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July 13, 2005
Wednesday EditionCincinnati Reds: In yesterday's All-Star Game, the baseball world finally got to meet Felipe Lopez, the Reds' representative to the midsummer classic, and he singled in his only at-bat.
It's been a long road to Comerica Park for Lopez. Back in 2001, he was rushed to The Show to take over third base for the Blue Jays. After the need-based initiation that season, Lopez's prospects were given the roller coaster treatment: first he fell out of favor in Toronto, then he was hailed as Barry Larkin's heir apparent in Cincy, then he came dangerously close to falling behind Juan Castro and Rich Aurilia on the Reds' depth chart. In the process, Lopez see-sawed between the minors and majors, getting more than 1,000 Triple-A plate appearances and risking the dreaded "Quadruple-A player" tag. Beyond the question of his ability, there were rumors of attitude problems, which were also preventing Lopez from sticking at the big-league level. But, as we mentioned in Baseball Prospectus 2003 "Lopez could be a special player if someone can light a fire under him."
Well, this year, Lopez must be bunking with Johnny Storm. His .292 EqA and 32.2 VORP lead all NL shortstops. Batting left-handed, the switch-hitter is wrecking the ball to the tune of .329/.376/.614 with 30 extra-base hits in 226 PA. It's no stretch of the imagination to call him the best shortstop in the NL this year, even though that would be as much a comment on the weakened state of the position as a comment on Lopez.
Still, there are some troubling signs mixed in with all this good news. That amazing performance against right-handed pitching means that Lopez is scuffling against lefties: 659 OPS in 90 or so plate appearances, with just four extra base hits. This would be a reversal of Lopez's career trend--since 2002, Lopez has hit 127 points of OPS higher against lefties. Also, the Great American Ballpark is playing a huge role in Lopez's season: Lopez has posted a 990 OPS and hit 11 of his 14 home runs at home against a 770 OPS on the road.
More disturbing than those splits is Lopez's flagging defense. Our defensive translations have Lopez nine runs worse than an average shortstop, with a Rate2 of 85. Now, we all know that a strong offensive shortstop can be successful despite weak defense, but taken together, it looks like Lopez might still have some rough edges to iron out before we can declare him a star.
Would that the Reds, as a whole, could say the same. The Reds haven't ranked higher than 25th on the Prospectus Hit list since early April. It will be interesting to see if they can (or will) get pitching in return for Joe Randa by the trade deadline, and unblock the way for prospect Edwin Encarnacion. Beyond that, with $39MM already committed to seven players on next year's payroll, Cincy might not have the flexibility to make many changes this season.
Toronto Blue Jays: Baltimore's surprising first half has used up all the ink allotted to heralding an overlooked contender, so you can't be faulted for failing to notice the play of the Blue Jays. It hasn't been--for the media--much to write (home) about, but Toronto quietly stands at .500 and five games back of the wild card-leading Minnesota Twins at the All-Star break, a year after the team lost 94 games to finish, embarrassingly, behind the Devil Rays. Of course, the Jays' slim chance of sneaking into the playoffs by the back door is cut down by their affiliation with the AL East war zone--due to the soft competition in the AL Central, the third-place Indians have better odds of grabbing the wild card spot (25.6%) than the Orioles (9.1%), Yankees (8%), and Blue Jays (3%) combined. Still, considering PECOTA projections run before the season had Toronto coming up with 73 wins and, as Ben Murphy points out, a zero percent shot at making the postseason, the Jays have to feel good about the 8.5% overall odds they currently possess.
Examining the numbers, it becomes apparent Toronto is even closer to contention than it seems. They have scored 428 runs this season while giving up 381, a +47 differential, giving them a Pythagenport record of 48.6 and 39.4. The Blue Jays' record of 44-44 leaves a -4.6 differential between actual and Pythagenport, the biggest such "win gap" in the majors. If the standings were based strictly on runs and not wins, the Blue Jays would jump ahead of the Red Sox into first place. Even looking at the third order win/loss records--based on adjusted equivalent runs--the Jays' record should rightly stand at around 47-41.
Toronto can blame its unsightly record in one-run games as the primary reason for under performing. At 5-12, the Jays have the fewest one-run wins of any team in the majors, and only the Royals (7-18) have a worse record. For contrast, the three teams ahead of Toronto in the AL East are a combined 26-23.
How a team performs in one-run contests is often disconnected from any traits it possesses--or for short, a matter of "luck"--but the strength of its bullpen can be a contributing factor. Look no further than the White Sox, who hold a majors-leading 22-9 record in one run games thanks in large part to the work of Dustin Hermanson and Cliff Politte at hanging on to leads. The Toronto relief corps has compiled 2.33 expected wins added above replacement level, not a great figure--Cleveland leads the American League with 8.12 WXRL--but better than Boston (-1.86) and not far below Baltimore (2.60) in the AL East. While the bullpen hasn't been much of an asset, then, it can't be labeled the main reason the Jays are playing so far below run expectations.
Mainly, Toronto's problems look to be the result of bad luck--scoring bunches of runs in blowout wins, and not enough in tight games. The Blue Jays have a record of 20-11 in games decided by four runs or more, meaning they've been outscoring their opponents by large margins in victories. In "save situation" games, decided by three runs or less, the Jays are just 24-33.
That Toronto is bound to play closer to its Pythagenport record in the second half isn't likely to cheer up Canadians, however, in light of the fractured left tibia that will keep ace Roy Halladay out 4-6 weeks. Halladay has been far and away the best pitcher in the American League this year, adding six wins above replacement level (per SNLVAR) this season, a full two more wins than the runner-up, Mark Buehrle. Halladay also leads the majors with 141 2/3 innings pitched, a sum that represents 18.3% of Toronto's total innings, the largest percentage that any one pitcher has amassed this year.
With the deep bullpen Toronto has assembled--they recalled Brandon League and Justin Miller from Triple-A Syracuse over the weekend to add to that depth--it would be interesting to see the Jays move Miguel Batista back into the rotation in an attempt to catch lightning with a repeat of Batista's 2003 (3.54 ERA, 37.3 VORP). Alas, the former capable innings muncher has already racked up 15 saves this year, likely punching a one-way ticket to the bullpen for the rest of his career.