The On Deck Circle

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A Half-Dozen Underrated Baseball Players, 2015

Now that another baseball season has come and gone, (the regular season anyway), it’s time to take a look back.  But instead of forecasting who will win the annual award hardware, let’s instead review those players who had fine seasons that may have gone somewhat under-appreciated.  The players I’ve chosen might not make your list.  To refer to a player as “underrated” or “under-appreciated” is to make a subjective judgment call.  Still, I’m guessing that unless you are a total baseball junkie, at least a couple of these names may have gotten by you this year.

  1. 3B Nolan Arenado:  Colorado Rockies – Arenado, a right-handed batter, was drafted by the Rockies in the 2nd round of the 2009 amateur draft.  All Arenado did in this third season in the Majors in 2015 was lead the N.L. in home runs (42), RBI (130) and total bases (354.)  A triple slash line of .287 / .323 /.575 indicates that while Arenado could stand to be a bit more selective at the plate, he certainly does crush his pitch when he gets it.  Not just a slugger, however, Arenado is also a Gold Glove caliber third baseman who led all N.L. third basemen in putouts (105), assists (385), double-plays turned (42) and range factor.  This 24-year old played in his first All-Star Game in 2015, and should have many more in his future.
  2. SP Gerrit Cole:  Pittsburgh Pirates – Cole, a right-handed pitcher, was the very first pick of the 2011 amateur draft.  In his third season in the Majors, he nearly won 20 games (19-8 in 32 starts.)  In 208 innings, he struck out 202 batters while walking just 44.  He posted a tidy 2.60 ERA (2.66 FIP), with an ERA+ of 148 and a WHIP of 1.09.  Cole surrendered just eleven home runs all year.  Also a fine fielding pitcher, he did not make an error all season. Like Arenado, Cole made his first All-Star team in 2015.  In many seasons, Cole would be the odds-on favorite to win the N.L. Cy Young award.  But with the dynamic duo of Kershaw and Greinke out in L.A., and the remarkable season enjoyed by Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta (who could also make this list, perhaps), Cole may find himself finishing no higher than 4th or 5th in the Cy Young voting.  Still just 25-years old, however, Cole should have many chances in the future to win that particular award.
  3. CF Kevin Kermaier:  Tampa Bay Rays – Kermaier was not drafted until the 31st round in 2010.  A left-handed batting center-fielder, let me make it clear at the outset that Kermaier did not make this list due to his bat.  As a hitter, he’s about league-average, sporting an OPS+ of 98, though he did finish second in the A.L. in triples with 12.  But a .263 batting average and an on-base average of just under .300, with little power, isn’t going to win him any MVP awards in the near future.  Kermaier is on this list, instead, for his remarkable fielding ability.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen an outfielder finish a season with a 5.0 dWAR before, but Kermaier reached that lofty summit in 2015.  His overall WAR of 7.4 makes Kermaier a very valuable player, even despite the average bat.  Kermaier led A.L. center-fielders in Total Zone Runs (24) while recording 410 putouts and 15 assists.  If his bat improves during the coming seasons, the 25-year old Kermaier could become an All-Star caliber player.
  4. RP Zach Britton:  Baltimore Orioles – Drafted by the Orioles in the third round of the 2008 amateur draft, this 27-year old lefty began his career as a starter, but converted to relief-pitching before the 2014 season.  Since then, he has been one of the best closers in the A.L.  This past season, Britton finished more games (58) than any other pitcher in the A.L., while recording 36 saves.  He recorded an ERA of 1.92, an ERA+ of 217 and a FIP of 2.01.  His WHIP was a fantastic 0.990, and he struck out 79 batters in 65 innings, while walking just 14.  He gave up just three homers all year.  Britton was a first-time All Star in 2015, and while not a household name outside of Baltimore, Britton seems poised to enjoy many very productive seasons to come.
  5. 3B Josh Donaldson:  Toronto Blue Jays – Though drafted by the Cubs in the first round of the 2007 draft, Donaldson made his MLB debut with the Oakland A’s in 2010, but didn’t play as many as 75 games in the Majors until he was already 26-years old in 2012.  Since then, this right-handed batting third baseman has been a one-man wrecking crew.  Similar (though older) than Colorado’s Nolan Arenado, Donaldson has a better batting eye, and is nearly as good a defensive third baseman as Arenado.  Also, like his third base counterpart in the Senior Circuit, Donaldson led his league in total bases in 2015 with 352, just two fewer than Arenado.  Of the two, however, Donaldson probably has the better shot at league MVP this year.  Donaldson led the A.L. in both runs scored (122) and RBI (123) while slamming 41 homers and 41 doubles.  Though Donaldson will turn 30-years old this December, his obvious talent should continue to shine on in Rogers Centre, Toronto for the foreseeable future.
  6. CF / 2B Mookie Betts:  Boston Red Sox – Drafted in the fifth round in 2011, this second baseman / center-fielder has brought life and energy to the Red Sox (despite their losing record.)  Mookie turns 23-years old this Wednesday, October 7th, so Happy Birthday in advance, Mookie.  Primarily an outfielder these days, Mookie batted .291 in 2015, with a perhaps surprising .479 slugging percentage.  He has plenty of pop in his bat, as evidenced by his 68 extra base hits this season, including 18 home runs.  Mookie scored 92 runs in 145 games and stole 21 bases while accumulating a 6.0 WAR in his first full year.  This athletic and deceptively powerful young man may already be the most valuable player on the Red Sox, and figures to man center-field for them for years to come.

Obviously, there are many more players who I could add to this list.  But let me put the question to you, oh wise readers.  Which players would you include on this list, based on their 2015 stats?

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Ten Fast Starts in Baseball History

In baseball, as in life, it’s important to get off to a good start.  If I begin my day, for example, by mistakenly squeezing my wife’s hair gel on to my toothbrush, I know I’m in for a rough day.  And my first morning cup of coffee better have the right balance of sugar and cream, or the joy of the day will seep slowly away.

Championship baseball teams do not always get off to fast starts. The 1914 “Miracle” Braves began the season with a 4-18 record before going on to win the World Series.  Other teams stay close to the top before catching fire during the final four to six weeks, stealing victory from the proverbial jaws of defeat.

Often, however, a championship team (or at least a playoff-bound team) will send a message to the rest of the league early, making it clear that they’re out for blood. The obvious advantage of getting off to a quick start is, of course, that it leaves said team with a certain margin for error as the season plays out.  Also, it puts early pressure on their divisional opponents to not fall too far behind too quickly.  

While this is not a scientific, comprehensive study of this topic, the following ten teams are examples of how and why a fast start can make it virtually inevitable that the team that sprints out of the gate most successfully will often be the team celebrating (at least) a division title come October.

1) 2001 Seattle Mariners – Finished the season with a Major League record 116 wins against just 42 losses. The Mariners began the season with a 20-5 record in April, and were 40-12 at the end of May.  They won their division, and advanced all the way to the A.L. Championship series vs. the Yankees, where they lost in five exciting games.

2) 1986 New York Mets – Posted a record of 108-54, winning their division by 21.5 games over the second place Phillies.    The Mets enjoyed a 13-3 April, including an 11-game winning streak, and were 31-12 by Memorial Day.  They would, of course, go on to defeat the Red Sox in a seven-game World Series thriller.

3) 1998 New York Yankees – Before the Mariners won a record 116 games in ’01, the Yanks had set the record themselves with 114 wins in ’98.  The Yanks finished 22 games ahead of the second-place Red Sox in the A.L. East.  After dropping four of their first five, the Yankees quickly righted the ship and won 16 of their next 18 games, finishing April with a 17-6 record, which further improved to  37-13 after two months.  The Yanks would go on to sweep the Padres in four World Series games.

4) 1984 Detroit Tigers – The Tigers began the season 35-5, and never looked back.  They led their division from wire-to-wire, eventually winning a total of 104 games.  Starting pitcher Jack Morris, who tossed a no-hitter in April, was already 10-1 before the end of May (though he was just 9-10 after that point.)  Morris also won three playoff games that season, posting a 1.80 ERA in those three starts.  The Tigers defeated the Padres in a five-game World Series.

5) 1969 Baltimore Orioles – Blew away the rest of the A.L., winning 109 games.  The Orioles finished 19 games ahead of the second-place Tigers in the A.L. East in the inaugural year of divisional play.  After sweeping a double-header by the combined score of 19-5 on May 4th against the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, the Orioles were already 20-8 on the young season.  Through May 30th, they were 34-14.  The Orioles would defeat the Twins in the first ever A.L. Championship series, then would shockingly win just one game in the ’69 Series vs. the Mets.

6) 1956 New York Yankees – Another in a long line of Yankee championship teams, the ’56 Yanks won seven of their first eight ball games, and were cruising with a 29-13 record by May 31st.  They finished the year with 97 wins, dropping their final two decisions at Fenway Park.  They went on to defeat the Brooklyn Dodgers in a seven-game World Series.  Don Larsen pitched a perfect game against the Dodgers in Game 5.

7) 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers – The only 20th-century Brooklyn team to win a World Championship, Dem Bums ran off ten straight victories to start the season, and were an unbelievable 22-2 by May 10th.  By the end of May, they were 32-11.  Ultimately, the Dodgers won 98 games, then defeated the Yankees in a seven-game World Series.

8) 1931 Philadelphia Athletics – This highly talented group finished the season with 107 wins, 13 more than the mighty Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig.  Admittedly, the A’s were just 7-7 at one point, but then won 17 consecutive games and went into June with a record of 30-10.  Nevertheless, this particular Athletics team lost the ’31 World Series to the Cardinals in seven games.

9) 1927 New York Yankees – Murderer’s Row opened the first week of their historic season by going 6-0-1 in the first week of the season.  By May 19th, they were 21-8-1 en route to a 110-44-1 season.  They finished 19 games ahead of the second-place Athletics.  In the World Series, they systematically dismantled the Pirates in just four games.

10) 1905 New York Giants – This team featured Christy Mathewson, “Iron Joe” McGinnity, Roger Bresnahan and, for one game, the mysterious “Moonlight” Graham.  The Giants began the season by winning six of their first seven games, and were 25-6 by May 23rd.  Ultimately, they would win 105 games on the season.  In just the second World Series ever played, John McGraw’s Giants would defeat Connie Mack’s Athletics in five games, a Series in which Christy Mathewson would toss three shutouts in six days.

As you can see, there are several examples in baseball history of the importance of getting off to a fast start.  While this has not been the path followed by each and every championship squad, a good start often does bode well for a team’s chances of making the playoffs.

Baseball Standings 2012: The Good, The Bad, and the Lucky

Now that the 2012 baseball season is around one-quarter over, I thought it might be a good time to take a break from the normal fare of this blog, and check in with what’s been happening around the Majors.

It is common in the late winter and early spring to prognosticate about what will happen in the up-coming baseball season.  Baseball magazines and blogs are rife with predictions.  Inevitably, many of those predictions soon look pretty foolish.  I’m as guilty as the next guy as far as these predictions are concerned.

But sometimes, baseball surprises us much more than usual.

Take for example, the early success of the Baltimore Orioles who currently sport a gaudy 28-17 record.  They have a simply remarkable record of 15-6 on the road.

Did you see this coming?  I doubt anyone else, including Orioles management on down to the lowliest clubhouse attendant, did either.

But how much of any particular teams success or failure at this point is simply pure dumb luck?  Which teams are either underachieving or overachieving?  And which teams are playing about as well as they should be?

One easy way to measure the difference between how a team is actually performing (its won-loss record) is to compare that team’s performance with its run differential.  Run differential simply measures how many runs a team has scored vs. how many they have surrendered.  The Giants, for example, have scored 184 runs this season, and they have given up 181.  Thus their run differential is +3.

You would expect a team with a +3 run differential to be about one game over .500.  The Giants, in fact, are three games over .500 (24-21), so it can be deduced that they’ve overachieved a little bit.

Now, let’s look at the rest of the teams.  In the left-hand column is a list of teams, from best to worst, based on their winning percentage.  In the right-hand column is a list of each team’s run differential, also rated from best to worst.  It is interesting to note which teams are either underachieving or overachieving at this point.

1)  Dodgers – .682                                            1)  Rangers  +79

2)  Orioles – .622                                              2)  Cardinals  +64

3)  Rangers –  .600                                           3)  Dodgers  +44

3)  Rays –  .600                                                 4)  Blue Jays  +35

5)  Indians – .591                                               5)  Braves  +32

5)  Nationals – .591                                            6)  Nationals  +19

7)  Reds – .568                                                   7)  Red Sox  +17

8)  Braves – .565                                                8)  Orioles  +14

9)  Cardinals – .556                                            8)  Rays  +14

10)  Blue Jays – .533                                         10) Houston  +12

10)  Giants – .533                                               11) White Sox  +11

10)  Marlins – .533                                             12) Reds  +8

10)  Mets – .533                                                  13)  Yankees  +7

14)  Yankees – .523                                            14)  Phillies +4

15)  White Sox – .511                                          15) Giants +3

16)  Phillies – .500                                              16) Cleveland +1

16)  Red Sox – .500                                             17) Angels -2

18)  Oakland – .489                                             18) Marlins -6

19)  Houston –  .477                                             19) Detroit -10

20)  Angels – .457                                                 19) Seattle -10

21)  Detroit – .455                                                 21) Arizona -14

21)  Pirates – .455                                                 22) Oakland -20

23)  Seattle – .447                                                 23) Kansas City -22

24)  Arizona – .444                                                24) Colorado -27

25)  Milwaukee – .409                                          25) Milwaukee -29

26)  Kansas City – .395                                         26) Pirates -34

27)  Colorado – .372                                               27) Mets -35

28)  San Diego – .370                                             28) San Diego -37

29)  Cubs – .341                                                      29) Cubs -46

29)  Twins – .341                                                    30) Twins -72

Starting at the bottom, no matter how you cut it, it’s going to be a long year for the Padres, Cubs, and Twins.  Unfortunately for the Brewers, their run differential matches their record, so there’s not much reason to expect a big turnaround there.  It’s time to start selling off some of their most tradeable parts.

As for the Mets, they better not start printing playoff tickets just yet.  Their run differential is that of a sub-.500 team.  They’ve been playing with a lot of heart, but over the course of a 162 game season, talent usually trumps heart.

Houston is a big surprise to me, not because they are a sub-.500 team, but because their run differential suggests they should be playing better than .500 baseball.

The Cardinals already appear to be playoff bound, but their run differential suggests that the best may be yet to come for them.

The Red Sox, who have recently been playing better baseball, actually have a better run differential than the division-leading Orioles.  Expect the Red Sox to close ground on Baltimore over the next several weeks, even if the slightly overachieving Orioles continue to play good baseball.

The Yankees are a decent team, but are a long way from being a 95 win team.  At this point, they more closely resemble an 84-win team.  It’ll certainly be interesting to see how that new reality plays out in New York.

If the White Sox can figure out how to win at home, their run differential shows that they can yet win their division this year, but Cleveland is not at all a bad team.

The Phillies, like the Yankees may be, in fact, a mediocre team masquerading as division contenders.  On the other hand, the Braves and the Nationals appear to be for real.

Comparing the two columns above, what did you notice?

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