putting the ball ‘where it ain’t’…and then some are hailed for power and consistency; that would be the category that Jim Thome would fall into. Thome was one of the greatest home run hitters of his era and was that middle of the lineup force that few teams wanted to mess with. While the accolades are there (five time All-Star, a Silver Slugger award, 2002 Roberto Clemente award, 2004 Lou Gehrig Memorial Award and 2006 AL Comeback Player of the Year), the numbers are the meat and potatoes of Thome’s candidacy. Thome’s rank as a first baseman is a nod to just how great he was, considering how loaded that position is throughout the course of baseball history. Thome ranks 9th in WAR for first baseman, 19th in WAR7, 10th in JAWS, 2nd in home runs, 9th in RBI’s, 8th in slugging percentage, 8th in OPS and 13th in OPS+. This really amazes me, considering Thome is dealing with such classic first baseman as Gehrig, Foxx, Mize, Thomas and Pujols, just to name a few. Thome ranks 10th all-time for the position in the Hall of Stats, 96th all-time. Much like Chipper, his model of consistency was amazing. Outside of the 2005 season (where he appeared in only 59 games due to injury), he never posted an OPS+ below league average, and the lowest he posted in a season where he played at least 120 games was 117. In fact, he posted 10 seasons (10!) where he had an OPS+ of 150 or more. I’m a big proponent of where player’s rank all-time when it comes to their Hall candidacy, and Thome crosses those off with flying colors. He ranks 84 in career WAR (54th for position players), 44th in offensive WAR, 51st in on-base percentage, 23rd in slugging percentage, 18th in OPS, 41st in total bases, 8th in career home runs, 26th in RBI’s, 7th in walks, 47th in OPS+, 24th in runs created, 23rd in extra base hits, 5th all-time in at bats per home run, 21st in RE24, and 38th in Win Probability Added. While Thome wasn’t a great defensive player, teams weren’t employing him for his glove; it was all about his bat. But there is always one more thing that compels us to cheer for Jim Thome on his journey to Cooperstown: Thome might be one of the nicest guys that has ever played professional baseball. Don’t just take my word, take the word of Cleveland Indians President Chris Antonetti:

“The thing that stands out to me about Jim is just who he is — day-in, day-out,” Indians general manager Chris Antonetti told Rumblings. “It’s the way he treats the ushers and the parking-lot attendants, not just how great a guy he is in the clubhouse. He treats every person he meets with respect and dignity. And I’m not sure I can give anybody a better compliment.”

For those of you that wouldn’t vote for a Bonds or a Schilling for how they have acted in the past, Thome would be your measuring stick for the other side of the pendulum. A vote for Thome is not only for the great numbers that rank among the best in history. No, a vote for Thome is one for a guy who was a Hall of Fame player AND person. I’m pretty sure Thome is another lock to be giving a speech in upstate New York this upcoming summer.

 

Detroit Tigers' Sheffield laughs with Washington Nationals catcher Nieves during spring training baseball game in Lakeland, Florida

Gary Sheffield

Over the last few years I have gone back and forth on Gary Sheffield and his candidacy for the Hall of Fame. Maybe it was because he bounced around from team to team, or the fact that he bounced between the infield and the outfield throughout his career. Either way, it was easy to leave Sheff out of the conversation and feel like he was on the cusp of greatness. But when I finally broke down the numbers, it really felt like his case has been one of the most overlooked when it comes to the hall. Sheffield played right field more than any other position, so I first stacked his numbers against the others at that position. Sheffield is 19th in WAR for right fielders, just below Shoeless Joe Jackson and Dave Winfield. He ranks a bit lower on his peak, as he sits 24th in WAR7, above Hall of Famers Winfield, Chuck Klein, Willie Keeler, and Enos Slaughter. He is also at 24th in JAWS while 7th in home runs, 8th in RBI’s, 12th in OPS and 15th in OPS+. Now, right fielders are well represented in the hall (24 to be exact) so Sheffield holds his own in the position, even if he is slightly below the elite level. But as I mentioned earlier, I’m a big proponent of where players stack up all-time and that is where Sheffield shines. He is 35th in offensive WAR (obviously his defense dragged him down a bit in the WAR category), 88th in on-base percentage, 76th in slugging percentage, 58th in OPS, 69th in hits, 34th in total bases, 26th in home runs, 28th in RBI’s, 21st in walks, 78th in OPS+, 26th in runs created, 39th in extra base hits, 25th in RE24, and 16th in Win Probability Added. I’m sure the fact he played 22 seasons helped him compile a decent amount of those numbers, but he also was able to stay healthy and be a consistent run producer for almost the entirety of his career. Sheffield had six seasons with an OPS+ of 150 or more and was above league average for all but two years of his career (one was his rookie year and the other was his age 39 season). So what has hurt Sheffield’s case? I’m sure a few people would mention that his name was in the Mitchell Report and had been linked to PED’s in the past. Like I mentioned, that doesn’t affect my voting. But the other concern was his defense. It didn’t really matter whether he was at shortstop, third base or the outfield, he just wasn’t a great fielder. In the past I’ve not voted for Jeff Kent because of his defense and I didn’t vote for Omar Vizquel this year because of his lack of offense. So what was the difference with Sheff? His offense was so good that it crossed out any issues I had with his defense. I’m also a “Big Hall” guy and feel like Sheffield was one of the great hitters of his era. I can understand if someone leaves him off (he is a fringe guy in this regard), but for me he was far enough above the line to be considered one of the greats.

 

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Mike Mussina

When thinking about Mike Mussina, what is the first thing that springs to mind? Is it his start in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS? Or maybe his use of the knuckle-curve, which was his out pitch? Or does nothing specific pop into your mind when hearing Mussina’s name? I sometimes wonder if those of us on the Mussina bandwagon would have to praise his career if he had been even just a tad bit flashier.What I end up realizing is that part of what made him so great was that he wasn’t flashy and just went out for 18 seasons and performed as a top of the rotation starter in that span. There are no Cy Young awards on his mantle, but there are numbers that back up his greatness. Mussina has the 24th best bWAR for pitchers, 19th in strikeouts, 22nd best strikeout to walk ratio, 17th best adjusted pitching runs, 21st best adjusted pitching wins, 9th best RE24, and 10th best Win Probability Added. Mussina was that guy who you could count on for a big win or just to go out and save the bullpen from being overused. Mussina jumped up to 51.8% of the ballots in 2017 and it appears he is inching closer to the 75% he needs to reach the Hall. One of the pitchers that Mussina’s stats are comparable to is another former Oriole, Jim Palmer. While Palmer might have the accolades that Mussina does not have, the one thing in common is that both pitchers deserve to be in the baseball Hall of Fame.

 

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Curt Schilling

There might not be a bigger lightning rod on the Hall of Fame ballot than Schilling, who has caught quite a bit of scorn for his behavior on social media within the last couple of years. While I might not agree with his politics, I do realize it has nothing to do with his candidacy in the Hall and justly had no qualms in voting for him yet again this year. Schilling’s numbers speak of a top-notch starter: 26th all-time in pitchers bWAR, 15th in strikeouts, 3rd best strikeout to walk ratio, 18th best Win Probability Added and 46th best ERA+. Those are just his regular season numbers; toss in the postseason and you have a surefire Hall of Famer. Schilling has rubbed many a writer the wrong way (and by no means do I feel sorry for Curt; he would probably be better off learning when to keep quiet) and because of that his vote totals went down last year, down 7.3 %, finishing at 45%. I might not like Schilling the person, but the baseball player was one hell of a pitcher out on the diamond. For that, he has my vote.

 

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Trevor Hoffman

For the third consecutive season, I voted for Trevor Hoffman. There has been plenty of debate on whether or not closers should be judged on a different criteria than most other positions and to a small degree I get some of the trepidation. Closers today don’t always face the strongest part of the lineup and it seems odd to have your best bullpen arm only throw an inning or less an outing. The thing to remember though is that “the closer” is still a position and if you excel at it for 16 seasons, you should be rewarded justly. In some ways, the Hoffman argument is very similar to Tim Raines; Raines was the second best leadoff hitter of his time, behind another Hall of Famer in Rickey Henderson. Hoffman was the second best closer of his, behind future Hall honoree Mariano Rivera. Hoffman not only shouldn’t be punished for not being Rivera, but was about as consistent as one can be. During his career, Hoffman posted 15 consecutive seasons of 20+ saves (and I hate the save stat, but this is still very impressive) and had an 88.8% save conversion rate, which within itself is almost insane when you consider the amount of save opportunities he received in his career.Throw in his lethal change-up that was almost as deadly as Rivera’s cutter, and you have a one of the best relievers of all-time. He might be no Mariano Rivera, but then again who is? What Hoffman is though is a Hall of Fame closer.

 

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Manny Ramirez

Many voters have said the difference to them between Bonds or Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro or Ramirez is that the latter tested positive for performance enhancing drugs and was justly suspended. In fact, last year when I started filling out my ballot, I paused on Ramirez and had to really stop and think of which direction I wanted to go. Like I have said, my voting is performance based but an actual suspension (and for Manny it was multiple suspensions) muddies the water a bit. After much contemplation, I went ahead and voted for Manny since he had put up Hall of Fame numbers before the suspensions. While Ramirez wasn’t a stellar defender (and that is evidenced by his career bWAR of 69.2), offensively he was a juggernaut. Manny posted a career line of .312/.411/.585 with 555 career home runs, and an OPS+ of 154. I firmly believe he could hit blindfolded and still produce league average numbers, as he was that good of a hitter. Manny also contributed during the playoffs, where he hit .285/.394/.544 with 29 home runs and 78 RBI’s over 111 postseason games, all fairly on pace to his regular season averages. The awards are all there for him as he was a 12 time All-Star, 2 time Hank Aaron award winner, 2002 AL batting title, 2004 World Series MVP, and 9 time Silver Slugger award winner. If that isn’t impressive enough, the numbers are quite gaudy: 32nd all-time in oWAR, 32nd in On-Base Percentage, 8th in Slugging Percentage, 8th in OPS, 29th in total bases, 31st in doubles, 15th in home runs, 18th in RBI’s, 28th in OPS+, 21st in runs created, 17th in Adjusted Batting Runs, 20th in Adjusted Batting Wins, 16th in extra base hits, 11th in RE24,  and 23rd in Win Probability Added. Those are Hall of Fame numbers and most of that accumulated before he tested positive for anything. Would I hold it against anyone for not voting for him because of the suspensions? Nope. I get it.But for me, Ramirez has long been a Hall of Famer; the only thing those suspensions did was tarnish the perception of him, which is unfortunate. Instead of people remembering Manny for his child-like antics or immense hitting, he will be branded a cheater. He has no one else to blame for that, but I still felt like he had earned my vote, scarlet letter and all.

 

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Scott Rolen

If there is a player I voted for that I feel others will look past on first glance when they absolutely shouldn’t, it’s Scott Rolen. I mentioned earlier how under-represented the position of third base is and voting for both Chipper and Rolen would go a long way toward making up some much-needed ground. While Chipper’s case mostly lies on his offense, Rolen’s leans a bit more toward his defense. While the defensive metrics still feel a bit like a work in progress, there is no denying that he was an elite defender. Rolen sits 6th all-time in total zone runs as a third baseman, 32nd for range factor/9 innings for a third baseman and is second in defensive runs saved as a third sacker since 2002. Rolen was 48th all-time in defensive WAR, an eight-time Gold Glove winner and outside of maybe Adrian Beltre, was considered the elite defender at the position during his day. Now, defense alone doesn’t get you in the hall, otherwise someone like Mark Belanger would have a nice little plaque. Luckily for Rolen, his offense was stellar as well. The stats don’t speak as a world beater as much as a consistent performer throughout his 17 year career; 99th all-time in WAR (67th for position players), 51st in career doubles, 74th in extra base hits and 104th in Win Probability Added. Like I said, not breaking any records but I doubt many would expect these kind of footprints stepping into the statistical records of baseball history. But to truly honor Rolen’s greatness, all you have to do is view his place in third basemen all-time. Rolen sits 10th for third basemen all-time in WAR, 14th in WAR7, and 10th in JAWS. If you believe in those numbers as much as I do, you consider Rolen one of the greatest third baseman in history…but there is more. When considering the other players at his position, he is 6th in doubles, 15th in home runs, 14th in RBI’s, 14th in slugging percentage, and 11th in OPS. To top it all off, the Hall of Stats has him listed as a 142 Hall Rating, 85th all-time overall and 8th among third baseman. In other words, he was great and totally deserves this honor. I really wish Rolen was getting more support this year, since I really feel like he is the third base equivalent of Alan Trammell. Great numbers, especially the more you dive into them but overshadowed by his peers who played at the same time. It would be great to see Rolen and Trammell get inducted together; unfortunately, it appears Rolen will have to wait for his honor. At some point he will get his acknowledgement, it’s just a matter of how long that takes to happen.

 

MLB: New York Mets at Washington Nationals
Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Johan Santana

There are so many factors when considering players for the Hall of Fame, and everyone’s criteria is different, especially since every player is a different case. Some of my main factors are placement on the all-time leaderboard, consistency, and being elite at your position. But what about longevity, you might be asking? While it can be a factor, I’ve always leaned more toward being great for a longer period, not just length of ones career. In other words, I strongly lean toward the seven-year peak, or WAR7, which defines a player’s best seven WAR years of his career. With that in mind, it was hard to say no to Johan Santana, a player who I’m sure some will say didn’t do enough in his career. I get that and even at first I wasn’t sold that he had performed good enough to deserve the honor. But breaking down the numbers showed while shorter than most, he packed a lot of great into his 12 year career. Let’s start with his ranking among starting pitchers, since that is really where the conversation begins. Santana ranks 100th in WAR, 63rd in WAR7 and 86th in JAWS. It’s interesting to mention JAWS in these conversations, as the man who created it, Jay Jaffe, actually has debated himself just where Santana stands in the pantheon of history:

From an advanced metrics standpoint, Santana is obviously short of the WAR-based career, peak and JAWS standards, but he outdoes many big-name Hall of Famers. His 51.4 career WAR (including offense) is tied for 102nd all time but beats that of 11 enshrined pitchers, including Sandy Koufax (49.0), Dean (44.9), and Catfish Hunter (41.4), not to mention Morris (44.1). His 44.8 peak score, which is tied with Dave Stieb for 61st, is higher than 25 of the 62 (or 26 of 63 if you include Morris), and his 48.1 JAWS, which ranks 85th, tops 15 enshrinees (plus Morris), including Koufax (47.5), Whitey Ford (46.0), Dean and Bob Lemon (both 43.9), and Hunter (38.3).

So despite his short career, Santana has managed to wedge himself into interesting company when it comes to some of the advanced metrics. I was interested to see where he placed when it comes to ERA+, and he did not disappoint, sitting in 16th place all-time at 136. But where I really wanted to check Santana was a comparison to Koufax, since both were great for a number of years and both retired at a younger age due to injuries. So here are some comparisons between the two:

  • When it comes to WAR, Santana trumps Koufax, 51.4 to 49.0.
  • For their seven-year peak, Koufax beats Santana, 46.1 to 44.8.
  • Now for JAWS, Santana slides by Koufax, 48.1 to 47.5.
  • Since both pitchers had 12 year careers, I thought I would look at some of the other stats and see where they stand. Koufax easily beats Santana in ERA, WHIP, Hits per 9, Strikeouts per 9, and Strikeouts, while Santana beats him in Strikeout to Walk Ratio.

Granted they played in different times, when starting pitchers were used differently, but there really doesn’t appear to be a huge gap between the two players overall. So then I ask the question: if you feel Koufax is a surefire Hall of Famer (which I’m pretty sure no one is arguing), then why isn’t Santana? To me he is, which is why I voted for him. The voting has not been going well for him so far (he is polling at 1.3% so far with 46.9% of the ballots known) and it appears he will fall off the ballot for next year. It’s unfortunate, because he really feels like a guy who should be getting a longer look. Instead, you have to hope the Modern Baseball Era committee will give him a longer look when that times comes. To quote Neil Young, “It’s better to burn out, than to fade away”.

 

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Credit: DAVID ZALUBOWSKI / Associated Press

Larry Walker

This was the second year I voted for Walker and my take on him seemed to be a bit different from a lot of folks. For many, the fact that Walker played a large chunk of his home games in Coors Field (Walker was a Rockie from 1995 to 2004) seemed to deter voters from placing a vote for him; I had no issue with that, since I knew he hit on the road almost as well as he did at home. No, my issue with him was injuries, as he had 7 seasons of less than 130 games, 12 of less than 140. Walker’s issue wasn’t the ‘Rocky Mountain High’s’ as much as the ability to stay on the field and play. The numbers speak volumes: .313/.400/.565 career slash line, 141 career OPS+, 5 time All-Star, 1997 NL MVP, 3 batting titles, and 7 time Gold Glove winner. So what changed for me when it comes to Walker? His place in history. According to JAWS, Walker is the 10th best right fielder of all-time. All-Time! Just seeing who he is better than sounds like a who’s-who of right fielders: Shoeless Joe Jackson, Tony Gwynn, Ichiro Suzuki, Dwight Evans, Dave Winfield, Vladimir Guerrero, Willie Keeler, Paul Waner and Enos Slaughter, just to name a few. Walker is 86th all-time in bWAR, 56th in bWAR for position players, 55th in on base percentage, 12th in slugging percentage, 14th in OPS, 31st in power-speed #, 38th in RE24, and 36th in Win Probability Added. Those numbers are just a sliver of what he could do; there are 7 other categories where Walker is in the Top 100 of all-time. What makes me curious is the voting for Walker during the first six years on the ballot; He peaked in 2012 at 22% and last year bumped up a bit to 21.9%. One has to wonder if the voters viewpoint of him would change if he hadn’t played so many games in Colorado. It took me awhile to recognize it, but Walker deserves to be with the other elite right fielders in Cooperstown.

 

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Credit: Getty Images

So there you go, my 13 picks to be inducted into the IBWAA Hall of Fame. One player that could get my vote next year is Andruw Jones. I reluctantly left him off this year, as I’m not 100% sold on him being one of the elite, but he is one that I did heavily consider during this process. One other player that fell quite a bit short was Omar Vizquel. There are those that believe his defense is enough to get him in. Unfortunately, his offense was more than lacking: a career OPS+ of 82 and only 45.3 WAR in his career shows that his defense was not enough to get my vote. 2019 should be interesting, as a number of big names will pop up on the ballot: Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, Todd Helton, Andy Pettitte, Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt will all be on the list. It’s probably a good thing that it looks like as many as five players could be inducted this year, as a number of worthy candidates will be added next year. Don’t worry; while the voting will commence on Wednesday, the debate will rage on.

 

 

Destination Unknown: Where Will the Royals Free Agents Land?

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Here we are halfway through January and baseball’s “Hot Stove” is more like a frigid freezer. There has been some speculation as to why the free agent market is as dead as a door nail; Jeff Passan broke down baseball’s economic system while Max Rieper did a great job looking into baseball’s middle class. No matter how you view this situation, the bottom line is there are a number of players ripe for the picking on the market right now and that includes the “Big 4” of the Kansas City Royals. Still out there are Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Lorenzo Cain and Mike Moustakas, all still unemployed as of this writing. There is no way these four don’t end up on some needy team soon, but who will they finally sign with? I thought it would be fun today to look at each player and throw out some guesses as to where they end up. Do I have any inside information? Nope. Am I just going to guess? Kind of. Should you take this seriously? Since I’m not their agent, probably not. Chalk this up as just a fun exercise to pass what has been about the slowest winter since the mid-80’s, when that dreaded “C” word was going around (Yes, collusion. Not the other “C” word…).

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Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Mike Moustakas

It does appear as the market has almost flat-lined for Moose. Most speculated that the Angels would be the most obvious pick for Moustakas, since he is from California and they were in need of a third baseman. Instead, they signed Zack Cozart. Maybe the Giants? Nope, as they plucked Evan Longoria from the Rays. Whether it is the draft pick a team would have to give up to sign him, concerns about his injury history or just trying to stay under the luxury tax threshold (I’m looking at you, Yankees), it appears every team has had more worries than they would like when it comes to signing Moustakas. Even earlier this week, we are still just hearing a sprinkle of interest when it comes to team’s looking for a slugging third baseman. Baltimore has been mentioned, but they have Manny Machado at the hot corner and Tim Beckham proved he could start at shortstop for the O’s, so it’s not like they have to make a move and force Machado back to shortstop. Milwaukee has been mentioned but they still have Travis Shaw, who one would think would be a slightly younger, cheaper option for the Brewers. I still contend that Moose would be the guy that Kansas City should look into, but it appears that is purely a long shot.  It will be interesting to see where he finally ends up, but I definitely think his value has shrunk and he is more likely to get a two-year deal out of a team than four years and up. A one-year deal is possible, but that would force him back onto the market next winter, with competition from fellow third baseman Machado and Josh Donaldson. To be frank, things aren’t looking good on the long-term front for Mike Moustakas.

Likely Destination: St. Louis Cardinals

Tampa Bay Rays v Kansas City Royals

Alcides Escobar

If the Moustakas market feels cold, then Escobar’s is Antarctica. To say the rumors of interested teams for Esky is limited would be an understatement. There’s the Padres, who showed interest in him before acquiring Freddy Galvis to play shortstop, and then there are…ummm…there is also the…uhhh…no one. Nope, I haven’t seen any other team linked to Escobar this winter, outside of a few writers suggesting locations that might need him. The honest truth is that Escobar has been a weak hitter these last few years who has gotten by on his defense…which has begun to regress. So it shouldn’t be a shock to say that the market for a light hitting shortstop, entering a period where his defense and speed will start to wane as well, is sparse. There aren’t many options for Alcides, so at this point he might have to just take what he can get, even if it is a role as a backup mentor on a rebuilding team.

Likely Destination: Kansas City Royals

Arizona Diamondbacks Kansas City Royals

Lorenzo Cain

This might be the most curious of available Royals still out there, since Cain actually has a lot of value and isn’t represented by Scott Boras. We’ve all heard the teams that have shown interest in LoCain: Giants, Rangers, Brewers, Dodgers and Blue Jays just to name the most interested. More than likely, the main reason Cain is even still on the market is his age and injury history, combined with a desire for a long-term deal. The long-term thing always appeared to be a hang-up for the Royals and probably went a long way to them not focusing their attention on him. There have been a number of articles written recently discussing Cain’s value and why team’s should be jumping over each other to sign him. I have to believe the answer lies somewhere in-between, as this quote from the Passan piece I mentioned earlier:

One assistant GM interested in center fielder Lorenzo Cain thought about the possibility of offering him a multiyear deal. “I’d rather just give him one year at $24 million,” he said, and maybe he didn’t realize that the one-year deal was a hallmark of collusion, and maybe he did.

It appears that teams would be more interested in someone like Cain and even pay him more on a shorter deal than lock him up on a longer deal. I know as a fan I have had my concerns about Cain’s health and more importantly, the health of his legs. If as a fan I am having that concern, you could see why major league team’s appear to be weary as well when it comes to the long-term health of an outfielder who will be entering his age 32 season in 2018.

Likely Destination: Milwaukee Brewers

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Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

Eric Hosmer

…and then there is Eric Hosmer. There has been a ton of speculation of just who will lock-up Hosmer, but the honest truth is there appears to be only two teams really committed to the idea of making him a long time fixture in their organization: the Royals and the Padres. It does appear both teams are willing to go six to seven years on a deal but the money looks to be the major hang-up in getting the pen to paper. A few other teams appear at least in the mix (the Cardinals and Red Sox keep getting brought up), even if it is just dipping their toes into the proverbial water. Teams have concerns about Hosmer, with a lot of it being directed at his ground ball rate (55.6% in 2017) and whether or not he would adjust his hitting style to allow the ball to be put in the air more often. Any deal over five years takes with it a certain amount of risk and when you add in the ground balls, the defensive metrics and the inconsistency he has had over the years, you can see why more teams aren’t flocking to bring him into their fold. Hosmer very well could be the first major Royals free agent to sign, but he could also be the final domino to fall. With Hos, it will all come down to if an offer is on the table that his agent (Boras) feels comfortable with.

Likely Destination: Kansas City Royals

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Credit: John Sleezer/KC Star

If this winter has proven anything, it’s that teams have become more methodical in how they spend their money and the effects are being felt by this crop of long-time Royals. Do I feel comfortable with my guesses? Not really. This market has been the hardest to read and it might just come down to the best offer on the table whenever pitchers and catchers report next month. The best scenario for the Royals is still for their stars to sign elsewhere, accumulate the extra draft picks and let the team start rebuilding. But the Royals front office sometimes zags when we think they will zig, so I guess that means the possibility is still out there for all four to return to Kansas City. I would say crazier things have happened, but I don’t know if anything is crazier than the lack of action we have seen this winter.

 

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