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March 11, 2004

World Cup Comes to Baseball?

Projecting the Hitters

by Nathan Fox

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Talk of a World Cup of baseball, potentially starting as early as 2005, has inspired early speculation about what the lineups might look like. The team from the Dominican Republic promises to be a monster. Vlad, Manny, Pujols, Sosa, Pedro--yeah, that's going to be tough. Tough enough to threaten the U.S.A.?

I caught the Errol Morris documentary "Fog of War" recently, which offers 11 lessons from the life of Robert S. McNamara, seven-year Secretary of Defense under Kennedy and Johnson. McNamara, one of the celebrated "Whiz Kids" who brought the science of modern management to a struggling postwar Ford Motor Company, was an early adopter of quantitative analysis. McNamara's Lesson Six: "Get the data."

A World Cup of baseball is hardly the Cold War, but the McNamara in me relishes any opportunity to take the 2004 PECOTA Weighted Mean Projections out for a spin. Data? We've got data.

I decided not to make any guesses about which players might expatriate to which countries. Instead I assigned teams by country of birth. This puts Dave Roberts in the running for the center field job in Japan, and makes Danny Graves the sole member of team Vietnam, but on the whole I think it will work.

Starting with the PECOTA Projections spreadsheet, I assigned a country to each player for whom one was accessible with a reasonable amount of digging. I was left with a pool of 1,026 players from 17 different countries, and one U.S. territory, Puerto Rico, which I'll treat here as a separate team just for fun. The United States won't need them anyway, as 759 of the players included here, just under three quarters of the total, come from the U.S. mainland. Here's how it breaks out:


Country                 Players         % of Total
United States            759               74%
Dominican Republic        88                9%
Venezuela                 53                5%
Puerto Rico               37                4%
Mexico                    21                2%
Canada                    16                2%
Japan                     12                1%
Cuba                      10                1%
Panama                     7                1%
South Korea                6                1%
Australia                  5                0%
Colombia                   3                0%
Nicaragua                  2                0%
Taiwan                     2                0%
Curacao                    2                0%
Vietnam                    1                0%
Germany                    1                0%
Aruba                      1                0%
------------------------------------------------
Total                   1026              100%

Apologies to Ichiro fans, but for today's analysis I'm only going to focus on the very top of that list: the U.S., the Dominican, Venezuela, and Puerto Rico. Japan, of course, has the backbone in MLB of a decent World Cup team--Ichiro, two Matsuis, and some pretty decent pitching--but the bulk of their roster would come from the Japanese major leagues. Since PECOTA doesn't project performance for players who won't play in the United States in 2004, we're lacking the necessary data.

As a corollary disclaimer, it should be noted that all countries except the U.S. would probably be able to field slightly better World Cup teams than will be presented here. Major League Baseball happens in the United States and Canada; highly skilled players born outside the United States, especially places like Cuba, have major barriers to MLB entry. That said, the financial incentives (for both players and teams) are great enough that I would suspect most of the players who could achieve superstardom in the bigs are probably here.

Let's focus first on the starting lineups. We'll use two measures, Equivalent Marginal Lineup Value rate (EqMLVr) for hitting and Clay Davenport's Fielding Rating for defense. Both are measured in terms of runs per game above (or below) major league average. We'll choose our starting lineups using a crude measure I'll call EqMLVr+D, where we simply add the two together. I'll explain the methodology more after we look at the first team:

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC


Dominican Republic       EqMLVr   D     EqMLVr+D
1B Albert Pujols         0.42   -0.03    0.39
LF Manny Ramirez         0.33   -0.01    0.32
CF Vladimir Guerrero     0.25   -0.02    0.24
RF Sammy Sosa            0.23   -0.04    0.19
2B Alfonso Soriano       0.16   -0.03    0.14
SS Miguel Tejada         0.11   -0.05    0.07
3B Aramis Ramirez        0.07   -0.02    0.05
C  Miguel Olivo         -0.10    0.00   -0.10
---------------------------------------------
Team D.R.                1.48   -0.19    1.28

The Dominican lineup presented here is projected a run and a half (1.48) per game better than major league average for 2004, with defense (-0.19) slightly worse than average. Therefore, we can say that this lineup projects to be 1.28 runs better than major league average for hitting and defense combined.

Note that in order to get all their big bats into the lineup, the Dominican team would need to shift some corner outfielders into different positions. Here, I have Vladimir Guerrero in center field and Albert Pujols at first. Fortunately, EqMLVr is position-independent (unlike VORP, which rates hitters in terms of runs above or below replacement level at their position.) Fielding Rating, on the other hand, is position-specific, and this introduces some fuzziness into our numbers. Pujols' glove is slightly worse than average in left field, but might be better than average at first. Likewise, Vlad is rated a hair below average in right field, and would be a bigger defensive liability in center field.

For today's analysis, we're going to have to live with some uncertainty in the defensive numbers. The odds that the position shifts will balance out are higher than the odds that I could correctly eyeball the necessary adjustments.

On the whole, that looks like one heck of a lineup, with the only weak spot at catcher. Here are the top candidates for bench spots:


D.R. Bench              EqMLVr    D     EqMLVr+D
DH David Ortiz           0.16    0.00    0.16
1B Carlos Pena           0.08   -0.01    0.07
2B Placido Polanco       0.02    0.02    0.03
RF Raul Mondesi          0.04   -0.02    0.02
CF Wily Pena             0.08   -0.07    0.01
RF Juan Encarnacion      0.01    0.00    0.01
RF Jose Guillen          0.02   -0.02   -0.01
3B Adrian Beltre        -0.01    0.00   -0.01
SS Rafael Furcal         0.01   -0.03   -0.01
2B Luis Castillo        -0.01   -0.03   -0.04
3B Tony Batista         -0.06    0.02   -0.04
SS Angel Berroa         -0.06    0.02   -0.04
2B D'Angelo Jimenez     -0.04   -0.01   -0.05
SS Juan Uribe           -0.09    0.04   -0.06
SS Cristian Guzman      -0.07    0.01   -0.07
SS Jose Reyes           -0.05   -0.02   -0.07
2B Antonio Perez        -0.06   -0.04   -0.09

There are some quality options here, especially in David Ortiz. Team Dominican would be able to fill out their roster with their choice of talent right around major league average.

PUERTO RICO


Puerto Rico             EqMLVr    D     EqMLVr+D
1B Carlos Delgado        0.27    0.01    0.27
CF Carlos Beltran        0.15    0.01    0.16
3B Mike Lowell           0.13    0.02    0.14
C  Ivan Rodriguez        0.11   -0.02    0.10
2B Jose Vidro            0.08    0.00    0.08
LF Bernie Williams       0.11   -0.04    0.07
RF Juan Gonzalez         0.04   -0.02    0.02
SS Jose Valentin         0.01   -0.04   -0.03
---------------------------------------------
Team P.R.                0.90   -0.09    0.81

Mike Lowell? Sure, Mike Lowell. Born in San Juan, if he played for team Puerto Rico he'd be a star. On team U.S.A., he'd ride pine behind Eric Chavez and Scott Rolen.

With no players listed at left field by PECOTA, Puerto Rico is forced to do what the Yankees needed to do in 2003: move Bernie Williams to left. Williams' projections are for center field, so his defense in left probably wouldn't be this bad.


P.R. Bench              EqMLVr    D     EqMLVr+D
C  Jorge Posada          0.11   -0.03    0.07
RF Jose Cruz             0.03    0.03    0.06
C  Javy Lopez            0.07   -0.03    0.04
CF Luis Matos            0.05   -0.03    0.01
RF Cesar Crespo         -0.07    0.05   -0.02
2B Roberto Alomar       -0.03   -0.04   -0.07
C  Ramon Castro          0.01   -0.09   -0.08
DH Ruben Sierra         -0.07   -0.02   -0.09
2B Angel Santos         -0.09   -0.02   -0.10
SS Alex Cintron         -0.05   -0.05   -0.10
C  Ben  Molina          -0.13    0.02   -0.11
3B Jose Leon            -0.10   -0.02   -0.12
SS Felipe Lopez         -0.04   -0.08   -0.13
SS Ramon Vazquez        -0.08   -0.05   -0.13
2B Alex Cora            -0.13    0.00   -0.13
1B Carlos Rivera        -0.12   -0.02   -0.13
CF Ricky Ledee          -0.02   -0.13   -0.16

The real strength of this team is at catcher; all three of PECOTA's top catchers in the major leagues come from Puerto Rico. If we were discussing fantasy teams here instead of World Cup teams, the owner of team Puerto Rico could dangle Jorge Posada or Javy Lopez for one of those Dominican outfielders.

VENEZUELA


Venezuela               EqMLVr    D     EqMLVr+D
RF Magglio Ordonez       0.23    0.02    0.25
LF Bob  Abreu            0.24   -0.01    0.23
CF Richard Hidalgo       0.10    0.04    0.14
1B Melvin Mora           0.06    0.03    0.09
3B Miguel Cabrera        0.02    0.01    0.03
SS Alex Gonzalez        -0.06    0.02   -0.04
C  Ramon Hernandez      -0.07    0.01   -0.05
2B Carlos Guillen       -0.02   -0.06   -0.08
---------------------------------------------
Team Venezuela           0.49    0.06    0.56

Several position shifts here. PECOTA lists Richard Hidalgo, Bobby Abreu, and Magglio Ordonez all as right fielders. Hidalgo has played a good amount of center field in his career, and would hit enough to justify keeping him in the lineup ahead of the punchless Endy Chavez. PECOTA likes Mags slightly better than Abreu defensively, so we'll shift Abreu to left.

Supersub Melvin Mora gets the nod at first base for Venezuela, a position he's appeared at once during his career. There's no reason to suspect that Mora can't handle the position defensively, and such a move will allow us to keep the Big Cat on the bench--which means when he steps out of the dugout to pinch-hit, the people in the sound booth can fire up that really cool cougar sound effect. Carlos Guillen goes to second base, where his glove shouldn't hurt team Venezuela this much.


Venezuela Bench         EqMLVr    D     EqMLVr+D
3B Edgardo Alfonzo       0.03   -0.01    0.02
RF Juan Rivera           0.01   -0.04   -0.03
RF Alex Escobar         -0.04    0.00   -0.04
C  Yorvit Torrealba     -0.07    0.02   -0.06
2B Marco Scutaro         0.00   -0.08   -0.08
SS Omar Vizquel         -0.10    0.01   -0.09
C  Victor Martinez      -0.01   -0.08   -0.09
3B Tomas Perez          -0.08   -0.02   -0.10
2B Luis Rivas           -0.10    0.00   -0.10
RF Roger Cedeno         -0.09   -0.03   -0.12
1B Andres Galarraga     -0.02   -0.10   -0.12
CF Endy Chavez          -0.14    0.01   -0.13
RF Rene Reyes           -0.09   -0.04   -0.13
CF Tony Alvarez         -0.03   -0.11   -0.14
SS Omar Infante         -0.16   -0.03   -0.19
2B Miguel Cairo         -0.06   -0.13   -0.19
C  Raul Chavez          -0.19   -0.02   -0.21

Oakland fans might take solace in the fact that PECOTA foresees a substantial decline from 2003 for their departed All-Star catcher Ramon Hernandez. PECOTA projects a .323 OBP/.395 SLG this year for Hernandez, in line with his career numbers. Continued progress from Yorvit Torrealba and Victor Martinez, each entering his age 25 year, would quickly make either one Venezuela's best option behind the dish. PECOTA prefers Torrealba in 2004, but the smart money might be on Martinez, number four on the Baseball Prospectus' Top 40 Prospects list last year.

UNITED STATES


Team U.S.A.             EqMLVr    D     EqMLVr+D
LF Barry Bonds           0.77   -0.02    0.75
1B Todd Helton           0.31    0.06    0.37
SS Alex Rodriguez        0.33    0.01    0.34
RF Gary Sheffield        0.25    0.00    0.25
3B Eric Chavez           0.18    0.05    0.23
CF Jim Edmonds           0.22    0.00    0.22
2B Bret Boone            0.13    0.01    0.14
C  Dave Ross             0.02    0.00    0.02
---------------------------------------------
Team U.S.A.              2.21    0.11    2.32

Ouch. Not only is this team nearly a run per game better on offense than our previous best, team Dominican, but it's also three-tenths of a run per game better on defense. Team U.S.A. carries just one starting player with a negative defensive rating, which is negligible at that. Not to mention he's the best hitter on the planet.

For George Steinbrenner, he may only be good enough to play third base. But for Team U.S.A., Alex Rodriguez plays short.

Dave Ross? Yeah, Dave Ross. Offensively, PECOTA projects him tied for third in per-game production with Jason Varitek in 2004, behind Mike Piazza and Todd Pratt. His advantage, per PECOTA, is his league-average defense. The rest of the U.S. catching corps--Piazza especially--are viewed by PECOTA as defensive liabilities. Ross gets the overall nod, though with the caveat that he may not look as good if given everyday playing time.

Instead of looking at bench options here, we can think in terms of additional teams. I won't try to enhance the lineups through position shifts, because the U.S. clearly doesn't need the help:


Second Team             EqMLVr    D     EqMLVr+D
1B Jason Giambi          0.33   -0.02    0.31
LF Lance Berkman         0.29    0.01    0.30
RF Shawn Green           0.23    0.01    0.24
3B Scott Rolen           0.19    0.01    0.20
CF Mike Cameron          0.10    0.05    0.15
SS Nomar Garciaparra     0.15   -0.03    0.13
2B Jeff Kent             0.14   -0.03    0.11
C  A.J. Pierzynski       0.01    0.00    0.01
----------------------------------------------
Second Team U.S.A.       1.45   -0.01    1.44

Lacking the cartoonish talents of Barry Bonds, U.S.A. II is much more comparable in quality to the Dominican team.


Third Team              EqMLVr    D     EqMLVr+D
LF Brian Giles           0.29    0.01    0.30
1B Jim  Thome            0.31   -0.04    0.28
RF Trot Nixon            0.15    0.01    0.16
3B Troy Glaus            0.13    0.00    0.13
CF Vernon Wells          0.11    0.00    0.11
2B Adam Kennedy          0.02    0.05    0.07
SS Derek Jeter           0.09   -0.07    0.02
C  Todd Pratt            0.05   -0.04    0.01
----------------------------------------------
Third Team U.S.A.        1.17   -0.08    1.08

The incredible depth in the U.S. becomes more apparent here, as Jim Thome, Brian Giles and Vernon Wells are only incremental downgrades from team two.

Derek Jeter makes the squad, despite at nearly one-tenth of a run per game below major league average having the worst non-catcher mitt of any player featured here.


Fourth Team             EqMLVr    D     EqMLVr+D
LF Chipper Jones         0.23    0.00    0.23
1B Derrek Lee            0.20    0.01    0.20
RF J.D. Drew             0.14    0.01    0.15
3B Morgan Ensberg        0.09   -0.01    0.08
2B Marcus Giles          0.09   -0.02    0.07
CF Torii Hunter          0.09   -0.02    0.07
C  Mike Piazza           0.09   -0.11   -0.02
SS Bobby Crosby         -0.02   -0.01   -0.03
----------------------------------------------
Fourth Team U.S.A.       0.91   -0.14    0.78

Morgan Ensberg edges Hank Blalock for the fourth-string third-base job on team U.S.A. If we'd used VORP, rather than MLVr, Ensberg wouldn't have even been in the running. PECOTA projects Blalock for 170 more at-bats than Ensberg in 2004, but gives Ensberg slightly higher context-independent performance.

By now the potential dominance of the U.S.A. should be apparent, prompting me to throw in one additional team. What if, instead of a World Cup of baseball similar to the World Cup of futbol, in baseball they made it U.S. vs. the World, a la the President's Cup of golf?

TEAM WORLD (MINUS U.S.)


World                   EqMLVr    D     EqMLVr+D
3B Albert Pujols         0.42   -0.03    0.39
LF Manny Ramirez         0.33   -0.01    0.32
1B Carlos Delgado        0.27    0.01    0.27
RF Magglio Ordonez       0.23    0.02    0.25
CF Vladimir Guerrero     0.25   -0.02    0.24
2B Alfonso Soriano       0.16   -0.03    0.14
C  Ivan Rodriguez        0.11   -0.02    0.10
SS Miguel Tejada         0.11   -0.05    0.07
---------------------------------------------
Team World               1.88   -0.12    1.76

Moving Pujols to third this time, the World starting lineup carries two Puerto Ricans, one Venezuelan, and five Dominicans. For all the press about Japanese players, it's interesting to note that PECOTA ranks Ichiro as the seventh-best right fielder on a potential World (minus U.S.) team, after Abreu, Guerrero, Ordonez, Sosa, Canadian Larry Walker, and Hidalgo. Hideki Matsui would fare better in left, third-stringing it behind Pujols and Ramirez. Kaz Matsui ranks third-best at short, behind Tejada and Colombian Edgar Renteria.

Summing up, here's how the lineups rank:


                        EqMLVr    D     EqMLVr+D
Team U.S.A.              2.21    0.11    2.32
Team World               1.88   -0.12    1.76
Second Team U.S.A.       1.45   -0.01    1.44
Team D.R.                1.48   -0.19    1.28
Third Team U.S.A.        1.17   -0.08    1.08
Team P.R.                0.90   -0.09    0.81
Fourth Team U.S.A.       0.91   -0.14    0.78
Team Venezuela           0.49    0.06    0.56

So far, the U.S. is looking tough to beat. Before starting up the "U.S.A.! U.S.A.!" chant, or loading up on call options on a company that makes those tiny U.S. flags, let's stop to remember that in game one of any playoff series the Dominican team would start Pedro Martinez, while the World team would start Pedro and finish with Eric Gagne. Next time, I'll take a look at the pitching staffs and see if the non-U.S. teams can cover the gap.

Nathan Fox is a freelance writer living in Boston. He can be contacted at nathanfox@msn.com.

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