Monday, October 17, 2011

World Series Preview: Texas Rangers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

After convincing Game 6 drubbings in their respective League Championship Series’ clinched a World Series berth for both the Rangers and Cardinals, we’re left with quite an interesting matchup to decide baseball’s champion. The Rangers, a team with big bats throughout the lineup but some suspect pitching, return to their second straight World Series after winning the AL West by a comfortable 10-game margin. The Cardinals, on the other hand, took advantage of a Red Sox-scale September collapse by the Braves to earn their playoff berth on the last day of the season. The Cardinals are one of few teams in baseball that may be able to mash with the Rangers, as the Pujols-Holliday-Berkman core of their lineup will be able to take advantage of the Rangers’ cozy ballpark as effectively as the Rangers can. Rangers Ballpark in Arlington leads ESPN’s Park Factors with a 1.4 Run Factor and 1.5 Home Run factor, meaning roughly 50% more fly balls become home runs in Arlington as opposed to a league-neutral park. On the other hand, pitching will likely have the advantage in St. Louis, where park factors of 0.9 for runs and 0.77 for home runs suggest that games are unlikely to turn into the slugfests that might favor the Rangers. In an odd twist, Prince Fielder’s All-Star Game home run, which won the game for the National League, secures home field advantage for his division rival, as the Cardinals will have the advantage of four games at home should the series go the full seven.

Both clubs have benefited from major bullpen acquisitions this season, and have been leaning heavily on their bullpens to prevent their back-of-the-rotation starters from piling up innings when more effective arms are available. For St. Louis, trading rising star Colby Rasmus seemed like something of a head-scratcher, but the continued emergence of Jon Jay and the success of the other arms acquired in the deal may prove to be their ticket to a World Series. Jay, a promising centerfielder in his own right, has replaced Rasmus as the team’s everyday centerfielder. Edwin Jackson has impressed in the rotation, beating Roy Oswalt in a strong divisional series outing and earning a start in Game 3 of the World Series. Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel, the other pitchers acquired in the trade, pitched three innings of one-run ball as part of the team’s seven-reliever bridge from Jackson’s minor blow-up in the first inning to the World Series in Game 6 of the NLCS. Rzepczynski has accumulated a 2.33 SIERA in 5.2 innings this postseason, while Dotel has amassed a 1.45 in 6.2 innings. When the Cardinals can piece together runs of 4+ runs from their bullpen, much of the stress on their rotation is relieved. Since this rotation is largely mediocre without the presence of Adam Wainwright, Tony La Russa has leaned heavily on Fernando Salas, Eduardo Sanchez, Jason Motte, and Arthur Rhodes, in addition to the pitchers acquired in the Rasmus trade.

I’ve talked at length about the Rangers’ offense, and it seems likely that a new player will be able to step up and carry the team each day. In the series against the Tigers, Nelson Cruz filled that role, while Adrian Beltre, Josh Hamilton, Ian Kinsler, Mike Napoli, Michael Young, or any of a number of other sluggers are certainly capable of picking up the slack should Cruz cool off. The Rangers’ starters other than CJ Wilson aren’t exactly the types you’d expect to shut down the Cardinals’ lineup, but Rangers’ GM Jon Daniels has built a similarly effective playoff bullpen to minimize the potential negative impact of the team’s starting options after Wilson. A day before the trading deadline, Daniels picked up Koji Uehara from the Orioles for Chris Davis and Tommy Hunter. The next day, Daniels traded two pitching prospects, Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland for Mike Adams, who may be the best setup man in the league. Adams has fashioned a SIERA of under 3 for each of the past four seasons, including a 2.40 this year. Daniels finished his external bullpen tinkering by adding Mike Gonzalez on a waiver trade, giving the team a second lefty option in addition to Darren Oliver. Alexi Ogando, an effective member of the Rangers’ bullpen in 2010, was transitioned to the starting rotation this year extremely successfully. However, in the playoffs, Ogando isn’t needed in the rotation, and he’s been effective in short-innings duty for Ron Washington. Ogando has pitched 10.1 innings in 7 appearances for the Rangers in the postseason, with a ridiculous 1.87 SIERA to show for it. Along with Uehara, Adams, Gonzalez, and Ogando, the Rangers also have the strongest parts of their 2011 bullpen available for late-inning duty. With closer Neftali Feliz, go-to lefty Darren Oliver, and playoff revelation Scott Feldman, the Rangers are well positioned to utilize their bullpen extensively.

I’d expect this series to be very exciting, with the potential for explosive offense at almost any moment. I think the Rangers have a slight advantage in the rotation, While CJ Wilson will have a fairly even matchup with fellow ace Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia will have an advantage over Colby Lewis in Game 2, especially in St. Louis. However, I think Derek Holland will give the Rangers a chance to win against Edwin Jackson, and though he’s somewhat unheralded, Matt Harrison has been Texas’ second-best pitcher this season according to WAR. He benefits from some fairly positive HR/FB luck (WAR is based off of FIP, so this isn’t taken into account), but if Harrison can continue to avoid gopher balls in Game 4, he should have a good shot against Kyle Lohse.

Once the teams’ bottom of the rotation starters are exposed in Texas, we could see some slugfests in Arlington, making these teams’ bullpens a focal point of the series as they try to slow down the big lumber in both dugouts. I think the deciding advantage in the series will be in both the teams’ bullpen and lineup depth, and Texas has the edge in both categories. Texas’ bullpen acquisitions allow the Rangers to bring ace relievers as early as the fifth or sixth inning and be assured of quality innings for the rest of the game, which is a luxury the Cardinals’ bullpen doesn’t give them. In addition, while the cores of these teams lineups may be comparable, the Rangers have an advantage lower in the lineup. Mike Napoli, who led all MLB catchers with a 178 wRC+ this season, hits sixth. Nelson Cruz, who hit an MLB record six homers in the ALCS to win the series MVP award, hits seventh. Though David Freese showed some offensive ability in winning the NLCS MVP, the Cardinals will counter the Rangers’ stacked lineup with Nick Punto and Yadier Molina. Though these players certainly have value, they won’t be able to match the offensive output of the Rangers’ role players. In the end, my prediction is that this series will come down to the Rangers’ offensive firepower and the Cardinals’ inferior bullpen, and Texas will slug its way to the first World Championship in the history of the franchise in the franchise’s first year under the principal ownership of pitching legend Nolan Ryan.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

NLCS Preview: Milwaukee Brewers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

This year’s NLCS is a matchup of two NL Central squads that just plain don’t like each other. The Brewers and Cardinals have gotten into it on various occasions this season, and with a World Series berth on the line the tension only figures to increase.

The Cardinals’ 762 runs and wRC+ of 111 make them the best offensive team in the National League this season. The Redbirds bats are led by a trifecta of mashers in the heart of the order in Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday, and Lance Berkman. This could be Pujols’ last year in St. Louis, as he’ll be a free agent after the season and there are several deep-pocketed sharks in the water who will look to lock up the Cards’ iconic first baseman. Pujols had his worst season as a pro, putting up “only” 5.1 WAR. Funny how being the 11th most productive position player in the NL can be considered a disappointment, but that’s the level of expectation that’s been set for the best hitter of the past decade. Holliday dealt with injuries this season, appearing in only 124 games, but mashed his way to a 154 wRC+ and 5 WAR when he was in the lineup. Since 2007, no outfielder has been more productive than Holliday, who has reached that plateau through ridiculous consistency; he’s produced between 144 and 156 wRC+ for each of the last five seasons. After two consecutive down years, Berkman put up 5 WAR in 2011 on the strength of a 159 wRC+. Berkman’s trademark power disappeared last season, and his 2010 ISO of .166 was his worst mark since his rookie campaign, but his .246 this year was right in line with his career average.

Opposing the Cardinals, the Brewers’ offense features Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Braun may be the frontrunner for the NL MVP after a huge season in which he led the NL with a 179 wRC+. As scary a thought as this is, Braun is continuing to improve as a hitter. For each of the last five seasons he’s had an increase in walk rate and a decrease in strikeout rate, with career bests in both categories this season. A more patient, more selective Ryan Braun isn’t exactly a welcome sight for opposing pitchers. Following Braun in the Brewers’ potent lineup is Prince Fielder, who like Pujols may be moving on after this season. Seeing Fielder in another team’s uniform will be a strange sight, as the remarkably consistent Fielder has missed only 13 games since his first full season in 2006, and only a single contest over the past three years. Fielder’s as prototypical as power hitters come, and his .267 ISO trailed only Mike Stanton among National Leaguers this season.

Both clubs are somewhat middle-of-the-road in terms of run prevention, as the Brewers’ 638 runs allowed places them sixth in the NL, while the Cardinals’ 692 is ninth in the league. It’s almost unbelievable that the Cardinals have made it this far, as they lost their best starter before the season even started. Adam Wainwright, who has finished in the top three in NL Cy Young voting in each of the last two seasons, lost his 2011 campaign to Tommy John surgery. Without Wainwright, the Cardinals’ staff is led by Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia. Carpenter has stepped up in Wainwright’s absence with a 3.35 SIERA and 5 WAR. In Game 5 of the NLDS, Carpenter outdueled Roy Halladay with a complete game 3-hit shutout, sending the Cardinals to the NLCS after a 1-0 victory. After a huge rookie year in 2010, Garcia has built on his success with another impressive campaign. Garcia’s 3.29 SIERA reflects his ability to do the two things that make pitchers successful; strike hitters out and induce groundballs. His 53.6% groundball rate is seventh in the NL, and he strikes out another 18.9% of batters, meaning less than 30% of at-bats against Garcia result in a ball in the air and the potential for serious damage.

With Fielder likely gone after the season, Brewers’ GM Doug Melvin tabbed 2011 as the team’s year to go all-in, cashing in some big time prospects to solidify his starting staff. First, Melvin sent Brett Lawrie to Toronto in exchange for Shaun Marcum in early December of last year. While Lawrie has impressed in his rookie season, Marcum has been a huge part of the Brew Crew’s retooled rotation. Marcum got roughed up in his first postseason start, but he’s been solid all year, and will likely match up against Edwin Jackson in Game 2 of the NLCS. Less than two weeks later, Melvin one-upped himself, sending a package of prospects and Alcides Escobar to the Royals for ace Zack Greinke. Greinke’s been a man on a mission since coming to Milwaukee, as he’s ridden a league-leading 28.1% strikeout rate to a 2.51 SIERA, also best in the league. His baseball card numbers don’t reflect the incredible year he’s having, largely due to some plain old bad luck, but when Game 1 begins it’ll be the Brewers ace on the mound. Greinke and Marcum complement the Brewers’ pre-existing ace, Yovani Gallardo. Having Greinke and Marcum in the rotation takes a ton of pressure off of Gallardo, and he’s responded with a career-best 3.07 SIERA. While the Cardinals’ bats were able to overcome the Phillies’ multiple aces, the Brewers arms’ may be an equally difficult test.

A big factor in this series will be the gloves behind these two impressive rotations. At –30.8 runs, UZR sees the Cardinals as the second worst defensive team in the NL this season. Meanwhile, the Brewers’ UZR of 10.2 makes them the fifth best defense on the Senior Circuit. If the Brewers’ gloves can help their starters out or the Cardinals’ defense becomes a handicap for their hurlers, that could be a deciding factor in which team will represent the NL in the World Series.

I’m going to take the Brewers to win in six games, with two wins coming from Greinke and one each from Marcum and Gallardo. With tensions running high, it’s almost impossible to tell what’ll happen, except that Chris Carpenter will probably talk smack and Nyjer “Tony Plush” Morgan will almost certainly do something completely ridiculous. I know I’ll be watching.

Friday, October 7, 2011

ALCS Preview- Texas Rangers vs. Detroit Tigers

While both National League Divisional Series will be going to a decisive Game 5 tonight, the Tigers and Rangers have each earned a berth to their league’s Championship Series. We’ll take a look at how these two teams match up to try to determine which club will represent the AL in the World Series.

Each of these clubs featured one of the more prolific offenses in the AL. The Rangers scored the third most runs of any AL team over the course of the season, while the Tigers scored the fourth most. However, the gap between them is larger than that statistic might indicate. The Rangers were the only team that was able to keep up with the big-money clubs in New York and Boston, as their 855 runs were only 20 behind the league-leading Sox. After the Rangers, there’s a large gap, as the Tigers scored 787 runs to finish fourth in the league. Advanced statistics suggest the gap between the teams’ offenses is a little smaller, as the Rangers’ wRC+ of 113 outpaced the Tigers by only 4%.

The Rangers’ offense got big production from some surprising places this year, while several of the players who carried the team to last season’s World Series have taken a step back. The team’s leader in offensive value was catcher Mike Napoli. Napoli spent 2010 splitting time behind the plate in Anaheim with Jeff Mathis. This offseason, Napoli momentarily went to the Blue Jays in exchange for Vernon Wells, although the deal was more about losing Wells’ massive contract and less about actually acquiring Napoli from the Jays’ perspective. Napoli was sent packing once again almost immediately, this time in exchange for closer Frank Francisco. Napoli’s taken advantage of his new opportunity in Texas, putting up 5.6 WAR in only 113 games through an impressive 178 wRC+. Napoli hit 30 home runs in 432 plate appearances during the regular season. The next lowest PA total for a 30-homer hitter was 525, nearly 100 chances more than Napoli. If you picked Napoli to lead the AL in slugging this year, well… I don’t believe you.

I discussed Ian Kinsler in my AL MVP post, but he deserves another mention, as he’s been incredibly valuable on both sides of the ball and had the most prolific offensive year of his career by a longshot. His 7.7 WAR was the best mark on the club. Adrian Beltre’s 5.7 WAR led the team’s position players other than Kinsler, and his 134 wRC+ was second only to Napoli. In his first season in Texas, Beltre earned the first installment of his big multiyear deal signed last offseason and then some, putting up big offensive numbers and playing the premium defense at the hot corner we’ve come to expect from him. It’s rare that 4.2 WAR is considered a letdown, but Josh Hamilton produced less than half as much this season as his MVP campaign in 2010. While his numbers may not make him an MVP candidate again this year, he’s certainly a dangerous hitter. After a season of unrest between Michael Young and his front office that ended with him requesting a trade, Young gave the Rangers some serious reasons to retain him. Young gave the team positional flexibility and another big bat in their deep, potent lineup. The Rangers were the only team in baseball with five players who produced 20 or more runs above average on offense, and that’s not even counting Nelson Cruz, who had a big down year after a breakout 2010.

While the Rangers do have a better lineup, the Tigers aren’t exactly slouches. Led by Miguel Cabrera, the Tigers have a number of big bats in the middle of their lineup. Alex Avila’s breakout season was interrupted by a deep slump down the stretch and during the divisional series. The Tigers will have to hope he can bounce back during this series and continue to cement himself as one of the best catchers in baseball. Victor Martinez, acquired last offseason to protect Cabrera, has been effective in that role, as his 130 wRC+ this season tied a career high. Delmon Young, acquired on a waiver trade, has been a force in Detroit’s lineup over the final stretch of the team’s regular season, then set a franchise record with three ALDS home runs. However, he left Game 5 with an oblique strain after his first inning home run. If the injury is significant, Young could be done for the postseason. The Tigers will be hoping it’s only a minor ding. Jhonny Peralta led all AL shortstops with 120 wRC+. Peralta put up a career-high 5.2 WAR in an outstanding season.

C.J. Wilson is the clear ace of the Rangers staff. Wilson will hit free agency this season, and it’s been speculated that they’re likely to lose him to another team. Wilson’s 3.29 SIERA was 10th in the AL. He’ll be followed by Derek Holland, Colby Lewis, and Matt Harrison. Holland had something of a breakout this year, putting up 3.6 WAR. He was behind only Neftali Feliz among the Rangers’ top pitching prospects in 2009 before joining the big club, and may be beginning to realize some of that potential. Harrison also had a pretty big breakout campaign, putting up 4.2 WAR in 30 starts after never topping 0.7 in his previous three seasons in the majors. Harrison is one of two Rangers who successfully moved from the bullpen to the rotation this season, as Alexi Ogando’s success as a starter has been a big storyline for this team. Ogando has been moved back to the bullpen for the playoff. He performed admirably throughout the Rangers’ series against the Rays, culminating in a spotless eighth inning of Game 4 setting up Neftali Feliz for the series ending save. Ogando and Harrison’s success may pave the way for Feliz to move to the rotation next season, but the Rangers won’t begin to discuss that decision in earnest until the end of their playoff run.

Across the diamond, Justin Verlander put together one of the best seasons from any pitcher in recent memory. His last start of the season gave him a shot at being the first 25 game winner since Bob Welch in 1990. Not much else needs to be said about the Triple Crown winner, other than that the Tigers will pitch him as many times as they possibly can in this series and every time they do he will almost certainly give them a chance to win. Verlander will be followed in the rotation by Rick Porcello, as the Tigers used both Doug Fister and Max Scherzer in their Game 5 victory. Porcello and Scherzer are both young guys with big stuff, but who haven’t seen the results to match their potential yet. Both put up 2.7 WAR this season, Fister may end up being the most important acquisition by any team at this year’s trade deadline, although Hunter Pence will certainly give him a run for his money. Fister has produced 5,6 WAR this season, including 2.4 and a 2.63 SIERA in 70.1 innings with Detroit. These starters will hand the ball to the Tigers’ impressive bullpen, led by Jose “Papa Grande” Valverde. Valverde certainly has a tendency to make the ninth inning a bit of an adventure, but he’s 51-for-51 in save opportunities this season after closing out the ALDS in New York.

Home field advantage, which the Rangers clinched over the Tigers on the final day of the season, could be a huge deciding factor in this series. In the bandbox in Arlington, the Rangers’ potent office could take over games and simply out-mash the Tigers. However, in the expansive Comerica Park, the Tigers’ pitching will have a decided advantage. I think the Tigers will win at least two of their three home games, and I will be very surprised if Justin Verlander doesn’t give his team a fairly good chance to win at least one of the games in Arlington. If the Rangers can take the other three games in Arlington, that would likely set up a Verlander vs. Wilson Game 7 in Texas for all the marbles. In a deciding game, with the team on his back, it’s hard to bet against the best pitcher in the American League, so I’m going to take the Tigers to advance in what should be a thoroughly entertaining series.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The AL MVP Conversation

The American League MVP race this year is a little more complicated than the competition for the prize on the Senior Circuit. Using the same framework as with the NL to evaluate which players are or are not deserving candidates for the award, I’ll run through the top contenders and give you my pick for the best player in the AL this season.

Looking at the AL WAR leaderboard, the first obvious observation is that each of the top three producers in the AL are currently enjoying cold drinks and tee times. For Jose Bautista, missing the playoffs was no surprise. For Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, the realization that they wouldn’t be playing October baseball came at the end of the Red Sox September meltdown that has been well-documented elsewhere. At 9.4 WAR, Ellsbury was the biggest producer in the league by a full win. He certainly can’t be blamed for the team’s collapse; his September wRC+ of 176 was his second best of any month in 2011.

Ellsbury and Pedroia are in the mold of candidates I prefer, as they provide value on both sides of the ball. Both play premium defensive positions, play well above-average defense at those positions, and are offensive forces. Though Pedroia’s 2011 was better than his 2008 MVP campaign, Ellsbury was the best player on the Red Sox this season.

As recently as the All-Star break, Bautista would’ve been my choice for the MVP. However, he’s taken a step back during the second half, and while he’s still the best hitter in the AL, the gap between Bautista and the rest of the pack closed somewhat. Since he provides very little value on defense and plays for a team well outside the playoff picture, I’m gonna say this isn’t Bautista’s year.

After Pedroia, a trio of playoff bats populate the league’s WAR leaders. Ian Kinsler’s impressive 7.7 WAR paced the Rangers to a division title, as he put together one of the quietest 30/30 seasons in the history of baseball. Kinsler’s UZR of 15.0 may be somewhat suspect (as all single-year UZR numbers are), especially considering his 2010 mark of only 2.1. My guess is that his true defensive value is somewhere in between. As a second baseman with power and speed, that’s incredibly valuable.

Miguel Cabrera’s 7.3 WAR led the Tigers to the playoffs, and his 177 wRC+ was second only to Bautista’s. Cabrera’s always had prodigious power, but over the past two years he’s done a great job pairing that power with patience. After large increases in his walk rate in both 2010 and this season, Cabrera’s .448 OBP led the American League, which may come as a pretty big surprise to anyone who has followed his career up to this point. However, Cabrera plays bad defense at a position where the expected levels of offensive output are incredibly high. Though he’s one of the most impressive offensive forces in the league, a one-dimensional player isn’t going to be my MVP in a year with as many two-way contributors as this season.

The final position player I’ll discuss is Curtis Granderson. Granderson had a breakout year with the bat, producing the best power output of his career while bumping his walk rate to a career high as well. Granderson’s defense in centerfield graded out five runs below average, but his three-year average UZR is exactly league-average, so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and call him a scratch defender. Granderson’s 146 wRC+ is second only to Ellsbury among AL players at premium defensive positions, and his 41 homers were second in the league.

It’s very rare that I see a pitcher as an MVP contender. When you only play in one out of every five of your team’s games, it’s difficult to have the kind of impact that everyday players can produce. However, Justin Verlander has spent all of 2011 forcing the issue. Verlander led the league with 250 strikeouts in 251 innings, putting up 7 WAR in the process. Verlander was the perfect combination of lucky and good. Along with his league-leading strikeout total, Verlander had a top-10 walk rate, and his 2.84 SIERA led the league. In addition, his .236 BABIP and 80.3% strand rate padded his numbers, creating a perfect storm of ridiculous awesomeness. Living in Ann Arbor, it’s tough not to hop on the “Verlander for MVP” bandwagon.

Unfortunately for the large majority of my peers at the University of Michigan, I’m going to go with the numbers and pick Jacoby Ellsbury as the deserving recipient of the AL MVP. Although the Red Sox missed out on the postseason, Ellsbury produced all year, and even more so when it counted. He put up some incredible numbers down the stretch, during the team’s most important games of the season, and although the team’s pitching fell apart, he provided a ton of value that really should have led the team to a playoff berth. Ellsbury produced a full win more than any other AL player, and nearly two full wins more than any player participating in the postseason. He played world-class defense at a premium defensive position, while putting up incredible offensive numbers across the board. Though Boston won’t have a shot at a championship this year, their centerfielder was good enough that I believe he should take home some hardware anyway.

I unfortunately got somewhat swamped at the beginning of the playoffs, and wasn't able to put together a playoff preview. When the divisional series are completed, I'll take a closer look at the championship series for both leagues. For what it's worth, I would've picked the Rays, Tigers, Brewers, and Phillies to advance to the ALCS and NLCS.