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March 30, 2010

Expanded Horizons

AL Central Battle Royale

by Tommy Bennett

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One of my favorite movies for re-watchability is the Japanese dystopian thriller Battle Royale. The film’s premise (it is based on the novel by Koushun Takami) is illustrated reasonably well by the (rather graphic, watcher beware) trailer. In the future, classes of Japanese ninth-graders are sent to an island to fight to the death. There’s some vague back story about social decay, but the setup is as rudimentary as is necessary to arrive at the intended result of pubescent teenagers killing each other with hand grenades. It’s a symphony of violence.

Part of the morbid fun of this movie is that each of the students is (perhaps not exactly randomly) given a tool, weapon, or implement of some kind to aid him or her in the fight to the death (only one student is allowed to survive under the rules). The weapons given out include a submachine gun, a GPS device, and a pot lid. Some of the deaths are tragic, some of them are embarrassing, and some of them are funny. Some are all three. Since we’re talking about ninth-graders, the film is also full of teenage love melodrama (and, somewhat inexplicably, slow-motion basketball scenes).

I was thinking about this movie (I’m a law student, so you’ll have to forgive me if this is where my mind wanders) the other day, and all of a sudden I was reminded of the American League Central. The AL Central is a very competitive division: our most recent depth charts show a five-win spread between the top (Twins, 81 wins) and bottom (Royals, 76 wins). Of course, it’s very unlikely that the AL wild-card team will emerge from the Central this year, so it is essentially a Battle Royale-style death match.

But it gets better. There are three teams that have legitimate claims to having the best rotation in the division: the Twins, the Tigers, and the White Sox (it is interesting that the Royals, who probably have the best pitcher in the division, don’t even enter the discussion). Each team has been given a special weapon this offseason to use in the fight. The race is also close enough that if any one team’s rotation blows out, the watcher will sit white-knuckled waiting for the imminent death that guarantees. Let’s look at each team and its special weapon to compare the relative strengths of their rotations.

Minnesota Twins
Rotation (PECOTA VORP):
Scott Baker (30.9), Nick Blackburn (14.2), Carl Pavano (14.3), Kevin Slowey (24.6), Francisco Liriano (17.8)
Special Weapon:
Pavano and Liriano bounce-backs
Romantic Interest:
Puppy love with improved infield defense
Most Likely Death:
Leads blown in the late innings

The Twins have largely kept their 2009 rotation intact, but their secret weapon is useful even if it doesn’t seem dangerous. Last year, Liriano had a superficially awful 5.80 ERA, but his heart (and peripherals) was in the right place. Everyone’s favorite post-dictor/estimator, SIERA, had Lirano at 4.25 last season. PECOTA comes close to the same result by a different method, pegging Liriano for a 4.56 ERA in limited innings this year. Most who watched Liriano pitch this past winter would guess he could beat that number easily. He should benefit from the improved defense as well (most of his starts came before the Twins upgraded from Brendan Harris to Orlando Cabrera in the infield).

Similarly, Pavano’s ERA (5.10) last season was worse than his SIERA (3.92). He was also better after joining the Twins (59/16 K/BB in 73 ⅔ innings). His .338 BABIP in the first half is set to fall, particularly with Denard Span patrolling center field, and shortstop J.J. Hardy and second baseman Orlando Hudson in the middle infield. With Baker emerging as the workhorse, the Twins have a balanced staff that should allow them some flexibility in the event of injuries. The one question mark that remains for the Twins is how the added weight of losing closer Joe Nathan will fall on the starting rotation. If potential ninth-inning replacements Matt Guerrier and Jon Rauch can shoulder most of the burden, the staff should coast to an improved year.

Detroit Tigers
Rotation (PECOTA VORP): Justin Verlander (44.5), Rick Porcello (14.3), Max Scherzer (40.3), Jeremy Bonderman (7.9), Nate Robertson (7.9)
Special Weapon: Max Scherzer
Romantic Interest: Flirtation with new closer Jose Valverde
Most Likely Death: Decapitation by fifth starter

The Tigers added a top-flight starter, Scherzer, in the trade that sent Curtis Granderson to the Yankees. This is like the creepy guy no one knows on the island getting a chainsaw. Scherzer’s stuff is the stuff of nightmares. If he can control his walks, he will match his optimistic PECOTA ERA of 3.61. If that looks optimistic, keep in mind Scherzer’s SIERA last season was an even better 3.55, despite playing most of his games in hitter-friendly Arizona. The transition to the junior circuit might take some adjustment, but a handful of starts against the weaker Royals and White Sox lineups should help dampen that effect.

Verlander bounced back from a disappointing 2008 to pitch 240 innings (!) of 2.79 SIERA (!) ball, a mark that was best in the AL last year. He pitched more innings with better peripherals than Zack Greinke. He doesn’t yet have the hardware to show for it, but he might be the best pitcher in the division. Porcello emerged last season to log 170 2/3 innings with a 4.38 SIERA as a 20-year-old. He was buoyed by a 54-percent ground ball rate driven by a heavy sinker that only improved as the year went on.

Of course, the tragic flaw in the Tigers’ rotation is the back end. Like the horror movie character who seems congenitally unable to look behind her, the Tigers are hoping for useful contributions from some combination of Robertson, Bonderman, and Dontrelle Willis (who collectively will cost the team $34.5 million this season), a group that might seem more at home in a zombie movie than Battle Royale. Expect plenty of gore as the teacher announces the deaths of each of these pitchers in turn. It might not be long before Detroit taps Armando Galarraga once again.

Chicago White Sox
Rotation (PECOTA VORP): Jake Peavy (32.5), Mark Buehrle (21.9), John Danks (33.3), Gavin Floyd (28.7), Freddy Garcia (12.3)
Special Weapon: Jake Peavy
Romantic Interest: Rekindled relationship with old flame Freddy Garcia
Most Likely Death: Beaten to death with dismembered shoulder

Adding Peavy gives the White Sox a true ace—provided he can stay healthy. BP's Will Carroll tagged Peavy’s return from his ankle injury of last season as relatively low-risk, but only one White Sox pitcher rated a "Green" in his Team Health Reports methodology. Danks has pitched a lot of innings, and hoping for perfect health from Garcia is the definition of insanity.

On the other hand, PECOTA tends to undervalue Buehrle—it has done so in 2005, 2007, 2008, and 2009. Given his ability to outperform his projections, I think it’s safe to expect Buehrle to best his rather mediocre 4.41 ERA weighted mean. It doesn’t hurt that Buehrle is also a workhorse; he’s pitched at least 200 innings for—get this—nine straight seasons now. In other words, Buehrle is like the character in the movie who is apparently dead but who nevertheless keeps reappearing at unexpected times.

If the Tigers have the best top three starters, and the Twins have the most balanced five-man rotation, the White Sox undoubtedly have the best top four. In the early going, when teams tend to rely most on their first four starters, I’d expect the White Sox to jump out to an early lead in the division. Once the dog days hit, the question will be whether they can put any weight on their fifth leg.

Question of the Day

 Which rotation would you most like to have? Which characters from Battle Royale do these players/teams remind you of?   

Related Content:  The Who,  Rotation,  Year Of The Injury

30 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Kampfer

The WhiteSox rotation is just impressive. From Peavy to Floyd, all quality 1st ~ 2nd starter. And remember Danks has ACE potential(was an ACE in 08 anyways) and Floyd was a frontline starter last year. And Buehrle has a knack at beating fielding independent pitching theory.

Mar 30, 2010 02:13 AM
rating: 0
 
slideric

Pitching is certainly a component. That's what make races.
White Sox,one Tigers, two.......Twins have enough hitting and fielding to win by 5 games.

Mar 30, 2010 04:04 AM
rating: -1
 
sportspopery

So, then, I take it the Royals go something like this:

Special Weapon: Zack Grienke
Romantic Interest: Kyle Farnsworth (!)
Most Likely Death: Internecine slaughter of starters 2 through 5 (like the girls in the castle tower)

Mar 30, 2010 06:59 AM
rating: 4
 
ODo26132002

As a Twins fan what scares me the most about the team and the pitchers is outfield defense. Most peg Span as average in CF while well above in a corner. I don't think anyone who doesn't put way too much stock in arm strength would classify Young or Cuddyer as average at their positions.

Mar 30, 2010 07:01 AM
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Luke in MN

Plenty of Twins bias from me, but I think if the Twins' pitching can manange to be average, they win the division handily. The White Sox have the opposite angle--if their offense can manange mediocrity, they probably could win the division--but I think it's a longer shot.

Mar 30, 2010 07:19 AM
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nschaef

I think this is pretty much right.

I would also point out that Freddy Garcia is pretty much just a placeholder. Would be interested to see a BP/Battle Royale take on these staffs that includes depth of the starting rotations. If each team lost a pitcher or two, who would be best suited to move forward?

Mar 30, 2010 08:31 AM
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NYYanks826

Props on the movie reference. The best scene had to be at the end, when the teacher gets shot, dies in his chair, comes back to life to answer his cell phone, then hangs up and dies again. Great stuff.

Detroit's rotation seems to have the most firepower. If their top three reach or exceed expectations, you can afford some replacement-level performances by the back of the rotation. Even though Minnesota's rotation could be boosted by a Liriano comeback, you just don't know what kind of effect the new ballpark is going to have.

Mar 30, 2010 07:55 AM
rating: 2
 
T. Kiefer

I concur that the mystery factor here is Target Field, and especially its effect on the Twins' defense and baserunning opportunities. If it is anything like Citi Field, it's the White Sox or Tigers in first. If it's like Yankee Stadium 2.0, the Twins definitely have a clear shot at the top --assuming everyone stays healthy.

By the way, I am surprised the Twins are still in first according to PECOTA after the loss of Joe Nathan. The loss of a 2.2 WARP player is enough to tip the scales in favor of the other teams.

Mar 30, 2010 09:37 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

My favorite scene is the lighthouse scene where teenage jealousy and a misunderstanding leads to mass murder.

Jul 06, 2010 09:36 AM
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greensox

And if the Indians hadn't torn down their team, they'd be the favorites: Lee and Sabathia, anyone?

Mar 30, 2010 08:02 AM
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SC

Taken to extremes, we'd be talking about the Nationals on the way to their eight consecutive AL East crown.

Apr 02, 2010 16:03 PM
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greensox

To answer the question, it's a really interesting race. I could see Sox, Twins or Tigers winning it. I lean to Twins then Sox then Tigers, but it's really tight.

Mar 30, 2010 08:04 AM
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ClubberLang

If you were betting your life on it, wouldn't the only choice you make be the White Sox? There's way more "if" in the other rotations -- if Liriano is back to what he was, how Target Field plays and whether their putrid corner defense will hurt the staff, if Bondo and Robertson are even better than replacement, if Porcello and Scherzer take the step forward. The only "if" for the Sox is health (mainly Peavy), but that's realistically always an "if" for every rotation in baseball. If healthy, every one of their front four is a good bet for 30+ VORP, three of them a reasonable bet for 40 or more, especially with the likely defensive improvements in the outfield.

It's still hard for me to believe that Scherzer will nearly double his VORP despite moving to the AL, regardless of what SIERA says.

Mar 30, 2010 10:58 AM
rating: 0
 
southsidepride

I'm a little biased but I can't pass up on my team the Chicago White Sox. The Twins have a very under appreciated staff with Baker and Blackburn; but they are relying on the fact that they need bounce back years from Carl Pavano and Francisco Liriano (who is my 2010 sleeper pick). The Tigers have a great rotation, but both Porcello and Scherzer are both on the "Pitchers at Risk" on the Verducci Effect for this season. With workhorses in Peavy and Buehrle, talented young guys in Danks and Floyd (who has gone 7+ innings of no-hit ball 2-3 times in his career and in that ballpark), and the possibility of needing only 6 innings from "Sweaty Freddy" of Daniel Hudson, I believe the White Sox have the most proven rotation, with the Tigers and Twins a close 2nd and 3rd.

Mar 30, 2010 11:23 AM
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flyingdutchman

Why isn't Dan Husdon the 5th starter? Why waste your time with Garcia?

Mar 30, 2010 11:27 AM
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Tdiggity5

What exactly about Garcia's performance with the White Sox late last year thinks they wouldn't give him a chance? Garcia would likely fail from health before performance and with their medical staff why not?

Mar 30, 2010 12:28 PM
rating: 0
 
Al Skorupa

He's throwing mid 80's right now, for one thing.

Mar 30, 2010 12:52 PM
rating: 0
 
Tdiggity5

Garcia is primarily a junk ball pitcher now. He appears healthy and was effective in his short stint last year. Batters still have a hard time squaring him up. I actually think he will have a good number of starts this year.

Mar 30, 2010 14:26 PM
rating: 0
 
MattZ

To delay the Arb clock I'd guess. Otherwise, I have no idea.

Mar 30, 2010 19:23 PM
rating: 0
 
HonusCobb

I take the White Sox rotation easy if Peavy manages to stay healthy. But is their offense really that bad? They've got 6 guys that could potentially hit at least 20 home runs. Two who could potentially hit 30 (Konerko is a long shot but Quentin isn't. What if Rios has a really good bounce back season?

I don't know...I just think a lot of things could go right for this White Sox lineup as two guys in it had really poor years last year due to injury or just playing poorly (Quentin and Rios) and they should bounce back to some degree or another. Not to mention Beckham has a whole lot of upside. I don't think it would shock anyone if he did hit slightly better than his PECOTA projection.

Am I just being an optimistic White Sox fan?

Mar 30, 2010 11:31 AM
rating: 0
 
ClubberLang

I'm a White Sox fan and you are being optimistic. They need Quentin to stay healthy for most of the season (he's been injured every year of his MLB career I believe), they need Rios to revert to at least 2008 form if not better, they need Ramirez's pop to come back while retaining his patience gains last year, Konerko is getting old, AJP needs to bat .300 to have even a passable OBP, and Pierre is a crapshoot. Oh, and there's still talk that they're going to play Kotsay way too much at DH and bat him third. THIRD! As little question as I have about the rotation, there are more than enough about the lineup.

Mar 30, 2010 15:26 PM
rating: 1
 
Tdiggity5

Considering the innings projected for the White Sox staff I doubt this will be a close competition staff-wise. They will likely exceed it. I expect the division to come down to White Sox pitching vs the Minnesota lineup.

Mar 30, 2010 12:39 PM
rating: 0
 
singledigit

The best "upside", the Tigers. Verlander IS a #1, and both Porcello and Scherzer have true #1 stuff. The type of surgery that Bonderman had, has a nice success rate of a player coming back fully. Bonderman had his surgery 18 months ago, and history suggests he'll be back. Not a bad #4.

The #5? Who cares. It won't matter enough, and all three of these teams will have multiple #5 starters.

The Twins and White Sox better hope that the top 3 in the Tigers rotation don't pitch to their full potential. I know, you can say that about anyone, but the "full potential" of Verlander, Porcello and Scherzer is a full beat nastier than anyone else in the Central.

Mar 30, 2010 16:07 PM
rating: 1
 
fgreenagel2

Because it is easier to find a good 4 (or 5) than a good 2 or 3, I'll take the Tigers. I want the best talents, and the Tigers top 3 are better than any other team's top 3 (in the AL Central).

As a GM, I can improve the Tigers rotation easier than I can the others.

Mar 30, 2010 21:03 PM
rating: 0
 
jalee121

Although a fair point, you also are assuming that pitching is readily available in the open market. Most times it's not, and when it is, the price is very steep. In the White Sox case, going out to find a bat is much, much easier, IMO.

Mar 30, 2010 21:41 PM
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Tdiggity5

In what world exactly is the Top 3 Tigers better than the White Sox? Sure you can upgrade the Tigers rotation easier. They would be replacing a Floyd or Danks.

Mar 31, 2010 18:22 PM
rating: 0
 
Nathan

Greinke-Meche-Bannister-Hochevar-Davies actually adds up to 123.0 Pecota VORP (including 55.0 from Greinke), rather easily eclipsing the Twins (101.8), and right there with the Tigers (114.9) and White Sox (128.7). While the Royals' are about as offensive as Judith Martin at a prayer vigil, their pitching staff isn't far behind the rest of the division.

Mar 30, 2010 22:32 PM
rating: 0
 
CalledStrike3

Royals reality: Pull Greinke's 55 VORP out and your are left with a darn good quadruple A rotation anchored by a Red light injury risk in Meche. However, KC easily has the division's best closer: The Mexecutioner

Mar 31, 2010 08:53 AM
rating: 0
 
Nathan

Well, fine. But why would you pull Greinke out?

Mar 31, 2010 12:54 PM
rating: 0
 
DavidHNix

The White Sox rotation had BETTER be good, and they'd better go deep into games -- that two-runs-a-game offense won't leave any margin for error.

Mar 31, 2010 15:47 PM
rating: 1
 
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