Month: February 2019

Yankees appear content with Tulowitzki until Didi can return

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Didi Gregorius is recovering from Tommy John surgery.

The New York Yankees are headed into Spring Training apparently content with their options at shortstop, be it Troy Tulowitzki or another in-house option until Didi Gregorius recovers from Tommy John surgery. Manny Machado still hasn’t signed anywhere, but the Yankees hardly appear the favorite at this point.

So, Tulowitzki. I’ll spare you the “boy, this would be great in 2014” jokes, but man there’s not much here. Take a look at the last three years for the former Rockies All-Star:

Season Games wRC+ WAR
2016 131 104 3.0
2017 66 79 0.1
2018 0 0 0

Uh, great! If Machado wasn’t a serious pursuit, I don’t understand why the Yankees didn’t just re-sign Adeiny Hechavarria (or someone similar) to man shortstop until Gregorious is back. No, Hechavarria can’t hit at all, but he’s a slick defender and unlike Tulowitzki, not made of glass.

It’s not Tulowitzki’s fault he’s had such terrible problems with his heel, but the reality remains. The Yankees spent almost nothing to add him and if he breaks, he breaks; they release him and move on. But then you’re right back to square one but with fewer options.

Maybe I’m overrating Hechavarria, but at least you know he’ll be healthy and can handle short. The odds are Tulowitzki doesn’t make it through Spring Training without an injury, and even if he does, what are the odds he’s actually better than Hechavarria? I’m not optimistic. I think assuming Tulowitzki is a Major League shortstop in 2019 is probably absurd.

The other option, beyond the obvious, is to slide second baseman Gleyber Torres over to short. Torres came up through the minors as a shortstop and it’s within the realm of possibility he ends up there again. I don’t get the sense that’s an appealing option for the Yankees, though. This would be a better question for someone like Keith Law or Eric Longenhagen, but perhaps moving Torres off second temporarily would impede his development there? I don’t know.

If the Yankees insist on not adding Machado, they’re accepting below-par performance somewhere in the infield until Gregorious is healthy. I’m uncomfortable with that risk given the talent level across the Yankees’ roster; it’s time to push for a World Series, boys. But the brain trust in the Bronx believes this team can claim the elusive 28th championship, with or without Machado (or Bryce Harper).

Given how competitive the AL East is expected to be, a few wins left on the table because of weakness at shortstop could be the difference between a division title and the wild card and consequently a harder road to the Fall Classic.

None of this matters once the incumbent is back, and thus far Gregorius is doing well in his rehab, according to the New York Daily News. Sir Didi is already taking groundballs at shortstop and participating in light throwing drills, a big step in the recovery from Tommy John surgery.

“It felt pretty good,” Gregorius told the Daily News after a recent workout. “Pretty good.”

Gregorius, a vital part of this new Yankees core and a fan favorite, will turn 29 in a few weeks. He can become a free agent after this season, a curious time for him. If the year goes well, he’s probably still in line for a lengthy contract, but given the current market, who knows?

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Kyler Murray took the expedient path, but why did the A’s pick him?

Brief thoughts on Kyler Murray’s decision to pursue football fulltime:

ESPN.com’s Jeff Passan reported that Murray, the 2018 Heisman Trophy winner and the ninth pick in the 2018 MLB Draft, will return $1.29 million of the $1.5 million he was already paid by the Oakland Athletics. In addition, he is forfeiting the remaining $3 million he was owed with this choice.

It’s a healthy chunk of change for anyone, but Murray — with good reason — is betting on his NFL future being lucrative.

I want to focus on two aspects of this story. First, Murray’s future and second, why the heck did the A’s draft him ninth overall?

Murray made the expedient choice, not necessarily the best one

Murray went with the NFL because his odds of superstardom are higher in football than baseball. We know what he is capable of on the gridiron. He’s an incredibly athletic and dynamic quarterback, generally makes good decisions with the football and has a pretty high ceiling.

The NFL is moving in the direction of Kyler Murray. Yes, he’s small. No, there aren’t many great NFL quarterbacks who stood below 6 feet. But the sport is moving, even if only slowly, in the direction of the Baker Mayfields and Lamar Jacksons. Murray in the right situation could be quite a show. Whether he lands in the right situation is a different story. After all, like Bill Walsh once said, there are only eight smart teams in the league.

The far bigger concern is what choosing football means to Murray’s long-term health. Playing football is unquestionably dangerous. It’s a risk Murray was willing to take, but the consequences could be severe. Let’s not gloss over this. Baseball is considerably safer.

The quickest path to significant riches and fame is the NFL, however. It takes years to break into Major League Baseball for anyone but the true superstars, and so in that sense, it’s understandable for Murray to do this. Plus, he’s almost definitely a better football player, especially given how little we know of him with a bat and glove.

What the heck were the Athletics thinking?

If I’ve missed it, please someone tell me, but I’m not finding a lot of people asking this question. Why would Oakland draft Murray with the ninth overall pick? It’s not as if he was this consensus can’t miss guy — MLB.com ranked him 36th before the draft — and his potential football aspirations were always known and documented.

Set aside the football issue and taking Murray ninth is already a bit of a stretch. Out of high school, he was a potential first overall pick in great part because of his athleticism and the potential to grow. Problem is, he didn’t play college baseball at all until 2017 (he wasn’t good) and 2018 (he was pretty good).

Murray lost those critical years of development. So what were the A’s drafting? A hyper-athletic lottery ticket who might or might not turn into a baseball player. He flashed a lot of pop but struggled with pitch recognition, as you’d expect from a player who just hasn’t played. Despite being faster than lightning, his defense in centerfield was only okay because he struggled with reads (again, lack of reps) and showed a weaker than expected arm.

The pitch recognition and outfield reads could have been fixed with professional coaching and game action, all the more so when dealing with an athlete as gifted as Murray. It’s not like he was a terrible bet, but he’s way behind the development curve and closing that gap would be challenging.

ESPN.com’s Keith Law put it like this: Murray’s ceiling is an occasional MLB All-Star and his floor is never cracking the majors.

Murray is hardly alone in that description, but then you remember he was about to go play major college football. There could be things I’m not privy to that led to Oakland selecting Murray, but I struggle to see why it was worth the gamble. Once Murray signed, the draft pick was forever gone, and that hurts the A’s more than the money.

Maybe Oakland was convinced they could sign Murray and steer him toward baseball. Okay, fine. But as a prospect, it’s hard for me to understand why he was worth the risk. In a sense, the selection in retrospect feels like a stunt.

***

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Remembering the dominant, pioneering Frank Robinson

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Hall of Famer Frank Robinson died this week. He was 83.

The great Frank Robinson died last week. He was 83. A Hall of Famer and the only man to win MVP in both leagues, he was one of the sport’s great hitters and fiercest personalities. Robinson was also the first black manager in Major League Baseball, a feat he might have held in higher regard than any other.

Robinson’s offensive exploits are so vast that listing them all seems silly, but for fun let’s do it anyway. For his career, he slashed .294/.389/.537 for a whopping 154 OPS+ and 107.3 career bWAR. That, my friends, is a hell of a baseball player. His career numbers leap off the screen, but his performance gets even more impressive when we remember how pitcher-tilted the sport was in the ’60s, Robinson’s heyday.

You know about 1968, the fabled “Year of the Pitcher”, right? In 1968, the league’s ERA was 2.98. 2.98! That number hasn’t crept below 3 since. So what happened? Well, to be fair, the league was stacked with aces, but the mound was also a full five inches taller.

“I remember 1968, it felt like every pitcher was right on top of you that year,” Hawk Harrelson said told ESPN.com’s Tim Kurkjian in 2011. “It felt like they weren’t 60 feet, 6 inches away. It felt like they were 40 feet away.”

The height was lowered for the 1969 season and the tide receded almost immediately. The ’68 season sapped Robinson of his home run power, but he still got on base at a .390 clip, and one season later with the playing field quite literally more level, he doubled his home run total from the year prior. Even a ridiculous mound couldn’t stop Frank Robinson.

From 1959 to 1973, Robinson produced an OPS+ of 160. Remember folks, an OPS+ of 100 is average. Also, in a testament to his skill, Robinson struck out just 18 more times than he walked in those 2,129 games. He was by no means just a power hitter.

Robinson’s reputation spoke for itself. He hunched over the plate to occupy the inside corner and to have a better look at the pitcher’s release point. He happily broke up double plays with aggressive slides that in today’s game would lead to days of silly coverage. He was awesome.

Reds fans, you might want to look away for this next part.

We must discuss the trade. Claiming that Robinson was slowing down (the actual verbiage used is debated), Cincinnati Reds GM Bill DeWitt traded the great Frank Robinson to the Baltimore Orioles for three guys who are decidedly not the great Frank Robinson. In fairness, Milt Pappas had a nice career (although he disappointed in Cincy). The thing is, Robinson wasn’t exactly collapsing. He had just hit 33 home runs and whipped up a 151 OPS+ in 1965, his final season as a Red.

It bears mentioning that Robinson was not always the easiest guy to deal with. He had some arrests and threatened to quit baseball in 1963, for example, which was kind of the only way players could assert leverage at the time. Still, it would be unfair to suggest DeWitt had no reasons for the move, but ultimately it was a disaster. If you Google “worst baseball trades” you’ll see this, the ill-fated Jeff Bagwell and of course the Babe Ruth deals all listed prominently.

Part of why it went so poorly for the Reds speaks to Robinson’s personality. One can look at his career record and see the trade lit a spark in him. If DeWitt was right and Robinson was nearing the end of his peak, the trade pushed him to an additional six or seven years of dominance. His first year as an Oriole is an all-time great season. He burned down the American League, man: .316/.410/.637, 49 home runs, 198 OPS+, won MVP. He did basically the same thing in 1967, too.

Robinson spent his last two seasons as player-manager of the Cleveland Indians. His hiring as manager was a huge moment in baseball race relations, so much so that the sitting president, Gerald Ford, sent a telegram congratulating Robinson.

But to understand just what this meant to him, we have to listen to what Robinson wrote in his memoir about Opening Day in 1975.

“One hundred thousand fans could not have been louder,” he said. “It was the biggest ovation I ever received, and it almost brought tears to my eyes. After all the years of waiting to become a big league manager — ignored because so many team owners felt that fans would not accept a black manager — I was on the job and people were loudly pleased.”

Rest in peace, Frank.

Indians SS Francisco Lindor to miss 2 months with calf strain

Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor will miss about two months with a calf injury.

Brief thoughts on today’s rough news for the Tribe:

The Indians announced on Friday afternoon that [Francisco] Lindor recently sustained a right calf strain while preparing for Spring Training in Orlando, Fla. He was evaluated at the Cleveland Clinic on Wednesday by Dr. Mark Schickendantz, who confirmed the moderate strain.

(sic)

The 25-year-old shortstop is expected to return to Major League game activity in 7 to 9 weeks following his Wednesday evaluation, which would put his return between March 27 and April 10.

This could be a serious blow for the Indians. There’s simply no replacing a player of Francisco Lindor’s caliber. Coming off the best season of his young career, he’s arguably the best shortstop in baseball and one of the top five or so players in the sport overall. The track record speaks for itself:

Season bWAR
2015 4.6
2016 5.9
2017 5.5
2018 7.9

The Indians have a few stopgap options — prospects Yu Chang and Eric Stamets, Max Moroff or Ryan Flaherty — but there’s no guarantee any of the four would be above replacement level. Should Lindor return healthy in early April, it won’t matter. That’s not enough time to even serve as a blip on the radar.

But if the injury lingers or Lindor struggles or even worse, gets hurt again, the Indians will have lost one-half of their two-headed infield monster (along with Jose Ramirez). An extended stretch without Lindor could shine a bright light on the weaker cogs in the Indians offense, especially with such little production at prime offensive positions (outfield corners, first base).  But, sure, no need to pay $16M per year to retain outfielder Michael Brantley.

Fortunately, the Indians’ rotation is absolutely ridiculous. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer cover up a whole bunch of problems, and based on how the AL Central looks now, the Indians would need to fall directly on their faces to not win the division again.

Losing Lindor for an extended period is a great first act in the tumble, though.

Ode to a Pitcher: Mike Mussina saves the Yankees in Game 7

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Mike Mussina was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame.

His first at-bat of the game … there’s a flyball deep to left! It’s on its way! There it goes! And the Yankees are going to the World Series! Aaron Boone has hit a home run!

Charley Steiner’s words echoed throughout that cold October night in the Bronx, the perfect frame to an indelible moment in Yankees history. Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS was tied in the bottom of the 11th and Aaron Boone, the team’s future manager, then a struggling third baseman without a regular spot in the lineup, was up to bat. With his brother Bret fumbling through commentary in the Fox booth upstairs, Boone stepped up to the plate and crushed a Tim Wakefield knuckleball over the left field fence, sending the Yankees back to the Fall Classic. It was a thrilling end to a dreadfully long and stressful evening for fans of both sides. (It was probably great for the non-partisans.)

A lot happened to set the table for Boone’s heroics.

Obviously, Red Sox manager Grady Little’s decision to keep the great Pedro Martinez in the game to fall apart in the 8th inning gets the majority of the focus when retrospectives of Game 7 are written. But I don’t want to focus on that. I want to dig into what happened a few innings prior.

The marquee for Game 7 shined bright. The Red Sox sent Martinez to square off with Roger Clemens, who at the time was publicly considering retirement (nope). It was yet another battle between the two flamethrowers, but on this night Clemens was a mess. Joe Torre pulled the burly righthander down 4-0 with runners on the corners and no outs in the fourth inning. The Rocket’s final line wasn’t pretty:

IP H BB Ks R NP
3 6 1 2 4 65

Yikes.

Torre called on Mike Mussina, his other ace righthander to try and stem the tide. Mussina, making his first-ever relief appearance (and only on two days rest) was pretty good in Game 4 (6.2 IP, 3 ER) but took the loss. With Martinez cruising through the first three innings (only two baserunners allowed), pretty good might not cut it. Any further damage potentially puts the game out of reach.

Torre, not fully trusting any reliever in his bullpen not named Mariano, turns to Moose.

***

Red Sox C Jason Varitek, boasting a 120 OPS+, steps up to face Mussina with RF Trot Nixon at third and 3B Bill Mueller at first. Mueller provides no threat of a steal, so Mussina knows he can focus on Varitek. Note the optimal plan here: strikeout, groundball double play. The order of events is important. If Varitek puts a grounder in play, unless the fielder has time to stare Nixon back to third, another run scores.

Not great. Mussina is one of the best strikeout pitchers in the league at this point, and still close to his peak. My guess is he wanted a K. But that ain’t easy or without risk. Varitek was flat-out good overall in 2003 and slightly harder to punchout than the average hitter. Pushing for the strikeout also incurs the risk of a wild pitch after a breaking ball or a line drive to the alley if a fastball misses over the plate.

Entering with runners on the corners gives Mussina a bit of leeway, in a sense. If he falls behind Varitek 2-0, the Yankees can intentionally walk the Red Sox catcher and attack Johnny Damon instead. But the risk of a blowout climbs there. The Bombers are one swing from it being essentially over.

Mussina has a tightrope to walk if the Yankees are going back to the World Series.

He starts the at-bat with a changeup, which Varitek fouls away.

Varitek Pitch 1.gif

The future Hall of Famer comes back with his signature pitch, a nasty knuckle-curve. Varitek is way out in front and bounces it foul to run the count 0-2.

Varitek Pitch 2.gif

To use a bit of football parlance, a no-ball two-strike count opens up the playbook, allowing Mussina the use of another breaking ball below the zone (an indication of trust in C Jorge Posada) or a high fastball. This is strikeout territory.

He chooses the knuckle-curve in under the hands.

Varitek Pitch 3

Varitek has no chance.

Up next is CF Johnny Damon. He doesn’t present the same type of threat that Varitek did (Damon’s OPS+ sat at 94, just under league average) and oddly, even as a left-handed hitter hardly fared better against righties. But he’s considerably faster and was one of the toughest hitters to double-up in all of baseball that season. The Varitek strikeout reduces the odds of the inning getting out of hand, but by no means are the Yankees out of the woods.

Mussina starts his future teammate off with a fastball for called strike one.

Damon Pitch 1.gif

The placement of that pitch is incredible (notice how Posada barely moves the glove). Damon watched it go by for strike one; but had he swung, the movement and location easily could have produced weak contact. Brilliant pitch by Mussina.

Damon Pitch 2.gif

Mussina moves the next one inside under the hands, dropping it in for a high strike. Damon gives the umpire a look afterward, but Fox’s slow-motion angle confirms what a filthy pitch it is:

Damon slowmo fastball

It takes more than just great stuff to pull that off. Mussina is pitching with confidence, throwing curveballs in under the hands to Varitek and knifing a nasty fastball along the inside corner to Damon. Wow.

Remember Bill Mueller? He’s still at first and he’s still slow. It’s hard to say if he realized how good Mussina looked, but him dancing off the bag to draw a throw over is a sneaky smart move. Pitchers and batters fight back and forth to disrupt the other’s timing, after all. Why can’t a baserunner do the same?

Damon throw to first.gif

With the count back at oh-and-two, the Yankee Stadium crowd begins to roar, that familiar tension mixed with the allure of relief coursing through the old venue’s veins. The Yankees are on the doorstep of escaping a disaster.

Damon has watched two fastballs sail by. Does Mussina go to a breaking ball? Another fastball?

Damon Pitch 3.gif

Filthy. Mussina returns to the fastball away, prompting Damon’s swing — assuming he read it as a second-straight inside pitch — and drawing weak contact. The ball bounces right to SS Derek Jeter who scrambles to second and fires to first for the double play.

Inning over. Mussina held.

***

Mussina ends up throwing three shutout innings, stabilizing the game and giving the Yankees offense a chance to pick away. Felix Heredia and Jeff Nelson took over from there and kept the Red Sox at bay, both contributing two-thirds of an inning. Torre replaces Nelson with another starter, lefty David Wells, who promptly surrenders a long home run to DH David Ortiz to make the score 5-2.

You know what happens next. After the Yankees rock Martinez to tie it up, Torre lifts Wells in favor of the world’s premier reliever, new Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, who pitches a dominant three innings. I’m not sure Torre knows who would have replaced Rivera.

He never had to find out.

***

I hope you liked this week’s Ode to a Pitcher, where I examine a great pitching performance. I aim to make these posts informative and fun, just like baseball coverage should be.

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Carlos Correa primed for big year with back injuries behind him

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After an injury-plagued 2018, Carlos Correa still profiles as a superstar going forward.

Carlos Correa debuted to quite a bit of fanfare. Drafted first overall by the Houston Astros in 2012, the young shortstop broke into the big leagues in 2015 like a shotgun blast, putting up a 135 OPS+ and 4.3 bWAR in 99 games. He was 20 years old. He easily won the Rookie of the Year and projected as an absolute no-doubt superstar, a future MVP and the centerpiece of a brewing dynasty in Houston.

Correa put up fantastic seasons in 2016 and 2017, amassing 12.4 bWAR combined in 262 games. Pretty awesome for any age, but even more so for a 22 year old, even as injuries caused Correa to miss about 50 games in 2017. Just as many expected two years before, the Astros broke through that season to win the World Series, led by 2017 AL MVP Jose Altuve and an incredible roster, featuring Justin Verlander, Dallas Keuchel and of course, Correa.

This last season didn’t go nearly as well. Correa missed a bunch of time yet again. Back and oblique problems plagued Correa all year, causing him to miss more than 30 games with a DL stint. As he explained to the Houston Chronicle, the absence was deeply frustrating:

“It’s been a tough year, obviously the toughest year of my career — not performance-wise, just staying healthy and being able to play and contribute,” Correa said. “At the same time, it happens. It happens to a lot of athletes out there. We just have to keep working and trying to be successful.”

Not to mention this:

Whoa. Don’t underestimate the detrimental effect the septum issue had on him. You try playing Major League Baseball without full breaths. The back and oblique injuries didn’t help, but part of me thinks the septum issue was the bigger problem.

Overall, the assorted maladies sapped Correa of his power and bat speed (he produced almost 10% less hard contact, for example), dragging him to a career-low 102 OPS+ and limiting his range. Fortunately for Correa and Astros fans, the septum surgery was a success and the young shortstop told Jake Kaplan of The Athletic he has “not even a slight bother in my back.”

Good. Furthermore, his first year in arbitration went smoothly — the young man is now $5 million richer (still wildly unpaid for his value, but alas).

So what to expect in 2019? Will Correa, presumably healthy, promptly bounce back to producing six-win seasons again? That’s a lot to ask of any player, but we shouldn’t let 2018 obscure the player Correa is.

As fans, it’s easy to focus on the new shiny young stars (like Vlad Guerrero Jr., for example), and rightfully so, but Correa is only 24 and has already proven himself in the bigs. If he’s healthy, Correa is a superstar and still an MVP candidate. Period.

Now, if he wants to win the award, he’ll have to beat out his superstar teammates in the Astros infield. Talk about a good problem to have.

Does a Jacoby Ellsbury for Johnny Cueto swap make sense?

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Jacoby Ellsbury’s tenure in pinstripes has been marred by injuries and ineffectiveness.

Brief thoughts on the trade idea floated today by ESPN’s Buster Olney:

In theory this makes sense. The Yankees have little use for OF Jacoby Ellsbury or his car-crash of a contract (two years, $42M). The Giants probably aren’t thrilled about SP Johnny Cueto and his contract (three years, $68M).

Ellsbury missed all of 2018 with an assortment of “injuries” best construed as “look, we’re good now and can’t afford to let you give away outs anymore.” He hasn’t cracked 2 fWAR since 2014. Cueto struggled through 53 innings (4.52 xFIP) before undergoing Tommy John surgery in August. It’s unlikely he’d be available at all in 2019. Unlike Ellsbury, he was pretty good as recently as 2016.

Again, if we dabble in theory, maybe a swap makes sense. The Giants have serious need of warm bodies in the outfield, and hey, Ellsbury can definitely (maybe) throw on a cap and grab a glove and trot out there. He probably can’t be productive after so many injuries and so much decline, but he’s available.

And for the Yankees, well, everyone needs pitching, right?. The thing is, Cueto’s north of 30, injury prone and already on the decline before blowing out his arm. Perhaps once healthy he could slide into CC Sabathia’s rotation spot, but even that might be up in the air. His HR/FB rate climbed in 2017 to 14% and stayed there in 2018 — above the league average. The velocity and strikeouts have been on the decline, too. That doesn’t play well in Yankee Stadium.

If the Giants were willing to do something to balance out the salary difference, this isn’t necessarily an awful idea. But let’s be real here, it’s unlikely either player is a significant part of a contender going forward. Odds are Ellsbury is essentially replacement level and Cueto’s declining years would look a lot prettier in a more forgiving division and ballpark than the Yankees can offer.

Perhaps both teams are better off just swallowing hard and stomaching their respective bad contracts.