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June 10, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Friday Edition

by Baseball Prospectus

Florida Marlins: The Marlins currently sit in the basement of the NL East, but at 29-28 (and only 3.5 games back of the division-leading Nationals), the race is far from over. The team has stayed within shouting distance of the division leaders due to strong pitching--the Marlins are just 13th in the league in runs scored (besting only the Nationals, Pirates, and Astros) but are 1st in runs allowed. The whole staff isn't superlative, though: the starting rotation is outclassing the bullpen by a significant margin.


             IP       ERA      K/9     WHIP     OPS    VORP
Starters    347.2    3.26     7.02    1.27    .670    83.1
Relievers   149.1    4.22     6.18    1.49    .763    10.0*

*Accumulated in a little less than half the innings pitched
Can the rotation realistically be that good going forward? Dontrelle Willis is a fine young pitcher, but if he maintained anything close to his 2.13 ERA his 2005 would end up ranking in the top 10-15 pitcher-seasons since 1993. A.J. Burnett and Josh Beckett are both outplaying their 75th percentile PECOTA projections, and they're doing so by a good margin. All three should expect some regression to the mean, but assuming Burnett's elbow pain isn't a serious problem they should all continue to be top starters. One through three, the Marlins can match up with any other rotation in baseball.

The wild cards in the rotation are Brian Moehler and Al Leiter. Moehler, who has bounced through five organizations in the last four years came out of nowhere to play a crucial role for the Marlins in 2005. He never had great strikeout rates, but low walk totals and control over the long ball made him a good if unexceptional starter for Detroit from 1997-2000. He's scuffled through the minors the past few years, but nothing in his 2005 line indicates that his success this year is a fluke. His batting average on balls in play is a league average .298 and his component rate stats are all consistent with his performance from his years with the Tigers. Remember that 2005 is Moehler's second year post-Tommy John surgery. In 2003 he tore his ulnar collateral ligament on a check-swing and his absence from productive baseball the past two years is injury-related. It's probably not likely that he'll maintain a 2.59 ERA with such a weak strikeout rate but there's no reason he can't be a solid #4 pitcher. Remember, you have to strike guys out to be a great pitcher, but if you keep men off the bases and control the long ball you can be a decent pitcher with mediocre K rates.

Leiter has been a disaster in the rotation this year (6.45 ERA, -5.4 VORP in 11 starts). BP's projection system tagged Leiter for a big collapse this year but didn't see anything like this drop-off. At present Leiter is living far below his 10th percentile PECOTA projection and he has 37 walks and 30 strikeouts in 53 innings. A K/ BB ratio below 1.0 rarely heralds success. As successful as Leiter was last year there were a number of glaring warning signs: he led all of baseball in BABIP (.244) signaling that much of his success was due to luck, and he also had trouble locating his pitches (he led all of baseball in pitches per IP and pitches per PA). Leiter probably isn't going to be "6.45 ERA" bad for the rest of the year but it's almost impossible that he'll turn back into 2004 Leiter (3.21 ERA). The one year / $7,300,000 deal the Marlins signed with Leiter is looking pretty disastrous at this point.

All in all it is unlikely that the Marlins' rotation will be as dominant as it has been thus far this year. Even with regression, though, the top of this Florida rotation can handle just about anyone in the league. The key for this team will be finding enough offense to support the rotation going forward (more on that in a later Notebook).

In draft news, the Marlins used four of their first five picks on high school pitchers. Their first rounder, picked #16 overall, was Chris Volstad, a 6'7" righty from Palm Beach, Florida. As big as he is, Volstad isn't a projectability pick; he already throws in the low to mid-90s with his fastball and has a solid changeup and hammer curve. In 69 innings his senior year Volstad had 98 strikeouts to eight walks and threw for a 0.41 ERA. Trivial trivia: Florida used their compensation picks from the off- season losses of Carl Pavano, Armando Benitez, and Mike Redmond to pick up amateurs at the exact same positions (two pitchers and a catcher).

Finally: Yes, that's right, every team in the NL East is above .500. The last time a last-place team in a division of five or more had record better than .500 was June 12th, 1994 (AL East).

--Tom Gorman

L.A. Angels of Anaheim: The Angels have had a tumultuous year so far. They have dealt with injuries to key contributors like Vladimir Guerrero, Kelvim Escobar, Francisco Rodriguez, Bengie Molina, and Adam Kennedy. Offensively, they have a number of players suffering through sub-par first halves, yet through all of it they have remained atop the AL West. Why? Their bullpen continues to put batters to bed like Hennessy and Nyquil. As a team, Angels pitchers rank in the top 10 in MLB in terms of K/9, K/BB, and ERA. However, there are a lot of warning signs on the periphery. The Angels rank near the bottom of the league in P/GS and P/PA. The workload has not caught up with their excellent bullpen quite yet, but it looms like a dark cloud over Anaheim's season. While the rotation has been lucky, earning three and a half more wins than they deserve, the bullpen has compensated by providing close to four Wins Expected above Replacement Level (WXRL).

The Angels are going to need better offensive output. Along with the Cardinals and Diamondbacks, the Angels actual win total is more than five wins higher than their W3, or third-order wins. Can we expect better offensive performance in the rest of the season? Probably not. That the Angels have insisted on playing Darin Erstad over Casey Kotchman, and playing Orlando Cabrera and Steve Finley at all does not bode well for the rest of their season. Let's take a look at their roster formation:


POS   Current Lineup       OPS   Proposed Lineup      OPS

C     Bengie Molina       .845   Bengie Molina       .845
1B    Darin Erstad        .712   Casey Kotchman      .771*
2B    Adam Kennedy        .734   Adam Kennedy        .734
3B    Dallas McPherson    .763   Dallas McPherson    .763
SS    Orlando Cabrera     .636   Chone Figgins       .741
LF    Garret Anderson     .794   Garret Anderson     .794
CF    Steve Finley        .709   Darin Erstad        .712
RF    Vladimir Guerrero   .881   Vladimir Guerrero   .881
DH    Jeff DaVanon        .565   Juan Rivera         .595
                                 * PECOTA

While this is certainly an improvement, there are two major problems here. First, the Angels don't have an above average center fielder offensively anymore:

Player        AVG    OBP    SLG
Avg. AL CF   .274   .329   .412
Finley       .223   .293   .416
Erstad       .280   .335   .377
Rivera       .218   .248   .347

Despite our enthusiasm for Juan Rivera, he simply is not getting it done. Somewhere, there is an argument for playing Maicer Izturis at short and moving Figgins permanently to center, but since Izturis is not going to conjure up visions of Miguel Tejada, this is not an ideal solution either.

The second problem is that LA is not likely to consider any of these potential changes. The Angels have simply invested too much in Finley's "grit" and Cabrera's "charming smile," and are suffering now that both players are hovering around their 25th percentile PECOTA projection. As a team, the Halos have an OPS of .710, which is below the AL average of .738, and well below Texas' .800 OPS. Will it be good enough to win the West? Perhaps, but in Cabrera, Finley, and Erstad, the Angels are essentially flushing one-third of their plate appearances down the drain. With Escobar's season possibly in doubt, the rotation's luck, and the offense stagnation, the Angels must hope that the bullpen doesn't collapse under the pressure of trying to carry the whole team.

--Paul Swydan

New York Mets: Q: Which two Mets starters own the top three 2005 National League Game Scores?

A: Pedro Martinez (twice) and Aaron Heilman.


Player    Date    Opp   IP  H  R  BB   K  GS
Martinez  6/7     HOU   9   2  1   1  12  90
Heilman   5/14    FLA   9   2  0   3  7   89
Martinez  4/10    ATL   9   2  1   1  9   87

BP's Jason Grady pointed out this interesting tidbit, prompted by Martinez's 6/7 gem against the Houston Astros, which is now the best game in the NL by that measure (it's also the fourth time an NL pitcher has tossed a top-ten Game Score against the Astros). A definition of the Game Score appears at the bottom of this page.

Game Scores are fun but, as with most novelty stats, they don't tell the whole story. Actually, they don't tell much of a story; when he introduced them in his 1988 Abstract, Bill James even called them "my annual fun stat, a garbage stat." They don't, for example, get adjusted if the pitcher was pitching in Shea Stadium (a pitcher-friendly park), nor do they account for the quality of the opposing lineup: Houston has scored just 202 runs, by far the worst offensive team in the majors. We'll have to dig a little deeper than Game Scores to really learn anything about Martinez's season, but it's served as a pretty useful point of departure.


Date  Opp   IP   Pit   Days*  #P/I
4/4  @CIN   6.0  103   N/A    17.1
4/10 @ATL   9.0  101    5     11.2
4/16  FLA   7.0  108    5     15.4
4/21 @FLA   7.0   88    4     12.5
4/26  ATL   7.0   99    4     14.1
5/2   PHI   7.0  100    5     14.2
5/7  @MIL   7.0   90    4     12.8
5/14  STL   6.0   88    6     17.6
5/22  NYY   7.0   99    7     14.1
5/27 @FLA   8.0  111    4     13.8
6/2   ARI   8.0  101    5     12.6
6/7   HOU   9.0  110    4     12.2
----------------------------------
Avg         7.3  99.8  4.8    13.6

* indicates the number of days off he had when he made that start

Martinez has pitched 88 innings, allowed just 46 (!) hits, walked 13, and struck out 104, good for a 7-1 record and a 2.45 ERA. It would be terribly convenient if we could explain some of his success based on getting extra days off, but the numbers don't support that. His 5/14 start, for example, came on 6 days rest, and it was his least-efficient #P/I (number of pitches per inning) game of the season, just barely edging out his first start of the year. His start against the Yankees came on 7 days rest, and he needed 32 pitches to get through the first inning; it ended up being a fairly middle-of-the-road start by his season's standards. The most recent game against Houston came on regular rest, and was his second most efficient #P/I game of the season. There's no real pattern here.

There are a few things that stand out this season for Pedro (in addition to his gaudy K/9 ratio of 10.6, his HR/9 rate of .7, or his BB/9 of 1.3). Chief among them is the fact that he hasn't bequeathed a single runner to his bullpen; no Met reliever has consequently allowed a runner of his to score, and no Met reliever has had to bail him out of a jam. Perhaps more than any other pitcher in the NL (Johan Santana comes close in the AL), what Pedro has done has been entirely within his control.

Or has it? Take a look at his batting average against on balls in play over the past few seasons:


Year    BABIP
2001    .310
2002    .276
2003    .297
2004    .299
2005    .201

Martinez's .201 BABIP is likely unsustainable; with most players, it hovers around .300. Of the 171 balls put into play against Martinez on the mound, 80 have been groundballs and 91 have been flyballs, and the Mets' defense has been fairly consistent in transforming those into outs; the Mets rank fifth in the NL in Defensive Efficiency, which measures how frequently a team turns batted balls into outs. Even acknowledging Kazuo Matsui's defensive struggles, having two center fielders in the outfield, plus the defensive stylings of Doug Mientkiewicz at first base, seems to be paying dividends for Martinez so far.

But, like the short-lived "extra days off" theory, this is also a convenient argument. Check out how the other Mets starters are doing in the BABIP department:


Player           GS     BABIP
Tom Glavine      12      .329
Aaron Heilman     7      .289
Victor Zambrano  11      .298
Kris Benson       7      .248
Kaz Ishii         7      .240

It's pretty foolish to assume the Mets only play good defense when Martinez pitches. It's possible, of course. It's more likely that he's pitching exceptionally well, in a good pitching environment, and taking full advantage of Whimsicus (the God of Batted Balls in Play) giving all the bad luck to rotation-mate Tom Glavine. Pedro's an excellent candidate to regress in that department. Of course, if he keeps his walk and HR rates as low as they are now, and if he keeps his K rate above 10, his bad luck will get masked a bit.

--John Erhardt

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