Archive for Other Teams

More of this, please. (photo by Chris McGrath/Getty)

Much has been made of the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry over the years, although for my money the so-called “rivalry” didn’t really earn its name until the 2003 season, as the teams locked horns in the first of consecutive classic seven-game American League Championship Series. For a rivalry to exist, one presumes that both sides are relatively evenly matched, and prior to the 2000s this generally wasn’t the case for a good majority of Yankee-Red Sox teams.

In addition to the Red Sox of the aughts finally fielding a team as-good-as if not outright-better-than the Yankees, also helping dramatically ramp up the intensity between the two franchises was MLB’s implementation of the unbalanced schedule at the outset of the 2001 season. This of course expanded the number of times the Sox and Yanks faced off from 12-13 games a year to 18-19.

To illustrate just how closely matched the Yankees and Red Sox have become, the following two graphs depict the Yankees’ and Red Sox’ offense and pitching staffs since 1995, which seemed like a notable cutoff as it marks the advent of LDS play. There’s too much information presented to include labels, so if you’re interested in the raw data behind the creation of the graphs, please feel free to click here.

The two teams have been in a near-dead heat offensively since 1995, with the Yankees leading all of baseball with a .351 wOBA during that time frame (112 wRC+) and the Sox boasting the second-most-potent offensive attack at .349 and 107 wRC+. While the Sox have generally out-slugged the Yankees, the Bombers have typically been a tad more adept at getting on base. Additionally, given the favorable offensive environment that comes with playing 81 home games at Fenway Park, the Yankees have led the Red Sox in adjusted offense (wRC+) in 12 of these 17 seasons despite only bettering the Sox in wOBA in nine of them. Perhaps even more impressive regarding the Yankee offensive attack is that it’s been above average (100 wRC+) in each and every season depicted here, while the Sox actually posted below-league-average offensive attacks in 2000, 2001 and 2006.

On the flip side, the rich offensive environment at Fenway makes pitching in Boston a tougher-than-normal task — that difficulty level has helped propel the Red Sox to tie or better the Yankees in adjusted ERA (ERA-) in 10 of these 17 seasons, and even more impressively, tie or better the Bombers in adjusted FIP (FIP-) in 13 of the last 17 seasons. However, one thing I was not expecting to find was that the Yankees actually lead the AL in both ERA and FIP since 1995, with 4.25 and 4.17 marks, respectively. The Sox are fourth in ERA, at 4.32, and second in FIP (4.19).

Even though the rivalry didn’t really heat up until the early aughts, if you go back to 1995 the two teams really have been quite even head-to-head over the last 17 seasons. Since 1995, the Yankees are 145-134 against Boston, with a 75-64 record at home and 70-70 mark at Fenway Park. However, if you change the cutoff to 2003, the Yankees have actually been slightly outplayed by the Red Sox, with an 82-84 record (42-41 at home and 40-43 at Fenway). Additionally, since 2003, the two teams each feature identical MLB-leading .352 wOBAs (though the Yankees get the slight edge after park adjusting, with a 114 wRC+ to Boston’s 111).

After years of essentially playing each other at a .500 clip, things spiraled comically out of control last season, as the Yankees started the year out losing eight of their first nine against Boston (a showing of ineptitude eerily reminiscent of the 2009 team’s 0-8 start against the Sox), due in part to an obscenely prolific Boston offense that was treating seemingly every member of the Yankee pitching staff as if they were Jose Cano in the 2011 Home Run Derby. However, instead of rallying to tie the season series like they did two years prior, the Bombers ultimately finished 2011 with a 6-12 record against the Sox — the Yankees’ worst winning percentage against Boston in a season since going 4-8 in 1999.

Despite dropping 12 of 18 contests against a heated division rival, the Yankees still managed to not only win the 2011 AL East, but also finished the season with the best record in the league, while the Fenway faithful had to endure perhaps the most historic (and horrific) late-season collapse in baseball history. Of course, even though the Red Sox have now missed the playoffs two years running — while boasting the top offense in baseball this past season (116 wRC+) and the second-best in 2010 (109 wRC+) — and haven’t won a postseason game since 2008, they remain one of the top teams in the American League and will undoubtedly give the Yankees fits again in 2012.

Starting Pitching

For one, if Josh Beckett can come close to approximating his 2011 against the Yankees — a season in which the Bombers acted as if they’d somehow never before seen Beckett, whose 1.85 ERA vs. New York in 34 innings was bettered only by Brandon Morrow’s 1.74 among pitchers who threw 20 or more innings against the Bombers — they’ll be trotting out a near-unhittable righty in probably five to six of the 18 games the two teams will play.

For another, if Jon Lester returns to his pre-2011 form, which saw him toss to a 1.19 ERA against the Yankees in 2008, a 4.43 ERA  in 2009 (if you take out the aberrant 2.1-inning, five-run outing on September 25 of that year, the ERA drops to 2.70) and a 2.13 ERA in 2010 — including carrying no-hitters into the sixth inning in both his August and September starts — they’ll be trotting out a near-unhittable lefty to take up another five to six of the remaining games, which means Boston will likely have a big-time pitcher on the mound in more than half their contests against the Yankees. Throw in Clay Buchholz, who has historically tended to struggle against the Yanks but appeared as though he’d finally figured something out in limiting the Bombers to two runs over seven innings in his last start against them on May 13, and Boston looks to have as formidable a top three in its rotation as any team out there.

With punching bag John Lackey out for the year and Daisuke Matsuzaka not expected back until late May, question marks abound surrounding the fourth and fifth slots in the Boston rotation — can Daniel Bard successfully make the transition from top-flight fireballing set-up man to successful starting pitcher? Will southpaw Felix Doubront or old friend Alfredo Aceves grab hold of one of the available holes in the rotation? And can the Red Sox’s starting pitching situation possibly be as bad again as it was in September of 2011, when they were forced to give nine of 27 starts to the troika of Andrew Miller, Kyle Weiland and Tim Wakefield while watching their stalwarts turn in enough ineffective performances to let the Rays come all the way back and sneak past them on the very last day of the season? Fortunately for Boston — whose pitching staff turned in a 5.84 ERA in the month of September — the answer to the latter question is almost certainly no, although whether any of the in-house candidates can step up and solidify the team’s biggest area of need will likely determine if the Sox make it back to the playoffs or get relegated to their couches for a third straight October.

The Bullpen

Though they lost elite closer Jonathan Papelbon to the Phillies during the offseason, new Boston GM Ben Cherington rebuilt his bullpen on the fly with a series of interesting moves, acquiring former Athletics closer Andrew Bailey for outfielder (and designated-player-who-gets-a-hit-every-time-up-against-the-Yankees-even-though-he-sucks-against-everyone-else) Josh Reddick, and replacing Bard with former Yankee wunderkind Mark Melancon, acquired for Jed Lowrie (see Reddick’s description). Given the fungibility of relief pitching performances, I wouldn’t expect the Red Sox ‘pen — which actually finished the year with the fourth-best ERA and top FIP in the AL despite a wretched April — to miss a beat. Expect Aceves to log his share of relief innings, while Michael Bowden, lefty Franklin Morales, Matt Albers and Andrew Miller appear to be on their way to at least starting the year in the Boston bullpen.

Offense

As for the 2012 Red Sox offense, while I’m certainly pleased as punch that flies-in-the-ointment Lowrie (.330/.423/.534 career against the Yankees) and Reddick (annoying walk-off hit) are gone, Boston’s offensive attack remains relatively unchanged from the relentless machine that pounded out an MLB-high .347 wOBA last season. Jacoby Ellsbury will look to prove the doubters that the adjustments he made are here to stay, while Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis (if he can finally stay healthy) and Adrian Gonzalez make for one of the most potent hearts of any order in all of baseball. Add in another presumed solid season from David Ortiz (who is apparently immune to the dead cat bounce) and a year that has no choice but to be better from Carl Crawford (whenever he returns from the DL), and the Sox have no holes from 1-6 in their lineup.

Additionally, as if they weren’t already potent enough as it is, this is a crew of hitters that seems to save its best work for when they play the Yankees — Pedroia hit .406/.463/.565 (!) across 81 PAs against the Bombers last year, and has a career .392 OBP (again, !) against the Yanks; Youk has a career .313/.442(!)/.498 line against the Yanks; Ellsbury tagged the Yanks for a ridiculous .375/.439/.708 line last year to bolster his .291/.356/.443 career line; and of course, there’s Big Papi, who hit .282/.378/.577 with five bombs against the Yanks in 2011 and has utterly annihilated the Bombers throughout his career to the tune of a .303/.391/.559 line across 741 PAs, including 800,000 (fine, 36) career home runs. Given these numbers, it feels like nothing less than a minor miracle any time a Yankee pitcher can actually retire one of these batters.

However, some cracks in the armor start to appear in the lineup’s lower-third, where new manager Bobby Valentine will generally be starting some combination of Jarrod Saltalamacchia (.319 wOBA in 2011), Cody Ross (.321), Ryan Sweeney (.306), Mike Aviles (.307 wOBA, though .338 as a Red Sock) and Nick Punto (a completely out-of-character .350 wOBA in 2011; .296 for his career). While Saltalamacchia looked like he was finally coming into his own last season none of these players seem overly threatening, although then again I’m sure I would’ve said the same thing about Mark Bellhorn had I been blogging during the 2003-2004 offseason, who rebounded from a .296 wOBA in 2003 to post a .360 mark in 2004 after he joined the Red Sox. For whatever reason, donning a Boston uniform seems to turn even the scrubbiest of players into superstars from time to time, so I’m prepared to eat my words when Boston’s bottom third starts tearing the cover off the ball.

Conclusion

CAIRO has the Red Sox at 92-70, tied with the Rays for second place in the AL East; PECOTA pegs them at 90-72, also in second place in the ALE; and Oliver has them at 92-70 and second-best record in the AL. All three of these scenarios would entail the Sox securing one of the two AL Wild Card berths and playing the one-game playoff to advance to the LDS round, and so barring another disaster, Boston is most likely playoff-bound in 2012.

The Yankees’ first set of the season against Boston is at Fenway Park from April 20-22, and as ridiculous as I find conspiracy theories, at this point I almost can’t help but wonder whether the schedule-makers have it in for the Yanks by once again scheduling an April series at Fenway. Since the advent of the unbalanced schedule in 2001, the Yankees are — believe it or not — a ridiculously bad 8-22 at Fenway Park in April, and have only won their annual April set at Fenway against the Red Sox once (back in April 2010)  in that 11-year span. Not only that, but prior to their April 2010 series win, the last time the Yankees had won an April set against Boston at Fenway was in 1975. So yeah, needless to say I’m really excited to be playing the Red Sox in April at Fenway again, you guys.

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Apr
07

A division turned upside down

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(AP Photo/LM Otero)

  1. Blue Jays (4-1, +17 run differential)
  2. Orioles (4-1, +9)
  3. Yankees (3-2, +4)
  4. Rays (0-5, -15)
  5. Red Sox (0-5, -21)

Those are the AL East standings as of this morning. The teams in Baltimore and Toronto are overachieving due to pitching and timely hitting while the Rays and Red Sox have fallen victim to a lack of offense and pitching, respectively. Tampa has scored seven runs total in their five games and haven’t even held a lead yet all season. Seriously, they’ve been nothing but tied or behind in 2011.

And then there are the Yankees. Right in the middle of the division, winners of three (really should be four) games and the only club in the East doing pretty much exactly what was expected of them. The offense is averaging just over six runs a game but is doing so with heavy reliance on the long ball. Take out their league-leading 13 homers, and they’re hitting just .190 with a .261 OBP as team. Of course it doesn’t work like that, those homers count so we can’t just take them out to fit a narrative, but at some point the balls won’t be flying over the fence with the same frequency. Neither the team ERA (4.89) or FIP (3.56) represents the pitching staff’s true talent level, which is probably somewhere in between those two numbers. We’re still well short of the point where some of these statistical indicators stabilize, so there’s no sense in obsessing over numbers just yet.

While it’s certainly fun to watch Boston and Tampa struggle out of the gate, we know it won’t last. The Red Sox will win a game soon enough, and if it doesn’t happen against the Indians this afternoon, then there’s a really good chance that it’ll happen against the Yankees over the weekend. That will probably begin a stampede toward to top of the standings. The Rays’ offensive ineptitude (.212 wOBA) won’t be around to make fun of all season, unfortunately. On the other side of the coin, eventually the Orioles’ team ERA will climb north of 2.00 (probably once their .212 BABIP and 87% strand rate returns to Earth). Reality will slap the Blue Jays in the face once they stop playing games against AL Central and AL West opponents.

There’s nothing special about the first five games of the season, at least not when it comes to predictive value. We just happened to remember these games more because we’ve been baseball-starved for the last five months or so. The first five games are really no different than a randomly selected five-game stretch in June, it’s just one small slice of the bigger picture. We’re talking about five games people, which is just slightly more than three-percent of the season. If the season was a nine inning game, there wouldn’t even be one out in the top of the first yet. That how much is still left to be played.

By all means, enjoy the Rays inability to get a hit (.152 BABIP) and Boston’s hilariously bad pitching performances (8.25 FIP) while they last. Reality is going to rear it’s ugly head soon enough, crashing through the wall like the Kool-Aid guy saying “OH YEEEEAH!!!” The standings right now are pretty much the exact opposite of what one could reasonably expect coming into the season, but the power of small sample sizes can work in mysterious ways.

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Last year the Blue Jays surprised us by belting homer after homer en route to an above-.500 season. It made me kind of embarrassed to have written this before the season, but then again, who could have guessed that so many Blue Jays would go on power streaks? (In my defense, I had the right idea with the pitching staff.) The Jays have made a few changes this year, and in some ways they’re a weaker team than they were in 2010. But they’re set up for an AL East run in the not so distant future.

Strengths

(Chris Young/AP)

Despite losing Vernon Wells, the Blue Jays still possess plenty of power. Clearly they think that Jose Bautista’s breakout is real, since they signed him to a five-year, $65 million extension this past off-season. He won’t smack 54 homers again, but even if he hits 35 this year it will be a huge plus for the Jays. There are other hitters around him who can also crush the ball.

This year Travis Snider figures to get his chance to break into the bigs. He’s been in the league for the last three years, but has just 675 PA to his name. This year he’s starting with the big club and figures to stick around all season. What’s crazy is that he’s just 23. If he hits his stride this season he’ll provide an excellent left-handed power complement to Bautista. There’s also Adam Lind, a former top prospect who destroyed baseballs in 2009. He had a down year in 2010, but if that’s just a fluke then the Jays have just added even more power.

Another Jay who had a down year last year was Aaron Hill, who also broke out, at least in terms of power, in 2009. his 2010 was poor, but he still hit for some power. If he brings his average up, he’ll add some more right-handed pop to the lineup. The same goes for new acquisition Juan Rivera. He seems like the perfect fit for hitting coach Dwayne Murphy’s system. The same goes for rookie catcher J.P. Arencibia, whose No. 1 tool is his power. Finally, let’s not forget Edwin Encarnacion, who hit 21 homers in just 367 PA last year.

Weaknesses

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press,Nathan Denette

While the Jays led the majors in SLG last year, they finished 26th in OBP. That’s why their runs total ranked ninth. The power was there, but they just didn’t produce enough base runners. If Lind recovers and Snider approaches his ceiling then they will get a boost in that department. If not, they could be in for a year where they hit for plenty of extra bases, but don’t have enough runners on base to crack the top five in runs scored.

The bullpen has to be something of a concern, since the Jays lost a few key contributors in Scott Downs and Kevin Gregg. They did add Frank Francisco, which helps shore up the unit. But they also added Octavio Dotel, who could detract from it. Jon Rauch might actually be the best addition they made. Jason Frasor stays around, too, but it’s not as though the Blue Jays had a knock-out bullpen last year. That could be one of their most glaring weaknesses in 2011.

The starting staff, too, took a hit during the off-season. The Jays traded Shaun Marcum, perhaps their most effective pitcher, and inserted Kyle Drabek, a rookie. There are also reports that Brett Cecil’s velocity is down considerably — not good, since he didn’t throw all that hard to begin with. Brandon Morrow will miss the start of the season, which further hurts the staff. It figures to be pretty good once it’s completely assembled: Ricky Romero, Cecil, Litsch, Drabek, and Morrow, with Jo-Jo Reyes filling in.

Overall Outlook

I don’t want to make the mistake of underrating the Jays again, but unless they have breakout years from just about everyone, I doubt they’ll do much but play the spoiler in the AL East. This won’t be the case for long. The Jays have a good core of players and a fine farm system. They’ll be contending before we know it. In fact, this could be the last year where I write that they don’t appear to have it all together. At this time next year we could be looking at a four-team dogfight in the AL East. Hell, maybe even five.

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(AP Photo/Dave Martin)

These aren’t your grandfather’s Devil Rays anymore. Since losing the Devil, the Rays have won the AL East twice in three seasons, including last year by one game over the Yankees. The front office, led by acting GM Andrew Friedman, continues to squeeze valuable water out of the payroll rock with some help from manager Joe Maddon, who is willing to buck convention more than any other skipper in the game. Nine players from Tampa’s 25-man ALDS roster will be playing elsewhere this season, and a tenth (Rocco Baldelli) moved into a front office role. They’ve proven adept at rebuilding on the fly, but a roster overhaul of this caliber might have been too much at one time.

If you want a full preview of the 2011 Rays, I highly recommend purchasing The Process Report 2011, the best $15 you’ll spend this spring. The 103-page document includes in-depth articles and player profiles written by the brightest minds on the Rays’ blogosphere. In the interest of full disclosure, our own Joe Pawlikowski contributed an article about former Yankee and new Ray Johnny Damon. Think of TPR11 as the Mariano Rivera of season previews while what you see below is more … Kyle Farnsworth.

Strengths

It wasn’t long ago that a three-game series against the Tampa franchise meant good times for Yankees hitters, who routinely pounded inferior pitching staffs. Things have changed now, and the Rays’ starting rotation is the backbone of the club. David Price broke out and became one of the very best pitchers in the game last season, a hard-throwing lefty with strikeout stuff that has not yet reached his 26th birthday. Number two starter Jamie Shields is one of just eight pitchers that have thrown at least 200 innings in each of the last four seasons, so if nothing else he provides innings. He fell victim to some back luck last year (.341 BABIP, 68.4% strand rate), but his 3.55 xFIP was his best ever. Still just 29-years-old, a rebound is possible, if not likely.

(AP Photo/Steve Nesius)

The three and four spots go to 28-year-old Jeff Niemann (4.18 xFIP last year, 4.35 career) and 25-year-old Wade Davis (4.61 xFIP as a rookie last year). Matt Garza takes his three straight years of 180+ IP to Chicago’s north side and in steps young Jeremy Hellickson, who is arguably the best pitching prospect in the game. The soon-to-be 24-year-old had a fine big league cameo last year (3.83 xFIP in 36.1 IP), and is just the latest product from the game’s premier player development franchise. Right-hander Alex Cobb (2.80 FIP in Double-A last year) and left-hander Alex Torres (3.47) are next in line and will start the year in Triple-A. Behind them in Double-A will be Matt Moore, Alex Colome, and Nick Barnese. All five of those guys represent some of the better prospects in the game’s second best farm system.

Now that we’re past the starting rotation, we have to talk about Evan Longoria, arguably the best all-around player in baseball. His 19.6 fWAR since 2008 trails only Albert Pujols (25.3) and the now-hobbled Chase Utley (20.9). Still just 25, Longoria has three seasons of .370+ wOBA‘s, .210+ ISO’s, and 10+ ADR’s (aggregate defensive rating) to his credit all ready. Plus he packs some serious heat. Simply put, he’s a superstar of the first order and the best player in the division.

The team defense as a whole has been a strength for several years and figures to be one again in 2011. Losing Carl Crawford definitely hurts, but they’re still very strong up the middle with Reid Brignac at short, Ben Zobrist/Sean Rodriguez at second, and B.J. Upton in center. Maddon also has a deep and versatile roster at his disposal, allowing him to take advantage of platoon matchups and defensive shifts and what not. That farm system also provides a friggin’ ton of ammo for trades, and Friedman has shown a willingness to make huge splashes.

Weaknesses

As I said earlier, the Rays’ roster took a really big hit this winter. Crawford is the best player in franchise history, but he left for Boston. Carlos Pena fled for Chicago. Say what you want about his poor 2010 season (.196 AVG, .326 wOBA), but he hit at least 28 homers for the fourth straight year, and that will be missed. In their place will be old buddy Damon (coming off a .340 wOBA with Detroit, his lowest in the last seven years) and old nemesis Manny Ramirez (his .382 wOBA last year was excellent, but his second worst since becoming a full-time player). Both are on the wrong side of 35, but Tampa didn’t bring in either guy expected them to perform like they did three or five years ago. Either way, going from Crawford and Pena to Damon and Manny is likely to be a three or four-win downgrade, maybe even five.

The rest of the lineup, beyond those two and Longoria, is almost like a patchwork group. Zobrist won’t ever have another .408 wOBA season like he did in 2009 again, but his career .346 OBP and .168 ISO are fine marks for a guy that can legitimately play seven positions. B.J. Upton is now two years from free agency and it’s looking less and less likely that he’ll turn into the megastar everyone though he would after a stellar (.387 wOBA) 2007 campaign. His .317 OBP over the last two years won’t get the job done, even when combined with 40+ steals. Dan Johnson’s late season heroics over the last two years are well-known, but his big league career features a decidedly un-first baseman-like .333 wOBA. Brignac has some pop but is in there more for his glove than his bat, and the catching platoon of John Jaso and Kelly Shoppach is fine as long as they have bats in their hands and not gloves. I like Matt Joyce as a breakout candidate, but he’s a bit of a question mark until he actually does it.

(AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

And then there’s the bullpen. The Rays lost almost everyone from their relief corps over the winter, with the one holdover being the forgettable Andy Sonnanstine. The dominant late-game trio of Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, and Grant Balfour has been replaced by Kyle Farnsworth, Adam Russell, and Joel Peralta, a step down no matter how you look at it. Dan Wheeler goes from righty killer to Red Sox, Randy Choate from lefty killer to Marlin. Those two will essentially be replaced by a pair of rookie left-handers: Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos. A couple of guys named Mike Ekstrom, Rob Delaney, and Brandon Gomes provide the depth. Russell and McGee have big-time arms but are unproven, and will be thrust in high-leverage spots this summer. That’s not to say it can’t work, but I’m sure Maddon and fans alike will be reaching for the Tums much more often this year than last.

Of course, the team’s biggest weakness is it’s financial situation. Payroll shrunk down to something like $45M after topping out at close to $73M last season, and it’s not because ownership is cheap. The franchise simply can’t sustain anything higher. Tropicana Field has some appeal in a grungy “it’s a dump, but it’s our dump” kind of way, but it’s poorly located and the attendance totals reflect that. When the star players start calling fan attendance “embarrassing” … yeah it’s bad.

Overall Outlook

There’s no question that the Rays lost a lot of firepower this offseason. Crawford is irreplaceable, but remaking an entire bullpen and finding suitable offensive fill-ins in a single offseason is a minor miracle. Are they as good as last year? Almost certainly not, but Tampa is still extremely dangerous and very capable of winning the division. They have two bonafide stars in Price and Longoria plus a strong supporting cast, not to mention the deepest and most talented rotation in the division. Don’t kid yourself, Maddon’s club is a very real threat to the 2011 Yankees.

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(Charles Krupa/AP)

Stop me when this sounds familiar. Big market team invests tons of money into a team, but suffers from key injuries. The three-team nature of the AL East puts them out of the playoffs. Then, the following off-season they make a big splash by spending tons of money. That’s exactly what happened with the 2008 Yankees, and it more or less happened again last off-season with the Red Sox. They added two key players in big money deals (just wait for Adrian Gonzalez’s extension announcement) and appear to have a team just as strong as, if not stronger than, the Yankees in 2011.

Let’s just hope the parallels end there.

Strengths

(Charles Krupa/AP)

As has been the case for nearly a decade, the Red Sox draw great strength from the starting lineup. The only time in the past nine seasons that they’ve finished outside the top four in runs scored was in 2006. They might not be the powerhouse that led the league in runs scored from 2003 through 2005, but they’re going to give the Yankees a run for their money in 2011. Their lineup is just that deep.

While batting Jacoby Ellsbury atop the lineup might not be the best use of the team’s best bats, it makes little difference. It just slides everyone down a spot, meaning last year’s top DH, David Ortiz, hits sixth, and J.D. Drew, who even in a down year had a .341 OBP, seventh. Even at eight and nine they have Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who we know has talent, and Marco Scutaro, who is better than most No. 9 hitters.

Then there’s the heart of their order, the two-through-five that rivals any team in the bigs. It starts with Dustin Pedroia, who, with Chase Utley likely to miss a decent portion of 2011, figures to be one of the top two second basemen in the league. Following him is Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Kevin Youkilis. I suppose they could flip Youkilis and Gonzalez, but it matters little. That gives the Red Sox two excellent on-base and power guys in back of the speedier Crawford and Pedroia.

The Red Sox bullpen, at least the back end, has become a strength, too. Last year the Sox lost a few games due to Jon Papelbon meltdowns, but that could be just a blip on the radar. He has been one of the league’s elite closers for four years now, and it will take more than one season with a few blown saves to downgrade his status. Last year Dan Bard was the only reliable setup man, but during the off-season the Sox added Bobby Jenks to the mix. The rest of the bullpen is full of question marks, including Matt Albers, but the Sox have a few arms on the farm — Al Aceves and Felix Dubront — who can step in if someone falters.

The bench, too, can be considered a strength, even if Jason Varitek again serves as the backup. Darnell McDonald produced a quality 2010 season and could be of use to the Sox as a fifth outfielder. Ahead of him is Mike Cameron, who would start on most teams and will probably take some at-bats from Drew or Ellsbury against lefties. Jed Lowrie, too, could eventually take over as the starting shortstop. That’s a clear sign of a strong bench: the presence of players who could start for decent teams.

Big Question Marks

This section didn’t appear in Mike’s Orioles preview, because this is something unique to the Red Sox. In rating the Sox, I couldn’t decide whether to put the rotation in strengths or weaknesses. It has strengths for sure, and with a few lucky breaks the entire staff could become a strength. But as it stands they’ve got an ace and a bunch of question marks. It sounds like some other team we’ve come to know.

Jon Lester remains one of the game’s premier pitchers. Last year I picked him to win the AL Cy Young, and he really wasn’t that much worse than the winner, Felix Hernandez. This year Dave Cameron of FanGraphs rode my coattails with the Lester pick, and I don’t think it’s any less likely to happen than last year. If he puts it all together this year — high strikeout, low walk, low homer, and high groundball rates — he could be the pitcher we hate to love.

(Gene J. Puskar/AP)

Behind him, though, the Red Sox have little certainty. Clay Buchholz was the best pitcher behind Lester last year, but he greatly outperformed his peripheral stats. Is he due for a regression, or will he progress similarly to his teammate? Lester, remember, had a below-average strikeout rate in 2008, but experienced a huge jump in 2009. If Buchholz follows his lead he could be in for another excellent season. But if he doesn’t, I would expect his 2011 to look something like Phil Hughes‘s 2010.

Then there are Josh Beckett and John Lackey, who were disappointing for different reasons last season. Beckett pitched poorly and got hurt, and it stands to reason that the two are interrelated. At 31 he’s no sure thing to bounce back, but his track record demonstrates that it is entirely possible. Remember, he had a rough 2006 season when he came to the AL and then came to dominate in 2007. We’re four years removed from that, but it can still happen. It’s just a little less likely this time around.

John Lackey was a disappointment during his first season in Boston, with a reduced strikeout rate and inflated walk rate. Yet he underperformed his peripherals, a 4.40 ERA to a 3.85 FIP. As with Beckett, he’s a bit older and so a recovery isn’t guaranteed. I have a bit less faith in him to recover than Beckett, but that’s mostly a stuff argument — i.e., I think that Beckett’s pure stuff can help him produce another top-flight season, while I’m not as big a believer in Lackey’s stuff.

Weaknesses

(David Goldman/AP)

While the Red Sox are strong up front, they’re a bit week when we move deeper into the roster. That includes the bench, bullpen, lineup, and rotation. Some are a bit weaker than others, but each has a chink in the armor.

In the rotation the Sox have Daisuke Matsuzaka holding down the fifth spot. His track record has been unimpressive during his time in the states. This can even include the 2008 season, when he finished with a 2.90 ERA. his 5.05 per nine walk rate indicates that he got a tad lucky — there is no way he can sustain an 80.6 percent strand rate. The last two years have seen him spend time on the disabled list and in general pitch ineffectively. The Sox have a few pitchers who can come up and take his place, but they’re not exactly high-upside options.

In the bullpen the Sox might be strong in the late innings, but their other options do not inspire. Dan Wheeler has a quality track record, in the AL East to boot, so we might even count him as a strength. I don’t think we can do the same for Matt Albers, Dennys Reyes, or Tim Wakefield. The Sox might get something out of these guys, and as previously mentioned they have a number of arms in AAA who can fill in should these guys falter. That’s what I expect to happen. Even Wakefield, a Red Sox mainstay, could find this is his final year. I don’t imagine the Sox will continue to use him if he’s as ineffective as he was last year.

The starting lineup looks solid at the top, but the last two spots are something of weaknesses. Marco Scutaro is a fine shortstop, but his track record suggests that he’s not any better than he displayed in 2010. Jed Lowrie figures to take his spot at some point during the season, at which point there’s a chance that the lineup spot turns into a strength. Until then it’s a weakness — at least relatively so. Jarrod Saltalamacchia represents the biggest chink in the Red Sox armor. This is not only because he’s completely unproven, but also because they don’t have a strong backup option. In one way it takes guts to put so much faith unto a 26-year-old who hasn’t done a thing at the major league level. In another, more accurate, way, it probably wasn’t the best idea on the part of management.

Overall Outlook

While the Red Sox have weaknesses and question marks, they’re still among the best teams in the league on paper. That’s no different than last year, of course. The big difference this year centers on health. As a team the Sox are in basically the same position as last year. They merely replaced departing players Victor Martinez and Adrian Beltre with Crawford and Gonzalez. Their relative performances should roughly even out, though Crawford and Gonzalez will probably be a bit better overall.

The difference is that they’re starting fresh. Last year they lost Pedroia in June and then Youkilis a bit later in the season. If those two stayed healthy last year’s pennant race would have evolved much differently. If they stay healthy this year the Red Sox will be in a much better position, even if they didn’t make wholesale upgrades. If they all stay healthy this will be a powerhouse of a team. Then again, we can say that about more than one other team in the league. Bad breaks happen. The Red Sox are just hoping that they experience fewer of them this year.

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(AP Photo/Nick Wass)

It’s been 13 years since the Orioles last qualified for the postseason, and four years since they finished somewhere other than last place in the AL East. Despite that, they made some noise in the second half of last season, hiring former Yankees manager Buck Showalter in late-July and going 34-23 under his watch, the best record among AL East teams during that time. Before Buck came aboard, Baltimore won just 32 of 105 games.

After employing the American League’s third worse offense (.309 wOBA, 613 runs), worst starting rotation (4.74 FIP), and fifth worst bullpen (4.25 FIP) in 2010, the O’s went out and made several notable moves in the offseason. They traded four young relievers for Mark Reynolds, Brendan Harris, and J.J. Hardy, then signed free agents Vlad Guerrero, Derrek Lee, Justin Duchscherer, and Kevin Gregg, among others. Koji Uehara, Mark Hendrickson, and Cesar Izturis were also retained. Those additions undeniably help improve the team, but just how much?

Strengths

Last year’s Orioles had exactly two well-above-average regulars on offense, and both are returning. Luke Scott led the team in pretty much everything, including wOBA (.387), homers (27), walk rate (11.4%), and ISO (.251). Nick Markakis finished second in wOBA (.353) and led the team in OBP (.370), producing yet another solid season in a young career full of them. Reynolds might be a whiff machine, but .241 career ISO’s don’t grow on trees, and neither do guys with legit 30+ homer power (at least these days). Vlad isn’t really as good as his 2010 first half (.319/.364/.554 with 20 homers) but probably isn’t as bad as his 2010 second half (.278/.322/.426, nine homers), so the middle ground (.355-ish wOBA) is the best bet this season. That’s four legit middle-of-the-order bats, two more than Baltimore had last year.

The defense has been upgraded at short with Hardy, who has the second highest UZR (+21.4) at the position over the last three years. Lee’s reputation with the glove is stellar, far better than what the incumbent Ty Wigginton can do at first. Reynolds is hardly a wizard at the hot corner, but he’s better than Miguel Tejada, so three of the four infield positions have been upgraded defensively. They’re not the ’99 Mets, but the infield defense has been massively improved.

(AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)

The Orioles also boast what should be an improved relief corps. Uehara was brilliant late last year as closer (11.25 K/9, 1.02 BB/9, 2.40 FIP) and has some competition from Gregg, who’s had a sub-3.90 FIP in four the last five years, including 3.57 in 2010. Mike Gonzalez missed much of last season due to injury, and he overcame his early-season struggles to post a stellar 2.79 FIP. Left-handers that can strike out double-digit batters per nine innings are a rare breed. Add in Jason Berken (3.59 FIP in 2010) and Jim Johnson (3.08), and Showalter should have a solid set of middle relievers and setup men at his disposal.

Jeremy Guthrie, while no All-Star, is a fine rotation option with three straight years of 190+ IP plus a mid-4.00′s FIP in three of the last four seasons. He has a knack for outperforming his peripheral stats, posting a sub-4.00 ERA in three of the last four years. Behind him will be southpaw Brian Matusz, one of the very best young pitchers in the game. He had a fine rookie season (4.05 FIP in 175.2 IP) and was nothing short of brilliant down the stretch (2.18 ERA, 3.35 FIP in his final 11 starts). The O’s have a chance to win whenever either of those two guys is on the bump.

Weaknesses

Just as was the case last year, this Orioles team is only going as far as the pitching staff takes them, and it won’t be that far. Beyond Guthrie and Matusz is a group of has-beens and never-wases, highlighted by Duschscherer. He started just five games last season after missing all of 2009, and has already been setback by nagging issues with his surgically repaired hip a few times this spring; the Duke of Hurl has two whole Grapefruit League innings to his credit and is expected to start the season on the disabled list. Say what you want about Kevin Millwood’s awful season in 2010 (4.86 FIP, 5.10 ERA), but at least he made 31 starts.

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Behind Duchscherer lies Brad Bergesen, a low-slot righty with a career 4.70 FIP, the inability to miss bats (5.7% swinging strikes), and a considerable platoon split (5.32 xFIP vs. LHB, 4.09 vs. RHB). He’s young (25) and a ground ball guy (49.3% career), but the AL East is a tough place to live if you can’t get strike three consistently (4.48 K/9). Jake Arrieta showed flashes of good and bad in his debut last season, ending up with a 4.76 FIP and nearly as many walks (48) as strikeouts (52) in 100.1 IP. Chris Tillman is still struggling to find his way at the big league level (6.00 FIP in 118.2 IP), but has more talent than either Bergesen or Arrieta. Young pitchers tend to take a lot of lumps in this division, and it probably won’t be any different for Baltimore this summer.

Aside from Duchscherer, both Brian Roberts and Lee offer major health concerns. Roberts missed more than three months last year with an abdominal injury and has been limited by neck issues in camp. Lee had offseason wrist surgery and has already been slowed by soreness in the wrist, and the duo has combined for just 16 games played this spring. If they miss any length of time this year, the likely replacements are some combination of Izturis, Robert Andino, Jake Fox, and Josh Bell. Yikes.

The offense is still below average at short (Hardy has a .302 wOBA over the last two seasons) and behind the plate (Matt Wieters has a .315 wOBA in his young career), though both are capable of much more. Markakis’ cannon arm doesn’t make up for his shoddy range (-11.0 range runs over the last three years), and although Scott isn’t as bad with the glove as you’d think, going from Felix Pie in left to him is a step down.

Furthermore, the Orioles have one of the weaker farm systems in the game, ranked in the bottom third by most publications. Zach Britton, arguably the best left-handed pitching prospect in the game, will make his debut at some point this year, but as we saw with Matusz early last year, quick success is no guarantee. Bell, Wynn Pelzer, Brandon Snyder, and Ryan Adams are more solid contributors than future cornerstones. There just isn’t much help on the way right now.

(AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Overall Outlook

If the Orioles are going to make any noise in the AL East this year, it won’t be because of veteran additions like Vlad, Gregg, and Duchscherer. It’ll be because the young guys all take a major step forward, a step forward that will inevitably be attributed to Showalter. Markakis has flashed MVP potential in the past, and Wieters has all the talent in the world. Adam Jones is a fine player, but a .325 wOBA and just 5.5 fWAR is not what everyone expected in his first 1,800 PA. Matusz, Tillman, and Britton are the makings of a stellar rotation, but progress must first be made by all three. Again, the talent is there, it just has to turn into performance.

Are the Orioles a better team than they were 12 months ago? Sure, I don’t think there’s a doubt about that. Unfortunately, we’re talking about a 74-76 win team being better than a 66 win team. The improvement under Showalter is real but only to a certain extent. Anyone thinking they’ll maintain that 97-win pace they had under Buck over a full season is going to be very disappointed. The O’s are not going to be a total pushover in 2011, but they’re not going to be a real threat to the three AL East powers either.

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Mar
06

2011 AL East Busts: part 2 of 2

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New York Yankees: Robinson Cano

2010 wOBA of .389. 2011 projected wOBA of .360

Laziest superstar EVER. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Despite the absence of both Larry Bowa and Melky Cabrera, Robinson Cano had a career year in 2010. His game took a huge step forward in terms of power and on-base skills. His walk rate inched up close to 10%, and he increased his ISO to .214, the latter being good enough for second-best for all second baseman. As Mike noted in Robbie’s 2011 season preview, he was the team’s best player by all methods of evaluation.

In 2011 PECOTA sees Cano taking a step back from his lofty levels of production, projecting a batting line of .299/.347/.488, a .360 wOBA. This would be worse than Cano’s 2010 or 2009, and resembles closely his 2007 season when he put together a .358 wOBA on .306/.353/.488 hitting. The problem with this is that this seems to be largely out of line with what most people expect from Cano this season. It’s possible that this reflects a bit of optimism about Cano’s natural progression, but some of the arguments are quite persuasive. Mike for one noted Cano’s constancy in terms of production:

If you remove that ugly 2008 season, Cano’s last four years have been surprisingly consistent. He’s hit over .300 in each season with at least a .320 BABIP and a .180 ISO, and his strikeout rate has hovered between 10.9% and 13.8%. Robbie’s swung at between 51.6% and 54.1% of the pitches he’s seen during the time, and his line drive rates have been between 19.3% and 19.9% (2007 is the exception on the LD%, not 2008). His ratio of homeruns-to-fly balls has been between 11.5% and 14.4% as well. The three percentage point difference in those last few stats is relatively small and just part of the randomness of baseball. Overall, Robbie’s one consistently productive player.

On Friday, Mike Jaggers-Radolf at Yankee Analysts took a similar tack towards Cano’s conservative Marcel projection (.354 wOBA with a .300/.347/.476 line)

[The] numbers don’t point to any particular abberation that would wipe away the progress he’s made in 2009 and then again in 2010. His BABIP in those seasons, for example, was right in line with his career norms. While his OBP suggests improved discipline, his discipline numbers don’t demonstrate any heavy outliers. He didn’t, for example, double his career walk rate in 2010. Most of his numbers were more gradual improvements, the kind of improvements one would hope a smart ball player would make as his career advances. In light of all this, Marcel’s 2011 projection seems too conservative.

In a lot of ways, having this discussion about whether a .360 wOBA is too conservative for a second baseman is a testament to how talented Cano is and how lucky the Yankees are to employ his services. A .360 wOBA in 2010 would have ranked 5th best in 2010, 3rd in 2009 and 7th in 2008, and it also projects as the second-highest wOBA of any 2B in 2011, ahead of Pedroia, Uggla and Kinsler and behind only Chase Utley. This is a long way of saying that like Mike Jaggers-Radolf and Mike Axisa, I’m optimistic that Cano can outperform these relatively meager expectations and wouldn’t be surprised to see a more bullish projection next year once the systems have another full season of data. I’m not a gambling man, but I would love to plunk down twenty bucks on Cano beating a .360 wOBA.

Toronto Blue Jays: Jose Bautista

2010 wOBA of .422; projected 2011 wOBA of .365

One of the terms of Bautista's new contract is that he can wear his glove like that whenever he wants and no one can say boo about it. (AP Image)

It is entirely reasonable to wonder whether Jose Bautista’s 2010 season will be viewed with the same credulous sense of “he hit how many home runs?” as Brady Anderson’s 1996 season is viewed now. Prior to hitting 50 home runs for the Orioles, Anderson was a career .250/.349/.393 hitter with an OPS+ of only 101. In 1996 he hit .297/.396/.637, and never came close to touching that level of production the rest of his career. Bautista’s power profile was even worse than Anderson prior to last year. He was a career .238/.329/.400 hitter with an OPS+ of only 91. Last year, though, he clubbed 54 home runs en route to an insane line of .260/.378/.617.

Many have noted, though, that Bautista’s 2010 performance might not be such a fluke. Joe Pawlikowski was one of them over at Fangraphs, arguing that it’s at least possible that Bautista’s famed swing change could lead to sustained success. PECOTA seems to take the easy way out and simply splits the difference. A wOBA of .365 would be well north of anything Bautista had done prior to 2010, but it’s also a substantial drop from his .422 mark last year. In a way, PECOTA’s projection probably mirrors what most analysts would forecast if given the chance. No one would be eager to label the entire season a fluke and predict him to return to his .750 OPS days, just as no one actually predict him to slug over .600 again.

It’s appropriate to end with this analysis by BP’s Ben Lindbergh, an analysis that really encapsulates all the moving parts when dealing with projecting difficult cases. The emphasis is mine.

In some cases, players get lucky. In others, they simply cease to be unlucky, and in still others, their true talent level takes an unanticipated step forward. Once those seemingly anomalous seasons take place, PECOTA incorporates them into its projections for the following year and revises its estimates upward, but rarely anticipates a repeat performance, barring a favorable spot on the aging curve.

That doesn’t stop us from identifying players whom PECOTA might like more than the prevailing opinion, but where does it leave us with a few of this year’s trickiest test cases? Take Javier Vazquez (please). As someone whose ERA has routinely failed to match his peripherals (or more accurately, the peripherals we generally expect to predict ERA), Vazquez has come with plenty of baggage even at the best of times. Nonetheless, after Vazquez bought another ticket out of New York with an abysmal performance last season, PECOTA foresees a rebound to a sub-4.00 ERA and a healthy strikeout rate in Florida. Meanwhile, 2010 super-slugger Jose Bautista is projected to shed nearly half of his homers (which would still leave him with his second-best season to date).

In the case of each player, we can do more than simply throw up our hands and attribute last year’s surprising performance to divine dice rolls. Vazquez experienced a sizeable velocity drop (whose effects can be quantified); Bautista made well-publicized changes to his stance and swing. PECOTA doesn’t know those things, but you and I do, even though we might not know their precise significance. Given the increasing granularity of baseball data capture, perhaps the passage of time and future additions to PECOTA’s code will make it possible to adjust the forecasts not only according to what numbers were produced, but to a greater degree, how they were produced. For now, feel free to indulge your inner PECOTAs, but remember to forecast responsibly.

Tampa Bay Rays: John Jaso – 2010 wOBA of .341; projected 2011 wOBA of .319.

Jaso with GM Andrew Friedman, who is no doubt pointing out some new market inefficiency he discovered over breakfast. (AP Images)

John Jaso may have a very limited major league track record, but it’s still a bit odd to see such a projected drop-off from PECOTA. Jaso placed 5th in Rookie of the Year voting this offseason after logging over 400 plate appearances for the Rays as their catcher (so long, Dioner). His increase in playing time was partly the result of him doing one thing very, very well: take walks. In 2010 John Jaso was to taking walks as Kevin Youkilis was to being ugly, and he also shared Youkilis’ disciplined approach at the plate. His walk rate was the second-highest of all catchers with at least 250 plate appearances. The Process Report ’11 noted rather poetically that Jaso’s approach at the plate was based on a very selective eye:

Jaso’s offensive approach is simple too. Jaso will not swing if he determines a pitch is on its way outside of the strike zone. Labeling this an approach is probably being too casual, as Jaso’s pitch selection seems to teeter on the thinnest border between obsession and religion. At times, it seems Jaso follows the scripture of Youkilis, where swinging at a poor pitch is a sin – one punishable by eternal damnation and pitchfork poking.

In 2011 PECOTA projects Jaso’s OPS to drop nearly 50 points with an OBP of .347 and a slugging percentage of .355. This is largely predicated on a slight decrease in walk rate (13.1%) and a fairly low BABIP of .270. Jaso sported a robust OBP throughout his minor league career, so this would surely be a disappointing mark for him in 2011. The Rays have options, though. The Rays always have options. They can use Jaso against righties and have him avoid the tougher left-handed pitchers, and then deploy lefty-murdering Kelly Shoppach against the CC Sabathias and Jon Lesters of the league. They’re also working out Robinson Chirinos at catcher this spring, and his PECOTA projection is very impressive. If for some reason Jaso can’t live up to the standard he set for himself in 2011 the Rays ought to have good flexibility at catcher regardless.

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Mar
05

2011 AL East Busts: part 1 of 2

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Let’s start this with a disclaimer. Last week I took PECOTA for a spin and picked out five AL East offensive threats projected to outperform their 2010 wOBAs in 2011. I’ve done the same thing this week, just with players projected to underperform their 2010 wOBAs. This doesn’t exactly make them busts, and so the title of this piece is slightly misleading. I simply can’t think of the antonym of sleeper. I suppose “2011 AL East Players Projected to Underperform their 2010 wOBAs” would be far more accurate, but that’s a tad wordy for my liking. Today we’re examining the Orioles and the Red Sox, and tomorrow will be the Yankees, Rays and Blue Jays.

Baltimore Orioles: Luke Scott

2010 wOBA of .387. 2011 projected wOBA of .359

Better mechanics than Brackman though amirite? (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

For many Luke Scott came out of nowhere in 2010 when he posted a batting line of .284/.368/.535 with a .387 wOBA in 517 plate appearances. The burly first baseman has always shown the ability to hit for power, both in the minors and the majors, but this was the first time he was able to put it all together for an entire season since he was traded from Houston to Baltimore after the 2007 season. While Scott did hit for a lot of power in 2010, he also showed improvement in his batting average and on-base percentage. Both increased exactly 28 points from 2010. However, this likely attributable to an increased in batted ball fortune, given that his BABIP went up 21 points. Indeed, his approach at the plate in 2010 appeared remarkably similar to what he did in 2009. His walk rate increased only a half a percent, and he dropped his strikeout rate only 1.3%.

Even though Baltimore’s lineup looks to be slightly better in 2011, even though one could make the case that they’re doing themselves no long-term favor by signing Vladimir Guerrero and Derrek Lee when they can’t reasonably expect to contend this year, PECOTA sees a fair amount of regression in store for Luke Scott this year. It predicts a batting line of .262/.345/.474 with a .359 wOBA, a decrease of .028 in wOBA. It also sees his BABIP falling back down to .290, despite a career BABIP of .300 and a .304 mark in 2011. All told, PECOTA’s projection for 2011 sees Scott showing less power than he did in 2010 or 2009 and showing roughly similar abilities to hit for average and get on base.

Scott gave back some of his fWAR value at the plate last year by spending some time at 1B (all the warnings about fielding metrics and small samples apply), but this year he’ll spend time in left field as Lee takes over at 1B and Guerrero at DH. Scott generally grades out as a decent defender in left, so he still ought have moderately good overall value for the Orioles in 2011. PECOTA just doesn’t like his chances of having as much offensive thump as last year.

Boston Red Sox: Jed Lowrie

2010 wOBA of .393. 2011 projected wOBA of .331

That's a pretty good worm, Jed (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Last week I picked Jacoby Ellsbury as a sleeper, but noted that his inclusion on the list was more a function of an incredibly low 2010 baseline, one created largely by injuries rather than a dip in skill. As a result, while Ellsbury was projected to see a drastic improvement over his 2010 line in 2011 it didn’t mean that his projection was at all robust. Jed Lowrie is the exact flipside of the coin. In 2011 he’s projected to post a far lower wOBA than he did in 2010, but this tells you more about his insane 2010 performance than it does about his 2011 projection. He still represents a good middle infield option for the Red Sox.

A year removed from wrist injury, Lowrie had less than a half season of plate appearances (197) with Boston in 2010, but really went out of his way to make them count. After a relatively normal July Lowrie went on a tear for the rest of the season (ending in early October, of course), hitting .293/.385/.544 and leaving him with a gaudy .393 wOBA for the year. This mark was higher than any 2B in baseball, including Cano, and was second only to Troy Tulowitzki’s .408 mark for shortstops. There are no easy culprits to explain away this performance: his BABIP was entirely normal and his HR/FB ratio, while higher than his career average, was still only 11.6%.

One less obvious explanation for his power surge might be the quality of pitchers faced: his 9 home runs in 2010 came off Brad Mills, Tommy Hunter, Casey Janssen, Brian Matusz, Luke French (2), Andy Pettitte, Dustin Moseley and Joba Chamberlain (2). It’s not indicative of anything prima facie, good hitters beat up bad pitchers, but late season surges in performance can sometimes be explained by a deterioration of the quality of opposition due to injury attrition or the presence of September call-ups.

In 2011 PECOTA sees Lowrie hitting .245/.338/.401, good for a .739 OPS and a .331 wOBA. Marcel’s projection is similarly conservative (.336 wOBA), but this is the result of the fact that Marcel only uses the past three years of data and doesn’t include minor league performance. Obviously the systems are showing a fair bit of reticence to overvalue his 2010 performance, in light of the relatively pedestrian 382 plate appearances in 2008 and 2009. There is, however, considerable upside. While he is 26 years old already, Lowrie was still a first-round pick in 2004 and boasts an impressive minor league pedigree. When you combine that with past struggles and an injury history that would make Nick Johnson proud, it’s hard to know what to expect from Lowrie in 2011. This was exactly Patrick Sullivan’s point when he did a mini-preview of Lowrie back in January over at Red Sox Beacon:

Anyone who tells you they have a beat on Jed Lowrie and his prospects for 2011 is speculating. He has an encouraging Minor League track record, a choppy Major League one and he hasn’t been able to stay healthy long enough to get a sense for what type of player he ultimately will be. But I also think it’s worth trying to find significance in his 2010 standout season. I know all small sample warnings apply, but he did hit .287/.381/.526 in just under 200 plate appearances. Here’s the list of middle infielders who have managed a single-season 139 OPS+ or better in 175 PA’s or more since 2000: Alex Rodriguez, Jeff Kent, Nomar Garciaparra, Bret Boone, Roberto Alomar, Ben Zobrist, Hanley Ramirez, Edgardo Alfonzo, Chase Utley, Rich Aurilia, Robinson Cano and Carlos Guillen.

And that’s it. I know the Red Sox can’t depend too much on him until he shows an ability to stay on the field. But at the same time, they need to prioritize getting Lowrie the requisite playing time to figure out his value, either for them to retain or trade given the looming presence of Jose Iglesias. There’s a chance that Lowrie could put up some superstar seasons if given the opportunity.

I’m not as enthused as Sullivan is about this list. While there are certainly some serious heavy hitters, there are also some apparent flukes. Aurilia posted one season of 142 OPS+ in 2001 but was a 91 OPS+ hitter from then on and a 99 OPS+ hitter for his entire career. Edgardo Alfonzo and to an extent Carlos Guillen and Ben Zobrist, appear to be similar outliers, and if you drop the OPS+ requirement down from 139 to 135 you pick up a even wider swath of interlopers: Jhonny Peralta, Marcus Giles, Jose Hernandez and Mark Loretta. Again, none of these players ever produced an OPS+ of over 135 again in their career. This doesn’t really tell us a whole lot about Lowrie though, so ultimately Sullivan’s conclusion about Lowrie is spot-on: the best we can do is speculate about what Lowrie can do in 2011. He’s a talented player with a bad injury history and a murky positional place on the club. He could take over for Scutaro and perform solidly or spend most of the season on the disabled list, and neither result would be a great surprise.

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Feb
26

2011 AL East Sleepers

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As Spring Training warms up and baseball season approaches, it is easy to find plenty of “busts and sleepers” columns around the baseball community, particularly for fantasy baseball. I’ve done the same thing here for the American League East using Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system. First I used PECOTA and calculated the projected wOBAs for every offensive starter in the American League East. Then I subtracted each player’s 2010 wOBA from the projection. The players with the largest differences are projected to do better than they did in 2010, and the players with negative values are projected to perform worse than they did in 2010. Today we’ll look at the “sleepers”, the players that PECOTA sees doing better this year than last year. I’ve selected one player from each team because Orioles and Blue Jays fans need love too.

Boston Red Sox: Jacoby Ellsbury

2010 wOBA: .237. 2011 projected wOBA: .333.

Watch out for Adr--Ooh...(Getty Images)

Given how poorly Jacoby Ellsbury’s 2010 campaign went, it’s a bit odd to include him on this list: repeated injuries to his ribs kept him from staying on the field and producing at anything resembling a normal level of production. While it might be more interesting to examine another Red Sox player,  the next highest wOBA-gainer on the list is JD Drew (.346 2010 wOBA; .355 2011 projected wOBA) and, frankly, JD Drew is boring.

As mentioned, Ellsbury had a rough go of it in 2010, injuring his ribs in April, and then reinjuring them when he attempted to return. 2010 was a lost year for those attempting to ascertain what Ellsbury’s true talent level is. In 2009 he had taken a step forward, increasing his on-base and slugging  percentages by about twenty points apiece and bumping his OPS to .770. Ellsbury isn’t the type to hit for power, but his relatively decent ability to get on-base in 2009 and his blindingly fast speed led many to expect him to take another step forward in 2010. Many were the fantasy players who took Ellsbury in the first round of a standard 5×5 league, and great was their disappointment.

All fantasy owners and the Boston Red Sox got from Ellsbury was a measly set of 83 plate appearances, and all Ellsbury got was older and more expensive to the Sox. In 2011 he looks to get back on the horse with fellow speedster Carl Crawford behind him, yet PECOTA isn’t very bullish on Ellsbury’s ability to advance past his 2009 statistical line. The projection of .281/.337/.381 is nearly identical to his relatively inferior 2008 season.

Even with an OPS of barely over .700 Ellsbury has good value to the Red Sox. He’s relatively inexpensive, he plays good defense and he runs the bases well. However, unless he can outperform PECOTA’s meager expectations for his ability to get on base and hit for power he will fall well short of his solid 2009 season. Whether this makes him a true “sleeper”, then, is an open question.

Toronto Blue Jays: JP Arencibia

Indeed. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

2010 wOBA: .232; 2011 projected wOBA: .331.

Like Ellsbury, JP Arencibia’s presence in this list is largely the product of an unnaturally low 2009 line in limited playing time: Arencibia hit .143/.189/.343 in a mere 37 plate appearances. Yet Arencibia has an impressive minor league pedigree, and should get a decent shot at holding down the Toronto catching job now that John Buck has departed for greener pastures. Arencibia doesn’t profile to take a lot of walks; his career minor league OBP is .319. However, he has exhibited some serious power potential, albeit in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League. Howard Bender of Fangraphs recently wrote up Arencibia as a “catcher on the rise” over at Fangraphs:

If the growth that we’ve seen in the minors is any indication, the power potential here is massive. He progressed nicely from Single-A to Double-A and the little hiccup he experienced his first year in Triple-A (increased K% with a major decrease in BA) was thoroughly wiped away with his follow-up season in 2010. His ISO numbers are fantastic and you can tell that his hitting prowess is more than just luck as evidenced by his relatively normal BABIP numbers. One caveat that I should point out is the .228 average vs lefties with a .284 OBP in his two seasons in Triple-A. Those numbers could translate even worse in the majors. There will also be questions as to whether or not he can handle the rigors of catching full time in the bigs as well as how he can handle the pitching staff, but those will certainly be answered this season as the Jays will afford him every opportunity to succeed this year. Consider him a middle round pick who should, if he keeps his head on straight, put up early round pick numbers.

In a refreshing exhibition of clear expectations, PECOTA is strikingly bearish on Arencibia’s ability to get on base (.290 OBP) and strikingly bullish on his ability to hit for power (.483 SLG). It’s probably not the well-rounded game the Jays are looking for long-term out of the catcher position, but it’s not far off from the level of production they got out of John Buck last year (.281/.314/.489 with a .345 wOBA). If Arencibia can stick behind the plate for the season and hit to his projected .331 wOBA the Jays would be happy campers.

Tampa Bay Rays: Dan Johnson

You know who broke his bat? Cliff Lee. Game 5 ALDS: 9 IP, 6H, 0R, 0BB, 11K. I hate you, Cliff. (Getty Images)

2010 wOBA: .339; 2011 projected wOBA: .367

Dan Johnson is exactly the kind of player that Rays’ management loves to sign, and he’s exactly the kind of player to take AJ Burnett deep at an inopportune time, leaving most Yankees fans saying “wait, who?”. It’s just so typical.

Johnson has bounced around in his career between the Athletics, the Rays, and the Japanese club Yokohoma Bay Stars. He hasn’t exhibited the typical power one would expect from the first baseman, but boy can he take a base on balls: he had the highest walk rate of any 1B with at least 100 plate appearances in 2010.

In 2010 Johnson, the victim of an absurdly low BABIP of .188, hit .198/.343/.414 (.339 wOBA) in 140 plate appearances. PECOTA sees his walk-heavy ways continuing in 2011, but also projects him to add some power, predicting a line of .244/.368/.465. Ultimately this isn’t going to measure up to the standard set by Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira, but Johnson will only cost the Rays $1M in 2011. They would certainly be thrilled (and smug) if they got a 0.367 wOBA from a $1M first baseman.

Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters

'09 PECOTA aside, dude has to be thrilled that he never had to catch Daniel Cabrera. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

No one will soon forget the occasion when PECOTA, in a seeming fit of spasmodic optimism, spit out the following line for Matt Wieters, the rookie, prior to the 2009 season: 649 PAs, 31 HR, 102 RBI, .311/.395/.544. Despite a minor league track record befitting the finest thoroughbred in all the land Wieters missed this projection and missed badly, hitting .280/.340/.412. This is an impressive line for a rookie 23 year-old catcher debuting at the major league level, but it certainly fell well short of the incredibly lofty expectations PECOTA had laid out for Wieters. In 2010 expectations were tempered but Wieters still fell short, undergoing the dreaded sophomore slump with a line of .249/.319/.377. The difference can largely be traced to a seventy point drop in Wieters’ BABIP. In his debut he averaged .356; in 2010 the mark was .287.

Aside from the fluctuation in BABIP, there are reasons for optimism for Wieters in 2011. Last year he increased his walk rate from around 7% to 9%, and managed to reduce his strikeout rate by a solid 3%. In other words, despite a worse batting line he actually made some small positive steps forward at the plate. His ISO increased ever so slightly, again indicating that the decrease in his batting line was largely related to a difference in fortune on balls in play. PECOTA sees Wieters’ BABIP normalizing at .311 this year. It’s a safe bet, but it’s hard to know whether he’ll settle in 20 points lower or higher than that on his career. As a result, the system projects a line of .268/.341/.419, very similar to what he produced in his rookie debut.

When PECOTA made the Wieters projection, there was a lot of confusion. Sure, there were the typical troglodytes who take every opportunity possible to mock the concept of a “computer” predicting baseball, but it’s always easy to ignore them. The more serious questions came from people who didn’t understand how in the world PECOTA came up with that: if PECOTA is in essence conservative, how could it produce a statistical line that looks like it was ripped straight off a fanboy’s message board posting? At the time Baseball Prospectus’ Steven Goldman sought to answer this question, contextualizing it within a discussion of the structural design of PECOTA and what it seeks to accomplish. His words are just as relevant now as they were then:

PECOTA is an essentially conservative program. Its player-performance projections are neither wildly optimistic nor pessimistic, but built purely from the data, and from its own understanding of the way that player careers progress based on literally thousands of antecedents. Thus, when it proposes that Orioles catching prospect Matt Wieters, a rookie-to-be who has never played above Double-A, could hit .311/.395/.544 in the majors this year, we took notice: this was the first time that PECOTA had looked at a prospect and predicted an MVP-caliber, Hall of Fame-level season right off the bat…

Of course, as we’ve often said in our annual book, PECOTA is not destiny. Much stands between a young player and the achievement of his projection, whether that projection is as boldly put as Wieters’ is, or merely average. Injury is a particular risk for a young catcher, as an errant foul tip can mangle a finger, or a contact play at the plate can mangle an entire body. What makes Wieters’ projection all the more impressive is that PECOTA is aware of the toll that catching can take on a backstop’s offensive skills, and yet it still sees such impressive short-term results for the Orioles tyro

Perhaps, then, it is wrong to say that PECOTA lacks optimism, that it doesn’t rave. In its own way, Wieters’ projection is its way of saying, “Hey, I think I spot a very rare talent here; you might want to pay attention.”

Given his words, and Wieters’ super minor league track record, and the fact that he’s settling into his third season in the American League East, many would be forgiven for taking the “over” on Wieters’ modest batting line this season. Yet this serves as a reminder, both for Wieters and for the Yankee sleeper who follows Wieters below, that no matter how much evidence, statistical research and historical comparisons you have you simply never know what’s going to happen next.

Yankees:  Jesus Montero

He dropped the ball, and then his glove fell off. Then he picked the ball up and threw it into CF. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

2010 wOBA: N/A; 2011 projected wOBA: 0.346.

Everyone’s favorite prospect has been every projection system’s favorite golden boy this February, and PECOTA is no exception. PECOTA sees a line of .285/.331/.471 in 2011 for Montero with 18 HRs in 480 PAs. This would quite obviously be a tremendous level of performance for a 21 year-old in his first season in the bigs.

Jesus Montero has been the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for so long now that it’s hard to imagine him actually putting up an OPS of over .800 in Yankee pinstripes. It doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t something go wrong? Shouldn’t he have been traded by now?  Despite lingering questions about his defensive ability, and despite multiple near-misses in trade talks, Jesus Montero is on the precipice. The greatest Yankee hitting prospect since Derek Jeter is ready for the bright lights of New York.

The last few years have been exciting times for prospect watchers. We’ve seen players like Jay Bruce, Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Colby Rasmus, David Price, Tommy Hanson, Matt Wieters, Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward, Buster Posey and Carlos Santana get hyped and then promoted to the bigs. Some like Wieters and Bruce struggled at first; others like Posey and Heyward became immediate game-changers for their club. The Yankees have the luxury of patience with Montero this spring, but they certainly will hope that he falls into the latter category of game-changer. For its part, PECOTA is expecting great things. We all are.

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An off-day is a good time to reflect on where the Yankees stand. We can see in the standings that they’re 35-22, second place by two games in the AL East. But plenty has changed since the last off-day. Here’s where the Yankees stand among their peers during this break in the action.

1st Place: Tampa Bay Rays

Photo credit: Tony Gutierrez/AP

Their place in the standings hasn’t changed, but their pace has. Last time we checked in the Rays were 32-13 and running away with the AL East. They’re now 37-20, meaning they went 5-7 in their last 12 games. They have slowed from a 115-win pace to a more reasonable 105-win pace. The biggest difference, unsurprisingly, has been their pitching.

Last time we looked at the Rays they had three starters with an ERA under 3.00, and two not far above. Still have two starters under that 3.00 mark, David Price and Jeff Niemann, but the other three starters have seen their ERAs balloon in the past two weeks. Matt Garza is up to 3.31, James Shields is up to 3.64, and Wade Davis has launched into orbit, hitting 5.03 after being at 3.35 last time we checked. It’s the same as it ever was; pitching has determined the Rays’ fate.

On the offensive side, the Rays have seen a few contributors step up. Ben Zobrist was already on his way back up after a slow start, at least power-wise, last time we checked in, and he’s been as good as ever during the past few weeks. John Jaso has maintained excellent production and has even moved into the leadoff spot. He has all but assured that Dioner Navarro will hit the waiver wire, via designation for assignment. I can’t see the Rays carrying three catchers once Jason Bartlett returns, and it’s tough to find any way to justify Navarro over Jaso.

Contributions from a few unexpected players, including Jaso and infielder Ben Zobrist, have help offset disappointing production from Carlos Pena (.646 OPS) and B.J. Upton (.229 BA and .318 OBP, though he’s hitting for power). They could use a bit more from those guys, but as long as Zobrist and Jaso keep producing the Rays offense will keep rolling. Especially because their anchor, Evan Longoria, continues to smash the league.

2nd Place: New York Yankees

Again, we’re not here to talk about the Yankees. They were 26-18 at the last check-in, and have moved that to 35-22 after Sunday’s win, so they went 9-4 after dropping two of three to the Mets. The difference, as with the Rays, has been starting pitching. Their guys have, for the most part, turned in quality performances and it has shown up in the win column.

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