Thursday, April 30, 2009

The All-Dome Team: Infielders

As they count down to the frigid opening of Target Field next April, the Twins are making some effort to acknowledge/celebrate the 28 seasons that have been spent at the Metrodumpome. Which I guess they should, what with the two World Championships and all. So one thing they're doing now is, through their official website, running a balloting process to select the all-time All-Metrodome Team. It's more interesting than an all-franchise team, I think, because you have to make some tougher choices; Killebrew, Oliva, and Carew never played in the Dome (at least not, in Carew's case, while with the Twins).

So I thought that, in the absence of some really compelling and timely topic for today, I'd go ahead and post my (slightly modified) ballot here, with comments (and stats from their time with the Dome-era Twins only). This is much longer than I was anticipating and I'm suddenly swamped with work, so we'll stick with the infielders today and pick up with the outfielders and pitchers in separate posts sometime in the next few days.

Catcher: Joe Mauer (.317/.399/.457, 31.6 Wins Above Replacement Player [WARP3]).
He's played only four mostly-full seasons in the Majors, and yet this is the easiest pick until we get to the man pictured in my avatar. Not since Carew, at least, have the Twins ever had a position player that you could really argue was the single best player in the American League...but Mauer is that. Catchers just don't hit and get on base the way Mauer does, at least not the ones who can really catch. I don't know how much longer he can keep it up as a catcher, but enjoy it while he does.
Runner-up: Brian Harper (.305/.339/.428, 16.8 WARP3). No patience or defense, and not much power, but if you're in the just-pre-Juiced Ball era and can find a durable catcher who can hit .300 with 10+ homers every year, hang on to that guy.

First Base: Kent Hrbek (.282/.367/.481, 53.9)
I assume that Justin Morneau is going to win the fan vote, and quite easily, but it should be a blowout in the other direction. Hrbek, a local Minneapolis boy, had more than twice the number of PA Morneau has had so far with the Twins, was a better hitter when you adjust for the difference in eras (128 OPS+ to 122), and was a better defender (both have/had very good defensive reputations among Twins fans, but Hrbek actually earned his). And then of course there were the two World Series. Hrbek never had a year in which his raw numbers looked as huge and pretty as Morneau's '06, but he had several years that, viewed in the proper context, were just as good or better. Morneau has a long way to go. If you're unfamiliar with the story that goes along with the picture to the right, that's Hrbek tackling Ron Gant to make him fall off of first base in the 1991 World Series. And Gant was called out. That performance alone might have been enough to put Hrbek on the top of my list.
Runner-up: Morneau (.282/.348/.499, 21.7), of course. Though I'm more interested in the fact that Ron Coomer (now one of the Twins' broadcast analysts, seen here in Fort Myers in March, photo by the author) made the list. We used to call him Fred Flintstone, for obvious reasons. Seems like a good guy; 87 OPS+. On the occasion he was even the best 1B on his own team, that was a sad team.

Second Base: Chuck Knoblauch (.304/.391/.416, 46.3).
He's become kind of a joke because of his throwing troubles once he hit New York and connection to the Mitchell Report, but when he left Minnesota, Knoblauch looked like a tiny, troll-like, obnoxious, future Hall of Famer. He was an excellent hitter and baserunner, and only the presence of real future Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar kept him from winning, and deserving, a whole bunch of Gold Gloves (he did get one, in 1997). Second basemen as a whole burn out bizarrely early, and that's something I'll explore here someday; it was more in Knobby's head than his body, but he was done as a useful player by age 31.
Runner-Up: Todd Walker (.288/.344/.419, 3) was a fine hitter who was mistreated by manager Tom Kelly, but I was a little hasty in guaranteeing upon his 1996 callup that he'd be a Hall of Famer someday (hey, those were desperate times). John Castino was probably a better player, but only played parts of two years in the Dome.

Third Base: Corey Koskie (.280/.373/.463, 33.7)
Toughest choice of them all. Gaetti had a longer career, even just considering his time with the Twins, and was a better defender. But Koskie was a fine glovesman himself, and was often the one truly excellent hitter on contending teams that really needed help to score runs.
Runner-Up: Gary Gaetti (.256/.307/.437, 28.8). My first favorite player. His hitting was overrated because of his aversion to taking a walk, and he was a little injury-prone, but the power + Gold Glove defense combination was awfully valuable. He's probably become underrated now, as memories have faded and people have started to better grasp the importance of OBP. The Rat also has easily the best and weirdest unofficial fan club on the 'Net.

Shortstop: Greg Gagne (.249/.292/385, 21.2)
Slim pickins here. Gagne was never on base, but was a very solid defensive shortstop with some pop. Extremely fast, but probably the worst base-stealer ever to swipe more than 100 bases (career 109SB/96CS). Looked a little like Kenneth the Page from 30 Rock.
Runner-Up: Roy Smalley (.258/.350/.419, 4.5). Almost all of his games at shortstop with the Twins happened in the pre-Dome era; by the time he came back in 1985, he was playing first and third almost exclusively (and he's actually listed on the ballot as a DH). Still easily the next-best option in this era.

So that's your infield. My planned Thursday night gameblog for Friday is looking less feasible with this sudden crush at work, but there will be, well, something...

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Importance of Catching Strikes

We're going Twins-related again (and graphics-free today), and then yet a third Twins post tomorrow, probably, and back to regularly scheduled programming with a non-Twins gameblog on Friday morn.

If you have Extra Innings, or MLB.TV, or live in Minnesota or central Florida, try to take some time out to catch an inning or two of the Twins-Rays game tonight. Not because I expect it to be a great game, really; they're two pretty interesting teams, I think, and Kazmir is on the hill, but I don't expect it'll be making Lar's Most Interesting this morning or anything.

But, see: Mauer is set to be back for Friday's game, and the Twins are off tomorrow, so this should be the last chance you get for quite a while to watch Jose Morales catch.

After a rough start, I've come around on Morales. He's a switch-hitting catcher, which is rare enough in itself (there's a chance he might move into a tie for 48th place tonight on the all-time-plate-appearances-by-a-switch-hitting-catcher list, with 50), and he can hit a little. But that's not why I want you to watch.

He might be the worst defensive catcher since Matt LeCroy, and that's kind of entertaining -- his throws to second seem to stop for cheese and crackers somewhere above the mound, and he's lost a couple of very routine foul pops -- but that's not it, either, not really.

No, I'd like you to watch part of this game because I'd like you to notice how Morales catches each pitch. That's it! See, as I'm sure you know, most professional (and college, and a lot of high school) catchers practice a technique called framing the pitch, whereby you subtly nudge your glove back toward the strike zone as a close pitch comes in, hoping to get your pitchers a few extra called strikes over the course of the game. (Little white lies make up about 40% of baseball, if you haven't noticed.)

Morales, I've convinced myself, does exactly the opposite, stabbing at pitches that should be strikes and effectively driving them well out of the umpire's idea of the strike zone. I've seen pitches that defined the very concept of "down the middle" called balls because Morales almost falls on the pitch, pushing it down toward the batter's ankles as he catches it. Just watch and see if you see what I see, I guess, because I can't believe I haven't heard anyone comment on it.

Like I said, I like Morales. But he's very likely going to be getting an all-expenses-paid trip to Rochester tomorrow, and this is something he's going to have to work on. Not only is it frustrating to watch, but an extra ball here and there can make a much bigger difference than most people realize.

Say you have an average AL hitter on an 0-1 count. If the next pitch is a strike (and called such), you have the hitter at a huge disadvantage; the American League as a whole hit .172 with a .245 SLG on PAs with the last pitch coming on 0-2 in 2008, and just .185 with a .274 SLG in PAs in which the count was 0-2 at any point in the at-bat! Meanwhile, the league hit a shocking .330 BA/.519 SLG swinging on 1-1 counts.

Look at those numbers again...I think everybody knows that the count is important, but that important? An average hitter becomes an average-hitting pitcher on an 0-2 count, and the same hitter becomes an MVP candidate when he swings on a 1-1 count. So if Morales stabs at an 0-1 pitch and turns what should have been a strike into a ball, he's essentially transformed the hitter from Roy Oswalt into Lance Berkman (if the hitter swings at that pitch, that is -- the stats after a 1-1 count are much closer to the overall league average, because the possibility of a strikeout comes back into play -- but still: would you rather face a league-average hitter or Oswalt?).

I don't really believe in the surpassing importance of catcher defense; I don't think having a guy with a cannon arm or superior wild-pitch-avoiding ability is going to win that many games for you. Matt LeCroy could have caught for my team just about any time, back when he could hit. But from watching Morales and looking at those stats, I'm starting to believe that whatever else he can or can't do, a catcher who doesn't know how to frame a pitch can lose his share of ballgames for you.

Do any other catchers do this? I feel like framing is such an ingrained practice that every single professional catcher does it without drawing attention, but maybe this sort of shortchanging one's own pitcher is more common than I think and I just haven't been paying attention? I'm sure there's a study to be done there (adjusted called strike percentage for catchers against average, or something)...

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Thing Fifteen: Solving the Twins' Outfield

To this point the blog has, if nothing else, justified its name, with this being the fifteenth new thing in fifteen days. And yet, aside from the occasional cheap shot at Alexi Casilla or Delmon Young, I've completely avoided talking about my own favorite team. The main reason for that is that my goal is to write one relatively succinct, digestible thing per day, and as I'm sure you've seen, I've struggled with that a few times already; if I start writing about the Twins, odds are I'm going to just prattle on forever. But I'm afraid that's a chance I'm going to have to take today. It's just time.

The general thinking is that five outfield/DH types -- Young, Denard Span, Carlos Gomez, Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel -- are all good enough to be playing every day somewhere, but only four spots are open to them. So the question coming into the year was: who's the odd man out?

Well, so far, Gardy has done his best to answer that with: "well, nobody! Or everybody, depending on how you look at it!" Through the first 20 games, he's started the following combinations (left-center-right):

Young - Span - Cuddyer: seven times
Span - Gomez - Cuddyer: six times
Young - Gomez - Span: four times
Young - Gomez - Cuddyer: two times
Kubel - Span - Cuddyer: one time

All told, Span has started six in left, eight in center, and four in right; Gomez has started 12 games, all in center; Young has started 12 games in left and one at DH; and Cuddyer has started 15 in right and two at DH. Kubel has essentially been the full-time DH, starting against both righties and lefties, though two others have spelled him there in addition to Cuddyer and Young.

Let's take a look at who these guys are. Two career numbers for each player are given below; the first is wOBA, a system that's about as good as any for assigning one number to the offensive value of a player, and it works on essentially the same scale as OBP (.300 is bad, .340 fine, and .400 great); the second is UZR/150, which attempts to measure how many runs a player saves or costs his team per 150 games played against the average at his primary outfield position, relying on play-by-play data.

Michal Cuddyer (.339, -6.3): the elder statesman of this group (but still a week or so younger than me), Cuddyer had an excellent year with the bat in 2006 (.282/.362/.504, 24 HR, .370 wOBA), but slipped in 2007 and was hurt for most of 2008, and is off to a terribly slow start in 2009. He has a reputation among Twins fans as an excellent outfielder, but fans often confuse excellent arms with excellent outfielders; Cuddy has a cannon, but doesn't get around well at all. His defensive numbers through his first 15 starts this year are bizarrely good (26.4 UZR/150), but his real ability tops out at about a minus-five-run right fielder. He hits righties well enough to justify playing every day for most clubs, but his real talent is hitting lefties, against whom he's a career .280/.368/.439 hitter.

Carlos Gomez (.287, 18.7): Just 23 years old, Go-Go can be both a delight and absolute torture to watch. He swings from his heels (often falling to his knees off a particularly ambitious miss), never walks, is prone to mistakes on the bases, and, in 2008, would often bunt (often foul) with two strikes. But he might be the fastest player in baseball, and he absolutely is the best defensive centerfielder in baseball. As such, he needs only to get on base about 30% of the time, as he did in 2008, to be a useful everyday player. With his youth and talent (and he has a very nice swing on the rare occasion that he keeps it within reason), he still has the potential for much more than mere usefulness.

Jason Kubel (.338, -20.0): He's a better hitter than his career wOBA suggests; that's brought down by a poor first year back from surgery in 2006. He had a .345 wOBA last year and is tearing the cover off the ball in the early going this year, at .417. A typical lefty, Kubel has a career OPS 120 points higher against righties than against southpaws. With his reconstructed knee, he moves like he's about eighty. A team without Justin Morneau might try him at first base, but he has no business "running" around the outfield.

Denard Span (.364, 12.0*): a former first-round pick, Span had pretty much obtained "bust" status heading into 2008, and then suddenly exploded. With an excellent 2008 in both the minors and majors and a similar start to 2009, it seems safe to conclude that Span did suddenly become a player: great eye at the plate, good bat control, good instincts on the bases, some gap power. He can apparently hit left-handed pitching despite being a lefty himself. He's not quite the centerfielder Gomez is, but he can more than hold his own out there, and is an incredible asset in either corner.
* The 12 UZR150 is a reasonable guess; he hasn't played enough games at any one position to really trust the numbers. What's clear is that he's an excellent defensive player at any of the outfield positions.

Delmon Young (.321, -15.8): Bill James recently wrote that Young must be the worst percentage player in baseball, and at this point, frankly, you could almost take "percentage" out of that label. Young, like Gomez, is just 23, but unlike Gomez, he has shown few flashes of potential and no currently useful Major League skills. He's hit around .290 in both of his two full seasons, was once considered the #1 prospect in baseball, and had 93 RBI in 2007. That's enough to convince some people that he's a useful or promising player. Watch him every day, though, and you see something different. In the field, Delmon looks uninterested at best, clueless at worst; he frequently misses routine plays and routinely makes even minimal challenges into adventures (or doubles, or triples). He hasn't balanced that by showing any power, hitting a total of just 23 HR in 1220 AB in 2007-08, and he's drawn just 52 unintentional walks (against 232 strikeouts) in that same period. Even his minor league stats are largely underwhelming. I tend to believe that any player the scouts loved as much as they once loved Delmon must have something going for him, and maybe Delmon will show that something someday. But right now he's here, and here is very, very, very, very far from there.

So what should he be doing with these guys? I see a few things that should be just blindingly obvious:
  • Span should be starting somewhere every day. Not only is he the best overall player of these five, which he clearly is because of his defense; he might even be the best pure offensive player among them. Whatever else you do, if Span is healthy, pencil him in in the leadoff spot and one of the outfield positions. He's already sat out two of the first 20 games, and that's two too many.
  • Young should not be starting anywhere on a contending team. Look, I get the argument. He's a promising player, or people consider him as such, and needs to be playing every day. But if this team intends to compete in the Central -- and this year, every team in the Central figures to compete in the Central -- Delmon has no place on't. Let him start every day in Triple-A (where, it should be noted, he's never exactly proved himself), coach him heavily on defense and pitch recognition, and hope you don't have to call him up before he's ready because of an injury.
  • If you've got a flyball pitcher in the game, Gomez has to be in the game too. The thing about the Twins' five outfielders is that only two of them are good defensive outfielders. So if you've got a guy on the mound who gives up a lot of fly balls (and that's most of the Twins' rotation), your best chance to win is to have both Gomez and Span in the outfield, even if you take a hit on offense.
  • Kubel shouldn't DH versus lefties. Even in 2008, his best offensive year, Kubel had just a .704 OPS against left-handed pitching, worse than the overall OPS of Nick Punto and about equal to Casilla's. Unless Gardy has some reason to believe Kubel has completely come around in that area -- and I really don't think he does -- that's just not a designated hitter.
So here's what I'd do (assuming demoting Delmon isn't an option):

Against RHP: Span LF, Gomez CF, Cuddyer RF, Kubel DH
Against LHP: Span LF, Gomez CF, Young RF, Cuddyer DH

So yeah, first, I'd play Gomez every day, flyball pitcher or no. I really think his defense is just that good, and, like a lot of people do with Young, I want to see him play every day to see if his bat will come around. Moreover, Span blanketing left allows Gomez to shade toward right, minimizing the damage done by playing Cuddyer and/or Young, who can pretty much just guard the line.

Second, I'm never putting Young in left, where his numbers have been uniformly terrible (I've watched him miss a relatively easy foul fly against the Rays as I've been writing this). For some reason, his numbers from about a season's worth of playing right field with the Rays are above average (6.0 UZR/150 in 163 career G). That might just be a blip (and probably is), but it might also be that he had to depend less on his range and more on his strong arm in RF than he does in LF. There seems to be less foul territory in right field in the Dome, and the fence is closer. At least by putting him there you'd be giving him a chance of being a useful player, rather than just watching him flail helplessly around in left every day (as I have to currently).

Third, a Kubel/Cuddyer DH platoon is actually an above-average DH, whereas the current Kubel/Kubel setup is a serious weakness against lefties, especially in a lineup where your two best hitters are lefties.

Is this really worth spending all this time thinking over? ...Well, yes, by somebody (probably not by me, but what can you do?). A Span/Gomez LF-CF would save about 40 runs on defense over the course of a season compared to a Young/Span one, which makes about four wins. And you give a little bit of that back on offense, but honestly, until Delmon actually shows something, it's not all that much (and then Gomez takes a little back again on the basepaths). Four extra wins in the 2009 American League Central could very well mean the playoffs. To Gardy's credit, he knows what his best defensive outfield is, frequently subbing Gomez in for Young and shifting Span to left in the late innings of close games. Now someone needs to explain to him the kind of difference having that for nine innings could make.

All that said, if Joe Mauer doesn't come back on May 1 and knock the ball all over the park for 130 games, it's not going to matter. But they might as well put their best lineup out there until we know for sure...

Monday, April 27, 2009

Happy Birthday...

Rogers Hornsby!

The Rajah would be turning a spry 113 today, though he died here in Chicago in 1963 at the age of 66. Doesn't it seem like Hornsby must have lived for so much longer than that? I think of him as a crotchety old man, but maybe that's because he was essentially a crotchety old man all his life.

Hornsby's career is pretty familiar to most devoted baseball fans. A second baseman who also played a little short, third, first and outfield, Hornsby hit a just plain silly .358/.434/.577 in his 23-year career spent pissing off five different teams. He also managed parts of fifteen seasons, twelve of them as player/manager (you have to assume he demanded that position once he established himself, right? I'm a little surprised no one like Barry Bonds has made that sort of demand in the last couple decades). He managed the 1926 Cardinals to a world championship, actually one of his worst seasons with the bat, the only season between 1919 and 1929 in which he didn't lead the NL in OPS+.

Hornsby, of course, was the greatest-hitting second basemen of all time, quite easily. Whether he or Eddie Collins or Joe Morgan is the best overall second baseman of all time depends on what you think about defense, baserunning, the level of competition he faced and so forth.

Shouldn't we just stop considering him as the same sort of beast as Collins and Morgan, though? For almost all of baseball history, second basemen have been lithe little guys who run fast, field well and make contact. Collins came before Hornsby, of course, but he fits the profile because very nearly everybody in the first two decades of the twentieth century fit that profile, at every position. But Hornsby was different; not a huge specimen, but strong, a bit stocky, and a bit slow. If he were making his hay in the forties or sixties or eighties, he just wouldn't be a second baseman -- that position (and short) would be removed completely from the realm of possibility for him. He'd probably end up at first base or in left field, though third may also have been a possibility. So it's hard for me to consider his place among the best second basemen; he wouldn't have been a second baseman if he had come along at any other time, and the things that made him great had nothing whatsoever to do with his being a second baseman. We might as well ask where Frank Robinson or Jimmie Foxx belong among the all-time second basemen.

Of course, there have been other guys who didn't fit the mold, Jeff Kent being the most obvious. And now we've got guys who are nobody's idea of second basemen, like Skip Schumaker (whose listed measurements are almost identical to Hornsby's...would that he had a few other things in common with The Rajah) and Mark Teahen (who, at 6'3" and 210, is closer to what Hornsby would've looked like in proportion to the ballplayers of his day) being forced into the position. Dave Cameron argued a few weeks ago that second base is overrated as a defensive position, and that the Schumaker and Teahen switches were evidence that (in slightly different words) teams would start putting more Hornsby and Kent types at that spot.

I actually disagree with his premise; a second baseman has a ton of ground to cover, and doesn't need to get to the ball as quickly as a shortstop because of the length of the throw, but does actually need to get to the ball. I've seen too many easy two-hoppers slip past Alexi Casilla these past couple years to believe that defense at second isn't especially important. Instead, what I see happening is teams becoming more in tune with the importance of defense in general, and putting guys at second base who can actually field the position (like Chase Utley, and very possibly like Teahen or Schumaker, though it's not looking good for the latter) rather than guys who simply look the part (like Casilla). What Dave points out that I do agree with is that there are likely very tall players who are excellent second basemen, and very short players who are excellent third basemen, and eventually teams will learn to recognize these things and stop simply categorizing them based on size.

But if Dave is right, maybe someday we'll have to have a couple different categories, and be arguing over who were the best Type-A second basemen (Collins) and who are the best Type-B ones (Hornsby). I just don't see a reason to call Hornsby a "second baseman," when he wasn't one at all--or at least not in the way that almost anyone alive today thinks of them. Anyway, happy birthday, Rog!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

DL Question

So yesterday, to the surprise of absolutely no one, Chien-Ming Wang was placed on the disabled list. But what might surprise some people (and certainly surprised me) is the supposed cause: "weakness in the adductor muscles in both hips."

So which is crazy: (a) that alleged injury, (b) me, or (c) emphatically both? First of all, "weakness" isn't really an injury by itself, is it? And also...what the what? There has been no indication that Wang's hips were bothering him. We've been hearing for a week that he was DL-bound, but it was his foot, or a tired arm, or something -- never the hips.

So my question is: what's to stop a team (aside from the team doctors' Hippocratic Oath, I suppose) from making up an injury to free up a roster spot? If you've got a guy who is struggling or who you just don't need right now, but you can't send him down without risking losing him to the waiver wire, is there any reason you can't just say "he's got...uh...Transient Developmental Aversion Disorder With Itching! Yeah, that's the ticket!" and put him on the DL?

From my persual of the Official Rules and everything else I can find, there's nothing to suggest that a team can't do this. And with the gentlemen's club of GMs and such being what it is, it's hard for me to imagine one GM calling another's bluff and having a supposedly "injured" guy tested or something anyway.

So: (1) what do you think the odds are that the problem is really in Wang's hips, and not in his head or, well, his innate baseball talent? And (2) why don't teams do this all the time--essentially send a guy down who can't be sent down, under the guise of some dubious injury? Or (3) do they do it all the time, and we're just too naive to notice?

I know, this is all very conspiratorial of me. It seems very, very likely that something very real is wrong with Wang, and it may well be his hips. But I'm serious about the question--is there anything to stop a team from doing this, and if not, why don't they?

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"It's about living the dream, bro"

This piece by's Mike Fish, like everything else about Lenny Dykstra, just fascinates me. Nails comes off as nothing but a small-time crook who is in way over his head, but more than that, he seems to maintain this incredible arrogance and sense of entitlement throughout, despite proving time and again that he really can't handle what he's gotten himself into.

I've always thought that the most dangerous (presumably) well-meaning person in the world is a star professional athlete of a certain intelligence level -- well above, say, Operation Shutdown, but not nearly as smart as Ron Darling or Brian Bannister or Jim Bouton or Harold Reynolds -- who gets a lot of attention and a lot of microphones in his face and has a certain predisposition toward self-aggrandization. (Let me be clear about Reynolds: I think he's a genius as a communicator, and probably in a number of other ways. It's just that at some point he -- like Joe Morgan, another legitimately smart guy -- made a very conscious decision not to learn anything new about baseball.)

The two poster boys for this middle range, to me, are former World Series teammates Curt Schilling and, now, Dykstra. Both are pretty smart guys...for baseball players. And that, with their personalities and the attention they received during their career, is a problem. These two guys pretty much embody the reason the phrase "knows just enough to be dangerous" exists.

Pro athletes, as a general rule, have an ingrown sense that they're better than most people. In many ways this is justified, and in every other way it's simply thrust upon them. If you spend five or ten or twenty years being told that and/or treated as though you're better than everybody else, who can blame you for coming to believe it?

So what happens when you notice that not only are you, being a pro athlete, better than most people, but you're smarter and better educated than most other pro athletes, and that (if only because of what you actually do on the diamond) people around you with microphones and tape recorders seem to want to hear what you have to say?

Well, then you get Schilling, who is under the misimpression that it's a good idea for him to give forceful and loud opinions about complicated and controversial things he doesn't take the time to understand. And, I think, you get Nails. Not to say that Dykstra is a creation of society or something -- it seems pretty obvious that he's done some awful things, things no other moderately-smart pro athlete has done, and it's not as though he doesn't need to pay for those things. Just that it would be nice if there were some way to enjoy sports and celebrate the ones who excel at them while still leaving these individuals with some concept of their very real limitations.

Nails was a very good ballplayer, but that's done, and it's been done for 13 years. Now he's just a guy, one with what appears to be roughly average human intelligence and incredibly disproportionate levels of arrogance and ambition. But when you've spent twelve years as a star and another bunch as a celebrated former star, how hard must it be to see that in yourself?

And on a side note (he plays a shady bit part in the article), could things get any uglier for Jim Cramer lately?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Gameblog #1: Rangers at Blue Jays

I'm trying something new today that I hope will become something like a weekly feature: I'm going to watch every pitch of a more or less random ballgame and jot down my observations throughout. We're starting with the red-hot Jays hosting the powerful but P- and D-challenged Rangers.

Broadcast: Blue Jays; Jamie Campbell and Rance Mulliniks
Pitchers: Texas' Kevin Millwood (1-1, 1.17 ERA, 3.10 FIP) vs. Toronto's Scott Richmond (1-0, 3.48, 4.78)

Millwood has been the AL's whipping boy for the last few years, but has started off strong in '09. It's hard for me to believe anything has really changed, and I have to think that this solid lineup and hitter-friendly stadium will be unkind to him. I'm sorry to say that I'd honestly never heard of Richmond before just this very moment.

First Inning
The formidable Kinsler-Young-Hamilton trio is dispatched quickly by Richmond. Mulliniks opines that Hamilton is struggling because he's getting out in front and not letting the ball travel far enough into the zone. He lines out pretty sharply to right, but does seem a little quick, getting it off the end of the bat just a little.

On the other side, Aaron Hill is just crushing the ball right now. The sound the ball made off his bat was the kind of thing pitchers develop neuroses over. It was just a lineout, but it was an adventure (at least) for Murphy in left, and seemed almost to still be rising as he raced back and reached up to pull it in. Hard lineout by Rios, too; Millwood looks awfully hittable right now, 1-2-3 inning and all.

Second Inning
All the Rangers, except maybe Mike Young, swing really hard. They came in leading the AL in homers and just three away from leading the AL in strikeouts, and from watching them, it's kind of surprising they're not running away with both. The first swings of Blalock and Cruz tonight might have missed by a combined total of twelve feet, but they were impressive things to watch. Don't even get me started on Chris Davis, who seems to just swing at the spot where he wishes the pitch was. Cruz got the first hit tonight with a sharp single to left, but otherwise nothing doing.

Very long homer by Vernon "$126 Million??!" Wells to lead off the bottom of the inning. Young shortarms a ball to first base after a routine grounder down the line, but Davis scoops the throw; does Young really have the arm for third? I have no idea, but that one didn't look good at all. Lyle Overbay adds a solo shot, a screaming line drive to dead center field. I'm feeling good about my Millwood's-wheels-falling-off prediction so far.

Third Inning
Another 1-2-3 with two strikeouts for Richmond (I keep wanting to call him "Scott Thornton" for some reason), who I guess looks pretty good. 92-93 MPH fastball, nice low-80s offspeed pitch, hitting most of his spots.

I know he's never been a big fan of changing the batting order (or doing much of anything), but how is Cito still batting Travis Snider ninth? He's probably the best hitter on this team right now. Dude's slugging .686. Anyway, there's another skipped-in throw by Young for an out, and then an even worse throw by shortstop Elvis Andrus that Davis can't handle. Millwood rises above it all.

Fourth Inning
Hamilton gets a fastball biting down and in on him and crushes it to the opposite field for a solo shot. Definitely wasn't out in front of that one. If you don't root for Josh Hamilton, are you a bad person, or just misguided? Blalock follows that with a well-struck double down the right field line. Blalock runs like a fat kid with very full pockets. Richmond still isn't making bad pitches, but these guys hit everything hard (when they hit it). He's already set his career high with 6 strikeouts; thanks for swinging with your eyes closed, Chris Davis!

Millwood gets in a bit of trouble, but gets out of it, Davis making a nice play on another truly terrible throw by Andrus. 2-1 Jays now.

Fifth Inning
You know, I imagine a regular feature of these things will be a lot of ragging on lazy or just plain ridiculous comments by the broadcasters, but there's really nothing here. Campbell and Mulliniks aren't Scully and Allen by any means, but they stick to the facts and generally stay out of the way, or at least they're doing that tonight. I'm a fan so far. Campbell is a native Canadian, and you can really tell.

Another absolute screamer by Hill in the bottom of the inning, this one a double over Murphy's head with two out, and then an even harder-hit homer by Rios in the same direction. How Millwood even gets an out at that tiny stadium in Texas I might never know; he throws 90 MPH fastballs right over the plate that are supposed to sink but mostly don't, and occasionally tries to get you to wave at a big curveball way out of the zone. Just five hits, but three of them have gone out. 4-1 home team.

Sixth Inning
First weird little thing by Mulliniks--"I don't think there's a team in the league that plays better defense than the Jays, and they've got great range!" People should realize by now that, crazy throws by the Rangers' infielders aside, about 90% of defense is range, and surehandedness doesn't matter if you can't get to where the ball is hit. Davis finally guesses right, runs into one, and hits it a very long way, the fifth home run hit in this game. 4-2 Jays. They haven't mentioned how many pitches Richmond has thrown, but it seems like he's probably had it. We'll see if Cito can get up the energy to pick up the phone. He doesn't have a lot of bullpen to work with anyway, with BJ Ryan hitting the DL today.

In the bottom of the inning, Campbell points out that Davis' homer was hit with a broken bat. That's a strong man (though honestly I don't know that the break was anywhere near where the bat made contact; it looked to just be part of the handle). Something needs to be done about those bats already. Nothing to report from the Jays' sixth.

Seventh Inning
Brandon League in, so Cito did, in fact, pick up the phone (or tell someone else to). They're interviewing a hockey player named Curtis Joseph now, and he (Joseph) is wearing a terrible sweater that clashes with the Jays cap he's obviously never worn before (though he claims to be a fan). Mercifully quick 1-2-3 job by League. Listening to hockey talk gives me hives.

Millwood is still going. He's like a starting pitcher and a mopup reliever all in one; as the Rangers, you should probably keep him in the rotation for lack of other options, but you can pretty much leave him out there as long as you want to (I mean, would you miss him, really?). Using nothing but guts and guile -- and some ringing foul balls, and a very questionable third strike call, and a crazy twisting, stumbling, incompetent catch by Cruz on a warning track fly to right -- he gets through 1-2-3 again.

Eighth Inning
Jesse Carlson is in, and making Hamilton look silly, but then Josh manages to flare a single into left. Batting lefties Hamilton and Blalock (who strikes out here) back to back seems like a bad idea -- both are terrible, at least relatively, against lefties, so one good lefty reliever can shut them down. Davis (who Andruw Jones pinch hits for here) is also a lefty, and that's just dumb. Andruw Jones looks more like a sumo wrestler than like one of the best center fielders ever to play the game, and he strikes out.

Jason Jennings replaces Millwood, speaking of ragdoll (former) starters. Gets Adam Lind to hit an easy grounder to Andrus, who uncorks a third nightmarish throw of the night. This one winds up in the stands. Wasn't this kid (and his .390 wOBA coming in) supposed to be all glove and no stick? Guess nobody said anything about the arm...I can see why people think Hamilton is a good center fielder, and he makes a nice running catch here for the first out. It's just that an actual good center fielder would've been there waiting for it. Anyway, Rolen makes the Rangers pay for the error with a hard-fought at-bat and a single to left. We head to the 9th at 5-2, and I guess we'll see what they do about closer with Ryan out, though the three-run save isn't one of the three thousand or so most exciting things baseball has to offer.

Ninth Inning
Scott Downs is your man tonight, and it's as anticlimactic as you'd expect. Aaron Hill makes a really nice play on a ball up the middle for the first out, which suddenly makes me remember how much I'm not an Alexi Casilla fan. Downs strikes out Teagarden, and then fittingly, it's Andrus, who has probably had the worst night of his young big-league career, who lines out to end it. Andrus has had the kind of night you write home about, but what you'd write is "please Mom or somebody for the love of God tell me something good about myself." I mean...yikes.


So that's it! Pretty good game to start off with, with a lot of offense and the (superficially) best team in baseball right now running their record to 12-5, having won each of their first five series. Andrus has amazing athleticism, but should probably get himself a general idea of where first base is located. I never did see Young throw to first again after those first two, but I've seen enough that I'd be worried if I were a Rangers fan. Meanwhile, the Jays look unrealistically awesome right now, especially for a team with like half its players on the shelf.

If you just can't get enough of this totally random game for some reason, check out the boxscore.

Let me know if you have an idea for a better name for this. "Gameblog" is fine, I suppose, but...meh. Back tomorrow with a whole lot less than this!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Getting in His Head, Tangibly

On Monday night, in what I've determined looking back must have been the Pirates-Marlins broadcast, the local (almost certainly Marlins') broadcasters were chatting about the importance of the leadoff man getting on base, and the commentator said something very much like this: "Also, of course, you can never know how much impact that is going to have on the pitcher, because he's going to be distracted by the fast runner on first base, um, so you don't know what kind of effect that's going to have on his pitching." The play by play guy agreed, calling it "one of those intangibles that is just so important on the baseball diamond." That's totally paraphrased just to give you an idea, but I do know he used the word "intangibles."

Of course, if someone is talking to you about baseball and uses a form of the word "intangible," the odds are very, very good that you're in the process of being told a lie. Baseball people have this way of equating things that they do not know with things that cannot be known. And that's silly.

The impact that a good baserunner being on base might have on a pitcher's effectiveness at pitching to the next batter may be difficult to measure (and it is -- very, very difficult, or at least very, very time consuming), but it's as "intangible" as the chair I'm sitting in. Do pitchers pitch worse with Jose Reyes on first base than they would with Jose Molina on first base? Better with Carlos Delgado taking his lead than with Carlos Gomez? It's a pretty simple question. The fact that nobody has spent hundreds of hours digging through game logs to find the answer yet (as far as I know) doesn't mean that answer is "intangible"; it means the answer isn't important or interesting enough to spend all that time on.

So here's a little exercise; it's not at all meant to definitively answer the question, but just to show that the issue can in fact be, um, tanged (real word! ...but not at all the root of "intangible"). There's no way I'm going to go out and figure out how individual pitchers performed with various individual runners on base. But how about this: if speed on the bases makes pitchers less effective, shouldn't we expect guys who hit behind speedsters to do better with runners on first than batters who hit behind slow or average runners do with those base-cloggers on first?

Chase Utley is a good example. The Phillies' most common 2008 lineup had him batting in front of Rollins and Victorino, both top ten in stolen bases. When one of them wasn't in front of Utley, they were replaced by Jayson Werth (who stole 20 out of 21) or fleet-footed backups Taguchi and Bruntlett. We can assume that very nearly every time Utley came up with men on base, those men were very good baserunners. If Utley did better with guys on base than without, and the difference is more than the typical difference between hitting with the bases empty and occupied (and there is usually some difference regardless; pitchers just do better throwing out of a windup), that might start to suggest that a "speed guy" getting on base really does impact the pitcher's effectiveness.

Of course, a pitcher has enough to worry about with Utley at the plate, and that's too small of a sample size anyway. So I'm going to take a bunch of guys in the National League who are likely to have hit with a lot of speed guys on first base in 2008 (a pitcher might be just as scared of a good runner on second base, but counting that performance would be more likely to catch other runners than the ones I have in mind), and see if any patterns emerge, though of course the sample size will still be way too small to tell. Batting orders change more than you might realize -- Victorino, for instance, usually hit behind Rollins, but also spent time hitting behind anti-Rollinses Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard; Castillo hit mostly behind Reyes but also behind Brian Schneider. So this isn't perfect, or even especially meaningful. But I'm confident that, when each of these players came up with a guy on first in 2008, there was a better than 50% chance that that runner was a threat to steal 20 or more bases.

Baseline: The 2008 National League put up a .731 OPS with the bases empty, and jumped up to .761 with a runner on first, so your average hitter will increase his OPS by about 30 points with a runner on first. If the fast-runner-distraction effect is real and significant, these guys should do considerably better than that as a group.

Utley: Batted second or third in every game he started, behind at least one stolen base threat approximately 100% of the time.
- Bases empty: .886
- Runner on first: 1.014
- Difference: +128 points

Victorino: Batted second behind Jimmy Rollins 81 times; led off (so rarely came up with a runner on) 14 times; batted 5th or 6th 37 times.
- Bases empty: .819
- Runner on first: .797
- Difference:
-22 points

Jeremy Hermida: Batted second in 87 games, almost all behind Hanley Ramirez. Also batted third, sixth, seventh and eighth a handful of times each.
- Bases empty: .718
- Runner on first: .773
- Difference: +65 points

Luis Castillo: batted second behind Reyes in 58 starts; batted seventh or eighth about 20 times.
- Bases empty: .629
- Runner on first: .643
- Difference:
+14 points

Andre Ethier: batted second 80 times and fifth a bunch of times; hit behind Furcal, Pierre, Kemp or Martin about 80% of the time, but also occasionally behind Kent or Manny.
- Bases empty: .935
- Runner on first: .623
- Difference: -312 points

Ryan Church: hit directly behind Beltran or Reyes about 80% of the time; Delgado occasionally came between him and Beltran.
- Bases empty: .703
- Runner on first: .971
- Difference:
+268 points

Ryan Theriot: hit second 104 times, usually behind Soriano.
- Bases empty: .752
- Runner on first: .786
- Difference:
+34 points

J.J. Hardy: seems to have batted behind either Weeks or Hart in about 3/4 of his starts.
- Bases empty: .832
- Runner on first: 1.052
- Difference:
+220 points

Average [fake, unweighted average, just a basic add-and-divide of the above]: +49 points

So these eight guys, overall, did get a bigger bump from having a guy on first than the 30 points the league as a whole got. What does that tell us? Well, absolutely nothing. Take away Ethier, and it's a huge difference; take away Hardy or Church, and it's a smaller-than-average bump. But these guys as a whole could be benefitting from pesky baserunners getting on base in front of them. To figure out whether or not they are would take a much, much longer and more sophisticated study, one which neither you nor I have the time or inclination (or, in my case at least, skill) to get into.

But here's the point: it could be figured out. And someday it probably will be, if it hasn't been already in some study I'm not aware of. The day when people who are paid to write or talk about baseball generally stop referring to certain very tangible things as though they're mystical and unknowable just because those people can't be bothered to take the time to know (or even honestly think about) them will be a very happy day.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Fun with Small Sample Sizes

  1. The Yankees sit at 8-6, but are on pace to score 810 runs and allow 972. This would make their expected (Pythagorean) record about 66-96.
  2. Then again, if Chien-Ming Wang were allowed to make 30 starts at his current pace, he'd give up 230 runs (in just 60 innings). This would be a record since 1901, narrowly edging out Snake Wiltse's 1902 effort (in 300 innings). The record since 1950 is Phil Niekro's 166 in 1977 (in 330 innings).
  3. Miguel Cabrera (through Monday, prorated): .489/.538/.787, 635 AB, 149 R, 310 H, 54 HR, 162 RBI
  4. Carlos Quentin: 87 HR, 162 RBI, 150 R...12 2B, 0 3B
  5. Brian Giles is hitting .151/.211/.189 (through Monday) and is on pace for twelve runs scored, zero homers...and 87 RBI. That's how you know RBI is an awesome and totally not at all context-dependent stat.
  6. Washington Nationals (through Monday): 27-135 (.167), 770 RS, 1040 RA, Pythagorean W/L: 57-105.
  7. Raul Ibanez: .383/.442/.830, 176 R, 68 HR, 149 RBI, 14SB/0CS, about four defensive runs saved. Which totally makes sense considering the following hilarious evidence (from Lookout Landing): 1, 2, 3, 4, etc. So,'s a long season.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Crushing DreaExpectation Management, Part IV: The San Diego Padres

With a rainout on Monday night, your 2009 San Diego Padres, expected by many to be the worst team in baseball, continue to sit at 9-4, the third-best record in the league, just a game behind the Dodgers for the division lead.

What they're saying: Nothing terribly interesting; everybody's waiting for the carriage to turn back into a pumpkin. Newsday's Ken Davidoff basically says that that was fun while it lasted, but we can expect it to pretty much be over now. The Sicilian guy from Princess Bride is apparently writing for CBS Sports now, and he basically cobbles a bunch of Padres' players' quotes together and concludes: "who knows?"

I'll stop the linking there, because there's really nothing here. Everybody knows, or thinks they know, that this team isn't going far.

Reasons for hope: More than I would've guessed.
  • They've got some nice young players in Kevin Kouzmanoff and Chase Headley, though they're both really third basemen, so that's not great. And neither has started hitting yet, which is a good sign, since they will eventually.
  • Jody Gerut has established that he really can still play, and he's one of those too-rare great comeback stories that is also a very good player.
  • Brian Giles won't finish the year hitting .151.
  • Jake Peavy and the pitching Chris Young will probably end up much better than they've started (though the interesting question in what team Peavy will be ending up with).
  • Paul DePodesta is a very smart guy. He and the Padres' front office have been excellent at putting together strong bullpens from other teams' garbage, and they may well have done the same again.
Why it won't happen:
  • Kevin Towers may also be a very smart guy, but he's not a very smart baseball guy, and he's ahead of DePo on the front office depth chart. I haven't watched nearly enough Padres games to get a feel for Bud Black as manager, but I only seem to hear bad things.
  • Giles', Kouzmanoff's and Headley's rebounds won't come even close to balancing the significant dropoffs from catcher Nick Hundley, 1B Adrian Gonzalez (who is awfully good, but not 186 OPS+ good -- that's Pujols territory), 2B David Eckstein, and SS Luis Rodriguez, who have likely all already seen their best days of 2009. Even Gerut is likely to fall off some from his torrid start. Throw in that they're getting some unrealistically strong performance from bench guys Scott Hairston and Henry Blanco, and this is a team that's scoring runs well beyond its means.
  • The pitching staff as a whole has a 3.83 ERA (10th in the majors) and 4.42 FIP (12th). So they're getting pretty lucky to have an ERA so much lower than their FIP (which essentially says that the team ERA "should" be 4.42). They're in the best pitchers' park in baseball, and they've played 7 of their 13 games at home; in any year in which the Padres have a good pitching staff backed up by a good defense, they'll end up with the fourth or fifth best raw ERA in the league. It's far too early to evaluate their performance so far (three of their six road games were played in Philly, one of the best hitters' parks around, so the overall adjusted ERA+ still puts them at 6% above league average), but the fact is that with Peavy + Young + three guys you've never heard of, this just isn't a great, or even a good, pitching staff, and with shaky defensive players at most every position, they won't be getting a lot of help. Guys like Kevin Correia and Walter Silva, if they stay healthy and in the rotation all year, are going to wind up with some lopsided W/L records in the wrong direction.
What PECOTA is saying: Color PECOTA unimpressed. It likes the Padres to go about 75-87, which is pretty close to where it had them pegged when the season started. That would put them in a tie for third, with a 7.46% chance of making the postseason.

My take: That's about right. This isn't a 100-loss team, the way the 2008 squad very nearly was, but it's not a first or second-place team either. There are a lot of other deeply flawed teams in this division, though -- basically everyone but the Dodgers (PECOTA still likes the D-Backs to win 87 and challenge for the wildcard, but we're starting to see that there are some real concerns with that team). Based on that, I'll bump the Padres up a couple wins to 77-85. This team is improving, but it's still a couple years, a MannyBManny defection or retirement, and a DePo miracle or two from becoming a factor in the West.

Monday, April 20, 2009


It's been a bad day, this Sunday. Trying to get home to Chicago from Minnesota, flight canceled, hours in the airport with a fussy baby...good times.

So instead of trying to come up with anything new today (the Expectation Management series mercifully passes tomorrow), I'm just going to link to something I wrote a few weeks ago for my good friend The Common Man, whose site you should check out if you don't already. It (the piece, not the blog itself) is about the ridiculousness of MLB's blackout rules. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Crushing DreaExpectation Management, Part III: The Florida Marlins

Let's get right into it. The Marlins stand at 10-1 this fine Sunday morning, and they come by it honestly--they're hitting well enough to get by and pitching like a staff full of Johan Santanas (with a team ERA+ of 153, that actually beats Santana's career 145). Most figured them for third or fourth, and Baseball Prospectus thought they'd lose 90 and finish behind the Nationals. What the hell?

What they're saying: Come on, no one talks about the Marlins. My law school friend Jeff, the only Marlins fan I know (or even know of), puts up a new, increasingly excited facebook status with every win. That's all I got.

Okay, seriously:
  • The Herald's Linda Robertson says that the Marlins' winning is a good sign, which is why they pay her the big bucks.
  • Josh of Jorge Says No! opines that the Fish, alone among your surprising-starters, are for real.
  • USA Today's Mel Antonen spotlights the Fish and Jays as "low-payroll, high-expectations" teams, and seems to conclude that the former are the most likely to keep it going.
So there are some expectations here. I think there were some expectations among some people coming into the season, actually, given that they won 84 games last year. But nobody expected a .909 start, and now nobody has any clue what to expect.

Reasons for Hope: Well,
  • Nobody knew what to expect from these starters. The oldest among them (Ricky Nolasco) is 26, and with just 388 big-league innings, he's got at least 100 innings on each of the other four. Part of the Marlins' projected struggles came from rather gloomy projections for each of the five starting pitchers, and each of them could significantly beat those projections. With the possible exception of Anibal Sanchez (who can hold his own), all are hard throwers who rack up strikeouts, which is exactly what they need with this defense--which is, um, not great. If this pitching staff is even half as good as they've looked so far (aside from Nolasco, who has struggled but will rebound), they're in much better shape than most people thought.
  • They have one of the four best players in the Major Leagues, and you could make a good case that he's the best. Hanley Ramirez looked like a terrible defensive shortstop in his breakout 2007, but measured out as more or less average in 2008, and has been downright good in the way-too-early going in 2009. If Hanley can hit and run like Hanley does and play a good shortstop, that's about the best weapon a team could have. And he hasn't really started hitting yet this year.
  • About three years ago, Jeremy Hermida was expected to be a superstar by now. He stumbled a little in '06, had a very nice year in '07, took a huge step back in '08, and now seems to have been more or less forgotten (though playing for the Marlins has that effect). He's still just 25, and one thing I've noticed is that if everybody thought you had that kind of talent once, you probably did, and might start showing it at any time (there are, of course, a few exceptions--I'm looking at you, Delmon). Hermida is doing a fine job in the early going, and I expect him to significantly outperform most of his projections. Also, Cameron Maybin was a top prospect even more recently, and he can't be as bad as he's played through the first eleven.
Why it won't happen:
  • Emilio Benifacio. He of the .679 OPS and 76 OPS+ in about half a season's worth of career PA and an underwhelming .285/.341/.362 minor league line. Not a good player. Guys like this don't suddenly become good players. His flukish, scorching hot start will probably keep him in the lineup much longer than he deserves, and he'll be seriously costing the Marlins runs
  • That BABIP thing again. They're batting .354 on balls they put in play, which is about 25 points above the usual major-league leading team BABIP. The culprits, not surprisingly, are the guys who are playing miles over their heads--Bonifacio at a ridiculous .500, catcher John Baker at .444, and Dan Uggla (a good hitter, but not a .314 hitter) at .429. Those bloops and dribblers will stop finding the holes quite so often, a few line drives will be scorched right at somebody, and those BABIPs will slip back toward .300. And then they'll stop scoring runs.
  • On the other hand, maybe Maybin just isn't as good as we all thought (or just isn't ready yet). After the guys I just mentioned, he has the highest BABIP at an unsustainable .389. But he's struck out in 43% of his plate appearances, so he's still hitting a dreadful .219/.286/.250. If he's terrible and Hermida doesn't have a big breakout year, this team will have a hard time scoring runs once its luck starts to even out.
  • Speaking of luck due to even out, they're hitting like Albert Pujols (.340/.438/.530) with runners in scoring position. That won't last, either.
  • Their pitching staff may be great, but it's not going to be this great. Four of the starters and the team's closer all have ERAs under 2 (Nolasco is the odd man out, struggling at over 6).
So basically, aside from Maybin and Nolasco, everything that coul;d possibly have gone right for them so far, has, and any of it could (and probably will) start going wrong again.

What PECOTA Says: the forecasting system liked the Marlins to lose 90 at the start of this year, and their updated Playoff Odds Report, surprisingly, hasn't changed much. They're ending up an average of 73-89, and missing the playoffs 93.41% of the time.

My take: That seems extreme. The team has already won 10 of its first 11 (of course, the odds were last put together when they were 9-1, but I doubt one more win changes things much at this point), and would have to play just a little better than .400 the rest of the way to make it to 89 losses. I don't see that happening. The forecasts are based on pitching projections that I think are suspect--I expect all five of the starters to outperform what PECOTA sees for them. That said, they're going to have a really tough time keeping up with the Mets and Phillies in this one. I see them going 78-84, five or six games ahead of the Nationals for last, with a chance to get a little lucky and break .500 (but still fall 10+ games behind New York and Philly).

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Something Old, Something New

That's right: "daily" means seven days a week around these parts. But frankly, life is hard when you have a more-than-full-time job and a young child and are writing 1500 words a day. Daddy needs a break today--the Expectation Management series will continue tomorrow. Today, I just wanted to take a second and point out what happened (or what almost happened) last Wednesday, April 15.

And like everything that happened that day, it has to do with the number 42. That's Tim Wakefield's age, and on April 15, he came within five outs of throwing a no-hitter. Wakefield would have been the oldest mortal to throw a no-hitter since at least 1954 (which is as far back as we have game-by-game data); Nolan Ryan did it at 43 and 44, but only two other 40 year olds have done it, Randy Johnson and Warren Spahn, both a little over 40 at the time. Ever the team player and typical knuckleball-throwing workhorse, Wakefield saw the game to its conclusion, ultimately giving up four hits and two runs (and walking away with an easy win), which keeps me from being able to say that he had the highest Game Score of anyone X old since Y and so forth, but still, it was a hell of a game, and was awfully close to really being something special.

Meanwhile, having just turned 21, Clayton Kershaw is very close to being exactly half of Wakefield's age right now. Taking the mound in LA at about the time that Wake was finishing up his shut-down of the A's in Boston, Kershaw had what looks like could have been the breakout game everyone has been waiting for from him, going 7 innings and surrendering just one hit and one walk while racking up 13 strikeouts. You have to kind of JaysonStarkify these numbers to make them sound historically special, but I think it tells you a little something. There are two pitchers since 1954 who have thrown at least 7 innings, allowed at most one hit, and struck out at least 13 in a game before their 22nd birthday--Kerry Wood and Kershaw. And true, Wood had maybe the best game anyone's ever had in that game--going the distance, giving up just the one hit and striking out 20 while walking none--so to compare Kershaw's performance to Wood's is a bit misleading. But it says something that no one else has done it, doesn't it? And Kershaw threw only 105 pitches, and might still be starting games regularly in five or seven or ten years. So he's got that going for him.

I wish there was a point to be made here. But all I've got is this: in the same night, we saw one of the best performances you'll ever see by a really old guy and one of the best you'll ever see by a really young guy; one a right-handed knuckleballer who throws standing up almost stick-straight and tops out at around 70 MPH, and one a lefty flamethrower who throws like his very life hangs on every pitch. And that's nothing if not something.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Crushing DreaExpectation Management, Part II: The Seattle Mariners

Full disclosure: I love the Twins more than is probably healthy, but to the exact extent that it's possible to love two teams in the same league, I love the M's. And I love their weird-ass fans, who I think I'll probably have to write a whole thing about someday. But today is not that day.

As I type this on Thursday night, the Mariners, who ended '08 all alone at the bottom of the AL with 101 losses, are 7-2, all alone at the top of the AL, and three games clear of all the other teams in the sorry-looking West.

What they're saying: Yesterday, I noted that people didn't seem all that excited about the Orioles' hot start. Those Mariner fans? Not so much. My sense is that when this season started, nobody in the Northwest actually noticed. But nine games later and they've won a bunch of them? Well now!
  • Rob Neyer notes in passing while on a trip to Seattle that "the good citizens are wondering if the Mariners will ever lose again (seriously: people here are talking about 2001 and they're not kidding)."
  • The Olympian's Gail Wood would like you to avoid making the mistake of thinking that these are last year's Mariners. She extols their leadership, their pulling together, and their stringing together of hits, and is very excited indeed.
  • The Seattle Times' Larry Stone encourages everybody to get giddy for the hot start and home opener, but then basically says it ain't gonna happen.
  • The P-I's (hey, didn't they fold?) Gerry Spratt notes that Wednesday night's Mariners game out-ratingsed American Idol, Lost and Law and Order in Seattle.
So basically, the fan base is now freaking the geek out. Good idea? ...Well, yes it is. As Stone says above, why not go nuts? It's the home-opening series. It's baseball in the best modern stadium in the game. Go for it, people. Yet, onward:

Reasons for hope: Well, they're not going to win 116 games. Only two teams ever have, and there will be another, but it won't be this bunch. They're also not going to win 100. But there are reasons to think they might be playing games that mean something in September:
  • Ichiro! hasn't been around for this. The leadoff hitter and face of the franchise just made his season debut yesterday. He's 35 and not likely to be the truly great player he was in '01 and '04 and '07. But he's awfully good. He's maybe the only player you can count on to get on base at a good clip without really drawing walks, and he's an excellent fielder and baserunner. Ichiro means that Junior doesn't have to drag himself around the outfield, and that Endy Chavez doesn't have to lead off (I have to assume he'll be dropped to 9th once the effects of his season-opening hot streak disappear). These are good things.
  • That outfield defense is unbelievable. With Chavez, Ichiro! and Franklin Gutierrez, the M's are starting top-flight center fielders in every outfield spot. It really is a treat to watch these guys run around, especially in the vast emptiness that serves as Safeco's outfield. They also have the best defensive third baseman in the league in Adrian Beltre, and though the rest of the infield (the lumbering Branyan/Sweeney combo, the enigmatic Jose Lopez and the sure-handed, awesome-named, lead-footed Yuni Betancourt) is a singles-hitter's dream, the Mariners have put together a mostly-flyball staff, which plays to the strengths of both their defense and their spacious park.
  • Eric Bedard is healthy. Under old management, the Mariners made a foreseeably terrible trade with the O's to nab Bedard, and it got worse when Bedard proved hurt, unhappy and ineffective. Through his first two starts, though, Bedard has thrown 13 innings, struck out 15 batters and walked just 1 with a 2.08 ERA and a crazy 1.53 FIP, looking much more like the Bedard they thought they were getting (3.88 K/BB ratio, 3.19 FIP in 2007) than the one they did get in '08 (1.95 K/BB, 4.32 FIP). If he stays healthy, along with Felix Hernandez, 40% of their games will be started by one of the ten or so best pitchers in baseball.
  • Adrian Beltre is in a contract year. There is evidence that players do perform better when their continued employment or a big raise is on the line, and the last time Adrian was in that position, he had one of the best years a third baseman has ever had. He's put himself in a bit of a hole on the trip back to that level, but you never know.
Why it won't happen: Well, it might. But concerns:
  • The other 60% of the rotation is awful. Carlos Silva, probably the most overpaid active player in baseball (thanks again to the prior administration), is an extreme ground-ball pitcher (at least when he's not completely lost, which happens), and he's not as bad as his ERA is going to look, but as long as it's Betancourt, Lopez and Sweeney/Branyan trying to track down the ground balls he induces, he's going to keep looking about that bad. They've been trying to dump Jarrod Washburn since the end of '08, and there are good reasons for doing so, and for the same good reasons, it hasn't worked.
  • There's no real offense here. Chavez and Betancourt look pretty awesome right now, but they're not. Of the nine starting position players, only Beltre, Lopez and maybe Ichiro figure to be above-average hitters for their position, and they won't be by much. When this team wins, they'll have pitching, defense, and a bit of good luck to thank. Lots of close games.
  • They've been lucky so far, though not in the same way as the Orioles; they've got a very solid run differential and reasonable BABIP. But they've scored about an average number of runs, and have had to hit .362 with runners in scoring position to do it. When that number comes down to earth, they could have some problems.
What PECOTA is saying: Before Thursday night's game against the Angels (which looks like a loss as I near the end of this), Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA-Adjusted Playoff Odds Report had the M's finishing 79-83 on average (good for a virtual tie for second in their craptastic division), and with a 28% chance of making the postseason. That is huge for a team that lost 101 last year.

My take: I was one of the crazy few who actually thought the Mariners would win about 80 games before the season started, and obviously I like what I've seen so far. The brilliant Dave Cameron at the brilliant USS Mariner blog would say that I need to adjust that figure upward for the fact that they're now 7-3: that record + my original expectation of .494 play over the next 152 = 83-79. And I have no doubt that that's mathematically accurate, but I'm not going to do it. I think BP's projection is basically dead-on; this is a near-.500 team that, if it gets a little lucky and the A's and Angels get a little unlucky, has a pretty decent shot at making a run at the postseason. That's not 2001, but it's a pretty solid six-month turnaround for the new bosses.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Crushing DreaExpectation Management, Part I: The Baltimore Orioles

Thing three is the first of a four-part series (assuming teams 3 and 4 are still relevant to this exercise two and three days from now) discussing teams that have gotten off to surprisingly hot starts in this first week and a half or so.

The first victim is the Baltimore Orioles. Before I get into it, I just want to point out that the American League East standings as of Wednesday morning looked exactly the opposite of how I think most people expect(ed?) them to look at the end of the season: Orioles, Blue Jays, Rays, Yankees, Sox (I had a totally unnecessary table in here, but it was coming up with about a mile of space ahead of it for some reason).

You gotta love April.

What they're saying: Actually, I can't find anybody who's all that excited about the Orioles yet, despite their 6-2, first-place start (as I sit down to write this on Wednesday night, they're hopelessly behind the Rangers, so they'll fall to half a game behind the Jays once the latter finish off the Twins, but still, 6-3! The Orioles!). On Tuesday, someone asked the Yahoo universe whether the O's were contenders...but the answer was pretty uniformly "no." Earlier this week, the CBS Sports rankings guy rated them 15th and generally seemed skeptical, but at least he called them "interesting." The common sentiment among Marylanders seems to be "they look like contenders...for now." Or, perhaps more commonly: "the Ravens' season starts in only five months!"

This lack of optimism could be because the team has had eleven straight losing seasons, or maybe because they started 6-1 just last season, about which at least one young O's and "fundamentals" fan got very excited. They then lost six of their next eight, though they didn't hit the wrong side of .500 for good until July 12, which is easy to forget when they follow that up with one of the worst second halves of recent memory.

So, no real buzz about these guys yet. But is there any chance that this is anything more than a bad team having a good week?

Well, no (Sorry, Cal). But let's look at why.

Why they might keep it going: Well, the best prospect in baseball is waiting in the wings, and should be here soon, and placeholder Gregg Zaun is hitting .136/.269/.273. George Sherrill isn't a real Major League relief ace, but he's also unlikely to end with a six-plus ERA. Adam Jones and Nick Markakis are immensely talented young players who might really have taken huge steps forward from last year to this one.

Why they won't: A few reasons.
  • They've played .750 (now essentially .667) ball while being outscored. Before even counting the thumping tonight, the O's had scored 50 and given up 50. Consider: they're playing the best they can possibly be expected to play, and they should still really only be playing .500 ball. As I type this, the Rangers are up 17-4, so that becomes -13. Run differential and Pythagorean records really don't mean anything at this point, but I do think that when a surprisingly "hot" team has actually been outscored, that's sign one that things aren't all they seem.
  • Coming into Wednesday night, Jones and Brian Roberts both have BABIPs of over .500, which is just silly. Generally, if you put the ball in play and it doesn't go over the fence, you have a little better than a 30% chance of getting a hit; the theory on it all is still kind of in flux, but anything much over .300 is usually considered to be luck, and a good sign that you're in for a bit of a hard fall when your luck evens out. The whole team is BABIPing .334, which is lucky but not insane, but still--when two of your big bats are finding the holes better than 50% of the time, you just can't help but win a few ballgames you probably shouldn't expect to.
  • Okay, seriously--I watched the last inning of the O's 7-5 win at Texas on Wednesday night, and with two runners on in the bottom of the ninth, Sherrill gave up two towering fly balls that missed clearing the fence by a combined total of about five feet. That's just not the kind of thing that yells out "sustainable pattern of success." I know that I said he's not a 6-ERA pitcher, but so far, according to FIP, he's pitched like a 5.35 one. And Guthrie has pitched like a 4.50 one, twice his actual ERA. This is really, when you look at it on paper, one of the most unimpressive pitching staffs in the Majors, and nothing from these first nine games really changes that.
What PECOTA is saying: Baseball Prospectus does this crazy thing every day where they take the teams' current records, simulate the rest of the season a whole bunch of times (a million, actually) based on the performances projected by their PECOTA system, and then post the standings and each team's odds of reaching the playoffs (sorry if that link is subscription-only). Before the end of the games tonight, with the O's at 6-2, BP had them going about 77-85, which means .464 ball the rest of the way, and with an 8% chance of reaching the Great October Crapshoot.

I think both of those numbers are high. There's just too much of this that's unsustainable (didn't even touch on Melvin Mora or some of the non-Sherrill relievers), and PECOTA has been getting a lot of bad baseball-nerdy press for seriously man-crushing on Wieters, which has to affect those simulations. I think they end up about where they did last year--we'll call it 71-91, a two-win improvement--but with steady mediocrity, none of the surprising-respectability-followed-by-soul-crushing-collapse stuff from '08.

I'll be sure to revisit that prediction after Roberts hits .390, Guthrie wins the ERA title, and they win the Series.