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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Hanley Ramirez: A Hell of A Lot Better Than You Realize

We've all heard the buzz by now; Hanley's on the block, allegedly being offered around for a mind numbing deal centered around Carl Crawford.

The worst part about this, no, it's not the insane amount of money the Marlins would be taking on (Crawford's contract has approximately $118 million remaining through 2017) it's that Marlins fans are lining up to run Hanley out of town. Hanley's the guy that it seems the fans everywhere around the country but here have embraced (remember, he was the starting SS in 3 consecutive All-Star games from 2008-10). I'm still not entirely sure why he's so disliked down here. He's taken home a lot of individual hardware (2006 Rookie of the Year, a closet full of Silver Sluggers, a runner up MVP finish, a Batting Title). Baseball, though it is often identified as an individual sport really is a team sport unlike any of the others; you can't "feature" your best player, like you can in basketball. You can't tailor your game plan around your team's strengths like you can in football. As much as I'm sure people want to "blame" Hanley for how mediocre this team has been since 2008, blame Larry Beinfest for the shit-sandwich he got back from Detroit.

But the point isn't about how little blame Hanley deserves for the past, it's about how close he is to being the "old" Hanley. The one it seems most of the Marlins fans begrudgingly accepted because, you know, he was maybe the best player on the planet.

Fangraphs.com keeps track of a lot of advanced baseball stats. If you've never checked that site out and you love baseball, do yourself a favor and take a look, it'll really enhance your understanding of what's going on in the game. Baseball is really the only sport where you can say with complete certainty when a play begins and ends for the designated player. There isn't the complexity of possession/position like basketball, or the unusual schemes like football. The pitcher throws the ball, the batter either reaches base or makes an out. It's brilliant in its simplicity, and therefore lends itself rather well to statistical analysis. Put another way, there are very few things that occur on a baseball field that are not quantifiable, especially when it comes to offense.

Two of my favorite stats are LD%, which is simply the percentage of balls put in play that are line drives, and BABIP, which is the batting average of balls put in play. Depending on the year, the average BABIP is going to be somewhere around .290. A line drive percentage (LD%) around 20 is considered very good.

The reason these kind of stats are helpful beyond the stats many have come to know (as I like to call them, 'baseball card stats' - HR, BA, RBI) is that sometimes the process is more important than the result. If you've taken a test without studying, but somehow managed to get an A-, that's probably not a repeatable result. It's kind of the same thing here. You'd like to know, at least as much as possible, what's being put into a player's year and whether his success is sustainable, or if his struggles are a trend or a flukey outlier.

That brings us to Hanley. Using the baseball card stats, he's on pace for a good, not great, final stat line: .249 average, 25 HR, 85 RBI (and 23 SB, so he'd be 20/20 for all you fantasy nuts out there). That's certainly not the kind of year you'd expect from him, but given the noise around him, you'd think he was Mike Lowell circa 2005.

By anyone's admission, Hanley was very good from 2007-2009, and merely very good in 2010. In that time frame his BABIP was .353, .329, .379 (hello batting title), and .327. His LD% in those years was 18%, 17.5%, 19.8%, 16.3%. Aside from his 2009, when he had a .379 BABIP and a 19.8% LD%, nothing stands out as absolutely positively unrepeatable, and, given the relative consistency in those years, seems to be what you'd come to expect from Hanley in a "good" Hanley-type year.

Let's focus on 2012. 18.4% LD% (yes, higher than any "very very good" Hanley year other than 2009). What's the takeaway from that? He's making good contact at a very high rate. Given that his season is now 350 AB's old, that LD% isn't flukey either, so no "small sample size" alarms should be going off, either. So what's the problem? It's his BABIP: .273. You can have a low BABIP with a high LD%, but it's not that common (for comparison's sake, in 2011 Hanley had a .275 BABIP with a 15.9% LD%). Usually, good contact (a line drive) is going to get hits. Consistently good contact is going to translate to a pretty stat line.

Henley's holding up the end of the bargain he can control: contact. His LD% of 18.4% compares favorably to any "good" Hanley year. His other advanced stats do as well (it's all there on fangraphs.com, but at this point I assume you're already comatose so we'll skip that discussion). It's all coming down to his very low BABIP. To me, that simply screams horribly bad luck. If his BABIP were around .275 with a low LD% it makes sense. Having a BABIP that low with such a high LD% makes no sense at all, and at least the home-run totals (on pace for his 3rd highest season total) back that up; good contact gets good results.

This is why trading Hanley is a terrible idea. His peripherals say he's close to breaking out, and, at the very least, is putting in the process that made Hanley elite for a four year stretch. Maybe this season is too far gone for his baseball card stats to reflect the kind of year he's "secretly" having, but the kind of contact he's making doesn't result in bad years all that often, and when it does, it's just awful luck.

Given the kind of numbers Hanley's posting everywhere but his BABIP, it's only a matter of time before the "old" Hanley returns.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

2012: Year of the Fish?

The offseason is, mostly, over. With just about 6 weeks until pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training, the only player of significant consequence still on the free agent market is Prince Fielder, with most in the industry believing it to be a race between two teams, the Nationals and Rangers, for his services. With so much resolved - and the Marlins roster seemingly set - why not take an early preview of the 2012 season, and what it potentially has in store for your favorite, and recently renamed, baseball team.

What Went Right

The Marlins set out with a clear goal: upgrade the pitching staff and the team's defense. Enter Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle, Heath Bell and Carlos Zambrano. Zambrano and Buehrle replace the presumed to be retiring Javy Vazquez and the recently traded Chris Volstad.

In Zambrano, the Marlins get an exceptional starter who is - and I can't believe this either - 30 years old and entering his "contract season." A career .607 W/L%, 122 ERA + and 3 top 5 Cy Young finishes with the added bonus of having a chip on his shoulder and playing for a new contract? Sign me up.

Buehrle has been one of the most reliable starters in baseball, never failing to post 200 innings since his rookie year in 2000. A rotation that sorely lacked a left-handed starter now has a very good, and durable, one.

What Went Wrong

The Marlins were spurned by two incredibly high-profile targets: Albert Pujols (who reportedly received a $275 million offer from the Marlins) and CJ Wilson, who admitted the Marlins made the most lucrative offer to him. Both, ultimately, ended up signing with the Angels.

The first $100 million man in Marlins history, Jose Reyes, also brought with him some controversy, although not necessarily of his own doing. Incumbent short-stop, Hanley Ramirez, either gave his blessing for the move way back in September, is upset about the move or has finally acquiesced. In any event, the Marlins mismanaged their biggest free agent catch, arguably ever, by allowing the media machine to run wild on a favorite story: the perceived malfeasance of Hanley Ramirez. I believe - or at least I want to believe - that the Marlins had Hanley's blessings back in September, as the above reference Jayson Stark article states, and that this sudden "Hanley is unhappy" story simply resulted from members of the media needing to file something and turning to a tried and true standby of the moody afro-carribean ballplayer. Manny being Manny, Hanley being Hanley, guilty, even if proven otherwise.

What's Next

Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes is still waiting for his citizenship to be sorted out, and it's expected that he'll be declared a free agent sometime this month. The bidding figures to approach if not exceed $40 million, and most outlets report the Marlins have strong interest, even at that price.

Juan Carlos Oviedo, formerly Leo Nuñez, will probably have his issues sorted out and if he is cleared to return to the United States, odds are good that he's traded to a team in need of relief help, as the Marlins bullpen seems set with Heath Bell, Ryan Webb, Mike Dunn, Randy Choate, Edward Mujica and Steve Cishek, plus whoever ends up becoming the "long-man" (my guess is Wade LeBlanc).

Emilio Bonifacio will start on next year's team, but where he'll play is still somewhat open for discussion. I would guess that the Marlins have him penciled in as their center fielder right now, but they've also said that they will give their former Rookie of the Year, Chris Coghlan, every opportunity to compete for a job, and if he shows the hitting stroke that won the 2009 RoY, the move may push Bonifacio to second-base and Omar Infante to the bench.

Are the Marlins Better

Simply put, yes. The Marlins added a player in Mark Buehrle who addresses everything the team needed. Jose Reyes adds excitement and a dynamic quality to the top of the lineup. If he retains the approach that won him a batting title in 2011 and Hanley returns to form, you have a truly historic left-side of the infield.

While the Marlins are improved, the division, especially if the Nationals add Prince Fielder, could be the toughest in baseball in 2012. The Mets expect Johan Santana to be ready for opening day, the Nationals just added Gio Gonzalez and could be adding Fielder and the Braves and Phillies are largely returning the same team that just won 89 and 102 games, respectively.

What the Marlins did this offseason was both sizzle and substance, and will certainly impact their win/loss totals going forward, but their free spending ways may now simply be only a way to keep up with the rest of the division.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Problem Isn't Hanley

In the past week, there has been growing sentiment, if not outright fervor, around trading Hanley Ramirez, the team's mercurial shortstop. The question I must ask, and seriously, it's a big one - big enough to get me to actually blog again - is why? What is it possibly going to accomplish? Did we not already learn our lesson with Miguel, superstar for prospects trades rarely work out well for the selling team.

Usually, a trade involving the team's resident superstar happens for one of the following reasons:

(1) The team's best prospect plays the same position and may be a better player than the incumbent veteran.
(2) The player is over-the-hill.
(3) The player is making too much money to justify keeping him.

Well, we can certainly cross #1 off the list. The Marlins best prospect, depending on who you ask, is either Chad James (my choice) who is a starting pitcher, or Matt Dominguez, who is a third-baseman.

#2 doesn't look so compelling either. Hanley just turned 27. Generally, an athlete's "physical prime" is between the ages of 27 and 33. Suffice to say, Hanley's probably not going to need a walker in the near future.

That brings us to #3: money; a common theme with the Marlins. Hanley's making $11 million this season and $15 million each of the next two seasons before his final season in 2014 pays him $16 million. That's a pretty decent payday, and money he would certainly not see were he to have become a free-agent after this season had the Marlins faield to come to terms with him on a contract in 2008.

Here's the problem, that $15 million you're so eager to spend in free-agency; the Marlins already spent that. You want to see what $15 million bought the 2011 Marlins? John Buck ($6 million) Javier Vazquez ($7 million) and Randy Choate ($1 million). Ladies and gentlemen, Larry Beinfest!

The problem isn't Hanley, and the answer isn't trading Hanley. The problem is, since 2007, the Marlins have whiffed on a superstar trade - Burke Badenhop is all we have left from Detroit - and evaluated their free agent targets poorly. No franchise can overcome those missteps, much less one on a small budget.

So again, I emphasize, if trading Hanley is the answer, don't we need look no further than Miguel Cabrera, John Buck and Javier Vazquez and realize, we're asking the wrong question.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Making Sense of the Madness

Baseball can be a silly game sometimes. The so-called "unwritten rules" of the game dictate, among other things, that the game be played "the right way" with "respect" and never done "to show up an opponent." However, there’s another axiomatic baseball strategy: never let the score affect the way you manage or play the game. That’s the conundrum the Marlins and Nationals faced last night.

The Nationals were on the wrong end of, at the time, a double-digit deficit. Nyjer Morgan, the newly crowned villain of this on again off again rivalry dating back to the Nationals’ days as the Montreal Expos, was beaned in an apparent retaliation for what the Marlins perceived to be a deliberate - and successful - attempt to injure their catcher, Brett Hayes, the night before.

Morgan took the beaning with some dignity, he flipped his bat and jogged to first with his head down. Players know that you will have self-policing moments like that, it’s part of the game. As far as Morgan was concerned, at that point, the teams were ‘even’ and baseball etiquette dictated that they move on.

What followed is emblematic of the conflicting nature of baseball’s unwritten rules. Morgan was on base, his team was down big, and he stole second-base, and then third. Reckless, yes, disrespectful? Not so fast there. Here’s the thing about the stolen base, it’s incredibly risky. You get thrown out, you torpedo an inning, but if you steal second, or even third, suddenly your team is in business and poised, potentially, for a big inning. Stealing intelligently is a smart move, and given the decimated state of the Marlins catching unit, running on them isn’t all that risky. From third, Morgan scored relatively easily on a shallow pop fly and his basestealing ventures brought a much needed run. So where’s the problem? He did something - reckless and risky though it may be - that helped the team score a run. In a vacuum, that's the kind of play a "gritty" player makes. He puts his head down, he runs and he tries to get his team a run.

Baseball purists, and this is really an expression I hate, say that it's not about Morgan's run, at that point, it's about keeping "the line moving." At the time, the game was relatively young, double digit score be damned, and the Marlins were merely three games removed from losing a game in which they had a 6 run lead in the 8th inning. The point here is that, ultimately, there's no such thing as a safe lead with the Marlins, anything is in play.

You know the rest, the Marlins took exception to Morgan, threw at him again (well, behind him) and a melee ensued. So, who's to blame? While Morgan acted childishly after the brawl - taunting the fans and pounding his chest - what he did between the lines, both in the batter's box and on the bases, is not reprehensible.

The Marlins acted like a schoolyard bully, pushing and provoking until the other side finally said enough is enough and then they had the audacity to cry foul. Morgan hurt their player, they sent a message with the first pitch, after that it's malicious. You don't want him running on you, then don't hit him and let him reach base. You know how Ty Cobb or Willie Mays would have settled the score after the first plunking? They'd have slid spikes up into second. Hanley Ramirez's midsection thanks Nyjer Morgan for having the decency to slide headfirst.

And really, that's where the talking heads show how remarkably out of touch they are with this whole thing. They bemoan the state of play today and the lack of "respect" players have for the game relative to the glory days of the past, yet Morgan's retaliation of stealing two bases pales into comparison to the overtly injurious intent that previously manifested after beaning a base-stealer.

This fight boils down to one simple notion: self preservation. Morgan let the Marlins have the first one, hell, he'd probably tell you he deserved it. It's after that, when making a point turns into bullying that he said enough was enough and stood up for himself, much the same way anybody would regardless of profession if their livelihood was jeopardized. Remember, that's a low 90's fastball aimed at your ribs; not a pleasant feeling by any means. Even if retribution is the purpose, when does it cross the line from noble to vile? Does it take injury? Since he hurt one of ours we won't stop until we get one of theirs? Isn't this the mentality we won't condone among children far less grown men.

Modern sports, when everything is on the line, isn't about the fans, or even the team, it's about the player. The player wants the glory, the stats, the championships, the accolades, the awards and the payday (though maybe not in that order), and they sure as hell don't want anything coming between them and what they perceive to be theirs. And really, this overtly self interested state of sports was manifest in a microcosm last night. Nyjer Morgan didn't care about anything other than that ball was thrown at him with an intent to hurt him. If he gets hurt, his playing days might be over. If his playing days are over, everything that comes along with professional sports goes away. The fight wasn't about the Marlins and Nationals not liking each other, it was about one player reminding another player that this is his livelihood and he's not letting anyone take it away from him in a haphazardly justified attempt to protect.

So you see, last night wasn't about Brett Hayes or Chris Volstad or the Marlins and the Nationals, it was about Nyjer Morgan reminding all of us that the only person that has the right to take this game away from him is Nyjer Morgan himself.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Bob Davidson is an ass

It was a rough series for the Marlins, getting swept by the Phillies would usually be the only story, but the Marlins got railroaded by umpire Bob Davidson, who decided to add his name to a growing list of umpires under fire. In the first game of the series, Davidson took it upon himself to yell into the Marlins dugout after Cody Ross argued a called third strike. Allow me to restate that for emphasis, Davidson, in a play he was not involved in at all, took it upon himself to yell at a player. Remember, Davidson is not the crew chief either.

In the second game of the series, Davidson stopped play to yell at either a fan or into the Marlins dugout with the Marlins batting. Not quite sure what happened, maybe Davidson just wanted to remind everyone his ears were burning.

Tonight, Davidson turned in his finest performance of the series, blowing four separate calls at third base, the most significant of which literally cost the Marlins the game via a walk off win. To make it worse, Davidson did not back down despite conclusive video replay showing he was wrong, saying:
I'm right there. I know what I saw. I'm very confident I got it right.


Talk about exciting stuff! I've been to plenty of baseball games, I've seen all sorts of things, heck, even tonight I saw Hanley Ramirez basically play free safety and retrieve a ricochet off the left field wall and throw the runner out at third, but never, and I mean never, have I seen an umpire get the golden sombrero. Not even CB Bucknor.

Umpires have a very difficult job, they're asked to make split decisions on balls usually traveling in excess of 90 miles an hour. Fair/foul, out/safe, ball/strike. It's not as easy as it looks, I realize that. However, what is absolutely inexcusable is when umpires feel the need to assert their presence, to be larger than the game. As I've said before, when "Cowboy" Joe West has a publicist (and he does) there's something fundamentally wrong with the umpiring process.

That's really where the problem from tonight lies. Davidson not only blew the decisive call tonight, he's made a point of interjecting his presence throughout the series when it was never necessary. That he has the audacity to maintain he made the right call is even more problematic.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Second Half Thoughts

Rather than give a review of the first half, which, unfortunately could be summed up in one word: mediocre, I felt it more appropriate to give a look ahead to the second half, that gets underway tonight with Strasburgmania coming to Miami.


What to expect:

Come August 1, I think that one, perhaps two position players will find themselves with a new address. The names floated about include Cody Ross, Jorge Cantu, Dan Uggla and even Ronny Paulino. Of the aforementioned four, only Cantu is a free agent at the end of the year, while Cody and Dan carry with them the Marlin dreaded 6th year arbitration status that, at least for Uggla, figures to be a nine figure payday.

That, combined with at least a passing interest in getting Chris Coghlan back to the infield, makes Cantu the most likely trade bait. Nevertheless, the Marlins tried mightily to move Uggla this past offseason so he is potentially in play too, despite a strong first half that has many, myself included, thinking he deserves an extension that would have him alongside Hanley in the new ballpark

Beyond moving Coghlan to the infield, the organization has top prospect Logan Morrison tearing up AAA to the tune of.302/.412/.475. At some point, the first-baseman turned left fielder should be up with the big club, and a move of Coghlan to the infield would expedite that. Long term, Morrison still figures to be a first baseman with left-field merely serving as a temporary home. In the “it’s a great problem to have” department, both Logan and incumbent first baseman, Gaby Sanchez, profile in the Nick Johnson mold of first-baseman who hit in the top third of the order, not the middle third. Eventually, that situation will sort itself out, but in the near term, more offensively oriented talent is on the horizon.

On the pitching front, Josh Johnson is a Cy Young contender, Ricky Nolasco is basically turning into Javier Vazquez 2.0 and the rest of the rotation is, unsurprisingly, a hodgepodge, though Anibal Sanchez has almost undoubtedly exceeded expectations. The bullpen has been atrocious, but the Marlins are hoping to have found an internal solution in the sensational Jhan Marinez. Marinez is just shy of his 22nd birthday but has found seemingly dominant stuff, registering 60 strikeouts in 40 minor league innings between A Jupiter and AA Jacksonville. His recent promotion has the Marlins feature a trio of strikeout pitchers (Marinez, closer Leo Nunez and lefty specialist Taylor Tankersley) amid a bullpen full of question marks. While it seems that the bullpen ultimately will be the reason for 2010 being a disappointment, the Marlins are trying to lay the foundation for what hopefully is a power pen in ‘11 and beyond with Marinez, Nunez and fireballer Jose Ceda waiting in the wings.

Ultimately, the second half will be more about developing for 2011 than it will be for contending in 2010. The Marlins are, quite fittingly, a model of consistent mediocrity, posting identical home and road records (21-23) and having never won nor lost more than 4 games in a row all season, little hope seems to exist for a Rockies-like run needed to overcome the surging Atlanta Braves. Proponents of a second half surge will point to the 12 head to head matchups left with Atlanta in hopes of gaining ground, but that ignores what the Marlins have shown themselves to be: a .500 team with a few spectacularly talented players.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Fredi Fired

In a somewhat stunning move the Marlins fired manager Fredi Gonzalez. The team has scheduled a 4 PM press conference to discuss the matter in full.