While streaming my awesome-binge-watch show of choice during some downtime yesterday afternoon (I’m now on to season 3 of The Wire after finishing Breaking Bad a couple of weeks ago), one particular internet pop-up caught my eye. This site wasn’t as sinister as it may at first sound – I only noticed it because it pictured Tony Parker hypothetically rising up for a dunk (I know, never going to happen right…). It was in fact, an advert for the Bovada Sportsbook.
Anyhow, this illicit prompt triggered a memory of a gambling-related post I wrote way back in Spring Training whilst March Madness was taking place, ‘Busted Bracket? Try some baseball betting!’, a piece in which I unfortunately expressed the following sentiment:
I love, love, LOVE me some Rays action this year… I’ll be taking them to win the whole darn thing. With David Price still leading a loaded pitching staff, Wil Myers’ mighty presence in the offense all year, and Joe Maddon’s usual defense/matchup innovation, at +1500 on sportsbook.com, Tampa Bay represent a terrific value to go all the way.
Sound logic at the time, but boy… just yikes. With the benefit of hindsight (well, about a third of a seasons worth of results anyway), it’s clear there are plenty of rough calls in that piece (hey Prince Fielder: HR Champ!), but that one truly sticks out. Rather than live up to the hype that infected not just I, but numerous other baseball prognosticators too, the Rays have been truly abysmal so far in 2014, and are showing little signs of turning things around (they’re currently on a 6-game losing streak). What has changed then, for the Rays to so suddenly fall off the wagon?
Jonah Keri did a great job of breaking the Ray’s slow start back on May 14th in a piece asking pretty much the same question, ‘Why Do the Preseason Darling Rays Suddenly Look Like the Devil Rays?’. At that point, they were 16-23, and only 4½ games out of first place in the AL East. In other words, there was still some hope, and Keri managed to find some silver linings (I will not plumb the pun depths for ‘Rays of hope’). Since then however, things have continued on in the wrong direction; the Rays are now 23-34, and 4 games back of fourth place, let alone the 10.5 games behind Toronto in first. Their chances of reaching the playoffs now sit at a paltry 5.3%.
The rash of pitching injuries that Keri cited, decimating the starting rotation, remain the inherent problem. Matt Moore is of course out for the year after undergoing tommy John surgery, while Jeremy Hellickson is still yet to make his debut after starting the season on the disabled list. Alex Cobb, after missing time with an oblique strain, is back at least, but his helpful return (I liked him as a good dark horse at 33/1 to win the AL Cy Young award), hasn’t been enough to offset the combination of bad luck and below-par performance currently afflicted David Price; the nominal ace of the Rays staff has a 4.27 ERA after 12 starts, but a 3.24 FIP.
Price hasn’t been alone in his struggles – young starters Chris Archer (4.00 ERA, 1.43 WHIP) and Jake Odorizzi (5.13 and 1.54 in the same categories) have been remained healthy, but have failed to live up to expectations. Combined with their relative ineffectiveness (Tampa as a whole has only 19 quality starts this year, last in the majors), throw in the lack of stamina of Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos, the other two pitchers to have started for the Rays this year, and the bullpen has been taxed – hard. Grant Balfour and Joel Peralta, previously excellent high-leverage relievers, both sport horrendous numbers. Josh Lueke remains horrid, on and off the field. Only Jake McGee has really excelled in the usual Tampa Bay reliever fashion.
But the Rays haven’t been much better on offense either. After securing AL ROY honors last year, Wil Myers was expected to play Robin to Evan Longoria‘s Batman. Instead, Myers has experienced a brutal sophomore slump (not in his bat-flip game mind you), and was hitting only just .227 with a .666 OPS before he was placed on the DL with an ailing wrist over the weekend. Longoria meanwhile, with 5 home runs and a 98 OPS+ mark, has been anonymous as one of the Joker’s masked henchmen, and unable to buoy an offense anchored by the worst catching production in the majors thus far; for all of Jose Molina‘s and Ryan Hanigan‘s framing abilities, a combined .182/.254/.257 triple slash line with terrible base running should be unacceptable.
As Keri pointed out too, there’s not much help on the way; in addition to drafting terribly over the past few years, and graduating a lot of the prospects who did in fact make it (Price, Desmond Jennings, Moore, Myers kind of etc.), the Rays are tapped out financially. Team GM Andrew Friedman acknowledged as such after a winter in which management gave out multiyear deals to the aforementioned Balfour, Hanigan, and James Loney, and then made an expensive mistake on Heath Bell; at over $80 million, this years payroll is a franchise record, and unsustainable in the long-term.
With Toronto streaking away, Baltimore’s free-agency commitment to winning now, Boston turning it around, and New York looking capable of an above .500 season, contending for the AL East in 2014 is already looking out of the question for the Rays. Besot by injuries, bad luck, and bad form, the trades might soon be coming in order to address that depleted talent pool and over-extended budget, David Price being the obvious candidate to be moved. The rebuild could be well and truly on by October, when by my prediction, they should have been playing for a championship.
The Rays are now +3500 to win it all. And it’s no longer even a decent value play.
It’s only May 5th, but believe it or not, this post marks the third installment already in which I’m having to detail the contenders vying for a coveted spot in the end-of-year Bat-Flip Royale – there’s just been that many early season efforts worthy of attention. Don’t get me wrong, the sheer quantity is certainly appreciated, but for all you MLB players out there, don’t forget a single instance of quality can get you a shot at the belt. You don’t have to do all your outrageous pimping before Memorial Day. That said, you can do some – I’m looking at you in particular Bartolo Colon…
I understand that you’re new to this whole ‘pitchers have to bat too in the National League’ lark, but Bartolo: generally you drop the bat even if you’re just running out a routine grounder. You don’t need any extra weight to be carrying down the first base line, nor will you running off with the lumber mean you won’t have to bat again. Teams have plenty of bats to share.
I’d like to use this opportunity to throw some further shade too, and call out the otherwise-sensational Jose Abreu. As I detailed last week, the Cuban rookie has got off to a tremendous start at the dish, setting records left, right, and center by virtue off his blasting home runs, well, to left, right, and center field. But despite having 11 jacks and considerable reason for some swagger, this is the best flip we’ve seen from Chicago’s new first baseman:
Step it up already Jose – some guys are putting in work when they don’t even hit it out after all.
It seems every time Tampa Bay and the Yankees meet, old bat-flip hand Alfonso Soriano gets jealous of the glorious, youthful peacocking of Wil Myers. In the last Bat-Flip Royale update, he responded nicely to Myers’ first two outrageously languid tosses of the bat of the year, cranking out one of his own like he was back in his noughties heyday. But flipping so brazenly, when all you’ve done really is fly out to Desmond Jennings in center, missing even scraping the wall by a full five feet – what was that Sori?!
Lost respect is what – the same of which can’t be said for Myers. Like Soriano, the Rays sophomore didn’t hit C.C. Sabathia‘s offering (far from a terrible pitch by the way) out into the Yankee Stadium cheap seats (because such things don’t exist -ha!), but boy did he make up for it with his peripheral showboating stats; After the customarily bored-looking flip – Myers has just about mastered the ‘been there, done that’ disdain already – he proceed to cruise down to first, thinking it was gone.
Not so much. The ball hit off both the wall and Jacoby Ellsbury in center, Carlos Beltran simply stood watching in right field, and Myers turned on the jets to bag himself an inside the park home run. Unlike with most inside the parkers, Myers made it round so easily in fact, that he pretty much strolled into home, thus finishing his afternoon jaunt in the same graceful ease with which he started his trot.
It’s a pleasure to see Myers’ laid-back style leading the next generation of bat-flippers, but he does sometimes lack a certain aggressive obnoxiousness. For that reason then, Starling Marte‘s walk-off shot and subsequent showboating vaults the fellow second year player ahead of Myers in this installment of BFR consideration. Sure, his jack was a legitimate game winner, capping off a Sergio Santos-centric Blue Jays bullpen implosion (the Jays were up two heading into the bottom of the ninth before a Pedro Alvarez homer tied it, and Marte finished the job), but the throwdown work was the real show stopper – a solid 65 on the scouting 20-80 scale according to Jonah Keri. Thrown in some solid preening at the plate too though, and I’m forced to bump it to a 70 grade (75 future).
Unfortunately for Marte’s celebration party however, the 2013 champion answered back with a grand riposte only the day after – a three-run, 452-foot monster of a shot off Marlins right-hander Jacob Turner that was a no-doubter from the moment it left the bat. And then there was the flip.
I have little idea what must be running through Yasiel Puig‘s brain when he steps up to bat. Maybe he ponders what I imagine the rich and famous do often – what sort of fast car he will buy (and not recklessly speed) next. Sometimes perhaps his thoughts wander back to being smuggled into America by a Mexican drug cartel, and the subsequent death threats. Who knows, occasionally he might even think back to a scouting report that was passed to him before the game. But when he makes juicy contact with a hanging breaking ball, straightens up, and unleashes that amazing flip, I can only assume Yasiel Puig has one song playing in his head.
As once (fictionally) remarked by Ron Burgundy, “well that escalated quickly.” Only last Tuesday did I first detail the early contenders for the 2014 Bat-Flip Belt, a post that was not only well-received (thanks!), but seems to have provoked a veritable outbreak of hot-dogging*; since Jayson Werth was awarded the early possession for his “Bat-Flip of Maximum Conquest Maximus”, several perennial heavyweights have flexed their own muscle and thrown their flip into the ring. Let’s have a look at some of their awesome efforts.
Almost as if in response to my tease last week that he had yet to build on the promise of his tremendous rookie bat-flip campaign (though more likely in order to justify Jonah Keri’s ranking of him the fifth-best flipper he’d ever seen), Wil Myers announced his candidacy for the 2014 belt with a supreme exhibition against the Yankees.
A steady stare, but not his finest bat work. We’ll let young Wil off the hook though, considering how it was his first jack of his sophomore season. That initial piece of preening was in fact, more just a shaking off of the rust in preparation for his later effort.
That is the bat-flip of pitchers’ nightmares; less prolonged staring at the plate this time, more of a callous whip on swinging flip, and a solid continued admiration going down the first base line. Sure, he loses points for the fact that his two jacks came against Ivan Nova – who is now out with a partially torn UCL, and likely headed for Tommy John surgery – but boy, that peacocking… regardless of the level of difficulty involved, the prolonged gaze of ‘yeah, I just did THAT. Hide your kids’ after every crush, will pretty much ensure Myers a strong seeding in the end of year bout.
Of course, Alfonso Soriano wasn’t going to allow Myers the series bat-flip spotlight all to himself; what we have below is a veteran drop-and-observe move. Myers would probably be at second by the time Soriano makes it out of the opposing batter’s box.
That Sori took it to David Price too – in my estimation at least, a pitcher you probably don’t want to piss off – earns him extra consideration, as does his delightfully artistic gum chew, but I’m going to need to see some more blatant obnoxiousness to be convinced he belongs in the ring with the real heavyweights. Speaking of which…
Now, you’re probably thinking ‘That doesn’t look like much.’ You’re quite correct, that doesn’t. This, on the other hand, shows the exclamatory flip Yasiel Puig applies to his tater off of the woeful Josh Collmenter in all its glory. As put by Marc Normandin on SB Nation, “I’m upset at every camera operator at the park for not properly capturing Puig’s emphatic bat flip on this shot. Puig deserves better than that. We all deserve better than that.”
Puig had himself a pretty strong week in posing actually, throwing in a sustained hold of his swing on a pop out to right field – all whilst refusing to run down the line and marching back to the dugout – in the 12th inning of the Dodgers’ game against San Francisco on Jackie Robinson Day. Puig’s strutting was rather overshadowed however, by one of his chief rivals for the belt – fellow agitator, Carlos Gomez.
I last week alluded to Gomez’s hilarious celebration of successful sacrifice flies- well, now I’ve managed to find some GIF evidence of it. I’m sure you’ll agree, such showboating is so bad it’s good.
This weekend however, Gomez perhaps took his swaggering too far. Facing Pittsburgh’s Gerritt Cole, the Milwaukee center fielder crushed a pitch out – but only in his mind. There was a gloriously contemptuous flip – a left-handed snap with all pizazz added by the wrist action – and 5 or 6 seconds of trotting in which Gomez lorded it over his vanquished foe, before realization set in.
‘It’s not going over the fence. S***. RUNRUNRUNRUNRUN!’
What followed when Gomez (eventually) made it to third base has been written to death already – not that it has become any less watchable. Most notably, Cole wisely stomped off back to the mound to enjoy watching the fracas, Travis Snider waded in, a Milwaukee coach got in a very solid sucker punch, and Gomez was ejected. Discipline has not yet been handed down, but hear this; the longer the suspension, the better for the other CarGo’s final seeding in the B.F.R. He might not have smoked the home run, but Carlos Gomez has declared himself ready to drop the bat and throw down.
* There’s even been grandstanding at the college level, junior shortstop Mitch Skaggs lifting his College of Idaho Coyotes over the Menlo College Oaks by the score of 10-6 with an 11th inning walk-off grand slam – and one incredible bat flip.
Heading into yesterday’s game against Tampa Bay, I would have imagined not too many Royals fans would have been pleased with the how the young season had to that point played out. Tipped by many for at least a Wild-Card berth – if not more – the early returns hadn’t exactly been encouraging (Salvador Perez‘s performance excluded – the guy is incredible); the normally-dominant bullpen, already weakened by the loss of Luke Hochevar, was all of a sudden looking shaky – Greg Holland and the gang yielding walk-off wins to the Detroit Tigers in the first two games of the season, and leaking runs since. Ned Yost was still driving the diehards crazy with his lineup construction and in-game decision making – #Yosted and #smrtbaseball routinely appearing together on my Twitter feed. New second baseman Omar Infante was sidelined by a beaning – a loss made all the worse by KC management decided having a backup middle infielder on the 25-man roster was unnecessary. Emilio Bonifacio – their infield utility man from last year – was raking with his new team, the Cubs. The team was yet to hit a home run, ranking last in the ML with a .307 slugging percentage. The last thing Royals fans needed then, was to see reigning AL ROY Wil Myers and the Rays to come to town and serve as a reminder of how they likely only have 31 more starts of James Shields, and thus what might have been.
It’s amazing what a 102.9mph fastball will do however, to wipe a discouraging early season slate clean.
Yordano Ventura is here to wash away my pain and suffering.
— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) April 9, 2014
After having his first scheduled start of the season against the Detroit Tigers (perhaps fortuitously) rained out, the diminutive Yordano Ventura finally got his chance to shine yesterday – and boy, did he show out; as Michael Baumann put it on Grantland earlier today “my goodness gracious, was Kansas City’s Happy Meal–size top pitching prospect as good as advertised.” Yeah… that about sums Ventura’s performance up.
In six innings of work, the 22-year old allowed only two hits and walked none, striking out six batters and flashing incredible stuff – quite simply dominating the poor Rays hitters. His well-renowned four-seam fastball (Ventura already owned the fastest regular season pitch by a starting pitcher during the PitchFX era, a 102.8mph offering that Yan Gomes somehow hit for a single last September) was just as advertised, the righty throwing his trademark heat 45 times out of his 98 pitches at an average velocity of 99.5mph. And no, that average is not a misprint – per Brook’s Baseball, his top velocity last night was actually 102.9mph, therefore giving him both the first and second fastest regular season pitches by a starting pitcher during the PitchFX era.
The Dominican Republic native also flashed a 96mph cutter (which he threw 10 times), a 97mph sinker (2) and a 83mph curve (19 times) that on one occasion just froze Evan Longoria. But it was perhaps his changeup that was the star of the Ventura show; coming in at an average of 89.51 mph (and thus quicker than both fellow rotation mates Jason Vargas‘ and Bruce Chen‘s four seam fastball offerings), the pitch generated 4 swings and misses, and befuddled Wil Myers more than once (Myers would endure a particularly horrific evening, striking out 3 times – much to the glee of Royals fans).
All in all, it would be a highly impressive showing from the young flamethrower, his dominant outing serving to not only dispel fears that his 5’11 frame might only limit him to bullpen duty and justify the spring decision to include him in the starting rotation, but alleviate the fan’s fears of losing Shields for nothing at the end of the year (especially given how the once-vaunted crop of young arms on the KC farm – Danny Duffy, Aaron Crow, John Lamb, Mike Montgomery, Jake Odorizzi etc. – have either failed to develop or been traded away).
With Ventura in tow, there’s significant cause for optimism in Kansas City – the season is yet young, and the team simply too good (and the AL Central too weak) to continue slumping the way it has; the bullpen issue will resolve itself eventually. Infante will come back. Bonifacio won’t hit all season-long in Chicago. The team have already (finally) called up Johnny Giavotella to resolve the infield issue. Yost even employed a decent-ish lineup in today’s game! Things should turn around soon enough. But even if the Royals’ season does continue down the disappointing path it has initially taken, in Ventura, there will at least be a must-see pitcher on the bump every fifth day, pumping 100mph fastball after 100mph fastball for six innings at a time.
If Tuesday was anything to go by, that’s not a bad consolation prize.
I surprised even myself yesterday in resisting making fun of the hapless Astros and instead finding something positive to preview. Then again, it’s not exactly hard to be positive when writing about George Springer, who seems set to make an impact in Houston sooner rather than later. Today in my 2014 MLB Season Preview Series, I focus on the Kansas City Royals, who last year secured just their second winning season since 1994, though fell short making the playoffs for the first time since winning the World Series in 1985. Though they’ve made no big-name winter acquisitions to help in their quest, smart additions – such as Norichika Aoki – might just be enough to put the Royals over the top this time around.
I’ve for some reason always liked Nori Aoki ever since he came to the Majors in 2012. Perhaps it’s because of the way he dives into HBPs, or is halfway down the first base line by the time it comes to swing, maybe even the odd contortions he routinely bends himself into making plays out in right field. Though he’s certainly not the most exciting player, far from the best but certainly not the worst in every aspect, there’s something about his style of play that I just innately appreciate. And though I can’t pin down whether it’s the slap-hitting, incredible plate discipline, perennially underrated fantasy value, or crazy 3.3% whiff rate (he swung and missed just 82 times at 2,490 total pitches in 2013 – HT to Baseball Prospectus on that one), I was glad to see him rescued from the lackluster Brewers. His new team, the Kansas City Royals, will soon come to appreciate him too.
Aoki’s acquisition was one of GM Dayton Moore’s better ones in recent times, the 32 year-old outfielder’s diverse skill set projected to mask over several of the 2013 Royals’ flaws at a bargain price. Dealing from a position of strength (for once – he still has relievers Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins, Luke Hochevar, Aaron Crow and closer Greg Holland available to trade in his effort to win now before the Wil Myers trade bites him in the ass), Moore sent LHP swingman Will Smith to the Brewers in exchange for one year of Aoki’s service – which was deemed expendable by a rebuilding Milwaukee squad which will also be re-integrated Ryan Braun into their outfield plans. Aside from just costing a fringe starter/long reliever, Aoki will also only command a cheap salary in 2014; per ESPN, he is due only $1.25 million this season (he can also make up to $1,087,500 in performance bonuses based on starts and games played), making the Japanese veteran one of the cheaper 3.0 bWAR players league-wide. Furthermore, should Moore like what he sees and wish to keep him around, the aging Aoki won’t likely be too hot a commodity to drive his price up significantly on the free agent market.
More than simply a fiscal bargain though, Aoki constitutes a much needed addition to the Kansas City lineup; a prototypical leadoff hitter. After a 2013 in which Royals’ leadoff hitters ranked in the bottom third of the league in OBP (.309), strikeout rate (18.7%) and stolen bases (15), Aoki figures to improve them in every category. With an OBP of .355 since coming to America two years ago, and a measured approach which saw him strike out just 40 times in 674 plate appearances last year, Aoki can also boast 50 stolen bases (as opposed to 20 instances caught stealing) in his time as a Brewer. Why listen to me though when you can have the infinitely funnier quote from Baseball Prospectus’s fantastic annual: “Aoki will be doubly valuable providing a speedy table setter at the top of the Kansas City order and evicting the gaggle of speedy table emptiers who squatted there last year.” With no platoon split to speak of (in his two years in the majors, he’s hit .304/.351/.395 vs. LHP, and .279/.357/.402 vs. RHP), a love of fastballs (he hits .338 against them, yet pitchers still throw the fourseam 39% of the time), and a Shin-Soo Choo-like ability to accrue HBPs (11 in 2013), Aoki should be at the top of the lineup card everyday, allowing Alex Gordon to return to a better-suited spot further down the order.
Of course, Aoki only hit 8 homers last season as his slugging percentage plummeted from .433 in 2012, to .370 in 2013. Not much of a line-drive hitter (17.3% LD%) either, Royals fans shouldn’t expect much more than a ton of singles from the groundball-happy Aoki. Though above-average in right field too – Fangraphs pegged him a 3.2 UZR in 2013 – the relatively speedy Aoki will struggle to match the Gold Glove caliber production of David Lough, who had a UZR of 14.5. Still, you always know what you’re getting with the lefty, which is more than can be said for the rag-tag crew trotted out by the Royals in the leadoff/RF spots in 2013.
As mentioned, Aoki isn’t the flashiest player, but happy to quietly occupy a place on the right side of the star-scrub spectrum. His addition remains a marvelous one for a Royals team with aspirations of contention, providing them an indispensable piece at a bargain price. It does too, make you wonder where this Dayton Moore was when the Jason Vargas contract was dished out, or the Myers trade consummated – but that’s for another day. Until then Royals fans, enjoy the Nori Aoki experience. I know I will, for reasons still unclear.