An account of baseball in general and the Los Angeles Dodgers in particular.
Monday, September 13, 2004
Around the Game In Eighty Sentences
Baseball Prospectus has finished their overhaul of support-neutral pitching statistics. I could get lost for hours in this stuff, especially since I tend to want to look up the defense-independent numbers for each pitcher. Only one pitcher has started more than 25 games and finished with a SNVLAR above -0.4, and that pitcher is Kirk Rueter. When a player is below replacement level for so long, you'd expect him to be replaced, but the Giants aren't exactly the poster child for the notion of freely available replacements. Rueter has a ridiculously low 2.7 K/9, which gives him aK:BB rate under one (.83). The only other pitchers who've thrown 50 or more innings with a K:BB under one are Kaz Ishii (.98 in 155.1 IP), Daniel Cabrera of Baltimore (.91 in 134 IP), Stephen Randolph of Arizona (.76 in 70.2 IP), and the now-retired Pat Hentgen (.79 in 80.1 IP), although Aaron Sele is close (1.02 in 118.2 IP). Rueter has been the most consistently bad from start to start, with a .198 Flakiness factor in the Prospectus stats. Actually, Randolph has been more consistently bad in much less playing time, posting a -.5 SNLVAR with a .120 Flake factor. Hentgen was also consistently bad, contributing a -.3 SNLVAR with a .215 Flake factor. Ishii and Cabrera have actually produced positive SNLVAR's, Ishii 1.8 and Cabrera 1.9, thanks to mixing in very good starts with very very bad ones (their Flake factors are .281 and .261, respectively).
With the Brewers fade from contention, not many folk are talking about Ben Sheets, but that's certainly not his fault. He's 8th in the majors in SNLVAR and he trails only Randy Johnson in Fielding Independent Pitching among qualified starting pitchers. He also has one of the lowest Line Drive Percentages in baseball. With Doug Davis and Victor Santos (whose 4.24 ERA masks peripherals that are almost equal to those of Carl Pavano), the Brewers would be a pretty strong team in the postseason if only they had an offense and a bullpen. In fact, I think I'd take that top three over any other in baseball except maybe Florida's Pavano/Burnett/Beckett if the criterion was individual performance this year.
Besides Sheets, whose being most overlooked this year despite great performance because their teams are out of contention? People like Mark Loretta, Carlos Guillen (anyone else noticed the two best middle infielders in the game this year both had breakout seasons and were struck with injuries in the same week or so?), and Melvin Mora have been newsworthy for having breakout seasons, and people like Ivan Rodriquez, Ichiro Suzuki, and Randy Johnson have been newsworthy for continued dominance on bad teams, but who's simply not being acknowledged? To answer this question, I made a completely arbitrary lineup of overlooked players.
At catcher is Jason Kendall, who is playing above average defense for the first time since the 90's and who continues to get on base 40% of the time. Kendall's had a non-Bill-Jamesian development curve: great at ages 24-26, subpar from 27-28, and good from 29-30.
At first base is Todd Helton, who you probably have heard of a fair deal, but he's not getting as much attention as he would if he were on a contender. Helton is probably having his best season ever, which is pretty good since he's been worth at least nine wins above replacement in each of the past four seasons. He's the best defensive first baseman in the national league and one of the best handful of hitters of the past five years.
At second base I suppose I'll go with Brian Roberts, but he's been nothing special: a .260 EqA and slightly below average defense isn't bad, but it's nothing to write home about. The real story is the dearth of quality second basemen in baseball this year. When someone like Roberts is 6th in the majors in VORP at second base, you know it's a bad year for the group.
At shortstop is another Oriole, Miguel Tejada. You've probably heard other references to him flying under the radar if you read the same stuff as I do (well, I guess you would have read those references, technically), but he's having his first year with an EqA over .290 and, like Kendall, is having his first above average defensive season since the '90's.
Aubrey Huff kind of vaguely passes for a third baseman, so I'll go with him at the hot corner. His defense is pretty bad, about equal to Melvin Mora's. And his offense hasn't been as good as it was the last two seasons, but it's still pretty good. His marginal offensive decline is probably also due in large part to poor luck: his strikeouts are down and his walks are up, and his decline in AB/HR is marginal. The real culprit is that he's been missing doubles. Last season he hit 47 in 636 at bats, this season he has only 23 in 518 at bats. He's a good bet for a "rebound" next year.
At left field I'll plug Adam Dunn. No one will confuse him for a good fielder or a good contact hitter, but he's a genuine True Outcomes Hero. He's having easily his best season, and the main reason is that he's hitting more home runs. He's also having fewer of his batted balls find defenders' gloves, whether that's because of him or because of the fates.
At centerfield I'm tempted to go with Aaron Rowand, whose contributed a .300 EqA and above average defense to the White Sox, but they've been a marginal contender. Instead I'll pick Randy Winn. A lot of people portended doom when the Mariners decided that Winn would play center, but he's actually been pretty good defensively and his offense is fine for a centerfielder.
At right field, I'll pick Craig Wilson. He's been moved around the diamond quite a bit and isn't a prototypical rightfielder, but he's still close to average defensively out there and getting his .286 EqA into the lineup is definitely worth it.
At DH, I could go for Travis Hafner, but then I'd have to call the Indians a non-contending team which would mean I should have gone with Ronnie Belliard at second base. I think they've been written about sufficiently, so I'll go with Dmitri Young. He hasn't been very good, as he's had his worst season since playing for St. Louis back in 1997, but he has been above average offensively as a designated hitter for a non-contending team. Let's just say there aren't a lot of teams getting good value at DH and move on.
Let's say that the Brewers trio will be our first three starters. After that come two players with hard-to-predict development curves, Livan Hernandez and Oliver Perez. Perez arbitrarily decided to start throwing a bunch more strikes, breezing past his 90th percentile PECOTA projection. Hernandez has been almost as good as he was last year, absorbing innings like a sponge and abusing hitters like a Brillo pad. He had toiled aimlessly from 1998 to 2002, but maybe Randy St. Claire is responsible for his turnaround. St. Claire did get Javier Vazquez back on the right track last year, which is more than Mel Stottlemyre can say. Considering the talent level he's had there this year, I think it's fair to argue that he's done a good job of getting strong performances from his pitchers. How responsible he is for their injury rate is a different question.
For a relief ace, I'll go with B.J. Ryan. Both his actual and defense-independent ERA's are under 2.50, and he trails only Mariano Rivera for VORP among relief pitchers. I honestly cannot recall reading a single word about him this season outside of game recaps involving the Orioles, and I spend way too much time reading about baseball.
When I saw the headline for Peter Gammons' column today, I thought the mainstream baseball media sure has taken awhile to catch on to the A's defensive-focus-- Ken Rosenthal wrote an article about it on Saturday, only five months into the season. But Gammons' column was actually a pretty good read about how Theo Epstein and Billy Beane are developing tools for evaluating defense. It wouldn't surprise me to see some teams overpay for players who play great defense this offseason. My vague idea that the Dodgers will trade Alex Cora continues to fester.
My last note is yet another in my FIPS crusade, but one that's probably flown under the radar. Johan Santana is having an other-worldly season. His strikeout rate is the best thing this side of Randy Johnson and his walk rate is very, very good. His home run rate, though, is just league average, and he's probably had a fair deal of luck on balls in play. The defensive efficiency ratio for the Twins on balls hit off of Santana is .750, higher than any starter except Al Leiter. Now, part of that has to do with Santana, who's pretty good at avoiding line drives, but we should expect that DER to be more like .715-.735. Santana's not going to crash, but when his luck starts to slip the singles will combine with the home runs to make some trouble. And yes, I just devoted a paragraph to predicting that a player's ERA will probably rise from 2.80 this year to 3.10 next year.