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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

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