Buster Olney: Insider MLB

Top 12 surprise stats of 2014 MLB season 

December, 26, 2014
Dec 26
10:44
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Garrett RichardsAP Photo/Mark J. TerrillGarrett Richards allowed an MLB-low .261 slugging percentage in 2014.
No sport overflows with information the way baseball does, with each pitch of each plate appearance adding to the growing expanse of an analytic universe. The players begin generating these numbers in early March, in exhibition games, and this continues until the final pitch -- and in 2014, that meant a popup caught by Pablo Sandoval in foul territory in Kansas City.

But in spite of the eight months spent peeling away the layers of this daily data, there are still surprises to be found in the winter, upon further review:

1. Garrett Richards allowed an MLB-low .261 slugging percentage last season.

So, in other words, Richards effectively reduced hitters into the immortal Mario Mendoza, for whom the Mendoza line is named; Mendoza had a .262 career slugging percentage. This number reflects the hitters’ sentiments last season that the challenge of trying to hit Richards was an absolute nightmare because of the staggering movement of his cut fastball and because of how hard he threw.

Top 10 MLB storylines of 2015 

December, 25, 2014
Dec 25
10:11
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Rob ManfredAP Photo/Steve RuarkNew MLB commissioner Rob Manfred should have a plan to better market stars nationally.
As 2015 approaches, here are my 10 biggest storylines to watch in the world of baseball.

1. The new commissioner

Rob Manfred can probably relate to Prince Charles somewhat, because he’s been waiting patiently for his turn at the throne in recent years. But his time will begin next month, when Bud Selig will follow through on his threat of many years and walk away from the job.

Manfred presumably will get all of the perks of the post, the use of the private jet -- hopefully, its code name is Fastball -- and the staggering salary that all commissioners get these days. We’ve already gotten a reaffirmation of what matters most to Manfred in recent days, when MLB worked out a new five-year collective bargaining agreement with the umpires. The current labor agreement with the players’ union has two years remaining before it is set to expire, and if Manfred stays with a proven formula for financial growth in the sport, he’ll make the next agreement happen.

But what’s next for him?

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Who’s ready to move on from 2014? 

December, 24, 2014
Dec 24
10:09
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Shin-Soo Choo, AP Photo/Richard RodriguezShin-Soo Choo and Prince Fielder, major acquisitions by Texas last offseason, both struggled in 2014.
These are some folks in Major League Baseball who probably can’t wait to put 2014 behind them.

1. The Texas Rangers

Last year began with what was effectively a season-ending collision between Derek Holland and his dog Wrigley, and it went downhill from there. Prince Fielder played his last game May 16, managing just three homers, and Shin-Soo Choo reached base 180 times, after reaching base 300 times leading up to his free agency in 2013. The Rangers’ win total plummeted from 91 in 2013 to 67 last season, and Texas finished 31 games out of first place. Manager Ron Washington resigned after a personal scandal.

Texas should have better luck in 2015.

Right?

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Hamels would make Pads a top contender 

December, 22, 2014
Dec 22
10:07
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Cole HamelsHunter Martin/Getty ImagesCole Hamels is owed $90 million for the next four seasons, with a vesting option for 2019.
The Padres are said to be pursuing Cole Hamels, writes Ryan Lawrence.

San Diego still has three of its top four prospects remaining after its flurry of trades, based on Baseball America’s rankings -- catcher Austin Hedges, pitcher Matt Wisler, and outfielder Hunter Renfroe -- and the Padres have a potential trade chip in Wil Myers, who will be under team control for five more seasons. So San Diego has the roster firepower to put together a trade for Hamels, because it’s hard to imagine the Phillies trading the left-hander without at least asking for at least two in that group of four players.

Don’t forget that Hamels grew up in the San Diego area and the Padres are among the teams to which he could be traded without his permission. This distinguishes the Padres from a team such as the Red Sox, who are one of the teams to which Hamels could veto a trade.

But the money involved ... that’s where the most significant question of any San Diego-Hamels deal will linger.

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A-Rod a mystery for the Yankees 

December, 16, 2014
Dec 16
9:55
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Alex Rodriguez, Joe GirardiTim Farrell/USA TODAY SportsJoe Girardi and the Yankees face many questions as Alex Rodriguez returns to the team this season.
The strangest spring training saga will begin when the Yankees’ full squad emerges from the clubhouse for their first pre-workout stretch. International star Masahiro Tanaka will be there, and so will Jacoby Ellsbury and Brian McCann and Carlos Beltran and Andrew Miller and other players of renown, but the platoon of cameras will be focused on a guy with an undefined role: Alex Rodriguez.

Reporters will trace his every movement and log Rodriguez’s interaction with teammates, looking for signs that the others around him might shy away from him. After all, the last time he was with the Yankees, folks on the staff were wary that any conversation they had with him would be subject to subpoena. Will he be embraced by his teammates? Will they keep him at arm’s length, generally? Will they be merely polite with a disgraced player coming back from the longest PED suspension in baseball history, or will they treat him warmly?

The search for signs of awkwardness will continue the first time the Yankees’ infielders move to their positions. Given that the Yankees just signed Chase Headley to a four-year, $52 million contract, Headley will go into camp as the third baseman. But players have long respected a pecking order, and whatever you think of Rodriguez, he is still a former MVP, and he is still stalking Willie Mays on the all-time home run list. Will A-Rod step in the front of the line, in front of Headley, among those awaiting grounders at third base? Or will Rodriguez defer to Headley?

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Jon LesterKyle Terada/USA TODAY SportsJon Lester is arguably the top left-handed starter available this offseason.
SAN DIEGO -- The Levinson brothers, Seth and Sam, are the gatekeepers of these winter meetings as the representatives for free-agent pitcher Jon Lester, and they are known among club executives for being grinders in how they negotiate.

They don’t really accept team offers, one club official noted. They determine what they believe to be a fair market price and then challenge the clubs to meet it, dangling a number. In the current circumstances, of Lester being pursued by big-market teams, you might think of the Levinsons the way you would someone holding a treat over a dog that leaps repeatedly, while saying, You can get it, Sparky! You can get it! Just a little higher!

Except in this case, there are four leaping dogs. And by the time it’s over, all will be exhausted, only one happily.

Early in the process, the perception of the target to reach -- the place that those involved thought the Levinsons wanted them to aim for -- was $150 million. But there’s no telling where that is now that the Dodgers are involved, either to grab Lester for themselves or to push the division rival Giants.

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Didi GregoriusThearon W. Henderson/Getty ImagesYankee Stadium will suit Didi Gregorius' left-handed swing.
A scout who isn’t employed by the New York Yankees spent some time Friday lauding the defense of Didi Gregorius, especially his range. Gregorius is not an elite player with the glove, the scout said, but he's certainly above average.

A natural question to the scout followed: What do you think about him offensively?

“He’s a good defender,” the scout replied drolly.

There were similar responses about the 24-year-old Gregorius from other evaluators Friday, after the Yankees traded for the guy who will be the first primary shortstop after Derek Jeter. “Can’t hit,” one executive texted. Said another evaluator: “You can throw the ball by him.”

I couldn’t find anyone with the Yankees claiming that Gregorius -- who has a .680 career OPS in 191 career games -- is a future Silver Slugger winner. But they do think Yankee Stadium suits his left-handed swing, and that he will improve.

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Cole HamelsAP Photo/John BazemoreCole Hamels finished with a career-low 2.46 ERA in 30 starts last season in Philadelphia.
Hall of Fame pitcher Greg Maddux has long been known as a great source of wisdom, and other pitchers quote him the way that politicians draw on the words of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.

I’ve never actually heard Maddux discuss the difference in pitching in the American League versus pitching in the National League, so I can’t tell you whether the words attributed to Maddux are apocryphal or actually reflect his feelings. But through the years, I’ve probably listened to a dozen or so pitchers cite Maddux as a primary source in this vein of thought:

Stay in the National League.

Or: If you can, leave the American League and go to the National League.

Which brings us to Cole Hamels, the Philadelphia Phillies pitcher who may come face to face with that very decision in the days and weeks to come.

Hamels, who turns 31 years old next month, is in the prime of his career, having posted a career-low 2.46 ERA in 30 starts last season. When the Phillies surrendered in their negotiations with the left-hander and signed him to a $144 million deal in the summer of 2013, their expectation was that Hamels could lead the staff for the foreseeable future.

But since then, the Phillies have collapsed, and executive Pat Gillick declared recently that the team likely won’t contend for at least a couple of more seasons -- and with the niceties aside, this stance allows them to openly shop Hamels and others for the prospects the team can build around.

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Is Ryan Howard tradable? 

November, 4, 2014
Nov 4
10:04
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Ryan HowardAP Photo/Alex BrandonRyan Howard is owed $60 million, with $25 million salaries for each of the next two seasons.
Ryan Howard has had his last at-bat as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.

That’s what the Phillies hope, anyway. That’s their goal, according to rival executives.

The Chicago Cubs want to add high-end pitching and contend. The Los Angeles Dodgers are thinking World Series or bust, again. And the Phillies want to trade Howard (and others).

If you imagine general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. doing his offseason work like this guy, you might not be that far off. The mantra on Howard appears to be: He is priced to move.

But it will cost the Phillies, undoubtedly, because Howard -- who turns 35 later this month -- is still owed $60 million, with $25 million salaries for each of the next two seasons, plus a $10 million buyout of a 2017 team option of $23 million.

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Phillies could move Cole Hamels 

October, 24, 2014
Oct 24
10:12
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Cole HamelsDrew Hallowell/Getty ImagesCole Hamels had a 2.46 ERA with a 1.15 WHIP this past season in Philadelphia.
This is called lowering the bar: Interim team president Pat Gillick says the Philadelphia Phillies are not likely to contend in the next two seasons.

From his interview with CSN Philly:

"I think where we are right now, it's probably a couple years," Gillick told CSN's John Clark in a one-on-one interview Thursday. "I wouldn't think [2015] or [2016], I don't think is in the cards. I think somewhere around 2017 or 2018."

Whether he meant to do this or not -- and Gillick is a really, really smart person -- his words prepare the Phillies’ fan base for a possible deal of star pitcher Cole Hamels.

Look, if the Phillies’ baseball operations department doesn’t believe that the team is going to contend in the next two seasons, then now is the time to trade the left-hander. Hamels, who turns 31 in December, is guaranteed $90 million for the next four years, with a vesting option for the 2019 season, and if the Phillies follow the timeline laid out by Gillick, then Hamels will be in the last seasons of his deal and in his mid-30s when the club becomes relevant again.

Given the landscape of the pitching market right now, and considering how great Hamels threw in 2014 -- a career-low 2.46 ERA in 30 starts -- his trade value will never be higher than it is right now, and the Phillies could flip him for a really good package of prospects that could help Philadelphia move forward.

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Kershaw with no answers for loss 

October, 4, 2014
Oct 4
11:42
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Clayton KershawRichard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsClayton Kershaw may not get a chance for redemption.
LOS ANGELES -- A brood of reporters and cameramen waited near the locker of Clayton Kershaw, gathered for the expected confessional. With his hair still damp from the shower, Kershaw -- taller than most in the crowd before him -- glanced around the room, in the modestly sized Los Angeles Dodgers clubhouse, and decided to move, probably so he wouldn’t inconvenience his teammates any more on this day.

Kershaw walked into the hallway outside the clubhouse and the media horde followed, and after Kershaw backed against a wall and the cameras and iPhones settled in a semicircle around him, he went about the business of dispensing blame.

On himself. Entirely.

It makes no sense that the best pitcher on the planet blew a five-run lead.

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Jeter's legacy: consistency, reliability 

September, 26, 2014
Sep 26
10:32
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Derek JeterAl Bello/Getty ImagesDerek Jeter hit a game-winning RBI single Thursday night in his final game at Yankee Stadium.
Two camps have warred throughout Derek Jeter’s career -- those who claim he has raised his level of play in crucial moments, versus the crowd of skeptics, who countered that Jeter merely cashed in on a fragment of his extraordinary number of opportunities on the big stage.

I always thought both sides missed the point. I don’t believe Jeter suddenly got better when we were all watching, but he has never been diminished by the pressure, either. We’ve seen accomplished veterans playing in a critical spot, and they disintegrate, putting too much pressure on themselves -- trying too hard to get a big hit or struggling to command a fastball.

Jeter’s greatest attribute has always been that he reduced the playing of games to the lowest common denominator: He just had fun. After the contracts were signed and the media questions were answered and the fans were acknowledged, he just had fun, treating a World Series game the same way he treated a season opener at Kalamazoo Central High School.

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Pace of play committee lacks right voices 

September, 23, 2014
Sep 23
10:05
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LOS ANGELES -- Another in the season-long burst of complaints erupted recently over one of the on-the-fly rule changes that were implemented in 2014. An official with Major League Baseball privately conceded that the criticism, in this particular case, was fully warranted.

“We didn’t think about that possibility,” he acknowledged privately. “We probably should have.”

The sport’s worst nightmare still has a chance to play out, that a crucial October moment will hinge on one of the still murky corners of instant replay or Rule 7.13, which addresses home plate collisions. Overall, however, it has been a year of significant progress, a long step in the right direction. More calls are correct, through replay, and we haven't seen a single injured catcher or baserunner carried off the field because of a home plate pileup, which really was the driving force behind 7.13.

But the official’s statement -- “We didn’t think about that possibility. We probably should have.” -- should echo in Major League Baseball’s Park Avenue hallways.

When immediate changes are needed, it’s important that baseball reacts swiftly, as officials did with the ill-fated transfer interpretation earlier this year, and with the recent clarification of Rule 7.13. When possible, however, it would be good for more percolation, more consideration, more thought. It’s why the new committee to address pace of play comes with some surprises.

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Stanton's injury could cause MLB change 

September, 12, 2014
Sep 12
9:57
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Giancarlo StantonAP Photo/Morry GashMarlins star Giancarlo Stanton is likely out for the season after being hit in the face by a pitch Thursday.
On this date in 1952, the Pittsburgh Pirates did something no other team had done before. From NationalPastime.com:

At Forbes Field, the Pirates become the first team to use protective head gear, a precursor to the batting helmet that protects the players' temples. Branch Rickey's innovation, worn both at the plate and in the field in the Bucs' twin bill split with Boston, is a plastic hat with a foam layer attached to the hat band.


On Sept. 9, 1979, Bob Montgomery -- the backup catcher for Boston’s Carlton Fisk -- took the final at-bat of his career, a moment notable because it was the last helmet-less at-bat by any hitter in a major league game.

When the rule requiring batters to use helmets was put in place eight years before, all the players who hit without them to that point were grandfathered into the regulation and allowed to continue to hit without the additional protection for the sake of their comfort.

The composition and shape of helmets has changed many times through the years, from something that was little more than a lined hat to the high-tech stuff we see now, when the composition of the helmets has been through military-style testing. All with regard for player safety.

There was no protection in place for Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton on Thursday night, when he was hit directly in the face by a pitch thrown by the Brewers’ Mike Fiers; Stanton suffered dental damage and fractures.

Chase Headley
AP Photo/Kathy WillensChase Headley of the Yankees will miss a few games after being hit by a pitch Thursday.
A few minutes after Stanton was hit, Chase Headley was drilled in the chin; Headley is likely to miss a few days.

Stanton is expected to miss the rest of the season, and just as the Buster Posey injury of 2011 spurred a lot of conversation about home plate collisions and player safety, the injury to Stanton -- one of the game’s greatest stars -- will inevitably spur this question: In the name of player safety, can more be done to protect hitters?

The answer, without question, is yes.

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Sizing up offseason salary-dump market 

September, 1, 2014
Sep 1
11:56
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B. J. Upton Leon Halip/Getty ImagesIt's been another long season for B.J. Upton. Could he be on his way out of Atlanta?
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- August may be over but these are the dog days of player evaluations, the time of year when teams are ready to turn the page, ready to say something hasn’t worked and isn’t going to work. They’re looking for something different.

It’s the time of year when executives are beginning to mull over the possible salary dump in the offseason, and some are scanning other rosters for matches. “Your trash contracts for somebody else’s trash contracts,” as one official noted the other day.

Here are 16 players (and contracts) who figure to be analyzed and perhaps discussed in deals after this season ends.

1. B.J. Upton | Atlanta Braves
Owed: $46.35 million over the next three seasons

He’s batting .205 this season after hitting .184 in 2013, and he’s already posted his sixth straight season of 150-plus strikeouts. The Cubs could again have interest after trade talks that involved Edwin Jackson crumbled earlier this season. There might be a match with the Indians, as well.


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