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May 3, 2012

The Lineup Card

10 Things Learned in April

by Baseball Prospectus

1. The Rangers are Very Good
Remember last year's excruciating Game Six loss to the Cardinals and how it caused the Rangers to eventually fall short in the World Series for a second straight year? Apparently, the Rangers don't. They have put twice being two strikes away from winning the first World Series in franchise history behind them and finished April with the best record (17-6) and run differential (+2.43 a game) in the major leagues. They were also third in runs a game (5.39) and fourth in runs allowed per game (2.96). Meanwhile, center fielder Josh Hamilton was third in the majors and first in the American League in WARP at 13.0, trailing just Matt Kemp (20.1) and David Wright (13.5). So what I learned in April is the Rangers are awfully good, even better than their teams that won the AL pennants each of the last two seasons. I can't wait to catch up with them this weekend and write about them for next week's On The Beat. —John Perrotto

2. Trading for a Young Starting Pitcher Brings Great Risk
When the Michael Pineda-Jesus Montero trade happened, Kevin Goldstein and I were on our radio show. Kevin raved about Pineda and how much he liked the deal for both teams. The Yankees had little need for Montero, but they had a serious need for quality starting pitching. But make no mistake, Kevin, myself, even the Yankees knew the risk involved. A Tom Verducci's article, read multiple times by Jason Parks, cites research from Dodgers head trainer Stan Conte, that 50 percent of starting pitchers and 34 percent of all relievers will hit the disabled list this year. It's no wonder young pitching is at a premium, and why the Yankees would assume the risk to acquire a top-flight potential starter like Pineda. What will be interesting is to see if this deal impacts other teams looking to trade a bat for young starting pitching. One of baseball's truisms has been when faced with a choice between a pitcher or hitter, you take the hitter because it's less risky. The high-profile injury, coupled with the lower, or rather more neutral, offensive era we've entered might change things. Will the fear of the "Pineda deal," coupled with the need for offense, prevent a team from pulling the trigger on a similar deal? That may be something we learn in a different month. —Mike Ferrin

3. Matt Kemp is for Real
Matt Kemp is for real. Last year, Kemp hit .324/.399/.586 with 39 homers and 40 steals while leading the NL in True Average (.355) and WARP (9.2). The only force that could stop him was Ryan Braun, who beat him out in a close MVP race despite a season that was worth 2.6 fewer wins.

Cynics scoffed when the Dodgers signed Kemp to an an eight-year, $160 million extension in December, arguing that he really only had two great seasons to his credit, with 2009—when he hit .297/.352/.490 for 5.4 WARP—being the other. That's a fairly harsh judgment, considering he's had just four seasons with over 100 games played in his young career, a very reasonable number for a player through his age-26 season. On a per-162 game basis, he's averaged 4.4 WARP in his career. Not only does his contract look reasonable in the wake of the Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and Joey Votto mega deals—all longer pacts for older, less athletic players—but Kemp looks every bit like the real deal after a white-hot April in which he hit .417/.490/.893 with an MLB-high 12 homers, including a walk-off on Saturday against the Nationals. —Jay Jaffe

4. The Royals Might Not Win the World Series
The Royals probably won’t win the World Series this season. I knew that, of course. At least I thought I did. But when your team is in a 27-year post-season drought, it’s easy to see an oasis where really is just another pile of sand. I watched with horror the 12-game losing streak unfold, appalled nightly by seeing names like Yuniesky Betancourt, Chris Getz, and Alcides Escobar at the top of the order. (While Mike Aviles puts up All-Star numbers in Boston, by the way.) In a way, though, I’m glad it happened like this. Even if the Royals had been lucky in April, rather than extraordinarily unlucky, it wouldn’t have changed the fact that they don’t have enough starting pitching depth to get through a pennant race. To try to speed up The Process now could have dire consequences, such as squandering an impact young bat for another version of Jonathan Sanchez. Now, hopefully, the collective player development can continue at a natural pace, and the team can improve as the season goes along. —Bradford Doolittle

5. The Red Sox' Bullpen is a Mess
After Jonathan Papelbon decamped for Philadelphia during the offseason, the Red Sox made two trades to try to fill that hole in their bullpen. They first dealt for Astros closer Mark Melancon, and then A’s closer Andrew Bailey. One month into the season, Bailey has yet to throw an inning and likely won’t until sometime after the All-Star break, and Melancon is throwing high-leverage innings for Triple-A Pawtucket.

The loss of both of their best relievers helped baseball’s worst bullpen author their signature implosion: turning a 9-1 lead into a 15-9 loss in just three innings (don’t try that at home!). Long man Alfredo Aceves has been pressed into closing duty and performed badly, but it’s not as if anyone else has been much better. Scott Atchison has been the team’s best reliever, and he’s hamstrung by the fact that he’s Scott Atchison.

The Red Sox' league-worst 6.10 ERA bullpen ERA undersells how bad they’ve been, but there is some hope on the horizon. Lefty-killer Rich Hill has returned from Tommy John surgery, and the team recalled Junichi Tazawa, whose varied arsenal should be effective in smaller doses. Melancon seems to have rediscovered himself in Triple-A (the zero runs, eight strikeouts and no walks in 4 2/3 innings at Pawtucket is a mark better than the 49.50 ERA he posted in Boston) and could rejoin the Red Sox shortly. Bailey will likely return before getting hurt again. In short, the results have been bad, but the personnel is being adjusted and the guys still in the pen probably aren’t this bad. Probably. But so far [here’s the big analytical finish], yuck.—Matthew Kory

6. Two Wild Cards Make April More Exciting
It's debatable how good a team's chances must be for a fan to remain realistically excited about them, but let's say 10 percent playoff odds are the minimum. And, furthermore, let's stipulate that a team with at least 70 percent playoff odds could, traditionally, be so confident in its chances that the regular season is merely a holding room until the fun stuff begins. On May 2, 2011, there were 11 teams that fell in between those margins. A month into the season, and you could argue that 19 teams' daily schedules were little more than a grind, where the daily swings held little suspense. That's fine with me, because I watch baseball for the GIF opportunities. But also, eh, wish it were better.

This year, though, two wild-card spots. Not really. Only one goes to the big boy playoffs. But if you're rooting for a team, the second avenue into October means a great deal on May 2. The Angels are playing terribly and have almost no chance at winning the AL West, but as long as the Red Sox are under .500 they needn't feel hopeless. The Orioles aren't actually a real team, but with all those wins banked and a lower threshold into the postseason, why not dream? And the Red Sox don't need to panic just because they're five games behind the Rays; both teams, and the Yankees, can make the playoffs this year. The Red Sox just have to rebound enough to beat back a bunch of lousy teams. The result: 15 teams are within the 10-to-70 zone.

Furthermore, the teams with 80 or 90 percent shots at the postseason need not check out until October. There's a real incentive to winning the division, not the wild card. And there's a real incentive to have the best record in the league and get to play a weakened wild-card champion (which will likely have burned its ace in the play-in game) in the first round. So the teams with better than 70 percent chances can live and die on every pitch, too. Nineteen teams, then, have reason to pay attention, and that's not even including the above-.500 Orioles and Blue Jays, who could be forgiven for remaining engaged. All of which is to say that, this year, I've learned this: two wild-card spots don't just affect October and September. They also make April baseball a lot more fun. —Sam Miller

7. The Nationals' Starters are Pretty Good
When it was announced late in spring training that John Lannan—arguably the Nationals' most reliable starting pitcher over the previous four seasons—would begin the year at Triple-A, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Lannan had made 122 starts since 2008 and was scheduled to earn $5 million in 2012, yet he wasn't good enough to crack the Washington Nationals' rotation? This was, after all, a team that had given nearly one-third of its starts to Jason Marquis, Tom Gorzelanny, Chien-Ming Wang, and Yunesky Maya in 2011.

A series of shrewd acquisitions over the winter gave Washington something it hadn't possessed since its relocation to the nation's capitol: a pitching surplus. Ross Detwiler proved he belonged in the rotation this spring, and Lannan found himself assigned to Triple-A Syracuse where, in five starts, he has posted a 5.19 ERA. Meanwhile, the Lannan-less Nationals pitching staff has asserted itself as arguably the strongest in baseball over the season's first month. Washington pitchers place first in earned run average (2.40), hits per nine innings (6.99), and home runs per nine innings (0.26), and second in strikeouts per nine innings (8.66). Remarkably, the Nationals have surrendered only six long balls all year; nine major-league pitchers have given up seven or more homers on their own. —Bradley Ankrom

8. Josh Willingham is Better Than People Think
If you think Josh Willingham is a great player, well, you’re either (a) very confused, or (b) named Willingham. What he is, however, is a very good hitter, and one of baseball’s best bargains over the last half-decade or so. Willingham’s unsustainable .347/.447/.681 line through his first 20 games as a Twin is ridiculously out of line with his career, of course, but serves as a welcome reminder that the man has always known what to do with a Louisville Slugger. Admittedly, cherry-picking statistical cutoffs to create lists that highlight a player’s value makes for a famously weak argument, but check this out:

Players Posting a .277+ Tav in 400+ PAs Each Year, 2006-11

Player

Salary 2006-11

Age

All-Star Games

Alex Rodriguez

$170,389,252

36

5

Torii Hunter

$94,250,000

36

3

Albert Pujols

$84,340,436

32

5

Miguel Cabrera

$73,555,049

29

4

Ryan Howard

$65,255,000

32

3

Matt Holliday

$60,551,101

32

5

Chase Utley

$54,928,570

33

5

David Wright

$39,124,000

29

5

Kevin Youkilis

$31,654,100

33

3

Adrian Gonzalez

$16,002,500

29

4

Josh Willingham

$14,662,000

33

0

These 11 players are the only ones to log 400 or more plate appearances every season from 2006-2011 while managing a .277 TAv or better in each season. Other than Willingham, every player on this list has played in three or more All-Star Games.  Spending years toiling in the vast steppes of Miami, Washington, Oakland, and Minnesota has helped mask the fact that Willingham’s consistent, inexpensive production makes him an underrated asset, likely to make good on his first (and only) multi-year contract through 2014. —Ken Funck

9. Nolan Reimold: Leadoff Hitter
The 2011 BP Annual player card for Nolan Reimold noted that, slowed by injuries, he “had all the outfield mobility of a dump truck with three flat tires.” Whenever I read something like that, I think: leadoff hitter. Wait, no, I don’t. This classic slugger type would seem to belong somewhere in the middle of the order, if he’s producing. Otherwise, further down.

Reimold is not an on-base machine, doesn’t steal many bases, and generally isn’t likely to do those things that managers tend to like their leadoff men to do. He had hit first in the order in exactly eight of his 230 career games prior to 2012.

Six of those games, however, came in the last part of 2011. It appears that Reimold started making a believer (in… what, exactly?) out of Buck Showalter, who strikes me as an unlikely sort of manager to look at the 6-feet-4, 215-pounder and see Brett Butler. Apparently, there is a good deal more than we dreamt of in Buck’s philosophy, and Reimold has hit leadoff in every game he’s started this season. So far he boasts a .332 TAv, thanks much to 11 of his 21 hits being either homers or doubles. He has one stolen base, and his OBP is a ho-hum .333.

And the Orioles are 14-9, a game behind the first-place Rays in the AL East. Presumably, Reimold gets to stay right where he is at the top of the order until further notice.

I kinda dig it. —Adam Sobsey

10. David Wright Can Still Really Play Baseball
Things started getting weird for David Wright in 2009, which happened to be the Mets' first season at Citi Field. He dropped from 33 homers to 10—five at home, five away—and his strikeout rate jumped by almost half, his batting average staying constant at .307 thanks to a ridiculous batting average on balls in play of nearly .400. He more or less duplicated the production in 2010, in a different manner—jumping back up to 29 homers but taking a predictable hit to his batting average and OBP—and dropped off further in an injury-marred 2011.

And, well, it's just 21 games, but I don't think the David Wright of the preceding three years was capable of doing for any continuous stretch of 21 games what Wright has done so far in 2012. His strikeout rate has dropped back down to what would be his lowest level since his (partial) rookie season of 2004, his walk rate is much higher than it has ever been, and he's hitting .395/.495/.566. FRAA, for whatever it's worth at this point, even thinks he's doing a better job of fielding his position. Wright won't keep up the .444 BABIP, of course, and the walk and strikeout rates probably fall and climb a bit, respectively. And he's not actually showing that much power, with a .171 ISO essentially identical to his 2011 number. But he's making contact, as much solid contact as anyone around, and has shown enough to convince me that at age 29, he can still be the superstar we knew and loved ca. 2007. —Bill Parker

7 comments have been left for this article.

<< Previous Article
Painting the Black: Je... (05/03)
<< Previous Column
The Lineup Card: 12 Fa... (04/25)
Next Column >>
The Lineup Card: 10 Mo... (05/09)
Next Article >>
Raising Aces: Six Degr... (05/03)

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