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Samardzija and Lahair Struggling to Get Their Mojo Back

Bryan Lahair and Jeff Samardzija have really hit some rough patches as of late.

So about that Jeff Samardzija transformation and “Is Bryan Lahair for real?” argument — what the hell happened? I guess you can call it hometown bias, or maybe just a jinx, but I really thought that Jeff Samardzija had finally turned a corner in his career and Brian Lahair was going to be legit after such a late start to his career in the majors. Whether it’s a coincidence or not that Samardzija was a month-long embarrassment directly following the article I wrote about him and his transcendence, I’m not sure, but before last night’s gem, something was not right with him. And as for Lahair – well, let’s just hope his somewhat surprising All-Star selection gives him the confidence, or mojo, if you will, to perform the way he did in April.

After posting a 2.48 ERA and striking out an incredible nine batters per nine innings in May, there was no denying that Jeff Samardzija was finally becoming the pitcher everyone expected him to become when he was drafted out of Notre Dame in 2006. His control was top-notch, and he had been getting ahead of a majority of the hitters he faced, which made his job a hell of a lot easier. Once June rolled around, though, Samardzija’s season took a turn for the worse. He ended up winless at 0-4 with an abysmal 10.48 ERA, 2.06 WHIP and – get this – a whopping .330 opponents’ batting average. There are honestly no words to describe how bad those numbers really are, but had he not been so dominant and electric in May, he would have easily been sent back down to the minors to work out his kinks.

It’s tough to pinpoint one specific reason for his struggles, but control has to be at the top of the list. Samardzija walked nearly as many batters in June (15 in 23.1 innings) as he did and April and May combined (19 in 64 innings), and he was giving up nearly 13 hits per nine innings. The funny thing about baseball, however, is that you never, ever know what will happen next. Somehow, someway, Samardzija walked into Turner Field in Atlanta on Monday night and went seven strong innings while striking out a career-high 11 batters. I’d like to think that this is a sign of good things to come, and that the atrocity we saw last month was no more than a giant fluke.

As far as Bryan Lahair is concerned, I couldn’t be happier for him. Making the All-Star team can’t be understated, and it’s an incredible accomplishment for a player who had to endure about eight years in the minor leagues before finally sticking to a major league roster at age 29. Nevertheless, Lahair’s torrid rampage throughout the month of April certainly has not carried any momentum whatsoever into July, and his numbers prove it. After cranking five homers, driving in 14 runs, and putting up insane .390/.471/.780 splits in his first 20 games, Lahair has gone ice cold. He drove in a combined 14 runs over the past two months and posted .231/.286/.400 splits during June. For a guy who was called on to be the Cubs’ main run producer and was batting clean up for a good portion of the season, that lack of production just isn’t going to cut it.

All that said, I still haven’t even gotten to the worst part. Against lefties this season, Lahair has a grand total of three hits – I repeat, three hits – in 38 at-bats. That’s good for a .079 batting average to go along with a .186 on-base percentage and .156 slugging percentage. I definitely just threw up in my mouth. And to add to my nausea, Lahair is batting .137 with one home run (three extra-base hits) in 51 at-bats this year with runners in scoring position versus .336 with eight home runs (16 extra-base hits) in 122 at-bats with the bases empty. Simply put, Lahair never could, and probably never will, hit left-handed pitching if his life depended on it, and he’s probably one of the most un-clutch (I completely made that word up just now) hitters in the National League.

Lahair has come back down to earth since that epic month to open the season, so my optimistic view of him being “for real” was simply that – optimistic. If Lahair does happen to turn things around again, he’d make for even better trade bait, especially for an American League club. But if the Cubs do decide to keep him, here’s to hoping that he gets in touch with the April baseball gods and torches through the rest of the summer for a team who so desperately needs him to produce.

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Cubs Candidates for the 2012 All-Star Game

Like every MLB team, the Cubs are guaranteed to get at least one All-Star this season.

Newsflash: the Cubs are bad. Like really bad. With the Crosstown Series officially over until next season, the only things Cubs fans can really look forward to are seeing Anthony Rizzo in white with blue pinstripes and spending Saturday afternoons (or any day of the week for that matter) getting absolutely hammered in Wrigleyville before and after games. Life can be worse, that’s for sure, but having a winning team to root for wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world either.

It makes me sick to think that just four years ago, this was a team that sent a total of eight players to the All-Star Game. Now, we’re struggling to find more than a couple of guys who deserve to even be in consideration. With the Midsummer Classic just three weeks away, baseball fans on the North Side will finally get to watch some legitimate baseball (for one night), and at least one of the players participating in that game will reign from the corner of Addison and Clark. Which Cub deserves to be the team’s likely lone all-star, you ask? Well, let’s break down their top candidates and see who we come up with.

Ryan Dempster, Starting Pitcher

As crazy as it sounds, Ryan Dempster has quietly been one of the five or six best pitchers in the National League this season. His 2.11 ERA ranks him third overall for starting pitchers across the Majors, and nine out of his 12 starts have been considered quality ones (6+ innings pitched, 3 earned runs or less). His WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) thus far (1.02) is the lowest it has EVER been in his 15-year career, which is an amazing feat for a 35-year-old pitcher who has always had some trouble finding the plate and preventing hitters from getting on base.

Unfortunately, Dempster only has three wins to show for his incredible first half (all of which came in his last three starts), but that has almost nothing to do with him and everything to do with the abysmal Cubs hitters, who have failed to score more than three runs in seven of his 12 starts. But wins aside, Dempster has been far and away the best pitcher on the Cubs and will undoubtedly make any contender happy for the last two months of the season when he gets traded. As he sits on the DL with mysterious “back tightness,” one would have to suspect that Dempster’s time in Chicago may be coming to an end sooner than expected. Whether he manages to stay a Cub until July 10 or not remains to be seen, but he definitely deserves a spot on this list.

Starlin Castro, Shortstop

Yes, he ranks second among all every day players in errors with 12 (tied with Giants’ Brandon Crawford and one behind Dodgers’ Dee Gordon). And yes, he ranks 19th among 24 every day shortstops with a .956 fielding percentage. But Starlin Castro is still the best pure hitting shortstop in the National League (and arguably the ML), and that’s really all that matters when it comes to making the All-Star team. He currently leads the Cubs in hits (85), average (.302) and total bases (125), and he’s second on the team in runs scored (33), RBIs (38)  and stolen bases (16). The only thing holding him back from true stardom is his inability to walk (he has only six walks with a horrendous .316 on-base percentage), but that’s another conversation for another day.

At the moment, Castro is sitting in third place among NL shortstops in all-star voting (~700,000 votes behind Rafael Furcal for first), making it very unlikely that we’ll see him starting for the National League in a few weeks. It looks as if Castro’s all-star fate will rest in the hands of the players, coaches and managers around the league. With the numbers he has put up so far this season, it shouldn’t surprise anyone if Castro gets selected for his second consecutive all-star game.

Bryan Lahair, First Base

Once upon a time, Bryan Lahair was a 32nd round nobody out of St. Petersburg Junior College. Ten years, two short Major League stints, a Pacific Coast League MVP and a whole lot of perseverance later, he has become one of the most pleasant surprises in baseball. With the Cubs in rebuilding mode, Lahair was called upon to be the guy-who-plays-first-base-against-righties-only until Anthony Rizzo came to town. Then, it would be to the bench as a utility player/pinch-hitter or maybe even back to the minors. Clearly, Lahair never got that memo, as he obliterated major league pitching throughout the month of April and made it loud and clear that he is more than worthy of starting every day at the major league level, whether it be playing an unnatural position in right field for the Cubs or playing first base/DH elsewhere. He leads the club in home runs (tied with Soriano at 13), on-base percentage (.375) and slugging percentage (.563), and he’s second on the team in extra-base hits (25).

Due to the departures of Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder and Albert Pujols from the National League over the past two years, as well as Ryan Howard’s torn achilles tendon, the crop of talent at first base is at an all-time low, which means there’s no better time for Lahair to accomplish something no Cubs fan would have ever expected him to accomplish coming into this season: making the All-Star team. Joey Votto and Freddie Freeman are unquestionably the two best first baseman in the NL right now and are virtual locks to make the All-Star team. But after them, you’d have to make a very strong case to convince me that Lahair is NOT the next best player at his position (Adam Laroche may have more RBIs, but the average and OPS aren’t even close, in favor of Lahair). If the retired Tony LaRussa decided he wanted three first baseman on his All-Star roster, I would like to think that Lahair would be his third guy. After witnessing a journeyman knuckleballer become the frontrunner for the NL Cy Young Award while throwing 41 consecutive scoreless innings and back-to-back complete game one-hitters (that would be R.A. Dickey if you haven’t caught on), nothing in baseball would shock me anymore. And that includes Bryan Lahair becoming an All-Star.

Alfonso SorianoOutfield

The way Soriano’s career has panned out in Chicago over the past few years, never did I think he’d make it to this list. But here we are, near the end of June, and Soriano leads the team in home runs (13), RBIs (43) and extra-base hits (26), and he ranks second in slugging percentage (.485) and OPS (.800). He has also been one of the best hitters in baseball over the last month (10 homers, 21 RBIs, 18 runs and 61 total bases). Who knew? Whether you think Soriano deserves to be in consideration for an All-Star selection or not, I had to put him on here because, after all the negative things I’ve said about him over the years, he really has been one of the few bright spots for the Cubs this season, and I commend him for it. I understand that there are a plethora of outfielders to choose from, so he probably doesn’t stand a chance at making the team anyways. But for the first time in four years, I am actually proud of Fonsi. That should count for something.

Who I would pick: Starlin Castro 

Although all of these guys are equally deserving in my mind (except for maybe Soriano), I would pick Castro because a) as I said before, he has become the best pure hitting shortstop in the NL, and b) there is a severe lack of depth at the shortstop position this season. With Troy Tulowitzki out for the next 2+ months with a torn groin (ouch?), and Jose Reyes and Jimmy Rollins stinking it up worse than a fat kid’s dutch oven, Castro is easily the best candidate of all (and that’s assuming the mildly overrated Rafael Furcal wins the starting gig). If Castro fails to make the All-Star team, it’ll just be stupid.

Who will be picked: Starlin Castro 

If the NL decides to go with two first baseman (or picks Laroche as the third guy), making Lahair the odd man out, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. And because there are so many great pitchers to choose from (R.A. Dickey, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Cole Hamels, Lance Lynn, James McDonald, Johnny Cueto, Clayton Kershaw, Zach Greinke, and Johan Santana, among others), the NL can survive without Dempster as well. That, along with my reasoning above, makes picking Starlin Castro the most logical choice. Since the Cubs are so bad, they will almost certainly get only one all-star (if they get more, I’ll be pleasantly stunned). Ultimately, this is how it will probably play out.

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By the Numbers: Evaluating the Impact of Cubs and Sox Hitters

Bryan Lahair has been the most valuable Cubs hitter this season.

Paul Konerko has been the most valuable White Sox hitter this season.

It is almost overwhelming how many statistics there are to evaluate baseball players. Outside of your typical fantasy baseball categories, there are advanced statistics used to evaluate the individual’s, or team’s, hitting, pitching and fielding abilities, as well as sabermetrics used by front office people and baseball junkies to determine the true value of a baseball player (such as wins above replacement).

As we prepare for a long summer of Chicago baseball, I realize there’s probably not much to look forward to in terms of the immediate future of both the Cubs and White Sox. However, considering the Bulls season is now over and the Bears have yet to start training camp, I have to find a way to keep myself (and you guys) entertained. Therefore, instead of assessing crazy baseball statistics, I found a way to evaluate the every day hitters of our baseball teams, thinking that it may at least give us some hope for the future and/or make us want to pull our hair out.

In 1979, Bill James (the inventor of sabermetrics and a statistical god within the baseball community) developed a Runs Created Formula in an attempt to compute the number of runs “created” by a hitter throughout the course of a season (refer to the book Mathletics). In other words, if a team consisted of nine of the same player (nine Paul Konerkos, nine Starlin Castros, etc.), approximately how many runs would they have scored thus far this season and, more importantly, how many runs would they score per game? In order to figure this out, I gathered each player’s statistics and computed the runs created for each hitter using:

Runs created = ((hits + BB + HBP) X (Total Bases))  ÷   (AB + BB + HBP)

This metric alone, however, doesn’t necessarily give us an idea of how truly valuable a player is to his team. The problem with any runs created metric is that a bad hitter with a lot of plate appearances might create more runs than a great player with less plate appearances. In order to fix this problem, we must factor in outs. According to Mathletics, “Approximately 1.8% of all at bats result in errors. Hitters also create ‘extra’ outs through sacrifice flies (SF), sacrifice bunts (SAC), caught stealing (CS), and grounding into double plays (GIDP).”  Therefore, “game outs used” can be calculated with this equation:

Game outs used = .982(AB) – hits + GIDP + SF + SAC + CS

By dividing that number by 26.72 (the total number of game outs available in a game, taking into account the .018 approximate number of errors per 27 outs in a MLB game), I was able to determine the number of games’ worth of outs that have been used by each batter.  That leaves this equation as the final step:

Runs created per game =  runs created  ÷  games’ worth of outs

Below are the numbers for each Cubs and Sox every day hitter:

As you can see, the numbers don’t lie. Anyone who follows and watches the Cubs and/or Sox knows that their two most valuable hitters thus far have been Bryan Lahair and Starlin Castro, and Paul Konerko and Adam Dunn, respectively. Ironically, I already wrote posts about Lahair, Dunn, and Konerko and the amazing success they’ve had this season (or in Konerko’s case, his career).  Castro is only 22 years old, but he’s already one of the best pure hitters in baseball. He has an incredible knack for making contact, even on balls out of the strike zone (think Vladamir Guerrero). The reason his runs created per game number is not as high as you would think is because of his inability to walk and lack of power. But again, he’s only 22 years old. The kid will continue to improve and get stronger as he gets older. The walk and home run numbers will only go up. He has an extremely bright future.

Although that’s all great to look at, I can’t help but focus on the two names at the bottom of the Cubs list: Alfonso Soriano and Geovany Soto. To put into perspective how disappointing these two players have been (and disappointing is a severe understatement), look at their numbers during their best seasons as Cubs players:

We can all agree, even before seeing this, that Soriano is an absolute joke. I can sit here and shred him to pieces if I really want to, but after all these years of extreme frustration, it’s not even worth my time anymore. He’s an atrocious baseball player, and to think that he was a 40/40 player (40 homers/40 stolen bases) only 6 years ago when we signed him nearly makes my head explode. In his first season as a Cub (consequently his best), Soriano created over 4 runs per game more than he does now. Amazing. And you know what else is amazing? Bryan Lahair creates 3.77 runs per game more than Soriano this season. What are their salaries, you ask? Lahair is currently getting paid $482,500 in his first season as a 29-year-old. Soriano, who is only five years older, is making $18,000,000. This means that Soriano is being paid 37 times as much as Lahair, yet Lahair is rated as being 8.26 runs better per game than Soriano. That truly upsets me. But, as we all know, athletes get paid for past performances. Every contract in baseball is guaranteed. Some Cub fans seem to think he will eventually get his act together over the next few years. And for whoever does think that, let me take away whatever it is you’re smoking and tell you this: no he won’t. He will never even be a third of the player he used to be. End of story. Too bad the next two and a half years can’t come any sooner.

You think I’m going to let Geovany Soto off the hook? C’mon man. There’s one word to describe how pathetic he’s been the past couple of years: EW. What in the world happened to this guy? Not only was Soto an All-Star in 2008, but he also won NL Rookie of the Year AND finished 13th in NL MVP voting. I don’t have an answer for his shocking lack of production since that great season, but I wish I did. The fact that he’s creating a team worst 2.24 runs per game (only factors in every day players) compared to 6.73 in 2008 speaks for itself.

As for the White sox, Paul Konerko has obviously had a great season, as he continues to be the most valuable hitter in their lineup year in and year out. Alejandro De Aza has been a pleasant surprise. He certainly didn’t have the highest of expectations coming into this season, but he has proved to be worthy of an everyday starter in center field – something the Marlins didn’t give him a fair chance to do. And after signing a fat 4-year, $32.5 million extension last winter, Alexei Ramirez is continuing to disappoint. For the number of at bats he’s had (leads the team), he has been arguably the worst hitter at his position this season – just horrendous.

I know I already praised Adam Dunn the other day for how great he has been this season, so I’m not going to get into it again here. Comparing this season’s numbers to last season, though, is really incredible. You can look at his 2011 numbers below:

Dunn’s creating 5.94 more runs per game in 2012, and he has created almost as many runs in seven weeks this season as he did ALL of last season. What a turnaround. Good for him.

As I said earlier, there are so many ways to measure the value of Major League players. Using runs created is a little more unique than most and has proven to be very accurate. This metric shows us how truly valuable players like Bryan Lahair and Alejandro de Aza have been, and hopefully will continue to be, this season. It also shows us how disappointing every day players like Geovany Soto and Alexei Ramirez have been thus far. But regardless, there are nearly 130 games left to play. There’s more than enough time for improvement – or not. We can only hope for the best.

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Is Bryan Lahair for real?

Bryan Lahair tearing up major league pitching? Stranger things have certainly happened.

After 9 full years in the minor leagues, Bryan Lahair has finally found a home in Chicago. The 29-year-old journeyman has surpassed every expectation I had of him during the first 5 weeks of this young season. Through 28 games, Lahair is hitting .390 with 7 homers, 16 RBIs and a 1.227 OPS. Let me repeat that. BRYAN LAHAIR HAS AN OPS OF 1.227. That’s good for 2nd best in the majors for hitters with at least 70 at-bats behind Matt Kemp, who guaranteed a 50 homer/50 steal season back in March. Quite simply, Lahair has been tearing up major league pitching. Do I deserve to be punched in the face for not drafting him or picking him up in fantasy baseball? Absolutely. But is he for real? My heart tells me yes. But my head tells me ehhhhh, it’s too early to tell.

It’s obvious that Lahair won’t bat .390 all year long. He was a career .295 hitter in the minors, though, so a .300 average certainly isn’t out of the question. In addition to 15 extra base hits, Lahair’s currently batting .355 with 11 RBIs with runners on base and .313 with 9 RBIS with RISP. Although these are really sexy numbers, there are a couple of major red flags.

One problem is that he’s sporting a .548 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), indicating that he’s been getting quite lucky. Eventually, you’d have to think that luck will catch up with him considering the fact that the average MLB BABIP usually hovers around .300 by year’s end.

Another flag happens to be Lahair’s ability to hit lefties. One of the main reasons he spent so much time in the minors is because of his inability to hit south paws. So far this season, he is 2/10 against lefties. However, that’s not much of a sample size, so it’s hard to say if this problem will continue to hinder Lahair’s performance and, ultimately, his playing time. When a lefty has pitched against the Cubs this year, Dale Sveum has chosen to go with Jeff Baker at first base more often than not. I find this to be terrible management. The only way for Lahair to improve is to get more repetition. If you want to play Jeff Baker against lefties, why wouldn’t you replace Ian Stewart at third base? The guy’s batting .196 this season and is a career .222 hitter against lefties. Meanwhile, Lahair is the only legitimate source of power on our team and makes for a great 3-4 punch with Starlin Castro. He should be playing every. Single. Game. Period. It makes no sense whatsoever.

So is Bryan Lahair for real? I say yes. He smashed 38 homers and drove in 109 runs en route to becoming MVP of the Pacific Coast League last year. He’s finally been given his chance. Stranger things have happened. But only time will tell. As of now, I don’t see why he can’t be a great short-term answer at first base and a great long-term answer as a corner outfielder (I know, I know. He’s a terrible fielder. But I’d rather have J’marcus Webb, let alone Bryan Lahair, in left field over Soriano.)

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