NL East Preview
Traditionally, I like to start my preview series each spring with a defensive-focused piece that becomes the centerpiece of the logic-based previews that are to follow. You can check the archives and see the 2012 Detroit Tigers preview and the 2013 Los Angeles Angels preview for examples. In those essays, I advanced a theory that projecting and even grading team defenses is far different than a mere sum-of-the-parts exercise (’12 Tigers essay) and how the dreaded ‘eye test’ may be responsible for a significant amount of distortion in the Total Zone and Ultimate Zone Rating systems that form the backbone for the defensive portion of differing WAR calculations (’13 Angels).
Adding to that annual tradition, let’s take a look at Adrelton Simmons, the Atlanta Braves 24 year-old Gold Glove winning shortstop. On the strength of his first full season in 2013, in which he finished 14th in MVP voting, the Braves bestowed a 7-year, $58 million contract on Simmons this offseason. That’s a lot of money for a player who hit .248/.296/.396. Shortstops across the majors hit .254/.308/.367 making Simmons essentially a player with league-average offensive talent at the weakest-hitting position on the field. Because it’s average production, there are a lot of shortstops around the league (Zack Cozart, Erik Aybar, and Asdrubal Cabrera are good examples) with similar production and they aren’t getting $58mm guaranteed contracts.
That’s because, of course, Simmons has been called the greatest fielding shortstop to enter the majors in a generation. Unlike the days of Larry Bowa, Dave Concepcion, and Ozzie Smith, we don’t have to guess at the value of defense. These days, defense is a component of WAR, and a look at Baseball-Reference shows Simmons as a 6.8 WAR player in 2013. 6.8 is a huge amount of WAR – enough to rank Simmons in the top 8 of all everyday players. (Think about that. The other 7 are the likes of Trout, Cabrera, Cano, etc.) In theory, league-average hitters at any position are 2.0 WAR players and sure enough, bWAR allocates 2.1 to Simmons for offensive contributions. That means 4.7 of his WAR comes from being an above-average defender.
Let’s break that down further. Using rules of thumb here, 10 runs = a win and 2 hits = a run. That means Simmons must have prevented 94 (4.7 * 10 * 2) more hits than the average shortstop. But that is certainly too low a number because while two hits equals a run across all of baseball, all hits are not created equal. While outfielders can prevent home runs, first basemen triples, and third basemen doubles with slick fielding, shortstops can only prevent singles. So it’s certainly safe to conservatively say that at least 100 singles would need to be prevented to save 47 runs which would equate to 4.7 wins. (In the formula above, we’re changing the “2 hits per run” to “2.17 singles per run”, which we’ll come back to later.)
Across all of baseball last year, shortstops recorded 13,772 assists for an average of 459 per team. While fielding ground balls is a shortstop’s primary weapon to rob batters of a base hit, he also can snare line drives or range into the outfield to catch pop ups. Shortstops did that a total of 3,219 times last year, or 107 times per team, on average. Therefore, the average shortstop prevented 566 batted balls (459 grounders plus 107 fly balls) from turning into singles. (Note that the putout total excludes putouts recorded on force outs – another fielder prevented the batted ball from reaching the outfield.)
By the calculation above, Simmons would need to have a combination of 666 assists and batted ball putouts to justify a 4.7 addition to his WAR. Well, Simmons was the best in the majors last year per this calculation, so his reputation is justified. But his total assists plus batted ball putouts only totaled 616. That’s 50 short of what’s needed. Converting that back to WAR – 50 singles at 2.17 singles per run equals 23 runs, divided by 10 runs a win leaves a substantial shortfall of 2.3 WAR. WAR is somewhat like the Richter scale in that it’s not linear. There are not half as many 8 WAR players as 4 WAR players or one-quarter as many as 2 WAR players. Calling a 4.5 WAR player a 6.8 WAR player is a massive overstatement. It’s akin to calling a bottom-tier All-Star a border-line MVP candidate.
There are a couple of subtle factors that suggest the overstatement is even larger. Run a regression and you’ll find the largest factors contributing to balls hit to the left side of the infield are the handedness of the batter and the groundball tendencies of the pitcher. The Braves faced right-handed batters 60% of the time last year compared to the MLB average of 56% and the Braves staff threw the sixth highest percentage of groundballs in the majors. Those numbers, which suggest Simmons would collect more assists and putouts than the average shortstop, even if he were merely average, are mitigated somewhat by the fact that, thanks to the Braves high-strikeout staff (and other competent fielders) 1.7% less balls (74 total) were hit into the field of play against the Braves than the average team. Still, I suspect those three factors together would ding Simmons versus the average just a bit more.
This exercise isn’t to suggest Andrelton Simmons isn’t a marvelous shortstop. He most certainly is, the best in baseball, in fact. But the value that is being ascribed to his fielding is out of control thanks to the ‘eye test’ that is essentially used to calculate his worth. It’s extremely unlikely that he’s worth anywhere even close to a 7 WAR player.
One final thought: In the NL West essay I took some heavy flak for calling Paul Goldschmidt, at this point of his career, a poor-man’s Ryan Howard. I vehemently stand by that until he hits 58 home runs this year, and two hundred over the next four. Well, if that got you upset (and you know who you are) try this one on: As great as Andrelton Simmons is in the field, he’s a homeless man’s Ozzie Smith. Consider this: Last year, at age 24, Simmons collected a league-leading 499 assists, 40 more than the average team. In his age-25 season, Smith had 621 assists, 90 more than the average team. That’s one tough comp Simmons has this year if he really wants to be considered in Smith’s league defensively.
Any result, projection, or expected value calculation has a certain degree of variance associated with it. When a team wins 82 games, absent any more information, our best guess is that they have 82-win talent but the distribution of possible talent levels is probably as high as 90 and as low as 74. I think that line of thinking applies to the Washington Nationals more than any other team. Two years ago they won 98 games; last year they won 86. That’s an average of 92 games a season over a sample of 324 games and I think that fairly represents what the Nationals were the last two years. A team with 92-win talent, although many analysts seem to be overweighting the 86-win campaign.
In the field, they are essentially the same team as the last two years with a better prospect at second base, and with the exception of Adam LaRoche and Jayson Werth, everyone else is on the right side of the aging curve. I will be very surprised if this year’s team doesn’t come a lot closer to scoring as many runs as in 2012 (726) than they did last year (656).
Even if they don’t, they should cruise to the division title though, because the starting rotation has never been better. The addition of Doug Fister, an absolute steal from the Detroit Tigers, gives the Nationals the best 4-man rotation in the National League and that is really saying something when you look at the staffs of the Dodgers, Reds, and Cardinals. And don’t sleep on their fifth starter, the highly regarded Tanner Roark either. While his 1.51 ERA in 53 innings last year is absurdly and unsustainably low, he still projected mid-3.00 ERA talent. If you’ve got a number-five starter with an ERA of a top number-two starter league-wide, you’ve got a team that’s going to give up less runs than anyone else in the league.
With the dynamic hitters behind them and the easiest schedule in the league by far, you’ve also got the only team with a chance to win 100 games, the ingredients to win a pennant and, according to these previews, the 2014 World Series Champions.
Even at 89 games, I love the over.
93-69 – First in NL East
701 Runs Scored 600 Runs Allowed
I’m hard pressed to recall a Spring Training in which a team’s outlook for the upcoming season took such a dramatic shift. Since the end of last season, the Braves have lost Mike Minor and Kris Medlen, starters of 40% of their games in 2013, to season ending injuries. Gavin Floyd, a near-replacement level solution, is injured and is expected to miss at least the month of April. Combined that with the free-agent departures of Tim Hudson and Paul Maholm, not to mention last year’s mid-season loss of Brandon Beachy to Tommy John surgery, and suddenly the Braves only return pitchers who started 43 games for the them last year. The problem with that is that last year's staff had the lowest starting pitching ERA (3.18) in the majors.
The Braves will try to make do with four starters for much of April while recent emergency signing Ervin Santana gets into shape, but just like they like to say about NFL teams with two quarterbacks (“you don’t have a quarterback”) when one of your four starters is Aaron Harang, you don’t have four starters. I mentioned Harang in the Mariners piece last week and incredibly the Braves were so desperate they signed him on Monday. Harang had a 5.76 ERA in 22 starts for the Mariners last year and while he’s nowhere close to that bad, he’s still a replacement-level, scrap heap signing that indicates how quickly a huge strength from 2013 has become a problem in 2014.
In addition to their starters, the Braves also had the best bullpen in baseball last year (2.46 ERA) and fortunately that’s still intact. It will be taxed heavily this year and even if they are just as good in terms of skills, with heavier usage, it’s highly unlikely the ERA will be as low. They’re great – but it’s more of a low-3.00 ERA great. That extra half run every nine innings could add up just enough to keep the Braves in a Wild Card chase, not a division chase this year.
Incredibly to me, the Braves season win total of 87 has stayed pretty stable even through the injuries to their starting rotation this spring. I can’t take the “under” as the division is too weak and the Braves lineup is young which means improvement is certainly plausible from just about everyone except Dan Uggla, who at this point is the one expensive albatross in the lineup.
84-78 – Second in NL East
655 Runs Scored 632 Runs Allowed
New York Mets
Without Matt Harvey on the roster, the 2014 version of the Mets doesn’t have much to ignite passion. The Mets were a 74-win team last year and their results reflected the level of talent on hand. New York earned its under .500 record by being just a little below average in both scoring and allowing runs. They attempted to make some improvements on the margin, but given what they lost (Harvey on the staff and a surprisingly strong year from Marlon Byrd) it looks like the best they can hope for is that everything breaks right and they play .500 for an extended period of time.
The Mets pitching staff could have been interesting with Harvey. The two pitchers who gave up the most runs for the Mets in 2013, Shaun Marcum and Jeremy Hefner, are out of the rotation, replaced by Bartolo Colon (cheers), a full season of Zack Wheeler (cheers) and the presence of Daisuke Matsuzaka (jeers). As I say, it could have been interesting with Harvey in the rotation.
The attempts at offensive improvements are easy to spot, but are not guaranteed. Curtis Granderson moved across town and will switch positions in the outfield as well. He certainly projects to have a much better season this year than Byrd, but in replacing Byrd’s production last year, it’s not a guaranteed improvement. Same goes for much-heralded rookie Travis d’Arnaud, taking over catching duties from John Buck and Chris Young replacing Juan Lagares in centerfield.
There are zero positive expectations built into the Mets total wins market which sits at 73 ½. Due to the state of the division, there might be just enough value there to make it an “over” call once the final previews are posted on the eve of Opening Day.
78-84 – Third in NL East
622 Runs Scored 650 Runs Allowed
When the Phillies signed A.J. Burnett as a free-agent during the off-season, my first thought was quite positive. Thinking of a rotation of Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Burnett, I wondered, “Who has a better starting three in the league than the Phillies?” It turns out that while I have nothing negative to say about that core, the fact is it’s really surprising how many teams in the National League have three outstanding starters. The Cardinals, Nationals, Dodgers, Giants, and Reds would certainly choose to do battle with their top three starters against any others. For the Phillies, their starting three might be a strength, but in no way is it a league-separating strength and ominously, it’s the only strength they have.
The Phillies may have won 73 games last year, but make no mistake about it, they weren’t nearly “that good.” In this case, only a minor portion of their good fortune came from cluster-luck. The Phillies ineptitude was easy for everyone to see. The Phillies were outscored last year by 139 runs – nearly 1 a game! That was the third worst differential in all of baseball behind the Houston Astros and the Minnesota Twins. Like those teams, the Phillies should have been a lot closer to losing 100 games than they actually were.
Thing are not going to get better this year. The offense, which only outscored the Marlins and the Cubs in the National League last year, was old (oldest in the NL) slow (only the Dodgers ran the bases worse) with a poor batting eye (2nd to last in NL in walk rate) and to boot, horrendous defensively. To address those problems, the Phillies signed one of their top prospects – from 2002! That’s right, 36 year-old Marlon Byrd joins the team again. He's not only old but slow. He carries the worst career walk rate (6.4%) of any other starter on the team except Ben Revere, and his defense is abysmal. In short, he’s a perfect fit.
The model-based projection is much kinder than I am because I see a tremendous chance the Phillies get off to a terrible start and the tension that already exists in the clubhouse thanks to some needlessly caustic remarks aimed by Jimmy Rollins by Ryan Sandberg (Bobby Valentine, anyone?) could quickly turn toxic and the Phillies might be selling off anything of value, especially those starting pitchers, by mid-season.
The Phillies finished under .500 last year for the first time in eleven years. Unfortunately for their fans who got used to rooting for the dominant NL East team over a five-year period ending in 2012, last year wasn’t an aberration, it was the start of a trend.
77-85 – Fourth in NL East
631 Runs Scored 663 Runs Allowed
There’s little doubt in my mind that if you polled the 28 GMs in baseball not associated with either team, the vast majority would prefer to have the Marlins roster over the Phillies. Miami might not move out of the basement this year, but if the Phillies do dump assets, it’s a very real possibility. NL Rookie of the Year and 3rd place Cy Young Award finisher, Jose Fernandez was a revelation in his debut; there are simply no holes to poke in his 2.19 ERA and 12-6 record for a team that finished 22-10 in games he started and 40-90 when he didn’t. Fernandez anchors an exciting, hard-throwing starting rotation, with an average age under 24 years old.
Even with that rotation, the Marlins aren’t on anyone’s playoff radar because their offense was the worst in baseball by a huge margin. The Marlins got below replacement-level production from so many different players, it’s no wonder they scored just 513 runs. They were 85 runs worse than the next lowest-scoring team in baseball, the White Sox, than the White Sox were to being above-average. Miami's offense will be better this year because the Marlins spent the offseason surrounding their one offensive weapon, Giancarlo Stanton, with veterans such as Rafael Furcal, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Casey McGehee and others. Even if those names make you scoff and think, “replacement-level” remember, that’s a fairly substantial step up for the Marlins in 2014. It’s not forever either, because as early as mid-season, the Marlins may be bringing up some highly regarded offensive prospects to complement franchise cornerstones, Fernandez and Stanton.
I was very disappointed to see a 69 ½ total wins market for the Marlins, 7 ½ games higher than their win total last year. I see no value in touching the market at these levels.
70-92 – Fifth in NL East
597 Runs Scored 689 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
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