Sunday, May 31, 2015

Astros and Twins Among Early Surprises

Little was expected of the Astros and Twins, and 2015 was thought to be a rebuilding year for them. Houston hasn't had a winning season since 2008, and 2010 was the last winning season for Minnesota. Both teams entered the season with new managers. Both teams had some of the top prospects in baseball, Carlos Correa in Houston, and Brian Buxton and Miguel Sano in Minnesota. None of those players have debuted yet, but these two teams have found other contributors.

The Astros had their worst stretch in team history from 2011 to 2014. They finished a combined 184 games under .500 in that four year stretch. Houston lost over 100 games three seasons in a row during 2011 to 2013. They improved by 19 wins in 2014, going from 51 to 70. Houston also managed to get out of the basement of the division for the first time since 2010. Former Cardinals executive Jeff Luhnow had took over the GM role after the 2011 season, and was now starting to see his hard work pay off. The Astros had one of the game's best farm systems, and a reason for optimism for the future.

Still, no one expected the Astros to be in first place at the end of May. The Astros currently have the best record in the American League, and second best in all of baseball. Luhnow had made several moves in the offseason, acquiring Colby Rasmus, Evan Gattis, Luis Valbuena, Luke Gregerson, and Pat Neshek. Most prognosticators predicted only a modest improvement, maybe breaking .500 this year. A.J. Hinch was the fifth manager of Luhnow's tenure as GM, and he has finally found a voice in the dugout that has worked.

One of the big reasons for the Astros resurgence is the improvement of their bullpen and the emergence of Dallas Keuchel as an ace. The left hander sports a 7-1 record, and leads the league with a 1.76 ERA. The Astros may have found a compliment to Keuchel when they called up top pitching prospect Lance McCullers earlier this month. Colin McHugh has also been one of the team's better starters, but has struggled recently. The rest of the rotation is solid, but unspectacular.

There was concern that the Astros had too many power hitting, but high strikeout and low average hitters. It has turned out that they do have a lot of hitters like that, but it hasn't hurt them. They rank fifth in the AL with 219 runs scored, rank second in stolen bases, and first in home runs. They've done that with Jed Lowrie being hurt most of the year, and two sub-.200 hitters in the everyday lineup. They have been led by speedy second baseman Jose Altuve and second year outfielder George Springer, but have had a balanced attack.

Hall of Famer Paul Molitor took over as the Twins manager this year, but little was expected from Minnesota. After all, the Twins had been in the cellar of the division the past four years. The Royals came within a game of winning the World Series last year. The Tigers had won the AL Central the past four seasons. The White Sox made some major moves in the offseason, and the Indians were thought to have strong team. The Twins were a afterthought in this division, and picked by many to finish in last place.

The Twins made few moves this past offseason, other than bringing back 39 year old outfielder Torii Hunter. They also signed pitcher Ervin Santana, who was suspended 80 games for PED's before the season even started. Minnesota also kept Buxton and Sano in the minors, although they may be called up at some point later this year.

On paper, the Twins roster isn't that impressive. Joe Mauer is the most recognizable player, but he has an ordinary .707 OPS this season. Mauer still is a good average hitter, but is no longer the all around hitter he was in the past. Hunter has actually been one of the Twins best hitters this year, in what was thought to be his retirement tour. Past Mauer and Hunter, Brian Dozier and Trevor Plouffe have been two of the teams better hitters. Minnesota ranks 9th in on base pct. and 11th in slugging percentage, but has tied the Astros with 219 runs scored. They are somehow getting it done.

Pitching had been the Twins Achilles heel during in recent years. This season, it has improved. They still don't have an ace like they did in the Johan Santana era, but their pitching has kept them in games. Phil Hughes has been the veteran innings eater in the Twins rotation since joining the team last year. The Twins have also gotten a good performance out of journeyman Mike Pelfrey this season. Minnesota has also relied on two younger pitchers in Kyle Gibson and Trevor May. Gibson has pitched really well, and May has shown glimpses of his potential. Rounding out the rotation is Ricky Nolasco, another innings eater type. Not a great rotation, but much better than they have had.

The bullpen has been stronger this season for the Twins. Glen Perkins is a two time All Star closer, and is off to an even better start this season. New pitching coach Neil Allen has gotten results out of a patchwork bullpen this year. Journeyman Blaine Boyer, Aaron Thompson, and Casey Fein have pitched well as setup men for Perkins. Minnesota is awaiting the return of Ervin Santana to give them more innings to relieve stress from the bullpen.

Will the Astros and Twins continue their winning ways this year? That remains to be seen. It's a long season, and sometimes surprise teams fade later in the year. That said, these two teams are no longer doormats.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Kolten Wong Emerging As One of the League's Best Second Baseman

In 2011, the Cardinals drafted Kolten Wong with the 22nd overall pick in the first round out of the University of Hawaii. Two years later, Wong made his major league debut. He had hit .305 in over 1,200 minor league at bats, but was slow to adapt to the big leagues. In 2014, he won the second base job out of spring training; but had some growing pains along the way.

Last year's walk off home run in Game 2 of the NLCS against the Giants was a defining moment for Wong. Wong had an up and down rookie season in 2014. It included a demotion to the minors, a stint on the disabled list; and ended with a third place finish in the NL Rookie of the Year voting. Wong showed flashes of brilliance during his rookie season, playing outstanding defense at second base, stealing 20 bases, and hitting 12 home runs. Wong's 12 home runs in 2014 were the most for a Cardinals second baseman since Julian Javier hit 14 in 1967.

There was still some work to do on his game after his rookie season. Wong spent the offseason working on his hitting, hoping to improve his on base skills. Wong had been a .305 hitter in the minors. This season, Wong has adapted to big league pitching. He has raised his average to .304 and on base percentage to .355.

So far, Wong has been one of the best second baseman in the National League. Only Dee Gordon has had a better start to 2015. Wong ranks right behind him, and is pushing for a spot on the All Star team. Much has been made about the weak and aging talent pool at second, but Wong is emerging as one of the successors to the dominance that Chase Utley and Brandon Phillips enjoyed at this position for the past decade. Here's how Wong ranks with other top National League second baseman:

Player              Team   AB    R     H  2B  3B  HR  RBI  SB AVG OBP  SLG
K Wong            STL   138   19   42   6    1     5     18    3   .304  .355   .471
D Gordon         MIA   155   24   63  10   2     0     14   12  .406  .430   .497
H Kendrick       LAD  140   21   43  10   1     4     17    2   .307  .370   .479
N Walker          PIT    135   16   37  11   0     2     13   2    .274  .344   .400
B Phillips           CIN   129   17   40   1    0     2     17   5    .310   .355  .364
J Panik              SF     129   14    36  6    2     2     10   1     .279  .354   .403
D LaMahieu      COL  140   21   43   4   2     1     17    3    .322   .376   .417

Besides Gordon, Wong is arguably having the second best season for an NL second baseman. Howie Kendrick is pretty close. Brandon Phillips could sneak his way on the team since the game is in Cincinnati this year, but his numbers aren't quite as good as Wong's. Bruce Bochy will be the NL's manager, so he might be tempted to pick his own player, Joe Panik. DJ LaMahieu plays his home games at Coors Field, which inflates his numbers. The American League has the better crop of second baseman, without a doubt. Here's how Wong stacks up against the AL's best:

Player            Team    AB    R    H    2B  3B  HR  RBI  SB   AVG  OBP  SLG
J Altuve          HOU   158   22   50    9     0    5     24    14   .316   .374   .468
R Cano           SEA    150   18   38   12   0     1     11     1    .253   .294   .353
B Dozier         MIN    144   29   38   10   2     6     19     3    .264   .347   .486
I Kinsler         DET     154   25   49   10   2     0     20    5     .318   .389   .409
J Kipnis          CLE     153   25   51    9   2     4      17    5     .333   .399   .497
D Pedroia      BOS     145   15   40   5    0     5      15    1     .276    .363  .414
D Travis         TOR     133   24   36   10  0     7      26    2    .271    .336   .504

There are several AL second baseman having outstanding seasons; with Jason Kipnis, Jose Altuve, and Ian Kinsler leading the pack. One of them could get squeezed if Robinson Cano or Dustin Pedroia take the fan's vote. In his second full season, Wong has emerged as a top ten second baseman. His numbers rank among the majors best at the position.

Wong will only improve with age and experience. He seems like a player who wants to work on his game to get better. Soon, he might be the best second baseman in the majors. He has that good of an all around game. He has improved his weaknesses from last season, mainly the on base skills. Wong has uncharacteristically made five errors so far this year, but I would consider that to be an aberration. Kolten has shown great range at second base, and makes plays other second baseman can't make.

In his brief major league career, Wong has shown a flair for the dramatic. He has had many clutch hitters, including several walk off home runs. The most memorable was his one against the Giants in the NLCS last year, the only game the Cardinals won in that series. Wong's NLCS walk off home run was only the fourth postseason walk off homer in Cardinals history. The others were Ozzie Smith (1985 NLCS), Jim Edmonds (2004 NLCS), and David Freese (2011 World Series). He also had a walk off home run during an extra innings game vs. the Pirates a few weeks ago. His 8th inning home run against the Tigers put the Cardinal ahead for the win during Sunday night's nationally televised game.

Second base has been a revolving door for the Cardinals for most of the last couple of decades. They've signed veterans like Tony Womack and Mark Grudzielanek to fill in, used utility players like Luis Alicea, Aaron Miles, Daniel Descalso, and Jose Oquendo to play second. They've also converted players from other positions to play second, like Skip Schumaker and Matt Carpenter. Since the team traded away Tommy Herr in 1988, the longest to hold on to the position was Fernando Vina from 2000-03. With Wong, the Cardinals have their starting second baseman for years to come.