Throughout the season I’m separately assessing the fortunes of teams in the NL and AL, and ranking them accordingly. Standings aren’t dependent on record alone and factor in such elements as injuries, strength of competition, and acquisitions, amongst other things. Yesterday, in The Senior Class: Week 10, I ordered the NL. Today, it’s the turn of the AL. It’s The Designated 15 – Week 10! (All records correct as of Sunday morning).
- Oakland Athletics (5-2 last week, 38-24 overall) → Like their Bay Area mates the Giants, Oakland are lapping the field in terms of run differential (their mark of +118 is more than double the next best team, the Blue Jays). Unlike San Francisco however, the rest of their division is looking pretty frisky too, with only the Astros rocking a losing record amongst the other four AL West teams. They might well be the best team in the AL, but the A’s are going to have to be on their game all year long to stay at the summit of their own division with such stellar competition.
- Toronto Blue Jays (5-1, 38-25) ↑ As a starter, Marcus Stroman has pitched 12 innings of 1.50 ERA ball, walking two while striking out 13. As a reliever, he was rocked for 9 earned runs in just 6.1 innings, and had a 2.21 WHIP. A small sample size admittedly, but lets keep handing Stroman the ball to start games, rather than finish them, eh Mr. Gibbons?
- Detroit Tigers (2-4, 33-25) ↓ Three weeks ago, the Tigers looked like they were pulling away from the rest of the AL Central. Having just swept the Red Sox in a three-game series at Fenway Park, getting some measure of revenge for the 2013 ALCS, they stood seven games clear in the division, at 27-12. Since then however, Detroit has gone 6-13, and seen their division lead cut back down to 4. Surprisingly at the forefront of the Tigers’ struggles is their usually dominant pitching; Anibal Sanchez and Max Scherzer have both been excellent, and Rick Porcello his steady self, but Drew Smyly has failed to live up to expectations since being promoted to the rotation in place of the departed Doug Fister, and Justin Verlander looks to be a shell of his former self. Remember the panic this time last year when the 2011 AL MVP had a 3.71 ERA after 13 starts? Well this year, he’s gotten off to an even worse start – through 13 starts, he has a 4.19 ERA, a heightened walk rate (3.7 BB/9 compared to a career mark of 2.8, and a 2.0 figure in that career 2011 season), and is displaying a diminished strikeout rate (just 6.4 k/9 after averaging 9.0 over the prior four seasons). In return for collecting $20 million in salary this year, Verlander has been distinctly average, as proven by his 101 ERA+. Of course, Verlander rebounded in the second half last season, and might still be getting back into the swing of things after offseason core surgery, but at 31 years old, and owed $28 million per season for the next five years, I’d say there’s significant cause for concern amongst Tigers fans.
- Los Angeles Angels (3-3, 33-28) →
- Baltimore Orioles (4-2, 31-29) ↑
- Seattle Mariners (4-1, 32-29) ↑
- New York Yankees (2-5, 31-30) ↓ New York’s record in games in which Masahiro Tanaka hasn’t pitched you ask? 21-28. First on the list of pointers for improvement, stop playing Brendan Ryan at first base while riding with Derek Jeter at shortstop! If you couldn’t tell, this drives me insane.
- Chicago White Sox (3-3, 31-32) ↑ Just as I was about ready to gush about how amazing Chris Sale had been of late, Mike Trout happened. Oh well. Prior to the eighth inning last night, Sale had allowed just 5 hits in 31 innings, a mere 7 to the last 107 batters he had faced, and owned a 0.72 ERA over his last four starts. Of course, after 93 pitches and seven scoreless innings last night, aided by an error, he allowed all five Angels he faced in the bottom of the eight to score, as L.A. erased a 5-0 deficit in the blink of an eye. Still, as of right now, I’m of the belief that the man known as ‘The Condor’ is the best pitcher in the AL. Mike Trout is the Most Valuable Horse after all.
- Cleveland Indians (5-1, 31-31) ↑ In his second game back off the 7-day concussion DL, Carlos Santana yesterday went 2-2, with 2 walks, a home run and a single, lifting the Tribe to an 8-3 win over the Rangers. No more games behind the plate for Mr. Santana methinks…
- Boston Red Sox (1-5, 27-34) ↓ They lose 10 in a row. They win 7 in a row. They lose 6 in a row. Why Boston, must you make it so incredibly difficult for me to rank you?!
- Texas Rangers (3-3, 31-31) ↓ Just hours after Kendrys Morales, you know, a designated hitter/first baseman type, signed with the Twins, Mitch Moreland, you know, Texas’ designated hitter/first baseman type, who had replaced Prince Fielder, you know, the Rangers’ presumed first baseman/designate hitter type after he went down with injury, was announced to be in need of reconstructive ankle surgery, and out for the next three months. The Rangers now have made 19 DL moves this season. No other team has made more than 12.
- Kansas City Royals (4-3, 30-32) ↓ Eric Hosmer home run alert! I repeat, Eric Hosmer home run alert!
- Minnesota Twins → (4-3, 29-31) The Twins came out of nowhere yesterday to ink Kendrys Morales to a one-year deal, thought to be “in the ballpark” of the $10 million contract that Stephen Drew signed with the Red Sox in May. After the 30-year-old hit .277 with 23 home runs and 80 RBIs with Seattle last season, he’ll likely slot into the DH spot which has preeminently been manned by Josmil Pinto (19 GP) this year. Jason Kubel was designated for assignment in a corresponding roster move.
- Tampa Bay Rays (1-6, 24-39) → The Rays are holding on to 14th place in these rankings by the skin of their teeth, probably because I still can’t comprehend fully how they are three games back of the Astros. Seriously, I look at the standings and think it’s a mistake. Things have got to a point with the Rays however, where Joe Maddon‘s optimistic tweets, have got about as much baloney to them as the sandwiches he makes in the clubhouse.
- Houston Astros (3-3, 27-36) → Not a bad way to get your first hit Jon Singleton.
In between attending my first day of spring semester classes, I today managed to fit in (somewhat annoyingly given I have the full subscription) the MLB.tv free game of the day; James Shields and the Kansas City Royals taking on Justin Verlander’s Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park. While half-heartedly skimming through the course outlines for ENG 322 and 323, I caught quite the game, as the Tigers eventually came through in the ninth thanks to, believe it or not, an Alex Gonzalez walk-off single. In a match-up with plenty of talking points though – Verlander’s iffy 4th inning, the loaded Royals bullpen blowing a lead, the Tigers’ glaring inefficiencies etc. – one player in particular stood out.
If it wasn’t clear already, after tallying three hits off him as part of an impressive 4-for-4 showing, Salvador Perez can now officially lay claim to owning Justin Verlander; after today, the Venezuelan’s career batting average against the 2012 AL MVP now stands at .458 (11-for-24) – the highest mark Verlander has allowed amongst opponents with 20 at bats*, while simultaneously the loftiest number Perez has accrued against any similarly qualified pitcher.
All three times he faced the decorated righty, the 23-year-old looked to be aggressive (he only faced 6 pitches), but remained in control throughout each trip to the plate; in the second inning, Perez crushed a 1-0 91mph fastball off the base of the wall in the deepest part of left center field for a stand-up double. Next time up in the fourth, it was a 93mph heater that was one-hopped to the left field fence – again for a double – scoring Alex Gordon from first for Kansas City’s first run of the afternoon (Perez would later cross the plate himself as part of a three-run frame in which Verlander threw 33 pitches and walked 3 batters). When it was the catcher’s time again in the fifth, he finally saw an off-speed pitch – not that it was a problem for Perez. In a 2-0 count, he simply hung in and took the 85mph offering right back up the middle for an easy single. That would be the last he saw of Verlander, but no. 13 on the Royals would continue his fine day by reaching base once again in the eighth, this time lining a single between third and short off of Al Alburquerque.
If Verlander isn’t careful Sal Perez is gonna steal Kate Upton from him.
— Danny Parkins (@DannyParkins) March 31, 2014
Bloop hits just out of the reach of the Tigers’ new middle infield pair – Ian Kinsler and the aforementioned Gonzalez – these weren’t; this was a batter in complete command of his swing, and hitting intelligently, so much so that on both the FSD and FSKC broadcasts the announcers paid homage to Perez as a future MVP contender. Of course, it wasn’t all roses for the Royals’ backstop – he couldn’t corral Aaron Crow’s wild pitch on a Nick Castellanos strikeout in the seventh inning, allowing Austin Jackson to score – but his afternoon of dominance at the dish made for an incredibly strong start to the season nonetheless; in racking up his fourth career four-hit game, per Baseball Reference, Perez became only the 13th catcher in the live ball era of Major League history to record four hits on Opening Day.
One of the finest defensive catchers in the game already (he won his first Gold Glove of presumably many last year after finishing fourth in AL defensive WAR with a mark of 2.2), if Perez can fully break out at the plate, well, Rany Jazayerli’s fandom for Salvy might somehow take an even less platonic tone. Entering his third full season in the big leagues after first being called up for 39 games as a 21-year-old in 2011, Perez up to now owns a career .301/.331/.451 triple slash line (with a 112 OPS+ too for the more refined readers), but has still more room for growth; though boasting an above average 22% LD rate, at a mere 23, there’s perhaps more power to come from his mid-teens average HR output so far, while his BB rate of 4.0% is exactly half the MLB average.
Already a bargain deal for the Royals thanks to the five-year $7 million contract he signed in February 2012 (there are an additional three years worth a total of $13.75M in club options too), if today’s output is anything to go by at least (small sample size alert!), Perez is well on his way to not only becoming a superstar, but the most underpaid player in baseball**. A dubious accolade for his agent perhaps, but ultimately indicative of the immense talent Kansas City have on their hands.
After Salvy’s showing today, Justin Verlander can’t be glad that his greatest adversary will be around in the AL Central for years to come. Considering his .389 average and a couple of HRs in 18 ABs against Tuesday starter Max Scherzer though, he can at least take solace in not likely being the only Tigers starter this week to meet the growing dominance of Salvador Perez.
** Given he was worth 4.3 WAR last year, using the commonly accepted $6M-per-win rate, Perez more than triply paid back his contract with performance in 2013 alone.
Having signed Max Scherzer to a one-year, $15.525 million contract to avoid arbitration this past winter, long-term extension talks between the Detroit Tigers and reigning AL Cy Young winner – and Scott Boras client – have recently been scrapped. In reportedly turning down what Dave Dombrowski called “a very substantial offer that would place him among the highest-paid pitchers in the game,” (Fox Sports‘ Jon Morosi putting the deal at six years, $144 million, placing Scherzer on the same pay trajectory as Cole Hamels), the 29-year-old may well have done the Detroit Tigers a favor.
History tells us long-term extensions for aging top flight pitchers aren’t often fiscally prudent. In 2013 alone we witnessed the end for numerous such signees; Johan Santana’s 6 year, $137.5M deal finally ended with him recovering from shoulder surgery (again), the lefty having provided only 109 starts and 717 innings to the Mets during their pact. Barry Zito remained largely healthy over his 7/126 contract with the Giants, but he provided less than 2 cumulative WARP in the time, all while rocking a 4.47 ERA. Roy Halladay retired with a whimper and a 6.82 ERA in 2013, having battled injuries throughout his two final years in Philadelphia – both costing $20M apiece. Even C.C. Sabathia showed worrying signs of ineffectiveness last year, and he still has another $96 million owed to him by the Yankees over the next four years. With Justin Verlander (7 yr/$180M, plus a 22M option in 2020) and Anibal Sanchez (5 yr/$80M, plus a 2018 option) already locked up through their thirties, and considering the outlined inherent risk in doing so much, did the Tigers especially need to add another long-term extension to the already-dangerous mix?
Thankfully for the Tigers, the quandary has at least for now, resolved itself; Scherzer will let his 2014 performance dictate his market value next winter, risking potential injury or decline in his search for a better deal. If he comes close to his performance over the last two years (during which time he’s been worth 11 WAR, per Fangraphs, and at 2.99, had the seventh best FIP in the majors), he’ll be a very expensive 30-year-old, a commodity that some team – unlikely to be the Tigers it seems – will happily overpay. Detroit will by then have another extension to worry about anyway.
With Scherzer – and presumably the money they cleared for him in trading away Prince Fielder and Doug Fister – off the table, Detroit management must now focus on what to do about Miguel Cabrera (and apparently already has). Set to make $22 million in each of the next two seasons, the twice-defending AL MVP will be a free agent after his age-32 season in 2015 should the Tigers not re-sign him before then – a decision which, mostly because of Albert Pujols, isn’t quite the slam-dunk you’d think.
It can’t be denied, the 30-year-old has been the best hitter in baseball over the last couple of seasons (though he’s been a huge negative both in the field and on the basepaths, hence why Mike Trout is technically more valuable). He’s beloved by the fans in Detroit, his presence in the lineup instantly elevating their team’s offense into elite territory. But he’s also bound to command a massive payday, potentially a problem – as ESPN writer Dan Szymborski pointed out back in November:
The next team to sign Cabrera, whether it’s the Tigers or another team, doesn’t get to purchase his previous six seasons, they get the right to his next six seasons. All good things come to an end… and Cabrera’s star is no exception. From stars to scrubs, the after-age-30 stories tend to be one of decline… The lessons of previous superstars should not go unlearned.
The “previous superstars” reference could hardly be less veiled – the respective career trajectories of Cabrera and Albert Pujols are eerily similar, something Jason Catania noted:
Pujols is right-handed; so is Cabrera. Pujols was a highly rated prospect who broke into the major leagues playing third base and outfield before settling in at first base; ditto, Cabrera. And Pujols enjoyed immediate, overwhelming success in his first full season—at the tender age of 21—triggering a decade of incredible, consistent production in which he hit for both league-leading average and power… Same goes for Cabrera.
With the similarly hefty sort of frame that Cabrera currently boasts (he might actually have been in better shape), the decline began for Pujols in his age-31 season, his last with the Cardinals. He hit just (!) 299/.366/.541, a great season in a vacuum, but all career lows for Pujols – who averaged .328/.420/.617 with 40 homers, 41 doubles and an OPS+ of 170 in his time with the Cardinals. Of course, it was then, entering his age-32 season, that the Los Angeles Angels signed him to a 10 year, $240 million contract; since then Pujols’ production has been marred by injury, his two year triple slash line falling to .275/.338/.485 in addition to his underlying skills continuing to trend in the wrong directions (he’s had an increasing strikeout rate, a decreasing walk rate and worsening plate discipline for the past five seasons now).
Cabrera – if allowed to get there – will be hitting the free-agent market one year older than when Pujols did back in 2011/12. Though there’s been no offensive drop-off so far, injuries began to worryingly take their toll last year; by the end of the season, problems with his hip, abdomen, and groin had slowed his previously torrid output at the plate to such an extent that Cabrera managed only four extra-base hits over 32 games in September and October. With ten years of experience under his belt too, 2014 will mark the exact same point in his career as when Pujols began to decline in 2011 – the season prior to his mammoth new contract.
The Tigers are all in. But for all their big moves and expenditure over the past few years, they’ve only two ALCS losses and one World Series trip to show for it – a sweep at the hands of a Pablo Sandoval-powered Giants in 2012. With Scherzer unsigned, Dave Dombrowski may have dodged a bullet, but in the wake of such perceived failure, the pressure to lock up Cabrera will only increase. With two years left on his deal though, the Tigers would do well to observe history – like perhaps they did in not ponying up for Scherzer – and ride out the public outcry for a new contract. After all, as Szymborski wrote, “He’s not likely to get more expensive, given that he’s at the absolute peak of his game.” If the Pujols-like slide begins, tough as it might be to quit while they’re ahead and cut ties with their franchise player, Detroit would thus avoid the albatross contract currently weighing down the Angels and be able to earnestly rebuild.
The clock is ticking; Detroit’s championship window is still open, but it could soon be fast closing. Whether the Tigers will accept as much remains to be seen.
As previously detailed in my ROY cases for Noah Syndergaard and Xander Bogaerts, and MVP picks of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, I’ll occasionally be interspersing my usual content with my (probably misguided) award predictions for the upcoming season. Today marks the next installment pertaining to my poor judgement – it’s time to choose some Cy Young award winners. Fair warning, I’m not exactly going out on a limb with my picks.
Entering last season, you could make a justifiable case that either Justin Verlander or Felix Hernandez was the best pitcher in baseball, marginally ahead of Clayton Kershaw. 12 months later though, there’s no disputing the Dodgers’ ace is the best in the game.
Still just 26 (his birthday was last Wednesday), Kershaw has already racked up two Cy Young awards and three consecutive ERA titles, while his numbers over the last four years – 2.37 ERA, 2.70 FIP, and 1.02 WHIP – all rank as best in the league. Coming off a 2013 season in which he went 16-9 with a 1.83 ERA, and had 17 games of at least 6.2 innings pitched and allowing one or fewer earned runs, the Texas native is somehow getting even better too; his walk rate has decreased from the 9-13% range he put up earlier in his career to an extremely frugal 5-7% during the past couple of seasons, and whilst doing so, the southpaw with the hammer curve has also maintained at least a 25.0% strikeout rate. Given that he furthermore possesses the power to re-write the BABIP laws (his .270 average is significantly below the typical league-wide .290-.300 range), the seven year, $215 million extension that Los Angeles signed their stud to this past winter could end up being a bargain should Kershaw keep up his current rate of performance – as speculated by Grantland’s Jonah Keri.
After providing yet another example of how Spring Training statistics don’t matter (he had a 9.20 ERA across 14.2 IP), Kershaw is already off to another dominant start – fanning 7 Arizona batters with his typically filthy array of curveballs and sliders over 6.2 innings in the opening game of the 2014 season. Though he finally gave up his first Opening Day earned run in his fourth such start, it’s shaping up to be yet another season in which the normally-charitable Kershaw makes even the sport’s best hitters look helpless – stranding them alone on an unforgiving island of pitching cruelty up in the batter’s box.
Unfortunately for the likes of Stephen Strasburg and Jose Fernandez, barring voter fatigue, or God help us all, injury, the NL Cy Young hardware should be Kershaw’s for years to come should he simply stay on track. Get ready to clear some more room on the mantelpiece Clayton, you’ve got my (unrecognized) vote already.
The field of possible contenders among the American League is much wider; Yu Darvish, King Felix, Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander all figure to be in the mix, but, as mentioned in yesterday’s gambling related post (when I wasn’t making fun Fernando Rodney actually having odds for the award), I’m picking David Price – he who has averaged 208 innings and a 78 ERA- over the past four years – to pick up his second Cy.
Having won the award in 2012, Price’s offseason regiment back at his alma mater Vanderbilt was disrupted by the bump in publicity he subsequently received. Unable to work out fully with his old Commodores Coach Tim Corbin, the Rays’ ace came out the gate slowly in 2013, allowing eight home runs and an opponent’s triple slash line of .294/.340/.471 in his first 55 innings pitched. By the time he came out of May 15 outing against the Boston Red Sox (in which lasted just 2.1 innings, allowing four runs) with a triceps injury, Price was sitting on a 5.24 ERA with a 1-4 record. He’d be out for six weeks, but would return with a vengeance.
Making 18 starts over the rest of the season (including Game 163 in Texas), Price would author a 2.53 ERA (37 ER/131.2 IP), allowing only 113 hits en route to a 9-4 record. Even more impressive though, was his immaculate control; after returning, the lefty’s velocity was down, but he still struck out 102 batters while only issuing 13 walks. By seasons end, Price paced the Junior Circuit in complete games (4), fewest walks per nine innings (1.3 BB/9), and also had the highest strikeout to walk ratio (5.59) – officially returning to the form that captured him the 2012 award, even despite a velocity drop (he didn’t throw one pitch of at least 97mph in 2013, after throwing more than 250 such pitches in 2012, though his average still sat at a very respectable 93.5mph).
At only 28, manager Joe Maddon believes his no. 1 to be entering “that era of five or six years of the best pitching” of his career, but 2014 will almost certainly be the last year Price spends in a Rays uniform; it was quite the industry surprise that Tampa didn’t move him during December’s Winter Meetings, and instead picked up his arbitration tab for the upcoming year. Consider this season the ultimate trade showcase then, as I expect Price to pick up exactly where he left off in 2013 and then, trophy in hand, be moved next winter in exchange for a veritable bounty. It might be another two years until he’s paid like the ace he is then, but hopefully a second Cy Young for the meantime will be sufficient consolation for Price.
Yesterday, my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series devolved into a subtle form of 29 other teams’ favorite sport; Yankee bashing. But then again, it’s hard to deny that despite their free-spending ways, the New York infield has become a hospice of sorts. The Oakland Athletics on the other hand, have no such problems – routinely extracting immensely valuable contributions from young players and lesser names alike. 2013 was no exception; despite a lack of big names on the roster, the A’s went 96-66 and won the AL West once again, only to be bested in the playoffs by the Detroit Tigers for the second consecutive year. After two high-profile postseason duels with none other than Justin Verlander though, the name of Sonny Gray might soon alter Oakland’s relative lack of star status.
Ahead of Game 5 of the 2013 ALDS, Athletics manager Bob Melvin had a decision to make regarding his choice of starting pitcher; on the one hand, there was his nominal staff ace Bartolo Colon, who after a unexpectedly brilliant regular season had been hit around a little too easily by the Detroit Tigers in Game 1. On the other, there was the rookie Sonny Gray, whom despite having made only 10 starts at the big league level during the season, had out-dueled then-reigning AL Cy Young winner Justin Verlander in Game 2, throwing eight frames of scoreless ball, and striking out nine. With Oakland’s season on the line, the former Vanderbilt Commodore was selected to take the mound; unfortunately, Miguel Cabrera cared not for the narrative.
That Melvin went with Gray in Oakland’s most important game in 2013 should surprise no one. That Gray threw an obvious mistake – a belt-high, middle-in fastball to Cabrera – at the worst possible time, should. Because up until that point, the 18th overall pick of the 2011 amateur draft had been dominant, his 10 starts down the stretch yielding a 2.85 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 24.8 K%, and 8.1 BB%. Furthermore, his SIERA (3.21) placed him 12th among pitchers who had thrown at least 60 innings, nestling him nicely in between some young aces you may have heard of – Stephen Strasburg and Jose Fernandez. Yes, Sonny Gray is that good.
You’d be forgiven for doubting him heading into 2013 however. Even his manager recently admitted to doubts: “If you would have asked me, sitting right here (a year ago), if he would be pitching for us in the playoffs I would have said that’s a stretch. So when you look back, sure, it’s surprising.” After throwing just 22 innings after being drafted in 2011, the 5’11 Gray had a 4.14 ERA (with just a 5.90 K/9, and 1.70 K/BB ratio) at Double A Midland in 2012, causing him to fall off both Baseball America’s and MLB.com’s top 100 prospects lists. Promoted to begin 2013 at Triple A regardless of his prior issues, Gray flipped the switch; when Dan Straily started struggling, his 3.42 ERA, 2.74 FIP and 118 strikeouts in 118 1/3 innings (20 GS) earned him a call up to The Show.
He never looked back, his impressive raw statistics backed up by a 2.70 FIP and 2.97 xFIP, suggesting his excellence wasn’t just a product of O.co Coliseum’s favorable dimensions. Per Brooks Baseball’s PITCHf/x data, Gray threw exactly 1200 pitches for the Athletics in his time up (including postseason), relying on his 93mph four seam fastball to generate a 53.6 GB%, and a filthy 80mph curveball to put batters away. The curve in fact, according to Fangraphs pitch values, ranked as most valuable in the game amongst starters with 60+ innings – besting Clayton Kershaw by 0.79 runs per hundred pitches – and induced a startling whiff rate of 15.31% from opposing batters. Just to keep hitters off balance, Gray mixed in a change 7.2% of the time too (though he can also turn to the sinker, cutter, and slider to form a six pitch arsenal – but used them very sparingly). With his control under… ahem, control – a future ace had officially emerged by seasons end.
As Melvin testified of the now 24 year old, “He did some amazing things in a short period of time.” Now it’s time for Gray to lead a deep Athletics pitching staff for a full season; he will presumably join Jarrod Parker and newly acquired Scott Kazmir at the top of the Athletics rotation, with A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily, Drew Pomeranz, and Tommy Milone competing for the remaining two spots. If all goes to plan, the young righty will be the first to take the ball for Oakland in the 2014 playoffs, and push them past their ALDS hump.
Maybe then, the public will finally recognize a name on the A’s roster as a true star.