HANGING AROUND

HANGING AROUND

Baseball, more than any other sport, is a game of numbers.  Historical numbers.  It just cannot be denied or avoided.  So, despite some push-back on a stat-laden posting a few weeks ago, I am going to dig deep into statistics today – numbers that we may all just take for granted.

Many of you probably know the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, but do you have any idea how many points Kareem Abdul-Jabbar actually scored.  Answer: 38,387.  Bonus Question: Who is second on the all-time list?  Answer below.

Some of you may know who has thrown the most touchdowns in NFL history, but was it a national holiday when Peyton Manning threw number 509?  Bonus question: Whose record did he beat?  Double bonus question: Before these two guys, who previously held the record?

The point is, while those numbers are impressive and important – in theory – they are not well-known statistics.  But, if I throw out any of the following numbers: 714, 755, 4,192, 511, .406, 31, 7, or 1.12, you know precisely to what I am referring.  The 31 and the 7 may be a bit obscure, but if you think about it, I am sure you will get both.  Like it or not, these numbers are a huge part of the game we love.

A few weeks back, MLB had its annual upstate New York celebration, and inducted four worthy players into the Hall of Fame.  All four inductees have amazing career stats, and that got me thinking just how special and impossible those stats really are.

For starters, when it was announced that Craig Biggio would become a Hall of Famer, there were some rumblings.  Some people complained that Biggio just hung around long enough to get 3,000 hits.  Think about that for a minute.  Just hung around long enough.

Very few of us (this writer included) have any idea what it takes to prepare for and play an MLB season, wherein you compete in 162 games in 180 days, through the hottest period of the year, half of which is spent away from home.  Sure, they get paid millions of dollars, and get world-class travel, and have all of their needs/wants/desires taken care of, but if I offered that to you, and said you would have a total of 18 days off over the next 6 months, I am not sure that you would always be at the top of your game.  And that is the key to the equation: being on top of their game.

Do the math.  To attain 3,000 hits, Craig Biggio would have to have 15 big league seasons of 200 hits; or 20 mediocre (?) seasons of 150 hits.  In short, he would have to be at the top of his game for at least a decade and a half, possibly two decades.  Call it what you will, but that ain’t just hanging around.

I am a runner; have been for about 11 years.  But, in that time, I have missed huge swaths of time because of injury or weather or travel or laziness or some other excuse (er, reason).  Simply put, I have maybe been at the top of my game for six months or more, in 6 or 7 of those years.  These guys need to be on top of their game for six months, against nothing but other world-class athletes, for 15-20 years.

How about Randy Johnson’s 303 wins?  He hung around for 22 seasons, meaning he averaged just under 14 wins a season.  Seems easy enough . . . to you and me.  Well, let’s put that into perspective:

As of this writing, the hands-down, without dispute, best pitcher in baseball is one Clayton Kershaw.  This is his eighth season (granted, his first season only accounted for 21 starts), and in that time he has accumulated 108 wins.  Assuming he gets four more this season (no lock as he only has about eight more starts), Kershaw will have had at least 14 wins in five of those eight seasons.  Assuming he got those four additional wins, he will end the year with 112.  Well, if Kershaw wins 14 games a season for the next 14 seasons (not in 10 or 11, but all 14 of those seasons), he would pass the 300 win threshold some time in 2029 (after his 41st birthday).  Achievable, yes.  But not likely.  And he is the best in the game.

What about Greg Maddux winning 353?  Well, to achieve that, Kershaw would need to win 14 games a season for the next 17 years.  I guess he could make it easy on himself and just win 20 a year for next dozen years (and still be one short, natch).

Can we take a second and talk about strikeouts?  Randy Johnson hung around long enough to win 303 games and strike out 4,875 batters.  He is viewed by many as the greatest strike out pitcher of his generation.  He pitched until he was 46 years old.

Well, he would have had to pitch another 4 seasons (i.e., until he was 50), maintaining his career average for each of those four seasons in his late forties, to catch Nolan Ryan’s 5,714.  Some more perspective, as of today, Kershaw has 1,667 strikeouts.  To catch Ryan, Kershaw would need 16 more seasons of 250 Ks/year.  King Felix (currently at 2,102) would need 14 seasons of 250 Ks to catch Ryan (and please note, in his 11-year career, the King has never had a single season of 250 strikeouts).

We can’t even talk about the odds of Justin Verlander catching his hero.  Verlander is 32, and is nearly 4,000 strikeouts behind.  Put differently, Justin would need 2 more careers as good as his current career to be in the conversation.

Let’s go back to hitting, as I find those stats incredible.  If you love baseball as much as I do, you already know that Henry Aaron (to some, still the homerun champ), hit 714 HRs, but never hit even 45 in a season.  Try being that good – at anything – for that long.

We all know about the, ahem, puffed up success of Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, but let’s think about what they did – drugs be damned.  Bonds averaged nearly 35 HRs/year for 22 years.  Sure, his BALCO habits caused a lot of balls that would have been flyouts to turn into homers, but that is still a lot of well-struck flyouts over a very a long period of time.  Alex Rodriguez – love him or hate him, believe he is a cheat or not – has 680 homeruns.  If you take out his first two season (they account for less than 200 ABs and only 5 HRs), ARod has averaged more than 35 dingers – every year – starting before anyone had ever heard the name Monica Lewinsky, and continuing as we face the prospect of a President Trump.  Take drugs, be a narcissist, be a douche-bag, it doesn’t matter.  That level of sustained success in any endeavor is pretty incredible astounding.

Okay, we can debate the merit of the homerun records (save for The Hammer), but let’s look at something slightly more pedestrian: hits.  As many lame hats and paid-for signatures can attest, the much-maligned Pete Rose collected 4,256 of these in his 24-year career.  That is a mere 193 hits per year for nearly a quarter of a century.  Derek Jeter just completed his illustrious 20-year career with 3,465 hits.  So, to catch Rose, Jetes would have had to hang around for another 4.5 seasons attempting to play at his career average.  It just couldn’t have happened.

Let’s put this into present perspective: Mike Trout is the best player on the planet, and he started his career very young.  As of today, he has 706 hits and 131 homers.   He is averaging about 176 hits and 32 dingers a year.  He’s only 3,500 hits shy of Rose, which would only be 20 more seasons playing at this level.  He is only 631 homeruns behind Bonds, which is just over 19 years of playing at this level.  To put it more succinctly, if Trout continues as the best player on the planet for the next two decades, my son will be able to bring his young son to Arte Moreno Field of Los Angeles in Anaheim in 2034 to watch Trout break these records.  Possible, yes.  Likely, not so much.

But let’s just see what more achievable numbers look like.  If Trout hangs around long enough, it will only take him another 11+ years to reach 500 homers and just 13 more seasons to reach 3,000 hits.  Both are achievable.  Both will require that he performs at these levels for more than a decade and a half.  Both will put him in the Hall of Fame alongside Biggio, but both will leave him far from being the best ever.

We are so lucky.  Greatness is on display for us every day – on ESPN, at the ballpark, on our phones.  What these men have accomplished and continue to do is mind-blowing – and we take it for granted.  So much so that when some of these guys get baseball’s highest honor, we poo-poo their triumphs and refer to it as a Lifetime Achievement Award.  You know what, considering how well they played, and how long they played well, that may very well be what it is.  I guess, in the pantheon of Major League players, not everyone can just hang on long enough.

Trivia Answer: Karl Malone (36,928 points)

Bonus Answer: Brett Favre

Double Bonus Answer: Dan Marino

PLAY BALL!!

 

BETTER TO BE LUCKY THAN RICH

BETTER TO BE LUCKY THAN RICH

When you have more money than you can possibly spend; when you are as competitive as the day is long; when anything less than a World Series ring will be considered a failure; and when your fiercest and most hated rival has won three championships in the last five years, anything goes.

Even though I have not been at a baseball field in a few weeks (I even took some time to hang with my other kids), in the last few days I have been asked, repeatedly, why did the Dodgers acquire Chase Utley.  Before we get into that, let’s do a little background for those of you not so attuned to the vagaries of the trade deadline, the waiver wire, and no-trade clauses:

Chase Utley was – until a few days ago – a second baseman for the Philadelphia Phillies.  To some, he is the most beloved baseball player in the franchise’s history (some Richie Ashburn fans might vehemently disagree, but I digress).  Chase grew up in Pasadena, attended UCLA, and lives in San Francisco in the off-season.  He was drafted by the Phillies in 2000, and until last week, had spent every moment of his professional career with that organization.

Because Chase has been on a major league roster for at least ten years, and with a single team for at least five, he has what are known in the business as “10-and-5 Rights”, which means he cannot be traded without his approval.

Since June of last season, Chase has been on horribly downward spiral.  Since my last posting had too many (for some) statistics, I will not bore you with them here other than to say that between June 1, 2014 and June 1, 2015 (more than 600 ABs), Utley hit .205, with below average range at second base, and repeated trips to the disabled list.  Utley is signed through this season, with vesting options for the next three, so last Winter there was a drumbeat in Philly to trade him, and fast.

Even though the organization was horrible, and getting worse by the day, the Phillies were afraid to raise a white flag too early (no one really knows why), so they didn’t even try to trade their best asset (Cole Hamels), were essentially stuck with an aging and expensive asset (Jonathan Papelbon), could never find a buyer for their worst asset (Ryan Howard), and didn’t want to lose their best marketing asset (Utley).  They promptly started the season 27-52, and the white flag was unfolded.

Ownership brought in a new President of Baseball Operations, who intimated that the General Manager was not long for his job; and suddenly, the shackles were lifted.

The faltering Nationals felt like two closers were better than one, so they agreed to take on Jonathan Papelbon’s attitude, contract, and vesting options.

Cole Hamels agreed to a trade to the Rangers (he had “no-trade” protection in his deal).

With Howard unmovable, that left but one remaining piece.  The non-waiver deadline in July came and went, and Utley stayed put.  Now the prospect of moving Utley looked incredibly daunting; so much so that Ruben Amaro (the soon to be out of a job GM) was quoted as saying that it was very likely that Utley would be with the team through the end of the year.

A quick aside on the non-waiver deadline and the waiver wire.  If, after 4pm EDT on July 31st of a given season, a team wants to trade for a player and have that player on their potential playoff roster, that player must clear “waivers”.  Here’s how that works:

  •  The player is put on waivers by being listed as “available” on the “waiver wire”.
  • Any team has 47 business hours to “claim” the player, with the order of priority going to the team with the worst record.
  • Teams in the player’s league are given priority over teams in the other league (e.g., for Utley, even though they have a much better record, the Dodgers would have priority over the Red Sox).
  • If the player isn’t “claimed”, he can be traded to any team.
  • If the player is “claimed”, the player’s current team has three options, which must be done within 48.5 hours: (1) pull the player off waivers (in which event we go back to the status quo as if nothing happened; but if the player is put back on waivers before September, he cannot be pulled back); (2) work out a trade with the claiming team; or (3) allow the player to go to the claiming team (in which event the claiming team gets nothing in return and inherits the player’s contract).

Because of #3, teams need to be careful about making claims, as they could easily be stuck with a bad contract.  Just for giggles, and to test the market, tons of players are put on waivers in August, with the team always having the right (and intent) to pull him back.

The Phillies (ironically enough) made a huge mistake a few years back.  They put Cliff Lee – and his absurd contact – on waivers and the Dodgers claimed him (which, to any right-thinking organization, was manna from heaven and Christmas morning all rolled into one – the Dodgers were about to take the albatross that is/was Cliff Lee’s undealable deal of their hands/books).  But the Phillies aren’t a right-thinking organization, and they actually feared that they might lose Lee, so they quickly pulled him back.  Shortly thereafter, the Dodgers took on more than $250M of contracts from the Red Sox.   And since that moment, the Phillies have paid Cliff Lee more $60M for a total of 58 starts and 24 wins.  He has missed all of 2015 and Philadelphia will be required to pay him $12.5M for the right to tell him not to show up next season.

Now, back to Utley.  Once July passed, in order to effectuate a trade, the Phillies would have to (1) waive Utley, (2) hope that he was claimed by a team that he wanted to be traded to, and (3) then try to work out a deal.  Oh, and Utley told the Phils that he only wanted to go to the West Coast, only to a National League team, and only to a team where he would get playing time.  That winnowed the list to two teams.  Amaro knew of what he spoke when he said it was unlikely Utley would be traded.  But, as they say, “there’s still a chance”.

Let’s take a look at the two potential suitors, their current second base situation, and how Chase could fit in:

Dodgers:

Howie Kendrick: Under contract through this season.  The Dodgers like his offense, his defense, his calm demeanor, and his leadership.  He is currently on the DL, but expected to be back no later than September 15th (in time for the last push and the playoffs).  The Dodgers have stated repeatedly that they would like to bring him back next season.

Kike Hernandez: He is having a breakout year.  Hitting over .300 with an OPS of .865.  He is a high-energy guy who leads the “Rally Banana” charge and is great for the team both on and off the field.  Note: Since the trade deadline, Kike has taken over the starting CF position from once-Rookie of the Year candidate Joc Pederson.

Justin Turner: A more natural third baseman, but has logged some innings at second.  Arguably the Dodgers second best overall player this season, hitting .304 with a .893 OPS and 14 HRs.

Alex Guerrero: Two years ago the Dodgers shelled out $28M for this guy, and then realized he can’t play defense.  To keep his bat in the lineup, they have tried to hide him at third base and left field.

Jose Peraza: Acquired from the Braves, the Dodgers really like his makeup.  He got a two-game look earlier this month and seemed to acquit himself just fine.  I am sure he will be back up in September.

Alberto Callaspo: He was only hitting .236, so he was ripe for – and was – designated for assignment.

So, with all of that, and with a bullpen in tatters, what do the Dodgers desperately need?  That’s right, an aging second baseman who wants to play every day this season, and wants a chance to play next season.

Giants:

Joe Panik: Hitting .309 and having a generally great season.  However, he is out with a back injury, and the timetable for his return is uncertain.

Ehire Adrianza: 95 career games and 197 career at bats.

Kelby Tomlinson: 17 career games and 44 career at bats.

So, why on Earth would they want/need a veteran second baseman?

Which brings us back to the original conceit.  The only real, valid, competitive reason the Dodgers gave up two middling prospects and paid about $2M to acquire Chase Utley was to keep him out of San Francisco’s hands.  Can there be any other justification?  Just to make Don Mattingly’s job that much more difficult?  Because, after the Fair Thee Well tour, the idea of getting Utley and Jimmy Rollins back together was just too juicy to pass up?  No, it is plain and simple.  It was the same reason a kid takes the last cookie – so his sister can’t have it.  They took him so the Giants couldn’t.  Prove me wrong!

Okay, I will try.  Can you see the one glaring error in my theory?  If not, maybe you need to re-read the bullet points above.

The Giants – who are in second place behind the Dodgers – have priority over the Dodgers for a waiver claim.  So what is the answer?  Maybe you need to re-read the “10-and-5 Rights” described above.  The only explanation for the Dodgers getting Utley over the Giants is that Utley would not approve a trade to San Francisco, and he would only approve a trade to the Dodgers.  He sort of, kind of, maybe, alluded to that in this interview:

http://www.sportsnetla.com/content/snla/shows/access-sportsnet-dodgers.JExLjsMa_MRE.html

So, despite having all the money in the world, sometimes it just pays to be lucky (and to have great weather, and to be located in someone’s home town, and to employ a player with whom a guy turned double plays for the previous 12 seasons).

With any luck, Utley will get his first look at the playoffs since 2011, and here’s to hoping he can still . . .

PLAY BALL!!

NEWS OF HIS DEMISE . . .

NEWS OF HIS DEMISE . . .

In case you missed it, I have a bit of an obsession.  I may enjoy baseball maybe a little too much.  Due to my obsession, I read a whole lot about the game (and even write a little bit, too).

Because of how much I watch and read, I am privy to scads of information that the casual observer is not.  I am not sure if this is good news or bad; but it does make me seem a whole lot smarter than I actually am.  Further, it always requires me to step back and remind myself that not everyone I see in the stands or who I speak with at the grocery store has listened to every Buster Olney podcast this season, or read Jayston Stark’s latest column, or seen Tim Kurkjian break down home and away splits.  Most people have too much else going on in their lives to be bothered or to care.  In some ways, it just may be easier to get a short explanation from the knucklehead who has wasted his time reading 5000-word blog posts and listening to multiple 45-minute interviews with baseball insiders.

One of the results of this fixation is that my view of Clayton Kershaw’s season tends to be a little different than most outside the sphere.  I truly wish I had a dollar (or an advertiser) for every time someone has asked me, since Opening Day, a variation of the following question: “What do you think is wrong with Kershaw?”

Since the beginning of the season, I have had two answers to that question: (1) nothing, he is and will be fine; and (2) his excellence over the past four years has set a bar so damned high that it is nearly impossible to raise it or even meet it for yet another 6 months.  As the season has worn on – even before the month of July – I communicated to the naysayers and concerned citizens of Los Angeles that if you look at the stats, Kershaw is actually having a better year than year’s past, with one notable exception: BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play, for the uninitiated).

For baseball purists, wins and losses (and ERA) remain the cornerstone of any pitcher’s worth.  However, we are in a new age of baseball analytics, wherein wins and losses are considerably less important than WHIP, FIP, BABIP and, still holding strong after all these years, ERA.  Case in point, Felix Hernandez won the 2010 Cy Young Award after going 13-12.  You read that right; he won the award with 13 wins – the lowest total in history (not including shortened seasons, as I am sure you all recall Fernando Valenzuela’s 1981 Cy Young season when he went 13-7 with a 2.48 ERA and 180 Ks in 192 innings).

So Kershaw’s W-L record is of little value is analyzing the quality of his pitching.  But, the above-referenced statistical categories, plus K/9, are pretty damn good measurements.  Let’s take a look – including his pre-July run, which we will get to in a minute:

YEAR WHIP FIP K/9 ERA BABIP W-L
2011 .977 2.47 9.6 2.28 .269 21-5
2012 1.023 2.89 9.1 2.53 .262 14-9
2013 .915 2.39 8.8 1.83 .251 16-9
2014 .857 1.81 10.8 1.77 .278 21-3
2015 (pre-July) 1.04 2.55 11.6 3.08 .301 5-6
2015 (overall) .912 2.10 11.7 2.37 .285 9-6

 

Does anything jump out at you?  To my eyes, not much.  Leading up to the period in time in which he became unhittable (or at least unscorable), his WHIP was slightly elevated; his FIP was perfectly in line with past performance; his K/9 was the highest of his career; only his ERA was out of whack.  And why was that?  Well, let’s look at the fifth column: BABIP.

Fangraphs explains BABIP as follows: “[It] measures how often a ball in play goes for a hit.  A ball is ‘in play’ when the plate appearance ends in something other than a strikeout, walk, hit batter, catcher’s interference, sacrifice bunt, or home run.  In other words, the batter put the ball in play and it didn’t clear the outfield fence.”  According to the baseball statistical cognoscenti, there are three important variables that can affect BABIP: (1) defense, (2) talent level, and (3) luck.

Let’s start with defense.  In 2011, the Dodgers ranked 3rd in the National League in total team defense; in 2012, 5th; 2013, 12th; and in 2014, 9th.  This season, they are #1.  So it can’t be the defense that is doing him in (unless, of course, by some crazy coincidence, the defense is awesome 4 out of 5 days, and just plain sucks when Kershaw takes the hill).

How about talent level.  By all accounts, this season the Dodgers have the most talented club they have assembled in years, so it does not seem that having a rejuvenated lineup and considerably better defense up the middle – at all four positions – have adversely affected Kershaw.  (Editor’s Note: There is an argument to be made that there has been no upgrade at catcher, as A.J. Ellis continues to act as Kershaw’s personal receiver, but you get the point with Rollins, Kendrick, and Pederson.)

That takes us to luck.  Ah, the almighty, ever-present, undefinable, unknowable concept of luck.  Could it be that Kershaw has just been unlucky this season?  It sure seems that way.  If he is striking out more batters than he ever has; if he has the best up-the-middle defense he has ever had; if he is getting run support about on par with what he has received the last seven seasons (down only about 3.5% or .15 runs/9 innings vs. the past 7 seasons); then how else can we explain it?  Well, take a look at his BABIP (again, this statistic just shows how often balls that are put in play actually become base hits vs. outs).

League  Avg. BABIP Kershaw BABIP Kershaw Percentage is Better Than League Avg.
2011 .291 .269 7.6%
2012 .293 .262 10.6%
2013 .294 .251 14.6%
2014 .295 .278 5.8%
2015 .294 .285 3.1%

 

This season Kershaw is still better than league average in every category, including BABIP.  However, over the first four months, his BABIP is only 3.1% better than league average, compared with nearly 15% better in 2013 and more than 10% better in 2012.  This stat tells us that more duckfarts that were caught before are falling in; more six-hoppers are slipping through; more swinging bunts are hanging on the chalk rather than rolling foul.  Is this the pitcher’s fault?  By all accounts, no.  Is this just dumb luck?  By all accounts, yes.  And more cheap hits means more baserunners means a higher WHIP and potentially a higher ERA.  Kershaw is still the best pitcher on the planet, it’s just that he has not been as lucky this season as in season’s past.

But you cannot keep a good man down.  No, you can’t.

Since Kershaw’s seven inning, one run performance against the Mets on July 3rd (atrocious, I know), this is what Kershaw has looked like:

WHIP FIP K/9 ERA BABIP W-L
.50 .61 11.91 0.00 .225 4-0

 

So, for the past month, opponents are getting on base once every 2 innings and he is 23.5% better than league average on BABIP.  That is more like it.  Lady luck looks to be shining back on Ol’ #22.

To bring this full circle, I may have been wrong in my assessment that Kershaw has set the bar too high.  It just may be that a black cat scampered in front of him back in Dallas; maybe he walked under a ladder on his way out of the clubhouse at Camelback Ranch; it’s possible he picked up a tails-up penny as he ambled through the parking lot at Chavez Ravine.  Who the hell knows how and why the Baseball Gods do what they do.  But whatever the reason(s), they certainly don’t mean the end is nigh, despite any news of any demise.

Don’t believe me, just ask MVP Mike Trout:

baseball animated GIF

As a final note, I fully acknowledge that by posting this, I have jinxed Kershaw into giving up a seeing-eye single followed by a bomb in the top of the first Friday night against the Pirates.

PLAY BALL!!