Warm-Up Tosses: There have been no posts from me since the end of June because I have spent the months of July and August in Las Vegas working on a project, an epilogue if you will, for my book. That has been completed, the book has gone through legal review and third-party copy editing, and I have seen the final cover design. Although the cover has not been unveiled publically yet, the book is available for pre-order on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Trading-Bases-Gambling-Baseball-Necessarily/dp/0525953647/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346372646&sr=1-1&keywords=trading+bases
60 Thoughts about 30 Teams
While a student at Virginia Tech in the mid-80s, I avoided the “progressive” musical tastes of the cool kids (mostly from the Virginia Beach area) and stuck with the album oriented rock music which, at the time, filled the Philadelphia-area radio station airways where I grew up. It wasn’t until I moved to the D.C.-area upon graduation that WHFS (99.1 FM) introduced, and permanently hooked me on alternative music. One of the songs WHFS more or less had in permanent rotation during the late-80s/early-90s was a song by the Nails titled 88 Lines about 44 Women. The following third-quarter review of the baseball season isn’t in verse format, and it isn’t nearly as edgy, but it’s inspired by the Nails. Here are 60 thoughts about 30 teams, National League edition. (American League to follow this weekend.)
Los Angeles Dodgers: 1) The Dodgers new ownership reminds me of a classic quote from the late Washington Redskins’ (and Baltimore Orioles’) owner Edward Bennett Williams. Referring to his coach/GM George Allen he once lamented, “He was given an unlimited budget - - - and exceeded it.”
2) Shortstops produce less offense than any other position in baseball. In the National League this year they have collectively hit .257/.309/.387. (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). First basemen contribute the most, posting splits of .266/.335/.441 in 2012. James Loney (.254/.302/.344) gave the Dodgers less offense at first base than the average shortstop. During his time in the National League (spent in the run-scoring death zone of San Diego) Adrian Gonzalez (.288/.374/.514) was far better than the average first baseman. Despite this massive upgrade for the Dodgers, the presence of Matt Kemp and the previous upgrades of Shane Victorino and Hanley Ramirez . . . .the Giants will outscore them in the fourth quarter. (It’s a dead heat so far.)
San Francisco Giants: 1) On the afternoon of August 15, after Melky Cabrera was suspended for use of a performance enhancing drug, the Giants were a better team than the one that had compiled a 64-53 record and sat in first place at the time of the suspension. Here’s why: The drop-off from Cabrera to Gregor Blanco et al is sizable, make no mistake about it. The Giants were a worse team August 15 than they were August 14. But even without Cabrera, the team the Giants will go to battle with every day for the rest of the season, due to the additions of Marco Scutaro (one of the most important, yet underrated mid-season acquisitions in baseball) and Hunter Pence and the (nearly) everyday appearance of Brandon Belt in the lineup, plus the return of Pablo Sandoval who had played in just over half of the Giants games in the first three-quarters of the season, the Giants are fielding a much better team in Q4 than they did, on average, during their first 121 games. Even without Cabrera.
2) Due to a deceptively better offense (or at least as good) as the Dodgers, better starting pitching (don’t be fooled by Josh Beckett’s past pedigree or his supposedly improved demeanor, he’s not in Madison Bumgarner’s or Matt Cain’s class in terms of run suppression) and better bullpen talent, the Giants will take the division crown in September, in a surprisingly easy fashion leaving the Dodgers out of the playoffs.
Arizona Diamondbacks: 1) The Diamondbacks gave up on their season way too early when they essentially gave away the left side of their infield (3B Ryan Roberts to Tampa and SS Stephen Drew to Oakland).
2) On August 19, when they hit the three-quarter mark of the season, the Diamondbacks were just 4 games behind the Dodgers and the Giants in the loss column and had just come off a quarter (their last 40 games) where they had the 2nd best run differential in the National League behind only the Braves. After a dismal home stand this week, their postseason hopes are gone but it felt to me like management threw in the towel weeks earlier, in the middle of “a heater” (Vegas term).
San Diego Padres: 1) As Bill Simmons says, “Archives are a bitch.” Sitting in mine is a 2012 preview for the San Diego Padres where I predict they will finish in first place in the NL West.
2) Many baseball observers, rightly, talk about how much better the Angels played once Mike Trout, who started the season in the minors, joined the lineup. And how many more runs the Tampa Bay Rays score when Evan Longoria plays. However, take a look at these stats: San Diego slugger Carlos Quentin missed the first 49 games of the season and the Padres went 17-32 scoring just 151 runs (3.1 runs a game.) Since then? 44-39 while scoring 357 runs (4.3 a game). Only the Giants, and just by 3 games, have a better record in the NL West over that time period. Don’t sleep on the Padres – there is a decent chance I was just a year early on my call.
Colorado Rockies: 1) The Rockies defense isn’t just bad, it’s historically bad. 32% of all balls hit into the field of play by their opponents result in a base runner. That’s the worst rate since the 96-loss, 2007 Tampa Bay Devil Rays. As such the Rockies had allowed 684 runs three-quarters of the way through the season – 67 more than even the Houston Astros, who allowed the second-most in the National League.
2) The Rockies pitching staff has the second worst strikeout rate in the NL at 18% . . . Hmmmm. It’s almost as if Rockies management gave no thought at all to roster construction this past winter when it acquired a trio of extreme fly ball, low strikeout pitchers, poor defenders and asked them to play in cavernous Coors Field. Their lack of planning got exposed more than Prince Harry during a game of pool. (Vegas reference.)
Philadelphia Phillies: 1) The aging core of the team that won five-straight division titles and more or less wore the mantle of “dominant National League club” for the last four years collapsed performance-wise, but possibly not in the way you think. Halfway through the season, the Phillies were on pace to score as many runs as they did in winning 102 games in 2011. This despite nearly zero at-bats from Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. No, the effects of age may have more acutely had an effect on the starting eight’s ability to prevent runs, not score them. The Phillies defense is well below-average this year having been above average every year since 2007. Let me assure you, it’s not because Raul Ibanez left town. By the end of the year, the increase in marginal runs allowed attributable to defense, will rival, and may exceed, the team’s drop-off in runs scored.
2) Don’t necessarily relegate the Phillies to a second-division team in 2013. With Halladay, Lee, and Hamels they still have the best set of three starting pitchers in the majors. Look at skill sets (strike out, walk, and ground ball rates as well as velocity, the four determinants of run prevention in the future) not results which are subject to many factors outside the pitcher’s control, and therefore fickle.
Atlanta Braves: 1) The Braves aren’t getting nearly enough press or support as a possible World Series team. Lost in the stories about the Reds having the best record in the National League and the fixation on the when-will-the-Nationals-shut-down-Strasburg, the Braves crushed their opponents by 64 runs in the forty-one games that made up Q3 of the baseball season – the most dominant quarter of any team in the National League this season.
2) Their run suppression (just 127 runs allowed in 41 Q3 games – lowest of any NL team this year in any quarter) is built on the strength of the National League’s best bullpen. I know the Reds (2.76) and Pirates (2.94) have lower ERAs than the Braves (3.04) but their results have elements of luck and unsustainability. Not the Braves. They are actually 3.00 ERA good. P.S. Any amazing results compiled by the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman in terms of strike out rates have already been accomplished by Craig Kimbrel.
Washington Nationals: 1) Remember when the Indianapolis Colts were 14-0 to start the 2009 season and Head Coach Jim Caldwell elected to only play his starters for the first half of the 15th game? Peyton Manning stood helplessly on the sidelines doing a McKayla Maroney-is-not-impressed imitation behind Caldwell as the Colts coughed up a 2nd half lead and the quest for a perfect season evaporated for the eventual Super Bowl champions. I don’t quibble with the decision to only play the starters for half the game so as to reduce the chance for injury. My question has always been, why not play them in the second half when each play has more significance towards the outcome of the game, or in baseball parlance, the high-leverage situations?
2) I’m certain I don’t have to explain why I have a three year-old NFL analogy in the Washington Nationals portion of this piece. On a trading desk, I always preached, “Plan Your Trade. Trade Your Plan.” I respect the Trade Your Plan portion of GM Mike Rizzo’s execution, I just think the Plan Your Trade portion could have been better thought out.
Miami Marlins: 1) Poor Jose Reyes and I mean that sincerely. The Marlins franchise is still every bit the mess it’s always been. Reyes came to the Marlins to team with Hanley Ramirez and hopefully Albert Pujols (Reyes’ signing was supposed to act as the catalyst to get Pujols to sign with the Marlins) to form a core of superstars who would anchor the rejuvenated franchise for the rest of the decade in its new downtown stadium. Instead the Marlins, before the season was half over, sold off parts and after Q3 were on pace to be the lowest scoring team in the National League. Reyes may never play a meaningful game after the All-Star break again.
2) Heath Bell signed a 3-year, $27 million contract to be the Marlins’ closer this year. He has a 5.92 ERA. His salary will comprise more than 10% of Miami’s payroll next year and he will provide next to no marginal benefit in terms of wins versus another relief pitcher making the major league minimum of $480,000.
New York Mets: 1) The Mets scored 210 runs and allowed 146 in Q2. The scored 147 and allowed 210 in Q3. Conclusion: The Mets are neither as good as they looked at the All-Star break (44-37) nor as bad as they looked in Q3 (13-27). They are roughly a .500 team and they have a solid foundation to turn themselves into a post-season contender next year.
2) There are a handful of teams whose bullpens torpedoed their post-season chances with truly abysmal performances. New York (bullpen ERA of 4.87) is one of those teams. While no team’s bullpen is anywhere close to 5.00 ERA bad in terms of collective talent, the Mets shouldn’t be deceived. The bullpen is terrible. It’s 4.00 ERA bad (based on a regression of walk, strike out, and ground ball rates) in a world where 3.55 is average. That’s a huge difference and fortunately for Mets fans it’s the easiest portion of a team to change from one year to the next. Provided you don’t do it by signing Heath Bell to a $27 million contract.
Cincinnati Reds: 1) Since 2010, Joey Votto hasn’t just led the National League in OBP (on base percentage plus slugging), he’s led it in on-base percentage and slugging. He’s simply the league’s most potent offensive force. On July 15, Votto got hurt with the Reds in first place by one game, having scored 370 runs in their first 88 games (4.20 a game). While playing first base, his replacements (Todd Frazier and Miguel Cairo) have hit .282/.327/.461, a fair amount better than the average MLB first baseman, but far short of Votto’s 2012 production of .340/.463/.603. How to explain this? The Reds are 30-14 in Votto’s absence and have scored 207 runs (4.7 a game) since that date, most in the National League.
2) Whether or not the rest of the Reds got hot at an unsustainable rate at the right time or not, doesn’t matter. Cueto, Latos, and Leake are a formidable short series threesome (just hope, if you’re a Reds fan, they are never down two games to one in a Game 4 situation) the bullpen is fantastic, and they have a nice balance – if Votto is in the line up – of getting on base skills and power. They are going to be in the playoffs, but they’ll need Votto in the lineup to advance.
St. Louis Cardinals: 1) The Redbirds have, by far, the best balance of offensive skills in the National League. They are first in on-base percentage, second in slugging, and not surprisingly therefore, first in runs scored. As the Phillies, Brewers, and Rangers found out last October, you don’t want to face an offense like St. Louis’ in the playoffs.
2) Will they make the playoffs? Despite only having one starter with ace skills (Adam Wainwright) and a league-average bullpen, they could sneak into the second wild card spot thanks to the offensive firepower they possess. It’s four teams chasing two spots. I’ve got the Braves easily capturing the first slot. I’ve got the Dodgers missing. That leaves the Cardinals battling. . . .
Pittsburgh Pirates: 1) . . the Pittsburgh Pirates for the final wild card spot. Befitting the two teams that staged a 19-inning duel on August 19, I see them needing to play an additional nine innings the day after the season ends to break a time for the final spot in the playoffs. With Pittsburgh winning.
2) Here’s why: Looking at expanded season-to-date standings and seeing Pittsburgh ten games above .500 despite barely outscoring its opponents doesn’t tell the story of the Pirates. I’m not normally one to randomly dismiss certain outliers but in Pittsburgh’s case I don’t think it’s random. I’m as inclined to ignore the Pirates first quarter performance as I would be if it occurred in 2011. The Pirates only scored 115 runs in Q1. In Q2 they scored 207 and in Q3 they scored 185. Teams that score nearly 400 runs in half a season are legitimate offensive forces. Entering Q4 the Pirates had played their last 81 games as a nearly 800-run-a-season team. That’s a pace equal to the league-leading Cardinals. The Pirates have outscored every team in the NL since they all played 40 games. I don’t think that’s a case of using selective endpoints; I think that’s the date the Pirates realized their offensive potential.
Milwaukee Brewers: 1) No team, not the Phillies, not the Mets, saw its season sabotaged by the performance of its bullpen more than the Milwaukee Brewers. Ryan Braun may win the NL MVP for the second year in a row but that’s not the entire story of the offense. How balanced (and underrated) is the offense overall? The Brewers are on a pace to score nearly 40 more runs this year than last year – and of course, they had Prince Fielder hitting .299/.415/.566 in 2011. The Brewers are an under .500 team in 2012 so obviously the problem is runs allowed – they are 11th in the NL in giving up runs. However, it’s not the starting rotation’s fault. The starters are 5th in the league in runs allowed. The relievers however are next to last and honestly, the Rockies don’t count. (The Rockies have allowed more runs but they’ve thrown 25% more innings due to the team’s experiment with a four-man, 60-pitch limit starting rotation which results in many more innings pitched by the bullpen)
2) The Brewers were correct to run up the white flag in July and trade Zach Greinke in order to get some assets in return that can help them in future season. They will probably finish under .500 this year, but they will be a strong under-the-radar candidate for a return to playoff contention next year.
Chicago Cubs: 1) The Cubs bullpen has an ERA of 4.69. That isn’t the worst in MLB – the Brewers, Mets, and Astros all have worse ERAs in fact. Bullpen performance, especially runs allowed, is subject to high variance due to the small number of innings pitched in high-leverage situations. However, of those four NL teams with poor bullpen ERAs, underlying skill sets suggest what while the other three teams were victims of poor sequencing or were downright unlucky, the Cubs bullpen was actually worse than its ERA! This suggests the Cubs bullpen is, by far, the worst in the majors.
2) That’s a somewhat scientific conclusion. Empirically, that opinion is affirmed by anyone who has watched Carlos Marmol take the mound in the 9th inning. More often than not, he couldn’t find the strike zone with Google Maps.
Houston Astros: 1) The Astros are on a pace to lose 110 games in the National League – a league that for nine years has been, based on 252 interleague games played each year, far inferior to the American League. In that time, the average, 81-81 NL team has won just 44.5% of its games against the AL. That means a 110-loss NL team would expect to lose 116 games over a full season against the superior AL competition. The Houston Astros move to the American League next year.
2) In the words of the world’s most famous Astro, “ruh-roh”. (http://www.gpslodge.com/images/george-astro.jpg)
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.) March 7, 2013 release.
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