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September 14, 2005

Prospectus Today

Six Teams, Four Spots

by Joe Sheehan

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In recent years, where September was all about the A's, Angels, Red Sox and Yankees, I've run four-team standings to reflect the race for three postseason berths in the AL. If MLB is going to reduce a division title to merely a playoff spot by instituting a wild card, I think the next logical step is to think of each league as one big pool from which four teams emerge, at least in the plurailty of years in which the layout of records allows. 2005 is one of those years:


White Sox   88-55   .615    --
Red Sox     84-60   .583   4.5
Indians     83-62   .572   6.0
Yankees     81-62   .566   7.0
Angels      81-63   .563   7.5
A's         80-64   .556   8.5
Here's the way to think of the AL down the stretch: the top four teams in this list go on to the postseason, provided at least one team from each division is in the top four. If not, skip over #4 and take #5.

For those of you annoyed that I would list the White Sox…I don't care. The only thing saving them right now is regular doses of the Royals and Tigers. Since August 1, they're 7-1 against those two teams, 12-19 against everyone else. The Indians--probably the best team in the league right now--get six games against them starting with a three-game series at Jacobs Field next Monday. The White Sox haven't locked up anything yet.

The series of this week has also taken place in Cleveland, where the A's and Indians have reverted to the April versions of themselves, scoring sporadically and hitting tons of ground balls. The A's hit into five double plays last night, all in the last seven innings, all of which wiped out leadoff baserunners. They've been reduced to walking and hitting ground balls, a recipe for disaster for a team that has little to no speed.

The Indians took the game by being the team that finally remembered how to drive the ball, getting homers in the seventh and eighth innings to retain their slim edge on the Yankees and A's.

I still don't completely understand the A's offense. It's actually not among the league leaders in groundball/flyball ratio (tenth, at 1.14), which doesn't make sense when you watch a series of slow guys hit like Luis Castillo for two nights. However, they are fourth in the league in ground balls hit, a byproduct of being last in the league in strikeouts, and they lead the league in groundball double plays, the intersection of ground balls and being third in the league in runners put on first base (1B+BB+HBP) and third in DP opportunities, behind only the league's OBP monsters in New York and Boston.

The A's have, loosely speaking, become a science experiment. You know that traditionalist complaint about strikeouts, the one statheads have been trying to refute for years? The A's have essentially traded strikeouts for balls in play, and it's produced a team that hits into a million double plays. The idea may be to take the Angels' approach and add in some selectivity, but without the Angels' team speed or the power that the Yankees and Red Sox have, the A's offense sputters.

For this to work with the current roster, the A's have to hit for power, they have to drive the ball. With the OBP in place, the key numbers become slugging and isolated power, as is evident in the monthly stats:


              OBP    SLG    ISO     R/G
April        .314   .343   .102    3.71
May          .325   .347   .102    4.15
June         .356   .464   .173    5.48
July         .347   .462   .176    5.96
August       .325   .419   .161    5.04
September    .310   .383   .132    3.92
Compare May and August: the A's had .325 OBPs in both months, but when they drove the ball in August, they scored nearly an extra run a game. This may seem a bit obvious--we know that OBP and SLG correlate with run scoring--but I think it illustrates that a team with the A's profile, with their lack of speed and their low strikeout approach, needs those extra-base hits even more.

If I'm doing the correlations correctly, the edge isn't as great as I'm making it out to be. OBP correlates with run-scoring at .89, while SLG correlates at .94 and ISO at .92. I wonder if G/F ratio by month would be an interesting number to look at.

The A's can't change their roster or their approach at this point, but they may wish to consider changing their lineup. Jason Kendall is just killing this team. It's a pretty bad idea to hit the right-handed batter whose lost a step and who hits ground balls 62% of the time in the #2 hole. Kendall leads the AL in GIDPs, with 23, and with his .340 OBP (and .310 SLG), isn't exactly making up for it on those occasions where he doesn't make two outs. It doesn't matter who replaces him; there's simply no worse choice on the team than Kendall.

A couple of other notes from last night's action:

  • I don't know enough about the dynamic to say whether it's Felipe Alou's call or Barry Bonds' preference, but the Giants have got to find a way to get Bonds batting higher in the lineup. Batting him fourth behind Pedro Feliz, as they did last night, is horrible resource management. They won--they won Monday night as well--but that's in spite of, not because of, the lineup.

    Alou took Bonds out of last night's game in the seventh. Hopefully for the Giants, it means that he'll play today. Given the critical nature of games against the Padres, it's likely worth it to them to get him into the lineup today even if it means he'd have to sit out both Thursday and Friday against the Dodgers.

  • I'm sympathetic to the impact injuries have had on the Dodgers' 2005 season. They have been flat-out crippled, as Mike Groopman's stats tell us, and there's no evaluation of the team that can realistically ignore what the injuries have done to them. (Offer not valid in the Los Angeles Times.)

    With that said, you have to also consider that the Dodgers have given Jason Phillips, an awful player, 400-odd plate appearances as the starting catcher. You also have to consider that they are 2-6 against the Rockies since late August, and that they got owned by Scott Dohmann and Mike DeJean for three innings in the middle of a winnable game that would have put them four games out of first place.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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