September 22, 2005
Braves, Phillies, Giants
James Click contributed research to this article
Ryan Howard had a big night last night. Not only did he hit a game-winning grand slam to keep Philly's playoff hopes alive in a 10-6 victory over Atlanta, but he overtook Jeff Francoeur in the VORP lead among rookie position players. Francoeur helped a bit, going 0-for-5 at the plate and dropping his overall batting line to .311/.344/.566 (his AVG alone dropped seven points, hammering home just how partial his partial season has been). Francoeur's plate discipline issues are perhaps starting to get exploited, as he's cooled off after his scorching start; he's at just .247/.273/.425 this month, while Howard has hit .308/.366/.754 down the stretch. If both trends continue, Howard would have to be considered the new favorite to win the Rookie of the Year award.
VORP doesn't matter, though, not in the ROY voting. Last year's NL race saw the overall VORP leader, Khalil Greene (37.6) lose out to Pittsburgh's Jason Bay (34.6). If we're looking to rationalize that selection, well, Greene had more playing time; Bay's VORPr (.310) was higher than Greene's (.294), and so prorating Bay's season gives him the edge in "intended VORP" or some such thing. One would also think that playing a more demanding defensive position would have given Greene even more of an edge.
This sort of history matters in the race this year, in which there's no clear favorite candidate in the NL; all have many reasons to not get a vote, and there's historical precedent to suggest none of the more promising candidates will win. Obviously, that's absurd. From a counting stat standpoint, Howard is now in the lead, as he's technically put the most runs on the board despite being on pace to play about half the season. VORP also doesn't take defense into account, and Francoeur's well-publicized 12 outfield assists give him a boost in that department. Howard gets no such boost, as his FRAR and FRAA scores are just 5 and -3, respectively.
But position players who play in only part of the season simply don't win ROY awards, and that includes both Howard and Francoeur. Which means that in the NL, we may be looking at a winner from among Willy Taveras and Garrett Atkins, with Jeff Francis, Brad Halsey, Wandy Rodriguez and D.J. Houlton representing the starting pitchers (despite all of them with negative VORPs), and Gary Majewski and Chad Qualls representing the relievers. This is, to put it mildly, a very odd year for rookies. From a counting stat standpoint, the most valuable run-producing or run-preventing players have played the least, and those who have played the most have been pretty terrible. It's entirely plausible that the award goes to Majewski or Qualls, which wouldn't be a bad thing--though without gaudy save totals, neither has much precedent for winning, other than top-of-the-ballot finishes by Akinori Otsuka (3rd in 2004), Kelly Wunsch in 2000 (5th) or Jeff Zimmerman in 1999 (3rd). None received a single first-place vote.
From a purely performance standpoint, the race for ROY should be between Jeff Francoeur and Ryan Howard on the position player side (Howard now gets the edge in both playing time and offensive production), with Pittsburgh's Zach Duke tops among rookies on the pitching side (tops among everybody according to VORP). Rickie Weeks, Clint Barmes, and Ryan Church have all been solid in their abbreviated seasons, and help to fill out a pretty nice looking ballot.
Thanks to Francoeur's slump, Howard now has as good a chance as anyone. He has more than capably filled in for incumbent Jim Thome, and just may wind up with a trophy to show for it.
Much like the career of San Francisco native Lisa Bonet, the 2005 Giants faded quickly; the boys in orange and black haven't had more than a 20% chance of making the playoffs since mid-May. Will the story be any different in 2006?
We know that Barry Bonds, Armando Benitez, Edgardo Alfonzo, Omar Vizquel, Pedro Feliz, and Mike Matheny are already under contract for next year, and that if their options are exercised, so could Jason Schmidt, Moises Alou, Ray Durham, Randy Winn, and LaTroy Hawkins. This figures to be a veteran team, not that there's anything wrong with that. What is wrong is when the team does a poor job of filling in around their veterans. This season was a prime example:
Player PA% VORP Jason Ellison 6.70 5.9 Mike Tucker 5.10 2.6 Deivi Cruz 4.00 3.8 Todd Linden 3.00 -2.7 Marquis Grissom 2.60 -7.5 Yorvit Torrealba 1.90 0.3 Total 23.30 2.4Blithely handing 23% of your plate appearances to people who can't hit never works out well. These guys did not exactly flash the leather eithe, as they combined for just 5.6 WARP1 this season. The Giants seemed to pick up on this--four of those players are no longer with the team--but for 2005 it was too little, too late. The Giants would do well to avoid this mistake in 2006; ridding themselves of guys like Angel Chavez and Doug Clark and giving guys like Kevin Frandsen a shot would be a good place to start. Another way to shed some dead wood would be to cut bait on J.T. Snow. Everyone still harbors good thoughts of Snow's 2002 playoff performance, but he was not really any better than Lance Niekro this year. Looking at the chart below we can see the Giants would be well served to let Niekro play and spend their money in other areas:
Player PA EqA WARP1 VORP FRAR FRAA J.T. Snow 379 .258 2.9 8.2 16 8 Lance Niekro 277 .255 2.1 6.2 11 6Chief among these areas is the rotation. Schmidt, Noah Lowry, and Matt Cain should be there come April, but what of the four and five spots? Brad Hennessey and Kevin Correia could be in the mix, and they could certainly bring back Brett Tomko, but what's the point really? To date, 92 NL pitchers have started at least 10 games, and Hennessey and Correia both grade out in the bottom 25% of that group. If the Jints are serious about making "one last push" to get Barry his ring, they have to do better. It may be time to see if Merkin Valdez can contribute, and it may be time to reel in a free agent pitcher. While San Fran will likely not be in the market for a top-dollar free agent like A.J. Burnett or Jeff Weaver, pitchers like Kevin Millwood or Kenny Rogers might be propositioned to a reasonable one- or two-year deal.
The starting rotation needs to be the main focus because the bullpen, for the most part, has been productive. Scott Eyre has been a rock, and while Benitez and Hawkins did not pitch full seasons in '05, Will Carroll's preliminary calculations show that neither will given the infamous red light in the '06 Team Health Reports. Full seasons from both should help the bullpen's performance. Also of interest is Scott Munter. Munter doesn't have great peripherals, but does sport a freakish 3.46 GB/FB ratio, which has its uses. Lastly, if Valdez does not work out in the rotation he could and should be added to the bullpen mix as well.
Fact: the Giants have the worst offense in baseball this season, using AEqR as the measuring stick. With most of the starting positions having already been spoken for in '06, this is a problem that can only be corrected in two ways: 1) more Barry Bonds, 2) better judgment in bench players. Unless the Giants pull off a big trade, they are unlikely to find a cure-all for their offensive problems. However, they can bulk up on pitching by signing a free agent starter or two. Stepping into our BP De Lorean we see a topsy-turvy NL West in 2006. The division is clearly there for the taking, and the Giants are as well positioned for that as anyone. Indeed, the future has not been written.