What They Did: 72-90, 5th Place NL East.
Actual Runs: Scored 625 runs, Allowed 702.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 72.4 (0.4 above actual
Restated: Scored 680 runs, Allowed 685
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 80.5 (8.5 above actual)
Even before the Miami (neé Florida) Marlins made a single off-season move, new manager Ozzie Guillen walked into a good situation expectations-wise. On the surface, Miami looked like a team in decline at the end of the 2011 season. After all, the Marlins finished the year in last place in the NL East, posting its worst record as a franchise since 2007. Miami played .444 ball last year and the cause of this below-average performance was clear: The Marlins only scored 625 runs in 2011, its lowest offensive output, by far, since the franchise’s sophomore campaign in 1994. (Yes, the scoring environment has fluctuated a great deal over that period of time, but normalizing each of those years wouldn’t change the rankings. The Marlins hadn’t scored less than 690 runs in a season since 1998 and only less than 700 runs twice in the 12-year span from 1999 to 2010.)
Was Miami’s offense actually as bad as its run total indicated?
Here’s a look at three different offensive categories, On-Base Percentage, Slugging Percentage, and Isolated Power, of two MLB teams last year:
OBP SLG ISO
Team A .319 .388 .136
Team B .318 .388 .142
Which team scored more runs?
Before you answer, here are definitions and background. Those three factors determine the vast majority of a teams runs scored. (Technically, they explain a team’s hit-to-run ratio. The major league average is always roughly 1 run scored for every 2 hits. These factors explain why some teams need fewer hits to generate a run and why others need more. This analysis is the backbone of what I labeled "cluster luck" in my book.)
I use a rolling 3-year regression and for the last decade the annual r2 is always above .8. (For 2009-2011 it was .844.) It’s not surprising why those three factors are so predictive of total runs scored. On-base percentage measures the rate at which a team’s batters got on base, slugging percentage distinguishes between the type of hits the players got and isolated power is an extra measure of power which strips out the effect of singles on slugging percentage. So knowing that, let’s determine which team should have scored more runs.
Both teams had identical slugging percentages and virtually the same on-base percentages. Given that Team B had a higher Isolated Power reading, its additional extra-base hits should have resulted in more runs. Stated another way, both teams were on base the same amount of time, they had the same amount of total bases per at-bat, but Team B had more power. Team B’s extra power should have resulted in more runs; everything else is being help constant.
Team A actually scored 29 more runs.
But wait, you might protest, those factors don’t explain all of a team’s runs. The regression itself says it only explains just over 84%. The missing 16% may have to do with a manager’s tendencies to sacrifice, steal bases, etc. all of which could impact, to the benefit or detriment of his team, the team’s runs scored. Normally, I rebut that argument this way: It’s true those other factors make up some small, but not insignificant portion of the missing 16%. (The overwhelming factor is the random sequencing of events, or “cluster luck”.) However, over the decade of results I’ve studied, teams don’t persistently under- or over-perform their expected runs from year-to-year. So the effects of the presence of a manager with small-ball tendencies, or a poor base running team, etc. fluctuate to the point of appearing random each year. In this case though, I’ll make an exception to that argument and grant you that Team A’s manager is better at squeezing every last run out of his player’s production, because it really helps make my point that team B will be much better this year than last year – even if they make no personnel changes.
Why the exception? Because Team B was the Miami Marlins and Team A was the Chicago White Sox and, as you know, last year’s manager of the Chicago White Sox, Ozzie Guillen, is this year’s manager of the Miami Marlins.
This is another illustration of the hidden effect of “cluster luck”. On offense, Miami had the worst “cluster luck” in all of baseball scoring 55 less runs than expected based on the team’s actual offensive production. (See the box at top of this essay. Restated runs scored are 55 more than actual runs scored.) The Marlins also had bad “cluster luck” while pitching, but to a lesser extent of 17 runs. The total of 72 runs lost to luck essentially makes the Marlins the Boston Red Sox of the National League (see the archives – address below – for the Red Sox preview.) 72 runs equates to about eight wins. In other words, if Miami performed at exactly the same level in 2012 as in 2011, the team would most likely win 80 games not 72. That’s a great situation for a manager to walk into because he’d most likely be given credit for the eight-win increase.
However, as residents of a splashy new stadium, the Marlins greatly enhanced its roster, if not entirely cost-effectively. (Exhibit A: $27 million over three years for closer Heath Bell as his strikeout rate is plunging and his fly ball rate is rising.) With the addition of Jose Reyes, and an almost certain bounce-back from a career-worst year from Hanley Ramirez, plus the prodigious power of 22 year-old Giancarlo Stanton, the Marlins have the best leadoff/3 hole/clean-up combination in the league. They’ve still got a noticeable hole in CF where Emilio Bonifacio, moving from the infield, does not have the bat to justify the move. But otherwise the line-up is solid. So solid in fact, I think the Marlins will score at least 100 more runs than last year and have a decent chance to be the highest scoring team in the National League. That would be quite a feat considering they finished 11th in runs scored last year and there is only one new starter, Jose Reyes. When that happens, Reyes, as good as he is, and Guillen, who intentionally attracts a lot of attention, will get too much of the credit. You’ll know better; Miami wasn’t anywhere close to as bad an offensive team as its 2011 run total suggested.
If the Marlins can compete to score the most runs in the league, are they a threat to the Phillies dominance of the NL East? I don’t think so, thanks to the pitching staff. The Marlins actually had the third best bullpen in the National League last year in terms of bullpen Wins Above Replacement. As I’ve mentioned in earlier essays, regardless of personnel, the best estimator of a bullpen’s WAR in year T+1 is the league average bullpen WAR in year T, regardless of what the team’s actual WAR in year T was. My projection for 2012 dings the Marlins in this regard and predicts 26 more runs allowed from the bullpen alone.
Based on the peripheral skill sets (strikeout rate, walk rate, velocity, and ground ball rate) of each individual member of the Miami starting rotation, I think the Marlins will get three above-average performances and two below-average ones out of the five core starters. Interestingly, my model identifies the two weak links as Mark Buehrle and Carlos Zambrano, the two notable off-season additions to the rotation.
For Marlin fans, the formula for winning 90 games and challenging the Phillies for the division is fairly simple: The bullpen needs to be above-league average again and all five starters need to have ERAs that start with a 3. That puts pressure on Ricky Nolasco, as well as Buehrle and Zambrano to make every game in a three-game series a tough one for opponents. Too often the last two years, Josh Johnson has been the only starter opposing teams have had to worry about. If Johnson can be the ace of a truly potent top-to-bottom rotation, the Marlins will be playoff bound.
Note: The one wild-card in the Marlins’ runs scored and runs allowed projection is that the run-scoring environment in its new stadium, Marlins Park, is yet to be determined. Some analysts have already opined it will be a hitter’s haven, but on May 1, the roof is scheduled to be closed for the rest of the season and the stadium will then be climate-controlled. The only other climate controlled stadium in MLB is just up I-75 from Miami, and Tampa’s Tropicana Dome is one of the most pitcher-friendly venues in the majors. If that’s the case at Marlins Park, both the runs scored and runs allowed should drop by about 5%.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: Just like the expectations for the Phillies set by the oddsmakers, I think they have Miami pegged correctly. With a market of 84 ½ wins, I see no value on either side of the trade. If the Marlins had never signed Reyes, Buehrle, Zambrano, and Bell, I believe there would have been huge value to the upside. Conversely, if Miami hadn’t been so unlucky last year, oddsmakers/fans/commentators would be putting much too much value on the signings of the three acquisitions not named Reyes. Unfortunately, from a value perspective, the two factors seem to have cancelled each other out.
85-77 – Second in NL East
738 Runs Scored 704 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) February, 2013 release.
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