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June 21, 2006

Prospectus Notebook

Brewers, Athletics, Pirates

by Baseball Prospectus


MILWAUKEE BREWERS
Team Audit | Team DT Cards | Team Articles | Team Statistics

Entering the season, the Brewers appeared to have a solid bullpen for the first time in years. Built around second-year closer Derrick Turnbow, the setup corps of Matt Wise, Jose Capellan, and, possibly, a resurgent Dan Kolb appeared to give Milwaukee a host of late-inning options. Swingmen Rick Helling and Justin Lehr weren't anyone's Cy Young predictions, but their presence suggested that Ned Yost wouldn't always have to work through relievers one inning at a time.

Seventy-two games and 24 pitchers later, the numbers tell a very different story. Through Monday's games, Milwaukee's 5.08 bullpen ERA ranked 15th in the National League. The pen's peripherals (their K/9 and K/BB rates are closer to the middle of the pack) suggest that they might deserve to creep out of the bottom quartile, but regardless of your measuring stick, it's clear that this group hasn't lived up to its billing.

Derrick Turnbow has not been quite as dominant as he was last year, but his 37 punchouts in 31 innings indicate that he's still more than capable of handling ninth-inning duties. It's Turnbow's buddy and set-up man Matt Wise who has been most conspicuous lately: in 7 outings dating back to May 27th, Wise has blown three saves, giving up 4 home runs in less than 9 full innings. He still demonstrates the strong groundball tendencies that have made him successful: among Brewer regulars, he trails only Brian Shouse in groundball percentage. But the combination of devastating changeup and luck that led him to a league-leading .160 BAA last year hasn't returned.

Dan Kolb is the victim of a similar story. His outstanding year-and-a-half as Milwaukee's closer probably guaranteed him a decade of spring training invites, no matter how much his subsequent performance contradicts it. Superficially, his 2006 performance has far exceeded his disastrous '05 campaign, but warning signs abound. He has walked 11 and struck out 12 in 24 innings, which might be marginally acceptable if he regained his 2004 groundball rate of 65%. As it is, he is only coaxing groundballs a very pedestrian 44% of the time. A couple more fly balls drifting into the Miller Park picnic area would make Kolb's season look nearly identical to Wise's.

The biggest problem with Milwaukee's bullpen is unrelated to the four or five central figures. It's the rotating corps of Triple-A middle relievers who have no business wearing Brewer uniforms in the first place. A couple of weeks into the season, Ned Yost switched to a 13-man pitching staff, defensible at the time as there were a couple of non-DL'd nagging injuries, and Bill Hall gave the bench sufficient flexibility to go one man short. But while the initial reasons have disappeared, the 13-man staff has stayed, and though the cast of characters has changed frequently, the level of performance has resembled nothing so much as Double-A equivalencies.

Case in point: six Brewers relievers have amassed negative WXRL totals. That's about 34 innings from the likes of Joe Winkelsas, Allan Simpson, and Chris Demaria, short relievers filling out the back of a staff that doesn't need them. Despite Yost's concerns that his bullpen is overworked, Milwaukee's pen had thrown 216 innings through Monday, right in the middle of the NL pack. Finally, with Rick Helling's return, the Crew may go back to 12 pitchers. A 12-man staff still means far too many innings will go to pitchers who started the year on the second page of the depth chart, but it would be a step in the right direction.

--Jeff Sackmann

OAKLAND ATHLETICS
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  • The A's hadn't been any higher than 19th on the Hit List rankings, but then they went and put up a 14-4 record to usher in the month of June, which included a ten game winning streak. They moved all the way up to eleventh in the most recent Hit List, which is their highest position since week two. The run differential scale is now heavier on the Runs Scored side, which is some good news.

    During that ten-game streak, their offense was producing at a .296/.371/.456 clip, and their pitchers held opposing batters to a downright Neifi-like .222/.294/.326 line.

    A's fans are used to this, though, right? Over the past few years, the A's have generally had unfavorable starts to their seasons. Each year, they pick it up somewhere around June as they fight their way back to the top of the AL West (or, as one reader put it, they "don't play well until the kids are done with school"). It's a fairly common narrative.

    Observe:

    A's Record on June 1st, 2000-2006
    
    Year    Record   W Pct.
    -----------------------
    2000    27-26    .509
    2001    26-26    .500
    2002    25-28    .472
    2003    31-23    .574
    2004    26-23    .530
    2005    19-32    .372
    2006    23-29    .442
    
    A's Record after June 1st, 2000-2006
    
    Year    Record   W Pct.
    -----------------------
    2000    64-44    .593
    2001    76-34    .691
    2002    78-31    .716
    2003    65-43    .602
    2004    65-48    .575
    2005    69-42    .622
    2006    14-4     .777
    
    Yes, the June 1st date is arbitrary, and the numbers would look different if we cut it off at July first. And yes, the unbalanced schedule plays into things here. We're not looking for why it happens, but merely for evidence that it does, starting sometime around this time each year.

    Even with the marked improvement over the past month, the A's still have the Rangers to contend with. Texas outranks them in first-, second-, and third-order W-L record according to Clay Davenport's Adjusted Standings Report. It's obviously not a foregone conclusion that the A's will play .633 ball the rest of the season, but merely to say that, hot streak or not, the road to the West in 2006 still goes through Texas.

  • Dan Johnson once was competing with Minnesota's Rondell White for the title of "first position player to officially cost his team one win in the standings," as both were neck-and-neck in a race to a double-digit VORP. Johnson, whose early season struggles actually date back to last season, has raised his overall season line to .247/.332/.398. His VORP is also just peeking into the realm of replacement level, at -.3. His June triple-slash line (.396/.455/.750) has helped raise his EqA from .179 all the way to .246, as well, and is giving A's fans a bit of hope that someone can help keep the hot streak alive while Frank Thomas and Milton Bradley miss some time.

--John Erhardt

PITTSBURGH PIRATES
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It's been a while, and we've got a lot of ground to cover, so we're not wasting time with an overarching narrative, here. Bring on the bullet points!

  • All Employees Must Wash Their Hands: Hate to start on a negative note, but there must be some acknowledgment of what's happening right now at Kauffman Stadium, the interleague clash of the worst teams in their respective circuits. We tried to call it the Futility Bowl, but Jay Jaffe holds the trademark and wasn't willing to let us use it. So I guess that makes this encounter the Toilet Bowl.

    Both the Pirates and the Royals went into this off-season with similar plans-increase the payrolls by $20-30 million, invest in veteran placeholders to keep the franchises respectable, wait for the reinforcements to arrive from the minors. The season's young, yet, but let's look at how those game plans are working out so far:

    Pirates                        Royals
                       EqA  VORP                         EqA  VORP
    Sean Casey        .276   5.0   Reggie Sanders       .267   1.4
    Jeromy Burnitz    .242  -2.9   Mark Grudzielanek    .260   9.0
    Joe Randa         .199  -5.7   Doug Mientkiewicz    .264   2.0
    
    It seems the Royals were better shoppers this off-season, which doesn't really account for their record (19-49), which is much worse than the Bucs' (26-45). The answer lies in two factors. The first is that the Pirates' pitching is much better-Pittsburgh's team ERA is 4.57, and the Royals have posted a major-league worst 6.01 mark. The other is that the Pirates' reserves are much better than anyone the Royals have on their major league roster. When Joe Randa spit the bit, the Royals had their team leader in VORP, Freddy Sanchez, to fill in. When Jeromy Burnitz was ineffective, and Sean Casey injured, Craig Wilson (.278 EqA) was there to pick up the slack. Although the Toilet Bowl is a meeting of the dregs of two leagues, it's also an "It's a Wonderful Life"-type opportunity for the Pirates and their fans to see that yes, things could be much worse.

  • The Southpaw Jinx: Most people know that the natural enemy of a Pirate is a Ninja, but this season, the Sinestro to Pittsburgh's Green Latern has been lefthanded pitching. The explanation for this is somewhat mysterious, as the Pirates tend to hit lefthanders pretty well-as a team, they have a .778 OPS against lefties (7th in the league) but only .735 (13th) against righthanders. Nonetheless, the Pirates are 6-19 when a southpaw starts against them. It's no coincidence that the Bucs' recent 4-9 slide has featured losses to Jeff Francis, Mark Mulder, Francisco Liriano and Johan Santana.

  • Our Long National Nightmare Is Over: In the end, the Chris Duffy situation turned out not to be so much operation Shutdown as Operation Shuteye, with the alleged mutineer returning to the fold after a brief vacation, without much of anything by way of an explanation or apology to the public. Duffy goes to Extended Spring Training (which these days seems to extend all the way through to the Fall Instructional League) and from there back to Triple-A, and all is forgiven.

    Duffy might have ended his holdout in time to save his bobblehead day, but too late to remove a black mark on his career. Already, during Duffy's absence, the centerfield play of converted thirdbaseman Jose Bautista has captured the affections of manager Jim Tracy, and Nathan McLouth has impressed with his attitude, if not with his bat. After time in Brandenton to get back up to speed, and time in Indianapolis to work on the skills that got him demoted in the first place, when is the soonest we're likely to see Duffy in a Pirates' uniform? Late July, at earliest; perhaps as late as when the rosters expand in September. Not only has Duffy lost playing time, but what kind of opportunities are going to be available for him in an organization so obsessed with "character" that they're reportedly working on extending Sean Casey?

  • Say What?: According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, talks for Casey's extension are supposed to start soon, with three years, $18MM as a "starting point." Unless the three years Casey gives them are 1999, 2000, and 2004, the Pirates are bound to be disappointed by any such extension. An instructive tool for looking at this is MORP (Marginal Value Over Replacement Player), a feature added to our PECOTA forecasts this season. MORP predicts that in 2007, 2008 and 2009, Casey's performance will be worth a total of $7,825,000, with Casey producing 6.5 wins over replacement during that span.

    That's less than half the "starting point" money that's being discussed for Casey's extension. Now, looking at the stats ignores the main reason that the Pirates would look to extend Casey: his reputation as a solid citizen, and possible role model to young players. For our purposes here, we're not going to argue that those qualities are worthless, but it's hard to imagine them being worth $10 million over Casey's contributions on the field.

    Not only are the Pirates looking at overpaying Casey, they seem to be rushing to do it. Given Casey's season so far, .295/.363/.464 with serious time missed due to injury, would people be fighting each other to secure Casey's services if he were allowed to test the free market?

--Derek Jacques


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