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    Tuesday, March 31, 2020

    TCB March Madness Finals: The Case for Lance Berkman

    [Over at The Crawfish Boxes, I was tasked with presenting the case for Lance Berkman in their March Madness poll. Of course, this article is also posted over there.]

    The finals of TCB’s March Madness are here, with Lance Berkman entering the final round after blowing out Billy Wagner and Jose Altuve narrowly beating out Craig Biggio on the other side of the bracket. I’m not sure that Berkman will be able to stop Altuve’s runaway momentum given that he beat out a 3000-hit player and one of the Astros’s two Hall of Famers, but Lance’s case absolutely still deserve to be heard.

    The Astros’ first round pick in 1997, and a local product out of Rice University, Berkman would go on to be the player that would define the 2000s for the Astros, giving Houston another Killer B to go with Biggio and Bagwell. He led all rookies that year in OPS (.949) and wRC+ (132), although it took him a little while to get his due: Berkman would finish sixth in NL Rookie of the Year voting that season, second place on his own team (catcher Mitch Meluskey finished a spot ahead of him).

    However, his recognitions increased rapidly from there, with him earning his first All-Star selection the next season and finishing fifth in MVP voting. He also led the NL in doubles with 55, tied for 21st in single season history and just one shy of Biggio’s team record set two years earlier. He did set the team record for extra base hits at 94, though, which still stands.

    His age 26 season the next year would be a repeat, as Berkman earned his second of six All-Star selections, improved to third in MVP voting, and led the league in RBI. That’s arguably his best season, although it has stiff competition from 2006, which saw him again finish third in MVP voting while picking up another All-Star appearance, setting the team record in RBI (136), finishing two behind Jeff Bagwell’s home run record (45), and posting a 163 OPS+.

    Of course, his 2004 and 2005 seasons weren’t bad, either, and those featured another of his strengths: strong postseason performances. Going by Win Probability Added, 2004 saw Bagwell contribute nearly half a win to the playoff campaign that ended in the NLCS in seven games. The next year, he more than doubled that, with his 1.16 Wins Added helping Houston to their first pennant in team history.

    When he was finally traded at the deadline in 2010, the final year on his contract, he even contributed to the Astros’ successful rebuild, bringing back Mark Melancon and kicking off a pretty successful trade tree (one that even includes Brad Peacock). His twelve year run in Houston could only be seen as a massive success. And of course, since then, he’s even started a successful secondary career as a part-time member of the Astros’ booth.

    Baseball-Reference’s franchise leaderboard sees Berkman appear in the top ten of 36 of the 43 offensive stats they have listed. That includes finishing first in on-base percentage, second in home runs to Jeff Bagwell, second in slugging and OPS, third in OPS+, and fifth in Wins Above Replacement. He had the type of the career that should have drawn more of a look from Hall of Fame voters, and he defined a decade of baseball in Houston.

    Friday, March 27, 2020

    Craig Biggio is the Easy Pick for TCB’s March Madness

    [Over at The Crawfish Boxes, I was tasked with presenting the case for Craig Biggio in their March Madness pool.]

    There’s no doubt the Final Four in TCB’s March Madness is a strong group of players. Jose Altuve’s on a Hall of Fame pace, Lance Berkman had a strong case even if he was ignored by voters, and Billy Wagner still has a good chance to get inducted before he falls off the ballot.

    But there’s a reason that Craig Biggio was the first player to go into the Hall of Fame as an Astro.

    The Astros' first round pick in 1987 (22nd overall), Biggio made his debut the next season as the team's catcher, and won his first of five Silver Sluggers the year after that in his first full season. In addition to that, for his career, Craig picked up four Golden Gloves, seven All-Star selections, and three top-ten finishes in MVP voting.

    And of course, there are the massive career totals. Biggio was of course the twenty-seventh member of the 3000, and had one of the most memorable milestone games at that, going 5-for-6 and starting a two-out rally in the eleventh that would lead to a walk-off grand slam. He's also the modern leader in hit by pitches, with 285. Those two, with his 1160 walks, puts him twentieth all-time in times on base with 4505, right in between Honus Wagner, Paul Molitor, and Rafael Palmeiro.

    Of course, while getting on base is the most important part of offense, that wasn't all that Biggio was great at. His 668 career doubles ranks him fifth in MLB history, behind only Tris Speaker, Pete Rose, Stan Musial, and Ty Cobb. And while not quite as impressive, his 291 home runs places him behind only Jeff Kent, Robinson Cano, and Rogers Hornsby among second basemen. Biggio even had good speed, with 414 stolen bases, making him one of the best multi-faceted players in the game. One of my favorite fun stats is Power-Speed Number, a Bill James invention meant to find players who fit both criteria; by that measure, Craig Biggio places tenth all-time.

    Of course, there was more than that. Biggio was also a fixture of the team, playing in Houston for a full two decades. The only one-team players in history with more games played than Biggio are Carl Yastrzemski, Musial, Cal Ripken Jr., Brooks Robinson, and Robin Yount. He was a leader on the 2005 squad that brought Houston its first pennant, even hitting .295 that postseason despite being a few weeks shy of 40 years old and starting at an up-the-middle position. His multiple position changes, first from catcher to second base as a 26-year-old, then to the outfield a decade later, then back to second a few more years after that, gave the Astros massive flexibility. And of course, if we're talking off-the-field attributes, there was his 2007 Roberto Clemente Award.

    And since this is a match-up with Joe Altuve, we might as well compare them directly. Through their age 29 seasons, Altuve has been better. It helps that he got called up a year younger, and didn't spend his first three and a half seasons as a catcher and driving down his totals as a result, but it is what it is.

    But, also for what it's worth: at this age, Biggio had twelve more seasons ahead of him. Jose Altuve is off to a Hall of Fame start, but even if he goes on to seal the deal on his Cooperstown case in the next decade, he still might not measure up to Biggio's numbers; after all, Biggio is not some marginal Hall of Famer. Altuve's current long-term extension, which takes him through 2024, would still leave him over half a decade short of Biggio's tenure with the team. Altuve absolutely has the potential to pass him eventually, and has had the start to his career that you would want to see to do so. But the legacy Craig left in his time on the Astros have left Jose a high bar to shoot for.

    Friday, March 20, 2020

    Building a Backyard Baseball 2020 Roster

    I wanted to do something more lighthearted to help cheer up what would have been the last week before Opening Day before everything went into quarantine. And one of the most lighthearted topics I could think of was to revisit one of the earliest things from my baseball fandom, Backyard Baseball.

    For those of you who didn’t have a chance to play the series growing up, Backyard Baseball was a series of video games by Humongous Entertainment that debuted in 1997. The premise was simple: it was a basic, arcade-style baseball game where all the players are kids and all the parks are just places they might play around their neighborhood. In that sense, it’s kind of like a video game equivalent of The Sandlot or The Bad News Bears. The series was aimed at kids, but the underlying game was actually very solid, and had a unique aesthetic sense that helped engrain it in the mind of young sports fans, making it a cult classic that has endured the years.

    After the success of the first game, the team expanded into other sports, where they hit upon another big idea: adding a handful of pro players (as cartoon kid versions of themselves, naturally) to the list of selectable options. When they circled back around to a sequel for Baseball, Backyard Baseball 2001 (so named for its release year: 2000), they upped their ambitions to that point and added one MLB player to represent each team, more than doubling the original thirty-person roster (one team go two representatives, but we’ll come back to that).

    Friday, March 6, 2020

    How Well Do the New-and-Improved Rangers Stack Up Against the Astros?

    [also up over at The Crawfish Boxes]

    As Spring Training continues, we shall also continue on our previews from around the division. Last week, I looked at the new-and-improved, 2020 Los Angeles Angels, so why don’t we take a look this time at the team that finished just ahead of them in the standings? After all, the Texas Rangers made some notable improvements of their own this winter.

    Once again, let’s take it from the top: the 78-win Rangers finished a full 29.0 games out of first place in the 2019 AL West race, with their Pythagorean Win-Loss rate three wins below even that. That gap isn’t quite as big as the Angels’, but it’s still fairly massive, and it will probably take both some downwards regression from the Astros and some upwards regression from the Rangers.

    I’m going to switch things up this week and start with the pitching, since that’s the area that saw the biggest movement. Last year, by Fangraph’s Wins Above Replacement, the Houston’s pitching staff was worth 23.7 Wins, while Texas’s was worth 14.2. In fact, these were the only two AL pitching staffs in 2019 to see multiple arms drawing Cy Young support, with the alliterative duo of Mike Minor and Lance Lynn representing Arlington. If we try and make them meet halfway: did the Astros drop roughly 4.75 wins, and did the Rangers improve that much?

    For the first part of that question: yeah, there’s a good chance the Astros are that much worse. Getting Lance McCullers back and more starts from Zack Greinke helps, and it’s not hard to see Jose Urquidy stepping in for Wade Miley. Forrest Whitley stepping up could maybe help as well. But Gerrit Cole leaving was just a massive blow, and there are other smaller losses to make up for as well, like Will Harris and Collin McHugh. There’s a chance that the Astros avoid losing those ~4.8 Wins, but it’s going to be really close even if they do, and things will be highly susceptible to down years and injuries.

    Meanwhile, the Rangers made big strides in this area, more than enough to make up the difference if the Astros don’t drop their nearly-5 WAR. Sure, new signees Kyle Gibson and Jordan Lyles look more like three/four-starters than aces, but that’s a massive step up for a team that was using Ariel Jurado and Adrian Sampson in those roles last year; things were rough after the top two. And of course, there was the arrival of Corey Kluber, who’s just one year removed from finishing third place in Cy Young voting.

    Maybe one or both of Minor and Lynn fail to repeat on their surprise 2019 campaigns. Maybe Kluber’s injuries mean he doesn’t pitch like an ace. But the mediocre case still feels like a rotation full of middle-rotation-starters, and that’s still respectable, especially compared to what they had last year! It’s also not at all hard to see them finishing as one of the three or four best pitching staffs in the AL, even if they have a mediocre bullpen. Who comes out ahead in this category between them and the Astros will probably come down to injuries.

    But…just like last week with the Angels, that’s only half of the question. And on the matter of position players…well, the Rangers are going to be counting on their new pitching staff to be picking up a lot of slack.

    In 2019, the Astros’ position players managed 40.8 WAR, which is probably not going to happen again since it was pretty historic, but the team’s lineup should still be good. Texas’s lineup, in contrast, was worth 9.2 WAR, fourth worst in the majors and ahead of just Baltimore, Miami, and Detroit (the Tigers somehow managed -2.6 WAR from their position players, which is astounding for all the wrong reasons).

    So yeah, our question is: are the 2020 Astros 15.8 WAR worse, and are the 2020 Rangers 15.8 WAR better? Last week, I wouldn’t commit to the Astros being 10 Wins worse, so losing another 6 Wins or so on top of that is the type of thing that we’re only going to see with some miserable injury luck or something.

    How do the Rangers look in comparison? Well, Robinson Chirinos will be missed in Houston, and he definitely improves what was a net zero last year. Todd Frazier improves third base, but not quite as much, since they at least had half of a decent year from Asdrubal Cabrera (plus, Frazier will be 34 this season).

    In the negative column, Hunter Pence will be missed, and Nomar Mazara and Delino DeShields were both shipped out of town. On the injury rebound front, a full season from Joey Gallo after his injury-marred-yet-breakout 2019 could mean extra wins. And…that’s really about it. This just isn’t at all close to 16 WAR.

    The Rangers definitely look better in 2020, and their pitching is especially formidable. Their efforts to improve are commendable at a time when so many in the league are outright punting on the season. But they still only have half of the equation right now, and barring multiple big surprises, the Astros should definitely be able to hold them off again in 2020.