But you know ... maybe it wasn't such a crazy idea to begin with, although I'll still point out that shifts explain only a small percentage in the drop in the offense. Consider:
Chris is correct. The NBA used to have a rule banning zone defense. I assume this was done for two reasons: (1) So your big shot-blocker couldn't just stand in the key and protect the rim; (2) So you couldn't double-team away from the ball, keeping the ball out of the hands of the superstar players. The NBA got rid of that version of illegal defense in 2001 but still has the defensive three-second rule, in which a player on the defensive team cannot spend more than three seconds in the lane without actively guarding an opponent. This helps keep the lane open, in particular helping point guards who have the ability to drive the lane and score or pass. (I'm told the NBA has become a point-guard oriented league these days, between their ability to drive the lane and kick out to 3-point shooters.)
@dschoenfield "Could you imagine a rule in the NFL eliminating the blitz?" no but NBA does have rules on illegal defense. Not unprecedented.— Chris Coxen (@coxen00) January 26, 2015
Anyway, I still wouldn't like a ban on shifts but there is some precedent for limiting defensive alignments, at least in basketball.
Related, Russell Carleton of Baseball Prospectus had an interesting piece titled, "Why Saber-Savvy Teams May Might Want a Shift Ban." In the piece, Russell cites two tweets from Yahoo's Jeff Passan, who wrote that two sabermetrically inclined general managers told him they were in favor of a ban. "Both essentially said same thing," Jeff tweeted. "The game is better when the casual fans gets the product they want. Big concern baseball isn't delivering."
The thing about the infield shift is that while it is innovative, easy to implement, and saves a few runs over the course of a season, it’s rather easy to spot what the early adopters are doing and copy it. That’s the innovator’s curse. You take the risk and put all the hard work in to come up with something new and people just copy it if it works. When shifts were done by a couple of teams, they were a cute novelty. Now everyone does it and would be fools not to do it. There’s no more relative advantage to shifting any more when everyone else is doing and it makes no sense for an individual team to go back to the old 2-and-2-no-matter-what system. The shift is now just part of the landscape.
Because shifts don't have a major impact on run scoring, I don't think we'll see a rule implemented. If the sport wants more offense, it still gets back to cutting down on the strikeout rates. Still, as Russell concludes, "The shift might be a bad scapegoat for declining offense, but it’s also a cautionary tale in unintended consequences. Sometimes when you press a button, it changes all of the other buttons."
After the San Francisco Giants won the World Series, I wrote a post titled "Baseball's imperfect dynasty." Within that post, I asked readers if they considered the Giants a dynasty and 84 percent said yes.
So if the Giants are a dynasty, where do they rank among baseball's other dynasties? They became just the ninth team to win three World Series in a five-year span. Many of baseball's greatest franchises never accomplished that feat: The Big Red Machine of Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench and Pete Rose won back-to-back titles but not three in five years; the great Orioles teams of the late '60s and early '70s won in 1966 and 1970 but lost World Series in 1969 and 1971; the Sandy Koufax-Don Drysdale Dodgers won two titles in the '60s (and another in 1959, before Koufax became KOUFAX); the Braves of the '90s and early 2000s appeared in 14 consecutive postseasons but won just one World Series. Those teams certainly qualify as dynasties in my book, but we'll leave them to another discussion.
Let's compare the Giants to the other eight three-in-five dynasties. The table below lists each franchise's overall record during that five-year span, World Series titles, their place in the standings compared to all teams in the majors over those five years, their postseason record, cumulative pitching and position player WAR over five years via FanGraphs (with overall MLB rank in parenthesis) and wRC+, an offense-only measure that is park-adjusted.
Notice how these dynasties tend to be built more around the position players than the pitchers. Even the Giants, regarded as a team with a strong pitching staff, rank only 19th in pitching WAR in the majors over these past five years. That total is dragged down a bit by a poor 2013 season when the team finished under .500, but while the 2010 champions were built around a stellar rotation, the Giants have had a solid offense and excellent defense through the years, with some of that offense masked due to playing in a pitcher-friendly AT&T Park.
The Giants are 20 wins behind the best team in baseball over the past five seasons (the Yankees have the most wins) and certainly have the worst winning percentage by a large margin, but note that they aren't the only dynasty not to have the most wins. The 1996-2000 Yankees were 14 wins behind the Braves and the 1971-75 A's were three wins behind the Reds. Even the 1949-53 Yankees were just three wins ahead of the Brooklyn Dodgers. Yes, the Giants' overall winning percentage is well behind the others', but we're also in an age of parity. It's much more difficult to win 100 games than it was even in the late '90s.
Anyway, let's take a quick look at each dynasty and then we'll rank them at the end.
Potential Hall of Famers: Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner
Other key players: Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, Pablo Sandoval, Hunter Pence, Brandon Crawford
Best player: Posey (23.3 WAR)
Best pitcher: Bumgarner (15.0 WAR)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: Six position players, zero pitchers
Manager: Bruce Bochy
The most impressive thing about the Giants is their postseason record of 34-14 -- that's a 115-win pace over 162 games. And they've done it with a significant amount of roster turnover through the years. Really, only Posey, Bumgarner, Sandoval and some of the relievers were key contributors on all three teams.
The postseason grind of modern baseball works two ways: You have to win more series but you also can benefit from playing a weaker opponent if playoff upsets occur. That's certainly been the case with the Giants in the World Series, as they defeated the 2010 Rangers (90-72), 2012 Tigers (88-74) and 2014 Royals (89-73). Hey, you can only play the hand you're dealt.
The secret weapon for the Giants in the postseason has been their bullpen, which has gone 13-2 with a 2.42 ERA. You may remember Bumgarner's Game 7 performance a couple months ago.
Hall of Famers: Wade Boggs
Potential Hall of Famers: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Tim Raines
Other key players: David Cone, Bernie Williams, Paul O'Neill, Tino Martinez, Orlando Hernandez, Jorge Posada, Scott Brosius
Best player: Jeter (28.3 WAR), Williams (25.3)
Best pitcher: Pettitte (22.3 WAR), Cone (17.7), Rivera (17.5)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: 10 position players, five pitchers
Manager: Joe Torre
Like the Giants, the Yankees had a remarkable postseason winning percentage in their five years -- a 122-win pace over 162 games. The only postseason series they lost was to the Indians in the 1997 Division Series.
The Yankees ranked third in pitching and sixth in position players. Some of the rotation changed -- Jimmy Key was replaced by David Wells in 1997 and then Clemens replaced Wells in 1999; El Duque joined in 1998 -- but the Yankees always had solid pitching in an era when few teams did. Jeter, Williams, O'Neill and Martinez were the stalwarts in the offense. The Yankees didn't win a single MVP or Cy Young Award in these five years, a testament to the depth of the entire roster.
Hall of Famers: Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers
Other key players: Vida Blue, Sal Bando, Joe Rudi, Bert Campaneris, Ken Holtzman, Gene Tenace, Bill North
Best player: Jackson (32.2 WAR), Bando (27.0), Campaneris (21.7)
Best pitcher: Blue (18.5), Hunter (17.0)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: 15 position players, three pitchers
Manager: Dick Williams (1971-73), Alvin Dark (1974-75)
The A's won five straight division titles and went 4-0 in ultimate games in the 1972 and '73 ALCS and World Series. Like the Giants, they played in a pitcher-friendly park that helped mask that this was really a team built around its offense more than its pitching staff.
Reggie won the 1973 MVP award but in many ways the hard-nosed Bando was the heart and soul of this team. He's not remembered much these days but he was a borderline Hall of Famer and finished second, fourth and third in the MVP voting in '71, '73 and '74.
The Oakland dynasty could have rolled on even longer if Charlie Finley hadn't let the team break up. Hunter signed with the Yankees as a free agent after 1974, Reggie was traded to the Orioles in 1976 and then Bando, Rudi, Tenace and Campaneris all left as free agents after 1976. Blue was the last star to leave, traded to the Giants in 1978.
Hall of Famers: Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford
Other key players: Roger Maris, Elston Howard, Hank Bauer, Bill Skowron, Bob Turley, Ralph Terry, Bobby Richardson
Best player: Mantle (38.0 WAR)
Best pitcher: Ford (17.8)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: Eight position players, one pitcher
Manager: Casey Stengel (1958-60), Ralph Houk (1961-62)
The Yankees took advantage of the lack of a consistent rival in this time. The powerful Indians teams of the '50s had faded, the Dodgers were between the Brooklyn Bums and Koufax/Drysdale era, the Mays/Marichal/McCovey Giants were just getting going in 1962 and the White Sox (1959 AL pennant winners) couldn't quite get past the Yankees after that. The Milwaukee Braves, who had faced the Yankees in the 1957 and '58 World Series should have been the NL's dominant team in these years but were always messing things up. The Yankees also took advantage of the 1961 expansion to win 109 games.
So even though Ford was the only pitcher to accumulate even 10.0 WAR over these five years, the Yankees won four pennants in five years and it could have been four World Series titles instead of three if not for Bill Mazeroski's Game 7 home run in 1960. Maris won MVP awards in 1960 and '61, although Mantle was clearly the team's superstar (he was the 1962 MVP and Howard won in 1963).
Hall of Famers: Yogi Berra, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Mize
Other key players: Vic Raschi, Eddie Lopat, Allie Reynolds, Gene Woodling, Hank Bauer, Billy Martin
Best player: Berra (23.2 WAR), Rizzuto (22.4)
Best pitcher: Lopat (15.1),
Seasons with 5+ WAR: Seven position players, zero pitchers
Manager: Casey Stengel
The only team to win five World Series titles in a row, the Yankees did it with lots of depth more than anything and a lot of platooning and matching up from Stengel, who took over in 1949 after a third-place finish in 1948. DiMaggio largely battled injuries in 1949 and 1951 and then retired. Mantle joined the team in 1951 and became a star in 1952 but not a huge star until 1954 or 1955. Rizzuto and Yogi won MVP awards in 1950 and '51.
The pitching was solid if unspectacular with junk-throwing lefty Lopat leading the staff in WAR over these five years. Raschi won 21 games each year from 1949 to 1951 while Reynolds was Casey's go-to big-game starter in the World Series, starting Game 1 in 1949, 1951, 1952 and 1953.
Hall of Famers: Stan Musial, Enos Slaughter, Red Schoendienst
Other key players: Walker Cooper, Mort Cooper, Marty Marion, Whitey Kurowski, Max Lanier, Harry Brecheen
Best player: Musial (32.1 WAR), Marion (20.6)
Best pitcher: Mort Cooper (20.2), Brecheen (15.9)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: Seven position players, six pitchers
Manager: Billy Southworth
This team gets forgotten because much of its success came during the war years, but they won the World Series in 1942, when most players were still in the majors instead of the military, and then won again in 1946, when everyone had returned.
As you can see from the table, they had great balance between pitching and position players. Marion was a superb shortstop and the 1944 MVP, who actually drew some very good Hall of Fame support when he was on the ballot. The Cooper brothers were a terrific battery and Mort was the 1942 MVP when he went 22-7 with a 1.78 ERA and 10 shutouts. Musial, of course, was the big star and he missed just the 1945 season. Slaughter missed 1943-45. That does make it more difficult to evaluate this team but it was a legitimate powerhouse, war or no war.
Hall of Famers: Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Red Ruffing, Tony Lazzeri, Joe Gordon, Lefty Gomez
Other key players: Red Rolfe, George Selkirk, Frank Crosetti, Charlie Keller, Tommy Henrich, Monte Pearson
Best player: Gehrig (29.5 WAR), DiMaggio (26.3), Dickey (24.3)
Best pitcher: Ruffing (23.8), Gomez (22.6)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: 13 position players, three pitchers
Manager: Joe McCarthy
No team had a four-year run like the Yankees from 1936 to 1939 and many consider the 1939 club that went 106-45 the greatest team in major league history. Remarkably, they won 106 games even though that was the year Lou Gehrig got sick. Imagine if he'd still been productive. They crushed their opposition in the World Series, going 16-3, and were loaded with big stars and Hall of Famers.
They were so strong that they replaced Hall of Famer Lazzeri at second base in 1938 with another Hall of Famer in Gordon. DiMaggio joined the club in 1936 and from 1936-39 hit .341 while averaging 34 home runs and 140 RBIs. Gehrig was the 1936 MVP when he hit .354 with 49 home runs. Dickey hit .326 from 1936-39.
While the more flamboyant and quotable Gomez probably got more attention, Ruffing was the staff ace, winning 20 games all four of the World Series seasons. Pearson came over in 1936 and would won all four his World Series starts (one per Series), allowing a total of five runs in 35.2 innings.
1914-18 Red Sox
Hall of Famers: Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, Harry Hooper
Other key players: Carl Mays, Ernie Shore, Rube Foster, Dutch Leonard, Duffy Lewis, Larry Gardner, Everett Scott
Best player: Hooper (18.6 WAR)
Best pitcher: Leonard (23.1), Ruth (20.0)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: Three position players, seven pitchers
Manager: Bill Carrigan (1914-16), Jack Barry (1917), Ed Barrow (1918)
Yes, a Babe Ruth team makes our list -- but not the Ruth-led Yankees. This team featured a great rotation -- Ruth joined it in 1915 -- and won World Series in 1915, 1916 and 1918 while finishing in second place in 1914 and 1917. Speaker was the team's best player but he was traded to Cleveland after the 1915 season in a contract dispute -- club president Joe Lannin wanted to cut Speaker's salary from $18,000 to $9,000 because his batting average had declined three seasons in a row. Speaker held out and was traded. Boston won the World Series anyway.
The strength of this team was arguably its defense. Hooper is a marginal Hall of Famer, a decent hitter but known as a great outfielder. Speaker was one of the great center fielders in the game's history. Shortstop Scott probably would have won Gold Gloves had they had them back then.
And then there was Ruth. He won 18 games in 1915, 23 in 1916 while leading the AL in ERA and then 24 in 1917 while throwing 35 complete games. In 1918, he split his time between pitching and hitting, leading the AL with 11 home runs and a .555 slugging percentage and going 13-7 on the mound.
Hall of Famers: Eddie Collins, Home Run Baker, Eddie Plank, Chief Bender
Other key players: Stuffy McInnis, Jack Barry, Rube Oldring, Amos Strunk, Jack Coombs, Danny Murphy
Best player: Collins (43.8), Baker (36.2)
Best pitcher: Bender (21.5), Plank (17.6)
Seasons with 5+ WAR: 12 position players, four pitchers
Manager: Connie Mack
The Athletics won titles in 1910, 1911 and 1913 before getting upset in the 1914 World Series by the Miracle Boston Braves. Mack, upset by the sweep and perhaps believing his team didn't give its all (some have suggested they possibly threw the Series), broke up his team, selling off most of his stars and the A's went 43-109 in 1915.
Anyway, this was certainly a great team, an offensive powerhouse led by Collins, one of the game's great early starts, and Baker, a slugging third baseman. The infield of McInnis, Collins, Barry and Baker was so impressive it earned the nickname "The $100,00 infield." Yes, times have changed.
Bender was Mack's ace (he started Game 1 of the World Series all four years), although Plank, who won 326 games, beat him into the Hall of Fame.
How to rank these nine dynasties? I'd go like this:
1. 1949-1953 Yankees -- Hey, five titles is five titles.
2. 1996-2000 Yankees -- Dominant postseason winning percentage, star power, hitting and pitching balance.
3. 1935-1939 Yankees -- Statistically, better than the 1949-53 teams.
4. 1910-1914 A's -- If only Mack hadn't broken them up.
5. 1971-1975 A's -- Only team with three straight titles in 1960s, '70s or '80s.
6. 1942-1946 Cardinals -- History's most underrated dynasty.
7. 2010-2014 Giants -- Unbeatable in the postseason.
8. 1958-1962 Yankees -- Lack of pitching depth downgrades them.
9. 1914-1918 Red Sox -- Let's make a time machine and go watch Ruth pitch.
Mesoraco had been a highly rated prospect, although he struggled in his first full season in 2013. He broke out in 2014, hitting .273/.359/.534 with 25 home runs, leading all catchers in home runs and slugging percentage. He wasn't just taking advantage of Great American Ballpark either, as 11 of his 25 home runs came on the road and he posted nearly identical OPS splits (.896 at home, .890 on the road). Using the ballpark-adjusted wRC+ (weighted runs created), Mesoraco ranked as the best-hitting catcher in the majors with a 147 wRC+, just ahead of Buster Posey and Russell Martin.
Is there anything in the numbers that says fluke season? Not that I can see. He hit right-handers (a big improvement from 2013) and left-handers nearly equally as well. Among players with at least 250 plate appearances, he did rank seventh in the majors in his percentage of home runs per fly ball. Is the power legit or did he luck into a few extra home runs? Mesoraco's average home run distance of 390 feet isn't anything special but according to the ESPN Home Run Tracker, his total of "just enough" home runs was five, which is way below the league leaders in that category.
Mesoraco didn't have many "just enoughs" because nearly every home run he hit was pulled -- he hit one homer to center field; the other 24 went to left or left-center, including 14 to the "far left," making him one of the most extreme dead pull hitters in the majors. Mesoraco wasn't shifted much in 2014, but I suspect that will change in 2015, although that shouldn't affect his power output.
That doesn't answer the question of whether it was a fluke season. I thought it would be instructive to see how many catchers even had a year like Mesoraco, so I found all catchers with at least 400 plate appearances since 1969 who posted a wRC+ of 140 or higher (via FanGraphs). We get a list of 51 seasons from 29 catchers. Ten of those 29 posted more than one 140 wRC+ season, led by Mike Piazza's seven. Of the other 19 catchers, I'd say five could be classified as flukes:
Dick Dietz, 1970 Giants: .300/.426/.515, 152 RC+. It wasn't a completely fluke season, as Dietz posted a 132 wRC+ in 1971, although his average fell from .300 to .252. Dietz's story gets even more interesting. Even though he was one of the best-hitting catchers in the majors and even though the Giants had won the NL West in 1971, the Giants placed him on waivers three days before the start of the 1972 season. Why? Dietz was the Giants' player rep and the players had gone on strike during spring training, delaying the start of the season. The Dodgers picked up Dietz, he broke his wrist and then played well in a part-time role with the Braves in 1973 (.474 OBP in 191 PAs), but the Braves cut him the next spring and nobody picked him up. Bruce Markusen has the story of the possible blackballing of Dietz here.
Rick Wilkins, 1993 Cubs: .303/.376/.561, 144 wRC+. A stone-cold fluke. Hit 30 home runs but never posted a 100 wRC+ the rest of his career.
Paul Lo Duca, 2001 Dodgers: .320/.374/.543, 140 wRC+. A lot of silly things happened around this time. Lo Duca's season was one of those as he hit 25 home runs, 12 more than he hit in any other season. Later cited in the Mitchell report as a user of steroids and human growth hormone.
Alex Avila, 2011 Tigers: .295/.389/.506, 140 wRC+. Driven by a .366 BABIP, he hasn't come close to hitting like this again as his BABIP normalized and his strikeout rates increased.
Carlos Ruiz, 2012 Phillies: .325/.394/.540, 152 wRC+. The second-best mark of his career is a 127 wRC+ the season before, but he added more power in 2012 to his on-base skills. After the season, he tested positive for amphetamines and was suspended 25 games for 2013.
I don't believe Mesoraco is another Wilkins or Avila, but it's also likely he won't produce the same triple-slash line again (in part, because he may get an extra 100 PAs or so, which could create some fatigue). I'm guessing he'll have to make some adjustments as pitchers change their patterns against him. He hit .313/.460/.687 on inside pitches as opposed to .191/.271/.312 on pitches on the outer third or off the plate.
As for the contract, it should be a good deal for the Reds. Mesoraco is entering his age-27 season so the Reds will get him through his prime years and if he hits anything like he did in 2014, he's going to be a bargain the last couple of seasons of the deal.
Reds fans may have wanted to see a deal for Johnny Cueto, but they should happy about this one.
Anyway, in honor of the impending storm, I present the all-Snowmageddon 2015 team:
C: Jack Blizzard. Played nine games for Abilene and Plainville in the West Texas-New Mexico League in 1954. Went 0-for-11. The starting catcher for Plainville was Donald Stokes, who hit .405, which was a drop from the .426 he hit the season before.
UPDATE: It turns out Blizzard was a pitcher in his nine games, not a catcher. I misread "Class C" as catcher. Plus, he's the only minor leaguer I used, so our new catcher ... Jeff Datz, caught six games for the Tigers in 1989. Nickname: Polar Bear. Works for me.
1B: J.T Snow. Of course.
2B: Rodney Scott. Nickname: Cool Breeze. More like Cold Breeze. Hit .236 in his career, although he did lead the National League in triples with the Expos in 1980.
3B: David Freese. Close enough. (Although a reader has now suggested Ron Cey ... The Penguin. Good one.)
SS: Roy "Slippery" Ellam. He had a brief major league career but played in the minors until he was 44. He's part of the famous T206 card set.
LF: Gerald "Ice" Williams. Don't know where the nickname came from, but I do remember this brawl with Pedro Martinez.
CF: Fred "Snow" Snodgrass. Best known for dropping a fly ball in Game 8 (there had been a tie) of the 1912 World Series, helping the Red Sox score two runs in the bottom of the 10th to beat the Giants.
RF: Chili Davis. He ranks 97th all time in total bases. Kind of impressive. And 61st in walks.
DH: Ken "Digger" Phelps. One my all-time favorites. Traded for Jay Buhner.
P: Ice Box Chamberlain. Won 32 games for St. Louis of the American Association in 1889 and ranked first in the league with 9.4 WAR. Not that they used WAR back then.
P: Storm Davis. Won 113 games, including a career-best 19 for the 1989 A's. Nobody called him George.
P: Dave Frost. Started Game 2 of the 1979 ALCS for the Angels in his first full season in the majors but hurt his elbow the next season.
P: Shovel Hodge. He went 14-15 over three seasons with the White Sox, 1920 to 1922. His given name was Clarence, but according to a 1949 article in the The Nashville Tennessean "he gained the nickname because of his tremendous height and breadth (he weighed 250 pounds) and his general resemblance to a steam shovel." Well, OK...
P: George Winter. A college teammate of Eddie Plank at Gettysburg College, Winter won 83 games in the majors. A member of the 1903 Red Sox, the first World Series champions, Winter didn't pitch in the series but worked as a ticket taker, according to BaseballLibrary.com.
RP: David Weathers. I never would have guessed this, but he's 19th all time in games pitched.
Manager: Whitey Herzog.
To my knowledge, nobody has ever attempted to rank or analyze general managers on a historical level. As Mark and Dan write, "Because of the disparity in resources and opportunities available among the various front offices over the years, and the evolving nature of the job itself, evaluating general managers is largely a subjective exercise."
But a fun one. They're up to No. 15 on their list -- current Reds GM Walt Jocketty, who made his biggest marks during 13 years running the Cardinals, reaching two World Series (winning one) and six National League Championship Series. No. 16 on the list was Theo Epstein and No. 17 Dan Duquette.
Who is No. 1? The authors of have been adding a new post every day or so, so we'll keep checking their site for updates. But it's probably not Woody Woodward.
Buster Olney has a great take on new commissioner Rob Manfred's ill-advised comments that he would consider eliminating shifts from the game in order to help inject more offense. Buster writes:
This is a really, really bad idea that should be dismissed quickly, as it was by the general managers who discussed it in a meeting last fall. Some old-school teams that have yet to embrace shifts backed the idea, but the more progressive teams widely rejected it, and rightly so.
As teams increasingly used shifts in recent years, some frustrated hitters have privately advocated for this kind of rule change. In listening to the complaints, I must admit that it was sometimes difficult to stifle laughter, just as it was when pitchers griped about the shrinking outfield dimensions of the ballparks in the '90s. I heard stories about pitchers taking tape measures onto fields at places like Camden Yards, where pitchers have questioned whether the distance from home plate to left-center field is actually 364 feet. ...
Pushing for rules to restrict defensive positioning would be as absurd and antithetical to the game as informing pitchers they can throw only pitches that are straight, or telling hitters they aren't allowed to swing at a hanging curveball.
Buster is obviously right here. Could you imagine a rule in the NFL eliminating the blitz? But here's an important thing to consider: Shifts don't save that many runs in the big scheme of things. Baseball Info Solutions tracks shift data and we know that the use of shifts has increased dramatically in recent seasons -- from 2,357 in 2011 to 13,296 in 2014. And since run scoring is down it's easy to explain the shift as a major contributor to the decline in offense.
Shifts are a contributor, but not a big one. BIS estimated the number of runs saved via shifting in 2014 at 195 runs across the majors -- or 6.5 runs per team, on average, over the entire season.
The average team scored 659 runs in 2014. Ten years ago in 2004, the average team scored 779 runs. So those 6.5 runs explain just 5 percent of the decline in offense over the past 10 years.
Of course, not all teams are heavy users of the shift so we'll likely continue to see more shifts in upcoming seasons and a resulting effect in runs scored. But it will remain a relatively minor effect. The biggest reason for the decline in offense, of course, is the increase in strikeouts. The batting average on balls in play (taking home runs out of the equation) was .299 in 2014. In 2004, it was .297. It peaked at .303 in 2007. In the early '90s -- a level of run scoring similar to now -- it was .287 in 1990 and .285 in 1991 and 1992. In fact, batting average on balls in play actually increased in 2014 from .297 in 2013 despite over 5,000 more shifts employed.
But there were 731 more strikeouts in 2014 than in 2013 and 5,613 more than 2004.
If the new commissioner wants more offense, he has to cut down on the strikeouts. That means changing the strike zone or lowering the mound.
Or telling pitchers they can only throw fastballs.
I'm not even sure what a breakout candidate means. Do you consider Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich breakout candidates? I certainly think they'll be better in 2015, but the young Marlins outfielders were already pretty good in 2014. So I'm not sure I'd include them here. Maybe a general rule of thumb would be a player capable of improving his WAR by at least 2.5 wins.
So here's a list of breakout candidates, broken into three categories, with 2014 WAR listed. Rookies were not considered.
Obvious young players
These are essentially the players everyone should have on their list of breakout candidates, so it's mostly a confirmation that I like these guys as well.
Mookie Betts, Red Sox (2.0 WAR) -- This isn't so much a prediction as an endorsement that Betts will, at the minimum, sustain his 2014 performance when he hit .291/.368/.444 in 213 plate appearances with the Red Sox. Considering he's just 22 with outstanding contact skills -- he had more walks than whiffs in the minors -- I suspect he'll improve. The home run power is the only question mark, but he did hit 16 between the minors and majors so I believe he can be a 15-homer guy.
Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox (0.1 WAR) -- A highly touted rookie last year, Bogaerts hit well in April and May and then collapsed for three months, right about the time the Red Sox moved him from shortstop to third base. That's probably too easy an explanation for his struggles, but he'll be back at shortstop and a good September (.313, four home runs) at least meant he ended the season on a positive note. Like Betts, he's just 22, young enough to make a big leap forward.
Gerrit Cole, Pirates (1.2 WAR) -- He has 41 big league starts now with a 3.45 ERA, but there's ace potential in the former No. 1 overall pick. Armed with one of the best fastballs in the business, it's a matter of mastering his other pitches as his fastball can be a little straight at times. If his changeup develops -- he threw it just 111 times last year -- watch out. He also needs to remain healthy, missing time last year with a lat strain.
Kevin Gausman, Orioles (1.2 WAR) -- We saw his arm strength in the postseason, when he looked so good pitching out of the bullpen. After bouncing back and forth last year between the Orioles and Triple-A, making 20 starts in the majors, Gausman is ready to spend the entire year in Baltimore. He has developed into primarily a fastball/splitter guy, mixing in his slider and a few changeups, so while he may not rack up the strikeouts like Cole, he should do a good job keeping the ball in the park, which of course is essential for success in Camden Yards.
James Paxton, Mariners (1.5 WAR) -- For Paxton, a lefty with electric stuff (his four-seamer averaged 94.7 mph last season), it's all about staying healthy. He made just 13 starts in 2014 (posting a 3.04 ERA), missing a large chunk of time with a strained lat and then shoulder inflammation that developed while rehabbing the first injury. But he returned in August and made 11 starts down the stretch. Paxton also missed time while in the minors, so the injury history goes back several years.
George Springer, Astros (2.3 WAR) -- The strikeout rates are cringe-worthy (114 in 345 PAs), but when the University of Connecticut product connects, the ball goes far. Even with all the strikeouts, he hit .231/.336/.468 as a rookie with 20 home run in 78 games. He has 40-homer potential and while he didn't run much last year (five steals), he swiped 45 in the minors in 2013, giving him 30-30 potential. Or 40-30 potential. Or lots of potential, no matter how you slice it.
Marcus Stroman, Blue Jays (1.8 WAR) -- Everybody says the Blue Jays lack an ace, but maybe they don't. The short right-hander may not have the physical presence of your typical No. 1 starter, but he has the stuff and went 11-6 with a 3.65 ERA as a rookie. Those numbers included two terrible relief appearances in his first month in the majors (nine runs in three innings), but Stroman didn't let those outings get to him and when moved to the rotation.
Kolten Wong, Cardinals (2.1 WAR) -- He had a solid rookie season, showing a broad range of skills with some power, speed, solid defense and then a big postseason. He needs to improve his .249 average and .292 OBP. If he does that, he could be an All-Star second baseman.
This group has a few more flaws in their game and thus are less likely to emerge than the first group, but all have talent and several were once regarded as top prospects.
Trevor Bauer, Indians (1.1 WAR) -- The Diamondbacks didn't like Bauer's idiosyncratic approach to pitching and quickly traded him away. The third pick overall pick by Arizona in 2011 has had his ups and downs in his two years in Cleveland, but he's just 24 and still has a good arm. He needs to cut down on his walks -- some have suggested that backing off his six- or seven-pitch repertoire would help -- to lower his 4.18 ERA, but he's ready for his first full season in the majors and could make a big leap.
Brandon Belt, Giants (0.9 WAR) -- Belt was pretty good back in 2013 but battled a broken thumb and concussion in 2014, playing in just 61 games. He'll be 27 so I think he's primed for a big season, even better than 2013 when he hit .289 with 17 home runs.
Travis d'Arnaud, Mets (0.2 WAR) -- He gets lost with all the attention given the Mets' young starters and their search for a shortstop, but the young catcher had a solid rookie season, rebounding to hit .242 after scuffling to a .205 mark through June. He needs to improve his defense (just a 19 percent caught stealing rate and a league-leading 12 passed balls) and he was injury-prone in the minors, but there's All-Star potential in the bat.
Nathan Eovaldi, Yankees (0.7 WAR) -- He's got a big fastball and walked just 1.9 batters per nine with the Marlins, but he also led the National League in hits allowed. You worry about that short right-field porch and what it can do to a right-handed pitcher (see Phil Hughes). I wouldn't bet on a big season, but if Eovaldi can learn a new trick or two, he has the talent to make the Yankees look very smart.
Shane Greene, Tigers (0.6 WAR) -- Never regarded as much of a prospect coming up with the Yankees, Greene added a cutter and looked good in 14 starts (3.78 ERA, good strikeout rate) before getting traded to the Tigers in the offseason. He'll have to win a rotation spot and he's not Max Scherzer, but he's a guy I like.
Drew Hutchison, Blue Jays (1.3 WAR) -- He came back from Tommy John surgery and made 32 starts with a 4.48 ERA and even better peripherals. Hutchison needs to improve against left-handers, who slugged .477 against him.
Carlos Martinez, Cardinals (0.2 WAR) -- I'm not actually a big fan since he hasn't dominated in relief, so I'm not exactly sure why people think he can transition to the rotation. But he has that explosive heater and many do like his potential as a starter.
Brad Miller, Mariners (1.5 WAR) -- He's athletic with some pop in his bat but frustratingly inconsistent, botching routine plays at shortstop and hitting just .204 in the first half last year. There's a lot of upside here if he puts it all together, and he's just 25 with two seasons of experience now.
Rougned Odor, Rangers (0.1 WAR) -- Rushed to the majors at 20 when the entire Texas lineup landed on the DL, he held his own. It may be a year early for a breakout season, but there's a lot of potential in the bat.
Danny Salazar, Indians (0.5 WAR) -- He had 120 strikeouts and 35 walks in 110 innings but also posted a mediocre 4.25 ERA and was sent to the minors for a spell. Oddly, he's struggled more against right-handers than lefties. That seems like a fixable solution if he can tighten up his slider.
Jonathan Schoop, Orioles (1.5 WAR) -- He's already a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman with a tremendous double-play pivot thanks to his strong arm. But will there be value in the bat? He has power but had a horrific 122 strikeout/walk ratio, leading to a .209 average and unacceptable .244 OBP. He could improve or the poor approach could end up sending him back to the minors or to the bench.
Guys I'll call long shots
How do you even go about predicting the next Donaldson or Keuchel? You can't. Luckily, some things in the sport remain unpredictable.
Tony Cingrani, Reds (-0.1 WAR) -- He was impressive as a rookie in 2013 with his unique arsenal of high fastballs from the left side but battled a sore shoulder in 2014. I'm not sure the delivery and lack of secondary pitches will play out in the long run, but you never know.
Khris Davis, Brewers (2.7 WAR) -- He hit 22 home runs and 37 doubles in his first full season and his defense was better than advertised, but he also posted a .299 OBP. If he can add 50 points of OBP -- good luck -- he's a star.
Rubby De La Rosa, Diamondbacks (0.8 WAR) -- Acquired from Boston in the Wade Miley trade, he's had Tommy John surgery but has a live arm; he averaged 93.9 mph on his fastball while touching 99. Sometimes these guys put it together, and moving to the National League will help as well.
Avisail Garcia, White Sox (-0.3 WAR) -- I've always felt he's been overhyped since coming up with Detroit. He's never walked and that poor approach will likely limit his numbers, but scouts have always liked his swing and power potential.
Eric Hosmer, Royals (0.7 WAR) -- Wait, hasn't he been around too long for this? Well, he wasn't that good last year except for October and he's still just 25, so maybe he finally learns to tap into his power. He's a much better bet than teammate Mike Moustakas to turn into a star.
Brandon Maurer, Padres (-0.4 WAR) -- He got hammered as a starter in Seattle in 2013 and 2014 but moved to the bullpen and was suddenly throwing in the upper 90s and posted a 2.17 ERA with a 38/5 SO/BB ratio. I'd keep him in relief, but the Padres may try to give him one more chance at starting.
Brad Peacock, Astros (-0.3 WAR) -- He has a 4.90 ERA in two seasons with Houston with way too many walks (4.8 per nine innings last year). But hey, Keuchel looked like this a year ago.
Eugenio Suarez, Reds (0.3 WAR) -- He came up with Detroit last year and I liked the swing and approach and think there's a little power there for a middle infielder. He may not have a regular gig with the Reds, but if they tire of Zack Cozart's lack of offense then Suarez could get a chance to play.
Zduriencik says Montero has lost 40 pounds and "it appears maybe the light has come on for him. He's a guy we'll take a good look at."— Greg Johns (@GregJohnsMLB) January 22, 2015
Greg is an old colleague of mine and does a great job covering the Mariners for MLB.com, so he won't mind if I pick on him for reporting the first "somebody is in great shape" story well before spring training even starts.
Anyway, the thing is: Jesus Montero, who has been a big -- literally -- flop since coming over from the Yankees in the Michael Pineda trade, could actually play an important role with the Mariners. They could use a right-handed bat to either platoon with Logan Morrison at first base, or to DH and let Nelson Cruz play some left field with Dustin Ackley sitting against at least tough left-handers.
Remember, back in 2012 when he was still trying to catch and played 135 games, Montero was decently effective against lefties, hitting .322/.366/.463. The trouble is finding room for him on the roster:
C: Mike Zunino, Jesus Sucre
Infielders: Morrison, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Brad Miller, Chris Taylor, Willie Bloomquist
Outfielders: Cruz, Ackley, Austin Jackson, Seth Smith, Justin Ruggiano
Assuming 13 position players and 12 pitchers, that's 13 position players. Of course, it's possible the Mariners don't carry two backup infielders and the loser of the Miller/Taylor shortstop battle gets sent down to Triple-A (although they would make for a perfect platoon). They could also punt on Bloomquist, who is 37 and coming off an injury but set to make $3 million.
Of course, injuries have a way of making these issues work out.
Montero has kind of been a joke since coming to Seattle -- remember last summer's infamous ice cream incident -- but maybe he'll get the last laugh and actually be an important contributor in 2015.
1. Bud Selig (1992-2015)
Who was he? Owner of the Milwaukee Brewers.
Notable events during his term: Cancellation of the 1994 World Series because of a players' strike (the owners wanted to institute a salary cap); realignment from four divisions to six, and creation of the wild card; interleague play; instant replay, the last of the four major pro leagues to use it; disregard, willful or not, of the steroids era, eventually followed in the mid-2000s with a stronger drug testing program and stiff punishments; more revenue sharing and luxury taxes to help small-market teams; tried to contract the Twins and Expos; All-Star Game tie; now the All-Star Game "counts!"; 1993 and 1998 expansions that created four new teams; new stadium boom; World Baseball Classic in 2006; allowed the Expos to move to Washington in 2005, the first franchise move since the Senators decamped to Texas in 1972; a return to an unbalanced schedule in 2001; revenues soared, from $1.4 billion in 1995 to a record $9 billion in 2014.
In the Hall of Fame? Not yet.
Selig served as "acting" commissioner until 1998, when he finally took the official title. For years, he rallied against the game's inequities and rising salaries. Meanwhile, revenues continued to increase year after year and he leaves the game in greater financial strength than ever, as lucrative local cable TV rights and new dollars from sources like MLB Advanced Media have allowed owners to make record profits and hand out shocking contracts. The owners are happy, the players are happy and everyone is counting their money.
But are the fans happy? Attendance, while very strong, hasn't quite reached pre-1994 per-game levels; World Series TV ratings aren't what they once were; games are long and concerns about younger fans losing interest are legitimate.
Nonetheless, Selig guided the sport out of the World Series cancellation, and while he initially dropped the ball on steroids, it's hard to argue against the success of the wild card and interleague play, two revolutionary concepts for stodgy old baseball. Giving home-field advantage to the league that wins the All-Star Game remains an embarrassingly dumb idea, and he failed to resolve the stadium issues in Tampa Bay and Oakland, although those franchises have managed to remain successful on the field.
In the end, I'd argue that the on-field product is better than ever. Revenues are high, and there's nothing wrong with that. Ballparks are fun places to go to, and fans have access to more games and highlights than ever. Parity is at an all-time high. It's hard to get past that 1994 World Series, but I have to say that Bud Selig is the greatest commissioner the sport has had.
2. Happy Chandler (1945-51)
Who was he? A former U.S. senator and governor of Kentucky. After leaving baseball, he won a second term as governor.
In the Hall of Fame? Yes.
Obviously, Chandler's legacy is backing Branch Rickey and Walter O'Malley in breaking the color barrier. Chandler would later write that he was eventually forced out of the job because of that decision, although historians tend to disagree on that matter. What's indisputable is that Chandler's actions supported the Dodgers. He could have voided Robinson's contract but didn't. He threatened punishment for Phillies manager Ben Chapman and his players after they taunted Robinson early in his first season. Chandler also supported NL president Ford Frick's indefinite suspension of players on the Cardinals who threatened to strike because of Robinson.
The question is how much credit Chandler deserves. Robinson debuted in 1947 but by 1951 only six teams had used a black player, so I'd argue that while Chandler didn't stop the Dodgers, he didn't exactly push the other owners towards further integration. In the end, that rests more on the owners -- the Red Sox under Tom Yawkey were the last to integrate in 1959 -- but a strong commissioner would have been more proactive.
Still, Chandler had one historically important decision to make. He made the right one.
3. Kenesaw Mountain Landis (1920-44)
Who was he? A federal judge most famous for fining Standard Oil more than $29 million in 1907 (his ruling was later overturned), Landis was hired as baseball's first commissioner and charged with dealing with the fallout from the 1919 Black Sox gambling scandal. Landis was born in Ohio but his father had been wounded at the Battle of Kennesaw Mountain in Georgia during the Civil War, thus the unusual name.
Notable events: Helped clean up the sport's gambling problem with his lifetime bans of eight White Sox players; continued to enforce the color barrier; suspended Babe Ruth for illegal barnstorming; freed several minor leaguers throughout his tenure for what he deemed illegal arrangements between major and minor league franchises (including declaring 70 Cardinals minor leaguers free agents in 1938); supported the first All-Star Game in 1933; opposed night baseball; suspended Yankees outfielder Jake Powell for racist comments about beating up blacks while serving as a police officer in the offseason; ordered Phillies owner William Cox to sell his share in the team after he was found to have bet on his own team.
In the Hall of Fame? Yes.
Landis' long reign, during which he ruled with more authority than any other commissioner, is marked by two important outcomes, of course: his tough rulings on gambling and his unwillingness to push owners into breaking the color barrier. One great achievement, one historical failure. Was he racist? Bill Veeck believed he was, although Landis once said, after Dodgers manager Leo Durocher charged that black players were being kept out of the sport, that "Negroes are not barred from organized baseball by the commissioner and never have been in the 21 years I have served. There is no rule in organized baseball prohibiting their participation and never has been to my knowledge. If Durocher, or if any other manager, or all of them, want to sign one, or 25 Negro players, it is all right with me. That is the business of the managers and the club owners."
Nonetheless, after Landis' death in 1944, it took less than two years for Branch Rickey to sign Jackie Robinson, who debuted in the majors in 1947. It seems clear that Landis did little to encourage the sport to integrate.
4. Ford Frick (1951-65)
Who was he? A former sportswriter and newspaper reporter, he became the National League's public relations director in 1934 and then its president later that year.
In the Hall of Fame? Yes.
It's often written -- usually by people who grew up in New York in the 1950s -- that the '50s were baseball's glory decade. That's far from the truth. For much of the decade, attendance was in decline. With the advent of television, the minor leagues were dying. Attendance had declined from nearly 21 million in 1948 to 14.4 million in 1953. The ballparks, many built 40 to 50 years earlier, were old and crumbling. Even the beloved Brooklyn Dodgers had seen their attendance decline from a high of 1.8 million in 1947 to just over a million by the mid-50s. Anyway, baseball moved west and then it expanded, the two primary events under Frick's watch. Attendance was up to 19 million again by 1959 and over 25 million by 1965.
Not a whole lot else seems to have happened during Frick's time in office. He left just before the players' union began fighting for more rights, so he avoided the conflicts that began developing in the late '60s and early '70s.
5. Fay Vincent (1989-92)
Who was he? Friend of Bart Giamatti and deputy commissioner of baseball when Giamatti died.
Notable events: World Series earthquake in 1989; began the process for the 1993 expansion to Colorado and Miami; lockout in 1990 that wiped nearly all of spring training; banned George Steinbrenner for life for associating with known gambler Howie Spira (Steinbrenner was later allowed back in the game); attempted to realign the National League by making the Cubs and Cardinals switch divisions with the Reds and Braves, but the Cubs sued, eventually dropping the lawsuit after Vincent resigned as commissioner.
In the Hall of Fame? No.
Vincent resigned after the owners gave him an 18-9 no-confidence vote. They were upset that he had intervened in the 1990 lockout and that -- shockingly -- salaries were skyrocketing. As if the commissioner were to blame for that. The owners didn't like that a new TV deal wasn't as lucrative as the previous one (CBS had lost nearly $500 million on that contract). He titled his autobiography "The Last Commissioner," kind of a jab at Bud Selig, one of the owners who had campaigned for his removal.
6. Peter Ueberroth (1984-89)
Who was he? The organizer of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the first privately financed Olympic Games, which turned a profit of $250 million.
Notable events: Encouraged collusion among the owners in an attempt to hold down player salaries (the MLBPA later won a settlement of $280 million in fines); suspended several players for cocaine use; negotiated a landmark $1.1 billion television deal with CBS (and a $400 million deal with ESPN); in 1985, settled a players' strike after one day; initiated the investigation into Pete Rose; urged the Cubs to install lights at Wrigley Field; reinstated Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle, who had been banned from the game for working at casinos.
In the Hall of Fame? No.
Ueberroth was hired for his business acumen, and there's no denying baseball's bottom line changed dramatically during his tenure. According to MLB.com, when he took office 21 of the 26 teams were losing money; by his last year, all 26 teams made a profit or broke even. Of course, collusion probably helped in that regard. But attendance climbed throughout the decade. In 1980, the 26 teams saw 43 million fans go through the turnstiles; in 1989, it was up to 55 million. During this time, crowd control and alcohol management were also improved at ballparks, making them much more family-friendly places to go.
Ueberroth kick-started the game into the modern era, emphasizing marketing and business relationships and big TV contracts, and helped clean up the game's cocaine problems. But his lasting legacy will be collusion, which increased the distrust between players and owners and laid the foundation for the labor problems that led to the 1994 strike and the cancellation of the World Series.
7. Bowie Kuhn (1969-84)
Who was he? A lawyer who worked as legal counsel for the owners for many years before becoming commissioner.
In the Hall of Fame? Yes.
Yes, Kuhn is in the Hall of Fame -- he was elected nine months after his death in 2007. Was he a good commissioner? Probably not. His negotiations with Miller resulted in one loss after another, and he could have created a better system of free agency for the owners if he been more willing to compromise rather than try to hold on to the reserve clause. He's laughable in many regards -- his comments about "Ball Four," sitting in the cold weather -- but the game did grow during his tenure. Attendance had stagnated in the late '60s and early '70s but would spike from 27 million in 1969 to 45 million in 1983, thanks in part to the new cookie-cutter stadiums that were built. But is he a deserving Hall of Famer? Keep in mind that Bowie Kuhn is in the Hall -- but Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens aren't.
8. A. Bartlett Giamatti (1989)
Who was he? Former president of Yale, Red Sox fan and president of the National League.
Notable events: Hired lawyer John Dowd to investigate Pete Rose; in August 1989, Rose voluntarily agreed to permanent ineligibility from the baseball, with baseball agreeing that it would make no formal findings regarding Rose's betting on baseball. The next day, Giamatti said Rose had bet on baseball. A few days later, he died of a heart attack at age 51.
In the Hall of Fame? No.
Would Giamatti have been a good commissioner? Hard to say. He was hired in part because of a hard-line stance he had taken against Yale's union while president there, so I'm guessing that the 1994 labor strike would still have occurred under Giamatti's watch.
9. William "Spike" Eckert (1965-68)
Notable events: Not many.
In the Hall of Fame? No.
The owners quickly realized they had made a major mistake and forced Eckert to resign after three years. Rob Neyer included a chapter on Eckert on his book "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders." Eckert didn't know business and certainly didn't know baseball. Just think if baseball had hired somebody else who was on the original list of candidates: Richard Nixon.
The Brewers are in talks with the Phillies to acquire Jonathan Papelbon, which makes a lot of sense since the Phillies have no need for Papelbon. The Brewers' closer right now is Jonathan Broxton, and their bullpen could use some depth.
Anyway, the Phillies would likely have to include a large amount of cash in a trade since Papelbon is owed $13 million in 2015 and has a vesting option for another $13 million in 2016 if he finishes 48 games in 2015. Papelbon also has a no-trade clause to 17 teams, although you have to think he'd want to get out of Philadelphia at this point.
Aside from all that, did you realize that Papelbon is building a pretty strong Hall of Fame case? Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating Papelbon for the Hall of Fame; I'm pretty much against all closers not named Mariano Rivera. I'm saying the voters, who have been kind to relievers in recent years, could take a liking to Papelbon's case (not that they actually like Papelbon).
If Bruce Sutter can get elected and Lee Smith can peak at 50 percent of the vote, then Papelbon has some sort of case if he strings together a few more good years. Sutter had just eight good years as a closer and Papelbon -- yes, pitching in a more coddled age for relievers -- has already had nine good seasons (or eight, depending on how you value 2010, when he had a 3.90 ERA).
A more interesting comparison is Trevor Hoffman, who enters the ballot next year and is expected to receive a lot of support and possible first-ballot election. Hoffman retired as the all-time saves leader with 601 (since passed by Rivera) and Papelbon has just 325, so he's way behind Hoffman there ... but he's arguably been the better pitcher.
Papelbon: 35-29, 2.37 ERA, 184 ERA+, 22.0 WAR, 88% save pct.
Hoffman: 61-75, 2.87 ERA, 141 ERA+, 28.0 WAR, 89% save pct.
Their save percentage is about the same, and maybe that's all that matters for a closer, but Papelbon has the lower ERA, much better adjusted ERA and better win-loss record.
Then there's the postseason. Hoffman basically gagged in every big situation he got into: 1996 NLDS, 1998 World Series, 2006 All-Star Game, 2007 tiebreaker game. Meanwhile, Papelbon has a 1.00 career ERA in the postseason, with three runs allowed in 27 innings -- and all three runs came in one game.
To have any chance, Papelbon will have to climb a lot higher on the saves list. He's currently 16th all time, but if he averages 30 saves over the next four seasons, which takes him through age 37, that moves him up to 445 saves and behind only Rivera, Hoffman and Smith. If he gets there and keeps that ERA close to where it is, he'll become a strong Hall of Fame candidate.
It's difficult to see how the Orioles missed the list of leasts, after a lost offseason. They lost power -- a power bat, who Cruz'ed away, power arm, Miller, who got Yanked out of the bullpen. They lost their steady RF'er, Markakis. So they basically lost some crackerjack players and have the empty box. And an empty lineup. Sigh ...
OK, Mitch certainly has a point. Of course, he didn't understand that I wasn't factoring in the Orioles because general manager Dan Duquette died last October and owner Peter Angelos hasn't realized it yet, so the team has been operating without a front office.
I kid! Duquette is still alive, although he's been maneuvering to get a new job with the Blue Jays as their president and CEO, a move that may finally happen soon.
The lack of activity on the part of the Orioles, combined with Duquette's impending job change to a division rival, certainly creates the look of impropriety on Duquette's part, which is why this should have been finalized weeks or months ago. Shame on Bud Selig and incoming commissioner Rob Manfred for letting this linger so long.
Anyway, to Mitch's argument. Yes, the Orioles have lost Nelson Cruz, Nick Markakis and Andrew Miller and made no significant transactions other than re-signing platoon DH Delmon Young.
But remember: Inactivity isn't always a bad thing just as activity doesn't ensure improvement. What have the Orioles lost? They've lost some 2014 value: Cruz was worth 4.6 WAR, Markakis 2.7 WAR and Miller 1.0 WAR (with the Orioles). The general consensus, however, is that the Mariners overpaid for Cruz (four years, $57 million) and the Braves overpaid for Markakis (four years, $44 million). Miller was just a rental and was going to leave anyway. Cruz turns 35 on July 1 and Markakis is entering his age-31 season, had offseason surgery to repair a herniated disk in his neck and has a .371 slugging percentage over the past two seasons. It's understandable that the Orioles didn't want to commit nearly $100 million to those two guys.
The question is how much 2015 value did the Orioles lose? Cruz wasn't a good bet to hit 40 home runs again and Markakis is OK -- if he's healthy -- but replaceable. The most difficult aspect of replacing those two is that Cruz played 159 games and Markasis 155, giving Showalter stability that he won't have in 2015.
Plus, the Orioles can hope for internal improvement on offense from Chris Davis, a better season from sophomore second baseman Jonathan Schoop and injury-free seasons from Manny Machado and Matt Wieters. On the pitching side, Kevin Gausman should spend the entire year in the rotation and Dylan Bundy is waiting in the wings as a potential impact starter.
Does all that mean I don't think the Orioles aren't going to decline? No. They won 96 games in 2014 and teams that win 96 games usually decline the following season. Here are the last 10 teams to win 95 or more:
2013 Red Sox: 97 to 71
2013 Cardinals: 97 to 70
2013 Athletics: 96 to 88
2012 Nationals: 98 to 86
2012 Reds: 97 to 90
2011 Phillies: 102 to 81
2011 Yankees: 97 to 95
2011 Rangers: 96 to 93
2011 Brewers: 96 to 83
2011 Tigers: 95 to 88
They all declined. The last team to win 95-plus games and improve the next season was the 2010 Phillies, who jumped from 97 wins to 102 after signing Cliff Lee.
The point: The Orioles were good bets to decline no matter what they did this offseason. If they'd brought back Cruz and Markakis they'd be good bets to win fewer games and they'd have two risky contracts on their books. Maybe Duquette should have been creative and made a trade or two -- Justin Upton would look good in right field, for example, but would you give up Bundy for one season of Upton? That's probably what it would have cost the O's considering the Padres gave up a potential No. 1 starter in Max Fried.
The FanGraphs projection doesn't like the Orioles at all -- 79 wins, worst in the AL East. That's in large part because it doesn't like the Orioles' starting rotation because it's a low-strikeout group; because of the lack of K's it views the Baltimore rotation as having overachieved in 2014 and due to regress. That may be the case, but the O's do have depth in numbers and if Gausman is a legit No. 2-caliber starter as many believe, the rotation may be a lot better than the projection systems indicate. And the defense should be strong to help compensate for the lack of whiffs.
I doubt the Orioles win 96 again but I do think they'll win more than 79. If Davis bounces back to some degree (a good bet), Machado stays on the field and the rotation is respectable, the O's will be right in the thick of the AL playoff race.
Writing about the five teams that have improved the least is much easier.
1. Atlanta Braves (79-83)
Well, let’s see: They traded away the player with their highest WAR in 2014 (Jason Heyward); they traded away their leading home run hitter and RBI guy (Justin Upton); they traded away their starting catcher who hit 22 home runs (Evan Gattis); they’ve lost Ervin Santana and Aaron Harang, who combined for 64 starts.
Did the Braves overreact to a bad season? After all, two years ago they won 96 games; the year before, they won 94. And they had a young base of talent. General manager John Hart said he believes the Braves can compete in 2015, but he has to say that. The Braves are punting the next two years, hoping the young talent they received in the Heyward, Upton and Gattis trades will be ready when they move into their new park.
2. Philadelphia Phillies (73-89)
After consecutive 73-win seasons, GM Ruben Amaro finally realized it’s time to rebuild. It may be awhile before the Phillies crack .500 again. Longtime shortstop Jimmy Rollins is gone and Cole Hamels may be next. Will Chase Utley follow? Will Cliff Lee be dealt once he proves he’s healthy? And will Amaro find a home for Ryan Howard?
The Phillies had a great run from 2007 to 2011 with five consecutive division titles and a World Series title. It was a fun team and Phillies fans should appreciate those years. But 2015 isn’t going to provide much joy.
3. Colorado Rockies (66-96)
New general manager Jeff Bridich inherited a team that has lost 96, 88, 98 and 89 games the past four seasons and done ... nothing. OK, he traded Rob Scahill to the Pirates for minor league pitcher Shane Carle. There were a couple of other equally minor deals. Of course, when you lose 96 games it’s because you don’t have enough talent, so you can’t necessarily blame Bridich for his lack of activity, at least on the trade front. Instead, the Rockies will apparently count once again on Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez to be healthy and some of the young hitters and pitchers to improve. Good luck. It’s too bad the team isn’t better as the fans have remained supportive despite the lousy seasons of late.
4. San Francisco Giants (88-74)
The Giants are different from the first three teams here as they should once again be competitive, but they haven’t done much to improve a team that snuck into the playoffs as a wild-card team. It’s not necessarily from a lack of effort: They tried to re-sign Pablo Sandoval and were certainly breathing heavily over Jon Lester, but all they’ve done is re-sign in-season acquisition Jake Peavy and sign Norichika Aoki to replace Mike Morse as the fourth outfielder.
Could the Giants still improve? Maybe, but that means depending on Tim Lincecum having his first good year in three years, Matt Cain coming back from elbow surgery and veterans Peavy and Tim Hudson remaining healthy and productive. That seems like a lot of question marks in the rotation.
5. Milwaukee Brewers (82-80)
The American League teams have been more active because the parity across the league is so compact. Really, only the Twins look like a team that you have stretch scenarios to see them as a playoff team. The National League, meanwhile, has the Braves, Phillies, Rockies and Diamondbacks clearly looking up at the rest of the league.
Anyway, the Brewers just traded away Yovani Gallardo to open a spot for Jimmy Nelson in the rotation, but they didn’t receive any impact talent in return and now the rotation is starving for depth. They did trade for Adam Lind to play first base but I doubt we’ll see a Cecil Cooper 1980 season out of him. Their best hope for improvement is a bounce-back year from Ryan Braun following two seasons of injuries. In a division in which the Cubs and Reds could both be better, it’s hard to see how the Brewers are going to see an increase in the win column.
I’m trying to think of last offseason's consensus winner. Maybe the Yankees? They signed free agents Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran, a pretty impressive haul of big names. The Yankees saw their win total decrease from 85 to 84.
Which teams did have the largest improvement last season? Here are the top five:
Other than Seattle signing Robinson Cano, do you recall many big moves from those teams? The Giants signed Tim Hudson and Mike Morse, hardly the deals that foretold a World Series triumph.
So this list of five teams that I predict will improve the most in 2015 isn’t necessarily a list of teams that have received the most headlines this winter (2014 record in parentheses).
1. Boston Red Sox (71-91)
The Red Sox look like the obvious choice after an active offseason that saw them spend big dollars on Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez and add Rick Porcello, Wade Miley and Justin Masterson to the starting rotation. The rotation lacks the ace that everyone seems to think Boston still needs, but the projections at FanGraphs like the Red Sox at 88 wins -- fourth-highest in the majors -- thanks in part to a rotation that projects to 10.8 WAR, fifth-best in the majors (although with a relatively high ERA of 4.27).
Even if you’re not buying that ace-less rotation, it’s hard not to buy into a vastly improved offense. Red Sox outfielders hit just 26 home runs last season, last in the majors. They should have a whole new trio with Ramirez, Rusney Castillo and Mookie Betts. Sandoval is an upgrade at third base, and sophomore Xander Bogaerts has the ability to break out in a big way.
Also in Boston’s favor: There doesn’t appear to be a dominant team in the AL East. Granted, the Red Sox have lost 90-plus games in two of the past three seasons (they hadn’t lost 90 since 1966), but I think they'll avoid their first back-to-back losing seasons since 1992-94.
2. Houston Astros (70-92)
I wrote about the Astros on Wednesday, pointing out they had glaring holes at first base, third base, left field and the bullpen in 2014 and have addressed all those areas in the offseason.
The FanGraphs projection system isn’t as optimistic as I am, forecasting 77 wins. The Astros do have some regression candidates in Jose Altuve, Chris Carter, Dallas Keuchel and Collin McHugh, but I believe all four will be solid contributors in 2015, and I like George Springer’s chances to become a force in the middle of the lineup. The AL West is tough, and that will work against the Astros, but you can balance their expected improvement against possible decline from the Angels and A’s.
3. Chicago Cubs (73-89)
The Cubs are here not so much because I expect them to make the playoffs -- it will be a tall order to beat out both the Cardinals and Pirates -- but because they’re starting out from 73 wins, so there’s room to improve by 12 wins and get to 85.
Like the Astros, the Cubs carried a lot of dead weight in 2014 -- Darwin Barney, Nate Schierholtz, Junior Lake, Mike Olt, John Baker, Arismendy Alcantara and Javier Baez were horrible offensive contributors, each batting at least 200 times and posting an OPS+ of 70 or less. That’s bad, but Cubs fans already knew that. So they’ve traded for catcher Miguel Montero and center fielder Dexter Fowler. The Cubs also hope youngsters Baez and Alcantara learn from their struggles and will join rookies Jorge Soler and Kris Bryant to help improve an offense that ranked 12th in the NL in runs scored.
Oh, and then there’s Anthony Rizzo. He could be an MVP candidate. And the club spent a few pennies on Jon Lester. I hear he’s pretty good.
4. Chicago White Sox (73-89)
The battle between the Cubs and White Sox should prove to be one of the more interesting subplots of the season. The White Sox made several big moves of their own, trading for Jeff Samardzija and signing free-agent closer David Robertson, left fielder Melky Cabrera and first baseman/DH Adam LaRoche. The team already has two franchise players in Chris Sale and Jose Abreu.
The FanGraphs projection likes the Cubs a lot better than the White Sox -- 84 wins versus 77 -- and I do worry about the back of the White Sox rotation once you get past Sale, Samardzija and Jose Quintana. You also worry that so much rides on Sale and his ability to stay healthy. If the depth on the roster comes through, the White Sox have a chance to surprise in a division where the Tigers and Royals both could win fewer games.
5. Miami Marlins (77-85)
Two major reasons the Marlins could take a major leap forward: They’re young and they have two awful teams in their division. The Phillies and Braves actually project as the worst two teams in baseball via FanGraphs, so I could see the Marlins or Mets taking advantage and winning 90 games. Between those two, I like the Marlins a little better thanks to Giancarlo Stanton and his fellow outfield youngsters, Marcell Ozuna and Christian Yelich. The rotation needs to stay healthy -- Mat Latos and Henderson Alvarez in particular -- but if that happens and Jose Fernandez returns in June and pitches like Jose Fernandez, the Marlins could be a wild-card contender.
Notable omission: The San Diego Padres. I don’t like the outfield defense. I’m not pumped about the third-base and shortstop situations, and I worry about the injury histories of Matt Kemp and Andrew Cashner. They’re going to be entertaining and I hope everything breaks right for them, but I’m not sure I see a 90-win team here.
Talk about going out with a bang. Now, proclaiming St. Louis as the best baseball city isn't exactly a reach, although it will certainly tweak those who like to mock the whole "best fans in baseball" idea that Cardinals fans love to proclaim about themselves.
But Cardinals fans are pretty justified in that proclamation:
- The Cardinals ranked second in the majors in attendance in 2014 behind only the Dodgers, averaging 43,712 fans per game.
- They had the highest local TV ratings in 2014, edging out the Tigers and Pirates.
- They've averaged 40,000-plus fans every year except one since 2005 and have ranked in the top four in attendance in the National League every year except one since 1996. (Oddly, that one year was 2004, when the team won 105 games and finished sixth in the NL in attendance.
- All that despite playing in a metro market with a smaller population than San Diego or Tampa Bay.
Of course, the Cardinals have a lot going to keep up fan interest. They've had one losing season in the past 15 years and have made the playoffs 11 times in that span, winning two World Series. The franchise has a long and successful history that has bred generations of baseball fans. That tends to keep the fans coming back to the ballpark, as long as you keep winning.
That doesn't necessarily mean Cardinals fans will blindly support a loser. In the mid-'90s, after a several-season playoff drought and seeing mediocre clubs on the field, the Cardinals ranked sixth, eighth and seventh in the NL in attendance from 1993 to 1995. In the 1970s, a decade without a playoff trip, the Cardinals cracked the top three NL attendance just once.
It's kind of fun to go through the attendance histories of different clubs. The truth is, most clubs see the support for the team ebb and flow with its success. A few notes:
Red Sox: Fenway Park's small size makes direct attendance comparisons problematic as the Red Sox haven't led the AL in attendance since 1975. But they've averaged 30,000-plus every year since 1999 and 20,000-plus every year since 1975 (and nearly every year since 1967). That was really the year Red Sox fandom grew to a new level, when the Impossible Dream team won the AL pennant: In 1966, the team had averaged barely 10,000 fans per game. Of course, like the Cardinals they have put out consistently strong teams ever since 1967, with just eight losing seasons in 48 years.
Yankees: The Yankees have led the AL in attendance the past 12 seasons, although it will be interesting to see if that happens again in the post-Derek Jeter era. What's remarkable is the Yankees never led the AL in attendance from 1996 to 2002, even though they won four World Series titles. In their first title run in that span in 1996 they ranked just seventh in the AL. In 1991 and 1992, when the team was under .500, it ranked 11th in the AL. In the 1980s, the Mets often outdrew the Yankees.
Dodgers: The Dodgers have had the highest NL figure seven times since 2004 and led the majors many times since moving to Los Angeles. In 1978, they become the first team to draw 3 million fans in a season.
Cubs: The idea that the Cubs are the lovable losers and draw no matter what isn't historically true. The Cubs have essentially drawn well ever since the 1984 team came out of nowhere to win the NL East. Prior to that, the Cubs were usually near the bottom in attendance and even finished last in the NL in 1962 and 1966. Still, attendance has fallen about 8,000 per game since 2008 after a string of losing seasons.
Indians: Despite good teams in recent years, including a wild card in 2013, the Indians just haven't drawn well. Coming off that playoff appearance and winning 85 games, Cleveland still finished last in the majors in attendance in 2014. But that wasn't always the case. When they were a powerhouse team in the late '90s, they drew over 39,000-plus every year from 1994 to 2001, leading the majors in 2000.
Orioles: A similar story to Cleveland. The O's ranked first in the AL in attendance each year from 1995 to 1998 but haven't cracked the top five since 2005. Again, a string of losing seasons depleted the fan base and the recent success hasn't yet brought them back (and they may have lost some fans to the Nationals).
Giants: You can't get a Giants ticket these days as the Giants claim a 327-game sellout streak. Baseball wasn't always so successful in San Francisco, however. From 1970 to 1986, they ranked 10th, 10th, 12th (last), 10th, 12th, 12th, 12th, 12th, 4th, 9th, 11th, 8th, 11th, 9th, 11th, 11th and 9th in NL attendance. Yes, Candlestick was often cold and windy but so was the club: It made the playoffs just once (1971) in those years. No wonder the club nearly moved to Toronto in 1976 and to Tampa in 1992 (owner Bob Lurie had agreed to sell the team but the other NL owners vetoed the sale).
Angels: You never hear about the Angels having great fans and yes they play in a big market but they also share it with the popular Dodgers. But they've drawn over 3 million fans the past 12 seasons. Again: They've been a consistent winner/playoff threat.
Brewers: My vote for most underrated fans/baseball city. They've drawn over 31,000-plus each year since 2008, including three seasons over 3 million fans, despite just two playoff trips in that span and a small market.
Anyway, is St. Louis the best baseball city? I'd say St. Louis or Boston. But again, those two clubs and the Yankees have been the most consistently successful franchises over the past 50 years and you can't underestimate how that keeps the fan base coming to the park or watching on TV year after year.
What do you think? Do you agree with Bud?