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April 19, 2006

Prospectus Today

What We Can Learn In April

by Joe Sheehan

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Of course you're right that you can't tell anything from a dozen games. In general. But I think the exception to that is elite level players who suffered through injuries, but are now showing themselves to be healthy and at the top of their game. Jim Thome and Curt Schilling spring to mind. At this point, would you really put much money on those guys putting up anything resembling their 2005 seasons? I think for that subset of players, two weeks actually can tell you a whole lot.

--N.S.
I've been pounding this point a lot, so I want to run back to it quickly for a moment. I'm not suggesting that there's no information at all to be gleaned in the first month of the season. I am cautioning against jumping to conclusions ("Well, guys who rode the bench in the WBC didn't play enough in March." "Players who played in the WBC are having trouble adjusting to boring old regular-season baseball." "Yeah, he picked up a slider and that's why he's 3-0.") based on that information.

I think N.S. is correct in that the performance of Thome and Schilling to date is an indication that their health issues are behind them. Their performance lines and their apparent health are useful information, but it's not enough to conclude that Thome and Schilling are and will be 100% healthy. It's just more data for the evaluation of the two guys, and it needs to be balanced against everything else we know.

There's never anything wrong with having more information. What's critical is using that information correctly, and not jumping to conclusions. Forced conclusions--the media beast must be sated, you know--are the enemy of thoughtful, rational analysis that sometimes ends with a smile and a gentle shrug of the shoulders.

With that in mind, here are some things bouncing around my head as we approach the 10% mark of the season.

  • Strength of schedule is a huge issue in evaluating teams. The Mets' 7-1 start was fueled by a steady diet of Nationals and Marlins, a bump that will sustain their record for a while. Starting Thursday, they have a 10-games-in-11-days road trip, after which we'll have a lot more information about this team.

    The Orioles open with 13 of 17 at home, the Mets with 12 of 15 at home (11 of 14 after a rainout). The Nationals, though, play 13 of their first 16 on the road, the Yankees 11 of 14. These things even out eventually; for now, though they can serve to skew records a little.

    At the other end of the spectrum, the Twins opened with a brutal stretch. They have yet to play a game against a team I have projected to finish under .500, starting the season with series in Toronto and Cleveland, then coming home to play the A's, Yankees and Angels. They'll go to Chicago this weekend before things let up a bit, but considering the opposition, if they're at .500 next Monday morning, that's a successful start to the season. The Mariners opened in a similar fashion, with a home series against the Angels and A's followed by a tough road trip to Cleveland and Boston.

    It's just something to consider before labeling teams one way or another. No one's played a representative schedule yet, and some teams have faced rather extreme slates. I wouldn't recommend relying on the Adjusted Standings yet, either, as sample-size caveats apply fairly strongly, but you can get a sense of the degree a team's record is a function of its context from them.

    Notable record/run differential gaps: the Giants are 8-5 with a -9. The Yankees are 6-7, +23 (!). The Orioles are 8-7 with a -10. The A's are 7-7, -12. The Marlins are 4-9, -7.

  • The Royals' 2-11 record is, I fear, not some kind of small-sample anomaly. This is a wretched baseball team, its best players a cornerstone center fielder (David DeJesus) who is off to a terrible start and a handful of free agents who have no role in the team's future (Mark Grudzielanek, Reggie Sanders).

    The Royals have allowed 95 runs in 13 games, and if offense really has spiked up again, they have a fighting chance to be just the third team since 1900 to allow 1100 runs (1996 Tigers, 1930 Phillies). Their pitching staff is horrible, and there's very little help available in the farm system. Aside from DeJesus, Doug Mientkiewicz and maybe Mark Teahen, they have no above-average defensive players to support the staff, and two of those guys could lose their jobs before the year is out to the Royals' terrific hitting prospects, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon.

    Major League Baseball has until July 1 to announce plans to eliminate two teams for the 2007 season, and they can do so without actually naming the teams which will be going away. If they use this clause--which they may do as a lever to extort stadium financing from a number of cities--an already dismal year in Kansas City could take on the feel of a death march, because the Royals would certainly show up on any short list of contraction candidates.

  • I was talking on air yesterday with Dave Cokin of ESPN Radio in Las Vegas--who I'm battling for the honor of the worst team in BP's charity Scoresheet Baseball league--and we were discussing the value of looking at batting average on balls in play to identify pitchers whose performances are likely to be fluky, in either direction.

    Eyeballing the numbers in BP's sortable stats, I see a couple of candidates for improvement, including the Diamondbacks' Miguel Batista (.440 BABIP) and Orlando Hernandez (.432). The D'backs may need defensive help, especially in the outfield, but both of these guys' numbers are beyond what can be explained by the defense. The Phillies' Cory Lidle has allowed just one walk and two home runs in 18 innings, but a .411 BABIP has driven a 5.00 ERA. Look for these pitchers' ERAs to fall.

    At the other end of the spectrum, as much as I hate to acknowledge it, is Ervin Santana. I think he's on the John Lackey path, but right now, he has the game's lowest BABIP, a ridiculously low .105. Another personal favorite, Greg Maddux, is at .173. Curt Schilling has pitched very well (16 strikeouts, three walks, two home runs allowed) in his three starts, but he's been helped by a .158 BABIP.

    These numbers will all head towards the mean, which for BABIP is usually right around .300. The extremes--the pitchers who get luckiest or unluckiest in a season--tend to be in the .220s at the low end (Billy Wagner in 2005, .218; lowest starter was Roger Clemens at .248) and .350s at the high end (Schilling was at .381 in 2005; other notables were Sidney Ponson at .358 and Glendon Rusch at .355).

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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