Monday, May 16, 2016

Is Xander Bogaerts the Best Hitter in Baseball?

Don't look now but Xander Bogaerts has become a superstar shortstop. His three run homer yesterday was the difference in a Red Sox victory as David Ortiz got a well deserved day off.
Bogaerts is now leading the American League in hits with 53, his .338 is fourth best in batting average. Even more telling is that he leads every shortstop in batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage. Does that make him the best hitter in all of baseball though? According to a catcher for the Oakland A's it does. Here is a quote from David Ortiz that showed up in this ESPN article:
“The A's catcher told me the other day that Bogaerts might be the best hitter in the game. He said that to me as I was walking to the plate. He got a two-strike base hit up the middle and he says that to me. When you hear things like that and think back to a guy who two years ago was trying to make it at the major league level. We are talking about guys in their 20s and not even in their mid-20s. The future is in good hands."
The Red Sox are living in the best of both worlds. They are winning now while building for the future. The core of their team is talented and young. The farm system has more impressive talent on the way. The future looks great but the best part of the future might already be here and playing shortstop.

Friday, May 13, 2016

How the Red Sox Got Lucky with Jackie Bradley

Five years ago next month Jackie Bradley was drafted by the Boston Red Sox. While Red Sox Nation knew very little about him, I already knew plenty about him. He was a fellow Gamecock, a guy I had watched from his very first game his freshman year at The University of South Carolina.
The last five years have been filled with ups and downs for JBJ. I took his struggles personally since I always felt the need to defend him. It was strange watching my two passions, the Gamecocks and Red Sox, merge into one in the form of Jackie.
The truth is, the Red Sox were lucky to get Bradley in the draft. Red Sox fans at the time didn't see it as luck as they questioned the drop in his numbers during his final year in college.
A combination of a bad wrist and the pressure of being heralded as a potential top five pick in the MLB Draft made Bradley's numbers look pedestrian and it scared off a handful of organizations to the benefit of the Red Sox.
It appears JBJ has arrived a bona fide big leaguer. His glove was never the question but coming into the year he was just a .225 career hitter. He is now hitting .322 on the season while driving in 26 runs. He has more runs driven in this year than  Mike TroutGiancarlo StantonManny MachadoJose BautistaJosh Donaldson, Price Fielder, Joey Votto and Adrian Beltre.
Five years ago I predicted Bradley's tough final year in college would ultimately be a blessing to the Red Sox. It appears that notion has finally come true. Here is my article from June 10, 2011:

Jackie Bradley: Gamecock Nation to Red Sox Nation

The Red Sox used their second pick in the MLB Draft to take Jackie Bradley Jr. from the University of South Carolina. I have heard from many Red Sox fans since then voicing their concern over the Red Sox selection. They point to Bradley's 2011 numbers along with his wrist injury which appears to have ended his college career. I understand the concerns but I have been lucky enough to watch Jackie play the last three seasons. Let's break down exactly what the Red Sox organization is getting.
I brought up the concern over Bradley's 2011 numbers but let's not forget the numbers from 2009 and 2010.
2009: .349/.431/.537 11 HR 46 RBI 255 AB
2010: .368/.473/.587 13 HR 60 RBI 242 AB
2010 also concluded with a Gamecock national title in which Bradley was named MVP of the College World Series.
Coming into the 2011 season Bradley was thought of highly. So highly that when I asked around about the possibility of Bradley falling to the Red Sox in the draft I was told there was no chance. Bradley was projected to go in the top ten of the draft at the beginning of 2011.
The Virginia native can hit for power,  hit for average,  has a great glove with great range. The only thing he is lacking is the ability to be a prolific base stealer. He has 16 stolen bases in 22 attempts for his college career. Bradley did take exception to this explaining that the Gamecocks were never a team that liked to run.
The numbers at the plate in his first two years say it all. When talking defense I leave it to Aaron Fitt of Baseball America who called Bradley the best defensive player in the nation.
The 2011 season wasn't kind to JBJ, but it wasn't without it's good moments. First, let's take a look at his numbers that are the reason for concern among Red Sox fans.
2011: .259/.361/.468 6 HR 26 RBI 139 AB
Obviously these numbers are a step down from the two previous seasons, but why?
One possible explanation is the new bats. College baseball went to new bats in 2011 in an attempt to better simulate the results you would get using a wooden bat. These new bats are not as lively and offense across college baseball has dipped this year.
The difference was obvious from the very first game. The sound was different and the ball didn't jump off the bat the same way. There is no question that had an effect.  Jackie did go deep on Opening Day and it was remarkable how the ball seemed to still jump off his bat in comparison to everyone else.
A few weeks later Jackie homered against the rival Clemson Tigers and it "impressed" Clemson Manager Jack Leggett so much that he had Bradley's bat confiscated. Leggett felt Bradley was getting an advantage by "heating" his bat. This led to a week long controversy between the fans of both rival schools but did drive home the point that the new bats weren't limiting Jackie's power. New bats or not, if you hit the ball on the sweet spot it will go. I think the new bats did their job in that it provided more of a gap between the great hitters and the good hitters. Jackie was still proving to be a great college hitter.
Bradley hit six homers in 139 at bats with the new bats before he was injured, a pace that would put him real close to his 12 homer a year average.
The question and concern then turns to his batting average which dropped 100 points from his previous two seasons. Ron Morris, a local Columbia, SC columnist, wrote a column saying Bradley's struggles were because of the pressure of being a potential top ten draft pick. This did not sit well with Bradley but Morris may have been onto something. It certainly is possible that Bradley may have felt the pressure and maybe tried to do too much.  Slumps happen in baseball for a variety of reasons, the tough part was that Jackie got hurt before he was able to break out of the slump.
Bradley was still on the board when the Red Sox were ready to make their first round supplemental draft pick. It was a compensation pick they obtained from the Rangers for letting Adrian Beltre walk in his free agent year. It was the 40th overall pick and the Red Sox drafted a top ten talent. These are the kind of steals that can benefit an organization for years to come. It also doesn't hurt that one of my all time favorite Gamecock players is now going to be a key piece to the future of my beloved Red Sox. From Gamecock Nation to Red Sox Nation. It doesn't get any better than that.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Willie Would Have Had It

"Willie would have had it." I heard it the first time I went to a baseball game and have heard it or thought about it at every game since. The words would come from my father as he tried to teach me about the greatness of Willie Mays. Fly balls that hit the warning track or that would drop in front of or to the side of an outfielder would get the same comment from my Dad, "Willie would have had it".
My father grew up a Mays fan and was surrounded by Mickey Mantle fans. His neighborhood was just one of the many neighborhoods where fans of all ages debated over who was better. Mantle fans would talk about his ability to switch hit and when Mantle would struggle to match up with Willie they would argue it was only because of his bad knees. My father would respond accordingly, "fine, Mickey is the best center-fielder with bad knees and Willie is just the best center-fielder".
I was born in 1974, a year after Willie Mays played his final game. I never got to see him play but I was fortunate enough to take an unofficial life long course about all things Willie Mays. It was a course taught by my father and I had no choice but to attend.
Ken Griffey Jr. was billed as the next Willie Mays. He was a five tool player that wore #24, the comparison was easy to make. My father and I attended a game at Fenway Park early in Griffey's career. It didn't take long for my Dad to sum up his thoughts on Griffey. "He is no Willie, they should rip the #24 off his back". This opinion was formed right after a fly ball landed off the base of the center-field wall behind Griffey. Willie would have had it.
It wasn't just his range that my father would rave about. He would also brag about his arm. He would remind me that the great thing about Willie's catch in the 1954 World Series is that nobody tagged up. My father also loves to share the story of a game in Philadelphia that he attended. His seats were on the third base line with Willie and the Giants in town. There was a base hit to center and a Phillie attempted to go first to third on the great Willie Mays. "All I saw was Willie throw it and then a puff of dirt at third base and the umpire making the out call, the throw was not visible to the human eye".
Willie Mays is an icon and when it comes to icons they always tend to get better as the years pass. It is easy to exaggerate the exploits of players who played before the age of Sportscenter. It is much easier to be critical of modern players because we have access to every at bat and every play. It is impossible to exaggerate a play because we have video of it and it is also impossible to hide their failures because we have video of that too. Willie, Mickey, Babe, Ted had it made in that respect. It wouldn't quite be the same if they came around today. However, stats don't lie. Willie played the majority of his career in a 16 team league and against great pitchers. The league was not watered down and the rules favored the pitcher. The mound was high, the strike zone was big and there were many more pitcher friendly parks. Despite all this Willie put up numbers that are still mind boggling today. Hitting for average and power without the use of anything but his natural ability.

About a 15 years ago ESPN did a series in which they counted down the greatest athletes of the past century. Mays finished 8th and Mantle finished 37th. Secretariat came in at #35. My father, then in his mid 50's loved it. Not only did he feel vindicated that Willie was well ahead of Mickey but he also loved the idea that even a horse beat out The Mick. He said the only bad thing was that he couldn't go back to the old neighborhood and find those kids again. My Dad had won the argument and he wanted to take a victory lap in front of those kids. Those kids are all grown up now and somewhere they have come to the same conclusion we all have, Willie would have had it. Happy 85th Birthday Willie!

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Clay Buchholz: The Mental Giant?

I have been back and forth when it comes to Clay Buchholz the pitcher. Before last season I was optimistic that the lack of an "ace" may force Clay to move into that role mentally and finally reach his potential. That didn't happen and on April 29th of last year I wrote him off calling him The Mental Midget. I don't know what is more infuriating when it comes to Clay, his great starts or the starts when he physically and mentally implodes. There is nothing more frustrating than seeing someone with talent unable to fulfill it on a consistent basis. That has been Buchholz in a nut shell for his whole career.
Did he turn the corner last night? If you just showed me his pitching line I would tell you of course not. I would explain that this is what Clay does. He gets shelled for a few starts and then pitches great and you convince yourself he has in fact turned the corner. Of course, that has always turned out to be false. Was last night different? Is Clay setting me up again after I swore I was done believing he would ever live up to his potential? I am not ready to buy all in on Clay just yet but my eye brows were raised a bit last night.
Clay did something last night that he has never done. He fought through adversity. Usually when Clay has a good night it is because he feels good, his stuff is working, the weather is nice, the strike zone is big and he just has his "A game" going. Kind of like the person who is only pleasant and smiling if everything has gone right so far in their day. If anything, and I mean anything, happens to disrupt Clay his night is usually over pretty quick after. Last night he faced adversity early. Adam Eaton flied out deep to left to start the game. The only reason that ball did not leave the ballpark was because of the wind. Jimmy Rollins then followed with a single and then the big blow came when Jose Abreu went deep for a two run homer. Clay had faced three batters, given up three hard hit balls and he was down 2-0. The Clay Buchholz we know would have folded up like a cheap suit. He didn't. He got nasty instead. Who is this guy I thought? Is this the Clay Buchholz we all know and despise or is this the new Clay Buchholz, The Mental Giant? Stay tuned.