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August 19, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • Win Some, Lose Some: The Sox got swept by the Texas Rangers over the weekend, dropping them three games behind the Royals, and into a tie with the Twins for second place. Coming on the heels of a series loss in Anaheim, the ground lost was substantial: our post-season odds report, which had the Sox as better than even money to win the division less than a week ago, pinpointed their chances at just 26.8% entering Monday night's home game against the Angels (Frank Thomas' heroics on Monday night should help to improve that figure a little bit).

    A source of frustration all season has been how poorly the Sox have played against the league's weak sisters. White Sox opponents break down pretty neatly into three clusters based on their winning percentage, so let's take a look at how the Good Guys have fared against the better and worse guys:

    
                    W       L       W Pct.
    Seattle         2       7       .222
    San Francisco   1       2       .333
    Boston          2       2       .500
    Oakland         4       5       .444
    Top Tier        9       16      .360
                            
    Kansas City     7       5       .583
    Arizona         1       2       .333
    Chicago N       4       2       .667
    Los Angeles     2       1       .667
    Minnesota       7       5       .583
    Toronto         6       3       .667
    Anaheim         2       2       .500
    Mid Tier        29      20      .592
                            
    Baltimore       4       2       .667
    Texas           0       3       .000
    Cleveland       8       8       .500
    Tampa Bay       3       3       .500
    San Diego       2       1       .667
    Detroit         9       7       .563
    Lower Tier      26      24      .520
    
    

    The Sox haven't played well against the league's elite, but no problem there--none of those teams are in the AL Central. What's bizarre, though, is how much better the Sox have played against middle-tier teams than lower-tier ones, against whom they've barely broken even. Whether the problem is motivation, match-ups, or plain ol' poor luck, this sort of thing won't look good on Jerry Manuel's TPS report should the White Sox fail to claim the division title.

  • At the Turnstiles: We talked last time about how U.S Cellular Field has been buzzing like so many monophonic ring tones. The White Sox averaged nearly 33,000 in paid attendance for their first six home dates in the month of August, capitalizing on a run of pleasant weather, intriguing opponents, and a summer calendar that leaves sports fans with little else to do.

    It has been great to see; in spite of its ill-designed upper deck, the Ballpark at 35th and Shields has always been a lot more fun when there's close to a full house on hand, and the White Sox have compiled a great record (38-22) at home this year.

    We take the business of baseball seriously around here, and it's easy to neglect the fact that pro ball is, first and foremost, a form of entertainment. Like other forms of entertainment, its popularity in particular markets is largely determined by fashion and whimsy. People go to ballgames in groups, and once a buzz is generated, a few large office parties, family get-togethers, fraternity outings can send attendance skyward in a hurry.

    Then again, the Sox could do something simple to motivate a more permanent boost in attendance: lower their ticket prices. This isn't the usual crotchety grumbling about baseball being a public service, or the prohibitive cost of providing a family of four with tickets, hot dogs, programs, sno-cones, soda pop, and Tony Graffanino bobbleheads. Baseball teams have the right to charge whatever they like for their tickets, and as far as most of BP is concerned, major league games are still a relative bargain.

    But the Sox have some have some prima facie evidence that their prices have been set inefficiently. Take a look at these figures:

    
    Monday          28,579
    Tuesday         21,760
    Wednesday       16,097
    Thursday        15,059
    
    

    That's average Sox home attendance by weeknight. What gives? Are Chicagoans too busy being cool urbanites to waste a good weeknight like Thursday at a ballgame?

    Not quite. As those of you from the area will know, Monday is half-priced ticket night at The Cell. Tuesday is semi-half-priced ticket night: you can get in for cheap if you bring in a product from a particular soft drink company. Wednesday and Thursday, on the other hand, are just Wednesday and Thursday.

    Monday attendance is more than 80% higher than the Wednesday and Thursday average. For all intents and purposes, ticket prices represent pure profit, so the Sox are recouping most of the loss they take on the reduced face value of the tickets based on the increase in attendance alone. Couple that with the fact that most fans will drop at least a Hamilton or two on beer and grub once they're at the game, and the Sox are easily making more money on nights when their ticket prices are lower. Slashing ticket prices in half might not be optimal, but dropping them significantly, or extending the half-priced promotion for an extra weeknight or two, would be a win-win situation for the team and its fans.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Mini Study: Bullpen Usage: One of the stories we've been following all season is the Cardinals' bullpen usage. The Cards' 10-21 mark in one-run games is a big reason why the most talented team in the division is one game behind the Astros, instead of a couple of games ahead. While bad luck has played its role, the bullpen is also a suspect any time a team posts a one-run record that lopsided.

    The Cardinals don't have a deep 'pen. On the active roster, only Jason Isringhausen (2.63) and Steve Kline (4.13) have ERAs better than league average. The season-ending injury to Kiko Calero did not help matters, and acquisitions like Esteban Yan and Pedro Borbon have been disasters. To compound the problem, with Woody Williams not pitching well lately, Matt Morris on the shelf and question marks in the rest of the rotation, Cardinal starters are often out of the game early.

    Reliever usage, like umpiring, is one of those things that is easily criticized when it doesn't turn out well, but barely noticed when it does. In fairness to Tony La Russa, it behooves us to put ourselves in his shoes, and examine the resources and situations that he's had to work with.

    We like to trot out new things in these Prospectus Triple Plays once and a while. Some of them will stick, some won't, and you guys get to be our guinea pigs. Ladies and gentlemen, introducing PRUC, the Prospectus Reliever Usage Chart.

    Prospectus Reliever Usage Chart: St. Louis Cardinals, Aug. 8-17

    What sort of information is presented here? We're looking in detail at the Cardinals' bullpen usage patterns over a stretch of 10 consecutive games from Aug. 8 through the Sunday night game on Aug. 17. It's an interesting period to look at: the Cardinals didn't have any off-days (Monday, in fact, was their first rest day since Aug. 4), played some quality opponents, and wound up in a lot of close games. This is exactly the kind of stretch that can push a bullpen to its limits.

    Each reliever gets his own color code (we mean no offense to Cal Eldred--someone had to take purple). The nine innings of the game are listed from top to bottom, broken up into thirds where necessary. Listed alongside is the score differential when the Cardinals took the mound that inning - positive numbers indicate a St. Louis lead.

    Take a moment and look it over.

    Great. So what can we see here?

    • La Russa, no surprise, uses Jason Isringhausen only in save situations.

    • Steve Kline is used frequently, but almost always when the team has a lead.

    • Jason Simontacchi is the workhorse of the staff, pitching when the team is behind, ahead, in mop-up situations, and so on. That's one way in which a guy with a poor ERA can still have some value to his team.

    • Pedro Borbon stinks.

    The PRUC helps to illuminate a couple of questionable decisions that La Russa made. First, bringing in Borbon instead of Isringhausen with the game tied 5-5 entering the bottom of the 9th on Aug. 13. Izzy hadn't pitched the day before, and Borbon promptly ruined a nice comeback that the Cardinals had put together. The use of Borbon on Aug. 15 is also debatable. While the situation might not have called for Isringhausen or Kline, Cal Eldred was available and would have been a better choice for a one-run game, but La Russa seems committed to using him in the eighth inning.

    Most of this stuff is par for the course, but that doesn't make it excusable. When a team has fewer resources in its 'pen, it is even more obligated to use each pitcher as efficiently as possible. That means recognizing that being tied, or down by a run, is a higher-leverage situation than being up by three.

    And as for PRUC...too much information? Too little? Just right? Shoot us an e-mail and let us know what you think.

Texas Rangers

  • Lineup Look, Outfield and First Base: Last week Rafael Palmeiro turned down a trade to the Chicago Cubs that reportedly would have landed minor league pitchers Ricky Nolasco and Felix Sanchez. This was the second high-profile trade rejection by a Ranger this summer, following Juan Gonzalez's refusal to head to Montreal back in June. In Raffy's case, the Rangers had put out signals that they might be interested in re-signing him in the off-season. Ironically, his rejecting of the trade likely hurts his chances of returning to Arlington: if the Rangers do not sign him by Dec. 7, they would have to offer him arbitration or non-tender him, and they would likely choose the latter.

    Despite the aborted deals, the Rangers have rid themselves of several veterans this summer, including Ugueth Urbina, Doug Glanville, Carl Everett, Ruben Sierra, Esteban Yan, and Todd Van Poppel, and are clearly retooling for 2005 and beyond. With the certain departure of Gonzalez and the near-certain exodus of Palmeiro, let's try to sort out a few other candidates for jobs next year in the outfield and first base.

    • Adrian Gonzalez, first base - Part of the haul for Urbina, his major league adjusted EqA is right around .200 at three minor league stops this season, which is well below his PECOTA forecast. This former #1 pick in the nation is still just 21, so there is plenty of reason to believe that he is going to have a career. He is hitting .300 now at Frisco, but his future will depend almost solely on whether he develops power--think Palmeiro or Tino Martinez--or does not--Sean Casey. He is probably a year away.

    • Kevin Mench, left field - Mench has had a lost year, with a strained oblique in March, a trip to Oklahoma City in May (due largely to the Rangers' fascination with Sierra) and a broken wrist in July. Around all that, his performance was fine (.320, .381, .464), with his .293 EqA right at PECOTA's 75th percentile. Still just 25, you can pencil him in for left field next year.

    • Laynce Nix, right field - Having leapt from the Florida State League to Arlington in a half-season, Nix has put himself in the outfield mix for 2004. He has exceeded his PECOTA projection--which compared him to Rich Chiles and Norm Miller--and some additional strides in his offensive game could earn him the right field job for several years.

    • Ramon Nivar, center field - Nivar was Nix's teammate in Charlotte last year, and has made a similar dash through the upper minors in 2003. Nivar's greatest tool is his speed--he is said to be an electrifying player to watch. A lot of his success in the minors was based on legging out hits, but he is going to have to develop more power and plate selectivity to be a regular player. The Rangers love him, so unless he totally stinks it up in the next six weeks, or if the Rangers bring in a free agent (Mike Cameron is the big rumor) Nivar will likely be their center fielder next April.

    • Mark Teixeira, anywhere - His numbers (.251/.331/.462, EqA of .271) are about what PECOTA thought they'd be (weighted mean EqA of .275), so there is still every reason to be optimistic. What position he is going to be play--he's played at least 10 games at 1B, 3B, LF, and RF--is largely dependent on the guys above. With Adrian Gonzalez not yet ready, expect Teixeira to play 1B next season.

    With Alex Rodriguez and Michael Young in the middle of the diamond and plenty of talent at the corners, the Rangers' biggest lineup needs are to find a catcher and possibly a big stick to DH. If they can get Palmeiro to come back for reasonable dollars, they ought to re-up him.

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