Author Archive

Finding a Home For Top Free Agents

Earlier this week, we posted a roundup of the top 50 free agents on the market this winter. We’ve already seen a couple of the guys near the top of that list either rework their contract or choose not to opt out, but the rest of the list remains unsigned.

Today we’re taking a look at the plausible landing spots for the top free agents left. A top-six list is a little awkward and perhaps less SEO friendly than a top five, but our fifth- and sixth-place players were projected for the same salary, so we’ve included both here. This post isn’t necessarily a prediction of where certain guys will sign, but rather, it’s a look at which teams should be in the market for these top talents given what we know about their ambitions and financial priorities. Spoiler: You won’t see the Red Sox listed below.

1. Gerrit Cole
Kiley’s estimate: 7 Years, $242 million
Should be interested: Los Angeles Dodgers, Atlanta Braves, Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers, St. Louis Cardinals, honestly the whole league
Perfect fit: Los Angeles Angels

Cole may not capture the Cy Young this year, but after a dominating October in which his very presence loomed as the most significant storyline in each series Houston played, the consensus is that he’s the best pitcher in baseball. We haven’t seen that kind of arm hit the free agent market since CC Sabathia after the 2008 season. There isn’t a club in baseball that wouldn’t benefit from Cole’s services, even at the imposing price he’ll command. At the very least, every nominal contender in baseball should be evaluating what they can do to bring the big right-hander to their city.

His list of serious suitors figures to be quite smaller than that, and most of them are out west. The Dodgers make plenty of sense. Despite seven straight NL West titles, the club hasn’t won a championship with this core, and subpar starting pitching in the playoffs has been a big reason why they’ve fallen short. Is there a player better positioned to fill that gap than Cole? Read the rest of this entry »

Nationals Beat Astros 5-4, and Baseball Saves Baseball

It’s been a great postseason. But…

Baseball fans have been treated to an excellent month of ballgames. The NL Wildcard was an instant classic, and three matchups in the divisional round went the distance. Washington pitched historically well in the NCLS, and on the other side of the bracket, two of the best teams in baseball battled in an entertaining war of attrition, a back and forth set that climaxed with José Altuve’s walk-off homer in Game 6. Thus far, we’ve been spoiled.

But you’d be forgiven for thinking it hasn’t felt that way. As baseball reaches its annual crescendo, the sport’s collective focus has often drifted away from the games on the field. The partial un-juicing of the ball emerged as a dominant storyline early in the postseason, right alongside the usual complaints about extended commercial breaks and out-of-touch announcers blathering on far-flung networks. Then, as the league championships kicked off, ESPN’s T.J. Quinn released a disturbing piece detailing how Angels team employees not only failed to intervene on Tyler Skaggs‘ drug use but actually abetted it in his final days. Reading the news, you may well conclude that the league itself has lost the ability to sway the narrative in a way that reflects positively on the enterprise.

Unfortunately, the pattern continued; Game 1 of the World Series began under a cloud of a different sort. In the aftermath of Houston’s dramatic, exuberant ALCS win over the Yankees, assistant general manager Brandon Taubman used the occasion to rub salt in a wound. With three women reporters standing nearby, Taubman, cigar in hand, loudly and repeatedly directed a message their way: “Thank God we got Osuna! I’m so [expletive] glad we got Osuna!”

On the surface, it’s a curious message: Altuve only had to save the day because closer Roberto Osuna had coughed up a ninth-inning lead. The context, however, is damning. Osuna is only an Astro because the club was able to acquire him on the cheap while he served a suspension for domestic violence. One of the women in question has previously come under fire from Taubman for the timing of her Osuna-related tweets. That she was wearing a purple anti-domestic violence bracelet at the time adds a jolt of nastiness to already reprehensible behavior.

By now you know the details of what followed. How Sports Illustrated’s Stephanie Apstein reported the news; that Houston vehemently denied the incident took place, and questioned Apstein’s credibility, when multiple other journalists from other outlets corroborated Apstein’s account; and the Astros’ late and inadequate walk-back of their initial statement. On a day when we should have been celebrating the best of baseball, hyping up Gerrit Cole and Max Scherzer, we were instead left to grapple with the worst symptoms of its culture. As the Washington Post’s Barry Svulga succinctly summed it up: “It’s infuriating it’s 2019, and it’s the World Series, and we even need to be having this conversation. But clearly we do.”

In the end, baseball itself rescued the day. It wasn’t so much that a great game made us forget all that transpired in the previous 48 hours — as if anyone with a Twitter feed possibly could have anyway. No, a game cannot simply toss us an escape rope, and we shouldn’t want to move on so soon: Three women were wronged in an incident symptomatic of a broader problem; basic decency demands that we ask baseball to better itself.

What a game can do is remind us why we care in the first place, why we’re bothering with reading and listening and talking about these problems within baseball’s ecosystem instead of anywhere else. For all that was wrong in the last few days, baseball reminded us of its virtues, of why we choose to spend our leisure time in this imperfect space. Read the rest of this entry »

Ranking the World Series of the 21st Century

The connection between past and present is more durable in baseball than in other sports, and the link is particularly apparent during the World Series. We’ve had nearly 120 of these now, and the classics are a constant presence in contemporary broadcasts. Seemingly every inning, we hear about great games from earlier eras or learn how X is the first player to do Y in the World Series since 1950-something.

If there’s any problem in this connection with the past, it’s that so much of the discourse focuses on the games from the so-called Golden Era at the expense of more recent history. To an extent, that’s a function of time; however great the 2016 World Series may have been, it’s difficult to place those games into historical perspective. Sometimes, memories must marinate.

But that shouldn’t stop us from trying. Below, I recounted each of the World Series’ from the 21st century, and attempted to rank them from least to most compelling. It’s a subjective list — could it be anything else? — but however you order it, it’s clear that we’ve had our share of great matchups lately. More than anything though, at the dawn of the 2019 World Series, it’s worthwhile to take a look back at the previous 19 matchups. After all, we had a lot of fun back then. It’d be a shame if we forgot the details.

19. 2007: Red Sox over Rockies in Four

Entering the series, Colorado was the best story in sports. With a record of 77-72, the Rockies were 6 1/2 games out of first with barely two weeks to play in the regular season. From there, they took 12 of 13 down the stretch, won a one-game playoff, and swept consecutive series to reach their first championship.

Reality struck immediately. Dustin Pedroia led off the bottom half of Game 1 with a homer over the Green Monster and the Sawx boat-raced their guests 13-1. Games 2 and 4 were one-run contests, but this was ultimately a matchup between the best team in the American League and a .500ish squad no longer riding a historical hot streak, and it felt like it.

Series Minutiae: Bobby Kielty only hit one homer during the regular season and had just one at-bat in the series, but it was a big one: His solo shot in Game 4 proved to be both the winning run in the game and the last at-bat in his big league career. Read the rest of this entry »

Brian McCann’s Great Career and Fascinating Hall of Fame Case

Atlanta’s Game 5 loss to St. Louis last week marked not only the end of a season, but also the end of an era, as Braves catcher Brian McCann announced his retirement after the contest. It came without much warning: McCann hadn’t tipped his hand publicly and he certainly could have found work in 2020 had he wanted to play. For a man who mostly kept quiet away from the diamond, his understated goodbye was a fitting conclusion to a great and perhaps under-appreciated career. While at times overshadowed by others at the position, McCann was one of the game’s premier catchers for more than a decade. His steady production at the plate and prowess with the glove made him a star — and an intriguing test case for Cooperstown.

McCann was Atlanta’s second-round pick out of Duluth High School in Georgia in 2002, a prequel of sorts to the club’s strategy of locking down home-state talent in the draft later that decade. High school backstops are a notoriously risky player pool, but McCann bucked the odds and blossomed into one of Atlanta’s top prospects almost immediately. He was one of the best players in the Sally League as a 19-year-old, and he slugged nearly .500 in the pitcher-friendly Florida State League a year later. He then proved equal to the Double-A test in 2005. Fifty games into the season, he’d walked nearly as often as he’d struck out and with good power to boot. Stuck in third place and receiving little production from their catchers, Atlanta summoned him to the big leagues that June. (The minor league skipper who delivered the good news? None other than Brian Snitker.)

McCann made his debut at 21 years old and homered in his second game. True to form, he circled the bases quickly and unemotively, not even cracking a smile until he’d reached the dugout. By mid-August, he’d claimed the starter’s job. He finished his first campaign with a respectable .279/.345/.400 line (93 wRC+) and clubbed two more home runs in the NLDS that fall. His quick success prompted the Braves to anoint him their catcher of the future and dispatch Johnny Estrada, an All-Star the previous year, to Arizona for bullpen help.

McCann immediately rewarded Atlanta’s show of faith. In 130 games, he hit .333/.338/.572 (142 wRC+) and led all National League catchers with 4.3 WAR. That kicked off a 12-year run in which he was one of the league’s best-hitting backstops. Over that span, he made seven All-Star teams and won six Silver Slugger Awards. We didn’t realize it at the time, but McCann was legitimately one of the best and most consistent players in baseball at his peak:

Brian McCann’s Peak Production
Year BA OBP Slugging wRC+ DRS WAR
2008 .301 .373 .523 135 47.1 8.6
2009 .281 .349 .486 119 36.9 6.3
2010 .269 .375 .453 123 38.0 6.7
2011 .270 .351 .466 122 40.3 6.9

Read the rest of this entry »

Groundhog Day in Minneapolis

Minnesota Loses 5-1 to New York

Sports fans tend to have an inferiority complex. You can see it in the lexicon: East Coast bias, curses of billy goats and Bambinos, jinxes, stadiums where we just never win, bad umpires, scheduling conspiracies, unfair rules, pithy charges of Southern Exceptionalism. The NFL now reviews plays for pass interference, mostly because a bunch of Louisianans rioted after a bad call in a big moment. Speaking of replay, I’d wager that we’ll be stuck with the tedious and disruptive system we’ve got now for a good long while: Not because it’s necessarily the best way to do things, but because such a setup seems like the most effective bulwark against those stinkin’ umps who just have it out for (insert team here).

These inferiority complexes are silly, of course. They are the whiny and simplistic dimension of the fanhood experiences that nobody else cares to hear about, alongside stories about your fantasy team and the time you got a great deal on tickets at the last minute. It reflects poorly on just about everyone.

I’ll grant a temporary exception for fans of the Minnesota Twins.

It has now been 15 years and three days since the Twins won a playoff game. That evening, Johan Santana started at the Stadium. Minnesota wore gray pinstripes and hats with an ‘M’ above the brim. Jacque Jones hit a two-run homer to account for the only scoring. Hall of Famers Mike Mussina and Mariano Rivera pitched for the Yanks; John Olerud played first base. Somehow, MLB managed to run a playoff game in less than three hours. It was a different time.

By this point, it seems callous to run the numbers again, so we’ll be quick. The Twins have lost 16 playoff games in a row. That’s five divisional exits, four at the hands of the Yankees, with a Wild Card game defeat to the Bombers mixed in for good measure. There’s nothing magical or predictive about this little run. There isn’t any thread between the Corey KoskieTorii Hunter Twins and the ballclub that lost last night; they don’t even share a home stadium.

The Twins have usually been underdogs in these games, though only slightly so. The Orioles were far bigger long shots in every matchup they had against New York this year and last, and even that feeble and overmatched club managed to win a quarter of those games. For Minnesota, the streak is undoubtedly frustrating. It’s a narrative that has fed on itself for at least a decade now. It sucks and it’s a shocking confluence of events, but that’s all there really is to say about it from an analytical perspective. Read the rest of this entry »

Postseason Preview: Houston Astros vs. Tampa Bay Rays ALDS

Tampa Bay cruised past Oakland in the Wild Card game and enters the divisional round for the first time in six years. Their reward is a best-of-five date with the Houston Astros.

Rays vs. Astros Series Details
Game Date Time
Game 1 October 4 2:05 EST
Game 2 October 5 9:07 EST
Game 3 October 7 TBD
Game 4 (if necessary) October 8 TBD
Game 5 (if necessary) October 10 TBD

The Rays aren’t exactly limping into the postseason. Tampa Bay won 96 games in what passes for a competitive division these days, and they’re solid in all aspects of the game. In Houston though, they’re meeting a 107-win behemoth, a club that looks like one of the two or three best teams we’ve seen this century.

Series at a Glance
Overview Rays Astros Edge
Hitting (wRC+) 102 (6th in AL) 125 (1st in AL) Astros
Defense (DRS) 54 (3rd in AL) 90 (1st in AL) Astros
Starting pitching (FIP-) 76 (1st in AL) 85 (2nd in AL) Astros (wait… what?)
Relievers (FIP-) 89 (4th in AL) 94 (7th in AL) Rays

You may have noticed something weird in the “Edge” column of the table above. Ultimately, the yearly totals don’t adequately reflect how dominant Houston’s rotation is as currently constructed. After all, the Rays won’t be facing Collin McHugh or Corbin Martin or Brad Peacock out of the gate. Instead, they’ll get Justin Verlander (73 FIP-), Gerrit Cole (59 FIP-), and Zack Greinke (66 FIP-). No American League club can unleash a better rotation this October, and even if the Astros only let their horses gallop through the lineup twice each start, they’ll still have an advantage in that department. Read the rest of this entry »

Twenty-Seven Outs to Go: The Nationals Win a Thriller

Outs are a scarce resource. Of all the insights the sabermetric movement has bequeathed, that one looms largest in a game like this, when an entire season hangs in the balance on every pitch. From the second that Yasmani Grandal’s line drive sailed over the right field wall for a two-run homer in the first, the Nationals were on notice:

You are losing. You only have 27 outs to fix it.

A month ago, Brandon Woodruff seemed an unlikely October hero. Not only were the Brewers fading, but Woodruff’s continued absence helped explain why. The righty went down with a strained oblique in late July, and didn’t return until the season’s final weeks. Even when he climbed back on the bump in September, the Brewers were cautious, limiting him to four innings across two late-season starts.

On the big stage, he could not have looked more in form. His heater, one of the fastest in the game on a normal night, reached triple digits and sat just a tick lower. He was amped from the first pitch, and where Max Scherzer tossed a shaky first inning, Woodruff looked settled. In mere minutes, he induced a groundout, a whiff, and a pop up.

Twenty-four outs to go. Read the rest of this entry »

Exit Ned Yost. Enter… Mike Matheny?

Yesterday, Ned Yost announced that he would retire at the end of the season. While the news came as a surprise, the man himself has always kept a healthy perspective on the game. Based on Alec Lewis’s profile, he’ll leave the game feeling fulfilled and ready for the next chapter of his life. His departure, along with a juicy rumor that Royals special advisor and former Cardinals manager Mike Matheny will replace him, made for an eventful Monday morning in Kansas City.

As a skipper, Yost was never a visionary strategist. He’s not analytically inclined by nature, and he struggled in game states that require managers to play the percentages. Too often, his choices looked reflexive and dated: He liked having his fast shortstop lead off, OBP be damned. His good players bunted far too often. He didn’t always know when to deploy his closer. Managing the bullpen proved particularly challenging.

In one 2014 game, Yost summoned young Danny Duffy into a tied, extra-inning contest on the road, and then turned to Louis Coleman after the lefty loaded the bases. All that time, he had all-world closer Greg Holland ready to go, but he never got to pitch; Baltimore walked it off against Coleman. Later that year, Yost brought in a lefty specialist specifically to face (then) feeble-hitting Jackie Bradley Jr. with one on late in a one-run game; the Red Sox predictably inserted lefty-basher Jonny Gomes, who socked a two-run homer to give Boston a one-run win. After that episode, the manager memorably took responsibility, saying he’d “outsmarted himself.” Perhaps more than anyone over the last decade, Yost earned an almost anti-analytic reputation, becoming the face of what sabermetric seamheads spent so much time ranting about on Twitter.

But as Yost’s time in the dugout stretched on, the criticisms of his tactical acumen felt like an increasingly small slice of the story. For subscribers of the iceberg theory of managing, it’s clear that he compensated with other strengths. Yost always absorbed the blame whenever things went haywire, a point that both his bosses and charges acknowledged and appreciated. He also had a steady hand with young players. In Milwaukee and Kansas City, he helped turn perennially losing teams into playoff-caliber squads, happily shepherding young talents through the inevitable growing pains. Notably, a number of highly touted prospects who began their big league careers slowly — Eric Hosmer, Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Jorge Soler, and Adalberto Mondesi among them — eventually blossomed. Might they have done so sooner under another manager? Perhaps, perhaps not. Regardless, most of the best prospects under Yost’s watch figured things out eventually. Read the rest of this entry »

Checking in on Justus Sheffield

On the surface, Justus Sheffield’s developmental journey looks pretty smooth. He was a first-round pick back in 2014. He’s been a consensus top 50 or so prospect since the Obama administration — never much higher than that, but only rarely lower (Eric and Kiley had him ranked 60th overall and first in the Mariners system preseason; he’s since dropped to 109th and seventh respectively). His velocity has not materially changed. He’s suffered a few bumps and bruises, but nothing ever sidelined him long. Twenty-three years old now, he’s cracked a big league rotation right on schedule for a high school draftee of his caliber.

Statistically, he’s been consistent as well. With the exception of a very poor early season spell this year, he’s maintained an ERA under 3.40 at every minor league stop. His strikeout numbers have almost always hovered just above a batter per inning, his walk totals around 3.5/9. He typically generates more grounders than flies. Every year, a new level; every year, the same successes.

Yet Sheffield’s path has actually meandered a bit. As a high schooler, the lefty was seen as an athlete who would have no trouble throwing strikes and a guy who could develop three plus pitches. Two years into his career, he effectively pocketed one of them, shelving his curve in favor of a hard slider. He also grew quite a bit soon after the draft. Between the added weight, a new pitch mix, and a difficult delivery to repeat, his control suffered and whispers about a bullpen role grew louder even as he continued missing bats. His velocity, while stable in the aggregate, has periodically fluctuated on either side of the low-90s. We’ve learned that Sheffield’s fastball has a very low spin rate (more on that later).

He also got traded twice. On the one hand, Sheffield has had the opportunity to hone his craft under the tutelage of two of the sport’s finest pitching development staffs. On the other, those same clubs ultimately decided to work with different pitchers. As he’s matured, and as his fastball looks less like a bat-misser and his changeup remains a work in progress, he’s increasingly relied on his slider. The soothing consistency in his production belies a conflict between the quality of that slider and the reality that he must throw something else eventually. How that conflict resolves itself will shape his ultimate role.

The bullpen has long been the logical end point here. As a starter, Sheffield sits in the low-90s, touching 95 or a tick better at his strongest. In relief, he’d throw even harder. Pair increased velocity with a slider that earns a whiff nearly a quarter of the time he throws it, and you’ve got a late-inning reliever. Lefties, even ones with serviceable changeups, usually peak as eight-inning guys out of the pen. But on paper, Sheffield’s cocktail is good enough to close. Read the rest of this entry »

The Least Competitive Game in Recent Memory

In Steph Curry’s junior season, his Davidson Wildcats played a non-conference game against Loyola Maryland. Curry led the nation in scoring at the time, and as expected, Davidson rolled that night. But Curry himself didn’t score a point. Loyola’s coach, Jimmy Patsos, instructed his players to double-team Curry up and down the court. So, Curry stood in the corner with two Greyhounds next to him as his teammates played 4-on-3 and won by 30.

After the game, Patsos more or less copped to the farce. Defending his tactics, he asked: “Anybody else ever hold him scoreless? I’m a history major. [Are people] going to remember that we held him scoreless or we lost by 30?”

Whether all that makes Patsos infamous, cynical, or pathetic is up to your interpretation. Regardless, he’s right about one thing: you can generate attention in defeat, even humiliating defeat, so long as you lose in notable fashion.

It’s a lesson the Seattle Mariners reinforced over the weekend. On the surface, Sunday’s matchup between Seattle and Houston looked as lopsided on paper as a major league game can. The Astros are perhaps baseball’s best team; the Mariners may lose 100 games. Cy Young contender Gerrit Cole was on the mound for Houston, opposed by former Cy Young winner but current-6.00-ERA-holder Félix Hernández. The Astros had already defeated Seattle 15 times in 16 tries. Vegas handicappers set one of the highest lines I can ever remember seeing for a major league contest.

This being baseball, anything can happen on any given day, and as it turned out, 35,000 Houstonians saw a pretty spectacular version of “anything:” the most lopsided ballgame in recent memory. Read the rest of this entry »