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September 1, 2004

Prospectus Triple Play

Florida Marlins, New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates

by Baseball Prospectus

Florida Marlins

  • In a Barrel?: Two nights ago, John Kruk, Harold Reynolds and the rest of the "Baseball Tonight" Traveling All-Stars proclaimed that, despite sitting four games back of the wild-card-leading Cubs, the Florida Marlins are the team to beat heading down the stretch--an opinion which compelled a number of BBTN regulars to pick the Fish to capture the final postseason spot.

    Of course, with a full month to play, four games in the standings isn't insurmountable, so on the surface this appears to be a reasonable pick. After all, these are the defending champs we're talking about--a team which made controversial, short-term upgrades at the trading deadline by adding Paul Lo Duca (.345/.416/.483, 11.6 VORP with FLA) and Guillermo Mota (16.1 IP, 1.65 ERA with FLA), both of whom have been at the top of their game since moving to Miami.

    That said, despite the Cubs' relatively slight lead in the standings, BP's new Playoff Odds Report gives the Marlins barely a 2% chance of making the postseason in '04, based on the strength of their remaining schedule and the schedules of their wild-card opponents. Check it out:

    
    Teams                        Wild Card   Division  Playoffs
                                                       (WC + D)
    Chicago Cubs                   84.3%       0.1%     84.4%
    San Francisco Giants            9.0%       5.3%     14.3%
    San Diego Padres                3.8%       1.9%      5.7%
    Los Angeles Dodgers             1.6%      92.9%     94.5%
    FLORIDA MARLINS                 0.7%       1.7%      2.3%
    Houston Astros                  0.4%       0.0%      0.4%
    St. Louis Cardinals             0.1%      99.9%    100.0%
    Atlanta Braves                  0.1%      98.1%     98.2%
    Philadelphia Phillies           0.1%       0.2%      0.3%
    
    As you can see, according to the trusty log5 method--which has been used with great aplomb by Tom Tippett in the past--the Marlins are in stuck in the middle of the pack of semi-competitive teams, far behind Chicago and San Francisco, the odds-on favorites to grab the NL's fourth and final ticket to October baseball.

    This reason for this, however, isn't because Florida faces particularly stiff competition down the stretch. On the contrary, their strength of schedule (SOS) as well as their predicted winning percentage for the remainder of the season (ROY) falls squarely in the middle of the pack. Instead, the Marlins' chances come in so low because a certain team playing on Chicago's north side has been outfitted with the softest schedule in all of baseball for the month of September, featuring eight games against the Reds, six games against the Pirates, and a weekend series against the Washington Generals.

    
    Teams           SOS     ROY
    
    Cubs           .465    .626
    Giants         .494    .523
    Astros         .508    .513
    MARLINS        .494    .509
    Phillies       .480    .509
    Padres         .503    .499
    
    
    Of course, there are limitations to this methodology. Afer all, it fails to account for midseason acquisitions that change the face of a team (a fact that clearly applies to the Marlins). On top of which, it fails to see which players having been playing through injuries, but are expected to be healthy for September, again altering the inherent quality of the team(s) in question. Finally, it doesn't see the future: we're talking probability here, and with a month to play, almost anything can happen.

    Cross your fingers. It should be a good one.

  • All Hail!: It might seem like a lifetime ago, but it wasn't so far back on the calendar that we were warning eager fantasy leaguers against harboring expectations that were to high for budding übermensch Miguel Cabrera. Cabrera, after all, featured but a modest weighted-mean projection in Baseball Prospectus 2004--an unadjusted line of .264/.323/.439 in roughly 450 trips to the plate--despite Hall of Fame-level comparables and a bitchin' long-term outlook.

    I think it's safe to say we were wrong.

    Currently hitting .312/.386/.543 in one of the better pitchers' parks in the National League, Cabrera has been the third-most productive right fielder in the senior circuit this season, trailing only Bobby Abreu and J.D. Drew with the bat. In fact, Cabrera has been completely off-the-chart, according to PECOTA, as his 90th-percentile EqA projection of .310 is just a notch below his current rate of .313.

    That said, assuming Cabrera can avoid tanking in the month of September, what does this do for his long-term outlook? Well, we'd hate to spoil one of the surprises in store for Baseball Prospectus 2005 by running his PECOTA just yet, but there are more simplistic ways of evaluating the implications of Cabrera's strong age-21 campaign that could perhaps give us a window into his future. For instance:

    Age-21 and Career EqAs for Miguel Cabrera's Top-10 PECOTA Comparables

    
                       A21     A21   Career
    Player              AB     EqA     EqA    Delta
    Ron Santo          578    .292    .293       -1
    Gary Sheffield     487    .296    .320*     -24
    Hank Aaron         602    .315    .324       -9
    Sammy Sosa         532    .261    .298      -37
    Curt Flood         208    .252    .268      -16
    Willie Mays        127    .274    .326      -52
    Adrian Beltre      538    .272    .274       -2
    Ed Kirkpatrick     312    .256    .260       -4
    Brooks Robinson    463    .224    .267      -43
    Lloyd Moseby       378    .238    .275      -37
    
    MIGUEL CABRERA     481    .313      --       --
    
    Above are the top 10 comparable players for Cabrera coming into 2004. As we've pointed out, this list is populated with a group whose quality is unmatched; three current Hall-of-Famers can be found here, as well as a number of soon-to-be and should-be residents of Cooperstown, N.Y.

    As you can see, Cabrera's age-21 production is matched by a select few players--most closely Hank Aaron, who posted nearly identical rate stats (.310/.366/.540) as a 21-year-old in Milwaukee in 1955. No one else is particularly close, with a number of (admittedly lesser) players checking in with EqAs more than 75 points lower than Cabrera's .313.

    What's more impressive about this table, however, is how each hitter's age-21 season compared to his career production with the bat. Not a single comparable player finished his career with a lower EqA than the figure he posted as a 21-year-old regular. Not a single one.

    Now, does this mean that Cabrera is already destined for a place among the game's greatest? Hardly. After all, we're dealing with a sample of only 10 hitters, all of whom featured unique skill sets of their own, in a varied number of contexts. But it has to be a point in his favor, and yet another reason to be excited for the Marlins' future, overall.

New York Yankees

  • Free Fallin': Despite the inherently unique nature of getting shellacked 22-0, there are many ways in which New York's Tuesday loss to Cleveland was a microcosm for a month which saw the Bombers drop 11 of their last 22 while getting outscored 121 to 102. Take a look at the box score, for instance:
    
    |--------------|---------------------------|----------|
    | Team         | 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9 |  R  H  E |
    |--------------|---------------------------|----------|
    | Cleveland    | 3  3  3  0  6  1  0  0  6 | 22 22  1 |
    | New York     | 0  0  0  0  0  0  0  0  0 |  0  5  0 |
    |--------------|---------------------------|----------|
    
                     IP   H   ER   SO   BB    ERA
    J. Vazquez     1.1   5    6    1    2   4.62
    T. Sturtze     3.0   6    7    1    2   5.90
    C. Nitkowski   1.2   3    3    1    3   7.27
    E. Loaiza      3.0   8    6    3    2   5.45
    
    Granted, allowing six and seven runs in just a few innings on the hill will bump your ERA a decent amount, but consider the pitching options Joe Torre has at his disposal. Javier Vazquez's less talented alter-ego? C.J. Nitkowski? Tanyon Sturtze? Are your friggin' kidding me? Even Esteban Loaiza has been a shadow of his v20.03 self, regressing in each of the meaningful peripheral categories, and posting an ERA eclipsing 8.00 since coming to New York.

    Meanwhile, the Red Sox have taken advantage of their weak summer schedule, rattling off 17 wins since August 10 and closing the gap in the American League East, which once stood at 10 full games, to 3 1/2.

    Going forward, it's still up for debate whether the Red Sox will be able to catch this flawed Yankee team. The Sox, after all, face a combination of the A's, Angels, Rangers and Yankees 14 times in the month of September, while the Yankees face the Devil Rays, Royals and Blue Jays for a total of 10 games down the stretch. Needless to say, while the Bombers might be floundering, the difference in upcoming strength-of-schedule might be enough to save them from an embarrassing loss of the American League East crown.

  • Em-Vee-Pee?: While Alex Rodriguez might be more sexy, and Derek Jeter might get more undeserved publicity, the fact of the matter is that Gary Sheffield has been the Yankees' most valuable player in 2004, and has to be one of the front-runners to pick up the real hardware come October:
    
    Player                           PA  AVG  OBP  ALG  SB  CS  VORP
    Carlos Guillen       DET AL  ss 548 .316 .378 .553  11   5  68.3
    Melvin Mora          BAL AL  3b 487 .349 .425 .586  10   5  68.3
    Vladimir Guerrero    ANA AL  rf 552 .331 .384 .571  10   3  66.0
    Miguel Tejada        BAL AL  ss 578 .310 .360 .536   4   1  63.3
    Ichiro Suzuki        SEA AL  rf 610 .369 .408 .466  30  10  62.2
    Travis Hafner        CLE AL  dh 498 .311 .404 .579   3   2  61.5
    Gary Sheffield       NYA AL  rf 559 .297 .408 .561   4   6  58.7
    
    About a win worse with the bat than Carlos Guillen relative to his defensive position on the field, Sheffield has the good fortune of being one of the only top-tier hitters on a runaway good team in the American League this season. Just the seventh-best hitter in the AL according to VORP, each player above him on the list has unfortunate occurance of playing for a team so bad that those traditional members of the BBWAA will likely leave them off the ballot all together come time for voting. Only Vladimir Guerrero poses a serious threat to Sheffield's candidacy, as the Angels themselves are still in the hunt with a month left to play. There isn't a ton to analyze here, as both players have had very good seasons thus far, and are within a win of the other hitter's value. This vote will likely go down to the wire, but in the end, we'll still bet on Sheffield to pick up the award.

Pittsburgh Pirates

  • Taking a Step Back: A little more than a year ago to the day, Pirates' GM Dave Littlefield pulled the trigger on one of the biggest trades of his career by sending superstar Brian Giles to the San Diego Padres for the aging Jason Bay and wild left-hander Oliver Perez. It didn't look like much for the Pirates at the time, and our own Chris Kahrl denounced the deal, asserting that "clearly, on the surface, Dave Littlefield blew it, not getting an awful lot for his best chit."

    Of course, while that statement might have been true at the time of the deal, reality has a way of playing out differently than we expect sometimes, and this trade appears to be an example of that. Observe:

    
    PADRES
    2004             PA    AVG   OBP   SLG    VORP
    Brian Giles     574   .283  .378  .467    38.8
    
    PIRATES
    2004             PA    AVG   OBP   SLG    VORP
    Jason Bay       391   .301  .370  .581    29.0
    
    2004             IP   SO/9  BB/9  HR/9    VORP
    Oliver Perez  157.0   10.9   3.7   0.8    46.2
    
    Evening ignoring contract status, which heavily favors the Pirates' side of the deal, Littlefield still looks like a winner with this one. Bay has been more productive on a per-at-bat basis than the aging Giles, and still has a few years of peak value left in the tank. Perez, meanwhile, is among the ten best pitchers in all of baseball this season, thanks to an Eric Gagnesque strikeout rate of nearly 11 per nine innings and a career-low walk-rate of 3.6 BB/9. Both players the Pirates received are on the good side of 30, and both possess indicators within their profile which suggest that this season's performance isn't a fluke. Bay, after all, has long been a secondary skills demon, posting walk-rates all throughout the minors that make Jonah Keri salivate; and Perez has had this kind of ability for years, needing only to improve his control to realize it.

    Needless to say, both Pirate acquisitions have made the adjustments needed to make Littlefield look brilliant for dealing his best player, and he deserves credit for that. Could this be one of the (many) areas in which scouting knowledge helped the Pirates identify a relative diamond in the rough? Bay, after all, had been toiling for a number of years in the minors after tearing up the West Coast Conference at Gonzaga University, while Perez was as well known for his control problems as his ability to throw the ball past batters. Did the Pirates see something in his makeup that set off a red flag in the "We Can Fix This Guy!" department?

    At the end of the day, only Dave Littlefield and Pirates know the answer to that question, but from the outside looking in, it certainly seems to be the case. Even a stathead can admit to that.

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