Ben and Sam shatter the twenty-minute mark again for their longest episode yet, but first they help to break Bryce Harper out of his slump.

Episode 23: Benching Bryce Harper/Why We Were Wrong About the White Sox – August 17th, 2012, 14:42.

The Style: The intro sound is an unidentified grown-up character from Peanuts (possibly the lovely Miss Othmar?). Ben is pleased that there weren’t many complaints (at least to him) about the lack of Felix Hernandez discussion on the previous podcast, following the perfect game. After a sentence that “didn’t make any sense temporally”, Sam suggests they address the issue of whether they are going to stay consistent with how they refer to the time of day, and Ben adds the “pressing issue” of whether it is called “the Baseball Prospectus daily podcast” or “the daily Baseball Prospectus podcast”.

The Substance: With no resolution to either of those issues, Sam wants to talk about Bryce Harper, and Ben has picked the White Sox. They start with Harper, who has been very poor in recent weeks, leading Sam to wonder whether the Nationals could leave him off the postseason roster, as they potentially have four outfielders who are performing better. Sam offers the damning statistic that Harper has hit two(!) baseballs past the infield since the All-Star break, slugging .244 in that time. Ben points out that he rates well defensively and on the basepaths, so it’s not all bad. Roger Bernadina would likely be the main beneficiary of playing time if Harper was out, with Tyler Moore also available. The mention of Tyler Moore leads Ben to say it “would be very surprising” if both Harper and Strasburg were off the roster. Sam asks if that means Ben doesn’t believe both of them will be left off, to which he says yes, and Sam agrees, adding that he also still thinks Strasburg will be on the roster.

A discussion follows of whether there has been any mention of Strasburg in the bullpen; it seems not. Ben says he has read about Mike Rizzo being the only person in support of the plan to shut the right-hander down, with the GM sticking to the decision because it was made before the season started, despite much disagreement within the organisation. The duo realise that they have actually ended up talking about Strasburg despite intending to talk about Harper but Sam doesn’t mind, as he admits he doesn’t really think Washington is going to demote Harper anyway.

They move on to the White Sox, who have been averaging more than two home runs a game over the previous two weeks and currently hold a two-and-a-half game lead over the Tigers. Ben calls them the most unpredictable team, citing the BP staff prediction of third place, behind the Indians. He mentions that Adam Dunn and Alex Rios have gone from one extreme to the other in performance, while 35-year-old A.J. Pierzynski is the team’s best hitter, having his best year with 23 home runs and a .550 slugging percentage, which is gleefully cited by Sam.

Their ability to keep players off the DL consistently is also brought up. Ben says at this point they should be expected to do this based on track record, but it’s surprising no-one else has caught on. He wonders whether they can prevent injuries, or if their player acquisition is simply geared towards low-risk players, and either way how the competitive advantage hasn’t been lost. Sam adds that medicine is not an aspect of the game which the White Sox should have been able to figure out and keep to themselves, given that advancements should be made by other bodies, unlike a facet of the game exclusive to baseball, such as fielding metrics.

Ben recalls the negative narrative about the team over the winter, citing a piece by Brad Doolittle at BP about the White Sox and Cubs in which the White Sox FanFest event sounded particularly depressing, with GM Kenny Williams making some uninspiring comments. He finishes by resolving not to doubt the team again.

The Supplement: Harper’s fortunes would be revived as early as that very evening, with Sam’s mere suggestion that he might not be part of the postseason no doubt inspiring him to a slump-busting multi-hit performance, including this no-doubter off Johan Santana:

Harper’s .327/.384/.660 line and twelve home runs in the 44 games following this podcast demonstrated the potential that he is yet to fulfill over a full season. It also made it impossible to start Roger Bernadina or Tyler Moore ahead of him. The young outfielder would play every inning of the NLDS loss to the Cardinals but managed just one hit in the first four games before his first postseason home run in the fifth. He added three more in another tight series in 2014, making Giants fans and pitchers alike terrified every time he came to the plate. Two-and-a-half years on, we are still waiting for that truly stellar season to come together. Despite having almost 1500 major league PA, Harper is still just 22 and has plenty of time to achieve his potential, but has the misfortune to constantly be compared to Trout (who had just a couple of hundred PA of poor performance before becoming the best player in baseball), and also has thrown up a few injury concerns as a result of his high-intensity approach.

Of course, Strasburg was shut down as planned, not without significant public outcry. It is notable that even now, less than a month away from Strasburg’s final start, Sam can’t really believe that the Nationals would go into the postseason without their ace, and that opinion was reflective of many fans. The move has been successful so far from a health perspective, as Strasburg led the league in games started in 2014, in addition to leading the NL in strikeouts. The right-hander did get his shot at the postseason two years later, although it did not go quite to plan, as he lasted just five innings (despite only allowing one run) and took the loss in a 3-2 Giants victory.

The White Sox would come up short in 2012, and subsequently test Ben’s resolve to never doubt them again. They played sub-.500 ball the rest of the way to cough up their 2 1/2 game lead, finishing three games behind the Tigers at 85-77. They were truly awful in 2013, barely avoiding a 100-loss season at 63-99 (their Pythagorean record of 67-95 wasn’t much better) and while improved in 2014, never realistically looked like challenging for a playoff spot, finishing 73-89. There is renewed hope for 2015, with Jeff Samardzija, Adam LaRoche, Melky Cabrera and David Robertson joining the likes of Chris Sale and Jose Abreu, so perhaps Ben’s resolve won’t be challenged this year (assuming he hadn’t already given up on Chicago again after 2013).

They also seem to have lost some of their magic when it comes to injury prevention: while still comfortably in the bottom half, they only had the seventh-fewest days lost to the DL in 2013. That dropped further in 2014, when they were just 14th. Their average over recent years is still strong but they no longer appear as such an outlier, and perhaps they simply went through a particularly lucky run of durable players. It will be interesting to see if they have a truly bad season when it comes to injuries in upcoming years, or whether they can return to the top of these lists.

 

Episode 24: The Rays Are Rolling/Assessing the Angels’ Strange Season – August 20th, 2012, 21:44.

The Style: After an unusually relevant card-shuffling intro sound, Sam leads off (today it’s “the daily podcast from Baseball Prospectus” for those keeping track) by announcing that he spent the weekend killing ants, while Ben spent his weekend lying by a pool, which Ben makes much less glamorous by adding that he has been bitten.

The Substance: Ben wants to talk about the Rays-Angels series over the weekend, and Sam just wants to talk about the Angels, so they figure the two topics will run into one another. Once Sam manages to say Rays-Angels instead of A’s-Rangers (say that ten times fast), Ben talks about how the Rays have just swept the Angels, outscoring them 37-14, despite facing a rotation that could be the best in the majors: Wilson, Greinke, Haren and Weaver. Los Angeles is now 4 ½ games back in the wild card race, while Tampa Bay leads the way.

Ben contrasts the two teams’ approaches at the deadline, with the Rays’ only move being the addition of Ryan Roberts. He says that at the time it feels like the team was caught between looking to the future and going for it in 2012, but ultimately didn’t give up anything they might regret down the line and now seem to be in good shape.

The Angels, meanwhile, gave up some prospects (Jean Segura, Johnny Hellweg and Ariel Pena) in the Greinke trade and appear to have not got much out of it. Ben asks if this is an example of one team making better adjustments to the new wild card format than the other. Sam says there were rumours of the two teams making a trade with James Shields going to LA and prospects heading to the Rays, which would have made the difference even more stark. He recalls a discussion with R.J. Anderson in which R.J. remarked that it seemed unfair that the Rays would do nothing because of the injuries to Longoria and Joyce, as they were not equipped to compete without them.

Sam mentions that part of the issue is that Tampa Bay may not consider the wild card a prize worth giving up much for. Nevertheless, they are on course to be in the playoffs for the fourth time in five years. He contrasts the differing directions of the two teams, with the Rays having lengthy, team-friendly contracts for players like Longoria, Zobrist and Moore, while the Angels invested a huge amount in the previous offseason and missing the playoffs could therefore cause them to lose a lot of their core support, as well as calling Mike Scioscia’s job into question.

Sam thinks there is something nice about being a team like the Rays with less investment, because it relieves some of the pressure of competing for championships and does not force them to make moves for PR purposes, such as the Vernon Wells deal. Ben says it doesn’t look great that the A’s are four games ahead, which is Sam’s cue to move fully to his topic: how incredible it is that the Angels are bad.

The Angels are two games over .500, despite adding Mike Trout (listed twice for importance), Albert Pujols, C.J. Wilson, Chris Iannetta, LaTroy Hawkins, Ernesto Frieri, and the benefit of not having Jeff Mathis. Sam wants to know if Ben thinks we should change our opinion of Jerry Dipoto.

Ben didn’t think the moves would produce a .500 team, nor did he expect Haren to fall apart. He notes some poor performance in the bullpen and a lot of players who sound like they should be good. Ben wonders if they are the inverse of the Orioles and everything is breaking the wrong way. Sam thinks both Haren and Ervin Santana could be hurt, causing them to be around 30 runs worse than expected. Greinke has been “mysteriously bad” and the team is slightly underperforming their run differential. The lineup has been good overall, the defense has been good and Wilson and Weaver have both performed, so Sam concludes it isn’t fair to judge Dipoto on short-term results and he hasn’t changed his mind on him or the front office.

Ben also doesn’t think signing Pujols should change anyone’s opinion of a GM, given that it’s neither a value nor an overpay for an overrated veteran. He asks Sam if he expects Scioscia to go, given that he predates the GM and that it would not look good if the team finished with this kind of record. Sam does not think he will lose his job, as there is no obvious tension and Arte Moreno still backs him. Scioscia is also still held in high regard in the area, although Sam admits some cracks are starting to show, and says that he has had a good run in a weak division, which has led to dissatisfaction amongst certain fans.

Ben talks about new GMs firing incumbent managers, pondering how much this phenomenon is due to a new GM wanting to put their stamp on a team, and how much it is simply down to the manager’s shortcomings. Sam guesses that it’s not so much about putting a stamp on the team as it is about getting a guy who knows that you hired him. The episode quickly concludes because Sam realizes it has lasted a ‘ridiculous’ twenty-two minutes.

The Supplement: Tampa Bay were 67-54 at the time of recording but despite a 23-18 record the rest of the way, they did not quite make it into the playoffs in 2012, with 90-72 only good enough to finish three games behind wild cards Baltimore and Texas. The Orioles put up a 27-14 record over the same stretch, including a three-game sweep of the Rays in early September that all but ended their hopes. The decision not to go for it with a big move or two therefore didn’t haunt the Rays as it could have done if they had missed by a single game, but it’s perhaps still close enough to wonder.

The team’s perception now is arguably very different to what it was in the latter stages of 2012, particularly with Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon gone. Of some of the players listed on team-friendly deals, Zobrist is now in Oakland, Moore is recovering from Tommy John surgery, and Longoria had the worst year of his career in 2014. There is still some excellent young pitching still on the team and the rest of a well-respected front office, headed by Matt Silverman, still intact despite Friedman’s departure, although questions will inevitably be asked about whether the team can perform as well without Friedman and Maddon if they get off to a slow start.

The Angels were just as good as Baltimore down the stretch, going 27-13 from this episode on. Although they had dug themselves too deep of a hole to catch Oakland or Texas, they did finish at a much more respectable 89-73, lending credence to the idea that it had simply been a season in which things perhaps had not fallen in their favour. Mike Scioscia kept his job, and did so again despite a very disappointing 2013 season, in which the Angels were under .500 (78-84) despite another remarkable season from Trout. They may have regretted the Greinke trade in 2013, when Segura was excellent, but that did not continue into 2014 and neither Pena nor Hellweg really had an impact, making the deal slightly less painful thus far. If Segura rebounds to become a significantly above-average shortstop for years to come, this deal will not age well.

Los Angeles finally broke through and won the division in 2014, fuelled by an intimidatingly deep lineup that contained virtually no below-average hitters and aided by a monumental Oakland collapse. Their postseason run was still a tremendous letdown, as the upstart Royals swept them with ease, but it finally felt like a season in which they reached the expectations of the previous two years. The question now is whether they can back up what should continue to be a very strong lineup with solid pitching, as Richards recovers from a serious leg injury, Skaggs will miss most, if not all of the season following Tommy John and Wilson tries to rebound from essentially being a replacement-level pitcher. Dipoto’s big moves have not turned out all that well – Hamilton is injured again after two very disappointing years, and Pujols, while productive, is no longer in the conversation about even elite-level hitters, let alone best in baseball – so much may depend on whether the additions of players like Andrew Heaney and Matt Joyce can make up for the restrictions placed on the team by those monster contracts.

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