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August 29, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants, Toronto Blue Jays

by Baseball Prospectus

Montreal Expos

  • Odds, Shmodds: When last we left the Expos, the team stood at 61-60, seemingly on the verge of exiting the Wild Card race. They trailed the Phillies by 5.5 games, and looked up at seven teams in the Wild Card race, including the NL Central leader.

    BP's Postseason Odds Report, which measures a combination of remaining strength of schedule, Pythagorean record (runs scored as compared to runs allowed, with an equal number of both netting a .500 record) and actual record, gave the Expos some long odds to make the playoffs. How long? Given the team's outperformance of its Pythag, the reams of teams ahead of them, and the toughest remaining schedule of any contender, 0.1%, or roughly the same odds of the Authors of BP Swimsuit Calendar outselling SI's next year.

    Just five days ago in fact, the Expos still stood five games out, looking dead in the water after a 2-4 road trip that saw the offense go to pot in L.A. and San Diego. Five unbelievable days later, on the eve of Labor Day weekend and the start of the home stretch, the Expos are tied for the Wild Card lead, thanks to a dramatic four-game sweep of the Phillies--highlighted by the biggest comeback in the majors this year--and some cooperation from the suddenly ice-cold Marlins. The Postseason Odds Report still gives the Expos just an 8.9% of making the playoffs via the Wild Card, with the details further broken down by Clay Davenport's Adjusted Standings page. Like a sublime reverse jinx, Expos fans will take those odds.

  • So What The Heck Happened?: For an inkling, let's go back to the Aug. 15 Expos edition of Prospectus Triple Play, which shared the same pessimism as that flashing 0.1% figure. In referring to management's inability to find a better center fielder than HACKING MASS All-Star Endy Chavez, we wrote the following:
    With the Expos barely on the fringes of the Wild Card race after a scorching 32-18 start and early Wild Card lead, you could blame plenty of factors for the collapse: a nasty spate of injuries to a big chunk of the pitching staff as well as the team's star, Vladimir Guerrero; a 25-day, 22-game road trip from hell earlier this year and generally taxing travel schedule; or a lack of funds available to add big-ticket players for a playoff run.

    Solid reasons, all. But as Expos fans look back on another season of disappointment a few weeks from now, they might ask themselves: What would have happened if the Expos employed a league-average center fielder, instead of the sinkhole Endy Chavez?

    Endy Chavez is still the starting center fielder. But instead of giving their worst offensive regular the most playing time as the leadoff hitter, manager Frank Robinson made a move about 125 games overdue: He moved Brad Wilkerson to the leadoff spot and dropped Chavez to the eighth spot. Though stathead orthodoxy tends to downplay the effect of batting order on run production, at the extremes certain moves can pay dividends. This was such an extreme. By replacing Chavez with Wilkerson atop the order, the Expos added nearly 100 points of on-base percentage where they needed it most.

    An Expo anomaly from day one, Wilkerson was a rare college-groomed hitter in the Jim Beattie era of tall pitching project draft picks. Even more shockingly, Wilkerson showed a strong ability to control the strike zone, an oasis in the Expo desert of hackitude. He ranks 11th in the National League in walks per plate appearance, taking a stroll nearly 15% of the time. Better still, he sees 4.3 pitches per plate appearance, leading the majors in that category. By allowing his teammates a chance to scope out opposing pitchers' arsenals, setting the tone by working the count, and getting on base in front of Orlando Cabrera, Jose Vidro and Vladimir Guerrero to form a Sheehan-riffic All-Boy Power Lineup, Wilkerson has changed the face of the Expos offense.

    The reigning one-two punch kings of baseball, Cy Young candidate Livan Hernandez and Javier Vazquez, author of a 27-inning scoreless inning streak--longest in baseball this year--haven't hurt either.

  • Believer Fever: Seemingly beaten and left for dead after their West Coast horror show, no one would have been surprised to see Expos fans stay home when the team returned to the Big O for this week's Phillies series. Years of anti-marketing and uninspiring baseball had already soured the home folks on the team, so why should this week have been any different?

    Because no one loves a party more than Montrealers. Sensing the dramatic change in the team's fortunes, and inspired by Tuesday's stirring comeback, 83,145 fans rushed through the Big O turnstiles for the four games. At less than 21,000 fans per, that may not seem particularly impressive. But consider that more than 50,000 fans were walkups, overwhelming understaffed ticket vendors all week. Moreover, no crowd generates more noise per body than an Expos crowd.

    "It's good because 20,000 here feels like 50,000," Vazquez said after completing the sweep yesterday. "We love it."

  • Upcoming Schedule: Four in Florida, two in Philly, three in San Juan against the Marlins. It's all there for the taking.

San Francisco Giants

  • The Right, er, Wrong Stuff: The 2003 Giants have plenty of strengths, but hitting right-handed pitching is not one of them. Giants teams have consistently hit worse against righties than against lefties the past few seasons, but no Giants team in recent memory has exhibited the kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde look that this year's team has.

    Against lefties, the Giants are a respectable fourth in the NL in both OBP (.361) and SLG (.478), despite playing in the biggest pitchers' park in the league. But against righties, the Giants are ninth in OBP (.328) and 12th in SLG (.404) -- pretty bad, considering they're running away with their division with the second best record in the league.

    To make matters worse, the little offense they have mustered against righties has pretty much been a one-man show. Take Barry Bonds' .335/.525/.739 line against righties away from the Giants, and the rest of the team has put up a line of .251/.309/.380. That's like having a whole team of Jimmy Rollinses. (Dodger fans are painfully aware of this phenomenon.)

    The addition of noted lefty-killer Marquis Grissom has played a big part in this extreme split, but nearly all the other regulars have contributed as well:

    
                                 OPS
                     vs. lefties    vs. righties
    Grissom             .995            .714
    Galarraga           .991            .746
    Durham              .945            .746
    Aurilia             .915            .666
    Cruz                .903            .737
    Santiago            .806            .750
    

    With recently-arrived right-handers Jeffrey Hammonds and Eric Young getting plenty of PAs these days, the situation may get worse before it gets better. The return of J.T. Snow will help some; he's this team's second-best hitter against righties, and if that isn't a plea for help, I don't know what is.

  • Sizing Up October: Why make a big deal out of the team's inability to hit righties, when they're running away with the division anyway? Because it could make a big difference come playoff time. Barring a complete collapse, the Giants' first round opponent will either be the NL Central champion, or the winner of the NL Wild Card (Motto: "Win eight out of the next 20, and you're in!"). All the contenders for both those crowns have pretty much the same record. And since there's not much to distinguish them in quality, the Giants would be better off against one of the teams least able to exploit their weaknesses. That means lots of left-handed pitching.

    On that front, the best possible first round match-up for San Francisco is probably the Marlins, who are second in the NL in innings pitched by lefties (barely behind the Mets). Florida's playoff rotation would likely include two southpaws, the unsung Mark Redman and the fading Dontrelle Willis. The Astros wouldn't be a bad match-up either, as Grissom et al. could salivate over the prospect of facing mediocre lefty rookie Jeriome Robertson, and Billy Wagner would be less intimidating out of the bullpen than he would be against most teams. The Giants are also well-suited to face the Braves in a possible LCS pairing, with Mike Hampton and Horacio Ramirez likely to see October starts.

    The worst first-round scenario for the Giants would be to face the Cubs or the Expos, neither of whom have any lefties to speak of. (Chicagoans speak of Shawn Estes as infrequently as possible.) Both these teams have rotations that could cause the Giants fits: young, good, hard-throwing, and right-handed. In a recent series in Montreal, the righty-dominated Expos staff held the Bonds-less Giants to four runs in four games. That's not a good omen for a team hoping to use this postseason to erase the memory of last year's Game 6.

Toronto Blue Jays

  • Awards Preview: Now that Toronto's postseason wishes have faded to theoretically possible at best, the end-of-season awards dreams begin. With first baseman Carlos Delgado's romp through the leaderboards for most of the season and Doc Halladay putting up an 11-game winning streak, the Blue Jays arguably had the ranking candidates for both MVP and Cy Young at the break.

    Just as the Jays' season has taken a turn in the second-half--they're now 16-22 after the break--so have the award campaigns for their two leaders. Here are Delgado's splits in 2003:

    
                AB    H  2B  HR  RBI  BB   AVG   OBP   SLG
    Pre ASB    345  108  25  28   97  58  .313  .424  .629
    Post ASB   124   33   8   6   22  38  .266  .456  .492
    Total      469  141  33  34  119  96  .301  .433  .593
    

    Delgado's still having a fine season by any measure, and his second half is nothing to be ashamed of, but coupled with Toronto's swoon he's got to be considered a real longshot to seriously contend for Most Valuable Player, much less win it. Whether they admit it or not, the voters do look at the stats, and the decline in Delgado's rate stats has been significant:

    
                2B/AB  HR/AB  RBI/AB
    Pre ASB      .072   .081    .281
    Post ASB     .064   .048    .177
    Total        .070   .072    .253
    

    Delgado was the frontrunner largely because voters care about RBI and he had an astounding 97 RBI before the break. He's still 9 RBI ahead of Angel Garret Anderson, but an historic season is looking more and more out of reach, which would certainly help him when the hardware is passed out.

    Frank Thomas and Bret Boone, among others, are playing well for teams in dogfights for the playoffs--if the White Sox and/or the Mariners make the postseason, that'll give another charge to their candidacies. Alex Rodriguez is again having the finest season in the league for a hopeless team, but he'll get consideration--especially if he leads the league in HR again, which looks like it'll happen at this point. There's a lot of time left, but the respect opposing pitchers give Delgado is hurting his chances.

    Derek Zumsteg's recent American League Cy Young wrapup broke down the race as Esteban Loaiza versus Tim Hudson, with Pedro Martinez and Mike Mussina ready to tag in. But Halladay is in no way out of the scrum yet. As voters look for RBI for the MVP, wins are a huge consideration for the Cy Young, and only once in the past decade has a pitcher who didn't rank first or second in the league in wins won the Cy (Martinez, whose 18 wins were fourth in the league in 2000). Despite taking his sixth loss of the season on Wednesday, Halladay is tied for the league lead with Loaiza with 17 wins.

    More importantly, he still has the muscular Toronto offense (which ranks fourth in the league by Equivalent Average) backing him up. A completely unscientific look at upcoming schedules give Halladay and Loaiza the following starts:

    
    Halladay                      Loaiza
    Wed, Sep 3   Yankees          Sun, Sep 7   Indians
    Mon, Sep 8   at Yankees       Fri, Sep 12  at Red Sox
    Sat, Sep 13  Orioles          Thu, Sep 18  at Twins
    Fri, Sep 19  at Orioles       Tue, Sep 23  Yankees
    Wed, Sep 24  Devil Rays       Sun, Sep 28  at Royals
    

    Barring some juggling on either side, Halladay's got a clear edge as far as the competition goes. If he's the only pitcher in the league to win 20, will that and his edge in innings pitched make up for the huge ERA disparity (currently Loaiza, 2.51; Halladay, 3.68)? Will it help that he's a widely-acknowledged ace and Loaiza was rotational filler as recently as six months ago? How about if the White Sox miss the playoffs?

    Tough questions, especially given the strange historic voting patterns of the electorate, but don't count Halladay out just yet.

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