May 13, 2002
The Daily Prospectus
The columnist is sick, he's cranky, and he's under medication. Therefore, he disavows responsibility for anything appearing in this space until further notice.
After a rough start to the season, the Anaheim Angels have taken to beating up the teams outside their division. Granted, they've gotten a healthy dose of the Blue Jays, but with a sweep of the White Sox over the weekend, the Angels are now 20-16, a mark that breaks down as 6-12 within their division, and 14-4 against everyone else. They've jumped into second place, 5 1/2 games behind the Mariners.
Meanwhile, the Oakland A's have been in something of a death spiral, going 3-9 in their last 12 games and falling under .500 in to a tie for third with the Texas Rangers. They've had a tough row to hoe; in fact, ESPN.com reports that they've had the second-toughest schedule in baseball, behind only the Mariners.
In trying to discern why the A's and Angels have reversed their fortunes, I perused their respective pitching performance records. Both play in pretty good pitchers' parks, so the raw numbers should be a decent comp. Here's what I found, and I'll throw in the Mariners, too, because they're similar. And the Rangers, to complete the set:
IP BB K HR BB/9 K/9 HR/9 Angels 324 128 219 43 3.6 6.1 1.2 A's 325 111 238 35 3.1 6.6 1.0 Mariners 334 114 236 38 3.1 6.4 1.0 Rangers 332 129 244 32 3.5 6.6 0.9
Note that I haven't included hits in there. I'm focusing just on what the pitcher can control, and recent research by Voros McCracken--research you're probably sick of me mentioning--indicates that a pitcher can only really control those three outcomes. The rest is a function of defense and luck (with some exceptions, including knuckleball pitchers).
Just based on those numbers, which team would you expect to be the best at keeping runs off the scoreboard? The A's or Mariners, right? They have very similar rates of strikeouts, walks, and home runs per nine innings, and they walk fewer batters than the Rangers or Angels do:
RA RA/9 Angels 158 4.4 Rangers 167 4.5 Mariners 174 4.7 A's 191 5.3
The Angels and Rangers are actually better at keeping runs off the board than the Mariners and A's, despite the fact that their pitching staffs appear to be worse.
A couple of weeks ago, I referenced a statistic that tries to answer the question: "When a ball is put in play against this team, how often do they turn it into an out?" It's a quick'n'dirty way of trying to evaluate a team's defense, and I think it gives a good snapshot of which teams are getting it done in the field. The formula is 1-((H-HR)/(AB-HR-SO)). Take a look at the DE numbers for the four teams in the AL West:
DE Angels .714 Rangers .704 Mariners .701 A's .693
Why are the A's in danger of falling into last place in the AL West? Because their defense isn't getting outs the way it did last season. Last year, they converted 71.2% of their balls in play into outs. This year, they're down to 69.3%. That doesn't sound like much, but it's an out turned into a hit every other game or so; do that to a pitching staff that hasn't been as effective this year (more walks, fewer strikeouts), and you end up 11th in the league in runs allowed.
I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record on this, but this is where we need to be focusing. Not on a new way measuring a hitter's contribution, or making a better Support-Neutral stat for pitchers. We need to find a good way to measure defensive performance, both at a team level and an individual level.
You'll notice that I haven't mentioned offense so far, and there's little denying that part of the Athletics' problems in 2002 are at the plate. In 2001, Oakland was fourth in the AL in runs scored, despite playing in a pitcher's park; this year, they've fallen to seventh. That they're plating less runs is obvious, and important; the defensive problems they appear to be experiencing are more subtle and interesting to consider.
The first organization that finds a way to evaluate a player's defensive contribution--not how good he looks, or his defensiveskills, but how many runs he takes off the board--is going to be so far ahead of the game it's not even funny.