Baseball on the Brain?

The six months of Major League Baseball’s regular season are jam-packed with 162 games for each of the 30 teams. All winter I wait for baseball season to begin again. Sometimes I wonder if it pervades my mind too much?

This is sadly not a crochet creation of MVP candidate Josh Hamilton. 

Return of the Blog

After a few months off, the blog is coming back. It’s been a little crazy finishing law school, doing some work at a startup (Stattleship, a social sports game revolving around, well, stats) and once again transitioning from the student world.

I once saw someone remark that when you write a post about not writing on your blog, it probably signals the beginning of the end. I like to think of this as a summer vacation of sorts while making a life transition. I was still writing on other locations, so it wasn’t a complete abandonment, from a certain point of view.

Kevin Youkilis: On the Block?

The 2012 Boston Red Sox look a lot like the 2011 version of the team. Two players entered this year as potential free agents: David Ortiz and Kevin Youkilis. Ortiz, enjoying a tremendous resurgence, may have already guaranteed himself another arbitration deal with the Red Sox, but Kevin Youkilis, over whom the Sox have a $13 million option for next season, may not even finish 2012 in a Boston uniform. The question is: if he’s not playing in Fenway, where is he?

2012 did not start the way Youkilis would have wanted. Right off the bat his new manager was calling him out to the media questioning not his health or his playing ability but his intangibles: Bobby Valentine criticized his passion for the game. The new Sox skipper said Youk just wasn’t “as physically or emotionally into the game as he has been in the past.” While both sides tried to dismiss the comments and focus on the team – struggling mightily at the time – Ken Rosenthal is reporting that, according to a baseball executive,“Valentine wanted Youkilis out as far back as spring training, viewing him as a liability.”

If that wasn’t enough, the third baseman soon hit the disabled list and prospect Will Middlebrooks go off to a roaring start and, with a few slumps, is hitting .259/.295/.552 with 4 home runs. Middlebrooks has proven himself in the minors and has held his own in the majors, is generally expected to become the starter in 2013. If the Red Sox think he is ready to stay, maybe when Youkilis returns from the DL, he’ll be featured for a trade.

Who’s Looking?

There are a few teams who could use help at the infield corners who might be interested in the veteran “Greek God of Walks.”

The Dodgers, lead by superstars Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, are off to a surprising start in a weak NL West. Their current starter at third base? Juan Uribe. Uribe is hitting just .250/.302/.338 with a home run and a healthy Youk would be an improvement on his .640 OPS. The story doesn’t get much better across the diamond: James Loney, who never developed into the player the Dodgers always thought he would, is hitting .233/.310/.336. If a move back to first base could keep Youkilis healthy, an option the Red Sox don’t have, the Dodgers’ current roster construction wouldn’t make that very difficult.

North of LA, the San Francisco Giants, also looking at the weakness of their division, and currently without Pablo Sandoval, aka Kung Fu Panda, could be interested as well. Sandoval is currently sidelined with a hand injury, and while he should return in another month or so, Youkilis might be ready before then. Like the Dodgers, the Giants also have a question mark at first base. Prospect Brandon Belt hasn’t forced the team to pencil him into the lineup every day, giving an opening for Youkilis to take over. Belt also has experience playing the outfield, which could allow the Giants to upgrade offensively at two positions if Belt can really get into gear – he has the ability, just not the track record in the Majors.

What Red Sox trade talk would be complete without including his former boss, Theo Epstein? The breakout of Bryan LaHair at first base has been well publicized: the formerly-labeled quad-A player has slugged 10 home runs already this season while hitting (an unsustainable) .330/.422/.670. While the power is real his other stats will likely regress a bit as the season goes on. Behind LaHair is former Sox and Padres first base prospect Anthony Rizzo. Rizzo will eventually inherit the first base job when LaHair is traded or shifted to the outfield. But the hot corner is occupied by Darwin Barney.

Barney is a fine stopgap while the Cubs rebuild, but the Cubs may decide to play up their Red Sox knowledge again. Adding Youkilis to man third base this year, and possibly next year, would give the club a veteran leader with a solid batting eye. Youkilis is injury prone at this point in his career and can’t be expected for 162 games, but Epstein and Hoyer know this. The money isn’t a huge obstacle for the large-market Cubs and even the option is just a one year commitment. Like evert rebuilding team, the Cubs need to balance putting a decent product on the field with their efforts to become competitive again. Alfonso Soriano is a high-priced player well past his prime, but Youkilis probably still has something left in the tank, and it might be enough to warrant an upgrade from Barney to keep the team looking respectable, if not competitive. Even an understanding fan base likes to go to the ballpark with a chance to see their team have a good game.

Full Circle

In a way, the situation facing Kevin Youkilis today is not all that different than the one he was in during 2004. Bill Mueller, the 2003 batting champion and Red Sox third baseman at the time, went on the disabled list. The Sox called up the already Moneyball-famous Youk to take over at third base. Youk impressed, but not enough to win the job away from Mueller that season. In 2005, Youk got in work at third and first as Kevin Millar, John Olerud, and the immortal Roberto Petagine spent time in a first base platoon. In 2006, the starting job at first was his because of the arrival of Mike Lowell (with Josh Beckett) to handle the hot corner.

Maybe Middlebrooks will stay cool until Youkilis returns. Maybe he’ll heat up and force the Red Sox hand on a trade before Youk gets going himself. Maybe Carl Crawford has another setback but Middlebrooks ends up returning to the big leagues as a left fielder this season. As they say, these things have a way of working themselves out.

Rays Young Pitching: It Keeps Going, and Going…

It looks like the Rays are at in again in terms of setting records with young pitching:

James Shields is, of course, the “old man” of the staff at 30 years old, drafted way back in Y2K, but still a pitcher drafted and developed by Tampa. Like Jonah Keri talks about in his book The Extra 2%, the Rays take the long view regarding their franchise and the starting rotation is a product of that. 

With Wade Davis working out of the bullpen and Alex Cobb in the minors, the Rays have young pitching depth that any team would envy.

He’s Going Crazy, Call Him Superman

Josh Hamilton hit his 9th home run of the week, and 18th of the year, on Saturday. In addition to doubling his current season total, Hamilton has accumulated 1.6 WAR in this week alone.

In 2011 8 players hit 18 home runs over the course of the entire season. The list isn’t made up of superstars, but it’s a solid group of guys: 

+ Mekly Cabrera

+ Chris Heisey

+ Chipper Jones

+ Howie Kendrick

+ Carlos Lee

+ Russell Martin

+ Miguel Montero

+ Brandon Phillips

In all, 76 players hit more than 18 home runs. Hamilton himself hit “just” 25 long balls last year. Much has been made about Hamilton’s inability to play the field, but he did appear in 156 games in 2008. The problem is the other years of his career have game totals of just 90, 89, 133, and 121.

If Hamilton appears in more than 133 games, the total from his MVP year in 2010, he should stand to crush those numbers. Hamilton  is already more than half way to his home run total (32) and forty percent of the way to his RBI total (100) and a third of the way towards his runs scored (95), This fast a start could carry him to a career year even with a slump or injury mixed in during the remainder of the season.

Three True Outcomes: Return of the King

At the beginning of the 2011 season, few players received as much hype as Adam Dunn. After signing a two-year deal with the Washington Nationals his first time in free agency, Dunn did what he does best: hit home runs, strike out, and walk. Dunn was the model of consistency: 38 home runs both years in D.C. (following 5 straight 40 homer campaigns), about 100 walks (116 in 2009, 77 in 2010), and close to 200 strikeouts (177 and 199 respectively) each season. If that wasn’t quite enough to earn a good free agent contract, Dunn played in 159 and 158 games during his time in Washington.

Signing a 4 year, $56 million dollar deal with the White Sox made it look like things were finally going Dunn’s way. The White Sox, a team not known as a bastion of progressive baseball had signed a high-strikeout slugger to a big contract…to serve as the designated hitter. Not first base, not left field, DH. They would have their own David Ortiz, or a the very least, a player a far sight better than Mark Kotsay.

Cellular Field is a homer friendly park  and was coming off a 2010 season where it was very hitter friendly to hitters. Dunn was expected to thrive. But something happened: he didn’t. His strikeout and walk numbers were similar to the year before, but one hundred points of batting average disappeared, along with his on-base and slugging percentages, and the possible 50 home run season for Dunn turned into just 11.

Fast forward to 2012 and everything has changed. Well, some things have changed. Entering the penultimate day of April Dunn had racked up 33 strikeouts, 14 walks, and 4 home runs. He’d hit another against Boston that afternoon and pick up two more walks and a strikeout as well for a perfect Adam Dunn day. For a guy who didn’t hit hit fifth home run until May 24th in 2011 (forgotten in Dunn’s troubles last year: on opening day he went 2-4 with a double, a home run, and 4 RBI) this is quite the improvement. The 2010 vintage of Adam Dunn, though the same number of games (22), looked like this: 22 strikeouts, 15 walks,  and 4 home runs. The uptick in Ks is potentially alarming – Dunn has struck out at least once per game in 2012 – but at the moment are not overwhelming his game. 

While his early season like of .224/.352/.474, good for an .825 OPS, may not be quite the Adam Dunn of old it is certainly an improvement over the Dunn of 2011. His April has, baring a very unusual Monday, claim to the title of Three True Outcomes Champion for baseball’s first month. Entering Sunday, Dunn lead all major leaders with 51 TTO events. He was followed by Padres third baseman Chase Headley (46), Yankees center fielder Curtis Granderson (45), Reds first baseman Joey Votto (43), and Brewers second baseman Rickie Weeks (43). Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp, off to a tremendous start, had the 9th highest TTO score (40) based on his mammoth contribution in the home run department: 11 dingers, 18 strikeouts, and 11 walks. Yes Matt Kemp’s HR:BB ratio stood at 1.00, which is as interesting a feat as Paul Byrd’s flirtation with more wins than walks a few seasons ago.

The inclusion of Kemp among the leaders in TTO is interesting in itself. Along with Joey Votto, Kemp is a player who can hit for a high batting average, a slightly different profile from the hulking stereotype with a good batting eye. Kemp has a career .297 batting average, including a .324 mark last year. Yet, as a player who struck out at last 139 times in each of the last four seasons, and walked 74 times in 2011 (although his previous high was just 53), Kemp’s power and K potential make him at least a two true outcome player.

For now, Adam Dunn can feel like he has righted the ship. The strikeouts will decrease unless he goes on to crush the existing season strikeout records. The walks are there. The power has returned.