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Tuesday
Feb262013

2013 Preview: Tampa Bay Rays

 

Warm-Up Tosses: As I mentioned last week, this Friday, March 1, I'll be presenting a lecture at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference in Boston.  Although selected portions of the conference are being live-streamed over the web, my presentation is not.  However, it will be recorded and once the video is posted on the SSAC website I will pass along the link.  Additionally, as I will be working on my presentation as well as traveling to Boston this week, it's possible the daily release of 30 Teams in 30 (Week) Days previews will be spotty.  If that's the case, I'll eventually catch up with some weekend reports.

Finally, I've been asked frequently about the book and how it differs from the newsletter.   Usually those questions come in the form of "Will I like the book if I really don't like your newsletter/blog?" and they come from people like my wife and my mom.  The answer is, I certainly hope so -- and if you don't, that's on me.  The book is intended for a much broader audience than the newsletter and, as it's a memoir filled largely with first-person stories, it's much more similar in nature to say, the opening of the Oakland A's preview last week, or my pieces last year on attending the Kentucky Derby than the Rays' essay below.  On my author's page at Amazon.com, there is a video which describes the book and how I came to write it.  You can view it here: http://www.amazon.com/Joe-Peta/e/B0094TA8FU/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0

*     *     *

Tampa Bay Rays

 

What They Did:        90-72, 3rd Place AL East.

     Actual Runs:        Scored 697 runs, Allowed 577.

                                  Expected wins based on RS and RA:  94.9 (4.9 above actual)

          Restated:        Scored 685 runs, Allowed 554.

                                  Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA:  96.5 (6.5 above actual)

(Glossary: Expected wins, based on a modification of Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem, are the amount of wins a team should win in any season based on the amount of runs it actually scored and allowed.  Deviations will be explained in the appropriate team capsules.

Restated Runs Scored and Runs Allowed are the amount of runs a team should have tallied based on its actual components of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging achieved/allowed.  In the case of the Rays, if they posted exactly the same stats in 2013 as 2012, they should expect to win 97 games.)

 

After reviewing the 2011 season, I concluded that the Boston Red Sox were the unluckiest team in the major leagues.  Not because they tasted improbable defeat in game 162 resulting in a missed postseason berth, but because they were even in a position to blow an all-but-certain playoff berth in historic fashion.  The beneficiaries of that bad luck were, of course, the Tampa Bay Rays. 

So perhaps it’s evidence of a universe in balance that, in 2012, the Rays were the unluckiest team in Major League Baseball. 

Tampa outscored its opponents by 120 runs and missed the playoffs.  Since 2005, only two teams – the 2008 Toronto Blue Jays (+104) and the 2011 Boston Red Sox (+138) – outscored its opponents by more than 100 runs and missed the postseason.  But, we’re now in the era of two Wild Card teams.  Boston would have made the playoffs in 2011 under that arrangement.  Believe it or not, it’s actually a little bit worse than it seems.  Tampa Bay may have been unlucky at converting its runs scored and runs allowed into wins, but there were also unlucky that the spread between the two wasn’t even higher.  That’s because, their pitching and defense was even better than the major league-low 577 runs they allowed.  That’s right: Despite playing in the higher-scoring American League, the Rays allowed the fewest runs in all of baseball – and that figure should have been even lower.

Take a look at this comparison of two pitching staffs of recent vintage.  Note that these selected stats reflect the opponent’s performance against each respective staff:

                        Batting Avg.   On-Base %      Slugging %      Isolated Power

Team A              .240                 .296                 .361                   .121

Team B              .228                 .294                 .352                   .124

(Quick definition:  Isolated Power, or ISO, is a measure of total extra base hits per at bat.  Essentially it strips out the effect singles contribute to slugging percentage.  Algebraically, it’s simply slugging percentage minus batting average.  It’s a great measure of a team’s home-run hitting ability, the most important factor in slugging percentage.)

Although both pitching staffs were truly outstanding (on-base percentages that low means each pitching staff essentially turned all of its opponents into the 2012 version of the Seattle Mariners) it’s also clear that, with one exception, Team B’s pitching staff is a little better than Team A’s.  That one exception is home runs allowed – as evidenced by the ISO against – and even that has the residue of bad luck attached to it.  Team A allowed more fly balls, by a material amount, played in a home park much more conducive to allowing homers (as we’ll see in a minute) and still allowed fewer homers.  Team B allowed far fewer doubles and triples, even if you convert those excess homeruns to doubles and triples, hence the materially lower slugging percentage against.

So, knowing all that, you’d expect Team A to have allowed more runs than Team B.  In fact, a regression analysis, based on a decade of results, predicts Team A should have allowed more runs than Team B by 26 runs. 

Team A, the dominant Philadelphia Phillies pitching staff of 2011, actually allowed 48 runs less than Team B, last year’s Tampa Bay Rays.  But as bad as that result is, when you dig a little deeper it’s more eye-opening.  That’s because runs allowed is a counting stat, as opposed to a rate stat, which means the more opportunities a team gets to bat, the more runs it will generate.  When you then factor in that Philadelphia faced 69 more batters (about two games worth) the disparity gets a little worse.  With such a dominant performance on the mound and in the field, Tampa should have cruised to a division title.  (As reflected in the Restated Results, above.)

Don’t hang your heads too far Rays fans; the good news is I think you’re going to cruise to the best record in the division this year, and possibly end up with the best record in the American League in the process.

Due to their payroll constraints, their effective use of one-year contracts, and natural attrition that results in the partial turnover of every team’s roster from year to year, fans have become accustomed to large changes in the Rays players each year.  That’s not true this year.  Tampa has only one meaningful change to its league-leading pitching corps and although it’s a big one, I think it’s very manageable.  During the off-season, James Shields was traded to Kansas City for Wil Myers, generally regarded as the best hitting prospect in the minor leagues.  (There were other players involved too, but the trade boiled down to Shields for Myers.)  My model loves James Shields.  I come squarely down in the camp that he is absolutely a staff ace, unlike some who are pillorying the Royals for the trade.  (I too don’t like the trade, because of salary commitments though, not because Shields won’t contribute more to a team’s success than Myers.)

Here’s the thing about Shields though, especially as we look at marginal changes from the 2012 season.  While his skill set was once again top-tier (K/BB ratio of 3.84, 12th among all MLB starters – and better than David Price’s 3.47, incidentally – accompanied by the highest velocity of his career) his results were not.  Oh sure, his 3.52 ERA looks impressive but those are only earned runs, not total runs.  Shields RA was 4.07 due to his league-leading 14 unearned runs allowed.  Jeff Niemann, who will be replacing Shields in the rotation, is not and never will be as good as Shields.  He does not have the potential to throw a complete game shutout every outing, as Shields does.  However, in over 500 innings as a Rays starter from 2009-2011, Niemann posted a 4.31 RA.  During an injury-shortened 2012, he made eight starts and at 4.03, bettered Shields RA.  

As this deep dive into the numbers shows, it’s quite possible there will be just a minor increase in total runs allowed due to the departure of Shields.  Factor in some bullpen regression (although the Rays’ American League-leading bullpen ERA is entirely supported by peripheral statistics, in contrast to runners-up Oakland and Baltimore) and a possible regression from the other starters, but not guaranteed due to the age of still peaking twenty-somethings David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb and Matt Moore, and it seems as if I’m calling for the worst case scenario when I say this:  Even if bullpen regression, a step-backwards from Price et al, and replacing Shields with Niemann costs the Rays 50 runs in performance, thanks to the “bad luck” they experienced in 2012, it will only result in 27 more runs allowed and the Rays will still give up fewer runs than any other team in the American League.

On the run scoring side of the ledger, I have extreme confidence the Rays are going to score more runs this year.  Their best hitter, Evan Longoria, only played 74 games last year and I am torn between naming him or Yoenis Cespedes as my AL MVP choice for 2013.  Desmond Jennings experienced the dreaded, but common, sophomore-slump last year and missed 30 games from an early-season injury that may have sapped his performance all year.  I love him as an underrated fantasy pick.  He’ll move to center field this year to replace the departed B.J. Upton, but a healthy Matt Joyce in left field should make up for the loss of Upton.  First baseman James Loney and shortstop Yunel Escobar may not excite fantasy players but it would be hard for them not to improve, respectively, on the production Carlos Pena and Elliot Johnson supplied last year. 

On Loney, there is considerable evidence that while his bat put the Dodgers in a comparative hole versus other teams thanks to the premium offensive production needed at first base, Dodger Stadium was the main cause of his problems.  Loney has slugged a very respectable .462 away from home (the average first baseman slugged .442 in 2012) but just .375 at home.  So over 1,700 plate appearances both home and away, Loney hit like an above-average first baseman on the road but a below-average shortstop at Dodger Stadium.  Obviously, the Rays are hoping an escape from the dead air in Chavez Ravine helps Loney’s overall performance.

Oddsmakers’ expectations:  The Tampa Bay Rays have won 90 or more games in four of the last five years, averaging nearly 92 wins during that span.  Last year, as I’ve shown above, may have been their best team of the bunch.  This year’s squad will be better offensively and although the skill set of James Shields cannot be replaced, it’s quite possible his results can be.  By the end of preview series, Tampa may emerge as my choice for the AL pennant.  Las Vegas has opened their 2013 total wins market at 85 ½ wins.  This is my favorite over on the entire board.

2013 Outlook:

93-69 – First in AL East

714 Runs Scored       604 Runs Allowed

 

Mop Up Duty:

Joe Peta is the author of 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. It is available for pre-order from a number of on-line booksellers.  Here are three you can currently choose from:

http://www.amazon.com/Trading-Bases-Gambling-Baseball-Necessarily/dp/0525953647/

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/trading-bases-joe-peta/1111308063?ean=9780525953647

http://www.indiebound.org/book/9780525953647

He is also the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to the book.  If you have been forwarded this issue and would like to be placed on the mailing list, please send an e-mail to tradingbases@gmail.com

All newsletter archives are located at http://tradingbases.squarespace.com

You can follow me on Twitter here:  @MagicRatSF

If you want to be taken off the e-mail list, please let me know at tradingbases@gmail.com

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