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July 10, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City Royals, Philadelphia Phillies

by Baseball Prospectus

Arizona Diamondbacks

  • Micro Study: Arizona has overtaken Philadelphia for the National League's wild card lead. They're one game ahead in that race, with last-place San Diego in town for a two-game series (Arizona won game one 8-3 last night). The Diamondbacks close out the first half with a weekend set against the Giants, who lead the Snakes by four games in the West. They have an opportunity to hit the break on a roll.

    It's the time of year when cynics point out that teams who lead their division at this point in the season usually hold on and that it's rare enough for a trailing team to win the division that rooting for them is a fool's pastime. Last summer, Alan Schwarz showed that a team five games out of first place--where the Diamondbacks were before gaining a game on the Giants last night--at the end of July has a 9% chance of winning its division.

    On July 31, 1997, the White Sox made their so-called White Flag Trade. They were 3.5 games behind the Indians, and the team's fans went bananas. But according to Schwarz's research Chicago had about a 32% shot at overtaking the Tribe. Some teams make deadline deals out of exaggerated expectations. Reinsdorf, for one, knew when to cut bait.

    Thanks to Retrosheet we know that of the 48 division winners since the wild card was instituted, 38 of them led the division at this point in the season. The Giants have an 80% likelihood of holding off the Diamondbacks. They'd better, because of the 10 teams that blew a divisional lead, only one went on to make the playoffs as a wild card.

    So the odds are against Arizona winning the division, but they don't need to win it to make the playoffs. Last year the Giants and Angels were both wild cards. If they have Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling healthy and in the rotation, all the Diamondbacks need to do is get to October and they'll have more than a puncher's chance at retaking the crown.

    Judging by the history of the wild card era, they have a better than even chance of making it. Of the 16 teams that led the wild card race at this point, nine--56%--made the playoffs, either by taking the wild card or stealing the division. Even after suffering all those key injuries, Arizona is on pace for 90 wins. Give them back their aces, and they look like they'll be a lock to get to the postseason.

    The Pirates and Reds are probably done for in the wild card race, with both teams sitting 10.5 games out. But is there any hope that the Phillies, Expos, Dodgers, Cardinals, Astros, Cubs, or Rockies can catch the Diamondbacks? If we can have any faith in the eight-year sample size, yes there is. Nine of the 16 wild card winners across both leagues led neither the wild card nor their division on July 10. These weren't merely cases of teams trailing by one game, where the standings could flip overnight. Six of these nine were at least three games back.

    
    Year     Team     Games Behind Wild Card Leader
    2002    Angels                       1.5
    2002    Giants                       2.0
    1996    Dodgers/Padres               2.0*
    1996    Orioles                      3.0
    1998    Cubs                         3.5
    1995    Dodgers                      5.5
    2001    Cardinals                    5.5
    2001    A's                          6.0
    1995    Yankees                      7.5
    
    * The Dodgers and Padres were tied atop the West.
    They trailed the Expos for the wild card lead.

    In the American League's wild card "division," Boston leads Oakland by two games. The A's, Jays (-4), Angels (-6.5), Twins (-7), and White Sox (-8) shouldn't give up just yet.

    The 1995 Yankees were 30-36, eight games out of first in their division and eighth in the wild card standings in June. That's the best comeback story we've seen since the system kicked in. For despair, look to the Phillies. In 1995 and 2001, they were 5.5 games ahead of the eventual wild card winner before blowing it.

Kansas City Royals

  • The Miracle by the Missouri: The Royals have been outscored on the season. Their best hitter is currently on the DL; their second-best hitter missed the first three weeks of the season. Their #1 starter has been out for nearly two months. Chris George leads the team in wins. Jose Lima is tied for third.

    And the Royals lead the AL Central by 4.5 games.

    There are two questions that must be asked here:

    1. Are the Royals this good?

    2. Can they win the division?

    The answer to (1) is, pretty clearly, no. The Royals have not only been outscored on the season, but they have scored more runs than their offensive numbers would suggest, while their opponents have scored fewer runs than their numbers would suggest.

    According to Clay Davenport's Adjusted Standings report, while the Royals have been outscored by just eight runs through Tuesday's games, they should have allowed 47 runs more than they've scored, 466-419. Using their expected run totals, their Pythagenport record ought to be about 39-48. Their actual record was the exact opposite, meaning they've played about nine games over their heads, a remarkably high total for the season's halfway point.

    Meanwhile, the two teams nipping at their heels, the Twins and White Sox, are both underachieving their expected records slightly. In particular, the Twins have been outscored by 12 runs even though they have 26 more equivalent runs than their opponents. The Twins should be 47-41 through Tuesday and in first place; instead, they're at .500 and 4.5 games back.

    So if the Royals aren't really this good, does that mean they're a strong bet to drop out of first place by year's end? The answer to (2) isn't as clear as you might think.

    Keep in mind, the Royals aren't just in first, they have a fairly sizable lead on the Twins and White Sox. A 4.5-game lead with 75 games left is nothing to sneeze at; to make up the deficit, the Twins would have to have a winning percentage 60 points higher than that of the Royals the rest of the way.

    Of course, according to Clay Davenport's numbers, the Twins' expected winning percentage to this point in the season is 90 points higher than the Royals, so they certainly could make up the deficit. There's reason to believe, however, that the Royals are about to get a lot better on the field.

    Assuming the medical reports are accurate, Runelvys Hernandez should return to the rotation later this week, and when play resumes after the All-Star Break next Thursday, Joe Randa should be back in the lineup, and both Kyle Snyder and Mike Sweeney should be activated from the DL. The return of the Royals' best hitter and best pitcher will be an enormous boost, especially if the Royals do the right thing and banish Chris George to the bullpen, if not Omaha.

    Furthermore, Curtis Leskanic is already paying dividends in the bullpen, helping to paper over the Royals' most obvious weakness. Leskanic gives the Royals four relievers--along with Mike MacDougal, Jason Grimsley, and D.J. Carrasco--with ERAs under four.

    And in the minor leagues, the Royals have two youngsters who may yet have an impact before the season ends. Zack Greinke, the 19-year-old phenom who went 11-1 with a 1.14 ERA in Wilmington, was just promoted to Double-A. It's not a stretch to think that, if he meets with similar success in Wichita over the next six weeks, he might be added to the team's bullpen for the September stretch run. Meanwhile, centerfielder David DeJesus has suddenly emerged as one of the best hitting prospects in the high minors, hitting .326/.441/.495 between Double-A and Triple-A, with 31 walks and 44 runs scored in just 47 games.

    It's still way too early to start printing playoff tickets. It's also way too late to dismiss the Royals as a fluke. They have quietly become the most compelling story in baseball. Here's hoping they have many more chapters still to write.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Quite an Honor: Recently, Sports Illustrated published the results of a survey of big league ballplayers which tagged Larry Bowa as the worst manager in the major leagues. Predictably the current members of the team decried the result--though no one was sadistic enough to ask Scott Rolen about his opinion of the matter. However a look at the offensive development of the Phillies would lend some credence to the thought that something is wrong with the coaching staff at the Vet, whether with Bowa, hitting coach Greg Gross, or both.

    Rolen is the most famous case of a player who sparred with Bowa, and his production went down the longer he played for him. As soon as he was traded to St. Louis Rolen's numbers rose substantially--he's now having the best year of his career. Jimmy Rollins has shown essentially no development with his walk and power rates being completely flat despite being at an age where at least the power numbers should be improving. Pat Burrell has been enduring a nightmare season this season where he has been one of the worst hitters in the majors a year after being considered for the All-Star Game.

    An additional problem over the past two seasons has been consistently poor hitting with the bases loaded, with both the team on-base and slugging percentages below .300 in almost 300 plate appearances in those situations. What is most telling about those situations is that normally patient hitters such as Burrell, Bobby Abreu, and (last season) Jeremy Giambi would come to the plate at start swinging at bad first or second pitches, far from their normal behavior. They looked like they were feeling considerable pressure to get the job done and were not relaxed and acting like their normal selves.

    Bowa has a reputation as a very hard-nosed manager and quite often those managers have a limited effectiveness, getting very good results initially but then failing to build on those results as the tough guy act wears thin. The problems of the Phillies hitters could very well be an indication that this is playing out in Philadelphia.

  • Noteworthy Prospects: The trading deadline is approaching and the Phillies are still very much in the middle of the playoff chase. This likely means that Ed Wade is once again trying to track down a "proven veteran" reliever. However, instead of trading prospects for the next iteration of Dennis Cook, they might be better served by looking within the organization for help. Two players in particular are worth considering, Geoff Geary and Frank Brooks.

    Geary was a solid starter in the system until he hit Triple-A, where he became somewhat inconsistent. This season he has pitched almost entirely out of the bullpen and has done an admirable job. While his ERA under 2.00 will certainly get plenty of attention, there are two other indicators of how strong a season he's had. His control has been outstanding, allowing only eight walks in 59 innings; even if you include the four batters he has hit this season that's still under two batters per 9 innings who have been given first base. Even more startling is that in those 59 innings he has given up no home runs. It would be easy for Geary to fall through the cracks given that he's a short right-hander (generously listed at 6'0") but to their credit the Phillies have not written him off because of that. In fact when Brandon Duckworth took a line drive off his arm recently, Geary was summoned to the big league club in case Duckworth had to go on the DL. Geary never actually made it onto the big league roster at that point, but he has earned the chance to get there some time this season.

    One level further down, Brooks represents a similar story, namely a former starter who has thrived since being moved to the bullpen. Like Geary his walk numbers have been outstanding, with strong strikeout numbers to back it up: roughly 11 strikeouts and two walks per nine innings. Unlike Geary, Brooks has allowed some long balls, but five homers in 54 innings of work is not a cause for concern. While he may be a little further away from helping the big league club than Geary is, Brooks could also be an asset to the club.

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