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August 21, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Arizona Diamondbacks, Kansas City Royals, Philadelphia Phillies

by Baseball Prospectus

Arizona Diamondbacks

  • Out on the Basepaths:
    Then the Lord God brought the three of them to judgment, and he said to the snake, "Because you have done this, cursed are you above all beasts of the field. Your feet shall be cut off and you shall eat dust all the days of your life." - Genesis 3.14

    The stories of Genesis are reoccurring in the desert of Arizona. The second half of the season has seen the D'backs offense bite the dust. Bob Brenly's attempts to jump-start the offense in the second half with aggressive baserunning have only driven it further into the ground. The team is 14-for-32 in stolen base attempts in the second half, dropping the team's stolen base percentage to .612, worst in the league. The Diamondbacks have injected some youth into their lineup this year, but the offense still revolves around a few key old guys, who aren't getting any faster with age. The only way for Arizona to break its baserunning curse is to be more patient on the bases. Now that the Diamondbacks' odds of making the playoffs are down to 11.9%, every out is precious (though one could argue that every out should always be handled with care, even in the best of times).

    What's been even worse for the D'backs than making outs on the bases are the outs they're making at the plate. Their .327 OBP ranks them ahead of only the Cubs, Dodgers, Mets, and Reds in the NL. It's disappointing to see the Diamondback offense melt down after they rid themselves of out-machines Tony Womack and Matt Williams, but that's exactly what's happening in the desert this year.

  • Unit Still Dysfunctional: Randy Johnson's struggles have united all sorts of talent evaluators in confusion. In his seven-run, five-inning implosion against Atlanta Aug. 15, Johnson appeared to have good stuff. His fastball jumped around in the mid- to upper-90s, and his slider broke more than a Bud Selig promise. From a more objective standpoint, Johnson's seven strikeouts and one walk on that night suggest that he's still at the top of his game, and that he could have been the victim of bad luck. His next start against the Reds--at this time fielding one of the worst lineups in baseball with their starting outfield all injured--brought more of the same. Johnson isn't getting hurt by the base on balls, and is still striking guys out like it's going out of style, so what's been the problem? Here's a list of the Unit's opponents' batting average on balls in play since joining Arizona in 1999:
    
    Year            BIPBA
    1999:           .281
    2000:           .310
    2001:           .301
    2002:           .277
    2003:           .335
    
    

    It looks like Johnson has probably given up more than his fair share of cheap hits this year. He should be ready for a turnaround, but for the Arizona fans--who have been watching players like Vinny Castilla and Juan Castro knock around Johnson's formerly dominating slider--it may be too late.

  • On the Farm: With Brad Cresse's development stalled (.197 mjEQA at Triple-A), the Diamondbacks' best catching prospect right now is 22-year-old Chris Snyder. Snyder, a second-round pick in last year's amateur draft, posted a .400 OBP at high-A Lancaster, earning a promotion to El Paso. Snyder has struggled against Double-A pitching, battling a wrist injury to hit .222/.292/.386 in his brief time there, but he's got the power and defensive rep to get noticed, as well the great batting eye (50/65 K/BB ratio) that often portends future success. Arizona has plenty of catching depth in the organization, so they will likely take their time with Snyder, moving him up one level at a time.

Kansas City Royals

  • Danger: Look Out for Falling Royals: As major league baseball recessed for its All-Star Break last month, Royals fans had three long days to enjoy the unthinkable: a divisional lead so gaping--seven full games--that it seemed almost unassailable. Rumblings out of Chicago were that the White Sox were ready to fire Jerry Manuel and run up the white flag; it was widely thought that the Royals were one good week away from forcing the Sox and Twins to declare unconditional surrender.

    By Aug. 1, the White Sox had caught the Royals for first place.

    Six days ago, the Royals entered play two full games ahead of the White Sox, and four games ahead of the Twins. They had just won a series at home against the Yankees for the first time in nearly a decade.

    Today, they're back in a virtual tie with the White Sox, with the Twins lurking just a half-game back.

    Say this for the Royals: no one can blow a lead faster than they can. The secret to their elasticity--no matter how far they stretch their lead, they always snap back--is simple: they've suddenly lost the ability to beat their direct competition.

    Consider this:

    
                            Before Break    After Break
    
    Vs. Chicago             4-2             1-5
    Vs. Minnesota           7-3             2-3
    Vs. Cleveland           10-3
    Vs. Detroit             10-2
    
    Vs. AL Central          31-10           3-8
    Outside Division        20-31           11-11
    
    

    The Royals' enormous lead at the All-Star Break obscured the fact that outside their own division, they were about as menacing as Carol Moseley Braun in a Democratic primary. Their playoff aspirations were solely the result of an intradivision record which, as the last month has proven, was utterly unsustainable.

    If the Royals want to find a scapegoat for their miserable performance against the White Sox and Twins over the last month, they don't have to take their eyes off the mound: they've allowed 86 runs in those 11 games, or 7.8 runs a game. As the Royals kick off a four-game series in Minnesota tonight, they'll be hard-pressed to stop the bleeding. Tonight's starter should be Kris Wilson, who sports a 4.73 ERA on the season. Instead, the Royals will go with Paul Abbott, who was inexplicably acquired to replace Wilson on the roster two weeks ago. Abbott totes an 11.17 ERA into the game.

  • Is There A Dermatologist in the House?: The freefall descent of the Royals' pitching staff coincides with the blister-induced decision to move Jeremy Affeldt to the bullpen. It's not entirely clear that this has hurt the team; Affeldt's fastball picks up an extra foot whenever he pitches in relief, and after throwing 2 2/3 scoreless against the Yankees last night, his ERA in relief is 1.98, with 17 strikeouts in just 14 innings of work.

    That's the rub: Affeldt has thrown just 14 innings in the Royals' last 26 games. With cast-offs currently inhabiting three of the Royals' rotation slots, serious consideration has to be given to nursing Affeldt through five-inning starts for the remainder of the season.

    Affeldt's ability to overpower hitters for two innings at a time might be the difference in a postseason series. But first the Royals have to get there. They're more likely to do so with Affeldt starting for the next six weeks.

  • Runelvys Has Left the Roster: What's the best way to get a pitcher to admit his arm hurts? Demote him, of course. Runelvys Hernandez, the team's Opening Day starter, has obviously been laboring since he was activated from the DL on July 11th. While repeatedly denying that he was pitching hurt, he's given up 24 runs in 15 innings over his last four starts.

    After he was optioned to Wichita on Sunday, with the attendant loss of major league salary and service time, Hernandez has started singing a different tune. He and his agent have insisted on having his elbow examined--by the team's physician and an outside consultant--before he reports.

    Hernandez wouldn't be the first pitcher to take the mound at less than 100% in a misguided effort to benefit his team. But his actions since have shed doubt on the notion that he took the mound to benefit anyone other than himself.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • Looking Over Shoulders: As these words hit paper the Phillies are fighting to maintain their half-game lead over the Florida Marlins in the wild card race, and Jose Mesa is trying to keep his job. As predicted, Mesa's vacation from the closer role was a short one, but he still can't pitch. On Sunday night against St. Louis, he so terrified Bowa that the manager brought in Mike Williams to get the final out. In the clubhouse, Joe Table destroyed, well, a table, and then cussed at a reporter.

    Bo Hart, who was due up next, loves to hack at fastballs, so the move to Williams, a sinker-slider guy, was logical. The Cardinals could respond with Kerry Robinson (they did), but Robinson is weak on the change-up, which Williams also throws. Still, solid closers don't get pulled against Bo Hart. But even though Mesa's on a very short leash, the smart money says he'll be closing for the Phillies in October...if they get there.

  • Surprise!: Placido Polanco is a useful player, but nobody saw him doing what he is (.301/.370/.472). Polanco's .301 EqA far exceeds the .243 for which PECOTA had him pegged. (PECOTA's 90th-percentile projection for him was only .270) Let's take a look at the Phillies' starting lineup on Opening Day, and see what we thought they'd do, and what they've done:
      PECOTA    EqA thru
                        Mean EqA    8/19     Difference
    C Lieberthal          .259     .294      +.035
    1B Thome              .349     .310      -.039
    2B Polanco            .243     .301      +.058
    SS Rollins            .268     .246      -.022
    3B Bell               .262     .218      -.044
    LF Burrell            .307     .256      -.051
    CF Byrd               .271     .272      +.001
    RF Abreu              .324     .318      -.006
    
    

    This offense hasn't been as good as we thought, but while Jim Thome and Marlon Byrd have been getting a lot of credit for holding it up, guys like Mike Lieberthal and Polanco--who is outperforming his projection by more than Pat Burrell is falling short of his...think about that for a second--deserve more recognition.

    Another fun Polanco fact: The closest players to his .842 OPS are Ichiro Suzuki (.844) and Eric Chavez (.843). How's that for company? And we haven't even mentioned his solid defense or versatility.

  • Roster Expansion: It's almost that time of year when clubs loosen their belts by a couple of notches and call up a handful of minor leaguers. Teams out of the race have a chance to preview 2004, but the Phillies won't be taking any chances. Familiar faces like Nick Punto and Hector Mercado should be back, and we'll see Brandon Duckworth again once Scranton's season ends.

    Josh Hancock--neither has been anything special since that deal--should get a call, and there's a chance we might get to see Geoff Geary when Scranton's season is over. The most eagerly awaited pitcher could be Ryan Madson, who should also arrive some time in September. If David Bell isn't healthy, Travis Chapman might get called up too.

    We probably won't see these guys in too many high-leverage situations, unless Amaury Telemaco can't hold down the fifth starter's job, and the man Phils fans most wanted to see, Chase Utley, is already here. If the Phillies are wise, they'll never have to use one of their top relievers in a blowout, which is the likeliest place for Madson or Hancock to debut.

  • No Vacation: They'll need those extra players, too, because on Tuesday, the Phillies began a 13-game road trip and a stretch of 27 games before their next off day, including 17 games against divisional opponents and one almost sold out Mike Schmidt Bobblehead Day.

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