It has been a hard week. My sixth graders are of the unwavering belief that I exist solely to torment them. I’m down to the final days of my early twenties (or perhaps not, as some think 23 still qualifies). There has been no baseball since Monday. I need cheering up, which is convenient, because I’ve been meaning to write a piece reminding my unsuspecting readers of out how right I was about these predictions. Well, I was on 80% of them. Here’s the long final word on these prognostications, in ascending order of accuracy.
THE BRETT GARDNER-MELKY CABRERA DUO
In late April, I wrote this jewel of a post explaining why the New York Yankees were delusional in their reliance on Gardner and Cabrera manning center field capably. Like many Yankees fans, I was less concerned about Gardner’s plate discipline and more concerned about his ability to make hard contact. If he couldn’t hit strikes hard, there would be no reason to throw him balls, thereby negating his good eye. I was also critical of Cabrera’s steadily declining performance since his 2006 campaign, condemning him to fourth outfielderhood in the process. Gardner and Cabrera could field but not hit, and I thought that was going to be the Yankees’ biggest problem in 2009.
I was wrong in two ways. Most egregiously, I thought that the incredibly competitive AL East race would mean that even the most marginal of advantages would dictate the winner. The Yankees’ center field platoon, I believed, was a prime example of a disadvantage that could cost the team a spot in the playoffs. As it turns out, the Yankees won the division, finishing eight games ahead of the Boston Red Sox and 19 ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays. It appears that my grandmother could have manned center field for the Yankees and they still would have won the division. By definition, the Yankees’ appearance in the playoffs means I was wrong.
More specifically, I was wrong about the two players’ probable performance. Gardner hit a below-average but passable .270/.345/.379 while stealing 26 bases in 31 tries. He ranked fourth among AL center fielders in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which is good because his arm remains terrible. Cabrera hit a roughly league-average .274/.336/.416, with 10 steals in 12 tries and average defense. Their combined efforts yielded basically an average center fielder; Yankees center fielders ranked 14th in OBP, 2oth in SLG, 18th in walks, and seventh in stolen-base percentage. I still have my doubts about either one being an everyday player (Gardner’s injury-shortened season limited his sample size, Cabrera’s defense must remain at least average for him to be a viable option), but for one season, I was very, very wrong.
THE TORONTO BLUE JAYS’ OFFENSE
As you might remember, the Toronto Blue Jays compiled an impressive record in the early part of the season. This happened on the strength of a surprisingly potent offense, bolstered by incredible contributions from Aaron Hill, Marco Scutaro, Adam Lind, Rod Barajas, Lyle Overbay, Jose Bautista, and Kevin Millar. Along with many other objective bloggers, I pointed out just how unsustainable their production was. Of course, many mainstream media types fulfilled their sensationalist obligations by fervently wondering if the American League had not one, not two, not three, but four superpowers. “Watch out for the Toronto Blue Jays and their prolific offense,” we were advised.
Unfortunately, I didn’t predict the level to which their offense would decline, instead focusing on how many wins they’d have at season’s end (80 compared to 75 in real life. Not bad.) So, I’m left to examine my comments on the individual players:
- Aaron Hill: I predicted that Hill had improved enough to kiss his .280/.330/.400 career norm goodbye. I was right and wrong. He finished with a .286 batting average and .330 OBP (just to spite me, I’m convinced), but a .499 SLG and 36 (!) home runs. This wasn’t a total whiff, but it wasn’t spot-on either.
- Marco Scutaro: I called Scutaro and his .267/.406/.475 line “overachieving,” citing his walk rate and power as completely out of line with his career norms. I was half right. Scutaro finished with a .379 OBP and the highest walk rate in his career. His slugging declined to a still career-best .409. So, yes, Scutaro was overachieving at the time of publication, but not by as much as I thought.
- Adam Lind: Lind was hitting .311/.398/.534 when I wrote the first piece. Unlike the other Blue Jays, his performance seemed sustainable to me, given his age and pedigree. I said a .300/.370/.500 season “wasn’t out of the question.” Lind finished the season with a .305/.370 (boom!)/.562 line, making him one of the few Blue Jays that hit from start to finish.
- Rod Barajas: Barajas was hitting .333/.356/.519 when I predicted the Blue Jays’ fall. He finished the season at .226/.258/.403.
- Lyle Overbay: I called him a mild overachiever, predicting an increase in his batting average and a decline in his OBP. Given that his line was .239/.381/.463 then and .265/.372/.466 at season’s end, I’d say that was a decent prediction.
- Jose Bautista: .326/.456/.457 then, .235/.349/.408 now. That’s quite a difference.
- Kevin Millar: .341/.383/.523 then, .223/.311/.363 now. Fin.
I don’t mean to advertise myself as some sort of soothsayer, because ultimately, the Blue Jays’ offensive decline was quite easy to predict. But I just feel like I need to hammer this home because of the many of the mainstream media talking heads really bought into the Blue Jays and the managerial prowess of Cito Gaston. At the end of the day, the Blue Jays had a good but not great offense (8th in OPS, 8th in runs scored) that slowed down once its veterans cooled off.
THE NEW YORK YANKEES’ BULLPEN
ESPN’s Bill Simmons is one of my favorite sportswriters. I devoured his columns in high school, particularly his NBA Draft diaries and his NFL musings. But Simmons’ weak spot has always been baseball. I hold him to a different standard because he’s not advertised as an analyst. He’s the fairly well-educated, thirtysomething, working male. He likes his traditional statistics and sports conventions, but he’s also pretty open to new ideas, improvements, and cultural phenomena. But still: the man simply has trouble with baseball. So when he called the Yankees’ bullpen “terrible” in a pre-season podcast, I performed my duty and took him to task for it.
Of course, the Yankees’ bullpen was horrendous almost immediately, leaving me stewing and embarrassed. But at season’s end, the numbers look pretty good:
- 3.91 ERA (13th in baseball)
- .307 opponents’ OBP (1st)
- .393 opponents’ SLG (16th)
- .701 opponents’ OPS (7th)
- 2.44 K/BB (2nd)
- 8.44 K/9 (2nd)
- 15.66 WXRL (1st)
That’s not terrible. Not by a long shot.
THE HOUSTON ASTROS
In late March, Astros manager Cecil Cooper said that his squad “should win 90 games.” Players Lance Berkman and Carlos Lee echoed Cooper’s sentiment. Because I have more than a cursory understanding of baseball (and really, you only needed a cursory understanding to get why this was an insane thing to say), I outlined in painstaking detail precisely why Cooper should have just said something like “we’re going to do our best and see what happens.” Here is how each of my historically inferior fourteen points ended up:
(1) You scored 712 runs last year and allowed 743. Your record was 86-75. That should seem wrong to you, because teams that allow more runs than they score typically lose more games than they win. It’s safe to say that you were incredibly, historically lucky last year. And, despite what Berkman believes, you did not improve in the off-season. You are due for a harsh regression.
The Astros were indeed outscored this year, 770 to 643. This time, however, their record reflected this significant and highly predictive bit of information; they finished at 74-88.
(2) Your second baseman is Kaz Matsui. He has a career .331 OBP, which is not good. Sure, his OBP was .354 last year, but his LD% (line drive percentage) hit a career low and his BABIP was quite high. This means he got seriously lucky. He’s 33 years old, which means he’s beginning to decline from his resoundingly mediocre peak.
Kaz Matsui hit .250/.302/.357 in 2009. Less good luck and fewer line drives will do that to you. And, also, being bad at baseball.
(3) Your shortstop is Miguel Tejada, who suddenly became 35 years old this winter. He had a .314 OBP last year, which is just terrible. His walk rate reached a career-worst level in 2008. He posted his worst SLG since 1998. And again, he’s 35 years old and right smack in the middle of his decline phase.
Tejada bounced back a little this season, hitting .313/.340/.455. He was, however, an absolute disaster with the glove, posting a -13.5 UZR. He also walked 19 times. That’s hard to do.
(4) Your third baseman is Geoff Blum. Blum is 36 years old, and hit .240/.287/.418 in 350 PAs last year. That is unacceptable production from a corner infielder. He’s projected to hit a marginally better .245/.306/.400 this year, which is just as unacceptable. His defense is average, but that’s not nearly good enough to warrant putting his noodle of a bat in the lineup every day.
Blum hit an abysmal .247/.314/.367 in 2009. His defense remained average, but that is nowhere near enough to overcome such terrible production from a traditionally potent position.
(5) Your left fielder is Carlos Lee. Lee can hit just fine, but is one of the very worst defensive outfielders in all of baseball. The Astros can’t afford to give back any production on offense in the field, but Lee does just that.
That part about Lee’s bat keeping him more or less in the clear? Not so much anymore. He still had a good season, but his OPS+ declined from 144 to 119, making him closer and closer to league-average. It also doesn’t help that his defense got worse. Again.
(6) Your center fielder is Michael Bourn. Last year, Bourn was – without exaggeration – one of the very worst everyday players in Major League Baseball. He hit .229/.288/.300 in over 500 PAs.Even more ridiculously, the vast majority of those PAs came in the leadoff spot. He struck out frequently, which is not necessarily a bad thing if the player walks or hits for extra bases every so often. Bourn does neither. He’s also merely average in the field, despite looking like he’s fast and trying super hard. For reasons I don’t fully understand, he’s projected to hit .258/.327/.362 this year, production that is merely bad instead of his 2008 levels of atrociousness.
This was nothing short of a total stinker on my part. Bourn improved in absolutely every way in 2009. He struck out less, walked more, stole bases more efficiently, hit more line drives, hit for more power, and played better defense. The result was a .285/.354/.384 line and a wins-added total (WARP) that was 16 times higher than last season. When I’m wrong, I’m wrong.
(7) Your catcher is Ivan Rodriguez. He is 37 years old and plays like it. He had a .319 OBP last year, and is projected to regress to .301 this year. Rodriguez posted a startling 2.35 GB/FB – the worst of his career – leading to a career-high rate of grounding into double plays. He is now merely average at throwing out base stealers.
Rodriguez hit .251/.280/.382 for the Astros before being traded to the Texas Rangers. Catcher is a tough position to fill, but that’s totally unplayable, especially for over 300 plate appearances.
(8) Darin Erstad is on your team.
Erstad hit a laughable .194/.268/.328 in 150 plate appearances. A new low, even for him.
(9) Your #3 starter is 37-year-old Brian Moehler, who had a 4.56 ERA in 150 IP last year. He has a mediocre 4.92 K/9, a high HR/9 rate, and a plummeting GB rate. This means he gives up lots of fly balls in a hitter’s ballpark, which is just asking for trouble for an old pitcher with no stuff. He’s projected to post a 5.46 ERA in 130 IP this year.
Moehler threw 154 innings of 5.47 ERA ball, allowing 21 homers, striking out 91, and walking 51. By the way, that’s one heck of a projection by the folks at Baseball Prospectus, isn’t it?
(10) Your #4 starter is 36-year-old Mike Hampton, who hasn’t been healthy since 2004. In the 78 innings he managed to throw for the Atlanta Braves last year, he posted a 4.85 ERA and 1.42 WHIP with a horrid 4.1 K/9. Any team relying on Hampton to be its fourth starter is in a world of trouble.
Hampton pitched 112 innings and posted a 5.30 ERA. He did improve his K/9 and HR/9, but because he’s Mike Hampton, he had two separate stints on the 15-day DL before being place on the 60-day DL in September.
(11) Your #5 starter is some combination of Jose Capellan, Russ Ortiz, Felipe Paulino, Alberto Arias, and Brandon Backe. If you don’t know why that’s terrible, I can’t help you.
Of these five pitchers, only Ortiz, Paulino, and Backe started games. They combined for 31 starts, and posted ERAs of 5.57, 6.27, and 10.38, respectively. I’m shaking my head slowly right now.
(12) Baseball Prospectus ranked your farm system 30th, the worst in the major leagues. The Hardball Times ranked your farm system 30th, the worst in the major leagues. Baseball America ranked your farm system 30th, the worst in the major leagues. There is no help on the way.
This hasn’t changed one bit.
(13) Very smart people are projecting you to score 700 runs and allow 808 this upcoming season, which would give you roughly 68 wins. That’s 68 as in “22 fewer than 90.”
The Astros somehow managed to score fewer than 700 runs this season (643), but thanks to a wonderful season from starter Wandy Rodriguez and a little bit of luck, they only allowed 770 runs by their opponents. Still bad.
(14) In spite of all this readily-available information, your manager thinks you can win 90 games.
Cecil Cooper was fired in late September.
THE YANKEES’ & RED SOX’ OFF-SEASONS
After contrasting off-seasons, many opinions like this appeared on the Internet, television, and airwaves. Apparently, the Red Sox’ acquisition of flexible, low-risk, high-reward talent like John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Takashi Saito, and Rocco Baldelli was superior to the Yankees acquiring C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, and Mark Teixeira. Because, you know, everything the Red Sox touch is supposed to turn to gold.
My reaction to this preposterous idea is as strong today as it was on March 10th. It was a ridiculous notion then and it’s even more ludicrous now. A quick look here will tell you all you need to know.