June 14, 2006
Angels, Red Sox, Reds
Despite Jered Weaver outpitching everyone in the Angels starting rotation, he may be bounced back to Salt Lake after last night's start. Jered almost certainly won't be exiled to the minors for long, but if Bartolo Colon takes his place on the big club, it will be one of the few times in the annals of roster tweaking that a pitcher with an ERA below 2.00 is replaced by one with an ERA above 7.00.
As every beat writer looking for an angle has noticed, it isn't really Jered vs. Bartolo, it's Jered vs. brother Jeff. On the strength of his 2005 Cy Young Award, Colon would have to rip on Darin Erstad's clubhouse presence before Mike Scioscia would consider dropping him. Jeff Weaver, on the other hand, doesn't have a track record with the team, isn't signed to a long-term deal and--among Angels rotation regulars, anyway--isn't even eating innings as expected.
Paradoxically, it might be Jeff's disappointing performance that earns him a few more starts. As Jeff Erickson points out, Weaver the elder is a trade waiting to happen. While most teams aren't aiming to bolster their rotation with a starter who averages less than six innings an outing and under six Ks per nine innings, a string of three or four decent outings could convince a GM that Weaver has "adapted to the American League," or "made necessary adjustments." Of course, if Bill Stoneman wants to get rid of him, it's just a matter of sending enough cash along for the ride, but Weaver has been in the vicinity of league average for long enough that riding him for a few more starts is a reasonable gamble.
While the Angels may spend a few weeks or more without their best young pitcher, they've correctly handled at least one position battle. After pulling the plug on the Jeff Mathis experiment very early on, Scioscia now has another young catcher he can't in good conscience sit in favor of Jose Molina. Finally, Molina has become--sort of, anyway--a backup catcher again, and rookie Mike Napoli is getting the majority of the starts behind home plate.
Napoli's offense performance thus far is almost certainly a fluke--.297/.405/.595 with a VORP rate far ahead of anyone else on the team--but it's sufficiently stratospheric that, when he comes back to earth, he may still rate among the better offensive catchers in the league. Like nearly every other catcher who hits above the Mendoza line, there are questions about his defense, but the difference between Napoli and Molina at the plate is great enough that as long as the youngster doesn't draw comparisons with Matt LeCroy, his job should be safe.
Despite hitting only .237 in the Texas League last year, Napoli is coming off two very solid seasons at the plate. With about 30 HRs, 88 BBs, and 150 Ks in both 2004 and 2005, he looks like a Rob Deer All-Star in the making, and his track record so far in Anaheim is in line with that. His walk rate is nearly double that of any other Angel, and he's struck out in nearly a third of his plate appearances. If the strikeout rate doesn't creep any higher, and his defense keeps Scioscia from gazing longingly in Jose Molina's direction, Napoli's presence will make the Angels a better team. No matter which Weaver brother he catches.
When the Red Sox traded away two of their top prospects for Mike Lowell and Josh Beckett, the idea was that they were acquiring a league-average third basemen along with a starting pitcher who would usurp the title of co-ace that Pedro Martinez had left behind. Lowell was a salary dump throw-in of sorts, the price of admission to acquire a starter with Beckett's potential. As of Tuesday, Mike Lowell was slapping the ball around like it was 2003, to the tune of .318/.367/.532, while also playing spectacular defense. As for Josh Beckett, his ERA stands at 5.26, with some really odd splits to pick apart.
Let's start by analyzing his batted ball data. The statistics in the table are Line Drive Percentage, Groundball Percentage, Infield Fly/Flyball, Home runs/Flyball, Batting Average on Balls in Play, and Home runs/9 innings pitched.
Year LD% GB% IF/F HR/F BABIP HR/9 -------------------------------------------------------------------- 2004 17.0% 45.9% 17.0% 13.2% .292 0.92 2005 21.7% 42.7% 14.0% 10.3% .294 0.71 2006 13.9% 45.5% 7.4% 19.9% .258 2.03
The league average line drive percentage in 2005 was 15%, so Beckett is below both the league average and his established level. His groundball percentage has stayed consistent in the transition to the American League, but his IF/F has dropped considerably. Inducing infield flies is a repeatable skill for some pitchers, and Beckett is still above the league average of roughly 3%, but below his previous levels. Looking at his HR/F and HR/9 gives you the impression that he lacks infield flies because everything in the air is landing in the bleachers. Twenty percent of his flyballs are landing in the stands; that is an absurdly high figure. Curiously, his BABIP is well below the league average; this may be partially due to the high number of home runs he has allowed, but if he regresses closer to the mean, Boston will not be pleased with the results.
Beckett's splits are not easily explained with a single table. To put it simply, Beckett has been nothing short of spectacular while pitching in Fenway, but he has been worse than awful on the road. The why portion of this situation is the interesting part; why should Beckett succeed in a hitter's park, but pitch terribly everywhere else he goes? His lefty/righty splits look to be about even overall: lefties are hitting .225/.327/.442 against Beckett, while their right-handed counterparts have put together a .266/.309/.519 line. This may be getting into sample size issues, but we're trying to explain the issues with Beckett's current numbers, so it is necessary: what do Beckett's lefty/righty splits look like when you also account for home/road splits?
Home AVG/OBP/SLG Road AVG/OBP/SLG ------------------------------------------------- Versus LHB .156/.321/.200 .258/.330/.559 Versus RHB .250/.279/.453 .278/.330/.567
It looks as if Fenway Park has neutralized left-handed batters for Beckett. The Bill James Handbook 2006 tells us that Fenway's Park Index for left-handed hitters was an 82 when it came to home runs, which certainly helps explain the .200 slugging percentage at home. On the road, they pay him back in spades, slugging .559, roughly equivalent to the right-handed line against him. From 2003-2005, Beckett's numbers were better than this in the National League for his home games and his road games, although his road numbers were worse thanks to pitching in Miami at home. Is the American League just too much for Beckett to handle?
In his defense, he has faced powerful lineups in 10 of his 13 starts thus far, with most of the damage against him coming in games against New York and Toronto--seven of his home runs have been hit by Toronto hitters. Beckett has allowed 16 homeruns on the road, and only one at home. Even if you assume that the damage to his numbers is simply due to the teams he has faced so far, it is not a comforting thought for Red Sox fans. The team directly ahead of them in the standings is the Yankees, and the team directly behind them--and in a position to get closer as the year drags on and their own team gets healthier--is the Toronto Blue Jays.
Beckett's is a situation that bears further monitoring, and there is simply not enough data to draw a long term conclusion from as of yet. If this trend continues though, one has to wonder what Anibal Sanchez would have accomplished in a season or two, and if it was really worth it for the Sox to give up so much to acquire Beckett. The question would be answered much more easily if not for the resurgence of a certain third baseman.
Brandon Phillips' hot start in Cincinnati was certainly a relief for his supporters. Not that there were blinders on as to the odds for sustaining his early performance, but he finally made it (back), he was showing that he was significantly better than Tony Womack, and he did it at a time when the most people would notice, as three scorching-hot weeks that were also your only three weeks gets you on Sportscenter faster than if they were three random weeks in July.
BP had him rated as the 15th-best prospect in 2002, and sixth-best in 2003 after a .327/.380/.506 performance at Double-A Harrisburg. Baseball America rated him as the Indians' #1 prospect, ahead of Victor Martinez (#2), Cliff Lee (#3), Travis Hafner (#5), Grady Sizemore (#7), Jhonny Peralta (#17), Ryan Church (#25), and Coco Crisp (#27). He wasn't a "can't miss" guy, but he was awfully close. Then, given regular playing time in Cleveland, he flopped spectacularly, posting a -20.9 VORP season (honestly, check out the VORP report for all batter seasons in the database where the batter had more than 300 PAs--Phillips' 2003 is the 30th-worst season of the 10,033 relevant seasons).
The word on Phillips is that he lost some desire and competitiveness while shuttling around in the Cleveland organization after struggling, ultimately getting demoted. It seemed like the proverbial "this guy needs a change of scenery" trade when he got sent down I-71 to the Reds. Once he arrived in Cincinnati, he went on a tear, and has been atop the Reds offensive leaderboards ever since. He's third on the team in VORP (behind the even more surprising part-timer Dave Ross), is a perfect 13-0 in stolen base attempts, and has been one of the better second basemen in all of baseball.
It's pretty strange that Phillips can be free talent the same year he's among the top second basemen in the league, but this has been the case. Here's how he stacks up to his peers, ordered by VORPr:
Player Team VORPr ------------------------------ Dan Uggla FLO .367 Chase Utley PHI .367 Brandon Phillips CIN .334 Rickie Weeks MIL .325 Jamey Carroll COL .278 Craig Biggio HOU .259
Even with a six-week-long cooldown period that's dropped his season line to "just" .304/.343/.464 from a May 4th line of .329/.367/.534, Phillips still ranks among the better second basemen in the league to date.
Of course, the larger question is whether he can keep it up. The answer lies somewhere between "Don't count on it" and "Signs point to yes." That's not really being coy--Phillips' range of PECOTA projections really are separated by that much. On the low end (10th percentile) we have a .200/.251/.266 line, for a .1 WARP. On the high end, we have the 90th percentile of .280/.335/.428 with a WARP of 4.4, a tremendous difference. In a way, this is exactly what we'd expect from someone with a rather distinguished minor league track record and a rather disappointing couple hundred big league at-bats. Further, someone who mostly depends on batting average is likely to have large variances in their projections because of the unpredictable nature of that particular stat.
Phillips is still a bit walk-averse and a bit reliant on the single, so there'll likely be some residual skepticism about his batting line so long as he doesn't control the strike zone as well as he might. But at least in the normal ebb and flow of his season's development, a case can be made for him improving in this department. Again, using May 4th as our cutoff:
Date P/PA ------------------- Up to May 4th 3.40 After May 4th 3.54
Between this and his relatively low strikeout total, there's at least some evidence here that he's changing his game. Of course, we need to wait until later in the season to see if this actually means anything, particularly since his performance has gone down since his patience has increased. We're also armed with a research question until that later date, too.
Phillips' start is one of those pleasant reminders that players can, will, and do surprise us. Even though his history may suggest he's not this good, his performance certainly isn't something we can be dismissive of outright just because it's unexpected.