Warm-Up Tosses: This is the last of the 30 team previews. Of course, there have been Spring Training injuries and roster changes which will modify some of the previously published projections. Additionally, the opening total wins markets for many teams have changed and all official selections need to be made against the closing number for end-of-season grading. Tomorrow, I will print a final outlook, in standings format, for the 2013 season.
Yesterday, I appeared on ESPN’s Behind the Bets podcast hosted by Chad Millman. Chad is the editor-in-chief of ESPN the Magazine, and the author of the Las Vegas-based The Odds, an insightful character study of three individuals and the city of Las Vegas. He has also championed critical reasoning-based sports handicapping for years on espn.com. Chad may have mocked me for admitting it, but it really was a bucket list item to appear on his show. You can listen to it here: http://espn.go.com/espnradio/play?id=9112118
Trading Bases has gotten some excellent reviews and there isn’t a single one I’d take issue with, but tomorrow’s Dallas Morning News has the first review penned by a notable writer. Long time Wall Street Journal sportswriter, Allen Barra gave Trading Bases a glowing review with an excerpt from one of my favorite sections of the book. You can read the review here: http://www.dallasnews.com/entertainment/books/20130330-book-reviews-a-triple-shot-of-great-baseball-nonfiction.ece?ssimg=947739#ssStory947741
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What They Did: 61-101, 5th Place NL Central.
Actual Runs: Scored 613 runs, Allowed 759.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 65.4 (4.4 above actual)
Restated: Scored 609 runs, Allowed 773.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 63.6 (2.6 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 Cubs, if they posted exactly the same stats in 2013 as 2012, they should expect to win 64 games.)
When an analyst looks for unrepeatable performance, good or bad, the best place to examine is small-sample size, high-leverage situations. Small sample sizes have the largest variance and high-leverage events are the most crucial. The combination of the two can provide an outsized influence on overall performance.*
(*) Notice how most of today’s insider trading scandals revolve around getting advanced insight into a company’s quarterly earnings, compared to the Wall Street (the movie/Michael Milken-era convictions which always seemed to involve leaked takeover bids? If you followed a stock for an entire year, and only got the sentiment, fundamentals, etc. correct four days out of 250 trading days but it was the four days before quarterly earnings were announced – even if you were wrong the other 246 – you’d most likely be considered a superstar analyst. That’s small-sample, high-leverage situations in the financial industry. Want to root out insider trading at a hedge fund, Freakonomics style? Find high-performing portfolio managers who only create alpha in their fund around earning's release dates.)
A team’s bullpen typically accounts for one-third of its total innings pitched, but because of the high-leverage nature of late inning results, they have a much bigger effect on a team’s won-loss record. Because of the inherent volatility, you’d expect significant fluctuation in year-to-year bullpen results, even from the same participants. But bullpen parts are highly interchangeable and often not very expensive so if a team has relievers with poor skill sets, management can replace them mid-season. (The Phillies did this masterfully last year.) All of this leads to the following conclusion: Bullpens that post terrible results usually aren’t as bad as the results might indicate. In other words, it’s hard to expect a bullpen to be awful.
If a rule is strengthened by the presence of an exception, well then I guess this is the only time anyone is going to refer to the 2012 Chicago Cubs as exceptional.
Long-time readers know I like to play the TMZ staple, “Who’d You Rather” each year before the playoffs begin in an effort to identify, with names covered up, the closer most likely to implode in the postseason by solely looking at his skill sets. In general you want relievers who strike people out (since they often inherit baserunners), don’t walk batters (no fuel on the fire) and induce groundballs (leading to double play opportunities and, obviously, less home runs.) Here is where the Chicago Cubs entire bullpen ranked across the majors in those three categories in 2012:
Strikeout rate: 29th (out of 30)
Walk rate: 30th
Groundball rate: 27th
Thus, the Cubs bullpen ERA of 4.50, unlike virtually every team which posts an ERA nearly two standard deviations away from the league average (3.67) actually deserved its results. (I looked at those bullpen rates for each team for the last 5 years, and of those 350 team seasons, the Cubs had the 8th worst projected ERA (and the worst of any team since 2009.) That takes the variance factor out of the equation in terms of 2013 progression (i.e. positive regression). What about the interchangeable parts element? Chicago is bringing back the three pitchers who threw the most innings out of the bullpen for them last year, Carlos Marmol, Shawn Camp, and James Russell. Even though they were not the worst offenders in 2012, they certainly aren’t better than league average – Marmol, notably, spends entire weeks where it looks like he’s trying to use Apple Maps to find the strike zone. They’ll be joined this year by a collection of cast-offs, a rookie, and an overseas veteran. 2012’s results might improve, but if one standard deviation worse than average is the upside, is it really an improvement?
As Cubs fans know, it’s not like the bullpen was the only problem last year. The Wrigley nine were the third lowest scoring team in the majors. 17 batters had more than 100 plate appearances and four of them had negative WAR totaling -3.9 (per FanGraphs). Of the four, only backup catcher Steve Clevenger returns, so the Cubs purged themselves of some (rotten) low-hanging fruit. Except for new right field platoon of Nate Schierholtz and Scott Hairston, all of the other starting positions will be filled by players from last year’s roster. There aren’t any terrible players there; it’s not impossible they could form a league-average offense, but that is absolutely the upside. The Cubs only had four players with double-digit home runs totals (the average MLB average team had more than six) and they play half of their games in a homer-friendly venue. Just like last year, the Cubs will still be a team that doesn’t get on base or hit for power.
The most dramatic roster changes occurred in the starting rotation where only Jeff Samardzjia and Travis Wood, representing just 54 of 2012’s 162 starter games, are on the Opening Day roster. The rotation is rounded out with a trio of other team’s cast-offs, Scott Feldman, Carlos Villanueva, and the much-traveled Edwin Jackson. (The return in May of injured Matt Garza will improve the rotation’s outlook, but, like Ryan Dempster last year, it’s questionable how long Garza will actually be a Cub.) Outside of Samardzjia who shockingly emerged as a legitimate #2 starter in 2012 (even though he’ll be the Cubs “ace” and the huge increase in career-to-date workload last year has to be a concern), that’s not a rotation that has much chance at all of fronting a league-average offense and emerging with even a .500 record.
By all accounts Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer are laying the groundwork to field a contender perhaps by 2015. But the improvements are being made at the foundation level of the franchise, and frankly they’re more or less letting the big-league club flounder for another year. It’s not a bad organizational strategy – why waste assets chasing a .500 record? – but it will be at least a year, and probably two until a Cubs outlook has any chance of including a mention of playoff odds.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: The Cubs were at least seven games under .500 in five of six months last season. That was the most in baseball, as even the Astros only had three such months. Stated another way, the Cubs were the most consistently bad team in baseball last year, and it runs counter to the perception that they didn’t tank their season until the trading deadline when they jettisoned a number of starters. Due to the last minute signing of Kyle Lohse, I backed off the Brewers as my final “under” selection. I’m going to make it the Cubs instead. They opened at 73 total wins. The projection below supports the “under” as does the chance – not factored in anyone’s projection – that Epstein & Co. will trade Garza, and any other producing player on the team, for future prospects as the season wears on.
69-93 – Fifth in NL Central
627 Runs Scored 735 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.) publication currently available wherever books are sold. Here are three on-line booksellers you can currently choose from:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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