One More For the Road?

Everything comes to an end eventually. If we’ve learned anything during our time on this planet, it’s that change is inevitable and Mother Nature wins all races. You can try to slow things down and make them last longer, but eventually time wins out.

That’s two-fold for athletes. Their time in any sport is limited, some longer than others. If you are lucky, you get to play the sport of your choice for a couple decades and excel at what you do. These are the ones who make Mother Nature wait on them, knowing full well that their time will come in the end.

This is where Alex Gordon sits right now. One week left in the MLB regular season and Gordon has been pondering whether to play another season or hang up the spikes and quit doing the only job he has had as an adult. No decision has been made on his part and it appears none will be made before the season ends. At the age of 35, Gordon will be deciding whether he wants to return another season to help the next generation of Kansas City Royals, or step away to be with his family and look back fondly on his career.

Credit: Mark Cunningham/MLB Photos via Getty Images

As a fan, I am very biased when it comes to Alex Gordon. He has been my favorite Royal for a number of years now and in my opinion is the closest thing Kansas City has had to George Brett since his retirement. Just reading this blog over the years would point out that Gordon is “The Man” for the Royals and the measuring stick that the current roster should be emulating. He has been a leader on and off the field over the years and while he isn’t a loud and brazen leader, he is the one that carries the most weight in the Royals clubhouse.

So why Gordon? Sure, there was a period where he was an elite level player and a regular All-Star. From 2011 to 2014, Gordon only had one season under 5 WAR and was “THE” best left fielder in baseball. Gordon has won 6 Gold Gloves since his move to the outfield in 2010 and very well could add a 7th this offseason. Most acknowledge that Gordon and his defense are the biggest part of his legacy and puts him on par with former Royals second baseman Frank White as a model of defensive excellence.

But he has been no slouch on offense either. During his ‘peak’ years (the before mentioned 2011-2014) he had only one average offensive season (2013) while the rest were at least 18% better than league average. He has racked up close to 200 home runs, over 350 doubles and has a career line of .258/.339/.413. While his peak didn’t last as long as some, it is a great addition to his golden glove.

Yes, the last few years have been a struggle for Gordon offensively (whatever you do, don’t go look at his 2017 numbers) but he has bounced back a bit here in 2019 and has posted his highest batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage since 2015. He is still essentially a league average hitter but when you add in his defense and leadership, you have a player worthy of a roster spot in Kansas City.

In fact, his early season surge had Gordon even leaning toward playing in 2020:

“My wife (Jamie) always asks me that and I’m just like, ‘I don’t know,’” Gordon told MLB.com. “There are a lot of things that will come into play when it comes to that decision.

“I give her percentages. At the beginning of the year, I gave her 50-50. Then I moved to 55-45. Now I’m at about 60-40 (on playing again).”

The other factor in play is whether the Royals want him back, since he doesn’t want to play elsewhere:

“I don’t want to play anywhere else,” Gordon said. “Yeah, I want to retire as a Royal. I’ve established my family here with my kids. This is home.”

The Royals will most definitely buyout the option on his contract this winter, but it is conceivable they could bring Gordon back at a lower rate. The Royals front office has showed mutual interest in bringing Alex back, so it is hard to imagine a world where Dayton Moore tells him no. With that said, at this point, it is Alex’s call.

With that said, I find it hard to imagine a world where Alex Gordon isn’t playing baseball for the Royals. My mind tells me it will happen eventually and for someone like me who is a realist, I know it is going to happen soon. But the idea of him not out in left field saddens me and it has been a long time since I have felt that way about a player on the Royals. Gordon is that piece of Kansas City, before they returned to prominence and before back-to-back World Series appearances.

Watching Gordon play over the last 13 years has been a pure treat and he has almost always made me glad to be a fan of the Royals. Before the season started this year, I prepared myself for his possible retirement at the end of the year and went and bought three Gordon shirts. If this was it, I was going to make sure I had his shirts that I could wear for a number of more years. I only own one baseball jersey, and it is a powder blue #4. To me, Gordon embodies what I love about this franchise.

So if this is the end, I’m going to treasure these last few games. If he decides to come back, I’ll probably go through the same cycle next year that I have over the last 7 months. The truth is that a part of those 2014-2015 Royals teams will die once Gordon is gone. He won’t be the last to go, but he will be a large chunk to leave. Players come and go, but there will only be one Alex Gordon in Kansas City.

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A Few Thoughts on the Royals Catching Situation

I’ve been a bit short on time recently, but I did want to pass along a few thoughts on the recent injury to Salvador Perez and the effects that will be felt by the Kansas City Royals.

For Salvy, it is a frustrating blow that could see big ramifications on his career. Not only will he be missing a full year to the injury, but there are no guarantees that Perez will return next year “as good as new”. In fact, when it comes to catchers who have the ill-fated Tommy John Surgery, the history is bleak to say the least. For a guy who is most valuable behind the dish, this might be one of the worst injuries that could occur to him.

How will the aftermath of this injury effect the Royals? Obviously the loss will hurt, especially when you add Perez’s value on both offense and defense. Cam Gallagher was scheduled to be the backup to Salvy before the injury and now will carry a bigger weight as he shares the position.

Gallagher brings above-average defense to the table, especially when it comes to pitch framing. Gallagher has caught a number of the pitchers within the Royals system over the years and has a good rapport with many of them.

Offensively, he will probably be below league-average with the bat. He’s never been known for his offensive prowess throughout his minor league career although he did see a bit of an uptick his last few years in Omaha. As far as I’m concerned, the Royals should only be concerned with what he does on defense this year and anything he adds with the bat should be considered extra.

The Royals have also gone out and acquired veteran backstop Martin Maldonado to share time with Gallagher this year. Maldonado is a former Gold Glove winner and is a good fit for Kansas City, a veteran who can work with the younger pitching staff. The Royals have a number of up and coming pitchers in their system and fitting a veteran defender with them makes the most sense for their development.

The signing of Maldonado also gives extra time to Meibrys Viloria, the other catcher on the 40-man roster. Viloria had a cup of coffee in the bigs last September, appearing in 10 games while hitting .259/.286/.333. More time in the minors for Viloria is a good thing, since before his recall last year he hadn’t played above high A ball (Wilmington) all year. Viloria is entering his age 22 season and while he could see time in Kansas City later in the season, a bit more seasoning during a rebuilding year isn’t the worst thing in the world for a prospect like him.

Credit: Kansas City Star

So while the injury to Perez will hurt, there are a few silver linings to it. If anything, the time away will save Salvy some wear and tear on his knees and he will hopefully be rested and ready to go next spring. Honestly, the Royals weren’t planning on contending this year, so giving extra playing time to a Gallagner or Viloria should only be considered a plus and an opportunity to find out what they have when it comes to catching depth.

The biggest loss is the positivity that Salvy brings to the clubhouse. Not having his childlike attitude around during a long, 162 game season means the Royals are losing a great influence on their youngsters for the better part of a season. Hopefully they can find a way to keep him around as much as possible while he rehabs the injury. God knows we as fans will miss seeing his grin while attending games at The K this year.

A Golden Evaluation

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Last week I looked at the Gold Glove Awards and surmised that while in years past the award wasn’t always about defense, the voting was improving and worthy defenders were being honored for their use of the leather. One of the biggest hurdles for me to jump around was how reputation played a big part in how some of the picks were chosen.

At the time I figured I was done discussing this topic for at least another year, but then mere days after I wrote the piece I stumbled across some numbers to back up my claim:

Over a span of 25 years, the winners of a Gold Glove were handed out to one of the top two defenders of their position only 38% of the time. Since Rawlings began working with SABR and SDI (SABR Defensive Index) was created to help evaluate, that number has jumped all the way to 88%! So over the last six years, voters have done 50% better than they did from 1988-2012. That is a massive improvement that speaks volumes of how far defensive metrics have come in such a short span of time. In fact, looking back at previous winners and losers really paints a better picture.

Credit: MLB.com

Before we go any farther, a great job has been done by Chris Dial, who is on the Board of Directors for SABR and his creation of RED (Runs Effectively Defended) helped form SDI. My stumbling across Chris’s twitter account pretty much has led us to this point.

So looking back, there were certain positions that voters actually did a fair job at when it came to picking a correct winner, most specifically catcher and third base. But there were some huge gaps in who won and who should have won at a couple of big positions. First base was a position that really showed a leaning toward reputation:

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Credit: SABR.org

While guys like Mark Grace, John Olerud and Rafael Palmeiro (yes, Palmeiro had a number of years he was worthy, dismissing 1999) were rewarded for the most part for their defensive excellence, it also shows how the perception of Don Mattingly, J.T. Snow and Eric Hosmer guided them to gold despite not being one of the top two defenders at their position.

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Credit: SABR.org

Shortstop also honored some greats, like Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken while Omar Vizquel apparently won a number of Gold Gloves that he probably shouldn’t have.

Credit: Nick Laham/Getty Images

The two most notable miscues on this list are Derek Jeter and Barry Larkin, a current Hall of Famer matched in with a future one. Most have rallied against Jeter’s victories in the past, as it was very obvious his range (or lack thereof) was not of the top shelf variety. The fact these two won eight Gold Gloves while never finishing in the top two of their position speaks volumes of how the voting used to be handled.

There was one more position that I found to have a large gap between the should’s and should not’s, and that was the outfield:

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Credit: SABR.org

Just looking at this list about made my jaw drop. While Griffey, Hunter and Walker were always thought of as defensive studs, the fact is they were only in the top two of their positions five times. Even more shocking is that Luis Gonzalez and Sammy Sosa should have won a couple of Gold Gloves rather than the zero they compiled.

This would probably be a good time to point out that none of this is saying that all of these players were bad defensively if they won and didn’t finish in the top two. Mr. Dial actually did a good job of pointing that out:

So you can see where adding something like SDI has drastically changed the defensive landscape and showed who the real elite truly are when it comes to glovework. So with the awards handed out just last week, lets see how the voters did:

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Credit: SABR.org

In the American League, outside of pitcher (Dallas Keuchel won despite being 8th in SDI among pitchers) and center field (Jackie Bradley, Jr. won and was 3rd in SDI at the position) the voters got it right. Both Royals that won (Alex Gordon and Salvador Perez) were in the top two at their position, with Salvy only behind Mike Zunino and Alex having the highest SDI among left fielders.

Meanwhile in the National League:

NL Leaders
Credit: SABR.org

Catcher and first base were the two positions voters missed on, as Yadier Molina was 6th in SDI behind the dish and Anthony Rizzo won while finishing 4th. Molina once again points out how reputation wins out over numbers some times and while he is still a good defender at the age of 36, he shouldn’t have even been one of the finalists.

So out of 18 awards, only four of the winners were not in the top two at their respective positions. That means that the voters were 78% correct, which is probably about as good as we should expect when there is a human element involved. It is definitely a big improvement over what we saw for years and Rawlings should be commended for wanting to make this whole process more accurate.

The big thing for me is that the stigma of ‘The winners aren’t being honored for their defense’ is starting to fade away. These awards have been looked at as almost a joke for so long that it’s been hard to do a 180 degree turn and applaud the work done to make the honor mean something.

While defensive metrics are still a work in progress, they are improving every day and painting a different picture than the one we sometimes see with our eyes. So while these awards aren’t quite the Fielding Bible Awards, they are getting a little bit closer every day.

Golden Issue

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Last week the finalists for the 2018 Gold Glove Awards were named and two Kansas City Royals procured their shots at gold, left fielder Alex Gordon and catcher Salvador Perez. Both are worthy recipients and Gordon was even announced on Monday as the 2018 left field winner for the Fielding Bible Awards:

Both Gordon and Perez are previous Gold Glove award winners (Gordon has won five times, Perez four times) and at this point their reputation defensively is solidified within the baseball community.

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While I’m happy both guys are getting recognition for their defensive excellence, it’s hard for me to get pumped up for these awards. I want to be excited, especially since I have long felt defensive prowess is sometimes overlooked within the game compared to what is done with the bat. What I am saying is the stigma of the Gold Glove Awards not always being about defense has made it hard to take the honor seriously.

The joke for years was that it was just as important what you did offensively as what you did with the leather when it came to these awards. The best example of this is Rafael Palmeiro’s win back in 1999. In his prime, Palmeiro was actually a solid defensive player and had won the award previously in 1997 and 1998. But in 1999, Palmeiro won a Gold Glove despite playing only 28 games at first base. Yep, Palmeiro spent most of the season as the Rangers DH but was still able to win an award based on defensive excellence.

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Credit: Getty Images

It was obvious his reputation won out (and a $50,000 bonus for winning the award) but more than anything it was a sign that the voters just didn’t put much thought into who they picked for the awards. It really felt like you could win a Gold Glove if you a.) Put together a bunch of Web Gems on Baseball Tonight or b.) had a proficient offensive season. While Gold Gloves were handed out to good defensive players quite often, there was no guarantee they would win the award.

But over the last few years that has changed. Back in 2013, statistics became a bigger focal point when it came to the Gold Glove Awards:

Rawlings Sporting Goods, which awards the Gold Gloves, collaborated with the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) to create an independent committee that devised the SABR Defensive Index (SDI), the new analytic that will account for 30 total “votes” — approximately 25 to 30 percent, depending on the number of ballots received from managers and coaches.

In fact, the increase in advanced defensive metrics has shattered the old process and created a new one that actually rewards the players who deserve them for the most part. Just looking at last year’s list shows a vast difference than in years past:

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The one name that jumps out on this list is an old friend of ours, Eric Hosmer. Hosmer won his 4th Gold Glove last year but as most of us are aware of, the defensive metrics aren’t kind to Hos. Hosmer was 20th in the American league in Defensive Runs Saved among first baseman with 300 innings or more, 14th in UZR and 20th in Fangraphs DEF.

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While Hosmer’s metrics don’t speak highly of his defense, they did for Joe Mauer who probably should have gotten the nod as a finalist last year instead of Hos. Mauer was 3rd in DRS, 1st in UZR, and 3rd in DEF. So even with the focus shifting to a more statistical voting system, the award still found it’s way into the wrong hands.

This is why I never get too high or too low when someone achieves this honor. The sad part is that while the numbers speak of a certain truth, as long as the human element is involved in the voting there will always be inaccuracies and misguided reputations that will lead the way.

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Credit: Getty Images

This is not to say good isn’t being done with this whole process. The fact that we are almost twenty years removed from the Palmeiro blunder and the likelihood of something that off-track happening again is almost nil speaks volumes of where we are at. The voting process for the Gold Glove is the best it’s ever been, which accounts for something. The issue is that it is still flawed.

Why should we care? Because for a number of these players who are defensive wizards, this award is their only chance of adding something shiny to the mantle. For a number of these virtuosos, their work with the glove is far ahead of anything they are doing with the bat and an honor like a Gold Glove is the only way to get the recognition they so rightly deserve.

I want to care more about this award. I want to be able to say the right men are getting their just due. But we aren’t quite there yet. As long as that stigma is still hanging around it’s going to be hard to take a Gold Glove as seriously as it should be taken.

The Case for Salvador Perez’s All-Star Nod

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Credit: Getty Images

This past Sunday, Major League Baseball announced the starters and reserves for the upcoming All-Star Game in Washington. In year’s past the fan’s choices for the starters have been a bit questionable while any omissions were fixed when the reserves were announced.

The last few years have seen a big 180 degree turn, as the fans have been almost on point with their selections while the players and coaches have seen some interesting choices made when it comes to roster structure. In that vein, some giant questions were thrown up this past weekend when Salvador Perez was selected to be the Kansas City Royals lone representative next week.

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Credit: Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It’s very obvious that Perez was chosen off of reputation more than anything. Perez is a four-time Gold Glove winner, a recipient of the Silver Slugger Award back in 2016 and will now be an All-Star for the sixth consecutive year. But his numbers are not those of someone deserving of the honor, as he is only hitting .213/.255/.378 this year, with 11 home runs, 34 RBI’s and bWAR of 0.6. These normally aren’t the statistics of someone traveling to appear in the mid-summer classic, especially when someone else on the Royals roster is probably a bit more deserving.

Whit Merrifield has been putting together another banner year for Kansas City, hitting .303/.369/.427 with 2.7 bWAR, an OPS+ of 120 and 6th in the American League in stolen bases. Whit is not only leading the team in WAR, but is third in the league among second basemen and sixth in all of baseball at the position. Even better, Merrifield is doing all this while rotating around the field, as he has played at four different positions this year (including DH).

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Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

So what was apparent to all of us was that Merrifield really deserved the honor rather than Perez. But when it comes to structuring the rosters for each league, it doesn’t always come down to just who has the better numbers as much as how many players are viable options at each position. This was very apparent at second base, where Jose Altuve of Houston will be starting while Gleyber Torres of New York will be his backup.

In fact, second base has been pretty stacked in the American League this year, as not only would Whit have been a worthy recipient of a spot, but so would Jed Lowrie of Oakland or Daniel Robertson of Tampa Bay. Meanwhile, catcher has been a position with less productivity and appears to be a harder group to choose from when it comes to reserves on the All-Star squad.

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Credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP

The other factor when looking at the All-Star situation is making sure that every team is represented on the roster. This can make structuring the roster even harder, as teams that are struggling normally don’t have a lot of players to choose from who are having exceptional years. If they did, they probably wouldn’t be a losing team.

You might be wondering how the players decide some of the reserves for the game. Luckily, we have that covered:

MLB players get to vote as well, electing eight position players in each league, plus the designated hitter in the AL. The top vote-getter at each position earns a spot here. In the case that the player vote winner matched the fan vote, the player with the second-highest vote total from the players gets the spot.

Simple enough. To be honest, all this factors into why Salvy was voted in. He is a player who is well-respected within the game, loved by both fellow players and the fans. In fact, that also plays into why he was voted in by the players.

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When you think of the All-Star Game, you think of some of the biggest names in baseball. It is baseball’s chance to trot out their best and brightest and have them battle against each other for a national audience. While the numbers don’t vouch for Salvy’s greatness, within the game he is considered one of the elite at his position, down year or not. The players recognize his past accomplishments and to them he is a name worthy of being on this stage.

You can argue that the down year would disqualify him for selection, but if we are really talking about the best the sport has to offer, Salvador Perez is a recognizable name that carries weight. It’s probably a good thing to remember that this game is officially an exhibition, nothing more and nothing less. The game doesn’t count (I know someone would say it used to, but it really didn’t) and in fact by the middle of August most people have forgotten what even happened in the game.

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Credit: AP Photo/Gregory Bull

That doesn’t take away the enjoyment and fun of seeing players getting to represent their teams and play against the best of their peers. It just means that sometimes while we as fans take these selections super serious, it’s also okay to acknowledge that it is just a fun getaway in the middle of the season. Think of it as a chance to relish in the greatness of the game.

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

So while Whit Merrifield is worthy of a spot on this roster and is easily the Royals best choice, it’s not a bad thing that Salvy was selected. Who knows? Maybe by the time we reach next Monday, Merrifield would have been added to the roster to replace someone who is either hurt or unable to play. In that case, he would be chosen to a spot we always thought he was worthy of. No harm, no foul.

So rather than tear down why Perez is there or why Whit isn’t, let’s enjoy the fact that someone from this Royals team gets to just be a part of the festivities. With the way this season is going, we are better off taking any happy moment we can get.

One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

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A few weeks back, the Modern Baseball Era Committee announced their results for the 2018 Hall of Fame election, where Jack Morris and Alan Trammell will be joining whomever will be voted in by the BBWAA later on next month. While the result wasn’t surprising, I am struck with a tinge of excitement and frustration when it comes these election results, both by who got in and who didn’t.

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Credit: Duane Burleson, Associated Press

First, I was elated that Alan Trammell will be in the Hall. I came around a bit late to just how great Trammell was but felt really strongly that he deserved to be in the Hall a few years back. Here is a snippet of my argument for him back in 2015:

The argument for Trammell though outweighs a lot of the negatives; Trammell has a career WAR of 70.4, which makes him 94th all-time and 63rd amongst position players. To go a step further, Trammell has a career dWAR of 22.0, which places him 34th all-time.

Trammell is listed as the 12th best shortstop according to the Hall of Stats (hallofstats.com) and has a Hall Rating of 143 (100 is deemed Hall worthy). Trammell played in an era of Cal Ripken, Jr. and Ozzie Smith and while he wasn’t quite at their level, he was close and even beat Cal out for the Gold Glove four times. What is even more interesting is going back and comparing his numbers to Derek Jeter as Joe Posnanski did a few years ago:

Joe Posnanski has made the argument that if you are of the belief that Derek Jeter is a Hall of Famer, then you should compare his numbers with Trammell’s. Joe points out just how close Jeter and Trammell were as players, with Jeter holding a slight edge over Alan offensively, while Trammell was easily a better defender.

Trammell really felt like a player who could have gained momentum if more voters had digested his numbers. Instead, the highest he reached on the ballot was 40.9% (back in 2016) and one does have to wonder if the constant logjam of only being able to vote for ten players really hurt him in the long run. The good news is that his peers corrected this injustice and he will be claiming his rightful place in Cooperstown this summer.

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Credit: Baseball Hall of Fame

Then there is Jack Morris. There is really no easy way to put this than to just say I don’t feel he is a Hall of Famer. Did he have moments of greatness? Obviously. He is viewed by many as the greatest pitcher of the 1980’s, which is easy to see when looking at stats like strike outs and wins. But when digging deeper he is 65th in ERA+ (league and ballpark adjusted) in the decade and 12th in bWAR for pitchers. It gets even dicier when you start digging through the all-time rankings. According to the Hall of Stats, Morris is 165th among pitchers all-time and has a Hall Ranking of 77, well below the necessary 100 to be “Hall Worthy”. In fact, over an 18 year career, Morris has only 44.2 WAR, which roughly averages out to 2.45 Wins Above Replacement a year. The truth is that much like Bill Mazeroski, Morris’ greatness is defined by one classic moment: Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, where he pitched 10 innings of shutout baseball and led the Twins to a World Championship over the Braves. It’s an iconic moment, but unfortunately for Morris it is not a complete representation of his career. The issue with putting him into the Hall is simple; the numbers don’t back up what the memory recalls. It might just be better to let Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated explain:

While Morris won 254 games for the Tigers, Twins, Blue Jays and Indians in his 18-year career—the 43rd highest total in history and seventh among those outside the Hall—his win total is a reflection of the great work of his teammates. He got excellent support from his defense, which included Trammell and his longtime double play partner Lou Whitaker, in the form of a .272 batting average on balls in play, 14 points better than league average. Relative to his leagues, the offensive support he received was six percent better than average (better than 41 of the 62 other Hall starters), while his rate of run prevention was just five percent better than league average. Among Hall of Famers, his 105 ERA+ tops only those of Catfish Hunter (104) and Rube Marquard (103). By comparison, Red Ruffing, whose 3.80 ERA was previously the highest among Hall of Fame starters, had a 109 ERA+, as he pitched during a higher-scoring era (1924-47).

In other words, Morris being in the Hall of Fame redefines greatness:

Still, his election lowers the bar for Hall of Fame pitchers and serves as a slight to numerous contemporaries such as Bret Saberhagen, Dave Stieb, Dwight Gooden, Orel Hershiser and David Cone. Win totals aside, all have far fuller résumés than Morris from a Hall standpoint, better run prevention combined with Cy Young awards and their own shares of records and postseason heroics. They now deserve an equally thorough airing in this context, particularly in light of the scarcity of viable starting pitcher candidates in the coming years.

This is not to say I wish ill on Morris; personally I like the guy and believe he has handled all the arguments about his Hall of Fame case like a champ. I just don’t personally feel he should be sitting among the greats of the game. The one silver lining to this is we can now be done with the Morris argument; it no longer matters since the Modern Baseball Era Committee made sure he is getting a plaque.

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Credit: Associated Press

While Trammell felt like a step forward and Morris felt like a slight step back, the fact Marvin Miller was not elected just felt like a slap in the face. Miller is the former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association and was the driving force behind free agency in baseball. Without Miller, the players would probably never make the kind of money and have the freedom they have today. Once again, Jaffe said it best:

Miller, who oversaw the game’s biggest change since integration by dismantling the reserve clause and therefore shifting the century-old balance of power from the owners to the players, is the candidate with the strongest case of any individual outside Cooperstown, and perhaps the strongest case of any non-player in the game’s history.

It really surprises me that a committee of what was mostly former players didn’t vote in the guy who has had possibly one of the biggest effects on their career when it comes to the ability to make market value money. Hopefully this mistake will be rectified in the very near future.

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Credit: Baseball Hall of Fame

The one thing this recent vote proves is that it just isn’t a perfect process. Whether it is the new committee or the BBWAA, this is a system where most of the voters are doing their due diligence to get it right.  For every slam dunk like Ken Griffey Jr., there is an Alan Trammell who falls through the cracks. While I might not feel Morris is deserving, I was happy to see Ted Simmons (who I feel is deserving) fall just one vote shy of being added to this group. As long as the games continue to be played, the Hall of Fame debates will continue to be discussed. The fact that baseball is constantly trying to get this right should tell you that everything is moving in a forward direction, just possibly not at the speed everyone would hope for.

The Battle For the AL MVP & How Mike Trout is Trying to Crash the Party

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

When baseball reached the All-Star break, the American League MVP race felt like a two-man battle. Jose Altuve of Houston was once again a top contender while the Yankees Aaron Judge was making baseball writers and analysts go ga-ga as he invoked memories of Ruth and Mantle. The normal leader in MVP conversations, Mike Trout, was sitting on the sideline, finishing up a rehab assignment and hoping to get back on the field after missing close to 40 games. While Trout was the front-runner before his injury, there appeared to be no way he could catch Altuve and Judge in any of the statistics that mattered. But then Trout came back, picking up where he left off, and something happened…Trout slowly climbed up the fWAR leaderboard. Day by day, game by game, Mike Trout was catching up to the two leaders. Just like last year, what appeared to be a two-man race turned into a three-man battle to the end. While it would appear Trout missing those 40 games would deter his case, it’s actually enhancing the argument that he is the 2017 American League MVP.

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Let’s start with the WAR argument, which I referenced above. As of this writing, Altuve sits atop the American League leaderboard, with 6.5 fWAR. Trout follows with 6.2 and Judge sits in third place with 5.7. Just as an aside, this is just speaking for the hitters in the league; Chris Sale leads everyone with 7.5 WAR and Corey Kluber is at 6.0. Both Sale and Kluber can be calculated into your MVP discussion (and trust me, Sale is in that convo), but at least for me, I don’t value pitchers in MVP talk UNLESS they have been so dominant and crucial to their team’s success (and since I know it will be asked, the next closest Red Sox to Sale’s WAR number is Mookie Betts at 3.8). So Altuve and Trout are 1-2 in hitter’s WAR, but that gap was much larger at the All-Star break. At the break, Aaron Judge led the AL with 5.4 fWAR, followed by Altuve at 4.1 and Trout was down in 6th place with 3.4 fWAR. So in this second half of the season, Altuve has accumulated 2.4 WAR, Judge 0.3 and Trout 2.8. Now, the gap between Altuve and Trout wasn’t that big at the break, but Judge’s lead above both was quite a bit more. So while Trout’s push in this second half has been impressive, Altuve’s has been equally impressive in that short amount of time. What has been the most important aspect of this gain is not just how Trout has shortened the gap between the two candidates; the most impressive part of this whole debate is that WAR is a stat that accumulates over time, so the more you play the higher your number should go. Obviously not every player sees that (Alcides Escobar has played every game this year for Kansas City and his fWAR sits at a sickly -0.3 right now) but if you are an elite player, your Wins Above Replacement will rise the more you play. The fact that Trout has almost reached Altuve in over 150 less plate appearances, says a lot about how good Trout’s season has been.

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Credit: The Sporting News

So how is Trout doing with some of the other statistics? Obviously Trout can’t win it on WAR alone, and luckily the numbers prove he won’t. Trout leads the league in weighted Runs Created Plus, weighted On Base Average, On Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, walk percentage, Win Probability Added, Walk to Strikeout ratio, On-Base Plus Slugging, 2nd in Isolated Power, and 10th in stolen bases. The most impressive out of all these numbers to me is Trout’s Win Probability Added number. Trout is at 5.74; the next closest batter is Nelson Cruz at 3.67. I mentioned earlier how WAR is a stat that accumulates and so does WPA. For Trout to have an over two point lead in a stat that adds up over time is amazing. No other player in the American League has had a larger effect on his teams outcome than Trout AND IT ISN’T EVEN CLOSE! When I think of the term ‘Most Valuable Player’, I think of someone who is so valuable that you can’t even imagine what that team would look like without that player on the field. Trout missed 40 games (40 games!!) and has had a larger effect on his team than any other player in all of baseball. If that doesn’t speak of value, I can’t imagine what else does.

Brett George 2400.81 NBL

Now, there is one slight issue, which is that Trout is not quite a qualified batter, as he is sitting at 325 at bats for the season and 412 plate appearances. Trout would need to reach 502 plate appearances to be a qualified batter and with 24 games left Trout would have to average 3.75 plate appearances per game, which is doable. So while Trout has a good chance of reaching the bar he needs to get to, there would still be a few writers who might not vote for him because of time missed. Luckily, there are a few precedents that show it can and has been done before. First, go back to 1962 when Mickey Mantle missed 25 games in May and June of that year. Mantle would justbarely squeak in enough plate appearances (502) to qualify for the batting title and win MVP. Mantle also lead in many of the same categories that Trout leads in right now and would garnish a Gold Glove award. George Brett in 1980 missed 25 games with an ankle injury and racked up 515 plate appearances. George flirted with .400 for most of the year and would also lead the league in most of the same categories as Trout. Finally, Barry Bonds missed 32 games in 2003, racked up 550 plate appearances, 10.2 WAR and would win his 6th MVP award. In all three of these cases, a player missed a significant amount of time to injury yet had such potent offensive seasons that the voters could not dismiss their contributions to their team. To me, that reads just like Trout this year and shows that if the numbers are there, it should be an easy vote come the end of the season.

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Credit: Sports Illustrated

So while Mike Trout hasn’t passed Jose Altuve just yet, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it doesn’t happen before the end of the season. You almost feel sorry for guys like Altuve, Judge, Manny Machado and others; they are playing at the same time as one of the greatest players of not only this time period, but easily one of the best of the last 30-40 years. Mike Trout appears to be on a completely different level and this year the numbers say he is doing it in a slightly shorter amount of time. While a vote for Altuve wouldn’t be a bad vote, it would be ignoring not only what Trout is achieving but also what he is doing to help lead an Angels team to contention. It might feel redundant to say Trout should be MVP each year, but it would also be foolish to vote against him just for the sake of change. Last year in August, I said Trout should be in the conversation for MVP and I was scoffed at. I was told Altuve had it in the bag. Trout ended up winning the award. This year I make a different proclamation: Mike Trout should be MVP again. This time, it might be wise to just admit the arguments against him aren’t as strong as the arguments for. All hail Mike Trout.

The Black Hole of Death…is Alive!

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We all remember April. April was not kind to the Kansas City Royals and in large part it was due to the lack of offense. The Royals were last in almost every offensive category in the American League (outside of home runs and ISO) and produced a wRC+ of 57 as a team (league average is 100). While almost the entire team was struggling, the most glaring weakness was the bottom of the lineup, which consisted of Brandon Moss, Alcides Escobar and Alex Gordon. The last third of the lineup continued their struggle through May before June started to see a bit of life. But over the last few weeks, this trifecta that was denoted ‘The Black Hole of Death’ has awoken from their slumber and helped guide the Royals to where they now sit 1.5 games out of first place in the American League Central and tied for the second wild card spot in the AL. So how has this group gone from basement dwellers to driving forces behind a Kansas City Surge?

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Let’s start by looking at where this group started at in April with a look at their slash lines:

Moss: .167/.250/.367, -0.3 fWAR

Escobar: .171/.200/.220, -0.4 fWAR

Gordon: .184/.268/.218, -0.3fWAR

The numbers didn’t see a big uptick in May:

Moss: .203/.266/.508, 0.0 fWAR

Escobar: .197/.220/.248, -0.5 fWAR

Gordon: .164/.307/.192, -0.1 fWAR

Now remember, WAR factors in defense and Moss for the most part doesn’t see a whole lot of time on the field. So what might be the most telling sign of how badly Escobar and Gordon were performing is looking at the WAR statistic; both players are former Gold Glove winners and are still great defensively. The fact that both put together below replacement level performances really shows you how lackluster they were with the bats. Also, take a look at Escobar and Gordon’s slugging percentage in April and May: both months, Escobar had a higher slugging percentage than Alex, which shows that Gordon wasn’t driving the ball at all in those two months. Escobar is not known to get a bunch of extra base hits while Gordon in the past has been known as a guy who can rack up a decent amount of doubles and home runs. At that point, one would wonder how much better this Royals team could be just by getting replacement level play from the bottom third of the batting order. Luckily, June would see their bats start to wake up.

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All it took was a trip to the west coast and warmer weather to get a pulse from these three (or at least two of the three):

Moss: .156/.240/.178, -0.5 fWAR

Escobar: .294/.301/.412, 0.5 fWAR

Gordon: .231/.295/.436, 0.3 fWAR

Moss’ June was not pleasant, as he only drove in one run the entire month and had a wRC+ of 13. Gordon actually went deep three times and a lot of his production can be attributed to hitting coach Dale Sveum working on his stance and having Gordon use his legs a bit more to help him drive the ball. The Royals as a team had a great offensive month in June but the best was yet to come in July:

Moss: .326/.392/.630, 0.5 fWAR

Escobar: .271/.320/.414, 0.4 fWAR

Gordon: .254/.318/.407, 0.3 fWAR

While Moss was almost invisible in June, his July has seen his numbers drastically move upward, thanks to something that doesn’t have a stat to quantify it: confidence:

“Before the last couple of weeks, I’d get to two strikes (and) not to say that you knew it was over, but you knew you probably missed your chance,” he said, smiling and adding, “Been seeing the ball a lot better and have better balance at the plate, so it’s not a panic any more.”

Escobar has gone with a more balanced attack, spraying the ball all over the field. In July, Escobar is pulling the ball 30.7% of the time, hitting the ball up the middle 35.5%, and the opposite way 33.9%. Gordon appears to be taking the ball to the opposite field more, 28.6% compared to 13.1% last month. Gordon is also focusing more on off-speed pitches to hit, as his wCH/c (which is a linear weight against change-ups) is sitting at 1.69 in July, compared to -3.67 in April. Gordon has always been a better hitter when he isn’t pulling the ball as much and most of his big hits in the last week have been to the opposite field:

So for the month, these three are almost all above the league average for wRC+ (Moss is above with 168, Escobar and Gordon are almost there with 94 and 91 respectively) and all have a wOBA of .313 or higher. Kansas City has sought any offense from the bottom three and it has finally come to fruition. The next big question is ‘Can they sustain?’ this pace?

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Credit: Kansas City Star

With a little over two months left in the season, there is no reason to think these three hitters can’t continue this pace of production or something close to it. Moss might not slug at a .620 clip but as long as meets a happy medium between his low and his high that should keep him at a respectable level. Both Escobar and Gordon are performing at levels that are very sustainable and would be more than accepted if they can keep it up. Moss and Gordon are well-known to be streaky hitters so the highs and lows could be a bit extreme, but as long as they evened out to respectable numbers it should mark an improvement. The Royals have waited all season for these guys to hit and now comes the hard part-maintaining it. These three don’t need to carry the offense, they just need to contribute.

 

Royals Retro: Bret Saberhagen

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Back in the spring, I got to thinking about the history of the Kansas City Royals and how it was embedded into the fabric of my fandom as much as anything else. In the past I have done pieces on Hal McRae and have taken a look back at the history of the team, both at shortstop and a ‘Where are They Now’ piece as well. But I really wanted to dive into the past a bit more here on the blog and knew that during the season wouldn’t exactly be an opportune time to do that. Instead, I decided to wait until the off-season to get started with a monthly segment that will be called ‘Royals Retro’. Once a month, I’ll take a look back at the career of a past Royal who deserves to have a light shined on their career. I honestly couldn’t think of a better candidate to start off with than possibly the greatest pitcher in Royals history, Bret Saberhagen.

MLB Photos Archive

Saberhagen wasn’t a glorified first round draft pick by the Royals as I assume many would think he was. Instead, Bret was drafted by Kansas City in the 19th round of the 1982 draft, a high school pitcher out of Reseda, California. Saberhagen would sign late in July of that year, but wouldn’t make his professional debut until the 1983 season. In fact, 1983 would be Saberhagen’s only year in the minors, starting 27 games, posting an ERA of 2.55 over 187 innings, averaging 6.3 strike outs per 9, 2.3 walks per 9 and a WHIP of 1.134. Saberhagen took the fast track to the major leagues, as he would make his debut in Kansas City just one year later in 1984, splitting time between the rotation and bullpen for the Royals. He would throw 157 innings over 38 games (18 games started), posting an ERA+ of 115, striking out 4.2 batters per 9, and a FIP of 3.64. As probably expected, Saberhagen put up slightly better numbers in his 20 appearances out of the bullpen, posting an ERA of 2.32 over 54 innings, while averaging 4.1 strike outs per 9. One aspect of his game that was evident even early on in his career was how Sabs was good about trusting his defense and making pitches for the batter to put in play. Spanning his career, Bret’s ball in play percentage was on average anywhere from mid 70% to upper 70%; during his rookie year, it sat at 79%. Saberhagen would also make his first postseason start, throwing 8 innings while only allowing 3 runs, 2 earned. Nothing overtly stands out in his 1984 numbers that showed how he would break out the following year, but it was at least obvious that the Royals had a keeper.

Kansas City Royals

Saberhagen would enter his age 21 season and it wouldn’t take long for him to become the Royals ace. By the end of the season, he would lead the American League in FIP, WHIP, walks per 9 and strike out to walk ratio. He would also rack up an ERA+ of 143, an ERA of 2.87 and would win his first Cy Young award while coming in tenth in the AL MVP voting…basically on two pitches:

“The year Bret won 20, he relied mostly on two pitches: his fastball and his changeup, which he throws extremely well,” said Kansas City pitching coach Gary Blaylock. “Even though he also threw a curveball and a hard slider, he never really had control of either of them. Too often they were just waste pitches.

The icing on the cake was during the Royals playoff run that October. During the World Series in 1985, Saberhagen would make two starts, throwing two complete games, including a complete game shutout in Game 7 to help Kansas City take their first championship. Bret would end up MVP of the World Series, while his wife would give birth to the couple’s first child, Drew William, on the night of Game 6. All in all, it felt like the beginning of a very prosperous career for the young righthander.

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But Saberhagen would fall back in 1986, as a nasty combination of struggles and injuries limited him to 25 starts and 30 appearances overall. Injuries were the biggest issue, as Bret dealt with shoulder, elbow and foot problems and contributed to a 4.15 ERA, a 102 ERA+ and just 2.0 bWAR, a year after racking up an impressive 7.3 bWAR. Many wondered  back in ’86 if success had spoiled Sabs, but Saberhagen was just as unsure as anyone else:

“Everybody’s trying to come up with a solution or theory of what I could have done to change things,” Saberhagen said before the Kansas City Royals met the Angels Tuesday night in Anaheim Stadium. “When you’re not going as well as you should be, everybody shines the light at you and asks why.”

1986 would also be the beginning of weird odd year/even year pattern where it concerned his success. It appeared over time that Bret excelled in odd years, while struggling during even years. This odd phenomenon would continue throughout his Kansas City career.

Kansas City Royals

1987 saw Saberhagen restore his old glory, throwing an impressive 257 innings over his 33 starts, compiling 15 complete games, a WHIP of 1.163, an ERA+ of 136 and 8.0 bWAR. Bret would also earn his first All-Star nomination and a WPA+ of 19.1. A big part of his success that year was the added use of a curveball, a new addition to his pitching repertoire:

“That’s why we decided to take the hard slider away from him in spring training and have him work on perfecting his curveball, which actually fits his mechanics a lot better,” Blaylock continued. “Now he can consistently get hitters out with his curveball, where before it was just there. I won’t say that’s the chief reason for Bret’s fast start this season, but that’s part of it.”

It also appeared that any distractions he had in ’86 were in the rear-view mirror:

Saberhagen reportedly is also a lot more disciplined on days when he is scheduled to work than he was last year, when on at least one occasion he came to the park early, not to work on some of his problems, but to film a car commercial. This year he definitely seems more organized, more able to block out distractions, and more willing to challenge the hitters with a fastball that has been clocked as high as 96 m.p.h.

The one downside to 1987 was a shoulder injury in the second half of the season that affected his performance on the field, as only 4 of those 15 complete games were in the second half. Saberhagen would also allow more hits, runs and home runs in the second half, all in 42 less innings than he had in the first half.

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The pattern would continue in 1988, as Bret struggled, allowing the most hits in the American League and giving up the most runs in his career. Saberhagen would post an ERA+ of 106, a FIP of 3.08 (which actually wasn’t that bad) and a bWAR of 3.8. The good news was that he stayed healthy and that health would remain as he ventured into 1989. ’89 would be his career year when it came to numbers, as he would lead the American League in wins, W-L%, ERA, complete games, innings pitched, ERA+, WHIP, FIP and strike out to walk ratio. His bWAR that year was the highest of his career, 9.7, as he would earn his second Cy Young award, while earning his first Gold Glove and finishing 8th in the AL MVP voting. From July 26th on, Saberhagen would compile four shutouts and only once in a game over that period would a team score more than two runs on him. In many ways, 1989 was the year that Saberhagen went from being a really good pitcher who won the Cy Young award at one point to one of the best pitchers in the game and an elite ace. Most Royals fans will discuss his 1985 campaign when talking about his greatness, but 1989 was easily his best year.

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1990 was the expected off-year for Saberhagen, as he would appear in just 20 games while throwing 135 innings. The one positive for him was his second All-Star game appearance, one in which he would pick up the win for the American League. Bret would pitch in one game during the second half before being shelved, as he would have successful arthroscopic surgery on his elbow in July. At this point, he was 26 and the litany of injury issues were starting to pile up.

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1991 would be Bret’s final year in Kansas City and as patterns go, it was another solid season. Saberhagen would throw 196 innings in 1991, with seven complete games, an ERA+ of 135, a WHIP of 1.070 and a bWAR of 5.1. The crowning moment for him that season was his first career no-hitter, as he blanked the Chicago White Sox, 7-0. All these years later and it is the last no-hitter thrown in Royals history. Bret really didn’t think about getting it until about the 7th inning:

“The funny thing is that once we got to the seventh inning — and I’d been at that point a few times before in my career (with a no-hitter) and I’d never been able to finish it off — I started to think about getting that darn thing,” Saberhagen recalled. “So at that point, I told myself I was going to go at every batter like he was the last batter of the game.

The toughest out might very well have been the final out:

“It was a breaking ball to Frank, and he hit the ball to Terry Shumpert at second base,” Saberhagen recalled almost 23 years later. “Terry got it and fired to first and that was it. Such a cool feeling.”

How ironic, 25 years later, that this would be just a few months before Saberhagen’s time in Kansas City would wrap up. It seems fitting that possibly the greatest pitcher in Royals history would throw a no-no in his final year as a Royal.

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On December 11, 1991, the Royals shockingly traded Saberhagen to the New York Mets (with Bill Pecota) for Kevin McReynolds, Gregg Jefferies and Keith Miller. Bret was entering his age 28 season, and while there were some concerns about injuries, this was a way to fill three holes in the Kansas City offense:

“Any time an organization gives up a player of Bret Saberhagen’s caliber, it’s a hard thing to do. But we had to take a risk and do some things that you don’t always want to do. But we feel we’re a better ball club because of it. We were able to fill three holes. The Mets probably were the only club in baseball talent-rich enough to do something like this.”

What is interesting to see all these years later is the reactions, such as this one from former Mets GM Al Harazin on whether or not New York felt like they overpaid for Saberhagen:

“I think we gave up an awful lot of talent, but we got one of the best pitchers in baseball. I’ll leave it to others to decide if we overpaid.”

It was a shocking move, even for Bret as he wasn’t expected to leave Kansas City:

“When you win a couple of Cy Young’s you start thinking maybe you’re a fixture and one of the main reasons they’ve accomplished what they have in the past.”

The move was equally as shocking for Royals fans. I remember being crushed as a 15 year old Royals fan to learn one of my favorite players was no longer a Royal. At the time I wasn’t as privy to the business side of baseball; all I knew was a player I had gotten attached to was now going to pitch in New York. So how did the trade work out? Not great for the Royals. Saberhagen would accumulate 11.7 bWAR during his time in New York, including a third place finish in the National League Cy Young voting in 1994. Miller would play parts of four seasons with Kansas City, raking in 1.4 total bWAR in that span. McReynolds put together 1.9 bWAR in his two seasons in Kansas City (and never endeared himself to Royals fans), while Jefferies had a 2.2 bWAR in his lone season in Kansas City. Jefferies at one point was considered a future star, but was a slightly above average player whom the Royals would trade the following winter for Felix Jose. Jose was an even bigger bust, posting a -0.2 bWAR during his time in Kansas City. It’s hard to say one move could lead to the downfall of one organization, but the Saberhagen trade didn’t accomplish what Royals management was hoping it would and instead began a downfall that would fall even farther in upcoming seasons.

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The Mets would deal Bret to Colorado during the 1995 season and would finish out the year with the Rockies, including pitching in a Colorado playoff game that fall. He would sit out the 1996 season due to injury, but would return to baseball the following year, joining the Boston Red Sox. Saberhagen would pitch part of four seasons in Boston, and while at times he would show a glint of his past success, at this point of his career he was a nice middle of the rotation starter. He did become the Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year in 1998 and would also win the Tony Conigliaro Award. He would miss the 2000 season and while he tried a comeback in 2001, he would only pitch in three games and retire at the end of the season.The latter part of his career was littered with injuries and stunted what at one time was considered a possible Hall of Fame career.

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So two questions have gnawed at me over the years: one, ‘is Bret the greatest Royals pitcher in history?’ and two, ‘how close did he actually get to becoming a Hall of Famer?’. Let’s start with the first question, his place in Royals history. In all-time career bWAR, Saberhagen is just behind Kevin Appier, 47.3 to 40.8. He is fourth in ERA (behind three relievers), sixth in wins, fourth in win-loss%, 1st in WHIP, 2nd in walks per 9, 6th in innings pitched and fourth in strikeouts. At this point, it is pretty close between him and Appier, so I’m going to venture to the advanced side of things. Saberhagen is 5th in team adjusted ERA+ (second behind Appier for starters), first in team FIP and third in WPA. With all these numbers at hand, I would say in a very close race that Kevin Appier might just slightly edge out Bret for being the greatest Royals starting pitcher of all time. That also tells you how super underrated Appier really was.

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So how about the Hall of Fame? Going off the great website Hall of Stats, Saberhagen is in, as they gave him a Hall Rating of 122, as they take the top 217 players (the amount of players currently in the Hall of Fame) based just off of their career statistics and nothing else. Their formula?:

The Hall of Stats uses a formula called Hall Rating to rank every player in baseball history. Hall Rating combines the value of a player’s peak and longevity into a single number that represents the quality of that player’s Hall of Fame case. It’s not perfect, but there’s a lot to be said for rating all players in history according to the same objective criteria.

Now this factors in both longevity and peak of career, which has become more and more important over the years. Saberhagen’s case is 62% peak and 38% longevity and by their Hall Ratings he is 152nd all-time, 134th among eligible players and 45th among pitchers. Saberhagen will be eligible for the upcoming Today’s Game Era Committee, but the likelihood of him getting voted in is probably pretty slim. What this does tell us though is that his battle with injuries late in his career probably hurt his case and has made many voters ignore his numbers during his peak. The good news is that Saberhagen is already in the Kansas City Royals Hall of Fame, which is a great honor in Kansas City and was also voted one of the ‘Franchise Four’ for the Royals back in 2015.

MLB: World Series-San Francisco Giants at Kansas City Royals

For a number of years, it felt like the Royals had forgotten about Saberhagen and his place in the team’s history. There were a few public acknowledgements, but that was about it. It always bothered me, considering his place in franchise history. Luckily, over the last few years while the Royals have made their epic playoff runs, Saberhagen has continuously been seen at Kauffman Stadium. After all these years, it is still great to see ‘The Kid’ at the stadium, even for just a moment. I’m sure a kid from California never imagined while he was growing up that he would become such a large part of the fabric of a team in the midwest, but he has. When you talk about great Royals pitchers, names like Splittorff, Leonard, Busby, Appier and Greinke are often mentioned. But for me, the conversation started and ended with Saberhagen…and it always will.

 

 

 

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