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August 18, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Chicago White Sox, Oakland Athletics, Philadelphia Phillies

by Baseball Prospectus

Chicago White Sox

  • The Prince: With everything that's been going drastically wrong for the White Sox over the past few weeks, Mark Buehrle's turnaround after a disappointing 2003 provides a silver lining to the growing clouds. While his ERA only rose from 3.58 in 2002 to 4.14 last season, Buehrle allowed 18 unearned runs, meaning his RA jumped from 3.84 to 4.85. While some of that can obviously be blamed on the defense, pitchers are somewhat responsible for their unearned runs, especially considering the large number Buehrle allowed last season.

    In addition, the southside southpaw's walk rate increased for the second year in a row, from 1.6 in 2001 to 1.9 to 2.2 in 2003. Though that rate is on the low side for pitchers in general, Buehrle's low strikeout rate requires him to keep his free passes under control, since he relies on his defense to make so many of his outs. With that turn for the worse, BP's PECOTA system likened Buehrle to Dick Ellsworth, who peaked early with the Cubs and threw more than 135 innings only once after age 27.

    After his last few starts this season, Buehrle has looked significantly better than any point in his career. His equivalent strikeout rate has jumped from 4.5 to 5.9, higher than any of his previous three full seasons; his walk rate has dropped from 2.2 to 1.4, a career low. The only reason Buerhle hasn't been even better than his earlier years in run prevention has been his higher batting average on balls in play, currently .308. If his defense fields the same number of balls for him that they do for the rest of the staff, Buehrle could see his numbers improve even more over the remainder of the season. Having come back to form, White Sox fans can hope that PECOTA will find him more similar to the fourth pitcher on Buerhle's list of comparable players: Tom Glavine.

  • The Demon-Haunted Front Office: When the ChiSox traded for Freddy Garcia on June 27, they were one game behind the division-leading Twins who, given their run differential, should have been in Chicago's rearview mirror. Things were looking good. Since then, however, the Sox have slipped behind streaking Cleveland, having gone 20-23 since Garcia came on board. It would be nice to say that it's too early to judge the moves made by GM Kenny Williams, but trade deadline deals have very little time to produce and must be judged quickly. Two-and-a-half weeks after the deadline, the acquisitions of Garcia, Roberto Alomar, Carl Everett, Ben Davis, and Jose Contreras have done nothing to counteract the loss of Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez to injuries.

    The Sox once again found themselves in the tricky spot, as they were slightly behind Minnesota at the deadline, seemingly forced to make a move to gain ground on the division leaders. This time, however, they went into the deadline knowing their two biggest bats wouldn't be around for the run at the division. A seven-game losing streak over the last week of July didn't make things any easier, but Williams decided, once again, that this year was the year. Having been through the trade deadline three times so far and failing each time, Williams decided to try something different. Instead of acquiring Bartolo Colon, Everett, and Alomar, he acquired Contreras, Everett, and Alomar.

    There was no reason for these moves. The White Sox failed to realize that their tattered lineup doesn't have enough decent bats to keep them in contention this year. While the damage to the farm system was minimal--Jeremy Reed had already been dealt for Garcia--Williams has strapped the Sox to Contreras' albatross contract, a salary based on nothing other than George Steinbrenner's ego and Cuban mystique. Meanwhile, he dealt Jon Rauch and Gary Majewski, two pitchers who aren't going to be stars, but could very easily become cheap, decent replacement pitchers or fourth starters, something that's much more valuable than two months of Everett's time. This winter, when the Sox have trouble signing quality players to fill holes, ChiSox fans will have to comfort themselves with the fact that the team finished five games behind Minnesota instead of seven.

Oakland Athletics

  • Zen and the Art of Not Pitching Well: Even before the 2004 season started, there were whispers and sideways glances when talking about Barry Zito. After his Cy Young season in 2002, Zito looked increasingly mortal last year, posting a 3.30 ERA that hid an usually large number of unearned runs. More importantly, Zito's equivalent strikeout rate dropped for the second year in a row, from 7.7 in 2001 to 6.6 to 5.3 last season. Coupled with an increase in his walk rate, Zito looked to be slipping. Despite the startling symptoms, Zito still managed to place 12th in 2003 in Support Neutral Won-Loss, just behind teammate Mark Mulder. His success was due mostly to a lower home run rate and a second straight year of a H/BIP rate that was as low as Oakland fans' expectations for the bullpen lately.

    This year, however, it's all gone wrong for Zito; his weak peripherals have finally reflected on his run prevention. Despite a slight uptick in his strikeout rate, his walk rate remains as high as it was in 2003 while his home run rate and H/BIP have jumped dramatically. As a result, his ERA has ballooned by well over a run and his overall runs allowed (RA) has gone from 3.81 to 5.40.

    As the A's close in on the Great Decision of 2006 (Mulder and Zito have team options and Tim Hudson will be a free agent), they must determine exactly what can be expected of Zito. His slightly increased strikeout rate is encouraging and his walk rate, while high, is in line with his previously successful seasons. Zito's struggles are almost entirely due to his obscene home run rate and H/BIP increase. If you're an Oakland fan, you can blame the increased home run rate on blustery days by the Bay, the plight of the flyball pitcher, and the inherent small sample size problem. You're also welcome to point out that the Oakland defenders have slipped from a 0.7151 defensive efficiency (allowing 28.5% H/BIP) last year to a 0.6989 this season, accounting for some small percentage of Zito's jump in that department from 23.3 to 30.5. Finally, looking at BP's Pitcher Quality of Batter Faced report, it's clear that Zito has faced tougher competition this year:

    
    Year  AVG  OBP  SLG
    -------------------
    2004 .273/.342/.441
    2003 .264/.330/.421
    2002 .263/.330/.418
    2001 .263/.329/.421
    

    In fact, Zito has the third highest quality of batters faced among pitchers with at least 350 batters faced--behind Brian Anderson and Esteban Loaiza's replacement (not nearly the cakewalk faced by pitchers at the bottom of that list like...Robin Ventura?)

    Though in previous years Zito has been lucky in his runs allowed considering his peripheral stats, he's definitely been on the unlucky side of the scale this year. He has mixed in his famous curveball less often than in previous seasons and has instead relied on his average fastball and changeup, though he is currently working to add a two-seam fastball to his repertoire. Living in the poorer section of the velocity neighborhood, Zito is the kind of pitcher who has a smaller margin for error than fireballers like teammate Rich Harden. His drastic increase in homers and hits in general is, at this point, almost a scarier trend than his strikeout rate of the past few seasons.

    At this point, Zito looks to be quickly morphing into a league-average soft-tossing lefthander, the kind of pitcher who lives only as long as he can throw the ball into an area the size of a Titleist. While there are plenty of teams who would love to fill out their rosters with a league average pitcher or two, Zito's salary as a free agent, inflated by his earlier success, will be much more than he's likely to be worth on the field, making him the most expendable of the A's pitching troika. The Oakland front office is one of the best in the business at differentiating between a player's perceived and actual value and as a result, the trade rumors, both at the deadline last month and looking toward the offseason, have been as plentiful as pickpockets in Rome.

    For this season, though, Zito's a good bet to perform slightly better down the stretch simply because his luck has been just that bad. If he can keep a few more of his plethora of flyballs in the yard, the runs allowed will drop dramatically. But, watching Zito's 88 mph fastball wander towards the plate, that's a big if.

Philadelphia Phillies

  • The Breaks of the Game: With the Phillies five games back of the wild card, behind four teams for that spot, and eight games out in the division, things aren't looking good for the first year of the Citizens Bank Park era. With Kevin Millwood and Pat Burrell likely out for the rest of the season--despite the player's insistence that they will return--the chances of a dramatic playoff run are about the same that your favorite BP author will be offered a job in the Commissioner's office. With nearly everyone convinced before the season that the Phils would wrap up the division by the All-Star Break--PECOTA pegged the Phils to win the division by 14 games--fans, writers, and analysts are starting to dole out the blame.

    Turning a blind eye to the problems of forecasting in general, there was little reason to think the Phillies wouldn't win the division by a significant margin. They had the best first baseman, left fielder, right fielder, and arguably catcher in the division going into the season. Their rotation was shaping up to hold it's own against the Marlins and the bullpen was revamped and improved by bringing in Billy Wagner and Tim Worrell. The Phillies didn't have any obvious weaknesses while every other team in the division had major questions marks; it was hard to argue against Philadelphia. Yet here they are at .500.

    Frequently the most disappointing teams in baseball are those who are underplaying their runs scored (RS) and runs allowed (RA) expected winning percentage. For instance, the Royals and Diamondbacks, while genuinely bad, aren't nearly as bad as their W-L records indicate based on their RS and RA. Likewise the Red Sox, another team saddled with high expectations, aren't performing as well as their run scoring would indicate. The Phils, however, are actually playing better than expected, given their adjusted statistics. Instead of just being a .500 team, the Phillies are more likely to be a few games under breakeven. So "bad luck" is not the culprit here, at least not when it comes to the actual performance on the field.

    The offense is currently fourth in the NL in runs scored, with comparable rankings in OBP and SLG. As Clay Davenport has pointed out, while the new field has been getting press as a bandbox and hitters haven, the reduction of doubles and singles more than compensates for the few extra home runs. The park is not making the Phillies offense good, the bats are.

    The problem instead lies with the pitchers, who combine for a 4.56 ERA and have allowed the fourth most runs in the NL. Millwood, as mentioned last time, was mostly the victim of bad luck as an inordinate percentage of his balls in play fell for hits. That can't be said for the rest of the staff, as the Phillies do rank in the top half of the league in defensive efficiency. The main reason the Phillies staff is so terrible this year is their slugging percentage allowed. The Phillies are middle of the pack in strikeout rate and well into the top half in walk rate, but they lead the league in taters allowed. While some of that can be attributed to the new park, Philadelphia pitchers have also allowed the second most doubles in the league.

    The entire staff has been just bad enough to keep the Phillies out of contention, but not bad enough to really draw any attention. Eric Milton--the luckiest pitcher in baseball--can point to his 12-2 record (not his 4.81 ERA, no) and deflect any major media attention. Vicente Padilla and now Millwood have been injured. Brett Myers has been pretty bad, but, believe it or not, he's been helped more by his relievers than any other pitcher in the bigs, so he's spared some obscenely large numbers in his ERA. But none of this changes the fact that the total Support Neutral Wins the entire staff has over a group of replacement level pitchers is 0.2. They've been as good as a typically available Triple-A rotation.

    It's hard to fault the Phillies front office for failing to accurately predict pitching performance, something no one has quite figured out yet. With hot prospects Gavin Floyd and Cole Hamels on the way, the Phillies should be in for a turnaround in the pitching department in 2005 and 2006, but there's little than can be done to salvage 2004. With no one pitcher sticking out as singularly terrible, identifying one area to improve at the trade deadline was nearly impossible, particularly when other teams were demanding either Floyd or Hamels. Instead, the Phillies picked up Felix Rodriguez and crossed their fingers, hoping that the rest of the pitching staff would return to expected form. It won't make a difference, but at least the Phillies will go into 2005 with a good shot to contend again.

    The 2004 Phillies and Braves are shaping up to be an excellent case study for analyzing pitching coaches; one staff dramatically overachieved, the other underachieved, and their performances look likely to decide the division crown. How much the pitching coaches had much to do with the performance of their pitchers is still up for debate, but such a systemic failure is hard to explain away without including the coach. Is it all Joe Kerrigan's fault? Maybe. Can we prove it? Not yet. Is he lucky he has a high profile manager whose constant antics cause a great deal of negative media attention and subsequently help to take the light off of him? Absolutely.

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