Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Baseball at the Quarter Pole

In our world, Memorial Day is about more than barbecues, beaches and banishing the snow plows for the next six months. It's about (what else?) baseball.
It's about looking up from your beach chair, wiping the sunscreen out of your burning eyeballs and recognizing that we've got ourselves a real baseball season taking shape, with all sorts of twists and turns you never saw coming.
So now that all 30 teams have finally played 40 games, the season has reached a milepost I used to refer to as "the quarter pole." Except that I've apparently been banned from using that terminology by all you horse racing experts out there who can't wait to tell knuckleheads like me that, in the world of American Pharoah, the quarter pole arrives with a quarter mile to go, not a "quarter" of the way into the race.
OK, so I've finally gotten that memo. But hopefully, it's still allowable for me to write my annual column looking at the first quarter of a fun season and handing out a little imaginary hardware. Anyone object? Awesome. Now here we go.

NL MVP: Bryce Harper, Nationals

Your attention please. Bryce Harper is 22 years old. Born after every USA Today minor league player of the year of his lifetime and every rookie of the year of his lifetime (except, of course, for himself). And "finally," his time has arrived. His stat line over is one big blob of black ink -- meaning he leads the National League in pretty much everything. And that's what MVPs are made of, especially on teams that are in the midst of going 20-6 in their past 26 games. But I'd like to try to put Harper's phenomenal season in even better perspective with these two nuggets: (1) He's already accumulated more homers (17), RBIs (42), walks (40) and extra-base hits (27) than he had all last year -- and that's unreal, considering he came to bat 395 times last season. And (2) if he somehow keeps up this pace, he'd finish this season with 60 home runs, 96 extra-base hits, 141 walks, 148 RBIs and 141 runs scored. In the history of baseball, you know how many guys have ever put up that stat line (or thereabouts) in any season? Exactly one. Babe Ruth. In 1921. Who was not 22 at the time. Crazy, right?

AL MVP: Nelson Cruz, Mariners

Nelson Cruz
I have to admit something. I was totally ready to type the familiar name of a gentleman named Miguel Cabrera into that line above until I took one last look at how Miggy's numbers compare with Cruz's numbers. And once I did, it became clear that if you don't think Cruz has been the best offensive player in the American League so far, you're working with a different set of metrics than I am. Even though Cabrera actually has as picturesque a slash line so far (.341/.442/.605) as he had the year he won the Triple Crown, Cruz has outhomered him (17-11) and outslugged him (.680-.605) by margins way too mammoth to ignore. And Cruz also leads Miggy in OPS, total bases, runs scored, extra-base hits and RBIs over in the traditional stat columns -- plus adjusted OPS, offensive winning percentage and wRC+ on the non-traditional leader board. So what's the case for Cabrera exactly? Or for Mike TroutPrince FielderJosh DonaldsonJason Kipnis and others for that matter? It's too early in the season to use wins above replacement as the No. 1 separator, because it's skewed by defensive metrics that derive from too small a sample for my money. It's even too early to use the standings, because nobody has won anything and pretty much nobody is out of anything yet. So MVP races at this stage, for me, are all about who has done the most raking when it has been their time to hit. And the correct answer, at least so far, is: Nelson Cruz. Any questions?

NL Cy Young: Max Scherzer, Nationals

Max Scherzer
Here's how impossible this race is: After spinning in circles for 24 hopeless hours, trying to separate Scherzer, Zack GreinkeMichael WachaShelby MillerA.J. BurnettGerrit Cole and a half-dozen other aces, I approached one of the most thoughtful scouts I know for help. And even he told me, basically: "It's a dead heat. Nobody has got a nose in front yet. How can you pick anybody at this point?" Well, on one hand, I agree. On the other hand, the column-writing biz doesn't work that way, I've noticed. So I'll go with Scherzer, who really ought to be 8-0 right now, to go along with a 1.67 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and 72 strikeouts in 64.2 innings. Has he been dramatically better than any of the other guys I mentioned? Can't say he has. But I look at it this way: He's dominated in all nine starts he's made. He leads the league in fielding independent pitching and double-digit strikeout games. In his three losses, he has a 1.25 ERA, 22 whiffs in 21.2 innings and a total of two runs scored for him. And had manager Matt Williams not sent him out for the eighth inning, with 101 pitches already logged, in a May 6 start against the Marlins (leading to two quick hits and a three-run Giancarlo Stanton homer), his ERA would sit at an insane 1.25. And then we wouldn't even be having this debate. Now would we?

AL Cy Young: Dallas Keuchel, Astros

You know all that stuff I just wrote about the NL Cy Young derby? Rinse and repeat for the AL portion of these festivities. Want to make a case forFelix Hernandez or Sonny Gray? I'd never say you're wrong. I could make sizzling cases for both of them without even breaking a sweat. And I almost did. But have you noticed that Keuchel pretty much never loses? OK, so technically, he lost his last start, in Baltimore on Monday. But that was his first loss in over nine months. In between, the Astros went 13-1 in games he started -- and 32-33 when anyone else pitched. But forget the wins and losses. Keuchel leads the league in lowest opponent average (.190), lowest opponent OPS (.507) and most innings per start (7.3). He has a 1.98 ERA and a sub-1 WHIP (0.96). And the only negative you could possibly use to deduct points is his 6.1 strikeouts per nine innings, paired with a .223 average on balls in play that would seem unsustainable. But when we make these awards picks, we're not supposed to judge what's likely to happen tomorrow. We're judging what's already happened. And you know what's happened in 2015? Dallas Keuchel has been the best pitcher in the American League. That's what.

NL Rookie: Joc Pederson, Dodgers

Joc Pederson
Did you know that no rookie in the history of the National League has ever hit 40 home runs? Did you know that only one rookie in the history of the Dodgers -- Mike Piazza -- has ever even hit 30 home runs? And now that we've got the preamble out of the way, did you know that Pederson is on pace to hit 43 home runs this year? And that he's also on pace to slug .554, with a .390 on-base percentage and .944 OPS that would be the highest by any Dodgers rookie in history, including Piazza? (This is a franchise that has produced 12 rookies of the year, by the way. Just thought I'd mention that.) Of course, Pederson also is on pace to strike out 194 times and walk 112 times -- which would give him an Adam Dunn-esque collection of numbers that has never been equaled by any rookie in history. But all the good stuff he's done -- including his leatherworking in center field -- still mostly negates the swinging and missing, and gives him at least a slight edge, for now, over Wrigleyville's polished and talented Kris Bryant. Those two already have pulled well ahead of the rest of this field. So they've set the stage for a fun little rookie-of-the-year mano a mano over the next four months. Ought to be a blast to watch.

AL Rookie: Devon Travis, Blue Jays

Devon Travis
On a related note, the Blue Jays have not had 12 rookies of the year in their glorious history. They've had two. I'm sure you recall them. There was Eric Hinske in 2002. And Alfredo Griffin in 1979 (although he had to share his trophy with John Castino, which must have been awkward). And now there's the mysterious Devon Travis, who jumped all the way from Double-A to the big leagues this year and was happily separating himself from the pack in this race when an April 30 ground ball took a funky hop and drilled him in the left shoulder. Next thing we knew, he was hitting .185 in May, after an awesome April. And now he's on the disabled list. To be honest, it was kind of shocking for a 5-foot-9 second baseman to thump six homers in his first 68 big league at-bats in the first place, even coming from a guy who'd hit everywhere he'd played in the minor leagues. So it's hard to forecast what this team will get from Travis from here on. But as I mentioned, handing out these awards is not an exercise in fortunetelling. It's about what's happened so far. And so far, Travis has been worth 1.5 wins above replacement, despite his May troubles. And no other AL rookie has outperformed him yet (although watch out for Mariners sidearmer Carson Smith, who has allowed just nine hits and fanned 24 over his first 21 innings). But the upshot is, it's possible the ultimate AL rookie of the year winner hasn't even been called up yet. And yeah, we're talking about you, Carlos Correa.



Anonymous said...

Getting Devon Travis was the steal of the year so far!

Anonymous said...

Bryce Harper is an animal! Love watching him play.