AL East Preview
Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem states that there is a very tight relationship between a team’s run differential over the course of the year and its season-ending win total. For instance, teams that don’t outscore their opponents are not over-.500 caliber teams, and therefore their ability to win more than 81 games is discounted, should it happen. The opposite side of the coin is true as well. Of course, in 2015 this relationship is so well-known that casual fans – in all four major sports – often cite unsustainable performances based on point, run, or goal differential when looking at league standings.
The AL East annually seems to make a mockery of that relationship.
In 2012 the Orioles won 93 games, finished 2nd in the division and captured a Wild Card berth, despite only outscoring their opponents by 7 runs while the 3rd place, 90-win Rays outscored their opponents by 120 runs. In 2013, the Yankees were 8 games over .500 despite being outscored by 21 runs over the course of the season. Last year it was more of the same. Despite playing worse overall baseball (-31 run differential) than just ten teams in all of Major League Baseball, only 12 teams won more games than New York. But this story isn’t about the Yankees, it’s about one of those teams that outplayed them yet gave up on its season well before NFL football kicked-off.
With five games to go in the 2014 season, the Tampa Bay Rays lost their 81st game putting to end their incredible run of six straight over-.500 seasons that began with a World Series berth in 2008. That’s a streak only the Yankees and the Cardinals can better over that time. At the time of that 81st loss however, while the Rays were five games under .500, they had outscored their opponents by 12 runs – and even that clue at over-.500 talent doesn’t tell the story of their performance level last year.
Here are the AVG/OBP/SLG splits for two pitching staffs in last year’s American League East and for comparison the MLB Average:
Team A: .231/.300/.362 <-- opposing hitters vs. Team A’s pitching staff
Team B: .241/.308/.382 <-- opposing hitters vs. Team B’s pitching staff
League Avg. .247/.314/.386
It’s pretty clear, I think, which pitching staff you’d rather have. Remember, the average pitching staff faces more than 6,100 batters a year, so a 10 point difference in batting average and 20 point difference in slugging is substantial. (Note that Team A is better than Team B, by more than Team B is better than the MLB average.) Sure enough, the difference in the two teams’ success was evident by season’s end. The Baltimore Orioles surrendered less runs than all but 4 teams in baseball and advanced to the ALCS while the Tampa Bay Rays languished under .500 and ranked 13th in runs allowed.
Except Team A was Tampa and Team B was the Orioles.
Let’s decipher those results. The Rays staff was among the five best staffs in baseball at limiting hits, keeping batters from reaching base in any manner, and limiting power on the hits they did give up. Yet opposing teams only needed 2.07 hits, on average, to produce a run, and as a result of that efficiency, the Rays finished a just-above-average 13th in runs allowed. (For Baltimore’s opponents it was 2.26 hits for each run.) In short, the Rays were subject to negative cluster luck. They gave up hits and baserunners at a well-below league-average rate yet their opponents converted those opportunities into near-league average runs.
Sadly, for Rays fans, Tampa’s negative cluster luck wasn’t limited to their time in the field. At the plate, league-average sequencing would have resulted in 21 more runs scored which, combined with the 33 fewer runs they should have given up while pitching, comes to a whopping 53 run improvement in their expected run differential versus actual. That’s about 6 wins of better production than results. (As league-wide scoring goes lower and lower, 9 runs is closer to equaling a win, as opposed to the old benchmark of 10 runs.)
There are other distorting factors as well. Even based on its actual runs scored and runs allowed, Tampa had negative Pythag luck of 2 wins, while the Orioles gained two wins. Put it all together and I see two similar looking upper-80s wins teams in vastly different clothing – in the case of the Orioles a beautiful 97-win Italian suit with the Rays a 77-win hoodie. In truth they were very similar teams at the end of last year, even if no one saw it that way. The question for this preview series is, given the off-season changes, aren’t they very different now?
I don’t think so. For Tampa, the trade of versatile Ben Zobrist is a real loss, having been shipped to Oakland, but elsewhere in the lineup the Rays could very well score more runs in 2015 despite the high-profile departure of Will Myers. Look, I think the Rays sold very low on the 23 year-old Myers, but we’re talking about marginal changes off an 87-win base that I believe the Rays played to last year. Myers and his abysmal 2015 Slugging Percentage of .320, will be replaced, and most likely improved upon by a combination of production from the high-profile youngster they picked up in the Myers trade, Steven Souza, and increased plate appearances from last year’s quiet breakout star, Kevin Kiermaier. The Rays lineup is very balanced and while James Loney doesn’t provide the type of pop you’d like from a first baseman, as the league is no longer filled with two dozen mashing first basemen, it’s no longer the competitive disadvantage it may have been just three years ago.
On the mound, David Price is forever gone, but he only made 23 starts last year, and it’s not just his starts that will be replaced this year. Along with Price, Jeremy Hellickson, and Erik Bedard have departed too. Here are their 2014 results:
Price: 23 3.59
Bedard: 15 5.47
Hellickson: 13 4.95
Total 51 4.33
(* RA is total, not just earned, runs allowed)
Replacing David Price is impossible, but improving on 51 starts of 4.33 RA performance is not. With good reason, everyone is talking about the Indians rotation as possibly challenging the Mariners as best in the AL, but the sleeper starting five, which I project to be just as good as the Indians, is Tampa’s anchored by the quartet of Cobb, Archer, Odorizzi, and Smyly.
This one is going to be very fun to watch this year. The Rays are the most undervalued and overlooked team in baseball this year. To wit: Vegas has the Rays comfortably in last place in the AL East with a total wins market of 79 ½ wins (and reduced juice on the over.) Needless to say, I love the over. This is my highest-conviction play of the pre-season.
87-75 – First in AL East
642 Runs Scored 589 Runs Allowed
Toronto Blue Jays
Two years ago, Toronto “won” the offseason, bringing Jose Reyes, Melky Cabrera, and reigning NL CY Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, among others, north of the border. It ignited the hopes of its fan base, only to see the team finish in last place in 2013 and play under .500 ball over the last two seasons. The outlook is considerably brighter this year as the Blue Jays get to go all-in one more time with the rapidly aging trio of Reyes, Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion. They’ll be joined in 2015 by Josh Donaldson, merely the AL’s #2 leader in WAR (behind Mike Trout) the last two seasons.
Still, the addition of Russell Martin might be the biggest marginal improvement the team made. Martin projects to not only add up to two wins in offensive production compared to the last year’s starter, Dioner Navarro, he might add that much in run suppression as well, due to his pitch framing skills behind the plate. Based on Baseball Prospectus’ calculations, Russell Martin was the 8th best catcher in baseball at getting extra strikes for his pitchers while Navarro ranked 103rd (3rd worst in the majors.) BP quantifies that difference at nearly three wins.
Thanks to a pedestrian bullpen (25th in the majors in ERA, with comparable skill sets) and probable slippage elsewhere in the lineup due to the departures of Melky Cabrera, Adam Lind, and Colby Rasmus, it’s hard to project the Blue Jays as a true pennant contender unless they get some ace-like pitching from someone in their rotation. Usually, those hopes would ride with a team’s #1 or #2 starter but in R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle they Blue Jays know what they have (extremely durable arms who reliably make more than 60 roughly league-average starts.) Their ceiling is defined. Lower in the rotation the Blue Jays have two 24 year-olds who could make “the leap” this year in Drew Hutchinson and most promising, Marcus Stroman. For my money, though, don’t sleep on Marco Estrada. Long a model favorite during his time with the Brewers, he never quite produced the results to match his considerable skills. The Blue Jays picked him up on the cheap after a disappointing year with the Brewers but he, along with Hutchinson and Estrada, possess the possible keys for the Blue Jays to break out, win 90 games, and end the post-season drought that currently sits at 21 years.
At a market of 83 ½ wins, there is value on the over for the Blue Jays. Like the Red Sox under call, it remains to be seen if it will make the final cut of ten plays just prior to Opening Day.
86-76 – Second in AL East
740 Runs Scored 689 Runs Allowed
Boston Red Sox
Previously covered in a prior newsletter.
83-79 – Third in AL East
755 Runs Scored 731 Runs Allowed
For the third straight year, both Vegas, as evidenced by its total wins market, and I, based on my projection are showing no respect for the Orioles’ three-year run of success, which included the 2014 edition winning more total games (99) than any team in baseball except the World Champion Giants (100).
Every year the reason differs but I’ve got a new one this year. Although the concept of “replacement player” is largely theoretical and therefore difficult to define, pitchers called upon to make a spot start in the rotation are generally the very definition of replacement players. Typically long relievers or minor league call-ups, they are utterly disposable and relatively costless. Their performance clearly illustrates this classification.
Last year there were 194 starts made by 77 different pitchers who started five or fewer games all season. In those 194 starts, or more than six per team on average, the pitchers compiled a terrible 5.76 ERA. This is replacement level pitching and most teams had to resort to it at least six times a year, utilizing close to three different pitchers per team to do so.
Not the Baltimore Orioles. Last year, Baltimore only needed one spot start, from T.J. McFarland during a ten-games-in-nine-days stretch. That type of health is reminiscent of the Reds in 2012 and the Tigers in 2013, neither of which could repeat it the next year. This, along with their Pythag luck, and their cluster luck, is a hidden reason for Baltimore’s projected regression in 2015.
A not so hidden reason is the loss of Nelson Cruz and his 40 home runs. How hard is it to replace that type of power in 2015? In 2004 if you lost a 40 home run hitter, there were not only 8 others floating around the league, there were a total of 37 different guys who hit at least 30 home runs. Ten years later, in 2014, there were only 11 players to hit at least 30 home runs and the only one who hit 40, Cruz, will be playing for Seattle this year.
Finally, there’s the topic of bullpen regression. Balitmore was one of only six teams with a bullpen ERA of 3.10 in 2014, but the Orioles depended on that outstanding production more than the other five teams. The O’s pen was the only one that pitched more than 500 innings and sported an ERA of 3.10 or better. In 2013, none of the four teams with an ERA of 3.10 or better were made the list of six teams that did it last year.
Baltimore has easily soared over its total wins market the last three years and if they don’t do it in 2014, it won’t be because the bar has been raised. The Westgate opened them at 81 ½ wins but the total crept up to 83 wins currently there, while I’m seeing 82 ½ elsewhere. It’s not a strong enough play to back financially but I’ve got the Orioles falling short of the .500 mark.
80-82 – Fourth in AL East
670 Runs Scored 677 Runs Allowed
New York Yankees
I don’t have the power of the Elias Sports Bureau or ESPN Stats and Information to tap into, but I have to wonder if the Yankees became the first team ever to do something last year. In masterfully managing the Yankees to an 84-78 record – despite being outscored for the second season in a row – Joe Girardi got a mere 169 starts (out of a possible 1,458) from players in their under-30 year-old season. Turns out that was 70 less than the 239 starts he got from 40 year-old players (Jeter and Suzuki.) I would be stunned if there has ever been another team with more starts in a season from 40-and-over players than those under the age of 30.
New York, with the departure of Alfonso Soriano, Ichiro, and of course Derek Jeter gets a little younger this year, but don’t forget A-Rod’s back! He’ll be 40 just after the All-Star break. Marginally younger in 2014 or not, the offense in 2013 was awful, 13th in the AL in scoring with just three more Yankees crossing the plate than Astros during the year. There is not much chance it’ll exceed league-average this year.
The pitching might be top-quartile if CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, and Masahiro Tanaka can make 90 starts between them. That will take good health, and given their injury concerns last year, is nowhere close to a sure thing.
The biggest hope Yankees fans can cling to for improvement in 2015 is this: Last year the Yankees bullpen had the largest spread in the majors between its ERA (3.70) and its SIERA (2.92) a skills-based predictor of ERA. The bullpen with the largest spread in 2013 was the Seattle Mariners and last year their relievers had the lowest ERA in the majors.
Joe Girardi really doesn’t get enough credit for keeping the Yankees astounding 22-year streak of over-.500 performances in tact despite being outscored in each of the last two seasons. I don’t see changes to the roster to modify that outlook in 2015.
79-83 – Fifth in AL East
671 Runs Scored 689 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:
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