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June 1, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Westward Huh?

by Jay Jaffe

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If you weren't previously aware of the weirdness in the American and National Leagues' West divisions, the long weekend provided ample opportunity to take note of the ascendance of two teams that combined to lose 198 games last year. The Yankees pulled into Seattle with the AL's second-best record, and while they held their own against the one-two punch of Michael Pineda and Felix Hernandez, the Mariners clawed away at the Yankees' bullpen and took two out of three games. In doing so, they climbed above .500 for the first time since April 3, when they were 2-1, and finished Memorial Day just 1.5 games out of first place. Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks pulled into first place in the NL West on Sunday, thanks to a well-timed streak in which they won 13 out of 14 games while their division rivals fell apart. Obviously, neither team figured to be in this position even one-third of the way into the season. The question is whether they can continue to factor into their divisions’ free-for-alls.

Consider the Mariners. Coming off a humiliating 61-101 season in which they scored fewer runs than any team since 1971, the team was forecast to improve to 71-91, but even so, to remain the league's second-worst team. While they stumbled to an 8-15 start and fell seven games back in the AL West through April 24, they had gone an AL-best 19-11 from that point through Monday, better than the Red Sox (20-13) or Indians (18-12), and with the league's best Pythagorean winning percentage (.609) to boot.

The M's offense is still Dialing M for Miserable, hitting a collective .232/.305/.333 while scoring 3.58 runs per game, ranking last or second-to-last in the league in all four categories. Some of that is owed to their pitcher-friendly ballpark amid a down year for scoring, but their .256 True Average ranks 12th. The team has given 60 plate appearances to 12 different players this season. Only four—Justin Smoak, Jack Cust, Brendan Ryan, and Ichiro Suzuki—have gotten on base at a clip better than the league average (.321), the latter three while slugging less than .350. Smoak and Adam Kennedy are the only players slugging better than league average (.407), with the dearly departed Milton Bradley the only other one who has exceeded .350. Up and down the lineup, the problems are glaring; consider the team's hitting performance by batting slot:

Slot

Avg/OBP/SLG

1

.276/.329/.317

2

.193/.243/.257

3

.212/.306/.360

4

.226/.320/.318

5

.268/.351/.459

6

.246/.327/.400

7

.230/.280/.316

8

.172/.264/.224

9

.264/.325/.351

1-2

.235/.286/.287

3-6

.238/.326/.384

7-9

.225/.292/.301

That is a lineup going nowhere. Ichiro is coming off a month in which he hit just .216/.270/.245. The fact that he has hit leadoff in every game this year suggests that manager Eric Wedge just may want to consider giving the 37-year-old the occasional breather. Chone Figgins (.190/.232/.256) is rekindling memories of last year's horrid start while flatlining the second spot, and together the top two hitters aren't even giving the team a performance as good as the seventh through ninth hitters; someone may want to hold a mirror to Wedge's mouth just to see if he's still breathing, if not quite ready to acknowledge it’s time to make a change. Neither Bradley, nor Cust, nor Miguel Olivo has provided anything close to adequate production for a three or four hitter. Smoak (.253/.362/.452) has rebounded from a rough rookie season to assert that he belongs at the major-league level, and since the team jettisoned Bradley, Wedge has hit the young first baseman in the third spot. The move has yet to pan out—Smoak is hitting .194/.316/.328 in 79 PA since being moved—but the fact that it has coincided with an upturn in the team's fortunes has bought time for him to settle in.

Other in-season changes have helped the offense as well, with Adam Kennedy (.283/.316/.441) outperforming Jack Wilson (.248/.278/.277) at second base, and Franklin Gutierrez (.265/.306/.382 in just 36 PA) recently returning to the roster while the team tries to figure out his ongoing stomach woes, rescuing the Mariners from the sub-Mendoza stylings of Michael Saunders (.172/.228/.254) and Ryan Langerhans (.173/.317/.346). On the other hand, Bradley's replacement in left field, Carlos Peguero (.179/.220/.339), has hardly done much better while demonstrating massive holes in his swing.

Fortunately, the Mariners have done a good job with run prevention, yielding just 3.77 runs per game, second in the league—though again, some of that is courtesy of the ballpark. For starters, four out of the team's five starters have ERAs below 3.50. Hernandez (3.19 ERA) hasn't been quite as dominant as last year, though that's mainly due to defensive support; while his peripherals are virtually unchanged, his 29-point BABIP advantage relative to the league has vanished. The rookie Pineda has been something of a revelation, with a 2.42 ERA and an AL-high 9.4 strikeouts per nine, and the unheralded Doug Fister (3.24 ERA) has been outstanding as well. Furthermore, Erik Bedard (3.48 ERA) has been healthy and effective after missing all of 2010 and half of both 2008 and 2009; he's missing bats (7.8 per nine) but struggling to keep the ball in the park (1.2 homers per nine).

The bullpen has been a shakier proposition. With David Aardsma on the shelf due to the double whammy of a slow recovery from hip surgery and a strained ulnar collateral ligament, Brandon League has stepped in as closer. Neither his 5.09 ERA nor his 4.96 Fair Run Average are palatable, but his three blown saves and 10 of the 14 runs he has allowed this year came in a span of four consecutive appearances from May 8-13; he was charged with the loss each time, twice in extra innings. As for his mates, the Mariners have allowed 36 percent of inherited runners to score, the league's third-highest rate; the sub-2.00 ERAs of David Pauley, Aaron Laffey, and Jamey Wright, the team's three most heavily-used relievers, come out to FRAs in the high threes and low fours when inherited runners are considered. Furthermore, the unit's 1.75 K/BB ratio ranks ninth in the league, just below league average (1.82) and well behind the rotation's league-best 2.83 ratio.

Despite their recent 11-3 tear—which has included a 6-2 record against the Twins and Padres, two of the majors' worst teams—the Mariners have still been outscored by 10 runs, a differential that's tied for ninth in the league and the worst among their fellow short-stackers. In the most recent Hit List, they ranked 10th, at least 24 points worth of Hit List Factor below the Rangers, A's, and Angels. They had the good fortune to surge at a time when the Rangers' offense was withering without Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz; Texas went 5-2 and scored 6.7 runs per game after that duo returned from the disabled list. The Mariners' surge has come while the A's rotation has been decimated by injuries, losing both Tyson Ross and Brandon McCarthy in addition to having already lost Dallas Braden. It has come as the Angels have plummeted back to earth.

The Mariners have picked a fine time to show a pulse, but not enough to convince me that I wasn't right to dismiss their chances three weeks ago when remarking upon the division race, which has only tightened since then; through Monday, the four teams were separated by just 2.5 games, compared to 4.5 through May 12. The Mariners have a rougher road ahead of them in June, with series against the Rays, Phillies, Marlins, and Braves. While it's not as though their rivals don't have similar gauntlets to run, it's telling that once you factor in current performance, PECOTA, and future schedule, the odds report gives the team just a 2.5 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. There's no way they're going to go 14-11 again in a month where they score 3.24 runs per game. So color me unconvinced.

As for the Diamondbacks, they too were projected to improve by 10 games over last year's sorry record, in this case inching up to 75 wins. Even so, they were forecast to be the league's worst run prevention unit, and while they haven't been great, allowing 4.37 runs per game (12th in the league), they've been respectable. More to the point, they've shown considerable improvement since the beginning of the year. Torched for 5.35 runs per game in April while going 11-15, they banished both Armando Galarraga and Barry Enright to Triple-A after the duo combined for a 6.16 ERA, 2.3 homers per nine, and just three quality starts out of 14. The additions of Josh Collmenter, Micah Owings, and now Zach Duke helped the team cut down to allowing 3.46 runs per game in May.

Which isn't to say that run prevention is sustainable. Ian Kennedy has been the Snakes' top starter, with a 3.01 ERA and eight quality starts out of 11. After putting together a solid season for Arizona last year, the 26-year-old righty has cut his homer rate in half, pared his walk rate significantly, and reaped the benefits of a .257 BABIP. Daniel Hudson has delivered eight quality starts out of 11 as well, but while he has posted better peripherals than Kennedy, he has been scorched for a .340 BABIP, so his ERA is more than a run higher at 4.13. Joe Saunders (4.77 ERA, 1.4 HR/9) has been lousy, with an elevated walk rate exacerbating his already glaring faults. Collectively, those three are in the vicinity of their expected performance, while the fill-ins are overachieving considerably, and thus due for a fall. Duke, who posted the highest ERA of any NL pitcher with at least 150 innings last year (5.72), came off the disabled list to throw seven innings of shutout ball and hit a three-run homer in his D'backs debut; don’t bank on either happening again. Collmenter, a 25-year-old rookie who ranked 19th on Kevin Goldstein's prospect list and didn't even crack Baseball America's top 30 for the organization, has a 1.49 ERA while allowing just 25 baserunners in 36 1/3 innings thus far thanks to a quirky straight overhand delivery and a .165 BABIP, which will only survive for so long given an average fastball speed of 87 mph.

Where the Diamondbacks have improved most dramatically is their bullpen, which finished with the fourth-worst WXRL (-4.4) and fifth-worst FRA (6.51) on record last year. Rebuilding it was a job perfectly situated in incoming general manager Kevin Towers' wheelhouse given the success he showed doing the same in San Diego. He doesn't have vintage Trevor Hoffman here, but closer J.J. Putz has returned from two years in the wilderness to convert all 16 of his save opportunities, and has been scored upon in just three out of 22 outings. Set-up men David Hernandez and Esmerling Vasquez haven't been as good as their ERAs suggest—they have a collective 42/25 K/BB ratio in 35 2/3 innings—but they've covered for the ineffectiveness of Juan Gutierrez and Aaron Heilman, the latter of whom also missed time due to shoulder tendonitis. Compare the team's performance when tied or leading after seven innings this year against last year:

Year

Leading

Tied

Net

2010

54-7

6-18

-13.9

2011

22-0

3-2

3.3

That last figure is how many wins better or worse than the major-league average the team is based upon the records when tied or leading after seven innings as reported at Baseball-Reference.com. The Diamondbacks' pen may not continue to be quite that efficient, but the potential for at least a 15-win turnaround based upon that performance alone is there for the taking.

As for the offense, the Snakes rank third in the league at 4.78 runs per game in their hitter-friendly environment, and a respectable fifth in True Average at .269. They're eighth in batting average (.252), on-base percentage (.322), and BABIP (.292), and seventh in walk rate (8.7 percent), but they lead the league in homers (62), not to mention their percentage of runs via homers (the Guillen Number) at 39.2 percent. Justin Upton leads the team with 10 homers, followed by Kelly Johnson and Chris Young with nine apiece, and Ryan Roberts with seven; Miguel Montero and Henry Blanco have combined for 10 out of the catcher’s spot as well.

The Diamondbacks have cut their strikeouts considerably after leading the league for the past two years, and setting an all-time record with 1,529 last year. Trading single-season record holder Mark Reynolds (211 K last year) has helped, as has letting go of Adam LaRoche (172 K). Where the team had seven out of eight qualifying hitters striking out at a rate higher than the league average last year, just four out of eight are doing so this year, and their collective strikeout rate has dropped from 24.7 percent to 20.0 percent, a rate that would result in nearly 300 more balls in play when projected over the course of a full season.

The offense is getting TAvs of .270 or higher from six lineup spots, led by the surprising Roberts (.313). A 30-year-old journeyman who appeared fated for a bench role as Melvin Mora took over for the departed Mark Reynolds at third, Roberts has seized the starting job thanks to a mix of power and patience, hitting .280/.388/.475. The power is mostly an April thing; he went from slugging .594 in the opening month to .380 in May, and figures to continue falling; his 90th percentile PECOTA projection is .294/.378/.457.Nonetheless, he's one of only two key regulars who are outperforming their PECOTA projections by a wide margin:

Player

PA

TAv (Actual)

TAv (PECOTA)

+/-

Ryan Roberts

171

.313

.258

.055

Juan Miranda

120

.301

.260

.041

Stephen Drew

187

.288

.270

.018

Miguel Montero

186

.281

.269

.012

Gerardo Parra

169

.261

.249

.012

Justin Upton

229

.290

.285

.005

Chris Young

240

.271

.269

.002

Willie Bloomquist

97

.226

.234

-.008

Xavier Nady

94

.244

.260

-.016

Kelly Johnson

221

.248

.277

-.029

Melvin Mora

107

.203

.248

-.045

Miranda, who was acquired from the Yankees over the winter, has hit a surprising .250/.370/.490 as the long half of a first-base platoon with Nady, this after Towers finally cleared a logjam by releasing Russell Branyan a couple weeks back. Somewhat disconcertingly, the 28-year-old lefty has hit just .231/.348/.423 in 93 plate appearances against righties, compared to an unsustainable .318/.444/.727 in 27 PA against lefties. He'll need to shore up the former, and could risk overexposure if manager Kirk Gibson gets too obsessed by the latter; it's worth noting that his first two starts of the year against southpaws have come in the team's last three matchups.

Those two can afford to cool off somewhat if Kelly Johnson (.224/.284/.428) can rediscover his form from last year, when he hit .284/.370/.496 after being non-tendered by Atlanta following a weak 2009. It would certainly be nice to see more growth from the 23-year-old Upton, who has yet to approach the Junior Griffey comparisons set for him years ago, but as it is, his slugging percentage is up 46 points on last year, and he hasn't endured any further shoulder woes. Meanwhile, Young is showing no signs of an age-27 breakout; instead he's dealing with a .259 BABIP, 20 points below his career rate, as well as a walk rate that has receded to where it was three years ago, in the eight percent range.

Overall, the Snakes have outscored their opponents by 22 runs, the division's best run differential, and one of only two in the black (the Rockies' +11 being the other); they ranked eighth on this week's Hit List, less than eight points behind the Giants and Rockies. Whereas the Mariners emerged at a time when their AL West competitors were temporarily back on their heels, the Diamondbacks have emerged at a point where both the Giants and Rox have suffered season-ending injuries to key players (Buster Posey and Jorge de la Rosa, respectively) and have to face serious questions as to whether they can count on other key contributors such as Pablo Sandoval, Aubrey Huff, and Ubaldo Jimenez to deliver as advertised. Meanwhile, the Dodgers, who were projected to challenge for both the division and the wild card, are victims not only of an endless slew of injuries—they've used the disabled list an MLB-high 15 times—but of poor roster construction.

 The Playoff Odds report still rates the Diamondbacks as having just a 6.6 percent chance of reaching the postseason, and while I wouldn't go overboard overestimating their chances, their performance is much more sustainable than that of Seattle. Gibson, who has just a .467 winning percentage in parts of two seasons as skipper, is something of an untested commodity in the dugout, but the real advantage here might be Towers, whose tenure in San Diego included four division winners and one pennant winner. The Diamondbacks are already reaping the benefit of his experience in handling a roster, and while Towers doesn’t have a particularly strong system to deal from, his experience could be an extra weapon if the team is still in position to make a push later this summer. Don’t count them out. 

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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