Chase Utley: One of the Best Ever

If you are reading this, there is a remarkably decent chance that you are a somewhat invested baseball fan. As a baseball fan, you probably ...

Sal Frelick

 Sal Frelick is one of those guys that just has to be underrated. He is a small man, but he has the bat skills of a goddess and the speed to go with it. I always feel like there is some notion that "ceiling" is based on tools. I believe it to be the exact opposite. Your floor is based on your tools; if it turns out you can't really process the game at the MLB level very well, then maybe your tools will allow you to run into a pitch every once in a while and make some solid defensive plays. Think of Nomar Mazara: the dude sucks, but he has some pretty big power and solid athleticism. What does this do? It doesn't make him a "boom or bust" player, it makes him a slightly below league average player. 

O'Neil Cruz is the prime example of this. He is considered "boom or bust". Well, what happened in 2022? He hit 233/294/450 for a 106 wRC+, played poor shortstop defense, and ended with a 1.2 WAR in 87 games. Is that a boom? Certainly not. Is that a bust? Certainly not. He was literally league average. (I'm not saying Cruz is a league average player, or that he doesn't have a pretty good future outcome, but the point is that he was neither terrible nor good.) Where is the "boom or bust" part of this? The reality is that Cruz isn't a particularly skilled baseball player, but he is a 6'7" behemoth with a cannon of an arm, historic raw power, and blazing fast speed. These tools increase his floor, because in the flow of the game, they allow him to make enough plays such that he can provide some amount of value. For Cruz to "boom", his tools don't have to click. It's the soft skills that have to click.

Anyways, this is why I think the whole notion that guys like Sal Frelick don't have a high ceiling is just bizarre. Look at Dustin Pedroia. The dude was an absolute midget without much power, but he had a very good feel for the game and played with good effort. He was around a 6 WAR player at his peak, which is absolutely incredible all things considered. Sure, maybe to be among the literal best players ever like Bonds, Mays, Trout, Ohtani, etc., you need insane tools along with great baseball talent. However, you can be one of the top players in all of baseball without the ideal package of tools that scouts look for. 

So, Sal Frelick. He only gets a 50 FV tag on FanGraphs, which basically implies that he is destined to be a league average player on average. The Bat (Always use The Bat for projecting lower level players, Steamer is fucking stupid and trains on a selected sample(I think). Steamer has him at a 111 wRC+, which is astoundingly absurd) has Frelick projected to be a mid 90s wRC+ hitter, which with his center field potential and strong baserunning, would make him around an average player. This is for his rookie season. I used to have my own projection system that could project player's careers, but I lost it, so I can't run his future prognostication. However, from my memory of that system, if you start at a projected 93 wRC+, you will probably peak at around 100-105. This would make Frelick an easy 55 or 60 level player, and this is just the median outcome based on a minimally selected sample. So, just based on his minor league data, Frelick should at least be a 55.

What I will concede is that the scouts tend to not believe that Frelick does have breaking potential in the power department. However, I don't know exactly how reliable this belief is, just because it is very subjective. Maybe there is no impending power breakout for this man, which a system like The Bat can't truly factor, but I just don't know. I'm ending this article on a lazy note because I am bored with it.

One of the best offenses ever missed the playoffs...

 The Houston Astros have transformed themselves into the premier franchise in all of MLB, consistently reigning atop the league since their emergence in 2015 (yes, 2015. They were the 2nd best team in baseball that year. Literally. Look at the SRS rankings for 2015. The Blue Jays were 1st by far, and then the Astros were 2nd. They just had a tough schedule and lost a lot of close games. You could argue the Royals were better because run differential undersold their winning ability due to their excellent bullpen, and they had made the world series the year before, so their success was somewhat sustainable. However, this is completely irrelevant to the article and do not need to turn this into a completely different article.*) Anyways, this was not always the case. Their tanking efforts in the early 2010s are well documented, but the events leading up to those dark days are often ignored. 

From 1997-2005, the Astros made the playoffs 6 times (back when making the playoffs was a challenge), including a 102 win season in 1998 and a World Series trip in 2005. They were led by Hall of Famers and lifelong Astros Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, but they had many lesser known cameos from other star players. The list of these players includes but is not limited to Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettite, Carlos Beltran, Ken Caminiti, and Luis Gonzalez . They also were supported by other more homegrown talent such as Billy Wagner, one of the best relief pitchers ever,  Lance Berkman, Mike Hampton, Octavio Dotel, and Roy Oswalt. In this stretch of consistently great baseball, Houston had just one losing season. This year happened to be their year 2000 season, the first of the new millenium. Let's talk about it.

The 2000 Astros A lineup, in my own opinion, is as follows:

Position: Player, age (triple slash)

C: Mitch Meluskey, 26 (300/401/487)

1B: Jeff Bagwell, 32 (310/424/615)

2B: Craig Biggio, 34 (268/388/393)

3B: Ken Caminiti, 37 (303/419/582)

SS: Julio Lugo, 24 (283/346/431)

LF: Lance Berkman, 24 (297/388/561)

CF: Richard Hidalgo, 25 (314/391/636)

RF: Moises Alou, 33 (355/416/623)

Just from looking at their stats alone, you can tell that this lineup was insane. For those of you who don't know who Mitch Meluskey is, he was an uber talented rookie who ranked 43rd in Baseball America's top 100 prospect list the year before. He also was a massive bitch. For example, he punched his teammate in the face because he didn't want to wait in line for the batting cage. After his excellent rookie campaign, he got injured, played a handful of more games a few years later and then retired. Complete waste of talent. While this might be the case, his rookie season was excellent and, at this point in time, he was an excellent player.

First baseman Jeff Bagwell needs no introduction. He was a bonafide hall of famer, and his excellent 2000 season was arguably one of his weaker years during his prime. As for second baseman Craig Biggio, 1998 likely marked the end of his hall of fame prime and at this point, Biggio was more of a B tier stud having a down year. Former MVP Ken Caminiti, who had returned to Houston after dominating NL West teams in San Diego for many years, was at the end of his rope, but still absolutely raked in around the 60 games that he participated in. Then, at shortstop, we have a rookie Julio Lugo, a very solid but frustrating player that was good but was never very consistent. We can't say the same about Lance Berkman, also a rookie, who absolutely raked and would proceed to have one of the best offensive careers the MLB has ever seen. In center, we have Richardo Hidalgo, a guy who had two absolutely absurd seasons (2000 and 2003) and some decent seasons in between. He likely wasn't as good as his 2000 and 2003, but likely not as poor as the rest of his career. Definitely a great player, on average. And finally, in right field we have Moises Alou, a man who peaked in his late thirties and was one of the most exciting players of the late 90s and early aughts. 

This was their best lineup, and while the team as a whole wasn't quite THAT good, Astros batters ended the year with a collective 288/372/497 triple slash good for an 870 OPS and 938 runs scored (had they been in the American league with a DH, their run total would have been even higher). In comparison, Guardians third baseman Jose Ramirez, who finished 4th in AL MVP voting in 2022, hit 280/355/514 for an 869 OPS. Imagine, throughout an entire season, injuries and all, your average hitter is the equivalent of a top of the line MVP candidate. Then, imagine playing through that entire season, and going 72-90. That's right. A team with an 870 OPS, chock full of hall of fame talent in their prime, won 72 games. How did that happen?

The obvious answer is pitching. The Astros allowed 944 runs and had a 5.42 staff ERA. Remember the pitchers I mentioned earlier? Randy Johnson, Roger Clemens, Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettite, Mike Hampton, Octavio Dotel and Billy Wagner? Well, only two of those pitchers were on the 2000 team. Billy Wagner was already established as one of the best relievers in baseball, and he finished 4th in Cy Young voting in 1999. However, kind of like Josh Hader in 2022, he absolutely fell apart for a short stretch of time, posting a 6.18 ERA in 27 innings before getting surgery on a torn flexor tendon. He returned to form in 2001, and remained a premier relief ace until his retirement after the 2010 season. Octavio Dotel, originally called up as a starter, was absolutely horrendous in his first season in Houston. He pitched 91 innings as a starter to the tune of a 5.84 ERA. Of course, the Astros made him their closer late in the year, and he was much stronger the rest of the way, striking out 13 batters per 9 innings and maintaining a very solid for the era 4.24 ERA. Over the next 3 seasons, Dotel was one of the best long relievers the league has ever seen. However, for 2000, his performance still left something to be desired. 

Jose Lima was another massive disappointment for this pitching staff. After an excellent 1999 in which he racked up 246 innings to go along with a 3.58 ERA, 3.76 FIP, and a 125 ERA+ en route to a 4th place cy young finish (tied with his teammates Billy Wagner. Mike Hampton, another Astro, finished 2nd that year before being traded to the Mets in a package that landed Houston Octavio Dotel. What a team. They won 97 games.), Lima was awful in 2000, posting a 6.65 ERA over 196 innings. His career went downhill from there, as he eventually pitched for the Detroit Tigers. 

The rest of the pitching staff was rather insignificant, and this article isn't about them. Dwight Gooden pitched a crisp 4 innings for this team in his final season before heading to the AL East, first joining the Rays and sucking, and then joining the Yankees and actually pitching quite well. He logged some innings in the playoffs, including an inspiring 4 run outing over 1.1 innings in the Yankees 11-1 game 4 loss to the Oakland Athletics in the ALDS. Truly incredible stuff. 

So, the 2000 Astros were quite good, but they also weren't. They did a good job rebuilding their pitching staff after this atrocity. Ironically, their 2005 world series season came with a massively over the hill Biggio and Bagwell duo on a team that scored just 693 runs. Of course, they had Roy Oswalt, Andy Pettite, and Roger Clemens all having incredible seasons, leading to 89 wins and an eventual national league pennant. This old and beat up roster is what caused the Astros to descend into baseball hell, before ascending into baseball heaven where they currently reside. I'm not really sure how I want to wrap up this post so I guess this is it.

*on top of all of this, the 2015 Astros easily had the most sustainable long-term roster, which is very relevant here. This was the year before Altuve truly broke out and became one of the best offensive second basemen ever, but he was still established as a bonafide star. Carlos Correa established himself as possibly the best shortstop in baseball at the modest age of 20. George Springer had broken out as something of a late bloomer. The rest of the supporting cast was a bit unrecognizable but still solid, and then their young pitching staff had finally broken through. The 2016 season was really wacky and in hindsight was one of the most wasted seasons of talent ever, but they were still the 11th best team in baseball despite the horrendous performance from their depth. This is completely irrelevant to this article but I love writing about baseball lore.

Welcome to Charlie's Health Corner

 I am not Charlie, but I am just writing this post in order to officially create this part of the site. I might be writing here, but ultimately this is mostly for Charlie's weird health advice. 

Tom Brady did it again

 As the wise old adage goes, "Never count out Touchdown Tom." This is something I, as a massive Tom Brady fan, continue to ignore despite his consistent ability to prove me wrong. As a younger fan, it took me until Super Bowl XLIX between the Patriots and Seahawks to truly count out Touchdown Tom. This is because my first full experience watching Tom Brady was his historic performance in the Patriots 59-0 blowout win over the Titans in 2009. My second full experience that I remember was his demolishing of the Denver Broncos in the 2011 playoffs to the tune of a 45-10 victory. I think he threw a total of 10 touchdowns in the first half of both games. The Patriots would proceed to play the Giants in the Super Bowl that year. Down 21-17 with just a few seconds to go in the game, Brady and his guys set up for a hail mary. At this moment, I fully expected Touchdown Tom to do what he does best, and throw a touchdown. Instead, his attempt fell incomplete and I was heartbroken. However, at no point in time did I count him out.

When the Patriots were down 24-14 against Seattle in the biggest game of the year, I had experienced enough playoff failure at this point to believe that they might just lose. Of course, Tom Brady simply did not allow this, leading two masterful touchdown drives against the most talented defense of all time en route to Super Bowl MVP and his fourth ring. So, a few years later when the Patriots trailed the Falcons 14-0 in the second quarter of Super Bowl LI, I was not worried. But then, Brady threw a pick six. And then the Falcons led off the third quarter with another touchdown, putting Brady and the boys down 28-3. Feeling defeated, I went home from my grandparents house where I was watching the game. Then, in a moment of great fortune, I decided I had nothing against the Falcons and thought it would be nice to see them wrap up their first Super Bowl win. I turned on the game and it was 28-12. Brady proceeded to hit Danny Amendola for a touchdown, and then followed that up with a successful 2 point conversion. Just a few drives later and the game was tied at 28. In overtime, Brady surgically led his random cast of characters down the field for a game winning touchdown. I had learned my lesson yet again: never count out Touchdown Tom. 

I didn't count him out when he trailed the Jaguars 20-10 in the subsequent AFC championship game. Down 38-33 against the Eagles in the Super Bowl, I fully expected him to lead the game winning drive. When he didn't, I was in shambles, but I ultimately chalked it up to bad luck. When he threw that game losing interception (which wasn't his fault anyways) against the Chiefs in the next season's AFC championship game, I didn't believe it was game losing. The Patriots still had 3 timeouts, and there was still 50 seconds to go. One stop, Brady gets the ball back and leads a quick touchdown drive. Easy. Of course, Dee Ford's goofy ass was offsides, so we didn't even have to go through that mess. The Patriots scored, and then Brady converted three consecutive 3rd and longs in overtime to win the game. Easy.

I did count out Touchdown Tom vs the Titans in the next year's wild card game, but I was more just counting out the rest of the morons that played around him, because they fucking sucked. Throughout the Buccaneers struggles in 2020, I never thought they were not the best team in football. And then they won the Super Bowl. When the Buccaneers trailed the Rams 27-3 in the divisional round last year, I did count out Touchdown Tom just a bit. Why? Because Von Miller was being a bastard man. However, Tom still led the fucking comeback and tied the game at 27. 

This year, I've counted him out many times. I counted him out against the Rams, the Saints, and almost the Cardinals (I didn't really believe he would lose to Trace McSorley, but he was pretty damn close). He led clutch drives in all of them. Then, yesterday happened. Brady, at age 45 going through easily the worst season of his career, determined enough was enough. After a year of horrible offensive performance headlined by an awful run game and a depressing lack of big plays, Brady started bombing it to Evans. And it worked. In the most important game of the year, in the NFC South championship, Tom Brady had one of the best games of his career. Why? Because he is the fucking GOAT. That's why. 

All Time "Breakout" Seasons

 What would you define as a breakout? Me, personally, would say a breakout is when a player with a baseline of X performs well enough that he establishes a new baseline, Y, in which Y is significantly greater than X. How would this be measured? I don't know. The best way to do it is probably by taking a reliable projection system and then looking at how a player improves in the eyes of said projection system over the year. That's the easy way out, and it's not what I'm looking at today. I just wanted to establish this before I go ahead and accidentally mislabel these seasons as "breakouts". Which seasons, you may ask? I decided to take every player's back to back season since 1947, and take the difference. So, if a player had 0 WAR in year 1 and 15 WAR in year 2, that would be a 15 win improvement, which is a lot. 

Here's an example as to why I wouldn't necessarily consider these seasons to be a breakout: Manny Machado played 156 games in 2017 and amassed a mere 1.7 fWAR. In 2018, he posted a much stronger 7.0 over 162 games. Does this mean Manny broke out? Well, he put up 6.6 WAR in 2015 and 6.2 WAR in 2016. He was previously a superstar prospect who was very highly regarded throughout his career. In 2017, he had weirdly poor defensive numbers and, at the plate, had significantly stronger statcast numbers than actual results. The fact of the matter was that he was still a truly elite player that just had a freak down season, and that his 2018, while maybe not entirely expected, was more of a pleasant surprise than a breakout. He kind of did the same thing in 2019 and onward, except his excellent 2020 happened over just 60 games. Point is, that isn't really a breakout, but it is still interesting. Let's proceed.

Here are the top 5 "breakouts" since integration. For context, each of these players had over 400 plate appearances in the previous season. This removes guys like Willie Mays and Mike Trout who just entered the league and were immediately amazing, and instead focuses on established starters who improved their on field performance significantly.

Let's start with Norm Cash. While this was just his second full season in the majors, the Tigers first baseman was already 27. Cash followed up a great rookie season with one of the best seasons the league has ever seen. He hit 361/487/662 good for a 1.148 OPS and a 201 OPS+. His 10.2 WAR was second in the league to Mickey Mantle's 10.4. He finished just 4th in AL MVP, as this also happened to be the season that Roger Maris socked 61 dingers. Mantle probably should have won MVP, but in the moment, it would have been hard to give him the hardware over his teammate who just broke the home run record and led the league in RBIs. This isn't about Mickey Mantle, so I digress. The Tigers won a whopping 101 games but missed the goddamn playoffs because those fucking Yankees, led by Mantle and Maris,  won 109. Pre-division series MLB was an unforgiving world. Anyways, Cash never really came close to his 1961 heights for the rest of his career, but he was still a fantastic hitter until the ripe old age of 40. In no small part due to his 385/433/500 world series slash line, the Tigers took home a World Series championship against the Cardinals. His 2 out single to right field against the legendary Bob Gibson sparked the 3 run rally the Tigers rode to victory in game 7 of that series. At age 37, he posted a 149 OPS+ and finished 12th in MVP voting. To be quite frank, he should have gotten a lot more hall of fame consideration than he did.

In fourth place we have Mike Schmidt. In 1973, Schmidt was a small 23 year old child who struggled severely with strikeouts. His strong defense and power output gave him a respectable WAR total, but 1973 Mike Schmidt was a tiny infant compared to what he would later become. Schmidt, who I believe to be the best home run hitter since integration (he led the league in home runs 8 times. Barry Bonds only did it twice. Hank Aaron four times. Steven Kwan has never done it.), followed up a passable rookie season with one of his finest.  He led the league with 36 home runs (this meant a lot more than 36 homers today), posted a 158 OPS+ and played god tier defense at the hot corner. The Phillies won just 80 games, which partially explains why he didn't win MVP. He ended up taking home MVP honors twice later in his career, so it all works out. 

Side rant time: Apparently, this random motherfucker named Mike Marshall pitched 208 innings OUT OF THE BULLPEN in 1974 and ran a 2.42 ERA. What an absolute god. This is why I fucking hate the reliever adjustment in war. Who gives a fuck that he came out of the bullpen? Why does that make him less valuable? It makes no sense. The rWAR calculation for him basically decreases the league average ERA for him by 0.34 just because he was a reliever. This is illogical. Obviously relievers used to have lower ERAs, but they also pitched way less!! Innings are innings! This motherfucker pitched 208 innings and had a 141 ERA+. Why did he only have a 3.2 rWAR?????? IT MAKES NO SENSE!!!! 

Anyways, Mike Schmidt (no relation to Wally) also led the league in strikeouts that year (he did this three other times, what a beast). I hate to compare players to Joey Gallo, because Gallo is something of a buffoon and isn't very good. Schmidt is like the old fashion Fernando Tatis Jr., a god tier infielder who does nothing but slug. Tatis is probably the best non roided (oh wait, nevermind. Whoops!) shortstop ever and Schmidt is hands down the best third baseman ever. I love them both.

At number three we have Bret Boone, the man who perfectly represents the 2001 Mariners. The Mariners were a great team that year, but should they really have won 116 games? Bret Boone was a solid player, but should he really have had 7.8 WAR? Unlike Cash and Schmidt, Boone was kind of just a random dude who drifted around the league. He was 32 at this point, having only 2 seasons with above average offensive production. Then, all of a sudden, the guy hits 331/372/578 with 37 home runs and leads the league in RBIs. He finished third in MVP, behind Jason Giambi and his teammate Ichiro. As we all know, the Mariners won 116 games off the back of easily the best position playing performance in MLB history (their offense was fantastic, hitting for an 807 OPS and scoring 927 runs, but they also supported their pitching staff with god tier defense). I would say that Boone's breakout season was somewhat legitimate, as he had two more great seasons afterwards (3.9 and 7.4 fWAR, accordingly). Steroid accusations were thrown around by Jose Canseco, and while they honestly might be true, his claims don't hold up under any further examination. He literally claimed that Boone and him had talked during 2001 spring training, despite Canseco having not played in spring training that year. Truly bizarre. Still, this kind of late career breakout is certainly very fishy. I guess we'll never know.

Our favorite political commentator Aubrey Huff, who has me blocked on Instagram, slides in at number 2. Unlike these other guys, Huff had previously established himself as a very good first baseman. He had a plethora of good seasons with the Rays, and then had another excellent 2008 campaign with the Orioles. Then, for whatever reason, his 2009 was truly disastrous. It's rare to see a player bad enough to post a -2.1 WAR also get enough playing time to do so, but it happened. Why? I don't know. Figure it out yourself. Whatever the reason for his regression was, Huff was released by the Orioles and also sucked for the Tigers before becoming a free agent. The Giants proceeded to sign him, and he had far and away the best season of his career. Why? I don't fucking know. Maybe he was drinking adr*nochr*me. (THIS IS A JOKE! I AM MAKING FUN OF AUBREY FOR HIS SILLY POLITICAL VIEWS! I DO NOT SUPPORT THIS CONSPIRACY!!) Whatever it was, it didn't last, as he was awful in 2011 and 2012 before retiring and becoming a based and redpilled Twitter user. 

At number one, we have Matt Kemp. This is a weird one, kind of like Manny Machado but to a much larger extent. Kemp debuted in 2006 at age 21 before breaking out in 2007 and becoming a full time low level star in 2008 for the Dodgers. After an excellent 2009 season in which he led the 95 win Dodgers with a 4.9 WAR, Kemp had a down season in 2010. From a normal fan's perspective, his 2010 wasn't too terrible. His average went down, but he still hit 28 home runs and his OPS was still above the league average. The issue was that his defense, which had earned him a gold glove the year prior, was genuinely atrocious, and despite a 106 OPS+, he was a replacement level player. Then, he flipped this horrible season on its head with a truly incredible 2011 campaign that ended in a 2nd place MVP finish. He hit 324/399/586 in a very pitcher friendly Dodger stadium, played significantly better defense (he won a gold glove, which is a little questionable but I'll let it slide) and stole 40 bases. He was just one homer shy of 40 bombs, which would have put him into the 40-40 club. Shame. Should he have won MVP over Ryan Braun? Maybe. Is Ryan Braun based for taking steroids? Yes. I digress.

So, were these seasons breakouts? Norm Cash and Mike Schmidt's were both very conventional breakout years for second year players. Cash's represented a productive ceiling, while Schmidt's was just the beginning of one of the best careers the MLB has ever seen. Boone's breakout season was a genuine late career breakout that was sustained, while Aubrey Huff's was more of a temporary return to form. Finally, I firmly believe that Kemp was just evening out his awful 2010 and nothing more. He followed up his near MVP season with 3 seasons that were almost a perfect average of his 2010 and 2011 seasons. This fits into my theory that most "breakouts" are just additional information that alter the player's career baseline, rather than establishing a new baseline then and there.