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October 1, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Achieving WARP Speed

by Christina Kahrl

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Colin Wyers and the data team have been talking at length this week about forecasting player performance, while noting big hits and big misses and the underlying reasons why—remarkable skill sets, for example, or injuries. Sometimes there's also just the simple matter of opportunity and living up to or surpassing best-case projections. But whatever the root reason why, there are going to be a few surprising outcomes and surprising heroes on any ballclub.

Using WARP as the basis for comparison, let's take a quick romp through the 30 teams to identify the individual players who far exceeded their PECOTA-generated expectations and deserve a shout out for their remarkable campaigns.

Diamondbacks: RHP Ian Kennedy, +2.9 WARP. The strike-thrower was already getting the benefit of a move to the easier league, but even so, he ended up more than justifying the faith the Snakes had in getting him when his value had a bit of a blemish after struggling to stick in the Bronx.

Braves: SS Alex Gonzalez, +6.2 WARP. The last Alex Gonzalez standing wound up with the biggest differential between projection and production of any player in baseball, so while he's a two-team player traded mid-season and what he did for the Jays gets him there, you can come up with any of a number of reasons why—slugging .629 in April looms large—at the end of the day, he's a serviceable shortstop who was at long last healthy. Honorable mention to Tim Hudson for his +5.9 WARP, an instance of his fighting off Father Time.

Cubs: RHP Carlos Silva, +1.9 WARP. The beefy righty was healthy and useful, while Milton Bradley underperformed his projected value (4.1 WARP) by 4.0. Jim Hendry may not have a lot to brag about where 2010 is concerned, but he does have this.

Reds: 1B Joey Votto, +3.0 WARP. This seems more your classic case of an excellent young prospect having a reasonable spike in the midst of his peak while also not missing a month's worth of action, as he had in 2009.

Rockies: OF Carlos Gonzalez, +2.9 WARP. Consider this a case of finally landing in an everyday role while getting to play in a park that both rewards players who can hit with power while simultaneously making it easier for him to do so by depressing strikeout rates.

Marlins: RHP Clay Hensley, +2.1 WARP. The Fish go trawling for retread projects to populate their  bullpen with, which basically makes their spring training an open audition for winding up on a list of this type. Hensley is this year's hero just as Brian Sanches or Dan Meyer was last year's, and while the penury of the Lorias will be decried, you can't argue with the success of some—not all—of the adaptive strategies it funds.

Astros: RHP Brett Myers, +3.5 WARP. It's easy to pick on Ed Wade, but if acquiring former Phillies is a tendency he should add a finer layer of discrimination to, you can understand how Myers' outstanding bounceback campaign could keep the habit ingrained. Here again, injuries probably helped take any projections for him down a peg. And let's give an honorable mention to third baseman Chris Johnson (+3.0), the happy solution to Pedro Feliz, one of the other instances of Wade's Phillies-philia.

Dodgers: INF Jamey Carroll, +3.3 WARP. This is probably as bittersweet as the season itself as symptoms go, but Carroll did at least contribute while being asked to play a lot more than expected because of injuries.

Brewers: RHP John Axford, +3.4 WARP. Aside from being a good example for how projecting relievers is hard enough, and projecting rookie relievers harder still, just give credit where it's due. Over the life of his career, he may not be the best of the Brewers' in-season bullpen reinforcements, but he's a deserving poster boy for the switch here and now.

Mets: RHP R.A. Dickey, +4.5 WARP. Always in the news, for his elbow and later his flirtation with the knuckler, Dickey finally got an opportunity in almost exactly the situation you'd conjure up in the abstract for him to make it, on a club with its rotation in shambles, and not in a park at altitude. Flutterball fans can take hope in the pitch's perpetuation, and the Mets wound up with a nice antidote to a few too many expensive mistakes.

Phillies: Nobody? It's a veteran team without all that many surprises as far as PECOTA was concerned. Cole Hamels has outperformed his projection by 1.4 WARP, but as Matt Swartz would be quick to remind us, he had some bad luck in 2009 without seeing the skills that produced a great 2008. Placido Polanco is at +1.0 WARP over his projection without really outperforming it, thanks mostly to playing a very good third base.

Pirates: RHP Evan Meek, +2.3 WARP. Projecting relief success is the sort of thing that defies ready confidence, but Meek's arm had long inspired it, and for a Bucs squad without much to brag about, they could at least point to the success of somebody somewhere and call it a happy surprise.

Cardinals: RHP Adam Wainwright, +4.5 WARP. Wainwright being good wasn't a surprise, but asking for him to improve on his 2009 level of effectiveness would have been tough to anticipate. Add in how he helps himself with some increments of offensive and fielding value, and you've got a star pitcher who has managed to shine even brighter yet. If you consider him too obvious, there's always rookie Jaime Garcia, +2.4 WARP, but as a youngster arriving in The Show with an injury-marred career in the minors, you couldn't really call him a real surprise either.

Padres: RHP Mat Latos, +2.7 WARP. The considerable care the Padres invested in shepherding his arm through the minors, limiting his overall workload, can be seen as a contributing factor to PECOTA's initial more modest expectation. That looks like a great example of why it's important for any of us, writers and readers alike, to rely on both statistical and scouting info, because Latos' success didn't involve his sneaking up on anybody. For a more legit surprise, you can go with Yorvit Torrealba (+2.1 WARP), but that's a combo of a little bit of BABIP breaks and quality contributions behind the plate.

Giants: OF Andres Torres, +3.7 WARP. The minor league journeyman bounced through both Chicago teams' systems and the Tigers twice, and the Twins and Rangers besides, but until the Giants gave him a look last year, his only serious association with the majors was the dubious distinction of getting to be part of the 119-loss Tigers of 2003 for about a third of the season. Finally given an opportunity, the former speedster built on a late-career power spike that really only started in 2007, in an age-29 season spent split between Double- and Triple-A, so you can see that he's already had an unusual career path. Where it wends to next should make for a particularly interesting 2011 projection. Honorable mention should got to Aubrey Huff at +3.5 WARP while we're here.

Nationals: RHP Livan Hernandez, +3.5 WARP. It seemed as if the career of the human pitching machine had almost run its course by the end of 2008, but just as he managed a great first few months with Mets in 2009 to put the lie to that, he topped it with a full-season inning-munching feast with the Nats. Whether defying expectations he'd break down under the workloads of a decade ago, or predictions that he's done, it's reliably fun to see the man still Livan large.

Orioles: RHP Jeremy Guthrie, +2.7 WARP. This is more of a case of his getting back to where he was in 2008. Perhaps he was a bit lost in the frenzy to tout one youngster or another, but Guthrie provided ample reminder for why they have no cause for regret for having retreaded him back in their more desperate times. To anticipate an obvious question, Ty Wigginton is just at +0.3 WARP.

Red Sox: The biggest delta belongs to third baseman Adrian Beltre at +5.6 WARP, but given a long, often ugly association with the Mariners and spotty health, the reasons why to bet on Beltre's better possibilities were reasonable enough. Similarly, RHP Clay Buchholz, +3.3 WARP, was a happy combination of well-regarded talent and some good fortune in terms of balls-in-play outcomes helped produce an ERA title challenger, if an ERA almost two runs lower than his SIERA. On a staff where almost all of the veterans disappointed, Buchholz made for a nice contrast.

White Sox: SS Alexei Ramirez, +4.5 WARP. This might seem a bit of a surprise given Paul Konerko's career year (and Paulie is at +2.8), but the Cuban import has settled in to deliver an excellent second season at shortstop after getting moved across the bag in 2009, which shows up in WARP as well as in a variety of defensive metrics. Add in his getting some of his power back, and you've got a much better player.

Indians: RHP Fausto Carmona, +2.9 WARP. Whether, where, and when Carmona would get his mojo back had been cause for distraction in Cleveland for a couple of seasons, but in the end, he did at last get there. We can note Grady Sizemore here, not for any good reason, but because he's the player who has to be awarded the crown for biggest disappointment WARP-wise, underwhelming expectations by 5.9 WARP.

Tigers: OF Brennan Boesch, +4.1 WARP. While Boesch's undisciplined hitting approach eventually caught up with him (he's hit just .167/.244/.229 since the All-Star break), his slugging close to .600 in the first half is a matter of record, even if it might prove difficult to expect ever again.

Royals: SS Yuniesky Betancourt, +3.2 WARP. This isn't really cause for celebration, since Betancourt's overall WARP tally is just 2.4, but to his credit he's basically managed to return to previously set standards for near-adequacy after a horrific 2009 season.

Angels: RHP Jered Weaver, +2.8 WARP. Where did Weaver's season come from? In his age-27 season he's boasting the third-highest strikeout rate in the majors among pitchers with 100 or more innings pitched with a 6.4 percent boost from 2009, more than adequately replacing departed ace John Lackey.

Twins: LHP Brian Duensing, +3.3 WARP. The Twins' utility pitcher has been effective both in long relief and in the rotation, to the point that Ron Gardenhire has named him to the team's post-season rotation.

Yankees: OF Brett Gardner, +2.7 WARP. The speedster might seem like the pre-fabricated underrated Yankee using almost any criterion you care for—fame, paycheck, whatever—but Gardner more than did his part by doing more than just acquire full-time at-bats, boosting his walk rate, but also chipping in plenty of defensive value in left and center fields.

Athletics: RHP Trevor Cahill, +4.2 WARP. Although his ERA recently moved back up over 3.00, the 22-year-old sophomore managed to significantly improve his ground ball rate while demonstrating that young pitching doesn't always break your heart after all. Per SIERA's suggestion that he's been a bit fortunate (4.19 against his actual 3.08 ERA), his low strikeout rate probably won't help his next projection—but if he beats the system again, all the more credit to him. Honorable mention to Cliff Pennington (+3.3) for sticking in the face of some pessimism over his ability to stay at short.

Mariners: SS Josh Wilson, +2.4 WARP. Sort of like former Betancourt, a former Mariners' shortstop, this has nothing to do with real success than with his having value as a fielder and playing regularly at a position where someone really has to.

Rays: C John Jaso, +2.5 WARP. This was not a case where opportunity alone made the difference—Jaso has done better than expected batting atop the order while also playing a better brand of catcher than expected. Honorable mention to RHP Rafael Soriano (+2.9 WARP), because after last winter's chicanery over who he'd pitch for and for how much, the Rays can take considerable satisfaction from giving him his first clean shot at having a closing role to himself.

Rangers: The easy answer is the ever-incredible Josh Hamilton, because his +5.6 WARP tally was just the latest peak in a career characterized by pinnacles and pits. But how about an almost equally surprising outcome in the rotation in LHP C.J. Wilson, +3.5 WARP? When the Rangers floated the notion of converting their sometime closer, there was a lot of suspicion over how well it would work out, but given the opportunity to flaunt a full repertoire, he not only made the jump, he challenges us to give some additional thought over how to deal with projecting major role changes.

Blue Jays: OF/3B Jose Bautista, +4.1 WARP. You can't blame anything or hold his amazing season against any projection system—nobody saw it coming, and there wasn't any reason to. Can a guy be a comeback player of the year when he's never been this good before? Whether or not Bautista's 2010 ends up on the short list of best one-year wonders of all time is a topic for another time, but it's safe to say that he's escaped the utility role he'd drifted into before this season.

Christina Kahrl is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Christina's other articles. You can contact Christina by clicking here

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