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March 24, 2004

World Cup Comes to Baseball?

Projecting the Pitchers

by Nathan Fox

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In 1980, the world witnessed a hockey Miracle. In 1999, the United States watched its down-and-out Ryder Cup team explode into a jarring celebration on the 17th green. We love international competition. In 2005, we're hoping to see a rumored World Cup of Baseball.

So, as is our wont, we've started poking into some numbers. Assuming the World Cup comes to fruition, and assuming (big assumption) everybody plays, how might the teams stack up?

So far, it's been all U.S. On the hitting side, we named eight starting position players to come up with each team's total MLVr+D, a crude measure of hitting and defense, measured in terms of runs plus or minus Major League average. We focused only on those countries with a sufficient number of players in Major League Baseball to field teams: the U.S., the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico (treated as a separate country just for fun), and Venezuela. At the end of our analysis it was readily apparent that Team U.S.A., and even a Second Team U.S.A., had more than enough firepower to cover the competition--so we posited a "World" team made up of all other countries except the U.S. mainland. Still, Team U.S.A. came out on top:


                         MLVr     D     MLVr+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

For pitchers we'll be creating eight-man staffs, weighted as follows:

  • Four starting pitchers (SP), each throwing 1/6 of the team's innings,
  • One "relief ace" (RA), throwing 1/6 of the team's innings,
  • Three other relief pitchers (RP), each throwing 1/18 of the team's innings.

I arrived at this breakdown by looking at Team USA's pitching usage during the 2003 Pan-Am Games. In that case, Team USA--the amateur version, here we'll be looking at the pros--actually used nine pitchers. But three of those were used in mop-up situations only, and two took the hill for only an inning or less. The breakdown I've chosen is a rough approximation, and admittedly somewhat arbitrary.

The metric we'll use to evaluate pitchers is PECOTA's weighted mean projection of 2004 Equivalent ERA. (For big leaguers, EqERA is the player's ERA adjusted to a neutral park.) At the end, we'll combine the hitting/defense numbers with the pitching numbers and crown a champion.

In Part One, we started with Team Dominican and created an offense anchored by Albert Pujols, Manny Ramirez, and Vladimir Guerrero. This lineup, fearsome as it is, fell nearly a run per game short of Team USA on hitting and defense. But we knew that Pedro would give the Dominicans a chance on the pitching side. Here's the whole staff:

DOMINICAN REPUBLIC


Dominican Republic             EqERA
SP Martinez, Pedro              2.37
SP Colon, Bartolo               4.11
SP Soriano, Rafael              3.69
SP Perez, Odalis                4.03
RA Marte, Damaso                3.14
RP Dotel, Octavio               3.17
RP Cordero, Francisco           3.35
RP Almanzar, Carlos             3.44
------------------------------------
Team D.R. (Weighted)            3.44

You'll note that I haven't used EqERA as my primary tool for assigning staff roles. While I'll attempt to include the pitchers with the absolute lowest EqERA projections, good sense requires me to be realistic about who would get the starting assignments. In other words: If you'd like to be the one to tell Bartolo Colon that he's not the number two starter for Team D.R., be my guest. For our purposes today, we've got to give him the nod.

That's a great staff. According to Keith Woolner's League Averages report, the average ERA in Major League Baseball in 2003 was 4.40. So team Dominican, which we already saw was a run and a quarter per game better than MLB average on offense and defense, is another run better on the pitching side.

Here are the top five that didn't quite make the cut:


Mota, Guillermo                 3.70
Valverde, Jose                  3.80
Mateo, Julio                    3.95
Benitez, Armando                4.09
Alfonseca, Antonio              4.10

PUERTO RICO

In analyzing the position players for Team Puerto Rico, we discovered that Puerto Rico is the catching capital of the universe: PECOTA's top three projected catchers for 2004--Pudge Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, and Javy Lopez--all hail from the U.S. territory. Of 31 Puerto Rican-born players with PECOTA projections, eight are catchers.

Unfortunately, Puerto Rico only seems to specialize in one half of the battery. We're trying to assemble eight-man staffs, but we've only got six Puerto Rico-born pitchers to start with:


Puerto Rico                    EqERA
SP Vazquez, Javier              3.32
SP Pineiro, Joel                4.00
SP Lopez, Javier                4.13
SP Calero, Kiko                 4.19
RA Romero, J.C.                 4.48
RP Hernandez, Roberto           6.38
------------------------------------
Team P.R. (Weighted)            4.42

That's a nice one-two punch, but beyond that, the Puerto Rican staff is very thin. I've compensated for the lack of arms here by making Javier Lopez and Kiko Calero starters, even if that won't be their role in the majors in 2004, and by assigning the rusted-out Roberto Hernandez a full 1/6 of the pitching duties rather than the 1/18 he'd get if there were two more Puerto Rican bodies in the mix.

J.C. Romero, coming off an ugly 2003, is projected right around major league average for 2003 and earns the relief ace role on a skinny Puerto Rican staff. The team's weighted average, here literally "anchored," not in a good way, by Hernandez, also comes in at MLB average.

VENEZUELA

Our bottom-feeder on the offensive side looks a bit better on the hill, boasting plenty of major league arms with which to construct a staff:


Venezuela                      EqERA
SP Santana, Johan               3.66
SP Zambrano, Carlos             4.01
SP Escobar, Kelvim              4.18
SP Garcia, Freddy               4.30
RA Urbina, Ugueth               3.59
RP Betancourt, Rafael           3.70
RP Rodriguez, Francisco         4.15
RP Moreno, Orber                4.17
------------------------------------
Team Venezuela (Weighted)       3.96

The undisputed Venezuelan ace is Johan Santana, who, finally allowed a full-time spot in the rotation in July 2003, is a genuine top of the rotation guy. Santana should, according to Baseball Prospectus 2004, be in the running for the 2004 AL Cy Young Award.

Ugueth Urbina, meanwhile, appears ready to spend the 2004 season resting up for his World Cup assignment as Venezuela's relief ace. After posting a 1.41 ERA during Florida's 2003 Wild Card run, Urbina has yet to sign a major league contract, has threatened to sit out the 2004 season unless given what he deems an adequate offer, and could even be headed to Japan. PECOTA likes him, projecting more than a strikeout an inning in 2004 should he find a home.

Venezuela's top five also-rans:


Alvarez, Wilson                 4.29
Armas Jr., Tony                 4.40
Julio, Jorge                    4.58
Gonzalez, Jeremi                4.63
Rincon, Juan                    4.69

UNITED STATES


Team U.S.A.                    EqERA
SP Prior, Mark                  2.97
SP Schilling, Curt              3.19
SP Johnson, Randy               3.35
SP Mussina, Mike                3.41
RA Wagner, Billy                2.60
RP Smoltz, John                 2.92
RP Foulke, Keith                3.04
RP Bradford, Chad               3.28
------------------------------------
Team U.S.A. (Weighted)          3.10

Nasty? You betcha. The rotation speaks for itself, but our favorite part of this projection is Moneyballer Chad Bradford sneaking up to grab the final bullpen spot. Team U.S.A.: Bonds, Rodriguez... Prior, Schilling, Johnson... Bradford?! Don't forget, he was the best reliever in major league baseball last year in terms of preventing inherited runners from scoring.

Team U.S.A.'s staff is a third of a run better than the Pedro-led Team Dominican. Quickly, let's fill out Teams U.S.A. 2-4, then unleash Eric Gagne for a World-minus-U.S. staff.


Second Team                    EqERA
SP Oswalt, Roy                  3.58
SP Schmidt, Jason               3.59
SP Wood, Kerry                  3.60
SP Webb, Brandon                3.62
RA Nen, Robb                    3.30
RP Rhodes, Arthur               3.31
RP Gordon, Tom                  3.32
RP Wagner, Ryan                 3.32
------------------------------------
Second Team (Weighted)          3.50

Still very nice, if not quite as dominant as were the second team's hitters. Ignoring the potential for a complete Robb Nen blowout, (and you've got to think that these "mop-up" guys could pick up the slack in that event) this staff comes in a shade behind the Dominicans, and still half a run better than Venezuela.


Third Team                     EqERA
SP Brown, Kevin                 3.69
SP Halladay, Roy                3.71
SP Hudson, Tim                  3.74
SP Clemens, Roger               3.75
RA Percival, Troy               3.42
RP Riske, David                 3.36
RP Guardado, Eddie              3.42
RP Mantei, Matt                 3.45
------------------------------------
Third Team (Weighted)           3.62


Fourth Team                    EqERA
SP Pettitte, Andy               3.86
SP Maddux, Greg                 3.86
SP Miller, Wade                 3.91
SP Beckett, Josh                3.94
RA Isringhausen, Jason          3.47
RP Eischen, Joey                3.49
RP Grimsley, Jason              3.52
RP Donnelly, Brendan            3.52
------------------------------------
Fourth Team (Weighted)          3.76

What say we draw the line there? I don't want to name names, but I'm looking at a fifth-string Team U.S.A. here with a weighted EqERA of 3.86. Baseball's just a game, everyone understands... but dropping David Wells on Venezuela (and him beating them) couldn't be good for international relations.

Having once again established that the United States is dominant at its own game--surprise, surprise--let's see if we've exported enough baseball worldwide that an international all-star team might beat us.

TEAM WORLD (MINUS U.S.)


World                          EqERA
SP Martinez, Pedro (D.R.)       2.37
SP Kim, Byung-Hyun (S. Korea)   3.31
SP Vazquez, Javier (P.R.)       3.32
SP Balfour, Grant (Australia)   3.48
RA Gagne, Eric (Canada)         2.32
RP Otsuka, Akinori (Japan)      2.51
RP Zimmerman, Jeff (Canada)     2.98
RP Rivera, Mariano (Panama)     3.06
------------------------------------
Team World (Weighted)           2.94

Take that! By a 0.16 run margin, Team World has a better pitching staff than Team U.S.A.

It's not too hard to see why. As promised, Team World boasts not only the best starter in baseball but the game's iciest reliever. And, good news for the health of baseball, it's a surprisingly multinational squad; Canada is the only country boasting two names. (If Jeff Zimmerman's elbow detonates as it has threatened to this spring, Damaso Marte takes his spot, the team ERA rises insignificantly, and the Dominican Republic becomes the only country claiming two pitchers.) Akinori Otsuka, new setup man for the San Diego Padres, is the only Japanese player to make the team on either side.

Remember, the 2003 league average ERA in Major League Baseball was 4.40. Comparing that to the teams we're analyzing here, we see that we're dealing with eight very strong staffs. (As we'd expect, choosing eight short staffs from the entire pool of Major League talent.) Summing up:


                                EqERA - 4.40 =  EqERA-MLB
Team World                      2.94                -1.46
Team U.S.A.                     3.10                -1.30
Team D.R.                       3.44                -0.96
Second Team                     3.50                -0.90
Third Team                      3.62                -0.78
Fourth Team                     3.76                -0.64
Team Venezuela                  3.96                -0.44
Team P.R.                       4.42                +0.02

Team World is projected nearly a run and a half better than Major League average for 2004, and Team U.S.A joins them in the top tier. There's a substantial gap (.34 runs/game), then Team Dominican, closely followed by the U.S. second stringers. At the bottom of the list, Venezuela's sub 4.00 EqERA still compares very favorably, and Puerto Rico's skeleton crew brings up the rear at 4.42--right at MLB average.

Combining parts one and two of this exercise, we're left with two metrics that encompass hitting, defense, and pitching, both measured in terms of runs per game vs. Major League average. It's fair to use the two additively--by subtracting the EqERA differentials from the hitting and defense, we can combine the two metrics.


                              EqMLVr+D - EqERA-MLB = Total
Team U.S.A.                     2.32       -1.30      3.62
Team World                      1.76       -1.46      3.22
Second Team                     1.44       -0.90      2.34
Team D.R.                       1.28       -0.96      2.24
Third Team                      1.08       -0.78      1.86
Fourth Team                     0.78       -0.64      1.42
Team Venezuela                  0.56       -0.44      1.00
Team P.R.                       0.81       +0.02      0.79

So what have we learned? First, it's blindingly apparent that an extraordinarily high level of baseball could be played in a World Cup of baseball such as the one we've posited. Team U.S.A. projects at a whopping 3.62 runs per game better than the average Major League team taking a field near you in the coming weeks--and even Team Puerto Rico is three-quarters of a run better.

We've also learned that, if contracts and injury concerns don't muddy the waters (as they undoubtedly will), the rest of the world--today--looks like a big underdog against the U.S. pros. Sure, take Barry Bonds away from the Americans and Team World suddenly has the upper hand. But Team Dominican, as great as they are, appear little match for the overwhelming depth of talent available to the United States. Luckily for the rest of the world, like MLB playoffs a World Cup would be composed of short series. Angels. Marlins. Anything can happen.

We hope the World Cup will happen soon, and we're excited to see how the balance of power might shift in the next five, 10, or 20 years. Rising worldwide popularity portends great things for the sport: an exploding fan base helps secure the game's economic health, even as an influx of players leads to ever-higher levels of competition on the field.

The world's two toughest pitchers are already foreign born, and the retirement of Barry Bonds should make Albert Pujols the game's best hitter. If Team U.S.A. hopes to notch a few World Cup championships, there's no time like the present.

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

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