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May 28, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Atlanta Braves, Minnesota Twins, Tampa Bay Devil Rays

by Baseball Prospectus

Atlanta Braves

  • Warning: Gun Jumping Ahead: At their current pace, the Braves are on target to score 940 runs on the season, an improvement of 232 runs over their figure from last year. Sure, you wouldn't think it likely that they maintain their current pace, but instead, they keep on getting hotter, hitting .285/.353/.525 as a team and averaging 6.6 runs scored per game in May. If they improve their run output by a margin that large, just how significant is that in terms of history?

    Since World War II, there have been just 11 teams that improved their scoring by at least 200 runs from one season to the next over the equivalent over a 162-game season (prorating the numbers for shorter years). Those teams are listed in the table below, along with a "turnover" figure indicating how many of that team's positions had a new regular from the season before.

    
    Team                     RS   Turnover
    1977 White Sox          +254    6/9
    1999 Diamondbacks       +243    6/8
    1993 Giants             +234    1/8
    1947 Giants             +229    3/8
    1969 Twins              +228    2/8
    1970 Padres             +213    2/8
    1973 Orioles            +208    4/9
    1946 Red Sox            +203    7/8
    1947 Pirates            +202    6/8
    1955 Tigers             +201    2/8
    1969 Orioles            +200    2/8
    -----------------------------------
    2003 Braves             +232    2/8
    
    

    Of the three teams that improved by more than 232 runs, two turned over virtually their entire rosters, and the other added Mr. Barry Bonds. So, yes, it's certainly unusual for an offense to improve by that much while using mostly the same players. The 1969 Twins or 1969 Orioles are perhaps the most appropriate comparables, but those teams played in an expansion year with a newly-lowered pitching mound.

    What's interesting is that most of the teams on the list continued to be successful in the seasons following the increase. It may be the case that improvement of this magnitude necessarily reflects fundamental changes that are enough to overwhelm the plexiglass principle--in the Braves' case, for example, the emergence (or re-emergence) of a potential All-Star tandem in the middle infield for most of the next decade.

  • Star Performer: Among the rags-to-riches stories in the Braves' lineup this year, the most impressive isn't Marcus Giles or Rafael Furcal, but Javy Lopez. Lopez is a 32-year-old catcher whose performance had declined dramatically in each of the past three seasons. He was well on his way to being another fat, slow, injury-prone catcher whose career ended early. PECOTA recognized this as a common pattern among backstops, and was way down on Lopez, assigning him a collapse rate in excess of 40%.

    Instead, Lopez's career has been revitalized. While his plate discipline still leaves something to be desired, twelve homers in the first seven weeks is not to be taken lightly, especially when Lopez hit only eleven homers all of last season.

    You hear all the time that a player's conditioning has improved in the off-season, or that he's lost weight, and most of the time, you're best off ignoring it and chalking it up to a slow news day. But in Lopez' case, the 30-40 pounds he's lost are unmistakable; watching him, you would not think he was the same player if not for the "LOPEZ 8" on his back. The shorter careers of catchers have long been attributed to the defensive demands of the position, but one has to wonder whether part of the problem isn't that catchers are encouraged--or at least not discouraged--to carry excess weight on their frames.

  • Draft Update: Although they don't have a first-round pick this year, one of the greatest certainties in the upcoming amateur draft is that the Braves will stay local with a large percentage of their picks. Including supplemental rounds, the Braves have had nine first round picks in the past three years - here are the home states of their draftees.
    
    2002    Georgia, Virginia
    2001    Georgia, Georgia, Georgia
    2000    Georgia, Ontario, Texas, Pennsylvania
    
    

    Five of the nine picks were from Georgia itself, another from Virginia, another from Texas. One of Rob Neyer's best pieces suggested that teams are better off intensely scouting only a small fraction of the draft pool, as opposed to performing a superficial scan of all potential draftees. Certainly, the Athletics have discovered one effective way to accomplish this - focusing on college hitters and pitchers who control the strike zone. Have the Braves discovered another? What's more, since all of the Braves minor league affiliates are located in the South, there's the added benefit of having a bunch of impressionable 18-to-21 year olds getting their feet wet while playing close to home. It's a question that deserves further study.

Minnesota Twins

  • Leaps and Bounds: Way back on April 30th, we pointed out that despite their slow start, the Minnesota Twins were about to enter a month where they would have the opportunity to make a serious move in the AL Central. "With a 10-game homestand," we said, "...the Twins could pick up some much-needed ground and finally narrow the race to just themselves and the White Sox."

    Well, we were partially right. After all, the Minnesota Twins have won more than 70% of their games in the month of May, jumping from five games out of first place to 2 1/2 games up. What we were wrong about was the idea that they'd be in the middle of a race; as of May 27th, the Twins are the race.

    The difference between the Twins of April and the Twins of May has largely been offensive. Where last month the Twins batted .247 and scored a measly 3.9 runs a game, this month's version of the Twinkies have batted .310 while scoring 5.9 runs a game. Where last month such regulars as Dustan Mohr, A.J. Pierzynski, and Matt LeCroy combined for a line of just .203/.247/.241, May has seen them produce at a significantly better rate--.360/.389/.578 to be exact.

    
    May 2003     G AB 2B 3B HR BB SO   AVG  OBP  SLG
    ------------------------------------------------
    Mohr        24 92  8  0  3  4 16  .402 .433 .587
    Pierzynski  20 73  6  1  2  1  5  .329 .346 .521
    LeCroy      14 46  3  0  4  1 10  .326 .367 .652
    
    

    Another reason for the Twins' success is the continuing dominance of their bullpen. As of the 27th, only one member of the Twins relief squad has an ERA higher than 3.00 (Tony Fiore, at 4.88). The rest--Mike Fetters, Juan Rincon, Eddie Guardado, Johan Santana, and J.C. Romero--have allowed just 27 earned runs in more than 125 innings of work, good for an ERA of 1.94. No wonder this team is third in the majors in Adjusted Runs Prevented and the world leader in Adjusted Runs Allowed.

    Next to the Toronto Blue Jays, the Minnesota Twins are the hottest team in the American League right now. Unlike the Blue Jays, however, the Twins' recent surge has effectively put them in control of their own desinty. Ah...the joys of the AL Central.

  • From the Mailbag:

    While I enjoyed your most recent Prospectus Triple Play featuring the Twins, something I read makes me question the validity of your claims: particularly the ones about Jacque Jones. According to a couple of quick-n-dirty correlation studies I've seen recently, there isn't much connection between a poor K/BB ratio for hitters and a lack of success at the plate. Knowing this, why would you assert that Jacque is going to fall off? Is this just another example of the sabermetric writers falling into the same trap that Baseball Men fell into before them--parroting the wisdom of their forefathers without questioning the status quo?

    And another thing: are you really sure that Jones "established level of ability" (as you put it) against left-handers is as bad as his numbers would suggest? At the moment, Jones has accumulated close to the same number of at-bats versus lefties in 2003 as he did in all of 2002. Are you really sure that he's been "over is head"? I'd be inclined to believe that there's real improvement there.

    -- B.M.

    There are a number of questions here, B.M., so I'm going to try to take them one at a time.

    First of all, while the correlation between strikeout-to-walk ratio and batting average might not be perfect, there is a connection between the two statistics. As Nate Silver pointed out in a recent article for ESPN.com on Rocco Baldelli, the number of players in major-league history who have managed to bat .300 for an entire season while maintaining a K:BB of 5:1 is extremely limited.

    And by "extremely limited" we mean, "fewer examples than Rocky movies." There just isn't a precedent for success for players with strikeout-to-walk ratios of five-to-one, let alone Jones' current figure, 10-to-one. [Ed. Note: As of 5/27, Jones had lowered his K/BB ratio to nine-to-one. --RW] To assume that Jones can continue to hit at his current .340/.350/.500 clip, despite exhibiting little-to-no control of the strike zone, is to ignore more than 130 years history that says otherwise.

    Major-league players who strike out 10 times for every walk do not stay productive major-leaguers for long. They adapt, or their weaknesses get exploited. If Jones begins to adapt, I'll change my tune. Until then, however, I'm sticking to my guns: his production will fall.

    And as for your second question, B.M.--yes, I do think that Jones has been over his head against lefties this season. Check out his splits, dating back through the 2000 campaign:

    
    2000-2003       AB  2B  3B  HR  BB  SO   AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS
    -----------------------------------------------------------
    vs. Lefty      349  18   1   4  17  99  .221 .259 .312 .571
    vs. Righty    1408  84   7  59  89 271  .310 .351 .507 .858
    
    

    Granted, 350 at-bats isn't a ton, but that isn't just a platoon deficiency--that's the Grand Friggin' Canyon.

    What sticks out to me most when I see these numbers, though, isn't the nearly-300 point difference in OPS, or the fact that Jones is actually quite awesome against righties: it's the strikeouts. Where Jones has K'd in roughly 18% of his plate-appearances against righties since 2000, he's struck out in more than 27% of plate-appearances against lefties in the same period of time. To put that number into context, Preston Wilson struck out in roughly 24% of his plate-appearances last season. Think about that for a while. Jones just doesn't make outs when facing lefties--he gets dominated like Marv Albert in a pair of leather pants.

    Make all the excuses you want for Jones regarding the fact that nearly one-fifth of those at-bats against lefties came before his 25th birthday, and that he's just now reaching his peak and still has some room to improve: the man is horrible against southpaws. What he's done against them in the past is real, and it needs to be held against him. Expecting him to suddenly break out against lefties--a la Chipper Jones--is kind of like betting on a losing horse because you think he's "due."

    Oh...and I almost forgot.

    JACQUE JONES
    
    vs. Lefties      AVG  OBP  SLG
    ------------------------------
    14 May 2003     .310 .333 .452 (Last Twins' PTP)
    27 May 2003     .267 .286 .383 (Yesterday)
    
    

    Random fluctuation? Maybe. But I wouldn't bet on it.

Tampa Bay Devil Rays

  • Looking Out for Number One: It's nearly time for Tampa Bay General Manager Chuck LaMar to reprise his Elgin Baylor imitation. No, not the Baylor named to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, but the Baylor who, as the embattled GM of the Los Angeles Clippers, was a fixture at the NBA Draft Lottery. Despite annually drawing a plum drafting slot, Baylor would inevitably be back the following year after the Clippers couldn't escape Clipperdom. Likewise, after being relegated to the back of the drafting pack until they and their expansion brothers, the Diamondbacks, played a regular season game, the Devil Rays have selected no lower than sixth in any of the four subsequent drafts. This year they hold the top pick.

    The second-longest tenured GM in the American League (after Minnesota's Terry Ryan), LaMar will be presiding over his eighth June draft, although the Devil Rays' new Director of Player Personnel, Cam Bonifay, is pretty much running this year's show. The team has announced its intentions to draft a position player and seems to have narrowed the field to two. With no one in picking front of them, it is at their sole discretion whether they choose Southern University's Rickie Weeks or Southern California high schooler Delmon Young. Both are pure hitters whose biggest assets are their bats. Weeks projects as a second baseman, while Young looks like he'll be relegated to one of the outfield corners.

    There are a number of reasons to pick Weeks. As a college junior, he's likely to reach the majors much faster than Young, which would temporarily sooth manager Lou Piniella's nerves. The Devil Rays are awash in young outfielders, but their system is thin in the middle infield. They also will have more negotiating leverage with Weeks since Young has youth and a free ride to the University of Arizona on his side.

    On the flip side, LaMar has only once not selected a high school player with the Rays' top pick, and despite the team's floundering, hasn't wavered from his philosophy on player development. In eight years as Pirates' GM, Bonifay spent his top selection on a prepster more often than not. In the instances where LaMar or Bonifay used the first pick on a collegian, they always took a pitcher (Kris Benson, Clint Johnston, Dewon Brazelton and John Van Benschoten). Old habits die hard. Look for Tampa Bay to tab Delmon Young.

  • Dawn of the Dead: The last Devil Rays' Triple Play talked about the organization's plan to keep at least three young arms in the rotation at all times this season. Although the plan hasn't been abandoned, the casualty rate has been steep, with only Joe Kennedy surviving more than five starts. Seth McClung's trip to the DL with a strained elbow ended Victor Zambrano's exile to Tobacco Road, making Kennedy, Zambrano and Brazelton the latest edition of Piniella's Peach Fuzz Troika.

    The other two spots in the rotation haven't been any more stable, but at least they come with better back-stories. After sifting through the remains of Steve Parris and Jim Parque, the Rays have driven the shovel a little deeper, unearthing Jeremi Gonzalez and Carlos Reyes.

    Once a top prospect with the Cubs, Gonzalez' arm lost the battle with Jim Riggleman's workloads in 1998, just as Kerry Wood's did. But while Wood was pitching with the Wrigley Field ivy at his back by early 2000, Gonzalez tossed but 35 innings of organized baseball from 1999 to 2001 before resurfacing with Triple-A Oklahoma last year. Tampa Bay signed him to a minor league contract over the winter, and in six starts at Durham had an ERA of 2.53 and averaged over a strikeout an inning before his May 17th recall. Still only 28 years old, Gonzalez has given the American League's worst starting staff two quality starts in two tries.

    It's been even longer since Reyes has started a game in The Show--August 12, 1997 as a member of the last pre-GM Billy Beane Oakland Athletics team. Reyes actually quit playing and worked as the pitching coach for Idaho Falls in the Pioneer League last season, before returning to the mound this spring. Added to the roster yesterday, he was leading all Triple-A starters with a 1.19 ERA, issuing only two free passes to International League batters in 53 innings. He brings a complete assortment of junk to throw at opposing hitters.

    On the surface it may look like another in a long series of sideshows under The Trop, but Gonzalez and Reyes are improvements over what preceded them. More importantly, their promotions keep kids like Jason Standridge and Doug Waechter from being thrown into the fire when they clearly aren't ready.

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