I get much of my material from wrongheaded or outright stupid predictions. Without assertions like this, this, and this, Fan Interference would be reduced to the ramblings of a man with nothing against which to push back. So, since I’ve spent some time lambasting particularly ridiculous augury, it seems only fair that I take an objective look at my five strongest pseudo-predictions for the 2009 Major League Baseball season. Here they are:
THE YANKEES’ & RED SOX’ OFF-SEASONS
In early March, Jayson Stark argued that the Red Sox’ free agent signings did as much to improve their team as the Yankees’ did theirs. As usual, this story was reduced to the tale of the underdog Red Sox (and their $120 million payroll) valiantly persevering in the face of the monolithic Yankees and their infinite resources. My problem with Stark’s argument was his failure to grasp the idea of marginal improvement. At the start of the off-season, the Red Sox had a much stronger team than the Yankees. Therefore, their free agent signings (a fourth outfielder, a fifth starter, a bullpen arm, and more starting pitching depth) were good but only a slight improvement for an already wonderful team. The Yankees, on the other hand, had a flawed team that required serious work in important areas. So they signed C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira – three of the top five available free agents. These signings represented a significant improvement because of the team’s initial weakness. Stark failed to understand this, making his argument irksome and faulty.
Let’s take a look at how the Red Sox’ signings have performed in the first half of the season. Rocco Baldelli – signed as insurance for J.D. Drew and to hit left-handed pitching – has put up a .282/.358/.471 line in 85 at-bats. These are wonderful numbers for a fourth outfielder, but no one should be surprised that Baldelli has against had some problems staying healthy. Brad Penny was signed to be the team’s fifth starter, but he’s pitched even worse than that. He has a 5.02ERA and a 1.50 WHIP, with pretty good control but floundering stuff (118 hits in 98 innings). Takashi Saito was brought in to shore up the bullpen with an experienced power arm. He has been merely fine, striking out 28 in 30 innings but walking too many batters. Lastly, John Smoltz was supposed to be a late-season boon to the Red Sox rotation. At this point, we simply don’t know if the signing was a good one or not. Smoltz has thrown 20 innings in four starts, producing a 5.40 ERA. It’s just too early to tell. As you can see, the Red Sox imported a solid group of bit players, but nothing warranting emphatic commendation.
The Yankees signed C.C. Sabathia to replace Chien-Ming Wang, who was masquerading as the team’s ace. Sabathia has had an good but not great first half, posting a 3.66 ERA while struggling somewhat with his control. We must consider him a slight disappointment at this point, even if it is early. A.J. Burnett’s 3.81 ERA is deceptive. He’s walked far too many batters, but his ability to strike out batters has kept this number from getting out of control. He’s done what many expected – wild variance between dominating and worthless starts. Mark Teixeira has been wonderful. The durable first baseman has a .280/.381/.551 line with 23 home runs, even with a woeful first month of the season. He has fulfilled the lofty expectations.
There is simply no competition between these two groups of players. The Red Sox signed a group of useful parts that will play relatively minor roles in the team’s race for the pennant. The Yankees signed an elite group of talent that will make or break their attempt to make the postseason. Baldelli, Penny, Saito and Smoltz have been worth roughly two wins so far this season. Sabathia, Burnett, and Teixeira have been worth nine.
Both then and now, you could easily make an argument for Red Sox superiority over the Yankees. But if the debate is about the quality of talent imported during the winter, there is no contest. Stark’s assertion appears just as wrong now as it did then.
THE HOUSTON ASTROS
Later in March, it was reported that the Houston Astros expected to win 90 games in the 2009 season. This report was confirmed by actual quotations from real-life members of the team. Each member – manager Cecil Cooper, left fielder Carlos Lee, and first baseman Lance Berkman – used the 2008 Astros’ 86 wins as a guideline for their prediction instead of the fact that the team was outscored by 31 runs. Well, it’s just past the All-Star break, and the Astros are sitting at 46-46. Am I sweating yet? No. No, I am not.
There are many reasons for my confidence. Opponents have outscored the Astros by 24 runs. Miguel Tejada has a .824 OPS but a .335 BABIP that is unsupported by his line drive percentage (I can’t believe I have a girlfriend). Michael Bourn has a .358 OBP after a .288 mark last season. Geoff Blum has a .354 OBP. They have two reliable starters in Wandy Rodriguez and Roy Oswalt, and then a bunch of slop with a total ERA over 5.00. Because their 46 wins did actually happen and therefore must stand, the Astros will probably come closer than I expected to winning 90 games. But 90 itself? They still won’t even sniff it.
THE YANKEES’ BULLPEN
I was listen to a Bill Simmons podcast in early April when I heard the talented Bostonian call the Yankees’ bullpen “terrible.” Because available evidence suggested this was untrue, I blogged about it. I was positive that Simmons was an idiot. Positive.
It’s now July 20th, and the Yankees’ bullpen remains a bit of a mystery. Its 4.12 ERA ranks 22nd in baseball, which would seem to settle the issue if it weren’t for other statistics. For example, Yankee relievers have allowed a .306 opponents’ OBP (the best in baseball) but a .415 SLG (23rd). They also have a 8.33 K/9 and 2.32 K/BB, which rank 4th and 2nd, respectively. It’s pretty unusual.
Objectively, Simmons can be nothing other than right at this point in the season. That’s not stopping me from remaining bullish on the Yankees’ bullpen, primarily because of its upward trend. Look at these numbers:
- March/April: 6.46 ERA, 9.00 K/9, 4.06 BB/9, 2.22 K/BB, 1.90 HR/9
- May: 4.04 ERA, 7.08 K/9, 4.25 BB/9, 1.67 K/BB, 1.92 HR/9
- June: 2.63 ERA, 9.33 K/9, 2.85 BB/9, 3.27 K/BB, 0.99 HR/9
- July: 3.33 ERA, 7.95 K/9, 2.96 BB/9, 2.69 K/BB, 0.92 HR/9
As you can see, the ERA has settled down quite a bit since the beginning of the season, as well as the home runs allowed. It may be too late for their bullpen to finish in the top ten, but with excellent strikeout and walk rates, a strong push appears likely. So, Simmons was right for now, but there’s great potential for continued dominance.
THE BRETT GARDNER-MELKY CABRERA DUO
In late April, I wrote that the Yankees must upgrade at the center field position in order to win a very competitive division. Brett Gardner and Melky Cabrera were (and still are) sharing time at the spot, albeit with significantly different performances. Gardner hit .220/.254/.271 in April, which is synonymous with putrid. Cabrera fared much better, hitting .327/.400/.571. Nevertheless, I was sure Gardner’s performance was indicative of his actual skill, and that Cabrera’s was comically inflated.
Since then, the center fielders’ output has steadily approached a middle ground. Gardner currently sits at .277/.350/.398, with 18 stolen bases in 22 attempts. Cabrera’s .281/.342/.430 line reveals more pop, but not the range and base-stealing ability that Gardner has. These numbers may seem mediocre, but much to my surprise, they place the Yankees’ center field production right around league-average. Who knew?
Ultimately, I think their respective levels of production are a little high, but generally right on the money. Gardner’s improvement can be directly attributed to his drastic reduction in strikeout rate and consequent improvement in walking. If this is for real, the Yankees will have a center fielder with a .340-.350 OBP, great range, and incredible efficiency at stealing bases. Cabrera, on the other hand, is pretty much done developing. He has good but not great patience, some pop, average range and a wildly inconsistent arm. I’d still shop for an everyday center fielder, but if these two keep this up, there’s no reason to do so with absolute conviction. League-average production is just fine in center field.
THE TORONTO BLUE JAYS’ OFFENSE
At the end of April, the Toronto Blue Jays boasted the most prolific offense in the major leagues. Their 142 runs scored led baseball, as did their .292 batting average and .838 OPS. Because I am quite sure I am right about everything and I didn’t expect this to happen, I wrote about why this simply wouldn’t continue. It was a fairly easy exercise. I singled out Aaron Hill, Marco Scutaro, Adam Lind, Rod Barajas, Lyle Overbay, Jose Bautista, and Kevin Millar as the most egregious overachievers; or, in other words, the entire Blue Jays offense. These were their lines at the time of publication:
- Hill: .361/.403/.563
- Scutaro: .267/.406/.475
- Lind: .311/.398/.534
- Barajas: .333/.356/.519
- Overbay: .239/.381/.463
- Bautista: .326/.456/.457
- Millar: .341/.383/.523
These are their lines now:
- Hill: .284/.323/.473
- Scutaro: .284/.383/.415
- Lind: .304/.373/.555
- Barajas: .254/.286/.407
- Overbay: .264/.380/.472
- Bautista: .257/.389/.362
- Millar: .229/.304/.355
The Blue Jays now rank 9th in baseball in runs scored, 13th in on-base percentage, and 8th in slugging. I expect these rankings to drop another spot or two by season’s end. Shame on the very few of you who wondered in May if the Blue Jays really did have a legitimate shot at winning the AL East. Shame on you.