Jul 07

The trauma of potential

Jon SooHoo/Los Angeles Dodgers

Silly me – when I described the yin and yang of Clayton Kershaw in Arizona on Friday somehow I left off the third rail. (Or maybe I included the first and third rails but left off the second.) Read more about that – as well as Vin Scully’s latest moment of ethereal insight – in my latest piece for Los Angeles Magazine’s CityThink blog.

 

Aug 15

Matt Kemp really can win the NL MVP Award, but will he?


Jayne Kamin-Oncea/US PresswireMatt Kemp has had every reason to smile in ’11 — except the biggest: contending for the playoffs.

Like drivers who see a good parking space but hold out hope for a better one, even though, for crying out loud, the parking space right in front of them is absolutely all they need, the National League Most Valuable Player voters will select the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp for the honor only if they can’t envision an alternative.

With barely 25 percent of the 2011 regular season remaining (and if you thought “That much?” you’re not alone), Kemp and his .975 OPS, 31 steals in 36 attempts, 28 home runs and exceptional advanced stats (an NL-best .351 total average, according to Baseball Prospectus) are clearly in the thick of the MVP discussion — and he’s there despite playing the majority of his games in the same pitchers’ parks that some will hold against Clayton Kershaw in the NL Cy Young vote.

But by playing for a team that is on the express track to a losing season, Kemp will battle those who feel that the MVP must come from a more close-to-the-action team rather than one on the outer reaches of the mall.

Personally, long before I thought a Dodger would be in this kind of discussion, I’ve been in favor of giving the award to the best player regardless of the team’s record.  Your value isn’t diminished by your surroundings, even if your surroundings are grim. I mean hey, would you dock Mother Teresa any Most Valuable Saint points because she was surrounded by also-rans? Heck no.

But the reality of a vote that hasn’t seen an NL MVP from a losing team since Andre Dawson in 1987 is fairly easy to suss.

As recently as 2009, Adrian Gonzalez of the San Diego Padres had a .407 on-base percentage, a .551 slugging percentage, 40 home runs and 99 RBI playing in a ballpark that is as smothering to batters as any in the NL. In wins above replacement, Gonzalez ranked fourth in the NL according to Baseball-Reference.com’s formula, sixth according to FanGraphs. In total average, Gonzalez was third.

Now, you’ll notice that Gonzalez wasn’t first in these categories, even the park-adjusted ones, so it’s not as if he had the right to feel cheated by not winning the MVP, which went unanimously to the dominant Albert Pujols of St. Louis. But somehow, Gonzalez finished not third, not sixth, but 12th, behind players who had inferior seasons at the plate … including Matt Kemp of the NL West-champion Los Angeles Dodgers, with an .842 OPS that was .116 below Gonzalez’s.

Kemp got credit for playing a more valuable defensive position and was viewed at the time as playing it well — that was his Gold Glove year. But Gonzalez finished fifth in the MVP vote even if you sift out first basemen, trailing Pujols, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder and Derrek Lee.

Only Pujols had a better season than Gonzalez when park factors were taken into account. But Howard and Fielder also had more home runs than Gonzalez, and each played on a better team.

If there’s a silver lining to this ’09 flashback for those rooting for Kemp in 2011, it’s that voters put Fielder in fourth place even though he played for an 80-82 Brewers team that wasn’t much more relevant to the 2009 pennant chase than Gonzalez’s 75-87 Padres. Fielder’s 46 home runs (one behind Pujols) and 141 RBIs (tied with Howard for the league lead) were too gaudy to allow him to slide any lower.

Of course, we’re not questioning whether Kemp is Penske material. We’re wondering how likely it is that he’ll become the CEO. Here’s who might be considered the 10 finalists vying with Kemp for the big office.

  • Albert Pujols. Thanks to a rougher-than usual start, Pujols is not as dominant as he was, although he hit his 29th home run Sunday to retake the National League lead from teammate Lance Berkman and Kemp. I’m not sure anyone playing the odds would expect Pujols to land anywhere below No. 1 in homers when the season ends. But the rest of his traditional stats are closer to mundane, and in advanced, untraditional numbers, he’s not really registering. A big September kick that propels St. Louis into the playoffs could certainly reopen his candidacy, but right now there’s almost no chance that a perceived down year for Pujols would outpoll Kemp.
  • Icon SMIJose Reyes’ MVP hopes have gone to the disabled list with him.
  • Lance Berkman. Pujols’ sidekick — who signed with St. Louis for $8 million this past offseason — trails Kemp in total average but by a slim .001. Kemp’s overall body of work (including 31 steals versus zero) should push the other Cardinals slugger aside, though.
  • Jose Reyes. Considered by many to be the other top candidate from a noncontender, Reyes leads the NL in batting average and steals and has shortstop credentials to boot, but his OPS is far lower than Kemp’s, and now hamstring issues have sidelined him indefinitely. Believe it or not, Reyes is still on pace for the most triples in the NL since Kiki Cuyler had 26 in 1925, but Kemp is putting some distance between them.
  • Troy Tulowitzki. Quietly, the Rockies star has become the shortstop to beat in the NL MVP race. According to FanGraphs, he co-leads the NL in wins above replacement and is by himself in fielding value, and he has a nice 23 home runs as the cherry on top. But speaking of Ripley’s, Colorado has actually fallen behind the Dodgers into fourth place in the NL West. That, plus the natural discount on Coors Field-boosted stats, has Tulo in Kemp’s rearview mirror.
  • Andrew McCutchen. The Pirates outfielder’s long-running snub from the All-Star Game, which finally ended with a last-minute selection as a replacement, might have done more to boost his national profile than anything on the field. Pittsburgh was a surprise contender in the NL Central for most of the season, thanks as much to the 24-year-old McCutchen (a Gold Glove candidate with a bat) as anyone else. But like the Pirates, McCutchen has fallen on hard times lately and has a .684 OPS since the All-Star break.
  • Joey Votto. The defending MVP (taking 31 of 32 first-place votes last year) has 19 home runs, barely half of last year’s 37, and his Reds are 11 games out of first place. He’s having a great season, no doubt (.949 OPS, 5.1 WAR, .408 wOBA, league-high 85 walks), but he’s not a threat to outpoll Kemp at this point.
  • Prince Fielder. The aforementioned slugger has marquee stats (.985 OPS, 27 HR, 89 RBI) that resemble Kemp’s. Milwaukee — the Dodgers’ destination Monday — offers a nice showcase between the two players. His plate discipline is better (77 walks, 73 strikeouts), but — are you sitting down? — he has 31 fewer stolen bases. Fielder also plays first base, and not particularly adroitly. The Brewers have a five-game lead in the NL Central, though, and Fielder is the biggest reason, at least in size.
  • Ryan Braun. Every year in Variety as the Emmys approach, we wonder aloud whether two nominees from the same well-regarded TV show will cancel each other out, opening the door for a third alternative. Braun (.965 OPS, 22 HR, 76 RBI, 22 steals) has worthy credentials, but his traditional numbers rate slightly below Kemp’s, as does his 5.1 WAR. The presence of Fielder and Braun on the same team could cause each to lose the inherent advantage of playing for a contender.
  • Roy Halladay. The best players on the best team in the NL are, as you know, pitchers Halladay and Cliff Lee. The Phillies’ top position player, Shane Victorino, hasn’t even logged 100 games yet this year, while Howard’s .840 OPS as a first baseman isn’t gonna cut it. Halladay (154 ERA+, 2.51 ERA, 8.4 strikeouts per nine innings) and Lee (137, 2.83, 9.3), on the other hand, have been so good that one of them (slight edge to Halladay) will be a viable option for voters who don’t see why a great player on the undisputed regular-season champion shouldn’t win. A pitcher hasn’t won the NL MVP since Bob Gibson in 1968, but that might not be any less likely than Kemp’s becoming the first from a losing team to win since Dawson. Halladay is looking like a Hall of Famer, after all — voters aren’t going to dismiss him out of hand just because he’s on the mound. Not this year.
  • Justin Upton. This one’s late-arriving on the radar, but coinciding with Arizona’s surge into the NL West lead is what’s becoming a monster season for Upton thanks to a 1.109 OPS since the All-Star break. Upton’s .379 on-base percentage, .564 slugging, 25 homers, 75 RBIs, 18 steals and .403 wOBA (weighted on-base average) all trail Kemp’s, but in most cases not by a ton — and Upton, a plus fielder, has moved ahead in WAR. This is a classic case of where, by the time the season ends, Kemp might lose the edge not because of what he did but because of what his teammates did.
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswireJustin Upton has slid into MVP contention — perhaps the lead position.

There are others who will get looks from voters, but no one better than the best on this list.

The NL MVP award is there for Kemp’s taking. But he’ll have to take it. He is absolutely going to need a finishing kick. Upton, in particular, is exactly the kind of player Kemp needs to watch out for — someone who meshes with his profile but who’s doing it with the pressure of a pennant race.

But it’s not just wishful thinking in a downtrodden Dodgers season to believe that Kemp will win the NL MVP. Not at all.

Nov 19

Regarding young players peaking early …

This article by Tim Marchman for SI.com about the development (or lack thereof) of young prodigies is an interesting read, and not just because it manages to mention Tom Brunansky twice in the third paragraph:

Since the most valuable thing in baseball is a young star signed to a cheap contract, I was fairly shocked when I learned the Arizona Diamondbacks are, if not actively shopping outfielder Justin Upton, at least willing to listen to offers for him. Perhaps they know secret things about him; perhaps new general manager Kevin Towers simply doesn’t like the cut of his jib. Most likely he’s available in the sense that all players are available. (Scoop: The Atlanta Braves would happily trade Jason Heyward to the Giants in exchange for Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner.) Possibly, though, the Diamondbacks have been doing some math.

Here is a filthy secret about young stars: They don’t generally improve. Baseball fans have it in their minds that a player will, at 27, be a better version of the player he was at 21. On average, that’s true. This chart, for example, is a bit technical, but shows that the typical hitter will, at 27, be about 10 percent more valuable per plate appearance than he was when he was six years younger.

What defines a great player, though, is that he isn’t anything like an average one. And Justin Upton is a great player, or close. Two years ago, when he was 21, he hit .300/.366/.532, good for an adjusted OPS of 129. In the last 30 years, just eight other hitters have done as well by that age: Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Ken Griffey Jr., Tim Raines, Rickey Henderson, Jason Heyward, Miguel Cabrera and… Tom Brunansky. That’s five players who are or one day will be in the Hall of Fame, one who’s on course to join them, a player who turned 21 in August, and… Tom Brunansky. Upton’s prospects are obviously high. …

Take our other young stars as guides to what may be in store for the lucky owner of Upton’s contract over the next five years. From ages 23 to 27, Rodriguez’s adjusted OPS of 153 was actually lower than the 160 mark he posted at 20. Griffey, Raines and Henderson all hit basically the same at those ages as they did at 21, while Brunansky hit much worse. Only Pujols and Cabrera hit new levels.

None of this is of course any knock on these players. Once you’re hitting like a Hall of Famer, there is no real improvement you can make, unless you’re Albert Pujols and thus capable of hitting like Mickey Mantle rather than Hank Aaron. (Scoop: St. Louis has a good first baseman.) The point is just that you can’t expect the kind of linear improvement from a historically talented player that you can from a merely excellent one. Baseball is hard, and going from great to greater is in many ways harder than going from good to great. …

If you’re wondering how this might apply to Matt Kemp, so am I. In some ways, it might not apply at all, and there’s certainly enough mystery about Kemp to suggest he might be an exception to any rule. But if it influenced me at all, the article made me think that Kemp could easily rebound to his earlier established level of success (2009), but perhaps just not ever exceed it by all that much.

* * *

Here’s the latest McCourt update, from The Associated Press:

Mediation between Jamie and Frank McCourt involving ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers will resume as they await a judge’s ruling on whether a postnuptial marital agreement is valid in their divorce case.

Superior Court Judge Peter Lichtman is expected Friday to meet with each side separately and present a settlement. Both McCourts are expected to be in a downtown courtroom and the terms of the proposal will likely be kept confidential.

Judge Scott Gordon has about five weeks to decide on the disputed 10-page marital agreement that exists in two versions – one that gives Frank McCourt sole ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and one that doesn’t. …

* * *

  • Get ready: It’s clear that next season will be the last before MLB adds a second wild-card team to each league. Starting in 2012, the wild-card teams will play each other for the right to reach the division series; the only question is how many games they will play.
  • The Dodgers had a lot of bad players in 2010, notes Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs. Only Pittsburgh, Seattle and Cleveland had more individuals who had negative Wins Above Replacement, and only four other teams (including the Angels) had more total negative WAR.
  • Been meaning to post about this for a few days: The setup for Saturday’s Northwestern-Illinois football game at Wrigley Field is crazy. (Update: Only one end zone will be used, writes Craig Calcaterra at Hardball Talk.)
  • Read this short elegy for slain publicist Ronni Chasen, by Margy Rochlin for L.A. Weekly.
Apr 15

Dodgers unlose! Dodgers unlose!


Mark J. Terrill/AP
Matt Kemp is wide-eyed after hitting a game-tying homer in the seventh inning.

The other team blew the leads. The Dodgers didn’t blow the leads. The other team did.

Oh, sure, the Dodgers blew two ties, at 0-0 and 3-3, but still – progress.

Bullpen (except for Jonathan Broxton) still shaky. Fielding still shaky. But still … progress.

So that I’m not up all night, just a little stream of consciousness to wrap things up …

Hiroki Kuroda gave up 10 hits but didn’t walk anyone over seven innings, while striking out seven. That’s practically a perfect game compared to what we’ve seen lately.

Matt Kemp had trouble with another fly ball defensively but homered for this third game in a row to tie the score in the seventh – he now has 13 RBI in nine games. He drove in pinch-hitter Ronnie Belliard, who is a crazy 8-for-14 to start the season.

Dan Haren mostly stymied the Dodgers, but needed 121 pitches to get 19 outs, and that extra work cost him by requiring Arizona to go its bullpen sooner. The third pitch by Aaron Heilman was Kemp’s two-run homer.

Justin Upton then hit his second tiebreaking homer in two nights, a monster blast halfway up the left-field pavilion off Jeff Weaver, to give Arizona a 4-3 lead. Upton also made a bigtime catch of a Garret Anderson drive to the top of the right-field wall in the bottom of the eighth to preserve the lead.

Arizona added a slop run in the ninth, but the Dodgers rallied with two in the bottom of the inning to tie, thanks at the end to a blooper-reel throw by Stephen Drew that allowed Manny Ramirez to score the tying run.

Broxton dominated in the top of the 10th, and then the Dodgers won it on a leadoff single by Blake DeWitt, an intentional walk to Kemp and then, ho hum, a walkoff hit by Andre Ethier.

Here’s a list, passed along by Mark A. Simon of ESPN.com from mikemav.com, of the Dodgers’ all-time walkoff hit leaders since the team moved to Los Angeles in 1958:

14 Dusty Baker
12 Manny Mota
11 Ron Cey
11 Davey Lopes
10 Andre Ethier
10 Steve Garvey

The final tally for Russell Martin in the series: three games, 571 pitches caught.

* * *

Hong-Chih Kuo struck out two in a 1-2-3 rehab inning for Inland Empire, reports Ken Gurnick of MLB.com. He completed his 20-pitch assignment in the bullpen.

Matt Magill of Great Lakes struck out seven, walked none and allowed two doubles and a single in a scoreless five innings tonight. This year, the 20-year-old from Simi Valley has struck out 12 in nine shutout innings.

Dee Gordon went 2 for 4 for Chattanooga and has a 1.006 OPS on the season.