Results tagged ‘ Joe Maddon ’

Ben Zobrist: MVP (Most Versatile Player)

i-2Take a look at Fangraphs’ Wins Above Replacement leader board for position players since 2010, you’ll notice plenty of familiar suspects among the top 10. There’s Miguel Cabrera sitting atop the pile, followed closely by Robinson Cano and Joey Votto. Andrew McCutchen and his long flowing locks sit in the middle, as do a pair of popular AL 3rd basemen. Baseball’s next legend Mike Trout sits near the bottom of the list of 10, despite having spent what equates to an entire season in the minors. Suspended slugger Ryan Braun rounds out the bottom of the group. Tucked in among those perennial All-Stars and highlight-making machines is one of the last guys you would ever suspect: Ben Zobrist.

The Rays’ super-utility All-Star has carved out a highly valuable, highly important role on Joe Maddon’s roster by acting as the franchise’s Swiss army knife. Do you need someone to cover 3rd base in order to give Evan Longoria a day off? Call on Zobrist. Do you need a right fielder until Wil Myers is good and ready for the big leagues? Zobrist. How about a middle infielder who can make all the plays? Zobrist, Zobrist, Zobrist. He affords Joe Maddon a level of flexibility that few other players in baseball history can match and he’s been doing it for years now.

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James Loney and the Tampa Bay Turnaround

James Loney Mike MoustakasThe single most surprising performance from any player through the first 30-40 games of the Major League season has to be that of Rays’ 1st baseman James Loney. For the better part of the past 5 seasons, the former Red Sox and Dodgers’ 1st baseman has been a punchline to a bad joke. Loney’s offensive production at 1st base was severely lacking for the position’s standard and his power numbers were meager for any player, no matter his position. After being traded to the Red Sox last year’s mega-deal, Loney’s offensive game bottomed out. He hit just 2 homers in 30 games as a member of Boston and his .230 batting average left plenty of seats empty throughout Fenway Park. Entering free agency, Loney’s stock was at rock bottom.

Luckily for Mr. Loney, that’s when Andrew Freidman and the Tampa Bay Rays came calling. You see, the Rays have a habit of turning one team’s trash into their own treasure. They’ve been doing it since Joe Maddon was handed the big job on the bench and thanks to the Rays extra emphasis on defense, the slick fielding Loney seemed like a good fit. There was also the fact that Tampa Bay was not only able to offer Loney a contract worth $2 million dollars, but they could promise the 1st baseman something that could turn out to be infinitely more valuable: playing time.

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Who’s Pushing the Panic Button?

josh-hamilton-ap2Every single Major League team now has 30 games under their belts, which gives us enough data to start surveying the MLB landscape looking for surprises and disappointments. Fans in Boston, Kansas City, and Denver have to be thrilled with their respective teams hot starts.

However, for fans in other cities things haven’t been as bright. The Toronto Blue Jays were handed the AL East by most pundits before the season even began and they’ve fallen flat on their face out of the gate, carrying a 10-21 record that only the Houston Astros and Miami Marlins are envious of. Things are also starting to get dicey in Anaheim, where the Angels have once again stumbled in the early weeks of the season. Their supposedly vaunted offense has yet to earn its pay, thanks to its middle of the pack ranking in the AL in runs scored, and L.A.’s pitching staff minus Jered Weaver has been a disaster.

They’re not the only cities that are getting anxious about their ball club’s slow start either. Fans in Philadelphia were hoping that a once-great pitching staff led by Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, and Cliff Lee could rebound to carry the Phillies to the playoffs, but that hasn’t materialized thus far. The Dodgers were imagining themselves as the west coast Yankees with a budget to match. So far all that lavish spending has gotten them is 4th place and a struggling Matt Kemp.Even the handful of fans that attend Rays games have to feel a little nervous in the AL East watching their starting nine drop to 1-6 in games started by Cy Young winner David Price.

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Matt Moore is Overpowering the American League

Matt+Moore+Texas+Rangers+v+Tampa+Bay+Rays+GvX5OmMHY81lAfter carving the New York Yankees batting order up for 7 innings, Matt Moore figured that his night was probably over because he was already sitting at 105 total pitches. But Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon had other ideas, running his 23-year-old ace back out to the mound to face the Yankees in the 8th. Maddon’s faith was rewarded with a clinically dominant inning from Moore.

The left-hander shut that Yankees down 1-2-3, needing just 12 pitches to do so before yielding to the bullpen for the 9th inning. Moore finished the game with a beautiful stat line for a pitcher: 8 innings, 1 run allowed on just 2 hits, with 9 strikeouts to go against 3 walks. The only Yankee hitter that didn’t look completely overwhelmed at the plate was all-world 2nd baseman Robinson Cano, who had the Yankees 2 hits on the day.

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The Rays Revamp Their Defense

escobarthrowSince the day he was hired as the manager of the Tampa Bay Rays back in December of 2005, Joe Maddon has preached an organizational philosophy that starts with pitching, strong defense, and aggressiveness on the base paths. The organization-wide changes took a couple of seasons to fully catch on, but by his 3rd season on the job the Rays were fully buying in to Maddon’s methods, particularly on defense. The 2008 Rays possessed the most efficient defense in baseball, turning balls put into play into outs at a 70.8% frequency, just one year after having the worst fielding team in baseball, ranking dead last in defensive efficiency at 65.2%. In terms of defensive runs saved, the 2008 Rays were credited by Baseball Info Solutions as being over 100 runs better on defense than they were in 2007. That kind of improvement led Tampa’s pitching staff to cut out 300 hits from their opponents, nearly 2 per game, and it produced the franchise’s first winning season ever.  Those Rays would eventually fall to the Phillies in the 2008 World Series, but even in defeat Maddon’s principles had taken hold of the franchise.

Together with Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, Tampa has been able to continue to excel on the defensive side of the ball since that pennant-winning season, frequently ranking among the top 5 in most team defensive statistics. But the 2012 edition was a little bit different. While the Rays were still one of baseball’s five most efficient teams in the field, it was more a product of a fantastic pitching staff and Maddon’s frequent shifting more than great team play in the field. The team actually led the AL in errors committed while ranking in the middle of the pack in most of the advanced range statistics. That kind of thing is bound to happen when you ask Hideki Matsui or Luke Scott to don a glove. The difference between having the 5th best defense and the first may not seem like a lot, but for a team on a limited budget with an even more limited offense, it may have been the difference between watching baseball in October and playing it.

Under Maddon’s leadership the Rays have made the playoffs three different times, and in each year they boasted one of the best defenses, by any metric, in baseball. Although last year’s unit was better than average on defense, they slipped in the rankings just a little bit,  which may be driving Friedman’s pursuit of better glove men. The Rays front office has already acquired shortstop Yunel Escobar and 1st baseman James Loney to meet those needs, and they are hot on the trails of an outfielder. Both, Escobar and Loney, come with excellent reputations with the glove that are backed up by most advanced numbers, and they should thrive behind a brilliant pitching staff.

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Rays of Hope

“You’ve got to believe it. If we didn’t learn anything from last year you have to keep playing until you’re mathematically eliminated. In the meantime, believe that you can — and I do.” – Joe Maddon, commenting on his belief that the Rays can still make the playoffs

If any team in baseball history can pull of miracle finishes in back-to-back seasons it would have to be the Maddon-led Tampa Bay Rays. In 2011 the team sat 9 games back of a playoff spot on September 3rd before racing to a 16-8 finish to edge out the Red Sox and ride into the history books. Well, this year the Rays are vying to repeat history in what may turn out to be even more unlikely fashion. Tampa Bay is trying join the 1964 St. Louis Cardinals and the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers as the only teams to make up a 6 game deficit in the standings with 14 or fewer games left. Led by a strong pitching staff, a finally healthy Evan Longoria, and a surging BJ Upton, the Rays have already cut the deficit in half. And thanks to a potentially favorable schedule the rest of the way, they have the chance to do much, much more.

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Around the Horn: Previewing the Biggest Weekend in Baseball Thus Far

With the playoffs fast approaching, half of the teams in Major League Baseball are either looking at a playoff spot or still have fantasies of winning one. All that means is that we as fans have a smorgasbord of delicious games to watch between wanna-be playoff teams. Let’s take a look at the 3 best series of the weekend:

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Examining Jeremy Hellickson’s Success

Reigning AL Rookie of the Year, Jeremy Hellickson, is showing his success from a year ago was no fluke, and is now looking like one of the top pitchers in the American League. Hellickson is 4-1 on the season with a 2.73 ERA in 56 innings pitched and has struck out 38 batters against only 19 walks. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that he has made 6 of his 9 starts against elite offenses that rank in the top-10 in baseball in runs scored. Let’s take a look at how Hellickson has been able to have success during the 2012 season.

Hellickson, in his 2nd big league season now, has never been a dominant strikeout pitcher, possessing a mediocre K rate and a below-average K/BB rate. The Rays righty uses 4 pitches a fastball, cutter, change-up, and curveball, all of which are above average, with none being spectacular. When Hellickson does get his strikeouts he primarily uses his 90-93 mph fastball and baffles batters with his change-up, which is his most effective pitch. He accumulates only 6 outs per every 9 innings pitched from strikeouts, so Hellickson has to find another way to get batters out. This is where his ability to generate ground balls and the positioning of the Rays defense come into play.

For the 2nd straight season the Rays righty has had one of the lowest BABIPs in baseball. BABIP stands for batting average on balls in play and the league average most seasons sits around .295. Last season Hellickson posted the lowest opponent’s BABIP in baseball at .223, which means that the average batter turned into a deadball-era hitter when the put the ball in play. And this year its been more of the same as he has limited AL hitters to a .247 BABIP, another 50 points below league average. Some around baseball assumed that Hellickson is just getting lucky but he shrugs that off as well saying “I hear it; it’s funny,” Hellickson said. “I thought that’s what we’re supposed to do, let them put it in play and get outs. So I don’t really understand that. When you have a great defense, why not let them do their job? I’m not really a strikeout pitcher; I just get weak contact and let our defense play.”

Hellickson’s strategy is one of the most intelligent in baseball and he has become the master at manipulating batters to hit into one of Tampa Bay’s many shifts. A year ago the Rays had the best defense in baseball, turning a league leading 72.4% of all balls in play into outs. Tampa also had the best fielding percentage in the league, and was rated highest in defensive runs saved as well. This trend has carried over in 2012 as well.

Tampa Bay’s defense hasn’t been great this season, and while its too early to look at defensive statistics due to small sample size, the Rays have committed the most errors in baseball, ranking in the middle of the pack in defensive efficiency. They do rate 3rd in baseball in defensive runs saved, and Joe Maddon’s shifts coupled with Hellickson’s pinpoint location can carve up opposing offenses, reducing hitters to meek ground outs and infield pop-ups.

A perfect example comes from his most recent win against the Boston Red Sox, when the shift took away multiple hits, including a couple from David Ortiz. Hellickson pounded Ortiz low and away repeatedly with his fastball and cutter, getting the Boston slugger to successfully roll over for groundouts into the overshift. The Rays young right-hander dominated most of the Red Sox lineup in a similar fashion, winning his May 16th outing 2-1.

Hellickson has also been able to up his ground ball rate so far this season. He currently generates ground balls on an excellent 40.3% of all batters he faces. This is a very important skill because ground balls are more easily turned into outs and far less likely to go for extra-base hits when they do get through the infield. This also allows Hellickson to keep his pitch count down and work deeper into games, because he can get hitters out earlier in at-bats, a tough skill for young, talented pitchers to master. This will pay dividends over the long season, and should keep Hellickson’s arm strong deep into September.

It should be no surprise that Jeremy Hellickson has been able to repeat his success from last season. Anyone who says that he is a lucky pitcher who only relies on his excellent defense to bail him out is missing the point. Instead of trying to get every hitter out himself, Hellickson allows batters to make weak or partial contact with the baseball, which generates easy outs, creating a very pleasing style of pitching to watch.

Joe Maddon, Spray Charts, and Defensive Shifts: Part I

Part 1 of a season long series to discover the effects of the shift, particularly in Tampa Bay where its most ardent supporter manages.

Joe Maddon has employed many different varieties of shifts this season and I’ve tried to watch as much of the Rays as I can so far this season to gain a feel whether the shifts are working or not. From what I am seeing so far, the result tends to be a net positive, because very few hitters actually hit the ball to beat the shift, plays usually result in an out. This is just an early estimation, and because defensive numbers are so unreliable, particularly with a small sample size, we will have to put that judgment off for another day.

First let’s take a look at a few reasons Tampa can use the shift more liberally. One of the big reasons is that Tampa Bay has an excellent, hard-throwing pitching staff that ranks 4th in the American League in strikeouts. A couple of their pitchers, Jeremy Hellickson and James Shields like pitching to the shift, and will even position infielders themselves, based on which pitch sequence they want to throw. This caliber of pitching staff tends to further exaggerate the success of the shift a little bit, but could also play a role in getting inside hitters’ heads.

It is also difficult to weigh the mental effect the shift has on hitters, because when many hitters see the shift they change their approach and get frustrated. After seeing the shift during the Opening Series in Tampa, Nick Swisher said, “Righties, lefties, it doesn’t really matter. It feels like there’s 15 guys on the right side of the infield or the left side of the infield.” Other hitters, such as Albert Pujols, have also appeared frustrated by the shift after seeing a normal base hit go directly toward a fielder.

The numbers are interesting as well so far, with the Rays having shifted 125 recorded times so far this season, according to ESPN. According to baseball prospectus, the Rays rank 2nd in baseball in defensive runs saved. However in defensive efficiency, a statistic that measures the number of balls put in play that are turned into outs, they only rank 20th. It’s way to early to put stock into any of those numbers, as defensive efficiency and defensive runs saved require very large sample sizes. Tampa used the shift more times than any other Major League team a season ago, and produced a fantastic defense, so Maddon’s decision to use it even more this season isn’t too much of a surprise, just him pushing the envelope.

So we have 125 cases over the course of the 1st month of the season. Let’s take a look at a few of the times the shift has worked this year, and a few of the hitters that Maddon has had particular success with, and why.

Curtis Granderson

Curtis Granderson, as evidenced by his spray chart, is a dead pull ground ball hitter.

He has grounded into 2 outs this season on the left side of the infield, and 17 times he has hit a grounder to the left side for an out. This is not a recent trend either, because Granderson has always been a pull hitter, especially on ground balls. Joe Maddon knows this and intelligently deployed his shift, taking away multiple base hits from the Yankee centerfielder. In this particular video, Maddon places Sean Rodriguez, the shortstop, just to the right of 2nd base. He has his 2nd baseman, Elliot Johnson, playing deep in the hole with 1st baseman Carlos Pena holding the runner. The Rays ended up winning the game by 1 run, 7-6, and this double play was a rally killer for the Yankees. Rodriguez also took another hit away from Granderson, in nearly the same spot later in the game as well.

Albert Pujols

Maddon has also taken his shifts one step further this season, employing them nearly as often on right-handed hitters as lefties. Pujols saw the shift in all the games of a recent series. Maddon placed his 3rd baseman Evan Longoria on the line, his shortstop was planted deep in the hole, and his 2nd baseman was located on the left side of the base, shaded toward the middle. It was the perfect alignment for the struggling slugger because Pujols has been a pull hitting machine this year. 

Pujols has 2 total outs to the infield on the right side this season, and is making outs all over the place on the left side of the infield. Maddon’s wisely deployed shifts stole hits from Pujols as well. One rocket line drive down the line was snared by a waiting Evan Longoria, taking away a double, and a sharp hit grounder in the hole was easily handled by Elliot Johnson. Again the Rays played a couple of close games in the series against Los Angeles, and Maddon’s maneuvering could be giving the Rays a slight edge.

Mark Teixeira

The Rays also employ various shifts for switch-hitters as well. Mark Teixeira, the Yankees slugging 1st baseman, saw infield alignments that included 3 players on both sides of the infield, depending on which way he was batting. As you can see from Teixeira’s spray charts, he is a dead pull hitter when he hits the ball on the ground, and Maddon played him that way.

Batting left-handed

Batting right-handed

The Rays were able to turn multiple hits into outs on Teixeira as well. Teixeira hit a hard liner that was right at shortstop Sean Rodriguez, who was playing up the middle, and the Rays also took away a grounder in the hole with the shift.

Maddon is particularly adept at calling these shifts against the Yankees, and in the Opening Series of the season, he was able to successfully use the shift on half the New York lineup. This is an encouraging sign for Tampa Bay, because any advantage they can get on their wealthier rivals helps.

Over the course of the season I plan on looking at cases where the shift fails, the Rays pitchers who like the shift (particularly Hellickson), and the variety of shifts which Maddon will employ.

Thoughts on Strasburg, and Around the League

Stephen Strasburg claimed his first win of the year yesterday, a 4-0 victory over Johan Santana and the Mets. It was notable for him personally because for the 1st time in his young career the righty was allowed to exceed 100 pitches, throwing 108 with 63 going for strikes. Strasburg was superb over those 108 pitches, allowing only 2 hits and 3 walks while striking out 9 in 6 innings. The Nationals have won both of his starts so far, and the young right-hander has looked every bit like an ace.

Strasburg has compiled 13 innings, allowing 7 hits, 4 walks, and 1 earned run, while striking out 14. If he continues to dominate, Washington will pick up a lot of wins and stay competitive in what is shaping up to be a brutal division. Strasburg hasn’t fully hit his stride yet either. His location has been a bit spotty in both of his starts, and as he finds his rhythm as the season continues, the big ace should only get better. As you can see in this chart below, (provided from BrooksBaseball.net) Strasburg was a little erratic with his location against the Mets, and even so, he still only allowed 1 run. He’s going to dominate once he locates a bit better, so expect at least 3 games where he strikes out more than 10 batters.

The only problem is that the Nationals have already announced an innings limit on the ace, as they plan to end his season after 160 innings. Strasburg is now 19 months removed from Tommy John surgery and is still just 23-years-old, so Washington’s conservative plan isn’t a terrible one, but it may need to be altered.

Washington could consider skipping Strasburg in the rotation a couple of times over the next 2 months, thus reducing his work load going forward and keeping him available later in the season. This course of action could have some unintended consequences, such as getting away from a steady throwing routine as well as knocking Strasburg out of rhythm. Many pitchers like to take the ball every 5 days, while having 1 or 2 throw days in between, and some tend to struggle if given extended rest. Both Roy Halladay and CC Sabathia are on record with their disdain for extra rest, preferring to throw every 5 days.Another possible plan, if the Nationals are competitive down the stretch, would be to reevaluate the innings limit and up it by 20 or 30.

National’s GM Mike Rizzo has already said that neither of these would be an option “There’s not going to be a whole lot of tinkering going on. We’re going to run him out there until his innings are done … He’s a young pitcher that’s still learning how to pitch in the big leagues. I think it’s unfair to get him ramped up in spring training and start the season on a regular rotation and then shut him down or skip him. We’re just going to make him comfortable.” This could come back to hunt the Nationals, who appear to be a franchise who could contend for a playoff spot this season. It will also be interesting to see if Rizzo sticks to his word, if say, Washington is up 4 games in the NL East with a month to go when Strasburg, in the midst of a phenomenal season at that point, hits the innings limit wall. This story line will be an interesting one to watch play out.

Other thoughts:

-Tim Lincecum has been roughed up so far during the 2012 season, throwing only 7 innings while being rocked for 11 runs. The Freak had his worst start of his career last night in Colorado, lasting only 2.1, giving up 6 runs on 8 hits and 2 walks, striking out 3. He announced before the season that he was scrapping his slider, which has held true, as he has not thrown a single one. Throughout the course of his career he has thrown the pitch about 11% of the time (courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net). Lincecum claims that he doesn’t want to use it because it damages his arm, which is more than reasonable, but it may hurt his chances of success. He has been compensating by throwing his change-up and absurd 33% of the time. Timmy has always had one of the best change-ups in baseball, but the pitch loses its effectiveness if thrown more than its usual 19% of the time. Lincecum’s velocity has also been a bit down, which is normal for most pitchers in April, and his location has also been poor. If his velocity bumps up a mile or two per hour, and his normally stellar location return, everything will be all right in San Francisco.

-Amazing comeback by the Rays yesterday to get to Justin Verlander in the 9th inning, after being dominated by him all game long. Verlander is now 0-1, despite pitching 8+ innings in both of his starts, and is not having as good of fortune in the win column as he did in 2011. There is no quit in Tampa Bay, which is a feather in the cap to their manager Joe Maddon, for always getting his players to believe.

-Equilibrium has returned somewhat in the AL East, after the Yankees completed their sweep over the Orioles with a 6-4 extra innings win last night. Nick Swisher hit the game-winning 2-run homer in the 10th to give both teams identical 3-3 records. Elsewhere in the East, Toronto took the series from Boston, leaving the Red Sox at a miserable 1-5 to start the season. The Red Sox have played a tough schedule so far, and its not getting any easier any time soon. Boston’s next 3 series, all at Fenway: 4 against Tampa, 2 against Texas, and 3 against New York.

-Finally, Cincinnati managed to avoid the sweep to the red-hot St. Louis Cardinals, winning 4-3 behind Joey Votto’s 4-hit day. I will be in St. Louis this weekend to catch the Cardinals home opener against the Cubs with a most excellent friend, Patrick, and will have a post about it over the weekend.

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