After spending the better part of the past decade lost in the baseball wilderness, the Kansas City Royals and Cleveland Indians have finally found a way out. The two ball clubs sit 2nd and 3rd respectively in the AL Central and they’ve both been playing well of late, posting identical 7-3 records in their past 10 games.
Kansas City has been getting it done on the mound thanks in large part to a rebuilt starting staff that currently ranks 5th in baseball in ERA. New additions like Jeremy Guthrie, Ervin Santana, and James Shields have quickly made Royals fans forget the days when Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar were the best the franchise had to offer. A 17-11 start has only furthered the thought that the Royals might end their playoff drought, closing the door on a nightmare that began all the way back in 1986.
Cleveland is also enjoying a baseball renaissance of sorts, but they are getting the job done in a whole different way. The Indians have used their bats to rebound from last year’s 94-loss disaster, leading the American League with 40 homers already. Their own offseason acquisitions, which included the likes of Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds, are hitting balls out of the park at such great frequency that fans in the outfield must be alert at all times. New manager Terry Francona has Cleveland playing loose, winning 7 of their last 8.
Back in 2010 a pair of big, young, intimidating, and most of all hard-throwing aces were given the honor of starting the All-Star game thanks in part to their superb pitching. On the American League side of things they elected to start David Price, who was an impressive 12-4 with a 2.42 ERA at the time. The National League opted to go with Ubaldo Jimenez, a towering right-hander who had been the talk of baseball during the first half because of his gaudy 15-1 record and 2.20 ERA. Both pitchers would make the most of their chance to start the All-Star game, throwing a pair of shutout innings apiece. Both of these aces also experienced another first at the end of the year, landing in the top 3 of the AL and NL Cy Young vote respectively.
“I’m really excited,” Francona said on the air as an ESPN analyst, his job for the past season. “People who don’t know me may have thought I was looking for something different.” – Terry Francona, on accepting the job to be the manager of the Cleveland Indians
“We have better talent than our record shows.”– Indians GM Chris Antonetti, a couple of days before hiring Terry Francona
Optimism is abuzz in Cleveland as we approach the reporting of pitchers and catchers, thanks to a flurry of offseason activity that brought new manager Terry Francona, who should be a perfect fit. GM Chris Antonetti was a busy bee this offseason, bringing in Nick Swisher, Mark Reynolds, Drew Stubbs, Trevor Bauer, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and Jason Giambi among others to beef up the roster to make a potential playoff push. And you know what? I think they have quite a few reasons to be optimistic:
A month or so ago I wrote about some of the discrepancies I was seeing between the listed WAR (Wins Above Replacement) totals of some players, in that particular instance Brett Lawrie, with their actual play on the field. To reduce the piece down to it’s simplest form, I made the claim that Baseball-Reference.com’s WAR was overcompensating for Lawrie’s defense and inaccurately rating him as the best player in the American League. An in-season adjustment has been made to the bWAR formula to attempt to correct this issue, and Lawrie has since fallen to 9th overall in the American League at 3.2 WAR, which is more accurate but still lacking in truth for a player who has been around league-average at the plate (OPS+ of 97 exactly at the league average). Lawrie isn’t the only player with a questionable WAR and will I was perusing Baseball-Reference.com I noticed another inconsistency that seemed a little bit severe: Brendan Ryan and his 2.7 WAR ranking him as the 19th best player in the American League. This also puts him above every single other shortstop, including the likes of Asdrubal Cabrera, Elvis Andrus, Derek Jeter, and Alcides Escobar. And that’s just a sample of some of the American League players. Again this post isn’t intended to pick on Brendan Ryan, who is a very, very excellent defender, nor is it designed to pick on Baseball-Reference.com (which is my favorite baseball website, by the way). It is intended to point out some inconsistencies in WAR and an attempt to make the statistical world a safer, more accurate place.
Before the 2012 season, nearly every baseball analyst, including yours truly, picked the Detroit Tigers to absolutely dominate what looked to be a weak division. Well half of that prediction has come true thus far, because the AL Central has indeed been the weakest division in baseball. In fact its been so bad its time to dust off the old nickname, the Comedy Central. Currently the slumping White Sox hold a slim half game lead over the win-a-game-lose-a-game Indians, and a 2.5 game lead over the struggling Tigers. If baseball abolished divisions and moved all teams into one league, no AL Central team would rank among the top 5 in the American League. So does anyone really want to win this thing? Let’s take a look to see which team has the best chance, starting with those White Sox.
Exactly 10 years ago the shortstop position was going through a golden age. Five different shortstops, A-Rod, Jeter, Garciaparra, Tejada, and Vizquel, would all be named to the AL All-Star team. One of those players, Miguel Tejada, would take the award over another, Alex Rodriguez. The position was one of incredible depth, and the common notion of the era was that it took a good shortstop to win the World Series. 10 years later, there are once again All-Star caliber shortstops popping up in cities everywhere, playing great defense, hitting for average, and hitting for power. The position has been on fire this season, with many players posting elite numbers currently. Let’s take a look at a few.
Tulowitzki has held the unofficial title of best shortstop alive for the past 3 seasons running. In the National League, he has monopolized the awards circuit, winning the past 2 Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers. Tulo is once again off to a solid start, hitting .295/.390/.500, while drawing walks in a career-best 15% of his at-bats. Tulowitzki also has the ability to drive the ball like few others at short can, blasting a position-leading 89 homers over the past 3 seasons. The defensive metrics are also very pro-Tulo, ranking him near the top of almost everyone. Shortstops with this combination of power, average, and defense are absurdly rare, and Colorado was wise to lock him up for the next decade.
The shortstop currently hitting the best in all of baseball is one of the oldest at the position. Jeter is a rare bird at age-37, providing offensive production that has never been seen before at his age. His currently batting line: .366/.395/.610 with 2 homers and 4 doubles. Jeter has shown more pop in his bat during the first 2 weeks of 2012, than at any point in the last 2 seasons, and he’s doing this out of the leadoff spot. His production over the years is legendary, as he has racked up 7 top-10 MVP finishes, 5 Gold Gloves, 4 Silver Sluggers, and 12 All-Star appearances. He was one of the 3 best shortstops in the league a decade ago, and has maintained his skills in a way that none of the other players could. Jeter is a surefire, 1st ballot Hall of Famer with 5 World Series rings as well, more than any other current player outside of his teammate Mariano Rivera.
From shortstop past to shortstop future, Castro is a precocious 22-year-old, who has a seemingly endless supply of talent. The Cubbie is crushing opposing pitchers this year, to the tune of a .359/.395/.436 slash. He is also a demon on the base paths; ranking 2nd in baseball in steals with 6 without being caught. He is a career .306 hitter in around 1200 career at-bats, which is elite for a shortstop. He needs to work on his ability to draw walks and his defense however. He is a bit sloppy in the field leading the NL already in 2012, after leading the league a year ago. But he has excellent range and quickness, which allows him to cover a large area. As he cuts his errors down with experience look for Gold Gloves in his future.
The Washington Nationals’ shortstop came into spring fighting for his position, after an abysmal 2011 that saw his numbers drop across the board. Desmond, like the rest of the list, is tearing the cover off the ball so far in 2012. He’s hitting .354/.380/.479, and his defense is looking much improved. His range has never been in question, as he has ranked in the top-5 in the league each year in assists, but he has been error prone in the past. At age-26, he seems to have finally calmed down in the field, and is making both the routine plays and the spectacular ones. If Desmond continues to play at a high level the Nationals will be for real this year.
At age-33, Rollins is now one of the more senior shortstops in baseball. He has struggled with injury the past couple of seasons, but is still capable of putting up a huge year. Rollins is a 3-time Gold Glove winner, a former MVP, and a World Series winner. So far in the young season he’s hitting .351/.368/.378 with 2 steals. His power may be drying up, seeing that he only has 2 extra-base hits, but in the Phillies current lineup, Rollins has very little protection, so pitchers are staying away from the middle of the plate. When Utley and Howard return, expect an uptick in his production.
Asdrubal had his coming out party in 2011, crushing the ball to the tune of a .273/.332/.460 slash with 25 homers. He was named to his first All-Star team, and took home the Silver Slugger award for his efforts. Cabrera has power to all fields, is an excellent gap hitter, and has the ability to successfully steal bases. Much of Cabrera’s value also lies in his fantastic range in the field. He can frequently be seen making some of the flashiest plays in baseball, diving, flipping the ball behind his back, and more. At age-26 he is just entering his prime and should be an All-Star for years to come. Cabrera has had a good start to his 2012 campaign, hitting .282/.333/.513 with 2 homers and 3 doubles.
JJ Hardy was finally able to stay on the field in 2011, hitting a massive 30 homers and 27 doubles. Hardy has been cursed with the injury bug for most of his career, after beginning it with such promise. During 2007 and 2008 he hit a combined 50 homers and 61 doubles for the Brewers, making 1 All-Star team. Hardy has struggled out of the gate this year, but should be expected to top 25 homers and hit around .265 again, which are excellent numbers up the middle. Hardy is also an excellent defender with great instincts. His throwing arm is strong, and he is excellent on relays and balls hit in the hole. If the Orioles could put together a decent team, Hardy would probably be a lead competitor to win the Gold Glove award.
There are plenty of other young, talented shortstops on their way up as well. Down in Miami they have Jose Reyes, a premier offensive talent with blazing speed. The Dodgers speedster Dee Gordon is fun to watch and leads the National League in steals with 7 in 10 games. Zach Cozart is only 26 and has been hitting the ball hard every time at-bat for Cincinnati. Rafael Furcal may be in the midst of a renaissance season in St. Louis, hitting .292 and swiping 2 bags already after years of injury sapped his speed. And Elvis Andrus is still just 23 and has already swiped 30+ bases in 3 seasons. Baseball is always better when the shortstop position is deep, and this may be one of the most talented groups of players since the Holy Grail a decade ago.