Monthly Archives: September 2011

What’s Next? Historical Collapses for Boston and Atlanta

Boston Red Sox
September 1: (83-54) Led Wild Card by 9 games
September 29: (90-72) Lost Wild Card by 1 game

LOOKING BACK

After signing free agent prize Carl Crawford and trading three unspectacular prospects for first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, the Red Sox spent the offseason being touted as the greatest team in Major League history.

Greatest Team Evahhhh!

Their rotation of Jon Lester, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka found themselves labeled as Five Aces, despite serious injury or performance concerns on all but one of them. Hundreds of articles were written about the lineup scoring over 1,000 runs in 2011, despite never accomplishing that feat in over 100 years of existence.

Every single “expert” at ESPN picked them to win the AL East and over half of them picked the Red Sox to win the World Series. But then something funny happened—the season started. Boston opened the season by losing its first six games and ten of its first twelve.

No worries, the media said, it was just an adjustment period for a team with so many new additions. And then for awhile it seemed as though they were right. The Red Sox put together winning streaks of five, seven, five, nine and six and headed into the All Star Break leading the division and with the best record in the American League.

They won eleven of their sixteen games following the All Star Break and entered August with the best record in the American League. They lost two of three to the Yankees at the end of August, but still entered September with the best record in the league and atop their division. A 6-0 win over Texas on August 25 left Boston with a 99.989% chance of making the playoffs. But then everything fell apart.

They lost two of three to Texas and two of three to Toronto. Then they lost six of seven against Tampa Bay and three of four to Baltimore, dropping their playoff chances to 80.0%. But the free fall didn’t stop there as they lost four of their last six games, including the last game of the season which let Tampa Bay roll right on by them.

The greatest team ever ended up with the ninth best overall record in baseball and missed the playoffs. In order to completely collapse, everything needed to go wrong for Boston and it did. The offense disappeared with the exception of a handful of games and the pitching and defense were worse.

Boston went 3-19 in September when the offense scored less than 10 runs and received just four quality starts out of twenty-seven September games. Their team ERA was 5.84 for the month and their starter’s ERA was 7.08. Of the six pitchers who started a game for the Red Sox in September, Tim Wakefield’s ERA of 5.25 was the lowest.

LOOKING FORWARD

Boston has a lot of question marks moving forward. With the game’s second highest payroll, someone is going to have to take the fall for the historic collapse. It could be the general manager Theo Epstein, who despite high media praise, has swung-and-missed on several key free agent signings.

John Lackey still has three years and over $45 million left on his contract and Carl Crawford has six years and $122 million. Previous free agent endeavors JD Drew, Julio Lugo, Edgar Renteria and John Smoltz has flamed out in spectacular fashion.

In addition to big free agent blunders, Epstein has failed to build any semblance of starting pitching depth and the upper levels of Boston’s farm system are severely lacking any impact talent.

It could be the manager, Terry Francona who seemed unable to motivate his players down the stretch. Or it could be the pitching coach who saw his pitchers succumb to injury and poor performance throughout the year.

More time to enjoy the Shire this offseason

Personnel-wise, Boston has the opportunity to shake things up, but not in their rotation. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz and Daisuke Matsuzaka are all under contract for 2012. There are no better internal options, and unless they can find someone desperate enough to take Lackey or Dice-K off their hands, the Boston rotation is full. Boston would have to eat a ton of cash to move either guy, and while I’m sure they’d be willing to, I doubt they could find a taker.

Adrian Gonzalez and Dustin Pedroia will be back manning the right side of the infield, and will provide MVP-caliber offense and defense. The left side of the infield is less certain. Boston can bring Marco Scutaro back on a team option for $6 million and will probably do so. Kevin Youkilis is under contract for 2012, but the team may consider shifting him to the DH role to try and keep him healthy while replacing him at third with Jed Lowrie or from outside the organization.

If the team moves Youkilis to DH full-time, David Ortiz’s time with Boston is probably up. JD Drew’s definitely is. Drew was never as terrible as Boston fans may have thought, but his playing time was sporadic due to his injuries. Boston will probably cut ties with Drew and look to free agency to fill RF after youngsters Josh Reddick failed to impress. Carlos Beltran is the best available RF option, but Boston may choose to go with someone who has a better track record health-wise, like Oakland’s Josh Willingham. Ellsbury and Crawford will return to complete the outfield.

The biggest turnover could happen in the bullpen. Longtime closer Jonathan Papelbon will be a free agent and could jump ship after some unpleasant ends to seasons recently. If he does leave, Daniel Bard is the likely heir to the ninth inning unless Boston chooses to pick from the plethora of closers that will be on the open market.

Next season doesn’t promise to be any easier regardless of how the Red Sox look to plug their holes. The Yankees will undoubtedly hit the offseason with money to spend and word is Toronto will be looking to raise their payroll as well. With the Yankees and Rays already among the games powerhouse franchises, Toronto’s return to respectability would make the game’s best division even better.

Boston will need to make some smart free agent decisions this offseason while hoping that some of their dead wood can bounce back from atrocious seasons. It’s tough to be successful when your highest paid players put up some of the worst numbers in the game.

Atlanta Braves
September 1: (81-56) Led Wild Card by 8.5 games
September 29: (89-73) Lost Wild Card by 1 game

LOOKING BACK

When play began on September 2, the Braves held a comfortable 9 game lead in the loss column for the NL Wild Card over the Cardinals and the Giants. The Braves were sitting pretty, with a playoff probability of well over 90%. Everything was going right for Atlanta—the starting pitching was strong, the back end of the bullpen was superb and the hitters were finally starting to show signs of life. Dan Uggla was fresh off a 33-game hitting streak and Chipper Jones was healthy and regaining his stroke.

But just around the time when Atlanta playoff tickets went on sale, disaster hit. Tommy Hanson and Jair Jurrjens, two of the Braves top three starters went down with injuries. The offense up and disappeared, with four regulars hitting under .250 and no one with over 60 AB hit over .271 in the month of September. The enormous workload of relief duo of Craig Kimbrel and Jonny Venters finally caught up to them and fastballs down and on the corners started leaking back over the middle of the plate.

The Braves lost 18 of their final 26 games, including their last five contests. They were swept by the Cardinals in mid-September and went 0-6 against Philadelphia. September produced the Braves highest ERA of any month of the season, and their lowest OPS. Seventeen of their last twenty-six games were against teams with losing records, but the Braves managed just an 8-9 record in those games.

LOOKING FORWARD

What does the near future look like for Atlanta? There shouldn’t be too much roster turnover, as many of the Braves core players are under team control for 2012. Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla will undoubtedly return to the right side of the infield and Brian McCann and Chipper Jones are under contract for 2012. Shortstop Alex Gonzalez is the only infielder without a contract for next season, so the Braves may look to bring in a replacement with more offensive upside.

Dan Uggla hopes 2012 is a little kinder than 2011

Jason Heyward (pre-arbitration), Martin Prado and Michael Bourn (both arbitration eligible) should make up the outfield next season and the prospective OF class doesn’t have a clear-cut upgrade available apart from Carlos Beltran.

The rotation and bullpen should stay mostly the same with the returns of Hanson and Jurrjens. Both Tim Hudson and Derek Lowe are in the final years of their contracts and the Braves could look to unload one or both. Hudson should be fairly easy to deal if they choose to do so, but Atlanta would have to kick in a lot of money for anyone to take Derek Lowe off their hands. The Braves have Brandon Beachy, Mike Minor and Randall Delgado to fill out the rotation and to act as starting pitching depth.

The bullpen should see the normal amount of turnover with the top guys staying locked into their roles and guys like Scott Linebrink and George Sherrill should be replaced either by similar veteran arms or from within the system.

The Braves will return pretty much the same team that missed the wild card by one game this year, but their path to the playoffs might be significantly more difficult. Washington is finally seeing some returns from their high draft picks and finished the 2011 season just one game under .500. I wouldn’t count them as a lock to finish worse than Atlanta next season. The Marlins will move into a new stadium and a new name (Miami Marlins) and the new revenues that come with those. There have been rumors of the Marlins spending that money and I wouldn’t be surprised if they take a shot (however remote) at Albert Pujols. Certainly they’ll be in on the top pitchers (CJ Wilson) and they always have plenty of young homegrown talent.

With the division’s toughest inter-league schedule and the improvements of the rest of the NL East, the Braves will have a more daunting task awaiting them in 2012, without a whole lot of room for outside improvement. Atlanta will once again have to rely on the continued development of its young players and hope to keep its key rotation pieces healthy for a full season.

Realistically, the only major change the Braves could make is to their coaching staff, which despite the collapse seems unlikely. Fredi Gonzalez is a poor manager, but will certainly won’t be let go after just one season.

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The Justin Verlander Award Discussion

Justin Verlander failed to win his 25th game of the season the other day, but regardless of that he’s had a superb season. He has gone 24-5 with a 2.40 ERA and a 250/57 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 251 innings and has MLB award voters touting him as a runaway Cy Young winner and a possible MVP winner.

Justin Verlander 24-5, 2.40

But delving deeper into his season might show otherwise. Undoubtedly, traditional stats like wins, ERA and strikeouts confirm that Verlander is the clear Cy Young winner. He will win the pitching triple crown this season by leading the league in wins, strikeouts and ERA. While not as rare as the hitting triple crown (average, HRs and RBIs) the last dozen pitchers that have won the triple crown have also won the Cy Young award.

However, more extensive statistics show that Verlander might not be the clear-cut best pitcher in the American League. His WAR of 7.0 is tied with CC Sabathia for the best in the American League, but of qualified starters, Justin Verlander ranks just fourth in FIP and second in xFIP. FIP stands for Fielding Independent Pitching and eliminates things that pitchers have no control over, such as defense. His FIP is actually the highest it has been since 2008, while his ERA this year is a career-low.

CC Sabathia has a lower FIP and xFIP than Verlander, and the 0.60 edge Verlander has in ERA is due entirely to Sabathia’s unusually high BABIP (batting average of balls in play) of .318 this season. Verlander’s 2.40 ERA is due mostly to an abnormally low BABIP and an abnormally high LOB% (left on base percentage). Both of these statistics are based mainly on “luck” and if these numbers were more in line with Verlander’s career numbers his season may have a different look. His career BABIP is .285 which is a very normal number, but in 2011 it is .238—much lower than the league average.

Another aspect of Verlander’s season that must be taken into account is the competition he has faced. Pitching in the American League Central division, Verlander will have made 10 starts against teams with a winning record this season, and just three such starts since July. CC Sabathia on the other hand has made 19 starts against winning teams, 11 since June.

Traditional statistics point to Justin Verlander as a clear-cut Cy Young favorite, but advanced metrics show that CC Sabathia has been the American League’s best pitcher in 2011. Cases can be made for either man to win the award, and I wouldn’t be all that upset if either pitcher received the award.

But, I can see no case whatsoever where anyone can make a case that Justin Verlander is the Most Valuable Player.

First of all, anyone that says the Tigers would have missed the playoffs without Verlander is insane. Detroit will end up winning the division by at least 14 games, probably more. The Tigers also outscored every team in their division by anywhere from 40 to 160 runs. Hitters like Miguel Cabrera have a much better case for MVP than Verlander. Cabrera is somewhat overlooked because he is this good every season. Verlander is having a career year, but Cabrera has a career year every year. The Tigers would have made the playoffs if I replaced him in the starting rotation.

Secondly, pitchers have had much better seasons than Verlander is having this year. If Pedro Martinez didn’t win the MVP for his 1999 season, Verlander shouldn’t finish top 10. That season, Pedro struck out 63 more batters than Verlander did this year, despite facing 134 less batters. Never mind Pedro did it in the midst of the Steroid Age and Verlander’s doing his thing in an offensive decline.

Every day skill players like Jose Bautista, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson and Miguel Cabrera are more valuable to their team than Justin Verlander. I believe that in baseball, the best player is the most valuable player. During a short playoff series, one starting pitcher can most definitely be the most valuable player, but over the course of a 162 game season, an everyday player provides a team the most value.

Justin Verlander is having an incredible season, but it is far from the historically good year that would force me admit that he is as a runaway Cy Young winner or a serious MVP candidate.