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August 10, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Wednesday Edition

by Baseball Prospectus

Arizona Diamondbacks: Tony Clark was an endangered species in the baseball universe entering 2005. His ability to hit for average and get on base evaporated over the last few years, leaving only a fading power stroke. But like the ivory billed woodpecker, which was feared lost forever before being recently rediscovered in the swamplands of Arkansas, Clark has improbably resurrected his career in the air conditioning of Arizona. Ornithologists have a recording of the woodpecker's distinctive call to back up their find, and we have the Marginal Lineup Value Rate leader board as proof of Clark's revival:

Name            PA  OPS  MLVr
Derrek Lee     476 1110 0.583
Albert Pujols  490 1066 0.543
Miguel Cabrera 468 1019 0.501
Tony Clark     238 1031 0.433
Alex Rodriguez 484 1006 0.415

In June, Notebook uncovered that Clark was among the DBacks leaders in VORP despite having only half the playing time of Arizona's regulars. Nearly two months later, Clark has moved to first on the Snakes with a 29.7 VORP, fueled by a line of .321/.366/.665 and 19 home runs in only 238 plate appearances. Clark, in his age-33 season, has already amassed 2/3 of his previous high in VORP, 45.5 in 1998, with only 35% of the 673 PA he received that year. Because VORP is a cumulative measure of offensive production and not a rate stat, the fact that Clark leads Arizona despite trailing nine of his teammates in plate appearances is truly amazing.

Any analysis of Clark's rise from the ashes, however, needs to be slapped with a standard-issue "sample size" sticker. The relatively small amount of playing time in which Clark has done his damage, combined with his age and PECOTA preseason forecast (weighted mean of .225/.305/.417) are sure markers of a fluke season. Clark's 2005 is reminiscent of Carlos Baerga's 2003, when the 34-year-old put up a .343/.396/.464 line in 231 PA in his first year with the Snakes. The desert heat (not to mention a 1052 three-year park factor at the BoB) can create mirages. Given that all-world prospect Conor Jackson's defensive woes limit him to playing first base--he has already shifted down the defensive spectrum twice, from third base in college to left field in the minors to first with Arizona--the Diamondbacks should have thought hard about parting ways with Clark after the season rather than paying through arbitration or free agency for an aberrant '05. The Snakes instead handed Clark a two year extension last week, with a no-trade clause for the first 1.5 years, a deal which, born out of the excitement of Clark's career year, looks to be an irrational payout for past (and current) performance rather than future value.

While Clark has been a major surprise, Brian Bruney, expected to be a key cog in the bullpen, has failed to pitch up to expectations. Brandon Lyon, out since May 13 with tendonitis in his right elbow, remains second among Arizona relievers in expected wins added above replacement (WXRL) despite having thrown just 18 1/3 innings, an indication of the instability of the DBacks pen. Bruney, called upon to be the stopper in Lyon's absence, has 46 strikeouts in 40 1/3 innings, but has walked 5.82 per nine and allowed opponents to slug .472 against him, surrendering five home runs. All that has added up to a 6.69 ERA, and though it was worth seeing if Bruney could harness his command to dominate in high leverage situations, there is evidence Arizona stuck with him too long:


Player        IP    WXRL  LEVERAGE
Brandon Lyon  18.3  1.423  1.77
Brian Bruney  40.3 -0.546  1.56
Lance Cormier 58    2.241  1.42
Jose Valverde 43.7  0.465  1.10
Mike Koplove  49.3  0.497  0.97
Greg Aquino   17.3  0.171  0.86

Bruney has been the second worst Arizona reliever as measured by WXRL, yet after Lyon, he has been placed in the highest leverage situations, meaning his wildness has cost the Diamondbacks even more than his bloated ERA indicates. Manager Bob Melvin has recently begun to give the pressurized innings to Jose Valverde, who sports a 54:14 K:BB ratio in 43 2/3 innings, and Greg Aquino, who has a 20:9 K:BB in 17 1/3 innings, and with Lyon and Mexican flamethrower Oscar Villarreal set to rejoin Arizona shortly, the Diamondbacks can expect their bullpen to turn from a liability to an asset for the stretch drive. Of course, it remains to be seen whether a division as bad as the 2005 NL West can experience a stretch drive, rather than just a period where one team flails around less than the others. Arizona's 18% chance at the division is not trivial, however, and improved relief work would help keep the Diamondbacks outperforming their Pythagenport record.

--Caleb Peiffer

Oakland Athletics: Clay Davenport's Postseason Odds Report just became even more impressive with two straightforward additions. First, the basic report includes "Average wins by position" in each division; now we can see what Davenport's simulations show as the final win totals for each spot in the division (regardless of which team actually finishes there). For example, as of press time, the Postseason Odds report showed the last place team in the NL East finishing with 79 wins, while the second place team in the NL West finishes with only 78 wins.

Second, the report now links each team name to a day-by-day progress report from all of the previous postseason-odds reports. This allows us to see, for example, the Athletics' explosive rise from a 0.368% chance of reaching the playoffs on June 19th to their August 9th playoff probability of 76.278%.

chart

As Jay Jaffe noted in this week's Prospectus Hit List, the A's have gone an obscene 46-15 since May 29, after starting the season with a 19-32 record. The team has dominated on both sides of the ball during their recent run, scoring 5.89 runs per game and allowing just 3.32.

One of the most curious puzzles of the A's season has been the surprising success of starter Kirk Saarloos. At press time Saarloos had a 4.21 ERA good for 53rd out of 102 qualifying pitchers in both the AL and NL, a 4.29 RA (40th out of 102), a 4.25 Park-Adjusted ERA (40th out of 102), and an RA+ of 1.13 (35th out of 102). By every measure but the notoriously problematic ERA Saarloos is an above average major league starter (and that's without acknowledging that many starters don't even make it into this group of 102 qualifiers because they are either injured or unable to perform well enough to remain in the rotation).

The problem with Saarloos from a performance analysis standpoint is that he is succeeding with the most dismal strikeout rate in baseball 2.62 SO/9 (102nd out of 102). His walk rate is a decent 2.78 BB/9 (62nd out of 102), but his strikeout rate is still so low as to leave him with the absolute worst SO/BB rate amongst qualifiers.

What is going on here? His hit rate is an average 9.45 H/9 (66th out of 102), so that's not it. You can also forget looking at the opposing lineups. The Quality of Batters Faced Report shows that Saarloos has faced an average hitter with a composite line of .269/.335/.427. Amongst the 146 pitchers with at least 300 opponent plate appearances that composite line is 130th easiest in terms of batting average, 128th in terms of on-base percentage, and 128th in terms of slugging rate. If anything Saarloos has been at a disadvantage in terms of the quality of his competition.

So, really, what is going on? Well, it looks like a rather complicated mixture of factors. First of all, Oakland's defense is damn good. They lead the majors in Defensive Efficiency (0.716) and the last time James Click ran his Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency numbers he had Oakland turning 1.10% more BIP into outs than would be expected by their schedule. That's good for the 9th best defense in the game. The defense is surely the explanation for Saarloos' well-above average BABIP of .291 (which ranks 27th luckiest out of 102 qualifiers).

Second, Saarloos is keeping the ball in the park at an outstanding rate. His HR/9 IP rate of 0.64 is good for 13th out of 102 qualifiers and puts him in rarified air. Part of that HR rate is no doubt due to the home ballpark (McAfee Coliseum being the third worst park in baseball for HRs this year), but it should be pointed out that the next nearest Athletic in the HR/9 sortable stat report is Barry Zito all the way down at 49th. Saarloos is showing off an outstanding control over the long ball. This is no small matter: if you're going to put guys on base at an average rate, and you're not going to strike guys out, you need to make sure that the balls you allow to be put into play don't automatically plate runs.

Third, Saarloos is getting a ton of help from his bullpen. Of 103 qualifiers, Saarloos left the fourth-most bequeathed runners in baseball. Saarloos is getting pulled in the middle of innings with lots of runners on the bases and his team's relievers are bailing him out of trouble. The Oakland pen gave him far better than average support, allowing 1.382 fewer of those runners to score than you would expect based on league average rates. This gives him a better ERA than is really fair.

It's a puzzle, but it's not totally baffling. Saarloos is succeeding on the back of a good Oakland defense, a good Oakland bullpen, and with powerful control over his HR allowed rate. The real question is: how sustainable is this success going forward, especially considering how far Saarloos' 2005 line is from his pre-season PECOTA projection?

--Tom Gorman

Washington Nationals: Last Saturday at 4 p.m., Nationals' manager Frank Robinson called a team meeting before their game against the Padres. They had lost 20 of the previous 28 games, losing their first place position in the NL East in the process. Afterward, players did not reveal specific details about the meeting, though it was known that the major topic involved how to win close games the way they had in the first half. The players themselves did most of the talking. Baseball Prospectus has obtained a transcript of that meeting, dutifully transcribed by reserve outfielder Matt Cepicky, who was promptly DFAd on Monday.

Frank Robinson: Guys, thank you for coming, and thank you for showing up in uniform. I think it says a lot about this team that we're...

(Nick Johnson runs in, huffing, still buttoning his shirt)

Johnson: Sorry I'm late, guys.

Robinson (looking at him quizzically): Aren't you still on the DL?

Johnson: No, man. I've been back for 10 games. I lead the team in VORP with 35.7, and VORPr with .413. If I had been healthy all season, that means I'd have a VORP of 46.2 and I'd be third in the NL among first basemen.

Robinson: Right, right, VORP. Well, have a seat.

Johnson (turns to Brian Schneider): Hey, I've been thinking. Don't you think I look a little like Private Pyle from Full Metal Jacket?

Schneider: Yeah!

(general approval from around the room)

Robinson: Guys? Please? So as I was saying, we need to stick together during these times of adversity. We're really being tested here, like we were tested in 1989 when I was managing the Orioles and...Esteban, are listing to your iPod?

Esteban Loaiza: Oh, yeah, sorry coach. I was just listening to the Baseball Prospectus Radio Podcast. I stole the iPod from Tomo Ohka, if that helps. Anyway, did you know that I've been one of the more useful offseason pickups? It's true. My VORP of 31.8 is third-best on the team, and I've only walked 2.21 per nine innings while striking out 6.83/9. I've also been pretty stingy with the home run, as I've only allowed .86 per nine...

John Patterson: Yeah! I know, I've been pretty good, too, by VORP.

Livan Hernandez: VORP? Man, you're nothing until you lead all of baseball in Pitcher Abuse Points. I've got 418,490. That's 310,115 more than Zambrano in Chicago. I average 17,437 per start. That's average, tio. What's my VORP? Like, a thousand?

Patterson: No, it's 40.4. I lead the team with 47.3, despite making just 20 starts. I wonder, though, how much of our success is because of the pretty spacious ballpark we play in. I mean, I've allowed just one home run in 308 ABs at home, and on the road, I've allowed six in just 154. What's up with that? Does anyone else have a discrepancy in their HR/AB home/road splits?

Tony Armas Jr.: Yeah. .028 to .060.

Hernandez: Yeah, me too. .017 to .020. I just like this ballpark is all.

Robinson: Guys? Please? We've lost 20 of our last 28 games here. No more iPods, OK? No more splits. Now, we need to change things up to start winning again. I think we really need to...

Cristian Guzman: Hey, let's dress a rookie up like a girl again!

Gary Majewski, Ryan Church, Tony Blanco (in unison): No!

Hernandez: We went 13-4 in one-run games up until the All Star Break after Tony Robbins spoke to us on June 1st. Remember his lecture "Unleash the Power Within in One-Run Games"? We could call him again.

Joey Eischen: We've been 0-11 in one run games since the ASB. Heinous, dude.

Church: Most heinous.

Chad Cordero: Don't look at me. I've allowed just one earned run since the All Star Break. I lead the majors in WXRL.

Luis Ayala: I'm 32nd. Out of 425 guys, man.

Majewski: Yeah, I'm 38th.

Eischen (looking at the floor): I've got a bad feeling about today.

Cordero: I don't think the bullpen's the problem.

Carlos Baerga: Man, you never think the bullpen's the problem. What is the problem, then?

(all eyes turn toward Cristian Guzman)

Guzman (sighs audibly): My bad.

Jamey Carroll: Yeah, my bad, too. A .216 EqA doesn't cut it, not even off the bench.

Gary Bennett: Yeah, speaking of lousy bats off the bench, I've got a .220 EqA.

Guzman: Man, I'm a starter and mine's .173.

Preston Wilson: Sorry, guys. I tried to warn him...

Brad Wilkerson: And I'm somewhere between my 25th and 40th percentile PECOTA projection.

Vinny Castilla: I'm sorry, too, for...everything.

Baerga: Oh, it's true! I don't know how to play this game!

Jose Guillen: My arm hurts.

(the room explodes as 17 guys take the blame, promising to take more pitches, to throw harder, to work the inside corner, and stay away from sliders low and away).

Robinson: I've got a better idea, guys. (Heads over to a six-foot tall cloth-covered mystery item). We need a better incentive to win. (Removes cloth, revealing a life-sized cardboard cutout of Jim Bowden wearing nothing but a leopard-print speedo and a giant bling-bling necklace with the letters "GM" heavily diamond-studded. He's smiling, and giving two thumbs up). For every game we win from here on out, we cover up one more piece. (Robinson places a single swatch of suit jacket over Bowden's naked left shoulder). Now we go out there today, and we win one. And then we win another.

(stunned silence)

Cordero: Uh, Coach? Where'd you get...

Robinson: Let's go get 'em, guys! (leads charge to playing field).

--John Erhardt

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