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September 2, 2003

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, Houston Astros, Oakland Athletics, St. Louis Cardinals, Texas Rangers

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • Reality Check: Jerry Manuel has had nothing but good things to say about Roberto Alomar, and with the White Sox playing as well as they have, it's hard to blame him. But what sort of contribution has Alomar really made to the Second-Half Southsider Resurgence?

    Not much with the stick. Alomar is almost exactly the same player that he was with the Mets: his power is gone, and while he still works the count and runs the bases well, his ability to leverage those attributes is minimized since he doesn't hit for a high enough batting average to post the OBPs that he used to. Here were Alomar's numbers through Labor Day weekend:

    
    With White Sox (47 G)  .265/.338/.351 
    With Mets (73 G)       .262/.336/.357 
    

    The raw numbers are virtually identical; in fact, after adjusting for park and league effects, Alomar's offensive performance has been a wee bit weaker since he left the Mets. By comparison:

    
    D'Angelo Jimenez
    With Reds (48 G)      .311/.384/.430 - .283 EqA
    

    Though the Reds have used him in the #3 slot of late, Jimenez would qualify as one of the best leadoff hitters in baseball.

    But Alomar wasn't just brought in for his bat--what of his defense? At first glance, it looks like a wash. Alomar has been good for a better fielding percentage than Jimenez, but his range factor and zone rating are lower. (Imperfect metrics, we know, but some of the biases are removed when we're comparing two guys that have had the same teammates and pitching staffs surrounding them).

    How about turning the deuce, an area that Jimenez was notoriously weak at?

    
    DPs per 9 defensive innings:
    Jimenez     0.63
    Alomar      0.59
    Graffanino  0.89
    

    Jimenez's figure was low. The White Sox pitching staff produces plenty of groundballs, so that's no excuse. Jimenez's defense is not an asset, but Alomar has been involved in even fewer double plays than Jimenez was. Roberto Alomar was once a great player; he isn't anymore.

  • You can't spell Comeback Player of the Year without C-Y: On the other hand, we've got plenty of good things to say about Esteban Loaiza, who continues to steamroll the American League; his seven one-hit innings against the Yankees were some of the most impressive the league has seen this year.

    It's Loaiza's potential for a 20-win season that will grab the attention of the BBWAA voters, but his sabermetrically-inclined stats are every bit as impressive. We'll certainly have much more coverage of the Cy Young races at the season draws to a close, but, with help from the BP Miscellaneous Pitcher Stats page (bad name; lots of great numbers), let's take a quick look at the leading candidates in the AL:

    
                                                        Team
              IP     H%     BB%    K%     HR%    BIPR   BIPR   SNWAR
    Loaiza    190.7  21.1%  5.5%   21.6%  1.7%   .277   .286   6.7
    Halladay  215    25.1%  3.1%   18.3%  2.8%   .297   .307   3.4
    Hudson    210.3  19.3%  6.1%   16.4%  1.4%   .238   .267   6.6
    Mussina   184.3  21.8%  4.4%   23.2%  2.6%   .275   .306   4.4
    Martinez  153.7  20.4%  6.5%   27.0%  1.1%   .302   .303   5.3
    

    Most of these categories should be familiar to our regular readers. We've listed a pitcher's peripheral numbers based on percentages of batters faced, rather than innings pitched, a presentation that we believe better reflects the underlying reality of pitching. We've also included each pitcher's balls in play rate (BIPR), the BIPR of his team, as well as his Support Neutral Wins above Replacement.

    SNWAR won't tell you everything you'd like to know--it doesn't account for defense or luck--but it's a great starting point, and Loaiza and Tim Hudson come out at the head of the class (the stat is particularly unkind to Roy Halladay, who is still paying off the debt from a poor April). Defense is the factor that tips the race in Loaiza's favor: Hudson has gotten considerably more help from his, which is why his hit rate is so low even though his strikeout rate is pedestrian. Though the Big Three deserve credit for leveraging their good defense to become more economic with their pitches, Loaiza has been no slouch in terms of pitching efficiently, and his walk rate is lower than Hudson's. Overall, he's been the best starting pitcher in baseball this year.

Houston Astros

Oakland Athletics

  • The Big Hurt: On Tuesday, Aug. 19, Mark Mulder's 2003 season ended. He will not be back this year. He will not be back for the postseason. But take heart, A's faithful, all is not lost. Looking quickly at Oakland's remaining schedule, here are the likely remaining pitching matchups for the rest of the season:

    Barry Zito: Baltimore, Tampa, Texas, Anaheim, Texas, Seattle
    Tim Hudson: Baltimore, Anaheim, Texas, Seattle, Texas
    Ted Lilly: Baltimore, Anaheim, Texas, Seattle, Seattle
    Rich Harden: Tampa, Anaheim, Anaheim, Seattle, Seattle
    John Wholestaff: Tampa, Anaheim, Anaheim, Texas

    Pitching coach Rick Peterson believes firmly in his off-day pitching routine and is unlikely to juggle his rotation or change his main starters' rest days, so the above estimate of pitching matchups is unlikely to change significantly. Fortunately for Oakland, whether it be John Halama, Mike Wood, or Justin Duchscherer who is asked to join the rotation, that pitcher will most likely not have to pitch in any of the six games remaining against Seattle. However, this means that the A's will have to turn to Harden or Lilly to pitch in Mulder's spot against the Mariners, two games that will no doubt be crucial to the determination of the division winner.

    The three main candidates for the fifth spot in the rotation each have their strengths and weaknesses.

    Halama has had a decent season so far, but he's been significantly better as a reliever than as a starter. Additionally, his starting ERA of 4.43 is deceptive because he's allowed 42 runs, only 31 of which were earned (giving him an RA of 6.02).

    Wood has pitched out of the bullpen, but it's too early to tell if he's ready for the majors. He has the repertoire that seems more suitable to middle relief, though he has posted solid numbers throughout the minors the last few seasons. His back gave him problems earlier in the season, but that injury appears healed.

    Duchscherer is the great unknown. Coming out of nowhere, he posted very impressive numbers at Sacramento this season, with a 117/18 K/BB ratio in 155 IP, while recently garnering PCL Pitcher of the Year honors.

    There's no clear favorite, a situation that gives manager Ken Macha the opportunity to employ a tandem starting system or use all three pitchers depending on the opponent. Fortunately for A's fans, Oakland has assembled a wealth of quality arms that doesn't stop with Hudson, Mulder, and Zito. The multitude of replacements available for Mulder speaks to the organization's flair for identifying, acquiring, and developing pitchers.

  • Long Walk, Short Pier: Harden may be giving A's fans fits with his seemingly erratic pitching since his call-up after the All-Star break, but his success and failure can easily be broken down by his opponents. His best starts have come against Kansas City, Anaheim, Cleveland, Detroit, and Tampa while he's been roughed up badly by Toronto and Boston.

    The key differences between his successes and failures are the same demons that haunted him in the minors this season: high pitch counts and free passes. With three games remaining against Tampa and Anaheim, Harden should have ample opportunity to sort things out as the Devil Rays and Disney's team rank 14th and 10th in the AL in walks drawn, respectively. However, the Mariners take the free pass better than everyone save Boston and New York, and could give Oakland's resident phenom fits. When he's on, Harden has some of the most unhittable pitches in the majors, but he must show confidence that he can get hitters out and stop wasting pitches, especially in the final two series against Seattle.

  • Engine Company: It's impossible to bestow enough credit on the bullpen for Oakland's winning ways the last two weeks. Macha deftly used all the arms at his disposal to maneuver the team out of constant jams, short starts, and injuries. Most notably, in the first two games against Boston and again against Baltimore last Tuesday, the bullpen held down the fort long enough for Oakland's suddenly resurgent offense to take the lead and win the game. In those three games, the pen threw 17 shutout innings, 10 of which came against the best offense in the majors. Oakland's firemen haven't blown a game in the last two weeks, pitching a total of 44.1 innings with a 3.05 ERA.

    The heavy workload has taken its toll though, as six players have pitched at least six innings the last two weeks. Most notably, closer Keith Foulke specifically requested consecutive rest days after pitching 9.2 innings, allowing Chad Bradford and Ricardo Rincon to save the close game against Tampa Bay on Sunday. With the travel day yesterday and roster expansion for September, A's relievers should have enough time to recover from their superhuman work over the past fortnight to continue saving the day in the stretch run.

St. Louis Cardinals

  • Bo Knows Sample Sizes: We hate to say I-told-ya-so. But Bo Hart's second-half collapse--he's posted just a .212/.265/.305 line since the All-Star break--is the second-most predictable event in recent history, topped only by the Lisa Marie Presley-Michael Jackson divorce.

    Bo Hart is a guy whose four-year-long minor league track record suggests that, at best, he's suited to be a utility infielder. Still, the Cardinals may have to keep starting him at second. With Fernando Vina still on the shelf and a weak corps of minor leaguers at the upper levels, he could still be the best option the team has.

    Continuing to hit him in the leadoff slot, however, given the amount of power the Cards have concentrated in the middle of their order, is costing them dearly. Moreover, it speaks to a certain kind of La Russian stubbornness: the Cards keep waiting for Hart to relive his glorious run of June, ignoring the fact that there are thousands of plate appearances worth of evidence that his August performance is far more reflective of his true level of ability.

  • Trades: The Cardinals finally made their much-anticipated push to acquire pitching talent--only it came three weeks later than expected, and the bounty (Sterling Hitchcock and Mike DeJean) wasn't exactly on par with Cardinal acquisitions from seasons past. As Chris Kahrl points out, the move was necessitated partly out of an inability to develop and to trust internal options.

    Nevertheless, the moves have the potential to be helpful. As we documented last week the back end of the Cardinal bullpen has been brutal. DeJean, in particular, is a better pitcher than his ERA indicates; he'll benefit from pitching in front of the Cardinal defense, and if he can match even his median PECOTA projection (3.83 ERA), he'll be the second-best reliever on the staff.

  • Banged-up Backstops: Mike Matheny has never been in the starting lineup for his bat, but the past six weeks have been particularly wretched. Matheny's line since the All-Star break--.140/.239/.190--makes Bo Hart looks like Rogers Hornsby.

    In Matheny's defense, he's been worked harder this season than at any point in his career. Matheny is on pace to play in 142 games this year against a career high of 128 (which came when he was three years younger). Chris Widger has battled back spasms all season and isn't that much more attractive an alternative to begin with, but the Cards need someone--anyone!--who can spell Matheny more frequently.

    The trouble is that the other two catchers on the 40-man roster--Joe Girardi and Steve Torrealba--are also injured, as is Eli Marrero. The September call-up picture isn't a whole lot prettier: the highest EqA among backstops in the Cardinal farm system belongs to pseudo-prospect Yadier Molina, and it's just .189. Still, adding Molina to the 40-man roster and starting his arbitration clock early might be a necessary move given the circumstances.

Texas Rangers

  • A-Rod for MVP?: Just as he's been in every season as a Texas Ranger, Alex Rodriguez is the best player in the American League. And just as in his first two years in red, white, and blue, Rodriguez will likely be snubbed in the AL MVP voting because the team around him doesn't pitch or field well.

    Let's get the case out of the way: by any measure, Rodriguez is the top player in the league. Advanced metrics such as VORP and RARP have him a win or more above his closest pursuers (and one so far behind that the media halo is laughable):

    
                          AVG   OBP   SLG   VORP   RARP
    Alex Rodriguez       .305  .401  .607   76.6   68.2
    Carlos Delgado       .306  .434  .593   63.7   59.3
    Nomar Garciaparra    .322  .362  .550   61.7   54.5
    Manny Ramirez        .317  .418  .573   53.8   54.4
    Bret Boone           .295  .360  .547   64.3   54.3
    Jason Giambi         .251  .417  .524   47.7   52.0
    Ichiro Suzuki        .320  .362  .438   33.4   29.5
    

    Of course, AL MVP voters have set a precedent that the award is less about performance and more about context, and the players below Rodriguez in that list above have better teammates, and better context. An extension of this argument is that Rodriguez's context is negatively affected by his salary and is therefore his fault, as if the .305/.401/.607 shortstop making $23 million was the real problem, and not the $100 million wasted over the past three seasons on Rusty Greer, Jeff Zimmerman, Chan Ho Park, Jay Powell, Todd Van Poppel, and even John Hart.

    Maybe Alex Rodriguez won't be the MVP, but he will again be the most valuable player in the American League. Note the distinction, and remember it when the buffet brigade faxes out a press release in November.

  • Tex for Rookie of the Year?: At mid-season, Mark Teixeira finished fourth in BP's AL Rookie of the Year balloting. He was fourth with a bullet, though, having bounced back from a brutal April (.188/.288/.344) to head to the All-Star break at .254/.339/.481, with eight home runs in the five weeks leading up to the pause. After the break, Tex continued to hit for power but little else. His average continued to hover under .260 and his plate discipline indicators have been deteriorating all season long, two reasons to be concerned. He started September strong, though, with a two-homer game in Monday's 7-3 win over the Royals.

    Can he bounce back and win the award? He's fighting an uphill battle: come-from-behind candidates generally do poorly in the BBWAA balloting, which is largely driven by who caught voters' attention in April and May. Beyond that, however, it's far from clear that he's done enough to merit the honor:

    
                          AVG   OBP   SLG   VORP   RARP
    Mark Teixeira        .260  .333  .485    7.9   16.4
    Angel Berroa         .288  .339  .462   29.2   22.1
    Rocco Baldelli       .296  .326  .427   19.7   15.7
    Hideki Matsui        .287  .350  .442   21.2   20.7
    Jody Gerut           .286  .342  .504   15.4   16.5
    

    The outfielders who can hit a little all fade into one mildly impressive grouping, and Teixeira's numbers don't stand out from the crowd. Meanwhile, the Royals' Angel Berroa is approximating his performance at the plate while playing more often and doing so at shortstop, which makes him a much better choice for freshman honors.

    Tex could have a monster September that wins him some hardware, but he's a long shot at this point.

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