MLB The Show: The Proselytism of Matt Holliday

If you’re a Cardinals fan, you know that there are a ton of Cardinals fans who want to turn Matt Holliday into a first baseman. Their goals are noble and fully understood. Holliday didn’t come to the Cardinals as the best of left fielders and he hasn’t gotten any better. Despite putting up consistently great offensive numbers for half of a decade, some people seem to remember him best for a defensive miscue back in 2009. Matt Adams has started 2015 with an uninspiring performance, and the Cardinals have a glut of intriguing outfielders. Moving Holliday to first, giving both at-bats and defensive opportunities to Grichuk, Bourjos, Piscotty, etc. sure sounds nice. There’s only one problem.

Matt Holliday has never played first base as a professional. In fact, he has over 200+ games at third base in the minor leagues but not a single professional inning at first. But is that a problem? First base requires the least mobility of any position on the field. It’s poorly-sourced common knowledge that anyone can play first base. It doesn’t require range. It doesn’t require much of an arm. A first baseman needs to be able to catch the ball and react quickly. But those are skills generally required of all positions. So, surely, Matt Holliday can play first base?

If you’ve been following this blog at all, you know that there is only one way to answer any question about players out of position. It needs to be simulated in MLB: The Show.

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MLB The Show: World War K – Three Blights in August

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Start from the Beginning – Episode 1: The History of the First Base War

Previous Episode: Can’t Get Fooled Again

Winning is hard, but apparently losing is even harder.  Pat Burrell and the Royals had set out to accomplish something far more difficult than sealing the deal on a solid division: blowing it in dramatic fashion.  In the past, the Kansas City Royals had made losing games look simple, but in 2014 they were a team of destiny.  Not only did they have the general momentum of the 2014-prime timeline on their side, but the improvements made by Pat Burrell and Strike-O-Matic gave them an extra push that was hard to undo.  Trading the closer and wrecking the up-the-middle defense by giving starting jobs to Brad Miller, Miguel Sano, and Jesus Montero should have been enough…  But was it?

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The problem with relying on a poor defense to sink the Royals should have been clear: the team’s three best pitchers were strikeout specialists. Strike-O-Matic, Carlos Martinez, and Kyle Zimmer all had K/9 rates over 8.00, which limited the amount of damage the terrible up-the-middle combination could do to them.  Even Jesus Montero was capable of catching a fastball, and Sano/Miller simply didn’t get enough chances to let fieldable balls get away.  On the offensive side, they were even barely a step down from the players they were replacing.  Miller played about as well as Escobar had, and while Sal Perez was a much better hitter than Jesus Montero, his 2014 numbers simply hadn’t borne that out.  And as for Miguel Sano, who should have been completely overmatched in MLB?  Well…

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MLB The Show – World War K: Trade Winds Part Two

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Start from the Beginning – Episode 1: The History of the First Base War

Previous Episode: Trade Winds Part One

Pat Burrell and the Kansas City Royals thought that trading for Major League pieces in the middle of May would be a difficult proposition, but they had underestimated the power of the trading block.  After putting out feelers for a few players listed on the block, it became clear that they were more than just available–they were priced to move.  The Royals would be able to upgrade both their rotation and their lineup with some judicious planning.

The first call Pat Burrell made was to Sandy Alderson, GM of the struggling New York Mets.  The Mets had not been expected to contend in 2014, and in the new alternate future they were more than living up to expectations.  They sustained a 9-18 record in April and continued to barely limp along into May. Alderson already knew there wasn’t much hope of competing, and wanted to move some of the older spare parts off for pieces in the future.

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Call Me Mabry

John Mabry stepped into the batters box in the top of the seventh inning with one out and a runner on first base.  He already had three hits on the night–a single, double, and a triple in that order.  Hitting for the cycle is never easy, but Mabry couldn’t have asked for a better scenario in which to knock the ball out of the park and finish the feat in style.  The year was 1996 and the “juiced ball” era was beginning its peak with a league average ERA of 4.60 and luminaries such as Jay Buhner, Todd Hundley, and Brady Anderson socking over 40 HR.  It was a balmy night in pre-humidor Coors Field, where the Rockies would give up a stunning 122 HR on the season (and hit 149 of their own).  The pitcher was Mike Munoz, whose career is a testament to both the time period in which he played and the ballparks in which he was moored (Coors and Arlington.  From 1989 to 2000 Munoz managed to pitch in 453 games despite a career ERA of 5.19.  Munoz was a lefthander, sure, but Mabry never had much of a platoon disadvantage.  In fact, in 1996 he crushed lefties to the tune of a .351/.382/.536 line.

After falling behind behind 2-0, Munoz grooved a pitch to Mabry and Mabry connected, crushing the pitch over the wall in right field. Just like that, John Mabry made baseball history.  He didn’t just hit for the cycle; he hit for the natural cycle. Single. Double. Triple. Home run. In that order.  Only fourteen players have ever hit for a natural cycle, making it a rarer feat than a perfect game or an unassisted triple play.

The Cardinals still lost the game.

There’s no more precarious position than the hitting coach of an underperforming team.  It’s not entirely fair, but the hitting coach has become something of a designated scapegoat for fans, media, and even teams themselves to heap all the blame of a faltering season. The reasons for this are clear enough.  There are three prominent coaching positions on any baseball team: manager, hitting coach, and pitching coach.  Teams are reluctant to fire their managers mid-season, and pitching is seen (perhaps incorrectly) as requiring patience.  Batting, however, is violent and quick.  Each at bat lasts only a couple minutes (unless Clay Buchholz is pitching) and ends with a definitive result.  Batters don’t often get injured while batting, and are known to have more control over the result of batted balls than pitchers. For these reasons, it’s easy to think that a change in batting coaches might fix a team whereas swapping pitching coaches might just disrupt the rhythm of a staff.

The 2014 St. Louis Cardinals present a particularly formidable challenge for a hitting coach.  In 2013, the Cardinals led the National League in runs scored on the strength of one of the most bizarre seasons in baseball history.

The 2013 Cardinals numbers with runners in scoring position weren’t just historic; they blew away the previous records and resulted in a split (versus bases empty situations) so huge that it will likely never be approached. I don’t particularly like the idea of taking an entire year of stats and declaring them meaningless, but projecting anything from the performance of the offense in 2013 is useless. You might as well be positing halfway through the 1941 season that Joe Dimaggio would never go hitless again.

Unfortunately, that’s what everyone has done. The Cardinals came into 2014 as favorites to retake the pennant, largely on the strength of the pitching but without much concern over a lineup that was losing one of its best hitters (Beltran), gaining one of the streakiest batters in the game (Peralta), and wasn’t nearly as good as it performed in the first place.

John Mabry had a rather unusual career as a player.  1996 was the only season he received more than five hundred plate appearances, and he put up a line of .297/.342/.431, which is respectable for just about anyone other than a firstbaseman in 1996. He had a couple more years clustered around ’96 in which he received 400 or so PAs. But other than that, he spent his fourteen season career as a bench and platoon guy.  That, by itself, isn’t strange except that Mabry was a corner OF/1b who played in one of the biggest offensive environments in baseball history and he was a rather unremarkable hitter. A career .263/.322/.405 line isn’t terrible, but it certainly doesn’t light the world on fire, either. Guys like him don’t usually stick around, since corner OF who can slug a little are some of the most fungible players in baseball. Most GMs probably think they have a RF who can manage a 90 OPS+ somewhere in their minors right now.

There are a few reasons Mabry was different. First, there was the impression he could play third base. He couldn’t, but still managed to be sent out there for 800 or so innings, in which he had .905 fielding percentage on the balls he could actually reach.  This perceived utility gave him a leg up on the Thomas Howards of the world. Second, Mabry had a hell of a sweet swing. Effortless yet strong, Mabry looked like he knew what he was doing, even when he struck out. He was Will Clark or Mark Grace without the results, but that’s often enough to get you onto a major league bench over a dozen similar guys. Third, Mabry was a classic clubhouse guy. Whenever he was in the lineup, you could guarantee that the announcers would talk about his intangibles, his willingness to play any position (he even pitched on two occasions), and his place as a role model for younger players. His future in coaching was a topic of speculation as early as 2004 during his last stint with St. Louis, three years before he would retire.

John Mabry is now the hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals and the St. Louis Cardinals aren’t hitting. The Cards are scoring 3.74 runs a game, good for third worst in the NL and fifth worst in baseball. They have scored fewer runs in more games than the Royals and the Phillies. The team’s OPS is .680. They look listless and lifeless at the plate, though struggling will do that for any lienup. And so, of course, people are calling for Mabry’s head.

In general, I’m reluctant to shift the blame from underperforming players to the coaching staff. Matheny and company deserve the heat for bad lineups, strange bullpen usage, and double switches that do nothing but cripple the heart of the order. But there are usually far more believable culprits-luck, age, regression-when it comes to poor performance. What could Mabry possibly be doing to turn Allen Craig into a pumpkin or to sabotage every prospect called up from Memphis? The idea is rather absurd, and it’s never seemed quite right to lump all the responsibility on the hitting coach.

So I won’t say that firing John Mabry is the answer to the Cardinals woes. But there might be enough to start asking the question. One stat I’ve left out above is the Cardinals’ home run totals. So far, through 66 games, the Cardinals have only hit 36 home runs. Barry Bonds started 2001 with a 66 game stretch in which he personally hit 38 home runs. Different era and Bonds was a freak. But god damn. The Cardinals slugging percent is at .360 as a team, third worse in the majors behind some pretty awful Mets and Padres squads, both of which have hit more balls out of the park.

What’s more, this squad shouldn’t be so anemic. You’ll never confuse Craig or Holliday with Mark McGwire, but they aren’t slap hitters, either. Matt Adams has been hurt, but he’s still had over 200 PAs to knock some pitches over the wall. So what’s going on? Just for a thought experiment, let’s look at some HR rates

In 2011, his breakout year, Allen Craig smacked 11 HR in 200 ABs, for a rate of one per every 18 at bats. In 2012 this number dipped slightly, to one HR for every 21 ABs. Not a big change, and arguably can be written off to the changing run environment. Then, in 2013 Craig’s HR power disappeared. He hit one HR every 39 ABs, but was still quite productive, in large part due to an almost unbelievable .474 BAbip with runners in scoring position. This season, Craig has hit one HR for every 42 ABs, his BAbip cratered, and he’s just now working back from a terrible slump that consumed the first part of the season.

Of course, Craig was injured and those injuries are clearly the most likely reason his power was sapped. So let’s look at Matt Holliday. In 2012/2013 he hit a HR for every 23 ABs. This season, it’s once every 59. Matt Adams 2012/2013 hit a HR every 20 ABs. For what it’s worth, throughout the minors he hit one every 18 ABs. In 2014, he has three HR in 194 at bats, a rate of one per 65 ABs.

I want to briefly stick with Adams for a moment, because he had a great few moments early in the season, in which opposing teams put a hard shift into play expecting him to pull the ball and he blooped it the other way instead. It was funny the first time, and still the second, but as it continued to happen you couldn’t help but wonder if he was letting the shift beat him after all. Adams had been a power threat and suddenly he was 2013 Allen Craig, relying on BAbip and misplayed balls turning singles into doubles.

Aside from Craig, Holliday, and Adams there aren’t any other good examples because no one else ever really hit for much power. Carpenter is hitting ever fewer balls out of the park than expected, but his totals last year were modest anyway. And then there is Jhonny Peralta, who leads the team with 10 HR, but if we’re theorizing that this is something that can be laid at the feet of the coaching staff, Peralta hasn’t been with these guys long. Also if I’m letting myself go down this rabbit hole, it’s worth pointing out that four of those HR were in the first couple weeks of the season.

So what am I suggesting here? That John Mabry is coaching the team to not hit home runs? No, because that’s silly. I don’t particularly like it when coaches and managers talk about how they don’t need the long ball to win (because it’s not true) but I don’t think anyone would coach HR power out of a player. But I do wonder if adjustments meant to improve, such as working with Adams on going to the opposite field, are leading to unintended results. Last season the Cardinals had such an inordinate amount of success “hitting it where they ain’t” with runners on that it looked more like a viable strategy than it really is. I think we’ve come to the point where I hope that John Mozeliak and the front office are at least asking for these questions. Find out what’s been going on at BP and in video sessions, and just make sure that Mabry and Matheny aren’t taking the wrong lesson from 2013 (and the only right lesson from 2013 is that baseball can be real god damn weird).

John Mabry’s final season as a player was a month-and-a-half-long stint in 2007 with the Colorado Rockies, the victim of his natural cycle all the way back when Bill Clinton was finishing his first term. His swing was as graceful as ever, though slowed by age, and it was clear it was time for him to move on.  He played the majority of his 30 inning at third base, even though at age 36 he really couldn’t play the position. He had four hits, including a HR, in 39 PAs and then he was released. He became a spokesman for a chain of stores selling hunting supplies, then a color commentator, and then a coach.

He finished 2007 with a .466 OPS, which is better than Daniel Descalso’s 2014.

 

 

 

Matt Holliday, the Clean-Up Spot, and other Magicks

The Cardinals are no longer in first place in the NL Central.

This has caused a lot of panic among Cardinal fans, and some of that panic is justified.  This was a team that was supposed to walk away with the division.   So what’s wrong?

Right now, Matt Holliday is batting .170/.264/.191 with runners in scoring position. Over his career, he’s hit .293/.388/.487 with RISP.  In Cardinal wins, Matt Holliday bats .352/.425/.549.  In losses, he’s batting .242/.275/.364.  So clearly the problem is Matt Holliday, right?  He’s just not hitting like he used to with RISP.  So what happened?

The stats show that prior to this season, Matt Holliday was obviously a “clutch player”.  During the offseason, he was walking to his car when an old beggar woman asked him for a few cents worth of change, so that she might buy herself a sandwich at the local eatery.  She had been on the street for days and was starving, and Matt Holliday was the richest man she had encountered in all that time.  Despite the fact he had just signed the largest contract in St. Louis Cardinals history, he refused to help her out and accidentally pushed her to the ground as he passed her by.

Little did he know that the old woman was actually a powerful witch.  That night, she sacrificed two pidgeons, spoke aloud from the Neconomicon, and spread their entrails in a circle around a 1999 Matt Holliday Bowman rookie card.  She set the ritual ablaze and since then, Holliday has been unable to make solid contact with pitches when, and only when, there are men on second or third base.

The Cardinals’ disgraceful fall from first place spurred Tony La Russa to investigate this curse.  La Russa is a wily manager, who’s been around a long time, and he realized that if he could make sure that if Matt Holliday gets fewer at-bats with men on base then he will hit better overall.  The Cardinals’ leadoff hitters and #2 hitters have been terrible this year, so the clever Tony La Russa figures that if he bats Matt Holliday third, then the curse will have less of a negative effect on the team.  He will bat with no one on base more often and therefore hit better.   He will get on base and Albert Pujols, who has never shoved a homeless witch to the ground in his life, will successfully drive him in.

I take issue with this decision.  First off, we have no way of knowing the accuracy of the witch’s curse.  Matt Holliday was the target, but what if the curse actually attached to the #4 spot in the lineup?  Hexes are notoriously finicky, and since Holliday has been batting there all season, the effects may have transferred over.  Second, we don’t know whether the witch is capable of inflicting a second curse upon Holliday.  If she’s still angry about their encounter on the street, and she has access to at least one gecko, she’ll be able to sap him of all of his composure.  Clean-up hitters don’t need much composure, but can you imagine a #3 hitter with no composure?  It will be awful!  It would be even worse than a leadoff hitter without scrap or a #8 hitter without heart!  Third, shuffling the lineup ignores the real problem: the witch.  The witch isn’t going to be appeased by giving Albert Pujols fewer at-bats over the courtse of the season.  If she’s a Cardinals fan, that should just make her more mad.

No, if La Russa no longer believes that Holliday can hit with men on base, he needs to track down the witch and give her a sandwich.  That will solve the problem.  Holliday will have his clutch back, and we can go back to winning baseball games.

If you can’t find the witch, just bat Holliday second, in front of Pujols.  That way even if the cleanup spot has been tainted by the curse, it won’t affect one of our best two hitters.  Further, the witch could go ahead and sap Holliday of all of his composure and we’d be fine.  Because all you need as a #2 hitter is grit, and the spell to deplete grit is far beyond the capabilities of any American witch.

Wait, you think I’m talking crazy?  Well, I figured that some of my readers might be those who think that Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols should be switched because one of them can hit with RISP and the others can’t based on a month and a half sample size.  And I was just trying to speak to them in a language they might understand: fucking crazy talk.