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July 15, 2004

Prospectus Today

AL Mid-Season Report Card

by Joe Sheehan

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So, I guess I need to open with an explanation...

Tuesday's column was written Monday night, before the 2004 All-Star Game had been played. I thought it might be fun to do a diary for the game in advance of it, using the same format I used in '03 and '01, and writing it as if I was doing so during the game.

I did such a good job of selling it--or such a poor job of selling the satire--that I got a bunch of e-mails wondering what the hell I was talking about. My fault for not being over-the-top enough, and for talking Jonah out of a disclaimer atop the original piece. If you were confused or didn't enjoy the piece, please accept my apology.

With the real All-Star Game out of the way--and playing for home-field advantage for every World Series game for the rest of the millennium wouldn't have saved that snoozer--it's time to look forward to the second half. This is shaping up to be a tremendous stretch run, with four divisions pretty much too close to call, and a National League in which 12 teams can consider themselves playoff contenders. We have some great individual performances to watch, trade talk is ramping up daily, and baseball has the stage to itself for a few weeks.

So it's time for me to put it on the line and make my midseason calls. One thing, before I get into all this: I have a stubborn streak, and I'm inclined to believe that the evaluations I made in April still have merit. So for me to change a prediction takes a lot.

Like a seven-game lead with 76 to play.

That's what the Yankees, who I picked to finish second to the Red Sox in the AL East, have over the Red Sox. The difference is almost entirely in the Sox underperforming; the difference between their record and their projected record by their runs scored and allowed is two games, which has hurt. More significantly...let's run a chart.

                RS    RA    Net
Actual         482   402    +80
Projected*     510   367   +143

*by Clay Davenport

That's a 63-run difference that's largely attributable to the team's performance with runners on base. The AL as a whole picks up 30 points of OPS when hitting with runners on as opposed to the bases empty, and 27 points with runners in scoring position. Sox batters, however, are 37 points worse with runners on than with the bases empty, and 23 points worse. That's enough to cost them 28 runs, or nearly three wins, at the plate. The gap in runs allowed is attributable to a comparable problem the pitching staff has with runners on base--57 points of OPS worse in a league just 30 points worse--as well as the large number of unearned runs the Sox have allowed.

I have no intention of making a statement about the character of the players on the Red Sox. As I've said before, inferring character traits based on job performance in certain situations is a terrible idea, one far overdone in sports. Nevertheless, that performance has cost them runs, and in the end, wins.

With no reason to think that the Red Sox are fundamentally unable to hit or pitch with runners on base, you can expect their wins and losses to fall more roughly in line with their overall performance. In other words, they're about as good a team as the Yankees are, maybe even a little better now that the whole roster is in place.

Which means there's no reason to expect them to win the East. They've given back seven games in half a season, and to be seven games better than a comparable team over 11 weeks requires both great play and some luck. With the Yankees likely to continue scoring enough runs to sustain an above-.500 record even if they have to bring in Scott Nielsen and Kevin Mmahat to make some starts.

It's hard to blow a seven-game lead. Since the first complete season of the six-division MLB, 13 teams have had at least a seven-game lead in their division at the All-Star break. Of those, just one, last year's Kansas City Royals, did not finish the season in first place. (I think the Royals have won just 27 games since last July 15.) The rest all won their divisions, many going away.

I might be inclined to stick with the Red Sox if I thought they could make a big trade that made them four games better over half a season. The problem is that most of the rumors involve them trading away Nomar Garciaparra, and even if doing so brings in Randy Johnson, that's giving away more than half the difference between Johnson and the starter he replaces in the rotation.

I'm actually hoping that the Sox add a starting pitcher, Johnson or someone else, because I think it will be an interesting test of one of the game's performance-centric front offices. By any logic that doesn't put excessive weight on 2002 performance, Bronson Arroyo is a much better pitcher than Derek Lowe. There's nothing Arroyo hasn't done better than Lowe this year, and the gap between them has grown with each passing month.

But Lowe has a big salary, a couple of All-Star appearances and a 20-win season in his recent past, while Arroyo is largely anonymous outside of the Sox clubhouse. Replacing Lowe, while the right baseball thing to do, might be too difficult for the Sox management team to do. So they'd get less benefit from adding a starting pitcher than they could, because they're actually not eliminating their weakest link.

So while I can construct a scenario in which the Sox get their revenge for 1978, the best I think they can aspire to is the wild card. I have to think they're the favorite over the Angels, with apologies to the Twins and Rangers.

The other thing we can look for in the East is for the Devil Rays to slide back from their near-.500 level. They'll still play great defense, but a staff that has the worst strikeout-to-walk ratio and third-most home runs allowed in the league isn't quite ready for prime-time. Flipping Tino Martinez and Trever Miller and anyone else not likely to be on the 2006 Devil Rays for people who might has to be the priority, not a longshot run at the wild card.

Over in the AL Central, I'm inclined to say it'll be a two-team race again, but then I look at the Adjusted Standings Report....

AL Central third-order standings:

White Sox   45.7  38.3    --
Tigers      43.6  43.4  -3.6
Indians     41.0  46.0  -6.2
Twins       40.8  46.2  -6.4

The Tigers have actually outplayed everyone but the White Sox, while the Twins are fourth among the four major-league teams in the Central.

The difference in the actual standings is almost entirely due to the teams' bullpens. The Indians have had the worst bullpen in the majors, one of the worst in recent memory. The Tigers' pen ranks 28th in MLB, although with a performance about four wins' better than the Tribe's relief corps. The Twins have an above average pen, and its raw ARP score (7.2, seventh in the AL) is perhaps distorted by 12 horrific appearances by three relievers no longer wearing the Twinstripes. Juan Rincon and Joe Nathan have been exceptional, and Grant Balfour is coming on strongly as a third power right-hander. The Twins are 30-22 in games decided by three or fewer runs; the Tigers are 21-25 and the Tribe 26-30 in those games.

As has been the case for years, the Twins are unable to get their best players on the field. Justin Morneau is well on his way to an International League MVP award while Jose Offerman hits .217/.343/.358 as the Twins' DH. Jacque Jones makes $4.35 million to hit .260/.313/.441 with one walk a week and a 60% success rate on the bases, while The Three Michaels--Restovich, Cuddyer and Ryan--scrap for at-bats (Ryan, admittedly, was hurt for much of the first half). Shannon Stewart comes back this week, creating the possibility that Lew Ford will be squeezed for playing time now that all three overpaid outfielders are active.

The White Sox would likely be blown into Lake Michigan in either of the other two AL divisions. In this one, they look great, thanks to a power-laden offense, some underrated defensive players, and a solid, unspectacular pitching staff. They need a left-handed hitter and some top-of-the-order OBP, and they made a terrible trade for Freddy Garcia instead of getting those things, so they're not above shooting themselves in the foot. In this group, however, they have the fewest glaring holes, the most money to spend, and the best team so far.

The red flag for the Sox is Frank Thomas' health. As good an offense as they have, they can't make up for the loss of a .430 OBP in the middle of the lineup. As it is, they start middling or poor OBP guys at four lineup slots, and can ill afford having to fake DH, given that they have a terrible bench. Thomas' ankle injury should allow him to come back next week, and as the one indispensable Sox hitter, he'll have to play upwards of 65 games the rest of the way for the Sox to hold off the Twins. I think he will, and the Sox will win their first division title since '01.

The Tigers and Indians will both finish the season safely under .500. The Tigers' offense relies heavily on two players not known for playing 150 games in this century, while the Indians' offense has been boosted by a number of players performing well above expectations. As the two lineups regress a bit, their pitching problems will be exposed, and they'll lose more games. I can see both teams in the 72-75 win range; at least for the Tigers, that will be a great achievement.

Is the AL West going to be a three-team race? I've been expecting the Rangers to fold up their tent any day now, but it hasn't happened yet. They even survived a brutal interleague schedule, part of a difficult run up to the All-Star Game, to go to the break in first place. It's not an illusion; the Rangers--in fact, all the teams in the AL West--have a won/loss record that accurately reflects their performance to date.

Yet I still can't shake the idea that they're a mirage. Statistically, the team's strength is a no-name bullpen that has been the fourth-best in baseball. The Rangers' rotation has been neutral, and their offense, despite a league-leading runs scored figure and some gaudy individual stats, just average as well. The Rangers bat .257/.317/.449 and average 4.8 runs a game on the road. In Arlington, those figures are .310/.371/.514 and 6.7. At home, they hit like Derrek Lee; on the road, like the aforementioned Jacque Jones.

I just don't trust the rotation. The two good Rangers starters, Ryan Drese and Kenny Rogers, have below average strikeout rates and lack exceptional control or home-run avoidance. While the Rangers' defense is improved, I can't see the two keeping their ERAs below the league average. Drese should go R.A. Dickey any day now, while Rogers will munch innings but allow more runs. None of the candidates to step up, the endless Ranger contingent of wild right-handers, are good bets to pick up the slack.

I'd be surprised if the Rangers are in any race past about the 15th of September, and absolutely shocked is they make the playoffs.

That leaves the A's and Angels, who are basically the same teams they were three months ago. The Angels suffered many injuries, but only the loss of Troy Glaus has been particularly harmful. Time missed by Troy Percival, Darin Erstad and Tim Salmon merely created space for better, younger players who aren't as well paid.

I knew all along that the Angels would regret a big-money pitching signing. I just thought it would be Kelvim Escobar. In fact, it's Bartolo Colon who has been a disaster, coughing up a whopping 27 home runs in 104 1/3 innings, or 1.8 Blyleven. Escobar, meanwhile, has been the Angels' best starter, with nearly a career high in strikeout-to-walk ratio serving as the base for his performance.

The pattern in the AL West for the past few years has been the A's scuffling in the first half, then sprinting through the division in the second. Given that these two teams still seem more-or-less equal, you would give the edge to the A's based on recent history. They have Billy Beane, a strong trade-deadline general manager who has made an impact in his roster in nearly every summer, including this one: he already picked up Octavio Dotel without touching his major-league roster. The Angels, on the other hand, haven't been a player at the trade deadline under Bill Stoneman.

This year, though, things may well be different. The Angels have three blue-chip prospects in Dallas McPherson, Jeff Mathis, and Casey Kotchman, along with a second tier of guys like Brandon Wood, Erick Aybar and Ervin Santana. More importantly, they have an owner who has demonstrated a greater will to win than anyone other than George Steinbrenner. The Angels have the prospects and the cash to add a starting pitcher; without knowing what Randy Johnson--who can veto any deal--might think of the notion, it seems certain that if they want him, they can put together a package that would blow away anything the Red Sox or Yankees can assemble.

Johnson is the swing guy in this division. If the Angels get him, that will edge them in front of the A's. If they don't add him, they'll continue to rely on a bullpen that's thrown a ton of innings supporting a shaky rotation that doesn't often get 21 outs. I don't see them holding off the A's without making that addition, especially in light of their insistence that Darin Erstad is a major-league first baseman.

I said back in April that the AL playoff race could be accurately described as four teams fighting for three spots, with the AL Central winner taking the fourth. I still see it as such today, despite the Rangers and AL Central runner-up currently being in the mix. As of this morning:

Yankees   55-31   --
Red Sox   48-38   --
A's       47-39   --
Angels    47-40  0.5

Twins and Rangers fans will fill my Inbox, but I still see it this way, and I think the four teams will finish the season in the order we find them today.

I'm over 2,400 words and not out of the AL yet, so we'll run the NL, along with some other thoughts, Friday morning.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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