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May 4, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Arizona Diamondbacks, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals

by Baseball Prospectus

Arizona Diamondbacks

  • Rumors of his Demise...: After a season in which he missed half the year with a knee injury, finished with a losing record for the first time since 1992, and posted his highest ERA (4.26) since his rookie season of 1989, Randy Johnson has had to deal with the whispers that at age 40, he's facing the beginning of the end.

    Book those people on with Bill O'Reilly, so he can tell them to shut up. Through six starts, Johnson has a 3.10 ERA in 41 innings, which if not vintage Unit, is certainly a darn sight better than last year. More telling is that in those 41 innings, he has allowed only 39 hits + walks, and his 51 strikeouts once again lead all of baseball.

    Johnson's rebound shouldn't be that surprising, because Johnson didn't pitch nearly as poorly last year as it looks at first blush. In 114 innings last season, Johnson had a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 125 to 27; factoring out intentional walks, his ratio of 5.21 was actually higher than his K/BB ratio from his four Cy Young campaigns with the Diamondbacks (5.04).

    While Johnson did give up 16 homers in those 114 innings, the main reason for his struggles in 2003 was simple: He was unlucky. Johnson gave up 125 hits in 114 innings; based on his defense-independent pitching statistics, he should have given up only 108.

    Johnson had never shown a tendency to be hit-unlucky in the past, so this was clearly a fluky occurrence. (Johnson, in fact, became the first pitcher in major league history (min: 100 IP) to average at least 9.5 strikeouts per nine innings and allow at least 9.5 hits per nine innings.)

    Sure enough, this year things have returned to normal: Johnson has given up exactly as many hits as his DIPS predict. And normally, Johnson is one of the most dominant pitchers in baseball.

    How long can Johnson continue his reign as one of the game's elite? On the one hand, he turns 41 in September; on the other, he's still the premier power pitcher in the game. And with starting pitchers, the number one determinant of career longevity isn't age, it's strikeout rate. At the same age, Nolan Ryan led the NL in strikeouts, and he still had more than 1,000 innings (and nearly 1,200 strikeouts) left in him.

    Of course, Ryan was a freak of nature; certainly there must be another pitcher who, like Johnson, was a dominant power pitcher entering his 40s.

    Actually, there isn't. Nolan Ryan is the only pitcher in history who averaged more than a strikeout an inning in a season (min: 100 IP) at age 40 or older. Besides Johnson, the only pitcher who even did so at age 39 is Roger Clemens--who, even in his retirement, continues to pitch well.

  • Ace #2: There are groundball pitchers, there are Groundball Pitchers, and then there's Brandon Webb. From the moment he was called up from the minors last season, Webb has become the premier sinkerballer in the league. His 3.44 G/F ratio last season was second in the majors behind only Derek Lowe; this year, his ratio of 3.82 dwarfs that of any other pitcher. No other qualifier has a ratio above 2.5; Lowe, who has too few innings to qualify, is only at 2.76.

    But Webb has something going for him that Lowe doesn't: He's also a dominant strikeout pitcher. For his career, Webb has 203 whiffs in 217 innings, or 8.41 per nine innings. Since entering the rotation full-time in 2002, Lowe is only at 5.00 per.

    Put the numbers together, and you find that over his career, Webb has gotten only 14.7% of his outs through the air, the lowest number of any active starter. When you consider that G/F ratio, according to Nate Silver's research, is the single best predictor of how many homers a pitcher will give up, Webb should be the toughest starting pitcher in baseball to take deep. And sure enough, he has allowed only one homer per 15.5 innings in his career, despite pitching in a fairly good home run park.

    Over the last 20 years, the number of pitchers who fit Webb's profile--a power pitcher with a high G/F ratio--is very small, and includes such luminaries as Greg Maddux (in his prime) and Kevin Brown. Long-term, there might not be a safer pitcher to bet on than the Diamondbacks' #2 starter.

Detroit Tigers

  • How Good Are They?: It's pretty clear by now that the Tigers, who still have a winning record entering the first full week of May, are--ahem--better than last year's squad. At no point last season did the Tigers win 13 games without at least 21 losses interspersed among those wins; going into Monday night's game, they're 13-12.

    Are they really playing that well? They've outscored their opponents, 143 to 139, a performance certainly in keeping with a 13-12 record. But while they've outscored their opponents, the statistical record doesn't make it clear why.

    For the season, the Tigers have been outhit by their opponents (.287 to .276), outwalked (98 to 92), and outpowered (89 extra-base hits to 66). The only positive offensive indicators in which the Tigers lead are steals (they have eight more than their opponents, but also have been thrown out six more times)--and runs.

    According to our Adjusted Standings sheet--which also takes into account the quality of competition--the Tigers should actually be 10.3-14.7.

    So they're better. But they're not nearly as good as they look.

  • Who's Been the Key to Their Success?: You can limit the suspects to one half of the roster.
    
    Year     Runs Scored/G     Runs Allowed/G
    2003         3.65               5.73
    2004         5.72               5.56
    
    

    The pitching staff is only marginally better than the one that lost 119 games last season. But the offense has increased its run scoring by 57%.

    The obvious suspects--all the guys who weren't on last year's team--certainly have played a part. Take a look:

    Ivan Rodriguez: .356/.398/.500 replaces Matt Walbeck: .174/.197/.239
    Rondell White: .307/.398/.557 replaces Kevin Witt: .263/.301/.407
    Carlos Guillen: .287/.379/.414 replaces Omar Infante: .222/.278/.258
    Fernando Vina: .256/.340/.311 replaces Ramon Santiago: .225/.292/.284

    But the biggest upgrade in the lineup is the alien that's inhabiting Brandon Inge's body:

    Brandon Inge, through 2003: .198/.254/.314
    Brandon Inge, 2004: .322/.403/.542

    After his spot on the roster looked to be in jeopardy following the signing of Rodriguez, Inge has instead recast himself as a utility man par excellence. As has been reported elsewhere, he has already started games at catcher, third base, left field, and center field, becoming the first player to do so since 1980.

    While he hasn't suddenly turned into Mike Piazza, Inge's improvement has been so broad-based that some of it is probably real. His isolated power has gone up each year of his career (.058, .131, .136, .220), and his walk rate so far this year is exactly double his previous career rate. It's also his age-27 season.

  • How Much Does Their Success Change Their Forecast?: Not as much as you'd think. Based on this series of articles (Part I, Part II, Part III) from last year, before the season began, we could have projected the Tigers to win 59 games this year based on their records over the past three seasons.

    As a result of starting 13-12, their projection changes. Instead of being expected to go 59-103, the formulas project the Tigers to go 66-96.

    A seven-game improvement from the start of the season--and a 23-game jump from last season--is nothing to sneeze at. But given the additions of Rodriguez and friends, the Tigers can be forgiven for setting their expectations a little higher than 66 wins.

  • How Unprecedented Is Their Success?: If they keep winning at their current pace, it would be an improvement of historic proportions. The biggest improvements since 1900:
    
    Team              Year    W   L   Pct.    Year    W   L   Pct.    Imp.
    Arizona           1998   65  97  .401     1999  100  62  .617     35
    New York (NL)     1902   48  88  .353     1903   84  55  .604     34.5
    Boston (AL)       1945   71  83  .461     1946  104  50  .675     33
    Baltimore         1987   54 107  .335     1988   87  75  .537     32.5
    Philadelphia (NL) 1904   52 100  .342     1905   83  69  .546     31
    San Francisco     1992   72  90  .444     1993  103  59  .636     31
    
    

    The Tigers need to win 79 games this season to achieve the greatest single-season improvement in modern baseball history.

    They're more likely to make their mark on the list of greatest offensive improvements from one season to the next. The Tigers have scored 2.07 more runs per game this year compared to last. Only one team has improved by more:

    
    Team              Year    Runs/G    Year    Runs/G      Imp.
    New York (NL)     1902     2.88     1903     5.14       2.26
    Chicago (AL)      1910     2.93     1911     4.67       1.74
    Chicago (NL)      1928     4.64     1929     6.29       1.66
    Chicago (AL)      1976     3.64     1977     5.21       1.57
    Detroit           1933     4.66     1934     6.22       1.56
    
    

    The 1903 Giants were helped by a league-wide increase in scoring of 0.8 runs per game. Relative to their league, the 2004 Tigers are on pace for the greatest offensive improvement ever.

Kansas City Royals

  • If It Wasn't for Bad Luck...: Last year, the Royals started 16-3 on their way to their first winning season since 1994. This year, they're 7-16.

    There isn't a dime's worth of difference between the two teams. The team that's 7-16 has played exactly as well as the team that went 83-79.

    The 2003 Royals were the luckiest team in baseball. They won 83 games despite being outscored by 31 runs. And based on the number of singles, doubles, homers, etc. that the Royals and their opponents compiled, they were lucky they weren't outscored by more.

    Going back to our Adjusted Standings page, the Royals won 11 more games than they should have on paper. Basically, they were a 72-win team that lucked their way into a winning record.

    Don't believe that it was luck? Then how do you explain why the 2004 Royals are, by the same measurement, the unluckiest team in baseball? Thanks to an 0-5 record in one-run games entering Monday, this year's squad has the worst record in the American League even though they've only been outscored by 19 runs all year.

    On paper, the Royals should have 10.5 wins. They're 3.5 wins off expectations; the Blue Jays (-3.2) are the only other team more than three games below their expected record.

    Here are the two Royals teams, side-by-side:

    
    Year     Actual Record     Expected Record   Expected Pct.
    2003        83-79            72.0 - 90.0           .444
    2004         7-16            10.5 - 12.5           .457
    
    

    Actually, there is a dime's worth of difference. This year's team has played better than they did last year--but the results are woefully different.

  • Guaranteed to Look Foolish: After losing to the Yankees on Saturday--the Royals' 13th loss in the last 16 games--Tony Pena threw the gauntlet down. "We are going to win the Central," he guaranteed to reporters covering the game.

    Take that guarantee for what it's worth--Pena had just stepped out of the shower and was clothed in nothing but a towel at the time. But someone should tell the manager what his team is up against. Going into Monday's games, the Royals are 7.5 games behind the Twins and the White Sox.

    Then again, maybe Pena is perfectly aware of the potential for a team to come back from 7.5 games down. He had a great view of the 2003 Twins, who won the division after finding themselves 7.5 games behind at the All-Star Break...7.5 games behind the Royals.

  • Carlo$: While the Royals as a team are scuffling, their star center fielder--and the centerpiece of next winter's free agent list--is living up to the MVP expectations that many have placed upon him in his walk year (and age-27 season).

    Carlos Beltran is hitting .326/.439/.721, leading the American League in homers (8), slugging average, and OPS, and leading all of baseball in runs (25). He was named the AL's Player of the Month for April. This season marks the culmination of consistent improvement over the past several years, an improvement best illustrated by his strikeout-to-walk ratio:

    
    Year   BB   K    K/BB
    2001   52   120  2.31
    2002   71   135  1.90
    2003   72    81  1.13
    2004   18    13  0.72
    
    

    Beltran's emergence as arguably the best hitter in baseball (non-Bonds division) is supported by some secondary numbers: increased patience at the plate (he's averaging 4.18 pitches per plate appearance; his previous career high was 3.95), and he's learning Barry's trick of always hitting the ball in the air. Beltran's G/F ratio has hovered between 1.36 and 1.46 every season of his career. This year, it has plunged to 0.59. (Bonds, who typically has a G/F ratio around 0.6, is at 0.29 this year.)

    Beltran hasn't let his power game get in the way of showing off his speed; he's also third in the AL with seven steals. In typical Beltran form he hasn't been caught yet, continuing the success rate that has made him the most effective base stealer of all-time at 88.7% (minimum: 50 SB). Beltran is only the 10th player since 1972 (when our records start) to finish April with at least seven homers and seven steals.

    There have only been three 40/40 players in major-league history. Beltran's not a bad bet to become the fourth. Unless you're betting that he'll accomplish both feats while still a member of the Royals.

    How is Dioner Navarro doing these days, anyway?

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