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August 12, 2005

Prospectus Notebook

Friday Edition

by Baseball Prospectus

Houston Astros: One of the biggest concerns of the Astros' off-season was how the 2005 squad would fare offensively. This winter saw the departure of Jeff Kent and Carlos Beltran and the team was bracing for the absence of Lance Berkman for at least part of the season. Considering the severity of his knee injury there were also concerns that he wouldn't be the same hitter when he did come back. Those losses, combined with expected declines from players like Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell gave good reasons to believe that the Astros would struggle to score runs in 2005.

And run scoring is down for Houston this year. Their 2005 runs scored/game (R/G) is down 14.1% from 2004 and 12.2% from their average R/G of 2002-2004. You can't blame all of that on steroids, either (if you're the type of person who bases this decreased run scoring on steroids). MLB wide run scoring in 2005 is down just 3.5% from 2004, and just 1.6% from the cumulative 2002-2004 period.

Have those departures hurt that badly? In a word, yes. The difference between Biggio and Kent this year is already 16.3 runs of VORP. Pro- rated out to a full-season it would be approximately 24 runs. Beltran plus half of Biggio's VORP output from last year equaled 60.35 runs of VORP. If you pro-rate Willy Taveras and Eric Bruntlett out to a full-season they'd accumulate a much less helpful 18.24 runs of VORP. Add Berkman's April absence and subsequent dropoff (38.6% less MLVr/game), and the injury to Jeff Bagwell and you get most of that 14% decline in run-scoring per game right there.

Other than Morgan Ensberg and part-timer Orlando Palmeiro, no one has really picked up the slack, either. On any given day for the Astros some five or six or even seven lineup positions could be occupied by players with on-base percentages below league average. Players like Brad Ausmus, Craig Biggio, and Adam Everett are hitting as poorly as last year (if not more poorly--Everett's OBP took a dive from a Royce Clayton-esque .301 to an even more ghastly .288). The real burn comes from new-comers or players who are taking increased roles in 2005: Mike Lamb, .217/.261/.394; Taveras, .294/.327/.355; and Bruntlett, .215/.301/.462. That doesn't even include departed disasters like Luke Scott, Todd Self, and Raul Chavez, or players like Jason Lane who keep themselves in the lineup with tons of power (.497 SLG, 17 HR in 342 AB at press-time) but who can't manage to get on-base at anything close to a league average clip (.306 OBA, 20 BB in 366 PA).

The offense is pretty painful to watch. How painful? Put it this way: the only teams scoring fewer runs per game in 2005 are the Pittsburgh Pirates (4.168) and the Washington Nationals (3.848).

SportsTicker recently fronted the ESPN.com Houston Astros page with a note pointing out that CF Willy Taveras was leading all ML rookies in hits, batting average, games, singles, infield hits, bunt singles, and steals. It sounds nice, but a closer look shows that Taveras' style leaves a lot to be desired. He's a below average hitter (-0.049 MLVr), a below average hitter for his position (-0.023 PMLVr) and barely rates out as better than replacement level. The batting average is nice, and much attention should be paid to his superior defense, but the lack of power, the mediocre on-base percentage for a top of the lineup hitter, and the 74/17 SO to BB ratio all raise serious questions about his future potential. Put a simpler way: for all of the accomplishments that SportsTicker heralds, Taveras has about half the VORP of Clint Barmes in nearly twice the plate appearances.

--Tom Gorman

New York Yankees: Every day on the front page and in the newsletter, BP posts its "Stat of the Day," which provides those ranking in the top or bottom 5 of one particular stat. Yesterday, the stat du jour was the "Top 5 AL Playoff Contenders," as determined by Clay Davenport's "Postseason Odds Report". Surprisingly, the Yankees were not one of those five teams, for what must be the first time in over a decade. But wait--how surprising should this be? Looking at the course of the Yankees season, we see that they have never been estimated to reach 90 wins, and their highest playoff odds percentage, which currently stands at 25.8%, topped out at 44.9% on July 27. After an uninspiring series against the Pale Hose these past few days, the reality that the Bronx Bombers may need to be packing for Pebble Beach instead of the playoffs has to creeping into their minds. One way to tell that all is not well at Camp Steinbrenner is when Joe Torre starts getting testy, which he did following the club's extra innings loss on Wednesday.

If this wasn't enough bad news, Will Carroll is reporting that Carl Pavano may miss the rest of the season. What are the Yankees to do? Not much, actually. They are getting Jaret Wright back this week, and while Randy Johnson is still out, getting Wright back will give them a fully functioning rotation:


Player          GS    VORP    AVG    OBP    SLG
Mike Mussina    24    27.5   .268   .333   .423
Aaron Small      4     9.7   .267   .335   .429
Shawn Chacon     3     8.4   .268   .329   .427
Al Leiter        5     3.4   .272   .340   .423
Jaret Wright     4    -9.1   .281   .343   .450

Though this Yankees bunch hasn't exactly been setting the world on fire, what more can they do that would be better? Looking at the AL League Averages for 2005, which are .269/.331/.427, we can see that with the slight exception of Wright, the Yankees have faced league average competition, and have not performed terribly well against it. What makes this worse is that the Yankees really can't ask for more than they are already getting from Aaron Small and Shawn Chacon.

As has been discussed almost ad nauseam, the Yankees pitching staff has not exactly received stellar defense. The Yankees only rank 26th in Defensive Efficiency. However, at some point a pitching staff has to adapt to the strengths and weaknesses of the defense behind it. But when the Yanks are running out new starters like dot.coms ran out IPO's in the late '90's, it may be fair to say that all of the rotation turnover has really hurt the Yankees. Scott Proctor became the 14th Yankees starter last night, and of those 14, Mussina is the only healthy starter who has started more than 10 games in 2005.

So what does this all mean going forward? Well, as Neil Dellacroc might say, "Suck it up, take the fall do the time". The Yankees are by no means eliminated at this juncture, and with an offense that stands at the top of the EqA mountain they will remain a lurking threat. However, it is more likely that Yankee fans will have to do the time, having to deal with some more painful images this winter.

--Paul Swydan

San Diego Padres: Looking back on August 1st, when the Arizona Diamondbacks held a hundredths-of-a-percentage-point lead over the Padres atop the NL West, and both teams were three games under .500, you'd be forgiven if you thought to yourself "It can't get any worse than this division."

Fortunately, the Padres picked up the pace a little since the beginning of the month, and for now all of MLB's division leaders have winning records. Unfortunately, as Murray Chass of the New York Times reminded us this week, the division could definitely be worse. Eleven years ago this week, the worst division race in Major League history was prematurely ended, not by some mercy rule, but by labor strife. At the time the 1994 AL West race was stillborn, this is how the division looked:


Team               Record   GB    W%     RS    RA
Texas Rangers       52-62    -    .456   613   697
Oakland Athletics   51-63   1.0   .447   549   589
Seattle Mariners    49-63   2.0   .438   569   616
California Angels   47-68   5.5   .409   543   660

Even with 47 or more games to play, based on those teams' runs scored and allowed, none of these teams was likely to threaten a winning record. Had the strike not canceled the post-season, it is likely that the MLB playoffs would have had a participant with a losing record, for only the second time in their history. The first time, providentially enough, was in the strike-shortened season of 1981, when a bifurcated schedule landed the 2nd half AL West champs, the Kansas City Royals, in the postseason. The Royals had a 50-53 overall record that season, but managed to go 30-23 from August 10 through the end of the season to secure their playoff berth. The Royals were summarily dispatched by the Oakland A's (the legitimate AL West champs) 3-0 in MLB's first division series.

So how does this season's bad division stack up? Let's start with some conventional numbers:


Team        Record  W%  GB   East  Cent. West  Inter.
Padres       58-56 .509  -   11-7  16-18 24-20 7-11
Diamondbacks 55-61 .474 4.0   8-14 12-15 27-22 8-10
Dodgers      51-63 .447 7.0   8-13 13-16 25-21 5-13
Giants       49-64 .434 8.5   5-13 15-15 23-24 6-12
Rockies      44-71 .383 14.5 11-10 12-25 15-27 6-9

Looking at this breakdown, you can see that when it comes to bad baseball, there are the Colorado Rockies, and then there is everyone else. Based on their intradivisional records, the other four teams are pretty close-the Rockies' horrible showing in the division is propping the rest of their rivals up. At the same time, the Padres' lead is largely attributable to their good showing against the NL's Eastern division. Looking at our Adjusted Standings Report shows that only team that we could consider "unlucky" in the division-that is, the only team underperforming their Pythagenport expected performance-is the Rockies. Everyone else has done better than you'd expect them to, based upon their runs scored and allowed, as well as their component "batting line" performance.

The question for the Padres is, how did they get to this point? At the beginning of June, San Diego was 14 games over .500. They'd gone 22-6 over the month of May, on the strength of their offense-the 160 runs they scored that month led the Senior Circuit.

Well, in June and July all that goodness went sour. Over those two months, the Padres scored a grand total of 179 runs, dead worst in the National League. Their record during that period was 17-35. Throughout those two months the team's only consistent performers on offense were Brian Giles (41.0 VORP overall on the season) and part-timer Mark Sweeney (24.7 VORP in less than 200 PA).

Despite that hard fall from grace, the Padres entered the trade deadline weekend with over a 60% chance of making the playoffs. That was a good enough shot to make the Pads buyers at the deadline, bringing in Joe Randa, Miguel Olivo, David Ross and Chan Ho Park in separate deals, to plug holes in the roster. The Randa acquisition was a belated acknowledgment that Sean Burroughs can't hit for power, and Xavier Nady can't play third base. Olivo, coming off a year spent at the Replacement Level in Seattle, and Ross, fresh from exile as a forgotten man with the Pirates organization, try to fill the gap left by Ramon Hernandez's wrist injury. Park comes on to pick up the slack caused by the immolation of Tim Stauffer and the injury to Adam Eaton. With apologies to Brian Lawrence and Warren Spahn, the San Diego starting staff is Jake Peavy and pray for rain. Lots of rain.

Given all the holes they've scrambled to fill, you might wonder if it's worth the Padres' while to scramble for what looks to be a lackluster NL West crown. Of the more feeble teams to make baseball's postseason, one of the worst-the 82-79 1973 Mets-made it to the World Series, as did the 86-75 Cleveland Indians in 1997. Two others, the 85-77 1987 Minnesota Twins and the 87-74 2000 New York Yankees, came away from the Fall Classic with World Series rings. Sometimes the meek-or, at the very least, the flawed-do inherit the Earth.

--Derek Jacques

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