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July 8, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Boston Red Sox, Cincinnati Reds, San Diego Padres

by Baseball Prospectus

Boston Red Sox

  • The Sky Isn't Falling (Today): Perhaps the toughest thing about writing about the Red Sox is trying to gauge the mood of the Nation without foreknowledge of the next game's final score. What have you done for me lately? More like what did you do for me yesterday. No joke: While getting swept in groin-kick fashion in the Bronx, then wrapping up a 1-5 road trip, Dan Shaughnessy called Nomar Garciaparra washed up, expressed surprise that Theo Epstein still believes in this team, and filed a Derek Lowe smear piece called An All-Time Low. One day later, after an 11-0 trouncing of Barry Zito and the Oakland A's back at Fenway Park, the sports page headline was Straight A's.

    Eighty-one games in, here's the thing: the Sox are seven games back of the Yankees, two games back of the wild card...and they're perhaps the best team in the division. Huh? Well, they're sixth in the A.L. in scoring (Yankees: third) and third in the league in run prevention (Yankees: ninth). By expected winning percentage, they should be a game up in the division and second only to the White Sox in the American League. The Sox are 5-9 in highly-random one-run games, while the Yankees are 14-9. These things have a way of evening out, Red Sox fans. Back away from the ledge.

  • Wait 'Til Next Year: Thursday was another upbeat day in Boston, with Pedro Martinez on the hill and an 11-3 romp against Oakland in the books. Next time the Sox lose, however, the wailing and gnashing of teeth are sure to resume. The weirdest incarnation of this despair is the bizarre argument that 2004 is Boston's last, best shot at a ring--that after the Nomar/Pedro/Jason Varitek era comes to an end, the Sox will be cast into some sort of rebuilding abyss. Nonsense.

    As of Opening Day 2004, the Yankees and Sox were number one and two in payroll at $184 million and $131 million, respectively. Thanks to the sporadically updated, yet incomparably valuable Dugout Dollars blog, we can take a rough look at the two superpowers' commitments in 2005.

    Three assumptions, before the tables: 1) This year's performance is a decent rough predictor of next year's performance; 2) As a GM, you'd rather have money to spend than sunk costs; and 3) Resources are not infinite, even for the Yankees.

    Sox (Assuming Mueller's $2.1m option and Timlin's $2.75m option picked up.)
                       2005 salary ($m)     2004 VORP
    Damon, Johnny              8.5             26.4
    Embree, Alan               3.0              2.4
    Foulke, Keith              7.0             21.0
    Kim, Byung-Hyun            6.0             -3.1
    Millar, Kevin              3.5              7.8
    Mueller, Bill              2.1              5.5
    Nixon, Trot                7.5              0.8
    Ortiz, David               5.25            35.4
    Ramirez, Manny            23.2             47.1
    Schilling, Curt           12.5             38.7
    Timlin, Mike               2.75            14.6
    Wakefield, Tim             4.67            12.9
    Total                     85.97           209.5
    2004 VORP per $1m 2005 dollars: 2.44
    Yankees (Assuming Lee's $3m option and Lieber's $8m option bought out.)
                       2005 salary ($m)     2004 VORP
    Brown, Kevin              15.0             14.9
    Clemens, Roger             0.7              0.0
    Contreras, Jose            8.0             -4.8
    Giambi, Jason             15.5             14.8
    Gordon, Tom                3.75            23.3
    Heredia, Felix             1.8             -3.0
    Jeter, Derek              20.0             23.2
    Karsay, Steve              5.0              0.0
    Lee, Travis                0.25            -2.9
    Lieber, Jon                0.25             5.8
    Lofton, Kenny              3.1              5.2
    Matsui, Hideki             8.0             22.2
    Mussina, Mike             19.0              4.1
    Posada, Jorge             12.0             27.4
    Quantrill, Paul            3.0             14.6
    Rivera, Mariano           10.5             24.5
    Rodriguez, Alex           20.0             34.5
    Sheffield, Gary           13.0             27.4
    Vasquez, Javier           10.5             27.0
    White, Gabe                1.93            -4.9
    Williams, Bernie          12.0             20.3
    Total                    183.28           273.6
    2004 VORP per $1m 2005 dollars: 1.49

    Based on dollars already committed and this year's performance, the 2005 Sox look like nearly double the bang for the buck. Now who would you rather be, Brian Cashman or Theo Epstein?

    Theo has about $45 million of elbow room to fill out next year's roster and patch the Pedro/Varitek/Nomar holes without going over this year's budget. In today's depressed market for free agents, do you bet against him? Meanwhile, Cashman's got zero operating room in 2005--and the picture doesn't get appreciably better any time soon. In fact, the Yankees have about $300 million dollars already committed for the 2006-2009 seasons. What happens if they don't win it all this year, or next? The bigger they come, the harder they fall.

Cincinnati Reds

  • The Good: According to ESPN's sortable stats, second baseman D'Angelo Jimenez and slugger 1B/OF Adam Dunn are leading Major League Baseball in pitches per plate appearances. Jimenez is turning out to be a satisfactory acquisition for the Reds, and at age 26, it's not inconceivable that he could still reclaim some of the promise of his Yankees blue-chip prospectdom. Dunn, meanwhile, is walking (66), striking out (103) and mashing (24 HR) like his name was Jim Thome.

    Thome's third on Dunn's list of PECOTA comps, actually, (Troy Glaus, Fred McGriff, Thome, Ben Grieve, and Boog Powell are the top five) and there are other names on the list about which Reds fans have good reason to get excited. How does a 1961 Harmon Killebrew strike you? Killebrew was 25 at the time, in his first year with the Twins, with 80-some homers under his belt--and went on to hit 489 more before he retired. The next name on the list, Willie McCovey circa 1962, is equally exciting. (True, yet hard to believe: Dunn has two inches on the 6'4" "Stretch.")

    Perhaps most interesting for statheads--if frightening for Cincinnati faithful--is Dunn's low, low similarity index of 18. According to the BP Glossary, "a player with a score of 20 or lower is historically unusual," which, of course, most of us already figured out when the 6'6", 240-lb Dunn stole 19 bases in 2002. In another couple of weeks, Dunn will eclipse the 100-homer mark. At the age of 24.

    On the other end of the pitches/PA spectrum, first baseman Sean Casey is third from the bottom of the list--and, like Ivan Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero, still mashing. Casey has already eclipsed his 90th percentile PECOTA projection for homers for 2004 (13) by two. If PECOTA were a GM, it would be heartlessly speed dialing every contender in the league--and all the other teams, too--looking to deal Casey at the absolute peak of his trade value. Of course PECOTA is a machine, and can't properly calculate Casey's value as fan favorite--or the value of walking through the Great American Ballpark without having multiple beers poured on its head by enraged fans.

  • The Bad: The biggest disappointment, by far, for the 2004 Reds is the conspicuous absence of could-be-should-be phenom Austin Kearns. PECOTA foresaw injury time for Kearns in 2004, pegging him for just 375 ABs despite a .368 OBP and .480 SLG--but even that estimate of playing time is starting to look high. As noted by Will Carroll in his June 30 Under the Knife, Kearns had surgery on his right thumb and will miss another four to six weeks.

    A look at Kearns' comps is a classic Lady or the Tiger scenario. Behind door number one, the 20-year Major League career of Dwight Evans. Behind door number two... Lee Walls? Ron Swoboda?

  • The Ugly: One of the most unattractive of all the human characteristics is the obnoxious tendency to say "told you so." Well, forgive our ugliness, but in the middle of May we did tell you the Reds' hot start was smoke and mirrors--then in June, we told you again.

    By the middle of June, thanks to an American League-aided seven-game slide that knocked the Reds permanently out of first place in the NL Central, it was apparent to just about everyone that this wasn't the year. Gerry Hunsicker's late-June acquisition of Carlos Beltran said that he wasn't even considering the Reds in the race--not with the Cubs and Cards both at the top of the standings. Milwaukee and Pittsburgh's recent successes add final insult to injury, meaning that it's now a wide-open race for last place in the division and the Reds, like it or not, are credible contenders.

    Thankfully, Reds fans have all the aforementioned young bucks on which to hang their hopes for 2005, 2006, and beyond. For now, sadly, we anticipate a long summer.

San Diego Padres

  • Scoring At Home: Through 42 home games (vs. 41 away) San Diego's new Petco Park is playing as the second-stingiest ballpark in the baseball, behind Safeco, according to ESPN's report. It's second-to-last in homers allowed, behind Kansas City's Kauffman Stadium (which had its fences moved back in the offseason), last in hits allowed, fourth-from-last in doubles allowed, and third from the top in triples allowed, behind Kaufman and another homer-stingy ballpark, San Francisco's SBC.

    The obvious explanation for this apparent anomaly is that a roughly league-average number of balls are put in play at low-scoring ballparks...they just tend to stay in the yard, either finding outfielder's gloves or large expanses of outfield grass. The Pads, despite early-season whining by the slugging corps, have come to enjoy Petco's particular brand of home cooking, running up a 25-17 record at home vs. a 21-20 record on the road. Come to think of it, this is reminiscent of how the divisional rival Giants have also flourished in their pitcher-friendly confines. Conventional wisdom these days, drawing heavily on Coors Field as painful anecdotal evidence, says that hitter-friendly ballparks hamper team success. Uh-oh... I feel a microstudy coming on.

    Drawing only on the 2004 data right here at our fingertips, we find an average home winning percentage of .552 across MLB. There's certainly a home field advantage in baseball, if nowhere near as extreme as in other major sports.

    Dividing the 30 MLB teams into subsets, we find interesting things happening at the margins. The top five ballparks for scoring in 2004 are Coors, Arlington, U.S. Cellular, the BOB, and Fenway. The bottom five for scoring are Safeco, Petco, the GAB (!), PNC, and Kauffman. As one might expect, the teams with the most extreme park factors also have the most extreme home/road splits:

                       Home  Road  Diff
    Top 5              .555  .406  .149
    Bottom 5           .515  .404  .111
    Middle 20          .561  .469  .092

    This split is even more marked further out on the margins:

                       Home  Road  Diff
    Top 3              .585  .419  .165
    Bottom 3           .561  .427  .134
    Middle 20          .547  .454  .094

    But do extreme park factors, positive or negative, help or hurt teams overall? Unfortunately for the Padres, a large home-road split does not correlate with a higher overall winning percentage. If anything, it's exactly the opposite. So far in 2004, the five teams playing in high-run environments have an aggregate winning percentage of .479, and the five teams playing in the lowest-run environments are winning at a .460 clip. The remaining 20 middle-of-the-road teams are at .515.

  • Otsuka is Japanese for "Hells Bells": Has anybody else noticed that Akinori Otsuka's number one PECOTA comp is Trevor Hoffman? It feels like we spend an inordinate time writing about the Padres new setup man in this space, but his performance has warranted it. Otsuka is carrying an increasingly heavy load for the Pads, having now appeared in 40 games--nearly half of the Padres' contests. So far he's mostly been used in one-inning situations, but he's also gone as long as two full innings, and recently pitched one inning in each of four consecutive Padres wins--a four-game winning streak over Arizona and Seattle won by a total of five runs. It was the second time this year that Otsuka had pitched in four consecutive games. Meanwhile, the 32-year-old Japanese hurler has compiled a wicked 9.82 K/9 ratio, and given up only 13 walks and 3 homers.

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