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January 26, 2012
AL on the Rise, and Extensions All Around
It’s not exactly a secret that the AL has had the upper hand on the NL in recent years. You’ve probably seen something like this image before, but here’s how the relative strength of the two leagues has compared since interleague play began in 1997, based both on action in interleague games and the performance of players who switched leagues. A score of 1.00 would mean that the leagues were of equal strength.
Not since the first year of interleague play has the NL had the edge. The imbalance was widest from 2006-2007, when the AL played Scut Farkus to the NL’s Ralphie, running up a 291-213 head-to-head record. Since then, the gap has narrowed considerably, which is why that graph might remind you of a drumstick if you’re reading this around lunchtime. But the AL still hasn’t surrendered its advantage.
Plenty of people have attempted to explain the AL’s recent run of dominance. Some have suggested that the DH gives the AL an edge in interleague play. Regardless of whether that argument contains a kernel of truth, it doesn’t explain why players who switch from the NL to the AL tend to see their numbers decline, while those who move in the other direction get an artificial boost. We can’t pin all of the difference in performance on the difference in rules.
For others, “the Yankees” is the obvious answer. There’s certainly some truth to that, but not enough to make the Steinbrenners the only scapegoats for the gap between leagues. Aside from the Yankees, there hasn’t been a significant disparity in average payroll, and the Yankees’ spending alone isn’t enough to account for the AL/NL difference. More likely, it’s that the pressure of playing in the Yankees’ league has forced AL teams to spend smarter, which might be why most of the prototypically progressive front offices are in the AL. Bigger draft bonuses in the AL may have been one byproduct of that stiff competition.*
*If a rising tide lifts all front offices, as I suggested last month, any advantage in intelligence the AL might have had won’t last long. After all, the Cubs’ braintrust is a bunch of former Red Sox, and the Astros just hired Mike Fast. Then again, the Astros aren't long for the NL.
Regardless of the reason—or, more likely, the reasons—why the talent gap exists, we’ve been living with it for well over a decade. And while league parity seemed more attainable last season than it had for some time, the gap may have widened again this winter. The top three players available via free agency or the posting system—Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Yu Darvish—all signed with AL teams, two of them coming at NL teams’ expense. That made me wonder whether the AL's influx of top talent might have been balanced out by an exodus elsewhere. To find out, I totaled the 2011 WARP scores for players who’ve switched leagues since last season.
The verdict? Nope, no exodus elsewhere. It looks like the AL has simply gotten better by the margin you’d expect a league that just added three stars to improve. By my count, players who played for NL teams last season and have joined AL teams via trade, free agency, or other means this winter totaled 33.5 WARP in 2011. Players who went from the AL to the NL totaled 24.9. The AL was also more active in the Asian market, importing not only Darvish, but Wei-Yin Chen, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Tsuyoshi Wada. If you figure those four could amass six or so wins between them—which doesn’t seem overly optimistic given the expectations for Darvish—the AL may have improved by around 15 WARP relative to the NL this winter.
So what does a 15-WARP improvement mean? Last year, our league factor for the AL was 1.014, compared to 0.986 for the NL. That doesn’t sound like a very sizeable gap, but when you plug those values into Bill James’ Pythagorean expectation formula, you get a .514 winning percentage for the AL and a .486 winning percentage for the NL, which sounds more substantial. (The AL actually went 131-121—a .520 clip—in interleague play.)
A shift of 15 WARP prorates to .94 wins lost per NL team and 1.07 wins gained per NL team. (Unfortunately for the Cardinals and Brewers, the NL losses aren’t quite so evenly distributed). Spread over 162 games, 1.07 wins comes out to a little less than .007 points of winning percentage. So if the difference in league strength last season was .514/.486, it might have been more like .520/.480 with current roster composition. That would send the AL’s league factor back to ’06-’07 levels.*
*While free agent spending might not be responsible for most of the AL/NL disparity since 1997, the AL has outspent the NL considerably this winter. Excluding players who re-signed with their 2011 teams, the NL has spent $428.7 million on free agents since the World Series. The AL has spent $699.2, including $214 million for Prince Fielder, whose deal isn’t yet official. And the NL still has 16 teams.
A move back toward the last decade’s league factors still wouldn’t represent an enormous change from last season, so it’s not like Bud Selig needs to step in and mandate that AL pitchers start throwing from flat ground when facing NL batters. What’s more, the list of caveats here could fill a couple pages. Most obviously, we’re trying to use 2011 WARP totals to figure out what might happen in 2012. While what happens in one year does tell us something about what might happen the next, it’s not a perfect predictor—hence our stubborn insistence on actually playing each season.
Maybe most of the players the NL acquired will play better in 2012, while most of the AL acquisitions will play worse. Maybe every remaining free agent will sign with an NL team, or the NL will find better replacements for its departed players. It’s hard to say with any certainty whether the AL will actually be significantly better than it was last season. But it does appear to have added more talent since then.
Now, on to the extensions.
Signed RHP Brandon Morrow to a three-year, $20 extension with an option for 2015. [1/24]
Shortly after the Giants signed Tim Lincecum to a top-of-the-market deal, the Blue Jays extended another starter from the first round of the 2006 draft at a relatively affordable rate. Brandon Morrow’s new three-year deal will pay him $20 million in total. Lincecum will average that amount in a single season of his two-year pact.
Alex Anthopoulos is good, but with the exception of the Vernon Wells heist, he’s not a magician. There’s a good reason why Morrow isn’t getting a Lincecum-level payday. Lincecum has two Cy Young Awards to his credit and has been one of the best pitchers in baseball since entering the league. Morrow has a 98 career ERA+, despite pitching out of the bullpen almost exclusively until 2010.
Still, Lincecum has the air of a pitcher whose best days are behind him. Morrow seems like a pitcher whose best days are just around the bend. Granted, Morrow’s best days probably won’t be the equal of Lincecum’s. But Morrow’s FIP and FRA both suggest that he’s been an above-average pitcher even while posting above-league-average ERAs. No pitcher with at least 100 innings in the big-boy league—not even Justin Verlander—struck out batters as frequently as Morrow did last season (26.1 percent of plate appearances). The problem is that one could’ve said exactly the same thing about him in 2010, and 2011 didn’t produce the anticipated breakout, despite an expected BABIP correction. So what went wrong this time? Take it away, Baseball Prospectus 2012:
His splits with runners in scoring position are ugly (.705 OPS against all batters, .888 with RISP) and they get worse when you add two outs (.977). Neither of those facts was true of his 2010… Put simply, in 2010 he had bad outcomes on balls in play; in 2011 he had unfortunate sequencing of his strikeouts, walks, and balls in play. If he can exorcise both demons in 2012, he’ll be every bit the fireballer he so frequently seems capable of becoming.
You probably had high hopes for Morrow last year at this time, and now you’re hesitant to jump back on the bandwagon. I get it—once burned, twice shy. But Morrow has already demonstrated the skills to succeed. (He was worse with runners in scoring position in 2010, too, but not to the same extent.) He just needs to demonstrate them at the same time. I think he will. And if he does, buying out his final two arbitration years and his first year of free agency for $20 million will look pretty smart. The Rays-like $10 million team option for 2015 might look even smarter.
The Jays also signed Francisco Cordero, who’s an even safer bet for regression than Morrow is for a breakout. It’s not often that a 2.45 ERA and 37 saves get you demoted to setup duty, but the Jays aren’t likely to fall for a BABIP mirage. Cordero cut down on his walk rate last season, but his BABIP was .215, which kept his stats superficially impressive even as his strikeout rate dropped dramatically. That was the second-lowest BABIP of any pitcher with at least 60 innings pitched in the majors. Only Tyler Clippard’s was lower, and Clippard struck out batters twice as often as Cordero. He also wore goggles.
Cordero’s K rate has declined for four straight seasons, and while he still throws hard, his fastball lost 1.5 miles per hour last season. A one-year, $4.5 million deal sounds like a steal for someone with his save totals, but the Jays aren’t under any illusions that Cordero will be his old self again at age 37, and this shouldn’t affect Sergio Santos’ ascension to the closer role. Think of Cordero as a Jon Rauch replacement, and your expectations will be appropriately low.
Speaking of low expectations, Toronto signed Omar Vizquel to a minor-league deal with an invitation to spring training. Anthopoulos certainly isn’t expecting much:
I’ve always said when it comes to a minor-league contract there’s no such thing as a bad one. There’s no guarantee from the club’s standpoint other than a flight to and from spring training.
Vizquel probably won’t be worth his plane fare on the field, since his bat is tapped out and even his glove at last seems to have gone south, but he might dispense a few droplets of veteran wisdom before he finally goes the way of all infielders. His utility competition consists of Mike McCoy and Luis Valbuena, so it’s not entirely out of the realm of possibility that he could break camp with the team in the John McDonald Memorial Offense-Free Roster Spot. Unfortunately, the Jays don’t play the Rockies this season, so even if Vizquel and Jamie Moyer both improbably survive spring training, they won’t face off. Vizquel, by the way, is 159 hits away from 3000, but he might have to play till he’s 50 to get there.* The more disappointing number is his career FRAA: 10.6. Everyone loves his longevity, but if that’s how good his glovework really was was—Gold Gloves be damned—even the Hall of Very Good might be out of his reach.
Signed RHP Tim Lincecum to a two-year, $40.5 million extension. [1/24]
One way or another, Lincecum was going to get paid. The Giants’ ace left the league-minimum neighborhood far behind when he agreed to a two-year, $23 million contract before the 2010 season, following two straight Cy Young Award wins. His next two seasons were less successful—less than half as successful, according to WARP—but not noticeably so from the perspective of the arbitrators who would have given him another hefty raise this winter. Lincecum filed for a near-record $21.5 million and might well have gotten it, but he and the Giants avoided a hearing by agreeing on a two-year deal at a little less than the AAV he asked for. In addition to a $500,000 signing bonus, he’ll earn $18 million in 2011 and $22 million in 2013*, which will take him through to free agency.
*When, for the first time, he’ll make more than Barry Zito.
While the Giants probably couldn’t have gotten Lincecum any cheaper, they didn’t necessarily get a great deal. Consider what we wrote about him in BP2012:
For the third year in a row, Lincecum's strikeout rate dropped and he lost a bit of velocity down the stretch. His walks were a career high and his strikeouts a career low. And still he was one of the best pitchers in the National League, which shows how gentle his decline has been. As he does every year, Lincecum tinkered a bit, leaning heavily on a slider while moving away from his traditional curveball; the slider got more strikes, and swinging strikes, than the curve ever did.
The dip in velocity toward the end of the season actually obscured an overall rebound. Lincecum’s fastball averaged just 91.3 miles per hour in September, but that was roughly the same as it had averaged during the 2010 season as a whole. Prior to September, Lincecum’s heater averaged 92.4, an exact match for its speed in 2009. So while the declining peripherals are a cause for concern, it’s not as if Lincecum’s stuff is rapidly eroding, and the Giants needn't fear what he’ll be by the end of this contract. Losing Matt Cain is a larger concern, but it sounds like those talks are proceeding as planned.
The really difficult decision will come a couple years from now, if Lincecum’s gradual decline continues. He reportedly turned down a five-year, $100 million offer from the Giants, confident that he’d be able to cash in with an even more lucrative long-term deal at age 29. If his stuff holds steady, he’ll probably be proved right. But if he’s barely breaking 90, striking out under a batter per inning, and falling short of 200 frames as he approaches age 30, he might wish he’d opted for certainty. Lincecum’s slight frame and unusual delivery have scared some teams off before. He’s given at least seven of the nine clubs that passed him by in the 2006 draft ample cause to regret their decision, but that doesn’t mean just as many teams won’t shy away when it comes to a long-term contract. Last time, they worried he wouldn’t make it. Next time, they’ll worry he won’t last.
Signed 1B/LF-R Michael Morse to a two-year, $10.5 million extension. [1/20]
About a year ago, I did a radio spot on a Toronto station that’s stuck with me since.
A little background: in some sports radio appearances, you know exactly what you’re getting into. You’re going on to talk about an article you wrote recently, a transaction that just happened, or some other issue affecting the team in a local market. In others, you have only the vaguest idea of what you’ll be talking about. And in still others, you think you know, but you end up going off-script. Once you’ve done enough of these spots, it doesn’t matter where you are or what you’re discussing—you can generate a compelling opinion on almost any topic without advance notice. I’ve witnessed Jay Jaffe doing a radio hit in a crowded car. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him do one from a bar without putting down his drink. At this point, he could probably dress down Ned Colletti while tweeting and trimming his mustache. I haven’t quite reached that point. I’ll accept any invitation, but as someone who’s still fairly new to posing as a person with opinions worth putting on air, I prefer the predictable appearances.
This Toronto spot wasn’t one of the predictable ones. I didn’t have any specifics, so I assumed I’d be talking Blue Jays baseball. All anyone wanted to know about Toronto at the time was whether Travis Snider, Adam Lind, and Aaron Hill would bounce back,* so I dug into their stats until I felt like I could say “I don’t know” in a way that might make me sound smart. I got the call, was placed on hold, and mentally rehearsed a few factoids. I was ready.
*Remember when we weren’t sure whether Travis Snider, Adam Lind, and Aaron Hill would be any good? Man, that seems like so long a—wait.
I didn’t get a single question about the Blue Jays. Instead, the host wanted to talk about the upcoming season’s biggest busts and breakouts. Now, I'm aware of what's going on around the league, but I’m not the sort of man who keeps a mental catalogue of busts and breakouts. I like to look at lists. For the bust, I probably mentioned Jose Bautista, since I was talking to Toronto hosts and he clearly couldn’t be that good again. For the breakout, I blanked. And then I thought about Mike Morse.
I’m not sure why Mike Morse was on my mind—maybe I’d read something about him that day, or maybe I’d been listening to this song, which I do on a semi-regular basis.* But I remembered that he’d had an excellent half-season or so, and it seemed like not many people had noticed, and at that moment I couldn’t name another baseball player, let alone one who was going to be surprisingly good. So Mike Morse it was.
*Because it’s by the best Beatle.
I wasn’t feeling great about this pick at the end of April, when Morse was hitting .211/.253/.268. But by the end of the season, it looked pretty good. If this seemed like a really long-winded way of saying I was right about something, well, it was. Hey, I’m lucky if it happens half the time—I have to enjoy it when it does. Morse would’ve been a success if he’d sustained his second half of 2010 over a full season, but he did even better, upping his TAv to .314. That made Mike Morse one of the 10 best hitters in the National League, and easily the best player on the Nationals, which was supposed to be Jayson Werth’s job. That's not a sentence that I or anyone else would have expected to write.
Morse was never a top prospect. He hit worse at Triple-A than Ryan Langerhans, for whom he was traded in 2009. He’ll turn 30 during spring training, and he’s never been particularly durable. His plate discipline isn’t anything special. He’s only adequate in the field. Nothing about his breakout screamed “fluke,” but that’s still not the profile of a guy you’d want to lock-up long-term. But $10.5 million for his final two arbitration years? Yeah, that’ll work. Morse will probably play left for most of this year and succeed Adam LaRoche at first base in 2013. The team that signs him after that season probably won’t get the same sort of production, but the Nats have already reaped the rewards, and they haven't risked the buyer's remorse they would have by paying Prince Fielder. Now I just need a Mike Morse for 2012.