Friday, March 27, 2015

Predicting the 2015 Season—National League

Last October, I organized a playoff pool at the office. After examining everything from starting rotations to weather conditions, I picked the Nats to beat the Tigers in the World Series. A woman I work with doesn't know anything about baseball, so she made her picks based on which teams had the coolest-sounding names. I warned her how unlikely it was but eventually recorded her pick: Giants over Royals.

The lesson here is that, sometimes, ignorance is bliss. We can study all the stats we want; we can make the most finely calibrated projections for the season; we can memorize every player and every split and every transaction. It won't help us make a prediction about baseball that's any better than a shot in the dark by someone totally out of the loop.

So I said, what the heck. I'll make my team-by-team win-loss projections as usual. I'll declare some "fearless predictions" for each team, and for many individual players, like I've always done. But I'll make my World Series pick based on a comedic prophecy dreamed up in a studio lot almost 30 years ago. Read on to see who I mean.

NL East

1. Washington Nationals (95–67, 1st playoff seed)
  • Expect the 2014 Nationals to keep on showing up in Southeast DC for 2015, with pretty much the same results. Jayson Werth (age) and Anthony Rendon (regression to the mean) may each be worth one fewer win, but Bryce Harper will fill in the gap with at least a two-win improvement over 2014. That one monster season may never come, but something close to his 2013 will do perfectly well.
  • The team will again lead the majors in ERA, with Max Scherzer playing the role of Tanner Roark and finishing second in Cy Young voting. (Roark himself will unhappily post a 4.00 ERA and enter career purgatory as he is jerked around from assignment to assignment.)
  • Also in line for regression: Denard Span, whose injury-hampered .250/.300/.320 season will make the Nats regret losing AL Rookie of the Year contender Steven Souza.
  • Yunel Escobar will not be the solution at second base. His rapidly deteriorating defense will make him unplayable at times.

2. New York Mets (85–77, 1st Wild Card)
  • Zack Wheeler's Tommy John surgery is bad news for Wheeler, but not necessarily for the Metropolitans. Wheeler's 3.54 ERA last year was actually below average. In contrast, his de facto replacement in the rotation will be the very definition of an ace: Matt Harvey.
  • For a team whose strength is starting pitching, there's still a lot of room for improvement. Bartolo Colón and Dillon Gee will be supplanted around midseason by Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard, who will rank first and second (in some order) among NL rookie pitchers.
  • Lucas Duda's power and on-base ability is for real. Travis d'Arnaud will also realize his potential, hitting 20 dingers and stretching his .272/.319/.486 line from his last 69 games over a full season.
  • David Wright will double his 2014 home run total, but more importantly he will remember how to take a walk. It'll restore his OPS+ to a more Wrightian 125. With actual production now from left field (Michael Cuddyer), the Mets will be an above-average offensive team for the first time since 2011.

3. Miami Marlins (81–81)
  • The Dee Gordon trade actually made the Marlins worse. He'll post an OBP below .300, which will halve his stolen-base total.
  • Michael Morse will prove the team's shrewdest acquisition. He'll be healthy for the entire season, and the move to first base will mean that his defense will finally not negate his entire offensive value.
  • The Miami outfield—Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and, yes, Ichiro Suzuki—will post the highest WAR of any in baseball.
  • Dan Haren will ride a 4.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio and an abnormally low HR/FB ratio to his best season since 2011—and will retire on top.
  • Following a two-year pattern, Jarred Cosart will scuffle in the first half, prompting a trade at the deadline. He'll then finish the season with an ace-like 10-start stretch for his new team.

4. Atlanta Braves (70–92)
  • Shelby Miller will evolve into the ace of the Atlanta staff, and this is the year Alex Wood becomes a household name. But after them and Julio Teheran, the rotation will fall off a cliff. No one else will make more than 14 starts.
  • Craig Kimbrel will be traded at midseason for a package that nets the Braves their next number-one prospect.
  • A feckless offense will lead the majors in shutouts and strikeouts. Only Freddie Freeman will register a offensive WAR above 1.0, and the team will finish with the fewest runs scored of any team in a non-strike-shortened season since 1971.

5. Philadelphia Phillies (63–99)
  • This is the year the Fearsome Four become the Noisome None. Cliff Lee won't pitch all year, and Cole Hamels will be traded by July 31. By September, 2014 draftee Aaron Nola will be leading Philly's rotiation. So, um, progress?
  • There will be significant hurdles to the Phillies' so-called youth movement, as Maikel Franco, Freddy Galvis, and other newbies play like minor leaguers.
  • The league's most porous team defense will cause the Philadelphia pitching staff to lead the league in unearned runs.

NL Central

1. Saint Louis Cardinals (88–74, 3rd playoff seed)
  • After a 2013 with an abnormally high RISP batting average (.330) and a 2014 with an abnormally low one (.254), the Cardinals will finally settle in the middle of the pack—which means an automatic offensive boost from 2014.
  • Despite claims of a changed approach, Jason Heyward will have a near-carbon-copy of his 2014 season, but that won't be all bad—he'll help St. Louis amass the most Defensive Runs Saved in the NL.
  • Expect middle infielders Jhonny Peralta and Kolten Wong to switch identities: in 2015, Wong will be the one hitting .260/.340/.440 with 20 home runs, and Peralta will scuffle with a batting average below .250 and an OBP below .300.
  • Beware of a bullpen implosion at Busch. Trevor Rosenthal's and Jordan Walden's 5.0 BB/9 rates will lead to chaos as the Cards try to close out games, leading to the majors' worst record in one-run games.
  • Yes, he's still an MVP for his work with the pitching staff, and yes, his output is still good for a catcher, but this is the year Yadier Molina ceases to be useful as a hitter.

2. Chicago Cubs (84–78, 2nd Wild Card)
  • By July 1, all pretenses about service time will be dropped, and this entire generation of Cubs prospects will be in the bigs. Chris Coghlan, Ryan Sweeney, Tommy La Stella, and Mike Olt will lose their jobs, with the only holdout being Dexter Fowler in center field.
  • Javier Báez will again struggle with contact but, as he's done at every level before this, find a comfortable stroke a few hundred plate appearances in. Matt Szczur will be so valuable off the bench—with 15 stolen bases as a pinch runner alone—that he'll earn a spot on the postseason roster. Jorge Soler will sport a .900 OPS but not even be the best rookie on the team.
  • That honor, of course, will go to Kris Bryant, your NL Rookie of the Year. He'll hit a more-impressive-than-it-sounds 23 home runs—not including his decisive blow in the NL Wild Card game off Matt Harvey.
  • As was preordained by Grays Sports Almanac (there are still sports almanacs?) in 1989's classic Back to the Future II, the Cubs will go from 100-to-one shots when the offseason began to World Series champions. Joe Maddon will be the unanimous NL Manager of the Year.

3. Milwaukee Brewers (82–80)
  • A team largely unchanged since 2014 will finish with the exact same record, albeit more evenly distributed throughout the year. The team won't miss its main subtraction, Yovani Gallardo, as Jimmy Nelson will replicate his numbers closely.
  • The rotation will be the definition of average—with Matt Garza, Kyle Lohse, Wily Peralta, and Nelson posting identical 3.70 ERAs—except Mike Fiers, whose ability to strike out four times the number of batters he walks will make him the new staff ace.
  • Even after two years of elite production, I still don't believe in Carlos Gómez. A spate of bad BABIP luck this year will cut his value in half.
  • Ryan Braun still has one good season left in him—and that season is 2015.

4. Pittsburgh Pirates (81–81)
  • Don't expect Vance Worley to keep up the magic that made him Pittsburgh's best starter in 2014. Without master framer Russell Martin, a lot of Worley's advantage will disappear.
  • That's bad news for a team that also lost its second-best starter from last year (Edinson Vólquez) to free agency. Francisco Liriano was third-best and will be again, behind a rejuvenated AJ Burnett and a Cy Young–showing Gerrit Cole.
  • The infield is going to be a mess. Josh Harrison's terrible 4.0% BB% in 2014 was actually a career high, as was his .353 BABIP; he'll slump his way onto the bench by the All-Star Game. Jung-Ho Kang will flop so miserably that no Korean Baseball Organization position player will dare attempt moving to MLB again until the 2020s. Good thing the outfield will be the second-best in baseball, after Miami's.
  • As the best closer on a non-losing team, Mark Melancon will lead the majors in saves for 2015.

5. Cincinnati Reds (72–90)
  • Expect lots of games where Cincinnati scores exactly two runs: a home run by Todd Frazier with Joey Votto on base. Votto is the only player in the lineup who can get on base, and Frazier is the only one with above-average power. Otherwise, this is the division's worst offense.
  • What does this mean for Devin Mesoraco? A bone-headed plan to catch him 145 times a year despite already having concussion symptoms here in spring training will grind him down to a shell of his 2014 self. Like Salvador Pérez in 2014, he'll get worse and worse as the season wears on.
  • Aroldis Chapman's immense talent will be further wasted as he pitches a full-season career-low number of innings—even though he'll remain healthy. He will languish as a closer who barely ever sees a save situation. An otherwise anonymous relief corps will blow a league-high number of leads before they get to the ninth.
  • Johnny Cueto will be his usual brilliant self, but he'll be the only above-average member of the rotation. He'll wind up as some other team's crown jewel acquisition at the trading deadline.
  • Raisel Iglesias will show a lot of promise but run out of gas after five innings on a regular basis—betraying his better fit as a reliever. Jason Marquis will post terrible numbers for far longer than a team with more depth would allow.

NL West

1. Los Angeles Dodgers (93–69, 2nd playoff seed)
  • If you thought Yasiel Puig was good before, just wait until 2015, when he will combine his improved 2014 walk rate with the realization of his 20-homer potential and smoother right-field defense. He'll give the Dodgers the NL MVP to go along with their obvious Cy Young champ.
  • Joc Pederson will be the best non-Cubs rookie in the National League.
  • The fact that Juan Uribe can't walk anymore will prove untenable as an unlucky year brings his average down to .260 and his OBP to .280. The team will finally decide to accept Alex Guerrero's shaky defense to get his electric bat (.330/.380/.480) in the lineup. Hector Olivera will be a non-factor as his health conditions—not properly treated in his native Cuba—keep him off the field.
  • Chinks in the armor could crop up in the rotation due to injury. Expect Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu to miss occasional time—and be surprised if Brett Anderson manages more than 10 starts.
  • The bullpen will start off as a weakness, especially with Kenley Jansen out for April, but no one knows how to build a strong but cheap bullpen better than Andrew Friedman. By August, it'll be a team strength, probably thanks to guys you've never heard of.

2. San Francisco Giants (83–79)
  • Most World Series–winning teams feature a lot of guys having career years, and that tends not to repeat itself. Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, and Ángel Pagán lead the charge of guys who will slip from useful to harmful cogs in the lineup.
  • When Casey McGehee regresses to his career .264, suddenly everyone will realize he's a third baseman with zero power. His teammate Brandon Belt will pick him up, though, finally pushing the 30 home runs everyone once expected of him.
  • After throwing 270 innings (including the postseason) last year, Madison Bumgarner will show signs of fatigue with a step back in the regular season—like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain before him. (And no, they won't be any better either.)
  • Don't listen to anything anyone says right now—Yusmeiro Petit will force his way into a rotation job and, from that date forward, be San Francisco's best starter.
  • At some point, Sergio Romo will win back the closer's role.

3. San Diego Padres (80–82)
  • The Padres' biggest enemy this year will be their own outfield fence. Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, and Wil Myers will combine for just 40 home runs but –40 Defensive Runs Saved.
  • Robbed of his only asset—power—Will Middlebrooks will be the least valuable player in baseball in 2015.
  • Excellent years from Tyson Ross and James Shields will keep this team in the hunt at first—but it won't be able to survive Andrew Cashner hitting the DL for good in July.
  • It's sad, but the writing has been on the wall for a while now: Brandon Morrow and Josh Johnson are finished as viable major leaguers.

4. Colorado Rockies (75–87)
  • The highest-scoring offense in the NL will be at it again in 2015, thanks to a once-in-a-blue-moon event: totally healthy seasons from both Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos González.
  • Nolan Arenado will start getting mentioned in the same sentence as those two as the Rockies' invaluable core players. His big offensive step forward comes this year, and combined with his stellar defense, his WAR will crack 6.0.
  • Of course, the pitching will be even worse than the hitting is good. However, the Rockies won't regret any starts they cede to exciting young prospects Jon Gray and Eddie Butler.
  • Charlie Blackmon won't regress (his 2014 ended up being about average anyway once he cooled down in the second half), but Corey Dickerson will.

5. Arizona Diamondbacks (68–94)
  • Yasmany Tomás will be a mess—although it won't all be his fault. He'll be an incapable defender at third base, and management will delay moving him to the outfield for far too long. However, he'll have one of the game's lowest contact rates no matter where he plays, and his contract will quickly look like a bust.
  • Trevor Cahill will have a surprisingly effective season, making for a nice trade chip for Arizona. A league switch will rob him of Comeback Player of the Year.
  • Ender Inciarte will show he deserves to start in the outfield over David Peralta—and Peralta will do nothing that disagrees.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Follow Local Politics, Anywhere, in One Click

It's not the stuff of major television events, but state government is where the real action happens. With the current levels of gridlock in the federal government, chances are that any new laws that affect your life are being made in your state capitols. Given my obsession with state-level politics, I keep tabs on it very closely via Twitter—all 50 miniature political ecosystems. To share my obsession with the world, I recently organized those Twitter followings into 50 Twitter lists—one for the political reporters and observers in each state. Each state's list is linked below; I encourage you to follow your state's, if not several others you're interested in (I have a feeling Iowa and New Hampshire will be pretty relevant in the year ahead...). If you just want to follow one political news source from each of the 50 states—the Reader's Digest of local politics, if you will, you can do that too.

New Hampshire
New Jersey
New Mexico
New York
North Carolina
North Dakota
Rhode Island
South Carolina
South Dakota
West Virginia

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

By MLB's Own Rules, Suspending Josh Hamilton Is an Abuse of Power

The Angels' Josh Hamilton recently had a well-publicized relapse with drugs and alcohol. Late Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Times reported that an MLB panel was deadlocked on what to do about it—and that a suspension of up to one year was on the table. A one-year suspension would represent the punishment for a fourth failure to comply with a drug treatment program.

It's pretty weak—and makes MLB look vindictive—to levy such a harsh sentence on a drug addict who needs help more than anything. But it's also a pretty clear abuse of power by MLB, according to MLB's own Joint Drug Agreement (JDA). Here's what the JDA says about drugs of abuse:
A Player found to have used or possessed a Drug of Abuse through a positive test result or otherwise, or who is suspected of having done so, will be referred to the Treatment Board for an Initial Evaluation (the “Initial Evaluation”). ...

After concluding the Initial Evaluation, and consulting with the other Treatment Board members, the Medical Representatives shall determine whether the Player should be placed on a Treatment Program, and, if so, the type of Treatment Program that, in the opinion of the Treatment Board, would be most effective. ...

The Treatment Program may include any or all of the following: counseling, inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment and follow-up testing.

The Treatment Program must be in writing and signed by the Player.
This is the first thing that's supposed to happen when any player tests positive for a drug of abuse. It's the reason that you might hear that there is no punishment for a player's first offense for hard drugs; MLB's sole interest is supposed to be helping them set up a treatment program to get better. It's actually a very progressive policy.

Things take a darker turn if the player flunks another drug test:
The Treatment Board will determine whether a Player has failed to cooperate with his Initial Evaluation or has failed to comply with his Treatment Program.

If the Treatment Board fails to reach a majority vote on whether a Player has failed to cooperate with his Initial Evaluation, or has failed to comply with his Treatment Program, the Fifth Member shall cast the deciding vote. ...

The Treatment Board, including the Fifth Member when necessary, will make its determination whether a Player has failed to cooperate with an Initial Evaluation, or comply with a Treatment Program, by applying the following criteria:

(a) A Player who refuses to submit to an Initial Evaluation...
(b) A Player who consistently fails to participate in mandatory sessions with his assigned health care professional...
(c) his assigned health care professional informs the Treatment Board in a status report that the Player is not cooperating with the requirements of his Treatment Program. ...
(d) If a Player tests positive for a Drug of Abuse after his evaluation by the Treatment Board and written commitment to a Treatment Program (excluding residual positives), the Player shall have the burden of convincing the Treatment Board (including any Fifth Member) that the positive test result did not result from a lack of commitment by the Player to his Treatment Program. In determining whether the Player has met his burden, the Treatment Board shall consider, among other things: (a) the Player’s history of positive test results; (b) the evaluation of the Player’s treating professional; and (c) the Player’s willingness to consider other treatment options such as in-patient therapy.
The Treatment Board is the four-person panel cited by the LA Times as currently deadlocked; they'll have to bring in the "Fifth Member" (a.k.a. an arbitrator) to break the tie. Their decision will decide whether, in MLB's eyes, Hamilton failed to cooperate with his Initial Evaluation or to comply with his Treatment Program. If so, he'd be subject to suspension:
If the Treatment Board determines that a Player refused to submit to an Initial Evaluation, or refused to participate in mandatory sessions with his assigned health professional, the Player will be subject to discipline for just cause by the Commissioner without regard to the progressive discipline schedule set forth below. For all other violations, the Player will be subject to the following discipline schedule:

1. First failure to comply: At least a 15-game but not more than a 25-game suspension;
2. Second failure to comply: At least a 25-game but not more than a 50-game suspension;
3. Third failure to comply: At least a 50-game but not more than a 75-game suspension;
4. Fourth failure to comply: At least a one-year suspension; and
5. Any subsequent failure to comply by a Player shall result in the Commissioner imposing further discipline on the Player.
Here's the problem for MLB. Importantly, as the JDA stated earlier, there must be a written Treatment Program, signed and agreed to by Hamilton himself, if Hamilton can be said to have violated it. Although I have no inside knowledge of MLB or this case, I find it unlikely that Hamilton has a formal Treatment Program, as this is his first offense under this JDA. (The JDA was agreed to in 2006, while Hamilton's previous suspensions for drug use were in the minor leagues from 2004 to 2006.) It makes far more sense to treat this as Hamilton's first offense—making it time not for a suspension, but for an Initial Evaluation and, hopefully, an effective Treatment Program.

Conceivably, the Treatment Board could agree but find that he refused to submit to an Initial Evaluation—a charge that would allow Commissioner Rob Manfred to set whatever punishment he wanted. However, this too seems extremely unlikely. Hamilton's fight against addiction is extremely high-profile, and he has appeared to make every effort to quit his deadly habits for the benefit of his religion and his family (two things that are very important to him if his public statements are to be believed). I highly doubt he'd resist any Treatment Program that could help him keep his life together.

Bottom line: the Treatment Board is given broad discretion to create—or, in the event one already exists, alter and strengthen—a Treatment Program for suffering players, including rehab. The criteria the board is supposed to consider for suspensions even specifically says that they should consider the player's willingness to go to rehab before they pass judgment. This seems like a much more reasonable step to take rather than impose a harsh suspension.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Red Sox' Embarrassment of Riches in the Outfield May Just Be an Embarrassment

No team has embraced the concept of "depth is a good problem to have" more than the Red Sox. Ben Cherington's motto is "sign first, ask questions later," whether it's signing Yoan Moncada to join an infield under team control for the rest of the decade or adding Hanley Ramírez to an outfield that already had six starting-caliber players. I'll admit I've drunk the Kool-Aid; the big-market team is in a great position to translate money into prospects by establishing embarrassing depth at multiple positions, then trading extremely valuable players they no longer need. Call it the Yoenis Céspedes strategy.

The infield is a problem to be tackled another year, but with the start of spring training, the auditions for the 2015 Red Sox outfield have begun. The team has eight major-league-caliber outfielders for five total roster spots (given that some can also play first base, you may be able to squeeze that to six or seven). There are obviously only three starting outfield positions, but each of the players has either been a successful starter in the past or is a prospect who has been a successful starter in the minors and is thought to be capable of the same at Fenway. The players are Ramírez, Rusney Castillo, Shane Victorino (the three likeliest starters), Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts (the two whom it's still possible to assign to the minor leagues), Daniel Nava, Allen Craig (the logical choices for the outfield bench), and Brock Holt (the possible backup outfielder who will probably occupy the roster spot for backup infielder).

It seems like, no matter in what combination the team chooses to deploy these eight players, they can't lose. It's why they were able to trade Céspedes to the Tigers and still feel like they had insurance policy after insurance policy in the outfield. But, in true Red Sox fan fashion, I'm worried. Despite all this, it remains entirely possible that the Red Sox will have a poor outfield in 2015—for while every player listed above has vast potential, none is a sure thing.

I present the pessimist's view of the Red Sox outfield:
  • Hanley Ramírez is incredible when he's on the field, but you can pretty much count on some DL time for him every year. In 2013, he played just 86 games; last year he made it up to 128. In left field, he'll also be playing a position he has never manned in his entire major-league career. The Green Monster affords even more opportunities for him to get injured, and learning a new position has been known to lead to slumps at the plate as well.
  • Rusney Castillo is supposed to be the next big thing out of Cuba, but his $72.5 million contract is more a reflection of the exploding costs of international free agents than a free-market determination that he is José Abreu's equal. There is a fierce split among scouts over whether he profiles as anything more than a fourth outfielder.
  • Shane Victorino is 34 years old. He has just one good season in the last three: 2013, when he exceeded all expectations and helped lead the Red Sox to a World Series. Those positive memories are nice, but they mask the much more plausible story of a player in decline. This is a guy whose core skill set—the things that made him valuable in his youth—has practically evaporated. The one-time switch-hitter was so incapable from the left side of the plate that he gave it up in late 2013, and he was besieged by injuries in 2014—the kind that are poison for a guy who relies on speed (hamstring) and outfield defense (back).
  • What can I say that hasn't already been said about Jackie Bradley Jr.? He's still just 24, but after two seasons with the Red Sox produced a batting line of .196/.268/.280, it's fair to wonder if he'll ever make the adjustments necessary for the majors. The Red Sox can't afford to sacrifice a starting spot just to see those kinds of numbers again, and while he's one of the best outfield defenders in baseball right now, they can't afford to devote a roster spot just to a defensive replacement either.
  • Mookie Betts is beloved in Boston after bursting onto the scene in 2014 and hitting .291/.368/.444; many will question my lumping him into the rest of the question marks in this outfield. But the reality is that he sustained those excellent rate stats for just 213 plate appearances. Before 2013 he didn't even rate among the Red Sox' top 20 prospects; this just wasn't a breakout anyone saw coming. One more solid year would convince me, but I'm just not sure he's for real yet.
  • To me, Daniel Nava is the most reliable player on this list—a testament to my on-base percentage and walk fetish. But, in truth, he's overextended as a starter, never recording more than 458 at-bats. He's best suited as a platoon player, as he hit just .159/.209/.190 against lefties in 2014.
  • Allen Craig was one of the most underrated players in baseball during his 2011–2013 run with the Cardinals, but he fell off a cliff in 2014, a decline many attribute to a nagging foot injury. This season will determine which version is for real, but it's hard to be patient with him when his suckiness is this sucky (.215/.279/.315 in 2014, and even worse after the trade to Boston).
  • Brock Holt! became a cult favorite in Boston last year mostly on the strength of one hot stretch. In fact, he rated as merely average (a 100 OPS+) over the course of the year. While his versatility in the field means he'll always have value, he's really just a complementary piece, not a solution at any one position.
In short, it's not hard to imagine a scenario where all or most of these players again fail to live up to Boston's hopes and expectations. In fact, we've already seen that scenario: it was called the 2014 season. Possibly—but hopefully not—last year showed us what happens when a team relies on throwing stuff against the wall and seeing what sticks. Especially considering they're a big-market team with a creative GM, I find myself wishing the Red Sox would just acquire three solid outfielders and call it a day.