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May 27, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Oakland A's, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • MicroStudy: Hitting coach Gary Ward was dismissed on May 19th. Chris Kahrl has already discussed the merits of his successor, Greg Walker, but it's also worth performing a post-mortem on the performance of the Sox hitters under Ward's watch. Here is a comparison of the EqAs of the regular (and semi-regular) Sox through Ward's last day on the job against their PECOTA projections for the season.
    
                            EqA:      EqA:    EqA: 
                   PA  Projected    Actual  Difference
    Graffanino     68       .260      .322       +.062
    Jimenez       165       .248      .304       +.056
    Thomas        170       .296      .327       +.031
    Alomar         67       .215      .246       +.031
    Valentin      152       .271      .276       +.005
    Olivo          82       .254      .234       -.020
    Ordonez       173       .314      .292       -.022
    Lee           156       .288      .264       -.024
    Konerko       151       .287      .221       -.066
    Crede         150       .272      .200       -.072
    Rowand         65       .255      .062       -.193
    
    Weighted Avg            .275      .260   
    
    

    When viewed through this lens, the team's performance doesn't seem quite so discouraging: D'Angelo Jimenez has had a breakout season, Frank Thomas is swinging (and not swinging) the bat well, and the Sox have gotten an adequate performance out of the shortstop and catcher positions. Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Lee haven't lived up to expectations, but their results are within the normal range of variance for a six-week stretch.

    It's the bottom three names on the list that cost Ward his job. It's clear there's something wrong with Aaron Rowand--he was the worst hitter in the league at the time of his demotion, and has been good for just a .636 OPS in Charlotte since. Joe Crede redeemed himself a little bit with a walk-off home run in Sunday's game, but hasn't shown any ability to work the count, and has been the worst third baseman in the league not wearing a myliobatiform on his jersey. And while Paul Konerko has always been a slump-prone hitter, he's never gotten off to this bad a start.

    Working the strike zone is arguably the element of offensive performance that coaching can have the most effect over, so let's see how the Sox hitters had fared under Ward in that department. Once again, we're comparing the PECOTA projections against the actuals through May 18th.

    
                    EqA:     BB/K:     BB/K:
                Difference Predicted  Actual
    Graffanino      +.062   0.643      0.692
    Jimenez         +.056   0.725      1.222
    Thomas          +.031   0.837      1.192
    Alomar          +.031   0.353      1.500
    Valentin        +.005   0.448      0.483
    Olivo           -.020   0.382      0.375
    Ordonez         -.022   0.906      0.565
    Lee             -.024   0.740      0.250
    Konerko         -.066   0.639      0.765
    Crede           -.072   0.400      0.294
    Rowand          -.193   0.309      0.200
    
    Weighted Avg            0.627      0.690
    
    

    You won't find many more perfect relationships this side of Phillipe-Witherspoon. All of the hitters who have exceeded their EqA projections have also exceeded their BB/K projection; all the hitters except one who have not met their EqA projections have also fallen short of their batting eye projections. Certainly, impatience may have something to do with the struggles of Crede, Rowand, Lee, and Ordonez. All four have seen fewer pitches per PA this year than they did last; if there's something to implicate Ward, this may be it.

    Konerko, on the other hand, has seen a marked increase in his pitches per PA, and has a healthy walk rate, but hasn't hit a lick. Though he's only 27, there are some signs that his physical skills may already be deteriorating. Konerko's always been slow, but he's already grounded into 11 double plays this season, the highest figure in the league. As his splits page at ESPN confirms, he's also really struggled against guys that throw hard, posting just a .545 OPS against power pitchers. Konerko's a classic "old players' skills" guy, and both his foot speed and his bat speed may be slowing.

  • Lineup Change: In spite of posting an EqA of just .184 at Charlotte, Joe Borchard was recalled from Triple-A, a move that surprised even Borchard himself. The move was made strictly out of necessity--we've already described Rowand's struggles, but his replacement, Willie Harris, got hurt, and nobody wanted to stick Armando Rios in center every day behind a pitching staff that gives up its share of fly balls.

    Borchard isn't really a .184 EqA hitter. He's been struggling with tendinitis in his wrist, and one can draw a pretty good parallel to Kevin Mench, who wasn't hitting very well at Oklahoma City when the Rangers recalled him out of desperation last year, but wound up having a fine balance of the season in the bigs. His strikeouts have to be a concern, however. It's easy to see why Borchard whiffs as much as he does--he's a tall guy (6' 5"), but has an awfully upright stance, leaving him with a ton of plate to cover. If Greg Walker can get Borchard to compact his swing without wrecking his confidence, then nobody will miss Gary Ward.

Houston Astros

  • Streaks: The Astros sputtered through April with a record of 11-15, floundering in the bottom of the AL Central while being outscored 116-127. Through this Friday's games, they'd posted a 15-7 record in May, outscoring their opponents 122-87 to climb back to within a half game of the Cubs. Saturday night, they couldn't come far enough back against Shawn Estes and the Chicago pen, losing 3-2 and ensuring that Chicago will leave town with a winning road trip and in first place.

    What's driven the turnaround? Is it the offense? Despite the recent scoring surge, they've only risen to the middle of the MLB pack, and their defensive contributions are middle-of-the-road as well. It's not the rotation driving the team. They were torched Wade Miller left and Jeriome Robertson right in April on their way to a 6-11 record. After management shelved some of the less effective elements in May, the rotation righted the ship, posting a 5-6 record so far this month, with just 12 runs of support in those losses. (Coincidentally, their support-neutral record is also 11-16, near the bottom of the majors.) This makes the decision to dump Scott Linebrink for a couple of days of Starfleet-quality bench time all the more surprising.

    Which brings us to...

  • New for 2003...Minute Maid Fortified with essence of Rolaids: ...the bullpen. For the last couple of years, the Astros have bucked the trend of wasting their best pitcher in the closer's role while lesser arms try to preserve save opportunities in high-leverage situations. As good as Billy Wagner has been, Octavio Dotel has been better, posting a lower ERA in about half again the innings pitched. While it's unlikely they orchestrated this arrangement on purpose, it's pretty much the ideal situation for a club: the famous pitcher racks up the saves and the future big contracts (hopefully overpaid for by others), keeping the fans and media happy, while another arm provides better work for depressed pay, also keeping the fans and media happy.

    So far this year, the Astros have done themselves two better: While Wagner has been the 14th-best reliever in baseball, the Astros boast three relievers in the top 10: Dotel, Brad Lidge, and Ricky Stone. Combined, they're 10-1 with a 1.65 ERA and 27 Adjusted Runs Prevented while throwing more innings than any non-Texan pen. You'll occasionally see opinions to the effect that Houston should move Wagner and his inflated (even by closers' standards) salary if they start falling out of the race. But while this might be a reasonable sentiment in general, it carries too much risk here: With Wagner there for the glory innings, his even-more-effective penmates are free to dominate the earlier innings. Any disruption to the late-innings mixture could sink the Astros' season unless the lineup or rotation are able to rebound in a big way.

  • Schedule: All the teams in the AL Central hunt have easy June schedules, but the Astros' is softest of all, with only the Yankees and Boston likely to have winning records by the time the Astros play them. (Texas might, but it seems obvious who'll win the battle of those pens.) This makes the upcoming seven road games against St. Louis and Chicago critical to the Astros' approach for the rest of the season. If they beat the Cardinals (against whom they're 4-1 this season) and the Cubs, they're in good position to assume the division lead by the end of June, and will probably sit tight. If they bomb out, they may be tempted to enter the market for a starter. Chuck Finley, anyone?

Milwaukee Brewers

  • Down on the Farm: The Orioles signed Adam Loewen, their first-round pick from last year's amateur draft, five minutes before last night's midnight deadline. Milwaukee has the second pick in the 2003 draft, their highest choice since 1985, and Loewen had been the consensus favorite to fill the slot. A high schooler the last time around, he has spent the past year negotiating from the greensward of Chipola Junior College. The 6-6 lefty was selected higher than any Canadian in the draft's history, and along with fellow draftee Jeff Francis, Loewen is one of the two most highly-regarded pitching prospects ever to come out of Canada.

    The Devil Rays are expected to take 17-year old Delmon Young with the draft's first pick, but they could go with Southern University second baseman Rickie Weeks instead, for signability reasons. Whichever player the Rays don't take the Brewers will likely grab. In his second tryout in front of major league watchers, Young took batting practice at Miller Park on Sunday and ripped liners all over the field, just as he had done in front of the Devil Rays and Tigers earlier this month. The Brewers have been inordinately successful drafting high schoolers the last three years, and Young comes substantially more touted than any of their recent picks. If Young goes to the Devil Rays, the Brewers would take Weeks, who went more or less unscouted coming out of high school but put on 45 pounds of muscle in college without losing any of his speed, and now hits for average and power and is 27-for-27 stealing bases this year.

  • Wretched Performer: The pitching staff of the High-A Desert Mavericks. Last year the Mavericks had the worst team ERA in the minor leagues. Not just the Cal League but the entirety of the minor leagues. This year they've gone from worst to worster. Their ERA of 6.65 is a half run worse than in 2002 and again it's last in the minors. The Cal is a hitters' league, but even with context accounted for the staff is mashed potatoes. The team ERA is a run and a half higher than the league's next staff. The 565 hits they have given up are 50 more than any other team. They have allowed 68 home runs; no other staff has given up more than 36. High Desert is a batting cage and any staff pitching there will look superficially worse than it really is, but the Mavericks' ERA and ratio of hits-per-nine innings is even worse on the road than it is at home. Not all is lost: The staff leads the league in strikeouts and has one of the Cal's best strikeout/walk ratios. And since only one Mavericks pitcher made Baseball America's list of Milwaukee's top 30 prospects--J.M. Gold, who was grudgingly included at that--it's not like this has been a calamity for the organization.

  • Schedule: The Brewers are coming off a three-game sweep at the hands of the Dodgers, and have to play them again next weekend. Milwaukee begins a nine-game road trip Tuesday. All three road series will be in extreme pitchers' parks, a relief for a staff that has a 5.11 home ERA, second-worst in the National League. Also a relief is that they open the road trip against San Diego, a team they swept in their previous meeting and that's 4-23 over the last month. Currently losers of three in a row, the Brewers have a .355 winning percentage in games following losses. At .257, the Padres are nearly 100 points worse, so things are looking up.

Oakland A's

  • Stupid Like a Fox: Since their annual trips to the Division Series began in 2000, theories for the success of the Oakland Athletics have largely focused on their approach towards hitting. Baseball people far and wide made a great din over Jason Giambi's exit to the Yankees and over the now imminent departure of Miguel Tejada. Pundits love to point out that plate discipline doesn't always work, particularly against good pitchers and especially in the post-season. Michael Lewis's recently released Moneyball, purporting to explain how the A's have succeeded with their budget restrictions, spends nearly 300 pages discussing Billy Beane's personal struggle to acquire hitters unlike himself, but speaks little of acquiring pitching save for a chapter on stealing undervalued submariner Chad Bradford from the White Sox.

    Publicly decrying sacrifice hits and stolen bases may have caused the most publicity, but the mainstay of the A's success is their pitching. While the discrepancy between the effectiveness of the hitting and pitching has usually been slight, it has swelled this year as the Athletics' struggles at the plate continue. Oakland hitters rank a mere 19th in RS and 20th in OBP--the statistic Lewis identified as the "holy grail". Meanwhile, the pitching has managed to improve on its already gaudy numbers, placing 2nd in both RA and ERA, with a team mark of 3.16. The Big Three all rank in the top five of BP SNWL, meaning Oakland's third-best SP is better than the ace of every team except the White Sox (Esteban Loaiza) and Cardinals (Matt Morris). Charting most major hitting and pitching statistics against the A's month-by-month winning percentage since 2001 yields a higher R2 for ERA and RA than any other stats. In other words, how the A's pitch affects their winning percentage more than how the A's hit.

    Looking only at this season, when the struggling hitters are mercifully in the field, they have formed a defense miles ahead of the rest of the league, measuring just under .7600 on BP's defensive efficiency scale. The next best defense is .7383, the worst .6698--the A's gloves are outpacing the rest of the majors by half the range of all of baseball. This is a simple game: You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Well, two out of three ain't bad.

  • You Make Your Own Luck: Unlike 2002 when the A's posted an amazing 32-14 record in one-run ballgames, Finley's white elephants have struggled so far this year, posting a hair-grabbing 4-8 record in those games. Usually the bullpen takes the blame for a record like that, but up until last Thursday's 4-3 loss to the Twins, the A's had not lost a game they were leading after seven innings. The A's relief core is not deep, as Ricardo Rincon, Jim Mecir, and recently recalled Micah Bowie are a dramatic step down from closer Keith Foulke and setup man Bradford (Rule 5 man Mike Neu is putting up impressive RRE numbers, but has yet to pitch in anything resembling a close game). Fortunately for Ken Macha, he has only had to call on the bottom feeders for 45 IP because A's starters have worked so deep into games. Ken Macha is no Jeff Torborg, however, as the increased workload on the rotation hasn't resulted in a rise on the BP PAP charts since the A's staff throws relatively few pitches per inning. By throwing so well and so deep into games, Oakland's impressive starting staff not only displays its own dominance, but masks the weaknesses of the bottom of the bullpen. Luck and bad calls tend to even out over the season, so expect the A's to improve on their record in close games.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Lineup Change: Further debunking the closer myth, the Cardinals have finally found their 9th inning guy while Jason Isringhausen remains on the shelf, and his name is Cal Eldred. Since being appointed the closer, Eldred has had four saves in five tries, and managed to pick up the win in the game that he blew. He's not a completely resurrected pitcher by any means, still struggling with his command at times, but compared to what the Cardinals had been getting, his performance has been a blessing. A couple of BPers used to play in a Scoresheet league with a guy who was fond of calling Eldred "ol' jello elbow." It's safe to say that gelatin has not sustained a run of success this long since Bill Cosby quit pimpin' puddin' pops.

  • Disastrous Performance: Speaking of nicknames, there's none more a propos than Stinko Martinez. Through Sunday's game, the future Veterans Committee Hall-of-Famer has an OPS of just .359 in the month of May. The logical alternative, Eduardo Perez, has been hitting well, but the Cards have needed him in right field since Eli Marrero has been hurt. The problem hasn't received much attention since most of the Cardinal regulars continue to hit well, but if Martinez's slump is of the career-ending variety, they may be a hitter short at the corner positions.

    Possible solution: Jon Nunnally, whose .306 EqA at Memphis is the third-best in the minor leagues.

  • Out of Order: So Fernando Vina is hurt. Details at 11 on the Will Carroll news hour.

    We've already argued that Vina wasn't an appropriate choice for a leadoff hitter on a team with a bushel of guys who are great on getting at base, most notably Edgar Renteria. Now Miguel Cairo has taken his place, he of the career .320 career OBP. It's not like Cairo is useless--he hits lefties well and plays solid defense, and the Cardinals could have done worse for a replacement. But getting on base is not his forte.

    So what does La Russa do? Stick Cairo in the leadoff spot that Vina "owned," presumably so as not to disrupt the karma of the other guys in the lineup. It's not even like Cairo is much of a basestealer anymore, having stolen just three bags since the start of the 2001 season. We know, we know, lineup order doesn't make all that much of a difference, but why give up runs when you can avoid it?

  • Upcoming Schedule: The Cardinals have room to complain about their interleague schedule this year. Besides their home-and-home with the Royals, they'll get the Blue Jays and the Orioles at home--but the Yankees and the Red Sox on the road. While it's dubious to suggest that the schedule will hurt them much on the field, it certainly won't help them at the box office. We don't want to be in the uncomfortable position of arguing that the interleague schedule ought to be manipulated more than it already is, but to the extent that the entire experiment has been engineered to improve attendance, ought not that benefit be shared as equitably as possible?

Texas Rangers

  • On Fire: Sure, A-Rod has been A-Rod again this year (.306/.391/.596), and Hank Blalock is wreaking havoc on the AL now that the Rangers have left him alone and let him play every day (.361/.410/.594). But what's gotten into Michael Young? The third-year second baseman has gone completely meshuganeh, hitting .402 in May with a .424 on-base percentage and .552 slugging percentage. He's riding a seven-game hitting streak, including five multi-hit games in a row. Young's raking at a .349/.378/.495 clip for the season. Combine Young's unexpected fireworks with the hot May of uberprospect and likely future first baseman Mark Teixeira (.302/.387/.528 this month) and Buck Showalter and John Hart start to get giddy thinking about their Infield of the Future.

    While Young's hot start has some Rangers fans buzzing, the 26-year-old 2B has showed his same old offensive shortcomings, even while hitting seemingly everything where they ain't. He's drawn just nine walks this season in just under 200 plate appearances, while fanning 38 times. That's the same poor strike zone judgment that netted Young a career line of 40 walks and 126 Ks (and a pedestrian .271/.315/.406 batting line in a strong hitter's park) per 162 games coming into 2002. Young's mediocre 2003 isolated power number of .146 (a quick and dirty calculation of .495 SLG - .349 AVG) is right in line with his career figures. Bottom line, Young's had more balls in play fall in for hits, and that's it--he's not walking more, he's not hitting for more power, and he's a strong bet to regress back to mediocrity by year's end.

    Except...except Young's seeing 4.0 pitches per plate appearance, placing him third in the majors among the 23 starting second basemen with enough playing time to qualify for the batting crown, trailing only Roberto Alomar (4.3) and Mark Ellis (4.1). So while Young's power may take some time to develop, his tack of waiting for his pitch and whacking singles late in the count may have some legs behind it. We do at least know that hitters have more control over balls in play than do pitchers. As Young enters his arbitration years, the Rangers will have to hope his offensive gains are for real. Young may have led the majors in Zone Rating among second basemen last year. But we're also just two months removed from talk that Blalock would usurp the deuce and become the next Jeff Kent.

  • Trade Bait: As bad as the Rangers bullpen has been in recent years, this season's edition includes two pitchers who could have teams calling come July, or earlier. Ugueth Urbina's name has surfaced in trade rumors for the 612th straight season. Triple-U (his middle name is Urtain) went from flamethrowing bullpen anchor to possible washout after blowing out his shoulder in 2000. Urbina's violent delivery made scouts squirm and other baseball people shy away, fearing he'd hurt himself again. Regardless, he's been fine ever since, striking out 23 in 22.1 innings this year while yielding a respectably low 25 baserunners and preventing 3.6 Adjusted Runs (ARP).

    Urbina ranks as just the second-best reliever in the Texas pen though, and he's not even close to the top dog. So who is this fireman? If you said Aaron Fultz, grab your custom-made BP thimble at the door. The author of ERAs above 4.50 in each of his three major league seasons heading into 2003 (including an EqERA of 5.67 in pitcher-friendly Pac Bell last year), Fultz is at 1.91 this year. More impressively, he's logged a workmanlike 28.1 innings, allowing just 32 baserunners and two homers with a 3:1 K:BB ratio. Referring back to Michael Wolverton's Reliever Evaluation Tools, Fultz has been the 23rd-most valuable reliever in baseball, ranked by ARP. Given the constant pining by contenders for relief help, let alone left-handed relief help, there's sure to be demand for Fultz's services. The Rangers can replace Urbina and Fultz going forward with cheaper, equally capable arms if they do their homework. Adding young talent to complement the Infield of the Future is an endeavor worth pursuing.

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