Why The Yankees Won’t Win The World Series

August 20, 2010

Don't count on this occurring in October.

This piece could very easily come across as unbearable to Yankees haters, and truth be told, I would have a hard time arguing against such a reaction. Not only does it assume that the Yankees will make the playoffs, but it also spends over a thousand words discussing why the Yankees – owners of the best record in baseball, playing in toughest division in the tougher league – are not built for a deep postseason run. Maybe this makes me spoiled. No, it definitely makes me spoiled. But having watched this team all season, I can say there are real questions about its ability to repeat as World Series champions. And no, it’s not because the Yankees are boring or lack fire or heart or desire, or any of that nonsense that Bill Simmons regularly uses to explain failure in baseball. It’s because the Yankees don’t have the “Secret Sauce.” Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements

Just How Good Are The Rays?

April 25, 2010

The Tampa Bay Rays are 13-5 in the 2010 season, a record that is fully supported by the best run differential in baseball (+44). It is, of course, still very early, but there’s no question about which team is the best in the game right now. It’s the Rays.

Given their utter dominance so far, I expected to see some pretty outlandish numbers on their team page. You know, things like Juan Uribe hitting .310/.373/.483, or Bengie Molina hitting .313/.370/.417, or any other line that is so obviously unsustainable for an established player. The Rays are on pace to win 116 games, so it seemed likely that there were at least a few hot starts that would inevitably cool the team back down to a more reasonable 95-win pace. So it seemed.

After even a cursory look at the players’ numbers, however, it’s conceivable that the Rays haven’t even peaked yet. Consider all of the following:

  • Jason Bartlett is hitting .250/.305/.316. He’s projected to hit .286/.353/.412.
  • Ben Zobrist is hitting .271/.329/.414. He’s projected to hit .268/.368/.463.
  • Pat Burrell is hitting .239/.308/.391. He’s projected to hit .223/.338/.395.
  • Dioner Navarro is hitting .136/.208/.159. He’s projected to hit .257/.315/.387.
  • Sean Rodriguez is hitting .233/.303/.367. He’s projected to hit .239/.327/.438.
  • Willy Aybar is hitting .217/.250/.522. He’s projected to hit .261/.339/.427.

The most amazing (or terrifying, as a Yankees fan) thing is that the remainder of the Rays’ c0re – B.J. Upton, Carlos Pena, Carl Crawford, and Evan Longoria – is performing right where you’d expect. Upton will probably lose some SLG and gain some OBP, and Crawford might be in slightly over his head, but all four players are well within the range of expected outcomes. It’s quite possible that the Rays’ offense, which currently lead baseball in runs scored, is considerably better than what it’s shown.

Pitching is another matter for the Rays. While the Rays have numerous players under-performing offensively, they have been receiving uncharacteristically dominant work from their five starting pitchers. Take a look:

  • Matt Garza has a 2.17 ERA (3.08 FIP). His projected ERA is 4.12.
  • James Shields has a 3.96 ERA (5.53 FIP). His projected ERA is 3.91.
  • Jeff Niemann has a 3.27 ERA (5.10 FIP). His projected ERA is 4.59.
  • David Price has a 3.20 ERA (3.82 FIP). His projected ERA is 4.61.
  • Wade Davis has a 2.65 ERA (4.95 FIP). His projected ERA is 4.58.

Using FIP, we can tell that all of the Rays’ starters have been lucky to varying degrees. Garza has been a little lucky, but has mostly pitched brilliantly. Shields, Niemann, and Davis are walking a bit of a tightrope, and should see their ERAs rise if they keep walking, striking out, and allowing homers at their current rates. Like Garza, price has benefited from a little luck, but he’s pitched very well. In the short term, we can tell that these starters are due for some regression.

But baseball is a long season, and the more pertinent question is what each starter’s ceiling is in 2010. Garza’s projected ERA seems just about right to me. His season FIPs have been strikingly consistent (4.57, 4.18, 4.14, and 4.17), so him ending up with an ERA around four makes a ton of sense. Shields, for exactly the same reason as Garza, should also end up with an ERA around four. Niemann is more of an innings-eater than a front of the rotation guy, so I can’t find much wrong with his projected ERA. Then there’s Price and Davis, who are the two wild cards in the Rays’ rotation. Both are 24 years old and possess dominant stuff. Health permitting, I’m quite willing to wager that they outperform their projected ERAs.

So the Rays have an under-performing offense, an over-performing pitching staff, and the best defense in baseball. To figure out how the Rays will do in 2010, the question becomes: by how much these units are under or over-performing? And really, it’s quite close. The Rays’ key hitters are right on track, but four or five spots in the lineup aren’t hitting up to their norms. That’s substantial under-performance. At the same time, Rays’ starters are second in the American League with a 3.04 ERA. That’s substantial over-performance (in 2009, the White Sox boasted the AL’s second best starting rotation. Their ERA was 4.20). Ultimately, I think your (and my) outlook for their season comes down to how you feel about Wade Davis and David Price. If you believe, as I do, that they can and will have very good seasons, the Rays can win a hundred games. Their current 116-win pace is a little much, particularly because six of their games have come against Baltimore and four against the slumping Red Sox. But this team has an excellent offense, an excellent defense, and a high-upside pitching staff. Right now, it’s hard not to favor the Rays to win the division.


Yankees’ Postseason Fate Closely Tied To A.J. Burnett’s Performance

September 12, 2009

New+York+Yankees+v+Baltimore+Orioles+2P-qdC2aE-Cl

Over the last year or so, I’ve realized that my ardent commitment to statistical analysis in sports has come at the cost of my youthful fandom. I remain a dedicated supporter of my teams, but some of the unadulterated enthusiasm has faded away. For example, when Robinson Cano rips a double on the first pitch of an at-bat, I can’t help but shake my head at his impatience instead of applauding his play. When Joba Chamberlain pitches a good game, I’m not only happy because he’s given the Yankees a quality performance, but also because this means I’m one small step closer to being right about his proper role in the major leagues. In short, I’m rooting more for me to be right than for the athletic displays themselves. It’s a bit of a somber realization, but I’ve come to accept its permanence.

Until recently, this change had all but done away with age-old question “who’s your favorite baseball player?” Ten years ago, I would have said Derek Jeter. Five years ago, it would have been Gary Sheffield. If you asked me in the last year, I would have blinked at you quizzically and named the Yankee with the highest WARP, because he would have contributed the most to my favorite team. But now, strangely enough, I have an answer to that question, and it’s largely without a statistical bent. A.J. Burnett is my favorite baseball player and he is, to my great trepidation, the key to the Yankees’ postseason chances. Read the rest of this entry »


A Rough Look At The American League’s Superiority

September 6, 2009

For a few years now, I’ve fully embraced the idea that the American League features a higher level of play than the National League. To be honest, I don’t even think it’s particularly close. This sort of snobbery often comes out in baseball debates with friends, in which I routinely refuse to consider any NL team or pitcher the best in the game (Albert Pujols’ existence means NL hitters get a pass). It’s obnoxious, I know.

I have neither the time nor the patience to pore through recent baseball history and quantify the difference between the leagues. I can, however, offer a very rough look at this disparity because several starting pitchers have switched leagues this season. Brad Penny, John Smoltz, Jose Contreras, Cliff Lee, and Vicente Padilla began the season in the AL and are currently in the NL. The reverse is true of Chad Gaudin and Ian Snell. Here are their numbers in the AL:

  • AL: 597 IP, 4.92 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 6.4 K/9, 3.77 BB/9, 1.2 HR/9

And in the NL:

  • NL: 274 IP, 4.32 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 7.37 K/9, 2.34 BB/9, 0.58 HR/9

It’s a small sample, to be sure, and anyone with the requisite interest and time could resolve this issue. But at least for this season, there appears to be little argument about which league has the superior pitching (and hitting). Which means that the next person who tells me Tim Lincecum is better than Zack Greinke is getting a dirty look.


Mariano Rivera’s Cy Young Candidacy Relies On The Overvaluing Of Closers

August 25, 2009

A little over a week ago, I offered my opinion about who should win the American League’s Most Valuable Player award. In a roundabout sort of way, and after wondering why Kevin Youkilis hasn’t garnered more support, I said it’s clear that Minnesota’s Joe Mauer is most deserving of the honor. In fact, this is the rare race in which there is an unquestionably right answer; Mauer is the league’s most valuable player, and if you think otherwise, you are wrong. Baseball Prospectus’ Joe Sheehan agrees with me, even if he is more optimistic than I am about the voters ultimately choosing Mauer. In any case, I no longer feel compelled to participate in this particular debate (unless he doesn’t win, in which case you will most certainly be hearing from me).

I hadn’t thought much about the American League Cy Young award race until last night. I was watching the MLB Network when former player-turned-analyst Dan Plesac said something very closely resembling the following:

“I’ll tell you what, Mariano Rivera should be in the thick of the Cy Young discussion. He’s simply the best ever at his position and he’s having another great season. To have a guy that can come in and get the twenty-sixth, twenty-sev… uh, the last few outs of the game every time, that’s a huge advantage for a team. I know there’s the Rolaids award for relief pitchers, but he should be in the Cy Young discussion.”

After chuckling at Plesac’s struggle to remember the number of outs typically required for a baseball game to end, I paused to consider his opinion. Then I rejected it.

As I’ve mentioned several times, 70 innings of brilliant pitching are not as valuable to a team as 200 innings of excellent pitching. One time, I was condescendingly instructed “not to think of it as innings pitched, but as appearances, as the number of games a player can affect” (had this person written his suggestion, I’m positive he would have written “effect”). This is also wrong. A team must throw a minimum of 1,458 innings to make it through a baseball season. You can divide the pitchers up into however many appearances you’d like, but the minimum number of innings is static. Wouldn’t you rather have 15% of those innings soaked up by an excellent pitcher, instead of 5% by a brilliant one? Especially when that 5% is often against the bad part of a lineup with a three-run lead? This is why I disregard relief pitchers as Cy Young candidates. Unless the reliever throws 100 brilliant, high-stakes innings (no, the 9th inning does not automatically qualify), he’s not qualified to win the award.

Mariano Rivera’s proposed candidacy gets even more dubious when you look at the numbers themselves. Look at Rivera’s key statistics compared to the two most qualified Cy Young award candidates, Zach Greinke and Felix Hernandez:

  • Rivera: 53 IP, 1.87 ERA, 1.0 HR/9, 1.5 BB/9, 10.0 K/9
  • Greinke: 173.1 IP, 2.44 ERA, 0.5 HR/9, 2.0 BB/9, 9.5 K/9
  • Hernandez: 178.1 IP, 2.73 ERA, 0.7 HR/9, 2.7 BB/9, 8.7 K/9

Greinke and Hernandez (the former in particular) have performed about as well as Rivera, but in three times as many innings pitched. That has much greater value to a team than Rivera’s small but brilliant contribution.

I think there’s no chance of Rivera actually winning the award, so I’m not as worked up about this as Mauer’s candidacy. But I think Plesac’s misguided opinion of closers’ contributions to a team is fairly common and needed rebutting. A good starter is more valuable than a great closer, period. Assuming Mauer wins the AL MVP award, I hope that this realization is the next frontier in Cy Young voting.


I Repeat: A “Five-To-Six Inning Pitcher” Is Not A Bad Thing

May 29, 2009

Consider this post my informal proposal to retire the phrase “he’s a five-to-six inning pitcher.” This phrase – used with some regularity in baseball circles – always has a respectfully negative connotation to it. It’s intended to say tactfully “he’s not very good, but he’ll take his lumps and get you through nearly two-thirds of the game.” Most recently, ESPN’s Buster Olney used it to describe the Phillies’ Jamie Moyer:

With Moyer essentially a five-to-six inning pitcher these days, the last thing that the Phillies need is to acquire another starter who would consistently leave 9 to 15 outs on the table for the bullpen. 

Olney and every other baseball writer continually neglects the fact that the average starting pitcher in the major leagues is “a five-to-six inning pitcher.” Look at the average length of a pitcher’s start since 2000:

  • 2009: 5.80 IP
  • 2008: 5.80 IP
  • 2007: 5.79 IP
  • 2006: 5.82 IP
  • 2005: 5.99 IP
  • 2004: 5.85 IP
  • 2003: 5.86 IP
  • 2002: 5.85 IP
  • 2001: 5.91 IP
  • 2000: 5.91 IP

As you can see, a phrase that is meant to criticize politely actually describes an average performance. Furthermore, there are many, many teams in Major League Baseball that would love to have someone who is “essentially a five-to-six inning pitcher.” There’s good value in average starting pitching, believe it or not. Since average starting pitching is somewhere between five and six innings per start, I propose that we banish the critical usage of “five-to-six inning pitcher.” Such criticism would be valid in, say, 1954; pitchers threw 463 complete games that year. But in the modern game, this qualifier adds nothing.


What Exactly Has To Happen For People To Accept Joba Chamberlain As A Starter?

May 15, 2009

mlb_g_joba1_580

This is, I believe, the first time I’ve talked about Joba Chamberlain with respect to his role on the Yankees’ pitching staff. As you undoubtedly know, much has been said about Chamberlain’s optimal usage on a baseball team. Many people – and sometimes it sure seems like most people – believe that Chamberlain should be a reliever. This is because he made his major league debut in this role and performed exceptionally well. Others believe that he should be a starter. After all, he was a starter both in college and in the minor leagues before changing roles to fit an immediate need in the Yankees’ bullpen. I’m firmly in the latter camp, but I’ve refrained from publicly taking a side on this issue because, quite honestly, I didn’t even want to dignify the opposing argument with a response. Unfortunately, it’s gotten to the point where I must make a few things very clear. 

Joba Chamberlain was a starter in college, and was drafted to fill the same role in the major leagues. In 2005, he started 18 games and threw 118 innings for the Nebraska Cornhuskers. He struck out 130 batters, walked 33, and allowed only seven home runs. The result was an ERA of 2.81. In 2006, he started 14 games and threw 89 innings. He struck out 102 batters, walked 34, and allowed eight homers. His ERA was 3.93. After being drafted by the Yankees, Chamberlain started 15 games and threw 88 innings in the minor leagues. He struck out 135 batters, walked 27, and allowed four homers. His ERA was 2.45. He’s thrown 100 innings as a starter in the major leagues. He’s struck out 108 batters, walked 42, and allowed eight homers. His major league ERA in this role is 3.15. These numbers indicate two things: Chamberlain has been conditioned to be a starting pitcher, and he’s been very good at actually doing it. If one of those statements were false, then perhaps there would be an argument for him becoming a full-time reliever. But neither is false. 

At first, the Chamberlain-to-the-bullpen argument centered around his electric performance as a reliever in 2007. Reporters, analysts, and fans alike recognized Chamberlain’s single-inning dominance and saw no way he could sustain it over the course of a five, six, or seven inning start. This was, of course, true. Two hundred innings of sub-2.00 ERA pitching just doesn’t happen. But rather than see what Chamberlain could do as a starter, seemingly everyone was content to just leave him in the bullpen and have him pitch 80 innings a season instead of 200. At the time, I could sort of, kind of, maybe accept him being a reliever, but only if he failed as a starter. It seemed like a fair assessment to me.

Well, Chamberlain has not failed as a starter. Not by any stretch of the imagination. And yet there is still an insatiable clamor to put him in the bullpen. When asked about Chamberlain in today’s chat, ESPN’s Jayson Stark said the following about why he should be a reliever:

Two reasons: For one thing, I think his ERA alone is misleading because he really hasn’t gotten deep enough in games to make a significant enough impact for me. He’s made it beyond six innings once this year. So he’s causing the bullpen to get a ton of outs every time he pitches. The other reason is, I see him as the obvious heir to Mariano. He has the stuff. He has the temperament. He has the love for that big moment. Those are invaluable qualities in the town he pitches in. 

I can’t wrap my head around this. Initially, Chamberlain becoming a starter was a bad idea because there was no way he could be good enough to justify his removal from the bullpen. Now, after 100 innings of 3.15 ERA ball, his ERA is “misleading”? I think his ERA is more “good” than “misleading.” Also, there’s a reason Chamberlain hasn’t gotten deep into games. It’s because he spent time pitching out of the bullpen, thereby sidetracking his development as a starter. It’s unfair for Stark to insist Chamberlain be a reliever and then qualify his success as a starter by saying “he really hasn’t gotten deep enough in games.” I also object to the notion that Chamberlain hasn’t given the Yankees enough innings in his starts. On average, starting pitchers have thrown 5.82 innings per start this season. Chamberlain has thrown 5.72 innings per start. For a 23-year-old pitcher that’s still refining his skills, that’s absolutely acceptable. The “not going deep enough into games” argument is garbage. It’s a cop out that reveals stubbornness more than useful insight. 

I don’t know if Joba Chamberlain will become a good starter. He’s thrown 100 innings in that role, which is nowhere near enough to draw any firm conclusions. It is, however, enough information to decide whether or not to abandon the idea. An ERA of 3.15 and 108 strikeouts in 100 innings is enough to convince any rational and impartial person that Chamberlain should continue as a starter until he proves he can’t do it.