August 12, 2011
Divide and Conquer, AL West
Racing for the Title
Last season, there were two divisions (the NL West, from which the reigning world champion Giants arose, and the AL East) that were decided by a margin of three games or fewer. In 2009, there were two more division races (the AL Central, which the Twins captured by a single game, and again the NL West) that came down to a swing of three or fewer games. 2008? Three races. 2007? Four races. Over the last four years, every division in baseball has been able to boast at least one pennant race resolved within the final three days of the season—well, every division except the AL West.
Throughout the better part of the early- to mid-aughts, the AL West stood proud and tall as one of the more hotly-contested divisions in the game; four of the five division titles between 2002-06 were secured by a margin of no more than four games. But over the last four seasons, the average margin of victory in the AL West has been a far less suspenseful 11.5 games. That’s great for the conquering team but not so great for those fans of AL West teams who enjoy an ample dose of divisional parity, and definitely not so great for the distant second-place team whose late-season gate receipts are inhibited by their non-contender status.
This season, though? As I've been hammering home lately, and as Jay Jaffe discussed Wednesday, the second-place Angels aren't going away, and we finally have another legitimate AL West race on our hands. And when you start discussing a potentially slim margin of victory, you end up more inclined to whip out the sabermetric microscope to zero in on things that might not be paid as much attention under less competitive conditions—like the number of runs added by a 'clutch' performance, or the runs gained by smart, opportunistic baserunning, and/or the runs saved by a premium defensive catcher able to suppress the opposition's basestealing success rate. They may only amount to a small sliver of the team production pie, but in a race as tight as the AL West, a 10-15 run swing could play a meaningful role in deciding a team’s fate.
For everything else that has troubled the Rangers over the last decade, their baserunning has consistently proven to be an asset despite an abundance of player and coaching personnel changes (+48 EqBRR from 2001-10). This season is proving to be no exception (each statistic's definition is linked in the table):
Of note here is that the Rangers have derived the bulk of their baserunning value this season not from the stolen base (though their team stolen-base success ratio of 75.7 percent does lead the American League), but rather from baserunning advancements on hits (EqHAR)—that is, advancements from first base on singles and doubles, and from second base on singles. This conforms with Ron Washington's aggressive baserunning philosophy, which ties into his belief that pressure needs to be continuously applied to the opposing pitcher by pushing baserunners as far forward as possible by whatever means necessary. Of course, that same expectation has also led to a number of questionable early- and mid-game sacrifice bunts (including one memorable first-inning sac bunt when Texas was already in a 3-0 hole), but the Rangers appear to be doing everything right on this front.
The Athletics and Mariners sit squarely in the middle of the pack, with the vast majority of their baserunning value this season being contributed by baserunning advancements on ground-ball outs (EqGAR). To that end, Seattle and Oakland can respectively convey their thanks to Ichiro (+5.07 EqGAR; +9.3 EqBRR) and, curiously enough, Daric Barton (+3.21 EqGAR; +2.5 EqBRR), the latter of whom I have a difficult time explaining away. Residing in the divisional cellar (but still just outside the top 10 teams in baseball) are the Angels, who have procured +4.7 EqBRR from an unfairly quick Peter Bourjos this season, and may be positioned to reap much larger rewards over the next several years as Mike Trout and his 80-grade speed terrorize the division's catching corps.
"So," you're thinking, "the Rangers have come up with a 5-6 run edge in terms of baserunning over the Angels this season... but what else do you have?" Here's the thing—the flip side of the baserunning coin is tricky, and until the next great advancement is made on the catcher defense frontier, it's will continue to be tricky. You can begin and end with a catcher's caught-stealing rate, and you can even expand that to include the effects of passed balls, errors, wild pitches and the like, but without a somewhat reliable and applicable framework for the game-calling and pitch-framing elements, I personally won’t feel too comfortable attempting to label a catcher's entire defensive skill set based only on the statistics presently available to us.
I mention this because there are a couple of interesting things happening on this front in the AL West right now. First, you have the Rangers catchers' caught-stealing ratio leading the AL (36 percent), the Mariners (31 percent) and the Athletics (29 percent) hovering around league average, and the Angels (22 percent) almost dead last. Combine the Angels' deficits relative to the Rangers on both sides of the baserunning equation, and you have a slight problem. Caught somewhere near the middle of all of that is Mike Napoli, who has authored an insane .295/.395/.603, 18-homer campaign in just 263 plate appearances this season, and now ranks third in the league in caught-stealing percentage (8-for-19, or 42 percent) among all backstops with at least 300 innings logged behind the plate this year.
Upon Napoli's arrival to the Rangers from the Blue Jays (who had acquired him as part of their haul from the Vernon Wells contract dump), the talk was that he wasn't good at throwing would-be basestealers out during his stint with the Angels (confirmed as true), that he wasn't a good game-caller, and that neither the Angels' pitchers nor Mike Scioscia were especially great fans of his work. I can't speak to the ratio of actual truth to hearsay there, but Napoli did recently shed some light on his perception of life in Anaheim: "I always felt like I was looking over my shoulder to see if I was doing things right. I had ‘bad hands.' I was so worried about my setup and the mechanics all the time. I learned a lot. I learned a lot of what I do there, but playing there just wasn't much fun.''
It's entirely possible that Napoli was a poor defensive catcher from an objective standpoint during his time with Anaheim, and that he has taken a meaningful step forward this season. It's also possible that the perception of Napoli's defense in Anaheim was harsher than it should have been, and, based on Napoli's comments, it certainly seems more than possible that the nature of his work environment was deleterious to the quality of his defense during his time with the Angels. Whatever the case, it can be said that the Mariners and Athletics are faring just fine where the baserunning game is concerned, that the Rangers are excelling, and that the Angels have some issues that could prove problematic in their attempts to rally back into the AL West's pole position.