Table of Contents

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

My Playoff Team Previews

At this point, I've profiled all four of the remaining playoff teams.  Here's a handy set of links to each one.

American League

National League

If the Cubs advance to the World Series...which, at this moment in the 7th inning of game 4, seems pretty unlikely...I'll probably run another profile on them.  But this might be the complete set.

For the record, I'm rooting for the Blue Jays in the American League.  I like the Royals and all, but the Blue Jays are too much fun.  I was pretty stoked to see them hang in there tonight for at least one more game.  Tulo seems like he's heating up.

In the National League, I'm not sure.  I have a hard time rooting for Daniel Murphy.  But I love Curtis Granderson.  I love the Mets' young pitching.  But I like the Cubs' young hitters just as much.  I instinctively feel drawn to the Cubs over the Mets, but my soul can't accept rooting for the Cubs.  So, I'm just enjoying the NLCS.  I'm not sure who I'll root for if the Royals advance to the World Series.  It'd be Cueto on days he pitches.  Other than that, I'll have to wait and see.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

2015 Playoffs: The Toronto Blue Jays

Josh Donaldson leads the Toronto Blue Jays' collection of very good, yet very surprising hitters.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison
(note: this was written in between games 3 and 4.  As it goes live, I have no knowledge of the outcome of today's game...edit: and after watching it, all I can say is wow.  Cliff Pennington pitching in October?  Really?)

After several consecutive years of enticing promise and ultimate failure, the Toronto Blue Jays finally reached the playoffs this year for the first time since 1993.  It was an exciting season from an outsider's perspective: the Jays basically seemed to be treading water through the end of July, once again hovering around .500 despite preseason optimism.  On July 28th, they were 50-51, and 8 games behind the NL East-leading Yankees.  But the front office was active at the end of July, netting the Jays both David Price and Troy Tulowitzki near the trade deadline.  And while you can't attribute it entirely to those moves (Tulo did not hit well, and missed half of September with injuries), they proceeded to go on an unbelievable tear as the calendar turned to August, including an 11-game winning streak that took them all the way to first place.  After another couple of weeks of back and forth, the Jays took the division lead for good, and by mid-september had pulled well away from the Yankees.  It really was the stuff of storybooks:

They "only" won 93 games, but this looks like a monster team.  They led the league in position player WAR, despite only average fielding ratings.  Their offense was just unreal.  They were better at almost every aspect of offense than anyone else.  Cumulative measures like wRC+ and wOBA?  They were the outlier leaders.    On-base percentage?  Best.  Slugging?  Best.  ISO?  Best.  Home runs?  Best.  Walk rate?  #2, barely behind the Dodgers.  Strikeout rate?  5th-lowest (which is amazing given their power).  Baserunning?  5th best, just behind the Reds.  Added to that offensive greatness is a solid-enough rotation (though note the xFIP-ERA split...doesn't really follow from their fielding data, but sequencing and knuckleballers, maybe?) and an effective bullpen (despite the turnover).  The result?  A really good team.

Position Players

This is the best collection of position players on one team that I've seen in quite a while.

The Josh Donaldson trade of this past offseason continues to be one that confuses me.  The justification, of course, was that Oakland thought that they could acquire a reasonable approximation of Donaldson in Brett Lowrie, along with a nice set of young arms, in exchange for their MVP-candidate Donaldson.  Maybe they thought he was bound for a significant regression.  Ultimately, Donaldson went on to have the best season of his career, and is basically tied with Mike Trout for the WAR-based AL MVP honors (I'd give the nod to Donaldson, just for variety's sake).  And he's still under team control for (I think?) another three seasons.  Pretty big miss by the Athletics.

The Jays added Donaldson's brilliance to the "typical" seasons by Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion (hurray for EdE!).  Those two will go down as two of the most amazing transformations by batters in baseball history.  Both were former mid-tier prospects.  Bautista had basically been a non-factor in his early goes at the league. Encarnacion showed some promise early in his career with the Reds, but seemed to have petered out.  Both were plagued by severe fielding problems at third base.  And both were basically waiver-bait.  Toronto picked up Bautista for a player to be named later in a mid-August trade in 2008.  They originally did trade for Encarnacion (from the Reds, of course) in 2009, but later let him go via waivers to the Athletics in 2010, only to sign him again a month later into that offseason.  Both players somehow, almost magically, took an enormous leap forward with their offense that easily overcame their defensive struggles.  They are the kind of player that I will always be at least a year behind the public in embracing and believing in.  For that, I find them frustrating.  But at the same time, I love them for it: players with pedigree can always take a big step forward.  And they are the ultimate counter-point to the arguments against players trying to swing hard and pull the ball: that very approach is what allowed them to take that step forward.

And then there's the ever-excellent Russell Martin.  He may have slipped a bit from his career year with the Pirates last year, but he remains an excellent hitter and an outstanding defender (#7 on the catcher framing board this year at +12 runs).  Why the Jays would start Dioner Navarro in a playoff game is beyond me, and that's not a dig against Navarro.

Right there with Bautista, Encarnacion, and Martin on the WAR leaderboard is Kevin Pillar, who has been the big surprise to me this postseason.  Himself a mid-tier prospect, he had a really nice season.  He previously seemed to have a reputation as a platoon-type guy, a lefty-masher, who could hold down center field in a pinch.  This year, thanks to good-enough offense along and superb defense, he cashed in a 4+ WAR year in his first full season as a starter.  His on-base skills could be better, but he has nice power for a speed-and-field oriented outfielder, and has been hot in October.

So, with those five in hand, this is already an excellent team.  Troy Tulowitzki, yesterday's home run (and my long-standing man-crush) notwithstanding, may be more of a piece for the future than an immediate solution.  Tulo is apparently playing hurt, and while he is clearly still capable of making nice plays in the field, his bat been roughly average for a shortstop this year, with a huge drop-off in his walk rate.  As I wrote back in July, that's weird.  Perhaps because it is known that he's not himself, he has seen more pitches in the zone this year, and has increased his swing rate on both those pitches and pitches out of the zone (with poorer contact rates to boot).  I'd like to think that the home run was a sign of good things to come, but the most likely scenario seems to be

The rest of the team is a little scrubby.  Ryan Goins is having a great postseason, but on the season demonstrated himself as a good-fielding second base option with an at-best adequate bat.  Left field has been a rotation between the all-fielding, light-hitting Ben Revere and the all hitting, awful-fielding Chris Colabello (Colabello, it should be noted, is an amazing story: he played independent ball for nine years--nine years!!--before finally getting a shot in pro ball with the Twins.  Now, he's starting at first base in the NLCS).  Justin Smoak didn't fare much better in hitting-friendly Toronto than he did in pitcher-friendly Seattle, and shares time with Colabello at first base.  But when you have the stars this team has, you can afford a few positions with lower production.

Starting Pitchers

Mid-season, this was where the Blue Jays really seemed to struggle.  But the trade deadline brought them a rental of David Price, who has been masterful in Toronto.  And Marcus Stroman returned late in the season from an ACL injury, and has picked up where he left off as a promising top of the rotation starter.  Now, suddenly, the Blue Jays aren't looking so bad.  We know Price as a fairly prototypical top-tier pitcher, with a combination of both stuff and control.  Stroman is fun because he is more extreme: while his strikeout rate isn't much to look at, he doesn't walk batters and induces a tremendous ground ball rate.  If he qualified (and at 27 IP, he certainly does not), his 64% ground ball rate this year would rank second in baseball behind only Brett Anderson.

The remaining postseason starts seem to be slated to aging (or ageless?) knuckleballer R.A. Dickey and my man Marco Estrada.  I won't even try to offer analysis of Dickey, other than to note that his strikeout rate fell quite a bit this year (and I'm not even sure if that's a bad thing...probably?).  Estrada has long been a favorite of mine because I felt he was overlooked, and I had great success with him in my fantasy league one year.  He doesn't throw hard, but has good breaking stuff and historically has posted good strikeout rates.  He is an extreme fly ball pitcher, and seems like the kind of guy who could go from something to nothing almost overnight.


Despite posting good numbers overall, the Toronto bullpen was much-maligned this year.  Nevertheless, they seem to have pieced together a decent staff at this point.  Roberto Osuna was solid in his role as the closer, and failed starters Liam Hendricks and Brett Cecil (now injured) turned in excellent seasons.  The quartet of Aaron Sanchez, LaTroy Hawkins (picked up in the Tulo trade), Aaron Loup, and Mark Lowe round out the rest of the staff, and all turned in solid performances in limited work.  It's probably the weakest part of the team, and didn't inspire confidence last night.  But everyone throws hard, most of them get good strikeout rates and avoid walks, and generally look pretty solid.  I don't see the pen as particularly problematic.

All told, this is my favorite team in the postseason.  I love--love!--their offense, and their pitching seems competent enough to play in October.  I don't know if they are the best team in October, or if they match up well to some of their competition.  Their lack of a quality left-handed bat might make them struggle against a team like the Mets, for example.  But they are unquestionably a fun team to watch, and have already turned in some amazing moments the postseason.  I'm hoping there's plenty more to come.

Monday, October 19, 2015

2015 Playoffs: The New York Mets

Curtis Granderson had his best season since 2011, leading the Mets in Wins Above Replacement.
Photo Credit: Keith Allison
The Mets were a team that really flew under my radar this season.  When they faced the Reds in Late June, they had just fallen behind the Nationals for the division lead.  For their part, the Nationals seemed to be heating up, and were the heavy favorites to win the division in the preseason.  Therefore, this seemed like a classic case of an over-performing Mets team that was in the process of regressing back toward .500 where they seemed to belong.  I didn't expect that by late September, when the Reds faced them again, they would be at the top of their division and sailing into the playoffs.

And yet, as I write this, the Mets have finished off a talented (if under-performing) Los Angeles Dodgers team in the division team, and are currently up two games to none of the young and exciting Chicago Cubs, having toppled both Jon Lester and Jake Arietta.  They are the favorites to represent the National League in the World Series.  It's high time to take a look at this team: are they just on a good run, or is this a legitimate, championship-caliber ballclub?

The most impressive offering featured by the Mets is unquestionably their outstanding young starting pitching.  While I am crushed by the lack of a Bartolo Colon start, the trio of Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndergaard is about as good as it gets among playoff teams.  They matched up to Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke very well, and seem set to carve up teams in what remains of the playoffs just as they've done all season.  The Mets are otherwise solid everywhere else: they hit pretty well, field pretty well, and have a solid bullpen backed by an excellent closer.  In short, they're a team that's really good at one important thing (starting), and a team that has managed to avoid having holes anywhere else.  That's a good recipe for success.

Position Players

Despite the completely avoidable and frustrating loss of Ruben Tejada, and the loss of Juan Uribe just before the playoffs began, the Mets look really solid top-to-bottom here.  David Wright came back just in time to mitigate the loss of Uribe, and Wilmer Flores, who began the season as the Mets' starting shortstop, hit just as well this year as Tejada while posting solid fielding numbers.  And the team still has depth: with the acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes, Michael Cuddyer has shifted into a platoon with Lucas Duda, whereas Juan Lagares offers a fielding-based platoon option with Michael Conforto in left field.

Otherwise, the Mets have gotten solid to above-average seasons from everyone involved.  It's really fun to see Curtis Granderson, a favorite of mine since his time with the Tigers, having a great season once again as a 34-year old.  And man, Yoenis Cespedes has been amazing.  The vast majority of his fielding totals come in left field rather than center field, but I've seen little to indicate that he can't be passable in center.  He has been a force with the stick since arriving in New York, but (thanks to fielding numbers) posted 4 of his 6.7 wins with the Tigers.  He's having a fantastic contract year, easily his best ever, slugging 35 home runs and seeing only very mild BABIP inflation that offsets the decline in his already-low walk rate.  I don't think I'd pay for more than 3.5ish wins for him as a free agent, and he's already 30 years old, but he's a tremendous source of right-handed power and quality fielding.

One shouldn't overlooked Michael Conforto, either.  The left-handed side of the Mets' outfield platoon posted 2.1 WAR after rising to the majors in his first full professional season.  There's but a lot of hype about Kyle Schwarber of the Cubs, and justly so.  But Conforto, just 22, has done nothing but hit since signing in last year's draft, and is a guy who could still contribute in a big way to the Mets' success this postseason.

One other mid-season addition, in the form of a return from injury, was Travis d'Arnaud.  d'Arnaud has long been a feature near the top of the catcher framing lists, and this year was no exception.  He also had an excellent season with the bat, finally getting his BABIP over the .280 mark for the first time in his MLB career, while slugging a very impressive 12 home runs in 268 PA's.  How incredible is the R.A. Dickey trade looking for the Mets, now that both Syndergaard and d'Arnaud have blossomed at the MLB level?

With the additions of Cespedes and Conforto, and the return of d'Arnaud, this offense is probably better now than they have been all year long.

Starting Pitchers

Wow, right?  Between Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, and Noah Syndergaard, the Mets have three ptichers who all throw super-hard, post superb strikeout numbers, and do not walk anyone.  Their repertoires look pretty similar too, at least one the surface: hard fastballs, quality breaking stuff, and effective change-ups.  Oh, and the #4 starter, Steven Matz, is another 24-year old who throws 94 as a left-hander, while posting peripherals that were almost as good as the elite.  It amazes me that, on a per-inning basis, Matt Harvey arguably had the third-best season among this group.  And he's still throwing, despite his oh-so-controversial innings cap.

If you ask just about any general manager to describe the qualities of a dream rotation that you can build a club around, this would pretty much have to be it: young, hard-throwing, good command, and under team control for years to come.  What else can you say about them?  I just hope they can all stay healthy.


I didn't realize how good Jeurys Familia is.  He throws hard and avoids walks, yes.  But the most impressive thing is that he does that while simultaneously posting outstanding walk rates.  Here's a good insight into why from Eno Sarris last night:
Sheesh.  He also throws an excellent slider that people can't hit:
I haven't heard him described as an "Elite Closer," but that's what he looks like to me.

The rest of the bullpen also looks pretty solid.  Tyler Clippard has never thrown super-hard, but has excellent classes and a ridiculous change-up that always induces a lot of whiffs.  He has always dealt with an extreme fly ball rate without giving up a ton of home runs, a trend that has continued this season.  Addison Reed seems somewhat diminished since he broke in with the White Sox, but at the same time he has patched what had been the biggest hole in his game: he used to be an extreme fly-ball pitcher, and now he's getting a respectable number of grounders.  Hansel Robles is the hard-thrower among their late-inning guys, and has been effective.  They don't have a huge lefty reliever, but Jon Niese has been used in that role this post-season with very good success.

This Mets team hasn't just gotten lucky.  They are a good team that has gotten better as the season has gone on, thanks to a few key acquisitions, young player promotions, and a few key players returning from injury.  It's hard not to look at this team and be impressed.  In my view, they match up very well against all the remaining playoff teams.  If they make it past the Cubs (still two games to go), they have the power right-handed pitching to handle the Blue Jays.  They have the roster depth to handle the Royals.  It could be a fun team to watch this month.

Friday, October 09, 2015

2015 Playoff Preview: The Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers may have a new franchise player in Corey Seager.
Photo credit: Minda Haas

The Los Angeles Dodgers entered the season at the top of most team projection leaderboards.  It isn't hard to see why.  With their pair of aces at the top of the rotation along with impressive depth throughout not just their lineup, but their bench as well, they looked set to cruise to the AL West crown once again.

They did end up winning the West, of course, but not with the dominance I expected.  Kershaw and Greinke were exactly as advertised, if not better.  Nevertheless, despite some pleasant surprises (Justin Turner!), their offense was just "good," with average fielding and poor baserunning, to go along with a struggling bullpen.

Still, it's hard to not expect them to be a superb playoff team.  They now can have either of their aces pitch the majority of their games, they can leverage their roster depth as much as they like...and they now have Corey Seager, who has been ridiculous since arriving and taking over the starting shortstop role.

Position Players

This seems like a lineup that can and should change a lot from day to day.  I'm showing their lineup against the right-handed de Grom from game 1 of the NLDS.  But against a lefty, they can bring Kiki Hernandez and Yasiel Puig (who I'm surprised to see on the bench--but I haven't been following that this year, and Puig's offensive numbers are down).  Yasmani Grandal, a king of pitch-presentation, got the majority of playing time behind the plate, and gives you a platoon advantage along with a strong bat.

But the game-1 starting lineup is formidable.  The team leader (among position players) in WAR this season (if you ignore pitch framing data) was Justin Turner, who I continue to find mystifying.  The former Reds farmhand seemed very likely to decline substantially after a breakout performance last season, which seemed to be heavily inflated by a .404 BABIP.  This year, however, as his BABIP regressed toward league average, Turner added some extra power while simultaneously shaving a bit off of his contact rate.  Combine that with solid fielding at the hot corner and you have a 4-win season in just over 400 PA's.

Joc Pederson made highlights earlier this season with a tremendous first half, but saw his playing time reduce a bit as his bat cooled.  He has huge raw power (and good game power) and pretty good on-base skills, though contact can be an issue.  A.J. Ellis, who got attention this year with Harry Pavlidis's attempts to quantify pitch calling, had a surprisingly good season (in small sample size territory) with the bat, given his history.  Veterans Adrian Gonzalez, Howie Kendrick, and especially Andre Ethier have had nice seasons.

The guy everyone is talking about, however, is Corey Seager.  Seager was pretty much everyone's mid-season top prospect, and arrived in September to fill in for an injury to Jimmy Rollins.  After hitting a solid .278/.332/.451 in AAA, Seager is off to a fantastic start to his big league career, slugging .337/.425/.561 in 113 innings.  It's BABIP-y, but his K:BB numbers are very good, he's showing excllent power, and has apparently held his own defensively.  In just 113 PA's, he has already posted 1.5 WAR.  You have your 2016 Rookie of the Year favorite, and a guy that fantasy managers are going to go nuts over.  He probably isn't Troy Tulowitzki, reborn.  But he should be a fun guy to watch in this series.

Starting Rotation

What really can you say about Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke?  They were both spectacular this season.  Kershaw cleared 300 strikeouts and was basically unhittable (again) all year long.  Greinke didn't quite have his strikeout numbers, but had fantastic numbers across the board, and approached Orel Hershiser's record for scoreless innings.  If you were a Dodgers fan, you really couldn't have hoped for better performances from these two.  I'm sure people have written about it before, but I'm fascinated by the fact that Clayton Kershaw, a left-handed starter, doesn't really throw a change-up or splitter.  He does throw a 12-6 curveball, however, which might differ enough in horizontal movement from his slider to serve against right-handers.  It probably doesn't hurt that he seems to know exactly where it's going every time.

Brett Anderson had a nice comeback season with the Dodgers this year.  I remembered him as more of a dominant power arm in his heydey than he actually was.  His strikeouts are down compared to his time with the Athletics, but what he has always done is avoid walks and induce ground balls.  That's exactly what he's done again this year.

Alex Wood was acquired from the Atlanta Braves mid-season in a complicated three-way trade with the Marlins, and has been decent as a 4th starter.  He throws strikes and gets ground balls, while at least striking out the occasional batter.  His delivery may be funky, but he's a solid-average starter.  He's not slated to pitch in the short series, but seems likely to be the #4 guy in the NLCS if the Dodgers advance past the Mets.


This is a place where the Dodgers struggled a bit this season.  By the end of the season, however, they'd settled upon a set of solid arms.  Kenley Jansen is really the only guy in this group who has really dominated.  J.P. Howell has been on a happy side of the luck dragons this year, but he and everyone else have basically just been average relievers.  Late innings are a place where opposing teams could potentially make up some ground against this team.

Nevertheless, I really like this team.  I love teams that can mix and match their position players at will, and the deep pockets and clever signings of the Dodgers have let them do that.  And it's always fun to have two of the best pitchers in baseball within your rotation.  As I write this, the Mets have a 1-0 lead in the 4th of game 1, but you nevertheless have to think the Dodgers are going to give them a run for their money.