Saturday, November 14, 2009

Dan Uggla - The New Soriano?

Tim Brown wrote a piece for Yahoo Sports concerning Dan Uggla's agent stating Dan Uggla wants to stay at second base. The agent is quoted as saying: "...he’s performed remarkably over these four years at second base and there should be no reason to consider a position change at this time.” In the words of modern philosophers: "What pipe has he been smoking from?"

All this sounds vaguely familiar. Not too long ago another second baseman, adept at hitting homers on a regular basis, but one who struggled in the field, insisted on staying at that position despite being asked to change. His name is Alphonso Soriano who now plays quite infrequently for the Cubs. Soriano eventually did become a left fielder and had a couple of good seasons there.

Well, we know agents are supposed to paint their clients in the best possible light. But shouldn't there be some truth or at least a hint of it in the babble that comes out of an agent's mouth? Dan Uggla has not been remarkable at second base. He was decent in 2008 and finished with a UZR slightly ahead of average with a score of 1.6. But in 2009, Uggla's UZR plummeted to new depths to -10.1. That low score tops his previous low of two years ago when he finished at -9.3. Plus, his range factor has dropped from his career marks around the 4.8 level to 4.4.

It's hard not to feel for Uggla's situation. Because of his bat, he's been worth $61 million in his four years with the Marlins while only making a fraction of that. The Marlins have had a steal for those four years. Now Uggla is reaching his arbitration years where he can finally cash in a bit and the Marlins won't be able to afford it and, since his career got a late start, he's going into 2010 at 30 years old and his abilities will only diminish from here.

And there is a economic advantage to being a good offensive player as a second baseman. The positional worth of a second baseman is higher than a first baseman or an outfielder. And as such, his WAR (Wins over replacement) value is higher as a second baseman. That all makes perfect economic sense for an agent and his player. But the reality is that he just isn't good enough to play that position. So any front office and fan of fielding stats can scoff at the "remarkably" comment as first degree hyperbole.

It's hard to know what kind of third baseman Uggla can be. But at least the value there is higher than an outfielder. Heck, he couldn't do any worse than Bonifacio did there last year. And his offensive worth is only marginal as a corner outfielder. That is the dilemma for Uggla.

Uggla is still a value at the plate. His 97 walks were a career high. He has hit over 30 homers for four straight years. He will get his dollars at arbitration this year. And there is no doubt he will be playing for somebody for the next couple of years. But any team that values defense will have to think twice about weakening their infield defense to play him at second. And if that's where he insists on playing, he will have a problem and be a problem.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Gold Gloves Not the Only Flawed Award

Anyone who has been reading the major sites and the most popular baseball writers knows the current outcry of scorn concerning the Rawlings Gold Glove Award. And while that award's results this year are again severely flawed, it isn't the only flawed award out there. This week we also had the announcements for the Silver Slugger Award which awards the best hitters at each position in the American and National leagues. This award is just as flawed but doesn't get as much ink.

There is no denying that the Gold Glove Awards are a joke. Several of this year's choices are puzzling and not anywhere close to being reality to who the best fielders are at each position. By the Fan's estimation, only six of the eighteen choices are defensible. That qualifies as a joke by a wide margin. And the scorn of writers and bloggers is justified. But hardly anyone talks much about the Silver Slugger Awards. Perhaps they are not as "big" as the Gold Glove Awards, but they are visible enough to be reported.

But whether the Silver Slugger is as "big" as the Gold Glove or not, shouldn't the process be correct? The award considers batting average and on base percentage among other things. But from this perspective, it does not consider slugging. To this writer, the awards should be based on OPS+. That considers all aspects of a batter's game. While it is true that this statistic has a few basic flaws, it is a truer valuation of a player's results than just batting average and on base percentage. Let's look at results per position.

American League

Catcher: Joe Mauer. Well yeah...

First base: Teixeira. They got this one right. Youkilis had a better OPS+ (he was second in the league behind Mauer), but the Red Sox screwed this one all up because they split Youkilis between first and third base, making him ineligible for either.

Second base: Aaron Hill. While Aaron Hill had a wonderful season and while the Fan is thrilled for him for his success, Ben Zobrist had a better OPS+ by quite a bit.

Shortstop: Derek Jeter. Jeter had the highest OPS+ among shortstops.

Third base: Evan Longoria. Longoria had a great season, but A-Rod had a much higher OPS+.

Outfield: Jason Bay, Ichiro Suzuki, Torii Hunter. The correct choices should have been Bay, Shin-Soo Choo and Jason Kubel. But if you want to rule Kubel out because he was a DH for 80 games, then next up would be J. D. Drew. Ichiro is a singles machine. He's also a prime outfielder and a good base runner. But his OPS+ was lower than Johnny Damon's for Pete's Sake.

DH: Adam Lind. This one was dead on.

National League

Catcher: Brian McCann. This one is correct. Montero for Arizona just missed with an OPS just points lower.

First base: Albert Pujols. Duh.

Second base: Chase Utley. Yes.

Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez. Another Yes.

Third base: Ryan Zimmerman. Zimmerman had a break out year and also deserved the Gold Glove, but Pablo Sandoval had a higher OPS+ by nine points.

Outfield: Ryan Braun, Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp. Bruan is correct as is Ethier, but Kemp was a mistake. It should have been Raul Ibanez who has Kemp by six points in OPS+.

DH: Oh yeah, the National League doesn't have one. Zambrano won it as a pitcher.

So the final tally is 12 correct out of 18 positions. Not quite as bad as the Gold Glove Awards, but still flawed nonetheless. The obvious point here is that the managers and coaches should not be picking either award. As long as they do, the awards will be flawed and we won't have a viable award that means anything.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ugh. They Should Have Retired

Ken Griffey Jr. has always been a Fan favorite. And it was fine for him to have a swan song season in Seattle. But it should have ended there. Instead, the Kid has signed on for another year and once again, all an admiring and thankful Fan can do is hope that the latest off-season surgery will help.

The same with Jason Varitek. Other than leading the league in blocking balls in the dirt, Varitek no longer has anything to offer. His offense is gone and his throwing is gone too. But the Red Sox foolishing offered Varitek an option year and he took it. Now the Red Sox will have to endure another season of awkwardness with Victor Martinez playing first at times to keep him in the lineup.

Washington Nationals - 2009 Debrief

Our nation's capital hasn't seen a good team in a good long while. Going back and including the Washington Senators who left for Minnesota in 1961, Washington baseball teams have come in last place seven out of nine seasons and one of those seasons was a next-to-last-place team. Not only were the 2009 Nationals a bad team, but they were very efficient at being inefficient. Maybe it's the curse of Congress being so close. But the Nationals shouldn't use our senators and congresspersons as their role models. Perhaps they should try the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (There! The name is correctly typed).

What is meant by the last two statements in the previous paragraph is that according to the Pythagorean Over/Under, the Nationals should have won 70 games but only won 59. The semi-good news there is that most of those were in the first half under Manny Acta. The team responded much better to Jim Riggleman after Acta was fired (good luck Cleveland).

The further good news is that five of the eight regulars in the lineup are pretty darn good thumpers. They get nothing at the plate from their middle infielders and their catchers however. And they have a bonafide star in Ryan Zimmerman, who not only had a great year at the plate and should continue to get better there, but was also recently rated as the best fielding third baseman in the National League, if not in all of baseball.

Adam Dunn is who he is. He'll walk a hundred times, strike out 170 times, clunk out nearly 40 homers and rumble around the field like some kind of tank. He's not a good fielder at any position and really should be a DH, but the NL doesn't have the DH, so he has to play somewhere. After trading Nick Johnson, the Nationals have decided that Dunn can do the least amount of harm at first.

Josh Willingham had a good season with a 127 OPS+ and Nyjer Morgan was great until he got hurt. But the Nationals seem to have a knack for being the collecting zone for once promising prospects that washed up in the majors. There was Lastings Milledge, Alex Cintron, Corey Patterson, Austin Kearns and Elijah Dukes. The Nationals need to get off that particular train. Those guys just didn't have what it takes to be effective major leaguers. Stop it already.

But what really is troubling for this team is the pitching and the defense. They were dead last in the majors for pitching VORP and 22nd out of 30 teams in defensive efficiency AND fielding percentage. Their regular catchers couldn't throw anybody out. Defense you can fix somewhat. It helps to get Dunn out of left field. Make Jesus Flores your starting catcher and you've already got some improvement. Get a shortstop that can either hit or field instead of one that can do neither.

But how to fix the pitching is the tough one. Apart from Jordan Zimmermann and Joel Hanrahan (in a few disastrous starts), none of their starting pitchers struck out more than six batters per nine innings. And this Fan is definitely off the Lannan bandwagon. Yeah, his ERA was good. But his 3.91 strikeouts per nine innings just isn't going to cut it long term in the majors. Add that to the fact that the five guys who got the most innings in the bullpen averaged five walks per nine innings. Ugh!

The Nationals should sign every decent arm on the market. That's their only hope, really. They can hope that Detwiler is as good as projected and that their uber-prospect, Stephen Strosburg is the real deal and comes along quickly.

There is no real easy fix for this team. Constant mismanagement has forced them into a period of futility that will take time to crawl out of. Heck, the D.C. fans haven't seen a World Series team since 1932 and it will take a while to have any hope of getting there any time soon.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bouncing off of Posnanski

Many of you know that Joe Posnanski is a favorite writer of this blog. His excellence is beyond pretty much anything out there. He is consistently entertaining and consistently on point. As a result, he has earned his new gig as a senior writer for Sports Illustrated.

One of the things that good writers do is make you think. When arguments and statements from that writer make the reader ponder their own point of view, that's good writing. Rob Neyer over at ESPN does that too, though he's more of a commentator on other writers than he is a writer himself these days. But he makes you think and again, that's what good writers do.

Mr. Posnanski wrote a fairly scathing (in his words) screed the other day about the big bucks the Yankees have and their competitive advantage. As a Fan of both that team and of Mr. Posnanski (and of Sports in the City, another great blog with the same opinion), it is a bit bothersome that this opinion exists. And, on the surface, the point is true. The Yankees do have a competitive advantage. But what is also true is that hardly anyone with that opinion puts things in a historical perspective.

The opinion doesn't take into account what the Yankees have built. The Fan was there when it started. And believe this writer when he tells you, the Yankees did not always have this advantage. They built it the good old American way.

The lowly Marlins and Pirates and Royals and all the other "poor" teams in terms of payroll all have higher attendance figures than the Yankees did for at least half of the 1960s. The lowest attendance figure in the sport this past year was 1.4 million seats sold. All of these seats cost much more than they did back in the 1960s. From 1966 to 1970, the Yankees averaged about 1.25 million seats sold in attendance. That attendance was uniformly bad in those days must be stated here for fairness. But even saying that, the Yankees usually finished those years in the middle of the pack in attendance in the majors.

The team was such a financial mess that George Steinbrenner could buy the team at $10 million from CBS. From that lowly state, Steinbrenner built an empire. He used a bit of P. T. Barnum bluster, a knack for finding the back page of the New York Daily News, he correctly gauged the minds of New York fans and he built a television monster. He really has been the Vanderbilt of baseball.

Ted Turner nearly equaled what Steinbrenner did with the Braves. His TBS, which was far ahead of its time, took a poor team and made them a financial success, which like the Yankees, allowed them to be competitive for a long, long time.

The point is that these men succeeded with smarts and business acumen to take moribund franchises and built them into monsters. John Henry, et al, have done the same thing with the Red Sox. As a business owner, this Fan admires their success and dreams of that sort of end story. And yet, their success has become some sort of evil. It's become a bad thing and shouts are made across the land of lack of parity and lack of opportunity. Well, that's disturbing.

It is disturbing on a couple of fronts. First, it says that if a team is not very good at PR or not very good at building their brands and their businesses, the Yankees should be punished because they are. Heck, the Yankees are already "taxed" for their success with some of their hard earned money being given to those poor business people. Plus, with revenue sharing, all profits from national television rights and MLB products are divided evenly among all teams despite the fact that the Yankees drive in more money to those accounts than anyone else. And the Fan is okay with that on some level. But on another level, it seems a bit communistic to have the rich (again derived from smarts) support the poor (who haven't been as smart).

The basic unfairness the Yankees have is their location. It is considered the best market in sports. But that hasn't helped the Knicks has it? Or the Rangers? Artie Moreno is another example of an owner who took a franchise that wasn't exactly succeeding in their market and making it a success. He also has a prime market. But he had to make that market work for him. The Yankees have been successful at making their market work. But that is evil?

Let's look at another team in sports that has become nearly as "evil" as the Yankees. Let's talk about the New England Patriots. Before Robert Kraft bought that team, the Patriots were an absolute mess. They played at a dreadful stadium which was a traffic nightmare. The team was more awful than it was good. They had a couple of good seasons, but basically, they were an also-ran. Kraft has made that franchise a jewel through good business sense and smart management. But success breeds evil in this country nowadays. It's like we've become a country of anarchists. We want to tear down all these success stories because not everyone is a success.

The dirty little secret in baseball is that success for the Yankees means more revenue for the other owners despite whether they are good at what they do or not. The Yankees are the biggest draw whenever they visit other venues. That television revenue and marketing revenue sharing along with the "tax" the Yankees pay for their payroll means more money for these other owners. Some of them may cry foul for the success the Yankees have and the advantage they have built, but the Fan would believe that most of them think of the Yankees like some creepy, but rich uncle that lines their pockets with more money.

The Fan will take all of this one point further. Any team currently in a mess, any team with a small payroll and in a hole when it comes to competing can turn it around just like the Yankees did. If they had the same flair, the same acumen and the same brand-building machine, the Royals could be a big success as could the Marlins, the Twins and any other team you mention out there. The Yankees started from a lower point than all of them. Look it up. Granted, they have a good market. But that didn't stop Sam Walton did it?

Bottom line: The Yankees have earned their success. They are an American success story. And it is a story that anyone can repeat. That's not evil. It truly isn't.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Flordia Marlins - 2009 Debrief

The Marlins came in second place in the National League East, six games behind the Phillies and a game ahead of the Braves. Here is a quick quiz: The Marlins won 87 games and came in second because: A) Great young pitching or B) Batting. Most people would answer "A." But really, the answer is "B." There is no doubt that the Marlins have great arms and have a reputation for developing such arms. But 2009 was no different than the years before. Those arms failed to come together significantly and it was the hitting that carried them.

Some day, the Marlins, who always have to go on the cheap, will gel at the pitching position. Every year it seems they have the best young arms in baseball. But every year, those arms fail to materialize in a dominant staff. Maybe 2010 will be the year. They certainly have the talent. But two things seem to get in the way. First, they walk way too many batters. They finished 12th in the National League in that category out of 16 teams. Secondly, their defense is awful. Their defensive efficiency ranked 22nd in the majors out of 26 teams. They were weak in fielding at second, first, third, left and right.

On the Positive Side

They have the second best player in baseball in Hanley Ramirez. With his glove, he may be even with Albert Pujols because he plays shortstop. The guy's talent is unlimited and he is still only 25 years old, meaning his best years should still be ahead of him. He had an OPS+ of 148. He has a VORP of 79.9. Wow! They also had a break out year for Chris Coghlan who mercifully took over the lead off position from Bonafacio (more on him later) and ended up with 565 plate appearances. Coghlan's line ended up: .321/.390/.460. That's a line that's not too far behind Derek Jeter from the lead off spot. He played out of position in left, but with his age, there is no reason why he can't develop into a top flight outfielder.

The Marlins also got productive years from Jorge Cantu, Cody Ross and Dan Uggla, all who finished well above the league average in OPS+. They are solid at catcher with a nice platoon split of Paulino and Baker. Both finished league average at the plate but Paulino is more solid as a defender. Baker had too many passed balls and wasn't nearly as good as Paulino in throwing out runners. Nick Johnson was a nice addition at the end of the year. It is doubtful they keep him, but he was well worth the time he spent there.

The Marlins also have one of the best starting pitchers in the league in Josh Johnson. Johnson finished the season with some eye popping numbers. He went 15-5 with a 3.23 ERA. His WHIP was 1.158 and he had an excellent 3.29 strikeout to walk ratio. Johnson is the real deal and barring injury, should be a big time pitcher for quite some time. Ricky Nolasco also had a better year than his 5.06 ERA would indicate. His strikeout to walk ratio is off the charts at 4.43 and he struck out more than 9 batters per nine innings. He gave up too many homers, but other than that, he was a good pitcher. A little different luck and he would have been fabulous. The 1-2 punch of Johnson and Nolasco is an exciting one.

Out of the bullpen, Brian Sanchez and Kiko Colero (one of the great names in baseball) are big time arms and had much success. Wheeler was decent and the Marlins got great efforts at the end of the year from Brenden Donnelly and Tim Wood.

The Ugh Factors

It is truly unforgivable that the Marlins gave Emilio Bonifacio over 500 plate appearances. His 61 OPS+ is enough proof that they had to be out of their minds to do so. Plus, he was terrible in the field, giving the team fits for an entire season. And yet, they kept running him out there.

It is also clear that the Marlins can't keep Dan Uggla at second base. He's just not very good there, which is probably a charitable statement. If the Fan were in charge down there, it might be considered worth the risk to switch Uggla and Coghlan and put Coghlan at second. Uggla, despite a consistently low batting average, is productive at the plate with good power and lots of walks. But man, he just can't play second. Those memorable errors in the All Star game was NOT a fluke.

The Marlins need to decide what to do about right field. Brett Carroll might be the best outfielder in baseball. But he doesn't hit. Hermida has already been traded to the Red Sox. It would probably be a good idea to move Cody Ross to right and install Cameron Maybin in center. Maybin hasn't proved he can hit in the majors but he is a big time talent. If he can put it together, the Marlins could be on to something. But that's a big if.

The Marlins need a closer they can rely on. Wheeler is better as a setup guy and Nunez gave up 13 homers in just 68.1 innings of work. That's not what you want from a closer. They have a lot of good arms. One of them should be able to get that job done.

What happened to Chris Volstad is a bit of a mystery. He was great in 2008 but was really not very good in 2009. He gave up a whopping 29 homers and his WHIP ballooned up to 1.434. He is a talented pitcher though and perhaps he will bounce back. This Fan has little regard for Sean West. He has talent, but he seems so immature (check out the web for some of his nightlife adventures). Plus, his body language on the mound is weak. He lacks the confidence you need to have to make his obvious talent work for him.

2010 Projection

As always with the Marlins, it's a question of whether the pitching can come together. A rotation made up of of Johnson, Nolasco, Volstad, West, Annibal Sanchez and Andrew Miller (the young phenom who showed flashes, but ultimately walked too many) could be dominant if they can put it together. They have some good arms in the bullpen and if they can develop a closer out of one of them, that could be a strength as well.

It's also obvious the Marlins can hit, but perhaps a few of the tweaks outlined above can make them a better fielding team, which is much needed. Hopefully, we won't have to endure another season of Bonifacio.

If the Marlins can get the pitching their talent indicates, continue hitting and improve their defense, they could be scary. There isn't much reason why they can't win 90 games. The Fan doesn't see them winning more than that, but stranger things have happened.