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May 30, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL East

The Three Disappointments

by Michael Jong

Today we start the newest edition of Divide and Conquer, conquering the territory known as the National League East. As some of you may know, I happen to be a fairly vocal and enthusiastic fan of a certain fan-less NL East franchise, so I generally have my pulse on a lot of what else occurs around the division. Today's topic of discussion: disappointment, those who define it, those who express it, and those who overcome it.

Leaving the biggest Marlins disappointment aside (hint: his initials are “HR”), the Fish are dealing with two disappointing cases right now, though they are disappointments of different kinds. The Fish are apparently not expecting Josh Johnson to return when eligible on June 1 as initially planned. In fact, the team is expecting him to miss two more starts before returning on the following home stand around June 6. Corey Dawkins and Ben Lindbergh already covered his injury this past Monday on Collateral Damage, but this quote is worth revisiting:

 With each bout of recurrent inflammation, the odds of an underlying injury—such as a rotator cuff or labral tear—increase. Hopefully this latest bout of inflammation is nothing, but we’re not quite sure we like Johnson’s chances.

Johnson was healthy for most of the 2009 season, but showed signs of fatigue and corresponding performance decline at the end of that season. In 2010, Johnson missed the last month of the season with a back strain and shoulder problems. Entering this season, Johnson was considered a bit of an injury risk, projected by CHIPPER to have a decent chance to miss some time to injury. If he misses just two starts, the Marlins do not lose a whole lot; with Johnson's current PECOTA projection of 2.5 WARP for 17 starts through the rest of the year, losing Johnson and filling in with a replacement-level player may cost the Marlins just 0.3 wins. However, given the risky nature of shoulder injuries for pitchers, the team has to be concerned that they will miss Johnson for a longer stretch of time, and any more time missed could start costing the Marlins victories that they in order to compete as fringe playoff contenders.

Meanwhile, the other pitcher of interest was Javier Vazquez, who was coming off a surprisingly strong start against the Tampa Bay Rays on the previous Saturday. The headline of interest in that game was the presence of a 90+ mph fastball, one that averaged 90.6 mphby the end of the start. He took to the mound again on Friday evening against the Los Angeles Dodgers and the fastball dropped back down to 89.1 mphthat evening. Still, he performed decently, striking out three and walking just one, with the two runs coming on two solo homers. And comparing those last two starts to the first eight shows very distinctly different fastballs.

Fastball

Velocity

Swing%

Whiff%

Foul%

In Play%

First eight starts

88.1

43.8

2.2

20.2

21.3

Last two starts

89.9

39.7

4.1

17.8

17.8

Hitters are swinging less, whiffing more, and putting fewer balls in play, and the fastball has been almost two mph faster than before. The additional fastball also seems to have benefited his other pitches, as Vazquez has induced 17 swinging strikes in 186 pitches, a bit above the league average rate. If he can maintain that performance, the Marlins may just get their return on investment.

-----

The big news in New York Mets territory was the commentary about how Mets owner Fred Wilpon ripped his team a new one this past weekwith some incendiary comments. Included in those wonderful words are such assertions that Carlos Beltran was a regrettable signing, David Wright is a very good player but not a superstar, and Jose Reyes is not worth Carl Crawford money. I mean, how hurtful are those words?

But are they really all that awful? Of the three, the Beltran comment is probably the most questionable, but even that was certainly understandable. By Baseball Prospectus's MORP model revamped and discussed hereand hereby Matt Swartz, one can see that Beltran's 16.9 WARP from 2007 to 2010 were worth approximately $82.1 million according to the MORP model. The Mets were paying him just short of $71 million for those four years, so even though Beltran missed quite a bit of time between 2009 and 2010 with various injuries, he was worth so much earlier in his contract that the Mets reaped more than enough benefits already.

The other two comments, while harsh-sounding when written out, are not entirely untrue either. In 2009, something changed in David Wright's game (possibly his jump in strikeout rate or change in ballpark), and he has since spent the last two seasons at a  lower level of production than in years past.

Wright

AVG

OBP

SLG

TAv

WARP/600 PA

2004-2008

0.308

0.389

0.533

0.313

6.2

2009-2011

0.286

0.367

0.468

0.296

4.4

Wright's 600-PA average WARP has dropped almost two wins from his previous career norms. Yet, as Wilpon points out, Wright is still a “very good player,” and in fact an extremely good one; last season, his 5.8 WARP ranked 20th in the majors, alongside players like Troy Tulowitzki, Alexei Ramirez, Nelson Cruz, and Nick Swisher. Is that a laundry list of “superstar” players? No, but it is certainly a list of players that would be a strong part of a team's nucleus of talent.

The last one of these comments seems to be the most obvious. Crawford was a free agent after his age 28 season, and Reyes will be a free agent next year, conveniently also through his age 28 year. Here are the two players' performances between ages 25 and 28.

Player

AVG

OBP

SLG

TAv

WARP/600 PA

Reyes

0.294

0.347

0.451

0.288

4.3

Crawford

0.302

0.351

0.457

0.296

4.9

The two players appear at first blush very similar, but the slight edge goes to Crawford likely due to a combination of his edge on offense and his top notch defense, albeit at a less valuable position. The only difference is the amount of time the two players accumulated during these seasons; Crawford missed just 80 days with injury between 2007 and 2010, while Reyes was out 188 days, including almost all of 2009. Combine that and the fact that Reyes already seemed like a slightly worse player when taking his past performance along with his current PECOTA projection (1.8 WARP in 457 PA versus 2.7 WARP in 408 PA for Crawford), and it should not surprise anyone that Reyes is unlikely to receive the top-notch dollar that Crawford got this past offseason. Though that did not stop Reyes from not answering his phone:

Beltran said he accepted a phone call Monday from chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon, the son of Fred Wilpon, and was satisfied with the conversation. Reyes said he did not answer his phone but thought there probably was a call.

"Probably," Reyes said, "but I don't answer. ... I don't know. A lot of people called me."

-----

The Philadelphia Phillies had to be disappointed that they had to go 19 innings before defeating the Cincinnati Reds this past Wednesday. Indeed, any team would be disappointed about going to Danys Baez for five innings in a close game like that. But the Phillies avoided the ultimate disappointment of losing that game thanks in part to utility infielder Wilson Valdez, who threw an inning of relief and got the win, becoming the first position player to start a game in the field and receive a pitching victory in that same game since Babe Ruth in 1921. Here is the inning, in all of its glory, courtesy of Baseball-Reference.

Photobucket

Valdez threw 10 pitches, nine of which were high 80's fastballs, of which six were confused for changeups by the Pitch f/x classification algorithm. On average those fastballs hit 86.9 mph on the radar gun, which is not all that far off from what soft-tossing lefties like Jamie Moyer throw. Oddly enough, Valdez also mixed in this “curveball” that broke right into Scott Rolen's hand at about 75 miles per hour and barely nicked him. Reds hitters spent little time going after Valdez's offerings, putting the ball in play on the second or third pitch in all but one plate appearance. However, outside of the long fly ball from Jay Bruce, there was basically no threat and Valdez earned himself his 0.131 pitching WPA. In the end, Valdez's contact-heavy 19th inning was worth just as much as Ryan Madson's scoreless ninth, and at the end Valdez brought the third most valuable pitching performance of the evening by WPA, beating out Roy Halladay himself and Michael Stutes's three-strikeout eighth inning.

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

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