Friday, March 07, 2014

Expect Mike Napoli's numbers to dip

Mike Napoli was just one of the many things that went really right for the Boston Red Sox last season. A catcher for most of his career, Napoli moved to first base and surprised everyone with just how good he was over there. He also had a highly successful year at the plate. The bottom line was that Mike Napoli was the third best first baseman in the American League last season. Do not expect a repeat.
That seems like a weird statement in respect to the fact that his batting average and on-base percentage were nearly exact to his career average and his slugging percentage was twenty points lower than his career average. In light of those statistics, you would think his slugging would bounce back and after more than 3,200 plate appearances, his average and OBP would be good baselines.
But several things are troubling about making that leap. First was his strikeout rate. If you were told that of Mike Napoli, Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds, Napoli had the highest strikeout rate of the three, would you believe it? Well, it's true. Napoli struck out 187 times in 578 plate appearances, or 32.4% of the time. This is the second straight season where he has struck out 30% of the time or more, so it is a definite trend.
Napoli has very good plate discipline and that kind of discipline does not regress quickly. So the best way to look at what is happening at the plate is to look at his contact percentage inside the strike zone.
After two straight seasons with a contact percentage in the strike zone of 78.7% in 2010 and 2011, that number dipped to 74.7% in 2012 and then down again to 72.4% in 2013. The four projections looked at for this piece do not expect the trend to continue to plummet but most predict a strikeout rate of at least 30% and that makes a lot of sense.
When your strikeout rate is that high, you better be highly efficient with your batted balls because you will have so much less of them than most players. In order to maintain a batting average of .250 or higher with those kinds of whiff rates, batted balls are everything.
That said, Mike Napoli had a very good time with his batted balls in 2013. His BABIP of .367 was easily the highest of his career and 57 points over his career average. Perhaps some of it is legit though. Napoli hit more line drives in 2013 than at any time of his career--by a lot!
In 2013, Mike Napoli's line drive percentage was 24.4%. It was the first time in his career that he was over 20%. His career average (dragged up with last year's numbers) is only 19.4%. So how do you explain the sudden surge of line drives? Was it playing first instead of catching and not being all beat up? Was it some new-found batting skill from better study or mechanics? Perhaps.
Or perhaps it was a fluke. Line drives, as mentioned in this space a million times, are gold to a batter. Nothing besides a ball going over the fence has more of a chance of being successful than a line drive. Lots of line drives will usually lead to a above average BABIP like Napoli experienced in 2013.
Napoli could repeat this new-found success. But the odds seem to be against it based on his career norms. And even with all those line drives and his very high BABIP, because of the strikeouts, he still batted only .259. With his walk percentage being terrific, any batting average for him of .245 or higher will lead to a very good on-base percentage. But if his line drive percentage goes back to norms, the strikeouts stay high, then his batting average will dip by twenty points or more with a more normalized BABIP.
Do not expect his slugging percentage to improve back to his career level of .502 either. Napoli's ISO has been dependent on where he has played most of his home games. It was in the .220 range with the Angels, much higher with the Rangers and then back to the Angels level with the Red Sox where Fenway Park is not the best place for lefty swingers to hit homers.
The projections for Mike Napoli look right. They are pessimistic compared to 2013. They do not expect his offense to be as good (or as valuable) and they expect his defense to decline. While the latter conclusion is suspect as he has become a very good first baseman, even these projections might be too optimistic for Napoli. The expectation here is for his OPS to drop from .842 in 2013 to the .780 to .800 range.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Not excited about Australia either

For the fourth time since 2004, Major League Baseball is going to mess up its schedule to start a series overseas with games that count before the regular season starts. It was bad enough that the first three started anywhere from four to five days before the regular season started. This year, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks will play in Australia a full seven days before the season starts. It's messed up.
Zack Greinke made a bit of a stink about not being excited to go and a bunch of people fussed about it--especially those in Australia. But Greinke is right and this does pose quite a bit of a problem for the players.
But it is not just about the players. There has been a lot of talk about making baseball's opening day a national holiday. Hey, I'm all for that. But first, all the teams would need to make Opening Day the same day.
The sentiment for this national holiday is that fans long for that magical start of the season after watching a month of Spring Training games. What does this do to the fans of the D-backs and Dodgers who have this day pushed all the way back to March 22 and the games are on odd hours and they are not played in an NL West stadium.
Sometimes I feel like that grumpy smurf. I hate this sort of thing. I hate the World Baseball Classic that messes up Spring Training and makes you worry about your favorite players. I hate that Opening Day is not the same for every team and not all day games. And I especially hate these overseas games that artificially start the season in places where the teams are not supposed to play.
I get that Bud Selig wants to make baseball a world cultural thing. But, Bud, it is already there. The game has spread around the world and Australia already has a big baseball culture and has sent players to play in the MLB. That push is not necessary.
Now let's get back to the players for a second. Do you folks know how far away Australia is and how long it takes to get there? It is somewhat better from the West Coast like the these two teams are heading from (yes, I know Arizona is not on the coast). But even so, that is a long honking trip.
The players will get there in time to play exhibition games against Australian teams on March 21 and then play each other twice on basically the same day (our time) on March 22. The players' systems will be messed up for at least a couple of days before the trip and a couple of days after.
But then they have a two-game record that stands frozen in time for seven days until the rest of the season starts and these two teams have to go back to some semblance of Spring Training in between. This will not be fun.
Rail all you want about Greinke, but he is dead on with this. Frankly, you expose these two teams to a whole lot more danger by having to make that long trip to foreign soil.
The other thing it does is accelerate the decisions that Don Mattingly and Kirk Gibson have to make. They have to set their clubs earlier than normal. And Greinke is right about messing up the routine that is a normal Spring Training.
Doing this is not aesthetically pleasing to the fans, to the players, to the managers and general managers or to anyone but perhaps the host country. It simply is another way for Selig to put some imaginary feather in his cap for his overstated legacy.
Let's look back at a little history of this. In 2004, the Yankees and (then) Devil Rays began their season in Tokyo. The Yankees won 101 games that season and finished in first place. But they were only 11-10 in April, the team's worst month of the season. April was also the worst month of the season for the Devil Rays that year with a .316 winning percentage.
In 2008, the Red Sox and Athletics began their season with two games in Tokyo. The Red Sox had a good month of April. The A's also got off to a good start that season in April, but faltered in July and August. The Red Sox also had a poor August. Coincidental perhaps.
In 2012, the Athletics and Mariners started their seasons early (Puerto Rico?) for two games starting on March 28. They did not play again for a week and then played each other again in the states. The A's had a horrible April and May that season and played .600 ball the rest of the season. A better start to the season could have seen them in the playoffs. April wasn't that bad a month for the Mariners.
I am not really stating that there is a one to one ratio here and the results could be a coincidence. But doubt does creep into your mind and it makes you wonder if the long trip and throwing a team out of sorts has anything to do with it. And if any doubt is caused to creep in on anything, MLB shouldn't be doing it.
I applaud Zack Greinke for saying what he said. He probably speaks for a lot of the players. He certainly speaks for the fans and for this particular baseball writer. I hate messing with the season in any way.
Opening Day is a sacred thing for many people. All the teams should begin their seasons on the same day and doggone it, they should all be day games.

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Angels have a chance in the AL West

The news this spring from the AL West has been interesting to say the least. While nobody should ever discount the Athletics again, the Rangers have three starters with various ailments and question marks behind them. The Mariners got Cano, who now wants the general manager's job, but have Iwakuma and Walker hurting. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the state of California on the West Coast of the USA in North America on Planet Earth just might be able to do some business here.
That opinion might sound a bit whacked for a team that just finished a miserable season at 78-84 with a -4 run differential. Their pitching was abysmal and two big splash free agents, Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton were invisible. But even ZiPS has the team winning 85 games in 2014, good enough for a first place finish in the division. Is that realistic?
There are three keys to the Angels being able to rebound in 2014. The first is what contributions the team gets from the aforementioned Pujols and Hamilton. The second is if the starting rotation can be better. And the third is the bullpen. Let's take a look at each one of these keys individually.
Pujols and Hamilton
Things have not started well for Josh Hamilton as he cannot even get out of the gate in Spring Training with a calf issue. You never like to see a player not be able to start his preparatory part of the season behind. But a calf is not the most serious of injuries and eventually, Hamilton should get his season underway. But what kind of season will it be?
ZiPS has him at 2.3 WAR with only 6 runs above average on offense. Other projections systems have anywhere from a win and a half to 2.7. Those pessimistic numbers are understandable with the season Hamilton had in 2013 that lead to a career low, 1.9 fWAR.
But there are two things to consider. First, Hamilton was much better in the second half with a .344 wOBA compared to .302 in the first half. While that second half wOBA is not where his career has been, it is higher than any of the projection systems predict for him. I do not expect a return to his glory days in Texas, but a .350 wOBA is not out of the question.
Then there is Albert Pujols. How soon we forget that Pujols was the best player on the planet during his first ten years. While regression is natural, his fall off in production the last two to three years seems unnatural. His wheels were never right since 2011 and without a solid base beneath a batter, the batter cannot do what he once did.
Pujols stubbornly played through the pain until reason finally prevailed and he was shut down after just a partial season a year ago. All indications are that he is healthy. I think he has one more great year in him. I have already mentioned in another post that in Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projections, Albert Pujols was projected to have the highest offensive score.
They are alone in that assessment, however. Other projection systems range from 1.5 WAR (no way) to 3.8. His wOBA projections go from .336 to .366. His career average is .420. Woof. I will go out on a limb here and predict a .380 wOBA for Pujols in 2014.
If Pujols and Hamilton play even close to what I have predicted, they will make that lineup more dynamic and make Mike Trout even better.
The Rotation
In the last four years, only 22 pitchers have started more than 120 games and compiled over ten WAR. The Angels have two of them in Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. That said, Weaver scored 5.7 fWAR in each of 2010 and 2011 and did not equal that total for his last two seasons combined. His strikeout rate has come down and he has lost three MPH on his fastball.
All that said, there is just something about Jered Weaver to believe that he will find a way. The projection systems agree (mostly) and have him in the mid-threes range. That seems reasonable and solid to me.
I have to admit that I was surprised by C.J. Wilson's season a year ago. He was really good for the Angels and was one of the most pleasant stories of their lost season. He cut down on his walk rate, kept the ball in the park better and his 3.51 FIP was quite impressive. It changed my opinion of him and my worries about his durability since changing from a closer to a starter have been unfounded. He has been as durable as they come. He should be in the ballpark of where he was a year ago.
The rest of the rotation last year was putrid. Williams, Blanton and Hanson stunk up the joint. Only Blanton of those three remain and if he makes the rotation, nobody will be more surprised than me. The depth charts show a rotation of Weaver, Wilson, Garrett RichardsTyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. On paper, that is a much more solid rotation than last year.
Skaggs and Santiago were obtained in a big three-team trade that cost them Mark Trumbo and a minor league pitcher. That is a great deal for the Angels. Pujols will make up for Trumbo's offense and Skaggs and Santiago have to be better than Blanton and Hanson.
Tyler Skaggs never really got going with the Diamondbacks, but that is a tough place to pitch. He had success in the minors that even the projection systems believe will translate to the Angels.
Hector Santiago had a 3.51 ERA as a starter last year for the lousy White Sox team. It should have been better, but it looks like he ran out of gas towards the end of the season and got roughed up a bit in the second half. The experience should put him in good stead for this year and at the very least, should make him one of the better fifth starters in the AL West. Anything would be an improvement over Blanton. Geez.
All in all, the rotation is in much better shape in my opinion. Richards can take the next step and Skaggs and Santiago should be better than what was around last year following a very good 1-2 combo.
The Bullpen
This bullpen still worries me. I am not a big fan of Ernesto Friari. His tendency to give up the long ball is frightening. But his strikeout rate is among the best and if he can do better at not delivering the soul-sucking homers, he could be very good.
The rest of the cast looks just so-so. But I do not worry much about bullpens, especially this time of year. A struggling bullpen is the easiest thing to fix during a season and if the Angels are not comfortable with what they have, lots of cuts by other teams could give them some options at the end of Spring Training.
If the Angels have weaknesses other than what we talked about, it would be at the catcher position and I think Raul Ibanez was a stretch as is the pick up of Carlos Pena. The depth is not there and if bodies go down, the Angels could struggle again.
But all things being equal and somewhat healthy, is this team eight wins better than last year? I think so. Is that enough to beat the Athletics? I'm not so sure. I do believe Angel fans will have a lot more fun this summer.

The Red Sox still haven't retired Wade Boggs' number

Three years ago this month, I wrote a bit of a tirade that one of my favorite players ever, Wade Boggs, had not had his uniform retired by the Boston Red Sox. Three years later, the Red Sox have still not honored one of their great players in this way. The 100th Anniversary of Fenway Park was a great opportunity. It passed by. So what is the problem, Red Sox? Why is one of your very best still treated better by the Tampa Bay Rays than by his home team? The post I wrote way back then is just as relevant now. I have dressed it up a bit, but the post is thus repeated here:

 Wade Boggs is in the Hall of Fame. He did most of his playing damage and built nearly two-thirds of his career numbers while playing for the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox have not retired his number. That's a crime.
There seems to be some thought put into this business by the Red Sox. Apparently, they want their retired numbers to represent players that finished their careers with Red Sox uniform draped around their persons. Yastzremski, of course, played his entire career with the Red Sox as did Jim RiceJohnny Pesky and Ted Williams. There is one exception that I will take exception to in a minute.
While this makes sense on some level, the new reality is that in modern baseball, very few players will play their entire career with one team. Chipper Jones and Derek Jeter are a couple of the last of a dying breed. Teams have adopted front offices with large groups of analytic employees that now help shape teams and their rosters. Veterans that no longer produce are allowed to "walk" once they hit free agency. The Red Sox are famous for (correctly) jettisoning players who outlive their usefulness. And once upon a time, they did so with Wade Boggs, who was allowed to walk away and sign with the Yankees.
That is not the player's fault. That is the new reality. And as such, decision-making on how retired numbers are thought about should adapt along with the new reality. If a player played a large part of his career with a certain team and the player makes it to the Hall of Fame, his dominant team should retire his number. Period. 
Wade Boggs certainly fits this category. Boggs amassed 2,098 of his 3,010 hits while a member of the Boston Red Sox. 422 of his 578 doubles were hit wearing their uniform. While with the Red Sox, Boggs had five seasons where he led the league in batting and more importantly, six times led the league in on-base percentage. He led the league twice in OPS, once in OPS+, twice in doubles, twice in runs scored and six times in intentional walks. What else does a player have to do?
Here is a statistic for you. Wade Boggs five times hit over .350 with an on base percentage over.400 with 40 or more doubles. Only Rogers Hornsby and Tris Speaker did that more times with seven apiece. His seven-year run from 1983 to 1989 might be the greatest seven-year stretch for a lead off batter in history. 
For four straight seasons from 1985 to 1988, his batting average was never lower than .357 and his on-base percentage was never lower than .450. And here is the favorite statistic: For his career (if the math has been done correctly while looking at his splits in, Wade Boggs had a line drive percentage of 26 percent. Amazing.
I was in New England during Wade Boggs' career and Channel 38 was one of the few channels we could get back then while living in New Hampshire and southern Maine. I watched Wade Boggs a lot. And during his seven year peak, he seemed impossible to get out. And it was that kind of production that made Dave Righetti's no-hitter even more spectacular because to get it, he had to get Wade Boggs out multiple times including the swinging strikeout that ended the game. That is how good Wade Boggs was to watch. 
Boggs easily should have won the MVP in 1987. His WAR of 9.1 led the league that season. And a strong case could be made for the years before and after 1987. There is no way the Red Sox make it to the 1986 World Series without Wade Boggs--a World Series the Red Sox would have won if not for the blundering of manager, John McNamara
Boggs didn't get started as a major league regular until he was 25 years old. He was a seventh round draft pick that took a while to get a chance. And his minor league numbers were wasted until the Red Sox finally let him play (295 hits in Triple-A with a .418 OBP). Even starting so late, Fangraphs gives him 98.1 WAR for his career. 75.7 of that WAR was accumulated as a member of the Boston Red Sox. That is far more value than Jim Rice's career and more just in Boston than Carlton Fisk accumulated for his entire career!
Speaking of Carlton Fisk, he did not finish his career in Boston. If the Red Sox can retire Fisk's number, they can retire Wade Boggs'.
Boggs gave the Red Sox one of the most amazing careers as a third baseman that franchise has ever seen. He worked extremely hard to make himself a good fielder too. JAWS has him as the third best all around third baseman of all time. has a method of breaking down a career in increments of 162 games (the length of a season. Wade Boggs averaged 200 hits, 94 walks, 100 runs scored and 38 doubles.
Simply put, Wade Boggs was the bomb for the Boston Red Sox and for Major League Baseball. I have been crying out in the wilderness for three years, Mr. Henry. Retire that uniform number. It was 26 with the Red Sox in case you've forgotten. In the last two years, Brock Holt and Scott Podsednik have worn it. Seriously!?