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May 23, 2005

Prospectus Triple Play

Arizona Diamondbacks, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals

by Caleb Peiffer

Arizona Diamondbacks

  • Command and Conquer: The Diamondbacks are doing their best to upstage PECOTA, sitting at 27-18, a half-game ahead of San Diego in the NL West. A surprisingly sturdy corps of starters has helped the Snakes stay hot. Chief among those pitchers has been Brandon Webb, who is currently eighth in the National League in pitcher VORP. Webb is second on Arizona's staff with 1.9 wins above replacement, trailing only Javier Vazquez--a victory over Detroit last Friday moved his record to 6-0. In 62.3 IP, Webb has posted a 3.38 ERA, 1.28 WHIP (walks + hits per IP) and 48 strikeouts against just 17 walks. (Vazquez, by the way, has now gone a remarkable 39 innings without allowing a walk.)

    That last figure is a number that demands explanation. In his young career, Webb's future as the next Kevin Brown (with the ornery sinker but not, presumably, the personality to match) has been muted by his inability to keep his signature pitch above the knees and in the zone. Last year Webb handed out 5.15 BB/9, and even in his outstanding rookie year in 2003 he walked 3.39 per nine. This year, he's cut his rate to 2.46 BB/9. Despite the fact that he's not striking out as many as he did in 2003, Webb's improved command has his K/BB ratio at a career-best 2.82.

    Even more impressive is that Webb has been succeeding without the benefit of a flukishly low batting average against on balls in play. Webb's BABIP this year is .309, a figure above the typical league average BABIP, which has historically hovered around .300. Webb's BABIP last year was .278, and the year before that it was a remarkably stingy (read: lucky) .257. Sinkerballers, however, generally give up more hits than other pitchers, and it appears that Webb's style is catching up to him this season. That he is thriving despite a high hit rate is a good indication (or as good as one can get from a season that has only just reached the quarter pole) that Webb has taken the necessary steps to control his stuff and pitch at a consistently high level.

  • A Lyon in Spring: One year ago, Brandon Lyon was a forgotten middle reliever with a 4.99 career ERA. Lyon would have been the very definition of a replacement-level pitcher entering 2005, but arm injuries kept him out of action in 2004, dropping his expected value even lower. Now, 13 saves and a sparkling 1.93 ERA later, Lyon has earned some cachet as a supposedly proven commodity at closer, a tag given to pitchers ranging from Eric Gagne to Roberto Hernandez.

    Backhanded compliments aside, Lyon currently ranks sixth among major league relievers with 1.357 WXRL, or expected wins added versus replacement level (and adjusted for opposition), a performance that when projected for a full season looks eerily similar to PECOTA's 90th-percentile projection:

    
    Projection Method   IP   H  BB  K  HR  ERA
    PECOTA 90%          69.7 67 20  46 9   3.18
    2005 Results        69.3 79 11  45 8   1.96
    
    
    The difference between the two lines lies mainly in the fact that Lyon has given up four unearned runs already; his RA is about two runs higher than his ERA.

    So can he keep it up? Lyon's recurring health issues (he is currently on the 15-day DL with "mild tendonitis" in his elbow) are worrisome, and his low K rate (5.65 career K/9) suggests he won't maintain the ability to retire quality major league hitters for long stretches, and will significantly regress. Blessed with other strong bullpen options in Brian Bruney and Jose Valverde, the Dbacks can mix and match with their relievers, using the best arms for the highest-leverage situations. As the 2002 Angels showed, a low-priced, no-name bullpen can go a long way for a winning ballclub.

Detroit Tigers

  • Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing: The Tigers are doing their best to squelch the spirit of Motown. Carlos Guillen, however, is single-handedly keeping the hits coming in Detroit, and the Tigers offense above the level of the Mariners and Royals of the baseball world. Guillen has had some trouble with recurring soreness in his surgically-repaired right knee, and has missed several starts to rest the joint, including back-to-back games last week. That would be more worrisome if the 29-year-old shortstop wasn't absolutely raking every time his name gets penciled in the lineup. Guillen is hitting .375/.430/.521 in 154 PA, and is second to Brady Anderson...uh, sorry, Brian Roberts in batting among all major leaguers. Guillen is proving that last year's All-Star campaign was not a one-year aberration, and that he has refurbished the tarnished crowns of Nomar Garciaparra, Derek Jeter, and Alex Rodriguez as a standout American League shortstop capable of posting an OPS north of .900.

    Think the Mariners wouldn't like to have Guillen back right about now? Ramon Santiago, the player he was traded for, is hitting .205 in Triple-A Tacoma, and Mariners shortstops haven't fared much better on the major league level. In fact, the production the Mariners have gotten out of the position this year has been downright comical:

    
    G  PA  H  BB HR AVG  OBP  SLG
    42 141 28 7  0  .212 .252 .273
    
    
    The Mariners rank dead last in the majors in hits and total bases (36) from shortstop, and are second-to-last in OPS to Washington, who currently employ the comatose Cristian Guzman (.197/.238/.254). The primary culprit in Seattle has been Wilson Valdez, whose .211/.239/.257 line has netted a -4.9 VORP--although Willie Bloomquist's -3.0 VORP in less than half the PAs hasn't exactly aided the cause.

  • Growing Pena: The Tigers' claws are looking exceedingly dull, as they have hit more homers than only the pop-gun outfits in Seattle and Oakland in the AL thus far. The club was counting on Carlos Pena to provide the requisite amount of power from first base: After a scalding finish to 2004--14 homers and a .953 OPS in August and September--it was hoped that Pena might experience the blossoming that often occurs in a player's age-27 season (Pena turned 27 last week). Thus far, it hasn't happened, as Pena has hit just .193/.324/.307 in 136 PAs. He hasn't posted a slugging percentage above .500 since 2000 in Double-A, and it looks as if his perennially low BA and middling power will conspire to keep him from being much of an asset at first base.

    The Tigers fans filing out of Pena's camp have been steadily climbing onto Brandon Inge's growing bandwagon. After walking only 89 times in 1,077 major league PAs entering 2005, Inge has now walked 25 times in 180 PAs this season, good for third in the AL, and his .397 OBP ranks near the top of the junior circuit. Inge's .871 OPS has combined with Guillen's torrid play to amount for 5.5 wins above replacement combined, an astonishing 26% of the Tigers' total.

  • Tiger Scouting: The Tigers' most prominent prospect and the first pitcher taken in the 2004 draft, right-hander Justin Verlander, is enjoying his stay in the Florida State League. It may not last much longer--the 21-year-old out of Old Dominion is asserting his own reign over Class-A hitters, and may soon get a promotion. In 52 innings so far for Lakeland, Verlander has a 1.38 ERA and 64 strikeouts versus 13 walks, and has surrendered just one home run. The 2.25 BB/9 is a particularly encouraging sign, considering wildness was his biggest problem in college (a decent but not outstanding 3.5 BB/9 at ODU). Verlander should receive a promotion to Double-A Erie any day now, but his rise will likely stop a level or two short of the bigs, at least this year. On the other hand, if he continues to blow through the upper levels, a late-season call-up can't be ruled out, considering that punching the service clocks of young pitching prospects is something the Tigers can't seem to resist.

Kansas City Royals

  • Donor Central: The bottom of the AL Central is turning into an annual "win donor" to the rest of the league, handing out victories to opponents without reservation. The Central brought you the 2003 Tigers, whose 43-119 record marked the first time a team had posted a winning percentage below .300 since the 1962 Mets went 42-120. It's now looking like the division could birth another historically bad squad in 2005, with the Royals currently bowling along at a tidy .295 clip through Saturday's action. The Royals are currently winning games at a rate worse than Joe McEwing gets on base, a remarkable feat of futility. If the Royals keep losing at their current pace, they'll finish just a couple wins better than the 119-loss Tigers. With 14 games left against the Royals, including four in the last week of the season, the Twins should be licking their chops as they try to run down the front-running White Sox.

  • Little Help from His Friends: Still don't think wins are a meaningless statistic? The plight of Zack Greinke should change your mind. Greinke currently sports a 3.83 ERA and leads the Royals pitching staff with 1.6 wins above replacement. His record, however, stands at 0-5, and the Royals are a sickly 1-8 when their best pitcher has taken the hill this season. Run support is, of course, the main reason for the inversely proportionate won-lost mark. The Royals have scored an average of 2.11 runs in games Greinke has started. For comparison, Sir Sidney Ponson sports a healthy 5-2 mark, despite an ERA (5.83) higher than his K/9 figure (5.33). That's because the Orioles' offense had scored 236 runs through Saturday, second only to the Yankees, and has put an average of 7.22 runs on the board in games Ponson has started. The Royals, on the other hand, have scored only 183 runs and rank near the bottom of the league in all major offensive categories.

    Greinke's winlessness is not solely the result of KC's anemic offense, however. Thus far the Royals have exercised extreme caution with their prized 21-year-old right-hander, decreasing his chances of winning by not allowing him to pitch deep into games. Greinke is averaging just 85.8 pitches per start, and has racked up a stress rating of only 1 (Livan Hernandez leads the majors at 76). In eight of his nine starts Greinke has thrown fewer than 100 pitches--defined as Category I starts--with the lone exception being a Category III (110-121 pitches), 110-pitch effort on April 23 against the White Sox. It's hard to fault frustrated Royals' fans who would like to see their best pitcher receive more innings. Particularly irritating was a May 5 start against Chicago when Greinke left after 85 pitches and the bullpen blew a 1-0 lead. On the other hand, it's usually wiser to err on the side of caution with young hurlers, particularly with someone as talented as Greinke. Greinke should be held in the Category I-II range all season, and the Royals should not extend his workload far beyond the 173.7 combined innings he threw last year. That way, they will ensure that there will be plenty of 220-inning, Cy Young-quality seasons in the future.

  • Undesired Vacancy: Tony Pena saved the Royals from firing the wrong guy in reaction to the team's abysmal start. Pena, the 2003 AL manager of the year (is there an award less indicative of a team's future performance?), resigned after the Kansas City loss on May 10, leaving bench coach Bob Schaefer to fill the void on an interim basis. Whoever takes the full-time job needs several qualifications--a strong constitution, and an ability to work with young talent. There's no sense bringing in a Dusty Baker-type in an effort to infuse a "winning presence" through the wielding of experience.

    A manager in that mold would be more likely to ride a rookie out of town (remember the Dallas Green-Jeromy Burnitz fiasco?) than capably stomach the ups and downs of handling a ballclub of neophytes. Ex-Astros skipper Larry Dierker, a stathead favorite for his heady style and broadcast booth-to-dugout career path, has been out of managing since 2001. There are several other prominent candidates out there--Bobby Valentine wouldn't need a disguise in Kansas City--but it's doubtful that a prominent name would elect to sign on with the Royals' seemingly endless rebuilding project. That could leave the door open for Frank White, currently managing the Royals' Double-A affiliate in Wichita, who at least has the desire for the job.

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The Week in Quotes: Ma... (05/23)
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Prospectus Triple Play... (05/19)
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