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August 26, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres

by Baseball Prospectus

Boston Red Sox

  • Microstudy: The Red Sox lost to the A's 8-6 on August 20th. But this was no ordinary loss. The Red Sox lost in one of the most frustrating ways possible--leaving 17 men on base during the game, almost two stranded per inning. The Sox seem to have a knack (or at least the reputation) for stranding runners. Despite a high-powered offense and one of the best slugging teams in history (their current .496 SLG would be the all-time record by a wide margin), the Bosox seem to have more trouble that you'd expect in plating their baserunners. But is this true, or more typical teeth-gnashing from New England fans?

    We can look at this a couple of ways. First, we can look at the percentage of runners left stranded. The Red Sox have stranded 51.8% of their baserunners (H+BB+HBP), which is the second-lowest strand percentage in all of MLB, behind only the surprising Kansas City Royals at 51.8%. The major league average is 54.7%, and the worst team in the category, the Los Angeles Dodgers, have a strand rate of 59.8%, edging the Padres (59.3%) and Tigers (58.9%).

    But not all runners who aren't stranded come around to score. Many are erased on double-plays or are caught stealing. Looking at strand rate unintentionally favors teams who lose outs on the basepaths, rather than at the plate. One way to avoid this is to look at the ratio of runs scored to runners stranded.

    By this measure, the Red Sox continue to look good. They score 79.3 runs for every 100 runners stranded, a figure that ranks as the best in the AL, and second in the majors to the Atlanta Braves at 79.7 runs/100 stranded. The major league average is 67.9 runs/100 stranded, with the worst team, once again the Dodgers, at 52.2 runs/100 stranded (with the Tigers and Padres right behind at 53.2 and 53.6, respectively).

    So the Red Sox actually are exceptionally good, relative to other teams, at scoring their baserunners. Does this mean that the perceptions of the team stranding more people than a blizzard at O'Hare is incorrect? Not completely. The Red Sox do strand a lot of runners--tied for second most in the majors with the Padres, and behind only the Phillies. The difference here is that they create a lot more baserunners to begin with, thanks to their MLB-leading .360 team OBP. None of the other top five teams in runs scored ranks in the top five in runners stranded.

    To take this a step further, we can investigate whether the Red Sox strand more runners, given their team power. By looking at the relationship between a team's slugging average (SLG), and their strand rate or runs-to-strands ratio, we can "predict" what a team's rate or ratio should be, and see if the team is over- or underperforming relative to that prediction.

    Running a simple linear regression (the details of which we won't bother with here), and looking at who's over- and underachieving relative to their SLG yields some interesting results. The Red Sox are the fourth-worst team for strand rate (predict 50.3%, actual 51.8%), and second-biggest underperformer for runs-to-strand ratio (84.1 runs/100 strands predicted vs. 79.3 actual). There does not seem to be an obvious bias against high-scoring teams either--the other teams in the top five runs scored rank 10th, 15th, 21st, and 25th in underperforming strand rate, and 12th, 17th, 22nd, and 27th in underperforming runs-to-strands ratio.

    So, where does this leave us? In an absolute sense, the Red Sox do not have a problem with stranding unusually high numbers of runners. They actually drive in a very high percentage of their runners. The perception of a problem comes from the large number of baserunners they have overall, which results in both lots of runs, and lots of stranded runners. They do seem to underperform what you'd expect in stranding runners, relative to the power in their lineup, but it took a relatively deep analysis to detect that, and it's unlikely that this is what the casual fan had in mind.

Cincinnati Reds

  • Eating Leftovers: With the waiver loss of Felix Heredia, the decimation of the Reds roster continues. Since the day before Jim Bowden was fired, the Reds have lost every position player besides Sean Casey. Don't compare this fire sale to those conducted during the 90s by the Padres or the World Champion Marlins. In those cases, good teams were broken up at the behest of bad ownership. This time, a bad team is being broken up at the behest of bad ownership. It is a small, but important distinction.

    An argument could be made that the Fish or Pads could have gone on to win in the following seasons. For this edition of the Broken Red Machine, it was a team with talent, but an imbalance that was pushing the team on a path from potential to mediocrity and beyond. We won't know for years what value Brad Kullman and Leland Maddox were able to acquire, but collecting young, inexpensive talent (and a couple million in walking around money for Uncle Carl) is as good a short-term plan as the Reds could come up with.

  • Taxpayer Revolt: By soaking Hamilton County for a brand new stadium--right next to that other bastion of Cincinnati success--the Reds pointed to 2003 as the year things would be better. Their plan--and some serious hitters in the outfield--fooled some into thinking that the timeline was true. So what will bring the fans into the gently used seats of "The Gap" in 2004? The Reds will have to follow the marketing path of "come see the future today" that the Brewers and Rangers have taken. Certainly, seeing an outfield filled with Austin Kearns, Ken Griffey Jr., and Adam Dunn is something worth paying for on those days when all three manage to stay healthy, but the inevitable steep declines in attendance are sure to send Carl Lindner into further spasms of cost cutting.

  • Broken Stuff: The Reds MVP this season will likely be...well, is there a box for "none of the above?" The popular but controversial Dr. Tim Kremchek has been the busiest Red this season, but will the team's medical staff take the heat for a team that seems incapable of staying healthy? There are two schools of thought when it comes to injuries--they're either bad luck or bad planning. If the next GM--and the omnipresent John Allen--go with the bad planning, then Kremchek and the training staff might be shown the door. But don't count on it. As injured as the team has been, many of these players are comfortable with the staff and no one has a more intimate knowledge of their injuries and subsequent rehab. As long as Griffey is around in Cincy, expect this medical staff to stay intact.

  • I Wouldn't Say I've Been Missing It, Bob: Jim Bowden might be laughing from a beach somewhere, but who is lining up to fill his seat in Cincinnati? Rumors have Allen and Lindner working on a "short list" of candidates that includes 75 names. Looking past three qualified candidates in-house, the Reds are likely looking at names like Braves Asst. GM Frank Wren, Tigers Asst. GM Al Avila, Marlins VP Dan Jennings, and Dodgers Asst. GM Kim Ng. What do all have in common? A strong background in player development and a low public profile, making them cheap and hungry to move up to the "big chair." While all are well qualified, Reds fans have to worry that the cheap part will be the deciding factor. We understand Nate Silver's laptop now has an agent and may be out of the running.

San Diego Padres

  • It's Official? According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the Padres will execute a blockbuster trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates today in which they get outfielder Brian Giles for pitcher Oliver Perez, outfielder Jason Bay, and minor-league lefty Cory Stewart.

    This is a significant change from the previous permutations of the deal, which had Pirates catcher and San Diego native Jason Kendall going to the Padres as well. As we noted in yesterday's Pirates Triple Play, Kendall's recent hot hitting has contributed to a fine overall season behind the plate, but he's plainly not the same player he was at peak--his power and speed have both taken large hits. Removing Kendall from the equation saves the Padres at least $21 million (the amount of Kendall's current contract they were apparently willing to pay) and makes San Diego less opposed to dealing Perez and Bay.

    With Giles in the fold, the Friars will bring a lineup something like the following:

    
    Player            Pos    Bats   2003 MLVr   2003 VORP   2004 Age
    Sean Burroughs    3B     L           .103        25.4         23
    Mark Kotsay       CF     L           .008        10.1         28
    Mark Loretta      2B     R           .222        42.8         32
    Brian Giles       LF     L           .333        39.0         33
    Ryan Klesko       1B     L           .133        18.2         33
    Phil Nevin        RF     R          -.062        -1.1         33
    Ramon Vazquez     SS     L          -.064         9.6         27
    Gary Bennett      C      R          -.235        -6.1         32
    

    Two things stick out about this lineup:

    • There's a nice amount of talent variance here. The worst kind of lineup to enter the offseason with, all other things being equal, is one with a bunch of slightly above-average players--you've got no clear problem area, and upgrading a position involves signing a star player (who likely will command a star player's salary). The Padres have seven bats which are potentially excellent for their position, and then they have catcher Gary Bennett. The upgrade path behind the plate for the Padres is extremely well-defined and includes a large constellation of possibilities. Ramon Castro, who the team tried to grab earlier this year from the Fish, Kendall, and Matt Nokes all spring to mind.

      This off-season will be a relatively fertile one for free-agent catchers, with Javy Lopez' phoenix-like rebirth and Ivan Rodriguez' successful 2003 campaign with Florida grabbing most of the headlines. Either of these guys would give the Padres a 2004 lineup that, with a little luck, would have no weak spots.

    • A potentially disastrous problem here is the reliance on older players. Of the probable cornerstones of the 2004 attack, only Sean Burroughs is on the right side of his peak. While Giles has played well, if below expectations, in 2003, Klesko, Kotsay, and Nevin have not. The key to 2004 lies with those three players--a return to 2000's performance gives the Padres the best imitation of Murderer's Row in the National League, while another injury-plagued campaign on their parts will place a ton of pressure on Mark Loretta to hit .320 with some power and patience again.

      The Padres do have some potential help in the minors. Outfielder Xavier Nady has put up a .270 Equivalent Average with Portland since being demoted in late July.

    The most interesting thing about this deal may be the origins of the players the Padres are trading. Oliver Perez was a free-agent signing out of Mexico in 1999. Jason Bay was picked up on the cheap in the minor deal the team made with the Mets in 2002. The big piece of the deal on the Padres' side was reliever Steve Reed, a non-roster invitee that year. Stewart is a former Reds property who was signed as a minor-league free agent. The Padres didn't give up a single former high draft pick to bag one of the best hitters in the majors.

    Above all, this trade is a re-affirmation that scouting and player development matter--especially when you've got a trading partner that is apparently anxious to give up the best player in the deal.

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